The Furnace of Affliction!
William Nicholson and Milburn Cockrell
"Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have chosen you in the furnace of affliction!" Isaiah 48:10
The Bible has much to say about the afflictions of God's people. Psalm 34:19 declares: "Many are the afflictions of the righteous." It is sometimes necessary for God to put His people in the furnace of affliction. This act flows from both the justice and compassion of God. He does this to try and to prove His people. This was true of Israel of old (Deuteronomy 4:20), and it is equally true of the New Testament believer. Sometimes He exercised them with heavy trials; placing them in the furnace of affliction. And it appears from the context, that a consignment to such an ordeal had been beneficial in its influence.
In the time of the Old Testament a "furnace" was a crucible for melting and refining silver and gold (Proverbs 17:3; 27:21). The word is used figuratively in the Scriptures. It this text, it means severe and grievous afflictions by which God purifies and proves His people (Ezekiel 22:18-22; Isaiah 32:9).
The Furnace is AFFLICTIVE
That is, the furnace is composed of many severe trials, of much mental and bodily suffering, which are designed by the great Proprietor and Manager of this furnace, to purge and refine the souls of His people.
Many agents are used by God in working out His sovereign purposes. He may use men, things, and circumstances. This is all hinted at in the action of fire in a furnace. A furnace with a fire in it causes suffering and separation. Fire finds out what is worthless; it cleanses. Now I want to list some of the forms these afflictions take.
First, God may send us a scantiness of earthly things. This may be induced by lack of employmentit may be the result of sicknessit may result from the injustice of man.
"I gave you empty stomachs in every city and lack of bread in every town" (Amos 4:6). We may not have enough food to dirty our teeth. The Lord controls both nature and worldly circumstances. He has many ways of taking away our temporal goods. Though we may work hard every work day and make much money, God can cause it to not go very far. "You have planted much, but have harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it." (Haggai 1:6).
Second, there can be affliction in our body. "My wounds fester and are loathsome because of my sinful folly. I am bowed down and brought very low; all day long I go about mourning. My back is filled with searing pain; there is no health in my body." (Psalm 38:5-7). The great Manager of the furnace of affliction, chastens the body with pain, burns with fever, or wastes it by disease.
Third, this affliction may take the form of bereavements. "And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba in the land of Canaan. There Abraham mourned and wept for her." (Genesis 23:2). Our friends and relatives get sick and die. Many of us have been put in this furnace of affliction. Friends and relatives are removed by death, lest we trust too much in them, instead of the Lord.
Fourth, the Lord sends
domestic trials. "At the age of forty, Esau married two
Hittite wives: Judith, the daughter of Beeri, and Basemath, the daughter
of Elon. But Esaus wives made life miserable for Isaac and Rebekah!"
(Genesis 26:34-35). Sometimes our child will make a bad choice of a mate
for life. Often times even small children in the home mock their father
and despise their mother (Proverbs 30:17). The actions of our children
can . . .
break our hearts,
put gray hairs in our heads,
and hasten us to the grave!
All of God's elect have been in this furnace of
affliction! Adam first experienced it when he sinned in Eden.
Moses suffered afflictions with the people of God.
David was persecuted by his blood-thirsty enemies.
Job lost his possessions, children, and health.
Jeremiah and Isaiah were cruelly treated.
Daniel was put in the lions' den.
Paul and Silas were put in prison.
Even our Lord was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He learned obedience by the things which He suffered.
This Furnace is DIVINELY APPOINTED
Afflictions are not the result of chance or blind
Afflictions do not arise out of the dust (Job 5:6).
Afflictions are not to be traced to secondary causes.
Afflictions are not merely the work of our enemies.
Afflictions come from the moral government of God.
Afflictions come by the wise and gracious arrangement of God's divine providence. "So that no one would be disturbed by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this!" (1 Thessalonians 3:3). "Heed the rod, and the One who appointed it!" (Micah 6:9).
The same God who sends the sunshine and the rain also sends His people into the furnace of affliction. "The LORD kills, and makes alive. He brings down to the grave, and raises up. The LORD sends poverty and wealth; He humbles and He exalts!" (1 Samuel 2:7). In Isaiah 45:7 Jehovah declares: "I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things!"
The wise man sees the hand of God in affliction as well as in affluence. Every event is either of His appointment or it has His all-wise permission. God works all things after the counsel of His own will (Ephesians 1:11), and so all things work together for good to those who love God (Romans 8:28). "Behold, He snatches away; who can hinder or turn Him back? Who will say to Him, What are You doing? He destroys the blameless and the wicked" (Job 9:12, 22).
God's afflictive providence, is the working out of His sovereign will. Often we see God's hand in great things but not in little things. We see His hand in good things but not in evil things. "Behold, this evil is of the LORD" (2 Kings 6:33). Job asked his wife: "What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?" (Job 2:10). "Shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD has not done it?" (Amos 3:6). "For the inhabitant of Maroth waited carefully for good: but evil came down from the LORD unto the gate of Jerusalem" (Micah 1:12). These verses do not teach that God is the author of sin. Rather they teach that when God sends us afflictions they seem evil unto us.
When grace enables us to see the hand of God in all events, we can bear these without murmuring or complaining. Job lost his family, his wealth, and his good health, yet he consoled himself: "For He performs what is appointed for me, and many such decrees are with Him!" (Job 23:14). David suffered much from his enemies and his family, yet he was happy to say: "My times are in Your hand!" (Psalm 31:15). Still again hear him: "I was silent; I would not open my mouth for You are the one who has done this!" (Psalm 39:9). When Eli was told his family tree would be cut off, he said to young Samuel: "He is the LORD; let Him do what is good in His eyes!" (1 Samuel 3:18). When Hezekiah was told by the Prophet Isaiah that his sons would be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon, he said: "The word of the LORD you have spoken is good" (Isaiah 39:8).
How wonderful to know that a God of infinite love and wisdom has arranged all things which come to pass in this world. When we find ourselves in a very dark chapter of the book of Divine Providence, we must fall upon the words of our Lord: "What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand!" (John 13:7).
This Furnace is Not Vindictive, but GRACIOUS
The chastisement of God is always less than we deserve: "He has not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities" (Psalm 103:10). If God dealt with us as our sins deserved, we would be consigned to the lowest Hell. But because of His mercy and grace, we never suffer as we deserve to suffer. "But He, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them. Yes, many a time He turned His anger away, and did not stir up all His wrath!" (Psalm 78:38). "And after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved!" (Ezra 9:13). Our sins are many: "We all stumble in many ways!" (James 3:2). Nevertheless, God's judgments are few: "For He does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men." (Lamentations 3:33).
The afflictions He sends are "light affliction" (2 Corinthians 4:17).
They are of short duration: "For His anger is but for a moment, His favor is for life. Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning!" (Psalm 30:5). The Lord told the Israelites: "For a brief moment I deserted you but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing anger for a moment I hid My face from you but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you says the LORD, your Redeemer." (Isaiah 54:7-8).
The Furnace is for OUR EVERLASTING GOOD
There can be no caprice, nor unwise anger in God toward His chosen purchased people. When He sends upon us afflictions, they are designed for our spiritual and everlasting good. They are corrective, not destructive. When we are cold and indifferent to His cause He will permit persecutions and reproaches to befall us. But this is not the same way God punishes the wicked for their sins. The wicked are punished in wrath the righteous are chastened in love. The wicked are punished for the good of society the righteous are disciplined for their individual good: "When He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold!" (Job 23:10; cf. Deuteronomy 8:15-16).
Afflictions exhibit the faithfulness of God: "I know, O LORD, that Your judgments are right, and that in faithfulness You have afflicted me" (Psalm 119:75). God always justly and wisely chastens us. It is the faithfulness of God to His covenant, which brings the elect under the afflictive rod. "If they break My statutes and do not keep My commandments then I will punish their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. Nevertheless My lovingkindness I will not utterly take from him, Nor allow My faithfulness to fail." (Psalm 89:31-34; cf. Ezekiel 20:37). God's chastisements are blessings in disguise they are veiled mercies.
When sore afflictions come upon us, we have the greatest evidence that we are loved with an everlasting love: "As many as I love I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent!" (Revelation 3:19). "My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him. For whom the LORD loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives." (Hebrews 12:6-7). None but the sons and daughters of God's family are corrected. To live without chastisement is a sad sign of alienation from God. Our heavenly Father chastens us to prevent our final condemnation: "But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world" (1 Corinthians 11:32).
The Furnace is PROPORTIONATE
As a furnace is prepared for refining gold (Proverbs
17:3), so afflictions are appointed for the saints, who are
compared to fine gold (Lamentations 4:2). Let us see here the
high value that God places upon His people. Being . . .
chosen by the Father,
redeemed by the Son, and
regenerated by the Holy Spirit
they are His precious gold!
As His gold, they get tarnished by the world and sin, and they must be subjected to the refining process. The beauty of His grace must be seen in them. Hence Jehovah seeks their spiritual improvement: "I will turn My hand against you; I will thoroughly purge away your dross and remove all your impurities!" (Isaiah 1:25).
The Lord does not treat Israel in the severe manner in which gold or silver is treated by the refiner: "Behold, I have refined you, but not with silver. . ." (Isaiah 48:10). The Great Refiner knows His metal He knows what each one can bear. He never allows us to be tested above what we are able to bear. Sometimes He pours water on the fire if it gets too hot. He never goes beyond our strength. Neither does He turn the furnace up to the same temperature for all alike. He proportions the temperature to the strength of the bearer, allotting a greater heat to the strongest, and a less to the weakest. "I will correct you in measure" (Jeremiah 30:11). God will not over-afflict.
The goldsmith keeps the furnace burning with the gold in it, until all the dross has been removed, and he can see his face in the pure gold. Even so does our heavenly Father. Let us be cheerful and hopeful when we are in the furnace, knowing He seeks only to see His pure image clearly in us! We are in the furnace of affliction "for our profit, that we might be partakers of His holiness" (Hebrews 12:10).
An all-wise God regulates the heat of the furnace according to the needs of His people. "He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; He will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver." (Malachi 3:3).
Some of us need more heat than others, so He increases the fire when needed. Micah said: "I will bear the indignation of the LORD, because I have sinned against Him." (Micah 7:9).
There are other times that He lowers the temperature, according to His Divine inspection. The prophet Jeremiah said: "Correct me, LORD, but only with justice not in your anger, lest You reduce me to nothing." (Jeremiah 10:24).
Remember the time of trial is but short. "Weeping may endure for a night." It is called the day of adversitythe hour of affliction. Afflictions are but for a moment.
The Design of the Furnace is BENEFICIAL
The design of God in choosing us to suffer in the
furnace of affliction, is for our everlasting good, and for His glory.
Regenerating grace implants in us the seeds of immortality, which
require cultivation in order to bring about maturity. The furnace
is designed to develop these principles, and to fit us for higher
enjoyment. Afflictions . . .
scour off our rust,
preserve us from sin,
assimilate us to Christ, who was a man of sorrows,
make us very humble, and break our haughty mind,
show us the frailty of human life, and the vanity of the world!
The people of God have the same need of
affliction . . .
that our bodies have of medicine,
that fruit trees have of pruning,
that gold and silver have of the furnace,
that iron has of the file, and
that the child has of the rod of correction!
"However the wicked, like trees in the wilderness, grow without culture yet the saints, like trees in the garden, must be pruned to be made fruitful; and affliction does this. There is as much difference between the sufferings of the saints and those of the ungodly as between the cords with which an executioner pinions a condemned malefactor, and the bandages wherewith a tender surgeon binds his patient!" Wall
1. The furnace of affliction is designed to prevent us from going astray. "Before I was afflicted I went astray but now have I kept Your Word" (Psalm 119:67). "It is good for me that I have been afflicted that I might learn Your statutes" (Psalm 119:71). The believer comes from this furnace improved and refined!
By our natural corruption, we are ready to wander in the pathway of sin, and go astray after worldly vanities. Hence the Lord makes affliction to serve us as a thorny hedge to keep us on the right course. Afflictions amend us and strengthen us to keep God's statutes.
2. Afflictions wean us from the evil world. "For You have tried us, O God; You have refined us as silver is refined!" (Psalm 66:10). When Egypt became an iron furnace the Israelites became weary of it. The prodigal never thought of his father until he experienced famine. The Lord makes this world a grief so it may not become our idol. It is to be our purgatory that we may never make it our paradise.
3. Afflictions test our religious profession. "But He knows the way that I take! When He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold" (Job 23:10). We profess to be gold for God's treasury yet there is much dross in us. We claim to be grain fit for the garner of heavenly glory yet there seems to be more chaff than wheat in us. Therefore the Lord casts us into the furnace of affliction that we may be tried and purified. The dross must be severed and separated from us. We must be winnowed with the strong wind of affliction that the chaff may be blown away and the pure grain remain.
We profess to be soldiers in the army of the King of kings. We claim to fight under the banner of the Lord Almighty. Therefore the Lord allows us to be attacked by Satan and assaulted by the world with afflictions and persecutions to try us and to find out if we are traitors. Cowards will yield early in the fight. Real soldiers will stand and fight to the death, but a traitor will join with the enemy. "The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away!" (Matthew 13:20-21). "You therefore endure hardship, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ" (2 Timothy 2:3).
4. The furnace of affliction brings about growth in Christian graces. "We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope" (Romans 5:3-4). Our heavenly Father longs to see His children grow up spiritually. To bring this about, He uses the instrumentality of afflictions. In these we learn patience, and we are caused to hope in God. The Lord buffets and afflicts us with severe trials to give occasion to exercise these graces which otherwise would lie dormant with us.
The Christian graces are like perfumes the more they are pressed by affliction, the sweeter they smell. They are like the stars they appear best in the darkness of trouble. They are like the snow (though cold and uncomfortable), yet it warms and nourishes the earth in winter. Just so, the believer is nourished in the winter of affliction. Worldly joy ends in sorrow but godly sorrow ends in joy. As it sometimes rains when the sun shines, so there is frequently joy in the saint's heart when there are tears in his eyes!
5. The great Refiner aims to drive us to prayer. "LORD, in trouble have they visited You; they poured out a prayer when Your chastening was upon them" (Isaiah 26:16). "Is any among you afflicted? Let him pray" (James 5:13). The furnace is necessary to stir up prayer in us. In peace and prosperity we seldom recognize our need of Divine help. Afflictions bring us to God, and show our need of dependence upon Him. "In their affliction, they will seek Me early" (Hosea 5:15).
6. Afflictions prepare us for greater usefulness and fruitfulness. "Every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it, that it may bring forth more fruit" (John 15:2). The wise farmer prunes his fruit trees in the winter, so that they may produce more fruit in the summer. Superfluous branches and suckers which steal the sap, must be removed. Creature comforts are often to the soul, what suckers are to the tree. Therefore the great Farmer prunes these off, that the tree of the Lord may produce much fruit. God will prune His people, but not hew them down. The right hand of His mercy, knows what the left hand of His severity is doing!
1. Do not think the life of a Christian is easy. It is not a flowery bed of ease. During our life on earth, we all must spend some time in the furnace of affliction. But like the three Hebrews in the furnace in Babylon, God is always with us in all these sufferings. "Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are Mine. When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior!" (Isaiah 43:1-3).
2. By placing His people in the furnace of affliction, God is educating us for crowns and thrones in His coming kingdom. At present, the Lord is fashioning the inward spiritual life for the world to come. The oppression, the piercings, the anguish, the disappointments, and all events are but the preparation for the position we shall occupy in the world to come.
3. As Israel did not understand election until they were in Egypt, even so today we come to see our election in the furnace of afflictions. When the sorrows of death compass us and the pains of Hell get hold upon us then we come to see distinguishing grace and everlasting love. In soul trouble we come to understand the text: "I have chosen you in the furnace of affliction!"
4. There is in this world a furnace of afflictions for God's elect. Then in the world to come there is another furnace of literal, physical fire that is heated for the ungodly after the judgment. "The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will weed out of His kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!" (Matthew 13:41-42). Oh, lost sinner, flee the wrath to come!