The Burden of Damascus
"Behold, Damascus is taken away from being a city" ( Isaiah 17:1).
Damascus never dreamed this desolation. Men seldom do dream the wisest things. They have debased dreaming into nightmare. Damascus was the fair metropolis of Syria; she said, I shall always be clothed in purple and fine linen; the course of Damascus is a course of ascent and ever-increasing illumination. When cities do not pray they go down. The city as a whole may not pray, but there are praying souls in it, and because of those praying souls the pride of the city is not stained by the Almighty. Still the ten save the city; still one wise man saves the city; still the little child is the lightning-conductor of the house: so God"s lightning is harmless because the little child is there. The cradle saves the city. Think of possible degradation. Damascus shall be taken away from the roll of cities; when the angels call the roll of the earth, they will never more say "Damascus." The alphabetic order will be inverted, the alphabetic status will be obliterated; the proudest, fairest, queenliest city shall become a handful of ashes. Take care what you are about. London—great London—is nothing before him who sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and whose throne is upon the circle of heaven.
But we need not apply the doctrine to cities; we must not escape by such generalities. It is possible for a man to moralise about the fate of a city, and forget that the principle of the text is aimed at all life. Life poorly handled means loss of life; faculty fallen into desuetude means faculty fallen into death. You are now a great man: to-morrow you shall be taken away from the list of the living; now men come to you as to a counsellor; they propound their difficulties, they submit their plans and policies, and they invoke the aid of your solid and well-tested judgment. If you are proud of this you may before another sunset be a babbling idiot. God can do without you; you are not indispensable to the universe. Be humble, meek of heart, lowly of spirit; say that if you have a lamp that shines afar, and men call it genius it was kindled by the divine hand for beneficent ends. We have nothing that we have not received. If we are bailiffs of large estates, the estates are not ours; we must keep correct books, we must write up the story of every day, we must abide the coming of the auditor; it is expected of stewards that a man be found faithful. We have nothing to boast of; our greatness is but a vapour, a poor blurred cloud, unless we hold it as God"s trustees, and are prepared to give an account at last of how we have used and expended every talent he gave us. Think nothing of earth"s greatness. Damascus was taken away from being a city. God can disfranchise London, and Paris, and New York, and Constantinople. They are of no consequence to him, except as instruments carrying out his will, representing his kingdom, and doing his service in the world. What is true of cities is true of men. The moment you begin to hold your talents for yourself you begin to lose them. Understand this is not the fall of some little village; it was the fall of the Syrian capital that had lifted itself against Judah, that had joined rebellious Israel to stop the purposes of God. How bitter is the declaration! Damascus shall be disfranchised. Damascus shall have no vote. Damascus shall be turned into a cipher. Fair Damascus shall be a ruinous heap; men who knew her long ago shall come and seek her, and there shall be a mocking spirit in the air that shall say, She is there! Thrust your hand into these white ashes and find her if you can! She offended God, and God has decreed the punishment of obliteration upon her. We have all seen great men reduced to this littleness; we have seen great and pompous causes come to nothing: what is the reason of this? Because they have entered into false alliances, or have cultivated a spirit of rebellion, or have forgotten to pray. The disease is moral or spiritual; it is the heart that has gone down, and when the heart of a city or a man goes down in moral quality, in devout aspiration, then the sunshine is sucked out of the life, and the rest is night!
Read on; the threnody deepens in mournfulness: "The cities of Aroer are forsaken" ( Isaiah 17:2). That would seem to be one of God"s negative punishments. There is no violence inflicted upon the cities of Aroer; God simply turns away from them. God is God. Can the city thrive? It is thus that many a man is left. He is not cleft in twain, he is not smitten by some thunderbolt, and shattered into ten thousand atoms; he is simply left alone by his Maker. Saul was left alone; Saul said, Bring me up Samuel, I am forsaken of God. When a man is divinely forsaken he dips his pen to write in the old style of energy and luminousness, and behold there is no ink, or the pen is lost, or the hand, poor old hand, has lost its cunning. What has happened? God has gone from the man; the man proved himself to be a liar, a thief, a hypocrite, a foul person, and the Lord, after much remonstrance and expostulation, has left him, and gone away—away. Let us take care what we are about. We do not hold even our character except under certain conditions which we may easily violate. You have built up your reputation these many years; it can be shattered in a moment. You cannot make a character in an hour; you may require fifty years to build one: but a single wrong Acts, and it is gone, and men would hesitate to tell where it once stood. You will ask them where, and they will become deaf; you will inquire for particulars, and they will look vacant: they are ashamed of the shattered memory. Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall!
Yet God will make some use of the ground on which the cities of Aroer stood: "They shall be for flocks, which shall lie down, and none shall make them afraid." Think of London a sheepfold! Think of what are termed the royal thoroughfares turned into sheepwalks! The Lord can better use his ground than allow the city to stand upon it any more; so he will call in the unoffending sheep, and let them pasture where princes ought to have been born, and kings ought to have walked in moral sovereignty. The earth is the Lord"s. He will reclaim the places we have befouled. We shall give up to the lower creation the cities which we might have glorified.
Read on! "The fortress also shall cease from Ephraim" ( Isaiah 17:3). He shall be an exposed personality. He shall not have a hiding-place; he who could once surround himself by what he thought to be invincible walls shall find himself quite exposed to all the assaults of the enemy; not a covering left, not a roof to his head, not a fire at which to warm his coldness. Ephraim would make alliance with Syria, and they would both go against Judah. Ephraim never made a great reputation; he was a cake unturned, a caked baked only on one side; and it is said of him, that Ephraim being armed and carrying bows turned back in the day of battle. When he was wanted he was not found; when he could have been of use he was taken sick. This is not ancient history. This is the living story of the present day. When some men are wanted they cannot be found; they afterwards come, and say that they ought to have been sought for. We have not time now to seek for men; this is not a time to go after men, begging and beseeching them to do the Lord"s work: men should come and ask for appointments, and submit themselves to service, and should gratefully and eagerly demand that they be put under the Lord"s discipline. If any of you are making yourselves nuisances in your respective churches, sitting back and waiting to be called upon, holding yourselves in great esteem, as if you must be gone after, and deputationised, and be asked to confer upon the Christ the honour of your weakness,—take heed! These are not times to play such devils" games: these are the times when men should spring to their feet and say, Make all the use of us you can; and as for thee, thou crucified Saviour, the morning is thine and the night; use us all the day long. Surely the time will come when we shall see virgin enthusiasm once more; when we shall be startled by eager passion to do the Lord"s work in the world. If not, our fortress will be taken from us, whatever our fortress is; the child will be taken; the money will be spent by a stranger"s hand; health will give way; and the word which was once a security will become a jest. The Lord reigneth.
"And in that day it shall come to pass, that the glory of Jacob shall be made thin" ( Isaiah 17:4). The literal rendering Isaiah, The glory of Jacob shall come to emaciation—all strength gone. You have seen the consumptive youth: is there any sadder spectacle on the face of this sad earth than that of a man who yesterday young and strong is now thin-fingered, gaunt, ghastly, coughing in his weakness; his eyes too bright; the blood all shrunk away? He can hardly walk; he hopes, he fears, he consults every one, for despair is not particular as to consultation: watch him! That is what the glory of Jacob shall be like. The glory of Jacob shall be turned into emaciation: his face shall be blanched, his knees shall smite together, all his pride shall be withered up, and he who once lifted himself on high shall be smitten low, and none shall be able to tell his burial-place. The Lord reigneth.
And the judgment of God shall come down upon him—"And it shall be as when the harvestman gathereth the corn, and reapeth the ears with his arm; and it shall be as he that gathereth ears in the valley of Rephaim" ( Isaiah 17:5). That valley was fruitful; it was called in the old time "The Valley of Giants." The Philistines kept their eyes constantly upon it, and when the chosen people held the valley, and when it was filled with corn, then the Philistines fell upon it and took it away. So shall it be with men who try contests with God, who invite the Lord to battle. You shall sow the corn, another hand shall reap it; you shall go to all the labour and the expense, but not one ear of grain shall you gather into your garner. This is the Lord"s government; this providence: providence is judgment, judgment is providence: God is love: God is a consuming fire.
"Yet gleaning grapes shall be left in it, as the shaking of an olive tree, two or three berries in the top of the uppermost bough, four or five in the outmost fruitful branches thereof, saith the Lord God of Israel" ( Isaiah 17:6). And it is against Israel that he is denouncing these judgments. He cannot get away from his own mercy. "Yet"—that is a gospel word; that is the nature of an anthem. There is the token of hope, the signal of possible deliverance and return and enfranchisement. Something shall be left. Just one or two little ears—multiply them by God"s intention, and they shall become a harvest: "two or three berries in the top of the uppermost bough"—take them down, multiply them by the purpose of the divine love, and they shall become as a field of fruitfulness. Is it not so with us? We have something left yet: the little child is left; the business is not wholly ruined; we have good health or good spirits; we have a friend or two here and there, kindly voices are not wholly dead: what is the meaning of these remnants of things? These remnants mean that God wants us home again; wants to see us in tears of penitence; wants to meet us at the cross of Christ; wants to reclaim us from the power and the captivity of the devil; wants to make us in very deed his own children; wants to recover us from our wandering, and set us like a fallen star in the brotherhood of the suns, to go out no more for ever. Return, O wanderer, to thy home!
Almighty God, as thou hast given to us full hands, so do thou grant unto us by thy Holy Spirit grateful hearts. Goodness and mercy have followed us all the days of our life, now like spring, and now like harvest, and now like restful wintertime. Thou hast given unto us all things richly to enjoy: how can we enjoy the things made if we do not enjoy first the Maker thereof? We would look unto our Maker, and unto the Holy One of Israel, and we would connect all we have of earthly health and blessing with the Name Eternal, and with the Cross that signifies the love of God. We would not any more be thankless or heedless creatures; we would that our hearts might be touched with the pathos of the Saviour"s life and death; we would see him in all gifts, in all opportunities for service, in all spheres of suffering. God forbid that we should be as the beasts of the earth, eating what thou hast sent, and forgetting the Sender. Thou dost give us our daily bread; for us thou dost find pools and fountains in the desert: behold, all things are for our sakes, for we are made in the image and likeness of God. How can we praise thee; what shall we render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward us? We bless thee for fields laden with good things, for gardens and orchards that have brought forth abundantly. These are thy sanctuary, Lord; thou hast a great dwelling-place; thou hast not excluded thyself from the humblest corner of thy creation; the meanest flower bears thy signature; the tiniest, weakest life is a spark of thine own eternity. Make us solemn in the presence of all things, seeing that yet we do not know all their meaning or realise all their comfort We bless thee for spring and summer, for harvest and winter; these are parts of thy pledge and covenant to man: thou hast ever been faithful, we have often broken the vow. The Lord have mercy upon us when we humbly and contritely pour out our confessions at the Cross. Save us from saying, I have played the fool exceedingly! for then should we be haughty and vain in our humiliation: help us rather to say, God be merciful to me a sinner! then our hearts shall be emptied of self and of vanity and of foolish pride, and lying before the Cross, broken and shattered, we shall be. healed and built up again. Help us to see thee in our personal lives, in the special providences which make up our individual history; help us to see thee at home, the loved house, the little sanctuary, the miniature heaven; help us to see thee in all the roughness and discipline of life, lest we think this is altogether the devil"s world forsaken of God: thou canst not forsake any world that has carried the Cross. The Lord hear us, and increase us in wisdom and in under-Standing, in grace and in charity, in spirituality and hopefulness. The Lord hear us for our loved ones, for the sick and the weary, for the children of night, for the bearers of cruel pain; for all who are on the sea, for our loved ones far away and on the rolling billows, still one with us and thinking of us, as we are one with them and thinking of them: annihilate all space and time this holy Sabbath hour, and make us feel that all friends are near because Jesus is close at hand. Amen.
"Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"And it shall be as when the harvestman gathereth the corn, and reapeth the ears with his arm; and it shall be as he that gathereth ears in the valley of Rephaim."— Isaiah 17:5
How beautiful is this picture! How suggestive of fertility, of abundance upon abundance, of harvest music and harvest joy! Yet in this text there is no sound of music. The harvest is represented as a harvest of devastation. This is the burden of Damascus. Damascus is disfranchised; the cities of Aroer are forsaken; the fortress has ceased from Ephraim; the glory of Jacob has been made faint; and now it is as if ravening beasts had rushed through fields white unto the harvest, and trodden them underfoot, and rendered them worthless. The valley of Rephaim is the valley of giants ( Joshua 15:8, Joshua 18:16). The valley was famous for its fruitfulness, and was a favourite field for the Philistines to plunder. Constantly they carried off its abundant crops ( 2 Samuel 23:13). For whom are we growing our harvests? We may have an abundant harvest, and yet never reap it. We may lay up much goods for many years, and yet have no pleasure in them. Do not suppose that we are rich because the harvest is plentiful. Whilst we are on the way, scythe in hand, to cut down the field, wild beasts may devastate it, or a blight from heaven may destroy its value. "Call no man happy until he is dead" is the wisdom of the old proverb. Call no harvest precious until it has been garnered. All life is exposed to peril. This exposure is part of our discipline, is indeed a necessary element in our training. The whole earth is the land of the enemy. "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal." Let your harvest be internal, spiritual, divine; let it be a harvest of noble purposes, thorough convictions, spiritual comforts. Bank your money with the deserving poor. Feed the hungry and clothe the naked. These are the harvests that no Philistine can devastate.
Penitence and Punishment
That is the loss we have all to mourn. Why do we grieve over merest trifles? The thing to mourn over is spiritual loss, heart-alienation from God. We are given to tears: why do we not weep over the right causes; why misspend our sorrows? The literal, solemn, universal fact is that we have gone away from God; then why cry about something secondary and superficial? Why afflict ourselves about symptoms, whilst the cruel persistent disease is feeding on the vitals of our very heart? Yet men will thus befool themselves to themselves and before God. How seldom it is that a man smites his breast, as did the contrite publican, and says, It is not providence that is awkward, it is not discipline that is severe, it is not the chain of events that is crooked or disentangled; it is I that am wrong: my heart has gone astray from God; I have forgotten to pray, I have forgotten to live upon heaven; I have turned away from the Holy One, and fixed the attention of my heart upon altars which my own hands have made: I am a fool, I am a sinner: God pity me; God be merciful to me a sinner! That is fundamental talk; that is coming to the root and core of things. If you are only whimpering about your symptoms, no good will come of it: hold God"s burning candle over the pit of your heart, and see how deep and black that pit Isaiah, and then cry mightily to God to take you home again by the way of the Cross. Not until we get into this fundamental soliloquy, self-talk, shall we come to any good issue in religious inquiry, or in pious self-discipline.
Hear how the Lord talks! He will Smite the bodies of these God-forgetters. There is only one way of getting at some men. Once we could have appealed to their higher nature; once they were subject to the pleasure and the eloquence of reason; once they had a conscience tender, sensitive, responsive; now they are spiritually dead, no conscience, no reason, no unselfishness; the whole nature has gone down in volume and in quality into a terrible emaciation: what shall be done? Smite their harvest! then like beasts they will miss their food. God does not delight in this; it is the poorest violence, it is the feeblest department of his providence; but he knows that it is the only providence some men can understand. As long as they have their regular sustenance they will be fat atheists; they must be hungered into reflection, they must be starved back into prayer. What mouth full of fatness can ask God"s blessing on the food? Take away the food, and the empty mouth may pray. God does not want to impoverish us; it is not in the nature of God wantonly to take the root off our house, and to pour the rain-floods down upon our fire and our hearthstone; that is not the way of the heart of God. But having pleaded with us, and reasoned with us, yea, to agony; having mightily desired our conversion and return and forgiveness; having watched for us all the twenty-four hours of the day; having lived for us and died for us, and sent for us by every angel-ministry at his command, and we will not come, what remains? Starve them! is the last resort of offended, dishonoured Providence. God thus takes away our health, and because of the soreness and weakness of the body we begin to wonder about the soul. That is God"s meaning. It is nothing to God to crush your bones or to afflict your blood poisonously; that gives him no pleasure: but that was the only way of bringing you to church, to the sanctuary, to consideration. You smote the heavens in your pride, and the heavens smote you in return, and then you began to say, What have I done? and God told you what you had done; you had forsaken the rock of your salvation, and gone away from your own faith and your father"s faith, and the whole idea of fatherliness and redemption and destiny; you had become atheists, godless ones, and that was the only way to bring you home again. He got you back to the Church through inflammation, through fever, through paralysis, through pain, through loss, through desolation; you came back over the graveyard No matter, said God; when he got you into his house again he said, This my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. It is in the reclamation, not in the punishment, that God takes pleasure. Curious words,—"penitence" and "punishment,"—etymologically growing out of the same root. Penitence and punishment—why, they seem to walk away from one another into opposite directions; so they may, but they belong to the same etymological root. When we begin to be punished God means us to begin to repent, and when we begin to repent the right way we begin to feel that the punishment is not arbitrary, but divine; and thus out of the same root grow very different flowers, yet the same in quality, and the same in their highest symbolism.
Notice the reasonableness of this course. God makes it a matter of argument; the Lord uses our little, logical, connective terms; he says "therefore," and "because"; so we have it in this very instance—"Because thou hast forgotten... therefore." This is reasoning together. God does not come before us and say, I will tell you nothing, you shall hear nothing of my reasons, I will afflict you from the point of my sovereignty, and not from the point of my Fatherhood. There shall be no condescension in this infliction of divine wrath: on the contrary, he says whilst his hand is lifted, This chastisement is "because." Thus we, if in a right spirit, consent to our own punishment, the strokes of God, how terrible soever, being only too weak to represent even our own estimate of our base ingratitude. Who is it that has been forgotten? The Giver, the Father, the Servant of all. We have taken things as if we had a right to them. No man can so take things and enjoy them. When we pluck the flower by divine permission, oh, how fragrant, how sweet in wordless gospels, how beautiful in all discernible and undiscernible images! We may have grown the flower on our freehold or on our rented ground, but the earth is the Lord"s; the freeholder is only a tenant-at-will; it doth please his withering majesty to call himself freeholder; not an inch of all the great state is his but by secondary right and for purposes of convenience. Having forgotten the Father, how can we expect to have harvest after harvest, as if we had remembered him in love, and honoured him in service? Men cannot trifle with the system within which they are placed and be held blameless. Let us understand more and more that we are members of a scheme, parts of a unity; that nothing is complete in itself, or self-ending; that every life palpitates with some other life and for some other life: thus, realising that we are parts of a plan, and not isolated individualities or particles, we shall feel that we cannot trifle with a divinely-constructed economy, and come out at the other end as if we had done nothing wrong. We have interfered with the whole machine. It may have been a very little wheel we have injured; but who can tell what a little wheel is in so complicated a piece of mechanism or organism as is this portion of creation within which we live? What are little wheels? It hath pleased God to turn little things to great purposes.
The one thing we have forgotten is that we are part and parcel of something else. There is no licentious liberty. A man cannot drink himself to death and be the only suffering party. You are wrong when you say that certain persons only injure themselves; it hath pleased God so to build the human universe that no man can injure himself without injuring other people. You may now be injuring posterity. Remember how sensitive are all human and vital relations. The drink you are taking into your blood now may turn some poor soul hellward a century hence; then the people will blame him, and call him fool, and reproach him, and shut him up in gaol, and sentence him to penal servitude or to the gallows. It is you, you, who ought now to be damned, but for the mercy of God. Thus circuitously but certainly God comes down upon us by way of judgment or by way of blessing; proving to us that no man liveth unto himself and no man dieth unto himself, that every life is of consequence to every other life in the universe. Can a watch break the mainspring and go on just as if nothing had happened? Can the clay mould itself into shape and beauty? Can the marble by some inward motion of its own throw off the burdens and accumulations that hide the beauty of chiselled sculpture? If a man cannot neglect his physical health without entailing suffering, how can a soul neglect its God and still enjoy his universe?
Mark how life is based either upon infatuation or upon reason. Every man has some foundation for his policy and action in life. The Lord in this seventeenth chapter of Isaiah is very ironical and satirical, as we shall see. He says, "Therefore shalt thou plant pleasant plants, and shalt set it with strange slips: in the day shalt thou make thy plant to grow, and in the morning shalt thou make thy seed to flourish." What mockery is like the sarcasm of heaven? How bitter can the kind heavens be! How terrible is the laugh of God! The Lord will allow those who have left him to plant pleasant plants, to set them in a row, to build them on a terrace; the seed shall flourish, and men shall say amid their pleasant plants and their strange slips, their exotics and their fine gatherings of slips and cuttings, Behold how these grow! see, no blight falls upon them because of our spiritual rebellion; we have done what we pleased with ourselves and before God; lo, how kind the garden is to us: if God hath himself forsaken us the heavens smile and the earth brings forth abundantly—behold—behold! Then the Lord says, "But." Oh that reservation of God, that parenthesis of providence, that interrupting, interpolating voice and mastery! "But the harvest shall be a heap in the day of grief and of desperate sorrow"; all your strange flowers and strange slips shall blossom and bloom but for one day; in the morning the seed flourishes, the strange plants live one day. These occasional sun-gleams may foretoken the thunderstorm. God can mock, God can lead the bullock to the knife by way of a fat pasture. There is therefore a promise here, but the promise is limited. You shall have mushroom growths, you shall see wonderful things within the span of a single day; but what shall the harvest be? The meaning Isaiah, we may be infatuated by appearances, by immediate successes, by flowers and strange slips growing up within the compass of one little day, and we may say to ourselves, Behold, here is success: God has not rewarded us according to the brokenness of his law; he has forgotten to reward us with shame and with disappointment. This, let us repeat, is the satire of heaven. Give the ox six weeks of a thick pasture before the poleaxe; let the culprit sleep well the night before the gallows; let the atheist have one fat day, one gleesome festival; let the rebellious have their mouths filled with meat, and whilst their teeth are still fastened upon the food I will smite them with pestilence and death. That is a tragedy; that is the doom of heaven. We know you have your riches, you have your beautiful estates, you have your heavy balances at the bank; we know that many things are growing round about you right luxuriantly; but what shall the harvest be? If a man will not ply himself with that question, and bring himself to answer it, he is a fool.
The harvest tries everything. The harvest is the end, the issue; the harvest determines what it all comes to. Call no man happy until he is dead; call no man a failure until his last effort has been made; call no man rich who has only money; call no man strong who has only a healthy body. Strength is a larger term than mere physical health, and wealth is a larger term than the mere possession of money. Oh, sons of men, what shall the permanent quantity be? what shall the harvest be? Is this severe? No: it is righteous. It would be severe if it operated in one direction only. Happily, this is only one aspect of the divine government; we are entitled to reverse this text, and say, Because thou hast remembered the God of thy salvation, and hast been mindful of the rock of thy strength, therefore shall thy barns be filled with plenty, and thy presses burst out with new wine. Thou hast not withheld from God the gladness and the service of thine heart, and he will not withhold from thee the music and the rapture and the abundance of harvest. The way of the Lord is equal.
Father of our spirits, teach us how near thou art. Once we thought thee afar off, because we ourselves were far off from thee: now we know that thou art near us, within us, and that we live, and move, and have our being in thee. Enable us to realise this more and more clearly, that we may draw from it all the infinite comfort with which it is charged; then shall we be at rest, and in the security of great peace we shall serve thee with a steadier will. Be within us as a light that does not dazzle, a fire that does not consume, a judgment that does not cast into despair. Make all the incidents of life helpful to our education; may we be wise men, noticing the times, reckoning up all the forces that operate upon us, and drawing from all we see and hear lessons concerning the providence of God: thus shall we be at church every day, and spend our lives at the altar, and shall be possessed of that understanding without which all other wealth is mockery. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: may we begin there, for no other beginning is possible, and growing up into all life, yea, into the very sky of the brightness of Wisdom of Solomon, may we be children of the light, known and read of all men as simple and true and honest All these desires are the creation of God; they are strange to us, they are not born in us of the flesh; these are the miracles of thy grace: may it please thee to strengthen them all, encourage them and sustain them, and bring them to ample fruition. We bless thee for thy continued care. He that keepeth Israel doth not slumber, yea, his eyelids close not: behold, thou art the same to us by night as by day, and the darkness and the light are both alike unto God. Direct our steps in wisdom; suffer us not to follow the false light of our own fancy, or to seek to consummate the purposes of our perverted will: may we know no will but thine; then shall there be joy in the heart as those who keep wedding festival, and there shall be brightness before us as those who dwell on the mountain-tops, far above the cloud and fog of the earth. We beseech thee to give us a clearer apprehension of Jesus Christ as the incarnate God,—God in flesh, God in vision, God near enough to be seen, and touched, and heard with the open ear,—and through him may we become sons of God; may he lift up our whole being, and make us know the joy of the security of spiritual adoption: then shall all our prayer be "Father," and if beyond that we have no utterance, it is enough; it means all thy love and all our need. Be more than loving to those who need thee most—to the sick, whose days are grief and whose nights are pain; to those who watch the dying and who thus die many deaths. Be with those who are mourning great losses, who have dug deep graves" and cannot fill them up. Be with all who would be in the sanctuary if they could, but are kept away from it by illness. Be with all travellers on land and on sea, and comfort them, and give them security and favour in the sight of the people; bring them back again in health and joy. Be with all who are in perplexity, not knowing what to do, whose life is a series of failing experiments, who try and fail, who travel up the hill and fall backward at eventide, so that the journey remains unaccomplished; the Lord give them steadiness of mind, or surely they will faint away and die in bewilderment. Give the children thy blessing; take them up in thine arms and bless them; then when thou dost set them down again they will be ready for all the duty of time. Have mercy upon us wherein we have sinned; when we say we are miserable sinners we know the depth of the meaning of the words: the Lord send to us messages from the Cross, and wherein we cry from our hearts, and are contrite in our spirits, really and truly sorry for the wreck we have wrought, do thou lift us up again into the sunlight of forgiveness, and give us the liberty of pardon. Be with us for the few nights and days we have yet to work off on the wheel of time: they fly away, and they are not; they are gone, and we cannot count them. May we, through the blood of the everlasting Covenant and the eternal energy of the Spirit, be better to-day than we were yesterday. Amen.
"Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"In the day shalt thou make thy plant to grow and in the morning shalt thou make thy seed to flourish: but, the harvest shall be a heap in the day of grief and of desperate sorrow."— Isaiah 17:11
Once more we come to the harvest. What will the harvest be? is the great question which men should put to themselves. Syria and Ephraim entered into an alliance which grew with amazing rapidity. At a certain time, all appeared to be prosperous, plentiful, and satisfactory. Yet all the harvest-heaps were destined to end not in the joy of harvest, but in grief and incurable pain. Do not look at the growing plant alone. Your investment is successful. But if that investment imply injustice, robbery, monopoly, gambling, or trickery, when you go out to reap the harvest you will only thrust your sickle into a field of darkness. In the case before us the seed flourished in the morning, and at eventide there was an appearance of a great return from the seed that had been sown. How foolish are they who look at appearances only! Where things are wrong in their origin they must be wrong in their issue. Between the origin and the issue there may be great fluctuation of fortune, or the good fortune may decidedly preponderate over the bad. But be assured of this: God is not mocked: when the seed that is sown has been bad, it is impossible that the harvest which is to be reaped can be good. Every man must face the results of his own seed-sowing. We cannot claim another man"s field when God comes to judgment. The judgment of God is founded upon facts, upon reason, upon justice. When a man sees how ruinous a harvest he has to gather, he will say to his own heart, This is just; this is the outworking of true reason; I sowed the wind, now I am called to reap the whirlwind. "Thou wicked and slothful servant; out of thine own mouth do I condemn thee." The wicked sower must be the disappointed reaper.
God In Opposition
Isaiah 17:14; Isaiah 18:4-5
Reading some portions of Isaiah is like passing through a succession of thunderstorms on a dark night: no sooner is one over than another begins: the darkness is cut to pieces by lightning, and the most solid things are rent and torn by the very demon of anger: nations are split like soft wood; empires are shattered like the toys of a child; as for kings, they melt like bubbles on a stream; thrones are no more accounted of than the stubble which is cut up by the plough. It is grand reading—for those who are not involved in the tragedy. Those who look from the shore upon some mighty ship, billow-struck, grappling with the very ogre of ruin, may describe the scene in poetic terms; but the men on board are white with agony or dumb with despair. So it is with this succession of thunderbursts and lightning flashes and destructive strokes. The contempt which the prophet expresses for empires, nations, kings, crowns, armies, and things grand and overwhelming could not have been his own. It is at once too sublime and too subtle to be mere poetry. We know human contempt and its measure, all its bitterness and all its little scope. There is an inspired contempt—a scorn which burns like the fire of God. Men know when they are the subjects of inspired contempt. It is easy to distinguish between a sneer and a divine scorning, a prejudice and an eternal judgment. Who cares for a human sneer? It may be changed into a smile to-morrow, and both sneer and smile are of precisely the same value; but a man knows when he is righteously overborne, when he is hunted to death by God. There is a prejudice that comes and goes, and mere action of opinion; and there is a scorning which fills the sky, so terrible that a man may not look up, or he will be cursed by the just contempt. Isaiah never made this scorn; no poet ever made it. "The glory of Moab shall be contemned, with all that great multitude; and the remnant shall be very small and feeble"; "In that day shall Damascus be as a forsaken bough, and an uppermost branch, and there shall be desolation"; "The harvest shall be a heap in the day of grief and of desperate sorrow"; "God shall rebuke the nations, and they shall flee far off, and shall be chased as the chaff of the mountains before the wind, and like a rolling thing before the whirlwind." This is no mere poetry; it would not be poetry, it would be cruelty, if there be not under it all an explanatory righteousness. The moral element saves it from being a mere play of fancy, an intellectual aurora borealis. This is the very judgment of God. And we know it all. We are well aware when we are rightly judged. When others are applauding us and we are condemning ourselves, the discrepancy is an awful irony in the soul; the applause goes for nothing, it is empty wind, it is a passing noise; but this interior judgment, this self-condemnation, kills every comforter who comes unconsciously to mock us with his solace.
"And behold at eveningtide trouble; and before the morning he is not" ( Isaiah 17:14). God fights some battles between evening and morning. The black night is the field of war. It is all over by the dawn. Not a voice can be heard; nothing can be seen but desolation: how it was done no man can tell. The darkness fights for God; it is not only a soldier of his, but a great army, immeasurable, invincible. Some processes are hidden. The night is needed for more than rest. God could make us sleep in the daytime, and have us watched in our slumber, as it were, by the sun. But the night is wholly given over to sleep. How busy the angels are on the fields of darkness! How they dart through it like flashes of light! How they come in dream and vision! Who can tell all this nocturnal ministry, in its beginning, its action, its purpose, its end? "Thou fool! this night shall thy soul be required of thee." Men are fetched at night by the invisible constable: they are looked for in the morning, and there is nothing but the mould they left on the bed in which they intended to sleep. Who reckons the night when he adds up his time? It may go for nothing to us because of our unconsciousness, but God sleeps not, nor do his judgments tarry for the light. Or we may reverse the scene, and make even this picture rich with beauty; it may be loaded with messages of comfort. Is it the enemy who comes up at eventide? Is it Sennacherib that plants his army at sundown, and says he will work ruin upon the fortresses of Jerusalem? Behold in the morning he is not! The angel of death swept down with a blast, and a great wind carried away the boastful foe. Thus, still God works in the night time. The ministry of the night is not interfered with by change of figure or by change of its application. Hear this singing word, and say how well it fits the scene: "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning." Speaking of the wicked we may apply the figure of night so as to find in it terror and fear, sorrow, and judgment, and death; speaking of the good Prayer of Manasseh, we may say, Dry thy tears, thou foolish unbelieving weeper, or shed them gratefully to get rid of a needless burden; for sorrow endureth but for a night, joy cometh in the morning: take in the black guest, do what thou canst for him, he is sent of God for holy purposes; he can live but for a night, thou mightest afford to be kind to him; it were but one night in a long life.
This rule may be applied to more places than one in the prophecies of Isaiah. We are not always reading of judgment, even when apparently there is a tone of threatening in the words, for the threatening may be directed against the enemy, and a rich promise may be hidden in its very heart, to be handled and lived upon by the honest soul. "This is the portion of them that spoil us, and the lot of them that rob us." So it would appear that the figure is one intended for the comfort of the people of God. We may fall asleep indeed, and in the morning inquire, How goes the war? and, behold, the warriors are dead and gone. "With what judgment ye Judges, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." Robbery is a compound act. A man who steals a loaf of bread when he is hungry, and does it openly, and does it as a last resource, is no robber. He has the right of humanity to the loaf that is in the cupboard of society. The man who steals under sudden temptation, who confesses, repents, and restores, must be forgiven, and must be numbered amongst honest men. Sydney Smith was a magistrate, but the poor people said he pleaded like a parson with the magistrates when they wished to condemn a poor man who, being half-starved, shot game or snared it for the relief of himself and his family. He was a prophet of the Lord when he so pleaded. The witty canon had understanding of human nature and of divine purposes, and he was a just judge when he said, Forgive the hard-pressed Prayer of Manasseh, for thus only could he keep together body and soul. But this is not the robbery spoken of in the text, nor is it the kind of robbery that society must set itself against with a thousand unsparing penalties. The difficulty is this, that the great robber is a hero, and the little robber is a felon. It is the same with war. A man who overthrows a nation is memorialised on brass and marble; a man who kills a solitary fellow-creature is handed over to the public hangman: the one is a hero, feted by kings and princes, and the other is a murderer, locked up in an iron cage, and kept to be hanged. It is the same way with robbery. A man robs other nations, and we call him great. The little robber is a coward; he waits until the light is put out, until the streets are silent; he can hear his own heart beat, then he puts forth the thievish hand. The robber is a liar. He has to live a lie, though perhaps he may never openly tell one. He is himself a lie. The robber is a false accuser: he has to blame other people, or to blame circumstances, or to blame in some way the subtle influences which have been brought to bear upon him. The robber is an enemy of society; he brings other persons under suspicion. But there is a kind of robbery of which even honest men may be guilty. Let us be careful how we condemn a man who breaks any one of the ten commandments; he may only have broken one, and his critics may have broken the whole ten. "Thou shalt not steal" is not applied to the purse, which has been poetically denominated "trash"; we may steal good names, fair reputations, just rewards; we may endeavour to trouble a man who is being honestly applauded by those to whom he has done good by suggesting doubts and fears concerning him. He is but a little thief who takes money; he is a great robber who takes away peace of mind, trust in character, and who blocks up the way of a man in the world. In all such matters let us be just and complete in our view.
Now we come to a verse which is as divisible into two interpretations as the one we have just studied:—
"For so the Lord said unto me, I will take my rest, and I will consider in my dwelling-place like a clear heat upon herbs, and like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest. For afore the harvest, when the bud is perfect, and the sour grape is ripening in the flower, he shall both cut off the sprigs with pruning hooks, and take away and cut down the branches" ( Isaiah 18:4-5).
How full of suggestion is this as to the method of the divine administration! "I will take my rest." God is supposed to utter these words. And they would seem to encourage those who have hidden themselves in false security; they say, The sky is clearer, the wind has gone down, all danger is past, now we may venture forth; not knowing that God Isaiah, humanly speaking, taking his rest. Having laid down the weapons of judgment he is considering in his heaven what shall be done next. The wrong-doer thinks that all is past and gone, dead and forgotten, and that he is now at liberty to go forth as a man unrecognised, without the old felon"s brand. Nothing of the kind. Whoever goes into punishment goes into everlasting punishment. Why this ado about everlasting torment and penalty? Every penalty is eternal, if it is just. A man may suffer penalty, and be the better for it, the nobler; he may even secure to himself a lasting place in the gratitude of society; we are not speaking of such penalty, but of punishment which is due, just, righteous altogether. Never can that brand be taken out of the flesh; the hideous root and seam will be observed there, though the flesh be healed to the eye. God may have but withdrawn. We are obliged to resort to figure and to illustration, for only so can we approach the mysteries of the divine nature for the time to consider what judgment can be added, or what weapon can be next employed.
Then again the figure suggests that righteousness is assured. That is to say, it will be reasserted and will be vindicated, and at last righteousness will stand up in the light, whilst wickedness will be buried in the grave, marked only by contempt. The sword is only resting; it will be used again, and always used in the interests of righteousness. Thus we may turn this image, and find in it also, as in the former one, abounding comfort; for it may suggest assured helpfulness to the good. Is God apparently withdrawn from us? He will come again. Is the Christian work being overborne? It Isaiah, but for a small moment: God is only resting, considering; and when men are putting forth their hands to reach all the fulness of the harvest he will cut off branches and all the fields of wheat, and they shall thrust their hands into the darkness, and reap nothing but emptiness. This may be the real meaning of the passage, which may be then thus paraphrased: You think I have forsaken you, but you are mistaken; you suppose your cause is lost, but the cause of righteousness can never be lost: I am resting, considering, giving time an opportunity of exerting its influence; the whole thing is still within the hollow of my hand, and all things will be settled on a basis of infinite righteousness. Let us then be careful how we apply some of the sterner passages of Scripture, for we may occasionally, by the very stress of our fear, be misapplying them, and thus make God talk judgment to us when in reality he is pronouncing benedictions. The heart in all such cases is the best annotator and critic. Let a man feel that he deserves judgment, penalty, yea, hell itself, and he will find an abundance in the Scriptures which will confirm his own self-condemnation. Let him, contrariwise, be pure of soul, docile of spirit, anxious to know the divine will and do it all; then even in the lowering clouds he will hear a voice, in the darkening heavens he will see a star, in the thunder-peal he will hear a still small voice coming to his heart like the very music of heaven. The Bible is to us what we are to the Bible: to the froward God is froward, to the pure in soul he is a condescending Friend,—yea, he will come into the man"s heart and sup with him, and make his abode with him.
Here, then, opens the great field of application. Have we done Wrong? We can never undo it. But we can repent. And this may, in effect, undo it for us. There is one thing we can never do—we can never forgive ourselves. Though our eyes were a fountain of tears, and our head were waters poured out in torrents, yet when all the floods are past there is the dark hideous fact, as palpable and ghastly as ever. Society may forgive us, God may forgive us, but unless we are lifted up in highest spiritual communion, touching even ecstasy and rapture itself, we dare not look back, or we should see the black spectre steadily keeping an accusing eye upon us. Blessed be God, self-forgiveness is impossible. Have we taken that which is not our own? Restore it; it is in vain to think that detection can be escaped; it can be escaped to-day and to-morrow, but the third day will be alive with a light of revelation and criticism, judgment and penalty. Though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not go unpunished. What, then, is the right spiritual attitude in relation to all this line of reflection?—"Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall." Let there be no boasting, no mockery, no ruthless taunting. "Hold thou me up, and I shall be safe." If I can boast of my honesty, I am not honest; if I make it ostentatious, I make it unreal; if I have done any good, the good is all done by the living God within me. This should be the spiritual temper and attitude of every man who desires to serve God. Does this, then, mean indifference to wrongdoing? On the contrary, it means the highest sensitiveness towards wrongdoing and all its participants. But it also means self-control, self-judgment; and every incident in life will be lost upon us if it does not leave behind this impression, that: if we have been saved from being murderers, adulterers, robbers, evil men of any kind or degree, we have been so saved by the grace of God.
Almighty God, we are full of joy, because our work is to be tried by thyself, and not by another. Thou knowest all things; thou art merciful and just; thou dost try the reins of the children of men, but thou dost look upon them all with eyes of pity and of love. Thy judgment will stand when all other criticism fails and is forgotten. We would that we might, by thy grace, stand well with thee, that we might be accepted in the Beloved, that we might in all things be approved by thyself as men who are faithfully doing the work which thou hast put into their hands. The battle is not ours, but thine; the work is not man"s, it is God"s own work, and will be done in God"s own time, yea, unto the putting on of the topstone amid gratulation and highest joy. Enable us to work during the few days that remain even to the strongest of us: behold, the time of the lengthening of the shadow hasteneth, and man goeth to his long home; may every one of us work with both hands diligently, always acknowledging the divine direction, always seeking heavenly inspiration; conceiving and inventing nothing of our own, but always with our face toward the rising sun and the opening heavens, that we may receive from on high our instruction and our charge and our inspiration. Bless those to whom thou hast appointed the discipline of suffering in great measure; say unto them that it all occurs for their purification, and release from evil bonds, and introduction into holy liberty. Dry the tears of unusual sorrow, the rivers of that great grief which can come but once in a lifetime and never reappear, compared with which all other distress is as a passing cloud. Nourish us, strengthen us, fill us with thy Spirit, redeem us every day with the precious blood of Jesus Christ, for being cleansed by that we shall be undefiled, and being released from sin by that energy we shall not be brought again into the captivity of evil. If the Lord will hear us, his hearing shall be unto us as a gracious answer. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Isaiah 17". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://pro.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent