The Doom of Ariel
This is a mysterious chapter, and has been left practically unexplained. No one can say what "Ariel" means, definitely; though there are some etymological suggestions which are not wanting in value. It is a poetical term. The best conjecture is that it signifies Jerusalem. Men have often to speak and to write in cipher; especially in Scriptural days had men to do the best they could with their meaning, owing to circumstances of a hostile nature. The Bible is full of cipher. These wonderful love-letters could only be understood in some parts by the people who had the corresponding code. We have codes of business: why not codes of love? The Apocalypse is full of cipher, and commentators who have not the key make strange discord out of that sacred music. The people to whom the Apocalypse was written knew it, in all its range of thought and meaning, because they had the keywords; they knew what the writer meant when he said "Babylon." But in days when tyrants ruled, and men had to apologise for their faith with their blood, it was well to have some masonry, some signs which could only be understood by the initiated; then one little line stood for a whole volume of meaning; every word had an alias which was understood by the reader; so that words which are very mysterious to modern students were charged with light and music and heart passion to those to whom they were originally addressed. Still, it is wonderful how with all the ciphers men can use, the love of God will overflow them all, and assert itself in many a flash or whisper or spectral outline to be seen only when the eyes are shut. David dwelt—or encamped—which is a better rendering—in the fortress of Zion. That gives us some hint as to the locality that is indicated by this poetical or symbolical terra Ariel—lion-heart; or, variously, and sharply different, hearthstone,—a place made warm by altar-fire, the innermost chamber of the divine home, where wanderers felt the glow of divine hospitality and the secureness of divine protection. Great distress was to come upon Ariel: for the Lord has never spared the elect. Election gives him rights of discipline. We may inflict punishment upon those who are ours, when we may not lay the hand of chastisement upon those who do not belong to us. Love has its own law-court, but there is the open public market-place for the administration of common justice to those who are not ours by right of blood or love or pledged resolution of mutual loyalty.
Yet with all the distress there was a sense of protection. The close of the second verse does not read very rhythmically—
"Yet I will distress Ariel, and there shall be heaviness and sorrow: and it shall be unto me as Ariel." ( Isaiah 29:2)
If we put one word into the last part of the verse that word will be key and explanation, light and relief at once,—namely, the word "yet"; then the latter part of the verse will read—"and yet it shall be unto me as Ariel,"—bleeding because of the rod, swallowed up and greatly distressed, yea, loaded with sorrow, it shall still be Jerusalem, it shall still be the darling of God. It is so with the whole world. God cannot leave it. He rends it with earthquakes, and comes back to seal up the chasms, to grow green beauty on the rips and rents which the terrific energy has made. He withdraws from the world for a year, and then comes back with two years at a time. It would seem as if he repented first,—as if love could not hold out, but must yield, at least make some approach in renewed goodness, in illuminated providence, if haply at the very last obstinacy may be subdued, and rebellion may be changed to loyalty. God is still conducting this ministry of approach and appeal and gracious offer. Behold, his hand is still stretched down out of heaven, and his fingers are laid upon the children of men.
What resources of humiliation God owns! Even Ariel was to be brought down, and was to speak out of the ground, and the speech of Ariel was to be low out of the dust, and the voice of Ariel was to be, as one that hath a familiar spirit, out of the ground, and Ariel"s speech was to be like a whisper out of the dust ( Isaiah 29:4). The tone that was once so clarion-like, so musical, that was heard as might be heard the voice of silver bells, was to be sunk to a whisper, a sigh scarcely audible because of the gathering dust. See Ariel humiliated! To have seen her taken up and thrown away by Omnipotence would have been a spectacle not wholly without dignity; but to see sweet Ariel, the great lion-heart, or the word once significant of home and warmth and comfort and protection,—to see Ariel thrust away in the dust muttering like one half-buried from a grave half-filled, is humiliation hardly to be borne.
There were great assaults as well as great humiliations—
"Thou shalt be visited of the Lord of hosts with thunder, and with earthquake, and great noise, with storm and tempest, and the flame of devouring fire" ( Isaiah 29:6).
The mercy soon comes in this chapter—
"And the multitude of all the nations that fight against Ariel, even all that fight against her and her munition, and that distress her, shall be as a dream of a night vision" ( Isaiah 29:7).
"It shall even be as when an hungry man dreameth, and, behold, he eateth; but he awaketh, and his soul is empty: or as when a thirsty man dreameth, and, behold, he drinketh; but he awaketh, and, behold, he is faint, and his soul hath appetite" ( Isaiah 29:8).
Now comes a very modern passage. The very thing that we imagined to be original, and the latest discovery of folly, is written down here without cipher, in the plainest, directest English:—
"For the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered. And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed: and the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I am not learned" ( Isaiah 29:10-12).
Precisely the condition of religious civilisation today! On the one hand, we have that agnosticism that will not know, and on the other the agnosticism that has never had the chance of instruction. See how the case stands. First of all, the book is delivered to one that is learned—learned in letters, in history, in philosophy, in science; and the appeal is—"Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed;" I cannot read anything about God, for it is a mystery impenetrable; I cannot discover the secret of the universe, for it is sealed: we must not attempt to break the seal; whatever mystery there is must be left; let us confine ourselves to things we can handle, and properly appraise, and use under our own discretion, and let us leave alone sealed things, unknowable mysteries, doctrines that were never meant to have their equivalent in words. A wondrous thing indeed that this agnosticism should have been painted so vividly thousands of years ago! The men to whom the appeal was made were learned men, the scribes and teachers of their day; but they said, Here is a book which cannot be opened or read, for it is sealed: we must simply recognise its existence, and pass by it, leaving the opening and the solution as things quite beyond our immediate reach or understanding. This is what the most learned agnostic would say today to the humble inquirer who went to him with the question, What is God? what is the future? what is the destiny of man? or what are the worlds that shine above us? What is the meaning of spiritual inspiration, direction, government? what is it that provides the food we eat? or who kindles the light under which we do our work?—what is there beyond? He would say, "I cannot read it; for it is sealed." The universe is like a musical instrument, he would continue—and herein we quote almost the very words of the agnostic himself—having so many keys: on the one hand you have all that is light, and lilting, and silvery, and cheerful; and on the other all that is deep, and profound, and solemn, and heavy, and dark, and thunderous; there between these points your arms may move, but beyond all is sealed. What, am I then seated on a stool, and have I nothing but arms that I can put out? Have I no imagination, no dream power, no speculation? Have I not at least something stirring within me which says, do not sit there; rise; use other faculties; the arms are but poor symbols of thy strength: thou art a soul, a spirit, a winged lite; go and claim the inheritance of the morning and the estate of the summer. It would seem to be extremely humble—but there is a humility which no man believes—that one should say, I cannot read this history or answer this enigma; for it is sealed. Then the inquirer turns to those who are really ignorant, saying, "Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I am not learned." He measures learning, however, by letters; he does not know that there is a learning which is independent of letters and forms, symbols and things that can be viewed spectacularly. There is a learning of the heart, and herein we find the sphere of inspired genius, inspired intuition—that marvellous instinct, sagacity, soul-power, which knows without having been to school. "How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?" There are people who never can get away from the idea that heaven is to be scaled by a ladder: they forget that there are wings. There are many ways to truth, to God, to rest, not known by those who live simply in the letter. When the Bible is fully opened, annotated from beginning to end as with light, it will be done by the meek soul, the modest spirit He will see most who first excludes the visible: then by pureness of heart and simplicity of motive, he may see God.
The people are rebuked who turn things upside down. This is the teaching of the sixteenth verse. By turning things upside down is meant putting things into false relations, taking hold of things by the wrong end, confounding the potter with the clay, and instead of setting the vessel down setting the potter down. This is wise unwisdom, blind sagacity, the kind of intellectual audacity that leads to defiance, not to courage. Are there not men who are gifted with the genius of inversion—men who through satire, or love of sarcasm, or recklessness of mind, pervert and invert all the harmonies and purposes of God, violating divine proportions, and reversing eternal decrees, so far as their limited power will permit? Such men cannot read the Bible aright; they always open at the wrong place; they always fasten upon the wrong question. There are so many men anxious to know who wrote the Pentateuch that they never read the book itself. There are so many persons who are profoundly busy in reading the address on the outside of the letter that they never open the envelope; they have been fighting for centuries about the envelope, and the address, and the local stamp, and wondering how old the postman was that stamped that letter, and what will become of him in two thousand years from this day; and the family is in contention and tumult and unrest; every morning that letter is produced to have the envelope rediscussed and the writing Revelation -examined through the latest microscope that can be borrowed. Why not open the letter? It may contain something; it may be self-explanatory; there may be a banknote in it. Let us open the letter; let us read the Pentateuch; and if we find in it light, and music, and truth, and drama conforming to our own experience of life, we may be able by such a process to get back to all that is really valuable in authorship. The value is in the thing that is said, and not in the signature which it bears. If men would thus read the Bible, take hold of it by the right side, and take care never to turn it upside down, they would be able themselves to sign the book, and they might be forgiven if they said they had written the twenty-third psalm. We have all written it; that is to say, we would have written it had we been blessed with the genius of expression, for we have all felt it; so that when the divinely-gifted minstrel sang the psalm first in our hearing we said, Sing it again; that is what we have been waiting for: blessed art thou, for thou hast a necromancy in the use of words, and thou hast translated the dumb meaning of all souls. Thus we must seize the moral purpose of the Bible, and work from that purpose backward and forward into all related, to minor and comparatively insignificant, questions.
The prophet complains of people who made him "an offender for a word" ( Isaiah 29:21). That is to say, they condemned him as unpatriotic because he pronounced publicly against the sins of the city. He intimates his public character in the peculiar expression in the twenty-first verse—"that reproveth in the gate." The literal meaning is that he was an open-air speaker. He could not be enclosed by walls; he could not be roofed in: he was an open-air preacher,—a man whose pulpit was always ready, a man who required a great church, for he had a great message to deliver. It is precisely so today. Men are made offenders for a word in various ways, and not least in a moral way for being too critical upon their age. We love criticism only when it is directed to others. Yet are there not men who make prophets and preachers and poets and teachers offenders because of a word? The fault is a little one, but it is magnified, it is distorted, it is put in false lights, it is aggravated into a kind of burden of guilt. Do we not need open-air preachers? We do. But the climate is against us! We are quite willing to condemn the absentees, but who will stand on the steps of the Stock Exchange and say—Oh, generation of bloodsuckers, vipers, children of the devil! The only remedy for that Isaiah, alas, an indictment for nuisance! The prophet is dead, or if he be not dead he is in the wilderness, where he has abundance of open air but no audience. Who will say that Isaiah is an ancient prophet, that his prophecies are an ancient book? Jesus Christ quoted from them. Who can wonder that another said, "Esaias is very bold"? He was bold because he knew his ground, he knew his age, he knew the truth he had to deliver, and knowledge of truth gives a man confidence as knowledge of language does. He who knows the language he speaks, speaks in all companies with perfect confidence and therefore with perfect ease. It is the uncertain grammarian that sits in silence, or picks his way daintily and inoffensively over commonplaces which nobody can remember. The prophet who knows the language of God—in other terms, the truth and purpose of God—speaks at the gate, in the open air, by night, by day, in the long summer, in the cold winter, and his cry is magnified because his conviction is strong.
Almighty God, we are saved by hope. In the spirit of hope we live and work and suffer. Hope destroys time and distance and hindrance, and brings thee near to us with sacred realisation. We have the things we hope for when we hope according to thy will; we are already in heaven, though we know it not, when we do thy bidding and follow all the spirit of the blessed Christ. We have our reward; we have it now, in beginning, and sign, and hint; we shall have it wholly, in the absoluteness of its perfection, in thine own due time, when we obey the summons to arise because the Master is come and waiteth for us. Thou hast spoken comfortably unto our hearts in many voices, in many tones, in thy providence day by day, in all the miracle of our poor human life which thou hast brought onward from stage to stage unto this present, raising us up from many dejections, leading us forth from many humiliations, and giving us unexpected strength and unlooked-for delight. But what hast thou done in the Cross of Jesus Christ thy Son but shown all the miracles of eternity, all the wonders of almightiness, all the glory and wealth of heaven? We gaze upon that Cross, and our eyes are filled with tears; we look again, and our eyes are charged with light; we look again, and behold whilst we look the dying One lives and gives life, and is already more than conqueror. May we live in the spirit of Christ, then we shall have daily comfort; may we be crucified with Christ, then we can have no other pain; may we lean our little crosses against the tree on which he bore his woe. Amen.
The Unread Vision
So the vision remains unread. There are two roads to this insuperable and invincible "cannot." We are always breaking our heads against that granite "cannot." Surely the learned man can do it? He says, No: I could read it if somebody else would break the seal, but the book is sealed; I cannot get at it, my learning is not available. Then take it to the ignorant man: he says, I have the poetic faculty, I can idealise, but as for reading, I do not know even letters, much less syllables, I am no scholar; if you want anything out of my own consciousness, you can have it, but as to reading a vision written by Isaiah or Jeremiah or flaming Ezekiel, it is all mist and cloud to me; the writing has no shape. All writing is alike to ignorance. Then has it come to this? Yes, exactly to this, in our age, in the Church, in the family. Here we have one man saying, I can read, but I cannot break seals: and another saying, I could break the seal, but it would be useless, for having broken the seal the page would just be one blur to my unlearned eyes; I cannot read. To this has the vision of God come in our day! This is the Lord"s doing. Is the Lord to be credited or discredited with this "cannot"? Yes:—
"For the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered" ( Isaiah 29:10).
We live in a constructed universe, not in a desolate chaos. We are at liberty to build within certain lines, but we cannot transgress the greater geometry. We think we are building when we are only playing at toy-houses. All building was done before we began to disport ourselves in the quarries and in the forests of the earth: the geometry was settled before the stones were put together by human hands. Who is responsible for the fallen wall? God. Why is he responsible for the wall that has fallen? Because he is the Author of the true geometry; he has so constructed the universe that it we do not walk and work according to all his provisions our walls will tumble down, and every tumbling stone is a tribute to the throne of God. Do not suppose that you are little accidents, occasional appearances and disappearances on the surface of the earth; do not imagine that you are the mere sport of the statistician and the census-taker; you are here because God is Lord and Ruler. The Lord reigneth; he fixeth the bounds of our habitation; we say we will live here or there, and we will hasten to yonder city, and we call this liberty. In a narrow, subordinate sense, convenient for the interchange of human promise and opinion, this is true; yet it is only part of the truth: the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Men misuse or disuse their religious faculties, drink themselves into stupidity, lose their sensitiveness: this is the divine law; God is responsible. He is responsible for the law. He will not—he cannot—change it. We are constituted that we cannot allow a limb to fail into desuetude, and retain its vigour. Who is responsible for the numbness, the paralysis? God is. He has not made a law we can play with; he did not make the law merely for the sake of making it; law expresses himself: and God is love. Who is responsible for this issue? Man is. But you have just said that God is responsible. That is true; and so is man. You can start the argument from either of two points; you must neither exclude the divine nor the human:—"Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men: Therefore"—( Isaiah 29:13-14). That is precisely how this mysterious life stands. Can there be evil in the city, and the Lord not have done it? No. Can there be evil in the city, and man be held guiltless? No: God did it; man did it; these would be irreconcilable paradoxes in words: we come down upon their meaning through the agony, the shame, the disappointment, and occasionally the joy of our lives. Experience keeps her school: life is its own university.
Here, then, we have men representing two classes. The learned man has been making too much of his learning. He would rest upon it; he would be his own deity: and the Lord says, This cannot be, and "Therefore... the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid." You have put the lamp in the wrong place; you have endeavoured to supersede the sun: what shall I do to you? O vain, vain soul, what shall I do? this will I do, I will blow out your candle. There comes a point when it is useless to reason with men; they are neither above the line of argument nor below it; they are wholly outside of it, it has no relation to them: the only thing left even for God"s almightiness to do is to blow out the artificial flame. So great men become imbeciles, men who yesterday governed the world are today asking little children to help them across the busy thoroughfare, for a sudden dizziness has seized their heads; men who yesternight presided at the board and dictated the policy of the consultation, are this morning asking what day of the week it is. What has happened—an earthquake? No; some subtle action has taken place in the brain: the inner eyes are dull of sight. See these wise men reel; they have been early at their cups today, they must have been sitting up overnight and drinking deep. No, they are quite sober; yet they are drunk—they are drunk, but not with wine. The Lord keeps us all under him: beyond there is no finite power; it is in the under-world that finiteness plays its little game of invention and rushes upon its blasphemy of trying to be infinite. Here, then, is a responsibility on the one side divine and on the other side wholly human. It is a law fixed by God. "Whoso breaketh an hedge, a serpent shall bite him." Who made the hedge? God. Who made the serpent? God. Who made the serpent bite just at that moment? God. Who broke through the hedge? Man. It is a marvellous education, a mixed and manifold discipline, full of eccentricity and self-contradiction, and yet ending in reconciliation, if not literal, yet experiential, attested by the judgment and the conscience of men.
The inabilities and confusions of the world are of man"s creating. We have spoiled our faculties, we have blinded ourselves by indulgence, we have stupefied ourselves by excesses; and now the quality of men reveals itself. In vino veritas, and in this other drink that is not wine there is also truth. Having risen from the banqueting of self-indulgence what happens? Two things. How does the banqueting tell upon the learned man? He says, "I cannot." How does it tell upon the ignorant man? He says, "I cannot." Can neither of you do this thing? No: but you are two totally different men. Yes, but this banqueting and rioting develops the quality of each, and the learned man is as the fool, and the fool is as the learned man; and the wisdom of God remains unread. Why palter about the diversity of the roads when they both come to the same point? Self-degradation is the answer. We have taken things into our own hands, and therefore we are drunken but not with wine; we stagger but not with strong drink. God will not have us share his throne. We cannot be both God and men. We must know our place, and our place is that of scholars; our disposition should be that which says, Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth. To that disposition God never returned any answer but the reply of love. Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye cannot see the kingdom of God. You may even be talking about it without seeing it The age is cursed with sermons about the Gospel. We do not want to hear anything more "about" the Gospel, we want to hear the Gospel itself.
Then our hope is not in the learned man as such, nor is our hope in the unlearned man. There are persons who will tell you that the pulpit is enfeebled because of the learning that is in it now, the literal learning; the brain of the pulpit is overloaded with literature; the references to literature are all displays of intellectual vanity, and therefore we must turn to the simple, the unlearned, and the ignorant. Very good; let us go to them: will you read us the vision of God? The answer Isaiah, if they be honest men, We cannot read it. When learning has drunk itself into stupidity by the wine of its own vanity, and when ignorance has done the same thing, taking refuge in indolence rather than accepting the discipline of industry, genius and stupidity confront one another at the same point, and say, What! you here? Yes! both here, both fools.
All this accounts for the religious weakness and powerlessness of the times. We have not sufficiently waited upon God; we have not lived and moved, and had our being in the Cross. We have become an inventive Church. We must, at least, have now nearly five-and-twenty different theories of every doctrine supposed to be contained in the Bible. There is the catechism view, with proof and without proofs, mainly the latter; there is the trust-deed view, in which some man has been paid so much in silver and pence for writing out the faith of God"s own heart, minting the thought of infinity into phrases that have been engrossed and docketed in chancery. We have trusted too much to mechanism, and too little to simple childlike faith in God; we have placed upon the mountains of knowledge and progress and holiness a number of whitewashed posts, and we have said, Follow these posts, and inquire when you get to the last of them where you are. All this means that the vision is being lost. The real reading, the poetical, idealistic, spiritual meaning, the moral penetration, the function of conscience, the prerogative of sanctified judgment, all the noblest aspects and powers of man are being subordinated to these little tricks of management and vanity, these little bubbles of ambition. Is it not well to have a post or two on the mountains? Under some circumstances, yes; but when there is a living Guide to take you home, you trust to the life and not the timber. We are living in the reign and dispensation of God the Holy Ghost. How seldom do we hear him referred to! We hear much exclamation about preaching Christ; we uphold that exclamation with the vehemence of the most excited love; but such preaching is impossible apart from the direct and continual action of God the Holy Ghost. Who are the men that run down anything that is really spiritual, even if it be an imposture or misconception of spirituality? The men whom we have most difficulty in convincing that there is a spiritual universe are professing Christians. Of course the whole spiritual conception of things has been debased, impoverished, dishonoured; there have been quacks and impostors innumerable in the interpretation of spiritual realities. Who ought to preserve that great department of thought, and secure it as far as possible from invasion and violation? Christian teachers. Do not let imposture cheat you out of your inheritance. What you have heard of spiritualism or debased spirituality may be lies from beginning to end, and probably is; but that ought not to quench your faith in the fact that God is a Spirit, and that we are now under the dispensation of the Holy Ghost.
There is only one cure for this loss of faith, and that cure is in two things, leading to a third, penitence. That old word penitence is dropping into disuse. In a letter recently received a man said: "When people are converted (whatever that may mean)." It was a fool"s parenthesis; every man ought to know what converted means. We know it in politics, we know it in art, we ought to know it also in the soul. "Converted"—why it means turned round, turned up, turned God-ward. "Whatever that may mean"—thou poor simpleton, if not thou meaner knave; it means change in soul, life, thought, purpose, point of vision, point of aspiration, and range of service. The penitence will go when the word conversion goes. Penitence ought to mean brokenheartedness, shame on account of sin, bitterness of soul because of the broken law, self-renunciation, self-repudiation. Then after penitence will come obedience. Oh, the sweetness of obedience! that is the great scholar; obedience has all the certificates of heaven, obedience wins all the prizes of God. If we could be obedient we should have great visions every day above the brightness of the sun. If we would know the doctrine we must do the will; some things come to us in the act of doing them; our doing is very imperfect, but still it is doing, it is action; we are on the way towards the happy conclusion. If you would understand the Cross you must first die upon it. Oh, thou who hast not tasted the agony, do not try to preach the Gospel! Words of passion on lips of ice are the basest blasphemy against God and man. First go, be reconciled to God through Christ; then come, and with the music of thankful love tell us what his face is like: hath he marks to lead us to him, if he be our Guide? and you will say, "In his feet and hands are wound-prints, and his side," and we shall know then that thou hast been in communion with the Cross.
Out of penitence and out of obedience will come self-distrust Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. We shall then know how to read the Bible. Many men can only parse it; they think parsing is reading. You begin Milton"s "Paradise Lost" by parsing it, and you will never touch the music. The parsing is right, no man has a word to say against grammar, but do keep them both in their own places; above all that is literal, wooden, mechanical, and essential to human convenience—above all that, there is light. What is light? No man knows. Love—what is love? No man knows. Music—what is music?—Music!
Let us use these words as Jesus Christ used them in Matthew ( Matthew 15:7), "Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you." There are three points,—the first of which is the importance of plain speaking on all questions affecting the interests of truth. Jesus Christ was pre-eminently a plain speaker. He did not round his sentences for the purpose of smoothing his way. When he had occasion to administer rebuke or to point out the errors of those who were round about him, he spoke keenly, incisively, with powerful effect upon the mind and conscience of those who heard him. In his speech we find many hard words, many sayings which would not be accounted courteous. He called men "blind leaders," "fools," "vipers," "whited sepulchres," and other names equally descriptive of moral deformity. He never appears to have used these names with hesitation or misgiving, but pronounced them as if they were the right names and were rightly distributed to the parties who heard him speak. He calls certain persons "hypocrites." He does not say behind their backs that they were hypocrites, but he looked straight at them and right through them, and said, "Ye hypocrites." If we had more such plain speaking it would be a great advantage. It must, however, be understood that as between man and Prayer of Manasseh, where there is plain speaking on the one side there must be liberty of equal plainness on the other. Plain speaking must not be played at as a game of mere skill or chance; it must proceed upon distinct moral convictions, and come out of a sincere piety, a deep reverence for all that is holy, beautiful, good. Plain speaking, thus arising and thus applied, would become one of the most influential agents in the purification of our social intercourse. Many men speak plainly, but they speak their plain words so that the right individual may have no opportunity of hearing them. There are some men who are very courageous when the enemy is far away. There are many persons who imagine that they have actually spoken plainly to the individuals who have been hypocritical and false when they have told their friends, in a semi-confidential tone, that they very nearly said Song of Solomon -and-so. It is in this way we play with our consciousness. We think that if we have very nearly said it, and told somebody else how nearly we did say it, that we have actually gone nine-tenths of the way of saying it and of defending righteousness and truth. We know very well when men speak to us hypocritically. Alas, what skill we have attained in withholding the word of condemnation under such circumstances! Were we courageous, were we equal to the occasion, we should soon put an end to a good deal of the common hypocrisy of the world.
There is probably no man who would not applaud sincerity; yet when we come to apply sincerity, we all quail before it and protest against it. It is so in the exposition of divine truth. The preacher may say in general terms to all the world, "You are sinners before God," and he would be declared to be laying down sound doctrine. But if he were to lay his hand upon any one man and say, "You are a bad Prayer of Manasseh," he would be charged with rudeness. We can sit and hear the world condemned; but when all this generality is narrowed down to a personal application—without which application the doctrine is simply sounding brass—we begin to complain that we have been rudely treated. We grow more and more away from the candour which underlies and beautifies all truly sincere speech. We begin in childhood with wonderful candour, beautiful simplicity of intercourse, and we grow away from that into conventionality and artificialism; and he is the clever man who can best conceal himself. Jesus Christ spoke plainly. He spoke all that was in his heart concerning wickedness to the people themselves, and thus he was often misunderstood and ill-treated. The disciples came to him and said, "Knowest thou that the Pharisees were offended, after they heard this saying?" People have come to us with the selfsame reproach, and we have been cowardly enough to regret our plainness of speech. If we have spoken directly to a Prayer of Manasseh, and have heard afterwards that he was "offended," we have blamed ourselves. We have a right so to blame ourselves if the speech came out of an evil spirit, but in so far as it was spoken with the dignity of truth and the consciousness of innocence it ought not to have occasioned even a momentary pang of self-reproach.
Two things are required in the plain speaker. Personal rightness. "He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone." We have nothing to do with the hypocrisies which may exist between other people, except in so far as we know them personally; but when hypocrisy is practised upon ourselves, then the scathing word of truth may be spoken. More, however, than personal rightness is needed: there must also be moral fearlessness. Our courage is not always equal to our convictions. We know the right, and yet dare not pursue it The right word suggests itself to our lips, and our lips dare not pronounce it. What manner of persons ought we to be who profess Christ? We are not discussing common laws of social courtesy and common intercourse. We are now asking ourselves in Christ"s presence, and in the presence of his great Cross, what ought to be our sincerity, transparency, reality, as the bearers of his gracious name? If we dabble in immoral excuses, if we shuffle and wriggle, what can we expect of men who profess nothing higher than common courtesy and common conventional relationship as between man and man? Yet this is a most difficult point to carry into practice, because we may show a hypocritical love of the right; our very plainness of speech may come out of a subtle hypocrisy; and we may think to get ourselves reputation for honesty by speaking coarsely to other people. It is no easy matter this, and nothing can help us to do it with dignity and tenderness and self-distrust, with modesty and trembling, and yet with emphasis, but the indwelling, all-sanctifying Holy Ghost!
Notice the far-seeing spirit of prophecy. Jesus Christ said to the men of his day, "Esaias prophesied of you." Esaias prophesied hundreds of years before they lived. Jesus Christ says to the men of his day, "Esaias had you in his eye." Observe the unity of the moral world; observe the unchangeableness of God"s laws; see how right is ever right and wrong is ever wrong; how the centuries make no difference in the quality of righteousness, and fail to work any improvement in the deformity of evil. If any man would see himself as he really Isaiah, let him look into the mirror of Holy Scripture. God"s book never gets out of date, because it deals with eternal principles and covers the necessities of all mankind. Let us then study the word of God more closely. No man can truly know human nature, who does not read two Bibles,—namely, the Bible of God as written in the Holy Scriptures, and the Bible of God as written in his own heart and conscience. Human nature was never so expounded as it is expounded in holy writ. No man ever comes to this book without feeling that his particular case—in all the minuteness of its detail, in all the subtlety of its mystery—has been dealt with by the holy writers. We praise other books because of the knowledge of human nature which they display, and we are right in making them one standard of our admiration and applause. We delight in a writer"s power of analysing human nature, human feeling, human conduct. We say, "He knows human nature thoroughly." Therefore such writers get hold of us and carry us away captive, and rightly so. If that be a true standard of judgment at all, I bind men who have not lost all candour and all simplicity to look at the Bible in the light of their own standard. The Bible exposes the very innermost recesses of human nature; sets a light where no other hand ever placed a candle; lights up the pathways of our most secret life and thought; and we begin to feel that the first book we must shut up when we are going to do evil is God"s Book. This is the great hold, the sovereign mastery, which the Book of God has over the ages,—that it knows us, that it gives articulation to our dumb reproaches, that it puts into the best words the things which we reap against ourselves and cannot fully explain. Esaias knew us; Jeremiah has analysed and dissected and anatomised us. If any man would know the human heart, he must read the human heart in God"s Book.
Notice the high authority of the righteous censor. When Jesus Christ spoke in this case he did not speak altogether in his own name. He used the name of Esaias. All time is on the side of the righteous man; all history puts weapons into the hands of the man who would be valiant for truth. The righteous man does not draw his authority from yesterday. The credentials of the righteous man are not written with ink that is hardly dry yet. It draws from all the Past. A good man does not stand alone in his good works. The man who comes to teach truth brings a great multitude with him. The glorious company of the apostles, the goodly fellowship of the prophets, the noble army of martyrs! We are little in ourselves, in our individuality; looked at in our simple personality, we are not worthy a moment"s consideration. But the man who lifts up his voice for truth and right speaks with the sound of mighty thunderings and the impressiveness of many waters. Young preachers of the gospel, believe this. It is not your little bit of paper that you are depending upon as your authority when you enter the pulpit. Teachers of the young,—parents, in your family education,—business men, in your commercial relations,—honourable souls of all kinds, believe this:—When you speak a right word, the prophets speak through you, the apostles prolong the strain, and the grand old martyrs seal it with their blood! Thus the tiniest instrument in God"s hand becomes a match for walled cities and fortressed hosts and men who set themselves against the Lord and against his anointed. You are poor in number now, meagre in agency; but they that are for you are more than they that are against you. You seem to be alone, but you are not alone. Esaias is looking over your shoulder; Jeremiah is saying, "Be emphatic;" martyrs are crying, "Play the man for truth;" all history says, "Do not fail: this is a crisis; the right word now is a battle won." Speak it! "Be thou like the heroic Paul; if thou hast a truth to utter, speak it boldly, speak it all!"
The men whom Jesus Christ condemned were outwardly very good looking men. For example, they were very technical. They said, "The disciples do not wash their hands; this is a very sad business, and must be inquired into. They were very particular in saying how often it was to be done, which hand was to be uppermost, and how the evolution was to proceed. They were also a very critical set of men; they criticised the disciples. They were not shame-faced about their technicality; they went right up to the Master and said, "How is this?" There was courage in the men. They had a complaint, and they spoke it out clearly. Then they had great reverence; strong veneration for traditional practices, traditional customs. They did not like the Past to be altogether ignored and dishonoured; they spoke in the name of the elders. So the men were not altogether bad. They were technical, they were critical, they were traditional. Jesus turned upon them this bolt of thunder, "Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?" They never took our Lord unawares. He never had to ask for time to find a suitable weapon. He was clothed with the whole armour of God. Touch him anywhere, and his answer was instantaneous and complete. So with us. We may be technical. We may like to see the order of divine service pursued in a certain way,—first singing, then reading, then praying, then singing, then preaching. We are strong upon these points. But what if we can go home and do a sneaking action? We may be critical. We may say the preacher"s grammar was not very exact; the singing was not scientific,—there was a good deal of flatness and somewhat of discrepancy in the way in which the psalmody was conducted. Up to that point we are noble men. But what if we oppress the hireling and lay a heavy hand on the weak? We are fond of traditions. We like to talk about that "dear old minister" that died about fifty years ago; and that "nice old Christian friend" that used to do so many beautiful things. We have a great reverence for these men and their way of doing things. But what if tomorrow morning we speak a savage word to a lonely creature, and drive into despair some soul that would be thankful for one ray of light? Away with our technicality and criticism and tradition, if we are not sound at the core, right and true to great principles! Let us beware lest we strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.
Then what is to be our help in all this matter of reality? Jesus Christ must be the help of our souls. He who spoke plainly must teach us to speak plainly; he who set the example must give us strength. And he will do it We are not to speak as if we ourselves were infallible, and other people were guilty sinners. We are not to take upon us any air that savours of self-righteousness and self-satisfaction. When we speak plainly we are to speak tenderly. "Consider thyself, lest thou also be tempted." We are not to treat all men alike; we are to discriminate; we are to make a difference. On some we are to have compassion; to some men we are to speak as the lightning would speak, if it could open its lips, in the name of God; to others we are to speak as the dew would speak, could it tell all that is in its pure heart. We are to argue with some men with sternness of tone, and we are to speak to others with heartbreaking pathos. Tears are to be the secret of our power; forbearance is to be our secret of influence; and moderation is to do what exaggeration could never accomplish. We thus need a wise and understanding heart to know what to say, and especially to know how to say it, because we may ruin our cause by a tone! What, then, are we to do? We are to study Jesus Christ "Learn of me, for I am meek and lowly of heart." We are to copy his example, not only in its dignity and power and lustre, but in its condescension, humility, gentleness, tearfulness, and infinite kindness. There is a way of administering reproach which misses its very object; there is a way of speaking the right word which turns it, for all practical purposes, into the wrong word. Song of Solomon, then, it must be to Christ we come, and in Christ"s school we study. Lord, help us to speak from the height of thy Cross! Knowing the mystery of love in thy love, may our lips say the right word in the right way, and thus save souls from death and turn many to righteousness!
Almighty God, we thank thee that we have not come unto the mount that might not be touched and that burned with fire, and unto lightnings and thunders and tempests: we have come unto Mount Zion, the hill of Zion, the sacred place; drawn to it by the persuasion of thy love, hastening to it because of our need of rest. We thank thee that we live under the dispensation of thy Spirit. Now we hear the still small voice that our hearts can listen to in the darkness; and hear every tone of thy word. We have come unto the general assembly and church of the firstborn whose names are written in heaven. We rejoice that we are here. We bless thee that thou dost speak to us without the trumpet of the thunder. Thou hast a word for them that are weary and are ill at ease, and thou dost speak it silently, tenderly, graciously, so much so that thy very utterance is itself a promise and a benediction. Speak to us every one. Show us all thy will. Reveal thy commandments unto us, and show that, by thy grace, by the help of thy Holy Spirit, the yoke of Christ is easy and his burden is light. Thus shall thy commandments become our song in the house of our pilgrimage; in law we shall find rest; in the bidding of thy commandments we shall find the beginning of mercy; the deeper meaning of things will be revealed to us,—yea, by the pureness of heart wrought in us by God the Holy Ghost, we shall see God. For this vision we long; it will give brightness of view to all other things, and rightness of value; it will show us that our light affliction is but for a moment, that our pilgrimage is but one short day"s walk. O show us thyself!—not in the intolerable splendour of thy glory, but in the tenderness of thy providence, the goodness of thy dealing with us day by day; and with these visions before our soul we shall know no more the pain of anxiety, the torment of distress, but shall rest in the Lord, waiting patiently for him, and in walking in the way of thy commandments, be they great or small, we shall find peace unto our souls. We have no hope in our own prayer; we mingle it with the intercession of the One Priest, we commit it to the mystery of the mediation of Jesus Christ himself; and as the Cross is our altar, and our Saviour is our Advocate, we are assured of thy reply, thy great Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Isaiah 29". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://pro.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent