Human Life In Parable
This is a parable which by so much brings with it its own literal interpretation. With that literal interpretation we, of course, have next to nothing to do; we must look for the interpretation which involves ourselves, our opportunities, and our destinies.
"Now will I sing" ( Isaiah 5:1). That is often a suggestive expression in Holy Scripture, unless it is found in a purely poetical book, where there Isaiah, indeed, nothing but song. The song is a parable. When did Jesus Christ speak a parable that was not full of reproach, rebuke, profound and terrible judgment? Yet who expects this in a Song of Solomon, in a parable, in a picture which Isaiah, or ought to be according to our expectations, a thing of beauty? When music is made an instrument of judgment, the lesson is most pathetic and solemn. When the prophet says he will sing, we gather around him with expectant delight, for we love music: we say, In music there is no argument, and there can be no judgment: so let us come near the singing prophet, and hear the music which will elevate our imagination and do us good, without inflicting upon us the sharpness and accusation of personal criticism. The singing of Scripture is critical; the parables of Scripture are phases of judgment Is the parable of the Good Samaritan a very charming picture? To this inquiry there can be but one reply: for what can be more true to life, true to, nature in its deepest moods and finest aspirations? Yet that parable is a judgment upon the Samaritan-despising Jew: only the Son of God could have uttered it, for he had no friends when; he spoke it; he hurled this parable like a thunderbolt into the very camp of the enemy. Is the parable of the Prodigal Son a parable marked by supreme loveliness? Is it the very tenderest and largest interpretation of human nature? We may fairly answer the inquiry in a grateful affirmative. But even the parable of the Prodigal Son is a judgment; it is a judgment upon the elder brother,—that pharisaic, self-complacent, self-righteous element in life, which thinks it has only to pray in order to patronise God, and to hold up the shield of its virtue and come back every night from life"s battlefield more than conqueror. Is the parable of the Lost Sheep a parable in which there is no judgment? Verily not: it is a judgment upon all who have hard notions about the lost; it is very pitiful in one of its aspects, but it is a severe and uncompromising judgment upon those who have no room in their hearts for the penitent, the contrite, and those who truly deplore their sin. So with the songs of Scripture. The song of Deborah we have seen to be like a gathering of sabres, spears, battle instruments of every kind; verily she was a mother who judged Israel, and whose song was punctuated with instruments of war. The prophet, then, will not sing a song without words. Oftentimes the pith of the song is in the sentiment. What is mere sound but an appeal to the ear? We must hear the words, and if the words come into our hearts the more readily because of the sweetness of the Song of Solomon, rely upon it they are not expected to pass through the heart without leaving an impression behind; they are meant gracefully to summon the life to self-inquest and self-judgment. Jesus Christ spoke about the vineyard. He has two vineyard parables. The second of them is like the song of the prophet. It was so sung to those who listened that at the last they said: He means that we have wrested the vineyard from the heir; he is intending to judge us—and they gnashed their teeth in impotent rage: blessed is that parabolist who can so sing his song that the people will take up the application without any formal appeal from him: blessed is that Nathan who can so unfold his parable in the hearing of his listener that the man shall convict himself, and save Nathan the trouble of a personal appeal: blessed is that prophet who, by argument, by Song of Solomon, by appeal, by rhetoric, by eloquence, by moral feeling, can so work upon the people that at the last they will know to whom the message was delivered, and will silently accept it for further application in the silence of solitude, in the absence of tumult.
Let us see how this parable applies to us. Its whole application can be secured and understood if we look upon it as representing human life as we ourselves know it and embody it. We take away, therefore, "the house of Israel, and the men of Judah," and we put down human life in the seventh verse as the interpreting word. Now let us know how this singer can sing, and how far his notes tell upon every human nerve with judicial yet gracious effect.
Here is human life placed in a good situation, "In a very fruitful hill" ( Isaiah 5:1). Can any man justly complain that he has been placed where the sun never reaches him, and where the baptism of life is denied? Is it possible to live in a civilised country, even in the obscurest position, without feeling the whole atmosphere of civilisation operating upon the life? The metropolis itself in its great busy streets is a day-school, an academy, a university; the very windows of the great town seem to be doors that open upon temples of knowledge and wisdom; foreign lands are focalised in the great cities of any civilised country, and an intangible and immeasurable something testifies that the whole air is pregnant with educational influences, and we have but to open ourselves to their reception and yield ourselves to their operations to become educated,—not in some technical, pedantic, or literary sense, but, still, led out, enlarged, stimulated, and qualified every day to use a broader and keener faculty than yesterday was at our service. Charles Kingsley says a walk along the streets of London is an intellectual tonic. The city-born has an advantage which the pure rustic cannot have, and the pure rustic has his advantages which the city-born cannot enjoy within the limits of the metropolis. All nature sings: the whole heaven is an infinite picture-gallery: all the fields have gospels according to themselves;—blessed is the hearing ear, for every bird shall be an evangel, and all nature shall be lighted up so as to illuminate and gladden the soul. We might dwell on the other side of the picture; but would that be wholly just? Have we not had advantages? Some have had grievous disadvantages and burdens too heavy to carry. What men they might have been had their chance been equal with the chance which others have enjoyed! By nature how endowed, how quick of eye, how responsive of heart, how ready of faculty! and yet they have been mewed up, or crushed down, or trodden upon, so that they have had no opportunity equal to their native endowment. But consult them, and they have a grateful answer to the inquiry, Have you not been placed in a favourable situation? They could see where the situation might have been enlarged and improved, where some aspect might have been sunnier, and where some opportunity might have been larger; but they say, Thank God, we have not been left without opportunity and blessing and inspiration, and if we have failed we dare not, in simple justice, blame our Creator and God. Have we been faithful to our advantages?
Here is human life as the subject of detailed care:—
"And he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also made a winepress therein" ( Isaiah 5:2).
Then he stood back and waited like a husbandman. The vineyard was upon a hill, and therefore could not be ploughed. How blessed are those vineyards that are cultivated by the hand! There is a magnetism in the hand of love that you cannot have in an iron plough. He gathered out the stones thereof one by one... he fenced... he built... he made a winepress. It is handmade. Your mechanics and your manufactures have their value, but the aged will tell you that there is a singular charm about the house-goods that were handmade; they take them up so lovingly, and say, These were hand-sewn; these were made at home.
There is a peculiar delight in rightly accepting the handling of God. We are not cultivated by the great ploughs of the constellations and the laws of nature; we are handled by the Living One, our names are engraven on the palms of his hands: "The right hand of the Lord doeth gloriously." Human life, then, is the subject of detailed care; everything, how minute soever, is done as if it were the only thing to be done; every man feels that there is a care directed to him which might belong to an only son. We speak of One who is God"s only begotten and wellbeloved Song of Solomon, and he must ever retain that primacy and distinctiveness; yet there is another sense in which every man may say he is treated as if he were God"s only child, and on him is lavished an infinitude of divine grace, and care, and love. So with every flower that blooms: the tiniest of the floral tribe could say, It needed all the solar system to grow me: I am not some little thing flung in without signature or trace of care; it required all that the greatest oak in Bashan needed to bring me to my grade of perfection. What has been left undone of the nature of care that we can point out, and concerning which we can with justice question God? What have we? Reason, feeling, imagination, nurture for the body, care for the soul, alphabets like doors opening upon all languages, and a Book that combines within its limits all libraries, and then promises entrance into the high school, the academy of heaven. Let us reckon up our advantages, make an inventory of them; be careful about each line, omitting nothing, and setting down everything in a clear and visible hand; and add the running figures into a sum-total, and stand amazed before the last astounding result of grace and care. Look at any one joint in your body, and see all God"s power in that easy movement. Point to one thing on which God"s signature is not written as attesting the greatness of his creatorship and the minuteness of his care and love.
Human life is next regarded as the object of a just expectation:—
He looked that it should bring forth grapes" ( Isaiah 5:2).
Why not? Had he not a right to do so? Is there not a sequence of events? When men sow certain seed, have they not a right to look for a certain crop? When they pass through certain processes in education, or in commerce, or in statesmanship, have they not a right to expect that the end should correspond with the beginning? Who likes to lose all his care? Whose heart does not break when he thinks that all he has done has ended in nothing? He worked hard, he sacrificed his own indulgence, he pinched himself at many a point to give his child a good schooling; he secretly said, I have no money to leave the boy, but he shall have all the education I can give him, and then, perhaps, he may make a man of himself under the blessing of God; and when if at the last it comes to failure, shame, ruin, whose heart does not break under the awful consequence? There are just expectations in life. Has a minister no such expectations? Having spent his days in study and his nights in prayer, and having planned his life in order to teach, encourage, and comfort his people,—if at the last they are broken staves in his hand, which pierce him when in his old age he leans upon them, the bitterness of death is doubled by such painful disappointment and such shameful ingratitude. The principle runs throughout society. From certain beginnings certain endings may be calculated, and the calculation is rational and just.
See, in the next place, human life as the occasion of a bitter disappointment. "It brought forth wild grapes" ( Isaiah 5:2). Then, what have circumstances to do with the development of life? The circumstances in this case were perfect, the environment was divine in its scope and its adaptation. Let us read again the words which describe the vineyard: "My wellbeloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill: and he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also made a winepress therein." And having done all that hands could do he waited. This is God"s attitude. Having set up the Cross of his Son in the midst of the ages, and having preached the gospel to every creature, all that even the Almighty could do is to wait. In this instance he waited, and in due season he went for the grapes, and he saw that his vineyard brought forth wild grapes. Have we had no experience of the same kind? Without going into the lives of others, let us hold severest inquest upon our own lives. What has been the issue of all our education and opportunity, all our gracious fellowships, and all the inspiration which has blessed our lives? Are we to-day further on in all goodness and strength than we were, say, ten years ago? Are we as impatient, as fretful, as resentful, as sensitive to all slight, neglect, and injury as we used to be? or are we loftier in mind, larger in thought, fuller in charity, more hopeful regarding the worst, more Christlike? It is for each man to answer these judgment questions for himself and to himself. We may lose great advantage if we make public confession about these things. Sometimes it is well to sit down at our own judgment-seat, receive the sentence, and quietly ponder it in a silence so deep as to be almost religious.
Does God encounter all this with anger? Not until he has uttered himself in surprise and grief:—
"What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it?" ( Isaiah 5:4).
God asks, as it were, whether he can blame himself; whether anything has escaped Omniscience; whether he has failed in blessing that might have resulted in abundance of luscious fruit: then mentally he goes over the whole situation; he remembers the selection of the hill, the fencing, the gathering-out of the stones, the planting of the choicest vine, the building of the tower in the midst of it, and the erection of the winepress; and as he reads the history of his own doings he seems to challenge the vineyard and the universe to suggest one omission. Let me judge myself! Could anything more have been done for me than has been done? I am constrained to answer, There has been nothing lacking on the part of God. It is not for me to compare myself with other men, and to say their advantages have been greater than mine; possibly that may be so; yet I have had advantages enough to have brought forth an abundance of grateful fruit How much have I produced? Are mine lifeless branches? Are my grapes wild grapes? These are the questions that tear the life, these the songs the music of which we forget in the terribleness of their judgment. But this is healthy investigation; this is the kind of heart-searching which, if properly received, ends in edification. We cannot repent sooner than to-day; behold, now is the accepted time for repentance; now is the chosen hour for the real improvement of our innermost life.
Who can read the fifth and sixth verses in the right tone? Is there any teacher of elocution who can tell us how to read these verses? The first suggestion is that they should be read with a rending, strident, judging voice, made keen with reproach; then the second suggestion is whether they may not be so read as to indicate the welling-up of hot tears, the feeling of sobbing grief.
"And now go to; I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down: and I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned, nor digged; but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it" ( Isaiah 5:5-6).
Are these merely objurgatory sentences, and have they to be read as with the stormy wind of indignant judgment? Is not every word a tear? There is a judgment that is gracious; there are sentences full of awful suggestion which owe their graciousness to their awfulness. God will not allow the nominal advantage to stand without the spiritual advantage following. The church must be pulled down if the people are not praying in it Do not let stand a lie in stone and plaster. If the church is within itself a falsehood, take down the honest stones, and do not make them parties to high treason! This is just to ill-used nature. Where "Ichabod" is on the door take the portals down; unroof the deconsecrated sanctuary, and by so much restore the honour of the altar as to cast it down, and throw back the stones into the quarry whence they were brought. Life is given for culture. It is not the best at the first; it has to be fenced, and the stones are to be taken out, and the choice vine is to be planted, and the tower is to be set in the midst of it, and the winepress is to be built therein. The child is but the beginning; the man should be the cultivated result. Culture is bestowed for fruit Culture is not given for mere decoration, ornamentation, or for the purpose of exciting attention, and invoking and securing applause; the meaning of culture, ploughing, digging, sowing is—fruit, good fruit, usable fruit, fruit for the healing of the nations. The fruit for which culture is bestowed is moral. God looked for judgment and God looked for righteousness. We have not been trained to be intellectual athletes, to be great mental gladiators, vexing one another with emulous skill and energy, each equal to the other, so that the fight keeps in an even balance, and none can tell the end of the rivalry; the meaning of all reading, experience, suffering, prayer, singing, Christian fellowship is fruit, of judgment and of righteousness. The moral appeal of the Scripture proves the inspiration of the Bible. Even a parable is not a creation of fancy ending in a rainbow-like beauty; it is more beautiful than any rainbow, yet it indicates promise, covenant, righteousness, and issue of goodness.
Mark how discriminating is the judgment of God—"He looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes." They were grapes, but not the right sort; there was no denying that they were the fruit of the vine, but the grapes were wild, they were not the right quality, they were bitter with disappointment, they were small, sapless, savourless, useless; they were unequal to the occasion; they did not correspond with their environment, their conditions, their opportunities: they were an irony which God could not tolerate—what if he crushed them in his hand, and threw them from him with anger, disappointment, and bitterest grief? It is not enough that we bear grapes or fruit; we must keep in mind that quality is the end of conduct; that character will be judged not simply as character, but as involving elements of righteousness, truth, justice, love, purity—the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, meekness, charity—all these. Oh, blessed Husbandman, Vine-dresser of thy creatures, when thou comest may we be in a position to give thee much fruit, for herein is our Father glorified!
Sin and Judgment
We find similar maledictions pronounced by Jesus Christ in the sixth chapter of Luke. In the earlier prophecies there is no precedent or parallel to these pronouncements of woe. Where heaven is so angry there must be some reason for the anger; it is our business to endeavour to discover that reason, and inquire into our own relation towards it.
"Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!" ( Isaiah 5:8).
In order to understand this we must remember the conditions of life in Northern Palestine at the time when these woes were pronounced. It was village life: men had little freeholds of their own: it was a life marked by small proprietorships; almost every man had some little patch of vineyard. The disposition, however, was to do away with small proprietories, and for the greater men to grasp all the land, so that Palestine might have its great landlords; and so urgently did this spirit assert itself that even the little freeholders of Palestine were in many cases forced into a position of slavery, and made to toil as slaves on the lands which they once honestly owned and hopefully cultivated. This was seen by some one—blessed be God! whoever he was, he was just—and he cried: "Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!"—the men who swallowed up all who were smaller than themselves, and who grasped at everything with an insatiable and inappeasable voracity. All things went down before that spirit of covetousness. That Isaiah, as some one has well termed it, the dry drunkenness; the appetite that drinks everything, and whose thirst is never quenched. The Lord had always been careful about the boundaries of little property. We have studied Deuteronomy 19:14 : "Thou shalt not remove thy neighbour"s landmark, which they of old time have set in thine inheritance, which thou shalt inherit in the land that the Lord thy God giveth thee to possess it." But at the time to which the prophecy of Isaiah refers landmarks went for nothing; the Titanic landlord was coming down to add field to field, perish who might in the gratification of his covetousness. There was a law of debt amongst the ancient people—a very beautiful and gracious law. When Nehemiah went to inquire into the condition of the people at the time referred to in his Book, he found them in sad plight—"Some also there were that said, We have mortgaged our lands, vineyards, and houses, that we might buy corn, because of the dearth"—we have practically parted with the very last patch of land we had that we might simply keep the wolf from the door. "There were also that said, We have borrowed money for the king"s tribute, and that upon our lands and vineyards:" the taxes were so high that we could not pay them out of our earnings, and therefore we have had to borrow to pay the tax-gatherer. "Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children: and, lo, we bring into bondage our sons and our daughters to be servants, and some of our daughters are brought unto bondage already: neither is it in our power to redeem them; for other men have our lands and vineyards." Now read the judgment in the light of these explanations. Consider the state of the land at the time; then hear this voice, and say whether it come from hell or heaven: "Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!" Whose voice is that? We need not ask questions regarding the inspiration of a book whose tone is thus so broadly moral, so loftily just, so minutely careful of the rights of little men—little, hard-working, industrious, frugal freeholders. How strong is the Bible in its moral majesty! Why do not men begin at that point when they inquire into the merits of the Book? Why will they fix upon antiquities, chronologies, the distribution of the books in their relation to one another? Why do they not fasten upon the judgment spirit that is in the Book, and acquaint themselves with the moral purpose of the Revelation, and then work their way to all outermost and incidental things?
Is God content with pronouncing these judgments? He says:—
"In mine ears said the Lord of hosts, Of a truth many houses shall be desolate, even great and fair, without inhabitant. Yea, ten acres of vineyard shall yield one bath, and the seed of an homer shall yield an ephah" ( Isaiah 5:9, Isaiah 5:10.)
There is where the Lord has his hold upon these mighty people: they can get the land, but they cannot ensure the crops. After all, there is a mysterious Power that holds things in its great grip. The great landlords have added field to field, and house to house, and driven off the small proprietors, and now they are going to have everything their own way; and they sow their acres, and their acres will not bring forth fruit. The bath is about seven gallons and a half; the acre was ground that could be ploughed in a day by a yoke of oxen; a homerwas about thirty-two pecks, and an ephah was about a tenth of that quantity. Song of Solomon, when men looked for a good amount of produce, behold, they had one-tenth of it! It is curious to observe the operation of a law. Success won as these men won it is like a bird with one wing—it can only flap and flutter, but never fly. The Lord looked down from heaven, and saw the avaricious men taking the little vineyard from Naboth, removing the landmark, despoiling the small proprietors; he saw these "successful" men fattening themselves in their prosperity, and heard their infamous chuckle as they supposed themselves to have accomplished their malign purpose. What hold has God upon the land? He has all the hold at the end which we call the crop or the harvest; he will command the clouds that they rain not upon the illgotten land; he will make the land a burden to those who have too much of it, and who have got it unjustly. A man cannot have too much of anything if he gathers it justly as the fruit of industry, and well-expended mind, and care, and thought; but when all his gettings are but so many successes of injustice, the land that he boasts of shall become a burden to him, and he will cry one day, Who will take it off my hands? When the harvests are bad for ten years running men begin to think about causes, and though it may be possible for superstition to push the inquiry too far, and into obviously unjustifiable exaggerations, yet he is no foolish man who bethinks himself whether after all there may not lie behind the most material facts a moral mystery. Again we say, How great is the moral majesty of the Bible! When has judgment forsaken the earth? At what time has there been no sign of the divine Presence, or the divine care? All history testifies to God"s presence.
After all this grasping what happens?
"Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that continue until night, till wine inflame them!" ( Isaiah 5:11).
After injustice comes luxury. Bad men, though they cannot calculate upon the next harvest with any certainty, will eat and drink as though they could. It is matter of history that oftentimes the morning revel was continued until the evening debauch. The whole land was given up to evil banqueting—to eating and drinking damnation. "Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink"—the drink made out of honey and dates, the poisonous Egyptian beer, that inflamed men"s blood, and killed any spark of divinity that might be in them. Beginning the day with intoxication! That was an ancient habit; is there ought of the kind to-day? Have we not sometimes seen young men leaving the tavern so early as ten o"clock in the morning? Have we not seen women, who ought to be the saviours of the world, drying their lips on the tavern step ere well the sun be risen? The fascination of evil, how subtle, how mighty, how tremendous! The appetite that is within us, how often uncontrollable! how it takes no heed of decency! how it sinks into Sodomic shamelessness! An officer was commended to King Alphonso as a man who could drink much, and retain what he drank. Said the king, "That is an excellent quality in a sponge, but not in a man." May we not learn from those who are philosophical observers of history, if we care not to consult the fanatical moralists and pietists who may be under the influence of superstition? Mahomet said, "In every grape there dwells a devil." This is no hallucination of the modern mind, with its fine-spun ethics, and its new philanthropy, and its moral veneer and conventional appearance. If the devil has been a liar and a murderer from the beginning, so has strong drink; it has no good history; its whole record is a bad one. Mark the pampering of the animal life. The whole nature went down. Only one appetite was served and satisfied—if that can be satisfied which grows by what it feeds on. Can a man cultivate his animal life and his spiritual life at the same time? All history says that such a course of conduct is simply impossible. It comes in the issue to one of two things: either the body must conquer, or the soul must conquer. Grieve not the Spirit: quench not the Spirit. It is possible to slay God within the soul.
The destruction of religion follows all this extinction of the finest aspirations of the human heart and mind. You cannot attack moral nobility at any point without involving the whole altar of worship and sacrifice and redemption. What is the consequence religiously? That is pointed out in the twelfth verse:—
"And the harp, and the viol, the tabret, and pipe, and wine, are in their feasts: but they regard not the work of the Lord, neither consider the operation of his hands." ( Isaiah 5:12)
We cannot be both animal and spiritual, gross and refined, satisfying the appetites of the body and gratifying the aspirations of the soul. It is recorded of some that they were so afraid of the lightning and the thunder that they not only closed their eyes to hide themselves from the vision of the playful fire, but they brought out all their musical instruments, as drums and trumpets and tabrets, to quell the infinite reverberating of the thunder. But who can silence the artillery of the clouds? Yet men are every day trying to shut out the voice of judgment from the ear by making grievous noises of their own. The people did not regard the work of the Lord, they took no heed of it: the heavens were not fields of starry beauty or solar parable to them, for their bloodshot eyes never looked at the empyrean, at the infinite circle of glory; and the whole earth, with all its carpeting of flowers, was nothing to them but a place to be thrust into at the last when flesh and blood could no longer stand erect. What was the consequence? "Therefore my people are gone into captivity" ( Isaiah 5:13). Not immediately, but morally, and in reality. Find sin in one verse, and you find captivity in the next. Still the Bible maintains its grand moral position, its unrivalled supremacy. Who ever sins goes into bondage. Not only they are in bondage who are shut up within thick walls, and who are condemned to spend the remainder of their days in iron cages; they are in captivity who have voices within them asking for evil things to which they cannot say no. They may drive to their banqueting in chariots of gold drawn by steeds of finest mettle, but they are galloping only to their prison. If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed; if you have a conscience void of offence toward God and toward man you cannot be in prison, you cannot tell the meaning of abridged liberty; you have a glorious freedom. He who is good may walk the earth a free Prayer of Manasseh, though he have but little to eat and nowhere to lay his head. Character is freedom; pureness is liberty; to have few wants is to be rich; to be master of yourself is to be conqueror of the world. These great laws never alter: why do not men fix their attention upon these, and gather around the Bible to say, This is none other than the living word of the living God, keeping the ages pure, and guaranteeing for moral greatness ultimate establishment and coronation? Men go into captivity when they go into sin.
Mark the ruin, note the havoc:—
"Therefore hell hath enlarged herself, and opened her mouth without measure: and their glory, and their multitude, and their pomp, and he that rejoiceth, shall descend into it" ( Isaiah 5:14).
What other picture can compare with this for lurid vividness? Let us change the word "hell," and substitute what is probably the literal meaning of the prophet—Therefore the under-world, the Hadean sphere, the world of shadows, hath enlarged herself, and opened her mouth without measure. Even if we get rid of what to many minds is the objectionable word "hell" in its common meaning, yet the place that does enlarge itself is the under-space; it is the sphere of the pit; it is the realm of nightly shadows. How graphic the suggestion that sin is so multiplying on the surface of the earth that all the under-world must enlarge itself to accommodate the thronging and multiplying populations that eat the bread of dishonesty and drink distilled damnation! Think of the process in its whole operation; imagine some spectral voice saying, The evil under-world rulers expect a thousand more men in by the end of the month. Or, Ere the year closes you will need to redouble your accommodation, for the world gets madder: evil is on the steps of the throne, evil is in the house of beggary, the aristocracy are corrupted through and through, and all the original space leading to Hadean places will be crowded, and men will be hurrying down in thousands, as if urged on by the whip of a cruel destiny; be ready! That is the image of the text. All glory and pomp shall be swallowed up. There is a spirit of doom in the universe. Bless God! Tell the devil-ridden aristocrat that he can do what he likes, that he will die with his own dog, and may be buried in the same ditch, and you do but heat his already fevered blood, and take out of his voice the last token of fair manliness. Tell the whole world that the spirit of judgment rules, and that at the end all illgotten property, glory, pomp, is eternal darkness, and you may touch a wholesome fear. It may be the meanest of all appeals that addresses itself to terror, yet so constituted is the human mind that the ministry of fear will always occupy an important position in the education of the world.
Then comes the time of restoration and vindication:—
"But the Lord of hosts shall be exalted in judgment, and God that is holy shall be sanctified in righteousness. Then shall the lambs feed after their manner, and the waste places of the fat ones shall strangers eat" ( Isaiah 5:16-17).
A beautiful pastoral image! We have seen how the great owners proceeded in their acquisition of land more and more until they excluded the small proprietors; but now the time has come when the lambs shall feed after their manner. All the park walls shall be torn down, and all the land that was enclosed for the purpose of hunting game shall be thrown open, and all the little lambs shall feed as they used to do when every little flockmaster had his patch of grass for his little pastoral family: the gilt-headed palings shall be torn up and cast into the furnace; and all the walls that shut out the poor so that they could not see a little green grass or a few flowers shall be shaken from beneath—not their topstones thrown down, but their foundations heaved up, and the earth shall cast them off as a nuisance, an incubus intolerable; and the landlords shall get back again all their pastoral lands: Palestine shall yet be the land of the people. God is the great Landlord; the earth is the Lord"s, and we hold rightly what we hold as his gift; what he has given us we may accept and cultivate, and make it right beautiful for him, and when the harvest smiles in its golden abundance let us give the first sheaf to him, saying, The firstfruits be thine, thou Giver of the bread of man; then shall the earth yield her increase, then shall the spade hardly leave the soil it has tilled until the answering ground blushes with flowers or enriches itself with an abundance of wheat.
The evildoers shall not be changed; they will go on, drawing iniquity with cords of vanity, and sin as it were with a cart rope. The idea is that men harness themselves to sin, and drag the black chariot after them with madness. May we know nothing of this but as a historical picture!
Then the prophet denounces those who are mighty to drink wine, and men of strength mingle strong drink. There are bad heroisms. We talk of men being heroic: what in? Read:—
"Woe unto them that are mighty to drink wine, and men of strength to mingle strong drink" ( Isaiah 5:22).
They are strong men, they have an abundance of faculty, they are the devil"s heroes, they do not things with half-heart or with reluctant hands; when they drink they drink like strong men, and when they fall they fall with a thud upon the resounding earth—giants have fallen; mighty men have lost their standing. Oh, pitiful thought, that we may be great in sin, great in wickedness, prime ministers of perdition, leaders and captains in hosts of darkness; better be the least in the kingdom of heaven. That is honour; that is a blessed immortality.
Almighty God, thou art glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders. Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, who was, and Isaiah, and is to come. We hear the voice of thy Son saying unto us, Be ye holy, as your Father in heaven is holy: without holiness no man shall see the Lord. Who can work in us this miracle of purity but thyself, thou mighty One, whose left hand is as his right, and whose hands are filled with omnipotence? Thou canst make us pure, for thou hast the spirit of judgment and the spirit of burning, and whatsoever we need for our sanctification thou hast, at thy disposal. Holy Spirit, baptize us as with fire; Holy Ghost, descend upon us as in the pentecostal hour. See how far we lag behind, how much we need that we might have had: we have neglected our opportunities; we have sinned away even to the closing moment, the day of mercy; yet whilst light lingers in the western sky there is surely time to repent and return, and cry unto the Lord for his mercy, and put our trust in the Cross. Hear us when we pray; hear us when we ask for pity; hear us and answer us when our cry is for pardon. There is pardon at the Cross; its great name is written in blood; it stands above all other superscriptions, traced by the finger of God. Help us to forsake our way and our thought, wicked and unrighteous, and to return unto the Lord with open face, and eyes beaming with expectation though stained with tears; then shall we receive an abundance of pardon, like wave upon wave rolling in upon the shore. Wherein we have been pardoned, and have entered into the mystery of the better and upper life, may we grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in all saintliness and strength of character, that we may be like the Saviour in our degree. May we remember what the fruits of the Spirit are, and renouncing all vanity, self-conceit, pride, and personal assurance, as if we could do anything by our own might, may we strive to bring forth those blessed fruits, and thus make the Lord of the vineyard glad. But the east wind is so blighting, the cold nights are so long, and the destroyer is so wakeful and so pitiless, that oftentimes the blossom is broken off, and our best aspirations never come to fruitfulness. But thou knowest all the tale of human strife and human evolution and human progress, and if thou dost hear our sigh for a better life, a wider and nobler existence, that sigh thou wilt regard as victory; thou wilt hear us and answer us, and some night even, or at the crowing of the cock, thou wilt come, and on us there will rest the unconsuming flame of Christ"s own glory. In this hope we live; in this hope no man can ever die. Amen.
"Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"The mean man shall be brought down (low)."— Isaiah 5:15
How is this possible? Is not the mean man brought low already? To be mean is to be low. What then can be the import of the text? The meaning is that there are always lower depths which may be realised. Even the mean man may daily become meaner. There is a reversion to type that is intellectual and spiritual, as well as merely biological. We have never yet realised how truly mean we may become. The way from anger to meanness is more than one step long. Little by little we go down. Easy is the descent of Avernus; easy is the descent from one degree of meanness to another. A man may not all at once cease to give his shilling to the sanctuary; he may divide it, and subdivide it, and bring down the last donation to so fine a point that it is hardly distinguishable between something and nothing. Or, if we put the text in another light, it is still full of significance. Suppose, for example, that a mean man has been exalted to office: he will soon prove by his meanness that he is unworthy of his elevation, and consequently he will be brought down by the common consent of those who know him best. Suppose that a man should not have been known to be mean because of the skill of his hypocrisy; yet in due time his meanness shall be made obvious, and it shall work his ruin. By meanness we are not to understand poverty of external circumstance; we are to understand moral meanness; that servility of soul which is absolutely without dignity; that poverty of intellect which never contemplates the necessity of the value of other men. There is no hope of meanness. There is hope of wickedness; where there is no hope of real negativeness of character. How seldom is meanness pointed out as a great defect or as a reason for disfellowship on the part of those who are themselves honourable. We expel the drunkard, but not the miser. We expel the adulterer, but not the mean man. The fact is that in meanness there may be infinitely more sin than in any single crime against society that can be named. Publish it abroad, speak it loudly, and with unhesitating emphasis, that the law of the Lord is against meanness, and that all the midnight heavens are in eternal warfare against things that are wanting in the quality of pureness and love.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Isaiah 5". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://pro.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent