Phases of Divine Purpose
This is confessedly a chapter most difficult of interpretation. It is evidently detached from some other chapter; the opening word suggests this; that opening word is "Nevertheless." Let us read the last verse of the preceding chapter:—
"And they shall look unto the earth; and behold trouble and darkness, dimness of anguish; and they shall be driven to darkness" ( Isaiah 8:22).
"Nevertheless the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at the first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations." ( Isaiah 9:1)
The idea is that the whole land of Israel had seen the extreme point of distress and desolation, and that hereafter the gloom was to disappear, and the full light would shine upon the very land which had been clouded with despair. The ablest translation of the first verse would seem to be this: "Surely there was no gloom to her that was afflicted. In the former time he brought shame on the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali; but in the latter he bringeth honour on the way by the sea, beyond Jordan, the circuit of the Gentiles." The Revised Version makes no substantial difference in the translation. "Zebulun"—what association have we with that word? We have read it somewhere. Was it not in the Gospels, whilst we were perusing the record of the life of Christ upon the earth? Zebulun and the land of Naphtali were the parts afterwards known as Upper and Lower Galilee. Under this designation we seem to know both localities familiarly. Was not Nazareth in Zebulun? and was not our Lord called a Nazarene? Who shall say that there are not mysteries in Providence—things we pass by at the time, but upon which we recur with larger delight, fuller intelligence, and greater capacity of spiritual understanding? This is always occurring in the history of the world. Again and again we come upon such expressions as, "Then remembered they." For the time being the incident had lost recollection, it had quite departed from the memory; but some other incident arose which had a resurrectional effect upon the past: "When, therefore, he was risen from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this unto them." So history is the interpreter of history; we must take the present as a lamp to hold over the far past. Tomorrow will interpret a good deal of what has happened under the darkness of to-day. The land of Zebulun and of Naphtali was to be the focal point of divine wealth and blessing.
"The sea,"—what sea? The Bible is often elliptical in its references. It says "the river," as if every one knew what river was meant; as if there were but one great river rolling through the earth: it need not be named, surely some intelligence must be assumed on the part of the reader and the hearer. And now we read of "the sea": a wonderful sea; not large, but full of association, full of history,—the "sea" we have known from the beginning of our study, called the sea of Chinnereth in Numbers 34:11, the sea of Galilee and the sea of Tiberias in John vi. i, and Gennesaret in Mark 6:53. Names change, but the old waters roll in their old channels, not knowing that men are giving them fancy-names, battling about them, and determining great imperial and political rights by the banks within which they flow. Men have named the stars, and so singularly are we constituted that we find it sometimes difficult to dissociate the name from the planet; so we say, with a show of great learning and familiarity, That is Mars and that is Venus, and yonder solemn eye that seems to survey the whole field of night is Jupiter. We imagine that these stars will recognise their own names; whereas they would be as steady in their places, as faithful in their revolutions, if we took their names away and addressed them no more. The nightingale does not sing because we listen. A wondrous independence there is in nature,—an independence that sometimes affrights us, for we are accustomed to think ourselves of importance, and that the sun rises to hear the song of chanticleer. It is not so. Have not many truths had fancy names given to them? If men have named rivers, and seas, and continents, and stars, may they not have named dogmas, principles, truths, philosophies, doctrines? and may we not have come to understand that the one is the other, and that if the name be interfered with, the planetary truth is disturbed on its throne? Oh that men were wise!
"As in the day of Midian" ( Isaiah 9:4). What day was that? We have read about it, and we ought to know the reference. The victory of Gideon over the Midianites was one of the most conspicuous instances of valour and military success in all Biblical history, the record of which is to be found in Judges 8:24-27. Great historical events should abide thus; old history should not be lost. Men make little phrases of this kind like refrains to a song—"As in the day of Midian." That is the right use of history. The God that enabled me to kill the lion and the bear will make this uncircumcised Philistine a child in my hands: the Lord that gave me victory in the day of Midian will enable me to set my foot upon the neck of every foe. Turn history into music; turn solemn memories into joyous inspirations, and thus make yesterday supply bread for to-day"s hunger.
In the fifth verse we read:—
"For every battle of the warrior is with confused noise, and garments rolled in blood; but this shall be with burning and fuel of fire." ( Isaiah 9:5)
It has been submitted that a better rendering is this: "Every boot of the warrior that tramps noisily and the cloak rolled in blood shall be for burning as fuel for fire." The soldier wears his tall boot, and as his foot comes down on the earth he makes it ring again; and hearing an army pass by who would suppose that the earth will survive the cruel tramp? Religious inspiration lifts men so high as to enable them to despise the pomp and circumstance of war; every boot of the warrior that tramps noisily, and the cloak rolled in blood, which men would gather up and preserve in museums, and show to admiring ages, shall be gathered up by the hand of time and thrust into the middle of the hottest fire. All such relics were made for burning. In our patriotic folly, our exuberant and intoxicated zeal, we gather the boots of warriors, and the cloaks of conquerors, and the tattered banners of famous fields, and all but worship them: underneath the whole pile should be written, "These are for burning as fuel for fire."
Let us now, advancing from these points of criticism, look at some of the abiding doctrines and illustrations suggested by this noblest effort of the prophet"s imagination. Isaiah"s wing never takes a higher flight than it does in this prevision of the centuries. Observe, the divine purpose has never been satisfied, if we may so say, with darkness, judgment, desolation; the Lord has never said, I have made an end of that wicked world, and now, having blotted it out of the firmament, I shall be at peace. Judgment is his strange work. He never turns aside from a crushed sinner, saying, There is the proof of my omnipotence; I will return to that place: the sinner withers under my curse. Nothing of the kind ever occurs in the record of what we may call the divine experience. When God has judged a man he would seem to return to see what effect the judgment has had, if haply he may find some sign of awakening feeling of loyalty and filial submission. When God cuts down a tree he says, Perhaps it may sprout again; the poor little offending shrub must have another chance. God delights not in judgment, destruction, punishment; he has no pleasure in death. What, then, has been God"s feeling? It has been always a feeling of solicitude and yearning to bless the nations, saying, How can I surprise them with fuller light? how can I amaze them with redundance of gladness? I will dig about the tree and do what in me lies, to nurture it, and strengthen it, and culture it; next year it may bear fruit. This is the spirit of the divine gospel; this is the meaning of the whole plan of Providence. We shall do wrong it we suppose that pity comes in only with the historical Christ, that compassion was born on Christmas Day. Every deed of God in relation to man holds within itself the Cross and priesthood of Christ; so far will we go in accepting all the mystery of evolution. Keeping within the circle which we know as the human circle, we are prepared to say that in every providence there is a Calvary, in every deed of love there is the beginning and pledge of an atonement, on the largest scale, involving the destiny of the race. Doth not the goodness of God lead you to repentance? Destruction was easy: restoration is the difficulty. It is nothing to perform a miracle of darkness. For that miracle God has but to withhold the sun. But how to keep the sun in his place; how to preserve the monotony of graciousness, the permanence of goodness; how to run the days into one another, so that at last they shall be a piece of tesselated mercy and compassion, a mosaic wrought by invisible fingers, and meant to impress the observer with a sense of design, Wisdom of Solomon, love,—that is the infinite difficulty. God has persevered, so to say, in this course—restoring men"s souls, keeping the universe together, avoiding all sensationalism of phenomenon and of action, and so continuing things that men of an evil spirit have said, Where is the promise of his coming? for all things continue as they were; we see the heavens as the fathers saw them, and the earth is still in her place. So the perverse mind has turned the very permanence of divine goodness into an objection to the fulfilment of divine promises. Let us seize the solemn, central, eternal truth, that whatever God does in relation to this earth he does with a view to its recovery, its restoration, its reinstatement in the household of the stars.
The divine movement amongst the nations has always expressed itself under the contrast of light and darkness:—
"The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined" ( Isaiah 9:2).
No contrast can be more striking; therefore this is the one God has chosen whereby to represent the divine movement: God is associated with light, and all evil is associated with darkness. What is light? Only those who have been long in darkness know what the morning is. It is nothing to those who go to rest healthily, and passing through a dreamless sleep, open their eyes to find that nature has been busy all the time, and that all things are to-day as they were yesterday. Men who sleep and rise so know nothing about the light. Could a Prayer of Manasseh, who has been ten years blind, receive his sight, he would go almost mad with grateful joy as he beheld the light: for the light is everywhere; it is in the flower, it is in the air, it is in every human face; it is the mystery that works itself into the whole economy and relation of being; it is the secret of most things, it is the interpreter of all: God is light. Only renewed men know what sin is. Whilst we are in the sin we do not know it; we have wrought ourselves into a shameful familiarity with it, so that even sin, which ought to be the miracle of all time, becomes the commonplace of history. Let a man once see what sin really Isaiah, and escape from it by the grace of God, and he will tell you what he has passed through in language that will appear to be an exaggeration to men who have not had similar experience. Only those who have been the servants of evil can read such a book as Bunyan"s "Grace Abounding," and can understand many of the ancient spiritual writers. The elder brother could not understand the feasting, the music, and the dancing; he had always been at home; his monotony was broken in upon: here is a miracle of joy, and he is not in the atmosphere; he has no vital relation to all the process; it is to him noise, tumult, folly, an act of gross misconception on the part of his father. The prodigal understood it all; now he listened to the music with new attention; now he joined in the dance, not as in the revel of debauchery, but as in a religious exercise; the music might be the same, the whirl of the dance unchanged in any movement; it is the spirit that transforms and elevates all the actions of life. Did we really know the meaning of this blessing of spiritual light we should be touched into music, as in the ancient fable the rising sun made the stones sing and quiver as with joy. Isaiah feels that all this is coming upon the earth; he says in effect, This is the kingdom—who is the king? The fulfilment of the divine purpose has ever been associated with incarnation, idealised humanity. There has always been some coming One. Sometimes we have almost seen him upon the historic page,—"A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you,"—and instantly imagination is fired, and the whole sphere of human sensibility is excited to a new sensitiveness, as if the prophet might be coming to-day. Who is this king-priest, bearded, solemn-eyed, calm, majestic? What is thy name, O thou father amongst men? "My name is Melchizedek."—Tell me thy name this dark night, thou wrestling angel! But the name was not given; only the suppliant"s name was changed into larger meaning. Still, there is the spectral, the Melchizedek-type of the true Melchizedek; a prophet that is coming, "like unto me," yet unlike—a larger self, an idealised Moses. And then in the Psalm he hath promised his Son. Is there a Song of Solomon, Child? Then, again, "Kiss the Son." Where is he? Is he born? Does he live? Has any man seen him? "Melchizedek," "Prophet," "Angel," " Song of Solomon,"—the meaning is that there is yet to be a birth in history, to-morrow or a thousand ages hence;—that all creation travails, groans, sighs, and in its sighing says, The right man has not yet come; he is coming. It was given to some men to see the day afar off. Isaiah said:—
"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counseller, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace" ( Isaiah 9:6).
It is not necessary to suppose that the prophet knew the literal meaning of his own words. He is but a poor preacher who knows all that he has said in his sermon. Had Isaiah done Song of Solomon, he would be no longer the contemporary of his own epoch. It is the glory of prophecy to "feel after." It is the glory of science to say long before the planet is discovered, There is another world there: no telescope has seen it, no message of light has been received from it consciously, but keep your telescope in that direction, there must be a starry pulse just there. The botanist knows that if he finds a certain plant in a given locality there will be another plant of another name not a mile away. He judges from one plant to another; he submits himself to inferential logic: he has not seen that other plant, but he tells you in the morning that because yesternight he found this leaf growing not far from the house in which he resides he will find another leaf of a similar pattern, or a diverse pattern, not far away; and at night he comes home, radiant as the evening star, and says, Behold, I told you this morning what would be the case, and there it is. So with the larger astronomy, and the larger botany: there is another planet somewhere yonder; when it is discovered call it the Morning Star, and inasmuch as there is triacle, treacle, in Gilead—a balm there—there shall be found another plant not far away; when you find it call it by some sweet name, such as the Rose of Sharon, or the Lily of the Valley. It is the glory of the prophet to see signs which have infinite meanings—to see the harvest in the seed, the noonday in the faintest tint of dawn, the mighty man in the helpless infant, the Socrates in the embryo. This prevision made the prophets seemingly mad. Their knowledge was to them but a prison, so small, so dark, yet now and again almost alive with a glory all but revealed. The horizon was loaded with gloom, yet here and there a rent showed that heaven was immediately behind, and might at any moment make the dark cold earth bright and warm with eternal summer. This hope has kept the world alive; this hope has kept off the languor and decrepitude of old age; this hope has shaken the prison-walls of the present, and filled the prospect with the image of good men, mighty to labour and to lead the world.
Look at the deliverer as seen by the prophet—"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called-----" Now, the English punctuation seems to fritter away the dignity of the appellation. The compound name really falls into this classification: First, Wonderful-Counseller, as one word, as if, indeed, it were but one syllable; second, God-the-Mighty-One, not four words, but hyphened together; third, Father-of-Eternity, also hyphened and consolidated; fourth, Prince-of-Peace, that likewise an instance of the words run into one another, and in this fourfold classification we have the mysterious name of the deliverer. There is no evidence that Isaiah saw the birth of Christ as we understand that term; but what he did see was that the only deliverer who could accomplish the necessary work must fill out the whole measure of these terms; if he failed to fill out that outline, he was not the predicted Messiah. Let us see. He must fill the imagination—"Wonderful." Imagination cannot be safely left out of any religion; it is that wondrous faculty that flies to great heights, and is not afraid of infinite breadths; the faculty, so to say, that lies at the back of all other faculties, sums them up, and then adds an element of its own, using the consolidated mind for the highest purposes of vision and understanding. Is this name given for the first time? Where do we find the word "Wonderful" in the Scriptures? We may not, perhaps, find it in the English tongue, but it is really to be found in Judges 13:18 : "The angel of the Lord said unto Manoah, Why askest thou thus after my name, seeing it is "secret?"—the same Hebrew word that is rendered in the text "Wonderful"; so we might read, "The angel of the Lord said unto him, Why askest thou thus after my name, seeing it is Wonderful." Let us say again and again, there has always been a spectral presence in history, a ghost, an anonymous ministry; something that comes and goes in flashes of light, in frowns of darkness, in whispered blessings, in dreams that make the night glow above the brightness of a summer day.
Not only must he fill the imagination, he must satisfy the judgment. His name, therefore, is not only Wonderful, but "Counseller," the fountain of wisdom and understanding, the mind that rules over all things with perfectness of mastery, that attests everything by the eternal meridian, and that looks for righteousness. Not only must he be Wonderful, and not only must he satisfy the judgment, he must also satisfy the religious instinct, so he is called "The Mighty God." It is not enough to describe God without epithetic terms. Sometimes we say, Why utter such words as, Thou infinite, eternal, ever-blessed God?—because we are so constituted in this infantile state of being that we need a ladder of adjectives to get up to our little conception of that which is inconceivable. You cannot limit "love" in its syntax. You can write grammars for pedants, but when the heart burns, when all love turns the heart to divinest uses, then we use redundance of words, because we require all possible multiplications of terms in order to give but a dim hint of the rapture which makes our souls ecstatic.
Not only Song of Solomon, there must be in this man a sense of brotherhood, so he is called "The Prince of Peace." He will bring man to Prayer of Manasseh, nation to nation; he will arbitrate amongst the empires of the earth and rule by the sabbatic spirit. Christianity is peace, and any man who resigns even the highest position in the nation, rather than show sympathy with unnecessary war, is a man who deserves the confidence and the honour of his countrymen by so much. If England would disarm herself she would go far towards disarming the earth. It is the heroic Christian nation that is needed to lead the empires of the world. Whilst men are making but a dozen guns fewer this year than they made last year they are but playing with the problem of peace, trifling with the problem of philanthropy. When a nation, crowded with altars and churches, a nation that has almost made the Cross into an ornament, shall disarm her soldiers she will go, we repeat, far towards completing the disarmament of the world. It is vain to profess Christ and to keep up standing armies. The lie is given to our prayers when we discharge our guns, and even negatively challenge and defy our enemies.
He is to be more still. He is to be "The everlasting Father," otherwise translated, The Father of eternity; otherwise, and better translated, The Father of the age to come. Therein we have misinterpreted Christianity. We have been too anxious to understand the past. The pulpit has had a backward aspect—most careful about what happened in the second century, dying to know what Tertullian thought and what Constantine did. Christ is the Father of the age to come. If he lived now he would handle the question of poverty; he would discuss the great uses of Parliament; he would address himself to every church, chapel, and sanctuary in the kingdom; he would come into our various buildings and turn us out to a man. Christianity is the prophetic religion. It deals with the science that is to be, with the politics yet to be developed, with the commerce that is yet to be the bread-producing action of civilised life.
The surrounding nations Egypt and Assyria gave great names to their gods. Look at the inscriptions on the pillars in the time of Sargon. One Assyrian king was called "The Great King, The King Unrivalled; The Protector of the Just; The Noble Warrior." If Isaiah wrote in a time of great names Hebrews, by this conception of an appellation, threw all other cognomens into contempt. "The mighty God." The word is not Elohim, a word under which a species of sub-divinity could be classified: "Said I not unto you, Ye are gods?" That word is El, a word which is never applied but to Jehovah, and which is never used but as connoting the innermost essence of ineffable deity.
This is Isaiah"s prophecy. The deliverer is to come as a child, a Song of Solomon, a governor, a name; he is to sit "upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever." Say there was a secondary application of the terms, there can be no objection to that; but no living man ever filled out in their uttermost spheral meaning all these names but one, and his name is JESUS.
Then comes rapture upon rapture. And the pledge of the fulfilment of all Isaiah, "The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this." The word rendered "zeal" is the root-word out of which comes the term jealousy; zeal and jealousy mean the same thing in this connection—The jealousy of the Lord of hosts will perform this. The Lord is jealous over the daughter of Zion; he is jealous over the integrity of his own oath. When he has declared that the whole earth shall be filled with a divine glory, not one iota of that promise can fail; the Lord"s jealousy or zeal is involved in the fulfilment of the terms. The Lord worketh. If the conversion of the world were dependent upon our mechanical agencies, that conversion would be long delayed, it might, indeed, be expunged from any record of the possibilities; but the battle is not ours, it is God"s; the banner that is to float from the heights of a conquered world is to be planted there by him whose name is King of kings, Lord of lords. Heaven takes a long time in its working, but its work is done for ever. We should wish to see the whole world at peace to-day, and we should love to run from tower to tower and tell the metal in every belfry to ring out the old and ring in the new, for the very Christ has come; but the matter is of greater consequence to Christ than it can be to us. It is well, therefore, for us if in faith and rest and love we can say, Lord, thy time is best: we will pray thine own prayer, "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven."
The Knell of Doom
Isaiah 9:1 to Isaiah 10:4
There is a very striking expression in the Isaiah 9:11 : "The Lord shall set up the adversaries." "Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?" Does God employ evil spirits, evil men? Is it true that he maketh the wrath of man to praise him, and that he restrains the remainder thereof, and keeps it back for use upon occasion? Does he use up the very hell which sin has made, turning its heat into uses intended for judgment and penalty, and through this process intended also for repentance and reclamation? It is a wonderful universe. "The Lord shall set up the adversaries." This accounts for many oppositions which otherwise would be without explanation. We wonder why such and such people should be opposed to us; on the face of the occasion there is nothing to account for the hostility; in fact, there may be possibly something which ought to operate in another direction, making them rather friends and comrades than enemies; yet there they are, in battle array, looking upon us jealously, speaking of us falsely, endeavouring to ensnare our steps, to frustrate our purposes, and to make our life a misery. Attempt to conciliate them, and all your approaches do but add to the malignity of their detestation. We are not to look upon these things as merely human, coming and going by an uncalculated law, an operation of chance or fortuity; we are to ask for discerning eyes that look beneath surfaces, and find the spring of causes. The people themselves, too, are at a loss to explain their hostility: they cannot give reasons in regular numeration, gathering themselves up into a final and representative reason; yet they know that their hearts are simply set against us in a deadly attitude. Ask them questions about this opposition, and they will confess themselves bewildered; they daily look round for causes, and find none; yet they say they cannot restrain the dislike, and they must force it into forms of opposition about whose urgency and determinateness there can be no mistake. How is all this? Is it not the Lord reigning even here? God means to chasten us, to make us feel that there are other people in the world beside ourselves, and that we have no right to all the room, and no claim that can be maintained to all the property. Thus we teach one another by sometimes opposing one another. We are brought to chastening and sobriety and refinement by attritions and oppositions that are, from a human point of view, utterly unaccountable. The Bible never hesitates to trace the whole set and meaning of providence to the Lord himself: he sends the plague, the pestilence, the darkness, all the flies and frogs that desolated old Egypt; he still is the Author of gale, and flood, and famine, and pestilence. We have amused ourselves by deceiving ourselves, by discovering a thousand secondary causes, and seeking, piously or impiously, to relieve providence of the responsibility of the great epidemic. Within given limits all we say may be perfectly true; we are great in phenomena, we have a genius in the arrangement of detail; but, after all, above all, and beneath all, is the mysterious life, the omnipotence of God, the judgment between right and wrong that plays upon the universe as upon an obedient instrument,—now evoking from it black frowning thunder, and now making it tremble with music that children love, and that sweetest mothers want all their babes to hear. Who can be so gentle, so condescending, so tender as the everlasting Father?
In this section we come upon a word which may be regarded as a refrain—"For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still" ( Isaiah 9:12). In the seventeenth verse the refrain is repeated; in the twenty-first verse we find it again; and once more ( Isaiah 10:4) the solemn words roll in upon our attention: "For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still." There must be some cause for this. Is the cause concealed? On the contrary, it is written in boldest capitals, so that the dimmest eyes may see it all, in every palpitating, burning syllable. Let us make ourselves acquainted with the cause, lest we judge God harshly by wondering that his hand should be stretched out in judgment rather than stretched out that he may touch the nations with a sceptre of mercy.
"The people turneth not unto him that smiteth them" ( Isaiah 9:13). That is one element of the cause of this judgment. They do not kiss the rod: they see it to be a rod only; they do not understand that judgment is the severe aspect of mercy, and that without mercy there could be no real judgment. There might be condemnation, destruction, annihilation, but "judgment" is a combined or compound term, involving in all its rich music every possible utterance of law and grace and song and hope. Why do we not turn to him who smites us, and kiss the rod; yea, kiss the hand that wields it? Why do we not say, Thy judgments are true and righteous altogether, thou Lord most High: health gone, chairs vacated, fireside emptied; all is right, and all is hard to bear: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord? Yea, the submissive heart may go further, and say, I have no right to any tittle that has been taken from me; it was really not mine; the mistake was that I thought it belonged to me, and that I could establish a claim to its proprietorship and retention: whereas I see now that I have nothing that I have not received, that I never had anything that was not given to me or lent to me, or of which I was not put in trust and stewardship. Thou hast taken it all away; I know it is not because I have prayed too much, but because I have sinned beyond measure. When a man thus kisses the hand that wields the rod, the rod blossoms, and God"s judgment becomes God"s grace.
"The leaders of this people cause them to err; and they that are led of them are destroyed" ( Isaiah 9:16).
That is another explanation of the cause. The displeasure is not superficial or incidental, involving only a few of the weaker sort of people; the displeasure has attacked the very centres of social dignity, social thought, and social influence. The leaders have fallen: what can the followers do? Howl, fir tree, for the cedar has fallen. In ancient times the people were accustomed to put the statues of their princes and leaders close to fountains and springing waters; they thought the association good, the alliance seemed to be natural and suggestive: for these men were fountains of pure water, springs of Wisdom of Solomon, and judgment, and righteousness; all their thought was clear as crystal, and the uprising of their life was as water that came from a rocky bed, untainted, refreshing. The idea was excellent. People who had such conceptions regarding their princes, leaders, and legislators were likely to yield themselves to whatever influence such mighty men exerted. When, therefore, the leader went astray, the whole procession followed him, because they had confidence in him. "I command, therefore," said one who spoke with authority, "that prayer be made for all men"—for princes, governors, rulers, magistrates, Judges, ministers of state, conductors of the journals of the time; for all men who have the eloquent tongue, the facile pen, moral, intellectual, social, that leadership may be purified, and that under a sanctified directorate the whole nation may move on in the direction of righteousness, equity, love of truth, moral frankness, and abounding, yea boundless, charity.
"Every one is an hypocrite and an evildoer, and every mouth speaketh folly"( Isaiah 9:17).
This is a continuation of the explanation of the cause of the divine judgment. Mark the completeness of the statement: it is "every one." We have read elsewhere, "There is none righteous, no, not one." We are familiar with the expression that the Lord looked down from heaven to see if there were any that were righteous and that did good, and whose thoughts were towards himself in all the simplicity of trust and in all the ardour of prayer, and he himself, reporting upon the moral state of the world, said, They have all turned aside. In our high confessions, sometimes perhaps thoughtlessly, yet after a moment"s reflection most thoughtfully, we have said, "All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way." "Every one is an hypocrite and an evildoer, and every mouth speaketh folly." Does not the word "folly" seem to be too weak a word with which to conclude that indictment? "Hypocrite," "evildoer," "folly"—does not the series run in the wrong direction? So it may appear in the translation, but the word for "folly" should be "blasphemy." "Every one is an hypocrite and an evildoer, and every mouth speaketh blasphemy:" the world has become brazen-faced in iniquity, shameless in sin; an oath shall now be uttered where once it would only have been whispered, and men shall speak openly of forbidden things as if they were talking the conventional language of the day. The devil drives his scholars fast; he does not keep school for nothing; he means to turn out experts; he listens to our profane rhetoric, and in proportion as we become eloquent in the utterance of his language does he give us prize, and certificate, and honour, and write down our names in the list of those who have taken high positions in the examinations of hell. "For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still." That is right. If his anger had been turned away, he would not have been God; if his hand had not been stretched out, even farther and farther still in presence of such wickedness, then he would have forfeited his right to sit upon the throne of the universe. God cannot yield; righteousness can never compound; there is no compromise in truth: the whole controversy must be settled upon principles that are fundamental, all-involving, and eternal, and then it will be for ever settled.
The Lord will show how the judgment will take effect—"Therefore the Lord will cut off from Israel head and tail, branch and rush, in one day" ( Isaiah 9:14). The explanation is given partly in Isaiah 9:15, "The ancient and honourable, he is the head; and the prophet that teacheth lies, he is the tail." "Branch and rush"—the allusion is to the beauteous palm-tree: it shall be cut down notwithstanding its beauty; and the "rush"—the common growths round about it, entangled roots, poor miserable shrubs that crowd and cumber the earth—branch and rush cannot stand before God"s sword and fire: everything that is wrong goes down in a common destruction. Judgment obliterates our classifications. When judgment begins at the house of God, the meanest man and the loftiest go for nothing before the fire of that holy wrath. It is well that now and again all our classifications should be destroyed. We have made too much of them; we have designated this and that as reputable and respectable and good, whereas it was only relatively such, and not really. When God arises to shake terribly the earth, tower, and temple, and town, and meanest hut, all reel under the tremendous shock. "God is no respecter of persons." He will not spare the corrupt judge and punish the meaner criminals; rather will he say, The greater the criminal"s advantages the meaner is the criminal himself: he ought to have known better; he had every opportunity of knowing better; he sinned away his advantages, and therefore his downfall could be none to mitigate or deplore.
"The Lord shall have no joy in their young men" ( Isaiah 9:17).
The meaning is full of suggestion. God delights in the young. God has made the young a ministry of instruction and comfort to old age. God keeps the world young by keeping children in it, and helpless ones. But God shall cease to see in young men any hope for the future. Once he would have done Song of Solomon, saying, The young men will keep the world right: they are strong, they are pure-minded, they are enthusiastic; their youthful, sometimes exuberant, zeal and influence will keep things as they ought to be kept. But henceforth God withdraws from the young, and they become old; he takes from them his all-vitalising and all-blessing smile, and they wither as flowers die when the sun turns away.
Sin was to be left to be its own punishment. Here we come upon a paragraph full of mournful interest. The whole work shall be left to sin itself. "No man shall spare his brother" ( Isaiah 9:19). How often have we seen when men have fallen into wrong relations to God they have fallen also into wrong relations to one another; all pledges are broken up, all covenants are destroyed, all understandings as to concession and compromise and give-and-take,—all these things disappear, and man flies at the throat of man like wild beast at wild beast. How man can sink! Why can he sink so far? Because he has risen so high: the inverted tree we see in the calm lake indicates the height of that tree as it lifts itself up towards the welcoming and blessing sun. "He shall eat on the left hand, and they shall not be satisfied" ( Isaiah 9:20). This is the mockery of God. This is how God taunts men. "They shall eat every man the flesh of his own arm." A man shall play the cannibal upon himself. Literally, every man shall fly at every other man"s arm, and every man shall be eating human flesh, for there is nothing else to eat.
Then, too, there is to be internecine war: Manasseh shall fly at Ephraim, and Ephraim at Prayer of Manasseh, and they who could agree upon nothing between themselves always agree in flying together against Judah. This is what wickedness will bring the world to—to murder, to mutual hatred and distrust, to perdition. We do not understand the power of wickedness, because at present, owing to religious thinking and action and moral civilisation, there are so many mitigating circumstances, so many relieving lights; but wickedness in itself let loose upon the earth, and the earth is no longer the abode of green thing, of fair flower, or singing bird, of mutual trust and love: it becomes a pandemonium. If we could consider this deeply, it would make us solemn. We do not consider it; we are prepared to allow it as a theory or a conjecture, but the realisation of it is kept far from us. The wicked man kills himself; puts his teeth into the flesh of his own arm, and gnaws it with the hunger of a wild beast. That is what wickedness comes to! It is not an intellectual error, not a slight and passing mistake, not a lapse of judgment, or a momentarily lamentable act of misconduct which can easily be repaired: the essence of wickedness is destruction. Wickedness would no sooner hesitate to kill a little child than to snap a flower. The thing that keeps the world from suicide is the providence of God. Were God to take away the restraining influences which are keeping society together, society would fall into mutual enmity, and the controversy could only end in mutual death. "For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still" ( Isaiah 9:21). Do not blame the judgment, blame the sin; do not say, How harsh is God, say, How corrupt, how blasphemous is man!
"Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees, and that write grievousness which they have prescribed" ( Isaiah 10:1).
The Lord"s voice is always for righteousness. What is it that is denounced? It is the very thing that is to be denounced evermore. There is nothing local or temporary in this cause of divine offence. The Lord is against all unrighteous decrees, unnatural alliances, and evil compacts. This is the very glory of the majesty of omnipotence, that it is enlisted against every form of evil and wrong. Then—"Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees, and that write grievousness which they have prescribed"—scribes or registrars who preserve all the forms of the court, and keep their pens busy upon the court register, writing down every case, and appearing to do the business correctly and thoughtfully; and yet all the while these very registrars were themselves plotting "to take away the right from the poor, that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless." The court of law was turned into a means of robbery, as it is in nearly every country under the sun. The scribes who wrote down the law were men who secretly or overtly broke it; the judge used his ermine as a cloak, that under its concealment he might thrust his hand further into the property of those who had no helper. "For all this his anger is not turned away." Blessed be his name! Oh, burn thou against us all; mighty, awful, holy God, burn more and more, until we learn by fire what we can never learn by pity. The Lord speaks evermore for the poor, for the widow, for the fatherless, for the helpless. Here we pause, as we have often done before in these readings, to say, How grand is the moral tone of the Bible; how sweetly does God speak for truth and righteousness; how condescendingly does he enlist omnipotence on the side of innocent helplessness.
Now we come upon an awful irony:—
"What will ye do in the day of visitation, and in the desolation which shall come from far? to whom will ye flee for help? and where will ye leave your glory?" ( Isaiah 10:3).
This is more difficult to bear than was the fire of judgment—this spectral tone, this irony from behind the clouds, this mockery that makes our marrow cold. "What will ye do?" What is your last resource? When it becomes your turn to play in this great game, what move will you take? That hour comes in all life. For a long time men can be moving to and fro, and changing their position, and trying their policy, and deceiving even the very elect by the agility of their movements; but there comes a time when the last step must be taken, the last hand must be shown, the last declaration must be made. You have sinned away—so the impeachment would seem to say—the day of judgment; you have mocked righteousness; you have turned the sanctuary into a school of blasphemy; you have robbed the poor, the widow, the fatherless; you have trodden down every thing of beauty that God planted upon the earth, and you would have blackened the stars with night if your evil hands could have reached them! Now there has come the critical moment of agony, and the question Isaiah, "What will ye do?" Now for genius, now for the fine intellectual stroke, now for the stroke that will settle everything your own way—what is it? Open your right hand, and it contains emptiness; your left, and it is rich with nothingness. "What will ye do?" You have sworn every oath, and the very familiarity of your irreverence has turned your blasphemy stale. "What will ye do?" Bribe? You have nothing in the treasure-house, and your money is not current coin with this reckoning. "What will ye do?" Confess? Too late: that would be a coward"s trick. "What will ye do?" That same question occurs in the Christian books—"How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation?" That question is—HOW?
"The whole passage, from the fifth verse of chap. x. to the end of chap, xii, should be read together, beginning with the solemn denunciation, as the title to the whole, of "Woe to Asshur!" Assyria, in all its pride, was but a rod in the hands of Jehovah, and when the appointed work of judgment was done, the instrument of that judgment, worthless in itself, would be cast away and destroyed.... Then follows a description of the Assyrian"s march upon Jerusalem, which, says Delitzsch, "aesthetically considered, is one of the most magnificent that human poetry has ever produced." It is also very interesting to the reader of modern days, inasmuch as it clears up a difficulty which most earlier expositors had felt, and enables us by means of the Assyrian monuments to add another to the "undesigned" confirmations of Scripture. It has been usual to refer the account of this march to the history of Sennacherib, in Hezekiah"s later days, after the capture of Lachish [ 2 Kings 18:13-17; Isaiah 36:1-2]. But then, it has been remarked, Sennacherib advanced from the south-west, i.e. from the road leading to Egypt; while the route so vividly described by the prophet is from the north-east. Expositors therefore have generally contented themselves with calling the description "ideal." It depicts such an approach as the Assyrian king might have made, had he come from that quarter! But now we know that there was another invasion before that of Sennacherib."—Rev. S. G. Green, D.P.
"Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"For the leaders of this people cause them to err."— Isaiah 9:16
This is the last result of debased society. When the light that is in us becomes darkness, how great is that darkness! Isaiah and Jeremiah both regard as utterly contemptible and worthless those who professed to be spiritual guides and yet who guided themselves by selfish considerations. Whether this verse was really in the original text or whether it was a merely marginal note, it is absolutely certain that the spirit of it is proved by the history of all ages. The verse may therefore be used by way of accommodation to show that even our leaders and guides are not to be trusted simply because they happen to sustain official positions. The law and the testimony may always be trusted: they cannot be bribed, they cannot be perverted, except by the basest quality of mind; the people must go to the law and to the testimony for themselves, often putting aside teacher and priest that they may see the living word with their own eyes. Even leadership is not exempt from temptation. The greatest statesmen may have objects of their own to gain. On the finest robe of patriotism there may be spots which only the divine eyes can detect. We should therefore be Bible-readers on our own account; not only readers of the mere letter, but readers of the sum total. Society may be said to be shaken at its very base when its great men allow their minds to be corrupted. This is true politically, but how much more true in relation to all matters that are spiritual and divine. When the pulpit is wrong how can the pew be right? The prophet who has beclouded his vision, or so distorted it as to accommodate it to human wish and human conceit, is likely to acquire an immediate influence, simply because the heart which he addresses is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, is indeed prepared to receive any lie as a way of escape from the severe discipline by which God trains and strengthens the soul. We shall be judges according to our position and influence. How deep the condemnation of those who knew the right and yet pursued the wrong; men who held the holy Word and gave it an unholy interpretation! Leaders and prophets should examine themselves, because even they have not escaped the contagion of human nature; even they are not free from those insidious temptations which often take the soul unawares. Leaders and prophets are tempted to believe that they are free from many of the restraints which they would impose upon other people. The larger our capacity and the larger our influence, the more keen should be our self-inspection, the more wakeful should be our daily vigilance. Here is a lesson to parents, to teachers, to reformers, and to all men of influence.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Isaiah 9". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://pro.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent