The Pulpit Commentaries
PART I.—EARLIER PROPHECIES OF ISAIAH (CH. 1-35.)
SECTION I.—THE GREAT ARRAIGNMENT (Isaiah 1:1-31.).
TITLE OF THE WORK. It is questioned whether the title can be regarded as Isaiah's, or as properly belonging to the work, and it is suggested that it is rather a heading invented by a collector who brought together into a volume such prophecies of Isaiah as were known to him, the collection being a much smaller one than that which was made ultimately. In favor of this view it is urged
The vision (comp. Obadiah 1:1; Nahum 1:1). The term is probably used in a collective sense, but is also intended to suggest the intrinsic unity of the entire body of prophecies put forth by Isaiah. As prophets were originally called "seers" (1 Samuel 9:9), so prophecy was called "vision;" and this latter use continued long after the other. Isaiah the son of Amoz (comp. Isaiah 2:1; Isaiah 13:1; Isaiah 37:2; etc.; 2 Kings 20:1; 2 Chronicles 32:32). The signification of the name Isaiah is "the salvation of Jehovah." The name Amen (Amots) is not to be confused with Amos ('Amos), who seems to have been a contemporary (Amos 1:1). Concerning Judah and Jerusalem. The prophecies of Isaiah concern primarily the kingdom of Judah, not that of Israel. They embrace a vast variety of nations and countries (see especially Isaiah 13:1-22; 15-21; Isaiah 23:1-18; Isaiah 47:1-15.); but these nations and countries are spoken of "only because of the relation in which they stand to Judah and Jerusalem" (Kay), or at any rate to the people of God, symbolized under those names. Jerusalem occupies a prominent place in the prophecies (see Isaiah 1:8, Isaiah 1:21; Isaiah 3:16-26; Isaiah 4:3-6; Isaiah 29:1-8; Isaiah 31:4-9, etc.). In the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. Uzziah (or Azariah, as he is sometimes called) reigned fifty-two years—probably from B.C. 811 to B.C. 759; Jotham sixteen years—from B.C. 759 to B.C. 743; Ahaz also sixteen years—from B.C. 743 to B.C. 727; and Hezekiah twenty-nine years—from B.C. 727 to B.C. 698. Isaiah probably prophesied only in the later years of Uzziah, say from B.C. 760; but as he certainly continued his prophetical career tin Sennacherib's invasion of Judaea (Isaiah 37:5), which was not earlier than B.C. 705, he must have exercised the prophet's office for at least fifty-six years. The lowest possible estimate of the duration of his ministry is forty-seven years—from the last year of Uzziah, B.C. 759, to the fourteenth of Hezekiah (Isaiah 38:5). The highest known to us is sixty-four years—from the fourth year before Uzziah's death to the last year of Hezekiah.
GOD'S COMPLAINT AGAINST HIS PEOPLE. The groundwork of Isaiah's entire prophecy is Judah's defection from God. God's people have sinned, done amiss, dealt wickedly. The hour of vengeance approaches. Punishment has begun, and will go on, continually increasing in severity. National repentance would avert God's judgments, but the nation will not repeat. God's vengeance will fall, and by it a remnant will be purified, and return to God, and be his true people. In the present section the indictment is laid. Judah's sins are called to her remembrance.
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth. "A grave and magnificent exorilium! All nature is invoked to hear Jehovah make complaint of the ingratitude of his people" (Rosenmüller). The invocation is cast in the same form with that so common in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 4:26; Deuteronomy 30:19; Deuteronomy 31:28; Deuteronomy 32:1), and seems to indicate familiarity with that book. The idea extends widely among sacred and other poets (see Psalms 1:3, Psalms 1:4; Micah 6:1, Micah 6:2; AEsch; 'P. V.,' 11. 88-92). The Lord hath spoken; rather, the Lord (literally, Jehovah) speaketh (so Lowth, Cheyne, and Gesenius). The speech of Jehovah follows in verses 2, 3. I have nourished and brought up children; literally, (my) sons I have made great and high; i.e. I have raised Israel to greatness and exalted him among the nations. Notwithstanding their disobedience, God still acknowledges them as his "sons." They have rebelled against me. The verb used is generally rendered in our version "transgressed" (see Jeremiah 3:13; Hosea 7:13; Amos 4:4); but it may also have the stronger sense here assigned it. Lowth translates, "revolted from me;" Gesenius, "fallen away from me;" Cheyne, "broken away from me."
The ox … the ass. The ox and the ass are probably selected as the least intelligent of domesticated animals (so Jerome, Rosenmüller, and Gesenius). Yet even they recognize their owner or master. Jeremiah contrasts the brutish stupidity of Israel with the wise instinct of animals that have not been domesticated, as the stork, the turtle-dove, the crane, and the swallow (Jeremiah 8:7). Israel doth not know; i.e. does not acknowledge its Master and Owner, pays him no respect, does not recognize him as either Owner or Master. My people. Compare the formula, so frequent in Exodus, "Let my people go" (Exodus 7:16; Exodus 8:1, Exodus 8:20; Exodus 9:1, etc.). Israel was God's people by election (Genesis 15:13), by covenant (Exodus 19:5-8; Exodus 24:3-8), by pardoning grace (Exodus 33:12-17). Despite all their backslidings, he had not yet cast them off. They are still "his people" in Isaiah from first to last, standing in contrast with "the nations, "or "the Gentiles, "among whom they are to be "set as a sign" (Isaiah 66:19). Doth net consider. Gesenius translates, "doth not consider thereof;" Cheyne, "is without understanding." Bishop Lowth retains the words of the Authorized Version. The meaning would seem to be, "My people doth not consider me, cloth not reflect on my relation to them as Lord and Master."
Ah sinful nation. These are the words of Isaiah, not of Jehovah. The prophet, having delivered God's message in verses 2 and 3, proceeds to impress and enforce it on the people by remarks of his own. He begins with a lamentation over their wickedness and impenitence; "Ah sinful nation!" or "Alas for the sinful nation! "the nation called to be holy (Exodus 19:6; Le Exodus 20:26, etc.), but sunk in sin and wickedness. How sad their condition! How almost hopeless! Laden with iniquity; literally, heavy with guilt. But our version well expresses the sense. As the psalmist says, "My sins have gone up over my head, and are like a sore burden, toe heavy for me to bear" (Psalms 38:4; cf. Matthew 11:28). A seed of evil-doers. Not descendants of evil-doors, but "an evil-doing seed, "or "race" ( σπέρμα πονηρόν, LXX.; comp. Isaiah 14:20; Isaiah 61:9; Isaiah 65:23). Children that are corrupters; literally, sons that do corruptly. It is not their corrupting of others, though that might follow, but the corruption that was in themselves, which is spoken of. The corruption was both moral and doctrinal (see verse 21). In corroboration of the fact, see 2 Chronicles 27:2. They have forsaken the Lord. Not by renouncing his worship, which they still continued (see verses 11-15), but by reducing it to a formality. The people "honored him with their lips, while their hearts were far from him" (Isaiah 29:13). They have provoked to anger; rather, despised (Revised Version), or scorched (Kay, Cheyne), or rejected with disdain (Lowth), in allusion to their disobeying his commandments (see verses 21-23). The Holy One of Israel. This title of God is a favorite one with Isaiah (see Isaiah 5:19, Isaiah 5:24; Isaiah 10:17, Isaiah 10:20; Isaiah 12:6; Isaiah 17:7; Isaiah 29:19, Isaiah 29:23; Isaiah 30:11, Isaiah 30:12, Isaiah 30:15; Isaiah 31:1; Isaiah 37:23; Isaiah 41:14, Isaiah 41:16, Isaiah 41:20; Isaiah 43:3, Isaiah 43:14; Isaiah 45:11; Isaiah 49:7; Isaiah 54:5; Isaiah 55:5; Isaiah 60:9, Isaiah 60:14), and is very rarely used by the other sacred writers. We find it thrice in the Psalms (Psalms 71:22; Psalms 78:41; Psalms 89:18); once in Kings (2 Kings 19:22), but then in the mouth of Isaiah; twice in Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:1-19 :29; Jeremiah 51:5); and once in Ezekiel (Ezekiel 39:7). According to Isaiah's conception of God, holiness is the most essential element of his nature (see Isaiah 6:3, Isaiah 6:5, Isaiah 6:7). They are gone away backward; literally, they are estranged backwards; or, as Bishop Lowth paraphrases, "they are estranged from him; they have turned their back upon him." Instead of looking to God, and following after him, they "followed a multitude to do evil (Exodus 23:2)."
Why should ye, etc.? Translate, Why will ye be still smitten, revolting more and more? or, Why will ye persist in rebellion, and so be smitten yet more? The Authorized Version does not express the sense, which is that suffering must follow sin—that if they still revolt, they must still be smitten for it—why, then, will they do so? Compare Ezekiel's "Why will ye die, O house of Israel?" (Ezekiel 18:31). The whole head … the whole heart. Mr. Cheyne translates, "Every head … every heart;" but Lowth, Gesenius, and Ewald agree with the Authorized Version. The prophet personifies Israel, and means to say that the whole head of the nation is diseased, its whole heart faint, or "prostrate with languor" (Kay). The head and heart represent respectively the intellectual and moral natures.
From the sole of the foot even unto the head (comp. Job 2:7). From top to bottom, the body corporate is diseased throughout—there is no soundness in it (cf. Psalms 38:3, Psalms 38:7)—all is one wound, one livid bruise, one festering sore. Note the use of the singular number in the original. They have not been closed; literally, they have not been pressed; which is explained to mean (Aben Ezra, Kay) that they have not had the matter formed by suppuration pressed out of them. Neither bound up; i.e. not bandaged, Neither mollified with ointment; rather, with oil. On the treatment of wounds and ulcers with oil m ancient times, see 'Hippocrat; De Ulceribus,' § 4; Galen; 'De Compos. Medic.,' § 2; and comp. Luke 10:34. Recent medical science has revived the practice, and wounds of all kinds are now frequently treated with nothing but carbolic oil. The general sentiment of the entire passage is that there has been no medical treatment of the wounds of any kind; they have been left to themselves, to spread corruption over the whole body—no attempt has been made to cure them.
Your country is desolate. Metaphor is now dropped, and the prophet describes in strong but simple language the judgments of God, which have already followed the sins of the nation. First of all, their land is "a desolation." It has been recently ravaged by an enemy; the towns have been burnt, the crops devoured. There is nothing to determine who the enemy had been. Knobel supposes the Edomites and Philistines, who invaded Judaea in the time of Ahaz (2 Chronicles 28:17, 2 Chronicles 28:18), to be intended; Rosenmüller suggests the Israelites under Amaziah (2 Chronicles 25:21-24); while Mr. Cheyne supposes the devastation to have been wrought by the Assyrians under Sargon. If we could be assured that the prophecies of Isaiah are arranged in chronological order, we should either have to accept Rosenmüller's view, or to suppose some invasion of Judaea to have taken place in the later years of Uzziah of which no mention is made by the authors of Kings and Chronicles; but it is impossible to be certain on what principle Isaiah's prophecies are arranged. The mention of "strangers" is in favor of the enemy having been actual foreigners, and therefore not the Israelites. Your cities are burned with fire. The common fate of cities taken in war. In the Assyrian sculptures we often see the torch applied to them. Your land. Mr. Cheyne translates, "your tillage." Adamah means "soil" or "ground" generally; but here no doubt denotes the ground which bore crops. Strangers devour it; i.e. "foreigners" others than the sons of the soil—not necessarily persons of a different race, but still probably such persons. In your presence; before your eyes, as you look on—an aggravation of the affliction. It is desolate, as overthrown by strangers; literally, it is a desolation, like an overthrow by strangers. The near approach to repetition displeases moderns, who conjecture
The daughter of Zion. Not "the faithful Church" (Kay), but the city of Jerusalem, which is thus personified. Comp. Isaiah 47:1, Isaiah 47:5, where Babylon is called the "daughter of the Chaldeans;" and Lamentations 1:6; Lamentations 2:1, Lamentations 2:4, Lamentations 2:8, Lamentations 2:10, where the phrase here used is repeated in the same sense. More commonly it designates the people without the city (Lamentations 2:13; Lamentations 4:22; Micah 3:8, Micah 3:10, 13; Zephaniah 3:14; Zechariah 2:10; Zechariah 9:9, etc.). As a cottage; rather, as a booth (Revised Version; see Le 23:42). Vineyards required to be watched for a few weeks only as the fruit began to ripen; and the watchers, or keepers, built themselves, therefore, mere "booths" for their protection (Job 27:18). These were frail, solitary dwellings—very forlorn, very helpless. Such was now Jerusalem. As a lodge in a garden of cucumbers. Cucumber-gardens required watching throughout the season, i.e. from spring to autumn, and their watcher needed a more solid edifice than a booth. Hence such gardens had "lodges" in them, i.e. permanent huts or sheds, such as those still seen in Palestine. As a besieged city. Though not yet besieged, Jerusalem is as if besieged—isolated, surrounded by waste tracts, threatened.
Except the Lord of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom. Lowth and Cheyne prefer to divide the two clauses differently, and to translate, "Except the Lord of hosts had left us a remnant, within a little we should have been like Sodom." The "remnant" is that of the few godly men who still inhabit Jerusalem. The comparison of Jerusalem with Sodom is made again in Isaiah 3:9, and is carried out at some length by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 16:44-57). It implies a condition of extreme depravity.
THE PEOPLE'S PLEA NO EXCUSE, BUT AN AGGRAVATION OF THEIR GUILT. The prophet supposes the people, by the mouth of their rulers, to meet the charge of rebellion with an appeal to the fact that they maintain all the outward ordinances of religion, as required by the Lawn and are therefore blameless. This draws from him a burst of indignant eloquence, which the Holy Spirit directs him to put, mainly, into the mouth of God (Isaiah 1:11-15), denouncing such a pretence of religion as an aggravation of their sin, and characterizing their whole worship as an "abomination."
Hear the word of the Lord; i.e. "Do not speak to no purpose, but hear." The rulers are supposed to have begun their plea, but the prophet stops them. Ye rulers of Sodom. Having said in the preceding verse how nearly Jerusalem had suffered the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, the writer grows more bold, and proceeds to give Jerusalem the obnoxious names. Her "rulers, "literally, judges (katsin in Hebrew corresponding to kadi in Arabic), are "rulers of Sodom;" her people are the "people of Gomorrah." There is as much wickedness, though it may be not the same wickedness, in "the daughter of Zion" at the existing time, as in the cities of the plain when God destroyed them. The law of our God. Not the Levitical Law, though the word used has generally that sense, but the "instruction" or "direction" that was about to be uttered (comp. Psalms 78:1; and see below, Isaiah 2:3 and Isaiah 51:4). See Mr. Cheyne's note on the passage.
To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? Cui bono? What good end do they serve? "Thinkest thou that I will eat the flesh of bulls, and drink the blood of goats? "(Psalms 1:1-6 :13). God "delights not in burnt offerings." From the time of Samuel he had declared, "Behold, to obey is better then sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams" (1 Samuel 15:22). David had said of him, "Sacrifice and meat offering thou wouldest not; burnt offerings and sacrifice for sin hast thou not required" (Psalms 40:8, Psalms 40:9); and again, "I will not reprove thee because of thy sacrifices, or for thy burnt offerings, because they were not always before me. I will take no bullock out of thy house, nor he-goat out of thy folds; for all the beasts of the forest are mine, and so are the cattle upon a thousand hills" (Psalms 50:8-10). Not, of course, that either David or Isaiah desired to abolish sacrifice, or had any commission so to do; but they were, both of them, anxious to impress on men that sacrifice, by itself, was nothing—that self-dedication, self-renunciation, true devotion of the heart, with its necessary concomitant obedience, must accompany sacrifice, for God to be pleased therewith. The sacrifices of a people such as is described in verses 21-23 could not but be an offence to him. Saith the Lord. The phrase employed is unusual, and almost confined to Isaiah, occurring elsewhere only in Psalms 12:5. Isaiah uses it again in verse 18, and also in Isaiah 33:10; Isaiah 41:21; and Isaiah 66:9. It is explained to be emphatic, implying that this is what God says, and will say, concerning the matter in hand, once and forever (Kay). I am full of the burnt offerings of rams; rather, I am overfull, satiated, wearied with them. Barns formed a part of the required sacrifice on all great occasions, as at the Passover (Numbers 28:19), at the Feast of Weeks (Numbers 28:27), at the Feast of Tabernacles (Numbers 29:13, Numbers 29:17, Numbers 29:20, Numbers 29:23, Numbers 29:26, Numbers 29:29, Numbers 29:32, Numbers 29:36), at the Feast of Trumpets (Numbers 29:2), and on the great Day of Atonement (Numbers 29:8). They were commanded as the sole sacrifice for a trespass offering (Le Isaiah 5:16, Isaiah 5:18). Under David were offered on one occasion "a thousand rams" (1 Chronicles 29:21); and the occasions where seven rams formed the legitimate sacrifice were many. Unaccompanied by a proper frame of mind, each such offering was an offence to God, displeased him, wearied him. The fat of fed beasts. The fat was always regarded, both by the Hebrews and the Greeks, as especially suitable for sacrifice. It was burnt upon the altar in every case, even where the greater part of the victim was consumed as food (see Le Isaiah 1:8, Isaiah 1:12; Isaiah 3:3, Isaiah 3:10, etc.; note particularly the expression in Le Isaiah 3:16, "All the fat is the Lord's"). "Fed beasts" are those which were kept separate in stalls or sheds for some time before the sacrifice, and given food in which there was nothing" unclean." The Paschal lambs were required to be thus separated and fed for four days (Exodus 12:3, Exodus 12:6). I delight not in the blood. The blood, "which is the life" (Le Isaiah 17:14), was to be sprinkled on the altar in every sacrifice of a victim. This sprinkling was of the very essence of the sacrifice (Le Isaiah 1:5; Isaiah 3:2, Isaiah 3:8, Isaiah 3:13; Isaiah 4:6, 17, 25, 30, etc.). Bullocks … lambs … he-goats. These, together with rams, constituted all the sacrificial beasts of the Hebrews.
When ye come to appear before me. Mr. Cheyne translates, "to see my face;" but most other commentators (Gesenius, Delitzsch, Ewald, Kay) regard the phrase used as equivalent to that employed in Exodus 23:17; Exodus 34:23; Deuteronomy 16:16; and the passage as referring to that attendance in the temple at the three great annual festivals, which was required of all adult male Israelites. The requirement of the Law was still observed in the letter, but not in the spirit. They came with no true religious object. Hence the question which follows: Who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? This was not what God had enjoined—a mere bodily attendance, a trampling of his courts with their feet, when their hearts were far from him.
Bring no more vain oblations. The command is net "Bring no more oblations, "as though the daily oblation was to cease; but "bring no more oblations that are vain ones, "i.e. empty and unreal—mere forms, without the proper corresponding spirit. The "oblation" spoken of is the minchah, or "meat offering," cf. Le Isaiah 2:1-11; Numbers 28:12-31, which was a cake of fine flour mingled with oil, and generally had incense joined with it, which explains the nexus of this clause with the following one. Incense is an abomination unto me. God had commanded the use of incense in worship, as he had commanded burnt offerings and oblations (Exodus 30:1-8, Exodus 30:34-38; Le Exodus 2:2; Exodus 16:12, Exodus 16:13). But incense symbolized prayer (Psalms 141:2); and if no heartfelt prayer accompanied its use, it was emptied of all its significance, and became hateful to God—a mere form, and consequently an "abomination." The new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with. The weekly festival of the sabbath, the monthly one of the "new moon, "and the annual "assemblies" or "solemn feasts" (2 Chronicles 8:13), were the main occasions of Jewish worship. As at this time conducted, God could endure none of them; all were tainted with the prevalent unreality. The construction of the passage is highly rhetorical, and indicates great excitement of feeling. Kay translates it literally, "New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies, I cannot—it is ungodliness—even the solemn meeting." The authors of the Revised Version also suppose an aposiopesis. The solemn meeting. The word thus translated is applied only to particular days in the great festival seasons, as to the eighth day of the Feast of Tabernacles (Le 23:36; Numbers 29:35; Nehemiah 8:18), and the seventh day of the Passover (Deuteronomy 16:8), or else to days specially appointed for religious services by civil authority (2 Kings 10:20; 2 Chronicles 7:9; Joel 1:14; Joel 2:15). The meaning thus is, that even the very highest 'occasions of religious worship were abused by the Israelites of the time, and made an offence to God.
Your new moons. (For the ceremonies to be observed at the opening of each month, see Numbers 28:11-15.) Your appointed feasts. The "appointed feasts" are the great festival-times—the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles. They do not include the sabbath or the "new moon, "with which they are, both here and elsewhere (1 Chronicles 23:31; 2 Chronicles 31:3), contrasted. They are a trouble unto me; literally, an encumbrance (see Deuteronomy 1:12).
I will hide mine eyes, etc. A time comes when the wicked are alarmed, and seek to turn to God; but it is too late. "Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me" (Proverbs 1:28). When ye make many prayers; literally, multiply prayer. Full of blood (comp. Isaiah 1:21). Actual bloodshed may be pointed at, as the murder of Zechariah (2 Chronicles 24:21), and the fate which befell Isaiah himself, according to the tradition, would seem to show. But cruelty and oppression, producing poverty and wretchedness, and tending to shorten life, are no doubt also included (comp. Micah 3:10, Micah 3:11). These were the special sins of the time (see verses 17, 23).
THE REQUIREMENT OF GOD—AMENDMENT OF LIFE. God, having put aside the worthless plea of outward religiousness made by his people, goes on to declare, by the mouth of his prophet, what he requires. First, in general terms (Isaiah 1:16), and then with distinct specification (Isaiah 1:17), he calls on them to amend their ways, both negatively ("cease to do evil") and positively ("learn to do well"). If they will really amend, then he assures them of forgiveness and favor; if they refuse and continue their rebellion, the sword will devour them.
Wash you, make you clean. The analogy of sin to defilement, and of washing to cleansing from sin, has been felt among men universally wherever there has been any sense of sin. Outward purification by water has been constantly made use of as typical of the recovery of inward purity. Hence the numerous washings of the Levitical Law (Exodus 29:4; Le Exodus 1:9, Exodus 1:13; Numbers 19:7, Numbers 19:8, Numbers 19:19; Deuteronomy 21:6; Deuteronomy 23:11; etc.); hence the ablutions of the priests in Egypt (Herod; 2.37); hence the appropriateness of the rite of baptism; hence the symbolical washing of hands to free from complicity in blood-guiltiness (Matthew 27:24). "Wash you, make you clean, "could not be misunderstood by the Israelites; they would know that it was a requirement to "wash their hands in innocency" (Psalms 26:6; Psalms 73:13), even apart from what follows. Put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes. Not "hide it, "for that was impossible; but remove it altogether - in other words, "cease from it." "Cast off all the works of darkness;" get rid of evil, to begin with. So much is negative.
Learn to do well. Now comes the positive; first, in the general form" learn," etc.; which resembles the apostle's "Put on the armor of light" (Romans 13:12). Then follow the particulars. Seek judgment; or, seek out justice; i.e. endeavor to get justice done to all men; see that they "have right." Relieve the oppressed. So the LXX; the Vulgate, the Syriac, and the Chaldean Versions. But the word translated "oppressed" is thought by many to mean "oppressor" (Kimchi, Gesenius, Cheyne). This is certainly its meaning in Psalms 71:4. Translate, tighten the oppressor; i.e. correct and chasten him. Judge the fatherless; rather, do justice to the orphan (Cheyne); see that he is not wronged—be his champion. Plead for the widow; i.e. plead her cause in the courts; or, if judge, and she have no advocate, lean towards her, as if her advocate. The widow and the orphan were taken under God's special protection from the time of Moses, and constantly commended to the tender care of the righteous (Exodus 22:22-24; Deuteronomy 10:18; Deuteronomy 24:17; Deuteronomy 27:19, etc.).
Come now, and let us reason together. God has from time to time permitted man to reason with him (Genesis 18:23-32; Exodus 4:1-17; Job 23:3-7; Micah 6:2); but it is difficult to see that there is any "reasoning" or "controversy" here. Mr. Cheyne translates, "Let us bring our dispute to an end." Though your sins be as scarlet … like crimson; i.e. "open, evident, glaring." Or there may be an allusion to their blood-guiltiness (see Isaiah 1:15, Isaiah 1:19). They shall be as white as snow. Comp. Psalms 51:7, which is completely parallel, whether it was written before or after. There can be no better image of, purity than snow (comp. Job 9:30; Lamentations 4:7). As wool. A weaker illustration than the preceding one, but needed for the parallelism. (The resemblance of falling snow to wool is noted in Psalms 147:16.)
If ye be willing and obedient. Rosenmüller explains this as equivalent to "if ye be willing to obey" (cf. Ezekiel 3:7); but perhaps it is better to give each verb its separate force: "If you consent in your wills, and are also obedient in your actions" (so Kay). Ye shall eat the good of the land; i.e. there shall be no invasion; strangers shall not devour your crops (see Isaiah 1:7); you shall consume them yourselves. "The good of the land" is a common expression for its produce (Genesis 45:18, Genesis 45:20; Ezra 9:12; Nehemiah 9:36; Jeremiah 2:7).
If ye refuse and rebel; i.e. "if ye neither consent in will, nor obey in act, "antithetical to the two verbs in the first clause of Isaiah 1:19. Ye shall be devoured; or, ye shall be eaten. The same verb as in the latter clause of Isaiah 1:19. With the sword. The metaphor is not a common one, but occurs in Jeremiah (Jeremiah 2:30; Jeremiah 12:12; Jeremiah 46:10, Jeremiah 46:14) and Nahum (Nahum 2:13). The mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. A weighty ending, indicating the certainty of fulfillment, Jehovah, who cannot lie, has spoken; the result will assuredly follow.
ISAIAH'S LAMENT OVER JERUSALEM. The exhortation to amendment has been made—the results have been set forth; the temporal reward has been promised; the temporal vengeance, unless they amend, threatened. Time must be allowed the people for the prophet's words to reach them, and do their work upon them, i.e. either soften or harden them. Meanwhile, Isaiah reflects on the condition of Jerusalem, and the unlikelihood of its rulers turning to God in consequence of his preaching.
How is the faithful city become an harlot! Not here an idolatress, but one that has left her first love, and turned to other attractions. Faithful once to her lord her spouse (Cant; passim), she has now cast him off—she is an adulterous wife, she no longer obeys or loves her husband. It was full of judgment; righteousness, etc. "She that was full" (Revised Version). Under Solomon (1 Kings 3:9-28) and again under Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 19:5-11). It is not clear when the systematic perversion of justice by the rulers began. Perhaps it originated in the latter part of Uzziah's reign, when the royal authority was weakened by being divided between Uzziah and Jotham (2 Chronicles 26:21). But now murderers (see the last note on Isaiah 1:15).
Thy silver is become dross. Primarily, "thy great men have deteriorated." From pure silver, they have become mere dross, the vile refuse of the smelted ore, only fit to be cast away as worthless. But per-Imps there is some further reference to all that was once precious in Jerusalem; there had been a general deterioration—all the silver was now a debased metal of no value. Thy wine mixed with water. A parallelism; but (as so often happens) a weakened iteration of the preceding sentiment.
Thy princes are rebellious; i.e. "rebels against their true King, Jehovah." Companions of thieves. Leagued with those who are engaged in filching away the inheritance of the widow and the orphan by chicane in the law courts (see above, Isaiah 1:15-17; and compare the Homiletics on Isaiah 1:16-20). Gifts … rewards; i.e. "bribes, "given and taken on the condition of their perverting justice (comp. Jeremiah 22:17; Ezekiel 22:12; Micah 3:11; Micah 7:3). They judge not the fatherless, etc. They dismiss the orphan's complaint without hearing it, and are so noted for perversion of justice that the widow does not even bring her cause before them.
THE DECLARATION OF GOD'S JUDGMENT. It is foreknown to God that Israel will not repent. He therefore fulminates his judgment; which, however, is still conditional, so far as individuals are con-corned. His vengeance will fall upon the land; but the result will be twofold. Destruction will come upon the unrighteous and the sinners (Isaiah 1:28)—they will be "consumed" (Isaiah 1:28), and "confounded" (Isaiah 1:29); but there will be some on whom the punishment will have a purifying power, whose dross it will purge away, and whom it will convert to God (Isaiah 1:25, Isaiah 1:27). From these will rise up a new Jerusalem—a "city of righteousness," a "faithful stronghold" (Isaiah 1:26).
The Lord, the Lord of hosts. In the original, Ha-Adon, Jehovah Sabaoth—i.e. "The Lord" (or "Master" of men and angels), "the Self-Existing One of the hosts of heaven"—i.e; their God, the only proper object of their worship. It gives peculiar weight and significance to this prophecy, that it is introduced by a triple designation of the Divine Being. The Mighty One of Israel. A very unusual designation, only found here and, with the modification of "Jacob" for "Israel, "in the following places: Isaiah 49:26; Isaiah 60:16; Genesis 49:24; Psalms 132:2, Psalms 132:5. God's might would be shown alike in his vengeance on his enemies, and in his purification of a remnant to serve him. I will ease me of mine adversaries; literally, I will comfort me; i.e. I will rid myself of them, and so obtain the only comfort that they will allow me to receive from them (comp. Ezekiel 5:13, "I will cause my fury to rest upon them, and I will be comforted").
I will turn my hand upon thee; rather, I will bring back my hand upon thee; i.e. I will once more put forth the "strong hand and mighty arm, with which I brought thee out of Egypt" (Psalms 136:12), and will work another deliverance—the deliverance of Israel out of captivity. Purely purge away thy dross; literally, will purge away thy dross like borax, which was used as a flux in purifying the metal. The prophet continues the metaphor of Isaiah 1:22. And take away all thy tin; rather, thy had—the alloy with which the "silver" had become mixed.
I will restore thy judges as at the first (see Exodus 19:25, 26). In the early times there was no bribery, no perversion of justice (Jeremiah 2:2, Jeremiah 2:3). God will bring back a time when the nation will renew its first love, and be as it was in the days of Moses and Joshua. Thy counselors. The city of righteousness; or, of justice. The prophecy may have been fulfilled in part by the earthly Jerusalem under Zerubhabel, Ezra, and the Maccabees. but is mainly fulfilled in the heavenly Jerusalem—the Church of God, the true Israel. The faithful city (comp. verse 21). Certainly the post-Captivity Church was "faithful" to Jehovah, in the way of acknowledging him, and him only, to be God, to a very remarkable degree, and in strong contrast to its inclination during pro-Captivity times.
Redeemed with judgment; rather, delivered through judgment; i.e. God's judgment shall have the effect of "delivering" a remnant, who shall build up Zion once more, and dwell in it. Her converts; i.e. those of her children who turn to God, shall be delivered through God's righteousness, i.e. through the righteous vengeance which he executes upon the unfaithful nation. Some, however, understand both clauses to mean that the penitent remnant shall "deliver their own souls by their righteousness" (comp. Ezekiel 14:14, Ezekiel 14:20; Ezekiel 18:27, etc.).
Transgressors … sinners … they that forsake the Lord (comp. Isaiah 1:2 and Isaiah 1:4). These are scarcely distinct classes—rather different names for the ungodly. All of them, by whatever name they were called, would perish "together."
The oaks which ye have desired are, primarily, the "green trees" under which images were set up (2 Kings 17:10), but perhaps represent also any worldly attractions which draw the soul away from God—as wealth, or power, or honors. In the day of suffering, sinners are ashamed of having been led away by such poor temptations as those to which they have yielded (comp. Romans 6:21, "What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed?"). The gardens. Kay suggests "idolatrous pleasure-gardens as those at Daphne, near Antioch, "which is a reasonable exegesis. Such were probably to be found wherever Astarte, or the "Dea Syra," was worshipped.
Ye shall be as an oak, etc. Contrast the case of the godly, whose "leaf shall not wither" (Psalms 1:3).
The strong (literally, the strong one) shall be as tow; i.e. weak and powerless (comp. 16:9), utterly unable to resist the Divine fiat when it goes forth. The maker of it. An extraordinary mistranslation, since po'al never means anything but "work." His own acts would light the fire by which the "strong one" would be consumed and perish.
"Nec lex justior ulla est,
Quam necis artifices arts perire sua."
The vision of Isaiah which he saw.
The modern theory, that the prophetical gift was a mere "presentiment, "or" insight, "closely akin to that by which clear-sighted men of all times and nations have been able, in many respects, to forecast the coming course of events, is not very easily reconcilable with these words, "the vision of Isaiah which he scow." As a commentator whose freedom from the shackles of tradition is beyond dispute observes, "With Isaiah, it" (i.e. prophecy) "is not a mere presentiment; it is a calm and settled conviction, based on a direct revelation, and confirmed by a deep insight into the laws of the Divine government". Isaiah "sees" that which he announces. It is placed distinctly before him, as that which is about to be. He no more doubts it than he doubts that which is presented to his bodily vision. Hence it may be concluded—
I. That the prophetic inspiration was absolutely convincing to those who were favored with it, and precluded all feeling of doubt.
II. That it was wholly different in kind from that power of prevision which all men more or less possess, resting, not upon grounds of reason or experience, but upon an inward spiritual conviction that the substance of the prophetic announcement had been communicated to the prophet by God.
Isaiah 1:2, Isaiah 1:3
God's arraignment of his people.
God claims his people's willing obedience on three grounds.
1. They are his children.
2. He has made them great.
3. He has exalted them to eminence among the nations.
I. As HIS CHILDREN, they are bound to love and serve him, to be grateful to him for his manifold mercies, and to yield him entire obedience. He is the Author of their being; he sustains their life; he feeds them, supports them, gives them every blessing which they enjoy. In return, what less can they do than love him unfeignedly, serve him truly, and obey him implicitly? Earthly children are bound to act thus towards their earthly parents: how much more God's children towards their heavenly Father!
II. AS RAISED BY HIM TO POWER AND GREATNESS, they are yet more bound to serve him. Every gift of God to us increases our responsibilities, lays us under a more stringent obligation to make a due return to our Benefactor. Israel was increased from a family into a nation, was multiplied in numbers, given a land flowing with milk and honey, raised from the bondage of Egypt to an independent and commanding position. Each step in their progress constituted a demand on them for greater love, profounder gratitude, more exact observance of every Divine commandment.
III. As EXALTED AMONG THE NATIONS, they are at once called upon for additional thankfulness, and required to manifest to the heathen that God's favor has not been bestowed on them by mere caprice, but with some reference to their capacity of profiting by it. "A city set on a hill cannot be hid" (Matthew 5:14). Eminence of whatever kind calls upon us for increased exertion. Noblesse oblige. If men are bound to serve God in the lowest walks of life, still more are they bound to serve him when he has "raised them out of the dust, and lifted them out of the dunghill, that he may set them with princes, even with the princes of his people" (Psalms 113:7, Psalms 113:8). And as with individuals, so with nations. Eminence among the powers of the earth calls on them to set a good example—to "let their light shine before men, "to make a decided profession of religion, and to carry out their profession in their acts.
Israel, however, had acknowledged none of these obligations. They had "rebelled against God, "turned away from following him, cast his words behind their back. More dull than either ox or ass, they had refused to "know God, "to have him in their thoughts, to "consider his operations" (Isaiah 5:10). Have not multitudes of Christians also followed their example? They too are God's children (Romans 8:16; 1 John 3:1, etc.), created by him, regenerated by him, adopted by him in his beloved Son, Jesus Christ. They too have been raised by him to greatness, increased from a "little flock" to hundreds of millions, "carried on eagles' wings" (Exodus 19:4), borne safely through the storms of centuries. And they have been exalted among the nations of the earth, given the chief place, manifestly elevated above both Jews and heathen. Must not Christians, if they rebel, if they refuse to "know God" or "consider 'him, expect the same terrible punishments as overtook the Israelites, or others similar to them? "If we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries" (Hebrews 10:26, Hebrews 10:27). "It is fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God' (Hebrews 10:31).
The prophet's enforcement of God's charge.
God's words are so weighty, that they may well be few; the preacher's enforcement of them must needs be, comparatively speaking, lengthy. Isaiah, in addressing his erring countrymen, aimed at producing in them—
I. CONVICTION OF DIN. For this purpose, he begins with an array of seven charges (verse 4), varying, as it were, the counts of the indictment:
The first four are general, and seem to be little more than rhetorical variations of one and the same theme. We may learn from them that rhetorical variation is allowable, nay, proper, since different words catch hold of different persons, rouse them, touch them to the quick, are effectual to the producing of repentance. The last three charges are particular, and to some extent different, each exceeding the last in heinousness, and thus rising in the way of climax—desertion, insult, complete estrangement. Metaphor is then called in to work on the imagination, and through the imagination on the conscience: the nation is depicted as a diseased and stricken body, a mass of sores and corruption (verses 5, 6).
II. FEAR OF PUNISHMENT. Undoubtedly fear is a low motive in religion—some think it altogether an unworthy one. But while human nature remains such as it is, while the mass of men are incapable of being stirred by the higher motives, appeal must be made to the lower ones. The prophet, therefore, reminds his people of God's judgments in the past (verse 7), threatens them with further judgments in the future (verse 5), and ends the paragraph by suggesting that his people have barely escaped the most terrible of all judgments—a destruction like that of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The outward form of religion, without inward piety, an offence to God.
It is strange how deeply ingrained the idea is in man, that formal acts of worship, outward acknowledgment, ritual, ceremonial, pageantry, constitute religion, and will be accepted by God in lieu of the inward devotion of the heart. Heathenism was full of the notion. Plato tells us that the Greeks thought they might commit any number and any kind of sins or crimes, and obtain pardon for them at the hands of the gods, if they offered sufficient sacrifices (Plato, 'Rep.,' 2. § 7). It is evident that the Jews of Isaiah's time were possessed with a similar idea. They "tried to compensate for their unrighteous lives by sumptuous—perhaps extravagant—performance of ceremonial observances" (Kay). So did the Pharisees of our Lord s day. Ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the Law, judgment, mercy, and faith." "Ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayer" (Matthew 23:23, Matthew 23:14). And do not professed Christians too often do the same? Is not "saying prayers" too often made a substitute for private devotion, and "going to church" for the true public worship of God? Nay, is not attendance at the Holy Eucharist itself sometimes allowed to become a mere form? Alas! Isaiah's warning voice is needed as much by Christians as by Jews. He tells us that the outward form of religion, without inward piety, is not only not pleasing to God, but is an offence unto him. It is so—
I. As IMPLYING A LOW AND UNWORTHY CONCEPTION OF GOD. To imagine that God will be content with external observance is to suppose, either that he is unable to read our hearts or that he does not care how we are in our hearts disposed towards him. It is thus either to question his omniscience or to deny his moral nature. A good father does care whether his sons render him a mere formal obedience or are heartily bent on obeying him through love and gratitude. Only one unworthy of the name is careless upon the point, and content so long as that which he commands is done.
II. As A SPECIES OF HYPOCRISY. "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" was our Lord's denunciation of those who paid tithe of every minutest vegetable, yet were without mercy and faith (Matthew 23:23). The outward acts of religion—prayer, praise, observance of fast and festival, attendance at sacraments, and the like—constitute a profession of certain inward feelings—love, gratitude, faith, reverence—and, if these are absent, the performance of the acts is deceptive and hypocritical. It is to make a pretence that we are what we are not. It is bad enough if it is done to deceive men; but it is worse if we think thereby to hoodwink God. God hates hypocrisy, and is revolted by the conduct of such as "honor him with their lips, while their hearts are far from him."
III. As A DESECRATION OF THINGS SACRED. The observances of religion have something sacred about them. They are either suggested by nature or formally ordained by God for a holy use; and, if practiced in an irreligious, or even in a non-religious, spirit, they are desecrated. It is a mockery to bend the knee and repeat the words of formularies while our thoughts are straying to other matters, as business, amusements, gaieties—it is emptying things holy of their holiness, and bringing them down to a lower level. We injure ourselves by so doing, we scandalize the truly religious, we give occasion to the enemies of God to blaspheme. Better not to "tread God's courts" at all than to do so without a reverent and prayerful spirit.
God will not listen to the prayers of the wicked.
Sinners sometimes think that they may persist in sin as long as they like, because they can at any time turn to God, ask his forgiveness, obtain pardon, and be saved. But Scripture is very full of warnings that this is not the case. There is "a sin against the Holy Ghost, "which "shah not be forgiven to men, neither in this world, neither in the world to come" (Matthew 12:32). There is a persistence in sin, which "quenches the Spirit" (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Men cannot turn to God whenever they please. The "accepted time" passes away, and they find it impossible to turn to him in true faith and penitence. They may "say prayers, "but they do not really pray. And God shuts his ears against such prayers (see, besides the present passage, Job 27:8, Job 27:9; Proverbs 1:28; Jeremiah 11:11; Ezekiel 8:18; Hebrews 6:4 6; Hebrews 10:26-29; 1 John 5:16).
No return to God's favor without amendment of life.
The outward show of religion, which the Israelites maintained, vain and futile as it was, seemed to indicate that they were not wholly irreclaimable—they did not desire to break altogether with God. The prophet, therefore, assumes that they would wish to know the way by which they may remove God's anger, and enter once more into favor with him; and he proceeds to point out that the one and only road open to them is to amend their ways—to reverse their course of life. This amendment consists in two things: one negative, the other positive.
I. NEGATIVELY: AMENDMENT CONSISTS IN CEASING TO DO EVIL. This is the first thing needed. Men must break off their sins, put away the iniquity of their doings, resolutely determine that the works of darkness shall be done by them no more. The works will be different in different cases. To one man they will be impure acts and words; to another, falsehood, deception, equivocation; to another, profanity of speech; to another, drunkenness; to another, intemperate anger, and so on. To the Israelites at this time, or at any rate to their chief men, who are here specially addressed (Isaiah 1:10), the evil-doing most common, and to which they were most prone, was cruelty and oppression. The chief men acted as judges, held courts, heard complaints, determined causes; but, instead of seeking to do justice between man and man, they sought merely to advance their own interests by means of the office entrusted to them. They accepted bribes from rich suitors to determine law-suits in their favor; they leaned in their judgments against the weak and the defenseless. They were probably a clique, who enriched themselves by playing into each others' hands, and ousting weak persons from their properties and estates by legal artifices. All this whole system of evil-doing they were required, first of all, to put aside, before they could hope that God would look upon them with anything but anger and reprobation.
II. POSITIVELY: AMENDMENT CONSISTS IN LEARNING TO DO WELL. Negative goodness is not enough. God expects each man to glorify him by good actions. Those who have gone astray must not only retrace their steps, but must enter resolutely on the path of virtue. They must "set themselves in some good way." And this must be especially done in the matters wherein they have failed. The Jewish judges had failed in their task of administering justice—they had given unjust sentences, favored oppressors, dealt hardly with the widow and the orphan. Hence the prophet's exhortations to them are "Seek out justice; correct the oppressor; right the orphan; plead the cause of the widow" (Isaiah 1:17). And so it must be with all the varieties of evil-doers. Each must be exhorted to the virtue which is the opposite of the vice that he has indulged in. Each must labor, if he really seeks restoration to God's favor, to do deeds the very opposite of those which he did formerly. If he was a drunkard, he does well to become a total abstainer; if a glutton, to chasten his flesh by fasting; if impure, to give him-serf to the reclaiming of outcasts; if niggardly, "to sell all that he has and give to the poor;" if violent, to suffer wrong, and turn his cheek to the smiter.
From the nature of amendment, the prophet proceeds to its consequences, which are likewise twofold, consisting in—
I. THE CLEANSING OF THE INDIVIDUAL SOUL. Here much is kept back which is revealed later, as
II. A REWARD, EXTERNAL TO THE SOUL ITSELF, WHICH GOD'S FREE GRACE WILL BESTOW. Here still more is kept back. The reward held out is merely temporal: "Ye shall eat the good of the land." Ye shall live in peace and prosperity, under your own vines and fig trees, and enjoy the fruits of the earth, which God in his bounty gives you. Not a whisper of the eternal reward—the blessedness reserved for man in heaven, the bliss which "eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive." Probably the Israelites of Isaiah's day were too gross and sensual, too much wrapt up in material things, to have been stirred to action by anything so distant and intangible as the heavenly life, even if they could have formed the faintest conception of it. Here, again, "God has provided better things for us" (Hebrews 10:1-39 :40), and given us a motive for exertion far beyond any that was presented to his ancient people.
The grievousness of the sin of oppression in God's sight.
The Israelites of Isaiah's time were guilty of many heinous sins, as we see by later chapters. They were idolaters (Isaiah 2:8), haughty (Isaiah 2:11, Isaiah 2:17), wanton (Isaiah 3:16), covetous (Isaiah 5:8), drunken (Isaiah 5:11), perverse (Isaiah 5:20), vain (Isaiah 5:21). But of all their sins, none seems to have so much offended God as their oppression of the poor and weak. The prophet refers to it over and over again (Isaiah 1:15, Isaiah 1:21, Isaiah 1:23; Isaiah 3:5, Isaiah 3:12, Isaiah 3:14, Isaiah 3:15; Isaiah 5:7, Isaiah 5:23, etc.), He denounces it in the strongest terms (Isaiah 1:15, Isaiah 1:23). He represents it as an especial offence to Jehovah (Isaiah 3:15; Isaiah 5:7). The reasons would seem to be—
I. BECAUSE OPPRESSION IS A BREACH OF TRUST. To oppress another we must have authority over him, and all authority is committed to man by God, as a trust. "Thou couldest have no power at all against me except it were given thee from above" (John 19:11). God entrusts us with power over others for their benefit and for our own moral training. He puts us in his place, to act for him, to be his instruments: "By me kings reign, and princes decree justice" (Proverbs 8:15). Abuse of our position is breach of trust; it is to use the power God has committed to us for a purpose the very opposite to that which he intended. It is flagrant rebellion against him.
II. BECAUSE IT IS CRUEL AND INHUMAN.
"'Tis excellent to have a giant's strength,
But tyrannous to use it like a giant."
Weakness naturally makes an appeal to our emotions of pity and compassion. To injure the defenseless, to hurt, crush, ruin the poor and the weak, instead of being their champion, is to be wanting altogether in manhood. It is to be at once unjust and cowardly. Oppressors have always been the objects of general hatred and condemnation. Rameses II; Nebuchadnezzar, Tarquin, Nero, Bajazet, have left an evil memory behind them, which will continue while the world endures. Oppressors are of various kinds. Some are emperors or kings, some princes, some judges, and other public personages. But there is far more oppression in private life titan in public. Slave-owners, and still more, slave-drivers, are apt to be fearful oppressors, making the lives of hundreds a burden to them. Even employers of free labor are often oppressors, when they take advantage of competition to beat down wages below the rate at which life can be sustained in decent comfort. Masters often act oppressively towards their servants, heads of schools towards their pupils, even parents towards their children. Of all the evils "done under the sun, "there is none more widespread than oppression (Ecclesiastes 4:1), and none more hateful.
III. BECAUSE IT OUTRAGES GOD'S ATTRIBUTE OF JUSTICE. To be just is of the very essence of God's nature. "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Genesis 18:25). Exact justice is what he deals out even to the feeblest, the weakest, the most contemptible of his creatures. And he "has made man upright" (Ecclesiastes 7:29). He has implanted in man a sense of justice, the reflex of his own attribute, and made him to be self-condemned if he transgresses it. God's law of conduct, "Do unto others as thou wouldst have them do to thee, "is a law of strict, equal justice, and if carried out would put an end to all oppression and wrong. Thus, when men oppress their fellow-men, they disobey both God's inward and his outward law; nay, more, they outrage him by showing contempt for one of his highest attributes.
The purifying power of punishment.
Great national judgments, such as that which Isaiah was sent to announce, have a purifying effect in three ways.
I. THEY ALARM A CERTAIN NUMBER OF PERSONS, AND INDUCE THEM TO QUIT THEIR SINS. The careless and indifferent have their attention excited and their fern's aroused by the dangers which manifestly threaten all, and the calamities which naturally fall on some. The class of waverers, who would fain be on the side of good, but continually fall away when temptation assails them, find their power of resistance strengthened by the perils of the time, which render sinful enjoyment insecure, and bring home to them the certainty that there is retribution in store for sin. Even among pronounced and habitual sinners there are apt to be some whom the novel circumstances of the time startle and induce to "consider their ways." It is an undeniable fact, that of such penitents a certain proportion repent with extreme earnestness, and become examples to the flock, advancing with the same impulse and fervor in the way of godliness as they formerly advanced in the "way which leadeth to destruction" (Matthew 7:13).
II. THEY INCREASE THE SERIOUSNESS OF THE BETTER DISPOSED, AND RENDER THEM MORE CIRCUMSPECT AND STRICT IN THEIR CONDUCT. Men are aware, under ordinary circumstances, that they may at any moment be summoned to meet their Judge. But they do not commonly realize the possibility. It is one of the effects of great national judgments—war, pestilence, famine—that they force on men the consideration of the peril in which they stand, and compel them to contemplate death as near, and their own speedy demise as probable. They lead men's thoughts to existence beyond the grave, and encourage them to prepare for the great change which death will make in their condition. They break in upon the placid calm of everyday life, which laps so many souls in an elysium of unconsciousness, and remind men of their Lord's solemn injunction to them: "Watch" (Mark 13:37).
III. THEY GIVE OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE EXERCISE OF THE HEROIC VIRTUES, AND HAVE THUS AN ELEVATING AND PURIFYING INFLUENCE ON THE BEST MEN. There is more room for self-devotion in times of national calamity than under any other circumstances. Thousands are thrown upon the charity of their neighbors. The suffering which exists is at once quasi-universal and extreme. Much danger has to be encountered in its relief. The best men at such times give themselves up wholly to the task of alleviating their neighbors' woes. Singly, or in bands, they go forth, fling themselves into the thick of the struggle, and do their best to relieve the general distress and misery. Whether they succeed or whether they fail in their object of helping others, they do not, cannot fail in one thing—the improvement of their own characters. Their "dross" is certain to be "purged away" by their unselfish efforts, and the pure metal of their virtue to shine forth ever more and more, as time goes on, free from all alloy of pride, or vanity, or self-seeking. Affliction has also a purifying effect on the individual. "Whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth," etc. Thus only can "patience have her perfect work" (James 1:4). Thus only can faith be tried (1 Peter 1:7) and strengthened. Thus only can "the fellowship of Christ's sufferings" (Philippians 3:10) be known and realized. But this branch of the subject lies outside of Isaiah's teaching in the present chapter.
HOMILIES BY E. JOHNSON
Jehovah arraigns his people.
I. INGRATITUDE THE BASEST OF SINS.
He, the Father, has been faithlessly forsaken by ungrateful sons. This is the worst form of ingratitude.
Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand
For lifting food to it?"
It has been said that
The wretch whom gratitude once fails to bind,
To truth or honor let him lay no claim,
But stand confess'd the brute disguised in man."
But the brutes are grateful; while Jehovah's sons seem to have neither memory nor understanding. Man, by his nature, if he does not rise above, must sink below, the level of the beast. There is nothing more hateful, then, because more radically amiss and evil, than ingratitude. It is, great men have said, the sum of guilt and evil, worse than any taint of the blood, more odious than lying, vainness, babbling, drunkenness,
II. THE PEOPLE HAVE ADDED REBELLION TO INGRATITUDE. They have forsaken, reviled, "gone backward" from him. This is a climax of sin. Our passions are ever in movement; there is no stagnation. Insensibility to God's goodness soon leads to antipathy, antipathy to active hatred, and this to open revolt. "Be ye thankful." The neglect of the heart and its proper attitude to God is certain to lay us open to every sin. The greatest physical pests of the city, and not less its moral corruptions, may be traced to neglect. Some "covenant" of God made known to us in natural or in spiritual law has been broken; hence sin and sorrow, and hence alone, as the prophets ever teach.
III. HEAVEN AND EARTH WITNESSES OF MAN'S GUILT. The whole language and style call up to mind the court of justice. All human events form part of a drama, of which God and the angels are spectators. We in all our thoughts and deeds are surrounded by a great cloud of spectators. The great solid mountains, for example, seem the very symbols of those fixed laws by which our actions must be judged. Napoleon in Egypt called his soldiers to reflect that "forty centuries were looking down upon them from the pyramids." By a similar figure, Micah summons the people to trial in the presence of the mountains (Micah 6:2); the Deuteronomist appeals to heaven and earth to listen to his words (Deuteronomy 32:1). So does a psalmist (Psalms 1:1-6.) represent Jehovah as demanding the attention of earth from east to west. All our acts run out into a universal significance.
IV. THE EXTREMITY OF NATIONAL RUIN. The people have run the whole course of sin, have left no stone unturned in the attempt to defeat Jehovah; and lo! the result. The body corporate is one mass of disease and wounds, fresh and bleeding. The land is devastated and fire-scarred. Barbarians are devouring it; it reminds of awful Sodom's ruin. Jerusalem, indeed, is as yet unscathed; but she stands alone in the midst of the dread silence. Like "a booth in the vineyard, a hammock in a cucumber-field, "is she? Thus, when appeals to the car have been repeatedly neglected, God paints the truth upon the field of vision. If we heed not the voice, we must feel the weight of the hand, of the Lord. Yet there is still a spark of hope. Jerusalem is all but, yet not quite, a Sodom or Gomorrah. There is still a remnant of people left. Thank God, while there is life there is hope. At the very moment when we are tempted to say of the ruined nation, the broken life, "All is lost!" a voice is heard, "All may yet be restored!"—J.
The people's plea considered.
The leading men of Jerusalem are supposed to reply to the charge of Jehovah, pointing to the elaborate manner in which his worship is kept up. And Jehovah rejects their plea with scorn.
I. THE DIVINE INDIGNATION AGAINST WICKEDNESS. No more scathing denunciation could there be than to term the rulers of the holy city "chiefs of Sodom," and the people in general "people of Gomorrah." Those were names of horror and shame. Christ used them in the same manner of extreme denunciation. Three forms of sin were prevalent—luxury, violence, and oppression. The widow and the orphan stand out especially as victims of greed and hard-hearted, grasping selfishness. As nothing could be more humane and gentle than the spirit of the Law, so nothing could be more wicked than the disregard of it. The Talmud, no less than the prophets, said the strongest things against injustice. The judge is particularly cautioned not to be biased in favor of the poor against the rich. What a light does this throw upon the fine education of the conscience! How much more flagrant the opposite fault! "He who unjustly hands over one man's goods to another, he shall pay God for it with his own soul. In the hour when the judge sits in judgment over his fellow-man, he shall feel as it were a sword pointed at his own heart." So says the Talmud. Jerusalem had evidently, in the earlier time of Isaiah, been obscuring its highest conscience.
II. DIVINE CONTEMPT FOE SACRIFICES AND RITUAL.
1. These things were never beautiful nor acceptable unless as expressions of piety. If the piety were not existent, the streams of blood, the reek of incense, became a spiritual disgust. The beasts chosen for sacrifice were from the meeker and pursued animals: how horrible a lie for the persecutor and the proud to bring such symbols to God! Says the Talmud, "Look at, Scripture: there is not a single bird more persecuted than the dove; yet God has chosen her to be offered up on his altar. The bull is hunted by the lion, the sheep by the wolf, the goat by the tiger. And God said, 'Bring me a sacrifice, not from them that persecute, but from them that are persecuted.'"
2. Mere attendance on public worship is not acceptable. Who has required them, Jehovah asks, to "wear out" his courts? Their thronging and their noise is offensive to him. Their meat offerings are vanity; meaning nothing spiritual, they have no value whatever. The incense itself, the finest flavor and aroma of the offering, stinks as it were in the nostrils of God. New moon and sabbath, and all the innumerable solemnities,—they are hateful and burdensome to Jehovah. He cannot endure the contradiction—wickedness and worship quantity goes for nothing, quality is everything in the service of God. There is only one act of true worship, but it fills a lifetime. Repetitions of unmeaning acts harden the heart, dull the perceptions, accumulate guilt. Homer spoke of the crimes of men "going up to the iron heaven." So here the heaven is like an iron bound, not suffering the prayers of the wicked to pass through.
III. THE TRUE DIVINE SERVICE.
1. It consists in moral, as distinguished from ritual acts. In making the "inside of the cup and platter clean. It is a "washing" of the soul from those thoughts and passions which lead to sin. It is a giving of one's self up to the godly sorrow that works repentance. "When the gates of prayer in heaven are shut, that of tears is open, "says the Talmud. What more blessed than the tears of the sinner over his sin? The rainbow of hope never fails to overarch them.
2. It has a negative side. Self must be denied in every evil meaning that self bears. The evil lusts and habits in the embrace of which we have been locked, must now be held at arm's length, and a divorce a mensa et tore be effected. Every true learning must be preceded by an unlearning; there must be a pause and a turning of the whole person, in short, a conversion, before we can start on a new course. God's voice says to us, "Hold! Leave off!" as often as it says, "Go forward!" Habits form unconsciously. It is, perhaps, a question more important to ask, because easier to be answered and dealt with—Are we doing anything to break off bad habits? It is God's part to weave and form the good in us. We should make space and room for him to operate in our souls.
3. It has a positive side. We are to learn—to inquire, to seek, in order to act rightly. Thought is the soul of act. We learn to do well by looking to good examples. The "consideration" of Christ is the life-business and art of the Christian. "Why do I tell you incessantly to study the old masters?" asked a great painter of his pupils. "Because the great masters are nearest to nature" (Ingres). So Christ is nearest to. God, to the nature and soul of all goodness. "Learn of me!" Nor can we approximate to right living without much seeking, much thought, comparison of experiences, much earnest prayer. "Show me thy ways, teach me thy paths!" Note the stress laid upon justice. This is the basis of character. Love is a vague sentiment without it, and may work as much harm as good. Love strengthened and purified by justice; this is the ideal of the good man's character. It is the imitation of God. And to seek to resemble the revealed Divine in temper and in life,—this is the essence of worship, the heart of piety.—J.
Argument and conviction.
I. THE TRIAL OF THE CASE.
1. God is reason, otherwise he could not be God of justice. And if the nature can defend itself, clear itself from guilt, its plea will be allowed. Just so in Isaiah 43:19, the imagery of a court of justice is presented: "Let them bring forth their witnesses that they may be justified, and let them hear, and say, It is true." The question is—Can the nation clear itself from the charges alleged against it? If so, the deep fixed stain that now seems to rest upon them shall be taken away, and they shall be white as driven snow or as undyed wool.
2. God appeals to fixed principles of right. These have long been known, are written in the conscience of the people. A willing spirit of obedience to Divine law is assured of blessing; rebellion brings about hostility, invasion, and all those calamities from which the people are now suffering. Have these curses come "causeless" upon the people? Or are they the just consequences of disobedience? Let them answer. A long pause and silence convey the admission of guilt. They have no argument to urge, no cause to show why judgment should be stayed.
II. THE PROPHET'S LAMENTATION. He, as daysman, or go-between, mourns over the city thus convicted, unable to stand in judgment against Jehovah. He is compelled in this cause to turn witness against his own people. Once loyal and pledged as in the covenant of marriage to Jehovah, the city has become like her who "forsakes the guide of her youth and forgets the covenant of her God." Where once the splendid seat of justice and purity stood, there is now lawless bloodshed. The pure metal of her virtue has been debased; and "as water unto wine" is her moral feebleness now as contrasted with her moral strength then. They who, as rulers, were set for an example of obedience to God, integrity among men, are rebels and thieves' comrades. Instead of withholding their hands from bribes, they greedily clutch after them. Pity and mercy are extinct; the orphan and the widow are thrust aside. The guilt of guilt lies in the use of power without love. Christ, as the impersonation of humanity and of love, points out that the condemnation of evil conduct lies in this, that love is wanting, The splendid temple ritual was naught, because there was no love in it, as their conduct out of the temple so clearly showed. We may never miss a Sunday service or a celebration of the communion, yet for all that be undone. And many who have never been "professed" Christians will be, on other grounds, professed by Christ.—J.
I. THE JUDGE. He is "Jehovah of hosts, the Strong One of Israel." He saith, "By the strength of my hand I have done it" (Isaiah 10:13). He has power to carry out his sentences. The holy fire of his indignation breaks forth like a volcanic flood. From one point of view evil men must be conceived as the enemies of God, and their punishment as his vengeance. If alone dwelt upon, such a representation becomes false, because it ignores the aspect of Divine love, which converts this holy vengeance into a remedial process. Human vengeance would extinguish the sinner and the sin in one act; Divine vengeance would save the sinner by extinguishing the sin.
II. THE PURPOSE OF JUDGMENT.
1. It is separation. The dross and the lead are to be detached from the silver. Human nature is a mixture. There are two extremes to be avoided in thinking of it—one that it is all evil, the other that it is all pure. Pessimism enervates, and optimism hoodwinks us. The Bible always takes the middle view. Things are bad enough with us, but they might be worse. We are sunk low enough, but cannot sink out of sight of our spiritual end, nor beyond the redeeming power of God. The separation of the gross and base element from the spiritual in men involves a fiery process. This fire is always burning in the heart of mankind, sometimes breaking out into flame and fume of war or pestilence, to remind of its presence. God has in constant operation his purgatory for souls. It is this truth which only can reconcile us to the presence of suffering. As mere pain it seems intolerable; as the means to the removal of evil it is blessed.
2. It is restoration. The better on golden age is ever ready to begin; good judges and rulers will again be given to the city, and it will deserve the title of Righteous and Faithful once more. When we see clearly the abuses that exist, and the necessity of fiery suffering for the renewal of purity, we have grasped a hope that cannot fail. God is ever remaking and recasting life. Not a day passes but some rust gathers, some disintegration of solid structure takes place. It may appear in any and every day that society is becoming hopelessly choked in its vices; or that we ourselves are slipping down into moral ruin. Yet in a happier morning mood it seems that all is mending with ourselves and the world. God's holiness is the vital sap of human life, and when we die to hope of ourselves, we live anew in him. Conversion, if real, will take place, not once, but many times in a life. The heliotrope turns every morning by a fresh effort to the sun. The result of many such personal acts is seen now and again in times of religious revival, when the multitude turns as one man, saying, "Let us walk in the light of Jehovah!"
III. THE PERDITION OF THE OBSTINATE. One will may defeat the remedial purposes of God. If man says, "I will be joined to my idols and my sins, "no fire, no earthquake has power to dislodge him. If we will not relax our hold on the evil object, we must share its fate. To fix our affections on objects unworthy of our choice is to bring on ourselves shame and self-contempt. The terebinth trees and the pleasant gardens, the seats of ancient idolatry, are typical of all scenes of spurious enjoyment. The voluptuary, the mammon-worshipper, the votary of ambition, create around them a world of objects, fascinating, but unreal. The terebinth shall wither; the garden, parched for want of water, shall lose all its charm. The man who seemed but now the very type of force, shall feel himself slack as tow, and his life-work the spark that sets it on fire. So both shall irretrievably be consumed. What are the "terebinth trees and pleasant gardens" of our idolatry? Each man's soul must answer. Any and every pleasure is good under right conditions; pernicious else. Everything that is naturally precious to the human heart should be precious to each one of us. In the soul lies the only test. In the way that objects react upon our finest feeling we know whether they are objects for our personal pursuit or no: idols that must degrade us to their level, or symbols and sacraments of God. It is in the life of imagination and association that we differ. Any scene supposed to be holy may become an idolatrous pleasure-garden to the ill-ordered fancy; and the soul that lives in God, seeking ever the true amidst the false, will ever convert the terebinth tree of ill repute into an altar of pure religion. The world is to us what our will permits it to seem. Wedded to the sensual, we must perish from the spiritual; united to the spiritual, the sensual becomes transformed and acquires new associations.—J.
HOMILIES BY W.M. STATHAM
Children that are corrupters.
Here we have a broad light on the mission of Isaiah the prophet. The holy nation had become evil. Plants are more poison-spreading in their corruption than forest trees. It is an old proverb, "The corruption of the best is the worst." "Children that are corrupt." How solemn the emphasis of the prophet's adjuration! "Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the Lord hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me."
I. THE MEASURE OF LIFE IS THE MEASURE OF CORRUPTION. Even physically it is so.
The horse does not breed such corruption as man. The body, God's most perfect work, must in its corpse state be buried quickly. Israel was a privileged people. They had the Law and the prophets and the glory; but their rottenness was complete: "From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores" (verse 6). Such, then, is the revealed philosophy concerning evil—the richer the life the more rotten the corruption.
II. THE MEASURE OF OPPORTUNITY IS THE MEASURE OF RESPONSIBILITY. "The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint." But in head and heart they had been "nourished and brought up as children." And as children their character ought to have reflected the Father's image. "Ye are my witnesses, "saith the Lord. But Israel had become vain, proud, carnal, self-seeking, idolatrous. They imagined themselves elected to the enjoyment of privilege instead of to the use and responsibility of privilege. Hence they sought to become a "vortex" instead of a "fountain." And evil had spread through them. Their lofty position had made the leaven of their influence wider. Alas! the "children" were "corrupters!"—W.M.S.
The faithful remnant.
Except the Lord of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, and we should have been like unto Gomorrah." This is as music of hope amid a strain of grief. And it is the first note of an evangelic prophecy, which is to merge into the "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people," of a later chapter. Where there is life there is hope in national calamity as well as in personal sickness. "A cottage in a vineyard" is a cottage that speaks of home (Isaiah 1:8), "a lodge in a garden of cucumbers" is a center of care and toil; and a very small remnant may be a branch of healing to save a nation.
I. THE SMALL REMNANT BELONGS TO THE LORD OF HOSTS. Therefore power is on their side. What a contrast!—"host" and "remnant." Even so. God can multiply the loaves and fishes. God can put such power into the remnant that they may be able to say, "Greater is he that is for us than all that can be against us." We must not judge by numbers or statistics, nor by quantity, but by quality. Whose are these? Decide that; and then "This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith, "for that faith centers in God.
II. THE SMALL REMNANT IS ANTISEPTIC. It can arrest disease. It can heal. Take a few grains of some chemical substance, and they will color and cleanse an entire stream. "We should have been as Sodom is." Yes; God's judgments on a nation, as in our own at the time when profligate plays had undermined the moral life, have saved the nation. For when men laugh at sin, well-nigh the deepest depth has been reached; but godly souls are then used as leaven to purify the body politic. Judah and Jerusalem were almost gone, but the Lord had mercy on them.
III. THE SMALL REMNANT IS TO SPREAD THE WORD OF THE LORD. The next verse says, "Hear ye the Word of the Lord." It is a Divine revelation that is to save them. And the prophet who speaks is called Isaiah, or Iesahiaha, signifying "the salvation of the Lord; 'so that though the prophet speaks stern words of rebuke, his very name contains the glorious issue of his work. His work was laborious and long—he prophesied in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. Terribly profane were those days, for in the days of Ahaz "the doors of the house of the Lord were shut up, and idolatrous altars were erected in every corner of Jerusalem." But God sent his Word and healed them; and that is the true regenerator in every age.—W.M.S.
Salvation to the uttermost.
"Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool." The previous verses show that the Jews had mistaken the ideal of Divine services; they had turned them into a correct ritual, to a multitude of sacrifices without purpose. And purpose or motive is the very heart of religion. They were devotional, but cruel. "When ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood." It was all empty ceremony. The solemn meeting even was iniquity. A change must come. And it must bean in character. "Cease to do evil." Yes; but that is not enough. Negation is not salvation. There must be life unto God as well as death unto sin. "Learn to do well." Then come the words of our text. They sound a strange note at first; they speak of what man cannot do and what God can.
I. HERE IS THE GOSPEL IN ISAIAH. Free, full, perfect redemption. We see in these words Gethsemane and Calvary. There God's purpose was fulfilled; but it is in his heart when these words are spoken, for "the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world." It is a glorious gospel—God giving himself for the world. And now, as we read Israel's sins in this record, we may see even then that, where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.
II. HERE IS THE REASONABLENESS OF RELIGION. How condescending! Let us—the Infinite and the finite, the immaculate and the evil. Yet so it is. God says, "While you are stained with blood and cloaked with hypocrisy, I can have nothing to say to you or to do with you." It cannot be that light should have fellowship with darkness. That is reasonable surely. But how can the sins of Judah and Jerusalem be purged away? Amendment is not atonement. And God is their Ransom, the high God is their Redeemer!
III. HERE IS THE CHARTER OF THE CHURCH'S LIBERTY. These words will never be forgotten. They have comforted millions. It is not liberty to sin, but salvation from all sin, and from the punishment of sin. Not from punishment only, but from sin itself, in all its forms, all its depths, all its degrees! For the colors are chosen as the symbols of the most marked and malignant evil—scarlet and crimson. Yet God is able to save to the uttermost. The words are best understood beneath the cross and in the history of redeemed men in every age.—W.M.S.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
Isaiah 1:1, Isaiah 1:2
Ingratitude and intervention.
The "vision of Isaiah" during the reigns of four kings of Judah (verse 1), and the declaration (verse 2) that "the Lord hath spoken" (or speaketh), suggests—
I. THE FACT THAT GOD HAS INTERVENED AND DOES INTERVENE IN HUMAN AFFAIRS.
1. Such Divine intervention ought not to have been necessary. For God has so ordered everything around us, and has so constituted us ourselves, that there were abundant sources of truth and heavenly wisdom without it. All visible nature (Romans 1:20); the bounties of Divine providence (Acts 14:17); the manifestations of Divine pleasure and displeasure in the events and issues of life (Psalms 34:15, Psalms 34:16); the conscience that speaks and strikes within the soul—the moral judgment of which our spiritual nature is capable (Proverbs 20:27; Acts 24:16; Romans 2:15);—these should have sufficed for man's instruction, integrity, perfection. But we find, from the religious history of our race, that these sources of enlightenment and influence have not been sufficient.
2. There has been needed, and there has been granted, special intervention from God. "The Lord hath spoken" to mankind:
II. HUMAN INGRATITUDE THE OCCASION OF THE DIVINE INTERVENTION. What is it that calls forth the Divine utterance? It is the shameful ingratitude of his own sons. "I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me." There are great and terrible crimes which have to be recorded against the human race; there are evil and shameful wrong-doings which stain and darken many individual lives; but there is one common and inexcusable wrong, to which all people and all souls must plead guilty, one common sin, with which we have all to reproach ourselves,—it is that with which God himself reproaches Israel—heinous and aggravated ingratitude.
1. God has done everything to attach us to himself. He has closely related us to himself; he has made us his children; he has expended upon us the lavish love, the patient care, the multiplied bounties, of a Father's heart, of a Father's hand.
2. We have broken away from his benignant rule. We "have rebelled against him;" our rebellion includes forgetfulness, inattention, dislike, insubmissiveness, disobedience. To whom we owe everything we are and have, to him we have rendered nothing for which he has been looking, everything which has been grievous in his sight.
III. OUR FITTING ATTITUDE WHEN GOD IS SPEAKING. When God speaks, let every voice be hushed; let all things everywhere, even the greatest and most majestic of all, lend their reverent attention. "Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth." There are
Obligation and interest.
I. THE WEIGHTIEST OBLIGATION. Isaiah speaks of ownership as a relation existing between a brute beast and a man; the "ox knoweth its owner." There is a legal and not unimportant sense in which a man may own art animal; the creature is his in so far as this, that no one else can lay an equal claim to its use, and no one can dispute his legal right to employ it in his service. In a far larger sense than this does man belong to God. God has that strong and indefeasible claim
II. THE HIGHEST INTEREST. The ass or any other domestic animal has the greatest interest in his "crib:" there he finds food, rest, renewal,—life. The highest interest which man has is not in the place where he secures food and rest. This is, indeed, necessary for his bodily well-being. But in gaining this he does not find his life. The life of man is in an instructed mind and, still more distinctively, in a well-ordered soul; in an intelligence that holds the highest truth it is capable of receiving; in a heart that fills and overflows with purest and holiest emotions; in a will that chooses the wisest courses; in a spiritual nature that realizes and rejoices in its highest relationships. A man who acts as if his chief interest were in a comfortable "crib," a well-stocked "stall," is a man who does not know himself and his opportunities.
III. THE DIVINE REPROACH. "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib," etc. The brute beast has sense enough to recognize his master, discernment enough to perceive what is best for him to do, but instructed and enlightened Israel, recipients of so many mercies, and with all their golden chances of enlargement and elevation, did not recognize their God nor understand their true and real interests. When we live in ignorance of God and in pursuit of the lower instead of the higher blessedness, we may see ourselves condemned and feel ashamed in our soul as we look on the beasts of the field, and see them using their humble powers to discharge their duties and to enjoy their heritage. A life of spiritual ignorance is
The course of sin.
It is true that both righteousness and sin have very varied manifestations, the course of one good or one bad man's life differing widely from that of another. Yet there is a logical and moral order in which both holiness and iniquity pursue their path from their beginning to their end. The course of sin is not indicated by the sequence of these accusations, but the different steps are included in the prophetic denunciation.
I. IT BEGINS IN THE WITHDRAWAL OF THE SOUL FROM GOD. The first movement in the soul's downward course is to "forsake the Lord"—to withdraw itself from him. At first it has no intention to take up an attitude of positive rebellion; it does not say to itself, "I will not have this One to reign over me." But it withholds its thoughts, its affection, its consultation of his revealed will, its activity and contribution in the field of Christian work. It fails to "magnify" him in its own mind and sphere; it "follows afar off;" it loses its hold on him, and its joy in him. It allows an increasing distance to be placed between itself and him.
II. IT SHOWS ITSELF IN WRONG-DOING. They who withhold from God the reverence and the obedience which are his due soon become "a seed of evil-doers." Morality rests on religion as on its only solid basis. Without a sense of religious obligation—as individual and national histories abundantly testify—moral principles will soon decline and disappear. When God is forgotten and his will is disregarded, life becomes darkened with evil deeds, it is stained with vice and crime.
III. IT PASSES INTO DELIBERATE DISLOYALTY TO HIM. "They are gone away backward;" or, "they have turned their backs upon him." The outcome of irreligion and iniquity is presumptuous infidelity, unblushing atheism: man turns his back on God.
IV. IT BRINGS DOWN THE HIGH DISPLEASURE OF THE HOLY ONE. "They have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger." We read that God is "angry with the wicked every day" (Psalms 7:11); that sin "grieves him at his heart" (Genesis 6:6). The Divine emotion is doubtless different, in some respects, from that with which we are familiar, but there is enough resemblance between a holy man and the Holy One of Israel for us to say that such grief and anger as we feel when we look upon shameful sin and shocking crime God himself feels in an infinitely greater degree. It is a thought as true as it is terrible that, when we forsake, disobey, and disavow the Lord, his high and awful wrath is directed against our souls.
V. IT RESULTS IN THE HEAVIEST OF ALL PENALTIES THAT CAN BE BORNE. "A people laden with iniquity." Sin, "when it is finished," when it has run its course and done its work, triumphs over the sinner; it may seem at first to be a power under his feet, and then to be a pleasure to his heart; but it ends in being a crushing weight upon his head. It becomes an insupportable burden; he becomes a soul "laden with iniquity."
1. Iniquity itself, ever growing and spreading, covers the entire surface of his life.
2. The effect of sin is to dwarf and shrivel his whole nature. A man who has given away to sin (notably to such a hateful vice as intemperance, or licentiousness, or gambling) suffers like a man who; all his. life bears a burdensome weight upon his shoulders. He "bears his iniquity." His soul is dominated, damaged, tyrannized, by it. He is the miserable, pitiable slave of his own sin; it bears him down to the very ground in feebleness and humiliation. Yet there is one aspect of the course of sin which is even worse.
VI. IT CULMINATES IN THE PERPETRATION OF SPIRITUAL MISCHIEF. The people laden with iniquity are "children that are corrupters." The very darkest aspect of evil is that it communicates itself on every hand. It is a terribly infectious thing. Every corrupt man is a corrupter of souls. Who shall estimate the evil which one false life starts and spreads? Who shall calculate the distance, in space or time, which the consequences of one wrong action travel?
1. What need of mercy!
2. What need of Divine direction and guardianship!—C.
Sin in its hopelessness.
I. THAT SIN IS MORE OR LESS RECLAIMABLE. Whatever we might have antecedently expected, we find practically, that there are those on whom Divine truth is far more likely to tell than it is on others. Thus
Time, pleasure, the misuse of sacred opportunity,—these things indurate the soul and make it far less responsive than it once was; so that there are some that are more hopeless than others.
II. THAT THOSE WHO HAVE BEEN UNCHARGED BY THE DISCIPLINE OF GOD ARE THE MOST HOPELESS OF ALL. Many things are effective as spiritual weapons—the Word of God, the ministry of the gospel, the entreaties of friendship, the influence of a godly home, sacred literature, etc.; but not one of them is so penetrating, so affecting, so reformative, as the discipline of the Divine hand. When God comes to a man in his providence; when he sends loss, disappointment, bereavement; when he lays his correcting hand on the man himself,—then there is the deepest silence in the soul, then the voices which are from heaven reach the inmost chambers of the spirit. And if these be felt and heard in vain, if the lessons which come thus be unlearned by the rebellious heart, then the last state of that man is about the worst that is imaginable: "There is more hope of a fool than of him."
III. THAT THERE ARE THOSE UPON WHOM GOD SEEMS TO HAVE EXHAUSTED HIS DISCIPLINARY RESOURCES. The prophet says (Isaiah 1:5), "The whole head is sick," etc; already. As it is, the entire body is covered with open, unhealed wounds (Isaiah 1:6); the nation (the body politic) was witnessing the most harrowing evils and the most humiliating indignities to which it could be subjected (Isaiah 1:7, Isaiah 1:8). What further chastisement could the arm of the Almighty inflict? By what severer blows could he recall his people to repentance and righteousness? So with individual men. God has sent them chastisement after chastisement, reminder on reminder; he has touched them in one part of their nature, he has laid his correcting hand on another part; he has visited them in many ways; he has multiplied his most solemn lessons unto them. What more can he do? Where "can they be stricken any more?" In what other way shall he strike their follies and seek to save their souls?
IV. THAT IN THEIR CASE FURTHER SUFFERING WOULD PROBABLY RESULT IN AGGRAVATED sin. Isaiah might well ask (if that be not the precise point), "Why should ye be smitten any more?" (verse 5); he certainly does say, "Ye will revolt more and more." His thought apparently is that added blows will only mean increased rebelliousness. When a man (or a nation) has reached a certain depth in iniquity, the very thing (Divine chastisement) which ought to arrest and restore him will only goad him to proceed with quickened step on his evil way. Thus are the purposes of love defeated and the means of recovery perverted. And yet there remains one redeeming thought, viz.—
V. THAT, THOUGH COMPARATIVELY, SIN IS NOT UTTERLY HOPELESS HERE. The "daughter of Zion" was little better than a "cottage in a vineyard," a "lodge in a garden of cucumbers" (verse 8); but it was left, to be at least as much as that. The Lord of hosts had left a "remnant," though that was "very small" (verse 9). Jerusalem had not yet become as "the cities of the plain." The penalty of sin is great: it reduces the sinner very low indeed; it robs him of his heritage; it leaves him almost nothing of the spiritual faculties, of the filial portion (Luke 15:12), of the heavenly hopes with which he was endowed. But it leaves something—some sensibility to which we can appeal; some thread of willingness by which we can draw him; some plank by which, through a thousand perils, he may yet reach the shore.
"The blackest night that veils the sky
Of beauty hath a share,
The darkest soul hath signs to tell
That God still lingers there."
The prophetic strain.
Isaiah had gone only a very little way in his testimony when he broke into the true prophetic strain. The prophets were God's witnesses against the mere shows and semblances of piety, and for the reality of godliness and virtue; they lived to expose the false and to expound the true, to pierce with keen edged sword that which was hollow and rotten, and to commend with glowing zeal that which was sound and good. Here we have a deliverance which evidently came hot from a heart that burned with fiery indignation.
I. THE UTTER INSUFFICIENCY OF MERE RITUAL TO COMMAND THE DIVINE FAVOR. "To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me?" etc. (verses 11-13). These various offerings were all according to the commandment, correct, scriptural; but they were unacceptable; they were "vain oblations, "all of them. They were ineffectual, because they came from hands that were unclean, from hearts that were unholy. It is a significant and solemn fact that men may be engaged in doing those very things, using those very words which God has plainly prescribed, and yet they may be utterly failing to win his Divine favor. The services of the sanctuary, the "eating of that bread and drinking of that cup, "the ministries of the pulpit and the study,—all these may be unimpeachably correct, but yet wholly unacceptable. If the heart be not right, if the life be not pure, they are unacceptable.
II. ITS POSSIBLE ODIOUSNESS IN THE SIGHT OF GOD. Those who are rendering an abundance of formal devotion are actually denominated by a term which indicates the last extremity of wrong-doing: "Ye rulers of Sodom," "ye people of Gomorrah;" they are addressed as if they were responsible citizens of those infamous cities. Jehovah not only does "not delight in the blood of bullocks" (verse 11), and not only does not rear, ire this kind of service (verse 12); not only does he call the oblations "vain," but he declares incense to be an abomination to him (verse 13). "Your new moons … my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them" (verse 14). The thought is positively terrible that the very things we are doing with a view to gain God's pleasure may be bringing down upon us his awful anger; that the very means we are taking to avert his wrath may be only adding to its weight. It is certain that the offerings of the hypocrite are of this kind. This prophetic strain is not only applicable to the specialties of the Hebrew ritual; it includes all the ordinary approaches of the human soul to the Divine Father; it embraces that which we call "prayer" (see verse 15). And we have to face the fact that the most devout utterances of our lips, in the most approved or even in biblical phraseology, may be worse than worthless in the sight of God.
III. THE PRIMARY DUTY OF REPENTANCE. "Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings," etc. (verses 16, 17). When men are loving and practicing unrighteousness, the first thing they have to do is to "put it away," both from their minds and from their lives. The drunkard must first dash down his cup, the untruthful man must at once give up his falsehoods, the licentious man his impurities, the dishonest man his rogueries; it is a vain and even guilty thing for a man to kneel in prayer or to sit down at the Lord's table when he is deliberately intending to go on in his sin: that is nothing less than mockery; it is defiance assuming the attitude of devotion. "Let the wicked forsake his way," etc. (Isaiah 55:7).
IV. THE READINESS OF GOD TO PARDON THE PENITENT. (Verse 18.)
V. THE ALTERNATIVE WHICH GOD PLACES BEFORE ALL HIS CHILDREN—OBEY AND PROSPER, OR REFUSE AND SUFFER. (Verses 19, 20.) They who now return unto the Lord from the state of sin in which they are found—from crime, from vice, from ungodliness, from indecision—and who attach themselves to the service of Jesus Christ, shall "eat the good of the land;" to them shall be granted the sunshine of God's favor, the blessedness of Christ's friendship and service, the hope of a heavenly heritage. But they who remain apart and afar from God, who will not have the Man Christ Jesus to reign over them—they must abide under the condemnation of the Holy and the Just.—C.
The magnitude of the Divine mercy.
I. THE FULNESS OF THE DIVINE MERCY. In estimating the fullness of God s grace to mankind, we must include:
1. His patience toward all men, both penitent and impenitent. From the beginning of sin until the present hour God has been forbearing to inflict penalty. He has not dealt with us after our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities." The times of long-continued ignorance God overlooked, or did not interpose with special penalty or redemption (Acts 17:30).
2. His pardon offered to the penitent and believing. In the Law we read that he is "the Lord God, merciful and gracious," etc. (Exodus 34:6, Exodus 34:7); in the Psalms we read that he is "plenteous in mercy," etc. (Psalms 103:8, Psalms 103:11, Psalms 103:12); in the prophets we read that "he is merciful and will not keep anger forever" (Jeremiah 3:12; and see text and Isaiah 55:7-9; Daniel 9:9). In the gospel of Jesus Christ remission of sins is a cardinal doctrine (Matthew 26:28; Luke 24:47; Acts hi. 38; Acts 5:31; Acts 10:43; Acts 26:18).
3. The thoroughness of his forgiveness.
(a) The worst kinds of sin—blasphemy, idolatry, all forms of impurity, murder, etc.;
(b) the most criminal condition—long-continued forgetfulness, sin against multiplied privilege, persistent and obdurate rebelliousness of heart, etc.
(a) Penetrating to the most secret thoughts of the mind, to the most inward motives of the soul, to the slightest choices of the will;
(b) extending to the thoughts and things which have been overlooked and omitted, as well as to those which have been entertained and wrought.
(a) Leading to actual holiness—for pardon is the fruit of penitence and faith, and with them in the soul, the scarlet becomes as snow, the crimson as wool, the mind is radically changed, the life is thoroughly transformed
(b) including full restoration, not merely the not exacting penalty, but the actual bestowal of the Divine favor—admitting to the Father's home and table, lavishing upon the accepted child every sign and proof of parental love.
II. THE DIVINE ARGUMENT THEREFROM. God condescends to "reason" with us; he appeals to our sense of obligation, to our regard for our own interests, to our human affections, etc. The argument here is not stated, but it may be easily inferred. If such is the Divine mercy—so large and full and free, then how wise to seek it at once! because of:
1. The blessedness of being right with God henceforth.
2. The uncertainty of the future. Between our souls and its possession may be interposed
3. The immeasurable, issues which are at stake—"everlasting punishment or life eternal."—C.
Divine dealing with the degenerate.
We have here—
I. DEPLORABLE DEGENERACY.
1. Degeneracy of character. "How is the faithful city become an harlot!" etc. (Isaiah 1:21, Isaiah 1:23). There is nothing more melancholy than the sight of a people or city or of a human being fallen from spiritual and moral integrity to a depth of sin and folly—devoutness exchanged for impiety, conscientiousness for unscrupulousness, self-restraint and self-respect for laxity or even for licentiousness, spiritual excellency for moral unloveliness. But many illustrations confront us, both in history and experience.
2. Degeneracy of power. The result of this spiritual decline is weakness: the silver becomes dross, the wine is mixed with water (Isaiah 1:22). The sinner is not long before he finds that there is "no might in his hand" (Deuteronomy 28:32). Sin saps the life-blood from the soul, and leaves it strengthless and useless. It makes him to be as an Oriental garden from which the life-giving waters have been withdrawn, as a tree whose leaves have faded and fallen (Isaiah 1:30)—everything is parched, barren, fruitless.
II. DIVINE VISITATION. This includes:
1. Punishment; the outpouring of wrath upon the wicked, involving
2. Purification. (Isaiah 1:25-27.) God would turn his hand—his hand that healed and saved; and, in his purity, would purge away the dross, and restore to the favored city its ancient righteousness. Penalty would become correction, and correction would end in transformation and redemption. Whether God visits
it is that they may "come to themselves;" that they may return unto him; that they may be purified of their iniquity, their pride, their selfishness, their worldliness, their self-indulgence; and that they may rejoice in his holy service.—C.
HOMILIES BY R. TUCK
The times and mission of Isaiah.
God raises up the man for the age, giving him gifts for the particular work which the age may demand. History is not a mere faithful record of things done, but a wise and sympathetic estimate of men doing. A man has more power on us than a truth. A man is grander than any doctrine or any book. Christianity, as a mere system, is a powerless thing; it never quickened anybody from his death of trespasses and sins. The personal Christ is our life. In the sphere of philanthropy we are interested in the doings of Howard and Wilberforce and Nightingale; in politics we trace the influence of Pitt and Burke and Cobden; and in the field of patriotism you kindle into enthusiasm all America when you speak of Washington and Lincoln, and all Scotland when you speak of John Knox. But it is not an easy thing for us to reproduce the men of a long bygone history. The men of one period must not be judged by the ideas and manners and social sentiments of another period; and yet it makes a surpassing demand on us if we have to create, with our imaginations, times wholly differing from our own. If we could be set down amidst the ruins of the buried Pompeii, and see around us the rooms, the furniture, the pictures, the ornaments, and the utensils, we think that, with their help, it would be easy to reproduce the life of old Rome; we could fill banqueting-hall, and theatre, and baths, and market-place with the men and women of that age. With old Israel we can have no such helps; we are dependent on the historical and imaginative faculties.
I. THE PROPHET HIMSELF. "The vision of Isaiah, the son of Amotz." Little is known of his private life, and nothing of his personal appearance. He resided in Jerusalem; he was married, and his wife is spoken of as a prophetess. They had two sons; both were named with prophetic names, the two taken together embodying the substance of Isaiah's message. The one was called "Maher-shalal-hash-baz"—"He hasteth to the prey"—indicating the swift desolating forces that were coming on the people of Judaea; the other was called "Shear-Jashub"—a "remnant shall return"—indicating the mercy of God towards some, the mercy with which so much of the Book of Isaiah deals. It appears that the prophet wore a garment of haircloth or sackcloth, the ordinary symbol of repentance among Eastern nations; and so his very appearance reminded the people of his message. Isaiah prophesied for nearly fifty years. No record is left of his death, but Jewish traditions represent him as martyred in the reign of Manasseh—sawn asunder with a wooden saw. He was a prophet, not necessarily foretelling future events, but a directly inspired man; one who received communications from God which he was to address to the people. The prophet had three things to do:
II. THE TIMES IN WHICH THE PROPHET LIVED. They were times of national decline and decay. Isaiah saw four kings upon the throne of Judah. He saw the flickering of the candle ere it went out in the darkness. There was some appearance of prosperity; but Isaiah knew that it did but gloze over deep national corruption that called for national judgments. During the time of Isaiah the neighboring kingdom of the ten tribes did actually fall—the corruptions of idolatry and sensuality, in their case, running a swifter course; and the prophet holds up their case as a solemn warning to the people of Judah. The first six chapters of Isaiah have been referred to the reign of Uzziah, a king whose prosperity developed a strong self-will and masterfulness, which led him to attempt a sad act of sacrilege. Jotham was a pious king; but Ahaz plunged into all the idolatries of the surrounding nations, making molten images for Baal, and sacrificing his children by passing them through the burning hands of Moloch in the valley of Hinnom. The people were only too ready for this debasing change. But judgment quickly followed on the heels of iniquity. Pekah of Israel and Rezin of Damascus attacked and injured the country, though they failed to take Jerusalem. Soon other enemies came—Syrians in front, Philistines behind. Ahaz sought help from Tiglath-Pileser, King of Assyria, who soon turned upon him, and Assyria became the gravest enemy of Israel.
III. THE WORK WHICH THE PROPHET HAD TO DO.
1. His first work was to make men understand that their sufferings were actual Divine judgments on their sins, and therefore calls, like thunder-peals, to awaken them to repentance. God will not leave men in their troubles to imagine that some evil chance has befallen them, that they are the victims of accident. By the mouth of some prophet he will assuredly vindicate the connection between sin and suffering.
2. But Isaiah had also to bring comfort to the people of God in the time of national calamity. Godly people are often bowed down by the pressure of surrounding evil, and in their despairing they sometimes say, "God hath forgotten to be gracious." God will never leave his faithful few to sink under discouragements.
3. Isaiah's work may be more precisely stated as this: he was to prepare the way for the spiritual kingdom of God, in the person of Messiah the crucified yet glorified Redeemer. The old theocracy was breaking up, and God's rule in the world might be lost. Isaiah was to say that it was only passing into a spiritual theocracy, giving place to the spiritual and eternal reign of God in souls. In Isaiah messages of severity and of mercy are most graciously blended. The following passage precisely represents his mission: "Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off."—R.T.
Sin as broken sonship.
Literally, the verse reads, "Sons I have made great and high, and they have broken away from me." The later conception of the Jewish covenant embraced the ideas of fatherhood and sonship, and thus prepared for the revelation of the fatherhood of God in the teachings of the Lord Jesus, and for the apprehension of the "sonship of men" through Christ's own sonship. It is the point of impression, that this relation intensifies the guilt of the people's unfaithfulness and rebellion, just as Absalom's relation, as son, to David aggravates the criminality of his deceptions and his revolt. In addition to the actual relation of father and son, the text suggests the exceptional goodness and considerateness of Israel's Father-God. He had brought the nation to its maturity, and given it a high place among the kingdoms. And still the extreme painfulness of sin is not its breaking of law, its insult to kingly majesty, or the necessarily bitter consequences that must attend upon it; it is its filial ingratitude, its dishonor of the sacred claims and duties of sonship. All heaven and earth may be called to see this shameful sight—children turning against their father.
I. THE SIN OF THE UNFILIAL SON. Dwell upon its characteristic features. We estimate the motive and spirit of the wrongs rather than the precise nature of the acts. Show the aggravations of such sin. Every persuasion of dependence, love, and duty must be pushed aside ere unfilial sin can become possible.
II. ITS POSSIBLE EXCUSE IN AN UNWORTHY FATHER. This is the only excuse that can be urged, and this does not count for much. The natural relation sustains the demand for obedience, and nothing can conflict with parental law save the supreme law of God. If even parents command what is contrary to God's revealed will, we must obey the Father in heaven rather than the father on earth. Illustrate how this conflict of the human and Divine law was the burden of the Greek dramas. Short of this, obedience must be fully rendered, even when fatherly requirements cannot be approved.
III. THE ABSENCE OF ALL SUCH EXCUSE WHEN THE FATHER IS GOD. His will is right, is love. Apprehend what he is. Apprehend what he has been to our forefathers and to us. Realize the "goodness" of him in whom our breath is, and whose are all our ways, and then the unspeakable iniquity must be to grieve him, disobey him, and revolt from him.—R.T.
The foolishness of increasing Divine judgments.
The plea of the prophet appears to be this: "You have run terrible lengths in sin; and you have seriously suffered from the consequences of sin; now why will you bring down fresh judgments upon your head through persisting in your infidelity" (comp. Ezekiel 18:31)? So serious, indeed, had been the penalties of transgression already that there seemed to be no part of the body politic upon which another stroke might fall; new inflictions must come upon old sores and wounds. "The two noblest parts of the human body are here selected to represent the body politic; and the extreme danger to which it was exposed is significantly set forth under the image of universal sickness and languor. There were no parts which did not suffer from the calamities which sin had entailed." Remember the expression of St. Paul (Romans 2:5), "After thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God."
I. ALL SINS ARE FOLLOWED BY JUDGMENTS. We say, by consequences; and we even admit that they are usually "unpleasant" consequences; but we must go further and admit that every sin—be it neglect, or be it willful disobedience, whether it concern the individual or the community—is attended by its appropriate and necessary result, and that this is always the Divine judgment. Sorrow waits on sin. Suffering follows sin. Moral deterioration is Divine judgment. Painful circumstance is Divine judgment. The old world sins, and comes under the judgment of the Flood. Sodom sins, and comes into the judgment of the Divine fires. David sins, and quarrel and curse break up his family and break his heart. Judgment always links on to sin, and no human power can snap the uniting tie. If we will enjoy sin we must bear suffering. Illustrate by the pagan conceptions of the Furies and the Fates. Something bad grows out of all sin; and "whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap."
II. ALL JUDGMENTS ARE CHASTISEMENTS. It is impossible to associate punishment, as a mere exercise of tyrannical power, with God the great Father. In the long run, or in the short run, all Divine judgments must be proved to have been remedial in their design. It is quite beyond our province to decide to what extent the free-will, the self-will, of man may resist the remedial purpose of God's judgments. All we can say is, that a father's punishments must be, at the very heart of them, chastisements; and that the plea of the passage before us rests upon the fact that God had been smiting in order to correct, and was deeply grieved because his correcting purpose had hitherto been so successfully resisted. Illustrate how epidemics and plagues, following upon sanitary sins, are designed to correct sanitary evils. The same applies in moral spheres. From this point a review of God's dealings with us in our past lives may be taken, and we may be searchingly reminded how we have resisted the remedial influence of God's chastisements.
III. REFUSAL TO LEARN BY CHASTISEMENT IS FRESH SIN. This the prophet pleads. "You are further grieving God by this, that you will not be humbled; you will not learn; you will not let him lift his judgments off you." Illustrate by the hardened boy who will not respond to his father's punishment. That hardened resistance is a fresh sin.
IV. FRESH SIN INVOLVES FURTHER AND WORSE JUDGMENTS. Before, the judgment was but to reveal the evil character of the sin; now, the judgment has to bear upon the heart-hardness, and it must be more searching and severe. The secret of more than half our calamities and afflictions is, that they are second and sharper strokes because we would not heed the first. Israel was swept away into captivity at last, because she would resist the smaller national calamities that were gracious Divine persuasions to repentance. In a great measure it is true that our life-troubles are in our own hands. We suffer so much because we are such dull and unwilling scholars in the school of God.
V. THE WORST OF ALL WOES WOULD BE THE SUSPENSION OF DIVINE JUDGMENTS. There is no more terrible conception than that ordinarily awakened by the passage "Ephraim is joined to his idols, let him alone." The unspeakable calamity for a man or for a nation would be for God to lay down his chastening rod, and stop his judgments. There is hope for us so long as he will smite.—R.T.
Mere ceremonial an offense to God.
What a painful sight it would be to see some of our houses with the fronts off!—to look into the abodes of vice; to witness the impurity and profanity, and wretchedness and wild license, and seething corruption of our large towns! That sight we may escape, but we must see ourselves with the fronts off—those false fronts with which self-worship hides the truth from view. We must look behind the gaily painted scenes of a decent moral life and conformity with outward social laws. We must know our souls if we would know ourselves. Isaiah seeks to lay hare to the view of Israel their transgressions, by lifting off them that covering of religious service under which they tried to hide the truth of their moral state. That is the burden of this first chapter. The people drew near to God with the lip, but their heart was far from him. Their relations to the worship of God in the temple were anxiously maintained, but with that they thought to he satisfied; and, while keeping up the ceremonials, they "followed the devices and desires of their own hearts." Jehovah declares that the merely formal service of the impure is an abomination unto him. Those very sacrifices and offerings which were his delight, became hateful to him when offered with unclean hands, and when no loving, trusting, obedient hearts found expression through them. "I cannot away with iniquity and the solemn meeting."
I. THE POSSIBILITY OF UNITING TOGETHER INIQUITY AND THE SOLEMN MEETING. At first it may seem as if that were not possible. Surely conscience will prevent men from joining in religious worship who are indulging in open sin. Perhaps this is the real reason why so many people around us stay away from worship. But it is a fact that many of the worst men have kept, all through their lives, in outward association with religious worship. In the times of the old monasteries you might have listened to the solemn services and heard the monks breathe out strains of holy music set to holy words. You might have seen priests in gorgeous garments waving incense and uplifting the symbol of the Redeemer. They were precise in all prayers, minute in all ceremonial. And many of them were faithful and true men. But History writes one of her saddest pages about many of them. They were given over to gluttony, drunkenness, and immorality, and were uniting "iniquity and the solemn meeting." This is even a possibility for our own times and for ourselves. Many of us, if we were conscious of heart-sins and life-sins cherished and loved, would only become more exact in religious formalities, trying to cover up the wrong and hide it, as far as possible from our own view. We do religiously somewhat as Cain did when he hid his murdered' brother in the ground, and then set vigorously to work in his fields, trying, by sheer earnestness in work, to persuade himself and to persuade others that he knew nothing whatever of his brother's blood. We are not, however, so likely to unite the open forms of iniquity with the solemn meeting as we are the more secret forms, the inner heart-sins, which may be cherished without disgracing us before God; such sins as:
1. The unforgiving spirit. To fail to forgive is to sin.
2. Backslidings and lustings of heart: proud, selfish, sensual, corrupting thoughts. "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he." And the God to whom we offer worship is the Heart-searcher, the Thought-searcher.
3. Openness to the vanities of the world.
4. Occasional yieldings to temptation and self-indulgence. Many indulge the idea that, if their indulgences do not become habitual, they need not interfere with their religious worship. Plead the Divine requirement as given in Psalms 24:3-5.
II. THE VIEW GOD TAKES OF UNITING INIQUITY AND THE SOLEMN MEETING. "I am weary to bear." "I cannot away with." "It is an abomination to me." We should clearly distinguish what it is which is thus hateful to God. It is not the sacrifice, or the offering, or the solemn meeting. God takes delight in those places and in those services in which his Name is recorded. They are the highest things that can engage human attention, the seasons in which man transcends the earthly and anticipates the hallowed occupations of heaven. They are the times in which man ought to be the truest, the most sincere, the most himself; all cloaks, all hoods, all masks, all pride, ought to be laid aside whenever we pass the threshold of God's sanctuary. Naked, guileless, open souls alone may stand before the all-holy Lord. The thing which is so hateful is the separation between a worshipping and an obedient heart. God has encouraged outward worship, that it might express, and strengthen while it expresses, the love and trust of an obedient heart. The husk becomes worthless when the worm of self and pride has eaten out the kernel. The dress is hideous which no longer clothes a warm living body, but covers, and scarcely hides, the skeleton of rebellion. The voice is hateful that is only a voice, and utters no joy, no trust, no love of the heart. Be true in thy worship, be spiritual, and God will look down on thee with delight and acceptance. Be formal, be insincere, and God will frown thee from his presence; from thine hands he will reject the costliest sacrifices and the grandest show of devotion. Our cherished sins will as surely be an offence to God as were those which are referred to in this chapter. Ours, indeed, are not sins of violence and blood, but rather sins of secret indulgence. We have seen the light of the sun as effectually hidden by thin light mists as by black thunder-clouds. And God's face has often been hidden by the mists of little transgressions. He notices sins of will. He observes sins of inadvertence. He sees sins of neglect. He reckons sins of nourished evil thoughts. More souls have died away from the love of God through the subtle plague-breath of little heart-sins than have fallen under the strokes of temptation in open conflict with evil. And what shall we do, if it is revealed to us that secret evils have come in upon our souls, and that the devil's work of woe has been progressing in us, and the work of God's grace in us is flagging and failing? What shall we do if we can detect stains of secret disobediences, unforgivings, and self-indulgences? Let us not stay away from worship; but let us at once obey in this: "Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well."—R.T.
Isaiah 1:16, Isaiah 1:17
Conditions of Divine acceptance.
The prophet has been dealing with the insufficiency of mere ceremonial as a ground of acceptance before God. He is equally severe on mere professions of penitence, that find no adequate expression in changed moral conduct and hearty return to the rules of duty and charity.
I. IT WOULD BE MISCHIEVOUS TO ACCEPT THE HARDENED. Mischievous for the hardened themselves, who would be made yet harder by a goodness they could not fail to misunderstand. Mischievous for all others, in whose minds moral distinctions would be confused, and the Divine righteousness sullied. Under no pretence, by no equivocations, through no disguises, can God possibly accept the guilty and impenitent. In this, as in all else, the Judge of all the earth will do right.
II. IT IS HOPELESS TO ACCEPT MERE PROFESSORS. For they are self-deluded, and would be kept from awakening to their true state, if God accepted them as they are. The man who is satisfied with profession, and fails to aim at godly living, can never appreciate Divine acceptance or rightly respond to it. Divine acceptance is one great help to righteousness, and this the professor neither admires nor seeks. What good is it to accept professors? God cannot get beyond their fine outer shell. They are apples of Sodom, acceptable neither to God nor man. "He that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous."
III. GOD ACCEPTS ONLY THOSE WHOSE PENITENCE FINDS EXPRESSION IN EFFORTS TO DO RIGHT. They only show that they are sincerely desirous of help; and they only are in a moral condition to receive, and to use well, Divine forgiveness and favor. Show how intensely practical the plea is in the text: "Put away just those very sins that you have been so freely indulging in. But do not be satisfied with any mere negation of evil; seek opportunities of doing justice; take care to blend justice with charity; do the right, and do the kind to all those who cannot right themselves." Goodness as a sentiment is of little value. Goodness as a life Gad looks for, and man asks from his fellows. "I will show thee my faith by my works."—R.T.
Reasoning with God about our sins.
Conceive a man responding to this appeal, what may we think he would say to God, and what may we suppose God would reply?
I. FIRST PLEA. "Thou art revealed as the great God, inhabiting eternity, whose Name is Holy; who art of purer eyes than to look upon iniquity. I am afraid thou wouldst not concern thyself about the sin, much less about the forgiveness, of such creatures as we are." What is God's answer? "I have a great interest in that little world where you dwell. I have given you many proofs of it. I have hidden my great sun to shine on you, and quicken life and beauty everywhere around you. I am coming down continually in the rains and winds that provide food for you, coming down to attend your steps and ward off evils from you. It is quite true that by me even 'the very hairs of your head are all numbered.' If I take such interest in you, should I not concern myself about your sin, the worst of the evils that gather about you? Do you think I could temper the storms and the sunshine, keep away pestilence and blight, and not strive to take away sin? And there is something more: 'I am merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and of great kindness.' You know that I am Light, Power, Majesty, King, Judge. But you do not really know me till you know that I am Love, and love will spend itself until every stain is cleansed from those whom it loves. My love sends forth streams that wash away sins." When love opens the cleansing fountain, what can we do but
Plunge rote the purple flood,
And rise into the life of God.
II. SECOND PLEA. "I read that thou hast given a great Law, by which thy creatures are to be judged. 'The Law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.' Thou hast said, 'The soul that sinneth, it shall die.' I do not see how thou canst keep thy justice and thy truth, and yet blot out my scarlet, my crimson sins." What is the reply? "It is indeed the mystery of mysteries, but love has solved it. I can be just and justifying. I have set forth my dear Son as your Sin-bearer, your Substitute, the Propitiation for your sin. In his righteous life, by his vicarious death, my Law is magnified and shown to be honorable. Not a stain can even seem to be upon it after such an obedience as Christ rendered, if I did gather every sinful creature into my love and heaven. I have myself put such an eternal honor upon Law by permitting my Son to submit to it, that none can ever doubt the transcendent glory of my justice."
III. THIRD PLEA. "But my sins are so great, so aggravated, it seems to me as though such sins as mine cannot even be atoned for; even if atoned for, I think I should never be able to hold up my head for very shame." Some of us know what scarlet sins mean, crimson sins, sins of deepest die. What is God's reply? "I have provided for the uttermost of sin in the infinite merit of my Son. His worth outweighs all sin; it can cover and blot out the deepest crimson stains. His sacrifice sends up such a fragrant incense to me that I can freely pardon all your iniquity. If his robe of righteousness cover you, I shall not see any of those stains; I shall accept you in him."
IV. FOURTH PLEA. "But my sins are not just acts of willfulness and rebellion, they are the habits of my life, the neglectings and self-servings of my life. I hear of rolling sin as a sweet morsel under the tongue, and that is just the way with me. If I were forgiven, I fear I should just go on sinning still." But God answers, "I have provided also for this. I will pour out of my Spirit upon you; and to them that have no might he shall increase strength. He shall be Teacher, Guide, Comforter, Earnest, and Seal. He shall be with you always."
V. FIFTH PLEA. "Even if my scarlet sins are made like wool, and my crimson sins like the snow, I fear I shall never be able to return anything for such grace abounding." What a wonderful reply God makes to you, closing up your mouth and humbling you in the very dust! "Not for your sakes do I this, O house of Israel, but for mine own Name's sake." Truly that is a wonderful answer. It is like God coming to us, opening the fountain of his being, and saying, "Look in, look long, and peer into the depths. I am love." There is all the secret. Love saves. Love saves even those who never can hope to make worthy returns for love.—R.T.
Unrighteousness a nation's curse.
Comp. Proverbs 14:34, "Righteousness exalteth a nation; but sin is a reproach to any people." The prophet is picturing the corrupt state of the metropolis, and contrasting its present moral degradation with the high and honorable character which it had formerly sustained. The following points may be illustrated, and the lessons of them enforced.
I. UNRIGHTEOUSNESS IN THE LEADERS IS THE CURSE OF A BAD EXAMPLE. Illustrate by the mischievous influence of a corrupt court and aristocracy, and by the discontent produced by corruptions of the fountains of justice.
II. UNRIGHTEOUSNESS IN THE PEOPLE ENFEEBLES THE NATIONAL LIFE. Illustrate by the effect of prevalent sensuality on the morale of soldiers. The moral degradation of France was the secret of her weakness when struggling against Germany. A nation's manhood sinks under the power of self-indulgence and sin. This was strikingly illustrated again and again in the history of God's people Israel. When they were idolatrous and immoral they were weak before their foes. Virtue is strength.
III. UNRIGHTEOUSNESS PREPARES THE WAY FOR NATIONAL EVILS. Both for such as are internal and for such as are external. Family life, society, religion, all are affected. Ordinary checks are removed. The sense of common weal no longer binds men together to seek national interests. And the "enemy coming in like a flood" finds no "standard of the Lord lifted up against them." Illustrate by the iniquities wrought by and encouraged by Hophni and Phinebas, and the consequent despising of Jehovah's worship, and inability to stand before the nation's foes. Nobody from outside can really hurt a nation. Nations hurt themselves by permitting vice and iniquity to run riot. Show what are the features of modern city sins, country sins, national iniquities. These are our peril, our woe, our curse. Against these every servant of the Lord must strive and plead and fight. Nations can build national life securely on no other foundation than this—morality, righteousness, the clean heart, and the clean hand.—R.T.
Isaiah 1:24, Isaiah 1:25
Hope in God's refinings.
Cheyne translates, "Ha! I will appease me through mine adversaries, and avenge me on mine enemies, and will bring back my hand upon thee, smelting out as with lye thy dross, and will take away all thy lead-alloy." The "lye" referred to is potash, which was used as a flux in purifying metals. Calamities, diseases, bereavements, failures, anxieties, are God's refining forces, but their influence for good depends on the state and condition of those to whom they come.
I. CALAMITIES OF LIFE TO MEN STANDING ALONE. Without any faith in God, or idea of the gracious meaning there is in earthly trouble. How such men fret and chafe, and question why they have to suffer, and give way to rebellious thoughts! Too often troubles only harden them, and drive them further still from God.
II. CALAMITIES OF LIFE TO MEN UNDER GOD'S WRATH. These must take intense and severe forms. They must first crush and humble, breaking down proud wills and rebellious spirits. They must first look like overwhelming judgments, and then, if men will respond to them, they shall seem to be gracious chastisements and refinings.
III. CALAMITIES OF LIFE TO MEN UNDER GOD'S MERCY. This opens the whole subject of God's refining and purifying of his people. We all have so much tin and dross mingled with our gold, and it is so good of God that he will not let the dross stay. With his "fires" and his "lye" he will graciously refine us, until all the dross is got away, and his image shines clear on our purified gold. And God's dealings with individuals may be illustrated by his dealings with nations, and especially with his own favored nation.—R.T.
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