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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Isaiah 55

 

 

Verse 1

LV.

(1) Ho, every one that thirsteth . . .—The whole context shows that the water, the wine, the milk are all, symbols of spiritual blessings as distinctly as they are, e.g., in John 4:10; Matthew 26:29; 1 Peter 2:2. The Word “buy” is elsewhere confined to the purchase of corn, and would not rightly have been used of wine and milk. The invitation is addressed, as in a tone of pity, to the bereaved and afflicted one of Isaiah 54:6-7.

Without money and without price.—“Literally, For not-money and not-price. The prophet had used the word “buy,” but he feels that that word may be misinterpreted. “No silver or gold can buy the blessing which He offers. Something, indeed, is required, and therefore the word” buy “is still the right word; but the “price” is simply the self-surrender that accepts the blessing. Comp. Proverbs 3:14-15; Matthew 13:45-46,


Verse 1-2

The Poor Man’s Market

Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.—Isaiah 55:1-2.

“Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money”—well may Isaiah be called the Evangelical prophet. Where in the New Testament itself will you find a clearer gospel invitation than this? Even the searching cry of our Lord on the great day of the feast, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink,” what is it more than this? It is simply Isaiah’s call, its unique and moving power being due to no greater freeness or breadth in the call itself, but to the Person who now uttered it. “Come unto me,” said Isaiah; but he spoke in the name of another; “Come unto me,” echoed Jesus the Christ, and that day Isaiah’s Scripture was fulfilled in their ears.

Isaiah is the gospel prophet. And what are the marks of a gospel? These three: propitiation, pardon, purity. In the fifty-third chapter we have the propitiation, the putting of One in the place of others, and making Him to be sin for us. In this chapter we have the other two, the pardon and the purity. The assurance of pardon is given in Isaiah 55:6-9, beginning, “Seek ye the Lord while he may be found.” The promise of purity goes from Isaiah 55:10 to the end of the chapter.

Samuel Rutherford has spoken of this verse as setting before us what he calls the poor man’s market; and, in like manner, William Rutherford, of Fenwick, of Covenanting faith, declares: “We have here a plain market, even the most pleasant, most substantial, and most glorious market that ever was.” And indeed, when you think of it, you have here the strangest kind of market that you can conceive, in which every maxim of the merchantman is set at naught; in which the only payment is made by the seller, and all the gain is to the buyers, and in which goods the most precious, the most costly you can think of, are given away for naught.

I

The Universal Hunger and Thirst

The prophet’s call is to every one that thirsteth, to all who are unsatisfied, who feel that their life is not filled up, that there is something which they know they still lack, something they crave for, over and above their present possessions.

At the very outset the question meets us, Are there any beyond the reach of the prophet’s call? It is to “every one that thirsteth,” but are there those who are not thirsty, who are perfectly contented with what they have, and feel no need of anything more? Or does the call of the prophet appeal to all men? It does seem to us that we could point to a contented life which nevertheless does not possess what we know to be the essential secret of contentment. We know men who feel no need of God, who can live on in a world that is full of God and dependent on God, and neither see Him nor feel their dependence; and if we limit our question to this, Are there men who can exist without feeling a thirst for things higher than what we see and touch? the answer must be that there are; and it would seem as if the prophet’s call were not addressed to them. But if we allow that call to have its widest meaning, it speaks to all. It is not addressed to every one that thirsteth after God, or after righteousness, or after goodness, or after holiness; but simply to every one that thirsteth; it speaks to every one that is not absolutely contented with what he has. If that be so, then it speaks to the world.

1. There are dormant thirsts. It is no proof of superiority that a savage has fewer wants than we have, for want is the open mouth into which supply comes. And you will all have deep in your nature desires which will for ever keep you from being blessed or at rest unless they are awakened and settled, though these desires are all unconscious. The business of the preacher is very largely to get the people who will listen to him to recognise the fact that they do want things which they do not wish; and that, for the perfection of their nature, the cherishing of noble longings and thirstings is needful, and that to be without this sense of need is to be without one of the loftiest prerogatives of humanity. Some of you do not want forgiveness. Many of you would much rather not have holiness. You do not want God. The promises of the gospel go clean over your heads, and are as impotent to influence you as is the wind whistling through a keyhole, because you have never been aware of the wants to which these promises correspond, and do not understand what it is that you truly require. And yet there are no desires so dormant but that their being ungratified makes a man restless. You do not want forgiveness, but you will never be happy till you get it. You do not want to be good and true and holy men, but you will never be blessed till you are. You do not want God, some of you, but you will be restless till you find Him. You fancy you want heaven when you are dead; you do not want it when you are living. But until your earthly life is like the life of Jesus Christ in heaven even whilst you are on earth you will never be at rest.

You remember the old story in the Arabian Nights of the man who had a grand palace, and lived in it quite comfortably, until somebody told him that it needed a roc’s egg hanging from the roof to make it complete, and he did not know where to get that, and was miserable accordingly. We build our houses, we fancy that we are satisfied; and then comes the stinging thought that it is not all complete yet, and we go groping, groping in the dark, to find out what it is.1 [Note: A. Maclaren, The Wearied Christ, p. 116.]

More liberty begets desire of more;

The hunger still increases with the store.2 [Note: Dryden, The Hind and the Panther, Part I, line 519.]

2. But, while dormant desires have to be roused, the prophet’s call is really addressed to everybody. Where shall we find a man who is absolutely contented, who has everything he desires to have, and nothing he would gladly get rid of, who, if only he could find a pleasant enough and feasible enough plan for accomplishing the transformation, would not wish to change anything in his outward condition, or be different in his inward character? Could we choose what we were to have and what we were to be, I imagine few would choose to remain as they are. If this be so, then are we of the number of those “thirsty ones” to whom Isaiah speaks. The whole world is athirst, and the prophet’s message is for every creature.

The invitation is as universal as if it had stopped with its third word. “Ho, every one” would have been no broader than is the offer as it stands. For the characteristics named are those which belong, necessarily and universally, to human experience. If the text had said, “Ho, every one that breathes human breath,” it would not have more completely covered the whole race, and enfolded thee and me, and all our brethren, in the amplitude of its promise, than it does when it sets up as the sole qualifications, thirst and penury—that we infinitely need and that we are absolutely unable to acquire the blessings that it offers.

The sharp shrill cry of “Acqua! Acqua!” constantly pierces the ear of the wanderer in Venice and other towns of sultry Italy. There is the man who thus invites your attention. Look at him. On his back he bears a burden of water, and in his hand a rack of bottles containing essences to flavour the draught if needed, and glasses to hold the cooling liquid. In the streets of London he would find but little patronage, but where fountains are few and the days are hot as an oven, he earns a livelihood and supplies a public need. The present specimen of water-dealers is a poor old man bent sideways by the weight of his daily burden. He is worn out in all but his voice, which is truly startling in its sharpness and distinctness. At our call he stops immediately, glad to drop his burden on the ground, and smiling in prospect of a customer. He washes out a glass for us, fills it with sparkling water, offers us the tincture which we abhor, puts it back into the rack again when we shake our head, receives half a dozen soldi with manifest gratitude, and trudges away across the square, crying still, “Acqua! Acqua!” That cry, shrill as it is, has sounded sweetly in the ears of many a thirsty soul, and will for ages yet to come if throats and thirst survive so long.

II

The Vain Search for Satisfaction

1. The phrase “Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread?” in the Hebrew, referring to the custom of ancient times, reads: “Wherefore do ye weigh money for that which is not bread?” We see here how in their foolishness men are weighing out their lives, spending their energies, wasting their affections upon that which is not bread, and which brings no lasting satisfaction to the soul. The soul is fed and fed, but the sense of hunger remains. The soul is filled and filled, and yet the sense of emptiness continues! The Hebrew term “for that which is not bread” reads more correctly “for that which is no-bread,” it is the negative of bread; it is the very opposite of bread. It is that which not only does not alleviate our hunger, but makes us more hungry! It does not fill our emptiness, but makes us more empty than ever! Not only does it fail to satisfy, but it makes us more dissatisfied! Just as salt water not only fails to quench the thirst but aggravates it.

The excessive striving which is so evident to-day betokens a thirsty, unsatisfied world. Men are searching for happiness and contentment; it is natural they should, and they imagine that if they had certain things their hunger would be appeased. The poor man asks for money, the rich man seeks to be richer still, the ambitious longs for fame and power and position, the sensual for the means to gratify his passions, and each fancies that were his wishes to be granted, he would then know what happiness meant, and would be content.

2. In how many ways do men try to quench the thirst of the soul? Some of the most manifest are Sensuality, Work, Privation, Amusement.

1. Sensuality.—It is a common endeavour to make the body receive double, so as to satisfy both itself and the soul with its pleasures. The effort is, how continually to stimulate the body by delicacies, and condiments, and sparkling bowls, and licentious pleasures of all kinds, and so to make the body do double service. Hence, too, the drunkenness, and high feasting, and other vices of excess. The animals have no such vices, because they have no hunger save that of the body; but man has a hunger also of the mind or soul, when separated from God by his sin, and therefore he must somehow try to pacify that. And he does it by a work of double feeding put upon the body. We call it sensuality. But the body asks not for it. The body is satisfied by simply that which allows it to grow and maintain its vigour. It is the unsatisfied, hungry mind that flies to the body for some stimulus of sensation, compelling it to devour as many more of the husks, or carobs, as will feed the hungry prodigal within. Thus it is that so many dissipated youths are seen plunging into pleasures of excess—midnight feastings and surfeitings, debaucheries of lust and impiety; it is because they are hungry, because their soul, separated from God and the true bread of life in Him, aches for the hunger it suffers. And so it is the world over; men are hungry everywhere, and they compel the body to make a swine’s heaven for the comfort of the godlike soul.1 [Note: H. Bushnell, The New Life, p. 37.]

My days are in the yellow leaf,

The flowers and fruit of love are gone,

The worm, the canker, and the grief

Are mine alone.2 [Note: Byron, on the day he completed his 36th year.]

2. Work.—It was to a busy people that the words of our text were first addressed. Most probably this prophecy was uttered on the eve of the return of the Jews from captivity in Babylon. Long ago had they looked for deliverance from the miseries of the exile, but when it began to appear as if God had forgotten His people, and as if all their bright national hopes were for ever shattered, it was inevitable that they should seek for some other source of consolation and rest. Many lost hope, lost faith in the covenant promises, and turned to find in trade and worldly aims a substitute for religion. All their splendid powers of heart and mind they transferred to commerce, and joined in the pursuit of gain until, as one has put it, “from being a nation of born priests, they equally appear to have been born traders.” Gain now took the place of God. They had been a religious nation, now they became a commercial nation.

The exile in Babylon made money. He increased it by increased trade. He amassed possessions. His body revelled in conditions of ease. His carnal appetites delighted themselves in fatness. He climbed into positions of eminence and power. What else? “In the fulness of his sufficiency he was in straits.” The body luxuriated; the soul languished. He drenched the body with comforts; he could not appease its tenant. “Soul, thou hast much goods laid up … eat, drink, and be merry!” And still the soul cried out, “I thirst,” and disturbed him like an unquiet ghost. He spent money and more money, but was never able to buy the appropriate bread. He plunged into increased labours, but his labours reaped only that “which satisfieth not.” The body toiled, the brain schemed, the eyes coveted, and still the soul cried out, “I thirst.”

It is related that a nobleman, greatly incensed that his sister had married a man of affairs, turned her picture, which hung in the manor house, face towards the wall, and on its back inscribed in crude letters the legend, “Gone into trade.” It was the expression of his abhorrence that one who had been nobly born should make an alliance which, in his estimation, was beneath her station. When Israel, by reason of her own iniquities, was led in exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, God turned her picture face to the wall and on it wrote the legend, “Gone into trade.” Her history expressed God’s abhorrence of her choice between His service and the worship of the world.1 [Note: N. Boynton in Sermons by the Monday Club, xvii. p. 51.]

He found his work, but far behind

Lay something that he could not find:

Deep springs of passion that can make

A life sublime for others’ sake,

And lend to work the living glow

That saints and bards and heroes know.

The power lay there—unfolded power—

A bud that never bloomed a flower;

For half beliefs and jaded moods

Of worldlings, critics, cynics, prudes,

Lay round his path and dimmed and chilled.

Illusions passed. High hopes were killed;

But Duty lived. He sought not far

The “might be” in the things that are;

His ear caught no celestial strain;

He dreamed of no millennial reign.

Brave, true, unhoping, calm, austere,

He laboured in a narrow sphere,

And found in work his spirit needs—

The last, if not the best, of creeds.1 [Note: W. E. H. Lecky, Poems, p. 99.]

3. Privation.—In India ascetic practices have been very widely prevalent from the very earliest times. The mortification of the body, and the self-inflicted penances associated therewith, have been habitually carried to lengths beyond anything familiar to other peoples. Tradition and legend have united to glorify the ascetic, whether human or Divine; religion, as elsewhere, has sanctioned and encouraged his devotion; and the highest rewards of place and power have been within his reach, if only his austerities have taken a form sufficiently protracted and severe. Eastern patience, self-abnegation, and resolution are seen in their strangest guise, in submission to extreme conditions of self-torture and distress. The profession of the ascetic has always been held in the highest esteem, and his claim to support at the public charge by gifts and alms universally allowed. If it is his merit to practise, it is the merit of others to give to him, that his simple wants may never lack supply. And thus on both sides asceticism ministered to spiritual profit, to the actual and personal gain of the ascetic himself, both present and prospective, and to the store of credit which by his generosity the householder trusted to accumulate for himself, so as to win a higher position and birth in the next existence. Part of the secret of the hold which the ascetic ideal has maintained on the Indian mind lies in the fact that, according to the teaching of their sacred books, benefit accrues also to the donor who forwards the holy man on his way with gifts of money or food, or ministers in any way to his personal needs.2 [Note: A. S. Geden, in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ii. p. 87.]

A Chinese traveller, describing the Japanese of the early centuries of our era, mentions this interesting custom: “They appoint a man whom they call an ‘abstainer.’ He is not allowed to comb his hair, to wash, to eat flesh, or to approach women. When they are fortunate, they make him presents; but if they are ill or meet with disaster, they set it down to the abstainer’s failure to keeps his vows, and unite to put him to death.”1 [Note: A. E. Suffrin, ibid. ii. p. 96.]

“My father, my father, if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldst thou not have done it?” Would you not? Swung at the end of a pole, with hooks in your back; measured all the way from Cape Comorin to the Himalayas, lying down on your face and rising at each length; done a hundred things which heathens and Roman Catholics and unspiritual Protestants think are the way to get salvation; denied yourselves things that you would like to do; done things that you do not want to do; given money that you would like to keep; avoided habits that are very sweet; gone to church and chapel when you have no heart for worship; and so tried to balance the account. If the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, thou wouldst have done it.

4. Amusement.—Another stream to which the world repairs, in hopes to refresh its weariness, is pleasure. Here it thinks to find fulness of satisfaction. In amusement, in gaiety, in excitement, many would find their greatest good. Nothing, they imagine, can be better than to have within reach the means of being constantly amused. So they wander from place to place, from entertainment to entertainment. For a time they may find satisfaction, but as the experiment is repeated, the simpler pleasures and innocent amusements of life pall upon the taste, and no longer yield the enjoyment they once did. New means are sought of satisfying a restless appetite, till we see the devotee of pleasure sinking lower and lower, throwing aside every restraint, and giving the rein to every base inclination of a pampered nature. If gain has slain its thousands, pleasure has slain her tens of thousands.

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;

And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips

Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,

Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:

Ay, in the very temple of Delight

Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,

Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue

Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;

His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,

And be among her cloudy trophies hung.”2 [Note: Keats, “Ode on Melancholy.”]

III

The True Source of Satisfaction

Men not only make the mistake of seeking rest in the pursuit of such definite things as gain and pleasure, but they make the fundamental mistake of seeking to quench the thirst of an immortal spirit at a human fountain. That cannot be done. The human fountain runs dry, and the soul is not satisfied; for the soul must rest in God, the immortal in the immortal, spirit in spirit, the infinite in the infinite. Nothing short of this will satisfy; the soul’s true and only true environment is God; outside of Him there is no rest for a weary world. “Lord,” says the saintly Augustine, “Thou hast created us for Thyself, and our heart is restless till it finds rest in Thee.” More possessions, more pleasures, cries the man of the world, and we shall be satisfied. It is not so. The man in the valley looks up to the hills, and imagines that were he on the top of the peak he sees he would have gained the highest point of the hill, but when he climbs up it is only to discover that there are other reaches yet. It is not by adding to your possessions that satisfaction comes to you. Nothing this world can give, even were you to get it all, is proportionate to your need. Your need lies deeper than you yourselves know, deeper than your own desires; it lies in the immortal part of you, which can be fed with no earthly bread. It is because men think it can that they never find rest. They spend their money for that which is not bread, which cannot satisfy the life of man, which can no more feed the spirit than the wind of heaven can feed the body.

They tell an old story about the rejoicings at the coronation of some great king, when there was set up in the market-place a triple fountain, from each of whose three lips flowed a different kind of rare liquor, which any man who chose to bring a pitcher might fill from, at his choice. Notice the text, “Come ye to the waters” … “buy wine and milk.” The great fountain is set up in the market-place of the world, and every man may come; and whichever of this glorious trinity of effluents he needs most, there his lip may glue itself and there he may drink, be it “water” that refreshes, or “wine” that gladdens, or “milk” that nourishes. They are all contained in this one great gift that flows out from the deep heart of God to the thirsty lips of parched humanity.

A story is told of a shipwrecked crew who had been drifting for days in a small boat, suffering the horrors of thirst. In the extremity of their suffering, when all hope had been abandoned, a vessel was seen bearing towards them. When sufficiently near, they called out as well as their parched throats permitted, “Water, water.” “Dip your bucket over the side,” came back, as they thought, the mocking answer. But unconsciously they had drifted into that part where the mighty Amazon bears its fresh waters far out to sea. They were actually floating in an ocean of plenty and were unaware of the fact.

i. What True Satisfaction is

1. The knowledge of God.—It is the grand endeavour of the gospel to communicate God to men. They have undertaken to live without Him, and do not see that they are starving in the bitterness of their experiment. It is not, as with bodily hunger, where they have a sure instinct compelling them to seek their food; but they go after the husks, and would fain be filled with these, not even so much as conceiving what is their real want or how it comes. For it is a remarkable fact that so few men, living in the flesh, have any conception that God is the necessary supply and nutriment of their spiritual nature, without which they famish and die. It has an extravagant sound; when they hear it, they do not believe it. How can it be that they have any such high relation to the eternal God, or He to them? It is as if the tree were to say, What can I, a mere trunk of wood, all dark and solid within, standing fast in my rod of ground—what can I have to do with the free, moving air, and the boundless sea of light that fills the world? And yet it is a nature made to feed on these, taking them into its body to supply and vitalise and colour every fibre of its substance. Just so it is that every finite spirit is inherently related to the infinite, in Him to live and move and have its being.

The fruition of God is contemporaneous with the desire after God. The one moment, “My soul thirsteth”; the next moment, “My soul is satisfied.” As in the wilderness when the rain comes down, and in a couple of days what was baked earth is flowery meadow, and all the torrent-beds where the white stones glistened ghastly in the heat are foaming with rushing water, and fringed with budding willows; so in the instant in which a heart turns with true desire to God, in that instant does God draw near to it. The Arctic spring comes with one stride; to-day snow, tomorrow flowers. There is no time needed to work this telegraph; while we speak He hears; before we call He answers. We have to wait for many of His gifts, never for Himself.

While we were passing through the crowded bazaars this afternoon, on our way to visit some of the fine houses of this city, I was very much interested and amused by the number and variety of the street calls or cries. I have been startled in Beirut by shrill warning to look behind or before me to avoid being run over by loaded animals, but here in Damascus one’s ears are assailed by many additional calls. Two lads carrying between them a large tray loaded with bread, cried out, “Ya Karim! Ya Karim!” That is not the name for bread. No, it is one of the attributes of God, and signifies the bountiful or generous; and since bread is the staff of life, the name implies that it is the gift of the Bountiful One.1 [Note: W. M. Thomson, The Land and the Book, iii. p. 388.]

2. In the face of Jesus Christ.—We may say that the satisfaction which the soul of man finds final is the knowledge of God, but more explicitly, it is the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ. In one word it is Christ. He, and not merely some truth about Him and His work; He Himself, in the fulness of His being, in the all-sufficiency of His love, in the reality of His presence, in the power of His sacrifice, in the daily derivation, into the heart that waits upon Him, of His life and His spirit, He is the all-sufficient supply of every thirst of every human soul. Do we want happiness? Christ gives us His joy, permanent and full, and not as the world gives. Do we want love? He gathers us to Himself by bonds that Death, the separator, vainly attempts to untie, and which no unworthiness, ingratitude, coldness of ours, can ever provoke to change themselves. Do we want wisdom? He will dwell with us as our light. Do our hearts yearn for companionship? With Him we shall never be solitary. Do we long for a bright hope which shall light up the dark future, and spread a rainbow span over the great gorge and gulf of death? Jesus Christ spans the void, and gives us unfailing and undeceiving hope. For everything that we need here or yonder, in heart, in will, in practical life, Jesus Christ Himself is the all-sufficient supply, “my life in death, my all in all.”

Our blessed Lord appears to have always the feeling that He has come down into a realm of hungry, famishing souls. You see this in the parable of the Prodigal Son, and that of the Feast or Supper. Hence, that very remarkable discourse in the sixth chapter of John, where He declares Himself as the living Bread that came down from heaven—that a man may eat thereof and not die. “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life. My flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me.”

See how His promises suit your condition, (a) Are you heavy laden with guilt? The gospel message is, “The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.” (b) Are you groaning under the power of indwelling sin? “He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength.” (c) Are you striving to obtain salvation by the deeds of the law? “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.” (d) Are you in temptation? He has been tempted Himself, and knows how to pity you. He has power over your enemy, and can deliver you with a word. The God of Peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly.

One of the most accomplished men of his time said, some days before his death, “I have surveyed most of the learning that is among the sons of men, and my study is filled with books and manuscripts on various subjects, yet at this moment I can recollect nothing in them all on which I can rest my soul, save one from the sacred Scriptures, which lies much on my spirit. It is this: ‘The grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared unto all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world; looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.’”1 [Note: R. W. Pritchard.]

How is it that Christ satisfies us, and puts an end to all dispeace? Of the streams of the world at which men drink it is said, “Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” Christ satisfies us because His gift is a well of water in the soul itself, because wherever we are, whatever happens to us, the source and centre of our spiritual life cannot be separated from us. This is man’s victory and end, when within himself he so has the source of life and joy that he is independent of circumstances, of possessions, of things present and things to come. It is this gift that God offers to us without money and without price.

It is related by one who had experienced the horrors of the great African desert, that the thirst which had absorbed all other feelings while it raged, was no sooner slaked, than the feeling of hunger was revived in tenfold violence; and I scruple not to spiritualise this incident in illustration of the prophet’s language. The sensation of relief from undefined anxiety, or from a positive dread of Divine wrath, however exquisite, is not enough to satisfy the soul. The more it receives, the more it feels its own deficiencies; and when its faculties have been revived by the assurance of forgiveness, it becomes aware of its own ignorance, and of those chasms which can be filled only with knowledge of the truth. This is the sense of spiritual hunger which succeeds the allaying of spiritual thirst. The soul, having been refreshed, must now be fed. The cooling, cleansing properties of water cannot repair the decaying strength. There must be nutriment, suited to the condition of the soul. And it is furnished. Here is milk as well as water.1 [Note: J. A. Alexander, The Gospel of Jesus Christ, p. 339.]

ii. The Price paid for it

The words of the text are a paradox. We are invited to buy, yet without money and without price. But it is a paradox that needs little explanation. The contradiction on the surface is but intended to make emphatic this blessed truth, which I pray may reach your memories and hearts, that the only conditions are a sense of need, and a willingness to take—nothing else, and nothing more. We must recognise our penury, and must abandon self, and put away all ideas of having a finger in our own salvation, and be willing—willing to be obliged to God’s unhelped and undeserved love for all.

Cheap things are seldom valued. Ask a high price and people think that the commodity is precious. A man goes into a fair, for a wager, and he carries with him a tray full of gold watches and offers to sell them for a farthing apiece, and nobody will buy them. It does not, I hope, degrade the subject, if I say that Jesus Christ comes into the market-place of the world with His hands full of the gifts which the pierced hands have bought, that He may give them away. He says, “Will you take them?” And one after another you pass by on the other side, and go away to another merchant, and buy dearly things that are not worth the having.

In a beautiful passage in his Roots of Honour John Ruskin says that it may become the duty of any man to die for his profession: the soldier, he says, to die at his post in a battle; the physician to die rather than leave his post in time of plague; the pastor to die rather than preach falsehood; the lawyer to die rather than countenance injustice; and the merchantman, he says, to die rather than that the nation should be unprovided or any great wrong be done to the mass of men committed to his care. But here is One who did die for the buyers in His market, who did die that His market might be furnished with infinite stores, who did die that no one coming to His market should ever be sent empty away.

Another cry was made by a man carrying on his back a large leathern “bottle,” and jingling in his hands several deep and bright copper saucers, to attract attention, I could hear nothing but “Ishrub ya ’atshan! Ishrub ya ’atshan!” which is the Arabic for “Drink, O thirsty!” That sounded like the Biblical invitation, “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters.” Yes; but, according to Isaiah, they were to “buy without money and without price.” That man’s invitation, however, is very different. By the sale of his sherbet he makes his living, and he who has no money will get no drink; and if he should thus publicly offer to sell wine with or “without price,” he would be torn to pieces by a fanatical Moslem mob. I liked the sound of his invitation, nevertheless. And I will only add that it is a most significant and encouraging fact that the colporteur may be seen in those bazaars pursuing his humble vocation, and offering the true “bread” and the water of “everlasting life” to the perishing multitudes in this intensely Moslem city. And the best wish we can express on behalf of the Demascenes is that they may be brought to accept it, through Him whose Kingdom, according to the inscription over the entrance to their mosk, “is an everlasting kingdom,” and whose “dominion endureth throughout all generations.”1 [Note: W. M. Thomson, The Land and the Book, iii. p. 388.]

The selling price is naught; but that does not mean that these goods cost nothing to the heavenly seller. There goods are the cheapest sold and the dearest bought that ever any goods were. Go out by night and see those countless worlds as so many bright gems flashing on the diadem of the universe; all these and all their untold wealth could not purchase one item of the goods in Emmanuel’s market-place, for the Son of Man bought them at a great price, and now they are all free. No money can buy them; they are without price because they are priceless; they are without price because, after all, they are not so much sold as given away. He who has them is of princely estate, and princely are all His gifts. The selling price is naught, because already they have been bought and paid for. The selling price is naught, because, truth to tell the buyers have naught to give.

Louis 1., on one occasion, sent one of his aides-de-camp to request that a place should be reserved for him at the morning service. “Tell His Majesty,” said Leon Pilatte, “that all seats are free and open.” “I have often thought,” says M. Luigi, “that that little sermon was the best that poor Louis of Bavaria ever heard in his life. No one else would have dared to tell him that God’s house is free to all, and that in it all are equal.”

Earth gets its price for what earth gives us;

The beggar is taxed for a corner to die in;

The priest has his fee who covers and shrives us,

We bargain for the graves we lie in;

At the devil’s booth are all things sold,

Each ounce of dross costs its ounce of gold;

For a cap and bells our lives we pay.

Bubbles we earn with a whole soul’s tasking;

’Tis heaven alone that is given away,

’Tis only God may be had for the asking.2 [Note: James Russell Lowell.]

iii. The Benefit of it

It is unfolded in this chapter. First of all, there is the assured promise of a fuller life. “Your soul shall live.” “Your soul!” Hitherto life has been a thin existence, a mere surface glitter, a superficial movement. Now, vitality shall awaken in undreamed of depths. “Your soul shall live.” Life shall no longer be confined to the channels of the appetites, to mere sensations, to the outer halls and passages of the sacred house. “Your soul shall live.” The unused shall be aroused and exercised. Unevolved faculty shall be unpacked. Benumbed instincts shall be liberated. Barren powers of discernment shall troop from their graves. New intelligences shall be born. The ocean of iniquity shall ebb, and “the sea shall give up its dead”! “Your soul shall live.” Life shall no longer be scant and scrimpy. Your soul shall “delight itself in fatness.” Every tissue shall be fed. Weakness shall depart with the famine. “The people that do know their God shall be strong.” The tree of its life shall bear all manner of fruits, and “the leaves of the tree shall be for the healing of the nations.”

1. The first benefit is, the pleasure of it: “Eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.” I recollect the time when I used to look upon the precious things of God as many a poor street arab has gazed at the dainties in a confectioner’s window, wishing that he could get a taste, and feeling all the more hungry because of that which was stored behind the glass out of his reach. But when the Master takes us into His banqueting house, and His banner over us is love; and when He says to us, “Eat, friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved,” then we have a grand time of it, and we feel almost as if heaven had begun below.

2. The second benefit is, the great preserving power of good spiritual food. It helps to keep us out of temptation. I do not think a man is ever so likely to be tempted as when he has neglected to eat his spiritual meat. We have this truth, in a parable, for in Him there was no lack of spiritual meat; but, after He had fasted, when He was an hungered, then it was that He was tempted of the devil; and if your soul has been, for a long time, without spiritual food, you are very likely to meet the devil. I have known men go away for a holiday on the Continent, and when they have been away, there has been no hearing of the Word, and, possibly, no private reading of the Word. Or they may have gone to live in a country town, where the gospel was not faithfully preached; and they have made a terrible shipwreck of character, because their inward strength was not sustained by spiritual meat, and then the tempter fell upon them. There is rather a pretty remark that someone makes, though I do not vouch for the truth of it. You know that, when the Lord put Adam in the garden of Eden, He said to him, “Of every tree of the garden thou mayst freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it”; and, says one, “If Eve had availed herself of that gracious permission, on that fatal day, and if she had eaten freely of all the other trees in the garden, of which she might have eaten, she would not have been so likely to wish to eat of that which was forbidden’

3. A third blessing is this. Spiritual food comforts mourners. The analogy of this will be found in the Book of Nehemiah, the eighth chapter, and the ninth and tenth verses, where we read that Nehemiah said to the people, “This day is holy unto the Lord your God; mourn not, nor weep.… Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared.” A feast is a good way of breaking a fast. He that eats forgets his former misery, and remembers his sorrow no more, especially if he eats the mystic meat which God provides so abundantly for his sorrowing children. It was of this that Mary sang, “He hath filled the hungry with good things.”

4. Spiritual meat has a fourth excellence. It revives the fainting ones. Did you ever study the sermon that was once preached by an angel to a desponding prophet? It consisted of only three words, and he preached it twice. The prophet was Elijah, who, after the wondrous victory and excitement on the top of Carmel, fainted in spirit, and was afraid of Jezebel, and said, “Let me die;” and so fled from the field of battle, and longed to expire. In his weariness and sorrow, he fell asleep, and an angel came, and awoke him, and this was the sermon he preached to him, “Arise and eat.” And when he opened his eyes, he saw that “there was a cake baken on the coals, and a cruse of water at his head. And he did eat and drink, and laid him down again;”—the very best thing he could do. But the angel awoke him, the second time, and preached the same sermon to him, “Arise and eat”; and I pass on that little sermon to some of you who feel faint in heart just now. You do not know how it is, but you are very low-spirited; here is a message for you, “Arise and eat.” I will not prescribe you any physic, but I say, “Arise and eat.” Go to the Bible and study that; search out the promises, and feed upon them. Get away to Christ, and feed upon Him. “Arise and eat.” Often, the best cure possible for a poor, dispirited, fainting soul is a good meal of gospel food. Your bright spirits will, in that way, come back to you; you will not be afraid of Jezebel, and you will not say, “Let me die;” but you will go, in the strength of that meat, for many a day according to the will of God. So I give this as God’s message to any discouraged, dispirited ones whom I may now be addressing, “Arise and eat.”1 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xlviii. p. 321.]

Hard-pressed, wayfaring men long for a drink of pure, cold water. David cries: “Oh that one would give me drink of the water of the well of Bethlehem, which is by the gate”; and often in the country I have known of dying men whose last wish was that they might be strong enough only once more to go to the well and have a drink of pure cold water. One of my earliest recollections is of the time my grandfather lay dying, and we were sent to a famous well, called Fulton’s Well, to bring pure spring water; and if at times it had not been convenient to send a messenger, and they sought to put off the sick man with the water from the ordinary well at the farm, he could check it in a moment. And so there is a spiritual thirst that checks the water from Jacob’s Well, the clear crystal water from the spring of life:

I came to Jesus, and I drank

Of that life-giving stream;

My thirst was quenched, my soul revived,

And now I live in Him.2 [Note: J. Barr, in Christian World Pulpit, lxxvii. p. 341.]

5. And it has a great strength for service, for he who eats that which is good, and lets his soul delight itself in fatness, will be strong to run in the way of the Divine commands, or to perform any work that may be required of him. You recollect what Jonathan said, concerning that long day of fasting to which I have already alluded. Jonathan said, “Mine eyes have been enlightened because I tasted a little of this honey. How much more, if haply the people had eaten freely to-day of the spoil of their enemies which they found? for had there not been a much greater slaughter among the Philistines?” Quite right, Jonathan; as the old proverb puts it, “Prayer and provender hinder no man’s journey;” and, for a soul to wait upon God to be fed, is to gather such strength thereby that it can do much more work than it could otherwise have done. Eat well, that you may work well. “Eat ye that which is good,” that you may have the delight of being useful in the service of your Lord.1 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon.]

May I reach

That purest heaven, be to other souls

The cup of strength in some great agony,

Enkindle generous ardour, feed pure love,

Beget the smiles that have no cruelty—

Be the sweet presence of a good diffused,

And in diffusion ever more intense.

So shall I join the choir invisible

Whose music is the gladness of the world.2 [Note: George Eliot.]

The Poor Man’s Market

Literature

Alexander (J. A.), The Gospel of Jesus Christ, 332.

Campbell (J. M.), Responsibility for the Gift of Eternal Life, 31.

Fairweather (D.), Bound in the Spirit, 209.

How (W. W.), Twenty-four Practical Sermons, 35.

Jerdan (C.), Pastures of Tender Grass, 327.

Jowett (J. H.), Apostolic Optimism, 19.

Kennedy (J. D.), Sermons, 131.

Kingsley (C.), The Water of Life, 116.

Leeser (I.), Discourses on the Jewish Religion, 133.

Levens (J. T.), Clean Hands, 44.

Maclaren (A.), Expositions (Isaiah xlix.–lxvi.), 142.

Maclaren (A.), The Wearied Christ, 113.

Marten (C. H.), Plain Bible Addresses, 30.

Price (A. C.), Fifty Sermons, viii. 257.

Smellie (A.), In the Hour of Silence, 118.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, iv. No. 199; xx. No. 1161; xxix. No. 1726.


Verse 2

(2) Wherefore do ye spend money . . .—Here again the “bread” is that which sustains the true life of the soul. “Labour”-stands for the “earnings of labour.” Israel had given her money for that which was “not-bread,” she is called to accept the true bread for that which is “not-money,” scil., as the next verse shows, for the simple “hearing of faith.” “Fatness,” as in Isaiah 25:6, and the “fatted calf” of Luke 15:23, represents the exuberance of spiritual joy.


Verse 3

(3) Your soul shall live . . .—Better, revive. The idea is that of waking to a new life.

I will make an everlasting covenant . . .—The words find their explanation in the “new covenant” of Jeremiah 31:31, Luke 22:20, but those which follow show that it is thought of as the expansion and completion of that which had been made with David (2 Samuel 7:12-17; Psalms 89:34-35), as the representative of the true King, whom Isaiah now contemplates as identical with the “servant of the Lord.” For “sure mercies” read the unfailing loving-kindnesses, which were “of David,” as given to him and to his seed by Jehovah.


Verse 4

(4) I have given him . . .—Better, I gave, the words referring primarily to the historic David (Comp. Psalms 78:70-71), though realised fully only in Him who was the “faithful and true witness” (John 18:37; Revelation 1:5; Revelation 3:14), the “captain” or “leader” of our salvation (Hebrews 2:10).


Verse 5

(5) Thou shalt call a nation.—The calling of the Gentiles and the consequent expansion of the true idea of Israel is again dominant. The words sound like an echo from Psalms 18:43.

Because of the Lord thy God . . .—The words are repeated, as expressing a thought on which the prophet loved to dwell, in Isaiah 60:9.


Verse 6

(6) While he may be found . . .—The appeal shows that the promised blessings are not unconditional. There may come a time (as in Matthew 25:11) when “too late will be written on all efforts to gain the inheritance which has been forfeited by neglect (2 Corinthians 6:2).


Verse 7

Abundant Pardon

Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.—Isaiah 55:7.

The Prophet had been commissioned to carry a message to the captive Jews who sat by the waters of Babylon and wept when they remembered Zion. The message was that, heinous as their iniquity had been, their iniquity was pardoned; and that to the merciful and relenting heart of Jehovah it seemed as if they had already endured “double” for all their sins, i.e. twice as much as their sins had deserved. Hence he was about to appear for them, to appear among them—delivering them from their captivity, bringing them back with song and dance to their native land, making them the joy and praise of the whole earth. In this word, this message, God was drawing near to them; finding them, that they might find Him. And the Prophet urges them to “seek Him while He may be found,” to “call upon Him while He is near”; that is to say, now that God is approaching them to deliver them, they are to fit themselves to receive, to recognise, and to follow Him, by putting away their unrighteous thoughts, by forsaking their wicked ways, and by turning in penitence, expectation, and faith toward Him who was turning toward them in truth and compassion.

But sinful men, especially when they are suffering the bitter punishment of their sins, are apt to be hopeless men. When you speak to them of the Mercy that is more than all their sins, they are apt to think that Mercy incredible, or at least to doubt whether it is about to be shown to them. As nothing is possible to doubt and despair, as above all the energy of active moral exertion is impossible, God sets Himself to remove the natural incredulity and hopelessness of the men He was about to save. That His mercy is incredible, He admits; but He affirms that it is incredible only in the sense of being incredibly larger and better than they imagine it to be. They might have found it impossible to forgive those who had sinned against them as they had sinned against Him. “But,” pleads God, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways. They are a whole heaven above them. And, therefore, I can forgive you the sins which you could not have forgiven had they been committed against you. Nay, your very unbelief cannot limit or defeat My mercy. The word I have sent you, this message of salvation and deliverance, must do the errand on which I sent it; and therefore you must and will go out of the house of your captivity with joy, and be led forth with peace, the mountains and the little hills breaking forth into singing as you climb them, and all the trees of the field clapping their hands as you march through and under them.” So that the main point of these verses is not so much that God Himself is unknowable to us, as that His mercy is incredible to us—incredibly higher, incredibly deeper and wider, incredibly more heavenly and inexhaustible, incredibly more affluent, and tender, and sweet; in fine, as high above our conceptions of it as the heavens above the earth, and so broad that it embraces the whole world of men as the heavens embrace the earth with all its mountains and woods and seas.

This old admonition falls upon modern ears like the once familiar, but half-forgotten, cadence of a song. Time was when such a scripture roused the deepest emotions and brought the sweetest peace to human hearts. Such texts were, within the memory of man, the characteristic foundation of all evangelical sermons. The old-fashioned gospel invitation had an imperativeness, a fine entreaty, which netted magnificent results for the visible Kingdom of God. Men groaned in spirit and fairly ran to Christian altars lest the Divine invitation should be withdrawn. But the old appeal fails to stir men as formerly. Like some quaint hymn or ballad, kept as a sort of relic among the more dashing modern music, this old Bible melody is apparently outclassed by the more philosophical compositions of our day.1 [Note: G. C. Peck, Old Sins in New Clothes, p. 211.]

There are five things in the text. Three we are to do, and two God promises to do. The three which we are asked to do are (1) to forsake our wicked way, (2) to forsake our thoughts, and (3) to turn unto the Lord. The two God promises to do are (1) to have mercy upon us, and (2) to pardon us abundantly.

I

What we are told to do

1. The wicked is called upon or invited to forsake his way. That is, he is called upon to give up his sinful habits. Is he dishonest? He is to give up his dishonesty. Is he profligate in his life? He is to give up his profligacy. Is he addicted to intemperance? He is to give up his unsober practices. Is he a profane swearer? He is to give up his oaths. Does he speak what is not the truth? He is to give up his falsehoods. Does he break the Sabbath? He is to give up his Sabbath-breaking. Does he neglect Divine ordinances? He is to give up that neglect. From all his evil ways he is to turn: he is to forsake them, as Israel forsook Egypt, when he crossed the Red Sea; as Ruth forsook Moab, when she went with her mother-in-law to the land of Israel.

The best way for a man is the way which God has made for him. He that made us knows what He made us for, and He knows by what means we may best arrive at that end. According to Divine teaching, as gracious as it is certain, we learn that the way of eternal life is Jesus Christ. Christ Himself says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”; and he that would pursue life after a right fashion must look to Jesus, and must continue looking to Jesus, not only as the Author, but as the Finisher of his faith. It shall be to him a golden rule of life, when he has chosen Christ to be his way, to let his eyes look right on, and his eyelids straight before him. He need not be afraid to contemplate the end of that way, for the end of the way of Christ is life and glory with Christ for ever. “It doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is.” A friend said to me the other day, “How happy are we to know that whatever happens to us in this life it is well!” “Yes,” I added, “and to know that if this life ends it is equally well, or better.” Then we joined hands in common joy to think that we were equally ready for life or death, and did not need five minutes’ anxiety as to whether it should be the one or the other. When you are on the King’s highway, and that way is a perfectly straight one, you may go ahead without fear, and sing on the road.1 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon, The Messiah, p. 425.]

2. But the wicked man is not merely to forsake his way, he is to forsake his thoughts. You see, one may, from prudential motives, give up outwardly an evil way, without any change within. From mere self-interest an evil-speaking man may hold his tongue, and yet his thoughts and feelings be as unkind and malicious as ever. From mere self-interest, from regard to his bodily health or his worldly interests, a profligate man may restrain his appetites, and yet his thoughts be still impure. But a mere outward reformation has no value in the eyes of the heart-searching One. There must be forsaking of sin inwardly; there must be a hating of it, and a giving it up in the thoughts and intents of the soul. The fountain, from which the bitter waters flow, must be stopped. The root, from which spring the poison fruits, must be plucked up.

In the third century a great wave of monasticism swept the Church. Men wooed the life of solitude and contemplation, and thought by such a life to escape their evil thoughts. But history testifies to the vanity of such a hope. One of the Church Fathers, Basil, after having sought peace in the quiet of the desert, writes to his friend Gregory, “I have abandoned my life in town, as one sure to lead to countless ills; but I have not yet been able to get quit of myself. I am like travellers at sea, who have never gone a voyage before, and are distressed and seasick, who quarrel with the ship because it is so big and makes such a tossing, and when they get out of it into the pinnace or dingey, are everywhere and always seasick and distressed. Wherever they go, their nausea and misery go with them. My state is something like this. I carry my own troubles with me, and so everywhere I am in the midst of similar discomforts. So in the end I have not got much good out of my solitude” (Basil, Ep. ii.). As Basil suggests, the only way is a mortification of the passions, and such mortification can come about only by a new birth, a return unto the Lord. If we ask what conditions best favour such regeneration, we are answered by the life of Jesus, which was not one of solitude alone, nor one of activity alone, but a life in which prayer and contemplation alternated with active service.

Putting the matter broadly and generally: what are the thoughts from which the sin life, in its various outward forms, comes? They are chiefly wrong thoughts about God, about sin, about true happiness. Well, those wrong thoughts about God, as if He were so great that He will not concern Himself about us, or so merciful that He will never punish us, or so dreadful in His holiness that He will never pardon us; those thoughts must be forsaken. And those thoughts about sin, as if it were no great thing, as if it were easily got over, as if it were little more than a sort of unhappy necessity, instead of a tremendous evil separating the soul from the Most High and making the sinner liable to His wrath and curse; those thoughts must be forsaken. And those thoughts about man’s happiness, as if it consisted in the abundance of the things which he possesses, in earthly honour and prosperity, and not in heart-love and heart-devotion to God and His Son; those thoughts must be forsaken. That whole course of thinking, feeling, hoping, doing, which springs from nature’s awful unbelief, must be given up in deep dislike and real abasement.

I remember when we were in Glasgow there was a business man converted, and he was very anxious for all his employés to be converted, and he brought them one after another, and they were blessed. But one man he could not get. He said, “If I am going to be converted I am going to be by the regular stated means.” Scotland had got regular churches, and he did not need Americans to come and tell him how to be saved, and he would not come. We went up to the North of Scotland, and the employer had some business to transact there, and he sent that man, and one night we were preaching on the banks of a river, and I was speaking on this text, “I thought.” This man saw the crowd, and he thought he would like to see what was going on, and the text reached his attention—“I thought.” He listened, and the arrow of conviction went down into his soul, and the man was convicted. Then he began to inquire who was the preacher, and he found out that it was this same preacher that he would not hear in Glasgow.1 [Note: D. L. Moody.]

3. Thus much the prophet teaches us on the negative side, as to what is to be turned from; he goes next to the positive side, and teaches us what is to be turned to. “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return unto the Lord.” That is implied, of course, in any true turning from sinful ways and thoughts; without that it would be no true turning from them. Yet it conveys a distinct thought; it brings before us another and spiritual aspect of the truth. And sometimes you may seem to have a large fulfilment to the call to forsake ways and thoughts; and yet there may be no returning to God. That was the case with the Jews of old. They forsook their idolatrous ways most thoroughly; the outward idols were cast utterly away; the names and images of Baal and Molech became their horror and detestation. Even in thought they gave up their old idolatry. That is, they thought it wrong; they disapproved of it; they regarded it with hatred and loathing. And yet they did not return to God.

And what does it mean? It evidently means the soul coming back to the views and feelings it had about God before it went away from Him. “Let him return unto the Lord;” it is just as though it had been said, “Let the Lord Jehovah be to him what He was before the fall.” And what was God to man then? God was to man unfallen the Object of his profound homage. He worshipped and adored Him. God was to man unfallen the Object of his supremest love, his Portion, his Delight; in all the attributes of this Divine character he had supreme complacency; dear to him was the righteousness of the Highest, the love, the wisdom, the power. God was to man unfallen the Object of his trust and confidence. God was to man unfallen the King of his heart and his life; His will and glory the end of man’s existence. And the returning of the soul to the Lord is the soul’s returning to a vital consciousness of God as the great loving One, is the soul’s returning to a sense of His infinite majesty and excellence, and desiring to live with Him as before, in love, adoration, trust, submission.

There are three stumbling-stones in man’s way to Christ—sin, his own thoughts, and his own way or his own will; and you will find that every man has got to meet and overcome these three obstacles, or, as some one else has put it, three stumbling-stones—human righteousness, human religion, and human wisdom. There is a great deal of religion in the world to-day. A man may be full of religion and yet be a stranger to the grace of God. You will find some of the worst of men in the community are very religious; they have got a religion of their own. You talk with them about Christ, and about His Kingdom, and they will straighten up and tell you that they would not give up their religion for all the world; but if you press them upon this point of giving up their sins, you will find they are not willing to part with sin. Now man’s religion is not worth much if it does not bring him away from his sins. If a man is not willing to forsake his sins, to turn his back upon his past life and his past sins, he cannot be the disciple of Jesus Christ. I have heard men say often, “Why is it Jesus Christ has got so few disciples? The Gospel has been preached eighteen hundred years, and yet Muhammad has got more disciples than Jesus Christ.” The question is very easily answered. A man can be a follower of Muhammad and not give up his sins; a man can follow the doctrines of Confucius and not give up his sins; but the reason Jesus Christ has so few disciples is that men are not willing to part with their sins. That is the trouble, that is the difficulty. If men could only get into the Kingdom of God without giving up anything, a great many would flock into the Kingdom, they would rush into the Kingdom by the thousand; but it is this giving up our sins, forsaking our thoughts and our way—that is the difficulty.1 [Note: D. L. Moody.]

Repentance

Now let us consider what repentance is, and what it is not.

(1) It is not fear. A man may be frightened, scared, and yet not repent. That has very often occurred at sea during a storm. When a storm sweeps over the ocean it brings about a great many strange things. You will find when talking to sea captains that a great many men become suddenly pious, men who have been blaspheming for years suddenly begin to pray, and you would think them very religious and repentant, but when the storm has passed over these men go on swearing again. That is only fear.

(2) Then repentance is not feeling; a man may have much feeling, and yet not repent. That may sound strange, but it is clearly taught in Scripture. You go down to yonder prison, and you cannot find a man who is not sorry that he is there; but their trouble is simply because they have got caught, they feel very bad because they were unlucky; but let them out of prison and they will do the same over again. That is not repentance. A man may have a good deal of feeling, and weep bitterly for days, and yet not repent. So that it is not feeling or remorse. Judas had that, plenty of it, so that he put an end to his existence; and a man may be filled with remorse and not repent.

The confession “I have sinned” is made by hardened Pharaoh (Exodus 9:27), double-minded Balaam (Numbers 22:34), remorseful Achan (Joshua 7:20), insincere King Saul (1 Samuel 15:24), despairing Judas (Matthew 27:4); but in none of these cases was there true repentance.1 [Note: A. H. Strong, Syst. Theology, iii. p. 832.]

(3) Nor is it conviction. A man may be deeply convicted when he is going out of the house of God; he may know that his whole life is wrong, his conscience may lash him and smite him, and he may say, “My whole life is dark and black.” He may be deeply convicted and yet not repent. Conviction is not repentance; making a few resolutions is not repentance; turning over a new leaf, as some men say they are going to do, that is not repentance; nor is it found in good feelings or good thoughts.

A fit of sorrow is no great thing. Who has not had that? There are persons upon whom a penitential mood comes and comes and comes again; and nothing results from it. But this forsaking of the thoughts goes deep into the soul, and means a turning of the whole being towards God. It is quite true that the Bible does not lay stress on mere effervescence of feeling, as if it were needful to pour out floods of tears, or utter cries of agony, or go mourning and grieving for any special number of hours or days, and with any special intensity. Yet it is not conceivable that you should have a person convinced on the matter of his salvation, and changing his thoughts about God and sin, without strong feelings of abasement and shame. Take the type of a penitent, as Jesus gives it. See the publican standing afar off, not lifting so much as his eyes to heaven, smiting upon his breast. There is nothing extravagant in that.

Behold us, how we feebly float,

Through many a changing mood;

How oft one flash of thought annuls

Our firmest choice of good.


We sin, repent, and fondly think

Our will is now made strong;

Our state of grace, restored, abides—

Thou knowest, Lord, how long.2 [Note: W. Bright.]

(4) What is it? Repentance is turning from. That is what repentance is. “Turn ye, turn ye, why will ye die, O house of Israel?” It is an afterthought, it is a change of mind. You ask how long a person is to feel sorry for his sins. Long enough to give them up—that is all. A man may have deep sorrow or he may not have much, but he has made up his mind that he is going to turn from his sins to God.1 [Note: D. L. Moody.]

Because I knew not when my life was good,

And when there was a light upon my path,

But turned my soul perversely to the dark—


Because I held upon my selfish road,

And left my brother wounded by the way,

And called ambition duty, and pressed on—


Because I spent the strength Thou gavest me

In struggle which Thou never didst ordain,

And have but dregs of life to offer Thee—

O Lord, I do repent.2 [Note: S. Williams.]

II

What God promises to do

The two things which God promises to do are (1) have mercy, and (2) abundantly pardon.

1. The Lord, it is said, will have “mercy” on the returning sinner. It is not out of consideration of the wicked man’s turning from his sin, or in reward for his heart-turning to the Most High, that his guilt shall be cancelled, and he shall be reinstated in the Divine favour. There is no idea of right connected with this penitential return. What he will get, he will get in mercy—in simple mercy. He is still liable to righteous punishment. But mercy will be his. God will not exact His dues. God, for the sake of His own glory, and in His beloved Son, in Him who died the Just for the unjust, will freely and graciously stay the sentence which sin has merited.

We do not like the word mercy. It is humbling; it lays pride and self-righteousness in the dust. Mercy, all of mercy. It is very humbling. Nor, perhaps, do we best reconcile men to it by dilating on their helpless, hopeless state. The soul will be sometimes stout against any measure of that. “Crush me, to atoms if you will, but I will not yield.” Rather should the sinner get quit of a delusion. It is a noble thing, is it not, in an earthly sovereign to be merciful? The earthly king is never more glorious in our eyes than when he does some great deed of mercy. And is it not felt, too, to be a noble thing when the criminal or offender, in loving penitence, gracefully and thankfully accepts the mercy? In such an acceptance he is not degraded, but exalted. And so let the sinner quit his sins, return to God, accept His mercy, not merely as though he cannot help it, as a heartrending necessity, but with loving and adoring gratitude; for what it is so glorious and blessed in God to give, it is blessed in him to receive. And look if there be any semblance of exultation over him in his abasement in the gracious Father’s countenance. Nay, the very opposite. Can He have any thoughts of degrading him whom He would clasp in His arms and call His son?

The Mercy of God, viewed as saving men from evil thoughts and ways—which is the only true mercy—is simply incredible: so the prophet affirms, so we profess to think and to believe. But do we really believe it? Do we act as if we did? Millions will say to-day: “I believe in the forgiveness of sins”; but how many of that vast multitude, do you suppose, will both understand and realise what they say? Many of them hardly believe that they have sins which need a great act of Divine forgiveness. Many more do not know that, in order to forgive, God must punish their sins.

One of James Lane Allen’s later books has for its title the creed of its hero, The Reign of Law. That was all he could see in the universe: unpitying law; law irreversible and conscienceless. The world order was to him, and presumably to the author of the book, a heartless procession of events. There was no Face to meet his advances or to frown away his sin. But, as his heart began to break up under the suns and frosts of love; as the power of a new truth got hold of him, he looked up into heaven to whisper at length: “Ah, Gabrielle, it is love that makes a man believe in a God of love.” Not that God is ever capricious, but that His heart can go forth in special overtures to His children; not that He ever really hides His face, but that it sometimes breaks like the conquering sun through our earth-mists; not that He ever ceases to call, but that sometimes His voice has new resonance and music—this is our Christian faith.

2. But this leads us to the other point in the prophet’s word: “He will abundantly pardon.” There is nothing of cold, distant harshness in God’s mercy-giving. He does not say, “Take thy pardon and go thy way. It is what thou dost not deserve. Thou hast been a wicked rebel; take care of thyself in time to come.” God is ever like Himself. Behold Him in creation; in these myriads of mighty worlds He has hung above us in the heavens. How like the greatness of the Great One is that fulness of immensity. Behold Him in the gifts with which He blesses our earth; with what a lavish hand He scatters beauties and glories. And here, too, as the God of pardon, God again is like Himself; He pardons like Himself, with Divine generosity.

(1) It is God’s good pleasure to pardon abundantly.

This man, whoever he was, has a claim to speak of God with an authority which few can rival. And this is what he has to say to us of God—that God’s mercy is as much higher than our thoughts of it, as much broader, as much more pure and tender, as the heavens are higher and broader and sweeter than the earth: that it transcends all our conceptions of mercy, that it seems incredible to us only because it is so large and rich and free, that we can hardly even bring ourselves to believe in it. He affirms that even here our great poet’s description holds good, that we may lift a reverent eye to the very Throne of Heaven and say: “Mercy is twice blessed,” blessing “him that gives,” as well as “him that takes,” since God delights in mercy, and is—if we may speak of so great a mystery in words so homely—at least as pleased to forgive our sins as we are to have them forgiven.

(2) Its abundance is due to His excellence.

If we doubt whether He means to the full what He says—if we doubt whether He is in earnest in calling such as we are to come to Him, whether He can pardon as abundantly as man has sinned—here is the answer to our unbelief: He does not work by the rules and manners of men. His ways are not our ways, nor His thoughts our thoughts. He shows His desire for our salvation, and His readiness to accept us, in doing what none could have imagined possible, in sending His Son to take our nature upon Him, and to become man for our sakes. Here is the pledge of His faithfulness. Here is the assurance which none can doubt, that He loves the souls of men with the love with which He loves His only-begotten Son. When we will not come to Him, He comes to us. When we refuse to seek Him, He comes Himself to seek and to save us. He does not send, He does not call merely. He comes down from heaven, and lays aside His glory, and speaks to us face to face, with the words of man, with the fellow-feeling of man, with the affectionate love and tender earnestness of man. He who made the light, and rules beyond the stars, comes and calls on us, and speaks to us with the simple plainness with which a father speaks to his little children, or a little child appeals to grown men.

(3) And especially to His greater knowledge.

God is more forgiving than man; where the justice which only half knows the magnitude of the offence is often merciless, the justice which sees it in all its heinousness is ready to pardon; even where all hope of clemency from a mortal weak and erring as himself, is gone; to Him who knows no sin, who is absolutely inaccessible to temptation, may the forlorn and guilty soul repair with the assurance that its appeal for mercy will never be heard in vain. It is just because God’s thoughts and ways are not as man’s, because His righteousness is infinitely exalted above man’s, that therefore the unrighteous man may “return unto the Lord” with the assurance that “He will have mercy upon him, and to our God” with the confidence that “He will abundantly pardon.”

My Lord, when Thou didst love me, didst Thou know

How weak my efforts were, how few,

Tepid to love and impotent to do,

Envious to reap while slack to sow?

—“Yea, I knew.”1 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti.]

(4) It is expressed in His very Name.

In the effort that was put forth by the prophets of old to give the wings of words to the Divine Inspiration that stirred within them, and more particularly to give the divinest expression to their conception of the character of God, they hit upon nothing that is finer, or grander, or more instructive than the terms in which they represent the name of God. It must indeed be difficult to name God, if the name is to be adequately significant. Hence the accumulation of grand human terms in the name of the Lord as proclaimed to Moses of old:—“The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth; keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin, and that will by no means clear the impenitent.”

The penitent Levites, of whom we read in the Book of Nehemiah, thus spoke to God: “Thou art a God of pardons, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness.” God is characterised not only as a pardoning God, but as a “God of pardons.” He is possessed, as it were, of such an inexhaustible store of pardons that the supply is sufficient to meet the most numerous necessities imaginable. If pardon be at all, there is no fear of stint in the supply, stint such as might leave some of us, against our will, out in the dark, out in the cold, out in the hurricane of storm and tempest. Whatever pardon may be in its essence and significance, there is assuredly enough of it and to spare, for all of us without distinction or exception, seeing God is a God of pardons.

The inner sanctuary of the humble home is the “fireside.” A lad in his teens, a member of a large family in Sheffield, left his home, and by persistent waywardness caused his parents considerable anxiety and pain. One night a young sister found him loitering in the locality. Her best effort could only bring him a little nearer the old home. A mother’s glad welcome induced him to “come in.” Taking off his coat he shamefacedly proceeded to a chair near the door when his father called out “Nay lad, don’t sit theer; tha’s coom back; cum reight up te t’ fier.”

My God, my God, have mercy on my sin,

For it is great; and if I should begin

To tell it all,

The day would be too small

To tell it in.

My God, Thou wilt have mercy on my sin

For Thy Love’s sake: yea, if I should begin

To tell This all,

The day would be too small

To tell it in.1 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti.]

Abundant Pardon

Literature

Caird (J.), University Sermons, 27.

Church (R. W.), Village Sermons, i. 16.

Cox (S.), The Genesis of Evil, 61, 77.

Kingsley (C.), National Sermons, 221.

M‘Cheyne (R. M.), Basket of Fragments, 72.

Morison (J.), Sheaves of Ministry, 102.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xx. No. 1195; xxxvi. No. 2181; xlviii. No. 2797.

Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), xi. 930.

Walker (J.), Memoir and Sermons, 267.

Anglican Pulpit Library, ii. 160.

Christian World Pulpit, xvii. 158 (Short); xx. 341 (Moody); xxxvii. 53 (Morison).

Contemporary Pulpit, 1st Ser., vi. 313 (Glover).

Keswick Week, 1899, 16.

Preacher’s Magazine, i. 316.


Verse 8

(8) My thoughts are not your thoughts . . .—The assertion refers to both the promise and the warning. Men think that the gifts of God can be purchased with money (Acts 8:20). They think that the market in which they are sold is always open, and that they can have them when and how they please (Matthew 25:9-13).


Verse 8-9

The Highest is the Most Forgiving

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.—Isaiah 55:8-9.

In this chapter we have a great evangelical discourse on the Return from Exile, which is very grandly conceived. Israel was not going back to be as before, but to become the mistress and mother of nations. “Nations that knew not thee shall run unto thee because of the Lord thy God.” And along with that enlarged political influence there was to be a new satisfaction of heart; in that deep hunger which cannot be appeased with bread, God’s gift would bring them rest. The promise was well-nigh inconceivable, and it was not made easier by the lowliness of the condition, for what was to “ring in the full satisfaction” was nothing higher or more revolutionary than obedience; all the needed changes in the mind of statesmen and in the mood of the exiled people were suspended on that. “Hearken diligently unto me,” saith God, “and ye shall eat that which is good,” “hear and your soul shall live.” Obedience, which, in the experience of every one has passed unrecognised a hundred times, was suddenly to work a transformation; and men, in listening, seemed to hear a fairy tale from worlds of other dimensions and powers than this, for things like that do not happen on the level of this arid and commonplace earth. To the exiles it sounded much as the preaching of the gospel sounds to some of ourselves, who do not doubt that satisfaction is a good thing, and whose heart runs out in desire for a little more worth the name; but in this sober world, where still the second best prevails, how can it be? In all our churches there are people who have settled it in their minds that, essentially, this promise is not true, but belongs to the delusive phraseology of religion where word and thing do not keep pace.

1. The glory of the preaching of a noble religion is that it “bears our intellect, conscience, emotions, imagination out beyond this world,” and enables us to realise another scheme of powers than our senses have discovered; and that is what the prophet here attempts. Where man’s faith was hindered he thrusts in the bare assertion that God’s thoughts and ways are not like ours. If things are really of the size and force which commonly are attributed to them there would be no room for a gospel to work; but then the world is built in God’s way; it is a grander world than we yet have dreamed, with secrets of power yet unexplored. There are height and depth within it, and what we count impossible is possible with God.1 [Note: W. M. Macgregor, Jesus Christ the Son of God, p. 91.] “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways.”

2. The consideration that God’s nature is unlike to ours, that His thoughts are not as man’s thoughts, His ways not as man’s ways, is adduced, in the passage immediately before us, as a reason why a sinful being should have all the more hope for mercy at His hands. But there is a point of view from which we must hold the very opposite of this proposition to be the truth. Neither morality nor religion would be possible if, deeper than any dissimilarity, there were not a real and essential likeness between God’s nature and ours. Morality is not obedience to an arbitrary authority, but sympathy with the principle or spirit of God’s law. Religion is the communion of the soul with God, but betwixt beings absolutely unlike there could be no communion. It is just because God’s nature is essentially one with ours—His that of the Father of spirits, ours that of spirits made in His own image, after His own likeness; it is because what we call thought, intelligence, mind, is in essence the same in God and in us—in Him the infinite thought or reason, in us that of beings to whom the inspiration of the Almighty hath given understanding; it is, finally, because when I say, “God is Love,” I can ascribe to Him as that which constitutes the deepest essence of His nature that same feeling which binds human hearts together, and, as by a hidden yet all-powerful solvent, melts their separateness into unity;—in one word, it is because in the profoundest sense of the words, God’s thoughts are as our thoughts, and God’s ways as our ways, that we can understand the revelation He has given of His will, and enter into that spiritual fellowship with Him in which true religion consists.1 [Note: John Caird.]

Let us accordingly consider (1) the Likeness of God’s Ways to ours, and (2) their Unlikeness.

I

The Likeness of God’s Thoughts and Ways to Ours

1. If our thoughts were not in a measure like God’s thoughts, we should know nothing about Him. If our thoughts were not like God’s thoughts, we should have no standard for life or thinking. Righteousness and beauty and truth and goodness are the same things in heaven and earth, and alike in God and man. We are made after His image, poor creatures though we be; and though there must ever be a gulf of unlikeness, which we cannot bridge, between the thoughts of Him whose knowledge has no growth or uncertainty, whose wisdom is infinite and all whose nature is boundless light, and our knowledge, and must ever be a gulf between the workings and ways of Him who works without effort, and knows neither weariness nor limitation, and our work, so often foiled, so always toilsome, yet in all the unlikeness there is (and no man can denude himself of it) a likeness to the Father. For the image in which God made man at the beginning is not an image that it is in the power of man to cast away, and in the worst of his corruptions and the widest of his departures he still bears upon him the signs of likeness “to Him that created him.” The coin is rusty, battered, defaced; but still legible are the head and the writing. “Whose image and superscription hath it?” Render unto God the things that are declared to be God’s, because they bear His likeness and are stamped with His signature.

The word “thought” would have no more meaning for me than the words “red” or “green” to a man born blind, if it were not that I have the key to it in the principle of thought or intelligence within me, and that when anything is asserted or denied of the thoughts of God, the proposition is intelligible only because it tacitly implies that thought in God is essentially the same with that which I call thought in me.1 [Note: John Caird.]

2. All knowledge of Divine things begins in a sense of our kinship with God. It is impossible to gain any strong, soul-dominating impression of the Eternal unless we recognise that in the stupendous presence which fills heaven and earth, there is a centre of personal consciousness, not unlike that upon which the sense of our identity rests. God thinks His counsels, chooses His lines of action, loves, and also welcomes the love which is offered to Him, according to the self-same scheme upon which human nature is constituted, and its functions proceed.

This opening up of the mind of God to the mind of man, with the very assurance that, worms of the dust though we be, we are reading the thoughts and exploring the ways of the Creator, is at once the starting-point and the goal of all human knowledge, in the treasure of history, the consecration of science and philosophy, the inspiration of religion natural and revealed, so that whoever cuts off this intercourse between God and man, through the manifestation of His very mind and heart to us, involves all things in darkness, and covers us with the shadow of death.

This is the method of the Old Testament, and Jesus also followed it. We see it in His parabolic teaching, which rests on the assumption that, as the Son of Sirach says, “all things are double one against another,” and the spiritual world the counterpart of the natural, as Mrs. Browning says,

Consummating its meaning, rounding all

To justice and perfection, line by line,

Form by form, nothing single nor alone,

The great below clenched by the great above.

And we see it also in the name which He gave to God. He called Him “the heavenly Father,” and I like to regard this as a reminiscence of His sweet and happy childhood in the house of the carpenter of Nazareth. The Evangelist describes Joseph as “a righteous man,” and the term means rather, in Biblical phraseology, “a kindly man,” as St. Chrysostom explains it, “kind and sweetly reasonable ( χρηστὸς καὶ ἐπιεικής).” Jesus remembered gratefully the fatherly goodness which had sheltered and sustained His helpless childhood, and, searching the whole domain of human experience, He could discover no fitter emblem of the infinite goodness of God.1 [Note: D. Smith in Religion and the Modern World, p. 188.]

3. With respect to the very matter of Divine forgiveness of which the text particularly treats, and which it seems to represent as altogether different from human forgiveness, the Bible is full of representations which seem to imply the very reverse. When it is declared that “As a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him”; when it is said, “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him”; when we are told to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”; and when our Lord sets forth as the type of that love and tenderness which, in our furthest aberrations from goodness, God bears to us, the love which no ingratitude has been able to exhaust, no depth of infamy to render hopeless of its object, the mingled sorrow and pity and joy of an earthly father over his prodigal yet penitent child—what have we in all this if not the assurance that we may know God by human analogies, that if we would learn what love and pity and forgiveness are in God’s heart, we have only to look into our own; so that, even as regards that very characteristic of the Divine nature of which the text treats, there is a sense in which we must not deny, but assert, that God’s thoughts are as our thoughts, and God’s ways as our ways.

I was told once of an old man in a Yorkshire village, whose son had been a sore grief to him. One day a neighbour inquired how the lad was doing. “Oh, very bad!” was the answer. “He’s been drinking again, and behaving very rough.” “Dear, dear!” said the neighbour. “If he was my son, I would turn him out.” “Yes,” returned the father, “and so would I, if he was yours. But, you see, he’s not your’s; he’s mine.”2 [Note: Ibid. p. 189.]

Think of the parable of the Prodigal Son, or that great saying of His, that triumphant argument a fortiori: “What man is there of you, who, if his son shall ask him for a loaf, will give him a stone; or if he shall ask for a fish, will give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask Him?” (Matthew 7:9-11). The postulate here and everywhere in our Lord’s teaching is the kinship between God and man and the consequent reasonableness of interpreting the Divine by the human. As Browning has it:

Take all in a word: the truth in God’s breast

Lies trace for trace upon ours impressed:

Though He is so bright and we so dim,

We are made in His image to witness Him.

II

The Unlikeness of God’s Thoughts and Ways to Ours

We have not gone far in our search for God before we feel the check-rein and are constrained to admit that, whilst there are points of contact between His being and ours, there are also points of enormous dissimilarity. We have worked from the scale of the dwarf, and the larger mensuration is beyond us. There is a basis for common fellowship in the elemental truths which arise from these methods of comparison: but we must not make God according to a petty, mundane ground-plan and transfer the limitations of human life and character to His incomparable person and government.

1. God’s ways and thoughts are unlike ours in their superhuman perfection. The whole Bible is but an expansion of one sentence, one utterance of the Eternal, “I am Jehovah.” Hence the revelation must be incomplete; for who could fully reveal Himself to His creatures would be no God; and it must also be astonishing and amazing; for a professed record of any part of God’s thoughts and ways that did not land in mystery and tend to wonder would be self-condemned, and proved to be neither true nor Divine. It is not only here and there that God’s thoughts and ways are superhuman, but throughout, just as a circle is everywhere a circle, and nowhere a square, or capable of being reduced to the latter figure. How man can at all lay hold of God, or, with his infinite and infinitely inferior mental faculties, frame any conception of Him, this is the wonder and has sometimes been the stumbling-block of philosophy; and it is only removed out of the way by devoutly and thankfully accepting the fact that we do know Him (though darkly), and are so far made in His image, that there may be and ought to be reverential contact and communion with Him.

God’s method of teaching us would not be by a revelation if the finite could adjust itself at once to the infinite mind. In a revelation we have presented to us some of the unassimilated disparities between God’s thoughts and ways and those of His creature man. Without realising it we verge upon the impiety of assuming that God has nothing to teach us, and that we may have something to teach Him. You do not hope to master Newton’s Principia with as much ease as you grasp snippets of toothsome frivolities in the columns of the daily press. You ought not to think the Most High as easy to understand as a plain, plodding, transparent neighbour. Is it seemly to expect that the Mighty God will adopt our methods and put Himself into step for all time with the dwarfs of earth? This gross, phenomenal self-complacency, this thrice-assured infallibility, proof against all doubt of itself, is an offence. God does sometimes bow the heavens and strangely condescend to our infirmity, but it would be a poor kindness to us if He were to make those infirmities, rather than His own higher thoughts and surpassing ways, the limit of His self-revelations and the bounds of our destiny. We are not slowly evolving ourselves into the knowledge of God, but God is meeting us with a vast body of truth concerning His being and His providential ways, the vaster part of which yet remains to be touched and assimilated.

Our nature may be like God’s, but it is not the measure of God’s. Even one human being is often a mystery to another. The words and actions of one who is far in advance of us in wisdom and goodness are often unintelligible to us. It is the penalty of greatness to lose the sympathy of meaner men. A great man is indeed the exponent of the truest spirit of humanity, but for that very reason he is often misunderstood by the men among whom he lives. His motives are purer, his aims nobler, his actions determined by wider principles, his whole career in life regulated by ideas more far-reaching and comprehensive than those of ordinary men. And so, just for this very reason that he is truer to the perfect ideal of humanity than they, it may be said that His thoughts are not as their thoughts, nor His ways as their ways. Much more, obviously, must this be said of Him whose image and goodness are infinite. Man is made in the image of God, but God is not the reflection of imperfect man. There is much in us and in all our thoughts and ways which we cannot transfer to Him, and if we attempt to do so, we only ascribe to the object of worship, as has often been done, our human weakness and errors, sometimes even our follies and crimes.1 [Note: John Caird.]

2. They are unlike in their comprehensiveness. It is a wonderful and beautiful turn which the prophet here gives to the thought of the transcendent elevation of God. The heavens are the very type of the unattainable; and to say that they are “higher than the earth” seems, at first sight, to be but to say, “No man hath ascended into the heavens,” and you sinful men must grovel here down upon your plain, whilst they are far above, out of your reach. But the heavens bend. They are an arch, and not a straight line. They touch the horizon; and there come down from them the sweet influences of sunshine and rain, of dew and of blessing, which bring fertility. So they are not only far and unattainable, but friendly and beneficent, and communicative of good. Like them, in true analogy but yet infinite superiority to the best and noblest in man, is the boundless mercy of our pardoning God:—

The glorious sky, embracing all,

Is like its Maker’s love,

Wherewith encompassed, great and small

In peace and order move.

The lesson is one of humility, but also of consolation; for the depths of God’s mind are depths of truth, of wisdom, and of love; and therefore we may be not only cast down, but also lifted up as we study in this lofty chapter these great words: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.”2 [Note: J. Cairns.]

3. They are unlike in their moral and intellectual estimates. Can we estimate the moral difference between the human and the Divine? God spends the incomputable term of His eternal Being in ministries of unwearied grace,—upholding the weak, doing good to all, setting forth in mighty deeds His truth and righteousness, so proving within Himself that “it is more blessed to give than to receive”; whilst we, though outwardly blameless, have spent much of our time in gathering for self-enrichment, taking toll of our neighbours, asserting our place in the world, bringing others into captivity to our will. And, compressed as we are into moral dwarfishness by the traditions of an imperfect society, we think a selfish scheme of life quite defensible. The Divine nature, like a fountain, is ever pouring itself forth in benediction, without taint of self or stain of darkness; whilst human nature is a turgid, devouring whirlpool, sucking down into its depths whatever may chance to drift within its range. When we think and act, we are weighted by the incubus of past aggressiveness and dishonour; but when God thinks and acts, His character of age-long goodness uplifts all His ideals beyond the uttermost heights.

How vast is the difference even among men in this respect. The ideas of James Chalmers, the apostle of New Guinea, and of the cannibals who clubbed and ate him, were not made of the same stuff. General Gordon and the Arab slave-raiders, whose power he set himself to break up, thought in divergent grooves and represented antagonistic schemes. The philanthropist who founds a Garden City and the pitiless Shylock who rackrents a slum have antithetic views of life because of the contrasted types of character which give impact to their notions. The passions cooped up in our close criminal communities do not produce rare art, seraphic music, supreme literature. The dreams flitting through Pentonville, Dartmoor, or Broadmoor brains, and the dreams cherished in a Peace Congress, would make books for different sections if written down and presented to a library.1 [Note: T. G. Selby, The Strenuous Gospel, p. 12.]

In the early years of the last century Walter Scott, poet and novelist, took a voyage round the north and west coasts of Scotland in company with Stevenson, the lighthouse constructor. Scott went for pleasure, and wherever they landed spent his time in visiting ruined castles, talking with the old gossips of the hamlets and picking up local traditions, which he afterwards wove into his fascinating stories. Stevenson was sent out by Trinity House to survey the coast, mark out dangerous reefs, and choose the best sites for lighthouses. Scott landed when the weather was fair and the sea smooth. His friend faced the gales in open boats, visited jagged rocks over which the surf boiled, and braved countless dangers, because he was commissioned to find out where warning beacons must be fixed and lighthouses placed, and how in the coming generations imperilled lives could be saved. When the storm outside shakes doors and windows we sit by the fireside deriving pleasure from the wizard’s books; but the seaman battling with the waves finds salvation through the thought and work of the romance writer’s comrade. The two men were the best of friends, and as they met day by day had many interests in common. But their thoughts ran in different directions because the one had no responsibilities and was catering for the tastes of his admiring readers, whilst the other bore upon his soul a great burden of human life. Their paths diverged, for their duties varied and their minds were acting in different grooves. God thinks with the burdens of a doomed race resting upon His soul of love, and acts to ransom them from the power of destruction. His thoughts and ways are beyond ours, even as the heavens are higher than the earth.1 [Note: T. G. Selby, The Strenuous Gospel, p. 15.]

4. More particularly God’s thoughts and ways are unlike ours in their estimate of sin.

1. God knows us more thoroughly than any human being can. The estimate which a human censor forms of us is not based on any immediate knowledge, but is an inference from our outward conduct and bearing. But this estimate may easily be an erroneous one, inasmuch as our actions may only partially betray us, may in many ways be an inadequate or deceptive expression of character. Would any of us like that a human eye should read our thoughts and feelings, draw back the curtain of reserve, of conventional propriety, of decorous looks and regulated speech, and see our undisguised selves for a single day? Would there be nothing to abate the observer’s good opinion of us, nothing revealed which neither our words nor deeds nor outward aspect betrays? We do not need to speak of concealed sins or crimes, the facts of which are unknown to the world, and which, if they were known would brand our name with dishonour and infamy; for in so far as these things are concealed, it is obviously nothing in the nature of human actions themselves but only in the accident of their being unobserved or undetected, that makes a man seem in the eyes of men better than he is, and gains him exemption from shame and censure. But what needs more reflection is that from the very nature of the thing there is much in a man’s outward character and spirit that never comes above-board, or only partially and fitfully, and which cannot form an element in the judgment of those who measure us only by overt acts. There is an inner life which no mortal eye sees, a great hidden element of character seething beneath the surface, which only the occasional outflash or unexpected outbreak betrays. There are, for instance, lurking in many a man’s nature evil tendencies which lack of opportunity has kept latent. The unregulated appetite, the secret lust, the cowardice, covetousness, or malignity, the frail virtue which, if but the hour of opportunity came, would present but a feeble front to temptation, may be there within the man’s breast; but the conditions that would convert inclination into action have been lacking, and like the latent disease that has not become active, or the subterranean fire-damp which the flame has never reached, it lies harmless and hidden from observation.

If there be an inspection which is intercepted by no softening veil, before which all disguise and ambiguity are gone, which sees us through and through; if there be a moral estimate which takes into account all that men are and have been and done—secrets which perhaps have never been told, burdens of guilt that have been borne for years in silent anguish, smouldering tendencies to vice, unhallowed passions straining against the leash of self-control and social propriety, every rude, bad thought, every impure imagination, every meanness and weakness, every act of cowardly silence or sham disinterestedness—if, I say, there be a moral Judge before the broad, unshaded, piercing light of whose inspection all that we are is thus laid bare; and if betwixt him and a fellow man a sin-stained soul had its choice who should be its judge, by whose decision its fate should be determined, might we not deem it impossible to hesitate for a moment? “I can bear,” might he not well say, “man’s inspection, but not God’s; before the tribunal of a mortal there is room for hope, but what hope or help can there be for a guilty soul at the bar of the Omniscient? Let me fall into the hands of man and not into the hands of God, for His thoughts are not as man’s thoughts, nor His ways as man’s ways.”

And yet it is just because God’s thoughts and ways are not as man’s, because His righteousness is infinitely exalted above man’s that therefore the unrighteous may “return unto the Lord” with the assurance that “He will have mercy upon him, and to our God” with the confidence that “He will abundantly pardon.”1 [Note: John Caird.]

Undoubtedly a man naturally knows that sin is an evil, and without this knowledge, indeed, he would be incapable of committing sin, since in any action a man is guilty only of the evil which his conscience apprehends. But this natural perception of sin is more or less confused and indistinct. Our Saviour on the Cross prayed for His murderers in these words: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” He did not mean that they were ignorant that they were doing wrong, for then they could have needed no forgiveness, but that they did not realise the full atrocity of the deed. They were acting guiltily indeed, but inadvertently and blindly. And the same may be said of very many sinners. Sin is for the most part a leap in the dark. A man knows he is doing a dangerous thing, but he does not realise the full danger. He does not take in the full scope of his action, nor its complete consequences. St. Paul speaks of the deceitfulness of sin, and the expression describes very well the source of that disappointment and unhappiness which often overtakes the transgressor, when he finds himself involved in difficulties from which it is all but impossible to extricate himself, and sorrows which he never anticipated. It is the old story. Sin “beginneth pleasantly, but in the end it will bite like a snake and will spread abroad poison like a serpent.”

2. God is more angry than we are. In God there is an immitigable abhorrence and hatred of evil, to which, in our keenest moments of aggrieved sensibility, we only faintly approximate. The easy, good-natured divinity who makes everything comfortable is not the God of the Bible. There He has a frowning as well as a smiling face, an aspect, not of feeble benignity, but of terror and wrath and relentless hostility to evil and evil doers. If mercy mean foregoing just indignation and letting off from punishment, then there is no mercy in God. He is the most merciless, relentless, inexorable of all beings. If sin and misery were disconnected, if in all the universe one selfish soul could ever escape wretchedness and live on at peace, it would be a universe over which God had ceased to rule. Wherever a sinful soul exists in all time and space, there, sooner or later, in its loneliness and anguish, as of a worm that dieth not and a fire that is not quenched, there is the proof that the justice of God demands, and will not abate aught of its terrible satisfaction.

Frankly we have to recognise that there are two ways of it, two measurings of the value of things, two views of life; and, soon or late, we must make our choice of this or that. The common temptation is to shirk the choice. Within the Church of Jesus are multitudes of entirely worldly people, whose standard and aim are of this world. They live themselves, and they teach their children to live, under the domination of the ideas of society, and yet they never doubt that they are good Christians. If we believe Christ, that cannot be; the man who heard but did not do seemed to Him like a man building a house without a foundation, which topples about him. We learn in life that there is a religion which is not Christ’s religion. In our churches there is a veiled paganism, hard, scornful, unforgiving, fashion-ridden, and the mischief of it lies not in what these people do so much as in what they think; and in returning to God the first necessity is that they forsake their thoughts.

There is nothing more false and immoral than the weak, sentimental tenderness with which crime and criminals are sometimes regarded. It is a spurious benignity that always recoils from severity, shrinks from the sight of pain, and would treat vice and crime as a thing to be wept over with effusive sensibility and not to be sternly condemned and punished. The hysteric cry for remission of a criminal’s sentence that occasionally bursts forth from foolish women and still more foolish men, has in it nothing of the spirit of true Christian charity.

Béranger speaks of “the God of good-natured folk,” a God not unreasonably strict, who can, on occasion, be blind to human slips; and in Christian churches many prayers are addressed to that “Dieu des bons gens.” The trouble is that, when penalty begins to press, these people have no faith to help them. A God who does not make too much of little sins they can understand, but a God who forgives, when the sin is very great, passes all their comprehension; and when the evil days come they are left without a hope.1 [Note: W. M. Macgregor, Jesus Christ the Son of God, p. 93.]

5. But the purpose of the prophet in telling us that God’s thoughts and God’s ways are higher than ours is that He may give us to understand His readiness to forgive. We may turn the words about in many ways and put meanings into them, but what was first in the prophet’s intention was to assert that God forgives, as He does all else, on a large scale.

The “for” at the beginning of each clause points us back to the previous statement, and both of the verses of our text are in different ways its foundation. And what has preceded is this: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” That is why the prophet dilates upon the difference between the “thoughts” and the “ways” of God and men.

We may not say that God forgives just as man forgives, that mercy goes forth from Him towards the offender in the same measure and for the same reasons as mercy from man to his offending brother. It is possible for man to be cruel when God is kind, and to be weakly lenient where God is stern. There are occasions when the culprit might hope for escape were men alone his judge; there are occasions when, shrinking from the merciless censure of human judges, the sinful soul might well cry out, “Let me now fall into the hand of the Lord; for very great are His mercies: but let me not fall into the hand of man.”

(1) In the first place, it may be observed that, contrary to what might be supposed, it is not in point of fact, even amongst men, the best and purest who are found to be the severest censors and judges of others.

Thy mercy greater is than any sin,

Thy greatness none can comprehend:

Wherefore, O Lord, let me Thy mercy win,

Whose glorious name no time can ever end:

Wherefore I say all praise belongs to Thee,

Whom I beseech be merciful to me.1 [Note: William Byrd, Psalms, Sonnets, and Songs.]

And if, thus, human goodness is the more merciful in proportion as it approaches nearer to perfection, if amongst the highest, heavenliest spirituality is the most tolerant, the last to let go the fallen or to lose its faith in human goodness, and the possibility for the worst of better things,—might we not conclude that when goodness becomes absolutely perfect, just then will mercy reach its climax and become absolutely unlimited?

2. Again, in proof of the assertion that God’s nature, in so far as it differs from man’s, makes Him more and not less likely to forgive, consider that in God there is not, and cannot be, any personal irascibility or resentment; He can never regard a sinful soul with any feeling of vindictiveness, any desire to extract from His sufferings reparation for wrong. There are certain defective theological notions according to which the relations of sinful man to God have been represented as turning on the principle of what is called “vindictive justice,” and the so-called “scheme of redemption” as based on the necessity of extracting from suffering, reparation for wrong. Now, there may be a true notion which men try thus to express, but the form in which they express it is erroneous and unworthy. In God, and therefore in that moral order of the world which is the expression of His nature, there is no vindictiveness, no personal resentment; and it is the utter absence of this in His nature that makes Him infinitely more forgiving than men, even the best of men, are.

Conceive for a moment what a change would take place in our relations to those who offend or injure us, how far it would go to the removal of everything that hinders forgiveness, if we could eliminate from our feelings every vestige of what is due to personal irritation or resentment. Conceive a man looking on all insults, wrongs, offences, with absolute, passionless indifference as regards his own personality, and contemplating them only with the pain and grief due to their moral culpability. Suppose, further, that, with a mind thus no longer agitated by personal feeling, no longer biassed by wounded self-love, he could see in the wrong or injury an evil inflicted on the wronger’s own nature far greater than any inflicted on himself, the exhibition of a morally diseased spiritual state so deplorable as to swallow up every other emotion than that of profoundest sorrow and pity for his wretchedness: and so, that instead of retaliating or inflicting fresh evil upon him, or never resting till the offence should be worked out in his misery, there should arise in the injured man’s breast an intense longing to cure the diseased spirit, to save him from himself and win him back to goodness—conceive such a state of mind, and though, as we depict it, it seems to imply a magnanimity and self-forgetfulness almost impossible in a being of flesh and blood, yet is it an exact representation of the heart and life of Him who was God manifest in the flesh, and therefore of the relation of God to all sinful and guilty men.

For what is the life of Christ on earth but a long, silent, immovable patience; an absolute, life-long superiority to personal feeling; a sorely-tried yet unshaken calm and freedom of spirit amidst insults and wrongs. He could feel, He could grieve, He was not incapable of anger, but where in the record of His life shall we find Him betrayed into one whisper of resentful or vindictive feeling for the ills He suffered at the hands of men? He moved through life exposed to almost ceaseless hostility, subjected to almost every form of injury that human hatred and cruelty could inflct—to scorn, contumely, misrepresentation of motives, treachery, ingratitude, desertion; He was subjected to foul personal indignities, disowned and deserted by the friends He most trusted, and, in His sore need, betrayed by one of them to His enemies. The tenderest, kindest, most loving Spirit that ever breathed, He lived rejected and despised of men, and He died amidst the cries and taunts of an infuriated mob. There were moments when His personal followers, amazed at His forbearance, would have unsheathed the sword in His defence, or called down heaven’s artillery on His persecutors. And yet never, from first to last, can we find in His history one slightest sign of personal irritation, one transient flash of exasperated sensibility, or cry for redress of His cruel wrongs. All other feeling in His breast was swallowed up in an infinite pity and sorrow for those at whose hands He suffered. He lived their unwearied benefactor, and He died invoking, amidst the paroxysms of His agony, heaven’s mercy on His murderers. And in all this He was to us the manifestation of that Being into whose nature personal irascibility can never enter, who has no personality apart from goodness—the incarnate image of that God who is long-suffering and slow to wrath, abundant in goodness and mercy, and who, exalted in the infinitude of His goodness far above the agitation of man’s resentful passions, declares that as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are His thoughts above our thoughts, and His ways above our ways, and that if the wicked will forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and return unto the Lord, He will have mercy upon him, and will abundantly pardon him.1 [Note: John Caird.]

1. Now let us look at some of the ways in which we may see that God’s pardon outreaches the thoughts and the ways of men. And, first of all, let us consider the character of the sin which had to be forgiven. Man does not forgive where he has been insulted as God was in his rebellion. Nations do not tolerate blows aimed at their independence and their very existence; and therefore man’s revolt might have been expected to draw down swift and remediless destruction. We justly exalt the Fatherhood of God; but this great and glorious truth must be harmonised with the rest of God’s character, and with the conditions of the moral universe over which He presides. Sin in its very essence is a wilful attempt to dethrone, degrade, and even destroy God; and even the relation of fatherhood, with its duties to other children, may warrant and even necessitate the penal separation of the child or children, who would conspire to act out in the family, what sin is in the universe. That God’s thoughts should have been thoughts of peace, in such a crisis to a sinning world, is the wonder of unfallen beings and of those who are recovered. They cannot go back to that “counsel of peace,” in which, though every foreseen trespass demanded the exercise of justice, mercy yet rejoiced against judgment, without exclaiming: “This is not the manner of man, O Lord God.” “O the depth of the riches, both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!”

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,

Which was my sin, though it were done before?

Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run

And do run still, though still I do deplore?

When thou hast done, thou hast not done;

For I have more.


Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won

Others to sin, and made my sins their door?

Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun

A year or two, but wallowed in, a score?

When thou hast done, thou hast not done;

For I have more.”1 [Note: John Donne.]

2. The conditions imposed.—The sole and simple condition is repentance—that is to say, repentance which is renunciation. Is there anything in God which, if I now repent and turn with my whole heart to Him, bars the way to forgiveness, makes Him insist first on the satisfaction to His offended law which misery and suffering bring? Be my past life what it may—wasted, mis-spent, stained with the indelible traces of selfish and evil deeds—if now I break away from the past, hate it, renounce it, and in sincerest sorrow and penitence turn to offer up my soul, my life, my whole being to God, will He say: “No, till vengeance for the past have its due, till the demand of my law for penal suffering be satisfied, mercy is impossible, I cannot forgive?”

Is not such a thought a travesty of the nature of God, a misconception of what He, the All-good, All-loving, must regard as the sacrifice for sin that is best and truest? For what must be that sacrifice or satisfaction that is dearest to Righteousness or to the Infinite Righteous One? The misery of lost souls, the pain, the sorrow and dismay of their moral desolation, that knows no mitigation, and the smoke of a torment that rises up for ever? Oh no, offer that to Molech, but not to the God whom Christ has revealed. But the tear of penitence, the prayer of faith, the sighs of a contrite spirit, the love and hope that will not let go its hold on God, the confiding trust that from the depths of despair sends forth the cry, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee”; the yearning after a purer, better life, that finds utterance in the prayer, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy Holy Spirit from me”—yes, I make answer, that is the sacrifice dearest to Him who despiseth not the sighing of a broken and contrite spirit, who hath said, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” and whose gospel, proclaimed by the lips and sealed by the sacrifice and death of His dear Son, is but a glorious renewal of the ancient promise, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”

He discoursed with me very fervently and with great openness of heart, concerning his manner of going to God, whereof some part is related already. He told me, that all consists in one hearty renunciation of everything which we are sensible does not lead us to God, in order that we may accustom ourselves to a continual conversation with Him, without mystery and in simplicity.1 [Note: Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, p. 19.]

3. The measure of the forgiveness.—Nothing of which we have any experience in ourselves or in others is more than as a drop to the ocean compared with the absolute fulness and perfect freeness and unwearied frequency of His forgiveness. “He will abundantly pardon.” He will multiply pardon. “With him there is plenteous redemption.” We think we have stretched the elasticity of long-suffering and forgiveness further than we might have been reasonably expected to do if seven times we forgive the erring brother, but God’s measure of pardon is seventy times seven, two perfectnesses multiplied into themselves perfectly; for the measure of His forgiveness is boundless, and there is no searching of the depths of His pardoning mercy. You cannot weary Him out; you cannot exhaust it. It is full at the end as at the beginning; and after all its gifts still it remains true, “With him is the multiplying of redemption.”

The fault of all our human theories about forgiveness is that, in the process of explaining, we seem to narrow it; and thus we turn back to words which are better than human, as they come from Christ Himself, when He speaks of the father, who saw his son a great way off, and ran and fell on his neck. In that there is a grand theological artlessness; it seems to say that God forgives, not because a man is sorry, or because some condition or other is satisfied, but at the bottom of all, because, in His heart, He wants His son back again. And in three successive parables Jesus declared that God knows the human joy of finding things. “He will abundantly pardon.”

We scarcely know what forgiveness is on earth. Even after a reconciliation relations remain clouded. Men may not quarrel, but something of the grudge remains; and if they forgive it is for once or twice, for few have patience to go with Peter to the seventh time, and then the heart, with all its gathered rancour, gets its way. Forgiveness is a hard thing, hard to bestow and hard to receive, as most of us have found; and so long as we think of God in the light of that human experience, it must be with reluctance. But His ways are not as ours; when He pardons He pardons out and out, and He does not remember our sins.1 [Note: W. M. Macgregor, Jesus Christ the Son of God, p. 95.]

We have just as much right to draw God’s natural attributes to the scale of the monad as to draw His moral attributes to the scale of a man. If God forgives at all, He will do it with God like freedom and grandeur. If He permits us to crawl across His threshold, He will not merely tolerate our return, but welcome us with music and priceless gifts. Alas! alas! we put into the matchless mind which delights in mercy poor Simon Peter’s thought of a forgiveness stretched and strained to seven times, whilst all the time His mercy outsoars and outspeeds ours, as the path of a sun outsoars the track of a glow-worm in the ditch. His thoughts are not bound by our petty precedents of limitation.

When Dr. Moffat began his labours in Africa, one of his earliest converts was a chief called Africaner. This Africaner was the terror of the colony. He had the ferocity of a desperado, and wherever his name was pronounced, it carried dismay. When Africaner was brought to the knowledge of the truth, it seemed such a great thing that it was described by those who knew him, as the eighth wonder of the world. But God is doing such work every day. Christ is charged to save to the uttermost. He does not improve, but renew. The stupendous thing is giving life to the dead.2 [Note: A. Philip, The Father’s Hand, p. 182.]

4. The method of it.—How utterly unlike to any means of man’s devising are those which God has chosen for the recovery of His lost creatures to His favour and His image! That God’s Son should become incarnate and die on the cross for the world’s redemption; that God’s Spirit should descend into the guilty and polluted hearts of sinners, and work out there a blessed transformation; and that all this should be effected by the free and sovereign grace of God Himself, and laid open to the very chief of sinners, as the unconditional gift of His love, this, as universal experience attests, is something so far from having entered into the heart of man, that it needs incessant effort to keep it before him, even after it has been once revealed.

The world had four thousand years to learn the lesson. God had made the outline of it known to His Church from the beginning. He had raised up a special people to be the depositaries of the revelation; and He had taught them by priests and prophets, by types and signs without number. And yet when redemption came, how few received it, how few understood it; so that when the Saviour was actually hanging on the Cross, and finishing the work given Him to do, it is questionable, if so much as one, even of His own disciples, comprehended the design, or saw the glory of His sacrifice.

We cannot believe God gave His only begotten Son for the spiritual healing and salvation of His enemies, since such an act would be impossible to us. No hero of whom we have read or heard is equal to a like sacrifice. It defies probabilities. Is not this a sign that the Gospel, and the message within it, was thought out in a mind transcending ours, and the way of the Cross was a way suggested by no analogies of history.

All religion has been pressed with this problem, how to harmonise the perfect rectitude of the Divine nature and the solemn claims of law with forgiveness. All religions have borne witness to the fact that men are dimly aware of the discord and dissonance between themselves and the Divine thoughts and ways; and a thousand altars proclaim to us how they have felt that something must be done in order that forgiveness might be possible to an all righteous and Sovereign Judge. The Jew knew that God was a pardoning God, but to him that fact stood as needing much explanation and much light to be thrown upon its relations with the solemn law under which he lived. We have Jesus Christ. The mystery of forgiveness is solved, in so far as it is capable of solution, in Him and in Him alone. His death somewhat explains how God is just and the justifier of him that believeth. High above men’s thoughts this great central mystery of the Gospel rises, that with God there is forgiveness and with God there is perfect righteousness.

When my thoughts about life are put away that I may get God’s thoughts, Christ becomes the gift of God’s heart to me, a Deliverer in whom the power of my new life consists, an Enlightener from whom I learn to think of God and man. “If any man be in Christ,” says Paul, “he is a new creature: old things have passed away, behold they have become new.” His former judgments, his estimate of great and small are changed; he finds himself in a new washen earth. It is no power of earth that can work a change like that, but the redeeming will of God, who is able also to subdue all things unto Himself.1 [Note: W. M. Macgregor, Jesus Christ the Son of God, p. 100.]

Enough, my muse, of earthly things,

And inspirations but of wind;

Take up thy lute, and to it bind

Loud and everlasting strings,

And on them play, and to them sing,

The happy mournful stories,

The lamentable glories

Of the great crucified King!

Mountainous heap of wonders! which dost rise

Till earth thou joinest with the skies!

Too large at bottom, and at top too high,

To be half seen by mortal eye;

How shall I grasp this boundless thing?

What shall I play? What shall I sing?

I’ll sing the mighty riddle of mysterious love,

Which neither wretched man below, nor blessed spirits above,

With all their comments can explain,

How all the whole world’s life to die did not disdain!2 [Note: Abraham Cowley.]

The Highest is the Most Forgiving

Literature

Baker (F. A.), Sermons, 329.

Cairns (J.), Christ the Morning Star, 140.

Candlish (J.), The Gospel of Forgiveness, 264.

Craufurd (A. H.), Enigmas of the Spiritual Life, 232.

Davies (T.), Sermons, ii. 106.

Edmunds (L.), Sunday by Sunday, 63.

Hall (E. H.), Discourses, 1.

Henson (H. H.), Westminster Sermons, 269.

Keble (J.), Sermons for the Christian Year, Christmas—Epiphany 27.

Macgregor (W. M.), Jesus Christ the Son of God, 90.

Maclaren (A.), Expositions, Isaiah xlix.–lxvi. 152.

Philip (A.), The Father’s Hand, 179.

Sandford (C. W.), Counsels to English Churchmen Abroad, 1.

Selby (T. G.), The Strenuous Gospel, 1.

Smellie (A.), In the Secret Place, 212.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xii. No. 676; xxiii. No. 1387; xxxvi. No. 2181.

Talbot (E. S.), Sermons at Southwark, 71.

Wilmot Buxton (H. J.), Mission Sermons for a Year, 99.

Wilson (J. M.), Clifton College Sermons, i. 234.

Wilson (J. M.), Rochdale Sermons, 271.

Religion and the Modern World, 188.

Christian World Pulpit, ix. 13 (Beecher); xxv. 106 (Beecher); xli. 33 (Bradley); lviii. 279 (Horton); lxxiii. 65 (Henson).

Clergyman’s Magazine, xii. 23 (Straton).

Contemporary Pulpit, 2nd Ser., i. 45 (Candlish).

Expository Times, iii. 298.


Verse 10

(10) For as the rain cometh down . . .—The verse includes well-nigh every element of the parables of agriculture. The “rain” and the “dew” are the gracious influences that prepare the heart; the “seed” is the Divine word, the “sower” is the Servant of the Lord, i.e., the Son of Man (Matthew 13:37); the “bread” the fruits of holiness that in their turn sustain the life of others.


Verse 11

(11) So shall my word be . . .—The point of the comparison is that the predominance of fertility in the natural world, in spite of partial or apparent failures, is the pledge of a like triumph, in the long run, of the purposes of God for man’s good over man’s resistance. It does not exclude the partial, or even total, failure of many; it asserts that the saved are more than the lost. Comp. Isaiah 53:11.


Verse 12

(12) The mountains and the hills . . .—Cheyne aptly compares—

“Ipsi lætitia voces ad sidera jactant

Intonsi montes.” VIRG., Æclog.

(The very hills, no more despoiled of trees,

Shall to the stars break forth in minstrelsies.)

The waving of the branches of the trees is, in the poet’s thoughts, what the clapping of hands is with men, a sign of jubilant exultation (Psalms 96:12).

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Isaiah 55:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/isaiah-55.html. 1905.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, October 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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