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1. O that thou wouldest rend the heavens! The particle לוא ( lu) appears to me, in this passage, to denote a wish; for, although it has many significations, yet the context shews that this signification is more appropriate to this passage than any other. Here believers burst forth into earnest prayer, as usually happens, when in sore adversity we do not find plain terms to be sufficiently forcible for our purpose.
God is said to “rend the heavens,” when he unexpectedly gives some uncommon and striking proof of his power; and the reason of this mode of expression is, not only that men, when they are hard pressed, commonly look up to heaven, from which they expect assistance, but that miracles, by interrupting the order of nature, open up for themselves an unusual path. Now, when God renders no assistance, he appears to be shut up in heaven, and to disregard what is taking place on earth. For this reason he is said to open and “rend the heavens,” when he holds out to us some testimony of his presence; because otherwise we think that he is at a great distance from us.
That thou wouldest come down. This expression, like the former, is adapted to the estimation of our flesh; for God does not need to move from one place to another, but accommodates himself to us, that we may understand those subjects better. (185) (Genesis 11:5.)
Let the mountains flow down. That is,“
Let thy majesty be openly displayed, and let the elements, struck by the perception of it, yield and obey.” (Psalms 18:11.)
This will appear more plainly from what immediately follows.
(185) “ Afin que nous comprenions mieux ce qui nons est dit de luy.” “That we may understand better what is said to us about him.”
2. As by the burning of a melting fire, (186) the fire hath made the water to boil. All this might be read either in the future or in the subjunctive; as if he had said, “O Lord, if thou camest down, the nations would tremble at thy presence; thine enemies would instantly be melted away.” But I think that the translation which I have given is more simple; for it is very certain that the Prophet here alludes to Mount Sinai, where the Lord openly revealed himself to the people. Hence we see also the gross absurdity of the division of this chapter; (187) since those events are related in support of that prayer which ought rather to have been placed at the beginning of the chapter. (188)
We have formerly seen that the prophets, when they relate that God assisted his people, bring forward an instance in the history of redemption. (189) Whenever therefore the prophets mention this history, they include all the benefits that were ever bestowed by God on his people; not only when he delivered them from the tyranny of Pharaoh, when he appeared to them in Mount Sinai, but also when, during forty years, he supplied them with all that was necessary in the wilderness, when he drove out their enemies, and led them into the possession of the land of Canaan. In a word, they include all the testimonies by which he formerly proved himself to be gracious to his people and formidable to his enemies.
He says that “the melting fire made the waters boil,” because, contrary to custom, fire and lightning were mingled with violent showers; as if he had said that the fire of God melted the hardest bodies, and that the waters were consumed by its heat. To the same purpose is what he adds, that “the mountains flowed at his presence;” for he opened up a passage for his people through the most dreadful obstacles.
(186) “ Comme par feu ardent qui fait fondre.” “As by a burning fire that melteth.”
(187) Calvin alludes to the fact, that, in the Hebrew Bible, the last verse of chapter 63 corresponds to what usually is the first verse of chapter 64. For the convenience of the reader, I have exchanged the author’s arrangement for that which is followed in the English version. — Ed.
(188) “I have followed our common version, the LXX., Vulgate, and Syriac, in departing from the Masoretic division of the chapters, according to which the words (‘O that thou wouldst,’ etc.) are very improperly made to conclude chapter 63.” — Henderson.
(189) “ En l’histoire de la deliverance d’Egypte.” “In the history of the deliverance from Egypt.”
3. Terrible things which we did not look for. He says that the Israelites saw what they did not at all expect; for, although God had forewarned them, and had given them experience of his power in many ways, yet that alarming spectacle of which he speaks goes far beyond our senses and the capacity of the human mind.
4. From of old they have not heard. This verse confirms what has been already said, that believers do not here ask anything strange or uncommon, but only that God may shew himself to be to them what he formerly shewed himself to be to the fathers, and that he may continue to exercise his kindness, and that, since he has been wont to assist his people, and to give them undoubted tokens of his presence, he may not cease in future to cause his strength and power to shine forth more and more brightly. He represents believers as praying to God in such a manner that they strengthen themselves by the remembrance of the past, and betake themselves; with greater courage to God’s assistance.
Eye hath not seen a God besides thee. The Prophet’s design unquestionably is, to celebrate God’s immense goodness, by relating the numerous benefits which he bestowed upon his people in ancient times; and this kind of praise is highly magnificent, when, rising to rapturous admiration, of them, he exclaims that there is no God besides him, and that those things which the Lord has carried into effect for the sake of his people are unheard-of and uncommon. But there are two ways in which these words may be read, for אלהים ( elohim) may either be in the accusative or in the vocative case. “O Lord, no one hath seen besides thee what thou doest for them that wait for thee.” But another reading is more generally approved, “No one hath ever seen or ever heard of such a God.” Yet in this reading we must supply the particle of comparison, as; for otherwise the sentence would be incomplete. The verb יעשה ( yagnaseh) is put absolutely, “No ear hath heard, and no eye hath seen, such a God as doeth such things.” And thus God is distinguished from idols, from which superstitious men imagine that they obtain all good things; for they are the mere inventions of men, and can do neither good nor harm, seeing that God bestows on his worshippers benefits of every kind.
Paul appears to explain this passage differently, and to torture it to a different purpose, and even quotes it in different words, that is, because he followed the Greek version. (1 Corinthians 2:9.) In this respect the Apostles were not squeamish; for they paid more attention to the matter than to the words, and reckoned it enough to draw the attention of the reader to a passage of Scripture, from which might be obtained what they taught. As to the addition which Paul appears to have made of his own accord, “Nor hath entered into the heart of man what God hath prepared for them that love him,” he did so for the purpose of explanation; for he added nothing that does not fully agree with the Prophet’s doctrine.
That we may understand better how thoroughly he agrees with the Prophet, we must understand his design. In that passage he treats of the doctrine of the Gospel, which he demonstrates to surpass the capacity of the human understanding; for it contains knowledge that is widely different and far removed from the perception of our flesh, and, in short, is “hidden wisdom,” so that Paul is justly led to view it with astonishment. And as the Prophet, when he takes into consideration the wonderful acts of God’s kindness, exclaims, like one who is lost in amazement, that nothing like this was ever heard of; so, in the most excellent of all benefits, namely, that in which Christ is offered to us by the Gospel, we may exclaim in the same manner, “O Lord, what thou bestowest on thy people exceeds all the capacity of the human mind: no eye, no ear, no senses, no mind can reach such loftiness.” Thus Paul applies this passage admirably to his reasoning, and does not make an improper use of the statement made by the Prophet when he elevates above the world that peculiar grace which God bestows on his Church.
There remains but one difficulty, namely, that Paul applies to spiritual blessings what the Prophet here says about blessings of a temporal nature. But we may say that Isaiah here looks merely at the cause of God’s benefits, though he has in his eye the condition of the present life; for all the benefits that we receive from God, for the sake of food and nourishment, are proofs of his fatherly kindness toward us; and it is the peculiar excellence of faith, to rise from visible favors to those which are invisible. Although therefore the Prophet appears to speak of external deliverance and other benefits of this life, yet he rises higher, and looks chiefly at those things which belonged especially to the people of God. What stupidity would it be, if, while we enjoy God’s benefits, we did not consider the fountain itself, that is, his fatherly kindness! Ordinary favors are enjoyed indiscriminately by the good and the bad; but that favor with which he embraces us belongs especially to citizens. The consequence is, that we do not merely observe those things which fall under the senses of men, but contemplate the cause itself. Although therefore neither eyes nor ears reach so far as to comprehend the grace of adoption, by which the Lord testifies that he is our Father, yet he reveals it by the testimony of his Spirit.
It is even probable that the Prophet, when he spoke of a particular instance of God’s kindness, was elevated, by means of it, to a general reflection; for, in considering God’s works, it was frequent and customary for good men to pass from a single instance to the whole class. In that way might this single but remarkable instance of the divine goodness raise the mind of the Prophet to so high a pitch as to meditate on that infinite abundance of blessings which is laid up for believers in heaven. We even see clearly that this commendation includes the gracious covenant by which God adopted the children of Abraham into the hope of eternal life. (Genesis 17:7.) What has been said amounts to this: “Seeing that the goodness and power of God are so great, we have no reason to distrust him; but we ought to place our confidence in him, so as to hope that he will assuredly assist us.” And such is the design of those excellent benefits which are here mentioned by the Prophet.
5. Thou hast met. He proceeds with the same subject; for the people deplore their hard lot, that they feel no alleviation in their adversity, although formerly God was wont to stretch out the hand to the fathers. Believers, therefore, speak in this manner: “Thou wast wont to meet our fathers; now thy face is turned away from us; and thou appearest to be irreconcilable:, because we gain nothing by calling on thee. Whence comes this diversity, as if thy nature had been changed, and thou wert now different from what thou hast been?” They next add, and make an acknowledgment, that they are punished justly, because “they have sinned.” I have formerly stated that nothing is better in adversity than to remember God’s benefits, and not only those which we have ourselves experienced, but likewise those which are related in Scripture; for we cannot be armed by a stronger shield against temptations of every kind.
This verse, in my opinion, is inaccurately explained by those who think that we ought to read those words as closely connected, Him that rejoiceth and doeth righteousness, as if he had said, “Thou hast met them that willingly serve thee, and whose highest pleasure is to do what is right.” I think that rejoicing denotes here those who were glad in prosperity; for at that time the people were in sadness and mourning. There is an implied contrast. “Formerly thou wast wont to meet the fathers, before they were distressed by any affliction, and to cheer them by thy approach; now thou art far distant, and permittest us to languish in mourning and grief.”
In thy ways they remembered thee. In accordance with what he has now said, he adds that they “remembered God,” because they enjoyed his present grace, and felt that he was the author and director of their salvation; and so by “the ways of God,” he means prosperity; either that in this way he was near to them, when he treated them softly and gently as his children, or because God is by nature inclined to acts of kindness. But since he said that God was wont to “meet him that doeth righteousness,” the “remembrance” may relate to the practice of piety, that is, that they devoted themselves earnestly to the worship of God; and so it will be an explanation of the former clause, for the prophets frequently confirm by a variety of expressions what they have formerly said. To “remember” God, is to be captivated by the pleasant remembrance of him, so that we shall desire nothing more, and to place all our happiness in him. There is nothing that delights us more than the remembrance of the mercy of God; and, on the other hand, if we feel that God is angry, the mention of him fills us with alarm.
And we have sinned. The reason is assigned; for, when they find that God is so unlike what he formerly was, they do not murmur against him, but throw all the blame on themselves. Let us learn from this, that we ought never to think of the chastisements which the Lord inflicts, without at the same time calling to mind our sins, that we may confess that we are justly punished, and may acknowledge our guilt.
In them is perpetuity. In this passage עולם ( gnolam) denotes nothing else than “long duration;” but it may refer either to “sins” or to “the ways of the Lord.” To sins it may refer in this way, “Though we obstinately persisted in our sins, and deserved that thou shouldst destroy us a thousand times, yet hitherto we have been saved by thy mercy.” If we understand it to relate to “the ways of the Lord,” it will assign the reason why the people did not perish, because “the ways of the Lord” are steadfast and perpetual, and his mercy never comes to an end; and that meaning appears to me to agree best with this passage. Some supply the words, that “the age,” or “perpetuity,” is founded on the ways of the Lord. But I prefer to take the words in their literal acceptation, as when David says that the Lord “is not angry but for a moment,” (Psalms 30:5,) that he is easy to be reconciled, and always compassionate; for his anger is not suddenly kindled, or with immoderate rage, after the manner of men, but he is unchangeable in benevolence and favor.
And we shall be saved, or, we have been saved We have not yet got at the whole of the Prophet’s statement; for he says that the people “are saved,” although they had been led into captivity, as into a grave, and deplored their calamity. On that account I consider the preterite to be put for the future, for it is rather a wish or a prayer than an affirmation. Nor do the saints boast that they have obtained salvation, but, deploring their misery, they betake themselves to God’s everlasting mercy; and consequently, they praise that which they wish, and not that which they have already obtained.
6. We have all been as the unclean. The believers go on in their complaint; for they deplore their condition, because God appears to take no account of them. Hebrew writers are not agreed as to the meaning of the words בגד עדים ( beged gniddim.) (190) Yet it is certain that it denotes something which is vile and worthless, and which, on account of its filthiness, stinks in the noses of men. But here two things ought to be observed; first, that believers confess their guilt, and are justly punished for it; and, secondly, that they nevertheless complain of the severity of the punishments which they endure, not to blame God, but to move him to compassion; just as a culprit, when he endeavors to mitigate the severity of a judge, lays before him his own distresses and calamities. Some commentators torture this passage, by alleging that the Prophet, when he speaks of the pollutions of sins, describes all Jews without exception, though there still remained some of them who were sincere worshippers of God. But there are no good grounds for this; for the Prophet does not speak of individuals, but of the whole body, which, being trodden under foot by all men, and subjected to the utmost indignity, he compares to a filthy garment.
There are some who frequently quote this passage, in order to prove that so far are our works from having any merit in them, that they are rotten and loathsome in the sight of God. But this appears to me to be at variance with the Prophet’s meaning, who does not speak of the whole human race, but describes the complaint of those who, having been led into captivity, experienced the wrath of the Lord against them, and therefore, acknowledged that they and their righteousnesses were like a filthy garment. And first, he exhorts them to a confession of their sin, that they may acknowledge their guilt; and next, that they should nevertheless ask pardon from God, the manner of obtaining which is, that, while we complain that we are wretched and distressed, we at the same time acknowledge that we are justly punished for our sins.
And we all fade as a leaf. This is a very beautiful comparison, which shews that men utterly fade and decay when they feel that God is angry with them; as is admirably described in Psalms 90:6 (191) Justly, therefore, are we compared to leaves; for “our iniquities, like the wind, carry us away.”
(190) “Vitringa and Gessenius dwell with great zest and fullness on the strict sense of בגר עדים (beged gniddim.) Some understand the comparison with withered leaves as a part of the description of their sin, while others apply it to their punishment. The first hypothesis is favored by the difference of the tenses; the last by the parallelism of the clauses. It is probable, however, that here, as in Isaiah 1:4, the two things run together in the writer’s mind, and that no refined distinction as to this point was intended.” — Alexander.
(191) Commentary on Isaiah, vol. 3, p. 210.
7. There is none that calleth on thy name. He confirms what was formerly said; for he exhorts believers, even though God’s punishment of them appears to be severe, still to believe that they deserve such a punishment. Heinous sins are mentioned by him; and though it would be tedious to go over all of them in detail, he points out the fountain itself, and says that the worship of God is neglected. Under the word “calleth on,” he includes, as is customary in Scripture, the whole worship of God; for the most important part of God’s worship is to “call upon” him, and to testify our confidence in him. Prayers and supplications, undoubtedly, were always practiced among them; but, because the heart was far removed, he reckons all pretended ceremonies as of no value.
Or that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee. He now explains more clearly the former clause, by saying that no one earnestly applies his mind, or gives his endeavor to seek God, but that all are consumed and wasted away through their own slothfulness. And first, he shews that nothing is more desirable than to be perfectly joined to God; for, when we are alienated from him, everything must go ill with us. We are indolent and sluggish by nature; and therefore we need to have spurs applied to us. Seeing that by nature we indulge our slothfulness, we must listen to the advice of the Prophet so as not to become utterly stupid; for, otherwise he in his turn will reject us, or contemptuously drive us away. The Prophet describes the miserable condition of the people, in which there was no desire to seek God, and no means were used to stir up the heart to godliness.
Thou hast made us to languish. They again complain that they are overwhelmed by the severity of distress, and obtain from God no alleviation; for Isaiah asserts these things in the name of the whole people, and prays to God not to permit them any longer to languish amidst so great miseries.
8. And now, O Jehovah. After having complained of their miseries, by which they were almost overwhelmed, they now more openly ask pardon from God and a mitigation of their distresses, and with greater boldness plead with God that still they are his children. Adoption alone could encourage them to cherish favorable hopes, that they might not cease to rely on their Father, though overwhelmed by the load of afflictions. And this order should be carefully observed; for, in order that we may be truly humbled in our hearts, we need to be cast down, and laid low, and almost crushed. But when despair seizes us, we must lay hold on this altar of consolation, that, “since God has been pleased to elect us to be his children, we ought to expect salvation from him, even when matters are at the worst.” Thus, with a view to the gracious covenant, the Israelites affirm that they are the children of God, in order that they may experience his fatherly kindness, and that his promise may not be made void.
We are the clay, and thou our potter. By means of a comparison they magnify the grace of God, and acknowledge that they were formed of despicable clay; for they do not seek the ground of superiority in themselves, but in their origin celebrate the mercy of God, who out of mean and filthy clay determined to create children to himself.
We all are the work of thy hands. Of the same import as the former is this second clause, in which God is called the Creator, and his people are called the work of his hands; because to God alone they ascribe all that they are and all that they have. This is true gratitude; for, so long as men advance the smallest claim to anything as their own, God is defrauded of his right. Now, Isaiah speaks not of the ordinary creation of men, but of regeneration, on account of which believers are especially called “the work of God;” as we have frequently stated in the exposition of other passages: (192) Here they acknowledge a remarkable act of God’s kindness, in having elected them to be his people, and adorned them with benefits so numerous and so great.
(192) Commentary on Isaiah, vol. 2, pp. 26, 83, 121, 264; vol. 3, pp. 132, 318, 338.
9. Be not angry, O Jehovah, beyond measure. (193) The people pray that the severity of punishment and the fierceness of the wrath of God may be abated; not that God goes beyond measure, but because they would be altogether overwhelmed, if he should choose to act toward them with the utmost strictness of justice. They therefore ask a mitigation of punishment; as Jeremiah also says, “Chasten me, O Lord, but in judgment,” (Jeremiah 10:24,) that is, moderately; for he draws a contrast between “judgment” and “wrath;” as it is elsewhere said that God chastises us “by the hand of man,” (2 Samuel 7:14,) because he does not put forth the power of his hand to punish us, lest we should be utterly destroyed.
Neither remember iniquity for ever. It deserves notice that they do not absolutely shrink from the judgment of God, or pray that they may wholly escape from it, but present themselves to be corrected, so as not to faint under the strokes. And this is the reason why they desire to have the remembrance of their iniquities blotted out; for, if God do not mercifully pardon them, there will be no end of the chastisements.
We all are thy people. The Prophet repeats what he said a little before, that God elected the family of Abraham; because the best ground for the confident expectation of obtaining pardon was, that God, who is true to his promises, cannot east away those whom he had once elected. By employing the word all, he does not speak of each individual, as I formerly remarked, but includes the whole body of the Church. Although the greater part had withdrawn through wicked revolt, yet still it was true that the Jews were God’s peculiar people; and this prayer was offered, not for every one of them without distinction, but only for the children of God who were still left. (194) The people do not plead their own merits before God, but betake themselves to the covenant of free grace, by which they had been adopted. This is the sure and only refuge of believers, this is the remedy for all evils; and that is the reason why Moses and the other prophets repeat it so frequently. (Exodus 32:13.)
(193) “‘Be not angry, oh Jehovah, to extremity.’ The common version of עד מאד (gnad meod) (very sore) fails to reproduce the form of the original expression, as consisting of a preposition and a noun. This is faithfully conveyed in Lowth’s version, (to the uttermost,) and still more in Henderson’s, (to excess;) although the latter is objectionable as suggesting the idea of injustice or moral wrong, which is avoided in the version above given.” — Alexander.
(194) “ Mais seulement pour la petite troupe des fideles.” “But only for the small company of believers.”
10. The cities of thy holiness. The Church again recounts her miseries, that she may move God to mercy and obtain pardon. She says that the cities have been reduced to “a wilderness;” and, for the sake of amplification, adds that “Zion is a desert;” because it was the royal residence, in which God wished that men should call upon him. She adds also Jerusalem, in which Zion was; for it appeared to be shameful that a city, which God had consecrated to himself, should be ruined and destroyed by enemies.
She calls them “cities of holiness,” because, as the Lord had sanctified a people, so he also wished that the cities, and even the whole country, should be consecrated to himself. Seeing, therefore, that the cities were dedicated to God, they are justly called “cities of his holiness;” for in them God reigned, and men called upon him. In the same manner we may at the present day give the appellation of “cities of God’s holiness” to those which, laying aside superstitions, worship him in a sincere and right manner.
11. The house of our sanctuary and of our glory. (195) It is called “the sanctuary of the people” in a different sense from that in which it is called “the sanctuary of God;” for, being the testimony of a sacred union between God and the people, it is often called “God’s holy house;” that is, because it corresponds to his holiness. But now, in a passive sense, believers call it “their sanctuary,” because from it they must seek their sanctification.
This is more plainly confirmed by the words, “of our glory.” They acknowledge that they have nothing in which they ought to glory, except the temple, in which God wished to be adored and worshipped. And yet we see that this glorying was often without foundation, and for that reason was reproved by Jeremiah,“
Trust not in words of falsehood, saying, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, are we.” (Jeremiah 7:4.)
But while the glorying of those who were proud and insolent on account of empty titles was without foundation, yet true and well-grounded was the glorying of those who embraced with the heart the Lord’s ordinance, and, relying on the testimony of his word, knew that they dwelt under the shadow of him who had reared for himself a constant dwelling-place in the midst of them; for the temple was built by the command of the Lord, so that the Jews might justly glory in having God for the protector of their salvation.
In which our fathers praised thee. Because the worship of God was at that time corrupted and adulterated, and almost all had revolted to superstition and ungodliness, for this reason he mentions not the present but the former age. As if he had said, “Though we have not rendered to thee such worship as we ought to have rendered, yet this is the temple in which our fathers worshipped thee in purity; wilt thou permit it to be profaned and destroyed? Will not this disgrace recoil on thyself, since it relates to the worship of thy name?” Here the Jews say nothing about their life, and bring forward no excuses, and rather confess their guilt, but offer their worship to God, that he may be mindful of his covenant, and not allow his promises to be made void. This example ought to be imitated by all believers. The word “praise” denotes thanksgiving; as if he had said, “In that temple, the melancholy ruins of which draw forth mourning and tears from all believers, the praises of God at one time resounded, when he treated his people with kindness and gentleness. (196)
(195) “Our holy and our beautiful house.” — (Eng. Ver.) “Our house of holiness and beauty.” — Alexander.
(196) “They press him closer still, and make use of an argument which was most likely to affect him. The temple wherein our pious fathers praised thee, the beautiful sanctuary in which thy honor used to dwell, is burnt with fire; the precious materials it was made of are nothing but rubbish and dust.” — White.
12. Wilt thou restrain thyself for these things, O Jehovah? The people strengthen themselves by assured confidence, that God will not permit his glory to be trampled under foot, though men provoke him by innumerable transgressions. This can yield no consolation of any kind to hypocrites, but relates solely to those who are moved by a true sense of the mercy of God. Such persons believe and are fully persuaded, though death threaten them, that God will nevertheless have regard to his own glow, and will at least be gracious to the remnant, that the seed may not perish.
And wilt thou afflict us beyond measure? (197) He shews that it is impossible for God not to be mindful of his mercy; for “he cannot deny himself.” (2 Timothy 2:13.) But our salvation is connected with his glory. This ought to be carefully observed; for, after having spoken of the glory of God, he adds, “Thou wilt not afflict us beyond measure.” The Lord will therefore restrain his chastisements; for his glory, which he cannot disregard, is deeply involved in our deliverance from death. To this prayer, therefore, let us betake ourselves whenever we are attacked by our enemies; not in the manner of hypocrites, (who haughtily boast of the glory of God, of which they have no experience whatever,) but with repentance and faith, that we may actually obtain the fruit of that glory.
(197) “That is, Canst thou hold out against so many moving considerations? Is it possible that thou canst behold thy children in chains, thy city in ruins, thy temple a heap of stones, and not be prevailed on to pity and put an end to our great afflictions?” — White.
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Calvin, John. "Commentary on Isaiah 64". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28