the Second Week of Advent
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Expositor's Dictionary of Texts Expositor's Dictionary
by Editor - William Robertson Nicoll
References. I. XXXIX. Lyman Abbott, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lv. 1899, p. 68. I. 1. S. Horton, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lvi. 1899, p. 58. I. 1-9; 16-20. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Isaiah, p. 1. I. 1-15. V. S. S. Coles, Advent Meditations on Isaiah I.-XII. p. 6. I. 1-20. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. lx. No. 2351; vol. xlix. No. 2819; vol. xlvi. No. 2685.
The Duty of Thanksgiving
As a statesman and a patriot, Isaiah ranks among the foremost of the prophets, and to understand as much as we can of the few words of our text it will be well, perhaps, for us to try to see what the state of affairs was at the time of their utterance. For some veal's things had been improving, and some of the kings of Judah had made reformation of a kind, but at such a time as that of prosperity a nation is frequently called upon to make its choice either for better or worse. What do we find? A very dark future which Isaiah draws of the decline of men and morals. At a period when everything outwardly looked so prosperous, we are told that although people flocked to God's house, penitents were few, the strong oppressed the weak, there was no heart whatever in the nation's religion, drunkenness had increased to the extent of almost a national sin, and matters seemed about as bad as they could be. And what brought about such a state of thing as this? I think the words in our text give us a very fair idea ingratitude, base ingratitude, ingratitude in its worst form, so that the very brute creation is held up to the people almost as an example. 'I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against Me.' How much these few words mean! Those who have brought up children in the fear and nurture of the Lord have borne with them in all their childish troubles, helped them to say their prayers, formed and fashioned their characters as well as they could, taught them to be God-fearing and honest citizens, will best understand them. What had God's people done for it all? 'They have rebelled against Me.' How many instances we find as we trace through the earlier books of the Bible of the ingratitude of these people! We are almost astounded sometimes as we read of it all! God cared for them all through, but ingratitude seems to have been one of the principal sins of their lives. They rebelled against God. 'Israel doth not know, My people doth not consider.'
I. We, too, have been nourished and brought up by God; we, too, have been ungrateful. It is so easy for us to turn over these pages and say: 'I can see just where the fault was in that nation, that person'. We do not, however, think of ourselves, of the way in which we are ungrateful to God.
Let us look at just a few facts in our everyday life. If my heart were to stop beating but for a few seconds I should drop lifeless. Who am I that this should not happen? I see an ambulance coming round, some poor person being hurried to the nearest hospital. He has met with some horrid accident or other. Who has preserved me? I see people all round me suffering from disease, and so on, infirmities, bad health. Who has given me health? Then, perhaps, some of us have to be thankful to God that we are in a good situation. We can look round and find so many out of employment because circumstances are against them. We most of us have energy and strength for our daily work. How many thousands in this land of ours have to bemoan shattered health! It is not laziness; their hearts would be in their work, if they might do it, but it has pleased God to afflict them. Then, we most of us have happy homes. We can look round and see others whose homes are very far from happiness indeed. We all of us, even the poorest, enjoy some of God's gifts. Who are we that God should not take them away from us and give them to some one else, perhaps more deserving of them? We beg of God the first time we want anything. We are always asking for something or other, but how many of us think of thanking God for all He has done for us? We most of us have a great many blessings indeed. God has again and again answered our prayers.
II. Has our thanksgiving been in proportion to our asking and craving? I think that many times it has not. How many of us think of giving God a little service of praise apart from the public services of the Church? There are many ways, for instance, the Te Deum gone through now and again, one of those joyful Psalms we come across, a hymn or two out of our book which is so full of them. I am afraid that what was true of those Israelites is true of us. We do not think, we do not consider. We are not ungrateful to our fellow-creatures. As a rule, when any one does us a good turn and is kind to us, most of us would be willing to go even out of our way to do something in return. None of us likes to be thought ungrateful, but our behaviour towards God, our Father, the God Who loves us, Who has preserved us from harm, danger, accident, illness, or loss, is nothing less. We are so in the habit of taking God's gifts as a matter of course that we fail in our duty of rendering Him the thanks which are His due. God has showered blessings upon us, even more than we have asked for, and we have not been thankful for them. It is a thing that we can remedy. It only wants a little thought, a little consideration. If we would think, if we would consider, it might all be remedied, and our hearts take their part in the worship of thanksgiving which is God's due.
References. I. 2-19. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xl. No. 2378. I. 3. R. Gordon, "The Prophet Prepared for His Work," Christ as Made Known, etc., vol. iii. p. 65. Dean Goulburn, "The Service of Seraphim, etc., Sermons, p. 77. Hole, On the Liturgy, vol. i. p. 190. J. H. Newman, "Peace in Believing," Parochial Sermons, vol. vi. Simeon, Works, vol. vii. p. 504. Maurice, Prophets and Kings of the Old Testament, Sermon xiii. Dr. Cox, Expositor (2nd Series), vol. ii. pp. 18, 81, 271. P. Thomson, "The Call and Commission of Isaiah," Expositor (1st Series), vol. xi. p. 119. Melvill's Lothbury Lectures, p. 149. Knox-Little, "The Cry of the Creatures," in Expository Sermons on Old Testament, p. 268. Godet, Homiletic Quarterly, vol. iv. p. 110. Strachey's Jewish History and Politics, p. 77. Stanley's Jewish Church, vol. ii. p. 381, etc. Geikie's Hours with the Bible, vol. iv. p. 287. Maclaren in Outlines on Old Testament, p. 169. Jacob's Building in Silence, p. 62. In the Christian World Pulpit: Forrest, "The Trinity in Unity," vol. i. p. 492. Canon Driver, "The Divine Nature," Anglican Pulpit of Today. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Isaiah, p. 7. R. W. Hiley, A Year's Sermons, vol. ii. p. 311. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xviii. No. 1059. I. 7. J. Parker, City Temple Pulpit, vol. v. p. 156.
The Sum Total of Life (Advent Sunday)
I. Our life, so far as its spiritual side is concerned, falls into two great divisions. There must be the negative work of repentance; the giving up of habits of sin, the resisting of temptation, all of which falls under the clause Cease to do evil. And this is, of course, of the greatest importance, for without it we can make no progress whatever.
In building a house, the most important thing is a good foundation. If there be a flaw there, the house will never be safe. Some few years ago one of the towers of a great cathedral began to settle and to show signs of falling. On examining the foundation it was discovered that it rested upon a stone coffin which had collapsed and thus caused the settlement of the tower.
The first clause of our text requires, not merely that we should cease to do evil, but that we should repent of the evil which we have done.
There is only one Fountain in which we can wash and be clean, the precious Blood of Jesus Christ.
II. Learn to do well. God did not create you and give you all the great talents you possess that you might do no harm, but that you might be of some use in the world. No one ever made any instrument merely that it might do no harm, but that it might accomplish the purpose for which it was made; and if it is useless, it is generally destroyed because it is useless. In all our Lord's parables of judgment there is not one which speaks of a soul being lost by positive sin. The cause of its loss is always the neglect of opportunity to work.
Then, too, we have to form habits of virtue. And habits are only formed gradually, whether they be good or bad habits. Take the habit of prayer. What is prayer? It is the language in which the soul speaks to God. It takes time and labour to learn a new language. If you were to devote an hour a day for two or three years, with real concentration of mind, to your prayers, how wonderful would be the result! You would acquire the habit of prayer. And prayer would transform your whole life; you would 'cease to do evil'; you would 'learn to do well'.
A. G. Mortimer, The Church's Lessons for the Christian Year, part i. p. 1.
References. I. 16-19. V. S. S. Coles, Advent Meditations on Isaiah I.-XII. p. 10. J. Keble, Sermons for Advent to Christmas Eve, pp. 424, 435, 446.
Prophets of Righteousness
So the greatest of the Hebrew prophets addresses his compatriots at the beginning of his prophecy. The prophet's call is to a reasonable consideration of the message he brings, and he was one of a group, or succession of men, who might fairly be described as perhaps the greatest teachers of political righteousness whom the world has ever seen, teachers who sprang out of the heart of the people, who represent in their turn every section of it Isaiah himself, if we are to believe tradition, was a man of high social rank, a member of the governing class, and of the royal house. His colleague, or brother prophet, or forerunner might be, like Micah, a man of the people, or, like Amos, a herdsman and a gatherer of sycamore fruit. Thus they represent every class, and they stood before their contemporaries, before kings, or nobles, or common people, before all alike, speaking the words of Divine inspiration and conviction. Their mission was simply to hold aloft, without fear of consequences and without thought of personal interest, the ideal national life of a God-fearing people. They were seldom popular. Yet these national and political idealists were the men who made Israel truly great, and such men are always needed, because if their moral idealism fails in any nation, or at any period, the higher life of that people stagnates or decays.
I. What is it that, humanly speaking, gave the Jews their Unique Place among the Nations and differentiated them so remarkably from any other Oriental people, indeed, which has sent them floating down the tide of history surviving every storm? Was it not the sense, growing and deepening out of every generation, of their being a people called of God to work out His purposes and His righteousness? And the men who kept alive and transmitted this sense of a high calling with its inspiration to personal duty from age to age were these men, of various types and of every rank of life, whom John Stuart Mill described as 'the inestimably precious unorganized institution, the order, if it might so be termed, the order of the prophets'. Accordingly, as he reminds us, the Jews, instead of becoming stationary like other Asiatics, were, next to the Greeks, the most progressive people of antiquity, and, jointly with them, have been the starting-point and the main propelling agency of modern cultivation. It is therefore, assuredly, a matter of some regret that we have given, most of us, so little serious attention to these prophets, and have done so little to cultivate the true prophetic spirit, either in our reading of our Bibles for personal instruction or guidance, or in our teaching of our young men for their inspiration and citizenship, or in the training of our clergy for their calling, or yet again that we have thought so little about applying the spirit of these national teachers to the conduct of our own national affairs. To this neglect may fairly be attributed, in some degree at any rate, some of the most glaring inconsistencies of our national Christian life.
II. Why was it that Isaiah cried so vehemently, 'Come, let us reason together'? It was not because the people around him were irreligious people. It was because of the contradiction and inconsistencies of their professedly religious life. The mission of the Prophet was to sweep out of the life of these people these contradictions between religious profession and habitual practice. The Hebrew prophet is above all things the preacher of reality in personal religion, of consistency in personal conduct, and of righteousness pervading every department of national life.
III. Looking at the Life of our Time, one of the greatest of our English philosophers of the last generation has said of us that we seem to have two religions one for Sunday observance and Sunday worship, and the other for the market or the Stock Exchange, for the city or for Parliament, or for international or diplomatic use; in other words, for all our various and varying standards of social or political conduct. On Sundays our talk is all of brotherhood, our allegiance to Jesus, the Revealer of the one Fatherhood, the Prince of Peace, and to the virtues which He preached, virtues of Christian charity and good service. On other days, in all the various fields of man's activity, the accepted Gospel seems rather to be a gospel of pride and power, of perpetual antagonism and rivalry, of destruction, or jealousy between classes and nations alike. Dare we say, as we look around us, that this modern philosopher was mistaken in his estimate? Amongst the strangely inconsistent and contradictory phenomena of our complex Christian society, contradictions and inconsistencies seem, indeed, to meet the most thoughtful observer at almost every turn. In almost every country of Europe men's profession, both individual and national, is the religion of Christ, and that profession, as our Baptismal Service continually reminds us, is to be following the example of His Spirit, and to be made like unto Him. But in many departments of our Christian life say, for instance, in some of our own political and national, and in almost all international, affairs we hardly ever hear of an appeal to Christian obligation. A: such a time, and amid so many dangerous entanglements, we need, above all things, political leaders in every country endued in some degree with the illuminating and strengthening inspiration of these Hebrew prophets, those prophets of national righteousness, to purify the air of national and international relationships; to bid us remember that in our public as in our private affairs our duty is to take care that our rules of conduct be in accord with the Gospel of Christ.
References. I. 18. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. vii. No. 366; vol. xxii. No. 1278; vol. xl. No. 2354; vol. xlix. No. 2816. W. J. Knox-Little, Manchester Sermons, p. 1. J. Stalker, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlix. 1896, p. 282. W. Perkins, ibid. vol. lii. 1897, p. 19. I. 19. F. B. Meyer, Christian Living, p. 62. R. F. Horton, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxx. 1906, p. 248. I. 20. H. J. Wilmot-Buxton, Sunday Lessons for Daily Life, p. 1. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxiv. No. 2013. I. 21-23; III. 1-3; IV. 2-6. V. S. S. Coles, Advent Meditations on Isaiah I.-XII. p. 25.
Redemption By Judgment (Advent)
I. These prophecies of Isaiah are excellent lessons for us when we are passing through the season of Advent. Advent contains the promise of approaching Christinas, in other words, the promise of the coming of the Prince of Peace. But Advent also is the season which speaks to us of Christ the Judge, who is now and always weighing all our doings in the balance and executing vengeance, swift or slow, upon those who are found wanting; and who will one day appear again to judge the whole world.
And here Isaiah comes in to help us. He shows us the kind of preparation which we need for meeting the coming of the Lord, because his prophecies themselves contain the preparation by which God sought to turn the hearts of the Jews in his days.
II. If we take Isaiah's account of his own people and apply it to ourselves, it is no great wonder if we are unwilling to confess any likeness.
Twenty-six hundred years have not availed to make impossible just such miseries as fell on the countrymen of Isaiah. The sword, the famine, and the pestilence have not yet vanished from the earth or lost their power to slay. I do not say these things to frighten you. What ought really to frighten us is the sin which we cherish and indulge in our own selves. Where that is, then we know there must be judgment; if not by the sword or famine or pestilence, then in some other way. This was the message which Isaiah had to bear to his people; and most surely it has not grown stale and out of date since then.
III. When we receive the message, we call it hard and cruel: we complain that God will not let us alone: we ask what has become of His much talked-of love. It is not hard and cruel: God will not let us alone, just because His name is Love. We by our perverseness have made it impossible to bring us back to our own heavenly home by any dealings less severe: therefore God will not shrink from using them, for all our fretful cries. He knows what we so easily forget, that there is no peace for us but in Him. And so the darkest day of judgment has always a yet brighter day shining beyond. Through Advent we rise to Christmas. But Christmas will bring no blessing to those who have thought Advent to be only a curse.
F. J. A. Hort, Village Sermons (2nd Series), p. 1.
References. I. 30, 31. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Isaiah, p. 9. II. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. li. No. 2922. II. 1-4. V. S. S. Coles, Advent Meditations on Isaiah I.-XII. p. 15. II. 1-5. W. L. Watkinson, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxv. 1904, p. 313. II. 2. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. v. No. 249. J. H. Newman, Sermons Bearing on Subjects of the Day, p. 245. II. 2, 3, 4. Sinclair, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lii. 1897, p. 389. D. S. Govett, ibid. vol. lxxii. 1907, p. 358. II. 3. Brooke Foss Westcott, Village Sermons, p. 13.