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A Catechetical Note
It is a living man who speaks to us. This is not an anonymous book. Much value attaches to personal testimony. The true witness is not ashamed of day and date and all the surrounding chronology; we know where to find him, what he sprang from, who he is, and what he wants.
"The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah" ( Isa 1:1 ).
This man is a speaker. Has the speaker any function in society? Does the man of sentences, of eloquence, play any part in the education of the age? Isaiah defines the part he is about to attempt; he says he will first of all accuse the times of degeneracy. This is not a grateful task. More loudly would he be welcomed who came to pronounce a eulogy upon the age. But Isaiah was characterised by intense and invincible reality. He will be an iconoclast; nothing will be spared by the iron rod of his vengeance: yea, though they be gods, they shall go down; though they be idols well cared for they shall be smitten as if they were common clay. This is a chapter of denunciation, with which is strangely inwrought figures of mercy and tones evangelical. My song shall be of judgment and mercy!
Isaiah personates the divine Being as accusing Judah and Jerusalem:
"Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the Lord hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me" ( Isa 1:2 ).
Instead of "children" say "sons" "I have nourished and brought up sons" not a mixed family, but all sons; so to say, all eldest sons, all equal sons, without favour or specialty of advantage "and they have rebelled against me." Sometimes we imagine that the fatherhood of God is a New Testament revelation; we speak of the prophets as referring to God under titles of resplendent glory and overpowering majesty, and we set forth in contrast the gentler terms by which the divine Being is designated in the new covenant. How does God describe himself in this chapter? Here he claims to be father: I have nourished and brought up sons not, I have nourished and brought up slaves or subjects or creatures or insects or beasts of burden I have nourished and brought up sons: I am the father of creation, the fountain and origin of the paternal and filial religion. "And they have rebelled against me." In what way have they rebelled? We must come to particulars. We find those particulars in the fourth verse "Ah! sinful nation." The word "ah" is not an interjection, indicating a mere sighing of pity or regret; the word should not be spelt as it is here, the letters should be reversed, it should be "ha," and pronounced as expressive of indignation. God does not merely sigh over human iniquity, looking upon it as a lapse, an unhappy thing, a circumstance that ought to have been otherwise; his tone is poignant, judicial, indignant, for not only is his heart wounded, but his righteousness is outraged, and the security of his universe is threatened, for the universe stands in plomb-line, in strict geometry, and whoever trifles with the plomb, with the uprightness, tampers with the security of the universe. "A people laden with iniquity;" so that you cannot add another element to the heavy burden: genius cannot invent an addition. "A seed of evildoers;" not a mere progeny, as if the force of heredity could not be resisted and therefore fate must be accepted, but a house of evildoers that is to say, all the evildoers having grouped themselves to keep house together a whole houseful of bad men. "Sons that are corrupters"; sons that are as cankerworms; sons that throw poison into pellucid water streams; sons that suggest evil thoughts to opening minds. What have they done? They have done three things. It is no general accusation that is lodged against Judah and Jerusalem, and through them against all the nations of the earth; it is a specific indictment, glittering with detail. "They have forsaken the Lord." By so much their action is negative: they have ceased to attend the altar; they have neglected to read the holy writing; they have turned their backs upon that towards which they once looked with open face and radiant eye. Next, "they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger." Observe how the intensity increases, how the aggravation deepens and blackens: "they have forsaken;' "they have provoked;" they have grown bold in sin; they have thrown challenges in the face of God; they have defied him to hurl his thunderbolts and his lightnings upon them. "They have provoked the Holy One of Israel." That is the key of Isaiah's whole revelation "the Holy One of Israel."
The book of Isaiah is divided into two parts: in the first part "the Holy One of Israel" is a phrase which is used some fourteen times; in the second part it is used sixteen times. "The Holy One of Israel" is the key of Isaiah's whole religious position. His was a majestic mind; specially was that majesty invested with highest veneration. God is not to him a mere conception; he is "the Holy One of Israel" the one holy, the only holy. Every man has his own God, in the sense of having his own conception or view of God. There are as many conceptions of God as there are men to conceive of God. Here is a mystery, and yet a joy. When men compare their several conceptions of God one with another they make each other's hearts ache. To what mind does it ever occur that the multitude of conceptions of God is due to the wondrousness and infinite glory of the God who is thought about? Were he himself less it would be easier to comprehend him, and represent him in one formula; but seeing the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain him, where is the word-house you will build for him, where is the creed-tabernacle in which you will confine him as in a prison? Isaiah thought of God as "the Holy One of Israel," and in this connection he beholds that Holy One under the action of provocation. So far then we have two specific charges: first, "they have forsaken"; secondly, "they have provoked": now there remains a third detail in the great indictment "they are gone away backward." They forsook, they provoked, they apostatized. Sin has its logical course as well as holiness. There is a method in madness as well as a method in reason. Men do not stand still at the point of forsaking God: having for a little while forsaken him, they will find it almost necessary to provoke him, that they may justify themselves to themselves and to others, saying, Even provocation cannot awaken the judgment of heaven with any sign of impatience; and having provoked the Holy One of Israel, the next point will be universal apostasy, a thorough off-casting of the last traces and semblances of religion. See if this be not so in the history of the individual mind. We do not pass from the Church to perdition always at one great leap. There is a course in which men move towards their ruin: it is a well-beaten course; it is a turnpike that cannot be mistaken in all the religion of time and history. First of all is given up all week-night attendances or week-day services; after the week-day passes the Sabbath morning or the Sabbath evening. The process has begun; it will end in death! Every doctor who visits the patient will say, There is no hope; this man is death-bound; he will land in hell. But why speak so? He has but forsaken, withdrawn, given up. Certainly, that is all he has done at present; but there is a law of gravitation, spiritual as well as physical, and now the man who has begun by forsaking will end by going backward, his whole life thrown out of order, decentralised; and he perpetrates the irony of walking backwards, and his crab-like action will bring him to the pit. Isaiah having these real conceptions was a fire among the people. He was not a namby-pamby teacher, a man who would exchange compliments and courtesies, and say that after all there is an average of morality, and one man is not much superior to another. He did not come along that line at all; he came from talking with the Holy One of Israel, and his face burned like a fire, and his voice was enlarged with thunder. He will do something in his age. Such men are not to be put down. How he changes his tone into one of remonstrance and expostulation! He says, "Why should ye be stricken any more?" God will never give up striking until you give up sin: you cannot outwear the Infinite, you cannot compete with the eternal; law never gives over. How will you, poor children of a day, creatures of an hour, compete with that which is infinite and everlasting? Now Isaiah was, like all other prophets, not only a seer, but a physician. You will find in his description, or diagnosis, of the case a physician's knowledge and a physician's technicality. He says, You are vitally wrong, organically out of health: the whole head is sick, the whole heart is faint: the chief members of your constitution are wrong. It is a question of the head and the heart. Not, The foot has gone astray, and the hand has been playing an evil game, or some inferior member of the body has given hint of restlessness and treason; but, The head, where the mind abides, is sick; the heart, continually keeping the life-current in action, is faint and cannot do its work. Until you see the seriousness of the case you cannot apply the right remedies. This is the accusation which is brought by the prophets of heaven. They do not come to complain that some little error has been committed, or some passing ailment is troubling the human constitution; whether they were right or wrong, they set themselves in this attitude: every head is sick, and every heart is faint; from the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores. Let us have a right diagnosis at the beginning. Some are clever in minutely describing a disease; they seem to have the power of looking behind, and indicating with precision everything that is wrong in substance and wrong in action. We go to such men that we may really know what the matter is, and there is no appeal from their learned and experienced criticism. Isaiah, however, was not only good at diagnosis, but good also in therapeutics. He says, "They have not been closed" physicians admire that language; it is so precise "neither bound up" another point of admiration "neither mollified with ointment." This is a man talking who understands about disease, and about what is necessary for its cure. It is not enough to know we are diseased, though the poet is right when he says, "To know oneself diseased is half the cure," that is to say, it excites concern, it leads men to thoughtfulness and to inquiry, and probably into practical courses that may end in healing. Is this true of human nature? Do not consult the sanguine poet, for he takes a roseate view of everything: he sees in leprosy only the beauty of its snowiness; he looks upon the green mantling pool, and sees nothing there but some hint of verdure. Do not consult the gloomy pessimist, for at midday he sees nothing but a variety of midnight, and in all the loveliness of summer he sees nothing but an attempt to escape from the dreariness of winter. But consult the line of reason and solid fact, or undeniable experience, and what is this human nature? Can it be more perfectly, more exquisitely described than in the terms used by the prophet in the fifth and sixth verses of this chapter? Do the poor only fill our courts of law? Are our courts of justice only a variety of our ragged schools? Is sin but the trick of ignorance or the luxury of poverty? Or the question may be started from the other point: Are only they who are born to high degree guilty of doing wrong? Read the history of crime, read human history in all its breadth, and then say if there be not something in human nature corresponding to this description. Do not be vexed in your pursuits, and troubled and fretted by merely theological definitions, but ask after having read fifty volumes of the history of human crime whether there be not great truth in the indictment "From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment." Unless we have a right conception of human nature we shall never have a right conception of Christ's work. We cannot understand the Cross until we understand the crime: we cannot begin to see the mercy until we have seen the sin.
But even in this indictment there is an evangelical tone, there is the beginning of a great remonstrance, expostulation, and proposal. What a sweet word is in the ninth verse:
"Except the Lord of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, and we should have been like unto Gomorrah." ( Isa 1:9 )
My song shall be of mercy and judgment! "Except the Lord of hosts had left unto us------" Then you may fill up the verse according to present history, or personal experience, or individual recollection. The beginning of our speech is provided for us; it opens thus, "Except the Lord of hosts had left unto us" or given us or provided for us or interposed for us. The divine action explains the turns which human history has taken in the direction of recovery or redemption, or any form of restoration. Except the Lord of hosts had come with the morning, it had perished, it had perished even whilst it was dawning; except the Lord of hosts had taken up the little child, and warmed the little life at the infinite heart, it had died; except the Lord of hosts had come into the house when the harvest was a heap and the day was a multitude of sorrows, the tempest had crushed in the roof, and put out the household fire; except the Lord of hosts had done this or that, we had stumbled into darkness and fallen into ruin.
And now begins a great revolution. The challenge is:
"To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats. When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts [or fasts] my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood" ( Isa 1:11-15 ).
Is God, then, condemning the very ceremonies which he may have himself instituted? Nothing of the kind. He is only condemning them because they are used by men whose hearts are no longer in them. The liturgy may be the finest expression of the language in which it is written; it may be comprehensive in thought, eloquent in diction, pious in spirit; but when lying lips utter it the Lord says, Take it away; it wearies me: pious words without pious hearts constitute an irony which I cannot tolerate. We are not to consider that oblations, incense, new moons, Sabbaths, calling of assemblies, and appointed feasts, were condemned in themselves, and were ruthlessly abrogated; we are to consider that they had been abrogated by their false professors. He makes a nullity of the church who comes to it and leaves his heart outside. He makes the altar a laughing-stock who bends his knee but not his heart. Rend your hearts, and not your garments. God will have nothing to do with unreality, heartless ostentation, pomp and circumstance of worship: God abhors the sacrifice where not the heart is found. It is needful to remember all this, at least in some of the phases of its suggestion, lest men should come to a passage of this kind, and say, See how all formality, institutionalism, ceremonialism, and ritualism have been driven out of the sanctuary: God himself has cursed them, and abolished them. Nothing of the kind. They were cursed by the men who used them; they were practically abolished by the men who turned them into a cloak under which to conceal the very genius of evil. We still need institutions, churches, Bibles, altars, helps and auxiliaries of every kind, and shall do so as long as we are in the body; but let us take heed how we use them. To read the Bible without the Biblical spirit is to mock its inspiration. To profess Christ without living Christ is to crucify the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame. Christianity gives infidelity any hold it may have upon human attention. Christianity could have outbuilt infidelity, could have shamed it away, could have made it almost equal to murder when it charged a Christian with anything that was wrong. Christianity could so have operated in society that if any man whispered one word against it the very spirit of judgment would have burned the air in which he whispered. If we have left the building standing but have expelled the divinity which glorified it; if we maintain the shell after we have extracted the kernel; if we hold up the name when the substance has been taken away then do we tell lies to society; then may we write Ichabod upon the door which hides our desolation; then may we say to the mocker, Mock on, for we are but dead men. What then is to be done?
"Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow" ( Isa 1:16-17 ).
That is the new ritualism; that is the new programme. Look at two points. "Relieve the oppressed." Literally the words might read from the other point of view, and would then stand thus: Correct the oppressor. It is of little use to relieve the oppressed until you kill the tyrant You are but offering temptations to the oppressor when you take under your patronage his victims. It is right that they should be cared for; in fact, unless they are cared for there is no Christianity in the case, but the real thing to do is this: whilst relieving the oppressed, correct the oppressor; put manacles on the hands of the tyrant, put fetters upon his feet, and chastise him with the rod of righteousness. "Judge the fatherless." Let the judge become an advocate; then the advocate will be a judge. This is what we have to be and to do in the great Church of Christ. The judge seated on the bench is to be the advocate to whom the fatherless can look, saying to him, You know my case; speak for me: you have words; I have none; you know how to state the reasons: take up my cause for me. And then the judge shall be advocate, and the advocate shall be no longer a paid hireling to prove that wrong is right, or make the worse appear the better cause. When called upon to plead for the fatherless, to judge the fatherless, the orphan, the homeless, then his eloquence will be touched. Hear how he halts, stumbles, hesitates when he expounds an old black-letter law for which he cares nothing: how poor he is when challenged by the spirit of pedantry! but let an orphan appeal to him, let a widow who cannot speak for herself commit her case to him; then see how he rises in stature, flames into sacred fire, and speaks as if he were pleading for his own life. That is the enthusiasm which the love of Christ enkindles! "Plead for the widow." The very word "widow" comes from an ancient term which signifies dumbness a woman who cannot speak for herself; she is made silent by grief, or she is speechless because she has no status in the court "Plead for the widow": be a mouth to her, an eloquent tongue to her silence: she cannot speak, you must speak for her: accept her brief and relinquish her fee. Then will heaven clear away the clouds from its kind face, and there will come back again all summer, all beauty, all love.
O thou Christ of the living God, thou didst die for men; yea, whilst they were yet sinners thou wast crucified, buried, and raised again, that they might obtain through faith eternal salvation. This is the love of God; this is the appeal of heaven to the children of time. How gracious the invitation! how tender every tone of the Father's speech! how yearning the solicitude that broods over us! May we hear the gospel voice, and answer it with our love; may we know how much we need the Saviour; may all attempts at self-help and self-redemption be abandoned as falsehoods and impossibilities: with one consent may the nations turn to Christ and to his Cross, seeking cleansing only through the blood of his sacrifice, and finding peace only through him who is our reconciliation. Being justified by faith, we have peace with God. Jesus Christ has answered the law; he has filled up all that was needful, all that was lacking; he came to seek and to save that which was lost: he has found us, he has brought us home rejoicingly, and there has been joy in the presence of the angels of God over repentant and returned sinners. May none be left behind; may not one perish in the wilderness: may the last be brought in as the first, and may thy flock be thus completed, O Shepherd of Israel, O Pastor of the universe. We bless thee for a gospel which we need so much. We need it most when the night is darkest, when the temptation is severest, when the enemy is cruellest, when all sense of self-help abandons us, and when we are cast upon the mercy of the living God: then how great the gospel, how gracious the redeeming speech, how ample the provision made for sinners, how free how infinite the forgiveness of God! May we all cease to do evil, learn to do well, betake ourselves to those Christian activities which are binding upon Christian souls; and having served our day and generation on this side the vale may we pass beyond the cloudy screen, and there look upon all that has been waiting for us with the patience of eternity, and with the confidence of love. Amen.
"Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless", plead for the widow" ( Isa 1:16-17 ).
How easy to say "Cease to do evil"! Have we considered how much is meant by these words? Does evil get so slight a hold upon a man that he can detach the hand that grasps him without effort or difficulty? By what image would we represent the hold which evil gets upon men? Is it the image of a chain, a manacle, a fetter? Has it in it anything of the nature of a heavy burden, a weight that drags the life down to the very ground? Is it a tyranny that defies the poor little strength of man, and laughs at the victim when he attempts his freedom? Is evil kind to those who practise it? Is it most gracious in its mastery? Or does it taunt, and mock, and threaten, and defy? Can it be truthfully represented as a spectre that terrifies men in the darkness, a goblin that looks at them frowningly when they attempt to pray? If there is any suggestion of truth in all these inquiries and human experience alone can reply how easy it is to say, "Cease to do evil"! The man who is exhorted might reply, I cannot: the master whom I serve is a tyrant: if I even sigh as an indication of my suffering he doubles my punishment. Oh wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? Who shall cut away from me this cold corpse that I am doomed to carry? Herein perhaps we have not been sufficiently kind to men who are in a negative period of education, men who are simply trying to abstain, to refrain from evil, to cut down evil little by little because they feel they cannot cut it off all at once. To such men we should ever reveal an aspect of the tenderest graciousness, and when we speak to them our voice should be musical with tones of encouragement. It is a long leap from hell to heaven. The devil is no easy taskmaster; if he allows us to go one inch from him it is that he may leap upon us with deadlier certainty of his hold. Still, the exhortation is needed, and all Biblical exhortations bring with them their own assurance of divine interposition and divine succour; they are not mere exhortations, vocal cries, efforts in words. Whenever a man is exhorted in the Bible to cease from evil and to attempt good, the meaning is that God is behind the exhortation to afford needful inspiration and grace, if the man will himself ask for help, and cast himself unreservedly upon it. What is the evil which a man is called upon to cease to do? Every man must answer this question for himself. Almost every one can find some kind of virtue easy to practise, but every one has his own special and all but ineradicable evil, following him, stamping him, sealing him, and defying him to throw it off. Is any one conscious of being engaged at this moment in denying a craving for some personal indulgence, be it the draught of poison, the draught of death? How far have you proceeded? If you have proceeded so far as to make up your mind that it would be well to cease that evil, take heart: that is the first good, solid, upward step; that resolution is itself a rock on which you may stand. Now can you conquer all at once? The answer is, certainly not, in many cases at least. There have been stupendous and successful efforts which have had about them at the first all the characteristics and qualities of completeness; but let not those be discouraged who have to try again, to fight more desperately to-day than they had to fight yesterday. Is it a consciousness of being hardly able to speak without the utterance of profane language? Cease to do evil: there was less profanity in the speech to-day than there was the day before: be hopeful, be on your guard; say, Lord, keep thou the door of my lips, set a watch upon my mouth. So these are but indications. Whatever the evil is, know that it must be fought out, put in its right relation to your life, and that it is impossible for you to cease to do evil except with the co-operation, the inworking spiritual ministry of God the Holy Ghost. How is that to be obtained? Ask, and ye shall receive. Seek, and ye shall find.
"Learn to do well" or, to do good. Then does not good-doing come natively, as breathing does, or locomotion, or sight? Is this a trade to be learned? Do men serve an apprenticeship to good-doing? In a sense they do. All this is matter of education. And how wonderfully education spreads its necessities over the whole space of human life! You find it everywhere, on the very lowest levels, and on the very highest. We see what the author has produced, but we do not see what he has destroyed. The book comes out in fair copy, and we, looking upon the surface only, say, How well done! Who can tell what that "fair copy" cost? We see the picture hung upon the wall for exhibition, but we do not see how much canvas was thrown away, or how many outlines were discarded, or how many efforts were pronounced unworthy. We only see the last or best. So, much is to be done in private with regard to learning to do well. We do not live our whole life in public. We make an effort in solitude: it is a failure; we throw it away; we acknowledge its existence to no one: still, we are acquiring skill practice makes perfect and when we do our first act of virtue in the public sight people may suppose that we are all but prodigies and miracles, so well was the deed done. Only God's eye saw the process which led up to it. This is a characteristic of divine grace, that it sets down every attempt as a success, it marks every failure honestly done as a victory already crowned. So we are losing nothing even on the road. The very learning is itself an education; the very attempt to do, though we fail of doing, itself gives strength, and encouragement, and confidence. In learning to do well we assist the negative work of ceasing to do evil.
Herein is a mystery of spiritual education. In learning to pray we by so much separate ourselves from doing that which is evil in speech: we cleanse the mouth; we set the mind upon a new level; we import into the whole music of life a new keynote. How hard it must be to rise from prayer and then give both hands to the devil! Surely that is a miracle which ought to lie beyond the compass of human power. So we are not to wait until the negative process is completed before we begin the positive process. First of all we have to do a great negative work; we have to get rid of all our provincialisms before we can speak the true language of the country: we have to rid ourselves of our mistakes before we can begin to build: we have to cleanse the constitution before we commence the construction which is associated with sound health. Yet at points the two processes coincide, and they help one another. To cease to do evil without learning to do well is to cleanse the house and leave it empty that the devil may return to an ampler and more inviting habitation.
"Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord" ( Isa 1:18 ).
"Come now, and let us reason together," may be read, I present an ultimatum. "Let us reason together," or, I have come from the eternal place to offer man an ultimatum: How truly becoming to divine majesty is such a voice! It is for God to say which is the way of life, and it is for God to say how life can be obtained by those who have forfeited it. Thus we get rid of all human inventions, all man-made schemes of salvation, all theories of human reconciliation. It is not for man to speak upon that question at all; his opinion is not invited; he can have no opinion to give that would touch the fundamental and vital condition of affairs. The picture, then, is that of the Eternal King offering an ultimatum to rebellious and perverse subjects.
"Saith the Lord." This expression occurs frequently in Scripture; it occurs repeatedly in this chapter. What meaning do we associate with the expression? Who, in reading such words, would not read them in a loud and resounding voice? It would appear as if we required the trumpet of the thunder that we might properly articulate the expression, "Thus saith the Lord." Etymologically that is wholly wrong in some of the instances which occur in the prophecies of Isaiah. Were the words literally rendered they would come to this, Thus doth the Lord whisper. There is no thunder in the emphasis; there is a solemn stillness, an accommodation of infinite voices to human capacity to listen. The appeal loses nothing wherever this etymology can be adopted, but rather seems to gain something.
"Thus doth the Lord whisper." He has been a whispering Lord; he was not in the earthquake, nor in the high wind, nor in the burning fire; he was in the still small voice. The emphasis is in himself. For God to speak is to be emphatic by virtue of the very fact that it is he who speaks. The Lord has no occasion to raise his voice; when he whispers he thunders, not in the outward and popular sense of that term, but when the Eternal speaks there is an energy in his whispering that could not be found in all the thunders that roar in the troubled sky. Men often say, Could we but hear the Lord speak! In ancient times men were enabled to say, "Thus saith the Lord," and therefore they had an advantage over us. Nothing of the kind. The men of ancient time heard a whisper. So may we if we listen for it if we say, Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth. What we need is the hearing ear. Is there a man who can solemnly declare that he has never heard a whispering in his conscience, in his better nature? Has no voice appealed to him, saying, Cease to do evil; learn to do well: be a braver man and a better; come away from all evil, and abandon the paths of unrighteousness which end in ruin? He may call it memory, or conscience, or describe it by any name that suits the fancy of the hour, but the right interpretation of that whispering, pleading, is that God has a controversy with that man, or is at that solemn juncture inviting him to paths of pleasantness and paths of peace.
Hear the still small voice; listen to the energetic whisper: it suits our weakness; it meets the necessity of the case in every aspect; it is adapted to the passion which reduces our speech to a cry, and it falls like balm upon wounds that ache, and through whose red lips our poor life pours itself in despair. What do we want from heaven? Great appeals that thrill the whole wind that blows around the globe? Do we want appearances in the constellations, figures in the zenith, convulsions, earthquakes, and signs in the clouds? By so much as we ask for these are we out of harmony with God's method of educating and preserving and directing the universe. Listen for quiet voices or whispered appeals, and know that the appeal loses nothing in consequence of its being whispered, but rather gains because he who whispers is God.
"Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool" ( Isa 1:18 ).
Who could make this bold proposition? All men can dye their souls, but, as saith a quaint divine, only God can bleach them. It is in our power to dye ourselves into all colours, but only God can make us white. The light is the image of the purity to which we are called, and which God will work in us if we yield ourselves to his gracious ministry. The idea is that there is no human condition too desperate for divine treatment. "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool": "red" represents blood, and blood represents fire, and blood and fire are life; they hold in their tremendous grasp the secret of this awful thing that lives and breathes, and would be God if it could. The heifer, the white ashes of which were to purify those who had been in contact with the dead, was to be a red heifer; the sprinkling-brush was to be tied or fastened with a scarlet thread. There is a philosophy of colours; there is a theology of hues; and it hath pleased God to represent purity by whiteness. The saints above are robed in white; they who love God are clothed in white raiment now, and it is the harlot of the earth that is scarleted and that lives in her significant redness. Only God can take out all our black stains, and red signs, and scarlet tokens of iniquity, and make us as white as snow, brighter than the noonday sun. He has said he will do it; he offered to do it. This is the very purpose of the incarnation and ministry of Jesus Christ. The whole priesthood of the Son of God expresses itself in this holy eventuation, that every stain is taken out, and that the whole catharism has ended in spiritual purity and whiteness.
Are we trying to whiten ourselves? Then we must most surely fail. Have we undertaken to rub out the red spot from the hand that has committed murder? All the seas of the universe could not wash that hand and make it clean. God proposes to accomplish the miracle; let us hasten to him, and say, Lord, thy will be done; so long as there is one stain upon us we are restless, we are filled with torment: take thou out of us the last taint, and make us without spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing, a glorious Church, fit for heaven's own whiteness. If God called us to some trifling task, some little contracted effort, some evanescent attempt, to do a little better than we have been doing, the whole vocation of heaven would contradict itself; this, indeed, would be the subjugation, yea, the humiliation, of heaven's majesty in making so unworthy a proposition. The proposition is that we be cleansed in and out, that we have every fleck and flaw and speck and stain taken out by divinely-directed detergent methods, and that we be left at last pure with God's holiness. All this should be recognised as the claim of the Bible. It means to do this, it wants to do this; if it is speaking because of some human inspiration, who was the man who spoke so? Verily, we would hear him speak again, for never did human invention propound so infinite a miracle.
We have spoken of an ultimatum; the terms are given:
"If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land: but if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it" ( Isa 1:19-20 ).
This is a message which the common-sense of men can understand. It is not marred by even apparent superstition; it is an ultimatum, based on reason which we ourselves can test; it might have been stated by man within the limits which are possible to his understanding "If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land: but if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword." That is happening every day. Here the Lord comes down upon the common reason and the common experience of mankind, and justifies supernatural revelations by his supreme and gracious hold on absolute facts which we ourselves can test. He works with both hands: one ranges through the heavens, and we cannot follow it; the other sets before us the facts of human history, and thus by a double action God holds human attention and human confidence with gracious and benevolent mastery.
How the chapter varies in its tone:
"How is the faithful city become an harlot! it was full of judgment; righteousness lodged in it; but now murderers. Thy silver is become dross, thy wine [mutilated, as well as] mixed with water: thy princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves: every one loveth gifts, and followeth after rewards: they judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come unto them. Therefore saith the Lord [whispereth the Lord,] the Lord of hosts, the mighty One of Israel, Ah, I will ease me of mine adversaries, and avenge me of mine enemies" ( Isa 1:21-24 ).
In no other verse are so many divine designations given. "Ah, I will ease me of mine adversaries, and avenge me of mine enemies." This is a very significant figure. It is the figure of a man drawing a deep breath, and thus casting off his trouble by an exhalation: Ah, I will draw a deep breath, and in my sighing I will ease me of mine adversaries sigh them off, cast them away with the wind of my heart and avenge me of mine enemies. Lord, take not that deep inspiration against thy creatures! Who can live if thou dost breathe upon us so? who can answer the respiration of God? Hold thy breath, or breathe softly and gently upon us, that we may live, and not die.
Isaiah represents by the threefold designation of the divine being the omnipotence of God. "The Lord," that would be enough; "The Lord of hosts," that is more; "The mighty One of Israel," he piles his argument, he draws in all possible designations significant of almightiness, and then asks Judah and Jerusalem if they will attempt to rebel against the concentrated omnipotence of God; as who should say, O fools! to attempt with knuckles and fists and hands of flesh to beat back an eternal rock! Consider the lunacy of the case, the absolute madness of the conditions! It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks: acquaint now thyself with him, and be at peace. No man can encounter God in battle and leave the field a victor. Here again comes the great gospel ultimatum: Here is a stone: if you fall upon it, you will be broken that you may be reconstructed; if it fall upon you, it will grind you to powder, and the wind will blow you away.
Of the literary qualities of Isaiah Ewald writes: "We cannot in the case of Isaiah, as in that of other prophets, specify any particular peculiarity, or any favourite colour as attaching to his general style. He is not the especially lyrical prophet, or the especially elegiacal prophet, or the especially oratorical and hortatory prophet, as we should describe a Joel, a Hosea, a Micah, with whom there is a greater prevalence of some particular colour; but, just as the subject requires, he has readily at command every several kind of style and every several change of delineation; and it is precisely this that, in point of language, establishes his greatness, as well as in general forms one of his most towering points of excellence. His only fundamental peculiarity is the lofty, majestic calmness of his style, proceeding out of the perfect command which he feels he possesses over his subject-matter. This calmness, however, no way demands that the strain shall not, when occasion requires, be more vehemently excited and assail the hearer with mightier blows; but even the extremest excitement, which does here and there intervene, is in the main bridled still by the same spirit of calmness, and, not overstepping the limits which that spirit assigns, it soon with lofty self-control returns back to its wonted tone of equability ( Isa 2:10 to Isaiah 3:1 ; Isaiah 28:11-23 ; Isa 29:9-14 )."
God Reasoning With Man
Look at the text as marking decided progress in the moral position of mankind. There was a time when such words were not used by the Almighty. We turn over the foregoing pages of the volume and find the Maker and creature standing in this relation: God drave out the man from Eden, and set a flaming sword in the garden where man had wont to be. It appears as if God himself had turned away, turned his back upon his child, and left the sinner to wander in outer darkness, to feel the bitterness and pain of his rebellion. There is no proposition at that time to reason out the case. There is a voice of thundering and of judgment, and afterwards there is a silence more terrible than the roar of the thunder and the howl of the tempest! It is as if God had retired into the depths of infinite space, shut himself up in the chambers of his own eternity, and refused to have any further communication with the creature who had disobeyed his will. And yet, though it may seem to be so, there was, under all the apparent withdrawment and terribleness of judgment and indignation, the spirit of mercy and the spirit of hope towards man. For the gospel is not a new invention. It does not come up at any particular time and say, "I am the expression of God's mind to-day; I am a new thing on the earth; I make a new appeal to the understanding and the heart of man." The gospel is as old as God; ancient as eternity; and as for the Cross of Christ, it was built before the foundations of the rocks were laid! Yet there was a time when God seemed to "be filled with anger, holy and just, in relation to his child, who had rebelled against him. But now, reading this beautiful text, it seems as if a new order of things had been set in motion; as if God having, as it were, recovered from the shock which his child's sin gave him had come out of his hiding-place, willing to give the rebel a chance to speak for himself; to state his own case, with all the energy of his wit, and with all the force of his eloquence.
What do these words teach? What is their spirit, and what is their purpose, and what do they mean in relation to ourselves? There is no necessity to divide men into two classes, the good and the bad, we are all bad! There are degrees, as between ourselves. Some are good, some are better, some are evil altogether, as these terms go in human speech, and as they are used merely for the sake of convenience. But in the sight of God, in the presence of his infinite holiness, and in relation to the law of God, there is none righteous, no not one. And as for the chief of saints, he will be loudest in declaring that he is also chief of sinners. What answer are we prepared to make to this gracious offer? "Come now, let us reason together, saith the Lord." The proposition comes from God. It does not arise from the human side at all. It is a piece of pure condescension on the part of the Almighty himself. Grace comes out of the sovereignty of God. The possibility of salvation comes from God's grace. It is not in any wise of our conception or of our own doing. We are saved by faith, and that not of ourselves, for faith is the gift of God. God having made this proposition, proceeds upon the assumption that he knows himself to be right in this case. It is precisely so in our own affairs, in the common controversies of the day. The man who knows himself to be in the right, who feels himself to have a just cause in hand, is always the first to make the noblest propositions, and to offer as many concessions as are possible without impairing the law of absolute right, truth, and propriety. We know this to be a custom amongst ourselves. The great man is always the first to make propositions of conciliation. The great and noble nature is always the first to say, "Come, let us-----" It is, generally speaking, the man who has injured us that holds his spite so long; the man who has done wrong, that seeks to do still further injury, in order, in some way, to justify himself to himself as also to society. But the man who is justly offended is the first to say, "I bear no malice; I seek for no unworthy retribution; I shall find no satisfaction in seeing you humbled and disgraced. Come now, let us discuss the matter in all its bearings, set it in its various lights, and see what it really means; and if it be possible to restore harmony, let harmony be restored." If we do so, it is in an infinitely higher degree true in the case of Almighty God. He makes the proposition to his rebel. After man has committed high treason against his throne and court, after he has done his best to snap the divine sceptre, and insult the divine honour, after he has made himself a disgrace in creation, God says to him, not, "I will cut thee in twain with my glittering sword; I will put my foot upon thee and crush thee into the dust, and defy thee to get thy life again;" but he says, "Come now, let us reason together." This proposition is not only the proof of the grace of God; but that grace itself is the vindication of his righteousness. He knows he is right, and he knows he is right in the court of reason; that if the case be honestly and fully stated the criminal will convict himself, he will burn with shame, and cry out for the judgment that is just. God is right, and we are wrong in this controversy. We are not wrong partially, not wrong here and there, with little spots of light and blue between the errors, but we are wrong altogether, foully, shamefully, infamously wrong! And unless every man shall see that and feel it, as a poisoning sting in his nature, he will never come in a right state of mind to consider the propositions of the Cross or the offers of divine grace.
Knowing this, God asks us to reason the case with him. He proceeds upon the assumption that man ought to be prepared to vindicate his conduct by reasons, that a man's conduct ought not to be haphazard, but ought to have under it a basis of reasoning, of moral unity, and of understanding of the right relations of affairs. A man ought to be able to say why he does this, and why he refrains from doing that. He ought not to be living from hand to mouth, just doing what happens to come up first, without knowing why he does it. He ought to be able to say, "I will not drink of that cistern;" he ought also to be able to give his reasons for avoiding it. He ought to be able at the end of every day to vindicate to himself, to his own understanding and self-respect, the course he has proceeded upon in business or otherwise during the whole day. Is this not right? God says, "Why do you do this? Let me know your reasons for having done so. Will you state your case to me? I give you the opportunity of stating your own case in your own terms." Observe how wonderfully influential, when rightly accepted, is a proposition of this kind. If men would think more they would sin less. "Oh that men were wise, that they would consider!" If a man, before doing questionable actions, would carefully and thoughtfully sit down and examine his reasons for giving up his strength to certain policies, he would in many cases be enabled, on the ground of mere common, human, right reasoning, to avoid offences which stain and disgrace his daily life. Alas! some of us dare not think. We shut our eyes; we take the plunge, and we risk the consequences. God says to us in his gentle mercy, "Do not do so; before you leap look; before you put out your hand to touch the object of your ambition, consider what it is, what the taking of it involves; be careful, steady-minded, sober, thoughtful, knowing that he who uses his understanding aright will save himself from many a fall and many a pain." Have you ever tried this? Have you ever attempted to write out a vindication of any one sin you have ever committed? Take a white card, write at the top of it the sin you propose to commit, whatever it be; shut yourself up in solitude; write in some characters that nobody but yourself can decipher, and put down under your sin the reasons why you propose to commit it; and put down every possible excuse you can. Try to reason yourself into it, and you will fail to do so if you be just to the first principles of human understanding and to the first elements of common sense. And God asks you to do this; to reason the case out. He will not allow us to live our life in a passion, in a thoughtless hurry, to do things in confusion and haste. He imposes upon us this simple obligation: "Stand still; think about it; reason it out; see what you mean; and do not do it until you know the whole scope and consequences of the act." He proposes more than this. He comes to the man who has actually taken the plunge, who has really done the evil deed, who has absolutely committed himself to the devil, who wears the livery of the pit, and uses the language of perdition, and he says, "Come now, let us talk this matter over; let us reason together. Make this a special hour in your history; say what you will; be honest to your own judgment and to your own heart; put down your case; state your reasons and your excuses, and let us go into this case thoroughly." No man can vindicate wrong by reason. Every man who has a bad case to defend must in the first place blink his own common-sense, insult his own sagacity, and quash his own sense of right, before he can defend himself, or defend the evil action of another. That is something to know. That is a bold proposition to make, even in the court of reason not in the court of religion, distinctively so called. No man can make out a good case for wrong. He must evade many lines of obligation; he must trifle with the plain and spiritual sense of many terms; he must hurry over many very difficult parts of his case; he must depose his conscience; he must hoodwink his sagacity; and then, perhaps, he may do something confusedly and wickedly in the defence of some questionable action of his life. Young men especially should consider this very soberly and carefully: It is impossible to defend any bad action by good reason. You may be witty, sharp; your power of repartee may be unquestionable, but you cannot successfully defend a bad action by good reasoning. Logic is against you as well as theology. Common-sense is against you as well as spiritual revelation. This is the strength and the majesty of the Christian faith, that it challenges men by the first principles of reasoning to defend themselves, as sinners, before the Almighty. "Oh that men were wise, that they would consider!" "My people do not know; Israel doth not consider." If men would take a few quiet hours, now and then, and look at life as it really is, and at themselves as they really are the hour of thought might become the hour of prayer.
Who is it in the text that invites men to reason with him? It is God! Then the sinner is invited to take his case to the fountain-head. Do not many persons stumble and err at this very point by a misunderstanding of the terms of this proposition? If we take our evil hearts to a human teacher, he can do but little for us except as an instrument. We may hear his ministry, but we must regard him as the echo and not the voice, the second and not the principal, the medium and not the revealer. If we take our case to a priest, named by the highest names, still we have done what we ought not to have done if we make that the final point instead of a temporary resting-place. It is God who invites us to state the case directly to himself. Have we ever employed one hour of life in stating our case in secret to God? Oh the crimson faces we have had! oh the tottering knees! oh the pain of self-conviction and self-torture! Go directly and immediately to God, and talk to him; speak to the invisible. It does a man good to be apparently speaking to nothing, speaking into the air, as it were, but with the holy consciousness that God is there, catching every tone and every sigh, every aspiration and every desire. Let us try that experiment of stating our case to the invisible Father, the present but unseen God. We can only do so in solitude. It is well for a man to have a place of private resort for the consideration of all the bearings of his life. Some of us have had such places ever since we can remember. We have occasion to go back to them, in recollection, with joy and thanksgiving. Places in far-away quiet fields, where we used to go between school hours and bend our knees behind some blossoming hawthorn hedge, or some old, old tree, and there, even in our teens, talk to God till the tears started, and life seemed to be going out of us in one great painful shudder. But oh the sweetness of those hours! We came back even to play, and work, and suffering with new life and new hope. God says, "I will condescend to talk the case over with you; I will hear what you have to say; I will understand your case, and listen to your reason." Go to the fountain-head; take what you can of the advantages of an intermediate ministry; listen to godly men of every denomination and every type of intellect and method of speech, and be thankful if any one can utter a tone that touches your heart, or give one gleam of light that penetrates the darkness of your understanding. But do not forget the fountain-head! Talk an hour with the servant; but spend your lifetime with the master. Have a passing interview with his agents; but when he throws open his door and says, "Come now; I am ready; I wait to be gracious," go to his feet and talk the case out.
From a proposition of this kind what can we infer but that God's purpose is, in making it, to mingle mercy with judgment? The tone is distinctly that of a merciful and gracious proposition. Such words could not be used without an intention, on the part of the speaker, to do everything in his power to meet the case of the criminal. Hear the language and say whether, grammatically and fairly interpreted, it does not imply that God is prepared to make every concession in his power to the sinner. "Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord." This is a stopping-place on the road to judgment. We are told that God will come to his judgment throne and sit upon it, and gather all nations around his feet. But before ascending that solemn elevation he sits down on the throne of reasoning, of conference with his creatures, and says, "I must talk with thee; I must give thee an opportunity of hearing thyself upon this question, because I know that it is impossible for any man to talk out his reasons for doing wrong without, in the very act, convicting himself; and such conviction may lead to penitence and contrition, to shame, to broken-heartedness. I therefore propose to all the rebels in my human kingdom to come to me and to reason their case in my hearing." What does he intend? Does he wish to take advantage of our slips of the tongue? Is he listening to us as a keen and unsparing critic, who will rebuke us if we make one slip in grammar, or one misstatement of the case? Is he not rather there partly as our advocate? If it be possible to speak a word in our favour, which we ourselves have forgotten, will he not supply it as we proceed with our speech? He will. Judgment is his strange work, and mercy is his peculiar delight. He, therefore, asks us to state our case, and his own purpose is to mingle judgment with mercy, and to meet us at the extremest possible points of his own law and righteousness.
If God could trifle with righteousness in making a case up with us his own throne would be insecure, his own heaven would not be worth having. In taking care of righteousness he is taking care of us. In judging everything upon a basis of absolute infinite righteousness he is taking care of everything that is good in us in the universe; he is protecting himself as God, and setting a flaming sword around his own throne! Herein do men greatly err. Talking upon religious questions, they say, "Why does not God come down and forgive us all?" That is precisely what he wishes to do. Only even God cannot forgive until we ourselves desire to be forgiven. When we come to him saying, "Lord, have mercy," we shall hardly utter our prayer before his great heaven will become one glorious exhibition of mercy, and come down into our hearts and lives with its light and its beauty! We make a fundamental mistake if we suppose that God has only to say, "I forgive you all," and thus restore the universe to harmony and order. God cannot say so. If he were to say so, he would be trifling with righteousness, he would be rendering insecure the pillars of his own throne, and the reins of his own government would fall out of his hands. He must be just; he must be righteous. Righteousness must be vindicated, and then grace becomes sure. Righteousness must be satisfied, and then eternity becomes heaven! The law must be made honourable, then the gospel will be given to us, with the assurance of eternal permanence, but not without.
It is impossible for the Almighty himself to forgive men unless men come to him with contrition, with repentance towards himself, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. There is no action so difficult as the action of forgiveness. There is no action so complicated as the action of pardon. It seems a very simple thing to say, "I forgive you; say no more about it; there is an end of the whole affair!" He who could speak so is immoral. He who could talk so is not to be trusted. If a man could treat the moral relationships of life in that way it would but prove that his conscience had been drugged, that his judgment had been hoodwinked, and that there was nothing morally permanent in the quality of his soul but its corruptness. If we could get men to understand that thoroughly we should have begun a great work in their souls. We have heard people say, again and again, that God will be merciful; at the very last he will say, "Ah well, you have lived a bad life, I know, but I forgive you you may go into heaven." There is nothing so false in reasoning, so absurd in logic, so corrupt in morals, as vapid sentimental talk of that kind! What, then, does God propose to do? He proposes this: "Do you feel the sinfulness of sin?" Yes. "Do you renounce all hope of saving yourself?" Yes. "Do you know what sin is as sin? Not merely as a social offence, not merely as a national or social crime, but sin as sin; and do you hate it as such?" I do. Then God says, Take all the grace you need; the Cross is the answer to the pain of your conviction, and the atonement made by my Son is the way, and the only way, and the infinitely sufficient way, to pardon, to purity, and to peace! That is a result secured by the consent of both parties. I may have offended you. You may come to me and say, "You have deeply grieved me; but I forgive." I can say, "Take your forgiveness away; I do not want to be forgiven by you!" Observe, therefore, that you have not the power to forgive me. You can forgive the crime, but you cannot forgive the sin. And even your forgiveness of the crime I may resent, and turn into an occasion of inflicting still deeper injury upon you. But if I come to you and say, "I have injured you; I see that I must have given you great pain; I did you wrong, and in my heart I am sorry for having done so," if then you say, "With my heart I forgive you," the transaction is based on solid moral principles, and the result is likely to be permanent and beneficent. It is so with God. God cannot pass an act of universal amnesty; he cannot open all the prison doors of the universe and say to the criminals, "Come forth, I forgive you all." But if they in their condemned cells would but heave one sigh of penitence, and utter one cry for God's forgiving mercy, every bolt would fall off, every lock fly back, and there would be no prison in all the universe of God! Are you willing to be pardoned? Have you come from a sense of sin to know its bitterness, and to feel the want of something more? To you is this gospel preached, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved."
Thus the sinner is left absolutely without excuse. Looking at the whole volume of inspired revelation; looking at the person and ministry of God the Son; looking at his sacrifice upon Calvary; and at the whole scope and bearing of his mediation; having regard to the gracious proposition made by the Father of lights to the children of darkness, that they would come to him and reason their case, we declare that, If any man be lost it is because he will not be saved! "Ye will not come unto me that ye might have life." We cannot escape that conclusion; and in one aspect it is a glorious conclusion, because it gives us assurance that nothing is lost that would be saved that God's great arms have been stretched out to the very brink of hell, that he might save the man who was just slipping over; and that man said "No!" And when he went down, he went down because he persisted in moral suicide; and a verdict of suicide must be returned by all the angels of light, and all the spirits of just men made perfect! There is no other verdict. Shall that be pronounced upon us? Some may say, "I have excuses." No! Unless you mean by excuses that you can trifle, that you can state a case that has no moral substance in it. If you say that you can gloss over your actions, put a little gilding upon the outside of your behaviour, so as to make it look tolerably well, we agree with you. But if you say that you can reason out your case, if you have done one bad action in your life, you are stating what you know to be untrue. Can you defend a bad action? What a wicked genius must be yours! If you have ever pressed your finger too heavily upon man, woman, or child who was weak and self-helpless, all your genius and sagacity would be used in vain if you attempted to defend the action on moral principles: your attempted vindication would only double your sin.
Will you reason with God? He invites you to do so. Do you address an invitation to the Almighty to reason with you? You need not address an invitation to him, because his invitation has been issued from the beginning, and is still operative. He the divine One the grieved Father, issues the invitation. How shall we accept it? Simply, heartily, lovingly, thankfully. One hour's reasoning with God may mean a lifetime in eternity of purity and joy. Let us reason out all cases with God, and never do anything that even looks doubtful without having a spiritual loving conference with the Eternal One. It is thus that character will be made solid; every day be touched with infinite beauty, and life become a hope and an assurance of immortality! Why not surrender at once? Why not say, "I will lay down my arms here, never to take them up against the divine government again so long as I live"? Why not say, "We love him because he first loved us! We find in Jesus Christ the answer to our original sin and to our actual transgression; our only hope of new life is in the ministry of God the Holy Ghost"? If this could be said by one, there would be joy in the presence of the angels of God. If it could be said by a multitude, then heaven itself would be filled with the music of a new joy, and become still more heaven by reason of its ecstatic rapture. I wish to rouse your minds, and compel you to consider your lives, and to press men by God's great, great grace to surrender themselves to the Lamb of God, the only Saviour of the world.
"What is the tenor of his [Isaiah's] message in the time of Uzziah and Jotham? This we read in chapters i.-v. Chapter i. is very general in its contents. In perusing it we may fancy that we hear the very voice of the Seer as he stands (perhaps) in the Court of the Israelites denouncing to nobles and people, then assembling for divine worship, the whole estimate of their character formed by Jehovah, and his approaching chastisements. 'They are a sinful nation; they have provoked the Holy One of Israel to anger. Flourishing as their worldly condition now appears, the man whose eyes are opened sees another scene before him (1-9), the land laid waste, and Zion left as a cottage in a vineyard, (a picture realised in the Syro-Ephraimitish war, and more especially in the Assyrian invasion the great event round which the whole of the first part of the book revolves). Men of Sodom and Gomorrah that they are, let them hearken! they may go on if they will with their ritual worship, "trampling" Jehovah's courts; nevertheless, he loathes them: the stain of innocent blood is on their hands; the weak are oppressed; there is bribery and corruption in the administration of justice. Let them reform; if they will not, Jehovah will burn out their sins in the smelting fire of his judgment. Zion shall be purified, and thus saved, whilst the sinners and recreants from Jehovah in her shall perish in their much-loved idolatries.' This discourse suitably heads the book; it sounds the keynote of the whole; fires of judgment destroying, but purifying a remnant, such was the burden all along of Isaiah's prophesyings.
"Of the other public utterances belonging to this period, chapters ii.-iv. are by almost all critics considered to be one prophesying, the leading thought of which is that the present prosperity of Judah should be destroyed for her sins, to make room for the real glory of piety and virtue; while chapter v. forms a distinct discourse, whose main purport is that Israel, God's vineyard, shall be brought to desolation. The idolatry denounced in these chapters is to be taken as that of private individuals, for both Uzziah and Jotham served Jehovah. They are prefaced by the vision of the exaltation of the mountain on which Jehovah dwells above all other mountains, to become the source of light and moral transformation to all mankind ( Isa 2:2-4 )." Smith's Dictionary of the Bible.
"Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"A garden "that hath no water." Isa 1:30
How wonderfully the powers of nature co-operate! How wonderfully, too, things that are far separated from one another have a mutual influence! Yet the influence is not always mutual; sometimes it is entirely on one side. The garden has no effect upon the clouds, but the clouds have a wonderful effect upon the garden. What would the garden be without rain? Soon it would be but so much dry and fruitless dust. It is united in its substance and made productive in its influence by the sun, the rain, and the living air. These do for the garden what the Spirit of the Lord did for man when he was made out of the dust of the ground. They breathe into the garden the breath of life, they redeem the ground from desolation and turn it into a garden of beauty. How often we see in character the exact counterpart of this picture! A man may have many qualities which are totally useless for beneficent purposes on account of the baseness of some one agent or influence. The garden, for example, may be large, and may be laid out with picturesque effect as to its outlines; the paths may be broad, the beds may be shapely, and the whole may be complete as a picture; yet for want of the rain what have we but fruitlessness and desolation! So it is with character. Men may have great intellectual capacity; but unless they be filled with the spirit of grace their very intellect becomes but an instrument of ignorance itself. Men may have large material resources, but if they never receive the shower of divine blessing those resources will be without fruitfulness in relation to surrounding poverty and pain. We often see a man who is ruined for want of one thing. He has bodily strength, he has great material riches, he has a good social position, yet for want of grace or courage or patience or sympathy the whole estate seems to be lost. The rain itself would do no good if it had not a garden to fall upon. The rain does not make the garden, it only falls upon the soil and puts it into workable conditions. So the very grace of God must have something to fall upon. We must supply the outline, the nominal man, the capacity; and the grace of God working upon these will issue in a great miracle. A rich man who has no sympathy is as a garden that hath no water. An intellectual man without religiousness of feeling is as a garden that hath no water. A well-read man without the disposition to communicate his knowledge is as a garden that hath no water. A family that has no outlying dependants or clients is as a garden that hath no water. Do not call it a garden; call it a wilderness. We should seek out the name of the blessing which we most need, and should ply heaven with our prayers until we receive that essential gift: otherwise the best of us will be as a garden that hath no water.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Isaiah 1". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
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