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The Core of Prophecy
The fifteenth and sixteenth chapters give "the burden of Moab;" then follow the burdens, or oracles, of Damascus, Ethiopia, and Egypt. We have thus to deal with a vision which looks out upon all directions with a judgment which permits nothing to escape its scrutiny and verdict. The principle of prophecy is the same throughout; for want of applying this doctrine many men have become lost in prophetic detail and colour which really have next to nothing to do with the very core of the prophecy. All prophecy must be reduced to the action of a common principle, namely, that "righteousness exalteth a nation," and that sin is a disgrace to any people. This message will of course be delivered by the various prophets with such illustrations as express individuality of genius, culture, and situation. We are apt, however, to be lost in the midst of the illustrations, and to forget that every one of the prophets has but a single message to deliver. It is the same also with all theological discourses and exhortations. All the sermons that have ever been preached are reducible to a few pages of written matter. The preacher really has nothing to say except that God wishes men to return to him, and that men, having returned to him, will be cultivated and strengthened in all righteousness and beneficence of disposition. We thus understand the meaning of the statement, "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" That is to say, all criticism, all experience, all religious reflection may be summed up in this practical discipline. The same principle may be discovered in the economy of nature. We look out upon the landscape and see trees and flowers and meadows in a thousand various colours and forms, yet the whole of that abundance is reducible to a handful of seeds. It is important to remember all this, because we may actually miss the very point of the prophecy in the act of looking too closely into it. As we have often seen, this is the continual temptation, namely, that men are drawn away to the study of phenomena, illustration, or outward adornment, and thus are likely to neglect the inner and central meaning of the very things on which they are expending so much care. Take the parable of the Prodigal Son: we do not find the meaning of that parable in the fatted calf, the best robe, the ring for the hands or the shoes for the feet, or in the music and dancing; behind all these things lies the real meaning of the parable, namely, that a heart has accused itself of sin, and has come back to make its supplication to the offended father. That is all. That, indeed, is enough. It admits of amplification as an acorn does, but the amplification is not the parable in its kernel or essence; and it is perfectly possible to be looking at all the decoration, and admiring it from a merely literary aspect, and yet wholly to overlook the evangelical purport of the portrayal. When all prophecy is stripped of its accessories it simply comes to this: Say ye unto the righteous, It shall be well with him; and say unto the wicked, It shall be ill with him. God charges every prophet and apostle to deliver this message, but he allows prophet and apostle to choose their own way of doing so: they may amplify, or colour, or enlarge, or assert themselves in any legitimate way, so as to increase their emphasis; but they are never to forget that they have only one thing to say, and that is that God approves righteousness, and regards sin as an abominable thing. Thus the subject divides itself into two parts, first, the thing that is said, which is all-important; and, secondly, the manner in which it is said, which is secondary, though most useful. The prophets sought to impress the people through the medium of the imagination; the apostles sought to turn conscience into an instrument by which they could most effectively deliver the divine message, or discharge themselves of their holy responsibilities. Memory may be worked upon; all the images and interests of childhood may be summoned to the prophet's aid; imagination may be so fired as to see ruin upon ruin coming swiftly in the track of sin; or persuasion may be employed for the purpose of luring the mind and heart back again to forsaken ways. In the choice of instruments, in the method of working, God allows the largest liberty to his prophets and apostles; but they are never to forget that they have only one thing to say, and that is, with the righteous it shall be well, and though hand join in hand the wicked shall not prosper. Looked at in the light of this principle, all these burdens or oracles are greatly simplified. We have next to nothing to do with the mere detail, yet even that detail may in some instances be useful for illustrative or confirmatory purposes. When we have read the pompous rhetoric, we have to ask ourselves the question, What does it all come to? and the answer to that enquiry is direct and simple, namely, it comes to this, that he who honours God shall be honoured, and whoso despises God shall be lightly esteemed, that is to say, shall be cut off, and driven away as with a whirlwind of contempt.
Let us now turn to the words of the prophet, and see how God acts in the matter of judgment and doom, so far as his method is revealed, or is illustrated by these most striking instances.
"The burden of Moab. Because in the night Ar of Moab is laid waste, and brought to silence; because in the night Kir of Moab is laid waste, and brought to silence" ( Isa 15:1 ).
Here we see what havoc is wrought in the night-time. In the night Kir of Moab is laid waste, and brought to silence; Mesha, king of Moab, boasted that he had taken Nebo by a night attack. The prophet refers to a castle on a hill which rises a thousand feet above the Dead Sea, and which was recognised as the strongest of the Moabite fortresses, and that castle is represented as having been attacked at night when resistance was most hopeless. We have seen again and again how God works in the night-time. Man has but a little day to work in, but God's working hours never cease; man becomes weary with his day's work, and lies down to rest, and whilst he is in slumber destruction swiftly overtakes him, so that the morning looks out upon a branch cut off, a city laid to waste and brought to silence. These are the perplexing events of life. What we can see and measure and understand may afford us an opportunity of treating with some measure of success; but when the darkness closes upon us, and we are imprisoned within its boundless walls, we know not from what quarter the enemy may come, or at what rate the dart is flying. Men should diligently consider this in musing upon the judgments of providence. They cannot always be awake, they cannot always be upon the walls defending the fortress; they must retire for a time to renew their strength, and whilst they are resting the enemy acquires additional power, and comes down upon their boasted masonry, and hurls it to the dust. Only the Christian man has confidence in the night-time. He says, He that keepeth me will not slumber nor sleep. God is against evil-workers, and it delights him to trouble them by nightly visits, so that in the morning they cannot recall their own plans and purposes, or give an account of that which has happened whilst their eyes have been closed in sleep. Are we only safe so long as we can use our own eyes and hands? Have we any safety in the darkness? Have we made no provision for the night-time? If not, then woe will fall upon us, and when the morning comes it will rise upon a scene of desolation. Remember what God said to the fool in the parable who was counting his riches, and forecasting the happy years which his soul was to enjoy "Thou fool! this night thy soul shall be required of thee." Ponder deeply upon the moral of Night; the darkness should instruct us, remind us of our exhaustion, helplessness, and dependence upon others for security and rest, and should above all things lead us to put our confidence in him to whom the darkness and the light are both alike.
"He is gone up to Bajith, and to Dibon, the high places, to weep: Moab shall howl over Nebo, and over Medeba: on all their heads shall be baldness, and every beard cut off. In their streets they shall gird themselves with sackcloth: on the tops of their houses, and in their streets, every one shall howl, weeping abundantly" ( Isa 15:2-3 ).
We have a picture of men going to old altars, and finding there nothing but silence. Bajith may be regarded as the temple of the Moabite god. The prophet sees men terror-stricken joining in solemn procession, and going up to the temples of their gods that they may seek relief for their heartache and bewilderment The Nebo which is mentioned in the text is not the mountain which bore that name, but a city named after the same deity. Mesha boasted of having taken Nebo, and slain there some seven thousand men. The point, however, with which we have to deal is that men go up to temples and altars, and where they expected companionship and music they find desertion and silence. The sorrow of those who mourn is represented by a very graphic figure "on all their heads shall be baldness, and every beard cut off." The primary reference is probably to some sacrificial ceremony. At a very early period baldness was regarded as a symbol of intensest sorrow amongst Eastern nations. Baldness was forbidden to Israel, for the probable reason that it was identified with the sacrificial worship of heathen deities. The picture of lamentation is continued in the third verse. In Eastern countries, when men were afflicted with great sorrow, they betook themselves to the flat roofs of their houses, and there publicly and loudly wailed on account of their agony. So they were reduced to a state of helplessness; their very gods had forsaken them, and had thus revealed their own character as deities. It is under such circumstances namely, of desertion and sorrow that men find out what their religion is really worth. The Lord taunts all the heathen nations because their gods forsook them in the hour of calamity. One prophet exclaims, "Thy calf hath cast thee off, O Samaria." The Lord himself is represented as going up and down throughout the temples of heathenism, mocking and taunting the gods with which they were filled, because they were merely ornamental or decorative gods, and were utterly without power to assuage the sorrow of the human heart. Whilst, however, all this is true of heathenism, there is a sense in which even Christian men may go back to old altars and find them forsaken. The Lord, the living One, the Father of the universe, is not pledged to abide at the altar for ever to await the return of the prodigal. In the very first book of the Bible we read, "My Spirit shall not always strive with man." There is a day of grace, so measurement can be determined with sufficient nearness to excite alarm, lest its golden hours should be lost. When the door is once shut it will not be opened again. Men may so live that when they go to the sanctuary itself, where the sweetest gospel is preached in all its purity and nobleness, they find no comfort in the place that is devoted to consolation. The fault is to be found in themselves; they have sinned away their opportunities, they have enclosed themselves within walls of adamant, they have betaken themselves to the worship of their own vanity and the pursuit of their own selfish purposes, so that when they return to the house of God they find that the Lord has abandoned his temple. A graphic and humiliating picture is this, that men shall go up and down the church, and it shall be unto them as common ground; they shall call unto God out of their distress, and shall be answered only as with a burden of silence; they shall cry for light, and in reply to their invocation the darkness shall become sevenfold. None can withdraw so far as God. When he goes no one can cause him to return; the soul is, so to say, afflicted with a sense of vacancy, and the very emptiness into which it pours its prayer becomes an aggravation of its mockery and distress: "They shall call upon me, and I will not answer." This is more than silence; it is silence aggravated, silence intensified, silence increased into burdensomeness. Preachers have no pleasure in dwelling upon these most distressing judgments; they only use them as the terrors of the Lord ought always to be used, as the basis of persuasive exhortation: Turn ye, turn ye, why will ye die?
"Therefore the abundance they have gotten, and that which they have laid up, shall they carry away to the brook of the willows. For the cry is gone round about the borders of Moab; the howling thereof unto Eglaim, and the howling thereof unto Beerelim" ( Isa 15:7-8 ).
The picture is one of increasing distress. Abundance itself is made into a sign of poverty. The picture is that of men who are flying for their lives, and the fugitives take with them all they can gather together of household goods and other property, and bear it away in their trembling hands. This they were to carry away to the brooks of the valleys, to the torrent of the poplars some say, to the Arabians others, and to the wilderness others again. This was the point at which the fugitives passed the boundary of their own lines. Certain critics have said that the allusion to the Euphrates, which some have supposed to find here, is merely poetical. Whatever the particular local interpretation may be, we have to deal with the fact that God causes sorrow upon sorrow to fall upon those who have broken his covenant and neglected his altar. The prophet represents the cry as having gone round about, reaching on the one side to Eglaim (two pools), and on the other to Beerelim (the well of the Terebinths). The meaning would seem to be that the cry filled the whole circuit, and was indeed a wail of utterest distress and loneliness. The cry of the heart in its bitterest hours may be said to reveal an aspect of religious instinct which is characteristic of human nature. A sense of orphanage afflicts the soul, and overwhelms it: the universe seems to be empty: the very largeness of the liberty which is thus given to the creature to roam through an empty universe distresses him beyond endurance; could he but find a companion, could he overtake a friend, could he awaken an echo; but on he goes through world after world, and finds nothing but forsakenness, silence, desolation!
"Send ye the lamb to the ruler of the land from Sela to the wilderness, unto the mount of the daughter of Zion" ( Isa 16:1 ).
The peculiar expression of this verse has been regarded as referring to the practice of the Moabites in the days of Mesha, their king. This king of Moab had paid a tribute of sheep and lambs to the king of Israel, of which we read in 2 Kings 3:4 ; when Mesha revolted the tribute ceased. The prophet is here regarded as calling on the Moabites to renew their tribute, but not to the northern kingdom, which was on the point of extinction, but to the king of Judah, as the true ruler of the land: "Send ye the lamb" send ye the tribute restore the custom of ancient times. The word "Sela" means rock, and may refer either to the city called Petra, or generally to the rock district of Edom and the confines of Moab. One critic has said, "In either case the special direction implies that the presence of the invaders described in chapter xv. would make it impossible to send the tribute across the fords of the Jordan, and that it must accordingly be sent by the southern route, which passes through Sela and the desert country to the south of the Dead Sea."
"For it shall be, that, as a wandering bird cast out of the nest, so the daughters of Moab shall be at the fords of Arnon" ( Isa 16:2 ).
The margin renders the expression, "as a wandering bird cast out of the nest" "the forsaken nest." "The daughters of Moab" may either mean the women who were driven from their homes, or the whole population of towns and villages fluttering like birds in terror because their nests are spoiled, or like fledglings, not knowing, when their nest has been disturbed, whether to attempt to return to it or seek for themselves a new home. The picture represents the distress and bewilderment of the wrong-doer. He does not know whether to go back to the old door and knock at it in the hope that it may be opened to him again by some kindly hand, or to flee away into the land of darkness and silence: "There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked." When the wicked man sits down, he fears that he may fall into perdition; when he goes abroad, he is alarmed lest a lion should confront him; when he speaks, he is afraid that he should awaken a foe; when he holds his tongue, he is sure that his silence will be interpreted as a token of guilt: he lives a troubled life: all nature is against him, in its countless ministries and criticisms and judgments; and this is because the man is against himself, not having a friend in his own heart or a sympathiser in his own memory.
"Take counsel, execute judgment; make thy shadow as the night in the midst of the noonday; hide the outcasts; bewray not him that wandereth. Let mine outcasts dwell with thee, Moab; be thou a covert to them from the face of the spoiler: for the extortioner is at an end, the spoiler ceaseth, the oppressors are consumed out of the land. And in mercy shall the throne be established: and he shall sit upon it in truth in the tabernacle of David, judging, and seeking judgment, and hasting righteousness" ( Isa 16:3-5 ).
The moral purpose of judgment is never concealed in the divine writings. God is always seeking to bring about the time when in mercy his throne shall be established, and when there shall sit upon it in truth one who will represent the ideal judgment and blessing of God. The fifth verse might be rendered, "In mercy shall a throne be established, and one shall sit upon it in truth." The prophet has constantly kept before his mind the image of an ideal king. The ideal was partially fulfilled in Hezekiah, yet only partially; the prophet was sure one was coming who would fulfil it in its utmost meaning, and he steadfastly kept his eye on the bright day when God's throne should be established among the nations, and his sceptre should be extended over all. God does not exist merely to destroy, nor does he rule only in order that he may humble and crush; his purpose is one of equity, righteousness, blessing, cultivation; he seems to edify the universe, to build it up, and make it stronger and stronger, and not to exercise his almightiness in merely changing its relations and humbling its ambitions. God may be said to be presiding over a complicated process of evolution, the purpose of that evolution being not to destroy, but to complete, to bring to maturity, and ripeness, and fruition, although in the process there must be a good deal of loss and off-shedding; but the great object of even that aspect of the divine economy is that that which remains shall be purer and stronger. Let us take this view of revolutions, tumults, wars, and all manner of national and international uproar and dislocation. When we count the killed and the wounded, when we estimate the cost of the battle, and the losses of all kinds which it inflicts, never let us withdraw our vision from the sublime purpose which providence is assuredly bringing about; the process is indeed disastrous in many instances, indeed, it is simply diabolical; in nearly all its aspects it ought to awaken horror and shame, and indeed it would be intolerable but for the assured confidence that the end will show that God has been in the matter establishing a kingdom of righteousness, and destroying an empire of darkness. It is long to wait for the issue; the night always seems longer than the day when men are in trouble and perplexity; if we lose our religious faith under such circumstances, then we shall never see the morning of explanation and peacefulness, but shall go down amid the darkness and thunders of the night My soul, hope thou continually in God: clouds and darkness are round about him, righteousness and judgment are the habitation of his throne: in all things he is making a way for himself; terrible, indeed, are the disasters which follow upon wickedness, yet if they could be lessened by one, or could be mitigated by any consolation that impaired the righteousness of God, they would be increased sevenfold.
"Therefore I will bewail with the weeping of Jazer the vine of Sibmah: I will water thee with my tears, O Heshbon, and Elealeh: for the shouting for thy summer fruits and for thy harvest is fallen. And gladness is taken away, and joy out of the plentiful field; and in the vineyards there shall be no singing, neither shall there be shouting: the treaders shall tread out no wine in their presses; I have made their vintage shouting to cease. Wherefore my bowels shall sound like an harp for Moab, and mine inward parts for Kirharesh" ( Isa 16:9-11 ).
All gladness is stopped. The prophet himself begins to weep "with the weeping of Jazer" that is, with tears as genuine as Jazer itself. There is to be a "shouting for thy summer fruits" better rendered, "on thy summer fruits and on thy harvest a shout is fallen"; that is to say, not the shout of those who gather the vintage, and delight in the abundance of the wheatfields, but the malignant shout of the foe as he rushes upon the property of those against whom he is fighting, and rejoices to have captured their bread and their wine from them. The word "harvest" may be regarded as used comprehensively as including the vintage. Note the disastrous picture "gladness is taken away, and joy out of the plentiful field; and in the vineyards there shall be no singing, neither shall there be shouting; the treaders shall tread out no wine in their presses; I have made their vintage shouting to cease." The work of desolation, though carried out by human hands, is represented as having been accomplished by God himself. The prophet is given to understand, and indeed he himself avows the fact, that whilst he cries over the desolation of others with true human sympathy and pity, the divine righteousness is revealed in that very desolation. We cannot even accept the terrible judgments of God without evincing human emotion. We are nowhere called upon so to exhibit religion as to rejoice in the judgments of others, and withhold our tears from their sufferings.
We have all this vividly and pathetically set forth in the case of Jesus Christ in his relation to Jerusalem: "When he came near the city he wept over it." His tears did not interfere with the issue and consummation of judgment, yet the man could not look upon the scene without a sense of heartbreak, for Jerusalem had killed the prophets, and stoned them that were sent unto her, and she knew not the day of her visitation. When we see men taken away by the hand of the law, sentenced to lifelong imprisonment or sentenced to death, we may know that the sentence is just, and that no other sentence could have been equitably pronounced; and yet we follow them with unutterable painfulness of heart, because of what they might have been had they known the day of their visitation, had they seen the door of their opportunity, and had they been faithful to their divine stewardship. Thus God himself may be said to be weeping over those upon whom he has pronounced the sentence of eternal punishment. These are great mysteries, and are not to be explained adequately in words; we can only see somewhat of their meaning in the deepest experiences of our own life.
How awfully the judgments of God fall upon one another! Even whilst God's heart sounds like a harp, because of his pity for those who suffer, still the judgment is not withheld, for it is due to the rest of the universe as well as to Jehovah himself that righteousness should be vindicated. The glory of Moab was contemned. History is silent as to the manner of the fulfilment of the prophecy. We know that the armies of Shalmaneser, or Sargon, swept as those of Pul and Tiglath-pileser had done over the region east of the Jordan, and so invaded Moab. The remnant was to be very small and feeble. It was not to be like the remnant of Israel which was the pledge of renewed strength; it was to be rather a symbol of utterest destruction and contempt; a reduction which meant a humiliation, a bringing-down to the extremest point of depletion, and leaving it there as a continual type of divine indignation. In the case of Damascus ( Isa 17:6 ), gleaning grapes were to be left in it, as the shaking of an olive tree, two or three berries in the top of the uppermost bough, four or five in the outmost fruitful branches. The glory of Jacob was to be made thin, that is to say, was to be impoverished. The conqueror was to plunder the cities of Israel, after the manner in which the reaper cuts off the ears of corn. The prophet had probably often looked upon the reapers' work in the valley of Rephaim or the valley of the Giants, a valley famous for its fertility, and therefore often attacked by the Philistines, and as he looked upon the Philistines cutting down the ample harvest, he found in their action a type of the way in which the Assyrian invader would accomplish his unholy purposes. Yet the prophet cannot give up the idea of a remnant. Something was to be left out of which a renewal was surely to come. First there was a beating, and then there was a shaking; but even after that he saw a few berries on the topmost bough. Then come words which are at once pregnant with warning as well as promise "At that day shall a man look to his Maker, and his eyes shall have respect to the Holy One of Israel. And he shall not look to the altars, the work of his hands, neither shall respect that which his fingers have made, either the groves, or the images." The prophet prophesied their return to the true faith of Israel, but that was to be brought about by a bitter experience of the results of idolatry; men were to see how helpless were the idols they had worshipped, and yet how exacting, and in their distress and confusion were to cry out for the living God. The people were reminded in words full of pathos of their unfaithfulness "Because thou hast forgotten the God of thy salvation, and hast not been mindful of the rock of thy strength, therefore shalt thou plant pleasant plants, and shalt set it with strange slips.... But the harvest shall be a heap in the day of grief and of desperate sorrow." Thus God mocks the labours of those who imagine that nature is on their side, and that nature will after all supply them with a bountiful harvest God allows men to toil in the seedtime, to plough the land and sow the seed, and make all preparations for a rich return; and for a time it seems as if nature would be genial and kindly, and reward the toil of their hands; but in the day when there should be a harvest they find grief, and in the time when there should be shouting because of the vintage they find desperate sorrow. Thus we come upon fundamental principles once more: say ye to the righteous, It shall be well with him; say ye to the wicked, It shall be ill with him: though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not prosper: there is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked: the way of transgressors is hard; these are the simple sententious truths which are amplified by poetic genius, and which are enforced by many a noble appeal. It does us good to revel in the sublime rhetoric of prophetic imagery and expostulation, and it also does us good to come back from all the thunder of eloquence, and to listen to the judgments of God in their simplest and sternest tones.
Almighty God, we are all thine, for thou didst make us, and not we ourselves. We are the work of thy hands, we embody the thought of thy wisdom and love: are we not all made in the image and likeness of God? Thou knowest us altogether, and thou hast made replies to our need, for thou didst first create the hunger: blessed are they who hunger and thirst after the right things, after God, after rest; for they shall be filled; thou hast so made thy universe as to fill those who love thy law. Oh that we had hearkened to thy commandments! oh that we had walked in thy precepts, and made thy statutes our songs in the house of our pilgrimage! for then had our peace flowed like a river, and our righteousness had been as the waves of the sea. We bless thee that we know our shortcomings; thus we begin our penitence. Shame us into contrition; show us, thou Holy Spirit, what we might have been if we had followed in obedience and trust all the way of the living God; break us into utterest humiliation, and when thou hast thus subdued us and overwhelmed us and made us feel the agony of shame, then begin to comfort us with the Cross, with the gospel, with the agony of Christ, with the triumph and majesty of God the Son. Work in us all the good pleasure of thy will; give us to feel the thong of discipline, the laceration of judgment, and then leave us to healing and recovery and redemption, and all that is meant by motherliness and new birth and growth in life and love. Thou knowest us altogether, our need, our ambition, our desire, our hope; thou knowest the roots of our prayer, thou understandest the motive of our worship; yea, before our thought is shaped into speech, thou knowest it altogether. Then dwell with us according to thine own knowledge; judge us not with great rebukes, for who can stand before frowning heaven? but draw us near to the Cross, near to thyself, thou ever-healing Christ, and speak comfortably to us that we may become young and glad again. Make us all like little children; may we look wonderingly up into heaven until the star guides us to Bethlehem; when we are there we shall not stop short of Calvary. Let the Lord hear our prayer, and send us great answers of peace. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Isaiah 15". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent