This is a chapter of judgments, and the judgments are given in detail. These judgments are said to have taken place within the gates of a city, even the city of Jerusalem. A tempest in a desert may have features of grandeur; but what of a tempest poured down with infinite fury upon the stately city, a city of palaces, temples, and treasuries of art? There the storm seems to be doubly furious and cruel. God made Jerusalem into a wilderness in the day of his wrath, and he turned the veil of her beauty into a blotch of leprosy. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." Let us prove this by looking into the details of the case.
Note the completeness of the ruin:—
"For, behold, the Lord, the Lord of hosts, doth take away from Jerusalem and from Judah the stay and the staff, the whole stay of bread, and the whole stay of water, the mighty Prayer of Manasseh, and the man of war, the Judges, and the prophet, and the prudent, and the ancient, the captain of fifty, and the honourable Prayer of Manasseh, and the counsellor, and the cunning artificer, and the eloquent orator" ( Isaiah 3:1-3).
A remarkable expression—"The Lord doth take away." There is a simplicity in the action that is terrifying. All these great treasures and dignities are not so firmly secured to us that a touch will not remove them, provided the touch be given by the finger of God. There is no expression of effort; the very ease of the action is its most painful significance. "The Lord doth take away"—as a child might remove a toy; as the weakest hand might remove from one position to another the lightest article that could be lifted. It is a complete detachment. When God takes away, who can tell where he puts the thing which he steals in the night-time? Everything is secure, as we suppose, at eventide, and behold at the dawning of the day there is nothing left but emptiness! How have the things been removed? Has God yoked the lightning to the load, and taken it away by a stupendous effort? He has simply touched the mountains, and they have gone up in smoke; he has looked at the rivers, and they have fled from his gaze; he has laid his hand upon strength and beauty, and they have been turned into weakness and putrescence.
All these men and things God took away; then what was left? The whole meaning is not in the catalogue itself. Having perused the inventory of the things that were taken away, the heart asks in a tone of despair, Then what was left? Bread gone, and water; the mighty Prayer of Manasseh, the man of great estates, the large freeholder; and the soldier; the Judges, who held the balances so evenly; the prophet, the man all eyes, who saw the future, and read it with the fluency of absolute acquaintance and sympathy; and the prudent, the man who was not to be bewildered and confused in mind, whose mental action was steady, solid, and reliable; and the ancient, the crown of grey hairs; the captain of fifty, the very smallest military unit; and the honourable Prayer of Manasseh, the man of radiant countenance, who brought warmth with him and light into every society he entered; and the counsellor, and the cunning artificer, the man who had knowledge of words, and the man who had knowledge of engineering; and the eloquent orator—not only the man of noble and urgent speech, but, literally, the man who said the right word at the right time; or, secondarily, the man who had a formula of incantation, uttering which all things became as he wished them to be—the eloquent orator, the man who kept within his heart the word of enchantment, forgot the word, and when he tried to pronounce it all things laughed at him scornfully: he said in effect, I can open the door for you by pronouncing a certain name; show me where the obstinate gate Isaiah, and by the utterance of a word I will make it fall back on its hinges; and they took him to the gate, and he began to speak, and he stumbled and fell, and the gate moved not in lock or hinge because of his impotent incantation. What ruin God can work! When he sweeps his hand through the nations let those reap what he leaves behind, or glean or gather it if they can, and they will find their barns rewarded with emptiness, and their courage will be a mortification and a pain.
It is so with the individual man. When God ruins a man there is nothing left: the bread has gone, and the water has gone, and might, and military temper, and the power of judgment, and insight, and prudence—all the lien which men have upon antiquity for the enrichment of experience; and all honour, and all counsel, and all cunning of fingers and hands, and the word of incantation forgotten—the man who once had only to speak and it was done, so persuasive was his word and so winning his tone, has forgotten his speech, or if he utters the magic words they have lost their music and their spell. This action is that of withdrawment. These men and powers and dignities and blessings have been simply "taken away." Nor do we know our blessings until they are removed. We may have amongst us bread and water to satisfy; we may turn up our lips in scorn at such simple fare; the nation may be so crowded with mighty men and judges and prophets, prudent and ancient souls, honourable men and counsellors, and cunning artificers, and eloquent orators, until the plethora somewhat annoys us. We cannot look upon the redundance of blessing, and keep our religious emotion upon a level with it. How shall God teach us the value of such privileges? Simply by taking them away. There need be no violence, no stroke of thunder, no clouding and darkening of the summer heavens; they have simply to be taken away from us, and then we shall know that a prophet hath been amongst us, and that bread was the very staff of life.
But the ruin does not end here. Mark the disorder and inversion of all natural relations and sequences. This dismal narrative is related between Isaiah 3:4 and Isaiah 3:7.
"And I will give children to be their princes, and babes shall rule over them" ( Isaiah 3:4).
I will set Ahab in the kingdom at the age of twenty; Prayer of Manasseh, a boy of twelve, shall wield the sceptre; Josiah at eight years of age shall be hailed as king. In an Eastern monarchy this was felt to be the deepest humiliation, that an inexperienced king, without pith, without the education which comes of much life should reign over the people, and invite to his counsels men of equal juvenility and inexperience. Oriental pride quailed before this degradation, and accounted it a political and imperial disaster.
"And the people shall be oppressed, every one by another, and every one by his neighbour: the child shall behave himself proudly against the ancient, and the base against the honourable" ( Isaiah 3:5).
There is a natural relation of classes. Whilst all that is purely mechanical and arbitrary is to be viewed with suspicion, yet there is a natural sequence in things, there is indeed what is called a fitness or harmony of things; and when society is rightly inspired the base man knows that he is base, and his baseness is his weakness, and his weakness defines his position; and the child knows himself to be but a child, and therefore he behaves himself with discretion, and is limited by circumstances which he cannot control. Once let the moral centre be lost, and then you have lost all arithmetical counting, all geometrical relationship, all figure and form and mechanism and security, and the foursquare is thrown out of its parallel, and that which was right is numbered with that which is forbidden. How is society held together but by moral and political considerations? Some of the strongest men physically are amongst the weakest mentally and morally. When society is properly ordered and organised wisdom goes for everything: wisdom rules the city; wisdom directs the war; wisdom is consulted in the day of perplexity and in the night of desperation. Once let moral security give way, and you have this picture repeated: "The people shall be oppressed, every one by another, and every one by his neighbour": complete chaos shall reign; the child shall spit in the face of the ancient, and the base man shall claim the throne of the honourable. We are more dependent upon righteousness than we sometimes suppose. A sense of honesty keeps men right; a sense of moral inferiority determines the right classification of society. Aristocracy is mental, not hereditary. There is a genealogy of blood; there is also a genealogy of mind. When moral considerations are supreme all these questions are settled easily and finally.
"When a man shall take hold of his brother of the house of his father, saying, Thou hast clothing, be thou our ruler, and let this ruin be under thy hand: in that day shall he swear, saying, I will not be an healer; for in my house is neither bread nor clothing: make me not a ruler of the people" ( Isaiah 3:6-7).
Here we have the law of primogeniture. By the law of the state it was right that the eldest son should take a certain definite and ruling position. But he was naked; he had not one rag with which to cover his nudity; and seeing one of his younger brethren with a coat on, with a garment on, he sprang upon him and said, By that coat I ask thee to take my place: thou hast at least so much, and I have nothing; come, be head of the family and be prince of the tribe. But the younger son scorned the proffered dignity. The moral base had gone, and therefore the mechanical dignity was of no account; the pedestal of righteousness had been struck away, and the statue of nominal dignity fell into the dust. The picture is a vivid one, and is occurring in all its moral and more serious aspects every day. There comes a time when a man does not want to be mayor, or premier, or prince; he says, All these are fictions, lies, hypocrisies, names without corresponding realities, paper behind which there is no bullion: I will not be king, for there is no kingdom to rule. How desolating are the judgments of God! how he takes out the inside of things, and leaves the shell to mock the man who seizes it as if he were about to lay hands upon a prize! What are our dignities if they have no religious allusion, and no spiritual value, and no heavenly guarantee of excellence and durability? In all these things see what forfeitures men make by ill-behaviour, and how certain and complete is the judgment of God.
What a verse is the eighth! We cannot even now read it without quailing under the awful representation—"For Jerusalem is ruined." We thought Jerusalem never could be ruined: the mountains were round about her, and to the old psalmists those mountains signified the security of the righteous. Is beauty no protection? is ancient history of no account? will not the dead kings of Judah speak for her in the time of her trial? We cannot live upon our past, upon our forefathers, upon our vanished glories; morality must be as fresh as the dew of the morning; our righteousness must be as clear, personal, and definite as the action which we perform at the living moment. A man cannot lay up a character and fall back upon it if his present conduct is out of keeping with it; he himself takes the juice and sap out of the character which he once lived. "Jerusalem is ruined." Why? There is a moral reason. There is always a moral reason for divine judgment. That reason reads thus: "Because their tongue and their doings are against the Lord, to provoke the eyes of his glory." In their fancy they give him eyes of omniscience, and in their action they defy those eyes to see the rottenness of their conduct. Men do not come to ruin because they are good; it is nowhere recorded that because a man prayed he was blasted by the lightning of heaven. Ruin has a moral explanation behind it, an explanation we may be ashamed to give, or to confess, or to recognise even within the secrecy of our own consciousness; but there is the eternal law—wherever there is death there has been sin: the wages of sin is death. We are not speaking now of the mere death of the body, of the death which dogs die, but of that second death, that inner decease, that decessus or exodus of the character, when the soul goes out of a Prayer of Manasseh, and abandons him, because it has been ill-used, dethroned, discrowned.
The proofs are adduced, and they are of a character which cannot be denied. In the ninth verse we read—"The shew of their countenance doth witness against them." Here is primâ facie evidence, as we should now phrase it. The proof of the internal decay is in the face. That face is an open book. Every blot shows blackly upon it There are lines—hieroglyphical to those who cannot read, but full of expressiveness to those who have the seeing eye. Blessed be God, a man cannot be a villain without showing it! Pamper himself as he may, the bad lines on the face will come out now and then. Marvellous is the writing of the human countenance! Not that you find what is technically termed beauty there as a proof of moral excellence, mere form of feature, or line of bone, or tint of skin; we are not speaking of such superficial things in this connection; but the expression of the face, its sudden expressions, its expressions when it supposes itself to be inexpressive, the very concealment of the character which brings a kind of luminous vacancy into the eyes. Can a man drink deeply, and yet not show it in his face? Can any man think bad thoughts lovingly—can he roll iniquity under his tongue as a sweet morsel, and gloat over it, and dream about it, and hail it in the morning, and bless it at night, without that loved demon working its wizardry on the face, taking out of the voice its solemn music, and casting into the gait of the wanderer the lurch of the vagabond? Men do not know this in all its reality. They have recourse to mechanical means for adorning themselves, for obliterating the traces of evil conduct; but they fail: the buried thing lifts itself up, and casts off the flower that was meant to hide its presence. A sudden expression reveals a character. "The shew of their countenance doth witness against them:" they have lost their spirituality, their ennobling reverence, their simplicity of soul, their genial smile, their impressive and self-interpreting frankness; they lurch, they wait, they glance furtively, and they blush; they show themselves to be devotees of sensuality. There is amid all their claim to the contrary a porcine look, a tone and manner which even the simplest can hardly misunderstand. The other truth, the beautiful truth, is equally vivid. What wonders grace works in a man! How it fills even an ordinary exterior with light! how the flame beautifies the lamp! how the Spirit of the indwelling God ennobles and dignifies the living house which he sanctifies by his presence. Thank God for the self-revelations of sin; bless God that a man cannot eat too much or drink too much without the blotch upon the skin signing him and sealing him fool and criminal. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."
"They declare their sin as Sodom, they hide it not." This indicates the possibility of coming to a condition of shamelessness. Men may sin so much as to glory in it. Men may glory in their shame. Repetition is no defence; familiarity does not mean excuse or mitigation. May not men speak profanely until they become unaware of their profanity? May not men drink so deeply as to be quite unconscious that they are drinking at all? And may we not do the forbidden deed so frequently that it comes to us with the ease of familiarity, and leaves not behind it the sting which should fill the soul with inexpressible torment? Sodom became brazen-faced; Sodom cared not for the God of heaven; and nothing but fire, brimstone, hell, could disinfect the locality which she disgraced. To what lengths may evil go! but after a certain point that road becomes quite easy; we do not so much walk over it as glide along it with most fatal and gratifying celerity.
On whose account was all this wrath displayed? Does God play with lightnings, and show the artillery of heaven that he may make the universe afraid lest it provoke him? No: God acts upon moral reasons; and, as we have often had occasion to say, he never withholds those reasons from the criticism and judgment of the very men upon whom he pours out the vials of indignation. The reasons are given in Isaiah 3:14-15 :—
"For ye have eaten up the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What mean ye that ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor? saith the Lord God of hosts."
Who ever abandons the sanctuary, the poor should never go away; who ever closes the Bible, the poor man should keep it lying widely open; he should always have a Bible that opens easily, not stiffly, because it is well handled, and is the continual defence of men who cannot defend themselves. We must not turn the country into a stupendous money-making machine for our own use and furtherance. There is a legitimate and Christian socialism. The country should be a commonwealth. The danger is that all the countries now become gigantic betting-houses. Labour seems to be driven away; there is hardly any honest healthy work to be obtained by thousands of people. Yet there is money enough. Yes, but it passes through the channels of speculation; it is made to do a fevered work. Men do not like labour as they used to do; they prefer the toss of the dice, the fortune won in an hour: it involves no detail; it does not demand discipline, at least of a servile kind. All this means that the poor man must stand back: this is the game of the rich: only he who has thousands to risk can be admitted within this accursed ring. The poor must go out and do what they can. Let them, says the mocking voice, eat the dust beneath their feet; we cannot be clogged with them, or hampered in our movements. So the countries of irreligious civilisation, or of nominal religious civilisation, are becoming gigantic stock exchanges. Money is not legitimately circulated; it is not worked for. Blessed be the nation that loves to till its ground, to sow honest seed honestly, and to reap a good harvest thankfully. That is the way of life that will stand when all other ways have been proved to be rotten and unrighteous.
We have spoken much of judgment; let us say that the judgment is not indiscriminate:—
"Say ye to the righteous, that it shall be well with him: for they shall eat the fruit of their doings. Woe unto the wicked! it shall be ill with him: for the reward of his hands shall be given him" ( Isaiah 3:10-11).
This is not blind wrath; the wrath is the more terrible that it is critical. There must be some escape from unregulated and aimless wrath—the blind fury that strikes without knowing at which or at what its blows are aimed; men might get away from that fury; but this is not mere fury, it is judgment: to the righteous, righteousness; to the wicked—not an arbitrary punishment, but, "the reward of his hands shall be given him." The wicked man digs his own hell. We must not think of hell as a divine invention; may we not say it reverently? it is an invention totally human. All evil digs and eats its own perdition; all evil chokes its throat with brimstone of its own finding. O wicked man! that harvest of wickedness is but the reaping of thine own sowing. How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation? Men call the rocks and the mountains to fall upon them, but the rocks and the mountains stand still in stiff dignity, and have no answer to the bad man"s cry; they are not allies of the devil; the rocks are God"s own stone-houses, the mountains are altars of his own building; they will not answer the cry of despair, the wail of sin. Whilst we say, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God," we can also say with equal emphasis of voice, and with tenderer significance of tone, "God is Love."
Almighty God, we are of yesterday, and know nothing. Thou dost come up from everlasting, from the unbeginning time, and we cannot comprehend thee. Yet our time is part of God"s eternity; through the mystery of time we may understand somewhat of thy duration, O thou who livest from everlasting to everlasting, without loss of strength or decay of glory. Enable us so to understand ourselves as to begin to see somewhat of the mystery of thy being; may we know that the divine seal is upon our own souls, and that if we study ourselves aright we shall begin to know somewhat of thy love and tenderness and compassion. Dwell within us, O Holy Spirit, ruling our understanding, our judgment, our will, our whole being, and sanctifying us until we become holy as our Father in heaven is holy. Great will be this miracle, and it lies only within thine own power to accomplish it; but with God all things are possible. We remember what we were, and what by thy grace we now are, and thus we look forward to the great completion of thy purpose in us, and foresee the time when we shall be sanctified, body, soul, and spirit. We commend ourselves to thee to this intent; we come not for mere enjoyment, for the excitement of high religious feeling that it may evaporate and issue in nothingness; we come that we may be perfected, strengthened, equipped for life"s duty, and prepared for life"s daily sacrifice. By this shall we know, that we are in God, and that God is in us, that we hold ourselves lightly when he bids us lay down our lives, and that we are ready, morning, noon, and night, to open the door to the coming Lord, and give him all the welcome of love. O thou Son of God, whose eyes are full of tears, whose heart is full of tenderness, thou didst pity the sin of the world, and taste death for every man. Thou art still looking down upon the little earth, and still thine heart moves piteously and redeemingly towards it; thou dost weep over the city, thou dost lament the moral wilderness. Enable us to enter into sympathy with thee herein, that the world may not only show to us its sunny and flowery aspects, but may reveal to us its sin, its misery, all that debases its character and that overwhelms its purity: thus seeing the world as it is we shall be moved along Christian lines, we shall be inspired by Christian love, and our supreme desire will be to snatch some men from the burning, to bring some wanderers back again, and so to serve the Lord. The world lieth in wickedness; we are not deceived by the madness of its affected noise; underneath all the noise we hear the raving of moral insanity. The world is sick at heart; the earth is bearing a great load of iniquity. O Son of God, forsake not the place of thy mediation: pray for the world which thou hast redeemed; see the great tragedy completed, and establish the kingdom of righteousness upon the ruins of evildoing. Thou knowest whose hearts are sore, whose lives are blighted, whose hopes are clouded, and to whom to-morrow is a dread mystery coming fast upon black wings, and with purpose to destroy. Arm us against all fear; qualify us to do life"s work with power and ease, with adequate faculty, and with unwavering and loving trust. Help especially those who are in great need of help; men who know not which way to turn; men who are imprisoned in darkness and afflicted with great infirmity. If we have sworn a holy vow at thine altar to be better, may the vow be redeemed in actual practice; if any man has. set his hand to an evil record that he will break thy law and defy thy judgment, may he be swift to obliterate his folly. Watch by the bedside of the afflicted; make the empty cradle a greater blessing than the occupied cradle. Grant unto all souls exit from this land of darkness, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, into the city of life. Amen.
"Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"The shew of their countenance doth witness against them."— Isaiah 3:9
Whatever men live upon shows itself even in the body. Our food becomes in a sense ourselves. If this is true of food for the body it is also true of food for the mind. Men cannot read perniciously and look virtuously. The ideas in which the mind most delights will give figure and colour and meaning to the very face. He who thinks mean thoughts cannot have a noble expression of countenance. He may have largeness and dominance and force, but when the full meaning of the face is searched into it will be found to be mean, dishonourable, and representative of an ill-treated soul. If this is true of the body and of the intellect, it is pre-eminently true of the spiritual nature. An atheist must have a face as withered as his heart. In mere outline and structure it may not even be without handsomeness; but in all its higher and subtler suggestiveness it is the face of a man who is without God in the world. A man cannot be a drunkard without his drunkenness writing itself upon the face. If a man is a tyrant, the tyranny will express itself in his very eyes. Blessed be God, what is true on one side is true also on the other; so that beneficence of soul is represented by beauty of countenance. The beauty may not be formal or structural; it will be spiritual, subtle, but most evident to those who are most familiar with it. There is great comfort in the thought that everything we do has its outward representation. A neglected house shows itself in the very windows and doors. A neglected child has the word Neglect written broadly all over him. A neglected garden bears its own witness. It is even so with a neglected character. By an unwritten law men know it, and are ashamed of it; they either ignore it or they distrust it. All culture tells. In all labour there is profit; in all industry there is an outcome of strength of character, beauty of countenance, gentleness of tone. Thus we write our biography day by day. Thus we keep our memorandum-book in our very face. Thus we become witnesses either for ourselves or against ourselves. Do not let us dwell exclusively upon either one side of this truth or the other. The way of the Lord is equal. If neglect writes its own condemnation on the face, so culture writes in outward and evident signs its own approval and benediction. We are daily writing judgment either for or against ourselves.
"They have rewarded evil unto themselves."— Isaiah 3:9
We have often seen that the man who is wicked is not an enemy of some distant or external law only, but is really his own enemy. The bad man cuts his own throat. The man who starves his soul must carry all the evidence, discomfort, and humiliation of such neglect in himself. If we refrain from prayer we shall hurt our own spirits. If we do not give ourselves up to the working of righteousness, another power will arise within us and triumph over our best nature, trampling it in the dust and gradually extinguishing the very image and likeness of God. A wonderful thing is this in the whole process of human education. A truly wonderful thing that the power of suicide runs through the whole economy of life. As a man can put out the eyes of his body, so he can put out the eyes of his soul. We do not injure God only by our unrighteousness, we injure ourselves. That is the very point of the text. What quality we may have lost, what dignity, what influence! Oh that we had hearkened unto the divine law! then had our peace flowed like a river and our righteousness like the waves of the sea. The meaning is that obedience would have rewarded itself in the very enlargement, refinement, and contentment of our own spirits. When a man denies God he denies himself. When a man does not go out into the larger fellowship of the Church that he may make common prayer with his fellows, his own prayers at home are stunted and stifled. Beware of self-deterioration. It lies on the way to suicide. We may not be conscious of having committed spiritual suicide, yet our souls may be lying murdered within us. Do thyself no harm. Take heed unto thyself. Nurture the soul by being good, by doing good, by heavenly exercise in all the ways of sympathy and benevolence.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Isaiah 3". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
Second Sunday after Epiphany