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This verse should be part of the preceding chapter, the very climax, indeed, of the ruin which Zion has brought upon herself. Read chap. Isaiah 3:25-26 : "Thy men shall fall by the sword, and thy mighty in the war. And her gates shall lament and mourn; and she being desolate shall sit upon the ground." Then follows:
"And in that day seven women shall take hold of one man, saying, We will eat our own bread, and wear our own apparel: only let us be called by thy name, to take away our reproach" ( Isa 4:1 ).
In this verse the course of nature is inverted. This is the ruin which sin always works. The picture is that of a country desolated by war, and when the census comes to be taken it is found that there are seven women to one man. The men are murdered, the strong have been taken away, the mighty men have gone down in the shock of war. In this depopulation see what sin is always doing in every city and in every land. If we are afraid of the word "sin," substitute for it the word wrongdoing, unrighteousness, injustice, any term that does not bring with it some distinctive religious impression, and still the melancholy fact remains the same he who does wrong ruins whatever he touches. Sin kills the mightiest not in the obvious sense of taking away the life of the body, but in the subtle and spiritual sense of perverting the mind, unbalancing the judgment, loosening moral integrity, creating in the interior nature carelessness regarding moral distinctions and moral judgments. This is not a theological view, or a theological prejudice; all this would be true were there no Bible, no church, no preacher, in the ordinary or conventional sense of the term. Who ever assails order assails security; who ever permits himself to think an ungenerous thought aims a blow at the very foundations of genuine, trustful, co-operative fellowship; who ever speaks one cruel, unjust, hostile word is an enemy of the commonwealth. The punishment of sin is not of a superstitious or theological kind. We are not to suppose that God's judgments are intellectual, metaphysical, spiritual only, and that some men are ranked as heretics, or sceptics, or doubters, or deniers, and there the matter ends. Sin is not only the enemy of God; sin is the enemy of society. A man cannot violate the laws of health and yet be healthy; call it a spirit, a genius, a divine superintendence of things call it what you please, yet there is the law, steady, solemn, inexorable, that the man who insults the spirit of health is made to feel his blasphemy in his own body. So throughout the whole scale: business is afflicted, social security is overturned, everything blooming, beautiful, sweet, which we designate by the name of health goes down in the tremendous judgment. In the instance of the text we have simply the effect of war. War takes away from society the men of might, of strength, the stay of the family, those who ought to be the glory and the hope and confidence of society. What is true of war is true of every form of evil. There is not an imp in all the devil's service that does not trail after him manifold proof of evil and cruelty. It is important to recognise this, and apply it broadly and fearlessly, lest men should think that sin is something which lives within the church, or is in some sense a church term, or a theological puzzle, or a metaphysical difficulty, with which ordinary society has nothing to do; whereas sin is a term which gathers up into itself all lawbreaking, all dishonour of righteousness, all errors, mistakes, infirmities, that tend towards debasement of character and insecurity of life. Sin does not find its punishment in hell only; every day it creates its own perdition, and burns its own victims. Until we realise this in all its fulness we shall be quite unable to grapple with the difficulties of society, and to understand the mystery of suffering and the infinite penalty of wrongdoing.
But a light breaks upon the horizon: music is heard in the distance, the prophet turns from the depopulated land to behold a thing of beauty:
"In that day shall the branch of the Lord be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the earth shall be excellent and comely for them that are escaped of Israel" ( Isa 4:2 ).
We cannot pass over this word "branch" without wondering whether it is any allusion to the coming One who was Prince of peace, who was to fill the earth with righteousness, and people it with a seed that should call him blessed, in whose breath there should be no heat of war, yet whose very gospel is a sword unsheathed against every form of iniquity and evil. We must not force interpretations, nor import them; yet we must be faithful to organic history; we are entitled to bring the future to bear upon the past and the present when we know what that future is. In this instance we do know that there came One who was beautiful with all the freshness and rich with all the fruitfulness of heaven's paradise. If this is a reference to Christ, critics are agreed that it is the first personal reference to the Messiah which Isaiah has yet given. We should halt at first allusions; we should be amazed at first miracles. If we are foolish enough to allow ourselves to grow into a familiarity which turns a miracle into a commonplace, we ought at all events on the first showing of the miracle to display some sign of wonder and interest.
How will Isaiah bring forth the Messiah to human view under what imagery? Isaiah is a man of majestic mind, the first politician in the land, the greatest statesman of his day; he deals with kingdom and empire and destiny with right royal faculty: how will he disclose the Messianic reign? Granted that the critics are right, and that the comparison of Scripture with Scripture will establish the identity of the Messiah with this prophecy, see how beautiful it is! The Messiah shall come under the image of a "Branch." Mark the fitness of that figure here. We have been passing through a land desolated by divine judgment; not one green thing has been left; the lava of holy wrath has spread sterility all along the line of its devouring and blighting course what so beautiful as that a "branch" should appear in this wilderness of lava? What an imagination was that which, looking at the desolation on the one hand, pointed to a branch on the other a branch, so to say, overgrowing the walls of heaven, and letting itself down within the view of human kind! Blessed are they who can turn away from the desert and look at the garden. This benediction holds good all through the circle of life. Let us dwell no longer upon the sterility, the barrenness, the ruin, consequent on judgment divine, but look at this green branch. It means so much. What does it mean? It means a word that is to be found within this very verse "the fruit of the earth." The branch means fruitfulness, plenteousness of food, a challenge to hunger, an offer of hospitality. Mark also the fitness of the figure in this relation: war had taken away the father and the brother and the strong man of every name and degree, and left the land in a state of destitution: now a branch is seen. Fruitfulness is the idea of the branch; the leaves of it are for the healing of the nation. If this does refer to the Messiah, surely no more fitting and beautiful image could have been selected even by inspired fancy. A "branch," then the fountains of life and energy are not dried up. It takes the whole summer to make one little daisy. We are apt to suppose that the tiny flowers are all thrown in, and did not require any astronomic action for their production. There is not a violet hidden in the green hedgerow that did not require all the solar system as gathered up in this earth to produce it. If we say that one swallow does not make a summer, it nevertheless takes the summer to make one swallow. Show a little green leaf, and you show a whole summer of heaven; that is the meaning of it, rightly and broadly interpreted. He is but a literalist who says, This is only one little leaf, and there is an end of it. There is no end of the least leaf that gleams greenly and beautifully in the sun; it means that summer is at hand; it means that the great water-system and fire-system of the universe is still in regular action; the little green messenger comes ahead of the advancing host. Blessed is he who has an eye for the interpretation of signs, significances, for all things that hold in themselves something larger than themselves. Then a branch is promised: that is to say, fruitfulness, beauty, sufficiency, energy, summer. This is what the Son of God came to be and to do to fill the earth with fruitfulness, to drive away the ghastly, all-devouring famine, and to feed the world with the fruit of heaven.
Still the light glows on the whole horizon. The prophet sees a new Jerusalem:
"And it shall come to pass, that he that is left in Zion, and he that remaineth in Jerusalem, shall be called holy, even every one that is written among the living in Jerusalem" ( Isa 4:3 ).
How full of suggestion is every word in this pregnant verse! "He that is left in Zion." We thought nothing had been left there. That is our mistake always. God knows what men are left, what lives are hidden, what influences have been overlooked or uncalculated. God has never yet left the world without a nucleus of heaven: he has drowned the world, but left a seed to build an altar; he has burned the Gomorrahs of the world, but he has allowed the faithful to escape, and to become the beginning of a new progeny. There is always a remnant, the one left, the true heart, the faithful among the faithless found If this is the genius of history, we cannot escape its broadest religious interpretations. There are miracles of providence if there are none in nature. When we have denied that the sea was ever quieted, or the dead were ever raised, or the lame were made to leap and praise God because of reconstruction, we have not got rid of the greater miracles of providence, the marvels of history, the things we never saw, and never created, and never dreamed; the mysterious subtle action and interaction of life upon life these phenomena will remain to make men wonder, and to make some men pray. There may be a nucleus left in the individual man. That is the most tenderly encouraging thought so far as we are concerned. What if the man himself be not wholly left without God? There may be an occasional tear that has in it all the meaning of summer's first little leaf; there may be a shock of surprise, which shows that even yet the man's soul is not dead; there may be an occasional turning to holy memory, to ancient vows, and a sighing after the fellowships which once made life glad: these things being interpreted signify that there is a nucleus left in the man, a little germ, a point where God himself can begin: "Quench not the Spirit." Even an occasional appearance at church may mean much; even a desire that the child may become a better man than you are may be a proof that God's ministry has not yet done operating in your heart, and importuning you for the sacrifice of your love.
"Every one that is written among the living." This is an idea which runs through the whole Bible the idea of a book, a register, a life-record, with names written one after the other. Moses knew of that book, and wanted all the people's names to be written in it; and once he was so eager that the registration should be complete, that he could have offered that his own name should not be on the record rather than that the whole people should be lost. In the Apocalypse there is a book, and another book called the Book of Life, and they that are written therein shall have a right to enter the gates of the city; and between these there is the testimony of the blessed Christ. "Notwithstanding in this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven." How almost impossible it is for God to obliterate names written in that book! Let every man ask, Is my name there? The names are written as with blood; they are not inscribed with earth's fading ink, they are written with blood shed in sacrifice. O mystery of love, O mystery that appals, that closes the eyes because of its brightness, a brightness intolerable! What is it to have the name written elsewhere if it be not written in the Book of Life? All other books will perish in the flame; only the writing of God will survive. In that register the humblest man may have a place; in that record the obscurest life may be regarded with all the amplitude which characterises anxious love, Pitiable is the life of him whose name is written everywhere but in the life-book! He is the victim of death; he has chosen a perishable fame. Choose you this day whom ye will serve where your record shall be made, where your names shall be found, and let every heart say, Lord, write my name who may, do thou write it, and give me pledge and proof in my own heart that my name is written in the books which cannot be burned.
But before this, and concurrently with this, there must be washing and cleansing even "by the spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of burning," say, by the breath of judgment, the great, mighty, disinfecting whirlwind of God to take away all trace of putrescence and pestilence. Some cleansing must be by fire. Aye, the fire will destroy; and some must be destroyed before they can be recreated. God's ministers are many, mighty as the wind, ardent as fire, all-expanding as the generous wind that feeds the whole globe with life, and intense, penetrating, unsparing as a burning fire. "Our God is a consuming fire." He will consume only the dross, the wickedness, the evil: no speck of gold will he destroy; he will save all that can be saved. When Jesus comes to add up the result of his ministry he will say, I have lost none but the son of waste: he would not come within the circle of my love; he is wasted, for he was the son of waste.
The prophet sees the bright day for Jerusalem, for Zion, for the whole land, for all peoples; he sees
"A shadow in the daytime from the heat, and for a place of refuge, and for a covert from storm and from rain" ( Isa 4:6 ).
That is the right architecture. Asked of what architecture is your building, and it will be a poor answer if it do not include a shadow, a place of refuge, a covert from storm and rain. This is the meaning of God's house in the world; this is what is intended when it is said the tabernacle of God is with men upon the earth. What is that tabernacle? Precisely what it is described to be in this verse a shadow from the heat, a place of refuge, a covert from storm and from rain: the poor man's house, the helpless man's asylum, the retreat to which all may repair who are suffering the burden and the discipline of life. Open wide its gates; never close them; write on the portals of the house, This is my Father's house, where there is bread enough and to spare. A church that falls short of this ideal is no church of the living God. However large and handsome, however associated with pomp and circumstance, it is no house of God if broken hearts cannot come to it, and be so comforted by song, and holy reading, and tender prayer, and noble exposition of words divine, as to return to the world's fight whole, strong, resolute, hopeful. If any man, poorest of the sons of men, should come into the church and hear the preacher say one word in defence of unrighteousness, that man has a right to declare that the only proper motto for that house is "Ichabod;" if any man shall speak for the rich as against the poor in God's house he defiles the altar; if any man should be severe upon the errors and mistakes of the poor, and should treat with a light hand the criminalities of the rich, he is a liar in the sight of God. The house of Christ should be a home, a refuge, a covert, a shadow from the great heat; and men should go up with joy saying, There if nowhere else we shall find all we want. In that day the house of God will be the centre of life, the very focus of truest pleasure, satisfaction, joy. This is the Bible idea of the tabernacle, the temple, the synagogue, the church that it should be a place of refuge, and a covert from storm and from rain.
If any severe word is spoken in the sanctuary, it should be so spoken as that the soul shall recognise it as involving a wise and necessary discipline. There should be no harshness in the severity; it should be so solemn, so dignified, so just, as to commend itself, and to prove that any other tone would be out of place in the earnest expostulation. But after the severity will come the gospel, the promise, the great evangelical welcome, the holy, tender, brotherly, most human appeal, saying, Come, let us hasten to the altar, the house of God, for under its roof dwells the Spirit itself; and as for its table it is spread with viands needful to the sustenance of manhood. There in our Father's house we shall have protection, security, inspiration, sentiment that will make us glad, but sentiment that shall develop itself into inspiration, that shall face the world with a stern courage and an irrepressible and triumphant hope. When men sneer at others for going to church, the sneer implies an ignorance of what the church really is. That the church has been debased, or ill-used, or perverted, or narrowed in some way so as to be other than what God meant it to be, may be true enough; but in that house every living man, black and white, has a right to be, and the poorest should be, as much at home as the richest; and it should be the joy of the rich to make the poor man feel that here his poverty is no crime. Let this be our ideal of God's house, and the house will prove its necessity by its utility. Let the house be put to the largest uses, and the sanctuary will need no defence in words; men will go away from it saying, We cannot do without it; it is needful to complete the circle of life. There are other houses, but they are very small; there are other tables, but our hunger is greater than the provision; there are other opportunities of enjoyment, but the enjoyment is partial or superficial: only in God's house do we hear a music that reaches the soul, listen to voices that make even our poverty a blessing, and see a light above the brightness of the sun.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Isaiah 4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Easter