The Predicted Saviour
We must be very careful how we allot the prophecies of Scripture and distribute the treasures of divine wisdom. It is comparatively easy to find intermediate occasions and personalities to whom we may confide these ineffable treasures, privileges, and honours. But we must have some regard to pro portion, to fitness, and to the spiritual poetry of the occasion. No man known to history, but one, can carry this chapter in all its verses and lines and particles. Here and there some other man may come in and partially appropriate a word, a hint, a suggestion; but has any man ever seized the whole chapter and said, "That is mine"? Did any man ever quote the prophecy of Isaiah, saying, The prophet was very bold, and pictured me in words to be found in the fifty-third chapter of his vision? He would be a bold man who would claim this chapter, saying, It belongs to me, it portrays me, it is an anticipation of my personality and function, my beauty and dignity, my purpose and priesthood. Decency would intervene and say, Do not attempt to wear the constellations, do not attempt to claim the sun as private property; you will be judged by your claims; take care that you bring yourself not into folly and contempt by suggesting that all heaven was made for your enjoyment and convenience. Yet there is one Man in history who would fit the occasion, seize it, bind it round his brows as a garland, and it would look in place on such a head; no one would say, Behold the fool!—who could help exclaiming, Behold the Man! As a question of poetry this is Song of Solomon, as well as a question of history. It belongs to the poetic imagination to find out affinities and similarities and kinships, subtle and remote, but certain and unchangeable: and if we might dismiss historical criticism for the moment we should find a wondrous poetical realisation of this fifty-third chapter in the Son of Mary, the Son of God. There is no reason to reject the historical interpretation. The more it is considered the more appropriate it becomes. But even if for the moment we throw it aside we are constrained to say, The manger, the Cross, the Olivet from which he stepped into heaven, all these combine to find the happy and sacred realisation of the marvellous forecast in this unparalleled vision.
There are some interpretations against which we cannot quote chapter and verse. Yet we know them to be untrue. The indwelling Spirit says, Such and such an interpretation cannot be true. In what, then, is our refuge when such interpretations are pressed upon us? Not in any isolated verse, but in the whole Bible. Sometimes the whole Book is focused into one quotable text, and that text answers the interpretation that is false and writes upon it its character and its doom. There is a Biblical spirit, a Biblical genius, a sacred ministry of the whole Book. We have seen this so often that we have come to lay down the principle that now no man can forge words in the name of Jesus. Let us hear them: how will they dwell with other words we have received from him? Closet them for the night, and we will open the door in the morning and see which is Dagon, which is Ark,—which is right, which is wrong. If any man said that Jesus Christ had commanded in some book just discovered that men were not to love one another, we know what answer we should return to the discoverer and his book. All this means that there is a spirit in the Bible; not only do we find chapter and verse with which to contest certain positions or affirm others, but the whole Book breathes a spirit which we may utilise in controversy and utilise as a test of orthodoxy and a test of sincerity. It is so pre-eminently in this case. If any man arose to claim this chapter those who are most familiar with the Bible would be the first to resent his pretensions and write their contempt upon the forehead of his imposture; chapter and verse might not be quoted, but the whole spirit of the Bible would be cited. Some things in literature, in poetry, in literary conception and proposition, are impossible; you need not open the credentials, there need be no display of certificate and testimonial and affidavit: we know by the spirit that certain pretensions and propositions are false; that they are of the nature of imposture; they carry their own condemnation. But when we read the life of Jesus Christ, and then read this chapter in the light of that life, every verse flames up into new meanings, every sentence a pinnacle heaven-pointing, every figure a flower grown in the eternal paradise. We might remit the discussion to critics, and release the theologians that they might perform other functions, so evident is the spirit of the chapter, so charged with the very spirit of Bethlehem and Calvary.
There is a tone of discouragement at the beginning which we recognise and approve. That tone is not confined to Christ"s ministry alone, but to every ministry subsidiary yet related to the priesthood of the Son of God. Who hath believed truth, who hath believed charity, who hath believed in Gospel virtue? The truth has always had a hard time in the world. Lies have been feasted, feted, crowned, and truth, like a mendicant, has had but a crust;—yet not but a crust; let us rather say, a crust and a blessing, and in the blessing the feast was realised. "To whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?" It has been made bare these many centuries, and how few have seen it, or recognised it, or called it by its proper name! We have had continuity, and succession, and evolution, and development, and progress, and laws of nature; but not "the arm of the Lord." Men felt themselves more comfortable in talking about law than about the Lord; it was less pious, less disciplinary, less evangelical. Herein is one proof of the truth of the evangelical doctrine, that it makes men think before they dare utter some of its choicest words.
Does the prophet account for the non-success of this great minister of light, when he describes him as growing up before God as a tender plant, "and as a root out of a dry ground; he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him"? Is there in that reading a tone which says, What else could have been expected? Men do not care for roots out of dry ground; men do not care for that which is without form and comeliness; men are charmed by beauty and are fascinated by excellence that is patent to the eye What else could have been looked for? Why did he not set the Son of man in the zenith at midday, dismissing the sun"s poor light, and for one day glorifying the whole firmament by this radiant personality? That was not the divine method of revelation. Why did he not grow up from the earth as the fairest flower in paradise, making all other flowers tremble, and enclose themselves, and shrink away in conscious inferiority? Then men would have gathered around this flower, ardent as a flame, beautiful as an undiscovered colour let down from heaven, and all the earth would be saved by one vision of beauty. This is not the way; divine Christianity is not an appeal to the eye; it is not an address to the senses; it is a spectre, a spirit, an invisible energy that makes for the heart, and that can only be seen by the vision of the soul. The Lord did not need to wait thousands of years to make a superior Adam with finer tint of flesh, with keener glance of eye, with subtler and more varied eloquence of tone; it did not take the Potter so long at his wheel to turn out an Adam so mechanically perfect. The second Adam took upon him the form of men. He took upon him the flesh that had no beauty of outline or feature: but now and again how it lightened within, and how the rugged edges of the flesh caught that spiritual radiance and made men turn aside because of the intolerable glory! It was not a beauty of form, it was the beauty of expression. It was not the beauty of statuary, it was the beauty of life. It is the purpose of God to disappoint the senses. He has victimised the eyes, and the ears, and the hands of men. Does he delight in our disappointment? Does he like to see us come to view the marvellous spectacle, and exclaim, How disappointing! Is it by a larger circuit he sweeps round upon our attention and our confidence that he may hold our homage for ever?
There is a conception of suffering in the third verse which no man could have invented! Alas, coming upon it after long familiarity with its weird music, we may not see it to be so. Let us think ourselves back in time and in affairs. The words are these: "He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief." Yet he was to win the world, and save it, and rule over it. He had not an occasional sorrow, a spasmodic pain, a transient agony; he was "a man of sorrows:" they were multiplied to him; they were his familiar acquaintances; they held night and day counsel together; the sorrows wrought upon him so that there was no place for formal beauty; his face was dug as with an iron instrument, ploughed, scarred; the agony of the heart wrote its story in the melancholy of the face. He came to save the world, yet he was despised and rejected of men, spat upon, buffeted, turned away from the door at midnight, never blessed, never cared for; he came unto his own, and his own received him not; and yet he came from heaven! He was "acquainted with grief"—which we can never be. We have our little griefs, our tiny bubble woes, that rise and burst upon the stream of daily existence; but this Man was "acquainted with grief:" they hailed one another; they understood one another; grim grief nestled in his heart as in a chosen dwelling-place, and he found mysterious consolation through the ministry of grief; he found joy in melancholy; he found heaven on earth; he saw in the black root the possible flower; he was despised and rejected of men—"The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head." He would be a bold man who claimed this verse, if he were other than the Son of God. And that any man could have foreseen all this, and invented all this, and made of this supreme woe an effort in blank verse, is impossible to believe. The prophet must have really seen this in some vision-rapture; he must have been present at the outpouring of this contempt, in some high inspiration, in some miracle of introspection and prospection; he must: have been enabled to spring across the centuries and spend one day with the Son of man. We have said that some things are: impossible: amongst those things we rank the forecast of this; deepest misery. All men have their trouble, all men have their touch of grief, all men have their portion of disappointment; but: no man can take up these expressions in the fulness of their meaning, and say they are exhausted in human experience.
What is the interpretation? It comes in the fourth verse: "Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows,"
That "surely" means—Now we see it: there can be but one explanation of all this rejection, contempt, sorrow, and grief: surely, certainly; yes, that is it. The word is not a bare adverb, it is an exclamation of the soul, the outburst of a sublime discovery. Then there comes the correction of an error: "Yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted." That was the common reading of Christ"s life. God will not have him. If any prophets would have him they might take him down from the Cross, but not a prophet rose to mitigate his agony. If God would have him for a Son why did he not extract the nails, and heal the wound, and extract the spear, and in throwing it down transfix the murderer who first used it? But God would none of him; he turned away, and in his turning made the heavens black; he expressed satisfaction at the result of the tragedy, and the earth applauded the divine complacency in rocking and earthquake and darkness sympathetic.
Then comes the realisation of the right meaning:—
"But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed" ( Isaiah 53:5).
What do these words mean? No man can tell. The best explanation of them is to hide them in the heart, brood over them, and use them when the night is darkest and when the great accusing, avenging law insists upon body and soul and all that makes us men. Some sermons are preached in the nighttime that cannot be preached in daylight; some expectations are whispered to the soul when no one can overhear. The tragedy of the Cross makes an infinite impression; it dwells within us like a memory that will hardly condescend to accept the embodiment of words; it looks upon us when we are blind with tears; it says something to us when we exclaim, "What shall we do to be saved?" It is not to be mechanically written about, or formally preached, or set forth by dainty choice of dainty words. There is a region where words are useless, where images are hardly available, where choicest metaphor feels itself a trespasser. There are regions which we can only look at, and at whose closed doors we can only wait until it pleaseth the indwelling Spirit to set them ajar a little, that through the hospitable rent we may hear somewhat of the nature of explanatory or consolatory music. Beware of every attempt to write a bock upon Christ"s agony. Beware lest in chaptering and sectioning a book, and making in some sort a printer"s trick of the story, we should crucify the Son of God afresh. Men see the Cross in its saving aspect probably only once, probably in one flashing moment, but they never forget the spectacle; it recurs when they need it, and that vision leaves the whole life whiter than snow, whiter than wool, creates in the life a hunger and a thirst after things divine and heavenly, and makes the man a new creature, so that heaven"s own stars are but baubles after having seen a universe compared with which they are dim specks of colour. All proportions, all distances, all values are changed, changed as in the twinkling of an eye. We are often cursed by our intelligence. We are often impoverished, in a religious sense, by our grammatical cleverness. God is not a God of etymology and syntax; else salvation would be of grammar, not of grace; of clever interpretation, not of absolute, implicit, filial acceptance and obedience. Have we had the vision? Was there a day when all heaven shone with new light, and all earth became transformed with ineffable beauty? Was there a day when we felt love towards all men and could have saved all men that very day, and have brought them into heaven at once—a great missionary experience, a great evangelistic realisation of the value of men? That was the day when the Son of man found that which was lost, and brought it home rejoicing. Never let that day drop out of your memory.
Here is a view of human nature which no man could have invented: "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way." There is an experimental tone in that declaration. The man knows what he is talking about It does not become any scribe to incriminate the whole human race without having sure ground under his feet. All history corroborates this criticism; all history sitting in the judgment-seat agrees with this finding. If there is a man who has not gone astray, let him stand up. If there is a man who has never been self-convicted—not within some narrow lines of mechanical observance, but within the great circle of human sympathy and human duty—let him say Song of Solomon, and let him adduce the proofs, and let him say so in the hearing of those who know his life most intimately; if he will not say so himself let some sponsor stand up and say it for him; sound the trumpet of challenge; call loudly for the witness, and your answer will be—silence.
"He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth" ( Isaiah 53:7).
That is our Christ; that is God"s Son; that is the Saviour of the world. We know that he was oppressed, and that he was afflicted; we know that he said, "My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death;" we know that he sweat as it were great drops of blood; we have read that in history; we compare the prophecy and the history, and they are one. Isaiah might have been the reporter as he concealed himself within the shadows of Gethsemane.
But the matter does not end here. Providence does not lead to darkness. God has never started on a journey the destination in view being insignificance, blankness, poverty, desolation. On this night a morning will rise: "He shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied," or, according to another version, "because of his agony he shall see and shall be refreshed;" he is to have a portion divided with the great; he is to divide the spoil with the strong: because he hath poured out his soul unto death; he is to be throned above the riches of the universe; he endured the Cross, despising the shame; he looked beyond to the smiling, welcoming heaven, not as a place of selfish rest, but as a gathering place in which he should hold eternal fellowship with immortal spirits. "He that goeth forth bearing seed"—omit the word "precious," for it adds nothing to the value of the text, and is properly omitted in the best translations,—"he that goeth forth bearing seed"—the epithet is in the substantive; the substantive is too grand for adjective or term of qualification,—"He that goeth forth bearing seed" shall come again, his face all laughter, his voice all Song of Solomon, his arms too small and weak to hold the infinite sheaves. In this faith we stand, in this prospect we labour. The mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. To-day there is little hope; today there is darkness enough. It would seem as if the multitude had gone out to do evil, and as if fools counted more in number than wise men; it would seem as if still Jesus Christ was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. But in reality it is not so. It is never so dark, according to the proverb, as before the dawn; it is then that the darkness is deepest simply because the dawn is nearest. O day of the Lord, come! O expected light, tip with some foregleaming the hills cf darkness! One ray would make us glad. One glimpse of light would make all thy praying ones spring up from their knees as if their prayers had been answered in a sentence. But our impatience must not rule us; our impetuosity must be held in check; our whole aspiration must be content with the words, "Thy will be done on earth, as it is done in heaven." Yet we will say in our daily prayers, "Thy kingdom come,"—as the spring comes and vanishes winter, as the summer comes and explains the vernal breeze and life, as the harvest comes to crown the year"s toil and travail with richest colour and richest fruit, with abundance worthy of a king. We live under a great scheme of providence: how dark sometimes; at other times how bright! How hard to dig the grave! How awful to lose the one life we cared for! How sad to be impoverished at a stroke! And yet it is in the midst of the desolateness that Christ says he will glorify those who believe in God, he will bring to fulness of honour, yea, even to coronation, those who have clung to God, and those who have clung most tenderly when the night was darkest
Almighty God, in thee alone do we put our trust. Our whole heart goes out towards thee in eager love. We have committed ourselves unto thee, and thou art able to keep us from falling and to present us faultless before the throne. This gospel have we received from thy Son Jesus Christ. We owe all we are and have that is good to him. His blood cleanseth from all sin. His grace establishes the heart and causes it to grow in all holiness and sacred power. Unto him that loved us, and hath washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; unto him be dominion and majesty evermore. We bless thee for thy house. The tabernacle of God is with men upon the earth. Thou dost keep us in the right way by the declaration of thy testimonies and the continual revelation of thy truth; by the mighty energy of thy Holy Spirit, and by visiting our hearts in times of anxiety and distress. Thy ministry towards us is a ministry of salvation. Thou art always seeking to train us toward thyself. Thou dost lift up our life towards the light, and towards the higher and wider spaces. Thou dost give liberty to the captive—an infinite, a glorious, liberty, requiring eternity for its unfoldment. May we in thy house see thyself. We would look upon thy goodness; we know we cannot bear the lustre of thy glory. Help us to feel thy grace, to hear the still small voice of animation and of comfort, assuring us that the Lord reigneth and that the end of all things is good. We bless thee for all light, truth, peace, hope. These are the great gifts of God. Every day do thou enrich us with them. Then, at the last, we shall not die, but languish into life. This is the gospel of thy Son; this is life, this is immortality, this is heaven. We bless thee that we must die to live, and that living in thy light we can never die. We bless thee for the mystery of love; for the marvel and the miracle of continual grace. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Isaiah 53". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
Second Sunday after Epiphany