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THE SONG OF TWO CITIES
OUR STRONG CITY
Isa_26:1 - Isa_26:2 .
What day is ‘that day’? The answer carries us back a couple of chapters, to the great picture drawn by the prophet of a world-wide judgment, which is followed by a burst of song from the ransomed people of Jehovah, like Miriam’s chant by the shores of the Red Sea. The ‘city of confusion,’ the centre of the power hostile to God and man, falls; and its fall is welcomed by a chorus of praises. The words of my text are the beginning of one of these songs. Whether or not there were any historical event which floated before the prophet’s mind is wholly uncertain. If there were a smaller judgment upon some city of the enemy, it passes in his view into a world-wide judgment; and my text is purely ideal, imaginative, and apocalyptic. Its nearest ally is the similar vision of the Book of the Revelation, where, when Babylon sank with a splash like a millstone in the stream, the ransomed people raised their praises.
So, then, whatever may have been the immediate horizon of the prophet, and though, there may have stood on it some historical event, the city which he sees falling is other than any material Babylon, and the strong city in which he rejoices is other than the material Jerusalem, though it may have suggested the metaphor of my text. The song fits our lips quite as closely as it did the lips from which it first sprang, thrilling with triumph: ‘We have a strong city; salvation will God appoint for walls and bulwarks. Open ye the gates, that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in.’
There are three things, then, here: the city, its defences, its citizens.
I. The City.
Now, no doubt the prophet was thinking of the literal Jerusalem; but the city is ideal, as is shown by the bulwarks which defend, and by the qualifications which permit entrance. And so we must pass beyond the literalities of Palestine, and, as I think, must not apply the symbol to any visible institution or organisation if we are to come to the depth and greatness of the meaning of these words. No church which is organised amongst men can be the New Testament representation of this strong city. And if the explanation is to be looked for in that direction at all, it can only be the invisible aggregate of ransomed souls which is regarded as being the Zion of the prophecy.
But perhaps even that is too definite and hard. And we are rather to think of the unseen but existent order of things or polity to which men here on earth may belong, and which will one day, after shocks and convulsions that shatter all which is merely institutional and human, be manifested still more gloriously.
The central thought that was moving in the prophet’s mind is that of the indestructible vitality of the true Israel, and the order which it represented, of which Jerusalem on its rock was but to him a symbol. And thus for us the lesson is that, apart altogether from the existing and visible order of things in which we dwell, there is a polity to which we may belong, for ‘ye are come unto Mount Zion, the city of the living God,’ and that that order is indestructible. Convulsions come, every Babylon falls, all human institutions change and pass. ‘The kingdoms old’ are ‘cast into another mould.’ But persistent through them all, and at the last, high above them all, will stand the stable polity of Heaven, ‘ the city which hath the foundations.’
There is a lesson for us, brethren, in times of fluctuation, of change of opinion, of shaking of institutions, and of new social, economical, and political questions, threatening day by day to reorganise society. ‘We have a strong city’; and whatever may come-and much destructive will come, and much that is venerable and antique, rooted in men’s prejudices, and having survived through and oppressed the centuries, will have to go; but God’s polity, His form of human society of which the perfect ideal and antitype, so to speak, lies concealed in the heavens, is everlasting. Therefore, whatsoever changes, whatsoever ancient and venerable things come to be regarded as of no account, howsoever the nations, like clay in the hands of the potter, may have to assume new forms, as certainly they will, yet the foundation of God standeth sure. And for Christian men in revolutionary epochs, whether these revolutions affect the forms in which truth is grasped, or whether they affect the moulds into which society is run, the only worthy temper is the calm, triumphant expectation that through all the dust, contradiction, and distraction, the fair city of God will be brought nearer and made more manifest to man. Isaiah, or whoever was the writer of these great words of my text, stayed his own and his people’s hearts in a time of confusion and distress, by the thought that it was only Babylon that could fall, and that Jerusalem was the possessor of a charmed, immortal life.
This strong city, the order of human society which God has appointed, and which exists, though it be hidden in the heavens, will be manifested one day when, like the fair vision of the goddess rising from amidst the ocean’s foam, and shedding peace and beauty over the charmed waves, there will emerge from all the wild confusion and tossing billows of the sea of the peoples the fair form of the ‘Bride, the Lamb’s wife.’ There shall be an apocalypse of the city, and whether the old words which catch up the spirit of my text, and speak of that Holy City as ‘descending from heaven’ upon earth, at the close of the history of the world, are to be taken, as perhaps they are, as expressive of the truth that a renewed earth is to be the dwelling of the ransomed or no, this at least is clear, that the city shall be revealed, and when Babylon is swept away, Zion shall stand.
To this city-existent, immortal, and waiting to be revealed-you and I may belong to-day. ‘We have a strong city.’ You may lay hold of life either by the side of it which is transient and trivial and contemptible, or by the side of it which goes down through all the mutable and is rooted in eternity. As in some seaweed, far out in the depths of the ocean, the tiny frond that floats upon the billow goes down and down and down, by filaments that bind it to the basal rock, so the most insignificant act of our fleeting days has a hold upon eternity, and life in all its moments may be knit to the permanent. We may unite our lives with the surface of time or with the centre of eternity. Though we dwell in tabernacles, we may still be ‘come to Mount Zion,’ and all life be awful, noble, solemn, religions, because it is all connected with the unseen city across the seas. It is for us to determine to which of these orders-the perishable, noisy and intrusive and persistent in its appeals, or the calm, silent, most real, eternal order beyond the stars-our petty lives shall attach themselves.
II. Now note, secondly, the defences.
‘Salvation will God appoint for walls and bulwarks.’ This ‘evangelical prophet,’ as he has been called, is distinguished, not only by the clearness of his anticipations of Jesus Christ and His work, but by the fulness and depth which he attaches to that word ‘salvation.’ He all but anticipates the New Testament completeness and fulness of meaning, and lifts it from all merely material associations of earthly or transitory deliverance, into the sphere in which we are accustomed to regard it as especially moving. By ‘salvation’ he means and we mean, not only negative but positive blessings. Negatively it includes the removal of every conceivable or endurable evil, ‘all the ills that flesh is heir to,’ whether they be evils of sin or evils of sorrow; and, positively, the investiture with every possible good that humanity is capable of, whether it be good of goodness, or good of happiness. This is what the prophet tells us is the wall and bulwark of his ideal-real city.
Mark the eloquent omission of the name of the builder of the wall. ‘God’ is a supplement. Salvation ‘will He appoint for walls and bulwarks.’ No need to say who it is that flings such a fortification around the city. There is only one hand that can trace the lines of such walls; only one hand that can pile their stones; only one that can lay them, as the walls of Jericho were laid, in the blood of His first-born Son. ‘Salvation will He appoint for walls and bulwarks.’ That is to say in a highly imaginative and picturesque form, that the defense of the City is God Himself; and it is substantially a parallel with other words which speak about Him as being ‘a wall of fire round about it and the glory in the midst of it.’ The fact of salvation is the wall and the bulwark. And the consciousness of the fact and the sense of possessing it, is for our poor hearts, one of our best defenses against both the evil of sin and the evil of sorrow. For nothing so robs temptation of its power, so lightens the pressure of calamities, and draws the poison from the fangs of sin and sorrow, as the assurance that the loving purpose of God to save grasps and keeps us. They who shelter behind that wall, feel that between them and sin, and them and sorrow, there rises the inexpugnable defense of an Almighty purpose and power to save, lie safe whatever betides. There is no need of other defenses. Zion
‘Needs no bulwarks,
No towers along the steep.’
God Himself is the shield and none other is required.
So, brethren, let us walk by the faith that is always confident, though it depends on an unseen hand. It is a grand thing to be able to stand, as it were, in the open, a mark for all ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ and yet to feel that around us there are walls most real, though invisible, which permit no harm to come to us. Our feeble sense-bound souls much prefer a visible wall. We, like a handrail on the stair. Though it does not at all guard the descent, it keeps our heads from getting dizzy. It is hard for us, as some travellers may have to do, to walk with steady foot and unthrobbing heart along a narrow ledge of rock with beetling precipice above us and black depths beneath, and we would like a little bit of a wall of some sort, for imagination if not for reality, between us and the sheer descent. But it is blessed to learn that naked we are clothed, solitary we have a Companion, and unarmed we have our defenceless heads covered with the shadow of the great wing, which, though sense sees it not, faith knows is there. A servant of God is never without a friend, and when most unsheltered
‘From marge to blue marge
The whole sky grows his targe,
With sun’s self for visible boss,’
beneath which he lies safe.
‘Salvation will God appoint for walls and bulwarks,’ and if we realise, as we ought to do, His purpose to keep us safe, and His power to keep us safe, and the actual operation of His hand keeping us safe at every moment, we shall not ask that these defences shall be supplemented by the poor feeble earthworks that sense can throw up.
III. Lastly, note the citizens.
Our text is part of a ‘song,’ and is not to be interpreted in the cold-blooded fashion that might suit prose. A voice, coming from whom we know not, breaks in upon the first strain with a command, addressed to whom we know not-’Open ye the gates’-the city thus far being supposed to be empty-’that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in.’ The central idea there is just this, ‘Thy people shall be all righteous.’ The one qualification for entrance into the city is absolute purity.
Now, brethren, that is true in regard to our present imperfect denizenship within the city; and it is true in regard to men’s passing into it in its perfect and final form. As to the former, there is nothing that you Christian people need more to have dinned into you than this, that your continuance in the state of a redeemed man, with all the security and blessing that attach thereto, depends upon your continuing to be righteous. Every sin, every flaw, every dropping beneath our own standard in conscience of what we ought to be, has for its inevitable result that we are robbed for the time being of consciousness of the walls of the city being about us and of our being citizens thereof. ‘Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in His holy place?’ The New Testament, as emphatically as the old psalm, answers,’ He that hath clean hands and a pure heart.’ ‘Let no man deceive you. He that doeth righteousness is righteous.’ There is no way by which Christian men here on earth can pass into and keep within the city of the living God, except they possess personal purity, righteousness of life, and cleanness of heart.
They used to say that Venice glass was so made that any poison poured into it shivered the vessel. Any drop of sin poured into your cup of communion with God, shatters the cup and spills the wine. Whosoever thinks himself a citizen of that great city, if he falls into transgression, and soils the cleanness of his hands, and ruffles the calm of his pure heart by self-willed sinfulness, will wake to find himself not within the battlements, but lying wounded, robbed, solitary, in the pitiless desert. My brother, it is ‘the righteous nation’ that ‘enters in,’ even here on earth.
I do not need to remind you how, admittedly by us all, that is the case in regard to the final form of the city of our God, into which nothing shall enter ‘that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination or maketh a lie.’ Heaven can only be entered into hereafter by, as here and now it can only enter into, those who are pure of heart. All else there would shrivel as foul things born In the darkness do in the light, and be consumed in the fire. None but the pure can enter and see God.
‘The nation which keepeth the truth’-that does not mean adherence to any revelation, or true creed, or the like. The word which is employed means, not truth of thought, but truth of character; and might, perhaps, be better represented by the more familiar word in such a connection, ‘faithfulness.’ A man who is true to God, keeping up a faithful relation to Him who is faithful to us, he, and only he, will pass into, and abide in, the city.
Now, brethren, so far our text carries us, but no further; unless, perhaps, there may be a hint of something yet deeper in the next clause of this song. If any one asks, How does the nation become righteous? the answer may lie in the immediately following exhortation-’Trust ye in the Lord for ever.’ But whether that be so or not, if we want an answer to the questions, How can my stained feet be cleansed so as to be fit to tread the crystal pavements? how can my foul garments be so purged as not to be a blot and an eyesore, beside the white, lustrous robes that sweep along them and gather no defilement there? the only answer that I know of is to be found by turning to the final visions of the New Testament, where the spirit of this whole section of our prophet is reproduced. Again, Babylon falls amidst the songs of saints; and then, down upon all the dust and confusion of the crash of ruin, the seer beholds the Lamb’s wife, the new Jerusalem, descending from above. To his happy eyes its glories are unveiled, its golden streets, its open gates, its walls of precious stones, its flashing river, its peaceful inhabitants, its light streaming from the throne of God and of the Lamb. And when that vision passes, his last message to us is, ‘Blessed are they that wash their robes that they may enter through the gates into the city.’ None but those who wash their garments, and make them white in the blood of the Lamb, can, living, come unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem; or, dying, can pass through the iron gate that opens to them of its own accord, and find themselves as day breaks in the street of the Jerusalem which is above.
THE SONG OF TWO CITIES
THE INHABITANT OF THE ROCK
Isa_26:3 - Isa_26:4 .
There is an obvious parallel between these verses and the two preceding ones. The safety which was there set forth as the result of dwelling in the strong city is here presented as the consequence of trust. The emblem of the fortified place passes into that of the Rock of Ages. There is the further resemblance in form, that, just as in the two preceding verses we had the triumphant declaration of security followed by a summons to some unknown persons to ‘open the gates,’ so here we have the triumphant declaration of perfect peace, followed by a summons to all to ‘trust in the Lord for ever.’ If we may suppose the invocation of the preceding verses to be addressed to the watchers at the gate of the strong city, it is perhaps not too fanciful to suppose that the invitation in my text is the watcher’s answer, pointing the way by which men may pass into the city.
Whether that be so or no, at all events I take it as by no means accidental that, immediately upon the statement of the Old Testament law that righteousness alone admits to the presence of God, there follows so clear and emphatic an anticipation of the great New Testament Gospel that faith is the condition of righteousness, and that immediately after hearing that only ‘the righteous nation which keepeth the truth’ can enter there, we hear the merciful call, ‘Trust ye in the Lord for ever.’ So, then, I think we have in the words before us, though not formally yet really, very large teaching as to the nature, the object, the blessed effects, and the universal duty of that trust in the Lord which makes the very nexus between man and God, according to the teaching of the New Testament.
I. First, then, I desire to notice in a sentence the insight into the true nature of trust or faith given by the word employed here.
Now the literal meaning of the expression here rendered ‘to trust’ is to lean upon anything. As we say, trust is reliance. As a weak man might stay his faltering, tottering steps upon some strong staff, or might lean upon the outstretched arm of a friend, so we, conscious of our weakness, aware of our faltering feet, and realising the roughness of the road, and the smallness of our strength, may lay the whole weight of ourselves upon the loving strength of Jehovah.
And that is the trust of the Old Testament, the faith of the New-the simple act of reliance, going out of myself to find the basis of my being, forsaking myself to touch and rest upon the ground of my security, passing from my own weakness and laying my trembling hand into the strong hand of God, like some weak-handed youth on a coach-box who turns to a stronger beside him and says: ‘Take thou the reins, for I am feeble to direct or to restrain.’ Trust is reliance, and reliance is always blessedness.
II. Notice, secondly, the steadfast peacefulness of trust.
Now there are difficulties about the rendering and precise significance of the first verse of my text with which I do not need to trouble you. The Authorised Version, and still more perhaps the Revised Version, give substantially, as I take it, the prophet’s meaning; and the margin of the Revised Version is still more literal and accurate than the text, ‘A steadfast mind Thou keepest in perfect peace, because it trusteth in Thee.’ If this, then, be the true meaning of the words, you observe that it is the steadfast mind, steadfast because it trusts, which God keeps In the deep peace that is expressed by the reduplication of the word.
And if we break up that complex thought into its elements, it just comes to this, first, that trust makes steadfastness. Most men’s lives are blown about by winds of circumstance, directed by gusts of passion, shaped by accidents, and are fragmentary and jerky, like some ship at sea with nobody at the helm, heading here and there, as the force of the wind or the flow of the current may carry them. If my life is to be steadied, there must not only be a strong hand at the tiller, but some outward object which shall be for me the point of aim and the point of rest. No man can steady his life except by clinging to a holdfast without himself. Some of us look for that stay in the fluctuations and fleetingnesses of creatures; and some of us are wiser and saner, and look for it in the steadfastness of the unchanging God. The men who do the former are the sport of circumstances, and the slaves of their own natures, and there is no consistency in noble aim and effort throughout their lives, corresponding to their circumstances, relations, and nature. Only they who stay themselves upon God, and get down through all the superficial shifting strata of drift and gravel, to the base-rock, are steadfast and solid.
My brother, if you desire to govern yourself, you must let God govern you. If you desire to be firm, you must draw your firmness from the unchangingness of that divine nature which you grasp. How can a willow be stiffened into an iron pillar? Only-if I might use such a violent metaphor-when it receives into its substance the iron particles that it draws from the soil in which it is rooted. How can a bit of thistledown be kept motionless amidst the tempest? Only by being glued to something that is fixed. What do men do with light things on deck when the ship is pitching? Lash them to a fixed point. Lash yourselves to God by simple trust, and then you will partake of His serene immutability in such fashion as it is possible for the creature to participate in the attributes of the Creator.
And then, still further, the steadfast mind-steadfast because it trusts-is rewarded in that it is kept by God. It is no mere mistake in the order of his thought which leads this prophet to allege that it is the steadfast mind which God keeps. For, though it is true, on the one hand, that the real fixity and solidity of a human character come more surely and fully through trust in God than by any other means, on the other hand it is true that, in order to receive the full blessed effects of trust into our characters and lives, we must persistently and doggedly keep on in the attitude of confidence. If a man holds out to God a tremulous hand with a shaking cup in it, which Le sometimes presents and sometimes twitches back, it is not to be expected that God will pour the treasure of His grace into such a vessel, with the risk of most of it being spilt upon the ground. There must be a steadfast waiting if there is to be a continual flow.
It is the mind that cleaves to God which God keeps. I suppose that there was floating before Paul’s thoughts some remembrance of this great passage of the evangelical prophet when he uttered his words, which ring so strikingly with so many echoes of them, when he said, ‘The peace of God which passeth understanding shall keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.’ It is the steadfast mind that is kept in perfect peace. If we ‘keep ourselves,’ by that divine help which is always waiting to be given,’ in the’ faith and ‘love of God,’ He will keep us in the hour of temptation, will keep us from falling, and will garrison our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
And then, still further, this faithful, steadfast heart and mind, kept by God, is a mind filled with deepest peace. There is something very beautiful in the prophet’s abandoning the attempt to find any adjective of quality which adequately characterises the peace of which he has been speaking. He falls back upon the expedient which is the confession of the impotence of human speech worthily to portray its subject when he simply says, ‘Thou shalt keep in peace, peace . . . because he trusteth in Thee.’ The reduplication expresses the depth, the completeness of the tranquillity which flows into the heart, Such continuity, wave after wave, or rather ripple after ripple, is possible even for us. For, dear brethren, the possession of this deep, unbroken peace does not depend on the absence of conflict, on distraction, trouble, or sorrow, but on the presence of God. If we are in touch with Him, then our troubled days may be calm, and beneath all the surface tumult there may be a centre of rest. The garrison in some high hill-fortress looks down upon the open where the enemy’s ranks are crawling like insects across the grass, and scarcely hears the noise of the tumult, and no arrow can reach the lofty hold. So, up in God we may dwell at rest whate’er betide. Strange that we should prefer to live down amongst the unwalled villages, which every spoiler can harry and burn, when we might climb, and by the might and the magic of trust in the Lord bring round about ourselves a wall of fire which shall consume the poison out of the evil, even whilst it permits the sorrow to do its beneficent work upon us!
III. Note again the worthiness of the divine Name to evoke, and the power of the divine character to reward, the trust.
We pass to the last words of my text:-’In the Lord Jehovah is everlasting strength.’
Now I suppose we all know that the words feebly rendered in the Authorised Version ‘everlasting strength’ are literally ‘the Rock of Ages’; and that this verse is the source of that hallowed figure which, by one of the greatest of our English hymns, is made familiar and immortal to all English-speaking people.
But there is another peculiarity about the words on which I dwell for a moment, and that is, that here we have, for one of the only two times in which the expression occurs in Scripture, the great name of Jehovah reduplicated. ‘In Jab Jehovah is the Rock of Ages.’ In the former verse the prophet had given up in despair the attempt to characterise the peace which God gave, and fallen back upon the expedient of naming it twice over. In this verse, with similar eloquence of reticence, he abandons the attempt to describe or characterise that great Name, and in adoration, contents himself with twice taking it upon his lips, in order to impress what he cannot express , the majesty and the sufficiency of that name.
What, then, is the force of that name? We do not need, I suppose, to do more than simply remind you that there are two great thoughts communicated by that self-revelation of God which lies in it. Jehovah , in its literal grammatical signification, puts emphasis upon the absolute, underived, and therefore unlimited, unconditioned, unchangeable, eternal being of God. ‘I AM THAT I AM.’ Men and creatures are what they are made, are what they become, and some time or other cease to be what they were. But God is what He is, and is because He is. He is the Source, the Motive, the Law, the Sustenance of His own Being; and changeless and eternal He is for ever. In that name is the Rock of Ages.
That mighty name, by its place in the history of Revelation, conveys to us still further thoughts, for it is the name of the God who entered into covenant with His ancient people, and remains bound by His covenant to bless us. That Is to say, He hath not left us in darkness as to the methods and purpose of His dealings with us, or as to the attitude of His heart towards us. He has bound Himself by solemn words, and by deeds as revealing as words. So we can reckon on God. To use a vulgarism which is stripped of its vulgarity if employed reverently, as I would do it-we know where to have Him. He has given us the elements to calculate His orbit; and we are sure that the calculation will come right. So, because the name flashes upon men the thought of an absolute Being, eternal, and all-sufficient, and self-modified, and changeless, and because it reveals to us the very inmost heart of the mystery, and makes it possible for us to forecast the movements of this great Sun of our heavens, therefore in the name ‘ Jab Jehovah is the Bock of Ages.’
The metaphor needs no expansion. We understand that it conveys the idea of unchangeable defence. As the cliffs tower above the river that swirls at their base, and takes centuries to eat the faintest line upon their shining surface, so the changeless God rises above the stream of time, of which the brief breakers are human lives, ‘sparkling, bursting, borne away.’ They who fasten themselves to that Rock are safe in its unchangeable strength, God the Unchangeable is the amulet against any change, that is not growth, in the lives of those who trust Him. Some of us may recall some great precipice rising above the foliage, which stands to-day as it did when we were boys, unwasted in its silent strength, while generations of leaves have opened and withered at its base, and we have passed from childhood to age. Thus, unaffected by the transiency that changes all beneath, God rises, the Bock of Ages in whom we may trust. ‘The conies are a feeble folk, but they make their houses in the rocks.’ So our weakness may house itself there and be at rest.
IV. Lastly, note the summons to trust.
We know not whose voice it is that is heard in the last words of my text, but we know to whose ears it is addressed. It is to all. ‘Trust ye in the Lord for ever.’
Surely, surely the blessed effects of trust, of which we have been speaking, have a voice of merciful invitation summoning us to exercise it. The promise of peace appeals to the deepest, though often neglected and misunderstood, longings of the human heart. Inly we sigh for that repose.’ O dear brethren, if it is true that into our agitated and struggling lives there may steal, and in them there may abide, this priceless blessing of a great tranquillity, surely nothing else should be needed to woo us to accept the conditions and put forth the trust. It is strange that we should turn away, as we are all tempted to do, from that rest in God, and try to find repose in what was only meant for stimulus, and is altogether incapable of imparting rest. Storms live in the lower regions of the atmosphere; get up higher and there is peace. Waves dash and break on the surface region of the ocean; get down deeper, nearer the heart of things, and again there is peace.
Surely the name of the Bock of Ages is an invitation to us to put our trust in Him. If a man knew God as He is, he could not choose but trust Him. It is because we have blackened His face with our own doubts, and darkened His character with the mists that rise from our own sinful hearts, that we have made that bright Sun in the heavens, which ought to fall upon our hearts with healing in its beams, into a lurid ball of fire that shines threatening through the dim obscurity of our misty hearts. But if we knew Him we should love Him, and if we would only listen to His own self-revelation, we should find that He draws us to Himself by the manifestation of Himself, as the sun binds all the planets to his mass and his flame by the eradiation of his own mystic energies.
The summons is a summons to a faith corresponding to that upon which it is built. ‘Trust ye in the Lora for ever, for in the Lord is the strength that endures for ever.’ Our continual faith is the only fit response to His unchanging faithfulness. Build rock upon rock.
The summons is a summons addressed to us all. ‘Trust ye’-whoever ye are-’in the Lord for ever.’ You and I, dear friends, hear the summons in a yet more beseeching and tender voice than was audible to the prophet, for our faith has a nobler object, and may have a mightier operation, seeing that its object is ‘the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world’; and its operation, to bring to us peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. When from the Cross there comes to all our hearts the merciful invitation, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved,’ why should not we each answer,
‘Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee’?
THE SONG OF TWO CITIES
Isa_26:1 - Isa_26:10 .
‘This song’ is to be interpreted as a song, not with the cold-blooded accuracy proper to a scientific treatise. The logic of emotion is as sound as that of cool intellect, but it has its own laws and links of connection. First, the song sets in sharp contrast the two cities, describing, in Isa_26:1 - Isa_26:4 , the city of God, its strength defences, conditions of citizenship, and the peace which reigns within its walls; and in Isa_26:5 - Isa_26:6 the fall and utter ruin of the robber city, its antagonist Jerusalem, on its rocky peninsula, supplies the form of Isaiah’s thought; but it is only a symbol of the true city of God, the stable, invisible, but most real, polity and order of things to which men, even while wandering lonely and pilgrims, do come, if they will. It is possible even here and now to have our citizenship in the heavens, and to feel that we belong to a great community beyond the sea of time, though our feet have never trodden its golden pavements, nor our eyes seen its happy glories.
In one aspect, it is ideal, but in truth it is more real than the intrusive and false things of this fleeting present, which call themselves realities. ‘The things which are’ are the things above. The things here are but shows and shadows.
The city’s walls are salvation. There is no need to name the architect of these fortifications. One hand only can pile their strength. God appoints salvation in lieu of all visible defences. Whom He purposes to save are saved. Whom He wills to keep safe are kept safe. They who can shelter behind that strong defence need no other. Weak, sense-governed hearts may crave something more palpable, but they do not really need it. A parapet on an Alpine road gives no real security, but only satisfies imagination. The sky needs no pillars to hold it up.
Then an unknown voice breaks in upon the song, calling on unnamed attendants to fling wide the gates. The city is conceived of as empty; its destined inhabitants must have certain qualifications. They must be righteous, and must ‘keep faithfulness’ being true to the God who is ‘faithful and true’ in all His relations. None but the righteous can dwell in conscious citizenship with the Unseen while here, and none but the righteous can enter through the gates into the city. That requirement is founded in the very nature of the case, and is as emphatically proclaimed by the gospel as by the prophet. But the gospel tells more articulately than he was enlightened to do, how righteousness is to be won. The last vision of the Apocalypse, which is so like this song in its central idea, tells us of the fall of Babylon, of the descent to earth of the New Jerusalem, and leaves as its last message the great saying, ‘Blessed are they that wash their robes that they may . . . enter in through the gate into the city.’
Our song gives some hint of similar thoughts by passing from the description of the qualifications for entrance to the celebration of the security which comes from trust. The safety which is realised within the walls of the strong city is akin to the ‘perfect peace’ in which he who trusts is kept; and the juxtaposition of the two representations is equivalent to the teaching that trust, which is precisely the same as the New Testament faith, is the condition of entrance. We know that faith makes righteous, because it opens the heart to receive God’s gift of righteousness; but that effect of faith is implied rather than stated here, where security and peace are the main ideas. As some fugitives from the storm of war sit in security behind the battlements of a fortress, and scarcely hear the din of conflict in the open field below, the heart, which has taken refuge by trust in God, is kept in peace so deep that it passes description, and the singer is fain to give a notion of its completeness by calling it ‘peace, peace.’ The mind which trusts is steadied thereby, as light things lashed to a firm stay are kept steadfast, however the ship toss. The only way to get and keep fixedness of temper and spirit amid change and earthquake is to hold on to God, and then we may be stable with stability derived from the foundations of His throne to which we cling.
Therefore the song breaks into triumphant fervour of summons to all who hear it, to ‘trust in Jab Jehovah for ever,’ Such settled, perpetual trust is the only attitude corresponding to His mighty name, and to the realities found in His character. He is the ‘Bock of Ages’ the grand figure which Moses learned beneath the cliffs of Sinai and wove into his last song, and which tells us of the unchanging strength that makes a sure hiding-place for all generations, and the ample space which will hold all the souls of men, and be for a shadow from the heat, a covert from the tempest, a shelter from the foe, and a home for the homeless, with many a springing fountain in its clefts.
The great act of judgment which the song celebrates is now Isa_26:5 - Isa_26:6 brought into contrast with the blessed picture of the city, and by the introductory ‘for’ is stated as the reason for eternal trust. The language, as it were, leaps and dances in jubilation, heaping together brief emotional and synonymous clauses. So low is the once proud city brought, that the feet of the poor tread it down. These ‘poor’ and ‘needy’ are the true Israel, the suffering saints, who had known how cruel the sway of the fallen robber city was; and now they march across its site; and its broken columns and ruined palaces strew the ground below their feet. ‘The righteous nation’ of the one picture are ‘the poor and needy’ of the other. No doubt the prophecy has had partial accomplishments more than once or twice, when the oppressed church has triumphed, and some hoary iniquity been levelled at a blow, or toppled over by slow decay. But the complete accomplishment is yet future, and not to be realised till that last act, when all antagonism shall be ended, and the net result of the weary history of the world be found to be just these two pictures of Isaiah’s-the strong city of God with its happy inhabitants, and the everlasting desolations of the fallen city of confusion.
The triumphant hurry of the song pauses for a moment to gaze upon the crash, and in Isa_26:7 gathers its lessons into a kind of proverbial saying, which is perhaps best translated ‘The path of the just is smooth or “plain"; Thou levellest smooth the path of the just.’ To render ‘upright’ instead of ‘smooth’ seems to make the statement almost an identical proposition, and is tame. What is meant is, that, in the light of the end, the path which often seemed rough is vindicated. The judgment has showed that the righteous man’s course had no unnecessary difficulties. The goal explains the road. The good man’s path is smooth, not because of its own nature, but because God makes it so. We are to look for the clearing of our road, not to ourselves, nor to circumstances, but to Him; and even when it is engineered through rocks and roughnesses, to believe that He will make the rough places plain, or give us shoes of iron and brass to encounter them. Trust that when the journey is over the road will be explained, and that this reflection, which breaks the current of the swift song of the prophet, will be the abiding, happy conviction of heaven.
Lastly, the song looks back and tells how the poor and needy, in whose name the prophet speaks, had filled the dreary past, while the tyranny of the fallen city lasted, with yearning for the judgment which has now come at last. Isa_26:8 - Isa_26:9 breathe the very spirit of patient longing and meek hope. There is a certain tone of triumph in that ‘Yea,’ as if the singer would point to the great judgment now accomplished, as vindicating the long, weary hours of hope deferred. That for which ‘the poor and needy’ wait is the coming ‘in the path of Thy judgments.’ The attitude of expectance is as much the duty and support of Christians as of Israel. We have a greater future clearer before us than they had. The world needs God’s coming in judgment more than ever; and it says little for either the love to God or the benevolence towards man of average Christians, that they should know so little of that yearning of soul which breathes through so much of the Old Testament. For the glory of God and the good of men, we should have the desire of our souls turned to His manifestation of Himself in His righteous judgments. It was no personal end which bred the prophet’s yearning. True, the ‘night’ round him was dreary enough, and sorrow lay black on his people and himself; but it was God’s ‘name’ and ‘memorial’ that was uppermost in his desires. That is to say, the chief object of the devout soul’s longings should be the glory of God’s revealed character. And the deepest reason for wishing that He would flash forth from His hiding-place in judgments, is because such an apocalypse is the only way by which wilfully blind eyes can be made to see, and wilfully unrighteous hearts can be made to practise righteousness.
Isaiah believed in the wholesome effect of terror. His confidence in the power of judgments to teach the obstinate corresponds to the Old Testament point of view, and contains a truth for all points of view; but it is not the whole truth. We know only too well that sorrows and judgments do not work infallibly, and that men ‘being often reproved, harden their necks.’ We know, too, more clearly than any prophet of old could know, that the last arrow in God’s quiver is not some unheard-of awfulness of judgment, but an unspeakable gift of love, and that if that ‘favour shown to the wicked’ in the life and death of God’s Son does not lead him to ‘learn righteousness,’ nothing else will.
But while this is true, the prophet’s aspirations are founded on the facts of human nature too, and judgments do sometimes startle those whom kindness had failed to touch. It is an awful thought that human nature may so steel itself against the whole armoury of divine weapons as that favour and severity are equally blunted, and the heart remains unpierced by either. It is an awful thought that there may be induced such truculent obstinacy of love of evil that, even when in ‘a land of uprightness,’ a man shall choose evil, and forcibly shut his eyes, that he may not see the majesty of the Lord, which he does not wish to see because it condemns his choice, and threatens to burn up him and his work together. A blasted tree when all the woods are green, a fleece dry when all around is rejoicing in the dew, a window dark when the whole city is illuminated, one black sheep amid the white flock, or anything else anomalous and alone in its evil, is less tragic than the sight, so common, of a man so sold to sin that the presence of good only makes him angry and restless. It is possible to dwell amidst the full light of Christian truth, and in a society moulded by its precepts, and to be unblessed, unsoftened thereby. If not softened, then hardened; and the wicked who in the land of uprightness deals wrongfully is all the worse for the light which he hated because it showed him the sinfulness of the sin which he obstinately loved and would keep.
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MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Isaiah 26". MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13