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Bible Commentaries

Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary

Isaiah 1

Verse 1

THE PROPHET OF THE LORD

Isaiah 1:1. The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

I. The nature of the prophet’s endowment: a “vision” into the very heart of things, a power of distinguishing between the seeming and the real.

II. The sadness and the joy of the prophet’s life: sadness arising from his “vision” of human sin (Isaiah 1:2-15); joy arising from his “vision” of the wondrousness of the Divine mercy (Isaiah 1:18).

Application.—

1. In these latter days the prophetic endowment, to a greater or lesser extent, is possessed by all God’s people (1 John 2:20).

2. The Church should pray that it may be possessed to the fullest extent by all who are called to minister in holy things. Prophets of clear and penetrating “vision” are among the greatest gifts which God can confer upon the Church [126]

3. This great endowment must be used not merely for the detection and exposure of human sin, lest we become cynical and inhuman, but also for the discovery of the abounding evidence of the Divine compassion (as in Isaiah 1:9), that we may be brought into more perfect sympathy with Him who hates sin but desires and seeks to save the sinner.

[126] A preacher who is not in some way a seer is not a preacher at all. You can never make people see religious realities by correct definitions. They will not believe in the reality of God on the word of a man who merely demonstrates it to them. You must see such things yourself if you are going to help others to see them. This is the secret of all the preaching that ever was good since preaching began.—Beecher.

Verse 2

PROPHECY THE VOICE OF GOD

Isaiah 1:2. The Lord hath spoken.

Thus at the very outset of this book Divine authority is claimed for the utterances contained in it. Three views may be taken of the writings of the Hebrew prophets.

1. They are the writings of men who knew they were uttering that which is false when they claimed to be messengers of the Most High.
2. They are the writings of enthusiasts who mistook the ecstasies of their excited imaginations for Divine inspirations.
3. They are the writings of holy men who were inspired by the Holy Ghost.

Against the first of these views is to be set the fact that the whole influence of the prophets was exerted on behalf of national righteousness and individual virtue; that for these things they suffered; that for these things some of them died. Is it credible that men who so sought to promote such ends would begin and continue their mission with a blasphemous lie?

Against the second is to be set the fact that many of their predictions have been fulfilled—fulfilled after intervals, so long, and with such minute accuracy, that sceptics have sought to account for such fulfilments by asserting that the prophecies were written subsequently to the events to which they refer; an assertion which the most competent scholars repel even with contempt.
There remains then only the third view; and in support of it may be urged—in addition to the conclusive fact just named—such considerations as these:

1. That their conceptions of God and of human duty are such as to satisfy the loftiest demands of the most enlightened reason and the best instructed conscience. Give examples (Isaiah 40:12-26; Isaiah 58:3-7, &c.)

2. That their conceptions of God and of human duty have not been surpassed by those of the sublimest poets or the ablest philosophers of any subsequent age.
3. That their sublime conceptions of God and of human duty, which still stand as the Alps or Himalaya of human thought, were given to the world in an age when, with the exception only of the prophets and those who accepted their teaching, the whole human race was given over to the most debasing idolatries and superstitions.

4. That the Hebrew prophets stood out in regard to these conceptions not only distinct from the men of their own age, but from the men of their own nation, from whom they had only words of rebuke, and against whose most cherished convictions and steadfast tendencies they set themselves in resolute opposition. Give examples (Isaiah 1:11-15; Isaiah 66:1-2, &c.) If due weight be given to these considerations, we shall see that there is no escape from the conclusion that the Hebrew prophets owed their conceptions of God and duty to God Himself. They spake and wrote as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

If this be so, then—

1. We should earnestly study the prophetic utterances. How mentally as well as morally debased is the man who is not alert and concerned to hear and understand what “the LORD hath spoken”!
2. Such of their utterances as are predictive should kindle within us confident and joyful hopes. They are the promises of Him who cannot lie, and who has ample power to perform.

3. To those which are preceptive we should give prompt, comprehensive, and careful obedience. To withhold such obedience, is to array against ourselves omnipotent power; to yield it, is to secure for ourselves eternal rewards (Isaiah 3:10-11).

Verses 2-3

AN APPEAL AND AN ARGUMENT

Isaiah 1:2-3. Hear, O heavens; and give ear, O earth: for the Lord hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me. The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.

I. The unnaturalness of sin. The heavens and the earth obey the laws to which they have been subjected; the very beasts are faithful to their instincts; it is only man who fails in duty and goes astray.

II. The baseness of ingratitude: as displayed—

1. By man to man [129]

2. By children to their parents [132]

3. By men to their Heavenly Father [135]

[129] All should unite to punish the ungrateful:
[132] Sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is

[135] An ungracious soul may be burdened with many sins; but she never makes up her full load till she hath added the sin of unthankfulness. He leaves out no evil in a man who calls him unthankful. Ingratitude dissolves the joints of the whole world. A barren ground is less blamed, because it hath not been dressed. But till it with the plough; trust it with seed; let the clouds bless it with their rain, the sun with his heat, the heavens with their influence, and then if it be unfertile, the condition is worse; before it was contemned, now it is cursed (Hebrews 6:8).—Adams, 1654.

Some are such brutes, that, like swine, their nose is nailed to the trough in which they feed; they have not the use of their understanding so far as to lift their eye to heaven, and say, “There dwells that God that provides this for me, that God by whom I live.”—Gurnall.

You would count it a sad spectacle to behold a man in a lethargy, with his senses and reason so blasted by his disease that he knows not his nearest friends, and takes no notice of those that tend him, or bring his daily food to him. How many such senseless wretches are at this day lying upon God’s hands! He ministers daily to their necessities, but they take no notice of His care and goodness.—Gurnall, 1617–1679.

The frozen snake in the fable stingeth him that refreshed it. Thus is it with all unthankful men: God ladeth them daily with benefits and blessings, and they load Him with sins and trespasses.—Stapleton, 1535–1598.

Some are such brutes, that, like swine, their nose is nailed to the trough in which they feed; they have not the use of their understanding so far as to lift their eye to heaven, and say, “There dwells that God that provides this for me, that God by whom I live.”—Gurnall.

You would count it a sad spectacle to behold a man in a lethargy, with his senses and reason so blasted by his disease that he knows not his nearest friends, and takes no notice of those that tend him, or bring his daily food to him. How many such senseless wretches are at this day lying upon God’s hands! He ministers daily to their necessities, but they take no notice of His care and goodness.—Gurnall, 1617–1679.

The frozen snake in the fable stingeth him that refreshed it. Thus is it with all unthankful men: God ladeth them daily with benefits and blessings, and they load Him with sins and trespasses.—Stapleton, 1535–1598.

Some are such brutes, that, like swine, their nose is nailed to the trough in which they feed; they have not the use of their understanding so far as to lift their eye to heaven, and say, “There dwells that God that provides this for me, that God by whom I live.”—Gurnall.

You would count it a sad spectacle to behold a man in a lethargy, with his senses and reason so blasted by his disease that he knows not his nearest friends, and takes no notice of those that tend him, or bring his daily food to him. How many such senseless wretches are at this day lying upon God’s hands! He ministers daily to their necessities, but they take no notice of His care and goodness.—Gurnall, 1617–1679.

The frozen snake in the fable stingeth him that refreshed it. Thus is it with all unthankful men: God ladeth them daily with benefits and blessings, and they load Him with sins and trespasses.—Stapleton, 1535–1598.

To have a thankless child.—Shakespeare.

Ingratitude is treason to mankind.

Thomson.

He that’s ungrateful has no guilt but one;
All other crimes may pass for virtues in him.
Young.

III. The reasonableness of God’s claim to our obedience and love.

1. He is our Father [138]

2. To all parental duties He has been faithful.
2. He has been more than faithful; He has caused our cup to run over with His lovingkindness [141]

[138] It is an excellent representation of St Austin: if a sculptor, after his fashioning a piece of marble in a human figure, could inspire it with life and sense, and give it motion and understanding and speech, can it be imagined but the first act of it would be to prostrate itself at the feet of the maker in subjection and thankfulness, and to offer whatever it is, and can do, as homage to him? The almighty hand of God formed our bodies, He breathed into us the spirit of life, and should not the power of love constrain us to live wholly to His will?—Bates, 1625–1629.

[141] We find the fiercest things that live,
The savage born, the wildly rude,
When soothed by Mercy’s hand, will give
Some faint response of gratitude.
But man!—oh! blush, ye lordly race!—
Shrink back, and question thy proud heart!
Dost thou not lack that thankful grace
Which ever forms the soul’s best part?
Wilt thou not take the blessings given,
The priceless boon of ruddy health,
The sleep unbroken, peace unriven,
The cup of joy, the mine of wealth?
Wilt thou not take them all, and yet
Walk from the cradle to the grave
Enjoying, boasting, and forget
To think upon the God that gave?
Thou’lt even kneel to blood-stained kings,
Nor fear to have thy serfdom known;
Thy knee will bend for bauble things,
Yet fail to seek its Maker’s throne.
Eliza Cook.

IV. Privilege is the measure of responsibility and the aggravation of guilt. The point of the condemnation in these verses does not lie in the contrast between the conduct of animals and men, but in the contrast between the conduct of animals and that of God’s people. “Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider!” This is the wonder and the monstrosity. That privilege is the measure of responsibility and the aggravation of guilt, is a very familiar truth; a truth often forgotten; and yet absolutely certain and tremendously important (Luke 12:48; Hebrews 6:7-8). What need we have to lay it to heart!

GOD’S INDICTMENT AGAINST ISRAEL

Isaiah 1:2-6. Hear, O heavens, &c.

God sometimes speaks to man abruptly; when this is done, the truth expressed demands the most profound attention. In our text the heavens and the earth are suddenly called to attend to what is about to be said; God is charging the human race with fearful wrongs; the matter at issue is between creature and Creator, child and Parent. Our attention is called to—

I. The Fatherhood of God. “I have nourished,” &c. Divine paternity is a truth which runs through the whole Bible, here and there shining out with resplendent lustre, as in our text. The fatherhood of God was manifested towards Israel—

1. In supply. As it affected the Jewish nation this declaration (I have nourished, &c.) pressed with tremendous force. Their supplies were marked by miracle, at least all the time they were in the wilderness; and the utterance has weight to-day. All nature is made to minister to man’s necessities.

2. In guardianship. “Brought up children.” This should have been sufficient to strike the ear as a thunderclap, seeing how far they had strayed from Him. Out of a mean, despised, and enslaved people He had developed a wealthy, mighty nation; and His guardianship reaches to all to-day.

3. In defence. The early history of these people was one unbroken chain of Divine interpositions. From the first day Moses stood before the king, until they were fully established in Palestine, God’s arm was stretched out to defend them. The blood on the door-post, their sea-path, and the sea-grave of the Egyptians, together with the hovering cloud in the wilderness, all speak of strong defence; and still there are evidences of defence in the life of every man.

II. The wickedness of man. Men are universally the same; as the father so is the son, as the Jew so is the Gentile; and hence in this chapter we have a true picture of the whole human family. Let us mark some of the many features of guilt:

1. Degeneracy. God bears with weaknesses and infirmities, but wilful backsliding He abhors. The Jews were evil-doers; they went away from God and all that was good. It is the wilful sinning of men that now grieves Him.

2. Insensibility. Wrong-doing is sure to produce wrong feeling, or, what is worse, no feeling at all. A sinful life results in a dark heart. Here is a people more insensible of good bestowed than the stupid ox or more stupid ass; and there are still persons to be found less acquainted with the source of their supplies than the dumb, unconscious brute [144]

3. Defiance. They rebelled against God. Fear ceased to check them, and hatred led them to bold, defiant deeds. The day was to them as the night, and oppression and murder were but small sins to be indulged in. So it is with many to-day; they have no shame, remorse, or compunction for sin, openly defying the living God.

[144] The stall-fed ox, that is grown fat, will know
His careful feeder, and acknowledge too;
The generous spaniel loves his master’s eye,
And licks his fingers though no meat be by:
But man, ungrateful man, that’s born and bred
By Heaven’s immediate power; maintained and fed
By His providing hand; observed, attended,
By His indulgent grace; preserved, defended,
By His prevailing arm; this man, I say,
Is more ungrateful, more obdure than they.
Man, O most ungrateful man, can ever
Enjoy Thy gift, but never mind the Giver;
And like the swine, though pampered with enough,
His eyes are never higher than the trough.
Francis Quarles.

III. The purpose of Divine chastisement. No true parent finds any pleasure in chastising his children, and any pain inflicted without pure motives would be an evil. God corrects—

1. To restrain from sin. This explains much that happened to the Israelites, and also much that transpires in the history of all men. God sees the danger, the leaning to wrong, and with Him prevention is better than cure [147]

2. To show the consequences of sin. Men profess to be practical, and wish to be practically dealt with; hence they say, “Words are not enough; there must be blows.” The transgressor must feel as well as hear, or he will run mad. God has always taught men that His laws are more than mere word-rules; there is force in them, and he that breaks them must suffer.

3. To bring to Himself [150] Hence we often hear Him say, “Why will ye be stricken any more?” Remonstrance always precedes the lash to show His love and tenderness.—Charles Jupe.

[147] The consequences of sin are meant to wean from sin. The penalty annexed to it is, in the first instance, corrective, not penal. Fire burns the child, to teach it one of the truths of this universe—the property of fire to burn. The first time it cuts its hand with a sharp knife, it has gained a lesson which it will never forget. Now, in the case of pain, this experience is seldom, if ever, in vain. There is little chance of a child forgetting that fire will burn, and that sharp steel will cut; but the moral lessons contained in the penalties annexed to wrong-doing are just as truly intended to deter men from evil, though they are by no means so unerring in enforcing their application. The fever, in the veins and the headache which succeed intoxication are meant to warn against excess. On the first occasion they are simply corrective; in every succeeding one they assume more and more a penal character, in proportion as the conscience carries with them the sense of ill-desert.—F. W. Robertson, 1816–1853.

[150] If a sheep stray from his fellows, the shepherd sets his dog after it, not to devour it, but to bring it again: even so our Heavenly Shepherd, if any of us, His sheep, disobey Him, sets His dog of affliction after us, not to hurt us, but to bring us home to consideration of our duty towards Him.—Cawdray.

As the child, fearing nothing, is so fond of his play that he strays and wanders from his mother, not so much as thinking of her; but if he be scared or frighted with the sight or apprehension of some apparent or approaching danger, presently runs to her, casts himself into her arms, and cries out to be saved and shielded by her: so we, securely enjoying the childish sports of worldly prosperity, do so fondly dote on them that we scarce think of our Heavenly Father; but when perils and dangers approach, and are ready to seize upon us, then we flee to Him, and cast ourselves into the arms of His protection and providence, crying and calling to Him by earnest prayer for help and deliverance in this our extremity and distress.—Downame, 1644.

Verse 3

ADDITIONAL OUTLINES
INSTINCT FOLLOWED—REASON DISREGARDED

Isaiah 1:3. The ox knoweth his owner, &c.

“We are wise.” So spake the Greek of old in the pride of his intellectual powers, and so speak many in our own day who have imbibed the spirit of the Greek. Reason is a wonderful faculty, and there have not been wanting, in any age of the world, those who have felt elated by their successful exercise of it. It can look before and after, deriving experience from the past and suggesting provision against the future. It can explore the hidden secrets of Nature and render the world of matter subservient to man; it can turn in upon itself and speculate upon its own processes; nay, it can teach us something of the existence and attributes of the Most High. Such being the triumphs of reason, it can hardly be matter of wonder that the wise men of this world plume themselves on the attainment of those triumphs.

The vainglorying of men, however, whatever form it may assume, is abomination in the sight of God. In the scheme of salvation which God has devised there is no room for boasting either of our moral or intellectual endowments: “It is excluded.” That scheme is essentially humbling in its character; it is so constructed as to shut out pride at every cranny where it could possibly insinuate itself; it is such as to stop every mouth and bring in all the world guilty before God. And not only guilty, but blind also. He will have all the world convicted in the court of Conscience of folly, no less than of sin. In order to bring His people to this conviction, he expostulates with them in many passages of His Word on the vainglorious boasts they were in the habit of uttering, shows their utter emptiness, and exhibits the inconsistency of man’s moral conduct with his pretensions to wisdom and enlightenment (cf. Jeremiah 8:7-8).

Our text implies two things—

1. That the relation subsisting between the brute creation and man is in some measure similar to that which subsists between man and God; and,
2. That the acknowledgment made by dumb animals of their relation to mankind strangely contrasts with the natural man’s refusal of acknowledgment to God.

I. We are to compare the relations subsisting between an inferior and a superior creature with those subsisting between a superior and the Creator. Note, though these relations may be susceptible of comparison, and may be used to lift up our minds to apprehension of the truth, there is an insufficiency in the lower relation to type out the higher. The distance between man and the inferior creatures, if great, is measurable; whereas the distance between finite man and the Infinite God is incalculable.

The dumb creature recognises the master whose property it is: “The ox knoweth his owner.” What constitutes man’s right of ownership in the ox? Simply the fact that he bought it. He did not create it. If he supports its life, it is only by providing it with a due supply of food, not by ministering to it momentarily the breath which it draws, nor by regulating the springs of its animal economy. That is the sum of his ownership. But what constitutes God’s right of ownership in us, His intelligent and rational creatures?

1. We are the work of His hands. Creation constitutes a property in all our faculties and a claim to our services which no creature hath or can have in another.

2. Our property is most entire, our claim of right most indisputable, in those things which, having been once deprived of them by fraud or violence, we have subsequently paid a price to recover. The flocks and herds in the possession of civilised European settlers in uncivilised countries are often swept away by a barbarous horde of native freebooters. Imagine, then, a case in which, it being impossible to bring the offenders to justice (by reason of their numbers and strength), the owners of the cattle should effect a ransom of their property by laying down a sum equivalent to its value. Is it not thenceforth theirs by a double claim—the claim of original ownership and the claim of subsequent ransom? Such is the claim which God has over us. That claim, grounded originally upon the fact of creation, has been confirmed, enlarged, extended a thousand fold by the fact of redemption (1 Corinthians 6:20; 1 Peter 1:18-19).

3. Our text suggests another detail of the claims which our Heavenly Owner has upon our allegiance: “The ass knoweth his master’s crib.” He knows the manger at which he is fed and the hand that feeds him. Here is a palpable claim upon regard, although by no means so high as those previously advanced. It is a claim appreciable by the senses, capable of being understood and responded to by the mere animal nature. In palliation of man’s neglect of those claims of God which are established by creation and redemption, it might haply be pleaded that he is a creature of the senses, and that the facts of creation and redemption are not cognisable by them. These stupendous facts are transacted and past. But even this paltry justification is entirely cut off by the fact here implied, that man is indebted to God for his daily maintenance, for the comfort and the convenience even of his animal life [1276]

[1276] Of this fact a strongly figurative but very beautiful statement is contained in a passage of Hosea—a passage remarkably illustrative of that before us, inasmuch as there also the imagery is drawn from man’s dealings with the cattle. “I drew them,” says God, “with the cords of a man, with bonds of love: and I was to them as they that take off the yoke on their jaws, and I laid meat unto them.” “I was to them, as they that take off the yoke on their jaws.” The owner of the ox does not overtask his strength, does not cause him to toil in the furrow without intermission. At the approach of evening the faithful animal is driven homewards, and freed from the shackles of the galling and burdensome yoke. An image this of God’s dealing with His human children. Our every period of refreshment and repose, of ease and relaxation from toil, is from the unseen hand of our heavenly Owner. Those many fractions of comfort and happiness which lighten the load of life—those numerous (although momentary) glimpses of sunshine which relieve the plodding routine of our daily career—those flowers with which the path of the great majority is more or less strewed: the innocent sally of mirth, the smile of affection, the expression of sympathy, the cheering word of encouragement from those whose encouragement is justly valued—these, like all other mercies, are from God, and (though these be but a small part of what we have to be thankful for) are designed to draw us towards Him in bonds of gratitude and love.

And I laid meat unto them.” By those who avail themeelves of their services, the cattle are supplied with provender. God not only called us into being, but maintains us in being. He it is who gives us our daily bread, and spreads our board with food convenient for us; for food, for health, for continuance of life our dependence upon Him is absolute. By means of these and similar mercies it is that God establishes a claim to the gratitude and devotedness even of those among His rational creatures who have most deeply buried themselves in the things of time and sense, and whose hearts seem to be stirred by no breath of spiritual aspiration, and troubled by no prospect of eternity.—Goulburn.

Observe, also, that it is not the brute creation in a savage state whose relations towards man are here drawn into comparison with the relations of man towards God. To illustrate his argument the inspired writer has chosen instances from the domestic animals, who share man’s daily toils, live as his dependants, and are familiarised by long habit with their master’s abode and ways of life. In drawing out the contrast, he does not mention mankind generally, but “Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.” It were in some measure excusable that the heathens should refuse acknowledgment to the living God, whom they know not. But what shall we urge in extenuation of the indifference of “Israel,” who from his very infancy has been of the household of God, domesticated by the hearth of the Universal Parent, and furnished with every means of access to His presence?

II. A contrast is drawn between the acknowledgment made by dumb animals of their relation to their owners and Israel’s refusal of acknowledgment to his God.

The cattle “know” or recognise the voice of their owner; his call they heed, in his steps they follow; irrational creatures though they be, they are not insensible to their benefactor’s fond caress. What a cutting reproof of the insensibility of God’s people!

1. They recognise not God in His warnings, whether they be addressed to them as individuals or to the nation of which they are members. Afflictions arrest them not in their career of vanity and sin. Judgments stir them not out of their lethargy of indifference. They hear not, see not, God in them.
2. They do not acknowledge God in His mercies. God’s blessings of Nature and Providence are accepted by them as a matter of course. If regarded at all, they are traced no higher than to secondary causes. The continual experience of them renders them not one whit more submissive to the yoke of God’s service. As to the higher blessings of forgiveness and grace, they feel no need of them, and evince no gratitude for them.
Want of consideration is the root and reason of this strange insensibility. It is not that “Israel” lacks the faculty of apprehending God, but he will not be at pains to exercise that faculty. It is not that he lacks a speculative knowledge of the truths now set forth, but that he does not lay to heart that knowledge, nor allow it its due weight.—E. M. Goulburn, D.C.L.: Sermons, pp. 153–181.

Verse 4

INIQUITY A BURDEN

Isaiah 1:4. A people laden with iniquity.

A very surprising description: “A people laden with iniquity.” On account of their punctilious and costly observance of the Mosaic ritual (see Isaiah 1:11-15), the Jews imagined that they deserved the commendation of Heaven; but God pronounced them to be “a people laden with iniquity.” Men often form very different estimates of the same thing; e.g., buyer and seller (Proverbs 20:14). There is often as marked a difference between the divine and human estimates of character (Luke 18:11; Revelation 3:17). This is so because God and men judge by different standards; men take into account only their occasional good actions; God judges by that feature of their character which is predominant [195] So judging, He condemned those most “religious” Jews. What is His estimate of us?

[195] Men are to be estimated, as Johnson says, by the mass of character. A block of tin may have a grain of silver, but still it is tin; and a block of silver may have an alloy of tin, but still it is silver. The mass of Elijah’s character was excellence; yet he was not without the alloy. The mass of Jehu’s character was base; yet he had a portion of zeal which was directed by God to great ends.—Cecil.

A very instructive description: “A people laden with iniquity.” The conception is that of a nation that has gone on adding sin to sin, as a man gathering sticks in the forest adds fagot to fagot, until he staggers beneath the load; that which was eagerly sought after becomes an oppressive burden. How true this is! There are many national burdens; despotism, an incapable government, excessive taxation, &c., but the worst and most oppressive of all is a nation’s iniquities.

The iniquities of a nation constitute a burden that impede it—

1. In its pursuit of material prosperity. With what desperate intensity this English nation toils! and for what end? Chiefly that it may accumulate wealth. How greatly it is impeded in this pursuit by its costly government! But how much more by its costly vices! On strong drink alone this nation expends a larger sum than the whole amount both of imperial and local taxation—more than one hundred millions annually! Other vices that are nameless, how much they cost, and what a hindrance they are to the nation in its pursuit of wealth!

2. In its pursuit of social happiness. What a crushing burden of sorrow the nation’s iniquities impose upon it!

3. In its pursuit of moral and intellectual improvement. According to a monkish legend, the church of St. Brannock’s, in Braunton, Devon, could not be erected on its original site, because as fast as the builders reared up the walls by day, by night the stones were carried away by invisible hands. A like contest goes on in our own land. The nation’s virtues are toiling to elevate the national character morally and intellectually, using as their instruments the school, the church, the press; but as fast as the virtues build, the vices pull down. In all these respects the nation’s iniquities constitute its heaviest burden.

Consequently,

1. To give a legal sanction to vices, or to connive at what promotes them, for the sake of certain additions to the national revenues, is suicidal folly of the grossest kind.
2. Those are the truest national benefactors who do most to abate the national iniquities. The palm for truest patriotism must be awarded, not to “active politicians,” but to faithful preachers, Sunday-school teachers, temperance reformers, &c.
3. Vices of all kinds should be branded, not only as sins against God, but as treasons against society; and all good men should, in self-defence, as well as in a spirit of enlightened patriotism, band themselves together for their overthrow. That is a mistaken spirituality which leads some good men to leave imperial and local affairs in the hands of the worldly and the vicious. We are bound to labour as well as to pray that God’s will may be done “on earth as it is in heaven,” and that “His kingdom” may come in our own land [198]

[198] As Christians are to think of living for awhile in the world, it is not unreasonable for them to be affected with its occurrences and changes. Some plead for a kind of abstracted and sublimated devotion, which the circumstances they are placed in by their Creator render equally impracticable and absurd. They are never to notice the affairs of government, or the measures of administration; war, or peace; liberty, or slavery; plenty, or scarcity,—all is to be equally indifferent to them; they are to leave these carnal and worldly things to others. But have they not bodies? Have they not families? Is religion founded on the ruins of humanity? When a man becomes a Christian, does he cease to be a member of civil society? Allowing that he be not the owner of the ship, but only a passenger in it, has he nothing to awaken his concern in the voyage! If he be only a traveller towards a belter country, is he to be told that because he is at an inn which he is soon to leave, it should not excite any emotion in him whether it be invaded by robbers or consumed by flames before the morning! In the peace thereof ye shall have peace: and are not Christians to provide things honest in the sight of all men? Are they to detach themselves while here from the interests of their fellow-creatures; or to rejoice with them that rejoice, and weep with them that weep? Is not religion variously affected by public transactions? Can a Christian, for instance, be indifferent to the cause of freedom, even on a pious principle? Does not civil liberty necessarily include religious? and is it not necessary to the exertions of ministers, and the spreading of the gospel?—Jay.

That which is true of nations is true also of individuals; the heaviest burdens which men can take upon themselves are vices. Vices lay upon men a burden—

1. Of expense. Even so-called “indulgences” are costly; many professing Christians spend more annually on tobacco than they give to the cause of missions. Vices keep millions poor all their lives [201]

2. Of discredit.

3. Of sorrow, clouding all the present.

4. Of fear, darkening all the future.

[201] “What are you going to take that for?” said an old labourer to a young one who was about to drink a glass of ale. “To make me work,” was the reply. “Yes,” answered the old man, “you are right; that is just what it will do for a certainty: I began to drink ale when I was about your age, and it has made me work until now!”

There is this terrific feature about the burden of iniquity—there is none so hard to be got rid of. It is hard to inspire a nation or a man with the desire to get rid of it. How nations and men hug their vices, notwithstanding the miseries they entail! It is still harder to accomplish the desire! Society is full of men who stagger and groan under this burden, from which they strive in vain to free themselves. In them the fable of Sinbad, unable to rid himself of the old man whom he has taken upon his shoulders, has a melancholy realisation. These men feel themselves to be helpless, and their case would indeed be hopeless were it not that God has laid help for us on One who is mighty to save. Cry to Him, ye burdened ones, and obtain release!

TRANSMITTED DEPRAVITY

Isaiah 1:4. A seed of evil-doers, children that are corrupters.

Transmitted depravity is—
I. A doctrine of Scripture.

II. A fact in human life [204] Application.—

1. God will not fail to make allowance for it in dealing with us.
2. We should make allowance for it in judging our fellow-men. Our censures should be mingled with compassion.
3. By self-restraint and a life of virtue we should endeavour as far as is possible to cut off from our children this sad entail. A bias towards good may be transmitted as well as a bias towards evil [207]

4. In the education of our children, we should be especially solicitous to check and prevent the development of the faults we have transmitted to them, that so, though they are “a seed of evil-doers,” they may not themselves be “corrupters.”

[204] As colour and favour, and proportion of hair and face and lineament, and as diseases and infirmities of the body, so, commonly, the liabilities and dispositions and tempers of the mind and affections become hereditary, and run in the blood. An evil bird hatches an evil egg, and one viper will breed a generation of vipers. Most sins pass along from the father to the son, and so downward, by a kind of lineal descent, from predecessors to posterity, and that for the most part with advantage and increase, whole families being tainted with the special vices of their stock. John the Baptist speaks of “a generation of vipers;” and if we should but observe the condition of some families in a long line of succession, might we not espy here and there even whole generations of drunkards, and generations of swearers, and generations of idolaters, and generations of worldlings, and generations of seditious, and of envious, and of riotous, and of haughty, and of unclean persons, and of sinners in other kinds.—Sanderson, 1587–1662.

[207] Where children are the children of Christian parents, as they were children of Christian parents, the presumptions are that they will turn out right; not without parental training, but, that being implied, the presumptions are that they will, by the force of natural law, tend in that direction. All the presumptions are that the children of moral and sensible parents will become moral and sensible. Only the grossest neglect and the most culpable exposure to temptation will overrule the presumption and likelihood that the children of good parents will be good. There may be opposing influences; there may be temptations and perversions that shall interrupt the natural course of things; but this does not invalidate the truth that there is a great law by which like produces like. And I say that under this law the Christian parent has a right to this comforting presumption—“My children have all the chances in their favour by reason of the moral constitution which they have inherited.”

I know multitudes of families in which the moral element is hereditary; and it is not surprising that the children of those families are moral. Moral qualities are as transmissible as mental traits or physical traits. The same principle applies to every part of the human constitution. And where families have been from generation to generation God-fearing, passion-restraining, truth-telling, and conscience-obeying, the chances are ninety-nine in every hundred in favour of the children.—Beecher.

Original or birth sin is not merely a doctrine in religion, it is a fact in man’s world acknowledged by all, whether religious or not. Let a man be providing for an unborn child: in case of distribution of worldly property, he will take care to bind him by conditions and covenants which shall guard against his fraudulently helping himself to that which he is to hold for or to apportion to another. He never saw that child; he does not know but that child may be the most pure and perfect of men; but he knows it will not be safe to put temptation in his way, because he knows he will be born in sin, and liable to sin, and sure to commit sin.—Alford, 1810–1871.

FORSAKING THE LORD

Isaiah 1:4. They have forsaken the Lord.

How many souls are guilty of forsaking the Lord? They forsake Him by yielding to what are called “little sins” [210] Then they are further removed from Him by habitual wickedness.

[210] There is many a man who evinces, for a time, a steadfast attention to religion, walking with all care in the path of God’s commandments, &c., but who, after awhile, declines from spirituality, and is dead, though he may yet have a name to live. But how does it commonly happen that such a man falls away from the struggle for salvation? Is it ordinarily through some one powerful and undisguised assault that he is turned from the faith, or over one huge obstacle that he falls not to rise again? Not so. It is almost invariably through little things. He fails to take notice of little things, and they accumulate into great. He allows himself in little things, and thus forms a strong habit. He relaxes in little things, and thus in time loosens every bond. Because it is a little thing, he counts it of little moment, utterly forgetting that millions are made up of units, that immensity is constituted of atoms. Because it is only a stone, a pebble, against which his foot strikes, he makes light of the hindrance; not caring that he is contracting a habit of stumbling, or of observing that whenever he trips there must be some diminution in the speed with which he runs the way of God’s commandments, and that, however slowly, these diminutions are certainly bringing him to a stand.
The astronomer tells us, that, because they move in a resisting medium, which perhaps in a million of years destroys the millionth part of their velocity, the heavenly bodies will at length cease from their mighty march. May not, then, the theologian assure us that little roughnesses in the way, each retarding us, though in an imperceptible degree, will eventually destroy the onward movement, however vigorous and direct it may at one time have seemed? Would to God that we could persuade you of the peril of little offences! We are not half as much afraid of your hurting the head against a rock, as of your hurting the foot against a stone. There is a sort of continued attrition, resulting from our necessary intercourse with the world, which of itself deadens the movements of the soul; there is, moreover, a continued temptation to yield in little points, under the notion of conciliating; to indulge in little things, to forego little strictnesses, to omit little duties; and all with the idea that what looks so light cannot be of real moment. And by these littles, thousands, tens of thousands, perish If they do not come actually and openly to a stand, they stumble and stumble on, getting more and more careless, nearer and nearer to indifference, lowering the Christian standards, suffering religion to be peeled away by inches, persuading themselves that they can spare without injury such inconsiderable bits, and not perceiving that in stripping the bark they stop the sap.—Melvill.

I. This conduct is surprising. Is it not most surprising that men should forsake the great God, their Creator and Benefactor? He is all-powerful. He is all-wise. He is all-loving. The soul cannot have a better helper in difficulty, or a truer and wiser friend in sorrow. From the Godward aspect of the case nothing is more surprising than that man should forsake God; but from the manward aspect of things this is not surprising, for man is carnal, and the carnal mind is enmity against God. Satan draws the soul from God. It chases a phantom into the great darkness, and finds in the end that it has wandered from the Infinite Being.

II. This conduct is criminal. We should esteem it criminal to forsake a parent, to forsake a benefactor, to forsake a master. But this offence is small compared with that of the soul when it wanders from the Lord. It exhibits insubordination. It rejects the Supreme Moral Ruler of the universe. It exhibits ingratitude. It forsakes its Redeemer. It exhibits folly, for away from Christ the soul cannot obtain true rest.

III. This conduct is inexcusable. The soul can give no true reason, or valid excuse, for such unholy conduct. The Lord has dealt bountifully with it, and therefore it has no ground of complaint. He is attractive in character. He is winning in disposition. He is kindly in the discipline of life. He gives holy influences to draw the soul to Himself. Hence man has no excuse for forsaking God.

IV. This conduct is common. The world of humanity has forsaken God. One by one souls are returning, and are being welcomed to Christ and to heaven. Many agencies are at work for the return of souls to the heavenly kingdom. Let us seek to make them efficient. Let us pray that they may be successful. Have you forsaken God?—J. S. Exell.

Verse 5

MORAL OBDURACY

Isaiah 1:5. Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more.

I. The danger of despising the Divine chastisements. Heedlessness destroys the very power of taking heed.

II. The terribleness of the peace which is often the portion of the wicked. Like the cessation of pain in a sick man, which indicates that mortification has set in, it may be only a sign that God has given them up as irreclaimable (Hosea 4:17) [213]

[213] While God visits us at all, it is a sign He thinks of us. The present life is not the time for punishment devoid of mercy. While the debtor is on his way to prison, he may agree with his adversary, and escape the messenger’s hands. While the sick man feels pain, there is vitality and activity in his constitution, and he may recover. And therefore I think it must be a terrible thing to have one’s perdition sealed; to have the process already closed, both depositions and sentence, and laid up in God’s chancery, as an irreversible doom, and so him who is its object troubled no further, but allowed the full choice of his pleasures,—as one permits to a man, between sentence and execution, his choice of viands, in full certainty that when his hour hath tolled the terrible law will take its course. How smoothly glides along the boat upon the wide, unruffled, though most rapid stream that hurries it onward to the precipice, over which its waters break in thunder! How calm, and undisturbed by the smallest ripple, slumbers its unreflecting steersman! Oh for one rock in the midst of its too smooth channel, against which it may be dashed and whirled about, to shake him from this infatuated sleep! It is the only hope that remains for him. Woe to him if to the end his course be pleasant! That end will pay it all!—Wiseman.

III. The folly of expecting sanctification as the inevitable result of suffering. Contrary to the expectation of the Universalists, the sufferings of the lost may only confirm them in their impenitence (Revelation 1:9; Revelation 1:11; Revelation 1:20) [216]

[216] Afflictions leave the wicked worse, more impenitent, hardened in sin, and outrageous in their wicked practices. Every plague on Egypt added to the plague of hardness on Pharaoh’s heart; he that for some while could beg prayers of Moses for himself, at last comes to that pass that he threatens to kill him if he come to him any more. Oh, what a prodigious height do we see some come to in sin after some great sickness or other judgment! Oh, how greedy and ravenous are they after their prey, when once they get off their clog and chain from their heels! When physic works not kindly, it doth not only leave the disease uncured, but the poison of the physic stays in the body also. Many appear thus poisoned by their afflictions.—Gurnall, 1617–1679.

Trust not in any unsanctified afflictions, as if these could permanently and really change the condition of your heart. I have seen the characters of the writing which the flames had turned into a film of buoyant coal; I have seen the thread which has been passed through the fire retain, in its cold grey ashes, the twist it had got in spinning; I have found every shivered splinter of the flint as hard as the unbroken stone: and let trials come, in providence, sharp as the fire and ponderous as the crushing hammer, unless a gracious God send along with these something else than these, bruised, broken, bleeding as thy heart may be, its nature remains the same.—Guthrie.

NEEDLESS STRIPES

Isaiah 1:5. Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more.

That sin should not go unpunished is a law of our own hearts, and it is a law of God. Punishment is intended to be remedial [219] but remedies that are intended to cure sometimes irritate, and God’s remedies may act in two ways—they may make a man better, or they may make him worse [222] There are those who “kick against the pricks,” and as the result of afflictions which their own sins have brought upon them, become desperate. Chastisement is then of no further use, and like a father weary of correcting the thild child who has proved irreformable, God may say, “Why should,” &c. (Hosea 4:17). Terrible meaning, then, may lurk in these words: they may speak of that stage in the sinner’s career when his moral malady has become incurable, when the Good Physician feels that His severest and most searching remedies are of no avail, when God with holds His hand, and says, “He that is filthy, let him be filthy still” [225] So some have understood these words.

[219] When Almighty God, for the merits of His Son, not of any ireful mind, but of a loving heart towards us, doth correct and punish us, He may be likened unto a father; as the natural father first teacheth his dear beloved child, and afterwards giveth him warning, and then correcteth him at last, even so the Eternal God assayeth all manner of ways with us. First He teacheth us His will through the preaching of His Word, and giveth us warning. Now if so be that we will not follow Him, then He beateth us a little with a rod, with poverty, sickness, or with other afflictions, which should be esteemed as nothing else but children’s rods, or the wands of correction. If such a rod will not do any good, and his son waxeth stubborn, then taketh the father a whip or a stick, and beateth him till his bones crack; even so, when we wax obstinate, and care neither for words nor stripes, then sendeth God unto us more heavy and universal plagues. All this He doth to drive us unto repentance and amendment of our lives. Now truth it is, that it is against the father’s will to strike his child; he would much rather do him all the good that ever he could. Even so certainly, when God sendeth affliction upon our necks, there lieth hidden under that rod a fatherly affection. For the peculiar and natural property of God is to be loving and friendly, to heal, to help, and to do good to His children, mankind.—Wermullerus, 1551.

[222] Sorrow is in itself a thing neither good nor bad; its value depends on the spirit of the person on whom it falls. Fire will inflame straw, soften iron, or harden clay; its effects are determined by the object with which it comes in contact. Warmth develops the energies of life, or helps the progress of decay. It is a great power in the hothouse, a great power also in the coffin; it expands the leaf, matures the fruit, adds precocious vigour to vegetable life; and warmth, too, develops with tenfold rapidity the weltering process of dissolution. So, too, with sorrow. There are spirits in which it develops the seminal principle of life; there are others in which it prematurely hastens the consummation of irreparable decay.—F. W. Robertson.

[225] As long as the physician hath any hope of the recovery of his patient, he assayeth all manner of means and medicines with him, as well sour and sharp as sweet and pleasant; but as soon as ever he beginneth to doubt of his recovery, he suffereth him to have whatsoever himself desireth. Even so the heavenly Physician, as long as He hath any hope to recover us, will not always suffer us to have what we most desire; but as soon as He hath no more hope of us, then He suffereth us for a time to enjoy all our own pleasure.—Wermullerus, 1551.

The surgeon must cut away the rotten and dead flesh, that the whole body be not poisoned, and so perish; even so doth God sometimes plague our bodies grievously, that our souls may be preserved and healed. How deep soever God thrusteth His iron into our flesh, He doeth it only to heal us; and if it be so that He kill us, then will He bring us to the right life. The physician employeth one poison to drive out another; even so God in correcting us useth the devil and wicked people, but yet all to do us good.—Wermullerus, 1551.

But a more gracious meaning may be contained in them; they may be the first note of that tender divine invitation which is fully expressed in Isaiah 1:18. For mark, God begins here to reason with men,—bids them look at themselves, their situation, the fatal folly of sinning when sin brings its own sure punishment. What need of these disasters? Note: the first aim of the gospel is to make the sinner understand that sin and its torments are alike of his own seeking; repentance cannot come until he feels this.

These words may then be regarded as implying—
I. That there is no inherent necessity that sinners should continue to be stricken.

1. There is no reason in the nature of God (Ezekiel 18:23). God is love. Love may ordain laws for the general security and safety, the breaking of which may be attended with terrible consequences; but yet God has no delight when these consequences overwhelm the transgressor. He pities even while He punishes, and is on the outlook for the very first beginnings of penitence, that He may stay His hand [228]

2. There is no reason in the nature of man. As man is not impelled by any inherent necessity to sin, but in every sin acts by deliberate choice, so neither is he compelled to repeat his transgressions. Even when he has done wrong, his consciousness testifies that he might have done right, and it is precisely on this account that his conscience condemns him!

[228] It is harder to get sin felt by the creature, than the burden, when felt, removed by the hand of a forgiving God. Never was tender-hearted surgeon more willing to take up the vein, and bind up the wound of his fainting patient, when he hath bled enough, than God is by His pardoning mercy to ease the troubled spirit of a mourning penitent.—Gurnall, 1617–1679.

II. That a way of avoiding the merited punishment is open. We know what that way is. The prophet saw it afar off, and rejoiced (Isaiah 1:18; Isaiah 53:5-6). “Why should ye be stricken any more,” when Christ has been stricken for you? The way of reconciliation is open: avail yourselves of it with penitence, with thankful joy!—But if men despise the offered grace, let them know that when the doom from which they would not be delivered comes crashing down upon them, they will neither have nor merit any pity. Even the Angel of Mercy will answer them, “Ye have destroyed yourselves!”—W. Baxendale.

Verses 5-8

TOTAL DEPRAVITY

Isaiah 1:5-8. The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores; they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment. Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire: your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers. And the daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city.

By these powerful figures the prophet sets forth the moral corruption and the impending calamities of the people to whom he ministered. [Note that in Isaiah 1:7-8, the prophet speaks as if the future were already present; so clear and vivid is his view of it.]

I. A whole nation may become morally corrupt. Vice may defile and degrade all classes of society.

II. The natural tendency of national corruption is not to abate, but to spread and increase. Vices are “putrefying sores.” As in the body physical a disease or wound in one member may poison the whole body, so in the body politic the vice of any one class tends to spread through all society.—These two considerations should lead us—

1. To pray constantly and earnestly far our country. “Christian England” left to itself, and unrestrained by divine grace and mercy, would soon become as Sodom and Gomorrah.

2. Not to be selfishly indifferent to the sins of the classes of society to which we do not happen to belong. This were as foolish as it would be for a man to give no heed to the fact that his neighbour’s house was on fire, in forgetfulness of the other fact that fire spreads; or as if in the body the head were indifferent to the fact that the foot had received a poisoned wound.

3. To put forth earnest efforts for the repression of public vices. Mere passive reprobation of them will be of no avail. Nor can we reasonably hope that time will abate and lessen them. No; these “sores” are “putrefying;” and if the body politic is ever to be restored to moral health, they must be “closed, bound up, and mollified with ointment.” In some cases this “ointment” must be moral suasion, in other cases legal coercion. This principle is already recognised in regard to cockfighting, the sale of indecent books and pictures, &c.

III. In a modified sense, the declarations of our text are true of every human being. The doctrine of “total depravity” has been preached in such a manner as to discredit it, and statements have been made in exposition of it which would imply that every child comes into the world as wicked as Nero left it (not only depraved in every faculty, but in every faculty totally depraved!) This representation of the doctrine is contrary both to Scripture (2 Timothy 3:13; 1 Peter 4:4, &c.) and to fact. But our rejection of this exaggerated form of it must not lead us to reject the doctrine itself. Our whole personality has been “depraved”—debased and deteriorated—by sin; the whole man—his affections, passions, understanding, reason, imagination, and will—has been impaired by the “fall;” just as by certain diseases all the functions of the body are disordered [231] The natural tendency of this in born corruption is not to lessen with increasing years, but to intensify; as a matter of fact, aged sinners are always the vilest and most malignant. These facts—

1. Disclose man’s need of a redemptive power external to himself. Our moral corruption is not like one of those minor diseases which are best left to “nature;” it is like a cancer or a malignant fever—if it is left to run its course, it will kill us. There is in us no vis medicatrix capable of overcoming and expelling it. If we are to be restored to moral soundness, it must be by a Power external to us.

2. Should lead us to accept with gratitude the proffered help of the Great Healer. We all need His help. Without it we shall grow worse day by day. His help will avail for us, however desperate may be our case; as it was in the days of His flesh physically, so is it now morally and spiritually (Matthew 4:23-24; Matthew 14:36).

[231] It is not only the inferior powers of the soul which this plague of sin has seized, but the contagion has ascended into the higher regions of the soul. The most supreme, most spiritual faculty in man’s mind, the understanding power of man, is corrupted, and needs renewing. To a carnal understanding not enlightened by the Word, this always has been and is the greatest paradox. Indeed, when blind reason, which thinks it sees, is judge, it is not strange that this corruption of the understanding should be a wonder to it. For reason, being the supreme faculty of all the rest, which judges all else, and is judged by none but itself, because of its nearness to itself, it least discerns itself. As a man’s eye, though it may see the deformity of another member, yet not the bloodshot that is in itself, but it must have a glass by which to discern it And so, though even corrupt nature discerns the rebellions of the affections and sensual part of man by its own light, as the heathens did, and complained thereof, yet it cannot discern the infection and defilement that is in the spirit itself, but the glass of the Word is the first that discovers it; and when that glass is also brought, there had need be an inward light of grace, which is opposite to this corruption, to discover it.—T. Goodwin, 1600–1679.

IV. Moral depravity brings on physical misery. The desolation set forth in Isaiah 1:7-8, was the natural consequence of the depravity denounced in Isaiah 1:5-6. By an everlasting and most righteous decree a bad character and a bad condition are linked together, and can be only for a very little while disassociated. This is true both of nations and individuals. Sin inevitably leads to sorrow. Of this fact we have ten thousand evidences in this present world. Hence also the realm of unrelieved wickedness is the realm of unmitigated woe. Were men always reasonable beings, the fearfulness and the certainty of the consequences of sin would be sufficient and prevailing arguments for repentance and amendment of life. Let them prevail with us (Ezekiel 18:30; Ezekiel 18:21).

Verse 9

GOD’S RELUCTANCE TO PUNISH

Isaiah 1:9. Except the Lord of hosts had left us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, and we should have been like unto Gomorrah.

God had humbled His people because of their transgressions, but He had not utterly destroyed them, as He might have done in strict justice. This reminds us—

1. That the punishments that befall wicked men in this world frequently fall short of their deserts.
2. That this disproportion between guilt and chastisement occurs because God is not so much concerned to punish sin as to reclaim sinners. God chastises, in the first instance, that He may correct, and it is with reluctance that He increases the severity of His strokes [234]

[234] See note (α), page 18.

These facts should lead us—

1. To adore the divine benignity. How worthy of our love and worship is this God who is no mere vindictive avenger of broken law, but a loving Father who chastens us, not for His pleasure, but for our profit!

2. To gratefully acknowledge the mercy that has mingled with the judgments which our sins have drawn down upon us (Lamentations 3:10) [237]

3. To shrink with abhorrence from any abuse of the divine long-suffering. The fact that God is so reluctant to punish, instead of encouraging us in rebellion, should incite us to prompt and loving obedience. Nothing can be more base than to “turn the grace of God into lasciviousness;” and nothing could be more dangerous [240] (Proverbs 29:1).

[237] If in an affliction we would pour forth to God such acceptable prayers as may obtain comfort in our crosses and deliverance from all our calamities, we must confess our sins, and humbly acknowledge that we deserve to be overwhelmed with much more heavy plagues and punishments. And so the Lord will excuse us when we accuse ourselves, remit our sins when we remember them, and absolve us from punishment when in all humility we acknowledge that we have justly deserved the fearfullest of His plagues. For if we, who have but a little of the milk of mercy, are moved with compassion when either our sons or our servants acknowledge their faults, and offer themselves of their own accord to Buffer that punishment which they have deserved, how can we doubt that God, whose love and mercy towards us are infinite and incomprehensible, will be pitiful and ready to forgive us when He sees us thus humbled?—Downame, 1644.

[240] Take heed of abusing this mercy of God. Suck not poison out of the sweet flower of God’s mercy: do not think that because God is merciful you may go on in sin; this is to make mercy your enemy. None might touch the Ark but the priests, who by their office were more holy: none may touch this ark of God’s mercy but such as are resolved to be holy. He that sins because of mercy shall have judgment without mercy. Mercy abused turns to fury (Deuteronomy 29:19-20). “The mercy of the Lord is upon them that fear Him.” Mercy is not for them that sin and fear not, but for them that fear and sin not God’s mercy is a holy mercy; where it pardons, it heals.—Watson, 1696.

Verse 10

THE SUMMONS TO JERUSALEM

Isaiah 1:10. Hear the word of the Lord, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah.

The prophet being about to make a still more terrible announcement, puts forth a renewed call for attention. It is well worthy of our study. We find in it—
I. A STARTLING DESCRIPTION. “Rulers of Sodom, … people of Gomorrah.” What an astonishing declaration is this, that Sodom, Gomorrah, and Jerusalem are synonymous terms! It reminds us—

1. That men may be morally alike to those from whom they think themselves the furthest removed. Many a Protestant who hates the very name of Rome is himself a little Pope: he never doubts his own infallibility, and is ready to anathematise all who dare to dissent from him. Many a man who has never stood in the felon’s dock is a thief at heart [243] The people of Jerusalem were ready to thank God that they were not as Sodom and Gomorrah, whereas they really resembled the people they despised. For, like the inhabitants of those guilty cities, they had been living—

(1) In habitual self-indulgence. Self-indulgence may vary in its forms, but in its essential nature it is ever the same. The inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah had pandered to the lusts of the body, the inhabitants of Jerusalem to the lusts of the mind (see Isaiah 1:17; Isaiah 1:23; Isaiah 3:16, &c.)

(2) In habitual defiance of God. The sins of which they were guilty were as plainly condemned in God’s Word as were those by which the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah polluted themselves. All sin is rebellion against God [246] and the manner in which we sin is comparatively unimportant (James 2:10). If we rebel against God, it does not matter much with what weapons we fight against Him.

2. That men may be utterly unconscious of their own real character. Self-delusion as to character is almost universal. Man can live in the practice of gross sin without any compunction of conscience. Laodicea and the foul criminal David are at peace until the rebukes of God begin to crash like thunders over their heads (Revelation 3:17; 2 Samuel 12:7). As such delusion is most common, so also it is most disastrous. It renders reform impossible. It sends men blindfolded into eternity to the most appalling surprises [249] The remedy for it is earnest, searching, prayerful self-examination, conducted in the light of God’s Word [252]

3. That God describes men according to their essential character. He does not take men according to their own estimates of their character and conduct, and ticket them accordingly. His description of men is often precisely the opposite of that which they would give of themselves, and even of what men would give of them. His neighbours as well as himself would doubtless have described the prosperous farmer (Luke 12:16) as a shrewd and wise man, but God pronounced him to be a fool. So here, these men who prided themselves that they were rulers of Jerusalem, the holy city, were declared to be “rulers of Sodom,” the vilest of cities. Are we quite sure that God describes us as we have been accustomed to describe ourselves?

[243] To us there seems a wide difference between the judge, with the robes of office on his back, mind in his eye, and dignity in his mien, and that poor, pale, haggard wretch at the bar, who throws stealthy glances around, and hangs his head with shame. Yet the difference that looks so great to man may be very small in the eyes of God; and would look small in ours if we knew the different upbringing and history of both. The judge never knew what it was to want a meal; the felon often went cold and hungry to bed. The one, sprung of wise, kind, reputable, and perhaps pious parents, was early trained to good, and launched, with all the advantages of school and college, on an honourable and high career; while the other, bred up a stranger to the amenities of cultivated and Christian society, had no such advantages. Born to misery, his struggles with misfortune and evil began at the cradle. None ever took him by the hand to lead him to church or school. A child of poverty, and the offspring of abandoned parents, he was taught no lessons but how to swear, and lie, and drink, and cheat, and steal. The fact is, it is just as difficult for some to be honest as it is easy for others. What merit has that judge in his honesty? None. He had no temptation to be else than honest. And so, I suspect, much of the morality of that unblemished character and decent life in which many trust, saying to some poor guilty thing, “Stand aside, I am holier than thou,” and pluming themselves on this, that they have not sinned as others have done—is due, less to their superior virtue, than to their more favourable circumstances. Have they not sinned as others have done? I reply, They have not been tempted as others have been. And so the difference between many honest men and decent women on the one hand, and those on the other hand on whom a brand of infamy has been burned, and the key of a prison turned, may be just the difference between the green branch on the tree and the white ashes on the hearth. This is bathed in the dews of night and fanned by the breath of heaven, while that, once as green, has been thrust into the burning fire—the one has been tried in a way that the other has not.—Guthrie.

[246] As every sin is a violation of a law, so every violation of a law reflects upon the lawmaker. It is the same offence to coin a penny and a piece; the same to counterfeit the seal of a subpœna, as of a pardon. The second table was writ by the hand of God as well as the first, and the majesty of God, as He is the lawgiver, is wounded in an adultery and a theft as well as in an idolatry or a blasphemy.—Donne, 1573–1631.

[249] Is there anything more terrible than a false confidence? It is an awful thing to wake up and find that what we have been trusting in is rotten. To embark gaily in a ship that on mid-ocean proves to be worm-eaten and leaky; for a man who believed himself to be wealthy to receive tidings that the failure of a bank has made him a beggar; for a sick man rejoicing in the cessation of his pain to be told by his physician that that is due only to the setting in of mortification that precedes death;—what horrible disappointments are these! But what poor and faint images they furnish of the horror of that man who lives in a state of delusion as to his spiritual condition, who dies in peace, imagining falsely that he is Christ’s, and who, when he has traversed the valley of the shadow of death—when he has reached that point from which there is no return, finds that the doors of heaven are shut against him, discovers that he is shrouded by thick darkness, and begins to feel the fires of hell kindling upon him! Can you picture to yourself his astonishment, his terror, his despair? Do not tell me that such a case is not conceivable—Christ declares that such cases are frequent (Matthew 7:21-25).

[252] “Examine yourselves:” a metaphor from metal, that is pierced through to see if it be gold within. Self-examination is a spiritual inquisition set up in one’s soul: a man must search his heart for sin as one would search a house for a traitor: or as Israel sought for leaven to burn it.—Watson, 1696.

This duty of examining and proving supposes that there is some sure standard, which if we go by, we are sure not to be deceived. Now that rule is the Word of God. But as in matters of doctrine men have left the Scripture, the sure rule, and taken up antiquity, universality, tradition, and the like for their pride, and by this means have fallen into the ditch; so in matters of godliness, when we should try ourselves according to the characters and signs that the Scripture deciphers, we take up principles in the world, the applause of others, the conversation of most in the world. And thus it is with us as men in an hospital, because every one is either wounded or lame, or some way diseased, therefore none are offensive to each other.—Burgess.

Men compare themselves with men, and readily with the worst, and flatter themselves with that comparative betterness. This is not the way to see spots, to look into the muddy streams of profane men’s lives; but look into the clear fountain of the Word, and there we may both discern and wash them; and consider the infinite holiness of God, and this will humble us to the dust.—Leighton, 1611–1684.

II. A SOLEMN SUMMONS. “Hear the word of the Lord; … give ear unto the law of our God.” What is the law to which attention is thus emphatically called? It is the great truth announced in the following verses (11–15), that worship offered by ungodly men is not only without value, but is positively hateful in the sight of God. The most flaming zeal concerning the externals of religion is often found in men of unholy life [255] Judas was evidently so zealous in such matters as completely to delude his fellow-disciples: even when Christ announced that there was a traitor in their midst, no suspicion turned towards him; the eleven were more ready to suspect themselves than him (Matthew 26:21). Attention to the externals of religion is in itself a good thing; but unless it be conjoined with integrity and benevolence, it will secure for us at the last not the commendation but the condemnation of the Judge (Matthew 23:23).

[255] Fruit-trees that bring forth the fairest and most beautiful blossoms, leaves, and shoots, usually bring forth the fewest and least fruits; because where nature is intent and vigorously pressing to do one work, spending its strength there, it is at the same time weak about other works; but distinct and several works of nature, in moderate and remiss degree, are all promoted at the same time. Generally those persons who are excessive and most curious about the forms of duties, have least of the power of godliness. The Pharisees were excessively careful about the outside of God’s worship. So it was among us of late years; bowing at the name of Jesus, the communion-table, surplice, common prayer, &c.,—those and suchlike were pressed with all eagerness and strictness. The body of religion was large and monstrous, but without a soul; or, if any, it was lean and feeble. These persons are like the Indian fig-tree that Pliny speaks of, which had leaves as broad as targets, but fruits no bigger than a bean. This is a foul fault among us at this day: men stand more about the forms of worship than about the power of it: they look so much after the way, manner, and circumstances that they almost lose the substance; things which are but as husks or shells to the kernels, or as leaves in respect of fruits.—Austen, 1656.

Many are set upon excess of ceremonies, because they are defective in the vital parts, and should have no religion if they had not this. All sober Christians are friends to outward decency and order; but it is the empty self-deceiver that is most for the unwarrantable inventions of man, and useth the worship of God but as a masque or puppet-show, where there are great doings with little life, and to little purpose. The chastest woman will wash her face; but it is the harlot, or wanton, or deformed, that will paint it. The soberest and the comeliest will avoid a nasty or ridiculous habit, which may make them seem uncomely where they are not; but a curious dress and excessive care doth signify a crooked or deformed body, or a filthy skin, or, which is worst, an empty soul, that hath need of such a covering. Consciousness of such greater want doth cause them to seek those poor supplies. The gaudiness of men’s religion is not the best sign that it is sincere. Simplicity is the ordinary attendant of sincerity. It hath long been a proverb, “The more ceremony, the less substance; and the more compliment, the more craft.”—Baxter, 1615–1691.

Verse 11

TRUE AND FALSE RELIGION

Isaiah 1:11; Isaiah 1:16-17. To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord. I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats.… Wash you, make you clear; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.

What was the business of the ancient prophet? Not merely to predict events. His chief work was to make men realise vividly the presence of God. Religions, in order to their permanence, require system. But religious systems, with their creeds, forms, and ceremonies, have an inevitable tendency to coldness and deadness. The prophet was sent to counteract this tendency. It was his mission to restore to great words their great meanings, to cause moral principles to reassert themselves as the lords of conscience and of will—in a word, to prophesy on the dry bones of a decaying religion until there came upon them flesh and sinew, and there passed into them the breath of spiritual life. Such a mission was that of Isaiah. In his time religion was in a state of petrifaction, nay, rather of putrefaction. From this fact his prophetic message takes its keynote. It begins with an invective that reminds us of John the Baptist.
What was the condition of things that provoked his indignation? Not a lack of religious observances; there was a redundancy of them. That which caused a righteous anger to burn within him vehemently was their perversion of the sacrificial system in which they gloried, their dissociation of it from the moral law, to which God intended it to be only a supplement. It was given to teach men the hatefulness and the terrible consequences of sin, and the duty of consecration to God; but they separated it from the moral law, and allowed all its spiritual meaning to drop out of it. Instead of using it as a help to morality, they were making it the substitute for morality. Coming up red-handed from their murders, and reeking with their foul vices, they stood up before God, claiming His favour; for were they not sacrificing to Him, yea, in accordance with the regulations Himself had given? No wonder that a man with veracity in him and a love of righteousness should pour out upon such men and such offerings the whole wrath of his nature.
From this exposition take the following practical lessons—

1. All forms of religion have a tendency to lose their original purity and freshness. As a stream, clear at its fountain-head, but turbid before it reaches the sea; as our planet, which physicists say was flung off at first from the sun a glowing mass of light and heat, has been cooling down ever since; so is it with religions and churches. As a rule, their history has been one of gathering accretions and of diminishing purity and power in proportion to their distance from their fountain-head. So was it with Judaism. So has it been with Christianity. Contrast Christianity as we have it in St. Paul’s epistles, all aglow with fervour and love, and that of the time of Leo X., with its professed head and most of his court professed infidels, and the officials of the Church selling indulgences to sin for money! Luther lit the fire again; but Protestantism has had its illustrations of the same law. Witness the state of things in this country in the last century. In view of this fact let the Church pray for prophetic spirits who shall in each generation rekindle the dying fires; and, apart from the influence of specially-gifted men, let each Church betake itself continually to the Fountain-head of spiritual life.

2. False religiousness is worse than none at all. Isaiah says, not simply that such observances are of no avail with God, but that they are abominations to Him. We can see the reason. Such a religion as that which Isaiah denounced works harm to the individual and to the cause of godliness generally; to the individual, by inspiring him with a vain confidence; to the cause of godliness, by furnishing points for the shafts of ridicule, by which faith is killed in many hearts. It would be difficult to say who are the greatest promoters of infidelity—professed atheists or hypocritical religionists.

3. It is a perilous thing to overlook the connection between impression and practice in religion. In Isaiah 1:16-17, the prophet shows us what the true nexus between them is. “Your ceremonies and observances will do you no good unless you practise the morality, the judgment, mercy, and love to which they point.” Our power of receiving impressions is under a directly opposite law from our power of practice. The former steadily decreases by exercise, the latter as steadily increases. This is so in religion, as well as in other things. The impression produced upon the Jews by the sacrifices would decrease as they were repeated, unless by them they were led to practical righteousness, and their whole system would in time become utterly powerless as a moral incentive; just as, if a man is for a few mornings wilfully deaf to an alarum in his bedroom, it presently loses its power even to waken him. The same law will operate with us. The preaching of the gospel is intended to produce impression, and that again to lead to practice. If the latter does not follow at once, the chances are all against its ever following, because the impressions will become feebler with each repetition. A fact this for all hearers to ponder.

4. Religious observances and machinery of all kinds have their end in the development of character. This was so in Isaiah’s time. It is so now. If their religious observances were not leading them to “cease to do evil,” and to “learn to do well,” but were hindering them from doing so, it were better for them to give them up. So our creeds, organisations, ministers, &c., are of use only as related to character. They are the scaffolding, character is the building; they are the tools, that the work. If no building is going on, this parade of scaffolding is an imposture, and had better be swept away.—J. Brierley, B.A.

Verse 13

THE POSSIBILITIES OF PUBLIC WORSHIP

Isaiah 1:13. It is iniquity, even the solemn meeting.

I. Public worship is a thing of Divine appointment. A considerable part of the earlier books of Scripture is occupied with injunctions to observe it, and with directions for its conduct. All the best men of ancient times made public worship part of the business of their lives. David, Josiah, Hezekiah, Ezra, and Nehemiah made great sacrifices that it might be duly honoured. Our Lord Himself, who set aside the traditions of men, was careful to observe this Divine ordinance; besides attending the great feasts, He attended the synagogue every Sabbath-day (Luke 4:16). The apostles and early Christians were in this respect His true followers (Acts 2:46; Acts 3:1). And we are expressly warned against neglect of it (Hebrews 10:24-25).

II. Public worship may be a means of communion with God. It was this possibility that induced men to build the Temple, that there might be a recognised place of meeting, not only with each other, but with God. There God did often meet with them (Psalms 63:2; Psalms 27:4, &c.) The Temple now is wherever devout men are assembled for worship, and God, in the person of His Son, has expressly promised to be in their midst (Matthew 18:20).

III. Consequently public worship may be a thing of the highest profit to man. Upon those to whom communion with God is indeed vouchsafed, public worship exerts a transforming and ennobling influence [258] They are uplifted for a season above the cares, the sorrows, and the joys of life; they receive new strength for the performance of life’s duties and the bearing of life’s burdens; from the mount of supplication they come down bearing a more real and abiding likeness to God than that which in the old time gave to the countenance of Moses an overwhelming splendour.

[258] The mind is essentially the same in the peasant and the prince; the forces of it naturally equal in the untaught man and in the philosopher; only the one of these is busied in meaner affairs and within narrower bounds, the other exercises himself in things of weight and moment; and this it is that puts the wide distance between them. Noble objects are to the mind what the sunbeams are to a bud or flower: they open and unfold, as it were, the leaves of it, put it upon exerting and spreading itself every way, and call forth all those powers that lie hid and locked up in it. The praise and admiration of God, therefore, brings this advantage along with it, that it sets our faculties upon their full stretch, and improves them to all the degrees of perfection of which they are capable.—Atterbury, 1663–1732.

IV. It may also be a thing supremely acceptable to God. When His children assemble to unite in expressing their common thankfulness, trust, and love for Him, He listens with fatherly delight [261] Compared with angelic worship, human worship is a very poor and imperfect thing; it is but an earthen vessel compared with a chalice of silver or of gold; but the emotions of gratitude, trust, and love with which it is filled, make it precious in His sight. There is a reversal of our Lord’s saying (Matthew 23:19): the rude altar is hallowed by the spiritual sacrifice.

[261] No doubt the prayers which the faithful put up to heaven from under their private roofs, were very acceptable unto Him; but if a saint’s single voice in prayer be so sweet to God’s ear, much more the Church choir, His saints’ prayers in consort together. A father is glad to see any one of his children, and makes him welcome when he visits him, but much more when they come together, the greatest feast is when they all meet at his house. The public praises of the Church are the emblem of heaven itself, where all the angels and saints make but one consort. There is a wonderful prevalency in the joint prayers of His people. When Peter was in prison, the Church meets and prays him out of his enemies’ hands. A prince will grant a petition subscribed by the hands of a whole city, which maybe he would not at the request of a private subject, and yet love him well too. There is an especial promise to public prayer: “Where two or three are gathered together in My Name, there am I in the midst of them.”—Gurnall, 1617–1679.

These are some of the possibilities of public worship; but they are not the only ones. The reverse of all this may be true. The worship may be observed and offered without any real regard to the Divine will and pleasure; it may separate God and men still more widely; it may be a curse to those who partake in it, and it may be a grievous offence to the Holy One of Israel.
Let us recall some of the things in connection with public worship which are apt to satisfy men. They are such as these: a crowded assembly; sweet singing; a noble liturgy; an eloquent sermon; a large collection. When these things are combined in any service, we are apt to felicitate ourselves exceedingly. But upon that very service God may look with unqualified condemnation. The crowd may have assembled for reasons very far removed from a desire to worship God; the singing may have been merely an artistic performance; the liturgy may have been made up of prayers such as that which a newspaper described as “the most eloquent ever addressed to a Boston audience;” the sermon may have had for its supreme object the glorification of the preacher; the contributors to the collection may have been moved merely by a desire to place the name of their congregation at the head of the subscription-list published in the newspapers on the following day. The whole thing may have been of the earth, earthy, and this may have been God’s verdict concerning it, “It is iniquity, even the solemn meeting.”

What, then, are the elements in worship essential to its acceptance with God?

1. That it be offered by His people. Not from rebels against His authority will He accept expressions of homage [264] in their lips such expressions are mockeries vile and horrible as those wherewith in Pilate’s judgment-hall the Roman soldiers jeered at the Son of God (Matthew 27:27-29).

2. That it be offered with reverence, with that sweet and solemn awe which is born of a recognition of God’s nearness and of His exceeding glory (Psalms 89:7) [267]

3. That it be the expression of love—love singing in the hymns, breathing in the prayers, awakening “godly sorrow” for the sins of the past, leading to sincere and resolute dedication of the whole being to God for the future. Where these principles animate the worshippers, they will be governed by them also in daily life; their whole life will be a service and sacrifice well-pleasing in the sight of God, and what are called their “acts of worship” will not be artificial flowers stuck on to dead and rotting branches for their adornment, but sweet, natural blossoms, upon which God will smile, and which He will pronounce “very good.”

[264] If a person was to attend the levee of an earthly prince every court-day, and pay his obeisance punctually and respectfully, but at other times speak and act in opposition to his sovereign, the king would justly deem such a one an hypocrite and an enemy. Nor will a solemn and stated attendance on the means of grace in the house of God prove us to be God’s children and friends,—if we confine our religion to the church walls, and do not devote our lips and lives to the glory of that Saviour we profess to love.—Salter.

[267] A remembrance of God’s omnipresence will quell distractions in worship. The actual thoughts of this would establish our thoughts, pull them back when they begin to rove, and blow off all the froth that lies on the top of our spirits. An eye taken up with the presence of one object is not at leisure to be filled with another; he that looks intently upon the sun shall have nothing for a while but the sun in his eye. Oppose to every intruding thought the idea of the Divine omnipresence, and put it to silence by the awe of His majesty. When the master is present, scholars mind their books, keep their places, and run not over the forms to play with one another; and the master’s eye keeps an idle servant to his work, that otherwise would be gazing at every straw, and prating to every passenger. How soon would the remembrance of this dash all extravagant fancies out of countenance, just as the news of the approach of a prince would make the courtiers bustle up themselves, huddle up their vain sports, and prepare themselves for a reverent behaviour in his sight. We should not dare to give God a piece of our heart, when we apprehend Him present with the whole; we should not dare to mock one that we knew were more inwards with us than we are with ourselves, and that beheld every motion of our mind as well as action of our body.—Charnock, 1628–1680.

I have sometimes had the misfortune to sit in concerts where persons would chatter and giggle and laugh during the performance of the profoundest passages of the symphonies of the great artists; and I never fail to think, at such times, “I ask to know neither you, nor your father and mother, nor your name: I know what you are, by the way you conduct yourself here—by the want of sympathy and appreciation which you evince respecting what is passing around you.” We could hardly help striking a man who should stand looking upon Niagara Falls without exhibiting emotions of awe and admiration. If we were to see a man walk through galleries of genius, totally unimpressed by what he saw, we should say to ourselves, “Let us be rid of such an unsusceptible creature as that.”

Now I ask you to pass upon yourselves the same judgment. What do you suppose angels, that have trembled and quivered with ecstatic joy in the presence of God, think when they see how indifferent you are to the Divine love and goodness in which you are perpetually bathed, and by which you are blessed and sustained every moment of your lives? How can they do otherwise than accuse you of monstrous ingratitude and moral insensibility, which betoken guilt as well as danger?—Beecher.

Verse 14

GOD OPPRESSED

Isaiah 1:14. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them.

It is the Almighty who here speaks, and His speech is a protest to men who imagined that by their worship they would conciliate and please Him. Their worship He rejects: it was polluted by the pollution of those who offered it. Instead of cleansing them, as they vainly dreamed, they had defiled it. It is the Almighty who speaks, and in what terms of intensity of pain! He speaks as one who has long been burdened by a load that has at length become intolerable. Strictly speaking, it is of worship offered to Him by ungodly men that He here expresses His abhorrence; but it is not conceivable—it is contrary to repeated declarations of His Word to suppose—that this is the only form of human transgression that is grievous to Him; and therefore we may fairly widen our contemplation, and consider—

I. God’s sensibility to human sin. God is unchangeable; with Him there is no fickleness or caprice (James 1:17); this is one of the glories of His nature. But how strangely have philosophers and theologians interpreted this sublime declaration! They have presented us with a deity impassive as the stars, which shine with equal splendour upon the display of great virtues and the perpetration of hideous crimes, calm, serene, undisturbed by anything that takes place on earth. Not such is the God of the Bible. He thrills with intensest emotions of delight or of disapprobation, of joy or of sorrow (Jeremiah 9:24; Nahum 1:6; Zephaniah 3:17; Genesis 3:6). Let philosophers call these “anthropomorphic representations” if they will, but words have no meaning if such declarations do not teach that God is stirred by emotions which are determined by the character and conduct of men. He is no cast-iron deity: He is “the living God.” Sin is hateful to Him, because

1. It is an infraction of that order which He has established for the moral well-being of the universe. As the Sovereign of the universe, He is bound to resent and to punish any injury done to the meanest of His subjects [270]

2. It is a defiance of His authority. Every sinner is a rebel against the authority of the King of kings; and that king would be unworthy of his crown who could see his authority defied without feeling any emotion of displeasure, or without taking steps to vindicate his authority. It was precisely this selfish and pusillanimous weakness that made our Stephen despised and hated by his subjects. With God there is long-suffering and tender mercy, but there is no weakness. Sin is more than a defiance of God’s authority; it is—

3. An offence against His feelings. It is contrary to what we may call His instincts [273] That which is contrary to our best instincts fills us with disgust and anger. What profound emotion is stirred in a man of generosity and benevolence by a story of oppression and wrong! e.g., the effect upon David of Nathan’s parable (2 Samuel 12:8). Whole communities have been roused to uncontrollable indignation by a crime of unusual atrocity, even though no member of the community has been directly affected thereby. “Lynch Law.” So all sin, as sin, arouses the Divine disgust and indignation. “My soul hateth.”

4. It is a degradation of those whom God loves. We all condemn and loathe drunkenness; but who of us loathes it as does that mother who is being hurried by it to an untimely and dishonoured grave? God loves us more than any mother ever loved her son, and His hatred of sin is proportioned by His love for us whom it degrades and destroys [276]

5. It is often a wrong inflicted on those whom He loves. Few men sin without wronging others as well as themselves. Now with what anger do we burn when we detect our children defrauding and oppressing each other! But between the sputtering of a lucifer-match and the glowing fires of a volcano, there is not so much disparity as between the anger which the spectacle of sins against brotherhood kindles in us and that which it rouses in God (Jeremiah 9:9). To form any adequate conception of the offensiveness of sin to God, we must remember that these considerations do not operate singly, but operate in combination to make it hateful to Him. How marvellous, then, is His endurance of it! Consider, then—

[270] The tempter persuadeth the sinner that it cannot be that God should make so great a matter of sin, because the thoughts of a man’s heart, or his words, or deeds, are matter of no great moment, when man himself is so poor a worm, and whatever he doth it is no hurt to God. But if God so much regard us as to make us, and preserve us continually, and to become our Governor, and make a law for us and judge us, and reward His servants with no less than heaven; then you may easily see that He so much regardeth us, as to observe whether we obey or break His laws. He that so far careth for a clock or watch, as to make it and wind it up, doth care whether it go true or false. What do these men make of God, who think He cares not what men do! Then He cares not if men beat you, or rob you, or kill you, for none of this hurteth God. And the king may say, “If any murder your friends and children, why should I punish him? he hurt not me.” But justice is to keep order in the world, and not only to preserve the governor from hurt: God may be wronged, though He be not hurt. And He will make you pay for it, if you hurt others: and smart for it, if you hurt yourself.—Baxter, 1615–1691.

[273] Our sin is not so much a violation of a law that lies outside of the bosom of God, as it is a disregard of the feelings and nature of God Himself. You will by a moment’s reflection see that there is a marked distinction between personal feeling infringed upon and law transgressed. The magistrate sits upon the bench, and a culprit is brought before him. There are two ways in which that culprit may be considered as transgressing. He may have broken the law of the land, which the magistrate represents officially, but not personally. The magistrate regards him as a culprit, to be sure. But suppose that, in the exercise of truth and justice by a pure administration or decision, the magistrate arounes the anger of the culprit, and he insults him to his face, and in his own court; is there any difference between his former crime, which was the violation of the law of the land, and in his latter crime, which is a transgression of the feeling of the magistrate, acting as a magistrate?
[276] Is there any human being who so hates the sin of a child, or the companion of that friend? To whose eye so much as to the eye of the lover is a defect a thing to be abhorred? Is there anywhere in the world such compassion as is found in a father or in a mother over the sin or fault of the child? Yea, with evil associates, with growing bluntness of feeling, with accumulating evasions and deceits, with a development of serpent passions, with a life by day and by night that emasculates manliness, the mother sees her boy going steadily down, step by step; and in her nightly vigils, with strong crying and tears, she pours herself out before God, abhorring with unutterable detestation all these terrible evils that threaten the life and immortality of her son; and for years she carries in her soul the suffering that ought to be in his, and bears his sin, his sorrow, and his shame, and lies humiliated, and bowed down in the dust, the just for the unjust.—Beecher.

God hates sin, because it destroys what He loves. He could live high and lifted up above all noise of man’s groaning, all smoke of his torment; but His nature is to come down after man—to grope for him amid all the dark pollutions of sin, and, if possible, to rescue and cleanse him.
God hates sin very much, as mothers hate wild beasts. One day a woman stood washing beside a stream. She was in a wild frontier country, and the woods were all around. Her little, only child was playing about near her. By and by she missed the infant’s prattle, and, looking about, she called its name. There was no answer. Alarmed, the mother ran to the house, but her babe was not there. In wild distress the poor woman now fled to search the woods, and there she found her child. But it was only its little body that she clasped to her heart. A wolf had seized her treasure, and when, at last, she rescued it from those bloody fangs, its spirit had gone. Oh, how that mother hated wolves? And do you know that this is the very figure Christ uses to show what feeling He has towards the sin that is seeking to devour His children!—Beecher.

It makes a difference to God how we act. His happiness is affected by the conduct of His children; for His heart is the heart of a father. If, when my child sins, a pang goes through my own soul, and I fly to rescue him from further iniquity, it is because God struck into my breast a little spark of what in Him is infinite.—Beecher.

It is the same everywhere. When you employ men in your affairs, yon know that there is a distinction between a disregard of the rules of business, and a personal disagreement with yourself. You know that when a man offends against you, his wrong is more heinous and provoking than when he offends against your rules or laws. We know that a child may violate the laws of morality as they are established by the Word of God and by the consent of the community; that he may violate the civil law of the land in which he dwells; that he may violate the rules and regulations of a well-ordered family; and yet, though all these courses of conduct are grievous wrongs which shock the parent, not be as culpable as when he treads on the feeling of the parent. There are exigencies in which the child flies, as it were, in the heart of the father and mother, and does not so much violate their command as their living feeling; and we all know that this is regarded as more intolerable and more flagrant than simply setting aside and forgetting or transgressing a law. In other words, it is possible to break a statute; that is one kind of transgression. It is possible, also, to sin by directly infringing upon the heart and the feeling; that is another kind of transgression, and one that is considered more stinging, more intolerable, and more unforgivable than any other.
Now God and His law are one, in the sense in which we approach Him as moral beings—one in such a sense that when we offend against His moral law, we offend against His own personal feeling. He is not a magistrate for whom a system has been framed, and to the administration of which He comes under a sense of justice. He is a universal Father, administering according to His own instincts, His own tastes, His own affections, His own feelings, among His children. God’s law is God’s self, pervading the universe, and our transgression is a personal affront of God Himself. Just as when your taste, or your love, or your conscience, is violated by the direct act of another person against yourself, the offence is greater than if any exterior canon were broken; so it is when we violate the divine commands.
This conception of God should quicken every moral sensibility, and make a life of sin painful and distasteful to us. It is one thing to sin against a government, and another thing to sin against a being. There are a great many children that will sin against the family arrangements, who would not sin against their mother. There is many a child to whom the mother says, “My dear child, yon know your father has made a law in this family, that such and such things shall not be done, and you know you have broken that law three or four times; now, for my sake, avoid breaking it again.” The child feels, when the mother interposes herself, that there is something that touches him which did not when it was only a law of the family that he was setting aside.
Now, God puts Himself in just that position, and the motive of obedience and righteousness is this: that God is the tenderest, the most patient, the gentlest, and the dearest friend that we have; that He knows everything within and without; and that though we are sinful and wicked, He, in His infinite compassion and mercy, forgives us, and says, “Do not sin against me, nor against mine.”—Beecher.

When a man defrauds you in weight, he sins against you, not against the scales, which are only the instruments of determining true and false weight. When men sin, it is against God, and not against His law, which is but the indicator of right and wrong. You care little for sins against God’s law. It has no blood in its veins, no sensibility. Now, every sin that you commit is personal to God, and not merely an infraction of His laws. It is casting javelins and arrows of base desire into His loving bosom. I think no truth can be discovered which would be so powerful upon the moral sense of men, as that which should disclose to them that sinning is always a personal offence against a personal God. Law without is only an echo of God’s heart-beat within.—Beecher.

II. God’s patience with human sin. He speaks here of being “troubled” by the worship of ungodly men; it is a burden of which He is “weary.” Why, then, does He bear it for a moment? Why, then, does He not give quick vent to the indignation that burns within Him, and consume His troublers with swift destruction? He bears with us—

1. That by His patience He may appeal to our better feelings. He does us good, and not evil (Matthew 5:45), that we may be made ashamed to sin against such generosity. When men are not altogether hardened in iniquity, there is nothing so likely to overcome them as a requital of wrongs by blessing [279] especially where he who so requites it has full power to avenge himself. By His long-suffering, God has led countless thousands to repentance.

2. That He may set us an example of self-restraint. It is because He is Himself so slow to anger, that He is able to warn us against vindictiveness. God does not only lay upon us precepts of excellence: He Himself embodies them.

3. That He may place the righteousness of His judgments beyond dispute. A space of grace and forbearance seems necessary to enable onlookers to perceive that the awful doom which at length will come upon sinners is fully deserved, and is perfectly consistent with His own mercifulness. If “Wisdom” had not “called,” reproved, counselled, “stretched out her hands” in entreaty, the stern words in which she announces the awful and irrevocable doom of her despisers would shock us (Proverbs 1:20; Proverbs 1:32).

4. That a moral probation may be rendered possible. If punishment always instantly and obviously followed transgression, the world would be ruled by terror so overwhelming that free agency would be destroyed, and virtue consequently rendered impossible. For such reasons as these, God bears with sinners, and “sentence against an evil work” is not executed speedily.

[279] A group of rough men were assembled at a tavern one night. One man boasted that it did not make any difference what time he went home, his wife cheerfully opened the door, and provided an entertainment if he was hungry when he got home. So they laid a wager. They said: “Now, we’ll go along with you. So much shall be wagered. We’ll bet so much that when you go home, and make such a demand, she will resist it.” So they went along at two or three o’clock in the morning and knocked at the door. The door opened, and the man said to the wife: “Get us a supper.” She said: “What shall I get?” He selected the articles of food. Very cheerfully were they provided, and about three or four o’clock in the morning they sat down at the table—the most cheerful one in all that company the Christian wife—when the man, the ruffian, the villain, who had demanded all this, broke into tears and said: “I can’t stand this. Oh what a wretch I am!” He disbanded that group. He knelt down with his Christian wife and asked her to pray for the salvation of his immortal soul, and before the morning dawned they were united in the faith and hope of the Gospel. A patient, loving, Christian demeanour in the presence of transgression, in the presence of hardness, in the presence of obduracy and crime, is an argument from the throne of the Lord Almighty.—Talmage.

III. God’s protest against human sin. God suffers under human sin, but He does not suffer in silence: He vehemently protests against it. Two reasons should lead us to heed this protest:—

1. Gratitude. He might have sent vengeance without warning. His protests and threatenings are proofs of His love. All that is noblest and best in us should lead us to give instant and thankful heed when God appeals to us, and says, “Oh, do not this abominable thing that I hate!” (Jeremiah 44:4). But if sin has so debased your nature that higher considerations such as this cannot move you, then I appeal—

2. to your instinct of self-preservation. God’s protest against sin is no unmeaning form: His threatenings against sin are no empty words (Proverbs 29:1). Rightly considered, the sinner’s untroubled condition is the most awful of all warnings [282]

[282] Since we know God to be grievously displeased with sin, there is something awful in His keeping silence while it is committed under His eye. If a child comes home conscious of having offended a parent, and the parent says nothing all that night, but merely looks very grave, the child is more frightened than he would be by a sharp rebuke or severe punishment, for if such rebuke or punishment were inflicted, he would at least know the worst; but when the parent is silent, he knows not what may be hanging over him. So when we remember how many things plainly offensive to God are going on all around us, it is a terrible thought that He is still silent. We fear that He is but getting ready to take vengeance on those who defy Him. And so that passage which we have quoted from the Psalms carries on the train of thought in what follows: “God is a righteous judge, strong and patient, and God is provoked every day. If a man will not turn, He will whet His sword, He hath bent His bow, and made it ready.”
[283] Since we know God to be grievously displeased with sin, there is something awful in His keeping silence while it is committed under His eye. If a child comes home conscious of having offended a parent, and the parent says nothing all that night, but merely looks very grave, the child is more frightened than he would be by a sharp rebuke or severe punishment, for if such rebuke or punishment were inflicted, he would at least know the worst; but when the parent is silent, he knows not what may be hanging over him. So when we remember how many things plainly offensive to God are going on all around us, it is a terrible thought that He is still silent. We fear that He is but getting ready to take vengeance on those who defy Him. And so that passage which we have quoted from the Psalms carries on the train of thought in what follows: “God is a righteous judge, strong and patient, and God is provoked every day. If a man will not turn, He will whet His sword, He hath bent His bow, and made it ready.”
[284] Since we know God to be grievously displeased with sin, there is something awful in His keeping silence while it is committed under His eye. If a child comes home conscious of having offended a parent, and the parent says nothing all that night, but merely looks very grave, the child is more frightened than he would be by a sharp rebuke or severe punishment, for if such rebuke or punishment were inflicted, he would at least know the worst; but when the parent is silent, he knows not what may be hanging over him. So when we remember how many things plainly offensive to God are going on all around us, it is a terrible thought that He is still silent. We fear that He is but getting ready to take vengeance on those who defy Him. And so that passage which we have quoted from the Psalms carries on the train of thought in what follows: “God is a righteous judge, strong and patient, and God is provoked every day. If a man will not turn, He will whet His sword, He hath bent His bow, and made it ready.”
In countries where earthquakes happen, a dead silence always goes before the earthquake. Nature seems hushed into an awful stillness, as if she were holding her breath at the thought of the coming disaster. The air hangs heavily; not a breath fans the leaves; the birds make no music; there is no hum of insects; there is no ripple of streams; and this while whole houses, and even cities sometimes, are hanging on the brink of ruin. So it is with God’s silence,—it will be followed, when it seems deepest, by the earthquake of His judgments. And so the holy Apostle writes to the Thessalonians: “When they shall say, Peace and safety” (from the fact of God’s being so still and so dumb), “then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child, and they shall not escape.”—Goulburn.

Verse 15

WORTHLESS HUSKS

Isaiah 1:15. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear.

The Jews had been likened unto the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah (Isaiah 1:10). As such, they are summoned to listen to a series of declarations of which this is the sum, that worship without holiness is a solemn mockery. Confining ourselves to our text only, we may see that it teaches us—

I. The worthlessness of ritualism without spontaneity. “When ye spread forth your hands,” &c.

1. Ritualism is an essential element of public worship. There must be some form by which thought can be expressed, and the devotions of others guided. There may be too little, or too much, but some is indispensable [285]

2. Ritualism may be the expression of earnest spiritual life, and a help thereto. It may be the outcome of sincere feeling and deep piety—such was the ritual which David and his devout companions devised and elaborated for the service of the Temple. It was costly and magnificent beyond even that which is observed in St. Peter’s at Rome; but as practised by them it was as spiritual as the baldest service that has ever been conducted in the barest conventicle. A splendid ritual may be acceptable to the Most High, and the followers of George Fox must not imagine that they are the only persons who worship God “in spirit and in truth.”

3. But ritualism may be, and often is, only a form. It may mean only an exhibition of millinery, a scrupulous observance of a prescribed series of postures and genuflexions. It may be, according to a too suggestive phrase, merely a service “performed.” In this case God passes it by with contempt. To all engaged in such histrionic performances He says, “When ye spread forth your hands,” &c. Supplication without desire will never draw down the Divine benediction.

[285] The external part of religion is, doubtless, of little value in comparison with the internal; and so is the cask in comparison with the wine contained in it: but if the cask be staved, the wine must perish. If there were no Sundays or holydays, no ministers, no churches or religious assemblies, no prayers or sacraments, no Scriptures read, or sermons preached, how long would there be any religion left in the world: and who would desire to live in a world where there was none?—Horne, 1730–1792.

Forms are necessary to religion as the means of its manifestation. As the invisible God manifests His nature—His power, wisdom, and goodness, in visible material forms, in the bright orbs of heaven, in the everlasting hills, in the broad earth with its fruits and flowers, and in all the living things which He has made,—so the invisible soul of man reveals its convictions and feelings in the outward acts which it performs. As there could be no knowledge of God without the visible forms in which He reveals Himself, so there could be no knowledge of the religion which exists in the soul of man without the outward forms in which it expresses itself. A form is the flag, the banner, the symbol of an inward life; it is to a religious belief what the body is to the soul; as the soul would be utterly unknown without the body, so religion would be unknown without its forms, a light hidden under a bushel, and not set up in a candlestick that it may give light to all that are in the house.
Forms are necessary not only to the manifestation of religion, but to its nourishment and continued existence. A religion which expressed itself in no outward word or act would soon die out of the soul altogether. The attempt to embody truth and feeling, to express it in words and actions, is necessary to give it the character of living principle in the soul: in this respect forms are like the healthy exercise which at once expresses and increases the vigorous life of the body, or they may be compared to the leaves of a tree, which not only proceed from its inward life, but catch the vitalising influences of the light, the rain and the atmosphere, and convey them down to the root.
What, then, is that formalism which is everywhere in the Scripture, and especially in the discourses of our Lord, described as an offence and an abomination in the sight of God? I answer, formalism is the substitution of the outward rite in the place of the inner spirit and life of the soul; it is the green leaf which still hangs upon the dead branch which has been lopped off.—David Loxton.

II. The worthlessness of prayer without purity of heart. “When ye make many prayers, I will not hear.”

1. Prayer is a necessity of the Christian life. A consciousness of weakness and want, and a profound conviction of God’s power and willingness to succour him, prompts the Christian to make “many prayers.” And each supplication so inspired finds its way to the throne and heart of God. To hear and answer the prayers of His children is one of our Heavenly Father’s joys (Isaiah 65:24).

2. But prayer, like ritualism, instead of being the expression of a realised need, may be only an empty form. The supplications that are offered may be uttered merely by rote, with as little feeling as a child recites the multiplication-table; or they may be devices by which deluded men seek to propitiate that God whom they are offending by their conduct every day,—mere lip-homage, which they imagine He will accept in condonation of their habitual disregard of His will. In either case, their “many prayers” are worthless husks which He rejects with disdain.

If we would have our worship accepted of God, there must be—

1. Scriptural conceptions of His character. These will prevent us from mocking Him by merely formal prayers or praises.

2. A solemn realisation of His presence. How often this is lacking in those who take part in the service of the sanctuary, and even in those who conduct them! But God is not throned in some distant heaven, to which our prayers struggle up we know not how: He is HERE! We shall never be nearer to Him than we are to-day!

3. An earnest endeavour after holiness in daily life (Psalms 66:18). See why God would not regard the uplifted hands of the Jewish suppliants—“Your hands are full of blood.” See also Isaiah 59:1-3. To no rebel is access to the presence-chamber of the King of kings granted: this is the high privilege of those only who can lift up “holy hands” (1 Timothy 2:8).—A. F. Barfield. [288]

[288] God doth not institute worship-ordinances for bodily motion only; when He speaketh to man He speaketh as to a man, and requireth human actions from him, even the work of the soul, and not the words of a parrot or the motion of a puppet.—Baxter, 1615–1691.

You think you serve God by coming to church; but if you refuse to let the Word convert you, how should God be pleased with such a service as this? It is as if you should tell your servant what you have for him to do, and because he hath given you the hearing, he thinks he should have his wages, though he do nothing of that which you set him to do. Were not this an unreasonable servant? Or would you give him according to his expectation? It is a strange thing that men should think that God will save them for dissembling with Him; and save them for abusing His name and ordinances. Every time you hear, or pray, or praise God, or receive the sacrament, while you deny God your heart and remain unconverted, you do but despise Him and show more of your rebellion than your obedience. Would you take him for a good tenant that at every rent-day would duly wait on you, and put off his hat to you, but bring you never a penny of rent? Or would you take him for a good debtor that brings you nothing but an empty purse, and expects you should take that for payment? God biddeth you come to church and hear the Word; and so you do, and so far you do well; but withal, He chargeth you to suffer the Word to work upon you hearts, and to take it home and consider of it, and obey it, and cast away your former courses, and give your hearts and lives to Him; and this yon will not do. And you think that He will accept of your service!—Baxter, 1615–1691.

REASONS FOR THE REJECTION OF PRAYER

Isaiah 1:15. When ye make many prayers, I will not hear.

God has characterised Himself as “the Hearer of prayer;” and it is the great consolation of His people that they cannot seek His face in vain. But here He declares that He will not hear the prayers of Israel, however many. This solemn and momentous declaration may well lead us to inquire why prayer is, in many instances, rejected. Prayer, to be heard, must be both right and real. If it possess neither of these characteristics, or only one of them—if it is neither right nor real, or is right without being real, or real without being right—it cannot fail to be rejected.

I. A man may pray rightly, either because he has been taught the principles of orthodoxy, and knows what language is conformable to those principles, or because he uses prayers composed by spiritual men, or, finally, because he uses the very words prescribed or sanctioned by God Himself. But in all these cases, while his prayer may be right, it may be altogether unreal. He may neither know the meaning of the requests it contains, nor desire their fulfilment [291] Thus do many men pray for a free pardon for Christ’s sake, for entire sanctification, and repeat the Lord’s Prayer. There is nothing in the heart corresponding to what is expressed by the lips; nay, the heart and the mouth are often completely at variance with each other.

[291] Will men’s prayers be answered? Not if they pray as boys whittle sticks—absently, hardly knowing or caring what they are about. I have known men begin to pray about Adam, and go on from him to the present time, whittling their stick clear to a point, with about as much feeling, and doing about as much good as the boy does.—Beecher.

I often say my prayers,
But do I ever pray,
And do the wishes of my heart
Go with the words I say?
I may as well kneel down
And worship gods of stone,
As offer to the living God
A prayer of words alone,
For words without the heart
The Lord will never hear;
Nor will He to those lips attend
Whose prayers are not sincere.
John Burton.

II. Prayer may be real without being right. A man may really acknowledge mercies received, and petition for more; and yet neither the acknowledgment nor the petition may be regarded by God. The acknowledgment and the petition have reference to mere earthly desires already gratified or yet to be gratified. He thanks God that his “lusts have had the food which they craved;” he prays that they may never want it. Pride, vanity, the love of ease, pleasures, and worldly respectability are “lusts” on which he has hitherto “consumed,” and on which he intends still to “consume,” the good things which God has given, or may yet give him. The secret soul of all his supplications is not any zeal for the glory of God, but selfishness. His prayers are of the earth, earthy. The spiritual blessings which God holds out in His right hand he passes by in contemptuous neglect, and clamours for the natural blessings which are in God’s left hand.

III. Both the faults of prayer above referred to are often found in one and the same individual, and the guilt of both accumulated on one and the same head.

Let it not be inferred from what has been said that we lay an interdict on natural blessings, and forbid the seeking of them in prayer. Our Saviour has given us authority to ask for daily bread, and this fully warrants the conclusion that natural blessings, as well as spiritual, may and ought to form a subject of prayer. We ought to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” and then ask Him to fulfil His promise of “adding unto us all other things.”—R. Nesbit, Discourses, pp. 308–319.

A STARTLING CHARGE

Isaiah 1:15. Your hands are full of blood.

Such is the reason which God assigns for turning a deaf ear to the prayers of His ancient people: the hands they lifted up to Him in supplication were blood-stained. It was as if Cain, red with the murder of Abel, had lifted up his hands in prayer to God for blessing. By this startling charge we are reminded—
I. That between the estimates formed by God and men as to what takes place in the sanctuary there is often an infinite disparity. Behold the court of the temple filled, apparently, with devout worshippers, who lift up their hands to heaven in earnest supplication,—what a pleasing sight! But God looks down, and says, “Those hands are full of blood.” The same contrast is repeated in another form (Isaiah 29:13). Other contrasts: Eli sees what he thinks to be a drunken woman; God sees a humble suppliant (1 Samuel 1:12-13). Men see an eminently religious man praying in the sanctuary; God sees a man prostituting prayer into a means of self-glorification (Luke 18:11-12). Men see a foul wretch whose presence in the sanctuary is a pollution; God sees a broken hearted penitent, and hastens to bless him (Luke 18:13-14). So it is in our sanctuaries to-day.

II. That God holds us responsible for the ultimate consequences of our actions. The men who thronged the temple in Isaiah’s time, and whose prayers God rejected, were not bandits and murderers in the ordinary and coarse fashion by which men are brought to the scaffold. Yet the charge brought against them was true. For there are other ways of murdering men than by acts of violence of which human law takes note. By grievous oppression millions of men have been brought to an untimely grave. If a man destroys another by slow poison, is he not as truly a murderer as another who kills his victim by means of prussic acid? In God’s sight oppression is murder; and of oppression in its worst forms the Jews had been guilty (Isaiah 1:23; Isaiah 3:14-15, &c.) It is in accordance with this declaration that opprobrium is heaped upon Jeroboam as the man “who made Israel to sin” (2 Kings 10:29); and that we are so sternly warned against leading others into transgression (Matthew 18:6, &c.) This fact—

1. Casts some light on the doctrine of future punishment. The results of the evil actions of men go on eternally propagating themselves, and it is therefore not unjust that the punishment of those actions should be eternal also.

2. Should cause us to halt when we are tempted to acts of unkindness and oppression. Unwillingly we may thereby become murderers.

3. Should lead us to be most watchful as to the example we set before others. If we hold our false lights by which they are caused to make shipwreck “concerning faith” and character, God will hold us responsible for the disaster (Romans 14:15, &c.)

III. That sin is naturally indelible. These Jews came into the sanctuary with hands carefully cleansed, but yet in God’s sight they were “full of blood.”

1. The stains of sin cannot be washed out by time. Time obliterates much, but it does not obliterate guilt. Men are apt to be troubled in conscience about recent sins, but to be at ease concerning those committed many years previously. But this is a mistake. Lapse of time makes no difference to God; the inscriptions in His books of record never fade. Hence the wisdom of David’s prayer (Psalms 25:7).

2. The stain of sin cannot be washed out by worship. That it might be so was the vain dream of the Jews, as it is of millions to-day. But worship itself is an offence when it is offered by ungodly men; so far from diminishing their guilt, it increases it (Proverbs 28:9, &c.)

3. The stain of sin cannot be washed out by sorrow. Sorrow for the past alters nothing in the past: the crime remains, no matter how many tears the criminal may shed [294]

4. The stain of sin cannot be washed out even by reformation of conduct and character. Men speak of “turning over a new leaf,” and when they have done what this phrase implies, they are apt to be at peace. But this also is a mistake. They forget that the old, evil leaf remains, and that for what is inscribed thereon God will call them to account. As there is a “godly sorrow” and a “worldly sorrow,” so there is a religious and an irreligious reformation of conduct. The former is the result of evangelical repentance, and is of exceeding worth (Ezekiel 18:27-28); the latter is a mere act of prudence, and is of no moral account. In one way, and in one way only, can the stain of guilt be effaced from the human soul (1 John 1:7-9).

[294] Repentance qualifies a man for pardon, but it does not, cannot, entitle him to it. It is one of the most elementary and obvious truths of morality, that the performance of one duty cannot be any compensation for neglect to perform another duty. But when a sinner is penitent for his sins, he is merely doing what, as a sinner, he ought to do; and his feelings of contrition do no more to absolve him from his guilt than the gratitude a man feels to a doctor who has cured him from a dangerous illness does to discharge the doctor’s bill. As in this case there ought to be both gratitude and payment, so in the case of the sinner there must be both penitence and atonement. The sinner’s sorrow for his sin, while in itself a proper thing, is no more an atonement for his sin than is the remorse that fills the breasts of most murderers any atonement for the murders they have committed. Judas was sorry, profoundly and intensely sorry, for having betrayed our Lord Jesus Christ, but did that do away with the guilt of that betrayal? Was Peter not to be blamed for his denial of his Master, because afterwards “he went out and wept bitterly”? Did the tears he shed give him any right to say in after years—“Yes, I denied my Lord, but I was sorry for it, and go made it straight”? Do you think that just as with soap and water you can wash the dirt off your hands, you can with a few tears, or with many tears, wash the guilt of sin from off your soul? No delusion could be more groundless. Oh no! You have the real fact and the true philosophy of the matter in the well-known verse—

“Not the labours of my hands
Can fulfil Thy law’s demands.
Could my zeal no respite know

Could my tears for ever flow,

All for sin could not atone:
THOU must save, and THOU alone.”

Verse 16

MORAL ABLUTION

Isaiah 1:16. Wash you, make you clean.

This is one of a very numerous class of passages which summon sinners to the duty of moral purification, of thorough and complete reformation of character (Jeremiah 4:14; James 4:8; Jeremiah 18:11; Ezekiel 18:30-32, &c.) These passages are very clear and emphatic, but they seem to be in opposition to others which assert man’s natural inability to do anything that is good (Matthew 7:18; Romans 7:18-23; John 15:5), with others which teach that repentance is a Divine gift (Acts 5:31; 2 Timothy 2:25), and with those which teach that sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:11, &c.) The opposition is only apparent [297] Every Divine command really involves a promise of the grace necessary for its accomplishment, and God is ever ready to work with and in us “to will and to do of His good pleasure” [300] Fallen as we are, we yet retain the power of responding to or of rejecting His admonitions; if we respond to them, there instantly begins to flow into our souls that which will enable us to accomplish everything that God has required (Philippians 4:13). Three great questions—

[297] There is no contradiction between these statements and the command to repent. Whoever considers what repentance is,—that it is a change of mind toward sin, so that what once was loved is viewed with disgust, and what was pursued with eagerness is shunned with abhorrence,—will perceive at once that it can only be wrought in us by a Divine power. Man’s natural tendencies are toward evil; and a river could as easily arrest itself on its way to the ocean, and climb to the sources whence it sprang, as can man without the help of the Holy Spirit learn to hate sin because of what it is. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good that are accustomed to do evil.” The polluted fountain of our heart will never cleanse itself. Repentance, like every other gift, must come from the Father of lights.
[300] The gospel supposeth a power going along with it, and that the Holy Spirit works upon the minds of men, to quicken, excite, and assist them in their duty. If it were not so, the exhortations of preachers would be nothing else but a cruel and bitter mocking of sinners, and an ironical insulting over the misery and weakness of poor creatures, and for ministers to preach, or people to hear sermons, upon any other terms, would be the vainest expense of time and the idlest thing we do all the week; and all our dissuasives from sin, and exhortations to holiness and a good life, and vehement persuasions of men to strive to get to heaven, and to escape hell, would be just as if one should urge a blind man, by many reasons and arguments, taken from the advantages and comfort of that sense, and the beauty of external objects, by all means to open his eyes, and to behold the delights of nature, to see his way, and to look to his steps, and should upbraid him, and be very angry with him, for not doing so.—Tillotson, 1630–1694.

But “God works in us to will and to do of His good pleasure.” By His Holy Spirit He strives in every human soul, awakening desires after a better and purer life. By His long-suffering, by messages from His Word, by the monitions of His providence, He strives to lead us to repentance. But we must repent. As while the earth cannot bear fruit unless the sun shine upon it, it is still the part of the earth to he fertile; so while we cannot repent unless God aid us, it is our part to turn from evil. Repentance cannot he exercised for us; it must be exercised by us.

God commands you to repent, just as to the apostles, when five thousand hungry men, besides women and children, surrounded them, and their whole store was five loaves and two fishes, Christ said, “Give ye them to eat.” The task is as much beyond your unaided power as that was above theirs; but address yourself to it as they did, in obedience to the Divine behest, and you will receive power from on high to accomplish not only it, but other tasks higher yet.

I. Why must we cleanse ourselves from evil?

1. Because sin renders us offensive to God. It is in itself repulsive to Him, just as immodesty in all its forms and in every degree is repulsive to a virtuous woman (Habakkuk 1:13).

2. Because it is destructive to ourselves. In physical matters dirt and disease are inseparable, and so they are in spiritual. Moral pollution leads to moral decay. Sin is a leprosy that eats away all the finer faculties of the soul.

3. Because it renders us dangerous to our fellow-men. In the measure that we are corrupt, we shall corrupt others. There is a terrible contagiousness in iniquity (Proverbs 22:24-25; Revelation 18:4). A sinner is a walking pestilence. And

4. The special lesson of our text in its connection—Because otherwise access to the throne of grace will be closed against us. If it be not so with us now, yet there will come a season when it will be supremely important to us that God should hear our prayers (a time of great trouble, or the hour of death), and how awful will be our condition if God should then turn a deaf ear to us! But this is the doom of obdurate sinners (Isaiah 1:15; Jeremiah 11:14, &c.)

II. How may we cleanse ourselves from evil?

1. By resolutely putting off our old evil habits. This is what Isaiah exhorted the Jews to do (Isaiah 1:16-17). Similar exhortations occur in the New Testament (Ephesians 4:25-29; Hebrews 12:1). Begin with the faults of which you are most conscious [303] Begin and continue the great task of moral reformation in humble dependence upon God.

2. By prayer. In earnest communion with God our views of duty and purity receive a marvellous elevation, and we catch the inspiration of the Divine character, so that iniquity, instead of being attractive, becomes hateful to us also [306]

3. By humble but resolute endeavours to copy the example of our Lord Jesus Christ.

4. By intercourse with the people of God [309]

5. By making the Word of God the only and absolute rule of our life (Psalms 119:1). These are the means by which we may attain to moral purity in the future. Cleansing from the guilt of sin in the past is bestowed freely on all who believe in Jesus (1 John 1:7-9). Yea, the guilt of a man whose hands are literally “full of blood” may thus be washed away; e.g., Saul, the persecutor and murderer of the saints (Acts 22:4; Acts 22:16; 1 Timothy 1:16).

[303] Rooting up the large weeds of a garden loosens the earth, and renders the extraction of the lesser ones comparatively easy.—Eliza Cook.

[306] There is an antipathy between sinning and praying. The child that hath misspent the whole day in playing abroad, steals to bed at night for fear of a chiding from his father. Sin and prayer are such contraries, that it is impossible at a stride to step from one to another. Prayer will either make you leave off sinning, or sinning will make you leave off prayer.—Gurnall, 1617–1679.

[309] Get some Christian friend (whom thou mayest trust above others) to be thy faithful monitor. Oh, that man hath a great help for the maintaining the power of godliness that has an open-hearted friend that dare speak his heart to him. A stander-by sees more sometimes by a man than the actor can do by himself, and is more fit to judge of his actions than he of his own; sometimes self-love blinds us in our own cause, that we see not our own cause, that we see not ourselves so bad as we are; and sometimes we are oversuspicious of the worst by ourselves, which makes us appear to ourselves worse than we are. Now, that thou mayest not deprive thyself of so great help from thy friend, be sure to keep thy heart ready with meekness to receive, yea, with thankfulness embrace a reproof from his mouth. Those that cannot bear plain-dealing hurt themselves most; for by this they seldom hear the truth.—Gurnall, 1617–1679.

The first true sign of spiritual life, prayer is also the means of maintaining it. Man can as well live physically without breathing, as spiritually without praying. There is a class of animals—the cetaceous, neither fish nor seafowl, that inhabit the deep. It is their home; they never leave it for the shore; yet, though swimming beneath its waves and sounding its darkest depths, they have ever and anon to rise to the surface that they may breathe the air. Without that these monarchs of the deep could not exist in the dense element in which they live, and move, and have their being. And something like what is imposed on them by a physical necessity, the Christian has to do by a spiritual one. It is by ever and anon ascending up to God, by rising through prayer into a loftier, purer region for supplies of Divine grace, that he maintains his spiritual life. Prevent these animals from rising to the surface, and they die for want of breath; prevent him from rising to God, and he dies for want of prayer. “Give me children,” cried Rachel, “or else I die.” Let me breathe, says a man gasping, or else I die. Let me pray, says the Christian, or else I die.—Guthrie.

III. When may we cleanse ourselves from evil? NOW! this very hour the task ought to be begun.

1. Difficult as the task is, delay will only increase its difficulty [312]

2. Now, because God’s commands brook no delay. (Psalms 95:7-8).

3. Now! because now though God may be willing to-day to grant you “repentance unto life,” by your delay you may so provoke Him to anger that to-morrow repentance may be denied you.

[312] The more we defer, the more difficult and painful our work must needs prove; every day will both enlarge our task and diminish our ability to perform it. Sin is never at a stay; if we do not retreat from it, we shall advance in it, and the farther on we go, the more we have to come back; every step we take forward (even before we can return hither, into the state wherein we are at present) must be repeated; all the web we spin must be unravelled.
Vice, as it groweth in age, so it improveth in stature and strength; from a puny child it soon waxeth a lusty stripling, then riseth to be a sturdy man, and after awhile becometh a massy giant, whom we shall scarce dare to encounter, whom we shall be very hardly able to vanquish; especially seeing that as it groweth taller and stouter, so we shall dwindle and prove more impotent, for it feedeth upon our vitals, and thriveth by our decay; it waxeth mighty by stripping us of our best forces, by enfeebling our reason, by perverting our will, by corrupting our temper, by debasing our courage, by seducing all our appetites and passions to a treacherous compliance with itself: every day our mind groweth more blind, our will more resty, our spirit more faint, our passions more headstrong and untamable; the power and empire of sin do strangely by degrees encroach, and continually get ground upon us, till it hath quite subdued and enthralled us. First we learn to bear it; then we come to like it; by and by we contract a friendship with it; then we dote upon it; at last we become enslaved to it in a bondage, which we shall hardly be able, or willing, to shake off; when not only our necks are fitted to the yoke, our hands are manacled, and our feet shackled thereby, but our heads and hearts do conspire in a base submission thereto, when vice hath made such impression on us, when this pernicious weed hath taken so deep root in our mind, will, and affection, it will demand an extremely toilsome labour to extirpate it.—Barrow, 1630–1677.

Repentance is entirely in God’s disposal. This grace is in the soul from God, as light is in the air from the sun, by continual emanation; so that God may shut or open His hands, contract or diffuse, set forth or suspend the influence of it as He pleases. And if God gives not repenting grace, there will be a hard heart and a dry eye, maugre all the poor frustraneous endeavours of nature. A piece of brass may as easily melt, or a flint bewater itself, as the heart of man, by any innate power of its own, resolve itself into a penitential humiliation. If God does not, by an immediate blow of His omnipotence, strike the rock, these waters will never gush out. The Spirit blows where it listeth, and if that blows not, these showers can never fall.
And now, if the matter stands so, how does the impenitent sinner know but that God, being provoked by his present impenitence, may irreversibly propose within Himself to seal up these fountains, and shut him up under hardness of heart and reprobation of sense? And then farewell all thoughts of repentance for ever.—South, 1633–1716.

A PLAIN COMMAND

Isaiah 1:16. Cease to do evil.

One of the pretexts by which wicked men endeavour to excuse their neglect of religion is, that many of the doctrines of the Bible are mysterious. They are so necessarily, and that they are so is one proof that the Bible is from God. But however mysterious the doctrines of Scripture may be, its precepts are plain enough. How plain is the command of our text! No man can even pretend that he does not understand it. If he does not obey it, he will not be able to plead that it is beyond his comprehension. We have—
I. A universal requirement. Certain of the precepts of Scripture concern only certain classes of individuals (sovereigns, subjects, husbands, wives, &c.), but this command concerns us all. Your name is written above it, and it is a message for you.

II. A most reasonable requirement. It is wrong that needs justification, not right. The worst man in the community will admit that he ought to “cease to do evil.” And he can, if he will, not in his own strength, but in that which God is ever ready to impart to every man who desires to turn from sin. And not only ought and can men “cease to do evil,” it will be to their advantage to do so. Sin has its “pleasures,” but they are but “for a season,” and they are succeeded by pains and penalties so intense that the pleasures will be altogether forgotten. To exhort men to “cease to do evil” is to exhort them to cease laying the foundation for future misery [315] On every ground, therefore, this is a most reasonable requirement.

[315] As where punishment is there was sin; so where sin is there will be, there must be, punishment. “If thou dost ill,” saith God to Cain, “sin lies at thy door” (Genesis 4:7). Sin, that is, punishment for sin: they are so inseparable, that one word implies both; for the doing ill is the sin, that is within doors; but the suffering ill is the punishment, and that lies like a fierce mastiff at the door, and is ready to fly in our throat when we look forth, and, if it do not then seize upon us, yet it dogs us at the heels; and will be sure to fasten upon us at our greatest disadvantage: Tum gravior cùm tarda venit, &c. Joseph’s brethren had done heinously ill: what becomes of their sin? it makes no noise, but follows them slily and silently in the wilderness: it follows them home to their father’s house; it follows them into Egypt. All this while there is no news of it; but when it found them cooped up three days in Pharaoh’s ward, now it bays at them, and flies in their faces. “We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul,” &c. (Genesis 42:21).

What should I instance in that, whereof not Scripture, not books, but the whole world, is full—the inevitable sequences of sin and punishment? Neither can it be otherwise. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” saith Abraham. Right, is to give every one his due: wages is due to work; now “the wages of sin is death:” So then, it stands upon no less ground than very necessary and essential justice to God, that where wickedness hath led the way, there punishment must follow.—Hall, 1574–1656.

III. A comprehensive requirement. It is not from certain forms of evil, merely, but from evil in all its forms, that we are required to abstain. “Cease to do evil!” [318] Sin must be utterly forsaken! not great and flagrant sins only, but also what are called “little sins” [321] These destroy more than great sins [324] One sin is enough to keep us enslaved to Satan [327]

[318] There may be a forsaking of a particular sin that has been delightful and predominant without sincerity towards God, for another lust may have got possession of the heart, and take the throne. There is an alternate succession of appetites in the corrupt nature, according to the change of men’s temper or interests in the world. As seeds sown in that order in a garden, that ’tis always full of a succession of fruits and herbs in season; so original sin that is sown in our nature is productive of divers lusts, some in the spring, others in the summer of our age, some in the autumn, others in the winter. Sensual lusts flourish in youth, but when mature age has cooled these desires, worldly lusts succeed; in old age there is no relish for sensuality, but covetousness reigns imperiously. Now he that expels one sin and entertains another continues in a state of sin; ’tis but exchanging one familiar for another; or, to borrow the prophet’s expression, “’Tis as one should fly from a lion, and meet with a bear that will as certainly devour him.”—Salter.

[321] Thou dost not hate sin if thou only hatest some one sin. All iniquity will be distasteful in thy sight if God the Holy Spirit has really made thee to loathe iniquity. If I say to a person, “I will not receive you into my house when you come dressed in such a coat;” but if I open the door to him when he has on another suit which is more respectable, it is evident that my objection was not to the person, but to his clothes. If a man will not cheat when the transaction is open to the world, but will do so in a more secret way, or in a kind of adulteration which is winked at in the trade, the man does not hate cheating, he only hates that kind of it which is sure to be found out; he likes the thing itself very well. Some sinners, they say they hate sin. Not at all; sin in its essence is pleasing enough; it is only a glaring shape of it which they dislike.—Spurgeon.

[324] The worst sin is not some outburst of gross transgression, forming an exception to the ordinary tenor of a life, bad and dismal as such a sin is; but the worst and most fatal are the small continuous vices which root underground and honeycomb the soul. Many a man who thinks himself a Christian is in more danger from the daily commission, for example, of small pieces of sharp practice in his business, than ever was David at his worst. White ants pick a carcase clean sooner than a lion will.—Maclaren.

[327] As an eagle, though she enjoy her wings and beak, is wholly prisoner if she be held but by one talon; so are we, though we could be delivered of all habit of sin, in bondage still, if vanity hold us but by a silken thread.—Donne, 1573–1631.

Ships, when the tide rises and sets strongly in any direction, sometimes turn and seem as if they would go out upon it. But they only head that way, and move from side to side, swaying and swinging without moving on at all. There seems to be nothing to hinder them from sailing and floating out to sea; but there is something. Down under the water a great anchor lies buried in the mud. The ship cannot escape. The anchor holds her. And thus are men holden by the cords of their own sins. They go about trying to discover some way to be forgiven, and yet keep good friends with the devil that is in them.—Beecher.

If we would realise the full force of the term “hatred of evil,” as it ought to exist in all, as it would exist in a perfectly righteous man, we shall do well to consider how sensitive we are to natural evil in its every form to pain and suffering and misfortune. How delicately is the physical frame of man constructed, and how keenly is the slightest derangement in any part of it felt! A little mote in the eye, hardly discernible by the eye of another, the swelling of a small gland, the deposit of a small grain of sand, what agonies may these slight causes inflict! That fine filament of nerves of feeling spread like a wonderful network of gossamer over the whole surface of the body, how exquisitely susceptible is it! A trifling burn, or scald, or incision, how does it cause the member affected to be drawn back suddenly, and the patient to cry out! Now there can be no question that if man were in a perfectly moral state, moral evil would affect his mind as sensibly and in as lively a manner—would, in short, be as much of an affliction to him, as pain is to his physical frame. He would shrink and snatch himself away, as sin came near to his consciousness; the first entrance of it into his imagination would wound and arouse his moral sensibilities, and make him positively unhappy.—Goulburn.

IV. An imperative requirement. This is not a counsel, which we are at liberty to accept or reject; it is a command, which we disobey at our peril; a command of One who has full power to make His authority respected.

V. A very elementary requirement. Men who have laid aside certain evil habits, such as drunkenness, swearing, &c., are apt to plume themselves on what they have done, and to regard themselves as paragons of virtue. But this is a mistake. Ceasing to do evil is but the beginning of a better life; it is but the pulling up of the weeds in a garden, and much more than this is needed before “a garden” can be worthy of the name. Those who have ceased to do evil must “learn to do well” [330]

[330] Thou hast laid down the commission of an evil, but hast thou taken up thy known duty? He is a bad husbandman that drains his ground, and then neither sows nor plants it. It’s all one if it had been under water as drained and not improved. What if thou cease to do evil (if it were possible) and thou learn’st not to do well? ’Tis not thy fields being clear of weeds, but fruitful in corn, pays thy rent, and brings thee in thy profit; nor thy not being drunk, unclean, or any other sin, but thy being holy, gracious, thy having faith unfeigned, pure love, and the other graces which will prove thee sound, and bring in evidence for thy interest in Christ, and through Him of heaven.—Gurnall, 1617–1679.

Verses 16-17

TRUE AND FALSE RELIGION

Isaiah 1:11; Isaiah 1:16-17. To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord. I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats.… Wash you, make you clear; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.

What was the business of the ancient prophet? Not merely to predict events. His chief work was to make men realise vividly the presence of God. Religions, in order to their permanence, require system. But religious systems, with their creeds, forms, and ceremonies, have an inevitable tendency to coldness and deadness. The prophet was sent to counteract this tendency. It was his mission to restore to great words their great meanings, to cause moral principles to reassert themselves as the lords of conscience and of will—in a word, to prophesy on the dry bones of a decaying religion until there came upon them flesh and sinew, and there passed into them the breath of spiritual life. Such a mission was that of Isaiah. In his time religion was in a state of petrifaction, nay, rather of putrefaction. From this fact his prophetic message takes its keynote. It begins with an invective that reminds us of John the Baptist.
What was the condition of things that provoked his indignation? Not a lack of religious observances; there was a redundancy of them. That which caused a righteous anger to burn within him vehemently was their perversion of the sacrificial system in which they gloried, their dissociation of it from the moral law, to which God intended it to be only a supplement. It was given to teach men the hatefulness and the terrible consequences of sin, and the duty of consecration to God; but they separated it from the moral law, and allowed all its spiritual meaning to drop out of it. Instead of using it as a help to morality, they were making it the substitute for morality. Coming up red-handed from their murders, and reeking with their foul vices, they stood up before God, claiming His favour; for were they not sacrificing to Him, yea, in accordance with the regulations Himself had given? No wonder that a man with veracity in him and a love of righteousness should pour out upon such men and such offerings the whole wrath of his nature.
From this exposition take the following practical lessons—

1. All forms of religion have a tendency to lose their original purity and freshness. As a stream, clear at its fountain-head, but turbid before it reaches the sea; as our planet, which physicists say was flung off at first from the sun a glowing mass of light and heat, has been cooling down ever since; so is it with religions and churches. As a rule, their history has been one of gathering accretions and of diminishing purity and power in proportion to their distance from their fountain-head. So was it with Judaism. So has it been with Christianity. Contrast Christianity as we have it in St. Paul’s epistles, all aglow with fervour and love, and that of the time of Leo X., with its professed head and most of his court professed infidels, and the officials of the Church selling indulgences to sin for money! Luther lit the fire again; but Protestantism has had its illustrations of the same law. Witness the state of things in this country in the last century. In view of this fact let the Church pray for prophetic spirits who shall in each generation rekindle the dying fires; and, apart from the influence of specially-gifted men, let each Church betake itself continually to the Fountain-head of spiritual life.

2. False religiousness is worse than none at all. Isaiah says, not simply that such observances are of no avail with God, but that they are abominations to Him. We can see the reason. Such a religion as that which Isaiah denounced works harm to the individual and to the cause of godliness generally; to the individual, by inspiring him with a vain confidence; to the cause of godliness, by furnishing points for the shafts of ridicule, by which faith is killed in many hearts. It would be difficult to say who are the greatest promoters of infidelity—professed atheists or hypocritical religionists.

3. It is a perilous thing to overlook the connection between impression and practice in religion. In Isaiah 1:16-17, the prophet shows us what the true nexus between them is. “Your ceremonies and observances will do you no good unless you practise the morality, the judgment, mercy, and love to which they point.” Our power of receiving impressions is under a directly opposite law from our power of practice. The former steadily decreases by exercise, the latter as steadily increases. This is so in religion, as well as in other things. The impression produced upon the Jews by the sacrifices would decrease as they were repeated, unless by them they were led to practical righteousness, and their whole system would in time become utterly powerless as a moral incentive; just as, if a man is for a few mornings wilfully deaf to an alarum in his bedroom, it presently loses its power even to waken him. The same law will operate with us. The preaching of the gospel is intended to produce impression, and that again to lead to practice. If the latter does not follow at once, the chances are all against its ever following, because the impressions will become feebler with each repetition. A fact this for all hearers to ponder.

4. Religious observances and machinery of all kinds have their end in the development of character. This was so in Isaiah’s time. It is so now. If their religious observances were not leading them to “cease to do evil,” and to “learn to do well,” but were hindering them from doing so, it were better for them to give them up. So our creeds, organisations, ministers, &c., are of use only as related to character. They are the scaffolding, character is the building; they are the tools, that the work. If no building is going on, this parade of scaffolding is an imposture, and had better be swept away.—J. Brierley, B.A.

Verse 17

THE GREAT TASK

Isaiah 1:17. Learn to do well.

Negative goodness is not enough to meet the Divine requirements. Those who have “ceased to do evil” must “learn to do well.” God demands positive excellence [333] The cultivation of well-doing is the surest guarantee against evil-doing [336]

[333] All the religion of some men runs upon nots. “I am not as this publican.” That ground is nought, though it brings not forth briars and thorns, if it yieldeth not good increase. Not only the unruly servant (Matthew 24:48-49) is cast into hell, but also the idle servant (Matthew 25:30). Meroz is cursed not for opposing and fighting, but for not helping. Dives did not take away food from Lazarus, but he did not give him any of his crumbs. “I set up no other gods;” ay, but dost thou reverence and obey the true God? “I do not profane the Sabbath.” Dost thou sanctify it? Thou dost not wrong thy parents; but dost thou reverence them? Thou dost not murder; but dost thou do good to thy neighbour? Usually men cut off half of their bill, as the unjust steward bade the man who owed a hundred set down fifty. We do not think of sins of omission. If we are no drunkards, adulterers, and profane persons, we do not think what it is to omit respects to God, not to reverence His holy majesty, not to delight in Him and His ways.—Manton, 1620–1667.

[336] Fighting faults is the most discouraging thing in the world. When corn reaches a certain height, no more weeds can grow among it. The corn overshadows and grows them down. Let men fill themselves full of good things. Let them make their love and purity and kindness grow up like corn, that every evil and noxious thing within them may be overshadowed and die.—Beecher.

I. Well-doing is a thing to be learned. We have been too prone to look at it in its other aspect only, as a thing springing from faith and love, not as a thing to be cultivated. But see Philippians 4:9; 1 Timothy 5:4; Titus 3:14; Matthew 11:29; Hebrews 5:3. All experience is in accordance with the teaching of these texts. Has any case occurred in which at the beginning of the Christian life a person was proficient in well-doing? Men are not born into the Christian life with a perfect capacity to do well, any more than they are born into the natural life with a perfect capacity to speak well. Conversion is a beginning, not an ending [339] We then begin to learn the standards, methods, opportunities, and practice of excellence. In the hour of conversion we do but pass into Christ’s school, and begin to be His disciples. Well-doing is not to be learned in one lesson, nor in six lessons. [Illustration: frequent advertisement, “French in six lessons.” Absurd!] It was only after a prolonged training and most varied discipline that St. Paul could say, “I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” Is that a lesson to be acquired in a day? Let our own hearts supply further proof. Look within, and see the evils yet unsubdued, the excellences yet unattained, the difficulty with which many a duty is discharged, and you will see the necessity of learning to do well. We have learned to do well only when it has become a habit to us, when we do it as easily and naturally as a well-trained merchant’s clerk adds up a column of figures correctly. But can any habit be acquired without prolonged practice? [342]

[339] No man is born into the full Christian character, any more than he is born into the character of a man when he comes into the world. A man at conversion is in the state of one who has just come into the possession of an old homestead. He has the title, and he can make for himself a beautiful home. But the dust, the dirt, and the cobwebs of years choke all the rooms, and must be cleared away. Many sills and beams are rotten, and must be replaced by new ones. Chambers must be refitted, walls newly plastered, the whole roof must be searched over, and every leak stopped. There must be a thorough cleansing and repair before the mansion is habitable; and when all this is done, it is only an empty house that the man has. The same kind of thing that man has who has trained himself into freedom from wrong, without having become faithful in right deeds.—Beecher.

[342] Character is consolidated habit, and habit forms itself by repeated action. Habits are like paths beaten hard and clear by the multitude of light footsteps which go to and fro. The daily restraint or indulgence of the nature, in the business, in the home, in the imagination, which is the inner laboratory of the life, creates the character which, whether it be here or there, settles the destiny.—J. Baldwin Brown.

II. Well-doing is learned much in the same way as other things are learned. Learning a language involves study, patience, perseverance, practice. Not otherwise can we learn to do well [345]

[345] It is not great, or special, or extraordinary experiences which constitute in the best sense the religious character. It is the uniform daily walk with God, serving Him in little things as well as great—in the ordinary duties and everyday avocations, as well as in the midst of grave and eventful contingencies. As the sublimest symphony is made up of separate single notes;—as the wealth of the cornfield is made up of separate stalks, or rather of separate grains;—as the magnificent texture, with its gorgeous combinations of colour, is made up of individual threads;—as the mightiest avalanche that ever came thundering down from its Alpine throne, uprooting villages and forests, is-made up of tiny snowflakes;—so it is with the spiritual life. That life is itself the grandest illustration of the power of littles. Character is the product of daily, hourly actions words, thoughts; daily forgivenesses, unselfishnesses, kindnesses, sympathies, charities, sacrifices for the good of others, struggles against temptations, submissiveness under trial. Oh it is these, like the blending colours in a picture, or the blending notes of music, which constitute the man.—Macduff.

III. In learning to do well, we need both inspiration and help. We have both: the inspiration in the example of our Lord (Acts 10:38; Hebrews 12:2); the help in the gracious assistance of the Holy Ghost (Romans 8:26). Therefore, difficult as the task is, we may address ourselves to it with good hope of success.—William Jones.

THE NOBLEST ART

Isaiah 1:17. Learn to do well.

I. To do well is a thing that requires to be learned.

1. It does not come to us naturally, as breathing and sleeping do. That which comes to us naturally is to do evil. This is manifest in every child: it needs no teaching to do evil, but it needs a great deal of teaching before it will habitually do well. Nor does proficiency in well-doing come to us even with our new birth. Then come new desires after righteousness, but the knowledge and practice of righteousness have to be learned [348] At our new birth we are born “babes in Christ:” manhood in Christ is reached only by growth [351]

2. It is not a thing we acquire unconsciously, as infants learn to see and hear, or as older persons acquire the accent of the country in which they reside, or as invalids gain health at the seaside. Living in a religious atmosphere will not of itself make us religious, nor will mere companionship with good men. Association with artists will not of itself make a man an artist; and association with Christians will not of itself make any man a Christian. Judas was in constant association with Christ himself for more than three years, and at the end of that period, instead of doing well, he committed the foulest of all crimes. To do well is an art, and, like every other art, it can be mastered only by deliberate efforts of the will [354] This is the testimony both of Scripture and experience. (See preceding outline.)

[348] The process of being born again is like that which a portrait goes through under the hand of the artist. When a man is converted, he is but the outline sketch of a character which he is to fill up. He first lays in the dead colouring. Then comes the work of laying in the colours, and he goes on, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, blending them, and heightening the effect. It is a life’s work; and when he dies he is still laying in and blending the colours, and heightening the effect. And if men suppose the work is done when they are converted, why should we expect anything but lopsided Christian character?—Beecher.

[351] God deals in spiritual proceedings, as in natural, to extremes by the mean. We are not born old men; but first an infant, then a man, then old. We are conceived of immortal seed, born of the Spirit, so go on to perfection. There is first a seed, then a plant, then a tree. We get not at one jump into heaven, nor at one stroke kill the enemy.—Adams, 1653.

[354] Cast a sponge into water, and, the fluid filling its empty cells, it swells out before our eyes, increases more and more. There is no effort here, and could be none; for though once a living animal, the sponge is now dead and dry. But it is not as sponges fill with water, nor to use a Scripture figure often employed, and sometimes misapplied, as Gideon’s fleece was filled with dews, that God’s people are replenished with His grace. More is needed than simply to bring ourselves in contact with ordinances, to read the Bible, to repair on Sabbath to Church, to sit down in communion seasons at the Lord’s table.—Guthrie.

Who starts up a finished Christian? The very best men come from their graves, like Lazarus, “bound with grave-clothes”—not like Jesus, who left the death-dress behind Him; and, alas! in their remaining corruptions all carry some of these cerements about with them, nor drop them but at the gate of heaven.—Guthrie.

II. To do well is a thing that may be learned. Not all persons, however earnest their desires or persevering their efforts, can become poets, painters, statesmen, orators. But to do well is an art in which all regenerate persons may become proficient, some with greater ease than others, but to none is the task impossible. There is no vice which a regenerate man may not lay aside, no excellence to which he may not attain.

III. To do well is a thing that must be learned. It is an imperative demand which God makes upon all His people. We cannot satisfy it by “ceasing to do evil.” It is not enough for the “branches” of the True Vine not to bring forth “wild grapes;” they must bear fruit—much fruit—to the glory of the Husbandman (John 15:8). Not only must Christ’s followers be “blameless,” they must be conspicuous for excellence. “Let your light so SHINE before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” These truths being settled in our minds, let us ask ourselves.

IV. How this noblest of arts may be acquired.

1. By setting before ourselves, and carefully studying, the noblest models. Thus do those who would become proficient in other arts: music, painting, sculpture, architecture, &c. Now the great Master in the art of well-doing was our Lord Jesus Christ: we must therefore study Him aud His works. But as it is often a help to the discovery of the secrets of a great master’s excellences to study the works of his disciples, as thus our attention is sometimes directed to points we might otherwise overlook, and as by the contrast between him and them, even when they have done their best, we get a clearer view of his transcendent power—so it will be helpful to us to study the character of Christ’s noblest disciples [357] however, coming back to the study of His character, remembering that we shall succeed in doing well only in proportion as we become like Him.

2. By becoming imbued with the principles by which the great masters in this art were animated. Mere mechanical imitation is always a poor thing, and often a grotesque and pitiable thing; because circumstances are continually varying. What kind of an English home would the most exact reproduction of the most beautiful of all classic villas be? The architect who forgot that the climate of England is not that of Rome or Athens would be accounted a fool. Yet many professed imitators of Christ have fallen into a similar mistake: they have imitated merely the outward circumstances of His life, and have forgotten that the essential thing is to have “the mind that was in Christ.” When we have that, all else will follow as a matter of course. Now the great principle which governed Christ and His noblest disciples was love—love to God and man: a docile love, which did not seek to please God in its way, but in His way, and evermore searched the Scriptures to discover upon what things God looks with delight.

3. By patient and persevering endeavours to embody in our practice the truths we have thus discovered. Only by such endeavours can the mastery in any art be won.

4. By fidelity in little things. The master’s ease is reached only by the student’s painstaking—by his careful endeavour to be right in each individual note, line, shade, stroke, word. It is thus, and thus only, that the habit of doing well is gained.

[357] God hath provided and recommended to us one example as a perfect standard of good practice—the example of our Lord. That indeed is the most universal, absolute, and assured pattern; yet doth it not supersede the use of other examples. Not only the valour and conduct of the general, but those of inferior officers, yea the resolution of common soldiers, doth serve to animate their fellows. The stars have their season to guide us as well as the sun; especially when our eyes are so weak as hardly to bear the day. Even considering our infirmity, inferior examples by their imperfection sometimes have a peculiar advantage. Our Lord’s most imitable practice did proceed from an immense virtue of Divine grace which we cannot arrive to; it is in itself so perfect and high, that we may not ever reach it: looking upon it may therefore sometimes dazzle and discourage our weakness. But other good men had assistance in measure such as we may hope to approach unto; they were subject to the difficulties which we feel; they were exposed to the perils of falling which we fear; we may therefore hope to march on in a reasonable distance after them; we may, by help of the same grace, come near in transcribing their less exact copy.—Barrow, 1630–1677.

V. Let us remember certain things for our encouragement.

1. We are not left to learn this art alone: we have the constant help of the most reasonable, patient, and successful of all teachers. We are disciples of Christ. How much that means! He does not expect us to become proficients in a few lessons. He remembers that the most advanced of us are only little children in His great school. If He sees in us the earnest desire and the resolute endeavour to learn, He is well satisfied [360] He will most carefully adapt His methods of instruction to our individual capacity. He will lead us on to the goal step by step. Already in countless thousands of instances He has dealt successfully with most intractable materials: scholars who seemed hopelessly dull and inapt He has so instructed that they have passed the great examination that awaits us all at death; and they are now carrying on their studies in the great university of heaven.

2. In no other art does progress bring so much happiness: the testimony of a good conscience; consciousness of the approval of God; a pleasant retrospect; brightening hopes.

3. In no other art does proficiency ensure such rich rewards. Proficiency in any other art can but win for us the honours and joys of earth; proficiency in this will secure for us the honours and joys of heaven. It is one great doctrine of Scripture, that we are saved through our faith: it is another, that we are rewarded according to our works.

[360] Gotthold observed a boy in a writing-school eyeing attentively the line placed before him, and labouring to write with equal correctness and beauty. Mark, said he to the bystanders, how all perfection is the offspring of imperfection, and how by frequent mistakes we learn to do well. It is not required of this boy that his penmanship shall equal that of the line. He satisfies his master by the pains he takes; for these are a ground of hope that he will progressively improve, and at last learn to write with rapidity and elegance. We also have a pattern to copy. It has been left us by the Lord Jesus Christ, and is His most perfect and holy life. And think not that He exacts more from us than the teacher does from the pupil. No, indeed; if He find us carefully studying His example, and diligent in our endeavours to imitate it, He exercises forbearance towards our faults, and by His grace and Spirit daily strengthens us to amend.—Scriver, 1629–1693.

THE OPPRESSED AND THEIR RELIEF

Isaiah 1:17. Relieve the oppressed.

Religion means sympathy with man in his oppressed condition. The truth alone can give men freedom.

I. The oppressed.

1. There are those oppressed by sinful habits. Many men are their own tyrants. They build their own prison, make their own fetters, and whip themselves. Their oppression is the consequence of their sin. Such are to be relieved, however little they may appear to desire or deserve it, by the compassion of the good.

2. There are those oppressed by commercial difficulty. There are many men whose commercial life is one continuous struggle to get on, and to provide things honest in the sight of the world. They have small capital. Fortune seems against them. They are active, but they do not succeed. Such ought to be relieved by the generous consideration of the good.

3. There are those oppressed by domestic misfortune. The wife has lost her husband. The children have buried their parents. They are out alone in the wide world. They are liable to the thoughtless but stern oppression of men. Such must be relieved by the good.

4. There are those oppressed by religious bigotry. There are many great souls who are larger than a sect, oppressed by the conventionally orthodox. They are driven from their pulpits. They are excommunicated from their synagogue. They need the relief of true sympathy.

II. Their relief.

1. By personal sympathy [363] Genuine sympathy is always a relief to an oppressed soul [366] It heals the soul and lightens its burden [369] A kind word, a cheering look, is welcome to the oppressed.

2. By intelligent advocacy. The cause of the oppressed should be advocated where it is likely to be redressed. Politics can be employed in no higher ministry than in seeking the relief of the oppressed.

3. By practical help. Sympathy must not be substituted for personal and self-denying help. Words are well; smiles are welcome; but personal help is the most effective to the removal of oppression.—J. S. Exell.

[363] We are all sons of one Father, members of one body, and heirs of one kingdom, in respect of which near-linking together there should be compassion and sympathy betwixt us. If one member do but grieve, all suffer with it. When a thorn is got into the foot, how is it that the back bows, the eyes pry into the hurt, and the hands are busied to pluck out the cause of the anguish? And we, being members of one another, should bear with and forbear one the other, the not doing whereof will stick as a brand upon our souls that we are of the number of them that have forsaken the fear of the Almighty.—Spencer, 1658.

[366] Certain it is, that as nothing can better do it, so there is nothing greater, for which God made our tongues, next to reciting His praises, than to minister comfort to a weary soul. And what greater pleasure can we have than that we should bring joy to our brother, who, with his dreary eyes, looks to heaven and round about, and cannot find so much rest as to lay his eyelids close together, than that thy tongue should be tuned with heavenly accents, and make the weary soul to listen for light and ease; and when he perceives that there is such a thing in the world, and in the order of things as comfort and joy, to begin to break out from the prison of his sorrows, at the door of sighs and tears, and, by little and little, melts into showers and refreshment? This is glory to thy voice and employment fit for the brightest angel. But so have I seen the sun kiss the frozen earth, which was bound up with images of death, and the colder breath of the north; and then the waters break from their enclosures, and melt with joy, and run in useful channels; and the flies do rise again from their little graves in the walls, and dance awhile in the air, to tell that there is joy within, and that the great mother of creatures will open the stock of her new refreshment, become useful to mankind, and sing praises to her Redeemer: so is the heart of a sorrowful man under the discourses of a wise comforter; he breaks from the despairs of the grave, and the fetters and chains of sorrow; he blesses God, and he blesses thee, and he feels his life returning: for to be miserable is death, but nothing is life but to be comforted: and God is pleased with no music from below so much as in the thanksgiving songs of relieved widows, of supported orphans, of rejoicing and comforted and thankful persons.—Jeremy Taylor, 1612–1667.

[369] Till we have reflected on it, we are scarcely aware how much the sum of human happiness in the world is indebted to this one feeling—sympathy. We get cheerfulness and vigour, we scarcely know how or when, from mere association with our fellow-men; and from the looks reflected on us of gladness and enjoyment we catch inspiration and power to go on, from human presence and from cheerful looks. The workman works with added energy from having others by. The full family circle has a strength and a life peculiarly its own. The substantial good and the effectual relief which men extend to one another is trifling. It is not by these, but by something far less costly, that the work is done. God has ensured it by a much more simple machinery. He has given to the weakest and the poorest power to contribute largely to the common stock of gladness. The child’s smile and laugh are mighty powers in this world. When bereavement has left you desolate, what substantial benefit is there which makes condolence acceptable? It cannot replace the loved ones you have lost. It can bestow upon you nothing permanent. But a warm hand has touched yours, and its thrill told you that there was a living response there to your emotion. One look, one human sigh, has done more for you than the costliest present could convey.—Robertson, 1816–1853.

GOD’S IDEAL OF GOODNESS

Isaiah 1:17. Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.

This verse is more correctly translated thus—“Learn to do well; seek judgment, restrain the oppressor, right the fatherless, maintain the cause of the widow,”—or, “Learn to do good; seek out judgment, redress wrong, judge the fatherless, befriend the widow.”

The form of these admonitions was determined by the sins of which the rulers of Jerusalem had been guilty. By them the course of justice had been perverted (Isaiah 1:23; Micah 3:11, &c.); wrongs had been left unredressed, and oppressors unrestrained; the orphans and the widows, having neither money to bribe nor power to overawe the corrupt judges, had sought in vain for justice,—such judges as our Lord has depicted in His parable (Luke 18:2) were common. The four specific admonitions of this verse are a divinely-inspired exposition of the general admonition with which it commences. So regarded, we find in it God’s ideal of goodness. The command is given, “Learn to do well.” Yes, but what is meant by learning to do well? “To do well,” says the prophet, is “to seek out judgment, to restrain the oppressor, to judge the fatherless, to befriend the widow.”

This Divine ideal of goodness is in startling opposition to certain standards of excellence widely accepted both in the Church and in the world. It, is in opposition

(1) to the idea that a good man is one who does no harm. How prevalent is the notion that a man who refrains from injuring his neighbours is a person worthy of high commendation! But to do no harm merely is to fall far short of the Scripture standard of excellence [372] It is in opposition

(2) to the idea that a man who confines himself to the cultivation of personal virtues is a true follower of Christ. In all our Churches there are multitudes of persons whose “religion” is a purely selfish consideration. They have been taught that certain excellences are necessary to qualify them for admission to heaven, and to the cultivation of these excellences they address themselves assiduously, merely that they may secure their own eternal well-being. But such persons fail to observe that the mind that was in Christ was not a spirit of self-seeking but of self-sacrifice. It is in opposition

(3) to the idea that the more spiritual a man is, the more indifferent he will be to what happens in the world. It is precisely to concern as to what happens in the world that we are here called. We are to “seek out justice,” to use all our influence that justice and righteousness shall prevail in the community in which we dwell. We are not simply to mourn over wrongs; we are to redress them, and we are to restrain the oppressors. Especially are we to see to it that justice is done to the orphans, and to all helpless ones such as they. The widow we are to befriend; she is to be our “client,” and we are to see to it that she is not wronged because God has been pleased to remove her natural defender. To live thus for others, to be the friend of the friendless, the defender of the weak, the resolute opposer of all oppressors,—this, and this only, is to realise the Divine ideal of goodness ([375]).

[372] He is not half a saint who is but a negative saint. The forbearance of gross corruptions is the easiest and least part of religion, and therefore will not speak any man in a state of salvation. The tree that is barren and without good fruit is for the fire, as well as the tree that brings forth evil fruit.
[375] A religion that does not take hold of the life that now is, is like a cloud that does not rain. A cloud may roll in grandeur, and be an object of admiration, but if it does not rain, it is of little account so far as utility is concerned. And a religion that consists in the observance of magnificent ceremonies, but that does not touch the duties of daily life, is a religion of show and of sham.—Beecher.

For men to think to excuse themselves that they do no hurt, wrong neither man, woman, or child, and are not, as the Pharisee said, as the publicans, who generally were oppressors, is but a vain, foolish thing. The idle servant might have said, “Lord, I did no harm with my talent; I did not lay it out in rioting and drunkenness, or any way to Thy dishonour; I only hid it, and did not improve it,”—yet this was enough to condemn him. Can we call ground good ground for bearing no weeds, if it never bring forth good corn? Or do we count that servant a good servant who doth not wrong his master in his estate by purloining or wasting it, if he live idle all day, and neglect the business his master appoints him?—Swinnock, 1673.

APPLICATION.—

1. Men are good precisely in proportion as they are like God [376] Between a merely “harmless” man and God there is no resemblance. Between a man who lives only to secure his own well-being and God there is a positive contrast. Between a man who is indifferent to the sorrows and the wrongs of his fellow-men there is a still greater contrast. He is not indifferent to what takes place on earth. It is His supreme glory that He burns with indignation against oppression, and that He is the friend especially of the friendless and the weak (Psalms 146:7-9; Psalms 147:2-6). It is to resemblance to Him in these things, and not merely in abstinence from evil, that we are called (James 1:27).

2. A selfish life is a godless life. Men may be eminently respectable members of society, and highly esteemed members of churches, and yet be utterly unlike God. Men who live only for themselves, or to promote the happiness merely of their own households, and selfishly decline to take any part in philanthropic labours, or in social and political movements which have for their object the removal of public wrongs, are utterly out of sympathy with Him upon whose approval they reckon so confidently and so mistakenly. Had they any true love for God, they would have an unselfish love for men, and would be quick to feel and to resent the wrongs that are done them (1 John 3:14, &c.) Dives was probably a highly respectable citizen of Jerusalem, and on good terms with the authorities of the temple, but the selfishness of his life sufficed at the last to exclude him from the Divine presence [379]

3. A godlike life can never be a life of ease. How many members of our churches have incurred Christ’s woe! (Luke 6:26). Prudent men, they have been careful never to “meddle” in affairs of their neighbours; they have never identified themselves with any revolutionary movements; against wrongs which have not troubled themselves they have never uttered words of flaming indignation! And yet they imagine themselves to be followers of Him who spoke of “the cross” which each of His disciples would have to carry. What He meant by this saying is a mystery to them. But let them begin to endeavour to “learn to do well” in the manner pointed out in the text, and this saying of His will be a mystery to them no longer. The world will very soon hate them even as it hated Him. But this is one of the surest signs that we are His (John 15:18-19).

[376] To be godly is to be godlike. The full accord of all the soul with His character, in whom, as their native home, dwell “whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely,” and the full conformity of the will to His sovereign will, who is the life of our lives—this, and nothing shallower, nothing narrower, is religion in its perfection, and the measure in which we have attained to this harmony with God is the measure in which we are Christians. As two stringed instruments may be so tuned to one keynote that if you strike the one, a faint ethereal echo is heard from the other, which blends undistinguishably with its parent sound; so drawing near to God, and brought into unison with His mind and will, our responsive spirits vibrate in accord with His, and give forth tones, low and thin indeed, but still repeating the mighty music of heaven.—Maclaren.

[379] They are selfish—because they have no motive of action beyond themselves. They individualise existence. The spider weaves a web, and that is its world. It retires into its corner for observation, and has no concern for any surrounding objects, except as they may be caught upon its net, and appropriated to its use. So they who live without God reticulate life with selfishness. Nothing concerns them except as it may he drawn into the mesh of scheming for ministering to their own wants and wishes.—Bellew.

Verse 18

GOD’S GRACIOUS INVITATION TO SINNERS

Isaiah 1:18. Come now, and. let us reason together, saith the Lord; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow: though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

It is scarcely possible to conceive of a more interesting and delightful exhibition of the love and mercy of God than is presented to us in these words; unless they had been found in the volume of eternal truth, we might have justly doubted their veracity. For the speaker is Jehovah, a Being infinitely happy and glorious in Himself. He needs not, on His own account, the return of the sinner to Himself. Besides, He is the offended party. How marvellous, then, that He should stoop to ask reconciliation with poor wretched man, the rebel and traitor against heaven. Notice—
I. The characters addressed. Not such as excel in moral excellency, but the vilest and most degraded of sinners. How apt we are to think that such are past reclamation. Yet it is to these that the invitation of our text is addressed—those whose sins are as scarlet and crimson. This description includes—

1. Those whose sins are glaring and manifest. In the heart of men there is much evil that man or angel never sees. External circumstances act in the moral world as the shore to the ocean, limiting and bounding its waters. The control thus exerted upon men is well for them, for society, and for the Church. But numbers cast it off, sin in open day, and glory in their shame. Their sins are as scarlet or as crimson.

2. Those whose iniquities are specially productive of much evil and misery—ringleaders in sin; ridiculers of piety, who labour to throng the road to hell; ungodly masters; ungodly heads of households, &c.

3. Those who have sinned against great privileges and mercies (Matthew 11:20-24.) As it is with nations and cities, so it is with individuals [382] How many have had privileges of a high character—pious parents, religious society, a faithful ministry, special providences, &c.

4. Backsliders, who by their fall have hardened others in iniquity, and caused them to scoff at religion.

5. Aged transgressors.

[382] All our sins are of a “crimson dye, for remember, it is not needful to have steeped our hands in a brother’s blood to make our guilt “scarlet.” God measures sins by privileges. One evil thought in one man is as much as a thousand crimes in auother man.—Vaughan.

II. The invitation presented. “Come and let us reason,” &c. He wishes to have your state and condition tested by reason. He gives you opportunities of self-defence; he is willing to hear all your motives, arguments, &c. Now, will you come to God, and reason with Him? What will you say?

1. You cannot plead ignorance. You have seen the evil of your way, and yet have chosen it.

2. You cannot plead necessity. The Jews of old declared that they were not free agents, and that they could not help committing the sins of which they were guilty (Jeremiah 7:10). This is the grossest self-deception. It cannot be the will of God that you should do evil (1 Thessalonians 4:3; James 1:13; 1 Peter 1:16). To attribute our sins to Him is the most outrageous impiety. You have sinned freely; it has been your own act and choice.

3. You must plead guilty. Cast yourself on the mercy of God, pleading guilty, you shall not be condemned, if—

4. You plead the merits of Christ. He is “the propitiation for our sin.” Here is your hope, your plea. In availing yourself of this plea, all that God requires is repentance and faith.

III. The gracious promise.—Jabez Burns, D.D., Pulpit Cyclopœdia, iii. 161–165.

CLEANSING FOR THE VILEST

Isaiah 1:18. Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

We are informed by the Rabbins that the high priest bound a scarlet fillet round the neck of the scapegoat, and that when the priest confessed his own sins and the sins of the people, the fillet became white if the atonement was accepted by God, but that if it was not accepted, the fillet remained scarlet still. The Rabbins further say that the goat was led about twelve furlongs out of Jerusalem, where it was thrown down a precipice, and was mangled to atoms by the fall. In case of the sacrifice being received by Heaven, a scarlet ribbon which hung at the door of the temple changed from scarlet to pure white. They affirm that it is to this changing of the fillet and ribbon from scarlet to white that Isaiah refers in our text. While we regard these as fictions, and not as facts, they serve to illustrate the nature and greatness of the change spoken of in it.

I. Scarlet and crimson represent sins of excessive and glaring notoriety.

1. The soul has been steeped in the dyeing element.
2. It has carried away as much of the dyeing quality as it can hold. It is twice dipped in the dye-vat.
3. The sins glare and arrest the eye like scarlet in the sun. As the uniform of the British soldier is most conspicuous, so these sins glare in the eye
(1) of society
(2) of conscience,
(3) of Divine justice.

II. Scarlet and crimson symbolise the fast and permanent hold of these sins upon the soul.

1. The sins are not a stain but a dye.

2. The sins are not superficial: they have penetrated into the fabric, every thread of which has been dyed. The faculties are the threads: the whole man the web.
3. The sins are not typified by any dye, but by scarlet and crimson, which are as permanent as the fabric they colour. They resist sun, dew, rain, the wash.

III. Scarlet and crimson becoming white as snow represents the perfect removal of the greatest sins. The colouring element is removed. The soul is restored. The power that removes the sin yet saves the soul. Application.—There is hope, then, even for the vilest. The most desperately sinful need not despair [385]J. Stirling.

[385] In nature there is hardly a stone that is not capable of crystallising into something purer and brighter than its normal state. Coal, by a slightly different arrangement of its particles, is capable of becoming the radiant diamond. The slag cast out from the furnace as useless waste forms into globular masses of radiating crystals. From tar and pitch the loveliest colours are now manufactured. The very mud of the road, trampled under foot as the type of all impurity, can be changed by chemical art into metals and gems of surpassing beauty; and so the most unpromising materials, the most worthless moral rubbish that men cast out and despise, may be converted by the Divine alchemy into the gold of the sanctuary, and made jewels fit for the mediatorial crown of the Redeemer. Let the case of Mary Magdalene, of John Newton, of John Bunyan, of thousands more, encourage those who are still in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity. Seek to be subjected to the same purifying process; lay yourselves open to the same spiritual influences; yield yourselves up into the hands of the Spirit to become His finished and exquisite workmanship; seek diligently a saving and sanctifying union with Christ by faith, and He will perfect that which concerneth you, and lay your stones with fair colours (Psalms 68:13).—Macmillan.

COMFORT FOR THE DESPONDING

Isaiah 1:18. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

Some are kept in a desponding state—
I. By the views they entertain of the sovereignty of God and the doctrine of election. But—

1. The election of God, whatever it is, is an election unto life, and not unto destruction. It should therefore be a source of encouragement, not discouragement: it should awaken hope and joy, rather than despondency.

2. God’s election is His rule of action, not yours: yours is the Bible [388]

3. The thing you are required to believe in order to salvation is not your election, but God’s truth.
4. In your present state you have nothing to do with election [391] but if you will entertain the question, the evidence is much more in favour of your election than against it.

[388] Whatever the decrees of God be concerning the eternal state of men, since they are secret to us, they can certainly be no rule either of our duty or comfort. And no man hath reason to think himself rejected of God who does not find the marks of reprobation in himself—I mean an evil heart and life. By this, indeed, a man may know that he is out of God’s favour for the present; but he hath no reason at all from hence to conclude that God hath from all eternity and for ever cast him off. That God calls him to repentance, and affords him the space and means of it, is a much plainer sign that God is willing to have mercy upon him, than anything else can be that God hath utterly cast him off. For men to judge of their condition by the decrees of God, which are hid from us, and not by His Word, which is near us, is as if a man wandering in the wide sea in a dark night, when the heaven is all clouded, should resolve to steer his course by the stars which he cannot see, but only guess at, and neglect the compass which is at hand, and would afford him much better and more certain direction.—Tillotson, 1630–1694.

[391] We have no ground at first to trouble ourselves about God’s election. “Secret things belong to God.” God’s revealed will is, that all who believe in Christ shall not perish. It is my duty, therefore, knowing this, to believe: by doing whereof I put that question, whether God be mine or no? out of all question, for all that believe in Christ are Christ’s, and all that are Christ’s are God’s. It is not my duty to look to God’s secret counsel, but to His open offer, invitation, and command, and thereupon adventure my soul. In war men will venture their lives, because they think some will escape, and why not they? In traffic beyond the seas many adventure a great estate, because some grow rich by a good return, though some miscarry. The husbandman adventures his seed, though sometimes the year proves so bad that he never sees it more. And shall not we make a spiritual adventure, in casting ourselves upon God, when we have so good a warrant as His command, and so good an encouragement as His promise, that He will not fail those that rely on Him?—Sibbes, 1577–1635.

II. By the views they take of certain isolated passages of Scripture (Matthew 12:31-32; Hebrews 12:17; Proverbs 1:24-31). Not one of these passages, rightly understood, need quench your hope. Where there is one obscure passage that seems to make against you, there is a hundred which plainly and positively tell you that if you turn you shall live, if you believe you shall be saved.

III. By an apprehension that their repentance has not been deep enough. But—

1. The genuineness of your repentance is not to be estimated by the pungency of your feelings [394]

2. It is not the depth of your feelings that is your warrant to come to Christ.
3. Your penitential feelings will not be likely to be increased by staying away from Christ.

[394] I see no reason to call in question the truth and sincerity of that man’s repentance who hates sin and forsakes it, and returns to God and his duty, though he cannot shed tears, and express the bitterness of his soul by the same significations that a mother does in the loss of her only son. He that cannot weep like a child may resolve like a man, and that undoubtedly will find acceptance with God. Two persons walking together espy a serpent; the one shrieks and cries out at the sight of it, the other kills it. So is it with sorrow for sin: some express it by great lamentations and tears, and vehement transports of passion; others by greater and more real effects of detestation—by forsaking their sins, by mortifying and subduing their lusts; but he that kills it doth certainly best express his inward enmity against it.—Tillotson, 1630–1694.

IV. By the fear that they have gone too far and sinned too much to be forgiven. But, admitting the very worst you can say of yourself, there is everything in the character of God, in the work of Christ, in the power of the Spirit, in the experience of other sinners [397] in the promises of the Bible, to inspire and sustain your hope.—John Corbin.

[397] Oh who can read of a Manasseh, a Magdalene, a Saul, yea, an Adam, who undid himself and a whole world with him, in the roll of pardoned sinners, and yet turn away from the promise, out of a fear that there is not mercy in it to serve his turn? These are landmarks that show what large boundaries mercy hath set to itself, and how far it hath gone, even to take into its arms the greatest sinners that make not themselves incapable thereof by final impenitency. It were a healthful walk, poor doubting Christian, for thy soul to go this circuit, and oft see where the utmost stone is laid and boundary set by God’s pardoning mercy, beyond which He will not go.—Gurnall, 1617–1679.

SIN AND GRACE

Isaiah 1:18. Come now, and let us reason together, smith the Lord: Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

For an exposition of the symbolism of this verse, see note [400]

[400] Jehovah here challenges Israel to a formal trial: nocach is thus used in a reciprocal sense, and with the same meaning as nishpat in Isaiah 43:26 (Ges. § 51, 2). In such a trial Israel must lose, for Israel’s self-righteousness rests upon sham righteousness; and this sham righteousness, when rightly examined, is but unrighteousness dripping with blood. It is taken for granted that this must be the result of the investigation. Israel is therefore worthy of death. Yet Jehovah will not treat Israel according to His retributive justice, but according to His free compassion. He will remit the punishment, and not only regard the sin as not existing, but change it into its very opposite. The reddest possible sin shall become, through His mercy, the purest white. On the two hiphils here applied to colour, see Ges. § 53, 2; though he gives the meaning incorrectly, viz., “to take a colour,” whereas the words signify rather to emit a colour, not colorem accipere, but colorem dare. Shâne, bright red (the plural Shânim, as in Proverbs 31:21, signifies materials dyed with shâni) and tolâ, warm colour, are simply different names for the same colour, viz., the crimson obtained from the cochineal insect, color coccineus.

The representation of the work of grace promised by God as a change from red to white is founded upon the symbolism of colours, quite as much as when the saints in the Revelation (Isaiah 19:8) are described as clothed in white raiment, whilst the clothing of Babylon is purple and scarlet (Isaiah 17:4). Red is the colour of fire, and therefore of life: the blood is red because life is a fiery process. For this reason the heifer, from which the ashes of purification were obtained for those who had been defiled through contact with the dead, was to be red; and the sprinkling-bush, with which the unclean were sprinkled, was to be tied around with a band of scarlet wool. But red, as contrasted with white, the colour of light (Matthew 17:2), is the colour of selfish, covetous, passionate life, which is self-seeking in its nature, which goes out of itself only to destroy, and drives about with wild tempestuous violence: it is therefore the colour of wrath and sin. It is generally supposed that Isaiah speaks of red as the colour of sin, because sin ends in murder; and this is not really wrong, though it is too restricted. Sin is called red, inasmuch as it is a burning heat which consumes a man, and when it breaks forth consumes his fellow-man as well. According to the biblical view, throughout, sin stands in the same relation to what is well-pleasing to God, and wrath in the same relation to love or grace, as fire to light; and therefore as red to white, or black to white, for red and black are colours which border upon one another. In the Song of Solomon (Isaiah 7:5), the black locks of Shulamith are described as being “like purple,” and Homer applies the same epithet to the dark waves of the sea. But the ground of this relation lies deeper still. Red is the colour of fire, which flashes out of darkness and returns to it again; whereas white, without any admixture of darkness, represents the pure, absolute triumph of light. It is a deeply significant symbol of the act of justification. Jehovah offers to Israel an actio forensis, out of which it shall come forth justified by grace, although it has merited death on account of its sins. The righteousness, white as snow and wool, with which Israel comes forth, is a gift conferred upon it out of pure compassion, without being conditional upon any legal performance whatever.—Delitsch, Commentary on Isaiah, vol. i. pp. 98, 99.

A subordinate point in the imagery is, that scarlet and crimson were the firmest of dyes, least capable of being washed out.—Dr. Kay.

I. THE WONDERS OF DIVINE CONDESCENSION.

1. How marvellous that God should condescend to “reason” with sinful men! Not thus do human governments deal with rebels against their authority. The stern proclamation goes forth, “Submit, or die.” To admit helpless rebels to a conference on equal terms (such as “reasoning” implies) is an idea that never occurs to earthly sovereigns; but (Isaiah 55:8-9)—

2. How marvellous that God should invite sinful men to reason with Him, with a view to reconciliation with them! The result of such an investigation of their conduct could only be their condemnation; but this is not God’s ultimate design. He does not desire to humiliate sinners, but to bring them to repentance and confession, in order that it may be possible for Him to pardon them. According to human standards, it would have been a great thing had God been willing to be reconciled to those who have offended Him so grievously; but how astonishing is this, that He, the offended party, should seek to reconcile the offenders to Himself. (2 Corinthians 5:18-19; John 3:19).

II. THE POSSIBILITIES OF HUMAN SIN. “Though your sins be as scarlet … though they be red like crimson.” Sins that take complete possession of a man, and that are conspicuous to the public eye, may be described as crimson and scarlet sins. How common such sins are! What a spectacle the human race must present to angelic eyes! Scarlet and crimson sins are more common than we are apt to suppose, because responsibility is in proportion to privilege. In proportion to the sinner’s light is the sinner’s guilt. Consequently that which is a trivial fault in one man may be a crimson sin in another. When an offence is contrary to a man’s whole training, though it may be a small matter in the sight of man, it may be as scarlet and crimson sin in the sight of God. In these possibilities of human sin we have—

1. A reason for universal watchfulness. Taken even in its most obvious sense, the possibility of which our text speaks is the possibility of every man. There is no human being who may not fall into crime. Many men, after living half a century blamelessly in the sight of men, suddenly yield to temptation, and are consigned to felons’ cells. David was no stripling when he committed his great transgression. Said Hazael, “Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this thing?” Yet he did it! (2 Kings 8:13, &c.) Peter rejected Christ’s warning as incredible. Therefore (Romans 11:20; 1 Corinthians 10:12) [403]

2. A reason for universal humiliation and prayer. Just because our privileges have been so great, God may put a very different estimate upon our transgressions than we are disposed to do. Therefore let us humbly seek pardon for the past, and preventing grace for the future (Psalms 19:12-13).

[403] The strong men are fallen; even Solomon himself, and David, and Noah, and Lot, and Samson, and Peter, the lights of the world, fell like stars from heaven. These tall cedars, strong oaks, fair pillars, lie in the dust, whose tops glittered in the air; that “they which think they stand may take heed lest they fall.” Can I look upon these ruins without compassion? or remember them without fear, unless I be a reprobate, and my heart of flint? Who am I that I should stand like a shrub, when these cedars are blown down to the ground, and showed themselves but men? The best man is but a man: the worst are worse than beasts. No man is untainted but Christ. They who had greater gifts than we, they who had deeper roots than we, they who had stronger hearts than we, they who had more props than we, are fallen like a bird which is weary of her flight, and turned back like the wind, in the twinkling of an eye. What shall we do then, when we hear of other men’s faults? Not talk of them as we do, but beware by them, and think—Am I better than he? Am I stronger than Samson? Am I wiser than Solomon? Am I chaster than David? Am I soberer than Noah? Am I firmer than Peter? There is no salt but may lose its saltness, no wine but may lose its strength, no flower but may lose its scent, no light but may be eclipsed, no beauty but may be stained, no fruit but may be blasted, no soul but may be corrupted. We stand all in a slippery place, where it is easy to slide and hard to get up.—Henry Smith, 1592.

III. THE CERTAINTIES OF DIVINE GRACE. “They shall be as white as snow.” Where sin abounds, grace shall more abound. In God there is mercy to pardon every sin [406] and grace to cleanse from every form and degree of moral pollution. Here, then, we have—

1. A reason for repentance. There is no argument so powerful as this: God is ready to forgive. Many a prodigal has been deterred from saying, “I will arise and go to my father,” by a remembrance of his father’s sternness, and by a doubt as to whether his father would receive him. But no such doubt need deter us. We are not called to the exercises of a sorrow that will be unavailing. Our Father waits to be gracious [409] Hear His solemn and touching message (Isaiah 55:6-7; TEXT).

2. An encouragement for those who are striving after moral purity. Many who try to live a Christian life grow discouraged. There are discouragements that come from without: the constant recurrence of temptation, the unfavourable spiritual atmosphere in which they live, the glaring inconsistencies of some of the professing Christians by whom they are surrounded, the low tone of the spiritual life of those whose conduct is not so open to censure. Still sorer discouragements come from within: the faults that will not be shaken off; the evil tendencies that will manifest themselves; the evil thoughts that will keep welling up from the fountain of the heart, revealing its intense depravity. These things are carefully hidden from men, but God knows them, and the believer knows them, and because of them is apt to grow discouraged. It seems to him that he can never be “made meet for the inheritance of the saints in light.” But God has declared that he shall be: God has undertaken to perfect him in purity. “Be of good courage, all ye that hope in the Lord.” God is able to make all grace abound toward you, and He is faithful to all His promises. See what He has promised in our text. He has already fulfilled this promise in innumerable cases (Revelation 7:9), and He will fulfil it in yours. Be not discouraged because your moral progress is so slow. How long does the sun shine on the fruit seemingly in vain! All the summer the peach remains hard as a stone. But the sun is not shining in vain. Some week in the autumn this is seen. All at once it softens and becomes ripe; not as the result of that one week’s sun, but of all the sunlight and warmth of the preceding weeks. The chestnut opens in a night; but for months the opening process is going on. In a moment many chemicals seem to crystallise, but the process of crystallisation goes on long before it becomes apparent. So there is a ripening, a crystallising, a cleansing process going on in the heart of the believer: though we see it not now, Yet we shall have ample proof of it by and by. In this matter walk by faith, not by sight. Be of good courage! We shall yet be “white as snow.”

[406] Man may be willing to forgive a mite, the Lord a million; three hundred pence and ten thousand talents are all one to His mercy.—Adams, 1653.

[409] Joy is the highest testimony that can be given to our complacency in any thing or person. Love or joy is a fuel to the fire; if love lay little fuel of desires on the heart, then the flame of joy that comes thence will not be great. Now God’s joy is great in pardoning poor sinners that come in; therefore His affection is great in the offer thereof. It is made the very motive that prevails with God to pardon sinners, “Because He delighteth in mercy,” “Who is a God like unto Thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He retaineth not His anger for ever, for He delighteth in mercy.” God doth all this, “because He delighteth in mercy.”

Ask why the fisher stands all night with his angle in the river; he will tell you, because he delights in the sport. Well, you know now the reason why God stands so long waiting on sinners, months, years, preaching to them; it is that He may be gracious in pardoning them, and in that act delight Himself. Princes very often pardon traitors to please others more than themselves, or else it would never be done; but God doth it chiefly to delight and gladden His own merciful heart. Hence the business Christ came about (which was no other but to reconcile sinners to God) is called “the pleasure of the Lord” (Isaiah 53:10).—Gurnall, 1617–1679.

Many people get a wrong idea of God by thinking of Him as infinite only in justice and power; but infinite applies to the feelings of God as much as to the stretch of His right hand. There is nothing in His nature which is not measureless. Many think God sits brooding in heaven, as storms brood in summer skies, full of bolts and rain, and believe that they must come to Him under the covert of some apology, or beneath some umbrellaed excuse, lest the clouds should break, and the tempest overwhelm them. But when men repent towards God, they go not to storms, but to serene and tranquil skies, and to a Father who waits to receive them with all tenderness and delicacy and love. His eye is not dark with vengeance, nor His heart turbulent with wrath; and to repent towards His justice and vindictiveness must always be from a lower motive than to repent towards His generosity and love. When you wish to please God, treat Him as one who feels sorry for sinners; treat Him as one who longs to help those who need help; go to Him confidingly. No matter how bad you are—the worse the better. Old Martin Luther said, “I bless God for my sins.” He would never have had such a sense of the pardoning mercy of God if he had not himself been sinful. By as much as you are wicked, God is glorious in restoring you to purity. Let Him do for you those things which are the most generous and magnanimous, and that will please Him best. He is a Being whose feelings and affections move on such vast lines of latitude and longitude, that the more you presume upon His goodness, and cast yourself before Him saying, “I need a miracle of grace and mercy,” the better He is pleased.
Now I beseech you to kindle up a thought of what your mother would do if you were a sinful, heart-broken, discouraged man, but repentant, saying, “I have trod the thorny way of life, and learned its mischief, can you, mother, help me to begin anew?” What mother would cast away such a son? What father would not receive a son on such terms? And if earthly parents can lift themselves up into feelings of holy sympathy for a repentant child, what must be the feelings of God when His children come to Him for help to break away from sin, and to lead lives of rectitude? Read the 15th chapter of Luke, and find out what God’s feelings are; and then say, “I will arise, and go to my Father.”—Beecher.

He is rich in mercy, abundant in goodness and truth. Thy sins are like a spark of fire that falls into the ocean, it is quenched presently; so are all thy sins in the ocean of God’s mercy. There is not more water in the sea than there is mercy in God.—Manton, 1620–1667.

Why dost thou not believe in God’s mercy? Is it thy sins discourage? God’s mercy can pardon great sins, nay, because they are great (Psalms 25:11). The sea covers great rocks as well as lesser sands.—Watson, 1696.

Like some black rock that heaves itself above the surface of a sunlit sea, and the wave runs dashing over it, and the spray, as it falls down its sides, is all rainbowed and lightened, and there comes beauty into the mighty grimness of the black thing; so a man’s transgressions rear themselves up, and God’s great love comes sweeping itself against them and over them, makes out of the sin an occasion for the flashing more brightly of the beauty of His mercy, and turns the life of the pardoned penitent into a life of which even the sin is not pain to remember.—Maclaren.

SELF-SCRUTINY IN GOD’S PRESENCE

Isaiah 1:18. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

The outflow of holy displeasure contained in the earlier portions of this chapter would prepare us to expect an everlasting reprobacy of the rebellious and unfaithful Church, but it is strangely followed by the most yearning and melting entreaty ever addressed by the Most High to the creatures of His footstool.
I. The text represents God as saying to the trangressors of His law, “Come, and let us reason together.” The first lesson to be learned, consequently, is the duty of examining our moral character and conduct along with God. When a responsible being has made a wrong use of his powers, nothing is more reasonable than that he should call himself to account for this abuse. Nothing, certainly, is more necessary. There can be no amendment for the future until the past has been cared for. But that this examination may be both thorough and profitable, it must be made in company with the Searcher of hearts. For there are always two beings who are concerned with sin: the being who commits it, and the Being against whom it is committed. Whenever therefore, an examination is made into the nature of moral evil as it exists in the individual heart, both parties concerned should share in the examination. Such a joint examination as this produces a very keen and clear sense of the evil and guilt of sin. Conscience, indeed, makes cowards of us all, but when the eye of God is felt to be upon us, it smites us to the ground.

1. When the soul is shut up along with the Holy One of Israel, there are great searchings of heart. Man is honest and anxious at such a time. His usual thoughtlessness and torpidity upon the subject of religion leave him, and he becomes a serious and deeply-interested creature.
2. Another effect of this “reasoning together” with God respecting our character and conduct is to render our views discriminating. The action of the mind is not only intense, it is also intelligent. The sinner knows that he is wrong, and his Maker is right—that he is wicked, and that God is holy. He perceives these two fundamental facts with a simplicity and a certainty that admit of no debate. The confusion and obscurity of his mind, and particularly the queryings whether these things are so, begin to disappear like a fog when disparted and scattered by sunrise. Objects are seen in their true proportions and meanings; right and wrong, the carnal mind and the spiritual mind, heaven and hell—all the great contraries that pertain to the subject of religion—are distinctly understood, and thus the first step is taken towards a better state of things in the soul [412]

[412] Man is not straitened upon the side of the Divine mercy. The obstacle in the way of his salvation is in himself; and the particular, fatal obstacle consists in the fact that he does not feel that he needs mercy. God in Christ stands ready to pardon, but man, the sinner, stands up before Him, like the besotted criminal in our courts of law, with no feeling upon the subject. The Judge assures him that He has a boundless grace and clemency to bestow; but the stolid, hardened man is not even aware that he has committed a dreadful crime, and needs grace and clemency. There is food in infinite abundance, but no hunger upon the part of the man. The water of life is flowing by in torrents, but men have no thirst. In this state of things nothing can be done but to pass a sentence of condemnation. God cannot forgive a being who does not even know that he needs to be forgiven. Knowledge, then, self-knowledge, is the great requisite; and the want of it is the cause of perdition. This “reasoning together” with God, respecting our past and present character and conduct, is the first step to be taken by any one who would make preparation for eternity. As soon as we come to a right understanding of our lost and guilty condition, we shall cry, “Be merciful to me, a sinner; create within me a clean heart, O God.” Without such an understanding—such an intelligent perception of our sin and guilt—we never shall, and we never can.—Shedd.

II. The second lesson taught in the text is, that there is forgiveness with God. If mercy were not a manifested attribute of God, all self-examination, and especially all this conjoint Divine scrutiny, would be a pure torment and a pure gratuity. We have the amplest assurance in the whole written revelation of God, but nowhere else, that “there is forgiveness with Him, that He may be feared.” The text is an exceedingly explicit assertion of this great truth. The very same Being who invites us to reason with Him and canvass the subject of our criminality, in the very same breath, if we may so speak, assures us that He will forgive all that is found in this examination. And upon such terms cannot the criminal well afford to examine into his crime? The Divine pity outruns and exceeds the crime. Paradoxical as it may appear, self-examination, when joined with a distinct recognition of the Divine character, and a conscious sense of God’s scrutiny, is the surest means of producing in a guilty mind a firm conviction that God is merciful, and is the swiftest way of finding Him to be so. Abhorrent as iniquity is to the pure mind of God, it is nevertheless a fact that that sinner who goes directly into this Dread Presence with all his sins upon his head, in order to know them, to be condemned and crushed by them, and to confess them, is the one who soonest returns with peace and hope in his soul. For he discovers that God is as cordial and sincere in His offer to forgive as He is in His threat to punish; and having, to his sorrow, felt the reality and power of the Divine anger, he now, to his joy, feels the equal reality and power of the Divine love. And this is the one great lesson which every man must learn, or perish for ever.

From these two lessons of our text we deduce the following practical directions—

1. In all states of religious anxiety we should betake ourselves instantly and directly to God; there is no other refuge for the human soul but God in Christ. Are we sinners, and in fear for the final result of our life? Though it may seem like running into fire, we must, nevertheless, betake ourselves first and immediately to that Being who hates and punishes sin (1 Chronicles 20:1-3).

2. In all our religious anxiety we should make a full and plain statement of everything to God. Even when the story is one of shame and remorse, we find it to be mental relief, patiently, and without any reservation or palliation, to expose the whole, not only to our own eye, but to that of our Judge. For to this very thing have we been invited. This is precisely the “reasoning together” which God proposes to us. God has not offered clemency to a sinful world with the expectation or desire that there be, on the part of those to whom it is offered, such a stinted and meagre confession, such a glozing over and diminution of sin, as to make that clemency appear a very small matter. He well knows the depth and the immensity of the sin which He proposes to pardon, and has made provision accordingly. In the phrase of Luther, it is no painted sinner who is to be forgiven, and it is no painted Saviour who is offered. The transgression is deep and real, and the atonement is deep and real. The crime cannot be exaggerated, neither can the expiation. He, therefore, who makes the plainest and most childlike statement of himself to God, acts most in accordance with the mind and will and gospel of God. If man can only be hearty, full, and unreserved in confession, he will find God to be hearty, full, and unreserved in absolution.—W. G. T. Shedd, D.D., The American Pulpit of the Day, vol. i. pp. 829–842.

Verse 19

SINNERS SELF-DESTROYED

Isaiah 1:19. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land; but if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

Delitsch translates—“If ye then shall willingly hear, ye shall eat the good of the land; if ye shall obstinately rebel, ye shall be eaten by the sword: for the mouth of Jehovah hath spoken it.”

Strachey translates—“If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall feed on the good of the land; but if ye refuse and rebel, the sword shall feed on you,” which brings out one of the contrasts of the verse still more clearly. “The promise of eating, i.e., of the full enjoyment of domestic blessings, and therefore of settled, peaceful rest at home, is placed in contrast with the curse of being eaten with the sword.”—Delitsch.

Note the close connection between these verses and Isaiah 1:18. God condescends to invite rebels to a conference with Himself, He is willing to grant them the fullest forgiveness; but it is on the condition of future obedience. On this condition He is prepared to do more than forgive them,—He will enrich them with all needful blessings, of which peaceful enjoyment of the fruits of the earth is here named as a symbol; but if they will not listen to His invitation, accept His gracious offer, and yield the obedience He righteously demands, then the vengeance they have deserved will come upon them. They have the matter entirely in their own hands; it rests with them to determine whether their future shall be one of happiness or misery. Thus we are led to the great doctrine of these verses, that sinners are self-destroyed.

This is a doctrine frequently insisted on in Scripture (Ezekiel 33:11; 2 Samuel 14:14; Hosea 13:9; 2 Peter 3:9). It is true in a twofold sense.

1. They sin voluntarily. God never foreordained any man to work iniquity [415] Some are indeed surrounded from their birth by evil influences, and on this account, as well as on account of that corrupt nature which we all inherit, they do sinful acts from their infancy, but they do not sin until the dawn of moral consciousness; and after that, every act of iniquity they perpetrate they perpetrate voluntarily.

2. They suffer voluntarily. They do not merely expose themselves to the penalty of sin, they take it upon them voluntarily. God offers to remit it, on condition of their repentance, but they reject the proffered boon; like a suicide who repels the surgeon who would close his bleeding wounds.

[415] The argument which the fatalist bases upon organisation is self-annihilating when applied to the common relations of life. The fatalist himself does not believe in his own doctrine; in speculative reasoning he is eager to charge moral crime upon organic defect; yet, in practical magistracy, he arraigns and condemns the criminal to punishment. But how monstrous an outrage is this upon his own creed! The criminal was compelled through stress of organisation to commit the crime, yet the fatalist punishes him for doing what he could not help! Let the principle of the fatalist be admitted, and there is an end to all legislation—an end, indeed, to the social compact itself. All associated life is regulated by a system of restraints; but restraint implies self-control, and self-control is directly opposed to fatalism. Let a criminal plead that he could not help committing a certain crime; and if the judge allow the plea, he will at once treat the criminal as a lunatic, and instruct the officers of justice accordingly. Magistracy proceeds upon the principle that men can “help” committing crime. All human legislation assumes a man’s power of self-regulation, and grounds itself on the grand doctrine of man’s responsibility to man. At this point, upon the same principle in relation to God. Theology says, You hold yourselves responsible to one another on all social matters, you punish the criminal, you ignore the plea of fatalism on all questions of property, order, and security; now go further, heighten your own social base, carry out to their logical issues your own principles and methods, and you will reach all that God requires of man. If it be urged that God gave the criminal his organisation, the objection does not touch the argument. The argument is, that in human consciousness the plea of fatalism is ignored on all practical matters; away beyond all written statutes there is a conviction that man can regulate his actions, and ought to be held responsible for such regulation. Man himself thus, by his own conduct and his own law, acquits God of all charge upon this matter; the very recognition by the magistrate of man’s responsibility is itself a direct acquittal of God from the accusations of fatalism. God need not be interrogated upon the subject, for the magistrate himself, faithful to the consciousness of universal humanity, treats the fatalistic theory as an absurdity.—Joseph Parker.

In this fact that sinners thus destroy themselves we have—
I. A terrible illustration of the depth of human depravity. Sinners not only hate God so much as to break His laws, but so much as to harden themselves against His love, and to reject His mercy.

II. A sufficient vindication of the severities of the Divine justice.

1. No sinner in hell will be able to reproach God for his misery.
2. We who contemplate the awful fact that human souls are suffering in hell have no right to reproach God for their sufferings. These sufferers deliberately turned their backs upon God and heaven, and went of their own accord to perdition.

Application.—

1. Before you to-day blessing and cursing, life and death are set: choose ye which ye will.
2. “If ye be willing” God will open to you all the treasures of His grace. But not otherwise! He will compel no man to accept His mercy.

3. Whatever be your choice, God will ratify it. If you choose destruction, you shall have it, and then you will not be able to revoke your choice (Proverbs 1:22-31) [418]

[418] The argument which the fatalist bases upon organisation is self-annihilating when applied to the common relations of life. The fatalist himself does not believe in his own doctrine; in speculative reasoning he is eager to charge moral crime upon organic defect; yet, in practical magistracy, he arraigns and condemns the criminal to punishment. But how monstrous an outrage is this upon his own creed! The criminal was compelled through stress of organisation to commit the crime, yet the fatalist punishes him for doing what he could not help! Let the principle of the fatalist be admitted, and there is an end to all legislation—an end, indeed, to the social compact itself. All associated life is regulated by a system of restraints; but restraint implies self-control, and self-control is directly opposed to fatalism. Let a criminal plead that he could not help committing a certain crime; and if the judge allow the plea, he will at once treat the criminal as a lunatic, and instruct the officers of justice accordingly. Magistracy proceeds upon the principle that men can “help” committing crime. All human legislation assumes a man’s power of self-regulation, and grounds itself on the grand doctrine of man’s responsibility to man. At this point, upon the same principle in relation to God. Theology says, You hold yourselves responsible to one another on all social matters, you punish the criminal, you ignore the plea of fatalism on all questions of property, order, and security; now go further, heighten your own social base, carry out to their logical issues your own principles and methods, and you will reach all that God requires of man. If it be urged that God gave the criminal his organisation, the objection does not touch the argument. The argument is, that in human consciousness the plea of fatalism is ignored on all practical matters; away beyond all written statutes there is a conviction that man can regulate his actions, and ought to be held responsible for such regulation. Man himself thus, by his own conduct and his own law, acquits God of all charge upon this matter; the very recognition by the magistrate of man’s responsibility is itself a direct acquittal of God from the accusations of fatalism. God need not be interrogated upon the subject, for the magistrate himself, faithful to the consciousness of universal humanity, treats the fatalistic theory as an absurdity.—Joseph Parker.

THE CERTAINTY OF THE DESTRUCTION OF THE IMPENITENT

Isaiah 1:19. If ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword; for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

Let a man look steadily at the sun for a few moments, and for a long time afterwards he will see nothing else; whithersoever he turns, he will behold the sun. Some men have looked at God’s wondrous mercy so exclusively, that they can see in Him and His Word nothing but mercy, and they doubt, and teach others to doubt, whether God will fulfil His threatenings against sin. Let such persons consider these three facts.—

I. That God’s justice requires that He should execute His threatenings against iniquity. He Himself would commit a frightful injustice, and would be the most active promoter and abettor of evil in the universe, if He were to treat all men alike. His mere delay to take vengeance upon transgressors gives rise to some of the most perplexing of moral problems (Ecclesiastes 9:2-3; Psalms 73:1-9, &c.), and if He were; never to do so, the whole universe would be driven into atheism. This is the tendency even of His merciful delays (Psalms 10:11; Psalms 73:11, &c.)

II. That God’s truth requires that He should execute His threatenings against iniquity. “The mouth of the Lord hath spoken it,” and shall He not fulfil His Word? So settled is the conviction of the human mind that He must do so, that it has been found one of the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. How God can be truthful, and yet pardon the sinner, it has transcended the human mind to conceive. The atonement of Christ is the practical solution of this mystery.

III. That the history of His ancient people shows that while in God there is a goodness most marvellous and tender, on account of which we should praise Him evermore, there is also a severity so terrible, that on account of it all the world should stand in awe of Him. Remember what frightful calamities (the sword, famine, pestilence, exile) God sent upon His ancient people in this world; and shall we imagine that He who displayed such a capacity for sternness in this world will be found incapable of it in the world which is to come? Let us dismiss this delusion which is at once utterly groundless and unspeakably dangerous [421]

[421] If Scripture be certainly true, then the most terrible passages in it are certainly true; nothing is more hardly believed by men than that which will be most tormenting to their minds, when it is believed that none shall be saved but the regenerate and holy; and those that live not after the flesh, but the Spirit, and love God in Christ above all the world, even their own lives; and that, besides these few, all the rest shall be tormented in hell for ever. This is the doctrine that flesh and blood will hardly down with. They say or think they will never believe that God will be so unmerciful; as if God must needs be less merciful than man, because He is more just and holy, and will not be so indulgent to their flesh and sin as they are themselves, and would have Him to be. And I have known even godly men, through the remnant of their corruption and darkness in the things of God, and the violence of temptation, much troubled with their unbelief in this particular. But God cannot lie the Scripture being true, and the Christian religion certainly true, every part of it must needs be true. But because sensual nature looks for sensible demonstration or proof, let me ask the unbelievers this one question—“Do you believe that which you see and feel, and all the world feels as well as you!” You know that all mankind liveth here a life of trouble and misery; we come into the world in a very poor condition, and we pass through it in daily labour and sorrow, and we pass out of it through the dreadful pangs of death. What incessant labour have the most of them, how much want and misery, how much care and grief! Do you not see and feel how sicknesses do torment us? When one pain is over, another is at hand. Have you not seen some, under such terrible fits of the gout, or stone, or other diseases, that they thought no torment could be greater; some with their legs rotting, and must be cut off; some with loathsome cancers and leprosies on them many years together; some that have lost their eyesight, have lost almost all the comfort of life; some that never could see; some that never could hear or speak? I have known some in such pain that they have cried out they did not believe there was greater in hell; some are mad, and some idiots: are not all these in a very miserable case? Now I would ask you further if God may, without any unmercifulness, do all this to men, and that as a chastisement in the way to bring them to repentance; if He may, without unmercifulness, make a David cry out in misery, and wash his couch with his tears; and make a Job to lie scraping his sores on a dunghill; why should you think he cannot, without unmercifulness, torment incurable sinners in hell? Further, I would ask you this question; suppose you had lived in Adam’s paradise, or some condition of pleasure and rest, where you never had tasted of sickness, or labour, or want, or feared death, if God’s Word had there told you, but that man shall endure so much misery as I have here mentioned and men daily suffer, and should die at last for his sin, would you have said, “I will never believe God would be so unmerciful?” You that say so now, would likely have said so then in this case; for feeling the pleasure yourselves, you would on the same ground have said, “God is unmerciful if He should make man so miserable;” and yet you see and feel that God doth it, and we know that He is not unmerciful.—Baxter, 1615–1691.

Application.—

1. True reverence for God will lead us to accept with equal implicitness all the disclosures which He has been pleased to give of His character. He will be to us neither a God all mercy nor a God all justice. In Him both these high qualities are found in equal perfection: they are not opponents, but allies. Each is always in absolute harmony with the other.
2. True reverence for God will lead us to tremble in view of His threatenings, as well as to rejoice in view of His promises.
3. It is with the God of the Bible, and not with the God of our own sentimental fancies, that we shall have to deal with at the last.
4. If we take nature as our guide to the interpretation of revelation, we shall find it easier to believe in God’s severity than in His benignity. In nature there are appalling indications of sternness. The world in which we now are is full of suffering [424]

5. It is in mercy that the threatenings of God’s justice are now sent forth [427]

[424] Suffering comes to us through and from our whole nature. It cannot be winked out of sight. It cannot be thrust into a subordinate place in the picture of human life. It is the chief burden of history. It is the solemn theme of one of the highest departments of literature, the tragic drama. It gives to fictions their deep interest: it wails through much of our poetry. A large part of human vocations are intended to shut up some of its avenues. It has left traces on every human countenance over which years have passed. It is not to a few the most vivid recollection of life.—W. Ellery Channing.

[427] God indeed tells us of hell, but it is to persuade us to flee to heaven; and as a skilful painter fills the background of his picture with his darker colours, God introduces the smoke of torment, and the black thunder-clouds of Sinai, to give brighter prominence to Jesus, the Cross of Calvary, and His love to the chief of sinners.
His voice of terror is like the scream of the mother-bird when the hawk is in the sky. She alarms her brood, that they may run and hide beneath her feathers; and as I believe that God had left that mother dumb unless He had given her wings to cover them, I am sure that He, who is very “pitiful,” and has no pleasure in any creature’s pain, had never turned our eyes to the horrible gulf unless for the voice that cries, “Deliver from going down to the pit, for I have found a ransom.”
We had never heard of sin had there been no Saviour. We had never heard of hell had there been no heaven. “Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.” And never had Bible light flashed before the eyes of the sleeping felon, to wake him from his happy dream, but that he might see the smiling form of Mercy, and hear her as she says, with finger pointing the way, “Behold I have set before thee an open door.”—Guthrie.

Verse 21

AN ILLUSTRIOUS INHABITANT

Isaiah 1:21. Righteousness lodged in it.

I. A High Commendation. Righteousness lodged in the city—not merely visited it as a passing guest, but dwelt in it as a permanent abode [Alexander and Kay—“had its home there”]. No greater praise could be spoken of any city, nor can be uttered of any man.

1. Let us do what we can to make our city worthy of this high commendation. Much can be done in this direction by the combined, resolute, and persevering efforts of good men.

2. Let us try to deserve it individually. This may involve many sacrifices, but they will be more than compensated. Righteousness is a royal guest, ennobling and enriching those with whom she dwells, and peace, prosperity, and joy invariably follow in her train.

II. A mournful condemnation. Righteousness lodged in the city; lodged, not lodges! That noble and Divine inhabitant is departed. The palace in which she dwelt is in ruins.

1. Of how many cities may this mournful declaration be made! The cities in which Christianity achieved some of its first and noblest triumphs are now Mohammedan and semi-heathen. They did not hold fast the truth, and now they are given over to error. We boast that this is a Christian land, but its relapse into practical heathenism is not impossible. In every action there is a constant gravitation towards evil, which can only be resisted and overcome by constant effort and earnest prayer. Let the churches of this land lay this solemn fact to heart.

2. Of how many men may this declaration be made! How many even of the openly vicious and criminal were once respectable members of society—yea, even honoured members of churches! They were men “subject to like passions as we are;” and in what they are we have solemn warnings as to what we may become. Let those who are most exalted, not in privileges only, but in moral excellence, also watch and pray, lest sin enter even their hearts, and expel that Divine guest whose presence secures so many blessings and warrants so many hopes.

Verses 21-23

MORAL DECLENSION

Isaiah 1:21-23. How is the faithful city become an harlot! [430] It was full of judgment; righteousness lodged in it; but now murderers [433] Thy silver is become dross, thy wine mixed with water: thy princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves: every one loveth gifts, and followeth after rewards: they judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come unto them.

[430] “The faithful city is become an harlot:”—Jerusalem, the daughter of Zion, the wife of the Holy One of Israel, has broken the bond of her covenant with Him, has set at nought the Divine constitution and order in which He originally placed, and has continued to sustain her: and, as the outward consequence and sign of this spiritual defection, has actually fallen to the worship of other gods. Throughout this prophecy Isaiah dwells chiefly on the sins of the princes and rulers of the nation, and only incidentally on those of the people; and accordingly he now dilates on the characteristic vices of the former, which are the fruits of their national unfaithfulness. Social and political morality have vanished along with religious faith; thieves and murderers are found instead of virtuous citizens; the nobles and men in authority are the first to break the laws they should enforce; the administration of justice is so corrupt that the judges take bribes, connive at the robbers whose booty they share, and permit the rich man to pervert the law for the oppression of the fatherless and widow, who have no patrons to demand, and no money to buy, justice: and thus the aristocracy, setting aside all belief that they hold their wealth and power in trust from God for the benefit of the people under them, do but employ these as irresistible engines for breaking down all rights that can oppose them in their pursuit of luxury and vice.—Strachey.

[433] Jerusalem was once full of such right; and Righteousness was not merely there in the form of a hastily-passing guest, but had come down from above to take up her permanent abode in Jerusalem: she tarried there day and night, as if it were her home. The prophet had in his mind the times of David and Solomon, and also more especially the time of Jehoshaphat (about one hundred and fifty years before Isaiah’s appearance), who restored the administration of justice, which had fallen into neglect since the closing years of Solomon’s reign and the time of Rehoboam and Abijah, to which Asa’s reformation had not extended, and reorganised it entirely in the spirit of the law. It is possible also that Jehoiada, the high priest in the time of Joash, may have revived the institutions of Jehoshaphat so far as they had fallen into disuse under his three godless successors; but even in the second half of the reign of Joash the administration of justice fell into the same disgraceful state, at least as compared with the times of David, Solomon, and Jehoshaphat, as that in which Isaiah found it. The glaring contrast between the present and the past is indicated by the expression “and now.”—Delitsch.

I. Moral declensions may take place in the best of men. “The faithful city—silver—wine—princes,” the very best things depraved.

II. There are no limits to the moral declensions that may take place in the best of men. “The faithful city is become an harlot,” &c. We have here an argument—

1. For universal humility (1 Corinthians 10:12; Galatians 6:1).

2. For universal watchfulness (Mark 14:38).

3. For universal prayer (Psalms 19:12-13; Psalms 139:23-24).

Verse 22

THE POSSIBLE DEGENERACY OF VALUABLE THINGS

Isaiah 1:22. Thy silver is become dross.

There are many valuable and good things in the world that through varied causes are rendered comparatively useless. They once were silver, but now they are dross.

I. The silver of thy character has become dross because of little failings. There have been men known to all of us, of good moral characters, of lofty and heroic soul, but they were betrayed into occasional faults [436] which many condoned, which others magnified, but which they themselves did not correct, until at last their silver became dross. The character depreciated in moral worth. It was no longer current as a thing of beauty. It had lost its value.

[436] You need not break the glasses of a telescope, or coat them over with paint, in order to prevent you from seeing through them. Just breathe upon them, and the dew of your breath will shut out all the stars. So it does not require great crimes to hide the light of God’s countenance. Little faults can do it just as well. Take a shield, and cast a spear upon it, and it will leave in it one great dent. Prick it all over with a million little needle shafts, and they will take the polish from it far more than the piercing of the spear. So it is not so much the great sins which take the freshness from our consciences, as the numberless petty faults which we are all the while committing.—Beecher.

II. The silver of thy service has become dross because of unholy motives. Christian service is a good and precious thing, but how frequently is it rendered useless and vain by pride, by thoughts of self, and by secular motive [439] It is, indeed, as silver when rendered by a pure and loving heart, but alas! it too often becomes dross because of the unhallowed sentiment of the soul. The mite of the widow cast into the treasury was as silver, but the munificent gifts of the Pharisees were as dross. How much of the service rendered to the great God in the pulpit, pew, and school, is but dross! This is a solemn thought.

[439] Our end or motive in acting determines more than anything the quality of our actions. Not that a good end will sanctify a bad action, but a bad end will vitiate every action connected with it. If, for instance, in our religious services we seek the applause of men, we must expect no reward from God; the gratification of our pride and vanity is all the reward that such polluted services can obtain. In the account which is given of Jehu, we find that the very same action which was rewarded on account of its outward conformity with God’s command, was punished on account of the base principle by which he was influenced in performing it. He did well in extirpating the seed of Ahab, and was rewarded for it to the fourth generation: the blood which was shed was imputed to him as murder. Nor is there anything more common than for even religious persons to mistake the path of duty through an inattention to their own spirit. The disciples doubtless thought themselves under the influence of a commendable zeal when they would have called fire from heaven to consume a Samaritan village; as did Peter, also, when he cut off the ear of Malchus. We should therefore be peculiarly cautious with respect to this, lest by the mixture of any selfish motive or base affection we offend Him whom it is our desire and endeavour to please.—Simeon.

III. The silver of thy money has become dross because of selfishness. We cannot estimate the wealth of a man by the money he has in possession, but often far better by the money he gives away. When men keep their riches to themselves, solely for their own use, they cease to be rich—they are laden with coin that is not current; their silver has become dross. Liberality makes money worth its value [442] Generosity preserves wealth from all degenerating influences. How many so-called rich men have more dross than silver in this world.

[442] If we so love our riches that we would eternally possess them, let us not hoard them up in the earth, where we are sure to leave them, carrying nothing with us but the canker of our coin, which shall bear witness against us at the Day of Judgment; but let us send them before us into heaven, delivering them unto the poor, who are God’s factors and receivers; and so having conveyed and made over our goods, as it were by bills of exchange, we shall find the Lord a sure and all-sufficient paymaster, who will give us more than double usance, and yet pay us at the first sight. If we would have our coin continue sweet and good for a great space, let us know that there are for this purpose no garners comparable to poor men’s stomachs, which will preserve our grain for our use unto life eternal. If we would have our clothes preserved from moths, and to last long, the backs of the naked are our safest wardrobes.—Downame, 1644.

IV. The silver of thy talents has become dross because of indolence. Silver is bright when kept in use. Talents are valuable when active. The mind has talents of thought and wisdom. The heart has talents of sympathy and love. The hand has talents of help. The mouth has talents of blessing. Take care that thy silver does not become as dross.—J. S. Exell.

Verse 24

A TERRIBLE RESOLVE

Isaiah 1:24. Therefore thus saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel, Ah, I will ease me of mine adversaries, and avenge me of mine enemies.

Concerning many men, we may offer Christ’s prayer, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” They sin in ignorance, or rather without thought of their character and relation to God, and of the doom which they are bringing upon themselves. There may be such persons before me now. Acting, then, the part of a true and faithful friend, I warn you—
I. That God counts you as His enemies. By cherishing your sins you defy His authority, and place yourself in a position of hostility to Him [445]

[445] If a king warns a city of traitors, and calls upon them to search them out and send them away, and they never regard the message, but willingly give them harbour and entertainment, it is a sign they are disaffected to him: to cherish a sin after warning is open defiance of God.—Manton, 1620–1667.

II. That God feels Himself injured, oppressed, and as it were hemmed in by your iniquities. Note this most suggestive phrase, “I will ease me of mine adversaries,” and see outline on Isaiah 1:14. God’s laws are His territories, and by your transgressions you invade them. Your sins are trespasses. God feels towards you as the French feel towards the Germans who have taken possession of and settled down in Alsace and Lorraine; you put upon God an indignity which He cannot and will not bear.

III. That while God endures your trespasses for a time, in the merciful hope that by His forbearance you may be lead to repentance, He will not restrain His anger for ever, but will presently give free vent to it [448] and sweep you into that place where, though you may retain the disposition to sin against Him, you will not have the power.

[448] At this first step we might reason on the testimony if we pleased, instead of accepting it, and raise the objection that to imagine passion in God, especially so turbid a passion as anger, conflicts with our notions of His character, and degrades Him in our apprehensions. Beware! remember that in forming an estimate of the character and proceedings of God, we are but little children forming an estimate of the character and proceedings of a man of matured experience. Were it not more reasonable, as well as more reverent, to accept what He says, and to leave Him afterwards to clear up any mystery which may envelope His nature? I can indeed conceive in Him nothing turbid, impetuous, or impulsive, such as sullies the clearness of the human will. But this I can conceive, that there is in Him some high perfection (more incomprehensible to my finite capacity than the speculations of an astronomer to a peasant child), of which anger is the most adequate exponent to my mind, and which I must be content to think of and speak of as anger, or else to remain in total ignorance of it. And this also I can—not only conceive, but most readily assent to, that in an absolutely perfect nature there should be an utter abhorrence of, and antipathy to, moral evil, most justly represented to simple minds by the terms “anger,” “curse.” We have never seen a perfect character; no perfect character, save one, ever moved upon the earth: but the righteous man, who is striving after and approximating to perfection, has often crossed our path; and surely we have marked in him, that the more righteous he is, the more doth he abhor (in the language of Holy Scripture) everything that is evil. What is the effect upon one who breathes habitually the atmosphere of communion with God, of catching in the current tidings of the day the intelligence of some awful outburst of depravity? When such an one passes on an errand of mercy through the crowded alleys of a great city, and the shouts of malignant execration and profaneness ring in his ear, or scenes of impurity are paraded before his eye, with what feeling does he encounter these symptoms of human degradation? Are they not like a foul odour to his nostrils, or a jarring note to his ear, or an abortion to his sight? Does he not turn away with loathing, and recoil from such scenes and such sounds with an antipathy strong in proportion to his goodness? And is it, then, so hard to conceive that in perfect goodness there may be a recoil from moral evil, something similar in kind to this, though infinitely stronger in degree? And is not such a recoil righteous, and a token of righteousness?—Goulburn.

Application.—Nowconsider—

1. That this is not the resolve of some feeble being destitute of resources for the accomplishment of his purposes. He who thus solemnly warns you is “the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel.”

2. Whether you have resources that will enable you to cope with this adversary whose indignation you have aroused (Luke 14:31). If not, consider—

3. What is the course that wisdom would suggest to you in your present circumstances (Luke 14:32) [451]

[451] Let us take heed, for mercy is like a rainbow, which God set in the clouds to remember mankind: it shines here as long as it is not hindered; but we must never look for it after it is night, and it shines not in the other world. If we refuse mercy here, we shall have justice there.—Jeremy Taylor, 1612–1667.

Verses 24-27

THE PURPOSE OF PUNISHMENT

Isaiah 1:24-27. Therefore thus saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel, Ah, I will ease me of mine adversaries, and avenge me of mine enemies: and I will turn mine hand upon thee, and purely purge away thy dross, and take away all thy tin: and I will restore thy judges as at the first, and thy counsellors as at the beginning: afterwards thou shalt be called, The city of righteousness, The faithful city. Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and her converts with righteousness.

The denunciation of the iniquity of Jerusalem (Isaiah 1:21-23) is followed by a solemn announcement of God’s determination to punish it.

I. God will certainly punish sin. “Ah, I will ease me of mine adversaries, and avenge me of mine enemies.” See preceding outline, and that on Isaiah 1:20.

II. In punishing sin God is not moved by any vindictive purpose. True, He speaks here of taking vengeance upon His enemies, but these words coming from the lips of Jehovah must not be interpreted as we should have to interpret them if they came from the lips of a Ghengis Khan or a Tippoo Saib. We must remember that this is the utterance of the Mighty One of Israel, who is infinitely uplifted above every unholy passion. Whatever misconstruction this phrase, taken alone, might be open to, is entirely obviated by the declarations which follow it, which teach us—

III. That God’s aim even in the severest chastisements is the reformation of the offenders, and their restoration to true blessedness. For what purpose will He turn His hand upon Jerusalem? Not that He may destroy her, but that He may purify her, as silver is purified in the furnace; and through this painful process she is caused to pass, that she may be restored to her former dignity and blessedness. It is for these purposes that God chastises nations and individuals to-day.

Application.—

1. Those who are living sinful lives may certainly expect severe judgments. Sin and sorrow are inseparably linked, and God is solemnly pledged not to “clear” the guilty.

2. Those on whom judgments on account of sin have fallen should neither despise them nor be driven by them to despair (Hebrews 12:5). These are two great evils. Indifference to chastisement brings on still severer strokes [454] God will break the stubborn sinners who refuse to bend (Isaiah 1:28) (β). Despair defeats the very object for which our chastisements are sent, and is itself a grievous offence against God. Instead of yielding to despair, we should be filled with hope, for God has loving purposes towards us, and our prayer should be, not that the afflictions should be removed, but that God’s purposes in them should be fulfilled. It is worth while to go into the furnace, if thereby we may be cleansed from the dross by which we are defiled.

[454] The physician, when he findeth that the potion which he hath given his patient will not work, he seconds it with one more violent; but if he perceive the disease to be settled, then he puts him into a course of physic, so that medicè miserè (he shall have at present but small comfort of his life). And thus doth the surgeon too: if a gentle plaster will not serve, then he applies that which is more corroding, and, to prevent a gangrene, he makes use of his cauterising knife, and takes off the joint or member that is so ill affected. Even so God, when men profit not by such crosses as He hath formerly exercised them with, when they are not bettered by lighter afflictions, then He sends heavier, and proceeds from milder to sharper courses. If the dross of their sin will not come off, He will throw them into the melting-pot again and again, crush them harder in the press, and lay on such irons as shall enter more deeply into their souls. If He strikes and they grieve not, if they be so foolish that they will not know the judgment of their God, He will bring seven times more plagues upon them—cross upon cross, loss upon loss, trouble upon trouble, one sorrow on the neck of another—till they are, in a manner, wasted and consumed.—Firmicus.

This we may rest satisfied of, that whensoever God’s hand is upon us, we must either yield a voluntary, or be forced to a violent, submission. If our stubbornness is such that we will not bend, it is certain that our weakness is also such that we must needs break. If God’s message will not win upon Pharaoh, His plagues shall compel him; and therefore, when He sent Moses to him, He put a rod into his hand, as well as a word into his mouth. When God fully purposes to afflict a man, he is like a bird in a net, the more he strives and flutters, the more he is entangled; for the Supreme Judge of all things is resolved to go through with His great work of judgment, and to make all obstinate, sturdy sinners know, that He has power to constrain where His goodness will not persuade.—South, 1633–1716.

Verse 26

THE DIVINE IDEA OF REDEMPTION

Isaiah 1:25-26. And I will turn my hand upon thee, and purely purge away thy dross, and take away all thy tin: and I will restore thy judges as at the first, and thy counsellors as at the beginning: afterward thou shalt be called, The city of righteousness, The faithful city.

We have here the promise of a redemption which God would accomplish for Jerusalem, and from the terms of the promise, especially taken in connection with the preceding statements (Isaiah 1:21-23), we may learn what God’s idea of redemption is: it is to purge away all that debases and to restore all that is lost. In other words, redemption consists in restoration to the Divine ideal. Such was the redemption which God promised to accomplish for Jerusalem: such is the redemption which He offers to accomplish for us. Here we have—

I. A correction of a common error. Most men, when they hear of redemption, think of it merely as salvation from suffering, rescue from the peril of hell. This is a consequence of redemption, but redemption consists in the cleansing of our nature from all defilement, and in our restoration to the Divine ideal of humanity (Colossians 3:10; Ephesians 4:24; Ephesians 4:13). God is going to do something grander for us than save us from hell. He is going to make us “meet” for heaven (1 John 3:2). It would be truer to say that God’s idea of redemption is “salvation by suffering,” than to say that it is “salvation from suffering.” The figure used in the text is expressive of the keenest suffering—“I will purely purge away thy dross.” But dross is purged away by fire! Suffering is one of the instruments which God most frequently uses to save men from sin.

II. A model for preachers. Guided by a Divine inspiration, the prophet does not speak of happiness, but of purity and righteousness; he names these as the great favours which God was about to bestow upon His people. So should preachers to-day strive to make men understand that these are the greatest blessings which God can confer upon man. All other blessings spring from them; as all social blessings are secured to a community when its “judges” are righteous and its “counsellors” fear God. Let preachers do their utmost to make it plain to the men of this generation, that just as if we have the sun we shall have light and heat, so if they have purity, they shall have peace; if they attain to holiness, they shall attain to a nobler and completer happiness than those who long for happiness merely ever dream of.

III. An ennobling ideal to be striven after by all men. Happy is the man who has a great purpose in life. And what is the purpose with which a study of our text should inspire us? Not merely to “flee from the wrath to come,” but to become “partakers of the Divine nature,” and so to attain to God’s ideal of humanity. God is striving to restore us to His own likeness: let us do all that in us lies to help on this restoration (Philippians 2:12-13). The “salvation” we are to “work out” is not salvation from guilt (that is Christ’s work, accomplished by Him once for all on the cross), but from the indwelling corruption which is to us what dross is to the precious metals. Nor are we merely to seek to put away that which is evil [457] we are to strive to set up in us all noblenesses which are to character what “judges” and “counsellors” are to a city (2 Peter 1:5-7; Philippians 4:8). Blessed is the man who has this ideal in life.

[457] Christianity ends not in negatives. No man clears his garden of weeds but in order to the planting of flowers or useful herbs in their room. God calls upon us to dispossess our corruptions, but it is for the reception of new inhabitants. A room may be clean, and yet empty; but it is not enough that our hearts be swept, unless they be also garnished, or that we lay aside our pride, our luxury, our covetousness, unless humility, temperance, and liberality rise up and thrive in their places. The design of religion would be very poor and short should it look no further than only to keep men from being swine, goals, and tigers, without improving the principles of humanity into positive and higher perfections. The soul may be cleansed from all blots, and yet still be left but a blank. But Christianity is of a thriving and aspiring nature, and requires us to proceed from grace to grace (2 Peter 1:5-7), ascending by degrees, till at length the top of the ladder reaches heaven, and conveys the soul so qualified into the mansions of glory.—South, 1633–1716.

I. He is saved from fear, the haunting dread of failure which oppresses those whose supreme desire is merely to be saved from hell.

II. He has a sustaining hope, based upon the sure promises of God’s Word (1 Peter 1:10-11).

III. He has a present and growing joy, such as can come only from self-conquest and moral progress. The joy of “the just,” that is, of the men whose steadfast aim is righteousness, is like “the path of the just” (Proverbs 4:18).

SOCIAL REGENERATION

Isaiah 1:26. And I will restore thy judges as at the first, and thy counsellors as at the beginning: afterward thou shalt be called, The city of righteousness, The faithful city.

We have in the contest a picture of a dismantled city, a disorganised community; and here God tells us that He will undertake the work of its reconstruction.

I. All the arrangements of society are absolutely in God’s hands.I will restore,” &c. No man can overturn, or build up, but by His permission. On Him all projects of national, social, or ecclesiastical reconstruction depend for their success. That on which He smiles flourishes; that on which He frowns withers away. Let reformers and reconstructors of society remember and recognise this great fact, that God rules on earth as in heaven.

II. All interruptions of social order are under the control of God. Revolutions occur not by chance, not by the will of man, but by the will of God. They occur only when, and continue only as long as He pleases. By Him judges and counsellors are swept away, and by Him they are restored. No nation is so broken that it cannot be uplifted by Him to power and glory, “as at the first.”

III. No social state can be purified but by religious processes. There are many philanthropic and political projects which have for their aim national regeneration, but they are all foredoomed to come to nought, because they lack the religious element. Moral reformation must go before social advancement: a return to righteousness is the first step to national exaltation [460]

[460] Think not that any change in the form of government would cure that which is caused by the people’s sin, or the common depravity of human nature. Some think they can contrive such forms of government as that the rulers shall be able to do no hurt; but either they will disable them to do good, or else their engine is but glass, and will fail or break when it comes to execution. Men that are themselves so bad and unhumbled as not to know how bad they are, and how bad mankind is, are still laying the blame upon the form of government when anything is amiss, and think by a change to find a cure. As if when an army is infected with the plague, or composed of cowards, the change of the general or form of government would prove a cure. But if a monarch be faulty, in an aristocracy you will have but many faulty governors for one, and in a democracy a multitude of tyrants.—Baxter, 1615–1691.

IV. The great name will follow the true regeneration.Afterward thou shalt be called, The city of righteousness, the faithful city.” Not first the exalted title, but the illustrative character; not first the splendid renown but the glorious achievement!—Joseph Parker, D.D.

Verses 27-28

THE TWOFOLD EFFECT OF DIVINE JUDGMENTS

Isaiah 1:27-28. Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and her converts with righteousness: and the destruction of the transgressors and of the sinners shall be together, and they that forsake the Lord shall be consumed.

These verses are closely and vitally connected: it is a mistake to separate them, as in the Authorised Version. Their meaning would be conveyed to the English reader, if they were translated—“Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and her converts with righteousness; and thereby also the transgressors and sinners shall be destroyed, yea they that forsake the Lord shall be consumed” [463] By judgment is meant the doom which in the preceding verses had been threatened against guilty Jerusalem (e.g., Isaiah 1:18): this “judgment” would be a manifestation of God’s punitive righteousness, and the declaration is that the infliction of this “judgment” would have a twofold effect—it would redeem Zion and her converts, and it would destroy the transgressors and sinners.

[463] The word “together” does not mean that the transgressor shall be destroyed together with the sinner; but that the destruction of this one class, called both transgressors and sinners, shall come in close connection, “together with,” the salvation of the penitent who are brought back to God by correction, as is said in the previous verses. The same sort of infliction that reclaimed the “converts” (Isaiah 1:27), bardened and sealed over to ruin those who would still “forsake the Lord.”—Cowles.

The diverse effects of Divine judgments is a matter well worthy of our study.

I. One effect of those judgments by which God manifests His righteous indignation against sin is to redeem His people from their transgressions. A prolonged period of peace and prosperity such as the Jews enjoyed under Uzziah is always perilous to the vital religion of a nation. Formalism is apt to prevail. The lines of demarcation between the Church and the world are apt to be effaced; “Zion” is apt to become merged in “Jerusalem.” In love to His people, God is therefore compelled to send upon their nation great calamities. These lead to searchings of heart, and reformations of conduct and character. Men learn again to wait upon God, and reverently to regard His will (Isaiah 26:9). The Church shines once more with the glory of spiritual conformity to God, and the result is that she is increased by converts from the world: to these also the season of judgment is also the season of redemption. But,

II. Another effect of God’s judgments is to harden the obdurate. His chastisements lead some men to further acts of rebellion against Him (Isaiah 1:5). Like Pharaoh, they harden themselves more and more as God sends plague after plague upon them (Exodus 8:19; Exodus 8:32, &c.) Hence seasons of public calamity (such as that of the plague in London, &c.) have always been seasons of public crime. Transgressors madly dare Omnipotence to a trial of strength, and the result is their utter destruction.

Our subject as thus unfolded gives rise to the following practical reflections—

1. In a season of national or individual prosperity we should be especially watchful and prayerful against conformity to the world [466]

2. We should not regard judgments that come upon our nation or ourselves merely as calamities: they may be God’s angels sent in truest mercy, and they bring with them to the people of God great moral and spiritual compensations.
3. Judgments, when they come upon us, afford us an admirable test of our real character: if we be indeed the people of God, they will lead us to submission and to more earnest strivings after holiness; but if they awaken within us a spirit of murmuring, of repining, of resentment against God, we have good cause to suspect that our religion has never been the work of God in our hearts [469]

4. In the season of judgment we really have only one alternative before us—to turn or burn. No stoutness of heart will enable us to resist God’s consuming wrath against iniquity (Malachi 4:1).

[466] How often does worldly prosperity tend to this lapsing of the soul from God! How often do our very outward mercies and blessings superinduce this spiritual languor and decay! It is with believers individually as with the Church collectively—they are never in a condition less favourable to spiritual health and advancement than when they have no trial or cross to brace their energies and invigorate their graces. The soldier gets supine after battle. History tells us how the bravest veterans of the great Carthaginian general got demoralised and degenerate when, victory over, they sat down to rejoicing and revelry, before the gates of Capua; they never were the same heroes again.—Macduff.

[469] As it is easy to know a piece of gold from a piece of brass when they come both to the anvil and be stricken with the hammer, for brass will not be handled, but when it cometh to the beating breaketh and maketh a sharp din and irksome, but gold soundeth sweetly, and is pliable; so when the hypocrite cometh between the anvil and the hammer of affliction, he breaketh with impatience, and lamenteth in blasphemies against God; whereas a faithful Christian praiseth God, and layeth out his heart, submitting himself willingly under the Lord’s hand that striketh him.—Cawdray, 1598–1684.

FORSAKING THE LORD

Isaiah 1:28. They that forsake the Lord shall be consumed.

I. The guilt of forsaking the service of the Lord.

1. Man is bound by the law of his nature to obey that Almighty Being by whom he was made an intelligent and immortal creature. Every discovery which reason opens to him of the transcendant perfections of the Lord of the universe urges the duty of offering to this great and glorious Being the homage of his heart and life. Every day’s preservation increases his obligation to serve his gracious Preserver.

2. Many in forsaking the Lord violate their own express and solemn engagements (Hebrews 10:29).

II. The folly of forsaking, &c. If we do so, we shall

(1) incur the reproaches of our own mind;
(2) forfeit the esteem and confidence of all good men;
(3) forfeit the favour and incur the wrath of God. And for what are all those tremendous sacrifices made? For “the pleasures of sin,” which are but “for a season”!

III. The danger of forsaking, &c.—“shall be consumed.” The threatened doom is

(1) awful;
(2) certain.—J. H. Hobart, D.D., Posthumous Works, ii 220–229.

Verses 28-31

THE DOOM OF THE APOSTATES

Isaiah 1:28-31. They that forsake the Lord shall be consumed. For they [472] shall be ashamed of the oaks which ye [475] have denied, and ye shall be confounded for the gardens that ye have chosen. For ye shall be as an oak whose leaf fadeth, and as a garden that hath no water. And the strong shall be as tow, and the maker of it as a spark, and they shall both burn together, and none shall quench them.

[472] In Isaiah 1:29 is an instance of what seemed to Lowth’s classical taste a corrupt reading—“They shall be ashamed of the oaks which ye have desired.” But this variation of the persons of the verb is not unusual in Hebrew, and certainly no corruption. Indeed, if we look at Psalms 91:0, which is very artistically constructed, we shall see reason to think that what jars so harshly on a classically trained ear was a beauty to the Hebrew poets.—Strachey.

[475] “Which ye have desired.” He was speaking of “the sinners,” he suddenly turns round to the men of his own generation, and says, “You are the men who are thus storing up shame and confusion.”—Kay.

In modern days, when men “forsake the Lord,” they become simply irreligious—practical atheists; but in ancient times such men became idolaters, they became worshippers of idols set up under the “oaks” planted on the hilltops, or in gardens [478] It is almost impossible for us to understand the fascination of idol-worship, but it was very powerful, and the idols were made objects of passionate trust. They were regarded as the strength of those who served them. Trusting in their protection their votaries went forth confidently to battle. Defeat did not dispel this delusion; it was interpreted to mean merely that the god of the victors was mightier than the god of the vanquished. To men glorying in their false deities, and confiding in their protection, the prophet predicts utter destruction. You shall be consumed, he says; the day is at hand when ye shall be caused to blush for your gods; you yourselves shall be withered oaks, and gardens without water; yea, your idols, and ye who have made them, for they are but things, the work of your hands, shall be burned together in unquenchable fire [481] The theme of these verses is therefore the doom of the apostates, and of the objects of their trust.

[478] In the judgments and the restoration which the prophet foretells, he declares that the people shall learn the worthlessness of the idols which they have been worshipping under the oak-trees, and in the sacred groves and gardens. The worship of the high places was partly a local worship of Jehovah, which only became irregular and blameable in later times; but there was also a widespread worship of Baal, Astarte, and Moloch, the old gods of the Canaanites and other nations, in sacred groves and gardens, as well as on the hill-tops—a worship of impersonated and deified sensuality and cruelty—which sometimes even established itself within the precincts of the temple itself, and was still more readily blended with, or substituted for, the worship of Jehovah in the high places. And this idolatrous worship was going on in Judæa during the reigns of Uzziah and Jotham, at the same time with the temple services, as appears from 2 Kings 15:3-4, compared with 2 Chronicles 27:2. In the day of judgment and restoration, says the prophet, these men who have been flourishing in their sin like their oaks, and living in pleasures like those of their well-watered gardens, shall find that the idols to which these oaks and gardens are dedicated have no power to save them from a destruction which shall make them “as an oak whose leaf fadeth, and as a garden that hath no water,” images which will be the more forcible if we remember that in a southern climate trees fade rather from excessive heat than from seasonable cold, and a garden without water is a mere desert of sand. Then shall the strong, the mighty, and the unjust ruler become tow, and his idols, the work of his hands, a spark; they shall both burn together, and no man shall quench them.—Strachey.

[481] The interpretation of Isaiah 1:31 on which the above outline is based is that of Calvin and the earlier Protestant commentators. That which in modern days has been almost universally adopted, is given in the preceding extract from Strachey, and the homiletic use to which it may be put is indicated in the next outline: “The tow and the spark.” We are persuaded, however, that the earlier interpretation is that which is most in harmony with the scope of the whole passage. All the ancient versions treat הָסו as an abstract, meaning strength, and Dr. Alexander admits that “this agrees well with its form, resembling that of an infinitive or verbal noun.” Latterly it has become the fashion to translate it “strong man,” but the harmony of the whole passage is best maintained by rendering it “their strength,” that is, that which the idolaters have regarded as their “strength,” the deity in whose protection they have trusted.

I. Idolatry is still the sin of our race. It is not confined to “heathen” lands. There is need in this land for a proclamation of the first commandment. For what is idolatry in its essence? It is loving and trusting some being or thing more than God. Every man’s God is what he lives for. Hence the declaration that “covetousness is idolatry; it is one form of the widespread sin.

II. The confidence of men in their idols is still limitless and exultant. Every idolater is persuaded that that which he lives for is worth living for; this is the conviction of the miser, the ambitious man, &c.

III. The time is at hand when the falsity of this confidence shall be exposed. There are coming upon those who cherish it calamities amid which they will seek in vain for comfort from their “idols.” How often this is verified in daily life! In the withered, desolate condition of those who have forsaken the Lord how awfully is their folly demonstrated!

IV. Yea, there is a day appointing in which all idolaters and their idols shall be consumed together. In the day of judgment the worshippers of Dagon, of Astarte, of Baal, and of Brahm will not be the only persons on whom utter destruction shall come: those who have made gold their confidence, &c., shall be burned up, together with their “gods.” The objects of their trust shall be as powerless as is “tow” to resist flame, and they themselves shall be but as “sparks,” swept away by the blast of the Divine indignation.

Application.—

1. The day of judgment is a great reality; it is no mere dream of theologians, it is A TREMENDOUS FACT with which we shall soon be brought face to face.
2. This fact should govern us in selecting the object of our supreme love and trust.
3. It should prevent us from envying those who have forsaken the Lord, because of the temporary prosperity in which they are rejoicing [484]

4. It should make us earnest in our endeavours to reclaim them from their apostasy while the day of Divine long-suffering and mercy still continues.

[484] O sirs! do wicked men purchase their present pleasures at so dear a rate as eternal torments, and do we envy their enjoyment of them so short a time? Would any envy a man going to execution because he saw him in a prison nobly feasted, and nobly attended, and bravely courted? or because he saw him go up the ladder with a gold chain about his neck, and a scarlet gown upon his back? or because he saw him walk to execution through pleasant fields or delightsome gardens? or because there went before him drums beating, colours flying, and trumpets sounding? &c. Surely no! Oh, no more should we envy the grandeur of the men of the world, for every step they take is but a step to an eternal execution.—Brooks, 1628–1680.

What reason have we to envy the wicked in their riches and prosperity? If a man be standing firmly on a river’s bank, and sees another gliding gaily but inevitably down to a tremendous precipice below, shall he be envious of the pleasant sail that intervenes before the dread catastrophe? Shall he stand and envy him, and wish to exchange places with him? Oh no, but let him rather cry aloud, and warn him of his danger. Let him hasten to the rescue; throw out his arms with right good-will, and if it may be, save a soul from death.—Nason.

Verse 31

THE TOW AND THE SPARK

Isaiah 1:31. And the strong shall be as tow, and the maker of it as a spark, and they shall both burn together, and none shall quench them.

For the phrases “and the maker of it,” the margin reads, “and his work.” So Alexander and Henderson. This reading renders the passage intelligible in meaning and terrible in import. It then in simple, vivid manner sets forth the reciprocal influence of the sinner and his sin. The man in committing sin degrades and enfeebles himself, and then the sin he has committed reacts upon his degraded and enfeebled nature to kindle in it the fire of its corruption. It is worth observing that these terrible words of warning are not levelled

(1) against low and vile people. The term “strong” precludes that opinion. They are spoken against those who have been, or are still, esteemed, exalted, and powerful,—presumably against the princes, the judges, the counsellors of the nation (Isaiah 1:23-26). Nor are they spoken

(2) against the avowedly irreligious. The people addressed performed a multitude of sacrifices (Isaiah 1:11), were punctilious in their attendance on the house of God, &c. (Isaiah 1:12-14), were full of apparent devotion (Isaiah 1:15). Nor

(3) do they refer to the grosser forms of sin. These would of course come under the same condemnation. But spiritual sins, though more refined to our perception, are more fatal even than sensual sins. It is pre-eminently a spiritual sin in root, however sensual in fruit, that is here arrived at. It is all summed up in the one evil, “forsaking the Lord” (Isaiah 1:28). It is important to bear these considerations in mind if we would obtain personal and profitable application of these words. Consider—

I. The radical change sin works in the constitution of the sinner. Sin is lawlessness, an outbreak of self-will (1 John 3:4). It is conscious wrongdoing (James 4:17). And sin, the prophet says in effect, has a disintegrating, deteriorating, degrading influence upon the man’s nature who yields to it. “The strong shall be as tow.” Tow is the coarse, broken part of flax or hemp—waste, refuse. Used here in contrast to that which is strong. Used also as pattern of what is inflammable.

1. Sin lowers the tone and tenor of our nature. Man’s nature is originally a very high nature. “A little lower than the angels” (Psalms 8:5); a little lower than Divinity (see Alexander and Thrupp in loc.) Originally a king with all highest forms of existence grouped around his throne (Psalms 8:6-8). He falls by sin. How low? To level of beasts that perish? (Psalms 49:20). Lower than that (Isaiah 1:3). To level of trees and shrubs? Lower than that. See, that heap of coarse and tangled refuse was a plant once, a living thing. Now it is cut down, dried, dead; choicest parts gone, wasted! “Tow”—that is the symbol of the sinful man. The height from which he has fallen measures the degradation incurred. To that which is by nature “tow,” it is no degradation to be as “tow.” But for that which is “strong” to become as “tow”—for the highest of God’s creations to become as the lowest—this is disgraceful, dreadful.

2. Sin, depraving and degrading the type and tenor of our nature, enfeebles our powers of resistance to the assaults of external evil. Sin is weakness as well as wickedness; weakness as the result of wickedness. The “strong” becomes as “tow,” becomes weak. Hard to tell which is the worse to bear, the paroxysms of remorse, or the paralysis of power which the habit of sin engenders [487] To feel that when some “temptation comes and calmly states itself before us” we are helplessly a prey to it, is terrible indeed. The first sin of any kind greatly facilitates a second commission of the same [490] and every repetition increases that facility till the ease of doing it almost amounts to a practical inability to abstain from doing it [493] Sin gets dominion over us. Men are “sold under sin.”

3. Sin imparts to us an increased susceptibility to evil—makes us more inflammable. And Satan’s “fiery darts” striking, inflame us [496] Some counsellors advise young people to indulge in a certain measure of sin as a remedy for its enkindling impulses; they call it “sowing their wild oats.” A figure is sometimes the best vail for a fact. One would think that “sowing” would of itself suggest reproduction and multiplied reproduction (Galatians 6:7-8). If you wish your nature to become hopelessly inflammable, utterly uncontrollable, give way to the indulgence of its hot impulses while you are young.

[487] One of the affecting features in a life of vice is the longing, wistful outlooks given, by the wretches who struggle with unbridled passions towards virtues which are no longer within their reach. Men in the tide of vice are sometimes like the poor creatures swept down the stream of mighty rivers, who see people safe on shore, and trees and flowers, as they go quickly past, and all things that are desirable gleam upon them a moment to heighten their trouble, and to aggravate their swift-coming destruction.—Beecher.

[490] A brand that has been once in the fire easily catches the second time.—Flavel, 1630–1696.

[493] Sin is like the descent of a hill, where every step we take increases the difficulty of our return. Sin, in its habits, becomes stronger every day—the heart grows harder, the conscience grows duller, the distance between God and the soul grows greater, and like a rock hurled from a mountain’s top, the further we descend we go down, and down, and down, with greater and greater rapidity.—Guthrie.

[496] It is in our own bosom that the power of temptation is found. Temptation is but a spark; and if a spark fall upon ice, if it fall upon snow, if it fall upon water, what is the harm of a spark? But if it fall upon powder—the powder is yours, the spark only is the devil’s.—Beecher.

The power of temptation is in proportion to the nature of the soul tempted. A thoughtless miner takes an uncovered light into the mine: where there is but little gas, there is but a wavering and flickering of a transient flame,—hardly flame, indeed; but where there is an accumulation of gas, the uncovered light occasions an explosion which shivers the rocks and brings swift destruction upon all who are in the mine. In both cases it was the same mine, the same miner, but the condition of the air was different. So is it with the fiery darts of the wicked one; they are shot into all human hearts, and just in proportion to the materials, so to speak, which are to be found there, will be the success or failure of the enemy.—Dr Parker.

Every commission of sin imprints upon the soul further disposition and proneness to sin; as the second, third, and fourth degrees of heat are more easily introduced than the first. Every one is both a preparative and a step to the next. Drinking both quenches the present thirst and provokes it for the future. When the soul is beaten from its first station, and the mounds and earthworks of virtue are once broken down, it becomes quite another thing from what it was before. In one single eating of the forbidden fruit, when the act is gone, yet the relish remains; and the remembrance of the first is an easy allurement to the second. One visit is enough to begin an acquaintance; and this point is gained by it, that when the visitant comes again, he is no more a stranger.—South, 1633–1716.

II. The way in which the sinner and his sin co-operate for their common destruction. We all know the influence of coming into contact with the instruments, the companions, the locality even, of a former sin. They stir up in us the memories, the emotions, the impulse to the same transgression. So the sinner goes about the world setting new snares for his feet at every turn as he sins. The relation of sin to the sinner and to his sinful deed is like that of a lamp placed between two mirrors, which reflect and re-reflect the light, till both the mirrors seem full of lamps. Sin is ever multiplying itself between the sinner and his sinful deed. And the issue is irremediable ruin. “They shall both burn together, and none shall quench them.” And the moral is, that if we would keep out of hell, we must keep out of sin.—W. Roberts, B.A.

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Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Isaiah 1". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/phc/isaiah-1.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.