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Now will I sing to my well-beloved
Hopes concerning the vineyard
The Lord’s hopes and disappointment with His vineyard.
(A. B. Davidson, LL. D.)
Truth to be presented in varied form
Aaron’s bells must be wisely rung. Sometimes the treble of mercy sounds well, at other times the tenor of judgment, or counter tenor of reproof, sounds better: and it often happens that the mean of exhortation sounds best of all. It is wisdom to observe circumstances, and know how to curse as well as bless, chide as well as comfort, and speak war to a rebel as well as peace to a friend. And herein, indeed, lies the wisdom and faithfulness of a teacher. (N. Rogers.)
Who was the speaker?
It is an interesting question, and one to which the answer is not altogether obvious. And who is the well-beloved to whom these words are addressed? Only two answers seem possible. Either it must be the prophet who speaks, and his God that he is addressing; or else it must be the eternal Father that is addressing His co-eternal Son.
1. If we adopt, as most commentators seem to do, the former explanation, we have to face two very serious difficulties, neither of which can I meet.
(1) The prophet here uses a term of endearment which would be strangely inconsistent with his usual style of addressing God, and such a use of the Hebrew term here employed occurs nowhere else in Scripture. It is a term of endearment of the strongest kind, answering very closely to our English word “darling”; and it is easy to see that there is something very repugnant to our ideas of seemliness and reverence in the application of such a term to that God with whose majesty Isaiah was himself so profoundly impressed. In every other ease in which this word is used as a term of endearment, it is addressed by the stronger to the weaker, by the superior to the inferior. Thus Benjamin is spoken of as the beloved of the Lord in the blessings of Deuteronomy, the thought suggested being, that as Benjamin himself was Jacob’s favourite, the darling of his heart, so the tribe was to be specially dear to the great Father of the race. But obviously, while Benjamin might justly he called the darling of Jacob’s heart, it would have been, to say the least, somewhat incongruous to speak of Jacob as Benjamin’s darling. The term would have been wholly out of place here; and not less, but even more, out of place must it needs be in the lips of an Isaiah addressing his God.
(2) Yet another difficulty has to be faced if we make the prophet the singer; for in that case, his song clearly ends at the close of the second verse, whereas on this hypothesis it must be assumed that there is an abrupt transition from the speech of the prophet to the speech of God. But it seems clear that the whole passage, down to the end of the seventh verse, constitutes the song referred to in the first verse, and it is all spoken of as a song sung to the beloved.
2. Let us adopt the other explanation of the passage, and all at once becomes straightforward and self-consistent, the only difficulty involved being that we have here a marvellously explicit reference to a great theological verity, that was not fully revealed to the world till the Christian epoch--the doctrine of the distinction of Persons (as we are obliged to express it for lack of better terms) in the Divine Unity. This great truth is, however, implied in many other passages of Old Testament Scripture, and therefore its occurrence here need not trouble us. According to this second interpretation, it is the eternal Father that is here addressing His well-beloved Son, the Angel of the Covenant, to whose tutelage the ancient Theocracy was delivered, just as at a subsequent period He became, in the flesh, the Founder and Head of the Christian Church. Here the expression used is just what might be expected, and we are reminded of the voice which fell from heaven in New Testament times: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” In this exegesis the identity of the singer and the unity of the song is preserved throughout, There is no abrupt transition from the utterance of one person to that of another; for He who sings and He to whom the song is sung are one. The Father does Himself that which He does through the Divine Word, and hence the passage from the third person to the first in the third verse ceases to be embarrassing; nay, additional force is added to the Divine expostulation; for the Father is jealous with a holy jealousy for the Person and work of His Son. He knows how well that work has been done, and has all the more reason to complain of its having been denied its proper results and its merited reward. There is something infinitely pathetic in the idea of this song of lamentation, poured forth from the great Father’s heart of love into the sympathetic ear of His well-beloved Son, and in this enumeration of all that He, the well-beloved of the Father, had wrought for favoured Israel. When man was created, he was created as the result of the decree of a Divine council: “Let us make man in our own image.” And now when, after years of trial, man has proved himself a miserable failure, the Divine Father and the co-eternal Son are represented as conferring over the disastrous issue. (W. HayAitken, M. A.)
The vineyard song
There are plaintive songs, mournful songs, as well as songs expressive of joy and delight.
I. THE APPELLATIVE ADDRESS. “My well-beloved.” Can you call Jesus so? “If any man love not our Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed at the coming of the Lord.”
II. THE SONG. Observe, that whilst this vineyard is the choice of “my well-beloved,” and His own hand plants it, He has a right to the fruits. Take care and do not rob Him. Do not tell me anything about a sandy and barren Christianity. It is not worth twopence an acre, if you go by the measurement. Do not tell me of a tree in the Lord’s vineyard that brings forth no fruit; tell me rather of the post in the street. I look for the fruits of the Spirit, that He may be glorified in and by you.
III. THE KNOWLEDGE WHICH IS REQUISITE FOR THE SINGERS. (J. Iron.)
1. It is natural to ask, Who is this that says, “I will sing a song to my Beloved”! I take these words to be spoken, not in the person of Isaiah, but of God the Father to His Son our Lord, who in the evangelical style is called, “the beloved Son of God, in whom He is well pleased.” But how can the Church of those times be called the vineyard of the Son? I answer, Because as the Father created all things by Him, so by Him He has always governed all things, and more especially His Church.
2. The Church of God is styled a vineyard, which is a very pertinent resemblance of it. For as a vineyard is a plot of ground separated from common field and pasture, in order to be improved with such cultivation as that the vines and grapes it produces may supply the owner with generous wines: so God’s Church consists of a people chosen by Him out of the rest of the world, that they may worship Him by the laws and rules of His own revealing, and so exercise a purer religion, and abound in the fruits of good living, above other men, who have not the light of the same revelation, nor direction of the same laws. This similitude of a vine, or vineyard, for the justness of the resemblance, is several times used to denote the Church. (Psalms 80:1-19.)
3. This vineyard is said to be situate in a very fruitful hill, alluding to the land of Canaan, which was a high-raised, and a very fertile soil, agreeable to the character which Moses gives of it (Deuteronomy 32:13).
4. God made a fence round about it, i.e., He distinguished His people from all other nations by peculiar laws, statutes, and observances, not only in religion, but even in civil life, in their very diet and conversation, so that it was impossible for them to remain Jews, and to accompany freely with the rest of the world. He also fenced them with a miraculous protection from the invasions of their adversaries, which bordered upon them on every side.
5. God cleared the soil of this vineyard from stones; not indeed in the literal sense, for this country pretty much abounds with rocks and flints, which are so far from being always prejudicial, that they are serviceable, not only for walls and buildings, but even for some parts of agriculture. But this is a proper continuation of the allegory, that as stones should be cast out of a vineyard, so God cast out the ancient inhabitants of Canaan, to make room for the children of Israel. And with them He cast out their idols, made of wood and stone, and demolished the temples dedicated to idolatry, that His own people might have no stumbling blocks left in their way, but might be wholly turned to His service.
6. He planted it with the choicest vine, the true religion, and form of government both ecclesiastical and civil, which He had revealed from heaven. He made excellent provision for the instruction of His people, and the promulgation of His will and pleasure among them.
7. After much cultivation of His vineyard and choice of His vine, He justly expected a plentiful product of the best kind of grapes; but was recompensed for all His pains with no better than the fruits of wild, uncultivated nature; “grapes of Sodom and clusters of Gomorrah,” as He complains (Deuteronomy 32:1-52). And He gives us a sample and taste of them in some of the following words “He looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry.” The great increase of their fields and flocks, wherewith He had blessed them, afforded them sufficient means of rendering those dues to religion, and loving kindness to their neighbours, especially to the more indigent sort, which by many sacred laws and serious exhortations He had enjoined. But instead of being led by the Divine beneficence to works of liberality and charity, they only studied how to sacrifice to their insatiable lusts and lewd affections.
8. Therefore with good reason God tells them and appeals to themselves for the justice of it, that He would take away the hedge of His vineyard, and my it open to be wasted and trodden under foot. The proper application of all this to ourselves, is briefly hinted by St. Paul (Romans 11:21). “If God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest He also spare not thee.” (W. Reading, M. A.)
Britain highly favoured of God
The natural advantages of Great Britain have been deemed extremely great; an island (says an early historian) “whose valleys are as Eshcol, whose forests are as Carmel, whose hills as Lebanon, and whose defence is the ocean.” But our country has to enumerate advantages of a still higher order,--both of a civil and of a religious nature. Our civil constitution is a fabric, which, on account of its symmetry and grandeur, has even called forth the admiration of foreigners. Respecting this invaluable constitution, the late Dr. Claudius Buchanan asks, “Was it the peculiar wisdom of the Danes which constructed it? or of the Saxons, or of the Normans, or of the natives of the island? What is the name of the great legislator who conceived the mighty plan? Was it created by chance, or by design?. . .We know well by whose counsel and providence our happy government hath been begun and finished. Our constitution is the gift of God, and we have to acknowledge His goodness for this blessing, as we thank Him for life, and breath, and all things.” But should we be less grateful for the benefits of a religious description, which have been conferred in past years upon our ancestors, and so copiously upon ourselves? We have reason to believe that the holy light of Christian truth was introduced amongst the Britons in the apostolic age, and during the captivity of Caractacus; and that numerous churches being gradually formed, the sanguinary rites of the Druids, practised in the dark recesses of their forests, were exchanged for the pure worship of the Gospel. In the sixth century, Christianity, though too much tinctured with the superstition of the age, was introduced amongst the idolatrous Saxons. It was a benefit to many of our ancestors that the dawn of a reformation also appeared, when the doctrines of the Waldenses were brought from France; and when the intrepid Wicliffe--whose writings were of no small advantage to the revival of religion, both in his own country and in Bohemia--protested against the reigning errors. This reformation, though soon crushed, was renewed within about a century afterwards, and established under the auspices of a young monarch whose name should be remembered with the warmest gratitude,--the sixth Edward. The protestant Church was in the next reign greatly oppressed, and many were added to the noble army of martyrs; but in the following reign it acquired a stability unknown before; and notwithstanding the various difficulties with which it has struggled has flourished to this day. (T. Sims, M. A.)
Man under the culturing care of Heaven
The Eternal employs fiction, as well as fact, in the revelation of His grit thoughts to man. Hence we have in the Bible, fable, allegory, parable. Fiction, used in the way which the Bible employs it, is a valuable servant of truth. It is always pure, brief, attractive, and strikingly apt. The Divine idea flashes from it at once, as the sunbeam from the diamond. The text is one of the oldest parables, and is run in a poetic mould. It is fiction set to music. “I will sing to my beloved a song touching his vineyard.” Isaiah’s heart, as all hearts should be, is in loving transports with the absolutely Good One, and by the law of strong affections he expresses himself in the language of bold metaphor and the music of lofty verse. Love is evermore the soul of poetry and song. This parabolic song is not only a song of love, but a song of sadness, for it expresses in stirring imagery how the Almighty had wrought in mercy to cultivate the Hebrew people into goodness, how unsuccessful He had been in all His gracious endeavours, and how terrible the judgment that would descend from His throne in consequence of their unfruitfulness. We have man under Divine culture here set before us in three aspects.
I. RECEIVING THE UTMOST ATTENTION. So much had the Eternal done for the Hebrew race in order to make them good, that He appeals to the men of Jerusalem and Judah in these remarkable words: “What could have been done more to My vineyard, that I have not done in it?” What has the great moral Husbandman done towards our moral culture?
1. Look at nature. There is an intelligence, a goodness, a calm, fatherly tenderness, animating, beautifying, and brightening all nature, which is, in truth, its moral soul, that silently works evermore to fashion the heart of humanity for God.
2. Look at history. There is running through all history, as its very life, an Eternal Spirit of inexorable justice and compassionating mercy, whose grand mission it is to turn the souls of men from the hideousness of crime to the beauties of virtue, from confidence in man, “whose breath is in his nostrils,” to trust in Him who liveth forever, from the temporary pleasures of earth to the spiritual joys of immortality.
3. What are the events of our individual life? Why is our life, from the cradle to the grave, one perpetual change of scene and state? Why the unceasing alternation of adversity and prosperity, friendship and bereavement, sorrow and joy? Rightly regarded, they are God’s implements of spiritual culture.
4. Look at mediation. Why did God send His only-begotten Son into the world? We are expressly told that it “was to redeem men from all iniquity.”
5. Look at the Gospel ministry. Why does the great God ordain and qualify men in every age to expound the doctrines, offer the provisions, and enforce the precepts of the Gospel of His Son? Is it not to enlighten, renovate, purify, and morally save the souls of men?
II. BECOMING WORSE THAN FRUITLESS. “He looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes.” The idea is that the Jewish people, under the culturing care of God, produced instead of good fruit the foetid, noxious fruit of the wild vine. And truly their history demonstrates this lamentable fact. From age to age they grew more and more corrupt, morally offensive, and pernicious, Thus they went on until the days of Christ. Unfruitfulness is bad enough, but pernicious fruitfulness is worse. The history of the world shows that it is a common thing for men to grow in evil under the culturing care of God. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened under the ministry of Moses; Saul advanced in depravity under the ministry of Samuel; and Judas became a devil under the ministry of Christ Himself. Man growing in evil under the culturing agency of God indicates two facts in human nature.
1. The spontaneity of man’s action. What stronger proof can there be that our Maker has endowed us with a sovereign power of freedom than the fact that we act contrary to His purpose regarding us, and neutralise His culturing efforts?
2. The perversity of man’s heart. The disposition to run counter to Heaven, which is coeval with unregenerate souls, is the root of the world’s upas. How came it? It does not belong to human nature as a constitutional element. It is our own creation, and for it eternal justice holds us responsible.
III. SINKING INTO UTTER DESOLATION (verses 5, 6). These words threaten a three-fold curse.
1. The withdrawal of Divine protection. “I will take away the hedge thereof,” etc. The meaning is, that He will withdraw His guardianship from the Hebrew people. This threat was fulfilled in their experience. Heaven withdrew its aegis, and the Romans entered and wrought their ruin. What thus occurred to the Jew is only a faint symbol of what must inevitably occur in the experience of all who continue to grow in evil under the culturing agency of God.
2. A cessation of culturing effort. “It shall not be pruned nor digged; but there shall come up briers and thorns.” The idea is that He would put forth no more effort to improve their condition, that He would cease to send them visions and prophets. The time must come in the case of all the unregenerate, when God will cease His endeavours to improve. His Spirit will not “always strive with man.”
3. The withholding of fertilising elements. “I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.” However protected the vineyard might be, and however enriched the soil, and skilfully pruned the branches, if no rain come, the whole will soon be ruined. What a terrible picture of a soul is this!--here is a soul from which its great Father has withdrawn all protection, ceased all culturing efforts, and withholds all fertilising influences! Here is hell. This subject starts many solemn reflections, and has many practical uses.
(1) It unfolds the mercifulness of God. How infinite His condescending love in taking this little world under His culturing care.
(2) It reveals the morality of life. Man is a moral being, and everything here connected with his life has a moral purpose, and a moral bearing.
(3) It explains all human improvement. God, as the great Husbandman, is here “building fences,” “digging and pruning,” and thus helping on the world to moral fruitfulness.
(4) It urges self-scrutiny. In what state is our vineyard?
(5) It suggests the grand finale of the world’s history. There is a harvest marching up the “steeps of time.” (Homilist.)
I. AS ABUNDANTLY POSSESSED. The vineyard here is represented--
1. As in a salubrious position. “In a very fruitful hill.”
2. As subject to culturing care. Canaan was the fruitful hill; the theocratic government was the fence built around it. What rare opportunities has every man amongst us! Bibles in our houses, churches near our dwellings, preachers of every type of mind, class of thought, and oratorio power.
II. AS SHAMEFULLY ABUSED. “When I looked that it should bring forth grapes, it brought forth wild grapes.”
III. AS UTTERLY LOST. (Homilist.)
A history of the Jews
We have in this parable a summing up of the history of God’s chosen people.
I. GOD’S CARE FOR THEM--their privileges.
II. GOD’S GRIEF OVER THEM--their Sin and unfaithfulness.
III. GOD’S SENTENCE UPON THEM--their punishment. (C. J. Ridgeway.)
Human life in parable
I. Here is human life PLACED IN A GOOD SITUATION. “In a very fruitful hill.”
II. Here is human life AS THE SUBJECT OF DETAILED CARE (Isaiah 5:2). He stood back and waited like a husbandman. The vineyard was upon a hill, and therefore could not be ploughed. How blessed are those vineyards that are cultivated by the hand! There is a magnetism in the hand of love that you cannot have in an iron plough. He gathered out the stones thereof one by one . . . He fenced . . . He built . . . He made a wine press. It is hand made. There is a peculiar delight in rightly accepting the handling of God. We are not cultivated by the great ploughs of the constellations and the laws of nature; we are handled by the Living One, our names are engraven on the palms of His hands: “The right hand of the Lord doeth gloriously.” Human life, then, is the subject of detailed care; everything, how minute soever, is done as if it were the only thing to be done; every man feels that there is a care directed to him which might belong to an only son.
III. Human life is next regarded AS THE OBJECT OF A JUST EXPECTATION. “He looked that it should bring forth grapes.” Had, He not a right to do so? Is there not a sequence of events? When men sow certain seed, have they not a right to look for a certain crop? When they pass through certain processes in education, or in commerce, or in statesmanship, have they not a right to expect that the end should correspond with the beginning? Who likes to lose all his care?
IV. Human life AS THE OCCASION OF A BITTER DISAPPOINTMENT. “It brought forth wild grapes.” (Joseph Parker, D. D.)
Life given for culture
It is not the best at the first; it has to be fenced, and the stones are to be taken out, and the choice vine is to be planted, and the tower is to be set in the midst of it, and the wine press is to be built therein. The child is but the beginning; the man should be the cultivated result. Culture is bestowed for fruit. Culture is not given for mere decoration, ornamentation, or for the purpose of exciting attention, and invoking and securing applause; the meaning of culture, ploughing, digging, sowing is--fruit, good fruit, usable fruit, fruit for the healing of the nations. The fruit for which culture is bestowed is moral. God looked for judgment and for righteousness. (Joseph Parker, D. D.)
God’s expectation of fruit
I. THE MOTIVES OR REASONS INDUCING US TO FRUITFULNESS.
1. Every creature in its kind is fruitful. The poorest creature God hath made is enabled, with some gift, to imitate the goodness and bounty of the Creator, and to yield something from itself to the use and benefit of others Shall not every creature be a witness against man, and rise up in judgment to condemn him, if he be fruitless?
2. The fruitfulness of a Christian is the groundwork of all true prosperity.
3. If we be fruitful, bringing forth the fruits of the Spirit, there is no law against us (Galatians 5:22-23).
4. The circumstance of time calls upon us to bring forth the fruits of obedience. Forasmuch as the Lord hath year by year, for so long succession of years, sought for fruit of us and found none, it is now high time to bring forth plenty.
5. If all this will not serve to make us fruitful, that which our Saviour saith John 15:2; John 15:6, should awaken us.
II. SOME PROFITABLE MEANS THAT MUST BE USED TO MAKE US GROW MORE FRUITFUL.
1. See thou be removed out of thy natural soil, and be engrafted into another stock.
2. See thou plant thyself by the running brooks.
3. See thou labour for humility and tenderness of heart. The ground which is hard and strong is unfit for fruit.
4. Beware of overshadowing thy heart by any sinful lust, whereby the warm beams of the Sun of Righteousness are kept from it.
5. A special care must be had to the root that that grow well Faith is the radical grace.
6. We must be earnest with the Lord, that He would make us fruitful.
III. THE NATURE AND QUALITY OF THAT FRUIT WHICH WE MUST BRING FORTH.
1. Proper. It must be thy own.
2. Kindly, resembling the Author, who is the Spirit of grace.
3. Timely and seasonable (Psalms 1:3).
5. A fifth property of good fruit is universalities. Fruits of the first and second table, of holiness towards God and righteousness towards man. Fruits inward and outward.
6. Constant. (N. Rogers.)
It brought forth wild grapes
The history of the Jewish nation is written for our warning, and the lessons taught by this parable are sadly needed by the England of today.
There is not one word of this description of the vineyard at its best which is not true of this highly favoured land. This, too, is a very fruitful hill. Under the soil, what unheard of mineral riches, mines of wealth! Above the soil and in it what fertility, what productive power! Around us, from port and bay and harbour, our merchant fleets take and fetch and gather the riches of the earth! Here, too, is planted a chosen and favoured vine. Here God has planted the Anglo-Saxon race, so blended with some other tribal blood that, even our enemies being judges, we have been unequalled in hardy daring, conquering energy, splendid enterprise, and universal stretch of power. We, too, have been strangely “fenced in” by the providence of God. Our iron coasts, compassed by the inviolate sea, have largely made and kept us separate and safe. Out of this land have also been gathered the stones of idolatry, barbarism, despotism, bigotry, slavery. Here, too, the Husbandman hath built His tower and made His wine press. “The temples of His grace, how beautiful they stand!” Surely the Lord hath not dealt so with any people! To us He says, as well as to Israel of old, “What more could I do to My vineyard, that I have not done? Why, then, when I looked for grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?” Is not this indictment true? Wild grapes, offensive to God, mischievous to others, and ruinous to us, are being produced on every hand. The Husbandman describes some of them.
1. The excessive greed of gain (Isaiah 5:8). The sin lies not in the mere addition of house to house, by fair and lawful means, or a moderate gathering together of earthly good; but in that mad rush and scramble, that strife and struggle to lay hold of all the hand can grasp. Never was Nebuchadnezzar’s golden god worshipped with half the eager frenzy of today. Utterly reckless of Naboth’s honest claim to his little vineyard--regardless of the right of poorer neighbours to gain a livelihood, a powerful purse shall buy them out; huge estates shall be enclosed in an ever-expanding ring fence; rampant speculators shall starve the spinner and weaver by the cunning of a “cotton corner.” It is a moral wrong; it is a national calamity; it is a wild grape which wins a “woe” from God. The one gleam of hope lies in the fact that the monster will be its own destroyer. “Of a truth, many such houses, great and fair, shall be without inhabitant.”
2. Another wild grape is the crying sin of intemperance (Isaiah 5:11).
3. Another wild grape is the headstrong rush after pleasure; the follies and frivolities of the tens of thousands whose whole time and tastes and talents are wickedly laid on the shrine of sensual delights. A perpetual round of feasting, junketing, dancing, sightseeing, and sensational enjoyments is the be-all and end-all of their existence (Isaiah 5:12).
4. Another wild grape is sensuality in its grosser and fouler shapes. “Woe unto them which draw iniquity with cords, and sin as with a cart rope.” In this ease the silken threads which bound them to the gilded chariot of pleasure have been woven by the force of habit into strong cords and cables, and they are drawn by the baser passions into bestial sensuality, and within the veil of secrecy, and under the curtains of night, uncleanness reigns.
5. Another wild grape is infidelity. “Woe unto them that regard not the work of the Lord, neither consider the operations of His hands.” They deny His creating power, they question His existence, and as for the operation of His providence, not God but law and nature is the cause of all! And all this in England!
6. Another wild grape here mentioned is fraud and falsehood: and still another is dishonesty. “Woe to them who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter,” and so on. Again, “Woe unto them which justify wickedness for reward!” Tricks of trade, scamped handiwork, adulterated goods, lying puffs and advertisements, commercial frauds, haphazard speculations--oh, ‘tis a sickening list! What shall be the end of it? Must England, like Israel, perish, forsaken of her God? No nation that forgets God shall prosper: look on the ruins of Babylon, of Greece, of Israel, of Rome. No city that forgets God shall prosper: read the sad records of Nineveh, of Tyre, of Jerusalem, of Sardis, of Laodicea. No man that forgets God shall prosper: look at the graves of Pharaoh, of Ahab, of Saul, of Herod, of Napoleon. If England lives on, and grows in lustre as she lives, it must be because the King Emmanuel is undisputed Monarch of the national heart, uncontrolled Director of the national policy and the national will. (J. J.Wray, M. A.)
Isaiah an embodied conscience
Isaiah was speaking in the first years of the reign of Ahaz, who, by his luxury and effeminacy, was beginning to imperil the splendid results of the reigns of Uzziah and Jotham. Like most men who are embodied consciences, the prophet was looked upon as a busybody. Those are usually most hated who do that which is most needed. Having attracted attention by his parable of the vineyard and the grapes, Isaiah became a remorseless and terrible voice. The man seemed to have disappeared, while the voice spoke the retributions of the Almighty. This embodied conscience was terribly faithful. It is useless to attempt argument with a conscience. It can never be argued with--it must be heard. It utters its imperative, and you are heedless at your peril. Some things may be reasoned about; a matter of conscience, never. Furthermore, conscience is always and of necessity prophetic. Whenever conscience tells you that you are wrong, it tells you more than that--it tells you that you must turn or you will be punished. That is what makes it a terror. Not only does it point the finger of shame; it also points the finger of doom. So is it with the national conscience; it, too, is prophetic, and always speaks of judgment. Isaiah was the conscience of Judah speaking its imperative, as Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison were our national conscience in the days when the Republic protected slavery. Judah had grown rich; she was getting careless; she was trusting in her riches. Judah had been sadly disciplined. There had been earthquakes, loss of territory, defeat, and now there was approaching the spectre of an Assyrian invasion. For all this she boasted of her riches and neglected God. (Amory H. Bradford, D. D.)
Old foes with new faces
1. As soon as a people become rich, they usually begin to subvert the natural and Divine order to their own selfishness. The tendency of riches is to lead people to do wrong. That may be why it is so hard for a rich man to get into heaven. He makes the mistake of thinking he can buy his way anywhere, and finds at last that character, not gold, is the currency he needs.
2. The sternness of the prophet continues. Those who have grown rich have also grown luxurious. They have learned the pleasures of the wine cup; they tarry long at the wine. The land question is an old one; the liquor question is equally old. Again I ask, Who shall tell why, as soon as men begin to prosper, they begin to do what is worst for themselves and worst for the world? Read that fifth chapter from Isaiah 5:12-17. How true to life! “The mean man is bowed down, and the great man is humbled.” The low-bred fellow drinks his fiery liquor and wallows in the gutter; the high-bred and rich say that they can mind their own business, and go to the same disgusting squalor. But Isaiah was speaking of the nation rather than to individuals It was a national shame that such things were tolerated then; it is a disgrace that such things are tolerated now. If Isaiah were alive today, or, better, if Jesus Christ could have your attention for a moment, He would say, How can you justify yourselves in giving so much time to purely economic questions and so little to the devising of means for the abolition of what ruins the finest of our boys, blights homes that would otherwise be beautiful and full of love, and makes so many of our rulers more like swine than the sovereigns they were intended to be? These two old foes are still alive, with new faces--the land question and the liquor question. The lesson which we have to learn is the one which the prophet sought to impress in his time--that both individuals and nations are responsible to God; that responsibility is real; and that there is a judgment seat before which men and nations must stand. “For all this His anger is not turned away, but His hand is stretched out still.” Let us not forget that we--our community, our state, our nation--are in the moral order of God; that everything we do is making ourselves and all others better or worse; that we are all called to fellowship with the prophets and apostles and faithful souls in all ages, to do something toward bringing in the time when the good things of the world shall belong to all people. (Amory H. Bradford, D. D.)
A reasonable expectation
God expects vineyard fruit from those that enjoy vineyard privileges. (M. Henry.)
Judge, I pray you, betwixt Me and My vineyard
The unfruitful vineyard
The way in which the inspired penman is guided to put the question in the text seems to lead us to ONE OF WE SUBTLEST WEAKNESSES OF HUMAN NATURE,--I mean the power which men possess of perceiving general truth without at the same time perceiving its particular bearing on themselves. Often and often are we, all unconsciously, judging between God and His vineyard, and we know it not. There is no general denunciation of the Bible which does not meet with our full assent; but we are too often unable to see that we ourselves come under its terms. And this is one of the dangers attendant on listening to preaching.
II. The portion of Scripture under consideration has A MOST DIRECT REFERENCE TO OUR OWN PROBATION.
1. As members of the Church.
2. As individual souls. (W. Alexander.)
What could have been done more to My vineyard that I have not done in it?
Human responsibility and Divine grace
I. In any attempt at the interpretation of the story and the exhibition of its moral and religions uses, its NATIONAL APPLICATION should be considered first. (Isaiah 5:7.)
1. There is a sense in which it may almost be said that Israel was Jehovah’s vineyard as no other race or nation has ever been. Selected from an ancient stock which certainly does not seem to have greatly distinguished itself before, it had been preserved and cherished century after century; and in its most marvellous history are to be found the purest revelations of God in antiquity, leading up to the “unspeakable gift” in which men have life. That history proves that the nation had enjoyed every condition of blessedness, every opportunity of fruitfulness and service.
2. The kind of career it chose is sufficiently indicated in this fifth chapter, in the latter part of which the vices seem almost to run riot. But it is even more significant of the state of the nation, that these lurid paragraphs are not perhaps quite an adequate representation. For, threatened with an attack from an alliance of the neighbouring tribes, Ahaz sought the aid of the King of Assyria; and to secure it, he actually consented to govern his country as an Assyrian province. Then followed one of the most dismal periods of Jewish history. The weak king became infatuated with his oppressor, and nothing would satisfy him except the introduction of Assyrian manners and morals and worship into Jerusalem. The example of the court infected the nobles and the priests; and at length, in the beautiful valley of Hinnom, amongst the groves that were kept green by the fountains of Siloah, an altar to Moloch was erected. That was the sort of “wild grape” this choice vine was yielding,--idolatry of the most cruel and savage kind, varied with sensuality and the oppression of the poor.
3. That such a result should disappoint the Owner of the vineyard was only natural; and accordingly this little story represents Him next as trying to find out the cause, or rather, as appearing to the men of Judah to acknowledge what He and they well knew. He sets them up for the moment as judges, and confronts reason and conscience with the question, “What could have been done more to My vineyard, that I have not done in it?” Everything that could be done and yet leave them free to sin and capable of righteousness had been done.
4. A nation convicted and self-convicted of the most gross offences against God and against morals, offences the entire responsibility of which rests upon itself--what will become of that nation? There are other parts of the Bible, not quite so stern as this, which indicate that further opportunities may be given it, and the final punishment withheld for a time. But it is also true that, in regard of nations as well as of men, the patience of God may be exhausted. We have accordingly, in this song and story, the outline of the history of Judah. God’s consideration, first of all, with every kind of gracious help and opportunity,--all wasted through the neglect or wilfulness of the nation itself, until it became fruitless and hopelessly corrupt; and then the fulfilment of the Divine words: “Go to; I will tell you what I will do to My vineyard: I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned nor digged; but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.” Judah, in its origins and early career, is a sufficient illustration of the preliminary stages: Judah, in its dispersion and miseries, is a standing witness to the certainty with which national calamity overtakes national contempt of God. A nation that ignores its past, and just surrenders itself to sin, is manifestly good for nothing, filling no worthy function, but cumbering the earth.
II. BUT NO NATIONAL INTERPRETATION OF THIS PARABLE SEEMS QUITE SUFFICIENT. The way in which the Bible insists upon the truth that national responsibility does not obliterate but only gathers together and, as it were, organises personal responsibility, has some important bearings upon current modes of speech and thought. There is a disposition sometimes to speak of the conscience of a nation, to imagine that the phrase stands for something that is entirely separate and apart from ourselves, and to regard it as a power outside of a man, to which he may add or from which he may withhold his own influence. At times it has proved a convenient generalisation; but it is well that an exact meaning should be given it. It must denote, not something apart from any man, but either the average personal conscience, or the aggregate of all the consciences; and an average or an aggregate is a figure upon which every unit tells. All morality, indeed, must always be, in its essence and in its appeals, personal, lifting up a nation by lifting up the individuals that constitute it; exposing it to the wrath of God because the individuals expose themselves. The most effective social movements are found to be accordingly those which address themselves in the name of God to individuals, and persuade them one by one to aim more resolutely at the fulfilment of righteousness.
1. If then this passage be taken personally, no one who recalls his past life, and remembers the way in which God has dealt with him, is likely to object to its symbolism. Every one of us has been and is a vineyard of the Lord; and He does for us all that a God can do.
2. What has been the result of it all? Wild grapes in abundance--weakness and bad temper and almost every kind of fault we can show, but little else.
3. The reason of such failure is not far to seek. That God can be blamed for it, is impossible; for there has been no defect of grace or help on His part. Temperament and circumstance might be pleaded, aptitudes we have inherited, and hindrances amidst which we have found ourselves, but for the obvious reply that, whilst these things may involve effort and strain, they never involve defeat. The man who is most embarrassed by his own disposition and surroundings, but for his own fault might be a better man than he is.
4. The consequences of continuing in fruitlessness are shown by the passage to be fatal and hopeless. To waste Divine grace is to run the risk of losing it altogether. That point, however, has not been reached by anyone who retains any aspiration after God, or any desire to be a better man. In Christ there is power for all to shake off every habit of sin, to reverse tendencies to neglect and waste, to evolve in righteousness and peace. (R. Waddy Moss.)
God and men
I. THE DEALINGS OF GOD WITH US.
II. OUR CONDUCT TOWARDS HIM. (A. Roberts, M. A.)
It may seem irreverent to speak of a Divine disappointment, but this is by no means the only passage of Scripture which in its obvious meaning conveys this idea, Perhaps we may have to leave the explanation of such words till we obtain fuller light in higher worlds upon the great mystery of the relation of Divine foreknowledge to human freedom; but clearly such words are spoken to us after the manner of men, in order that we may the better discern the intensity of desire and the warmth of loving interest with which the God from whom we all proceed seeks to raise us to our true functions and our proper place in His universe, and the sorrow and regret with which He witnesses the failure of His gracious purposes concerning us. (W. Hay Aitken, M. A.)
The moral limits of the Divine resources
1. Perhaps it may occur to you to object, this lamentation and apparent disappointment? Surely, this is a confession of impotence on the part of the Omnipotent. If God be really what we call Him--Almighty--why should He waste words in futile expostulations! Surely, He who makes the vine put forth her tender grapes and prepares the autumn vintage the wide world over, could, if He pleased, by the mere exercise of His superior power, constrain men to bring forth the fruit that He desires to see brought forth. Why did He not increase the pressure of His power on Israel until He had constrained the disobedient nation to become obedient, and had practically forced them to bring forth their fruit? Our answer to this very natural difficulty is simply this--that the suggestion involves a contradiction. This will be sufficiently obvious as soon as we begin to ask,
What is the special fruit that God seeks at the hand of man? The proper fruit of humanity, the fruit that God seeks in human character and life, is the reproduction of the Divine nature. God’s purpose in man is answered when He sees in man His own moral likeness formed. But now, inasmuch as God is a free agent, it is only by the possession of a similar moral faculty, and of the capacity of exercising it, and only by its exercise in the highest and best manner, that man can ever be conformed into the Divine image; for no two things are more essentially unlike than an automaton and a free agent. Indeed. I think we might venture to say that even a free agent who uses his freedom badly is morally more like God, just because he is free, than the most perfect automaton--perfect, I mean, in every other particular you can name--could ever hope to become, seeing that he is not, and can never hope to be, free. No doubt God could have arranged that man should be a very different being, and bring forth very different fruit; but then in doing so He would have had to abandon the specific purpose emphatically announced when man was just about to be called into existence--“Let us make man in our image, after our own likeness.” St. Paul teaches us that the “gifts and calling of God are without repentance,” and we see this illustrated all through the natural world. God does not alter the functions of particular organisms, and make them produce something totally distinct from their own proper type. Were He to do so He would be admitting failure and inconsistency. And as in the material so in the spiritual world. Man has been originally designed to occupy a certain unique position there, and to exercise certain definite functions, and to bring forth a particular kind of fruit to the glory of God, and therefore we may be quite sure that God will not transform him into a being of another order altogether, just to make him do and be what he in his free manhood wills not to do or to be.
2. But it might still be urged, Would not God be acting a kinder part if He withdrew this faculty of free will which has caused us so much trouble, and sin and sorrow--if He were so completely to override it by His own superior power, and so control it that it should be able to exercise no appreciable influence incur conduct, but that He Himself should always have His way? To this we answer, God loves man too much to do anything of the kind. Man’s capacity of rising to his proper destiny is involved in his possession and exercise of this faculty of volition. Take it away, and we must needs turn our backs forever upon the thought of rising to the prize of our high calling in Christ Jesus; for it is by the use of these wills of ours, and by their voluntary subordination, that we are to be trained, and developed, and educated, and fitted for enjoying that wondrous relation to the Son of God which is spoken of as the spiritual Bridal and Union of Christ and His Church. No; man must remain free, or else his own proper fruit can never be brought forth; and hence there is really and actually moral limit to the Divine resources.
3. Bearing in mind, then, these necessary limitations of the Divine resources, let us each face the inquiry, What more would we have God do for us than He has actually done! I do not my that all are equally privileged, and I can believe that some, in answer to such a challenge, might demand the enjoyment of higher privileges such as others possess. But don’t you see that, whatever privileges might thus be secured, the necessity for the action of the will would not and could not be evaded! And so long as this were so, what guarantee would you have that your increased privileges might not mean only enhanced condemnation! Others, who occupy the very position of privilege that you might demand, have only turned their privileges into a curse by sinning against them; and who shall say that it would not be the same with you? Nay, is it not even more than probable that it would be so; for does not our Lord Himself teach us that “he that is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much: and he that is unrighteous in a very little is unrighteous also in much”! Here we have laid down one of the great laws of the moral world. (W. Hay Aitken, M. A.)
God employs various means in dealing with men
He does not exhaust all the means that He is capable of employing without any inconsistency all at once. Just as He dealt in different ways with Israel of old, sometimes sending a miracle-working prophet like Elijah, and sometimes a man of mighty eloquence such as Isaiah; sometimes raising up a saintly hierarch like Samuel, and sometimes a philosophic moralist like Solomon; sometimes speaking in pestilence, defeat, disaster, and sometimes in prosperity and deliverance, even so He employs first one means and then another in dealing with us. But each of these, when it fails to bring about the end for which it was designed, represents the exhaustion of yet another resource; and when the last which the Holy Ghost can righteously and consistently have recourse to has been exhausted, the soul is lost. (W. HayAitken, M. A.)
Thankfulness for past mercies the way to obtain future blessings
I. THE FORM AND MANNER OF THE COMPLAINT. It runs in a pathetic, interrogatory exclamation; which way of expression naturally and amongst men importing in it surprise and a kind of confusion in the thoughts of him who utters it, must needs be grounded upon that which is the foundation of all surprise, which I conceive is reducible to these two heads--
1. The strangeness;
2. The indignity of anything, when it first occurs to our apprehensions.
II. THE COMPLAINT ITSELF; for which there are these things to be considered.
1. The Person complaining, who was God Himself.
2. The persons complained of, which were His peculiar Church and people.
3. The ground of this complaint; which was their unworthy and unsuitable returns made to the dealings of God with them.
4. The issue and consequent of it; which was the confusion and destruction of the persons so graciously dealt with and so justly complained of. (R. South, D. D.)
With ill men nothing is more common than to accuse Almighty God of partiality and injustice, as if it were in His nature to be austere and cruel, and expect more than can reasonably be done by them in their circumstances. When the earth is unprofitable, and its productions are fit only to be burned in the fire, the fault is neither in the sun nor yet in the clouds, but in those whose business it is to prepare the earth for the influences of the heavens. In like manner, and with equal justice, may God appeal to His people: and this is the purport of the question, “What could have been done more for My vineyard, that I have not none in it?”
1. The vineyard, with all the circumstances relating to it, is thus described by the prophet (Isaiah 5:1-4).
2. If Christians should at last fall away, the justice of God may then appeal to them, “What could have been done more for My vineyard, that I have not done in it?”
3. As true religion brings with it the blessing of God upon any nation, and this blessing is the source of inward peace, wisdom, health, plenty, and prosperity; so the decay of Christianity must bring such evils upon us as were brought on the impenitent Jews. (W. Jones, M. A.)
The impenitent inexcusable
There is something very affecting, very startling, in the assertion that as much had been done as could be done in order to produce from the ancient Church the “fruits of righteousness.” And, if you only ponder the arrangements of the Gospel, you will feel forced to assent to the reproachful truth which is conveyed in the question of the text. There is a wonderful variety in the arguments and appeals which are addressed in Scripture to the thoughtless and obdurate. At one time they are attacked with terrors, at another acted upon by the loving kindness of God, and allured by the free mercies of the Gospel. In our text there is nothing alleged but the greatness of what God has done for us--a greatness such that nothing more can be done, consistently, at least, with that moral accountableness which must regulate the amount of influence which God brings to bear upon man. Of course, if this be so, then, if we are not convinced and renewed under the existing instrumentality, there is nothing that can avert from us utter destruction.
I. This is the first way of vindicating the question of our text--atheism has a far better apology for resisting the evidences of a God which are spread over creation, than worldly-mindedness for manifesting insensibility to redemption through Christ. It is not, we think, too bold a thing to say, that in redeeming us, God exhausted Himself. He gave Himself; what greater gift could remain unbestowed! Therefore it is the fact that nothing more could have been done for the vineyard, which proves the utter ruin which must follow neglect of the proffered salvation. Having shown yourselves too hard to be softened by that into which Deity has thrown all His strength, too proud to be humbled by that which involved the humiliation of God, too grovelling to be attracted by that which unites the human and the Divine, too cold to be warmed by that which burns with all the compassions of that Infinite One, whose very essence is love,--may we not argue that you thus prove to yourselves that there is no possible arrangement by which you could be saved?
II. Consider more in detail what has been done for the vineyard, in order to bring out, in all its reproachfulness, the question before us.
1. As much has been done as could have been done because of the agency through which redemption was effected. The Author of our redemption was none other than the eternal Son of God, who had covenanted from all eternity to become the surety and substitute for the fallen. So far as we have the power of ascertaining, no being but a Divine taking to Himself flesh, could have satisfied justice in the stead of fallen man. But this is precisely the arrangement which has been made on our behalf.
2. As much has been done as could have been done for the “vineyard,” regard being had to the completeness and fullness of the work as well as to the greatness of its Author. The sins of the whole race were laid upon Christ; and such was the value which the Divinity gave to the endurances of the humanity, that the whole race might be pardoned if the whole race would put faith in the Mediator as punished in their stead. The scheme of redemption not only provides for our pardon, so that punishment may be avoided; it provides also for our acceptance, so that happiness may be obtained. Not only is there full provision for every want, but there is the Holy Spirit to apply the provision, and make it effectual in the individual case.
3. There is yet one more method of showing that so much has been done for the “vineyard” that there remains nothing more which the Owner can do. In the teachings of the Redeemer we have such clear information as to our living under a retributive government,--a government whose recompenses shall be accurately dealt out in another state of being,--that ignorance can be no man’s excuse if he live as though God took no note of human actions. And we reckon that much of what has been done for the “vineyard” consists in the greatness of the reward which the Gospel proposes to righteousness, and the greatness of the punishment which it denounces on impenitence. (H. Melvill, B. D.)
The Lord’s vineyard
I. THE ADVANTAGES.
II. THE SINS.
III. THE PUNISHMENT of the elder Church. (G. J. Cornish, M. A.)
I. The solemnity of the present season calls upon us to commemorate in an especial manner THE MERCIES OF GOD IN THE REDEMPTION OF THE WORLD, the last and most gracious of all His dispensations. The preceding vouchsafements were preparatory to this, which is therefore to be considered as the completion of the others. Wherefore, if those other dispensations had so much grace in them as to warrant the prophet’s expostulation in the text and context, the argument will be so much the stronger, and our obligation so much the greater, as the grace in which we stand is more abounding and the advantage of our situation more favourable and auspicious to us. This whole matter will appear in a stronger light to us if we turn our thoughts to those three great periods of religion under one or other of which the Church of God and His Christ hath all along subsisted. In each of these we shall have occasion to reflect upon the merciful care of providence and the shameful negligence and ingratitude of mankind in their returns to it.
1. The patriarchal;
2. The Jewish;
3. The Christian, marked by the personal appearance of Christ, our blessed Mediator, who had all along transacted the great affairs of the Church under the two preceding economies.
The two main ends which were here consulted were--
(1) The atonement of past offences.
(2) The prevention of future offences.
II. THE RETURNS WHICH HAVE BEEN MADE to all this tender indulgence of our merciful Father. (N. Marshall, D. D.)
National wickedness in danger of provoking national judgments
I. WHAT GOD HATH DONE FOR US AND WHAT RETURNS WE HAVE MADE.
1. In early ages, when we were overrun with heathenism and idolatry, it pleased God to plant the Christian religion among us; a religion every way worthy of the Divine dispensation, and suited to the exigencies of mankind. When this religion had flourished many centuries in its unalloyed purity, in a very dark age it became adulterated with impure doctrines, and quite overgrown with a heap of monstrous absurdities: but it pleased God, by the ministry of His faithful servants, to re-enlighten this land with the beams of truth; to restore Christianity to its original simplicity and sincerity.
2. A thorough disregard to Christianity has prevailed.
II. WHAT WE MAY EXPECT AS THE CONSEQUENCE OF OUR INGRATITUDE AND IMPIETY. Vice, when diffused through a kingdom, must have a fatal influence over the whole community, and at last accomplish the destruction of it. In its universal progress it must be attended with idleness and immoderate expense, the natural parents of poverty. Honest poverty would cast about for honest and unthought of expedients for supporting itself and bettering its condition, but poverty, contracted by the profligate courses of drunkenness, lewdness, and debauchery, takes quite another turn, and preys upon the little industry that is left to the nation, and thereby gives a check to that very industry; for the less secure men grow in their properties the less will they labour to improve them. Hence will it come to pass that among those of higher condition, self-interest will be made the ruling principle. And among the meanest of the people what power can we suppose will the voice of human laws have against the louder calls of poverty, set free from the barrier of conscience, and thereby at liberty to relieve itself by all the methods that wickedness can suggest! In proportion as the hands of the government grow weak will the hearts of its enemies he strengthened, and greater force must still be provided for its support, and the maintenance of that must again fall on the public; and general burdens of that kind, should they ever he felt, would be followed by a general discontent. And this will give a great temptation to our foreign enemies to take the advantage of such fatal opportunities and try to make us no more a nation. In the ordinary course of things then, vice, when it becomes epidemical, is not only the reproach, but bids fair for the ruin of any people. National wickedness never failed, sooner or later, to provoke the Almighty to a national vengeance.
III. THE PROPER MEANS WHEREBY WE MAY HOPE TO AVERT GOD’S DISPLEASURE. (Jeremiah 18:7-8.) As we make a part of the nation, our sins must make a part of the national guilt; and consequently none of us can think ourselves unconcerned in the important work of a national reformation. (J. Seed, M. A.)
Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field
The selfish landowner
Selfishness, or the making self the centre to which all things are to tend, is the great sin in all ages and peoples.
As soon as national institutions have awakened the sense of personality and the feeling of self-respect, the desire of accumulating wealth grows with them. And in no form is it more liable to abuse than in connection with the possession of land. Men desire, by an almost universal instinct, to possess property in land, with its healthy occupations and interests, so varied and multiplied by the living powers of nature, and with its important political and social rights which grow up with the duties which are specially connected with it; for this kind of property demands the fulfilment of more, and more obvious duties than any other, while it confers corresponding rights and powers by bringing a man into more complete personal relationship with his neighbours than is possible in the crowd of cities and the whirl of city trades. Yet, since the land cannot be increased in quantity, its possession by one man is the exclusion of another, and the Hebrew laws endeavoured to meet this difficulty by special provisions, the breach or evasion of which the prophet now denounces in his first “woe” on the selfish landowner. He who can join house to house and lay field to field when he knows, and long has known, face to face, the very man, wife and child whom he has dispossessed, and can drive out by his own simple act his fellow men to be desolate in their poverty, in order that he may be alone in his riches, may expect a punishment proportioned to his crime. (Sir E. Strachey, Bart.)
The prophet heard, ringing in his ears, the declaration of Jehovah, the King of the land, that the great and fair palaces should become as desolate as the peasants and yeomen’s cottages which had made place for them--the vineyard of ten acres yield but eight gallons of wine, and the cornfield shall give back but a tenth part of the seed sown in it. (Sir E. Strachey, Bart.)
The Mosaic legislation
Moses directed as equal a division of the land as possible, in the first instance, among the 600,000 families who originally formed the nation; and provided against the permanent alienation of any estate by giving a right of repurchase to the seller and his relations, and of repossession without purchase at the Jubilee. (Sir E. Strachey, Bart.)
In the Channel Islands the acreage to be owned by one individual is limited. In Norway the law provides that the heirs of anyone who has parted with his property may buy that property back at sale price within a term of five years. (F. Sessions.)
Hebrew land laws
The Hebrew legislation further prevented the exhaustion of the soil and the fruit trees, by enforcing fallow and rest during every seventh year. The offerings of first fruits really constituted a kind of land tax, payable to Jehovah as Over-Lord, and tending to prevent the conversion of folk land into “thane’s land,” or king’s land. The legislation placed Jehovah’s tenants under a poor law, which compelled cultivators to leave the gleanings of the crops, and all that the fallows of the seventh year Sabbaths produced spontaneously in those prolific fields, for the support of the needy. By the limitations of the right of private ownership,--a right that was not denied, and was frequently exercised,--every man was taught his responsibilities to his fellows. The theory was, as someone has written: “Brotherhood in the enjoyment of a Father’s bounty.” (F. Sessions.)
“Land grabbing”and “evictions” may be new terms, but they are century-old sins. (F. Sessions.)
The land question
The land question is as old as history. The Hebrews were hardly out of the wilderness before laws were enacted to prevent the strong from getting more land than anyone ought to possess. The land laws of Moses occupy a large place in his legislation. The prevention of monopoly in land was clearly in the mind of the Hebrew lawgiver. In Isaiah’s time the nation had recovered from poverty and grown rich, and the wealthy and ruling classes had begun to grasp the earth. They would have tried to fence in the air and pack the sunlight in barrels, if they could have done so. The spirit that would monopolise land would monopolise light if it could. Against this awful wrong the voice of the Lord rings its condemnation. Four things belong to man as man, and anyone who tries to prevent their being used for the service of humanity is a sinner against the universe and against God. Those four things are: the earth, the air, the water, and the light. Every man has a right to live, and no one can live as he ought without free access to earth, air, water, and light. Isaiah brought the people to this one point--this land belongs to God, and you are using it as if it were yours to do with as you please. And that is all that need be said today. The land, like the air, belongs to God; and if to God, then to humanity; and it is our business to find out, as all easily can if they will, how the great Owner of all the earth would have men use that which must be the home of all His creatures. Of one thing, however, we may be sure. He never intended that a few big lions should get possession of all the forests, so that there should be no comfortable places left for the rabbits, the sheep, and the cattle, except in holes in the ground; and He never intended that a few strong men should get possession of all the fertile, healthful, and beautiful ]portions of earth, so that the rest of humanity--the artists, the artisans, the literary men, and those who work with their hands--should be obliged to live in cellars and attics and hardly know what is meant by that great and dear word home. (Amory H. Bradford, D. D.)
A woe on monopolists
I. THE SIN. Their fault is--
1. That they are inordinate in their desires to enrich themselves, and make it their whole care and business to raise an estate, as if they had nothing to mind, nothing to seek, nothing to do in this world but that. They never know when they have enough, but the more they have the more they would have. They cannot enjoy what they have, nor do good with it, for contriving and studying to make it more. They must have variety of houses, a winter house and a summer house; and if another man’s house or field lie convenient to theirs, as Naboth’s vineyard to Ahab’s, they must have that too, or they cannot be easy.
2. They are herein careless of others; nay, and injurious to them. They would live so as to let nobody live but themselves. They would swell so big as to fill all space and yet are still unsatisfied (Ecclesiastes 5:10).
II. THE PUNISHMENT. That which is threatened as the punishment of this sin is--
1. That the houses they were so fond of should be untenanted, should stand long empty, and so should yield them no rent, and go out of repair. Men’s projects are often frustrated, and what they frame answers not the intention.
2. That the fields they were so fond of should be unfruitful. (M. Henry.)
In 1650, while Cromwell was prosecuting his campaign against Charles II in Scotland, he wrote the Speaker of the Parliament, urging the reformation of many abuses and added, “If there be anyone that makes many poor to make a few rich, that suits not a commonwealth.” (C. Knight’s England.)
Greed pauperises the soul
A farmer said “he should like to have all the land that joined his own.” Bonaparte, who had the same appetite, endeavoured to make the Mediterranean a French lake. Czar Alexander was more expansive, and wished to call the Pacific “my ocean”; and the Americans were obliged to resist his attempts to make it a close sea. But if he had the earth for his pasture, and the sea for his pond, he would be a pauper still. He only is rich who owns the day. (R. W. Emerson.)
Covetous persons are
Covetous persons are like sponges, which greedily drink in water, but return very little, until they are squeezed. A covetous person wants what he has, as well as what he has not, because he is never satisfied with it. (G. S. Bowes.)
Folly of covetousness
If you should see a man that had a large pond of water yet living in continual thirst, not suffering himself to drink half a draught for fear of lessening his pond; if you should see him wasting his time and strength in fetching more water to his pond, always thirsty, yet always carrying a bucket of water in his hand, watching early and late to catch the drops of rain, gaping after every cloud, and running greedily into every mire and mud in hopes of water, and always studying how to make every ditch empty itself into the pond; if you should see him grow grey in these anxious labours, and at last end a careful thirsty life by falling into his own pond, would you not say that such a one was not only the author of his own disquiet, but was foolish enough to be reckoned among madmen? But foolish and absurd as this character is, it does not represent half the follies and absurd disquiets of the covetous man. (Law’s Serious Call.)
Many houses shall be desolate, even great and fair, without inhabitant
(To children):--Empty houses! We all know what they look like.
From afar we can see the bills in the windows--“This house to let,” or “To be let,” or, still more curtly, “To let”; and when we come nearer, the black windows, without blinds or curtains, gape and yawn at us. In the garden the long matted grass has overrun the lawn, and covered nearly all the beds. The door creaks on its hinges as we enter, as though it had been asleep and did not wish to be wakened. There are other houses that are not quite empty. They are comfortably furnished; but the family has gone to the seaside. A servant or an old lady has been kept in the house as caretaker, and as she usually lives in the back part of the house she is often not seen from one week’s end to the other.
I. This world is like a house comfortably and beautifully furnished, and in which we men and women have been placed “to dress it and to keep it.” But THE WORLD WITHOUT GOD IS LIKE AN EMPTY HOUSE. God is the builder of this house; and He is the tenant too. Cowper, in his “Task,” speaks of some men who “untenant the Creator of His universe.” There are some who say that God made this house, and put us in it as caretakers, and then went to live in His own grand mansion in heaven; and there He sits, receiving our letters, which are our prayers, and sending His servants to do His commands. But we believe that God always lives in this house. He is in every room, in England, and in the Continent, and in Africa, and in America. It is God’s name that is woven into the beautiful carpet of grass and flowers, that is carved into the rocks, and worked into the mossy couches, and painted in the beautiful landscape pictures, and reflected in the mirror-like lakes and ponds and rivers. If God were not in the world it would be like a desolate house, though great and fair.
But there is another kind of house that is sometimes found to be empty.
Life is like a house. Its length, however, is measured, not by feet and yards, but by days and months and years. Some lives are long and some are very short. Its breadth is measured by its sympathy and influence. Sometimes the tenant is not a good one. A selfish purpose takes possession, and then the house is like the house of a miser, long, and narrow, and low. And sometimes the house is like a house of feasting, from which there comes the sound of music and dancing, and the clink of glasses and of plates. That is when the desire for pleasure becomes a tenant. But there are some of these houses that are without an inhabitant. For A LIFE WITHOUT A PURPOSE IS LIKE AN EMPTY HOUSE. Some people do not know why they live. They eat and drink and sleep; but they have no great aims, no noble purposes. Their lives are like empty houses. Take Christ with you into your life. And then your life will grow up like a grand temple, upon which there will be inscribed: “Holiness unto the Lord”; in which there will be perpetual peace and happiness; and from which there will ever come the sound of holy chant and psalm.
III. And then there is another house of which I thought. It was a small house, but large enough to accommodate one man. It was built in the face of a rock, and a great stone door was placed before it. It belonged to a man named Joseph; but another tenant was put in. He did not remain there long: it was too dark, and cold, and dreary. That house was the tomb of Jesus. And A TOMB WITHOUT A SAVIOUR IS LIKE AN EMPTY HOUSE. There are many houses of that kind built in these days; and they are all full. But a time is coming when a trumpet shall sound, and the doors of these dreary houses shall be opened, and the tenants shall all come out. And then their houses shall be empty like the tomb of Jesus. (W. V. Robinson, B. A.)
Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink
The fruits of drunkenness
In reference to THE INDIVIDUAL HIMSELF, who is its victim. It may, perhaps, be made a question by some, When may a man be regarded as intoxicated, and what may be the number of offences which would entitle him to the character and name of drunkard? Intoxication essentially consists in the obscuration of the light of reason, so that it is no longer able fully to exercise its functions; and, therefore, the moment this light has become even partially eclipsed, and the moment, perhaps, that that exhilaration begins, which always urges onwards and craves for more--at that moment we may say, that as the individual is in a state of alarming danger, so the process of intoxication has commenced; and, therefore, many a man may be strictly and truly said to be intoxicated, though he does not “reel and stagger like a drunken man.” No man ever became a drunkard all at once, i.e., in ordinary cases; for some have become so instantaneously through the pressure of affliction, and from the impulse of despair. It is not the intoxicating beverage that allures at first (for, in general, the natural taste rejects it), but the “harp and the viol, and the tabret and the pipe,” that are in the drunkard’s feasts--that hilarity which, innocent perhaps in itself, brings at that time a snare, and that good companionship which, while it dispenses its joys, spits its venom. By and by, however, they come to like the beverage, not on account of the company it brings together, but for itself; and remembering its exciting and exhilarating qualities, have recourse to it at other seasons, first along with others, and then in private by themselves--finding on each occasion some excuse to silence conscience, and to keep themselves up in their self-esteem; till, at last, going on in their downward career, their drink becomes as necessary as their daily food, and they live with an appetite always craving, and an intellect seldom clear. And what are the invariable accompaniments and consequences?
1. The intemperate man is brought into contact with the most worthless companions, who have no fear of God before their eyes, and who lead him on, step by step, till they plunge him into irremediable ruin.
2. Indulgence in strong drink tends to the eclipse of intellect. This effect may not be exhibited at first. On the contrary, in the first stages of the sin, the opposite result may appear. Have you never seen these same faculties, which the exhilarating draught awakened for more powerful efforts, by the very same influence, deprived of all their wakeful energy, and steeped in an oblivion the most complete and the most melancholy; so that far from being capable of bursting forth with more than common brilliancy, they become incapacitated for the performance even of their common functions?
3. Look at the effects resulting, when the orb of reason has undergone this dread eclipse. Then is an inlet afforded for all wickedness, and every crime may free a perpetrator. The strong man of the house being bound, the passions arise like robbers, and rifle his goods. The lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eye, are all permitted to riot in unchecked fury. The monarch of the soul being, for the time, dethroned, the subjects spend themselves in the work of anarchy.
4. No one can sin with impunity; and even in this life, we often see transgression closely tracked by its attendant punishment. But of all sins, that of drunkenness seems to be peculiarly visited with retribution here; for the loss of reputation invariably follows indulgence in the habits of intemperance.
II. Glance at its results as far as THE DRUNKARD’S FAMILY is concerned. No ruin can be conceived more tremendous than when the roof tree of a man’s domestic happiness falls in, and leaves him a home, but without its joys. He is an enemy indeed who casts a brand into that temple, and envelops that altar in destructive flames. But this intemperance does. No one can express the hopes or the joys of a mother, when she sees her son walking in the ways of virtue. But, in proportion is her sorrow, when she sees the son that she has borne and nursed, becoming a worthless profligate, an outcast, and a drunkard. Intemperance is silently but too surely sapping the very foundations of society. Who, then, that has any regard either for the glory of God, or for the welfare of his country, would not gird on his armour to meet the enemy in the gate? (P. M’Morland.)
The degradation and ruin of intemperance
I. THE SIN, WITH ITS CONCOMITANTS AND CONNECTIONS, DESCRIBED IN THE TEXT.
1. The prophet refers to intemperance and its associate habits of festivity and dissipation. The corrupt condition of social life, springing from the depravity of the heart, has in every age encouraged those stimulants to evil adverted to in this passage, and which are alike felt by the high and the low. The wine mentioned is the date or palm wine, which possessed an inebriating quality; but, whatever be the particular drink--the wine of the wealthy or the beer of the poor--the accompaniments of the festival, metropolitan or rural, are frequently similar both in kind and effect, and tend to evil. Our Lord, it is true, was at a feast of Cana in Galilee; and music, “the harp and the viol, the tabret and pipe,” may minister to an innocent recreation or gratify judicious taste; but we need scarcely adduce the trite distinction between the use and abuse of a thing, to show wherein lies, in the present case, the moral danger. The sin of excess, both in eating and drinking, in the forms of gluttony and intoxication, is peculiarly odious.
(1) Intemperance is both bad in principle and degrading in character. Chrysostom and Augustine call it “a spontaneous fury”; and Basil, with greater vehemence of expression, says it is “a voluntary devil, a chosen madness.”--
(2) But while this is the case, it has a greater tendency than almost any other crime to destroy the feeling of shame and to harden conscience.
(3) It leads to other great sins. Its name is legion; for, in reality, there is scarcely any vice or folly that it does not either originate or encourage. It is said by Eustathius that “the nurses of Bacchus were painted with snakes and daggers in their hands, to show that drunkards were beastly and bloody.”
(4) Intemperance is dangerous to the peace of society, and puts to hazard the lives of mere Vulgar quarrelling in low life, and polite duelling in high, disturb, separate, and destroy families. How many have been the murderers of others in seasons of intemperate festivity. Ammon was slain by his brother Absalom when indulging in wine. Simon the high priest, and two of his sons, were sacrificed to the inebriation of their brother. Judith slew Holofernes, when the latter was in a state of intoxication. Alexander the Great killed Clitus at a feast, and inflicted upon himself a vain repentance.
2. The prophet points out the connection between intemperance and unhallowed festivity, and an infidel disregard of the works and ways of Deity. Thus are body and soul at once degraded and ruined. Under the influence of intemperance men are led to disregard “the operations of His hands,” not only undervaluing the works of God, but unmindful of His providential and gracious dispensations. His judgments do not alarm, His mercies do not conciliate them; they despise the one, and disown the other.
II. THE WOE DENOUNCED BY THE PROPHET UPON THE SONS AND DAUGHTERS OF INTEMPERANCE. The “woe” is to be plainly traced in the conscious unhappiness of the delinquent, even though he seem gay and smiling--in the general and almost certain loss of health, that first of earthly blessings--in the diminution and probable loss of property, and of every resource--in the dereliction of friends worth having in the terrors of an unprepared for death, or the even more horrible condition of a moral death unfelt, and a natural death unheeded--and, lastly, in the quenchless burnings of the bottomless pit. Habits of intemperance are progressively formed, and therefore require the exercise of extreme carefulness, self-discipline, and prayer. Beware of the first step--of the first temptation--of the first immoderate indulgence. I conclude by presenting you with three short maxims of human wisdom, and one precept of Divine inspiration. He that will not fear, shall feel the wrath of heaven. He that lives in the kingdom of sense, shall die into the kingdom of sorrow. He shall never truly enjoy his present hour, who never thinks on his last. “Be not filled with wine wherein is excess, but be filled with the Spirit.” (F. A.Cox, D. D. , LL. D.)
Following strong drink
1. The Almighty has set His face solemnly and strongly against the sin denounced in the text.
2. Unquestionably, the surest way of stopping the ravages of strong drink will be by means of total abstinence. The fear of ridicule, the force of habit, the consideration of health, the charge of inhospitality, or the appearance of unsociableness, one or other of these arguments prevail with the vast multitude to induce them to stand aloof from the total abstinence movement.
3. Certain precautions which are within the compass of those who are not prepared to give their adhesion to total abstinence.
(1) We may be careful about ourselves and the example we set.
(2) We should be very careful of the influence we exercise on those around and connected with us. If we are careful of the example we set, it must be on account of the influence which that example may exert.
(3) Let us be exceeding jealous of leading anyone into temptation.
(4) Let us be on our guard against making drunkenness a subject of wit, drollery, and fun.
(5) Be careful how you yield to the opinion of those friends who would urge you to increase the quantity of stimulant you are in the habit of taking in the course of the day.
(6) In all eases within your knowledge, in which persons cannot use without abusing strong drink, exert all your influence to induce them to become total abstainers. (J. Mould, M. A.)
The drunkard’s doom
I. THE SIGN OF THE DRUNKARD’S CAPTIVITY. In every vice there is a stage beyond which, humanly speaking, recovery is impossible. A time comes when the jaws of the trap snap together and the victim is caught. In intemperance this point is reached imperceptibly, and the victim is ignorant long after others see his danger.
II. THE HELPLESSNESS OF THE CAPTIVE DRUNKARD. Isaiah describes him as following strong drink. As the obedient dog at his master’s heels, or as the moth after the light, so the drunkard follows strong drink. At first he thinks he does so for the pleasure he derives from it, but he soon recognises that he is helpless in so doing. As a man swept down towards the rapids looks longingly towards those on the bank who can render no help, so the drinker yearns after virtues and peace which can never more be his. No tyrant was ever more exacting. Though he be prostrate in the morning, yet he must rise at his captor’s bidding, and by forced marches hasten to his doom.
III. THE DOOM THAT AWAITS THE DRUNKARD.
1. Moral insensibility. They regard not the work of the Lord. They call good, evil; and evil, good. Drink so blunts the sensibilities that the victim under its influence can commit crimes from which at other times he would shrink. More crimes are committed “in drink” than out of it.
2. Shamelessness. After obliterating the distinction between right and wrong he turns and defies God and glories in sin. When the prophet warns him that God will visit him, he dares Him to do His worst. “Let Him make speed, and hasten His work, that we may see it.”
3. Hell. The drinker tempts the devil, for even hell has to enlarge its appetite to receive him. When the destroyer would be satisfied, the drinker stimulates his satiated desire, determining to be lost. So he ends his course with the drunkard’s grave and the drunkard’s hell. (R. C. Ford, M. A.)
Isaiah’s testimony to the licentiousness and degeneracy of his age
1. Contrary to modern and superficial notions, which confine intemperance to northern climes, and exclude it from vine-growing countries, the people of Israel, following the example of their chief men, were addicted to the grossest indulgence in intoxicating liquors. The juice of the grape (yayin) and the juice of other fruits (shakar) were drunk in their fermented state; and probably both, certainly the latter, were mixed with pungent and heavy drugs (verse 22) in order to gratify a base and insatiable appetite. Men rose up early and sat up late to prosecute these vicious indulgences, and they boasted of themselves as “mighty” and “valiant” (verse 22) in proportion as they were able to gulp down large quantities of these compounds and to “carry their drink well.”
2. The attendant and in no small measure the consequential evils were of the most aggravated kind. The Divine works were disregarded (verse 12), ignorance reigned (verse 13), sin abounded (verse 18), men’s moral conceptions were the opposite of the truth (verse 20), self-conceit grew luxuriantly (verse 21), bribery and injustice were rampant (verse 23). The vengeance of God was awakening against them and would take the triple form of famine, pestilence, and invasion, so that their supplies of drink would be cut off (verses 6, 7, 10), the pest-stricken would lie in the streets (verse 25), and hostile nations would ravage the land (verses 26-30). (Temperance Bible Commentary.)
Musical merriment silencing conscience
“And the harp,” etc. Better, And guitar and harp, tambourine and flute, and wine constitute their banquet;--as if to drown the voice of conscience and destroy the sense of Jehovah’s presence and working in their midst. (Prof. J. Skinner, D. D.)
Edison’s testimony to the value of abstinence
I once asked the greatest of inventors, Thomas A. Edison, if he were a total abstainer; and when he told me that he was, I said, “May I inquire whether it was home influence that made you so?” and he replied, “No, I think it was because I always felt that I had a better use for my head.” Who can measure the loss to the world if that wonderful instrument of thought that has given us so much of light and leading in the practical mechanism of life had become sodden with drink, instead of electric with original ideas? (Frances E. Willard.)
They regard not the work of the Lord
The providence of God
A neglect of God, and a disregard of His wonder-working providence, constitutes the character of man under the influence of his natural corruption of heart.
It formed the character of the Jewish Church, notwithstanding its outward privileges and its appointed means of religious improvement. It forms the character of nominal Christians. Covetousness and sensuality are the two great causes of man’s neglect of God (Isaiah 5:8; Isaiah 5:11-12).
I. TAKE A CHRISTIAN VIEW OF THE PROVIDENCE OF OUR HEAVENLY FATHER. God’s “never-failing providence ordereth all things both in heaven and in earth.” This providence is--
II. Points of practical instruction.
1. This doctrine is quite consistent with your free agency.
2. Think not that your Lord forgets you in the immensity of His works. “Sanctified afflictions,” says an old writer, “are good promotions.”
3. Pray that God would by His providence “put away from you all hurtful things,” and “give you those things which be profitable for you,” and remember that the welfare of your souls is concerned in all the actions and undertakings of every day and hour. (W. M. Harte.)
Sensuality essentially atheistic
The sensual reveller simply disregards God’s constitution and government of society. (Sir E. Strachey, Bart.)
My people are gone into captivity, because they have no knowledge
A sermon for Trinity Sunday
“My people.” The Almighty has a people of His own; a people with special privileges and a special work to do. In the Old Testament and the New this is clearly written. “My people,” says Isaiah; “My flock,” says Jesus Christ. That is the method of grace. God acts upon some of us that they may act upon the rest. In the days of a school the young influence one another. In a town, in a nation, it is the same. And a whole country has its mission for the world as the Hebrews had. Now, in the text that nation is complained of. Why? Because they had no knowledge.
2. “My people” is a term which shows us God’s character. The inferences which arise from it should be dear to Christians. God will not be without a people, because He is a God of love. He must have around Him children to love. But it is a quality inherent in love to love its like. Children may be helpless, or wayward: we can bear with them, love them, not less, perhaps more, for their weakness and dependence; but they must not be reprobate. There must be some affinity of feeling, something lovable in them, or at last we shall not love, or at any rate love will be in abeyance. God, we believe, has not, and never will, disinherit Israel finally. Why did he go so wrong and choose so badly? “Therefore My people are gone into captivity, because they have no knowledge.” They had knowledge enough in their head no doubt, but they had not taken it to their heart.
3. Now, as regards ourselves, we are God’s people--not exclusively, but among other Christian nations of this later time. God has given us great knowledge of His truth. He has even revealed to us deep secrets of His own nature: even the mystery of the Holy Trinity itself. Since God has given knowledge to us, it should be kept by us not in a passive but in a living active state. (2 Timothy 1:13; Titus 1:13; Titus 2:1; 2 Corinthians 13:5; Jude 1:3.) And this knowledge is so efficient and operative a force that it is all-important to keep it “whole and undefiled.” This “doctrine” of the Holy Trinity is no speculative thing, but it is closely interwoven with the principles of Christian life. (T. F. Crosse, D. C. L.)
“They have no knowledge”
How should they, when by their excessive drinking they make sots and fools of themselves? They set up for wits; but because they regard not God’s controversy with them, nor take any care as to their peace with Him, they may truly be said to have no knowledge; and the reason is, because they will have none; inconsiderate and wilful, and therefore “destroyed for lack of knowledge.” (M. Henry.)
Inconsideration and ignorance
1. Ignorance is the certain consequence of inconsideration.
2. Inconsideration is the natural effect of luxury and dissipation, which arise from gratified avarice and ambition. (R. Macculloch.)
Records of the past
The great stone book of nature reveals many strange records of the past. In the red sandstone there are found in some places marks which are clearly the impressions of showers of rein, and these so perfect that it can even be determined in which direction the shower inclined, and from what quarter it proceeded; and this ages ago! So sin leaves its track behind it, and God keeps a faithful record of all our sins. (G. H. Morrison, M. A.)
Hell hath enlarged herself . . . the Lord of hosts shall be exalted in Judgment
“Hell,” here, stands not for future punishment.
The word “Sheol” in Hebrew, “Hades” in Greek, and “Hell” in this verse, represent the place of the dead--the grave. This place of the dead is spoken of in the Bible as a very deep place (Deuteronomy 32:22; Job 11:8; Psalms 139:7-8). As a very dark place (Job 10:21-22). And as a place having gates into it (Isaiah 38:10).
I. THE GROWING POWER OF THE GRAVE. The grave is here represented as having “enlarged herself, and opened her mouth without measure.” The words refer, undoubtedly, to a period when, through famine, pestilence, or war, mortality was on the increase. This increase of mortality teaches us--
1. The fruitlessness of all human efforts to avert death. Men have been struggling against death for six thousand years, and his dominion is wider today than ever.
2. How soon we shall be in the grave world. The mouth is opening for us; it is yawning at our feet.
II. THE LEVELLING POWER OF THE GRAVE. “And their glory, and their multitude, and their pomp, and he that rejoiceth, shall descend into it. And the mean man shall be brought down, and the mighty man shall be humbled, and the eyes of the lofty shall be humbled.” Learn from this--
1. How foolish it is to be proud of adventitious distinctions. They are only as flowers of the field, evanescent forms, and hues that variegate the common grass.
2. How important to seek an alliance with the eternally great and good. Seek “a city which hath foundations,” a kingdom that cannot be shaken.
III. THE ETERNAL SOVEREIGN OF THE GRAVE. “But the Lord of hosts shall be exalted in judgment, and God that is holy shall be sanctified in righteousness.”
1. He survives all dissolutions.
2. He will be increasingly honoured. “The Lord of hosts shall be exalted in judgment.” (Homilist.)
God’s judgments on the Jews
This judgment began to come upon the men whom Isaiah addressed, in the reign of Ahaz, soon after the delivery of the warning; but in order fully to understand it, we must (as in the case of all other prophecies) look at it in the light of the whole subsequent history of the Jews and of Christendom. In the final destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, Christ and His apostles saw the selfish and carnal nation brought to its last trial and righteously condemned, and the sentence carried into execution by that Man whom God had appointed to judge the world. They declared, and the event, spread over successive centuries, has proved the truth of the declaration, that God was bringing down the mean man and the mighty man alike throughout the world and exalting Himself and His Son, setting His name up in the world, and causing it to triumph over all opposition. (Sir E. Strachey, Bart.)
God the righteous Judge
Though men may slavishly dread an arbitrary will, they can never feel for it that salutary tear which is the beginning of wisdom; and unless we believe that God’s judgments are righteous--that they are a part of the steady administration of a polity--as well as good in their effects, it will be impossible for us to keep long from superstition, or its opposite, scepticism. And, therefore, we may see the germ of a true historical and political philosophy in the prophet’s repeated assertion, that God is exalted in executing justice and sanctified in righteousness. (Sir E. Strachey, Bart.)
Woe unto them that draw iniquity with cords of vanity.
Frivolity and profanity
Frivolity, he says, is the herald and handmaid of guilt. The cords are cords of vanity bound about us in mere thoughtlessness in the unguarded hours of recreation, in the giddy whirl of society, when talk is gay and free, and no man weighs his words; the cords of vanity bind us on subtly but surely to the calamitous burden of sin. I submit to you that the prophet in thus linking together frivolity and iniquity, commends himself to us as a close and just observer of human society. Profanity is the last term of a series; it is a stage we reach by the unmarked way of frivolous habit, and that unmarked way is the broad way of the general life. Society itself is unfavourable to thought and gravity and depth of character. It makes us of necessity superficial, light, shallow. At best it ministers to the gracious externals of a man’s conduct, and too often it does this at the cost of his character; for the philosopher said truly that custom is the principal magistrate of a man’s life; and if, by the ceaseless iteration of frivolous speech and action, we bind upon ourselves the chain of frivolous habit, be sure the mischief penetrates into the very citadel of character. (Canon H. Hensley Henson, B. D.)
God’s woes are better than the devil’s welcomes. When we get a woe in this book of blessings it is sent as a warning, that we may escape from woe. (C. H.Spurgeon.)
Disguises and defiances
Society, for its self-preservation and well-being, provides that virtue should be in the ascendant, should sit on the throne, should hold the empire and make the laws of the world. There have been times when vice has ostentatiously unmasked itself in high places, and with a triumphant audacity has made itself the fashion and the social law. Such was the epoch of the decadence of the old Roman civilisation. Such were the times of the restoration of the English monarchy under Charles II.
The moral collapse at the Restoration was the inevitable unbending of the bow after the rigours of the Puritan regime. England was tired of unmelodious psalm singing and endless homilies on the sin of eating Christmas pies and dancing around May poles. It welcomed with a strange alacrity and a strange forgetfulness the exiled prince, whose morals, none too good to begin with, had been debauched in foreign courts, and who brought back to the palace of his fathers nothing of royalty, except enchanting manners, graceful wit, and an insatiable thirst for pleasure. But the enthronement of vice was only for a day. Men on the morrow smote it on the face, and hurled it from the seat which gave it power and lustre. This is the history of fashionable and jewelled vice in every age. When those who inherit wealth and polite culture and the accumulated embellishments of life conspicuously trample on the laws of righteousness the insulted world calls them to account, and in self-defence consigns them to social outlawry. So plainly is Virtue the eldest born and the fairest of the daughters of God. If our Lord uttered woe on the heartless and pretentious morality of His day, the prophet uttered woe on the confessed and ostentatious immorality of his time. Isaiah’s words, as well as Christ’s, have a bearing on our modern life: “Woe unto them that draw iniquity with cords of vanity, and sin as it were with a cart rope.” Men hate hypocrisy. A profitable virtue that is not real, or a formal virtue that is not large and loving, moves us to scorn or pity. But, strange to say, the hatred of hypocrisy is not always in the interests of virtue “I will not be a hypocrite,” says one, and in his horror of hypocrisy he rushes into an open and shameless evil life. This is what the prophet means in his graphic picture, “Woe unto them that draw iniquity,” etc. He depicts a class of men who have deliberately harnessed themselves to evil, as a horse or mule is harnessed, to a loaded waggon. There are forms of iniquity which are difficult and laborious. Those who get over any ground with them must pull them with a cart rope. It is grievous business, but some men choose it, and take more trouble to be bad than actually is necessary to be good. And they prosecute ostentatiously the business that they have chosen. They take no care to conceal the evil industry of their life. It is the instinct of sin to disguise itself. It usually skulks behind an assumed goodness. It takes to itself virtuous names. It puts on masks to hide itself, not only from the eyes of men, but also from the eyes of conscience. But the man who drags sin with a cart rope boasts only one virtue, and that is a real one: he is no hypocrite. He has thrown appearances to the winds. He drags his iniquity conspicuously on the highway, in the daylight. He does not care to conceal the coat of arms on the carriage, or the livery of the driver who holds the reins and snaps over him the whip. Perhaps no one ever fully commits himself to this sort of life until he has, or thinks that he has, arrived at the conclusion that all goodness in the world is a sham; that the virtue to which men sing praises is simply a convenient fiction, which they affect to believe, and pretend to possess; that, as there is no real righteousness on the earth, so there is no sovereign righteousness in the heavens; that God is simply a dumb force, without moral quality, and indifferent to the moral quality of His creatures. Hence the prophet makes such a one say, in presumptuous taunt and irony: “Let Him make speed,” etc. Is this rude picture, culled from the page of the old Hebrew prophet, unsuited to these smooth times and this Christianised civilisation? Do none of you ever say: “I know it is wrong. It is an offence against God, against myself, against my neighbour. It is an unquestionable violation of what is pure and honest. I can See the harm that it works; but I do not disguise it. I do not pretend to be other than I am. I am at least frank. I do not affect a virtue which I do not possess”? Well, this is one alternative to hypocrisy. Did you ever think that there is another,--to recognise the evil in your nature and the sin in your life; to look at it with keen, brave eyes, illumined by the study of God’s law to guard against it day by day and moment by moment; and resolutely to fight it, in its first impulses, in its fiercest assaults, by the help of God’s grace? Is not this a possible alternative? It is not demanded of you that you be sinless; but you need not be the liveried slave of sin. It is not required of you that you be perfect; but you can enlist and do battle on the side of right. (W. W. Battershall, D. D.)
Cords and cart-ropes
I. Explain the singular description. Here are persons harnessed to the waggon of sin--harnessed to it by many cords, all light as vanity and yet strong as cart ropes.
1. Let me give you a picture. Here is a man who, as a young man, heard the Gospel and grew up under the influence of it. He is an intelligent man, a Bible reader, and somewhat of a theologian. He attended a Bible class, was an apt pupil, and could explain much of Scripture, but he took to lightness and frothiness. He made an amusement of religion and a sport of serious things. He came under the bond of this religious trifling, but it was a cord of vanity small as a packthread. Years ago he began to be bound to his sin by this kind of trifling, and at the present moment I am not sure that he ever cares to go and hear the Gospel or to read the Word of God, for he has grown to despise that which he sported with. The wanton witling has degenerated into a malicious scoffer: his cord has become a cart rope. His life is all trifling now.
2. I have seen the same thing take another shape, and then it appeared as captious questioning. How can he believe in Christ when he requires Him, first of all, to be put through a catechism and to be made to answer cavils? Oh, take heed of tying up your soul with cart ropes of scepticism.
3. Some have a natural dislike to religious things and cannot be brought to attend to them. Let me qualify the statement. They are quite prepared to attend a place of worship and to hear sermons, and occasionally to read the Scriptures, and to give their money to help on some benevolent cause; but this is the point at which they draw the line--they do not want to think, to pray, to repent, to believe, or to make heart work of the matter. If you indulge in demurs and delays and prejudices in the first days of your conviction, the time may come when those little packthreads will be so intertwisted with each other that they will make a great cart rope, and you will become an opposer of everything that is good, determined to abide forever harnessed to the great Juggernaut car of your iniquities, and so to perish.
4. I have known some men get harnessed to that ear in another way, and that is by deference to companions. There is no doubt that many people go to hell for the love of being respectable. It is not to be doubted that multitudes pawn their souls, and lose their God and heaven, merely for the sake of standing well in the estimation of a profligate. He that would be free forever must break the cords ere yet they harden into chains.
5. Some men are getting into bondage in another way; they are forming gradual habits of evil.
6. I fear that not a few are under the delusive notion that they are safe as they are. Carnal security is made up of cords of vanity.
II. THERE IS A WOE ABOUT REMAINING HARNESSED TO THE CART OF SIN, and that woe is expressed in our text.
1. It has been hard work already to tug at sin’s load.
2. But, if you remain harnessed to this car of sin, the weight increases. You are like a horse that has to go a journey, and pick up parcels at every quarter of a mile: you are increasing the heavy luggage and baggage that you have to drag behind you.
3. Further, I want you to notice that as the load grows heavier, so the road becomes worse, the ruts are deeper, the hills are steeper, and the sloughs are more full of mire. An old man with his bones filled with the sin of his youth is a dreadful sight to look upon; he is a curse to others, and a burden to himself.
4. The day will come when the load will crush the horse.
5. I am sure that there is nobody here who desires to be eternally a sinner: let him then beware, for each hour of sin brings its hardness and its difficulty of change. When the moral brakes are taken off, and the engine is on the downgrade, and must run on at a perpetually quickening rate forever, then is the soul lost indeed.
III. Now I want to offer some ENCOURAGEMENT FOR BREAKING LOOSE.
1. There is hope for every harnessed slave of Satan. Jesus Christ has come into the world to rescue those who are bound with chains.
2. You are bound with the cords of sin, and in order that all this sin of yours might effectually be put away, the Lord Jesus, the Son of the Highest, was Himself bound.
3. There is in this world a mysterious Being whom thou knowest not, but whom some of us know, who is able to work thy liberty. Wherever there is a soul that would be free from sin this free Spirit waits to help him.
4. Our experience should be a great encouragement to you. (C. H.Spurgeon.)
Spiritual cart ropes
Cart ropes are composed of several small cords firmly twisted together, which serve to connect the beasts of burden with the draught they pull after them. These represent a complication of means closely united, whereby a people here described continue to join them selves to the most wearisome of all burdens. They consist of false reasonings, foolish pretexts, and corrupt maxims, by which obstinate transgressors become firmly united to their sins, and persist in dragging after them their iniquities. Of this sort the following are a few specimens: God is merciful, and His goodness will not suffer any of His creatures to be completely and everlastingly miserable. Others, as well as they, are transgressors. Repentance will be time enough upon a death bed or in old age. The greatest of sinners often pass unpunished. A future state of retribution is uncertain. Unite these, and such like cords, and, I suppose, you have the cart ropes whereby the persons mentioned draw after them much sin and iniquity. All these pretexts, however, are light as vanity. (R. Macculloch.)
The cord of sin
These words are at all times, and among every people, of especial interest, were it only on two accounts--
(1) The easy thoughtlessness with which men begin their acquaintance with sin, and
(2) The hardness of heart in which they are confirmed by its habits. These are represented under a very lively figure in the former of these two verses; and the desperate rebelliousness of spirit to which they are brought, so as to utter defiance against the judgment of the Almighty, is expressed to the life in the latter.
I. THE FIGURE under which the sinner is represented in the former of these verses is that of a rope-maker. He begins with a slight slender thread of flax or hemp, which he can break almost with as much ease as a spider’s web; but the end of his work is a cart rope, thick and strong enough to bind the strongest man or beast upon earth. So a man begins and ends with sin. He begins with drawing iniquity with cords of vanity. The iniquity upon which he is tempted to enter seems to him a mere trifle at first, to which, if not good, he thinks that he gives a hard name to call it downright had; and if it even do smite his conscience with some evil signs of its real nature, which he can hardly mistake, he is vain enough, in the notion of his own strength, to think, that when he has gone into it he can as easily come out of it again. It is but as flax or tow (he says); it is but a cord of vanity and not of substance. He needs not to go on spinning and drawing it out (he thinks); but he will stop short as soon as he has gone as far as he wants, and that is not far. Alas! how many can fix the beginning of their ruin in this world, and imminent peril of the judgment of the next, on the day when they said in foolish security, and in face of a warning conscience, “It is but for this once!” Alas! they never said so again. It proved to them to be “now and forever.”
II. The text informs us in the next verse that these men, who, beginning with drawing iniquity with cords of vanity, had ended with drawing sin, as it were, with a cart rope, WENT ON TO MOCK AT JUDGMENT TO COME. The thoughts of judgment to come re, of course, very unpleasant to him who knows that he shall have to suffer from it when it does come. His sin, therefore, hardens him into a disbelief of it. (R. W. Evans, B.D.)
The growth of sin
Sin grows as naturally and as fast as the fire, which lays a city in ruins, comes out of a single spark in some solitary obscure corner; as surely as the rains, which bury a whole country in a flood, begin with a few sprinkled drops, which were not worth talking about; as surely as the river, which must be crossed with ships, begins with a well which you might empty almost with the scoop of your hand; as certainly as the strong thick cart rope begins with a few weak flaxen or hempen threads. (R. W.Evans, B. D.)
Strength of habit
The surgeon of a regiment in India relates the following incident: “A soldier rushed into the tent, to inform me that one of his comrades was drowning in a pond close by, and nobody could attempt to save him in consequence of the dense weeds which covered the surface. On repairing to the spot, we found the poor fellow in his last struggle, manfully attempting to extricate himself from the meshes of rope-like grass that encircled his body; but, to all appearance, the more he laboured to escape, the more firmly they became coiled round his limbs. At last he sank, and the floating plants closed in, and left not a trace of the disaster. After some delay, a raft was made, and we put off to the spot, and sinking a pole some twelve feet, a native dived, holding on by the stake, and brought the body to the surface. I shall never forget the expression of the dead man’s face--the clenched teeth, and fearful distortion of the countenance, while coils of long trailing weeds clung round his body and limbs, the muscles of which stood out stiff and rigid, whilst his hands grasped thick masses, showing how bravely he had struggled for life.” This heart-rending picture is a terribly accurate representation era man with a conscience alarmed by remorse, struggling with his sinful habits, but finding them too strong for him. Divine grace can save the wretch from his unhappy condition, but if he be destitute of that, his remorseful agonies will but make him more hopelessly the slave of his passions. Laocoon, in vain endeavouring to tear off the serpents’ coils from himself and children, aptly portrays the long-enslaved sinner contending with sin in his own strength. (C. H.Spurgeon.)
Insidious nature of sin
In the gardens of Hampton Court you will see many trees entirely vanquished and well-nigh strangled by huge coils of ivy, which are wound about them like the snakes around the unhappy Laocoon: there is no untwisting the folds, they are too giant-like, and fast fixed, and every hour the rootlets of the climber are sucking the life out of the unhappy tree. Yet there was a day when the ivy was a tiny aspirant, only asking a little aid in climbing; had it been denied then, the tree had never become its victim, but by degrees the humble weakling grew in strength and arrogance, and at last it assumed the mastery, and the tall tree became the prey of the creeping, insinuating destroyer. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
James II on his death bed thus addressed his son, “There is no slavery like sin and no liberty like God’s service.” (H. Melvill, B. D.)
Woe unto them that call evil good and good evil
Woe unto them that call evil good and good evil
There is a customary mode of talking, in which familiar formulas of praise and censure, as to moral objects, are employed as if by rote, revolving the admission of important principles, and recognising in its full extent the grand distinction between moral good and evil.
Such men will speak familiarly of other men and of their acts as right or wrong, as virtuous or vicious, in a manner which implies not only preference of judgment, but of inclination; so that if we draw conclusions from their language merely, we should certainly infer that they not only understood the principles of sound morality, but loved them and obeyed them. The latter conclusion would, in too many instances, be found to be erroneous, not because the person, in his talk, was guilty of deliberate hypocrisy, or even intended to deceive at all, but because his words conveyed more than he meant, especially when phrases used of course, and by a sort of habit, came to be subjected to the rules of a strict interpretation. In all such cases it will soon be found, upon a little observation, that the dialect in question, however near it may approach to that of evangelical morality, is still distinguished from it by indubitable marks.
1. Any one who thus indulges in the use of such conventional expressions as imply a recognition of those principles of morals which are laid down in the Bible, but whose conduct repudiates and nullifies them, avoids, as if instinctively, those terms of censure and of approbation which belong distinctively to Scripture, and conches himself to those which are common to the Bible and the heathen moralists, to Christian ethics and the code of honour. He will speak of an act, or a course of acts, as wrong, perhaps as vicious,--it may even be as wicked, but not as sinful. The difference between the terms, as viewed by such a person, seems to be that vice and crime are referable merely to an abstract standard, and perhaps a variable one; while sin brings into view the legislative and judicial character of God. Sin, too, is associated most minds with the humiliating doctrine of a natural depravity, while vice and crime suggest the idea of a voluntary aberration on the part of one by nature free from taint, and abundantly able to stand fast in his own strength. By tracing such diversities, however slight and trivial they seem to be when in themselves considered, we may soon learn to distinguish the characteristic dialect of worldly moralists from that of evangelical religion.
2. It will also be found that in the use of terms employed by both, there is a difference of sense, it may be unintentional, denoting no small difference in point of principle. Especially is this the case in reference to those important principles of morals which bear most directly upon the ordinary business of life, and come most frequently into collision with the selfish interests and inclinations of ungodly men. Two men, for instance, shall converse together upon truth and falsehood, upon honesty and fraud, employing the same words and phrases, and, perhaps, aware of no diversity of meaning in their application. And yet, when you come to ascertain the sense in which they severally use the terms employed by both, you shall find that while the one adopts the rigorous and simple rule of truth and falsehood which is laid down in the Bible and by common sense, the other holds it with so many qualifications and exceptions, as almost to render it a rule more honoured in the breach than the observance. There can be no doubt that this diversity in the use of language exerts a constant and extensive influence on human intercourse, and leads to many of those misconceptions which are tending daily to increase the mutual distrust of men in one another’s candour and sincerity.
3. Who pretends to think that men are often, I might almost say ever, better in the bent of their affections and their moral dispositions than in the general drift of their discourse? Who does not know that they are often worse, and that where any marked diversity exists, the difference is commonly in favour of his words at the expense of his thoughts and feelings? Nothing, however, could be more unjust or utterly subversive of impartial judgment in this matter, than to choose as tests or symptoms mere occasional expressions.
4. It must not be forgotten that a rational nature is incapable of loving evil, simply viewed as evil, or of hating good, when simply viewed as good. Whatever thing you love, you thereby recognise as good; and what you abhor, you thereby recognise as evil. When, therefore, men profess to look upon that as excellent which in their hearts and lives they treat as hateful, and to regard as evil that which they are seeking after, and which they delight in, they are not expressing their own feelings, but assenting to the judgment of others. They are measuring the object by a borrowed standard, while their own is wholly different. And if they are really so far enlightened as to think sincerely that the objects of their passionate attachment are evil, this is only admitting that their own affections are disordered and at variance with reason. So the sinner may believe on God’s authority or man’s that sin is evil and that holiness is good, but as a matter of affection and of inclination, his corrupted taste will still reject the sweet as bitter, and receive the bitter as sweet; his diseased eye will still confound light with darkness, and his lips, whenever they express the feelings of his heart, will continue to call good evil and evil good.
5. The text does not teach us merely that punishment awaits those who choose evil in preference to good, but that an outward mark of those who hate God, and whom God designs to punish, is their confounding moral distinctions in their conversation.
6. When one who admits in words the great first principles of morals, takes away so much on one hand and grants so much on the other, as to obliterate the practical distinction between right and wrong; when with one breath he asserts the inviolable sanctity of truth, but with the next makes provision for benevolent, professional, jocose, or thoughtless falsehood; when he admits the paramount importance of religious duties in general, but in detail dissects away the vital parts as superstition, sanctimony, or fanaticism, and leaves a mere abstraction or an outward form behind; when he approves the requisitions of the law and the provisions of the Gospel in so far as they apply to other people, but repudiates them as applying to himself;--I ask, whatever his professions or his creed may be, whether he does not virtually, actually, call evil good and good evil?
7. Again, I ask, whether he who in the general admits the turpitude of fraud, impurity, intemperance, malignity, and other vicious dispositions with their practical effects, and thus appears to be an advocate for purity of morals, but when insulated cases or specific acts of vice are made the subjects of discussion, treats them all as peccadilloes, inadvertencies, absurdities, indiscretions, or, perhaps, as virtues modestly disguised, can be protected by the mere assertion of a few general principles from the fatal charge of calling evil good? And, as the counterpart of this, I ask whether he who praises and admires all goodness, not embodied in the life of living men or women, but detests it when thus realised in concrete excellence, does not really and practically call good evil?
8. And I ask, lastly, whether he who, in relation to the self-same acts, performed by men of opposite descriptions, has a judgment suited to the case of each, but who is all compassion to the wilful transgressions of the wicked, and all inexorable sternness to the innocent infirmities of godly men; he who strains at a gnat in the behaviour of the meek and conscientious Christian, but can swallow a camel in the conduct of the self-indulgent votary of pleasure; he who lauds religion as exhibited in those who give him no uneasiness by their example, but maligns and disparages it when, from its peculiar strength and brightness, it reflects a glare of painful and intolerable light upon his own corruptions,--let his maxims of moral philosophy be what they will,--does not, to all intents and purposes, incur the woe pronounced on those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter? (J. A. Alexander, D. D.)
The guilt of establishing unscriptural principles of conduct
I. Among the most prominent illustrations of the present subject we may produce THOSE PERSONS, WHO REPRESENT ENTHUSIASM AS RELIGION. By enthusiasm, as applied with a reference to religion, I understand the subjection of the judgment, in points of religious faith or practice, to the influence of the imagination.
II. Let us now turn our eyes to the opposite quarter; to MEN WHO DENOMINATE RELIGION ENTHUSIASM. Enthusiasm is on principle busy and loquacious. Lukewarmness, though capable of being roused to a turbulent defence of forms and of its own conduct, is by nature silent and supine. Hence enthusiasm, in proportion to the relative number of its adherents, raises a much louder stir, and attracts far more extensive notice, than lukewarmness. But let the torpid conviction of the lukewarm be contrasted with the illusion of the enthusiast, and the former will prove itself not less dangerous, and generally more deliberately criminal, than the latter.
III. Another illustration of the text is furnished by PERSONS WHO REPRESENT A PARTIAL CONFORMITY TO THE COMMANDMENTS OF GOD AS MERITING THE APPELLATION OF RELIGION: and thus also by implication STIGMATISE THE TRUE CHRISTIAN AS “RIGHTEOUS OVER MUCH.”
IV. We may in the next place produce as illustrative of the general proposition WITH THE CHARACTER OF CENSORIOUSNESS ALL OPINIONS AND DESCRIPTIONS OF GUILT CONFORMABLE TO THE SCRIPTURES. From the mouth of these apologisers no sin receives its appropriate denomination. Some lighter phrase is ever on the lips to cloke its enormity, perhaps to transform it into a virtue. Is profaneness noticed? It is an idle habit by which nothing is intended. Is extravagance named? It is a generous disregard of money. Is luxury mentioned? It is a hospitable desire to see our friends happy. What is worldly-mindedness? It is prudence. What is pride? It is proper spirit, a due attention to our own dignity. What is ambition? A laudable desire of distinction and preeminence; a just sense of our own excellence and desert. What is servility? It is skill in making our way to advancement. What are intemperance and sins of impurity? They are indecorums, irregularities, human frailties, customary indiscretions, the natural and venial consequences of cheerfulness, company, and temptation; the unguarded ebullitions of youth, which in a little time will satiate and cure themselves. Now all this is candour: all this is charity. If a reference be made to religion, these men immediately enlarge on the mercy of God.
V. There yet remains to be specified an exemplification of the guilt menaced with vengeance by the prophet: A PERVERSION OF PRINCIPLE which, while the lower ranks are happily too little refined to be infected with it, taints with a greater or a less degree of its deceitful influence the bulk of the middle and higher classes of the community. By what criterion are applause and censure apportioned? By the rule of honour. “Honour” reigns, because multitudes “love the praise of men more than the praise of God.” It reigns, because “they receive honour one of another; and seek not that honour which cometh from God only.” What is this idol, which men worship in the place of the living God? The votary of honour may delude himself with the idea that, whatever be the ordinary expressions of his lips, his heart is dedicated to religion. But his heart is fixed on his idol, human applause. In the place of the love and the fear of God he substitutes the love of praise and the fear of shame. In the place of conscience he substitutes pride. For the dread of guilt he substitutes the apprehension of disgrace. (T. Gisborne, M. A.)
The unchangeable difference of good and evil
Moral good and evil are as truly and as widely different in their own nature as the perceptions of the outward senses; and God has endued us with faculties of the soul as well fitted to distinguish them, as the bodily senses are to discern corporeal objects. If any man, notwithstanding this, will obstinately call evil good and good evil, and will deny all distinctions between virtue and vice, he must as much have laid aside the use of his natural reason and understanding as he that would conferred light and darkness must contradict his senses and deny the evidence of his clearest sight. And when such a person falls finally into the just punishment of sin, he will no more deserve pity than one who falls down a precipice because he would not open his eyes to discern that light which should have guided him in his way.
I. THERE IS ORIGINALLY IN THE VERY NATURE OF THINGS A NECESSARY AND ETERNAL DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL, BETWEEN VIRTUE AND VICE, WHICH THE REASON OF THINGS DOES ITSELF OBLIGE MEN TO HAVE CONSTANT REGARD TO. This is supposed in the text by the prophet’s comparing the difference between good and evil to that most obvious and sensible difference of light and darkness.
II. GOD HAS, MOREOVER, BY HIS SUPREME AND ABSOLUTE AUTHORITY, AND BY EXPRESS DECLARATION OF HIS WILL IN HOLY SCRIPTURE, ESTABLISHED AND CONFIRMED THIS ORIGINAL DIFFERENCE OF THINGS, AND WILL SUPPORT AND MAINTAIN IT BY HIS IMMEDIATE POWER AND GOVERNMENT IN THE WORLD. “Woe unto them,” etc.
III. OBSERVATIONS WHICH MAY BE OF USE TO US IN PRACTICE.
1. Religion and virtue are truly most agreeable to nature, and vice and wickedness are of all things the most contrary to it.
2. Knowledge of the most important and fundamental doctrines of religion must be very easy to be attained, and gross ignorance of our duty can by no means be innocent or excusable, our minds being as naturally fitted to understand the most necessary parts of it as our eyes are to judge of colours or our palate of tastes.
3. The judgments of God upon impenitent sinners, who obstinately disobey the most reasonable and necessary laws in the world, are true and just and righteous judgments.
4. Whatever doctrine is contrary to the nature and attributes, of God, whatever is plainly unwise or wicked, whatever tends to confound the essential and eternal differences of good and evil, must necessarily be false.
5. Every person or doctrine which would separate religion from a holy life, and make it to consist merely in such speculative opinions as may be defended by an ill liver, or in such outward solemnities of worship as may be performed by a vicious and corrupt man, does greatly corrupt religion. (S. Clarke, D. D.)
Good and evil
The difference of good and evil is a subject of the highest concern, since upon it is founded the truth of religion, the obligation to virtue, and the peace and satisfaction of our minds. Upon it is founded the knowledge which we can attain of God’s moral perfections; for we cannot prove that God is good, unless we have antecedent notions of goodness considered in itself, and separated from all law, will, or appointment, Divine or human. I shall, therefore, now proceed to prove the different natures of our actions as to moral good and evil--
I. FROM THE HISTORY OF THE MOST ANCIENT TIMES AS RECORDED IN THE SACRED BOOKS. From the whole dispensation of providence, as set forth in the Old Testament, it may be collected that the distinctions of right and wrong, good and evil, just and unjust, might always have been evident to those who would make a proper use of their senses and faculties. But that we may not carry this point too far, it is to be observed, that men being frail and fallible, surrounded with temptations, and having passions as well as reason, God did not totally leave them to discover their duty by their own natural abilities. Certain religious traditions were, without question, delivered down by Adam and his sons, and some prophets and pious teachers were raised up in the earliest ages from time to time by the Divine Providence to instruct and correct the world, and to enforce the laws of nature and the moral duties, by declaring that God required the observance of them, and that He would be the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked. Such an one was Enoch, and such was Noah, prophets and righteous men, and preachers of righteousness in their generations.
II. FROM OUR RELATION TO GOD. That there is a Maker and Governor of the world, who is endued with all perfections, is evident from His works. Without any instructor, besides our own understanding, we know that we are and that we did not make ourselves, and that we owe our being to a superior cause; and then we proceed to the discovery of a First Cause of us and of all other things; and thence we also discern our duty towards Him. It is absurd to suppose that God should have supreme power, and we not be bound to revere Him; that He should have perfect goodness, and we not be bound to love Him. He who gives life and the comforts of life to His creatures, hath a right to their gratitude and to their best services: and if it be absurd not to think ourselves obliged to obey Him, it is right and fit to obey Him, and to conform our will to His. So that, with respect to God, there must be moral good or moral evil in our behaviour. As the foundations of religion are thus fixed and unchangeable, so the continual practice of religion is necessary through the whole course of our lives. They who seem to have little or no value for religion yet will often tell you that they have a great regard for virtue, for honour, for justice, and for gratitude to friends and benefactors. If they would reason consistently, they would find the same obligations in a higher manner to serve God, who is both their Master and their Father.
III. Another way to find out the differences of good and evil is FROM THE CONSIDERATION OF THE PECULIAR FRAME OF HUMAN NATURE. The beasts, though so much our inferiors, fulfil the designs of providence by pursuing the ends for which they were made. But they are no patterns for us whom God hath endued with faculties above sense, and who are able to control and subdue the inclinations which we have in common with brutes. Nature hath limited and determined their appetites within certain bounds, which they have no desire to transgress. Nature hath not so dealt with mankind; for our desires are impetuous and boundless: but then God hath implanted in us understanding and reason to direct them, and to judge what is right and wrong. And thus, as man by the help of reason and reflection, and by moral motives, becomes vastly superior to the brutes; so by vice, and particularly by intemperance and sensuality, he sinks as much beneath them, and runs into excesses which are not to be found in them. Hence the real and moral differences of good and evil may be proved; for the superior faculties in man must have a superior good agreeable to them. And as the inferior faculties, namely, the bodily senses, have always external objects suitable to them, or unsuitable; so it is with those nobler powers of the mind, thinking, reflecting, inquiring, judging, refusing, and choosing. The proper objects of these powers are moral or religious good and evil. No faculty creates its own object, but only discerns it. In like manner, truth and falsehood, right and wrong, are the objects of the understanding; and no man surely is so absurd or stupid as to think that we can make a thing true by believing it, or false by disbelieving it. So virtue or goodness is the proper object of our unprejudiced and reasonable desires. Everyone would infallibly choose it, if he acted according to his nature, to pure and undefiled reason, and were not seduced by sensual motives and temporary views.
IV. We may also judge of good and evil BY THE COMMON INTEREST AND SENSE OF MANKIND. And here we are not to be determined so much by the opinion of this or that person, though eminent perhaps in some respects, as by the general consent of men in approving things praiseworthy and conducing to the common advantage. Some things are so universally esteemed, that even they who do not practise them must approve them; and this shows their intrinsic and invariable excellence. For men are very partial to their own conduct, and therefore when they approve virtue in others, though themselves be vicious, there must be an overbearing evidence in favour of it. The common and public interest cannot be supported by any measures contrary to virtue and goodness.
V. FROM THE WILL OF GOD AS DISCOVERABLE BY REASON AND AS DISCOVERED TO US BY REVELATION. (J. Jortin, D. D.)
Confusion in men’s notions of good and evil
Whence comes it to pass that men should lose the notions of good and evil so far as to stand in need of a Divine law to reinforce them, whilst yet they never lose the notion of things pleasing or hurtful to their senses? We may answer--
1. That sense hath usually nothing to corrupt its judgment; but it is not so with the determinations which the mind passeth upon well-doing and evil-doing; for there is often an inclination one way more than another, and this inclination is towards the wrong way, arising from various causes internal and external; so that serious consideration and caution are necessary to go before the judgment.
2. The reasons of good and evil are not usually understood in their whole extent by the bulk of mankind. It is generally agreed that there are some right and some wrong actions; but accurate notions of right and wrong have seldom been found where revelation hath not been received; which should teach us to set a just value upon the Gospel.
3. Great examples have greatly tended to corrupt men’s notions of good and evil. Many there are who judge not for themselves, but take up with the judgment of others; and seeing men of knowledge, rank, and figure, practising iniquity without fear or remorse, they think they may do the same, and follow their leaders.
4. The prevalence of any vice in any country or society takes away men’s apprehensions of the evil of it. When a wee is uncommon, men stare at it as at a monster; but when it is generally practised, they are insensibly reconciled to it. (J. Jortin, D. D.)
Good and evil
1. Give some general account of the nature of good and evil, and of the reasons upon which they are founded.
2. Show that the way by which good and evil commonly operate upon the mind of man, is by those respective names and appellations, by which they are notified and conveyed to the mind.
3. Show the mischief which directly, naturally, and unavoidably follows, from the misapplication and confusion of these names.
4. Show the grand and principal instances in which the abuse or misapplication of those names has such a fatal and pernicious effect. (R. South, D. D.)
The misapplication of words and names
I. IN RELIGION. Religion is certainly in itself the best thing in the world; and it is as certain that, as it has been managed by some, it has had the worst effects: such being the nature, or rather the fate of the best things, to be transcendently the worst upon corruption.
II. IN CIVIL GOVERNMENT, or polities.
III. TO THE PRIVATE INTERESTS OF INDIVIDUALS.
1. An outrageous, ungoverned insolence and revenge, frequently passes by the name of sense of honour.
2. Bodily abstinence, joined with a demure, affected countenance, is often called piety and mortification.
3. Some have found a way to smooth over an implacable, unalterable spleen and malice, by dignifying it with the name of constancy.
4. A staunch, resolved temper of mind, not suffering a man to sneak, fawn, cringe, and accommodate himself to all humours, though never so absurd and unreasonable, as commonly branded with and exposed under the character of pride, morosity and ill-nature.
5. Some would needs have a pragmatical prying into and meddling with other men’s matters, a fitness for business, forsooth, and accordingly call and account none but such persons men of business. (R. South, D. D.)
An espied difference between virtue and vice in the nature of things
I. I shall first EXPLAIN THE MEANING, AND THEN CONFIRM THE TRUTH OF THIS OBSERVATION. Every thing has a nature which is peculiar to itself, and which is essential to its very existence. Light has a nature by which it is distinguished from darkness. Sweet has a nature by which it is distinguished from bitter. Animals have a nature by which they are distinguished from men. Men have a nature by which they are distinguished from angels. Angels have a nature by which they are distinguished from God. And God has a nature by which He is distinguished from all other beings. Now such different natures lay a foundation for different obligations; and different obligations lay a foundation for virtue and vice in all their different degrees. As virtue and vice, therefore, take their origin from the nature of things, so the difference between moral good and moral evil is as immutable as the nature of things from which it results. The truth of this assertion will appear if we consider--
1. That the essential difference between virtue and vice may be known by those who are wholly ignorant of God. The barbarians, who saw the viper on Paul’s hand, knew the nature and ill-desert of murder. The pagans, who were in the ship with Jonah, knew the difference between natural and moral evil, and considered the former as a proper and just punishment of the latter. And even little children know the nature of virtue and vice. But how would children and heathens discover the essential difference between moral good and evil, if this difference were not founded in the nature of things?
2. Men are capable of judging what is right or wrong in respect to the Divine character and conduct. This God implicitly allows, by appealing to their own judgment, whether He has not treated them according to perfect rectitude. In the context, He solemnly cells upon His people to judge of the propriety and benignity of His conduct towards them (verses 3, 4; also Jeremiah 2:5; Ezekiel 18:25; Ezekiel 18:29; Micah 6:1-5). In these solemn appeals to the consciences of men, God does not require them to believe that His character is good because it is His character; nor that His laws are good because they are His laws; nor that His conduct is good because it is His conduct. But He allows them to judge of His character, His laws and His conduct, according to the immutable difference between right and wrong, in the nature of things; which is the infallible rule by which to judge of the moral conduct of all moral beings.
3. God cannot destroy this difference without destroying the nature of things.
4. The Deity cannot alter the nature of things so as to destroy the essential distinction between virtue and vice. We can conceive that God should make great alterations in us, and in the objects about us; but we cannot conceive that He should make any alterations in us, and in the objects about us, which should transform virtue into vice, or vice into virtue, or which should destroy their essential difference.
II. TAKE NOTICE OF ONE OR TWO OBJECTIONS which may be made against what has been said.
1. To suppose that the difference between virtue and vice results from the nature of things, is derogatory and injurious to the character of God. For, on this supposition, there is a standard of right and wrong superior to the will of the Deity, to which He is absolutely bound to submit. To say that the difference between right and wrong does not depend upon the will of God, but upon the nature of things, is no more injurious to His character than to say that it does not depend upon His will whether two and two shall be equal to four; whether a circle and square shall be different figures; whether the whole shall be greater than a part; or whether a thing shall exist and not exist at the same time. These things do not depend upon the will of God, because they cannot depend upon His will. So the difference between virtue and vice does not depend upon the will of God, because His will cannot make or destroy this immutable difference. And it is more to the honour of God to suppose that He cannot, than that He can, perform impossibilities. But if the eternal rule of right must necessarily result from the nature of things, then it is no reproach to the Deity to suppose that He is morally obliged to conform to it. To set God above the law of rectitude, is not to exalt, but to debase His character. It is the glory of any moral agent to conform to moral obligation. The supreme excellency of the Deity consists, not in always doing what He pleases, but in always pleasing to do what is fit and proper in the nature of things.
2. There is no other difference between virtue and vice than what arises from custom, education, or caprice. Different nations judge differently upon moral subjects. This objection is more specious than solid. For--
(1) It is certain that all nations do feel and acknowledge the essential distinction between virtue and vice. They all have words to express this distinction. Besides, all nations have some penal laws, which are made to punish those who are guilty of criminal actions.
(2) No nation ever did deny the distinction between virtue and vice. Though the Spartans allowed their children to take things from others without their knowledge and consent, yet they did not mean to allow them to steal, in order to increase their wealth, and gratify a sordid, avaricious spirit. They meant to distinguish between taking and stealing. The former they considered as a mere act, which was suited to teach their children skill and dexterity in their lawful pursuits, but the latter they detested and punished as an infamous crime. So when the Chinese expose their useless children, or their useless parents, they mean to do it as an act of kindness both to their friends and to the public. These, and all other mistakes of the same nature, are to be ascribed to the corruption of the human heart, which blinds and stupefies the conscience, and prevents it from doing its proper office.
III. It now remains to MAKE A NUMBER OF DEDUCTIONS FROM THE IMPORTANT TRUTH WHICH WE HAVE EXPLAINED AND ESTABLISHED.
1. If there be an immutable difference between virtue and vice, right and wrong, then there is a propriety in every man’s judging for himself in matters of morality and religion.
2. If there be a standard of right and wrong in the nature of things, then it is not impossible to arrive at absolute certainty in our moral and religious sentiments.
3. If right and wrong are founded in the nature of things, then it is impossible for any man to become a thorough sceptic in morality and religion.
4. If right and wrong, truth and falsehood, be founded in the nature of things, then it is not a matter of indifference what moral and religious sentiments mankind imbibe and maintain.
5. If right and wrong, truth and falsehood, be founded in the nature of things, then there appears to be a great propriety in God’s appointing a day of judgment.
6. All who go to heaven will go there by the unanimous voice of the whole universe.
7. All who are excluded from heaven will be excluded from it by the unanimous voice of all moral beings. It will appear clearly to the view of the universe, that all who are condemned ought to be condemned and punished forever. (N. Emmons, D. D.)
Perverting the right ways of the Lord
I. NATURE OF THE PRACTICE.
1. Not a mere error or defect of judgment, but a habit, practice or system of perverting right and wrong.
2. Examples of “calling evil good, and good evil” (Psalms 10:3; Malachi 2:17; Malachi 3:15; Luke 16:15; 2 Peter 2:19). Putting bondage to sin for liberty, and counting Christian freedom to be servitude.
3. Examples of “putting darkness for light, and light for darkness.” The traditions of men for doctrines of God. Oppositions of science, falsely so called, for truths of Holy Writ.
4. Examples of “putting bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.” “Pleasures of sin” counted sweet; the joy of the Lord despised. (Proverbs 9:17) “Stolen waters (i.e., sins)
are sweet.” (Proverbs 5:4.) “Her end is bitter as wormwood.” (Proverbs 20:17.)
II. ORIGIN OF THE PRACTICE.
1. Satan the first on record who thus acted. (Genesis 3:1-5.) It is an old device.
2. As he did, so do his children and dupes (John 8:44; 2 Corinthians 11:13-15).
3. Men perverted become perverters, “deceiving and being deceived.”
4. The practice is easy, and seems to be a source of malicious pleasure to those who so do.
III. EFFECTS OF THE PRACTICE.
1. The practice is, to a mournful extent, successful, because of our weak and perverted fallen nature.
2. It discredits God’s words and ways.
3. It distresses the righteous (Ezekiel 13:22).
4. It deceives the young and unstable.
5. It destroys both the perverters and the perverted.
IV. JUDGMENT ON THESE PERVERTERS. “Woe unto them” (Proverbs 17:15).
1. By these perversions the perverters become such as described in Ephesians 4:18-19; 1 Timothy 4:2.
2. It is too true that men may come at length to say, “Evil, be thou my good.”
3. They who have done the works of the devil in perverting and confusing right and wrong, will share the devil’s judgment.
V. PRESERVATION FROM PERVERSION.
1. How to be kept from sharing with such perverters, and from being seduced or deceived by them; most important to know this.
2. See the example of Jesus in His temptation. Prayer and keeping close to Holy Scripture.
3. Copy His example.
4. Gospel “light,” “good,” “sweet,” here set forth, showing the way of salvation by faith in Christ.
5. Pray that the Spirit may “guide you into all the truth,” and “give you a right judgment in all things.”
6. Hereafter good and evil, light and darkness, sweet and bitter, will be known, seen, and tasted, without the confusion and perversion which now prevail. (Flavel Cook, B. A.)
Reproof and denunciation, distasteful as they ever must be, have their office. The Word of God is something more than a pleasant song. It is sometimes a fire to scathe, a hammer to dash in pieces, a sword to divide the soul and spirit, the joints and marrow; and therefore it is a great sin to try to blunt the edge of the sword of the Spirit by calling evil good and good evil.
I. IT IS A GREAT SIN to disregard or even to underrate in the least degree the eternal distinctions of right and wrong, to view things in their wrong aspects and to call things by their wrong names. “He that saith to the wicked, ‘Thou art righteous,’” says Solomon, “him shall the people curse.” And Paul tells us there are some things that ought not to be so much as named among those who live holy lives. The evil word is a long step beyond the evil thought. Speak of sin in its true terms and you strip it of its seductiveness. Call a vice by its real name and you rob it of half its danger by exposing its grossness. The very guiltiest of sinners is he who paints the gates of hell with the colours of Paradise, and gives names of clear disparagement and dislike to scrupulous honour and stainless purity.
II. THE CAUSE OF THIS SIN is due to a fading appreciation of moral evil, to a tampering with it, and to a destruction of that healthy instinct which revolts at it. This is illustrated in the third chapter of Genesis. Light words and careless thoughts are not indifferent things. Character is not cut in marble; it may become diseased as our bodies do. Abhor that which is evil, cleave to that which is good.
III. THE PUNISHMENT OF THIS SIN is the failure of all life, the waste, the loss, the shipwreck of the human soul. The rose is a glorious flower, but it withers sometimes and produces nothing but mouldering and loathly buds, because there is some poison in the sap or some canker at the root. Careers that might have been prosperous and happy are sometimes cut short, blighted with disgrace, the conscience seared, the distinction between right and wrong lost. They are mortified to painlessness, and this is death. This is the worst woe that can befall those who miscall things which God has stamped with His own signet. (Dean Farrar, D. D.)
The sin of confounding good and evil
I. Consider the particular species of crime against which we have the warning of the text AS IT RELATES TO THE INDIVIDUAL WHO IS GUILTY OF IT.
1. There is scarcely one of us who does not think himself sufficiently religious; and yet, to what does the religion of many a man amount?
2. If we can be successful enough to persuade men to believe that the slight notion which they have of religion is insufficient, we then find them flying to another subterfuge to screen them from its duties, by affixing the name of evil to what we pronounce to be good, and calling our representation of religion morose and gloomy.
3. Religion being once rendered so slight in the mind, once esteemed so gloomy and unworthy a pursuit, its restraints are neglected, its principles evaded, and the wavering deceitfulness of men’s hearts made the standard of men’s actions.
4. To these notions of indifference concerning religion, we may add those arising from misguided zeal in it. Divisions, persecutions, etc.
II. Consider those who are not imposing on themselves by believing things to be good, which are really evil, but WHO WILFULLY AND MALICIOUSLY ENDEAVOUR TO DESTROY A TRUE BELIEF IN OTHERS, BY FALSE REPRESENTATIONS OF SIN DUTY.
1. How artfully and speciously vice is often portrayed in those numerous works which find the easiest admission to the closets of the young! Into the character of the frail and guilty is thrown a variety of qualities of seeming liberality, honour, and the like; the reader, with an ingenuous tenderness, without deliberation, pities and forgives; and begins to think the crime no indiscretion, or at least no crime at all!
2. You have witnessed the effect of similar principles conveyed, not in books, but conversation.
3. We find many a villain pouring forth his artful tale of constancy and honour, calling all good evil, and all evil good, ridiculing marriage as a useless human ceremony, decrying religion as an idle state invention, painting human nature, its passions and the indulgence of them, in every glowing colour, till he has broken a parent’s heart, and brought his child to ruin in time and in eternity! (G. Mathews, M. A.)
The perversion of right and wrong
Nothing tends more to remove the just distinctions of virtue and vice, or to blend the nature of good and evil, than the giving plausible and specious names to what are really great and substantial crimes.
1. The boldest attacks of infidelity are often couched under the plausible name of “a spirit of free inquiry.”
2. An indifference to all religious worship is often concealed under the specious term of “a truly religious spirit of universal toleration.”
3. The duel is converted into an “honourable deed.”
4. Shameless and lawless adultery is denominated gallantry.
5. Is not a certain profusion and expense, which causes a breach of common justice in squandering what men are not able to pay, often described as an enlarged and generous mode of living?
6. If the libertine who indulges in every sensual appetite without control, happen to possess a certain share of vivacity and good humour, or be a man of boundless profusion and indiscriminate liberality, his vices are swallowed up in the sup posed good qualities of his heart; and the worst title perhaps that is bestowed on his worst actions, is that of a thoughtless ease and good nature, which is too apt to be led astray by the example and vices of others. (C. Moore, M. A.)
Calling evil good and good evil
The real horror of this passage consists in the fact that we have here one of the greatest sins that can be conceived, and, at the same time, one of the most common. To call evil good is practical atheism. To call good evil is practical blasphemy. The words of the passage supply a certain vision of the order of the process.
1. To “call evil good” is the sin especially of the young and careless--the giddy and wanton in their way.
2. The calling good evil is the sin especially of the earnest and professedly religious--whether or not their religion be of the kind called Christian. This was the great crime of the Pharisees against Christ. This has been the crime of all the persecutors of the Church of Christ from the Roman emperors to the Romish priests. Also, of many theologians of all sides in controversy; and of politicians.
3. Before our eyes the evil and the good are mingled, in characters and acts and institutions, till it is often beyond our power to extricate. And what are we to do? Let us call on the name of the Lord, confessing we are helpless often in the matter, remembering also this, that although it be in ignorance, our error may be great, like the crucifying of Christ. Let the Church be improved from within, seeking rather the resources of the heavenly grace to replenish her heart with charity--its native and original virtue. Let her turn from all the tumult without to Him who is “the glory in the midst of her.” Let her learn her liberality at the feet of Jesus. For evil rolls into the light of Christ and is detected and abhorred. The good that is in evil is caught by that light and gladly hailed. The love of Christ is the best of teaching here. (J. Cunningham, M. A.)
The danger of depraving the moral sense
1. The current conventional standard of society around them is even in this Christian land the main principle by which the great mass of the better sort of people regulate their conduct. For one who refers truly to the law of God, hundreds maybe found who act upon the common maxims of society. This, therefore, it becomes us especially to bear in mind: never can we live for ourselves alone.
2. It is one especial part of their punishment who are thus engaged in lowering the moral standard of society around them, that they must be, in a still greater measure, injuring themselves. How “shall a man touch pitch and not be defiled”? We have no other way of transmitting moral evil than by contagion; we must, in the first place, be our selves the victims of that which we convey to others.
(1) There is within each of us a power or faculty by which we judge of good or evil, and which we call conscience or the moral sense. Although we cannot by a direct act of the reason alter, or at our immediate volition, silence, the decision and the voice of moral consciousness, we may, by a course of actions, altogether debase, and even for the time extinguish it.
(2) It is of great moment to observe how from this it follows that there is a necessary tendency in anyone allowed form of evil to prepare the soil for receiving others.
(3) After vicious practice, there is nothing of which they who would preserve their moral sense unclouded should more cautiously beware, than a needless acquaintance with sin. The first and evident form in which this danger meets us is from the company of evil men. There are some remarkable provisions by which the Christian’s power of discrimination can be formed, without encouraging an evil curiosity or courting any familiarity with vice. For, first, it will grow gradually with the growth of our self-knowledge. Alas! we bear evil always with us; and if we search ourselves we must become acquainted with it. Yet even here we need a word of caution, for our very self-inspection may become the means of self-defilement. At God’s call we may walk unharmed even in the fire of present sin. And here, again, we may trace the provision God has made for this security in the nature He has given us. For the feelings of grief and shame which are naturally roused by the first sight of sin, and which of themselves will die away with each repetition, if, from curiosity or the love of excitement, we call them into fruitless exercise, these, when they lead us to strive against the evil which we see, grow into a living habit of resisting sin; and this habit keeps the conscience quick and tender, and, through the blessing of God’s grace, purifies and strengthens the power of moral judgment beyond all other means of wholesome exercise. Thus it is that God’s especial witnesses have borne, amidst an evil generation, the burden of His holiness and truth. (Bishop S. Wilberforce, D. D.)
A shameful doctrine
Bellarmine, in his 4 th Book and fifth chapter, De Pontifice Romano, has this monstrous passage: That if the Pope should through error or mistake command vices and prohibit virtues, the Church would be bound in conscience to believe vice to be good and virtue evil. (R. South, D. D.)
Straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel
A Neapolitan shepherd came in anguish to his priest, saying, “Father, have mercy on a miserable sinner. It is the holy season of Lent; and while I was busy at work, some whey spirting from the cheese press flew into my mouth, and,--wretched man!--I swallowed it. Free my distressed conscience from its agonies by absolving me from my guilt!” “Have you no other sins to confess?” said his spiritual guide. “No; I do not know that I have committed any other.” “There are,” said the priest, “many robberies and murders from time to time committed on your mountains, and I have reason to believe that you are one of the persons concerned in them.” “Yes,” he replied, “I am, but these are never accounted as a crime; it is a thing practised by us all and there needs no confession on that account.” (K. Arvine.)
Defective moral sense
It is no exaggeration to assert that Napoleon I--strangely called the Great--had no moral sense. Carlyle tells the storyof a German emperor who, when corrected for a mistake he made in Latin, replied, “I am King of the Romans and above grammar!” Napoleon’s arrogance was infinitely greater. He thought himself above morality and really seems to have believed that he had a perfect right to commit any crime, political or personal, that would advance his interests by an iota: and, in truth, he did commit so many it is almost impossible to recount them. (H. O. Mackey.)
Little evils making way for greater
The carpenter’s gimblet makes but a small hole, but it enables him to drive a great nail. May we not here see a representation of those minor departures from the truth which prepare the minds of men for grievous errors and of those thoughts of sin which open a way for the worst of crimes! Beware, then, of Satan’s gimblet. (C. H.Spurgeon.)
Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes
A false estimate of human wisdom
The sin reproved (as Calvin well observes) is not mere frivolous self-conceit, but that delusive estimate of human wisdom which may co-exist with modesty of manners and a high degree of real intellectual merit, but which must be abjured, not only on account of its effects, but also as involving the worst form of pride.
(J. A. Alexander.)
Wisdom and prudence: true and false
1. Persons are accounted wise and prudent who keep in view the most excellent dramas, who govern their potions with moderation, who conduct their affairs with discretion, and proportion their application to their several interests according to the dictates of well-informed minds, and the maxims of sound wisdom. They belong to this description who are possessed of a sound judgment, a quick penetration and extensive knowledge, and improve these accomplishments for attaining the most valuable purposes. The wisdom and prudence of which such persons are possessed cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. According to the apostle James’ description, it is pure, free from the corruptions of sin and error; it is peaceable, disposing those who act under its influence to live in harmony and concord; it is gentle, bearing with meekness the infirmities and injuries of others; it is easy to be entreated by the persuasion of sound reason and good counsel; it is full of mercy toward the offending and the afflicted; it is without partiality in its operations, and without hypocrisy and dissimulation, being sincere in all its exertions.
2. Persons are said in Scripture to have those qualifications in their own eyes or sight, which they vainly reckon they have acquired. People are said to be wise or prudent in their own sight who flatter themselves that these characters indeed belong to them, until the hatefulness of their iniquity is discovered. Though they know but little, they were never sensible of their ignorance; though, in the view of God, and men of understanding, they are foolish, they never were convinced of their folly. Elated with their supposed excellence on every occasion, and even when there is no occasion, they proclaim their own praises, and applaud their own performance. (R. Macculloch.)
I. ITS SIGNS. Dogmatism; contempt of others; scepticism.
II. ITS CAUSES. Ignorance; vanity.
III. ITS FOLLY. It makes a man ridiculous; leads him into error.
IV. ITS OFFENSIVENESS TO GOD--in spirit; principle; action.
V. ITS CERTAIN HUMILIATION. (J. Lyth, D. D.)
Prayer for Divine enlightenment
In Dr. Samuel Johnson’s diary the following prayer was found, offered in view of his becoming a politician: “Enlighten my understanding with the knowledge of right, and govern my will by Thy laws, that no deceit may mislead me, nor temptation corrupt me; that I may always endeavour to do good and hinder evil.”
Woe unto them that are mighty to drink wine . . . which justify the wicked for reward
Wine-loving lawyers and judges
Among the men whom Isaiah denounces as the corrupters and destroyers of the society of which they are the leaders, are the unjust lawyers and judges: he mentions as characteristic of them, that they are heroes at drinking, and spice their wine to make it stronger; by which, perhaps, we are to understand, not that their heads and senses were overcome with wine like the drunkards spoken of above, but that the effect on their hearts and consciences was such as to harden them in their criminal perversion of the law.
Perhaps the passage might be illustrated by instances of the professional character of hard-drinking but strong-headed judges of other times. (Sir E. Strachey, Bart.)
The Romans called this spiced wine “Aromatites.” (Sir E. Strachey, Bart.)
The woe denounced in the text against those notorious for drunkenness is made up of the unavoidable effects it produces, and these effects are too dear a price to be paid by a reasonable creature for all the sensual pleasures of this life, did they even accompany this single sin.
I. THE DRUNKARD’S EXCUSES.
1. His first excuse is charged to the account of good fellowship. But surely, friendship can never be founded on anything else than an amiable and affectionate disposition, a likeness of temper, and true honesty of heart on both sides. Will strong drink bestow these on us? Can mutual love and confidence be built on vice? And how doth drunkenness pro mote the gaiety of conversation? Does it not rather destroy all conversation, for what is conversation, but the communication of rational and agreeable thoughts?
2. The next excuse for drinking to excess is, that it stupefies the cares and troubles of the drunkard, which arise from three different quarters,--his ill state of health, the unfortunate posture of his worldly affairs, or the stings of his guilty conscience.
3. The drunkard hath other more common and accidental excuses for his vice. He says he is so exposed to company and business, that it is impossible for him to avoid drinking to excess. Then, he is of so easy and flexible a temper, that he cannot resist the importunities of his friends, as he calls them. Thus, he is for softening his vice into a sort of virtue, and calling that mere good nature, which his creditor calls villainy, and his family cruelty.
II. THE WOE DENOUNCED BY ALMIGHTY GOD; or, in other words, the miserable effects, as well temporal as spiritual, of his favourite vice.
2. Universal contempt.
3. Ill health and an untimely death.
4. These evils are as nothing compared to the spiritual evils that spring from drunkenness. In destroying his health he shortens his life, and so far is guilty of self-murder. In impairing his reason he makes his life useless and burdensome to the world. (J. Skelton.)
Mighty to drink wine
Strength is a great blessing, but if it is used in the service of sin it becomes a curse.
I. THE GREAT DRINKERS of that day were just the same sort of men as they are now here in our country.
1. They are grasping and selfish (Isaiah 5:8). They are often willing to take bribes if they are magistrates (Isaiah 5:23), and to condemn the innocent rather than lose their money or credit.
2. They are dull of understanding of the things of God (Isaiah 5:12).
3. They are greedy of sire Drink makes men pull destruction upon themselves (Isaiah 5:18).
4. They are liars (Isaiah 5:20). It would be difficult to find one lover of drink who was truthful. However kind and generous a sot may be, his word can never be depended upon. “Deceiving and being deceived” is his exact portrait.
5. Clever in their own eyes (Isaiah 5:21).
II. THE WOES the prophet declares are sure to come on these men mighty to drink wine.
1. Poverty (Isaiah 5:9-10). The great and beautiful houses will soon be vacant, and the neglected fields will soon be like the sluggard’s garden. More than half the empty houses and the farms that are given up in this country represent the doings of drink.
2. Degradation (Isaiah 5:13). Captivity to a Jew meant more than poverty--loss of honour, of position, of hope, grinding toil, pollution, horrid slavery. What can degrade body and mind like drink? (Isaiah 5:15.)
3. Death (Isaiah 5:14). There is a sin unto death. More than 60,000 drunkards go down to their dishonoured graves every year in Britain. Think of death and hell “gaping” to take in these hosts of slain. (Josiah Mee.)
The bane and antidote
(with Habakkuk 2:15):--
I. THE EVIL.
1. As affecting the individual. It is no trivial result to demoralise the human spirit.
2. As it ramifies itself throughout the framework of society.
(1) As respects the family.
(2) The wider circle of the general community.
II. THE CURE.
1. Total abstinence.
2. Legislative prohibition. (J. Guthrie, M. A.)
The unworthy glorying of the intemperate
They gloried in it as a great accomplishment, that they were able to bear a great deal of strong liquor, without being overcome by it. Let drunkards know from this Scripture that--
1. They ungratefully abuse their bodily strength, which God hath given them for good purposes, and by degrees cannot but weaken it.
2. It will not excuse them from the guilt of drunkenness that they can drink hard, and yet keep their feet.
3. Those that boast of their drinking down others glory in their shame.
4. How light soever men make of their drunkenness, it is a sin which will certainly lay them open to the wrath and curse of God. (M. Henry.)
Intemperance a fine art
Cyrus, writing the Lacedaemonians for assistance, spoke in very high terms of himself, telling them he had a greater and more prince y heart than his brother; that he was the better philosopher, being instructed in the doctrines of the Magi, and that he could drink and bear more wine than his brother. (Plutarch’s Artaxerxes.)
Mighty to drink wine
When Bonosus the drunken Roman had hanged himself, it went for a byword that a tun or tankard hung there and not a man. And when one was commended to King Alphonsus for a great drinker, and able to bear it, he answered that that was a good praise in a sponge but not in a prince. (J. Trapp.)
Darius, King of Persia, caused it to be engraved upon his tomb, “I could drink much wine, and bear it bravely.” Perhaps he was proud of it, but it was his shame. (J. Mee.)
Intemperance destroys character
The title of “Rois faineants”--“do-nothing kings”--expresses very aptly the character of the last descendants of the house of Clovis. At the moment when circumstances demanded from the occupants of the Frankish throne a more than ordinary share of talent and force of character, they lapsed into a state of imbecility and insignificance, both bodily and mental. Intemperance and debauchery entailed on them premature decrepitude; few attained the mature age of manhood; they rarely appeared in public, except at the annual pageant of the Champ de Mars. (Student’s France.)
A Japanese proverb
The Japanese have a true proverb which describes millions of sad cases: “A man took a drink, then the drink took a drink, then the drink took the man.” Effects of wine drinking:--Whilst the drunkard swallows wine, wine swallows him. God disregards him, angels despise him; men deride him, virtue declines him, the devil destroys him. (Augustine.)
Therefore as the fire devoureth the stubble
Sin brings judgment in its train
Let not those expect to live easily that live thus wickedly, for the righteous God wilt take vengeance.
I. HOW COMPLETE this ruin will be, and how necessarily and unavoidably it will follow upon their sins. The prophet had compared this people to a vine (Isaiah 5:7), well fixed and which it was hoped would be flourishing and fruitful. But the grace of God towards it was received in vain, and then the root became rottenness, being dried up from beneath, and the blossom would of course blow off as dust, as a light and worthless thing (Job 18:16). Sin weakens the strength the root of a people, so that they are easily rooted up; it defaceth the beauty, the blossoms of a people, and takes away the hopes of fruit. Sinners make themselves as stubble and chaff, combustible matter, proper fuel to the fire of God’s wrath.
II. How Just the ruin will be. “Because they have cast away the law,” etc. God doth not reject men for every transgression of His law and word, but when His word is despised and His law cast away, what can they expect but that God should utterly abandon them?
III. WHENCE this ruin should come (Isaiah 5:25). It is destruction from the Almighty.
1. The justice of God appoints it.
2. The power of God effects it. “He hath stretched forth His hand against them.
IV. The CONSEQUENCES AND CONTINUANCE of this ruin. When God comes forth in wrath against a people, “the hills tremble”; fear seizeth even their great men, that are strong and high; the earth shakes under men, and is ready to sink; and as this feels dreadful (what doth more so than an earthquake?) so what sight can be more frightful than the carcasses of men torn with dogs, or thrown “as dung” (margin) “in the midst of the streets”? This intimates that great multitudes should be slain, not only soldiers in the field of battle, but the inhabitants of their cities put to the sword in cold blood, and that the survivors should neither have hands nor hearts to bury them.
V. The INSTRUMENTS that should be employed in bringing this ruin upon them. It should be done by the incursions of a foreign enemy. When God designs the rum of a provoking people--
1. He can send a great way off for instruments to be employed in it. “From the end of the earth” (Isaiah 5:26). If God set up His standard, He can incline men’s hearts to enlist themselves under it, though, perhaps, themselves know not why or wherefore.
2. He can make them come into the service with incredible expedition. “With speed swiftly” (Isaiah 5:26). Those that defy God’s judgments will be ashamed of their insolence when it is too late; they scornfully said (Isaiah 5:19), “Let Him make speed, let Him hasten His work,” and they shall find to their terror and confusion that so He will.
3. He can carry them on in the service with amazing forwardness and fury (Isaiah 5:27-30).
(1) Though their marches be very long, yet “none among them shall be weary”; so desirous shall they be to engage that they shall forget their weariness and make no complaints of it.
(2) Though the way be rough, and, perhaps embarrassed by the usual policies of war, yet none among them shall stumble, but all the difficulties in their way shall easily be got over.
(3) Though they are forced to keep constant watch, yet “none shall slumber or sleep”; so intent shall they be upon their work in prospect of having the plunder of the city for their pains.
(4) They shall not desire any rest or relaxation; they shall not put off their clothes, not “loose the girdle of their loins,” but shall always have their belts on and swords by their sides.
(5) They shall not meet with the least hindrance to retard their march, or oblige them to halt; not a “latchet of their shoes shall be broken,” which they must stay to mend, as Joshua 9:13.
(6) Their arms and ammunition should all be fixed and in good posture (verse 28).
(7) Their horses and chariots of war shall all be fit for service (verse 28).
(8) All the soldiers bold and daring; “their roaring,” or shouting before a battle, “shall be like a lion,” who with his roaring animates himself and terrifies all about him.
(9) There shall not be the least prospect of relief or succour. Let the distressed look which way they will, everything appears dismal; for if God frown upon us how can any creature smile? (M. Henry.)
Divine judgments as fire and flame
They cannot be resisted, their direction cannot be altered, their force abated, nor can the flame be extinguished by human efforts. As threatened calamities cannot be averted, so inflicted judgments cannot be removed, unless by true repentance and earnest supplication to the supreme Disposer of all events. (R. Macculloch.)
Root and blossom
The posterity of Israel are here compared to a fruit-bearing tree, whose root gives it strength and stability, conveys to it nourishment, and preserves it firm amidst the storms to which it may be exposed. By their root may be meant everything whereby they thought to secure and establish themselves, such as their secret counsels, their deep-laid designs, their strength and riches, their friends and connections, from all which they derived support, and expected to keep their station. Viewing them in their social capacity, by their root we may understand parents, heads of families, judges, governors and princes, who give stability and support to the state and preserve it in a flourishing condition . . . The blossoms denote the beautiful promising appearances among that people, which seemed to presage plenty of fruit; such as their religion, their children, their magnificence and influence as a nation; in short, everything which constituted their excellence, and displayed their glory was to be consumed. (R. Macculloch.)
The judgment here foretold was to prove universal; for what remains of a tree when its roots and branches are destroyed! (R. Macculloch.)
Sin and judgment
Sin doth as naturally draw and suck judgments to it as the loadstone doth iron, as dry stubble and light chaff doth fire. (J. Trapp.)
The “law” and the “word”
The “law” of Jehovah was given by Moses and embodied in institutions and a code; the “word” was that exposition of the meaning and life of these which the prophets were, from time to time, declaring in the ears of the people. The nation had cast away this law and despised this word. (Sir E. Strachey, Bart.)
When all heart and morality are gone from a nation, its roots below ground are rotten, and its flourishing appearance is ready to turn to dust. There is no substance in such a people, nothing which can stand calamity of any kind. It will sweep them away as the fire licks up the stubble which men burn when the crop of corn or hay has been gathered in. (Sir E. Strachey, Bart.)
Unfruitfulness: cause and effect
The sin of unfruitfulness is punished with the plague of unfruitfulness. (M. Henry.)
Therefore is the anger of the Lord kindled against His people
The prophecy explained
Jehovah is about to bring foreign armies as the instruments of His judgment; the vision of the worst of human calamities--the invasion of a rich, civilised, luxurious nation by overwhelming hordes of barbarians--rises before the prophet: he speaks of them as present, and his words have a terrible force to him who reads them now, while he thinks of their fearful import then.
Jehovah has set up a standard to which He is gathering the nations under the Assyrian rule, and the prophet sees them steadily though swiftly coming on in war-like array--bowmen, horses and chariots: they rush to battle with the roar of lions, they seize and hold down their prisoners and their booty with the growl which marks the lion’s refusal to give up his prey; they come on like the sea in its rage; and when the helpless in, habitant of Judah turns from this rising tide to the land--his own land--he sees only the darkness of woe; and when he turns again from the earth to look upward he sees only the thick clouds gathering over the heavens above him. (Sir E. Strachey, Bart.)
Prophecy perpetually fulfilled
This is such a picture of “the life of things” that it is equally the description of the same judgment of God in whatever age or to whatever nation occurring. In successive ages it told the Jew of the Assyrian, the Babylonian, the Greek and the Roman; to the subject of the Roman Empire it spoke no less clearly of the Goth and the Vandal; the British monk must have recalled it in the days when Gildas learnt its truth from the Dane and the Norman and the Spaniard from the Mohammedan; the Byzantine from Timour “the incarnate wrath of God”; the continental nations from the revolutionary armies and Napoleon; and, in our own day, the people of France from the Germans. (Sir E. Strachey, Bart.)
God’s anger and its manifestation
I. IN GOD’S INFINITE NATURE THERE IS THE QUALITY OF ANGER. It is not a stormy passion, like wrath in sinful man, but the settled, intense, burning antagonism to moral evil which must necessarily exist in one who is infinitely perfect. The man who most nearly resembles God will be “angry and sin not?”
II. GOD’S ANGER MAY BE KINDLED BY THE SPIRIT AND CONDUCT OF HIS PEOPLE. “Therefore is the anger of the Lord kindled against His people.” Guilt is in proportion to the light and privilege abused.
III. GOD’S ANGER MAY MANIFEST ITSELF IN ACTUAL AND FEARFUL PUNISHMENT. It is an active antagonism to moral evil. “He hath stretched forth His hand against them,” etc. The hand of God is the symbol of His mighty power. “It is a fearful thing to fall,” etc. (H. M. Booth.)
(Isaiah 5:25):--The words seem to allude to the tremor occasioned by the stroke of the workman’s hammer upon some hard body. (R. Macculloch.)
Horses’ hoofs as flint
(Isaiah 5:28):--Therefore he will not shrink from riding them on the rocky soil of Palestine, which was extremely unfavourable to the use of horses (Amos 6:12). Similar allusions are frequent in ancient literature, the shoeing of horses being unknown in antiquity. (Prof. J. Skinner, D. D.)
A darkened heaven
(Isaiah 5:30):--It is our wisdom, by keeping a good conscience, to keep all clear between us and heaven, that we may have light from above, when clouds and darkness are round about us. (M. Henry.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Isaiah 5". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 12 / Ordinary 17