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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 36

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-22



THE two narratives, in which Isaiah’s career culminates-that of the Deliverance of Jerusalem {Isaiah 36:1-22; Isaiah 37:1-38} and that of the Recovery of Hezekiah {Isaiah 38:1-22; Isaiah 39:1-8}-cannot fail, coming together as they do, to suggest to thoughtful readers a striking contrast between Isaiah’s treatment of the community and his treatment of the individual, between his treatment of the Church and his treatment of single members. For in the first of these narratives we are told how an illimitable future, elsewhere so gloriously described by the prophet, was secured for the Church upon earth; but the whole result of the second is the gain for a representative member of the Church of a respite of fifteen years. Nothing, as we have seen, is promised to the dying Hezekiah of a future life; no scintilla of the light of eternity sparkles either in Isaiah’s promise or in Hezekiah’s prayer. The net result of the incident is a reprieve of fifteen years: fifteen years of a character strengthened, indeed, by having met with death, but, it would sadly seem, only in order to become again the prey of the vanities of this world (chapter 39). So meagre a result for the individual stands strangely out against the perpetual glory and peace assured to the community. And it suggests this question: Had Isaiah any real gospel for the individual? If so, what was it?

First of all, we must remember that God in His providence seldom gives to one prophet or generation more than a single main problem for solution. In Isaiah’s day undoubtedly the most urgent problem-and Divine problems are ever practical, not philosophical-was the continuance of the Church upon earth. It had really got to be a matter of doubt whether a body of people possessing the knowledge of the true God, and able to transfuse and transmit it, could possibly survive among the political convulsions of the world, and in consequence of its own sin. Isaiah’s problem was the reformation and survival of the Church. In accordance with this, we notice how many of his terms are collective, and how he almost never addresses the individual. It is the people, upon whom he calls-"the nation," "Israel," "the house of Jacob My vineyard," "the men of Judah His pleasant plantation." To these we may add the apostrophes to the city of Jerusalem, under many personifications: "Ariel, Ariel," "inhabitress of Zion," "daughter of Zion." When Isaiah denounces sin, the sinner is either the whole community or a class in the community, very seldom an individual, though there are some instances of the latter, as Ahaz and Shebna. It is "This people hath rejected," or "The people would not." When Jerusalem collapsed, although there must have been many righteous men still within her, Isaiah said, "What aileth thee that all belonging to thee have gone up to the housetops?". {Isaiah 22:1} His language is wholesale. When he is not attacking society, he attacks classes or groups: "the rulers," the land-grabbers, the drunkards, the sinners, the judges, the house of David, the priests and the prophets, the women. And the sins of these he describes in their social effects, or in their results upon the fate of the whole people; but he never, except in two cases, gives us their individual results. He does not make evident, like Jesus or Paul, the eternal damage a man’s sin inflicts on his own soul. Similarly when Isaiah speaks of God’s grace and salvation the objects of these are again collective-"the remnant; the escaped" (also a collective noun); a "holy seed"; a "’ stock" or "stump." It is a "restored nation" whom he sees under the Messiah, the perpetuity and glory of a city and a State. What we consider to be a most personal and particularly individual matter-the forgiveness of sin-he promises, with two exceptions, only to the community: "This people that dwelleth therein hath its iniquity forgiven." We can understand all this social, collective, and wholesale character of his language only if we keep in mind his Divinely appointed work-the substance and perpetuity of a purified and secure Church of God.

Had Isaiah then no gospel for the individual? This will indeed seem impossible to us if we keep in view the following considerations:-

1. ISAIAH HIMSELF had passed through a powerfully individual experience. He had not only felt the solidarity of the people’s sin-"I dwell among a people of unclean lips"-he had first felt his own particular guilt: "I am a man of unclean lips." One who suffered the private experiences which are recounted in chapter 6; whose "own eyes" had "seen the King, Jehovah of hosts"; who had gathered on his own lips his guilt and felt the fire come from heaven’s altar by an angelic messenger specially to purify him; who had further devoted himself to God’s service with so thrilling a sense of his own responsibility, and had so thereby felt his solitary and individual mission-he surely was not behind the very greatest of Christian saints in the experience of guilt, of personal obligation to grace and of personal responsibility. Though the record of Isaiah’s ministry contains no narratives, such as fill the ministries of Jesus and Paul, of anxious care for individuals, could he who wrote of himself that sixth chapter have failed to deal with men as Jesus dealt with Nicodemus, or Paul with the Philippian gaoler? It is not picturesque fancy, nor merely a reflection of the New Testament temper, if we realise Isaiah’s intervals of relief from political labour and religious reform occupied with an attention to individual interests, which necessarily would not obtain the permanent record of his public ministry. But whether this be so or not, the sixth chapter teaches that for Isaiah all public conscience and public labour found its necessary preparation in personal religion.

2. But, again, Isaiah had an INDIVIDUAL FOR HIS IDEAL. To him the future was not only an established State; it was equally, it was first, a glorious king. Isaiah was an Oriental. We moderns of the West place our reliance upon institutions; we go forward upon ideas. In the East it is personal influence that tells, persons who are expected, followed, and fought for. The history of the West is the history of the advance of thought, of the rise and decay of institutions, to which the greatest individuals are more or less subordinate. The history of the East is the annals of personalities; justice and energy in a ruler, not political principles, are what impress the Oriental imagination. Isaiah has carried this Oriental hope to a distinct and lofty pitch. The Hero whom he exalts on the margin of the future, as its Author, is not only a person of great majesty, but a character of considerable decision. At first only the rigorous virtues of the ruler are attributed to Him, {Isaiah 11:1 ff.} but afterwards the graces and: influence of a much broader and sweeter humanity. {Isaiah 32:2} Indeed, in this latter oracle we saw that Isaiah spoke not so much of his great Hero, as of what any individual might become. "A man," he says, "shall be as a hiding-place from the wind." Personal influence is the spring of social progress, the shelter and fountain force of the community. In the following verses the effect of so pure and inspiring a presence is traced in the discrimination of individual character-each man standing out for what he is-which Isaiah defines as his second requisite for social progress. In all this there is much for the individual to ponder, much to inspire him with a sense of the value and responsibility of his own character, and with the certainty that by himself he shall be judged and by himself stand or fall. "The worthless person shall be no more called princely, nor the knave said to be bountiful."

3. If any details of character are wanting in the picture of Isaiah’s hero, they are supplied by HEZEKIAH’S SELF-ANALYSIS (chapter 38). We need not repeat what we have said in the previous chapter of the king’s appreciation of what is the strength of a man’s character, and particularly of how character grows by grappling with death. In this matter the most experienced of Christian saints may learn from Isaiah’s pupil.

Isaiah had then, without doubt, a gospel for the individual; and to this day the individual may plainly read it in his book, may truly, strongly, joyfully live by it-so deeply does it begin, so much does it help to self-knowledge and self-analysis, so lofty are the ideals and responsibilities which it presents. But is it true that Isaiah’s gospel is for this life only?

Was Isaiah’s silence on the immortality of the individual due wholly to the cause we have suggested in the beginning of this chapter-that God gives to each prophet his single problem, and that the problem of Isaiah was the endurance of the Church upon earth? There is no doubt that this is only partly the explanation.

The Hebrew belonged to a branch of humanity-the Semitic-which, as its history proves, was unable to develop any strong imagination of, or practical interest in, a future life apart from foreign influence or Divine revelation. The pagan Arabs laughed at Mahommed when he preached to them of the Resurrection; and even to-day, after twelve centuries of Moslem influence, their descendants in the centre of Arabia, according to the most recent authority, fail to form a clear conception of, or indeed to take almost any practical interest in, another world. The northern branch of the race, to which the Hebrews belonged, derived from an older civilisation a prospect of Hades, that their own fancy developed with great elaboration. This prospect, however, which we shall describe fully in connection with chapters 14 and 26, was one absolutely hostile to the interests of character in this life. It brought all men, whatever their life had been on earth, at last to a dead level of unsubstantial and hopeless existence. Good and evil, strong and weak, pious and infidel, alike became shades, joyless and hopeless, without even the power to praise God. We have seen in Hezekiah’s case how such a prospect unnerved the most pious souls, and that revelation, even though represented at his bedside by an Isaiah, offered him no hope of an issue from it. The strength of character, however, which Hezekiah professes to have won in grappling with death, added to the closeness of communion with God which he enjoyed in this life, only brings out the absurdity of such a conclusion to life as the prospect of Sheol offered to the individual. If he was a pious man, if he was a man who had never felt himself deserted by God in this life, he was bound to revolt from so God-forsaken an existence after death. This was actually the line along which the Hebrew spirit went out to victory over those gloomy conceptions of death, that were yet unbroken by a risen Christ. "Thou wilt not," the saint triumphantly cried, "leave my soul in Sheol, nor wilt Thou suffer Thine holy one to see corruption." It was faith in the almightiness and reasonableness of God’s ways, it was conviction of personal righteousness, it was the sense that the Lord would not desert His own in death, which sustained the believer in face of that awful shadow through which no light of revelation had yet broken.

If, these, then, were the wings by which a believing soul under the Old Testament soared over the grave, Isaiah may be said to have contributed to the hope of personal immortality just in so far as he strengthened them. By enhancing as he did the value and beauty of individual character, by emphasising the indwelling of God’s Spirit, he was bringing life and immortality to light, even though be spoke no word to the dying about the fact of a glorious life beyond the grave. By assisting to create in the individual that character and sense of God, which alone could assure him he would never die, but pass from the praise of the Lord in this life to a nearer enjoyment of His presence beyond, Isaiah was working along the only line by which the Spirit of God seems to have assisted the Hebrew mind to an assurance of heaven.

But further in his favourite gospel of the REASONABLENESS OF GOD - that God does not work fruitlessly, nor create and cultivate with a view to judgment and destruction-Isaiah was furnishing an argument for personal immortality, tile force of which has not been exhausted. In a recent work on "The Destiny of Man" the philosophic author maintains the reasonableness of the Divine methods as a ground of belief both in the continued progress of the race upon earth and in the immortality of the individual. "From the first dawning of life we see all things working together toward one mighty goal-the evolution of the most exalted and spiritual faculties which characterise humanity. Has all this work been done for nothing? Is it all ephemeral, all a bubble that bursts, a vision that fades? On such a view the riddle of the universe becomes a riddle without a meaning. The more thoroughly we comprehend the process of evolution by which things have come to be what they are, the more we are likely to feel that to deny the everlasting persistence of the spiritual element in man is to rob the whole process of its meaning. It goes far toward putting us to permanent intellectual confusion. For my own part, I believe in the immortality of the soul, not in the sense in which I accept demonstrable truths of science, but as a supreme act of faith in the reasonableness of God’s work."

From the same argument Isaiah drew only the former of these two conclusions. To him the certainty that God’s people would survive the impending deluge of Assyria’s brute force was based on his faith that the Lord is "a God of judgment," of reasonable law and method, and could not have created or fostered so spiritual a people only to destroy them. The progress of religion upon earth was certain. But does not Isaiah’s method equally make for the immortality of the individual? He did not draw this conclusion, but he laid down its premises with a confidence and richness of illustration that have never been excelled.

We, therefore answer the question we put at the beginning of the chapter thus:-Isaiah had a gospel for the individual for this life, and all the necessary premises of a gospel for the individual for the life to come.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Isaiah 36". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/isaiah-36.html.
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