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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 9

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-8




735-732 B.C.

Isaiah 7, 8, 9:1-8

THIS section of the book of Isaiah (chapters 7-9:7) consists of a number of separate prophecies uttered during a period of at least three years: 735-732 B.C. By 735 Ahaz had ascended the throne; Tiglath-pileser had been occupied in the far east for two years. Taking advantage of the weakness of the former and the distance of the later, Rezin, king of Damascus, and Pekah, king of Samaria, planned an invasion of Judah. It was a venture they would not have dared had Uzziah been alive. While Rezin marched down the east of the Jordan and overturned the Jewish supremacy in Edom, Pekah threw himself into Judah, defeated the armies of Ahaz in one great battle, and besieged Jerusalem, with the object of deposing Ahaz and setting a Syrian, Ben-Tabeel, in his stead. Simultaneously the Philistines attacked Judah from the southwest. The motive of the confederates was in all probability anger with Ahaz for refusing to enter with them into a Pan-Syrian alliance against Assyria. In his distress Ahaz appealed to Tiglath-pileser, and the Assyrian swiftly responded. In 734-it must have been less than a year since Ahaz was attacked-the hosts of the north had overrun Samaria and swept as far south as the cities of the Philistines. Then, withdrawing his troops again, Tiglath-pileser left Hoshea as his vassal on Pekah’s throne, and sending the population of Israel east of the Jordan into distant captivity, completed a two years’ siege of Damascus (734-732) by its capture. At Damascus Ahaz met the conqueror, and having paid him tribute, took out a further policy of insurance in the altar-pattern, which he brought back with him to Jerusalem. Such were the three years, whose rapid changes unfolded themselves in parallel with these prophecies of Isaiah. The details are not given by the prophet, but we must keep in touch with them while we listen to him. Especially must we remember their central point, the decision of Ahaz to call in the help of Assyria, a decision which affected the whole course of politics for the next thirty years. Some of the oracles of this section were plainly delivered by Isaiah before that event, and simply seek to inspire Ahaz with a courage which should feel Assyrian help to be needless; others, again, imply that Ahaz has already called in the Assyrian: they taunt him with hankering after foreign strength, and depict the woes which the Assyrian will bring upon the land; while others {for example, the passage Isaiah 9:1-7} mean that the Assyrian has already come, and that the Galilean provinces of Israel have been depopulated, and promise a Deliverer. If we do not keep in mind the decision of Ahaz, we shall not understand these seemingly contradictory utterances, which it thoroughly explains. Let us now begin at the beginning of chapter 7. It opens with a bare statement, by way of title, of the invasion of Judah and the futile result; and then proceeds to tell us how Isaiah acted from the first rumour of the confederacy onward.


(chapter 7)

"And it came to pass in the days of Ahaz, the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin, the king of Syria, and Pekah, the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up to Jerusalem to war against it, but could not prevail against it." This is a summary of the whole adventure and issue of the war, given by way of introduction. The narrative proper begins in Isaiah 7:2, with the effect of the first news of the league upon Ahaz and his people. Their hearts were moved like the trees of the forest before the wind. The league was aimed so evidently against the two things most essential to the national existence and the honour of Jehovah; the dynasty of David, namely, and the inviolability of Jerusalem. Judah had frequently before suffered the loss of her territory; never till now were the throne and city of David in actual peril. But that, which bent both king and people by its novel terror, was the test Isaiah expected for the prophecies he had already uttered. Taking with him, as a summary of them, his boy with the name Shear-Jashub-"A-remnant-shall-return"-Isaiah faced Ahaz and his court in the midst of their preparation for the siege. They were examining-but more in panic than in prudence-the water supply of the city, when Isaiah delivered to them a message from the Lord, which may be paraphrased as follows: "Take heed and be quiet," keep your eyes open and your heart still; "fear not, neither be fainthearted, for the fierce anger of Rezin and Remaliah’s son." They have no power to set you on fire. They are "but stumps of expiring firebrands," almost burnt out. While you wisely look after your water supply, do so in hope. This purpose of deposing, you is vain. "Thus saith the Lord Jehovah: It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass." Of whom are you afraid? Look those foes of yours in the face. "The head of Syria is Damascus, and Damascus’ head is Rezin": is he worth fearing? "The head of Ephraim is Samaria, and Samaria’s head is Reinallah’s son": is he worth fearing? Within a few years they will certainly be destroyed. But whatever estimate you make of your foes, whatever their future may be, for yourself have faith in God; for you that is the essential thing. "If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established."

This paraphrase seeks to bring out the meaning of a passage confessedly obscure. It seems as if we had only bits of Isaiah’s speech to Ahaz and must supply the gaps. No one need hesitate, however, to recognise the conspicuous personal qualities-the combination of political sagacity with religious fear, of common-sense and courage rooted in faith. In a word, this is what Isaiah will say to the king, clever in his alliances, religious and secular, and busy about his material defences: "Take unto you the shield of faith. You have lost your head among all these things. Hold it up like a man behind that shield; take a rational view of affairs. Rate your enemies at their proper value. But for this you must believe in God. Faith in Him is the essential condition of a calm mind and a rational appreciation of affairs."

It is, no doubt, difficult for us to realise that the truth which Isaiah thus enforced, on King Ahaz-the government of the world and human history by one supreme God-was ever a truth of which the race stood in ignorance. A generation like ours cannot be expected to put its mind in the attitude of those of Isaiah’s contemporaries who believed in the real existence of many gods with limited sovereignties. To us, who are full of the instincts of Divine Providence and of the presence in history of law and progress, it is extremely hard even to admit the fact-far less fully to realise what it means-that our race had ever to receive these truths as fresh additions to their stock of intellectual ideas. Yet, without prejudice to the claims of earlier prophets, this may be confidently affirmed: that Isaiah where we now meet him stood on one side believing in one supreme God, Lord of heaven and earth, and his generation stood on the other side, believing that there were many gods. Isaiah, however, does not pose as the discoverer of the truth he preaches; he does not present it as a new revelation, nor put it in a formula. He takes it for granted, and proceeds to bring its moral influence to bear. He will infect men with his own utter conviction of it, in order that he may strengthen their character and guide them by paths of safety. His speech to Ahaz is an exhibition of the moral and rational effects of believing in Providence. Ahaz is a sample of the character polytheism produced; the state of mind and heart to which Isaiah exhorts him is that induced by belief in one righteous and almighty God. We can make the contrast clear to ourselves by a very definite figure.

The difference, which is made to the character and habits of men if the country they live in has a powerful government or not, is well-known. If there be no such central authority, it is a case of every man’s hand against his neighbour. Men walk armed to the teeth. A constant attitude of fear and suspicion warps the whole nature. The passions are excited and magnified; the intelligence and judgment are dwarfed. Just the same after its kind is life to the man or tribe, who believe that the world in which they dwell and the life they share with others have no central authority. They walk armed with prejudices, superstitions, and selfishnesses. They create, like Ahaz, their own providences, and still, like him, feel insecure. Everything is exaggerated by them; in each evil there lurks to their imagination unlimited hostility. They are without breadth of view or length of patience. But let men believe that life has a central authority, that God is supreme, and they will fling their prejudices and superstitions to the winds, now no more needed than the antiquated fortresses and weapons by which our forefathers, in days when the government was weak, were forced to defend their private interests. When we know that God reigns, how quiet and free it makes us! When things and men are part of His scheme and working out His ends, when we understand that they are not monsters but ministers, how reasonably we can look at them! Were we afraid of Syria and Ephraim? Why, the head of Syria is this fellow Rezin, the head of Ephraim this son of Remaliah! They cannot last long; God’s engine stands behind to smite them. By the reasonable government of God, let us be reasonable! Let us take heed and be quiet. Have faith in God, and to faith will come her proper consequent of common sense.

For the higher a man looks, the farther he sees: to us that is the practical lesson of these first nine verses of the seventh chapter. The very gesture of faith bestows upon the mind a breadth of view. The man, who lifts his face to God in heaven, is he whose eyes sweep simultaneously the farthest prospect of earth, and bring to him a sense of the proportion of things. Ahaz, facing his nearest enemies, does not see over their heads, and in his consternation at their appearance prepares to embark upon any policy that suggests itself, even though it be so rash as the summoning of the Assyrian. Isaiah, on the other hand, with his vision fixed on God as the Governor of the world, is enabled to overlook the dust that darkens Judah’s frontier, to see behind it the inevitable advance of the Assyrians, and to be assured that, whether Ahaz calls them to his quarrel or no, they will very soon of their own motion overwhelm both of his enemies. From these "two smoking firebrands" there is then no real danger. But from the Assyrian, if once Judah entangle herself in his toils, there is the most extreme danger.

Isaiah’s advice is therefore not mere religious quietism; it is prudent policy. It is the best political advice that could have been offered at that crisis, as we have already been able to gather from a survey of the geographical and political dispositions of Western Asia, apart altogether from religious considerations. But to Isaiah the calmness requisite for this sagacity sprang from his faith. Mr. Bagehot might have appealed to Isaiah’s whole policy in illustration of what he has so well described as the military and political benefits of religion. Monotheism is of advantage to men not only by reason of "the high concentration of steady feeling" which it produces, but also for the mental calmness and sagacity which surely spring from a pure and vivid conviction that the Lord reigneth.

One other thing it is well we should emphasise, before we pass from Isaiah’s speech to Ahaz. Nothing can be plainer than that Isaiah, though advocating so absolutely a quiescent belief in God, is no fatalist. Now other prophets there have been, insisting just as absolutely as Isaiah upon resignation to God the supreme, and the evident practical effect of their doctrine of the Divine sovereignty has been to make their followers, not shrewd political observers, but blind and apathetic fatalists. The difference between them and Isaiah has lain in the kind of character, which they and he have respectively attributed to the Deity, before exalting Him to the throne of absolute power and resigning themselves to His will. Isaiah, though as disciplined a believer in God’s sovereignty and man’s duty of obedience as any prophet that ever preached these doctrines, was preserved from the fatalism to which they so often lead by the conviction he had previously received of God’s righteousness. Fatalism means resignation to fate, and fate means an omnipotence either without character, or (which is the same thing) of whose character we are ignorant. Fate is God minus character, and fatalism is the characterless condition to which belief in such a God reduces man. History presents it to our view amid the most diverse surroundings. The Greek mind, so free and sunny, was bewildered and benumbed by belief in an inscrutable Nemesis: In the East how frequently is a temper of apathy or despair bred in men, to whom God is nothing but a despot! Even within Christianity we have had fanatics, so inordinately possessed with belief in God’s sovereignty of election, to the exclusion of all other Divine truths, as to profess themselves, with impious audacity, willing to be damned for His glory. Such instances are enough to prove to us the extreme danger of making the sovereignty of God the first article of our creed. It is not safe for men to exalt a deity to the throne of the supreme providence, till they are certified of his character. The vision of mere power intoxicates and brutalises, no less when it is hallowed by the name of religion, than when, as in modern materialism, it is blindly interpreted as physical force. Only the people who have first learned to know their Deity intimately in the private matters of life, where heart touches heart, and the delicate arguments of conscience are not overborne by the presence of vast natural forces or the intricate movements of the world’s history, can be trusted afterwards to enter these larger theatres of religion, without risk of losing their faith, their sensibility, or their conscience.

The whole course of revelation has been bent upon this: to render men familiarly and experimentally acquainted with the character of God, before laying upon them the duty of homage to His creative power or submission to His will. In the Old Testament God is the Friend, the Guide, the Redeemer of men, or ever He is their Monarch and Lawgiver. The Divine name which the Hebrew sees "excellent through all the earth" is the name that he has learned to know at home as "Jehovah, our Lord". {Psalms 8:1-9} Jehovah trains His people to trust His personal truth and lovingkindness within their own courts, before He tests their allegiance and discipline upon the high places of the world. And when, amid the strange terrors of these and the novel magnitudes with which Israel, facing the world, had to reckon, the people lost their presence Of mind, His elegy over them was, "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge." Even when their temple is full and their sacrifices of homage to His power most frequent, it is still their want of moral acquaintance with Himself of which He complains: "Israel doth not know; My people doth not consider." What else was the tragedy in which Jewish history closed, than just the failure to perceive this lesson: that to have and to communicate the knowledge of the Almighty’s character is of infinitely more value than the attempt to vindicate in any outward fashion Jehovah’s supremacy over the world? This latter, this forlorn, hope was what Israel exhausted the evening of their day in attempting. The former-to communicate to the lives and philosophies of mankind a knowledge of the Divine heart and will, gained throughout a history of unique grace and miracle-was the destiny which they resigned to the followers of the crucified Messiah.

For under the New Testament this also is the method of revelation. What our King desires before He ascends the throne of the world is that the world should know Him; and so He comes down among us, to be heard, and seen, and handled of us, that our hearts may learn His heart and know His love, unbewildered by His majesty. And for our part, when we ascribe to our King the glory and the dominion, it is as unto Him that loved us and washed us from our sins in His blood. For the chief thing for individuals, as for nations, is not to believe that God reigneth so much as to know what kind of God He is who reigneth.

But Ahaz would not be persuaded. He had a policy of his own, and was determined to pursue it. He insisted on appealing to Assyria. Before he did so, Isaiah made one more attempt on his obduracy. With a vehemence, which reveals how critical he felt the king’s decision to be, the prophet returned as if this time the very voice of Jehovah. "And Jehovah spake to Ahaz, saying, Ask thee a sign of Jehovah thy God; ask it either in Sheol below or in the height above. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord."

Isaiah’s offer of a sign was one which the prophets of Israel used to make when some crisis demanded the immediate acceptance of. their word by men, and men were more than usually hard to convince-a miracle such as the thunder that Samuel called out of a clear sky to impress Israel with God’s opinion of their folly in asking for a king; {1 Samuel 12:17} or as the rending of the altar which the man of God brought to pass to convict the sullen Jeroboam; {1 Kings 13:3} or as the regress of the shadow on the sun-dial, which Isaiah himself gave in assurance of recovery to the sick Hezekiah. (chapter 38) Such signs are offered only to weak or prejudiced persons. The most real faith, as Isaiah himself tells us, is unforced, the purest natures those which need no signs and wonders. But there are certain crises at which faith must be immediately forced, and Ahaz stood now at such a crisis; and there are certain characters who, unable to read a writ from the court of conscience and reason, must be served with one from a court-even though it be inferior-whose language they understand; and Ahaz was such a character. Isaiah knew his man, and prepared a pretty dilemma for him. By offering him whatever sign he chose to ask, Isaiah knew that the king would be committed before his own honour and the public conscience to refrain from calling in the Assyrians, and so Judah would be saved; or if the king refused the sign, the refusal would unmask him. Ahaz refused, and at once Isaiah denounced him and all his house. They were mere shufflers, playing fast and loose with God as well as men. "Hear ye now, O house of David. Is it a small thing for you to weary men, that ye must weary my God also?" You have evaded God; therefore God Himself will take you in hand: "the Lord Himself shall give you a sign." In order to follow intelligently the rest of Isaiah’s address, we must clearly understand how the sign which he now promises differs in nature from the sign he had implored Ahaz to select, of whatever sort he may have expected that selection to be. The king’s determination to call in Assyria has come between. Therefore, while the sign Isaiah first offered upon the spot was intended for an immediate pledge that God would establish Ahaz, if only he did not appeal to the foreigner, the sign Isaiah now offers shall come as a future proof of how criminal and disastrous the appeal to the foreigner has been. The first sign would have been an earnest of salvation; the second is to be an exposure of the fatal evil of Ahaz’s choice. The first would have given some assurance of the swift overthrow of Ephraim and Syria; the second shall be some painful illustration of the fact that not only Syria and Ephraim, but Judah herself, shall be overwhelmed by the advance of the northern power. This second sign is one, therefore, which only time can bring round. Isaiah identifies it with a life not yet born.

A Child, he says, shall shortly be born to whom his mother shall give the name Immanu-El-"God-with-us." By the time this Child comes to years of discretion, "he shall eat butter and honey." Isaiah then explains the riddle. He does not, however, explain who the mother is, having described her vaguely as "a"-or "the young woman of marriageable age"; for that is not necessary to the sign, which is to consist in the Child’s own experience. To this latter he limits his explanation. Butter and honey are the food of privation, the food of a people, whose land, depopulated by the enemy, has been turned into pasture. Before this Child shall arrive at years of discretion not only shall Syria and Ephraim be laid waste, but the Lord Himself will have laid waste Judah. "Jehovah shall bring upon thee, and upon thy people and upon thy father’s house days, that have not come, from the day that Ephraim departed from Judah; even the king of Assyria." Nothing more is said of Immanuel, but the rest of the chapter is taken up with the details of Judah’s devastation.

Now this sign and its explanation would have presented little difficulty but for the name of the Child-Immanuel. Erase that, and the passage reads forcibly enough. Before a certain Child, whose birth is vaguely but solemnly intimated in the near future, shall have come to years of discretion, the results of the choice of Ahaz shall be manifest. Judah shall be devastated, and her people have sunk to the most rudimentary means of living. All this is plain. It is a form which Isaiah used more than once to measure the near future. And in other literatures, too, we have felt the pathos of realising the future results of crime and the length to which disaster lingers, by their effect upon the lives of another generation:-

"The child that is unborn shall rue

The hunting of that day!"

But why call the Child Immanuel? The name is evidently part of the sign, and has to be explained in connection with it. Why call a Child "God-with-us" who is not going to act greatly or to be highly honoured, who is only going to suffer, for whom to come to years of intelligence shall only be to come to a sense of his country’s disaster and his people’s poverty. This Child who is used so pathetically to measure the flow of time and the return of its revenges, about whom we are told neither how he shall behave himself in the period of privation, nor whether he shall survive it-why is he called Immanuel? or why, being called Immanuel, has he so sordid a fate to contrast with so splendid a name?

It seems to the present expositor quite impossible to dissociate so solemn an announcement by Jehovah to the house of David of the birth of a Child, so highly named, from that expectation of the coming of a glorious Prince which was current in this royal family since the days of its founder. Mysterious and abrupt as the intimation of Immanuel’s birth may seem to us at this juncture, we cannot forget that it fell from Isaiah’s lips on hearts which cherished as their dearest hope the appearance of a glorious descendant of David, and were just now the more sensitive to this hope that both David’s city and David’s dynasty were in peril. Could Ahaz possibly understand by Immanuel any other child than that Prince whose coming was the inalienable hope of his house? But if we are right in supposing that Ahaz made this identification, or had even the dimmest presage of it, then we understand the full force of the sign. Ahaz by his unbelief had not only disestablished himself (Isaiah 7:9): he had mortgaged the hope of Israel. In the flood of disaster, which his fatal resolution would bring upon the land, it mattered little what was to happen to himself. Isaiah does not trouble now to mention any penalty for Ahaz. But his resolve’s exceeding pregnancy of peril is borne home to the king by the assurance that it will devastate all the golden future, and must disinherit the promised King. The Child, who is Israel’s hope, is born; he receives the Divine name, and that is all of salvation or glory suggested. He grows up not to a throne or the majesty which the seventy-second Psalm pictures the offerings of Sheba’s and Seba’s kings, the corn of his land shaking like the fruit of Lebanon, while they of the city flourish like the grass of the earth-but to the food of privation, to the sight of his country razed by his enemies into one vast common fit only for pasture, to loneliness and suffering. Amid the general desolation his figure vanishes from our sight, and only his name remains to haunt, with its infinite melancholy of what might have been, the thorn-choked vineyards and grass-grown courts of Judah.

But even if it were to prove too fine a point, to identify Immanuel with the promised Messiah of David’s house, and we had to fall back on some vaguer theory of him, finding him to be a personification, -either a representative of the coming generation of God’s people, or a type of the promised tomorrow, -the moral effect of the sign would remain the same; and it is with this alone that we have here to do. Be this an individual, or a generation, or an age, -by the Name bestowed upon it, it was to have been a glorious, God-inhabited age, generation, or individual, and Ahaz has prematurely spoiled everything about it but the Name. The future shall be like a boy cursed by his fathers, brought into the world with glorious rights that are stamped in his title, but only to find his kingdom and estates no longer in existence, and all the circumstances dissipated in which he might have realised the glorious meaning of his name. Type of innocent suffering, he is born to an empty title, his name the vestige of a great opportunity, the ironical monument of an irreparable crime.

If Ahaz had any conscience left, we can imagine the effect of this upon him. To be punished for sin in one’s own body and fortune, this is sore enough; but to see heaven itself blackened and all the gracious future frustrate, this is unspeakably terrible.

Ahaz is thus the Judas of the Old Testament, if that conception of Judas’ character be the right one which makes his wilful desire to bring about the kingdom of God in his own violent fashion the motive of his betrayal of Jesus. Of his own obduracy Ahaz has betrayed the Messiah and Deliverer of his people. The assurance of this betrayal is the sign of his obduracy, a signal and terrible proof of his irretrievable sin in calling upon the Assyrians. The king has been found wanting.


(chapter 8)

The king has been found wanting; but Isaiah will appeal to the people. Chapter 8 is a collection of addresses to them, as chapter 7 was an expostulation with their sovereign. The two chapters are contemporary. In Isaiah 8:1, the narrative goes back upon itself, and returns to the situation as it was before Ahaz made his final resolution of reliance on Assyria. Isaiah 8:1-4 imply that the Assyrian has not yet been summoned by Ahaz to his assistance, and therefore run parallel to Isaiah 7:3-9; but Isaiah 8:5 and following verses sketch the evils that are to come upon Judah and Israel, consequent upon the arrival of the Assyrians in Palestine, in answer to the appeal of Ahaz. These evils for land and nation are threatened as absolutely to the people as they had been to the king. And then the people are thrown over, {Isaiah 8:14} as the king had been; and Isaiah limits himself to his disciples (Isaiah 8:16)-the remnant that was foretold in chapter 6.

This appeal from monarch to people is one of the most characteristic features of Isaiah’s ministry. Whatever be the matter committed to him, Isaiah is not allowed to rest till he has brought it home to the popular conscience; and however much he may be able to charge national disaster upon the folly of politicians or the obduracy of a king, it is the people whom he holds ultimately responsible. The statesman, according to Isaiah, cannot rise far above the level of his generation; the people set the fashion to their most autocratic rulers. This instinct for the popular conscience, this belief in the moral solidarity of a nation and their governors, was the motive of the most picturesque passages in Isaiah’s career, and inspired some of the keenest epigrams in which he conveyed the Divine truth. We have here a case in illustration. Isaiah had met Ahaz and his court "at the conduit of the upper pool, in the highway of the fuller’s field," preparing for the expected siege of the city, and had delivered to them the Lord’s message not to fear, for that Syria-Ephraim would certainly be destroyed. But that was not enough. It was now laid upon the prophet to make public and popular advertisement of the same truth.

Isaiah was told to take a large, smooth board, and write thereon in the character used by the common people-"with the pen of a man"-as if it were the title to a prophecy, the compound word "Maher-shalal-hash-baz." This was not only an intelligibly written, but a significantly sonorous, word-one of those popular cries in which the liveliest sensations are struck forth by the crowded, clashing letters, full to the dullest ears of rumours of war: "speed-spoil-hurry-prey." The interpretation of it was postponed, the prophet meantime taking two faithful witnesses to its publication. In a little a son was born to Isaiah, and to this child he transferred the noisy name. Then its explanation was given. The double word was the alarm of a couple of invasions. "Before the boy shall have knowledge to cry, My father, my mother, the riches of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria shall be carried away before the king of Assyria." So far nothing was told the people that had not been told their king; only the time of the overthrow of their two enemies was fixed with greater precision. At the most in a year, Damascus and Samaria would have fallen. The ground was already vibrating to the footfall of the northern hosts.

The rapid political changes, which ensued in Palestine, are reflected on the broken surface of this eighth chapter. We shall not understand these abrupt and dislocated oracles, uttered at short intervals during the two years of the Assyrian campaign, unless we realise that northern shadow passing and repassing over Judah and Israel, and the quick alternations of pride and penitence in the peoples beneath it. We need not try to thread the verses on any line of thought. Logical connection among them there is none. Let us at once get down into the currents of popular feeling, in which Isaiah, having left Ahaz, is now labouring, and casting forth these cries.

It is a period of powerful currents, a people wholly in drift, and the strongest man of them arrested only by a firm pressure of the Lord’s hand. "For Jehovah spake thus to me with a strong hand, and instructed me, that I should not walk in the way of this people." The character of the popular movement, "the way of this people," which nearly lifted Isaiah off his feet, is evident. It is that into which every nation drifts, who have just been loosened from a primitive faith in God, and by fear or ambition have been brought under the fascination of the great world. On the one hand, such a generation is apt to seek the security of its outward life in things materially large and splendid, to despise as paltry its old religious forms, national aspirations and achievements, and be very desirous to follow foreign fashion and rival foreign wealth. On the other hand, the religious spirit of such an age, withdrawn from its legitimate objects, seeks satisfaction in petty and puerile practices, demeaning itself spiritually, in a way that absurdly contrasts with the grandeur of its material ambitions. Such a stage in the life of a people has its analogy in the growth of the individual, when the boy, new to the world, by affecting the grandest companions and models, assumes an ambitious manner, with contempt for his former circumstances, yet inwardly remains credulous, timid, and liable to panic. Isaiah reveals that it was such a stage which both the kingdoms of Israel had now reached. "This people hath refused the waters of Shiloah, that go softly, and rejoice in Rezin and Remaliah’s son."

It was natural, that when the people of Judah contrasted their own estate with that of Assyria, or even of Damascus, they should despise themselves. For what was Judah? A petty principality, no larger than three of our own counties. And what was Jerusalem? A mere mountain village, some sixty or seventy acres of barren rock, cut into tongues by three insignificant valleys, down which there sometimes struggled tiny threads of water, though the beds were oftener dry, giving the town a withered and squalid look-no great river to nourish, ennoble, or protect. What were such a country and capital to compare with the empire of Assyria?-the empire of the two rivers, whose powerful streams washed the ramparts, wharves, and palace stairs of mighty cities! What was Jerusalem even to the capital of Rezin? Were not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel, let alone these waterless wadys, whose bleached beds made the Jewish capital so squalid? It was the Assyrian’s vast water system - canals, embankments, sluices, and the wealth of water moving through them-that most impressed the poor Jew, whose streams failed him in summer, and who had to treasure up his scanty stores of rainwater in the cisterns, with which the rocky surface of his territory is still so thickly indented. There had, indeed, been at Jerusalem some attempt to conduct water. It was called "The Shiloah-conduit or aqueduct," or literally "emissary" in the old sense of the word-a rough, narrow tunnel of some thousand feet in length, hewn through the living rock from the only considerable spring on the east side of Jerusalem, to a reservoir within the walls. To this day "The Shiloah" presents itself as not by any means a first-class piece of engineering. Ahaz had either just made the tunnel or repaired it; but if the water went no faster than it travels now, the results were indeed ridiculous. Well might "this people despise the waters of the Shiloah, that go trickling," when they thought upon the rivers of Damascus or the broad streams of Mesopotamia. Certainly it was enough to dry up the patriotism of the Judean, if he was capable of appreciating only material value, to look upon this bare, riverless capital, with its bungled aqueduct and trickling water supply. On merely material grounds, Judah was about the last country at that time in which her inhabitants might be expected to show pride or confidence.

But woe to the people whose attachment to their land is based upon its material advantages, who have lost their sense for those spiritual presences, from an appreciation of which springs all true love of country, with warrior’s courage in her defence and statesman’s faith in her destiny!, The greatest calamity, which can befall any people, is to forfeit their enthusiasm for the soil, on which their history has been achieved and their hearths and altars lie, by suffering their faith in the presence of God, of which these are but the tokens, to pass away. With this loss Isaiah now reproaches Judah. The people are utterly materialised; their delights have been in gold and silver, chariots and horses, fenced cities and broad streams, and their faith has now followed their delights. But these things to which they flee will only prove their destruction. The great foreign river, whose waters they covet, will overflow them: "even the king of Assyria and all his glory, and he shall come up over all his channels and go over all his banks; and he shall sweep onward into Judah; he shall overflow and pass through; he shall reach even to the neck; and the stretching out of his wings shall fill the breadth of thy land, O Immanuel," thou who art "God-with-us." At the sound of the Name, which floats in upon the floods of invasion like the Ark on the waters of old, Isaiah pulls together his distraught faith in his country, and forgetting her faults, flings defiance at her foes. "Associate yourselves, ye peoples, and ye shall be broken in pieces; and give ear, all ye of far-off countries, gird yourselves, and ye shall be broken in pieces. Take counsel together, it shall be brought to nought; speak the word, and it shall not stand: for Immanu-El"-"With us is God." The challenge was made good. The prophet’s faith prevailed over the people’s materialism, and Jerusalem remained inviolable till Isaiah’s death.

Meantime the Assyrian came on. But the infatuated people of Judah continued to tremble rather before the doomed conspirators, Rezin and Pekah. It must have been a time of huge excitement. The prophet tells us how he was steadied by the pressure of the Lord’s hand, and how, being steadied, the meaning of the word "Immanuel" was opened out to him. "God-with-us" is the one great fact of life. Amid all the possible alliances and all the possible fears of a complex political situation, He remains the one certain alliance, the one real fear: "Say ye not, A conspiracy, concerning all whereof this people say, A conspiracy; neither fear ye their fear, nor be in dread thereof. Jehovah of hosts, Him shall ye sanctify; and let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread." God is the one great fact of life, but what a double-edged fact-"a sanctuary to all who put their trust in Him, but a rock of offence to both houses of Israel!" The figure is very picturesque. An altar, a common stone on steps, one of those which covered the land in large numbers-it is easy to see what a double purpose that might serve. What a joy the sight would be to the weary wanderer or refugee who sought it, what a comfort as he leant his weariness upon it, and knew he was safe! But those who were flying over the land, not seeking Jehovah, not knowing indeed what they sought, blind and panic-stricken-for them what could that altar do but trip them up like any other common rock in their way? "In fact, Divine justice is something which is either, observed, desired, or attained, and is then men’s weal, or, on the other hand, is overlooked. rejected, or sought after in a wild, unintelligent spirit, and only in the hour of need, and is then their lasting ruin."

The Assyrian came on, and the temper of the Jews grew worse. Samaria was indeed doomed from the first, but for some time Isaiah had been excepting Judah from a judgment for which the guilt of Northern Israel was certainly riper. He foresaw, of course, that the impetus of invasion might sweep the Assyrians into Judah, but he had triumphed in this: that Judah was Immanuel’s land, and that all who arrayed themselves against her must certainly come to naught. But now his ideas have changed, as Judah has persisted in evil. He knows now that God is for a stumbling-block to both houses of Israel; nay, that upon Jerusalem herself He will fall as a gin and a snare. Only for a little group of individuals, separate from both States, and gathered round the prophet and the word of God given to him, is salvation certain. People, as well as king, have been found wanting. There remains only this remnant.

Isaiah then at last sees his remnant. But the point we have reached is significant for more than the fulfilment of his expectations. This is the first appearance in history of a religious community, apart from the forms of domestic or national life. "Till then no one had dreamed of a fellowship of faith dissociated from all national forms, bound together by faith in the Divine word alone. It was the birth of a new era in religion, for it was the birth of the conception of the Church, the first step in the emancipation of spiritual religion from the forms of political life."

The plan of the seventh and eighth chapters is now fully disclosed. As the king for his unworthiness has to give place to the Messiah, so the nation for theirs have to give place to the Church. In the seventh chapter the king was found wanting, and the Messiah promised. In the eighth chapter the people are found wanting; and the prophet, turning from them, proceeds to form the Church among those who accept the Word, which king and people have refused. "Bind thou up the testimony, and seal the teaching among my disciples. And I will wait on Jehovah, who hideth His face from the house of Jacob, and I will look for Him. Behold, I and the children Jehovah hath given me are for signs and wonders in Israel from Jehovah of hosts, Him that dwelleth in Mount Zion."

This, then, is the situation: revelation concluded, the Church formed upon it, and the nation abandoned. But is that situation final? The words just quoted betray the prophet’s hope that it is not. He says: "I will wait." He says again: The Lord is only "hiding His face from the house of Jacob." I will expect again the shining of His countenance. I will hope for Divine grace and the nation being once more conterminous. The rest of the section {to Isaiah 9:7} is the development of this hope, which stirs in the prophet’s heart after he has closed the record of revelation.

The darkness deepened across Israel. The Assyrian had come. The northern floods kept surging among the little states of Palestine, and none knew what might be left standing. We can well understand Isaiah pausing, as he did, in face of such rapid and incontrollable movements. When Tiglath-pileser swept over the plain of Esdraelon, casting down the king of Samaria and the Philistine cities, and then swept back again, carrying off upon his ebb the populations east of the Jordan, it looked very like as if both the houses of Israel should fall. In their panic, the people betook themselves to morbid forms of religion; and at first Isaiah was obliged to quench the hope and pity he had betrayed for them in indignation at the utter contrariety of their religious practices to the word of God. There can be no Divine grace for the people as long as they "seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto the wizards that chirp and that mutter." For such a disposition the prophet has nothing but scorn, "Should not a people seek unto their God? On behalf of the living should they seek unto the dead?" They must come back to the prophet’s own word before hope may dawn. "To the revelation and the testimony! If they speak not according to this word, surely there is no morning for them."

The night, however, grew too awful for scorn. There had been no part of the land so given to the idolatrous practices, which the prophet scathed, as "the land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali, by the sea beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles." But all the horrors of captivity had now fallen upon it, and it had received at the Lord’s hand double for all its sins. The night had been torn enough by lightning; was there no dawn? The darkness of these provinces fills the prophet’s silenced thoughts. He sees a people "hardly bestead and hungry, fretting themselves, cursing their king," who had betrayed them, "and their God," who had abandoned them, "turning their faces upwards" to heaven and "downwards" to the sacred soil from which they were being dragged, "but, behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and into thick darkness they are driven away." It is a murky picture, yet through the smoke of it we are able to discern a weird procession of Israelites departing into captivity. We date it, therefore, about 732 B.C., the night of Israel’s first great captivity. The shock and the pity of this rouse the prophet’s great heart. He cannot continue to say that there is no morning for those benighted provinces. He will venture a great hope for their people.

Over how many months the crowded verses, Isaiah 8:21-22; Isaiah 9:1-7, must be spread, it is useless now to inquire-whether the revulsion they mark arose all at once in the prophet’s mind, or hope grew gradually brighter as the smoke of war died away on Israel’s northern frontier during 731 B.C. It is enough that we can mark the change. The prophet’s tones pass from sarcasm to pity; {Isaiah 8:20-21} from pity to hope; {Isaiah 8:22; Isaiah 9:1} from hope to triumph in the vision of salvation actually achieved. {Isaiah 9:2} "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, on them hath the light shined." For a mutilated, we see a multiplied, nation; for the fret of hunger and the curses of defeat, we hear the joy of harvest and of spoil after victory. "For the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, Thou hast broken as in the day of Midian." War has rolled away forever over that northern horizon, and all the relies of war in the land are swept together into the fire. "For all the armour of the armed man in the tumult, and the garments rolled in blood, shall even be for burning, and for fuel of fire." In the midday splendour of this peace, which, after the fashion of Hebrew prophecy, is described as already realised, Isaiah hails the Author of it all in that gracious and marvellous Child whose birth he had already intimated, Heir to the throne of David, but entitled by a fourfold name, too generous, perhaps, for a mere mortal, "Wonderful-Counsellor, Hero-God, Father-Everlasting, Prince-of-peace," who shall redeem the realms of his great forerunner and maintain "Israel with justice and righteousness from henceforth, even forever."

When, finally, the prophet inquires what has led his thoughts through this rapid change from satisfaction {Isaiah 8:16} with the salvation of small "remnant" of believers in the word of God-a little kernel of patience in the midst of a godless and abandoned people-to the daring vision of a whole nation redeemed and established in peace under a Godlike King, he says: "The zeal of the Lord of hosts hath performed this."

"The zeal," translates our English version, but no one English word will give it. It is that mixture of hot honour and affection to which "jealousy" in its good sense comes near. It is that overflow of the love that cannot keep still, which, when men think God has surely done all He will or can do for an ungrateful race, visits "them in their distress, and carries them forward into unconceived dispensations of grace and glory. It is the Spirit of God, which yearns after the lost, speaks to the self-despairing of hope, and surprises rebel and prophet alike with new revelations of love. We have our systems representing God’s work up to the limits of our experience, and we settle upon them; but the Almighty is ever greater than His promise or than His revelation of Himself."

Verses 6-21



WE have now reached that point of Isaiah’s prophesying at which the Messiah becomes the most conspicuous figure on his horizon. Let us take advantage of it to gather into one statement all that the prophet told his generation concerning that exalted and mysterious Person.

When Isaiah began to prophesy, there was current among the people of Judah the expectation of a glorious King. How far the expectation was defined it is impossible to ascertain; but this at least is historically certain. A promise had been made to David {2 Samuel 7:4-17} by which the permanence of his dynasty was assured. His offspring, it was said, should succeed him, yet eternity was promised not to any individual descendant, but to the dynasty. Prophets earlier than Isaiah emphasised this establishment of the house of David, even in the days of Israel’s greatest distress; but they said nothing of a single monarch with whom the fortunes of the house were to be identified. It is clear, however, even without the evidence of the Messianic Psalms, that the hope of such a hero was quick in Israel. Besides the documentary proof of David’s own last words, {2 Samuel 23:1-39} there is the manifest impossibility of dreaming of an ideal kingdom apart from the ideal king. Orientals, and especially Orientals of that period, were incapable of realising the triumph of an idea or an institution without connecting it with a personality. So that we may be perfectly sure, that when Isaiah began to prophesy the people not only counted upon the continuance of David’s dynasty, as they counted upon the presence of Jehovah Himself, but were familiar with the ideal of a monarch, and lived in hope of its realisation.

In the first stage of his prophecy, it is remarkable, Isaiah makes no use of this tradition, although he gives more than one representation of Israel’s future in which it might naturally have appeared. No word is spoken of a Messiah, even in the awful conversation in which Isaiah received from the Eternal the fundamentals of his teaching. The only hope there permitted to him is the survival of a bare, leaderless few of the people, or, to use his own word, a stump, with no sign of a prominent sprout upon it. In connection, however, with the survival of a remnant, as we have said on chapter 6, it is plain that there were two indispensable conditions, which the prophet could not help having to state sooner or later. Indeed, one of them he had mentioned already. It was indispensable that the people should have a leader, and that they should have a rallying-point. They must have their King, and they must have their City. Every reader of Isaiah knows that it is on these two themes the prophet rises to the height of his eloquence-Jerusalem shall remain inviolable; a glorious king shall be given unto her. But it has not been so generally remarked, that Isaiah is far more concerned and consistent about the secure city than about the ideal monarch. From first to last the establishment and peace of Jerusalem are never out of his thoughts, but he speaks only now and then of the King to come. Through long periods of his ministry, though frequently describing the blessed future, he is silent about the Messiah, and even sometimes so groups the inhabitants of that future, as to leave no room for Him among them. Indeed, the silences of Isaiah upon this Person are as remarkable as the brilliant passages in which he paints His endowments and His work.

If we consider the moment, chosen by Isaiah for announcing the Messiah and adding his seal to the national belief in the advent of a glorious Son of David, we find some significance in the fact that it was a moment, when the throne of David was unworthily filled and David’s dynasty was for the first time seriously threatened. It is impossible to dissociate the birth of a boy called Immanuel, and afterwards so closely identified with the fortunes of the whole land, {Isaiah 7:8} from the public expectation of a King of glory; and critics are almost unanimous in recognising Immanuel again in the Prince-of-the-Four-Names in chapter 9. Immanuel, therefore, is the Messiah, the promised King of Israel. But Isaiah makes his own first intimation of Him, not when the throne was worthily filled by an Uzziah or a Jotham, but when a fool and traitor to God abused its power, and the foreign conspiracy to set up a Syrian prince in Jerusalem imperilled the whole dynasty. Perhaps we ought not to overlook the fact, that Isaiah does not here designate Immanuel as a descendant of David. The vagueness with which the mother is described has given rise to a vast amount of speculation as to what particular person the prophet meant by her. But may not Isaiah’s vagueness be the only intention he had in mentioning a mother at all? The whole house of David shared at that moment the sin of the king; {Isaiah 7:13} and it is not presuming too much upon the freedom of our prophet to suppose that he shook himself loose from the tradition which entailed the Messiah upon the royal family of Judah, and at least left it an open question, whether Immanuel might not, in consequence of their sin, spring from some other stock.

It is, however, far less with the origin, than with the experience, of Immanuel that Isaiah is concerned; and those who embark upon curious inquiries, as to who exactly the mother might be, are busying themselves with what the prophet had no interest in, while neglecting that in which really lay the significance of the sign that he offered.

Ahaz by his wilfulness has made a Substitute necessary. But Isaiah is far more taken up with this: that he has actually mortgaged the prospects of that Substitute. The Messiah comes, but the wilfulness of Ahaz has rendered His reign impossible. He, whose advent has hitherto not been foretold except as the beginning of an era of prosperity, and whose person has not been painted but with honour and power, is represented as a helpless and innocent Sufferer-His prospects dissipated by the sins of others, and Himself born only to share His people’s indigence. Such a representation of the Hero’s fate is of the very highest interest. We are accustomed to associate the conception of a suffering Messiah only with a much later development of prophecy, when Israel went into exile; but the conception meets us already here. It is another proof that "Esaias is very bold." He calls his Messiah Immanuel, and yet dares to present Him as nothing but a Sufferer-a Sufferer for the sins of others. Born only to suffer with His people, who should have inherited their throne-that is Isaiah’s first doctrine of the Messiah.

Through the rest of the prophecies published during the Syro-Ephraitic troubles the Sufferer is slowly transformed into a Deliverer. The stages of this transformation are obscure. In chapter 8 Immanuel is no more defined than in chapter 7. He is still only a Name of hope upon an unbroken prospect of devastation. "The stretching out of his wings"-i.e., ., the floods of the Assyrian-"shall fill the breadth of Thy land, O Immanuel." But this time that the prophet utters the Name, he feels inspired by new courage. He grasps at Immanuel as the pledge of ultimate salvation. Let the enemies of Judah work their worst; it shall be in vain, "for Immanuel, God is with us." And then, to our astonishment, while Isaiah is telling us how he arrived at the convictions embodied in this Name, the personality of Immanuel fades away altogether, and Jehovah of hosts Himself is set forth as the sole sanctuary of those who fear Him. There is indeed a double displacement here. Immanuel dissolves in two directions. As a Refuge, He is displaced by Jehovah; as a Sufferer and a Symbol of the sufferings of the land, by a little community of disciples, the first embodiment of the Church, who now, with Isaiah, can do nothing except wait for the Lord.

Then, when the prophet’s yearning thoughts, that will not rest upon so dark a closure, struggle once more, and struggling pass from despair to pity, and from pity to hope, and from hope to triumph in a salvation actually achieved, they hail all at once as the Hero of it the Son whose birth was promised. With an emphasis, which vividly reveals the sense of exhaustion in the living generation and the conviction that only something fresh, and sent straight from God Himself, can now avail Israel, the prophet cries: "Unto us a Child is born; unto us a Son is given." The Messiah appears in a glory that floods His origin out of sight. We cannot see whether He springs from the house of David; but "the government is to be upon His shoulder," and He shall reign "on David’s throne with righteousness forever." His title shall be four-fold: "Wonderful-Counsellor, God-Hero, Father-Everlasting, Prince-of-Peace."

These Four Names do certainly not invite us to grudge them meaning, and they have been claimed as incontrovertible proofs, that the prophet had an absolutely Divine Person in view. One of the most distinguished and deliberate of Old Testament scholars declares that "the Deliverer whom Isaiah promises is nothing less than a God in the metaphysical sense of the word." There are serious reasons, however, which make us doubt this conclusion, and, though we firmly hold that Jesus Christ was God, prevent us from recognising these names as prophecies of His Divinity. Two of the names are capable of being used of an earthly monarch: "Wonderful-Counsellor" and "Prince-of-Peace," which are, within the range of human virtue, in evident contrast to Ahaz, at once foolish in the conception of his policy and warlike in its results. It will be more difficult to get Western minds to see how "Father-Everlasting" may be applied to a mere man, but the ascription of eternity is not unusual in Oriental titles, and in the Old Testament is sometimes rendered to things that perish. When Hebrews speak of any one as everlasting, that does not necessarily imply Divinity. The second name, which we render "God-Hero," is, it is true, used of Jehovah Himself in the very next chapter to this, but in the plural it is also used of men by Ezekiel. {Ezekiel 32:21} The part of it translated God is a frequent name of the Divine Being in the Old Testament, but literally means only mighty, and is by Ezekiel {Ezekiel 31:11} applied to Nebuchadnezzar. We should hesitate, therefore, to understand by these names "a God in the metaphysical sense of the word."

We fall back with greater confidence on other arguments of a more general kind, which apply to all Isaiah’s prophecies of the Messiah. If Isaiah had one revelation rather than another to make, it was the revelation of the unity of God. Against king and people, who crowded their temple with the shrines of many deities, Isaiah presented Jehovah as the one only God. It would simply have nullified the force of his message, and confused the generation to which he brought it, if either he or they had conceived of the Messiah, with the conceiving of Christian theology, as a separate Divine personality.

Again, as Mr. Robertson Smith has very clearly explained, the functions assigned by Isaiah to the King of the future are simply the ordinary duties of the monarchy, for which He is equipped by the indwelling of that Spirit of God, that makes all wise men wise and valorous men valorous. "We believe in a Divine and eternal Saviour, because the work of salvation as we understand it in the light of the New Testament is essentially different from the work of the wisest and best earthly king." But such an earthly king’s work is all Isaiah looks for. So that, so far from its being derogatory to Christ to grudge the sense of Divinity to these names, it is a fact that the more spiritual our notions are of the saving work of Jesus, the less inclined shall we be to claim the prophecies of Isaiah in proof of His Deity.

There is a third argument in the same direction, the force of which we appreciate only when we come to discover how very little from this point onwards Isaiah had to say about the promised king. In chapters 1-39, only three other passages are interpreted as describing the Messiah. The first of Isaiah 11:1-5, dating perhaps from about 720, when Hezekiah was king, tells us, for the first and only time by Isaiah’s lips, that the Messiah is to be a scion of David’s house, and confirms what we have said: that His duties, however perfectly they were to be discharged, were the usual duties of Judah’s monarchy. The second passage, Isaiah 32:1 ff., which dates probably from after 705, when Hezekiah was still king, is, if indeed it refers at all to the Messiah, a still fainter, though sweeter, echo of previous descriptions. While the third passage, Isaiah 33:17: "Thou shalt see thy king in his beauty," does not refer to the Messiah at all, but to Hezekiah, then prostrate and in sackcloth, with Assyria thundering at the gate of Jerusalem (701). The mass of Isaiah’s predictions of the Messiah thus fall within the reign of Ahaz, and just at the point at which Ahaz proved an unworthy representative of Jehovah, And Judah and Israel were threatened with complete devastation. There is a repetition when Hezekiah has come to the throne. But in the remaining seventeen years, except perhaps for one allusion, Isaiah is silent on the ideal king, although he continued throughout that time to unfold pictures of the blessed future which contained every other Messianic feature, and the realisation of which he placed where he had placed his Prince-of-the-Four-Names-in connection, that is, with the approaching defeat of the Assyrians. Ignoring the Messiah, during these years Isaiah lays all the stress of his prophecy on the inviolability of Jerusalem; and while he promises the recovery of the actually reigning monarch from the distress of the Assyrian invasion, -as if that were what the people chiefly desired to see, and not a brighter, stronger substitute, -he hails Jehovah Himself, in solitary and undeputed sovereignty, as Judge, Lawgiver, Monarch, and Saviour. {Isaiah 33:22} Between Hezekiah, thus restored to his beauty, and Jehovah’s own presence, there is surely no room left for another royal personage. But these very facts-that Isaiah felt most compelled to predict an ideal king when the actual king was unworthy, and that, on the contrary, when the reigning king proved worthy, approximating to the ideal, Isaiah felt no need for another, and indeed in his prophecies left no room for another form, surely a powerful proof that the king he expected was not a supernatural being, but a human personality, extraordinarily endowed by God, one of the descendants of David by ordinary succession, but fulfilling the ideal which his forerunners had missed. Even if we allow that the four names contain among them the predicate of Divinity, we must not overlook the fact that the Prince is only called by them. It is not that "He is," but that "He shall be called, Wonderful-Counsellor, God-Hero, Father-Everlasting, Prince-of-Peace." Nowhere is there a dogmatic statement that He is Divine. Besides, it is inconceivable that if Isaiah, the prophet of the unity of God, had at any time a second Divine Person in his hope, he should have afterwards remained so silent about Him. To interpret the ascription of the Four Names as a conscious definition of Divinity, at all like the Christian conception of Jesus Christ, is to render the silence of Isaiah’s’ later life and the silence of subsequent prophets utterly inexplicable. On these grounds, then, we decline to believe that Isaiah saw in the king of the future "a God in the metaphysical sense of the word." Just because we know the proofs of the Divinity of Jesus to be so spiritual do we feel the uselessness of looking for them to prophecies that manifestly describe purely earthly and civil functions.

But such a conclusion by no means shuts us out from tracing a relation between these prophecies and the appearance of Jesus. The fact, that Isaiah allowed them to go down to posterity, proves that he himself did not count them to have been exhausted in Hezekiah. And this fact of their preservation is ever so much the more significant, that their literal truth was discredited by events. Isaiah had evidently foretold the birth and bitter youth of Immanuel for the near future. Immanuel’s childhood was to begin with the devastation of Ephraim and Syria, and to be passed in circumstances consequent on the devastation of Judah, which was to follow close upon that of her two enemies. But although Ephraim and Syria were immediately spoiled, as Isaiah foresaw, Judah lay in peace all the reign of Ahaz and many years after his death. So that had Immanuel been born in the next twenty-five years after the announcement of His birth, He would not have found in His own land the circumstances which Isaiah foretold as the discipline of His boyhood. Isaiah’s forecast of Judah’s fate was, therefore, falsified by events. That the prophet or his disciples should have allowed it to remain is proof that they believed it to have contents which the history they had lived through neither exhausted nor discredited. In the prophecies of the Messiah there was something ideal, which was as permanent and valid for the future as the prophecy of the Remnant or that of the visible majesty of Jehovah. If the attachment, at which the prophet aimed when he launched these prophecies on the stream of time was denied them by their own age, that did not mean their submersion, but only their freedom to float further down the future and seek attachment there.

This boldness, to entrust to future ages a prophecy discredited by contemporary history, argues a profound belief in its moral meaning and eternal significance; and it is this boldness, in face of disappointment continued from generation to generation in Israel, that constitutes the uniqueness of the Messianic hope among that people. To sublimate this permanent meaning of the prophecies from the contemporary material, with which it is mixed, is not difficult. Isaiah foretells his Prince on the supposition that certain things are fulfilled. When the people are reduced to the last extreme, when there is no more a king to rally or to rule them, when the land is in captivity, when revelation is closed, when, in despair of the darkness of the Lord’s face, men have taken to them that have familiar spirits and wizards that peep and mutter, then, in that last sinful, hopeless estate of man, a Deliverer shall appear. "The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform it." This is the first article of Isaiah’s Messianic creed, and stands back behind the Messiah and all Messianic blessings, their exhaustless origin. Whatsoever man’s sin and darkness be, the Almighty lives, and His zeal is infinite. Therefore it is a fact eternally true, that whatsoever Deliverer His people need and can receive shall be sent to them, and shall be styled by whatsoever names their hearts can best appreciate. Titles shall be given Him to attract their hope and their homage, and not a definition of His nature, of which their theological vocabulary would be incapable. This is the vital kernel of Messianic prophecy in Isaiah. The "zeal of the Lord," kindling the dark thoughts of the prophet as he broods over his people’s need of salvation, suddenly makes a Saviour visible-visible just as He is needed there and then. Isaiah hears Him hailed by titles that satisfy the particular wants of the age, and express men’s thoughts as far up the idea of salvation and majesty as they of that age can rise. But the prophet has also perceived that sin and disaster will so accumulate before the Messiah comes, that, though innocent, He shall have to bear tribulation and pass to His prime through suffering. No one with open mind can deny, that in this moderate estimate of the prophet’s meaning there is a very great deal of the essence of the Gospel as it has been fulfilled in the personal consciousness and saving work of Jesus Christ, -as much of that essence, indeed, as it was possible to communicate to so early a generation, and one whose religious needs were so largely what we call temporal. But if we grant this, and if at the same time we appreciate the uniqueness of such a hope as this of Israel, then surely it must be allowed to have the appearance of a special preparation for Christ’s life and work; and so, to use very moderate words which have been applied to Messianic prophecy in general, it may be taken "as a proof of its true connection with the Gospel dispensation as part of one grand scheme in the counsels of Providence."

Men do not ask when they drink of a streamlet high up on the hills, "Is this going to be a great river?" They are satisfied if it is water enough to quench their thirst. And so it was enough for Old Testament believers if they found in Isaiah’s prophecy of a Deliverer-as they did find-what satisfied their own religious needs, without convincing them to what volumes it should swell. But this does not mean that in using these Old Testament prophecies we Christians should limit our enjoyment of them to the measure of the generation to whom they were addressed. To have known Christ must make the predictions of the Messiah different to a man. You cannot bring so infinite an ocean of blessing into historic connection with these generous, expansive intimations of the Old Testament without its passing into them. If we may use a rough figure, the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament are tidal rivers. They not only run, as we have seen, to their sea, which is Christ; they feel His reflex influence. It is not enough for a Christian to have followed the historical direction of the prophecies, or to have proved their connection with the New Testament as parts of one Divine harmony. Forced back by the fulness of meaning to which he has found their courses open, he returns to find the savour of the New Testament upon them, and that where he descended shallow and tortuous channels, with all the difficulties of historical exploration, he is borne back on full tides of worship. To use the appropriate words of Isaiah, "the Lord is with him there, a place of broad rivers and streams."

With all this, however, we must not forget that, beside these prophecies of a great earthly ruler, there runs another stream of desire and promise, in which we see a much stronger premonition of the fact that a Divine Being shall some day dwell among men. We mean the Scriptures in which it is foretold that Jehovah Himself shall visibly visit Jerusalem. This line of prophecy, taken along with the powerful anthropomorphic representations of God, -astonishing in a people like the Jews, who so abhorred the making of an image of the Deity upon the likeness of anything in heaven and earth, -we hold to be the proper Old Testament instinct that the Divine should take human form and tabernacle amongst men. But this side of our subject-the relation of the anthropomorphism of the Old Testament to the Incarnation-we postpone till we come to the second part of the book of Isaiah, in which the anthropomorphic figures are more frequent and daring than they are here.

Verses 8-21




735 B.C.

Isaiah 5:1-30; Isaiah 9:8 - Isaiah 10:4

THE prophecy contained in these chapters belongs, as we have seen, to the same early period of Isaiah’s career as chapters 2-4, about the time when Ahaz ascended the throne after the long and successful reigns of his father and grandfather, when the kingdom of Judah seemed girt with strength and filled with wealth, but the men were corrupt and the women careless, and the earnest of approaching judgment was already given in the incapacity of the weak and woman-ridden king. Yet although this new prophecy issues from the same circumstances as its predecessors, it implies these circumstances a little more developed. The same social evils are treated, but by a hand with a firmer grasp of them. The same principles are emphasised-the righteousness of Jehovah and His activity in judgment - but the form of judgment of which Isaiah had spoken before in general terms looms nearer, and before the end of the prophecy we get a view at close quarters of the Assyrian ranks.

Besides, opposition has arisen to the prophet’s teaching. We saw that the obscurities and inconsistencies of chapters 2-4 are due to the fact that that prophecy represents several stages of experience through which Isaiah passed before he gained his final convictions. But his countrymen, it appears, have now had time to turn on these convictions and call them in question: it is necessary for Isaiah to vindicate them. The difference, then, between these two sets of prophecies, dealing with the same things, is that in the former (chapters 2-4), we have the obscure and tortuous path of a conviction struggling to light in the prophet’s own experience; here, in chapter 5, we have its careful array in the light and before the people.

The point of Isaiah’s teaching against which opposition was directed was of course its main point, that God was about to abandon Judah. This must have appeared to the popular religion of the day as the rankest heresy. To the Jews the honour of Jehovah was bound up with the inviolability of Jerusalem and the prosperity of Judah. But Isaiah knew Jehovah to be infinitely more concerned for the purity of His people than for their prosperity. He had seen the Lord "exalted in righteousness" above those national and earthly interests, with which vulgar men exclusively identified His will. Did the people appeal to the long time Jehovah had graciously led them for proof that He would not abandon them now? To Isaiah that gracious leading was but for righteousness’ sake, and that God might make His own a holy people. Their history, so full of the favours of the Almighty, did not teach Isaiah, as it did the common prophets of his time, the lesson of Israel’s political security, but the far different one of their religious responsibility. To him it only meant what Amos had already put in those startling words, "You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will visit upon you all your iniquities." Now Isaiah delivered this doctrine at a time when it brought him the hostility of men’s passions as well as of their opinions. Judah was arming for war. Syria and Ephraim were marching upon her. To threaten his country with ruin in such an hour was to run the risk of suffering from popular fury as a traitor as well as from priestly prejudice as a heretic. The strain of the moment is felt in the strenuousness of the prophecy. Chapter 5, with its appendix, exhibits more grasp and method than its predecessors. Its literary form is finished, its feeling clear. There is a tenderness in the beginning of it, an inexorableness in the end, and an eagerness all through which stamp the chapter as Isaiah’s final appeal to his countrymen at this period of his career.

The chapter is a noble piece of patriotism-one of the noblest of a race who, although for the greater part of their history without a fatherland, have contributed more brilliantly than perhaps any other to the literature of patriotism, and that simply because, as Isaiah here illustrates, patriotism was to their prophets identical with religious privilege and responsibility. Isaiah carries this to its bitter end. Other patriots have wept to sing their country’s woes; Isaiah’s burden is his people’s guilt. To others an invasion of their fatherland by its enemies has been the motive to rouse by song or speech their countrymen to repel it. Isaiah also hears the tramp of the invader; but to him is permitted no ardour of defence, and his message to his countrymen is that they must succumb, for the invasion is irresistible and of the very judgment of God. How much it cost the prophet to deliver such a message we may see from those few verses of it in which his heart is not altogether silenced by his conscience. The sweet description of Judah as a vineyard, and the touching accents that break through the roll of denunciation with such phrases as "My people are gone away into captivity unawares," tell us how the prophet’s love of country is struggling with his duty to a righteous God. The course of feeling throughout the prophecy is very striking. The tenderness of the opening lyric seems ready to flow into gentle pleading with the whole people. But as the prophet turns to particular classes and their sins his mood changes to indignation, the voice settles down to judgment; till when it issues upon that clear statement of the coming of the Northern hosts every trace of emotion has left it, and the sentences ring out as unfaltering as the tramp of the armies they describe.


{Isaiah 5:1-7}

Isaiah adopts the resource of every misunderstood and unpopular teacher, and seeks to turn the flank of his people’s prejudices by an attack in parable on their sympathies. Did they stubbornly believe it impossible for God to abandon a State He had so long and so carefully fostered? Let them judge from an analogous case in which they were all experts. In a picture of great beauty Isaiah describes a vineyard upon one of the sunny promontories visible from Jerusalem. Every care had been given it of which an experienced vinedresser could think, but it brought forth only wild grapes. The vinedresser himself is introduced, and appeals to the men of Judah and Jerusalem to judge between him and his vineyard. He gets their assent that all had been done which could be done, and fortified with that resolves to abandon the vineyard. "I will lay it waste; it shall not be pruned nor digged, but there shall come up briers and thorns." Then the stratagem comes out, the speaker drops the tones of a human cultivator, and in the omnipotence of the Lord of heaven he is heard to say, "I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it." This diversion upon their sympathies having succeeded, the prophet scarcely needs to charge the people’s prejudices in face. His point has been evidently carried. "For the vineyard of Jehovah of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah His pleasant plant; and He looked for judgment, but behold oppression, for righteousness, but behold a cry."

The lesson enforced by Isaiah is just this, that in a people’s civilisation there lie the deepest responsibilities, for that is neither more nor less than their cultivation by God; and the question for a people is not how secure does this render them, nor what does it count for glory, but how far is it rising towards the intentions of its Author? Does it produce those fruits of righteousness for which alone God cares to set apart and cultivate the peoples? On this depends the question whether the civilisation is secure, as well as the right of the people to enjoy and feel proud of it. There cannot be true patriotism without sensitiveness to this, for however rich be the elements that compose the patriot’s temper, as piety towards the past, ardour of service for the present, love of liberty, delight in natural beauty, and gratitude for Divine favour, so rich a temper will grow rancid without the salt of conscience; and the richer the temper is, the greater must be the proportion of that salt. All prophets and poets of patriotism have been moralists and satirists as well. From Demosthenes to Tourgenieff. from Dante to Mazzini, from Milton to Russell Lowell, from Burns to Heine, one cannot recall any great patriot who has not known how to use the scourge as well as the trumpet. Many opportunities will present themselves to us of illustrating Isaiah’s orations by the letters and speeches of Cromwell, who of moderns most resembles the statesman-prophet of Judah; but nowhere does the resemblance become so close as when we lay a prophecy like this of Jehovah’s vineyard by the side of the speeches in which the Lord Protector exhorted the Commons of England, although it was the hour of his and. their triumph, to address themselves to their sins.

So, then, the patriotism of all great men has carried a conscience for their country’s sins. But while this is always more or less a burden to the true patriot, there are certain periods in which his care for his country ought to be this predominantly, and need be little else. In a period like our own, for instance, of political security and fashionable religion, what need is there in patriotic displays of any other kind? but how much for patriotism of this kind-of men who will uncover the secret sins, however loathsome, and declare the hypocrisies, however powerful, of the social life of the people! These are the patriots we need in times of peace; and as it is more difficult to rouse a torpid people to their sins than to lead a roused one against their enemies, and harder to face a whole people with the support only of conscience than to defy many nations if you but have your own at your back, so these patriots of peace are more to be honoured than those of war. But there is one kind of patriotism more arduous and honourable still. It is that which Isaiah displays here, who cannot add to his conscience hope or even pity, who must hail his country’s enemies for his country’s good, and recite the long roll of God’s favours to his nation only to emphasise the justice of His abandonment of them.


{Isaiah 5:8-24}

The wild grapes which Isaiah saw in the vineyard of the Lord he catalogues in a series of Woes (Isaiah 5:8-24), fruits all of them of love of money and love of wine. They are abuse of the soil (Isaiah 5:8-10, Isaiah 5:17), a giddy luxury which has taken to drink (Isaiah 5:11-16), a moral blindness and headlong audacity of sin which habitual avarice and drunkenness soon develop (Isaiah 5:18-21), and, again, a greed of drink and money-men’s perversion of their strength to wine, and of their opportunities of justice to the taking of bribes (Isaiah 5:22-24). These are the features of corrupt civilisation not only in Judah, and the voice that deplores them cannot speak without rousing others very clamant to the modern conscience. It is with remarkable persistence that in every civilisation the two main passions of the human heart, love of wealth and love of pleasure, the instinct to gather and the instinct to squander, have sought precisely these two forms denounced by Isaiah in which to work their social havoc-appropriation of the soil and indulgence in strong drink. Every civilised community develops sooner or later its land-question and its liquor-question. "Questions" they are called by the superficial opinion that all difficulties may be overcome by the cleverness of men; yet problems through which there cries for remedy so vast a proportion of our poverty, crime, and madness, are something worse than "questions." They are huge sins, and require not merely the statesman’s wit, but all the patience and zeal of which a nation’s conscience is capable. It is in this that the force of Isaiah’s treatment lies. We feel he is not facing questions of State, but sins of men. He has nothing to tell us of what he considers the best system of land tenure, but he enforces the principle that in the ease with which land may be absorbed by one person the natural covetousness of the human heart has a terrible opportunity for working ruin upon society. "Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no room, and ye be made to dwell alone in the midst of the land." We know from Micah that the actual process which Isaiah condemns was carried out with the most cruel evictions and disinheritances. Isaiah does not touch on its methods, but exposes its effects on the country-depopulation and barrenness, -and emphasises its religious significance. "Of a truth many houses shall be desolate, even great and fair, without an inhabitant. For ten acres of vineyard shall yield one bath, and a homer of seed shall yield but an ephah Then shall lambs. feed as in their pasture, and strangers shall devour the ruins of the fat ones"-i.e., of the luxurious landowners (Isaiah 5:9, Isaiah 5:10, Isaiah 5:17). And in one of those elliptic statements by which he often startles us with the sudden sense that God Himself is acquainted with all our affairs, and takes His own interest in them, Isaiah adds, "All this was whispered to me by Jehovah: In mine ears-the Lord of hosts" (Isaiah 5:9).

During recent agitations in our own country one has often seen the "land laws of the Bible" held forth by some thoughtless demagogue as models for land tenure among ourselves; as if a system which worked well with a small tribe in a land they had all entered on equal footing, and where there was no opportunity for the industry of the people except in pasture and in tillage, could possibly be applicable to a vastly larger and more complex population, with different traditions and very different social circumstances. Isaiah says nothing about the peculiar land laws of his people. He lays down principles, and these are principles valid in every civilisation. God has made the land, not to feed the pride of the few, but the natural hunger of the many, and it is His will that the most be got out of a country’s soil for the people of the country. Whatever be the system of land-tenure-and while all are more or less liable to abuse, it is the duty of a people to agitate for that which will be least liable-if it is taken advantage of by individuals to satisfy their own cupidity, then God will take account of them. There is a responsibility which the State cannot enforce, and the neglect of which cannot be punished by any earthly law, but all the more will God see to it. A nation’s treatment of their land is not always prominent as a question which demands the attention of public reformers; but it ceaselessly has interest for God, who ever holds individuals to answer for it. The land-question is ultimately a religious question. For the management of their land the whole nation is responsible to God, but especially those who own or manage estates. This is a sacred office. When one not only remembers the nature of land-how it is an element of life, so that if a man abuse the soil it is as if he poisoned the air or darkened the heavens-but appreciates also the multitude of personal relations which the landowner or factor holds in his hand-the peace of homes, the continuity of local traditions, the physical health, the social fearlessness and frankness, and the thousand delicate associations which their habitations entwine about the hearts of men-one feels that to all who possess or manage land is granted an opportunity of patriotism and piety open to few, a ministry less honourable and sacred than none other committed by God to man for his fellow-men.

After the land-sin Isaiah hurls his second Woe upon the drink-sin, and it is a heavier woe than the first. With fatal persistence the luxury of every civilisation has taken to drink; and of all the indictments brought by moralists against nations, that which they reserve for drunkenness is, as here, the most heavily weighted. The crusade against drink is not the novel thing that many imagine who observe only its late revival among ourselves. In ancient times there was scarcely a State in which prohibitive legislation of the most stringent kind was not attempted, and generally carried out with a thoroughness more possible under despots than where, as with us, the slow consent of public opinion is necessary. A horror of strong drink has in every age possessed those who from their position as magistrates or prophets have been able to follow for any distance the drifts of social life. Isaiah exposes as powerfully as ever any of them did in what the peculiar fatality of drinking lies. Wine is a mocker by nothing more than by the moral incredulity which it produces, enabling men to hide from themselves the spiritual and material effects of over-indulgence in it. No one who has had to do with persons slowly falling from moderate to immoderate drinking can mistake Isaiah’s meaning when he says, "They regard not the work of the Lord; neither have they considered the operation of His hands." Nothing kills the conscience like steady drinking to a little excess; and religion, even while the conscience is alive, acts on it only as an opiate. It is not, however, with the symptoms of drink in individuals so much as with its aggregate effects on the nation that Isaiah is concerned. So prevalent is excessive drinking, so entwined with the social customs of the country and many powerful interests, that it is extremely difficult to rouse public opinion to its effects. And "so they go into captivity for lack of knowledge." Temperance reformers are often blamed for the strength of their language, but they may shelter themselves behind Isaiah. As he pictures it, the national destruction caused by drink is complete. It is nothing less than the people’s captivity, and we know what that meant to an Israelite. It affects all classes: "Their honourable men are famished, and their multitude parched with thirst. The mean man is bowed down, and the great man is humbled." But the want and ruin of this earth are not enough to describe it. The appetite of hell itself has to be enlarged to suffice for the consumption of the spoils of strong drink. "Therefore hell hath enlarged her desire and opened her mouth without measure; and their glory, and their multitude, and their pomp, and he that rejoiceth among them, descend into it." The very appetite of hell has to be enlarged! Does it not truly seem as if the wild and wanton waste of drink were preventable, as if it were not, as many are ready to sneer, the inevitable evil of men’s hearts choosing this form of issue, but a superfluous audacity of sin, which the devil himself did not desire or tempt men to? It is this feeling of the infernal gratuitousness of most of the drink-evil-the conviction that here hell would be quiet if only she were not stirred up by the extraordinarily wanton provocatives that society and the State offer to excessive drinking- which compels temperance reformers at the present day to isolate drunkenness and make it the object of a special crusade. Isaiah’s strong figure has lost none of its strength today. When our judges tell us from the bench that nine-tenths of pauperism and crime are caused by drink, and our physicians that if only irregular tippling were abolished half the current sickness of the land would cease, and our statesmen that the ravages of strong drink are equal to those of the historical scourges of war, famine, and pestilence combined, surely to swallow such a glut of spoil the appetite of hell must have been still more enlarged, and the mouth of hell made yet wider.

The next three Woes are upon different aggravations of that moral perversity which the prophet has already traced to strong drink. In the first of these it is better to read, draw punishment near with cords of vanity, than draw iniquity. Then we have a striking antithesis-the drunkards mocking Isaiah over their cups with the challenge, as if it would not be taken up, "Let Jehovah make speed, and hasten His work of judgment, that we may see it," while all the time they themselves were dragging that judgment near, as with cart-ropes, by their persistent diligence in evil. This figure of sinners jeering at the approach of a calamity while they actually wear the harness of its carriage is very striking. But the Jews are not only unconscious of judgment, they are confused as to the very principles of morality: "Who call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!"

In his fifth Woe the prophet attacks a disposition to which his scorn gives no peace throughout his ministry. If these sensualists had only confined themselves to their sensuality they might have been left alone; but with that intellectual bravado which is equally born with "Dutch courage" of drink, they interferred in the conduct of the State, and prepared arrogant policies of alliance and war that were the distress of the sober-minded prophet all his days. "Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes and prudent in their own sight."

In his last Woe Isaiah returns to the drinking habits of the upper classes, from which it would appear that among the judges even of Judah there were "six-bottle men." They sustained theft extravagance by subsidies, which we trust were unknown to the mighty men of wine who once filled the seats of justice in our own country. "They justify the wicked for a bribe, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him." All these sinners, dead through their rejection of the law of Jehovah of hosts and the word of the Holy One of Israel, shall be like to the stubble, fit only for burning, and their blossom as the dust of the rotten tree.


{Isaiah 5:25; Isaiah 9:8 - Isaiah 10:4; Isaiah 5:26-30}

This indictment of the various sins of the people occupies the whole of the second part of the oration. But a third part is now added, in which the prophet catalogues the judgments of the Lord upon them, each of these closing with the weird refrain, "For all this His anger is not turned away, but His hand is stretched out still." The complete catalogue is usually obtained by inserting between the 25th and 26th verses of chapter 5 {Isaiah 5:25-26}. the long passage from chapter 9, verse 8, to chapter 10, verse 4. It is quite true that as far as chapter 5 itself is concerned it does not need this insertion; Isaiah 9:8-21; Isaiah 10:1-4 is decidedly out of place where it now lies. Its paragraphs end with the same refrain as closes Isaiah 5:25, which forms, besides, a natural introduction to them, while Isaiah 5:26-30 form as natural a conclusion. The latter verses describe an Assyrian invasion, and it was always in an Assyrian invasion that Isaiah foresaw the final calamity of Judah. We may, then, subject to further light on the exceedingly obscure subject of the arrangement of Isaiah’s prophecies, follow some of the leading critics, and place Isaiah 9:8-21; Isaiah 10:1-4 between verses 25-26 of chapter 5; and the more we examine them the more we shall be satisfied with our arrangement, for strung together in this order they form one of the most impressive series of scenes which even an Isaiah has given us.

From these scenes Isaiah has spared nothing that is terrible in history or nature, and it is not one of the least of the arguments for putting them together that their intensity increases to a climax. Earthquakes, armed raids, a great battle, and the slaughter of a people; prairie and forest fires, civil strife and the famine fever, that feeds upon itself; another battle-field, with its cringing groups of captives and heaps of slain; the resistless tide of a great invasion; and then, for final prospect, a desolate land by the sound of a hungry sea, and the light is darkened in the clouds thereof. The elements of nature and the elemental passions of man have been let loose together; and we follow the violent floods, remembering that it is sin that has burst the gates of the universe, and given the tides of hell full course through it. Over the storm and battle there comes booming like the storm-bell the awful refrain, "For all this His anger is not turned away, but His hand is stretched out still." It is poetry of the highest order, but in him who reads it with a conscience mere literary sensations are sobered by the awe of some of the most profound moral phenomena of life. The persistence of Divine wrath, the long-lingering effects of sin in a nation’s history, man’s abuse of sorrow and his defiance of an angry Providence, are the elements of this great drama. Those who are familiar with "King Lear" will recognise these elements, and observe how similarly the ways of Providence and the conduct of men are represented there and here.

What Isaiah unfolds, then. is a series of calamities that have overtaken the people of Israel. It is impossible for us to identify every one of them with a particular event in Israel’s history otherwise known to us. Some it is not difficult to recognise; but the prophet passes in a perplexing way from Judah to Ephraim and Ephraim to Judah, and in one case, where he represents Samaria as attacked by Syria and the Philistines, he goes back to a period at some distance from his own. There are also passages, as for instance Isaiah 10:1-4, in which we are unable to decide whether he describes a present punishment or threatens a future one. But his moral purpose, at least, is plain. He will show how often Jehovah has already spoken to His people by calamity, and because they have remained hardened under these warnings, how there now remains possible only the last, worst blow of an Assyrian invasion. Isaiah is justifying his threat of so unprecedented and extreme a punishment for God’s people as overthrow by this Northern people, who had just appeared upon Judah’s political horizon. God, he tells Israel, has tried everything short of this, and it has failed; now only this remains, and this shall not fail. The prophet’s purpose, therefore, being not an accurate historical recital, but moral impressiveness, he gives us a more or less ideal description of former calamities, mentioning only so much as to allow us to recognise here and there that it is actual facts which he uses for his purpose of condemning Israel to captivity, and vindicating Israel’s God in bringing that captivity near. The passage thus forms a parallel to that in Amos, with its similar refrain: "Yet ye have not returned unto Me, saith the Lord," {Amos 4:6-12} and only goes farther than that earlier prophecy in indicating that the instruments of the Lord’s final judgment are to be the Assyrians.

Five great calamities, says Isaiah, have fallen on Israel and left them hardened:

1st, earthquake; {Isaiah 5:25}

2d, loss of territory; {Isaiah 9:8-12}

3d, war and a decisive defeat; {Isaiah 9:13-17}

4th, internal anarchy; {Isaiah 9:18-21}

5th, the near prospect of captivity. {Isaiah 10:1-4}

1. THE EARTHQUAKE.-Amos {Isaiah 5:25} closes his series withan earthquake; Isaiah begins with one. It may be the same convulsion they describe, or may not. Although the skirts of Palestine both to the east and west frequently tremble to these disturbances, an earthquake in Palestine itself, up on the high central ridge of the land, is very rare. Isaiah vividly describes its awful simplicity and suddenness. "The Lord stretched forth His hand and smote, and the hills shook, and their carcases were like offal in the midst of the streets." More words are not needed, because there was nothing more to describe. The Lord lifted His hand; the hills seemed for a moment to topple over, and when the living recovered from the shock there lay the dead, flung like refuse about the streets.

2. THE LOSS OF TERRITORY.-So {Isaiah 9:8-21} awful a calamity, in which the dying did not die out of sight nor-fall huddled together on some far off battle-field, but the whole land was strewn with her slain, ought to have left indelible impression on the people. But it did not. The Lord’s own word had been in it for Jacob and Israel, {Isaiah 9:8} "that the people might know, even Ephraim and the inhabitants of Samaria." But unhumbled they turned in the stoutness of their hearts, saying, when the earthquake had passed: "The bricks are fallen, but we will build with hewn stones"; the "sycamores are cut down, but we will change them into cedars." Calamity did not make this people thoughtful; they felt God only to endeavour to forget Him. Therefore He visited them the second time. They did not feel the Lord shaking their land, so He sent their enemies to steal it from them: "the Syrians before and the Philistines behind; and they devour Israel with open mouth." What that had been for appalling suddenness this was for lingering and harassing-guerilla warfare, armed raids, the land eaten away bit by bit. "Yet the people do not return unto Him that smote them, neither seek they the Lord of hosts."

3. WAR AND DEFEAT.-The {Isaiah 9:13-17} next consequent calamity passed from the land to the people themselves. A great battle is described, in which the nation is dismembered in one day. War and its horrors are told, and the apparent want of Divine pity and discrimination which they imply is explained. Israel has been led into these disasters by the folly of their leaders, whom Isaiah therefore singles out for blame. "For they that lead these people cause them to err, and they that are led of them are destroyed." But the real horror of war is that it falls not upon its authors, that its victims are not statesmen, but the beauty of a country’s youth, the helplessness of the widow and orphan. Some question seems to have been stirred by this in Isaiah’s heart. He asks, Why does the Lord not rejoice in the young men of His people? Why has He no pity for widow and orphan, that He thus sacrifices them to the sin of the rulers? It is because the whole nation shares the ruler’s guilt; "every one is a hypocrite and an evildoer, and every mouth speaketh folly." As ruler so people, is a truth Isaiah frequently asserts, but never with such grimness as here. War brings out, as nothing else does, the solidarity of a people in guilt.

4. INTERNAL ANARCHY.-Even {Isaiah 9:18-21} yet the people did not repent; their calamities only drove them to further wickedness. The prophet’s eyes are opened to the awful fact that God’s wrath is but the blast that fans men’s hot sins to flame. This is one of those two or three awful scenes in history, in the conflagration of which we cannot tell what is human sin and what Divine judgment. There is a panic wickedness, sin spreading like mania, as if men were possessed by supernatural powers. The physical metaphors of the prophet are evident: a forest or prairie fire, and the consequent famine, whose fevered victims feed upon themselves. And no less evident are the political facts which the prophet employs these metaphors to describe. It is the anarchy which has beset more than one corrupt and unfortunate people, when their mis-leaders have been overthrown: the anarchy in which each faction seeks to slaughter out the rest. Jealousy and distrust awake the lust for blood, rage seizes the people as fire the forest, "and no man spareth his brother." We have had modern instances of all this; these scenes form a true description of some days of the French Revolution, and are even a truer description of the civil war that broke out in Paris after her late siege.

"If that the heavens do not their visible spirits

Send quickly down to tame these vile offences, I will come,

Humanity must perforce prey on itself

Like monsters of the deep."

5. THE THREAT OF CAPTIVITY.-Turning {Isaiah 10:1-4} now from the past, and from the fate of Samaria, with which it would appear he has been more particularly engaged, the prophet addresses his own countrymen in Judah, and paints the future for them. It is not a future in which there is any hope. The day of their visitation also will surely come, and the prophet sees it close in the darkest night of which a Jewish heart could think-the night of captivity. Where, he asks his unjust countrymen-where "will ye then flee for help? and where will you leave your glory?" Cringing among the captives, lying dead beneath heaps of dead-that is to be your fate, who will have turned so, often and then so finally from God. When exactly the prophet thus warned his countrymen of captivity we do not know, but the warning, though so real, produced neither penitence in men nor pity in God. "For all this His anger is not turned away, but His hand is stretched out still."

6. THE ASSYRIAN INVASION.-The {Isaiah 5:26-30} prophet is, therefore, free to explain that cloud which has appeared far away on the northern horizon. God’s hand of judgment is still uplifted over Judah, and it is that hand which summons the cloud. The Assyrians are coming in answer to God’s signal, and they are coming as a flood, to leave nothing but ruin and distress behind them. No description by Isaiah is more majestic than this one, in which Jehovah, who has exhausted every nearer means of converting His people, lifts His undrooping arm with a "flag to the nations that are far off, and hisses" or whistles "for them from the end of the earth. And, behold, they come with speed, swiftly: there is no weary one nor straggler among them; none slumbers nor sleeps; nor loosed is the girdle of his loins, nor broken the latchet of his shoes; whose arrows are sharpened, and all their bows bent; their horses’ hoofs are like the dint, and their wheels like the whirlwind: a roar have they like the lion’s, and they roar like young lions; yea, they growl and grasp the prey, and carry it off, and there is none to deliver. And they growl upon him that day like the growling of the sea; and if one looks to the land, behold dark and distress, and the light is darkened in the cloudy heaven."

Thus Isaiah leaves Judah to await her doom. But the tones of his weird refrain awaken in our hearts some thoughts which will not let his message go from us just yet.

It will ever be a question, whether men abuse more their sorrows or their joys; but no earnest soul can doubt, which of these abuses is the more fatal. To sin in the one case is to yield to a temptation; to sin in the other is to resist a Divine grace. Sorrow is God’s last message to man; it is God speaking in emphasis. He who abuses it shows that he can shut his ears when God speaks loudest. Therefore heartlessness or impenitence after sorrow is more dangerous than intemperance in joy; its results are always more tragic. Now Isaiah points out that men’s abuse of sorrow is twofold. Men abuse sorrow by mistaking it, and they abuse sorrow by defying it.

Men abuse sorrow by mistaking it, when they see in it nothing but a penal or expiatory force. To many men sorrow is what his devotions were to Louis XI, which having religiously performed, he felt the more brave to sin. So with the Samaritans, who said in the stoutness of their hearts, "The bricks are fallen down, but we will build with hewn stones; the sycamores are cut down, but we will change them into cedars." To speak in this way is happy, but heathenish. It is to call sorrow "bad luck"; it is to hear no voice of God in it, saying, "Be pure; be humble; lean upon Me." This disposition springs from a vulgar conception of God, as of a Being of no permanence in character, easily irritated but relieved by a burst of passion, smartly punishing His people and then leaving them to themselves. It is a temper which says, "God is angry, let us wait a little; God is appeased, let us go ahead again." Over against such vulgar views of a Deity with a temper Isaiah unveils the awful majesty of God in holy wrath: "For all this His anger is not turned away, but His hand is stretched out still." How grim and savage does it appear to our eyes till we understand the thoughts of the sinners to whom it was revealed! God cannot dispel the cowardly thought, that He is anxious only to punish, except by letting His heavy hand abide till it purify also. The permanence of God’s wrath is thus an ennobling, not a stupefying doctrine.

Men also abuse sorrow by defying it, but the end of this is madness. "It forms the greater part of the tragedy of ‘King Lear,’ that the aged monarch, though he has given his throne away, retains his imperiousness of heart, and continues to exhibit a senseless, if sometimes picturesque, pride and selfishness in face of misfortune. Even when he is overthrown he must still command; he fights against the very elements; he is determined to be at least the master of his own sufferings and destiny. But for this the necessary powers fail him; his life thus disordered terminates in madness. It was only by such an affliction that a character like his could be brought to repentance; to humility, which is the parent of true love, and that love in him could be purified. Hence the melancholy close of that tragedy." As Shakespeare has dealt with the king, so Isaiah with the people; he also shows us sorrow when it is defied bringing forth madness. On so impious a height man’s brain grows dizzy, and he falls into that terrible abyss which is not, as some imagine, hell, but God’s last purgatory. Shakespeare brings shattered Lear out of it, and Isaiah has a remnant of the people to save.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Isaiah 9". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/isaiah-9.html.
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