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ISRAEL'S PRAYER CONTINUED AND CONCLUDED. Not content with praying God to look upon them once more with favour (Isaiah 63:15), Israel now asks for a theophany, or manifestation of the Divine Presence, such as they have experienced in the times of old, and such as shall suffice to strike terror into the hearts of their enemies (Isaiah 64:1-4). With profound humility confessing their manifold and grievous iniquities, they beseech God once more, as their Father and Maker, to have pity upon them, reminding him of the desolate condition of Judaea and Jerusalem, and urging him no longer to "refrain himself" (Isaiah 64:5-12). "The manner," as Mr. Cheyne observes, "is that of a liturgical psalm; the prophet, as it were, leads the devotions of the assembled Church," and utters in impassioned language the feelings which deeply move them.
Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens! God "dwells in the thick darkness'' (2 Chronicles 6:1). "Thick clouds are a covering to him" as he "walketh in the circuit of heaven" (Job 22:14). The Church would have the covering "rent," and God show himself openly, both to his people and to their enemies. That thou wouldest come down! God" came down" ou Sinai in the sight of all the people (Exodus 19:11, Exodus 19:20). David saw him in vision "bow the heavens and come down; and there was darkness under his feet" (Psalms 18:9). It is such an "epiphany" which the Church now desires—a revelation of God in all his glory, in his might as against "the nations" (Isaiah 64:2), in his mercifulness as towards themselves. That the mountains might flow down; or, quake. When God descended on Sinai, "the whole mount quaked greatly" (Exodus 19:18). When he appeared to David, "the earth shook and trembled; the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken" (Psalms 18:7). When he was seen of Elijah, "a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; and after the wind was an earthquake" (1 Kings 19:11). Micah saw the Lord "coming forth out of his place," and "the mountains were molten under him, and the valleys cleft" (Micah 1:3, Micah 1:4). The mountains represent that which is most firm and solid and strong upon the face of the earth. If even they "melt and flow and tremble" at the presence of God, what might must his be! And who may abide him?
As when the melting fire burneth, etc.; rather, as when fire kindles brushwood, and makes water to boil. Connect the similes with the last clause of Isaiah 64:1. The mountains shall be as powerless to resist Jehovah, as brushwood or water to resist fire. To make thy Name known (comp. Isaiah 63:12). Such an "epiphany" as the Church prays for would make the Name of Jehovah known far and wide, exalting him high above all gods, and causing "the nations"—i.e. the whole heathen world—to "tremble at his presence" and refrain from injuring his people.
When thou didst terrible things (comp. Deuteronomy 10:21; 2 Samuel 7:23; Psalms 49:4; Psalms 106:22). The phrase, as Mr. Cheyne remarks, is a "standing" one for the wonders of the Exodus. Which we looked not for; i.e. which transcended our utmost expectations. Thou earnest down (see Exodus 19:11, Exodus 19:20).
Neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee, what he hath prepared, etc.; rather, as in the margin, neither hath the eye seen a God, beside thee, which worketh for him that waiteth upon him. The only "living God" who really works for his votaries, and does them good service, is Jehovah (comp. Isaiah 41:23, Isaiah 41:24; Isaiah 44:9, etc.).
Thou meetest him that rejoiceth. God "meets" with gracious welcome and ready aid whoever rejoices in doing righteousness and serving him, whoever "remembers him in his ways." But this, alas: is not the present relationship between God and Israel. God is "angry" with them—they must, therefore, "have sinned;" and so they proceed to confess their sin. In those is continuance, and we shall be saved. This is a very difficult passage. Mr. Cheyne regards it as hopelessly corrupt. Bishop Lowth and Ewald attempt emendations. Of those who accept the present text, some understand "in those" of God's ways, others of the "sins" implied in the confession, "We have sinned:" some make the last clause an affirmation, others a question. Delitzsch renders, "Already we have been long in this state (of sin), and shall we be saved?" Grotius and Starck, "If we had remained in them (i.e. thy ways) continually, we should have been saved."
But we are all as an unclean thing; rather, we are all become as one who is unclean (comp. Isaiah 35:8; Isaiah 52:1). A moral leprosy is upon us. We are like the leprous man, who has to rend his clothes, and to go about crying "Tame! tame!" "Unclean: unclean!" that those who hear may get out of his way. All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; or, as a menstruous garment (see Lamentations 1:17). In the best deeds of the best men there is some taint of evil. As Hooker says, "Our very repentances require to be repented of." We all do fade as a leaf (comp. Isaiah 1:30, "Ye shall be as an oak whose leaf fadeth;" see also Isaiah 34:4). Our iniquities … have taken as away; or, carried us away; i.e. taken us far from God, carried us into a region where God is not, or where at any rate "his presence is not felt" (Cheyne).
There is none that calleth on thy Name. A hyperbole, like Psalms 19:1, Psalms 19:3, "There is none that doeth good, no, not one." A general lethargy and apathy had come over the people, so that they could with difficulty rouse themselves to faith and calling upon God. But this general lethargy was not universal; there was a "remnant" which "prayed and did not faint." That stirreth up himself to take hold of thee. This expresses more than mere prayer; it is earnest, intense, "effectual fervent'' prayer. Perhaps none among the exiles may have been capable of such supplication as this, especially as God had hid his face from them, and no longer looked on them with favour. And hast consumed us, because of our iniquities; rather, and hast delivered us into the power (literally, hand) of our iniquities. Men's sins are their masters, and exercise a tyrannical control over them, which they are often quite unable to resist (comp. Ezekiel 33:10, "If our transgressions and our sins be upon us, and we pine away in them, how should we then live?"). God at times judicially delivers the wicked into the power of their sins (see Romans 1:24, Romans 1:26, Romans 1:28).
But now, O Lord, thou art our Father (see the comment on Isaiah 63:16). We are the clay, and thou our Potter (comp. Isaiah 29:16; Isaiah 45:9). Thy hands have made us and fashioned us, both as individuals and as a nation. Thou hast lavished thy labour and thy skill upon us. Surely thou wilt not "forsake the work of thine own hands" (Psalms 138:8).
Be not wroth very sore. At the time of the Captivity God was wroth very sore (Lamentations 5:22). His auger was hot against the sheep of his pasture (Psalms 74:1). But they had suffered, they had been afflicted many years. Might he not now relent, and remit somewhat from his fierce anger? Neither remember iniquity (comp. Psalms 79:8). God had already made a promise by the mouth of Isaiah, "I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy trangressions, and will not remember thy sins" (Isaiah 43:25). The captives lay hold, as it were, on this promise, and entreat that their "iniquity" may be not only forgiven, but forgotten (Jeremiah 31:34). We are all thy people. A fresh argument. "We are thy children," individually (verse 8); "we are thy work, thy creatures" (verse 8), again individually; but also, "we are all of us (kullanu), collectively, thy people"—the people whom thou hast chosen to thyself, and over whom thou hast watched for so many centuries. Surely this consideration, if no other, will induce thee to forego thy wrath and forgive our iniquity.
Thy holy cities are a wilderness. Commonly Jerusalem stands alone as "the holy city" (Isaiah 48:2; Isaiah 56:1; Daniel 9:24; Nehemiah 11:1, Nehemiah 11:18); but here the epithet is applied to the cities of Judah generally. They were all in a certain sense "holy," as being comprised within the limits of "the holy land" (Zechariah 2:12) and "the holy border" (Psalms 78:54). Zion … Jerusalem (see the comment on Isaiah 62:1).
Our holy and our beautiful house. This is the true meaning. The exiles have the tenderest and most vivid remembrance of the holiness and the beauty (or glory) of that edifice, which had formed the centre of the national life for above four centuries, and had been a marvel of richness and magnificence. Many of them had seen it with their own eyes (Ezra 3:12), and could never forget its splendours. Where our fathers praised thee. Though in the later times of the Captivity there were still some of the exiles who had seen the temple, and probably worshipped in it, yet with the great majority it was otherwise. They thought of the temple as the place where their "fathers" had worshipped. Burned up with fire (see 2 Kings 25:9; 2 Chronicles 36:19; Jeremiah 52:13). Our pleasant things; or, our delectable things—as in Isaiah 44:9; the courts, gardens, outbuildings of the temple, are probably meant.
Wilt thou refrain thyself for these things? rather, at these things—seeing that these things are so. Will they not provoke thee to interfere?
Pleas for mercy.
Israel had three main grounds on which they could rely in pleading to God for mercy.
I. GOD WAS THEIR MAKER. The framer of a work cannot see without dissatisfaction the destruction of his work, or its deterioration, or its depravation to purposes lower. than those intended for it. This dissatisfaction is the greater, the more considerable the labour and the thought that has been expended upon the work, the greater the care that has been taken of it, the longer that it has been watched over. Israel, as far as earth was concerned, was God's master-work, that in which God's creative efforts had culminated. He had created the world for mankind, and mankind (in a certain sense) for Israel. He had loved and cherished Israel, watched over his work, protected and guarded it, for well-nigh a millennium. Israel might well feel that it had a tower of strength in the plea, "We are the work of thy hand" (Isaiah 64:8).
II. GOD WAS THEIR FATHER. God had condescended to reveal himself as their "Father" at the time of the Exodus (Deuteronomy 32:6); and ever since had constantly addressed them, through his prophets, as his "children" (Exodus 3:22; Deuteronomy 32:19, Deuteronomy 32:20; Psalms 80:15; Psalms 82:6; Psalms 103:13; Proverbs 3:12; Proverbs 8:32; Isaiah 1:2, Isaiah 1:4; Isaiah 30:1, Isaiah 30:9; Isaiah 43:6; Isaiah 45:11; Isaiah 63:8; Hosea 1:10; Hosea 11:1, etc.). Rebellious, backsliding children, indeed, had they been; yet still not wholly renounced, not wholly cast off, not deprived of the name or of the rights of children. Thus they could plead with God his fatherhood (Isaiah 63:16; Isaiah 64:8), and therewith claim his tender care, and kind consideration, and merciful forgiveness, and gracious protection, and powerful aid against their enemies. A Father could not but pity his children, could not but be ready, on their turning to him with true penitence and humble confession of sin (Isaiah 64:5-7), to receive them and reinstate them in his favour.
III. GOD WAS THEIR KING. The Israelites were not only God's "children"—they were "his people." He had acknowledged them as such from the days of Moses (Exodus 3:7, Exodus 3:10; Exodus 7:16; Exodus 8:1, etc.). He had taken them to himself to be his "peculiar treasure—a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation" (Exodus 19:5, Exodus 19:6). He had actually directed the policy of their state, as king, for several centuries (Judges 8:23; 1Sa 8:7; 1 Samuel 10:19; 1 Samuel 12:12). They had rejected him, when they insisted on having a king "like the nations" (1 Samuel 8:5); but, with the Captivity, his kingly right had revived (Hosea 13:10), and they could properly appeal to him as "his people" (Isaiah 64:9).
The Christian Church, "Israel after the Spirit," is equally entitled to make these pleas with "Israel after the flesh." God is their Maker; God is their Father (Matthew 5:45, Matthew 5:48; Matthew 6:1-9, etc.). Christ is their King (John 18:36). But they have also a further plea; Christ is their Redeemer; he has borne their sins—he has suffered in their stead—he has made atonement for them. In his Name they can "go boldly to the throne of grace" (Hebrews 4:16), secure that they will "obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need."
HOMILIES BY E. JOHNSON
Longing for the appearance of God.
"Widely yawns the gulf between Israel and her God. A revelation on the widest possible scale is necessary to smite down unbelief and annihilate opposition; God himself must appear."
I. FIGURES OF THE MANIFESTATION OF GOD. The rending of the heavens. For the time of trouble is as the hiding of the face of God behind thick clouds (Job 22:13, Job 22:14). The word given, rend, is very strong—tear asunder, as garments in grief (Genesis 37:29; 2 Samuel 13:31), or as a wild beast the breast of any one. The faithful firmly believe that he will find a way to show himself through the densest darkness of the most unhappy time. The idea is that of a coming in power to destroy his foes (cf. Psalms 44:5, Psalms 44:6). The shaking mountain, the fire causing the boiling of the waters, the terror of the nations, and the terrible deeds of Jehovah—all this imagery belongs to the memory of the Exodus, where he proved himself to be the living God.
II. EVANGELICAL APPLICATION. Isaiah 64:4 is cited by St. Paul as illustrating the effect of the gospel in producing happiness and salvation (1 Corinthians 2:9). If the prophet urges that no god had ever done what Jehovah had done, and no human being had witnessed such manifestations from any other quarter, the apostle applies the thought to the manifestation of God in Christ. For waiting men salvation is prepared. Piety may be defined—is so defined in Scripture—as waiting upon God (Psalms 25:3, Psalms 25:5, Psalms 25:21; Psalms 27:14; Psalms 37:9; Psalms 130:5). God had given manifestations of his existence in the past, of his power and goodness, which had been furnished to none other than his friends. And to those interpositions the suppliants appeal as a reason why he should again interpose and save them in their sore calamities.—J.
The cry of humiliation and of hope.
I. THE CONFESSION. "Woe are we, for we are unclean!" Like the leper, dwelling alone without the camp (Leviticus 13:44-46), so is the people; as he is cut off from the society of men, so they from the converse of God; or as something ceremonially polluted and defiled (Le Isaiah 5:2; Deuteronomy 14:19), or morally defiled (Job 14:4). The language carries a feeling of intense abhorrence. Under another figure, their penal offences have "carried them away like the wind," whither Jehovah is not; and they are as the leaves fallen and faded, from which all beauty has disappeared. In this degeneracy the very conscience and the religions instinct is dead, or in a state of lethargy. "How aptly is the state of a sinful world described! How indisposed to rouse itself to call upon God!" No man rises to God without an effort; and unless men make an effort for this, they fall into the stupidity of sin as certainly as a drowsy man sinks back into deep sleep. So nerveless are they, they cannot "stir themselves" to take hold on God. He, on the other hand, seems to have hidden his face from them, and to have given them over into the hand of their sins—if this be the true rendering. Their iniquities tyrannize over them; they pine in them, and moral life seems, under such conditions, hopeless.
II. THE PLEA OF THE CHURCH.
1. She reminds him of the fatherly relation. This includes creative energy and providential will. He has made them and moulded them, as clay is moulded by the potter. He, therefore, must restore them, and he alone; for they are wholly in his hand, and under his control. "The whole verse is an acknowledgment of the sovereignty of God. It expresses the feeling which all have under the conviction of sin, when sensible that they are exposed to the Divine displeasure for their transgressions. Then they feel, if they are to be saved, it must be by the mere sovereignty of God; and they implore his interposition to 'mould and guide them at his will.' Only when sinners have this feeling do they hope for relief; and then they feel that if they are lost, it will be right; if saved, it will be because God moulds them as the potter does the clay."
2. She reminds him of other motives for his interference. His holy cities have become waste, the holy and splendid house of Jehovah reduced to ruins, with all its precious objects. The land and the temple were alike dedicated, consecrated to God, hallowed also by the memory of ancestral piety. And what attachment stronger than that to places of worship where our forefathers engaged in the service of God? "It would be difficult to find any passage in the Bible, or out of it, to equal this in pathos. Here was an exiled people, long suffering in a distant land, with the reflection that their homes were in ruins, their splendid temple long since fired and lying in ruins, the rank grass growing in their streets, their country overrun by beasts and with a rank vegetation. To that land they sighed to return; and here, with the deepest emotion, they plead with God on behalf of their desolate country. We should go to God with deep emotion when his Church is prostrate, and then is the time when we should use the most tender pleadings, and our heart should be melted within us." We are reminded also of the lesson of childlikeness in prayer. Why should we ever be ashamed of the child-heart and the child's utterance, "crying in the night, and with no language but a cry"? "Wilt thou hold thy peace?" If there is any meaning in the names "Father" and "child" in religion, then such language is natural, reverent, justifiable; and the energy of the soul from which it springs is prevailing with the All-powerful and the All-merciful. "Here is a model of affectionate and earnest entreaty for Divine interposition in the day of calamity. Thus may all God's people learn to approach him as a Father, and feel that they have the inestimable privilege, in times of trial, of making known their wants to the Most High. Thus pleading, he will hear us; thus presenting our cause, he will interpose to save us."—J.
HOMILIES BY W.M. STATHAM
The averted face.
"Thou hast bid thy face from us." If so we cannot be happy. The universe itself will refuse to strike out its sweetest notes of joy for us. It is a Father's world, and must have a Father's love in it all to make us blessed! One of the oldest, sweetest prayers in the Bible is, "God be merciful to us, and bless us, and cause his face to shine upon us." The Christian must have this blessing. You say, "Ah! but men of the world can enjoy nature and society without God." It is manifest, you declare, that they do. Certainly; but even then it is a surface-joy, even then it may be disturbed by the Egyptian death's-head at the feast; by memories flashing across the mind; some vulture may suddenly swoop down upon its prey in their hearts. But a Christian has his joy in God, and without him he is out of health, sick, faint, weary, sad. Spiritual health is necessary to the soul who has known God, to make enjoyment complete and real.
I. THIS IS NOT AN ARBITRARY ACT. Some parents are by turn tender and severe; they indulge and they punish in hasty moods. Their frame of mind is not regulated by high principle, by a healthy estimate of things. It is otherwise with God. The earliest records tell us that to deal with the righteous as with the wicked is far from him. Yes, very far! We read in Isaiah that God had hidden his face from the house of Jacob, but it was because they had "sought out them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards." "Should not," says the prophet, "a people seek unto their God?" And again Isaiah says, "But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you" This is the secret of the hiding. Sin is against the peace, purity, beauty, order of the universe, and it wrongs a man's own soul. Would it be right to smile, then? Mark, God does not hide his face because of old sins that have been repented of and forgiven. Remember that there is no human meanness in God's nature. He does not touch the heart with pain about old delinquencies. "Thy sins and thine iniquities will I remember no more." I am told that there are some people who do not pray for the forgiveness of sins, because they are Christians, and all has been forgiven them unto the end. What a perversion! Is not the very test of their being Christ's at all something more than present feeling; viz. that enduring unto the end they shall be saved? Then they find the Lord's Prayer a difficulty—"Forgive us our trespasses," and they suggest that that was only a provisionary prayer, until the dispensation of the Spirit came! Such methods would destroy the whole authority of Scripture. A man might hear me take a text and say, "That was said to apostles," implying it was only meant for them. No! we sin every day, and we need a fountain ever open for sin and uncleanness. We need as much the prayer for daily forgiveness as we do for daily bread. It is when sin is indulged in by us who profess to love him—when it becomes sweet, when it becomes habitual, when it has withdrawn us from the Divine fellowship—that God hides his face.
II. THIS IS DETRIMENTAL TO ALL JOY. We are made to enjoy nature and men. We are constituted for every variety of joy. But as one nerve in agony can destroy all the rest of night, so a sin that separates us from God can darken all other joy. Even in the sweet summer-time, when holiday comes, we still need him. The golden-sanded bay, the landscape full of greens and greys, the iridescence of light through the clouds above the mountains, the scent of the pines, the delicate harmonies of colour in the fields, the mossy carpet of the woods, the russet roofs of cottages half hidden in the blossoms of summer,—all these, so restful and refreshing, lose their charm if the Saviour's smile be absent, if we cannot hear his voice amid the groves and hills, and at evening feel "we have walked with God to-day." It was true in the old dispensation, when the revelation was through patriarchs, and prophets, and symbols, and sacrifices; but it is intensely true now, that we have seen God in the face of Jesus Christ—that God's averted face is the soul's severest punishment. We have come very near to God. No human priesthood intervenes now. We have boldness of access by faith to the throne of God. No veil is over the holy of holies now. We draw near through the rent veil—that is to say, Christ's flesh. Consequently enjoyment deepens; consequently also the sorrow deepens when I sin. Why? Because the more clearly I have seen the face, the more I feel its averted glance.
III. THIS IS THE MOST SPIRITUAL OF ALL TESTS. It has to do with the life within as well as the conduct without. There, where no eye of man reaches—there, in the galleries where no foot of man ever treads—are the sights and sounds which may drive away the Divine Guest. Long before sin incarnates itself in deeds, before it becomes actual and open, the evil is at work. The tree is rotten while the bark is sound. First make the tree good. Yes; and remember that decay always begins at central points outside the reach of man's observation. Yes, and outside the reach of our own observation sometimes. Hence the prayer, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts; and see if there be any evil way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."
1. Men like other tests. Their "opinions," their attendance at sacraments, their absolution by confessors, their consistency of conduct.
2. Men realize the power of this in times of anxiety and trial, Now that they are brought low in sickness; now that friends are separated from them who used to cheer and inspire them; now that they are very near to the valley of the shadow of death—nothing will do but reality then. The words of others, their good opinions of us,—all these stand for less than nothing then. May God's face shine in again upon our souls now! That is heaven—at least, it is the premonition of it. All our worst sorrows will flee like the weird shadows on the mountains before the bright beams of the Sun of Righteousness. It is pleasant for others to smile on us—to walk in the light of human appreciation and love. Households feel this; Churches feel it. Sometimes noble and valiant men in great Reformation eras have to do without it. The light varies so, too; it is so uncertain at the best. But this shining of the face of God makes the heart restful and gladsome everywhere. We shall one day enjoy it to the full. No clouds of sin or doubt will intervene between us and God. So is it with the blessed dead. Many times the beautiful descriptions St. John gives of heaven in the Apocalypse are negative. "No curse," "no night," "no sorrow," "no more death." But once it is positive: "They shall see his face, and his Name shall be in their foreheads."—W.M.S.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
Hope in God.
The fervent language of the text is indicative of an intense spiritual struggle; the heart of the prophet is filled with conflicting hopes and fears. Sensible of great national sins, but mindful of great mercies at the hand of God, he now fears lest Israel has gone beyond redemption, and now prays for Divine rescue and restoration. We have—
I. A SENSE OF GOD'S OVERWHELMING POWER. Israel was brought very low; her land was desolate, her people scattered, her ordinances unobserved; but let God once appear in his majesty and his strength, and everything would be subdued before him; the enemy would be utterly routed, the cause of truth and piety would immediately triumph (Isaiah 64:1-3). Low as the Church may be found at any time, it only needs that God's presence should be manifested, and his power be exercised, and the strongest mountains of difficulty will melt away, prejudice be uprooted, hatred be cast out, unbelief be dislodged, indifference and indecision be consumed, earnest thought be enkindled, piety and virtue be made to burn and to enlighten.
II. A RECOGNITION OF HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS. (Isaiah 64:5.) God meets with the tokens of his favour those that rejoice to work righteousness, that remember him in his appointed ways—in worship, in thanksgiving, in obedience, in filial submission; but he is wroth with Israel, and righteously so, for Israel has sinned. In every age and land he that works righteousness is accepted and blessed of God; at all times and in every place the man that sins against his conscience must confront the anger of God, showing itself in one or more of a number of ways—in compunction, in ignominy, in desolation and ruin, in sickness, in desertion and loneliness, or in early death.
III. A CONSCIOUSNESS OF UTTER UNDESERVEDNESS. "In those [sins] is continuance;" or long have we continued in our sins, "and shall we be saved?" (Isaiah 64:5). Is there salvation to be found for the nation that for whole generations has forsaken its God? is there mercy to be had for the individual soul that for whole periods of life has lived in guilty negligence of a Divine Father and Saviour?
IV. A REMEMBRANCE OF HIS ABOUNDING GOODNESS. (Isaiah 64:4.) It is. "Jehovah of hosts" alone that wrought these marvellous deliverances for his expectant people. All other deities ignominiously and pitiably failed their devotees in the hour of trial. Their idols had mouths, but they spake not; they had hands, but they handled not; their voice could not command the storm, nor their arm arrest the tide. But the history of the people of God and of the Church of God is a history of Divine goodness and grace, of interposition in the time of peril, of redemption from ruin, of gracious and glorious manifestations of Divine affection and attachment. This encourages to—
V. A PRAYER FOR HIS EFFECTUAL INTERPOSITION. "Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens! that thou wouldest come down!" (Isaiah 64:1). Our unworthiness is very great, but thy mercy is large and free; make thy presence known, thy power felt, in the midst of us.—C.
Life as a leaf.
There are three volumes in the great work of God by which he is educating us—the written Word, Divine providence, and the world in which he has placed us. There are many pages in this last volume, and we do well to read them with reverent spirit. We may learn many things from the vegetation which clothes and adorns the world, and which supplies us with food and medicine and shelter. The fading of the leaf is particularly suggestive; we are reminded that—
I. ALL IS NOT LOST TO THE TREE WHEN THE LEAF FALLS. The leaf has been a recipient from the trunk, drinking in its vital juices, but it has been giving as well as receiving; it has been absorbing sunshine and air and moisture, and has been passing these on to the trunk, doing this in the very act of decaying, so that when the leaf has fallen its most precious part remains behind. We are large recipients from the society to which we belong, but we should be continually giving as well as taking. Before we fall, and even as we fade, we may be, and should be, imparting wisdom and truth, all wholesome and helpful principles, a reverent and holy spirit, by which the community will be the better and the richer when we are no longer seen or even remembered.
II. THERE IS AN APPARENT BUT TREACHEROUS BEAUTY IN DECAY. The russet tints of autumn are very exquisite, but it is the beauty of decay. Each particular leaf is pitted and spotted and torn, and it owes its colour to the decomposition which has begun. So is it with some fair human institutions: there may be the grandeur or the brilliancy of external prosperity—superficially regarded they are interesting, fair, admirable—but there is no inward soundness; it is not the excellency of growing life we are looking upon, but the melancholy beauty of decay.
III. THE INEVITABLENESS OF DECLINE. A psalmist and a prophet speak poetically of" trees whose leaves do not fade." But such trees, we know, are not found in the vegetable kingdom. Human hearts need not fade. They who are ever drinking in the sunshine of Divine truth, who bathe in the waters of Divine wisdom, on whom fall continually the dews of the Divine Spirit—these are "trees planted by the rivers of water," and "their leaf does not wither; ' they keep their freshness, their purity, their joy to the last; they never lose it. But human lives must. We all do fade as a leaf; the time must be reached when the physical and mental powers begin to decline, and then life lessens in its force and its range from year to year, until the gust comes which brings down the faded leaf to the earth. Prudence may put off the date, but the experience is inevitable and must be faced. We must be provided with a true and real consolation.
IV. THE MINGLING OF THE GRADUAL WITH THE SUDDEN IN THE DECLINE OF LIFE. Everything, in the history of the leaf, is a gradual process, until the last killing frost or pelting rain detaches it from the bough. Death is seldom quite sudden, usually much less so than it seems. It is generally the case that the vigour of the frame has been impaired and the vital powers lessened before the attack proves fatal. We all do fade as a leaf; we decline before we die, we fade before we fall, we walk down the hill by many paces before we take the last step and touch the bottom. Yet is there, almost always, something sudden in the great removal. The day of the Lord still comes as a thief in the night.
V. HUMAN LIFE, UNLIKE THE LEAF, HAS NO FIXED TIME TO DROOP AND DIE. We know the season of the falling leaf, but the time of failing health and of the departing spirit we do not know. Well sings Mrs. Hemans—
"Leaves have their time to fall,
And flowers to wither at the north wind's breath,
And stars to set; but all—
Thou hast all seasons for thine own, O Death."
Taking hold of God.
We do well to associate with the words of the text those of Isaiah 27:5, "Let him take hold of my strength;" thus connected, we have before us—
I. THAT WHICH CONSTITUTES GOD'S STRENGTH TO US, or that in him of which we have the greatest need. The strength of the father is, to the family, his providing and directing power; the strength of the mother is her affection and her unfailing sympathy; the strength of the elder brother is his protection, of the elder sister her example. The strength of any one to whom we are related is that in him which most powerfully affects our welt-being. There may be in creation many millions of beings to whom God's strength appears to be that of his majesty, his infinity, his omniscience, his holiness. We also, the children of men, have a very large and deep interest in these, especially in his holiness. We give thanks at the remembrance of it (vide Psalms 30:4; Psalms 97:12). Without it we should not be what we are, and should have no hope of rising to the noble heights we have before us. But that in God of which we have most conscious need is
(1) Divine mercy;
(2) Divine bounty and guidance;
(3) Divine succour.
The one hope we have is in the assurance that God is strong in these, and we feel that if they are but directed toward us and embrace us in their beneficent course, all will be well with us.
II. THE NECESSITY WE ARE UNDER TO APPROPRIATE IT. It may be said that God is so generous a Being that he does not wait for any action on our part to bestow his blessings upon us; that, notwithstanding human disregard and rebellion, he multiplies his mercies unto us; that the magnanimous Father in heaven makes his sun to shine on the evil as well as on the good. This is true, but it is far from exhausting the truth. To what extent we shall be recipients of Divine mercy depends on whether or not we "take hold" upon it. God is so strong, so abundant in mercy, that his grace overflows to those who seek not for it, and they are not "dealt with according to their sins;" they derive great benefit from the abundance of God's patience. But if we wish to know all the fulness of Divine mercy as it is to be known by any seeking human spirit, we must lay hold on God's strength in this direction. We must "call upon his Name" with penitential spirit and with true faith in Jesus Christ, and we shall have not merely the overflow, but the full cup of Divine mercy, his grace in all its richness and fulness outpoured upon our own heart—the forgiveness of all past sin and all present unworthiness, admission to his full friendship, freedom to partake of all the privileges which belong to the child at home, heirship of the heavenly kingdom. In the same way, it is necessary, if we would experience the fulness, the height and depth, and length, and breadth, open to us of God's bounty and guidance, or of his succour in a time of special need, that we should "lay hold on him," on "his strength," in all these things; and we do lay hold by
(1) maintaining toward him the attitude of sonship, and
(2) going to him in the act of earnest, believing prayer.
III. THE NEED FOR HOLY ENERGY IN OUR SPIRITUAL LIFE. "There is none that stirreth up himself," etc. If men complain that they have not felt the peace and joy, or found the provision and the guidance, or experienced the delivering succour which they looked for from waiting on God, the answer and the explanation may be this—that they have been cold in their approach and their requests to God, when they should have been eager and ardent; formal, when they should have been spiritual; unexpectant, when they should have been full of faith and hope; languid, when they should have been energetic; easily daunted, when they should have been earnestly persistent. They have made a feeble and futile effort, when they should have thrown their whole soul into the sacred exercise, into the spiritual work. They must arouse themselves, "stir themselves up."—C.
A twofold plea.
The prophet addresses himself to God in earnest prayer for Divine interposition, and he uses a twofold plea.
I. THE INTIMACY AND FULNESS OF GOD'S RELATIONSHIP.
1. God was their Creator. He made them as truly as the potter fashions the clay; they were his workmanship (Isaiah 64:8).
2. God was their Father. He had cared for them and bestowed on them his parental love; would he abandon his own children?
3. God was their Redeemer. He had rescued them from bondage, had given them their heritage, had made them "his people" (Isaiah 64:9). So fully and so intimately is God related to us now, and we can use the same terms with a deeper and larger meaning, taught of Christ and redeemed by his blood.
II. THE SEVERITY OF THEIR DISTRESS. Zion a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation, "the holy and beautiful house" a calcined ruin, the beauty of the land a barrenness and a blot. The extremity of the Church's misery, its utter helplessness without Divine relief, is a strong plea with which to come to him who gave himself for it and lives to establish it.—C.
HOMILIES BY R. TUCK
Prayer for humbling manifestations of God.
"Isaiah 64:1-3 are parallel to Isaiah 63:15, but grander and bolder. There the prophet, in the name of the Church, petitioned that Jehovah would look down on the misery of his people. Here a look is felt to be insufficient, so widely yawns the gulf between Israel and his God. A revelation on the largest possible scale is necessary to smite down unbelief and annihilate opposition; God himself must appear" (Naegelsbach). The prayer is for a Divine manifestation suited to the circumstances and necessities of God's people as truly as the fire-manifestation of Sinai had been. The prophet seems to think that some overwhelming manifestation of God would silence the unbelievers, and put the hinderers out of the way, as nothing else could. There is always a tendency to trust in the extraordinary rather than in the ordinary methods of Divine working. We think men will repent, if only some one would rise from the dead and witness of eternal things to them; and God's answer in every age is, "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead."
I. SUCH PRAYER OFTEN SHOWS THAT WE FAIL TO NOTICE GOD'S WORKING IN QUIETER WAYS. Men do not pray for "lightning" who duly recognize what the "light" is doing. Yet the silent forces are the mighty ones. Atmosphere does more than wind; dew does more than storms; moisture does more than rains. God works his best work silently, quietly. We think big things must make a big noise. It is true of our everyday lives; the things that make our happiness and success are not prominent things that happen occasionally, but the ten thousand little things that pass almost unheeded, and that seem to us too small to hold God. It is true of our spiritual life. Living in the warmth of the smile of God does more for us than any special times of manifestation. It is true of the kingdom of God in the world. It cometh on secretly, no man knoweth how.
II. SUCH PRAYER SOMETIMES SHOWS THAT WE WANT GOD TO WORK BY JUDGMENTS RATHER THAN BY MERCIES. It means, "Appear, O Lord, to overthrow our adversaries." That, indeed, seems to be the tone of the prophet's prayer in the text. He at least wants the hinderers and enemies forcibly persuaded, if, indeed, he does not pray for them to be taken out of the way. But it is never consistent with the Christian spirit to take prayers to God for the judgment of anybody. That is not the way in which to pray for hinderers, slanderers, or enemies. We are properly taught to pray that God would "baffle their designs and turn their hearts." If we rightly felt God's presence with us now, we should not want to ask for any coming of his from heaven.—R.T.
Man's ignorance of God's goodness to him.
"For from of old men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen a God beside thee, which worketh for him that waiteth for him" (Revised Version). A very old weakness of humanity it is to try and find somebody who may be preferred to God, and this comes out of the fact that God is so very imperfectly known, or else is so very strangely misunderstood. A hint is here given us of the reason why there is so much misunderstanding of God—he has to be waited for. It is quite true of him that he is always working for us; but it is also true that he is often a long time in the working out of his purposes. Then, because men cannot get what they want done done quick, they foolishly begin to think that God cannot do it for them, or will not do it for them. They fail to see the Lord's goodness. The point of impression may be, that in all the reviews we can take of the past, God has surely wrought good things, even if he has been long at the working. We may, therefore, cherish trustful thoughts concerning him, and be quite willing to leave the unfoldings of all the future in his supreme control.
I. REVIEW GOD'S WAYS or EDUCATING THE WORLD. What a long time of preparation before he could manifest his Son, and, through him, teach the world the Divine fatherhood!
II. REVIEW GOD'S WAYS OF TRAINING THE JEWS. Their good things were always long in coming. Canaan was forty years away from Egypt. Restoration was seventy years away from judgment.
III. REVIEW GOD'S WAYS OF SANCTIFYING HIS CHURCH. Our hardest work nowadays is to hold fast the conviction that the Church is sanctifying, for the process seems so long, and the waiting-time is so trying.
IV. REVIEW GOD'S DEALINGS IN PERSONAL LIVES. Who of us has not had to learn the lesson of the goodness of God in what he holds off, out of our reach, and makes us wait for and work for long? Do not let us, then, ever mistake God. It is ours to wait for him, and to wait on him, but we may hold the good cheer of this faith—he is surely "working for every one that can wait for him."—R.T.
The sincere man's estimate of himself.
"For we are all become as one that is unclean, and all our righteousnesses are as a polluted garment: and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away." This is the language indeed of an intercessor, of one who speaks as representing the nation, and tries to speak as the nation should speak. But such a man must get at the knowledge of the condition of the nation by a deep and true estimate of his own real self. There is no sign of conscious separation of himself from his people. Right reading of his own life alone enables him to read theirs. And this is true for us also. No man who fails to apprehend the "plague of his own heart" will ever properly realize the evils of his own times. Pharisee-souls can never know the real sins of their age. Sincere and humble souls find themselves—as they know themselves—the measure of the men around them, as they stand in God's sight.
I. THE SINCERE MAN FINDS HIS GOODNESS IS SEARCHED. A man's own goodness is no more than a crust put over a state of uncleanness. Before God a man sees it to be no more than a crust. A man's own goodness is a dainty garment, which makes a brave appearance. Before God a man sees that it does but cover a foul person, and the foul person has polluted the dress. There is no place where we find out the worthlessness of our own goodness like the place of prayer.
II. THE SINCERE MAN IS IMPRESSED WITH his OWN FRAILTY. It is not that he finds life fading; the thing that oppresses him is that he can never keep at a high level of goodness; he is always fading from his standards; he can no more keep on in goodness than the leaves can keep on the trees all autumn and winter through. One writer says, on the expression "we fade as a leaf," "This means that sin brings with it the curse of God, and deprives us of his blessing, both for the body and the soul, so that the heart is dissatisfied and distressed."
III. THE SINCERE MAN RECOGNIZES JUDGMENT INFLICTED. The past calamities of life are read aright, and seen to be a man's iniquities taking him away from peace and prosperity. There is no standing steady for any of us who keep in our sins. If we cannot find out how our iniquities can be taken away, we shall be sure to find that our iniquities will take us away. When we are truly humbled under God's hand concerning ourselves, we are fitted to make confession before God in the name of our nation.—R.T.
Our Father and our Potter.
"But now, O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou cur Potter; and we all are the work of thy hand." The prophet here is making no such assertion of the absolute sovereignty of God as we associate with the figure of the potter because of St. Paul's use of it in Romans 9:20, Romans 9:21. Here the power of the great Potter is made the ground of prayer. "The clay intreats him to fashion it according to his will, and has faith in his readiness, as well as in his power, to comply with that prayer. The thought of the 'potter' becomes, in this aspect of it, one with that of the fatherhood of God." Fausset says, "Unable to mould themselves aright, they beg the sovereign will of God to mould them into salvation, even as he made them at first, and is their Father." The idea of the fatherhood of God, as held by the Jews, differs as materially from the idea held by us, as our impressions of human fatherhood differs from theirs. To us the association of "father" and "potter" is incongruous; but to Easterns, who hold the absolute rights of fathers, it was quite a natural association. What may we learn by the linking of the two terms together?
I. Potter reminds us that God can answer our prayer BY THE MASTERY OF OUR CIRCUMSTANCES. The clay must yield under the potter's hands. He makes of it what. vessel he pleases. He makes or mars as he pleases. So we say, "Our times are in thine hands." All belonging to us is fully within the Divine control. He can mould as he pleases the "clay" of our circumstances, so that our prayers shall be answered. The "we" of the text is not "we as individuals," but "we inclusive of all our surroundings and associations."
II. Father reminds us that God can answer our prayers UPON DUE CONSIDERATION OF US. Father brings in the element of feeling and personal relationship. Beyond what God can do, we have the most gracious assurances as to what he will do. This should lead us on to the Christian conception of answer to prayer, based on our Lord's words, "If ye then know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give good things to them that ask him?"—R.T.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Isaiah 64". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25