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Bible Commentaries

Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture
Isaiah 28

 

 

Verse 1-2

Isaiah

THE JUDGMENT OF DRUNKARDS AND MOCKERS

Isaiah 28:1 - Isaiah 28:13.

This prophecy probably falls in the first years of Hezekiah, when Samaria still stood, and the storm of war was gathering black in the north. The portion included in the text predicts the fall of Samaria [Isaiah 28:1 - Isaiah 28:6] and then turns to Judah, which is guilty of the same sins as the northern capital, and adds to them mockery of the prophet’s message. Isaiah speaks with fiery indignation and sharp sarcasm. His words are aflame with loathing of the moral corruption of both kingdoms, and he fastens on the one common vice of drunkenness-not as if it were the only sin, but because it shows in the grossest form the rottenness underlying the apparent beauty.

I. The woe on Samaria [Isaiah 28:1 - Isaiah 28:6]. Travellers are unanimous in their raptures over the fertility and beauty of the valley in which Samaria stood, perched on its sunny, fruitful hill, amid its vineyards. The situation of the city naturally suggests the figure which regards it as a sparkling coronet or flowery wreath, twined round the brows of the hill; and that poetical metaphor is the more natural, since revellers were wont to twist garlands in their hair, when they reclined at their orgies. The city is ‘the crown of pride’-that is, the object of boasting and foolish confidence-and is also ‘the fading flower of his sparkling ornament’; that is, the flower which is the ornament of Ephraim, but is destined to fade.

The picture of the city passes into that of the drunken debauch, where the chief men of Samaria sprawl, ‘smitten down’ by wine, and with the innocent flowers on their hot temples drooping in the fumes of the feast. But bright and sunny as the valley is, glittering in the light as the city sits on her hill, careless and confident as the revellers are, a black cloud lies on the horizon, and one of the terrible sudden storms which such lands know comes driving up the valley. ‘The Lord hath a mighty and strong one’-the conqueror from the north, who is God’s instrument, though he knows it not.

The swift, sudden, irresistible onslaught of the Assyrian is described, in harmony with the figure of the flowery coronal, as a tempest which beats down the flowers and flings the sodden crown to the ground. The word rendered ‘tempest’ is graphic, meaning literally a ‘downpour.’ First comes hail, which batters the flowers to shreds; then the effect of the storm is described as ‘destruction,’ and then the hurrying words turn back to paint the downpour of rain, ‘mighty’ from its force in falling, and ‘overflowing’ from its abundance, which soon sets all the fields swimming with flood water. What chance has a poor twist of flowers in such a storm? Its beauty will be marred, and all the petals beaten off, and nothing remains but that it should be trampled into mud. The rush of the prophet’s denunciation is swift and irresistible as the assault it describes, and it flashes from one metaphor to another without pause. The fertility of the valley of Samaria shapes the figures. As the picture of the flowery chaplet, so that which follows of the early fig, is full of local colour. A fig in June is a delicacy, which is sure to be plucked and eaten as soon as seen. Such a dainty, desirable morsel will Samaria be, as sweet and as little satisfying to the all-devouring hunger of the Assyrian.

But storms sweep the air clear, and everything will not go down before this one. The flower fadeth, but there is a chaplet of beauty which men may wreathe round their heads, which shall bloom for ever. All sensuous enjoyment has its limits in time, as well as in nobleness and exquisiteness; but when it is all done with, the beauty and festal ornament which truly crowns humanity shall smell sweet and blossom. The prophecy had regard simply to the issue of the historical disaster to which it pointed, and it meant that, after the storm of Assyrian conquest, there would still be, for the servants of God, the residue of the people, both in Israel and in Judah, a fuller possession of the blessings which descend on the men who make God their portion. But the principle involved is for ever true. The sweeping away of the perishable does draw true hearts nearer to God.

So the two halves of this prophecy give us eternal truths as to the certain destruction awaiting the joys of sense, and the permanence of the beauty and strength which belong to those who take God for their portion.

Drunkenness seems to have been a national sin in Israel; for Micah rebukes it as vehemently as Isaiah, and it is a clear bit of Christian duty in England to-day to ‘set the trumpet to thy mouth and show the people’ this sin. But the lessons of the prophecy are wider than the specific form of evil denounced. All setting of affection and seeking of satisfaction in that which, in all the pride of its beauty, is ‘a fading flower,’ is madness and sin. Into every life thus turned to the perishable will come the crash of the destroying storm, the mutterings of which might reach the ears of the feasters, if they were not drunk with the fumes of their deceiving delights. Only one kind of life has its roots in that which abides, and is safe from tempest and change. Amaranthine flowers bloom only in heaven, and must be brought thence, if they are to garland earthly foreheads. If we take God for ours, then whatever tempests may howl, and whatever fragile though fragrant joys may be swept away, we shall find in Him all that the world ‘fails to give to its votaries. He is ‘a crown of glory’ and ‘a diadem of beauty.’ Our humanity is never so fair as when it is made beautiful by the possession of Him. All that sense vainly seeks in earth, faith finds in God. Not only beauty, but ‘a spirit of judgment,’ in its narrower sense and in its widest, is breathed into those to whom God is ‘the master light of all their seeing’; and, yet more, He is strength to all who have to fight. Thus the close union of trustful souls with God, the actual inspiration of these, and the perfecting of their nature from communion with God, are taught us in the great words, which tell how beauty, justice, and strength are all given in the gift of Jehovah Himself to His people.

II. The prophet turns to Judah [Isaiah 28:7 - Isaiah 28:13], and charges them with the same disgusting debauchery. His language is vehement in its loathing, and describes the filthy orgies of those who should have been the guides of the people with almost painful realism. Note how the words ‘reel’ and ‘stagger’ are repeated, and also the words ‘wine’ and ‘strong drink.’ We see the priests’ and prophets’ unsteady gait, and then they ‘stumble’ or fall. There they lie amid the filth, like hogs in a sty. It is very coarse language, but fine words are the Devil’s veils for coarse sins; and it is needful sometimes to call spades spades, and not to be ashamed to tell men plainly how ugly are the vices which they are not ashamed to commit. No doubt some of the drunken priests and false prophets in Jerusalem thought Isaiah extremely vulgar and indelicate, in talking about staggering teachers and tables swimming in ‘vomit.’ But he had to speak out. So deep was the corruption that the officials were tipsy even when engaged in their official duties, the prophets reeled while they were seeing visions; the judges could not sit upright even when pronouncing judgment.

Isaiah 28:9 - Isaiah 28:10 are generally taken as a sarcastic quotation of the drunkards’ scoffs at the prophet. They might be put in inverted commas. Their meaning is, ‘Does he take us grave and reverend seigniors, priests and prophets, to be babies just weaned, that he pesters us with these monotonous petty preachings, fit only for the nursery, which he calls his “message"?’ In Isaiah 28:10, the original for ‘precept upon precept,’ etc., is a series of short words, which may be taken as reproducing the ‘babbling tones of the drunken mockers.’

The loose livers of all generations talk in the same fashion about the stern morality which rebukes their vice. They call it weak, commonplace, fit for children, and they pretend that they despise it. They are much too enlightened for such antiquated teaching. Old women and children may take it in, but men of the world, who have seen life, and know what is what, are not to be fooled so. ‘What will this babbler say?’ was asked by the wise men of Athens, who were but repeating the scoffs of the prophets and priests of Jerusalem, and the same jeers are bitter in the mouth of many a profligate man to-day. It is the fate of all strict morality to be accounted childish by the people whom it inconveniently condemns.

In Isaiah 28:11 and onwards the prophet speaks. He catches up the mockers’ words, and retorts them. They have scoffed at his message as if it were stammering speech. They shall hear another kind of stammerers when the fierce invaders’ harsh and unintelligible language commands them. The reason why these foreign voices would have authority, was the national disregard of God’s voice. ‘Ye would not hear’ Him when, by His prophet, He spoke gracious invitations to rest, and to give the nation rest, in obedience and trust. Therefore they shall hear the battle-cry of the conqueror, and have to obey orders spoken in a barbarous tongue.

Of course, the language meant is the Assyrian, which, though cognate with Hebrew, is so unlike as to be unintelligible to the people. But is not the threat the statement of a great truth always being fulfilled towards the disobedient? If we will not listen to that loving Voice which calls us to rest, we shall be forced to listen to the harsh and strident tones of conquering enemies who command us to slavish toil. If we will not be guided by His eye and voice, we shall be governed by whip and bridle. Our choice is either to hearken to the divine call, which is loving and gentle, and invites to deep repose springing from faith, or to have to hear the voice of the taskmasters. The monotony of despised moral and religious teaching shall give place to a more terrible monotony, even that of continuous judgments.

‘The mills of God grind slowly.’ Bit by bit, with gradual steps, with dismal persistence, like the slow drops on the rock, the judgments of God trickle out on the mocking heart. It takes a long time for a child to learn a pageful when he gets his lesson a sentence at a time. So slowly do His chastisements fall on men who have despised the continuous messages of His love. The word of the Lord, which was laughed at when it clothed itself in a prophet’s speech, will be heard in more formidable shape, when it is wrapped in the long-drawn-out miseries of years of bondage. The warning is as needful for us as for these drunken priests and scornful rulers. The principle embodied is true in this day as it was then, and we too have to choose between serving God in gladness, hearkening to the voice of His word, and so finding rest to our souls, and serving the world, the flesh, and the devil, and so experiencing the perpetual dropping of the fiery rain of His judgments.


Verse 3-4

Isaiah

THE JUDGMENT OF DRUNKARDS AND MOCKERS

A CROWN OF PRIDE OR A CROWN OF GLORY

Isaiah 28:3 - Isaiah 28:5.

The reference is probably to Samaria as a chief city of Israel. The image is suggested by the situation of Samaria, high on a hill-side, crowning the valley, and by the rich vegetation and bright flowers which makes it even now one of the few lovely scenes in Palestine; and by the luxurious riot and sensual excess that were always characteristic of the northern kingdom.

The destruction of Samaria and of the kingdom, then, is here prophesied-the garland will fade, the hail will batter all its drooping flowerets, and it shall be trodden under foot. Look at that withered wreath that gleamed yesterday on some fair head, to-day flung into the ashpit or kicked about the street. That is a modern rendering of the prophet’s imagery. But the reference goes further than merely to the city: the whole state of the nation is expressed by the symbol, as doomed to quick decay, fading in itself, and further smitten down by divine judgments.

There is a contrasted picture, that of ‘the residue of the people’ to whom there is an amaranthine crown, a festal diadem glorious and beautiful, which can never fade, even God Himself. To them who love Him He is an ornament, and His presence is the consecration of the true joyful feast. They who are crowned by Him are crowned, not for idle revelry, but for strenuous toil {‘sit in judgment’} and for brave purpose {‘turn the battle to the gate,’} and their coronation day is ever the day when earthly garlands are withered, whether it be the crises and convulsions of nations and institutions, or times of personal trial, or ‘in the hour of death or in the day of judgment.’

Expanding then these thoughts, we have-

I. All godless joys are but fading chaplets.

Of course the first application of such words is to purely sensuous delights.

Men who seek to make life a mere revel and banquet.

Nothing is so short-lived as gratification of appetite. It is not merely that each act lasts but for a moment, but also that past gratifications leave no sort of solace to the appetite behind them; whereas past acquirements or deeds of goodness are a perpetual joy as well as the foundation of the present. There is something essentially isolated in each act of sensuous delight. No man can by so willing recall the taste of eaten food, nor slake his thirst by remembrance of former draughts, or cool himself by thinking of ‘frosty Caucasus.’ But each such gratification is done when it is done, and there is an end of its power to gratify.

Further, the power of enjoyment wanes, though the lust for it waxes. Hence each act has less and less power of satisfying.

One sees blase young men of twenty-five. It was a man of under thirty-five who wrote, ‘Man delights not me, no, nor woman neither.’ It was a used-up roue that was represented as saying, ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’ It was of sensuous ‘pleasures’ that poor Burns wrote,-

‘Like the snowfall in the river,

A moment white,-then melts for ever.’

When a people is given over to such excess, late or soon the fate of Samaria comes upon them. Think of the French Revolution or of the fall of Rome, and learn that the prophet was announcing a law for all nations, in his fiery denunciation, and one which holds good to-day as ever.

But we may generalise more widely. Every godless life is essentially transitory; of course, all life is so in one view. But suppose two men, working side by side at the same occupation, passing through the same circumstances. So far as physical changes go, these men are the same. Both lose much. Both leave behind much. Both cease to be interested in much that was dear to them. Both die at last, and leave it all. Is there any difference? The transitoriness is the same, and the eternal consequences are eternal alike in both; and yet there is a very solemn sense in which the one man’s life has utterly perished, and the other’s abides. Suppose a man, educated to be a first-rate man of business, dies. Which of his trained faculties will he have scope for in that new order of things? Or a student, or a lawyer, or a statesman?

Oh, it is not our natural mortality that makes these thoughts so awful; but it is the thought that the man who is doing these things is immortal. The head which wears the fading wreath will live for ever. ‘What will ye do in the end?’

II. Godly life brings unfading joys.

Communion with God yields abiding joys. The law of change remains the same. The law of death remains the same. But the motives which direct and impel the godly man are beyond the reach of change.

The habits which he contracts are for heaven as well as for earth. The treasures which he amasses will always be his.

His life in its essence and his work are one in all worlds. What a grand continuity, then, knits into one a godly life whether it is lived on earth or in heaven!

Communion with God gives beauty and ornament to the whole character. It brings the true refining and perfecting of the soul. No doubt many Christian men, as we see them, are but poor specimens of this effect of godliness; still, it is an effect produced in proportion to the depth and continuity of their communion. We might dwell on the effect on Will, Affections, Understanding, produced by dwelling in God. It is simple fact that the highest conceivable type of beauty is only reached through communion with God.

Communion with God gives power as well as gladness. The life of abiding with God is also one of strenuous effort and real warfare. In the context it is promised that God will be for strength to them that turn the battle to the gate.

The luxurious life of self-indulgence ends, as all selfish life must do, in the vanishing of delights. The life of joy in God issues, as all true joy does, in power for work and in power for conflict.

‘God doth anoint thee with His odorous oil, to wrestle, not to reign.’

III. There will be a coronation day.

‘In that day,’ the day when ‘the crown of pride shall be trodden under foot,’ the people of God are crowned with the diadem of beauty which is God Himself. That twofold work of that one day suggests-

The double aspect of trials and sorrows.

The double aspect of death.

The double aspect of final Judgment.

‘Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day.’

To be crowned or discrowned ‘in that day’ is the alternative set before each of us. Which of the two do we choose?


Verse 5

Isaiah

THE JUDGMENT OF DRUNKARDS AND MOCKERS

MAN’S CROWN AND GOD’S

Isaiah 28:5. - Isaiah 62:3.

Connection of first prophecy-destruction of Samaria. Its situation, crowning the hill with its walls and towers, its fertile ‘fat valley,’ the flagrant immorality and drunkenness of its inhabitants, and its final ruin, are all presented in the highly imaginative picture of its fall as being like the trampling under foot of a garland on a reveller’s head, the roses of which fade and droop amid the fumes of the banqueting hall, and are then flung out on the highway. The contrast presented is very striking and beautiful. When all that gross and tumultuous beauty has faded and died, then God Himself will be a crown of beauty to His people.

The second text comes into remarkable line with this. The verbal resemblance is not quite so strong in the original. The words for diadem and crown are not the same; the word rendered glory in the second text is rendered beauty in the first, but the two texts are entirely one in meaning. The same metaphor, then, is used with reference to what God is to the Church and what the Church is to God. He is its crown, it is His.

I. The Possession of God is the Coronation of Man.

{a} Crowns were worn by guests at feasts. They who possess God sit at a table perpetually spread with all which the soul can wish or want. Contrast the perishable delights of sense and godless life with the calm and immortal joys of communion with God; ‘a crown that fadeth not away’ beside withered garlands.

{b} Crowns were worn by kings. They who serve God are thereby invested with rule over selves, over circumstances, over all externals. He alone gives completeness to self-control.

{c} Crowns were worn by priests. The highest honour and dignity of man’s nature is thereby reached. To have God is like a beam of sunshine on a garden, which brings out the colours of all the flowers; contrast with the same garden in the grey monotony of a cloudy twilight.

II. The Coronation of Man in God is the Coronation of God in Man.

That includes the following thoughts.

The true glory of God is in the communication of Himself. What a wonderful light that throws on divine character! It is equivalent to ‘God is Love.’

He who is glorified by God glorifies God, as showing the most wonderful working of His power in making such a man out of such material, by an alchemy that can convert base metal into fine gold; as showing the most wonderful condescension of His love in taking to His heart man, into whose flesh the rotting leprosy of sin has eaten.

Such a man will glorify God by becoming a conscious herald of His praise. He who has God in his heart will magnify Him by lip and life. Redeemed men are ‘secretaries of His praise’ to men, and ‘to principalities and powers in heavenly places is made known by the Church the manifold wisdom of God.’

He who thus glorifies God is held in God’s hand.

‘None shall pluck them out of My Father’s hand.’

All this will be perfected in heaven. Redeemed men lead the universal chorus that thunders forth ‘glory to Him that sitteth on the throne.’

‘He shall come to be glorified in His saints.’

‘Glorify Thy Son, that Thy Son also may glorify Thee.’


Verses 6-13

Isaiah

THE JUDGMENT OF DRUNKARDS AND MOCKERS

Isaiah 28:1 - Isaiah 28:13.

This prophecy probably falls in the first years of Hezekiah, when Samaria still stood, and the storm of war was gathering black in the north. The portion included in the text predicts the fall of Samaria [Isaiah 28:1 - Isaiah 28:6] and then turns to Judah, which is guilty of the same sins as the northern capital, and adds to them mockery of the prophet’s message. Isaiah speaks with fiery indignation and sharp sarcasm. His words are aflame with loathing of the moral corruption of both kingdoms, and he fastens on the one common vice of drunkenness-not as if it were the only sin, but because it shows in the grossest form the rottenness underlying the apparent beauty.

I. The woe on Samaria [Isaiah 28:1 - Isaiah 28:6]. Travellers are unanimous in their raptures over the fertility and beauty of the valley in which Samaria stood, perched on its sunny, fruitful hill, amid its vineyards. The situation of the city naturally suggests the figure which regards it as a sparkling coronet or flowery wreath, twined round the brows of the hill; and that poetical metaphor is the more natural, since revellers were wont to twist garlands in their hair, when they reclined at their orgies. The city is ‘the crown of pride’-that is, the object of boasting and foolish confidence-and is also ‘the fading flower of his sparkling ornament’; that is, the flower which is the ornament of Ephraim, but is destined to fade.

The picture of the city passes into that of the drunken debauch, where the chief men of Samaria sprawl, ‘smitten down’ by wine, and with the innocent flowers on their hot temples drooping in the fumes of the feast. But bright and sunny as the valley is, glittering in the light as the city sits on her hill, careless and confident as the revellers are, a black cloud lies on the horizon, and one of the terrible sudden storms which such lands know comes driving up the valley. ‘The Lord hath a mighty and strong one’-the conqueror from the north, who is God’s instrument, though he knows it not.

The swift, sudden, irresistible onslaught of the Assyrian is described, in harmony with the figure of the flowery coronal, as a tempest which beats down the flowers and flings the sodden crown to the ground. The word rendered ‘tempest’ is graphic, meaning literally a ‘downpour.’ First comes hail, which batters the flowers to shreds; then the effect of the storm is described as ‘destruction,’ and then the hurrying words turn back to paint the downpour of rain, ‘mighty’ from its force in falling, and ‘overflowing’ from its abundance, which soon sets all the fields swimming with flood water. What chance has a poor twist of flowers in such a storm? Its beauty will be marred, and all the petals beaten off, and nothing remains but that it should be trampled into mud. The rush of the prophet’s denunciation is swift and irresistible as the assault it describes, and it flashes from one metaphor to another without pause. The fertility of the valley of Samaria shapes the figures. As the picture of the flowery chaplet, so that which follows of the early fig, is full of local colour. A fig in June is a delicacy, which is sure to be plucked and eaten as soon as seen. Such a dainty, desirable morsel will Samaria be, as sweet and as little satisfying to the all-devouring hunger of the Assyrian.

But storms sweep the air clear, and everything will not go down before this one. The flower fadeth, but there is a chaplet of beauty which men may wreathe round their heads, which shall bloom for ever. All sensuous enjoyment has its limits in time, as well as in nobleness and exquisiteness; but when it is all done with, the beauty and festal ornament which truly crowns humanity shall smell sweet and blossom. The prophecy had regard simply to the issue of the historical disaster to which it pointed, and it meant that, after the storm of Assyrian conquest, there would still be, for the servants of God, the residue of the people, both in Israel and in Judah, a fuller possession of the blessings which descend on the men who make God their portion. But the principle involved is for ever true. The sweeping away of the perishable does draw true hearts nearer to God.

So the two halves of this prophecy give us eternal truths as to the certain destruction awaiting the joys of sense, and the permanence of the beauty and strength which belong to those who take God for their portion.

Drunkenness seems to have been a national sin in Israel; for Micah rebukes it as vehemently as Isaiah, and it is a clear bit of Christian duty in England to-day to ‘set the trumpet to thy mouth and show the people’ this sin. But the lessons of the prophecy are wider than the specific form of evil denounced. All setting of affection and seeking of satisfaction in that which, in all the pride of its beauty, is ‘a fading flower,’ is madness and sin. Into every life thus turned to the perishable will come the crash of the destroying storm, the mutterings of which might reach the ears of the feasters, if they were not drunk with the fumes of their deceiving delights. Only one kind of life has its roots in that which abides, and is safe from tempest and change. Amaranthine flowers bloom only in heaven, and must be brought thence, if they are to garland earthly foreheads. If we take God for ours, then whatever tempests may howl, and whatever fragile though fragrant joys may be swept away, we shall find in Him all that the world ‘fails to give to its votaries. He is ‘a crown of glory’ and ‘a diadem of beauty.’ Our humanity is never so fair as when it is made beautiful by the possession of Him. All that sense vainly seeks in earth, faith finds in God. Not only beauty, but ‘a spirit of judgment,’ in its narrower sense and in its widest, is breathed into those to whom God is ‘the master light of all their seeing’; and, yet more, He is strength to all who have to fight. Thus the close union of trustful souls with God, the actual inspiration of these, and the perfecting of their nature from communion with God, are taught us in the great words, which tell how beauty, justice, and strength are all given in the gift of Jehovah Himself to His people.

II. The prophet turns to Judah [Isaiah 28:7 - Isaiah 28:13], and charges them with the same disgusting debauchery. His language is vehement in its loathing, and describes the filthy orgies of those who should have been the guides of the people with almost painful realism. Note how the words ‘reel’ and ‘stagger’ are repeated, and also the words ‘wine’ and ‘strong drink.’ We see the priests’ and prophets’ unsteady gait, and then they ‘stumble’ or fall. There they lie amid the filth, like hogs in a sty. It is very coarse language, but fine words are the Devil’s veils for coarse sins; and it is needful sometimes to call spades spades, and not to be ashamed to tell men plainly how ugly are the vices which they are not ashamed to commit. No doubt some of the drunken priests and false prophets in Jerusalem thought Isaiah extremely vulgar and indelicate, in talking about staggering teachers and tables swimming in ‘vomit.’ But he had to speak out. So deep was the corruption that the officials were tipsy even when engaged in their official duties, the prophets reeled while they were seeing visions; the judges could not sit upright even when pronouncing judgment.

Isaiah 28:9 - Isaiah 28:10 are generally taken as a sarcastic quotation of the drunkards’ scoffs at the prophet. They might be put in inverted commas. Their meaning is, ‘Does he take us grave and reverend seigniors, priests and prophets, to be babies just weaned, that he pesters us with these monotonous petty preachings, fit only for the nursery, which he calls his “message"?’ In Isaiah 28:10, the original for ‘precept upon precept,’ etc., is a series of short words, which may be taken as reproducing the ‘babbling tones of the drunken mockers.’

The loose livers of all generations talk in the same fashion about the stern morality which rebukes their vice. They call it weak, commonplace, fit for children, and they pretend that they despise it. They are much too enlightened for such antiquated teaching. Old women and children may take it in, but men of the world, who have seen life, and know what is what, are not to be fooled so. ‘What will this babbler say?’ was asked by the wise men of Athens, who were but repeating the scoffs of the prophets and priests of Jerusalem, and the same jeers are bitter in the mouth of many a profligate man to-day. It is the fate of all strict morality to be accounted childish by the people whom it inconveniently condemns.

In Isaiah 28:11 and onwards the prophet speaks. He catches up the mockers’ words, and retorts them. They have scoffed at his message as if it were stammering speech. They shall hear another kind of stammerers when the fierce invaders’ harsh and unintelligible language commands them. The reason why these foreign voices would have authority, was the national disregard of God’s voice. ‘Ye would not hear’ Him when, by His prophet, He spoke gracious invitations to rest, and to give the nation rest, in obedience and trust. Therefore they shall hear the battle-cry of the conqueror, and have to obey orders spoken in a barbarous tongue.

Of course, the language meant is the Assyrian, which, though cognate with Hebrew, is so unlike as to be unintelligible to the people. But is not the threat the statement of a great truth always being fulfilled towards the disobedient? If we will not listen to that loving Voice which calls us to rest, we shall be forced to listen to the harsh and strident tones of conquering enemies who command us to slavish toil. If we will not be guided by His eye and voice, we shall be governed by whip and bridle. Our choice is either to hearken to the divine call, which is loving and gentle, and invites to deep repose springing from faith, or to have to hear the voice of the taskmasters. The monotony of despised moral and religious teaching shall give place to a more terrible monotony, even that of continuous judgments.

‘The mills of God grind slowly.’ Bit by bit, with gradual steps, with dismal persistence, like the slow drops on the rock, the judgments of God trickle out on the mocking heart. It takes a long time for a child to learn a pageful when he gets his lesson a sentence at a time. So slowly do His chastisements fall on men who have despised the continuous messages of His love. The word of the Lord, which was laughed at when it clothed itself in a prophet’s speech, will be heard in more formidable shape, when it is wrapped in the long-drawn-out miseries of years of bondage. The warning is as needful for us as for these drunken priests and scornful rulers. The principle embodied is true in this day as it was then, and we too have to choose between serving God in gladness, hearkening to the voice of His word, and so finding rest to our souls, and serving the world, the flesh, and the devil, and so experiencing the perpetual dropping of the fiery rain of His judgments.


Verse 16

Isaiah

THE FOUNDATION OF GOD

Isaiah 28:16.

‘Therefore thus saith the Lord.’ Then these great words are God’s answer to something. And that something is the scornful defiance by the rulers of Israel of the prophet’s threatenings. By their deeds, whether by their words or no, they said that they had made friends of their enemies, and that so they were sure that, whatsoever came, they were safe. To this contemptuous and false reliance God answers, not as we might expect, first of all, by a repetition of the threatenings, but by a majestic disclosure of the sure refuge which He has provided, set in contrast to the flimsy and false ones, on which these men built their truculent confidence; ‘I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone.’ And then, after the exhibition of the great mercy which has been evoked by the very blasphemy of the rulers, and not till then, does He reiterate the threatenings of judgment, against which this foundation is laid, that men may escape; God first declares the refuge, and then warns of the tempest.

Without entering at all upon the question, which for all believing and simple souls is settled by the New Testament, of the Messianic application of the words before us, I take it for granted. There may no doubt be an allusion here to the great solid blocks which travellers tell us may still be seen at the base of the encircling walls of the Temple hill. A stone so gigantic and so firm God has laid for man to build upon.

I. Note, then, first, the foundation, which is Christ.

There are many aspects of the great thought on which I cannot touch even for a moment. For instance, let me remind you how, in a very deep sense, Jesus Christ is the foundation of the whole of the divine dealings with us; and how, in another aspect, historically, since the day on which He appeared on earth, He has more and more manifestly and completely been the foundation of the whole history of the world. But passing these aspects, let us rather fix upon those which are more immediately in the prophet’s mind.

Jesus Christ is the foundation laid for all men’s security against every tempest or assault. The context has portrayed the coming of a tremendous storm and inundation, in view of which this foundation is laid. The building reared on it then is, therefore, to be a refuge and an asylum. Have not we all of us, like these scornful men in Jerusalem, built our refuges on vain hopes, on creatural affections, on earthly possessions, on this, that, and the other false thing, all of which are to be swept away when the storm comes? And does there not come upon us all the blast of the ordinary calamities to which flesh is heir, and have we not all more or less consciousness of our own evil and sinfulness; and does there not lie before every one of us at the end of life that solemn last struggle, and beyond that, as we most of us believe, a judgment for all that we have done in the body? ‘I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone.’ Build upon that, and neither the tempest of earthly calamities, changes, disappointments, sorrows, losses, nor the scourge that is wielded because of our sins, nor the last wild tempest that sweeps a man on the wings of its strong blast from out of life into the dark region, nor the solemn final retribution and judgment, shall ever touch us. And when the hail sweeps away the refuge of lies, and the waters overflow the hiding-place, this foundation stands sure-

And lo! from sin and grief and shame

I hide me, Jesus, in Thy name.

Brethren, the one foundation on which building, we can build secure, and safe as well as secure, is that foundation which is laid in the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Son of God. The foundation of all our security is Jesus Christ.

We may look at the same thought under somewhat different aspects. He is the foundation for all our thinking and opinions, for all our belief and our knowledge. ‘In Him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,’ and whatsoever of solid fact men can grasp in their thinkings in regard to all the most important facts and truths with which they come into relation, is to be found in the life and death of Jesus Christ, and in the truths which these reveal. He is the foundation of all our knowledge of God, and of all our true knowledge of ourselves, of all our true knowledge of duty, and all our true knowledge of the relations between the present and the future, between man and God.

And in His life, in the history of His death and resurrection, is the only foundation for any real knowledge of the awful mysteries that lie beyond the grave. He is the Alpha from whom all truth must be deduced, the Omega to which it all leads up. Certitude is in Him. Apart from Him we are but groping amid peradventures. If we know anything about God it is due to Jesus Christ. If we know anything about ourselves it is due to Him. If we know anything about what men ought to do, it is because He has done all human duty. And if, into the mist and darkness that wraps the future, there has ever travelled one clear beam of insight, it is because He has died and risen again. If we have Him, and ponder upon the principles that are involved in, and flow from, the facts of His life and death, then we know; and ‘the truth as it is in Jesus’ is the truth indeed. To possess Him is to hold the key to all mysteries, and knowledge without Him is but knowledge of the husk, the kernel being all unreached. That Stone is the foundation on which the whole stately fabric of man’s knowledge of the highest things must ever be reared.

He is the foundation of all restful love. A Czar of Russia, in the old days, was mad enough to build a great palace upon the ice-blocks of the Neva. And when the spring came, and the foundations melted, the house, full of delights and luxury, sank beneath the river. We build upon frozen water, and when the thaw comes, what we build sinks and is lost to sight. Instead of love that twines round the creature and trails, bleeding and bruised, along the ground when the prop is taken away, let us turn our hearts to the warm, close, pure, perfect changeless love of the undying Christ, and we shall build above the fear of change. The dove’s nest in the pine-tree falls in ruin when the axe is laid to the root. Let us build our nests in the clefts of the rock and no hand will ever reach them. Christ is the foundation on which we may build an immortal love.

He is the foundation for all noble and pure living. He is the fixed pattern to which it may be conformed. Otherwise man’s notions of what is virtuous and good are much at the mercy of conventional variations of opinion. This class, that community, this generation, that school, all differ in their notions of what is true nobleness and goodness of life. And we are left at the mercy of fluctuating standards unless we take Christ in His recorded life as the one realised ideal of manhood, the pattern of what we ought to be. We cannot find a fixed and available model for conduct anywhere so useful, so complete, so capable of application to all varieties of human life and disposition as we find in Him, who was not this man or that man, in whom the manly and the feminine, the gentle and the strong, the public and the private graces were equally developed. In Christ there is no limitation or taint. In Christ there is nothing narrow or belonging to a school. This water has no taste of any of the rocks through which it flowed. You cannot say of Jesus Christ that He is a Jew or a Gentile, that He is man or woman, that He is of the ancient age or the modern type, that He is cut after this pattern or that. All beauty and all grace are in Him, and every man finds there the example that he needs. So, as the perfect pattern, He is the foundation for all noble character.

As the one sufficient motive for holy and beauteous living, He is the foundation. ‘If ye love Me, keep My commandments.’ That is a new thing in the world’s morality, and that one motive, and that motive alone, has power, as the spring sunshine has, to draw beauty from out the little sheaths of green, and to tempt the radiance of the flowers to unfold their lustre. They that find the reason and the motive for goodness and purity in Christ’s love to them, and their answering love to Christ, will build a far fairer fabric of a life than any others, let them toil at the building as they may. So, dear brethren, on this foundation God has built His mercy to all generations, and on this foundation you and I may build our safety, our love, our thinkings, our obedience, and rest secure.

II. Note next the tried preciousness of the foundation.

The language of the text, ‘a stone of proof,’ as it reads in the original, probably means a stone which has been tested and stood the trial. And because it is thus a tested stone, it therefore is a precious stone. There are two kinds of testing-the testing from the assaults of enemies, and the testing by the building upon it of friends. And both these methods of proof have been applied, and it has stood the test.

Think of all the assaults that have been made from this side and the other against Christ and His gospel, and what has become of them all? Travellers tell us how they often see some wandering tribes of savage Arabs trying to move the great stones, for instance, of Baalbec-those wonders of unfinished architecture. But what can a crowd of such people, with all their crowbars and levers, do to the great stone bedded there, where it has been for centuries? They cannot stir it one hair’s-breadth. And so, against Jesus Christ and His gospel there has stormed for eighteen hundred years an assaulting crowd, varying in its individuals and in its methods of attack, but the same in its purpose, and the same in the fruitlessness of its effort. Century after century they have said, as they are saying to-day, ‘Now the final assault is going to be delivered; it can never stand this.’ And when the smoke has cleared away there may be a little blackening upon the edge, but there is not a chip off its bulk, and it stands in its bed where it did; and of all the grand preparations for a shattering explosion, nothing is left but a sulphurous smell, and a wreath of smoke, and both are floating away down into the distance. Generation after generation has attacked the gospel; generation after generation has been foiled; and I do not need to be a prophet, or the son of a prophet, to be quite sure of this, that all who to-day are trying to destroy men’s faith in the Incarnate Son of God, who died for them and rose again, will meet the same fate. I can see the ancient and discredited systems of unbelief, that have gone down into oblivion, rising from their seats, as the prophet in his great vision saw the kings of the earth, to greet the last comer who had fought against God and failed, with ‘Art thou also become weak as we? Art thou become like unto us?’ The stone will stand, whosoever tries to blow it up with his dynamite, or to pound it with his hammers.

But there is the other kind of testing. One proves the foundation by building upon it. If the stone be soft, if it be slender, if it be imperfectly bedded, it will crumble, it will shift, it will sink. But this stone has borne all the weight that the world has laid upon it, and borne it up. Did any man ever come to Jesus Christ with a sorrow that He could not comfort, with a sin that He could not forgive, with a soul that He could not save? And we may trust Him to the end. He is a ‘tried stone.’ ‘This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles,’ has been the experience of nineteen centuries.

So, being tried, it is precious,-precious to God who laid it there at a great and real cost to Himself-having given up ‘His only begotten Son’; precious, inasmuch as building upon it is the one safety from the raging tempest and flood that would else engulf and destroy us.

III. Note, next, the process of building.

The metaphor seems to be abandoned in the last words of our text, but it is only apparently so. ‘He that believeth shall not make haste.’ So, then, we build by believing. The act of building is simple faith in Jesus Christ. We come to Him, as the Apostle Peter has it in his quotation of this text-come to Him as unto a living stone, and the coming and the building are both of them metaphors for the one simple thing, trust in the Lord. The bond that unites men on earth with Christ in Heaven, is the exercise of simple faith in Him. By it they come into contact with Him, and receive from Him the security and the blessing that He can bestow. Nothing else brings a man into living fellowship with Him. When we trust in the Lord we, as it were, are bedded into Him; and resting upon Him with all our weight, then we are safe. That confidence involves the abandonment of all the ‘refuges of lies.’ There must be utter self-distrust and forsaking and turning away from every dependence upon anything else, if we are to trust ourselves to Jesus Christ. But the figure of a foundation which gives security and stability to the stones laid upon it, does not exhaust all the blessedness of this building upon Christ. For when we really rest upon Him, there comes from the foundation up through all the courses a vital power. Thus Peter puts it: ‘To whom, coming as unto a living stone, ye also as living stones are built up.’ We might illustrate this by the supposition of some fortress perched upon a rock, and in the heart of the rock a clear fountain, which is guided by some pipe or other into the innermost rooms of the citadel. Thus, builded upon Christ, ‘our defence shall be the munitions of rocks, and our waters shall be sure.’ From Him, the foundation, there will rise into all the stones, built upon Him, the power of His own endless life, and they, too, become living stones.

IV. So note, lastly, the quiet confidence of the builders.

‘He that believeth shall not make haste.’ The word is somewhat obscure, and the LXX., which is followed by the New Testament, readers it, ‘Shall not be confounded or put to shame.’ But the rendering of our text seems to be accurate enough. ‘He shall not make haste.’ Remember the picture of the context-a suddenly descending storm, a swiftly rising and turbid flood, the lashing of the rain, the howling of the wind. The men in the clay-built hovels on the flat have to take to flight to some higher ground above the reach of the innundation, on some sheltered rock out of the flashing of the rain and the force of the tempest. He who is built upon the true foundation knows that his house is above the water-level, and he does not need to be in a hurry. He can remain quietly there till the flood subsides, knowing that it will not rise high enough to drown or even disturb him. When all the other buildings are gone, his stands. And he that thus dwells on high may look out over the wild flood, washing and weltering to the horizon, and feel that he is safe. So shall he not have to make haste, but may wait calm and quiet, knowing that all is well.

Dear friends, there is only one refuge for any of us-only one from the little annoyances and from the great ones; from to-day’s petty troubles, and from the day of judgment; from the slight stings, if I may so say, of little sorrows, cares, burdens, and from the poisoned dart of the great serpent. There is only one refuge for any of us, to build upon Jesus Christ, as we can do by simple faith.

And oh! remember, He must either be the foundation on which we build, or the stone of stumbling against which we stumble, and which one day will fall upon us and grind us to powder. Do you make your choice; and when God says, as He says to each of us: ‘Behold! I lay in Zion a foundation,’ do you say, ‘And, Lord, I build upon the foundation which Thou hast laid.’


Verse 21

Isaiah

GOD’S STRANGE WORK

Isaiah 28:21.

How the great events of one generation fall dead to another! There is something very pathetic in the oblivion that swallows up world-resounding deeds. Here the prophet selects two instances which to him are solemn and singular examples of divine judgment, and we have difficulty in finding out to what he refers. To him they seemed the most luminous illustrations he could find of the principle which he is proclaiming, and to us all the light is burned out of them. They are the darkest portion of the verse. Several different events have been suggested. But most probably the historical references here are to David’s slaughter of the Philistines [2 Samuel 5:1 - 2 Samuel 5:25, and 1 Chronicles 14:1 - 1 Chronicles 14:17]. This is probable, but by no means certain. If so, the words are made still more threatening by asserting that He will treat the Israelites as if they were Philistines. But the point on which we should concentrate attention is this remarkable expression, according to which judgment is God’s strange work. And that is made more emphatic by the use of a word translated ‘act,’ which means service, and is almost always used for work that is hard and heavy-a toil or a task.

I. The work in which God delights.

It is here implied that the opposite kind of activity is congenial to Him. The text declares judgment to be an anomaly, out of His ordinary course of action and foreign to His nature.

We may pause for a moment on that great thought that God has a usual course of action, which is usual because it is the spontaneous expression and true mirror of His character. What He thus does shows that character to His creatures, who cannot see Him but in the glass of His works, and have to infer His nature, as they best may, from His works. The Bible begins with His nature and thence interprets His work.

The work in which God delights is the utterance of His love in blessing.

The very essence of love is self-manifestation.

The very being of God is love, and all being delights in its own self-manifestation, in its own activity.

How great the thought is that He is glad when we let Him satisfy His nature by making us glad!

The ordinary course of His government in the world is blessing.

II. The Task in which He does not delight, or His Strange Work.

The consequences of sin are God’s work. The miseries consequent on sin are self-inflicted, but they are also God’s judgments on sin. We may say that sin automatically works out its results, but its results follow by the will of God on account of sin.

That work is a necessity arising from the nature of God. It is foreign to His heart but not to His nature. God is both ‘the light of Israel’ for blessing, and ‘a consuming fire.’ The two opposite effects are equally the result of the contact of God and man. Light pains a diseased eye and gladdens a sound one. The sun seen through a mist becomes like a ball of red-hot iron. The whole revelation of God becomes a pain to an unloving soul.

But God’s very love compels Him to punish.

Some modern notions of the love of God seem to strike out righteousness from His nature altogether, and substitute for it a mere good nature which is weakness, not love, and is cruelty, not kindness.

There is nothing in the facts of the world or in the teachings of the gospel which countenances the notion of a God whose fondness prevents Him from scourging.

What do you call it when a father spares the rod and spoils the child?

Even this world is a very serious place for a man who sets himself against its laws. Its punishments come down surely and not always slowly. There is nothing in it to encourage the idea of impunity.

That work is to Him an Unwelcome Necessity. Bold words. ‘I have no pleasure in the death of a sinner.’ ‘He doth not willingly inflict.’ The awful power of sin to divert the current of blessing. Christ’s tears over Jerusalem. How unwelcome that work is to them is shown by the slowness of His judgments, by multiplied warnings. ‘Rising up early,’ He tells men that He will smite, in order that He may never need to smite.

That work is a certainty. However reluctantly He smites, the blow will fall.

III. The Strange Work of Redemption.

The mightiest miracle. The revelation of God’s deepest nature. The wonder of the universe.


Verses 23-29

Isaiah

THE HUSBANDMAN AND HIS OPERATIONS

Isaiah 28:23 - Isaiah 28:29.

The prophet has been foretelling a destruction which he calls God’s strange act. The Jews were incredulous, ‘scornful men.’ They did not believe him; and the main reason for their incredulity was that a divine destruction of the nation was so opposite to the divine conservation of it as to amount to an impossibility. God had raised up and watched over the people. He had planted it in the mountain of His inheritance, and now was it going to be thrown down by the same hand which had built it up? Impossible.

The prophet’s answer to that question is this parable of the husbandman, who has to perform a great variety of operations. He ploughs, but that is not all. He lays aside the plough when it has done its work, and takes up the seed-basket, and, in different ways, sows different seeds, scattering some broadcast, and dropping others carefully, grain by grain, into their place-’dibbling’ it in, as we should say. But seedtime too, passes, and then he cuts down what he had so carefully sown, and pulls up what he had so sedulously planted, and, in different ways, breaks and bruises the grain. Is he inconsistent because he ploughs in winter and reaps in harvest? Does his carrying the seed-basket at one time make it impossible that he shall come with flail and threshing-oxen at another? Are not all the various operations co-operant to one end? Does not the end need them all? Is not one purpose going steadily forward through ploughing, sowing, reaping, threshing? Is not that like the work of the great Husbandman, who changes His methods and preserves His plan through them all, who has His ‘time to sow’ and His ‘time to reap,’ and who orders the affairs of men and kingdoms, for the one purpose that He may gather His wheat into His garner, and purge from it its chaff?

This parable sets forth a philosophy of the divine operations very beautiful and true, and none the less impressive for the simple garb in which it is clothed.

I. All things come from one steady, divine purpose.

We may notice in passing how reverentially the prophet believes that agriculture is taught by God. He would have said the same of cotton-spinning or coal-mining. Think how striking a figure that is, of all the world as God’s farm, where He practises His husbandry to grow the crops which He desires.

What a picture the parable gives of sedulous and patient labour for a far-off result!

It insists on the thought of one steady divine purpose ever directing the movements of the divine hand.

That is the negation of the godless theory that the affairs of men are merely the work of men, or are merely the result of impersonal causes. The world is not a jungle where any or every plant springs of itself, but it is cultivated ground which has an Owner who looks after it.

It is the affirmation that God’s action is regulated by a purpose which is intelligent, unchanging, all-embracing to us because revealed.

II. That steady purpose is man’s highest good.

The end of all the farmer’s care is the ripening of the seed. God’s purpose is our moral, intellectual, and spiritual perfecting.

Neither His own ‘glory’ nor man’s ‘happiness,’ which are taken by different schools of thought to be the divine aim in creation and providence, is an object worthy of Him or adequate to explain the facts of every man’s experience, unless both are regarded as needing man’s perfecting, for their attainment. God’s glory is to make men godlike. Man’s happiness cannot be secured without His holiness.

God has larger and nobler designs for us than merely to make us happy.

‘This is the will of God concerning you, even your sanctification.’

Nothing short of that end would be worthy of God, or would explain His methods.

III. That purpose needs great variety of processes.

This is true about nations and about individuals.

Different stages of growth need different treatment.

The parable names three operations:-

Ploughing, which is preparation;

Sowing, or casting in germinating principles;

Threshing, which is effected by tribulation, a word which means driving a ‘tribulum’ or threshing-sedge over ears of grain.

So sorrow is indispensable for our perfecting.

By it earthly affections are winnowed away, and our dependence on God increased. A certain refinement of spirit results, like the pallor on the face of a chronic invalid, which has a delicate beauty unattainted by ruddy health. A capacity for sympathy, too, is often the result of one’s own trials. Rightly borne, they tend to bend or break the will, and they teach how great it is to suffer and be strong.

But sorrow is not enough; joy is indispensable too. The crop is threshed in tribulation, but is grown mostly in sunshine. Calm, uneventful hours, continuous possession of blessings, have a ministry not less than afflictions have. The corn in the furrow, waving in the western wind, and with golden sunlight among its golden stems, is preparing for the loaf no less than when bound in bundles and lying on the threshing-floor, or cut and bruised by sharp teeth of dray or heavy hoofs of oxen, or blows of swinging flails.

So do not suppose that sorrow is the only instrument for perfecting character, and see that you do not miss the sanctifying and ripening effect of your joyous hours.

Again, different types of character require different modes of treatment. In the parable, ‘the fitches’ are sown in one fashion, and ‘the cummin’ in another the ‘wheat’ and ‘barley’ in still another; and similar variety marks the methods of separating the grain from the husk, one kind of crop being threshed another having a wheel turned upon it. Thus each of us gets the kind of joys and pains that will have most effect on us. God knows where is the tenderest spot, and makes no mistakes in His dealing. He sends us ‘afflictions sorted, sorrows of all sizes.’

Let us see that we trust to His loving and wise adaptation of our trials to our temperaments and needs. Let us see that we never let clouds obscure the clearness of our perception, or, failing perception, the serenity of our trust, that all things work together, and all work for our highest good-our being made like our Lord. We should less often complain of the mysteries of Providence if we had learned the meaning of Isaiah’s parable.

IV. All the processes end in garnering the grain.

There is a barn or storehouse for the ripened and threshed crops. The farmer’s toil and careful processes would be absurd and unintelligible if, after them all, the crop, so sedulously ripened and cultivated and cleansed, was left to rot where it fell. And no less certainly does the discipline of this life cry aloud for heaven and a conscious personal future life, if it is not to be all set down as grim irony or utterly absurd. There must be a heaven if we are not to be put to intellectual bewilderment.

What was needed for growth here drops away there, as blossoms fall when their work is done. Sunshine and rain are no more necessary when the fields are cleared and the barn-yard is filled. Much in our nature, in our earthly condition, in God’s varying processes, will drop away. When school-time is done the rod is burned. But nothing will perish that can contribute to our perfecting.

So let us ask Him to purge us with His fan in His hand now, lest we should be found at last fruitless cumberers of the ground or chaff which is rootless, and fit only to be swept out of the threshing-floor.

 


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Bibliography Information
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Isaiah 28:4". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mac/isaiah-28.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, September 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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