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Bible Commentaries

Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary

Isaiah 5

 

 

Verses 1-7

THE PARABLE OF THE VINEYARD

Isa . Now will I sing, &c.

1. The choice which God made of the Jews as a nation was the first and fundamental privilege which He conferred upon them.

2. Having chosen them, God revealed Himself to them as clearly as was then possible through the symbolism of the Mosaic Law. Through its statutes and ceremonies were shadowed forth the great truths of His holiness, His mercy, His sanctifying grace, and the Sacrifice which in the fulness of time was to be offered for the sin of the world (Rom ).

3. In addition to the Law, God gave to His people the inestimable help of Prophetical Teaching, to assist them to understand its meaning, and to stimulate them to keep it with full purpose of heart.

I believe that in a poetical allegory there is always more or less of allusion to the details of that which is allegorised; but it is only allusion,—to be realised by the imagination, rather than by the understanding, of the reader, as well as the poet. The several images are parts of a picture, which must be contemplated as a picture, and its meaning is to enter into the mind through the imagination. Still, a matter-of-fact commentator, like Vitringa, deeply imbued with the spirit of his author, will sometimes greatly help his reader's imagination by his minute analysis; and I think this is the case in his explanation of the details of this description of the vineyard. "A vineyard" consists of vines planted for the sake of their fruit: the Hebrew nation with its tribes, its families, and its persons, was such a vineyard, appointed to bring forth the fruits of personal and social religion and virtue,—holiness, righteousness, and love to God and man: this nation was established in a land flowing with milk and honey, endowed with all natural advantages, all circumstances which could favour inward life by outward prosperity; and the grace and favour of Jehovah, and the influences of His Spirit, always symbolised by oil, were continually causing it to be fruitful. "And He fenced it,"—the arm of the LORD of hosts, employing kings and heroes, was its defence against all enemies; its institutions were fitted to preserve internal order, and to prevent the admixture of evil from without, with the chosen and separated nation; and its territory was marked out and protected by natural boundaries in a noticeable manner. "Gathered out the stones,"—the heathen nations, and the stocks and stones they worshipped. "And planted it with the choicest vine,"—a nation of the noble stock of the patriarchs, and chosen and cultivated by the Lord of the vineyard, with especial care, for His own use. "And built a tower in it,"—namely, Jerusalem—for the protection and superintendence of the vineyard, as well as to be its farmhouse, so to speak. "And also made a wine-press therein,"—where the wine-press seems to point to the same idea as the sending the servants to receive the fruit, in our Lord's modification of this parable: lawgivers, kings, and judges, the temple with its priesthood and ordinances, and the schools of the prophets, were the appointed means for pressing out and receiving the wine—the spiritual virtues and graces of the vineyard. And the end is, that "He looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes."Strachey, pp. 62, 63.

II. The consequent obligations under which the Jews were laid. From the vineyard, for which the great Husbandman had done so much, He naturally looked for fruit. The fruits which the prophet specifies as being required by God from the Jews correspond precisely with their privileges (Isa ). He had given them a code of laws by which their actions were to be guided, and had impressed upon them the duty of doing to others as they would be done to. Now He looked for the fruits of justice and righteousness. It was a reasonable demand, the lowest that could have been made. Yet even this demand was not met.

III. The Judgment which God designed to bring upon them (Isa ). As we objected to the attempt to find exact counterparts between the various privileges of the Jews and the labours which had been bestowed upon the vineyard, so we set aside as needless all attempts to discover parallels between the various items of the threatening against the vineyard and the judgments by which the Jews were visited. All that the prophet means to say is this, that the privileges which the Jews enjoyed pre-eminently above all the other nations God would take from them, and they should be reduced to the level of their neighbours. The removal of those privileges was itself the heaviest judgment that could have befallen them.

PRACTICAL LESSON.—Where there is privilege there is obligation.

1. You who are Christians are responsible for your privileges. Consider how great they are: a knowledge of the will of God; the example of Christ; a throne of grace ever accessible; the counsel and help of the Holy Spirit. If God looked for the fruits of justice and righteousness from the Jews, what manner of fruit may He reasonably expect from you?

2. Even those of you who are not Christians, but are still living in sin, have privileges: a preached Gospel; the offer of a free, full, and present salvation; the strivings with you of the Holy Ghost. Despise them not, or you will perish.—Thomas Neave.

THE PARABLE OF THE VINEYARD

Isa . Now will I sing to my well-beloved a song, &c.

The points of moral instruction made prominent in this parable are—I. That God's gifts of truth, light as to duty, moral culture, and opportunities for doing good, create peculiar obligations to be morally fruitful, to do justice, and love mercy. II. That men so blessed with privileges will be held to a stern accountability. III. That failing to meet this, they must expect that God will take away their privileges and give them to others who will render the fruits in their season (Mat ). IV. That there is a line beyond which God does not deem it wise to waste His moral efforts upon self-hardened sinners. V. That in His view the exigencies of His moral kingdom demand of Him rather that He make sinners, beyond that line, an example of His righteous displeasure against their awful wickedness, and a warning to other sinners lest they venture too far in abusing His compassionate and long-suffering efforts to reclaim and save them. It is a terrible thing to withstand God in His labours to save the soul.—Henry Cowles, D.D., Commentary on Isaiah, p. 30.

GREAT PRIVILEGES

Isa . Now will I sing to my well-beloved, &c.

I. Great privileges are bestowed by God according to the good pleasure of His will.

1. Obviously this is true of the great privileges accorded to the Jewish nation. They were not granted because of anything in them (Deu ; Deu 9:4-6, &c.). There were other "hills" that would have been just as suitable for a vineyard, and just as fruitful, had the great Husbandman been pleased to deal with them in the same manner.

2. If we consider our own religious privileges, we must acknowledge the same great principle: other nations still heathen deserve them just as much as we do; and our heathen forefathers to whom they were first granted were in no sense superior to the heathen of to-day. We owe our superiority to our privileges, not our privileges to our superiority.

3. The same principle is as true of temporal as of spiritual privileges. Why are some born clever, and others stupid? some strong and others weak? some rich, and others poor? We can return no other answer than that such is the will of God.—This principle seems to be surrounded by a cloud of mystery; but there are rays of light that relieve it,—to some of them we shall presently refer; and we must be careful not to darken it by our own folly. We must not imagine, because God acts according to the good pleasure of His will, that therefore He acts arbitrarily, capriciously, out of mere whim and fancy. Though He may not disclose to us the reasons for many of His procedures, we may be sure that He has good reasons. In withholding them from us—possibly because we are as yet incapable of understanding them,—and thus making demands upon our faith, He deals with us just as we frequently deal with our children.

II. Great privileges involve great responsibilities. From the vineyard so carefully cultivated choice grapes are justly expected. This is a truth so familiar that it is apt to become to us a mere truism. But we shall do well to look at it steadily,—

1. As a guide to us in our duty. It is well to pause and consider what privileges God has conferred upon us, that we may be aroused to a perception of the nature and extent of the demands which He is certain to make upon us. In view of our privileges, what ought our life to be? (Luk ).

2. As a help to us in our perplexities. In view of such providential arrangements as have been referred to, these are sometimes very painful. But we must remember that the great principle before us admits of being very variously stated. It is just as true that "small privileges involve small responsibilities." We shall adopt the slander of the wicked and slothful servant, if we think of God as a hard master who seeks to reap where He has not sown. If God has entrusted to any man only one talent,—and He entrusts to every man at least as much as that,—He will not demand from Him the usury upon ten talents, nor upon two.

III. Great privileges do not necessarily result in great happiness. They ought to do so; they often do so; but as frequently they fail to do so. Even in temporal things, the happiest men are not always those whose possessions are most various and ample. The most learned men are not always those who own the largest libraries. And the holiest men are not always those whose religious opportunities are most numerous and great. Why is it, that great privileges and great happiness are not always associated? Because man is a voluntary agent, and God will not force happiness upon any man. He may offer us eternal life, but we must "lay hold" of it. He may shed upon our path great light, but we must walk in it (Isa ).

PRACTICAL LESSON.—Instead of repining because our privileges are not more numerous and great, let us diligently use those which have been granted to us, and so make them what they were intended to be—sources of blessing to us. Enclosed within God's vineyard, and carefully cultured by Him, let us see to it that the grapes we bring forth are not wild grapes.

IV. Great privileges neglected or misused bring on great condemnations (Isa ). Compare also Luk 13:6-9. Had that fig-tree been growing on some open common, notwithstanding its barrenness, it might have stood till it decayed, but because it was barren in a "vineyard" the righteous order is given, "Cut it down!" This principle, also, we may turn to practical account. Like a former one, we may use it—

1. To help us in our perplexities. Sometimes we are in trouble to know what will become of the heathen in the day of judgment. Well, even if they are condemned, they will be condemned less severely than those who have misused greater privileges (Mat ; Luk 12:48).

2. To stimulate us to a faithful discharge of duty. Fear is not the highest motive, but it is a very useful one, and no truly wise man will leave it out of account. We need every kind of help to fortify us against temptation, and it is good to remember what will be the result if we yield to it, and so remain barren and unfruitful, or even bring forth "wild grapes" (Heb ; 1Pe 1:7; Php 2:12).

Fear is useful as a motive, but hope is still more helpful; and in the matter of our salvation we may employ both fear and hope as allies. Reverse the last principle, and read it thus, Great privileges well used secure corresponding rewards. Compare Luk . If the choice vine planted in the fruitful vineyard bring forth "good grapes," the Husbandman will pronounce over it rejoicing benedictions (Heb 6:7).


Verse 2

DIVINE DISAPPOINTMENTS

Isa . He looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes.

"I believe in God." Which God? The God constructed for us by philosophers, who is impassive, throned in eternal calm, unmoved by the crimes or the virtues of men, all of which He has foreseen from eternal ages, and which cannot in any way affect Him at the time of their occurrence; a God who towers above men, majestic and unchangeable, like an Alpine peak, which is the same whether sunlight cheers or clouds darken the valleys beneath? No, but the God of the Bible, who loves and hates, who rejoices with us in our gladness and sorrows with us in our griefs, who foresees and overrules all, and yet can hope and be disappointed.

I. That God can be disappointed is distinctly the implication of our text. "He looked that it," &c.

1. Isaiah's parable recalls the privileges which God had conferred upon the Jews; and we know that He dealt with them as He did, in order that they might become a holy nation (Exo ; Deu 7:6; Deu 26:18-19). Was their persistent unholiness no disappointment to Him?

2. The same truth is implied in what we are told of God's feelings in view of the wickedness of the antediluvians (Gen ). He had made man in His own image, in order that He might continue therein, and shine with the lustre of His own moral perfections; each man was to be a planet in the moral universe, reflecting the glory of the great central Sun; and when He saw man transformed into the image of Satan, and His purposes concerning him frustrated, He was filled with profound regret.

3. The same truth is implied in what we are told concerning Christ. "He came unto His own" (Joh ). For what purpose? Certainly not that He might be rejected, but that He might be received by them. But He was rejected! See how forcibly this is brought out in His parable (Luk 20:9-15—especially Isa 5:13).

4. It is implied in Christ's tears and lament over Jerusalem (Luk ; Mat 23:37).

5. It is implied in the apostolic declarations, that God is desirous that all men should repent and be saved (1Ti ; 2Pe 3:9). We must not minimise the force of θέλειὃς πάντας ἀνθρώπους θέλει σωθῆναι. The strength of any one's desire is to be measured by what he will do or sacrifice to accomplish it; and God gave His only begotten Son in order that all men might have everlasting life. But all men are not saved. That the Scriptures teach that God can be—and often is—disappointed, is clear.

II. "But it is impossible that God can be disappointed, seeing that He is omniscient and foresees all things. Surprise, and consequently disappointment, is not possible to perfect knowledge."

2. There is an experience very frequent among men, which may perhaps help us a little to understand what disappointment is in God. Evils may be long distinctly foreseen—as, for example, the death of a dear friend suffering from an incurable disease—but yet not realised until they actually occur. The blow is foreseen long before it falls, but it is felt when it falls. Every man knows that he must die, and yet how nearly a surprise is death to every man!

3. Whether we can understand it or not, it is our duty to accept this declaration, that in view of the ingratitude and sinfulness of men whom God has blessed and has sought to win to virtue and holiness, He is profoundly grieved and disappointed. Such declarations are not to be dismissed as "anthromorphological." However much that is in them may be figurative, there is a reality behind the figures.

I will not enter into the details of what they did during this night, because there are people who do not apparently object in the least to the commission of these deeds, who object to anybody lifting a finger to prevent them, or even to the expression of any indignation on the subject, but who are dreadfully shocked at the recital of them; and I wish to spare the feelings of these sensitive persons. Suffice it to say that the next morning the question arose as to what should be done with the two women, the two children, and the old man. Some of the party were in favour of letting them go; but the rest were of opinion that it would be amusing to kill them, and a discussion ensued, which lasted more than an hour, in presence of the weeping, trembling victims, who were wildly begging for mercy, and among whom, it should be remembered, there was a mother begging for the lives of her two children. The narrator said that he, with another of the party, had leant to the side of mercy, but that the majority were against them, and that they finally ended the discussion and the prayers of the victims by falling upon them with their sabres. I asked him how he had come by the gown, and he replied that, seeing what the result was going to be, he had stripped it from the girl while the discussion was in progress, before she was killed, so that it might not be blood-stained. He had taken a fancy to it, because it would just be right for his daughter, who was about the same age; and his companions, perceiving this, made him pay rather high for it—fifty piastres. He was a heavy, dull-looking brute, and it seemed strange to think that he had a daughter, a pretty, tender, joyous little thing, perhaps, that would wear this gown with delight. He told the story in a quiet, phlegmatic manner, and spoke very freely, looking upon me as an Englishman, and therefore as a friend.—Letter in the "Daily News," Nov. 15, 1876.

III. Whatever mystery may attach to this declaration, consider how precious it is—

1. A God who can be disappointed is precisely the God we need. How else could we be assured of His sympathy with us in the disappointments which so frequently come upon us, and which make up so considerable a part of the experiences of our life? Were God such a being as the philosophers have imagined, we might feel that He understood us, as an anatomist understands exactly how a frog on which he is operating will act when exposed to galvanic shocks, but we could not have had the inexpressible consolation of the assurance of His sympathy. It is only a mother who has been bereaved who can comfort a mother who is weeping over her dead child.

2. A God who is so much interested in us that our failures in virtue inspire Him with profound grief and disappointment, is again precisely the God we need. Of what value to us would be a God who looked upon us with as little emotion as a king may be supposed to do upon the ants who crawl across his path? It is because men do not think of God as He is revealed in our text, that they sin against Him; if they did but realise how He feels about them, it would be impossible for them to transgress as they do. I accept His declaration, that He is disappointed in view of human sin, and I try to measure His disappointment. I find help in this endeavour in this Old Testament parable: how profound would be the disappointment of a husbandman under such circumstances as are supposed! But I find yet more valuable help in the greatest of the New Testament parables. How bitter must have been the disappointment of the father of the Prodigal when he went away into a far country! Such disappointments break the hearts of tens of thousands of fathers and mothers, and brings down their grey hairs with sorrow to the grave; and precisely such disappointment it is, only vaster, deeper, sadder, that fills the heart of our Heavenly Father when His children go astray. It is thus that some of you have grieved Him; it is thus that some of you are grieving Him to-day by your contemptuous disregard of His offers of mercy and forgiveness. Oh, think what it is that you do, and surely your carelessness must give place to profound contrition, and you will resemble the Prodigal in your penitence, as you have done in your ingratitude and your guilt.


Verse 4

THE INEXCUSABILITY AND HOPELESSNESS OF UNBELIEF

Isa . What could have been done more to my vineyard that I have not done in it?

In a subsequent verse God condescends to explain what is here meant by His "vineyard," so that there might be no doubt as to the scope and import of the passage (Isa ). God had done everything which could be done for the spiritual culture of His ancient Church (Isa 5:3-4). The assertion that "as much had been done as could be done" is very affecting and startling. And if this could be said of the Jewish vineyard, what shall be said of the Christian?

There is a peculiar argument thus suggested, which, wrought out, will show that men are inexcusable in persisting in their unbelief, since nothing more could have been done to win them to the side of righteousness and to turn them to God. Notice carefully the variety of the arguments addressed in Scripture to the thoughtless and obdurate. At one time they are attacked with terrors, the picture being set before them of Divine wrath; at another they are acted on by the loving-kindness of God, and allured by the free mercies of the Gospel. In the text it is not precisely either the one or the other of these methods. There is nothing alleged but the greatness of what has been done for us—a greatness such that nothing more can be done, consistently, at least, with that moral accountableness which must regulate the amount of influence which God brings to bear on men. If this be so, if we are not convinced and renewed under the existing instrumentality, there is nothing that can avert from us utter destruction.

But is this so? Review the means provided and proffered for our rescue, and let us see whether any of us can be other than silent. If we were arguing with a man who disbelieved the existence of God, we should probably reason up from the creation to the Creator. Our adversary might challenge us to prove that nothing short of Infinite Power could have built and furnished this planet. It may be allowed that certain results lie beyond human agency, and yet disputed whether they need such an agency as we strictly call Divine. We do not, therefore, maintain that the evidences in creation are the strongest which can be conceived. Hence we should not perhaps feel warranted in saying to the atheist, "What more could have been done" to produce belief in you if you resist all these tokens of God in Nature? But if we cannot say to the atheist, when pointing to the surrounding creation, "What more could have been done that has not been done" for your conviction? we can ply the worldly-minded with this question when pointing to the scheme of salvation through Christ. We deny that the worldly-minded can appeal from what God has done on their behalf to a yet mightier interference which imagination can picture. It is the property of redemption, if not of creation, that it leaves no room for imagination. Those who turn with indifference from the proffers of the Gospel are just in the position of the atheist who should remain such after God had set before him the highest possible demonstration of Himself. It is not, we think, too bold a thing to say that, in redeeming us, God exhausted Himself—He gave Himself. And may we not argue that, resisting what has been granted, you demonstrate that you cannot be overcome, and thus your condemnation is sealed by the incontrovertible truth involved in the question of the text?

Looked at more in detail, the argument is—

I. As much has been done as could have been done, because of the Agency through which man's redemption was effected. In looking at the cross, considering our sins as laid on the Being who hangs there in weakness and ignominy, the overcoming thought is, that this Being is none other than the Everlasting God, and that however He seem mastered by the powers of wickedness, He could by a single word, uttered from the altar on which He immolates Himself, scatter the universe into nothing, and call up an assemblage of new worlds and new creatures.—What a condemning force this throws into the question of the text! If it give an unmeasured stupendousness to the work of our redemption, that He who undertook, carried on, and completed that work was "the brightness of the Father's glory and the express image of His person," then surely what has been done for the "vineyard" proclaims us ruined if we bring not forth such fruits as God requires at our hands.—If the extent of what has been done may be given in evidence that if it prove ineffectual there remains nothing more to be tried, what say you to the justice of the question? what to the condemnation under which it leaves the worldly-minded and rebellious?

II. As much has been done as could have been done, regard being had to the completeness and fulness of the work, as well as to the greatness of its Author. We might have been sure beforehand that what the Divine Agent undertook would be thoroughly effected. The sins of the whole race were laid on Christ. There is consequently nothing in our own guiltiness to make us hesitate as to the possibility of forgiveness. The penalties of a violated law have been actually discharged.

The scheme of redemption provides also for our acceptance, so that happiness may be obtained. If it met our necessities only in part, there might be excuse for refusing it our attention. When you add to the unsearchable riches of grace in Christ the continued and earnest agency of the Holy Spirit, have you a word to plead against the remonstrance of God in the text?

III. We are bound to regard the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the grand revelation of future punishment and reward. Until the Redeemer appeared and brought more direct tidings from the invisible would, the sanctions of eternity were scarcely, if at all, brought to bear on the occupations of time. So imperfect had been the foregoing knowledge regarding the immortality of the soul that Paul declared of Christ that He "abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light by the Gospel." Much of what has been done for the "vineyard" consists in the greatness of the reward which the Gospel promises to righteousness, and the greatness of the punishment which it denounces on impenitence.

It was not redemption from mere temporary evil that Christ effected. Redemption does not make men immortal, but, finding them so, it sheds its influence throughout their unlimited existence, wringing the curse from its every instant, and leaving a blessing in its stead. The Gospel sets before us an array of motives, concerning which it is no boldness to say, that, if ineffectual, it is because we are immovable; if heaven fails to attract, hell to alarm—the heaven and the hell opened to us by the revelation of Scripture—it can only be because of a set determination to continue in sin. What more could have been done for the vineyard? If you are waiting to be forced, you are waiting to be ruined. "Seek the Lord while He may be found; call on Him while He is near."—Henry Melvill, B.D.: Golden Lectures, pp. 485-492.


Verses 4-6

A SAD CANTICLE

Isa . What could have been done more to my vineyard? &c.

There are certain epochs in the history of the Church when on every hand may be seen the saddest indifference. This state of things is not owing to a suspension of Divine gifts, nor to the absence of earnest pastors, nor to the circumstances by which God's people are surrounded. Everything has been done for the vineyard which the wise and gracious husbandman could perform, yet no fruit is produced. The fault lies with the Church itself. Individual members have relapsed into a state of ease and supineness. Faithful warnings have been unheeded; earnest entreaties have been disregarded; mercies have been unnoticed; chastisements have been profitless. At such a time they who sigh and cry for this desolation, turn to the despised or forgotten Lord, and sing their mournful canticle, "My well-beloved," &c. (Isa ). Then the Lord replies, "Judge, I pray you," &c. (Isa 5:3-6). It is too true the sorrowful singer admits, and says, ‘He looked for judgment,' &c. (Isa 5:7).

Let us consider the similitude under which the Church is represented, the just complaint of the Lord, and the terrible condemnation He pronounces.

I. The similitude. A vineyard.

This parable is peculiarly interesting on account of the fact that our Lord Jesus uttered one in many respects similar to it (Mat ). The figure of the vineyard is often used in the Old Testament, generally to represent the Church. The vineyard of the parable is represented as being—

1. In a very favourable locality.

2. Planted with the choicest vine.

3. Carefully fenced and diligently cultivated.

4. Having the husbandman living in the midst. "Built a tower." God is His own watchman on the walls of Zion.

II. The Complaint. "It brought forth wild grapes." Observe the complaint is not based upon the poverty or paucity of the crop, or even upon the absence of a crop altogether, or because of the lateness of the crop. There is an abundant crop; but of what? "wild grapes," i.e., "poisonous berries," like those the servant of Elisha gathered, (2Ki ). A crop that could have grown without the husbandman at all. An unnatural production. One calculated to injure, if not to destroy life. The husbandman's design is thwarted; he expected that which would nourish and stimulate life; whereas the opposite is produced. The allegory explains itself. The inconsistencies and follies, the disobedience and idolatry of the Church, are like deadly upas trees in the world; they tend to produce infidelity, i.e., moral death, among men. The mission of the Church is to proclaim life, by God's Spirit to communicate it; instead of that, a worldly and apostate Church leads men to say and believe, "There is no God." This is unnatural; the proper fruit of the Church is holiness, obedience, and zeal.

III. The Condemnation. (Isa ).

1. Observe the mercy of the condemnation. "It shall be eaten up." The obnoxious growth shall be destroyed. The pride, the ignorance, the idolatry of the Church shall be removed. God will not abandon her, as He does the world, to fill up her measure of iniquity. He must be glorified in His saints, although not now, yet afterward. The patient husbandman will wait for another year, when his choice vine shall yield choice fruit.

2. Observe the severity of the condemnation. Her privileges shall not be enjoyed. "The hedge taken away." Direful persecution shall be experienced. "It shall be trodden down." The Spirit's influence shall be withheld. "I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it." It is so with the Jews. That vineyard is desolate now;—the vines are trodden under foot; the rain rains not on them, BUT THEY ARE NOT ROOTED UP. God shall plant another hedge, dwell again in the forsaken tower; and His ancient people shall grow and flourish on the fruitful hill; bringing forth such fruit that the husbandman shall rejoice, and earth and heaven be glad.—Stems and Twigs, vol. i. pp. 246-249.


Verse 7-8

ON THE ADVANTAGE OF SMALL ALLOTMENTS OF LAND TO THE POOR

Isa . He looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry. Woe unto them that join house to house, and lay field to field, till there be no place.

I. The Almighty expects from all His creatures, and especially from those to whom He has given wealth or power, the practice of justice and righteousness. II. The Almighty, instead of finding justice and righteousness among His creatures, discovers oppression on the part of the powerful, and a cry of lamentation and of indignation on the part of the poor: the proof of the oppression, and the cause of the cry is, that no place is left for the poor. There is a strong tendency to the accumulation of property, and especially of land, in the hands of a few; but such accumulations of land in a few hands tends to grave national evils—to luxury on the part of the rich, and to lawlessness on the part of the poor—and, therefore, instead of being promoted, should be discouraged by the legislature. But year by year we have been adding "field to field, and house to house," till we have left the poor no place. Rights of common and rights of pasture have been taken away, and the beer-shop established by law to occupy that time which otherwise would have been employed in healthy toil for a happy family. Little farms, held by working farmers, have been joined together, so that one may live in luxury, where ten families once dwelt in simplicity and plenty. The cottager, with his little field, that once looked so fruitful and trim, cheering the eye and charming the heart, not only of himself, but of beings dear to and dependent upon him, has been driven into some town to add to its misery, its debasement, and its discontent. Let us pray that there may come a time when the gentle in rank shall be gentle in very deed; when the rich shall recognise that they are trustees for God, and shall use their property for the purposes for which He has placed it in their hands; when allotment acts shall remedy the ruin which enclosure acts have wrought; when an enlightened self-love, arising out of the possession of something to love, shall render the demagogue and the inciter to outrage a foreigner to our land; and when our "common Father shall find that "justice and righteousness" for which He looks.—R. C. Parkman, B.A., Sermons (1843), No. X.


Verses 8-10

COVETOUSNESS

Isa . Woe unto them that join house to house, &c.

The covetous is like a camel, with a great hunch on his back; heaven-gate must be made higher and broader, or he will hardly get in.—Adams, 1653.

The avaricious man is like a pig, which seeks its food in the mud, without caring where it comes from.—Vianney.

GOD'S CURSE ON THE COVETOUS

Isa . Woe unto them that join house to house, &c.

God's curse is in the habitation of the wicked.

2. At other times it wastes and consumes them like a moth, or suddenly devours them by fire and sword.

I doubt not many covetous men take a great deal of pleasure in ruminating upon their wealth, and in recounting what they have; but they have a great deal of tormenting care and fear about it; and if they had not, it is very hard to understand where the reasonable pleasure and happiness lies of having things to no end. It is, at the best, like that of some foolish birds, which, they say, take pleasure in stealing money, that they may hide it; as if it were worth the while for men to take pains to dig silver out of the earth, for no other purpose but to melt it down and stamp it, and bury it there again.—Tillotson, 1630-1694.


Verses 8-23

WILD GRAPES

Isa . Woe unto them that join house to house, &c.

It is important to remember that this whole chapter constitutes one prophecy. Much of the power of its teaching will be lost, if this fact be overlooked. In Isa , we have the astonishing declaration that in "the vineyard of the Lord of hosts" He has discovered, not the excellent fruit He had a right to expect, but "wild grapes." In Isa 5:8-23; some of these "wild grapes" are specified and denounced. Surveying His vineyard the Husbandman beheld—

3. That it is not merely particular manifestations of the spirit of greed and pride, but the spirit itself, that provokes the indignation of the bountiful Giver of all good. Covetousness and arrogance are not confined to any particular class. The tenth commandment exists for the poor as well as for the rich.

Covetous worldlings will hardly spare the poor some of their fire to warm them, some of their water to drink, some of their ground to lodge on, though it were no more hurt to them than the lighting of a candle at their torch.—Adams, 1653.

III. Not the excellent fruit of reverence for God's Word, but the evil fruit of SCOFFING. The messengers whom He sent to recall them to duty, they scorned; the warnings which He mercifully sent to them of the judgments impending over them, they turned into merriment. Instead of forsaking their sins, they yoked themselves to them with renewed determination (Isa ).

IV. Not the noble fruit of a recognition of the truth, but the evil fruit of INFIDELITY—that intellectual scepticism which seeks to destroy the very foundations of morality, and which prepares men for vice of all kinds, and hardens them therein, by confounding vice with virtue, and denying man's moral accountability.

V. Not the befitting fruit of humility and desire for Divine guidance, but the evil fruit of SELF-SUFFICIENCY (Isa ). Clever and successful "men of the world," they resented the idea of their needing counsel and help as an insult. They were their own gods. Trusting in themselves with unfaltering confidence, they excluded from their minds all thought of Him in whom they lived and moved and had their being. Conceiving that they owed all their prosperity to their own wisdom and prudence, how could they give Him thanks? Confident that they would be equal to every emergency of life, how could they lift up to Him one real prayer?

VI. Not the indispensable fruit of righteousness in those who are called to rule, but that evil fruit which always excites His hottest indignation, DENIAL OF JUSTICE TO THE POOR. He saw the judges taking their seats on the judicial bench, not with clear intellects and the love of righteousness enthroned in their hearts, but besotted and brutalised by strong drink; not dispensing justice, but selling their verdict to those who could furnish them most amply with the means of gratifying their sensual lusts (Isa ). Than the denial of justice there is no more cruel wrong.

These were the "wild grapes" which God saw when He looked down upon His ancient vineyard. Was it any vonder that He brake down the wall thereof, and gave it over to destruction? These are the "wild grapes" which He sees brought forth only too abundantly when He looks down upon this land. Is it not a wonder that He spares the nation to which we belong?

1. Let us beseech Him still to spare as, for the sake of the "ten righteous" who dwell among us.

2. Let us recognise that the most urgent duty to which we are called as patriots is the abatement of those iniquities which justly kindle God's indignation against us.

3. Let us as individuals search and see what fruits are being brought forth in the vineyard of our own souls, lest while we are deploring the iniquities of our land and time, and, it may be, are labouring to lessen them, there grow up within us "wild grapes" which will bring down upon us the Divine condemnation.


Verse 11

THE MISERIES OF THE DRUNKARD

Isa . Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink, &c.

The miseries of the drunkard.

And like as in a storm when the raging of the water has ceased, the loss by reason of the storm remains; so likewise here too. For as there of our freight, so here too is there a casting away of nearly all our good things. Whether it be temperance, or modesty, or understanding, or meekness, or humility, which the drunkenness finds there, it casts all away into the sea of iniquity.

But in what follows there is no more any likeness. Since there, indeed, upon the casting out the vessel is lightened, but here it is weighed down the more. For in its former place of wealth it takes on board sand, and salt water, and all the accumulated filth of drunkenness, enough to sink the vessel at once, with the mariners and the pilot.—Chrysostom, 347-407.


Verses 11-17

NATIONAL UNGODLINESS

Isa . Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink, &c.

National ungodliness.

I. Its phases, dissipation, drunkenness, forgetfulness of God.

II. Its punishment, captivity, famine, pestilence, humiliation.

Unpunished to his after-reckoning go:

Not thus collective man; for public crimes

Draw on their proper punishment below.

When nations go astray, from age to age

The effects remain, a fatal heritage.

Bear witness, Egypt, thy huge monuments,

Of priestly fraud and tyranny austere!

Bear witness thou, whose only name presents

All holy feelings to religion dear—

In earth's dark circlet once the precious gem

Of living light—O fallen Jerusalem!

Southey.


Verse 12

SENSUALITY

Isa . Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that continue until night, till wine inflame them! And the harp, and the viol, the tabret, and pipe, and wine, are in their feasts; but they regard not the work of the Lord, neither consider the operation of His hands.

Oh, what a sight is it to see a man go merry and laughing towards damnation, and make a jest of his own undoing! to see him at the brink of hell, and will not believe it; like a madman boasting of his wit, or a drunken man boasting of his sobriety; or as the swine is delighted when the butcher is shaving his throat to cut it; or as the fatted lambs are skipping in the pasture, that to-morrow must be killed and eaten; or as the bird sits singing when the gun is levelled to kill him; or as the greedy fish run, striving which shall catch the bait, that must presently be snatched out of their element, and lie dying on the bank.—Baxter, 1615-1691.

EARTHLY AMUSEMENT

Isa . The harp, and the viol, the tabret, and pipe, and wine are in their feasts: but they regard not the work of the Lord, neither consider the operation of His hands.

FESTIVITY AND FORGETFULNESS

Isa . The harp, and the viol, the tabret, and pipe, and wine are in their feasts: but they regard not the work of the Lord, neither consider the operation of His hands.

III. To permit the pleasures of life to absorb our attention is degrading to the nature entrusted to us by God.

APPLICATION.—

1. To the rich and prosperous. Be on your guard. In your prosperity there is a deadly peril. Remember that while innocent enjoyment is lawful, there are other duties of more importance—duties of mind and soul, of influence and responsibility; duties toward the men of our generation, and towards God to whom we are accountable.

2. To the poor. Murmur not that prosperity has been denied you. Wealth might have been your eternal ruin. Envy not the momentary flash of worldly pomp: soon the deluded soul must be summoned into the solitude of the chamber of death; nothing to console the vacant mind; nothing to cheer the throbbing heart; the rolling eye looks in vain for rest, but the life of vanity closes, and conscience pierces the departing soul with this declaration, "Thou art weighed in the balances and art found wanting."—B. Thompson, Church Sermons by Eminent Clergymen, i. 395-400.


Verses 13-15

THE EVILS OF IGNORANCE

(Sunday School or Bible Society Sermon.)

Isa . Therefore my people are gone away into captivity, because they have no knowledge, &c.

Isaiah speaks of the future as if it were already present. He traces the terrible disasters about to befall his countrymen to their true cause—their ignorance of God,—in their case a wilful ignorance (Hos ), which had betrayed them into courses of conduct ruinous in themselves, and certain to bring down the judgments of the Almighty. The history of mankind justifies us in laying down two propositions:

II. That the most terrible of all kinds of ignorance is ignorance of God Himself.

2. Sins committed in ignorance entail terrible disasters. That unavoidable ignorance is a palliation of the guilt of transgressors is clearly the teaching of the New Testament (Luk ; 1Ti 1:13), as it had been previously of the Old (Num 15:28; Deu 19:4, &c.); and it will affect their condition in the eternal world (Luk 12:47-48). But here and now it does nothing to exempt men from the natural consequences of their transgressions. The man who swallows a poison by mistake is killed by it as surely as the deliberate suicide, &c.

In view of these solemn truths, of which all human history is one prolonged corroboration,—

2. Let us diligently impart to our fellow-men such knowledge as we have already acquired. Benevolence should move us to do this. We can confer upon our fellow-men no greater or more needed blessing. Self-interest should impel us to the same course. In teaching we learn. In labouring to cause others to see, we ourselves for the first time attain to clear vision. Knowledge is like the bread with which the five thousand were fed; it multiplies as it is dispensed, and when the feast is over, those who carried it to others themselves possess more than they did when the feast began.

When, prizing knowledge as her noblest wealth

And best protection, this imperial realm,

While she exacts allegiance, shall admit

An obligation, on her part, to teach

Them who are born to serve her and obey;

Binding herself by stature to secure

For all the children whom her soil maintains

The rudiments of letters, and inform

The mind with moral and religious truth,

Both understood and practised,—so that none,

However destitute, be left to droop

By culture unsustained; or run

Into a wild disorder; or be forced

To drudge through a weary life without the help

Of intellectual implements and tools;

A savage horde among the civilised;

A servile band among the lordly free.

Wordsworth.


Verse 14-15

DEATH AND THE GRAVE

(For Easter Sunday.)

Isa . Therefore hell hath enlarged herself, &c.

In these terms of appalling sublimity Isaiah warns his countrymen of the calamities that were about to come upon them, on account of the innumerable transgressions into which they had been betrayed by their wilful ignorance of God. Therefore they should be carried away into captivity (Isa ), and therefore also the sword, famine, and pestilence would conspire to fill the "under-world" with inhabitants. That "under-world" is represented as preparing itself for their reception, as a ravenous beast opens wide its jaws to devour its prey (Text). A prediction which, to the prosperous, wealthy, and powerful nation over which Uzziah ruled, doubtless seemed the most extravagant raving of fanaticism, but which was fulfilled nevertheless.

It is of the "under-world" that Isaiah speaks. "Therefore the under-world opens its jaws wide, and stretches open its mouth immeasurably wide; and the glory of Jerusalem descends, and its tumult, and noise, and those who rejoice within it. There are mean men bowed down, and lords humbled, and the eyes of lofty men are humbled."—Delitsch. Our translation "hell" must not lead us to think merely of the place where the wicked are tormented; it is of conquests about to be achieved by death and the grave that Isaiah warned the men of his time. His prediction suggests a topic of which men of all times will do well to think, and that again another topic peculiarly suited to this day. Let us bethink ourselves—

I. Of THE CONQUESTS OF DEATH AND THE GRAVE.

I. These conquests have been effected in all ages. Generation after generation of mankind has been swept away by these grim and ancient warriors. During successive centuries men have gained wonderful power over the forces of nature, but they have acquired no real increase of ability to withstand these dread destroyers. All that science can do is in a few cases for a very short time to defer their victory. The "Elixir of Life" has been sought for in vain.—If in feebleness of mankind we had not sufficient proof of our fallen condition, certainly we should find it in the fact, that so many men have allied themselves with these foes of our race. All nations have conferred their brightest honours on those who have been the most successful ministers of death. Warrior and hero have been regarded as synonymous terms. In no respect is modern science more industrious, earnest or successful, than in the search for the means by which human life may be destroyed most easily on the largest scale.

II. They have been characterised by a solemn impartiality. With them there has been no respect of persons.

(1.) Meanness is no security against them. Poverty and lowliness are not without their compensations, as the poorer Jews discovered, when they saw the nobles and men of wealth, whom they had been accustomed to envy, carried away miserable captives, while they themselves were left behind (2Ki , &c). There are those whom human conquerors will not stoop to molest. But death and the grave have no such fastidiousness. They prey on the mean as well as the mighty.

Oh, eloquent, just, and mighty Death! whom none could advise, thou hast persuaded; what none hath dared, thou hast done; and whom all the world has flattered, thou alone hast cast out of the world and despised. Thou hast drawn together all the far-stretched greatness, all the pride, cruelty, and ambition of man, and covered it all with those two narrow words, Hic jacet.—Sir Walter Raleigh.

Why should a man defer that which ought to be the occupation of a life, which ought to command all his powers in all their vigour—why should a man defer that to the last few abrupt moments, to his departure from time to eternity? When a man is going to any distant part of the globe—say to America—what preparation there is! How much it is talked about! It is a long, a distant, an eventful journey. The man talks about it; his friends prepare in every conceivable way. Oh, what infatuation and stupidity, what folly it is for a man to make no preparation for this distant voyage—the voyage to eternity!—Beaumont.

II. This survey of the conquests of death and the grave should remind us that there is another side to this solemn theme, and therefore I proceed to remind you, secondly, of THE CONQUERORS OF DEATH AND THE GRAVE. Through how many centuries did men live without any conception that these conquerors of our race might themselves be subjugated! Two astonishing events, indeed, occurred—the translation of Enoch and the rapture of Elijah—but their significance could not be fully understood at the time of their occurrence. The data for their complete interpretation had not then been furnished. But when that supreme event which we commemorate to-day occurred, these and many other mysteries were solved. When the Son of man, who had been crucified, emerged from the tomb, proclamation was made to the universe that the ancient power of death and the grave was broken. It was seen that it is possible to pass through them unharmed, and to return to the activities of life, not with diminished, but with increased, vigour. And He who demonstrated this astonishing truth has pledged Himself to accomplish for all who trust in Him a victory similar to His own. By faith in this pledge, countless millions have been enabled to triumph in spirit over Death at the very moment when he seemed to be numbering them also among his victims (1Co ).

I. The victory of Christ's followers over death and the grave is real. There seems to be one event unto all (Ecc ). But it is not so. Death is not the conqueror of Christ's servants; he is God's servant, sent to conduct them to the rest prepared for them. The grave is not their prison, but a quiet resting-place from which presently the mortal body shall come forth immortal to greet the eternal morning.

II. The victory of Christ's followers over death and the grave will ere long be manifest (1Th , &c.) In the doctrine of the resurrection, there is much that is mysterious and inexplicable, but this is certain, that the seeming victory of death and the grave over Christ's followers shall be utterly reversed; as not a hoof belonging to God's ancient people was left behind in Egypt, so NOTHING that belongs to a single follower of Christ upon which death and the grave have seized shall remain in their power (Hos 13:14). The resurrection will be more than a ransom. It will be a development (1Co 15:37-38; 1Co 15:42; 1Co 15:44). In view of these truths, let us to-day keep Easter with thankful and joyful hearts.


Verse 18

CORDS OF VANITY

Isa . Woe unto them that draw iniquity with cords of vanity, and sin as it were with a cart rope.

"‘Sin' in the last clause is parallel with iniquity in the first—a noun and not a verb. Both are said to be ‘drawn.' The style of sinning here contemplated is fully given in the next verse."—Cowles.

"They were proud of their unbelief; but this unbelief was like a halter with which, like beasts of burden, they were harnessed to sin, and therefore to the punishment of sin, which they went on drawing further and further, in utter ignorance of the waggon behind them."—Delitsch.

"Cart ropes, you know, are composed of several small cords firmly twisted together, which serve to connect the beasts of burden with the draught they pull after them. These represent a complication of means closely united, whereby the people here described continue to join themselves to the most wearisome of all burdens. They consist of false reasonings, foolish pretexts, and corrupt maxims, by which obstinate transgressors become firmly united to their sins, and persist in dragging after them their iniquities. Of this sort the following are a few specimens: God is merciful, and His goodness will not suffer any of His creatures to be completely and everlastingly miserable. Others, as well as they, are transgressors. Repentance will be time enough upon a deathbed, or in old age. The greatest of sinners often pass unpunished. A future state of retribution is uncertain. Unite these, and such like cords, and, I suppose, you have the cart ropes, whereby the persons mentioned draw after them much sin and iniquity. All these pretexts, however, are light as vanity."—Maculloch.

CORDS AND CART-ROPES

There is a certain oddity and grotesqueness in these words as they stand. It disappears as soon as we perceive that we have here an instance of Hebrew parallelism. (Compare chap. Isa .) "Sin" is a noun, not a verb, and is a synonym for iniquity; to sin men yoke themselves as it were with "cords of vanity" or as with "a cart-rope." "Cords of vanity" are such as have no substance in them, that will not stand any real strain; "a cart-rope" will stand an immense strain. Where, then, is the propriety of describing that by which the sinner binds himself to his sin by such opposite terms? In this, that in the first clause these bands are regarded from the point of view of a sound judgment, in the second from the point of view of the sinner's experience. Subjected to a real examination they are seen to be of no strength at all, and yet they suffice to bind the sinner to his sin as thoroughly as if they were strong as "a cart-rope."

What are these "cords of vanity"? They are false ideas—of God, of truth, of duty. This is plain from Isa , which is an explanation of this one. There we have an illustrative case. Certain men are represented as bound to their iniquity by the false idea that God will not fulfil His threatenings against iniquity.

Our text furnishes the solution of a mystery which often perplexes us in daily life. We see men cleaving to ruinous iniquities, and cleaving to them in spite of the remonstrances and entreaties of their friends and of God's servants. We who have felt "the powers of the world to come" wonder that men do not repent and believe, and so escape from "the wrath to come." Here is the explanation: they are bound to their ungodly practices as it were with a cart-rope; and yet they are thus enslaved by what, when rightly tested, are only cords of vanity. They are like a horse tied to a post by a bridle-rein: it could snap the rein in an instant, but it does not attempt to do so because it has no suspicion of the weakness of the rein. Look at some of the "cords of vanity" by which men are bound to their iniquities; the exposure of their essential weakness may excite some who are now fettered and bound to make an effort to attain to moral freedom.

I. One prevalent "cord of vanity" is unbelief in God's threatenings against iniquity. That God has threatened to do certain terrible things to impenitent sinners is admitted, but there lurks in the sinner's heart the idea that God is like certain foolish parents who threaten their children with punishments which they are much too good-natured ever to inflict. But whence did you derive this idea of God? Certainly not from His Word. He there distinctly forewarns us, that, though He is merciful and gracious, He will "by no means clear the guilty" (Exo ). Not from any intelligent examination of His dealings in providence. There neglect or infraction of law is invariably followed by punishment. If a whole nation were to neglect to sow its fields, would God be too good-natured to permit it to starve? But if God invariably punishes men for their infractions of His material laws, what reason can we have for hoping that He will not fulfil His threatenings against those who despise His spiritual ordinances? And why should we hope this? What reverence could we have for, what trust could we repose in, a God who did not fulfil His threatenings? How could we then trust in His promises? Surely this is a "cord of vanity!" and yet how many are bound by it as if it were "a cart-rope"!

II. Another cord is the reflection, "We are no worse than others." Men compare themselves with others, perhaps even more iniquitous than themselves, and so arrive at the conclusion that they are not in any great danger. They do this even in temporal things,—e.g., in the matter of drainage. The authorities of a country village or town will listen with the most complete indifference to the warnings of a Government inspector, that they are inviting an outbreak of fever or cholera; and the ground of their indifference is that they know of other villages or towns as badly drained as their own. But does that afford them any protection against the dangers of which they are warned? Men act as foolishly in spiritual matters. Because there are so many sinners they close their eyes to their own dangers or sins. Will God be either unable or afraid to punish transgressors because they are so numerous? Surely this also is a "cord of vanity;" and yet thousands are bound by it to their eternal destruction!

III. "We shall be able to shake ourselves loose from our evil habits by and by." They imagine that they can repent and reform at any time, and they are firmly resolved to do so before death. Perhaps there could not be found a single sinner who does not secretly cherish in his breast wicked Balaam's desire, "Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!" But this idea that men can repent and reform at any time is a delusion. As men continue in sin

(1) The power to reform decays.

(2) The desire to reform dies out. The love of sin takes entire possession of the man. It enwraps him as ivy unchecked will enwrap a tree; at first with no more strength than a child's finger, in the end with the strength of a thousand giants. It is the oldest sinners who cling to their vices most desperately, who are bound by them as by cart-ropes.

(3.) The opportunities for reform rapidly diminish and often end unexpectedly (Pro ; 1Th 5:3).

Inquire by what cords of vanity you are bound. Break them! (Dan .) Look to Jesus, who came into the world for the very purpose of setting at liberty them that are bound.


Verse 19

SCEPTICISM

Isa . That say, Let Him make speed and hasten His work, that we may see it: and let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel draw nigh and come, that we may know it.

Ascending from the physical nature of man to the mind and character, we find the same laws prevail. People sometimes say, "Dishonesty is as good as honesty, for aught I see. There are such and such men who have pursued for years the most corrupt courses in their business, and yet they prosper, and are getting rich every day." Wait till you see their end. Every year how many such men are overtaken with sudden destruction, and swept for ever out of sight and remembrance! Many a man has gone on in sin, practising secret fraud and villanies, yet trusted and honoured, till at length, in some unsuspected hour, he is detected, and, denounced by the world, he falls from his high estate as if a cannon-ball had struck him—for there is no cannon that can strike more fatally than outraged public sentiment—and flies over the mountains, or across the sea, to escape the odium of his life. He believed that his evil course was building him up in fame and fortune; but financiering is the devil's forge, and his every act was a blow upon the anvil, shaping the dagger that should one day strike home to his heart and make him a suicide. The pea contains the vine, and the flower, and the pod, in embryo, and, I am sure, when I plant it, that it will produce them and nothing else. Now, every action of our lives is embryonic, and, according as it is right or wrong, it will surely bring forth sweet flowers of joy, or the poison fruits of sorrow. Such is the constitution of this world, and the Bible assures us that the next world only carries it forward. Here and hereafter, "whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap."—Beecher.


Verse 20

MORAL PERVERSITY

Isa . Woe unto them that call evil good, &c.

If the judgments of men are habitually influenced by their affections, it is not surprising that their speech should bear the impress of the same controlling power. What we hear men say in the way of passing judgment upon things and persons, unless said deliberately for the purpose of deception, will afford us, for the most part, a correct idea of their dispositions and prevailing inclinations. There is, indeed, a customary mode of talking in which familiar formulas of praise and censure as to moral objects are employed as if by rote; but this dialect, however near it may approach to that of evangelical morality, is still distinguished from it by indubitable marks. One who thus indulges in the use of such expressions as imply a recognition of the principles of Biblical morality, but whose conduct repudiates them, in expressing his opinions on moral subjects avoids, as if instinctively, the terms of censure and of approbation which belong to Scripture. He will speak of an act or a course of acts as wrong, perhaps as vicious,—it may even be as wicked, but not as sinful. There are crimes and vices, but no sins in his vocabulary. Vice and sin are referable, it would seem, to an abstract and perhaps variable standard, while sin brings into view the legislative and judicial character of God. Two men shall converse together upon truth and falsehood, employing the same words and phrases; and yet when you come to ascertain the sense in which they severally use the same language, you shall find that while the one adopts the rigorous and simple rule of truth and falsehood laid down in the Bible and by common sense, the other holds it with so many qualifications and exceptions as almost to render it a rule more honoured in the breach than the observance. But who does not know that men are often worse in the bent of their affections than in the general drift of their discourse? If we err, therefore, in the application of the test proposed, we are far more apt to err in favour of the subject than against him. He who is invariably prompted, when there is no counteracting influence, to call evil good and good evil, is one who, like the fallen angel, says in his heart, "Evil, be thou my good!" and is, therefore, a just subject of the woe denounced by the prophet in the text.

I. The expression is descriptive of those who hate good and love evil—not of those who err as to what is good and what is evil. A rational nature is incapable of loving evil, simply viewed as evil, or of hating good when simply viewed as good. Whatever thing you love, you thereby recognise as good; and what you hate or abhor, you thereby recognise as evil. No man can dislike a taste, or smell, or sound which at the same time he regards as pleasant, nor can he like one which he thinks unpleasant. But change the standard of comparison, and what appeared impossible is realised. The music which is sweetest to your ear may be offensive when it breaks the slumber of your sleeping friend; the harshest voice may charm you when it announces that your friend still lives. The darling sin is hated by the sinner as the means of his damnation, though he loves it as the source of present pleasure. When, therefore, men profess to look upon that as excellent which in their hearts and lives they treat as hateful, and to regard as evil and abominable that which they are seeking after and which they delight in, they are not expressing their own feelings, but assenting to the judgment of others. And if they are really so far enlightened as to think sincerely that the objects of their passionate attachment are evil, this is only admitting that their own affections are disordered and at variance with reason. It is as if a man's sense of taste should be so vitiated through disease, that what is sweet to others is to him a pungent bitter. So the sinner may believe, on God's authority or man's, that sin is evil and holiness is good, but his diseased eye will still confound light with darkness, and his lips, whenever they express the feelings of his heart, will continue to call good evil and evil good.

The three forms of expression in the text appear to be significant of one and the same thing. The thought is clothed first in literal and then in metaphorical expressions. The character thus drawn is generally applicable to ungodly men. If the verse be taken merely in this general sense, the woe which it pronounces is a general woe, or declaration of Divine displeasure and denunciation of impending wrath against the wicked generally, simply equivalent to that in chap. Isa .

Such a declaration, awful as it is, would furnish no specific test of character, because it would still leave the question undecided who it is that chooses evil and rejects good. But the prophet is very far from meaning merely to assert the general liability of sinners to the wrath of God. In view of the context, then, consider—

II. An enumeration of particular offences then especially prevailing. The text is the fourth in a series of six woes denounced upon as many outward manifestations of corrupt affection then especially prevalent, but by no means limited to that age or country; and these are set forth, not as the product of so many evil principles, but as the varied exhibition of that universal and profound corruption which he had just asserted to exist in general terms.

1. The avaricious and ambitious grasping after great possessions, not merely as a means of luxurious indulgence, but as a distinction and a gratification of pride (Isa ). To such the prophet threatened woe (Isa 5:9), and to such the Apostle James also (Jas 5:4).

2. Drunkenness (Isa ). Here also the description of the vice is followed by its punishment, including not only personal but national calamities, as war, desolation, and captivity.

3. Presumption and blasphemy (Isa ).

4. Moral perversity, as set forth in the text.

5. Overweening confidence in human reason as opposed to God's unerring revelation (Isa ).

6. Drunkenness, considered, not, as in the former case, as a personal excess, producing inconsideration and neglect of God, but as a vice of magistrates and rulers, and as leading to oppression and all practical injustice (Isa ).

This view of the context is given for two reasons—

1. To show that in this whole passage the prophet refers to species of iniquity familiar to our own time and country; and,

2. Chiefly to show that we have in the text the description of a certain outward form in which the prevailing wickedness betrayed itself. An outward mark of those who hate God and whom He designs to punish is their confounding moral distinctions in their conversation. Consider, then—

III. How moral distinctions are confounded. When one admits in words the great first principles in morals, yet takes away so much as to obliterate the practical distinction between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, religion and irreligion, he does virtually, actually, call evil good and good evil. When one admits generally the turpitude of fraud, impurity, intemperance, malignity, &c., and yet in insulated cases treats these as peccadilloes, inadvertences, &c., he cannot be protected by the mere assertion of a few general principles from the fatal charge of calling evil good. And as the counterpart of this, he who praises and admires all goodness in the abstract, but detests it when realised in concrete excellence, really and practically calls good evil. And he who, in relation to the self-same acts performed by different men, has a judgment suited to the case of each, all compassion to the wilful transgressions of the wicked, and all inexorable sternness to the infirmities of godly men, to all intents and purposes incurs the woe pronounced on those who call evil good and good evil. These distinctions may at present appear arbitrary, frivolous, or false, and, as a necessary consequence, the guilt of confounding them may almost fade to nothing,—to a stain so faint upon the conscience as to need no blood of expiation to remove it. But the day is coming when the eye of reason shall no longer find it possible to look at light and darkness as the same, and the woe already heard shall then be seen and felt. From the darkness and bitterness of that damnation may we all find deliverance through Jesus Christ our Lord!—J. Addison Alexander, D.D.: The Gospel of Jesus Christ, pp. 568-578.


Verse 21

SELF-CONCEIT

Isa . Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight.

Self-conceit.

I. Its signs: dogmatism; contempt of others; scepticism.

Are vanity, and pride, and arrogance;

As blind men use to bear their noses higher

Than those that have their eyes and sight entire.

Butler.

By ignorance is pride increased;

Those most assume who know the least:

Their own self-balance gives them weight,

But every other finds them light.

Gay.

III. Its folly: it makes a man ridiculous; leads him into error.

IV. Its offensiveness to God; in spirit—principle—action. V. Its certain humiliation.—J. Lyth, D.D.

INTELLECTUAL PRIDE

Isa . Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight.


Verse 22

THE WOE OF THE DRUNKARD

Isa . Woe unto them that are mighty to drink wine, and men of strength to mingle strong drink.

There are certain vices which the customs of certain countries seem to place only in the number of human infirmities; and yet, if we look at their effects, we shall see that really they are as black as those sins which God and man visits with the severest punishments.

I. The Drunkard's excuses, by which he endeavours to defend or palliate his crime.

1. Good fellowship. But can friendship be founded on vice? especially on a vice which notoriously impairs the memory and the sense of obligation, leads to the betrayal of secrets, and stirs up strife and contention? Instead of promoting conversation it destroys it by destroying the very capability of communicating rational and agreeable thoughts. The drunkard may make his company merry, but they laugh at, not with, him, and merely because they are delighted with the sight of one even sillier than themselves.

2. "It drowns care." But the drunkard's care must arise either from his ill state of health, the unfortunate posture of his worldly affairs, or the stings of his guilty conscience; and, in either case, his temporary oblivion is purchased at the cost of an aggravation of the evils which cause him to desire it. To drink to drown remorse is especially absurd, for all that the drunkard can expect from this course is the benefit of travelling some part of the road to eternal misery with his eyes covered.

3. The drunkard has other excuses: he says that he is so exposed to company and business, that he cannot avoid drinking to excess, or that he is of so easy and flexible a temper, that he cannot resist the importunities of his friends, as he calls them. Thus he is for softening his vice into a sort of virtue, and calling that good nature, which his creditor calls villany, and his family cruelty.

II. The drunkard's woe. This is made up of the miserable effects, as well temporal as spiritual, of his favourite vice.

1. Poverty.

2. Contempt.

3. Ill-health.

4. An untimely death. Consider, too, the spiritual evils that spring from and punish the vice of drunkenness.

1. The understanding is depraved and darkened.

2. The will is enfeebled and dethroned.

3. The passions are inflamed and rendered ungovernable.

4. Regard for men and reverence for God are destroyed. Drunkenness travels with a whole train of other vices, and requires the whole width of the broad way to give it room. Where its journey is to end, we know; so that if the guilt and misery which attend it here, be not enough, there, at least, the drunkard, having opened his eyes and recovered the use of his reason, will perceive the truth of the text.—Skelton, in Clapham's Selected Sermons, ii. 384-392.

THE WOE OF THE DRUNKARD

Isa . Woe unto them that are mighty to drink wine, and men of strength to mingle strong drink.

How base a price dost thou set upon thy Saviour and salvation, that will not forbear so much as a cup of drink for them? The smallness of the thing showeth the smallness of thy love to God, and the smallness of thy regard to His Word and to thy soul. Is that loving God as God, when thou lovest a cup of drink better? Art thou not ashamed of thy hypocrisy, when thou sayest thou lovest God above all, when thou lovest Him not so well as thy wine and ale? Surely he that loveth Him not above ale, loveth Him not above all! Thy choice showeth what thou lovest best, more certainly than thy tongue doth. It is the dish that a man greedily eateth of that he loveth, and not that which he commendeth but will not meddle with. God trieth men's love to Him, by their keeping His commandments. It was the aggravation of the first sin, that they would not deny so small a thing as the forbidden fruit, in obedience to God! And so it is of thine, that wilt not leave a forbidden cup for Him! O miserable wretch! dost thou not know thou canst not be Christ's disciple, if thou forsake not all for Him, and hate not even thy life in comparison of Him, and wouldst not rather die than forsake Him! And art thou like to lay down thy life for Him that wilt not leave a cup of drink for Him? Canst thou burn at a stake for Him, that canst not leave an alehouse, or vain company, or excess for Him? What a sentence of condemnation dost thou pass upon thyself!—Baxter, 1615-1691.

DRINK AND ITS WOES

Isa . Woe unto them that are mighty to drink wine, and men of strength to mingle strong drink.

Human depravity and iniquity have existed in all ages and countries. The vices flowing therefrom have been much the same—selfishness, pride, sensualism, oppression, drunkenness. Alcohol acting directly on the brain, the seat of the mind, tends not only to derange, but to enfeeble and pervert, and produces moral obliquity, moral infatuation, and intensified delusion. All sorts of deceits are the consequence. Observe—I. THE CHARACTERS INTRODUCED (Isa ). Observe also Isa 5:11-12. In the last verses there is reference to confirmed drunkards, daily, early, and late; the sensual debauchees—their ignorance, want of thought and reflection. In the text, notorious drinkers, bold, impudent wager-layers, boasters, &c., and those who have got the victory over the usual drinks, and now make them stronger to meet the cravings of appetite and to keep up the excitement. Observe, this is the great peril of moderate drinking. It creates the appetite, it increases the appetite; last of all, it gives the appetite the control, and the man or woman becomes the slave and then the victim.

II. THE INFATUATION PORTRAYED—by

1. Giving false names to things (Isa ). Call

(1) evil good: drinks (poisons) are called beverages; evil things made by men are called God's good creatures. And so they call

(2) good evil; despise the really good and safe; pour contempt on water and safe fluids, and treat them as evil or worthless. How drinks have secured the most alluring titles—strong cordials, dew, &c., generous. Not only false names, but

2. False qualities (Isa ), "Bitter for sweet." Now intoxicating drinks are not sweet or palatable to the natural taste; they blister the mouth of children; do burn the delicate nerves of the stomach; the tongue and lips have to be trained, drilled, hardened. Observe, they call sweet bitter; things really so are treated as insipid. Ask the spirit-drinker to take milk or tea, or water, and see how his poisoned taste revolts, &c.

Then there is presented to us—

3. Infatuated results. Put darkness for light; men plead and say these drinks—

(1) Brighten the intellect. How false! See the bloated faces, the diseased eyes, the sensual expression, the stupid look, the stupor. The light is artificial, momentary, false—no better than the effects of certain gases or deadly stimulants, as opium, Indian hemp, &c. But they refer to men, to Burns, Pitt, Sheridan, and other drinking wits. But they were intellectually great in spite, &c. Look at Milton, Sir Isaac Newton; look at the inspired prophets—the seraphic Isaiah, the writer of the text.

(2) They who drink say their drinks lighten the heart, give social joyousness. Right; but is it not sensual, spurious, evanescent, ends in darkness? So they put light for darkness. The calm, equable sobriety of soul they called dulness, darkness. But this is real, abiding, and rational. So, both in name and quality, and in effects, they call "evil good," &c.

III. THE WOES DENOUNCED.

1. There is the woe of physical consequences. The seed and the harvest, the poisons and their effects, fire, deranged stomach, plague, diseased liver, excited heart, fevered brain, all tending to a host of maladies, shortened life, and an early grave. There is—

2. Woe of a distracted mind. Reason beclouded; reflection, perception, all marred. The guiding star eclipsed, the light obscured with darkness. There is the—

3. Woe of moral defects. The man is vitiated, made worse and worse; his affections, his desires, his conscience, his heart, the whole soul. There is—

4. The woe of perverted powers. Gifts, talents, &c., all poisoned; influence deadly; the man a curse—a curse to all.

5. The woe of God's malediction. God's woe, His displeasure, His threatening, His curse; this is written in both volumes of the Scriptures—in frightful representation, in declared eternal condemnation.

APPLICATION.—Learn—

1. The horrors associated with strong drink;

2. The advantages of absolute temperance;

3. The value of these associations;

4. The encouragement for labours—staying curses, bringing down blessings; The necessity of immediate decision; The solemn importance of earnest prayer for the Divine benediction;

7. Let us avoid exaggerated conclusions. This is not the only evil; temperance not the only good. To all we say, "One thing is needful;" "Except ye be converted," &c.—Jabez Burns, D.D., L.L.D., Sketches of Temperance Sermons.


Verse 24

THE DOOM OF DESPISERS

Isa . Therefore as the fire devoureth the stubble, and the flame consumeth the chaff, so their root shall be as rottenness, and their blossom shall go up as dust: because they have cast away the law of the Lord of hosts, and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.

Shut God out of the heart, and this is what it comes to at last. In Jewish history, we have a commentary on the judgments announced in the text, written in fire and blood. We have here—

I. God's merciful approaches to the soul.

2. To His law, He adds His word; His "word" of persuasion, exhortation, promise, and especially the great "word" of the Gospel.

II. God's merciful approaches rejected. "They have cast away the law," &c. Man meets God's law with resistance, His love with contempt.

III. God's merciful approaches giving place to indignation and wrath. "Therefore as the fire devoureth," &c. Law being resisted, and love despised, things cannot be as they were before; one of two things must happen—there must be either pardon or punishment. If pardon be rejected, only punishment remains. The images under which this is set forth in the text are most alarming. They show—

1. That at last God's anger strikes at the root of our being—at the very substance of our life. The wrath of man at the worst rages only on the surface, but God strikes at the root (Luk ; Mat 10:28).

2. God's anger smites the blossom of our being. All that constitutes the show, promise, and pride of our life, is scattered like dust.

3. When God smites in anger, He smites suddenly and swiftly, "as the fire devoureth the stubble, and the flame consumeth the chaff.

4. When God smites in anger, man can offer no resistance. What power to resist a hurricane has a tree whose roots are not only rotten, but "rottenness"? How can the stubble withstand the fire, or the chaff defend itself against tongues of flame?—J. R. Wood.


Verses 24-30

THE DOOM OF IMPENITENT ISRAEL

Isa . Therefore as the fire devoureth, &c.

GENERAL CONCLUSION.—"It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." The history of the Jews since Israel's day is a terrible comment on this declaration.

PARTICULAR CONCLUSIONS.—

1. As sinners, let us bestir ourselves to avert the consequences of our transgressions by a timely and genuine repentance (Isa ; Hos 14:1-4, &c.)

2. Having obtained mercy, let us be in the fear of the Lord all the daylong (Joh ).

3. For our guidance in life, let us keep constantly before us the Biblical presentation of God, as a God of justice and of mercy;—of justice, that we may be restrained from transgression; of mercy, that there may grow up in our hearts that love for Him which will cause us to find our highest joy in doing His will.

 


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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Isaiah 5:4". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/phc/isaiah-5.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.


Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, September 20th, 2017
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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