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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Isaiah 24

 

 

Verses 1-23

CHAPTER XXVIII

THE EFFECT OF SIN ON OUR MATERIAL CIRCUMSTANCE

DATE UNCERTAIN

Isaiah 24:1-23

THE twenty-fourth of Isaiah is one of those chapters which almost convince the most persevering reader of Scripture that a consecutive reading of the Authorised Version is an impossibility. For what does he get from it but a weary and unintelligent impression of destruction, from which he gladly escapes to the nearest clear utterance of gospel or judgment? Criticism affords little help. It cannot clearly identify the chapter with any historical situation. For a moment there is a gleam of a company standing outside the convulsion, and to the west of the prophet, while the prophet himself suffers captivity. But even this fades before we make it out; and all the rest of the chapter has too universal an application-the language is too imaginative, enigmatic, and even paradoxical-to be applied to an actual historical situation, or to its development in the immediate future. This is an ideal description, the apocalyptic vision of a last, great day of judgment upon the whole world; and perhaps the moral truths are all the more impressive that the reader is not distracted by temporary or local references.

With the very first verse the prophecy leaps far beyond all particular or national conditions: "Behold, Jehovah shall be emptying the earth and rifling it; and He shall turn it upside down and scatter its inhabitants." This is expressive and thorough; the words are those which were used for cleaning a dirty dish. To the completeness of this opening verse there is really nothing in the chapter to add. All the rest of the verses only illustrate this upturning and scouring of the material universe. For it is with the material universe that the chapter is concerned. Nothing is said of the spiritual nature of man-little, indeed, about man at all. He is simply called "the inhabitant of the earth," and the structure of society (Isaiah 24:2) is introduced only to make more complete the effect of the convulsion of the earth itself. Man cannot escape those judgments which shatter his material habitation. It is like one of Dante’s visions. "Terror, and Pit and Snare upon thee, O inhabitant of the earth! And it shall come to pass that he who fleeth from the noise of the Terror shall fall into the Pit, and he who cometh up out of the midst of the Pit shall be taken in the Snare. For the windows on high are opened, and the foundations of the earth do shake. Broken, utterly broken, is the earth; shattered, utterly shattered, the earth; staggering, very staggering, the earth; reeling, the earth reeleth like a drunken man: she swingeth to and fro like a hammock." And so through the rest of the chapter it is the material life of man that is cursed: "the new wine, the vine, the tabrets, the harp, the song," and the merriness in men’s hearts which these call forth. Nor does the chapter confine itself to the earth. The closing verses carry the effect of judgment to the heavens and far limits of the material universe. "The host of the high ones on high" (Isaiah 24:21) are not spiritual beings, the angels. They are material bodies, the stars. "Then, too, shall the moon be confounded, and the stars ashamed," when the Lord’s kingdom is established and His righteousness made gloriously clear.

What awful truth is this for illustration of which we see not man, but his habitation, the world and all its surroundings, lifted up by the hand of the Lord, broken open, wiped out and shaken, while man himself, as if only to heighten the effect, staggers hopelessly like some broken insect on the quaking ruins? What judgment is this, in which not only one city or one kingdom is concerned, as in the last prophecy of which we treated, but the whole earth is convulsed, and moon and sun confounded?

The judgment is the visitation of man’s sins on his material surroundings-"The earth’s transgression shall be heavy upon it; and it shall rise, and not fall." The truth on which this judgment rests is that between man and his material circumstance-the earth he inhabits, the seasons which bear him company through time, and the stars to which he looks high up in heaven - there is a moral sympathy. "The earth also is profaned under the inhabitants thereof, because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant."

The Bible gives no support to the theory that matter itself is evil. God created all things: "and God saw everything that He had made; and, behold, it was very good." When, therefore, we read in the Bible that the earth is cursed, we read that it is cursed for man’s sake; when we read of its desolation, it is as the effect of man’s crime. The Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues of Egypt and other great physical catastrophes happened because men were stubborn or men were foul. We cannot help noticing, however, that matter was thus convulsed or destroyed, not only for the purpose of punishing the moral agent, but because of some poison which had passed from him into the unconscious instruments, stage, and circumstances of his crime. According to the Bible, there would appear to be some mysterious sympathy between man and Nature. Man not only governs Nature; he infects and informs her. As the moral life of the soul expresses itself in the physical life of the body for the latter’s health or corruption, so the conduct of the human race affects the physical life of the universe to its farthest limits in space. When man is reconciled to God, the wilderness blossoms like a rose; but the guilt of man sullies, infects, and corrupts the place he inhabits and the articles he employs; and their destruction becomes necessary, not for his punishment so much as because of the infection and pollution that are in them.

The Old Testament is not contented with a general statement of this great principle, but pursues it to all sorts of particular and private applications. The curses of the Lord fell, not only on the sinner, but on his dwelling, on his property, and even on the bit of ground these occupied. This was especially the case with regard to idolatry. When Israel put a pagan population to the sword, they were commanded to raze the city, gather its wealth together, burn all that was burnable and put the rest into the temple of the Lord as a thing devoted or accursed, which it would harm themselves to share. [Deuteronomy 7:25-26; Deuteronomy 13:7] The very site of Jericho was cursed, and men were forbidden to build upon its horrid waste. The story of Achan illustrates the same principle.

It is just this principle which chapter 24 extends to the whole universe. What happened in Jericho because of its inhabitants’ idolatry is now to happen to the whole earth because of man’s sin. "The earth also is profane under her inhabitants, because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant." In these words the prophet takes us away back to the covenant with Noah, which he properly emphasises as a covenant with all mankind. With a noble universalism, for which his race and their literature get too little credit, this Hebrew recognises that once all mankind were holy unto God, who had included them under His grace, that promised the fixedness and fertility of nature. But that covenant, though of grace, had its conditions for man. These had been broken. The race had grown wicked, as it was before the Flood; and therefore, in terms which vividly recall that former judgment of God-"the windows on high are opened"-the prophet foretells a new and more awful catastrophe. One word which he employs betrays how close he feels the moral sympathy to be between man and his world. "The earth," he says, "is profane." This is a word whose root meaning is "that which has fallen away" or "separated itself," which is "delinquent." Sometimes, perhaps, it has a purely moral significance, like our word "abandoned" in the common acceptance: he who has fallen far and utterly into sin, "the reckless sinner." But mostly it has rather the religious meaning of one who has fallen out of the covenant relation with God and the relevant benefits and privileges. Into this covenant not only Israel and their land, but humanity and the whole world, have been brought. Is man under covenant grace? The world is also. Does man fall? So does the world, becoming with him profane. The consequence of breaking the covenant oath was expressed in Hebrew by a technical word; and it is this word which, translated curse, is applied in Isaiah 24:6 to the earth.

The whole earth is to be broken up and dissolved. What then is to become of the people of God-the indestructible remnant? Where are they to settle? In this new deluge is there a new ark? For answer the prophet presents us with an old paradise (Isaiah 24:23). He has wrecked the universe; but he says now, "Jehovah of hosts shall dwell in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem." It would be impossible to find a better instance of the limitations of Old Testament prophecy than this return to the old dispensation after the old dispensation has been committed to the flames. At such a crisis as the conflagration of the universe for the sin of man, the hope of the New Testament looks for the creation of a new heaven and a new earth, but there is no scintilla of such a hope in this prediction. The imagination of the Hebrew seer is beaten back upon the theatre his conscience has abandoned. He knows "the old is out of date," but for him "the new is not yet born"; and, therefore, convinced as he is that the old must pass away, he is forced to borrow from its ruins a provisional abode for God’s people, a figure for the truth which grips him so firmly, that, in spite of the death of all the universe for man’s sin, there must be a visibleness and locality of the Divine majesty, a place where the people of God may gather to bless His holy name.

In this contrast of the power of spiritual imagination possessed respectively by the Old and New Testaments we must not, however, lose the ethical interest which the main lesson of this chapter has for the individual conscience. A breaking universe, the great day of judgment, may be too large and too far off to impress our conscience. But each of us has his own world-body, property, and environment-which is as much and as evidently affected by his own sins as our chapter represents the universe to be by the sins of the race.

To grant that the moral and physical universes are from the same hand is to affirm a sympathy and mutual reaction between them. This affirmation is confirmed by experience, and this experience is of two kinds. To the guilty man Nature seems aware, and flashes back from her larger surfaces the magnified reflection of his own self-contempt and terror. But, besides, men are also unable to escape attributing to the material instruments or surroundings of their sin a certain infection, a certain power of recommunicating to their imaginations and memories the desire for sin, as well as of inflicting upon them the pain and penalty of the disorder it has produced among themselves. Sin, though born, as Christ said, in the heart, has immediately a material expression; and we may follow this outwards through man’s mind, body, and estate, not only to find it "hindering, disturbing, complicating all," but reinfecting with the lust and odour of sin the will which gave it birth. As sin is put forth by the will, or is cherished in the heart, so we find error cloud the mind, impurity the imagination, misery the feelings, and pain and weariness infect the flesh and bone. God, who modelled it, alone knows how far man’s physical form has been degraded by the sinful thoughts and habits of which for ages it has been the tool and expression; but even our eyes may sometimes trace the despoiler, and that not only in the case of what are preferably named sins of the flesh, but even with lusts that do not require for their gratification the abuse of the body. Pride, as one might think the least fleshly of all the vices, leaves yet in time her damning signature, and will mark the strongest faces with the sad symptoms of that mental break-down, for which unrestrained pride is so often to blame. If sin thus disfigures the body, we know that sin also infects the body. The habituated flesh becomes the suggester of crime to the will which first constrained it to sin, and now wearily, but in vain, rebels against the habits of its instrument. But we recall all this about the body only to say that what is true of the body is true of the soul’s greater material surroundings. With the sentence "Thou shalt surely die," God connects this other: "Cursed is the ground for thy sake."

When we pass from a man’s body, the wrapping we find next nearest to his soul is his property. It has always been an instinct of the race, that there is nothing a man may so infect with the sin of his heart as his handiwork and the gains of his toil. And that is a true instinct, for, in the first place, the making of property perpetuates a man’s own habits. If he is successful in business, then every bit of wealth he gathers is a confirmation of the motives and tempers in which he conducted his business. A man deceives himself as to this, saying, Wait till I have made enough; then I will put away the meanness, the harshness, and the dishonesty with which I made it He shall not be able. Just because he has been successful, he will continue in his habit without thinking; just because there has been no break-down to convict of folly and suggest penitence, so he becomes hardened. Property is a bridge on which our passions cross from one part of our life to another. The Germans have an ironical proverb: "The man who has stolen a hundred thousand dollars can afford to live honestly." The emphasis of the irony falls on the words in italics: he can afford, but never does. His property hardens his heart, and keeps him from repentance.

But the instinct of humanity has also been quick to this: that the curse of ill-gotten wealth passes like bad blood from father to child. What is the truth in this matter? A glance at history will tell us. The accumulation of property is the result of certain customs, habits, and laws. In its own powerful interest property perpetuates these down the ages, and infects the fresh air of each new generation with their temper. How often in the history of mankind has it been property gained under unjust laws or cruel monopolies which has prevented the abolition of these, and carried into gentler, freer times the pride and exclusiveness of the age, by whose rude habits it was gathered. This moral transference, which we see on so large a scale in public history, is repeated to some extent in every private bequest. A curse does not necessarily follow an estate from the sinful producer of it to his heir; but the latter is, "by the bequest itself," generally brought into so close a contact with his predecessor as to share his conscience and be in sympathy with his temper. And the case is common where an heir, though absolutely up to the date of his succession separate from him who made and has left the property, nevertheless finds himself unable to alter the methods, or to escape the temper, in which the property has been managed. In nine cases out of ten property carries conscience and transfers habit; if the guilt does not descend, the infection does.

When we pass from the effect of sin upon property to its effect upon circumstance, we pass to what we can affirm with even greater conscience. Man has the power of permanently soaking and staining his surroundings with the effect of sins in themselves momentary and transient. Sin increases terribly by the mental law of association. It is not the gin-shop and the face of wanton beauty that alone tempt men to sin. Far more subtle seductions are about every one of us. That we have the power of inflicting our character upon the scenes of our conduct is proved by some of the dreariest experiences of life. A failure in duty renders the place of it distasteful and enervating. Are we irritable and selfish at home? Then home is certain to be depressing, and little helpful to our spiritual growth. Are we selfish and niggardly in the interest we take in others? Then the congregation we go to, the suburb we dwell in, will appear insipid and unprofitable; we shall be past the possibility of gaining character or happiness from the ground where God planted us and meant us to grow. Students have been idle in their studies till every time they enter them a reflex languor comes down like stale smoke, and the room they desecrated takes its revenge on them. We have it in our power to make our workshops, our laboratories, and our studies places of magnificent inspiration, to enter which is to receive a baptism of industry and hope; and we have power to make it impossible ever to work in them again at full pitch. The pulpit, the pew, the very communion-table, come under this law. If a minister of God have made up his mind to say nothing from his accustomed place, which has not cost him toil, to feel nothing but a dependence on God and a desire for souls, then he will never set foot there but the power of the Lord shall be upon him. But there are men who would rather set foot anywhere than in their pulpit-men who out of it are full of fellowship, information, and infective health, but there they are paralysed with the curse of their idle past. How history shows us that the most sacred shelters and institutions of man become tainted with sin, and are destroyed in revolution or abandoned to decay by the intolerant conscience of younger generations! How the hidden life of each man feels his past sins possessing his home and hearth, his pew, and even his place at the Sacrament, till it is sometimes better for his soul’s health to avoid these!

Such considerations give a great moral force to the doctrine of the Old Testament that man’s sin has rendered necessary the destruction of his material circumstances, and that the Divine judgment includes a broken and a rifled universe.

The New Testament has borrowed this vision from the Old, but added, as we have seen, with greater distinctness, the hope of new heavens and a new earth. We have not concluded the subject, however, when we have pointed this out, for the New Testament has another gospel. The grace of God affects even the material results of sin; the Divine pardon that converts the sinner converts his circumstance also; Christ Jesus sanctifies even the flesh, and is the Physician of the body as well as the Saviour of the soul. To Him physical evil abounds only that He may show forth His glory in curing it. "Neither did this man sin nor his parents, but that the works of God should be made manifest in him." To Paul the "whole creation groaneth and travaileth with the sinner" till now, the hour of the sinner’s redemption. The Gospel bestows an evangelic liberty which permits the strong Christian to partake of meats offered to idols. And, finally, "all things work together for good to them that love God," for although to the converted and forgiven sinner the material pains which his sins have brought on him may continue into his new life, they are experienced by him no more as the just penalties of an angry God, but as the loving, sanctifying chastisements of his Father in heaven.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Isaiah 24:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/isaiah-24.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, November 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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