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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Isaiah 32

 

 

Verses 1-8

CHAPTER XV

A MAN: CHARACTER AND THE CAPACITY TO DISCRIMINATE CHARACTER

ABOUT 720 B.C.

Isaiah 32:1-8

THE Assyrians being thus disposed of, Isaiah turns to a prospect, on which we have scarcely heard him speak these twenty years, since Assyria appeared on the frontier of Judah-the religious future and social progress of his own people. This he paints in a small prophecy of eight verses, the first eight of chapter 32- Isaiah 32:9-20 of that chapter apparently springing from somewhat different conditions.

The first eight verses of chapter 32 (Isaiah 32:1-8) belong to a class of prophecies which we may call Isaiah’s "escapes." Like St. Paul, Isaiah, when he has finished some exposition of God’s dealings with His people or argument with the sinners among them, bursts upon an unencumbered vision of the future, and with roused conscience, and voice resonant from long debate, takes his loftiest flights of eloquence. In Isaiah’s book we have several of these visions, and each bears a character of its own, according to the sort of sinners from whom the prophet shook himself loose to describe it and the kind of indignation that filled his heart at the time. We have already seen how in some of Isaiah’s visions the Messiah has the chief place, while from others He is altogether absent. But here we come upon another inconsistency. Sometimes, as in chapter 11, Isaiah is content with nothing but a new dispensation-the entire transformation of nature, when there shall be no more desert or storm, but to the wild animals docility shall come, and among men an end to sorrow, fraud, and war. But again he limits his prophetic soul and promises less. As if, overcome by the spectacle of the more clamant needs and horrible vices of society, he had said, we must first get rid of these, we must supply those, before we can begin to dream of heaven. Such is Isaiah’s feeling here. This prophecy is not a vision of society glorified, but of society established and reformed, with its foundation firmly settled (Isaiah 32:1), with its fountain forces in full operation (Isaiah 32:2), and with an absolute check laid upon its worst habits, as, for instance, the moral grossness, lying, and pretence which the prophet has been denouncing for several chapters (Isaiah 32:3-8). This moderation of the prophecy brings it within the range of practical morals; while the humanity of it, its freedom from Jewish or Oriental peculiarities, renders it thoroughly modern. If every unfulfilled prophecy ought to be an accusing conscience in the breast of the Christian Church, there will be none more clamant and practical than this one. Its demands are essential to the social interests of today.

In Isaiah 32:1 we have the presupposition of the whole prophecy: "Behold, in righteousness shall a king reign, and princes-according to justice shall they rule." A just government is always the basis of Isaiah’s vision of the future. Here he defines it with greater abstractness than he has been wont to do. It is remarkable, that a writer, whose pen has already described the figure of the coming King so concretely and with so much detail, should here content himself with a general promise of a righteous government, regarding, as he seems to do, rather the office of kinghood, than any single eminent occupier of it. That the prophet of Immanuel, and still more the prophet of the Prince-of-the-Four-Names, [Isaiah 9:7] and of the Son of Jesse, [Isaiah 11:1] should be able to paint the ideal future, and speak of the just government that was to prevail in it, without at the same time referring to his previous very explicit promises of a royal Individual, is a fact which we cannot overlook in support of the opinion we have expressed in Isaiah 10:1 concerning the object of Isaiah’s Messianic hopes.

Nor is the vagueness of the first verse corrected by the terms of the second: "And a man shall be as a hiding-place from the wind," etc. We have already spoken of this verse as an ethical advance upon Isaiah’s previous picture of the Messiah. But while, of course, the Messiah was to Isaiah the ideal of human character, and therefore shared whatsoever features he might foresee in its perfect development, it is evident that in this verse Isaiah is not thinking of the Messiah alone or particularly. When he says with such simplicity a man, he means any man, he means the ideal for every man. Having in Isaiah 32:1 laid down the foundation for social life, he tells us in Isaiah 32:2 what the shelter and fountain force of society are to be: not science nor material wealth, but personal influence, the strength and freshness of the human personality. "A man shall be as a hiding-place from the wind and a covert from the tempest, as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land." After just government (Isaiah 32:1) great characters are the prophet’s first demand (Isaiah 32:2), and then (Isaiah 32:3-8) he will ask for the capacity to discriminate character. "Character and the capacity to discriminate character" indeed summarises this prophecy.

I. A MAN

(Isaiah 32:2)

Isaiah has described personal influence on so grand a scale that it is not surprising that the Church has leapt to his words as a direct prophecy of Jesus Christ. They are indeed a description of Him, out of whose shadow advancing time has not been able to carry the children of men, who has been the shelter and fertility of every generation since He was lifted up, and to whom the affections of individual hearts never rise higher than when they sing-

"Rock of ages, cleft for me,

Let me hide myself in Thee."

Such a rock was Christ indeed; but, in accordance with what we have said above, the prophet here has no individual specially in his view, but is rather laying down a general description of the influence of individual character, of which Christ Jesus was the highest instance. Taken in this sense, his famous words present us, first, with a philosophy of history, at the heart of which there is, secondly, a great gospel, and in the application of which there is, thirdly, a great ideal and duty for ourselves.

1. Isaiah gives us in this verse a philosophy of history. Great men are not the whole of life, but they are the condition of all the rest; if it were not for the big men, the little ones could scarcely live. The first requisites of religion and civilisation are outstanding characters.

In the East the following phenomenon is often observed. Where the desert touches a river-valley or oasis, the sand is in a continual state of drift from the wind, and it is this drift which is the real cause of the barrenness of such portions of the desert at least as abut upon the fertile land. For under the rain, or by infiltration of the river, plants often spring up through the sand, and there is sometimes promise of considerable fertility. It never lasts. Down comes the periodic drift, and life is stunted or choked out. But set down a rock on the sand, and see the difference its presence makes. After a few showers, to the leeward side of this some blades will spring up; if you have patience, you will see in time a garden. How has the boulder produced this? Simply by arresting the drift.

Now that is exactly how great men benefit human life. A great man serves his generation, serves the whole race, by arresting the drift. Deadly forces, blind and fatal as the desert wind, sweep down human history. In the beginning it was the dread of Nature, the cold blast which blows from every quarter on the barbarian, and might have stunted men to animals. But into some soul God breathed a great breath of freedom, and the man defied Nature. Nature has had her revenge by burying the rebel in oblivion. On the distant horizon of history we can see, merely in some old legend, the evidence of his audacity. But the drift was arrested; behind the event men took shelter, in the shelter grew free, and learned to think out what the first great resister felt.

When history had left this rock behind, and the drift had again space to grow, the same thing happened; and the hero this time was Abraham. He laid his back to the practice of his forefathers, and lifting his brow to heaven, was the first to worship the One Unseen God. Abraham believed; and in the shadow of his faith, and sheltered by his example, his descendants learned to believe too. Today from within the three great spiritual religions men look back to him as the father of the faithful.

When Isaiah, while all his countrymen were rushing down the mad, steep ways of politics, carried off by the only powers that were as yet known in these ways, fear of death and greed to be on the side of the strongest-when Isaiah stood still amid that panic rush, and uttered the memorable words, "In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength; in returning and rest shall ye be saved," he stopped one of the most dangerous drifts in history, and created in its despite a shelter for those spiritual graces, which have always been the beauty of the state, and are now coming to be recognised as its strength.

When in the early critical days of the Church, that dark drift of Jewish custom, which had overflown the barriers set to the old dispensation, threatened to spread its barrenness upon the fields of the Gentile world, already white to the harvest of Christ, and Peter and Barnabas and all the Apostles were carried away by it, what was it that saved Christianity? Under God, it was this: that Paul got up and, as he tells us, withstood Peter to the face.

And, again, when the powers of the Roman Church and the Roman Empire, checked for a little by the efforts which began the Reformation, gathered themselves together and rose in one awful front of emperor, cardinals, and princes at the Diet of Worms, what was it that stood fast against that drift of centuries, and proved the rock, under whose shelter men dared to read God’s pure word again, and preach His Gospel? It was the word of a lonely monk: "Here stand I. I cannot otherwise. So help me, God."

So that Isaiah is right. A single man has been as "a hiding-place from the wind and a covert from the tempest." History is swept by drifts: superstition, error, poisonous custom, dust-laden controversy. What has saved humanity has been the upraising of some great man to resist those drifts, to set his will, strong through faith, against the prevailing tendency, and be the shelter of the weaker, but not less desirous, souls of his brethren. "The history of what man has accomplished in the world is at bottom the history of the great men who have worked there." Under God, personal human power is the highest force, and God has ever used it as His chief instrument.

2. But in this philosophy of history there is a Gospel. Isaiah’s words are not only man’s ideal; they are God’s promise, and that promise has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the most conspicuous example-none others are near Him-of this personal influence in which Isaiah places all the shelter and revival of society. God has set His seal to the truth, that the greatest power in shaping human destiny is man himself, by becoming one with man, by using a human soul to be the Saviour of the race. "A man," says Isaiah, "shall be as a hiding-place from the wind, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land"; and the Rock of Ages was a Man. The world indeed knew that personal character could go higher than all else in the world, but they never knew how high till they saw Jesus Christ, or how often till they numbered His followers.

This figure of a rock, a rock resisting drift, gives us some idea, not only of the commanding influence of Christ’s person, but of that special office from which all the glory of His person and of His name arises: that "He saves His people from their sins."

For what is sin? Sin is simply the longest, heaviest drift in human history. It arose in the beginning, and has carried everything before it since. "The oldest custom of the race," it is the most powerful habit of the individual. Men have reared against it government, education, philosophy, system after system of religion. But sin overwhelmed them all.

Only Christ resisted, and His resistance saves the world: Alone among human lives presented to our view, that of Christ is sinless. What is so prevalent in human nature that we cannot think of a human individual without it never stained Christ’s life. Sin was about Him; it was not that He belonged to another sphere of things which lay above it. Sin was about Him. He rose from its midst with the same frailty as other men, encompassed by the same temptations; but where they rose to fall, He rose to stand, and standing he became the world’s Saviour. The great tradition was broken; the drift was arrested. Sin never could be the same again after the sinless manhood of Christ. The old world’s sins and cruel customs were shut out from the world that came after. Some of them ceased so absolutely as scarcely to be afterwards named; and the rest were so curbed that no civilised society suffered them to pass from its constraint, and no public conscience tolerated them as natural or necessary evils.

What the surface of the world’s life bears so deeply, that does every individual, who puts his trust in Jesus, feel to the core. Of Jesus the believer can truly say that life on this side of Him is very different from life on that. Temptations keep far away from the heart that keeps near to Christ. Under the shadow of our Rock, for us the evil of the present loses all its suggestiveness, the evil of the past its awful surge of habit and guilty fear.

3. But there is not only a philosophy of history and a gospel in this promise of a man. There is a great duty and ideal for every one. If this prophecy distinctly reaches forward to Jesus Christ as its only perfect fulfilment, the vagueness of its expression permits of its application to all, and through Him its fulfilment by all becomes a possibility. Now each of us may be a rock, a shelter, and a source of fertility to the life around him in three modes of constant influence. We can be like Christ, the Rock, in shutting out from our neighbours the knowledge and infection of sin, in keeping our conversation so unsuggestive and unprovocative of evil, that, though sin drift upon us, it shall never drift through us. And we may be like Christ, the Rock, in shutting out blame from other men; in sheltering them from the east wind of pitiless prejudice, quarrel, or controversy; in stopping the unclean and bitter drifts of scandal and gossip. How many lives have lost their fertility for the want of a little silence and a little shadow! Some righteous people have a terribly northeastern exposure; children do not play about their doors, nor the prodigal stop there. And again, as there are a number of men and women who fall in struggling for virtue simply because they never see it successful in others, and the spectacle of one pure, heroic character would be their salvation, here is another way in which each servant of God may be a rock. Of the late Clerk Maxwell it was said, "He made faith in goodness easy to other men." "A man shall be as streams of water in a desert place."

II. CAPACITY TO DISTINGUISH CHARACTER

(Isaiah 32:3-8)

But after the coming of this ideal, it is not paradise that is regained. Paradise is farther off. We must have truth to begin with: truth and the capacity to distinguish character The sternness with which Isaiah thus postpones his earlier vision shows us how sore his heart was about the "lying" temper of his people. We have heard him deploring the fascination of their false minds by the Egyptian Pretence. Their falseness, however, had not only shown itself in their foreign politics, but in their treatment of one another, in their social fashions, judgments, and worships. In society there prevailed a want of moral insight and of moral courage. At home also the Jews had failed to call things by their right names. Therefore next in their future Isaiah desires the cure of moral blindness, haste, and cowardice (Isaiah 32:3-4), with the explosion of all social lies (Isaiah 32:5). Men shall stand out for what they are, whether they be bad-for the bad shall not be wanting (Isaiah 32:6-7)-or good (Isaiah 32:8). On righteous government (Isaiah 32:1) and influence of strong men (Isaiah 32:2) must follow social truthfulness (Isaiah 32:3-8). Such is the line of the prophet’s demands. The details of Isaiah 32:3-8 are exceedingly interesting.

"And not closed shall be the eyes of them that see, and the ears of them that hear shall be pricked up." The context makes it clear that this is spoken, not of intellectual, but of moral, insight and alertness. "And the heart of the hasty shall learn how to know, and the tongue of the stammerer be quick" (the verb is the same as the "hasty" of the previous clause) "to speak plain things. Startlingly plain things"-for the word literally means "blinding-white" and is so used of the sun-"startlingly plain," like that scorching epigram upon Egypt. The morally rash and the morally timid are equal fathers of lies.

In illustration Isaiah takes the conventional abuse of certain moral terms, exposes it and declares it shall cease: "The vile person shall no more be called liberal, nor the Churl said to be bountiful." "Liberal" and "bountiful" were conventional names. The Hebrew word for "liberal" originally meant exactly that-"openhearted, generous, magnanimous." In the East it is the character which above all they call princely. So like our words "noble" and "nobility," it became a term of rank, lord or prince, and was often applied to men who were not at all great-hearted, but the very opposite-even to the "vile person." "Vile person" is literally the "faded" or the "exhausted," whether mentally or morally-the last kind of character that could be princely. The other conventional terms used by Isaiah refers to wealth rather than rank. The Hebrew for "bountiful" literally means "abundant," a man blessed with plenty, and is used in the Old Testament both for the rich and the fortunate. Its nearest English equivalent is perhaps "the successful man." To this Isaiah fitly opposes a name, wrongly rendered in our version "churl," but corrected in the margin to "crafty"-the "fraudulent," "the knave." When moral discrimination comes, says Isaiah, men will not apply the term "princely" to "worn-out" characters, nor grant them the social respect implied by the term. They will not call the "fraudulent" the "fortunate," nor canonise him as successful, who has gotten his wealth by underhand means. "The worthless character shall no more be called princely, nor the knave hailed as the successful." But men’s characters shall stand out true in their actions, and by their fruits ye shall know them. In those magic days the heart shall come to the lips, and its effects be unmistakable. "For the worthless person, worthlessness shall he speak"-what else can he?-"and his heart shall do iniquity, to practise profaneness and to utter against the Lord rank error, to make empty the soul of the hungry, and he will cause the drink of the thirsty to fail. The tools, too, of the knave" (a play upon words here-"Keli Kelav"-the knave his knives) "are evil; low tricks he deviseth to destroy the poor with words of falsehood, even when the poor speaks justice "(that is, has justice as well as poverty to plead for him). "But the princely things deviseth, and he upon princely things shall stand"-not upon conventional titles or rank, or the respect of insincere hearts, but upon actual deeds of generosity and sacrifice.

After great characters, then, what society needs is capacity to discern character, and the chief obstacle in the way of this discernment is the substitution of a conventional morality for a true morality, and of some distinction of man’s making for the eternal difference which God has set between right and wrong.

Human progress consists, according to Isaiah, of getting rid of these conventions; and in this history bears him out. The abolition of slavery, the recognition of the essential nobility of labour, the abolition of infanticide, the emancipation of woman-all these are due to the release of men’s minds from purely conventional notions, and the courageous application in their place of the fundamental laws of righteousness and love. If progress is still to continue, it must be by the same method. In many directions it is still a false conventionalism, -sometimes the relic of barbarism, sometimes the fruit of civilisation, -that blocks the way. The savage notions which obstruct the enforcement of masculine purity have to be exposed. Nor shall we ever get true commercial prosperity, or the sense of security which is indispensable to that, till men begin to cease calling transactions all right merely because they are the customs of the trade and the means to which its. members look for profits.

But, above all, as Isaiah tells us, we need to look to our use of language. It is one of the standing necessities of pure science to revise the terminology, to reserve for each object a special name, and see that all men understand the same object by the same name. Otherwise confusion comes m, and science is impossible. The necessity, though not so faithfully recognised, is as imperative in morals. If we consider the disgraceful mistakes in popular morals which have been produced by the transference and degradation of names, we shall feel it to be a religious duty to preserve for these their proper meaning. In the interests of morality, we must not be careless in our use of moral terms. As Socrates says in the Phaedo: "To use words wrongly and indefinitely is not merely an error in itself; it also creates evil in the soul" What noxious misconceptions, what mistaken ideals of life, are due to the abuse of these four words alone: "noble," "gentleman," "honour" and "Christian"! By applying these, in flattery or deceit, to persons unworthy of them, men have not only deprived them of the virtue which originally the mere utterance of them was enough to instil into the heart, but have sent forth to the world under their attractiveness second-rate types of character and ideals. The word "gentleman"! How the heart sickens as it thinks what a number of people have been satisfied to aim at a shoddy and superficial life because it was labelled with this gracious name. Conventionalism has deprived the English language of some of its most powerful sermons by devoting terms of singular moral expressiveness to do duty as mere labels upon characters that are dead, or on ranks and offices, for the designation of which mere cyphers might have sufficed.

We must not forget, however, Isaiah’s chief means for the abolition of this conventionalism and the substitution of a true moral vision and terminology. These results are to follow from the presence of the great character, "A Man," whom he has already lifted up. Conventionalism is another of the drifts which that Rock has to arrest. Setting ourselves to revise our dictionaries or to restore to our words their original meanings out of our memories is never enough. The rising of a conspicuous character alone can dissipate the moral haze; the sense of his influence will alone fill emptied forms with meaning. So Christ Jesus judged and judges the world by His simple presence; men fall to His right hand and to His left. He calls things by their right names, and restores to each term of religion and morals its original ideal, which the vulgar use of the world has worn away.


Verse 9

-24

BOOK 3

ORATIONS ON THE EGYPTIAN INTRIGUES AND ORACLES ON FOREIGN NATIONS

705-702 B.C.

Isaiah:

29 About 703

30 A little later

31 A little later

32:1-8 Later

32:9-20 Date uncertain

-----------------

14:28-21 736-702

23 About 703

WE now enter the prophecies of Isaiah’s old age, those which he published after 705, when his ministry had lasted for at least thirty-five years. They cover the years between 705, the date of Sennacherib’s accession to the Assyrian throne, and 701, when his army suddenly disappeared from before Jerusalem.

They fall into three groups:-

1. Chapters 29-32., dealing with Jewish politics while Sennacherib is still far from Palestine, 704-702, and having Egypt for their chief interest, Assyria lowering in the background.

2. Chapters 14:28-21 and 23, a group of oracles on foreign nations, threatened, like Judah, by Assyria.

3. Chapters 1, 22, and 33, and the historical narrative in 36, and 37., dealing with Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah and siege of Jerusalem in 701; Egypt and every foreign nation now fallen out of sight, and the storm about the Holy City too thick for the prophet to see beyond his immediate neighbourhood.

The first and second of these groups-orations on the intrigues with Egypt and oracles on the foreign nations-delivered while Sennacherib was still far from Syria, form the subject of this Third Book of our exposition.

The prophecies on the siege of Jerusalem are sufficiently numerous and distinctive to be put by themselves, along with their appendix (38, 39), in our Fourth Book.


Verses 9-20

CHAPTER XVI

ISAIAH TO WOMEN

DATE UNCERTAIN

Isaiah 32:9-20

THE date of this prophecy, which has been appended to those spoken by Isaiah during the Egyptian intrigues (704-702), is not certain. It is addressed to women, and there is no reason why the prophet, when he was upbraiding the men of Judah for their false optimism, should not also have sought to awaken the conscience of their wives and daughters on what is the besetting sin rather of women than of men. The chief evidence for dissociating the prophecy from its immediate predecessors is that it predicts, or apparently predicts (Isaiah 32:13-14), the ruin of Jerusalem, whereas in these years Isaiah was careful to exempt the Holy City from the fate which he saw falling on the rest of the land. But otherwise the argument of the prophecy is almost exactly that of chapters 29-30. By using the same words when he blames the women for "ease" and "carelessness" in Isaiah 32:9-11 as he does when he promises "confidence" and "quiet resting-places" in Isaiah 32:17-18, Isaiah makes clear that his purpose is to contrast the false optimism of society during the postponement of the Assyrian invasion with that confidence and stability upon righteousness which the Spirit of God can alone create. The prophecy, too, has the usual three stages: sin in the present, judgment in the immediate future, and a state of blessedness in the latter days. The near date at which judgment is threatened-"days beyond a year"-ought to be compared with Isaiah 29:1 : "Add ye a year to a year; let the feasts come round."

The new points are that it is the women who are threatened, that Jerusalem itself is pictured in ruin, and that the pouring out of the Spirit is promised as the cause of the blessed future.

I. THE CHARGE TO THE WOMEN

(Isaiah 32:9-12)

The charge to the women is especially interesting, not merely for its own terms, but because it is only part of a treatment of women which runs through the whole of Scripture.

Isaiah had already delivered against the women of Jerusalem a severe diatribe (chapter 3), the burden of which was their vanity and haughtiness. With the satiric temper, which distinguishes his earlier prophecies, he had mimicked their ogling and mincing gait, and described pin by pin their fashions and ornaments, promising them instead of these things "rottenness" and "baldness," and "a girdle of sackcloth and branding for beauty." But he has grown older, and penetrating below their outward fashion and gait, he charges them with thoughtlessness as the besetting sin of their sex. "Ye women that are at ease, rise up, and hear my voice; ye careless daughters, give ear to my speech. For days beyond a year shall ye be troubled, O careless women, for the vintage shall fail; the ingathering shall not come. Tremble, ye women that are at ease; be troubled, ye careless ones." By a pair of epithets he describes their fault; and almost thrice does he repeat the pair, as if he would emphasise it past all doubt. The besetting sin of women, as he dins into them, is ease; an ignorant and unthinking contentment with things as they are; thoughtlessness with regard to the deeper mysteries of life; disbelief in the possibility of change.

But Isaiah more than hints that these besetting sins of women are but the defects of their virtues. The literal meaning of the two adjectives he uses, "at ease" and "careless," is "restful" and "trustful." Scripture throughout employs these words both in a good and a bad sense. Isaiah does so himself in this very chapter (compare these verses with Isaiah 32:17-18). In the next chapter he describes the state of Jerusalem after redemption as a state of "ease" or "restfulness," and we know that he never ceased urging the people to "trustfulness." For such truly religious conditions he uses exactly the same names as for the shallow optimism with which he now charges his countrywomen. And so doing, he reminds us of an important law of character. The besetting sins of either sex are its virtues prostituted. A man’s greatest temptations proceed from his strength; but the glory of the feminine nature is repose, and trust is the strength of the feminine character, in which very things, however, lies all the possibility of woman’s degradation. Woman’s faith amounts at times to real intuition; but what risks are attached to this prophetic power-of impatience, of contentment with the first glance at things, "the inclination," as a great moralist has put it, "to take too easily the knowledge of the problems of life, and to rest content with what lies nearest her, instead of penetrating to a deeper foundation." Women are full of indulgence and hope; but what possibilities lie there of deception, false optimism, and want of that anxiety which alone makes progress possible. Women are more inclined than men to believe all things; but how certain is such a temper to sacrifice the claims of truth and honour. Women are full of tact, the just favourites of success, with infinite power to plead and please; but if they are aware of this, how certain is such a self-consciousness to produce negligence and the fatal sleep of the foolish virgins.

Scripture insists repeatedly on this truth of Isaiah’s about the besetting sin of women. The prophet Amos has engraved it in one of his sharpest epigrams, declaring that thoughtlessness is capable of turning women into very brutes, and their homes into desolate ruins: "Hear this word, ye kine of Bashan, that are in the mountain of Samaria, which oppress the poor, which crush the needy, which say unto their lords, Bring and let us drink. The Lord Jehovah hath sworn by His holiness that, lo, the days shall come upon you that they shall take you away with hooks, and your residue with fish-hooks, and ye shall go out at the breaches, every one straight before her, and ye shall cast yourselves into Harmon, saith Jehovah." It is a cowherd’s picture of women: a troop of cows, heavy, heedless animals, tramping in their anxiety for food upon every frail and lowly object in the way. There is a cowherd s coarseness in it, but a prophet’s insight into character. Not of Jezebels, or Messalinas, or Lady Macbeths is it spoken, but of the ordinary matrons of Samaria. Thoughtlessness is able to make brutes out of women of gentle nurture, with homes and a religion. For thoughtlessness, when joined to luxury or beauty, plays with cruel weapons. It means greed, arrogance, indifference to suffering, wantonness, pride of conquest, dissimulation in love, and revenge for little slights; and there is no waste, unkind sport, insolence, brutality, or hysterical violence to which it will not lead. Such women are known, as Amos pictured them, through many degrees of this thoughtlessness: interrupters of conversation, an offence to the wise; devourers of many of the little ones of God’s creation for the sake of their own ornament; tormentors of servants and subordinates for the sake of their own ease; out of the enjoyment of power or for admiration’s sake breakers of hearts. And are not all such victims of thoughtlessness best compared, with Amos, to a cow-an animal that rushes at its grass careless of the many daisies and ferns it tramples, that will destroy the beauty of a whole country lane for a few mouthfuls of herbage? Thoughtlessness, says Amos, -"and the Lord God hath sworn it by His holiness"-is the very negation of womanhood, the ruin of homes.

But when we turn from the degradation of woman as thus exposed by the prophets to her glory as lifted up in the New Testament, we find the same note is struck. Woman in the New Testament is gracious according as she is thoughtful; she offends even when otherwise beautiful by her feeling overpowering her thought. Martha spoils a most estimable character by one moment of unthinking passion, in which she accuses the Master of carelessness. Mary chooses the better part in close attention to her Master’s words. The Ten Virgins are divided into five wise and five foolish. Paul seems to have been struck, as Isaiah was, with the natural tendency of the female character, for the first duty he lays upon the old women is to "teach the young women to think discreetly," and he repeats the injunction, putting it before chastity and industry-"Teach them," he says, "teach them discretion". [Titus 2:4-5] In Mary herself, the mother of our Lord, we see two graces of character, to the honour of which Scripture gives equal place-faith and thoughtfulness. The few sentences, which are all that he devotes to Mary’s character, the Evangelist divides equally between these two. She was called "blessed" because she believed the word of the Lord. But trustfulness did not mean in her, as in other women, neglect to think. Twice, at an interval of twelve years, we are shown thoughtfulness and carefulness of memory as the habitual grace of this first among women. "Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. His mother kept all these sayings in her heart." What was Mary’s glory was other women’s salvation. By her logic the sufferer of Capernaum, whom many physicians failed to benefit, found her cure; by her persistent argument the Syrophenician woman received her daughter to health again. And when our Lord met that flippant descendant of "the kine of Bashan, that are in the mount of Samaria," how did He treat her that He might save her but by giving her matter to think about, by speaking to her in riddles, by exploding her superficial knowledge, and scattering her easy optimism?

So does all Scripture declare in harmony with the oracle of Isaiah, that thoughtlessness and easy contentment with things as they be, are the besetting sins of woman. But her glory is discretion.

The next new point in this prophecy is the

II. DESTRUCTION OF JERUSALEM

(Isaiah 32:13-15)

"Upon the land of my people shall come up thorns and briers; yea, upon all the houses of joy in the joyous city: for the palace shall be forsaken; the populous city shall be deserted; Ophel and the Watch-tower shall be for dens forever, a joy of wild asses, a pasture of flocks." The attempt has been made to confine this reference to the outskirts of the sacred city, but it is hardly a just one. The prophet, though he does not name the city, evidently means Jerusalem, and means the whole of it. Some therefore deny the authenticity of the prophecy. Certainly it is almost impossible to suppose that so definite a sentence of ruin can have been published at the same time as the assurances of Jerusalem’s inviolability in the preceding orations. But that does not prevent the hypothesis that it was uttered by Isaiah at an earlier period, when, as in chapters 2 and 3, he did say extreme things about the destruction of his city. It must be noticed, however, that Isaiah speaks with some vagueness; that at the present moment he is not concerned with any religious truth or will of the Almighty, but simply desires to contrast the careless gaiety of the women of Jerusalem with the fate hanging over them. How could he do this more forcibly than by turning the streets and gardens of their delights into ruins and the haunts of the wild ass, even though it should seem inconsistent with his declaration that Zion was inviolable? License for a certain amount of inconsistency is absolutely necessary in the case of a prophet who had so many divers truths to utter to so many opposite interests and tempers. Besides, at this time he had already reduced Jerusalem very low. [Isaiah 29:4]

III. THE SPIRIT OUTPOURED

(Isaiah 32:15-20)

The rest of the prophecy is luminous rather than lucid, full of suffused rather than distinct meanings. The date of the future regeneration is indefinite-another feature more in harmony with Isaiah’s earlier prophecies than his later. The cause of the blessing is the outpouring of the Spirit of God (Isaiah 32:15). Righteousness and peace are to come to earth by a distinct creative act of God. Isaiah adds his voice to the invariable testimony of prophets and apostles, who, whether they speak of society or the heart of individual man, place their hope in new life from above by the Spirit of the living God. Victor Hugo says, "There are no weeds in society, only bad cultivators"; and places all hope of progress towards perfection in proper methods of social culture. These are needed, as much as the corn, which will not spring from the sunshine alone, requires the hand of the sower, and the harrow. And Isaiah, too, speaks here of human conduct and effort as required to fill up the blessedness of the future: righteousness and labour. But first, and indispensably, he, with all the prophets, places the Spirit of God.

It appears that Isaiah looked for the fruits of the Spirit both as material and moral. He bases the quiet resting-places and regular labours of the future not on righteousness only, but on fertility and righteousness. "The wilderness shall become a fruitful field," and what is today "a fruitful field shall be counted as a forest." That this proverb, used by Isaiah more than once, is not merely a metaphor for the moral revolution he describes in the next verse, is proved by his having already declared the unfruitfulness of their soil as part of his people’s punishment. Fertility is promised for itself, and as the accompaniment of moral bountifulness. "And there shall dwell in the wilderness justice, and righteousness shall abide in the fruitful field."

And the work of righteousness shall be peace, and the effect, or "service, of righteousness, quietness and confidence forever. And my people shall abide in a peaceable habitation, and in sure dwellings, and in quiet resting-places Blessed are ye that sow beside all waters, that send forth the feet of the ox and the ass!"

There is not a prophecy more characteristic of Isaiah. It unfolds what for him were the two essential and equal contents of the will of God: a secure land and a righteous people, the fertility of nature and the purity of society. But in those years (705-702) he did not forget that something must come between him and that paradise. Across the very middle of his vision of felicity there dashes a cruel storm. In the gap indicated above Isaiah wrote, "But it shall hail in the downfall of the forest, and the city shall be utterly laid low." A hailstorm between the promise and fulfilment of summer! Isaiah could only mean the Assyrian invasion, which was now lowering so dark. Before it bursts we must follow him to the survey which he made, during these years before the siege of Jerusalem, of the foreign nations on whom, equally with Jerusalem, that storm was to sweep.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Isaiah 32:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/isaiah-32.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 15th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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