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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Isaiah 33

 

 

Verses 1-24

CHAPTER XXI

OUR GOD A CONSUMING FIRE

701 B.C.

Isaiah 33:1-24

WE have seen how the sense of forgiveness and the exultant confidence, which fill chapter 33, were brought about within a few months after the sentence of death, that cast so deep a gloom on chapter 22. We have expounded some of the contents of chapter 33, but have not exhausted the chapter; and in particular we have not touched one of Isaiah’s principles, which there finds perhaps its finest expression: the consuming righteousness of God.

There is no doubt that chapter 33, refers to the sudden disappearance of the Assyrian from the walls of Jerusalem. It was written, part perhaps on the eve of that deliverance, part immediately after morning broke upon the vanished host. Before those verses which picture the disappearance of the investing army, we ought in strict chronological order to take the narrative in chapters 36 and 37-the return of the besiegers, the insolence of the Rabshakeh, the prostration of Hezekiah, Isaiah’s solitary faith, and the sudden disappearance of the Assyrian. It will be more convenient, however, since we have already entered chapter 33, to finish it, and then to take the narrative of the events which led up to it.

The opening verses of chapter 33, fit the very moment of the crisis, as if Isaiah had flung them across the walls in the teeth of the Rabshakeh and the second embassy from Sennacherib, who had returned to demand the surrender of the city in spite of Hezekiah’s tribute for her integrity: "Woe to thee, thou spoiler, and thou wast not spoiled, thou treacherous dealer, and they did not deal treacherously with thee! When thou ceasest to spoil thou shalt be spoiled; and when thou makest an end to deal treacherously, they shall deal treacherously with thee." Then follows the prayer, as already quoted, and the confidence in the security of Jerusalem (Isaiah 33:2). A new paragraph (Isaiah 33:7-12) describes Rabshakeh and his company demanding the surrender of the city; the disappointment of the ambassadors who had been sent to treat with Sennacherib (Isaiah 33:7); the perfidy of the great king, who had broken the covenant they had made with him and swept his armies back upon Judah (Isaiah 33:8); the disheartening of the land under this new shock (Isaiah 33:9); and the resolution of the Lord now to rise and scatter the invaders: "Now will I arise, saith Jehovah; now will I lift up Myself; now will I be exalted. Ye shall conceive chaff; ye shall bring forth stubble; your breath is a fire, that shall devour you. And the peoples shall be as the burnings of lime, as thorns cut down that are burned in the fire" (Isaiah 33:10-12).

After an application of this same fire of God’s righteousness to the sinners within Jerusalem, to which we shall presently return, the rest of the chapter pictures the stunned populace awaking to the fact that they are free. Is the Assyrian really gone, or do the Jews dream as they crowd the walls, and see no trace of him? Have they all vanished-the Rabshakeh, "by the conduit of the upper pool, with his loud voice" and insults; the scribes to whom they handed the tribute, and who prolonged the agony by counting it under their eyes; the scouts and engineers insolently walking about Zion and mapping out her walls for the assault; the close investment of barbarian hordes, with their awesome speech and uncouth looks! "Where is he that counted? where is he that weighed the tribute? where is he that counted the towers? Thou shalt not see the fierce people, a people of a deep speech that thou canst not perceive, of a strange tongue that thou canst not understand." They have vanished. Hezekiah may lift his head again. O people-sore at heart to see thy king in sackcloth and ashes (chapter 37) as the enemy devoured province after province of thy land and cooped thee up within the narrow walls, thou scarcely didst dare to peep across-take courage, the terror is gone! "A king in his beauty thine eyes shall see; they shall behold the land spreading very far forth" (Isaiah 33:17). We had thought to die in the restlessness and horror of war, never again to know what stable life and regular worship were, our Temple services interrupted, our home a battlefield. But "look upon Zion"; behold again "she is the city of our solemn diets; thine eyes shall see Jerusalem a quiet habitation, a tent that shall not be removed, the stakes whereof shall never be plucked up, neither shall the cords thereof be broken. But there Jehovah," whom we have known only for affliction, "shall be in majesty for us." Other peoples have their natural defences, Assyria and Egypt their Euphrates and Nile; but God Himself shall be for us "a place of rivers, streams, broad on both hands, on which never a galley shall go, nor gallant ship shall pass upon it." Without sign of battle, God shall be our refuge and our strength. It was that marvellous deliverance of Jerusalem by the hand of God, with no effort of human war, which caused Isaiah to invest with such majesty the meagre rock, its squalid surroundings and paltry defences. The insignificant and waterless city was glorious to the prophet because God was in her. One of the richest imaginations which patriot ever poured upon his fatherland was inspired by the simplest faith saint ever breathed. Isaiah strikes again the old keynote (chapter 8) about the waterlessness of Jerusalem. We have to keep in mind the Jews’ complaints of this, in order to understand what the forty-sixth Psalm means when it says, "There is a river the streams whereof make glad the city of our God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the Most High"-or what Isaiah means when he says, "Glorious shall Jehovah be unto us, a place of broad rivers and streams." Yea, he adds, Jehovah is everything to us: "Jehovah is our Judge; Jehovah is our Lawgiver; Jehovah is our King: He will save us."

Such were the feelings aroused in Jerusalem by the sudden relief of the city. Some of the verses, which we have scarcely touched, we will now consider more fully as the expression of a doctrine which runs throughout Isaiah, and indeed is one of his two or three fundamental truths-that the righteousness of God is an all-pervading atmosphere, an atmosphere that wears and burns.

For forty years the prophet had been preaching to the Jews his gospel, "God-with-us"; but they never awakened to the reality of the Divine presence till they saw it in the dispersion of the Assyrian army. Then God became real to them (Isaiah 33:14). The justice of God, preached so long by Isaiah, had always seemed something abstract. Now they saw how concrete it was. It was not only a doctrine: it was a fact. It was a fact that was a fire. Isaiah had often called it a fire; they thought this was rhetoric. But now they saw the actual burning-"the peoples as the burning of lime, as thorns cut down that are burned in the fire." And when they felt the fire so near, each sinner of them awoke to the fact that he had something burnable in himself, something which could as little stand the fire as the Assyrians could. There was no difference in this fire outside and inside the walls. What it burned there it would burn here. Nay, was not Jerusalem the dwelling-place of God, and Ariel the very hearth and furnace of the fire which they saw consume the Assyrians? "Who," they cried in their terror-"Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?"

We are familiar with Isaiah’s fundamental God-with-us, and how it was spoken not for mercy only, but for judgment (chapter 8). If "God-with-us" meant love with us, salvation with us, it meant also holiness with us, judgment with us, the jealousy of God breathing upon what is impure, false, and proud. Isaiah felt this so hotly that his sense of it has broken out into some of the fieriest words in all prophecy. In his younger days he told the citizens not "to provoke the eyes of God’s glory," as if Heaven had fastened on their life two gleaming orbs, not only to pierce them with its vision, but to consume them with its wrath. Again, in the lowering cloud of calamity he had seen "lips of indignation, a tongue as a devouring fire," and in the overflowing stream which finally issued from it the hot "breath of the Almighty." These are unforgettable descriptions of the ceaseless activity of Divine righteousness in the life of man. They set our, imaginations on fire with the prophet’s burning belief in this. But they are excelled by another, more frequently used by Isaiah, wherein he likens the holiness of God to a universal and constant fire. To Isaiah life was so penetrated by the active justice of God, that he described it as bathed in fire, as blown through with fire. Righteousness was no mere doctrine to this prophet: it was the most real thing in history; it was the presence which pervaded and explained all phenomena. We shall understand the difference between Isaiah and his people if we have ever for our eyes’ sake looked at a great conflagration through a coloured glass which allowed us to see the solid materials-stone, wood, and iron-but prevented us from perceiving the flames and shimmering heat. To look thus is to see pillars, lintels, and crossbeams twist and fall, crumble and fade; but how inexplicable the process seems! Take away the glass, and everything is clear. The fiery element is filling all the interstices, that were blank to us before, and beating upon the solid material. The heat becomes visible, shimmering even where there is no flame. Just so had it been with the sinners in Judah these forty years. Their society and politics, individual fortunes and careers, personal and national habits-the home, the Church, the State-common outlines and shapes of life-were patent to every eye, but no man could explain the constant decay and diminution, because all were looking at life through a glass darkly. Isaiah alone faced life with open vision, which filled up for him the interstices of experience and gave terrible explanation to fate. It was a vision that nearly scorched the eyes out of him. Life as he saw it was steeped in flame-the glowing righteousness of God. Jerusalem was full "of the spirit of justice, the spirit of burning. The light of Israel is for a fire, and his Holy One for a flame." The Assyrian empire, that vast erection which the strong hands of kings had reared, was simply their pyre, made ready for the burning. "For a Topheth is prepared of old; yea, for the king it is made ready; He hath made it deep and large; the pile thereof is fire and much wood; the breath of Jehovah, like a stream of brimstone, doth kindle." [Isaiah 4:4;, Isaiah 30:33] So Isaiah saw life, and flashed it on his countrymen. At last the glass fell from their eyes also, and they cried aloud, "Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?" Isaiah replied that there is one thing which can survive the universal flame, and that is character: "He that walketh righteously and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of fraud, that shaketh his hands from the holding of bribes, that stoppeth his ears from the hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from looking on evil, he shall dwell on high: his place of defence shall be the monitions of rocks: his bread shall be given him: his water shall be sure."

Isaiah’s Vision of Fire suggests two thoughts to us.

1. Have we done well to confine our horror of the consuming fires of righteousness to the next life? If we would but use the eyes which Scripture lends us, the rifts of prophetic vision and awakened conscience by which the fogs of this world and of our own hearts are rent, we should see fires as fierce, a consumption as pitiless, about us here as ever the conscience of a startled sinner fearfully looked for across the grave. Nay, have not the fires, with which the darkness of eternity has been made lurid, themselves been kindled at the burnings of this life? Is it not because men have felt how hot this world was being made for sin that they have had a "certain fearful expectation of judgment and the fierceness of fire?" We shudder at the horrible pictures of hell which some older theologians and poets have painted for us; but it was not morbid fancy, nor the barbarism of their age, nor their own heart’s cruelty that inspired these men. It was their hot honour for the Divine holiness; it was their experience of how pitiless to sin Providence is already in this life; it was their own scorched senses and affections-brands, as many honest men among them felt themselves, plucked from the burning. Our God is a consuming fire-here as well as yonder. Hell has borrowed her glare from the imagination of men aflame with the real fieriness of life, and may be-more truly than of old-pictured as the dead and hollow cinder left by. those fires, of which, as every true man’s conscience is aware, this life is full. It was not hell that created conscience; it was conscience that created hell, and conscience was fired by the vision which fired Isaiah-of all life aglow with the righteousness of God-"God with us," as He was with Jerusalem, "a spirit of burning and a spirit of justice." This is the pantheism of conscience, and it stands to reason. God is the one power of life. What can exist beside Him except what is like Him? Nothing-sooner or later nothing but what is like Him. The will that is as His will, the heart that is pure, the character that is transparent-only these dwell with the everlasting fire, and burning with God, as the bush which Moses saw, are nevertheless not consumed. Let us lay it to heart-Isaiah has nothing to tell us about hell-fire, but a great deal about the pitiless justice of God in this life.

2. The second thought suggested by Isaiah’s Vision of Life is a comparison of it with the theory of life which is fashionable today. Isaiah’s figure for life was a burning. Ours is a battle, and at first sight ours looks the truer. Seen through a formula which has become everywhere fashionable, life is a fierce and fascinating warfare. Civilised thought, when asked to describe any form of life or to account for a death or survival, most monotonously replies, "The struggle for existence." The sociologist has borrowed the phrase from the biologist, and it is on everybody’s lips to describe their idea of human life. It is uttered by the historian when he would explain the disappearance of this national type, the prevalence of that one. The economist traces depression and failures, the fatal fevers of speculation, the cruelties and bad humours of commercial life, to the same source. A merchant with profits lessening and failure before him relieves his despair and apologises to his pride with the words, "It is all due to competition." Even character and the spiritual graces are sometimes set down as results of the same material process. Some have sought to deduce from it all intelligence, others more audaciously all ethics; and it is certain that in the silence of men’s hearts after a moral defeat there is no excuse more frequently offered to conscience by will than that the battle was too hot.

But fascinating as life is-when seen through this formula, does not the formula act on our vision precisely as the glass we supposed, which: when we look through it on a conflagration shows us the solid matter and the changes through which this passes, but hides from us the real agent? One need not deny the reality of the struggle for existence, or that its results are enormous. We struggle with each other, and affect each other for good and for evil, sometimes past all calculation. But we do not fight a vacuum. Let Isaiah’s vision be the complement of our own feeling. We fight in an atmosphere that affects every one of us far more powerfully than the opposing wits or wills of our fellow-men. Around us and through us, within and without as we fight, is the all-pervading righteousness of God; and it is far oftener the effects of this which we see in the falls and the changes of life than the effects of our struggle with each other, enormous though these may be. On this point there is an exact parallel between our days and the days of Isaiah. Then the politicians of Judah, looking through their darkened glass at life, said, Life is simply a war in which the strongest prevail, a game which the most cunning win. So they made fast their alliances, and were ready to meet the Assyrian, or they fled in panic before him, according as Egypt or he seemed the stronger. Isaiah saw that with Assyrian and Jew another Power was present-the real reason of every change in politics, collapse or crash in either of the empires-the active righteousness of God. Assyrian and Jew had not only to contend with each other. They were at strife with Him. We now see plainly that Isaiah was right. Far more operative then the intrigues of politicians or the pride of Assyria, because it used these simply as its mines and its fuel, was the law of righteousness, the spiritual force which is as impalpable the atmosphere, yet strong to burn and try as a furnace seven times heated. And Isaiah is equally right for today. As we look at life through our fashionable formula it does seem a mass of struggle, in which we catch only now and then a glimpse of the decisions of righteousness, but the prevailing lawlessness of which we do not hesitate to make the reason of all that happens, and in particular the excuse of our own defeats. We are wrong. Righteousness is not an occasional spark; righteousness is the atmosphere. Though our dull eyes see it only now and then strike into flame in the battle of life, and take for granted that it is but the flash of meeting wits or of steel, God’s justice is everywhere, pervasive and pitiless, affecting the combatants far more than they have power to affect one another.

We shall best learn the truth of this in the way the sinners in Jerusalem learned it-each man first looking into himself. "Who among us shall dwell with the everlasting burnings?" Can we attribute all our defeats to the opposition that was upon us at the moment they occurred? When our temper failed, when our charity relaxed, when our resoluteness gave way, was it the hotness of debate, was it the pressure of the crowd, was it the sneer of the scorner, that was to blame? We all know that these were only the occasions of our defeats. Conscience tells us that the cause lay in a slothful or self-indulgent heart, which the corrosive atmosphere of Divine righteousness had been consuming, and which, sapped and hollow by its effect, gave way at every material shock.

With the knowledge that conscience gives us, let us now look at a kind of figure which must be within the horizon of all of us. Once it was the most commanding stature among its fellows, the straight back and broad brow of a king of men. But now what is the last sight of him that will remain with us, flung out there against the evening skies of his life? A bent back (we speak of character), a stooping face, the shrinking outlines of a man ready to collapse. It was not the struggle for existence that killed him, for he was born to prevail in it. It was the atmosphere that told on him. He carried in him that on which the atmosphere could not but tell. A low selfishness or passion inhabited him, and became the predominant part of him, so that his outward life was only its shell; and when the fire of God at last pierced this, he was as thorns cut down, that are burned in the fire.

We can explain much with the outward eye, but the most of the explanation lies beyond. Where our knowledge of a man’s life ends, the great meaning of it often only begins. All the vacancy beyond the outline we see is full of that meaning. God is there, and "God is a consuming fire." Let us not seek to explain lives only by what we see of them, the visible strife of man with man and nature. It is the invisible that contains the secret of what is seen. We see the shoulders stoop, but not the burden upon them; the face darken, but look in vain for what casts the shadow; the light sparkle in the eye, but cannot tell what star of hope its glance has caught. And even so, when we behold fortune and character go down in the warfare of this world, we ought, to remember that it is not always the things we see that are to blame for the fall, but that awful flame which, unseen by common man, has been revealed to the prophets of God.

Righteousness and retribution, then, are an atmosphere-not lines or laws that we may happen to stumble upon, not explosives, that, being touched, burst out on us, but the atmosphere-always about us and always at work, invisible and yet more mighty than aught we see. "God, in whom we live and move and have our being, is a consuming fire."

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Isaiah 33:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/isaiah-33.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, October 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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