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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Isaiah 40

 

 

Verses 1-11

CHAPTER V

THE PROLOGUE: THE FOUR HERALD VOICES

Isaiah 40:1-11

IT is only Voices which we hear in this Prologue. No forms can be discerned, whether of men or angels, and it is even difficult to make out the direction from which the Voices come. Only one thing is certain-that they break the night, that they proclaim the end of a long but fixed period, during which God has punished and forsaken His people. At first, the persons addressed are the prophets, that they may speak to the people (Isaiah 40:1-2); but afterwards Jerusalem as a whole is summoned to publish the good tidings. [Isaiah 40:9] This interchange between a part of the people and the whole-this commission to prophesy, made with one breath to some of the nation for the sake of the rest, and with the next breath to the entire nation-is a habit of our prophet to which we shall soon get accustomed. How natural and characteristic it is, is proved by its appearance in these very first verses.

The beginning of the good tidings is Israel’s pardon; yet it seems not to be the people’s return to Palestine which is announced in consequence of this, so much as their God’s return to them. "Prepare ye the way of Jehovah, make straight a highway for our God. Behold the Lord Jehovah will come." We may, however, take "the way of Jehovah in the wilderness" to mean what it means in the sixty-eighth Psalm, -His going forth before His people and leading of them back; while the promise that He will come to "shepherd His flock" [Isaiah 40:11] is, of course, the promise that He will resume the government of Israel upon their own land. There can be no doubt, therefore, that this chapter was meant for the people at the close of their captivity in Babylon. But do not let us miss the pathetic fact that Israel is addressed not in her actual shape of a captive people in a foreign land, but under the name and aspect of her far-away desolate country. In these verses Israel is "Jerusalem, Zion, the cities of Judah" Such designations do not prove, as a few critics have rather pedantically supposed, that the writer of the verses lived in Judah and addressed himself to what was under his eyes. It is not the vision of a Jew at home that has determined the choice of these names, but the desire and the dream of a Jew abroad: that extraordinary passion, which, however distant might be the land of his exile, ever filled the Jew’s eyes with Zion, caused him to feel the ruin and forsakenness of his Mother more than his own servitude, and swept his patriotic hopes, across his own deliverance and return, to the greater glory of her restoration. There is nothing, therefore, to prevent us taking for granted, as we did in the previous chapter, that the speaker or speakers of these verses stood among the exiles themselves; but who they were-men or angels, prophets or scribes-is lost in the darkness out of which their music breaks.

Nevertheless the prophecy is not anonymous. By these impersonal voices a personal revelation is made. The prophets may be nameless, but the Deity who speaks through them speaks as already known and acknowledged: "My people, saith your God."

This is a point, which, though it takes for its expression no more than these two little pronouns, we must not hurriedly pass over. All the prophecy we are about to study may be said to hang from these pronouns. They are the hinges, on which the door of this new temple of revelation swings open before the long-expectant people. And, in fact, such a conscience and sympathy as these little words express form the necessary premise of all revelation. Revelation implies a previous knowledge of God, and cannot work upon men, except there already exist in them the sense that they and God somehow belong to each other. This sense need be neither pure, nor strong, nor articulate. It may be the most selfish and cowardly of guilty fears, -Jacob’s dread as he drew near Esau, whom he had treacherously supplanted, -the vaguest of ignorant desires, the Athenians’ worship of the Unknown God. But, whatever it is, the angel comes to wrestle with it, the apostle is sent to declare it; revelation in some form takes it as its premise and starting-point. This previous sense of God may also be fuller than in the cases just cited. Take our Lord’s own illustration. Upon the prodigal in the strange country there surged again the far-ebbed memory of his home and childhood, of his years of familiarity with a Father; and it was this tide which carried back his penitent heart within the hearing of his Father’s voice, and the revelation of the love that became his new life. Now Israel, also in a far-off land, were borne upon the recollection of home: and of life in the favour of their God. We have: seen with what knowledge of Him and from what relations with Him they were banished.

To the men of the Exile God was already a Name and an Experience, and because that Name was The Righteous, and that Experience was all grace and promise, these men waited for His Word more than they that wait for the morning; and when at length the Word broke from the long darkness and silence, they received it, though its bearers might be unseen and unaccredited, because they recognised and acknowledged in it Himself. He who spoke was their God, and they were His people. This conscience and sympathy was all the title or credential which the revelation required. It is, therefore, not too much to say, as we have said, that the two pronouns in Isaiah 40:1, are the necessary premise of the whole prophecy which that verse introduces.

With this introduction we may now take up the four herald voices of the Prologue. Whatever may have been their original relation to one another, whether or not they came to Israel by different messengers, they are arranged (as we saw at the close of the previous chapter) in manifest order and progress of thought, and they meet in due succession the experiences of Israel at the close of the Exile. For the first of them (Isaiah 40:1-2) gives the "subjective assurance" of the coming redemption: it is the Voice of Grace. The second (Isaiah 40:3-5) proclaims the "objective reality" of that redemption: it may be called the Voice of Providence, or-to use the name by which our prophecy loves to entitle the just and victorious providence of God-the Voice of Righteousness. The third (Isaiah 40:6-8) uncovers the pledge and earnest of the redemption: in the weakness of men this shall be the Word of God. While the fourth (Isaiah 40:9-11) is the Proclamation of Jehovah’s restored kingdom, when He cometh as a shepherd to shepherd His people. To this progress and climax the music of the passage forms a perfect accompaniment. It would be difficult to find in any language lips that first more softly woo the heart, and then take to themselves so brave a trumpet of challenge and assurance. The opening is upon a few short pulses of music, which steal from heaven as gently as the first ripples of light in a cloudless dawn-

Nahamu, nahamu ammi:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people:

Dabberu ‘al-lev Yerushalaim.

Speak upon the heart of Jerusalem.

But then the trumpet-tone breaks forth, "Call unto her"; and on that high key the music stays, sweeping with the second voice across hill and dale like a company of swift horsemen, stooping with the third for a while to the elegy upon the withered grass, but then recovering itself, braced by all the strength of the Word of God, to peal from tower to tower with the fourth, upon the cry, "Behold, the Lord cometh," till it sinks almost from sound to sight, and yields us, as from the surface of still waters, that sweet reflection of the twenty-third Psalm with which the Prologue concludes.

1. Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith your God

Speak ye home to the heart of Jerusalem, and call unto her,

That accomplished is her warfare, that absolved is her iniquity;

That she hath received of Jehovah’s hand double for all her sins.

This first voice, with the music of which our hearts have been thrilled ever since we can remember, speaks twice: first in a whisper, then in a call-the whisper of the Lover and the call of the Lord. "Speak ye home to the heart of Jerusalem, and call unto her."

Now Jerusalem lay in ruins, a city through whose breached walls all the winds of heaven blew mournfully across her forsaken floors. And the "heart of Jerusalem," which was with her people in exile, was like the city-broken and defenceless. In that far-off, unsympathetic land it lay open to the alien; tyrants forced their idols upon it, the peoples tortured it with their jests.

For they that led us captive required of us songs,

And they that wasted us required of us mirth.

But observe how gently the Divine Beleaguerer approaches, how softly He bids His heralds plead by the gaps, through which the oppressor has forced his idols and his insults. Of all human language they might use, God bids His messengers take and plead with the words with which a man will plead at a maiden’s heart, knowing that he has nothing but love to offer as right of entrance, and waiting until love and trust come out to welcome him. "Speak ye," says the original literally, "on to," or "up against" or "up round the heart of Jerusalem,"-a forcible expression, like the German "An das Herz," or the sweet Scottish, "It cam’ up roond my heart," and perhaps best rendered into English by the phrase, "Speak home to the heart." It is the ordinary Hebrew expression for wooing. As from man to woman when he wins her, the Old Testament uses it several times. To "speak home to the heart" is to use language in which authority and argument are both ignored, and love works her own inspiration. While the haughty Babylonian planted by force his idols, while the folly and temptations of heathendom surged recklessly in, God Himself, the Creator of this broken heart, its Husband and Inhabitant of old, stood lowly by its breaches, pleading in love the right to enter. But when entrance has been granted, see how He bids His heralds change their voice and disposition. The suppliant lover, being received, assumes possession and defence, and they, who were first bid whisper as beggars by each unguarded breach, now leap upon the walls to call from the accepted Lord of the city: "Fulfilled is thy time of service, absolved thine iniquity, received hast thou of Jehovah’s hand double for all thy sins."

Now this is no mere rhetorical figure. This is the abiding attitude and aim of the Almighty towards men. God’s target is our heart. His revelation, whatever of law or threat it send before, is, in its own superlative clearness and urgency, Grace. It comes to man by way of the heart; not at first by argument addressed to the intellect, nor by appeal to experience, but by the sheer strength of a love laid "on to the heart." It is, to begin with, a subjective thing. Is revelation, then, entirely a subjective assurance? Do the pardon and peace which it proclaims remain only feelings of the heart, without anything to correspond to them in real fact? By no means; for these Jews the revelation now whispered to their heart will actually take shape in providences of the most concrete kind. A voice will immediately call, "Prepare ye the way of the Lord," and the way will be prepared. Babylon will fall; Cyrus will let Israel go; their release will appear-most concrete of things!-in "black and white" on a Persian state-parchment. Yet, before these events happen and become part of His people’s experience, God desires first to convince His people by the sheer urgency of His love. Before He displays His Providence, He will speak in the power and evidence of His Grace. Afterwards, His prophets shall appeal to outward facts; we shall find them in succeeding chapters arguing both with Israel and the heathen on grounds of reason and the facts of history. But, in the meantime, let them only feel that in His Grace they have something for the heart of men, which, striking home, shall be its own evidence and force.

Thus God adventures His Word forth by nameless and unaccredited men upon no other authority than the Grace, with which it is fraught for the heart of His people. The illustration, which this affords of the method and evidence of Divine revelation, is obvious. Let us, with all the strength of which we are capable, emphasise the fact that our prophecy-which is full of the materials for an elaborate theology, which contains the most detailed apologetic in the whole Bible, and displays the most glorious prospect of man’s service and destiny-takes its source and origin from a simple revelation of Grace and the subjective assurance of this in the heart of those to whom it is addressed. This proclamation of Grace is as characteristic and dominant in Second Isaiah as we saw the proclamation of conscience in Isaiah 1:1-31 to be characteristic of the First Isaiah.

Before we pass on, let us look for a moment at the contents of this Grace, in the three clauses of the prophet’s cry: "Fulfilled is her warfare, absolved her guilt, received hath she of Jehovah’s hand double for all her sins." The very grammar here is eloquent of grace. The emphasis lies on the three predicates, which ought to stand in translation, as they do in the original, at the beginning of each clause. Prominence is given, not to the warfare, nor to the guilt, nor to the sins, but to this, that "accomplished" is the warfare, "absolved" the guilt, "sufficiently expiated" the sins. It is a great AT LAST which these clauses peal forth; but an At Last whose tone is not so much inevitableness as undeserved grace. The term translated warfare means "period of military service, appointed term of conscription"; and the application is apparent when we remember that the Exile had been fixed, by the Word of God through Jeremiah, to a definite number of years. "Absolved" is the passive of a verb meaning to "pay off what is due." [Leviticus 27:1-34] But the third clause is especially gracious. It declares that Israel has suffered of punishment more than double enough to atone for her sins. This is not a way of regarding either sin or atonement, which, theologically speaking, is accurate. What of its relation to our Articles, that man cannot give satisfaction for his sins by the work of his hands or the pains of his flesh? No: it would scarcely pass some of our creeds today. But all the more, that it thus bursts forth from strict terms of dealing, does it reveal the generosity of Him who utters it. How full of pity God is, to take so much account of the sufferings sinners have brought upon themselves! How full of grace to reckon those sufferings "double the sins" that had earned them! It is as when we have seem gracious men make us a free gift, and in their courtesy insist that we have worked for it. It is grace masked by grace. As the height of art is to conceal art, so the height of grace is to conceal grace, which it does in this verse.

Such is the Voice of Grace. But,

2. Hark, One calling!

In the wilderness prepare the way of Jehovah!

Make straight in the desert a highway for our God!

Every valley shall be exalted,

And every mountain and hill be made low:

And the crooked grow straight,

And rough places a plain:

And the glory of Jehovah be revealed,

And see it shall all flesh together;

For the mouth of Jehovah hath spoken.

The relation of this Voice to the previous one has already been indicated. This is the witness of Providence following upon the witness of Grace. Religion is a matter in the first place between God and the heart; but religion does not, as many mock, remain an inward feeling. The secret relation between God and His people issues into substantial fact, visible to all men. History vindicates faith; Providence executes Promise; Righteousness follows Grace. So, as the first Voice was spoken "to the heart," this second is for the hands and feet and active will. "Prepare ye the way of the Lord." If you, poor captives as you are, begin to act upon the grace whispered in your trembling hearts, the world will show the result. All things will come round to your side. A levelled empire, an altered world-across those your way shall lie clear to Jerusalem. You shall go forth in the sight of all men, and future generations looking back shall praise this manifest wonder of your God. "The glory of Jehovah shall be revealed, and see it shall all flesh together."

On which words, how can our hearts help rising from the comfort of grace to the sense of mastery over this world, to the assurance of heaven itself? History must come round to the side of faith-as it has come round not in the case of Jewish exiles only, but wheresoever such a faith as theirs has been repeated. History must come round to the side of faith, if men will only obey the second as well as the first of these herald voices. But we are too ready to listen to the Word of the Lord, without seeking to prepare His way. We are satisfied with the personal comfort of our God; we are contented to be forgiven and-oh mockery!-left alone. But the word of God will not leave us alone, and not for comfort only is it spoken. On the back of the voice, which sets our heart right with God, comes the voice to set the world right, and no man is godly who has not heard both. Are we timid and afraid that facts will not correspond to our faith? Nay, but as God reigneth they shall, if only we put to our hands and make them; "all flesh shall see it," if we will but "prepare the way of the Lord."

Have we only ancient proofs of this? On the contrary, God has done like wonders within the lives of those of us who are yet young. During our generation, a people has appealed from the convictions of her heart to the arbitrament of history, and appealed not in vain. When the citizens of the Northern States of the American Republic, not content as they might have been with their protests against slavery, rose to vindicate these by the sword, they faced, humanly speaking, a risk as great as that to which Jew was ever called by the word of God. Their own brethren were against them; the world stood aloof. But even so, unaided by united patriotism and as much dismayed as encouraged by the opinions of civilisation, they rose to the issue on the strength of conscience and their hearts. They rose and they conquered. Slavery was abolished. What had been but the conviction of a few men became the surprise, the admiration, the consent of the whole world. "The glory of the Lord was revealed, and all flesh saw it together."

3. But the shadow of death falls on everything, even on the way of the Lord. By 550 B.C.-that is, after thirty-eight years of exile-nearly all the strong men of Israel’s days of independence must have been taken away. Death had been busy with the exiles for more than a generation. There was no longer any human representative of Jehovah to rally the people’s trust; the monarchy, each possible Messiah who in turn held it, the priesthood, and the prophethood-whose great personalities so often took the place of Israel’s official leaders-had all alike disappeared. It was little wonder, then, that a nation accustomed to be led, not by ideas like us Westerns, but by personages, who were to it the embodiment of Jehovah’s will and guidance, should have been cast into despair by the call, "Prepare ye the way of the Lord." What sort of a call was this for a people whose strong men were like things uprooted and withered! How could one be, with any heart, a herald of the Lord to such a people!

Hark one saying "Call."

And I said:

"What can I call?

All flesh is grass,

And all its beauty like a wild-flower!

Withers grass, fades flower,

When the breath of Jehovah blows on it.

Surely grass is the people."

Back comes a voice like the east wind’s for pitilessness to the flowers, but of the east wind’s own strength and clearness, to proclaim Israel’s everlasting hope.

Withers grass, fades flower,

But the word of our God endureth for ever,

Everything human may perish; the day may be past of the great prophets, of the priests-of the King in his beauty, who was vicegerent of God. But the people have God’s word; when all their leaders have fallen, and every visible authority for God is taken away, this shall be their rally and their confidence.

All this is too like the actual experience of Israel in Exile not to be the true interpretation of this third, stern Voice. Their political and religious institutions, which had so often proved the initiative of a new movement, or served as a bridge to carry the nation across disaster to a larger future, were not in existence. Nor does any Moses, as in Egypt of old, rise to visibleness from among his obscure people, impose his authority upon them, marshal them, and lead them out behind him to freedom. But what we see is a scattered and a leaderless people, stirred in their shadow, as a ripe cornfield is stirred by the breeze before dawn-stirred in their shadow by the ancient promises of God, and everywhere breaking out at the touch of these into psalms and prophecies of hope. We see them expectant of redemption, we see them resolved to return, we see them carried across the desert to Zion, and from first to last it is the word of God that is their inspiration and assurance.

They, who formerly had rallied round the Ark or the Temple, or who had risen to the hope of a glorious Messiah, do not now speak of all these, but their "hope," they tell us, "is in His word"; it is the instrument of their salvation, and their destiny is to be its evangelists.

4. To this high destiny the fourth Voice now summons them, by a vivid figure

Up on a high mountain, get thee up,

Heraldess of good news, O Zion!

Lift up with strength thy voice,

Heraldess of good news, Jerusalem!

Lift up, fear not, say to the cities of Judah:-

Behold, your God.

Behold, my Lord Jehovah, with power He cometh,

And His arm rules for Him.

Behold, His reward with Him,

And His recompense before Him.

As a shepherd His flock He shepherds;

With His right arm gathers the lambs,

And in His bosom bears them.

Ewe-mothers He tenderly leads.

The title which I have somewhat awkwardly translated "heraldess"-but in English there is really no better word for it-is the feminine participle of a verb meaning to "thrill," or "give joy, by means of good news." It is used generally to tell such happy news as the birth of a child, but mostly in the special sense of carrying tidings of victory or peace home from the field to the people. The feminine participle would seem from Psalms 68:1-35 "the women who publish victory to the great host," to have been the usual term for the members of those female choirs, who, like Miriam and her maidens, celebrated a triumph in face of the army, or came forth from the city to hail the returning conqueror, as the daughters of Jerusalem hailed Saul and David. As such a chorister, Zion is now summoned to proclaim Jehovah’s arrival at the gates of the cities of Judah.

The verses from "Behold, your God," to the end of the Prologue are the song of the heraldess. Do not their mingled martial and pastoral strains exactly suit the case of the Return? For this is an expedition, on which the nation’s champion has gone forth, not to lead His enemies captives to His gates, but that He may gather His people home. Not mailed men, in the pride of a victory they have helped to win, march in behind Him.-"armour and tumult and the garment rolled in blood,"-but a herd of mixed and feeble folk, with babes and women, in need of carriage and gentle leading, wander wearily back. And, therefore, in the mouth of the heraldess the figure changes from a warrior-king to the Good Shepherd. "With His right arm He gathers the lambs, and in His bosom bears them. Ewe-mothers He gently leads." How true a picture, and how much it recalls! Fifty years before, the exiles left their home (as we can see to this day upon Assyrian sculptures) in closely-driven companies, fettered, and with the urgency upon them of grim soldiers, who marched at intervals in their ranks to keep up the pace, and who tossed the weaklings impatiently aside. But now, see the slow and loosely-gathered bands wander back, just as quickly as the weakest feel strength to travel, and without any force or any guidance save that of their Almighty, Unseen Shepherd.

We are now able to appreciate the dramatic unity of this Prologue. How perfectly it gathers into its four Voices the whole course of Israel’s redemption: the first assurance of Grace whispered to the heart, cooperation with Providence, confidence in God’s bare Word, the full Return, and the Restoration of the City.

But its climax is undoubtedly the honour it lays upon the whole people to be publishers of the good news of God. Of this it speaks with trumpet tones. All Jerusalem must be a herald-people. And how could Israel help owning the constraint and inspiration to so high an office, after so heartfelt an experience of grace, so evident a redemption, so glorious a proof of the power of the Word of God? To have the heart thus filled with grace, to have the will enlisted in so Divine a work, to have known the almightiness of the Divine Word when everything else failed-after such an experience, who would not be able to preach the good news of God, to foretell, as our prophet bids Israel foretell, the coming of the Kingdom and Presence of God-the day when the Lord’s flock shall be perfect and none wanting, when society, though still weary and weak and mortal, shall have no stragglers nor outcasts nor reprobates.

O God, so fill us with Thy grace and enlist us in Thy work, so manifest the might of Thy word to us, that the ideal of Thy perfect kingdom may shine as bright and near to us as to Thy prophet of old, and that we may become its inspired preachers and ever labour in its hope. Amen.


Verses 1-31

CHAPTER XIV

THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF ISRAEL AND THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD

Isaiah 40:1-31; Isaiah 41:1-29; Isaiah 42:1-25; Isaiah 43:1-28; Isaiah 44:1-28; Isaiah 45:1-25; Isaiah 46:1-13; Isaiah 47:1-15; Isaiah 48:1-22; Isaiah 49:1-26; Isaiah 50:1-11; Isaiah 51:1-23; Isaiah 52:1-15; Isaiah 53:1-12; Isaiah 54:1-17; Isaiah 55:1-13; Isaiah 56:1-12; Isaiah 57:1-21; Isaiah 58:1-14; Isaiah 59:1-21; Isaiah 60:1-22; Isaiah 61:1-11; Isaiah 62:1-12; Isaiah 63:1-19; Isaiah 64:1-12; Isaiah 65:1-25; Isaiah 66:1-24

IN the chapters which we have been studying we have found some difficulty with one of our prophet’s keynotes-"right" or "righteousness." In the chapters to come we shall find this difficulty increase, unless we take some trouble now to define how much the word denotes in Isaiah 40:1-31; Isaiah 41:1-29; Isaiah 42:1-25; Isaiah 43:1-28; Isaiah 44:1-28; Isaiah 45:1-25; Isaiah 46:1-13; Isaiah 47:1-15; Isaiah 48:1-22; Isaiah 49:1-26; Isaiah 50:1-11; Isaiah 51:1-23; Isaiah 52:1-15; Isaiah 53:1-12; Isaiah 54:1-17; Isaiah 55:1-13; Isaiah 56:1-12; Isaiah 57:1-21; Isaiah 58:1-14; Isaiah 59:1-21; Isaiah 60:1-22; Isaiah 61:1-11; Isaiah 62:1-12; Isaiah 63:1-19; Isaiah 64:1-12; Isaiah 65:1-25; Isaiah 66:1-24. There is no part of Scripture, in which the term "righteousness" suffers so many developments of meaning. To leave these vague, as readers usually do, or to fasten upon one and all the technical meaning of righteousness in Christian theology, is not only to obscure the historical reference and moral force of single passages, -it is to miss one of the main arguments of the prophecy. We have read enough to see that "righteousness" was the great question of the Exile. But what was brought into question was not only the righteousness of the people, but the righteousness of their God. In Isaiah 40:1-31; Isaiah 41:1-29; Isaiah 42:1-25; Isaiah 43:1-28; Isaiah 44:1-28; Isaiah 45:1-25; Isaiah 46:1-13; Isaiah 47:1-15; Isaiah 48:1-22; Isaiah 49:1-26; Isaiah 50:1-11; Isaiah 51:1-23; Isaiah 52:1-15; Isaiah 53:1-12; Isaiah 54:1-17; Isaiah 55:1-13; Isaiah 56:1-12; Isaiah 57:1-21; Isaiah 58:1-14; Isaiah 59:1-21; Isaiah 60:1-22; Isaiah 61:1-11; Isaiah 62:1-12; Isaiah 63:1-19; Isaiah 64:1-12; Isaiah 65:1-25; Isaiah 66:1-24 righteousness is more often claimed as a Divine attribute, than enforced as a human duty or ideal.

I. RIGHTEOUSNESS

Ssedheq, the Hebrew root for righteousness, had, like the Latin "rectus," in its earliest and now almost forgotten uses, a physical meaning. This may have been either "straightness," or more probably "soundness,"-the state in which a thing is "all right." "Paths of righteousness," in Psalms 23:1-6 and Isaiah 40:4, are not necessarily straight paths, but rather sure, genuine, safe paths. Like all physical metaphors, like our own words "straight" and "right," the applicability of the term to moral conduct was exceedingly elastic. It has been attempted to gather most of its meaning under the definition of "conformity to norm"; and so many are the instances in which the word has a forensic force, as of "vindication" or "justification," that some have claimed this for its original, or, at least, its governing sense. But it is improbable that either of these definitions conveys the simplest or most general sense of the word. Even if "conformity" or "justification" were ever the prevailing sense of ssedheq, there are a number of instances in which its meaning far overflows the limits of such definitions. Every one can see how a word, which may generally be used to express an abstract idea, like "conformity," or a formal relation towards a law or person, like "justification," might come to be applied to the actual virtues, which realise that idea or lift a character into that relation. Thus righteousness might mean justice, or truth, or almsgiving, or religious obedience, -to each of which, in fact, the Hebrew word was at various times specially applied. Or righteousness might mean virtue in general, virtue apart from all consideration of law or duty whatsoever. In the prophet Amos, for instance, "righteousness" is applied to a goodness so natural and spontaneous that no one could think of it for a moment as conformity to norm or fulfilment of law.

In short, it is impossible to give a definition of the Hebrew word, which our version renders as "righteousness," less wide than our English word "right." "Righteousness" is "right" in all its senses, -natural, legal, personal, religious. It is to be all right, to be right-hearted, to be consistent, to be thorough; but also to be in the right, to be justified, to be vindicated; and, in particular, it may mean to be humane (as with Amos), to be just (as with Isaiah), to be correct or true to fact (as sometimes with our own prophet), to fulfil the ordinances of religion, and especially the command about almsgiving (as with the later Jews).

Let us now keep in mind that righteousness could express a relation, or a general quality of character, or some particular virtue. For we shall find traces of all these meanings in our prophet’s application of the term to Israel and to God.

II. THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF ISRAEL

One of the simplest forms of the use of "righteousness" in the Old Testament is when it is employed in the case of ordinary quarrels between two persons; in which for one of them "to be righteous" means "to be right" or "in the right." [Genesis 38:26; Cf. 2 Samuel 15:4] Now to the Hebrew all life and religion was based upon covenants between two, -between man and man and between man and God. Righteousness meant fidelity to the terms of those covenants. The positive contents of the word in any single instance of its use would, therefore, depend on the faithfulness and delicacy of conscience by which those terms were interpreted. In early Israel this conscience was not so keen as it afterwards came to be, and accordingly Israel’s sense of their righteousness towards God was, to begin with, a comparatively shallow one. When a Psalmist asseverates his righteousness and pleads it as the ground for God rewarding him, it is plain that he is able with sincerity to make a claim, so repellent to a Christian’s feeling, just because he has not anything like a Christian’s conscience of what God demands from man. As Calvin says on Psalms 18:20 "David here represents God as the President of an athletic contest, who had chosen him as one of His champions, and David knows that so long as he keeps to the rules of the contest, so long will God defend him." It is evident that in such an assertion righteousness cannot mean perfect innocence, but simply the good conscience of a man, who, with simple ideas of what is demanded from him, feels that on the whole "he has" (slightly to paraphrase Calvin) "played fair."

Two things, almost simultaneously, shook Israel out of this primitive and naive self-righteousness. History went against them, and the prophets quickened their conscience. The effect of the former of these two causes will be clear to us, if we recollect the judicial element in the Hebrew righteousness, -that it often meant not so much to be right, as to be vindicated or declared right. History, to Israel, was God’s supreme tribunal. It was the faith of the people, expressed over and over again in the Old Testament, that the godly man is vindicated or justified by his prosperity: "the way of the ungodly shall perish." And Israel felt themselves to be in the right, just as. David, in Psalms 18:1-50, felt himself, because God had accredited them with success and victory. But when the decision of history went against the nation, when they were threatened with expulsion from their land and with extinction as a people, that just meant that the Supreme Judge of men was giving His sentence against them. Israel had broken the terms of the Covenant. They had lost their right; they were no longer "righteous." The keener conscience, developed by prophecy, swiftly explained this sentence of history. This declaration, that the people were unrighteous, was due, the prophet said, to the people’s sins. Isaiah not only exclaimed, "Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire"; he added, in equal indictment, "How is the faithful city become a harlot! it was full of justice, righteousness lodged in it, but now murderers: thy princes are rebellious, they judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come before them." To Isaiah and the earlier prophets Israel was unrighteous because it was so immoral. With their strong social conscience, righteousness meant to these prophets the practice of civic virtues, -truth-telling, honesty between citizens, tenderness to the poor, inflexible justice in high places.

Here then we have two possible meanings for Israel’s righteousness in the prophetic writings, allied and necessary to one another, yet logically distinct, -the one a becoming righteous through the exercise of virtue, the other a being shown to be righteous by the voice of history. In the one case righteousness is the practical result of the working of the Spirit of God; in the other it is vindication, or justification, by the Providence of God. Isaiah and the earlier prophets, while the sentence of history was still not executed and might through the mercy of God be revoked, incline to employ righteousness predominantly in the former sense. But it will be understood how, after the Exile, it was the latter, which became the prevailing determination of the word. By that great disaster God finally uttered the clear sentence, of which previous history had been but the foreboding. Israel in exile was fully declared to be in the wrong-to be unrighteous. As a church, she lay under the ban; as a nation, she was discredited before the nations of the world. And her one longing, hope, and effort during the weary years of Captivity was to have her right vindicated again, was to be restored to right relations to God and to the world, under the Covenant.

This is the predominant meaning of the term, as applied to Israel, in Isaiah 40:1-31; Isaiah 41:1-29; Isaiah 42:1-25; Isaiah 43:1-28; Isaiah 44:1-28; Isaiah 45:1-25; Isaiah 46:1-13; Isaiah 47:1-15; Isaiah 48:1-22; Isaiah 49:1-26; Isaiah 50:1-11; Isaiah 51:1-23; Isaiah 52:1-15; Isaiah 53:1-12; Isaiah 54:1-17; Isaiah 55:1-13; Isaiah 56:1-12; Isaiah 57:1-21; Isaiah 58:1-14; Isaiah 59:1-21; Isaiah 60:1-22; Isaiah 61:1-11; Isaiah 62:1-12; Isaiah 63:1-19; Isaiah 64:1-12; Isaiah 65:1-25; Isaiah 66:1-24. Israel’s unrighteousness is her state of discredit and disgrace under the hands of God; her righteousness, which she hopes for, is her restoral to her station and destiny as the elect people. To our Christian habit of thinking, it is very natural to read the frequent and splendid phrases in which "righteousness" is attributed or promised to the people of God in this evangelical prophecy, as if righteousness were that inward assurance and justification from an evil conscience, which, as we are taught by the New Testament, is provided for us through the death of Christ, and inwardly sealed to us by the Holy Ghost, irrespective of the course of our outward fortune. But if we read that meaning into "righteousness" in Isaiah 40:1-31; Isaiah 41:1-29; Isaiah 42:1-25; Isaiah 43:1-28; Isaiah 44:1-28; Isaiah 45:1-25; Isaiah 46:1-13; Isaiah 47:1-15; Isaiah 48:1-22; Isaiah 49:1-26; Isaiah 50:1-11; Isaiah 51:1-23; Isaiah 52:1-15; Isaiah 53:1-12; Isaiah 54:1-17; Isaiah 55:1-13; Isaiah 56:1-12; Isaiah 57:1-21; Isaiah 58:1-14; Isaiah 59:1-21; Isaiah 60:1-22; Isaiah 61:1-11; Isaiah 62:1-12; Isaiah 63:1-19; Isaiah 64:1-12; Isaiah 65:1-25; Isaiah 66:1-24, we shall simply not understand some of the grandest passages of the prophecy. We must clearly keep in view, that while the prophet ceaselessly emphasises the pardon of God "spoken home to the heart" of the people as the first step towards their restoral, he does not apply the term righteousness to this inward justification, but to the outward vindication and accrediting of Israel by God before the whole world, in their redemption from Captivity, and their reinstatement as His people. This is very clear from the way in which "righteousness" is coupled with "salvation" by the prophet, as [Isaiah 62:1] "I will not rest till her righteousness go forth as brightness, and her salvation as a lamp that burneth." Or again from the way in which righteousness and glory are put in parallel: [Isaiah 62:2] "And the nations shall see thy righteousness, and all kings thy glory." Or again in the way that "righteousness" and "renown" are identified: [Isaiah 61:11] "The Lord Jehovah will cause righteousness and renown to spring forth before all the nations." In each of these promises the idea of an external and manifest splendour is evident; not the inward peace of justification felt only by the conscience to which it has been granted, but the outward historical victory appreciable by the gross sense of the heathen. Of course the outward implies the inward, -this historical triumph is the crown of a religious process, the result of forgiveness and a long purification, -but while in the New Testament it is these which would be most readily called a people’s righteousness, it is the former (what the New Testament would rather call "the crown of life"), which has appropriated the name in Isaiah 40:1-31; Isaiah 41:1-29; Isaiah 42:1-25; Isaiah 43:1-28; Isaiah 44:1-28; Isaiah 45:1-25; Isaiah 46:1-13; Isaiah 47:1-15; Isaiah 48:1-22; Isaiah 49:1-26; Isaiah 50:1-11; Isaiah 51:1-23; Isaiah 52:1-15; Isaiah 53:1-12; Isaiah 54:1-17; Isaiah 55:1-13; Isaiah 56:1-12; Isaiah 57:1-21; Isaiah 58:1-14; Isaiah 59:1-21; Isaiah 60:1-22; Isaiah 61:1-11; Isaiah 62:1-12; Isaiah 63:1-19; Isaiah 64:1-12; Isaiah 65:1-25; Isaiah 66:1-24. The same is manifest from another text: [Isaiah 48:18] "O that thou hadst hearkened to My commandments; then had thy peace been as the River, and thy righteousness like the waves of the sea." Here "righteousness is not only not applied to inward morality, but set over against this as its external reward,"-the health and splendour which a good conscience produces. It is in the same external sense that the prophet talks of the "robe of righteousness" with its bridal splendour, and compares it to the appearance of "Spring." [Isaiah 61:10-11]

For this kind of righteousness, this vindication by God before the world, Israel waited throughout the Exile. God addresses them as "they that pursue righteousness, that seek Jehovah." [Isaiah 51:1] And it is a closely allied meaning, though perhaps with a more inward application, when the people are represented as praying God to give them "ordinances of righteousness," [Isaiah 58:2] -that is, to prescribe such a ritual as will expiate their guilt and bring them into a right relation with Him. They sought in vain. The great lesson of the Exile was that not by works and performances, but through simply waiting upon the Lord, their righteousness should shine forth. Even this outward kind of justification was to be by faith.

The other meaning of righteousness, however, -the sense of social and civic morality, which was its usual sense with the earlier prophets, -is not altogether excluded from the use of the word in Isaiah 40:1-31; Isaiah 41:1-29; Isaiah 42:1-25; Isaiah 43:1-28; Isaiah 44:1-28; Isaiah 45:1-25; Isaiah 46:1-13; Isaiah 47:1-15; Isaiah 48:1-22; Isaiah 49:1-26; Isaiah 50:1-11; Isaiah 51:1-23; Isaiah 52:1-15; Isaiah 53:1-12; Isaiah 54:1-17; Isaiah 55:1-13; Isaiah 56:1-12; Isaiah 57:1-21; Isaiah 58:1-14; Isaiah 59:1-21; Isaiah 60:1-22; Isaiah 61:1-11; Isaiah 62:1-12; Isaiah 63:1-19; Isaiah 64:1-12; Isaiah 65:1-25; Isaiah 66:1-24 Here are some commands and reproaches which seem to imply it. "Keep judgment, and do righteousness,"-where, from what follows, righteousness evidently means observing the Sabbath and doing no evil. [Isaiah 56:1] "And justice is fallen away backward, and righteousness standeth afar off, for truth is fallen in the street, and steadfastness cannot enter." [Isaiah 59:14] These must be terms for human virtues, for shortly afterwards it is said: "Jehovah was displeased because there was no justice." Again, "They seek Me as a nation that did righteousness"; [Isaiah 58:2] "Hearken unto Me, ye that know righteousness, a people-My law is in their hearts"; [Isaiah 51:7] "Thou meetest him that worketh righteousness"; [Isaiah 64:5] "No one sues in righteousness, and none goeth to law in truth." [Isaiah 59:4] In all these passages "righteousness" means something that man can know and do, his conscience and his duty, and is rightly to be distinguished from those others, in which "righteousness" is equivalent to the salvation, the glory, the peace, which only God’s power can bring. If the passages that employ "righteousness" in the sense of moral or religious observance really date from the Exile, then the interesting fact is assured to us that the Jews enjoyed some degree of social independence and responsibility during their Captivity. But it is a very striking fact that these passages all belong to chapters, the exilic origin of which is questioned even by critics, who assign the rest of Isaiah 40:1-31; Isaiah 41:1-29; Isaiah 42:1-25; Isaiah 43:1-28; Isaiah 44:1-28; Isaiah 45:1-25; Isaiah 46:1-13; Isaiah 47:1-15; Isaiah 48:1-22; Isaiah 49:1-26; Isaiah 50:1-11; Isaiah 51:1-23; Isaiah 52:1-15; Isaiah 53:1-12; Isaiah 54:1-17; Isaiah 55:1-13; Isaiah 56:1-12; Isaiah 57:1-21; Isaiah 58:1-14; Isaiah 59:1-21; Isaiah 60:1-22; Isaiah 61:1-11; Isaiah 62:1-12; Isaiah 63:1-19; Isaiah 64:1-12; Isaiah 65:1-25; Isaiah 66:1-24 to the Exile. Yet, even if these passages have all to be assigned to the Exile, how few they are in number! How they contrast with the frequency, with which, in the earlier part of this book, -in the orations addressed by Isaiah to his own times, when Israel was still an independent state, -"righteousness" is reiterated as the daily, practical duty of men, as justice, truthfulness, and charity between man and man! The extreme rarity of such inculcations in Isaiah 40:1-31; Isaiah 41:1-29; Isaiah 42:1-25; Isaiah 43:1-28; Isaiah 44:1-28; Isaiah 45:1-25; Isaiah 46:1-13; Isaiah 47:1-15; Isaiah 48:1-22; Isaiah 49:1-26; Isaiah 50:1-11; Isaiah 51:1-23; Isaiah 52:1-15; Isaiah 53:1-12; Isaiah 54:1-17; Isaiah 55:1-13; Isaiah 56:1-12; Isaiah 57:1-21; Isaiah 58:1-14; Isaiah 59:1-21; Isaiah 60:1-22; Isaiah 61:1-11; Isaiah 62:1-12; Isaiah 63:1-19; Isaiah 64:1-12; Isaiah 65:1-25; Isaiah 66:1-24 warns us that we must not expect to find here the same practical and political interest which formed so much of the charm and the force of Isaiah 1:1-31 - Isaiah 39:1-8. The nation has now no politics, almost no social morals. Israel are not citizens working out their own salvation in the market, the camp, and the senate; but captives waiting a deliverance in God’s time, which no act of theirs can hasten. It is not in the street that the interest of Second Isaiah lies: it is on the horizon. Hence the vague feeling of a distant splendour, which as the reader passes from Isaiah 39:1-8 to Isaiah 40:1-31, replaces in his mind the stir of living in a busy crowd, the close and throbbing sense of the civic conscience, the voice of statesmen, the clash of the weapons of war. There is no opportunity for individuals to reveal themselves. It is a nation waiting, indistinguishable in shadow, whose outlines only we see. It is no longer the thrilling practical cry, which sends men into the arenas of social life with every sinew in them strung: "Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow." It is rather the cry of one who still waits for his working day to dawn: "I will lift up mine eyes to the hills; from whence cometh my help?" Righteousness is not the near and daily duty, it is the far-off peace and splendour of skies, that have scarce begun to redden to the day.

III. THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD

But there was another Person, whose righteousness was in question during the Exile, and who Himself argues for it throughout our prophecy. Perhaps the most peculiar feature of the theology of Isaiah 40:1-31; Isaiah 41:1-29; Isaiah 42:1-25; Isaiah 43:1-28; Isaiah 44:1-28; Isaiah 45:1-25; Isaiah 46:1-13; Isaiah 47:1-15; Isaiah 48:1-22; Isaiah 49:1-26; Isaiah 50:1-11; Isaiah 51:1-23; Isaiah 52:1-15; Isaiah 53:1-12; Isaiah 54:1-17; Isaiah 55:1-13; Isaiah 56:1-12; Isaiah 57:1-21; Isaiah 58:1-14; Isaiah 59:1-21; Isaiah 60:1-22; Isaiah 61:1-11; Isaiah 62:1-12; Isaiah 63:1-19; Isaiah 64:1-12; Isaiah 65:1-25; Isaiah 66:1-24 is its argument for "the righteousness of Jehovah."

Some critics maintain that righteousness, when applied to Jehovah, bears always a technical reference to His covenant with Israel. This is scarcely correct. Jehovah’s dealings with Israel were no doubt the chief of His dealings, and it is these, which He mainly quotes to illustrate His righteousness; but we have already studied passages, which prove to us that Jehovah's righteousness was an absolute quality of His Godhead, shown to others besides Israel, and in loyalty to obligations different from the terms of His covenant with Israel. In Isaiah 41:1-29 Jehovah calls upon the heathen to match their righteousness with His; righteousness was therefore a quality that might have been attributed to them as well as to Himself. Again, in Isaiah 45:19 "I, Jehovah, speak righteousness, I declare things that are right,"-righteousness evidently bears a general sense, and not one of exclusive application to God’s dealing with Israel. It is the same in the passage about Cyrus: [Isaiah 45:13] "I have raised him up in righteousness, I will make straight all his ways." Though Cyrus was called in connection with God’s purpose towards Israel, it is not that purpose which makes his calling righteous, but the fact that God means to carry him through, or, as the parallel verse says, "to make straight all his ways." These instances are sufficient to prove that the righteousness, which God attributes to His words, to His actions, and to Himself, is a general quality not confined to His dealings with Israel under the covenant, -though, of course, most clearly illustrated by these.

If now we enquire, what this absolute quality of Jehovah’s Deity really means, we may conveniently begin with His application of it to His Word. In Isaiah 41:1-29 He summons the other religions to exhibit predictions that are true to fact. "Who hath declared it on-ahead that we may know, or from aforetime that we may say, He is ssaddiq." Here ssaddiq simply means "right, correct," true to fact. It is much the same meaning in Isaiah 43:9, where the verb is used of heathen predicters, "that they may be shown to be right," or "correct" (English version, "justified"). But when, in Isaiah 46:1-13, the word is applied by Jehovah to His own speech, it has a meaning of far richer contents, than mere correctness, and proves to us that after all the Hebrew ssedheq was almost as versatile as the English "right." The following passage shows us that the righteousness of Jehovah’s speech is its clearness, straightforwardness, and practical effectiveness: "Not in secret have I spoken, in a place of the land of darkness,"-this has been supposed to refer to the remote or subterranean localities in which heathen oracles mysteriously entrenched themselves, -"I have not said to the seed of Jacob, In Chaos seek Me. I am Jehovah, a Speaker of righteousness, a Publisher of straight things. Be gathered and come, draw near together, O remnants of the nations. They know not that carry the log of their image, and pray to a god who does not save. Publish and bring near, yea, let them take counsel together. Who caused this to be heard of old? long since hath published it? Is it not I, Jehovah, and there is none else God beside Me; a God righteous and a Saviour, there is none except Me. Turn unto Me and be saved, all ends of Earth, for I am God, and there is none else. By Myself have I sworn, gone forth from My mouth hath righteousness: a word and it shall not turn; for to Me shall bow every knee, shall swear every tongue. Truly in Jehovah, shall they say of Me, are righteousnesses and strength. To Him shall it come, and shamed shall be all that are incensed against Him. In Jehovah shall be righteous and renowned all the seed of Israel." [Isaiah 45:19-25]

In this very suggestive passage "righteousness" means far more than simple correctness of prediction. Indeed, it is difficult to distinguish how much it means, so quickly do its varying echoes throng upon our ear, from the new associations in which it is spoken. A word such as "righteousness" is like the sensitive tones of the human voice. Spoken in a desert, the voice is itself and nothing more; but utter it where the landscape is crowded with novel obstacles, and the original note is almost lost amid the echoes it startles. So with the "righteousness of Jehovah"; among the new associations in which the prophet affirms it, it starts novel repetitions of itself. Against the ambiguity of the oracles, it is echoed back as "clearness, straightforwardness, good faith"; [Isaiah 40:19] against their opportunism and want of foresight, it is described as equivalent to the capacity for arranging things beforehand and predicting what must come to pass, therefore as "purposefulness"; while against their futility, it is plainly "effectiveness and power to prevail." [Isaiah 40:23] It is the quality in God, which divides His Godhead with His power, something intellectual as well as moral, the possession of a reasonable purpose as well as fidelity towards it.

This intellectual sense of righteousness, as reasonableness or purposefulness, is clearly illustrated by the way in which the prophet appeals, in order to enforce it, to Jehovah’s creation of the world. "Thus saith Jehovah, Creator of the heavens-He is the God-Former of the Earth and her Maker, He founded her; not Chaos did He create her, to be dwelt in did He form her." [Isaiah 45:18] The word "Chaos" here is the same as is used in opposition to "righteousness" in the following verse. The sentence plainly illustrates the truth, that whatever God does, He does not so as to issue in confusion, but with a reasonable purpose and for a practical end. We have here the repetition of that deep, strong note, which Isaiah himself so often sounded to the comfort of men in perplexity or despair, that God is at least reasonable, not working for nothing, nor beginning only to leave off, nor creating in order to destroy. The same God, says our prophet, who formed the earth in order to see it inhabited, must surely be believed to be consistent enough to carry to the end also His spiritual work among men. Our prophet’s idea of God’s righteousness, therefore, includes the idea of reasonableness; implies rational as well as moral consistency, practical sense as well as good faith; the conscience of a reasonable plan, and, perhaps also, the power to carry it through.

To know that this great and varied meaning belongs to "righteousness" gives us new insight into those passages, which find in it all the motive and efficiency of the Divine action: "It pleased Jehovah for His righteousness"; [Isaiah 42:21] "His righteousness, it upheld Him; and He put on righteousness as a breastplate." [Isaiah 59:16-17]

With such a righteousness did Jehovah deal with Israel. To her despair that He has forgotten her. He recounts the historical events by which He has made her His own, and affirms that He will carry them on; and you feel the expression both of fidelity and of the consciousness of ability to fulfil, in the words, "I will uphold thee with the right hand of My righteousness." "Right hand"-there is more than the touch of fidelity in this; there is the grasp of power. Again, to the Israel who was conscious of being His Servant, God says, "I, Jehovah, have called thee in righteousness"; and, taken with the context, the word plainly means good faith and intention to sustain and carry to success.

It was easy to transfer the name "righteousness" from the character of God’s action to its results, but always, of course, in the vindication of His purpose and word. Therefore, just as the salvation of Israel, which was the chief result of the Divine purpose, is called Israel’s righteousness, so it is also called "Jehovah’s righteousness." Thus, in Isaiah 46:13 "I bring near My righteousness"; and in Isaiah 51:5 "My righteousness is near, My salvation is gone forth"; Isaiah 40:6 "My salvation shall be forever, and My righteousness shall not be abolished." It seems to be in the same sense, of finished and visible results, that the skies are called upon "to pour down righteousness," and "the earth to open that they may be fruitful in salvation, and let her cause righteousness to spring up together" (Isaiah 45:8; cf. Isaiah 61:10 "My Lord Jehovah will cause righteousness to spring forth").

One passage is of great interest, because in it "righteousness" is used to play upon itself, in its two meanings of human duty and Divine effect- Isaiah 56:1, "Observe judgment"-probably religious ordinances-"and do righteousness; for My salvation is near to come, and My righteousness to be revealed."

To complete our study of "righteousness" it is necessary to touch still upon one point. In Isaiah 40:1-31; Isaiah 41:1-29; Isaiah 42:1-25; Isaiah 43:1-28; Isaiah 44:1-28; Isaiah 45:1-25; Isaiah 46:1-13; Isaiah 47:1-15; Isaiah 48:1-22; Isaiah 49:1-26; Isaiah 50:1-11; Isaiah 51:1-23; Isaiah 52:1-15; Isaiah 53:1-12; Isaiah 54:1-17; Isaiah 55:1-13; Isaiah 56:1-12; Isaiah 57:1-21; Isaiah 58:1-14; Isaiah 59:1-21; Isaiah 60:1-22; Isaiah 61:1-11; Isaiah 62:1-12; Isaiah 63:1-19; Isaiah 64:1-12; Isaiah 65:1-25; Isaiah 66:1-24 both the masculine and feminine forms of the Hebrew word for righteousness are used, and it has been averred that they are used with a difference. This opinion is entirely dispelled by a collation of the passages. I give the particulars in a note, from which it will be seen that both forms are indifferently employed for each of the many shades of meaning which "righteousness" bears in our prophecies.

That the masculine and feminine forms sometimes occur, with the same or with different meanings, in the same verse, or in the next verse to one another, proves that the selection of them respectively cannot be due to any difference in the authorship of our prophecy. So that we are reduced to say that nothing accounts for their use, except, it might be, the exigencies of the metre. But who is able to prove this?


Verses 12-16

CHAPTER VI

GOD: A SACRAMENT

Isaiah 40:12-16

SUCH are the Four Voices which herald the day of Israel’s redemption. They are scarcely silent, before the Sun Himself uprises, and horizon after horizon of His empire is displayed to the eyes of His starved and waiting people. From the prologue of the prophecy, in Isaiah 40:1-11, we advance to the presentation, in Isaiah 40:12-31 and Isaiah 41:1-29, of its primary and governing truth-the sovereignty and omnipotence of God, the God of Israel.

We may well call this truth the sun of the new day which Israel is about to enter. For as it is the sun which makes the day, and not the day which reveals the sun; so it is God, supreme and almighty, who interprets, predicts, and controls His people’s history, and not their history, which, in its gradual evolution, is to make God’s sovereignty and omnipotence manifest to their experience. Let us clearly understand this. The prophecy, which we are about to follow, is an argument not so much from history to God as from God to history. Israel already have their God; and it is because He is what He is, and what they ought to know Him to be, that they are bidden believe that their future shall take a certain course. The prophet begins with God, and everything follows from God. All that in these chapters lends light or force, all that interprets the history of today and fills tomorrow with hope, fact, and promise alike, the captivity of Israel, the appearance of Cyrus, the fall of Babylon, Israel’s redemption, the extension of their mission to the ends of the earth, the conversion of the Gentiles, the equipment, discipline, and triumph of the Servant Himself, -we may even say the expanded geography of our prophet, the countries which for the first time emerge from the distant west within the vision of a Hebrew seer, -all are due to that primary truth about God with which we are now presented. It is God’s sovereignty which brings such far-off things into the interest of Israel; it is God’s omnipotence which renders such impossible things practicable. And as with the subjects, so with the style of the following chapters. The prophet’s style is throughout the effect of his perfect and brilliant monotheism. It is the thought of God which everywhere kindles his imagination. His most splendid passages are those, in which he soars to some lofty vision of the Divine glory in creation or history; while his frequent sarcasm and ridicule owe their effectiveness to the sudden scorn with which, from such a view, scattering epigrams the while, he sweeps down upon the heathen’s poor images, or Israel’s grudging thoughts of his God. The breadth and the force of his imagination, the sweep of his rhetoric, the intensity of his scorn, may all be traced to his sense of God’s sovereignty, and are the signs to us of how absolutely he was possessed by this as his main and governing truth.

This, then, being the sun of Israel’s coming day, we may call what we find Isaiah 40:12-31 and Isaiah 41:1-29 the sunrise-the full revelation and uprising on outsight of this original gospel of the prophet. It is addressed to two classes of men; in Isaiah 11:12-16 to Israel, but in chapter 41 (for the greater part, at least) to the Gentiles. In dealing with these two classes the prophet makes a great difference. To Israel he presents their God, as it were, in sacrament; but to the Gentiles he urges God’s claims in challenge and argument. It is to the past that he summons Israel, and to what they ought to know already about their God; it is to the future, to history yet unmade, that he proposes to the Gentiles they should together appeal, in order to see whether his God or their gods are the true Deity. In this chapter we shall deal with the first of these-God in sacrament.

The fact is familiar to all, that the Old Testament nowhere feels the necessity of proving the existence of God. That would have been a proof unintelligible to those to whom its prophets addressed themselves. In the time when the Old Testament came to him, man as little doubted the existence of God as he doubted his own life. But as life sometimes burned low, needing replenishment, so faith would grow despondent and morbid, needing to be led away from objects which only starved it, or produced, as idolatry did, the veriest delirium of a religion. A man had to get his faith lifted from the thoughts of his own mind and the works of his own hand, to be borne upon and nourished by the works of God, -to kindle with the sunrise, to broaden out by the sight of the firmament, to deepen as he faced the spaces of night, -and win calmness and strength to think life into order as he looked forth upon the marshalled hosts of heaven, having all the time no doubt that the God who created and guided these was his God. Therefore, when psalmist or prophet calls Israel to lift their eyes to the hills, or to behold how the heavens declare the glory of God, or to listen to that unbroken tradition, which day passes to day and night to night, of the knowledge of the Creator, it is not proofs to doubting minds which he offers: it is spiritual nourishment to hungry souls. These are not arguments - they are sacraments. When we Christians go to the Lord’s Supper, we go not to have the Lord proved to us, but to feed upon a life and a love of whose existence we are past all doubt. Our sacrament fills all the mouths by which needy faith is fed-such as outward sight, and imagination, and memory, and wonder, and love. Now very much what the Lord’s Supper is to us for fellowship with God and feeding upon Him, that were the glory of the heavens, and the everlasting hills, and the depth of the sea, and the vision of the stars to the Hebrews. They were the sacraments of God. By them faith was fed, and the spirit of man entered into the enjoyment of God, whose existence indeed he had never doubted, but whom he had lost, forgotten, or misunderstood.

Now it is as such a minister of sacrament to God’s starved and disheartened people that our prophet appears in Isaiah 40:12-31.

There were three elements in Israel’s starvation. Firstly, for nearly fifty years they had been deprived of the accustomed ordinances of religion. Temple and altar had perished; the common praise and the national religious fellowship were impossible; the traditional symbols of the faith lay far out of sight; there was at best only a precarious ministry of the Word. But, in the second place, this famine of the Word and of Sacraments was aggravated by the fact that history had gone against the people. To the baser minds among them, always ready to grant their allegiance to success, this could only mean that the gods of the heathen had triumphed over Jehovah. It is little wonder that such experience, assisted by the presentation, at every turn in their ways, of idols and a splendid idol-worship, the fashion and delight of the populations through whom they were mixed, should have tempted many Jews to feed their starved hearts at the shrines of their conquerors’ gods. But the result could only be the further atrophy of their religious nature. It has been held as a reason for the worship of idols that they excite the affection and imagination of the worshipper. They do no such thing: they starve and they stunt these. The image reacts upon the imagination, infects it with its own narrowness and poverty, till man’s noblest creative faculty becomes the slave of its own poor toy. But, thirdly, if the loftier spirits in Israel refused to believe that Jehovah, exalted in righteousness, could be less than the brutal deities whom Babylon vaunted over Him, they were flung back upon the sorrowful conviction that their God had cast them off; that He had retreated from the patronage of so unworthy a people into the veiled depths of His own nature. Then upon that heaven, from which no answer came to those who were once its favourites, they cast we can scarcely tell what reflection of their own weary and spiritless estate. As, standing over a city by night, you will see the majestic darkness above stained and distorted into shapes of pain or wrath by the upcast of the city’s broken, murky lights, so many of the nobler exiles saw upon the blank, unanswering heaven a horrible mirage of their own trouble and fear. Their weariness said, He is weary; the ruin of their national life reflected itself as the frustration of His purposes; their accusing conscience saw the darkness of His counsel relieved only by streaks of wrath.

But none of these tendencies in Israel went so far as to deny that there was a God, or even to doubt His existence. This, as we have said, was nowhere yet the temptation of mankind. When the Jew lapsed from that true faith, which we have seen his nation carry into exile, he fell into one of the two tempers just described-devotion to false gods in the shape of idols, or despondency consequent upon false notions of the true God. It is against these tempers, one after another, that Isaiah 40:12-31 is directed. And so we understand why, though the prophet is here declaring the basis and spring of all his subsequent prophecy, he does not adopt the method of abstract argument. He is not treating with men who have had no true knowledge of God in the past, or whose intellect questions God’s reality. He is treating with men who have a national heritage of truth about God, but they have forgotten it; who have hearts full of religious affection, but it has been betrayed; who have a devout imagination, but it has been starved; who have hopes, but they are faint unto death. He will recall to them their heritage, rally their shrinking convictions by the courage of his own faith, feed their hunger after righteousness by a new hope set to noble music, and display to the imagination that has been stunted by so long looking upon the face of idols the wide horizons of Divine glory in earth and heaven.

His style corresponds to his purpose. He does not syllogise; he exhorts, recalls, and convicts by assertion. The passage is a series of questions, rallies, and promises. "Have ye not known? have ye not heard?" is his chief note. Instead of arranging facts in history or nature as in themselves a proof for God, he mentions them only by way of provoking inward recollections. His sharp questions are as hooks to draw from his hearers’ hearts their timid and starved convictions, that he may nourish these upon the sacramental glories of nature and of history.

Such a purpose and style trust little to method, and it would be useless to search for any strict division of strophes in the passage. The following, however, is a manifest division of subject, according to the two tempers to which the prophet had to appeal. Isaiah 40:12-25, and perhaps Isaiah 40:26, are addressed to the idolatrous Jews. But in Isaiah 40:26 there is a transition to the despair of the nobler hearts in Israel, who, though they continued to believe in the One True God, imagined that He had abandoned them; and to such Isaiah 40:27-31 are undoubtedly addressed. The different treatment accorded to the two classes is striking. The former of these the prophet does not call by any title of the people of God; with the latter he pleads by a dear double name that he may win them through every recollection of their gracious past, Jacob and Israel (Isaiah 40:27). Challenge and sarcasm are his style with the idolaters, his language clashing out in bursts too loud and rapid sometimes for the grammar, as in Isaiah 40:24; but with the despondent his way is gentle persuasiveness, with music that swells and brightens steadily, passing without a break from the minor key of pleading to the major of glorious promise.

1. AGAINST THE IDOLATERS. A couple of sarcastic sentences upon idols and their manufacture (Isaiah 40:19-20) stand between two majestic declarations of God’s glory in nature and in history (Isaiah 40:12-17 and Isaiah 40:21-24). It is an appeal from the worshippers’ images to their imagination. "Who hath measured in his hollow hand the waters, and heaven ruled off with a span? Or caught in a tierce the dust of the earth, and weighed in scales mountains, and hills in a balance? Who hath directed the spirit of Jehovah, and as man of His counsel hath helped Him to know? With whom took He counsel, that such a one informed Him and taught Him in the orthodox path, and taught Him knowledge and helped Him to know the way of intelligence?" The term translated "orthodox path" is literally "path of ordinance or judgment, the regular path," and is doubtless to be taken along with its parallel, "way of intelligence," as a conventional phrase of education, which the prophet employed to make his sarcasm the stronger. "Lo nations! as a drop from a bucket, and like dust in a balance, are they reckoned. Lo the Isles! as a trifle He lifteth. And Lebanon is by no means enough for burning, nor its brute-life enough for an offering. All the nations are as nothing before Him, as spent and as waste are they reckoned for Him."

When he has thus soared enough, as on an archangel’s wings, he swoops with one rapid question down from the height of his imagination upon the images.

"To whom then will ye liken God, and what likeness will ye range by Him?"

"The image! A smith cast it, and a smelter plates it with gold, and smelts silver chains. He that is straitened for an offering-he chooseth a tree that does not rot, seeks to him a cunning carver to set up an image that will not totter."

The image shrivels up in face of that imagination; the idol is abolished by laughter. There is here, and for almost the first time in history, the same intellectual intolerance of images, the same burning sense of the unreasonableness of their worship, which has marked all monotheists, and turned even the meekest of their kind into fierce scorners and satirists-Elijah, Mohammed, Luther, and Knox. We hear this laughter from them all. Sometimes it may sound truculent or even brutal, but let us remember what is behind it. When we hear it condemned-as, in the interests of art and imagination, its puritan outbursts have often been condemned-as a barbarian incapacity to sympathise with the aesthetic instincts of man, or to appreciate the influence of a beautiful and elevating cult, we can reply that it was the imagination itself which often inspired both the laughter at, and the breaking of, images, and that, because the iconoclast had a loftier vision of God than the image-maker, he has, on the whole, more really furthered the progress of art than the artist whose works he has destroyed. It is certain, for instance, that no one would exchange the beauties of the prophecy now before us, with its sublime imaginations of God, for all the beauty of all the idols of Babylonia which it consigned to destruction. And we dare to say the same of two other epochs, when the uncompromising zeal of monotheists crushed to the dust the fruits of centuries of Christian art. The Koran is not often appealed to as a model of poetry, but it contains passages whose imagination of God, broad as the horizon of the desert of its birth, and swift and clear as the desert dawn, may be regarded as infinitely more than compensation-from a purely artistic point of view - for the countless works of Christian ritual and imagery which it inspired the rude cavalry of the desert to trample beneath the hoofs of their horses. And again, if we are to blame the reformers of Western Christendom for the cruelty with which they lifted their hammers against the carved work of the sanctuary, do not let us forget how much of the spirit of the best modem art is to be traced to their more spiritual and lofty conceptions of God. No one will question how much Milton’s imagination owed to his Protestantism, or how much Carlyle’s dramatic genius was the result of his Puritan faith. But it is to the spirit of the Reformation, as it liberated the worshipper’s soul from bondage to artificial and ecclesiastical symbols of the Deity, that we may also ascribe a large part of the force of that movement towards Nature add the imagination of God in His creation which inspired, for example, Wordsworth’s poetry, and those visual sacraments of rainbow, storm, and dawn to which Browning so often lifts our souls from their dissatisfaction with ritual or with argument.

From his sarcasm on the idols our prophet returns to his task of drawing forth Israel’s memory and imagination. "Have ye not known? Have ye not heard? Hath it not been told you from the beginning? Have ye not understood from the foundations of the earth? He that is enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its dwellers are before Him as grasshoppers; who stretcheth as a fine veil the heavens, and spreadeth them like a dwelling tent" (that is, as easily as if they were not even a pavilion or marquee, but only a humble dwelling tent). "He who bringeth great men to nothing, the judges of the earth He maketh as waste. Yea, they were not planted; yea, they were not sown; yea, their root had not struck in the earth, but (immediately) He blew upon them and they withered, and a whirlwind like stubble carried them away. To whom, then, will ye liken Me, that I may match with him? saith the Holy One." But this time it is not necessary to suggest the idols; they were dissolved by that previous burst of laughter. Therefore, the prophet turns to the other class in Israel with whom he has to deal.

2. TO THE DESPAIRERS OF THE LORD. From history we pass back to nature in Isaiah 40:26, which forms a transition, the language growing steadier from the impetuosity of the address to the idolaters to the serene music of the second part. Enough rebuke has the prophet made. As he now lifts his people’s vision to the stars, it is not to shame their idols, but to feed their hearts. "Lift up on high your eyes and see! Who hath created these? Who leads forth by number their host, and all of them calleth by name, by abundance of might, for He is powerful in strength, not one is amissing." Under such a night, that veils the confusion of earth only to bring forth all the majesty and order of heaven, we feel a moment’s pause. Then as the expanding eyes of the exiles gaze upon the infinite power above, the prophet goes on. "Why then sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel? Hidden is my way from Jehovah, and from my God my right hath passed."

Why does the prophet point his people to the stars? Because he is among Israel on that vast Babylonian plain, from whose crowded and confused populations, struggling upon one monotonous level, there is no escape for the heart but to the stars. Think of that plain when Nebuchadrezzar was its tyrant; of the countless families of men torn from their far homes and crushed through one another upon its surface; of the ancient liberties that were trampled in that servitude, of the languages that were stifled in that Babel, of the many patriotisms set to sigh themselves out into the tyrant’s mud and mortar! Ah heaven! was there a God in thee, that one man could thus crush nations in his vat, as men crushed shell-fish in those days, to dye his imperial purple? Was there any Providence above, that he could tear peoples from the lands and seas, where their various gifts and offices for humanity had been developed, and press them to his selfish and monotonous servitude? In that medley of nations, all upon one level of captivity, Israel was just as lost as the most insignificant tribe; her history severed, her worship impossible, her very language threatened with decay. No wonder, that from the stifling crowd and desperate flatness of it all she cried, "Hidden is my way from Jehovah, and from my God my right hath passed."

But from the flatness and the crowd the stars are visible; and it was upon the stars that the prophet bade his people feed their hearts. There were order and unfailing guidance; "for the greatness of His might not one is missing." And He is your God. Just as visible as those countless stars are, one by one, in the dark heavens, to your eyes looking up, so your lives and fortunes are to His eyes looking down on this Babel of peoples. "He gathereth the outcasts of Israel. He telleth the number of the stars." [Psalms 147:1-20] And so the prophet goes on earnestly to plead: "Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard? that an everlasting God is Jehovah. Creator of the ends of the earth. He fainteth not, neither is weary. There is no searching of His understanding. Giver to the weary of strength! And upon him that is of no might, he lavisheth power. Even youths may faint and be weary, and young men utterly fall; but they who hope in Jehovah shall renew strength, put forth pinions like eagles, run and not weary, walk and not faint." Listen, ears, not for the sake of yourselves only, though the music is incomparably sweet! Listen for the sake of the starved hearts below, to whom you carry the sacraments of hope, whom you lift to feed upon the clear symbols of God’s omnipotence and unfailing grace.

This chapter began with the assurance to the heart of Israel of their God’s will to redeem and restore them. It closes with bidding the people take hope in God. Let us again emphasise-for we cannot do so too often, if we are to keep ourselves from certain errors of today on the subject of Revelation-the nature of this prophecy. It is not a reading-off of history; it is a call from God. No deed has yet been done pointing towards the certainty of Israel’s redemption; it is not from facts writ large on the life of their day, that the prophet bids the captives read their Divine discharge.

That discharge he brings from God; he bids them find the promise and the warrant of it in their God’s character, in their own convictions of what that character is. In order to revive those convictions, he does, it is true, appeal to certain facts, but these facts are not the facts of contemporary history which might reveal to any clear eye, that the current and the drift of politics was setting towards the redemption of Israel. They are facts of nature and facts of general providence, which, as we have said, like sacraments evidence God’s power to the pious heart, feed it with the assurance of His grace, and bid it hope in His word, though history should seem to be working quite the other way.

This instance of the method of revelation does not justify two opinions, which prevail at the present day regarding prophecy. In the first place, it proves to us that those are wrong who, too much infected by the modern temper to judge accurately writers so unsophisticated, describe prophecy as if it were merely a philosophy of history, by which the prophets deduced from their observation of the course of events their idea of God and their forecast of His purposes. The prophets had indeed to do with history; they argued from it, and they appealed to it. The history that was past was full of God’s condescension to men, and shone like Nature’s self with sacramental signs of His power and will: the history that was future was to be His supreme tribunal, and to afford the vindication of the word they claimed to have brought from Him. But still all this-their trust in history and their use of it-was something secondary in the prophetic method. With them God Himself was first; they came forth from His presence, as they describe it, with the knowledge of His will gained through the communion of their spirits with His Spirit. If they then appealed to past history, it was to illustrate their message; or to future, it was for vindication of this. But God Himself was the source and Author of it; and therefore, before they had facts beneath their eyes to corroborate their promises, they appealed to the people, like our prophet in chapter 40, to "wait on Jehovah." The day might not yet have dawned so as to let them read the signs of the times. But in the darkness they "hoped in Jehovah," and borrowed for their starved hearts from the stars above, or other sacrament, some assurance of His unfailing power.

Jehovah, then, was the source of the prophet’s word: His character was its pledge. The prophets were not mere readers from history, but speakers from God.

But the testimony of our chapter to all this enables us also to arrest an opinion about Revelation which has too hurriedly run off with some Christians, and to qualify it. In the inevitable recoil from the scholastic view of revelation as wholly a series of laws and dogmas and predictions, a number of writers on the subject have of late defined Revelation as a chain of historical acts, through which God uttered His character and will to men. According to this view, Revelation is God manifesting Himself in history, and the Bible is the record of this historical process. Now, while it is true that the Bible is, to a large extent, the annals and interpretation of the great and small events of a nation’s history-of its separation from the rest of mankind, its miraculous deliverances, its growth, its defeats and humiliations, its reforms and its institutions; in all of which God manifested His character and will-yet the Bible also records a revelation which preceded these historical deeds; a revelation the theatre of which was not the national experience, but the consciousness of the individual; which was recognised and welcomed by choice souls in the secret of their own spiritual life, before it was realised and observed in outward fact; which was uttered by the prophet’s voice and accepted by the people’s trust in the dark and the stillness, before the day of the Lord had dawned or there was light to see His purposes at work. In a word, God’s revelation to men was very often made clear in their subjective consciousness, before it became manifest in the history about them.

And, for ourselves, let us remember that to this day true religion is as independent of facts as it was with the prophet. True religion is a conviction of the character of God, and a resting upon that alone for salvation. We need nothing more to begin with; and everything else, in our experience and fortune, helps us only in so far as it makes that primary conviction more clear and certain. Darkness may be over us, and we lonely and starved beneath it. We may be destitute of experience to support our faith; we may be able to discover nothing in life about us making in the direction of our hopes. Still, "let us wait on the Lord." It is by bare trust in Him that we "renew our strength, put forth wings like eagles, run and not weary, walk and not faint."

Put forth wings-run-walk! Is the order correct? Hope swerves from the edge of so descending a promise, which seems only to repeat the falling course of nature-that droop, we all know, from short ambitions, through temporary impulsiveness to the old commonplace and routine. Soaring, running, walking-and is not the next stage, a cynic might ask, standing still?

On the contrary, it is a natural and a true climax, rising from the easier to the more difficult, from the ideal to the real, from dream to duty, from what can only be the rare occasions of life to what must be life’s usual and abiding experience. History followed this course. Did the prophet, as he promised, think of what should really prove to be the fortune of his people during the next few years?-the great flight of hope, on which we see them rising in their psalms of redemption as on the wings of an eagle; the zeal and liberality of preparation for departure from Babylon; the first rush at the Return; and then the long tramp, day after day, with the slow caravan at the pace of its most heavily-laden beasts of burden, when "they shall walk and not faint" should indeed seem to them the sweetest part of their God’s promise.

Or was it the far longer perspective of Israel’s history that bade the prophet follow this descending scale? The spirit of prophecy was with himself to soar higher than ever before, reaching by truly eagle-flight to a vision of the immediate consummation of Israel’s glory: the Isles waiting for Jehovah, the Holy City radiant in His rising, and open with all her gates to the thronging nations; the true religion flashing from Zion across the world, and the wealth of the world pouring back upon Zion. And some have wondered, and some scoff, that after this vision there should follow centuries of imperceptible progress-five-and-a-half centuries of preparation for the coming of the Promised Servant; and then-Israel, indeed gone forth over the world, but only in small groups, living upon the grudged and fitful tolerance of the great centres of Gentile civilisation. The prophet surely anticipates all this, when he places the walking after the soaring and the running. When he says at last, and most impressively, of his people’s fortunes, that they "shall walk and not faint," he has perhaps just those long centuries in view, when, instead of a nation of enthusiasts taking humanity by storm, we see small bands of pioneers pushing their way from city to city by the slow methods of ancient travel, -Damascus, Antioch, Tarsus, Iconium, Ephesus, Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth and Rome, -everywhere that Paul and the missionaries of the Cross found a pulpit and a congregation ready for the Gospel; toiling from day to day at their own trades, serving the alien for wages, here and there founding a synagogue, now and then completing a version of their Scriptures, often times achieving martyrdom, but ever living a pure and a testifying life in face of the heathen, with the passion of these prophecies at their hearts. It was certainly for such centuries and such men that the word was written, "they shall walk and not faint." This persistence under persecution, this monotonous drilling of themselves in school and synagogue, this slow progress without prize or praise along the common highways of the world and by the world’s ordinary means of livelihood, was a greater proof of indomitableness than even the rapture which filled their hearts on the golden eve of the return, under the full diapason of prophecy.

And so must it ever be. First the ideal, and then the rush at it with passionate eyes, and then the daily trudge onward, when its splendour has faded from the view, but is all the more closely wrapped round the heart. For glorious as it is to rise to some great consummation on wings of dream and song, glorious as it is, also, to bend that impetus a little lower and take some practical crisis of life by storm, an even greater proof of our religion and of the help our God can give us is the lifelong tramp of earth’s common surface, without fresh wings of dream, or the excitement of rivalry, or the attraction of reward, but with the head cool, and the face forward, and every footfall upon firm ground. Let hope rejoice in a promise, which does not go off into the air, but leaves us upon solid earth; and let us hold to a religion which, while it exults in being the secret of enthusiasm and the inspiration of heroism, is daring and Divine enough to find its climax in the commonplace.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Isaiah 40:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/isaiah-40.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, November 18th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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