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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Isaiah 5

 

 

Verses 1-30

CHAPTER III

THE VINEYARD OF THE LORD,

OR TRUE PATRIOTISM THE CONSCIENCE OF OUR COUNTRY’S SINS

735 B.C.

Isaiah 5:1-30; Isaiah 9:8 - Isaiah 10:4

THE prophecy contained in these chapters belongs, as we have seen, to the same early period of Isaiah’s career as chapters 2-4, about the time when Ahaz ascended the throne after the long and successful reigns of his father and grandfather, when the kingdom of Judah seemed girt with strength and filled with wealth, but the men were corrupt and the women careless, and the earnest of approaching judgment was already given in the incapacity of the weak and woman-ridden king. Yet although this new prophecy issues from the same circumstances as its predecessors, it implies these circumstances a little more developed. The same social evils are treated, but by a hand with a firmer grasp of them. The same principles are emphasised-the righteousness of Jehovah and His activity in judgment - but the form of judgment of which Isaiah had spoken before in general terms looms nearer, and before the end of the prophecy we get a view at close quarters of the Assyrian ranks.

Besides, opposition has arisen to the prophet’s teaching. We saw that the obscurities and inconsistencies of chapters 2-4 are due to the fact that that prophecy represents several stages of experience through which Isaiah passed before he gained his final convictions. But his countrymen, it appears, have now had time to turn on these convictions and call them in question: it is necessary for Isaiah to vindicate them. The difference, then, between these two sets of prophecies, dealing with the same things, is that in the former (chapters 2-4), we have the obscure and tortuous path of a conviction struggling to light in the prophet’s own experience; here, in chapter 5, we have its careful array in the light and before the people.

The point of Isaiah’s teaching against which opposition was directed was of course its main point, that God was about to abandon Judah. This must have appeared to the popular religion of the day as the rankest heresy. To the Jews the honour of Jehovah was bound up with the inviolability of Jerusalem and the prosperity of Judah. But Isaiah knew Jehovah to be infinitely more concerned for the purity of His people than for their prosperity. He had seen the Lord "exalted in righteousness" above those national and earthly interests, with which vulgar men exclusively identified His will. Did the people appeal to the long time Jehovah had graciously led them for proof that He would not abandon them now? To Isaiah that gracious leading was but for righteousness’ sake, and that God might make His own a holy people. Their history, so full of the favours of the Almighty, did not teach Isaiah, as it did the common prophets of his time, the lesson of Israel’s political security, but the far different one of their religious responsibility. To him it only meant what Amos had already put in those startling words, "You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will visit upon you all your iniquities." Now Isaiah delivered this doctrine at a time when it brought him the hostility of men’s passions as well as of their opinions. Judah was arming for war. Syria and Ephraim were marching upon her. To threaten his country with ruin in such an hour was to run the risk of suffering from popular fury as a traitor as well as from priestly prejudice as a heretic. The strain of the moment is felt in the strenuousness of the prophecy. Chapter 5, with its appendix, exhibits more grasp and method than its predecessors. Its literary form is finished, its feeling clear. There is a tenderness in the beginning of it, an inexorableness in the end, and an eagerness all through which stamp the chapter as Isaiah’s final appeal to his countrymen at this period of his career.

The chapter is a noble piece of patriotism-one of the noblest of a race who, although for the greater part of their history without a fatherland, have contributed more brilliantly than perhaps any other to the literature of patriotism, and that simply because, as Isaiah here illustrates, patriotism was to their prophets identical with religious privilege and responsibility. Isaiah carries this to its bitter end. Other patriots have wept to sing their country’s woes; Isaiah’s burden is his people’s guilt. To others an invasion of their fatherland by its enemies has been the motive to rouse by song or speech their countrymen to repel it. Isaiah also hears the tramp of the invader; but to him is permitted no ardour of defence, and his message to his countrymen is that they must succumb, for the invasion is irresistible and of the very judgment of God. How much it cost the prophet to deliver such a message we may see from those few verses of it in which his heart is not altogether silenced by his conscience. The sweet description of Judah as a vineyard, and the touching accents that break through the roll of denunciation with such phrases as "My people are gone away into captivity unawares," tell us how the prophet’s love of country is struggling with his duty to a righteous God. The course of feeling throughout the prophecy is very striking. The tenderness of the opening lyric seems ready to flow into gentle pleading with the whole people. But as the prophet turns to particular classes and their sins his mood changes to indignation, the voice settles down to judgment; till when it issues upon that clear statement of the coming of the Northern hosts every trace of emotion has left it, and the sentences ring out as unfaltering as the tramp of the armies they describe.

I. THE PARABLE OF THE VINEYARD

[Isaiah 5:1-7]

Isaiah adopts the resource of every misunderstood and unpopular teacher, and seeks to turn the flank of his people’s prejudices by an attack in parable on their sympathies. Did they stubbornly believe it impossible for God to abandon a State He had so long and so carefully fostered? Let them judge from an analogous case in which they were all experts. In a picture of great beauty Isaiah describes a vineyard upon one of the sunny promontories visible from Jerusalem. Every care had been given it of which an experienced vinedresser could think, but it brought forth only wild grapes. The vinedresser himself is introduced, and appeals to the men of Judah and Jerusalem to judge between him and his vineyard. He gets their assent that all had been done which could be done, and fortified with that resolves to abandon the vineyard. "I will lay it waste; it shall not be pruned nor digged, but there shall come up briers and thorns." Then the stratagem comes out, the speaker drops the tones of a human cultivator, and in the omnipotence of the Lord of heaven he is heard to say, "I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it." This diversion upon their sympathies having succeeded, the prophet scarcely needs to charge the people’s prejudices in face. His point has been evidently carried. "For the vineyard of Jehovah of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah His pleasant plant; and He looked for judgment, but behold oppression, for righteousness, but behold a cry."

The lesson enforced by Isaiah is just this, that in a people’s civilisation there lie the deepest responsibilities, for that is neither more nor less than their cultivation by God; and the question for a people is not how secure does this render them, nor what does it count for glory, but how far is it rising towards the intentions of its Author? Does it produce those fruits of righteousness for which alone God cares to set apart and cultivate the peoples? On this depends the question whether the civilisation is secure, as well as the right of the people to enjoy and feel proud of it. There cannot be true patriotism without sensitiveness to this, for however rich be the elements that compose the patriot’s temper, as piety towards the past, ardour of service for the present, love of liberty, delight in natural beauty, and gratitude for Divine favour, so rich a temper will grow rancid without the salt of conscience; and the richer the temper is, the greater must be the proportion of that salt. All prophets and poets of patriotism have been moralists and satirists as well. From Demosthenes to Tourgenieff. from Dante to Mazzini, from Milton to Russell Lowell, from Burns to Heine, one cannot recall any great patriot who has not known how to use the scourge as well as the trumpet. Many opportunities will present themselves to us of illustrating Isaiah’s orations by the letters and speeches of Cromwell, who of moderns most resembles the statesman-prophet of Judah; but nowhere does the resemblance become so close as when we lay a prophecy like this of Jehovah’s vineyard by the side of the speeches in which the Lord Protector exhorted the Commons of England, although it was the hour of his and. their triumph, to address themselves to their sins.

So, then, the patriotism of all great men has carried a conscience for their country’s sins. But while this is always more or less a burden to the true patriot, there are certain periods in which his care for his country ought to be this predominantly, and need be little else. In a period like our own, for instance, of political security and fashionable religion, what need is there in patriotic displays of any other kind? but how much for patriotism of this kind-of men who will uncover the secret sins, however loathsome, and declare the hypocrisies, however powerful, of the social life of the people! These are the patriots we need in times of peace; and as it is more difficult to rouse a torpid people to their sins than to lead a roused one against their enemies, and harder to face a whole people with the support only of conscience than to defy many nations if you but have your own at your back, so these patriots of peace are more to be honoured than those of war. But there is one kind of patriotism more arduous and honourable still. It is that which Isaiah displays here, who cannot add to his conscience hope or even pity, who must hail his country’s enemies for his country’s good, and recite the long roll of God’s favours to his nation only to emphasise the justice of His abandonment of them.

II. THE WILD GRAPES OF JUDAH

[Isaiah 5:8-24]

The wild grapes which Isaiah saw in the vineyard of the Lord he catalogues in a series of Woes (Isaiah 5:8-24), fruits all of them of love of money and love of wine. They are abuse of the soil (Isaiah 5:8-10, Isaiah 5:17), a giddy luxury which has taken to drink (Isaiah 5:11-16), a moral blindness and headlong audacity of sin which habitual avarice and drunkenness soon develop (Isaiah 5:18-21), and, again, a greed of drink and money-men’s perversion of their strength to wine, and of their opportunities of justice to the taking of bribes (Isaiah 5:22-24). These are the features of corrupt civilisation not only in Judah, and the voice that deplores them cannot speak without rousing others very clamant to the modern conscience. It is with remarkable persistence that in every civilisation the two main passions of the human heart, love of wealth and love of pleasure, the instinct to gather and the instinct to squander, have sought precisely these two forms denounced by Isaiah in which to work their social havoc-appropriation of the soil and indulgence in strong drink. Every civilised community develops sooner or later its land-question and its liquor-question. "Questions" they are called by the superficial opinion that all difficulties may be overcome by the cleverness of men; yet problems through which there cries for remedy so vast a proportion of our poverty, crime, and madness, are something worse than "questions." They are huge sins, and require not merely the statesman’s wit, but all the patience and zeal of which a nation’s conscience is capable. It is in this that the force of Isaiah’s treatment lies. We feel he is not facing questions of State, but sins of men. He has nothing to tell us of what he considers the best system of land tenure, but he enforces the principle that in the ease with which land may be absorbed by one person the natural covetousness of the human heart has a terrible opportunity for working ruin upon society. "Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no room, and ye be made to dwell alone in the midst of the land." We know from Micah that the actual process which Isaiah condemns was carried out with the most cruel evictions and disinheritances. Isaiah does not touch on its methods, but exposes its effects on the country-depopulation and barrenness, -and emphasises its religious significance. "Of a truth many houses shall be desolate, even great and fair, without an inhabitant. For ten acres of vineyard shall yield one bath, and a homer of seed shall yield but an ephah Then shall lambs. feed as in their pasture, and strangers shall devour the ruins of the fat ones"-i.e., of the luxurious landowners (Isaiah 5:9, Isaiah 5:10, Isaiah 5:17). And in one of those elliptic statements by which he often startles us with the sudden sense that God Himself is acquainted with all our affairs, and takes His own interest in them, Isaiah adds, "All this was whispered to me by Jehovah: In mine ears-the Lord of hosts" (Isaiah 5:9).

During recent agitations in our own country one has often seen the "land laws of the Bible" held forth by some thoughtless demagogue as models for land tenure among ourselves; as if a system which worked well with a small tribe in a land they had all entered on equal footing, and where there was no opportunity for the industry of the people except in pasture and in tillage, could possibly be applicable to a vastly larger and more complex population, with different traditions and very different social circumstances. Isaiah says nothing about the peculiar land laws of his people. He lays down principles, and these are principles valid in every civilisation. God has made the land, not to feed the pride of the few, but the natural hunger of the many, and it is His will that the most be got out of a country’s soil for the people of the country. Whatever be the system of land-tenure-and while all are more or less liable to abuse, it is the duty of a people to agitate for that which will be least liable-if it is taken advantage of by individuals to satisfy their own cupidity, then God will take account of them. There is a responsibility which the State cannot enforce, and the neglect of which cannot be punished by any earthly law, but all the more will God see to it. A nation’s treatment of their land is not always prominent as a question which demands the attention of public reformers; but it ceaselessly has interest for God, who ever holds individuals to answer for it. The land-question is ultimately a religious question. For the management of their land the whole nation is responsible to God, but especially those who own or manage estates. This is a sacred office. When one not only remembers the nature of land-how it is an element of life, so that if a man abuse the soil it is as if he poisoned the air or darkened the heavens-but appreciates also the multitude of personal relations which the landowner or factor holds in his hand-the peace of homes, the continuity of local traditions, the physical health, the social fearlessness and frankness, and the thousand delicate associations which their habitations entwine about the hearts of men-one feels that to all who possess or manage land is granted an opportunity of patriotism and piety open to few, a ministry less honourable and sacred than none other committed by God to man for his fellow-men.

After the land-sin Isaiah hurls his second Woe upon the drink-sin, and it is a heavier woe than the first. With fatal persistence the luxury of every civilisation has taken to drink; and of all the indictments brought by moralists against nations, that which they reserve for drunkenness is, as here, the most heavily weighted. The crusade against drink is not the novel thing that many imagine who observe only its late revival among ourselves. In ancient times there was scarcely a State in which prohibitive legislation of the most stringent kind was not attempted, and generally carried out with a thoroughness more possible under despots than where, as with us, the slow consent of public opinion is necessary. A horror of strong drink has in every age possessed those who from their position as magistrates or prophets have been able to follow for any distance the drifts of social life. Isaiah exposes as powerfully as ever any of them did in what the peculiar fatality of drinking lies. Wine is a mocker by nothing more than by the moral incredulity which it produces, enabling men to hide from themselves the spiritual and material effects of over-indulgence in it. No one who has had to do with persons slowly falling from moderate to immoderate drinking can mistake Isaiah’s meaning when he says, "They regard not the work of the Lord; neither have they considered the operation of His hands." Nothing kills the conscience like steady drinking to a little excess; and religion, even while the conscience is alive, acts on it only as an opiate. It is not, however, with the symptoms of drink in individuals so much as with its aggregate effects on the nation that Isaiah is concerned. So prevalent is excessive drinking, so entwined with the social customs of the country and many powerful interests, that it is extremely difficult to rouse public opinion to its effects. And "so they go into captivity for lack of knowledge." Temperance reformers are often blamed for the strength of their language, but they may shelter themselves behind Isaiah. As he pictures it, the national destruction caused by drink is complete. It is nothing less than the people’s captivity, and we know what that meant to an Israelite. It affects all classes: "Their honourable men are famished, and their multitude parched with thirst. The mean man is bowed down, and the great man is humbled." But the want and ruin of this earth are not enough to describe it. The appetite of hell itself has to be enlarged to suffice for the consumption of the spoils of strong drink. "Therefore hell hath enlarged her desire and opened her mouth without measure; and their glory, and their multitude, and their pomp, and he that rejoiceth among them, descend into it." The very appetite of hell has to be enlarged! Does it not truly seem as if the wild and wanton waste of drink were preventable, as if it were not, as many are ready to sneer, the inevitable evil of men’s hearts choosing this form of issue, but a superfluous audacity of sin, which the devil himself did not desire or tempt men to? It is this feeling of the infernal gratuitousness of most of the drink-evil-the conviction that here hell would be quiet if only she were not stirred up by the extraordinarily wanton provocatives that society and the State offer to excessive drinking- which compels temperance reformers at the present day to isolate drunkenness and make it the object of a special crusade. Isaiah’s strong figure has lost none of its strength today. When our judges tell us from the bench that nine-tenths of pauperism and crime are caused by drink, and our physicians that if only irregular tippling were abolished half the current sickness of the land would cease, and our statesmen that the ravages of strong drink are equal to those of the historical scourges of war, famine, and pestilence combined, surely to swallow such a glut of spoil the appetite of hell must have been still more enlarged, and the mouth of hell made yet wider.

The next three Woes are upon different aggravations of that moral perversity which the prophet has already traced to strong drink. In the first of these it is better to read, draw punishment near with cords of vanity, than draw iniquity. Then we have a striking antithesis-the drunkards mocking Isaiah over their cups with the challenge, as if it would not be taken up, "Let Jehovah make speed, and hasten His work of judgment, that we may see it," while all the time they themselves were dragging that judgment near, as with cart-ropes, by their persistent diligence in evil. This figure of sinners jeering at the approach of a calamity while they actually wear the harness of its carriage is very striking. But the Jews are not only unconscious of judgment, they are confused as to the very principles of morality: "Who call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!"

In his fifth Woe the prophet attacks a disposition to which his scorn gives no peace throughout his ministry. If these sensualists had only confined themselves to their sensuality they might have been left alone; but with that intellectual bravado which is equally born with "Dutch courage" of drink, they interferred in the conduct of the State, and prepared arrogant policies of alliance and war that were the distress of the sober-minded prophet all his days. "Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes and prudent in their own sight."

In his last Woe Isaiah returns to the drinking habits of the upper classes, from which it would appear that among the judges even of Judah there were "six-bottle men." They sustained theft extravagance by subsidies, which we trust were unknown to the mighty men of wine who once filled the seats of justice in our own country. "They justify the wicked for a bribe, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him." All these sinners, dead through their rejection of the law of Jehovah of hosts and the word of the Holy One of Israel, shall be like to the stubble, fit only for burning, and their blossom as the dust of the rotten tree.

III. THE ANGER OF THE LORD

[Isaiah 5:25;, Isaiah 9:8 - Isaiah 10:4; Isaiah 5:26-30]

This indictment of the various sins of the people occupies the whole of the second part of the oration. But a third part is now added, in which the prophet catalogues the judgments of the Lord upon them, each of these closing with the weird refrain, "For all this His anger is not turned away, but His hand is stretched out still." The complete catalogue is usually obtained by inserting between the 25th and 26th verses of chapter 5 [Isaiah 5:25-26]. the long passage from chapter 9, verse 8, to chapter 10, verse 4. It is quite true that as far as chapter 5 itself is concerned it does not need this insertion; Isaiah 9:8-21; Isaiah 10:1-4 is decidedly out of place where it now lies. Its paragraphs end with the same refrain as closes Isaiah 5:25, which forms, besides, a natural introduction to them, while Isaiah 5:26-30 form as natural a conclusion. The latter verses describe an Assyrian invasion, and it was always in an Assyrian invasion that Isaiah foresaw the final calamity of Judah. We may, then, subject to further light on the exceedingly obscure subject of the arrangement of Isaiah’s prophecies, follow some of the leading critics, and place Isaiah 9:8-21; Isaiah 10:1-4 between verses 25-26 of chapter 5; and the more we examine them the more we shall be satisfied with our arrangement, for strung together in this order they form one of the most impressive series of scenes which even an Isaiah has given us.

From these scenes Isaiah has spared nothing that is terrible in history or nature, and it is not one of the least of the arguments for putting them together that their intensity increases to a climax. Earthquakes, armed raids, a great battle, and the slaughter of a people; prairie and forest fires, civil strife and the famine fever, that feeds upon itself; another battle-field, with its cringing groups of captives and heaps of slain; the resistless tide of a great invasion; and then, for final prospect, a desolate land by the sound of a hungry sea, and the light is darkened in the clouds thereof. The elements of nature and the elemental passions of man have been let loose together; and we follow the violent floods, remembering that it is sin that has burst the gates of the universe, and given the tides of hell full course through it. Over the storm and battle there comes booming like the storm-bell the awful refrain, "For all this His anger is not turned away, but His hand is stretched out still." It is poetry of the highest order, but in him who reads it with a conscience mere literary sensations are sobered by the awe of some of the most profound moral phenomena of life. The persistence of Divine wrath, the long-lingering effects of sin in a nation’s history, man’s abuse of sorrow and his defiance of an angry Providence, are the elements of this great drama. Those who are familiar with "King Lear" will recognise these elements, and observe how similarly the ways of Providence and the conduct of men are represented there and here.

What Isaiah unfolds, then. is a series of calamities that have overtaken the people of Israel. It is impossible for us to identify every one of them with a particular event in Israel’s history otherwise known to us. Some it is not difficult to recognise; but the prophet passes in a perplexing way from Judah to Ephraim and Ephraim to Judah, and in one case, where he represents Samaria as attacked by Syria and the Philistines, he goes back to a period at some distance from his own. There are also passages, as for instance Isaiah 10:1-4, in which we are unable to decide whether he describes a present punishment or threatens a future one. But his moral purpose, at least, is plain. He will show how often Jehovah has already spoken to His people by calamity, and because they have remained hardened under these warnings, how there now remains possible only the last, worst blow of an Assyrian invasion. Isaiah is justifying his threat of so unprecedented and extreme a punishment for God’s people as overthrow by this Northern people, who had just appeared upon Judah’s political horizon. God, he tells Israel, has tried everything short of this, and it has failed; now only this remains, and this shall not fail. The prophet’s purpose, therefore, being not an accurate historical recital, but moral impressiveness, he gives us a more or less ideal description of former calamities, mentioning only so much as to allow us to recognise here and there that it is actual facts which he uses for his purpose of condemning Israel to captivity, and vindicating Israel’s God in bringing that captivity near. The passage thus forms a parallel to that in Amos, with its similar refrain: "Yet ye have not returned unto Me, saith the Lord," [Amos 4:6-12] and only goes farther than that earlier prophecy in indicating that the instruments of the Lord’s final judgment are to be the Assyrians.

Five great calamities, says Isaiah, have fallen on Israel and left them hardened:

1st, earthquake; [Isaiah 5:25]

2d, loss of territory; [Isaiah 9:8-12]

3d, war and a decisive defeat; [Isaiah 9:13-17]

4th, internal anarchy; [Isaiah 9:18-21]

5th, the near prospect of captivity. [Isaiah 10:1-4]

1. THE EARTHQUAKE.-Amos [Isaiah 5:25] closes his series withan earthquake; Isaiah begins with one. It may be the same convulsion they describe, or may not. Although the skirts of Palestine both to the east and west frequently tremble to these disturbances, an earthquake in Palestine itself, up on the high central ridge of the land, is very rare. Isaiah vividly describes its awful simplicity and suddenness. "The Lord stretched forth His hand and smote, and the hills shook, and their carcases were like offal in the midst of the streets." More words are not needed, because there was nothing more to describe. The Lord lifted His hand; the hills seemed for a moment to topple over, and when the living recovered from the shock there lay the dead, flung like refuse about the streets.

2. THE LOSS OF TERRITORY.-So [Isaiah 9:8-21] awful a calamity, in which the dying did not die out of sight nor-fall huddled together on some far off battle-field, but the whole land was strewn with her slain, ought to have left indelible impression on the people. But it did not. The Lord’s own word had been in it for Jacob and Israel, [Isaiah 9:8] "that the people might know, even Ephraim and the inhabitants of Samaria." But unhumbled they turned in the stoutness of their hearts, saying, when the earthquake had passed: "The bricks are fallen, but we will build with hewn stones"; the "sycamores are cut down, but we will change them into cedars." Calamity did not make this people thoughtful; they felt God only to endeavour to forget Him. Therefore He visited them the second time. They did not feel the Lord shaking their land, so He sent their enemies to steal it from them: "the Syrians before and the Philistines behind; and they devour Israel with open mouth." What that had been for appalling suddenness this was for lingering and harassing-guerilla warfare, armed raids, the land eaten away bit by bit. "Yet the people do not return unto Him that smote them, neither seek they the Lord of hosts."

3. WAR AND DEFEAT.-The [Isaiah 9:13-17] next consequent calamity passed from the land to the people themselves. A great battle is described, in which the nation is dismembered in one day. War and its horrors are told, and the apparent want of Divine pity and discrimination which they imply is explained. Israel has been led into these disasters by the folly of their leaders, whom Isaiah therefore singles out for blame. "For they that lead these people cause them to err, and they that are led of them are destroyed." But the real horror of war is that it falls not upon its authors, that its victims are not statesmen, but the beauty of a country’s youth, the helplessness of the widow and orphan. Some question seems to have been stirred by this in Isaiah’s heart. He asks, Why does the Lord not rejoice in the young men of His people? Why has He no pity for widow and orphan, that He thus sacrifices them to the sin of the rulers? It is because the whole nation shares the ruler’s guilt; "every one is a hypocrite and an evildoer, and every mouth speaketh folly." As ruler so people, is a truth Isaiah frequently asserts, but never with such grimness as here. War brings out, as nothing else does, the solidarity of a people in guilt.

4. INTERNAL ANARCHY.-Even [Isaiah 9:18-21] yet the people did not repent; their calamities only drove them to further wickedness. The prophet’s eyes are opened to the awful fact that God’s wrath is but the blast that fans men’s hot sins to flame. This is one of those two or three awful scenes in history, in the conflagration of which we cannot tell what is human sin and what Divine judgment. There is a panic wickedness, sin spreading like mania, as if men were possessed by supernatural powers. The physical metaphors of the prophet are evident: a forest or prairie fire, and the consequent famine, whose fevered victims feed upon themselves. And no less evident are the political facts which the prophet employs these metaphors to describe. It is the anarchy which has beset more than one corrupt and unfortunate people, when their mis-leaders have been overthrown: the anarchy in which each faction seeks to slaughter out the rest. Jealousy and distrust awake the lust for blood, rage seizes the people as fire the forest, "and no man spareth his brother." We have had modern instances of all this; these scenes form a true description of some days of the French Revolution, and are even a truer description of the civil war that broke out in Paris after her late siege.

"If that the heavens do not their visible spirits

Send quickly down to tame these vile offences, I will come,

Humanity must perforce prey on itself

Like monsters of the deep."

5. THE THREAT OF CAPTIVITY.-Turning [Isaiah 10:1-4] now from the past, and from the fate of Samaria, with which it would appear he has been more particularly engaged, the prophet addresses his own countrymen in Judah, and paints the future for them. It is not a future in which there is any hope. The day of their visitation also will surely come, and the prophet sees it close in the darkest night of which a Jewish heart could think-the night of captivity. Where, he asks his unjust countrymen-where "will ye then flee for help? and where will you leave your glory?" Cringing among the captives, lying dead beneath heaps of dead-that is to be your fate, who will have turned so, often and then so finally from God. When exactly the prophet thus warned his countrymen of captivity we do not know, but the warning, though so real, produced neither penitence in men nor pity in God. "For all this His anger is not turned away, but His hand is stretched out still."

6. THE ASSYRIAN INVASION.-The [Isaiah 5:26-30] prophet is, therefore, free to explain that cloud which has appeared far away on the northern horizon. God’s hand of judgment is still uplifted over Judah, and it is that hand which summons the cloud. The Assyrians are coming in answer to God’s signal, and they are coming as a flood, to leave nothing but ruin and distress behind them. No description by Isaiah is more majestic than this one, in which Jehovah, who has exhausted every nearer means of converting His people, lifts His undrooping arm with a "flag to the nations that are far off, and hisses" or whistles "for them from the end of the earth. And, behold, they come with speed, swiftly: there is no weary one nor straggler among them; none slumbers nor sleeps; nor loosed is the girdle of his loins, nor broken the latchet of his shoes; whose arrows are sharpened, and all their bows bent; their horses’ hoofs are like the dint, and their wheels like the whirlwind: a roar have they like the lion’s, and they roar like young lions; yea, they growl and grasp the prey, and carry it off, and there is none to deliver. And they growl upon him that day like the growling of the sea; and if one looks to the land, behold dark and distress, and the light is darkened in the cloudy heaven."

Thus Isaiah leaves Judah to await her doom. But the tones of his weird refrain awaken in our hearts some thoughts which will not let his message go from us just yet.

It will ever be a question, whether men abuse more their sorrows or their joys; but no earnest soul can doubt, which of these abuses is the more fatal. To sin in the one case is to yield to a temptation; to sin in the other is to resist a Divine grace. Sorrow is God’s last message to man; it is God speaking in emphasis. He who abuses it shows that he can shut his ears when God speaks loudest. Therefore heartlessness or impenitence after sorrow is more dangerous than intemperance in joy; its results are always more tragic. Now Isaiah points out that men’s abuse of sorrow is twofold. Men abuse sorrow by mistaking it, and they abuse sorrow by defying it.

Men abuse sorrow by mistaking it, when they see in it nothing but a penal or expiatory force. To many men sorrow is what his devotions were to Louis XI, which having religiously performed, he felt the more brave to sin. So with the Samaritans, who said in the stoutness of their hearts, "The bricks are fallen down, but we will build with hewn stones; the sycamores are cut down, but we will change them into cedars." To speak in this way is happy, but heathenish. It is to call sorrow "bad luck"; it is to hear no voice of God in it, saying, "Be pure; be humble; lean upon Me." This disposition springs from a vulgar conception of God, as of a Being of no permanence in character, easily irritated but relieved by a burst of passion, smartly punishing His people and then leaving them to themselves. It is a temper which says, "God is angry, let us wait a little; God is appeased, let us go ahead again." Over against such vulgar views of a Deity with a temper Isaiah unveils the awful majesty of God in holy wrath: "For all this His anger is not turned away, but His hand is stretched out still." How grim and savage does it appear to our eyes till we understand the thoughts of the sinners to whom it was revealed! God cannot dispel the cowardly thought, that He is anxious only to punish, except by letting His heavy hand abide till it purify also. The permanence of God’s wrath is thus an ennobling, not a stupefying doctrine.

Men also abuse sorrow by defying it, but the end of this is madness. "It forms the greater part of the tragedy of ‘King Lear,’ that the aged monarch, though he has given his throne away, retains his imperiousness of heart, and continues to exhibit a senseless, if sometimes picturesque, pride and selfishness in face of misfortune. Even when he is overthrown he must still command; he fights against the very elements; he is determined to be at least the master of his own sufferings and destiny. But for this the necessary powers fail him; his life thus disordered terminates in madness. It was only by such an affliction that a character like his could be brought to repentance; to humility, which is the parent of true love, and that love in him could be purified. Hence the melancholy close of that tragedy." As Shakespeare has dealt with the king, so Isaiah with the people; he also shows us sorrow when it is defied bringing forth madness. On so impious a height man’s brain grows dizzy, and he falls into that terrible abyss which is not, as some imagine, hell, but God’s last purgatory. Shakespeare brings shattered Lear out of it, and Isaiah has a remnant of the people to save.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Isaiah 5:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/isaiah-5.html.


Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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