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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Isaiah 56

 

 

Verses 1-8

7, Isaiah 55:1-13, Isaiah 56:1-8

CHAPTER XXII

ON THE EVE OF RETURN

Isaiah 54:1-17, Isaiah 55:1-13, Isaiah 56:1-8

ONE of the difficult problems of our prophecy is the relation and grouping of chapters 54-59. It is among them that the unity of "Second Isaiah," which up to this point we have seen no reason to doubt, gives way. Isaiah 56:9-12 is evidently pre-exilic, and so is Isaiah 59:1-21. But in chapters 54, 55, and Isaiah 56:1-8 we have three addresses, evidently dating from the Eve of the Return. We shall, therefore, treat them together.

I. THE BRIDE THE CITY

(Isaiah 54:1-17)

We have already seen why there is no reason for the theory that chapter 54 may have followed immediately on Isaiah 52:12. And from Calvin to Ewald and Dillmann, critics have all felt a close connection between Isaiah 52:13-15;, Isaiah 53:1-12 and chapter 54. "After having spoken of the death of Christ," says Calvin, "the prophet passes on with good reason to the Church: that we may feel more deeply in ourselves what is the value and efficacy of His death." Similar in substance, if not in language, is the opinion of the latest critics, who understand that in chapter 54 the prophet intends to picture that full redemption which the Servant’s work, culminating in chapter 53, could alone effect. Two key-words of chapter 53 had been "a seed" and "many." It is "the seed" and the "many" whom chapter 54 reveals. Again, there may be, in Isaiah 54:17, a reference to the earlier picture of the Servant in chapter 50, especially Isaiah 50:8. But this last is uncertain; and, as a point on the other side there are the two different meanings as well as the two different agents, of "righteousness" in Isaiah 53:11, "My Servant shall make many righteous," and in Isaiah 54:17, "their righteousness which is of Me, saith Jehovah." In the former, righteousness is the inward justification; in the letter, it is the external historical vindication.

In chapter 54 the people of God are represented under the double figure, with which the Book of Revelation has made us familiar, of Bride and City. To imagine a Nation or a Land as the spouse of her God is a habit natural to the religious instinct at all times; the land deriving her fruitfulness, the nation her standing and prestige, from her connection with the Deity. But in ancient times this figure of wedlock was more natural than it is among us, in so far as the human man and wife did not then occupy that relation of equality, to which it has been the progress of civilisation to approximate; but the husband was the lord of his wife, -as much her Baal as the god was the Baal of the people, -her law-giver, in part her owner, and with full authority over the origin and subsistence of the bond between them. Marriage thus conceived was a figure for religion almost universal among the Semites. But as in the case of so many other religious ideas common to the Hebrews and their heathen kin, this one, when adopted by the prophets of Jehovah, underwent a thorough moral reformation. Indeed, if one were asked to point out a supreme instance of the operation of that unique conscience of the religion of Jehovah, which was spoken of before, one would have little difficulty in selecting its treatment of the idea of religious marriage. By the neighbours of Israel, the marriage of a god to his people was conceived with a grossness of feeling and illustrated by a foulness of ritual, which thoroughly demoralised the people, affording, as they did, to licentiousness the example and sanction of religion. So debased had the idea become, and so full of temptation to the Hebrews were the forms in which it was illustrated among their neighbours, that the religion of Israel might justly have been praised for achieving a great moral victory in excluding the figure altogether from its system. But the prophets of Jehovah dared the heavier task of retaining the idea of religious marriage, and won the diviner triumph of purifying and elevating it. It was, indeed, a new creation. Every physical suggestion was banished, and the relation was conceived as purely moral. Yet it was never refined to a mere form or abstraction. The prophets fearlessly expressed it in the warmest and most familiar terms of the love of man and woman. With a stern and absolute interpretation before them in the Divine law, of the relations of a husband to his wife, they borrowed from that only so far as to do justice to the Almighty’s initiative and authority in His relation with mortals; and they laid far more emphasis on the instinctive and spontaneous affections, by which Jehovah and Israel had been drawn together. Thus, among a people naturally averse to think or to speak of God as loving men, this close relation to Him of marriage was expressed with a warmth, a tenderness, and a delicacy, that exceeded even the two other fond forms in which the Divine grace was conveyed, -of a father’s and of a mother’s love.

In this new creation of the marriage bond between God and His church, three prophets had a large share, -Hosea, Ezekiel, and the author of "Second Isaiah." To Hosea and Ezekiel it fell to speak chiefly of unpleasant aspects of the question, -the unfaithfulness of the wife and her divorce; but even then, the moral strength and purity of the Hebrew religion, its Divine vehemence and glow, were only the more evident for the unpromising character of the materials with which it dealt. To our prophet, on the contrary, it fell to speak of the winning back of the wife, and he has done so with wonderful delicacy and tenderness. Our prophet, it is true, has not one, but two, deep feelings about the love of God: it passes through him as the love of a mother, as well as the love of a husband. But while he lets us see the former only twice or thrice, the latter may be felt as the almost continual under-current of his prophecy, and often breaks to hearing, now in a sudden, single ripple of a phrase, and now in a long tide of marriage music. His lips open for Jehovah on the language of wooing, - "speak ye to the heart of Jerusalem"; and though his masculine figure for Israel as the Servant keeps his affection hidden for a time, this emerges again when the subject of Service is exhausted, till Israel, where she is not Jehovah’s Servant, is Jehovah’s Bride. In the series of passages on Zion, from chapter 49 to chapter 53, the City is the Mother of His children, the Wife who though put away has never been divorced. In chapter 62 she is called Hephzi-Bah, My-delight-is-in-her, and Beulah, or Married, -"for Jehovah delighteth in thee, and thy land shall be married. For as a youth marrieth a maiden, thy sons shall marry thee; and with the joy of a bridegroom over a bride, thy God shall joy over thee." But it is in the chapter now before us that the relation is expressed with greatest tenderness and wealth of affection. "Be not afraid, for thou shalt not be shamed; and be not confounded, for thou shalt not be put to the blush: for the shame of thy youth thou shalt forget, and the reproach of thy widowhood thou shalt not remember again. For thy Maker is thy Husband, Jehovah of Hosts is His name; and thy Redeemer the Holy of Israel, God of the whole earth is He called. For as a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit thou art called of Jehovah, even a wife of youth, when she is cast off, saith thy God. For a small moment have I forsaken thee, but with great mercies will I gather thee. In an egre of anger I hid My face a moment from thee, but with grace everlasting will I have mercy upon thee, saith thy Redeemer Jehovah."

In this eighth verse we pass from the figure of clear through flood and storm in Isaiah 54:11. "Afflicted, Storm-beaten, Uncomforted, Lo, I am setting in dark metal" (antimony, used by women for painting round the eyes, so as to set forth their brilliance more) "thy stones," (that they may shine from this setting like women’s eyes,)" and I will found thee in sapphires": as heaven’s own foundation vault is blue, so shall the ground stones be of the new Jerusalem. "And I will set rubies for thy pinnacles, and thy gates shall be sparkling stones, and all thy borders stones of delight, -stones of joy, jewels." The rest of the chapter paints the righteousness of Zion as her external security and splendour.

II. A LAST CALL TO THE BUSY

(Isaiah 55:1-13).

The second address upon the Eve of Return is chapter 55. Its pure gospel and clear music render detailed exposition, except on a single point, superfluous. One can but stand and listen to those great calls to repentance and obedience, which issue from it. What can be added to them or said about them? Let one take heed rather to let them speak to one’s own heart! A little exploration, however, will be of advantage among the circumstances from which they shoot.

The commercial character of the opening figures of chapter 55 arrests the attention. We saw that Babylon was the centre of the world’s trade, and that it was in Babylon that the Jews first formed those mercantile habits, which have become, next to religion, or in place of religion, their national character. Born to be priests, the Jews drew down their splendid powers of attention, pertinacity, and imagination from God upon the world, till they equally appear to have been born traders. They laboured and prospered exceedingly, gathering property and settling in comfort. They drank of the streams of Babylon, no longer made bitter by their tears, and ceased to think upon Zion.

But, of all men, exiles can least forget that there is that which money can never buy. Money and his work can do much for the banished man, -feed him, clothe him, even make for him a kind of second home, and in time, by the payment of taxes, a kind of second citizenship; but they can never bring him to the true climate of his heart, nor win for him his real life. And of all exiles the Jew, however free and prosperous in his banishment he might be, was least able to find his life among the good things-the water, the wine, and the milk-of a strange country. For home to Israel meant not only home, but duty, righteousness, and God. (Isaiah 1:1-31; Isaiah 2:1-22; Isaiah 3:1-26; Isaiah 4:1-6; Isaiah 5:1-30; Isaiah 6:1-13; Isaiah 7:1-25; Isaiah 8:1-22; Isaiah 9:1-21; Isaiah 10:1-34; Isaiah 11:1-16; Isaiah 12:1-6; Isaiah 13:1-22; Isaiah 14:1-32; Isaiah 15:1-9; Isaiah 16:1-14; Isaiah 17:1-14; Isaiah 18:1-7; Isaiah 19:1-25; Isaiah 20:1-6; Isaiah 21:1-17; Isaiah 22:1-25; Isaiah 23:1-18; Isaiah 24:1-23; Isaiah 25:1-12; Isaiah 26:1-21; Isaiah 27:1-13; Isaiah 28:1-29; Isaiah 29:1-24; Isaiah 30:1-33; Isaiah 31:1-9; Isaiah 32:1-20; Isaiah 33:1-24; Isaiah 34:1-17; Isaiah 35:1-10; Isaiah 36:1-22; Isaiah 37:1-38; Isaiah 38:1-22; Isaiah 39:1-8) God had created the heart of this people to hunger for His word, and in His word they could alone find the "fatness of their soul." Success and comfort shall never satisfy the soul which God has created for obedience. The simplicity of the obedience that is here asked from Israel, the emphasis that is laid upon mere obedience as ringing in full satisfaction, is impressive: "hearken diligently, and eat that which is good; incline your ear and come unto Me, hear and your soul shall live." It suggests the number of plausible reasons, which may be offered for every worldly and material life, and to which there is no answer save the call of God’s own voice to obedience and surrender. To obedience God then promises influence. In place of being a mere trafficker with the nations, or, at best, their purveyor and moneylender, the Jew, if he obeys God, shall be the priest and prophet of the peoples. This is illustrated in Isaiah 55:4-6, the only hard passage in the chapter. God will make His people like David; whether the historical David or the ideal David described by Jeremiah and Ezekiel is uncertain. God will conclude an everlasting "covenant" with them, equivalent to the sure favours showered on him. As God set him for a witness (that is, a prophet) to "the peoples, a prince and a leader to the peoples," so (in phrases that recall some used by David of himself in the eighteenth Psalm) shall they as prophets and kings influence strange nations-"calling a nation thou knowest not, and nations that have not known thee shall run unto thee." The effect of the unconscious influence, which obedience to God, and surrender to Him as His instrument, are sure to work, could not be more grandly stated. But we ought not to let another point escape our attention, for it has its contribution to make to the main question of the Servant. As explained in the note to a sentence above, it is uncertain whether David is the historical king of’ that name, or the Messiah still to come. In either case, be is an individual, whose functions and qualities are transferred to the people, and that is the point demanding attention. If our prophecy can thus so easily speak of God’s purpose of service to the Gentiles passing from the individual to the nation, why should it not also be able to speak of the opposite process, the transference of the service from the nation to the single Servant? When the nation were unworthy and unredeemed, could not the prophet as easily think of the relegation of their office to aft individual, as he now promises to their obedience that that office shall be restored to them?

The next verses urgently repeat calls to repentance. And then comes a passage which is grandly meant to make us feel the contrast of its scenery with the toil, the money-getting and the money-spending from which the chapter started. From all that sordid, barren, human strife in the markets of Babylon, we are led out to look at the boundless heavens, and are told that "as they are higher than the earth, so are God’s ways higher than our ways, and God’s reckonings than our reckonings" we are led out to see the gentle fall of rain and snow that so easily "maketh the earth to bring forth and bud, and give seed to the sower and bread to the eater," and are told that it is a symbol of God’s word, which we were called from our vain labours to obey; we are led out "to the mountains and to the hills breaking before you into singing," and to the free, wild natural trees, tossing their unlopped branches; we are led to see even the desert change, for "instead of the thorn shall come up the fir-tree, and instead of the nettle shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to Jehovah for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off." Thus does the prophet, in his own fashion, lead the starved worldly heart, that has sought in vain its fulness from its toil, through scenes of Nature, to that free omnipotent Grace, of which Nature’s processes are the splendid sacraments.

III. PROSELYTES AND EUNUCHS

[Isaiah 56:1-8]

The opening verse of this small prophecy, "My salvation is near to come, and My righteousness to be revealed," attaches it very closely to the preceding prophecy. If chapter 55 expounds the grace and faithfulness of God in the Return of His people, and asks from them only faith as the price of such benefits, Isaiah 56:1-8 adds the demand that those who are to return shall keep the law, and extends their blessings to foreigners and others, who though technically disqualified from the privileges of the born and legitimate Israelite, had attached themselves to Jehovah and His Law.

Such a prophecy was very necessary. The dispersion of Israel had already begun to accomplish its missionary purpose; pious souls in many lands had felt the spiritual power of this disfigured people, and had chosen for Jehovah’s sake to follow its uncertain fortunes. It was indispensable that these Gentile converts should be comforted against the withdrawal of Israel from Babylon, for they said, "Jehovah will surely separate me from His people," as well as against the time when it might become necessary to purge the restored community from heathen constituents. [Nehemiah 13:1-31] Again, all the male Jews could hardly have escaped the disqualification, which the cruel custom of the East inflicted on some, at least, of every body of captives. It is almost certain that Daniel and his companions were eunuchs, and if they, then perhaps many more. But the Book of Deuteronomy had declared mutilation of this kind to be a bar against entrance to the assembly of the Lord. It is not one of the least interesting of the spiritual results of the Exile, that its necessities compelled the abrogation of the letter of such a law. With a freedom that foreshadows Christ’s own expansion of the ancient strictness, and in words that would not be out of place in the Sermon on the Mount, this prophecy ensures to pious men, whom cruelty had deprived of the two things dearest to the heart of an Israelite, -a present place, and a perpetuation through his posterity, in the community of God, -that in the new temple a monument and a name should be given, "better" and more enduring "than sons or daughters." This prophecy is further noteworthy as the first instance of the strong emphasis which "Second Isaiah" lays upon the keeping of the Sabbath, and as, first calling the temple the "House of Prayer." Both of these characteristics are due, of course, to the Exile, the necessities of which prevented almost every religious act save that of keeping fasts and Sabbaths and serving God in prayer. On our prophet’s teaching about the Sabbath there will be more to say in the next chapter.


Verse 9

-26

BOOK 4

THE RESTORATION

WE have now reached the summit of our prophecy. It has been a long, steep ascent, and we have had very much to seek out on the way, and to extricate and solve and load ourselves with. But although a long extent of the prophecy, if we measure it by chapters, still lies before us, the end is in sight; every difficulty has been surmounted which kept us from seeing how we were to get to it, and the rest of the way may be said to be downhill.

To drop the figure-the Servant, his vicarious suffering and atonement for the sins of the people, form for our prophet the solution of the spiritual problem of the nation’s restoration, and what he has now to do is but to fill in the details of this.

We saw that the problem of Israel’s deliverance from Exile, their Return, and their Restoration to their position in their own land as the Chief Servant of God to humanity, was really a double problem-political and spiritual. The solution of the political side of it was Cyrus. As soon as the prophet had been able to make it certain that Cyrus was moving down upon Babylon, with a commission from God to take the city, and irresistible in the power with which Jehovah had invested him, the political difficulties in the way of Israel’s Return were as good as removed; and so the prophet gave, in the end of chapter 48, his great call to his countrymen to depart. But all through chapters 40-48, while addressing himself to the solution of the political problems of Israel’s deliverance, the prophet had given hints that there were moral and spiritual difficulties as well. In spite of their punishment for more than half a century, the mass of the people were not worthy of a return. Many were idolaters; many were worldly; the orthodox had their own wrong views of how salvation should come; [Isaiah 45:9 ff.} the pious were without either light or faith. {Isaiah 50:10] The nation, in short, had not that inward "righteousness," which could alone justify God in vindicating them before the. world, in establishing their outward righteousness, their salvation and reinstatement in their lofty place and calling as His people. These moral difficulties come upon the prophet with greater force after he has, with the close of chapter 48, finished his solution of the political ones. To these moral difficulties he addresses himself in 49-53, and the Servant and his Service are his solution of them:-the Servant as a Prophet and a Covenant of the People in chapter 49 and in Isaiah 50:4 ff.: the Servant as an example to the people, chapter 50 ff.; and finally the Servant as a full expiation for the people’s sins in Isaiah 52:13-15;, Isaiah 53:1-12. It is the Servant who is to "raise up the land, and to bring back the heirs to the desolate heritages," and rouse the Israel who are not willing to leave Babylon," saying to the bound, Go forth; and to them that sit in darkness, Show yourselves". [Isaiah 49:8-9] It is he who is "to sustain the weary" and to comfort the pious in Israel, who, though pious, have no light as they walk on their way back. [Isaiah 50:4; Isaiah 50:10] It is the Servant finally who is to achieve the main problem of all and "make many righteous". [Isaiah 53:11] The hope of restoration, the certainty of the people’s redemption, the certainty of the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the certainty of the growth of the people to a great multitude, are, therefore, all woven by the prophet through and through with his studies of the Servant’s work in Isaiah 49:1., and Isaiah 52:13-15;, Isaiah 53:1-12, -woven so closely and so naturally that, as we have already seen, we cannot take any part of chapters 49-53 and say that it is of different authorship from the rest. Thus in chapter 49 we have the road to Jerusalem pictured in Isaiah 49:9-13, immediately upon the back of the Servant’s call to go forth in Isaiah 49:9. We have then the assurance of Zion being rebuilt and thronged by her children in Isaiah 49:14-23, and another affirmation of the certainty of redemption in Isaiah 49:24-26. In Isaiah 50:1-3 this is repeated. In 51- Isaiah 52:1-12 the petty people is assured that it shall grow innumerable again; new affirmations are made of its ransom and return, ending with the beautiful prospect of the feet of the heralds of deliverance on the mountains of Judah {Isaiah 52:7 b} and a renewed call to leave Babylon (Isaiah 52:11-12). We shall treat all these passages in our twenty-first chapter.

And as they started naturally from the Servant’s work in Isaiah 49:1-9 a-and his example in Isaiah 50:4-11, so upon his final and crowning work in chapter 53 there follow as naturally chapter 54 (the prospect of the seed Isaiah 53:10 promised he should see), and chapter 55 (a new call to come forth). These two, with the little pre-exilic prophecy, Isaiah 56:1-8, we shall treat in our twenty-second chapter.

Then come the series of difficult small prophecies with pre-exilic traces in them, from Isaiah 56:9 through Isaiah 59:1-21. They will occupy our twenty-third chapter. In chapter 60 Zion is at last not only in sight, but radiant in the rising of her new day of glory. In chapters 61 and 62 the prophet, having reached Zion, "looks back," as Dillmann well remarks, "upon what has become his task, and in connection with that makes clear once more the high goal of all his working and striving." In Isaiah 63:1-6 the Divine Deliver is hailed. We shall take Isaiah 60:1-22 - Isaiah 63:6 together in our twenty-fourth chapter.

Chapter 63:7-64 is an Intercessory Prayer for the restoration of all Israel. It is answered in chapter 65, and the lesson of this answer, that Israel must be judged, and that all cannot be saved, is enforced in chapter 66. Chaps. 63:7-66 will therefore form our twenty-fifth and closing chapter.

Thus our course is clear, and we can overtake it rapidly. It is, to a large extent, a series of spectacles, interrupted by exhortations upon duty; things, in fact, to see and to hear, not to argue about. There are few great doctrinal questions, except what we have already sufficiently discussed; our study, for instance, of the term righteousness, we shall find has covered for us a large part of the ground in advance. And the only difficult literary question is that of the pre-exilic and post-exilic pieces, which are alleged to form so large a part of chapters 56-59 and 63-66.


Verses 9-12

CHAPTER XXIII

THE REKINDLING OF THE CIVIC CONSCIENCE

Isaiah 56:9-12;, Isaiah 57:1-21; Isaiah 58:1-14; Isaiah 59:1-21

IT was inevitable, as soon as their city was again fairly in sight, that there should re-awaken in the exiles the civic conscience; that recollections of those besetting sins of their public life, for which their city and their independence were destroyed, should throng back upon them; that in prospect of their again becoming responsible for the discharge of justice and other political duties, they should be reminded by the prophet of their national faults in these respects, and of God’s eternal laws concerning them. If we keep this in mind, we shall understand the presence in "Second Isaiah" of the group of prophecies at which we have now arrived, Isaiah 56:9-12;, Isaiah 57:1-21; Isaiah 58:1-14; Isaiah 59:1-21. Hitherto our prophet, in marked contrast to Isaiah himself, has said almost nothing of the social righteousness of his people. Israel’s righteousness, as we saw in our fourteenth chapter, has had the very different meaning for our prophet of her pardon and restoration to her rights. But in Isaiah 56:9-12;, Isaiah 57:1-21; Isaiah 58:1-14; Isaiah 59:1-21 we shall find the blame of civic wrong, and of other kinds of sin of which Israel could only have been guilty in her own land; we shall listen to exhortations to social justice and mercy like those we heard from Isaiah to his generation. Yet these are mingled with voices, and concluded with promises, which speak of the Return as imminent. Undoubtedly exilic elements reveal themselves. And the total impression is that some prophet of the late Exile, and probably the one whom we have been following, collected these reminiscences of his people’s sin in the days of their freedom, in order to remind them, before they went back again to political responsibility, why it was they were punished and how apt they were to go astray. Believing this to be the true solution of a somewhat difficult problem, we have ventured to gather this mixed group of prophecies under the title of the Rekindling of the Civic Conscience. They fall into three groups: first, Isaiah 56:9-12;, Isaiah 57:1-21; second, chapter 58; third, chapter 59. We shall see that, while there is no reason to doubt the exilic origin of the whole of the second, the first and third of these are mainly occupied with the description of a state of things that prevailed only before the Exile, but they contain also exilic observations and conclusions.

I. A CONSCIENCE BUT NO GOD

Isaiah 56:9-12;, Isaiah 57:1-21

This is one of the sections which almost decisively place the literary unity of "Second Isaiah" past possibility of belief. If Isaiah 56:1-8 flushes with the dawn of restoration, Isaiah 56:9-12;, Isaiah 57:1-21 is very dark with the coming of the night, which preceded that dawn. Almost none dispute that the greater part of this prophecy must have been composed before the people left Palestine for exile. The state of Israel, which it pictures, recalls the descriptions of Hosea, and of the eleventh chapter of Zechariah. God’s flock are still in charge of their own shepherds, [Isaiah 56:9-12] -a description inapplicable to Israel in exile. The shepherds are sleepy, greedy, sensual, drunkards, -victims to the curse against which Amos and Isaiah hurled their strongest woes. That sots like them should be spared while the righteous die unnoticed deaths [Isaiah 57:1] can only be explained by the approaching judgment. "No man considereth that the righteous is taken away from the Evil." The Evil cannot mean, as some have thought, persecution, -for while the righteous are to escape it and enter into peace, the wicked are spared for it. It must be a Divine judgment, -the Exile. But "he entereth peace, they rest in their beds, each one that hath walked straight before him,"-for the righteous there is the peace of death and the undisturbed tomb of his fathers. What an enviable fate when emigration, and dispersion through foreign lands, are the prospect of the nation! Israel shall find her pious dead when she returns! The verse recalls that summons in Isaiah 26:1-21, in which we heard the Mother Nation calling upon the dead she had left in Palestine to rise and increase her returned numbers.

Then the prophet indicts the nation for a religious and political unfaithfulness, which we know was their besetting sin in the days before they left the Holy Land. The scenery, in whose natural objects he describes them seeking their worship, is the scenery of Palestine, not of Mesopotamia, - terebinths and wadies, and clerts of the rocks, and smooth stones of the wadies. The unchaste and bloody sacrifices with which he charges them bear the appearance more of Canaanite than of Babylonian idolatry. The humiliating political suits which they paid-"thou wentest to the king with ointment, and didst increase thy perfumes, and didst send thine ambassadors afar off, and didst debase thyself even unto Sheol" (Isaiah 57:9)-could not be attributed to a captive people, but were the sort of degrading diplomacy that Israel earned from Ahaz. While the painful pursuit of strength (Isaiah 57:10), the shabby political cowardice (Isaiah 57:11), the fanatic sacrifice of manhood’s purity and childhood’s life (Isaiah 57:5), and especially the evil conscience which drove their blind hearts through such pain and passion in a sincere quest for righteousness (Isaiah 57:12), betray the age of idolatrous reaction from the great Puritan victory of 701, -a generation exaggerating all the old falsehood and fear, against which Isaiah had inveighed, with the new conscience of sin which his preaching had created. The dark streak of blood and lust that runs through the condemned idolatry, and the stern conscience which only deepens its darkness, are sufficient reasons for dating the prophecy after 700. The very phrases of Isaiah, which it contains, have tempted some to attribute it to himself. But it certainly does not date from such troubles as brought his old age to the grave. The evil, which it portends, is, as we have seen, no persecution of the righteous, but a Divine judgment upon the whole nation,- presumably the Exile. We may date it, therefore, some time after Isaiah’s death, but certainly-and this is the important point-before the Exile. This, then, is an unmistakably pre-exilic constituent of "Second Isaiah."

Another feature corroborates this prophecy’s original independence of its context. Its style is immediately and extremely rugged. The reader of the original feels the difference at once. It is the difference between travel on the level roads of Mesopotamia, with their unchanging horizons, and the jolting carriage of the stony paths of Higher Palestine, with their glimpses rapidly shifting from gorge to peak. But the remarkable thing is that the usual style of "Second Isaiah" is resumed before the end of the prophecy. One cannot always be sure of the exact verse at which such a literary change takes place. In this case some feel it as soon as the middle of Isaiah 57:11, with the words, "Have not I held My peace even of long time, and thou fearest Me not?" It is surely more sensible, however, after ver. 14, in which we are arrested in any case by an alteration of standpoint. In ver. 14 we are on in the Exile again-before Isaiah 57:14 I cannot recognise any exilic symptom-and the way of return is before us. "And one said,"-it is the repetition to the letter of the strange anonymous voice of Isaiah 40:6, -" and one said, Cast ye up, Cast ye up, open up," or "sweep open, a way, lift the stumbling block from the way of My people." And now the rhythm has certainly returned to the prevailing style of "Second Isaiah," and the temper is again that of promise and comfort.

These sudden shiftings of circumstance and of prospect are enough to show the thoughtful reader of Scripture how hard is the problem of the unity of "Second Isaiah." On which we make here no further remark, but pass at once to the more congenial task of studying the great prophecy, Isaiah 57:14-21, which rises one and simple from these fragments as does some homogeneous rock from the confusing debris of several geological epochs.

For let the date and original purpose of the fragments we have considered be what they may, this prophecy has been placed as their conclusion with at least some rational, not to say spiritual intention. As it suddenly issues here, it gathers up, in the usual habit of Scripture, God’s moral indictment of an evil generation, by a great manifesto of the Divine nature, and a sharp distinction of the characters and fate of men. Now, of what kind is the generation to whose indictment this prophecy comes as a conclusion? It is a generation which has lost its God, but kept its conscience. This sums up the national character which is sketched in Isaiah 57:3-13. These Israelites had lost Jehovah and His pure law. But the religion into which they fell back was not, therefore, easy or cold. On the contrary, it was very intense and very stern. The people put energy in it, and passion, and sacrifice that went to cruel lengths. Belief, too, in its practical results kept the people from fainting under the weariness in which its fanaticism reacted. "In the length of thy way thou wast wearied, yet thou didst not say, It is hopeless; life for thy hand"-that is, real, practical strength-"didst thou find: wherefore thou didst not break down."

And they practised their painful and passionate idolatry with a real conscience. They were seeking to work out righteousness for themselves (Isaiah 57:12 should be rendered: "I will expose your righteousness," the caricature of righteousness which you attempt). The most worldly statesman among them had his sincere ideal for Israel, and intended to enable her, in the possession of her land and holy mountain, to fulfil her destiny (Isaiah 57:13). The most gross idolater had a hunger and thirst after righteousness, and burnt his children or sacrificed his purity to satisfy the vague promptings of his unenlightened conscience.

It was indeed a generation which had kept its conscience, but lost its God; and what we have in Isaiah 57:15-21 is just the lost and forgotten God speaking of His Nature and His Will. They have been worshipping idols, creatures of their own fears and cruel passions. But He is the "high and lofty one"-two of the simplest adjectives in the language, yet sufficient to lift Him they describe above the distorting mists of human imagination. They thought of the Deity as sheer wrath and force, scarcely to be appeased by men even through the most bloody rites and passionate self-sacrifice. But He says, "The high and the holy I dwell in, yet with him also that is contrite and humble of spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones." The rest of the chapter is to the darkened consciences a plain statement of the moral character of God’s working. God always punishes sin, and yet the sinner is not abandoned. Though he go in his own way, God "watches his ways in order to heal him. I create the fruit of the lips," that is, "thanksgivings: Peace, peace, to him that is far off and him that is near, saith Jehovah, and I will heal him." But, as in chapter 48, and chapter 50, a warning comes last, and behind the clear, forward picture of the comforted and restored of Jehovah we see the weird background of gloomy, restless wickedness.

II. SOCIAL SERVICE AND THE SABBATH

(chapter 58)

Several critics (including Professor Cheyne) regard chapter 58 as post-exilic, because of its declarations against formal fasting and the neglect of social charity, which are akin to those of post-exilic prophets like Zechariah and Joel, and seem to imply that the people addressed are again independent and responsible for the conduct of their social duties. The question largely turns on the amount of social responsibility we conceive the Jews to have had during the Exile. Now we have seen that many of them enjoyed considerable freedom: they had their houses and households; they had their slaves; they traded and were possessed of wealth. They were, therefore, in a position to be chargeable with the duties to which chapter 58 calls them. The addresses of Ezekiel to his fellow-exiles have many features in common with chapter 58, although they do not mention fasting; and fasting itself was a characteristic habit of the exiles, in regard to which it is quite likely they should err just as is described in chapter 58. Moreover, there is a resemblance between this chapter’s comments upon the people’s enquiries of God (Isaiah 58:2) and Ezekiel’s reply when certain of the elders of Israel came to enquire of Jehovah. (Ezekiel 21:1-32, cf. Ezekiel 33:30 f.) And again Isaiah 58:11-12 are evidently addressed to people in prospect of return to their own land and restoration of their city. We accordingly date chapter 53 from the Exile. But we see no reason to put it as early as Ewald does, who assigns it to a younger contemporary of Ezekiel. There is no linguistic evidence that it is an insertion, or from another hand than that of our prophet. Surely there were room and occasion for it in those years which followed the actual deliverance of the Jews by Cyrus, but preceded the restoration of Jerusalem, -those years in which there were no longer political problems in the way of the people’s return for our prophet to discuss, and therefore their moral defects were all the more thrust upon his attention; and especially, when in the near prospect of their political independence, their social sins roused his apprehensions.

Those who have never heard an angry Oriental speak have no idea of what power of denunciation lies in the human throat. In the East, where a dry climate and large leisure bestow upon the voice a depth and suppleness prevented by our vulgar haste of life and teasing weather, men have elaborated their throat-letters to a number unknown in any Western alphabet; and upon the lowest notes they have put an edge, that comes up shrill and keen through the roar of the upper gutturals, till you feel their wrath cut as well as sweep you before it. In the Oriental throat, speech goes down deep enough to echo all the breadth of the inner man; while the possibility of expressing within so supple an organ nearly every tone of scorn or surprise preserves anger from that suspicion of spite or of exhaustion, which is conveyed by too liberal a use of the nasal or palatal letters. Hence in the Hebrew language "to call with the throat" means to call with vehemence, but with self-command; with passion, yet as a man; using every figure of satire, but earnestly; neither forgetting wrath for mere art’s sake, nor allowing wrath to escape the grip of the stronger muscles of the voice. It is "to lift the voice like a trumpet,"-an instrument, which, with whatever variety of music its upper notes may indulge our ears, never suffers its main tone of authority to drop, never slacks its imperative appeal to the wills of the hearers.

This is the style of the chapter before us, which opens with the words, "Call with the throat, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet." Perhaps no subject more readily provokes to satire and sneers than the subject of the chapter, -the union of formal religion and unlovely life. And yet in the chapter there is not a sneer from first to last. The speaker suppresses the temptation to use his nasal tones, and utters, not as the satirist, but as the prophet. For his purpose is not to sport with his people’s hypocrisy, but to sweep them out of it. Before he has done, his urgent speech, that has not lingered to sneer nor exhausted itself in screaming, passes forth to spend its unchecked impetus upon final promise and gospel. It is a wise lesson from a master preacher, and half of the fruitlessness of modern preaching is clue to the neglect of it. The pulpit tempts men to be either too bold or too timid about sin; either to whisper or to scold; to euphemise or to exaggerate; to be conventional or hysterical. But two things are necessary, the facts must be stated, and the whole manhood of the preacher, and not only his scorn or only his anger or only an official temper, brought to bear upon them. "Call with the throat, spare not, like a trumpet lift up thy voice, and publish to My people their transgression, and to the house of Jacob their sin."

The subject of the chapter is the habits of a religious people, -the earnestness and regularity of their religious performance contrasted with the neglect of their social relations. The second verse, "the descriptions in which are evidently drawn from life," tells us that "the people sought God daily, and had a zeal to know His ways, as a nation that had done righteousness,"-fulfilled the legal worship, -"and had not forsaken the of their God: they ask of Me laws of righteousness,"-that is, a legal worship, the performance of which might make them righteous, -"and in drawing near to God they take delight." They had, in fact, a great greed for ordinances and functions, -for the revival of such forms as they had been accustomed to of old. Like some poor prostrate rose, whose tendrils miss the props by which they were wont to rise to the sun, the religious conscience and affections of Israel, violently torn from their immemorial supports, lay limp and wind-swept on a bare land, and longed for God to raise some substitute for those altars of Zion by which, in the dear days of old, they had lifted themselves to the light of His face. In the absence of anything better, they turned to the chill and shadowed forms of the fasts they had instituted. But they did not thereby reach the face of God. "Wherefore have we fasted," say they, "and Thou hast not seen? we have humbled our souls, and Thou takest no notice?" The answer comes swiftly: Because your fasting is a mere form! "Lo, in the very day of your fast ye find a business to do, and all your workmen you overtask." So formal is your fasting that your ordinary eager, selfish, cruel life goes on beside it just the same. Nay, it is worse than usual, for your worthless, wearisome fast but puts a sharper edge upon your temper: "Lo, for strife and contention ye fast, to smite with the fist of tyranny." And it has no religious value: "Ye fast not" like "as" you are fasting "today so as to make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, -a day for a man to afflict himself? Is it to droop his head like a rush, and grovel on sackcloth and ashes? Is it this thou wilt call a fast and a day acceptable to Jehovah?" One of the great surprises of the human heart is that self-denial does not win merit or peace. But assuredly it does not, if love be not with it. Though I give my body to be burned and have not love, it profiteth me nothing. Self-denial without love is self-indulgence. "Is not this the fast that I choose? to loosen the bonds of tyranny, to shatter the joints of the yoke, to let the crushed go free, and that ye burst every yoke. Is it not to break to the hungry thy bread, and that thou bring home wandering poor? when thou seest one naked that thou cover him, and that from thine own flesh thou hide not thyself? Then shall break forth like the morning thy light, and thy health shall immediately spring. Yea, go before thee shall thy righteousness, the glory of Jehovah shall sweep thee on," literally, "gather thee up. Then thou shalt call, and Jehovah shall answer; thou shalt cry, and He shall say, Here am I If thou shalt put from thy midst the yoke, and the putting forth of the finger, and the speaking of naughtiness"-three degrees of the subtlety of selfishness, which when forced back from violent oppression will retreat to scorn and from open scorn to backbiting, -"and if thou draw out to the hungry thy soul,"-tear out what is dear to thee in order to fill his need, the strongest expression for self-denial which the Old Testament contains, -"and satisfy the soul that is afflicted, then shall uprise in the darkness thy light, and thy gloom shall be as the noonday. And guide thee shall Jehovah continually, and satisfy thy soul in droughts, and thy limbs make lissom; and thou shalt be like a garden well-watered, [Jeremiah 31:12] and like a spring of water whose waters fail not. And they that are of thee shall build the ancient ruins; the foundations of generation upon generation thou shalt raise up, and they shall be calling thee Repairer-of-the-Breach, Restorer-of-Paths-for-habitation." {Cf. Job 24:13} Thus their "righteousness" in the sense of external vindication and stability, which so prevails with our prophet, shall be due to their "righteousness" in that inward moral sense in which Amos and Isaiah use the word. And so concludes a passage which fills the earliest, if not the highest, place in the glorious succession of Scriptures of Practical Love, to which belong the sixty-first chapter of Isaiah, the twenty-fifth of Matthew and the thirteenth of First Corinthians. Its lesson is, -to go back to the figure of the draggled rose, -that no mere forms of religion, however divinely prescribed or conscientiously observed, can of themselves lift the distraught and trailing affections of man to the light and peace of Heaven; but that our fellow men, if we cling to them with love and with arms of help, are ever the strongest props by which we may rise to God; that character grows rich and life joyful, not by the performance of ordinances with the cold conscience of duty, but by acts of service with the warm heart of love.

And yet such a prophecy concludes with an exhortation to the observance of one religious form, and places the keeping of the Sabbath on a level with the practice of love. "If thou turn from the Sabbath thy foot," from "doing thine own business on My holy day; [Amos 8:5] and tallest the Sabbath Pleasure,"-the word is a strong one, "Delight, Delicacy, Luxury, -Holy of Jehovah, Honourable; and dost honour it so as not to do thine own ways, or find thine own business, or keep making talk: then thou shalt find thy pleasure," or "thy delight, in Jehovah,"-note the parallel of pleasure in the Sabbath and pleasure in Jehovah, -"and He shall cause thee to ride on the high places of the land, and make thee to feel upon the portion of Jacob thy father: yea, the mouth of Jehovah hath spoken."

Our prophet, then, while exalting the practical Service of Man at the expense of certain religious forms, equally exalts the observance of Sabbath; his scorn for their formalism changes when he comes to it into a strenuous enthusiasm of defence. This remarkable fact, which is strictly analogous to the appearance of the Fourth Commandment in a code otherwise consisting of purely moral and religious laws, is easily explained. Observe that our prophet bases his plea for Sabbath-keeping, and his assurance that it must lead to prosperity, not on its physical, moral, or social benefits, but simply upon its acknowledgment of God. Not only is the Sabbath to be honoured because it is the "Holy of Jehovah" and "Honourable," but "making it one’s pleasure" is equivalent to "finding one’s pleasure in Him." The parallel between these two phrases in Isaiah 58:13 and Isaiah 58:14 is evident, and means really this: Inasmuch as ye do it unto the Sabbath, ye do it unto Me. The prophet, then, enforces the Sabbath simply on account of its religious and Godward aspect. Now, let us remember the truth, which he so often enforces, that the Service of Man, however, ardently and widely pursued, can never lead or sum up our duty; that the Service of God has, logically and practically, a prior claim, for without it the Service of Man must suffer both in obligation and in resource. God must be our first resort-must have our first homage, affection, and obedience. But this cannot well take place without some amount of definite and regular and frequent devotion to Him. In the most spiritual religion there is an irreducible minimum of formal observance. Now, in that wholesale destruction of religious forms, which took place at the overthrow of Jerusalem, there was only one institution, which was not necessarily involved. The Sabbath did not fall with the Temple and the Altar: the Sabbath was independent of all locality; the Sabbath was possible even in exile. It was the one solemn, public, and frequently regular form in which the nation could turn to God, glorify Him, and enjoy Him. Perhaps, too, through the Babylonian fashion of solemnising the seventh day, our prophet realised again the primitive institution of the Sabbath, and was reminded that, since seven days is a regular part of the natural year, the Sabbath is, so to speak, sanctioned by the statutes of Creation.

An institution, which is so primitive, which is so independent of locality, which forms so natural a part of the course of time, but which, above all, has twice-in the Jewish Exile and in the passage of Judaism to Christianity-survived the abrogation and disappearance of all other forms of the religion with which it was connected, and has twice been affirmed by prophecy or practice to be an essential part of spiritual religion and the equal of social morality, -has amply proved its Divine origin and its indispensableness to man.

III. SOCIAL CRIMES

(Chapter 59)

Chapter 59 is, at first sight, the most difficult of all of "Second Isaiah" to assign to a date. For it evidently contains both pre-exilic and exilic elements. On the one hand, its charges of guilt imply that the people addressed by it are responsible for civic justice to a degree which could hardly be imputed to the Jews in Babylon. We saw that the Jews in the Exile had an amount of social freedom and domestic responsibility which amply accounts for the kind of sins they are charged with in chapter 58. But ver. 14 of chapter 59 (Isaiah 59:14) reproaches them with the collapse of justice in the very seat and public office of justice, of which it was not possible they could have been guilty except in their own land and in the days of their independence. On the other hand, the promises of deliverance in chapter 59 read very much as if they were exilic. "Judgment" and "righteousness" are employed in Isaiah 59:9 in their exilic sense, and God is pictured exactly as we have seen Him in other chapters of our prophet.

Are we then left with a mystery? On the contrary, the solution is clear. Israel is followed into exile by her old conscience. The charges of Isaiah and Ezekiel against Jerusalem, while Jerusalem was still a "civitas," ring in her memory. She repeats the very words. With truth she says that her present state, so vividly described in Isaiah 59:9-11, is due to sins of old, of which, though perhaps she can no longer commit them, she still feels the guilt. Conscience always crowds the years together; there is no difference of time in the eyes of God the Judge. And it was natural, as we have said already, that the nation should remember her besetting sins at this time; that her civic conscience should awake again, just as she was again about to become a civitas.

The whole of this chapter is simply the expansion and enforcement of the first two verses, that keep clanging like the clangour of a great high bell: "Behold, Jehovah’s hand is not shortened that it cannot save, neither is His ear heavy that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have been separators between you and your God, and your sins have hidden" His "face from you, that He will not hear." There is but one thing that comes between the human heart and the Real Presence and Infinite Power of God; and that one thing is Sin. The chapter labours to show how real God is. Its opening verses talk of "His Hand, His Ear, His Face." And the closing verses paint Him with the passions and the armour of a man, -a Hero in such solitude and with such forward force, that no imagination can fail to see the Vivid, Lonely Figure. "And He saw that there was no man, and He wondered that there was none to interpose; therefore His own right arm brought salvation unto Him, and His righteousness it upheld Him. And He put on righteousness like a breastplate and salvation" for "a helmet upon His head; and He put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped Himself in zeal like a robe." Do not let us suppose this is mere poetry. Conceive what inspires it, -the great truth that in the Infinite there is a heart to throb for men and a will to strike for them. This is what the writer desires to proclaim, and what we believe the Spirit of God moved his poor human lips to give their own shape to, -the simple truth that there is One, however hidden He may be to men’s eyes, who feels for men, who feels hotly for men, and whose will is quick and urgent to save them. Such a One tells His people that the only thing which prevents them from knowing how real His heart and will are-the only thing which prevents them from seeing His work in their midst-is their sin.

The roll of sins to which the prophet attributes the delay of the people’s deliverance is an awful one; and the man who reads it with conscience asleep might conclude that it was meant only for a period of extraordinary violence and bloodshed. Yet the chapter implies that society exists, and that at least the forms of civilisation are in force. Men sue one another before the usual courts. But none "sueth in righteousness or goeth to the law in truth. They trust in vanity and speak lies." All these charges might be true of a society as outwardly respectable as our own. Nor is the charge of bloodshed to be taken literally. The Old Testament has so great a regard for the spiritual nature of man, that to deny the individual his rights or to take away the peace of God from his heart, it calls the shedding of innocent blood. Isaiah reminds us of many kinds of this moral murder when he says, "your hands are full of blood: seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow." Ezekiel reminds us of others when he tells how God spake to him, that if he "warn not the wicked, and the same wicked shall die in his iniquity, his blood will I require at thy hand." And again a Psalm reminds us of the time "when the Lord maketh inquisition for blood, He forgetteth not the cry of the poor." [Isaiah 1:17;, Psalms 9:12] This is what the Bible calls murder and lays its burning words upon, -not such acts of bloody violence as now and then make all humanity thrill to discover that in the heart of civilisation there exist men with the passions of the ape and the tiger, but such oppression of the poor, such cowardice to rebuke evil, such negligence to restore the falling, such abuse of the characters of the young and innocent, such fraud and oppression of the weak, as often exist under the most respectable life, and employ the weapons of a Christian civilisation in order to fulfil themselves. We have need to take the bold, violent standards of the prophets and lay them to our own lives, -the prophets that call the man who sells his honesty for gain, "a harlot," and hold him "blood-guilty" who has wronged, tempted, or neglected his brother. Do not let us suppose that these crimson verses of the Bible may be passed over by us as not applicable to ourselves. They do not refer to murderers or maniacs: they refer to social crimes, to which we all are in perpetual temptation, and of which we all are more or less guilty, -the neglect of the weak, the exploitation of the poor for our own profit, the soiling of children’s minds, the multiplying of temptation in the way of God’s little ones, the malice that leads us to blast another’s character, or to impute to his action evil motives for which we have absolutely no grounds save the envy and sordidness of our own hearts. Do not let us fail to read all such verses in the clear light which John the Apostle throws on them when he says: "He that loveth not abideth in death. Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer."

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Isaiah 56:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/isaiah-56.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, August 25th, 2019
the Week of Proper 16 / Ordinary 21
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