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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Isaiah 8

 

 

Verses 1-22

CHAPTER VI

KING AND MESSIAH PEOPLE AND CHURCH

735-732 B.C.

Isaiah 7, 8, 9:1-8

THIS section of the book of Isaiah (chapters 7-9:7) consists of a number of separate prophecies uttered during a period of at least three years: 735-732 B.C. By 735 Ahaz had ascended the throne; Tiglath-pileser had been occupied in the far east for two years. Taking advantage of the weakness of the former and the distance of the later, Rezin, king of Damascus, and Pekah, king of Samaria, planned an invasion of Judah. It was a venture they would not have dared had Uzziah been alive. While Rezin marched down the east of the Jordan and overturned the Jewish supremacy in Edom, Pekah threw himself into Judah, defeated the armies of Ahaz in one great battle, and besieged Jerusalem, with the object of deposing Ahaz and setting a Syrian, Ben-Tabeel, in his stead. Simultaneously the Philistines attacked Judah from the southwest. The motive of the confederates was in all probability anger with Ahaz for refusing to enter with them into a Pan-Syrian alliance against Assyria. In his distress Ahaz appealed to Tiglath-pileser, and the Assyrian swiftly responded. In 734-it must have been less than a year since Ahaz was attacked-the hosts of the north had overrun Samaria and swept as far south as the cities of the Philistines. Then, withdrawing his troops again, Tiglath-pileser left Hoshea as his vassal on Pekah’s throne, and sending the population of Israel east of the Jordan into distant captivity, completed a two years’ siege of Damascus (734-732) by its capture. At Damascus Ahaz met the conqueror, and having paid him tribute, took out a further policy of insurance in the altar-pattern, which he brought back with him to Jerusalem. Such were the three years, whose rapid changes unfolded themselves in parallel with these prophecies of Isaiah. The details are not given by the prophet, but we must keep in touch with them while we listen to him. Especially must we remember their central point, the decision of Ahaz to call in the help of Assyria, a decision which affected the whole course of politics for the next thirty years. Some of the oracles of this section were plainly delivered by Isaiah before that event, and simply seek to inspire Ahaz with a courage which should feel Assyrian help to be needless; others, again, imply that Ahaz has already called in the Assyrian: they taunt him with hankering after foreign strength, and depict the woes which the Assyrian will bring upon the land; while others {for example, the passage Isaiah 9:1-7} mean that the Assyrian has already come, and that the Galilean provinces of Israel have been depopulated, and promise a Deliverer. If we do not keep in mind the decision of Ahaz, we shall not understand these seemingly contradictory utterances, which it thoroughly explains. Let us now begin at the beginning of chapter 7. It opens with a bare statement, by way of title, of the invasion of Judah and the futile result; and then proceeds to tell us how Isaiah acted from the first rumour of the confederacy onward.

I. THE KING

(chapter 7)

"And it came to pass in the days of Ahaz, the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin, the king of Syria, and Pekah, the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up to Jerusalem to war against it, but could not prevail against it." This is a summary of the whole adventure and issue of the war, given by way of introduction. The narrative proper begins in Isaiah 7:2, with the effect of the first news of the league upon Ahaz and his people. Their hearts were moved like the trees of the forest before the wind. The league was aimed so evidently against the two things most essential to the national existence and the honour of Jehovah; the dynasty of David, namely, and the inviolability of Jerusalem. Judah had frequently before suffered the loss of her territory; never till now were the throne and city of David in actual peril. But that, which bent both king and people by its novel terror, was the test Isaiah expected for the prophecies he had already uttered. Taking with him, as a summary of them, his boy with the name Shear-Jashub-"A-remnant-shall-return"-Isaiah faced Ahaz and his court in the midst of their preparation for the siege. They were examining-but more in panic than in prudence-the water supply of the city, when Isaiah delivered to them a message from the Lord, which may be paraphrased as follows: "Take heed and be quiet," keep your eyes open and your heart still; "fear not, neither be fainthearted, for the fierce anger of Rezin and Remaliah’s son." They have no power to set you on fire. They are "but stumps of expiring firebrands," almost burnt out. While you wisely look after your water supply, do so in hope. This purpose of deposing, you is vain. "Thus saith the Lord Jehovah: It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass." Of whom are you afraid? Look those foes of yours in the face. "The head of Syria is Damascus, and Damascus’ head is Rezin": is he worth fearing? "The head of Ephraim is Samaria, and Samaria’s head is Reinallah’s son": is he worth fearing? Within a few years they will certainly be destroyed. But whatever estimate you make of your foes, whatever their future may be, for yourself have faith in God; for you that is the essential thing. "If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established."

This paraphrase seeks to bring out the meaning of a passage confessedly obscure. It seems as if we had only bits of Isaiah’s speech to Ahaz and must supply the gaps. No one need hesitate, however, to recognise the conspicuous personal qualities-the combination of political sagacity with religious fear, of common-sense and courage rooted in faith. In a word, this is what Isaiah will say to the king, clever in his alliances, religious and secular, and busy about his material defences: "Take unto you the shield of faith. You have lost your head among all these things. Hold it up like a man behind that shield; take a rational view of affairs. Rate your enemies at their proper value. But for this you must believe in God. Faith in Him is the essential condition of a calm mind and a rational appreciation of affairs."

It is, no doubt, difficult for us to realise that the truth which Isaiah thus enforced, on King Ahaz-the government of the world and human history by one supreme God-was ever a truth of which the race stood in ignorance. A generation like ours cannot be expected to put its mind in the attitude of those of Isaiah’s contemporaries who believed in the real existence of many gods with limited sovereignties. To us, who are full of the instincts of Divine Providence and of the presence in history of law and progress, it is extremely hard even to admit the fact-far less fully to realise what it means-that our race had ever to receive these truths as fresh additions to their stock of intellectual ideas. Yet, without prejudice to the claims of earlier prophets, this may be confidently affirmed: that Isaiah where we now meet him stood on one side believing in one supreme God, Lord of heaven and earth, and his generation stood on the other side, believing that there were many gods. Isaiah, however, does not pose as the discoverer of the truth he preaches; he does not present it as a new revelation, nor put it in a formula. He takes it for granted, and proceeds to bring its moral influence to bear. He will infect men with his own utter conviction of it, in order that he may strengthen their character and guide them by paths of safety. His speech to Ahaz is an exhibition of the moral and rational effects of believing in Providence. Ahaz is a sample of the character polytheism produced; the state of mind and heart to which Isaiah exhorts him is that induced by belief in one righteous and almighty God. We can make the contrast clear to ourselves by a very definite figure.

The difference, which is made to the character and habits of men if the country they live in has a powerful government or not, is well-known. If there be no such central authority, it is a case of every man’s hand against his neighbour. Men walk armed to the teeth. A constant attitude of fear and suspicion warps the whole nature. The passions are excited and magnified; the intelligence and judgment are dwarfed. Just the same after its kind is life to the man or tribe, who believe that the world in which they dwell and the life they share with others have no central authority. They walk armed with prejudices, superstitions, and selfishnesses. They create, like Ahaz, their own providences, and still, like him, feel insecure. Everything is exaggerated by them; in each evil there lurks to their imagination unlimited hostility. They are without breadth of view or length of patience. But let men believe that life has a central authority, that God is supreme, and they will fling their prejudices and superstitions to the winds, now no more needed than the antiquated fortresses and weapons by which our forefathers, in days when the government was weak, were forced to defend their private interests. When we know that God reigns, how quiet and free it makes us! When things and men are part of His scheme and working out His ends, when we understand that they are not monsters but ministers, how reasonably we can look at them! Were we afraid of Syria and Ephraim? Why, the head of Syria is this fellow Rezin, the head of Ephraim this son of Remaliah! They cannot last long; God’s engine stands behind to smite them. By the reasonable government of God, let us be reasonable! Let us take heed and be quiet. Have faith in God, and to faith will come her proper consequent of common sense.

For the higher a man looks, the farther he sees: to us that is the practical lesson of these first nine verses of the seventh chapter. The very gesture of faith bestows upon the mind a breadth of view. The man, who lifts his face to God in heaven, is he whose eyes sweep simultaneously the farthest prospect of earth, and bring to him a sense of the proportion of things. Ahaz, facing his nearest enemies, does not see over their heads, and in his consternation at their appearance prepares to embark upon any policy that suggests itself, even though it be so rash as the summoning of the Assyrian. Isaiah, on the other hand, with his vision fixed on God as the Governor of the world, is enabled to overlook the dust that darkens Judah’s frontier, to see behind it the inevitable advance of the Assyrians, and to be assured that, whether Ahaz calls them to his quarrel or no, they will very soon of their own motion overwhelm both of his enemies. From these "two smoking firebrands" there is then no real danger. But from the Assyrian, if once Judah entangle herself in his toils, there is the most extreme danger.

Isaiah’s advice is therefore not mere religious quietism; it is prudent policy. It is the best political advice that could have been offered at that crisis, as we have already been able to gather from a survey of the geographical and political dispositions of Western Asia, apart altogether from religious considerations. But to Isaiah the calmness requisite for this sagacity sprang from his faith. Mr. Bagehot might have appealed to Isaiah’s whole policy in illustration of what he has so well described as the military and political benefits of religion. Monotheism is of advantage to men not only by reason of "the high concentration of steady feeling" which it produces, but also for the mental calmness and sagacity which surely spring from a pure and vivid conviction that the Lord reigneth.

One other thing it is well we should emphasise, before we pass from Isaiah’s speech to Ahaz. Nothing can be plainer than that Isaiah, though advocating so absolutely a quiescent belief in God, is no fatalist. Now other prophets there have been, insisting just as absolutely as Isaiah upon resignation to God the supreme, and the evident practical effect of their doctrine of the Divine sovereignty has been to make their followers, not shrewd political observers, but blind and apathetic fatalists. The difference between them and Isaiah has lain in the kind of character, which they and he have respectively attributed to the Deity, before exalting Him to the throne of absolute power and resigning themselves to His will. Isaiah, though as disciplined a believer in God’s sovereignty and man’s duty of obedience as any prophet that ever preached these doctrines, was preserved from the fatalism to which they so often lead by the conviction he had previously received of God’s righteousness. Fatalism means resignation to fate, and fate means an omnipotence either without character, or (which is the same thing) of whose character we are ignorant. Fate is God minus character, and fatalism is the characterless condition to which belief in such a God reduces man. History presents it to our view amid the most diverse surroundings. The Greek mind, so free and sunny, was bewildered and benumbed by belief in an inscrutable Nemesis: In the East how frequently is a temper of apathy or despair bred in men, to whom God is nothing but a despot! Even within Christianity we have had fanatics, so inordinately possessed with belief in God’s sovereignty of election, to the exclusion of all other Divine truths, as to profess themselves, with impious audacity, willing to be damned for His glory. Such instances are enough to prove to us the extreme danger of making the sovereignty of God the first article of our creed. It is not safe for men to exalt a deity to the throne of the supreme providence, till they are certified of his character. The vision of mere power intoxicates and brutalises, no less when it is hallowed by the name of religion, than when, as in modern materialism, it is blindly interpreted as physical force. Only the people who have first learned to know their Deity intimately in the private matters of life, where heart touches heart, and the delicate arguments of conscience are not overborne by the presence of vast natural forces or the intricate movements of the world’s history, can be trusted afterwards to enter these larger theatres of religion, without risk of losing their faith, their sensibility, or their conscience.

The whole course of revelation has been bent upon this: to render men familiarly and experimentally acquainted with the character of God, before laying upon them the duty of homage to His creative power or submission to His will. In the Old Testament God is the Friend, the Guide, the Redeemer of men, or ever He is their Monarch and Lawgiver. The Divine name which the Hebrew sees "excellent through all the earth" is the name that he has learned to know at home as "Jehovah, our Lord". [Psalms 8:1-9] Jehovah trains His people to trust His personal truth and lovingkindness within their own courts, before He tests their allegiance and discipline upon the high places of the world. And when, amid the strange terrors of these and the novel magnitudes with which Israel, facing the world, had to reckon, the people lost their presence Of mind, His elegy over them was, "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge." Even when their temple is full and their sacrifices of homage to His power most frequent, it is still their want of moral acquaintance with Himself of which He complains: "Israel doth not know; My people doth not consider." What else was the tragedy in which Jewish history closed, than just the failure to perceive this lesson: that to have and to communicate the knowledge of the Almighty’s character is of infinitely more value than the attempt to vindicate in any outward fashion Jehovah’s supremacy over the world? This latter, this forlorn, hope was what Israel exhausted the evening of their day in attempting. The former-to communicate to the lives and philosophies of mankind a knowledge of the Divine heart and will, gained throughout a history of unique grace and miracle-was the destiny which they resigned to the followers of the crucified Messiah.

For under the New Testament this also is the method of revelation. What our King desires before He ascends the throne of the world is that the world should know Him; and so He comes down among us, to be heard, and seen, and handled of us, that our hearts may learn His heart and know His love, unbewildered by His majesty. And for our part, when we ascribe to our King the glory and the dominion, it is as unto Him that loved us and washed us from our sins in His blood. For the chief thing for individuals, as for nations, is not to believe that God reigneth so much as to know what kind of God He is who reigneth.

But Ahaz would not be persuaded. He had a policy of his own, and was determined to pursue it. He insisted on appealing to Assyria. Before he did so, Isaiah made one more attempt on his obduracy. With a vehemence, which reveals how critical he felt the king’s decision to be, the prophet returned as if this time the very voice of Jehovah. "And Jehovah spake to Ahaz, saying, Ask thee a sign of Jehovah thy God; ask it either in Sheol below or in the height above. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord."

Isaiah’s offer of a sign was one which the prophets of Israel used to make when some crisis demanded the immediate acceptance of. their word by men, and men were more than usually hard to convince-a miracle such as the thunder that Samuel called out of a clear sky to impress Israel with God’s opinion of their folly in asking for a king; [1 Samuel 12:17] or as the rending of the altar which the man of God brought to pass to convict the sullen Jeroboam; [1 Kings 13:3] or as the regress of the shadow on the sun-dial, which Isaiah himself gave in assurance of recovery to the sick Hezekiah. (chapter 38) Such signs are offered only to weak or prejudiced persons. The most real faith, as Isaiah himself tells us, is unforced, the purest natures those which need no signs and wonders. But there are certain crises at which faith must be immediately forced, and Ahaz stood now at such a crisis; and there are certain characters who, unable to read a writ from the court of conscience and reason, must be served with one from a court-even though it be inferior-whose language they understand; and Ahaz was such a character. Isaiah knew his man, and prepared a pretty dilemma for him. By offering him whatever sign he chose to ask, Isaiah knew that the king would be committed before his own honour and the public conscience to refrain from calling in the Assyrians, and so Judah would be saved; or if the king refused the sign, the refusal would unmask him. Ahaz refused, and at once Isaiah denounced him and all his house. They were mere shufflers, playing fast and loose with God as well as men. "Hear ye now, O house of David. Is it a small thing for you to weary men, that ye must weary my God also?" You have evaded God; therefore God Himself will take you in hand: "the Lord Himself shall give you a sign." In order to follow intelligently the rest of Isaiah’s address, we must clearly understand how the sign which he now promises differs in nature from the sign he had implored Ahaz to select, of whatever sort he may have expected that selection to be. The king’s determination to call in Assyria has come between. Therefore, while the sign Isaiah first offered upon the spot was intended for an immediate pledge that God would establish Ahaz, if only he did not appeal to the foreigner, the sign Isaiah now offers shall come as a future proof of how criminal and disastrous the appeal to the foreigner has been. The first sign would have been an earnest of salvation; the second is to be an exposure of the fatal evil of Ahaz’s choice. The first would have given some assurance of the swift overthrow of Ephraim and Syria; the second shall be some painful illustration of the fact that not only Syria and Ephraim, but Judah herself, shall be overwhelmed by the advance of the northern power. This second sign is one, therefore, which only time can bring round. Isaiah identifies it with a life not yet born.

A Child, he says, shall shortly be born to whom his mother shall give the name Immanu-El-"God-with-us." By the time this Child comes to years of discretion, "he shall eat butter and honey." Isaiah then explains the riddle. He does not, however, explain who the mother is, having described her vaguely as "a"-or "the young woman of marriageable age"; for that is not necessary to the sign, which is to consist in the Child’s own experience. To this latter he limits his explanation. Butter and honey are the food of privation, the food of a people, whose land, depopulated by the enemy, has been turned into pasture. Before this Child shall arrive at years of discretion not only shall Syria and Ephraim be laid waste, but the Lord Himself will have laid waste Judah. "Jehovah shall bring upon thee, and upon thy people and upon thy father’s house days, that have not come, from the day that Ephraim departed from Judah; even the king of Assyria." Nothing more is said of Immanuel, but the rest of the chapter is taken up with the details of Judah’s devastation.

Now this sign and its explanation would have presented little difficulty but for the name of the Child-Immanuel. Erase that, and the passage reads forcibly enough. Before a certain Child, whose birth is vaguely but solemnly intimated in the near future, shall have come to years of discretion, the results of the choice of Ahaz shall be manifest. Judah shall be devastated, and her people have sunk to the most rudimentary means of living. All this is plain. It is a form which Isaiah used more than once to measure the near future. And in other literatures, too, we have felt the pathos of realising the future results of crime and the length to which disaster lingers, by their effect upon the lives of another generation:-

"The child that is unborn shall rue

The hunting of that day!"

But why call the Child Immanuel? The name is evidently part of the sign, and has to be explained in connection with it. Why call a Child "God-with-us" who is not going to act greatly or to be highly honoured, who is only going to suffer, for whom to come to years of intelligence shall only be to come to a sense of his country’s disaster and his people’s poverty. This Child who is used so pathetically to measure the flow of time and the return of its revenges, about whom we are told neither how he shall behave himself in the period of privation, nor whether he shall survive it-why is he called Immanuel? or why, being called Immanuel, has he so sordid a fate to contrast with so splendid a name?

It seems to the present expositor quite impossible to dissociate so solemn an announcement by Jehovah to the house of David of the birth of a Child, so highly named, from that expectation of the coming of a glorious Prince which was current in this royal family since the days of its founder. Mysterious and abrupt as the intimation of Immanuel’s birth may seem to us at this juncture, we cannot forget that it fell from Isaiah’s lips on hearts which cherished as their dearest hope the appearance of a glorious descendant of David, and were just now the more sensitive to this hope that both David’s city and David’s dynasty were in peril. Could Ahaz possibly understand by Immanuel any other child than that Prince whose coming was the inalienable hope of his house? But if we are right in supposing that Ahaz made this identification, or had even the dimmest presage of it, then we understand the full force of the sign. Ahaz by his unbelief had not only disestablished himself (Isaiah 7:9): he had mortgaged the hope of Israel. In the flood of disaster, which his fatal resolution would bring upon the land, it mattered little what was to happen to himself. Isaiah does not trouble now to mention any penalty for Ahaz. But his resolve’s exceeding pregnancy of peril is borne home to the king by the assurance that it will devastate all the golden future, and must disinherit the promised King. The Child, who is Israel’s hope, is born; he receives the Divine name, and that is all of salvation or glory suggested. He grows up not to a throne or the majesty which the seventy-second Psalm pictures the offerings of Sheba’s and Seba’s kings, the corn of his land shaking like the fruit of Lebanon, while they of the city flourish like the grass of the earth-but to the food of privation, to the sight of his country razed by his enemies into one vast common fit only for pasture, to loneliness and suffering. Amid the general desolation his figure vanishes from our sight, and only his name remains to haunt, with its infinite melancholy of what might have been, the thorn-choked vineyards and grass-grown courts of Judah.

But even if it were to prove too fine a point, to identify Immanuel with the promised Messiah of David’s house, and we had to fall back on some vaguer theory of him, finding him to be a personification, -either a representative of the coming generation of God’s people, or a type of the promised tomorrow, -the moral effect of the sign would remain the same; and it is with this alone that we have here to do. Be this an individual, or a generation, or an age, -by the Name bestowed upon it, it was to have been a glorious, God-inhabited age, generation, or individual, and Ahaz has prematurely spoiled everything about it but the Name. The future shall be like a boy cursed by his fathers, brought into the world with glorious rights that are stamped in his title, but only to find his kingdom and estates no longer in existence, and all the circumstances dissipated in which he might have realised the glorious meaning of his name. Type of innocent suffering, he is born to an empty title, his name the vestige of a great opportunity, the ironical monument of an irreparable crime.

If Ahaz had any conscience left, we can imagine the effect of this upon him. To be punished for sin in one’s own body and fortune, this is sore enough; but to see heaven itself blackened and all the gracious future frustrate, this is unspeakably terrible.

Ahaz is thus the Judas of the Old Testament, if that conception of Judas’ character be the right one which makes his wilful desire to bring about the kingdom of God in his own violent fashion the motive of his betrayal of Jesus. Of his own obduracy Ahaz has betrayed the Messiah and Deliverer of his people. The assurance of this betrayal is the sign of his obduracy, a signal and terrible proof of his irretrievable sin in calling upon the Assyrians. The king has been found wanting.

II. THE PEOPLE

(chapter 8)

The king has been found wanting; but Isaiah will appeal to the people. Chapter 8 is a collection of addresses to them, as chapter 7 was an expostulation with their sovereign. The two chapters are contemporary. In Isaiah 8:1, the narrative goes back upon itself, and returns to the situation as it was before Ahaz made his final resolution of reliance on Assyria. Isaiah 8:1-4 imply that the Assyrian has not yet been summoned by Ahaz to his assistance, and therefore run parallel to Isaiah 7:3-9; but Isaiah 8:5 and following verses sketch the evils that are to come upon Judah and Israel, consequent upon the arrival of the Assyrians in Palestine, in answer to the appeal of Ahaz. These evils for land and nation are threatened as absolutely to the people as they had been to the king. And then the people are thrown over, [Isaiah 8:14] as the king had been; and Isaiah limits himself to his disciples (Isaiah 8:16)-the remnant that was foretold in chapter 6.

This appeal from monarch to people is one of the most characteristic features of Isaiah’s ministry. Whatever be the matter committed to him, Isaiah is not allowed to rest till he has brought it home to the popular conscience; and however much he may be able to charge national disaster upon the folly of politicians or the obduracy of a king, it is the people whom he holds ultimately responsible. The statesman, according to Isaiah, cannot rise far above the level of his generation; the people set the fashion to their most autocratic rulers. This instinct for the popular conscience, this belief in the moral solidarity of a nation and their governors, was the motive of the most picturesque passages in Isaiah’s career, and inspired some of the keenest epigrams in which he conveyed the Divine truth. We have here a case in illustration. Isaiah had met Ahaz and his court "at the conduit of the upper pool, in the highway of the fuller’s field," preparing for the expected siege of the city, and had delivered to them the Lord’s message not to fear, for that Syria-Ephraim would certainly be destroyed. But that was not enough. It was now laid upon the prophet to make public and popular advertisement of the same truth.

Isaiah was told to take a large, smooth board, and write thereon in the character used by the common people-"with the pen of a man"-as if it were the title to a prophecy, the compound word "Maher-shalal-hash-baz." This was not only an intelligibly written, but a significantly sonorous, word-one of those popular cries in which the liveliest sensations are struck forth by the crowded, clashing letters, full to the dullest ears of rumours of war: "speed-spoil-hurry-prey." The interpretation of it was postponed, the prophet meantime taking two faithful witnesses to its publication. In a little a son was born to Isaiah, and to this child he transferred the noisy name. Then its explanation was given. The double word was the alarm of a couple of invasions. "Before the boy shall have knowledge to cry, My father, my mother, the riches of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria shall be carried away before the king of Assyria." So far nothing was told the people that had not been told their king; only the time of the overthrow of their two enemies was fixed with greater precision. At the most in a year, Damascus and Samaria would have fallen. The ground was already vibrating to the footfall of the northern hosts.

The rapid political changes, which ensued in Palestine, are reflected on the broken surface of this eighth chapter. We shall not understand these abrupt and dislocated oracles, uttered at short intervals during the two years of the Assyrian campaign, unless we realise that northern shadow passing and repassing over Judah and Israel, and the quick alternations of pride and penitence in the peoples beneath it. We need not try to thread the verses on any line of thought. Logical connection among them there is none. Let us at once get down into the currents of popular feeling, in which Isaiah, having left Ahaz, is now labouring, and casting forth these cries.

It is a period of powerful currents, a people wholly in drift, and the strongest man of them arrested only by a firm pressure of the Lord’s hand. "For Jehovah spake thus to me with a strong hand, and instructed me, that I should not walk in the way of this people." The character of the popular movement, "the way of this people," which nearly lifted Isaiah off his feet, is evident. It is that into which every nation drifts, who have just been loosened from a primitive faith in God, and by fear or ambition have been brought under the fascination of the great world. On the one hand, such a generation is apt to seek the security of its outward life in things materially large and splendid, to despise as paltry its old religious forms, national aspirations and achievements, and be very desirous to follow foreign fashion and rival foreign wealth. On the other hand, the religious spirit of such an age, withdrawn from its legitimate objects, seeks satisfaction in petty and puerile practices, demeaning itself spiritually, in a way that absurdly contrasts with the grandeur of its material ambitions. Such a stage in the life of a people has its analogy in the growth of the individual, when the boy, new to the world, by affecting the grandest companions and models, assumes an ambitious manner, with contempt for his former circumstances, yet inwardly remains credulous, timid, and liable to panic. Isaiah reveals that it was such a stage which both the kingdoms of Israel had now reached. "This people hath refused the waters of Shiloah, that go softly, and rejoice in Rezin and Remaliah’s son."

It was natural, that when the people of Judah contrasted their own estate with that of Assyria, or even of Damascus, they should despise themselves. For what was Judah? A petty principality, no larger than three of our own counties. And what was Jerusalem? A mere mountain village, some sixty or seventy acres of barren rock, cut into tongues by three insignificant valleys, down which there sometimes struggled tiny threads of water, though the beds were oftener dry, giving the town a withered and squalid look-no great river to nourish, ennoble, or protect. What were such a country and capital to compare with the empire of Assyria?-the empire of the two rivers, whose powerful streams washed the ramparts, wharves, and palace stairs of mighty cities! What was Jerusalem even to the capital of Rezin? Were not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel, let alone these waterless wadys, whose bleached beds made the Jewish capital so squalid? It was the Assyrian’s vast water system - canals, embankments, sluices, and the wealth of water moving through them-that most impressed the poor Jew, whose streams failed him in summer, and who had to treasure up his scanty stores of rainwater in the cisterns, with which the rocky surface of his territory is still so thickly indented. There had, indeed, been at Jerusalem some attempt to conduct water. It was called "The Shiloah-conduit or aqueduct," or literally "emissary" in the old sense of the word-a rough, narrow tunnel of some thousand feet in length, hewn through the living rock from the only considerable spring on the east side of Jerusalem, to a reservoir within the walls. To this day "The Shiloah" presents itself as not by any means a first-class piece of engineering. Ahaz had either just made the tunnel or repaired it; but if the water went no faster than it travels now, the results were indeed ridiculous. Well might "this people despise the waters of the Shiloah, that go trickling," when they thought upon the rivers of Damascus or the broad streams of Mesopotamia. Certainly it was enough to dry up the patriotism of the Judean, if he was capable of appreciating only material value, to look upon this bare, riverless capital, with its bungled aqueduct and trickling water supply. On merely material grounds, Judah was about the last country at that time in which her inhabitants might be expected to show pride or confidence.

But woe to the people whose attachment to their land is based upon its material advantages, who have lost their sense for those spiritual presences, from an appreciation of which springs all true love of country, with warrior’s courage in her defence and statesman’s faith in her destiny!, The greatest calamity, which can befall any people, is to forfeit their enthusiasm for the soil, on which their history has been achieved and their hearths and altars lie, by suffering their faith in the presence of God, of which these are but the tokens, to pass away. With this loss Isaiah now reproaches Judah. The people are utterly materialised; their delights have been in gold and silver, chariots and horses, fenced cities and broad streams, and their faith has now followed their delights. But these things to which they flee will only prove their destruction. The great foreign river, whose waters they covet, will overflow them: "even the king of Assyria and all his glory, and he shall come up over all his channels and go over all his banks; and he shall sweep onward into Judah; he shall overflow and pass through; he shall reach even to the neck; and the stretching out of his wings shall fill the breadth of thy land, O Immanuel," thou who art "God-with-us." At the sound of the Name, which floats in upon the floods of invasion like the Ark on the waters of old, Isaiah pulls together his distraught faith in his country, and forgetting her faults, flings defiance at her foes. "Associate yourselves, ye peoples, and ye shall be broken in pieces; and give ear, all ye of far-off countries, gird yourselves, and ye shall be broken in pieces. Take counsel together, it shall be brought to nought; speak the word, and it shall not stand: for Immanu-El"-"With us is God." The challenge was made good. The prophet’s faith prevailed over the people’s materialism, and Jerusalem remained inviolable till Isaiah’s death.

Meantime the Assyrian came on. But the infatuated people of Judah continued to tremble rather before the doomed conspirators, Rezin and Pekah. It must have been a time of huge excitement. The prophet tells us how he was steadied by the pressure of the Lord’s hand, and how, being steadied, the meaning of the word "Immanuel" was opened out to him. "God-with-us" is the one great fact of life. Amid all the possible alliances and all the possible fears of a complex political situation, He remains the one certain alliance, the one real fear: "Say ye not, A conspiracy, concerning all whereof this people say, A conspiracy; neither fear ye their fear, nor be in dread thereof. Jehovah of hosts, Him shall ye sanctify; and let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread." God is the one great fact of life, but what a double-edged fact-"a sanctuary to all who put their trust in Him, but a rock of offence to both houses of Israel!" The figure is very picturesque. An altar, a common stone on steps, one of those which covered the land in large numbers-it is easy to see what a double purpose that might serve. What a joy the sight would be to the weary wanderer or refugee who sought it, what a comfort as he leant his weariness upon it, and knew he was safe! But those who were flying over the land, not seeking Jehovah, not knowing indeed what they sought, blind and panic-stricken-for them what could that altar do but trip them up like any other common rock in their way? "In fact, Divine justice is something which is either, observed, desired, or attained, and is then men’s weal, or, on the other hand, is overlooked. rejected, or sought after in a wild, unintelligent spirit, and only in the hour of need, and is then their lasting ruin."

The Assyrian came on, and the temper of the Jews grew worse. Samaria was indeed doomed from the first, but for some time Isaiah had been excepting Judah from a judgment for which the guilt of Northern Israel was certainly riper. He foresaw, of course, that the impetus of invasion might sweep the Assyrians into Judah, but he had triumphed in this: that Judah was Immanuel’s land, and that all who arrayed themselves against her must certainly come to naught. But now his ideas have changed, as Judah has persisted in evil. He knows now that God is for a stumbling-block to both houses of Israel; nay, that upon Jerusalem herself He will fall as a gin and a snare. Only for a little group of individuals, separate from both States, and gathered round the prophet and the word of God given to him, is salvation certain. People, as well as king, have been found wanting. There remains only this remnant.

Isaiah then at last sees his remnant. But the point we have reached is significant for more than the fulfilment of his expectations. This is the first appearance in history of a religious community, apart from the forms of domestic or national life. "Till then no one had dreamed of a fellowship of faith dissociated from all national forms, bound together by faith in the Divine word alone. It was the birth of a new era in religion, for it was the birth of the conception of the Church, the first step in the emancipation of spiritual religion from the forms of political life."

The plan of the seventh and eighth chapters is now fully disclosed. As the king for his unworthiness has to give place to the Messiah, so the nation for theirs have to give place to the Church. In the seventh chapter the king was found wanting, and the Messiah promised. In the eighth chapter the people are found wanting; and the prophet, turning from them, proceeds to form the Church among those who accept the Word, which king and people have refused. "Bind thou up the testimony, and seal the teaching among my disciples. And I will wait on Jehovah, who hideth His face from the house of Jacob, and I will look for Him. Behold, I and the children Jehovah hath given me are for signs and wonders in Israel from Jehovah of hosts, Him that dwelleth in Mount Zion."

This, then, is the situation: revelation concluded, the Church formed upon it, and the nation abandoned. But is that situation final? The words just quoted betray the prophet’s hope that it is not. He says: "I will wait." He says again: The Lord is only "hiding His face from the house of Jacob." I will expect again the shining of His countenance. I will hope for Divine grace and the nation being once more conterminous. The rest of the section {to Isaiah 9:7} is the development of this hope, which stirs in the prophet’s heart after he has closed the record of revelation.

The darkness deepened across Israel. The Assyrian had come. The northern floods kept surging among the little states of Palestine, and none knew what might be left standing. We can well understand Isaiah pausing, as he did, in face of such rapid and incontrollable movements. When Tiglath-pileser swept over the plain of Esdraelon, casting down the king of Samaria and the Philistine cities, and then swept back again, carrying off upon his ebb the populations east of the Jordan, it looked very like as if both the houses of Israel should fall. In their panic, the people betook themselves to morbid forms of religion; and at first Isaiah was obliged to quench the hope and pity he had betrayed for them in indignation at the utter contrariety of their religious practices to the word of God. There can be no Divine grace for the people as long as they "seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto the wizards that chirp and that mutter." For such a disposition the prophet has nothing but scorn, "Should not a people seek unto their God? On behalf of the living should they seek unto the dead?" They must come back to the prophet’s own word before hope may dawn. "To the revelation and the testimony! If they speak not according to this word, surely there is no morning for them."

The night, however, grew too awful for scorn. There had been no part of the land so given to the idolatrous practices, which the prophet scathed, as "the land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali, by the sea beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles." But all the horrors of captivity had now fallen upon it, and it had received at the Lord’s hand double for all its sins. The night had been torn enough by lightning; was there no dawn? The darkness of these provinces fills the prophet’s silenced thoughts. He sees a people "hardly bestead and hungry, fretting themselves, cursing their king," who had betrayed them, "and their God," who had abandoned them, "turning their faces upwards" to heaven and "downwards" to the sacred soil from which they were being dragged, "but, behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and into thick darkness they are driven away." It is a murky picture, yet through the smoke of it we are able to discern a weird procession of Israelites departing into captivity. We date it, therefore, about 732 B.C., the night of Israel’s first great captivity. The shock and the pity of this rouse the prophet’s great heart. He cannot continue to say that there is no morning for those benighted provinces. He will venture a great hope for their people.

Over how many months the crowded verses, Isaiah 8:21-22; Isaiah 9:1-7, must be spread, it is useless now to inquire-whether the revulsion they mark arose all at once in the prophet’s mind, or hope grew gradually brighter as the smoke of war died away on Israel’s northern frontier during 731 B.C. It is enough that we can mark the change. The prophet’s tones pass from sarcasm to pity; [Isaiah 8:20-21] from pity to hope; [Isaiah 8:22; Isaiah 9:1] from hope to triumph in the vision of salvation actually achieved. [Isaiah 9:2] "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, on them hath the light shined." For a mutilated, we see a multiplied, nation; for the fret of hunger and the curses of defeat, we hear the joy of harvest and of spoil after victory. "For the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, Thou hast broken as in the day of Midian." War has rolled away forever over that northern horizon, and all the relies of war in the land are swept together into the fire. "For all the armour of the armed man in the tumult, and the garments rolled in blood, shall even be for burning, and for fuel of fire." In the midday splendour of this peace, which, after the fashion of Hebrew prophecy, is described as already realised, Isaiah hails the Author of it all in that gracious and marvellous Child whose birth he had already intimated, Heir to the throne of David, but entitled by a fourfold name, too generous, perhaps, for a mere mortal, "Wonderful-Counsellor, Hero-God, Father-Everlasting, Prince-of-peace," who shall redeem the realms of his great forerunner and maintain "Israel with justice and righteousness from henceforth, even forever."

When, finally, the prophet inquires what has led his thoughts through this rapid change from satisfaction [Isaiah 8:16] with the salvation of small "remnant" of believers in the word of God-a little kernel of patience in the midst of a godless and abandoned people-to the daring vision of a whole nation redeemed and established in peace under a Godlike King, he says: "The zeal of the Lord of hosts hath performed this."

"The zeal," translates our English version, but no one English word will give it. It is that mixture of hot honour and affection to which "jealousy" in its good sense comes near. It is that overflow of the love that cannot keep still, which, when men think God has surely done all He will or can do for an ungrateful race, visits "them in their distress, and carries them forward into unconceived dispensations of grace and glory. It is the Spirit of God, which yearns after the lost, speaks to the self-despairing of hope, and surprises rebel and prophet alike with new revelations of love. We have our systems representing God’s work up to the limits of our experience, and we settle upon them; but the Almighty is ever greater than His promise or than His revelation of Himself."

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Isaiah 8:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/isaiah-8.html.

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