The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Wells of Salvation
It is time we had a hymn in this prophecy of Isaiah, for the reading has been like a succession of thunderstorms and earthquakes. Now and then there has been a bright line, and once indeed the very name Immanuel appeared; but taking the preceding eleven chapters as a whole, we seem to remember little but rain and storm and sword and battle, and shaking of things strong and mighty. It is curious how the song always comes in at the right time in this revelation of God. Some say Isaiah did not write this song. It is of no consequence to us who wrote it: here it Isaiah, and it is in the right place, and it expresses the right thought, and there is probably more evidence for the authorship of Isaiah than for the authorship of any other man. Some have said it is not like his style: but what is his style? What is the style of the sky? Is it for two days alike? Who could write the history of the sky simply as it appears to the vision of man? The accounts would seem to contradict one another, for the sky passes through panoramic changes innumerable, infinite, and all beautiful where they are not grand. So with the style of this great statesman Isaiah. He handles things with the infinite ease of conscious power; he is as strong in his music as he is in his prophecy.
Let us look at this little song; let us sit down awhile as in a green pasture, and hear the sweet music: the purling brook cannot be far away; the sky is clothed with summer, and the day is quiet with the very spirit of peace. Let us see whether we would not like to covet the Song of Solomon, and steal it honestly, and appropriate it, as if we ourselves were the authors of it, for there is no song worth singing that every man does not feel he might have written, and would if he could. To some is given a great gift of words, but that gift is useless unless it express what is in every heart, and then as soon as we hear what the man has said, we leap forward as if in gratulation and blessing, because he has said exactly what was lying dumbly and glowingly within us. Every true song is the work of everybody. Is this song true? The prophecy has declared that "the Lord shall utterly destroy the tongue of the Egyptian sea; and with his mighty wind shall he shake his hand over the river, and shall smite it in the seven streams, and make men go over dry-shod. And there shall be an highway for the remnant of his people, which shall be left, from Assyria; like as it was to Israel in the day that he came up out of the land of Egypt" ( Isaiah 11:15-16). We need example days, pattern times, to which we can refer with the familiarity of intelligence and thankfulness. The Gulf of Suez shall be divided like the Red Sea; the seven mouths that enclose and intersect the delta of the Nile shall be smitten; and the second exodus like as it was shall be accomplished amid signs and wonders: a highway shall be raised-what in modern cities is called a causeway, a side pavement. Eastern kings made such a way for their armies, and the remnant of the people of God are to march in triumph along the great plains of Mesopotamia, and the exiles are to return from Assyria, and no sooner do they get home again than they sing this carol—"O Lord, I will praise thee: though thou wast angry with me, thine anger is turned away, and thou comfortedst me" ( Isaiah 12:1). Only men with such an experience can sing. It is next to impossible to sing in modern days. Singing is rapture when it is religious; it is inspiration, it is madness, it would be called sensational now. That word "sensational" will kill the Church. Observe if that be not a true prophecy. We have only to call a service "sensational" to set persons immediately against it, though they never took the pains to inquire into the etymology or real meaning of the word. This hymn of praise was very sensationally sung. When men escape from the hand of the oppressor, and have a song handed to them, they are not likely to pule over it, or to stifle it in their throats. We can imagine the utterances of thunder, of joy ecstatic, of joy almost beyond expression.
Let us look carefully into the structure of the song. First of all we notice that there is reason under the music—"Though thou wast angry with me, thine anger is turned away, and thou comfortedst me." Does music stoop down to accept the service of reason? It always does so in the Scriptures. There are no songs detached from reason in all the inspired volume. From the earliest times down to the period to which we have now come we find that the song accounts for itself by a substantial and historical reason. It is as if a blossom should account for itself, saying to those who look upon it, You seem pleased with my appearance, you point out my many beauties, you call me delicate, lovely, fragrant; but do you know that I could not be here at all but for a thing probably you never saw, and never may see—a poor black-looking little root that is hidden in the earth? Who ever praised my root? Not an observer has ever asked me if I had one, but I tell you that though I am the singing voice, and the thing of beauty, and the little flag held out waving in the air as part of a grand expression of Nature, having reference to the Spirit above it and behind it, yet I could not be where I Amos, or what I Amos, but for the root deep down in the earth. It is even so with this Song of Solomon -blossom and this thing of beauty in melodious form; it seems to say, You hear me, you like me, you are pleased with my rhythm; you comment upon me from a critical point of view, and say how happy are the symbols, how easy the action, how perfect the accents, how made for music! Ah, did you but know all, you would understand that I could not be where I Amos, or what I Amos, if there had not been a root in history, a long process of discipline, deprivation, sorrow, heartache: but now it is over, and the time of the singing of birds has come. So it must be in the sanctuary. There is hardly any singing in any sanctuary except by the few. Where is the great song that makes men sing—that makes the dumb speak? We must not look for that song in printed music, but in historical recollection, in personal thankfulness; and out of all this root-work will come blossoming and beauty, ineffable in loveliness, indescribable in perfectness.
"Thou wast angry with me." Then there was no music; the clouds quenched the song. Who can sing when the snow is falling coldly and heavily, or when the east wind is blowing cruelly, or when there is a sense of compunction in the heart, when the conscience is out of gear, and when it will not let any part of our life have rest from its ripping criticism?
"Thine anger is turned away." Now who can help singing in the bright sunshine? Summer makes the song. Even children seem to know this. They do not cower in fear when the sun shines. True, he is a great shining glory in the heavens, but there is not a little child on all the earth that does not seem to know him, and to be able to take sweet and tender liberties with him. Who ever saw a little child running away from the sun? The little one seems to run right into his very arms; and would plunge into that great sea of glory. It is an attractive power; it is a benediction in light; it is a fatherly presence in symbol of glory. Song of Solomon, when the people felt that sin was gone, they also felt that the time for singing was come. Nothing chokes the song so surely as consciousness of sin: it says to a Prayer of Manasseh, You have no right to sing; you are trying to sing God"s pure praise through a throat black as night, hot with the very fire of hell: do not add to your blasphemy by singing under such circumstances!
"Behold, God is my salvation" ( Isaiah 12:2). Jerome translates this, "Behold, God is my Jesus." The word "salvation" is too narrowly defined in many instances. People suppose that it means a kind of spiritual selfishness which, being expressed in more words, would run in some such fashion as this: Thank God I am safe, whatever may become of anybody else! Any man who can say that, or mean that, or be in any way under such a delusion, simply knows nothing whatever about the spirit of the gospel. "Salvation" is one of the largest terms in human speech. Emancipation does not mean—You are now no longer under obligation to serve your old tyrant or your old master. That is but a negative aspect of emancipation. The true meaning is—You are invested with all the responsibilities of organised liberty; you have conferred upon you an opportunity of developing your whole manhood; you may now show the very best aspect of your character, and, unless you do it, slavery were for you better than freedom. It is so with the fullest meaning of this word salvation. Saved people are generous people, beneficent, charitable, anxious about others; nay, the only explanation of their anxiety about others is that they themselves are conscious of having been saved—not saved from fear only, but saved into life, liberty, and conscious possibility of doing great and small things. Jerome was right in going back to the Old Testament with the key of the New. In fact, we are entitled to begin at Genesis after we have perused the whole gospel story with the profoundest interest, and have received its spirit into our heart. The gospels explain the Pentateuch. There are arithmetics which are awful in their initial hardness. They are all questions. A book of arithmetic is a most audacious interrogator. But at the end of the book, in some cases, there is a key. What different reading! There is not a question in the whole key unless it be at the beginning of an answer, and who, having read the answer, does not feel how easy to have worked out the sum after all if one had only taken pains enough at the beginning? At the same time there is a strong disposition just to appropriate what the key says, and then, perhaps, to appear before the spectacled master as if we had never heard of such a thing as a key. That would be illegitimate in arithmetic. There have been young arithmeticians who have been guilty of that meanness. But we are called to look at the key in open day; we are referred to the key; we are invited and challenged to peruse it, and then to go back with the key in our hand to work out all the mystery of the lock. This is what Jerome did; so he did not hesitate to take out the word "salvation" in the second verse and put in the word "Jesus," and say with unction and thankfulness, "Behold, God is my Jesus:" his name shall be called Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.
"I will trust, and not be afraid." Then the confidence was complete. The expression is perhaps awkward from one point of view; that Isaiah, from the pedantic point of view. "I will trust"—the sentence might have ended there—"and not be afraid." Is not that merely a repetition? From a grammatical point of view it may be simply tautology, but from a spiritual point of view there is not one word too much. Fear is very subtle. There is an immediate fear that glares into a man"s eyes and makes a coward of him; over that fear he may get the mastery; but there is a far-away fear, more a shadow than a substance, an unaccountable feeling of timidity, apprehension. It is not enough to have obtained one great victory over fear, or to have established one strong point of trust; both these are most desirable things in the Christian life, and necessary indeed to its solidity and progress; but the work must be completed. It is not enough to have a great cloud that was immediately overhead cleared away; we must also have the horizon cleansed of all images of dread and suggestions of storm. Who does not know all this in his innermost soul? Taking the whole Christian view, the Christian feels strong, but when he comes to minute confession, to exhaustive fearless analysis, he says, About some two or three things I am not so confident as I should like to be—about business, about my family, about my social responsibilities, about the constancy of my love; I sometimes think I see the tempter looking at me at midnight; nobody else can see him but myself, and yet sometimes right across the darkness I have seen him as clearly as I ever saw an image in the light: these things I will not talk about. All this must be cleansed away. "I will trust, and not be afraid": I will have this joy positively and negatively; I will have a strong rock at the very centre of things, and a sense that every gate that leads to the castle is strongly guarded, and is in fact impassable by any foe. "Perfect love casteth out fear." Lord, increase our love!
Now comes a mysterious combination of words—"The Lord JEHOVAH." The very type is suggestive, the word "Lord" being printed in small capitals and the word "Jehovah" in large capitals. This is an almost unparalleled combination of terms; certainly it is wholly exceptional. Would not the word "Lord" have done, or the word "Jehovah"? Why this miracle in language? This is a novelty in any style. Here criticism Isaiah, as in many other places in Holy Scripture and in the divinest literature, simply helpless—a chatterer instead of a teacher; an instrument of deprivation, not a word of spiritual increase and mental enlargement. Joy creates its own language. On the whole perhaps joy is a poor grammarian. Some men are the victims of grammar, as other men are the victims of propriety; they have never known enthusiasm, they have never had a feeling that they could not express in a word or two; they regard the rapture of others as extravagance or exaggeration. It would be extravagance to them, as it would be a most extravagant thing for a sparrow to attempt to fly with an eagle. Who made any one man the standard and measure of extravagance? Let every man speak for himself. I have seen some instrument of locomotion made of two wheels, and the second or following wheel has not been so large as the first; it would be intolerable impertinence for the little wheel to be calling the other extravagant and aggressive.
Here we come to a sweet word—"the wells of salvation" ( Isaiah 12:3). How is it that the word "well," signifying a spring of water, is always associated with a music of its own? Who can listen to the plash of water falling down the hillside, and not try to make every drop into a syllable and the whole into a gospel of nature, singing God"s praise, and telling of far-away fountains? One of the most recent and most qualified critics has put the matter clearly, in saying that in the later ritual of the Feast of Tabernacles the priests went in solemn procession to the pool of Siloam, filled a golden vase with water, carried it to the Temple, and poured it out on the western side of the altar of burnt-offering, while the people observing this priestly action chanted the great Hallel or hymn of praise which we have in the Psalm, beginning with cxiii. and ending at cxviii. The action was symbolical; it was also historical: it touched memory at a thousand quick and responsive points, and elicited a hymn not mechanical in its structure only, but in its very mechanism an embodied spirituality. "Wells of salvation": can we improve the expression by making the word "wells" singular instead of plural? May we not say, Christ is the well of salvation? Yet there are words in the singular number which can never be other than plural; they are only grammatically limited; as to all spiritual suggestiveness they are too broad even for plural forms of expression, for they seem to overflow great spaces, and to occupy infinite tracks and continents of memory and thankfulness and hope. Jesus Christ did not disdain to compare himself to a well. On the last day—the great day of the feast—beholding innumerable thirsty men, from all quarters of the land, he said, "If any man thirst"—Lord, how great was that word! Thou didst know that all men have a thirst in the heart which all the rivers in the world can never quench—"If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink." This was the voice of the well, the gospel of the fountain, the anthem of the springhead. Jesus said on another occasion, "If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink, thou wouldest have asked of him," and Hebrews, without questioning or grudging or difficulty, would have given thee living water, spring water, cool as snow, clear as crystal, pure as the love of God. Have we drunk of this well? The river of God is full of water. Are we perishing of thirst? Christians are enabled to bear this testimony, and they ought to bear it, that they have gone from well to well, from spring to spring, and have always had to go back again with weary iteration, journey upon journey, for the thirst returned by the very process of quenching it; but when they came to Jesus, and entered into his spirit and purpose, and became as it were partakers of his nature, all their aspirations were satisfied, all their highest appetences were appeased.
Now reason is given for another Song of Solomon, or for the continuance of the same—"Sing unto the Lord; for he hath done excellent things" ( Isaiah 12:5). The song is not called for without a reason being assigned. Is it true that God hath done excellent things—say for ourselves? Do not search ancient history for the excellent things done by God, but search your own little life; and if in that life no excellent things have been wrought, say Song of Solomon, and be dumb so" far as this sacrifice of religious praise is concerned. You have a right to be silent. If your life has had no sunshine, no blessing, no help, no sympathy, you have a right to say in the sanctuary, I will not sing, and thus to chide God by your silence. But be sure you can say it. "Life" is a large term; it covers all the days of your breathing, from earliest infancy up till the present moment: it will certainly be a phenomenon without a parallel if any man can say that the sunshine never fell upon his life, that what good he has he has by his own strength and wit, and that he owes nothing to supernatural or superhuman power. Still, if a man can say that, and prove it, he has a right to instruct others by his very silence.
"Cry out and shout, thou inhabitant of Zion" ( Isaiah 12:6). But how extremely opposed to the spirit of propriety! Here is a call for enthusiasm, rapture, and what would generally be denominated madness. Still, the words are here, and they are perfectly clear as to their meaning and purpose, and a reason is given for the cry and for the shout; that reason is—"for great is the Holy One of Israel in the midst of thee." "Thou inhabitant of Zion." The Hebrew is feminine: the appeal is to a woman"s heart—Cry out and shout, thou daughter of Zion! Without the womanly element the Church is without charm, and without the divinest passion. The woman must lead us, in Song of Solomon, in music, in praise, and by the contagion of her enthusiasm must warm others into responsive and co-operative zeal. Men have become frenzied by earthly deliverances, and rightly Song of Solomon, and brought into paroxysms of thankfulness and joy: why not so in their religious natures? It is recorded by Plutarch that when the Romans delivered a certain people from the tyranny of the Macedonians and the Spartans, the cry of the delivered men was so great that it dissipated the very air, and birds flying across that plane of the hemisphere fell down amazed. Have we ever rent the air with our cries and shouts of delight and thankfulness? Our Christianity may have been formal, and our atheism may have been the atheism of respectability. Respectability can never be earnest. It is limited by a smaller word. If Sydney Smith said the Church is dying of dignity, we may apply the rebuke to ourselves, and ask if we are not falling into torpor through the opiate of respectability. Are we called to silence? Who can describe the feeling of those who were imprisoned during the Indian Mutiny? Is there not a page in the history of that rebellion which makes every human heart thrill with excitement? We remember how the Europeans were shut up, being beleaguered and invested, and within a hand-breadth of extinction; and we remember hearing of the deliverers" approach, and of those who were suffering catching the strains of music; they heard the pibroch and the slogan, and their hearts came again, and every soldier was a hero and every woman a saint; and as the deliverers came on, could you have said to those who had been shut up in terror and darkness, Now restrain yourselves; avoid everything sensational, and maintain a decorous and proper attitude in all things—what answer would they have returned to your inane and unseasonable address? We must pass through a certain class of circumstances before we can understand the feelings of those who express gratitude for deliverance. The singing of the Church should be loud, joyous, and sweet; all instruments should accompany it: now the clash of bells, now the blare of trumpets, now the lilt of lutes, and now the throb of drums; strong men, gentle women, merry children should unite their voices in one glad burst of religious joy. Thank God for music. That will unite the Church when theology will divide it. There is no disputable argument in music. The vanity of opinion is not touched by music. The demon of heresy is left without a chance in music. Pedantic criticism is ignored. The heart has it all its own way. All is harmony. All is praise. All is love. If ever preaching be displaced or superseded, may it be by music!
Almighty God, enable us so to read the story of the past as to know somewhat of thy government, and amend our own ways before thee. Thou hast thyself been writing the story of the earth, and within and without it is written all over with mourning, lamentation, and woe. It is a scroll we would not willingly open but for the writing of God which is in it, which tells of hope and peace and rest, which reveals an eternal gospel—righteous, loving, infinite. For thine own gospel we search the Book: the human story we would not read; it is full of evil and mockery, sin and shame, wrongdoing and selfish penitence: our prayers have related to ourselves, and have sought rather to improve our position than to vindicate eternal righteousness. Now that we come to the story do thou come with us, that we may read it aright, find out all the music that is in it, all the wisdom with which it is laden, and all the hope with which it is inspired. Thus shall we read to our souls" profiting, and when we rise from the perusal of the page we shall feel that we ought to pray some nobler prayer, burn with some guiltier shame, and seek with truest penitence to be forgiven all our sin. Where is the place of prayer but at the Cross of Christ? That is the sacred altar, that is the place where man never truly prayed in vain; the answer was given whilst the prayer was being breathed: may we now realise that in the very act of asking for pardon through the blood of the Lamb, the precious blood, we may be forgiven. Say, Song of Solomon, thy sins which are many are all forgiven thee! Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Isaiah 12". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://beta.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24