We seem to have fallen upon commonplace times, unless indeed we have the prophetic instinct and imagination which can turn even apparent commonplaces into things really grand and spiritually significant. What great winds roar through these prophecies of Isaiah! what startling judgments fall upon the nations! what trumpetings and thunderings! what rendings and revolutions! and yet we seem to be standing in quietness and peace, and nothing is occurring around us which does not lie easily within the limits of the coldest calculation. Perhaps, however, there would be more stirring of the divine energy if we had the hearing ear and the seeing eye: that energy may still be moving on, but we may have lost its music through our spiritual indifference. If the picture is in the eye of the beholder, if the music is in the ear of the listener, if eloquence is in the hearer as much as in the speaker, then may we not turn upon ourselves with pungent accent and say that it is because we have lost the faculty of observation, the eyes of insight, and the power of attention, that we allow providence now to move on without recognition and without praise? It is a common observation that to the humorist humorous things are constantly occurring—that he sees them where dull eyes would take no note of them. Song of Solomon, to the philosopher philosophy is always evolving itself, arresting his attention, fascinating him with new aspects, and delighting him with new possibilities. So it would be to the student of providence, or history, of God. If the right spirit were in us there would be no want of material. All winds are alike to the dead; the cemetery knows nothing of the thunderstorm or of the quiet beauty of the dawn. If we had more life, we should have more insight and more knowledge, and be quite sure that God still reigns and holds everything within the grasp of his almighty hand. Probably Isaiah had more life than we have; so he had more gift of prophecy. If we have resigned the prophet"s mantle, and said we have fallen upon insignificant days, God may let us have our own way so far; he may allow us to feed upon the wind and to satisfy our hunger with the sand of the desert. If we do not see great things to-day, it is not because great things are not occurring, but because we have lost the faculty of sight and the genius of reverent attention. We may be gleaners in a great historic field. To that humble capacity we may at least betake ourselves. Those who were immediately interested in the occurrences related in such a chapter have passed on: now we may modestly find our way into the field which they once occupied, and by looking carefully around we may be able to see an ear or two of corn, which, rightly used, planted in the right soil, and fostered by the right conditions, may even now bring forth thirty and sixty fold.
The prophet is great in this chapter; indeed, Isaiah is always great. Yet how wonderful it is that his greatness subsides so as to allow the divine majesty even the advantage of a background. Isaiah"s power of language never fails him,—his harp is never out of tune, his fingers never lose their cunning; and he is as great in these minor burdens which he is now uttering as in the greater burdens we have already studied: yet he steps aside and allows the divine action to be seen in all its energy and mystery. Let us note a few points in that divine action.
Here is one way in which the Lord comes—namely, "upon a a swift cloud" (v. i). The intimation is one of mystery. No man can tell which way the Lord will come to-day. Let us keep our eyes upon every point of the horizon; let us distribute the watchmen wisely, and assign to each his sphere of observation; for by what door the Lord may enter the field of vision no one can tell,—by a political event, by some new movement in foreign policy, by the discovery of new riches in the earth, by great shocks which try men"s strength, by grim sorrow, by cruel death, by judgments that have no name, by mercies" tender as the tenderest love, by compassions all tears, by providences that are surprises of gladness: watch all these doors, for by any one of them the Lord may come into the nation, the family, the individual heart. This divine policy, if it may be so named, baffles the watchers who trust to their own sagacity. If men say they will circumvent God and know all the ways of his providence, behold God forsakes all ways that are familiar and that lie within the calculation of the human mind; and he startles those who watch with light from unexpected quarters, with shakings and tremblings never before felt in the vibrations of history. "Clouds and darkness are round about him": the cloud that appears to be nothing but vapour may enshrine the Deity; the bush, yesterday so common that any bird might have alighted upon it, to-day burns with unseen, infinite energy. The Lord will come by what way he pleases,—now as if from the depths of the earth, and now as from the heights of heaven; blessed is that servant who is ready to receive him and to welcome him to the heart"s hospitality of love.
Notice a method of administration which belongs to all the ages of Providence. It is recorded in the second verse:—
"will set the Egyptians against the Egyptians: and they shall fight every one against his brother, and every one against his neighbour; city against city, and kingdom against kingdom." ( Isaiah 19:2)
Civil war is the cruellest of all. When men are stretching forth the neck of their expectation that they may behold in the far distance an approaching enemy, God troubles them with home difficulties, and they who were going forth to win new laurels on distant fields have to turn round and slay one another, sons of the same parents, inheritors of the same soil! This is distinctly ascribed to the divine energy and will: "I will set": I will create the war, I will make it of the kind known as internecine; men who have known one another a lifetime I will make enemies; and this shall all be done that good may be wrought out, which under any other circumstances would be impossible. This method of administration, we say, obtains and prevails in all ages. This is the meaning of many a controversy, of many a quarrel, of many a dissension, in cabinets, in families, in nations. Men are surprised that they should turn upon their brothers with disdain, and even with cruel hatred. It is indeed matter of surprise and great sorrow, and if looked at within narrow limits it would seem to be a reflection upon Providence; but when does God ask to be judged within the four corners of human imagination or criticism? He not only does the deed, he does it within a field which he himself has measured, and within the range of declarations which have about them all the mystery and graciousness of evangelical prophecies. We must, therefore, look not only at the incident, but at all its surroundings and to all its issues. When we are puzzled by household difficulties, by commercial perplexities, by unions that only exist for a moment and then dissolve or are turned into sourness and alienation, we must never forget that there is One who rules over all, and who may be the Author of this fratricidal war. The mystery of Providence is infinite. Lord, increase our faith!
Observe, further, the religion of bewilderment. It is graphically set forth in the third verse:—
"And the spirit of Egypt shall fail in the midst thereof; and I will destroy the counsel thereof: and they shall seek to the idols, and to the charmers, and to them that have familiar spirits, and to the wizards." ( Isaiah 19:3)
How often have we seen men seek out their deities in the time of trouble! To know what a man"s religion really is we must wait until all heaven is dark with thunderclouds, and until what he believed to be the solid earth feels under his feet like a quaking bog; then we shall know whether he has been playing the little philosopher, adventuring his little intellectual all with the small empiric, or whether there is in him the real seed of God, the true life divine. Imagine the picture: all Egypt is bewildered and dismayed, not knowing which is east, which is west, which is the upper place, which is the underground; all distinctions, boundaries, limits, are blurred and obliterated; and hear the howling and the crying for the deities to whose care the heart and all its issues have been entrusted! What a call for charmers, and for familiar spirits, and for wizards, and for anything that can mutter and offer some religious hope to the shattered fancy of man! Thus God educates the world. There come times in human history when a man revises all his ideas, conceptions, theories, hypotheses, and professions: what a casting out of the ship there is of all these things in the great storm-hour! The ship is heavy laden and the sea is heavy upon her planks, and all hope of being saved is taken away—then out go all the false theories, and prejudices, and philosophies, and mutterings, and impieties, and hypocrisies, if haply even yet the poor ship may be saved. It is well that such times should occur; they are cleansing times, dismantling and disburdening times; and, rightly used, we come out of them with simpler prayers, larger faith, tenderer love. Lord, show us the meaning of all thy shakings of the earth, and all the evermore truly governed but seemingly ungoverned perplexities of the human mind.
Then there is a wonderful action of Providence in the matter of natural blessings:—
"The paper reeds by the brooks, by the mouth of the brooks, and every thing sown by the brooks, shall wither, be driven away, and be no more. The fishers also shall mourn, and all they that cast angle into the brooks shall Lamentations, and they that spread nets upon the waters shall languish. Moreover they that work in fine flax, and they that weave networks, shall be confounded. And they shall be broken in the purposes thereof, all that make sluices and ponds for fish" ( Isaiah 19:7-10).
The natural food of Egypt shall be taken away. What does the country produce? God will one day lay his hand upon it all, and taking it from us will leave nothing but emptiness, that we may learn in hunger the prayer we could not have learned in fulness. God will empty the Nile—God will lay his hand upon the busy mill in the manufacturing districts and order it to be quiet; God will intercept the incoming of the hemp, the flax, the cotton—whatever the product may be—so that it shall be lost on the way, and the men who were expecting its arrival shall be confounded with disappointments. All these things are God"s. And all these prophecies show on what a deep rock-basis lies the great word of Christ, "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you," for the Lord is God of the rivers and the fords and the seas, and the vineyards and the wheatfields and the olive-yards, and God will rain into the wilderness feathered fowl from heaven if such should be his determination and purpose. He is Lord of all. The earth is the Lord"s, and the fulness thereof. Our daily bread is given to us from heaven: blessed are they who recognise the gift, and who eat the bread as sacramental flesh, having in it meanings of life and immortality, not obvious to the merely carnal eye. Let us ask questions about our poverty and about our unprosperous harvests, our withering fields, our rivers choked with dead fish, our sluices and networks that we cannot move or set in successful action. Let the question be religious. No question is worth asking that does not bore its way into the heart of things. Whilst others may be asking flippant questions about the decay of industry, the depression of trade, the clouding of commercial prospects, let those who believe in an over-ruling Providence renounce all trivial inquiries, and begin to ask their questions within the shadow of the altar. It may be that we have sinned, and that God"s only way of touching our conscience is through the impoverishment of the body. No man may dogmatise on these things; but holy, noble, large, reverent questions may be asked surely, when the earth trembles and becomes uncertain in her very revolutions.
Then there is an action of the divine energy upon the mind as shown in ver14:—
"The Lord hath mingled a perverse spirit in the midst thereof: and they have caused Egypt to err in every work thereof, as a drunken man staggereth in his vomit." ( Isaiah 19:14)
What is this action? It may be indicated by a familiar word which does not occur in the text. When we read of a "perverse spirit" we may substitute for that expression dizziness. God turns a man dizzy, so that he is drunk, but not with wine. How many powers has the Almighty! We have seen by how many doors he may come in. How many are the actions of God in human history! He makes Egypt dizzy; he does not strike Egypt with a rod of iron, or confound her by some great phenomena that burn all over the face of heaven to affright her,—he simply sends dizziness into the nation, so that the king feels all things going round, and the mean man is sure that he has lost his wit and sense and shrewdness; he fixes his eye upon stable pillars, and, behold, they move, they circulate, and he says, Is it I or is it the pillar moving? so that he cannot reason, he cannot put things together; when he begins to count he forgets his reckoning, when he commences a story he cuts it off at an inferior point, and cannot conduct it to a period; yet he says he is well, he is without a pain, he cannot account for this whirl, this movement, it is taking him on and on, and away and away; he says, What is it? How God can humble men! The strong man shall need a little child to lead him, and the sagacious man may require a child to help his memory, for his recollection is quite withered; and they who once were proud ask to be allowed to take the meanest position; and men whose judgment was once waited for because of its completeness and solidity are now not reckoned with the counsellors of the land. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."
Now the Lord himself will prophesy. The Lord in going away from a people sometimes suddenly turns round and looks at them, and behold there is a smile where once there was a frown:—
"In that day shall there be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar at the border thereof to the Lord. And it shall be for a sign and for a witness unto the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt: for they shall cry unto the Lord because of the oppressors, and he shall send them a saviour, and a great one, and he shall deliver them. And the Lord shall be known to Egypt, and the Egyptians shall know the Lord in that day, and shall do sacrifice and oblation; yea, they shall vow a vow unto the Lord, and perform it. And the Lord shall smite Egypt: he shall smite and heal it: and they shall return even to the Lord, and he shall be intreated of them, and shall heal them" ( Isaiah 19:19-22).
Here the Lord says that Egypt is given over to himself in holy obedience and love and homage. The Lord shall be the God of Egypt; Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands unto God; lands that have been filled with idols shall be cleansed of all their folly and wickedness, and in the midst of them shall stand the pillar of God, emblem of righteousness and purity, and the border thereof shall be as a border of gold, set with precious stones. There is always a line of hope even in connection with the darkest judgment. The Lord never gives up the issue of things to the devil. He recognises the devil"s existence, and allows him to operate within certain lines upon the life of nations and the life of individuals, but always he sees the latter end, and says, The evening shall be brighter than the morning; when all this tragedy is completed Jesus shall have the heathen for his inheritance and the uttermost parts of the earth for a possession. We see but a little, we know next to nothing; but God who is enthroned in eternity tells us that there shall yet arise upon the earth a morning without a cloud, there shall shine over the whole land a day in which there is no frown of judgment. In these vaticinations the soul lives; and because they are written in the Book of God, souls that otherwise would be cast into dejection toil with hopefulness because their assurance is in God.
From studies of this kind we learn that the scheme of Providence is one. Details vary, but the divine movement never changes as to its moral characteristics and its beneficent purpose. We have seen how prophets and poets are at liberty to decorate great judgment-utterances with all manner of illustration and imagery, trope and metaphor, according to the fertility of the individual genius; but the innermost thing is always the same, namely, Say ye unto the righteous, It shall be well with him; say ye unto the wicked, he is on the way to ruin. We learn that escape from judgment is impossible. God handles all the nations one after another—Moab, and Damascus, and Egypt, and the desert sea, and the Valley of Vision, and the land of Tyre,—all are under his notice, and if any one of them seems to be missed it is only for a moment; the time comes when the smallest of the peoples as well as the greatest shall be judged by the living God. The eternal lesson is that the only security is in being right. Righteousness fears no judgment. "The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are bold as a lion." The good man cares not who comes up the path, he can bring no danger to him. The honest soul is not frightened by the rustling of a leaf, no footfall shakes down the cowardice of his frail security; he says, I live in God, I am the servant of the living God, I know no will but God"s; come, go, who will, who may, my foundation standeth sure, and is inscribed in letters of gold with this legend, "The Lord knoweth them that are his." "Righteousness exalteth a nation." Righteousness is the glory of any man. How calm is the righteous man! Others are hearing noises which affright them; they are sure the hour of crisis has come; an unfamiliar voice means the upsetting of judgment which is already shaken, but the righteous man is calm in the darkness and in the light, he has an abundance of peace in the storm, his vintage is empurpled with richest grapes even in the winter time, and all his mountains are covered with cattle even when other lands are depopulated and ruined; if he have nothing, he yet has all things; if his hands are empty, his heart is overflowing; he says, "A man"s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth." To be at peace with God is to control all things; for it is to be one with God. The immediate burden is passed, the historical reference is fulfilled, but the eternal thing that looks upon us all is this, that God is on the throne, and that he will judge morally. To whom much has been given from him shall much be expected. He that knew his Lord"s will and did it not shall be beaten with many stripes; he who did his best, though that best was but little, shall be recognised and honoured. The way of the Lord is equal. Blessed are they who, through the Son of God, Jesus Christ the Saviour of the world, are at peace with God through the Atonement which was wrought out in Gethsemane and on Calvary. For that blessedness let all men seek!
Almighty God, we know thee through thy Song of Solomon, Jesus Christ. Did he not say unto us, He that hath seen me hath seen the Father? and is he not known unto us as Immanuel, and as God manifest in the flesh? We read his life, therefore, that we may read thy life, thou Infinite One. Into this condescension hast thou come, that we may peruse thy ways and understand somewhat of thy purpose, and follow thee in all the great mystery of thy providence. We watch the Son of Prayer of Manasseh, not that we may see him alone, but that we may see the Father also, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders. Beyond the man we see thyself, Father of us all. Help us thus to read the life of thy Son; then shall it be a new life to us, a new mystery will show itself in it day by day. The Lord grant unto us a wise and understanding heart, that we may read all nature aright, and all providence; that we may put the pieces and sections of history together with a skilful hand, and thus discover that in so doing we are wise master-builders, erecting a temple, building a sanctuary, yea, rearing an altar; and we shall see that every place is holy ground and every spot of earth is the gate of heaven. May we read ourselves aright,—these wondrous mysteries that are within us, these incalculable palpitations, throbbings, pulsings, urgings of a strange force: may we know that what is within us is of the nature of divinity; may we understand that God breathed into the nostrils of man the breath of life, and that he became, by what processes we know not, a living soul. Help us to rear the soul into all strength and healthfulness and nobleness; may we bestow more culture upon the soul than upon the body. We know that in our body is written the condemnation of death, but on our soul is written the signature of God. May we be wise men herein, caring for the greater more than for the less, showing intenser concern about the infinite future than about the decayed past and the transient present. The years are flying away; more have gone in many instances than can be yet to come upon the earth; the tale is more than half told, yea, it has now come down to its last paragraphs and trembling sentences, so that the earth recedes, and time rolls back, and nothing is so near as heaven"s brightness as the judgment of eternity. We would be solemn in this view, composed in mind, sober in understanding, putting away from us all levity, frivolity, folly, and looking calmly upon the certainties of things, knowing that now as ever there is but a step between us and death. Yet: we would be joyful; thou hast not brought us into thy Church to make us sad: whosoever has been crucified with Christ shall be raised with him, and in the anticipated glory of resurrection thy people may despise the shame of the Cross and triumph over all its abasement. Enable us to look at the future from the Cross of Christ. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: all kings shall bow down before him, and bring gold and incense in worship; all nations shall call the Redeemer blessed. These words were spoken in the night time of history, yea, when the darkness was sevenfold; and we have lived to see the dawning of the brighter day, the beginning of the infinite splendour. Enable us to believe that the zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish every prophecy. Save us from self-trust, from intellectual vanity, from supposing that ought depends upon us but humble toil: may we know that the decree is written in eternity, and that the covenant dates from unbeginning time. Thus may we be lifted up in the whole Christian thought, raised to a vital atmosphere, inspired by the Holy Ghost to read, and think, and understand. Thou lookest upon the whole earth, in the midst of summer, and in the depth of winter; thou knowest its poor little tragic history, full of sin and self-sufficiency, and bitterness and all evil—a very hell in space. Yet thou dost love the earth as if it were an only star, as if thine own peace and blessedness depended upon its purity and tranquillity. Thou didst send thy Son to be born upon it, to live upon it, to teach it, to redeem it; yea, he has made it twice sacred by his birth and by his resurrection. He was twice born here; we will call it Christ"s natal place; we will think of the cradle, and of the grave that was vanquished, and bless the Lord that Christ has touched our history and made it noble. Lord, many whom thou lovest are sick, and the Sabbath bells cannot raise them even into momentary gladness: life is ebbing away; all the little joys of time have departed one by one from their dim eyes, and young children who seem born only to laugh are filled with crying and tears. Thou dost permit the earth to open and swallow up the loved remains of our dead. Thou knowest best; the whole nation is within thy rule, and thou wilt not withhold thy blessing where the stroke is severest. O Physician of men, Healer of broken hearts, Emancipator of slaves, look upon us, come near us, touch us every one, and give us to feel that the earth sin-laden is yet not God-forsaken. Amen.
"Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"I will set the Egyptians against the Egyptians."— Isaiah 19:2
It should be understood that in many of these detached texts we avail ourselves of the practice of accommodation. Here is an instance which admits of accommodation of a practical kind. God has various ways of troubling men and bringing about the purposes of his providence. A man may be his own enemy. He may be as a kingdom divided against itself. Passing from the individual man to the social relation, it is possible for a man"s foes to be they of his own household. Understand, therefore, that we are not always exposed to attacks from a foreign source, but that mischief of the deadliest kind may arise within our boundaries. The most deadly of all hatred is that between brothers. The most deplorable of all wars is civil war. Unanimity is shattered; natural alliances are rendered impossible; the councils that ought to be united are turned to confusion; and men know not when they hit out in the dark whether they are striking at friends or foes. It is instructive to notice that God claims all these ministries and engines of operation as distinctly under his own providence. God may be the author of civil war. God may employ evil in order to bring about good; not that he tolerates moral evil or looks with any degree of approval upon it, but he permits social evil, civil wars, misunderstandings, unnatural alliances, to concur in bringing about an evolution otherwise humanly impossible. Even the wicked are servants of God unconsciously. The wrath of man is under his control, and he makes it serve him. The great lesson which we have to lay to heart is not to be looking far away upon the horizon for possible foes, but to be looking into our own hearts, and into our own families and churches. When equals meet in contest what can the result be but destruction? Man was not made to be set against man. Families were meant to be united. Churches should be compact and unanimous, having the full use of their total strength for the propagation of good and the abolition of evil. Remember that God can bring up enemies from unexpected places.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Isaiah 19". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://beta.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26