The Blasphemy of Rabshakeh
The prophecies of Isaiah constitute a threefold division: first, Isaiah 1-35; second, Isaiah 36-39; third, Isaiah 40-46. We have just considered the noble words which formed the peroration of Isaiah"s political eloquence. The four chapters (Isaiah chapters36-39), were possibly not written by Isaiah himself; they may, it is thought, have been appended by some disciple or editor in the time of Ezra. In proper chronology Isaiah 38, Isaiah 39 should come first. For our purpose it will be enough to pause here and there at some point of direct spiritual utility. For example, here is a Prayer of Manasseh, a chief officer or cupbearer, Rabshakeh by name, who represents the king of Assyria, and embodies the brutality and blasphemy which have ever distinguished the enemies of truth and righteousness. Rabshakeh began his communications with Hezekiah by a taunt. He reminded the king that he had trusted in the staff of a broken reed, that Isaiah, upon Egypt; "whereon if a man lean, it will go into his hand, and pierce it: so is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all that trust in him" ( Isaiah 36:6). Rabshakeh had the advantage of truth on this occasion, and he wished to push it to undue uses or extract from it fallacious inferences, on the supposition that Hezekiah being able to confirm his testimony upon one point would be predisposed to accept it on another. Rabshakeh offered to lay a wager when he said, "Now therefore give pledges" ( Isaiah 36:8). The proposition is marked by extreme ludicrousness, being nothing less than to find two thousand horses for the use of Hezekiah if the king on his part should be able to set riders upon them. This was the taunt of defiance; this has about it all the brutality of men who know that their proud offers cannot be accepted. Where there is great weakness on the one side, it is easy to boast of great pomp and power on the other.
Rabshakeh continued his empty boast either personally or representatively, when he said, "I now come up without the Lord against this land to destroy it" ( Isaiah 36:10). Here we have an instance of a perverted truth. Isaiah had distinctly taught that it was Jehovah himself who had brought the king of Assyria into Judah, and they who were opposed to the people of God were prepared to say that such being the case it was evident that the king of Assyria was really the representative of the God of heaven, and now Rabshakeh or the king of Assyria may be said to assume the character of a defender of the faith.
Rabshakeh made a bold appeal to the people when he said, "Hearken not to Hezekiah: for thus saith the king of Assyria, Make an agreement with me by a present, and come out to me: and eat ye every one of his vine, and every one of his fig tree, and drink ye every one the waters of his own cistern; until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of corn and wine, a land of bread and vineyards" ( Isaiah 36:16-17). How eloquent was Rabshakeh in the telling of lies! Hezekiah"s people had only to leave the besieged city, and to go into the Assyrian camp, and they would be allowed the greatest privileges; thus Rabshakeh adds the torment of sarcasm to the sufferings of war, and actually proposes to the people to accept the doom of exile as if it were a change for the better! It is supposed that the taunt and the promise may perhaps be connected with Senra-cherib"s boast that he had made the water supply of the cities of his empire.
Enquiry for Gods
These enquiries may by a slight accommodation be used as showing some characteristics of false gods, and showing, by implication, the glory and worship which are due to the one living Lord. Men have a distinct right to enquire for their gods. Almighty God himself does not shrink from this test of personality and nearness. He will be enquired of. He has proclaimed himself accessible. "Come, now, let us reason together;" "Call upon me in the day of trouble;" "Seek ye the Lord while he may be found;" "Draw nigh unto him and he will draw nigh unto you;" "Prove me now herewith, saith the Lord." All these passages show that God is within reach of the heart of man; and that religion, as well as bringing with it a divine fear, brings with it also a divine companionship. Men cannot live on mere sublimity. Tell a man that there is a Being seated above the stars mighty and glorious—yea, who is terrible in strength and dazzling in splendour—and you have told him nothing worth hearing. Your statement is void by generality. God is all that. But to be all that so that it may have any good effect upon Prayer of Manasseh, he must be less than that. Upon the sphere of his infinitude there must be points of love. Man cannot get hold of infinitude. He must have something that he can lay the hands of his heart upon. God must give miniatures of himself, which little children even can put away in the hiding-places of their love as their chief jewels. Whilst a god may be too great, he may also be too small. He may be too great to be available for common daily use and defence. If you want to pass through a toll- Baruch, and have nothing but a thousand pound note for the payment, you are, so far as that toll-bar is concerned, as badly off as a beggar who has not a penny. A man may die of thirst even amid the billows of the Atlantic. If our god be therefore merely a distant sublimity, a bewildering dream, a creation of poetry, he is no god to us; and one day we shall be taunted by the mocking question, "Where is thy god, O worshipper of the golden mists?" What is a man"s god? A man"s god is whatever is the supreme object of his admiration and trust. It may be beauty, it may be strength, it may be money, it may be fame, it may be self-righteousness, it may be self-confidence. Now the one principle which it is proposed to illuminate and apply Isaiah, that there are times in life when a man instinctively or by force enquires for his god; and that he who cannot, in such critical hours, find his god, has made the profoundest and saddest spiritual mistake in the bestowment of his affections and the gift of his trust.
There are times when you are dissatisfied with yourself; when you feel your utter nothingness; exhaustion, not to say insufficiency, but entire vanity or self-vexation. Take a season of utter prostration, of physical pain, of bodily decay, when the strong man is withered, when the strength we used to boast of is strong no longer, and we are afraid of that which is high. At such a time we look out for something greater than ourselves. We put to ourselves these enquiries:—Do all things waste away as our strength has done? Is our weakness the measure of all other power? Is there no one who can meet us in this extremity of feebleness,—who can come down to us, not in the thunder of his great power, but in the condescension of his almightiness? Is there no one who has learned how to come near a weak man without shattering him by the breath of his power? The weak man does not want mere power to come to him. He waits graduated power,—power that is in the hands of mercy, power that can adapt itself to the weakness and infirmity of human conditions. It is when we can only speak in sighs, and reason in whispers, that our heart goes out in a piercing, urgent enquiry, Where is the god on whom I once did rest the whole pressure of my life, in whom I did place all the trust of my love?
Look at a time of commercial panic, business distress, when no man knows whom to trust; when a smile upon the countenance may be but the signal of intended treachery; when the greatest houses are crumbling at their foundation; when things which were of value yesterday are of no value at this moment; when men"s hearts are quaking because of the fear that they dare not touch their own fortune lest it should prove itself to be gilded nothingness,—when they are afraid that the very glance of an eye will pierce their possessions as lightning might and utterly wither them away. Man cannot be satisfied then without the supernatural; he may even drift into superstition. But into the invisible he will go, if so be he be not an utter beast, and have not lost his power of reasoning and his power of hope in the mammon worship of a misdirected life. Atheists pray when they are in extreme pain or peril. Atheists! men who would say, when the sun was clear and all was well with them, that there was no God. We have known such when in agony to cry out for God to have mercy upon them. Oh, wretched theologians!
There are times when all men either come quietly, with reverence and tenderness, to seek God who has withdrawn for a moment, or when they are startled, frightened into momentary devotion. Anyhow, the great principle is affirmed in daily experience, that men do enquire for their gods when the times are heavy against them and there is some special sore cankering and consuming their hearts. Man likes to make gods; he is fond of god-making. What sort of gods does he make? You may tell me, when some are named, that it is but a commonplace in human history. Alas! when we have pronounced some things to be commonplace, we consider we have explained them and defended them. A thing is not right because it is commonplace. Familiarity is no vindication of vice. Because we have been long accustomed to a theory or practice, the theory or practice is not therefore unimpeachable, right and true as before God. Some men—without perhaps intending it, and who would shrink from this bald way of stating what they have done—have made money their God. The time will come when such commonplaces will startle men; when the mud they have trodden under their feet, and by treading it have buried great principles and holy purposes, will startle them, rise up before them, and make them tremble and quake. Some people have made money their god, and there is not a more helpless god in all the temples of idolatry. Cry aloud, for he is a god! he is talking or walking, hunting or sleeping, pursuing or driving, or anything you please. He will never come to you in the crisis of your life. He will make little compromises with you, help you over divers stiles, solve certain little problems for you. But when your soul is in agony, when your life has wrought itself down to the one last spasm, he will be a dumb god. Having hands, he will not help; having eyes, he will not see; having ears, he will not ear. Who was it? It was certainly not a beggar in the streets,—it was some royal great one who cried, "Millions of money for an inch of time!" There was an offer! Why, it might have altered the pulse of the money market if the thing had been feasible—it might have changed the vein of financial affairs for the time being. An inch of time—millions of money! And the bargain could not be struck. We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. If you could take a five pound note with you across the grave into yonder invisible mysterious world, nobody would know what it was. You would have to explain it, and nobody would believe you. You might hold it up, and show the water- Mark, and lecture upon it, and turn it round and round, and nobody could change it. Yet there are some men who practically, not theoretically, have made this money their god, and have said they will run unto this money as into a strong tower in the time of storm and flood and tempest and great trial.
There is another god that some men are making. Perhaps, a great many young men may be engaged in this manufacture. Its name is Luck! It is a little English word. Luck! Some men have faith in their luck. They say, "Things will not turn out so badly after all. I have always been able to get upon the sunny side of the road, and something will occur to get me upon that side again. I have trusted the chapter of accidents. My chances have always turned out right, and they will turn out right again." There never was so mocking an idol as luck. Have you seen a great picture of a scene in a gambling place, where everything seems to depend upon the shuffling of certain pieces of ivory or brass, on the doing of certain things in a skilful, quick way, when a wrong turn may mean utter waste of fortune and dispossession of estate and inheritance? Have you seen what expression there is upon the countenances of the parties engaged,—what anxiety, what hope, in some cases what shadowing despair just begun, hope just going away? Yonder can be seen a little fringe of light, and despair just coming on. It is the god luck that is tormenting his soul. But the young man who throws in a game of that kind and is lucky, will have another game to play. He has another competitor who will force him, and say, "Now you must have the dice out again." The name of that last competitor is Death, and he will play you. The young man says, "I do not want to play." Death grasps him by the throat, and says, "You shall play!" Now he gets hold of his dice-box, and Death always wins. You see how strong we are when we teach according to the revelation of God and the facts of nature. There is a point where you cannot escape us. There are thousands of miles where we can have something like an equal fight, and you can throw us in the tussle, but when we come up to this last point of all you cannot get away! Death is only a spectre, but you cannot toss him; a shadow, but you cannot evade him; a grim thing, that you say that you could smash. Try it! What will you do when you come to that last game of all, to close this strange eventful history? Where is your god then? Where is all the old fortune of chance and happy luck and sunny accident? Once you had only to touch a thing and it became gold. Other men threw bargains down because they could make nothing of them, and you went and picked them up and instantly they blossomed and flowered into beauty and success. Ha! where is your luck now? Granted that some men may have drilled themselves into the power of laughing their way out of the world. Let us suppose—although by doing so we insult all divine power and truth—but let us suppose that, last of all, a man could snap his finger at God and eternity and heaven and hell, and go out of the world as a merry dancer might whirl out of a lamp-lit room. What of it? Who dare risk it? No wise man who knows life, and is sensible on ordinary affairs, dare make up his mind to be at last a fool like that.
Some men"s god is a well-favoured countenance. They trust to their shape, figure, bearing, expression. They say, "My face is an introduction, a certificate, a guarantee: wherever I go a space is cleared for me." There are men who trust to outward figure and expression of countenance; who believe that one look of the eyes means conquest. And many a man who does not make a good show in the flesh, but who has an honest and true heart, who is gold all through and through his soul, is sneered at by this man of a well-favoured person, of ruddy countenance, of face that is a key to confidence and a passport to admiration! A very superficial god, by the way! I can imagine such persons brought into circumstances which will try their god severely.
Yonder is a man lofty in stature, portly in bearing, commanding in all the attributes of external person. He says that he feels a pain piercing him: he laughs, and says, Presently it will be gone! But that great chest of his has a second stab inflicted upon it, and back it goes, and his shoulders come up. His friends who were once proud of him hardly know him; and he says, in a voice no longer with the old ringing tone, "Take me home." He is taken home, and betakes himself to his bed. His physician comes to his room and says, "This is a case of small-pox." "No!" "It is." Aye, and that god of his will be dug in the face till the man"s own mother will not know him, and the sister who loved him best will pray to escape from his presence. It may be so. God can blotch your skin! God can send poison into your blood! And you, who sneered at ungainly virtue, at unfavoured honesty, may be a corrupt worm-eaten pestilent thing in the dirt! What, then, if any man should say to you, Where is thy God? What if it should be said to you, as was said to an ancient people, "Thy calf, O Samaria, hath cast thee off." Samaria trusted to her calf that it would stand her in good stead at all times and in all places. But there came upon her a point of history when the calf turned away and there arose a mocking shout, "Thy calf, O Samaria, hath cast thee off." Samaria being calfless was godless. There are times in life when men have to look about for their gods. There are some gods that lure their worshippers on and on until, having got to the brink of the precipice, they vanish and no prayer can recover their presence Now we have to face the mystery of the revelation of the true God in times of human need. This part of the subject is not free from difficulty. Many a man has felt the most intense pain on observing what he supposed was God"s absence from the scene of human affairs. God has been looked for and looked for apparently in vain. When his voice might have hushed the storm not a sound was heard. When his coming would have been more welcome than morning light or summer beauty, he did not appear to eyes that wearily waited for him. There has gone up a cry from hearts sad with intolerable grief, "Why standest thou afar off, O Lord?" This difficulty must be grappled with if we would be honest to all sides of our great subject In reply to this difficulty I suggest three things.
As a mere matter of fact, attested by a thousand histories known in our own experience, God has appeared in vindication of his name and honour. The whole Bible shows this to be a truth. There is no need to quote history upon history to prove it. These things are known to your own recollection. Once upon a time a grand old Methodist preacher, called John Nelson—a man whose life ought to be read often on Saturday night by preachers who have got their skeletons ready, in order that they might be fired to do their work—was obliged to become a soldier, and as he was arrayed, and was being mocked by many, a woman came to him and said, "Nelson, where is now thy God? Thou didst say at Shent"s door that thou hadst no more fear of all his promises failing than thou hadst of falling through the centre of the earth. Where is now thy God?" You know how mocking a bad woman can be, what sharpness there is in her voice. Nelson, in whom the word of God dwelt richly, said "You will find the answer in the seventh chapter of Micah, the eighth and tenth verses." "Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy; when I fall, I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord shall be a light unto me. Then she that is mine enemy shall see it, and shame shall cover her which said unto me, Where is the Lord thy God? mine eyes shall behold her: now shall she be trodden down as the mire of the streets." Everything is in the Bible! There is an answer to everything in God"s Book, only sometimes we do not know our lesson well enough to refer to the place. These old Methodist preachers, who had nothing but the Bible, and perhaps a borrowed Concordance, were mighty in God"s word, and oftentimes their sword, the sword of the Holy Ghost, cleft the opposition by which they were annoyed. I have some reason to believe that the answer given by John Nelson was literally fulfilled in the experience of the woman who taunted him with the question which is now quoted. Whether or not, there are instances from the beginning of history down to cur own times which show that God has interposed in human affairs to regulate, control, dispose, and in all things to glorify his own name.
As a first principle in sound theology, it must be admitted that God himself is the only true judge as to the best manner and time of interposition. By so much as he is God this point at least must be conceded. Let us be fair to the Almighty, as we would be fair to man. By so much as he is God—infinite, almighty, all-wise—he must know better than we when to come and how to come. Stephen was taken by the mob, dragged out and stoned. "Where was his God then?" was once the mocking enquiry of a well-known free-thinker. A man must not go away and think about a question of that kind for a month, and then come with a reply: he must answer there and then. Promptness is success; immediateness in such a case as that is conquest. The case was apparently dead against the Christian theory. Here is a Prayer of Manasseh, full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, overwhelmed by Numbers, dragged away, stoned to death, mocked in his last agonies. Where was his God? This was the reply. Did God then do nothing for Stephen? Was the first Christian martyr quite abandoned? Was there no seal or token of divine presence and care given to that suffering man? Go to Stephen himself for an answer; and when Hebrews, outraged and dishonoured, said with his dying breath, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge,"—to have wrought in the human soul, under circumstances so tragic and terrible, a desire like that, was to do more for Stephen then if he had been lifted up by myriads of angels out of the hands of his murderers and set in the sun! Do not let us forget God"s spiritual gifts to us,—gifts of nature, of soul, qualities of heart, sublime views of truth, nobleness of tone under circumstances that are trying and exasperating. Did he do nothing for Stephen? Go to Stephen himself for the reply. Though the stones were falling upon him and he was in the last agonies, he said in a whisper, the sound of which shall survive the voices of all thunders and floods, "I see heaven opened, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God." It is only in crises, in extremities such as these, that the highest reach of faith is realised, and that faith itself becomes victory.
Then the very absence of God, being dictated by Wisdom of Solomon, and controlled by love, must be intended to have a happy effect upon human faith. Sometimes we say, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." There is a deep truth in that common segment. Once God said to people mourning his absence, "For a small moment,"—such as no chronometer ever measured the duration of,—"For a small moment I have forsaken thee, but with everlasting mercies—(billow upon billow of mercies)—will I gather thee, restore thee, comfort thee, and assure thee." When God is absent, what if his absence be intended to excite enquiry in our hearts? When God is absent, what if his absence be intended to develop the trust of our nature? It is in having to grope for God we learn lessons of our own blindness, and weakness, and spiritual incapacity. We know not what God may be working out for us in the very act of withdrawing himself for a small moment, and for a space immeasurably minute.
I conclude with one gentle word which will help all men, for every one has dark days, and sadnesses, and troubles. There is not a man who has not in his heart, or who has not had in his heart, or who will not have in his heart, some shadow, pain, trouble, unrest. It is the common lot, and it has meaning in it One day we may be able to piece all these things together and see them shaping themselves into a merciful purpose. Let me speak one gentle word. Take out your memorandum-books, and let me make an engagement for you. But you need not take out your diary, because I know that you have no engagement for the day which I am going to mention. How do I know that there is a vacancy in your diary? Because all history tells me that it is so. It is impossible to be mistaken in this matter. So you need not look into your memorandum-book, because there is a vacant place there which I now want to fill up. "Call upon me in the day of trouble, and I will answer thee." Now you have no engagement for the day of trouble! You have not. Your friends do not want to see you in the day of trouble. They do not want to open the door to a man who has a burden upon his back. They say, "Call upon us in the summer time, call upon us when thou art garlanded with blossoms; call upon us when thy hands are laden with fruit; come when fortune is propitious, when the winds are southerly, when there is blue sky overhead." But you have no engagement for the day of trouble. God therefore comes and asks that that day may be his. That very conception ought to convert men instantly. If it were but a dream it ought to secure immortality for the writer. It is one of those short sentences which, were it but a scintillation of human fancy, ought to cause the author to have pedestals and columns to his memory, as long as the sun shall shine.
We claim it to be a divine Revelation, a fatherly truth, a message out of God"s great heart. "Casting all your care upon him, for he careth for you." Observe the reasoning. He does not say, "Casting all your care upon him, for he is powerful; casting all your care upon him, for he is wise; casting all your care upon him, for he is infinite." These things never would have touched us; we could have escaped all that kind of reasoning. But casting all your care upon him, for he careth for you! Sympathy is his challenge. He careth for you! That is the ground of meeting. Sympathy is power; sympathy is omnipotence; sympathy is omniscience; sympathy is infinitude of mercy and blessing and sufficiency, when found in God. This is his gentle word: "Cast all your care upon me, for I care for you!"
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Isaiah 36". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://beta.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26