The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
The Qualified One
Here is a man with a great qualification. Can we add to these qualifications? Is there any omission of power, honour, supreme spiritual quality? Is this man equally strong at every point? Or is he like ourselves characterised by some strong points and humiliated by some points of weakness? Is he strong throughout? And is it mere strength, which people may admire, but cannot love? Or is it a condescending strength? Is it marked by tenderness and sympathy, by pity and by love? The qualification is certainly large—"my servant;" some say, "my son"—yet a servant. Jesus Christ thought it not robbery to be equal with God, yet he made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant. He is described as the servant of God, and of men. He himself said, "He that is greatest among you shall be your servant." He is not a man of clear and weighty judgment who sees nothing of honour even in the word "servant." Ill times have befallen us if we attach to that word nothing but the idea of humiliation, lowness, valueless-ness. That word must be restored to its right place in human intercourse. If any man proudly rise and say he is not servant, there is a retort, not of human invention, which might overwhelm any who are not swallowed up of self-conceit and self-idolatry. We do not know what it is to rule until we know what it is to serve. Let no one, therefore, be affrighted from this text as from a Messianic prophecy because the word "servant" finds a place here where the word "son" would seem to be more in harmony with the descent, the prerogative, and the majesty of Christ And supper being ended, he rose, and girded himself with a towel, and washed the disciples" feet, and said, Do the same with one another. Thus did he dignify service; thus did he prepare the servant for becoming the friend: henceforth I call you not "servants," but "friends." Yet the higher title could not have been conferred had not the lower ministry been fulfilled with faithfulness. That is the point to be observed. "He that is faithful, in few things, shall be made ruler over many things." "Well done, good and faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord." Thus we must go, and by no fancy way of our own, escaping humiliation, and toil, and difficulty, and self-immolation, and tremendous danger, but passing through the whole process patiently, lovingly, loyally, and with the eternal hopefulness which belongs to trust and rectitude. Even if the words in their first signification apply to Cyrus or to some other historical character, they find their fullest realisation in the Son of God. There is no reason why intermediate meanings should be withheld; let them be broadly acknowledged, and let all human rewards be assigned that they may be enjoyed by those who are entitled to them; but all these recognitions of passing merit, of transient greatness, need not prevent our fixing our eyes upon him in whom all prophecy culminates, and by whom all prophecy is glorified.
"Whom I uphold,"—others say, "on whom I lean;" such contradictions may we find without any real contrariety of meaning. The sayings of Jesus Christ are full of such contradiction; but we live progressively until we are able ourselves to reconcile them, and say with exulting thankfulness, Now we know what the Lord meant when he said such and such words. Once he said, "I and my Father are one," and once he said "My Father is greater than I:" the grammar puzzled us, we thought we had discovered a discrepancy; but we see how both statements may be true. God may uphold his servant, and God may lean upon his servant; thus accommodating himself to the uses of the narrowest human language. "Mine elect,"—my own choice, the very man I want; not a man who has come by chance, or through a series of uncalculated events, but one who bears the stamp of eternity; the companion of my soul in ages which lie beyond all human reckoning. "In whom my soul delighteth." In what does the soul of the musician delight? In harmony, in perfectness of co-operation and action, in sweet rhythms. In what does the soul of the artist rejoice? In proportion, in colour, in significance, in infinite suggestions that are not patent to the common gaze. In what does the soul of the teacher delight? In intellectual progress, in mental virility, in the outleading of the mind, in the expansion of mental capacity; not so much in the storing of information as in the quickening of the mind, a quickening amounting to a species of inspiration, certainly to a definite hunger and thirst for the larger truth—nay, for wisdom herself in all her completeness and beauty. By these analogies we may come to some apprehension of what is meant by the soul of God delighting in his servant, because the servant fulfils all God"s purpose, is equal to the whole human occasion, is qualified with every instrument, faculty, power needful for the execution of a beneficent design. "I have put my spirit upon him:" I have crowned him; if he be represented by a pillar, square, massive, lofty, faultless in perpendicular, he is crowned with the spirit;—or, I have put my spirit within him; so that within and without he is fully furnished; he says nothing of his own invention—"The words that I have heard speak I unto you." Said Christ in effect—I have lain upon the bosom of the Father and heard the beating of his heart; I have understood the meaning of his breathing; I have come to reveal him, to tell you what he told me, to make known unto you the very thought and purpose of God.
But for what end was this qualification originated and established? The answer is in the first verse:—"He shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles." It was a moral purpose; things were to be rectified. It was not that he might sing a new poetry, fascinate the ear of the world with new strains of music, take his seat among the learned and the wise, and propound to them riddles and problems which would perplex them. Christ"s coming was distinctive in its purpose and limit. It was a moral issue. He came to set the foundations of things right, in straight courses. He might have come upon a more dazzling mission as viewed from a strictly worldly point. He came to deal with the heart of the world, with the judgment of men, with the inner life, with the very soul of society. Nor was this morality limited in its range by any ethnic lines or purely geographical boundaries. Jesus Christ came to shed light upon the whole earth. Jew and Gentile were terms that were to be abolished in all their narrowest significance, and the term Man was to be established as descriptive of the human race. All accidental separations and differences and collisions were to be done away, and all men, in all time, in all the world, were to recognise that they had a common father in God.
But this qualification, though great, is not the whole qualification which is assigned to the Servant and Son of God. He was not only great in positive power, he was equally great in restraint, in self-control. There is a negative qualification, as well as a qualification that is distinctively positive; and Jesus Christ combined both qualifications. Let us read what he shall not do:—
"He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street" ( Isaiah 42:2).
He is not a debater; he does not belong to the society of men who walk up and down in the open square, called the "street," or agora, or the market-place, saying, Who will talk with me today? What shall we debate? My sword is ready, who will fence? He does not belong to the word gladiator; from that school he abstains. There were men who delighted in controversy in the open squares of the city. Such controversy took the place of modern literature, morning journals, and the means of publicity of every kind, open to modern society. Jesus Christ spoke whisperingly to hearts. Men had to incline their ear to hear him. He was no blatant controversialist, making rude noises in the air, but a speaker of music that could only be heard in all its plaintiveness, in all its minor tone of sweetest love, by the listening heart. No public wrestler or gladiator was the Son of God. He did not exclaim, nor lift up, nor make an uproar in the public places of the city. This gives to his occasional exclamation great emphasis and clearness. Who could speak like Jesus Christ, when it suited the occasion that he should make his voice heard? "In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink." Then his voice was heard afar off. Men who had heard human voices all their lifetime turned to see the speaker who uttered himself in tones so lofty and gracious. The characteristic, however, of the Gospel is that it approaches men; so to say, surrounds them, fascinates them, draws upon itself their attention and their confidence by a wondrous power of quietness: it comes not with blare of trumpet or with throb of drum, but as a still small voice, a speaker that would speak to you alone and hold the heart in sweet intercourse when no third party is present; it was the way of the Cross.
"A bruised reed shall he not break" ( Isaiah 42:3).
Mere power would have broken it. Where there is great self-control there Isaiah, however, more than mere strength; it is calculated power, it is adapted energy, it is regulated force; there is nothing rude, violent, overwhelming about it; when it descends it comes with the quietness of light—that imponderable, wondrous beam that comes down to fight the night, and smites it with a silent stroke, so that the night is no more seen; all heaven rejoices in gracious brilliance. Political economy breaks bruised reeds. Science of a certain kind says, We must lay down a law of the survival of the fittest, and if the reeds are broken, throw them away. Jesus Christ says: Throw nothing away: let us work for the saving of every life, and see that we work so carefully, with so critical a love and patience that we lose nothing at last, but the son of perdition, the son of waste, the child that must go home to the devil. Let us have no rough-and-ready treatment, however, of human life, but let us examine and separate, and encourage and cheer, and do what we can, for we are bound to save the last atom; then if we cannot save it, we must own what we have lost: Father, I have lost none, but the son of perdition. He did not want to lose any, he did not come to destroy men"s lives but to save them. If men will not be saved, even the Son of God cannot save them. To force a man into heaven is not to fill him with peace and joy; it is to violate the harmony which he cannot appreciate. "A bruised reed,"—say some, an instrument called a reed was meant, and there was a rift in it, which spoiled the music. Jesus Christ said, we must repair this; something must be done with this reed; it was meant for music and we must look at it with that end in view. He does not take it, saying, There is a rift in the lute, and the music is impossible; rend it and throw it away. He always looks to see if a man cannot be made somewhat better. He would heal us every one. Say to him, O Bruised Reed, if I may but touch the hem of thy garment, even my life reed shall be healed, and I will take up God"s music again, and be glad in God"s house. Or "a bruised reed" may mean that wild beasts in rushing through to the water, or from the flood, have crushed the growing plants, so that they are bent, they no more stand upright; but Jesus Christ comes to heal them and to restore them. "And the smoking flux shall he not quench:" he will not put his foot upon it; he will rather take it up and shake it, as he only can shake, bringing a little more air to bear upon it, and still a little more, but so gradually; see how the spark whitens, how it leaps up into a kind of new life; now watch him how he regulates the shaking, and see how that which we thought was only a smoke becomes a flame, bright as fire, useful as a torch, and how it is handed on to the aid of other men.
He has his still greater qualification—the qualification of eternal hopefulness. That is where so many teachers fail, but this Man shall not fail nor be discouraged till he hath done the work. Sometimes he nearly turned round. We have seen Jesus Christ himself almost driven to despair. He could not do many mighty works here, or there, because of the people"s unbelief. Still, he did not resign the work; he persevered. How many of us have resigned our position—given it up—because we have felt discouraged beyond the power of sustenance, so that we could no longer bear the weight or live in the darkness. Thus we have been less than Christ, as we must ever be; but we have not been of the quality of Christ, which we may always be. "He shall not fail nor be discouraged: "he shall not wink his eyes or knit his brow as if he were in fatal perplexity, saying in effect, I have come upon something I cannot manage, or control, or direct; I am bewildered;—and see how his face is wrinkled up into an expression of absolute dejection. Is there a wrinkle on that shining countenance? It does not mean discouragement; it was ploughed on the face by grief, but it shall yet vanish in light. Herein is the hope and herein is the confidence of the Church. Whoever resigns the evangelisation of the world, Jesus Christ is pledged to carry it forward. Were men to set themselves against him he would say, This can be but temporary: if ye hold your peace, the very stones will cry out; if ye are the children of Abraham, and all turn away from me, I tell you God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. Thus we renew our courage; thus we rekindle our hope; thus we replenish our inspiration. Where is there a Christian teacher who would not sometimes willingly withdraw from the whole service, Because, he says, the wall of hindrance is heaven-high, and I cannot advance; my prayers seem to have come back in nothingness, all my labour has ended in vanity; I have piped, but my piping has not been answered by the dance of delight; I have mourned, no sufferer has blended his tears with mine; all day long have I stretched out my hands, and no man has regarded me?
A singular contrast may be established here as between the attitude of the Old Testament and the attitude of the New in regard to the salvation of the human race. In the Old Testament God seems to be continually withdrawing from the work. He says, It repents me that I have made man. And again he says to the heavens and to the earth, Ye may well be astonished, for amazement has filled my own heart, that I should have brought up children, and they have rebelled against me; though Moses and Samuel were to plead with me for this people, I would not hear even these great intercessors; my whole soul recoils from their ingratitude: I can no longer maintain my relation to this rebellious race. No such voice is heard in the New Testament. Mere deity (if we may so express ourselves) is not the same as deity incarnate, set in direct sympathetic relation with human life and human need. "Jesus wept." That is the infinite secret of the steadfastness of his love. If he had been a majesty only, he would have spurned those who sought to oppose him; but he was a Saviour, he was the Son of God, and therefore he bore all injury; when he was reviled he reviled not again, for it would have been loss of dignity and loss of love, and disqualification of himself for his sublime ministry. All time spent in reviling is time taken away from saving. He gave his back to the smiters, and his cheeks to them that plucked off the hair; and still he thought he could save the world. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied. When the fight is over, there will be but one conqueror, and his name shall be Immanuel, Secret, Counseller, Jesus of Nazareth.
All this great qualification, positive and negative, and all this power to sustain discouragement and turn it into inspiration, is found in connection with a purpose to save the Gentiles, to enlighten "the isles," to bring in the very race represented by ourselves. Thus Christ comes near to us. He is not a Saviour of the Jew only, but of the Gentile; he does not operate within the four corners of any chosen country, but on the whole world and through all the generations of men and time. This is the distinctive characteristic of the Gospel. It goes from its starting-place; it says it will not return, except bringing sheaves with it; it says: I will begin at Jerusalem, but I will go forward until I have touched every land and every island, and have translated myself into every speech, and have created speech and civilisation; and I shall come back again, and Zion shall be the praise and joy of the whole earth.
What is our response to this grand purpose? Do we doubt the qualification of Christ, God"s Servant, God"s upheld One, God"s Elect, the Man in whom God"s soul delighted, the Man upon whom the Spirit of God rested? To doubt Christ is to doubt God. Let us cast ourselves upon him. Let the isles say unto him: Blessed Son of God, thou didst care for us. Let the Gentiles say to him: Saviour of the world, when there was no man to help us we heard of thy Name, and thou didst speak to us as one who was mighty to save. If we ourselves have tested the qualifications of Christ, let us preach the Gospel to every creature.
That is a grand preamble. Words of this character excite thrilling expectation. Go to Oriential lands for magnificence of description, for redundance of self-eulogium; read the Babylonian records to find how ancient kings adorned themselves with imposing titles. Something must always be allowed for Orientalism; it is not irreverent to say that something must be allowed for Orientalism in certain parts of the Bible itself. Here is a title which, standing by itself, might challenge comparison with other royal designations. We must, therefore, go further, and inquire for what purpose the title was used. This is not all sound and fury, signifying nothing; this is but a beginning; this great title only excites astonishment, creates interest, prepares the mind to hear some great revelation that is about to be made, and that takes its tone and quality from the title itself. That is the vital and impassable distance between all other titles and the title Jehovah. Kings in ancient times and eastern lands have exhausted epithets in their self-description, but one of them came nothing but boasting, vanity, self-laudation. Our enquiry turns upon the uses to which this title is about to be committed. Who is to be entrusted with it? To whom is it to be handed as a charge, entitling the messenger to go forth and work upon it, turning it to real and blessed utility? Is it a decoration, or an authority? Is it a piece of Oriental rhetoric, or is it the very comfort of God addressed to the souls of men?
Will God thus share his title, and create co-partners of his glory? He will never give his name to another, that that other may be equal to him, and use it for purposes other than those which harmonise with divine love: but there is a sense in which he will share his throne:—"To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne." There is a blessed sense in which the Scriptures teach that even mortal man may handle the eternity of God. Yet we need this element of majesty in the Bible. We have it in nature. Whatever is small in nature is only such relatively. The earth would be much larger if the sky were less—that all-dwarfing firmament; it makes all other things look insignificant: in themselves they may be great and precious, but when related to what is to us the best symbol of infinity they fall into nothingness. If we have, therefore, this element of majesty in nature, why not in revelation? There must be no trifling with God; even when he condescends it must be with majesty; when he draws near it must be to create astonishment and reverence, and fill the soul with awe, which alone can prepare it for deepest and highest revelations. It does us good to come near men who are greater than ourselves, for it rebukes our self-appraisement where it is exaggerated or marked by vanity; we thought ourselves wise until we heard them speak, then we fled away to resume our studies, because our acquisitions were so small. It does us good to come near great sights of all kinds. A man then puts off his shoes, and leaves his staff behind, and goes forward tremblingly, that he may hear voices from other worlds. "I will now turn aside, and see this great sight." So in page after page of the Bible, the Lord comes down in his full title, he brings with him his whole dignity; and the firmament itself closes its eyes in reverence and wonder. There is a sun which puts out our sun, paling its radiance as if in shame. Thus we must bring both the Old Testament and the New together in order to see at once the majesty and the condescension of God, the infinite grandeur and the infinite love of him who is Creator-Father. Neither is sufficient by itself. Union alone gives completeness. He who begins by creating ends by redeeming. In redeeming the world we see what value God set upon it. Viewed in the light of omnipotence, creation is nothing, it is less than a handful of dust or a wreath of smoke but when God comes forth to redeem what he made he writes upon it the value which he assigns to it. We must take God"s estimate of God"s work.
Let us now ask whether this title is ostentatious or beneficent The answer is in the sixth verse,—
"I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles." ( Isaiah 42:6)
So then, God"s eternity is to be turned to the uses of time. This is no revelation of overpowering majesty; this is the key of the door. O Messenger or the Covenant, take this key, it will open creation; the universe knows it; at its touch the lock will spring back, and thy progress will lie before thee like a straight line. This is the name to conjure with, in the noblest religious sense of that term, to bring down mountains, to raise valleys, and dry up rivers and seas. Without this name we can make no real advancement in any direction that is upward. We can dig without it, and can go to hell without it. So then the Lord himself comes forth to invest the Church with all riches: Because I live, ye shall live also: If I go, I will come again: "In my Father"s house are many mansions; if it were not Song of Solomon, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you,"—"I" and "you:" what Christ can do the Church can do: I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me: I glory in tribulation also: I have learned the divine art of turning sorrow into wine, and I drink it for the soul"s comfort. The title of God, therefore, is not so much verbiage, and elaboration of eulogium, a rhetorical effort to magnify God in words; it is an inspiration and encouragement; it is a feast never to be exhausted, it is a fountain of water in the wilderness; it is the beginning and the necessity of utility; it is the guarantee of progress; it is the assurance of victory. Let us, then, take it with us everywhere:—I will go in the name of the Lord God, and make mention of his righteousness, even of his only: when I see great doors and bars and gates, I will say, Lift up your heads, fall back, ye portals, and the King of glory shall come in; I will beat them down with thy name and when the river comes, flowing and uproariously, plunging through the great valley as if it would drive everything before it, I will strike it with the eternal name, and make it stand back, until I have passed through on dry ground. This should be the noble language of the Church. Wherein the Church falls into fearfulness and dejection, she has forgotten her own resources, she has humbled herself into an equality with the powers of the earth, she has waited until some painted mockery of a king has passed by. The Church should always claim precedence. The state is nothing—a pasteboard frame run up in a nighttime for purposes of mere convenience in the way of commerce and exchange and Song of Solomon -called civilisation. If there be a Church, a redeemed and sanctified life, it will go in before every beggar-prince that wants to carry his hoarded gold along with him. The Church goes by right of the divine title. The Church stands by the dignity of God. Men should sometimes realise their representative capacity and their symbolic function; and whilst they in themselves wish to be the most modest of men, yet they have to bear a testimony, and to take a position, and to advance a banner. O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up into the high mountain! Zion, put on thy beautiful garments! shake them from the dust, and stand up, the princess of God. All this accords with gentleness, modesty, self-obliteration in all narrow senses: and all this is consonant with the majesty of God. Let us remember that as a Church we are created anew, redeemed with the infinitely precious blood of Christ, washed and cleansed, and that we are without stain or flaw, or any such thing, a glorious Church. There are too many bent heads amongst us; too many fearful spirits; too many who say, Let gold go first, then silver, then copper, then piety. God would reverse the process; he would throw away the gold and the silver and the copper and say, This is the order of precedence: goodness first, piety at the head; gentleness, pureness, love, charity, brotherly kindness, forward. We must not reverse the processes and precedences of God.
That the title is not ostentatious but beneficent is proved also by the seventh verse—
"To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house." ( Isaiah 42:7)
The Lord sent to Saul when he prayed that his eyes might be opened, and Saul himself described the vision as marvellous light. We want, too, to be brought out of prison. The word "prison" is a large word; it signifies ignorance, prejudice, criminality, all manner of unlawful or needless or self-imposed limitation; it means independence of all the allurements, snares, fascinations, temptations, of time and space: it means spiritual freedom; it is described in the gospel as "glorious liberty." All liberty may be said to be glorious, yet there is a liberty that needs an epithet to give it just the particular accentuation which expresses its range and quality; so the word "glorious" is attached to the word liberty. They match each other well; the words fall into blessed accord and mutual complement; they belong to one another; it is the liberty, not of the dawn, which is useful, not of the growing day, which is inspiring, but of the noontide, which is glorious. Men are in various stages of liberty. We are not all equally the free men of God. There are men even now who are under the disadvantage of prejudice. Even today superstition lives—chilling, fear-exciting, soul-depressing, superstition. There are those who still live in the letter of the Word. They have never felt the summer warmth of the Spirit; the juices, the sap of life may be said not to have risen in the stem of their manhood yet, even in vernal days. Others are far on; they are high up the hill; they can almost touch the sky, and warm themselves at the higher fire; they are marked by what timid souls would call audacity; and indeed when timid souls so criticise these higher freemen they speak their own language, because to them the action of the higher men would indeed be audacity. But we must not curb one another, and especially the small nature must never fix itself as the measure of manhood. Better that the great souls should say, "All others are like us," than that little invisible natures should say, There are some who have gone astray by going upward. Blessed are they who are straying towards heaven! May the pastures through which they pass be green, may they be able to quaff the water out of the river of God! Christ has come for the express purpose of opening blind eyes and releasing prisoners. The question which men ought to put to themselves is this, "Do we see; are we free, or are we blind; and are we still in prison? If the Son shall make you free, ye should be free indeed. Only the truth can give liberty; and truth is a term so large that only one other term can stretch a line upon it, and say, I am as large as you; and that other term is Love."
But here comes a great indictment:—
"Who is blind, but my servant? or deaf, as my messenger that I sent? who is blind as he that is perfect, and blind as the Lord"s servant?" ( Isaiah 42:19).
Israel is here referred to. The servant that ought to have seen everything sees nothing; the messenger that ought to have the hearing ear has lost his faculty of hearing; and he that ought to have been perfect is blind. A curious word is this which is rendered "perfect." In sound it is like "Moslem," and it means literally, the resigned man. That is what Moslem affects to be. That is the very genius of Islam, the resigned man; the man who says he will make no effort, because what will be will be; he need not bestir himself in the morning, because he can effect nothing by all his labour and energy; he will resign himself to the rocking of nature, and be lulled to rest by its soothing movement. There is a charm in fatalism. If it could call itself Calvinism it would make more progress. There is a fascination in the faith that says, Sit still; do nothing; hold your hands; close your eyes, let sleep steal upon you; and the stars will go on just the same as if you were making frantic endeavours to be wise and great and strong. But nature feels an indefinite antagonism to that base suggestion. Nature now and again rises and says, No: I was made to be active; I know it, I feel it: why were these faculties given if they were not to be used? Possession is inspiration: to have eyes is to be entitled to see; to have ears means that we have a right to listen to music, and eloquence, and learning, and persuasion. Let the voice of nature prevail. To have a faculty means that that faculty is to be used. Herein is the tremendous indictment correct—"Seeing many things, but thou observest not, opening the ears, but he heareth not." To have faculties that have fallen into disuse, to have the symbols of manhood but no virility, to look a Prayer of Manasseh, and yet be but a thing, to seem to have a heart and yet have no response to human want and pain,—that is the inconceivable but possible irony. Having eyes, they see not; having ears, they hear not; having hearts, they do not understand. Yet are they counted as of the population of the earth. A man may withdraw himself from the working force of society, and from the real manhood of the world, and may occupy room of which he is not worthy. Only they should be counted whose souls are alive. The first question should be, What are you? What is your purpose? What is the tone of your life? What use do you make of your faculties? Are you helpers of society, or burdens? Do you carry, or are you to be carried? Thus Christianity becomes a most active religion. It does not count a man when he is asleep the same as it counts him when he is awake; it counts the day population; and there are men walking about who are really walking in their sleep, and they are not counted at all. Christianity makes no account of somnambulists in the daytime. Christianity expects us to use our faculties. Christianity in the person of its Infinite Founder, says, How is it that ye do not understand? Ye can discern the signs of the sky, how is it that ye cannot read the signs of the times? O fools and slow of heart! The Church is to be the most sagacious of all institutions. The Christian is to be the most statesmanlike of all men. He is not concerned in some little problems, in some arrangements which may be thus or otherwise, and yet no great interests are affected by their distribution. He is in burning earnest, in deadly earnest; he deals with great questions, he addresses himself to infinite difficulties; he needs all his mental power, all his moral sympathy, all his social resources. So then, we go back to the divine title—"Thus saith God the Lord, he that created the heavens, and stretched them out; he that spread forth the earth, and that which cometh out of it; he that giveth breath unto the people upon it, and spirit to them that walk therein: I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles;" I will be with thee, I will hold thy hands, I will keep thee, I will see that all thy way is marked out for thee, I will lead the blind by a way that they know not, and by paths that they have not understood. "I will make waste mountains and hills, and dry up all their herbs; and I will make the rivers islands, and I will dry up the pools." Thus the title passes down from pompous rhetoric into beneficent service.
God"s Terribleness and Gentleness
It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. It is better to fall into the hands of God than into the hands of men. Our God is a consuming fire—God is love. The combination of great power and great restraint, and, indeed, the combination of opposite qualities and uses generally, is well known in the ordinary arrangements of civilised life and the daily operation of the laws of nature. The measure of greatness is the measure of terribleness. What is constructiveness but the beneficent side of destructiveness? The fire that warms the chamber when properly regulated, will, if abused, reduce the proudest palaces to ashes. The river, which softens and refreshes the landscape, if allowed to escape its banks, may devastate the most fruitful fields. The engine, which is swiftly bearing the laughing child to his longed-for home, will, if mismanaged, occasion the most terrible havoc. The lightning, which may be caught and utilised by genius and skill, can burn the forest, and strike armies blind. We are familiar with such illustrations of united opposites, and our knowledge of them inspires our enterprise, and attempers with prudence the noble audacity of practical science. In the text we are confronted with the highest expression of the same truth—the mighty God is the Everlasting Father; the terrible One is gentler than the gentlest friend; he who rides in the chariot of the thunder stoops to lead the blind by a way that they know not, and to gather the lambs in his bosom.
In pointing out the terribleness of God it is not intended to appeal to fear, but to support and encourage the most loving confidence in his government We do not say, Be good, or God will crush you; that is not virtue; that is not liberty—it is vice put on its good behaviour—it is iniquity with a sword suspended over its head; it is not even negative goodness; it is mischief put frahors de combat. The great truth to be learned from this aspect of the case Isaiah, that all the terribleness of God is the good mar"s security. When the good man sees God wasting the mountains and the hills, and drying up the rivers, he does not say, "I must worship him, or he will destroy me;" he says, "The beneficent side of that power is all mine; because of that power I am safe; the very lightning is my guardian, and in the whirlwind I hear a pledge of benediction." The good man is delivered from the fear of power; power has become to him an assurance of rest; he says, "My Father has infinite resources of judgment, and every one of them is to my trusting heart a signal of unsearchable riches of mercy."
Look at the doctrine of the text in relation to bad men who pride themselves upon their success and their strength. Daily life has always been a problem to devout wisdom. Virtue has often been crushed out of the front rank. Vice has forced its way to pre-eminence. The praying man has often to kneel upon the cold stones; the profane man has often walked upon velvet. These are the commonplaces of daily study upon the affairs of men. The doctrine of the text is that there is a power beyond man"s and that nothing is held safely which is not held by consent of that power. Think of wealth as a mountain, or of social position as a hill: God says, "I will make waste mountains and hills;" our greatness is nothing to him; our mountain smokes when he touches it, and our rock melts at his presence. All our gain, our honour, our standing should be looked at in the light of this solemn doctrine. We are not at liberty to exclude the destructive power of God from our practical theology. We have not to make a God, to fancy a God, or to propose a modification of a suggested God—God is before us, in his might, his glory, his love, and we have to acquaint ourselves with him. God is not to be described in parts; he is to be comprehended in the unity of his character. A child describing the lightning might say, "It was beautiful, so bright, and swifter than any flying bird, and so quiet that I could not hear it as it passed through the air;" this would be true. A tree might say, "It was awful, it tore off branches that had been growing for a hundred years, it rent me in twain down to the very root, and no summer can ever recover me—I am left here to die;" this also would be true. So with Almighty God: he is terrible in power, making nothing of all that man counts strong, yet he will not break the bruised reed nor quench the smoking flax. Men are bound to be as common-sense in their theology as they are in the ordinary works of life, and in building character they are to be at least as forethoughtful and sagacious as in building their houses of stone. How do we conduct our arrangements in building a house? Suppose that it were possible for a man never to have seen any season but summer, and suppose such a man called upon to advise in the erection of a building: you can imagine his procedure; everything is to be light, because he never heard a high wind; water-pipes may be exposed, for he never felt the severity of frost; the most flimsy roof will be sufficient, for he knows nothing of the great rains of winter and spring. Tell such a man that the winds will become stormy, that the rivers will be chilled into ice, that his windows will be blinded with snow, and that floods will beat upon his roof, and if he is a wise man he will say, "I must not build for one season, but for all seasons; I must not build for fine days, but for days that will be tempestuous; I must, as far as possible, prepare for the most inclement and trying weather." That is simple common sense. Why be less sensible in building a character than in building a house? We build our bricks for severity as well as for sunshine, why build our characters with less care? If in summer we think about the frost, why not in prosperity have some thought for adversity? If in July we prepare for December, why not in the flattering hour of exultation think of the judgment that is at once infallible and irresistible? As he would be infinitely foolish who should build his house without thinking of the natural forces that will try its strength, so is he cursed with insanity who builds his character without thinking of the fire with which God will try every man"s work of what sort it is.
Is not the same truth illustrated by every ship upon the great waters? The child who has only sailed his paper boat on the edge of a placid lake, might wonder what was wanted with enormous beams and bars of iron, innumerable bolts and screws, and clasps and bars of metal, in making a ship: ask the sailer, and he will answer; he says we must be prepared for something more than calm days, we must look ahead, the breakers will try us, the winds will put us to the test, we may come upon an unknown rock, we must be prepared for the worst as well as for the best. We call this prudence. We condemn its omission. We applaud its observance. What of men who attempt the stormy and treacherous waters of life without having had any regard to the probable dangers of the voyage? This is not fervent declamation. In thus putting the case we claim the credit which is due to correct analogy and conclusive argument. We prepare for the severe side of Nature—why ignore the severe aspect of God? We think of fire in building our houses—why forget it in building our character? On one side of our life we are constantly on the outlook for danger—why forget it where the destiny of the soul is concerned? When a man builds his house or his ship strongly, we do not say that he is the victim of fear; we never think of calling him a fanatic; we rather say that he is a cautious and even scientific man: Song of Solomon, when I make appeal to the severity of God—to his fire, his sword, his destroying tempests and floods—I am not preaching the mere terrors of the Lord, as if I would move by alarm, rather than persuade by love; I am simply faithful to facts—I am reminding you that God is not less complete than the seasons which he has made, and bidding them, in the summer of his mercies, not to forget the winter of his judgments!
The Song of Solomon -called success of the bad man has yet to stand the strain of divine trial. God will go through our money to see if it has been honestly obtained. He will search our reputation, and our hypocrisy will not be able to conceal the reality of the case from his all-seeing eye. He will examine our title-deeds, and if we have ill-gotten property, he will set the universe against us, until we restore it with penitence or have it wrenched out of our keeping by retributive misfortune. Yea, though our strength be as a mountain, it shall be wasted; though it be as a hill, it shall be blown away, and the world shall see how poorly they build who build only for the light and quietness of summer. Do not say the winter is long in coming; it will come, and that is the one fact which should move our concern and bring us to wisdom. In these days, when the world is in a constant panic, when men are over-driving one another, when commerce has been turned into gambling, and sharp-shooters pass as honest men, it is needful that we all remind ourselves that God will judge the people righteously, and try all men by the test of his own holiness. Remember, we are not stronger than our weakest point, and that true wisdom binds us to watch even the least gate that is insufficient or insecure.
Look at the doctrine of the text as an encouragement to all men who work under the guidance of God. "I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not: I will lead them in paths that they have not known: I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight." God thus declares himself gentle to those who truly need him. He promises nothing to the self-sufficient; he promises much to the needy. The text shows the principle upon which divine help is given to men—the principle of conscious need and of willingness to be guided. Let a man say, "I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing," and God will leave him to his proud sufficiency; let him, on the other hand, feel his weakness and insignificance, and God will bless him with all the help which he requires in the most difficult passages of his. life. A true apprehension of this doctrine will give us a new view of daily providences—viz, that men who are apparently most destitute may in reality be most richly enjoying the blessings of God. Clearly, we are not to judge human life by outward conditions. We are not to overlook the beneficent law of compensation. Those who apparently have least may in reality have most. Who can tell what visions of himself God grants to men who cannot see his outward works? Blindness may not be merely so much defect, it may be but another condition of happiness. Who can say that it does not bring the soul so much nearer God? Be that as it may, it is plainly taught in the text that God undertakes to lead all men who will yield themselves to his guidance, and that their defects, instead of being a hindrance, are, in reality, the express conditions on which offers of divine help are founded. It is because we are blind that he will lead us. It is because we are weak that he will carry us. It is because we have nothing that he offers to give us all things. God, addressing himself to human weakness, is the complement of God wasting mountains and hills; God, shedding the morning dew on awaking flowers, is the complement of God affrighting the earth with tempests and vexing the sea with storms. There is an unsearchable depth of pathos in the doctrine that God is gentle to human weakness, and that he will make up with his own hands what is wanting in human faculty. Strong men seldom care for the weak, the blind are put on one side, the incapable are dismissed with impatience; but here is God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, taking the blind man"s hand and leading him like a child specially beloved!
Thus it is clear that self-sufficiency on the part of man is an offence to God; not only Song of Solomon, it is a vexation to man himself. All efforts at completeness and independence of strength end in mortification. Towards one another we are to be self-reliant; towards God we are to be humble, dependent, all-trustful. How infinite is our folly in seeking to remove, by our own power, the mountains and hills that bar our way! God says he will remove them for us; why should we turn away his mighty arm? He claims such work as his own; why should we meddle with it as if we could do it better than he? But some of us will meddle: we persist in seeking omnipotence in our own hands, and trying to reach the tone which winds and seas obey. We will do it. The devil urges us, and we yield. He says, "Be your own God," and we snatch at the suggestion as a prize. He says, "This little mountain you might surely manage to remove;" and then we set to work with pickaxe and shovel, and lo, the mountain grows as we strike it! Still the tempter says, "It stands to reason that you must be making some impression upon it; try again;" and we try again, and again we fail—the mountain does not know us, the rock resents our intrusion, and having wasted our strength, the devil laughs at our impotence, and tells us in bitter mockery that we shall do better next time! Yes! Next time—next time—and then next time—and then hell! Gad says to us, when we stand at the foot of great hills and mountains, "I will beat them into dust, I will scatter the dust to the winds; there shall be a level path for your feet, if you will but put your trust in me." That is a sublime offer. No man who has heard it ought to feel himself at liberty to act as if God had not made a proposition to him. And such propositions ought to endear God to our hearts. Here he is beside us, before us, round about us, to help, to lead, to bless us in every way: not a figure in the distant clouds, not an occasional appearance under circumstances that dazzle and confound us, but always at our right hand, always within reach of our prayer, always putting out his hand when we come to dangerous places. As a mere conception of God, this reaches the point of sublimity. The coarsest mind might dream of God"s infinite majesty, but only the richest quality of heart could have discovered him in the touch of gentleness and the service of condescension. Let us make such use of this revelation of the divine character as will save us from turning our theology into the chief terror of our lives. Their theology Isaiah, indeed, to some men a frightful spectre. They would be happier if they were atheists. They fitfully slumber on the slopes of a volcano, and to them heaven itself is but the less of two evils. Behold! Behold! I call you to a God whose very terribleness may be turned into an assurance of security, and whose love is infinite, unchanging, eternal!
Men of business! ye whose barns are full, whose rivers overflow, on whose estates the sun has written "Prosperity," and into whose garners autumn has forced the richest of her golden sheaves! Know ye that these things are all gifts of God, and that he who gave them can also withdraw them? "I will destroy and devour at once—I will dry up all their herbs." He has right of way through our fields and orchards; our vineyards and oliveyards are his, and he can blow upon them till they wither, and cause their blossom to go up like the dust. "I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay-tree. Yet he passed away, and, lo, he was not: yea, I sought him, but he could not be found." Not a fibre of his root could be discovered. Not so much as a withered leaf drifted into a ditch could be traced. All gone—the great branches gone—the bark gone—the trunk gone—the root gone—and the very name had perished from the recollection of men! It is poor prosperity that is not held by God"s favour. Gold goes a little way if it be not sanctified by prayer and giving of thanks. Bread cannot satisfy, unless it be broken by God"s hands. Our fields may look well at night, but in the morning they may have been trampled by an invisible destroyer. Do not say that I am urging you by fear; it is because of coming winter that I advise men to build strongly, and it is because of inevitable judgment that I call upon men to walk in the light of righteousness in all the transactions of life.
Children of God! especially those who are called to suffering and weakness and great unrest because of manifold defect, God offers you his hand. Are you blind? He says, I will lead the blind. Are you full of care? He says, Let me carry your burden. Are you in sorrow? He says, Call upon me in the day of trouble, and I will answer thee. Is there a very steep road before you at this moment—in business, in your family, in your responsibilities? He says, I will make waste mountains and hills, and the rough places shall be made plain. So you are not alone—not alone, for the Father is with you. He is with you as a father, not to try your strength, but to increase it; not to make experiments upon you, but to magnify his grace in you by working out for you a wonderful redemption. Rest on God. His arm, not your own, must be your strength. Fear God, and no other fear shall ever trouble you.
Let us pray; let us pray with our whole heart, and the terrible God will show us the fulness of his mercy:—Almighty God, clothed with thunder, and carrying with thee the lightning which makes men tremble with great fear, we have heard that thou canst make waste mountains and hills, and shake the foundations of the earth; we have heard also of thy lovingkindness and tender mercy, and our souls have hoped in thy grace. We bless thee that in Christ Jesus, our only and ever sufficient Saviour, even thy terrors are blessings, and the multitude of thy mighty works show how immeasurably profound is thy love. When thou tearest, thou dost bind up again; when thou castest down thy people, it is that thou mayest surprise and gladden them by unlooked-for exaltation. Thou hast thy way in the whirlwind, and the clouds are the dust of thy feet. Thy chariots are twenty thousand, even thousands of thousands, yet thou stoopest to take up the weary lamb, and to revive the heart of thy children. Though thou canst thunder in thy universe until all beings pause in the silence of fear, yet canst thou speak to desponding men in a still small voice, and heal them with the gentlest comfort. We desire to know thee in all the revealed aspects of thy nature, and to walk before thee with the carefulness of reverence and the joy of love. Thou art our refuge and strength; thou art our shield and buckler; thou givest grace and glory; thou comest to us in the snows of winter and in the tender buddings of the spring; thou temperest judgment with mercy. May the meditation in which we have engaged subdue us, yet cheer our hearts as with renewed hope! May thy servants fear thee, O great King; may thy saints rejoice in thee, O gracious Father! We quail before thy power, we are made glad by thy love; may we rejoice with trembling! Specially draw our tenderest affections to the Cross of the dying Saviour. In that Cross we see how wonderful is thy righteousness, and how boundless is thy love. It reveals to us the terribleness of the law, and shows to us the source and sufficiency of the Gospel; we would abide at the Cross, so mournful, yet so full of hope, until we abhor our sin, and become partakers of thy holiness. Blessed One, Life of all life, and Glory of all light, Creator, Father, Saviour, complete in us the hallowed mystery of redemption by the Cross. Amen.
Almighty God, we are thine, and not another"s; thou dost own us wholly. Thou hast said in thy book, All souls are mine. Thou hast created us, and not we ourselves; we are the work of thy hands; thine image is upon us; thou wilt not forsake those whom thou hast formed. We have natural claims upon thee, and these thou wilt not reject; thou wilt honour them; thou art honouring them by daily providence, by minutest care, by most patient forbearance, by ineffable gentleness. But thou hast also come to us in our condition as sinners, rebellious, disloyal souls, that have cast off the sceptre of Christ and prayed for another dominion. Thou hast redeemed us with the precious blood of Christ; thou canst not, wilt not, give us up. Turn ye, turn ye, why will ye die? is the question of thy love. Thou hast established amongst us the Cross of thy Son; above the superscription of Pilate thou hast written, Herein is love. We would come to the Cross, tell thee of all our sin, ask thee to burn it out of us, not with judgment but with love, and to heal us—O mystery of healing—by the blood of Jesus Christ thy Son. Thou knowest that we have to pass through the water and through the fire, thou knowest the heat of the one and the violence of the other; but they are all under thy control, loving, mighty, saving Father. So why care we? For what should we care? There is but one Almighty, we need no other. Into thy hands we fall; in thy hands we rest; under thy providence we shall grow and be established, and our purposes in Christ shall be consummated. Dry our tears, many and hot; save us from fear; from dejection, from despair; bless us with the inspiration and confidence of hope, and with the strength of men whose trust is in the living God. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Isaiah 42". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://beta.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24