Panics and Answers
These chapters are, for popular purposes, practically sealed books. It would be difficult to say with definiteness what they mean. The instances referred to are all of high antiquity, and the immediate local reference would be of little interest to the majority of men, even if it could be determined specifically and finally. We must, therefore, study the two chapters with the view of discovering what we may that is applicable to our own experience, that falls into harmony with our own consciousness; and with a desire to apply what we may find with a strong and fearless hand to all the necessities which may arise in our own lives and experience.
It is wonderful how amongst the most ancient writings we come ever and anon upon words which we seem to know—words which are quite modern in their meaning, and immediate in all their significance and application. For example, we have an instance ( Isaiah 7:1) which fairly typifies the many threatenings which have been directed against the city of God. We hear of men, be their names what they may, who "went up toward Jerusalem to war against it, but could not prevail against it." The sentence thus divides itself easily into the two parts which are always making themselves so obvious to our own inspection and perusal of history. The men went up to Jerusalem "to war against it." Had the statement ended there we should have said, They were strong men, they were confederated men; they had studied the problem well from a military point of view, and no doubt Jerusalem was crushed by their oppressive hand. How many persons do really terminate a report at a comma, and say, Have you heard what an attack has been made upon Christian doctrine, upon the Christian Church, upon the very idea of God? But that is a poor report to give; the inquiry is wholly misleading. Yet how often the sentence terminates in the inquiry! A new book is issued which is supposed to be very able in its argument, and most copious in its references; and people say in alarm, Have you heard that another assault has been made upon a Christian stronghold? What of it? The stronghold is still there; the men who inhabit it are looking quietly out of the windows, and wondering at the poor fools who are bruising their hands against the eternal granite. State the whole case. What vital Christian doctrine has been successfully assailed? The most brilliant lectures have been directed against the theological Jerusalem; men of riotous genius and power of expression have come up to laugh at God"s Jerusalem; but that must not be the whole statement which we make. Continue the verse as we find it, and we shall read, "but could not prevail against it." Now we have a complete history. And this exactly represents the whole course of assault as directed against the Jerusalem of truth. This must be always so. "We can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth": clever arguments, witty retorts, brilliant repartees, criticisms that dazzle by their brightness and exasperate by their acerbity, come and go, and Jerusalem stands, sunlit, fair, invincible.
Then, proceeding to the second verse, we have an instance of the many panics into which the city of God has been needlessly thrown. When the news was told to the house of David, saying, Syria leans upon Ephraim, or Syria is confederated with Ephraim, the two are one, the heart of Ahaz "was moved, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind." And yet the true Davidic spirit that was within Jerusalem felt no flutter of panic. The Spirit of the indwelling God is not represented even by the men who inhabit Jerusalem: they are of the flesh, their days are a handful, they are quailing under great infirmity, they are disturbed by something within themselves, and all this concurring with an outward untowardness of circumstance, eventuates in panic, in heart-fluttering, in heart-melting, so that even strong men say, Alas! what shall we do in face of this tremendous confederacy? God is the keeper of Jerusalem. The battle is not yours, but God"s. It is sad indeed when standard-bearers faint, and when those who keep look-out from the city towers begin to announce what they see in a voice of trembling, as if their hearts had been smitten with dismay; but God is King in Zion, the Lord reigneth; these men themselves are better than their fears; when they come really to reflect upon all the circumstances, they will say, "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea": the panic is for a moment, the fluttering is a passing spasm; but the faith—the deep, solemn, living confidence—asserts itself in the long-run, and there is great quietness even though Rezin and Pekah thunder at the gates of the city. It is pitiful to see how many men give way under panic. There is only need to publish a book of blatant heterodoxy, and some persons will begin to fear that the ark of the Lord has been taken, and that the altar has been torn down stone by stone, so that not even the foundation is left. Such people have no true grasp of God; they have never known the mysterious joy of identification with God, such as is suggested by the words: We live, and move, and have our being in God. The Church, in her true conception of election and vocation, can be no more troubled than God himself can be distressed. When she detaches herself from the sovereignty of God, and looks upon herself as a merely human institution, subsisting upon covenants that are frangible and that admit of many different interpretations, she will be the sport of every wind, the laughing-stock of every new folly; but when the Church says, I am in God, I live in God, without him I have no life, I can do nothing of myself, I am as the branch in the living vine, I look to God,—then she can no more be disconcerted, driven back, and ruined, than the eternal throne can shake because of the little winds that scourge themselves into gales, and disturb the brickwork of our common civilisation. Do we live in God? Are we enclosed with him in his sanctuary? Are the everlasting arms around us?
Then, proceeding further, we find an instance in which the only comforting answer could come from God:—
"Then said the Lord unto Isaiah, Go forth now to meet Ahaz, thou, and Shear-jashub thy Song of Solomon, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller"s field; and say unto him, Take heed, and be quiet; fear not, neither be fainthearted for the two tails of these smoking firebrands, for the fierce anger of Rezin with Syria, and of the son of Remaliah. Because Syria, Ephraim, and the son of Remaliah, have taken evil counsel against thee, saying, Let us go up against Judah, and vex it, and let us make a breach therein for us, and set a king in the midst of it, even the son of Tabeal: thus saith the Lord God, It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass. For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin; and within threescore and five years shall Ephraim be broken, that it be not a people. And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is Remaliah"s son. If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established." ( Isaiah 7:3-9)
There is a point in human history at which God comes in, takes up the whole occasion, and rules it himself, saying, as it were, with ineffable gentleness, You cannot imagine this; a business so complicated is too hard for you; stand back, I will undertake for thee, O threatened Zion. Song of Solomon, "Then said the Lord unto Isaiah ------" There is always some man to send, some man of purged lips, some man fire-touched, who will face the occasion under the inspiration and comfort of the Paraclete. Here, as ever, human ministry is employed to carry out divine purposes. Then here is a man sent of God so confident that he becomes contemptuous of the opposition. Isaiah said unto the king: "Be quiet; fear not, neither be fainthearted for the two tails of these smoking firebrands." The figure is that of two torches that have been burned down to the root, and nothing is left of them but smoke; the fire is nearly out, and a little wreath of smoke expresses the strength of these two firebrands. The contempt which Righteousness can assume is a terrible sarcasm. When Judgment laughs, the laugh is spectral and heartshaking; it sends a sense of dismay into the innermost parts of the spirit: when God laughs at our calamity, our calamity is multiplied by infinity.
"... for the fierce anger of Rezin with Syria, and of the son of Remaliah." Here is another touch of irony or scorn. Why was Pekah not mentioned by name? Because he was an upstart, an adventurer, a man who had no right to the throne; therefore he is shaken off the prophet"s hand as "the son of Remaliah." Contempt of this kind is common in the Holy Scriptures: Saul is sometimes spoken of as "the son of Kish"; David himself was spoken of sometimes unrighteously and cruelly simply as "the son of Jesse"; and now Pekah is not even mentioned by name, some ancestor is brought up to lend him a moment"s respectability, and he is spat upon under his father"s name. God will have those in derision who set their shoulders against his throne for the purpose of overturning it. An awful expression is that—"The Lord shall have them in derision"; he will say to them, Do your utmost: let me see your fine writhing; show me the trick of your white agony; what can you do against the Eternal? Then will he laugh, and they cannot answer; he will deride, and they shall be burned by the heat of his scorn.
Then there is a divine counterblast—"It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass" ( Isaiah 7:7). That is the word upon which the Church relies. The Church does not expect to meet those who oppose it in the strength of her own genius, or because of the abundance and exactness of her own erudition; she hands the case over to God; she says, The heathen have raged, and the people have imagined a vain thing: send thou thy reply from the sanctuary; yea, answer them out of Zion. When we say, "The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh see it together," we must continue, and say, "for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it." We are living upon a divine assurance, standing upon a divine promise; if we are deceived, we have been deceived by the name of God; we have not yielded to some cunningly-devised fable; our humanity has been victimised by the false use of the only glorious Name. But until that has been proved, we abide in the covenant; we refer to the letter and to the testimony, and our proofs are a thousand strong to every enemy that assails Jerusalem.
Ahaz, however, was a mixed character. He has been convicted in history of being an idolater as well as a professor of the true religion. He was therefore the representative of double-mindedness, a halting between two opinions, that double-minded-ness which is unstable, and which cannot excel. Probably Isaiah, marking the workings of his countenance under the delivery of this communication, saw signs of fear, doubt, hesitancy: the king did not spring at the word with access of energy and with the confidence of inspiration; so the prophet, quick to detect all facial signs, blessed with the insight that follows the spirit in all its withdrawment, said instantly, "If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established." God works through human faith. The Saviour himself said again and again, "What wilt thou?" "Believest thou that I am able to do this?" Miracles are not thrown away upon unbelief, or are not worked for the purpose of gratifying curiosity; they are the answers to faith: if the age of miracles has ceased it is because the age of faith has vanished. Isaiah thus delivered his prophecy and acquitted his conscience. This Isaiah, indeed, all that men can sometimes do. The preacher must retire from his position with a cold heart, saying, My only solace is that I have delivered thy word; as for its music, it has been lost upon deaf ears; the dead have not heard it, and the living have been as dead men.
This is all generic, common to human history in some form or relation; now let us notice two or three remarkable expressions that probably occur nowhere else but in connection with this period of Biblical antiquity.
In Isaiah 8:14 there is one announced whose name is to be called "Immanuel." The prophets made history by anticipating it; they projected themselves across the centuries and sunned themselves in the dawn of a new day. It would be altogether forcing the immediate prophecy beyond its meaning if we considered that Isaiah saw nothing but the day of Christ looming in the distant tuture. There have always been men in society who have represented the coming One—shall we say, sub-Christs; Christs in type, symbol, shadow; peculiarly-minded men, partly of earth, mainly of heaven; mysterious men, who have had power of prayer, who have worsted angels in the night-time, and wrung from them victories expressed in new names and larger titles; singular, eccentric men, not to be enumerated with others or classified in plurals; solitary men. One of these Isaiah saw. It might have been his own son. But the larger meaning is only to be found in Christ. The article itself is definite; we are entitled to read—not, "Behold, a virgin shall conceive," but—"Behold, the virgin shall conceive,"—the Virgin Mother: the beginning of a new history; the second Adam; the larger Paradise never to be forfeited. All these ideas in some form or under some colour are in the passage, though its immediate meaning must not be unduly forced.
Then, according to Isaiah 7:18, "the Lord shall hiss for the fly that is in the uttermost part of the rivers of Egypt." The hosts of Egypt were represented by the flies which all but darkened the air of that country at times, and the Lord should blow upon them—make a kind of whistling noise in their ears. "... And for the bee that is in the land of Assyria"—the innumerable bees that swarm in the forests and on the hills of Assyria: the Lord should whistle, or make a sibilant sound, as if calling the bees away to swarm elsewhere. He would not lift up his hand to smite: a hiss, a sibilance, a whisper—behold, they have all fled! Commit thy way unto the Lord; let him treat your enemies: though an host should encamp against thee, in this be confident, that God is on thy side; that his word Isaiah, "No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper." "When a man"s ways please the Lord, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him." Live in that confidence, and when Egypt and Assyria come as swarming flies and innumerable bees, God will make a sound in his heaven that will alarm them, or withdraw them, or cause them to die of fear.
More than this:—
"In the same day shall the Lord shave with a rasor that is hired" ( Isaiah 7:20).
Ahaz thought by paying tribute to Assyria he was hiring an ally; the Lord said, You are not by your tribute engaging an ally, you are hiring a rasor, and that rasor shall shave you from head to foot, yea it shall not spare the beard; and to touch with a rasor the beard of the Oriental was to consummate all outrage, was to render reconciliation impossible. Have we not sometimes thought we were hiring allies when we have only been hiring a rasor? Can Israel have dealings with the uncongenial, the unfraternal, the spiritually alien, without suffering for the false contact, the vicious alliance, at some time or in some way? You thought you were buying an ally when you were only hiring a rasor by which you were to be rendered naked and made contemptible.
"It shall come to pass in that day, that a man shall nourish a young cow, and two sheep" ( Isaiah 7:21).
Two ewes and a heifer shall be the property of him who was once a flockmaster! He who had a thousand heifers, and ewes without number, shall have to number his property as "a young cow and two sheep."
More! The irony grows:—
"And it shall come to pass, for the abundance of milk that they shall give he shall eat butter: for butter and honey shall every one eat that is left in the land" ( Isaiah 7:22).
So does God make our poverty an irony. Our flocks shall be reduced, and yet so miserable shall be the general state of affairs that to have two ewes and one heifer will be to have plenty of milk and plenty of butter. How the Lord can change the face of society!
"And it shall come to pass in that day, that every place shall be, where there were a thousand vines at a thousand silverlings, it shall even be for briers and thorns" ( Isaiah 7:23).
The vines were so abundant that men had scarcely to be at the trouble of gathering the fruit which was grown; they had but to put out their hands to fill them; and the time shall come when a thousand vines shall be for a thousand silverlings, and the vineyard shall be knotted, and entangled, and debased by briers and thorns; the ground once so fruitful shall be taken possession of by the meanest growths, and they shall so entwist themselves into the ground and into one another that ploughing shall be rendered impossible, and the fruitful hill shall be as a heap of stones! "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." "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." When thou, O Lord, dost arise to shake terribly the earth, what are our vines against thine anger? and as for our flocks, do they not fly before God"s thunder? Our only riches are spiritual; our only confidence is moral; if we are right with God, then we shall be right with nature, and our joy shall be full, because we have accepted the reconciliation which has been wrought out for us by the Son of God.
Still the promise lies in the distance:—
"Moreover the Lord said unto me, Take thee a great roll, and write in it with a man"s pen concerning Maher-shalal-hash-baz" ( Isaiah 8:1).
Write it in no minute microscopical hand which only the learned can read, but take plenty of parchment, let the scroll be broad, and take up a workman"s pencil, broad at the point, and write, "Maher-shalal-hash-baz," big enough that almost the blind can see it. God hath large print in some of his books. Verily, he can write a small hand too, which men only can see through the microscope of tears. Sometimes the Lord"s judgments are "abroad" in the earth, and sometimes they work with subtlety that cannot be valued by human criticism. What does Mahershalal-hash-baz mean? Speed-plunder, haste-spoil: the man shall arise who will do God"s judgments, and do them with earnestness, alacrity, precision, completeness. How the prophet lives in the future! There is always a Child to be born who will advance the kingdom of God. Do not believe that the ages have seen their greatest birth. Even Jesus Christ when he went away said: If I go away, I will send a Comforter, even the Paraclete, who shall abide with you for ever. The greatest births will be found by-and-by to be spiritual births—new conceptions of God; new in the sense of being larger, juster, more pregnant with joy and promise. Christianity has to deal with the future. The Lord Jesus Christ made but few references to the past, but he did make some, and they were distinct and solid; but his eyes were set towards the coming Sun, the coming Kingdom, his own return, not as a man that could be seen, but as an inspiration and a sovereignty felt in every mind and heart, and owned by all who should come under its gracious and redeeming and sanctifying touch. But if we refuse we shall have to answer for it in judgment:—
"Forasmuch as this people refuseth the waters of Shiloah that go softly, and rejoice in Rezin and Remaliah"s son; now therefore, behold, the Lord bringeth up upon them the waters of the river, strong and many, even the king of Assyria, and all his glory: and he shall come up over all his channels and go over all his banks: and he shall pass through Judah; he shall overflow and go over, he shall reach even to the neck; and the stretching out of his wings shall fill the breadth of thy land, O Immanuel" ( Isaiah 8:6-8).
The choice is with ourselves. If we refuse gracious ministries we must encounter judicial judgment; if we will not allow the goodness of God to lead us to repentance, we must accept the criticism of God in anger, and yet in holy justice; if we cannot be lured we shall be driven; if we will not fall upon the stone and be broken, the stone will fall upon us and grind us to powder. God first tries gentle ministries, kind words, and loving speeches, entreating, importuning gospels; but there will come a time when his Spirit will no longer strive with men—then cometh the judgment; and then human speech had better halt, for it has no words worthy of that visitation.
Then comes the grand appeal:—
"To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them" ( Isaiah 8:20).
A very singular expression this. The reference is not to some written book, as is generally supposed; the passage is often quoted as an authority for resting everything upon Scripture; there is no doubt that the words may be used in that sense by express accommodation, but not by literal criticism. The appeal is to the law and to the testimony written in our own hearts by the finger of God: let conscience speak; let reason, unprejudiced and unperverted, utter her voice; let human consciousness be a divine witness. How this enlarges the scope of God"s claim upon mankind! Not only is there a Book written with pen and ink, which we delight to believe to be the work of inspiration, but there is a book written within the human heart, upon the human heart. Even the heathen are a law unto themselves. God hath not left himself without witness in any land. This is the appeal which the Christian minister must make to all people in all countries, namely, Let your hearts speak; let your innermost, uppermost reason utter its verdict; be solemn, be true to your own best instincts, and answer this appeal from the Book of God. The image is beautiful, yea, exquisite. The Book speaks broadly and lovingly; and having ceased it would seem to wait for human consciousness, as expressed in conscience, reason, judgment, experience, to give its verdict. Take the case of Jesus Christ. Some one asked him: "Master, which is the great commandment in the law?" And he answered him; and one in the crowd said, "Well, Master, thou hast said the truth; for to love God and to love your neighbour is the whole law:" that is the voice, so to say, of independent judgment, reason, even of moral instinct. So the appeal must be addressed to every man"s own innermost nature. Come, what say you? Are you right? or are you wrong? Can you defend yourselves completely, and defy God to prove you to be wicked? Or do your hearts condemn themselves? Do you put your hand upon your mouth, and lay your head upon your sobbing breast, and say, The law of the Lord is right; I am born in sin, and shapen in iniquity; in sin my mother conceived me; I am not righteous, no, not in one point: God be merciful to me, a sinner? That would be the right answer to the divine appeal. Blessed is he who gives it, and works it out in practical piety!
"Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"Should not a people seek unto their God? for the living to the dead?"— Isaiah 8:19
Isaiah was surrounded by people who could not rid themselves of the delusion that they ought to consult the soothsayers. In Isaiah"s time soothsayers were numerous and popular. Why should they not be consulted as to the fortunes awaiting themselves and others? What were soothsayers for if they were not to be consulted? Thus the supply has a very definite bearing upon the demand. When we have opportunities why should we not avail ourselves of them? The soothsayer can do us no harm if he can do us no good, therefore why not consult him? This is the vicious reasoning of the vain heart. To all such reasoning Isaiah would oppose great doctrines that men should seek unto their God, and seek only for such knowledge is is good for them. It has been pointed out that the latter part of the question is abruptly elliptical; probably it ought to be read thus: "Are men to seek on behalf of the living to the dead?" Isaiah was no believer in spirit-rapping. He asks why the dead should be recalled. He seems to suggest that even if they were recalled they would know no more than the living. Possibly they might not know so much. Isaiah seems to regard the state of the departed not as one of annihilation, but of dormant powers or powers partially disabled, powers that might be revived so as to be made use of in the calculation of human fortune. Isaiah sets himself against all appeals to the dead on behalf of the living. Does the prophet leave the people without a court of appeal? He not only directs them to the living God, but he points "to the law and to the testimony." By this; we are to understand the word of Jehovah which was actually spoken to the prophet himself. Isaiah was conscious of being in immediate and vital contact with the Source of life and power, and as he stood before the people he stood as an embodied revelation. Revelation brings with it conscious identification with God. When a man is speaking what may be called the greater truth, or the truth in its larger relations, he is perfectly aware that he is not speaking out of his own vanity but out of knowledge that has been spiritually communicated to him. Isaiah would have the people turn to this Revelation, whether written or whether personified. He would have all soothsayers and. all their victims tested by the higher standard. If there is any light in them they will speak according to the word of God, and if they speak otherwise it is because they have mistaken darkness for light. Probably men will be driven from their soothsaying and other vanities to the true law. The prophet would seem to argue that men will come to the true revelation when all other sources of supposed information and inspiration are closed against them. When men look up into heaven and there is no light, and round them upon the earth and there is no dawn, when they wait for the coming of the sun in heaven, and when through all the darkness they can see no shining of the stars, then Isaiah would seem to say they will turn to the word and to the testimony, that Isaiah, to the true revelation of God. No man need be in any difficulty as to duty, as to the course of right, as to the discharge of all his highest responsibilities; the Bible, whatever else may be said about it or even in disparagement of it, utters no uncertain sound as to the culture of the soul and the obedience of the whole life to the divine sovereignty. If men say they are willing to receive light if they could only get it, they are deceiving themselves so long as the Bible lies unopened, unread, or unappreciated. Everything needful for the salvation of the soul, the culture of the spirit, and the most blessed destiny of the life, is revealed in the volume which we hold to be inspired. We are to test all prophets by this book. We are not to be deceived by the glamour of their poetry, or by the passion of their rhetoric; we are to test everything by the law and by the testimony. Thus the soul is pointed in the direction of sureness and is led into the sanctuary of rational as well as pious contentment. We are not to dwell upon isolated texts, or upon out-of-the-way words and phrases; we are to judge everything not by some partial text but by the entire spirit of the Bible. That spirit is symbolic of light, charity, all manner of spiritual greatness; nothing that is little, mean, contracted, or contemptible is endorsed or sanctioned by the word of the living God. The age needs to be continually cautioned against the quotation of texts or the citation of passages torn from their surroundings. Above all things, learn that there is a Biblical spirit as well as a Biblical letter.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Isaiah 8". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://beta.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26