Great Texts of the Bible
The Making of a Missionary
In the year that king Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. And the foundations of the thresholds were moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts. Then flew one of the seraphim unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he touched my mouth with it, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged. And I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then I said, Here am I send me.—Isaiah 6:1-8.
This chapter is one of the most important in the history of revelation. Like a picture of wonderful beauty and subtle suggestion, it will repay repeated and careful study. The great words of the chapter are heard and spoken in vision, but they cannot be called visionary in any shallow sense; they are intensely practical, they contain the prophet’s call, they give the keynote of his life, and sum up in a few striking sentences the spirit and purpose of his ministry. The vision shows us how Isaiah became a prophet, and gives the secret of his strong, consistent career in the words, “Mine eyes have seen the King.”
The passage is particularly rich in material for the expositor and the preacher. Although it will be taken Here as a single great text, there is enough for a sermon in every verse of it, enough sometimes in a part of a verse. It has received many titles. The most popular title is, “The Making of a Prophet.” Perhaps that title should be enlarged now into “The Making of a Missionary,” letting it be understood, however, that the word “missionary” means anyone who is sent to do any work for God.
The passage is easily and almost inevitably divided into three parts—
1. A Vision of God, Isaiah 6:1-4.
2. A Vision of Self, Isaiah 6:5-7.
3. A Vision of Duty, Isaiah 6:8.
A Vision of God
There is an essential difference between the prophets of early times and the writing prophets. That difference is that the latter are conscious of an express call, at a definite moment, by Jehovah to their office. We have not an actual account of this in the case of all of them, but its preciseness in the case of five justifies our assuming that from the time of Amos onwards a similar call was experienced by all true prophets of Jehovah. The call to be a prophet surprised Amos in the midst of occupations of a wholly different kind—Jehovah took him from the herd. According to Hosea 1:2 the commencement of Hosea’s prophetic ministry was contemporaneous with his recognition that Jehovah intended even the prophet’s unhappy experiences in his married life to be a reflection of Israel’s relation to Himself. Isaiah records a vision that he had in the year King Uzziah died, when the Divine commission was given him to drive the people by his message into ever-increasing obduracy. Attempts have been made to explain this vision—the only one in Isaiah—as simply the literary garb invented for inward reflections and conflicts, so that the prophet’s own determination would take the place of an express Divine call. But all such attempts are shattered by the earnest terms of the narrative, which will not permit us to think but of a real occurrence. The very same is the impression we receive from Jeremiah’s record of his call in the thirteenth year of Josiah. Quite remarkable there is the emphasis laid (Isaiah 1:5) on the choice and consecration of Jeremiah to the prophetic office even before his birth. How could anyone invent a thing of this kind and proclaim it as a word addressed to him by God? But as little could he have added the supplementary invention that he tried to evade the Divine commission (v. 7) by pleading want of skill in speaking, and youth. On the contrary, we must see here an experience the prophet once had which left an ineffaceable impression upon his memory. In the case of Ezekiel, his exact dating of his first vision (Isaiah 1:1-2) by year, month, and day is the pledge that he, too, is conscious that his call to be a prophet (Isaiah 2:3 ff.) was a definite occurrence.1 [Note: E. Kautzsch, in Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible, v. p. 672b.]
The normal mode, says Whitehouse, by which Christian ministers and statesmen have been led to realise their vocation constitutes the most interesting point in their life-story, because it is the turning-point. Among Christian statesmen we would instance the Englishman John Bright and the American Senator Sumner. The case of John Bright is not without its partial parallel to that of Hosea. That of Senator Sumner has been portrayed in Whittier’s immortal verses, beginning—
No trumpet sounded in his ear,
He saw not Sinai’s cloud and flame;
But never yet to Hebrew seer
A clearer voice of duty came.
i. The Occasion of the Vision
“In the year that King Uzziah died.”
There is more than a date given here; there is a great contrast suggested. Prophecy does not chronicle by time, but by experiences, and we have here, as it seems, the cardinal experience of a prophet’s life.
1. Uzziah.—Of all the kings of Israel none had done so much for the nation as King Uzziah, save only David. Solomon’s greatness was largely inherited. He certainly stands a figure more splendid than Uzziah, but not of as great service. Coming to the throne when a lad of sixteen, for more than fifty years Uzziah reigned in Jerusalem wisely and well. Under the guidance of one Zechariah, of whom all we know is this, that he “had understanding in the vision of God,” the youth Uzziah sought the Lord, and as long as he sought the Lord, God made him to prosper. He drove back the Philistines and many another tribe that had encroached upon Israel’s domain, so that his name was spread abroad even to Egypt. At home he was always busy seeing after the welfare of his people. He strengthened Jerusalem with fortified towers, and set up towers for the protection of those in the pastures and plains. Careful about the water supply, he digged many wells. He had husbandmen busied with cattle; and planted vines on the mountain slopes. “He loved husbandry,” we read,—an honest and healthy love that it were well if we could all encourage and exercise. He turned to account the inventions of cunning men. Altogether a man whose name spread far abroad, associated with all that was beneficent and prosperous: “he was marvellously helped,” we are told, “till he was strong.”
But—ah, there comes this black and dreadful “but”—But when he was strong his heart was lifted up to his destruction. There came a day—probably some day of high festival, when he made a feast to the lords and chief captains; and the power of the wine, and the power of a yet more intoxicating flattery, prompted him to a deed that was his ruin. Arrayed in all his splendour the king comes to the Temple and demands in his haughty pride to usurp the authority of the priest, and to burn incense on the altar. The priests, those of them that were valiant men, rose up, and stayed the intruder, king though he was. For a moment Uzziah stood face to face with the priests, the golden censer in his hand, furious at their opposition. Would they lift their hand against the king, and such a king as he? Then suddenly the rage resulted, as it is believed to have done in other cases, in the manifestation of leprosy. Suddenly on that face, flushed in its anger, under the royal crown, spread the ghastly whiteness. He felt that God had smitten him. A king no more; one from whom all men shrank—he went forth from the palace and throne and court. And all the nation spake of him with bated breath, suppressing the very name, “He is a leper.”
2. Isaiah.—Isaiah seems to have spent the whole, or the greater part, of his life in the city of Jerusalem; for many years he was the most remarkable figure, and sometimes the most influential man, in that city. The tribes of Israel had again been broken into discordant division, and Jerusalem was at that time the centre of only a small kingdom; but this man and his band of disciples set at work spiritual influences of greater significance for the higher life of the world. Though the Jerusalem of his day was full of feebleness, folly, and wickedness, we can trace in his teaching the beginnings of a new Jerusalem, Zion, the city of the Great King, which shall not pass away. He was a young man when he saw the vision; as he stood at the opening of his great career he was led to look into the heart of things, and to see the real meaning of his life. Probably it was later in his life when he wrote down this statement for the use of his disciples and the service of the Church. Before he committed it to the care of men who loved him and who would cherish his memory, he had often pondered its meaning and proved its power. He remembered that the decisive moment of his life came in the year of King Uzziah’s death. When the proud, successful king had been brought low by disease, and had passed under the shadow of death, the young patriot was called to see the spiritual temple and the Eternal King. Life is full of change; high rank and worldly success cannot resist the attack of decay and death; how important, then, for the young man to learn that there is an unchanging kingdom, and a King supreme in majesty and righteousness.
Read the memoirs of Isaiah, and you will see how intense and intimate was the part he played in the life and movement of his age. One day you will find him at the Temple, scathing with scornful reprobation the hypocrisy and hollowness of the established ritual of religion. Another time he has taken his stand over against the fashionable promenade of Jerusalem, and as he watches the passing procession of pomp and opulence, built up on the misery and degradation of defenceless poverty, his heart grows hot with honest indignation, and he breaks into impassioned invective against the stream of selfish luxury, as it rolls by with a smiling face and a cruel heart. Again, he forces his way into a meeting of the Privy Council, fearlessly confronts the king and his advisers, denounces the iniquity of a faithless foreign policy, and sternly demands its abandonment. In every department of national life, in every section of social and religious existence, his voice was heard and his personality felt. Yet nobody ever mistook him for a mere politician, philanthropist, or reformer. He was ever, and was ever felt to be, a prophet.
3. It was in the year that King Uzziah died that this strange sight was seen by this inhabitant of Jerusalem. Most probably it was soon after the king died, perhaps immediately after. For though, in the general heading of the prophecies, Isaiah is said to have prophesied in the days of Uzziah, that heading is not to be pressed so far as to make it assert that he had actually prophesied in the lifetime of Uzziah; what is meant is that his prophetic ministry extended all through the reign of Jotham, even from the very year that King Uzziah died. This inaugural vision and prophecy was given so near the death of Uzziah that it might be said to be in the days of that renowned king. Perhaps it was given immediately after his death; it might be when, though dead, he had not yet been laid in the grave. It was a vision that might well have been suggested by such a momentous death, the death of one once a king, and one so powerful, holding such a place among the forces of society, bridling them with so firm a hand, a hand now relaxed, leaving the unquiet humours of the land to assert themselves, and draw the State on to its destruction.
We might even fancy, without unduly stretching fancy, that Isaiah, who, though not yet a prophet, appears to have been a citizen of high rank, and perhaps familiar at the court, had this vision presented to him a little after he had come out of the royal chamber where the deceased monarch lay in state. Perhaps he had been permitted to enter along with the common crowd of subjects, who pressed in to render their last act of homage; and though he had seemed to walk round the bier, and linger a moment to look upon the still face, as mechanically as any of them, it was with very different thoughts in his heart. It was a dead king that lay before him. And though the presence of death in any form might have suggested the first half of the vision—the unseen world within this world—only the sight of a dead king could have led Isaiah’s mind to draw that comprehensive sketch of the history and the destiny of his nation with which the chapter ends. Those eternal, changeless sights are reflected in the face, rapt but unmoved; the grandeur, the unchanging flow of eternity, the awful face of God, holding the mind in an absorbed stillness, so that emotion ebbs and flows no more in the heart, and no more plays upon the countenance, but all is still.
Now when the prophet came out from the presence of the dead, musing on all things as he must have mused, and probably entering the Temple where the service of God was going on—for the vision is just the reflection of the service of God in His house upon earth, it is only this service translated into its real meaning—it is not unnatural that such a vision as this should have presented itself before him. Such a sight is well fitted to bring before our minds the same great scene. For there is such an eternal scene behind the changing forms of the present life; a scene not future but present, though the perfect realising of it be, to most of us, future; a world within this world, or behind it, of which we only catch glimpses sometimes through the occurrences of this life—a world such as the prophet saw, God the King on His throne, surrounded by beings all alive to His glory, serving Him continually in the greatness of their might. There is such a world within this world, of which this world is but the veil and covering; and we begin to understand this world, and see any order and meaning in it, only when this other, which is the inner side of it, is revealed to our sight.
A king must die! There seems to be something almost incongruous in the very phrase. The very word “king” means power. The king is the man who can, the man who is possessed of ability, dominion, sovereignty; and the shock is almost violent when we are told that the range of the kingship is shaped and determined by death. We could all understand how death might limit the years and conquests of Lazarus, shivering outside the palace gates, weary, hungry, and “full of sores,” but it is more difficult to understand how death can enter the palace, and set a barrier to the life of Dives, “clothed in purple and fine linen, and faring sumptuously every day”; but “it came to pass that the beggar died,” and “the rich man also died, and was buried.” A little while ago I took up the death-roll at a workhouse, and glanced through the chronological lists of paupers: Elizabeth So-and-so, died so-and-so. Then I took up a volume of English history, looked at the death-roll of monarchs, the chronological list of kings and queens: Queen Elizabeth, died so-and-so. I found that the one word described the end of both pauper and king—“the beggar died,” “William the Conqueror died,” “King Uzziah died.” How the one word suffices for all sorts and conditions of men!1 [Note: J. H. Jowett.]
4. God never empties places in our homes and hearts, or in the nation or the Church, without being ready to fill them. He sometimes empties them that He may fill them. Sorrow and loss are meant to prepare us for the vision of God, and their effect should be to purge the inward eye, that it may see Him. When the leaves drop from the forest trees we can see the blue sky which their dense abundance hid. Well for us if the passing of all that can pass drives us to Him who cannot pass, if the unchanging God stands out more clear, more near, more dear, because of change.
This accounts for a great many of the dark experiences in life. God puts out our little light that we may see Him the better. When you are looking out of the window at night, gazing towards the sky, you will see the stars more clearly if you put out your gaslight. That is what God has to do for us. He has to put out the secondary lights in order that we may see the eternal light. Uzziah has to die, in order that we may see it is God who lives. God has continually to take away our little kings, the weak repositories of our trust, in order to show that we have given a false emphasis to life. He takes away that which we regarded as the keystone, in order to reveal to us the real binding-force in life. I have known Him come to a nation and take away the King of Commercial Prosperity, because when commercial prosperity reigns men are too prone to forget the Lord. It is not in the seven fat years that we pray. It is in the seven years of famine, when the wheat is “blasted with the east wind.” It is then that men see the Lord and pray.
I know a little cottage which is surrounded by great and stately trees, clothed with dense and massy foliage. In the summer days and through all the sunny season, it just nestles in this circle of green, and has no vision of the world beyond. But the winter comes, so cold and keen. It brings its sharp knife of frost, cuts off the leaves, until they fall trembling to the ground. There is nothing left but the bare framework on which summer hung her beauteous growths. Poor little cottage, with the foliage all gone! But is there no compensation? Yes, yes. Standing in the cottage in the winter time and looking out of the window, you can see a mansion, which has come into view through the openings left by the fallen leaves. The winter brought the vision of the mansion!1 [Note: J. H. Jowett.]
5. Human purpose never has so definite and intelligible an aspect as when it flashes first in sudden intuition on the mind. The main end fills the vision; the essential significance absorbs the attention; all the thousand contingencies which will obscure that end and compromise that significance are as yet unsuspected. Everything is clear, clear-cut, and coercive. But with the years comes also a cleansing of the spiritual vision; and the intuitions of youth, seen in the retrospect, are seen more justly. The correspondence of the earlier and the later visions brings the verification of their quality. If the man, wise with the bitter wisdom of failure and conflict, hears still the Voice which thrilled the unshadowed heart of the boy, that Voice needs no better authentication of origin. For inspiration or for the “great refusal” then, for acquittal or for condemnation now, it was, and is, the Voice of God. All the years are bound by it into a single experience.
I hear a voice, perchance I heard
Long ago, but all too low,
So that scarce a care it stirred
If the voice were real or no;
I heard it in my youth when first
The waters of my life outburst;
But, now their stream ebbs faint, I hear
That voice, still low, but fatal clear.
The definiteness of the prophet’s memory is startling,—in the death-year of King Uzziah. Happy the man who keeps a journal and records the date of this and that event. I know one who is able to say, “It was on the 19th of March, 1886, I began to be led by the Spirit.” But others there are who must say, “I do not know just when I entered the new life. I think it was some time between sixteen and twenty years of age. The change came so gradually that I glided into the consciousness of a definite relationship to God as a ship glides out of a region of ice into a warmer zone.”1 [Note: C. C. Albertson.]
6. It is in hours like this that men get real glimpses of God. It is always when some Uzziah has piled up his successes until in their very definiteness men wake up to their shortcoming in the presence of the needs of the hour, that we feel the Infinite near, and at last see His skirts filling all the vacancies of life. Never until we know how much, do we know how little, man can do. Never until we see the best that humanity achieves do we know how grave are the problems which are born beneath our very success, which demand an infinite factor for their solution. In the death-hour of Uzziah, when under the mighty hands of the Medici, Florence had been growing luxurious and beautiful, when gems flashed from her proud neck and marble palaces were her play-things, when copious rivers of revenue poured in upon the Duke and the throne, and literature and art were in sight of their long-delayed laurels, yea—in the death-hour of their Uzziah when Lorenzo had fallen, Girolamo Savonarola, the Isaiah of that Jerusalem, saw amidst and above the terrible problems which his reign had made, and which surrounded him, the vision of the Almighty God. In the death-hour of Uzziah, when the arms of freedom had begun to shine with glorious victory, when the hand of rebellion had been pushed away from the white throat of liberty, when the whole race was ready to drown the dreadful clanking of eighty years of chains in one glad song of freedom, when a restored Union lifted up her head above the heat and dust of war, in the death-year of Uzziah, when Lincoln fell, yonder at New York another whose sword was like the tongue of Isaiah, seeing the problem which survived the assassin’s bullet, saw midst and above them the vision of God; “Fellow-citizens,” said Garfield on that occasion, “God reigns, and the Government at Washington still lives.”1 [Note: F. W. Gunsaulus.]
ii. The Vision
“I saw the Lord.”
1. The prophet had lost a hero and found his Lord. “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord.” He had anticipated that when the good King Uzziah died the linch-pin would be removed, and the car of the nation’s life would topple over into confusion and disaster. All Isaiah’s hopes were centred in this radical and aggressively righteous monarch, and he feared for the State when its monarch should be taken. He anticipated chaos, and lo! in place of chaos there emerged the Lord of Order! He found that in the days of his hero-worship he had been living in comparative twilight, the real Luminary had been partially obscured, there had been an eclipse of the Sun: and now, with the passing of Uzziah the eclipse had ended, and the Presence of the Lord blazed out in unexpected glory! “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord.” It had seemed to the foreboding fears of the depressed youth as though the very existence of the kingdom were involved in the continued reign of the king. If he goes—what then? A crisis was assured! And yet in place of the crisis came God, and the effulgent glory was bewildering. Succeeding generations of men have shared these pessimistic fears. We have riveted our gaze upon the incidental until the incidental has become the essential, and we have feared the withering blast of death. “What will Israel do when Uzziah is taken?” “What will Methodism do when John Wesley is removed?” “What will the Salvation Army do when anything happens to its General?” “What will this or that church do when bereft of its minister?” And the long-feared crisis has come, but instead of being left to the hopeless, clammy darkness of the grave, we have gazed upon the dazzling glories of a forgotten heaven! The transient pomp and splendour died, and their passing removed the veil from the face of the eternal, and we saw the Lord. “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord.” He anticipated an end, he found a new beginning.
Last autumn I spent a little time in the old castle at Stirling, and in one of the rooms of the tower were two curiosities which riveted my attention. In one corner of the room was an old time-worn pulpit. It was John Knox’s pulpit, the pulpit from which he used to proclaim so faithfully the message of the King. In the opposite corner were a few long spears, much corrupted by rust, found on the field of Bannockburn, which lies just beyond the castle walls. John Knox’s pulpit on the one hand, the spears of Bannockburn on the other! One the type of material forces, forces of earth and time; the other the type of spiritual forces, forces of eternity and heaven. The spears, representative of King Uzziah; the pulpit, representative of the Lord. Which symbolises the eternal? The force and influence which radiated from that pulpit will enrich and fashion Scottish character when Bannockburn has become an uninfluential memory, standing vague and indefinite, on the horizon of a far-distant time. When King Uzziah is dead, the Lord will still live, high and lifted up.1 [Note: J. H. Jowett.]
2. The great characteristic of Isaiah’s age was religious indifference. That which the prophet was enabled to see—that great Divine world within this outer world—was the very thing which the nation could not be made to perceive. Men could not be impressed with the idea of a living God, a Sovereign high and lifted up, ruling over the world and life and men’s consciences. They were insensible to this, and would have none of it. “The heart of the people was fat, and their ears heavy, and their eyes closed.” They were incapable of being touched with the feeling of the reality of God. And this insensibility led to disobedience, to formalism, to distrust of Jehovah, and to schemes of worldly policy; and, when danger threatened, to the calling in of foreign help: “they stayed themselves on Egypt, they trusted in Assyria”; and when these great world-powers once planted their foot on the little country the end of it was not far distant—as described in the closing verses of the chapter.
Perhaps the death of Uzziah suggested some of this to the prophet, and made him think of it, and follow it out in his mind to its conclusion. But it was the sight of Jehovah that made him understand it on its deeper side. It was the revelation to him of a great Ruler behind all things, and a hidden glory—the real power within all things,—a fire in contact with the sin and impurity of mankind, that must consume them or cleanse it. It was this that made him feel the real meaning of the circumstances of his time in their relation to this Ruler and made him, when he himself had been brought into right relation to Him, take a stand in regard to the world, and assume his right place in it.
It is singular how little place we take in the world, how little we feel it needful to take any place; how we are like mere grains of sand, the sport of the wind, each one of us without inherent force, not taking a place, but rolled into a place by the forces about us, or by the mere dead weight of gravity—pushed into a profession by the example of our companions, or the advice of friends, or, it may be, because we think we should like something in it, but without taking a broad view of it, especially without taking a moral estimate of it as a force which we might wield for higher ends, and setting it clearly before us as one of other great forces that should all combine, and realising it in its relation to the world and the state of society as a whole,—how slow we are to feel that we have any responsibilities in regard to the condition of things.1 [Note: A. B. Davidson.]
3. I saw.—In a very deep and true sense it is what a man sees that either makes or unmakes him. The effect of vision upon character and service is transforming. It elevates or debases, according to its quality. Whether a man grovels or soars, whether he slimes his way with the worm or walks upon the hill-tops, whether he remains in the realm of animalism or rises into the spiritual, and lives in the high places of the sons of God, is determined by his seeing. The men who shape history and direct the destinies of nations are the men who have eyes.
Moses saw the invisible, and endured, struggled, conquered, lifted himself and his people into prominence for evermore. Saul of Tarsus, on the Damascus road, saw Jesus Christ, and out of that vision came a power of manhood that has thrown itself beneficently across twenty centuries. Luther, in his monk’s cell, had a vision of the spiritual, and out of it came the Protestant Reformation, with all its forces of liberty and progress and enterprise. General Booth’s tremendous success with the Salvation Army, an organisation which in less than a generation has belted the globe, is simply the realisation of what he saw. Because David Livingstone had eyes to see, Africa to-day is zoned with light, and that matchless career of his stands out before the world, and will ever stand, as an inspiration to the noblest efforts for human uplifting. Because Jesus saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven, He was thrilled by a sublime optimism, because He saw, as no one else has ever seen, His kingdom is coming, and will yet cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.2 [Note: R. F. Coyle.]
Isaiah says, “I saw.” Is it, then, given to a man to be so sure of spiritual phenomena? So it seems from this Book. The basis of this confidence is in the spiritual consciousness out of which Moses spoke when he said, “I saw the passing pageant of the goodness of the Lord”; out of which Paul spoke when he said, “I saw a light above the brightness of the sun, and heard a voice out of the radiance calling me by name”; out of which John spoke when he said, “In the midst of the golden candlesticks I saw One like unto the Son of Man, girt with a golden girdle, and holding the seven stars in his hand.” Not more real was the mountain whereon Moses stood, or the splendid highway over which Paul was travelling, or the rocks of Patmos whereon the waves broke into spray,—not more real were these than the visions unfolded to human spirits there.
All men who do really great work for the world have some touch of this Divine faculty and vision. Even the man of science, is, at his best, a seer and a poet; for it is not only observation and reflection, but imagination also, which enable him to see the real behind the phenomenal, to look quite through the shows of things, and to gaze on an universe utterly unlike this visible universe, a world in which a few great forces, in obedience to a few great laws, robe themselves in an infinite variety of forms. Under the drifting and confused play of events the historian, again, if he be worthy of his name, discerns an increasing purpose, a secret law, a Divine order, a growing harmony. Even the statesman is great only as he too can look through the welter of passing events, and see what are the ruling forces and principles at work beneath the surface of national life, and how he may avail himself of these for the general good.1 [Note: S. Cox, in The Expositor, 2nd Ser., ii. p. 25.]
4. The Lord.—Let me remind you of that apparently audacious commentary upon this great vision which the Evangelist John gives us: “These things said Esaias, when he had beheld his glory and spake of him.” Then the Christ is the manifest Jehovah; is the King of Glory. Then the vision which was but a transitory revelation is the revelation of an eternal reality, and “the vision splendid” does not “fade but brightens, into the light of common day”; when instead of being flashed only on the inward eye of a prophet, it is made flesh and walks amongst us, and lives our lives, and dies our death. Our eyes have seen the King in as true a reality, and in better fashion, than ever Isaiah did amid the sanctities of the Temple. And the eyes that have seen only the near foreground, the cultivated valleys, and the homes of men, are raised, and lo! the long line of glittering peaks, calm, silent, pure. Who will look at the valleys when the Himalayas stand out, and the veil is drawn aside?
To see “also the Lord” is alike the secret of steadfastness, and the guarantee of that knowledge in the midst of perplexity which alone liberates from fretful anxiety and unbelief, and leads to right choice and wise action. And to those who seek Him, He is always so revealing Himself, in character varying according to their present need, and always as their entire sufficiency. Some men can see only “the things which are temporal,” and are hence distracted; but others have learned to look at “the things which are eternal,” and are in consequence being continually attracted to Him in whom they find the perfection of wisdom and strength and love.
Two men looked through prison bars,
The one saw mud—the other stars.
iii. The Throne
“Sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up.”
1. The scene which Isaiah beholds is the heavenly palace of Jehovah’s sovereignty, modelled upon, but not a copy of, His earthly Temple at Jerusalem: “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.” The comparatively small adyton of the Temple on Zion is indefinitely expanded, the lofty throne takes the place of the mercy-seat, the skirts of the royal mantle, falling in ample folds, fill the space about and below the throne, and conceal from the beholder, standing beneath, the unapproachable Form seated upon it. The two colossal cherubim, whose extended wings overshadowed the ark in the Holy of holies, are absent, and there appears instead a choir of living creatures, encircling the throne: “Seraphim stood above Him: each had six wings; with twain He covered His face, and with twain He covered His feet, and with twain He did fly.”
Some of you may have been watching a near and beautiful landscape in the land of mountains and eternal snows, till you have been exhausted by its very richness, and till the distant hills which bounded it have seemed, you knew not why, to limit and contract the view, and then a veil has been withdrawn, and new hills not looking as if they belonged to this earth, yet giving another character to all that does belong to it, have unfolded themselves before you. This is an imperfect, very imperfect, likeness (yet it is one) of that revelation which must have been made to the inner eye of the prophet, when he saw another throne than the throne of the house of David, another king than Uzziah or Jotham, another train than that of priests or minstrels in the Temple, other winged forms than those golden ones which over-shadowed the mercy-seat. Each object was the counterpart of one that was then or had been at some time before his bodily eyes; yet it did not borrow its shape or colour from those visible things. They evidently derived their substance and radiance from those which were invisible. Separated from them they could impart no lustre; for they had none. The kings of the house of David reigned because that king was reigning whom God had set upon His holy hill of Zion; because He lived on, when they dropped one and another into their graves; because in Him dwelt the light and the power by which each might illumine his own darkness, sustain his own weakness. The symbols and services of the Temple were not, as priests and people often thought, an earthly machinery for scaring a distant Heaven; they were witnesses of a Heaven nigh at hand, of a God dwelling in the midst of His people, of His being surrounded by spirits which do His pleasure hearkening to the voice of His words.1 [Note: F. D. Maurice, Prophets and Kings, p. 221.]
What was Uzziah in all his greatness now as the Lord sat upon His throne high and lifted up? Here were the shifting scenes of human life—the shadows that come and go, the pageants that move to the silence and rest of the grave. There high and lifted up—above all time, above all change—was the Eternal. Uzziah the king, Uzziah the leper, Uzziah the corpse—to set the heart upon him was to be disappointed, deserted, desolate. The Lord is king—that is the centre of all things, the true home and refuge of the soul. Here is some ground for our trust; here all the adoration of the soul finds fitting room and sphere, and worthy rank for its service and worship.
The Lord is always upon a throne, even when He is nailed to the Cross; this Lord and His throne are inseparable. There are dignitaries that have to study how to keep their thrones, but the Lord and His throne are one.2 [Note: J. Parker, The People’s Bible, xiv. p. 283.]
2. But what shall we say when we recall Him of whom the evangelist asserts “Isaiah saw his glory, and spoke of him”? High and lifted up, verily! But how all unlike that which Isaiah saw. Bound and beaten and buffeted, scourged and mocked, amidst a band of ribald soldiers and ruffians who smite Him and pluck the hairs off His cheek. Condemned alike by Jewish priest and Roman judge He goes forth to be crucified. There in all shame and agony He hangs stricken and smitten. Surely, “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”
iv. The Train
“And his train filled the temple.”
1. It was not only that Isaiah had an unexpected vision of God, it was the unique character of the vision which impressed and empowered him. Where does the wonder of the prophet culminate? “I saw the Lord, sitting upon a throne!” That was not the unfamiliar sight, and not there did the prophet’s wonder gather. “High and lifted up!” A terrible sublimity, like some towering and awe-inspiring Alpine height! Yet not there was concentrated the supreme surprise. “And his train filled the temple!” That was the marvel which made the prophet’s heart stand still. He was not a stranger to the conception of the throne, or of the lonely and snow-white exaltation, but this vision of the train that “filled the temple” was altogether foreign to his thought. You will remember that in all these Temple arrangements of the olden days there were different grades and varying degrees of sanctity. Even in the time of our Lord there were divisions, separating the holy and the profane, beginning at the outer courts, where the foot of the Gentile might tread, but beyond which he was not permitted to pass, on penalty of death, on to the veiled and silent chamber where the awful Presence dwelt between the cherubim. And there was the same gradient in the thought of the young Isaiah. There were divisions in his temple, separating the different degrees of sanctity, ranging from the much-diluted holiness of the remote circumference to the clear and quenchless flame of the sacred Presence. And now comes this strange and all-convulsing vision: “His train filled the temple,” filled it, every section of it, every corner of it, to the furthest and outermost wall. “The posts of the thresholds,” not merely the curtains of the inner shrine, “the posts of the thresholds moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.” That is the word which expresses the supreme wonder of this great inaugural vision. “His train filled the temple!” “The house was filled with smoke.” The garments of the Almighty swept an unsuspected area, His robe impartially carpeted the entire pile, there was not a single inch that was exempt from the touch of His enveloping Presence. “His train filled the temple.” What, then, had the crisis brought to the young hero-worshipper who had been so fearful of the passing of his noble king? It had brought to him a larger conception of God, a filling-out conception of God, a full-tide conception, filling every nook and creek and bay in the manifold and far-stretching shore of human life.1 [Note: J. H. Jowett, in The Examiner, March 15, 1906.]
No face: only the sight
Of a sweepy garment, vast and white,
With a hem that I could recognise.2 [Note: Browning, Christmas Eve.]
2. The most important crises in a man’s life are related to the growth or impoverishment of his conception of God. It is momentous when some area in the wide circle of his life is unexpectedly discovered to be the dwelling-place of God. Robinson Crusoe begins to track his desolate and presumably uninhabited island, and one day, on the sandy shore, comes upon the print of a human foot. That footprint revolutionises his entire conception of the island, and all his plans and expedients are transfigured. And so the soul, moving over some area of its activities which has never been related to God, and over which God has never been assumed to exercise a living and immediate authority, one day unexpectedly discovers His footprints upon this particular tract of the sands of time, and the whole of the spiritual outlook is transformed. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not.”
If thus His train fills the temple, the great temple in which He ever dwells, then how easy for us to touch the hem of His garment and be made whole of whatever plague of soreness we may suffer from.
God’s children cannot wander beyond reach
Of the sweep of His white raiment. Touch and hold!
And if you weep, still weep where John was laid
While Jesus loved him.
3. There is a division which is made, not merely by the thoughtless and flippant, but even by many grave and serious minds. On one side the barrier they move softly and reverently, as though feeling the very breathings of the Almighty Presence: on the other side they step loudly and thoughtlessly, as though the Almighty were absent. And then one day there comes one of the great crises of life, and on the secular side of the barrier they see the trailing garments of the Lord, and they are filled with a surprise which ends in resurrection. For it is a birthday for the soul when we discover that the Lord occupies the whole of this divided house, and that His train fills the temple.
(1) I have frequently heard reference to my own vocation as a “sacred calling,” says Mr. Jowett, but I have rarely, if ever, heard the same sober phrase applied to the work of the baker or tent-maker, or even to the work of the city councillor or the members of the House of Commons. But the seamless robe of the Lord is on both sides the artificial barrier, and all things on either side can be equally sacred and sanctified.
(2) Another temple which our modern thought frequently divides into sections of different degrees of sanctity is the temple of the entire personality. One side of the barrier is called body, and the other is called spirit. It is a great day for a man when the wonderful revelation breaks upon his eyes, that these two entities possess a common sanctity, that our division is unwise and impoverishing, and that His train fills the whole temple. In the olden days there was a school of thinkers who regarded matter as essentially evil, the very sphere and dwelling-place of evil, and, therefore, the body itself was esteemed as the very province of the devil. It was therefore further reasoned that to despise the body was to heap shame and contumely upon the devil, and that one of the holiest exercises was thus to treat the flesh with disdain and contempt. The body was a thing of the gutter,—gutter-born, and destined to a gutter death! Therefore they neglected it, they bruised it, they refused to cleanse it, and they utterly deprived it of any attention and adornment. So far as the body part of the temple was concerned, the Lord was not in it! Now we can see the force and relevancy of the Apostle’s firm and vigorous teaching: “Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost?” That word would come as a bewildering surprise! The Lord’s temple does not end where the spirit ends; it includes the body too: and His train fills the temple! “I beseech you, therefore, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” That veil in the temple has been rent in twain!
(3) There is still another temple which we divide into discriminating sections much as the Temple of old was divided. One side of the barrier is described as home, the other side as foreign, the one side as Jew, the other side as Gentile. And so the temple itself, rather than the partitioning veil, is too frequently rent in twain. It is a season of wonderful regeneration when first the train of the Almighty is seen to fill the entire temple, and the whole of the unworthily divided area is seen to be the familiar walking-ground of the Eternal God. To go out, I say, into the section regarded as foreign, and to behold the footprints of the Lord, to see that, even where home ends, the trailing garment of the Lord sweeps on, is a great birthday for the soul, a day of fertilising knowledge and of energising grace! To gaze upon other sects, foreign to our own, and to see common footprints in the varying roads; to gaze upon other nations, foreign to our own, and to see the mystic garment in their unfamiliar ways, to discover that the train fills the entire temple, is to enter an experience only less momentous than our conversion, for it is a second conversion into the larger thought and love of God. “In Christ Jesus there is neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, neither Jew nor Gentile, neither bond nor free.” “His train filled the temple.”
You need imagination for the missionary impulse, especially for foreign missions. You need the sense of the glory of the Lord, of the fulness of the whole earth, and of the voice that, crying, shakes the pillars of the house. It is not easy to conceive of a man of no imagination becoming a great missionary. It is the imagination of boyhood that leads many a man to the mission field, as it leads many a man to the sea. It is the romance of missions, the call of the deep and the wild. It is the same thing, with a consecration of faith added, that seals the resolve, and finally sends him abroad. To his vision of foreign lands he adds visions of redeemed peoples. His eye has seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. He dreams a dream of good. He has visions of an earth full of the knowledge and glory of God. He has the imagination of the adventurer with the consecration of the prophet. Every missionary must be an idealist. The man who has no sympathy with missions is devoid of imagination, and sometimes he seems even a little proud of his defect.1 [Note: P. T. Forsyth, Missions in State and Church, p. 224.]
After telling the story of the martyrdom of Perpetua the Roman matron, and the slaves Revocatus and Felicitas, in the beginning of the third century, Professor Gwatkin says:2 [Note: Early Church History to A. D. 313, ii. p. 127.] “There is something here even more significant than the lofty courage of Perpetua, which forms the front of the story. From first to last she never dreams that Revocatus and Felicitas are less than her equals and companions in Christ. Enthusiasm might have nerved the matron and the slave apart; but no mere enthusiasm could have joined their hands in death. The mischievous eccentricities of Montanism are as dust in the balance while we watch the mighty working of the power of another world in which not only the vulgar fear of death is overcome, but the deepest social division of the ancient world is entirely forgotten.”
v. The Seraphim
“Above him stood the seraphim.”
1. The seraphim are not mentioned elsewhere, and the origin and meaning of the name can only be supplied by conjecture. It must suffice to say that they appear here as the most exalted ministers of the Divine Being, in immediate proximity to Himself, and give expression to the adoration and reverence unceasingly due from the highest of created intelligences to the Creator. Possessed apparently of human form, and in an erect posture, they form a circle—or perhaps rather a double choir, about the throne, each with two of his wings seeming to support himself upon the air, with two covering his face, in reverence, that he might not gaze directly upon the Divine glory, and with two his own person, in humility, not deigning to meet directly the Divine glance. Can the scene be more aptly or more worthily reproduced than in our own poet’s noble lines?—
Fountain of light, thyself invisible
Amidst the glorious brightness where thou sitt’st,
Throned inaccessible, but when thou shadest
The full blaze of thy beams, and through a cloud
Drawn round about thee like a radiant shrine
Dark with excessive bright thy skirts appear,
Yet dazzle Heaven, that brightest Seraphim
Approach not, but with both wings veil their eyes.1 [Note: Paradise Lost, iii. 375.]
2. The seraphim, says Kautzsch (Dictionary of the Bible, v. 643), belong undoubtedly to the realm of angels. Although mentioned only in the vision of Isaiah (Isaiah 6:2), they appear there as well-known beings, so that the belief in them may certainly be assumed for the pre-Prophetic period. Furnished with six wings, they offer around God’s throne antiphonal praise in the Trisagion; one of them purges the lips of the prophet, and announces to him the forgiveness of his sins. They are thus, in fact, intelligent beings, angels. Of the numerous explanations of the name, the only one that can be taken in earnest is that which traces it back to the singular sârâph. This word means properly “serpent” (Numbers 21:8, Deuteronomy 8:15), and the seraphim must accordingly have been originally serpent-formed creatures—embodiments, indeed, of the serpent-like lightning flashes that play around Jehovah. But, in the case of the seraphim of Isaiah, the six wings may be regarded as all that has survived of this somewhat mythological form. Moreover (probably long before the time of Isaiah), they have assumed human form, as is evident not only from the song of praise (Isaiah 6:3), which would be inconceivable in a serpent’s mouth, but from the hand (Isaiah 6:6) and the speech of the sârâph (Isaiah 6:7).
3. The first thing that strikes us about the seraphim is their redundance of wings. They had each six, only two of which were used for flying; the others, with which they shrouded their faces and their feet, were, apparently, quite superfluous. Why should they have had them when there was no fit employment for them? Was it not sheer waste to be possessing wings that were merely employed as covering, and never spread for flight? And yet, perhaps, without this shrouding of their faces and feet—an office which, at least, the wings performed—they might not have answered so well high heaven’s purposes, might not have swept abroad with such undivided intentness and such entire abandonment on their Divine errands. Perhaps their upper and lower parts needed to be swathed thus to make them the singly bent, the wholly absorbed ministers that they were. With unveiled faces and naked feet they might have been less prompt and alert, less concentrated and surrendered for the Lord.
We meet sometimes with these seemingly wasted wings in men, in the form of powers or capabilities, knowledges or skills, for the exercise of which there is no scope or opportunity in their lot, which they are not called on or able to apply. There they lie, unutilised; nothing is done with them, no demand for them exists. To what end, we ask, have they been acquired? or what a pity, we say, that the men could not be placed in circumstances in which a field would be offered them, in which they would be wanted and drawn out! And yet, a knowledge or skill gained, may not be really wasted, though it be left without due scope and opportunity. The best, the finest use of it does not lie always in what it accomplishes, in the open product of its activity, but often in what has been secretly added to us or wrought into us, through gaining it, in the contribution which the gaining of it has been to our charactor or moral growth, in some nobler shaping of ourselves by means of it.1 [Note: S. A. Tipple.]
(1) “With twain he covered his face.” The first pair of wings suggest the need of the lowliest reverence in the worship of God. What does that lofty chorus of “Holy! holy! holy!” that burst from those immortal lips mean but the declaration that God is high above, and separate from, all limitations and imperfections of creatures? And we Christians, who hear it re-echoed in the very last Book of Scripture by the four and twenty elders who represent redeemed humanity, have need to take heed that we do not lose our reverence in our confidence, and that we do not part with godly fear in our filial love.
The eldest daughter of Faith is Reverence. We remember how Moses acted at the Burning Bush: he went up to it at first merely from curiosity, but as soon as he heard the voice of God calling to him out of the fire, “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God.” Without reverence of heart there can be no true worship; and the soul-reverence ought to be accompanied by reverence of posture and demeanour. It is not reverential to stand during praise with one’s hand buried in one’s trousers pocket, or to sit straight during prayer, and stare all over the church, or to go to or from public worship with a cigarette in one’s mouth. These things ought not so to be.
A friend of mine, a clergyman, told me that he was once showing some one over his church. This person omitted to take his hat off on entering the church. “I hope you don‘t mind my keeping my hat on?” he said to my friend. “I mind? not at all!” was my friend’s reply. “It isn’t my house!”1 [Note: W. J. Foxell.]
(2) The next pair of wings suggest the need of self-forget-fulness. “With twain he covered his feet.” The wings made no screen that hid the seraph’s feet from the eye of God, but it was the instinctive lowly sense of unworthiness that folded them across the feet, even though they, too, burned as a furnace. The nearer we get to God, the more we shall be aware of our limitations and unworthiness, and it is because that vision of the Lord sitting on “His throne, high and lifted up,” with the thrilling sense of His glory filling the holy temple of the universe, does not burn before us that we can conceit ourselves to have anything worth pluming ourselves upon.
Once lift the curtain, once let my eye be flooded with the sight of God, and away goes all my self-conceit, and all my fancied superiority over others. One little molehill is pretty nearly the same height as another, if you measure them both against the top of the Himalayas, that lie in the background, with their glittering peaks of snow. “Star differeth from star in glory” in a winter’s night, but when the great sun swims into the sky they all vanish together. If you and I saw God burning before us, as Isaiah saw Him, we should veil ourselves, and lose all that which so often veils Him from us—the fancy that we are anything when we are nothing. And the nearer we get to God, and the purer we are, the more keenly conscious shall we be of our imperfections and our sins. “If I say I am perfect,” said Job in his wise way, “this also should prove me perverse.” Consciousness of sin is the continual accompaniment of growth in holiness. “The heavens are not pure in His sight, and He chargeth His angels with folly.” Everything looks black beside that sovereign whiteness. Get God into your lives, and you will see that the feet need to be washed, and you will cry, “Lord! not my feet only, but my hands and my head!”
He covered his feet in order, I suppose, that his very form and motion might not be seen; and therefore it is mentioned before “the flight.” He did not set out until, as far as possible, himself was concealed. There shall be simply the fact of a mission, and the method: so that, if an “angel” were to bring God’s embassy to you, you would not see “the angel.” That is true embassy! In like manner, it was commanded of the high priest, that his garments should “go down to his feet,” that the minister should not be seen.1 [Note: J. Vaughan, Sermons, iv. p. 5.]
(3) “And with twain he did fly.” The third pair of wings suggest Service. Whosoever, beholding God, has found need to hide his face from the Light, even whilst he comes into the Light, and to veil his feet from the all-seeing Eye, will also feel impulses to go forth in His service. For the perfection of worship is neither the consciousness of my own insufficiency, nor the humble recognition of His glory, nor the great voice of praise that thrilled from those immortal lips, but it is the doing of His will in daily life.
Some people say the service of man is the service of God. Yes, when it is service of man, done for God’s sake, it is so, and only then. The old motto, “Work is worship,” may preach a great truth or a most dangerous error. But there is no possibility of error or danger in maintaining this: that the climax and crown of all worship, whether for us footsore servants upon earth, or for those winged attendants on the throne of the King in the heavens, is activity in obedience.
The souls of modern men need all their wings to enable them to fly as quickly as their fellows, and they have none left wherewith to cover their faces and their feet.2 [Note: Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler, in Concerning Isabel Carnaby.]
We can have little difficulty in discovering the motive from which the seraphim act. We see at once that it is love—the love of God which ever moves them. They fly away on swift wing to do God’s will, but they ever return to the throne. That is the place of their rest; there they desire to dwell; and they dwell there adoring God, forgetting themselves and hiding all their own, that God may be all in all. Now nothing but love, the most intense love, can account for this. Only love can draw the creature to God, and make him desire to abide in His presence and to behold His glory. And thus we see that the great motive power in heaven is just that which ought to be the great motive power on earth—the love of God. And that indeed must move every intelligent being who will serve God, in whatever world he may dwell or to whatever race he may belong. When you go into some of the world’s great workshops you see a vast variety of machinery, all, it may be, in motion, and engaged in a variety of operations; yet throughout that great manufactory there is just one motive power, so that what keeps going the gigantic hammer crushing in its descent the cold iron, also keeps in motion machinery which for delicacy of touch and operation the very spider might not excel. Even so, throughout His wide Kingdom God has many servants, and, we cannot doubt, many races of intelligent beings doing His will, and these engaged in an endless variety of labours, but the power which moves them all is the same—the sovereign power of love.
These then are the three—reverence and self-forgetfulness and active obedience,—“With twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.” It is because of irreverence and self-conceit and idleness that our lives are weak. Go stand in the sight of God, and these wings of salvation shall come and clothe your life. They perfectly clothed the life of Jesus. Reverence and self-sacrifice and obedience were perfect in Him. In the most overwhelmed moments of His life,—crushed in the garden, agonised upon the cross,—he was really standing, like the strong seraphim, at the right hand of God.
The seraphim were winged for service even while they stood above the throne and pealed forth their thunderous praise which shook the Temple. May we not discern in that a hint of the blessed blending of two modes of worship which will be perfectly united in heaven, and which we should aim at harmonising even on earth? “His servants serve Him and see His face.” There is possible, even on earth, some foretaste of the perfection of that heavenly state in which no worship in service shall interfere with the worship in contemplation. Mary, sitting at Christ’s feet, and Martha, busy in providing for His comfort, may be, to a large extent, united in us even here, and will be perfectly so hereafter, when the practical and the contemplative, the worship of noble aspiration, of heart-filling gazing, and that of active service shall be indissolubly blended.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]
vi. The Song of the Seraphim
“And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.” It was an antiphonal song, proceeding without interruption. Some of them commenced and others responded.
I like to think of that. It was as if one of them cried, “Your strains are not lifted high enough; higher, brothers, higher!” And he cried across the intervening space to the seraphim opposite, and bade them rise to a higher note, till the chorus swelled and rose and broke. I have heard a bird in the spring morning cry to all the songsters of the glade till the whole woodland has rung again. Sometimes in our prayer-meeting an earnest man has shaken the very gates of heaven and has stirred the whole meeting. That is what we want. And as I tell you of a richer, fuller life, a life more abundant than many of you know, may you be convicted of the need of a new anointing, of a fresh application to the Son of God for the touch of fire. May ours be the seraph’s reverence, with the veiled face; ours his modesty, with the veiled form; ours his balance of one-third obedience to two-thirds of contemplation. Then perhaps our cry may awaken similar results to his, and others shall cry, “Undone.”1 [Note: F. B. Meyer.]
Two of the Divine attributes form the theme of the seraphs’ hymn—God’s holiness as inherent in Himself, His glory as manifested in the earth.
1. Holiness, the first of these, denoted fundamentally a state of freedom from all imperfection, specially from all moral imperfection; a state, moreover, realised with such intensity as to imply not only the absence of evil, but antagonism to it. It is more than goodness, more than purity, more than righteousness: it embraces all these in their ideal completeness, but it expresses besides the recoil from everything which is their opposite. This is the sense which the word bears throughout Scripture. Israel is to be a holy nation; it is separated from the other nations of the earth, in order that it may reflect in idea the same ethical exclusiveness which is inherent in its God. The “Holy One of Israel,” that fine designation, which is first used by Isaiah, and was indeed probably framed by him as the permanent embodiment of the truth so vividly impressed upon him in this vision, is a title which would remind the Israelite as he heard it of this distinctive attribute of his God, and arouse him to the duty of aiming after holiness himself. Holiness, again, is the attribute which in virtue of the tie uniting Jehovah and His people, prophets saw vindicated in their deliverance from tyranny or oppression: “The Lord hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations”; or, “And the heathen shall know that I am the Lord, when I shall show myself holy in you before their eyes.” And so it is to God’s holiness that the Psalmist, persecuted but conscious of innocence, who has cried day and night without respite, appeals: “And thou art holy, who inhabitest the praises of Israel.” The seraphs celebrate God not as the All-righteous, not as the All-powerful, or the All-wise; they celebrate Him under a title which expresses His essence more profoundly than any of these, and which marks more significantly the gulf which severs Him from all finite beings: they celebrate Him as the All-holy.1 [Note: S. R. Driver.]
The Hebrew word for holiness springs from a root which means to set apart, make distinct, put at a distance from. When God is described in the Old Testament as the Holy One of Israel it is generally with the purpose of withdrawing Him from some presumption of men upon His majesty or of negativing their unworthy thoughts of Him. The Holy One is the Incomparable; “To whom then will ye liken me, that I should be equal to him? saith the Holy One” (Isaiah 40:25). He is the Unapproachable: “Who is able to stand before Jehovah, this holy God?” (1 Samuel 6:20). He is the Utter Contrast of man: “I am God, and not man, the Holy One in the midst of thee” (Hosea 11:9). He is the Exalted and Sublime: “Thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place” (Isaiah 57:15). Generally speaking, then, holiness is equivalent to separateness, sublimity—in fact, just to that loftiness or exaltation which Isaiah has already so often reiterated as the principal attribute of God. In their thrice-repeated Holy the seraphs are only telling more emphatically to the prophet’s ears what his eyes have already seen, the Lord high and lifted up.
“Mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5). “The Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth” (Jeremiah 1:9). “I saw … the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord … and I went in bitterness … but the hand of the Lord was strong upon me” (Ezekiel 1:27-28; Ezekiel 3:14). These three utterances spoken severally by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, show a remarkable agreement in one respect between the three prophets who were otherwise most unlike. They all record how a vision of God was the essence of their call. Because they had seen God, and had heard His voice, they could, and therefore must, speak to their fellow-men. So far there is a close similarity between them. But their circumstances were different, their gifts were different, their works were different; and so God also was pleased to make Himself known to them in different forms. In each case the vision which was granted to the prophet corresponded with his message. What the prophet had seen was the seal of that which he had to say. (1) In a season of outward prosperity Isaiah saw the Lord seated upon a throne, high and lifted up, in all His glorious majesty; and he was filled with the sense of holiness. (2) In the prospect of inevitable overthrow Jeremiah received the direct assurance of the Lord’s sovereign Providence; and he was filled with a sense of trust. (3) In the desolateness of a strange land, a captive among captives, Ezekiel looked upon the emblems of God’s allquickening presence; and he was filled with the sense of stern courage.
The great missionary motive of the Church is the enthusiasm for holiness. The prophet received his mission in an atmosphere charged with unutterable holiness. It was not the poetic splendour of the vision which awed and stirred him. It was not the imaginative glory of the scene. That might have made him an artist, an orator, but not a prophet, not a missionary. What at once crushed and moved him, abased him and lifted him out of himself, was the glory of holiness. Every splendour seems to carry with it some trace of earth but this. It is the most unworldly of all unearthly things. It takes a man out of himself, shames him out of himself, gives him to his highest self and truest destiny. It puts the new song into his trembling lips. It endows the stammering man with mighty speech, and sends him forth from his abasement with all the power of the Spirit of God. It cleanses the very lips that it moves to confess themselves unclean, unclean. It emboldens the very conscience that it had just made to quail. It inspires with a grand fear which forgets fear. It gives a message to the man who feels in its presence that he is nothing and has nothing. When the enthusiasm of humanity comes it turns the spirit of adventure into the spirit of help; but the enthusiasm of holiness makes the spirit of help the spirit of redemption. It not only consecrates the old, it creates a new spirit within us.
It has been the song of the Church in hovel and palace, in the leafy groves and in the magnificent cathedral through mighty anthems, oratorios, and masses, and in children’s melodies for thousands of years. Our old planet has forgotten it often in politics and in the hollow mockery of reform, but statesmanship and philanthropy, every congeries of powers set to make the world advance, or improve, has had at its core the truth not only that this is God’s universe, but that the God of the universe is holy; and above every lasting triumph have fluttered the banners which bore the words: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts.” Every army which has forgotten to count on the fact that the supremacy of this system of things lay in the hands of holiness has failed of permanent triumph. “The power not ourselves that makes for righteousness”—object to the theological way of saying it, and accept this, if you will; but to neglect that factor—“a power making for righteousness”—is to have the universe against you. Your financial authority of the majority, and your dreadful vox populi, are as straw beneath the feet of a dawning righteousness. Build in the night your icy wrong high as heaven, right will be here with sunrise and with a single ray tumble it down.1 [Note: F. W. Gunsaulus.]
2. But not only does the seraphic hymn celebrate the Divine nature in its own transcendent purity and perfection; it celebrates it as it is manifested in the material world—“The fulness of the whole earth is His glory.” By “glory” we mean the outward show or state attendant upon dignity or rank: the glory, then, of which Isaiah speaks, is the outward expression of the Divine nature: pictured as visible splendour it may impress the eye of flesh; but any other worthy manifestation of the Being of God may be not less truly termed His glory. It is more than the particular attribute of power or wisdom; it is the entire fulness of the Godhead, visible to the eye of faith, if not to the eye of sense, in the concrete works of nature, arresting the spectator and claiming from him the tribute of praise and homage. It is that which in giant strokes is imprinted upon the mechanism of the heavens, and which, in the bold conception of the poet, “One day telleth another, and one night declareth to another,” so far as the empire of heaven extends. It is that which, as another poet writes, in the thunderstorm, when the clouds seem to part and disclose the dazzling brightness within, wrings from the denizens of God’s heavenly palace the cry of adoring wonder. Conceived, again, as an ideal form of splendour, it is set by Isaiah before the Israelites as that which should be the object of their reverence, but which has been too often the object of their shamelessness and scorn: “For their tongue and their doings are against the Lord, to defy the eyes of His glory.” It is the attribute which is disclosed when those who are the enemies of truth and right are overcome, and the Kingdom of God is extended upon earth. “Be thou exalted, O God, above the heavens: be thy glory over all the earth,” prays the Psalmist: let Thy majesty be acknowledged more widely, more worthily, than it now is, amongst the nations of the world. The movements of history, in so far as they affect the welfare of Israel and promote God’s purposes of salvation, are a progressive revelation of His glory: “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low,” before the nation returning from its exile, “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
It is said the whole earth is full of God’s glory. You and I would be prepared to admit that, where the glory of God shines in the spray above Niagara, or where the morning tint is seen upon the Matterhorn and the evening glow upon the Jungfrau, or where the sun rises and sets upon the broad bosom of the Atlantic, or where the wake of the ships stirs the phosphorescence of the Mediterranean at night. But to be told that the whole earth is full of the glory of God, that startles us.
I know a place in London where a woman in a drunken frenzy put her child upon a hot iron bar; where a man beat to death his little crippled boy whose agonising cries were heard at night. I should not have thought that the glory of God was there. But the seraphim say the whole earth is full of the glory of God. We are reminded of what Elizabeth Barrett Browning says—
Earth’s crammed with Heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he that sees takes off his shoes.
One day in London I was sitting in a dark omnibus. A man came in to examine our tickets, and I thought to myself, you will never be able to see whether they have been punctured aright. As I watched, curious to notice, he touched a little spring on his breast, and in a tiny globe of glass a beautiful glow of electric light shone out. Manifestly the man could see anywhere, because he carried the light with which he saw. So we must understand that when the heart is full of God, you will find God anywhere and everywhere, as the miner carries the candle in his cap through the dark cavity of the earth, and lights his steps.1 [Note: F. B. Meyer.]
We are like children in a machine shop, who see this wheel revolving one way, and that wheel revolving another way, this wheel revolving rapidly, and that wheel revolving slowly, and who conclude that therefore there is no plan, no unifying force about it all. Or, to use another figure, we stand by a great loom, and see one side of the fabric, and it seems to be a crazy patchwork of shapes and colours. Isaiah caught a glimpse of the Engineer and saw that He was Master of all the wheels and belts and pulleys. Isaiah caught a glimpse of the Weaver at the loom and saw that the pattern was before Him all the while. So, ever afterward, whoever was on the throne of Judah, whoever ruled Israel, there was one man absolutely calm and contented, knowing that the King of kings was on the Great Throne, and that all earthly monarchs are but His puppets, with paper crowns and sceptres of straw. He was like Robert Browning’s man, who “never dreamed though right were worsted, wrong would triumph.” “What is your carpenter doing now?” said a Roman scoffer to an early Christian. “He is making a coffin for your emperor,” was the reply. And He was. Nero is but a noxious memory. We name our dogs Nero. The Carpenter of Nazareth is on the throne of power, “Ancient of days yet ever new.”2 [Note: C. C. Albertson.]
’Tis not the temple’s shrine
Which holy makes the place,
Where’er God is, is power Divine;
Where’er God helps is grace.
The bush on Horeb’s peak,
Burning and unconsumed,
The prophet bent to reverence meek,
For God the spot illumed.
The sword at night beheld,
By Jordan’s swelling bed,
The captain of the host compelled
To own the Lord who led.
Think of thy God as near;
And, once His presence found,
Be sure, whate’er around appear,
Thou tread’st on holy ground.
Put off, O Man, thy shoes,
With which thou earth hast trod;
Thee from earth’s dust and toil unloose,
And worship pay thy God.
So shalt thou find a light,
To burn and still endure;
A leader of all-conquering might
To make thy Canaan sure.1 [Note: Lord Kinloch.]
vii. The Effect of the Song
“And the foundations of the thresholds were moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.”
1. “The foundations of the thresholds were moved at the voice of him that cried”—and yet his face was covered with his wings. Dim, feeble, muffled sounds are the most we should have expected to proceed from them. With a covered face we associate the idea of silence. They are not the face-veiled whose voices ring out, whose words go forth abroad to agitate and thrill. Fancy the posts of the Lord’s house quivering, and the prophet’s heart stirred to its depths, beneath the cries of those whose heads are bowed and hid behind their wings! Here, however, is an image of much truth. Great, penetrating, inspiring utterances like the utterances of the seraphim of Isaiah’s vision—are they not always connected with some deep, still inwardness, with some profound withdrawal and retirement of soul? Is it not always from such as have held their breath that they come? from such as have brooded oft in solitude, and sighed, being burdened? No one speaks with quickening energy, to the melting or rousing of his fellows, who has not dwelt apart, who has not had his moments, his hours, of dumb absorption, with bent brows and folded hands, when thought and feeling have weighed upon him heavily, and held him bound. There is no life, again, of noble activity and influence which does not rest on, and issue from, some inner, hidden life of careful self-discipline and quiet self-communion, which is not fed and sustained from behind with cherishings of faith and contemplation of ideas. “The more I ascend before men,” said one, “the more I descend before Thee, O God!” and we may say, also, that to descend before God is to ascend before men.
2. “And the house was filled with smoke.” The posts of the door moved at the voice which declared that the Holy One was there. The house was filled with smoke because the fire of His love was kindling the sacrifices. The sights and sounds of Sinai would not have made the Israelites tremble as they did if they had been merely sights and sounds of overwhelming and destructive power; they spoke first of Truth, of Holiness. And that Truth and Holiness did not dwell aloof and at a distance from the man, as in the burning mountain, but in the very house which every Israelite might claim as his own.
Smoke is usually associated with God’s wrath. But here the smoke that filled the house is hardly to be regarded as a symbol of the dark side of the self-manifesting God coming into view and His anger against sin. Analogies for such an interpretation of smoke in the house seem wanting. The cloud of smoke is rather the manifestation of Himself (Isaiah 4:5). The King, high and lifted up, is not immovable. He responds and gives a fuller token of Himself. On the spirits adoring what they knew there breaks a fuller knowledge and a more sensible nearness. If in the busy day the pillar seems cloud and smoke, in stiller hours it brightens into fire. And to the eastern seer God was a light more distinct and clearer far than to the dimmer vision of the western eye, when—
On the glimmering light far withdrawn
God made Himself an awful rose of dawn.1 [Note: A. B. Davidson, in The Expositor, 4th Ser., vii. p. 246.]
A Vision of Self
Next in importance to a vision of God is a vision of ourselves. So far as we know, Isaiah was a young man of excellent character. No doubt he had the confidence and respect of all who knew him. The probabilities are that his life was above reproach. But when he got a glimpse of the Infinite Holiness he cried out, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” No man can see God aright without feeling just as Isaiah did. When that vision rises up before him, all his pride, all his self-sufficiency, all the small moralities on which he is building will seem to him like blight and mildew on the leaves and flowers. Over against the Divine perfection his own righteousness will appear as filthy rags.
The keen sanctity,
Which with this effluence, like a glory, clothes
And circles round the Deity, did seize
And scorch and shrivel him; and now he lay
Passive and still before the awful Throne!
“Then said I, woe is me! for I am undone.”
1. The sight of God has always a reacting influence on one’s self. We always carry with us a sense of relation to God; and when we think of Him, we always think of ourselves. We cannot think of Him out of relation to ourselves. It is part of our thought of Him, that it always includes ourselves; for He is Sovereign, high and lifted up. This thought of Him is often fleeting and has little influence upon our mind, oftentimes no effect to influence our life permanently. Our sight of Him is often partial and reacts but feebly back upon ourselves. But a real sight of Him, such as the prophet had, will not be without a powerful effect upon our feeling regarding ourselves.
(1) The first thought it will occasion will perhaps be the one it occasioned to this prophet—fear. There will be such a sense of contrast between Him and us—Him the King and us—that it will beget terror. This was the common feeling in the Hebrew mind. The distance between Jehovah and the creature was so vast, the unworthiness of the creature was so great, that when suddenly brought into the presence of Jehovah the creature felt he must be consumed and die. “No man can see God and live.”
(2) But this feeling of fear was succeeded by another. Though the first, it was not the last condition of the prophet’s mind. In a brief space his mind ran through a history; and thought succeeded thought of his relation to God. In the vision a seraph flew to him with a live coal from the altar, and touched his lips, saying, “Thy sin is purged.” Now these two things, his fear and this that succeeded, must be taken together. They are both required, in order to bring out the proper view of the effect on man of a full sight of God. First, fear; and then, following it, the sense of sin purged away. “Though thou wast angry with me, thine anger is turned away, and thou comfortedst me.” If the sight of God stop with producing the first feeling merely, it will not have been a true, full sight of God. It will have been partial, imperfect. When God is revealed to the mind, it may be all perturbed, it may rock to and fro, and feeling after feeling pass over it. The prevailing tone may for a time be terror; but if the sight of God be full—as He is in Christ, as He is in Himself—the conclusion at the last will be peace.
We have seen in Christ a holiness the prophet did not know. It is not less solemn, it is not less sublime, but it is more sweet, it is more deep, it is more abiding. It is not a vision, but a presence and a power. We have seen through the smoke which filled the house. We have seen the face of Him that sat upon the throne. We have seen the Cross upon the altar. We have seen that the holiness of God is the holiness of love. There is no such awful gulf fixed between the King and the creature. We too are kings in Him. The word we hear is judgment indeed, and fear, but it is more. It is our judgment laid on the Holy. It is such mercy, pity, peace, and love. It is, indeed, infinite tenderness; but it is soul tenderness, it is moral tenderness, it is atoning, redeeming tenderness. It is the tenderness of the Holy, which does not soothe but save. It is love which does not simply comfort, and it is holiness which does not simply doom. It is holy love, which judges, saves, forgives, cleanses the conscience, destroys the guilt, reorganises the race, and makes a new world from the ruins of the old.1 [Note: P. T. Forsyth.]
2. “I am undone.”—What gave Isaiah this feeling?
(1) There was the conviction of unworthiness. This man, who of all Israel seemed to be the purest and sweetest, is the man that bows the lowest and is most convinced of sin. God’s children need to learn that lesson too. He had done good work, but God saw that he could do better, and so convicted him of the comparative unworthiness of his past ministry. Thus it befell that the man by whom God had spoken through five chapters (if we take the prophecies in their order as they stand) was a man who confessed to having unclean lips.
(2) There was the conviction that God was near. The great God had come down from the heavens. The whole earth is full of God, all time, all space; but now Isaiah felt the presence of the skirts of the Eternal falling upon him.
(3) There was the conviction of sin. Christmas Evans tells us in his diary that one Sunday afternoon he was travelling a very lonely road to attend an appointment in a village the other side of the slope, and he was convicted of a cold heart. He says, “I tethered my horse and went to a sequestered spot, where I walked to and fro in an agony as I reviewed my life. I waited three hours before God, broken with sorrow, until there broke over me a sweet sense of His forgiving love. I received from God a new baptism of the Holy Ghost. As the sun was westering, I went back to the road, found my horse, mounted it and went to my appointment. On the following day I preached with such new power to a vast concourse of people gathered on the hillside, that a revival broke out that day and spread through the whole Principality.”
“Because I am a man of unclean lips.”
The ethical process by which, in the imagery of the vision, Isaiah’s sense of sinfulness came home to him, is finely natural and simple. It was at his lips that the consciousness of his impurity caught him. That, judged by our formulas and standards, might seem a somewhat superficial conviction of sin. We should have expected him to speak of his unclean heart, or the total corruption of his whole nature. But conviction of sin, actual conviction of sin, is very regardless of our theories, and is as diverse in its manifestations as are the characters and records of men. Sin finds out one man in one place, and another in a quite different spot, and perhaps the experience is most real when it is least theological. Isaiah felt his defilement in his lips, for suddenly he found himself at heaven’s gate, gazing on the glory of God, and listening to the seraphs’ ceaseless song of adoring praise. Isaiah loved God, and instinctively he prepared to join his voice to the seraphs’ chant, hut ere the harmony could pass his lips he caught his breath and was dumb. A horrible sense of uncleanliness had seized him. His breath was tainted by his sin. He dare not mingle his polluted praise with the worship of that pure, sinless host of heaven. Oh, the shame and agony of that disability! for it meant that he has no part or place in that great scene. He is an alien and an intruder. Its beauty and its sweetness are not for him. He belongs to a very different scene and a very different company. He is no inhabitant of heaven, no servant of God; but a denizen of earth, and a companion of sinners. Down there, amid its squalor, and shame, and uncleanliness, is his dwelling-place, remote from heaven, and holiness, and God. “Woe is me! because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” With that, the horror of his situation reached its climax. He stands there, on the threshold of heaven in full sight of God and of His holiness, dumb and praiseless, while all heaven rings and reverberates with the worship of its adoring hosts. The awful tremor of that celestial praise passed into Isaiah’s frame, and it seemed like the pangs of instant dissolution. He, a creature of God’s, stands there in his Maker’s presence, alone mute, alone refusing to chant his Creator’s glory, a blot and blank in the holy harmony of heaven, a horrible and foul blemish amid the unsullied purity of that celestial scene. It seemed to Isaiah as if all the light, and glory, and holiness of heaven were gathering itself into one fierce lightning fire of vengeance, to overwhelm and crush him out of existence.
It appears to me that up to this time profanity of language had been Isaiah’s besetting sin. I should think that few will doubt that, when he says “I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips,” he means to refer to a prevalence of profanity amongst his companions. Well, is it not the most natural explanation to believe that he had in his previous life given way to that sin, and now that is the sin that burns on his conscience? I have more than once known this particular form of sin to be killed outright in one day; and whereas there are other besetting sins which, even when a man has been pardoned, cling to him for a lifetime, very often this one is got quit of in one hour, and never comes back again.1 [Note: J. Stalker, in Christian World Pulpit, xliii. p. 389.]
“I am a man of unclean lips.” In vision the prophet sees the throne, beholds the seraphim, listens to their song, the Trisagion, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” Prompted to join in the august anthem that leaps from their lips, he at once realises that it ill becomes him to speak that thrice-uttered word, for he is unholy, he stands in his own way, he is too wicked to worship, and all about him are wicked too. I knew a collegian who was educated, but profane. His vocabulary of oaths was copious, but he, as every swearer has, shunned the prefix “holy.” It is a terrible word. It means whole. It expresses integrity, completeness, and is a vocable that bad men shun. It is rarely used by any of us in speaking of the dead. We may say of the departed, “He was good, amiable, or honest,” but none, unless it be a clergyman in the pulpit discourse, says, “he was holy.” Swearers shun the word. It is a gun that kicks more than it shoots. Yet we are told to “follow holiness “as a vocation, a business, if we would hope to see God. Holiness is everything or nothing.2 [Note: C. S. Robinson, in The Homiletic Review, xvi. p. 248.]
“And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”
Every soul has an environment, which it affects, and by which it is affected; and no question of guilt or innocence, forgiveness or condemnation, is limited to the individual by himself. This truth, which goes far back into the history of man’s ideas about himself, is emphatically presented in the Bible. Thus Psalms 51, which gives expression most poignantly to the sense of personal guilt, also represents the sinner as born in a sinful environment: so here, Isaiah is conscious not only that he is a man of unclean lips, but that he dwells among a people of unclean lips. Not only is sin a personal act of rebellion, but it produces a sinful atmosphere, a condition of alienation from God. In like manner, the absolution or declaration of freedom from sin cannot concern the individual alone: it must have an eye also to the society in which he lives and to his relations towards it.1 [Note: T. B. Strong, in Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics, i. p. 49.]
There is a sense of the sin in society which makes a man not a Pharisee, but a prophet. It is easy to be cynical at the expense of our fellows, and to pour out stinging satires on the shams and weaknesses of society; but that is not the dominant spirit of the highest ministry. In the all-searching light of this vision, Isaiah sees that the world in which he lives is full of such shams; speech is a symbol and expression of life, and speech which should be clean and sweet, as well as truthful and strong, is vile and unclean. But the life of sinful people is the life the prophet shares, the atmosphere he breathes, the sphere in which he lives and moves. He cannot flee to the wilderness and leave it all behind. He must be in this world, but not of it; this he can do because he has learned that sin is an alien power in himself and in society. It is treason to the Divine King; in the name and by the power of the King it can be conquered. Through the influence of this deep revelation he can be a statesman as well as a religious teacher, a social reformer as well as a sacred singer, and through it all a saint. The vision means, then, the possibility of service. If there were no King a man might be content to be a time-server, but to the man who has seen the King the way of highest service is open, and he is “not disobedient to the heavenly vision.” Life, then, finds its real meaning in service to God and man. Behind this man’s call to service there are certain great convictions which are a prophecy of, and a preparation for, the rich personal experience which is fully revealed in our Lord Jesus, and quickened in us by the power of His great sacrifice.2 [Note: W. G. Jordan, Prophetic Ideas and Ideals, p. 62.]
“For mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”
1. The sleeping snake that is coiled in every soul stirs and begins to heave in its bulk, and wake, when the thought of a holy God comes into the heart. Now, I do not suppose that consciousness of sin is the whole explanation of that universal human feeling, but I am very sure it is an element in it, and I suspect that if there were no sin, there would be no shrinking.
2. The immediate effect of the vision on Isaiah was an overpowering consciousness of his sinfulness, and a fear of instant death at the hand of God. It was apparently a universal belief among the ancient Hebrews that the sight of God would be instant death to a man. We see this clearly in the fear of Gideon when he discovered that his unknown visitor was “the angel of the Lord” (Jdg 6:22); so with Manoah (Jdg 13:22), and Jacob (Genesis 32:30; see also Exodus 24:11, and Genesis 16:13). The Greek myth of Jupiter and Semele, and the Greek ideas about νυμφοληψία show that similar views were not unknown even outside of Israel. And among the Hebrews this doctrine is not due to revelation; it appears in the history always as a tradition inherited from remote antiquity—a natural outgrowth of the natural consciousness of sin. It forms a strange illustration of the knowledge man has always had of his own guilt in God’s sight, and the danger of Divine punishment he constantly lies under. Man cannot conceive God appearing to him for any other purpose than to execute judgment; so pure is God, so impure is man! This belief may have degenerated with many into a mere superstition, a blind belief whose meaning and reason were forgotten; it seems little better with Manoah. But it is not so with Isaiah. He knows well the reason of his danger: “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.” He feels his own sin, and feels his solidarity with a nation that is sinful too. God’s mind towards the whole nation must be one of wrath and threatening, unmitigated by the presence of righteous persons to leaven the mass. (See Genesis 18:23-33.)
The central fact is the vision of God as King—“Mine eyes have seen the King.” You say, no man can see God and live. That is quite true; as we here see, this man did not live; in a very deep sense he died. The vision of God kills that it may make alive; the fire of the Divine revelation burns up the dross of pride and passion. The great need of that time is also our own great need, a true vision of the Divine, a lofty thought of God. This alone can meet the hunger of Isaiah’s soul and save the nation from utter failure. The popular religion was crude and impure; many worshipped idols, many ran after a spurious spiritualism, or reduced religion to a sensuous ritualism (Isaiah 1:11, Isaiah 2:8, Isaiah 8:18). That which made a hero of this young man, and gave power to the purest religion of his day, was the force which also nerved our fathers to cast out superstition and fight for liberty; the vision of a God who is supreme, who through His righteousness is really kind, who is revealed in Nature, who rules the nations and who does not disdain the cry of the penitent soul. No argument can do justice to this; it is a vision and a life. The saints and martyrs point to it as the object of their love and the source of their strength. Men of mighty intellect, of childlike heart, of pure spiritual aspiration, have through its inspiration saved the nation from despair and the Church from failure. The men who have borne the burdens and fought the battles which helped forward the world’s highest life, knew the meaning of the words, “Mine eyes have seen the King.”1 [Note: W. G. Jordan.]
3. The Incarnation has made the prophetic vision permanent. And in this respect the Incarnation, which has brought God very near to us, has not lessened His awfulness. It has indeed made known undreamt-of powers, destinies, significances in things visible and temporal. It has, to the sight of faith, transfigured the earth, but it has not lowered heaven. He whom Isaiah beheld was, as St. John tells us, Christ Himself: he saw His glory and spake of Him; and His glory is unchanged and unchangeable. He became very man, not to bind us with new ties to earth as we see it, but to disclose its unseen potencies. He became man, that He might give us boldness to approach the footstool of His Father; that He might lift us to a sublimer region while we are ever striving to bring things to the standards of sense; that He might enable us to ascend in Him to that which is spaceless and timeless, which is apprehended by the soul alone, and which alone is able to fill the soul.
It is in this sense that St. Paul tells us that when he realised the scope of the work of Christ, though he had once known Him after the flesh, yet he knew Him so no more. We must strive towards the same purity of knowledge. “Christ after the flesh” corresponds in some way to the fabric of the visible sanctuary. That which belongs to the senses is our starting-point and not our goal. We in our turn are bound to use the limited revelation, that we may rise beyond it in hope, in prayer, in effort.
No one of us indeed would question in words our Lord’s immutable Deity. No one would question that He came to us in the Father’s name, to reveal the Father to us. Yet is it not true that, practically, we are all tempted to think of Him as He moved about among men under the limitations of earthly existence? Is it not true that we are tempted to substitute Him for the Father to whose presence He leads us? Is it not true that our faith in consequence is in peril of becoming unmanly, sentimental, fantastic, unbraced by the generous discipline of reverence, unpurified by the spiritual fire of awe?
For eight years Dannecker, the German sculptor, laboured upon a marble statue of the Christ. When he had worked upon it for two years it seemed to him that the statue was finished. What more could he do to add to its perfection? To test the matter, however, he one day called a little girl into his studio, and, directing her attention to the statue, said, “Who is that?” She replied promptly, “A great man.” He turned away disheartened. He felt that he had failed, and that his two years of labour had been lost. But he began anew. He toiled on for six years more, and then, inviting another little child into his studio, repeated the inquiry, “Who is that?” This time he was not disappointed. After looking in silence awhile, the child’s curiosity deepened into awe and reverence, and bursting into tears, she said softly, “Suffer little children to come unto Me.” It was enough. The untutored instinct of the child had led her to the right conclusion, and he knew that his work was a success. Dannecker declared afterwards that in his solitary vigils he had seen a vision of Christ, and had but transferred to the marble the image which the Lord had shown him. Some time later Napoleon Bonaparte requested him to make a statue of Venus for the gallery of the Louvre. But he refused, saying, “A man who has seen Christ would commit sacrilege if he should employ his art in the carving of a pagan goddess. My art henceforth is a consecrated thing.”1 [Note: R. F. Coyle.]
4. The title Lord of Hosts has a history.
(1) It is possible that at one time the title suggested the idea of Jahweh as the leader of the Israelite forces. In favour of this view is the fact that the word sabaoth outside this phrase always refers to bodies of men, and usually to Israelite forces. There is no doubt that in the early stages of the history of the nation the popular view of the functions of Jahweh was concentrated to a large extent on this point, that He was the guider and commander of the armies in warfare; and the same idea lingered late, and lies at the bottom of the objection to the institution of the monarchy which is put in Samuel’s mouth (cf. 1 Samuel 8:20 with 1 Samuel 12:12). In the same way, David, as he taunts Goliath, says to him, “I come in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel” (1 Samuel 17:45). (2) So we are brought to another view, which may merely mark a later stage: the “hosts” are the spiritual forces which stand at God’s disposal. So in Joshua 5:13-14, when Joshua asks the unknown warrior whether he is on their side or on that of their enemies, the implied answer of the Divine stranger is that he belongs to neither side, but is come as captain of the Lord’s host to succour His people. (3) The third stage is reached in the prophets, especially Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, and Malachi, where the title assumes a far wider meaning and embraces all the forces of the universe.1 [Note: H. C. O. Lanchester, in Hastings’ Single-Volume Dictionary of the Bible, p. 551b.]
Every man’s vision of the true God of history or of hope repeats this of Isaiah. Behind every great statesman, or reformer, whether he speaks our theologic dialect or not, is a vision of the power which leads the universe and every atom of it to lofty ends, whose forces run everywhere, whose flowing robes fill the whole palace of life and being, and whose energies are more than we see and hear and know, and above us,—the Lord of hosts. A man need not believe intelligently all the truth about a seraph and cherub, but if he is to organise society and guide men well, if he is to reform abuses and reconstitute broken-down humanity, he must, with the inner eye of thought and faith, see that the powers above life are supreme over those beneath it, that there are more and finer energies in the unseen than in the seen, that they that are for us are more than they that be against us, and that around every Elisha are chariots and horses in the clouds which are the invisible reserve of God and man. This faith in unseen truths and powers has made men brave enough to be statesmen rather than politicians. They have counted upon the reality of what they did not see. The merely shrewd politicians have looked and listened and put all their visible forces into their own measures and methods. The statesmen have looked and listened also, but with the unseen power of truth and right and God; they have counted on the hosts of the Lord. They have known that ideas and principles are God’s messengers to command men and lead them; they have believed that progress is made by the rule of the powers above man’s vision, rather than that of those below it; and not politicians, but statesmen have ruled the world. So all reform depends on a Lord of hosts.
The Greeks, looking at the heavens above them and at the earth around them, beholding everywhere order, called what they saw cosmos—beauty of harmony. The Romans, discovering the same harmonious relations and movements, named the entirety of creation a universe—combined as one. To the poetic imagination of the Hebrews, with their knowledge of the omnipotent, reigning God, the regularity and order everywhere apparent suggested an army in vast, numerous, and varied divisions acting under the command of one will, and that will Jehovah’s. The Lord of hosts, He is the King, the King who sitteth upon the throne of the universe.1 [Note: J. D. Davis.]
“Then flew one of the seraphim unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar.”
1. “I am a man of unclean lips.” “lam undone!” It was because that conviction and confession sprang in the prophet’s consciousness that the seraph winged his way with the purifying fire in his hands. Which being translated is just this: faith alone will not bring cleansing. There must go with it what we call, in our Christian phraseology, repentance, which is but the recognition of my own antagonism to the holiness of God, and the resolve to turn my back on my own past self. Now, it seems to me2 [Note: A. Maclaren.] that a great deal of what is called, and in a sense is, evangelical teaching, fails to represent the full counsel of God in the matter of man’s redemption, because it puts a one-sided emphasis on faith, and slurs over the accompanying idea of repentance. And I am here to say that a trust in Jesus Christ, which is unaccompanied by a profound penitent consciousness and abhorrence of one’s sins, and a resolve to turn away from them for the time to come, is not a faith which will bring either pardon or cleansing. We do not need to have less said about trust; we need to have a great deal more said about repentance.
But the seraph did not come in his own personality alone; he did not say, I can remove all the impurity of which thou dost complain; it lies within my power to make thee a good man. No such speech did he make. It is not in mortal to purify mortality. This help that we need is supernatural aid. Even a seraph cannot redeem, purify, or forgive.
Now, mark this: the angel was not told to go, but he knew just what to do. The fact is, the angels have gone so often for the live coal, that whenever they hear a sinner crying that he is undone, they go for it; they do not need to be told. It is as if a druggist’s boy were so in the habit of getting the same medicine for the same symptoms, that when the patient comes to the door he knows just what medicine to seek, without going to the doctor to get advice.1 [Note: F. B. Meyer.]
2. As soon as the consciousness of sin and the aversion from it spring in a man’s heart, the seraph’s wings are set in motion. The two are as closely synchronous as the flash and the peal. Remember that beautiful old story in the historical books, of how the erring king, brought to sanity and repentance by Nathan’s apologue, put all his acknowledgments in these words, “I have sinned against the Lord”; and how the confession was not out of his lips, nor had died in its vibration in the atmosphere, before the prophet, with Divine authority, replied with equal brevity and completeness, and as if the two sayings were parts of one sentence, “And the Lord hath made to pass the iniquity of thy sin.” That is all. Simultaneous are the two things. To confess is to be forgiven, and the moment that the consciousness of sin rises in the heart, that moment does the heavenly messenger come to still and soothe.
3. “A live coal.” The thing called in the A.V. a “live coal,” and in the R.V. margin a “hot stone,” is peculiarly Oriental, belonging to a state of society that has now passed away in the West; and hence we have in English no word that properly translates it. The rendering “a live coal,” i.e. a burning log (for of course in those days the fuel was wood), is totally wrong, and, indeed, the conception is too grotesque to be for a moment entertained. The rizpah is a stone kept in all ancient Oriental households as a means of applying heat to household purposes. In order to bake cakes (cf. 1 Kings 19:6, “a cake baked on the hot stones”), or to roast flesh, the stone was first heated in the fire, and the wet dough or the flesh spread out upon it, the stones as they grew cold being exchanged for hot ones fresh from the fire. To boil milk, the hot stone was plunged into it when contained in the leathern skin that served alike as cauldron and as pitcher. The prophet, carrying the similitude of an earthly household into the heavenly palace, assumes the presence of such an utensil on the hearth, which here, of course, must be conceived as an altar, on the model of God’s earthly dwelling-place. A seraph takes the hot stone from the altar and lays it on the prophet’s lips, which he had himself mentioned as the special seat of sin, and announces to him also in words the forgiveness of his guilt: “Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.”
It is this swift and simple domestic process which Isaiah now sees substituted for the slow and intricate ceremonial of the temple—a seraph with a glowing stone in his hand, with tongs had he taken it off the altar. And yet the prophet feels this only as a more direct expression of the very same idea with which the elaborate ritual was inspired—for which the victim was slain, and the flesh consumed in fire, and the blood sprinkled. Isaiah desires nothing else, and receives no more, than the ceremonial law was intended to assure to the sinner—pardon of his sin and reconciliation to God. But our prophet will have conviction of these immediately, and with a force which the ordinary ritual is incapable of expressing.
The Syriac Fathers are said to have regarded the burning coal as the symbol of the Incarnate Son of God; and we may well see a profound fitness in the symbolism. The burning coal in Isaiah’s vision purged away his disabling uncleanness, and inspired him with the will and the power to obey the Call of God. This two-fold grace of purification and inspiration is the gift of the Incarnate Son to His brethren. The Gospel indeed includes a narrative which might seem the Christian counterpart of Isaiah’s record of vocation. The revelation of God to an Apostle is realised through the same cycle of spiritual experiences. First, conviction of sin; then, consciousness of pardon; finally, a clear commission. Simon Peter, when he saw the sign which discovered the Presence of the Incarnate, fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord … and Jesus said unto Simon, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men.1 [Note: H. H. Henson, The Liberty of Prophesying, p. 253.]
“And he touched my mouth with it, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.”
1. The action of the seraph was of course symbolic, but the thing symbolised is a great spiritual fact. In it we have mirrored the very heart of the process of redemption. The cleansing efficacy of the burning ember resided not in the ember, but in the Divine fire contained in it. In the imagery of sacrifice the fire is always conceived as God’s method of accepting and taking to Himself the offering. The sacred flame that comes down from God licks up the sacrifice, and in vapour carries it up to heaven; a sweet-smelling savour represents, therefore, the pitying holiness of God, that stoops forgivingly to sinful men, and graciously accepts and sanctifies them and their sacrifices. Contact with that has sin-cleansing power, and nothing has besides.
2. If anything is clear exegetically, it is the coinciding of the prophet’s forgiveness with the application of the sacramental sign. The moment he rises from that act of sacramental communion, he exclaims in the full consciousness of a Divine absolution, “Here am I, send me.” This allusion to a sacrament may furnish the best solution of the seraph’s reassuring message. A sacrament is something more than a momentary act. It is an act that symbolises the passing into a forgiven and lifelong state—a state that is best described by God’s eternal now; not “shall be,” but “is.” Hence, to paraphrase his language, it might read, “Lo, this glowing stone touches thy mouth, and, as you kneel in silent receptivity under the mystic sign, I, as heaven’s delegate, pronounce the words Absolvo Te—Thine iniquity passeth away, and thy sin is expiated!” So that the forgiveness in Isaiah’s vision may be treated as follows:—
(1) Its Divine origin—a glowing stone “from the altar.”
(2) Its completed character—“Thine iniquity is taken away.”
(3) Its adaptability to the individual man—“Lo, this hath touched thy lips!”1 [Note: J. Adams, Sermons in Syntax, p. 204.]
3. This symbolic act of the angel would perhaps be quite intelligible to the contemporaries of the prophet; but it is undoubtedly very obscure to us. The act is intended to shadow forth in some way the cleansing of the prophet from sin; but what is the connection between such cleansing and the touching of Isaiah’s lips with the stone heated on the altar fire? What is the tertium comparationis of the symbol? The stone is a means of applying fire, as we have seen; when, therefore, it is brought to the lips of the prophet, it is the same as if the whole altar-fire had been brought there; and that again is the same as if the prophet’s “unclean lips” had been laid on the altar. The everyday use of the stone would at once suggest this to the mind of Isaiah’s hearers. The angel’s act, therefore, is as much as to say: “Lo, I lay thy sinfulness on the altar-fire; and thou art cleansed from sin thereby.” But how should laying on the altar cleanse from sin? Gesenius, in his Commentary, compares Malachi 3:2-3 (“a refiner’s fire”), and refers us to the belief, so widespread in antiquity, in the purifying power of fire. But, even if this were not too mechanical, and almost too magical, to satisfy us, laying on God’s altar fire irresistibly suggests sacrifice; and we can hardly suppose that the prophet did not, in some way, have sacrifice in his mind. It is to be presumed, at the very least, that the meaning of the prophet is not different from what he believed to be the meaning of sacrifice. Now, whatever differences of opinion there may be regarding other parts of the sacrificial ritual, all schools agree that the laying of the sacrifice on the altar and burning it, in whole or in part, signifies its presentation to God. The sacrifice is given to God by being burnt; no one supposes that the burning is to purify or “refine” it. The idea of purifying is totally irrelevant to the laying of sacrifices on the altar-fire. To lay on the altar is to give up to God—to make wholly His. Here, then, the angel says to Isaiah in substance this: “Thy sin-defiled nature” (“lips”) “I lay on God’s altar. I will make it all His again. The uncleanness of thy nature consisted in its opposition to God, for all sin is selfish action, as opposed to action for God, and now all the opposition of thy nature to God is taken away. Thy nature is, by this act, devoted wholly to God. By Divine power thou hast been suddenly, miraculously, turned into one from whom all selfish thoughts and words and deeds are taken away, into one whose every thought and desire is toward God; into one wholly consecrated and devoted to God; and therefore into one wholly pure.”
Observe the manner in which sin, that is the guilt of sin, is here, as evermore in Holy Scripture, spoken of as taken away by a free act of God, an act of His in which man is passive; in which he has, so to speak, to stand still and see the salvation of the Lord; an act to which he can contribute nothing, save indeed only that divinely awakened hunger of the soul after the benefit which we call faith. It is quite another thing with the power of sin. In the subduing of the power of sin we must be fellow-workers with God; all the faculties of our renewed nature will need to be strained to the uttermost. So, too, it is quite another thing with the stain of sin: this, to be effaced, will demand the fuller’s soap and the refiner’s fire; the patient toil, it may be the many tears, of him who would indeed have this stain effaced from his soul. But, in the matter of getting rid of the guilt of sin, we have nothing to do but to stand still and see the work of our God. This is the universal language of Scripture, and with nothing less than this will the heart of man be content. When Joshua, the. high-priest (the passage, let me say, constitutes a most instructive real parallel to the present), stands before the Lord “clothed with filthy garments,” the word of grace which goes forth concerning him, “Take away the filthy garments from him,” is in its essence identical with this; the interpretation of that symbolic act following close upon the act itself—“Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee.” It is this which in Scripture the saints of God, who feel themselves sinners too, crave after; such an act of taking away as shall be wholly God’s, and which, as being such, shall be perfect—“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” It is this which the soul, rejoicing in its deliverance from the condemnation of sin, avouches that it has received: “As far as the east is distant from the west, so far hath He removed our transgressions from us”; or again, “Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.”1 [Note: R. C. Trench, Sermons New and Old, p. 106.]
4. It was at Isaiah’s lips that the sense of sin had stung him, and it was there that he received the cleansing. The seraph laid the hot ember on his lips, and it left about his mouth the fragrance of the celestial incense. He felt that he breathed the atmosphere and purity of heaven. He, too, might now join in heaven’s praise and service; no more an alien, but a member of the celestial choir and a servant of the King. That act of Divine mercy had transformed him. He was a new creature, and instantly the change appeared. The voice of God sounds through the Temple, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And the first of all heaven’s hosts to answer is Isaiah.
5. That Isaiah’s vision does mean and imply all this, we who accept the New Testament as the Word of God can have no doubt; for it was after quoting from this very vision that St. John wrote: “These things spake Isaiah when he saw his glory (the glory of the Christ), and spake of him.” But if we accept this inspired interpretation of Isaiah’s vision, think how much it implies,—a truth how far-reaching, a hope how large and sublime. It assures us (1) that the sin of man was no unforeseen accident which the eternal purposes of God did not include, but was part of that Divine education and discipline by which God is training His many sons for honour, glory, and immortality. It assures us (2) that, though our Father in heaven cannot but be pained to the very heart by our sins, yet His love is not alienated from us by them, but has been working from all eternity for our redemption and renewal. It assures us (3) that though, because of our iniquity, we cannot be redeemed without pain, though we must die to live, God will spare us no pain by which we may be purged from our iniquity and formed anew, fitted for His service and made meet to partake His glory.
There is a hymn of Newton, eight stanzas, “In Evil long I took Delight,” which I call “Two Looks.” The stanza, “I saw One hanging on a tree,” introduces the first. The other is introduced by the words, “A second look He gave,” and the lyric concludes in these words—
Thus, while His death my sin displays
In all its blackest hue,
Such is the mystery of grace
It seals my pardon, too.1 [Note: C. S. Robinson.]
A Vision of Duty
Great events in history are dated—the battle of Waterloo, the passing of the Reform Bill. Most men have also in their own life one or more events to which there is an exact date attached. Isaiah had such an event. It was his call to the work of his life. “In the year that King Uzziah died,” he says, “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne.… And I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send?”
He describes the event vividly. We see it clearly with him. We seem to stand with the young prophet at the very mouth of Heaven; all mean and low ambitions die away; there are lightnings and thunderings and voices; the tremendous forces which we always knew must be at the centre of the universe seem about to be revealed.
But the most touching part is yet to come: so far it has been only what we expect; if we had thought about the matter at all, we should have known that the power which can daily keep twenty million flaming suns circling round itself must be terrific; we should have guessed that when we could get clear goodness disentangled from the evil of the world, its Author must be Holy, holy, holy, and make the seraphim bow down in awe, but what we should never have dreamt is what comes next; a voice comes from the centre of the burning light; the Godhead has a need; “Whom shall I—the true God—send, and who will go for us—the Three in One?”—The Godhead asks for men.
In his controversy with John Stuart Mill, the French philosopher Comte said: “My Deity (Humanity) has at least one advantage over yours—he needs help and can be helped.” Mill met the charge by the saying, that the theist’s God is not omnipotent, “He can be helped, Great Worker though He be.” But we are not compelled to doubt or deny the omnipotence of Deity before we can believe that our part in the Divine movement of the world is not a passive one; that we are not simple recipients and blind instruments, but allies and helpers of the Eternal Power.
The subject contains (1) the Divine call, and (2) the human response to it.
i. The Divine Call
“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
1. How do we hear it? It is probable that we hear it first as a call from below, the cry of human need. There is a cry which comes swelling up from sickbeds, from hospitals, from men in doubt, from men in trouble, from men struggling with deadly temptations, from lads adrift, from children left upon the world, from girls driven by poverty to the streets, from heathen lands, from Africa, from India, from China—“Whom wilt thou send? and who will come to us?”
One time at a meeting of the General Assembly, an effort was made to raise funds enough to send a young Princeton graduate to India as a missionary. A teacher in a home mission school was seen by her hostess to slip a gold ring from her finger and put it on the collection plate. Asked afterwards by the lady whose guest she was why she did it, she replied, “Because I had no money, and because I knew what it would mean if the effort to send this missionary failed.” Not long before, she had been told that she would have to give up her own school because there were no funds to support it. But she would not give it up. She held on with magnificent heroism, and she contributed the ring with all its sacred associations to help another to do what was so near her own heart.
Next morning a commissioner brought the ring into the General Assembly and told the story of it. It was worth about five dollars. “I will give five dollars to send the ring back to the young woman,” said a minister. “I will give five dollars,” said the stated clerk. A newspaper reporter handed up five dollars to the platform. Pastors, missionaries, visitors came forward readily with the cash, each one eager to have some share in restoring the ring. In less than ten minutes more than three hundred dollars had been passed up to the desk. It was all caused by the vision they got of the self-sacrificing love that flamed in the heart of that little woman, making her glad to do something for her dear Master.1 [Note: R. F. Coyle.]
This human cry is often a challenge to God. “There is no God, or if there is He does not care.” It is really God’s challenge to us. “God has been preparing His answer; just as in the hidden laboratory of nature the coal has been slowly prepared for the world’s need of warmth; just as, nursed in secret stores, electricity has been prepared for the world’s need of light and speed; just as, in the slow working of history, the fundamental answer to all problems was prepared in the Incarnation, so year after year, by quiet influences, by teaching, by a mother’s prayers, by school sermons, by an education given only to a few, God has been slowly preparing His answer to this cry, and you, my brother, are the answer.
So when the cry from below is heard, the ear opens to the call from above. And then the human cry becomes more articulate and insistent. Moses heard the cry of his countrymen, and struck a blow for them. But on the first intimation of danger he fled. Then God came and sent him down into Egypt to deliver them, and he was no longer afraid of the wrath of the king.
Let me tell you of a man I knew in India—George Bowen by name. He was a classical scholar of distinction, and was at home in four of the principal languages of Europe. For years he revelled in poetry and philosophy, in romance and controversy, in all those languages. He was, besides, a fine musician; could compose as well as perform. In his early manhood Bowen was a philosophic sceptic and a rank pessimist. At last, however, there came to him a great experience, which made him feel the need, and ultimately see the truth, of immortality. From that point he was led on, until one night he sat down and wrote these words: “If there is One above all who notices the desires of men, I wish He would take note of the fact, that if it please Him to make known His will concerning me I should think it the highest privilege to do that will wherever it might be and whatever it might involve.” It was a cry out of darkness, and not long after that Jesus Christ came to George Bowen. There soon grew up in him a new sense of obligation to humanity. He was led to leave wealth for poverty, to turn from the society of the cultured and friendly that he might care for the needs of the ignorant and prejudiced, to renounce a luxurious home for a mud-walled hut. He went to India, and for forty years, without one single change, he dwelt among the people of that land. Persecution, epidemic, the fierce enervating heat could not drive him away from the crowded streets of Bombay. He was consumed with a passion for bettering the people amongst whom he lived, and he laid down his life on their behalf.1 [Note: Henry Haigh.]
2. Is the Divine Call irresistible, then? No, it is not irresistible, even when it is heard from above. God’s “state is kingly: thousands at His bidding speed, and post o’er land and ocean without rest”—but they are all volunteers. He has no pressgang in His employ, and He accepts no pressed service.
1. A man may hear it as if it were irresistible. Such an one was Paul, who could say: “Woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel.” Such an one was Richard Baxter, of whom Dr. Jowett said: “As the people of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah, so did the people of Kidderminster repent at the preaching of Baxter”; and of whose book—The Saints’ Rest—a recent writer remarks: “The book glows through and through with the red heat of sacred flame, at which the soul catches fire.” Such an one again was Brainerd, who prayed that he might become a flaming fire for God. Such an one was Alexander Duff, who, both in India and in Scotland, kindled to a sacred passion the congregations who listened to his burning words. And such an one in our own time was James Gilmour, who, when urged by his friends to desist from labours which were consuming him, cried: “I cannot be silent; the fire of God is on me.”
2. A man may resist it, but it is never the same with him afterwards. If the call has come and been rejected, there is a steady loss of life. For no one can lay hold on life by shirking its opportunities. And the loss is none the less tragic that it is unrecognised. For—
When we in our viciousness grow hard—
O misery on’t!—the wise gods seel our eyes;
In our own filth drop our clear judgements; make us
Adore our errors; laugh at’s, while we strut
To our confusion.
In a stirring article entitled “Is Life worth Living?” Professor James remarks: “If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals, from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight.” And he concludes by urging that our attitude on this matter is necessarily one of faith. Believe, he says, that life is worth living, and your belief will half create the fact. The “scientific proof” that you are right may not be clear before the day of judgment (or some stage of Being which that expression may serve to symbolise) is reached. But the faithful fighters of this hour, or the beings that then and there will represent them, may then turn to the faint-hearted, who here decline to go on, with words like those with which Henry iv. greeted the tardy Crillon after a great victory had been gained: “Hang yourself, Crillon! we fought at Arques, and you were not there.”1 [Note: See J. S. Mackenzie, Manual of Ethics, p. 450.]
3. The acceptance of the call is necessary to salvation. For no mistake can be made that is more mischievous than to suppose that salvation is the rescue of one’s own soul from the wrath to come. There is no such thing. All rescue is from sin to holiness. This is the wrath to come—that we should be left in our selfishness. There is a Talmudic legend to this effect—
Side by side
In the low sunshine by the turban stone
They knelt; each made his brother’s woe his own,
Forgetting, in the agony and stress
Of pitying love, his claim of selfishness;
Peace, for his friend besought, his own became;
His prayers were answered in another’s name;
And, when at last they rose up to embrace,
Each saw God’s pardon in his brother’s face!
Long after, when his headstone gathered moss,
Traced on the targum-marge of Onkelos
In Rabbi Nathan’s hand these words were read:
“Hope not the cure of sin till self is dead;
Forget it in love’s service, and the debt
Thou canst not pay the angels shall forget;
Heaven’s gate is shut to him who comes alone;
Save thou a soul, and it shall save thy own!”2 [Note: Whittier, The Two Rabbis.]
ii. Our Response
“Then I said, Here am I; send me.”
Why is it not always made so heartily?
1. We doubt if we have received the call.
1. Are we in the place where we are likely to receive it? Preaching in Oxford, the Bishop of London said that the atmosphere of a university is unfavourable to the hearing of the call of need, whether from below or from above. It even makes men unfit to be trustworthy judges of moral and religious truth. “It is scarcely too much of a paradox to say, ‘We most of us were in doubt, when we were undergraduates at Oxford.’ ” “I being in the way,” said Abraham’s servant, according to the Authorized translation, “I being in the way, the Lord led me.”
At the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny, Lord Clyde, better known as Sir Colin Campbell, when asked how long it would take him to get ready to start for India, is said to have replied: “I am ready now.” Such is the spirit which breathes in the language of the text. The French motto, “Toujours prêt,” and the Scotch, “Ready, aye ready,” are excellent ones for the Christian soldier.1 [Note: C. Neil, in The Clergyman’s Magazine, i. p. 96.]
2. Have we made it the subject of prayer?
Lord Wolseley says in his Soldier’s Pocket Book that if a young officer wishes to get on, he must volunteer for the most hazardous duties and take every possible chance of risking his life. It was a spirit and courage like that which was shown in the service of God by a good soldier of Jesus Christ named John Mackenzie, who died a few years ago. One evening, when he was a lad and eager for work in the Foreign Mission field, he knelt down at the foot of a tree in the Ladies’ Walk, on the banks of the Lossie at Elgin, and offered up this prayer: “O Lord, send me to the darkest spot on earth.” And God heard him, and sent him to South Africa, where he laboured for many years, first under the London Missionary Society, and then under the British Government, as the first Resident Commissioner among the natives of Bechuanaland.2 [Note: J. O. Struthers, in The Morning Watch.]
2. But we are unfit. What makes us unfit?
1. Is it sin? Isaiah was unfit until he was pardoned. That objection would be a real objection, and final, if there were no possibility of repentance and no probability of pardon. There is no doubt that it is sin, sin in some of its innumerable forms of selfishness—indolence, pride, worldliness, lust—that keeps most of us from accepting God’s call. But the moment we repent—“Lo! this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.”
2. Is it poverty of gift? So Moses: “Oh Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant; for I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.” So Jeremiah: “Ah, Lord God! behold: I cannot speak for I am a child.” The excuse is often insincere. In these instances it was sincere enough, but more than a mistake. As the man who had but the one talent hid it and lost it, so it cost both Moses and Jeremiah something that they did not in fulness of faith rise at once to their opportunity.
There is a famous physician in London to-day who tells that when he had finished his medical course in Edinburgh he was offered an appointment for which he felt himself unfit. He called on one of the professors. “You feel yourself unfit for it?” said the professor; “then you are the man for it.” Paul was unfit: but “unto me was this grace given,” he says, “that I should preach.”
Observe, however, that there is a connection between call and qualification. It is not enough to have the volunteer spirit. A man might volunteer to be one of a lifeboat crew, and, from incapacity, might do more harm than good, might simply be in the way of others, and would be filling a position that might otherwise have been occupied by a more capable substitute. When a prime minister is forming his Cabinet, he does not throw open the positions to the whole Houses of Parliament, and say, Who will undertake the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer? who that of Foreign Secretary? and so on. No, he has in his mind’s eye certain members whom he thinks best qualified, and he goes to them and invites them to join him. The call comes to the best qualified. When that call came to Isaiah, it seemed to be couched in general terms, and to mean, Who among mankind will go? But remember, it was only Isaiah, and not all mankind, that heard it; and though the question is put by God in a general sort of way, yet all that it meant was simply this, “Shall I send you? Will you go?”
3. Perhaps the duty seems too hard. Duty is always hard.
1. It would not be worth doing if it were not difficult to do. The mission upon which Isaiah was sent was hard enough for any man. The late Lord Salisbury came back from Constantinople, in the old days of black disaster in the East, to tell us why he had failed to achieve a single reform. “The Turkish officials,” he said, “simply have not the capacity to understand what we mean.” It was just so with Isaiah’s countrymen. They had lost the capacity to understand what he meant.
But however hard it is to go, it is harder not to go.
Idlers all day about the market-place
They name us, and our dumb lips answer not,
Bearing the bitter while our sloth’s disgrace,
And our dark tasking whereof none may wot.
Oh, the fair slopes where the grape-gatherers go!
Not they the day’s fierce heat and burden bear,
But we who on the market-stones drop slow
Our barren tears, while all the bright hours wear.
Lord of the Vineyard, whose dear word declares
Our one hour’s labour as the day’s shall be,
What coin divine can make our wage as theirs,
Who had the morning joy of work for Thee?
2. And there is a Promise with every Call. It is (1) a promise of Pardon, so that we may go unhindered by the guilt of sin. It is (2) a promise of Purification, so that we may go unhampered by the presence of sin. Tied to habits of evil we are as a ship fretting her sides against the wharf. She finds her true life when she has cut the cords that bind her to the wharf and is out upon the ocean with the winds over her and the waters under her. And the purification comes as we go. Ten lepers were cured by Christ. He simply spoke the word: “Go and shew yourselves unto the priests.” They took Him at His word. “And it came to pass, that, as they went, they were cleansed.” It is (3) a promise of Power. Few men were ever more unfit for the task laid on them than the Apostles, as they gathered in the Upper Room on the morning of Pentecost. But they were “endued with power.” If we are willing and obedient, the power will not fail us. The going develops new powers within ourselves, possibly gifts and graces we were unconscious of possessing. In any case, as our days so shall our strength be.
For seven years Dr. Thomas Chalmers occupied a pulpit and preached with splendid eloquence before he had an experience in his own soul of the renewing power of God. He has left on record the sad and humiliating testimony that his preaching during those years did not have “the weight of a feather on the morals of his parishioners.” But there came a day when he was laid aside by illness. In this illness he saw the King, the Lord of hosts. In that vision he saw himself, and his heart was broken with contrition. The formal gave place to the vital, the professional to the real, and the whole man was transformed. He was as new a man as Isaiah was that day when he came out of the Temple. His health returned. He went back into his pulpit, and all Scotland was shaken.
During the Indian Mutiny a small British host was encamped on the ridge outside Delhi. When the news of the Cawnpore massacres reached them, the general ordered his men to attack Delhi. The doctor inspected the invalided soldiers to ascertain how many of them were strong enough to carry arms. He passed by a sickly youth as being too frail, when the lad cried: “For God’s sake, sir, don’t say I am not fit for duty; it’s only a touch of fever, and the sound of the bugle will make me well.”
The Making of a Missionary
Jordan (W. G.), Prophetic Ideas and Ideals, 57.
Smith (G. A.), The Book of Isaiah, i. 58.
Davidson (A. B.), The Called of God, 187.
Maclaren (A.), Expositions (Isaiah i.–xlviii.).
Henson (H. H.), The Liberly of Prophesying, 244.
Albertson (C. C.), College Sermons, 75.
Gunsaulus (F. W.), Paths to the City of God, 248.
Coyle (R. F.), The Church and the Times, 149.
Holden (J. Stuart), Redeeming Vision, 1.
Driver (S. R.), Sermons on the Old Testament, 28.
Maurice (F. D.), Prophets and Kings, 219.
Forsyth (P. T.), Missions in State and Church, 221.
Jerdan (C.), Messages to the Children, 61.
Nicholson (M.), Communion with Heaven, 57.
Meyer (F. B.), The Soul’s Ascent, 49.
Westcott (B. F.), Peterborough Sermons, 267.
Adams (J.), Sermons in Syntax, 203.
Trench (R. C.), Sermons New and Old, 98.
Ingram (A. F. W.), in Oxford University Sermons, 287.
Elmslie (W. G.), Memoirs and Sermons, 220.
Hunter (J.), De Profundis Clamavi, 232.
Ewing (J. W.), The Undying Christ, 45.
Maver (J. S.), The Children’s Pace, 138.
Davis (J. D.), in Princeton Sermons, 338.
Parker (J.), People’s Bible, xiv. 281.
Christian World Pulpit, xx. 244 (Lance); xxix. 24 (Tipple); xxxvii. 81 (Jowett); xliii. 387 (Stalker).
Clergyman’s Magazine, i. 96 (Neil).
Dictionary of the Bible, v. 672 (Kautzsch).
Encyclopœdia of Religion and Ethics, i. 49 (Strong).
The Examiner, March 15, 1906 (Jowett).
The Expositor, 1st Ser., xi. 123 (Thomson); 2nd Ser., ii. 18 (Cox); 4th Ser., vii. 246 (Davidson).
Homiletic Review, xvi. 248 (Robinson).
Preacher’s Magazine , 165 (Pearse); 506 (Brooks).
Single-Volume Dictionary of the Bible, 551 (Lanchester).