William Kelly Major Works Commentary
In that day shall this song be sung in the land of Judah; We have a strong city; salvation will God appoint for walls and bulwarks.Isaiah Chapter 26
Here we have another song to be sung. "In that day shall this song be sung in the land of Judah" (v. 1). That in the last chapter is not so called, yet was it an outburst of praise after the shaking of heaven and earth; in this we have the prophet still further celebrating what God has done for Judah.
If we look at the Jews now, the contrast with what they are to be made by-and-by is very striking. For in Romans 1:18 they are thus alluded to: "For wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness [i.e., Gentile wickedness in general] and unrighteousness of men that hold the truth in unrighteousness [that of Jews]." Here, on the contrary, it is said, "We have a strong city; salvation doth he appoint for walls and bulwarks. Open ye the gates, and the righteous nation which keepeth faithfulness shall enter in" (vv. 1, 2).
Scripture will have been abandoned by the Jewish people, or the larger part of them, in the last days. At the first advent of Christ it could be said that "salvation is of the Jews"; they had the truth but held it in unrighteousness. They had the form of sound doctrine maintained for the most part, save among the Sadducees. But before the Lord comes the second time, the great mass of the nation will not hold the truth but a lie, the great deceit of the last days, the lie of Antichrist instead of the truth of Christ. Their unrighteousness will be manifest and fatal.
Here we have the blessed contrast of all this: there is a remnant whom God will make to be a strong nation, and they are called, "The righteous nation which keepeth faithfulness." In verse 3 it is not merely that there is a general profession of the nation, but there will be an individual reality among them. In the past they were called "the holy nation," as a description that belonged to them, but in the future there is this comfort to all that love them that it will be real collectively and individually. No common privileges are ever meant to make us less mindful of individual fidelity. "Thou wilt keep in perfect peace the mind stayed [on thee], for he confideth in thee" (v. 3).
For very many years the common joy of the church was but little entered into, because of the worldliness, legalism, schisms, divisions, and innumerable wrong ways that had crept in. But there is the danger, now that God has been pleased to show the importance and comfort of corporate blessing, of our forgetting that the individual place has to be all the more carefully watched. It is of primary moment to know the standing of the Christian and the position of the church, but the practical state must be most jealously looked to. Strength depends upon what passes between our own souls and God, Who in His gracious and vigilant care watches over the saints individually.
These then do not forget the public blessings of the nation, but there is also the individual saint's walk, staying upon God, caring for His glory, Who, on His part, keeps the soul in perfect peace; the mind is stayed upon God Himself. For no matter what the blessings be, if we have not God Himself as the object of our hearts, they are sure to be misused; therefore it is said, "because he trusteth in thee." It is not merely the perception of the goodness of God and of the wonders He had wrought for them. Now they know Himself, and trust Himself, and this is a very real thing for our souls - the personal knowledge of God and trust in God. Need it be said that God looks for it now in a still more intimate way than even then? Yet all that ever has been done on the face of the earth will have been outwardly eclipsed with but one exception (and this exception is Christ, to say nothing of His body the church). Nothing can surpass the last Adam; nothing compare with Christ's cross, unless it be Himself; and both will be our portion, of which we will joy and boast even in glory.
Remark this also that, in all these statements of what they are to share, never do we find such language addressed to them as supposes them to enter into the depths of God's ways in the cross as is expected of us now. What can be sweeter than the way in which they count on their deliverance, and confide their souls to God? But where are heard such words as "God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ"? Yet nothing would have been more easy, had it been in due keeping, than for God to have said so here. We are called into such fellowship with God about His Son, and we are associated with the cross as well as heaven beyond what any one can really find in the Old Testament. When a person starts with the assumption that the theme is all one and the same, the distinctive value of scripture is lost. For the soul too the least possible measure of blessing is the result.
Here we have the Lord Jehovah brought in for all. "Confide ye in Jehovah for ever; for in Jah-Jehovah [is the] rock of ages" (v. 4). And the reason why they speak of His everlasting strength lies here, "For he hath brought down them that dwell on high, the lofty city; he layeth it low even to the ground; he bringeth it [even] to the dust. The feet shall tread it down, the feet of the afflicted, the steps of the poor" (vv. 5, 6). It will be one nation whom God in the last days will clothe with such honour, after they have been vilified in every way by the Gentiles. Hence they are singing; for not a single difficulty remains then why God should not fully bless them. It is touching to see how God insists that He has done everything that was needed for their deliverance and good. For them is assured the abasement of what is high and lofty; and grace can give poverty of spirit and lowliness to the Jews themselves, once so proud. They will have been brought through tremendous trials, having borne the added and painful reproach of being a most guilty and withal haughty people; but all is changed now.
For a godly few of the Jews will entirely gainsay the lie of Satan when all the power of their nation and the great mass of the westerns will have given way to Antichrist. A little despised remnant will still hold out for the Lord, refusing him who puts himself forward as the true Messiah. They will have been faithful in the face of death, and now they are made thus to praise God. "The way of the just [is] uprightness: thou, the Upright, dost make the path of the just even" (v. 7). It is sweet in thinking of this, that their triumph will not be by their power or their knowledge, but by their simple trust in Jehovah and faith in His word. But a scanty glimpse will be theirs, for they are the very souls referred to in Isaiah 1:10, as walking in darkness and having no light. This ought never to be said of a Christian, though he may slip into such a feeling: for he has seen Christ, the light of life, the true light. He may have but a dim perception of Christ, but still Christ is before his soul and always shines; for it is not true, that where the light of grace has once shone, God takes it back again. The difference is on the part of the Christian. It is never the light that is gone; possibly he may have been unfaithful and turned his back upon it. The Holy Ghost has come down to abide with the Christian for ever. He may not always walk according to the light, but in it he walks as a believer, and cannot but walk; yea, he is now light in the Lord. The Christian walks in the light as long as he professes the name of Christ. He never walks in darkness. He may not enjoy the light, but this is quite another thing.
The contrary language is very common in Christendom, because they confound the position of the Christian with that of the Jewish people, who must go through darkness by-and-by, before their light is come and the glory of Jehovah is risen upon them. Possibly a very few may not be thus walking in darkness. Some certainly will have godliness in contrast "with the many"; they are "the wise." But the beautiful feature of the godly is that although they thus walk in darkness, yet as they have been touched by the Spirit of God, and know that what is of God can never have alliance with sin, so they will refuse to own that idols and Antichrist can be of God. Thus they pass through the tribulation with but a feeble measure of knowledge of God, no doubt; but still they will be true to what they have got, and will be brought out to praise God. They are entitled to be spoken of as "the just." So now, it is a great snare as well as mistake of believers not to take the place of being saints of God; for if they decline it, they feel not responsibility in their walk So in earthly relations, if persons in the position of masters or servants do not act from their true position, they will never carry themselves in practice as becomes them. To own our proper relationship is not pride, but a duty and wisdom. If you are occupied therein with self, no doubt pride comes in; but it is all right and important to acknowledge God in the relationships to which He has called us.
The Spirit of God leads them to say, "Yea, in the way of thy judgements, O Jehovah, have we waited for thee; to thy name and to thy memorial [is] the desire of [our] soul" (v. 8). Such is what they had been wading through. They had waited for Him in the way of His judgements; we follow Him in grace and look to appear with Him in glory. "With my soul have I desired thee in the night; yea, with my spirit within me will I seek thee early: for when thy judgements are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness" (v. 9). Now we have the individual again. As far as the world is concerned, the patience of God will have ended in the most fearful departure from the truth. God is now suffering the ways of man. He has not left them to their own conjectures or darkness; but He has caused His light to shine in the person of Christ, leaving man to himself, save working by His word and Spirit. Outwardly God seems as though He did not notice what is passing here below, and all this after the full light of God has shone through Christ upon this world. Saving grace has appeared to men. Favour has been shown to the wicked, this is what is going on now. "If favour be shown unto the wicked, he doth not learn righteousness." "In the land of uprightness," it is added, "he dealeth unjustly and doth not behold the majesty of Jehovah" (v. 10). The gospel is but for a witness; it will not, it cannot, govern the world. When God's judgements are here below, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness. Hence there is the further warning in ver. 11, "Jehovah, thy hand is uplifted." He is coming in the way of judgement. Does the first answer say that "they do not see"? But, says the prophet, "They shall see jealousy [for] the people, and be ashamed; yea, the fire which is for thine enemies shall devour them" (v. 11).
The prophetic Spirit turns to speak of the blessing for the Jews. "Jehovah, thou wilt ordain peace for us, for thou also hast wrought all our works for us. Jehovah our God, other lords than thee have had dominion over us: by thee only will we make mention of thy name" (vv. 12, 13). What had become of them? "[They are] dead, they shall not live; deceased, they shall not rise: for thou hast visited and destroyed them, and made all memory of them to perish" (v. 14). This is of course highly figurative language. If we look at the resurrection, we know that the wicked are to rise as well as the righteous that is, there is a resurrection of all men just and unjust. These Gentile oppressors of Israel must rise in the resurrection of judgement. They will rise like other bad men. But when it is said here, "They shall not rise," the Spirit does not describe the literal resurrection of the body, but the complete reversal of the lot of the nations and Israel in this world. These old lords are no longer to live or rise again in this world. This will suffice to show that the language here is put figuratively.
In Isaiah 25:8 it is said, "He will swallow up death in victory." This, we know from God Himself, will be realised in the literal resurrection of the body, when the saints are raised. But in Isaiah 26:14 the allusion to resurrection is employed as a figure, because the context proves that it cannot refer to that literal fact; for if it did, it would be to deny that the unrighteous are to rise. This is the true criterion for the understanding of any passage of the word. If a person bring you a text against what you know to be true, always examine what surrounds it, see what God treats of. Here it is plain that it is a question of the way in which God will deal in that day with the nations who lorded it over Israel. But is it not the fact, some may ask, that these Gentiles were literally dead? Certainly, is the answer; but in this case it is not true that they shall not rise.
Perhaps this would not be worth dwelling on, were it not that many apply Isaiah 26:19 to the same literal resurrection as Isaiah 25:8. We must never force but bow to scripture. The passages that do refer to a raising of bodies we must hold fast; but it is dangerous to misapply others which only use it as a figure, because in this case one might infer, as from our chapter, that which is unfounded. In truth, as we know, all men must rise. "The hour is coming in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth" (John 5:28-29). There we have the most decisive proof that all the dead, just and unjust, are to rise again from the grave.
Here contrariwise the wicked enemies of Israel "shall not rise." John clearly teaches the resurrection of all, good and bad. Isaiah 26:14 refers only to the figure of not rising, to comfort Israel from all fears of their old troublers. "Dead, they shall not live; deceased, they shall not rise: for thou hast visited and destroyed them, and made all memory of them to perish." Thus effectually will Jehovah have disposed of Gentiles who had lorded it over the Jews.
But what has been done for the nation? "Thou hast increased the nation, Jehovah, thou hast increased the nation; thou art glorified. Thou hadst removed [it] far [unto] all the ends of the earth" (v. 15). He does not here speak of the resurrection of the body. Clearly when this takes place as described, it could not be said that He had removed the risen saints far unto all the ends of the earth. Take it of Judah, and how true it is!
Equally plain is what follows. "Jehovah, in trouble they sought thee; they poured out a lisping [when] thy chastening [was] upon them. As a woman with child, [that] draweth near the time of her delivery, is in travail [and] crieth out in her pangs; so have we been before thee, Jehovah. We have been with child, we have been in travail, we have as it were brought forth wind; we have not wrought the deliverance of the land (or, earth); neither have the inhabitants of the world fallen" (vv. 16-18). They will review their past conduct, and see that they have not accomplished God's design by them. Where had they brought in a divine flow of blessing? They had learnt the bad ways of the Gentiles, and brought a curse on themselves as well as on others; the name of Jehovah was blasphemed because of them.
But now it is said, as a glorious reverse, "Thy dead shall live; my dead bodies shall arise." What mighty words, and how tender! Jehovah awakens Israel, and even calls them His dead bodies. It is no question of bodily death, but of national revival, and yet it will have spiritual character too. The daughter of Zion awakes from her long sleep, and Jehovah speaks of the Jews (so long defunct as His people) as His dead. They, for their part, own themselves to be just as bad as the rest of the nations; but the momentous difference is that Jehovah claims them as His own. "Let them be dead," He says, as it were, "still they are Mine." It is the Jewish nation that had been like a corpse which Jehovah is graciously pleased to identify as His own, and is bringing them out again. If Abraham would bury his dead out of his sight, here Jehovah asserts His title to fill them with a new life: "Thy dead shall live; my dead bodies shall arise. Awake and sing in triumph, ye that dwell in dust; for thy dew is the dew of the morning, and the earth shall cast forth the dead" (v. 19). It indicates how fully the truth of the resurrection of the dead was familiar to the Jew seeing the prophet uses it so freely as the best expression for God's resuscitating His people when they shall have been long defunct as a nation.
As some may think this a questionable interpretation of the passage, a scripture or two will prove its soundness. In Ezek. 37. the terms of the figure are quite as strong as here, the Spirit of God shows the prophet a valley of dry bones. And "they were very dry." "Can these bones live?" was the question (vv. 2, 3). "Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you" (v. 5). Thus the vision is realized, the bones come together. Next there was flesh on them (v. 8). Then the bones, coming forth and clothed with flesh, answer to the dead men here raised out of their graves. But, beyond controversy, this means the whole house of Israel. "Thy dead shall live," says Isaiah. To put this chapter of Ezekiel along with Isaiah 26:19 makes, to say the least, a strong presumption, that if the figure of resurrection is used to show the fresh start of Israel in the one, so it may be in the other. But it is certainly so intended in Ezek. 37; for, if we have the vision, we have also the inspired interpretation. We are not therefore at liberty to explain the vision according to our own thoughts. The explanation of the Holy Ghost is express and conclusive. Thus we can carry divine light back to Isaiah 26:19, where the very same allusion is found.
In Hosea 6:2 again there is a similar figure. So there is also in Daniel 12:2, "Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt." If we divert this to a resurrection of the body, in the first place it is not a resurrection of all, but only of "many." In the second place, it is of some to everlasting life and of some to shame and contempt at the same time. We must give up the doctrine of the first resurrection, separated by a thousand years and more from the second death (Rev. 20), in order to found on this a literal rising from the graves. All is plain and just if it apply in the same way as Ezekiel and Isaiah to the national revival of Israel, whom God will bring out of all their present condition of shame, though some of them be allowed to display fatal wickedness and pride. This is another confirmation of the truth of the interpretation.
But further the next verses are explicit, where we read, "Come, my people, enter thou into thy chambers, and shut thy doors about thee; hide thyself for a little moment, until the indignation be past. For, behold, Jehovah cometh forth out of his place to visit the iniquity of the inhabitants of the earth on them; and the earth shall disclose her blood, and shall no more cover her slain" (vv. 20, 21). Those who interpret the context of a literal resurrection are led into the error, that the risen saints (for such this scheme supposes to be here meant) would be here on earth whilst the divine indignation is going on! One could understand their holding that some are to pass through the tribulation, though this is not quite the same thing as the indignation. But it is clearly a question of men alive here below not of men changed. God tells them (the Jews) to enter into their chambers until He has spent all His wrath upon the nations. Is this what we look for? Are we not to be taken out of this earthly scene and to enter into the Father's house above? We are not an earthly but a heavenly people. We know the Lord is coming Who will take us to be with Himself where He is; and when He has translated the Christians above, the Jews will be called for the earth. The little remnant will be grievously tried, when the vast body of the nation will receive the Antichrist.
Hence, when the day of Jehovah comes for the judgement of the quick, it is said, "enter into thy chambers." He will not provide a heavenly abode for them, but they are to enter into their chambers - assuredly some place of refuge and earthly security. All this renders plain the right interpretation of the passage, and shows that God is not speaking about the heavenly saints, but refers to the remnant of the Jews in the last days, who are to have a haven of refuge provided for them. It is not like Abraham, for this is our place. Israel will be much more like Lot, for they will be in the midst of the scene where the judgement is to be executed. Lot entered into his chambers (that is, Zoar) when the judgement came; but as for Abraham, he was entirely out of the trial, and pleading before Jehovah in earnest intercession; and yet before the day came to pass, he knew about it far better than Lot. His position, communion, and experience were typically different from those of his relative. So we shall be taken up to Christ and brought into the Father's house; but afterwards, when the Lord comes to execute judgement, we shall come along with Him.
Open ye the gates, that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in.
Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee.
Trust ye in the LORD for ever: for in the LORD JEHOVAH is everlasting strength:
For he bringeth down them that dwell on high; the lofty city, he layeth it low; he layeth it low, even to the ground; he bringeth it even to the dust.
The foot shall tread it down, even the feet of the poor, and the steps of the needy.
The way of the just is uprightness: thou, most upright, dost weigh the path of the just.
Yea, in the way of thy judgments, O LORD, have we waited for thee; the desire of our soul is to thy name, and to the remembrance of thee.
With my soul have I desired thee in the night; yea, with my spirit within me will I seek thee early: for when thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.
Let favour be shewed to the wicked, yet will he not learn righteousness: in the land of uprightness will he deal unjustly, and will not behold the majesty of the LORD.
LORD, when thy hand is lifted up, they will not see: but they shall see, and be ashamed for their envy at the people; yea, the fire of thine enemies shall devour them.
LORD, thou wilt ordain peace for us: for thou also hast wrought all our works in us.
O LORD our God, other lords beside thee have had dominion over us: but by thee only will we make mention of thy name.
They are dead, they shall not live; they are deceased, they shall not rise: therefore hast thou visited and destroyed them, and made all their memory to perish.
Thou hast increased the nation, O LORD, thou hast increased the nation: thou art glorified: thou hadst removed it far unto all the ends of the earth.
LORD, in trouble have they visited thee, they poured out a prayer when thy chastening was upon them.
Like as a woman with child, that draweth near the time of her delivery, is in pain, and crieth out in her pangs; so have we been in thy sight, O LORD.
We have been with child, we have been in pain, we have as it were brought forth wind; we have not wrought any deliverance in the earth; neither have the inhabitants of the world fallen.
Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead.
Come, my people, enter thou into thy chambers, and shut thy doors about thee: hide thyself as it were for a little moment, until the indignation be overpast.
For, behold, the LORD cometh out of his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity: the earth also shall disclose her blood, and shall no more cover her slain.