The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.Personal Prophecies
This chapter opens with a very energetic and graphic expression, namely, "The word that Isaiah... saw." There are two most noticeable facts: the first is the testimony of a man whose name is given; and, secondly, here is an indication of the sense—namely, sight—by which the revelation was perceived. We have a living witness and an eye-witness. These are not anonymous prophecies; they are not papers that were found in the morning before the dew had gone up which had been shed from dark heavens in the night-time: the prophecies are associated with men, special men—men whose names are given, and they have about them at least all the outward seeming of authentic testimony. Is it possible to see a "word"? Yes, in the highest exaltation of the mind. But what is possible to the highest reverie of the soul is impossible to cold thought On this account a good deal of controversy has arisen as to prophecies and prophets, and the meaning of exalted sentiments and arguments. The difference between the prophet and the controversialist accounts for it all: the prophet was in the highest mental or spiritual excitement, his soul was ecstatic; he realised his highest and grandest self, and in an hour of transanimation he saw, he heard, he beheld the farther distances, and distinctly overheard the farther music. The controversialist comes upon the level ground, well fed, cold in temperament, cynically critical, and looks at everything through earthly mediums, or at best through literary mediums, and he pronounces the prophet wrong, whereas it was his own spiritual temperature that was below the occasion: he was not in the atmosphere in which souls live that use divine words.
The revelation was personal, and no religion is worth any consideration that does not identify itself with actual personal experience. Produce the Isaiah that "saw" the word, and let us see him. That is what Christianity does every day—it produces the Christian. Who says that this world shall be saved? This man says so: we give you his name, his address, his antecedents, his character; he is a man who has a reputation to lose, and he says that having been saved himself he has come to see that by the necessity of that action all men must be brought sooner or later under the same renewing, transfiguring, and sanctifying influence. A famous argument was set up long ago to the effect that a revelation could only come to one man, and therefore that what we call revelation is only an account of a revelation that came to somebody else. The argument took a fast hold upon the attention of the men who first heard it. But it is no argument at all. Everything depends upon the nature of the revelation. Very possibly there may be some sights which come once for all, and then vanish into darkness or invisibleness: about such sights it may be well to say, Only one man saw them, and all we can say is that we have heard that he did see them. But when the revelation is by its very necessity universal; when it only comes to one man because he represents humanity, then a different standard of judgment must be erected. The Bible does not only deal with local predictions and prophecies, about a mound of stones here, and a ditch that is to be dried up yonder: it handles worlds, ages, manhood; it deals with universals, and therefore in all its sublime prophecies it does not limit itself to one personal consciousness, but through that consciousness it addresses the whole world in all the ages of its progress and liberty. So Isaiah is a living man to-day for all the purposes of this evidence, and the disciples are all living at this moment so far as the truth of Christianity is concerned. Every man sees his own aspect of the word, but it is the same word. All travellers in Switzerland see the same Matterhorn, yet there are as many Matterhorns as there are men who look upon that wondrous pinnacle of rock and snow. The thought is a unit, but the impressions it creates are a million multiplied by itself in number. So with the prophecies of the Bible and the prophecies of daily-expanding history. Every man must see them for himself, and be faithful to that which came within the limit of his own vision: by the multiplication of his personal testimony we shall soon have a universal declaration as to the presence and action of God in human history. Every man must see the word for himself. If there are men who are living upon the account which somebody else has given of a revelation they are not living at all; we do not number them among the witnesses upon the Christian side of the case; they are driven about by every wind of doctrine; they are unstable souls. But you cannot trifle with eye-witnesses; you may confuse them as to dates, and fret them as to the arrangement of details, and work upon the infirmities of their memory or their imagination; but the thing they saw comes up through it all, and stands there immovable and distinct. Only those who can speak thus of Christian prophecy and Christian discipline are to be admitted as witnesses in the elucidation and proof of the Christian cause.
Let us see what the meaning of this elevation was in the experience of Isaiah. We have it called high, ecstatic, and described it as of the nature of reverie; now let us test it at certain practical points. Let the witness proceed:—
"And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it" (Isaiah 2:2).
Though ecstatic, Isaiah is still rational; though animated as with a thousand lives, he still lays hold of great philosophies as within the sweep of a noble benevolence. Let us see what has to happen. "The mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains." Consider what that prediction meant in Isaiah's time. He lived within well-defined boundaries and limitations: the Jew was not a great man in the sense of including within his personal aspirations all classes, conditions, and estates of men; left to himself he could allow the Gentiles to die by thousands daily without shedding a tear upon their fallen bodies; he lived amongst his own people; it was enough for him that the Jews were happy, for the Gentiles were but dogs. Here is a new view of human nature, a great enlargement of spiritual boundaries. Whenever you find this universal element coming into a man's thought and language he is under the noblest influences; he is escaping tradition; he is getting away from narrowness, and prejudice, and littleness: he has identified himself with the broadest fortunes of the common world. By so much, therefore, is this high animation of Isaiah proved to be but a noble aspect of reason itself: it is reason on fire, reason transfigured, reason divinely possessed, and radiant at every point.
How does the witness proceed? We find that the worship, according to the third verse, is to be associated with teaching. "He will teach us of his ways." So the elevation of mind does not transcend the limits of education. Man does not invent his religion or his morality; he is taught of God. But being the subject of teaching he is of necessity the subject of continual change and advancement. Then, first, he should be most humble, for he yet is conscious of ignorance in many directions; then, secondly, he should be most reverent, for he cannot teach himself, but is to be taught by the ministry of the Holy One. We are all at school. Woe betide us when we think our education perfect! "Grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ" Observe, "in the knowledge" of him: there is more to be known about him, more to be comprehended of his wisdom, and purpose, and grace. He has many things to say unto us, but we cannot bear them now. "The path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day." "Brethren," said Paul, "I count not myself to have apprehended"—to have closed my education—"but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus;" and even he, the most majestic intellect in the Church, looking upon the mysteries of the divine love, exclaimed with the pathos of a soul that had suffered agonies for Christ, "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!" Because we think our education completed we become proud controversialists; we suppose we know everything, and therefore, according to apostolic judgment, we know nothing. He is the wise man who is always going back to the beginning of his lesson, and who spends the first hour of his study in reviewing the acquisitions of yesterday. We are not to fly, we are to walk; we are not to see things in the gross, and in all the dimness of well-regulated perspective only; we are to see them also in detail, and to keep the least of the commandments, that we may gain capacity and disposition to obey also the larger law.
"And we will walk in his paths." So the worship is not only associated with teaching, but with morality. Christianity is not only transportation of mind, it is also obedience of heart; it is doing the daily duty with patient industry, with all the detail which love expends on work which it expects to be received and admired by the object of its affection. Let us hear nothing about religion dissociated from morality. The most frightful divorce that can take place in all human thought is a divorce between theology and morality. If we must give up one of them, let us give up the formal and scientific theology. To surrender good behaviour is to strike the altar at the base—is to smite the Cross with lightning. We are only strong as we are good; we only universalise the gospel as we make it beautiful, in temper, spirit, benevolence, sympathy, and love on our own part. The mountain of the Lord's house will never be established in the top of the mountains until it proves its claim to be so highly and securely elevated by the genuine honesty and goodness of every soul that belongs to the Church of Christ. This is the way to mission the world, this is the way to convert the heathen,—to disclose to them a beauty of character which must fascinate their attention, and excite their profoundest inquiry. We may propound our dogmas, and only enlarge the area of intellectual discussion; but if we live our lives and they be, at least in purpose and zealous endeavour, faultless, useful, beneficent, men must eventually surrender their weapons in the presence of such a testimony.
Still the prophecy proceeds:—
"And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" (Isaiah 2:4).
How high Isaiah must have been even in imagination when he foresaw that possibility! It is easy for us now to take up these words and set them to chanting music, but what was it for the first speaker to deliver them? How he must have been rent in his very soul by an uncontrollable and maddening joy, when he caught sight of that dawn which brought with it the reign of peace, the sovereignty of love! Consider the age of these words: let those who find fault with the Bible attack the Bible at its strongest points. This is one of them, that a man thousands of years ago should have anticipated the song of the angels, should have seen the day of Christ afar off, and been glad with all the quietness and joy of a Christian sabbath. We look back, the prophets looked forward, and because the things they saw were in such startling contrast to the things they felt near them, surely their faith was tried: because what appeared to them was clothed with the nature of impossibility. This is the very song of the angels: "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more": "Peace on earth, and good will toward men." Here is a prediction of arbitration in case of war—"He... shall rebuke many people." Read the word "rebuke"—He shall arbitrate amongst many people: he shall hear their cause; he shall redress their grievances; he shall determine their controversies, and men shall accept his award as final. And here is peace as the final goal. See the forge lighted; see the smith blowing his bellows; see him putting into his fire the sword and making it into a plowshare, and thrusting in the spear and beating it into a pruninghook. That is Christianity! Every sword that is sheathed to be taken out no more is a Christian argument completed. Every bad institution torn down and levelled with the dust is a proof that Christ was the Son of God. Every child taken off the street, and put into a public school, and educated at the public expense as a member of the commonwealth and an element in the social confederacy, is an answer to the Lord's prayer. But whilst Christendom makes swords and spears, Christendom is theoretically Christian but practically atheistic. What a projection of mind was here on the part of Isaiah: in his day the sword was the signal of power, the spear was greater than the sceptre, the warrior was the applauded man, and he who had most chariots was most divine. Isaiah was lifted up above all the paraphernalia of kingdoms and wars and military troubles, and he foresaw the time when peace should have her victories not less renowned than war.
We dwell upon these points to show that the man was not in a mere trance—that the high reverie or ecstasy in which we found his mind did not divest him of the highest reason, but gave to that reason the sight of faith, clothed that reason with the radiance and dignity of hope.
"O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the Lord" (Isaiah 2:5).
That is the only preparation for further revelation. Walking in the light, we shall receive increase of illumination; thankful for the morning dawn, we shall see the noontide splendour; faithful in a little, we shall be entrusted with much; honest children of the twilight, we shall yet see things in their largest and grandest reality. If we do the will, we shall know the doctrine. Blessed is that servant who shall be found waiting, watching, working when his Lord cometh, for his Lord shall entrust him with ampler riches.
Isaiah has been called the evangelical prophet: are there any traces of his title to this high designation within the compass of this text? Let us see. He speaks in the second verse of all nations flowing unto the house of the Lord: where do we find the expression "all nations" in the Gospels? We find it in the very lips of Christ—"All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations." Christ's is a national religion; it takes up empires, and provinces, and continents, and worlds, and ages; it is the infinite faith. Isaiah, then, seemed to suggest the very words which the Son of God himself should one day cite.
"And many people shall go and say------" By the "many people" we are to understand an enlargement of the Jewish people: other people are to bear part, and to have lot and memorial in this great enthusiasm. Does Jesus Christ ever predict anything of the kind? It was Jesus Christ who said: "They shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God." What a view was his! he saw all men drawn unto him as he was lifted up on the Cross, and lifted up in Christian character.
"Neither shall they learn war any more." Jesus Christ is the Prince of peace, the Enemy of war, the Ruler who controls by beneficence of soul and righteousness of statute and precept. With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. Such a revelation as this implies and necessitates divine power. These things do not come about by mere wishing or willing on the part of men; these are the miracles of God. Is this end worthy of Christ? What is the end? That there shall be at last a sanctuary above the mountains, that all men shall come to it in a world-wide pilgrimage, and climb the green steeps of the mountains, that they may receive the hospitality of grace and wisdom in the guest-chamber that is above. Is it worthy of Christ that he should subdue the nations, take out of them their military temper, their thirst for human blood, and make men brothers the world over? Is this a miracle worthy of his majesty? This miracle, great as it is, cannot take place in the nation until it has taken place in the individual. Herein the work of Christ is specific, and is defined with critical limitation. We cannot have a Christian nation until we have Christian men. The family is not Christian until every member of the household is a child of God. The religion will be national when the religion is individual, not before. It is worth while, therefore, to win men one by one to this state. It is worthy of an angel to wrestle with one creature until it is said of him in heaven, "Behold, he prayeth." We cannot convert nations at once, but we can attempt to win individual sinners; we can pray with individual penitents; we can do the humble work of the school, whether it be on the Sabbath-day or on the week-day; we can fight for one soul as if it involved the destinies of the universe. Only thus, one by one, can we work. When he whose right it is to reign shall come in his power, nations may be born in a day, empires may consentaneously turn round to him and say, Hail, Son of God! But that must be his action. Ours is the humble, modest, limited, detailed action of trying to convert sons, daughters, neighbours, friends; and when the Church resolutely sets herself to do this work her Lord will not be wanting either in presence or in benediction.
"The verses Isaiah 2:2-4, it should be premised, recur with slight variations in the fourth chapter of Micah, and are supposed by many to have been borrowed by both writers from some older source. The prophet appears before an assembly of the people, perhaps on a Sabbath, and recites this passage, depicting in beautiful and effective imagery the spiritual preeminence to be accorded in the future to the religion of Zion. He would dwell upon the subject further; but scarcely has he begun to speak when the disheartening spectacle meets his eye of a crowd of soothsayers, of gold and silver ornaments and finery, of horses and idols; his tone immediately changes, and he bursts into a diatribe against the foreign and idolatrous fashions, the devotion to wealth and glitter, which he sees about him, and which extorts from him in the end the terrible wish, Therefore forgive them not (Isaiah 2:5-9). And then in one of his stateliest periods Isaiah declares the judgment about to fall upon all that is 'tall and lofty,' upon Uzziah's towers and fortified walls, upon the great merchant ships at Elath, upon every object of human satisfaction and pride, when wealth and rank will be impotent to save, when idols will be cast despairingly aside, and when all classes alike will be glad to find a hiding-place, as in the old days of Midianite invasion or Philistine oppression (Judges 6:2; 1Samuel 13:6), in the clefts and caves of the rocks."—Rev. Canon Driver, D.D.
Therefore thou hast forsaken thy people the house of Jacob, because they be replenished from the east, and are soothsayers like the Philistines, and they please themselves in the children of strangers.Divine Accusations
This paragraph is charged with the old complaint against the nominal people of God. They could not live within their appointed boundaries; it seemed to be impossible for them to be content with the divinely-erected altar; they must needs enter into foreign alliances, and into relations with strangers whose religion was calculated to debase the intellect and to deprave the heart. This is the charge of the sixth verse: The people of God were replenished from the east, and had become soothsayers like the Philistines; they pleased themselves in the children of strangers. They were cloud-diviners; they were looking about for sights, omens, signs, wonders; they were trying to make revelations—as we should say, Bibles—for themselves, and their inventions brought upon them coldness of heart and forsakenness by the divine Father. This is no ancient lapse; we are not exhuming the history of the world whilst dwelling upon such apostasies: who is content with his own religion? Who is there into whose heart there does not come now and again a subtle suggestion that he can enlarge the revelation he has, that he can find out something for himself, that if he continues to peruse the clouds he may see there some omens which he may dignify with the name of divine appearances? We cannot be content with the book; we want to write a second volume, to add something, at least a footnote of our own, that we may see the work of our own inventiveness and ingenuity.
How difficult is discipline in every department of life! How hard is it to keep to the strict and well-defined line, and to subdue the energy of invention, and to say to that curious and marvellous power within us which would do something on its own account to amend the ways of providence, and enlarge the scope of revelation, Sit down: speak not: withdraw from the front, and study lessons of humility. This apostasy takes various forms; but every age has its own form of apostasy, or withdrawal from God. The Philistines are dead, old soothsaying is probably forgotten, the days of witchcraft and magic are cleared out of the immediate history of the time, but there may be a witchcraft of the higher sort, a magic of another quality and range altogether; after all it may be only the name we have got rid of,—the quality and the energy of the thing abandoned may still be amongst us, working in new ways and under new conditions all its mischief in the heart. It would seem as if men must knock at doors for themselves, and not be content with the wide-open gate which God has sent, through which men may evermore go straight up to himself without priestly medium or official intervention of any kind. Who has not thought that he might see a spirit or feel one? Who has not, even under some reluctance and protestation, put himself within conditions supposed to be favourable to manifestations,—the movement of an article of furniture, a shadow passing before the vision, a touch in the darkness,—who has not thought, even whilst repudiating the idea in its broader aspects, that he might somehow increase the revelation which God has given to man, and find some back-stair way into the sanctuary of the heavens, into the innermost place of the invisible, where the lightnings are, where the spiritual electricity resides, and where even God himself dwells as in a chosen tabernacle? We have various forms, therefore, of cloud-reading, and divination, and calculation, and geometrical figures, and drawing of lots; but the whole thing means that we want to break another door into the eternal, and find another passage into the invisible and infinite. God always has rebuked this inventiveness and this audacity. Nothing good has ever come of it It has troubled the Church for a time; it has divided families; it has appeared to bring with it great benefits, but all such machinery, magic, divination has left the world without having conferred upon it any solid and valuable benefit: men have come back to the old book and the familiar story, and they have found in the eternal fountain of the Bible all that was needful for the fertilisation of the soul, and the comfort of life under all the stress and storm of sorrow, darkness, and temptation's most furious assaults.
In the case before us we read: "Therefore thou hast forsaken thy people." The term is logical. God never forsakes his people in any whimsical way: he is not a man, or a son of man, that he should treat his creatures arbitrarily, moodily,—now full of sunshine in relation to them, and now covered with great clouds, without giving any reason for the change. It is a most noticeable feature in Biblical revelation that when God forsakes men he gives the reason for abandoning them. The reason is always moral. God never leaves man because he is little, or weak, or self-distrustful, or friendless, or homeless, or brokenhearted; when God forsakes man it is because man has first forsaken him, broken his laws, defied his sword, challenged his judgment, forsaken with ungrateful abandonment the altar at which the life has received its richest blessing. So, never let us neglect the word "therefore" in reading concerning divine judgments. God will never forsake the life that trusts him. If we are conscious of being divinely forsaken, let us hold severe inquest into moral actions or moral dispositions: sometimes the apostasy is inward, it is a spiritual declension, almost without a name, certainly without a shape,—a shaking of thought, a disturbing of confidence, a flaw all but invisible, except to God's eye, in the constancy of love: sometimes the apostasy is external; it writes itself in unholy action; it makes itself vivid even to terribleness in the down-going of our whole nature and our whole attitude towards man and towards God. But the point to be remembered is this—when we are forsaken it is because we have forsaken God. Is God to be the companion of idols? Is the Lord to be invited into darkened rooms, that he may be one of the deities of the universe, and take his place in order of seniority or of nominal superiority? Is he to be invited to compete with the fancies of the human brain for the sovereignty of human mind and the arbitrament of human destiny? Herein he is a jealous God. "The Lord alone shall be exalted in that day." If we make gods we must be content with the manufactures which we produce; but we never can persuade the eternal God to sit down with our wooden deities, and hold counsel with the inventions and fictions of a diseased imagination. "Choose you this day whom ye will serve." Again: "If Baal be God, serve him; if the Lord, serve him." If you are going to read the universe by the aid of Planchette, read it, and abide by the issue; but do not mix things that have no congeniality—separate one from another, and having chosen your idols stand up for them, and prove yourselves worthy of the dehumanising and debasing relation. "Ye cannot serve God and mammon,"—ye cannot read a Bible and pursue the clouds with any hope of finding in them an additional revelation; you cannot have the Cross of Christ and some wooden image of your own manufacture. When we are real in our religion we shall blessedly and helpfully assist the world.
Now we come upon another logical course:—
"Their land also is full of silver and gold, neither is there any end of their treasures; their land is also full of horses, neither is there any end of their chariots: their land also is full of idols; they worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made" (Isaiah 2:7-8).
Observe how the sequence runs: money in abundance: money will buy horses, and horses stand for power: horses will need chariots, and chariots mean dash, speed, ostentation—money, horses, chariots, can men end there? They cannot; and given money, horses, chariots, without a corresponding sanctification, without the inworking of that spirit of self-control which expresses the action of the Holy Ghost, and you compel men to go farther and to fill their land with idols. The sequence cannot be broken. Men may have money, horses, chariots, and the true God; but when men have money, horses, chariots, and no god that is true, they will make gods for themselves, for they must eke out their ostentation by some sort of nominal piety. Men will build churches; men must have religious rites and ceremonies; and what can suit the worldly man better than an idol that takes no notice of him, a wooden deity that never troubles him with its disciplinary obligations? What is worse for any land than unsanctified prosperity? Who can trust himself beyond a given point with the riches and honours of this world? How they enkindle evil fires! how they madden human ambition! how they cause the man to become boastful, imperious, overbearing, and oppressive! Who has not had some little experience of this? Some men can carry more of the world's riches than others, and yet retain their modesty; but wherever money, horses, chariots come, without corresponding moral discipline and chastening, there must be an issue in idolatry. Who can be quite content without some form of religion? Strangely and inexplicably, some men's religion is unbelief. They protest so much against belief that they are obliged to make a kind of deity of their unbelief. They are proud of it, and yet they are conscious of the weakness of their position; they fill up with hollow laughter that which is wanting in solidity and continuity of argument. Somewhere, somehow, in some form, every man will have a religion beyond himself, and that religion will either be faith, or unbelief; God, or mammon; the living Father, or the deaf and dumb idols of man's own making.
What then comes? Universal apostasy in the land:—
"And the mean man boweth down, and the great man humbleth himself" (Isaiah 2:9).
Apostasy is not partial, it is universal. That is the case with the world as God views it. When the world left him, according to the evangelical conception, it went altogether. God looked from heaven to see if there were any righteous, and he said, There is none righteous, no, not one: they are altogether corrupt: they have turned out of the way: there is none that doeth good, no, not one. A marvellous action is this of moral apostasy! It drags down whole worlds with it; it troubles every section of every province in God's empire; it troubles the judgment, the conscience, the imagination, the will; it makes every appetite an open mouth which devours things that are good, and destroys qualities that are holy. So it is with the individual character. You do not find a man recognised by the divine judgment as good in parts, that is to say, good in his judgment, but bad in his will; excellent in taste, but avaricious and worldly and self-promoting. The Lord does not adopt that species of criticism; the judgment of God is not eclectic, taking an excellence here and pointing out a default there; the Lord looketh on the heart, and when the heart goes it goes altogether, in one tremendous swing, in one awful plunge. Pray for the heart; say, Lord, save my poor heart! Sometimes it wants to turn away from the light and to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; sometimes it is weary with the paradise of thy grace and love, and it yearns to spend a night in the wilderness of its own passions: Lord, pity me, for the very atmosphere weighs upon me like a burden, and life is a mystery of pain. It takes all such prayer to save a man in the extremities of temptation. Sometimes he must be nothing but prayer; he must be an embodied supplication, an incarnate cry. Only they know this who have felt the devil's grip, who have felt the nearness of hell's burning, and who know how terrific a thing it is for the heart to be set on fire from below. One man cannot set himself against another in this matter. "The mean man boweth down, and the great man humbleth himself:" the great man cannot stand aside, and say, I am not as others; the mean man cannot say, This is the lot only of those who are weak, and I must blame my circumstances for my apostasy. The mean man and the great man, the strong life and the weak life, the king and the fair woman and the little child are all involved in a common collapse. We must not speak of human nature in these separate details, but must regard it in its solidarity, and when Adam fell all men fell in him. But if this be the dark side of the picture, is there not a corresponding brightness? Is there not a second Adam greater than the first, a new humanity, a redeeming revelation, a saving, atoning personage? Hear the great solemn bell of history tolling out these words: "In Adam all die"; and then hear the silver trumpets of the sky delivering this gracious message, this hopeful, animating, eternal word: "In Christ shall all be made alive." The sentence is thus balanced: there is a universality on the one hand, and an impartiality on the other. The ways of the Lord are equal.
From the tenth verse we come upon the description of an earthquake. This is indeed an Old Testament passage. God is going now to judge the earth, and shake it terribly. Who can stand when he cometh?
"The lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day. For the day of the Lord of hosts shall be upon every one that is proud and lofty, and upon every one that is lifted up; and he shall be brought low' (Isaiah 2:11-12).
How poor is man when he is contrasted with that right quality! How great when compared with himself! Some men tall, others short of stature; some men wise, others not wise; some rich, others poor; some very great, and others obscure and insignificant and nothing accounted of; judged amongst themselves, all these comparisons are legitimate and are significant, but when man is set side by side with the God that made him, how are the lofty crushed down, how are the mighty brought into conscious weakness, how are all inequalities levelled in one pitiable and impotent monotony! That is the right standard of judgment. Comparing ourselves amongst ourselves we become wise; but comparing ourselves with the righteousness of God we are ashamed of our morality, and we even withdraw our prayers from divine attention. When the Lord ariseth to shake terribly the earth, what can men do? We have had such visitations, call them natural phenomena if you like, the argument still remains intact—what can man do even in the hour of the manifestation of "natural phenomena," if we like that phrase better than "the visitation of God"? Is the situation eased by describing an earthquake as a natural phenomenon? What can the judges do then, robed and seated in elevated positions, reading with piercing eyes the law of the country—what can they say when the court rocks to and fro because of the upheaval of the earth? What can the soldier do when the earth trembles under his feet? Helmeted with shield and spear, and all the panoply of war upon him, what can he do? Where is the sword that can strike an earthquake? where is the spear that can affright a natural phenomenon, and make it an obedient slave? What is the difference between a military commander and the frailest life that flutters at the grave's edge, even under the visitation of a "natural phenomenon"? By eliminating the word "God" you do not get rid of the natural phenomenon; by seizing that word and turning it to its finest uses, you may have peace and comfort even when the mountains are removed into the midst of the sea; but you do not get rid of the pain, peril, mystery, and whole possibility of ruin simply by taking the word "God" out of the tragic mystery of nature.
Will God, then, alone be great in relation to man? No, his greatness will show itself everywhere: not only shall men be put down in their pride, but nature shall be dwarfed:—
"And upon all the cedars of Lebanon, that are high and lifted up, and upon all the oaks of Bashan, and upon all the high mountains, and upon all the hills that are lifted up" (Isaiah 2:13-14).
Nature shall be dwarfed when the Lord ariseth to shake terribly the earth. All the worlds are in the hollow of his hand; all the constellations are but flecks of light; all the marvels of the stellar presences that enrich the sky and make a mystery of it are but as a drop of the bucket So man shall be brought low, and nature shall be humbled, and civilisation itself shall be abased:—
"And upon every high tower, and upon every fenced wall, and upon all the ships of Tarshish, and upon all pleasant pictures" (Isaiah 2:15-16).
All shall go down in the tremendous cataclysm! Then shall men hold their idols in contempt—"The idols he shall utterly abolish." What! Will he not spare one of them? Not one. Not the golden ones? No. Not the proofs of human ingenuity and invention? No: he shall utterly abolish: he shall blow with his mouth, and they shall flee away; he shall shake his hand at them, and they shall appear no more. All this is not prophecy, but history. Here we have a case set forth in high religious terms, in almost poetic imagery; but the kernel is solid and true, and is part of our own experience to-day. Let us waive for a moment the idea of literal earthquakes. There are earthquakes of another kind, if we may so accommodate the expression. There have been times in our experience when mighty men have gone down, and lofty men have been brought low, and when cedar and oak were of no consequence to us, and when the idols we have praised and trusted the most we have the most detested: we have hidden them; we have put them out of the way; we have turned to look in some kind of cowardly manner for a fire into which we might thrust them; we have been ashamed of our false religions and our false confidences. We claim, therefore, that this is not a romantic passage, ancient Hebrew poetry, but that in the sub-tone of it it is historical, experimental, as modern as our own consciousness and the facts of our own life. What visitations we have had! What tremendous commercial upheavals! What shaking of social confidences! What distrust has been created in us regarding even the highest in the land! How we have seen the very props of society rotting before our vision, and how sometimes have we been inclined to pronounce all men vanity and lies! Again and again in history we have been made to see that man at his best estate is not to be trusted. "Cease ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils: for wherein is he to be accounted of?" In the midst of all this tempest of wrath and elemental shock and social dismay man will turn from man, cease from him, be conscious of his littleness and helplessness, and shall cry to the living God. The paint will be taken off, and the natural hideousness will be made to appear; the cloak will be torn from the shoulders, and the deformity will be revealed; and men shall be made to know that there is no solidity of character except in co-operation with God, identification with the living God, and the cultivation of the righteousness which Christ revealed, embodied, and made possible. Do not let us be content with promises, social arrangements, appearances, simulations; this is the fact, and the pulpit must declare it, and the Christian Church must affirm it, that there is no character that can stand pressure for a moment but the character that is inspired by the living One, and sustained by the Eternal. Nominal professors will often go wrong; not a living man but has done wrong in numberless instances, and will probably repeat all his wickedness and all his faults; but human shortcomings do not alter the reality of the internal argument, which is, that no man can be right except he is first right with God, and no man can be made right with God except through him who is the Way, the Truth, the Life—the blood-stained way, the way of sacrifice, atonement, and propitiation. When men are in the Son of God they are safe. When they are out of him they are not only unsafe—they are lost!
Cease ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils: for wherein is he to be accounted of?"Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"Cease ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils: for wherein is he to be accounted of?"—Isaiah 2:22
This is in the tone of Old Testament teaching. The prophets and psalmists were continually dwelling upon the frailty of man. By his proved frailty man is ruled out of court as a permanent security or defence. If he never died, or if he were always strong and always wise, then verily he might be accounted of. His mistakes are the convictions which have been proved against him, and he must bear the penalty of those mistakes. There is no man who does not himself need help; how then can any one man or any number of men be the inviolable sanctuary of all other life? There is a sense in which every man needs every other man, as a help, as a suggestion, as a temporary refuge. The argument of the text is founded upon the frailty of man. No reference is made to his intellectual ability or his moral sympathy. It is said that man's breath is in his nostrils, and therefore he is little to be accounted of. He does not know how soon he may be gone. In the very midst of his offer of help he himself may be cut down. Frailty has thus its moral uses as well as strength. What is common to humanity should be the teacher of the whole world. There is no man whose breath is not in his nostrils; there is no man whose time upon the earth is not appointed. In this respect there is nothing invidious in the dispensations of divine providence. From the king upon the throne to the meanest of his subjects there prevails one law of frailty and incertitude. We are not however to deal wholly with this aspect of frailty. Our very weakness is to turn our attention to the Source of power; because we are so weak ourselves we ought to ask, Where, then, can strength be found? Thus our sin drives us to penitence; our pain drives us to inquiry; our poverty cries out or the fulness of God. But because we are frail, or, in other words, because our strength is limited, that is no reason why we should deny service to others. In so far as in us lies let us place ourselves at the service of those who need us most. The child must cry out for its mother, the sufferer must pine for the physician. The weak man turns his eyes towards the brother who is stronger than himself. If, however, we seek one another only, we show that the spirit of true religiousness is not within us. We must cry out for the living God, and come early into his courts, and plead to be admitted to his presence; then our frailty will be supported by his almightiness. We are not made frail that we may be despised; we are made frail that we may, go to the Strong for strength.