The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
The burden of the valley of vision. What aileth thee now, that thou art wholly gone up to the housetops?The Valley of Vision
Jerusalem was the valley of vision. Jerusalem was called a valley in this instance in relation to the great hills by which the Holy City was surrounded—"As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so the Lord is round about his people." The mountain-tops are higher than the pinnacles of the minster or the abbey, the temple or the cathedral. We always build under God. Some wondrous change has taken place here. Jerusalem is inquired about as an invalid would be asked after—"What aileth thee now?" What is this trouble? Thy name really is associated with joy: "Thou art full of stirs, a tumultuous city, a joyous city"; a thousand angels sing in the darkest night in thy sky, and thou art full of gladness: what trouble is this that makes thy heart sore, that infuses a new tone into thy voice? This is not customary, what is the meaning of it? In the valley of vision are found men who are gifted with eyesight. A very perilous gift! In a modified sense, blessed are they who see nothing: in the larger sense, requiring ample time for its exposition and vindication, blessed are they who see the whole horizon; they often see dimly, that is to say, the figures upon the horizon may be mistaken for clouds, little as the hand of man, but they gladden the prophet's heart, the prophet sees the farther meanings, the larger blessings, the days that are coming—morning light, crowned with glory, and never descending into nocturnal shades. We need men of that piercing vision to help us, for sometimes the days are laden with darkness; now and again it is irony to speak of day, for the whole sky seems to be clothed with frowns; it is at such times that men of vision are right heartily welcome. They see in the darkness; because of the inspiration of God, the darkness and the light are both alike unto them. These men we call prophets, who are not to be interpreted by deaf, dumb, and blind men, but only by those who have kindred faculty, though in very limited degree. To what changes, then, are men and hearts, and cities and lands, exposed! "What aileth thee?" Our joy may be turned into sorrow; the root out of which came bud and blossom and fruit, beautiful to the eyes and to be desired to make one wise, may grow nothing but poison. We hold nothing certainly, with an assurance that cannot be broken, with guarantees that cannot be violated. When we grip any prize with our poor five fingers, the fingers themselves may fail to hold the blessing, and that which we thought secure may vanish in a moment. Make the best of the present time; realise what is written as soon as you can, turn it into positive, absolute property, into soul, into manhood, that cannot be taken away from you but by your own consent.
Yet what taunting there is in all this apparent condolence! "Thy slain men are not slain with the sword, nor dead in battle." How graciously cruel we can sometimes be! How we can taunt and mock men even with messages of condolence and sympathy and yearning solicitude. What is the meaning of this reproach? The meaning is that the men were cowards, that they were all wounded in the back and not in the breast; they had turned away from the enemy, and had been struck down from behind. Or it may mean that the men had killed themselves; luxury had overpowered them: yielding to the weaknesses of the flesh had ended in their destruction. We glory in our heroes, we are ashamed of our cowards. A reckoning is made of men's actions, and in the long-run men have the right epitaph assigned to them in the graveyard of the ages. The question for us to propose to ourselves is, What shall be our record when we are dead? Shall men say of us, They died bravely, they died hard, they struck back again with heroic force, and now that they are dead even those who opposed them will place a wreath upon the cold heart? Or shall it be said of us, They will never be missed for their valour, their sympathy, their generosity, their goodness; they have left no empty place in any human heart? It is for us to say what our record in these regards shall be. Blessed be God, it lies within the power of every one of us to make somebody weep—really cry manly noble tears, because our face is seen no more. You can do that in the family, in the business circle, in the church; you do not want the world for a stage, you want but your common daily sphere in which to live a life of beauty, and create a memory of beneficence.
Then see how nature itself may be degraded by the spirit of war:—
"And it shall come to pass, that thy choicest valleys shall be full of chariots, and the horsemen shall set themselves in array at the gate' (Isaiah 22:7).
The valley was never made for war; the choice valley was made for garden-land and wheatfields and vineyards, not for the pomp and circumstance of war, for the carnage of military cruelty. Thus nature is degraded, dishonoured, discrowned. Gibeon, and Rephaim, and Hinnom, and Jehoshaphat—meant to grow wine and oil and bread for the inhabitants of the city—are turned into a great slaughter-house. Sin degrades everything, blights all the flowers, hushes all the music, turns back all the light; it hates the morning, because the morning reveals, detects, and makes stand out in ghastly clearness things that long to hide themselves in some merciful cloud. So it is with the degradation of our faculties. Think of Imagination—that wing of the soul, that power by which we create new heavens and a new earth—being degraded, so as to have to take into account numbers of men opposed to men, questions of bloodshed, questions of storming and overwhelming cities innocent and useful upon the earth; think of imagination being employed in discovering new methods of villainy! To such base uses may we come, that the poet's faculty may become a thief's investment! He will consider in the night-time what he may do to-morrow. What is he doing?—harnessing a very steed of heaven to a chariot that can roll only in a downward direction, and terminate its rolling only in hell. What art thou doing, O bad man?—perverting the finest faculties, filling the choicest valleys with proofs of evil, hurrying down thy whole nature to the base service of the devil. We should be careful of such prostitution: it leaves us weaker, poorer, meaner men; our faculties were meant to grow in an upward direction, to be plentiful in outshoots, in great branches each of which is equal to a tree itself, bearing an abundant harvest of fruit so that hunger may be satisfied, and creating great amplitude of shade under which the weary may lie down and rest. Sometimes it excites solicitude that men should have to consider any little questions at all—that they should be troubled with bread-getting, money-making, world-caressing,—they who ought always to be far away out, meeting God half-way, and holding high speech in tabernacles not made with hands. But it has pleased God so to constitute us that we must deal with little questions sometimes. Blessed be God, we need never deal with mean, unworthy, wicked questions; all these we can take up and throw into the fire, and though our questions be limited by our necessities they need not be debased by our passions and evil desires.
Now we come upon a line which we thought was to be found only in the New Testament; we come upon the sensualist's creed, and are surprised to find it an old one:—
"Let us eat and drink; for to-morrow we shall die" (Isaiah 22:13).
He lives wisely who lives in eternity: our citizenship is in heaven. The gait of the Christian as he moves should indicate that he is not simply walking for exercise, but travelling towards a city whose builder is God; he has hardly time to take off his sandals or to set down his staff; he says, "I can tarry but a night." Whither art thou bound, then? For the infinite, the eternal, the invisible; give me bread and water for the moment,—I hasten to the feast of God. Let us say that there is more or less of ideality in this: what would life be without its ideal views, its prophetic outlook, its genius of grasping the future? "Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we shall die," is a fool's creed, even if it were true as to time. Say we die to-morrow, to eat and drink to-day is a beast's recreation. Say there is no third day, that life is made up of to-day and to-morrow, even then the right way is to abstain from eating and drinking, so far as they are exercises merely ministrant to the flesh,—even then it were best to do good, to suffer for others, to dry the tear of sorrow, to help the lame, and lead the blind, and sing to those who are ill at ease. So that any way, even if there be no third day, it is better to live the upper life; and if there be a third day, and if that third day be a gate swinging back upon eternal duration, then blessed are they, and they only, whose lives are hidden with Christ in God.
Now comes another tone of mockery. The whole chapter is a wonderful succession of prophetic, expository, and rhetorical variety. The Lord mocks the insecure defences of men:—
"Go, get thee unto this treasurer, even unto Shebna, which is over the house" (Isaiah 22:15).
The word "treasurer" may mean companion, it may mean chamberlain, it may mean a man who is in charge of the king's house, one who is in high office, who can do what he will under the king: go to him and taunt him, "What hast thou here? and whom hast thou here, that thou hast hewed thee out a sepulchre here, as he that heweth him out a sepulchre on high, and that graveth an habitation for himself in a rock?" (Isaiah 22:16.) What does it all amount to? The rock is God's. Nature will one day say, Let me go back to my Creator; oh, thief, do not steal one pebble of all the earth; oh, wicked man, burden me not with thy carcase—I will not carry thee, thou foul thing! God will empty the sepulchres of the rocks; he will throw the wicked away. "Behold, the Lord will carry thee away with a mighty captivity, and will surely cover thee. He will surely violently turn and toss thee like a ball into a large country" (Isaiah 22:17-18). The image is that of throwing a ball upon a level and smooth surface, so that it rolls to an infinite length; without attrition or hindrance of an appreciable kind, away rolls the smooth ball over the smooth surface, far beyond the measurement of men. Let us take heed to this. We can build nothing that God cannot unroof. God may begin, and does begin, at either of two points in his work of dehabilitation. Say he will come down upon the wicked man and work out his judgment; he will take part of the roof away, and a roof is no stronger than its weakest point—even a roof yields to that general law—and through that unroofed space the storm will pour down in pitiless fury. But God has another way of working out his judicial purpose, a way very secret, and wholly beyond the control of men; in that way he touches the foundation line, takes off the cornerstone, and the whole fabric is shaken down, and none can hinder the fall. The entire volume of human history is full of illustration of this. None can tell in what way God will come; the great and blessed and all-saving truth is that he is coming, does come, must come, and none can hinder, and that his coming means judgment to the wicked and recognition to the good.
Now the Lord will come, and in tender mercy will edify, reconstruct, speak a word of hope to the heart of men:—
"And it shall come to pass in that day, that I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah" (Isaiah 22:20).
Who was he? Nobody can tell. Where else is he referred to in Holy Writ? Probably nowhere. Was he, then, a man without renown? That depends upon what you mean by renown, for he is indicated in the text by terms which imply infinite fame. Say "Eliakim," and nobody knows him; say "My servant Eliakim," and obscurity rises up into eminence unrivalled, and never to be surpassed. Renown, then, may be nominal, or it may be moral. Nominal renown is a thing that comes and goes, a coloured cloud, a bubble on the river, a noise in the air, nothing that is substantial, nothing that is beneficent in itself; but moral renown, the renown of goodness, the fame of character, the reputation associated with deeds of sacrifice or valour—that is a renown which lives in heaven. My soul, strive for it! see that no man take thy crown. Yet God glorifies obscurity; he brings forward unknown men to do great public work. Who can tell how God is training men in secret now? Young men, take heart; men working in obscure places, do not be discouraged: God keeps a perfect register of all his servants, and he knows well all their capacities and functions, and at the right time he will say, Come, stand up; O thou least among the children of men, go to the front, and I will crown thee with strength—"I will clothe him with thy robe, and strengthen him with thy girdle, and I will commit thy government into his hand: and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah" (Isaiah 22:21). Mark the royal "I." There is no hint of consultation; there is no suggestion of having received a vote unanimous or divided, from some sustaining, watchful, or critical party; this I rolls on like a cataract; it is the voice of infinite sovereignty.
"And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open" (Isaiah 22:22).
Still the same tone. The Lord reigneth! Never let us try to settle how it is that one man is here and another man is there, and bring our petty judgment to bear upon the allotment; rather say, All these things are in God's hand; he setteth up, he putteth down, he calls the obscure to renown, and he puts back the foremost man into the cloud, so that he cannot be seen again. Lord, work as thou wilt, only give thy servants the believing heart, that they may know that thou doest all things well.
"And I will fasten him as a nail in a sure place" (Isaiah 22:23).
The image is that of a strong nail being driven into a beam, and on that nail, as on a peg, shall be hung all the issues of the family—"the offspring and the issue, all vessels of small quantity, from the vessels of cups, even to all the vessels of flagons." How one man becomes the head of the family, the strength of the nation, the leader of the people, the dependence of empires! Were that man to be taken out of his place, it would seem as though the whole nation would perish by his removal; were that character to fail, it would seem as if the whole Church would go mourning the rest of her days, sighing, sobbing, because the son of the morning had lost his centre and plunged into infinite night. That is what God does in society: he makes some men as nails and pegs, on which are hung great responsibilities; he makes some men as pillars on whom he rests all that is uppermost in the temple of his providence; he makes some men leaders, shepherds going in advance, that they may lead God's nations and flocks and households to his appointed place: let us recognise their character and their standing, and though we may not emulate their power, we can give them the joy of knowing that we never forget them in our tenderest prayers.
Is Eliakim safe evermore? No. There is a word of warning. Elevation is only held on good character. Even God who drove in the nail can take it out again:—
"In that day, saith the Lord of hosts, shall the nail that is fastened in the sure place be removed, and be cut down, and fall; and the burden that was upon it shall be cut off: for the Lord hath spoken it" (Isaiah 22:25).
No nail once driven in can do without God, saying, I am driven in now, so I care not what may happen. The highest lives in obedience; the strongest man becomes weaker than the weakest when he ceases to pray. Genius cannot keep a man in a high moral elevation. His genius will soon be discovered to be but cleverness, not the blooming out of a life that is hidden in the very mystery of God. Leader of the people, even thou mayest be dispossessed of thy leadership. Great statesmen are in the hands of God. Journalists, thinkers, the advance-guard of every name, all these hold their position on their good conduct. Let them be good and faithful servants; let there be no selfishness in their ambition, no vain conceit because of the influence with which God hath clothed them; even the nail that is fastened in the sure place may be removed, the very beam in which it finds a place may be cut in two and burned in unquenchable fire. So, then, we are nothing but in God; we have no standing but in the Lord. Let us realise this, and pay attention to conduct. But we cannot pay attention to conduct unless we pay attention to spirit. Conduct is nothing in itself: it is everything only in so far as it expresses an inward, pure, gracious, holy temper.
Thus through all history we find the moral element, the eternal nerve by which God sustains and executes his purpose, without which history would become a chapter of accidents and society would revert to chaos. All figures, metaphors, and symbols may be changed or adapted according to the genius of the prophet who speaks; but the great central quantity of truth no man may touch, diminish, or trifle with. In all history we come upon a day of judgment. In all life's tragic story there is the outline of a great white throne. Judgment is not an invention of the evangelists, or a bold guess of the apostolic mind. Judgment began in Eden. As soon as man was limited by laws, permissions, and prohibitions, he stood before a judgment-seat; he might not know it, but he looked upon the face of a Judge. Blessed be God, there is another and brighter thought; as soon as God showed any interest in man he began to redeem him. The first act of love necessitated the Cross. There was no stopping-place in the logic of mercy, until it consummated itself in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. If we could work that idea out we should in very deed be great theologians.
This is the method of God. Daily mercies are the cross in detail,—the Cross is the gathering up and assurance for the future of all other blessing. Take it by analysis, and we have the cross broken up into daily bread, and bodily clothing, and nightly sleep, and continual watchfulness—a detailed and tender Providence that numbers the very hairs of our head. Take it by synthesis, and all these things, little in themselves, are incomplete in themselves; put one down as a unit, add to it, gather in all the series, do not hesitate to include all the sections, phases, varieties of providence, and you will find your heart burning within you, love glowing in the soul, because you will soon come to see that you cannot stop until you come to a place called Golgotha. The moment God spoke to the sinner hopefully, he began to atone for the sinner's sin. It was one of two things: damnation or redemption. There is no middle point in all the purpose of God. Say that God spared Adam long enough to have a conversation with him, in which the words, "The seed of the woman shall bruise the head of the serpent," occurred, and the whole catastrophe is involved in that communication. Do not let us break up God's providence. Do not fritter away God's meanings. When he made one grass blade to grow, he meant to clothe the earth with roses and flowers of summer; when he caused one little pearl dewdrop to settle upon the earth, he meant to fertilise the globe and make it fruitful in all goodness and loveliness; when he spoke to the sinner and did not scourge him with eternal damnation, he meant by that restrained look that he would one day send forth his Son, made of a woman, born under the law, to redeem and restore all things. This is a great prophecy, and we should be greater men if we yielded ourselves to the teaching which God has provided in his Book.
Almighty God, when thy judgments are abroad in the earth the inhabitants thereof will learn righteousness. Speak unto us, we humbly pray thee in the name of Jesus Christ thy Son, not in the language of judgment but in the language of mercy. We cannot bear the light of thy holiness, for we have sinned, and we are corrupt, and there is no health in us. We would look upon thy pity and love, thy Cross, O thou Emmanuel, God with us. We turn towards thy Cross, and our burden soon melts away; we hear the gospel of thy love, and answering it with penitence and faith, behold we enter upon the enjoyment of new heavens and a new earth: old things are passed away, and all things have become new. This is the glory of thy gospel, thou Christ of God; it banishes all night, and gloom, and winter, and death; it brings life and immortality to light; it causes heaven to condescend to earth, and lifts up earth into the horizon of the sky. May we understand thy gospel to be a call to discipline as well as to pardon. Having the promises of God, may we purify ourselves, may we answer love with holiness. May the spirit of love dwell in us, that our life may be one of heavenly charitableness, feeling sympathy in relation to those who are lost and needy, and in mortal pain; may we enter into all the mystery of the ministry of Christ, who went about doing good. Thus may we confirm in action what we say in words, and live in the midst of men the prayers which we breathe in the sanctuary. For all gospel words and gospel light and gospel hope we bless thee: they make the wilderness blossom as the rose; they abolish death, they dry up the tears of sorrow, and replace them with the tears of joy. We bless thee that joy hath her sweet tears, that joy cannot express herself wholly in laughter, but must blind herself with gracious rain, whereby all things bright and beautiful are multiplied and seen the more vividly. We give our lives into thy keeping. They are strange mysteries: they blaspheme, and pray; sometimes they are ecstatic with piety more than earthly, and sometimes they wallow in the depths of hell. But our lives are thine; the image they bear is not ours; nothing but the flaw, the fault, the corruptness, can be claimed by us; the glory, the suggestion, the budding immortality—these are God's. God's name be praised! Watch the evolution of our lives, that we may grow in grace and knowledge and truth and pureness, and though sometimes we may seem to be worsted in the fight may we come again to the battle with recruited power, with completer energy, with more absolute consecration to the banner of Christ. Pity all who are weak and sad, sore of heart, wounded in spirit; lead the blind by a way that they know not; comfort the disconsolate with solaces from the Cross; minister unto those that can no more minister unto themselves; and give us all to feel that we are in the keeping of God, under the direction of the eternal Spirit, and that what is asked of us by thee is filial obedience, complete consent of the heart, willingness to be and to do all that is included in the will of God. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us king's and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.