The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Behold, the LORD maketh the earth empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down, and scattereth abroad the inhabitants thereof.Self Overthrown
Achapter like this will bear many readings. A quaint commentator has said, "This is gallant rhetoric, compared with which the thunders of Demosthenes are poor stuff." The man who wrote that knew every word that Demosthenes had ever said in his greatest orations. How true it is that there is no eloquence like the eloquence of the Bible! The difficulty is that people will not read it. The twenty-fourth chapter and the twenty-seventh, and all between, should be read at once, for all these chapters constitute only one prophecy. Those who are fond of literature should read the chapters, if only as a specimen of sublimest rhetoric. How eagerly men buy rhetorical specimens! and with what haste and eagerness they flee to hear men speak of literature! All literature is in the Bible. There is nothing outside God's Book. Infinite variations there are, of course, but the meaning is that all these variations, in so far as they are true, tuneful, helpful to man's deepest life, come back to the Bible as water returns to its source.
In this and three following chapters the Lord undertakes to deal with the great world-powers, and he shows that they are but as straws in his hand. In the ancient world, Assyria was the symbol of power, and the Lord shows that Assyria is but a painted egg-shell; and as for Moab, it is a frail vessel, broken by the finger of God merely pointing at it. It is needful, it would appear, for our human education that now and again the earth in all its amplitude should be treated with divine contempt. Men have always said that the land would be left; even consolidated funds might sink or vary in value, or go down to an infinitesimal point, but the land would always be there. It was necessary, therefore, that now and again in history God should claim the land, and shake out of it all the buildings that men had put upon it as if they were going to claim the land. "The earth is the Lord's." If he lends it to us for a little time to build our huts upon, see that those huts have altars in them, for the Lord of the land will come down and shake them out of the earth as a thing that is vomited because of its nauseousness. It is well that we should know what kind of house we are living in. It is good that rarely and distantly the earth should quake. It looks like a strong house, but it is not. The rocks flow away like water, and the mountains go up in smoke when the Lord looks on them in the spirit of judgment. The twenty-fourth chapter riddles the world, minces it, chops it up into the smallest pieces; throws them away, gathers them, and begins the history of the earth in a new chapter. Here we have all the glory of civilisation, and the whole thing ruined, brought down to its protoplasm, and out of that plasma there is begun again all the fabric of the world. Wise men cannot afford to hasten with indecent eagerness over a poem so historically founded, so philosophically illustrated.
Look at the word "Behold" (Isaiah 24:1). That word is never thrown into the Scripture as a mere make-weight. It is not an exclamation; it is a warning, it is a solemn appeal; it is the setting-up of a great hand, pointing towards an object weirdly fascinating, sublimely entrancing, or an object awful because indicative of a fast-descending judgment. "Behold the Lord maketh the earth empty." The figure is that of a ship in a storm, and so distressing is the situation that an order is given to lighten the vessel. When that order is given men throw overboard corn and wine and precious burdens—let them go, if haply life may be saved! What a market-place is that! That is the true market-place. Other market-places are ironies as to values, and barters, and exchanges. When it becomes a question of life and death, and there is a possibility of saving life by throwing out whole caskets of jewels, let the jewels be thrown out; they will make a splash as if they were but paving-stones; the sea will receive them with indifference or contempt. Men should profoundly study this fact, because there may come a time when it will be practically tested. We know as a matter of fact that all this has been done, and so long as it forms part of human history the preacher has a mighty threshing instrument in his hand, whereby he may do wonders for the Lord. They are wise who prize the true gold, whose souls are committed unto the faithful Redeemer for custody. Blessed are they who are in the Father's keeping, for no man can pluck them out of the Father's hand. Keep the image steadily in view, then. How far does this emptying proceed? It proceeds to the very uttermost—"and turneth it upside down." How do we best prove that a vessel is really empty? Simply by that action. Unless that action be completed, there may remain a drop, a dreg, a fleck, a particle in the vessel that we intended to empty; therefore, take it, turn it upside down, and let it stand there for hours, and the draining will be completed. Thus the earth is treated like a little bottle. In the hands of God it is all but invisible. Is there not also a stroke of a contemptuous kind in this action of inversion? How could we show our contempt for a man more than by taking him up and setting him on his head, and leaving him there until we returned at leisure? Mockery could no further go. Contempt exhausts itself in that action. Then the Lord "scattereth abroad the inhabitants thereof." Is there a more pitiable spectacle anywhere than to see men running, away from danger? They care nothing for dress, for equipage; they stand not on the order of their going, but go. And is there anything more suggestive and more provocative of scornful laughter than to see men fleeting from danger? Let the danger be a fatal one. Then call out to the men—Have you your passbook with you? Ask a man about his passbook when the earth is swallowing him up, and then you will know something of relative values and true ways of living. Call out to a man who is pursued by a wolf if he has taken with him his favourite snuff-box. Ask him to be sure about it. He is so proper when he is lord of the manor, so exact when all things are done by a nod of his imperial head. Ask him now when the wolf is barking at him if all his appointments are just as he would like them to be. What is his purpose? To be saved: If all I have will satisfy this wolf, thrust it down his throat—only let me escape his cruel teeth! The argument is right. The only difficulty is that men will not carry it out. When the wolf has retired they come back again to repeat their vanities.
In the second verse we have a picture of social confusion:—
"And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priest; as with the servant, so with his master; as with the maid, so with her mistress; as with the buyer, so with the seller; as with the lender, so with the borrower; as with the taker of usury, so with the giver of usury to him" (Isaiah 24:2).
Distinctiveness is lost. And what is society without its distinctiveness? Even a democracy must be graded. We cannot get up and down the world without ladders and staircases, and it is right that we should know what it is to ascend and to descend, for therein lies no little part of our best education. How thin is the partition which divides order from confusion! Once alter an eternal law, or trifle with it, or ignore it, and all the card-house of civilisation tumbles like paper. The great thing to be kept in mind is that men may be as if they were not in all the relations of life; they may be masters without claiming to be such; it is in the unwise assertion of the name and claim that mischief begins. Master and servant there will ever be; head and foot is a relation which will never be dissolved; upper and lower are terms we shall always need in human speech; but there need be no boasting, no haughtiness, no oppression, no foolish vanity. The great man will always go straight up to the throne, or if not straight up yet through a great battlefield to it, and he will never rest until he sits down there, and until all men say with one consent, God save the king! Let him reign by reason of force of character, capacity of mind, prophetic insight, generous sympathy, noble affection for every living man and beast and bird. There is no safety in confusion. Nor is progress possible in chaos. We must have lines, boundaries, distinctions, badges and tokens if you will, but within them all there may throb the heart of generous brotherhood.
"The earth mourneth and fadeth. away, the world languisheth and fadeth away, the haughty people of the earth do languish" (Isaiah 24:4).
Why? Because the vital spring is weakened. Always distinguish between the interior and the exterior, between the kernel and the shell, between the core and that which is protective of it. A man may lose a great deal of his body, and yet still keep his life; his arms may be taken from him, but he can still think; his lower limbs may be severed from him, yet he may rule an empire by his wisdom; he may be deaf and blind and dumb-yet men may wish to consult him because of something in him that is in no one else. But when the life is touched, then the whole fabric collapses, and no matter how lofty the stature, how strong the limb, how trained the muscle, when the life went the whole man fell. There is an inner mystery of things; an esoteric pulse and secret. There is a place in life where the ark stands. When men built the tabernacle they brought the ark into it, and the ark consecrated all; and when they built a new house, brighter and greater, it was the old ark that was put in. There may be a new temple, but no new ark. Take it! however many years it has been in use, it is better than all the fir and algum wood of Lebanon, richer than the gold of Parvaim. So with this mysterious thing within the tabernacle or temple of man. When the spirit of truth is insulted, all nature becomes old, palsied, withered; when the spirit of moral loveliness is quenched, then the land is utterly emptied and utterly spoiled: "The earth mourneth and fadeth away, the world languisheth and fadeth away, the haughty people of the earth do languish." Is the image that of a tree that has been thunderstruck? Is it not possible to perforate a tree, and to pour through the perforation so as to get at the juices some fatal acid, some deadly fluid? Now seal up the hole with clay, paint it like the rest of the great trunk of the tree, and leave the mischief to proceed. The great branches will shrivel, the little twigs will soon give in, and by-and-by the whole tree that stood up like part of a cathedral will begin to fall, wither, perish, like a thing that has been blighted with a curse. Let us take care lest some such cruel acid be infused into us that shall work the mischief of death; lest we be stung by fiery flying serpents; for then there is nothing left but mourning, fading, languishing—the grim programme of paralysis!
"The earth also is defiled under the inhabitants thereof; because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore hath the curse devoured the earth, and they that dwell therein are desolate: therefore the inhabitants of the earth are burned, and few men left" (Isaiah 24:5-6).
How familiar is this story to those who are Bible-readers! The accusation is once more a moral one. What had the inhabitants of the earth done? "Transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant." Not, they have transgressed minor laws about which there may be debate, changed ordinances of human appointment and institution; but, they have broken laws and ordinances that are associated with the everlasting covenant—the unwritten and unwritable law. Here a broad distinction must be made between things that are outward and things that are inward, between things transient and things everlasting. It is never wise to transgress a law. Even where the law itself is open to amendment, it must be approached patiently and steadfastly with a view to its being legitimately and constitutionally changed. Its transgression must be a solemn and final act, done not in hot blood, but done by men who have just risen from their knees in" an act of worship and adoration. It is never well to change an ordinance hastily, merely for the sake of changing it Ordinances even of an imperfect kind help to keep society steady, to centralise it, to suggest standards of judgment and criticism, to mark points of progress. There is an everlasting covenant that man not having written may not unwrite, or attempt to obliterate or to mutilate in any degree. That everlasting covenant must be good, because it could come only from one Lawgiver, and his name is God. If in very deed it is an "everlasting" covenant, by that very qualification it defines itself as a covenant made by the living Lord. Seek out his law, hide it in your heart, love it more than you love your daily bread, and they who thus honour the Lord's law shall be delivered and comforted, brought to the highest point of spiritual culture, and set in the infinite security of heaven. Who does not rejoice that there is a spirit of judgment in the universe? A languishing world should give us pleasure; a fading tree, provided that tree is an upas tree, should make us shout for joy. When the bad man is brought to justice, righteous men should sing the praises of God. When the thief is caught, when the evildoer feels the cold hand of justice on his neck, they who look on should bless God for these guarantees of legitimate and useful civilisation. That there is a perdition for the Iscariots of the world is a source of profoundest satisfaction to those who love righteousness. Were Iscariot to be free of heaven, there would be no heaven to long for. The curse is personified as a beast of prey—"therefore hath the curse devoured the earth." Sometimes it is personified under the image of fire, for fire devours, swallows up, eats up, and leaves nothing undigested. Oh that fierce tongue of fire! "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."
"The new wine mourneth, the vine languisheth, all the merryhearted do sigh" (Isaiah 24:7).
It is no good having vineyards now, for the vines themselves are rotten, and there is no wine for the lips that burn for it.
"The mirth of tabrets [or tambourines] ceaseth, the noise of them that rejoice endeth, the joy of the harp ceaseth. They shall not drink wine with a song; strong drink shall be bitter to them that drink it" (Isaiah 24:8-9).
When a man's own palate turns against him, and he has lived for nothing but the palate, he has a sorry world to live in. So long as he could gorge himself at the glutton's table he was as happy as a beast could be, but now he cannot eat, and he never could pray, so what becomes of him?
"There is a crying for wine in the streets; all joy is darkened, the mirth of the land is gone" (Isaiah 24:11).
A beautiful image is suggested by the expression "joy is darkened." The literal rendering is, "it is eventide with joy,"—that is to say, the shadows are gathering, cold twilight is setting in upon joy, and joy itself presently will throw away its harp and its song, and will lie down to die.
Thus the reading of this chapter is like being out in a tremendous thunderstorm. The wheel of judgment flies through all these verses. How it thunders! How it grinds! How it crushes! How pitiless is its action! When could the Lord ever conclude even a speech of judgment without a word of gospel? It is difficult for God to give way to judgment exclusively. It is his strange work—mercy is his delight. So from the thirteenth verse the gospel begins:—
"When thus it shall be in the midst of the land among the people, there shall be as the shaking of an olive tree, and as the gleaning grapes when the vintage is done" (Isaiah 24:13).
There shall be something left that God can work upon. If there be one little wheat-head left, he will plant it, and have a harvest out of that by-and-by; if there is one little green sprout on all the fallen tree, he will water it, and watch it, and care for it, and presently it shall grow and bear fruit, and the birds shall sing in its branches. If when God has crushed a man by taking from him his first-born and his last-born, and stabbing his favourite scheme with sharp spears so that it perish in the sight of men, yet if there be left in that suffering one so much as a feeble sigh—if he can sigh for God, if he can say, Woe is me! God pity me! the Lord will work upon that, and out of it there will come a new man, crowned like a king, enriched and adorned with riches spiritual. A germ is left in the worst of us. If we are even reading one word of the Bible, there is something to begin with. If we have not quenched the Spirit, the Spirit may conquer yet. That God's Book is in our hands, and that we are in God's house, by will, by consent, is proof that even yet the prodigal may return, the farthest wanderer may come home. If this is not the spirit of the gospel, then there is no gospel. The evangelical doctrine is a doctrine of infinite hopefulness. When men profess to be evangelical, and yet are stern, then they belie their profession by their spirit: they have evangelical words, not evangelical solicitudes; they have an evangelical framework, but there is no heart evangelical throbbing within the ghastly skeleton. The evangelical spirit goes out, and says, If there is a sigh in you, one tear, one sign of penitence, God has not given you up: work upon it; point to that as the beginning of new riches and infinite treasures. Where is there a man who can say that he never has a religious thought, a spiritual aspiration, a keen desire for some larger vision of the kingdom of God? If we are haunted by one such pale spectre, we may take hope that even yet we may be saved. Infinite is the grace of God. Some have been sorely shaken, impoverished, overwhelmed, and it would seem as if God had been hard with them, and had well-nigh taken away the last crust from their table; but, no, there is a crust on the table, you say? Yes. That crust is a pledge that God is still in the house. Ask him to bless it, and it will become as an abundant harvest.