But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities…
1. The greatest and noblest souls, striving after the loftiest and divinest aims, have been most sensible of fault and failure in their lives, and have in their confessions borne hardest upon the weakness and sinfulness of human nature. Not when men are sunk in depths of vice and sensuality; but when they are struggling upwards to difficult, impossible heights of virtue and nobleness, are they seized with the "strong crying and tears" which pours itself forth in such language as this, in David's fifty-first psalm, in Paul's "I am the chief of sinners." It is not the utter depravity of human nature, but rather a rare goodness and nobleness which expresses itself in the language of confession, of which this is a specimen.
2. Read it thus, and it is true and simple. Apparently when the prophet wrote these words his countrymen had just returned from captivity, and were again established at Jerusalem — Jerusalem laid waste, and its crown and ornament, "the holy and beautiful house of God," trampled in the dust. Something had been learned by the captives in their long and miserable exile. There was a lesson taught them now by their desolate homes and overturned altars. But still, to an earnest and far-seeing mind, there was manifest the need of a much wider and deeper religious reformation than had yet been accomplished. Before the nation could be again what it once was, it had much to learn and much to unlearn. It was a superficial and partial work which adversity had yet done in the way of curing the evils which had brought adversity in their train. With painful certainty and distinctness this was evident to the prophet. His soul was burdened to think of it, and he burst out, in his grief, with the confession as for himself and his country — "We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.
3. It is easy to imagine a prophetic mind of our own country and our own time using similar language to express similar feelings. We have a great deal to be proud of as a nation. Much that is British is great and noble. On the surface of things we appear to be a very religious, as well as an industrious and prosperous people. Our Protestant institutions are, no doubt, many of them admirable. But can you imagine any very sincere, penetrating, religious mind, one impressed little by material prosperity and sensitive to moral and spiritual conditions, looking beneath the surface of our national life, contemplating all the dishonesty in trade and manufactures, the corruption of morals among the rich, the low intelligence, superstition, vile tastes of the mob, the religious cant and conventionality, the bitter rivalry of sects, which exist along with our Protestant institutions, and not be forced to say — "We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away ' — we are not a great and glorious people; "we all do fade as a leaf"? As the language of confession — confession being the act not of the vile, but of the noble — we read this language, and the application of it to national life is plain.
4. In this light it is no less easy to apply it to individual life and conduct. Strive to be true and good after the example of Christ, and it will be easy, perhaps, to satisfy both the world and the Church that you are successful in the endeavour; but if your aim is really to live Christ's life you will not so easily satisfy yourself — you will only at the best succeed far enough to be conscious of immeasurable failure. Compared with the good you ought to win, any good to which you attain will appear to you miserable failure. Thus, this language in its own light is easily seen to be true. In any other light it is false. He that doeth righteousness is righteous. I know that right things may be done from wrong motives, and with inferior views, and I know that they are not then of the same quality or value as if they were done from right impulses and with the highest aims. I know, too, that if a man breaks one of the commandments he is in a sense guilty of all, and cannot set himself up as a perfect man, or as a more deserving man than another who has broken all the ten. But then right is right, and wrong is wrong, be it in saint or sinner, and nothing can make these two opposites change places, or have the same character or issues. Wrong is eternally to be feared and hated; right is eternally to be loved and sought after. Suppose you know you are wrong in much, if there is anything in which you are right, do not consider that to be filthy rags — die rather than surrender it to force or fraud. It was not to render our righteousness superfluous, or to certify that any of our righteousness is worthless, that Christ lived and died; it was to make us truly righteous, to bind us in a new covenant with God our Father, to be the servants only of righteousness.
(J. Service, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.