A voice of one calling: "Prepare the way for the LORD in the wilderness; make a straight highway for our God in the desert.
Every valley shall be exalted, etc. Everything depends upon how we view the future, whether with the horoscope of history or prophecy. History says the old evils return - war, strife, wrong, selfishness. Then the heart sinks, and inspiration to duty is weakened. But when we go with the prophet to the mountain-tops, we see -
I. PATHS OF PREPARATION. "Prepare ye the way of the Lord." There are the ruins of the old military roads of the Caesars, but the Caesars are gone. There the Ptolemies of olden time made incursions, but their sway is past. But the highways of commerce, the freer intercourse of peoples; the more humanizing influences of equity in law, and reformation in punishment, the kindly workings of pity and charity to the neglected and forgotten; - all these are preparation-paths for the great King who is to reign in righteousness. Not alone through the royal gates of olden prophecies, but through the triumphal arches of redeeming ideas and influences which he has set at work, the Messiah shall come.
II. OBSTACLES REMOVED. "Every valley," etc. This is but a figurative way of stating that no hindrance can affect the onward march of the Redeemer. In Eastern countries the things described here were obstacles sufficient to hinder Solomon in his Eastern journeys. There were limits to his progress when he left his grand basilica to visit his wide domains. Not so will it be with One greater than Solomon.
III. GLORY REVEALED. It is hidden now. Men are dazzled with false glory, with meretricious ideas of empire, and they see no beauty in Christ that they should desire him. But one day - as the aesthetic student realizes in time what is true art, as the musician understands the majesty of Beethoven - the moral nature of men being quickened and renewed by the Spirit, they shall see the glory of the Lord and the excellency of our God. Not some here and there, but man everywhere; "all flesh shall see it together." What a vision! and what a day of jubilee! We need cherish no doubt about it. The vision is not imagination. The grand climacteric result is not predicated from a mere study of the triumph of the strongest forces. God has pledged his own word: "For the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it." - W.M.S.
I. ITS LITERAL ACCOMPLISHMENT.
Prepare ye the way of the Lord.I. THE JEWISH THEOCRACY. It is a favourite statement with those who seek to account for Christianity on entirely mundane principles, that Christ grew, as it were, out of His age. The age was waiting for some such Teacher, some such Gospel — and Teacher and Gospel came. Just as the wreck of the Roman Republic demanded a hand and brain like Caesar's, and they appeared at the critical moment and reorganised the State, so the Great Preacher of the universal Gospel was called for by His times, and He came. There is something in the spirit of an age, we are told, which creates the heroes and teachers of the age. This is very interesting, and has a large measure of truth in it. Men of high genius are singularly sensitive to the influences around them, and are created while they create; but it is blankly impossible to account for Christ and Christianity by natural evolution, with the Jewish theocracy, a grand prophetic system which for nearly two thousand years looked unto and prophesied of the Messiah, standing in the way. There was existing for ages in the world, kept alive by marvellous interventions of a higher hand, a national community, whose function was distinctly, from first to last, to prepare the way for the Advent, for the Divine kingdom which was to rule over and to bless mankind. These Jews were set to bear witness of the reality of the Divine rule, and its necessity, if states were to be saved from chaos, and the whole world from wreck. There was a period, when Moses led them in the wilderness, when the theocracy came out with wonderful clearness. Then there was a period, under their kings, when, through their worldly conformity to the life of surrounding nations, the theocracy was obscured. But the captivity ended that conformity in sorrow and in shame. From the time of the captivity the idea of the theocracy was restored. The prophets are throughout its great witnesses. The expectation, as matter of history, grew intense as the Advent approached. The expectation of the Advent of a Being, a Person, who should fulfil the promise and the prophecy with which their national life and literature were charged; who should bring, what Christ has brought — a Gospel of salvation to the world. It is a wonderful feature of the preparation, that just as the nation which exhibited the theocracy was dying away as a nation its belief in the theocracy grew more intense, and its witness grew more clear and impressive to the approaching Advent of the great world theocrat — the Christ.
II. THE JEWISH DISPERSION. It was a very wonderful chain of providential agencies which, before the Advent, scattered that people, these witnesses so charged with the promise and the prophecy, through the civilised world. Up to the time of the captivity the Jews kept themselves in a kind of stem, or, as the heathen around them called it, a sullen isolation. They cherished the sense of a lofty superiority. But, after the captivity, they displayed a singular facility of dispersion, a happy art of settling and flourishing among the Gentile peoples, which makes them to this day, pace the Anglo-Saxon, the first settlers of the world. In every chief city of the empire which Alexander founded a colony of Jews was sure to be settled; and the same state of things afterwards obtained in the far wider empire of Rome. In order to appreciate the significance of this, you must estimate the utter confusion of human beliefs and ideas about Divine things and beings which had been the fruit of the Greek and Roman conquests. Neither Greek nor Roman had belief enough in his gods to impose them on the conquered nations; nor did they find anything Divine among the conquered nations which seemed better worth worshipping than their own. This confusion of religious ideas and systems and deities, none of which had power to emerge with absolute or even strong claims to belief, was profoundly detrimental to moral earnestness, and indeed to any high-toned belief about Divine things. There was an utter confusion and decay of faith. But here were communities settled among them who had an absolute and indestructible belief in their Revelation. They had a God to worship of whom they could give intelligible account. The Jews lived among the heathen in isolation still; but the isolation was visibly based on a religious faith, and on religious records. These Jews, scattered abroad, were witnesses everywhere of the reality and necessity of Divine revelation to, and Divine legislation for, man. They familiarised men with the ideas which Christianity proclaimed, and on which it rested its authoritative claim to the homage and the obedience of mankind.
III. THERE WAS A VERY REMARKABLE CHANGE WITHIN THE BOSOM OF HEATHEN SOCIETY ITSELF, IN ITS INTELLECTUAL AND MORAL IDEAS, WHICH NOT ONLY OPENED THE WAY FOR THE TRUTH OF CHRISTIANITY, BUT SEEMED TO DEMAND SOME SUCH REVELATION OF TRUTH TO MANKIND. Students of philosophy note a very decided progress between the age of Socrates and the age of Seneca in the consideration of questions bearing on man's individual life and destiny. The supreme interest of a man's life in the golden age of Greek philosophy lay in his relations, as a member of a society, as a citizen of a State. Within the little circle of Athenian society men realised a closeness of relation to each other, which made the State something of a household. The conquests of Alexander created an entirely new order of things. The Greek became, not the citizen of a State almost domestic in its magnitude and character, but the subject of a great Empire, lost in an undistinguished mass of fellow-subjects, and quite cut adrift from the landmarks and the moorings by which he had been wont to steer and stay his life. The Greek must think about himself and his world, and Alexander led him out into a world too big for him, which oppressed and distracted him, and overthrew all the traditions of his schools. It was a world, too, of ceaseless conflict and change. The state of the Greek world between Alexander's conquests and the establishment of Roman supremacy, say, roughly, two hundred years, was such as to throw the thinker back upon himself, to lead him to realise his individual responsibility, to force on him the question, "What, after all, am I? Whence did I come? For what am I here? Whither do I tend? I am in a world full of confusion and misery — how am I to regulate my life, so that my happiness may not become a wreck?" So the great thinkers increasingly concerned themselves with questions which had to do with the individual man, his duty, his responsiblilty, his destiny, his means of arming himself for the battle of life, his means of saving himself from utter and hopeless loss. Thus there was a growing tendency in men to consider very much the question which Christianity came to treat of as salvation. The thoughts of man, the longings and aspirations of man, seem to be led up step by step to the point in which the cry, "Lord, save, or I perish!" was ready, did he but know all the meaning of his dumb pain, to fashion itself on his lips. All was waiting for the proclamation, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He hath anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor," etc. When men went abroad and proclaimed the Advent of a Saviour, they found a ready entrance to the world's sad, wistful heart.
IV. THE ROMAN EMPIRE. Incomparably the most important secular herald of the Advent was the Empire — an Empire under whose sceptre such a decree could go forth (Luke 2:1). There are many points of view from which the Empire may be regarded as the herald of the kingdom which was destined to master it, and found on it the edifice of Christian society. We are working and building on the foundations of the Empire still. The whole of modern European society is but the fully developed Empire of Rome. It is the centre of the secular, as the Advent of Christ is the centre of the spiritual, history of mankind. I might say much about the universal peace, which made the preaching of a universal Gospel possible. About the universal law and language, which made the career of the preachers, at any rate, far easier and more rapid than it could have been in any previous state of society. The fundamental question opened by the Empire is also a fundamental question of Christianity, the relation of men to each other. Is it enmity? is it brotherhood? Is the struggle for existence the ruling principle of progress, or brotherly sympathy, care, and love? The state of natural enmity and constant war gave way to a state in which peace, good-fellowship, and mutual ministries were regarded as the natural condition of society. Briton and Egyptian, Syrian and Spaniard, formed together a great political unity; and were drawn into bonds of relation to each other, the nature and bearings of which men were eager to explore. There rose on the minds of men the idea of human brotherhood. Men began to speculate about a common good in which civilised humanity was to share, and a duty of the whole human community to its weaker members, its sick, its poor, its wretched. Men wanted to know why and how they were brethren, why and how they were to love. And so arose perhaps the greatest herald of the Advent in secular society, the longing for a kingdom which should fulfil the promise which Rome in the nature of things was constantly breaking; and give peace, concord, love to a distracted world. Thus the way was prepared, the highway through the desert was made.
(J. B. Brown, B. A.)
1. In the appearance of John the Baptist. Ages rolled away, and no such preparing voice was heard in the desert of Judea. But it was at length heard.
2. Following the footsteps of the servant, comes the Master. And as John had said, "Prepare ye the way of the Lord," then was the glory of God manifested; and all flesh, living at that time in Judea, saw it together: the glory of God in human nature. Jesus Christ was the visible image of the glory of God all the time He was on earth. The visible image —(1) Of the power of God. His works were Divine; His word was power. See His power over the elements.(2) Of the truth of God. The doctrine of Christ has brought us nearer to the unclouded truth of the Divine mind than men were ever brought before.(3) Of the holiness of God; and that even while He was man upon earth.(4) Of the justice of God. Though this is not so frequently adverted to as other attributes, yet it is important. Why did Christ die so willingly? If, then, the glory of God was revealed even in the lowliness and sufferings of the Saviour, I ask if the coming of Christ had not in it more real pomp than if He had come with all the grandeur of an Eastern monarch, to a people who waited for Him?
II. ITS SPIRITUAL ACCOMPLISHMENT. This is seen in the manifestation of Christ to the hearts of men. In this there is both preparation and manifestation; for Christ, in mercy, no more bursts upon the soul at once than He did upon the world; He sends His messenger to prepare the way before Him; this is the first part of the process. That preparing herald, figured by John the Baptist, is repentance. Consider what repentance is, and you will see how it prepares the soul for Christ, for pardon, happiness, and purity.
1. The first element is a deep and serious conviction of the fact of our sin. For if we justify ourselves, there will be no preparation.
2. The second element is a conviction of the extreme danger of sin and its infinite desert.
3. The third element is a burdened and disquieted spirit. This supposes a feeling that we are not able to deliver ourselves. The way of the Lord is then plain; all obstructions are removed when we come to this; for all true repentance, like the preaching of John the Baptist, concludes by saying, "Behold the Lamb of God!" It is here alone that we see the glory of God. For what is the happiness of a pardoned soul, but one of the brightest manifestations of the glory of God upon earth? Here is a visible manifestation of the glory of the Divine patience; that man, amidst all his repeated provocations, should at last be saved and made happy. The glory of the grace of God! What a comment on the words of the apostle, "By grace are ye saved!" And then, see the glory of that working of the Divine power by which the soul is finally brought into the enjoyment of all the mind that was in Christ; the soul changing from glory to glory, and the work completed by an abundant entrance into the everlasting kingdom. This is the manifestation of Christ to the soul.
III. ITS ALLEGORICAL ACCOMPLISHMENT. It is seen in the establishment of Christ's kingdom upon earth. He sends forth His heralds. It is by the ministry of His Gospel that His dominion is established. The doctrine to be preached is that of repentance. So St. Paul preached at Athens. The manifestation of the master follows. Here is a manifestation of the glory of the heavenly wisdom, raising, exalting, and purifying the human intellect; of the Divine righteousness, putting a stop to all cruelty and injury. The glory of peace and harmony; the union of man's heart to man, the extinction of external wars, and the diffusion of internal harmony. The glory of that order among families, and societies, and nations, preserved, and sanctified, and so regulated that no part infringes on the other, but the whole proceeds harmoniously, like a piece of sound mechanism. The glory of mercy and charity: teaching men to remember those that are in afflictions, as being themselves in like manner afflicted. This is a glory peculiar to the Christian revelation.
I. Hence, a remedial dispensation would naturally be delayed, until the moral character of man, both individual and social, had been fully displayed; and MANKIND HAD BECOME IN SOME DEGREE CAPABLE OF APPRECIATING THE FACTS THUS PRESENTED TO THEIR NOTICE. But, besides this, the Gospel is a revelation communicated to man by language, and its authenticity, as is meet, is attested by miracles. Now, considerable progress must have been made in civilisation before such testimony could be given as we would be willing to receive on a question of so vital importance. Until the laws of nature are to some extent known, we cannot determine whether the Creator has or has not in a particular case departed from them. And this leads us to observe, again, that a revelation from God to man, informing him of this wonderful change in the conditions of his probation, — a revelation designed for all ages to the end of time, and destined to work a perfect transformation in the moral character of our race, — could not have been completed until language had arrived at a considerable degree of perfection. It was necessary that the doctrines and motives peculiar to the new dispensation should be promulgated with all possible explicitness, and yet guarded from all tendency either to incompleteness or excess. Amidst all the agitations of society, throughout all the overturnings of empire, the human mind, during this long period, had been gradually attaining maturity. Each nation, during its brief existence, had either added something to the stock of human knowledge, or made some contribution to the materials for human thought. Every revolution had illustrated in some new phase the principles of conduct, and had bequeathed the lesson to succeeding generations.
II. We see, then, that God not only prepared a language in which this revelation for all coming ages could, be written, but HE DIFFUSED THAT LANGUAGE OVER THE CIVILISED WORLD. He created a suitable vehicle for the truth, and He made that vehicle, as far as was necessary, universal. And this work was accomplished by means of the ambition of Alexander, and the all-grasping love of dominion of the citizens of Rome. Men ignorant of the existence and character of the true God, bowing down to the senseless images which their own hands had fashioned, indulging without restraint their own corrupt passions, were thus advancing His purposes, and opening the way for the advent of His Son.
III. One other condition remains yet to be observed. The nations inhabiting the shores of the Mediterranean were originally distinct in government, dissimilar in origin, diverse in laws, habits, and usages, and almost perpetually at war. To pass from one to the other without incurring the risk of injury, nay, even of being sold into slavery, was almost impossible. A stranger and an enemy were designated by the same word. It was necessary that these various peoples should all be moulded into one common form; that one system of laws should bind them all in harmony. This seems to have been needful, in order that the new religion might be rapidly and extensively promulgated. In order to accomplish this purpose WAS THE ROMAN EMPIRE RAISED UP, AND ENTRUSTED WITH THE SCEPTRE OF UNIVERSAL DOMINION. In many respects it resembled the dominion of Great Britain at the present day in Asia. We perceive that the overturnings of forty centuries were required in order to prepare the world for the advent of the Messiah. The same omniscient wisdom has ever since been engaged in carrying forward the work which was then commenced.
(D. Wayland, LL. D.)
1. The metaphor, so wild and striking, of a voice crying in the wilderness, is as appropriate as metaphor could be for representing the man of God who, in a degenerate age, lifts up his voice to declare the truth, to reprove sin, to call men to a new life. Rocks are not harder than hearts sometimes; the wandering blustering winds are not more inattentive to the speaker's message than are some souls. To a divinely taught spirit nothing is so truly a desert as the crowded city. To him it is lonely, forbidding, sad, yet mightily attractive, awakening his tenderest compassions, calling forth his mightiest and most patient exertions.
2. Now that it has been done, we probably fall into the way of thinking that nothing was easier than for John the Baptist to preach to the Jews of the time of Herod, or for our Lord to open His mission to the same people, or for Paul to preach Christ at Corinth and Athens and Rome. How different the reality! Could any one of the inhabitants of these places have been consulted by God's messenger beforehand he would probably have said: "Do you think that these cavilling, disputing doctors and philosophers will ever give credence to such stories as you bring? Do you think that these pleasure-loving people will ever wear the yoke of such an austere religion of self-sacrifice as you proclaim? Go home to your ordinary work again, and don't trouble yourself to speak a message which nobody will hear; or if you cannot be at peace unless you say something about it, then go into the desert and speak it to yourself and to nature; for your chances of succeeding will be as great there as anywhere." Strange all this, yet more strange the fact that it is the wilderness and the solitary place which shall rejoice and be glad for the messenger of God who comes to prepare Messiah's way. The unlikely ground yields the harvest; they that are afar off come nigh. The voice in the wilderness is that of a herald announcing that a Greater One is on His way; be ye ready to receive Him. Widespread, radical, and lasting reformation was not achieved through the word of the Baptist; but such souls as could be prepared for the coming of the Lamb of God were aroused, called, separated from the hardened and worldly and unbelieving, and placed under discipline and teaching. From among their number our Lord chose His first disciples and chief apostles. Beyond the fringe of that little company which kept close to the Baptist something of good also was done. A wave of spiritual feeling passed over a great part of the nation; Jerusalem was greatly excited, if not savingly renewed. A general condition of desire was produced.
3. There are many advents of the Son of God, and for every one of them there is some forerunner, some voice crying in the wilderness: "Prepare ye His way; make straight in the desert a highway for our God." The voice of some John the Baptist has gone ringing through the wilderness of a dead faith, of a formal worship, of a worldly life, and men have been startled into attention, have been made conscious of shortcomings and sins. And although God never ceases to work among men, yet we come on barren dreary years of history, a very desert, when the signs of the Divine working are not apparent. Then arises some John the Baptist, or a general sense of dissatisfaction pervades the Churches, a sense of shortcoming and of shame, and the obstructions to a Divine manifestation are swept out of the way. Hardly a decade passes now without a cry arising from the Churches themselves: "Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight." Their conscience becomes increasingly quick and true; their ideal grows nobler; their conception of the Christian life assimilates to the standard given in the Word of God. And with attainment comes a longing for more, a sense of need, a craving for God. Then let us prepare His way, as we would that of a dear Friend whom we long to see, and whom we would not keep from us by any neglect or disrespect of ours.
(J. P. Gledstone.)I. GOD HAS MANY MESSENGERS, AND THEY HAVE OFTEN LIFTED UP THEIR VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS. Some speak with a voice of thunder to arouse a sleeping world. The doctrine of others distils as the dew. Some open new paths to the seekers after wisdom: to others it is given to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints. Ever since man was driven from Eden he has been a wanderer in the desert. The thorn and the thistle around him are the emblems of the sin and the sorrow which spiritually mark his nomad state of existence. No wonder, then, that the wilderness is so often used as an emblem of this present life, in which you and I must listen to the voice of Heaven's messengers. We want more law work. Our consciences are too easily satisfied. Modern religion is far too superficial. The law prepares for the Gospel. The Comforter must first convince of sin.
II. ISAIAH USES IT AS AN ILLUSTRATION OF HIS OWN MINISTRY. He, too, living now probably in the idolatrous reign of Manasseh, felt himself in a spiritual desert. Yet by faith he sees afar off, and the seer is himself transported into that bright future. Already foreseeing the seventy years' captivity of Judah, and then the joyful return of the exiles under the decree of Cyrus, Isaiah writes of these events as if himself living and acting among them. Yea more, he pictures the dawn of the day as ushered in by that return from Babylon.
III. THE TRANSITION IS EASY TO THE PERSONAL TIMES OF THE MESSIAH, AND OF HIS HERALD, JOHN THE BAPTIST. The homely and heart-searching appeals of the Baptist proved him to be the pioneer of the righteous King. Before this wilderness preacher the mountains of Pharisaic pride were levelled, the valleys of Sadducean unbelief were filled up, the tortuous vices of the courtly Judaean were corrected, and the rude ignorance of the Galilean smoothed and reformed.
IV. But even in this day THE WORDS HAD A WIDER SIGNIFICATION. Not only the land of Israel, but the Gentile world, even "all flesh," was then being prepared "to see the salvation of God." The former was accomplished by John's own preaching; of the latter he was only the herald. Providential agencies were even then at work preparing Christ's way among the Gentiles.
1. At the time when our Saviour was born the knowledge of the Greek language had spread more widely throughout Asia and Europe than has since been the case with any other tongue. What a preparation was this for the spread of the Christian religion. We know that there is no greater harrier separating nations than a difference of language. But at the very period when Christianity began to be published it found one language generally read and understood from the Alps to the Caucasus; and so the Septuagint Version of the Old Testament could now travel, with the gospels and epistles, to the many provinces of the Roman Empire; for the valleys had been exalted, and the mountains and hills made low.
2. A second preparation designed by God's providence was — the extent of Roman dominion. The chief means employed by that great Empire for consolidating her possessions were her roads and her laws.(1) It was literally true that, owing to Roman dominion, both in Europe and Asia, the crooked had been made straight and the rough places plain. That sagacious people recognised the civilising power of good roads through their Empire. just as we do now of railways in our Indian and other colonies.(2) It is the province of law to rectify abuses and remove difficulties: and to effect this among the nations Rome ever felt to be her mission. Wherever she planted her colonies she invited all people to share her privileges, and to dwell in safety under the aegis of her laws. Was not this, then, a moral via strata made for the spread of Christianity?
V. HOW THIS PROPHECY SHEDS A LUSTRE ON THE WORLD'S FUTURE. Once more in this wide desert "the glory of the Lord shall be revealed," and not "one," but "all lands shall see it together." Yes, He who ascended into heaven shall so come again. Are we ready for that day? Are we making others ready? I believe that every Christian should be as the
"voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God." The true Church, in short, must remain in the desert until the mystic "times" are fulfilled. She is to be "the voice of one crying in the wilderness." Meanwhile the voice of prophecy is given to cheer her amidst trial and disappointment. We labour for years to tunnel through the Alps: shall we not labour patiently to prepare the way of the Lord?
(S. P. Jose, M. A.)I. THERE ARE CERTAIN THINGS WHICH HINDER THE SPREAD OF THE REDEEMER'S KINGDOM, spoken of here as valleys, hills, etc. Heathenism abroad: ignorance and vice at home. Intemperance hinders the progress of God's kingdom on every hand.
1. Intemperance hinders the progress of God's kingdom at home. Our country is occupied by three armies — an army of paupers, an army of criminals, and an army of police, to stand between the vicious and the virtuous, and protect the latter from the assaults of the former. How is this? There is this huge evil established amongst us, which casts its dread shadow over everything that is lovely and of good report. Where, e.g., are the working men of England to be found to-day? Not in the house of prayer. In the case of many of them, they have no suitable clothes; but why is this? Because wages are low? Because trade is bad? I answer, because the money is carried to the public-house, and is thus worse than wasted. There are some who go many times, perhaps regularly, to the house of God, and yet are not saved. Why? The grand neutraliser of the Gospel is the habit of drinking intoxicating liquors.
2. It is also a hindrance to the spread of the Gospel abroad.(1) They tell us that we cannot, as Christians, take possession of the world, because we have not the means. Is it a truth that England, the richest land upon earth, made rich too by her Christianity, has done what she could for Him who redeemed her when she gives eightpence per head for the conversion of the world? Is it so? Alas! no; for while we have done this, we have spent £4 per head on strong drink.(2) They say the world is not converted because we have not the men — especially suitable men. How is this? There are men to be found for everything else. One reason is, that the drinking customs have done much to enervate the Church. Strong drink aims high. It aims at the men of active brain and warm heart.(3) Then there is the third reason — want of success. There are European barriers that are much stronger than heathenism and idolatry. The missionary tells us, over and over again, that he is far more afraid of English drinking than of native idolatry.
II. IT IS THE DUTY OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH TO SWEEP THIS ENEMY AWAY. God has decreed that these mountains shall perish.
1. The Church can remove this mountain. Look at her power as a teacher. Are not the children of our country in her hands? Look at the political power which she possesses. Is there an election in which the Christian Church cannot turn the balance? She has not only the ordinary power which men have, but she has omnipotence at her command.
2. The Church must, if she would hold her own. If we are not assailing strong drink, it is assailing us.
3. The Church must, if she would please her Master. How are we to proceed? Abstinence first; then entire prohibition of the traffic.
III. THE GLORIOUS RESULT.
(C. Garrett.)I. THE ADVENT IMPLIED. "Prepare ye the way of the Lord."
1. The Lord here spoken of is doubtless the supreme Jehovah; and from the appropriation of the passage by inspired authority to Christ, I apprehend nothing less can be intended than to intimate that He who was coming was the true God and eternal Life. This was that Immanuel who was to bring in an everlasting righteousness, to redeem and restore the Israel of God, and accomplish salvation for all the ends of the earth. Let us, then, inquire, Is this interpretation of the passage justified by other scriptures, and especially by the event itself? Assuredly He came with all the signs and demonstrations of incarnate Deity. He Himself laid express claim to this high character, and most manifestly displayed the perfections which it involves. With these sublime views of His character agrees the testimony of all His inspired apostles.
2. The disciples of John were required to contemplate here the true Messiah coming to effect salvation, to fulfil all the promises made of old to their fathers. It is, therefore, of great interest and importance to ascertain what was involved in that character, and what was the work assigned Him to do. It is expressly declared that He came to do the will of God, — to magnify the law and make it honourable, — to render to it a perfect obedience, and make reconciliation for iniquity.
3. The way of the Lord to us must be understood of His approach to our consciences and hearts by His word and spirit.
II. The charge to "prepare the way of the Lord" implies that there ARE DIFFICULTIES OR OBSTACLES IN HIS WAY.
1. There is the pride and self-righteousness of the human heart,
2. The heart is by nature hard and impenitent, blinded to its own defects, and, even after the confession of them, unwilling to have them condemned or to give them up.
3. The state of human desires and affections presents other and formidable obstacles to the claims of the Lord. Their desires are low — their affections carnal. The poor grovelling heart must be raised to noble and exalted ends and aims.
4. In some there exists a mass of prejudice, and the truth of Christ is viewed under a false light, or through a perverting medium. They will not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, and they cannot enter therein. Some are prejudiced against the authority of revelation — some against the mysteries of godliness — some against the doctrines of grace or salvation by the merit of another; and many dislike the holiness, the self-denial, the separation from the world which Christianity inculcates.
5. Repentance is necessary to prepare the way; humility, to receive and learn the doctrine; prayer, to give it success in the heart; and watchfulness, to carry it out into practice. Every one who is himself a disciple of the Lord, has something to do in preparing the way of Christ in the earth.
(G. Redford, LL. D.)Matthew 3:3): — To the writers of the Gospel story this vivid expression seems to have commended itself as peculiarly applicable to the Baptist. He came heralding the speedy advent of the Messiah, and his life and ministry were a preparation for the greater life and more potent ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. In all essentials that task still remains to be performed. The modern road maker — the herald and hastener of a better and holier day — must be distinguished —
I. BY A PROFOUND SENSE OF THE EVIL OF THE PRESENT. The prophet was no blind optimist cherishing a foolish hope of a happier future because he did not see the abounding evils around him. He saw with clear, penetrating eyes the moral and spiritual degradation of his nation and day. He speaks of it, ay, and of the national evils which must issue from it — exile, defeat, the overthrow of their beautiful city. That is true of the prophetic band from first to last — from Elijah to John. The man who deliberately closes his eyes to the evils of his day, or seeing them minimises their importance, or in thought disguises them by some euphonious phrase, will never — let his life be prolonged to beyond the age of the patriarchs — prepare the way of the Lord. Too many of us live in an imaginary world as different as possible from the world of stern fact. The men who do most in their own generation to make a way for a better day in the future are usually the men who see clearly one wrong which needs righting, one obstacle which needs removing, one lie which needs refuting, and give themselves to the doing of that one thing — e.g., Wilberforce and slavery, Wesley and Evangelism, Cobden and Free Trade, Booth and the submerged tenth. One word of warning. To look fearlessly at the evils of your own day is not without danger. Not until that Voice which speaks of comfort through forgiveness has been heard and welcomed does the call come which bids hands and feet and active will prepare the way of the Lord.
II. BY AN UNQUENCHABLE FAITH IN THE FUTURE. The road maker is an optimist because he is a man of faith. There is an optimism which is both foolish and unfounded. But if the optimist has first looked facts in the face, and then rises by sheer force of faith in God above all that contradicts his hope, his optimism is not a vice, but a shining and beneficent virtue. Such was this prophet's. So with John. He is certain, despite the manifold evils — moral and social — that afflict his people, that the day of the Lord s anointed will be a glorious day — a day of great things; and he speaks of it and of Him whose shoe-latchet he is not worthy to unloose with an unbounded faith. "He must increase; I must decrease." Note on what the road maker rests — not on man. "All flesh is grass; the grass withereth, the flower fadeth, but the Word of our God endureth for ever." The people have God's Word; when all their human leaders have fallen, and every visible authority for God is taken away, this shall be their rally and their confidence.
III. BY HIS READINESS TO SERVE OR SUFFER. So Isaiah: so John. No good cause but has exacted its toll of both from heroic hearts that have espoused it.
(W. H. Williams.)I. THE DESIGN OF THIS PROPHECY is to speak peace and comfort to an afflicted Church. Not only to the Jewish Church under a temporal captivity, but to every Christian Church, and every faithful soul.
1. "Every valley shall be exalted." As the way St. John was sent to prepare by repentance was in the hearts of men, this must express some change to be wrought in those hearts. And what does it proclaim, but that humility is the way to glory?
2. "Every mountain and hill shall be made low." As the lowly and fruitful valleys represent the meek and pious servants of Christ, so do the lofty and barren mountains point out to us the haughty and unprofitable children of this world that oppose Him.
3. "The crooked shall be made straight." This is a most essential part in a highway, the end and intent of which is, to lead those who travel in it directly to the place and city where they would be. Man, at his creation, was placed in the straight way to heaven and happiness. Had he kept the eyes of his faith steadily fixed upon it, and walked directly on in the path of God's commandments, he had soon arrived at it. But he listened to the suggestions of the devil, who drew him out of it, pretending to show him a pleasanter and shorter road than that appointed. But no sooner was man a sinner than God was a Saviour. When the valley of humility is exalted by faith and the mountain of pride and self-sufficiency brought low in your hearts, the crooked shall instantly be made straight before you.
4. "The rough places plain." When the low ground is raised, the high levelled, and the whole marked out with a line and made straight, nothing remains but to clear away all obstructions.
II. The words thus explained, what remains but that we APPLY THEM TO OURSELVES, FOR THE DIRECTION OF OUR PRACTICE?
(Bp. Horne.)I. THE DUTY OF PREPARING THE WAY OF THE LORD.
1. The herald. Allusion is here made to an ancient custom, according to which heralds were sent before to prepare the way for the monarch when he was about to march from one place to another. Christian ministers are the "voice" of God "crying in the wilderness." The very circumstance of this voice being needed shows the disordered state of man by nature. It is not enough for ministers gently to remind men of their state and duty — they must "cry." Very many are the souls that need to be thus roused.
2. The scene of his labours — "the wilderness." This is highly descriptive of the state of men in every age. A wilderness, a desert, indeed, is this world, while void of God's grace; destitute of beauty, and unfruitful as to every good work.
3. What is the work to which the herald calls? As far as we have it in our power, we are to aid in removing whatever hinders the reception of Christ in the world. What is it hinders the reception of Christ in our own hearts? The success of the messenger will ever depend upon his looking up to the Lord.
II. OUR ENCOURAGEMENTS.
1. Every difficulty, however formidable, shall be surmounted. For "every valley shall be exalted," etc. What are the difficulties which present themselves? In the work of salvation there are two leading classes of impediments.(1) Internal. These are in every heart. There is much anxiety and depression: we are ready to imagine there is no hope; here are the valleys to be exalted. Some are puffed up with conceit of their own merit, and will not come to Christ; here are mountains to be made low. There are some untractable, obstinate passions; here are the roughnesses which are to be made plain. Who is sufficient for all this? None but the Lord alone.(2) External. In introducing the Gospel among the heathen there are many difficulties.
2. There shall be an universal manifestation of the Divine glory. "The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together." There was a great manifestation of the Divine glory when Cyrus and the foes of the Church were made the instruments of delivering God's people from their captivity. Christians! this is not our work, or we should soon be dismayed. It is the way of the Lord. He is to work; He is to display His own glory. What tenderness and-condescension has God shown!
3. The certainty of all this. "For the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it." When one promises who can fulfil our wishes, we have all the encouragement we can possibly need. In no blindness of mistaken zeal, in no rashness of enthusiasm, yet with all holy boldness, let us labour to prepare the way of the Lord.
(W. Williams.)I. VALLEYS MUST BE LEVELED UP.
1. Inattention.(1) If we attend not to the Gospel message we can neither realise its importance nor secure its benefits.(2) Those who absent themselves from the house of God are indifferently prepared for the coming of the Lord.(3) So those who while there allow their minds to wander upon their merchandise, pleasures, etc., are ill prepared for the coming of the King.
2. Apathy.(1) Thousands of professors of religion put forth little effort in the cause of God.(2) Begin with yourself. Make a stir among your neighbours. Begin now.
3. Despondency.(1) There are those who are so affected with a sense of their sinfulness that they fear to trust in Christ for salvation.(2) Some professors take a morbid, gloomy view of the work of God.
II. EMINENCES MUST BE LEVELLED DOWN.
1. The mountain of pride must be reduced.(1) The pride that will not make full confession of sin.(2) The pride that will not receive the kingdom of heaven as a little child.(3) The pride of reason that will not accept salvation until its mysteries are comprehended.(4) The progress of Christ is also hindered by the worldly pride of professors.
2. The mountain of presumption must be depressed.(1) Sinners are presumptuous when, without forsaking their sins, they attempt to believe for salvation.(2) Professors are presumptuous when they expect the work of God to revive in the Church without exerting themselves to promote a revival.(3) While we work as though everything depended upon working, we must trust as though everything depended upon trusting.
3. The hills of ingratitude must be brought low.(1) Some are ostensibly so zealous for the conversion of sinners that they forget to thank God for the good He is bestowing.(2) There are others who will not rejoice when they hear good tidings of the work of God, because they are not themselves the subjects of that work.
III. THE CROOKED PLACES MUST BE STRAIGHTENED.
1. Prejudice.(1) Some object to the movements of the blessed Jesus because He comes too loudly.(2) Others complain because He comes too silently.(3) Some dislike them because "publicans and harlots" are getting converted.(4) Others find fault because the work of grace takes hold upon the better classes.(5) And there are those who disparage the work of God among the children because they are too young. Nothing pleases crooked prejudice.
2. Jealousy.(1) It hears that sinners are converted, but is not pleased because the converts have joined other churches.(2) We may be anxious for the prosperity of God's work for party purposes.(3) How admirable was the spirit of Paul, who rejoiced that Christ was preached, no matter by whom!
3. Censoriousness.(1) None of us are so perfect that we can afford to be severely scrutinised. We should therefore endeavour to put the best construction upon each other's conduct.(2) We should be especially careful not to impeach good men with want of zeal for God because they differ from us in judgment as to the best way to promote His work.
4. Covetousness.(1) The acquisition of property is the one end for which some persons appear to exist. It is to no purpose to remind such persons that the world is perishing, and that the Church missions are languishing for want of funds(2) Can the God of benevolence bless a covetous Church?(3) The cure for covetousness is giving.
IV. THE ROUGH PLACES MUST BE SMOOTHED.
1. That ugly rock of Sabbath desecration must be removed.(1) God did not institute His day for our amusement.(2) It was not instituted to encourage idleness. It is separated from the toil of secular business.
2. That rut of drunkenness must be filled up.
3. Those sinks of immorality must be filled. Lying, cheating, oppression, uncleanness.
4. The rough places of instability must be smoothed.(1) Like the chameleon, which takes the colour of every object on which it rests, there are those who never remain the same person for four-and-twenty hours. Treating Church membership as a coat that might be put on or off at pleasure.(2) At one moment they are all in a flame, the next moment they are cold as ice. Sometimes they appear like the oak, at other times like the reed that is shaken with the wind.(3) In the Church they are one thing, in the world another. Yet are they the noisiest fault-finders against the quiet, steady, unostentatious workers.
(F. W. Macdonald, M. A.)Luke 3:10-14): —
I. EXTERNAL PREPARATION (Isaiah 40:3-5). Our King has notified us that He wants to encircle this world with His glory, and we are the pioneers to make way for His chariot. Let me indicate a few things about this work if you are going to make it a grand success.
1. There must be a willingness to undertake it. Indifference will kill the enterprise. Difficulties will appear; there must be courage and a cool head to guide a brave heart. Three things must be prominent —(1) Regularity of effort.(2) A desire to find one's own particular work.(3) Surrender to the guidance of the Spirit.
2. There must be an appreciation of the importance of the work. If the King has given an order, there must be some reason for it; and when the carrying out of that order involves careful planning and difficult execution we must infer the importance of the result, and hence of the preparation.(1) Cutting down forests. What are the dead trees in the way? Apostate Christians. They lie right across the King's track, and He has to rein up until somebody removes them. What are the strong, sturdy, even luxuriant trees on the way? Worldly Christians.(2) Levelling the hills. Pride is a high hill. Unbelief is a considerable mountain. Criticism is a rocky mound.(3) Filling up the hollows. Oh, the deficiencies in the Church to make up!
II. INTERNAL PREPARATION (Luke 3:10-14). Every pioneer of the coming King must observe these demands.
1. Generosity. A stingy nature is too narrow quarters for the Lord to dwell in.
3. Peaceableness. It was the soldier's duty to fight, but only when necessary, and only to secure peace. The ultimate aim of justifiable war is always peace. When you have got the way all prepared, you will find that it is —(1) A highway for the King.(2) A way of blessing for His subjects.(3) A way beginning with a cross and ending with a crown.
(W. H. G. Temple.)
(F. Watson, M. A.)
(F. Watson, M. A.)
(F. Watson, M. A.)
(F. Watson, M. A.)
(F. Watson, M. A.)
(J. Parker, D. D.)
(F. Watson, M. A.)
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God
1. Does it matter at all to us who can have no hope of seeing it in our time, who have certainly, as it would seem, to live out our lives in a condition of things in which not so much the presence of improvement as the need of it is conspicuous? To this question, I think, there are two answers, both of which, for religious minds at any rate, have some weight.(1) Our idea of God, of a Divine order in the world, is very much our whole stock-in-trade in the matter of religion. The question with us, as regards religion, is, how much we can see of God in what is not God, and in what seems opposed to God? Is that which we see of Him, though it must be little, yet enough to give us feeling, emotion, to fill our minds, not with a thousand anxieties and alarms about things clean and unclean, but to fill them to overflowing with reverence, all that constitutes the mysterious life of a spirit conversing with that unutterable Spirit behind the veil? Second to this even, though of infinite importance, is the question whether we shall devour widows' houses and for a pretence make long prayers, or meditate upon the Good Samaritan, and go and do likewise. It obviously, then, concerns very much our idea of God, our experience of Him, what we see or feel of Him, our stock-in-trade in the matter of religion, what notion we form and entertain of the future destiny of mankind We know that the past has not been all that could be wished. Plenty of desert in that backward view. Will the future be better? Evidently that is a matter which must go to shape our idea of God, of a Divine order of the world. This is to look at the whole instead of a small part, and form some conclusion or other about the whole. It does matter a good deal to us, therefore, though we are not to live to see it, that, if it is possible or right to entertain it, we should entertain the belief that the endless ages that are yet to come will exhibit the Divine order as beneficent and beautiful in a way in which past ages and our own age have had scanty experience of it.(2) Another answer to the question, What does it matter to us what the future of mankind may be? is obviously this: It is not so much a duty as an instinct for man to live for posterity. We are all of one stock. With reference to this instinct and this satisfaction, the case is plain as regards the future being other and better than the past or the present. We have all something to do, and can do something for posterity. We have the conviction or the hope in doing this, that it is not going to be in vain.
2. "Prepare ye in the wilderness a highway for our God." In this, possibly, rather than in any other form, there comes the Divine call to those in every age, and especially in this age, to whom the Divine order is most of a reality and a power. Personal piety — you must have that, say the professors of ecclesiastical pedagogy — before entering upon this or that work, It is quite true: personal piety you must have to be fit to live, not to say to teach others or help others to live well. But if you have piety enough to have any satisfaction in helping to leave the world a little better than you have found it, then that is enough of a qualification and commission for taking part in work which will occupy your whole life. This general view of the Divine order and of the demands which it makes upon those who are most conscious of the reality of it suggests one or two reflections.(1) In regard to the fulfilment of the Divine order, it often happens that, while weaker agencies at work in forwarding it are recognised, greater ones, even the greatest of all, escape notice. Since the Divine order is not always clear, it must often happen, in the case of lives of good men and even great men devoted to the advancement of it, that efforts to advance it have other results than those who made them contemplated — great results which they did not expect, no results where they expected great results.(2) As it is often not the mightier but the weaker agencies at work in furthering the Divine order that are recognised and appreciated, so in the case of men who are more or less consciously devoted to the advancement of it, there is often a failure of insight; and they are found working for issues which they did not anticipate, both in the way of failure and in the way of success. In regard to the Divine order embracing the life of all that is, has been, shall be, the clearest sighted of mankind see through a glass darkly. Constantine was agreed that the triumph of the Christian faith was assured by his making it the religion of the State, though John Wesley had afterwards some reason, in his time, for thinking perhaps that more harm was done to it by that event than by all the Christian persecutions. The Christian world, all but a small part of it, was certain that the devil had broken loose in the Reformation in Germany, and few people who heard it did not devoutly believe that Luther's mother was a witch. John Baptist himself is not so remarkable for what he knew as for what he did not know of his own life-work and its effects. I mean, as regards the eternal order, in which he was no doubt a devout and a brave believer. As a forerunner he was nothing of a foreseer. Not only are the greater agencies at work in furthering the Divine order least recognised among the mass of men, but even among choice spirits devoted to the furthering of that order, misunderstanding as to the results of their own activity and the activity of others is more common than insight. Thus stands the case as regards one class of agencies at work in furthering the Divine order. That which is valued in regard to it is the old ecclesiastical machinery, creak and groan and rattle as it may. In the meantime, discredited to some extent by its association with enlightenment not always orthodox, the spirit of humanity enters from the outside into the religious world, to the creation of new social conditions for whole communities.(3) What promise there is in this of a better era both for the Church and for the world is better seen as yet by the world, perhaps, than by the Church. The importance of the fact cannot at any rate be overrated. Nothing is so common in religious circles, among good people, as lamentation. The good old times of religion are no more. That is their complaint.(4) In the meantime, religious people who are so much disposed to complain of the good old times passing away are helping to prepare for times infinitely better than the good old times, in ways of which they are as far as possible from conceiving. They are deepening dissatisfaction with the life, even the religious life of the day, by their lamentations. That is one thing — a negative sort of thing. More positive is the effect of their keeping in their own view and that of others a certain high ideal of life, though it be not the highest of all.
(J. Service, D. D.)
(A. T. Pierson, D. D.)
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