STUDIES IN ISAIAH
F. C. Jennings
Jehovah's plea against His people. Invites them to come into court with Him. The court in which the trial is to be held.
Their evil not found in their worst, but in their best. What is the City of Sodom in which our Lord was crucified?
The first verse differs from what follows in being written in prose, and forms the superscription of the whole book, itself being a complete "Vision." Through four reigns it extends: reigns in which Judah's path has lain through the sunshine of prosperity and the shadow of disaster; now happily along the uplands of an Uzziah, and now sorrowfully through the swamps of an Ahaz: and in these vicissitudes, that path of the nation forms a picture of that which most of us travel through life, "sometimes singingly and sometimes sighingly," like Bunyan's Pilgrim.
Judah and Jerusalem are the direct objects of the vision, but these form the centre of a circle, the radii of which stretch far out into the heathen world about, and the circumference of which, ever enlarging, finally includes all mankind.
In this how strikingly this "Salvation of Jehovah" corresponds with the "Gospel of God" in the New Testament, for that, too, begins at Jerusalem, but also does not end there. A heavenly vision of eternal blessedness ends the New Testament: an earthly vision of millennial blessedness ends Isaiah, and before the book closes we shall see not only the light of God's love resting on Jerusalem, but the Gentiles coming to that light, and invited to rejoice in the comforting warmth of its beams.
There is, too, a more spiritual correspondence between Isaiah and Romans, the "salvation of Jehovah" and "the gospel of God," for as in this chapter we have a solemn exposure of sin, so does the New Testament epistle begin with a similar indictment, by which "every mouth may be stopped, and all the world become guilty before God." To convict thus of guilt, seems a strange part of "good news," but it is a very essential part, for as only the sick send for a physician, so do those only who are convicted of sin care for salvation from its penalty and power. Nor indeed, is it anything but the best of news that God knows the very worst of us, and yet loves us. Apart from this, how often should we fear that after all, we must have exhausted the patience of our God. But no! He has known the worst long ago, and so faith in His everlasting love does not fail. But whilst we ever get this individual profit, we must remember that the Church, hidden entirely from all the Old Testament prophets, is not directly the subject to be found in the book. These reigns of Judah's kings forbid, at the outset, any such spiritualizing. But I attempt a free metrical rendering of the first part, for we are apt to forget that the text is really Hebrew poetry.
2: Hearken, O heavens, and listen, O earth;
For 'tis Jehovah who's speaking.
Children I've raised, to maturity brought,
But they have revolted against Me.
3: The ox knows his owner, the ass knows the crib
That his master for him hath provided;
But Israel knoweth Me—no, not at all,
My people doth not consider.
4: Woe to the nation so full of gross sin!
Woe to the guilt-laden people,
Who are of the worst of ill-doers the seed,
Children e'er acting corruptly!
They have forsaken Jehovah their Lord,
And Israel's Holy One scoffed at.
Estranged from Him, they've gone backward.
5: Why should ye be stricken, and stricken again,
It will but increase your revoltings?
Sick is the head, the whole heart is faint;
6: From the foot-sole to head's highest crowning,
Nothing within it is healthy.
Its wounds and its stripes and its festering sores
Have neither been closed up nor bandaged,
Nor with the smooth ointment been soothed.
7: Your country is desert, your cities are burned,
Your farm-land by foemen so harried
It lies as a desert before you,
Brought to its ruin by foemen.
8: And Salem, fair Salem, the daughter of Zion,
Is left as a hut in a vineyard,
As a lodge in a field of cucumbers,
E'en as a city besieged.
9: Save that Jehovah—Jehovah of Hosts—
Had left us a very small remnant,
We had been like to Sodoma,
We had been like to Gomorrah!
It is a grand setting: a Court is formed, and in it is a Complainant and a defendant. Jehovah Himself is the former, and, as it were, pleads His own case, whilst in the dock stands that nation which was alone, of all the nations of the earth, in a recognized relationship with Him. All the heavens to their furthest bounds, and all the earth beyond the limits of that guilty nation, are called upon to be the witnesses of the trial; for He never judges in a corner, but openly before all creation, so that every creature, whether elect angels, or opposing principalities or powers, with the Devil at their head, may witness and be compelled to confess to the inflexible righteousness of His government. Nor shall that malign accuser, impelled though he be by the strongest motives of self-exaltation, and the keenest in discernment of all creatures, be able to discover one film of injustice on the Throne that he was "set to cover" (Ezek. 28:14), even though the chief of sinners be justified before that Throne. Yet when the accuser himself has been sent to his final doom, at the judgment of the Great White Throne, then earth and its heaven flee away, for the ages of time with their testings are forever past, and these sad witnesses of creature-failure are no longer needed.
We must note, too, that even the charge itself, far from having any of the malice of the great accuser in it, is full of the most tender affection. If God did not love, would He complain of not being known? That sigh, "How often would I have gathered thy children!" speaks the same language and tells of the same Speaker. Nor do the words, "a people laden with iniquity," form a completed sentence from that Speaker's heart, however it may do so from His lips, until they are supplemented by, "Come unto Me, all ye that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." The picture of Judah's condition is so distressing that the prophet appears to soliloquize: "Except the Lord of Hosts had left us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, we should have been like unto Gomorrah"; and with that sigh, in which however there is hope, the first part closes.
10: Hark to the word of Jehovah, the Lord,
O ye judges of Sodom!
Give ear to the law of (Jehovah) our God,
Ye people who are as Gomorrah.
11: What do I get in your offerings slain?
They have nothing for Me, saith Jehovah.
With the burnt off'rings of rams I am filled,
With fat of the beasts that are well-fed.
No pleasure have I in the blood of the bulls,
Nor in that of the lambs, nor of he-goats.
12: When ye do come to appear before Me,
Who this from your hand hath demanded—
Simply to trample My courts?
13: Oh, bring nevermore an oblation,
Empty and vain as they are.
Sweet incense itself is to Me
An abomination repulsive.
The new-moons, the sabbaths, th' assembly-calls,
Are to Me utterly noxious:
The most solemn meeting is evil.
14: Your new-moons and feasts, doth My soul hate,
A burden 'neath which I grow weary.
15: And when ye in them do stretch forth your hands,
I will turn My eyes from beholding.
Yea, when ye pray and make many prayers,
To never a word will I listen—
For your hands are reeking with bloodshed!
16: O wash ye, and washing, make yourselves clean,
Put out of My sight your vile doings.
17: Cease to do evil, learn to do well;
Seek judgment, and help the oppressed;
Let not the orphan be robbed of his rights,
And plead ye the cause of the widow.
Now Jehovah takes up the words "Sodom and Gomorrah" and applies them even to Judah and Jerusalem; it is they who are "Sodom and Gomorrah"—they, the only people who are the Lord's people on earth, with whom alone is His dwelling—they, who are so faithfully observing all His ordinances as He had appointed—they, who are offering all the sacrifices, from whom the sweet incense is still ascending, by whom sabbaths and feasts are most rigidly observed—it is they who are Sodom and Gomorrah! And to substantiate this, the Lord goes over, not the terrible moral corruption that characterized Sodom, but all the religious observances that might well be considered quite enough to save from such a charge, rather than be the basis of it! Although He had Himself instituted these feasts, He now repudiates them all with disgust, for they are as empty of all that He intended in them as Cana's empty water-pots that illustrated them so well (John 2). In a word, it was, as with their forefather Cain, not what might be thought their worst, but their very best, that He utterly repudiates as being only empty form; for withal, their "hands are full of bloods."*
[*"Bloods," being in the plural, tells of life violently taken, for as soon as shed every single drop utters its cry, as did that of Abel in Gen. 4:10.]
But of what practical value is it to us to learn His estimate of Judah's offerings of three thousand years ago, unless it may possibly be that, were our ears keen enough, we might hear Him speaking in the same way to His present witness on earth? Is it not possible that Christendom may be fast becoming, if it be not already, "Sodom" to Him? Indeed, many of us are well assured that it is; nor is this conviction lessened by the use of the words in Rev. 11:8: "Their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city, which is spiritually called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified." For what is this "great city"? Is it the literal Jerusalem? Certainly it was there "our Lord was crucified"; and it is also possible that this has been called "Sodom," as in the scripture before us, yet even in this scripture it has a wider application than to the city, for it includes Judah. As far as I am aware, Jerusalem has never been called "Egypt," nor is it in accord with the profoundly spiritual character of this book of "signs" (Revelation) to look for a literal city here. No, we cannot thus easily put on one city the responsibility for the Lord's death; "the great city" stands as a symbol of all that man, away from God, has ever built on the earth. Cain founded that, Nimrod added to it, and while Jerusalem was in its day of Christ-hating its most perfect expression, yet it may be discerned even now in all that is being built under the name of Christian, even where apostasy from Christ is daily increasing. It is "Christendom" that is now carrying on Cain's work of city-building, the whole edifice forming but one city, and it was in that city "our Lord was crucified." It shall be in its "street"* that this last competent testimony of God shall be slain (Rev. 11:8)—it is one city (compare Matt. 23:23-36 with Rev. 18:24), as there is but one generation that crucified Him, i.e., man in the flesh.
[*The word "street," as used in Rev. 11:8, cannot be a literal thoroughfare, but stands for the internal relations of the different parts of the city, as the "wall" speaks of the external. Street and wall thus make up one city, as in Dan. 9:25.]
Well may we see to it, then, that we rest not in any ordinance, however certain it is that the Lord Himself may have instituted it; for in that way, even the Lord's Supper itself may be as hateful to Him today as those holy feasts of which He here says, "My soul hateth them; I am weary of them." It is all too possible to be most punctilious in all observances of ordinances, in deed, to give them an utterly disproportionate importance, and yet the "hands to reek with bloodshed" in God's holy sight, as neglecting the precious Blood of Christ as our only confidence; for in that case it is on us indeed, but in condemnation; for we are then guilty of the body and blood of the Lord (1 Cor. 11:27). See through the ordinance the Lord Jesus alone, and all is a sweet savor. "Discern the Lord's Body," and for this it is well to use the best of lenses, a contrite tear, and great is the blessedness; but rest satisfied with the mere observance of the ordinance, and it becomes as loathsome as the manna kept overnight; till, in Laodicean days, the present professed witness for Christ on the earth is "spued out of His mouth." Is it not of weightiest significance to us that those are the very days in which we are living?
But let us listen to the counsel: "Wash you, make you clean, cease to do evil, learn to do well." It is the cry taken up by John the Baptist: "Repent and bring forth fruit meet for repentance." But new fruit means a new tree; the old tree can only bring forth the old fruit. Washing externally will not alter the spring from which all flows. Can good ever be brought out of evil? Can pure waters come from a mud-pit? Why then does the Lord tell us to do what He knows well we cannot do?
Yet this He ever does. It is the way of His righteous government, never relaxed, never modified, never changed; and what that government demands must be clearly expressed, and must be obeyed, too, in some way or other. For even the grace of the gospel does not set aside these just requirements; nay, it is this alone that permits their accomplishment. It is through "the grace that is in Christ Jesus" that we are washed "clean every whit"; it is by the Spirit's law of a new life in Him, that the righteous requirements of the law are fulfilled (Rom. 8:4). Nor, I take it, is the principle different in relation to the Sermon on the Mount. This comes at the very beginning of the Gospels, and while it is thus an integral part of those Gospels, far from being in itself the way of salvation, it is but to prove the impossibility of salvation in that way. Although blended with the sweetest assurance of God's love, seen as it were from afar, it is Sinai intensified; the law piercing through all mere external morality, penetrating the inmost recesses of the heart, revealing the evil that is ever there, either dormant or active; and convincing us of our deep, deep need of the Lord Jesus, who alone saves from that evil.
18: Come now, and let us go into court,
And there, saith the Lord, plead together.
If your sins should even as scarlet be seen,
They shall be as white as the snowflake.
If they should be as crimson, so red,
White as pure wool they shall come forth.
19: If ye be willing—submissively hear,
Ye shall feed on the land's choicest dainties.
20: But if ye refuse—perversely rebel,
Then upon you will the sword feed:
For the mouth of Jehovah hath spoken.
21: How like a harlot she has become:
The city that once was so faithful!
Once filled with right, where righteousness lodged,
But now do the murderers dwell there.
22: Thy silver, alas, has all become dross,
Thy wine by water been marred.
23: Thy princes are rebels, companions of thieves,
Lusting for gifts: bribes pursuing.
They judge not the orphan, and little they care
For the just cause of the widow.
24: Therefore is this the word of Adohn,
Jehovah Tzebaoth, the Strong One!
Ah, I will get relief from My foes,
On Mine en'mies will be avenged.
25: My hand once again I'll move over thee,
Smelt out thy dross: tin removing,
26: I'll bring back thy judges as in the past,
Thy counselors as in the first time.
Then ever after thou shalt be called
City of Righteousness—faithful!
27: Zion through judgment shall be redeemed,
And those that return, with strict justice.
28: But the destruction of those who transgress,
And the sinners, shall be at the same time:
Consumption awaits Jah's forsakers.
29: Ashamed shall they be of the oaks ye've desired,
Ye shall blush for the gardens ye've chosen.
30: For ye shall be as an oak whose leaf fades,
As a garden that's lacking all water.
31: The strong man shall then be likened to tow,
His work, to the spark that consumes it;
Both the worker and work together shall burn,
Those flames there is none can extinguish.
Now comes a marvelous word of grace. Isaiah is indeed a "Seer," and can see far off to that day when his people in their cry, "His blood be on us and upon our children," accept the responsibility of that death. Aye, he sees further still, to another day in which they shall awaken to the guilt of that cry, to the terror of its consequences, and then shall they hear this word of invitation: "Come into court with Me; hide nothing, shrink not from having everything out; and even if your sins should there be seen as prominent as is scarlet to the eye—as they certainly would be in that case—I have a secret not yet fully told out, a divine alchemy, that shall make those sins invisibly white. But make no false plea. Accept the verdict of the Court (ver. 6, etc.), and not only will I forgive, but I will feed you on royal dainties. But should you refuse thus to plead 'guilty,' and rebel by maintaining your own righteousness, then instead of being fed, ye yourselves shall be food for the sword, for this is Jehovah's sentence."
How true all this has been proved! Israel did, notwithstanding that precious blood on her, go about to establish her own righteousness, and the "sword" of the Roman devoured her, whilst a remnant confessed to their guilt and were saved. Christendom has followed in precisely the same path, and as its privileges have been far higher, so its penalties will be proportionately severe! In these verses, this first introduction draws to a close, a close filled indeed with cheer for the penitent remnant, but with gloom and terror of judgment for the impenitent.
Jehovah looks back, with tender reminiscence, to the days when that city was faithful (as in the day of David), but now it must be likened to a common harlot, who owns to no holy relationship. It once was the lodge of right, but now murderers find a home within it; as when Stephen so charged the representatives of that nation (Acts 7:5). So the sad contrasts go on, till (ver. 24) with a threefold accumulation of divine dignities, the Lord intervenes, and speaks. The common word for "saith" is not used here, but one of which Delitzsch writes: "The word signifies that which is spoken with significant secrecy and solemn softness." Then comes the "Hoi" (Ah), "the painfulness of pity being mingled with the determined outbreak of wrath!" Adversaries and foes are now swept away, whilst once again His Hand moves over the remnant of faith, which, passing through the time of deepest sorrow, shall come forth with dross purged out, alloy forever gone.
This will be enough to assure us that God still has purposes with that scattered people, and will express by them the righteousness of His government on the earth amid the nations. Beyond the earth, there are no nations, but individuals who are dealt with eternally.The closing verses (27-31) give again a comprehensive view of "Judah and Jerusalem" at the end; "Zion shall be redeemed with judgment and her converts with righteousness"; i.e., brought through a furnace of affliction, elsewhere called "the great tribulation." As to the apostate mass (the transgressors) and the lawless Gentiles (sinners), their destruction shall be together, and so, too, speaks the New Testament: "And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet, and they were both cast alive into a lake of fire" (Rev. 19:20). Nor shall the apostates find the slightest safety in the gods in whom they place their confidence: "For they shall be ashamed of the oaks which ye have desired, and ye shall be confounded for the gardens that ye have chosen." Oaks and gardens are here clearly used for the idolatrous worship that was conducted in them, and the latter come to have a deeper significance in later chapters. The abrupt change of pronouns is perplexing, as being so different from our manner of speech, but it has its value for, as Delitzsch writes: "The excited state of the prophet at the close of his prophecy is evinced by his abrupt leap from an exclamation to a direct address. He still continues in the same excitement," for their end shall show the vanity of their confidence. Do they trust in oaks? They, themselves, shall be as a withered oak, strong to outward appearance, because of their numbers, but with no real vitality, and they are set on fire by their own work ("his work a spark"), i.e., their very confidence is their destruction, a constant principle of Scripture. So this introductory chapter gives a view of Judah's history from first to last, and, in so doing, gives the history of the whole race.