Book traversal links for Section 3: Isaiah 28 - 35
This portion, which is intimately connected with Isa. 29, gives us a clear and detailed view of the ways of God with His people and His land, more especially with Jerusalem, in the last days. Israel is to fade as a flower, Jerusalem to be in sore displeasure, but delivered gloriously and for ever. I trust it may be seen plainly how impossible it is to apply what the Holy Ghost announces here, as a whole, to anything that has yet been accomplished. We must leave room for a further and closer bearing of these “woes” of the prophet.
Now simple as this may be, it is immensely important. For even many Christians are looking onward for the gradual progress (not testimony alone) of the gospel. They expect that by the blessing of the Holy Ghost upon the preached word, the nations are to be by degrees brought in; moral evil, infidelity, every form of superstition, all the pride and worldliness of man to be slowly broken down, when the power of the Holy Ghost shall fill men’s hearts with righteousness and peace and joy, and thus the world in general become the reflection of God’s will and ways. To such persons the assertion seems strange that there is to be a total change of dispensation; that God, having first taken us away to be with Christ above, is going to restore Israel into pre-eminence in their own land, — not to convert them simply and bring them into the Christian church, but to lead them to repent and receive their Messiah. Then they shall have their own distinctive promises and the new covenant made good to them, Jehovah’s glory shining upon Zion, themselves exalted above all nations, who will take a place of conscious willing inferiority to Israel, and vie with one another which shall pay most honour to the chosen of Jehovah. All this, with many weighty consequences, involves such a mighty revolution in people’s thoughts, that those more accustomed to the word of God can hardly conceive what an immense draft it makes upon the faith of those who are unversed in the prophetic word; how repugnant it is to all that is most cherished in their minds; and what a death-blow it gives to what they had fondly considered the legitimate hope of the church.
If we come to God’s word as the only source of truth and sure test of all previous thoughts, nothing can be plainer; for here we have clearly a vision of the terrible blow that is to fall upon Ephraim, which is not only the name of a particular tribe, but the general designation of the ten tribes who mustered under that leading tribe. Judah and Ephraim are the two chief titles by which the prophets continually contrast the two houses of Israel. What the prophet communicates here is the “woe” that is to fall specially on Ephraim, that is, on those we call the ten tribes. This furnishes us with means for judging the time and circumstances of its fulfilment, because no such judgement as is here described ever historically fell upon the Jews. The others (i.e. Israel) were carried away into captivity to Assyria, and were never as a people restored to the land. Isaiah wrote when this dreadful blow was falling upon Israel, and goes onward to their last days, even to the days when Christ Himself, first in faith, then in delivering power and glory, shall be connected with Judah’s remnant.
Looking at the past history of the people, we fail to see any such connection of Christ with Judah, anything that answered to this recourse to the tried Stone, save in those disciples who left the synagogue for the church at a later epoch. The ten tribes were swept away at an early day, and later on the two tribes were carried to Babylon, whence emerged only an inconsiderable remnant of Judah. The prophecy therefore has not yet been accomplished; and that which has not been must be fulfilled. Surely no canon of interpretation can be surer or plainer than this. Scripture cannot be broken: the word of God must be verified sooner or later. The end of this age is the ripe season for making good the bulk of prophecy. Therefore the one question here is whether anything has occurred really and fully corresponding with these judgements to fall on the ten tribes and Judah with Jerusalem also. That there never has been an adequate accomplishment will be manifest enough as we pass on. To the believer the fulfilment is future and certain.
“Woe to the crown of pride of the drunkards of Ephraim, and to the fading flower of his glorious beauty, which [is] on the head of the fat valley of them that are overcome with wine! Behold, the Lord hath a mighty and strong one, as a storm of hail, a destroying tempest; as a storm of mighty waters overflowing, shall he cast down to the earth with might” (or, hand) (vv. 1, 2). It is not to be thought that drunkenness is to be taken in its merely literal acceptation. It represents their dreadfully excited and stupefied and besotted state, given up to their own pleasure and self-indulgence to the shame of the true God. What intoxication is among men with its frightful natural effects, such in a large moral sense will be the condition of these proud insensate men of Ephraim. Fulfilled at whatever time it may be, plainly it will be in Israel as such. “The crown of pride of the drunkards of Ephraim shall be trodden under feet; and the fading flower of his glorious beauty, which [is] on the head of the fat valley, shall be as an early fig before the summer; which [when] he that looketh upon it seeth, while it is yet in his hand, he eateth it up” (vv. 3, 4). And true glory follows: “In that day will Jehovah of hosts be for a crown of glory, and for a diadem of beauty unto the remnant of his people; and for a spirit of judgement to him that sitteth in judgement, and for a strength to them that turn the battle to (or, at) the gate” (vv. 5, 6). Yet was the condition of Judah better?
“But these also have erred through wine, and through strong drink are they gone astray; the priest and the prophet have erred through strong drink, they are swallowed up of wine, they are gone astray through strong drink; they err in vision, they stumble [in] judgement. For all tables are full of vomit [and] filthiness [so that there is] no place” (vv. 7, 8). In vain had God met their weakness, and fed them with infants’ food. “Whom will he teach knowledge? and whom will he make to understand the message? [them that are] weaned from the milk, [and] drawn from the breasts? For [it is] precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, there a little” (vv. 9, 10). Another dealing is needed and will surely follow. “For with stammering lips and with strange tongue will he speak to this people: to whom he said This [is] the rest, give ye rest to the weary; and this [is] the refreshing. But they would not hear. Therefore shall the word of Jehovah be unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, there a little; that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken and snared and taken” (vv. 11-13). Not with that child like instruction which they had slighted, but with the foreign tones of enemies would He scourge them. They would not have His words of rest for the weary, they must needs have a nation they understood not. It was a judgement on their unbelief.
Thus the Assyrian is first represented as a hail-storm coming down from the north on Ephraim, “a mighty and strong one,” “as a storm of hail, a destroying tempest, as a flood of mighty waters overflowing.” It is the “king of the north,” as he is last described in Dan. 11:40. Attention has been already drawn to the mistaken supposition that the lawless one, who is to be manifested as “the king” in Palestine, is the only danger for the Jews. No doubt he, though their king, is at bottom an enemy of the worst character. For what can be more afflicting or disastrous than to have one in your very midst whom you have embraced as a friend, and who turns out the bitterest foe?
Such will be the case when the Antichrist appears in the midst of the Jews and reigns, accepted by them as the Messiah. The Antichrist will be in lawless ways and in false pretensions what the Lord Jesus was in deed and in truth. Though He was God, when He came as man among men, never did He assert His rights as God in His ordinary path here below, however true the glory of His person was to faith. When did He ever use the Godhead to avert trials and sufferings, or man’s contempt of Him? He invariably waited on God and trusted in Him. His obedience as man contributed only the more, because of His divine dignity, to prove that He was willing to encounter all shame and reproach, yea, the death of the cross, that God the Father might be glorified. Antichrist will, on the contrary, use all that Satan gives him (and Satan will endue him with such energy as never has been possessed before by man upon the earth), putting forth all power, and signs, and lying wonders. The consequence will be that the Jews, who characteristically look out for external tokens and prodigies, will accept and worship him as both Messiah and Jehovah their God in Jerusalem.
This is the person who, as 2 Thess. 2 warns us, is to come, as well as the apostasy. With him first of all will the shining forth of the Lord Jesus deal; though the day of the Lord will take in the whole course of judgements, from its first destruction of the enemy’s power on earth till the end of the thousand years. All this period will be for the display of divine glory, but conspicuously in the execution of judgement from time to time on those that oppose themselves. Thus, of the other enemies of Jehovah, the chief is Daniel’s king of the north, or, as other prophets designate him, the Assyrian scourge that comes down upon Ephraim. Clearly he is an enemy that rises up against the people and the land; whereas Antichrist will reign in the land, being there received by the Jews, and probably a Jew himself, for otherwise he could hardly hope to pass himself as Messiah. But the other external enemy, though he may set up to understand dark sentences (Dan. 8:23), takes, of course, an antagonistic attitude, as a fierce king and mighty man of craft.
From Isa. 28-29. we hear of two attacks on Jerusalem in the coming day. First of all the enemy assails Ephraim, entering the Holy Land from the north, on which occasion he has it all his own way. He humbles the pride of Ephraim, and is allowed of God to gain a partial success over Jerusalem also. “Therefore hear the word of Jehovah, ye scornful men, that rule this people which [is] in Jerusalem. For ye have said, We have made a covenant with death, and with Sheol are we at agreement: when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, it shall not come unto us; for we have made lies our refuge, and under falsehood have we hid ourselves. Therefore thus saith the Lord Jehovah, Behold, I lay for foundation in Zion a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner [stone], a sure foundation: he that believeth (or, trusteth) shall not make haste. Judgement also will I appoint for a line, and righteousness for a plummet; and the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies, and the waters shall overflow the hiding-place. And your covenant with death shall be annulled, and your agreement with Sheol shall not stand; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, ye shall be trodden down by it. As it passeth through, it shall take you; for morning by morning shall it pass through, by day and by night; and it shall be terror only to understand the message. For the bed is shorter than that [one] can stretch himself; and the covering narrower than that he can wrap himself. For Jehovah will rise up as [on] mount Perazim, he will be wroth as [in] the valley of Gibeon; that he may do his work, his strange work, and bring to pass his act, his unwonted act. Now therefore be ye not scorners, lest your bands be made strong: for I have heard from the Lord Jehovah of hosts, a consumption, and [one] determined upon the whole earth” (vv. 14-22). Was this the case in past history? Supposing you look at Sennacherib and his army (2 Kings 18), what is there like it, save as a preparatory type? Was not his power completely humbled before the Jews? (2 Kings 19). Was it not a godly son of David who then reigned at Jerusalem? Had not Ephraim been swept off years before? It is manifest and certain that Sennacherib never gained an advantage over Jerusalem; whereas this power is to be victorious in the first instance, and even in the second to reduce them to the utmost, when total ruin befalls the enemy.
Mark the language of the prophet here, “Wherefore hear the word of Jehovah, ye scornful men, that rule this people which is in Jerusalem . . . I have heard from the Lord Jehovah of hosts a consumption and [one] determined upon the whole land” (or, earth). Compare with this Isaiah 10:23 in the first section of the prophecy. The fact is, when Sennacherib came of old against Jerusalem, the pious king Hezekiah ruled there who, instead of making a covenant with death, implored the help of Jehovah against the scornful king of Assyria. The result was that the angel of Jehovah smote the host of Assyria, so that there fell no less than 185,000. Save that the Assyrian will once more oppose the Jews, there is scarce a feature in the past which is not the reverse of what we have here.
Let rationalists, if they will, conclude that the book (for the Spirit of God they deny) has made a mistake; believers may be assured that it mainly looks onward to the judgements of the last days. Indolent readers, unintelligent or prejudiced commentators, may slur over the distinctive points of the prophecy, turning what they can to moral profit. But if a man follows out the matter closely, he must accept the truth of the future or become a rationalist, that is, an infidel. It is perfectly certain that nothing which approaches the prediction has yet occurred. Therefore the only legitimate inference to be drawn from it is, either that the prophecy is yet to be fulfilled, or that the pseudo-prophet was guilty of a lie or a flourish. The Christian, on the contrary, believes that God has written nothing in vain, and that every word, not yet accomplished, must be fulfilled to the letter; among the rest this wonderful dealing in which God is to make “the land of beauty” the grave of man’s pride and power.
Then God will appear for the everlasting deliverance of poor Israel. And that very people, now so proverbial for their obstinate rejection of Christ, will go forth zealously spreading the tidings of divine mercy to the ends of the earth. What an evident contrast with that which exists now! Israel will be brought into their own land and blessed there, when Jehovah of hosts shall reign in mount Zion. Now God has no land that is more particularly holy. The land, holy in His purpose, is (1896) the possession of the Turk. It is still largely a waste country, though proofs of fertility are not wanting in the midst of barrenness. How is so vast a change to be brought about? When consummated, God will lead Israel to build a magnificent temple. The priests, the sons of Zadok, shall minister in due order. The land shall be divided among the twelve tribes after a new fashion. This and more we know from the last chapters of the prophet Ezekiel. Indeed abundant proofs are manifest elsewhere to any person moderately acquainted with the prophecies.
At present the characteristics are, Israel rejected, the Gentiles called, the church formed in union with Christ on high and by the Holy Ghost here below, in which church is neither Jew nor Gentile. Thus the character of blessing for man is entirely altered. Instead of outward honour resting upon the Jews, they are cast out and dispersed, and have yet to pass through a fiery tribulation at the close. We are God’s people, His children now, not they. Peace in Christ is ours, but in the world we have tribulation. In the days that are at hand all will be changed: God, instead of rejecting the Jews, will again choose them to stand forth in their own land, converting them to Himself, quenching all tendency to rest on ordinances, and taking idols for ever away; whereas they formerly and persistently mixed up idols with the worship of Jehovah, later and worse still they rejected their own and His Christ.
Plainly therefore a new state of things must have come in. The prophecies may take us down to the change; but how is the change itself to be brought about? By more tremendous judgements on Israel, and especially on their enemies, than the world has ever witnessed; not only on a great nation, but on the east and west, their old enemies, represented in their descendants. All nations of the earth, in short, will have their representatives there and then. The result will be that God will judge all the nations, at length blessing His ancient people according to the promises He had assured to the fathers, then accomplished to the children. In order to bring about this change, not only must there be an execution of judgement, but also the removal of the heavenly saints to be with the Lord above. As long as the church goes on here below, it is impossible, morally speaking, that God could accomplish these events of a wholly contrasted character. For it is contrary to all analogy that God would act upon two opposite principles at the same time. For instance, how could God both give and withhold outward honour for a Jew? How form the church at the same time that He restores and owns Israel? If a Jew were to believe now, he, baptised by the Holy Ghost, becomes a member of Christ’s body; whereas what we find in the prophets is, that a godly Jew in the last days remains a Jew. The Lord will quicken his soul, no doubt; but he will be found in his own land, where, instead of suffering, he will be blessed in earthly things. Thus it is an altogether different state here below. To this the New Testament supplies the key. Before Jehovah begins thus to work in Israel, the church is removed to heaven.
Hence in the Revelation the great initiatory lesson is taught, that when “the things that are” (or the seven churches) terminate, when those that truly believe now are seen glorified with the Lord in heaven, then (Rev. 7) God takes up a new work among Israel and the Gentiles, who will be, both of them blessed, but even so, presented as distinct from each other. Without doubt the Jews will return to their land in unbelief, and Satan will induce them to install a man as their Messiah who will draw them by degrees to worship himself and an idol in the temple of God. Some might think it strange to assert that these civilised and christianised nations, which count it impossible that the educated could worship idols or the Antichrist, should fall into these very snares. But scripture is explicit, that those who now boast of progress, knowledge, and religion will at that time fall into idolatry and the anti-Christian pit. All western Europe will be drawn into perdition with the mass of the Jews. God will have previously translated to heaven all properly called Christians. Then the apostasy will take place, though in the midst of this fearful evil the Spirit of God will work, specially among certain of the Jews, who will go through this scene faithful to God, some being killed for the truth, and others surviving in the flesh — a remnant God will reserve to Himself to make of it the nucleus of a new Israel. The Lord Jesus will appear in the midst of this lawlessness, and will execute judgement upon the ungodly, preserving the spared remnant who thereon become the chosen means of spreading the knowledge of Jehovah’s glory for the millennial age.
When the Holy Ghost says, “Because ye have said, we have made a covenant with death” (v. 15), we are not to suppose that this is to be taken as if they confessed it. God is rather exposing their real mind in its evil and ruin. They may boast of their covenant, but they do not know it is with Sheol. They are deceived to accept a false Messiah, whose power will turn out to be of Satan; but they are ignorant of the cheat. Jews would not openly say that they had entered into a compact with the devil: a man must be in an extraordinary state of blindness and defiance of God in order to own such a thing. Nor does the word of God at all limit us to such an interpretation. The reference, one may suppose, is to those that enter into a covenant to save themselves from the king of the north. It appears to be a compact entered into between the false prophet and the Beast. The power that scripture designates as the Beast is the emperor of the west, the last Roman ruler when that empire re-appears.
There was a living man, even of late, said to have his mind set on some such scheme: it is a notorious fact, that within the last few years the project had entered into the brain of one who proved that an idea was apt to govern him. Nor is it absolutely new, this yearning after the reorganisation of the empire, with Rome for its capital. The plan is not to overthrow other European nations, but to make them subject kingdoms, each having its king, under one supreme head. That this was the theory of a recent monarch, there can be no more question than that it was the idea of another before him. I may add, that he, too, like his predecessor, meddled with the affairs of the Holy Land, and that both sought to have a hold of Rome. Some of us have held these interpretations of the prophecies long before the war of the holy places or the possession of Rome. They were thoughts derived not from political events, but from scripture, the shadows of coming events. Plainly then a great power shall arise, in scripture called “the Beast” or the revived Roman empire, with this peculiar form, that instead of putting aside the various kings of Europe, it will allow of separate kingdoms under him, nominally independent but really dictated to by the emperor. He accordingly will be the contracting party with the apostate Jews, in concert with their king the Antichrist; the emperor of the west being the political head, as the prophet-king will be the spiritual head of Christendom (then properly Antichristendom). Thus Jerusalem, which has been the cradle of professing Christendom, will be its grave. As to the particular person who will effect all this one says nothing. He shall be revealed in his own time. The great point is the manifestation of the chiefs at Jerusalem and Rome. Rome will be the centre of an earthly empire, with separate but dependent kings in western Europe, each having their kingdom subject to the one head. This is one feature. The other is, that many Jews will be in their own land, and will be allowed to form a kingdom; and that this will bring them into the hands, not of Christ, but of Antichrist.
When the Jews are there, the rest of the great drama will follow; they will soon have its predicted leader. Then comes the scene spoken of here. In order to strengthen themselves against the great northern oppressor, or the overflowing scourge, they enter into a covenant with “the Beast.” In vain do they think to escape. At this very time God will raise to Himself the hearts of a little band of faithful Jews, who will feel assured that the wicked prince cannot be their Messiah; that the true God is a holy God; that His servant, their promised King, must be, not the man of sin but of true righteousness. The false Messiah they refuse, their hearts in penitence cry, Blessed is He that cometh in the name of Jehovah. These are here individually spoken of as “he that believeth” (v. 16). The rest plot, make preparations, and hope to be saved from the overflowing scourge. But no; God will permit the mass to be trodden down (vv. 17-20). They shall in no wise escape. The first attack upon Jerusalem is to be successful. In the next chapter we see a very different result, when the people in the city have been purged and Jehovah interferes. (Compare Zech. 12 - 14)
Thus Jerusalem is the great battle-field of the nations, and the main platform of the judgements of God. We do not speak now about the last eternal judgement — the great white throne; for this has nothing to do with the earth. Heaven and earth will have fled away before that. Remember there is to be a judgement of the habitable earth, not only a judgement of the dead, but also and previously of the quick. Every baptised man professes that Christ is coming to judge the quick and the dead. How few truly understand and believe it! All its acts will not take place at the same time. One form of the judgement of the quick comes before us here. The reason why Jerusalem becomes the scene of God’s judgements on the nations is that Jerusalem, Judah, and the people of Israel are the chosen centre of God among the nations. In the latter day He will resume His former relations with Israel, though on a better and everlasting ground.
What solemn words in vers. 14-22 for the scornful men ruling in Jerusalem! In vain do they plead past favour or present privileges. Jehovah should rise up to do His work, His strange work, and accomplish His act, His strange act. He loves not vengeance but mercy. But mockers are odious: most of all in Zion. A consumption, therefore, is determined upon the whole earth. He is the same unchanging God: let them not presume because of His long-suffering.
Even with man it is not always ploughing, nor always time to sow. Threshing comes at last, and in divers modes and measures. So will it be in God’s judgement of the earth. “Give ye ear, and hear my voice; hearken, and hear my speech. Doth the ploughman plough all day to sow? doth he [all day] open and break the clods of his ground? When he hath made plain the face thereof, doth he not cast abroad dill, and scatter cummin, and set the wheat in rows and the barley in an appointed place and the rye in the border thereof? His God doth instruct him in judgement, he doth teach him. For the dill is not threshed with a threshing instrument, neither is a cartwheel turned about upon the cummin; but dill is beaten out with a staff, and cummin with a rod. Bread [corn] is ground; for he will not ever be threshing it; and though he drive the wheel of his cart and his horses [over it], he would not grind it. This also cometh forth from Jehovah of hosts; he is wonderful in counsel, great in wisdom” (vv. 23-29). The discipline of the people under the mighty hand and the profound wisdom of Jehovah had been in vain through their unbelief. The dull earth yielded far better fruit to the husbandman. But the day of Jehovah is yet to come, and hastens. For yet a very little while He that cometh will come and will not tarry. And every righteous one shall live by faith.
As the present chapter was to some extent anticipated in the remarks on the preceding one, one may speak the more briefly now. It opens with the final siege of Jerusalem by “the Assyrian,” so familiar in the prophecies. “Woe to (or, Ho!) Ariel, to Ariel, the city of David’s encampment! Add ye year to year; let the feasts come round. Yet I will distress Ariel, and there shall be sorrow and sadness; and it shall be unto me as an Ariel” (vv. 1, 2). By Ariel, the lion of God, is meant Jerusalem, which the proud stranger menaces with destruction. Spite of great names and associations of the past, it is actually brought down into deep distress. Delay should not hinder its humiliation. Feasts or sacrifices should not avert the storm. God’s indignation is in question, and not yet ended: still it abides to Him as Ariel, brought justly and utterly low, yet His lion. “And I will camp against thee round about, and will lay siege against thee with watchposts, and I will raise forts against thee. And thou shalt be brought low, thou shalt speak out of the ground, and thy speech shall come low out of the dust, and thy voice shall be as of one that hath a familiar spirit, out of the ground, and thy speech shall whisper out of the dust” (vv. 3, 4). That is, agony of terror would produce effects similar to the tone or language affected by those who dealt with spirits. “And the multitude of thine enemies shall be like small dust, and the multitude of the terrible ones [shall be] as chaff that passeth away: and it shall be at an instant, suddenly. Thou shalt be visited by Jehovah of hosts with thunder and with earthquake and great noise, with whirlwind and tempest and the flame of devouring fire” (vv. 5, 6).
It must be plain, I think, how entirely all this falls in with and confirms the reference to the great king of the north in the time of the end. Sennacherib was but a type. Hence the commentators, not seeing this, stumble in hopeless perplexity. Some, applying it to the typical enemy, cannot get over the fact that Isaiah himself expressly predicts (as was the fact, of course) that Sennacherib should not come into the city of Jerusalem, nor shoot an arrow there, nor come before it with a shield, nor cast a bank against it. (See Isa. 37:33). Others, again, suppose the Roman siege to be intended, but this, it is evident, is still more flatly contradicted by Jehovah’s intervention at the last gasp to the deliverance of Jerusalem and the utter overthrow of their enemies. In fact it is the future siege at the close of this age, when the great confederacy of the north-eastern nations shall be broken after a previous success against the Jews. The reader can compare Zech. 12 - 14, which bear on the same events; also Ps. 83; Ps. 110:2, 6; Micah 4:11, Micah 5:4-15; and the end of Daniel 11 compared with the beginning of Daniel 12.
The next verses, 7, 8, strengthen this conclusion. “And the multitude of all the nations that war against Ariel, even all that war against her and her fortifications, and that distress her shall be as a dream of a night vision. It shall even be as when the hungry [man] dreameth, and, behold, he eateth; but he awaketh, and his soul is empty; or as when the thirsty dreameth, and, behold, he drinketh; but he awaketh, and, behold, [he is] faint, and his soul craveth: so shall be the multitude of all the nations that war against mount Zion” (vv. 7, 8). Calvin’s notion that they were the various garrisons which the Jews brought in from elsewhere to defend their capital, and that they are threatened with being useless refuse, is quite unworthy of his reputation. It is a clear prediction of the destruction of their foes at the last, led on by him who was prefigured by the Assyrian. They shall be as disappointed of their prey as a hungry or thirsty man who wakes up from his imaginary feast.
The prophet then turns to describe the moral condition of the Jews themselves, and the blind infatuation that ensued. For such a trial as God thus brought on them will have its ground in their evil state, whatever may be His mercy and its rejoicing against judgement in the end. “Be ye amazed and astonished; infatuate yourselves and be blind: they are drunken, but not with wine; they stagger, but not with strong drink. For Jehovah hath poured out on you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers, hath he covered. And all the vision is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which they deliver to one that can read, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed. And the book is delivered to him that cannot read, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith I cannot read” (vv. 9-12). Israel were spiritually blind to God’s lessons. Judicial sleep oppressed all: learned or simple made no difference.
Alas! they were formalists and hypocrites taught by the precept of men, as certainly as they avowed their ignorance of God’s word. Therefore by God’s sentence their wisdom should perish. “And the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw nigh with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught of men: therefore, behold, I will proceed to do marvellously among this people, to do marvellously even with wonder; and the wisdom of their wise [men] shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent ones shall be hid” (vv. 13, 14). In vain their efforts to hide from the Lord or be independent of Him. God, after all, remains God, and man is but as clay in the hand of the potter. “Woe unto them that hide deep their counsel far from Jehovah! And their works are in the dark, and they say, Who seeth us? and who knoweth us? Ye turn things upside down! Shall the potter be counted as clay; so that the thing made should say of him that made it, He made me not; or the thing formed say of him that formed it, He hath no understanding?” (vv. 15, 16). If this be solemnly true, it is full of blessed comfort. For “[Is] it not yet a very little while, and Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field, and the fruitful field shall be esteemed as a forest? And in that day shall the deaf hear the words of the book, and out of obscurity and out of darkness the eyes of the blind shall see; and the meek shall increase their joy in Jehovah, and the needy among men shall rejoice in the Holy One of Israel. For the terrible one shall come to naught, and the scorner shall be no more, and all that watch for iniquity shall be cut off, that make a man an offender for a word, and lay a snare for him that reproveth in the gate, and turn aside the just for naught” (vv. 17-21).
Soon all will be reversed: not only the lofty Assyrian he abased, and humbled Israel be exalted, but the culpable insensibility of the people give place to spiritual understanding and earnestness. Sweet traits of the Spirit should find increase of blessing and joy: violence, scorn, and iniquity be judged and vanish. “Therefore thus saith Jehovah Who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob, Jacob shall not now be ashamed, neither shall his face now wax pale. But when he seeth his children the work of my hands, in the midst of him, they shall sanctify my name, and sanctify the Holy One of Jacob, and shall stand in awe of the God of Israel. They also that err in spirit shall come to understanding, and they that murmur (or, the disobedient) shall learn doctrine” (vv. 22-24).
It is clear that both the external deliverance and the internal work of spiritual blessing in spiritual intelligence indicate a time and a state which have never yet been realised for Israel. The day of Jehovah is in view, of which the sudden overthrow of Tartan and Rab-saris was but a proximate sign. Never yet has the blind stupor lifted from the heart of the people and its rulers, but wrought deeper sin and worse desolation. But the day is at hand which will verify the prophetic word to the full.
There is a topic here which has been scantily noticed hitherto, on which the Spirit of God enlarges much. Inasmuch as it comes before us in this chapter, a few words may well be said on it — the moral condition of Israel, as proved and brought home to them by the revelation of God. For what we have all throughout this section is not merely deliverance, nor this in His grace only, during a time of ruin, but also the righteous Lord proving that He loves righteousness. There was a cause for the proof that the condition of Israel was morally unbearable to God. Blindness was there, religious and finally judicial blindness. This condition is traced by the Spirit in a variety of ways. We will look briefly at what we have before us here.
The first feature of their evil which draws out the indignation of God is that His people should go down into Egypt; that a people blessed of God and possessing promises of still better blessings than they ever tasted, with which they are yet to be blessed by God’s own grace in the last days — the best possible blessings for a people upon earth — that such a people should go down into Egypt for help, was not only debasing to themselves, but also peculiarly dishonouring to God. Hence the Holy Ghost now, having shown us their deliverance, goes back and indicates from what they were delivered. God brings out one character of evil after another, and shows that the necessary issue of it was destruction. Yet He brings them out of all their distresses, and at length blesses them fully as His own people. It is peculiarly comforting to read of the ways of God, how He is not only a deliverer from dangers, from outward enemies, from Satan, but also from every form of sin. He does not in any wise gloss over moral evil, for chapter after chapter brings it out, though, as the effect of its judgement, Israel seemed ready to be swallowed up. But as the dark side thus appears so on the other God is seen interfering in grace, plucking their feet out of the net, setting the dispersed in their own land, and securing the triumph of His own grace as well as righteousness. For this cause, “Woe to the rebellious children, saith Jehovah that take counsel but not of me, and that make leagues, but not by my Spirit, that they may heap sin upon sin” (v. 1). It is a solemn thing to read such words as these, and still more so to think how applicable they may be to ourselves. Even as children of God, the proneness of our hearts is to act according to our own judgements; for the flesh in the Christian is not a whit better than in any other man. Whenever there is a listening to ourselves, we may be sure the same character of evil is at work that the Spirit of Jehovah was rebuking in Israel.
What for Israel was going down into Egypt is to us the taking counsel not of God but of natural wisdom in any difficulty. It was the same fleshly wisdom which Israel sought and of this Egypt is the symbol in the ancient world. No country in the early history of men was so distinguished for the wisdom of nature as Egypt. In later days Greece and Rome sprang up, but that was long after the time to which this vision applied as an historical fact. They were at first little more than a number of contentious hordes. No such wisdom was found anywhere to the same extent as in Egypt. The great Assyrian who invaded Israel was characterized not so much by wisdom as by vast resources and appliances in the way of strength. Egypt depended mainly on good counsel, as if there were no living God — on the counsel of man sharpened by long experience, for it was one of the oldest powers that attained eminence. Accordingly, as they had been versed in the statecraft of the ancient world, they had an immense reputation for their familiarity with means of dealing in national difficulties, peace, plenty, etc.
Israel, when threatened by the Assyrian, sought the help of Egypt: I am speaking now of the literal fact when this prophecy first applied. Though it did bear on the days of Isaiah, yet the character of the prophecy shows that it cannot be limited to that time: only a very small part of it was accomplished then. But between the two terms of Israel’s past and future unfaithfulness in turning to the wisdom of the world in their troubles, there is a serious lesson for us in the pressure of any trial that concerns the testimony of God. The tendency is immense to meet a worldly trial in a worldly way. That you cannot meet the world’s efforts against you by spiritual means is what one is apt to think; so there is the danger of recourse to earthly means for the purpose of escape. What is this but the same thing that we find here? And yet who that feels for the children of God and for the truth, but knows the danger of this? Be sure, if we do not feel the danger, it is because we are ourselves under the world’s influence. The feeling of the danger, the dread of our own spirits, the fear lest we should meet flesh by flesh, is what God uses to make us look to Himself. God will never put His seal on self-dependence; on the contrary, the great lesson the whole life of Christ teaches is the very reverse. He lived for the Father; so “he that eateth Him shall live for Him.” It is in dependence upon another, even Christ, as our object that the joy and strength and wisdom of the Christian are found. This we gather before the difficulty comes. Then “I can do all things through Him Who strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:13).
Where we often fail is through acting from impulse. If we think to plan, instead of praying in real subjection to God, we need to fear for ourselves. What is rendered in 1 Tim. 2:1 “intercession,” and in 1 Tim. 4:5 “prayer,” means such intercourse with God as admits of confiding appeal to Him. We can thus freely and personally speak to Him about all things, now that through the one Mediator we know Him as a Saviour-God, Who has first spoken to us in grace, and given us the access we have into this grace wherein we stand. Is it not, then, an outrage on the God Who has thus opened His ear to us if we look to fleshly means? And yet who does not know that this is the very thing to which perhaps, more than any other, the wise and prudent are prone?
In this way it seems that the moral lesson of this chapter is to be seen — it is taking counsel, but not of Jehovah. Hence God caused the land of Egypt to become the means of deeply aggravating their evil. “Woe to the rebellious children, saith Jehovah, that take counsel, but not of me; and that cover with a covering (or, as some prefer, that make leagues), but not of my spirit, that they may add sin to sin; that walk to go down into Egypt, and have not asked at my mouth; to strengthen themselves in the strength of Pharaoh, and to trust in the shadow of Egypt! Therefore shall the strength of Pharaoh be a shame, and the trust in the shadow of Egypt a confusion. For his princes are at Zoan, and his ambassadors are come to Hanes. They shall all be ashamed of a people [that] cannot profit them, that are not a help nor profit, but a shame, and also a reproach” (vv. 1-5). His princes mean those of God’s people, as the next chapter proves decisively. The prophet’s irony thus expresses itself.
“The burden of the beasts of the south. Through the land of trouble and anguish, from whence [come] the lioness and the lion, the viper and fiery flying serpent, they carry their riches upon the shoulders of young asses, and their treasures upon the bunches of camels, to a people [that] shall not profit. For Egypt helpeth in vain, and to no purpose: therefore have I called her Rahab (or, Arrogance) that sitteth still” (vv. 6, 7). Not man’s pride, but God’s guidance avails for His people.
If we examine the New Testament for our guidance in these difficulties, we shall find just the same truth. If the apostle is speaking merely about the ordinary trials of each day, we have the same lesson in other words. Thus he tells us we are to let our moderation be known unto all men, the Lord being at hand; that instead of being careful or anxious about anything (not that we are to be careless, but not to be careful in the sense of anxiety), our requests should be made known unto God with thanksgiving.
Our strength, it is said, is in quiet confidence. Christians have a right to expect God to appear for us; He has entitled us to count on it. We may be perfectly sure, it matters not what the circumstances are; even supposing there has been something to judge in ourselves, if one tell it out to God, will not He listen? He cannot deny Himself. He must deny him that slights the name of Christ (2 Tim. 2:12, 13). Where He now puts to shame, it is in our self-will; so far from His putting shame on such being a proof that He does not love them, it is precisely the proof that He does. But at the same time, let men venture to go beyond what God sees good for the discipline of His child, He soon takes up the rod; and there can be nothing more terrible than when the adversary exceeds the chastening that is just, gratifying his hatred toward them. For God will rise up in His indignation, and deal with them according to His own majesty; even the grace of the gospel does not set aside that. For instance, see 2 Tim. 4:14. If persons bearing the Lord’s name are carried away by their fleshly zeal, and fight against the truth of God or those charged with the proclamation of that truth, God may use them for dealing with faults in His people. God knows how to bring down His people where their looks are high because of anything in themselves, or that grace has conferred upon them. But when the limit of right rebuke is exceeded, woe be to those that fight against them, covering their own vindictiveness or envy under God’s name! It is evident that the very grace of the gospel makes it to be so much the more conspicuous; for it sounds so much the more tremendous that God should thus deal in the midst of all that speaks so loudly of His love.
The Gospels also bring out, in the words of our Lord Himself, the wickedness of fighting against what God is doing even by poor weak disciples. This is the great lesson for us; we are not to consult our own heart or have recourse to the strength of man. When we flee to the various resources of the flesh, we slip out of our proper Christian path. Whereas the strength of God has indeed shone in that foundation-pattern in which all the blessing of grace to sinners is contained; and it always takes this form for a Christian, and that is, death and resurrection. There may very likely be a great pressure of trial; there may soon appear a sinking down under it; but as surely as there is the semblance of death, there will be the reality of resurrection by-and-by. Let no one be disheartened. The cross is the right mould for the blessing of the children of God. When we were brought to Him, was it not after the same sort? We knew what it was to have the horrors of the conviction of sin; but God was going to bring us for the first time into a place of special blessing.
It has always been so with His own. We find it in the case of Abraham, and in proportion to the greatness of blessing is the force of sorrow that precedes it. Isaac was given when Abraham was a hundred years old, and Sarah as good as dead. There was death, as it were, and he had to wait for a son. Even after the birth and growth of the child of promise, he had to surrender him, to offer up his only son to God. Directly that the singleness and truth of his heart was proved, and that the sacrifice was in principle offered up, the angel of Jehovah arrests his hand. How much sweeter now, when Isaac was, as it were, the child of resurrection! And so it is with all our blessings, it matters not what they may be. There must be the breaking down of our feelings, the mortification of self in a practical way, if we are to know what God is in blessing: our blessings are cast in the mould of death and resurrection.
The way by which come all our blessings, is in Him Who is dead and risen. To be blessed practically we must morally go through the same process. There comes the frustration of all natural hopes, the blasting of all the objects we desire. When God visits us in His faithfulness with trial, the first thing man seeks is to escape. Israel goes down into Egypt, instead of looking up in the confidence that God is the giver of wisdom and of power. They go down to the land of human wisdom and ability. Were there no God, were they not His people, it would have been intelligible; but as it is, what folly! Yet is it the folly of our own hearts. Are we not conscious of it? Beware lest it be, because we are so accustomed to forget it, that we do not realise the humbling truth. We need to consider it more deeply to profit by this lesson. Their strength is quiet confidence instead of hurrying down into Egypt. “Now go, write it before them on a tablet, and inscribe it in a book, that it may be for the time to come for ever and ever. For it is a rebellious people, lying children, children [that] will not hear the law of Jehovah; that say to the seers, See not; and to the prophets, Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits: get you out of the way, turn aside out of the path, cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us” (vv. 8-11). Those that wait not on Him for His power must feel the power of His enemies and theirs.
“For ever and ever” (v. 8) it was to be graven in a book that they were “children that will not hear the law of Jehovah” (v. 9). That was even the last of all; rebellion could be forgiven lying children could be made ashamed of their lies. “Prophesy not unto us right things” (v. 10), that is, things according to God. We are not to suppose that they actually said these words. We often read in the Gospels that Jesus answered in many cases where not a single question was put to Him. Why does the Spirit of God say Jesus answered, when He was not asked? Because He knew the thoughts of their hearts. He answered not what they said, for they said nothing; but what He knew they would say if they dared, what He knew was at work within.
So here, Israel may not say it in so many words, but it is what God saw and knew to be the truth of what they were feeling and doing. They did not like the truth which brought before them their rebellion and lies; they endeavoured to get out of the way and reach of the truth. God was in none of their thoughts. Why not use the best resources of men, now that God did not work miracles for them? Whereas, in truth, God had called out Israel for this — to be the manifestation of a people whose strength was in Jehovah; to be the witness of how blessed it is thus nationally to trust the living God in all their public dealings and in their domestic life. All was to be regulated by the law of Jehovah (which is the technical term for the Old Testament). They were to be the practical exemplification of the blessedness of a people and land in such a case.
To go down into Egypt was to give up God for man: if they had asked counsel, they well knew God would never send them down to Egypt, out of which He had brought them. But they did not seek counsel, they act before they ask, and may have then prayed about it. But what is it to pray for God to bless what we are doing in self-will? Let us ask Him what He would have us to do before we act. It may be that God would have us to do nothing, or possibly give us counsel through one of His children. For God does not intend us to be so many independent lines that never unite, though they may closely approach. He works by Christ’s members; He purposes to make us feel that we are members one of another; but whatever may be the value of any one’s counsel, each must be responsible to God. The danger is of putting another in the place of God. Men do not value a man more for this, because when we are self-willed and our counsellor is firm for good, the speedy consequence will be that he who stood in the place of God one day may seem to stand almost in the place of the devil the next. This is the flesh — apt to deify the creature one day, and to demonize it the next.
What we have to seek then is to look up to God; and this is just why the first word is here, “returning and rest.” But there was more besides. In the chapter before, the point was the word of God, which the flesh treated as a sealed book; but God must be waited on as well as His word. He never intended scripture to be taken apart from Himself; over and above the Bible is God Himself. Not that God can ever be against His word, but He is the only power of entering into the application of it. For the Bible is not only for me to look down into: I must look up to God. I am not intended to read it merely as a book of true stories or good sermons, still less of enigmas to solve by wit or learning, but as the voice of the living God to my soul. When one reads it in true subjection to Him, the relation and attitude of the soul is totally changed; you are delivered from the danger of bending the word of God to your own mind and will. Whereas, when the word leads you out in prayer to God, then it is neither the word without prayer, nor prayer without the word; both of which habits are exceedingly dangerous, one leading to rationalism, as the other does to fanaticism. Hence, says the apostle, “I commend you to God and to the word of his grace” (Acts 20:32). We need to wait upon God that we may gather profit from His word, and ever to lean on Him for His grace that we may with simplicity and faithfulness carry it out in the Spirit.
Here Israel had failed, as we see in Isa. 29. So now in Isa. 30 they flee down to the nearest neighbour that could help by human prudence, slighting God’s wisdom and the grace which entitled them to cast themselves on Him for it. Were they not a people that should dwell alone, and not be reckoned among the nations? “Therefore thus saith the Holy One of Israel, Because ye reject this word, and trust in oppression and perverseness, and stay thereon, therefore this iniquity shall be to you as a breach ready to fall, swelling out in a high wall, whose breaking cometh suddenly in an instant. And he shall break it as the breaking of a potter’s vessel that is broken in pieces without sparing; and there shall not be found in the pieces of it a sherd to take fire from the hearth or to take water out of the cistern” (vv. 12-14).
Such was Egypt. The flesh is habitually fraudulent and perverse. But God judges it in His own. It is ever restless and pretends to something. It may look imposing, but it is ready to crumble from top to bottom, and is doomed of God. “For thus saith the Lord Jehovah, the Holy One of Israel, In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and confidence shall be your strength; but ye would not. And ye said, No, for we will flee upon horses; therefore shall ye flee: and, We will ride upon the swift [Egypt’s resources of common sense]; therefore shall they that pursue you be swift. One thousand [shall flee] at the rebuke of one; at the rebuke of five shall ye flee: till ye be left as a beacon upon the top of a mountain, and as an ensign on a hill” (vv. 15-17). God would make them a signal example, and show that the resources they trusted were only so many nets in which they were to be snared. Had they sought to flee? They should flee in terror. Had they sought help to swiftly escape? Swift should be the vengeance of their foes. God constantly makes the earthly object of trust to be the rod for the fool’s back.
What is the answer of the Lord when He comes to this? Nothing can be stronger than His condemnation. But if He deals sternly with His faulty people here, is it not always for blessing in the end? If God exposes His children, pulls them down from the seat of pride, brings them into trouble from those they prefer to Himself in some extremity, it is the real action of His great grace. To return to Him even with broken bones is blessed. How magnificent is the burst of the prophet! “And therefore will Jehovah wait, that he may be gracious unto you, and therefore will he lift himself up [not to cut off Israel, but] that he may have mercy upon you; for Jehovah [is] a God of judgement: blessed [are] all they that wait for him. For the people shall dwell in Zion at Jerusalem. Thou shalt weep no more: he will be very gracious unto thee at the voice of thy cry; as he heareth it, he will answer thee. And the Lord will give you the bread of adversity, and the water of oppression; yet shall not thy teachers be hidden any more, but thine eyes shall see thy teachers. And when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left, thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This [is] the way, walk ye in it” (vv. 18-21). He had let all this trouble fall upon His people; He had Himself waited and been exalted; and why? That He might be gracious. The enemy might prove his malice, and they their weak and guilty preference of flesh to Himself; and He allowed it all to take place that He might have nothing to do but to take them out of the pit into which they had fallen, and bless them as they had never been blessed before, at length without hindrance to the outflow of all His love. He waits for them, and though He seem to tarry, it is to enrich them with a still greater blessing. They should be morally restored, too, and take vengeance on what had seduced their hearts in previous times. “And ye shall defile the silver covering of thy graven images, and the gold overlaying of thy molten images; thou shalt cast them away as a menstruous cloth; Out! shalt thou say unto it” (v. 22).
Outward happiness follows here below, and inward blessing and glory from above. For Jehovah asserts the rights of His grace, when His people, all wrong, have been chastened in adversity, and returned to Him in heart.
“And he will give the rain of thy seed, with which thou shalt sow the ground; and bread, the produce of the ground, and it shall be fat and plenteous. In that day shall thy cattle feed in large pastures; and the oxen and the young asses that till the ground shall eat salted provender, which hath been winnowed with the shovel and with the fan. And there shall be upon every high mountain, and upon every high hill, brooks, water-courses, in the day of the great slaughter, when the towers fall. And the light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall be sevenfold, as the light of seven days, in the day that Jehovah bindeth up the breach of his people, and healeth the stroke of their wound” (vv. 23-26).
Such is the deliverance which God will work for Israel; but what about the Assyrian? Israel are blessed, but not yet the Assyrian judged; Israel had been wrong, but the Assyrian had been merciless. God had dealt with Israel; now He must deal with their foes, as we are told in Isa. 10:12. “When the Lord hath performed His whole work on mount Zion,” then will He bring down the Assyrian. “Behold, the name of Jehovah cometh from far, burning [with] his anger, and a grievous conflagration: his lips are full of indignation, and his tongue as a devouring fire; and his breath as an overflowing stream, that reacheth even unto the neck, to sift the nations with the sieve of vanity; and a bridle that causeth to err [shall be] in the jaws of the peoples” (vv. 27, 28). The foe will not know that it is God Who is guiding them to the Holy Land, but think they are going to have the land and the people an easy prey: God, on the contrary, is going to meet them there, and avenge His people. “Ye shall have a song as in the night a holy feast is kept; and gladness of heart, as of one going with a pipe to come unto the mountain of Jehovah, to the Rock of Israel” (v. 29). This is even more than there had been when Egypt was judged; Israel could then eat the lamb but with bitter herbs. Not so in the day which is coming; it is not that part of the passover that this is referred to, but the song of their holy festival. “And Jehovah will cause his glorious voice to be heard, and will show the lighting down of his arm, with indignation of anger, and a flame of devouring fire, [with] a crashing and tempest and hailstones” (v. 30).
It is not a mere providential judgement — God from a distance acting and merely raising up one people to destroy another. The intervention of God shall be manifested, an unmistakable display of divine judgement. “For through the voice of Jehovah shall the Assyrian be broken in pieces, he will smite with a rod. And every stroke of the appointed staff, which Jehovah shall lay upon him, shall be with tabrets and harps; and in battles of shaking will he fight with them” (vv. 31, 32). It is the staff of God’s correction, which shall deal to the bitter end with the Assyrian. For. Israel such joy and gladness shall follow as never had been tasted heretofore. So manifestly is God espousing their cause, that it will be with the loftiest music of praise and every sign of confidence in God. Has this ever, since Isaiah, been accomplished in Palestine? Was it heard there even at the time of Sennacherib? Israel was already in captivity, and Judah was soon swept away by the king of Babylon. Here we have triumph, peace, blessing, and glory. The mighty power of God will have destroyed their enemies for ever. There must then be a fuller accomplishment than the prophecy has yet received.
But it is not to be a mere devastation. “For Topheth [is] prepared of old; for the king also it is prepared; he hath made [it] deep [and] large: the pile thereof fire and much wood; the breath of Jehovah, like a stream of brimstone, doth kindle it” (v. 33). Tophet is ordained: this shows clearly when and how it will be. Tophet is the figure of the judgement on God’s part that is coming. It should be “for the king also,” not “yea, for the king.” That little change has done much mischief in confounding two important personages. Nobody need deny that the word translated “yea” may be rightly so in certain cases; but the natural meaning of it is either “and” or “also,” and the latter is just what is required here. His declaration is, that Tophet is ordained not for “the Assyrian” only, but also for “the king.” The king and the Assyrian are so totally different and opposed that it was needful to reveal the same doom for both. The mistranslation was because our translators did not know the difference, but fancied the king and the Assyrian to be one and the same.
“The king” is that false Messiah who will be found with the Jews in the last days. Received in his own name, he will be accepted as the true Anointed, but he is the devil’s Messiah. And the consequence is that God’s fire or Tophet is prepared for him. The point here is that God will prepare the same fire for both of them; not only for the hostile Assyrian, but for the leader of Judah’s wickedness, “the king.” For him the fire of Tophet is prepared as well as for his enemy, the Assyrian. God in this marvellous manner, and not waiting for the day of eternity, will cast him directly into hell, even before the devil himself. Lest we might think that he is the only one, it is said, “for the king also”; for this personage, who is to reign over the apostate Jews, will also be singled out of God to be dealt with in the same way. Figurative expressions may be used, but they are figures of a terrible reality which Christendom has long forgotten. The more urgent is the need that the believer should wake up to his fuller confession of the truth, in a day when men sink down in a self-complacent dream of an onward progress for the earth, the ritualist being as besotted as the rationalist. “Behold, the Judge standeth before the door.”
The chapter now coming before us is a brief moral comment on, or a compressed rehearsal of Isa. 30. “Woe to them that go down to Egypt for help, and stay on horses; and trust in chariots, because [they are] many, and in horsemen, because they are very strong; but they look not unto the Holy One of Israel, neither seek Jehovah!” (v. 1). How touchingly the prophet warns of the danger through Egypt as defection from Jehovah! “But he also [is] wise, and will bring evil, and will not call back his words [which Israel vainly would escape], and he will arise against the house of the evildoers [Israelitish or not] and against the help of them that work iniquity. Now the Egyptians [are] men, and not God; and their horses flesh, and not spirit: and Jehovah shall stretch out his hand, and he that helpeth shall stumble, and he that is helped shall fall, and they all shall perish together” (vv. 2, 3).
Jehovah’s protection over the righteous would be proved in the day when He judged the helpers and the helped. Their material resources were great, their political wisdom famous; but where were they in that which is highest and alone enduring? The true God was in none of their thoughts. They were the most besotted of creature-worshippers. From Zion, not heaven only, He will deal. It is the day of open intervention here anticipated. “For thus saith Jehovah unto me, Like as the lion growleth, and the young lion over his prey, if a multitude of shepherds be called forth against him, he will not be dismayed at their voice, nor abase himself for the noise of them: so will Jehovah of hosts come down to war upon mount Zion, and upon the hill thereof. As birds hovering, so will Jehovah of hosts cover Jerusalem: covering he will also deliver, [and] passing over, he will rescue [it]. Turn ye unto [him from] whom, O children of Israel, ye have deeply revolted. For in that day every may shall cast away his idols of silver, and his idols of gold, which your own hands have made unto you [for] a sin. And the Assyrian shall fall with the sword, not of a mighty man; and the sword, not of a mean man, shall devour him; and he shall flee from the sword, and his young men shall become tributary. And his rock shall pass away by reason of fear, and his princes shall be dismayed at the ensign, saith Jehovah, whose fire [is] in Zion. and his furnace in Jerusalem” (vv.4-9).
The commentators naturally are perplexed who look not beyond Sennacherib; for though his host was smitten by the angel of Jehovah, and this might in some measure meet the prediction, there are strong expressions which can never be satisfied, short of the great enemy at the close. Then only will be felt the force of Tophet; then only will be seen the ensign of the Divine presence and power which protects Zion and Jerusalem.
For what can be plainer than the assurance that Jehovah will in very deed appear for the deliverance of His people? Whatever has been in the past is but a pledge of the coming glory. We know as a fact that Judah did not hear any more than Israel as a whole; and that as in Christendom, so among the Jews thenceforward evil men and seducers waxed worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. Bright exceptions there were now and then; and faith working by love is never without honour from God, and fruit among men. But the general issue of old, as now, is the same sad and at times rapid and audacious declension. But the time of ultimate blessing is all the more sure. For the Lord will come quickly to receive His heavenly redeemed, and this will but give the utmost impulse to Satan’s wiles and apparent victory on earth, when those who stood most opposed in the Spirit are taken out of the way, and God works in a remnant of both Israel and the nations for the kingdom soon to be displayed. Only in Isa. 31 we must hold fast that it is not a question of Antichrist sustained by the Beast or Western Empire, but of the external chief of the nations hostile to the people and their land — the Assyrian. He is not to be destroyed, like the Beast and the False Prophet by the Lord’s shining forth from heaven, but by His going forth and fighting against those nations as when He fought in the day of battle. His feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives. (Zech. 14) He will then deign to be in relationship with His people; of which His King set on His holy hill of Zion is the token and the glory.
The whole work being now finished at Jerusalem, Jehovah is then shown us reigning, for He and no other is the personage spoken of here. “Behold, a king shall reign in righteousness, and princes shall rule in judgement. And a man shall be as a hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land. And the eyes of them that see shall not be dim, and the ears of them that hear shall hearken. The heart also of the rash shall understand knowledge, and the tongue of the stammerers shall be ready to speak plainly. The vile person shall be no more called liberal, nor the churl said [to be] bountiful. For the vile person will speak villainy, and his heart will work iniquity, to practise profaneness, and to utter error against Jehovah, to make empty the soul of the hungry, and to cause the drink of the thirsty to fail. The instruments also of the churl [are] evil: he deviseth wicked devices to destroy the meek with lying words, even when the needy speaketh right. But the liberal deviseth liberal things; and in liberal things doth he stand” (vv. 1-8). It is no longer a question of Christianity but of the kingdom. When He reigns for Whom all believers wait, as all prophets spoke of Him, the righteous shall be called no more to suffer, but to dwell at ease. It is in view of heavenly glory, and as following Him Who passed through sufferings, that we are now called to do well, suffer for it, and take it patiently. This indeed is grace. But in the day that is coming righteousness shall be displayed by divine power here below, when Satan is set aside and Christ reigns.
This is a totally different state of things from what prevails at present, for it is grace that now reigns through righteousness unto eternal life, not (so to speak) righteousness through glory in the government of the world. In the day that this chapter contemplates, the Lord Jesus will righteously take in hand the sceptre of the earth, and especially of the land of Israel. All the nations will come indirectly under His reign, because there will be one King over all the earth, not to the setting aside of others, as we know, but one supreme central government is to be then maintained. Other kings will be obliged to submit (compare Isaiah 49:23; Isaiah 60:3, 10, 16) to the sway of the Lord, which will continue throughout the whole unbroken period of the millennium. It is called therefore “the everlasting kingdom,” not being transferred to another, and lasting as long as the earth endures. At the end of the thousand years there will be an awful proof of man’s radically unchanged condition; for the nations will then gather together against “the beloved city,” the earthly Jerusalem, compassing about the camp of the saints. This will be allowed for the express purpose of proving the solemn truth that glory no more ameliorates the heart than does the present long-suffering patience of God. If judgement against evil works be not executed, men’s hearts are hardened in wickedness; when God’s judgements are in the earth, the world will learn righteousness. But alas! even that lesson is forgotten in time; and then is the end.
Jehovah will reign in righteousness, Whose it will be to exercise strong and beneficent government all through His day; but it will be proved once more that the heart is no more changed thereby than under the gospel now, unless renewed in conscience by the power of the Spirit. There must be the possession of a new nature. Man must be born again to see or enter the kingdom of God. It will then be evident that the new birth is requisite not merely for the heavenly glory, but even for the earthly things of that kingdom. (John 3) It is in reference to the earthly part that we hear of a king reigning in righteousness. Rev. 20:7-9 shows the total failure of this display of glory to make the heart of man one whit better. In a higher point of view, far from failure, there will he during this time an amazing exhibition of that which will bring praise to God Himself; and to this we have a reference here.
But what a proof of the selfishness of our hearts, that we do not think much about this blessed time that is coming! Not that it is not believed in; but God give us to think far more, not only of a world set free, but of being with Christ where He is in heavenly blessedness. How blind men are! For, to love, what is so much our own portion as His? Besides we are too apt to slight the deliverance of creation (now travailing in pain) during the thousand years, and this because we are so little identified with the interests of Christ. Whatever glorifies Him ought to be very dear to us. Again we shall be connected with the earth, though our home will be heavenly. We shall indeed reign with Christ over it. God will make the risen saints to be the intermediary vessels of His glory, and the fruitful channels of His goodness in that bright day. Does it not then show the insensate selfishness of the heart that we are but little filled with the thoughts and feelings suitable to such expectations?
It is freely granted that there is a far higher and nearer hope, even to be with Christ Himself in the Father’s house. To see His glory there is more blessed than any inheritance we share anywhere else. But if we look around and see all the sins, miseries, sufferings, and sorrows of a world far from God, what a cheering truth it is that the day is so near when we shall be able to say even of the yet unbelieving Jews, “Their iniquities are forgiven, their sin is covered!” Will not God be magnified? A remnant of Israel suffices not: all shall be saved; every one of them, as the rule, shall then be righteous. Further, the miracles of Christ are called the “powers of the world to come,” because it was the sample of that divine energy in man which will never be revoked, though it may be suspended. But it is always in Christ, though the church may not know how to count upon Him for it, or apply it to a needy creation. But we ought to know it is in Christ for faith to draw on, and God has rebuked our low state by withholding the display of these outward ornaments. It is good, however, to remember that it is always in Christ, and that He is coming, and that the end of this age will witness the exercise of the glorious power of that exalted Man, the church too being associated with Him, and every blessing brought in to the exclusion of all evil. This is what the chapter before us anticipates.
Now while God does not put evil down, grace reigns; and now it is only grace in the gospel that can deliver from sins as well as for heavenly glory. But when the power of evil is smitten above and below (and the Lord will smite before the millennium), the King will rule. It is the kingdom of God administered by the exalted Man, Christ; and a blessed truth it is that God has always had it in His view to exalt Him. Adam’s sin was not the fall of man only, but, through him, of all the lower creation too; for the whole system was ruined when he departed from God. Adam was not a mere individual but a head. All thenceforward depends on the coming in of another Man, the Lord Jesus, Who has won a title, not for Himself to stand, which He did not need, but for us to have a standing in virtue of His blood, and death, and resurrection. The consequence is that for the believer the glory of Christ is saving in character, not destructive except of evil in that day.
But much of bright expectation is practically lost for those who do not dwell upon the coming scene of glory. The distinctive mark is Jehovah reigning in righteousness; and moreover, it is a Man Who thus reigns over the earth, not only a divine person. God will put all things under the Man that died and rose in delivering power, as truly as Adam drew down in his fall the race and creation. The world became a wilderness of thorns and briars; it was the consequence of man’s fall. Do you believe it? Believe also that the Second Man would be defrauded of no small part of His heritage if He did not deliver, not believing man only but creation, and govern it in power and glory. This future reign is necessary to vindicate the faithfulness of God, to manifest the worth of Christ and the results of what He has done, to display His bride along with Him. It is good therefore to look onward to the scene where this blessed Man shall thus reign in righteousness. This would be true apart from our own share with Him, for which we must turn to the New Testament. The prophet’s subject is earth; we belong to heaven. Hence it is the province of the New Testament to reveal the Father’s house and heaven, no longer shut but opened first upon Christ and consequently upon us, that in peace and joy we may approach the presence of God. What a totally different theme from the Old Testament, which brings the earth into prominence as the scene of the reign in righteousness! In the earth it is judicial power that governs. A rod of iron, a sceptre of righteousness, is that by which Jehovah is to break down the pride of the world.
But there are intimations of peace and comfort too. Jehovah is here viewed “as a hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land” (v. 2). The world had long been weary of the effects of sin, if not of sin itself. Now the blessing is come. “And the eyes of them that see shall not be dim, and the ears of them that hear shall hearken. And the heart of the rash shall understand knowledge, and the tongue of the stammerers shall be ready to speak plainly. The vile (or fool) shall no more be called liberal, nor the churl said [to be] bountiful. For the vile person will speak villainy, and his heart will work iniquity, to practice hypocrisy, and to utter error against Jehovah, to make empty the soul of the hungry, and to cause the drink of the thirsty to fail. The instruments also of the churl [are] evil: he deviseth wicked devices to destroy the meek with lying words, even when the needy speaketh right. But the liberal deviseth liberal things; and by liberal things shall he stand” (vv. 3-8).
It is not as you see now, men who appear to have every good natural quality, and yet when tested they have no heart for divine things, love not the name of the Lord Jesus, nor care for His glory. Here it will not be so. Blessing will flow, evil be judged, shame will vanish away. Things and persons will be manifest and bear their true character. Man will then accomplish for the first time on the earth that for which he was made. It is in contrast with all the deceitfulness of unrighteousness that has gone, and still goes, on here below. We know the uncertainty of human judgement, and yet how men cling to and keep up appearances. There will be no vain show then. Good fruits will spring out of the rich resources of divine mercy, and, in the light of God then shining, there will also be the detection of everything that is false. If wickedness appear, the judgement of the Lord will fall upon it. For during the millennium there will be cases demanding vengeance; and God will not fail to deal with wickedness in a summary manner. There will be a solemn public sight of the execution of His wrath continually before men’s eyes (Isa. 66:24) — the more stern in that day, because thenceforth is no temptation to evil. Accordingly, the rebellious objects of God’s curse will be immediately visited, so as to keep up a wholesome horror of iniquity in the hearts of men.
This leads the Spirit of God to give a warning, which will be needed, especially as the blessing of Israel will not be brought about in a single day. There is a coming time of sifting: as we know there will be for Israel in the wilderness, so in Jerusalem too there will be another mode of dealing with the Jews proper. Even when Jehovah appears for their deliverance, it is a mistake to suppose that all is complete at once. Jehovah will gradually put down the enemies round about the Holy Land, and will use Israel as the instrument of certain judgements (Isa. 11; 63; Micah 5; Zech. 9 - 10). He will send forth His armies and deal with the nations in various ways. In His appearing from heaven He does work by His own power. The Jews will have nothing to do with the judgement of the Beast and the false prophet; but He will employ them to put down the then representatives of their old neighbours, who rise up once more in envy against them. He will remember what their forefathers did, and will then definitely deal with them, seeing that they retain and show the same spirit to the last. Thus Jehovah will act thoroughly in righteousness, and Israel will need a warning previous to this judicial period.
“Rise up, ye women that are at ease, hear my voice; ye careless daughters, give ear unto my speech. For days beyond a year shall ye be troubled, ye careless women; for the vintage shall fail, the ingathering shall not come. Tremble, ye women that are at ease; be troubled, ye careless ones; strip you, and make you bare, and gird [sackcloth on [your] loins. They shall smite on the breasts for the pleasant fields, for the fruitful vine. Upon the land of my people shall come up thistles [and] briars: yea, upon all the houses of joy in the joyous city. For the palace shall be deserted; the multitude of the city shall be forsaken; the hill and watch-tower shall be dens for ever, a joy of wild asses, a pasture of flocks; until the Spirit be poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness become a fruitful field, and the fruitful field be counted for a forest. And judgement shall inhabit the wilderness, and righteousness remain in the fruitful field” (vv. 9-16). The allusion is to what precedes Jehovah taking His place and reigning in the land. And all the sorrow is to be until the Spirit is poured down upon them. Then comes the great change in Israel. There is not of course the same dwelling of the Holy Ghost in any sense in the believer as now, for that He has a special dwelling in the church also is manifest. But there will be a suited and large outpouring of the Spirit in that day, as we have seen already. It is a mistake to suppose that Jehovah’s reigning is incompatible with the Spirit’s being thus poured out. He will be poured out very richly then. Now it is more in depth — if we may so speak of a divine person — than in extensiveness. What is not now in breadth is made up otherwise. The Holy Spirit has now baptised into union with Christ on high. Then will be the day for a wide diffusion over all flesh. Now this is only true in principle; and so it is applied from Joel 2:28-32 in Acts 2:16-21, not as if what is now were the full result for all flesh throughout the earth.
The present time on earth is not a manifestation of judicial righteousness. The righteous One was rejected of men. God’s righteousness set Him risen at His right hand and justifies those who believe on Him. Then it will be the King, coming and sitting upon His own throne (not a rejected King exalted on His Father’s): earth will be ordered righteously. In incomparable grace our Lord Jesus puts aside for the time His earthly Jewish titles, and God’s heavenly counsels are accomplished and revealed while He is above. The Father has seated Him at His right hand and said, as it were, “You shall reign; only, till You are seated on Your own throne, come and sit with Me on Mine.” Before Christ comes from heaven, the Jews (at least a remnant of them) will have welcomed Him in their hearts. Then He will come, where they are, to bless them in the earth, to govern them, and accomplish in the children the promises that were made to their fathers, and this for all the families of the earth.
Accordingly, when the Christians are taken from this world at Christ’s coming, the Jews will in due time be converted, so as to be the earthly people of Jehovah, Who will make good in their midst earthly glory according to the prophets; and not this only, but the Holy Ghost will be poured out upon them. The great earthly change is consequent on the effusion of the Spirit from on high. Isaiah speaks of thorns and briars until the Spirit be poured upon Israel. Instead of all being in its appropriate order, everything will need to be restored round the only due centre. All as regards the earth and the Jews is now in confusion and misrule; but the Spirit shall be poured on them from on high, and then what a change! Thus, besides the removal of Satan, there are two things necessary to bring in this time of blessing — the King reigning in righteousness, and the outpouring of spiritual power, specially among the Jews, but also on the Gentiles. In nothing will God fail.
Then shall “the wilderness be a fruitful field, and the fruitful field be counted for a forest.” “Then judgement shall inhabit the wilderness”: instead of its being the resort of robbers, judgement shall dwell there. Instead of covetousness hankering after the fruitful field, righteousness is to remain there. “And the work of righteousness shall be peace, and the effect of righteousness, quietness and confidence for ever” (v. 17). Ends and ways shall be righteous: all is governed with blessing. “And my people shall dwell in a peaceable habitation, and in sure dwellings, and in quiet resting-places. And it shall hail, coming down on the forest; and the city shall be low in a low place” (vv. 18, 19). The proud organisation of human order, wit, and power, shall be utterly abased in that day. Not the peaceful influence of grace shall effect it, but solemn judgement by the Righteous One. Nevertheless then as now there is every incentive, the right and best encouragement to earnest and free dispersion of the good seed; and grace will bless and use what was once common or unclean. “Blessed [are] ye that sow beside all waters, that send forth [thither] the-feet of the ox and the ass” (v. 20). God’s people shall be sheltered and prosper in peace, whatever befall His enemies. For them assured blessing takes the place of fear and evil. The Seed of the woman triumphs, and the serpent is smitten. Heaven and earth and all things are set under Him Who is worthy.
The Spirit of God, having given us a blessed picture of the King-Messiah reigning in righteousness, here contrasts with it a certain spoiler who is not expressly named by our prophet. But we need not find much difficulty in identifying him, if we remember the last prophecy of Ezekiel that describes a hostile Gentile power. It is remarkable that he there describes Gog as one who had been predicted before. Hence it is certain that this marauding power is not peculiar to the later prophet, who tells us in Isa. 38:8-13, “After many days thou shalt be visited . . . at the same time shall things come into thy mind, and thou shalt think an evil thought, and thou shalt say, I will go up to the land of unwalled villages; I will come to them that are at rest, that dwell safely, all of them dwelling without walls, and having neither bars nor gates, to seize a spoil, and to take a prey; to turn thy hand upon the desolate places that are now inhabited, and upon a people that are gathered out of the nations, which have gotten cattle and goods, that dwell in the midst of the land. Sheba, and Dedan, and the merchants of Tarshish, with all the young lions thereof, shall say unto thee, Art thou come to seize a spoil? hast thou gathered thy company to take a prey? to carry away silver and gold, to take away cattle and goods, to take a great spoil?” The next chapter comes in to show in detail that, if there be that which might seem inconsistent with their security, if God permits that there should be a dark cloud gathering for a while over Palestine, it at length falls on their foes themselves, not on Israel. This appears to be the same enemy who is here introduced by Isaiah. It is the last effort of the great coalition against Israel, which leads to the overwhelming destruction of the assembled nations, especially of the East. Then Israel will help themselves to their arms; and their mere burial will occupy the conquerors, still more the spoiling of their arms and appurtenances.
One need not doubt that the policy of the Assyrian, or king of the north, at the end is thus described. Gog will presumably have then accomplished his long-cherished designs on Constantinople and the Turkish empire in its chief dominions. Now “the Assyrian” is a familiar subject of prophecy. This may account for the statement that they were known before. There must clearly have been predictions of him previously to Ezekiel’s time, though some may have prophesied things not committed to writing.
By the way, some have been too anxious to show that the apostles never wrote anything but what we have got. It is quite enough to know that all intended to be of permanent use to the church and for God’s glory is preserved. Certainly apostles taught (2 Thess. 2:15), and it is possible they may have written, things which were not meant of God to be preserved as part of the scriptures. But there is a character of perfectness about what we have, which to my mind precludes more. That this is not at all an exorbitant idea is evident from the fact that the apostles preached many discourses that are not recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Of course we have only a very small part of what the apostles preached, as the evangelists were led only to select from what our Lord did. To have added more would have been rather to encumber scripture. Had more communications even of the apostles been added, it would have marred the perfectness of God’s written word. We must have confidence in Him. He manifested His will in that all, which He designed for the permanent instruction of the church, was kept by His power in the midst of thousands and myriads of enemies who would have gladly destroyed the scriptures if they could. Never more in Christendom has this dislike of the word of God betrayed itself than now. But the efforts of the enemy only bring out God’s power, wisdom, and goodness for all who love Him, as they will to the ruin of those who hate and despise Him.
To return, however: it is only Isaiah 33 which plainly connects itself in character with the northern leader of Ezekiel, unless we identify the Assyrian also with that power, which seems perhaps within certain limits to be true at the close. However that may be, the moral traits of this foe are sufficiently plain. “Woe to thee that spoilest, and thou [wast] not spoiled; and dealest treacherously, and they dealt not treacherously with thee! when thou shalt cease to spoil, thou shalt be spoiled; when thou shalt make an end to deal treacherously, they shall deal treacherously with thee” (v. 1). This covetous foe appears to be the last which comes up, and so far distinct from “the king of the north,” which title is not limited to the end. But assuredly it is a ruler of the same sort, insatiable and treacherous.
The Spirit now draws out the prophet, as personifying the godly in Israel, to supplicate, “Jehovah, be gracious unto us; we have waited for thee: be their arm every morning, our salvation also in the time of trouble. At the noise of the tumult the peoples fled; at the lifting up of thyself the nations were scattered. And your spoil shall be gathered [like] the gathering of the caterpillar: as the running of locusts shall they run upon them (or, it)” (vv. 2 4). How blessed to have Jehovah as the arm to lean on and do valiantly for us! How complete the reversal when the proud and countless foes yield their spoil to be gathered like that of the caterpillars or locusts! It is Jehovah’s doing, and may well be marvellous in our eyes. “Jehovah is exalted, for he dwelleth on high; he hath filled Zion with judgement and righteousness. And the riches of salvation, wisdom, and knowledge shall be the stability of thy times: the fear of Jehovah [shall be] his treasure” (vv. 5, 6). Thus Jehovah Himself has taken them in hand, and all becomes a spoil for Israel, and their proud hopes are blasted for ever. Note that at this very time Zion shall be filled with righteousness and judgement. The doom which swallowed up the Beast and the false prophet, with the chivalry of Europe, is a lesson heard in vain. Blinded by superstition as well as the lust of universal empire, Gog dreams of destroying Israel, not believing in the presence of Christ, or thinking Him a mere human king. Thus they too will come to their own destruction.
The next verses portray the straits of the people of God and their despair before deliverance appears; nor is danger ever apt to be more felt than when blessing, that seemed to be ours, is once more in jeopardy. “Behold, their valiant ones shall cry without; the ambassadors of peace shall weep bitterly. The highways lie waste, the wayfaring man ceaseth. He hath broken the covenant, he hath despised the cities, he regardeth no man. The land mourneth, it languisheth; Lebanon is ashamed, is withered, the Sharon is become as a wilderness, and Bashan and Carmel are stripped” (vv. 7-9). But man’s extremity is God’s opportunity, as they say; and so will the Jews then prove. “Now will I arise, saith Jehovah; now will I be exalted; now will I lift up myself” (v. 10). Had He chastened His people sore, and should the insolent foe be unpunished? “Ye shall conceive chaff, ye shall bring forth stubble; your breath [as] fire shall devour [not Israel, but] you, and the peoples shall be [as] the burnings of lime; [as] thorns cut up shall they be burned in the fire” (vv. 11, 12). It is Jehovah Who undertakes to dispose of their enemies and thus addresses them. Lime may be hard, but fire ere long reduces it to powder; and thorns, let them be ever so troublesome to those with whom they come into collision, are notorious, when cut up, for burning with singular rapidity.
Next, attention is drawn (v. 13) to the notable display of God’s ways, as well as to the effects of these trials in showing out the true character of men even in Zion. “Hear, ye [that are] far off, what I have done; and ye [that are] near, acknowledge my might,” followed by the most animated description of the alarm of the ungodly, and of the divine assurances to those that fear His name and walk in righteousness. “The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites. Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings? He that walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of oppressions, that shaketh his hands from taking hold of bribes, that stoppeth his ears from hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from seeing evil: he shall dwell on high, his high retreat [shall be] the fortresses of the rocks; bread shall be given him; his waters [shall be] sure” (vv. 14-16).
Then follows (vv. 17-22) a sublime picture of Israel in their conscious blessedness. They should behold the King in His beauty, no longer cooped up within the beleaguered city, but free to look at the most distant part of the land or the earth. Their hearts should meditate on terror, now happily and for ever past; but then it is the more sweet to look back and think of the never-to-be-forgotten rescue, when every expert failed in his calculations, the scribe, or the receiver. The wisest were at fault — at fault in counting up human resources, as if they could avail — at fault in overlooking the only sure Deliverer, though He be not far from every one of us. On the other hand they should see no more and hear no more the foreign foe, but look upon Zion, the Mount Zion, which Jehovah loved. “Thine eyes shall see the king in his beauty: they shall behold a far stretching land. Thy heart shall muse on the terror: where [is] he that counted, where [is] he that weighed [the tribute? where [is] he that counted the towers? Thou shalt no more see the fierce people, a people of a deeper speech than thou canst perceive, of a stammering tongue that cannot be understood. Look upon Zion, the city of our solemnities: thine eyes shall see Jerusalem a quiet habitation, a tent [that] shall not be removed, the stakes whereof shall never be plucked up, neither shall any of the cords thereof be broken. But there Jehovah [will be] with us in majesty, a place of rivers, of broad streams; wherein shall go no galley with oars, neither shall gallant ship pass thereby. For Jehovah [is] our judge, Jehovah [is] our lawgiver, Jehovah his] our King; he will save us” (vv. 17-22).
Is it not utterly vain to apply words like these to the days of Hezekiah with some ancients and of the Maccabees with others, or to gospel times with thoughtless moderns? Even supposing that the rest of the circumstances of the Jews at either of these epochs approached the strength of the prophet’s language, which is not at all admitted, who, in the face of approaching captivity, of a continual servitude to the Gentile powers, of a still more calamitous dispersion under the Romans, the effects of which last to this day — who can affirm that Jerusalem has been seen a quiet habitation, a tabernacle that shall not be taken down? How can one hitherto apply to that city, yet trodden down of the Gentiles, the precise and most precious declaration, “Not one of the stakes thereof shall ever be pulled up, neither shall any of its cords be broken”?
Let in the light of the future for that people and place, and all is changed: the difficulty is at an end, and no wonder; for indeed “there Jehovah is unto us glorious; a place of rivers, of broad streams.” And thus there is not the smallest necessity for dislocating the prophecy from all connection with its historic basis, or diverting its consolations from those whose sorrows it was given to assuage and dispel in proportion to their simplicity or strength of faith. No, whatever of comfort we justly glean, whatever hopes of future triumph from its bright anticipations we may gather, let us rejoice that God is here speaking of afflicted tempest-tossed Israel, who in that day will find in Jesus of Nazareth their long-estranged Lord Jehovah of hosts, Who will prove Himself to be a better safeguard than those rivers and streams, of which Babylon or Nineveh might boast against Jerusalem. But even a river has its dangers as well as its beauty, facilities, and sources of protection: so both these cities proved in opposite ways to their cost. Jerusalem has all these privileges without the perils, has incomparably more, in Jehovah. What if no galley with oars went there, what if no gallant ship passed by, will not Jehovah be their judge, Jehovah their lawgiver, Jehovah their king, and so save them pre-eminently of all nations on the earth? And why should we weaken their claim to advance our own — we who are called into heavenly seats of glory, the object of the Saviour’s love as His bride on high?
To Jerusalem the King then will be their delight and boast and tower of strength. Had not the mightiest of old been broken when but a typical son of David was there, looking onward to Him Who will surely reign in Zion ere long? And what will it be when the Assyrian in his last phase — when Gog — essays to take Zion at the close of this age? “Thy tacklings are loosed; they could not strengthen the socket of their mast; they could not spread the sail: then was the prey of a great spoil divided; the lame took the prey.” The triumph of Israel is complete, and the more so because it is Jehovah’s hand for them, more than their own. “And the inhabitant shall not say, I am sick; the people that dwell therein [shall be] forgiven [their] iniquity” (vv. 23, 24). Happy the people that is in such a case: yea, happy is that people, whose God is Jehovah! Thrice happy are they who now can rejoice in Israel’s prospect, conscious themselves of a still higher portion in Christ, and in a still better country, that is, a heavenly! May we be content meanwhile to share His rejection, glorying in His cross, not as in an idol or vanity, but by faith graven on our hearts, and therefore proving it by the Spirit in our ways, each crucified to the world and the world crucified to each! For if we be dead together, we shall also live together; if we suffer, we shall also reign together. He that is joined to the Lord is one spirit.
The Spirit of God has in chapter 34 brought together the earthly extremes of unsparing judgement and of unmingled mercy; these things in two races naturally akin, but so much the more manifesting their divergence and the divine dealing with each from beginning to end. These nations, so judged and so blessed, sprang from the same stock, from the same father, from the same mother, and branched out into twin brothers, Esau on the one hand and Jacob on the other. The land of Idumea is the centre of the one picture, as of the other is Zion. The proud elder must serve the younger. There was from their birth, and before it, we may say, in antecedent revelation, much to strike the mind in these sons of Isaac and Rebecca, much that would cleave to their posterity till His coming Who will not only judge righteously the past but impress the future with the signs and substance of His own glorious presence.
Yet the early history seemed little to answer either to prophecy or to its fulfilment. “Duke Teman, duke Omar, duke Kenaz” (Gen. 36) and their successors, flourished in the land of Edom, while the sons of Israel were strangers in a land that was not theirs, and ere long proving it a furnace of affliction in bitter bondage. But so it ever is: “that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual.” If God’s people hope for that they see not, they must “with patience wait for it.” He Who is sovereign allows that the flesh should show its character to the utmost, save where special mercy interferes to arrest and restrain because of other wise and gracious purposes. But His mercy it is, shown of His own good pleasure, which roused to madness the unbending arrogance of Edom, who never looked to God with a broken spirit even in his deepest need.
On the other hand it was no small moral test for the sons of Israel, that, spite of the divine promises to them, Esau’s descendants should be long settled in peaceful enjoyment as lords of their soil, while Jacob and his seed were sojourners on sufferance, soon to be slaves — and slaves for a long while — in the land of Ham. Half the space that separated the promise from their triumphant exodus saw them a mere family group; and if they afterwards shot up rapidly into a people, it was in circumstances of increasing oppression and degradation. This was no small trial of faith, whether they looked on this side of the picture or on that. Esau had been long established in power and peace and plenty, while Israel lay among the pots of Egypt, and the accursed race of Canaan ruled in their land. And the Bible contains, in the same books the promise and the trial which early appearances made for faith, presenting all calmly as the word of One Who sees the end from the beginning, Who therefore needs no apologies, puts forward few explanations, but claims the confidence of His children, who know Him Whom they have believed, and are persuaded that He is able to keep against that day the deposit they have entrusted to Him. Scripture does not in a demonstrative way force the truth of God upon His people; on the contrary great simplicity of faith is demanded that we receive it unhesitatingly, trusting God in spite of appearances for the present and delays for the future.
Had you looked more closely and spiritually into Jacob’s life, you might have expected long discipline; even as he, their father, was seen lying on his pillow of stone, and Jehovah held out the vision of glory before him. This might have prepared for the thought of trial first, then of gracious blessing. So, later, there was first the crushing of all natural hopes, and then the name of victory conferred (Gen. 32:28). Thus what we have in Jacob’s early history prepares one for the vicissitudes of his sons. He was a poor trembling man, with plenty of faults shrinking from the presence of his brother, in whom might appear much that was attractive naturally. But God saw under it all that the flesh is a false and proud thing — enmity with God, Who allowed that the worst should show out in him, the despiser of his birthright, its real character. Present things were his life; hence profane unbelief and slight of the things of God. All this and more came out prominently in Esau, as they were to be verified in his race. If Gentiles, at any rate they had a blood relation with the people of God. But their very connection with them, though a sort of transition between Israel and the nations around, was the occasion of envious enmity and ruin. They were to prove that it was not only an Egypt and a Pharaoh who were raised up for God to manifest His judgement upon, but that God would do just the same to the sons of Esau, and that Esau’s flesh would betray the bitterest defiance of God and His people.
The great northern enemy of Isa. 33 seems to be historically latest; but morally, the account of Edom’s judgement is kept for the last, perhaps as being so near to Israel by nature. After that great enemy, the Assyrian, is destroyed, we hear of Edom’s doom decided. The reader also may compare the intimation of Ps. 83:6-8. When God was dealing with Israel in blessing or chastisement we have Edom disputing the right of God to bless His people, and taking delight in their shame and sorrow. God resents such spite. And was it not in his race that despised the birthright? This, no doubt, accomplished the purpose of God; but then He admirably makes His end to agree with His word and means. Though a question of His own sovereignty, yet this goes hand in hand with His righteous ways. Jacob was chosen and Esau rejected; but God brought out at the critical time that there was also the seal of righteousness. Certainly Esau deserved to be cast off by God, though Jacob justly traces everything to His mercy and grace. Thus the transgression of selling his birthright confirms what God had already given out as a question of His own disposal. Esau showed that he set no value on his birthright, present existence being dearer to him than any blessing of God. Jacob was utterly wrong in following his mother’s deceitful plan to hinder Isaac’s wish and secure the promise. He ought to have waited in peace and confidence, expecting God to make good His own word. But weak as he was, quite wrong more than once, yet one thing you do find in Jacob, not in Esau — a heart for God, a faith that valued the promises of God. He might be apt to drop into his old craft, and to form plans for himself, for he was indeed “that worm Jacob,” as scripture calls him; but still at bottom there was a purpose that clave to God and His word. So when the struggle came, when God wrestled with His servant, there was nature that needed to be withered up, lest he should suppose that because of any vigour of his own he prevailed. Still on blessing from God he was set, and would not desist till he had the assurance of it. If flesh was there to be judged, surely divine faith was very manifest. Hence Jacob becomes far brighter towards the close, when the flesh was practically set aside.
So with Israel. Though there will be the chastening of their unfaithfulness, yet the day will come when the nations are fully judged, not borne with; and how will it then fare with Edom? When Israel was in the wilderness, Esau stopped their way. The power of God could have smitten him down (as He had determined long before); but the time was not yet come. So Israel struck not a blow upon their guilty brother, but rather turned back like a rebuked child. Ah! it was the token in its patience that a still more tremendous judgement was in store for Edom; for there is nothing so ominous as when God takes patiently the iniquity of men. If there be remonstrance, it shows there is, as it were, a hope; but if all be borne silently, it is the solemn sign of judgement that will fall as surely as it lingers. Blessed as it is for those who walk in grace, there is perhaps no more evident a token of perdition to the world than the saints passing through it without lifting a finger in their own defence, or on God’s behalf. Alas! we know that the church has failed in this, as Israel after their sort. But their path through the wilderness was a type of the journey of faith in grace, the earthly people and things being the shadow of the heavenly.
Possibly there may have been a preliminary judgement at the time of Nebuchadnezzar’s onslaught on the Jews. One might judge from the Psalms (see especially Ps. 137, “Remember, O Jehovah, the children of Edom”) that there is a connection between that and Edom; that is, there may have been a partial accomplishment in the days of Nebuchadnezzar. For though on his coming up against Jerusalem, the Edomites helped him to destroy the Jews more effectually, they themselves were not spared by the conquerors. In Ps. 83 we find connected with Edom the Assyrian, the great enemy of the ten tribes as we have seen; with Babylon the conqueror of the two. “Keep not thou silence, O God . . . They have taken crafty counsel against thy people . . . Let us cut them off.” All confirms what has been already remarked. In the confederacy against Israel figure “the tabernacles of Edom.” It is the first power mentioned, of course not as the mightiest, but as setting on the others to Israel’s ruin. Being neighbours, they would have a better knowledge of the people and their land, and so be the more dangerous, besides the moral bearing of the case. There are also the Philistines, Tyre, and the various peoples that lived near the sea coast, as well as round about Idumea and the contiguous regions. Then we find the great power of Asshur mentioned as having joined them. So the Spirit of God classes Edom with Israel’s final adversaries, as He had done already by Moses and Joshua with their earliest. There is an evident connection between their rise and the gradual course of their history through scripture. Now at the close we find distinct prophecies applying to Edom. “They are confederate against thee” (v. 5). All their covenants God will break up before the judgement falls upon Esau. They may have joined themselves unto Asshur; but that great power, like the lesser ones, will be directed against God’s people in vain, great and small alike hostile, uniting to aim a more effectual blow at Israel, but only to the destruction of themselves .
God, we may see, always goes back to the beginning when He judges. In the time of the Babylonish captivity, why did He judge Israel? He looks at what they did in the wilderness. It was because of Moloch and Chiun (Amos 5:26). They had learnt to worship their images in the wilderness, and therefore should be carried captive beyond Damascus. God, when the time of judgement comes, traces up to the root of evil. So our wisdom as Christians, when we fail, is to go back to our first departure. We never get right by merely judging this or that outbreak, but should always search out the cause. We do not else gather-needed strength, nor is any sin rightly judged by merely judging the manifested effects; but we must probe into the hidden sources of the mischief. It is not enough to judge our acts; judging self is a very different process. We need to discern the springs within ourselves. If we discerned ourselves, we should not be judged. It does not mean pronouncing judgement upon any particular fault, but judging the real cause and not occasions merely. Such is the Christian way of judging. It is not occupation with the surface, but with that which is underneath, the hardly seen roots of the acts which any can see.
With unerring wisdom then God goes back to what Esau did from the beginning of his history. He had waited long and patiently, nearly a thousand years, and now shows His perfect knowledge of the course and end; but when the end does come, God invariably traces all up to the beginning.
We need not dwell on all the dark account. The full stroke of judgement comes upon the Edomites in the day of Jehovah. Here, though the scene be laid in Idumea, it is a question of all the heathen. This is referred to here. “Come near, ye nations, to hear; and hearken, ye peoples: let the earth hear, and the fullness thereof; the world, and all that cometh forth of it. For the indignation of Jehovah [is] upon all the nations, and fury against all their armies; he hath devoted them to destruction, he hath delivered them to the slaughter. Their slain also shall be cast out, and their stink shall come up from their carcasses, and the mountains shall be melted with their blood. And all the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll: and all their host shall fall away, as a leaf fadeth from off the vine, and as the withered [fruit] from the fig-tree. For my sword shall be bathed in the heavens; behold, it shall come down upon Edom, and upon the people of my ban, to judgement. The sword of Jehovah is filled with blood, it is made fat with fatness, with the blood of lambs and goats, with the fat of the kidneys of rams; for Jehovah hath a sacrifice in Bozrah, and a great slaughter in the land of Edom” (vv. 1-6). The day of the calamity of His people! If there be anything He repeats over and over again, it is the day of their calamity. (Compare Obadiah 11-14). He means blessing, and there is nothing that more rouses His judgement than, when through their sin deep sorrow falls and strikes their hearts, men should then take advantage of this to behave themselves proudly against them. There was never a truer picture of the spirit of man than at this very time, unless it be the feeling of Christendom towards those who are seeking to walk in the way that is pleasing to God. If failure is known that fills such with shame, is it not used to wrong them, or to speak evil against them? This was the feeling of Edom; so that we may see how true these principles of God are, and how solemn it is for us to realise the duty that becomes us at the present time.
“And the wild-oxen shall come down with them, and the bullocks with the bulls; and their land shall be drunken with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness. For [it is] the day of Jehovah’s vengeance, the year of recompenses for the controversy of Zion. And the streams thereof shall be turned into pitch, and the dust thereof into brimstone, and the land thereof shall become burning pitch. It shall not be quenched night and day; the smoke thereof shall go up for ever: from generation to generation it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it for ever and ever. But the pelican and the porcupine shall possess it; and the owl (or, bittern) and the raven shall dwell therein. And he shall stretch over it the line of confusion, and the plummet of emptiness. They shall call the nobles thereof to the kingdom, but none [shall be] there; and all her princes shall be nothing. And thorns shall come up in her palaces, nettles and thistles in the fortresses thereof; and it shall be a habitation of jackals, a court for ostriches. And the wild beasts of the desert shall meet with the wolves, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; yea, the night-monster shall settle there, and shall find her a place of rest. There shall the arrowsnake make her nest, and lay, and hatch, and gather under her shadow: yea, there shall the kites be gathered, every one with her mate. Seek ye out of the book of Jehovah and read: not one of these shall be missing, none shall want her mate; for my mouth, it hath commanded, and his spirit, it hath gathered them And he hath cast the lot for them, and his hand hath divided it unto them by line: they shall possess it for ever, from generation to generation shall they dwell therein” (vv. 7-17). There will be one destruction upon the mountains of Israel, but another special carnage in Edom. It is important to bear in mind that this is a future judgement: if any one were to apply it rigorously and in all its extent to the times of Nebuchadnezzar, confusion must result, perverting either scripture or the facts. The contrary rather was seen then. The nations had it all their own way. There was no such thing as God having a great sacrifice of all nations, though treacherous Edom suffered. The real fulfilment will be at the end of the age, though even then will be merely a tremendous convulsion of nature: the total dissolution of heaven and earth will be at the end of the millennium. The Spirit of God in a measure puts the scenes together here.
In singular and striking conjunction with this terrible picture of the vast solitude for man, consigned as it were only to ravenous beasts and birds of prey and reptiles, God thereon shows that the day which beholds this desolation for Edom inaugurates Israel’s blessing. Nor is it only Israel rejoicing, but Jehovah will form a large and enlarging scene for His own glory, where erst was misery and barrenness. “The wilderness and the parched land shall be gladdened;21 and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose (or, narcissus). It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing: the glory of Lebanon shall be given unto it, the excellency of Carmel and Sharon: they shall see the glory of Jehovah, and the excellency of our God” (vv. 1, 2). It is not mere fertility, but the restitution of all things when the day is come on earth: every joy, fruitfulness, and beauty. How singularly blinding is the theological prejudice which the pious J. A. Alexander expresses, when he says (Comm. ii. 34) that without any change of its essential meaning, it may be applied to the restoration of the Jews from Babylon, to the vocation of the Gentiles, to the whole Christian dispensation, to the course of every individual believer, and to the blessedness of heaven. As it has been so applied, certainly it may; but the question is, what is its definite meaning? The chapter before gives the awful judgement that awaits the earth in one aspect of it; so does this the deliverance of creation, and especially of Israel that follows, “in that day.”
And assuredly man’s deeper wants are not forgotten. “Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the tottering knees. Say to them [that are] of a fearful (hasty) heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God! vengeance will come, of God the recompense! He will come himself and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf be unstopped. Then shall the lame [man] leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert. And the glowing sand (or, mirage) shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water: in the habitation of jackals, where they lay, [shall be] grass with reeds and rushes. And a highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called, The way of holiness: the unclean shall not pass over it; but it [shall be] for these. They that go the way, even fools, shall not err [therein]. No lion shall be there, nor shall ravenous beast go up thereon nor be found there; but the redeemed shall walk [there]. And the ransomed of Jehovah shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (vv. 3-10).
God will then and thus demonstrate that, whatever Satan had brought of sin and woe into this world, goodness and mercy are His own delight. Such is the time that is coming for the earth, though an awful storm ushers it in. While all evil came through sin, and there is not an atom of the lower creation that does not bear some trace of Adam’s fall, there will surely come the day of the Lord, the last Adam. It seems plain however, that in the world to come judgement will leave its effectual mark. On the land of Edom the destruction will be unsparing, and that land will be left as a sear upon the face of the earth. It is not said that Edom will be the only one, for Rome also will be proved to he the vile corruptress, as in Paganism so in Christendom and in Antichristendom. But when the proud lie of the “eternal city” is punished for ever, then the poor and despised Jew comes forward, as it is said here. Divine vengeance on the enemies accompanies their salvation. Take all its fullness of meaning: it will be accomplished to the letter. God will prove that not a word of His mercy to Israel and their land can fall to the ground.
Indeed the mighty and blessed transformation which the Lord will then cause for the lower creation is but part of the still grander prospect which the reconciliation of all things opens (Col. 1:20); when the things in the heavens and the things on the earth, even the universe, shall be headed up in the Christ, the Heir of all things (Eph. 1:10) and the Head over all to His body the church. But here it was enough to give the earthly side of glory. It is the common point where, we may say, the bright visions of all the prophets meet. How astonishing that any Christian should fail to see what is so fully attested and so plain! It is painful that pious men in our land or any other should be behind Hengstenberg and the like, who own the change in the lower creation that is to accompany and characterise Messiah’s reign. The geologic ages do not touch the question. In Rom. 8:18-21 is apostolic dogma, which resists all such efforts of unbelief. And Christ’s death, so far from being exhausted in reconciling all saints to God will assuredly reconcile all things in heaven and on earth, as Col. 1:20 affirms. Prophecy, therefore, is in no collision but in perfect harmony with Christian doctrine. It is popular theology which opposes itself to God’s word through inattention and prejudice and tradition. It is irrational to talk of a fulfilment gradually growing more complete in life, but perfected only when probation is over. Scripture reserves the mighty change for the appearing of the Lords when we are manifested with Him in glory. Then at once, but not till then, shall the creation be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God.
It is equally erroneous to deny heaven for the risen saints “in that day,” and to deny the change which God intends for Israel and the nations, and the earth itself and the creatures generally on it. If the fall be believed (and what more unblushing incredulity than to doubt it?), what joy to look onward to the glory of the Lord below as well as above! He is the Heir, as He was Creator, of all things; and were the least and lowest of His creatures excepted from the beneficent reach of His power, so far should He be defrauded of what is due to His name, and to His reconciliation which has no limit. Those only must be banished from the presence of His glory who persistently reject Him, yet even so they shall bitterly and for ever bemoan their rebellious folly. For “in virtue of the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, of [beings] heavenly and earthly and infernal, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to God the Father’s glory” (Phil. 2:10, 11).
21 The ancient versions do not express the final, which the Authorised Version treats as a suffix, and renders “for them.” Some refer this to the noxious animals before named others to the judgements threatened, as others again to the returning exiles Many moderns agree with the ancients.