By John Lord.
To understand the mission of Isaiah, one should be familiar with the history of the kingdom of Judah from the time of Jeroboam, founder of the separate kingdom of Israel, to that of Uzziah, in whose reign Isaiah was born, 760 B.C.
Judah had doubtless degenerated in virtue and spiritual life, but this degeneracy was not so marked as that of the northern kingdom,--called Israel. Judah had been favored by a succession of kings, most of whom were able and good men. Out of nine kings, five of them "did right in the sight of the Lord;" and during the two hundred and sixteen years when these monarchs reigned, one hundred and eighty-seven were years when the worship of Jehovah was maintained by virtuous princes, all of whom were of the house of David. The reigns of those kings who did evil in the sight of the Lord were short.
During this period there were nineteen kings of Israel, most of whom did evil. They introduced idolatry; many of them were usurpers, and died violent deaths. If the northern kingdom was larger and more fertile than the southern, it was more afflicted with disastrous wars and divine judgments for the sins into which it had fallen. It was to the wicked kings of Israel, throned in the Samarian Shechem, that Elijah and Elisha were sent; and the interest we feel in their reigns is chiefly directed to the acts and sayings of those two great prophets.
The kingdom of Judah, blessed on the whole with virtuous rulers, and comparatively free from idolatry, continually increased in wealth and political power. Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, after the rebellion of the ten tribes, seems to have changed somewhat his course of life, although the high places and graven images were not removed; but his grandson Asa destroyed the idols, and made fortunate alliances. Asa's son Jehoshaphat terminated the civil wars that had raged between Judah and Israel from the accession of Rehoboam, and almost rivalled Solomon in his outward prosperity. Jerusalem became the strongest fortress in western Asia; the Temple service was continued in its former splendor; all that was vital in the strength of nations pertained to the smaller kingdom. The dark spot in the history of Judah for nearly two hundred years was the ascendency gained by Athaliah, the daughter of Jezebel, over her husband Jehoram, who introduced the gods of Phoenicia. She seems to have exercised the same malign influence in Jerusalem that Jezebel did in Samaria, and was as unscrupulous as her pagan mother. She even succeeded in usurping the throne, and in destroying the whole race of David, with the exception of Joash, an infant, whom Jehoiada the high-priest contrived to hide until the unscrupulous Athaliah was slain, having reigned as queen six years,--the first instance in Jewish history of a female sovereign.
Both Judah and Israel in these years had the danger of a Syrian war constantly threatening them. Under Hazael, who reigned at Damascus, great conquests were made by the Syrians of Jewish territory, and the capture of Jerusalem was averted only by buying off the enemy, to whom were surrendered the gifts to the Temple accumulating since the days of Jehoshaphat. The whole land was overrun and pillaged. Nor were calamities confined to the miseries of war. A long drouth burned the fields; seed rotted under the clods; the cattle moaned in the barren and dried-up pastures; while locusts devoured what the drouth had spared. Says Stanley: "The purple vine, the green fig-tree, the gray olive, the scarlet pomegranate, the golden corn, the waving palm, the fragrant citron, vanished before them, and the trunks and branches were left bare and white by their devouring teeth,"--a brilliant sentence, by the way, which Geikie quotes without acknowledgment, as well as many others, which lays him open to the charge of plagiarism. Both Stanley and Geikie, however, seem to be indebted to Ewald for all that is striking and original in their histories,--so true is Solomon's saying that there is nothing new under the sun. The rarest thing in literature is a truly original history.
In this mournful crisis the prophet Joel, who was a priest at Jerusalem, demanded a solemn fast, which the entire kingdom devoutly celebrated, the whole body of the priests crying aloud before the gates of the Temple, "Spare Thy people, O Lord! give not Thine heritage to reproach, lest the heathen make us a by-word, and ask, Where is now thy God?" But Joel, the oldest, and in many respects the most eloquent, Hebrew prophet whose utterances have come down to us, did not speak in vain, and a great religious revival followed, attended naturally by renewed prosperity,--for among the Jews a "revival of religion" meant a practical return from vice to virtue, personal holiness, and the just and wholesome requirements of their law; so that "under Amaziah, Uzziah, and Jotham, Judah rose once more to a pitch of honor and glory which almost recalled the golden age of David."
A greater power than that of Syria threatened the peace and welfare of the kingdom of Judah, as it also did that of Israel; and this was the empire of Assyria. During the reigns of David and Solomon this empire was passing through so many disasters that it was not regarded as dangerous, and both of the Jewish kingdoms were left free to avail themselves of every facility afforded for national development. Ewald notices emphatically this outward prosperity, which introduced luxury and pride throughout the kingdom. It was the golden age of merchants, usurers, and money-mongers. Then appeared that extraordinary greed for riches which never afterward left the nation, even in seasons of calamity, and which is the most striking peculiarity of the modern Hebrew. This was a period not only of prosperity and luxury, but of vanity and ostentation, especially among women. The insidious influences of wealth more than balanced the good effected by a long succession of virtuous and gifted princes. I read of no country that, on the whole, was ever favored by a more remarkable constellation of absolute kings than that of Judah. Most of them had long reigns, took prophets and wise men for their counsellors, developed the resources of their kingdoms, strengthened Jerusalem, avoided entangling wars, and enjoyed the love and veneration of the people. Most of them, unlike the kings of Israel, were true to their exalted mission, were loyal to Jehovah, and discouraged idolatry, if they did not root out the scandal by persecuting violence. Some of these kings were poets, and others were saints, like their great ancestor David; and yet, in spite of all their efforts, corruption, and infidelity gained ground, and ultimately undermined the state and prepared the way for Babylonian conquests. Though Jerusalem survived the fall of Samaria for nearly five generations, divine judgment was delayed, but not withdrawn. The chastisement was sent at last at the hands of warriors whom no nation could successfully resist.
The old enemies who had in the early days overwhelmed the Hebrews with calamities under the Judges had been conquered by Saul and David,--the Moabites, the Edomites, the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Philistines,--and they never afterward seriously menaced the kingdom, although there were occasional wars. But in the eighth century before Christ the Assyrian empire, whose capital was Nineveh, had become very formidable under warlike sovereigns, who aimed to extend their dominion to the Mediterranean and to Egypt. In the reign of Jehoash, the son of Athaliah, an Assyrian monarch had exacted tribute from Tyre and Sidon, and Syria was overrun. When Pul, or Tiglath-pileser, seized the throne of Nineveh, he pushed his conquests to the Caspian Sea on the north and the Indus on the east, to the frontier of Egypt and the deserts of Sinai on the west and south. In 739 B.C. he appeared in Syria to break up a confederation which Uzziah of Judah had formed to resist him, and succeeded in destroying the power of Syria, and carrying its people as captives to Assyria. Menahem, king of Samaria, submitted to the enormous tribute of one thousand talents of silver. In 733 B.C. this great conqueror again invaded Syria, beheaded Rezin its king, took Damascus, reduced five hundred and eighteen cities and towns to ashes, and carried back to Nineveh an immense spoil. In 728 B.C. Shalmanezer IV. appeared in Palestine, and invested Samaria. The city made an heroic defence; but after a siege of three years it yielded to Sargon, who carried away into captivity the ten tribes of Israel, from which they never returned.
Judah survived by reason of its greater military skill and its strong fortresses, with which Asa, Jehoshaphat, and Uzziah had fortified the country, especially Jerusalem. But the fate of western Asia was sealed when Rezin of Damascus, Menahem of Samaria, Hiram of Tyre, and the king of Hamath moodily consented to pay tribute to the king of Assyria; the downfall of the sturdy Judah was in preparation.
Greater evils than those of war threatened the stability of the state. In Judah as in Ephraim drunkenness was a national vice, and the nobles abandoned themselves to disgraceful debauchery. There was a general demoralization of the people more fearful in its consequences than even idolatry. Judah was no exception to the ordinary fate of nations; the everlasting sequence--pertaining to institutions as well as nations, to religious as well as merely political communities--was here seen,--"Inwardness, outwardness, worldliness, and rottenness."
It was in this state of political danger and a general decline in morals, with a tendency to idolatry, that Isaiah--preacher, statesman, historian, poet, and prophet--was born.
Less is said of the personal history of this great man than of Moses or David, of Daniel or Elisha, and it is only in his writings that we see the solemn grandeur of his character. We infer that he was allied with the royal family of David; he certainly held a high position in the courts of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. He was a man of great dignity, experience, and wisdom, but ascetic in his habits and dress. Although he associated with the great in courts and palaces, a cell was his delight. He was a retiring, contemplative, rapt, austere man, severe on passing follies, and not sparing in his rebukes of sin in high places,--something like Savonarola at Florence, both as preacher and prophet,--and exercising a commanding influence on political affairs and on the people directly, especially during the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah. He denounced woes and calamities, yet escaped persecution from the grandeur of his character and the importance of his utterances. He was a favorite of King Hezekiah, and was contemporary with the prophets Hosea, Amos, and Jonah. He lived in Jerusalem, not far from the Temple, and had a wife and two sons. He wrote the life of Uzziah, and died at the age of eighty-four, in the reign of Manasseh. It is generally supposed that although Isaiah had lived in honor during the reigns of four kings, he suffered martyrdom at last. It is the fate of prophets to be stoned when they are in antagonism with men in power, or with popular sentiments. His prophetic ministry extended over a period of about fifty years, and he was continually consulted by the reigning monarchs.
The great outward events that took place during Isaiah's public career were the invasion of Judah by the combined forces of Israel and Syria in the reign of Ahaz, and the great Assyrian invasion in the reign of Hezekiah.
In regard to the first, it was disastrous to Judah. The weak king, the twelfth from David, was inclined to the idolatries of the surrounding nations, but was not signally bad like Ahab. Yet he was no match for Pekah, who reigned at Samaria, or for Rezin, who reigned at Damascus. Their combined armies slew in one day one hundred and twenty thousand of the subjects of Ahaz, and carried away into captivity two hundred thousand women and children, with immense spoil. The conqueror then advanced to the siege of Jerusalem. In his distress Ahaz invoked the aid of Pul, or Tiglath-pileser II., one of the most warlike of the Assyrian kings, whose kingdom stretched from the Armenian mountains on the north to Bagdad on the south, and from the Zagros chain on the east to the Euphrates on the west. Earnestly did the prophet-statesman expostulate with Ahaz, telling him that the king of Assyria would prove "a razor to shave but too clean his desolate land." The inspired advice was rejected; and the result of the alliance was that Judah, like Israel, fell to the rank of a subject nation, and became tributary to Assyria, and Ahaz, a mere vassal of Tiglath-pileser. The whole of Palestine became the border-land of the Assyrian empire, easy to be invaded and liable to be conquered.
The consequences which Isaiah feared, took place in the time of Hezekiah, in the actual invasion of Judah by the Assyrian hosts under Sennacherib. Not the splendid prosperity of Hezekiah, little short of that enjoyed by Solomon,--not his allegiance to Jehovah, nor his grand reforms and magnificent feasts averted the calamities which were the legitimate result of the blindness of his father Ahaz. Sennacherib, the most powerful of all the Assyrian kings, after suppressing a revolt in Babylon and conquering various Eastern states, turned his eyes and steps to Palestine, which had revolted. Hezekiah, in mortal fear, made humble submission, and consented to a tribute of three hundred talents of silver and thirty of gold, and the loss of two hundred thousand of his people as captives, and a cession of a part of his territory,--as great a calamity as France suffered in the war (1870-71) with Prussia. Considering the prosperity of the kingdom of Judah under Hezekiah, it is a difficult thing to be explained that the king could raise but three hundred talents of silver and thirty of gold, although David had contributed out of his private fortune, for the future erection of the Temple, three thousand talents of gold and seven thousand talents of silver, besides the one million talents of silver and one hundred thousand talents of gold which he collected as sovereign. It would seem probable that an error has crept into the estimates of the wealth of the kingdom under Solomon and under the subsequent kings; either that of Solomon is exaggerated, or that of Hezekiah is underrated.
Notwithstanding his former defeat and losses, Hezekiah again revolted, and again was Judah invaded by a still greater Assyrian force. The king of Judah in this emergency showed extraordinary energy, stopped the supply of water outside his capital, strengthened his defences, gathered together his fighting men, and encouraged them with the assurance that help would come from the Lord, in whom they trusted, and whom Sennacherib boastfully defied. For the ringing words of Isaiah roused and animated the hearts of both king and people to a noble courage, announcing the aid of Jehovah and the overthrow of the heathen invader. As we have seen, the men of Judah showed their faith in the divine help by preparing to help themselves. But from an unexpected quarter the assistance came, as Isaiah had predicted. A pestilence destroyed in a single night one hundred and eighty-five thousand of the Assyrian warriors,--the most signal overthrow of the enemies of Israel since Pharaoh and his host were swallowed up by the waters of the Red Sea, and also the most signal deliverance which Jerusalem ever had. The calamity created such a fearful demoralization among the invaders that the over-confident Assyrian monarch retired to his capital with utter loss of prestige, and soon after was assassinated by his own sons. No Assyrian king after this invaded Judah, and Nineveh itself in a few years was conquered by Babylon.
The fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians was delayed one hundred years. But such were the moral and social evils of the times succeeding the Ninevite invasion that Isaiah saw that retribution would come sooner or later, unless the nation repented and a radical reform should take place. He saw the people stricken with judicial blindness; so he clothed himself in sackcloth and cried aloud, with fervid eloquence, upon the people to repent. He is now the popular preacher, and his theme is repentance. In his earnest exhortations he foreshadows John the Baptist: "Unless ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish." It would seem that Savonarola makes him the model of his own eloquence. "Thy crimes, O Florence! thy crimes, O Rome! thy crimes, O Italy! are the causes of these chastisements. O Rome! thou shalt be put to the sword, since thou wilt not be converted! O harlot Church! I will stretch forth mine hand upon thee, saith the Lord." The burden of the soul of the Florentine monk is sin, especially sin in high places. He sees only degeneracy in life, and alarms the people by threats of divine vengeance. So Isaiah cries aloud upon the people to seek the Lord while he may be found. He does not invoke divine wrath, as David did upon his enemies; but he shows that this wrath will surely overtake the sinner. In no respect does he glory in this retribution: he is sad; he is oppressed; he is filled with grief, especially in view of the prevailing infatuation. "My people," said he, "do not consider." He denounces all classes alike, and spares not even women. In sarcastic language he rebukes their love of dress, their abandonment to vanities, their finery, their very gait and mincing attitude. Still more contemptuously does the preacher speak of the men, over whom the women rule and children oppress. He is severe on corrupt judges, on usurers; on all who are conceited in their own eyes; on those who are mighty to drink wine; on those who join house to house and field to field; on those whose glorious beauty is a fading flower; on those who call good evil and evil good, that put darkness for light, that take away the righteousness of the righteous from him. His terrible denunciation and enumeration of evil indicate a very lax morality in every quarter, added to hypocrisy and pharisaism. He shows what a poor thing is sacrifice unaccompanied with virtue. "To what purpose," said he, "is the multitude of sacrifices? Bring no more vain oblations. Incense is an abomination to me, saith the Lord. Therefore wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings; cease to do evil, learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow." Isaiah does not preach dogmas, still less metaphysical distinctions; he preaches against sin and demands repentance, and predicts calamity.
There are two points in his preaching which stand out with great vividness,--the certain judgments of God in view of sin, retribution on all offenders; and secondly, the mercy and forgiveness of God in case of repentance. Retribution, however, is not in Isaiah usually presented as the penalty of transgression according to natural law; not, as in the Proverbs, as the inevitable sequence of sin,--"Whatsoever ye sow, that shall ye also reap,"--but as direct punishment from God. Jehovah's awful personality is everywhere recognized,--a being who rules the universe as "the living God," who loves and abhors, who punishes and rewards, who gives power to the faint, who judges among the nations, who takes away from Judah and Jerusalem the stay and the staff of bread and water. "To whom then will ye liken God? Have ye not known, have ye not heard, hath it not been told you from the beginning? It is He that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, that bringeth the princes to nothing. Hast thou not known, hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? He giveth power to the faint and weary, so that they who wait upon Him shall renew their strength, mount up with wings as eagles, run and not be weary, walk and not faint." Can stronger or more comforting language be made use of to assert the personality and providence of God? And where in the whole circuit of Hebrew poetry is there more sublimity of language, greater eloquence, or more profound conviction of the evil and punishment of sin? Isaiah, the greatest of all the prophets in his spiritual discernment, in his profound insight of the future, is not behind the author of Job in majestic and sublime description.
Whatever may be the severity of language with which Isaiah denounces sin, and awful the judgments he pronounces in view of it, as coming directly from God, yet he seldom closes one of his dreadful sentences without holding out the hope of divine forgiveness in case of repentance, and the peace and comfort which will follow. In his view the mercy of the Lord is more impressive than his judgments. Isaiah is anything but a prophet of wrath; his soul overflows with tender sentiments and loving exhortation. "Ho, every one that thirsteth, come to the waters! Come ye, buy and eat! Yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price!... Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon...Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy that it cannot hear...Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool."
According to modern standards, we are struck with the absence of what we call art, in the writings of Isaiah. History, woes, promises, hopes, aspirations, and exultations are all mingled together in scarcely logical sequence. He exhorts, he threatens, he reproaches, he promises, often in the same chapter. The transition between preacher and prophet is very sudden. But it is as prophet that Isaiah is most frequently spoken of; and he is the prophet of hope and consolation, although he denounces woes upon the nations of the earth. In his prophetic office he predicts the future of all the people known to the Hebrews. He does not preach to them: they do not hear his voice; they do not know what tribulations shall be sent upon them. He commits his prophecies to writing for the benefit of future ages, in which he gives reasons for the judgments to be sent upon wicked nations, so that the great principles seen in the moral government of God may remain of perpetual significance. These principles centre around the great truth that national wickedness will certainly be followed by national calamities, which is also one of the most impressive truths that all history teaches; and so uniform is the operation of this great law that it is safe to make deductions from it for the guidance of statesmen and the teachings of moralists. National effeminacy which follows luxury, great injustices which cry to heaven for vengeance, and practical atheism and idolatry are certain to call forth divine judgments,--sometimes in the form of destructive wars, sometimes in pestilence and famine, and at other times in the gradual wasting away of national resources and political power. In conformity with this settled law in the moral government of God, we read the fate of Nineveh, of Babylon, of Tyre, of Jerusalem, of Carthage, of Antioch, of Corinth, of Athens, of Rome; and I would even add of Venice, of Turkey, of Spain. Nor is there anything which can save modern cities and countries, however magnificent their civilization, from a like visitation of Almighty power, if they continue in the iniquity which all the world perceives, and sometimes deplores. It must have seemed as absurd to the readers of Isaiah's predictions twenty-five hundred years ago that Babylon and Tyre should fall, as it would to the people of our day should one predict the future ruin of Paris or London or New York, if the vices which now flourish in these cities should reach an overwhelming preponderance, but which we hope may be wholly overcome by the influence of Christianity and the spirit and interference of God himself; for He governs the world by the same principles that He did two thousand years ago,--a fact which seldom is ignored by any profound and religious inquirer.
I have no faith in the permanence of any form of civilization, or of any government, where a certain depth of infamy and depravity is reached; because the impressive lesson of history is that righteousness exalteth a nation, and iniquity brings it low. Isaiah predicted woes which came to pass, since the cities and peoples against whom he denounced them remained obstinately perverse in their iniquity and atheism. Their doom was certain, without that repentance which would lead to a radical change of life and opinions. He held out no hope unless they turned to the Lord; nor did any of the prophets. Jeremiah was sad because he knew they would not repent, even as Christ himself wept over Jerusalem. No maledictions came from the pen or voice of Isaiah such as David breathed against his enemies, only the expression of the sad and solemn conviction that unless the people and the nation repented, they would all equally and surely perish, in accordance with the stern laws written on the two tables of Moses,--for "I, thy God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children, even to the third and fourth generation;"--yea, written before Moses, and to be read unto this day in the very constitution of man, physical, mental, spiritual, and social.
The prophet first announces the calamities which both Judah and Ephraim--the southern and the northern kingdoms--shall suffer from Assyrian invasions. "The Lord shall shave Judah with a razor, not only the head, but the beard,"--thus declaring that the land would be not only depopulated, but become a desert, and that men should no longer live by agriculture, or by trade and commerce, but by grazing alone. "Woe to the crown of pride, to the drunkards of Ephraim, whose glorious beauty is a fading flower; it shall be trodden under foot." The sins of pride and drunkenness are especially enumerated as the cause of their chastisement. "Woe to Ariel [that is Jerusalem]! I will camp against thee round about, and lay siege against thee with a mount, and I will raise forts against thee, and thou shalt be brought down.... Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with lips do they honor me, but have removed their heart far from me,"--hereby showing that hypocrisy at Jerusalem was as prevalent as drunkenness in Samaria, and as difficult to be removed.
Isaiah also reproves Judah for relying on the aid of Egypt in the threatened Assyrian invasion, instead of putting confidence in God, but declares that the evil day will be deferred in case that Judah repents; however, he holds out no hope that her people may escape the final captivity to Babylon. All that the prophet predicted in reference to the desolation of Palestine by Syrians, Assyrians, and Babylonians, as instruments of punishment, came to pass.
From the calamities which both Judah and Israel should suffer for their pride, hypocrisy, drunkenness, and idolatry, Isaiah turns to predict the fall of other nations. "Wherefore it shall come to pass that when the Lord hath performed his whole work upon Jerusalem, I will punish the fruit of the stout heart of the king of Assyria, and the glory of his high looks.... For he saith, By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom; for I am prudent, and I have removed the bounds of the people, and have robbed their treasures, and put down the inhabitants like a valiant man: and as I have gathered all the earth, as one gathereth eggs, therefore shall the Lord of Hosts send among his fat ones leanness, and under his glory He shall kindle a burning like the burning of a fire." In the inscriptions which have recently been deciphered on the broken and decayed monuments of Nineveh nothing is more remarkable than the boastful spirit, pride, and arrogance of the Assyrian kings and conquerors.
The fall of still prouder Babylon is next predicted. "Since thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God, thou shalt be brought down to hell.... Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldean excellency, shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. It shall never be inhabited, neither shall it be dwelt in from generation to generation; neither shall the Arabians pitch tent there, neither shall the shepherds make their fold there; but wild beasts of the deserts shall lie there, and the owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there." Both Nineveh and Babylon arose to glory and power by unscrupulous conquests, for their kings and people were military in their tastes and habits; and with dominion cruelly and wickedly obtained came arrogance and pride unbounded, and with these luxury and sensuality. The wickedest city of antiquity meets with the most terrible punishment that is recorded of any city in the world's history. Not only were pride and cruelty the peculiar vices of its kings and princes, but a gross and degrading idolatry, allied with all the vices that we call infamous, marked the inhabitants of the doomed capital; so that the Hebrew language was exhausted to find a word sufficiently expressive to mark its foul depravity, or sufficiently exultant to rejoice over its predicted \fall. Most cities have recovered more or less from their calamities,--Jerusalem, Athens, Rome,--but Babylon was utterly destroyed, as by fire from heaven, and never has been rebuilt or again inhabited, except by wild beasts. Its very ruins, the remains of walls three hundred and fifty feet in height, and of hanging gardens, and of palaces a mile in circuit, and of majestic temples, are now with difficulty determined. Truly has that wicked city been swept with the besom of destruction, as Isaiah predicted.
The prophet then predicts the desolation of Moab on account of its pride, which seems to have been its peculiar offence. It is to be noted that the sin of pride has ever called forth a severe judgment. "It goeth before destruction." Pride was one of the peculiarities of both Nineveh and Babylon. But that which is exalted shall be brought low. A bitter humiliation, at least, has ever been visited upon those who have arrogated a lofty superiority. It presupposes an independence utterly inconsistent with the real condition of men in the eyes of the Omnipotent; in the eyes of men, even, it is offensive in the extreme, and ends in isolation. We can tolerate certain great defects and weaknesses, but no one ever got reconciled to pride. It led to the ruin of Napoleon, as well as of Caesar; it creates innumerable enemies, even in the most retired village; it separates and alienates families; and when the punishment for it comes, everybody rejoices. People say contemptuously, "Is this the man that made the earth to tremble?" There is seldom pity for a fallen greatness that rejoiced in its strength, and despised the weakness of the unfortunate. If anything is foreign to the spirit of Christianity it is boastful pride, and yet it is one of those things which it is difficult for conscience to reach, as it is generally baptized with the name of self-respect.
The next woe which Isaiah denounced was on Egypt, which had played so great a part in the history of ancient nations. The judgments sent on this civilized country were severe, but were not so appalling as those to be visited upon Babylon. With Egypt was included Ethiopia. Civil war should desolate both nations, and it should rage so fiercely that "every one should fight against his brother, and every one against his neighbor, city against city, and kingdom against kingdom." Moreover, the famed wisdom of Egypt should fail; the people in their distress should seek to gain direction from wizards and charmers and soothsayers. It always was a country of magicians, from the time that Aaron's rod swallowed up the rods of those boastful enchanters who sought to repeat his miracles; it was a country of soothsayers and sorcerers when finally conquered by the Romans; it was the fruitful land of religious superstitions in every age. It was governed in the earliest times by pagan priests; the early kings were priests,--even Moses and Joseph were initiated into the occult arts of the priests. It was not wholly given to idolatry, since it is supposed that there was an esoteric wisdom among the higher priests which held to the One Supreme God and the immortality of the soul, as well as to future rewards and punishments. Nevertheless, the disgusting ceremonies connected with the worship of animals were far below the level of true religion, and the sorceries and magical incantations and superstitious rites which kept the people in ignorance, bondage, and degradation called loudly for rebuke. By reason of these things the nation was to be still farther subjected to the grinding rule of tyrants. It was a fertile and fruitful land, in which all the arts known to antiquity flourished; but the rains of Ethiopia were to be withheld, and such should be the unusual and abnormal drouth that the Nile should be dried up, and the reeds upon its banks should wither and decay. The river was stocked with fish, but the fishermen should cast their hooks and arrange their nets in vain. Even the workers in flax (one great source of Egyptian wealth and luxury) should be confounded. The princes were to become fools; there was to be general confusion, and no work was to be done in manufactures. Even Judah should become a terror to Egypt, and fear should overspread the land. To these calamities there was to be some palliation. Five cities should speak the language of Canaan, and swear by the Lord of Hosts; and an altar should be erected in the middle of the land which should be a witness unto the Lord of Hosts, to whom the people should cry amid their oppressions and miseries; and Jehovah should be known in Egypt. "He shall smite it, but he also shall heal it." And when we remember what a refuge the Jews found in Alexandria and other cities in the no very distant future, keeping alive there the worship of the true God, and what a hold Christianity itself took in the second and third centuries in that old country of priests and sorcerers, producing a Clement, a Cyprian, a Tertullian, an Athanasius, and an Augustine; yea, that when conquered by the Mohammedans, the worship of the one true God was everywhere maintained from that time to the present,--we feel that the mercy of God followed close upon his justice. Isaiah predicted even the divine blessing on the land, which it should share with Palestine: "Blessed be Egypt my people, and Israel mine inheritance."
It is not to be supposed that Tyre would escape from the calamities which were to be sent on the various heathen nations. Tyre was the great commercial centre of the world at that time, as Babylon was the centre of imperial power. Babylon ruled over the land, and Tyre over the sea; the one was the capital of a vast empire, the other was a maritime power, whose ships were to be seen in every part of the Mediterranean. Tyre, by its wealth and commerce, gained the supremacy in Phoenicia, although Sidon was an older city, five miles distant. But Tyre was defiled by the worship of Baal and Astarte; it was a city of exceeding dissoluteness. It was not only proud and luxurious, but abominably licentious; it was a city of harlots. And what was to be its fate? It was to be destroyed, and its merchandise was to be scattered. "Howl, ye ships of Tarshish! for your strength is laid waste, so that there is no house, no entering in.... The Lord of Hosts hath purposed it, to stain the pride of glory, and bring to contempt all the honorable of the earth." The inhabitants of the city who sought escape from death were compelled to take refuge in the colonies at Cyprus, Carthage, and Tartessus in Spain. The destruction of Tyre has been complete. There are no remains of its former grandeur; its palaces are indistinguishable ruins. Its traffic was transferred to Carthage. Yet how strong must have been a city which took Nebuchadnezzar thirteen years to subdue! It arose from its ashes, but was reduced again by Alexander.
Isaiah condenses his judgment in reference to the other wicked nations of his time in a few rapid, vigorous, and comprehensive clauses. "Behold, Jehovah emptieth the earth, and layeth it waste, and scattereth its inhabitants. And it happeneth, as to the people, so to the priest; as to the servant, so to the master; as to the maid, so to her mistress; as to the buyer, so to the seller; as to the lender, so to the borrower; as to the creditor, so to the debtor. The earth has become wicked among its inhabitants, therefore hath the curse devoured the earth, and they who dwelt in it make expiation." We observe that these severe calamities are not uttered in wrath. They are not maledictions; they are simply divine revelations to the gifted prophet, or logical deductions which the inspired statesman declares from incontrovertible facts. In this latter sense, all profound observations on the tendency of passing events partake of the nature of prophecy. A sage is necessarily a prophet. Men even prophesy rain or heat or cold from natural phenomena, and their predictions often come to pass. Much more to be relied on is the prophetic wisdom which is seen among great thinkers and writers, like Burke, Webster, and Carlyle, since they rely on the operation of unchanging laws, both moral and physical. When a nation is wholly given over to lying and cheating in trade, or to hypocritical observances in religion, or to practical atheism, or to gross superstitions, or abominable dissoluteness in morals, or to the rule of feeble kings controlled by hypocritical priests and harlots, is it presumptuous to predict the consequences? Is it difficult to predict the ultimate effect on a nation of overwhelming standing armies eating up the resources of kings, or of the general prevalence of luxury, effeminacy, and vice?
Isaiah having declared the judgment of God on apostate, idolatrous, and wicked nations; having emphasized the great principle of retribution, even on nations that in his day were prosperous and powerful; having rebuked the sins of the people among whom he dwelt, and exposed hypocrisy and dead-letter piety,--lays down the fundamental law that chastisements are sent to lead men to repentance, and that where there is repentance there is forgiveness. Severe as are his denunciations of sin, and certain as is the punishment of it, yet his soul dwells on the mercy and love of God more than even on His justice. He never loses sight of reconciliation, although he holds out but little hope for people wedded to their idols. There is no hope for Babylon or Tyre; they are doomed. Nor is there much encouragement for Ephraim, which composed so large a part of the kingdom of Israel; its people were to be dispersed, to become captives, and never were to return to their native hills. But he holds out great hope for Judah. It will be conquered, and its people carried away in slavery to Babylon,--that is their chastisement for apostasy; but a remnant of them shall return. They had not utterly forgotten God, therefore a part of the nation shall be rescued from captivity. So full of hope is Isaiah that the nation shall not utterly be destroyed, that he names his son Shear-jashub,--"a remnant shall return." This is his watchword. Certain is it that the Lord will have mercy on Jacob whom he hath chosen; his promises will not fail. Judah shall be chastised; but a part of Judah shall return to Jerusalem, purified, wiser, and shall again in due time flourish as a nation.
Isaiah is the prophet of hope, of forgiveness, and of love. Not only on Judah shall a blessing be bestowed, but upon the whole world. Forgiveness is unbounded if there is repentance, no matter what the sin may be. He almost anticipates the message of Jesus by saying, "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow." God's mercy is past finding out. "Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters!" So full is he of the boundless love of God, extended to all created things, that he calls on the hills and the mountains to rejoice. Here he soars beyond the Jew; he takes in the whole world in his rapturous expectation of deliverance. He comforts all good people under chastisement. He is as cheerful as Jeremiah is sad.
Having laid down the conditions of forgiveness, and expatiated on the divine benevolence, Isaiah now sings another song, and ascends to loftier heights. He is jubilant over the promised glories of God's people; he speaks of the redemption of both Jew and Gentile. His prophetic mission is now more distinctly unfolded. He blends the forgiveness of sins with the promised Deliverer; he unfolds the advent of the Messiah. He even foretells in what form He shall come; he predicts the main facts of His personal history. Not only shall there "come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch out of its roots," but he shall be "a man despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; who shall be wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities, brought as a lamb to the slaughter, cut off from the living, making his grave with the wicked and with the rich in his death; yet bruised because it pleased the Lord, and because he made his soul an offering for sin, and made intercession with the transgressors." Who is this stricken, persecuted, martyred personage, bearing the iniquity of the race, and thus providing a way for future salvation? Isaiah, with transcendent majesty of style, clear and luminous as it is poetical, declares that this person who is still unborn, this light which shall appear in Galilee, is no less than he on whose shoulders shall be the government, "whose name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace; of the increase of whose kingdom and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and justice forever."
Only in some of the Messianic Psalms do we meet with kindred passages, indicating the reign of the Christ upon the earth, expressed with such emphatic clearness. How marvellous and wonderful this prophecy! Seven hundred years before its fulfilment, it is expressed with such minuteness, that, had the prophet lived in the Apostolic age, he could not have described the Messiah more accurately. The devout Jew, especially after the Captivity, believed in a future deliverer, who should arise from the seed of David, establish a great empire, and reign as a temporal monarch; but he had no lofty and spiritual views of this predicted reign. To Isaiah, more even than to Abraham or David or any other person in Jewish history, was it revealed that the reign of the Christ was to be spiritual; that he was not to be a temporal deliverer, but a Saviour redeeming mankind from the curse of sin. Hence Isaiah is quoted more than all the other prophets combined, especially by the writers of the New Testament.
Having announced this glorious prediction of the advent into our world of a divine Redeemer in the form of a man, by whose life and suffering and death the world should be saved, the prophet-poet breaks out in rhapsodies. He cannot contain his exultation. He loses sight of the judgments he had declared, in his unbounded rejoicings that there was to be a deliverance; that not only a remnant would return to Jerusalem and become a renewed power, but that the Messiah should ultimately reign over all the nations of the earth, should establish a reign of peace, so that warriors "should beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks." Heretofore the history of kings had been a history of wars,--of oppression, of injustice, of cruelty. Miseries overspread the earth from this scourge more than from all other causes combined. The world was decimated by war, producing not only wholesale slaughter, but captivity and slavery, the utter extinction of nations. Isaiah had himself dwelt upon the woes to be visited on mankind by war more than any other prophet who had preceded him. All the leading nations and capitals were to be utterly destroyed or severely punished; calamity and misery should be nearly universal; only "a remnant should be saved." Now, however, he takes the most cheerful and joyous views. So marked is the contrast between the first and latter parts of the Book of Isaiah, that many great critics suppose that they were written by different persons and at different times. But whether there were two persons or one, the most comforting and cheering doctrines to be found in the Scriptures, before the Sermon on the Mount was preached, are declared by Isaiah. The breadth and catholicity of them are amazing from the pen of a Jew. The whole world was to share with him in the promises of a Saviour; the whole world was to be finally redeemed. As recipients of divine privileges there was to be no difference between Jew and Gentile. Paul himself shows no greater mental illumination. "The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it."
In view of this glorious reign of peace and universal redemption, Isaiah calls upon the earth to be joyful and all the mountains to break forth in singing, and Zion to awake, and Jerusalem to put on her beautiful garments, and all waste places to break forth in joy; for the glory of the Lord is risen upon the City of David. How rapturously does the prophet, in the most glowing and lofty flights of poetry, dwell upon the time when the redeemed of the Lord shall return to Zion with songs and thanksgivings, no more to be called "forsaken," but a city to be renewed in beauties and glories, and in which kings shall be nursing fathers to its sons and daughters, and queens nursing mothers. These are the tidings which the prophet brings, and which the poet sings in matchless lyrics. To the Zion of the Holy One of Israel shall the Gentiles come with their precious offerings. "Violence shall no more be heard in thy land," saith the poet, "wasting nor destruction within thy borders; but thou shalt call thy walls Salvation and thy gates Praise.... Thy sun shall no more go down, neither shall thy moon withdraw itself, for the Lord shall be thine everlasting light, and the day of thy mourning shall be ended.... Thy people shall be all righteous; they shall inherit the land forever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified. A little one shall become a thousand, and a small one a strong nation: I the Lord will hasten it in its time."
Salvation, peace, the glory of Zion!--these are the words which Isaiah reiterates. With these are identified the spiritual kingdom of Christ, which is to spread over the whole earth. The prophet does not specify when that time shall come, when peace shall be universal, and when all the people shall be righteous; that part of the prophecy remains unfulfilled, as well as the renewed glories of Jerusalem. Yet a thousand years with the Lord are as one day. No believing Christian doubts that it will be fulfilled, as certainly as that Babylon should be destroyed, or that a Messiah should appear among the Jews. The day of deliverance began to dawn when Christianity was proclaimed among the Gentiles. From that time a great progress has been seen among the nations. First, wars began to cease in the Roman world. They were renewed when the empire of the Caesars fell, but their ferocity and cruelty diminished; conquered people were not carried away as slaves, nor were women and children put to death, except in extraordinary cases, which called out universal grief, compassion, and indignation. With all the progress of truth and civilization, it is amazing that Christian nations should still be armed to the teeth, and that wars are still so frequent. We fear that they will not cease until those who govern shall be conscientious Christians. But that the time will come when rulers shall be righteous and nations learn war no more, is a truth which Christians everywhere accept. When, how,--by the gradual spread of knowledge, or by supernatural intervention,--who can tell? "Zion shall arise and shine.... The Gentiles shall come to its light, and kings to the brightness of its rising.... Violence shall no more be heard in the land, nor wasting and destruction within its borders.... They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the Lord.... And it shall come to pass that from one new moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the Lord."
This is the sublime faith of Christendom set forth by the most sublime of the prophets, from the most gifted and eloquent of the poets. On this faith rests the consolation of the righteous in view of the prevalence of iniquity. This prophecy is full of encouragement and joy amid afflictions and sorrows. It proclaims liberty to captives, and the opening of the prison to those that are bound; it preaches glad tidings to the meek, and binds up the broken-hearted; it gives beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, and the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness. This prediction has inspired the religious poets of all nations; on this is based the beauty and glory of the lyrical stanzas we sing in our churches. The hymns and melodies of the Church, the most immortal of human writings, are inspired with this cheering anticipation. The psalmody of the Church is rapturous, like Isaiah, over the triumphant and peaceful reign of Christ, coming sooner perhaps than we dream when we see the triumphal career of wicked men. In the temporal fall of a monstrous despotism, in the decline of wicked cities and empires, in the light which is penetrating all lands, in the shaking of Mohammedan thrones, in the opening of the most distant East, in the arbitration of national difficulties, in the terrible inventions which make nations fear to go to war, in the wonderful network of philanthropic enterprises, in the renewed interest in sacred literature, in the recognition of law and order as the first condition of civilized society, in that general love of truth which science has stimulated and rarely mocked, and which casts its searching eye into all creeds and all hypocrisies and all false philosophy,--we share the exultant spirit of the prophet, and in the language of one of our great poets we repeat the promised joy:--"Rise, crowned with light, imperial Salem, rise!
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