Isaiah 10
Expositor's Bible Commentary
Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees, and that write grievousness which they have prescribed;



735 B.C.

Isaiah 5:1-30; Isaiah 9:8 - Isaiah 10:4THE prophecy contained in these chapters belongs, as we have seen, to the same early period of Isaiah’s career as chapters 2-4, about the time when Ahaz ascended the throne after the long and successful reigns of his father and grandfather, when the kingdom of Judah seemed girt with strength and filled with wealth, but the men were corrupt and the women careless, and the earnest of approaching judgment was already given in the incapacity of the weak and woman-ridden king. Yet although this new prophecy issues from the same circumstances as its predecessors, it implies these circumstances a little more developed. The same social evils are treated, but by a hand with a firmer grasp of them. The same principles are emphasised-the righteousness of Jehovah and His activity in judgment - but the form of judgment of which Isaiah had spoken before in general terms looms nearer, and before the end of the prophecy we get a view at close quarters of the Assyrian ranks.

Besides, opposition has arisen to the prophet’s teaching. We saw that the obscurities and inconsistencies of chapters 2-4 are due to the fact that that prophecy represents several stages of experience through which Isaiah passed before he gained his final convictions. But his countrymen, it appears, have now had time to turn on these convictions and call them in question: it is necessary for Isaiah to vindicate them. The difference, then, between these two sets of prophecies, dealing with the same things, is that in the former (chapters 2-4), we have the obscure and tortuous path of a conviction struggling to light in the prophet’s own experience; here, in chapter 5, we have its careful array in the light and before the people.

The point of Isaiah’s teaching against which opposition was directed was of course its main point, that God was about to abandon Judah. This must have appeared to the popular religion of the day as the rankest heresy. To the Jews the honour of Jehovah was bound up with the inviolability of Jerusalem and the prosperity of Judah. But Isaiah knew Jehovah to be infinitely more concerned for the purity of His people than for their prosperity. He had seen the Lord "exalted in righteousness" above those national and earthly interests, with which vulgar men exclusively identified His will. Did the people appeal to the long time Jehovah had graciously led them for proof that He would not abandon them now? To Isaiah that gracious leading was but for righteousness’ sake, and that God might make His own a holy people. Their history, so full of the favours of the Almighty, did not teach Isaiah, as it did the common prophets of his time, the lesson of Israel’s political security, but the far different one of their religious responsibility. To him it only meant what Amos had already put in those startling words, "You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will visit upon you all your iniquities." Now Isaiah delivered this doctrine at a time when it brought him the hostility of men’s passions as well as of their opinions. Judah was arming for war. Syria and Ephraim were marching upon her. To threaten his country with ruin in such an hour was to run the risk of suffering from popular fury as a traitor as well as from priestly prejudice as a heretic. The strain of the moment is felt in the strenuousness of the prophecy. Chapter 5, with its appendix, exhibits more grasp and method than its predecessors. Its literary form is finished, its feeling clear. There is a tenderness in the beginning of it, an inexorableness in the end, and an eagerness all through which stamp the chapter as Isaiah’s final appeal to his countrymen at this period of his career.

The chapter is a noble piece of patriotism-one of the noblest of a race who, although for the greater part of their history without a fatherland, have contributed more brilliantly than perhaps any other to the literature of patriotism, and that simply because, as Isaiah here illustrates, patriotism was to their prophets identical with religious privilege and responsibility. Isaiah carries this to its bitter end. Other patriots have wept to sing their country’s woes; Isaiah’s burden is his people’s guilt. To others an invasion of their fatherland by its enemies has been the motive to rouse by song or speech their countrymen to repel it. Isaiah also hears the tramp of the invader; but to him is permitted no ardour of defence, and his message to his countrymen is that they must succumb, for the invasion is irresistible and of the very judgment of God. How much it cost the prophet to deliver such a message we may see from those few verses of it in which his heart is not altogether silenced by his conscience. The sweet description of Judah as a vineyard, and the touching accents that break through the roll of denunciation with such phrases as "My people are gone away into captivity unawares," tell us how the prophet’s love of country is struggling with his duty to a righteous God. The course of feeling throughout the prophecy is very striking. The tenderness of the opening lyric seems ready to flow into gentle pleading with the whole people. But as the prophet turns to particular classes and their sins his mood changes to indignation, the voice settles down to judgment; till when it issues upon that clear statement of the coming of the Northern hosts every trace of emotion has left it, and the sentences ring out as unfaltering as the tramp of the armies they describe.


{Isaiah 5:1-7}

Isaiah adopts the resource of every misunderstood and unpopular teacher, and seeks to turn the flank of his people’s prejudices by an attack in parable on their sympathies. Did they stubbornly believe it impossible for God to abandon a State He had so long and so carefully fostered? Let them judge from an analogous case in which they were all experts. In a picture of great beauty Isaiah describes a vineyard upon one of the sunny promontories visible from Jerusalem. Every care had been given it of which an experienced vinedresser could think, but it brought forth only wild grapes. The vinedresser himself is introduced, and appeals to the men of Judah and Jerusalem to judge between him and his vineyard. He gets their assent that all had been done which could be done, and fortified with that resolves to abandon the vineyard. "I will lay it waste; it shall not be pruned nor digged, but there shall come up briers and thorns." Then the stratagem comes out, the speaker drops the tones of a human cultivator, and in the omnipotence of the Lord of heaven he is heard to say, "I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it." This diversion upon their sympathies having succeeded, the prophet scarcely needs to charge the people’s prejudices in face. His point has been evidently carried. "For the vineyard of Jehovah of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah His pleasant plant; and He looked for judgment, but behold oppression, for righteousness, but behold a cry."

The lesson enforced by Isaiah is just this, that in a people’s civilisation there lie the deepest responsibilities, for that is neither more nor less than their cultivation by God; and the question for a people is not how secure does this render them, nor what does it count for glory, but how far is it rising towards the intentions of its Author? Does it produce those fruits of righteousness for which alone God cares to set apart and cultivate the peoples? On this depends the question whether the civilisation is secure, as well as the right of the people to enjoy and feel proud of it. There cannot be true patriotism without sensitiveness to this, for however rich be the elements that compose the patriot’s temper, as piety towards the past, ardour of service for the present, love of liberty, delight in natural beauty, and gratitude for Divine favour, so rich a temper will grow rancid without the salt of conscience; and the richer the temper is, the greater must be the proportion of that salt. All prophets and poets of patriotism have been moralists and satirists as well. From Demosthenes to Tourgenieff. from Dante to Mazzini, from Milton to Russell Lowell, from Burns to Heine, one cannot recall any great patriot who has not known how to use the scourge as well as the trumpet. Many opportunities will present themselves to us of illustrating Isaiah’s orations by the letters and speeches of Cromwell, who of moderns most resembles the statesman-prophet of Judah; but nowhere does the resemblance become so close as when we lay a prophecy like this of Jehovah’s vineyard by the side of the speeches in which the Lord Protector exhorted the Commons of England, although it was the hour of his and. their triumph, to address themselves to their sins.

So, then, the patriotism of all great men has carried a conscience for their country’s sins. But while this is always more or less a burden to the true patriot, there are certain periods in which his care for his country ought to be this predominantly, and need be little else. In a period like our own, for instance, of political security and fashionable religion, what need is there in patriotic displays of any other kind? but how much for patriotism of this kind-of men who will uncover the secret sins, however loathsome, and declare the hypocrisies, however powerful, of the social life of the people! These are the patriots we need in times of peace; and as it is more difficult to rouse a torpid people to their sins than to lead a roused one against their enemies, and harder to face a whole people with the support only of conscience than to defy many nations if you but have your own at your back, so these patriots of peace are more to be honoured than those of war. But there is one kind of patriotism more arduous and honourable still. It is that which Isaiah displays here, who cannot add to his conscience hope or even pity, who must hail his country’s enemies for his country’s good, and recite the long roll of God’s favours to his nation only to emphasise the justice of His abandonment of them.


{Isaiah 5:8-24}

The wild grapes which Isaiah saw in the vineyard of the Lord he catalogues in a series of Woes (Isaiah 5:8-24), fruits all of them of love of money and love of wine. They are abuse of the soil (Isaiah 5:8-10, Isaiah 5:17), a giddy luxury which has taken to drink (Isaiah 5:11-16), a moral blindness and headlong audacity of sin which habitual avarice and drunkenness soon develop (Isaiah 5:18-21), and, again, a greed of drink and money-men’s perversion of their strength to wine, and of their opportunities of justice to the taking of bribes (Isaiah 5:22-24). These are the features of corrupt civilisation not only in Judah, and the voice that deplores them cannot speak without rousing others very clamant to the modern conscience. It is with remarkable persistence that in every civilisation the two main passions of the human heart, love of wealth and love of pleasure, the instinct to gather and the instinct to squander, have sought precisely these two forms denounced by Isaiah in which to work their social havoc-appropriation of the soil and indulgence in strong drink. Every civilised community develops sooner or later its land-question and its liquor-question. "Questions" they are called by the superficial opinion that all difficulties may be overcome by the cleverness of men; yet problems through which there cries for remedy so vast a proportion of our poverty, crime, and madness, are something worse than "questions." They are huge sins, and require not merely the statesman’s wit, but all the patience and zeal of which a nation’s conscience is capable. It is in this that the force of Isaiah’s treatment lies. We feel he is not facing questions of State, but sins of men. He has nothing to tell us of what he considers the best system of land tenure, but he enforces the principle that in the ease with which land may be absorbed by one person the natural covetousness of the human heart has a terrible opportunity for working ruin upon society. "Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no room, and ye be made to dwell alone in the midst of the land." We know from Micah that the actual process which Isaiah condemns was carried out with the most cruel evictions and disinheritances. Isaiah does not touch on its methods, but exposes its effects on the country-depopulation and barrenness, -and emphasises its religious significance. "Of a truth many houses shall be desolate, even great and fair, without an inhabitant. For ten acres of vineyard shall yield one bath, and a homer of seed shall yield but an ephah Then shall lambs. feed as in their pasture, and strangers shall devour the ruins of the fat ones"-i.e., of the luxurious landowners (Isaiah 5:9, Isaiah 5:10, Isaiah 5:17). And in one of those elliptic statements by which he often startles us with the sudden sense that God Himself is acquainted with all our affairs, and takes His own interest in them, Isaiah adds, "All this was whispered to me by Jehovah: In mine ears-the Lord of hosts" (Isaiah 5:9).

During recent agitations in our own country one has often seen the "land laws of the Bible" held forth by some thoughtless demagogue as models for land tenure among ourselves; as if a system which worked well with a small tribe in a land they had all entered on equal footing, and where there was no opportunity for the industry of the people except in pasture and in tillage, could possibly be applicable to a vastly larger and more complex population, with different traditions and very different social circumstances. Isaiah says nothing about the peculiar land laws of his people. He lays down principles, and these are principles valid in every civilisation. God has made the land, not to feed the pride of the few, but the natural hunger of the many, and it is His will that the most be got out of a country’s soil for the people of the country. Whatever be the system of land-tenure-and while all are more or less liable to abuse, it is the duty of a people to agitate for that which will be least liable-if it is taken advantage of by individuals to satisfy their own cupidity, then God will take account of them. There is a responsibility which the State cannot enforce, and the neglect of which cannot be punished by any earthly law, but all the more will God see to it. A nation’s treatment of their land is not always prominent as a question which demands the attention of public reformers; but it ceaselessly has interest for God, who ever holds individuals to answer for it. The land-question is ultimately a religious question. For the management of their land the whole nation is responsible to God, but especially those who own or manage estates. This is a sacred office. When one not only remembers the nature of land-how it is an element of life, so that if a man abuse the soil it is as if he poisoned the air or darkened the heavens-but appreciates also the multitude of personal relations which the landowner or factor holds in his hand-the peace of homes, the continuity of local traditions, the physical health, the social fearlessness and frankness, and the thousand delicate associations which their habitations entwine about the hearts of men-one feels that to all who possess or manage land is granted an opportunity of patriotism and piety open to few, a ministry less honourable and sacred than none other committed by God to man for his fellow-men.

After the land-sin Isaiah hurls his second Woe upon the drink-sin, and it is a heavier woe than the first. With fatal persistence the luxury of every civilisation has taken to drink; and of all the indictments brought by moralists against nations, that which they reserve for drunkenness is, as here, the most heavily weighted. The crusade against drink is not the novel thing that many imagine who observe only its late revival among ourselves. In ancient times there was scarcely a State in which prohibitive legislation of the most stringent kind was not attempted, and generally carried out with a thoroughness more possible under despots than where, as with us, the slow consent of public opinion is necessary. A horror of strong drink has in every age possessed those who from their position as magistrates or prophets have been able to follow for any distance the drifts of social life. Isaiah exposes as powerfully as ever any of them did in what the peculiar fatality of drinking lies. Wine is a mocker by nothing more than by the moral incredulity which it produces, enabling men to hide from themselves the spiritual and material effects of over-indulgence in it. No one who has had to do with persons slowly falling from moderate to immoderate drinking can mistake Isaiah’s meaning when he says, "They regard not the work of the Lord; neither have they considered the operation of His hands." Nothing kills the conscience like steady drinking to a little excess; and religion, even while the conscience is alive, acts on it only as an opiate. It is not, however, with the symptoms of drink in individuals so much as with its aggregate effects on the nation that Isaiah is concerned. So prevalent is excessive drinking, so entwined with the social customs of the country and many powerful interests, that it is extremely difficult to rouse public opinion to its effects. And "so they go into captivity for lack of knowledge." Temperance reformers are often blamed for the strength of their language, but they may shelter themselves behind Isaiah. As he pictures it, the national destruction caused by drink is complete. It is nothing less than the people’s captivity, and we know what that meant to an Israelite. It affects all classes: "Their honourable men are famished, and their multitude parched with thirst. The mean man is bowed down, and the great man is humbled." But the want and ruin of this earth are not enough to describe it. The appetite of hell itself has to be enlarged to suffice for the consumption of the spoils of strong drink. "Therefore hell hath enlarged her desire and opened her mouth without measure; and their glory, and their multitude, and their pomp, and he that rejoiceth among them, descend into it." The very appetite of hell has to be enlarged! Does it not truly seem as if the wild and wanton waste of drink were preventable, as if it were not, as many are ready to sneer, the inevitable evil of men’s hearts choosing this form of issue, but a superfluous audacity of sin, which the devil himself did not desire or tempt men to? It is this feeling of the infernal gratuitousness of most of the drink-evil-the conviction that here hell would be quiet if only she were not stirred up by the extraordinarily wanton provocatives that society and the State offer to excessive drinking- which compels temperance reformers at the present day to isolate drunkenness and make it the object of a special crusade. Isaiah’s strong figure has lost none of its strength today. When our judges tell us from the bench that nine-tenths of pauperism and crime are caused by drink, and our physicians that if only irregular tippling were abolished half the current sickness of the land would cease, and our statesmen that the ravages of strong drink are equal to those of the historical scourges of war, famine, and pestilence combined, surely to swallow such a glut of spoil the appetite of hell must have been still more enlarged, and the mouth of hell made yet wider.

The next three Woes are upon different aggravations of that moral perversity which the prophet has already traced to strong drink. In the first of these it is better to read, draw punishment near with cords of vanity, than draw iniquity. Then we have a striking antithesis-the drunkards mocking Isaiah over their cups with the challenge, as if it would not be taken up, "Let Jehovah make speed, and hasten His work of judgment, that we may see it," while all the time they themselves were dragging that judgment near, as with cart-ropes, by their persistent diligence in evil. This figure of sinners jeering at the approach of a calamity while they actually wear the harness of its carriage is very striking. But the Jews are not only unconscious of judgment, they are confused as to the very principles of morality: "Who call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!"

In his fifth Woe the prophet attacks a disposition to which his scorn gives no peace throughout his ministry. If these sensualists had only confined themselves to their sensuality they might have been left alone; but with that intellectual bravado which is equally born with "Dutch courage" of drink, they interferred in the conduct of the State, and prepared arrogant policies of alliance and war that were the distress of the sober-minded prophet all his days. "Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes and prudent in their own sight."

In his last Woe Isaiah returns to the drinking habits of the upper classes, from which it would appear that among the judges even of Judah there were "six-bottle men." They sustained theft extravagance by subsidies, which we trust were unknown to the mighty men of wine who once filled the seats of justice in our own country. "They justify the wicked for a bribe, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him." All these sinners, dead through their rejection of the law of Jehovah of hosts and the word of the Holy One of Israel, shall be like to the stubble, fit only for burning, and their blossom as the dust of the rotten tree.


{Isaiah 5:25; Isaiah 9:8 - Isaiah 10:4; Isaiah 5:26-30}

This indictment of the various sins of the people occupies the whole of the second part of the oration. But a third part is now added, in which the prophet catalogues the judgments of the Lord upon them, each of these closing with the weird refrain, "For all this His anger is not turned away, but His hand is stretched out still." The complete catalogue is usually obtained by inserting between the 25th and 26th verses of chapter 5 {Isaiah 5:25-26}. the long passage from chapter 9, verse 8, to chapter 10, verse 4. It is quite true that as far as chapter 5 itself is concerned it does not need this insertion; Isaiah 9:8-21; Isaiah 10:1-4 is decidedly out of place where it now lies. Its paragraphs end with the same refrain as closes Isaiah 5:25, which forms, besides, a natural introduction to them, while Isaiah 5:26-30 form as natural a conclusion. The latter verses describe an Assyrian invasion, and it was always in an Assyrian invasion that Isaiah foresaw the final calamity of Judah. We may, then, subject to further light on the exceedingly obscure subject of the arrangement of Isaiah’s prophecies, follow some of the leading critics, and place Isaiah 9:8-21; Isaiah 10:1-4 between verses 25-26 of chapter 5; and the more we examine them the more we shall be satisfied with our arrangement, for strung together in this order they form one of the most impressive series of scenes which even an Isaiah has given us.

From these scenes Isaiah has spared nothing that is terrible in history or nature, and it is not one of the least of the arguments for putting them together that their intensity increases to a climax. Earthquakes, armed raids, a great battle, and the slaughter of a people; prairie and forest fires, civil strife and the famine fever, that feeds upon itself; another battle-field, with its cringing groups of captives and heaps of slain; the resistless tide of a great invasion; and then, for final prospect, a desolate land by the sound of a hungry sea, and the light is darkened in the clouds thereof. The elements of nature and the elemental passions of man have been let loose together; and we follow the violent floods, remembering that it is sin that has burst the gates of the universe, and given the tides of hell full course through it. Over the storm and battle there comes booming like the storm-bell the awful refrain, "For all this His anger is not turned away, but His hand is stretched out still." It is poetry of the highest order, but in him who reads it with a conscience mere literary sensations are sobered by the awe of some of the most profound moral phenomena of life. The persistence of Divine wrath, the long-lingering effects of sin in a nation’s history, man’s abuse of sorrow and his defiance of an angry Providence, are the elements of this great drama. Those who are familiar with "King Lear" will recognise these elements, and observe how similarly the ways of Providence and the conduct of men are represented there and here.

What Isaiah unfolds, then. is a series of calamities that have overtaken the people of Israel. It is impossible for us to identify every one of them with a particular event in Israel’s history otherwise known to us. Some it is not difficult to recognise; but the prophet passes in a perplexing way from Judah to Ephraim and Ephraim to Judah, and in one case, where he represents Samaria as attacked by Syria and the Philistines, he goes back to a period at some distance from his own. There are also passages, as for instance Isaiah 10:1-4, in which we are unable to decide whether he describes a present punishment or threatens a future one. But his moral purpose, at least, is plain. He will show how often Jehovah has already spoken to His people by calamity, and because they have remained hardened under these warnings, how there now remains possible only the last, worst blow of an Assyrian invasion. Isaiah is justifying his threat of so unprecedented and extreme a punishment for God’s people as overthrow by this Northern people, who had just appeared upon Judah’s political horizon. God, he tells Israel, has tried everything short of this, and it has failed; now only this remains, and this shall not fail. The prophet’s purpose, therefore, being not an accurate historical recital, but moral impressiveness, he gives us a more or less ideal description of former calamities, mentioning only so much as to allow us to recognise here and there that it is actual facts which he uses for his purpose of condemning Israel to captivity, and vindicating Israel’s God in bringing that captivity near. The passage thus forms a parallel to that in Amos, with its similar refrain: "Yet ye have not returned unto Me, saith the Lord," {Amos 4:6-12} and only goes farther than that earlier prophecy in indicating that the instruments of the Lord’s final judgment are to be the Assyrians.

Five great calamities, says Isaiah, have fallen on Israel and left them hardened:

1st, earthquake; {Isaiah 5:25}

2d, loss of territory; {Isaiah 9:8-12}

3d, war and a decisive defeat; {Isaiah 9:13-17}

4th, internal anarchy; {Isaiah 9:18-21}

5th, the near prospect of captivity. {Isaiah 10:1-4}

1. THE EARTHQUAKE.-Amos {Isaiah 5:25} closes his series withan earthquake; Isaiah begins with one. It may be the same convulsion they describe, or may not. Although the skirts of Palestine both to the east and west frequently tremble to these disturbances, an earthquake in Palestine itself, up on the high central ridge of the land, is very rare. Isaiah vividly describes its awful simplicity and suddenness. "The Lord stretched forth His hand and smote, and the hills shook, and their carcases were like offal in the midst of the streets." More words are not needed, because there was nothing more to describe. The Lord lifted His hand; the hills seemed for a moment to topple over, and when the living recovered from the shock there lay the dead, flung like refuse about the streets.

2. THE LOSS OF TERRITORY.-So {Isaiah 9:8-21} awful a calamity, in which the dying did not die out of sight nor-fall huddled together on some far off battle-field, but the whole land was strewn with her slain, ought to have left indelible impression on the people. But it did not. The Lord’s own word had been in it for Jacob and Israel, {Isaiah 9:8} "that the people might know, even Ephraim and the inhabitants of Samaria." But unhumbled they turned in the stoutness of their hearts, saying, when the earthquake had passed: "The bricks are fallen, but we will build with hewn stones"; the "sycamores are cut down, but we will change them into cedars." Calamity did not make this people thoughtful; they felt God only to endeavour to forget Him. Therefore He visited them the second time. They did not feel the Lord shaking their land, so He sent their enemies to steal it from them: "the Syrians before and the Philistines behind; and they devour Israel with open mouth." What that had been for appalling suddenness this was for lingering and harassing-guerilla warfare, armed raids, the land eaten away bit by bit. "Yet the people do not return unto Him that smote them, neither seek they the Lord of hosts."

3. WAR AND DEFEAT.-The {Isaiah 9:13-17} next consequent calamity passed from the land to the people themselves. A great battle is described, in which the nation is dismembered in one day. War and its horrors are told, and the apparent want of Divine pity and discrimination which they imply is explained. Israel has been led into these disasters by the folly of their leaders, whom Isaiah therefore singles out for blame. "For they that lead these people cause them to err, and they that are led of them are destroyed." But the real horror of war is that it falls not upon its authors, that its victims are not statesmen, but the beauty of a country’s youth, the helplessness of the widow and orphan. Some question seems to have been stirred by this in Isaiah’s heart. He asks, Why does the Lord not rejoice in the young men of His people? Why has He no pity for widow and orphan, that He thus sacrifices them to the sin of the rulers? It is because the whole nation shares the ruler’s guilt; "every one is a hypocrite and an evildoer, and every mouth speaketh folly." As ruler so people, is a truth Isaiah frequently asserts, but never with such grimness as here. War brings out, as nothing else does, the solidarity of a people in guilt.

4. INTERNAL ANARCHY.-Even {Isaiah 9:18-21} yet the people did not repent; their calamities only drove them to further wickedness. The prophet’s eyes are opened to the awful fact that God’s wrath is but the blast that fans men’s hot sins to flame. This is one of those two or three awful scenes in history, in the conflagration of which we cannot tell what is human sin and what Divine judgment. There is a panic wickedness, sin spreading like mania, as if men were possessed by supernatural powers. The physical metaphors of the prophet are evident: a forest or prairie fire, and the consequent famine, whose fevered victims feed upon themselves. And no less evident are the political facts which the prophet employs these metaphors to describe. It is the anarchy which has beset more than one corrupt and unfortunate people, when their mis-leaders have been overthrown: the anarchy in which each faction seeks to slaughter out the rest. Jealousy and distrust awake the lust for blood, rage seizes the people as fire the forest, "and no man spareth his brother." We have had modern instances of all this; these scenes form a true description of some days of the French Revolution, and are even a truer description of the civil war that broke out in Paris after her late siege.

"If that the heavens do not their visible spirits

Send quickly down to tame these vile offences, I will come,

Humanity must perforce prey on itself

Like monsters of the deep."

5. THE THREAT OF CAPTIVITY.-Turning {Isaiah 10:1-4} now from the past, and from the fate of Samaria, with which it would appear he has been more particularly engaged, the prophet addresses his own countrymen in Judah, and paints the future for them. It is not a future in which there is any hope. The day of their visitation also will surely come, and the prophet sees it close in the darkest night of which a Jewish heart could think-the night of captivity. Where, he asks his unjust countrymen-where "will ye then flee for help? and where will you leave your glory?" Cringing among the captives, lying dead beneath heaps of dead-that is to be your fate, who will have turned so, often and then so finally from God. When exactly the prophet thus warned his countrymen of captivity we do not know, but the warning, though so real, produced neither penitence in men nor pity in God. "For all this His anger is not turned away, but His hand is stretched out still."

6. THE ASSYRIAN INVASION.-The {Isaiah 5:26-30} prophet is, therefore, free to explain that cloud which has appeared far away on the northern horizon. God’s hand of judgment is still uplifted over Judah, and it is that hand which summons the cloud. The Assyrians are coming in answer to God’s signal, and they are coming as a flood, to leave nothing but ruin and distress behind them. No description by Isaiah is more majestic than this one, in which Jehovah, who has exhausted every nearer means of converting His people, lifts His undrooping arm with a "flag to the nations that are far off, and hisses" or whistles "for them from the end of the earth. And, behold, they come with speed, swiftly: there is no weary one nor straggler among them; none slumbers nor sleeps; nor loosed is the girdle of his loins, nor broken the latchet of his shoes; whose arrows are sharpened, and all their bows bent; their horses’ hoofs are like the dint, and their wheels like the whirlwind: a roar have they like the lion’s, and they roar like young lions; yea, they growl and grasp the prey, and carry it off, and there is none to deliver. And they growl upon him that day like the growling of the sea; and if one looks to the land, behold dark and distress, and the light is darkened in the cloudy heaven."

Thus Isaiah leaves Judah to await her doom. But the tones of his weird refrain awaken in our hearts some thoughts which will not let his message go from us just yet.

It will ever be a question, whether men abuse more their sorrows or their joys; but no earnest soul can doubt, which of these abuses is the more fatal. To sin in the one case is to yield to a temptation; to sin in the other is to resist a Divine grace. Sorrow is God’s last message to man; it is God speaking in emphasis. He who abuses it shows that he can shut his ears when God speaks loudest. Therefore heartlessness or impenitence after sorrow is more dangerous than intemperance in joy; its results are always more tragic. Now Isaiah points out that men’s abuse of sorrow is twofold. Men abuse sorrow by mistaking it, and they abuse sorrow by defying it.

Men abuse sorrow by mistaking it, when they see in it nothing but a penal or expiatory force. To many men sorrow is what his devotions were to Louis XI, which having religiously performed, he felt the more brave to sin. So with the Samaritans, who said in the stoutness of their hearts, "The bricks are fallen down, but we will build with hewn stones; the sycamores are cut down, but we will change them into cedars." To speak in this way is happy, but heathenish. It is to call sorrow "bad luck"; it is to hear no voice of God in it, saying, "Be pure; be humble; lean upon Me." This disposition springs from a vulgar conception of God, as of a Being of no permanence in character, easily irritated but relieved by a burst of passion, smartly punishing His people and then leaving them to themselves. It is a temper which says, "God is angry, let us wait a little; God is appeased, let us go ahead again." Over against such vulgar views of a Deity with a temper Isaiah unveils the awful majesty of God in holy wrath: "For all this His anger is not turned away, but His hand is stretched out still." How grim and savage does it appear to our eyes till we understand the thoughts of the sinners to whom it was revealed! God cannot dispel the cowardly thought, that He is anxious only to punish, except by letting His heavy hand abide till it purify also. The permanence of God’s wrath is thus an ennobling, not a stupefying doctrine.

Men also abuse sorrow by defying it, but the end of this is madness. "It forms the greater part of the tragedy of ‘King Lear,’ that the aged monarch, though he has given his throne away, retains his imperiousness of heart, and continues to exhibit a senseless, if sometimes picturesque, pride and selfishness in face of misfortune. Even when he is overthrown he must still command; he fights against the very elements; he is determined to be at least the master of his own sufferings and destiny. But for this the necessary powers fail him; his life thus disordered terminates in madness. It was only by such an affliction that a character like his could be brought to repentance; to humility, which is the parent of true love, and that love in him could be purified. Hence the melancholy close of that tragedy." As Shakespeare has dealt with the king, so Isaiah with the people; he also shows us sorrow when it is defied bringing forth madness. On so impious a height man’s brain grows dizzy, and he falls into that terrible abyss which is not, as some imagine, hell, but God’s last purgatory. Shakespeare brings shattered Lear out of it, and Isaiah has a remnant of the people to save.



WE have now reached that point of Isaiah’s prophesying at which the Messiah becomes the most conspicuous figure on his horizon. Let us take advantage of it to gather into one statement all that the prophet told his generation concerning that exalted and mysterious Person.

When Isaiah began to prophesy, there was current among the people of Judah the expectation of a glorious King. How far the expectation was defined it is impossible to ascertain; but this at least is historically certain. A promise had been made to David {2 Samuel 7:4-17} by which the permanence of his dynasty was assured. His offspring, it was said, should succeed him, yet eternity was promised not to any individual descendant, but to the dynasty. Prophets earlier than Isaiah emphasised this establishment of the house of David, even in the days of Israel’s greatest distress; but they said nothing of a single monarch with whom the fortunes of the house were to be identified. It is clear, however, even without the evidence of the Messianic Psalms, that the hope of such a hero was quick in Israel. Besides the documentary proof of David’s own last words, {2 Samuel 23:1-39} there is the manifest impossibility of dreaming of an ideal kingdom apart from the ideal king. Orientals, and especially Orientals of that period, were incapable of realising the triumph of an idea or an institution without connecting it with a personality. So that we may be perfectly sure, that when Isaiah began to prophesy the people not only counted upon the continuance of David’s dynasty, as they counted upon the presence of Jehovah Himself, but were familiar with the ideal of a monarch, and lived in hope of its realisation.

In the first stage of his prophecy, it is remarkable, Isaiah makes no use of this tradition, although he gives more than one representation of Israel’s future in which it might naturally have appeared. No word is spoken of a Messiah, even in the awful conversation in which Isaiah received from the Eternal the fundamentals of his teaching. The only hope there permitted to him is the survival of a bare, leaderless few of the people, or, to use his own word, a stump, with no sign of a prominent sprout upon it. In connection, however, with the survival of a remnant, as we have said on chapter 6, it is plain that there were two indispensable conditions, which the prophet could not help having to state sooner or later. Indeed, one of them he had mentioned already. It was indispensable that the people should have a leader, and that they should have a rallying-point. They must have their King, and they must have their City. Every reader of Isaiah knows that it is on these two themes the prophet rises to the height of his eloquence-Jerusalem shall remain inviolable; a glorious king shall be given unto her. But it has not been so generally remarked, that Isaiah is far more concerned and consistent about the secure city than about the ideal monarch. From first to last the establishment and peace of Jerusalem are never out of his thoughts, but he speaks only now and then of the King to come. Through long periods of his ministry, though frequently describing the blessed future, he is silent about the Messiah, and even sometimes so groups the inhabitants of that future, as to leave no room for Him among them. Indeed, the silences of Isaiah upon this Person are as remarkable as the brilliant passages in which he paints His endowments and His work.

If we consider the moment, chosen by Isaiah for announcing the Messiah and adding his seal to the national belief in the advent of a glorious Son of David, we find some significance in the fact that it was a moment, when the throne of David was unworthily filled and David’s dynasty was for the first time seriously threatened. It is impossible to dissociate the birth of a boy called Immanuel, and afterwards so closely identified with the fortunes of the whole land, {Isaiah 7:8} from the public expectation of a King of glory; and critics are almost unanimous in recognising Immanuel again in the Prince-of-the-Four-Names in chapter 9. Immanuel, therefore, is the Messiah, the promised King of Israel. But Isaiah makes his own first intimation of Him, not when the throne was worthily filled by an Uzziah or a Jotham, but when a fool and traitor to God abused its power, and the foreign conspiracy to set up a Syrian prince in Jerusalem imperilled the whole dynasty. Perhaps we ought not to overlook the fact, that Isaiah does not here designate Immanuel as a descendant of David. The vagueness with which the mother is described has given rise to a vast amount of speculation as to what particular person the prophet meant by her. But may not Isaiah’s vagueness be the only intention he had in mentioning a mother at all? The whole house of David shared at that moment the sin of the king; {Isaiah 7:13} and it is not presuming too much upon the freedom of our prophet to suppose that he shook himself loose from the tradition which entailed the Messiah upon the royal family of Judah, and at least left it an open question, whether Immanuel might not, in consequence of their sin, spring from some other stock.

It is, however, far less with the origin, than with the experience, of Immanuel that Isaiah is concerned; and those who embark upon curious inquiries, as to who exactly the mother might be, are busying themselves with what the prophet had no interest in, while neglecting that in which really lay the significance of the sign that he offered.

Ahaz by his wilfulness has made a Substitute necessary. But Isaiah is far more taken up with this: that he has actually mortgaged the prospects of that Substitute. The Messiah comes, but the wilfulness of Ahaz has rendered His reign impossible. He, whose advent has hitherto not been foretold except as the beginning of an era of prosperity, and whose person has not been painted but with honour and power, is represented as a helpless and innocent Sufferer-His prospects dissipated by the sins of others, and Himself born only to share His people’s indigence. Such a representation of the Hero’s fate is of the very highest interest. We are accustomed to associate the conception of a suffering Messiah only with a much later development of prophecy, when Israel went into exile; but the conception meets us already here. It is another proof that "Esaias is very bold." He calls his Messiah Immanuel, and yet dares to present Him as nothing but a Sufferer-a Sufferer for the sins of others. Born only to suffer with His people, who should have inherited their throne-that is Isaiah’s first doctrine of the Messiah.

Through the rest of the prophecies published during the Syro-Ephraitic troubles the Sufferer is slowly transformed into a Deliverer. The stages of this transformation are obscure. In chapter 8 Immanuel is no more defined than in chapter 7. He is still only a Name of hope upon an unbroken prospect of devastation. "The stretching out of his wings"-i.e., ., the floods of the Assyrian-"shall fill the breadth of Thy land, O Immanuel." But this time that the prophet utters the Name, he feels inspired by new courage. He grasps at Immanuel as the pledge of ultimate salvation. Let the enemies of Judah work their worst; it shall be in vain, "for Immanuel, God is with us." And then, to our astonishment, while Isaiah is telling us how he arrived at the convictions embodied in this Name, the personality of Immanuel fades away altogether, and Jehovah of hosts Himself is set forth as the sole sanctuary of those who fear Him. There is indeed a double displacement here. Immanuel dissolves in two directions. As a Refuge, He is displaced by Jehovah; as a Sufferer and a Symbol of the sufferings of the land, by a little community of disciples, the first embodiment of the Church, who now, with Isaiah, can do nothing except wait for the Lord.

Then, when the prophet’s yearning thoughts, that will not rest upon so dark a closure, struggle once more, and struggling pass from despair to pity, and from pity to hope, and from hope to triumph in a salvation actually achieved, they hail all at once as the Hero of it the Son whose birth was promised. With an emphasis, which vividly reveals the sense of exhaustion in the living generation and the conviction that only something fresh, and sent straight from God Himself, can now avail Israel, the prophet cries: "Unto us a Child is born; unto us a Son is given." The Messiah appears in a glory that floods His origin out of sight. We cannot see whether He springs from the house of David; but "the government is to be upon His shoulder," and He shall reign "on David’s throne with righteousness forever." His title shall be four-fold: "Wonderful-Counsellor, God-Hero, Father-Everlasting, Prince-of-Peace."

These Four Names do certainly not invite us to grudge them meaning, and they have been claimed as incontrovertible proofs, that the prophet had an absolutely Divine Person in view. One of the most distinguished and deliberate of Old Testament scholars declares that "the Deliverer whom Isaiah promises is nothing less than a God in the metaphysical sense of the word." There are serious reasons, however, which make us doubt this conclusion, and, though we firmly hold that Jesus Christ was God, prevent us from recognising these names as prophecies of His Divinity. Two of the names are capable of being used of an earthly monarch: "Wonderful-Counsellor" and "Prince-of-Peace," which are, within the range of human virtue, in evident contrast to Ahaz, at once foolish in the conception of his policy and warlike in its results. It will be more difficult to get Western minds to see how "Father-Everlasting" may be applied to a mere man, but the ascription of eternity is not unusual in Oriental titles, and in the Old Testament is sometimes rendered to things that perish. When Hebrews speak of any one as everlasting, that does not necessarily imply Divinity. The second name, which we render "God-Hero," is, it is true, used of Jehovah Himself in the very next chapter to this, but in the plural it is also used of men by Ezekiel. {Ezekiel 32:21} The part of it translated God is a frequent name of the Divine Being in the Old Testament, but literally means only mighty, and is by Ezekiel {Ezekiel 31:11} applied to Nebuchadnezzar. We should hesitate, therefore, to understand by these names "a God in the metaphysical sense of the word."

We fall back with greater confidence on other arguments of a more general kind, which apply to all Isaiah’s prophecies of the Messiah. If Isaiah had one revelation rather than another to make, it was the revelation of the unity of God. Against king and people, who crowded their temple with the shrines of many deities, Isaiah presented Jehovah as the one only God. It would simply have nullified the force of his message, and confused the generation to which he brought it, if either he or they had conceived of the Messiah, with the conceiving of Christian theology, as a separate Divine personality.

Again, as Mr. Robertson Smith has very clearly explained, the functions assigned by Isaiah to the King of the future are simply the ordinary duties of the monarchy, for which He is equipped by the indwelling of that Spirit of God, that makes all wise men wise and valorous men valorous. "We believe in a Divine and eternal Saviour, because the work of salvation as we understand it in the light of the New Testament is essentially different from the work of the wisest and best earthly king." But such an earthly king’s work is all Isaiah looks for. So that, so far from its being derogatory to Christ to grudge the sense of Divinity to these names, it is a fact that the more spiritual our notions are of the saving work of Jesus, the less inclined shall we be to claim the prophecies of Isaiah in proof of His Deity.

There is a third argument in the same direction, the force of which we appreciate only when we come to discover how very little from this point onwards Isaiah had to say about the promised king. In chapters 1-39, only three other passages are interpreted as describing the Messiah. The first of Isaiah 11:1-5, dating perhaps from about 720, when Hezekiah was king, tells us, for the first and only time by Isaiah’s lips, that the Messiah is to be a scion of David’s house, and confirms what we have said: that His duties, however perfectly they were to be discharged, were the usual duties of Judah’s monarchy. The second passage, Isaiah 32:1 ff., which dates probably from after 705, when Hezekiah was still king, is, if indeed it refers at all to the Messiah, a still fainter, though sweeter, echo of previous descriptions. While the third passage, Isaiah 33:17 : "Thou shalt see thy king in his beauty," does not refer to the Messiah at all, but to Hezekiah, then prostrate and in sackcloth, with Assyria thundering at the gate of Jerusalem (701). The mass of Isaiah’s predictions of the Messiah thus fall within the reign of Ahaz, and just at the point at which Ahaz proved an unworthy representative of Jehovah, And Judah and Israel were threatened with complete devastation. There is a repetition when Hezekiah has come to the throne. But in the remaining seventeen years, except perhaps for one allusion, Isaiah is silent on the ideal king, although he continued throughout that time to unfold pictures of the blessed future which contained every other Messianic feature, and the realisation of which he placed where he had placed his Prince-of-the-Four-Names-in connection, that is, with the approaching defeat of the Assyrians. Ignoring the Messiah, during these years Isaiah lays all the stress of his prophecy on the inviolability of Jerusalem; and while he promises the recovery of the actually reigning monarch from the distress of the Assyrian invasion, -as if that were what the people chiefly desired to see, and not a brighter, stronger substitute, -he hails Jehovah Himself, in solitary and undeputed sovereignty, as Judge, Lawgiver, Monarch, and Saviour. {Isaiah 33:22} Between Hezekiah, thus restored to his beauty, and Jehovah’s own presence, there is surely no room left for another royal personage. But these very facts-that Isaiah felt most compelled to predict an ideal king when the actual king was unworthy, and that, on the contrary, when the reigning king proved worthy, approximating to the ideal, Isaiah felt no need for another, and indeed in his prophecies left no room for another form, surely a powerful proof that the king he expected was not a supernatural being, but a human personality, extraordinarily endowed by God, one of the descendants of David by ordinary succession, but fulfilling the ideal which his forerunners had missed. Even if we allow that the four names contain among them the predicate of Divinity, we must not overlook the fact that the Prince is only called by them. It is not that "He is," but that "He shall be called, Wonderful-Counsellor, God-Hero, Father-Everlasting, Prince-of-Peace." Nowhere is there a dogmatic statement that He is Divine. Besides, it is inconceivable that if Isaiah, the prophet of the unity of God, had at any time a second Divine Person in his hope, he should have afterwards remained so silent about Him. To interpret the ascription of the Four Names as a conscious definition of Divinity, at all like the Christian conception of Jesus Christ, is to render the silence of Isaiah’s’ later life and the silence of subsequent prophets utterly inexplicable. On these grounds, then, we decline to believe that Isaiah saw in the king of the future "a God in the metaphysical sense of the word." Just because we know the proofs of the Divinity of Jesus to be so spiritual do we feel the uselessness of looking for them to prophecies that manifestly describe purely earthly and civil functions.

But such a conclusion by no means shuts us out from tracing a relation between these prophecies and the appearance of Jesus. The fact, that Isaiah allowed them to go down to posterity, proves that he himself did not count them to have been exhausted in Hezekiah. And this fact of their preservation is ever so much the more significant, that their literal truth was discredited by events. Isaiah had evidently foretold the birth and bitter youth of Immanuel for the near future. Immanuel’s childhood was to begin with the devastation of Ephraim and Syria, and to be passed in circumstances consequent on the devastation of Judah, which was to follow close upon that of her two enemies. But although Ephraim and Syria were immediately spoiled, as Isaiah foresaw, Judah lay in peace all the reign of Ahaz and many years after his death. So that had Immanuel been born in the next twenty-five years after the announcement of His birth, He would not have found in His own land the circumstances which Isaiah foretold as the discipline of His boyhood. Isaiah’s forecast of Judah’s fate was, therefore, falsified by events. That the prophet or his disciples should have allowed it to remain is proof that they believed it to have contents which the history they had lived through neither exhausted nor discredited. In the prophecies of the Messiah there was something ideal, which was as permanent and valid for the future as the prophecy of the Remnant or that of the visible majesty of Jehovah. If the attachment, at which the prophet aimed when he launched these prophecies on the stream of time was denied them by their own age, that did not mean their submersion, but only their freedom to float further down the future and seek attachment there.

This boldness, to entrust to future ages a prophecy discredited by contemporary history, argues a profound belief in its moral meaning and eternal significance; and it is this boldness, in face of disappointment continued from generation to generation in Israel, that constitutes the uniqueness of the Messianic hope among that people. To sublimate this permanent meaning of the prophecies from the contemporary material, with which it is mixed, is not difficult. Isaiah foretells his Prince on the supposition that certain things are fulfilled. When the people are reduced to the last extreme, when there is no more a king to rally or to rule them, when the land is in captivity, when revelation is closed, when, in despair of the darkness of the Lord’s face, men have taken to them that have familiar spirits and wizards that peep and mutter, then, in that last sinful, hopeless estate of man, a Deliverer shall appear. "The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform it." This is the first article of Isaiah’s Messianic creed, and stands back behind the Messiah and all Messianic blessings, their exhaustless origin. Whatsoever man’s sin and darkness be, the Almighty lives, and His zeal is infinite. Therefore it is a fact eternally true, that whatsoever Deliverer His people need and can receive shall be sent to them, and shall be styled by whatsoever names their hearts can best appreciate. Titles shall be given Him to attract their hope and their homage, and not a definition of His nature, of which their theological vocabulary would be incapable. This is the vital kernel of Messianic prophecy in Isaiah. The "zeal of the Lord," kindling the dark thoughts of the prophet as he broods over his people’s need of salvation, suddenly makes a Saviour visible-visible just as He is needed there and then. Isaiah hears Him hailed by titles that satisfy the particular wants of the age, and express men’s thoughts as far up the idea of salvation and majesty as they of that age can rise. But the prophet has also perceived that sin and disaster will so accumulate before the Messiah comes, that, though innocent, He shall have to bear tribulation and pass to His prime through suffering. No one with open mind can deny, that in this moderate estimate of the prophet’s meaning there is a very great deal of the essence of the Gospel as it has been fulfilled in the personal consciousness and saving work of Jesus Christ, -as much of that essence, indeed, as it was possible to communicate to so early a generation, and one whose religious needs were so largely what we call temporal. But if we grant this, and if at the same time we appreciate the uniqueness of such a hope as this of Israel, then surely it must be allowed to have the appearance of a special preparation for Christ’s life and work; and so, to use very moderate words which have been applied to Messianic prophecy in general, it may be taken "as a proof of its true connection with the Gospel dispensation as part of one grand scheme in the counsels of Providence."

Men do not ask when they drink of a streamlet high up on the hills, "Is this going to be a great river?" They are satisfied if it is water enough to quench their thirst. And so it was enough for Old Testament believers if they found in Isaiah’s prophecy of a Deliverer-as they did find-what satisfied their own religious needs, without convincing them to what volumes it should swell. But this does not mean that in using these Old Testament prophecies we Christians should limit our enjoyment of them to the measure of the generation to whom they were addressed. To have known Christ must make the predictions of the Messiah different to a man. You cannot bring so infinite an ocean of blessing into historic connection with these generous, expansive intimations of the Old Testament without its passing into them. If we may use a rough figure, the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament are tidal rivers. They not only run, as we have seen, to their sea, which is Christ; they feel His reflex influence. It is not enough for a Christian to have followed the historical direction of the prophecies, or to have proved their connection with the New Testament as parts of one Divine harmony. Forced back by the fulness of meaning to which he has found their courses open, he returns to find the savour of the New Testament upon them, and that where he descended shallow and tortuous channels, with all the difficulties of historical exploration, he is borne back on full tides of worship. To use the appropriate words of Isaiah, "the Lord is with him there, a place of broad rivers and streams."

With all this, however, we must not forget that, beside these prophecies of a great earthly ruler, there runs another stream of desire and promise, in which we see a much stronger premonition of the fact that a Divine Being shall some day dwell among men. We mean the Scriptures in which it is foretold that Jehovah Himself shall visibly visit Jerusalem. This line of prophecy, taken along with the powerful anthropomorphic representations of God, -astonishing in a people like the Jews, who so abhorred the making of an image of the Deity upon the likeness of anything in heaven and earth, -we hold to be the proper Old Testament instinct that the Divine should take human form and tabernacle amongst men. But this side of our subject-the relation of the anthropomorphism of the Old Testament to the Incarnation-we postpone till we come to the second part of the book of Isaiah, in which the anthropomorphic figures are more frequent and daring than they are here.

O Assyrian, the rod of mine anger, and the staff in their hand is mine indignation.



727-705 B.C.

THE prophecies with which we have been engaged (chapters 2-10:4) fall either before or during the great Assyrian invasion of Syria, undertaken in 734-732 by Tiglath-pileser II, at the invitation of King Ahaz. Nobody has any doubt about that. But when we ask what prophecies of Isaiah come next in chronological order, we raise a storm of answers. We are no longer on the sure ground we have been enjoying.

Under the canonical arrangement the next prophecy is "The Woe upon the Assyrian". {Isaiah 10:5-34} In the course of this the Assyrian is made to boast of having overthrown "Samaria" (Isaiah 10:9-11) "Is not Samaria as Damascus? Shall I not, as I have done unto Samaria and her idols, so do to Jerusalem and her idols?" If "Samaria" mean the capital city of Northern Israel-and the name is never used in these parts of Scripture for anything else-and if the prophet be quoting a boast which the Assyrian was actually in a position to make, and not merely imagining a boast, which he would be likely to make some years afterwards (an entirely improbable view, though held by one great scholar), then an event is here described as past and over which did not happen during Tiglath-pileser’s campaign, nor indeed till twelve years after it. Tiglath-pileser did not require to besiege Samaria in the campaign of 734-32. The king, Pekah, was slain by a conspiracy of his own subjects; and Hoshea, the ringleader, who succeeded, willingly purchased the stability of a usurped throne by homage and tribute to the king of kings. So Tiglath-pileser went home again, satisfied to have punished Israel by carrying away with him the population of Galilee. During his reign there was no further appearance of the Assyrians in Palestine, but at his death in 727 Hoshea, after the fashion of Assyrian vassals when the throne of Nineveh changed occupants, attempted to throw off the yoke of the new king, Salmanassar IV Along with the Phoenician and Philistine cities, Hoshea negotiated an alliance with So, or Seve, the Ethiopian, a usurper who had just succeeded in establishing his supremacy over the land of the Pharaohs. In a year Salmanassar marched south upon the rebels. He took Hoshea prisoner on the borders of his territory (725), but, not content, as his predecessor had been, with the submission of the king, "he came up throughout all the land, and went up to Samaria, and besieged it three years." {2 Kings 17:5} He did not live to see the end of the siege, and Samaria was taken in 722 by Sargon, his successor. Sargon overthrew the kingdom and uprooted the people. The northern tribes were carried away into a captivity, from which as tribes they never returned.

It was evidently this complete overthrow of Samaria by Sargon in 722-721, which Isaiah had behind him when he wrote Isaiah 10:9-11. We must, therefore, date the prophecy after 721, when nothing was left as a bulwark between Judah and the Assyrian. We do so with reluctance. There is much Isaiah 10:5-34 which suits the circumstances of Tiglath-pileser’s invasion. There are phrases and catch-words coinciding with those in chapter 7-9:7; and the whole oration is simply a more elaborate expression of that defiance of Assyria, which inspires such of the previous prophecies as Isaiah 8:9-10. Besides, with the exception of Samaria, all the names in the Assyrian’s boastful catalogue-Carchemish, Calno, Arpad, Hamath, and Damascus-might as justly have been vaunted by the lips of Tiglath-pileser as by those of Sargon. But in spite of these things, which seem to vindicate the close relation of Isaiah 10:5-34 to the prophecies which precede it in the canon, the mention of Samaria as being already destroyed justifies us in divorcing it from them. While they remain dated from before 732, we place it subsequent to 722.

Was Isaiah, then, silent these ten years? Is there no prophecy lying farther on in his book that treats of Samaria as still standing? Besides an address to the fallen Damascus in Isaiah 17:1-11, which we shall take later with the rest of Isaiah’s oracles on foreign states, there is one large prophecy, chapter 28, which opens with a description of the magnates of Samaria lolling in drunken security on their vine-crowned hill, but God’s storms are ready to break. Samaria has not yet fallen, but is threatened and shall fall soon. The first part of chapter 28, can only refer to the year in which Salmanassar advanced upon Samaria-726 or 725. There is nothing in the rest of it to corroborate this date; but the fact, that there are several turns of thought and speech very similar to turns of thought and speech in Isaiah 10:5-34, makes us the bolder to take away chapter 28 from its present connection with 29-32, and place it just before Isaiah 10:5-34.

Here then is our next group of prophecies, all dating from the first seven years of the reign of Hezekiah: 28, a warning addressed to the politicians of Jerusalem from the impending fate of those of Samaria (date 725); Isaiah 10:5-34, a woe upon the Assyrian (date about 720), describing his boasts and his progress in conquest till his sudden crash by the walls of Jerusalem; 11, of date uncertain, for it reflects no historical circumstance, but standing in such artistic contrast to 10 that the two must be treated together; and 12, a hymn of salvation, which forms a fitting conclusion to 11. With these we shall take the few fragments of the book of Isaiah which belong to the fifteen years 720-705, and are as straws to show how Judah all that time was drifting down to alliance with Egypt-20, Isaiah 21:1-10; Isaiah 38:1-22; Isaiah 39:1-8. This will bring us to 705, and the beginning of a new series of prophecies, the richest of Isaiah’s life, and the subject of our third book.



ABOUT 721 B.C.

Isaiah 10:5-34IN chapter 28 Isaiah, speaking in the year 725 when Salmanassar IV was marching on Samaria, had explained to the politicians of Jerusalem how entirely the Assyrian host was in the hand of Jehovah for the punishment of Samaria and the punishment and purification of Judah. The invasion which in that year loomed so awful was not unbridled force of destruction, implying the utter annihilation of God’s people, as Damascus, Arpad, and Hamath had been annihilated. It was Jehovah’s instrument for purifying His people, with its appointed term and its glorious intentions of fruitfulness and peace.

In the tenth chapter Isaiah turns with this truth to defy the Assyrian himself. It is four years later. Samaria has fallen. The judgment which the prophet spoke upon the luxurious capital has been fulfilled. All Ephraim is an Assyrian province. Judah stands for the first time face to face with Assyria. From Samaria to the borders of Judah is not quite two days’ march, to the walls of Jerusalem a little over two. Now shall the Jews be able to put to the test their prophet’s promise! What can possibly prevent Sargon from making Zion as Samaria, and carrying her people away in the track of the northern tribes to captivity?

There was a very fallacious human reason, and there was a very sound Divine one.

The fallacious human reason was the alliance which Ahaz had made with Assyria. In what state that alliance now was does not clearly appear, but the most optimist of the Assyrian party at Jerusalem could not, after all that had happened, be feeling quite comfortable about it. The Assyrian was as unscrupulous as themselves. There was too much impetus in the rush of his northern floods to respect a tiny province like Judah, treaty or no treaty. Besides, Sargon had as good reason to suspect Jerusalem of intriguing with Egypt, as he had against Samaria or the Philistine cities; and the Assyrian kings had already shown their meaning of the covenant with Ahaz by stripping Judah of enormous tribute.

So Isaiah discounts in this prophecy Judah’s treaty with Assyria. He speaks as if nothing was likely to prevent the Assyrian’s immediate march upon Jerusalem. He puts into Sargon’s mouth the intention of this, and makes him boast of the ease with which it can be accomplished (Isaiah 10:7-11). In the end of the prophecy he even describes the probable itinerary of the invader from the borders of Judah to his arrival on the heights, over against the Holy City (Isaiah 10:27-32),

"Cometh up from the North the Destroyer.

He is come upon Ai; marcheth through Migron; at Michmash musters his baggage.

They have passed through the Pass; ‘Let Geba be our bivouac.’

Terror-struck is Ramah; Gibeah of Saul hath fled.

Make shrill thy voice, O daughter of Gallim! Listen, Laishah! Answer her Anathoth!

In mad flight is Madmenah; the dwellers in Gebim gather their stuff to flee.

This very day he halteth at Nob; he waveth his hand at the Mount of the Daughter of Zion, the Hill of Jerusalem!"

This is not actual fact; but it is vision of what may take place today or tomorrow. For there is nothing-not even that miserable treaty-to prevent such a violation of Jewish territory, within which, it ought to be kept in mind, lie all the places named by the prophet.

But the invasion of Judah and the arrival of the Assyrian on the heights over against Jerusalem does not mean that the Holy City and the shrine of Jehovah of hosts are to be destroyed; does not mean that all the prophecies of Isaiah about the security of this rallying-place for the remnant of God’s people are to be annulled, and Israel annihilated. For just at the moment of the Assyrian’s triumph, when he brandishes his hand over Jerusalem, as if he would harry it like a bird’s nest, Isaiah beholds him struck down, and crash like the fall of a whole Lebanon of cedars (Isaiah 10:33-34).

Behold the Lord, Jehovah of hosts, lopping the topmost boughs with a sudden crash,

And the high ones of stature hewn down, and the lofty are brought low!

"Yea, He moweth down the thickets of the forest with iron, and Lebanon by a Mighty One falleth."

All this is poetry. We are not to suppose that the prophet actually expected the Assyrian to take the route, which he has laid down for him with so much detail. As a matter of fact, Sargon did not advance across the Jewish frontier, but turned away by the coast-land of Philistia to meet his enemy of Egypt, whom he defeated at Rafia, and then went home to Nineveh, leaving Judah alone. And, although some twenty years later the Assyrian did appear before Jerusalem, as threatening as Isaiah describes, and was cut down in as sudden and miraculous a manner, yet it was not by the itinerary Isaiah here marked for him that he came, but in quite another direction: from the southwest. What Isaiah merely insists upon is that there is nothing in that wretched treaty of Ahaz-that fallacious human reason-to keep Sargon from overrunning Judah to the very walls of Jerusalem, but that, even though he does so, there is a most sure Divine reason for the Holy City remaining inviolate.

The Assyrian expected to take Jerusalem. But he is not his own master. Though he knows it not, and his only instinct is that of destruction (Isaiah 10:7), be is the rod in God’s hand. And when God shall have used him for the needed punishment of Judah, then will God visit upon him his arrogance and brutality. This man, who says he will exploit the whole earth as he harries a bird’s nest (Isaiah 10:14), who believes in nothing but himself, saying, "By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I am prudent." is but the instrument of God. and all his boasting is that of "the axe against him that heweth therewith and of the saw against him that wieldeth it." "As if," says the prophet, with a scorn still fresh for those who make material force the ultimate power in the universe-"As if a rod should shake them that lift it up, or as if a staff should lift up him that is not wood." By the way, Isaiah has a word for his countrymen. What folly is theirs, who now put all their trust in this world-force, and at another time cower in abject fear before it! Must he again bid them look higher, and see that Assyria is only the agent in God’s work of first punishing the whole land, but afterwards redeeming His people! In the midst of denunciation the prophet’s stern voice breaks into the promise of this later hope (Isaiah 10:24-27); and at last the crash of the fallen Assyrian is scarcely still, before Isaiah has begun to declare a most glorious future of grace for Israel. But this carries us over into the eleventh chapter, and we had better first of all gather up the lessons of the tenth.

This prophecy of Isaiah contains a great Gospel and two great Protests, which the prophet was enabled to make in the strength of it: one against the Atheism of Force, and one against the Atheism of Fear.

The Gospel of the chapter is just that which we have already emphasised as the gospel par excellence of Isaiah: the Lord exalted in righteousness. God supreme over the supremest men and forces of the world. But we now see it carried to a height of daring not reached before. This was the first time that any man faced the sovereign force of the world in the full sweep of victory, and told himself and his fellow-men: "This is not travelling in the greatness of its own strength, but is simply a dead, unconscious instrument in the hand of God." Let us, at the cost of a little repetition, get at the heart of this. We shall find it wonderfully modern.

Belief in God had hitherto been local and circumscribed. Each nation, as Isaiah tells us, had walked in the name of its god, and limited his power and prevision to its own life and territory. We do not blame the peoples for this. Their conception of God was narrow, because their life was narrow, and they confined the power of their deity to their own borders because, in fact, their thoughts seldom strayed beyond. But now the barriers, that had so long enclosed mankind in narrow circles, were being broken down. Men’s thoughts travelled through the breaches, and learned that outside their fatherland there lay the world. Their lives thereupon widened immensely, but their theologies stood still. They felt the great forces which shook the world, but their gods remained the same petty, provincial deities. Then came this great Assyrian power, hurtling through the nations, laughing at their gods as idols, boasting that it was by his own strength he overcame them, and to simple eyes making good his boast as he harried the whole earth like a bird’s nest. No wonder that men’s hearts were drawn from the unseen spiritualities to this very visible brutality! No wonder all real faith in the gods seemed to be dying out, and that men made it the business of their lives to seek peace with this world-force, that was carrying everything, including the gods themselves, before it! Mankind was in danger of practical atheism: of placing, as Isaiah tells us, the ultimate faith which belongs to a righteous God in this brute force: of substituting embassies for prayers, tribute for sacrifice, and the tricks and compromises of diplomacy for the endeavour to live a holy and righteous life. Behold, what questions were at issue: questions that have come up again and again in the history of human thought, and that are tugging at us today harder than ever!-whether the visible, sensible forces of the universe, that break so rudely in upon our primitive theologies, are what we men have to make our peace with, or whether there is behind them a Being, who wields them for purposes, far transcending them, of justice and of love; whether, in short, we are to be materialists or believers in God. It is the same old, ever-new debate. The factors of it have only changed a little as we have become more learned. Where Isaiah felt the Assyrians, we are confronted by the evolution of nature and history, and the material forces into which it sometimes looks ominously like as if these could be analysed. Everything that has come forcibly and gloriously to the front of things, every drift that appears to dominate history, all that asserts its claim on our wonder, and offers its own simple and strong solution of our life-is our Assyria. It is precisely now, as then. a rush of new powers across the horizon of our knowledge, which makes the God, who was sufficient for the narrower knowledge of yesterday, seem petty and old-fashioned today. This problem no generation can escape, whose vision of the world has become wider than that of its predecessors. But Isaiah’s greatness lay in this: that it was given to him to attack the problem the first time it presented itself to humanity with any serious force, and that he applied to it the only sure solution-a more lofty and spiritual view of God than the one which it had found wanting. We may thus paraphrase his argument: "Give me a God who is more than a national patron, give me a God who cares only for righteousness, and I say that every material force the world exhibits is nothing but subordinate to Him. Brute force cannot be anything but an instrument, "an axe," "a saw," something essentially mechanical and in need of an arm to lift it. Postulate a supreme and righteous Ruler of the world, and you not only have all its movements explained, but may rest assured that it shall only be permitted to execute justice and purify men. The world cannot prevent their salvation, if God have willed this."

Isaiah’s problem was thus the fundamental one between faith and atheism; but we must notice that it did not arise theoretically, nor did he meet it by an abstract proposition. This fundamental religious question-whether men are to trust in the visible forces of the world or in the invisible God-came up as a bit of practical politics. It was not to Isaiah a philosophical or theological. question. It was an affair in the foreign policy of Judah.

Except to a few thinkers, the question between materialism and faith never does present itself as one of abstract argument. To the mass of men it is always a question of practical life. Statesmen meet it in their policies, private persons in the conduct of their fortunes. Few of us trouble our heads about an intellectual atheism, but the temptations to practical atheism abound unto us all day by day. Materialism never presents itself as a mere ism; it always takes some concrete form. Our Assyria may be the world in Christ’s sense, that flood of successful, heartless, unscrupulous, scornful forces which burst on our innocence, with their challenge to make terms and pay tribute, or go down straightway in the struggle for existence.

Beside their frank and forceful demands, how commonplace and irrelevant do the simple precepts of religion often seem; and how the great brazen laugh of the world seems to bleach the beauty out of purity and honour! According to our temper, we either cower before its insolence, whining that character and energy of struggle and religious peace are impossible against it; and that is the Atheism of Fear, with which Isaiah charged the men of Jerusalem, when they were paralysed before Assyria. Or we seek to ensure ourselves against disaster by alliance with the world. We make ourselves one with it, its subjects and imitators. We absorb the world’s temper, get to believe in nothing but success, regard men only as they can be useful to us, and think so exclusively of ourselves as to lose the faculty of imagining about us any other right or need of pity. And all that is the Atheism of Force, with which Isaiah charged the Assyrian. It is useless to think that we common men cannot possibly sin after the grand manner of this imperial monster. In our measure we fatally can. In this commercial age private persons very easily rise to a position of influence, which gives almost as vast a stage for egotism to display itself as the Assyrian boasted. But after all the human Ego needs very little room to develop the possibilities of atheism that are in it. An idol is an idol, whether you put it on a small or a large pedestal. A little man with a little work may as easily stand between himself and God, as an emperor with the world at his feet. Forgetfulness that he is a servant, a trader on graciously entrusted capital - and then at the best an unprofitable one-is not less sinful in a small egotist than in a great one; it is only very much more ridiculous, than Isaiah, with his scorn, has made it to appear in the Assyrian.

Or our Assyria may be the forces of nature, which have swept upon the knowledge of this generation with the novelty and impetus, with which the northern hosts burst across the horizon of Israel. Men today, in the course of their education, become acquainted with laws and forces, which dwarf the simpler theologies of their boyhood, pretty much as the primitive beliefs of Israel dwindled before the arrogant face of Assyria. The alternative confronts them either to retain, with a narrowed and fearful heart, their old conceptions of God, or to find their enthusiasm in studying, and their duty in relating themselves to, the forces of nature alone. If this be the only alternative, there can be no doubt but that most men will take the latter course. We ought as little to wonder at men of today abandoning certain theologies and forms of religion for a downright naturalism-for the study of powers that appeal so much to the curiosity and reverence of man-as we wonder at the poor Jews of the eighth century before Christ forsaking their provincial conceptions of God as a tribal Deity for homage to this great Assyrian, who handled the nations and their gods as his playthings. But is such the only alternative? Is there no higher and sovereign conception of God, in which even these natural forces may find their explanation and term? Isaiah found such a conception for his problem, and his problem was very similar to ours. Beneath his idea of God, exalted and spiritual, even the imperial Assyrian, in all his arrogance, fell subordinate and serviceable. The prophet’s faith never wavered, and in the end was vindicated by history. Shall we not at least attempt his method of solution? We could not do better than by taking his factors. Isaiah got a God more powerful than Assyria, by simply exalting the old God of his nation in righteousness. This Hebrew was saved from the terrible conclusion, that the selfish, cruel force which in his day carried all before it was the highest power in life, simply by believing righteousness to be more exalted still. But have twenty-five centuries made any change upon this power, by which Isaiah interpreted history and overcame the world? Is righteousness less sovereign now than then, or was conscience more imperative when it spoke in Hebrew than when it speaks in English? Among the decrees of nature, at last interpreted for us in all their scope and reiterated upon our imaginations by the ablest men of the age, truth, purity, and civic justice as confidently assert their ultimate victory, as when they were threatened merely by the arrogance of a human despot. The discipline of science and the glories of the worship of nature are indeed justly vaunted over the childish and narrow-minded ideas of God that prevail in much of our average Christianity. But more glorious than anything in earth or heaven is character, and the adoration of a holy and loving will makes more for "victory and law" than the discipline or the enthusiasm of science. Therefore, if our conceptions of God are overwhelmed by what we know of nature, let us seek to enlarge and spiritualise them. Let us insist, as Isaiah did, upon His righteousness, until our God once more appear indubitably supreme.

Otherwise we are left with the intolerable paradox, that truth and honesty, patience and love of man to man, are after all but the playthings and victims of force; that, to adapt the words of Isaiah, the rod really shakes him who lifts it up, and the staff is wielding that which is not wood.

The Expositor's Bible

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