Isaiah 33
Expositor's Bible Commentary
Woe to thee that spoilest, and thou wast not spoiled; and dealest treacherously, and they dealt not treacherously with thee! when thou shalt cease to spoil, thou shalt be spoiled; and when thou shalt make an end to deal treacherously, they shall deal treacherously with thee.


701 B.C.

INTO this fourth book we put all the rest of the prophecies of the Book of Isaiah, that have to do with the prophet’s own time: chapters 1, 22 and 33, with the narrative in 36, 37. All these refer to the only Assyrian invasion of Judah and siege of Jerusalem: that undertaken by Sennacherib in 701.

It is, however, right to remember once more, that many authorities maintain that there were two Assyrian invasions of Judah-one by Sargon in 711, the other by Sennacherib in 701-and that chapters 1 and 22 (as well as Isaiah 10:5-34) belong to the former of these. The theory is ingenious and tempting; but, in the silence of the Assyrian annals about any invasion of Judah by Sargon, it is impossible to adopt it. And although Chapters 1 and 22 differ very greatly in tone from chapter 33, yet to account for the difference it is not necessary to suppose two different invasions, with a considerable period between them. Virtually, as will appear in the course of our exposition, Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah was a double one.

1. The first time Sennacherib’s army invaded Judah they took all the fenced cities, and probably invested Jerusalem, but withdrew on payment of tribute and the surrender of the casus belli, the Assyrian Vassal Padi, whom the Ekronites had deposed and given over to the keeping of Hezekiah. To this invasion refer Isaiah 1:1-31; Isaiah 22:1-25. and the first verse of 36.: "Now it came to pass in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah that Sennacherib, King of Assyria, came up against all the fenced cities of Judah and took them." This verse is the same as 2 Kings 18:13, to which, however, there is added in 2 Kings 18:14-16 an account of the tribute sent by Hezekiah to Sennacherib at Lachish, that is not included in the narrative in Isaiah. Compare 2 Chronicles 32:1.

2. But scarcely had the tribute been paid when Sennacherib, himself advancing to meet Egypt, sent back upon Jerusalem a second army of investment, with which was the Rabshakeh; and this was the army that so mysteriously disappeared from the eyes of the besieged. To the treacherous return of the Assyrians and the sudden deliverance of Jerusalem from their grasp refer Isaiah 33:1-24, Isaiah 36:2-22, with the fuller and evidently original narrative in 2 Kings 18:17-19. Compare 2 Chronicles 32:9-23.

To the history of this double attempt upon Jerusalem in 701-chapters 36 and 37 - there has been appended in 38 and 3 an account of Hezekiah’s illness and of an embassy to him from Babylon. These events probably happened some years before Sennacherib’s invasion. But it will be most convenient for us to take them in the order in which they stand in the canon. They wilt naturally lead us up to a question that it is necessary we should discuss before taking leave of Isaiah-whether this great prophet of the endurance of the kingdom of God upon earth had any gospel for the individual who dropped away from it into death.



701 B.C.

Isaiah 22:1-25 Contrasted With 33

THE collapse of Jewish faith and patriotism in the face of the enemy was complete. Final and absolute did Isaiah’s sentence ring out: "Surely this iniquity shall not be purged from you till ye die, saith Jehovah of hosts." So we learn from chapter 22, written, as we conceive, in 701, when the Assyrian armies had at last invested Jerusalem. But in chapter 33, which critics unite in placing a few months later in the same year, Isaiah’s tone is entirely changed. He hurls the woe of the Lord upon the Assyrians; confidently announces their immediate destruction; turns, while the whole city’s faith hangs upon him, in supplication to the Lord; and announces the stability of Jerusalem, her peace, her glory, and the forgiveness of all her sins. It is this great moral difference between chapters 22 and 33-prophecies that must have been delivered within a few months of each other-which this chapter seeks to expound.

In spite of her collapse, as pictured in chapter 22, Jerusalem was not taken. Her rulers fled; her people, as if death were certain, betook themselves to dissipation; and yet the city did not fall into the hands of the Assyrian. Sennacherib himself does not pretend to have taken Jerusalem. He tells us how closely he invested Jerusalem, but he does not add that he took it, a silence which is the more significant that he records the capture of every other town which his armies attempted. He says that "Hezekiah offered him tribute, and details the amount he received." He adds that the tribute was not paid at Jerusalem (as it would have been had Jerusalem been conquered), but that for "the payment of the tribute and the performance of homage" Hezekiah "despatched his envoy" to him when he was at some distance from Jerusalem. All this agrees with the Bible narrative. In the book of Kings we are told how Hezekiah sent to the King of Assyria at Lachish, saying, "I have offended; return from me; that which thou puttest upon me I will bear. And the King of Assyria appointed unto Hezekiah, King of Judah, three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. And Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was found in the house of Jehovah and in the treasures of the king’s house. At the same time did Hezekiah cut off the gold from the doors of the temple of Jehovah, and from the pillars which Hezekiah, King of Judah, had overlaid, and gave it to the King of Assyria." It was indeed a sore submission, when even the Temple of the Lord had to be stripped of its gold. But it purchased the relief of the city, and no price was too high to pay for that at such a moment as the present, when the populace was demoralised. We may even see Isaiah’s hand in the submission. The integrity of Jerusalem was the one fact on which the word of the Lord had been pledged, on which the promised remnant would be rallied. The Assyrian must not be able to say that he has made Zion’s God like the gods of the heathen; and her people must see that even when they have given her up Jehovah can hold her for Himself, though in holding He tear and wound. {Isaiah 31:4} The Temple is greater than the gold of the Temple; let even the latter be stripped off and sold to the heathen if it can purchase the integrity of the former. So Jerusalem remained inviolate; she was still "the virgin, the daughter of Zion."

And now upon the redeemed city Isaiah could proceed to rebuild the shattered faith and morals of her people. He could say to them, "Everything has turned out as, by the word of the Lord, I said it should. The Assyrian has come down; Egypt has failed you. Your politicians, with their scorn of religion and their confidence in their cleverness, have deserted you. I told you that your numberless sacrifices and pomp of unreal religion would avail you nothing in your day of disaster, and lo when this came, your religion collapsed. Your abounding wickedness, I said, could only close in your ruin and desertion by God. But one promise I kept steadfast: that Jerusalem would not fall; and to your penitence, whenever it should be real, I assured forgiveness. Jerusalem stands today, according to my word; and I repeat my gospel. History has vindicated my word, but ‘Come now, let us bring our reasoning to a close, saith the Lord; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow: though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.’ I call upon you to build again on your redeemed city, and by the grace of this pardon, the fallen ruins of your life."

Some such sermon-if indeed not actually part of chapter 1-we must conceive Isaiah to have delivered to the people when Hezekiah had bought off Sennacherib, for we find the state of Jerusalem suddenly altered. Instead of the panic, which imagined the daily capture of the city, and rushed in hectic holiday to the housetops, crying, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die," we see the citizens back upon the walls, trembling yet trusting. Instead of sweeping past Isaiah in their revelry and leaving him to feel that after forty years of travail he had lost all his influence with them, we see them gathering round about him, as their single hope and confidence (chapter 37). King and people look to Isaiah as their counsellor, and cannot answer the enemy without consulting him. What a change from the days of the Egyptian alliance, embassies sent off against his remonstrance, and intrigues developed without his knowledge; when Ahaz insulted him, and the drunken magnates mimicked him, and, in order to rouse an indolent people, he had to walk about the streets of Jerusalem for three years, stripped like a captive! Truly this was the day of Isaiah’s triumph, when God by events vindicated his prophecy, and all the people acknowledged his leadership.

It was the hour of the prophet’s triumph, but the nation had as yet only trials before it. God has not done with nations or men when He has forgiven them. This people, whom of His grace, and in spite of themselves, God had saved from destruction, stood on the brink of another trial. God had given them a new lease of life, but it was immediately to pass through the furnace. They had bought off Sennacherib, but Sennacherib came back.

When Sennacherib got the tribute, he repented of the treaty he had made with Hezekiah. He may have felt that it was a mistake to leave in his rear so powerful a fortress, while he had still to complete the overthrow of the Egyptians. So, in spite of the tribute, he sent a force back to Jerusalem to demand her surrender. We can imagine the moral effect upon King Hezekiah and his people. It was enough to sting the most demoralised into courage. Sennacherib had doubtless expected so pliant a king and so crushed a people to yield at once. But we may confidently picture the joy of Isaiah, as he felt the return of the Assyrians to be the very thing required to restore spirit to his demoralised countrymen. Here was a foe, whom they could face with a sense of justice, and not, as they had met him before, in carnal confidence and the pride of their own cleverness. Now was to be a war not, like former wars, undertaken merely for party glory, but with the purest feelings of patriotism and the firmest sanctions of religion, a campaign to be entered upon, not with Pharaoh’s support and the strength of Egyptian chariots, but with God Himself as an ally-of which it could be said to Judah, "Thy righteousness shall go before thee. And the glory of the Lord shall be thy reward."

On what free, exultant wings the spirit of Isaiah must have risen to the sublime occasion! We know him as by nature an ardent patriot and passionate lover of his city, but through circumstance her pitiless critic and unsparing judge. In all the literature of patriotism there are no finer odes and orations than those which it owes to him; from no lips came stronger songs of war, and no heart rejoiced more in the valour that turns the battle from the gate. But till now Isaiah’s patriotism had been chiefly a conscience of his country’s sins, his passionate love for Jerusalem repressed by as stern a loyalty to righteousness, and all his eloquence and courage spent in holding his people from war and persuading them to returning and rest. At last this conflict is at an end. The stubbornness of Judah, which has divided like some rock the current of her prophet’s energies, and forced it back writhing and eddying upon itself, is removed. Isaiah’s faith and his patriotism run free with the force of twin-tides in one channel, and we hear the fulness of their roar as they leap together upon the enemies of God and the fatherland. "Woe to thee, thou spoiler, and thou wast not spoiled, thou treacherous dealer, and. they did not deal treacherously with thee! Whenever thou ceasest to spoil, thou shalt be spoiled; and whenever thou hast made an end to deal treacherously, they shall deal treacherously with thee. O Jehovah, be gracious unto us; for Thee have we waited: be Thou their arm every morning, our salvation also in the time of trouble. From the noise of a surging the peoples have fled; from the lifting up of Thyself the nations are scattered. And gathered is your spoil, the gathering of the caterpillar; like the leaping of locusts, they are leaping upon it. Exalted is Jehovah; yea, He dwelleth on high: He hath filled Zion with justice and righteousness. And there shall be stability of thy times, wealth of salvation, wisdom and knowledge; the fear of Jehovah, it shall be his treasure". {Isaiah 33:1-6}

Thus, then, do we propose to bridge the gulf which lies between chapters 1 and 22 on the one hand and chapter 33, on the other. If they are all to be dated from the year 701, some such bridge is necessary. And the one we have traced is both morally sufficient and in harmony with what we know to have been the course of events.

What do we learn from it all? We learn a great deal upon that truth which chapter 33 closes by announcing-the truth of Divine forgiveness.

The forgiveness of God is the foundation of every bridge from a hopeless past to a courageous present. That God can make the past be for guilt as though it had not been is always to Isaiah the assurance of the future. An old Greek miniature represents him with Night behind him, veiled and sullen and holding a reversed torch. But before him stands Dawn and Innocence, a little child, with bright face and forward step and torch erect and burning. From above a hand pours light upon the face of the prophet, turned upwards. It is the message of a Divine pardon. Never did prophet more wearily feel the moral continuity of the generations, the lingering and ineradicable effects of crime. Only faith in a pardoning God could have enabled him, with such conviction of the inseparableness of yesterday and tomorrow, to make divorce between them, and turning his back on the past, as this miniature represents, hail the future as Immanuel, a child of infinite promise.

From exposing and scourging the past, from proving it corrupt and pregnant with poison for all the future, Isaiah will turn on a single verse, and give us a future without war, sorrow, or fraud. His pivot is ever the pardon of God. But nowhere is his faith in this so powerful, his turning upon it so swift, as at this period of Jerusalem’s collapse, when, having sentenced the people to death for their iniquity-"It was revealed in mine ears by Jehovah of hosts, Surely this iniquity shall not be purged from you till ye die, saith the Lord, Jehovah of hosts" {Isaiah 22:14} -he swings round on his promise of a little before-"Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow"-and to the people’s penitence pronounces in the last verse of chapter 33, a final absolution: "The inhabitant shall not say, I am sick; the people that dwell therein are forgiven their iniquity." If chapter 33 be, as many think, Isaiah’s latest oracle, then we have the literal crown of all his prophesying in these two words: forgiven iniquity. It is as he put it early that same year: "Come now, let us bring our reasoning to a close; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow: though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool." If man is to have a future, this must be the conclusion of all his past.

But the absoluteness of God’s pardon, making the past as though it had not been, is not the only lesson which the spiritual experience of Jerusalem in that awful year of 701 has for us. Isaiah’s gospel of forgiveness is nothing less than this: that when God gives pardon He gives himself. The name of the blessed future, which is entered through pardon-as in that miniature, a child-is Immanuel: God-with-us. And if it be correct that we owe the forty-sixth Psalm to these months when the Assyrian came back upon Jerusalem, then we see how the city, that had abandoned God, is yet able to sing when she is pardoned, "God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in the midst of troubles." And this gospel of forgiveness is not only Isaiah’s. According to the whole Bible, there is but one thing which separates man from God-that is sin, and when sin is done away with, God cannot be kept from man. In giving pardon to man, God gives back to man Himself. How gloriously evident this truth becomes in the New Testament! Christ, who is set before us as the Lamb of God, who beareth the sins of the world, is also Immanuel-God-with-us. The Sacrament, which most plainly seals to the believer the value of the One Sacrifice for sin, is the Sacrament in which the believer feeds upon Christ and appropriates Him. The sinner, who comes to Christ, not only receives pardon for Christ’s sake, but receives Christ. Forgiveness means nothing less than this: that in giving pardon God gives Himself.

But if forgiveness mean all this, then the objections frequently brought against a conveyance of it so unconditioned as that of Isaiah fall to the ground. Forgiveness of such a kind cannot be either unjust or demoralising. On the contrary, we see Jerusalem permoralised by it. At first, it is true, the sense of weakness and fear abounds, as we learn from the narrative in chapters 36 and 37. But where there was vanity, recklessness, and despair, giving way to dissipation, there is now humility, discipline, and a leaning upon God, that are led up to confidence and exultation. Jerusalem’s experience is just another proof that any moral results are possible to so great a process as the return of God to the soul. Awful is the responsibility of them who receive such a Gift and such a Guest; but the sense of that awfulness is the atmosphere, in which obedience and holiness and the courage that is born of both love best to grow. One can understand men scoffing at messages of pardon so unconditioned as Isaiah’s, who think they "mean no more than a clean slate." Taken in this sense, the gospel of forgiveness must prove a savour of death unto death. But just as Jerusalem interpreted the message of her pardon to mean that "God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved," and straightway obedience was in all her hearts, and courage upon all her walls, so neither to us can be futile the New Testament form of the same gospel, which makes our pardoned soul the friend of God, accepted in the Beloved, and our body His holy temple.

Upon one other point connected with the forgiveness of sins we get instruction from the experience of Jerusalem. A man has difficulty in squaring his sense of forgiveness with the return on the back of it of his old temptations and trials, with the hostility of fortune and with the inexorableness of nature. Grace has spoken to his heart, but Providence bears more hard upon him than ever. Pardon does not change the outside of life; it does not immediately modify the movements of history, or suspend the laws of nature. Although God has forgiven Jerusalem, Assyria comes back to besiege her. Although the penitent be truly reconciled to God, the constitutional results of his fall remain: the frequency of temptation, the power of habit, the bias and facility downwards, the physical and social consequences. Pardon changes none of these things. It does not keep off the Assyrians.

But if pardon means the return of God to the soul, then in this we have the secret of the return of the foe. Men could not try nor develop a sense of the former except by their experience of the latter. We have seen why Isaiah must have welcomed the perfidious re-appearance of the Assyrians after he had helped to buy them off. Nothing could better test the sincerity of Jerusalem’s repentance, or rally her dissipated forces. Had the Assyrians not returned, the Jews would have had no experimental proof of God’s restored presence, and the great miracle would never have happened that rang through human history for evermore-a trumpet-call to faith in the God of Israel. And so still "the Lord scourgeth every son whom He receiveth," because He would put our penitence to the test; because He would discipline our disorganised affections, and give conscience and will a chance of wiping out defeat by victory; because He would baptise us with the most powerful baptism possible-the sense of being trusted once more to face the enemy upon the fields of our disgrace.

That is why the Assyrians came back to Jerusalem, and that is why temptations and penalties still pursue the penitent and forgiven.



701 B.C.

Isaiah 33:1-24WE have seen how the sense of forgiveness and the exultant confidence, which fill chapter 33, were brought about within a few months after the sentence of death, that cast so deep a gloom on chapter 22. We have expounded some of the contents of chapter 33, but have not exhausted the chapter; and in particular we have not touched one of Isaiah’s principles, which there finds perhaps its finest expression: the consuming righteousness of God.

There is no doubt that chapter 33, refers to the sudden disappearance of the Assyrian from the walls of Jerusalem. It was written, part perhaps on the eve of that deliverance, part immediately after morning broke upon the vanished host. Before those verses which picture the disappearance of the investing army, we ought in strict chronological order to take the narrative in chapters 36 and 37-the return of the besiegers, the insolence of the Rabshakeh, the prostration of Hezekiah, Isaiah’s solitary faith, and the sudden disappearance of the Assyrian. It will be more convenient, however, since we have already entered chapter 33, to finish it, and then to take the narrative of the events which led up to it.

The opening verses of chapter 33, fit the very moment of the crisis, as if Isaiah had flung them across the walls in the teeth of the Rabshakeh and the second embassy from Sennacherib, who had returned to demand the surrender of the city in spite of Hezekiah’s tribute for her integrity: "Woe to thee, thou spoiler, and thou wast not spoiled, thou treacherous dealer, and they did not deal treacherously with thee! When thou ceasest to spoil thou shalt be spoiled; and when thou makest an end to deal treacherously, they shall deal treacherously with thee." Then follows the prayer, as already quoted, and the confidence in the security of Jerusalem (Isaiah 33:2). A new paragraph (Isaiah 33:7-12) describes Rabshakeh and his company demanding the surrender of the city; the disappointment of the ambassadors who had been sent to treat with Sennacherib (Isaiah 33:7); the perfidy of the great king, who had broken the covenant they had made with him and swept his armies back upon Judah (Isaiah 33:8); the disheartening of the land under this new shock (Isaiah 33:9); and the resolution of the Lord now to rise and scatter the invaders: "Now will I arise, saith Jehovah; now will I lift up Myself; now will I be exalted. Ye shall conceive chaff; ye shall bring forth stubble; your breath is a fire, that shall devour you. And the peoples shall be as the burnings of lime, as thorns cut down that are burned in the fire" (Isaiah 33:10-12).

After an application of this same fire of God’s righteousness to the sinners within Jerusalem, to which we shall presently return, the rest of the chapter pictures the stunned populace awaking to the fact that they are free. Is the Assyrian really gone, or do the Jews dream as they crowd the walls, and see no trace of him? Have they all vanished-the Rabshakeh, "by the conduit of the upper pool, with his loud voice" and insults; the scribes to whom they handed the tribute, and who prolonged the agony by counting it under their eyes; the scouts and engineers insolently walking about Zion and mapping out her walls for the assault; the close investment of barbarian hordes, with their awesome speech and uncouth looks! "Where is he that counted? where is he that weighed the tribute? where is he that counted the towers? Thou shalt not see the fierce people, a people of a deep speech that thou canst not perceive, of a strange tongue that thou canst not understand." They have vanished. Hezekiah may lift his head again. O people-sore at heart to see thy king in sackcloth and ashes (chapter 37) as the enemy devoured province after province of thy land and cooped thee up within the narrow walls, thou scarcely didst dare to peep across-take courage, the terror is gone! "A king in his beauty thine eyes shall see; they shall behold the land spreading very far forth" (Isaiah 33:17). We had thought to die in the restlessness and horror of war, never again to know what stable life and regular worship were, our Temple services interrupted, our home a battlefield. But "look upon Zion"; behold again "she is the city of our solemn diets; thine eyes shall see Jerusalem a quiet habitation, a tent that shall not be removed, the stakes whereof shall never be plucked up, neither shall the cords thereof be broken. But there Jehovah," whom we have known only for affliction, "shall be in majesty for us." Other peoples have their natural defences, Assyria and Egypt their Euphrates and Nile; but God Himself shall be for us "a place of rivers, streams, broad on both hands, on which never a galley shall go, nor gallant ship shall pass upon it." Without sign of battle, God shall be our refuge and our strength. It was that marvellous deliverance of Jerusalem by the hand of God, with no effort of human war, which caused Isaiah to invest with such majesty the meagre rock, its squalid surroundings and paltry defences. The insignificant and waterless city was glorious to the prophet because God was in her. One of the richest imaginations which patriot ever poured upon his fatherland was inspired by the simplest faith saint ever breathed. Isaiah strikes again the old keynote (chapter 8) about the waterlessness of Jerusalem. We have to keep in mind the Jews’ complaints of this, in order to understand what the forty-sixth Psalm means when it says, "There is a river the streams whereof make glad the city of our God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the Most High"-or what Isaiah means when he says, "Glorious shall Jehovah be unto us, a place of broad rivers and streams." Yea, he adds, Jehovah is everything to us: "Jehovah is our Judge; Jehovah is our Lawgiver; Jehovah is our King: He will save us."

Such were the feelings aroused in Jerusalem by the sudden relief of the city. Some of the verses, which we have scarcely touched, we will now consider more fully as the expression of a doctrine which runs throughout Isaiah, and indeed is one of his two or three fundamental truths-that the righteousness of God is an all-pervading atmosphere, an atmosphere that wears and burns.

For forty years the prophet had been preaching to the Jews his gospel, "God-with-us"; but they never awakened to the reality of the Divine presence till they saw it in the dispersion of the Assyrian army. Then God became real to them (Isaiah 33:14). The justice of God, preached so long by Isaiah, had always seemed something abstract. Now they saw how concrete it was. It was not only a doctrine: it was a fact. It was a fact that was a fire. Isaiah had often called it a fire; they thought this was rhetoric. But now they saw the actual burning-"the peoples as the burning of lime, as thorns cut down that are burned in the fire." And when they felt the fire so near, each sinner of them awoke to the fact that he had something burnable in himself, something which could as little stand the fire as the Assyrians could. There was no difference in this fire outside and inside the walls. What it burned there it would burn here. Nay, was not Jerusalem the dwelling-place of God, and Ariel the very hearth and furnace of the fire which they saw consume the Assyrians? "Who," they cried in their terror-"Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?"

We are familiar with Isaiah’s fundamental God-with-us, and how it was spoken not for mercy only, but for judgment (chapter 8). If "God-with-us" meant love with us, salvation with us, it meant also holiness with us, judgment with us, the jealousy of God breathing upon what is impure, false, and proud. Isaiah felt this so hotly that his sense of it has broken out into some of the fieriest words in all prophecy. In his younger days he told the citizens not "to provoke the eyes of God’s glory," as if Heaven had fastened on their life two gleaming orbs, not only to pierce them with its vision, but to consume them with its wrath. Again, in the lowering cloud of calamity he had seen "lips of indignation, a tongue as a devouring fire," and in the overflowing stream which finally issued from it the hot "breath of the Almighty." These are unforgettable descriptions of the ceaseless activity of Divine righteousness in the life of man. They set our, imaginations on fire with the prophet’s burning belief in this. But they are excelled by another, more frequently used by Isaiah, wherein he likens the holiness of God to a universal and constant fire. To Isaiah life was so penetrated by the active justice of God, that he described it as bathed in fire, as blown through with fire. Righteousness was no mere doctrine to this prophet: it was the most real thing in history; it was the presence which pervaded and explained all phenomena. We shall understand the difference between Isaiah and his people if we have ever for our eyes’ sake looked at a great conflagration through a coloured glass which allowed us to see the solid materials-stone, wood, and iron-but prevented us from perceiving the flames and shimmering heat. To look thus is to see pillars, lintels, and crossbeams twist and fall, crumble and fade; but how inexplicable the process seems! Take away the glass, and everything is clear. The fiery element is filling all the interstices, that were blank to us before, and beating upon the solid material. The heat becomes visible, shimmering even where there is no flame. Just so had it been with the sinners in Judah these forty years. Their society and politics, individual fortunes and careers, personal and national habits-the home, the Church, the State-common outlines and shapes of life-were patent to every eye, but no man could explain the constant decay and diminution, because all were looking at life through a glass darkly. Isaiah alone faced life with open vision, which filled up for him the interstices of experience and gave terrible explanation to fate. It was a vision that nearly scorched the eyes out of him. Life as he saw it was steeped in flame-the glowing righteousness of God. Jerusalem was full "of the spirit of justice, the spirit of burning. The light of Israel is for a fire, and his Holy One for a flame." The Assyrian empire, that vast erection which the strong hands of kings had reared, was simply their pyre, made ready for the burning. "For a Topheth is prepared of old; yea, for the king it is made ready; He hath made it deep and large; the pile thereof is fire and much wood; the breath of Jehovah, like a stream of brimstone, doth kindle." {Isaiah 4:4; Isaiah 30:33} So Isaiah saw life, and flashed it on his countrymen. At last the glass fell from their eyes also, and they cried aloud, "Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?" Isaiah replied that there is one thing which can survive the universal flame, and that is character: "He that walketh righteously and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of fraud, that shaketh his hands from the holding of bribes, that stoppeth his ears from the hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from looking on evil, he shall dwell on high: his place of defence shall be the monitions of rocks: his bread shall be given him: his water shall be sure."

Isaiah’s Vision of Fire suggests two thoughts to us.

1. Have we done well to confine our horror of the consuming fires of righteousness to the next life? If we would but use the eyes which Scripture lends us, the rifts of prophetic vision and awakened conscience by which the fogs of this world and of our own hearts are rent, we should see fires as fierce, a consumption as pitiless, about us here as ever the conscience of a startled sinner fearfully looked for across the grave. Nay, have not the fires, with which the darkness of eternity has been made lurid, themselves been kindled at the burnings of this life? Is it not because men have felt how hot this world was being made for sin that they have had a "certain fearful expectation of judgment and the fierceness of fire?" We shudder at the horrible pictures of hell which some older theologians and poets have painted for us; but it was not morbid fancy, nor the barbarism of their age, nor their own heart’s cruelty that inspired these men. It was their hot honour for the Divine holiness; it was their experience of how pitiless to sin Providence is already in this life; it was their own scorched senses and affections-brands, as many honest men among them felt themselves, plucked from the burning. Our God is a consuming fire-here as well as yonder. Hell has borrowed her glare from the imagination of men aflame with the real fieriness of life, and may be-more truly than of old-pictured as the dead and hollow cinder left by. those fires, of which, as every true man’s conscience is aware, this life is full. It was not hell that created conscience; it was conscience that created hell, and conscience was fired by the vision which fired Isaiah-of all life aglow with the righteousness of God-"God with us," as He was with Jerusalem, "a spirit of burning and a spirit of justice." This is the pantheism of conscience, and it stands to reason. God is the one power of life. What can exist beside Him except what is like Him? Nothing-sooner or later nothing but what is like Him. The will that is as His will, the heart that is pure, the character that is transparent-only these dwell with the everlasting fire, and burning with God, as the bush which Moses saw, are nevertheless not consumed. Let us lay it to heart-Isaiah has nothing to tell us about hell-fire, but a great deal about the pitiless justice of God in this life.

2. The second thought suggested by Isaiah’s Vision of Life is a comparison of it with the theory of life which is fashionable today. Isaiah’s figure for life was a burning. Ours is a battle, and at first sight ours looks the truer. Seen through a formula which has become everywhere fashionable, life is a fierce and fascinating warfare. Civilised thought, when asked to describe any form of life or to account for a death or survival, most monotonously replies, "The struggle for existence." The sociologist has borrowed the phrase from the biologist, and it is on everybody’s lips to describe their idea of human life. It is uttered by the historian when he would explain the disappearance of this national type, the prevalence of that one. The economist traces depression and failures, the fatal fevers of speculation, the cruelties and bad humours of commercial life, to the same source. A merchant with profits lessening and failure before him relieves his despair and apologises to his pride with the words, "It is all due to competition." Even character and the spiritual graces are sometimes set down as results of the same material process. Some have sought to deduce from it all intelligence, others more audaciously all ethics; and it is certain that in the silence of men’s hearts after a moral defeat there is no excuse more frequently offered to conscience by will than that the battle was too hot.

But fascinating as life is-when seen through this formula, does not the formula act on our vision precisely as the glass we supposed, which: when we look through it on a conflagration shows us the solid matter and the changes through which this passes, but hides from us the real agent? One need not deny the reality of the struggle for existence, or that its results are enormous. We struggle with each other, and affect each other for good and for evil, sometimes past all calculation. But we do not fight a vacuum. Let Isaiah’s vision be the complement of our own feeling. We fight in an atmosphere that affects every one of us far more powerfully than the opposing wits or wills of our fellow-men. Around us and through us, within and without as we fight, is the all-pervading righteousness of God; and it is far oftener the effects of this which we see in the falls and the changes of life than the effects of our struggle with each other, enormous though these may be. On this point there is an exact parallel between our days and the days of Isaiah. Then the politicians of Judah, looking through their darkened glass at life, said, Life is simply a war in which the strongest prevail, a game which the most cunning win. So they made fast their alliances, and were ready to meet the Assyrian, or they fled in panic before him, according as Egypt or he seemed the stronger. Isaiah saw that with Assyrian and Jew another Power was present-the real reason of every change in politics, collapse or crash in either of the empires-the active righteousness of God. Assyrian and Jew had not only to contend with each other. They were at strife with Him. We now see plainly that Isaiah was right. Far more operative then the intrigues of politicians or the pride of Assyria, because it used these simply as its mines and its fuel, was the law of righteousness, the spiritual force which is as impalpable the atmosphere, yet strong to burn and try as a furnace seven times heated. And Isaiah is equally right for today. As we look at life through our fashionable formula it does seem a mass of struggle, in which we catch only now and then a glimpse of the decisions of righteousness, but the prevailing lawlessness of which we do not hesitate to make the reason of all that happens, and in particular the excuse of our own defeats. We are wrong. Righteousness is not an occasional spark; righteousness is the atmosphere. Though our dull eyes see it only now and then strike into flame in the battle of life, and take for granted that it is but the flash of meeting wits or of steel, God’s justice is everywhere, pervasive and pitiless, affecting the combatants far more than they have power to affect one another.

We shall best learn the truth of this in the way the sinners in Jerusalem learned it-each man first looking into himself. "Who among us shall dwell with the everlasting burnings?" Can we attribute all our defeats to the opposition that was upon us at the moment they occurred? When our temper failed, when our charity relaxed, when our resoluteness gave way, was it the hotness of debate, was it the pressure of the crowd, was it the sneer of the scorner, that was to blame? We all know that these were only the occasions of our defeats. Conscience tells us that the cause lay in a slothful or self-indulgent heart, which the corrosive atmosphere of Divine righteousness had been consuming, and which, sapped and hollow by its effect, gave way at every material shock.

With the knowledge that conscience gives us, let us now look at a kind of figure which must be within the horizon of all of us. Once it was the most commanding stature among its fellows, the straight back and broad brow of a king of men. But now what is the last sight of him that will remain with us, flung out there against the evening skies of his life? A bent back (we speak of character), a stooping face, the shrinking outlines of a man ready to collapse. It was not the struggle for existence that killed him, for he was born to prevail in it. It was the atmosphere that told on him. He carried in him that on which the atmosphere could not but tell. A low selfishness or passion inhabited him, and became the predominant part of him, so that his outward life was only its shell; and when the fire of God at last pierced this, he was as thorns cut down, that are burned in the fire.

We can explain much with the outward eye, but the most of the explanation lies beyond. Where our knowledge of a man’s life ends, the great meaning of it often only begins. All the vacancy beyond the outline we see is full of that meaning. God is there, and "God is a consuming fire." Let us not seek to explain lives only by what we see of them, the visible strife of man with man and nature. It is the invisible that contains the secret of what is seen. We see the shoulders stoop, but not the burden upon them; the face darken, but look in vain for what casts the shadow; the light sparkle in the eye, but cannot tell what star of hope its glance has caught. And even so, when we behold fortune and character go down in the warfare of this world, we ought, to remember that it is not always the things we see that are to blame for the fall, but that awful flame which, unseen by common man, has been revealed to the prophets of God.

Righteousness and retribution, then, are an atmosphere-not lines or laws that we may happen to stumble upon, not explosives, that, being touched, burst out on us, but the atmosphere-always about us and always at work, invisible and yet more mighty than aught we see. "God, in whom we live and move and have our being, is a consuming fire."

The Expositor's Bible

Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

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Isaiah 32
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