Isaiah 37
Expositor's Bible Commentary
And it came to pass, when king Hezekiah heard it, that he rent his clothes, and covered himself with sackcloth, and went into the house of the LORD.


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 37:1-38WITHIN the fortress of the faith there is only silence and embarrassment. We pass from the Rabshakeh, posing outside the walls of Zion, to Hezekiah, prostrate within them. We pass with the distracted councillors, by the walls crowded with moody and silent soldiers, many of them-if this be the meaning of the king’s command that they should not parley-only too ready to yield to the plausible infidel. We are astonished. Has faith nothing to say for herself? Have this people of so long Divine inspiration no habit of self-possession, no argument in answer to the irrelevant attacks of their enemy? Where are the traditions of Moses and Joshua, the songs of Deborah and David? Can men walk about Zion, and their very footsteps on her walls ring out no defiance?

Hezekiah’s complaint reminds us that in this silence and distress we have no occasional perplexity of faith, but her perpetual burden. Faith is inarticulate because of her greatness. Faith is courageous and imaginative; but can she convert her confidence and visions into fact? Said Hezekiah, "This is a day of trouble, and rebuke and contumely, for the children are come to the birth, and there is not strength to bring them forth." These words are not a mere metaphor for anguish. They are the definition of a real miscarriage. In Isaiah’s contemporaries faith has at last engendered courage, zeal for God’s house, and strong assurance of victory; but she, that has proved fertile to conceive and carry these confidences, is powerless to bring them forth into real life, to transform them to actual fact. Faith, complains Hezekiah, is not the substance of things hoped for. At the moment when her subjective assurances ought to be realised as facts, she is powerless to bring them to the birth.

It is a miscarriage we are always deploring. Wordsworth has said, "Through love, through hope, through faith’s transcendent dower, we feel that we are greater than we know." Yes, greater than we can articulate, greater than we can tell to men like the Rabshakeh, even though he talk the language of the Jews; and therefore, on the whole, it is best to be silent in face of his argument. But greater also, we sometimes fear, than we can realise to ourselves in actual character and victory. All life thrills with the pangs of inability to bring the children of faith to the birth of experience. The man who has lost his faith or who takes his faith easily, never knows, of course, this anguish of Hezekiah. But the more we have fed on the promises of the Bible, the more that the Spirit of God has engendered in our pure hearts assurances of justice and of peace, the more we shall sometimes tremble with the fear that in outward fact there is no life for these beautiful conceptions of the soul. Do we really believe in the Fatherhood of God-believe in it till it has changed us inwardly, and we carry a new sense of destiny, a new conscience of justice, a new disgust of sin, a new pity for pain? Then how full of the anguish of impotence must our souls feel when they consciously survey one day of common life about us, or when we honestly look back on a year of our own conduct! Does it not seem as if upon one or two hideous streets in some centre of our civilisation all Christianity, with its eighteen hundred years of promise and impetus, had gone to wreck? Is God only for the imagination of man? Is there no God outwardly to control and grant victory? Is He only a Voice, and not the Creator? Is Christ only a Prophet, and not the King?

And then over these disappointments there faces us all the great miscarriage itself-black, inevitable death. Hezekiah cried from despair that the Divine assurance of the permanance of God’s people in the world was about to be wrecked on fact. But often by a death-bed we utter the same lament about the individual’s immortality. There is everything to prove a future life except the fact of it within human experience. This life is big with hopes, instincts, convictions of immortality: and yet where within our sight have these ever passed to the birth of fact? Death is a great miscarriage. "The children have come to the birth, and there is not strength to bring them forth." And yet within the horizon of this life at least-the latter part of the difficulty we postpone to another chapter-"faith is the substance of things hoped for," as Isaiah did now most brilliantly prove. For the miracle of Jerusalem’s deliverance, to which the narrative proceeds, was not that by faith the prophet foretold it, but that by faith he did actually himself succeed in bringing it to pass. The miracle, we say, was not that Isaiah made accurate prediction of the city’s speedy relief from the Assyrian, but far more that upon his solitary steadfastness, without aid of battle, he did carry her disheartened citizens through this crisis of temptation, and kept them, though silent, to their walls till the futile Assyrian drifted away. The prediction, indeed, was not, although its terms appear exact, so very marvellous for a prophet to make, who had Isaiah’s religious conviction that Jerusalem must survive and Isaiah’s practical acquaintance with the politics of the day. "Behold, I am setting in him a spirit; and he shall hear a rumour, and shall return into his own land." We may recall the parallel case of Charlemagne in his campaign against the Moors in Spain, from which he was suddenly and unreasonably hastened north on a disastrous retreat by news of the revolt of the Saxons. In the vast Assyrian territories rebellions were constantly occurring, that demanded the swift appearance of the king himself; and God’s spirit, to whose inspiration Isaiah traced all political perception, suggested to him the possibility of one of these. In the end, the Bible story implies that it was not a rumour from some far-away quarter so much as a disaster here in Syria, which compelled Sennacherib’s "retreat from Moscow." But it is possible that both causes were at work, and that as Napoleon offered the receipt of news from Paris as his reason for hurriedly abandoning the unfortunate Spanish campaign of 1808, so Sennacherib made the rumour of some news from his capital or the north the occasion for turning his troops from a theatre of war, where they had not met with unequivocal success, and had at last been half destroyed by the plague. Isaiah’s further prediction of Sennacherib’s death must also be taken in a general sense, for it was not till twenty years later that the Assyrian tyrant met this violent end! "I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land." But do not let us waste our attention on the altogether minor point of the prediction of Jerusalem’s deliverance, when the great wonder, of which the prediction is but an episode, lies lengthened and manifest before us-that Isaiah, when all the defenders of Jerusalem were distracted and her king prostrate, did by the single steadfastness of his spirit sustain her inviolate, and procure for her people a safe and glorious future.

The baffled Rabshakeh returned to his master, whom he found at Libnah, "for he had heard that he had broken up from Lachish." Sennacherib, the narrative would seem to imply, did not trouble himself further about Jerusalem till he learned that Tirhakah, the Ethiopian ruler of Egypt, was marching to meet him with probably a stronger force than that which Sennacherib had defeated at Eltekeh. Then, feeling the danger of leaving so strong a fortress as Jerusalem in his rear, Sennacherib sent to Hezekiah one more demand for surrender. Hezekiah spread his enemy’s letter before the Lord. His prayer that follows is remarkable for two features, which enable us to see how pure and elevated a monotheism God’s Spirit had at last developed from the national faith of Israel. The Being whom the king now seeks he addresses by the familiar name-Jehovah of hosts, God of Israel, and describes by the physical figure-"who art enthroned upon the cherubim." But he conceives of this God with the utmost loftiness and purity, ascribing to Him not only sovereignty and creatorship, but absolute singularity of Godhead. We have but to compare Hezekiah’s prayer with the utterances of his predecessor Ahaz, to whom many gods were real, and none absolutely sovereign, or with the utterances of Israelites far purer than Ahaz, to whom the gods of the nations, though inferior to Jehovah, were yet real existences, in order to mark the spiritual advance made by Israel under Isaiah. It is a tribute to the prophet’s force, which speaks volumes, when the deputation from Hezekiah talk to him of thy God (Isaiah 37:4). For Isaiah by his ministry had made Israel’s God to be new in Israel’s eyes.

Hezekiah’s lofty prayer drew forth through the prophet an answer from Jehovah (Isaiah 37:21-32). This is one of the most brilliant of Isaiah’s oracles. It is full of much with which we are now familiar: the triumph of the inviolable fortress "the virgin daughter of Zion," and her scorn of the arrogant foe: the prophet’s appreciation of Asshur’s power and impetus, which only heightens his conviction that Asshur is but an instrument in the hated of God; the old figure of the enemy’s sudden check as of a wild animal by hook and bridle; his inevitable retreat to the north. But these familiar ideas are flung off with a terseness and vivacity which bear out the opinion that here we have a prophecy of Isaiah, not revised, and elaborated for subsequent publication, like the rest of his book, but in its original form, struck quickly forth to meet the city’s sudden and urgent prayer.

The new feature of this prophecy is the sign added to it (Isaiah 37:30). This sign reminds us of that which in opposite terms described to Ahaz the devastation of Judah by the approaching Assyrians (chapter 7). The wave of Assyrian war is about to roll away again, and Judah to resume her neglected agriculture, but not quite immediately. During this year of 701 it has been impossible, with the Assyrians in the land, to sow the seed, and the Jews have been dependent on the precarious crop of what had fallen from the harvest of the previous year and sown itself - saphiah, or aftergrowth. Next year, it being now too late to sow for next year’s harvest, they must be content with the shahis- "wild corn, that which springs of itself: But the third year sow ye, and reap, and plant vineyards and eat the fruit thereof." Perhaps we ought not to interpret these numbers literally. The use of three gives the statement a formal and general aspect, as if the prophet only meant, It may be not quite at once that we get rid of the Assyrians; but when they do go, then they go for good, and you may till your land again without fear of their return. Then rings out the old promise, so soon now to be accomplished, about "the escaped" and "the remnant"; and the great pledge of the promise is once more repeated: "The zeal of Jehovah of hosts will perform this." With this exclamation, as in Isaiah 9:7, the prophecy reaches a natural conclusion; and Isaiah 37:33-35 may have been uttered by Isaiah a little later, when he was quite sure that the Assyrian would not even attempt to repeat his abandoned blockade of Jerusalem.

At last in a single night the deliverance miraculously came. It is implied by the scattered accounts of those days of salvation, that an Assyrian corps continued to sit before Jerusalem even after the Rabshakeh had returned to the headquarters of Sennacherib. The thirty-third of Isaiah, as well as those Psalms which celebrate the Assyrian’s disappearance from Judah, describe it as having taken place from under the walls of Jerusalem and the astonished eyes of her guardians. It was not, however, upon this force-perhaps little more than a brigade of observation {Isaiah 33:18} -that the calamity fell which drove Sennacherib so suddenly from Syria. "And there went forth (that night, adds the book of Kings) the angel of Jehovah; and he smote in the camp of Assyria one hundred and eighty-five thousand; and when" the camp arose "in the morning, behold all of them were corpses, dead men. And Sennacherib, King of Assyria, broke up, and returned and dwelt in Nineveh." Had this pestilence dispersed the camp that lay before Jerusalem, and left beneath the walls so considerable a number of corpses, the exclamations of surprise at the sudden disappearance of Assyria, which occur in Isaiah 33:1-24 and in Psalm 48:1-14; Psalm 76:1-12, could hardly have failed to betray the fact. But these simply speak of vague trouble coming "upon them that were assembled about Zion," and of their swift decampment. The trouble was the news of the calamity, whose victims were the main body of the Assyrian army, who had been making for the borders of Egypt, but were now scattered northwards like chaff.

For details of this disaster we look in vain, of course, to the Assyrian annals, which only record Sennacherib’s abrupt return to Nineveh. But it is remarkable that the histories of both of his chief rivals in this campaign, Judah and Egypt, should contain independent reminiscences of so sudden and miraculous a disaster to his host. From Egyptian sources there has come down through Herodotus (2:14), a story that a king of Egypt, being deserted by the military caste, when "Sennacherib King of the Arabs and Assyrians" invaded his country, entered his sanctuary and appealed with weeping to his god; that the god appeared and cheered him; that he raised an army of artisans and marched to meet Sennacherib in Pelusium; that by night a multitude of field-mice ate up the quivers, bowstrings, and shield-straps of the Assyrians; and that, as these fled on the morrow, very many of them fell. A stone statue of the king, adds Herodotus, stood in the temple of Hephaestus, having a mouse in the hand. Now, since the mouse was a symbol of sudden destruction, and even of the plague, this story of Herodotus seems to be merely a picturesque form of a tradition that pestilence broke out in the Assyrian camp. The parallel with the Bible narrative is close. In both accounts it is a prayer of the king that prevails. In both the Deity sends His agent-in the grotesque Egyptian an army of mice, in the sublime Jewish His angel. In both the effects are sudden, happening in a single night. From the Assyrian side we have this corroboration: that Sennacherib did abruptly return to Nineveh without taking Jerusalem or meeting with Tirhakah, and that, though he reigned for twenty years more, he never again made a Syrian campaign. Sennacherib’s convenient story of his return may be compared to the ambiguous account which Caesar gives of his first withdrawal from Britain, laying emphasis on the submission of the tribes as his reason for a swift return to France-a return which was rather due to the destruction of his fleet by storm and the consequent uneasiness of his army. Or, as we have already said, Sennacherib’s account may be compared to Napoleon’s professed reason for his sudden abandonment of his Spanish campaign and his quick return to Paris in 1808.

The neighbourhood in which the Assyrian army suffered this great disaster was notorious in antiquity for its power of pestilence. Making every allowance for the untutored imagination of the ancients, we must admit the Serbonian bog, between Syria and Egypt, to have been a place terrible for filth and miasma. The noxious vapours travelled far; but the plagues, with which this swamp several times desolated the world, were first engendered among the diseased and demoralised populations, whose villages festered upon its margin. A Persian army was decimated here in the middle of the fourth century before Christ. "The fatal disease which depopulated the earth in the time of Justinian and his successors first appeared in the neighbourhood of Pelusium, between the Serbonian bog and the eastern channel of the Nile." To the north of the bog the Crusaders also suffered from the infection. It is, therefore, very probable that the moral terror of this notorious neighbourhood, as well as its malaria, acting upon an exhausted and disappointed army in a devastated land, was the secondary cause in the great disaster, by which the Almighty humbled the arrogance of Asshur. The swiftness, with which Sennacherib’s retreat is said to have begun, has been equalled by the turning-points of other historical campaigns. Alexander the Great’s decision to withdraw from India was, after victories as many as Sennacherib’s, made in three days. Attila vanished out of Italy as suddenly as Sennacherib, and from a motive less evident. In the famous War of the Fosse the Meccan army broke off from their siege of Mohammed in a single stormy night. Napoleon’s career went back upon itself with just as sharp a bend no less than thrice-in 1799, on Sennacherib’s own ground in Syria; in 1808, in Spain; and in 1812, when he turned from Moscow upon "one memorable night of frost, in which twenty thousand horses perished, and the strength of the French army was utterly broken."

The amount of the Assyrian loss is enormous, and implies of course a much higher figure for the army which was vast enough to suffer it; but here are some instances for comparison. In the early German invasions of Italy whole armies and camps were sweet away by the pestilential climate. The losses of the First Crusade were over three hundred thousand. The soldiers of the Third Crusade, upon the scene of Sennacherib’s war, were reckoned at more than half a million, and their losses by disease alone at over one hundred thousand. The Grand Army of Napoleon entered Russia two hundred and fifty thousand, but came out, having suffered no decisive defeat, only twelve thousand; on the retreat from Moscow alone ninety thousand perished.

What we are concerned with, however, is neither the immediate occasion nor the exact amount of Sennacherib’s loss, but the bare fact, so certainly established, that, having devastated Judah to the very walls of Jerusalem, the Assyrian was compelled by some calamity apart from human war to withdraw before the sacred city itself was taken. For this was the essential part of Isaiah’s prediction; upon this he had staked the credit of the pure monotheism, whose prophet he was to the world. If we keep before us these two simple certainties about the great Deliverance: first, that it had been foretold by Jehovah’s word, and second, that it had been now achieved, despite all human probability, by Jehovah’s own arm, we shall understand the enormous spiritual impression which it left upon Israel. The religion of the one supreme God, supreme in might because supreme in righteousness, received a most emphatic historical vindication, a signal and glorious triumph. Well might Isaiah exclaim, on the morning of the night during which that Assyrian host had drifted away from Jerusalem, "Jehovah is our Judge; Jehovah is our Lawgiver; Jehovah is our King: He saveth us." No other god for the present had any chance in Judah. Idolatry was discredited, not by the political victory of a puritan faction, not even by the distinctive genius or valour of a nation, but by an evident act of Providence, to which no human aid had been contributory. It was nothing less than the baptism of Israel in spiritual religion, the grace of which was never wholly undone.

Nevertheless, the story of Jehovah’s triumph cannot be justly recounted without including the reaction which followed upon it within the same generation. Before twenty years had passed from the day, on which Jerusalem, with the forty-sixth Psalm on her lips, sought with all her heart the God of Isaiah, she relapsed into an idolatry that wore only this sign of the uncompromising puritanism it had displaced: that it was gloomy, and filled with a sense of sin unknown to Israel’s idolatries previous to the age of Isaiah. The change would be almost incomprehensible to us, who have realised the spiritual effects of Sennacherib’s disappearance, if we had not within our own history a somewhat analogous experience. Puritanism was as gloriously accredited by event, and seemed to be as generally accepted by England under Cromwell, as faith in the spiritual religion of Isaiah was vindicated by the deliverance of Jerusalem and the peace of Judah under Hezekiah. But swiftly as the ruling temper in England changed after Cromwell’s death, and Puritanism was laid under the ban, and persecution and licentiousness broke out, so quickly when Hezekiah died did Manasseh his son-no change of dynasty here-"do evil in the sight of Jehovah, and make Judah to sin, building again the high places and rearing up altars for Baal and altars in the house of Jehovah, whereof Jehovah had said, In Jerusalem will I put My name." Idolatry was never so rampant in Judah. "Moreover Manasseh shed innocent blood, till he filled Jerusalem from one end to another." It is in this carnage that tradition has placed the death of Isaiah. He, who had been Judah’s best counsellor through five reigns, on whom the whole nation had gathered in the day of her distress, and by whose faith her long-hoped-for salvation had at last become substantive, was violently put to death by the son of Hezekiah. It is said that he was sawn asunder. {Hebrews 11:1-40}

The parallel, which we are pursuing, does not, however, close here. "As soon," says an English historian, "as the wild orgy of the Restoration was over, men began to see that nothing that was really worthy in the work of Puritanism bad been undone. The whole history of English progress since the Restoration, on its moral and spiritual sides, has been the history of Puritanism."

For the principles of Isaiah and their victory we may make a claim as much larger than this claim, as Israel’s influence on the world has been greater than England’s. Israel never wholly lost the grace of the baptism wherewith she was baptised in 701. Even in her history there was no event in which the unaided interposition of God was more conspicuous. It is from an appreciation of the meaning of such a Providence that Israel derives her character-that character which marks her off so distinctively from her great rival in the education of the human race, and endows her ministry with its peculiar value to the world. If we are asked for the characteristics of the Hellenic genius, we point to the august temples and images of beauty in which the wealth and art of man have evolved in human features most glorious suggestions of divinity, or we point to Thermopylae, where human valour and devotion seem grander even in unavailing sacrifice than the almighty Fate that renders them the prey of the barbarian. In Greece the human is greater than the divine. But if we are asked to define the spirit of Israel, we remember the worship which Isaiah has enjoined in his opening chapter, a worship that dispenses even with the temple and with sacrifice, but, from the first strivings of conscience to the most certain enjoyment of peace, ascribes all man’s experience to the word of God. In contrast with Thermopylae, we recall Jerusalem’s Deliverance, effected apart from human war by the direct stroke of Heaven. In Judah man is great simply as he rests on God. The rocks of Thermopylae, how imperishably beautiful do they shine to latest ages with the comradeship, the valour, the sacrificial blood of human heroes! It is another beauty which Isaiah saw upon the bare, dry rocks of Zion, and which has drawn to them the admiration of the world. "There," he said, "Jehovah is glory for us, a place of broad rivers and streams."

"In returning and rest all ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence is your strength." How divine Isaiah’s message is, may be proved by the length of time mankind is taking to learn it. The remarkable thing is, that he staked so lofty a principle, and the pure religion of which it was the temper, upon a political result, that he staked them upon, and vindicated them by a purely local and material success-the relief of Jerusalem from the infidel. Centuries passed, and Christ came. He did not-for even He could not-preach a more spiritual religion than that which He had committed to His greatest forerunner, but He released this religion, and the temper of faith which Isaiah had so divinely expressed, from the local associations and merely national victories, with which even Isaiah had been forced to identify them. The destruction of Jerusalem by the heathen formed a large part of Christ’s prediction of the immediate future; and He comforted the remnant of faith with these words, to some of which Isaiah’s lips had first given their meaning: "Ye shall neither in this mountain nor yet in Jerusalem worship the Father. God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth."

Again centuries passed-no less than eighteen from Isaiah-and we find Christendom, though Christ had come between, returning to Isaiah’s superseded problem, and, while reviving its material conditions, unable to apply to them the prophet’s spiritual temper. The Christianity of the Crusades fell back upon Isaiah’s position without his spirit. Like him, it staked the credit of religion upon the relief of the holy city from the grasp of the infidel; but, in ghastly contrast to that pure faith and serene confidence with which a single Jew maintained the inviolateness of Mount Zion in the face of Assyria, with what pride and fraud, with what blood and cruelty, with what impious invention of miracle and parody of Divine testimony, did countless armies of Christendom, excited by their most fervent prophets and blessed by their high-priest, attempt in vain the recovery of Jerusalem from the Saracen! The Crusades are a gigantic proof of how easy it is to adopt the external forms of heroic ages, how difficult to repeat their inward temper. We could not have more impressive witness borne to the fact that humanity-though obedient to the orthodox Church, though led by the strongest spirits of the age, though hallowed by the presence of its greatest saints, though enduring all trials, though exhibiting an unrivalled power of self-sacrifice and enthusiasm, though beautified by courtesy and chivalry, and though doing and suffering all for Christ’s sake-may yet fail to understand the old precept that "in returning and rest men are saved, in quietness and in confidence is their strength." Nothing could more emphatically prove the loftiness of Isaiah’s teaching than this failure of Christendom even to come within sight of it.

Have we learned this lesson yet? O God of Israel, God of Isaiah, in returning to whom and resting upon whom alone we are saved, purge us of self and of the pride of life, of the fever and the falsehood they breed. Teach us that in quietness and in confidence is our strength. Help us to be still and know that Thou art God.



THE two narratives, in which Isaiah’s career culminates-that of the Deliverance of Jerusalem {Isaiah 36:1-22; Isaiah 37:1-38} and that of the Recovery of Hezekiah {Isaiah 38:1-22; Isaiah 39:1-8}-cannot fail, coming together as they do, to suggest to thoughtful readers a striking contrast between Isaiah’s treatment of the community and his treatment of the individual, between his treatment of the Church and his treatment of single members. For in the first of these narratives we are told how an illimitable future, elsewhere so gloriously described by the prophet, was secured for the Church upon earth; but the whole result of the second is the gain for a representative member of the Church of a respite of fifteen years. Nothing, as we have seen, is promised to the dying Hezekiah of a future life; no scintilla of the light of eternity sparkles either in Isaiah’s promise or in Hezekiah’s prayer. The net result of the incident is a reprieve of fifteen years: fifteen years of a character strengthened, indeed, by having met with death, but, it would sadly seem, only in order to become again the prey of the vanities of this world (chapter 39). So meagre a result for the individual stands strangely out against the perpetual glory and peace assured to the community. And it suggests this question: Had Isaiah any real gospel for the individual? If so, what was it?

First of all, we must remember that God in His providence seldom gives to one prophet or generation more than a single main problem for solution. In Isaiah’s day undoubtedly the most urgent problem-and Divine problems are ever practical, not philosophical-was the continuance of the Church upon earth. It had really got to be a matter of doubt whether a body of people possessing the knowledge of the true God, and able to transfuse and transmit it, could possibly survive among the political convulsions of the world, and in consequence of its own sin. Isaiah’s problem was the reformation and survival of the Church. In accordance with this, we notice how many of his terms are collective, and how he almost never addresses the individual. It is the people, upon whom he calls-"the nation," "Israel," "the house of Jacob My vineyard," "the men of Judah His pleasant plantation." To these we may add the apostrophes to the city of Jerusalem, under many personifications: "Ariel, Ariel," "inhabitress of Zion," "daughter of Zion." When Isaiah denounces sin, the sinner is either the whole community or a class in the community, very seldom an individual, though there are some instances of the latter, as Ahaz and Shebna. It is "This people hath rejected," or "The people would not." When Jerusalem collapsed, although there must have been many righteous men still within her, Isaiah said, "What aileth thee that all belonging to thee have gone up to the housetops?". {Isaiah 22:1} His language is wholesale. When he is not attacking society, he attacks classes or groups: "the rulers," the land-grabbers, the drunkards, the sinners, the judges, the house of David, the priests and the prophets, the women. And the sins of these he describes in their social effects, or in their results upon the fate of the whole people; but he never, except in two cases, gives us their individual results. He does not make evident, like Jesus or Paul, the eternal damage a man’s sin inflicts on his own soul. Similarly when Isaiah speaks of God’s grace and salvation the objects of these are again collective-"the remnant; the escaped" (also a collective noun); a "holy seed"; a "’ stock" or "stump." It is a "restored nation" whom he sees under the Messiah, the perpetuity and glory of a city and a State. What we consider to be a most personal and particularly individual matter-the forgiveness of sin-he promises, with two exceptions, only to the community: "This people that dwelleth therein hath its iniquity forgiven." We can understand all this social, collective, and wholesale character of his language only if we keep in mind his Divinely appointed work-the substance and perpetuity of a purified and secure Church of God.

Had Isaiah then no gospel for the individual? This will indeed seem impossible to us if we keep in view the following considerations:-

1. ISAIAH HIMSELF had passed through a powerfully individual experience. He had not only felt the solidarity of the people’s sin-"I dwell among a people of unclean lips"-he had first felt his own particular guilt: "I am a man of unclean lips." One who suffered the private experiences which are recounted in chapter 6; whose "own eyes" had "seen the King, Jehovah of hosts"; who had gathered on his own lips his guilt and felt the fire come from heaven’s altar by an angelic messenger specially to purify him; who had further devoted himself to God’s service with so thrilling a sense of his own responsibility, and had so thereby felt his solitary and individual mission-he surely was not behind the very greatest of Christian saints in the experience of guilt, of personal obligation to grace and of personal responsibility. Though the record of Isaiah’s ministry contains no narratives, such as fill the ministries of Jesus and Paul, of anxious care for individuals, could he who wrote of himself that sixth chapter have failed to deal with men as Jesus dealt with Nicodemus, or Paul with the Philippian gaoler? It is not picturesque fancy, nor merely a reflection of the New Testament temper, if we realise Isaiah’s intervals of relief from political labour and religious reform occupied with an attention to individual interests, which necessarily would not obtain the permanent record of his public ministry. But whether this be so or not, the sixth chapter teaches that for Isaiah all public conscience and public labour found its necessary preparation in personal religion.

2. But, again, Isaiah had an INDIVIDUAL FOR HIS IDEAL. To him the future was not only an established State; it was equally, it was first, a glorious king. Isaiah was an Oriental. We moderns of the West place our reliance upon institutions; we go forward upon ideas. In the East it is personal influence that tells, persons who are expected, followed, and fought for. The history of the West is the history of the advance of thought, of the rise and decay of institutions, to which the greatest individuals are more or less subordinate. The history of the East is the annals of personalities; justice and energy in a ruler, not political principles, are what impress the Oriental imagination. Isaiah has carried this Oriental hope to a distinct and lofty pitch. The Hero whom he exalts on the margin of the future, as its Author, is not only a person of great majesty, but a character of considerable decision. At first only the rigorous virtues of the ruler are attributed to Him, {Isaiah 11:1 ff.} but afterwards the graces and: influence of a much broader and sweeter humanity. {Isaiah 32:2} Indeed, in this latter oracle we saw that Isaiah spoke not so much of his great Hero, as of what any individual might become. "A man," he says, "shall be as a hiding-place from the wind." Personal influence is the spring of social progress, the shelter and fountain force of the community. In the following verses the effect of so pure and inspiring a presence is traced in the discrimination of individual character-each man standing out for what he is-which Isaiah defines as his second requisite for social progress. In all this there is much for the individual to ponder, much to inspire him with a sense of the value and responsibility of his own character, and with the certainty that by himself he shall be judged and by himself stand or fall. "The worthless person shall be no more called princely, nor the knave said to be bountiful."

3. If any details of character are wanting in the picture of Isaiah’s hero, they are supplied by HEZEKIAH’S SELF-ANALYSIS (chapter 38). We need not repeat what we have said in the previous chapter of the king’s appreciation of what is the strength of a man’s character, and particularly of how character grows by grappling with death. In this matter the most experienced of Christian saints may learn from Isaiah’s pupil.

Isaiah had then, without doubt, a gospel for the individual; and to this day the individual may plainly read it in his book, may truly, strongly, joyfully live by it-so deeply does it begin, so much does it help to self-knowledge and self-analysis, so lofty are the ideals and responsibilities which it presents. But is it true that Isaiah’s gospel is for this life only?

Was Isaiah’s silence on the immortality of the individual due wholly to the cause we have suggested in the beginning of this chapter-that God gives to each prophet his single problem, and that the problem of Isaiah was the endurance of the Church upon earth? There is no doubt that this is only partly the explanation.

The Hebrew belonged to a branch of humanity-the Semitic-which, as its history proves, was unable to develop any strong imagination of, or practical interest in, a future life apart from foreign influence or Divine revelation. The pagan Arabs laughed at Mahommed when he preached to them of the Resurrection; and even to-day, after twelve centuries of Moslem influence, their descendants in the centre of Arabia, according to the most recent authority, fail to form a clear conception of, or indeed to take almost any practical interest in, another world. The northern branch of the race, to which the Hebrews belonged, derived from an older civilisation a prospect of Hades, that their own fancy developed with great elaboration. This prospect, however, which we shall describe fully in connection with chapters 14 and 26, was one absolutely hostile to the interests of character in this life. It brought all men, whatever their life had been on earth, at last to a dead level of unsubstantial and hopeless existence. Good and evil, strong and weak, pious and infidel, alike became shades, joyless and hopeless, without even the power to praise God. We have seen in Hezekiah’s case how such a prospect unnerved the most pious souls, and that revelation, even though represented at his bedside by an Isaiah, offered him no hope of an issue from it. The strength of character, however, which Hezekiah professes to have won in grappling with death, added to the closeness of communion with God which he enjoyed in this life, only brings out the absurdity of such a conclusion to life as the prospect of Sheol offered to the individual. If he was a pious man, if he was a man who had never felt himself deserted by God in this life, he was bound to revolt from so God-forsaken an existence after death. This was actually the line along which the Hebrew spirit went out to victory over those gloomy conceptions of death, that were yet unbroken by a risen Christ. "Thou wilt not," the saint triumphantly cried, "leave my soul in Sheol, nor wilt Thou suffer Thine holy one to see corruption." It was faith in the almightiness and reasonableness of God’s ways, it was conviction of personal righteousness, it was the sense that the Lord would not desert His own in death, which sustained the believer in face of that awful shadow through which no light of revelation had yet broken.

If, these, then, were the wings by which a believing soul under the Old Testament soared over the grave, Isaiah may be said to have contributed to the hope of personal immortality just in so far as he strengthened them. By enhancing as he did the value and beauty of individual character, by emphasising the indwelling of God’s Spirit, he was bringing life and immortality to light, even though be spoke no word to the dying about the fact of a glorious life beyond the grave. By assisting to create in the individual that character and sense of God, which alone could assure him he would never die, but pass from the praise of the Lord in this life to a nearer enjoyment of His presence beyond, Isaiah was working along the only line by which the Spirit of God seems to have assisted the Hebrew mind to an assurance of heaven.

But further in his favourite gospel of the REASONABLENESS OF GOD - that God does not work fruitlessly, nor create and cultivate with a view to judgment and destruction-Isaiah was furnishing an argument for personal immortality, tile force of which has not been exhausted. In a recent work on "The Destiny of Man" the philosophic author maintains the reasonableness of the Divine methods as a ground of belief both in the continued progress of the race upon earth and in the immortality of the individual. "From the first dawning of life we see all things working together toward one mighty goal-the evolution of the most exalted and spiritual faculties which characterise humanity. Has all this work been done for nothing? Is it all ephemeral, all a bubble that bursts, a vision that fades? On such a view the riddle of the universe becomes a riddle without a meaning. The more thoroughly we comprehend the process of evolution by which things have come to be what they are, the more we are likely to feel that to deny the everlasting persistence of the spiritual element in man is to rob the whole process of its meaning. It goes far toward putting us to permanent intellectual confusion. For my own part, I believe in the immortality of the soul, not in the sense in which I accept demonstrable truths of science, but as a supreme act of faith in the reasonableness of God’s work."

From the same argument Isaiah drew only the former of these two conclusions. To him the certainty that God’s people would survive the impending deluge of Assyria’s brute force was based on his faith that the Lord is "a God of judgment," of reasonable law and method, and could not have created or fostered so spiritual a people only to destroy them. The progress of religion upon earth was certain. But does not Isaiah’s method equally make for the immortality of the individual? He did not draw this conclusion, but he laid down its premises with a confidence and richness of illustration that have never been excelled.

We, therefore answer the question we put at the beginning of the chapter thus:-Isaiah had a gospel for the individual for this life, and all the necessary premises of a gospel for the individual for the life to come.

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Isaiah 36
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