Isaiah 47
Expositor's Bible Commentary
Come down, and sit in the dust, O virgin daughter of Babylon, sit on the ground: there is no throne, O daughter of the Chaldeans: for thou shalt no more be called tender and delicate.
; Isaiah 44:1-28; Isaiah 45:1-25; Isaiah 46:1-13; Isaiah 47:1-15; Isaiah 48:1-22CHAPTER IX


Isaiah 43:1-28 - Isaiah 48:1-22WE have now surveyed the governing truths of Isaiah 40:1-31; Isaiah 41:1-29; Isaiah 42:1-25; Isaiah 43:1-28; Isaiah 44:1-28; Isaiah 45:1-25; Isaiah 46:1-13; Isaiah 47:1-15; Isaiah 48:1-22 : the One God, omnipotent and righteous; the One People, His servants and witnesses to the world; the nothingness of all other gods and idols before Him; the vanity and ignorance of their diviners, compared with His power, who, because He has a purpose working through all history, and is both faithful to it and almighty to bring it to pass, can inspire His prophets to declare beforehand the facts that shall be. He has brought His people into captivity for a set time, the end of which is now near. Cyrus the Persian, already upon the horizon, and threatening Babylon, is to be their deliverer. But whomever He raises up on Israel’s behalf, God is always Himself their foremost champion. Not only is His word upon them, but His heart is among them. He bears the brunt of their battle, and their deliverance, political and spiritual, is His own travail and agony. Whomever else He summons on the stage, He remains the true hero of the drama.

Now, chapters 43-48 are simply the elaboration and more urgent offer of all these truths, under the sense of the rapid approach of Cyrus upon Babylon. They declare again God’s unity, omnipotence, and righteousness, they confirm His forgiveness of His people, they repeat the laughter at the idols, they give us nearer views of Cyrus, they answer the doubts that many orthodox Israelites felt about this Gentile Messiah; chapters 46 and 47 describe Babylon as if on the eve of her fall, and chapter 48, after Jehovah more urgently than ever presses upon reluctant Israel to show the results of her discipline in Babylon, closes with a call to leave the accursed city, as if the way were at last open. This call has been taken as the mark of a definite division of our prophecy. But too much must not be put upon it. It is indeed the first call to depart from Babylon; but it is not the last. And although chapter 49, and the chapters following, speak more of Zion’s Restoration and less of the Captivity, yet chapter 49 is closely connected with chapter 48, and we do not finally leave Babylon behind till Isaiah 52:12. Nevertheless, in the meantime chapter 48 will form a convenient point on which to keep our eyes.

Cyrus, when we last saw him, was upon the banks of the Halys, 546 B.C., startling Croesus and the Lydian Empire into extraordinary efforts, both of a religious and political kind, to avert his attack. He had just come from an unsuccessful attempt upon the northern frontier of Babylon, and at first it appeared as if he were to find no better fortune on the western border of Lydia. In spite of his superior numbers, the Lydian army kept the ground on which he met them in battle. But Croesus, thinking that the war was over for the season, fell back soon afterwards on Sardis, and Cyrus, following him up by forced marches, surprised him under the walls of the city, routed the famous Lydian cavalry by the novel terror of his camels, and after a siege of fourteen days sent a few soldiers to scale a side of the citadel too steep to be guarded by the defenders; and so Sardis, its king and its empire, lay at his feet. This Lydian campaign of Cyrus, which is related by Herodotus, is worth noting here for the light it throws on the character of the man, whom according to our prophecy, God chose to be His chief instrument in that generation. If his turning back from Babylonia, eight years before he was granted an easy entrance to her capital, shows how patiently Cyrus could wait upon fortune, his quick march upon Sardis is the brilliant evidence that when fortune showed the way, she found this Persian an obedient and punctual follower. The Lydian campaign forms as good an illustration as we shall find of these texts of our prophet: "He pursueth them, he passeth in safety; by a way he (almost) treads not with his feet. He cometh upon satraps as on mortar, and as the potter treadeth upon clay. {Isaiah 12:3} I have holden his right hand to bring down before him nations, and the loins of kings will I loosen," (poor ungirt Croesus, for instance, relaxing so foolishly after his victory!) "to open before him doors, and gates shall not be shut" (so was Sardis unready for him), "I go before thee, and will level the ridges; doors of brass I will shiver, and bolts of iron cut in sunder. And I will give to thee treasures of darkness, hidden riches of secret places." {Isaiah 45:1-3} Some have found in this an allusion to the immense hoards of Croesus, which fell to Cyrus with Sardis.

With Lydia, the rest of Asia Minor, including the cities of the Greeks, who held the coast of the Aegean, was bound to come into the Persian’s hands. But the process of subjection turned out to be a tong one. The Greeks got no help from Greece. Sparta sent to Cyrus an embassy with a threat, but the Persian laughed at it and it came to nothing. Indeed, Sparta’s message was only a temptation to this irresistible warrior to carry his fortunate arms into Europe. His own presence, however, was required in the East, and his lieutenants found the thorough subjection of Asia Minor a task requiring several years. It cannot have well been concluded before 540, and while it was in progress we understand why Cyrus did not again attack Babylonia. Meantime, he was occupied with lesser tribes to the north of Media.

Cyrus’ second campaign against Babylonia opened in 539. This time he avoided the northern wall from which he had been repulsed in 546. Attacking Babylonia from the east, he crossed the Tigris, beat the Babylonian king into Borsippa, laid siege to that fortress and marched on Babylon, which was held by the king’s son, Belshazzar, Bil-sarussur. All the world knows the supreme generalship by which Cyrus is said to have captured Babylon without assaulting the walls, from whose impregnable height their defenders showered ridicule upon him; how he made himself master of Nebuchadrezzar’s great bason at Sepharvaim, and turned the Euphrates into it; and how, before the Babylonians had time to notice the dwindling of the waters in their midst, his soldiers waded down the river bed, and by the river gates surprised the careless citizens upon a night of festival. But recent research makes it more probable that her inhabitants themselves surrendered Babylon to Cyrus.

Now it was during the course of the events just sketched, but before their culmination in the fall of Babylon, that chapters 43-48 were composed. That, at least, is what they themselves suggest. In three passages, which deal with Cyrus or with Babylon, some of the verbs are in the past, some in the future. Those in the past tense describe the calling and full career of Cyrus or the beginning of preparations against Babylon. Those in the. future tense promise Babylon’s fall or Cyrus’ completion of the liberation of the Jews. Thus, in Isaiah 43:14 it is written: "For your sakes I have sent to Babylon, and I will bring down as fugitives all of them, and the Chaldeans in the ships of their rejoicing." Surely these words announce that BabyIon’s fate was already on the way to her, but not yet arrived. Again, in the verses which deal with Cyrus himself, Isaiah 45:1-6, which we have partly quoted, the Persian is already "grasped by his right hand by God, and called"; but his career is not over, for God promises to do various things for him. The third passage is Isaiah 45:13 of the same chapter, where Jehovah says, "I have stirred him up in righteousness, and" changing to the future tense, "all his ways will I level; he shall build My city, and My captivity shall he send away." What could be more precise than the tenor of all these passages? If people would only take our prophet at his word; if with all their belief in the inspiration of the text of Scripture, they would only pay attention to its grammar, which surely, on their own theory, is also thoroughly sacred, then there would be today no question about the date of Isaiah 40:1-31; Isaiah 41:1-29; Isaiah 42:1-25; Isaiah 43:1-28; Isaiah 44:1-28; Isaiah 45:1-25; Isaiah 46:1-13; Isaiah 47:1-15; Isaiah 48:1-22. As plainly as grammar can enable it to do, this prophecy speaks of Cyrus’ campaign against Babylon as already begun, but of its completion as still future. Chapter 48, it is true, assumes events as still farther developed, but we will come to it afterwards.

During Cyrus’ preparations, then, for invading Babylonia, and in prospect of her certain fall, chapters 43-48 repeat with greater detail and impetuosity the truths, which we have already gathered from chapters 40-42.

1. And first of these comes naturally the omnipotence, righteousness, and personal urgency of Jehovah Himself. Everything is again assured by His power and purpose; everything starts from His initiative. To illustrate this we could quote from almost every verse in the chapters under consideration. "I, I Jehovah, and there is none beside Me a Saviour. I am God"-El. "Also from today on I am He. I will work, and who shall let it? I am Jehovah. I, I am He that blotteth out thy transgressions. I First, and I Last; and beside Me there is no God"-Elohim. "Is there a God," Eloah, "beside Me? yea, there is no Rock; I know not any. I Jehovah, Maker of all things. I am Jehovah, and there is none else; beside Me there is no God. I am Jehovah, and there is none else. Former of light and Creator of darkness, Maker of peace and Creator of evil, I am Jehovah, Maker of all these. I am Jehovah, and there is none else, God," Elohini, "beside Me, God-Righteous,’" El Ssaddiq, "and a Saviour: there is none except: Me. Face Me, and be saved all ends of the earth; for I am God," El, "and there is none else. Only in Jehovah-of Me shall they say-are righteousnesses and strength. I am God," El, "and there is none else; God," Elohim, "and there is none like Me. I am He; I am First, yea, I am Last. I, I have spoken. I have declared it."

It is of advantage to gather together so many passages-and they might have been increased-from chapters 43-48. They let us see at a glance what a part the first personal pronoun plays in the Divine revelation. Beneath every religious truth is the unity of God. Behind every great movement is the personal initiative, and urgency of God. And revelation is, in its essence, not the mere publication of truths about God, but the personal presence and communication to men of God Himself. Three words are used for Deity-El, Eloah, Elohim-exhausting the Divine terminology. But besides these, there is a formula which puts the point even more sharply: "I am He." It was the habit of the Hebrew nation, and indeed of all Semitic peoples, who shared their reverent unwillingness to name the Deity, to speak of Him simply by the third personal pronoun. The Book of Job is full of instances of the habit, and it also appears in many proper names, as Eli-hu, "My God-is-He," Abi-hu, "My-Father-is-He." Renan adduces the practice as evidence that the Semites were "naturally monotheistic,"-as evidence for what was never the case! But if there was no original Semitic monotheism for this practice to prove, we may yet take the practice as evidence for the personality of the Hebrew God. The God of the prophets is not the it, which Mr. Matthew Arnold so strangely thought he had identified in their writings, and which, in philosophic language, that unsophisticated Orientals would never have understood, he so cumbrously named "a tendency not ourselves that makes for righteousness." Not anything like this is the God, who here urges His self-consciousness upon men. He says, "I am He,"-the unseen Power, who was too awful and too dark to be named, but about whom, when in their terror and ignorance His worshippers sought to describe Him, they assumed that He was a Person, and called Him, as they would have called one of themselves, by a personal pronoun. By the mouth of His prophet this vague and awful He declares Himself as I, I, I, - no mere tendency, but a living Heart and urgent Will, personal character and force of initiative, from which all tendencies move and take their direction and strength. "I am He."

History is strewn with the errors of those who have sought from God something else than Himself. All the degradation, even of the highest religions, has sprung from this, that their votaries forgot that religion was a communion with God Himself, a life in the power of His character and will, and employed it as the mere communication either of material benefits or of intellectual ideas. It has been the mistake of millions to see in revelation nothing but the telling of fortunes, the recovery of lost things, decision in quarrels, direction in war, or the bestowal of some personal favour. Such are like the person, of whom St. Luke tells us, who saw nothing in Christ but the recoverer of a bad debt: "Master, speak unto my brother that he divide the inheritance with me"; and their superstition is as far from true faith as the prodigal’s old heart, when he said, "Give me the portion of goods that falleth unto me," was from the other heart, when, in his poverty and woe, he cast himself utterly upon his Father: "I will arise and go to my Father." But no less a mistake do those make, who seek from God not Himself, but only intellectual information. The first Reformers did well, who brought the common soul to the personal grace of God; but many of their successors, in a controversy, whose dust obscured the sun and allowed them to see but the length of their own weapons, used Scripture chiefly as a store of proofs for separate doctrines of the faith, and forgot that God Himself was there at all. And though in these days we seek from the Bible many desirable things, such as history, philosophy, morals, formulas of assurance of salvation, the forgiveness of sins, maxims for conduct, yet all these will avail us little, until we have found behind them the living Character, the Will, the Grace, the Urgency, the Almighty Power, by trust in whom and communion with whom alone they are added unto us.

Now the deity, who claims in these chapters to be the One, Sovereign God, was the deity of a little tribe. "I am Jehovah, I Jehovah am God, I Jehovah am He." We cannot too much impress ourselves with the historical wonder of this. In a world, which contained Babylon and Egypt with their large empires, Lydia with all her wealth, and the Medes with all their force; which was already feeling the possibilities of the great Greek life, and had the Persians, the masters of the future, upon its threshold, -it was the god of none of these, but of the obscurest tribe of their bondsmen, who claimed the Divine Sovereignty for Himself; it was the pride of none of these, but the faith of the most despised and, at its heart, most mournful religion of the time, which offered an explanation of history, claimed the future, and was assured that the biggest forces of the world were working for its ends. "Thus saith Jehovah, King of Israel, and his Redeemer Jehovah of Hosts, I First, and I Last; and beside Me there is no God. Is there a God beside Me? yea, there is no Rock; I know not any."

By itself this were a cheap claim, and might have been made by any idol among them, were it not for the additional proofs by which it is supported. We may summarise these additional proofs as threefold: Laughter, Gospel, and Control of History, -three marvels in the experience of exiles. People, mournfullest and most despised, their mouths were to be filled with the laughter of truth’s scorn upon the idols of their conquerors. Men, most tormented by conscience and filled with the sense of sin, they were to hear the gospel of forgiveness. Nation, against whom all fact seemed to be working, their God told them, alone of all nations of the world, that He controlled for their sake the facts of today and the issues of tomorrow.

2. A burst of laughter comes very weirdly out of the Exile. But we have already seen the intellectual right to scorn which these crushed captives had. They were monotheists and their enemies were image worshippers. Monotheism, even in its rudest forms, raises men intellectually, -it is difficult to say by how many degrees. Indeed, degrees do not measure the mental difference between an idolater and him who serves with his mind, as well as with all his heart and it not for the additional proofs by which it is a difference that is absolute. Israel in captivity was conscious of this, and therefore, although the souls of those sad men were filled beyond any in the world with the heaviness of sorrow and the humility of guilt, their proud faces carried a scorn they had every right to wear, as the servants of the One God. See how this scorn breaks forth in the following passage. Its text is corrupt, and its rhythm, at this distance from the voices that utter it, is hardly perceptible; but thoroughly evident is its tone of intellectual superiority, and the scorn of it gushes forth in impetuous, unequal verse, the force of which the smoothness and dignity of our Authorised Version has unfortunately disguised.


Formers of an idol are all of them waste,

And their darlings are utterly worthless!

And their confessors - they! they see not and know not

Enough to feel shame.

Who has fashioned a god, or an image has cast?

‘Tis to be utterly worthless.

Lo! all that depend on’t are shamed,

And the gravers are less than men:

Let all of them gather and stand.

They quake and are shamed in the lump.


Iron-graver-he takes a chisel,

And works with hot coals,

And with hammers he moulds;

And has done it with the arm of his strength. -

Anon hungers, and strength goes;

Drinks no water, and wearies!


Wood-graver-he draws a line,

Marks it with pencil,

Makes it with planes,

And with compasses marks it.

So has made it the build of a man,

To a grace that is human-

To inhabit a house, cutting it cedars.


Or one takes an ilex or oak,

And picks for himself from the trees of the wood

One has planted a pine, and the rain makes it big,

And ‘tis there for a man to burn.

And one has taken of it, and been warmed;

Yea, kindles and bakes bread, -

Yea, works out a god, and has worshipped it!

Has made it an idol, and bows down before it!

Part of it burns he with fire,

Upon part eats flesh,

Roasts roast and is full;

Yea, warms him and saith,

"Aha, I am warm, have seen fire!"

And the rest of it-to a god he has made-to his image!

He bows to it, worships it, prays to it,

And says, "Save me, for my god art thou!"


They know not and deem not!

For He hath bedaubed, past seeing, their eyes

Past thinking, their hearts.

And none takes to heart,

Neither has knowledge nor sense to say,

"‘Part of it burned I in fire-

Yea, have baked bread on its coals,

Do roast flesh that I eat, -

And the rest o’t, to a

Disgust should I make it?

The trunk of a tree should I worship?’"

Herder of ashes, a duped heart has sent him astray,

That he cannot deliver his soul. neither say,

"Is there not a lie in my right hand?"

Is not the prevailing note in these verses surprise at the mental condition of an idol-worshipper? "They see not and know not enough to feel shame. None takes it to heart, neither has knowledge nor sense to say, Part of it I have burned in fire and the rest, should I make it a god?" This intellectual confidence, breaking out into scorn, is the second great token of truth, which distinguishes the religion of this poor slave of a people.

3. The third token is its moral character. The intellectual truth of a religion would go for little, had the religion nothing to say to man’s moral sense-did it not concern itself with his sins, had it no redemption for his guilt. Now, the chapters before us are full of judgment and mercy. If they have scorn for the idols, they have doom for sin, and grace for the sinner. They are no mere political manifesto for the occasion, declaring how Israel shall be liberated from Babylon. They are a gospel for sinners in all time. By this they farther accredit themselves as a universal religion.

God is omnipotent, yet He can do nothing for Israel till Israel put away their sins. Those sins, and not the people’s captivity, are the Deity’s chief concern. Sin has been at the bottom of their whole adversity. This is brought out with all the versatility of conscience itself. Israel and their God have been at variance; their sin has been, what conscience feels the most, a sin against love. "Yet not upon Me hast thou called, O Jacob; how hast thou been wearied with Me, O Israel I have not made thee to slave with offerings, nor weaned thee with incense but thou hast made Me to slave with thy sins, thou hast wearied Me with thine iniquities". {Isaiah 43:22-24} So God sets their sins, where men most see the blackness of their guilt, in the face of His love. And now He challenges conscience. "Put Me in remembrance; let us come to judgment together; indict, that thou mayest be justified" (Isaiah 43:26). But it had been age long and original sin. "Thy father, the first had sinned; yea, thy representative men"-literally "interpreters, mediators-had transgressed against Me. Therefore did I profane consecrated princes, and gave Jacob to the ban, and Israel to reviling" (Isaiah 43:27-28). The Exile itself was but an episode in a tragedy, which began far back with Israel’s history. And so chapter 48 repeats: "I knew that thou dost deal very treacherously, and Transgressor-from-the-womb do they call thee" (Isaiah 48:8). And then there comes the sad note of what might have been. "O that thou hadst hearkened to My commandments! then had thy peace been as the river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea" (Isaiah 48:18). As broad Euphrates thou shouldst have lavishly rolled, and flashed to the sun like a summer sea. But now, hear what is left. "There is no peace, saith Jehovah, to the wicked" (Isaiah 48:22).

Ah, it is no dusty stretch of ancient history, no; long-extinct volcano upon the far waste of Asian politics, to which we are led by the writings of the Exile. But they treat of man’s perennial trouble; and conscience, that never dies, speaks through their old-fashioned letters and figures with words we feel like swords. And therefore, still, whether they be psalms or prophecies, they stand like some ancient minster in the modern world, -where, on each new soiled day, till time ends, the heavy heart of man may be helped to read itself, and lift up its guilt for mercy.

They are the confessional of the world, but they are also its gospel, and the altar where forgiveness is sealed. "I, even I, am He that blotteth out thy transgressions for Mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins. O Israel, thou shalt not be forgotten of Me. I have blotted out as a thick cloud thy transgressions, and as a cloud thy sins; turn unto Me, for I have redeemed, thee. Israel shall be saved by Jehovah with an everlasting salvation; ye shall not be ashamed nor confounded world without end." {Isaiah 43:25; Isaiah 44:21-22; Isaiah 45:17} Now, when we remember who the God is, who thus speaks, -not merely One who flings the word of pardon from the sublime height of His holiness, but, as we saw, speaks it from the midst of all His own passion and struggle under His people’s sins, -then with what assurance does His word come home to the heart. What honour and obligation to righteousness does the pardon of such a God put upon our hearts. One understands why Ambrose sent Augustine, after his conversion, first to these prophecies.

4. The fourth token, which these chapters offer for the religion of Jehovah, is the claim they make for it to interpret and to control history. There are two verbs, which are frequently repeated throughout the chapters, and which are given together in Isaiah 43:12 : "I have published and I have saved." These are the two acts by which Jehovah proves His solitary divinity over against the idols.

The "publishing," of course, is the same prediction, of which chapter 41 spoke. It is "publishing" in former times things happening now; it is "publishing" now things that are still to happen. "And who, like Me, calls out and publishes it, and sets it in order for Me, since I appointed the ancient people? and the things that are coming, and that shall come, let them publish. Tremble not, nor fear: did I not long ago cause thee to hear? and I published, and ye are My witnesses. Is there a God beside Me? nay, there is no Rock; I know none". {Isaiah 44:7-8}

The two go together, the doing of wonderful and saving acts for His people and the publishing of them before they come to pass. Israel’s past is full of such acts. Chapter 43, instances the delivery from Egypt (Isaiah 43:16-17), but immediately proceeds (Isaiah 43:18-19): "Remember ye not the former things"-here our old friend ri’shonoth occurs again, but this time means simply "previous events"-"neither consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; even now it springs forth. Shall ye not know it? Yea, I will set in the wilderness a way, in the desert rivers." And of this new event of the Return, and of others which will follow from it, like the building of Jerusalem, the chapters insist over and over again, that they are the work of Jehovah, who is therefore a Saviour God. But what better proof can be given, that these saving facts are indeed His own and part of His counsel, than that He foretold them by His messengers and prophets to Israel, -of which previous "publication" His people are the witnesses. "Who among the peoples can publish thus, and let us hear predictions?-again ri’shonoth, "things ahead-let them bring their witnesses, that they may be justified, and let them hear and say, Truth. Ye are my witnesses, saith Jehovah," to Israel. {Isaiah 43:9-10} "I have published, and I have saved, and I have shewed, and there was no strange god among you; therefore"-because Jehovah was notoriously the only God who had to do with them during all this prediction and fulfilment of prediction" ye are witnesses for Me, saith Jehovah, that I am God" (id. Isaiah 43:12). The meaning of all this is plain. Jehovah is God alone, because He is directly effective in history for the salvation of His people, and because He has published beforehand what He will do. The great instance of this, which the prophecy adduces, is the present movement towards the liberation of the people, of which movement Cyrus is the most conspicuous factor. Of this Isaiah 45:19 ff. says: "Not in a place of the land of in Secret have I spoken, darkness. I have not said to the seed of Jacob, In vanity seek ye Me. I Jehovah am a speaker of righteousness, a publisher of things that are straight. Be gathered and come in; draw together, ye survivors of the nations: they have no knowledge that carry about the log of their image, and are suppliants to a god that cannot save. Publish, and bring it here; nay, let them advise together; who made this to be heard,"-that is, "who published this, -of ancient time?" Who published this of old? I Jehovah, and there is none God beside Me: a God righteous,"-that is, consistent, true to His published word, -"and a Saviour, there is none beside Me." "Here we have joined together the same ideas as in Isaiah 43:12." There "I have declared and saved" is equivalent to "a God righteous and a Saviour" here. "Only in Jehovah are righteousnesses," that is, fidelity to His anciently published purposes; "and strength," that is, capacity to carry these purposes out in history. God is righteous because, according to another verse in the same prophecy, {Isaiah 44:26} "He confirmeth the word of His servant, and the advice of His messengers He fulfilleth."

Now the question has been asked, To what predictions does the prophecy allude as being fulfilled in those days when Cyrus was so evidently advancing to the overthrow of Babylon? Before answering this question it is well to note, that, for the most part, the prophet speaks in general terms. He gives no hint to justify that unfounded belief, to which so many think it necessary to cling, that Cyrus was actually named by a prophet of Jehovah years before he appeared. Had such a prediction existed, we can have no doubt that our prophet would now have appealed to it. No: he evidently refers only to those numerous and notorious predictions by Isaiah, and by Jeremiah, of the return of Israel from exile after a certain and fixed period. Those were now coming to pass.

But from this new day Jehovah also predicts for the days to come, and He does this very particularly, Isaiah 44:26, "Who is saying of Jerusalem, She shall be inhabited; and of the cities of Judah, They shall be built; and of her waste places, I will raise them up. Who saith to the deep, Be dry, and thy rivers I will dry up. Who saith of Koresh, My Shepherd, and all My pleasure he shall fulfil: even saying of Jerusalem, She shall be built, and the Temple shall be founded."

Thus, backward and forward, yesterday, today and for ever, Jehovah’s hand is upon history. He controls it: it is the fulfilment of His ancient purpose. By predictions made long ago and fulfilled today, by the readiness to predict today what will happen tomorrow, He is surely God and God alone. Singular fact, that in that day of great empires, confident in their resources, and with the future so near their grasp, it should be the God of a little people, cut off from their history, servile and seemingly spent, who should take the big things of earth-Egypt, Ethiopia, Seba-and speak of them as counters to be given in exchange for His people; who should speak of such a people as the chief heirs of the future, the indispensable ministers of mankind. The claim has two Divine features. It is unique, and history has vindicated it. It is unique: no other religion, in that or in any other time, has so rationally explained past history or laid out the ages to come upon the lines of a purpose so definite, so rational, so beneficent-a purpose so worthy of the One God and Creator of all. And it has been vindicated: Israel returned to their own land, resumed the development of their calling, and, after the centuries came and went, fulfilled the promise that they should be the religious teachers of mankind. The long delay of this fulfilment surely but testifies the more to the Divine foresight of the promise; to the patience, which nature, as well as history, reveals to be, as much as omnipotence, a mark of Deity.

These, then, are the four points, upon which the religion of Israel offers itself. First, it is the force of the character and grace of a personal God; second, it speaks with a high intellectual confidence, whereof its scorn is here the chief mark; third, it is intensely moral, making man’s sin its chief concern; and fourth, it claims the control of history, and history has justified the claim.



Isaiah 47:1-15THROUGHOUT the extent of Bible history, from Genesis to Revelation, One City remains, which in fact and symbol is execrated as the enemy of God and the stronghold of evil. In Genesis we are called to see its foundation, as of the first city that wandering men established, and the quick ruin, which fell upon its impious builders. By the prophets we hear it cursed as the oppressor of God’s people, the temptress of the nations, full of cruelty and wantonness. And in the Book of Revelation its character and curse are transferred to Rome, and the New Babylon stands over against the New Jerusalem.

The tradition and infection, which have made the name of Babylon as abhorred in the Scripture as Satan’s own, are represented as the tradition and infection of pride, -the pride, which, in the audacity of youth, proposes to attempt to be equal with God: "Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may touch heaven, and let us make us a name"; the pride, which, amid the success and wealth of later years, forgets that there is a God at all: "Thou sayest in thine heart, I am, and there is none beside me." Babylon is the Atheist of the Old Testament, as she is the Antichrist of the New.

That a city should have been originally conceived by Israel as the archenemy of God is due to historical causes, as intelligible as those which led, in later days, to the reverse conception of a city as God’s stronghold, and the refuge of the weak and the wandering. God’s earliest people were shepherds, plain men dwelling in tents, -desert nomads, who were never tempted to rear permanent structures of their own except as altars and shrines, but marched and rested, waked and slept, between God’s bare earth and God’s high heaven; whose spirits were chastened and refined by the hunger and clear air of the desert, and who walked their wide world without jostling or stunting one another. With the dear habits of those early times, the truths of the Bible are therefore, even after Israel has settled in towns, spelt to the end in the images of shepherd life. The Lord is the Shepherd, and men are the sheep of His pasture. He is a Rock and a Strong Tower, such as rise here and there in the desert’s wildness for guidance or defence. He is rivers of water in a dry place, and the shadow of a great rock in a weary land. And man’s peace is to lie beside still waters, and his glory is, not to have built cities, but to have all these things put under his feet-sheep and oxen and the beasts of the field, the fowls of the air and the fish of the sea.

Over against that lowly shepherd life, the first cities rose, as we can imagine, high, terrible, and impious. They were the production of an alien race, a people with no true religion, as it must have appeared to the Semites, arrogant and coarse. But Babylon had a special curse. Babylon was not the earliest city, -Akkad and Erekh were famous long before, -but it is Babylon that the Book of Genesis represents as overthrown and scattered by the judgment of God. What a contrast this picture in Genesis, - and let it be remembered that the only other cities to which that book leads us are Sodom and Gomorrah, -what a contrast it forms to the passages in which classic poets celebrate the beginnings of their great cities. There, the favourable omens, the patronage of the gods, the prophecies of the glories of civil life; the tracing of the temple and the forum; visions of the city as the school of industry, the treasury of wealth, the home of freedom. Here, but a few rapid notes of scorn and doom: man’s miserable manufacture, without Divine impulse or omen; his attempt to rise to heaven upon that alone, his motive only to make a name for himself; and the result-not, as in Greek legend, the foundation of a polity, the rise of commerce, the growth of a great language, by which through the lips of one man the whole city may be swayed together to high purposes, but only scattering and confusion of speech. To history, a great city is a multitude of men within reach of one man’s voice. Athens is Demosthenes; Rome is Cicero persuading the Senate; Florence is Savonarola putting by his word one conscience within a thousand hearts. But Babylon, from the beginning, gave its name to Babel, confusion of speech, incapacity for union and for progress. And all this came, because the builders of the city, the men who set the temper of its civilisation, did not begin with God, but in their pride deemed everything possible to unaided and unblessed human ambition, and had only the desire to make a name upon earth.

The sin and the curse never left the generations, who in turn succeeded those impious builders. Pride and godlessness infested the city, and prepared it for doom, as soon as it again gathered strength to rise to heaven. The early nomads had watched Babylon’s fall from afar; but when their descendants were carried as captives within her in the time of her second glory, they found that the besetting sin, which had once reared its head so fatally high, infected the city to her very heart. We need not again go over the extent and glory of Nebuchadrezzar’s architecture, or the greatness of the traffic, from the Levant to India, which his policy had concentrated upon his own wharves and markets. It was stupendous. But neither walls nor wealth make a city, and no observant man, with the Hebrew’s faith and conscience, could have lived those fifty years in the centre of Babylon, and especially after Nebuchadrezzar had passed away, without perceiving that her life was destitute of every principle which ensured union or promised progress. Babylon was but a medley of peoples, without common traditions or a public conscience, and incapable of acting together. Many of her inhabitants had been brought to her, like the Jews, against their own will, and were ever turning from those glorious battlements they were forced to build in their disgust, to scan the horizon for the advent of a deliverer. And many others, who moved in freedom through her busy streets, and shared her riches and her joys, were also foreigners, and bound to her only so long as she ministered to their pleasure or their profit. Her king was a usurper, who had insulted her native gods; her priesthood was against him. And although his army, sheltered by the fortifications of Nebuchadrezzar, had repulsed Cyrus upon the Persian’s first invasion from the north, conspiracies were now so rife among his oppressed and insulted subjects, that, on Cyrus’ second invasion, Babylon opened her impregnable gates and suffered herself to be taken without a blow. Nor, even if the city’s religion had been better served by the king, could it in the long run have availed for her salvation. For, in spite of the science with which it was connected, -and this "wisdom of the Chaldeans" was contemptible in neither its methods nor its results, -the Babylonian religion was not one to inspire either the common people with those moral principles, which form the true stability of states, or their rulers with a reasonable and consistent policy. Babylon’s religion was broken up into a multitude of wearisome and distracting details, whose absurd solemnities, especially when administered by a priesthood hostile to the executive, must have hampered every adventure of war, and rendered futile many opportunities of victory. In fact, Babylon, for all her glory, could not but be short-lived. There was no moral reason why she should endure: The masses, who contributed to her building, were slaves who hated her; the crowds who fed her business, would stay with her only so long as she was profitable to themselves; her rulers and her priests had quarrelled; her religion was a burden, not an inspiration. Yet she sat proud, and felt herself secure.

It is just these features, which our prophet describes in chapter 47, in verses more notable for their moral insight and indignation, than for their beauty as a work of literature. He is certain of Babylon’s immediate fall from power and luxury into slavery and dishonour (Isaiah 47:1-3). He speaks of her cruelty to her captives (Isaiah 47:6), of her haughtiness and her secure pride (Isaiah 47:7-8). He touches twice upon her atheistic self-sufficiency, her "autotheism,"-"I am, and there is none beside me," words which only God can truly use, but words which man’s ignorant, proud self is ever ready to repeat (Isaiah 47:8-10). He speaks of the wearisomeness and futility of her religious magic (Isaiah 47:10-14). And he closes with a vivid touch, that dissolves the reality of that merely commercial grandeur on which she prides herself. Like every association that arises only from the pecuniary profit of its members, Babylon shall surely break up, and none of those, who sought her for their selfish ends, shall wait to help her one moment after she has ceased to be profitable to them.

Here now are his own words, rendered literally except in the case of one or two conjunctions and articles, -rendered, too, in the original order of the words, and, as far as it can be determined, in the rhythm of the original. The rhythm is largely uncertain, but some verses- Isaiah 47:1, Isaiah 47:5, Isaiah 47:14, Isaiah 47:15 -are complete in that measure which we found in the Taunt-song against the king of Babylon in chapter 13, and nearly every line or clause has the same metrical swing upon it.

Down! and sit in the dust, O virgin, Daughter of Babel!

Sit on the ground, with no throne, Daughter of Khasim!

For not again shall they call thee

Tender and Dainty.

Take to thee millstones, and grind out the meal,

Put back thy veil, strip off the garment,

Make bare the leg, wade through the rivers;

Bare be thy nakedness, yea, be beholden thy shame

I Vengeance I take, and strike treaty with none.

Our Redeemer!

Jehovah of Hosts is His Name,

Holy of Israel!

Sit thou dumb, and get into darkness,

Daughter of Khasdim!

For not again shall they call thee Mistress of Kingdoms.

I was wroth with My people, profaned Mine inheritance,

Gave them to thy hand:

Thou didst show them no mercy, on old men thou madest Thy yoke very sore.

And thou saidst, Forever I shall be mistress,

Till thou hast set not these things to thy heart,

Nor thought of their issue.

Therefore now hear this,

Voluptuous, Sitting self-confident:

Thou, who saith in her heart,

"I am: there is none else.

I shall not sit a widow, nor know want of children."

Surely shall come to thee both of these, sudden, the same day,

Childlessness, widowhood!

To their full come upon thee, spite of the mass of thy spells,

Spite of the wealth of thy charms-to the full!

And thou wast bold in thine evil; thou saidst,

"None doth see me."

Thy wisdom and knowledge-they have led thee astray,

Till thou hast said in thine heart,

"I am: there is none else."

Yet there shall come on thee Evil,

Thou know’st not to charm it.

And there shall fall on thee Havoc,

Thou canst not avert it.

And there shall come on thee suddenly,

Unawares, Ruin.

Stand forth, I pray, with thy charms, with the wealth of thy spells-

With which thou hast wearied thyself from thy youth up-

If so thou be able to profit,

If so to strike terror.

Thou art sick with the mass of thy counsels:

Let them stand up and save thee-

Mappers of heaven,


Tellers at new moons-

From what must befall thee!

Behold, they are grown like the straw!

Fire hath consumed them;

Nay, they save not their life

From the hand of the flame! -

‘Tis no fuel for warmth,

Fire to sit down at!-

Thus are they grown to thee, they who did weary thee

Traders of thine from thy youth up;

Each as he could pass have they fled

None is thy saviour!

We, who remember Isaiah’s elegies on Egypt and Tyre, shall be most struck here by the absence of all appreciation of greatness or of beauty about Babylon. Even while prophesying for Tyre as certain a judgment as our prophet here predicts for Babylon, Isaiah spoke as if the ruin of so much enterprise and wealth were a desecration, and he promised that the native strength of Tyre, humbled and purified, would rise again to become the handmaid of religion. But our prophet sees no saving virtue whatever in Babylon, and gives her not the slightest promise of a future. There is pity through his scorn: the way in which he speaks of the futility of the mass of Babylonian science; the way in which he speaks of her ignorance, though served by hosts of counsellors; the way in which, after recalling her countless partners in traffic, he describes their headlong flight, and closes with the words, "None is thy saviour,"-all this is most pathetic. But upon none of his lines is there one touch of awe or admiration or regret for the fall of what is great. To him Babylon is wholly false, vain, destitute-as Tyre was not destitute-of native vigour and saving virtue. Babylon is sheer pretence and futility. Therefore his scorn and condemnation are thorough; and mocking laughter breaks from him, now with an almost savage coarseness, as he pictures the dishonour of the virgin who was no virgin-"Bare thy nakedness, yea, be beholden thy shame"; and now in roguish glee, as he interjects about the fire which shall destroy the mass of Babylon’s magicians, astrologers, and haruspices: "No coal this to warm oneself at, fire to sit down before." But withal we are not allowed to forget, that it is one of the Tyrant’s poor captives, who thus judges and scorns her. How vividly from the midst of his satire does the prisoner’s sigh break forth to God:-

Our Redeemer! Jehovah of Hosts is His Name, Holy of Israel!

Not the least interesting feature of this taunt-song is the expression which it gives to the characteristic Hebrew sense of the wearisomeness and immorality of the system of divination, which formed the mass of the Babylonian and many other Gentile religions. The worship of Jehovah had very much in common with the rest of the Semitic cults. Its ritual, its temple-furniture, the division of its sacred year, its terminology, and even many of its titles for the Deity and His relations to men, may be matched in the worship of Phoenician, Syrian, and Babylonian gods, or in the ruder Arabian cults. But in one thing the "law of Jehovah" stands by itself, and that is in its intolerance of all augury and divination. It owed this distinction to the unique moral and practical sense which inspired it. Augury and divination, such as the Chaldeans were most proficient in, exerted two most evil influences. They hampered, sometimes paralysed, the industry and politics of a nation, and they more or less confounded the moral sense of the people. They were, therefore, utterly out of harmony with the practical sanity and Divine morality of the Jewish law, which strenuously forbade them; while the prophets, who were practical men as well as preachers of righteousness, constantly exposed the fatigue they laid upon public life, and the way they distracted attention from the simple moral issues of conduct. Augury and divination wearied a people’s intellect, stunted their enterprise, distorted their conscience. "Thy spells, the mass of thy charms, with which thou hast wearied thyself from thy youth. Thou art sick with the mass of thy counsels. Thy wisdom and thy knowledge! they have led thee astray." When "the Chaldean astrology" found its way to the new Babylon, Juvenal’s strong conscience expressed the same sense of its wearisomeness and waste of time.

Ashes and ruins, a servile and squalid life, a desolate site abandoned by commerce, -what the prophet predicted, that did imperial Babylon become. Not, indeed, at the hand of Cyrus, or of any other single invader; but gradually by the rivalry of healthier peoples, by the inevitable working of the poison at her heart, Babylon, though situated in the most fertile and central part of God’s earth, fell into irredeemable decay. Do not let us, however, choke our interest in this prophecy, as so many students of prophecy do, in the ruins and dust, which were its primary fulfilment. The shell of Babylon, the gorgeous city which rose by Euphrates, has indeed sunk into heaps; but Babylon herself is not dead. Babylon never dies. To the conscience of Christ’s seer, this "mother of harlots," though dead and desert in the East, came to life again in the West. To the city of Rome, in his day, John transferred word by word the phrases of our prophet and of the prophet who wrote the fifty-first chapter of the Book of Jeremiah. Rome was Babylon, in so far as Romans were filled with cruelty, with arrogance, with trust in riches, with credulity in divination, with that waste of mental and moral power which Juvenal exposed in her. "I sit a queen," John heard Rome say in her heart, "and am no widow, and shall in no wise see mourning. Therefore in one day shall her plagues come, death and mourning and famine, and she shall be utterly burned with fire, for strong is the Lord God which judged her." {Revelation 17:1-18; Revelation 18:1-24} But we are not to leave the matter even here: we are to use that freedom with John, which John uses with our prophet. We are to pass by the particular fulfilment of his words, in which he and his day were interested, because it can only have a historical and secondary interest to us in face of other Babylons in our own day, with which our consciences, if they are quick, ought to be busy. Why do some honest people continue to confine the references of those chapters in the Book of Revelation to the city and church of Rome? It is quite true, that John meant the Rome of his day; it is quite true, that many features of his Babylon may be traced upon the successor of the Roman Empire, the Roman Church. But what is that to us, with incarnations of the Babylonian spirit so much nearer ourselves for infection and danger, than the Church of Rome can ever be. John’s description, based upon our prophet’s, suits better a commercial, than an ecclesiastical state, -though self-worship has been as rife in ecclesiasticism, Roman or Reformed, as among the votaries of Mammon. For every phrase of John’s, that may be true of the Church of Rome in certain ages, there are six apt descriptions of the centres of our own British civilisation, and of the selfish, atheistic tempers that prevail in them. Let us ask what are the Babylonian tempers and let us touch our own consciences with them.

Forgetfulness of God, cruelty, vanity of knowledge (which so easily breeds credulity), and vanity of wealth, -but the parent of them all is idolatry of self. Isaiah told us about this in the Assyrian with his war; we see it here in Babylon with her commerce and her science; it was exposed even in the orthodox Jews, (Chapter 14) for they put their own prejudices before their God’s revelation; and. it is perhaps as evident in the Christian Church as anywhere else. For selfishness follows a man like his shadow; and religion, like the sun, the stronger it shines, only makes the shadow more apparent. But to worship your shadow is to turn your back on the sun; selfishness is atheism, says our prophet. Man’s self takes God’s word about Himself and says, "I am, and there is none beside me." And he who forgets God is sure also to forget his brother; thus self-worship leads to cruelty. A heavy part of the charge against Babylon is her treatment of the Lord’s own people. These were God’s convicts, and she, for the time, God’s minister of justice. But she unnecessarily and cruelly oppressed them. "On the aged thou hast very heavily laid thy yoke." God’s people were given to her to be reformed, but she sought to crush the life out of them. God’s purpose was upon them, but she used them for her aggrandisement. She did not feel that she was responsible to God for her treatment even of the most guilty and contemptible of her subjects.

In all this Babylon acted in accordance with what was the prevailing spirit of antiquity; and here we may safely affirm that our Christian civilisation has at least a superior conscience. The modern world does recognise in some measure, its responsibility to God for the care even of its vilest and most forfeit lives. No Christian state at the present day would, for instance, allow its felons to be tortured or outraged against their will in the interests either of science or of public amusement. We do not vivisect our murderers nor kill them off by gladiatorial combats. Our statutes do not get rid of worthless or forfeit lives by condemning them to be used up in dangerous labours of public necessity. On the contrary, in prisons we treat our criminals with decency and even with comfort, and outside prisons we protect and cherish even the most tainted and guilty lives. In all our discharge of God’s justice, we take care that the inevitable errors of our human fallibility may fall on mercy’s side. Now it is true that in the practice of all this we often fail, and are inconsistent. The point at present is that we have at least a conscience about the matter. We do not say, like Babylon, "I am, and there is none beside me. There is no law higher than my own will and desire. I can; therefore, use whatever through its crime or its uselessness falls into my power for the increase of my wealth or the satisfaction of my passions." We remember God, and that even the criminal and the useless are His. In wielding the power which His Law and Providence put into our hands towards many of his creatures, we remember that we are administering His justice, and not satisfying our own revenge, or feeding our own desire for sensation, or experimenting for the sake of our science. They are His convicts, not our spoil. In our treatment of them we are subject to His laws, -one of which, that fences even His justice, is the law against cruelty; and another, for which His justice leaves room, is that to every man there be granted, with his due penalty, the opportunity of penitence and reform. There are among us Positivists, who deny that these opinions and practices of modern civilisation are correct. Carrying out the essential atheism of their school-I am man, and there is none else: that in the discharge of justice and the discharge of charity men are responsible only to themselves-they dare to recommend that the victims of justice should be made the experiments, however painful, of science, and that charity should be refused to the corrupt and the useless. But all this is simply reversion to the Babylonian type, and the Babylonian type is doomed to decay. For history has writ no surer law upon itself than this-that cruelty is the infallible precursor of ruin.

But while speaking of the state, we should remember individual responsibilities as well. Success, even where it is the righteous success of character, is a most subtle breeder of cruelty. The best of us need most strongly to guard ourselves against censoriousness. If God does put the characters of sinful men and women into our keeping, let us remember that our right of judging them, our right of punishing them, our right even of talking about them, is strictly limited. Religious people too easily forget this, and their cruel censoriousness or selfish gossip warns us that to be a member of the Church of Christ does not always mean that a man’s citizenship is in heaven; he may well be a Babylonian and carry the freedom of that city upon his face. To "be hard on those who are down" is Babylonian; to make material out of our neighbours’ faults, for our pride, or for love of gossip, or for prurience, is Babylonian. There is one very good practical rule to keep us safe. We may allow ourselves to speak about our erring brothers to men, just as much as we pray for them to God. But if we pray much for a man, he will surely become too sacred to be made the amusement of society or the food of our curiosity or of our pride.

The last curse on Babylon reminds us of the fatal looseness of a society that is built only upon the interests of trade; of the loneliness and uselessness that await, in the end, all lives, which keep themselves alive simply by trafficking with men. If we feed life only by the news of the markets, by the interest of traffic, by the excitement of competition, by the fever of speculation, by the passions of cupidity and pride, we may feel healthy and powerful for a time. But such a life, which is merely a being kept brisk by the sense of gaining something or overreaching some one, is the mere semblance of living; and when the inevitable end comes, when they that have trafficked with us from our youth depart, then each particle of strength with which they feed us shall be withdrawn, and we shall fall into decay. There never was a truer picture of the quick ruin of a merely commercial community, or of the ultimate loneliness of a mercenary and selfish life, than the headlong rush of traders, "each as he could find passage," from the city that never had other attractions even for her own citizens than those of gain or of pleasure.

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