Great Texts of the Bible
The Unnatural Children
The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.—Isaiah 1:3.
The first chapter of Isaiah has been called by Ewald the great arraignment. It contains four leading ideas. They are the ideas, says Skinner, which run through the whole of Isaiah’s teaching, and through the teaching of all the pre-Exilic prophets. These ideas are—(1) the breach between Jehovah and Israel; (2) the inefficiency of mere ritual; (3) the call to national repentance; (4) the certainty of a sweeping judgment.
Ewald’s title suggests a court of justice; and it has often been pointed out that God is both Judge and Plaintiff, Israel the defendant, heaven and earth the jury, while the prophet is both principal witness and prosecuting attorney. But all this is apt to withdraw the attention from the real pathos of the scene. No doubt there is a judge, and judgment is pronounced. But the Judge is a Father. The paraphernalia of the court-room pass into insignificance when there is heard the exceeding bitter cry, “I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me.”
The third verse is an illustration. It shows the ignorance of the children in contrast to the knowledge of the domestic animals.
The Knowledge of the Domestic Animals
“The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib.”
1. It is knowledge of their owner. They both know and acknowledge him. He on his part not only owns but takes care of them. He rears them, tames them, houses them, and heals them. In return they serve him.
True to the life, no sooner had the drove got within the walls than it began to disperse. Every ox knew perfectly well his owner, and the way to his house; nor did it get bewildered for a moment in the mazes of the narrow and crooked alleys. As for the ass, he walked straight to the door, and up to “his master’s crib,” without turning to bid good-night to his companions of the field. I followed some into their habitation, and saw each take his appropriate manger, and begin his evening meal of dry tibn.1 [Note: 1 Thomson, The Land and the Book, ii. 387.]
2. Their service brings them into fellowship—such fellowship as is possible between man and the lower animals. There is some sense of mutual dependence. There is affection and sometimes self-sacrifice. The prophet speaks of the domestic animals of his own people. We should see his point more clearly if we thought of the horse and the dog.
It is not an uncommon thing in the Argentine pampas—I have on two occasions witnessed it myself—for a riding horse to come home to die. I am speaking of horses that live out in the open, and have to be hunted to the corral or enclosure, or roughly captured with a lasso as they run, when they are required. On going out one summer evening—I was only a boy at the time—I saw one of the horses of the establishment standing unsaddled and unbridled leaning his head over the gate. Going to the spot I stroked his nose, and turning to an old native who happened to be standing near, asked him what could be the meaning of such a thing. “I think he is going to die,” he answered; “horses often come to the house to die.” And next morning the poor beast was found lying dead not twenty yards from the gate.
I now believe that the sensations of sickness and approaching death in the riding horse of the pampas resemble or simulate the pains, so often experienced, of hunger, thirst, and fatigue, combined together with the oppressive sensations caused by the ponderous native saddle, with its huge surcingle of raw hide, drawn up so tightly as to hinder free respiration. The suffering animal remembers how at the last relief invariably came when the twelve or fifteen hours’ torture was over, and when the great iron bridle and ponderous gear were removed, and he had freedom and food and drink and rest. At the gate or at the door of his master’s house the sudden relief had always come to him, and there does he go in his sickness to find it again.2 [Note: W. H. Hudson, The Naturalist in La Plata.]
The Ignorance of the Children
“Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.”
God has been as a Father to Israel. Now, a father has the right to obedience, service, and especially affection. But Israel had come short. Of the two great commandments of the Law they failed especially in the second. So was it with Israel always. The first commandment is, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,” and there was at least much outward appearance of devotion to God. But the second commandment is, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” The failure was here. “Of what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me … Relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.” The scribe who came to Jesus had no doubt of his duty to God. But, willing to justify himself, he asked, “Who is my neighbour?”
1. Their ignorance consisted in not knowing what God had done for them—“Israel doth not know.” What had He done?
1. He calls heaven and earth to witness. For He had created them and preserved them, and been their bountiful benefactor. They were not ignorant of the wonders of their world. The psalmists were accustomed to consider the heavens (Psalm 8:3). And they found that the heavens declared the glory of God (Psalm 19:1).
2. But God had chosen Israel to be His peculiar people. He had been as a Father to them and had done great things for them, as Samuel reminded them that day upon which He consented to give them a king. It was even a commonplace among the heathen. “Then said they among the nations, the Lord hath done great things for them.” And they admitted it when they considered—“The Lord hath done great things for us” (Psalm 126:2-3).
3. Above all, God had shown them the care involved in training them to become a blessing to all the nations of the earth. “Thou shalt consider in thine heart,” said Moses, “that, as a man chasteneth his son, so the Lord thy God chasteneth thee” (Deuteronomy 8:5). It was this, above all, that they were ignorant of. They mistook the chastening of a father for the wounds of an enemy.
2. Their ignorance was due also to want of consideration—My people doth not consider.” (1) He would have them stop and think. When the rich young ruler came running to Jesus—“Master, what shall I do?”—He stopped him. “Why callest thou me good?” Stop and think. When the Pharisees spoke glibly about the Messiah being David’s son, He recalled the 110th Psalm, where David calls the Messiah his Lord. “How can he be both son and Lord?” He said. Stop and think. (2) It is want of consideration that makes men miss Christ. For the most part they simply pass Him by, they do not consider Him. “Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by?” (Lamentations 1:12). (3) It is want of consideration that makes men lose life itself. They do not know what life is. They do not know that they have lost it. (4) But consideration of God brings considerateness for man. The two great commandments must always be kept in their right order: first, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God,” next, “Thy neighbour as thyself.” It was because Israel rebelled against God that they neglected the poor and the fatherless. It is to those who have tasted and seen that the Lord is gracious that St. Paul writes: “Let your considerateness be known unto all men” (Php 4:5).
It was Israel’s lack of perception that was at the root of her sins. Ibsen, in the study of the tragedy of a lost soul in Peer Gynt, teaches that God meant something when He made each one of us, and that it is our duty to find out what He did mean. The devil’s staunchest ally is lack of perception.
When at the end of his career Peer Gynt, who is the type of a compromising self-seeker, meets the button-moulder, who tells him it is his fate to be cast into the melting-pot, this dialogue ensues. (Peer Gynt, Acts 5:9.)
Peer. One question only: What is it, at bottom, this “being oneself”?
Button-Moulder. A singular question, most odd in the mouth of a man who just now ——
Peer. Come, a straightforward answer.
Button-Moulder. To be oneself is: to slay oneself. But on you that answer is doubtless lost, and therefore we’ll say: to stand forth everywhere with Master’s intention displayed like a signboard.
Peer. But suppose a man never has come to know what Master meant with him?
Button-Moulder. He must divine it.
Peer. But how often are divinings beside the mark—then one is carried ad undas in middle career.
Button-Moulder. That is certain, Peer Gynt; in default of divining, the cloven-hoofed gentleman finds his best hook.
Davies (D.), Talks with Men, Women, and Children, 5th Ser., 493.
Maclaren (A.), Expositions, Isaiah i.–xlviii. 7.
Macmillan (H.), The Gate Beautiful, 155.
Momerie (A. W.), Inspiration, 211.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xviii. No. 1059.
Christian World Pulpit, xxxv. 58 (Rogers).
Church Pulpit Year Book, ii. (1905) 44.
Expository Times, iv. 432 (Robertson).