Great Texts of the Bible
In the Desert
A man shall be as an hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.—Isaiah 32:2.
The situation is to be understood by the reading of the previous chapter, from which this chapter should not be separated. The kingdom of Judah is threatened by Assyria. Hezekiah stands in great danger from Sennacherib. Suddenly Sennacherib is defeated, routed, and returns to his own land. It is the hand of the Lord that has done it. Now Isaiah looks forward to the future and sees Judah, thus miraculously delivered from a situation of extreme peril, recovering herself morally, king, princes, and people vying with one another in doing righteously. First, the king shall reign in righteousness, next, the princes shall rule in judgment. Then (Isaiah 32:2) the great men of the kingdom shall become the strength and stay of the nation; or in the words of the text, “a man” (that is, any man, every man, though perhaps the emphasis is on the great men) “shall be as an hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.”
The nation was anxious about its own security. The permanence of the national life seemed to be imperilled; there was a feeling of interest in all questions which affected the defences of the nation. How can we maintain our national strength? That was the great question that was stirring the souls of the prophet’s countrymen, and the question was being answered as thousands of people are answering it in our own England to-day. Look to your bulwarks, increase the strength of your fortifications, multiply your military forces, enter into alliance with the most powerful among the nations, and put your confidence in the strength of your arms and your armour. That was the predominant counsel of the day, and it all amounted to this—that the strength and permanence of national life can be built upon a basis of material force. That was the popular conception as to what were the foundations of national stability, and so their policy was shaped in accordance with their views. Thus they strengthened their fortifications, they multiplied and consolidated their forces, and they entered into alliance first with one nation and then with another, and on this they built their fullest confidence and hope. Those were the conditions amid which the prophet worked and with which he had to deal. Against this conception of national security he lifted up his voice like the sound of a trumpet. Oh! Israel, thy strength, thy stability, thy permanence lie not in things like these. Thy feverish efforts are misdirected, thou art building upon shifting sand, and thy national life will collapse. The armour will rust and the arm of flesh will fail; the alliance with material forces is a covenant with death. Not in physical prowess, not in diplomatic shrewdness lies the strength of a nation. It rests in the character of its people. The most dangerous foes of a nation are not outside but within its borders. The foes of a nation which are most to be feared are of its own household. There lies your weakness, says the brave old prophet, and there will lie the secret of your strength. Riches and national permanence are embodied in the national life. Change the emphasis of your policy. You have been busy making alliances; now make a Man 1:1 [Note: J. H. Jowett, in Christian World Pulpit, lv. p. 84.]
The subject is a simile. The life of man is likened to a wilderness journey, with its distresses and its alleviations. The title might be—“Relief from the Distresses of the Desert Journey.”
The Nearer East is dominated by the desert, just as Britain is by the sea. Behind all the thoughts of the Eastern there hovers some desert image or idea, and his characteristic moods of thought and feeling perplex the Western with the suggestion of a stony and artificial kind of desert beauty. If, as Robertson Smith has shown, Palestine appealed to its inhabitants always in unconscious contrast with the desert, then it was indeed a veritable Garden of the Lord, a land flowing with milk and honey, a place of sacred trees and water springs which the Lord had blessed.1 [Note: J. Kelman, From Damascus to Palmyra, p. 176.]
There are countless men and women, says Jowett, to whom the pilgrimage through life is a pilgrimage over burning sands. There are some people—I have found them in my own congregation—who do not like me to announce that hymn which says, “Earth is a desert drear.” Aye, but it is to a countless host! They have gone on like pilgrims, trudging along the desert sands, and they have been lured by mirage after mirage, which have only planted them into fresh deep abandonment and disappointment.
Notwithstanding all that we may say concerning the beauty and the blessedness scattered broadcast round about us; notwithstanding that we believe, and hold as for our lives, the “happy faith that all which we behold is full of blessing,” it needs but a very short experience of this life and but a superficial examination of our own histories and our own hearts in order to come to the conclusion that the world is full of strange and terrible sadness, that every life has dark tracts and long stretches of sombre tint, and that no representation is true to fact which dips its pencil only in light and flings no shadows on the canvas. There is no depth in a Chinese picture, because there is no shade. It is the wrinkles and marks of tear and wear that make the expression in a man’s portrait. “Life’s sternest painter is the best.”
Our life, says Spurgeon, is liable to many storms. (1) Mental storms. A rushing mighty wind of doubt comes sweeping down from the mountains of speculation, driving everything before it. (2) Outward trial and trouble. Doubtless, he says, there is a skeleton in every house. God will not let His song-birds build their nests here. (3) Spiritual distress on account of discovered sin. “I can truly say that I know of no pain that can be felt by the body that is comparable to the terrible pangs of conscience when the searching breath of the eternal spirit goes through the soul.”
The distresses of the desert are divided by the prophet into four classes.
1. Stormy winds—“a hiding place from the wind.”
1. A most troublesome invasion is that of the desert wind, laden with blinding clouds of dust, that gather the foul debris of the villages, and become as disgusting as they are distressing to throat and eyes. These winds rise suddenly, as if upon a signal, and then as suddenly die away, leaving the village in a kind of surprise, as if awakened from a nightmare, and still confused.
The wind rises almost always at nightfall, and in its moaning the dullest soul must hear mysterious voices. Sometimes, as on the sea, it rises to a tempest; the sand moves in whirling and bending pillars that gleam light yellow against the indigo of thunder-clouds beyond. Nothing in Nature, perhaps, has a more ominous and menacing aspect than those tremendous shadows with the dance of the sand-devils before them like the Bacchanalian heralds of approaching destruction. In some of his finest lines Robert Browning has expressed the doom of Judgment Day by aid of the metaphor of a desert sand-storm—
Oh, brother, ’mid far sands
The palm-tree-cinctured city stands,
Bright-white beneath, as heaven, bright-blue,
Leans o’er it, while the years pursue
Their course, unable to abate
Its paradisal laugh at fate!
One morn,—the Arab staggers blind
O’er a new tract of death, calcined
To ashes, silence, nothingness,—
And strives, with dizzy wits, to guess
Whence fell the blow. What if, ’twixt skies
And prostrate earth, he should surprise
The imaged vapour, head to foot,
Surveying, motionless and mute,
Its work, ere, in a whirlwind rapt,
It vanish up again?1 [Note: Easter Day, xix.]
On March 21st we went over the flat desert to Wady Werdán. In the afternoon a violent storm of wind came up; the sand drifted so that it was almost impossible to open our eyes, and we could hardly make way against the gale. How the top-heavy camels kept on was a puzzle, for with so wide a hold on the wind they seemed as if they must go over. We struggled up to the shelter of some sand-hills, in the lee of which there was less wind but more sand. To pitch tents was a hard matter; the pegs dragged out at once, and I had to dig holes and bury them a foot under the sand-heaps. By sunset the gale went down, and we had a peaceful evening.1 [Note: W. M. Flinders Petrie, Researches in Sinai, p. 29.]
A tourist was being conducted through the railway tunnel under the Severn. A bell tinkled—that was a train from the Welsh side. Another bell rang out—that was a train from the English side. The tourist was anxious about his safety. “Come this way,” said his guide. A few steps took them to a cleft in the rock, where they found shelter till the trains dashed by.2 [Note: A. Aitken, in The Churchman’s Pulpit, pt. 77, p. 32.]
2. A true man is one who defends and shelters the storm-tossed from the exposed places on the plains of human life. There are fierce and frivolous winds sweeping across many and many a life, often to the upturning of its roots, and overthrowing of its moral foundations. There are thousands of our brethren who are swept by the cruel winds, and the true man is one who, when he finds such, goes and stands between his brother and the wind, taking the windy side of the road, defending his brother, and affording him a cover to the winds.
A Sunday-school teacher once went to pay a visit of condolence to the mother of one of her scholars, who had lost her husband. The man had been a cripple, unable to do much work, and unwilling to do the little work he was fit for. But the widow missed him, and in response to words of sympathy said, “Yes, ma’am, it’s a poor door that does not keep off some of the wind.”
2. Tempests of rain—“a covert from the tempest.”
This is the meaning of the word “tempest” here—a sudden flood of rain. It is the “showers of the mountains” which Job speaks of (Isaiah 24:8). It is the “flood” with which God carries men away (Psalm 90:5). It is the “tempest of waters” which “passed by” when the Lord appeared in His majesty (Habakkuk 3:10).
As we neared Bethany a new experience overtook us. It became bitterly cold, and presently down came a sudden rain, straight, violent, and icy. It was something of a surprise, for I had never associated that kind of rain with Bible countries. The abundant tropical rain one had of course heard of, but I had always imagined it warm and fruitful; here, however, was a cruel downpour, as spiteful as any experience in our northern climate. And yet it ought not to have been surprising at an elevation of something like 2500 feet above the sea. Moreover, out of some seventy or eighty Bible references to the rain, although the great majority speak of the rain as an unmitigated blessing, we have the other side too: in the Book of Ezra, “the people sat trembling for the great rain,” and in Ezekiel the Lord threatens to rain in the land of Israel with “an overflowing rain, and great hailstones, fire, and brimstone.”1 [Note: H. Rix, Tent and Testament, p. 184.]
A wild storm was raging round a prairie home one night. The windows were blown in, and no lights could be kept burning. It was only with difficulty that the doors could be braced against the blast. The father was away from home, and the mother, grandmother, and three children sat in the darkness in a room on the sheltered side of the house, fearing that at any moment it might be swept from its foundations by the force of the wind. Suddenly, eleven-year-old Walter was missed. He had been holding a whispered conversation with his grandmother only a few moments before. Frantic with fear, the mother called him at the top of her voice, and receiving no reply, started to grope her way through the darkness of the house. She found the missing boy in bed, fast asleep. And when she asked him how he could go to sleep when they were all in danger of death, he sleepily replied, “Why, grandmother told me God would take care of us, so I thought I might as well go to bed again.”
3. Drought. Every one has heard of the tragedies of thirst in desert places, but the significance of water needs to be seen and felt before it can be realised. When the way is long between the wells, the horses, when the halting-place comes at last in sight, press forward with pricked-up ears, and, forgetting their weariness, are with difficulty kept from a gallop. Camels go waterless for days, and it is strange to see them contentedly move out to graze when relieved of the tins of water they have carried, for which all the other beasts are crying out. The mules suffer most, and on one occasion we lost one after two days upon short allowance. The poor beast had shown no sign of flagging, and indeed had carried his burden friskily, but when his day’s work was over and he had reached the camp, he lay down immediately on his back and died. Every one in the camp felt a kind of awe, beyond the keen sense of pity for the faithful brute. The significance of water in the desert is so immediate and so fateful, and the difference between a mouthful and the want of it is the difference between life and death. But the tragedy is far more appalling when the sufferer is a fellow-man. An unnoticed crack in a waterskin, or the jar spilt by a stumbling beast, is all that is needed to bring some poor mortal to his end. We passed one band of pilgrims returning, many of them on foot, from Mecca, and one of them, an old man, reached the Well of Ain el Beda with his tongue hanging from his mouth, cracked and bleeding. While we were resting by another well, a man staggered in from the plain, hardly able to walk, crying, “Water, water; I am dead!” When, on the return journey, we again visited Ain el Beda, a crowd of the Mecca pilgrims had camped beside the well in a confusion of tents new and old, among which camels knelt in supercilious nonchalance. But at the well-mouth tied skins were lying, filled to their utmost capacity with the precious thing, and tangled skeins of rope were everywhere about, while a dense crowd of swarthy men cursed and fought like wild beasts for the next skinful, though by that time they were drawing little else than liquid mud. It would be difficult to find in any one sentence so terrible a combination of tragedy and pathos as in the words we have all heard so often without a thought, “When the poor and needy seek water and there is none.”1 [Note: J. Kelman, From Damascus to Palmyra, p. 193.]
There are dry, hard places in human life. A dry heart is perhaps the saddest and the most appalling thing in human life, and it is more common than many suppose; but wherever it is found, the true man will be to that dry heart like a river of plenteous water. How do hearts become hard? How do they become dry? Sorrow can do it, bereavement can do it, loneliness can do it, pain can do it. Have you not known a man go into a great sorrow and come out with a hard heart? Have you not known men go into sorrow fairly compassionate, with flowing sympathy, fertile as the plains, and interested in others, but they have emerged into active life again with the moisture of their compassion all dried up? Their friends have spoken of them in this wise: “He takes no interest in anything now.” Compassion has shrunk like the ebbing tide. I think we must all know such, and that is what the prophet refers to when he speaks about “dry places.”
4. Heat. We had spent the day in the glare of a Syrian sun, by the salt mountain of Usdum, in the hot blast of the sirocco, and were now bivouacked under the calcined cliffs of Moab. When the water was exhausted, all too weary to go for more, even if there were no danger of a surprise, we threw ourselves upon the ground—eyes smarting, skin burning, lips, and tongue, and throat parched and dry; and wrapped the first garment we could find around our heads to keep off the stifling blast; and, in our brief and broken slumbers, drank from ideal fountains.1 [Note: W. F. Lynch, Expedition to the Dead Sea and the Jordan, p. 315.]
O! the weariness felt by us all, of plod, plod, plodding across the sand! That fatal monotony into which every man’s life stiffens, as far as outward circumstances, outward joys and pleasures go! the depressing influence of custom which takes the edge off all gladness and adds a burden to every duty! the weariness of all that tugging up the hill, of all that collar-work which we have to do! Who is there that has not his moods—and that by no means the least worthy and man-like of his moods—wherein he feels—not, perhaps, all is vanity, but “how infinitely weary it all is.”
I was reading, a day or two ago, one of our last books of travels in the wilderness of the Exodus, in which the writer told how, after toiling for hours under a scorching sun, over the hot white marly flat, seeing nothing but a beetle or two on the way, and finding no shelter anywhere from the pitiless beating of the sunshine, the three travellers came at last to a little Retem bush only a few feet high, and flung themselves down and tried to hide, at least their heads, from those “sunbeams like swords,” even beneath its ragged shade. And my text tells of a great rock, with blue dimness in its shadow, with haply a fern or two in the moist places of its crevices, where there is rest and a man can lie down and be cool, while all outside is burning sun, and burning sand, and dancing mirage.2 [Note: A. Maclaren, Sermons Preached in Manchester, iii. p. 141.]
Along the roadsides in India the traveller finds at intervals great slabs of stone resting on two broad pillars. The native name for those erections is “Madam.” They are used in this way. Travellers roll their burdens on the top of the slab, and rest themselves under it from the heat of the sun. A poor Hindu woman was asked what Christ was to her. “He is my Madam,” she replied.3 [Note: A. Aitken, in The Churchman’s Pulpit, pt. 77 p. 32.]
In the East the following phenomenon is often observed:—Where the desert touches a river-valley, or oasis, the sand is in a continual state of drift from the wind, and it is this drift which is the real cause of the barrenness of such portions of the desert at least as abut upon the fertile land. For under the rain, or by infiltration of the river, plants often spring up through the sand, and there is sometimes promise of considerable fertility. It never lasts. Down comes the periodic drift, and life is stunted or choked out. But set down a rock on the sand, and see the difference its presence makes. After a few showers, to the leeward side of this some blades will spring up; if you have patience you will see in time a garden. How has the boulder produced this? Simply by arresting the drift. Now that is exactly how great men benefit human life. A great man serves his generation, serves the whole race, by arresting the drift.1 [Note: George Adam Smith, The Book of Isaiah, i. 252.]
The Relief that a Man can bring
When Isaiah says with such simplicity a man, he means any man, he means the ideal for every man. Having in Isaiah 32:1 laid down the foundation for social life, he tells us in Isaiah 32:2 what the shelter and fountain force of society are to be; not science or material wealth, but personal influence; the strength and freshness of the human personality.
If there is one feature more conspicuous than another in the prophecies of Isaiah it is the prominence given to the thought of a Deliverer who should be raised up for the nation. The promises of God to His repentant people are rich in assurance of peace and abundance, of returning prosperity to Judah and a new glory to Zion; but they are all to be fulfilled by the advent of One to whom should be the gathering of the people. Not by some great popular revolution, the establishment of some new law, but by the coming of a man who should be for an ensign of the people, was the purpose of the Divine mercy to be worked out. Such was the hope which had dwelt for centuries in the heart of the nation, and which each new teacher, from Moses downwards, had helped to foster, and which every priest who from the days of Aaron had ministered at the altar kept alive. To Isaiah it presented itself with special vividness. Of all the inspired company who have testified of Messiah and sung of His glory, there is not one whose notes are clearer, and deeper, and purer, or who has contributed more of pathos and yet of rapture to this burst of celestial minstrelsy.
i. The Strength of a Nation
This is a great statesman’s conception of the character that makes a nation strong. The men who contribute to the national strength are—
(1) Men who think of and provide for the storm-tossed. Many fierce winds sweep across the plains of human life, winds of temptation, of trial, of toils that are oppressive. There are men who put themselves between these fierce winds and the people who are driven and beaten by them, and so become hiding-places behind which the storm-tossed find peace and rest. It may be by some invention that lightens the work of the toiler, by some provision that shortens the hours of toil, by some protection that shields from destroying temptation, by some advocacy or achievement that makes life’s burdens easier.
(2) Men in whom others find defence; coverts from the tempest. I see John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips going out when the tempest is raging to resist the storm, and in their splendid manhood becoming coverts for the oppressed and the defenceless. A covert from the tempest—the men who stand out in the exposed places to defend or to plead for those who are being beaten and buffeted and bruised; the Garrisons and the Lincolns, the men who hate wrong and who love the wronged—these are the men who made America.1 [Note: J. F. Carson, in The Treasury, June 1903, p. 128.]
(3) Men out from whose lives there go holy streams of influence and inspiration, rivers of waters in a dry place. It is a vivid picture that this phrase paints. Yonder is a bit of barren land, hard and dry; there is no verdure, no flowers are there to regale the vision and no fruits to satisfy the hunger—a desolation. Rivers of water are turned into it, and “the thirsty land becomes springs of water, dormant seeds awake, drooping growths revive, the wilderness becomes a garden.” A man shall be like rivers of water in a dry place. Human life has many dry places, each life has its own. The men of Isaiah’s pattern enter into fellowship with these lives, awaken the old interest and quicken the dormant sympathies and compassions that had shrunk like the ebbing tide.
(4) Men whose personal faith and hope inspire others—the shadow of a great rock in a weary land. Amid Western conditions it is hard to appreciate the force of the Oriental figure. It brings to our thought a band of pilgrims wearily wending their way over the hot sands of the desert, under the burning sun, exhausted in body and faint in heart, coming to a great rock in whose shadow they find rest. The men of Isaiah’s type come to these people as the shadow of a great rock, protecting them against their disappointment and despair by leading them into the power of their own buoyant faith and within the scope of their own inspiring hope.
It is easy to treat lightly the power of individual influence, but even in the affairs of the world the interest of history centres chiefly in individuals. A philosophic historian would probably tell us that this element has been allowed too much prominence, and that instead of interesting ourselves so deeply in the characteristics of individuals, we should take more note of peoples, and that the chief subject of interest is their progress. There is truth in the view; but to how large an extent are peoples affected by their great men and leaders, so that it is impossible to understand the development of the mass without a previous acquaintance with the spirit and teaching of those to whom they have looked up as leaders and guides. The multitude moves under the inspiration, in response to the call, of its great men. A sullen discontent may fill a nation’s heart, but it remains inoperative until there arises one who shall give it voice, and not only voice, but power to make its protest effective. This is the lesson wrought out in the striking stories contained in the Book of Judges. Who are these men whose names are blazoned on the rolls of Isaiah’s chivalry—Gideon, Jephthah, Samson—who are they but illustration of that striking saying of the prophet, “A man shall be as an hiding place”?
Is it not true, as Tennyson says, that—
“The individual withers and the world is more and more”?
Do we not expect to reform society by external or mechanical changes rather than by personal leadership? Do not people say to us, “The shadow of a great rock in a weary land is to be found behind our platform, or party, or creed”? Was not Matthew Arnold right when he said that the Americans had but one sacred book, the Book of Numbers? On the contrary, the history of a democracy, as of all other forms of social organisation, is fundamentally a history of great men. Behind the power of numbers lies the power of personality. Our national progress is summed up in a few great names: Washington and Lincoln, Hamilton and Jefferson, Emerson and Lowell.1 [Note: F. G. Peabody, Mornings in the College Chapel, 2nd Ser., p. 114.]
ii. The Strong in Israel
It is a call to every one, to every one who has received the gift of power and recognises it. And the call is to use the power so as to become a shelter, so as to become the shadow of a great rock in a weary land. Let us take examples. It would be best if we could take ordinary instances, the men and women of like passions, and of like circumstances, such as we are. For the power is given to every one to become the shadow of a great rock. The recognition of the gift may be wanting as well as the use of it. But whoever will may have it and use it. There is no doubt that it would be best if we could take ordinary instances, but it is not possible. Ordinary men and women are not sufficiently well known. There is not enough known about them. We must take outstanding examples.
1. Let us take Samson first. It is not easy to make use of the career of Samson for edification. But we know that he received power. It is distinctly stated that the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him. And he used it. He used it according to his understanding and according to his circumstances. His power was in his own right arm. Single-handed he sought to stem the tide of Philistine encroachment. The effort was inadequate, but it was not so utterly inadequate as it seems to us. For it was made in the youth of the nations, and nations, like men, make more of physical strength in their youth than afterwards. According to the gift that was given him, and in spite of certain disabilities, Samson did become to his own time and people the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.
The land was very weary These uncircumcised Philistines were a sore trial. Immigrants into the land of Palestine, which is now called after their name, they had come from afar—some say the island of Crete—and they had seized or built certain strong cities by the seacoast. They were able and ambitious. They desired to possess the whole land. They were not careful to use legitimate means of accomplishing it. Already it had begun to be a life-and-death struggle between Israel and the Philistines.
And what if the Philistines should win? Is there a promise that through them all the nations of the earth shall be blessed? Will Isaiah come from Ashdod? Will the Messiah be born in Askelon? There Samson stood, the shadow of a great rock in that weary, weary land, using the power that had been given him, and in the way he understood it had been given him to use.
2. Take Samuel next. Samson was an athlete: Samuel was a statesman. Samson used the hand: Samuel used the head. The war is still with the Philistines. But it has now become manifest that no single hand, however strong, can bring relief. Samuel’s task is to gather the tribes of Israel together and make a nation of them.
It may be that when the tribes of Israel feel the throb of nationality they will demand a king. Will Samuel refuse to give them a king? Will he plead that they have no king but Jehovah? He may have to give them a king. For God’s ways are not as our ways. Through the gift of a king, a King may come.
Moreover, the war is still with the Philistines. And the Philistines are now more formidable than they were in the days of Samson. It may be, not only that the tribes of Israel must be gathered into a nation, but also that the nation requires a leader. And when Saul presented himself—look at him, head and shoulders taller, and a king every inch of him, for it is still the world’s youth and the physical has more than its value—when Saul appeared, Samuel anointed him king. Samuel doubted the wisdom of it. But we see now that in that selieffacing act Samuel had become to his people as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.
3. Let Isaiah come third. If Samson used his power with the hand, and Samuel with the head, Isaiah reached the heart. But first his own heart must be reached. He must himself come into right relation with God before he can begin to do the work which God has given him to do. Is this a new departure in God’s leading? It is most momentous.
Samson had a personal feud with the Philistines, and that personal feud was the occasion (shall we say the opportunity?) for the exercise of the gift which God had given him, that the Philistines might be kept in check. Samuel was a patriot. The personal feud was swallowed up in the national quarrel. Now, the first duty of the patriot is obedience. But obedience to whom? Obedience to the superior. One man has soldiers under him, and he says to this one Go, and he goeth, and to another Come, and he cometh. But he himself is also set under authority. And when it comes to the king at last, even he has his superior in Jehovah. Samuel had to teach Saul that to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.
And it sometimes happens that stern things have to be done by the patriot in the name of obedience. “Then said Samuel, Bring ye hither to me Agag, the king of the Amalekites. And Agag came unto him delicately. And Agag said, Surely the bitterness of death is past. And Samuel said, As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.”
But there is a greater sphere than the patriot’s. It is the sphere of the prophet. And there is a greater virtue than obedience. It is reverence. Isaiah learns first of all that the God of Israel is a holy God; and then he learns that the God of Israel is the God not of Israel only, but of the whole earth.
He learns that the God of Israel is a holy God. Samson was not concerned with holiness in God, or with its immediate consequence, righteousness in man. A rude sense of justice he had, but little sense of obligation to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before his God. Even Samuel was more concerned with the welfare of the nation than with his own moral approach to God. Isaiah can do nothing until his lips have been touched with the live coal from off the altar. It is most momentous.
And as soon as he learns that God is a God of holiness, Isaiah learns also that He is the God of the whole earth. The same God who reaches to the heart stands in the centre of the Universe. And ludicrous as it will appear in moments of unbelief, he sees that his message is to the inhabitants of Sidon and to the men of Babylon, and he answers at once, “Here am I, send me.’
4. The last is Paul. The athlete, the statesman the prophet—beyond these there is a higher, the Christian. John the Baptist was a prophet—there hath not arisen a greater prophet than John the Baptist. Nevertheless he that is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he.
What is the Christian’s secret? It is love. Samson did not understand it. He considered neither the Philistines nor the foxes when he sent the burning brands through the corn. Samuel did not understand it. “I remember what Amalek did to Israel”—and Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord. Isaiah did not understand it. But stay—Isaiah had at least a glimpse of it. Or if not Isaiah, then that other who said, “Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.”
For if love is the secret of the Christian, the secret of love is self-sacrifice. “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels (and of prophets), and have not love, I am nothing. Love suffereth long and is kind.”
The shadow of a great rock? Samson will do in the days of youth; Samuel in manhood, when patriotism is the divinity; Isaiah as the years pass, and the patriot finds that there is a God of the Gentile as well as of the Jew. But there is no refuge for a whole wide world of weariness except in the love of Him who loved me and gave Himself for me.
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.
iii. The Strong in Modern History
Our own English history, and the history of Europe and America are full of the records of how destructive winds have swept across national life, and have left multitudes in bondage and ignorance. One of these awful winds—the wind of oppression swept across the Southern States of America, and held the poor in the bondage of mental ignorance and physical servitude. It had been tearing its way over the wretched for many generations. But at last there came a man whose name will be held in eternal honour, William Lloyd Garrison, who put himself between the and the wind, and other men, awakened by his example, went and stood by his side, notably that grand old Quaker poet, John Greenleaf Whittier. These men breasted the wind, ever confronting the vicious greed of the wealthy slave-owner. They came over to our own country, they faced the hisses, the scorn, and contempt of the cotton merchants in Lancashire and Yorkshire—men whose profits would be diminished by the liberation of the slaves. They confronted, nay, they took their stand on, the great principle and eternal truth of the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, and the grand issue was the emancipation of the and the slave. They were hiding-places from the wind and coverts from the tempest.
1. The name of Alfred the Great will always shine brightly in our national history; and, much later, there was “a man” who wore no regal crown, but who was the greatest and best of all the kings. Oliver Cromwell was a real hiding-place and covert to this land in the days when the crowned king was unworthy to rule. In him, God raised up “a man” who risked everything in the defence of the liberties which we still enjoy. What a hiding-place from the wind and what a covert from the tempest he was to the little company of persecuted saints in the valley of Piedmont! The Duke of Savoy had determined to extirpate the Protestants: but Cromwell heard of his cruelties, and resolved that he would do all that he could to rescue them from their persecutor’s power. He sent for the French ambassador and told him to let his master know that he must have those persecutions stopped immediately. His Majesty replied that Savoy did not belong to him, and that he could not interfere with the Duke. “Nevertheless,” replied Cromwell, “if you tell the Duke that you will go to war with him if he does not cease persecuting the Protestants, he will soon stop his butcheries. If you will not do that, I will go to war with you; for, in the name of the Lord of hosts, I will defend His persecuted people.”
2. Paul, Augustine, Wycliffe, Luther, Knox, Wesley, and Whitefield have exerted power which it is difficult to measure. We are interested in the men themselves. From some points in their teaching we may possibly dissent; of some features in their character we may disapprove; but candour compels us to recognise the impression they made on their own times, and on those which have followed after.
3. When keen and blighting winds sweep over human life—winds of evil influence and foolish doctrine, laden with poisonous germs that pollute the moral atmosphere, and spread around a ruinous infection; when fierce tempests rage, in which wild passions are let loose, threatening to carry men away as with a flood from noble enterprise and lofty principle and patient service—these men of noble character have been as a hiding-place and covert to which distressed souls have fled for refuge, and in whom they have found the refuge that they sought. The very knowledge that they were there, unmoved in their holy purpose and their glorious faith, has been itself a strength to many a soul. And they have brought refreshment and encouragement to many a fainting heart, have revived the drooping energies of many a life, have kept alive a faith in goodness and a longing to be good, have been indeed a constant source of highest inspiration, doing for multitudes of their fellows what the copious and fertilising rivers do for the parched and barren land.
I remember when I was in Italy a sight that moved my English sympathies very much. It was during the visit of President Loubet to Rome. In the procession, a military procession, with dazzling uniforms and military gewgaws, I saw one carriage containing a group of grizzled veterans wearing red shirts. It flashed upon me at once that these old fellows must have been the followers of Garibaldi, so with English audacity I went up and stopped the carriage and asked them whether it were so. The old men were pleased. They asked me what countryman I was, which was not just obvious at the moment, and I told them. “Ah,” said one of them, “in that trying hour England was the friend of Garibaldi.” England was. Why? Because he was a man. Victor Emmanuel was seated upon the throne of a united Italy almost against his will by a man who knew how to do and dare. While politicians were scheming and plotting and hesitating, Garibaldi landed and trusted the patriotism of his countrymen. These old men told me they had followed him in all his campaigns, had marched with him to victory, had seen Emmanuel crowned first king of modern Italy. He was only king; their hero, almost their god, was Garibaldi. The utterance of his name, the wearing of his uniform, was to them an incentive to higher manhood, and they looked indeed men.1 [Note: R. J. Campbell, Sermons to Young Men, p. 200.]
Of William, Prince of Orange, Motley says, as he closes his history of the Rise of the Dutch Republic: ‘He went through life bearing the load of a people’s sorrows upon his shoulders with a smiling face. Their name was the last word upon his lips, save the simple affirmative, with which the soldier who had been battling for the right all his lifetime, commended his soul in dying to ‘his great captain, Christ.’ The people were grateful and affectionate, for they trusted the character of their ‘Father William,’ and not all the clouds which calumny could collect ever dimmed to their eyes the radiance of that lofty mind to which they were accustomed, in their darkest calamities, to look for light. As long as he lived, he was the guiding-star of a brave nation, and when he died the little children cried in the streets.”1 [Note: J. L. Motley, The Rise of the Dutch Republic, iii. p. 480.]
The Relief that Comes from Christ
Isaiah’s words are not only man’s ideal: they are God’s promise, and that promise has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the most conspicuous example—none others are near Him—of this personal influence in which Isaiah places all the shelter and revival of society. God has set His seal to the truth, that the greatest power in shaping human destiny is man himself, by becoming one with man, by using a human soul to be the Saviour of the race.
A man shall be a refuge, rivers of water, the shadow of a great rock. Such an expectation seems to be right in the teeth of all experience, and far too high-pitched ever to be fulfilled. It appears to demand in him who should bring it to pass powers which are more than human, and which must in some inexplicable way be wide as the range of humanity and enduring as the succession of the ages. It is worth while to realise to ourselves these two points which seem to make such words as those of our text a blank impossibility. Experience contradicts them, and common sense demands for their fulfilment an apparently impossible human character.
What do we find in Christ that makes Him a refuge and a rock?
1. He is a man. Oh how often, in the thought of Christ’s real humanity, has my soul found a hiding-place from all manner of storms! God!—the word is great. God!—the idea is sublime. The great Eternal Jehovah, who made the heavens and the earth, and who bears them up by His unaided power, who rides upon the stormy sky, and puts a bit into the mouth of the raging tempest—how shall I, a poor worm of the dust, draw nigh to such a God as this? The answer quickly comes, “He has been pleased to reveal Himself in the Man Christ Jesus.”
Do not talk any more about the point where humanity leaves off and divinity begins, or divinity leaves off and humanity beings. Christ is all human, human all the time, Divine all the time. He is your brother, He is also more than that. He is your God. There is nothing in Christ that is foreign to what you and I aspire to know in our God. And yet Christ is as completely human as you. Pardon me, I have even understated my case. He is more human than you are. The only Man whom the world has ever seen is your Christ and mine, as human as you. Your humanity will come to its own only when it aspires to His and is represented in it. Remember, there is no dividing line between the Deity and the Humanity of our blessed Lord. He is both, and both are one. The Christ of the Gospel is just your Christ, the Christ you are seeking, the Christ you need. “A man shall be as an hiding place from the wind, the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.”1 [Note: R. J. Campbell.]
Humanity is longing, sighing, praying. Men are calling for a higher manhood. The manhood of Jesus, oh, show it to them, I beseech you.
’Tis the weakness in strength, that I cry for! my flesh, that I seek
In the Godhead! I seek and I find it. O Saul, it shall be
A Face like my face that receives thee; a Man like to me
Thou shalt love and be loved by, for ever! A Hand like this hand
Shall throw open the gates of new life to thee! See the Christ stand.
2. He is a Saviour. This figure of a rock, resisting drift, gives us some idea, not only of the commanding influence of Christ’s person, but of that special office from which all the glory of His person and of His name arises: that He saves His people from their sins. For what is sin? Sin is simply the longest, heaviest drift in human history. It arose in the beginning, and has carried everything before it since. “The oldest custom of the race,” it is the most powerful habit of the individual. Men have reared against it government, education, philosophy, system after system of religion. But sin overwhelmed them all. Only Christ resisted, and His resistance saves the world.
3. He is ever living and interceding. Our earthly friends may die, but we shall never lose our best Friend. All merely human comforters will fail us sooner or later, but He will ever abide true and steadfast to all who rely upon Him.
He lives, the great Redeemer lives,—
so His cause is always safe, and our safety is always secured in Him. Hide thyself, therefore, in the ever-living Man; for, there, thou needst not fear any change that the rolling ages may bring.
Blessed be the name of Jesus, He is also the interceding Man; for, at this very moment, He is pleading for His people before His Father’s throne. We cannot see Him; yet, sometimes, when our faith is in lively exercise, we can almost behold Him, and can all but hear Him presenting His almighty pleas on behalf of all those who have entrusted their case into His hands.
In every dark distressful hour,
When sin and Satan join their power,
Let this dear hope repel the dart,
That Jesus bears us on His heart.
In the Desert
Campbell (R. J.), Sermons to Young Men, 189.
Doney (C. G.), The Throne Room of the Soul, 101.
Keble (J.), Sermons for the Christian Year, Saints’ Days, 286.
Mackray (A. N.), Knots, 115.
Maclaren (A.), Expositions: Isaiah i.–xlviii., 176.
Maclaren (A.), Sermons, iii. 135.
Matheson (G.), Rests by the River, 119.
Mursell (A.), Hush and Hurry, 80.
Mylne (R. S.), The Abiding Strength of the Church, 21.
Peabody (F. G.), Mornings in the College Chapel, ii. 113.
Smellie (A.), In the Secret Place, 390.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xxi. No. 1243; xlix. No. 2856.
Wells (J.), Bible Images, 115.
Christian World Pulpit, xxxv. 109 (Rogers); xlvii. 212 (Lawrence); lv. 83 (Jowett); lviii. 14 (Cuyler).
Church of England Pulpit, lxi. 472 (Freeman).
Church Pulpit Year Book, ii. 302.
Church Sermons, No. 33 (Hooper).
Churchman’s Pulpit, No. 77, Sermons to the Young, i. 32 (Aitken).
Contemporary Pulpit, 1st Ser., vi. 357 (Melvill).
Homiletic Review, x. 235 (Vail); xi. 248 (Sherwood); xlv. 522 (Waters).
Preacher’s Magazine, iii. 174 (Bradley); xi. 300 (Pearse).
Treasury (New York), xvi. 597 (Eaton); xxi. 125 (Carson).