MacLaren Expositions Of Holy Scripture
Yet now hear, O Jacob my servant; and Israel, whom I have chosen:Isaiah
Isaiah 44:1 - Isaiah 44:2.
You observe that there are here three different names applied to the Jewish nation. Two of them, namely Jacob and Israel, were borne by their great ancestor, and by him transmitted to his descendants. The third was never borne by him, and is applied to the people only here and in the Book of Deuteronomy.
The occurrence of all three here is very remarkable, and the order in which they stand is not accidental. The prophet begins with the name that belonged to the patriarch by birth; the name of nature, which contained some indications of character. He passes on to the name which commemorated the mysterious conflict where, as a prince, Jacob had power with God and prevailed. He ends with the name Jeshurun, of which the meaning is ‘the righteous one,’ and which was bestowed upon the people as a reminder of what they ought to be.
Now, as I take it, the occurrence of these names here, and their sequence, may teach us some very important lessons; and it is simply to these lessons, and not at all to the context, that I ask your attention.
I. I take, then, these three names in their order as teaching us, first, the path of transformation.
Every ‘Jacob’ may become a ‘righteous one,’ if he will tread Jacob’s road. We start with that first name of nature which, according to Esau’s bitter etymology of it, meant ‘a supplanter’-not without some suggestions of craft and treachery in it. It is descriptive of the natural disposition of the patriarch, which was by no means attractive. Cool, calculating, subtle, with a very keen eye to his own interests, and not at all scrupulous as to the means by which he secured them, he had no generous impulses, and few unselfish affections. He told lies to his poor old blind father, he cheated his brother, he met the shiftiness of Laban with equal shiftiness. It was ‘diamond cut diamond’ all through. He tried to make a bargain with God Himself at Bethel, and to lay down conditions on which he would bring Him the tenth of his substance. And all through his earlier career he does not look like the stuff of which heroes and saints are made.
But in the mid-path of his life there came that hour of deep dejection and helplessness, when, driven out of all dependence on self, and feeling round in his agony for something to lay hold upon, there came into his nightly solitude a vision of God. In conscious weakness, and in the confidence of self-despair, he wrestled with the mysterious Visitant in the only fashion in which He can be wrestled with. ‘He wept and made supplication to Him,’ as one of the prophets puts it, and so he bore away the threefold gift-blessing from those mighty lips whose blessing is the communication, and not only the invocation, of mercy, a deeper knowledge of that divine and mysterious Name, and for himself a new name.
That new name implied a new direction given to his character.
Hitherto he had wrestled with men whom he would supplant, for his own advantage, by craft and subtlety; henceforward he strove with God for higher blessings, which, in striving, he won. All the rest of his life was on a loftier plane. Old ambitions were dead within him, and though the last of these names in our text was never actually borne by him, he began to deserve it, and grew steadily in nobleness and beauty of character until the end, when he sang his swan-song and lay down to die, with thanksgiving for the past and glowing prophecies for the future, pouring from his trembling lips.
And now, brethren, that is the outline of the only way in which, from out of the evil and the sinfulness of our natural disposition, any of us can be raised to the loftiness and purity of a righteous life. There must be a Peniel between the two halves of the character, if there is to be transformation.
Have you ever been beaten out of all your confidence, and ground down into the dust of self-disgust and self-abandonment? Have you ever felt, ‘there is nothing in me or about me that I can cling to or rely upon’? Have you ever in the thickest of that darkness had, gleaming in upon your solitude, the vision of His face, whose face we see in Jesus Christ? Have you ever grasped Him who is infinitely willing to be held by the weakest hand, and who never ‘makes as though He would go further,’ except in order to induce us to say, with deeper earnestness of desire, ‘Abide with us, for it is dark’? And have you ever, in fellowship with Him thus, found pouring into your enlightened mind a deeper reading of the meaning of His character and a fuller conception of the mystery of His love? And have you ever-certainly you have if these things have preceded it, certainly you have not if they have not -have you ever thereby been borne up on to a higher level of feeling and life, and been aware of new impulses, hopes, joys, new directions and new capacities budding and blossoming in your spirit?
Brethren! there is only one way by which, out of the mire and clay of earth, there can be formed a fair image of holiness, and that is, that Jacob’s experience, in deeper, more inward, more wonderful form, should be repeated in each one of us; and that thus, penitent and yet hopeful, we should behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, and draw from Him our righteousness. That is the path of transformation. The road passes through Peniel, and Jacob must become Israel before he is Jeshurun. He must hold communion with God in Christ before he is clothed with righteousness.
How different that path is from the road which men are apt to take in working out their own self-improvement! How many forms of religion, and how many toiling souls put the cart before the horse, and in effect just reverse the process, and say practically-’first make yourselves righteous, and then you will have communion with God’! That is an endless and a hopeless task. I have no doubt that some of you have spent-and I would not say wasted, but it has been almost so-years of life, not without many an honest effort, in the task of self-improvement, and are very much where you were long ago. Why have you failed? Because you have never been to Peniel. You have never seen the face of God in Christ, You have not received from Him the blessing, even righteousness, from the God of your salvation.
Dear friends, give up treading that endless, weary path of vain effort; and learn-oh! learn-that the righteousness which makes a soul pure and beautiful must come as a gift from God, and is given only in Jesus Christ.
This sequence too, I think, may very fairly be used to teach us the lesson that there is no kind of character so debased but that it may partake of the purifying and ennobling influence. All the Jacobs may be turned into righteous ones, however crafty, however subtle, however selfish, however worldly they are. Christianity looks at no man and says, ‘That is too bad a case for me to deal with.’ It will undertake any and every case, and whoever will take its medicines can be cured ‘of whatsoever disease he had.’
To all of us, no matter what our past may have been, this blessed message comes: ‘There is hope for thee, if thou wilt use these means.’ Only remember, the road from the depths of evil to the heights of purity always lies through Peniel. You must have power with God and draw a blessing from Him, and hold communion with Him, before you can become righteous.
How do they print photographs? By taking sensitive paper, and laying it, in touch with the negative, in the sun. Lay your spirits on Christ, and keep them still, touching Him, in the light of God, and that will turn you into His likeness. That, and nothing else will do it.
II. And now there is a second lesson from the occurrence of these three names, viz., here we may find expressed the law for the Christian life.
There are some religious people that seem to think that it is enough if only they can say; ‘Well! I have been to Jesus Christ and I have got my past sins forgiven; I have been on the mountain and have held communion with God; I do know what it is to have fellowship with Him, in many an hour of devout communion.’ and who are in much danger of treating the further stage of simple, practical righteousness as of secondary importance. Now the order of these names here points the lesson that the apex of the pyramid, the goal of the whole course, is-Righteousness. The object for which the whole majestic structure of Revelation has been builded up, is simply to make good men and women. God does not tell us His Name merely in order that we may know His Name, but in order that, knowing it, we may be smitten with the love of it, and so may come into the likeness of it. There is no religious truth which is given men for the sake of clearing their understandings and enlightening their minds only. We get the truth to enlighten our minds and to clear our understandings in order that thereby, as becomes reasonable men with heads on our shoulders, we may let our principles guide our conduct. Conduct is the end of principle, and all Revelation is given to us in order that we may be pure and good men and women.
For the same end all God’s mercy of forgiveness and deliverance from guilt and punishment in Jesus Christ is given to you, not merely in order that you may escape the penalties of your evil, but in order that, being pardoned, you may in glad thankfulness be lifted up into an enthusiasm of service which will make you eager to serve Him and long to be like Him. He sets you free from guilt, from punishment, and His wrath, in order that by the golden cord of love you may be fastened to Him in thankful obedience. God’s purpose in redemption is that ‘we, being delivered out of the hand of our enemies should serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.’
And in like manner, righteousness, by which, in the present connection, we mean simply the doing of the things, and the being the character, which a conscience enlightened by the law of God dictates to us to be and to do-righteousness is the intention and the aim of all religious emotion and feeling. It is all very well to have the joy of fellowship with God in our inmost soul, but there is a type of Christianity which is a great deal stronger on the side of devout emotion than on the side of transparent godliness; and although it becomes no man to say what Jesus Christ could say to those whose religion is mainly emotional, ‘Hypocrites!’ it is the part of every honest preacher to warn all that listen to him that there does lie a danger, a very real danger, very close to some of us, to substitute devout emotion for plain, practical goodness, and to be a great deal nearer God in the words of our prayers than we are in the current and set of our daily lives. Take, then, these three names of my text as flashing into force and emphasis the exhortation that the crown of all religion is righteousness, and as preaching, in antique guise, the same lesson that the very Apostle of affectionate contemplation uttered with such earnestness:-’Little children! let no man deceive you. He that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as He is righteous.’ An ounce of practical godliness is worth a pound of fine feeling and a ton of correct orthodoxy. Remember what the Master said, and take the lesson in the measure in which you need it: ‘Many will say to Me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name, and in Thy name have cast out devils, and in Thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you, depart from Me.’ And the proof that I never knew you, nor you Me, is: ‘Ye that work iniquity.’
III. Then there is another lesson still which I draw from these words, viz. the merciful judgment which God makes of the character of them that love Him.
Jeshurun means ‘the righteous one.’ How far beneath the ideal of the name these Jewish people fell we all know, and yet the name is applied to them. Although the realisation of the ideal has been so imperfect, the ideal is not destroyed. Although they have done so many sins, yet He calls them by His name of ‘righteous.’ And so we Christian people find that the New Testament calls us ‘saints.’ That name is not applied to some select and lofty specimens of Christianity, but to all Christians, however imperfect their present life and character may be. Then people sneer and say, ‘Ah! a strange kind of saints these Christians are! Do you think that a man can condone practical immorality by saying that he is trusting in Jesus Christ? The Church’s “saint” seems to mean less than the world’s “man of honour.”‘ God forbid that it should be fancied that Christian sainthood is more tolerant of evil than worldly morality, or has any fantastic standard of goodness which makes up for departures from the plain rule of right by prayers and raptures. But surely there may be a principle of action deep down at the bottom of a heart, very feeble in its present exercise and manifestation, which yet is the true man, and is destined to conquer the whole nature which now wars against it. Here, for instance, is a tiny spark, and there is a huge pile of damp, green wood. Yes; and the little spark will turn all the wood into flame, if you give it time and fair play. The leaven may be hid in an immensely greater mass of meal, but it, and not the three measures of flour, is the active principle. And if there is in a man, overlaid by ever so many absurdities, and contradictions, and inconsistencies, a little seed of faith in Jesus Christ, there will be in him proportionately a little particle of a divine life which is omnipotent, which is immortal, which will conquer and transform all the rest into its own likeness; and He who sees not as men see, beholds the inmost tendencies and desires of the nature, as well as the facts of the life, and discerning the inmost and true self of His children, and knowing that it will conquer, calls us ‘righteous ones,’ even while the outward life has not yet been brought into harmony with the new man, created in righteousness after God’s image.
All wrong-doing is inconsistent with Christianity, but, thank God, it is not for us to say that any wrong-doing is incompatible with it; and therefore, for ourselves there is hope, and for our estimate of one another there ought to be charity, and for all Christian people there is the lesson-live up to your name. Noblesse oblige! Fulfil your ideal. Be what God calls you, and ‘press toward the mark for the prize.’
If one had time to deal with it, there is another lesson naturally suggested by these names, but I only put it in a sentence and leave it; and that is the union between the founder of the nation and the nation. The name of the patriarch passes to his descendants, the nation is called after him that begat it. In some sense it prolongs his life and spirit and character upon the earth. That is the old-world way of looking at the solidarity of a nation. There is a New Testament fact which goes even deeper than that. The names which Christ bears are given to Christ’s followers. Is He a King, is He a Priest? He ‘makes us kings and priests.’ Is He anointed the Messiah? God ‘hath anointed us in Him.’ Is He the Light of the World?
‘Ye are the lights of the world.’ His life passeth into all that love Him in the measure of their trust and love. We are one with Jesus if we rest upon Him; one in life, one in character, approximating by slow degrees, but surely, to His likeness; and blessed be His name! one in destiny. Then, my friend, if you will only keep near that Lord, trust Him, live in the light of His face, go to Him in your weakness, in your despair, in your self-abandonment; wrestle with Him, with the supplication and the tears that He delights to receive, then you will be knit to Him in a union so real and deep that all which is His shall be yours, His life shall be the life of your spirit, His power the strength of your life, His dominion the foundation of your dignity as a prince with God, His all-prevailing priesthood the security that your prayer shall have power, and the spotless robe of His righteousness the fine linen, clean and white, in which arrayed, you shall be found of Him, and in Him at last, in peace, ‘not having your own righteousness, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.’
He feedeth on ashes: a deceived heart hath turned him aside, that he cannot deliver his soul, nor say, Is there not a lie in my right hand?Isaiah
FEEDING ON ASHES
The prophet has been pouring fierce scorn on idolaters. They make, he says, the gods they worship. They take a tree and saw it up: one log serves for a fire to cook their food, and with compass and pencil and plane they carve the figure of a man, and then they bow down to it and say, ‘Deliver me, for thou art my god!’ He sums up the whole in this sentence of my text, in which the tone changes from bitter irony to astonished pity. Now, if this were the time and the place, one would like to expand and illustrate the deep thoughts in these words in reference to idolatry; thoughts which go dead in the teeth of a great deal that is now supposed to be scientifically established, but which may be none the more true for all that. He asserts that idolatry is empty, a feeding on ashes. He declares, in opposition to modern ideas, that the low, gross forms of polytheism and idol-worship are a departure from a previous higher stage, whereas to-day we are told by a hundred voices that all religion begins at the bottom, and slowly struggles up to the top. Isaiah says the very opposite. The pure form is the primitive; the secondary form is the gross, which is a corruption. They tell us too, nowadays, that all religion pursues a process of evolution, and gradually clears itself of its more imperfect and carnal elements. Isaiah says, ‘he cannot deliver his soul’; and no religion ever worked itself up, unless under the impulse of a revelation from without. That is Isaiah’s philosophy of idolatry, and I expect it will be accepted as the true one some day.
But my text has a wider bearing. It not only describes, in pathetic language, the condition of the idolater, but it is true about all lives, which are really idolatrous in so far as they make anything else than God their aim and their joy. Every word of this text applies to such lives-that is to say, to the lives of a good many people listening to me now. And I would fain try to lay the truths here on some hearts. Let me just take them as they lie in the words before me.
I. A life that substantially ignores God is empty of all true satisfaction.
‘He feedeth on ashes’! Very little imagination will realise the force of that picture. The gritty cinders will irritate the lips and tongue, will dry up the moisture of the mouth, will interfere with the breathing, and there will be no nourishment in a sackful of them.
Dear brethren, the underlying truth is this-God is the only food of a man’s soul. You pick up the skeleton of a bird upon a moor; and if you know anything about osteology-the science of bones-you will see, in the very make of its breast-bone and its wing-bones, the declaration that its destiny was to soar into the blue. You pick up the skeleton of a fish lying on the beach, and you will see in its very form and characteristics that its destiny is to expatiate in the depths of the sea. And, written on you, as distinctly as flight on the bird, or swimming on the fish, is this, that you are meant, by your very make, to soar up into the heights of the glory of God, and to plunge deep into the abysses of His infinite love and wisdom. Man is made for God. ‘Whose image and superscription hath it?’ said Christ. The coin belongs to the king whose head and titles are displayed upon it; and on your heart, friend, though a usurper has tried to recoin the piece, and put his own foul image on the top of the original one, is stamped deep that you belong to the King of kings, to God Himself.
For what does our heart want? A perfect, changeless, all-powerful love. And what does our mind want? Reliable, guiding, inexhaustible, and yet accessible truth. And what does our will want? Commandments which have an authoritative ring in their very utterance, and which will serve for infallible guides for our lives. And what do our weak, sinful natures want? Something that shall free our consciences, and shall deliver us from the burden of our transgressions, and shall calm our fears, and shall quicken and warrant our lofty hopes. And what do men whose destiny is to live for ever want but something that shall go with them through all changes of condition, and, like a light in the midst of the darkest tunnel, shall burn in the passage between this and the other world, and shall never be taken away from them? We want a Person to be everything to us. No accumulation of things will satisfy a man. And we want all our treasures to be in one Person, and we need that that Person shall live as long as we live, and as long as we need shall be sufficient to supply us. And all this is only the spelling in many letters of the one name-God. That is what we want, that, and nothing less.
Then the next step that I suggest to you is, that where a man will take God for the food of his spirit, and turn love and mind and will and conscience and practical life to Him, seeing Him in everything, and seeing all things in Him; saturating, as it were, the universe with the thought of God, and recreating his own spirit with communion of friendship to Him; to that man lower goods do first disclose their real sweetness, their most poignant delight, and their most solid satisfaction. To say of a world where God has set us, that it is all ‘vanity and vexation of spirit,’ goes in flat contradiction to what He said when, creation finished, He looked upon His world, and proclaimed to the waiting seraphim around that ‘it was very good.’ There is a view of the world which calls itself pious, but is really an insult to God; and the irreligious pessimism that is fashionable nowadays, as if human life were a great mistake, and everything were mean and poor and insufficient, is contrary to the facts and to the consciousness of every man. But if you make things first which were meant to be second, then you make what was meant to be food ‘ashes.’ They are all good in their place. Wealth is good; wisdom is good; success is good; love is good. And all these things may be enjoyed without God, and will each of them yield their proportional satisfaction to the part of our nature to which they belong. But if you put them first you degrade them; a change passes over them at once. A long row of cyphers means nothing; put a significant digit in front of it, and it means millions. Take away the digit, and it goes back to nothing again. The world, and all its fading sweets, if you put God in the forefront of it, and begin the series with Him, is sweet, though it may be fleeting, and is meant to be felt by us as such. But if you take away Him, it is a row of cyphers signifying nothing, and able to contribute nothing to the real, deepest necessities of the human soul. And so the old question comes-’Why do ye spend your money for that which is not bread?’ It is bread, if only you will remember first that God is the food of your souls. But if you try to nourish yourselves on it alone, then, as I said, a sackful of such ashes will not stay your appetite. Oh! brethren, God has not so blundered in making the world that He has surrounded us with things that are all lies, but He has so made it that whosoever flies in the face of the gracious commandment which is also an invitation, ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness,’ has not only no security that the ‘other things’ shall ‘be added unto him,’ but has the certainty that though they were added to him, in degree beyond his dreams and highest hopes, they would avail nothing to satisfy the hunger of his heart. As George Herbert puts it-
‘Shadows well mounted, dreams in a career,
Embroidered lies, nothing between two dishes,
These are the pleasures here.’
‘He feedeth on ashes,’ because he does not take God for the food of his soul.
II. So, secondly, notice that a life which thus ignores God is tragically unaware of its own emptiness.
‘A deceived heart hath turned him aside.’ That explains how the man comes to fancy that ashes are food. His whole nature is perverted, his vision distorted, his power of judgment marred. He is given over to hallucinations and illusions and dreams.
That explains, too, why men persist in this feeding on ashes after all experience. There is no fact stranger or more tragical in our histories than that we do not learn by a thousand failures that the world will not avail to make us restful and blessed. You will see a dog chasing a sparrow,-it has chased hundreds before and never caught one. Yet, when the bird rises from the ground, away it goes after it once more, with eager yelp and rush, to renew the old experience. Ah! that is like what a great many of you are doing, and you have not the same excuse that the dog has. You have been trying all your lives-and some of you have grey hairs on your heads-to slake your thirst by dipping leaky buckets into empty wells, and you are at it yet. As some one says, ‘experience throws a light on the wave behind us,’ but it does very little to fling a light on the sea before us. Experience confirms my text, for I venture to put it to the experience of every man-how many moments of complete satisfaction and rest can you summon up in your memory as having been yours in the past? ‘He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver, nor he that loveth abundance with increase.’ Appetite always grows faster than supply. And so, though we have tried them in vain so often, we turn again to the old discredited sources, and fancy we shall do better this time. Is it not strange? Is there any explanation of it, other than that of my text? ‘A deceived heart hath turned him aside.’
And that deceived heart, stronger than experience, is also stronger than conscience. Do you not know that you ought to be Christians? Do you not know that it is both wrong and foolish of you to ignore God? Do you not know that you will have to answer for it? Have you not had moments of illumination when there has risen up before you the whole vanity of your past lives, and when you have felt ‘I have played the fool, and erred exceedingly’? And yet, what has come of it all with some of you? Why, what comes of it with the drunkard in the Book of Proverbs, who, as soon as he has got over the bruises and the sickness of his last debauch, says, ‘I will seek it yet again.’ ‘A deceived heart hath turned him aside.’
And how is it that this hallucination that you have fed full and been satisfied, when all the while your hunger has not been appeased, can continue to act on us? For the very plain reason that every one of us has in himself a higher and a lower self, a set of desires for the grosser, more earthly, and, using the word in its proper sense, worldly sort-that is to say, directed towards material things, and a higher set which look right up to God if they were allowed fair play. And of these two sets-which really are one at bottom, if a man would only see it-the lower gets the upper hand, and suppresses the higher and the nobler. And so in many a man and woman the longing for God is crushed out by the grosser delights of sense.
One sometimes hears of cowardly, unmanly sailors, who in shipwreck push the women and children aside, and struggle to the boats. And there are in all of us groups of sturdy mendicants, so to speak, who elbow their way to the front, and will have their wants satisfied. What becomes of the gentler group that stand behind, unnoticed and silent? It is an awful thing when men and women do, as so many of us do, pervert the tastes that are meant to lead them to God, in order to stifle the consciousness that they need a God at all. There are tribes of low savages who are known as ‘clay-eaters.’ That is what a great many of us are; we feed upon the serpent’s meat, the dust of the earth, and let all the higher heavenly food, which addresses itself first to loftier desires, but also satisfies these lower ones, stand unnoticed, unsought for, unpartaken of. Dear friends, do not be befooled by that treacherous heart of yours, but let the deepest voices in your soul be heard. Understand, I beseech you, that their cry is for no created person or thing, and that only God Himself can satisfy them.
III. And now, lastly, notice that a life thus ignoring God needs a power from without to set it free.
‘He cannot deliver his soul.’ Can you? Do you think you can break the habits of a lifetime? Do you think that, left to yourself, you would ever have any inclination to break them? Certainly, left to yourselves, you will never have the power. These long indulged appetites of ours grow with indulgence; and that which first was light as a cobweb, and soft as a silken bracelet, becomes heavier and solider until it is an iron fetter upon the limb, which no man can break. There is nothing more awful in life than the influence of habit, so unthinkingly acquired, so inexorably certain, so limiting our possibilities and enclosing us in its grip.
Dear brethren, there is something more wanted than yourselves to break this chain. You have tried, I have no doubt, in the course of your lives, more and more resolutely, to cure yourselves of some more or less unworthy habits. They may be but mere slight tricks of attitude or intonation, or movement. Has your success been such as to encourage you to think that you can revolutionise your lives, and dethrone the despots that have ruled over you in the past? I leave the question to yourselves. To me it seems that the world of men is certain to go on ignoring God, and seeking its delight only in the world of creatures, unless there comes in an outside power into the heart of the world and revolutionises all things.
It is that power that I have to preach, the Christ who is the ‘Bread of God that came down from Heaven,’ who can lift up any soul from the most obstinate and long-continued grovelling amongst the transitory things of this limited world, and the superficial delights of sense and a gratified bodily life; who can bring the forgiveness which is essential, the deliverance from the power of evil which is not less essential, and who can fill our hearts with Himself the food of the world. He comes to each of us; He comes to you, with the old unanswerable question upon His lips, ‘Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which satisfieth not?’ It is unanswerable, for you can give no reason sufficient for such madness. All that you could say, and you durst not say it to Him, is, ‘a deceived heart hath turned me aside.’ He comes with the old gracious word upon His lips, ‘Take! eat! this is My body which is broken for you.’ He offers us Himself. He can stay all the hungers of all mankind. He can feed your heart with love, your mind with truth which is Himself, your will with His sweet commands.
As of old He made the thousands sit down upon the grass, and they did all eat and were filled, so He stands before the world to-day and says, ‘I am the Bread of Life; He that cometh to Me shall never hunger.’ And if you will only come to Him-that is to say, will trust yourselves altogether to the merits of His sacrifice, and the might of His indwelling Spirit-He will take away all the taste for the leeks and onions and garlic, and will give you the appetite for heavenly food. He will spread for you a table in the wilderness, and what would else be ashes will become sweet, wholesome, and nourishing. Nor will He cease there, for in His own good time He will call us to the banqueting house above, where He will make us to sit down to meat, and come forth Himself and serve us. Here, hunger often brings pain, and eating is followed by repletion. But there, appetite and satisfaction will produce each other perpetually, and the blessed ones who then hunger will not hunger so as to feel faintness or emptiness, nor be so filled as to cease to desire larger portions of the Bread of God. I beseech you, cry, ‘Lord, ever more give us this bread!’
I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions, and, as a cloud, thy sins: return unto me; for I have redeemed thee.Isaiah
WRITING BLOTTED OUT AND MIST MELTED
Isaiah has often and well been called the Evangelical Prophet. Many parts of this second half of his prophecies referring to the Messiah read like history rather than prediction. But it is not only from the clearness with which the great figure of the future king of Israel stands out on his page that he deserves that title. Other thoughts belonging to the very substance of the gospel appear in him with a vividness and a frequency which well warrants its application to him. He speaks much of the characteristically Christian conceptions of sin, forgiveness, and redemption. The whole of the latter parts of this book are laden with that burden. They are gathered up in the extraordinarily pregnant and blessed words of my text, in which metaphors are blended with much disregard to oratorical propriety, in order to bring out the whole fulness of the prophet’s meaning. ‘I have blotted out’-that suggests a book. ‘I have blotted out as a cloud’-that suggests the thinning away of morning mists. The prophet blends the two thoughts together, and on that great revelation of a forgiveness granted before it has been asked, and given, not only to one penitent soul wailing out like the abased king of Israel in his deep contrition, ‘according to the multitude of Thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions,’ but promised to a whole people, is rested the great invitation, ‘Return unto Me, for I have redeemed thee.’
Let me try and bring out, as simply and earnestly as I can, the great teaching that is condensed into these words.
I. Observe here the penetrating glance into the very essential characteristics of all sin.
There are two words, as you see, employed in my text, ‘transgressions’ and ‘sins.’ They apply to the same kind of actions, but they look at them from different angles and points of view. They are partially synonymous, but they cover very various conceptions, and if we take note of the original significations of the two words, we get two very important and often forgotten thoughts.
For that expression rendered in my text, and rendered correctly enough -transgressions-means at bottom, ‘rebellion,’ the rising up of a disobedient will, not only against a law, but against a lawgiver. There we have a deepening of that solemn fact of a man’s wrongdoing, which brings it into immediate connection with God, and marks its foulness by reason of that connection.
Ah! brethren, it makes all the difference to a man’s notions of right and wrong, whether he stops on the surface or goes down to the depths; whether he says to himself, ‘The thing is a vice; it is wrong; it is contrary to what I ought to be’; or whether he gets down to the darker, deeper, and truer thought, and says, ‘The damnable thing about every little evil that I do is this, that in it I-poor puny I-perk myself up against God, and say to Him, “Thou wilt; wilt thou? I shall not!”‘ Sin is rebellion.
And so what becomes of the hazy distinction between great sins and little ones? An overt act of rebellion is of the same gravity, whatsoever may be its form. The man that lifts his sword against the sovereign, and the man behind him that holds his horse, are equally criminal. And when once you let in the notion that in all our actions we have to do with a Person, to whom we are bound to be obedient, then the distinction which sophisticates so many people’s consciences, and does such infinite harm in so many lives, between great and small transgressions, disappears altogether. Sin is rebellion.
Then the other word of my text is equally profound and significant. For it, literally taken, means-as the words for ‘sin’ do in other languages besides the Hebrew-missing a mark. Every wrong thing that any man does is beside the mark, at which he, by virtue of his manhood, and his very make and nature, ought to aim. It is beside the mark in another sense than that. As some one says, ‘A rogue is a roundabout fool.’ No man ever secures that, and only that, which he aims at by any departure from the straight path of imperative duty. For if he gets some vulgar and transient titillation of appetite, or satisfaction of desire, he gets along with it something that takes all the gilt off the gingerbread, and all the sweetness out of the satisfaction. So that it is always a blunder to be bad, and every arrow that is drawn by a sinful hand misses the target to which all our arrows should be pointed, and misses even the poor mark that we think we are aiming at. Take these two thoughts with you-I will not dwell on them, but I desire to lay them upon all your hearts-all evil is sin, and every sin is rebellion against God, and a blunder in regard to myself.
II. And now I come to the second point of our text, and ask you to note the permanent record which every sin leaves.
I explained in the earlier part of my remarks that we have a case here of the thing that horrifies rhetoricians, but does not matter a bit to a prophet, the blending or confusing of two metaphors. The first of them-’I have blotted out’-suggests a piece of writing, a book, or manuscript of some sort. And the plain English of what lies behind that metaphor is this solemn thought, which I would might blaze before each of us, in all our lives, that God’s calm and all-comprehensive knowledge and remembrance takes and keeps filed, and ready for reference, the whole story of our whole acts. There is a book. It is a violent metaphor, no doubt, but there is a solemn truth underlying it which we are too apt to forget. The world is groaning nowadays with two-volume memoirs of men that nobody wants to know anything more about. But every man is ever writing his autobiography with invisible but indelible ink. You have seen those old-fashioned ‘manifold writers’ in your places of business, and the construction of them is this: a flimsy sheet of tissue paper, a bit of black to be put in below it, and then another sheet on the other side; and the pen that writes on the flimsy top surface makes an impression that is carried through the black to the sheet below, and there is a duplicate which the writer keeps. You and I, upon the flimsinesses of this fleeting-sometimes, we think, futile-life, are penning what is neither flimsy nor futile, which goes through the opaque dark, and is reproduced and docketed yonder. That is what we are doing every day and every minute, writing, writing, writing our own biography. And who is going to read it? Well, God does read it now, and you will have to read it out one day, and how will you like that?
This metaphor will bear a little further expansion. Scripture tells us, and conscience tells us, what manner of manuscript it is that we are each so busy adding line upon line to. It is a ledger; it is an indictment. Our own handwriting puts down in the ledger our own debts, and we cannot deny our own handwriting when we are confronted with it. It is an indictment, and our own hand draws it, and we have to plead ‘guilty,’ or ‘not guilty,’ to it. Which, being translated into plain fact, is this-that there goes with all our deeds some sense and reality of responsibility for them, and that all our rebellions against God, and our blunders against self, be they great or small, carry with them a sense of guilt and a reality of guilt whether we have the sense of it or not. God has a judgment at this moment about every man and woman, based upon the facts of the unfinished biography which they are writing.
Mystical and awful, yet blessed and elevating, is the thought that nothing-nothing, ever dies; and that what was, is now, and always will be.
Amongst the specimens from the coal measures in a museum you will find slabs upon which the tiniest fronds of ferns that grew nobody knows how many millenniums since are preserved for ever. Our lives, when the blow of the last hammer lays them open, will, in like manner, bear the impress of the minutest filament of every deed that we have ever done.
But my metaphor will bear yet further expansion, for this autobiographical record which we are busy preparing, which is at once ledger and indictment, is to be read out one day. There is a great scene in the last book of Scripture, the whole solemn significance of which, I suppose, we shall not understand till we have learned it by experience, but the truth of which we have sufficient premonitions to assure us of, which declares that at a given time, on the confines of Eternity, the Great White Throne is to be set, and the books are to be opened, and the dead are judged ‘out of the books,’ which, the seer goes on to explain, is ‘according to their works.’ The story of Esther tells us how the sleepless monarch in the night-watches sent for the records of the kingdom and had them read to him. The King who never slumbers nor sleeps, in that dawning of heaven’s eternal morning, will have the books opened before Him, and my deeds will be read out. He and I will hear them, whether any else may hear or no. That is my second lesson.
III. The third is, that we have here suggested the darkening power of sin.
The prophet, as I said, mixes metaphors. ‘I have blotted out as a cloud thy transgressions.’ He uses two words for ‘cloud’ here; both of them mean substantially the same thing, and both suggest the same idea. When cloud fills the sky it darkens the earth, and shuts out the sunshine and the blue, it closes the petals of the little flowers, it hushes the songs of the birds. Sin makes for the sinning man ‘an under-roof of doleful grey,’ which shuts out all the glories above. Put that metaphor into plain English, and it is just this, ‘Your sins have separated between you and your God, and your iniquities have hid His face from you that He will not hear.’ It is impossible for a man that has his heart all stiffened by the rebellion of his will against God’s, or all seething with unrestrained passions, or perturbed with worldly longings and desires, to enter into calm fellowship with God or to keep the thought of God clear before his mind. For we know Him, not by sense nor by reason, but by sympathy and by feeling. And whatsoever comes in to disturb a man’s purity, comes in to hinder his vision of God. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they’-and they only-’shall see God.’ Whenever from the undrained swamps of my own passions and sensualities, or from the as malarious though loftier grounds of my own self-regard, be I student or thinker, or moral man, there rise up these light mists, they will fill the sky and hide the sun. On a winter’s night you will see the Pleiades, or other bright constellations, varying in brilliancy from moment to moment as some invisible cloud-wrack floats across the heavens. So, brother, every evil thing that we do rises up and gets diffused through our atmosphere, and blots out from our vision the face of God Himself, the blessed Son.
Not only by reason of dimming and darkening my thoughts of Him is my sin rightly compared to an obscuring cloud; but the comparison also holds good because, just as the blanket of a wet mist swathing the wintry fields prevents the sunshine from falling upon them in blessing, so the accumulated effect of my evil doings and evil designings and thinkings and willings comes between me and all spiritual blessings which God can bestow, so that the very light of light, the highest blessings that He yearns to give, and we faint for want of possessing, are impossible even to His love to communicate until the cloud is swept away. So my sin darkens my soul, and separates me from the light of life.
But the metaphor carries with it, too, a suggestion of the limitations of the power of sin. For when the cloud is thickest and most obscuring it only hugs the earth, and rises but a little way Into the heavens; and far above it the blue is as blue, and the sunshine as bright, as if there were no mist or fog in the lower regions. Therefore, let us remember that, while the cloud must veil us from the light, the light is above it, and ‘every cloud that veileth love’ may some day be thinned away by the love it veils.
IV. That brings me to the last word of my text,-viz. the prophet’s teaching as to the removal of the sin.
We have to carry both the metaphors together with us here. ‘I have blotted out’-that is, as erasing from a book. ‘I have blotted out as a cloud’-that is, the thinning away of the mist. The blurred and stained page can be cancelled. Chemicals will take the ink out. ‘The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin’; and it, passed over all that foul record, makes it pure and clean. ‘What I have written, I have written,’ said Pilate in his obstinacy. ‘What I have written, I have written,’ wails many a man in the sense of the irrevocableness of his past. Brother! be not afraid. Christ can take away all that stained record, and give you back the page ready to receive holier words.
The cloud is thinned away. What thins the cloud? As I have said, the light which the cloud obscures, shining on the upper surface of it, dissipates it layer by layer till it gets down at last to the lowermost, and then rends a gap in it, and sends the shaft of the sunbeam through on to the green earth. And that is only a highly imaginative way of saying that it is the love against which we transgress that thins away the cloud of transgression, and at last, as the placid moon, by simply shining silently on, will sweep the whole sky clear of its clouds, dissipates them all, and leaves the calm blue. God forgives. The ledger account-if I may use so grossly commercial a figure-is settled in full; the indictment is endorsed, ‘acquitted.’ He remembers the sins only to breathe into the child’s heart the assurance of pardon, and no obstacle rises by reason of forgiven transgression between the sinning man and the reconciled God.
Now, all this preaching of Isaiah’s is enlarged and confirmed, and to some extent the rationale of it is set before us in the great Gospel truth of forgiveness through the blood of Jesus Christ. Unless we know that truth, we may well stand amazed and questioning as to whether a righteous God, administering a rigorous universe, can ever pardon sin. And unless we know that by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, granted to our spirits, our whole nature may be remade and moulded, we might well be tempted to say, Ah! the Ethiopian cannot change his skin nor the leopard his spots. But Jesus Christ can change more than skin, even the heart and spirit, the inmost depths of the nature.
Now, brother, my text speaks of this great blotting out as a past fact. It is so in the divine mind with regard to each of us, because Christ’s great work has made reconciliation and atonement for all the sins of all the world. And on the fact that it is past is based the exhortation, ‘Return unto Me, for I have redeemed thee.’ God does not say, ‘Come back and I will forgive’; He does not say, ‘Return and I will blot out’; but He says, ‘Return, for I have blotted out.’ Though accomplished, the forgiveness has to be appropriated by individual faith. The sins of the world have been borne, and borne away, by the Lamb of God, but your sins are not borne away unless your hand is laid on this head.
If it is, then you do not need to say, ‘What I have written is written, and it cannot be blotted out.’ But as in the old days a monk would take some manuscript upon which filthy stories about heathen gods and foolish fables were written, and erase these to write the legends of saints, or perhaps the words of the Gospels themselves; so on our hearts, which have been scribbled all over with obscenities and follies, He will write His new best name of Love, and we may be epistles of Christ, written with the Spirit of the living God.