Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible
The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
PREFACE TO VOLUME FOUR
Those books of scripture are all prophetical of which here, in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling, we have endeavoured a methodical explication and a practical improvement. I call them prophetical because so they are for the main, though we have some histories (here and there brought in for the illustration of the prophecies) and a book of Lamentations. Our Saviour often puts the Law and the Prophets for all the Old Testament. The prophets, by waiving the ceremonial precepts, and not insisting on them, but only on the weightier matters of the law, plainly intimated the abolishing of that part of the law of Moses by the gospel; and by their many predictions of Christ, and the kingdom of his grace, they intimated the accomplishing the perfecting of that part of the law of Moses in the gospel. Thus the prophets were the nexus—the connecting bond between the law and the gospel, and are therefore fitly placed between them.
These books, being prophetical, are, as such, divine, and of heavenly origin and extraction. We have human laws, human histories, and human poems, as well as divine ones, but we can have no human prophecies. Wise and good men may make prudent conjectures concerning future events (moral prognostications we call them); but it is essential to true prophecy that it be of God. The learned Huetius (Demonstrat. Evang. pag. 15) lays this down for one of his axioms, Omnis prophetica facultas à Deo est—The prophetic talent is entirely from God; and he proves it to be the sense both of Jews and heathen that it is God’s prerogative to foresee things to come, and that whoever had such a power had it from God. And therefore the Jews reckon all prophecy to be given by the highest degree of inspiration, except that which was peculiar to Moses. When our Saviour asked the chief priests whether John’s baptism were from heaven or of men, they durst not say Of men, because the people counted him a prophet, and, if so, then not of men. The Hebrew name for a prophet is nbyÕ—a speaker, preacher, or orator, a messenger, or interpreter, that delivers God’s messages to the children of men, as a herald to proclaim war or an ambassador to treat of peace. But then it must be remembered that he was formerly called rÕh or hä-.-åsä-.-åh, that is, a seer (1 Sa. 9:9); for prophets, with the eyes of their minds, first saw what they were to speak and then spoke what they had seen.
Prophecy, taken strictly, is the foretelling of things to come; and there were those to whom God gave this power, not only that it might be a sign for the confirming of the faith of the church concerning the doctrine preached when the things foretold should be fulfilled, but for warning, instruction, and comfort, in prospect of what they themselves might not live to see accomplished, but which should be fulfilled in its season: so predictions of things to come long after might be of present use.
The learned Dr. Grew (Cosmol. sacra, lib. 4, cap. 6) describes prophecy in this sense to be, "A declaration of the divine prescience, looking at any distance through a train of infinite causes, known and unknown to us, upon a sure and certain effect." Hence he infers, "That the being of prophecies supposes the non-being of contingents; for, though there are many things which seem to us to be contingents, yet, were they so indeed, there could have been no prophecy; and there can be no contingent seemingly so loose and independent but it is a link of some chain." And Huetius gives this reason why none but God can foretel things to come, Because every effect depends upon an infinite number of preceding causes, all which, in their order, must be known to him that foretels the effect, and therefore to God only, for he alone is omniscient. So Tully argues: Qui teneat causas rerum futurarum, idem necesse est omnia teneat quae futura sint; quod facere nemo nisi Deus potest—He who knows the causes of future events must necessarily know the events themselves; this is the prerogative of God alone (Cicero de Divin. lib. 1). And therefore we find that by this the God of Israel proves himself to be God, that by his prophets he foretold things to come, which came to pass according to the prediction, Isa. 46:9, 10. And by this he disproves the pretensions of the Pagan deities, that they could not show the things that were to come to pass hereafter, Isa. 41:23. Tertullian proves the divine authority of the scripture from the fulfilling of scripture-prophecies: Idoneum, opinor, testimonium divinitatis, veritas divinationis—I conceive the accomplishment of prophecy to be a satisfactory attestation from God (Apol. cap. 20). And, besides the foretelling of things to come, the discovering of things secret by revelation from God is a branch of prophecy, as Ahijah’s discovering Jeroboam’s wife in disguise, and Elisha’s telling Gehazi what passed between him and Naaman. But (Du Pin, Hist. of the Canon. lib. 1, cap. 2) prophecy, in scripture language, is taken more largely for a declaration of such things to the children of men, either by word or writing, as God has revealed to those that speak or write it, by vision, dream, or inspiration, guiding their minds, their tongues, and pens, by his Holy Spirit, and giving them not only ability, but authority, to declare such things in his name, and to preface what they say with, Thus saith the Lord. In this sense it is said, The prophecy of scripture came not in old time by the will of man, as other pious moral discourses might, but holy men spoke and wrote as they were moved by the Holy Ghost, 2 Pt. 1:20, 21. The same Holy Spirit that moved upon the face of the waters to produce the world moved upon the minds of the prophets to produce the Bible.
Now I think it is worthy to be observed that all nations, having had some sense of God and religion, have likewise had a notion of prophets and prophecy, have had a veneration for them, and a desire and expectation of acquaintance and communion with the gods they worshipped in that way. Witness their oracles, their augurs, and the many arts of divination they had in use among them in all the ages ad all the countries of the world.
It is commonly urged as an argument against the atheists, to prove that there is a God, That all nations of the world acknowledged some god or other, some Being above them, to be worshipped and prayed to, to be trusted in and praised; the most ignorant and barbarous nations could not avoid the knowledge of it; the most learned and polite nations could not avoid the belief of it. And this is a sufficient proof of the general and unanimous consent of mankind to this truth, though far the greatest part of men made to themselves gods which yet were no gods. Now I think it may be urged with equal force against the Deists, for the proof of a divine revelation, that all nations of the world had, and had veneration for, that which they at least took to e a divine revelation, and could not live without it, though in this also they became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. But, if there were not a true deity and a true prophecy, there would never have been pretended deities and counterfeit prophecies.
Lycurgus and Numa, those two great lawgivers of the Spartan and Roman commonwealths, brought their people to an observance of their laws by possessing them with a notion that they had them by divine revelation, and so making it a point of religion to observe them. And those that have been ever so little conversant with the Greek and Roman histories, as well as with the more ancient ones of Chaldea and Egypt cannot but remember what a profound deference their princes and great commanders, and not their unthinking commonalty only, paid to the oracles and prophets, and the prognostications of their soothsayers, which, in all cases of importance, were consulted with abundance of gravity and solemnity, and how often the resolutions of councils and the motions of mighty armies turned upon them, though they appeared ever so groundless and farfetched.
There is a full account given by that learned philosopher and physician Caspar Peucer (De Praecipuis Divinationum Generibus, A. 1591) of the many kinds of divination and prediction used among the Gentiles, by which they took on them to tell the fortune both of states and particular persons. They were all, he says, reduced by Plato to two heads: Divinatio Mantikeµ, which was a kind of inspiration, or was though to be so, the prophet or prophetess foretelling things to come by an internal flatus or fury; such was the oracle of Apollo at Delphos, and that of Jupiter Trophonius, which, with others like them, were famous for many ages, during the prevalency of the kingdom of darkness, but (as appears by some of the Pagan writers themselves) they were all silenced and struck dumb, when the gospel (that truly divine oracle) began to be preached to the nations. The other kind of divination was that which he calls Oioµnistikeµ, which was a prognostication by signs, according to rules of art, as by the flight of birds, the entrails of beasts, by stars or meteors, and abundance of ominous accidents, with which a foolish world was miserably imposed upon. A large account of this matter we have also in the late learned dissertations of Anton. Van Dale, to which I refer the reader (De Verâ ac Falsâ Prophetiâ, A. 1696). But nothing of this kind made a greater noise in the Gentile world than the oracles of the Sibyls and their prophecies. Their name signifies a divine counsel: Sibyllae, qu. Siobulae, Sios, in the Aeolic dialect, being put for Theos. Peucer says, "Almost every nation had its Sibyls, but those of Greece were most celebrated." They lived in several ages; the most ancient is said to be the Sibylla Delphica, who lived before the Trojan war, or about that time. The Sibylla Erythrea was the most noted; she lived about the time of Alexander the Great. But it the Sibylla Cumana of whom the story goes that she presented herself, and nine books of oracles, to Tarquinius Superbus, which she offered to sell him at so vast a rate that he refused to purchase them, upon which she burnt three, and, upon his second refusal, three more, but made him give the same rate for the remaining three, which were deposited with great care in the Capitol. But, those being afterwards burnt accidentally with the Capitol, a collection was made of other Sibylline oracles, and those are they which Virgil refers to in his fourth Eclogue (Vid. Virg. Aeneid. lib. 6). All the oracles of the Sibyls that are extant were put together, and published, in Holland, not many years ago, by Seryatius Gallaeus, in Greek and Latin, with large and learned notes, together with all that could be met with of the metrical oracles that go under the names of Jupiter, Apollo, Serapis, and others, by Joannes Opsopaeus.
The oracles of the Sibyls were appealed to by many of the fathers for the confirmation of the Christian religion. Justin Martyr (Ad Graecos Cohortat. juxta finem.) appeals with a great deal of assurance, persuading the Greeks to give credit to that ancient Sibyl, whose works were extant all the world over; and to their testimony, and that of Hydaspis, he appeals concerning the general conflagration and the torments of hell. Clemens Alexandrinus (Apol. 2. p. mihi. 66. l.) often quotes the Sibyls’ verses with great respect; so does Lactantius (Quaest. et Respons. p. 436); St. Austin (Aug. de Div. Dei, lib. 18, cap. 23), De Civitate Dei, has the famous acrostic at large, said to be one of the oracles of the Sibylla Erythrea, the first letters of the verses making Ieµsous Christos Theou hyios Soµteµr—Jesus Christ the Son of God the Saviour. Divers passages they produce out of those oracles which expressly foretel the coming of the Messiah, his being born of a virgin, his miracles, his sufferings, particularly his being buffeted, spit upon, crowned with thorns, having vinegar and gall given him to drink, etc. Whether these oracles were genuine and authentic or no has been much controverted among the learned. Baronius and the popish writers generally admit and applaud them, and build much upon them; so do some protestant writers; Isaac Vossius has written a great deal to support the reputation of them, and (as I find him quoted by Van Dale) will needs have it that they were formerly a part of the canon of scripture; and a learned prelate of our own nation, Bishop Montague, pleads largely, and with great assurance, for their authority, and is of opinion that some of them were divinely inspired. But many learned men look upon it to be a pious fraud, as they call it, concluding that those verses of the Sibyls which speak so very expressly of Christ and the future state were forged by some Christians and imposed upon the over-credulous. Huetius (Demonstrat. p. 748), though of the Romish church, condemns both the ancient and more modern compositions of the Sibyls, and refers his reader, for the proof of their vanity, to the learned Blondel. Van Dale and Gallaeus look upon them to be a forgery. And the truth is they speak so much more particularly and plainly concerning our Saviour and the future state than any of the prophets of the Old Testament do, that we must conclude St. Paul, who was the apostle of the Gentiles, guilty not only of a very great omission (that in all his preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles, and in all his epistles to the Gentile churches, he never so much as mentions the prophecies of the Sibyls, nor vouches their authority, as he does that of the Old-Testament prophets, in his preaching and writing to the Jews), but likewise of a very great mistake, in making it the particular advantage which the Jews had above the Gentiles that to them were committed the oracles of God (Rom. 3:1, 2), and that they were the children of the prophets, while he speaks of the Gentiles as sitting in darkness and being afar off. We cannot conceive that heathen women, and those actuated by daemons, should speak more clearly and fully of the Messiah than those holy men did who, we are sure, were moved by the Holy Ghost, nor that the Gentiles should be entrusted with larger and earlier discoveries of the great salvation than that people of whom, as concerning the flesh, Christ was to come. But enough, if not more than enough, of the pretenders to prophecy. It is a good remark which the learned Gallaeus makes upon the great veneration which the Romans had for the oracles of the Sibyls, for which he quotes Dionysius Halicarnassaeus, Ouden oute Roµmaioi phylattousin, oute hosion kteµma oute hieron, hoµs ta Sibylleia thesphata—The Romans preserve nothing with such sacred care, nor do they hold any thing in such high estimation, as the Sibylline oracles. Hi si pro vitreis suis thesauris adeò decertarunt, quid nos pro genuinis nostris, à Deo inspiratis?—If they had such a value for these counterfeits, how precious should the true treasure of the divine oracles be to us! Of these we come next to speak.
Prophecy, we are sure, was of equal date with the church; for faith comes, not by thinking and seeing, as philosophy does, but by hearing, by hearing the word of God, Rom. 10:17. In the antediluvian period Adam received divine revelation in the promise of the Seed of the woman, and no doubt communicated it in the name of the Lord, to his seed, and was prophet, as well as priest, to his numerous family. Enoch was a prophet, and foretold perhaps the deluge, certainly the last judgment, that of the great day. Behold the Lord comes, Jude 14. When men began, as a church, to call upon the name of the Lord (Gen. 4:26), or to call themselves by his name, they were blessed with prophets, for the prophecy came in old time (2 Pt. 1:21); it is venerable for its antiquity. When God renewed his covenant of providence (and that a figure of the covenant of grace) with Noah and his sons, we soon after find Noah, as a prophet, foretelling, not only the servitude of Canaan, but God’s enlarging Japhet by Christ, and his dwelling in the tents of Shem, Gen. 9:26, 27. And when, upon the general revolt of mankind to idolatry (as, in the former period, upon the apostasy of Cain), God distinguished a church for himself by the call of Abraham, and by his covenant with him and his seed, he conferred upon him and the other patriarchs the spirit of prophecy; for, when he reproved kings for their sakes, he said, Touch not my anointed, who have received that unction from the Holy One, and do my prophets no harm, Ps. 105:14, 15. And of Abraham he said expressly, He is a prophet (Gen. 20:7); and it was with a prophetic eye, as a seer, that Abraham saw Christ’s day (Jn. 8:56), saw it as so great a distance, and yet with so great an assurance triumphed in it. And Stephen seems to speak of the first settling of a correspondence between him and God, by which he was established to be a prophet, when he says, The God of glory appeared to him (Acts 7:2), appeared in glory. Jacob, upon his death-bed, as a prophet, told his sons what should befal them in the last days (Gen. 49:1), and spoke very particularly concerning the Messiah.
Hitherto was the infancy of the church, and with it of prophecy; it was the dawning of that day; and that morning-light owed its rise to the Sun of righteousness, though he rose not till long after, but it shone more and more. During the bondage of Israel in Egypt, this, as other glories of the church, was eclipsed; but, as the church made a considerable and memorable advance in the deliverance of Israel out of Egypt and the forming of them into a people, so did the Spirit of prophecy in Moses, the illustrious instrument employed in that great service; and it was by that Spirit that he performed that service; so it is said, Hos. 12:13, By a prophet the Lord brought Israel out of Egypt, and by a prophet was he preserved through the wilderness to Canaan, that is, by Moses as a prophet. It appears, by what God said to Aaron, that there were then other prophets among them, to whom God made known himself and his will in dreams and visions (Num. 12:6), but to Moses he spoke in a peculiar manner, mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches, Num. 12:8. Nay, such a plentiful effusion was there of the Spirit of prophecy at that time (because Moses was such a prophet as was to be a type of Christ the great prophet) that some of his Spirit was put upon seventy elders of Israel at once, and they prophesied, Num. 11:25. What they said was extraordinary, and not only under the direction of a prophetic inspiration, but under the constraint of a prophetic impulse, as appears by the case of Eldad and Meded.
When Moses, that great prophet, was laying down his office, he promised Israel that the Lord God would raise them up a prophet of their brethren like unto him, Deu. 18:15, 18. In these words, says the learned Bishop Stillingfleet (Orig. Sacr. B. 2, c. 4—though, in their full and complete sense, they relate to Christ, and to him they are more than once applied in the New Testament), there is included a promise of an order of prophets, which should succeed Moses in the Jewish church, and be the logia zoµnta—the living oracles among them (Acts 7:38), by which they might know the mind of God; for, in the next words, he lays down rules for the trial of prophets, whether what they said was of God or no, and it is observable that that promise comes in immediately upon an express prohibition of the Pagan rites of divination and the consulting of wizards and familiar spirits: "You shall not need to do that" (said Moses), "for, to your much better satisfaction, you shall have prophets divinely inspired, by whom you may know from God himself both what to do and what to expect." But as Jacob’s dying prophecy concerning the sceptre in Judah, and the lawgiver between his feet, did not begin to be remarkably fulfilled till David’s time, most of the Judges being of other tribes, so Moses’s promise of a succession of prophets began not to receive its accomplishment till Samuel’s time, a little before the other promise began to emerge and operate; and it was an introduction to the other, for it was by Samuel, as a prophet, that David was anointed king, which was an intimation that the prophetical office of our Redeemer should make way, both in the world and in the heart, for his kingly office; and therefore when he was asked, Art thou a king? (Jn. 18:37) he answered, not evasively, but very pertinently, I came to bear witness to the truth, and so to rule as a king purely by the power of truth.
During the government of the Judges there was a pouring out of the Spirit, but more as a Spirit of skill and courage for war than as a Spirit of prophecy. Deborah is indeed called prophetess, because of her extraordinary qualifications for judging Israel; but that is the only mention of prophecy, that I remember, in all the book of Judges. Extraordinary messages were sent by angels, as to Gideon and Manoah; and it is expressly said that before the word of the Lord came to Samuel (1 Sa. 3:1) it was precious, it was very scarce, there was no open vision. And it was therefore with more than ordinary solemnity that the word of the Lord came first to Samuel; and by degrees notice and assurance were given to all Israel that Samuel was established to be a prophet of the Lord, 1 Sa. 3:20. In Samuel’s time, and by him, the schools of the prophets were erected, by which prophecy was dignified and provision made for a succession of prophets; for it should seem that in those colleges, hopeful young men were bred up in devotion, in a constant attendance upon the instruction the prophets gave from God, and under a strict discipline, as candidates, or probationers, for prophecy, who were called the sons of the prophets; and their religious exercises of prayer, conference, and psalmody especially, are called prophesyings; and their praefect, or president, is called their father, 1 Sa. 10:12. Out of these God ordinarily chose the prophets he sent; and yet not always: Amos was no prophet nor prophet’s son (Amon 7:14), had not his education in the schools of the prophets, and yet was commissioned to go on God’s errands, and (which is observable) though he had not academical education himself, yet he seems to speak of it with great respect when he reckons it among the favours God had bestowed upon Israel that he raised up of their sons for prophets and of their young men for Nazarites, Amos 2:11.
It is worth noting that when the glory of the priesthood was eclipsed by the iniquity of the house of Eli, the desolations of Shiloh, and the obscurity of the ark, there was then a more plentiful effusion of the Spirit of prophecy than had been before; a standing ministry of another kind was thereby erected, and a succession of it kept up. And thus afterwards, in the kingdom of the ten tribes, where there was no legal priesthood at all, yet there were prophets and prophets; sons; in Ahab’s time we meet with a hundred of them, whom Obadiah his by fifty in a cave, 1 Ki. 18:4. When the people of God, who desired to know his mind, were deprived of one way of instruction, God furnished them with another, and a less ceremonious one; for he left not himself without witness, nor them without a guide. And when they had no temple or altar that they could attend upon with any safety or satisfaction then had private meetings at the prophets’ houses, to which the devout faithful worshippers of God resorted (as we find the good Shunamite did, 2 Ki. 4:23), and where they kept their new-moons and their sabbaths, comfortably, and to their edification.
David was himself a prophet; so St. Peter calls him (Acts 2:30); and, though we read not of God’s speaking to him by dreams and visions, yet we are sure that the Spirit of the Lord spoke by him, and his word was in his tongue (2 Sa. 23:2), and he had those about him that were seers, that were his seers, as Gad and Iddo, that brought him messages from God, and wrote the history of his times. And now the productions of the Spirit of prophecy were translated into the service of the temple, not only in the model of the house which the Lord made David understand in writing by his hand upon him (1 Chr. 28:19), but in the worship performed there; for there we find Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun, prophesying with harps and other musical instruments, according to the order of the king, not to foretel things to come, but to give thanks and to praise the Lord (1 Chr. 25:1-3); yet, in their psalms, they spoke much of Christ and his kingdom, and the glory to be revealed.
In the succeeding reigns, both of Judah and Israel, we frequently meet with prophets sent on particular errands to Rehoboam, Jeroboam, Asa, and other kings, who, it is probable, instructed the people in the things of God at other times, though it is not recorded. But, prophecy growing into contempt with many, God revived the honour of it, and put a new lustre upon it, in the power given to Elijah and Elisha to work miracles, and the great things that God did by them for the confirming of the people’s faith in it, and the awakening of their regard to it, 2 Ki. 2:3, 4:1, 38; 5:22; 6:1. In their time, and by their agency, it should seem, the schools of the prophets were revived, and we find sons of the prophets, fellows of those sacred colleges, employed in carrying messages to the great men, as to Ahab (1 Ki. 20:35), and to Jehu, 2 Ki. 9:1.
Hitherto, the prophets of the Lord delivered their messages by word of mouth, only we read of one writing which came from Elijah the prophet to Jehoram king of Israel, 2 Chr. 21:12. The histories of those times which are left us were compiled by prophets, under a divine direction; and, when the Old Testament is divided into the law and the Prophets, the historical books are, for that reason, reckoned among the prophets. But, in the later times of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, some of the prophets were divinely inspired to write their prophecies, or abstracts of them, and to leave them upon record, for the benefit of after-ages, that the children who should be born might praise the Lord for them, and, by comparing the event with the prediction, might have their faith confirmed. And, probably, those later prophets spoke more fully and plainly of the Messiah and his kingdom than their predecessors had done, and for that reason their prophecies were put in writing, not only for the encouragement of the pious Jews that looked for the consolation of Israel, but for the use of us Christians, upon whom the ends of the world have come, as David’s psalms had been for the same reason, that the Old Testament and the New might mutually give light and lustre to each other. Many other faithful prophets there were at the same time, who spoke in God’s name, who did not commit their prophecies to writing, but were of those whom God sent, rising up betimes and sending them, the contempt of whom, and of their messages, brought ruin without remedy upon that sottish people, that knew not the day of their visitation. In their captivity they had some prophets, some to show them how long; and though it was not by a prophet, like Moses, that they were brought out of Babylon, as they had been out of Egypt, but by Joshua the high priest first, and afterwards by Ezra the scribe, to show that God can do his work by ordinary means when he pleases, yet, soon after their return, the Spirit of prophecy was poured out plentifully, and continued (according to the Jews’ computation) forty years in the second temple, but ceased in Malachi. Then (say the rabbin) the Holy Spirit was taken from Israel, and they had the benefit only of the Bathkol—the daughter of a voice, that is, a voice from heaven, which they look upon to be the lowest degree of divine revelation. Now herein they are witnesses against themselves for rejecting the true Messiah, for our Lord Jesus, and he only was spoken to by a voice from heaven at his baptism, his transfiguration, and his entrance on his sufferings.
In John the Baptist prophecy revived, and therefore in him the gospel is said to begin, when the church had had no prophets for above 300 years. We have not only the vox populi—the voice of the people to prove John a prophet, for all the people counted him so, but vox Dei—the voice of God too; for Christ calls him a prophet, Mt. 11:9, 10. He had an extraordinary commission from God to call people to repentance, was filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb, and was therefore called the prophet of the Highest, because he went before the face of the Lord, to prepare his way (Lu. 1:15, 16); and though he did no miracle, nor gave any sign or wonder, yet this proved him a true prophet, that all he said of Christ was true, Jn. 10:41. Nay, and this proved him more than a prophet, than any of the other prophets, that whereas by other prophets Christ was discovered as at a great distance, by him he was discovered as already come, and he was enabled to say, Behold the Lamb of God. But after the ascension of our Lord Jesus there was a more plentiful effusion of the Spirit of prophecy than ever before; then was the promise fulfilled that God would pour out his Spirit upon all flesh (and not as hitherto upon the Jews only), and their sons and their daughters should prophesy, Acts 2:16, etc. The gift of tongues was one new product of the Spirit of prophecy, and given for a particular reason, that, the Jewish pale being taken down, all nations might be brought into the church. These and other gifts of prophecy, being for a sign, have long since ceased and laid aside, and we have no encouragement to expect the revival of them; but, on the contrary, are directed to call the scriptures the more sure word of prophecy, more sure than voices from heaven; and to them we are directed to take heed, to search them, and to hold them fast, 2 Pt. 1:19. All God’s spiritual Israel know that they are established to be the oracles of God (1 Sa. 3:20), and if any add to, or take from, the book of that prophecy, they may read their doom in the close of it; God shall take blessings from them, and add curses to them, Rev. 22:18, 19).
Now concerning the prophets of the Old Testament, whose writings are before us, observe,
I. That they were all holy men. We are assured by the apostle that the prophecy came in old time by holy men of God (and men of God they were commonly called, because they were devoted to him), who spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. They were men, subject to like passions as we are (so Elijah, one of the greatest of them, is said to have been, Jam. 5:17); but they were holy men, men that in the temper of their minds, and the tenour of their lives, were examples of serious piety. Though there were many pretenders, that, without warrant, said Thus saith the Lord, when he sent them not, and some that prophesied in Christ’s name, but he never knew them, and they indeed were workers of iniquity (Mt. 7:22, 23), and though the cursing blaspheming lips of Balaam and Caiaphas, even when they actually designed mischief, were over-ruled to speak oracles, yet none were employed and commissioned to speak as prophets but those that had received the Spirit of grace and sanctification; for holiness becomes God’s house. The Jewish doctors universally agree in this rule, That the Spirit of prophecy never rests upon any but a holy and wise man, and one whose passions are allayed (see Mr. Smith on Prophecy), or, as others express it, a humble man and a man of fortitude, that is, one that has power to keep his sensual animal part in due subjection to religion and right reason. And some of them (Gemara Schab. c. 2) give this rule, That the Spirit of prophecy does not reside where there are either, on the one hand, grief and melancholy, or, on the other hand, laughter and lightness of behaviour, and impertinent idle talk: and it is commonly observed by them, both from the musical instruments used in the schools of the prophets in Samuel’s time and from the instance of Elisha’s calling for a minstrel (2 Ki. 3:15), that the divine presence does not reside with sadness, but with cheerfulness, and Elisha, they say, had not yet recovered himself from the sorrow he conceived at parting with Elijah. They have also a tradition (but I know no ground for it) that all the while Jacob mourned for Joseph, the Shechinah, or Holy Spirit, withdrew from him. Yet I believe that when David intimates that by his sin in the matter of Uriah he had lost the right Spirit, and the free Spirit, Ps. 51:10, 12 (which therefore he begs might be renewed in him and restored to him), it was not because he was under grief, but because he was under guilt. And therefore, in order to the return of that right and free Spirit, he prays that God would create in him a clean heart.
II. That they had all a full assurance in themselves of their divine mission; and (though they could not always prevail to satisfy others) they were abundantly satisfied themselves that what they delivered as from God, and in his name, was indeed from him; and with the same assurance did the apostles speak of the word of life, as that which they had heard, and seen, and looked on, and which their hands had handled, 1 Jn. 1:1. Nathan spoke from himself when he encouraged David to build the temple, but afterwards knew he spoke from God when, in his name, he forbade him to do it. God had various ways of making known to his prophets the messages they were to deliver to his people; it should seem, ordinarily, to have been by the ministry of angels. In the Apocalypse Christ is expressly said to have signified by his angel to his servant John, Rev. 1:1. It was sometimes done in a vision when the prophet was awake, sometimes in a dream when the prophet was asleep, and sometimes by a secret but strong impression upon the mind of the prophet. But Maimonides has laid down, as a maxim, That all prophecy makes itself known to the prophet that it is prophecy indeed; that is, says another of the rabbin, By the vigour and liveliness of the perception whereby he apprehends the thing propounded (which Jeremiah intimates when he says, The word of the Lord was as a fire in my bones, Jer. 20:9), and therefore they always spoke with great assurance, knowing they should be justified, Isa. 1:7.
III. That in their prophesying, both in receiving their message from God and in delivering it to the people, they always kept possession of their own souls. Dan. 10:8. Though sometimes their bodily strength was overpowered by the abundance of the revelations, and their eyes were dazzled with the visionary light, as in the instances of Daniel and John (Rev. 1:17), yet still their understanding remained with them, and the free exercise of their reason. This is excellently well expressed by a learned writer of our own (Smith on Prophecy, p. 190): "The prophetical Spirit, seating itself in the rational powers as well as in the imagination, did never alienate the mind, but inform and enlighten it; and those that were actuated by it always maintained a clearness and consistency of reason, with strength and solidity of judgment. "For" (says he afterwards—Pag. 266) "God did not make use of idiots or fools to reveal his will by, but such whose intellects were entire and perfect; and he imprinted such a clear copy of his truth upon them as that it became their own sense, being digested fully into their understandings, so that they were able to deliver and represent it to others as truly as any can paint forth his own thoughts." God’s messengers were speaking men, not speaking trumpets. The Fathers frequently took notice of this difference between the prophets of the Lord and the false prophets—that the pretenders to prophecy (who either were actuated by an evil spirit or were under the force of a heated imagination) underwent alienations of mind, and delivered what they had to say in the utmost agitation and disorder, as the Pythian prophetess, who delivered her infernal oracles with many antic gestures, tearing her hair and foaming at the mouth. And by this rule they condemned the Montanists, who pretended to prophecy, in the second century, that what they said was in a way of ecstasy, not like rational men, but like men in a frenzy. Chrysostom (in 1 Co. 12:1), having described the furious violent motions of the pretenders to prophecy, adds, Ho de Propheµteµs ouch houtoµs—A true prophet does not do so. Sed mente sobriâ, et constanti animi staut, et intelligens quae profert, omnia pronunciat—He understands what he utters, and utters it soberly and calmly. And Jerome, in his preface to his Commentaries upon Nahum, observes that it is called the book of the vision of Nahum. Non enim loquitur en ekstasei, sed est liber intelligentis omnia quae loquitur—For he speaks not in an ecstasy, but as one who understands every thing he says. And again (Prolog. in Habac.), Non ut amens loquitur propheta, nec in morem insanientium foeminarum dat sine mente sonum—The prophet speaks not as an insane person, nor like women wrought into fury, does he utter sound without sense.
IV. That they all aimed at one and the same thing, which was to bring people to repent of their sins and to return to God and to do their duty to him. This was the errand on which all God messengers were sent, to beat down sin, and to revive and advance serious piety. The burden of every son was, Turn you now every one from his evil way; amend your ways and your doings, and execute judgment between a man and his neighbour, Jer. 7:3, 5. See Zec. 7:8, 9; 8:16. The scope and design of all their prophecies were to enforce the precepts and sanctions of the law of Moses, the moral law, which is of universal and perpetual obligation. Here is nothing of the ceremonial institutes, of the carnal ordinances that were imposed only till the times of reformation, Heb. 9:10. Those were now waxing old and ready to vanish away; but they make it their business to press the great and weighty matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and truth.
V. That they all bore witness to Jesus Christ and had an eye to him. God raising up the horn of salvation for us, in the house of his servant David, was consonant to, and in pursuance of, what he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets who have been since the world began, Lu. 1:69, 70. They prophesied of the grace that should come to us, and it was the Spirit of Christ in them, one and the same Spirit, that testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow, 1 Pt. 1:10, 11. Christ was then made known, and yet comparatively hid, in the predictions of the prophets, as before in the types of the ceremonial law. And the learned Huetius (Demonstrat. Evang. p. 737) observes it as really admirable that so many persons, in different ages, should conspire with one consent, as it were, to foretel, some one particular and others another, concerning Christ, all which had, at length, their full accomplishment in him. Ab ipsis mundi incunabulis, per quatuor annorum millia, uno ore venturum Christum praedixerunt viri complures, in ejusque ortu, vitâ, virtutibus, rebus gestis, morte, ac totâ denique Oikonomia praemonstranda consenserunt—From the earliest period of time, for 4000 years, a great number of men have predicted the advent of Christ, and presented a harmonious statement of his birth, life, character, actions, and death, and of that economy which he came to establish.
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the LORD hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me.
We will hope to meet with a brighter and more pleasant scene before we come to the end of this book; but truly here, in the beginning of it, every thing looks very bad, very black, with Judah and Jerusalem. What is the wilderness of the world, if the church, the vineyard, has such a dismal aspect as this?
I. The prophet, though he speaks in God’s name, yet, despairing to gain audience with the children of his people, addresses himself to the heavens and the earth, and bespeaks their attention (v. 2): Hear, O heavens! and give ear, O earth! Sooner will the inanimate creatures hear, who observe the law and answer the end of their creation, than this stupid senseless people. Let the lights of the heaven shame their darkness, and the fruitfulness of the earth their barrenness, and the strictness of each to its time their irregularity. Moses begins thus in Deu. 32:1, to which the prophet here refers, intimating that now those times had come which Moses there foretold, Deu. 31:29. Or this is an appeal to heaven and earth, to angels and then to the inhabitants of the upper and lower world. Let them judge between God and his vineyard; can either produce such an instance of ingratitude? Note, God will be justified when he speaks, and both heaven and earth shall declare his righteousness, Mic. 6:1, 2; Ps. 50:6.
II. He charges them with base ingratitude, a crime of the highest nature. Call a man ungrateful, and you can call him no worse. Let heaven and earth hear and wonder at, 1. God’s gracious dealings with such a peevish provoking people as they were: "I have nourished and brought them up as children; they have been well fed and well taught" (Deu. 32:6); "I have magnified and exalted them" (so some), "not only made them grow, but made them great—not only maintained them, but preferred them—not only trained them up, but raised them high." Note, We owe the continuance of our lives and comforts, and all our advancements, to God’s fatherly care of us and kindness to us. 2. Their ill-natured conduct towards him, who was so tender of them: "They have rebelled against me," or (as some read it) "they have revolted from me; they have been deserters, nay traitors, against my crown and dignity." Note, All the instances of God’s favour to us, as the God both of our nature and of our nurture, aggravate our treacherous departures from him and all our presumptuous oppositions to him—children, and yet rebels!
III. He attributes this to their ignorance and inconsideration (v. 3): The ox knows, but Israel does not. Observe, 1. The sagacity of the ox and the ass, which are not only brute creatures, but of the dullest sort; yet the ox has such a sense of duty as to know his owner and to serve him, to submit to his yoke and to draw in it; the ass has such a sense of interest as to know has master’s crib, or manger, where he is fed, and to abide by it; he will go to that of himself if he be turned loose. A fine pass man has come to when he is shamed even in knowledge and understanding by these silly animals, and is not only sent to school to them (Prov. 6:6, 7), but set in a form below them (Jer. 8:7), taught more than the beasts of the earth (Job 35:11) and yet knowing less. 2. The sottishness and stupidity of Israel. God is their owner and proprietor. He made us, and his we are more than our cattle are ours; he has provided well for us; providence is our Master’s crib; yet many that are called the people of God do not know and will not consider this, but ask, "What is the Almighty that we should serve him? He is not our owner; and what profit shall we have if we pray unto him? He has no crib for us to feed at." He had complained (v. 2) of the obstinacy of their wills; They have rebelled against me. Here he runs it up to its cause: "Therefore they have rebelled because they do not know, they do not consider." The understanding is darkened, and therefore the whole soul is alienated from the life of God, Eph. 4:18. "Israel does not know, though their land is a land of light and knowledge; in Judah is God known, yet, because they do not live up to what they know, it is in effect as if they did not know. They know; but their knowledge does them no good, because they do not consider what they know; they do not apply it to their case, nor their minds to it." Note, (1.) Even among those that profess themselves God’s people, that have the advantages and lie under the engagements of his people, there are many that are very careless in the affairs of their souls. (2.) Inconsideration of what we do know is as great an enemy to us in religion as ignorance of what we should know. (3.) Therefore men revolt from God, and rebel against him, because they do not know and consider their obligations to God in duty, gratitude, and interest.
IV. He laments the universal pravity and corruption of their church and kingdom. The disease of sin was epidemic, and all orders and degrees of men were infected with it; Ah sinful nation! v. 4. The prophet bemoans those that would not bemoan themselves: Alas for them! Woe to them! He speaks with holy indignation at their degeneracy, and a dread of the consequences of it. See here,
1. How he aggravates their sin, and shows the malignity that there was in it, v. 4. (1.) The wickedness was universal. They were a sinful nation; the generality of the people were vicious and profane. They were so in their national capacity. In the management of their public treaties abroad, and in the administration of public justice at home, they were corrupt. Note, It is ill with a people when sin becomes national. (2.) It was very great and heinous in its nature. They were laden with iniquity; the guilt of it, and the curse incurred by that guilt, lay very heavily upon them. It was a heavy charge that was exhibited against them, and one which they could never clear themselves from; their wickedness was upon them as a talent of lead, Zec. 5:7, 8. Their sin, as it did easily beset them and they were prone to it, was a weight upon them, Heb. 12:1. (3.) They came of a bad stock, were a seed of evil-doers. Treachery ran in their blood; they had it by kind, which made the matter so much the worse, more provoking and less curable. They rose up in their fathers’ stead, and trod in their fathers’ steps, to fill up the measure of their iniquity, Num. 32:14. They were a race and family of rebels. (4.) Those that were themselves debauched did what they could to debauch others. They were not only corrupt children, born tainted, but children that were corrupters, that propagated vice, and infected others with it—not only sinners, but tempters—not only actuated by Satan, but agents for him. If those that are called children, God’s children, that are looked upon as belonging to his family, be wicked and vile, their example is of the most malignant influence. (5.) Their sin was a treacherous departure from God. They were deserters from their allegiance: "They have forsaken the Lord, to whom they had joined themselves; they have gone away backward, are alienated or separated from God, have turned their back upon him, deserted their colours, and quitted their service." When they were urged forward, they ran backward, as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke, as a backsliding heifer, Hos. 4:16. (6.) It was an impudent and daring defiance of him: They have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger wilfully and designedly; they knew what would anger him, and that they did. Note, The backslidings of those that have professed religion and relation to God are in a special manner provoking to him.
2. How he illustrates it by a comparison taken from a sick and diseased body, all overspread with leprosy, or, like Job’s, with sore boils, v. 5, 6. (1.) The distemper has seized the vitals, and so threatens to be mortal. Diseases in the head and heart are most dangerous; now the head, the whole head, is sick—the heart, the whole heart, is faint. They had become corrupt in their judgment: the leprosy was in their head. They were utterly unclean; their affection to God and religion was cold and gone; the things which remained were ready to die away, Rev. 3:2. (2.) It has overspread the whole body, and so becomes exceedingly noisome; From the sole of the foot even to the head, from the meanest peasant to the greatest peer, there is no soundness, no good principles, no religion (for that is the health of the soul), nothing but wounds and bruises, guilt and corruption, the sad effects of Adam’s fall, noisome to the holy God, painful to the sensible soul; they were so to David when he complained (Ps. 38:5), My wounds stink, and are corrupt, because of my foolishness. See Ps. 32:3, 4. No attempts were made for reformation, or, if they were, they proved ineffectual: The wounds have not been closed, not bound up, nor mollified with ointment. While sin remains unrepented of the wounds are unsearched, unwashed, the proud flesh in them not cut out, and while, consequently, it remains unpardoned, the wounds are not mollified or closed up, nor any thing done towards the healing of them and the preventing of their fatal consequences.
V. He sadly bewails the judgments of God which they had brought upon themselves by their sins, and their incorrigibleness under those judgments. 1. Their kingdom was almost ruined, v. 7. So miserable were they that both their towns and their lands were wasted, and yet so stupid that they needed to be told this, to have it shown to them. "Look and see how it is; your country is desolate; the ground is not cultivated, for want of inhabitants, the villages being deserted, Jdg. 5:7. And thus the fields and vineyards become like deserts, all grown over with thorns, Prov. 24:31. Your cities are burned with fire, by the enemies that invade you" (fire and sword commonly go together); "as for the fruits of your land, which should be food for your families, strangers devour them; and, to your greater vexation, it is before your eyes, and you cannot prevent it; you starve while your enemies surfeit on that which should be your maintenance. The overthrow of your country is as the overthrow of strangers; it is used by the invaders, as one might expect it should be used by strangers." Jerusalem itself, which was as the daughter of Zion (the temple built on Zion was a mother, a nursing mother, to Jerusalem), or Zion itself, the holy mountain, which had been dear to God as a daughter, was now lost, deserted, and exposed as a cottage in a vineyard, which, when the vintage is over, nobody dwells in or takes any care of, and looks as mean and despicable as a lodge or hut, in a garden of cucumbers; and every person is afraid of coming near it, and solicitous to remove his effects out of it, as if it were a besieged city, v. 8. And some think, it is a calamitous state of the kingdom that is represented by a diseased body, v. 6. Probably this sermon was preached in the reign of Ahaz, when Judah was invaded by the kings of Syria and Israel, the Edomites and the Philistines, who slew many, and carried many away into captivity, 2 Chr. 28:5, 17, 18. Note, National impiety and immorality bring national desolation. Canaan, the glory of all lands, Mount Zion, the joy of the whole earth, both became a reproach and a ruin; and sin made them so, that great mischief-maker. 2. Yet they were not all reformed, and therefore God threatens to take another course with them (v. 5): "Why should you be stricken any more, with any expectation of doing you good by it, when you increase revolts as your rebukes are increased? You will revolt more and more, as you have done," as Ahaz particularly did, who, in his distress, trespassed yet more against the Lord, 2 Chr. 28:22. Thus the physician, when he sees the patient’s case desperate, troubles him no more with physic; and the father resolves to correct his child no more when, finding him hardened, he determines to disinherit him. Note, (1.) There are those who are made worse by the methods God takes to make them better; the more they are stricken the more they revolt; their corruptions, instead of being mortified, are irritated and exasperated by their afflictions, and their hearts more hardened. (2.) God, sometimes, in a way of righteous judgment, ceases to correct those who have been long incorrigible, and whom therefore he designs to destroy. The reprobate silver shall be cast, not into the furnace, but to the dunghill, Jer. 6:29, 30. See Eze. 24:13; Hos. 4:14. He that is filthy, let him be filthy still.
VI. He comforts himself with the consideration of a remnant that should be the monuments of divine grace and mercy, notwithstanding this general corruption and desolation, v. 9. See here, 1. How near they were to an utter extirpation. They were almost like Sodom and Gomorrah in respect both of sin and ruin, had grown almost so bad that there could not have been found ten righteous men among them, and almost as miserable as if none had been left alive, but their country turned into a sulphureous lake. Divine Justice said, Make them as Admah; set them as Zeboim; but Mercy said, How shall I do it? Hos. 11:8, 9. 2. What it was that saved them from it: The Lord of hosts left unto them a very small remnant, that were kept pure from the common apostasy and kept safe and alive from the common calamity. This is quoted by the apostle (Rom. 9:27), and applied to those few of the Jewish nation who in his time embraced Christianity, when the body of the people rejected it, and in whom the promises made to the fathers were accomplished. Note, (1.) In the worst of times there is a remnant preserved from iniquity and reserved for mercy, as Noah and his family in the deluge, Lot and his in the destruction of Sodom. Divine grace triumphs in distinguishing by an act of sovereignty. (2.) This remnant is often a very small one in comparison with the vast number of revolting ruined sinners. Multitude is no mark of the true church. Christ’s is a little flock. (3.) It is God’s work to sanctify and save some, when others are left to perish in their impurity. It is the work of his power as the Lord of hosts. Except he had left us that remnant, there would have been none left; the corrupters (v. 4) did what they could to debauch all, and the devourers (v. 7) to destroy all, and they would have prevailed of God himself had not interposed to secure to himself a remnant, who are bound to give him all the glory. (4.) It is good for a people that have been saved from utter ruin to look back and see how near they were to it, just upon the brink of it, to see how much they owed to a few good men that stood in the gap, and that that was owing to a good God, who left them these good men. It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed.
Hear the word of the LORD, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah.
Here, I. God calls to them (but calls in vain) to hear his word, v. 10. 1. The title he gives them is very strange; You rulers of Sodom, and people of Gomorrah. This intimates what a righteous thing it would have been with God to make them like Sodom and Gomorrah in respect of ruin (v. 9), because that had made themselves like Sodom and Gomorrah in respect of sin. The men of Sodom were wicked, and sinners before the Lord exceedingly (Gen. 13:13), and so were the men of Judah. When the rulers were bad, no wonder the people were so. Vice overpowered virtue, for it had the rulers, the men of figure, on its side; and it out-polled it, for it had the people, the men of number, on its side. The streams being thus strong, no less a power than that of the Lord of hosts could secure a remnant, v. 9. The rulers are boldly attacked here by the prophet as rulers of Sodom; for he knew not how to give flattering titles. The tradition of the Jews is that for this he was impeached long after, and put to death, as having cursed the gods and spoken evil of the ruler of his people. 2. His demand upon them is very reasonable: "Hear the word of the Lord, and give ear to the law of our God; attend to that which God has to say to you, and let his word be a law to you." The following declaration of dislike to their sacrifices would be a kind of new law to them, though really it was but an explication of the old law; but special regard is to be had to it, as is required to the like, Ps. 50:7, 8. "Hear this, and tremble; hear it, and take warning."
II. He justly refuses to hear their prayers and accept their services, their sacrifices and burnt-offerings, the fat and blood of them (v. 11), their attendance in his courts (v. 12), their oblations, their incense, and their solemn assemblies (v. 13), their new moons and their appointed feasts (v. 14), their devoutest addresses (v. 15); they are all rejected, because their hands were full of blood. Now observe,
1. There are many who are strangers, nay, enemies, to the power of religion, and yet seem very zealous for the show and shadow and form of it. This sinful nation, this seed of evil-doers, these rulers of Sodom and people of Gomorrah, brought, not to the altars of false gods (they are not here charged with that), but to the altar of the God of Israel, sacrifices, a multitude of them, as many as the law required and rather more—not only peace-offerings, which they themselves had their share of, but burnt-offerings, which were wholly consumed to the honour of God; nor did they bring the torn, and lame, and sick, but fed beasts, and the fat of them, the best of the kind. They did not send others to offer their sacrifices for them, but came themselves to appear before God. They observed the instituted places (not in high places or groves, but in God’s own courts), and the instituted time, the new moons, and sabbaths, and appointed feasts, none of which they omitted. Nay, it should seem, they called extraordinary assemblies, and held solemn meetings for religious worship, besides those that God had appointed. Yet this was not all: they applied to God, not only with their ceremonial observances, but with the exercises of devotion. They prayed, prayed often, made many prayers, thinking they should be heard for their much speaking; nay, they were fervent and importunate in prayer, they spread forth their hands as men in earnest. Now we should have thought these, and, no doubt, they thought themselves, a pious religious people; and yet they were far from being so, for (1.) Their hearts were empty of true devotion. They came to appear before God (v. 12), to be seen before him (so the margin reads it); they rested in the outside of the duties; they looked no further than to be seen of men, and went no further than that which men see. (2.) Their hands were full of blood. They were guilty of murder, rapine, and oppression, under colour of law and justice. The people shed blood, and the rulers did not punish them for it; the rulers shed blood, and the people were aiding and abetting, as the elders of Jezreel were to Jezebel in shedding Naboth’s blood. Malice is heart-murder in the account of God; he that hates his brother in his heart has, in effect, his hands full of blood.
2. When sinners are under the judgments of God they will more easily be brought to fly to their devotions than to forsake their sins and reform their lives. Their country was now desolate, and their cities were burnt (v. 7), which awakened them to bring their sacrifices and offerings to God more constantly than they had done, as if they would bribe God Almighty to remove the punishment and give them leave to go on in the sin. When he slew them, then they sought him, Ps. 78:34. Lord, in trouble have they visited thee, ch. 26:16. Many that will readily part with their sacrifices will not be persuaded to part with their sins.
3. The most pompous and costly devotions of wicked people, without a thorough reformation of the heart and life, are so far from being acceptable to God that really they are an abomination to him. It is here shown in a great variety of expressions that to obey is better than sacrifice; nay, that sacrifice, without obedience, is a jest, an affront and provocation to God. The comparative neglect which God here expresses of ceremonial observance was a tacit intimation of what they would come to at last, when they would all be done away by the death of Christ. What was now made little of would in due time be made nothing of. "Sacrifice and offering, and prayer made in the virtue of them, thou wouldest not; then said I, Lo, I come." Their sacrifices are here represented,
(1.) As fruitless and insignificant; To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices? v. 11. They are vain oblations, v. 13. In vain do they worship me, Mt. 15:9. Their attention to God’s institutions was all lost labour, and served not to answer any good intention; for, [1.] It was not looked upon as any act of duty or obedience to God: Who has required these things at your hands? v. 12. Not that God disowns his institutions, or refuses to stand by his own warrants; but in what they did they had not an eye to him that required it, nor indeed did he require it of those whose hands were full of blood and who continued impenitent. [2.] It did not recommend them to God’s favour. He delighted not in the blood of their sacrifices, for he did not look upon himself as honoured by it. [3.] It would not obtain any relief for them. They pray, but God will not hear, because they regard iniquity (Ps. 66:18); he will not deliver them, for, though they make many prayers, none of them come from an upright heart. All their religious service turned to no account to them. Nay,
(2.) As odious and offensive. God did not only not accept them, but he did detest and abhor them. "They are your sacrifices, they are none of mine; I am full of them, even surfeited with them." He needed them not (Ps. 50:10), did not desire them, had had enough of them, and more than enough. Their coming into his courts he calls treading them, or trampling upon them; their very attendance on his ordinances was construed into a contempt of them. Their incense, though ever so fragrant, was an abomination to him, for it was burnt in hypocrisy and with an ill design. Their solemn assemblies he could not away with, could not see them with any patience, nor bear the affront they gave him. The solemn meeting is iniquity; though the thing itself was not, yet, as they managed it, it became so. It is a vexation (so some read it), a provocation, to God, to have ordinances thus prostituted, not only by wicked people, but to wicked purposes: "My soul hates them; they are a trouble to me, a burden, an incumbrance; I am perfectly sick of them, and weary of bearing them." God is never weary of hearing the prayers of the upright, but soon weary of the costly sacrifices of the wicked. He hides his eyes from their prayers, as that which he has an aversion to and is angry at. All this is to show, [1.] That sin is very hateful to God, so hateful that it makes even men’s prayers and their religious services hateful to him. [2.] That dissembled piety is double iniquity. Hypocrisy in religion is of all things most abominable to the God of heaven. Jerome applies the passage to the Jews in Christ’s time, who pretended a great zeal for the law and the temple, but made themselves and all their services abominable to God by filling their hands with the blood of Christ and his apostles, and so filling up the measure of their iniquities.
Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil;
Though God had rejected their services as insufficient to atone for their sins while they persisted in them, yet he does not reject them as in a hopeless condition, but here calls upon them to forsake their sins, which hindered the acceptance of their services, and then all would be well. Let them not say that God picked quarrels with them; no, he proposes a method of reconciliation. Observe here,
I. A call to repentance and reformation: "If you would have your sacrifices accepted, and your prayers answered, you must begin your work at the right end: Be converted to my law" (so the Chaldee begins this exhortation), "make conscience of second-table duties, else expect not to be accepted in the acts of your devotion." As justice and charity will never atone for atheism and profaneness, so prayers and sacrifices will never atone for fraud and oppression; for righteousness towards men is as much a branch of pure religion as religion towards God is a branch of universal righteousness.
1. They must cease to do evil, must do no more wrong, shed no more innocent blood. This is the meaning of washing themselves and making themselves clean, v. 16. It is not only sorrowing for the sin they had committed, but breaking off the practice of it for the future, and mortifying all those vicious affections and dispositions which inclined them to it. Sin is defiling to the soul. Our business is to wash ourselves from it by repenting of it and turning from it to God. We must put away not only that evil of our doings which is before the eye of the world, by refraining from the gross acts of sin, but that which is before God’s eyes, the roots and habits of sin, that are in our hearts; these must be crushed and mortified.
2. They must learn to do well. This was necessary to the completing of their repentance. Note, It is not enough that we cease to do evil, but we must learn to do well. (1.) We must be doing, not cease to do evil and then stand idle. (2.) We must be doing good, the good which the Lord our God requires and which will turn to a good account. (3.) We must do it well, in a right manner and for a right end; and, (4.) We must learn to do well; we must take pains to get the knowledge of our duty, be inquisitive concerning it, in care about it, and accustom ourselves to it, that we may readily turn our hands to our work and become masters of this holy art of doing well. He urges them particularly to those instances of well-doing wherein they had been defective, to second-table duties: "Seek judgment; enquire what is right, that you may do it; be solicitous to be found in the way of your duty, and do not walk carelessly. Seek opportunities of doing good: Relieve the oppressed, those whom you yourselves have oppressed; ease them of their burdens, ch. 58:6. You, that have power in your hands, use it for the relief of those whom others do oppress, for that is your business. Avenge those that suffer wrong, in a special manner concerning yourselves for the fatherless and the widow, whom, because they are weak and helpless, proud men trample upon and abuse; do you appear for them at the bar, on the bench, as there is occasion. Speak for those that know not how to speak for themselves and that have not wherewithal to gratify you for your kindness." Note, We are truly honouring God when we are doing good in the world; and acts of justice and charity are more pleasing to him than all burnt-offerings and sacrifices.
II. A demonstration, at the bar of right reason, of the equity of God’s proceedings with them: "Come now, and let us reason together (v. 18); while your hands are full of blood I will have nothing to do with you, though you bring me a multitude of sacrifices; but if you wash, and make yourselves clean, you are welcome to draw nigh to me; come now, and let us talk the matter over." Note, Those, and those only, that break off their league with sin, shall be welcome into covenant and communion with God; he says, Come now, who before forbade them his courts. See Jam. 4:8. Or rather thus: There were those among them who looked upon themselves as affronted by the slights God put upon the multitude of their sacrifices, as ch. 58:3, Wherefore have we fasted (say they) and thou seest not? They represented God as a hard Master, whom it was impossible to please. "Come," says God, "let us debate the matter fairly, and I doubt not but to make it out that my ways are equal, but yours are unequal," Eze. 18:25. Note, Religion has reason on its side; there is all the reason in the world why we should do as God would have us do. The God of heaven condescends to reason the case with those that contradict him and find fault with his proceedings; for he will be justified when he speaks, Ps. 51:4. The case needs only to be stated (as it is here very fairly) and it will determine itself. God shows here upon what terms they stood (as he does, Eze. 18:21–24; 33:18, 19) and then leaves it to them to judge whether these terms are not fair and reasonable.
1. They could not in reason expect any more then, if they repented and reformed. they should be restored to God’s favour, notwithstanding their former provocations. "This you may expect," says God, and it is very kind; who could have the face to desire it upon any other terms? (1.) It is very little that is required, "only that you be willing and obedient, that you consent to obey" (so some read it), "that you subject your wills to the will of God, acquiesce in that, and give up yourselves in all things to be ruled by him who is infinitely wise and good" Here is no penance imposed for their former stubbornness, nor the yoke made heavier or bound harder on their necks; only, "Whereas hitherto you have been perverse and refractory, and would not comply with that which was for your own good, now be tractable, be governable" He does not say, "If you be perfectly obedient," but, "If you be willingly so;" for, if there be a willing mind, it is accepted. (2.) That is very great which is promised hereupon. [1.] That all their sins should be pardoned to them, and should not be mentioned against them. "Though they be as red as scarlet and crimson, though you lie under the guilt of blood, yet, upon your repentance, even that shall be forgiven you, and you shall appear in the sight of God as white as snow." Note, The greatest sinners, if they truly repent, shall have their sins forgiven them, and so have their consciences pacified and purified. Though our sins have been as scarlet and crimson, as deep dye, a double dye, first in the wool of original corruption and afterwards in the many threads of actual transgression—though we have been often dipped, by our many backslidings, into sin, and though we have lain long soaking in it, as the cloth does in the scarlet dye, yet pardoning mercy will thoroughly discharge the stain, and, being by it purged as with hyssop, we shall be clean, Ps. 51:7. If we make ourselves clean by repentance and reformation (v. 16), God will make us white by a full remission. [2.] That they should have all the happiness and comfort they could desire. "Be but willing and obedient, and you shall eat the good of the land, the land of promise; you shall have all the blessings of the new covenant, of the heavenly Canaan, all the good of the land." Those that go on in sin, though they may dwell in a good land, cannot with any comfort eat the good of it; guilt embitters all; but, if sin be pardoned, creature-comforts become comforts indeed.
2. They could not in reason expect any other than that, if they continued obstinate in their disobedience, they should be abandoned to ruin, and the sentence of the law should be executed upon them; what can be more just? (v. 20); "If you refuse and rebel, if you continue to rebel against the divine government and refuse the offers of the divine grace, you shall be devoured with the sword, with the sword of your enemies, which shall be commissioned to destroy you—with the sword of God’s justice, his wrath, and vengeance, which shall be drawn against you; for this is that which the mouth of the Lord has spoken, and which he will make good, for the maintaining of his own honour." Note, Those that will not be governed by God’s sceptre will certainly and justly be devoured by his sword.
"And now life and death, good and evil, are thus set before you. Come, and let us reason together. What have you to object against the equity of this, or against complying with God’s terms?"
How is the faithful city become an harlot! it was full of judgment; righteousness lodged in it; but now murderers.
Here, I. The woeful degeneracy of Judah and Jerusalem is sadly lamented. See, 1. What the royal city had been, a faithful city, faithful to God and the interests of his kingdom among men, faithful to the nation and its public interests. It was full of judgment; justice was duly administered upon the thrones of judgment which were set there, the thrones of the house of David, Ps. 122:5. Men were generally honest in their dealings, and abhorred to do an unjust thing. Righteousness lodged in it, was constantly resident in their palaces and in all their dwellings, not called in now and then to serve a turn, but at home there. Note, Neither holy cities nor royal ones, neither places where religion is professed nor places where government is administered, are faithful to their trust if religion do not dwell in them. 2. What it had now become. That beauteous virtuous spouse was now debauched, and become an adulteress; righteousness no longer dwelt in Jerusalem (terras Astraea reliquit—Astrea left the earth); even murderers were unpunished and lived undisturbed there; nay, the princes themselves were so cruel and oppressive that they had become no better than murderers; an innocent man might better guard himself against a troop of banditti or assassins than against a bench of such judges. Note, It is a great aggravation of the wickedness of any family or people that their ancestors were famed for virtue and probity; and commonly those that thus degenerate prove the most wicked of all men. Corruptio optimi est pessima—That which was originally the best becomes when corrupted the worst, Lu. 11:26; Eccl. 3:16; See Jer. 22:15–17. The degeneracy of Jerusalem is illustrated, (1.) By similitudes (v. 22): Thy silver has become dross. This degeneracy of the magistrates, whose character is the reverse of that of their predecessors, is a great a reproach and injury to the kingdom as the debasing of their coin would be and the turning of their silver into dross. Righteous princes and righteous cities are as silver for the treasury, but unrighteous ones are as dross for the dunghill. How has the gold become dim! Lam. 4:1. Thy wine is mixed with water, and so has become flat and sour. Some understand both these literally: the wine they sold was adulterated, it was half water; the money they paid was counterfeit, and so they cheated all they dealt with. But it is rather to be taken figuratively: justice was perverted by their princes, and religion and the word of God were sophisticated by their priests, and made to serve what turn they pleased. Dross may shine like silver, and the wine that is mixed with water may retain the colour of wine, but neither is worth any thing. Thus they retained a show and pretence of virtue and justice, but had no true sense of either. (2.) By some instances (v. 23): "Thy princes, that should keep others in their allegiance to God and subjection to his law, are themselves rebellious, and set God and his law at defiance." Those that should restrain thieves (proud and rich oppressors, those worst of robbers, and those that designedly cheat their creditors, who are no better), are themselves companions of thieves, connive at them, do as they do, and with greater security and success, because they are princes, and have power in their hands; they share with the thieves they protect in their unlawful gain (Ps. 50:18) and cast in their lot among them, Prov. 1:13, 14. [1.] The profit of their places is all their aim, to make the best hand they can of them, right or wrong. They love gifts, and follow after rewards; they set their hearts upon their salary, the fees and perquisites of their offices, and are greedy of them, and never think they can get enough; nay, they will do any thing, though ever so contrary to law and justice, for a gift in secret. Presents and gratuities will blind their eyes at any time, and make them pervert judgment. These they love and are eager in the pursuit of, Hos. 9:18. [2.] The duty of their places is none of their care. They ought to protect those that are injured, and take cognizance of the appeals made to them; why else were they preferred? But they judge not the fatherless, take no care to guard the orphans, nor does the cause of the widow come unto them, because the poor widow has no bribe to give, with which to make way for her and to bring her cause on. Those will have a great deal to answer for who, when they should be the patrons of the oppressed, are their greatest oppressors.
II. A resolution is taken up to redress these grievances (v. 24): Therefore saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel—who has power to make good what he says, who has hosts at command for the executing of his purposes, and whose power is engaged for his Israel—Ah! I will ease me of my adversaries. Observe,
1. Wicked people, especially wicked rulers that are cruel and oppressive, are God’s enemies, his adversaries, and shall so be accounted and so dealt with. If the holy seed corrupt themselves, they are the foes of his own house.
2. They are a burden to the God of heaven, which is implied in his easing himself of them. The Mighty One of Israel, that can bear any thing, nay, that upholds all things, complains of his being wearied with men’s iniquities, ch. 43:24. Amos 2:13.
3. God will find out a time and a way to ease himself of this burden, by avenging himself on those that thus bear hard upon his patience. He here speaks as one triumphing in the foresight of it: Ah. I will ease me. He will ease the earth of the burden under which it groans (Rom. 8:21, 22), will ease his own name of the reproaches with which it is loaded. He will be eased of his adversaries, by taking vengeance on his enemies; he will spue them out of his mouth, and so be eased of them, Rev. 3:16. He speaks with pleasure of the day of vengeance being in his heart, ch. 63:4. If God’s professing people conform not to his image, as the Holy One of Israel (v. 4), they shall feel the weight of his hand as the Mighty One of Israel: his power, which was wont to be engaged for them, shall be armed against them. In two ways God will ease himself of this grievance:—
(1.) By reforming his church, and restoring good judges in the room of those corrupt ones. Though the church has a great deal of dross in it, yet it shall not be thrown away, but refined (v. 25): "I will purely purge away thy dross. I will amend what is amiss. Vice and profaneness shall be suppressed and put out of countenance, oppressors displaced, and deprived of their power to do mischief." When things are ever so bad God can set them to rights, and bring about a complete reformation; when he begins he will make an end, will take away all the tin. Observe, [1.] The reformation of a people is God’s own work, and, if ever it be done, it is he that brings it about: "I will turn my hand upon thee; I will do that for the reviving of religion which I did at first for the planting of it." He can do it easily, with the turn of his hand; but he does it effectually, for what opposition can stand before the arm of the Lord revealed? [2.] He does it by blessing them with good magistrates and good ministers of state (v. 26): "I will restore thy judges as at the first, to put the laws in execution against evil-doers, and thy counsellors, to transact public affairs, as at the beginning," either the same persons that had been turned out or others of the same character. [3.] He does it by restoring judgment and righteousness among them (v. 27), by planting in men’s minds principles of justice and governing their lives by those principles. Men may do much by external restraints; but God does it effectually by the influences of his Spirit, as a Spirit of judgment, ch. 4:4; 28:6. See Ps. 85:10, 11. [4.] The reformation of a people will be the redemption of them and their converts, for sin is the worst captivity, the worst slavery, and the great and eternal redemption is that by which Israel is redeemed from all his iniquities (Ps. 130:8), and the blessed Redeemer is he that turns away ungodliness from Jacob (Rom. 11:26), and saves his people from their sins, Mt. 1:21. All the redeemed of the Lord shall be converts, and their conversion is their redemption: "Her converts, or those that return of her (so the margin), shall be redeemed with righteousness." God works deliverance for us by preparing us for it with judgment and righteousness. [5.] The reviving of a people’s virtues is the restoring of their honour: Afterwards thou shalt be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city; that is, First, "Thou shalt be so;" the reforming of the magistracy is a good step towards the reforming of the city and the country too. Secondly, "Thou shalt have the praise of being so;" and a greater praise there cannot be to any city than to be called the city of righteousness, and to retrieve the ancient honour which was lost when the faithful city became a harlot, v. 21.
(2.) By cutting off those that hate to be reformed, that they may not remain either as snares or as scandals to the faithful city. [1.] it is an utter ruin that is here threatened. They shall be destroyed and consumed, and not chastened and corrected only. The extirpation of them will be necessary to the redemption of Zion. [2.] It is a universal ruin, which will involve the transgressors and the sinners together, that is, the openly profane that have quite cast of all religion, and the hypocrites that live wicked lives under the cloak of a religious profession—they shall both be destroyed together, for they are both alike an abomination to God, both those that contradict religion and those that contradict themselves in their pretensions to it. And those that forsake the Lord, to whom they had formerly joined themselves, shall be consumed, as the water in the conduit-pipe is soon consumed when it is cut off from the fountain. [3.] It is an inevitable ruin; there is no escaping it. First, Their idols shall not be able to help them, the oaks which they have desired, and the gardens which they have chosen; that is, the images, the dunghill-gods, which they had worshipped in their groves and under the green trees, which they were fond of and wedded to, for which they forsook the true God, and which they worshipped privately in their own garden even when idolatry was publicly discountenanced. "This was the practice of the transgressors and the sinners; but they shall be ashamed of it, not with a show of repentance, but of despair, v. 29. They shall have cause to be ashamed of their idols; for, after all the court they have made to them, they shall find no benefit by them; but the idols themselves shall go into captivity," ch. 46:1, 2. Note, Those that make creatures their confidence are but preparing confusion for themselves. You were fond of the oaks and the gardens, but you yourselves shall be, 1. "Like an oak without leaves, withered and blasted, and stripped of all its ornaments." Justly do those wear no leaves that bear no fruit; as the fig-tree that Christ cursed. 2. "Like a garden without water, that is neither rained upon nor watered with the foot (Deu. 11:10), that had no fountain (Cant. 4:15), and consequently is parched, and all the fruits of it gone to decay." Thus shall those be that trust in idols, or in an arm of flesh, Jer. 17:5, 6. But those that trust in God never find him as a wilderness, or as waters that fail, Jer. 2:31. Secondly, They shall not be able to help themselves (v. 31): "Even the strong man shall be as tow not only soon broken and pulled to pieces, but easily catching fire; and his work (so the margin reads it), that by which he hopes to fortify and secure himself, shall be as a spark to his own tow, shall set him on fire, and he and his work shall burn together. His counsels shall be his ruin; his own skin kindles the fire of God’s wrath, which shall burn to the lowest hell, and none shall quench it." When the sinner has made himself as tow and stubble, and God makes himself to him as a consuming fore, what can prevent the utter ruin of the sinner?
Now all this is applicable, 1. To the blessed work of reformation which was wrought in Hezekiah’s time after the abominable corruptions of the reign of Ahaz. Then good men came to be preferred, and the faces of the wicked were filled with shame. 2. To their return out of their captivity in Babylon, which had thoroughly cured them of idolatry. 3. To the gospel-kingdom and the pouring out of the Spirit, by which the New-Testament church should be made a new Jerusalem, a city of righteousness. 4. To the second coming of Christ, when he shall thoroughly purge his floor, his field, shall gather the wheat into his barn, into his garner, and burn the chaff, the tares, with unquenchable fire.