Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible
Behold, the LORD maketh the earth empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down, and scattereth abroad the inhabitants thereof.
It is agreed that here begins a new sermon, which is continued to the end of chap. 27. And in it the prophet, according to the directions he had received, does, in many precious promises, "say to the righteous, It shall be well with them;" and, in many dreadful threatenings, he says, "Woe to the wicked, it shall be ill with them" (3:10, 11); and these are interwoven, that they may illustrate each other. This chapter is mostly threatening; and, as the judgments threatened are very sore and grievous ones, so the people threatened with those judgments are very many. It is not the burden of any particular city or kingdom, as those before, but the burden of the whole earth. The word indeed signifies only the land, because our own land is commonly to us as all the earth. But it is here explained by another word that is not so confined; it is the world (v. 4); so that it must at least take in a whole neighbourhood of nations. 1. Some think (and very probably) that it is a prophecy of the great havoc that Sennacherib and his Assyrian army should now shortly make of many of the nations in that part of the world. 2. Others make it to point at the like devastations which, about 100 years afterwards, Nebuchadnezzar and his armies should make in the same countries, going from one kingdom to another, not only to conquer them, but to ruin them and lay them waste; for that was the method which those eastern nations took in their wars. The promises that are mixed with the threatenings are intended for the support and comfort of the people of God in those very calamitous times. And, since here are no particular nations names either by whom or on whom those desolations should be brought, I see not but it may refer to both these events. Nay, the scripture has many fulfillings, and we ought to give it its full latitude; and therefore I incline to think that the prophet, from those and the like instances which he had a particular eye to, designs here to represent in general the calamitous state of mankind, and the many miseries which human life is liable to, especially those that attend the wars of the nations. Surely the prophets were sent, not only to foretel particular events, but to form the minds of men to virtue and piety, and for that end their prophecies were written and preserved even for our learning, and therefore ought not to be looked upon as of private interpretation. Now since a thorough conviction of the vanity of the world, and its insufficiency to make us happy, will go far towards bringing us to God, and drawing out our affections towards another world, the prophet here shows what vexation of spirit we must expect to meet with in these things, that we may never take up our rest in them, nor promise ourselves satisfaction any where short of the enjoyment of God. In this chapter we have, I. A threatening of desolating judgments for sin (v. 1–12), to which is added an assurance that in the midst of them good people should be comforted (v. 13–15). II. A further threatening of the like desolations (v. 16–22), to which is added an assurance that in the midst of all God should be glorified.
It is a very dark and melancholy scene that this prophecy presents to our view; turn our eyes which way we will, every thing looks dismal. The threatened desolations are here described in a great variety of expressions to the same purport, and all aggravating.
I. The earth is stripped of all its ornaments and looks as if it were taken off its basis; it is made empty and waste (v. 1), as if it were reduced to its first chaos, Tohu and Bohu, nothing but confusion and emptiness again (Gen. 1:2), without form and void. It is true earth sometimes signifies the land, and so the same word eretz is here translated (v. 3): The land shall be utterly emptied and utterly spoiled; but I see not why it should not there, as well as v. 1, be translated the earth; for most commonly, if not always, where it signifies some one particular land it has something joined to it, or at least not far from it, which does so appropriate it; as the land (or earth) of Egypt, or Canaan, or this land, or ours, or yours, or the like. It might indeed refer to some particular country, and an ambiguous word might be used to warrant such an application; for it is good to apply to ourselves, and our own hands, what the scripture says in general of the vanity and vexation of spirit that attend all things here below; but it should seem designed to speak what often happens to many countries, and will do while the world stands, and what may, we know not how soon, happen to our own, and what is the general character of all earthly things: they are empty of all solid comfort and satisfaction; a little thing makes them waste. We often see numerous families, and plentiful estates, utterly emptied and utterly spoiled, by one judgment or other, or perhaps only by a gradual and insensible decay. Sin has turned the earth upside down; the earth has become quite a different thing to man from what it was when God made it to be his habitation. Sin has also scattered abroad the inhabitants thereof. The rebellion at Babel was the occasion of the dispersion there. How many ways are there in which the inhabitants both of towns and of private houses are scattered abroad, so that near relations and old neighbours know nothing of one another! To the same purport is v. 4. The earth mourns, and fades away; it disappoints those that placed their happiness in it and raised their expectations high from it, and proves not what they promised themselves it would be. The whole world languishes and fades away, as hastening towards a dissolution. It is, at the best, like a flower, which withers in the hands of those that please themselves too much with it, and lay it in their bosoms. And, as the earth itself grows old, so those that dwell therein are desolate; men carry crazy sickly bodies along with them, are often solitary, and confined by affliction, v. 6. When the earth languishes, and is not so fruitful as it used to be, then those that dwell therein, that make it their home, and rest, and portion, are desolate; whereas those that by faith dwell in God can rejoice in him even when the fir-tree does not blossom. If we look abroad, and see in how many places pestilences and burning fevers rage, and what multitudes are swept away by them in a little time, so that sometimes the living scarcely suffice to bury the dead, perhaps we shall understand what the prophet means when he says, The inhabitants of the earth are burned, or consumed, some by one disease, others by another, and there are but few men left, in comparison. Note, The world we live in is a world of disappointment, a vale of tears, and a dying world; and the children of men in it are but of few days, and full of trouble.
II. It is God that brings all these calamities upon the earth. The Lord that made the earth, and made it fruitful and beautiful, for the service and comfort of man, now makes it empty and waste (v. 1), for its Creator is and will be its Judge; he has an incontestable right to pass sentence upon it and an irresistible power to execute that sentence. It is the Lord that has spoken this word, and he will do the work (v. 3); it is his curse that has devoured the earth (v. 6), the general curse which sin brought upon the ground for man’s sake (Gen. 3:17), and all the particular curses which families and countries bring upon themselves by their enormous wickedness. See the power of God’s curse, how it makes all empty and lays all waste; those whom he curses are cursed indeed.
III. Persons of all ranks and conditions shall share in these calamities (v. 2): It shall be as with the people, so with the priest, etc. This is true of many of the common calamities of human life; all are subject to the same diseases of body, sorrows of mind, afflictions in relations, and the like. There is one event to those of very different stations; time and chance happen to them all. It is in a special manner true of the destroying judgments which God sometimes brings upon sinful nations; when he pleases he can make them universal, so that none shall escape them or be exempt from them; whether men have little or much, they shall lose it all. Those of the meaner rank smart first by famine; but those of the higher rank go first into captivity, while the poor of the land are left. It shall be all alike, 1. With high and low: As with the people, so with the priest, or prince. The dignity of magistrates and ministers, and the respect and reverence due to both, shall not secure them. The faces of elders are not honoured, Lam. 5:12. The priests had been as corrupt and wicked as the people; and, if their character served not to restrain them from sin, how can they expect it should serve to secure them from judgments? In both it is like people, like priest, Hosea 4:8, 9. 2. With bond and free: As with the servant, so with his master; as with the maid, so with her mistress. They have all corrupted their way, and therefore will all be made miserable when the earth is made waste. 3. With rich and poor. Those that have money before-hand, that are purchasing, and letting out money to interest, will fare no better than those that are so impoverished that they are forced to sell their estates and take up money at interest. There are judgments short of the great day of judgment in which rich and poor meet together. Let not those that are advanced in the world set their inferiors at too great a distance, because they know not how soon they may be set upon a level with them. The rich man’s wealth is his strong city in his own conceit; but it does not always prove so.
IV. It is sin that brings these calamities upon the earth. The earth is made empty, and fades away, because it is defiled under the inhabitants thereof (v. 5); it is polluted by the sins of men, and therefore it is made desolate by the judgments of God. Such is the filthy nature of sin that it defiles the earth itself under the sinful inhabitants thereof, and it is rendered unpleasant in the eyes of God and good men. See Lev. 18:25, 27, 28. Blood, in particular, defiles the land, Num. 35:33. The earth never spues out its inhabitants till they have first defiled it by their sins. Why, what have they done? 1. They have transgressed the laws of their creation, not answered the ends of it. The bonds of the law of nature have been broken by them, and they have cast from them the cords of their obligations to the God of nature. 2. They have changed the ordinances of revealed religion, those of them that have had the benefit of that. They have neglected the ordinances (so some read it), and have made no conscience of observing them. They have passed over the laws, in the commission of sin, and have passed by the ordinance, in the omission of duty. 3. Herein they have broken the everlasting covenant, which is a perpetual bond and will be to those that keep it a perpetual blessing. It is God’s wonderful condescension that he is pleased to deal with men in a covenant-way, to do them good, and thereby oblige them to do him service. Even those that had no benefit by God’s covenant with Abraham had benefit by his covenant with Noah and his sons, which is called an everlasting covenant, his covenant with day and night; but they observe not the precepts of the sons of Noah, they acknowledge not God’s goodness in the day and night, nor study to make him any grateful returns, and so break the everlasting covenant and defeat the gracious designs and intentions of it.
V. These judgments shall humble men’s pride and mar their mirth. When the earth is made empty, 1. It is a great mortification to men’s pride (v. 4): The haughty people of the earth do languish; for they have lost that which supported their pride, and for which they magnified themselves. As for those that have held their heads highest, God can make them hang the head. 2. It is a great damp to men’s jollity. This is enlarged upon much (v. 7-9): All the merry-hearted do sigh. Such is the nature of carnal mirth, it is but as the crackling of thorns under a pot, Eccl. 7:6. Great laughters commonly end in a sigh. Those that make the world their chief joy cannot rejoice ever more. When God sends his judgments into the earth he designs thereby to make those serious that were wholly addicted to their pleasures. Let your laughter be turned into mourning. When the earth is emptied the noise of those that rejoice in it ends. Carnal joy is a noisy thing; but the noise of it will soon be at an end, and the end of it is heaviness. Two things are made use of to excite and express vain mirth, and the jovial crew is here deprived of both:—(1.) Drinking: The new wine mourns; it has grown sour for want of drinking; for, how proper soever it may be for the heavy heart (Prov. 31:6), it does not relish to them as it does to the merry-hearted. The vine languishes, and gives little hopes of a vintage, and therefore the merry-hearted do sigh; for they know no other gladness than that of their corn, and wine, and oil increasing (Ps. 4:7), and, if you destroy their vines and their fig-trees, you make all their mirth to cease, Hosea 2:11, 12. They shall not now drink wine with a song and with huzzas, as they used to, but rather drink it with a sigh; nay, Strong drink shall be bitter to those that drink it, because they cannot but mingle their tears with it; or, through sickness, they have lost the relish of it. God has many ways to embitter wine and strong drink to those that love them and have the highest gust of them: distemper of body, anguish of mind, the ruin of the estate or country, will make the strong drink bitter and all the delights of sense tasteless and insipid. (2.) Music: The mirth of tabrets ceases, and the joy of the harp, which used to be at their feasts, ch. 5:12. The captives in Babylon hang their harps on the willow trees. In short, All joy is darkened; there is not a pleasant look to be seen, nor has any one power to force a smile; all the mirth of the land is gone (v. 11); and, if it was that mirth which Solomon calls madness, there is no great loss of it.
VI. The cities will in a particular manner feel from these desolations of the country (v. 10): The city of confusion is broken, is broken down (so we read it); it lies exposed to invading powers, not only by the breaking down of its walls, but by the confusion that the inhabitants are in. Every house is shut up, perhaps by reason of the plague, which has burned or consumed the inhabitants, so that there are few men left, v. 6. Houses infected are usually shut up that no man may come in. Or they are shut up because they are deserted and uninhabited. There is a crying for wine, that is, for the spoiling of the vintage, so that there is likely to be no wine. In the city, in Jerusalem itself, that had been so much frequented, there shall be left nothing but desolation; grass shall grow in the streets, and the gate is smitten with destruction (v. 12); all that used to pass and repass through the gate are smitten, and all the strength of the city is cut off. How soon can God make a city of order a city of confusion, and then it will soon be a city of desolation!
When thus it shall be in the midst of the land among the people, there shall be as the shaking of an olive tree, and as the gleaning grapes when the vintage is done.
Here is mercy remembered in the midst of wrath. In Judah and Jerusalem, and the neighbouring countries, when they are overrun by the enemy, Sennacherib or Nebuchadnezzar, there shall be a remnant preserved from the general ruin, and it shall be a devout and pious remnant. And this method God usually observes when his judgments are abroad; he does not make a full end, ch. 6:13. Or we may take it thus: Though the greatest part of mankind have all their comfort ruined by the emptying of the earth, and the making of that desolate, yet there are some few who understand their interests better, who have laid up their treasure in heaven and not in things below, and therefore can keep up their comfort and joy in God even when the earth mourns and fades away. Observe,
I. The small number of this remnant, v. 13. When all goes to ruin there shall be as the shaking of an olive-tree, and the gleaning grapes, here and there one who shall escape the common calamity (as Noah and his family when the old world was drowned), that shall be able to sit down upon a heap of the ruins of all their creature comforts, and even then rejoice in the Lord (Hab. 3:16–18), who, when all faces gather blackness, can lift up their heads with joy, Lu. 21:26, 28. These few are dispersed, and at a distance from each other, like the gleanings of the olive-tree; and they are concealed, hid under the leaves. The Lord only knows those that are his; the world does not.
II. The great devotion of this remnant, which is the greater for their having so narrowly escaped this great destruction (v. 14): They shall lift up their voice; they shall sing. 1. They shall sing for joy in their deliverance. When the mirth of carnal worldlings ceases the joy of the saints is as lively as ever; when the merry-hearted do sigh because the vine languishes the upright-hearted do sing because the covenant of grace, the fountain of their comforts and the foundation of their hopes, never fails. Those that rejoice in the Lord can rejoice in tribulation, and by faith may be in triumphs when all about them are in tears. 2. They shall sing to the glory and praise of God, shall sing not only for the mercy but for the majesty of the Lord. Their songs are awful and serious, and in their spiritual joys they have a reverend regard to the greatness of God, and keep at a humble distance when they attend him with their praises. The majesty of the Lord, which is matter of terror to wicked people, furnishes the saints with songs of praise. They shall sing for the magnificence, or transcendent excellency, of the Lord, shown both in his judgments and in his mercies; for we must sing, and sing unto him, of both, Ps. 101:1. Those who have made, or are making, their escape from the land (that being emptied and made desolate) to the sea and the isles of the sea, shall thence cry aloud; their dispersion shall help to spread the knowledge of God, and they shall make even remote shores to ring with his praises. It is much for the honour of God if those who fear him rejoice in him, and praise him, even in the most melancholy times.
III. Their holy zeal to excite others to the same devotion (v. 15); they encourage their fellow-sufferers to do likewise. 1. Those who are in the fires, in the furnace of affliction, those fires by which the inhabitants of the earth are burned, v. 6. Or in the valleys, the low, dark, dirty places. 2. Those who are in the isles of the sea, whither they are banished, or are forced to flee for shelter, and hide themselves remote from all their friends. They went through fire and water (Ps. 66:12); yet in both let them glorify the Lord, and glory him as the Lord God of Israel. Those who through grace can glory in tribulation ought to glorify God in tribulation, and give him thanks for their comforts, which abound as their afflictions do abound. We must in every fire, even the hottest, in every isle, even the remotest, keep up our good thoughts of God. When, though he slay us, yet we trust in him—when, though for his sake we are killed all the day long, yet none of these things move us—then we glorify the Lord in the fires. Thus the three children, and the martyrs that sang at the stake.
From the uttermost part of the earth have we heard songs, even glory to the righteous. But I said, My leanness, my leanness, woe unto me! the treacherous dealers have dealt treacherously; yea, the treacherous dealers have dealt very treacherously.
These verses, as those before, plainly speak,
I. Comfort to saints. They may be driven, by the common calamities of the places where they live, into the uttermost parts of the earth, or perhaps they are forced thither for their religion; but there they are singing, not sighing. Thence have we heard songs, and it is a comfort to us to hear them, to hear that good people carry their religion along with them even to the most distant regions, to hear that God visits them there and gives encouragement to hope that he will gather them thence, Deu. 30:4. And this is their song, even glory to the righteous: the word is singular, and may refer to the righteous God, who is just in all he has brought upon us. This is glorifying the Lord in the fires. Or the meaning may be, "These songs redound to the glory or beauty of the righteous that sing them." We do the greatest honour imaginable to ourselves when we employ ourselves in honouring and glorifying God. This may have reference to the sending of the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth, as far as this island of ours, in the days of the Messiah, the glad tidings of which are echoed back in songs heard thence, from churches planted there, even glory to the righteous God, agreeing with the angels’ song, Glory be to God in the highest, and glory to all righteous men; for the work of redemption was ordained before the world for our glory.
II. Terror to sinners. The prophet, having comforted himself and others with the prospect of a saved remnant, returns to lament the miseries he saw breaking in like a mighty torrent upon the earth: "But I said, My leanness! my leanness! woe unto me! The very thought of it frets me, and makes me lean," v. 16. He foresees,
1. The prevalency of sin, that iniquity should abound (v. 16): The treacherous dealers have dealt treacherously; this is itself a judgment, and that which provokes God to bring other judgments. (1.) Men are false to one another; there is no faith in man, but a universal dishonesty. Truth, that sacred bond of society, has departed, and there is nothing but treachery in men’s dealings. See Jer. 9:1, 2. (2.) They are all false to their God; as to him, and their covenant with him, the children of men are all treacherous dealers, and have dealt very treacherously with their God, in departing from their allegiance to him. This is the original, and this the aggravation, of the sin of the world; and, when men have been false to their God, how should they be true to any other?
2. The prevalency of wrath and judgment for that sin. (2.) The inhabitants of the earth will be pursued from time to time, from place to place, by one mischief or other (v. 17, 18): Fear, and the pit, and the snare (fear of the pit and the snare) are upon them wherever they are; for the sons of men know not what evil they may suddenly be snared in, Eccl. 9:12. These three words seem to be chosen for the sake of an elegant paranomasia, or, as we now scornfully call it, a jungle of words: Pachad, and Pachath, and Pach; but the meaning is plain (v. 18), that evil pursues sinners (Prov. 13:21), that the curse shall overtake the disobedient (Deu. 28:15), that those who are secure because they have escaped one judgment know not how soon another may arrest them. What this prophet threatens all the inhabitants of the earth with another makes part of the judgment of Moab, Jer. 48:43, 44. But it is a common instance of the calamitous state of human life that when we seek to avoid one mischief we fall into a worse, and that the end of one trouble is often the beginning of another; so that we are least safe when we are most secure. (2.) The earth itself will be shaken to pieces. It will be literally so at last, when all the works therein shall be burnt up; and it is often figuratively so before that period. The windows from on high are open to pour down wrath, as in the universal deluge. Upon the wicked God shall rain snares (Ps. 11:6); and, the fountains of the great deep being broken up, the foundations of the earth do shake of course, the frame of nature is unhinged, and all is in confusion. See how elegantly this is expressed (v. 19, 20): The earth is utterly broken down; it is clean dissolved; it is moved exceedingly, moved out of its place. God shakes heaven and earth, Hag. 2:6. See the misery of those who lay up their treasure in the things of the earth and mind those things; they place their confidence in that which will shortly be utterly broken down and dissolved. The earth shall reel to and fro like a drunkard; so unsteady, so uncertain, are all the motions of these things. Worldly men dwell in it as in a palace, as in a castle, as in an impregnable tower; but it shall be removed like a cottage, so easily, so suddenly, and with so little loss to the great landlord. The pulling down of the earth will be but like the pulling down of a cottage, which the country is willing to be rid of, because it does but harbour beggars; and therefore no care is taken to rebuild it: It shall fall, and not rise again; but there shall be new heavens and a new earth, in which shall dwell nothing but righteousness. But what is it that shakes the earth thus and sinks it? It is the transgression thereof that shall be heavy upon it. Note, Sin is a burden to the whole creation; it is a heavy burden, a burden under which it groans now and will sink at last. Sin is the ruin of states, and kingdoms, and families; they fall under the weight of that talent of lead, Zec. 5:7, 8. (3.) God will have a particular controversy with the kings and great men of the earth (v. 21): He will punish the host of the high ones. Hosts of princes are no more before God than hosts of common men; what can a host of high ones do with their combined force when the Most High, the Lord of hosts, contends with them to abase their height, and scatter their hosts, and break all their confederacies? The high ones, that are on high, that are puffed up with their height and grandeur, that think themselves so high that they are out of the reach of any danger, God will visit upon them all their pride and cruelty, with which they have oppressed and injured their neighbours and subjects, and it shall now return upon their own heads. The kings of the earth shall now be reckoned with upon the earth, to show that verily there is a God that judges in the earth and will render to the proudest of kings according to the fruit of their doings. Let those that are trampled upon by the high ones of the earth comfort themselves with this, that though they cannot, dare not, must not, resist them, yet there is a God that will call them to an account, that will triumph over them upon their own dunghill: for the earth they are kings of is in the eye of God no better. This is general only. It is particularly foretold (v. 22) that they shall be gathered together as prisoners, convicted condemned prisoners, are gathered in the pit, or dungeon, and there they shall be shut up under close confinement. The kings and high ones, who took all possible liberty themselves, and took a pride and pleasure in shutting up others, shall now be themselves shut up. Let not the free man glory in his freedom, any more than the strong man in his strength, for he knows not what restraints he is reserved for. But after many days they shall be visited, either, [1.] They shall be visited in wrath; it is the same word, in another form, that is used (v. 21), the Lord shall punish them; they shall be reserved to the day of execution, as condemned prisoners are, and as fallen angels are reserved in chains of darkness to the judgment of the great day, Jude 6. Let this account for the delays of divine vengeance; sentence is not executed speedily, because execution-day has not yet come, and perhaps will not come till after many days; but it is certain that the wicked is reserved for the day of destruction, and is therefore preserved in the mean time, but shall be brought forth to the day of wrath, Job 21:30. Let us therefore judge nothing before the time. [2.] They shall be visited in mercy, and be discharged from their imprisonment, and shall again obtain, if not their dignity, yet their liberty. Nebuchadnezzar, in his conquests, made many kings and princes his captives, and kept them in the dungeon in Babylon, and, among the rest, Jehoiachin King of Judah; but after many days, when Nebuchadnezzar’s head was laid, his son visited them, and granted (as should seem) some reviving to them all in their bondage; for it is made an instance of his particular kindness to Jehoiachin that he set his throne above the throne of the rest of the kings that were with him, Jer. 52:32. If we apply this to the general state of mankind, it imports a revolution of conditions; those that were high are punished, those that were punished are relieved, after many days, that none in this world may be secure though their condition be ever so prosperous, nor any despair though their condition be ever so deplorable.
3. Glory to God in all this, v. 23. When all this comes to pass, when the proud enemies of God’s church are humbled and brought down, (1.) Then it shall appear, beyond contradiction, that the Lord reigns, which is always true, but not always alike evident. When the kings of the earth are punished for their tyranny and oppression, then it is proclaimed and proved to all the world that God is King of kings—King above them, by whom they are accountable—that he reigns as Lord of hosts, of all hosts, of their hosts,—that he reigns in Mount Zion, and in Jerusalem, in his church, for the honour and welfare of that, pursuant to the promises on which that is founded, reigns in his word and ordinances,—that he reigns before his ancients, before all his saints, especially before his ministers, the elders of his church, who have their eye upon all the out-goings of his power and providence, and, in all these events, observe his hand. God’s ancients, the old disciples, the experienced Christians, that have often, when they have been perplexed, gone into the sanctuary of God in Zion and Jerusalem, and acquainted themselves with his manifestations of himself there, shall see more than others of God’s dominion and sovereignty in these operations of his providence. (2.) Then it shall appear, beyond comparison, that he reigns gloriously, in such brightness and lustre that the moon shall be confounded and the sun ashamed, as the smaller lights are eclipsed and extinguished by the greater. Great men, who thought themselves to have as bright a lustre and as vast a dominion as the sun and moon, shall be ashamed when God appears above them, much more when he appears against them. Then shall their faces be filled with shame, that they may seek God’s name. The eastern nations worshipped the sun and moon; but, when God shall appear so gloriously for his people against his and their enemies, all these pretended deities shall be ashamed that ever they received the homage of their deluded worshippers. The glory of the Creator infinitely outshines the glory of the brightest creatures. In the great day, when the Judge of heaven and earth shall shine forth in his glory, the sun shall by his transcendent lustre be turned into darkness and the moon into blood.