The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees, and that write grievousness which they have prescribed;The Knell of Doom
There is a very striking expression in the Isaiah 9:11 : "The Lord shall set up the adversaries." "Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?" Does God employ evil spirits, evil men? Is it true that he maketh the wrath of man to praise him, and that he restrains the remainder thereof, and keeps it back for use upon occasion? Does he use up the very hell which sin has made, turning its heat into uses intended for judgment and penalty, and through this process intended also for repentance and reclamation? It is a wonderful universe. "The Lord shall set up the adversaries." This accounts for many oppositions which otherwise would be without explanation. We wonder why such and such people should be opposed to us; on the face of the occasion there is nothing to account for the hostility; in fact, there may be possibly something which ought to operate in another direction, making them rather friends and comrades than enemies; yet there they are, in battle array, looking upon us jealously, speaking of us falsely, endeavouring to ensnare our steps, to frustrate our purposes, and to make our life a misery. Attempt to conciliate them, and all your approaches do but add to the malignity of their detestation. We are not to look upon these things as merely human, coming and going by an uncalculated law, an operation of chance or fortuity; we are to ask for discerning eyes that look beneath surfaces, and find the spring of causes. The people themselves, too, are at a loss to explain their hostility: they cannot give reasons in regular numeration, gathering themselves up into a final and representative reason; yet they know that their hearts are simply set against us in a deadly attitude. Ask them questions about this opposition, and they will confess themselves bewildered; they daily look round for causes, and find none; yet they say they cannot restrain the dislike, and they must force it into forms of opposition about whose urgency and determinateness there can be no mistake. How is all this? Is it not the Lord reigning even here? God means to chasten us, to make us feel that there are other people in the world beside ourselves, and that we have no right to all the room, and no claim that can be maintained to all the property. Thus we teach one another by sometimes opposing one another. We are brought to chastening and sobriety and refinement by attritions and oppositions that are, from a human point of view, utterly unaccountable. The Bible never hesitates to trace the whole set and meaning of providence to the Lord himself: he sends the plague, the pestilence, the darkness, all the flies and frogs that desolated old Egypt; he still is the Author of gale, and flood, and famine, and pestilence. We have amused ourselves by deceiving ourselves, by discovering a thousand secondary causes, and seeking, piously or impiously, to relieve providence of the responsibility of the great epidemic. Within given limits all we say may be perfectly true; we are great in phenomena, we have a genius in the arrangement of detail; but, after all, above all, and beneath all, is the mysterious life, the omnipotence of God, the judgment between right and wrong that plays upon the universe as upon an obedient instrument,—now evoking from it black frowning thunder, and now making it tremble with music that children love, and that sweetest mothers want all their babes to hear. Who can be so gentle, so condescending, so tender as the everlasting Father?
In this section we come upon a word which may be regarded as a refrain—"For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still" (Isaiah 9:12). In the seventeenth verse the refrain is repeated; in the twenty-first verse we find it again; and once more (Isaiah 10:4) the solemn words roll in upon our attention: "For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still." There must be some cause for this. Is the cause concealed? On the contrary, it is written in boldest capitals, so that the dimmest eyes may see it all, in every palpitating, burning syllable. Let us make ourselves acquainted with the cause, lest we judge God harshly by wondering that his hand should be stretched out in judgment rather than stretched out that he may touch the nations with a sceptre of mercy.
"The people turneth not unto him that smiteth them" (Isaiah 9:13). That is one element of the cause of this judgment. They do not kiss the rod: they see it to be a rod only; they do not understand that judgment is the severe aspect of mercy, and that without mercy there could be no real judgment. There might be condemnation, destruction, annihilation, but "judgment" is a combined or compound term, involving in all its rich music every possible utterance of law and grace and song and hope. Why do we not turn to him who smites us, and kiss the rod; yea, kiss the hand that wields it? Why do we not say, Thy judgments are true and righteous altogether, thou Lord most High: health gone, chairs vacated, fireside emptied; all is right, and all is hard to bear: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord? Yea, the submissive heart may go further, and say, I have no right to any tittle that has been taken from me; it was really not mine; the mistake was that I thought it belonged to me, and that I could establish a claim to its proprietorship and retention: whereas I see now that I have nothing that I have not received, that I never had anything that was not given to me or lent to me, or of which I was not put in trust and stewardship. Thou hast taken it all away; I know it is not because I have prayed too much, but because I have sinned beyond measure. When a man thus kisses the hand that wields the rod, the rod blossoms, and God's judgment becomes God's grace.
"The leaders of this people cause them to err; and they that are led of them are destroyed" (Isaiah 9:16).
That is another explanation of the cause. The displeasure is not superficial or incidental, involving only a few of the weaker sort of people; the displeasure has attacked the very centres of social dignity, social thought, and social influence. The leaders have fallen: what can the followers do? Howl, fir tree, for the cedar has fallen. In ancient times the people were accustomed to put the statues of their princes and leaders close to fountains and springing waters; they thought the association good, the alliance seemed to be natural and suggestive: for these men were fountains of pure water, springs of wisdom, and judgment, and righteousness; all their thought was clear as crystal, and the uprising of their life was as water that came from a rocky bed, untainted, refreshing. The idea was excellent. People who had such conceptions regarding their princes, leaders, and legislators were likely to yield themselves to whatever influence such mighty men exerted. When, therefore, the leader went astray, the whole procession followed him, because they had confidence in him. "I command, therefore," said one who spoke with authority, "that prayer be made for all men"—for princes, governors, rulers, magistrates, judges, ministers of state, conductors of the journals of the time; for all men who have the eloquent tongue, the facile pen, moral, intellectual, social, that leadership may be purified, and that under a sanctified directorate the whole nation may move on in the direction of righteousness, equity, love of truth, moral frankness, and abounding, yea boundless, charity.
"Every one is an hypocrite and an evildoer, and every mouth speaketh folly"(Isaiah 9:17).
This is a continuation of the explanation of the cause of the divine judgment. Mark the completeness of the statement: it is "every one." We have read elsewhere, "There is none righteous, no, not one." We are familiar with the expression that the Lord looked down from heaven to see if there were any that were righteous and that did good, and whose thoughts were towards himself in all the simplicity of trust and in all the ardour of prayer, and he himself, reporting upon the moral state of the world, said, They have all turned aside. In our high confessions, sometimes perhaps thoughtlessly, yet after a moment's reflection most thoughtfully, we have said, "All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way." "Every one is an hypocrite and an evildoer, and every mouth speaketh folly." Does not the word "folly" seem to be too weak a word with which to conclude that indictment? "Hypocrite," "evildoer," "folly"—does not the series run in the wrong direction? So it may appear in the translation, but the word for "folly" should be "blasphemy." "Every one is an hypocrite and an evildoer, and every mouth speaketh blasphemy:" the world has become brazen-faced in iniquity, shameless in sin; an oath shall now be uttered where once it would only have been whispered, and men shall speak openly of forbidden things as if they were talking the conventional language of the day. The devil drives his scholars fast; he does not keep school for nothing; he means to turn out experts; he listens to our profane rhetoric, and in proportion as we become eloquent in the utterance of his language does he give us prize, and certificate, and honour, and write down our names in the list of those who have taken high positions in the examinations of hell. "For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still." That is right. If his anger had been turned away, he would not have been God; if his hand had not been stretched out, even farther and farther still in presence of such wickedness, then he would have forfeited his right to sit upon the throne of the universe. God cannot yield; righteousness can never compound; there is no compromise in truth: the whole controversy must be settled upon principles that are fundamental, all-involving, and eternal, and then it will be for ever settled.
The Lord will show how the judgment will take effect—"Therefore the Lord will cut off from Israel head and tail, branch and rush, in one day" (Isaiah 9:14). The explanation is given partly in Isaiah 9:15, "The ancient and honourable, he is the head; and the prophet that teacheth lies, he is the tail." "Branch and rush"—the allusion is to the beauteous palm-tree: it shall be cut down notwithstanding its beauty; and the "rush"—the common growths round about it, entangled roots, poor miserable shrubs that crowd and cumber the earth—branch and rush cannot stand before God's sword and fire: everything that is wrong goes down in a common destruction. Judgment obliterates our classifications. When judgment begins at the house of God, the meanest man and the loftiest go for nothing before the fire of that holy wrath. It is well that now and again all our classifications should be destroyed. We have made too much of them; we have designated this and that as reputable and respectable and good, whereas it was only relatively such, and not really. When God arises to shake terribly the earth, tower, and temple, and town, and meanest hut, all reel under the tremendous shock. "God is no respecter of persons." He will not spare the corrupt judge and punish the meaner criminals; rather will he say, The greater the criminal's advantages the meaner is the criminal himself: he ought to have known better; he had every opportunity of knowing better; he sinned away his advantages, and therefore his downfall could be none to mitigate or deplore.
"The Lord shall have no joy in their young men" (Isaiah 9:17).
The meaning is full of suggestion. God delights in the young. God has made the young a ministry of instruction and comfort to old age. God keeps the world young by keeping children in it, and helpless ones. But God shall cease to see in young men any hope for the future. Once he would have done so, saying, The young men will keep the world right: they are strong, they are pure-minded, they are enthusiastic; their youthful, sometimes exuberant, zeal and influence will keep things as they ought to be kept. But henceforth God withdraws from the young, and they become old; he takes from them his all-vitalising and all-blessing smile, and they wither as flowers die when the sun turns away.
Sin was to be left to be its own punishment. Here we come upon a paragraph full of mournful interest. The whole work shall be left to sin itself. "No man shall spare his brother" (Isaiah 9:19). How often have we seen when men have fallen into wrong relations to God they have fallen also into wrong relations to one another; all pledges are broken up, all covenants are destroyed, all understandings as to concession and compromise and give-and-take,—all these things disappear, and man flies at the throat of man like wild beast at wild beast. How man can sink! Why can he sink so far? Because he has risen so high: the inverted tree we see in the calm lake indicates the height of that tree as it lifts itself up towards the welcoming and blessing sun. "He shall eat on the left hand, and they shall not be satisfied" (Isaiah 9:20). This is the mockery of God. This is how God taunts men. "They shall eat every man the flesh of his own arm." A man shall play the cannibal upon himself. Literally, every man shall fly at every other man's arm, and every man shall be eating human flesh, for there is nothing else to eat.
Then, too, there is to be internecine war: Manasseh shall fly at Ephraim, and Ephraim at Manasseh, and they who could agree upon nothing between themselves always agree in flying together against Judah. This is what wickedness will bring the world to—to murder, to mutual hatred and distrust, to perdition. We do not understand the power of wickedness, because at present, owing to religious thinking and action and moral civilisation, there are so many mitigating circumstances, so many relieving lights; but wickedness in itself let loose upon the earth, and the earth is no longer the abode of green thing, of fair flower, or singing bird, of mutual trust and love: it becomes a pandemonium. If we could consider this deeply, it would make us solemn. We do not consider it; we are prepared to allow it as a theory or a conjecture, but the realisation of it is kept far from us. The wicked man kills himself; puts his teeth into the flesh of his own arm, and gnaws it with the hunger of a wild beast. That is what wickedness comes to! It is not an intellectual error, not a slight and passing mistake, not a lapse of judgment, or a momentarily lamentable act of misconduct which can easily be repaired: the essence of wickedness is destruction. Wickedness would no sooner hesitate to kill a little child than to snap a flower. The thing that keeps the world from suicide is the providence of God. Were God to take away the restraining influences which are keeping society together, society would fall into mutual enmity, and the controversy could only end in mutual death. "For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still" (Isaiah 9:21). Do not blame the judgment, blame the sin; do not say, How harsh is God, say, How corrupt, how blasphemous is man!
"Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees, and that write grievousness which they have prescribed" (Isaiah 10:1).
The Lord's voice is always for righteousness. What is it that is denounced? It is the very thing that is to be denounced evermore. There is nothing local or temporary in this cause of divine offence. The Lord is against all unrighteous decrees, unnatural alliances, and evil compacts. This is the very glory of the majesty of omnipotence, that it is enlisted against every form of evil and wrong. Then—"Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees, and that write grievousness which they have prescribed"—scribes or registrars who preserve all the forms of the court, and keep their pens busy upon the court register, writing down every case, and appearing to do the business correctly and thoughtfully; and yet all the while these very registrars were themselves plotting "to take away the right from the poor, that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless." The court of law was turned into a means of robbery, as it is in nearly every country under the sun. The scribes who wrote down the law were men who secretly or overtly broke it; the judge used his ermine as a cloak, that under its concealment he might thrust his hand further into the property of those who had no helper. "For all this his anger is not turned away." Blessed be his name! Oh, burn thou against us all; mighty, awful, holy God, burn more and more, until we learn by fire what we can never learn by pity. The Lord speaks evermore for the poor, for the widow, for the fatherless, for the helpless. Here we pause, as we have often done before in these readings, to say, How grand is the moral tone of the Bible; how sweetly does God speak for truth and righteousness; how condescendingly does he enlist omnipotence on the side of innocent helplessness.
Now we come upon an awful irony:—
"What will ye do in the day of visitation, and in the desolation which shall come from far? to whom will ye flee for help? and where will ye leave your glory?" (Isaiah 10:3).
This is more difficult to bear than was the fire of judgment—this spectral tone, this irony from behind the clouds, this mockery that makes our marrow cold. "What will ye do?" What is your last resource? When it becomes your turn to play in this great game, what move will you take? That hour comes in all life. For a long time men can be moving to and fro, and changing their position, and trying their policy, and deceiving even the very elect by the agility of their movements; but there comes a time when the last step must be taken, the last hand must be shown, the last declaration must be made. You have sinned away—so the impeachment would seem to say—the day of judgment; you have mocked righteousness; you have turned the sanctuary into a school of blasphemy; you have robbed the poor, the widow, the fatherless; you have trodden down every thing of beauty that God planted upon the earth, and you would have blackened the stars with night if your evil hands could have reached them! Now there has come the critical moment of agony, and the question is, "What will ye do?" Now for genius, now for the fine intellectual stroke, now for the stroke that will settle everything your own way—what is it? Open your right hand, and it contains emptiness; your left, and it is rich with nothingness. "What will ye do?" You have sworn every oath, and the very familiarity of your irreverence has turned your blasphemy stale. "What will ye do?" Bribe? You have nothing in the treasure-house, and your money is not current coin with this reckoning. "What will ye do?" Confess? Too late: that would be a coward's trick. "What will ye do?" That same question occurs in the Christian books—"How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation?" That question is—HOW?
"The whole passage, from the fifth verse of chap. x. to the end of chap, xii., should be read together, beginning with the solemn denunciation, as the title to the whole, of 'Woe to Asshur!' Assyria, in all its pride, was but a rod in the hands of Jehovah, and when the appointed work of judgment was done, the instrument of that judgment, worthless in itself, would be cast away and destroyed.... Then follows a description of the Assyrian's march upon Jerusalem, which, says Delitzsch, 'aesthetically considered, is one of the most magnificent that human poetry has ever produced.' It is also very interesting to the reader of modern days, inasmuch as it clears up a difficulty which most earlier expositors had felt, and enables us by means of the Assyrian monuments to add another to the 'undesigned' confirmations of Scripture. It has been usual to refer the account of this march to the history of Sennacherib, in Hezekiah's later days, after the capture of Lachish [2Kings 18:13-17; Isaiah 36:1-2]. But then, it has been remarked, Sennacherib advanced from the south-west, i.e. from the road leading to Egypt; while the route so vividly described by the prophet is from the north-east. Expositors therefore have generally contented themselves with calling the description 'ideal.' It depicts such an approach as the Assyrian king might have made, had he come from that quarter! But now we know that there was another invasion before that of Sennacherib."—Rev. S. G. Green, D.P.
O Assyrian, the rod of mine anger, and the staff in their hand is mine indignation.The Burden of Assyria
Anew section begins at Isaiah 10:5, and goes to Isaiah 12:6. The section deals with Assyria, and might be called in some sense "The Burden of Assyria." It is most difficult to understand. All annotators have been more or less perplexed by it. The translators have put in words with which to help themselves over literal difficulties. Sometimes Assyria seems to be speaking as the prophet himself, and sometimes the prophet seems to be speaking as if Assyria were uttering judgments upon wrong. All we can do is to endeavour to find some central line upon which can be strung all the wise and abiding words which history has proved to be just and useful.
In studying the history of Assyria as given in this section we shall see at least some principles of the divine government. Assyria itself is dead and gone; for us the vision in its literal detail is useless; it has taken its place in antique, grey history; but it is of infinite importance that we should trace the common line of providence, the abiding quantity of history, the thing that never changes, and thus feel that we are still under a government strong in righteousness and gracious in discipline. The thing always to be sought after is the abiding unit; the unit without which calculation is impossible: that we may discover with gracious certainty in a narrative so graphic and vivid as that which is given in the text. Let us say that God speaks by the mouth of the prophet, saying:—
"O Assyrian, the rod of mine anger, and the staff in their hand is mine indignation" (Isaiah 10:5).
The meaning might be this: "I will choose a staff with which I will chastise my people: I have fixed my choice upon Assyria; I will so use that proud nation that my people shall begin to fear that for their sin they shall be heavily dealt with: I will choose Assyria as an instrument of vengeance." We must not omit the reflection that this was a terrible thing for Assyria. What man likes to be an instrument through which righteousness will punish some other man? Who would willingly accept a calling and election so severe? The man himself may have nothing to avenge upon the one to whom he is sent as a judgment, and yet he is doing things without being able to explain them; as we have already seen, he is setting up hostilities which he can only partially defend and hardly at all explain:—
"I will send him against an hypocritical nation, and against the people of my wrath will I give him a charge, to take the spoil, and to take the prey, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets" (Isaiah 10:6).
Thus nations are sent to do work they do not like. What are the nations but instruments in the hands of him who made them? So we are puzzled and perplexed by many an imperial policy; we do not like it, and yet still it proceeds to work out all its mysterious issues—now severe, now beneficent. We are in tumult and darkness and perplexity, thick and that cannot be disentangled; and how seldom we realise the fact that all this may be a divine movement, a clouding of the divine presence, and an outworking of divine and eternal purposes.
"Howbeit he meaneth not so, neither doth his heart think so" (Isaiah 10:7).
Assyria does not know what he is going to do; he is quick at giving an explanation of his own action, but it does not occur to him that he is instrument, servant, mere errand-bearer to the King of glory. "He meaneth not so, neither doth his heart think so,"—that is to say, it never occurs to him that he is an instrument of providence, that he has been selected in order that he might manifest divine judgments. We cannot tell what we are doing. Assyria said that it was in his heart to destroy and cut off nations not a few; he was simply a warrior; it did not enter into his conception that he was anything more than a conqueror, a proud destroyer, one before whose advent all nations quailed. Thus the Lord useth the pride of man. For a moment he gratifies human vanity; for a little while he allows man to proceed upon certain conceptions, that in the long run he may work out his own judgment, and illustrate and vindicate his own providence. If the action were within a definite time, then moral criticism might fall upon its enouncement; but the Lord speaks in circular periods, in complete lapses of time; all the ages lie in their nakedness before him when he declares judgment or blessing: his action, therefore, is not to be interrupted at some inferior point of punctuation, but is to be allowed to roll itself out in all its fulness, and when the unfoldment is complete the judgment may be pronounced. How many men there are just in the position of Assyria at this particular time! They lift up their hand, and nations tremble; they inflict a studied discourtesy, and all the land wonders why it should have been, and begins to predict unrest, unsettlement, war, and great ruin. The particular man, seeing all this as the issue of his policy or his neglect, inflames himself with pride, burns with vanity, lifts himself up as if he would touch the stars, feels in all his blood the tingle of sovereignty. Poor fool! he does not know that he is like a saw which God has taken up to sever a piece of wood. The Lord knows what a man is; he knows all that is in man, and he uses him for the education of man, he employs one nation for the deliverance of another. The scheme of providence is a tessellated scheme, full of little pieces, marvellously related to one another, and no one can lay his hand upon a single point and say, This is all. There is no single point in divine providence; all history is consolidated; all the action of time means the grand significance that it issues in. We are to beware of temporary definitions and temporary conclusions. Any conclusion to which we can now come is open to the modification of to-morrow. Only God can conclude; only Christ can say, "It is finished!"
Assyria, then, begins to exult; he says:—
"For he saith, Are not my princes altogether kings? is not Calno as Carchemish? is not Hamath as Arpad? is not Samaria as Damascus?" (Isaiah 9:8-9).
I have done all these things, and all that is yet to be done is part and parcel of the same triumph:—
"As my hand hath found the kingdoms of the idols, and whose graven images did excel them of Jerusalem and of Samaria; shall I not, as I have done unto Samaria and her idols, so do to Jerusalem and her idols?" (Isaiah 9:10-11).
This is intoxication; this is the wilderness of military vanity. The king of Assyria sees all things falling into his hands: he says, Calno shall be no more than Carchemish was; and Hamath shall be as Arpad, and Samaria as Damascus: as I have killed many, I will kill more; as I have subdued hitherto all along the line, so I will continue my work of subjugation until the whole series fall at my feet. Thus providence is unknown and misinterpreted; thus do men get hold of the wrong end of things, and talk idiotically. Assyria does not pause, and say, Why is this? is there more blood to be shed? are there more people to be trampled upon? This is hard work: I would the gods would save me from this execution. Then Assyria would have been a child of heaven. But who ever takes the events of life as chastening, instructing, and disciplining the mind? Who receives his wages in order that he may do good with the money? who accepts his rewards in order that he may encourage and deepen his gratitude? Let us pray for a right conception of providence. If we are sent on cruel errands, let us go about them diligently, but with a subtle reluctance that will import into our hardest judicial tones some gospel of God Assyria misunderstood providence, which we are doing every day; we are taking our influence, and magnifying it so as to feed our vanity, instead of accepting it as a trust, and asking God to be merciful to us even in the bestowment of power.
Now another section opens, a wholly distinct view looms upon the vision:—
"Wherefore it shall come to pass, that when the Lord hath performed his whole work upon mount Zion and on Jerusalem, I will punish the fruit of the stout heart of the king of Assyria, and the glory of his high looks. For he saith, By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom; for I am prudent: and I have removed the bounds of the people, and have robbed their treasures, and I have put down the inhabitants like a valiant man" (Isaiah 10:12-13).
I will choke him in his boasts. While his throat is inflamed with his own vanity I will lay my hand upon his, and murder him in the sight of heaven. Providence is a large term. It is not a government of fits and starts and spasms that are unrelated to one another; it is righteous, solemn, tranquil,—yea, tranquil though the detail, the immediate phenomena may be associated with tumult and riot and wantonness; within the whole action there is a zone of calm. We are not to misunderstand the clouds, though they be laden with snow. Where are they but in God's hand? Beyond them the moon shines nightly without a flutter, and the sun holds his court all day without dread of the interruption of his sovereignty. All that may be within the eye-line is full of darkness, and tumult, and trouble; we are filled with distress because of what we see, but then we only see that which is as a handful of a very small space. All the tranquillities of the universe are undisturbed by the little thunder that roars and vibrates in the lower atmospheres. So is it with the purpose of God. Assyria shall be used to an end; he shall accomplish that end; but for his pride he shall be punished. All self-idolatry is punishment; all presumption comes to a bad end. Assyria said, "By the strength of my hand I have done it," and God shall prove that it was otherwise, that his poor little fist did nothing in the matter but as it was directed by the palm of omnipotence. Assyria said, "I am prudent," and God will turn his prudence to shame and confusion, for the whole scheme was not planned by his military wit; it was all laid out by him whose artillery is the starry heavens, and whose resources are his own infinity.
Then Assyria makes a figure. The metaphor is to be found in the following verse (Isaiah 10:14)—
"And my hand hath found as a nest the riches of the people: and as one gathereth eggs that are left, have I gathered all the earth; and there was none that moved the wing, or opened the mouth, or peeped."
So Assyria represents himself as a gigantic fowler who had gone out and captured all the feathered tribes, and not one of them rebelled against his well-laid schemes. The image is graphic; the vanity of Assyria has made him for a moment poetical. How otherwise could the pagan mind think? When a man has both hands full, what else can he say but that he is rich? If all his schemes prosper, how other can he lay down on his own couch at night than as a prudent man? When not a line of his policy has failed, is he not at liberty to say, None moved the wing, or opened the mouth, or peeped; I seemed to fasten all the birds like the eye of a basilisk; they all gave themselves up to me: behold, how great I am, and how my wonder eclipses the sun? The pagan mind must talk so, because it has no worthy centre; it does not calculate by the right standard or regulate by the one meridian; it can see no farther than itself: itself is its universe. Only when right conceptions of a religious kind enter the mind does the mind look round for deepest causes, and wonder, and pray, and say, Would God I could find out the reality of this case! things come too easily to me: surely God must be using me for some purpose I cannot understand; why do these eagles fall into my hand? how large they are and strong, with wings that were made to darken the sun; why do I capture them so easily? why does my business prosper more than my neighbour's? he complains, and I proceed, adding store to store; other men devise plans, and they come to nothing; my policy always blossoms and fructifies, and comes back upon me a hundredfold: how is this? surely God is using me to an end, and I cannot tell what it is. O God, make me humble, calm, watchful; I do not wholly like this; I would there were more resistance to me; the very facility of my progress through a land of rock and mountain and darkness makes me feel that I am being impelled or lured, rather than walking by my voluntary motion and determination. This would be sacred talk, speech of salt; a sacrifice of the tongue acceptable unto God.
Then the Lord reasons thus:—
"Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith? or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it? as if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up, or as if the staff should lift up itself, as if it were no wood" (Isaiah 10:15).
How satiric is God! Can sarcasm whet a keener edge than this? O Assyria, thou art but an iron axe with a wooden handle, and God has been using thee for smiting trees:—thou art but a sharp-toothed saw, which God himself has sharpened in order that he might cut with it a piece of timber: do not shake thyself against them that lift thee up; and, staff, forget not that thou art only wooden after all. So we are abased; yea, those who stand near the altar and speak the eloquence of God are told by a thousand angels that like themselves they are "but ministers": they have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of men.
And still further, God reduces the pride of those that lift themselves up against him—"The rest of the trees of his forest shall be few, that a child may write them" (Isaiah 10:19). Even what is left is just sufficient to provoke contempt. A completer desolation would have been more a blessing, but to have two or three trees left out of a whole forest seems to add to the bitterness of the loss. The trees are a little number, and children please themselves by counting the number on their fingers; and the man whose trees they count was once the possessor of unmeasured forests: "Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall." Riches take to themselves wings, and flee away. The wicked have been in great power, and they have departed without telling whither they have gone; they have not left even the rustle of a wing behind them to indicate the direction of their flight. We have much now; upstairs and downstairs, all full; to-morrow every chamber will be emptied, and yet not a door will have been opened by human hand. Seal up your treasures; take wax, and plenty of it; melt it down, stamp it with your crest—frailest sign of vanity—and to-morrow will find you empty-handed, and you will open your mouth in wonder, and ask who did it; and the secret-keeping air, the confidant of God, will not allow even a little bird to tell you whither the property has gone. Use it well! Blessed is the true and faithful servant who toils and prays!
Then a word of hope. When could the Lord conclude a speech without some tone, gospel-like in its cheerfulness and tenderness and gentleness?
"And it shall come to pass in that day, that the remnant of Israel, and such as are escaped of the house of Jacob, shall no more again stay upon him that smote them; but shall stay upon the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. The remnant shall return, even the remnant of Jacob, unto the mighty God" (Isaiah 10:20-21).
Where have we found that expression before—"the mighty God"? We found it only a chapter back, and in the sixth verse of the ninth chapter—"His name shall be called Wonderful, Counseller, The mighty God"—the same word in the Hebrew: what if it be the same God in reality, and that God be Christ? There shall be a remnant, and God can use that remnant as he can use seed for planting, for sowing, for purposes of raising a new generation, planting a new forest, holy unto himself.
This is the providence, then, under which we live. Facts prove it. We are under law and criticism of a moral kind: our conduct is examined, our motives are inquired into and pronounced upon by the just One; every morning is as a white throne set in the heavens; every noonday is as an eye of fire watching the ways of men; every night is a pavilion of rest, or an image of despair. The axe of heaven is lifted up against all the thick trees that suppose themselves to be independent of God. All moral loveliness is cherished as the pearl greater in value than all others. This is the economy under which we live! We are not left without law, judgment, supervision, criticism; every one of us must give an account of himself to God. "Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing." If for a few years we grow towards strength, we soon turn the growing point, and go down into old age and weakness, that we may know ourselves to be but men. Life is a great triumph up to middle age, because the man may be always well; he may grow in strength and in prosperity, and he may represent himself as a successful fowler; but after that grey hairs are here and there upon him, and he knoweth it not, and presently men may say as he passes by, He stoops a little more; his memory will begin to be a little blurred and clouded, and though he can keep good reckoning, yet he must trust to paper more than he ever trusted before. If we plant vineyards and forests, and subdue wildernesses by generous culture, we die whilst we gaze on our success, and are buried under the very flowers which have rewarded our toil. This is the economy under which the nations have ever lived, and under which every little life works out its little day. If we do wrong a spectre touches us in the darkness, and makes us cold with fear. What is it? It is the right hand of God; it is the feeling of righteousness; it is the sign of justice. If we do right, all heaven broadens its glory over our heads, and fills the path we walk with flowers of light. This is the economy under which we live: let us not be fools, but wise, understanding all these claims and demands, owning their righteousness, and responding to their appeals. And the end? so near, always so near. We shall see all the meaning of sword and pestilence and grim famine, of cloud and storm and angry thunder, of love, and mercy, and hope, and gospel sacred with the blood of sacrifice. By-and-by, yet a little while, no cloud is eternal; it is but vapour after all, and the wind will cleanse it away. When the vision is declared we shall know that Righteousness is the security of the universe, hell the necessity of unrepented sin, and heaven is the God-built, eternal home of men who touched the atoning Saviour with the reverent, grateful hand of faith. History is in a great tumult: nation clashes against nation in the shock of war; man eats the flesh of the arm of man, and grows the hungrier for his feast of blood; the poor are little counted of, the weak go to the wall; banners red as blood are being figured all over with lines of fire, with the motto, "Might is right." O Lord, how long? In reply to this question we are entitled to go back upon all the record of history, and trace the line of providence through the whole—a line now terrible as righteousness, now gracious as the love of Christ. The Lord reigneth!
Almighty God, we thank thee for the promise of all bright days; we rejoice that there is coming a time when cloud and storm will be done away, and peace and loveliness and glory shall crown all things: this is the end of thy government, this is the meaning of thy love. We accept it as such, and cheer ourselves meanwhile with this bright and glowing hope. Thou wilt come and rectify all things; thou wilt set up the standard of the sanctuary everywhere; righteousness shall be the base and rock on which things are built, and at the top of the pillar there shall be lily work, so that strength and beauty shall be in the house of the Lord. All things hurtful thou wilt subdue; all violent forces thou wilt control; all iniquity and unrighteousness thou wilt put down, and the Sabbath of the Lord shall dawn upon a reconciled and purified earth. This is our hope; this is the poetry that sings to us; this is the prophecy that makes us glad. Lord, how long? say thy saints in their groaning. Lord, how long? do they say again when the burden presses upon their failing strength. Yet thou knowest all things; the ages are in thy keeping and under thy direction; all time is God's instrument, and he will use it for the advancement of all causes true and pure and righteous. Enable us to control our impatience, to subdue all impious eagerness, and to wait in sweet contentment and solid assurance, knowing that the Lord will come at his own time, and set up his kingdom, and rule over all, and we shall know his coming as the earth knows the summer. The years are all thine, and thou dost mete them out one by one; to no man dost thou give five years, to another two; thou givest to each man one year, one day, one breath; and herein dost thou teach us the uncertainty of life and its necessary brevity, and suggest to us the coming and final judgment of all things. May we redeem the time; may we make the most of it; may we turn every day into a Sabbath, and every Sabbath may we sanctify with redoubled sacrifice: thus our life shall grow into a song, thus even the night-time shall be vocal with praise, and thus shall we magnify thy name, and return unto thee manifold, because of the seed thou hast sown in good ground. Thou knowest the want of every heart, the pain of every life, the shadow which darkens every path, and the cold wind which chills all the pulses that beat within us; we will, therefore, leave ourselves in thine hand. We can tell thee nothing; thou dost search us and try us, and see if there be any wicked way in us, that thou mayest not destroy us, but lead us in the way everlasting. Thy will be done. Receive us into thine own hands; direct us by thine own Spirit; fill us with wisdom and understanding, and endow us with a sagacious mind. May ours be the highest Christian courage, fearing nothing, hoping all things, seeing no danger, dreading no foe, but constantly moving onward, with the dignity of conviction, and with the patience of those to whom is entrusted an immortal hope. Lord, bless the land. God save the Queen: establish her throne in righteousness, and may its canopy be as a banner of love. The Lord bless all the nations of the earth, for all the nations should be one empire, ruled by the Son of God. Blessed Jesus, thou art the propitiation for our sins, and not for our sins only, but for the sins of the whole world; for that world, therefore, do we pray, that every acre of it may be sown with gospel seed, that every handful of its soil may be consecrated by the touch of honest men, and that the whole world may be like a returned prodigal, received with joy and thankfulness into the family of the stars. Pity us in all our littleness; pardon us wherein our sin grows upon us like a rising mountain, and send comfort by thy Cross, Messiah, Emmanuel, Son of God! Amen.