The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.Contrasts In Providence
Isaiah 34, Isaiah 35
These chapters are part of the summing-up of the first section of Isaiah's double volume. They are the epilogue of the first volume. Hezekiah was closing his sovereignty, apparently; whether anything may occur to extend the reign will presently be seen. The Egyptian alliance, and the attack of Sennacherib upon Israel, are matters that have fallen back a long way, if not in time-distance, yet in sense of victory and deliverance. These are two wonderful chapters, and great use is made of them by Jeremiah and by Zephaniah. This use of the Bible by the Bible is of great consequence; not only is it interesting as a literary incident, but it is full of suggestion as to the range and certainty and usefulness of inspiration. The thirty-fourth chapter stands in wondrous contrast to the thirty-fifth. We shall have to pass through night to enter into day; we shall have to listen to such a storm as never burst on land and sea, before we come into the garden of delight, the paradise of Christ, the restored and immortal Eden. The styles of the two chapters are such as hardly any one man could command. It would seem as if each chapter required a whole genius to itself. It will be wonderful if the same hand should be cunning enough to write the storm, and write the hymn: to create the wilderness, and create the land of blossoming and joy.
In the first instance "the indignation of the Lord is upon all nations" (Isaiah 34:2). A singular word is that—"indignation"—in this connection. It has in it the sense of boiling. It is not a passing wrath; a cloud without substance that frowns, and vanishes. Here the judgment of the Lord boils like a cauldron, and nations are thrown into it as trifles. All things, great and small, that have set themselves against the Lord of heaven, are thrown into the cauldron that they may perish in the fury of the Lord's indignation. Nor is this the work of man. Statesmanship, diplomacy, and all craft, bearing upon war and delighting in it, must stand back, whilst the Lord himself claims the entire responsibility of the marvellous action. He will speak for himself; he shall speak of his own sword, and he shall say "My sword shall be bathed in heaven:" not the sword of some king or captain of war, but "My sword"—long, heavy, keen, tempered in heaven; a sword that no man can handle, no human fingers grasp. We read of the Greeks dipping their swords in order to give the steel due temper. Here is a sword that is dipped: but it is dipped in heaven; the secret of the tank in which it is plunged is on high. The moral is obvious—namely, that the sword is not one of vengeance or bloodthirstiness, not a sword that longs for carnage merely for the sake of declaring victory and triumphing over the foe, but the sword is "bathed in heaven"—in righteousness, in truth, in equity; it is not only a symbol of war, it is a symbol of moral judgment. When God's own sword, heaven-bathed, strikes a man or a nation, it is righteousness that affirms itself, it is goodness that declares the range of its sovereignty.
As for the whole structure of things, down it must come in the day of judgment.
"And all the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll: and all their host shall fall down, as the leaf falleth off from the vine, and as a falling fig from the fig tree" (Isaiah 34:4).
"The sword of the Lord is filled with blood, it is made fat with fatness" (Isaiah 34:6).
The Lord returns not from war other than as conqueror. His is not a blood-sprinkled sword, but a sword drunk with blood. To-day, that is within the range of this chapter, God "hath a sacrifice in Bozrah [the Metropolis of Edom], and a great slaughter in the land of Idumea," not hid under its Greek designation,—but still the ancient hostile Edom—that stumbling-block in the way of heaven, that early curse in history, that marvel amounting to a mystery in the whole tragedy of human life. The figure glows with energy. The Lord is in Edom; he is in the very London of Edom, yea, in the very Bozrah, and at night his sword will be drunk with blood. Call these, if you please, emblematic representations of a great truth, still the great truth itself remains, and that great truth is, that the Lord has a day of judgment, a day of vengeance, a day of retribution. That is the permanent lesson. Dismiss all Hebrew redundance of terms, all Oriental imagery, and you still have left this fact, that there are times in human history when God stands forth with sword in hand as a man of war. That can never be rationally denied, or can never encounter any denial that is sustained by confirmation. Nations have been smitten, thrones have been torn, kings that have no right to reign, or have forfeited their original right, have been dethroned and blown away into undiscoverable wildernesses, yea, have been lost in time's oblivion; and meaner men, men of our own stature and range of influence, who have been unfaithful to the genius of stewardship, have been put down, burned, crushed, destroyed, removed, so that the very place where once they stood can no longer be identified: God hath swept their footprints out of a universe which they defiled by their presence. To realise this is to be chastened; is to be quickened into a sense of responsibility; is to be elevated by that sacred wonder which easily learns how to pray.
The prophet having said all this may have been afraid that he would be considered as a madman. What he declared might have been regarded as a poetic paroxysm, an intellectual violence in which the prophet did in metaphor and symbol what he would have done, could his passions have claimed all their desire, in bold and literal realisation. So in another tone he says,
"Seek ye out of the book of the Lord, and read" (Isaiah 34:16).
This is not the ebullition of a moment; this is the writing of God from time's first day; nay, earlier than that, for all that arose on the little theatre of time began in the infinite ranges of eternity: the sin was all foreseen, the sinner was fore-redeemed, the Lamb was slain from before the foundation of the world. Isaiah, therefore, would not have it that what he was speaking was the rhetoric of a moment, a sudden passion that had no relation to history or prophecy; he would insist upon it that every word, though tipped with fire, was a Bible word, a word long written, that had about it the mystery and solemnity of eternity. The judgments of the Lord are not accidents. He is not suddenly awakened so as to pursue a new moral policy in his universe. "Seek ye out of the book of the Lord, and read:" from the beginning sin was hated, sin was punished, hell was provided for retribution. Whatever transpires within the theatre of the universe can bring no surprise to the infinite mind, for by the necessity of its infiniteness all was foreseen. The prophet thus comes away from the whirlwind of his excitement to stand upon the rock of revelation, and there he abides, and declares that the ruin that is to be wrought is not a ruin that is without spirit or reason or judgment. "He hath cast the lot for them, and his hand hath divided it unto them by line" (Isaiah 34:17). Ruin is measured out. Chaos has a geometric form to the eye that created it. There is nothing of mere tumult, or uproar, or indiscriminateness, in the scattering of divine criticism and judgment and penalty: even our ruin is meted out, our destruction is a calculation, our hell is a measured territory.
Who can live in that thirty-fourth chapter? Who can abide in the city once so fair, but now handed over to the cormorant and the bittern? a city and land in which men shall call for the nobles, but none shall be there; thorns growing in palaces, nettles and brambles in the fortresses where soldiers lived; dragons inhabiting the old places that were sacred, and owls holding court where wise men used to think and rule: "There shall the great owl make her nest, and lay, and hatch, and gather under her shadow; there shall the vultures also be gathered, every one with her mate:" it shall not be a solitary vulture alighting upon a shattered rock and flying off again, but "vultures"—one, two; vulture and mate shall abide there, and build their house there, and make their home there, and the whole place shall be filled with their black images. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." Or strip the imagery, and there remains after the last symbol has gone the terrific yet beneficent fact that the Lord reigneth and God is judge of all.
Could the man who wrote that chapter of light and darkness, storm and ruin, write in any other style? He proceeds to contrast himself with himself, for no sooner is the ruin measured out than he begins:
"The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing: the glory of Lebanon shall be given unto it, the excellency of Carmel and Sharon, they shall see the glory of the Lord, and the excellency of our God" (Isaiah 35:1-2).
The first promise is that of summer beauty: "The rose—the glory of Lebanon—the excellency of Carmel and Sharon." Why, these are summer words! How the wind has changed! It blows no longer from the cruel north-east, it comes up from the south and the south-west, and comes like a blessing; every breath is a gospel, every breeze a new assurance of divine clemency and divine approach. Is there anything corresponding to this in Christian experience? When a man passes out of the black night of sin, and the agonies of penitence, contrition, heartbreak for evil done—is there any summer feeling in the soul when all is over, any celestial warmth, any outgoing of affection and triumph, and faith, and confidence, and praise? Is there any stirring that might be as the flutter of budding wings? Let those testify who know. Did Christ ever come into the heart without bringing summer with him, without making the heart conscious of a vitalising energy, so that the heart felt itself growing, felt itself to be not unfitly imaged by a garden in springtime? Has Christ ever come into the heart without abolishing death? That black figure has always had to vanish when he came near. Death might call himself winter, but he had to go; death might assume various poetical disguises, but he had to withdraw himself, for he is ghastly even in poetry. Who has received Christ into the heart, and has not been instantly conscious of immortality? who has not stood above the affairs of time and space and all sense, and crushed the enemy under his feet, and has called for help to come from every quarter to swell his song of praise? Those who have not been in the masonry of this experience have called it ecstasy. There is no reason why they should call it by any other name, because they cannot rise above the level of their folly. It is for those who have lived long years with Christ, and have felt that the love becomes more glowing with the passing decades, to say whether it is mere rapture, or whether it is a sacred and rational joy.
Then there comes a sense of restored and augmented faculty:
"Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing" (Isaiah 35:5).
The next promise is that of substantial blessing:
And the parched ground shall become a pool" (Isaiah 35:7).
Then the prophet sees a great highway; and the way is called—
"The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring men, though fools [the very simplest minds], shall not err therein. No lion shall be there, nor any ravenous beast shall go up thereon, it shall not be found there; but the redeemed shall walk there" (Isaiah 35:8-9).
It is a well-kept way, broad, plentifully supplied with sunshine, margined with all fairest flowers and most fruitful trees; and the whole avenue, stretching heavenward, shall be filled with the ransomed of the Lord, bought, but not with money, redeemed, but not with price, and they shall come to Zion with songs. The song must always have a place in human history. The fool tries to sing his sorrow away, but there is no reason in the music, so the song is a failure. But this music is to be the last expression of a long process of discipline and chastening and purification. Isaiah is said to be in his old age; yet he opens his old eyes and sees panorama after panorama of progress and glory and light, and see how the old man turns his ear, for he says, What music is this? what sound of music and dancing do I hear? He is no sullen, sour-hearted elder brother when they tell him that the world was lost and is found, dead and is alive again; he says, I will enter and join the glad festival: this is the world's jubilee! We want old men of that temper; not pessimists, not persons who discourage us, not aged ones who sigh away the enthusiasm of youth, but brave, grand old soldiers who say, Well, we have had our day, we cannot go out cur-selves, for we should only now go to failure because of physical infirmity; but boys, youths, maidens, not one of you must stop at home: go away: fight the Lord's battles; and when you come back you will bring a song with you, for the Lord is with you, and the Omnipotent is the surety of your success.