The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Thus saith the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him; and I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut;Unconscious Providences
We sometimes say that we cannot think how it is that we have been so honoured and prospered, for we really do not deserve it. We have heard some say that it is a wonder they are here at all. They were such sickly children, their mothers said they never could rear them; many a time they had been given up, and it was always thought impossible that so frail, a thing could ever come to years of maturity. A man wonders how he has come to his position, his wealth, his fame, his influence—he cannot make it out, he is simply confounded by his success, and doubly so when he remembers the failure of men much more able than himself. He says, "How is this? They were better born, they had larger education, they had ampler opportunities of advancement—where are they now?" The digger cannot find the roots in the earth, yet it hath pleased God to make him thus and so.
How is it that the bruised reed has not been broken? How is it that the smoking flax has not been quenched? How is it that the little one has become mightier than a thousand, and how is it that the weak one has chased ten thousand and put them to ignoble flight? Explain how it is that a wisp of straw has become as a sword in a weak hand, before which the enemy has fled to the gate. We allow that these things are so: they are not the dreams of the religious imagination: we can certify that every point named is a point of fact—what is the explanation? We are obliged to believe in ghostly circumstances, if we may not believe in ghostly personages. We say we do not believe in ghosts: but that there are ghostly circumstances in life no thinking man will venture to deny. When, therefore, we look upon the ghostly circumstances, it becomes rather easy to cross the less-than-cobweb line that separates between the circumstances and the personages. Just as if you propound the proposition or the inquiry, There is a devil,—or, Is there a devil? I say, "I do not know, by my unassisted reason." But when I see the infinite devilishness that is in society, it becomes too easy to believe that there may not be one devil, but many.
We cannot rid ourselves of these ghostly circumstances, these riddles and enigmas that start up in life and challenge replies when there is no answer in our imagination, but when there is an echo in our consciousness which says the inquiry is founded upon fact, and the answer will be seen only within the lines thai are distinctively and solemnly religious. The text gives us the religious explanation. The man spoken to did not know what he was doing, he had no idea of the value and force of the weapons he was wielding, and the purposes he was carrying out, but at the last he got his surname, Shepherd of Jehovah, at the last a face shone upon him that had been hidden in thick mist: God said, "I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me: I have girded thee, though thou hast not known me." Let us recount the story, and then proceed to its analysis and the inquiries which may be justly founded upon it.
Cyrus the Persian had conquered the Babylonian kings of Assyria who had carried the Jews into captivity. Cyrus, by overthrowing the kings of Babylon, had the destiny of the Jews peculiarly in his own hand. The Persian religion was primitively the religion of one God; it was monotheistic, and therein was found a point of sympathy between the Persian prince and the captive Jews. The Babylonian temples, on the other hand, were set up for the worship of gods many, and lords many, and were emphatically dens of thieves, being enriched with the spoils of many cruel wars. Cyrus was the first Gentile friend of the Jews, the first Gentile that ever stretched out a hand to them, and he had the privilege of becoming their liberator and their restorer. Hence in the long run he was surnamed of God "the anointed of the Lord." For him God brake in pieces the gates of brass and cut in sunder the bars of iron, and history, from Herodotus to Xenophon, has not recorded one evil or ungenerous word of the mighty and heroic Cyrus, the Persian soldier.
How did all this happen? The text gives the explanation. "I have surnamed thee, I have girded thee: thou wast an unconscious minister; thou didst not know whose arms were round about thee, thou didst not even know me by name. But man cannot exclude me from his little universe; even though he deny my existence and denounce my claim—I am still there. I water the garden of the atheist, and bring his flowers to summer bloom and his fruits to autumnal glory. Men deny me, curse me, flee from me—I am still round about them, and their life is more precious to me than is their blasphemy detestable, and until the very last I will work for them and with them, and if they go to perdition it shall be through the very centre of my heart's tenderest grace." "I girded thee, though thou hast not known me." How true it is that we do not know the full measure and value of any work we are doing. We see but part of it. Cyrus regarded himself merely as a soldier: he went down to Babylon for strictly military purposes: the deliverance of the Jews did not so much as enter into his imagination. We cannot tell what we are doing. We cannot follow a single word of our own: we hear its first vibration in the air, but what it will do afterwards in ever multi-plying and ever expanding circles we cannot tell. We are quoting today our father's words, though he has been dead these fifty years; we are calling to memory a mother's prayers, though she began to sing in heaven some quarter of a century ago. Things are not cut short off: they have outlooks and outgoings and manifold relationships, tentacles too fine for the naked eye to see, but always laying hold of something else, and growing by what they grasp.
Our programme is a short one: it is this. "We will go into such and such a city, and abide there a year, and buy and sell and get gain." Very well. We put a full stop there: God puts a comma: our punctuation is unskilled and unwise, God's punctuation alone measures out the languages, and metes in fair proportion the weird and solemn music of life. We cannot tell what lives we touch, what thoughts we start, what suggestions we convey, what impulses we stir. The hearer does not confess the full weight of our ministry: he says, "It is so," or, he will think about it, or he passes swiftly from that thought to another; but afterwards it recurs, he eats bread in secret, which at first he appeared to despise, and in concealment he drinks the water which we offered him, and which he thanklessly declined.
Let us get the right view of life. We cannot tell all we are doing. Now our labour looks poor, shallow, commonplace: we know not what it is, what apocalypses it is working up, and what may come out of it. To the least of us, the smallest, God has given wings, and wings are as the beginning of immeasurable capacity and power.
We know not what is happening around us. What is yonder man doing in the field? He is a king's son, and himself looks a king, every inch. Is he amusing himself? Alone he stands there, and is drawing a bow and shooting arrows, and a lad far off is engaged to bring them back that he may shoot them again. Ask the boy what the king's son is doing: he says the king's son is amusing himself, is taking exercise, is preparing by this rehearsal for some larger feat of archery. But hidden somewhere in the field is one who is reading that primitive telegraph with another eye. What was amusement, what was archery to the young watcher, was life or death to David. Who can tell what signs are being written in the air? Who knows what shocks may be conveyed by the uplifting of a hand in signal? Beware the men who make life little and small and dull, and who say it is all froth and foam, and that you can see every whit of it. We really see next to nothing—the angels are hidden—no man hath seen God at any time.
We have corresponding instances in life. Every man is a living personal commentary upon these truths. He says he has been saved when all his most loving friends had given him up. He has seen sights that cannot be accounted for by mere verbal criticism. He says that there is a secret about him, and he cannot tell its name.
Who is that boy sitting on the steps there? He has a hat on that was made for any head but his own; and his coat, who made it? His mother, very likely—rough spun, not too well fitting. What is he waiting for? To get the job of sweeping the steps he sits on? Perhaps. Years pass by and a portly man comes down those steps. Broad his face, a great round shining blessing, kindness in his eye, power in the uplifting of his hand. Who is he? That is the boy, grown now fully, physically, intellectually and socially. The boy and the man are both Horace Greeley, an editorial prince, a man whose writings no one among his countrymen can afford to decline to read. "I girded thee, I brought thee to those steps, I set thee down upon them, I appointed an angel to watch thee all the time: it was my way of nursing and caring for thee, and training thee." He bringeth the blind by a way that they know not.
See that poor little lad, climbing that ladder. The ladder is forty feet high. Suddenly he falls from the top of it. Is he dead? No, but deaf. Not rather hard of hearing, but deaf. The thunder passes over him and he hears it not, and the wind in its most staccato tone fails to touch the organ of his hearing—for ever in this world deaf. And see that kind-looking man who is looking at him, inquiring about him, who offers him books and a little help. That man is an angel of God though he knew it not, and the lad will write his name high up on Biblical literature which the Church will never let die. John Kitto the brick-carrier was nobody—John Kitto the Biblical encyclopaedist was a great man—nursed roughly but nursed well: and God says to him, "I nursed thee, I surnamed thee, I girded thee, it was all within my scheme; nothing overlaps the ring of the divine movement: it encloses the horizon, and beyond it there is no throb of life. The Lord reigneth."
He has done just so with some of us, and he is not going to cast us off now. We have sometimes wondered whether we might not be at last allowed to drop. That is the devil's speech: it is a suggestion from below, and not from above. God is not going to allow us to fail at last: he never reckons on building a tower which he cannot finish. Many a half-built tower we have left behind us, but God finishes his buildings right up to the pinnacle. He will not leave us in trouble to sink: all our yesterdays crowded with tender mercies should be regarded as prophecies and pledges that our to-morrows shall be rich with divine benedictions. O that we might live in that faith! Then there would never be a dull tone in our voices again. The enemy gets the better of us now and then, but afterwards we are brought up as from the dead by a mighty act of divine resurrection, and the sum total of our testimony is this—God is good: all things work together for good to them that love God: the Lord will bring forth the judgment of the righteous as the morning, and set him as a child of light above the cloud and fog and storm. The Lord write this faith upon our hearts, make it the faith of our life, and there shall be no more death in all our being.
What is true of the individual is true also of the nation.
England has been girded by a mightier hand than statesmanship or diplomacy. So has the great America, and robust and noble Germany, and brilliant and dashing France, and sunny and tuneful Italy—whatever the nation, it is part of God's earth and is girded and surnamed by him, and it has a great and beneficent purpose to work out. Nations are not cards with which politicians play at gambling: they may think they do, they may seem to do so, but the Lord reigneth, the earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof, and he says to the nation as he says to the individual, "The very hairs of thy head are all numbered." Ralph Waldo Emerson has a beautiful little parable about this. He pictures a republican convention: he has in it several very stormy spirits who have undertaken to carry the republic at all costs—mighty little straws hardly strong enough to hold a fly. They have a meeting and storm at one another a long while, and when the meeting is broken up, kind mother Nature, all her stars alight, all her winds quieted down to a touching and pathetic minor, says to the hottest of these conventionalists, "Why art thou so hot, little sir?" The little sir thinks he has been manipulating a nation, settling the affairs of a republic—that without him the republic would be nowhere, and great quiet solemn Alma Mater, every lamp aflame, bends over him, "Why so hot, little sir?" It is the same with this great England of ours. There is a House, in which men point to one another, charge honourable gentlemen opposite—these honourable gentlemen are always opposite—shake their fists almost at the right honourable gentlemen opposite—and kind great Nature waits for them, and when they come out, she says to the fiercest and fussiest of them, "Why so hot, little sir?" The Lord reigneth, the earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof: everything is mapped out in his providence and brought within the circle of his decree: he has a purpose to realise, and no man can thwart it. Oh that we were less hot and less fierce, that we had the repose of strength, the quietness of omnipotence!
Here I would repeat an illustration which I may have given before, and which always seems to me vividly to put the subject before my own mind. It is that of the vessel on the sea. Night has come, the passengers have retired to their rest: the wind blows, the waves surge and plash round the noble ship. The bell tells the hour of the night, and immediately upon the announcement of the hour the man on the watch sings out, "All's well; all's well!" There is a man downstairs sick; there is another man sleepless; there is a child dying; there is a woman in grief; there are some hearts troubled and sad below, and yet the man on the look-out says, "All's well; all's well." He takes the great view, he looks at the sum total, he looks at the vessel—and so it is with the angels and the nations: nations are ships that are being steered over stormy waters and through dark times: many a local trouble, many a keen controversy, many an assault-at-arms, and many a war of words, but the good ship goes on, and the angel reports to the higher watchers, "All's well; all's well." God has hold of the whole, the sum total, and all local disturbances and personal difficulties are gathered up into one great view. If we were to dwell only amid the detail we should be vexed and tormented to death: we must seize the grandeur, the entirety of the situation, and then,
"Above the rest this note shall swell, My Jesus hath done all things well."
What is true of the individual and true of the nation is true of the whole earth we call the great globe itself. Truly this earth has been girded though it knew him not. It would seem to be the very Church of the firmanent. Can any other world tell such a tale of sin, or sing such a song of salvation? Suppose that every other star is peopled: then what is this tiny earth am id wealth so vast? Why not crush it out of existence, why not sink the small black ship with its blasphemous crew? It would be but a splash—and silence. Yet God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him might not perish, but have everlasting life. Or suppose that the earth is the only peopled star in all the hosts of the firmanent: then how great it is, how amazing, that God should have chosen this little spark of light within which to work out the tragedy of sin and the mystery of atonement! Take it from the one point or from the other, the greatness of this earth cannot be disputed. God says to the earth as a whole, "I have girded thee, though thou hast not known me: I have steered thee through the sea of space, and kept thee from collision and burning, and I sent upon thee the sleep of winter and joy of summer: I found a path for thee in the darkness, I attempered the rays of the sun to suit thy vision: thou art my child-world, thou art the planet of my heart, thou art the star made sacred by the Cross: I will empty thy graves, I will heal thy broken hearts, I will proclaim thee with the trumpets of angels to be the Bethlehem of the skies, the home and the sanctuary of the God that made thee."
Let us beware of the men who would belittle our life and belittle the earth, and deprive us of our inspiration and high purpose. Rather let us take the large view of all things, in every stone see a possible child of Abraham, let every flower give us thoughts too deep for tears, let every act be solemn as a prayer, let every dream hint a revelation, let every deliverance symbolise the mighty redemption of the soul by blood. And let us often think how our life came to be what it is. Saying, "I had but five loaves, but two small fishes, to start with, yet I have never wanted food. I had but a thimble, and the rill of water was very thin and small, yet I have never known the pain of thirst. I was welcomed with but poor hospitality into the world, few prayed for me, few cared—yet I have been preserved, nurtured, trained, stablished, and prospered abundantly."
What is the interpretation of this? Shall we listen to a man who says, "Luck," "fortune," "chance," haphazard"? Rather listen to the man who says, "By the grace of God thou art what thou art. This is the Lord's doing, and it shall be marvellous in thine eyes." So would we speak to many a Cyrus who does not know what he is doing in life. There are many persons who are called "naturalists," "rationalists," "humanitarians," "heterodox thinkers," "outsiders," "wanderers," "aliens," and the like. No—no. Let us not call them such names with any hint of calumny in the tone: though they are atheists, perhaps they do not mean it And when we encounter a man who has no faith in God, let us tell him that his denial amounts to nothing as a matter of fact. He has a life to account for, an inspiration to explain, a secret to read—he himself is ghostly, if not a ghost. And which is more likely to be right, the man who says, "It is all nothing," or the man who says, "There is a meaning in this, deep, pathetic, infinite. We die to live"? The latter speaker has a voice that finds its way into my heart's heart, and that charms my life's life with a very subtle and tender music. Call no man common or unclean. Cyrus, God girded thee, though thou didst not know him. Atheist, God watered thy garden, though thou didst blaspheme his very name. Rationalist, God surnamed and blessed thee in many a crisis of thy life though thou hadst no blessing in return. So would we speak to men, lest they be discouraged and distressed beyond healing.
How glorious the idea that the time will come when the sources of our inspiration will be revealed and we shall know in whose kind and mighty arms we have been clasped and locked. God will reveal himself at last; the anonymous element in life shall one day have its proper name. I have often wondered what it was: I knew that there was an anonymous element in my life, and I tried to give it a name: I called it "Chance," and "Luck," and "Molecular Motion," and "Protoplasm" and "Mystery." I wanted to give it a name—why?—why trouble about it? Aye, why? I called it "unknowable," "unthinkable," "inscrutable." Why did I find these long words for it? Why not say "Psha—vanity—a veering wind: I will never think about it more"? How was it that I could not so emancipate myself from that spiritual presence? I called it by long names, but as my words lengthened my necessity broadened, and I could not take the measure of it by any names of my own dreaming. The boldest guess left me dissatisfied, I felt that I did not touch the grand secret of all things.
One day the answer will come, the riddle will be read, the scattered mist will gather itself up into shape, the shape will brighten into a face, great arms will be stretched out, and we shall know then that all the while God was our Father though we knew it not. We yearn for the day of revelation; oh that it would dawn upon all the earth! Then should the whole world be a church, and space too small for the thunder of our swelling psalm.
Almighty God, it is our joy to know that thou givest power to the faint, and to them that have no might thou dost increase strength; the bruised reed thou wilt not break, smoking flax thou wilt not quench. Thou dost gather the lambs in thine arms and gently lead those that are with young. Thou art patient and gentle beyond all motherliness, and as for thy love, it hath no measure; it is as thy mercy, enduring for ever, and all mankind shall speak of thy goodness when the world is enlightened with thy glory. Thou dost wait for us on the hard road: thou dost not chide us beyond our strength; thou dost tarry and linger long like a good shepherd waiting for the flock that cannot move quickly. This have we known ourselves and it is no mystery to us, for every day thou dost nourish us and cherish us and wait for us and expend upon us the love that redeemed the universe. Thou art so mighty and yet so gentle. The voice of the Lord is powerful: thy voice divideth the names of fire, and yet it is a still small voice; finding out with infinite tenderness the broken heart, the wounded spirit, the weary pilgrim, and speaking music to those that have no hope. Thy voice indeed is like the voice of many waters: when thou dost speak in thy judgment thou dost make the cedars of Lebanon skip like lambs, yea Lebanon and Sirion like young unicorns. Still thy voice is tender, and gentle—thou dost attemper the wind to the shorn lamb; though thy mighty tones divide all the thickets of Kadesh, yet doth the Lord give strength unto his people and bless his saints with peace. Is it not in thy power alone to give peace? What have we but a truce in the midst of war if we have not thy will wrought in us as it is wrought in thy host above? Thine is an unspeakable peace, a peace which passeth understanding; not as the world giveth dost thou give unto thy children when thou dost breathe upon them the benediction of peace. Great peace have they that love thy law. Oh that we had hearkened unto thy commandments, walked in the ways of thy statutes: then had our peace flowed like a river and our righteousness like the waves of the sea. Thou knowest our frame, thou rememberest that we are dust: thou wilt not suffer us to be tempted above that we are able: with every temptation thou dost make a way of escape. Pity us in our littleness. When our infirmities gather themselves together into a great humiliation and press us down to the dust with infinite distress, then let the Lord's almightiness be our defence and the power of the Lord the sanctuary wherein we rest. We are weary men, we are all tired, we feel outworn, and overdone, the world is too much for our little strength. So we come to thee, the Almighty, for renewal of power, the Allwise for the rekindling of the lamp of our wisdom. Jesus knows what weariness is, and he, great High Priest, is no stranger to pain. He is touched with the feeling of our infirmities, having been himself in all points tempted like as we are. Jesus of Nazareth, Christ of God, Man wearied with his journey, sitting on Jacob's well—do thou look upon us, a company of weary travellers, sitting here awhile that we may obtain quietness and get our breath again: that we may by the study of thy word and the worship of thy name be better prepared for the discipline of life and for the burdens we have to bear. O come to us—spare us every one—breathe into our needful hearts all the promises that can sustain and inspire, and make the mighty thundering of thy word soft and gentle and tender, lest it break us by its infinite power when thou dost mean to recover our strength and to make us still hope in thee. Amen.
In the fifty-fifth chapter we come upon the beginning of many exceeding great and precious promises. However long we may be detained by imagery that is hardly explicable, or by prophecies that appear too remote to be of use to ourselves, we are ever and anon refreshed with doctrines and promises which have a direct reference to our deepest necessities and purest desires. We need more than a grand Bible, as we need more than a high heaven to gaze upon. The heaven which we see would be of little use to us but for the earth which it blesses with its warmth and light: so the grander portions of the Bible might dazzle us by their brilliance or astound us by their mysteries, but we need the sweet promises, the tender words of special grace, medicaments prepared for the heart's disease by the divine Physician. When we are most familiar with the spiritual portions of the Bible we are best prepared to survey within their proper boundaries the portions which lie beyond our verbal exposition. Who would distress himself because of the wildernesses of the earth when he has gardens around him which he can immediately and successfully cultivate? Who would feel so overpowered by the number and glory of the stars as to fail to light a fire on his own hearthstone or a lamp by which he can illuminate his own house? Yet it is true that men have so acted in many instances with regard to the Bible. They have been professedly overwhelmed by its majesty, stunned by its ineffable grandeur, and bewildered by the sublimity of its mysteries, so much so that they have neglected its commandments and declined to appropriate its promises and benedictions. It is furthermore noticeable that many of the tenderest words ever spoken by God to man were spoken in Old Testament times. The prophecies of Isaiah abound in tenderest sentiment. We shall now cull illustrations of this fact, and thus inspire and sustain ourselves by the recollection of the covenants and the oaths by which Almighty God has bound himself to defend and succour his people in all generations. It should always be noticed that God's promises are addressed to human necessity. God does not call upon us first to be strong, and then to be blessed; he recognises our weakness and offers us strength; he looks upon all our poverty and loneliness, and proffers us the riches and companionship of heaven. God's ministry, therefore, is always a ministry of condescension. God cannot talk to us as to equals; his voice must always come from above, and ours must always be the upturned ear and the expectant vision. It is necessity that prays; it is fulness that sings.
The first promise that we have (Isaiah 55:1) is the promise of "waters." A great appeal is addressed to those who are athirst. Thus the Lord accommodates his ministry to human necessity. When men are thirsting for water he does not offer them sublime visions of the future, or stately ideas concerning the economies and dominions of time. He would say to men, Let us, in the first place, supply your need; until your thirst is quenched your mind cannot be at rest; until your bodily necessities are supplied your imagination will be unable to exercise itself in high thoughts. The promises of God are addressed to our necessities for more than merely temporary reasons. There is a whole philosophy of government in such appeals. Only at certain points can we profess to understand God, and those points touch our need, our pain, our immediate desire; when we are quite sure that God gives us water for our bodily thirst we may begin at least to feel that there is a possibility that he may not neglect the more burning thirst of the soul. God approaches the spirit through the body. The God who grows corn for our hunger may also have bread for our spirit's cry of weakness. We cannot estimate the blessing of water because we live in a land that is full of rivers and fountains; those only who live in desert countries know what it is to suffer from want of water. A gospel in one country may be no gospel in another. It is nothing to those who live in tropical climes to promise them warmth; but what a promise would that be to many who are shivering in the bitterest cold.
Not only is there a promise of water, there is a promise of a higher blessing still. May we not call it the all but ultimate blessing, the all but crowning benediction, forgiveness?
"Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near: Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon" (Isaiah 55:6-7).
The blessings promised in the Scriptures are always more of less conditional. Here, for example, is a condition of time, "while he may be found," and again, "while he is near." What these words mean in all their depth and breadth no man can tell, but he would be a superficial reader who does not detect in them a tone of pressure and of importunate urgency. We cannot tell how long the Lord will tarry at the door, so we should arise at once and open it. We know not but that in one moment the Lord may separate himself from us by the measure of the whole universe; we should therefore put out both our hands that we may at least grope after him, and show by that very sign that we are anxious to lay hold upon him. Then again, there are conditions on the part of men: the wicked man is to forsake his way, the unrighteous man is to forsake his thoughts, the sinner is to return unto the Lord, put himself in an attitude of coming back, that is, of coming home. This is the Gospel doctrine of repentance before the time. In the Old Testament we often have the word "return;" in the New Testament we have the word "repent;" both words may involve, practically, the same profound and vital meaning, that meaning being that the soul is utterly to change its course, to reverse its purposes, to reconstruct its motive, and to begin a new, a better, and a grander life. Sweet is the promise which follows this return on the part of the sinner—the Lord will have mercy upon him, and our God will abundantly pardon. The last words may be rendered, The Lord will multiply to pardon; that is, he will not pardon as if with niggardliness or reluctance, but will add pardon to pardon, forgiveness to forgiveness, as wave chases wave over the face of the deep. Lest men should be overwhelmed by this great promise, or should be perplexed by its mystery, and deterred by the very extent of the offer, the Lord proceeds to reason, saying—
"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord" (Isaiah 55:8).
Thus the Lord will have the working according to his own will; he will not adopt another level; he will not accommodate himself to the usual standards of time; he will set up his mystery amongst the affairs of life as he has set up his tabernacle amongst the dwellings of men. As that tabernacle can never be confused or mistaken for an ordinary dwelling-place, so the mystery of the divine action is to be distinguishable above all philosophies and apart from them, as a new thing in the earth, new because it comes up from eternity, and startles as with sudden light and glory all the dimness of earth's poor twilight. It is as if the Lord should say, Do not hesitate to accept the promise because you cannot understand my action; do not put away from you heavenly blessing because you have not earthly explanation; remember that a divine worker must have divine motives and purposes, and that in proportion to the divinity of the worker is the mystery of his whole action; receive this by faith, and prove your faith by the outstretching of your hand, that you may claim the pardon which is written in blood and laid upon the altar of the Cross.
The Lord now returns from purely spiritual blessings to give the assurance that he is not only the source of forgiveness but the source of the harvests which enrich and gladden the earth:—
"For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater" (Isaiah 55:10).
That is a revelation of nature intended to be a type of a higher revelation still. Everything on earth is made into a ladder by which we may scale higher meanings. The rain is not a self-contained blessing; it is a type, a symbol, a hint of a larger benediction. The seed which is given to the sower and the bread which is enjoyed by the eater signify more than is conveyed by merely literal meanings; there is a seed with which the soul is to be sown, and there is a bread on which the spirit is to feed. The Lord makes, however, another and most beautiful application of the imagery, for he applies it to the success of his own word.
"So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it" (Isaiah 55:11).
So the Lord himself is to reap a great harvest upon the earth, a harvest of living souls, a harvest of redeemed and rejoicing spirits. The rain and the dew may represent the gracious influences which prepare the heart for the reception of the heavenly seed or the word of God. The sower is none other than the Son of man, and the harvest is the Lord's own inheritance. How the Lord rejoices in the prospect of abundant harvesting. Jesus Christ is not satisfied with a small return; he wills that the whole earth may be brought to accept his dominion and own the righteousness and blessedness of his sceptre. How can God be ultimately disappointed? How can he who made the world for himself ever turn it over to the dominion of another? When God made man in his own image and likeness, it was that man might enjoy divine companionship and represent divine purposes. How long all this may take in accomplishment none can tell; the years are many to us, and we are weary because of the slowness of their lapse; in our souls we often sigh the question we dare not definitely articulate, saying in our very sighing, O Lord! how long? Canst thou not cut through this flow of weary time and bring in the eternal Sabbath? We have the promise, and we long for its fulfilment; we cannot but believe in its fulfilment because thine own mouth has spoken the holy words. Bless us with thine own patience, or we shall fall into despair, and in our despair we shall blaspheme against thy throne.
The great principle of evolution or progress is constantly affirmed in the Bible. It is notably affirmed in these words:—
"Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree" (Isaiah 55:13).
The Lord promises honour to obedience.
"For thus saith the Lord unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant; even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off" (Isaiah 56:4-5).
Some men have had this testimony, that they pleased God, that is to say, God looked upon them and derived pleasure from his survey, so simple was the motive, so candid the action, so beneficent the spirit, that he saw in the advancing saint a type and symbol of his own holiness. God promises permanence of blessing. The men who please him are to have a place in his house, and within his walls they are to have a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters; none shall take them out of the place to which God assigns them; they shall dwell in an inviolable temple; their home shall be a sacred sanctuary, where the angels come whose windows open upon eternal spheres, and from whose elevation can be heard supernal music. Thus blessing upon blessing is given to earnest souls, as if God could never give enough; it is we who must declare our vessels are exhausted, for God's great benefactions can know no end.
Chapter fifty-seven opens with a most gracious and precious promise:—
"The righteous perisheth, and no man layeth it to heart: and merciful men are taken away, none considering that the righteous is taken away from the evil to come. He shall enter into peace: they shall rest in their beds, each one walking in his uprightness" (Isaiah 57:1-2).
The words may have been written in presence of the actual persecution inaugurated by Manasseh. The writer may have seen one prophet after another cruelly destroyed. Several prophets have vexed their souls even to death on account of the evils by which they were surrounded and overwhelmed. It was given to the prophet to see, even in the removal of the righteous, a deliverance from a fate unrelieved by a single gleam of light. If in this life only we had hope we should be of all men most miserable. Unless we interpret the littleness of time by the greatness of eternity we should be overwhelmed by daily distress. "Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory: while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal." The world is never to be looked at in its solitariness, as if it were one world only, a poor unrelated wanderer in the infinite spaces. Time has a relation to eternity, earth to heaven, the present to the future; and unless we grasp all the elements that are involved in the unity of life, we shall continually be distracted and our spirits will be darkened by despair. When the good man dies we should say, he has escaped the evil of life; when the merciful man dies we should say, he has entered into peace. The "bed" referred to in the second verse is the grave. The Christian does not terminate his thought by the grave, for he lives in the light of a larger and nobler revelation. The grave is no longer a bed, a final resting-place; it is but a point to halt at; the spirit has gone beyond the boundaries of the tomb, and is already rejoicing in the dewy morning of eternal day. Thus we are lifted up in contemplation, thus we are strengthened in faith, thus we are ennobled in all intellectual thought, by coming into contact with the spirit and revelation of Jesus Christ. The grave is no longer a boundary line; it is but a transient shadow soon to be driven away by the rising light. Beyond it lies the garden of the Lord; one inch beyond, and all heaven glows in infinite summer.
We next come upon the greatest spiritual promises that can be offered to the souls of men. We see those promises the more clearly by reason of the contrast in which God the Giver and Author of these promises establishes himself. Thus—
"For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones" (Isaiah 57:15).
The fifty-seventh chapter ends with a declaration which shows that amid all the goodness and graciousness of the divine way the standard of righteousness is never lowered, never is the dignity of law impaired. Read these awful yet gracious words: "There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked" (Isaiah 45:1). If we thought that God was about to lose righteousness in sentiment, we are thus suddenly with a very startling abruptness brought back to the remembrance of the fact that wickedness is infinitely and eternally hateful to God, and that peace and wickedness are mutually destructive terms. The wicked man may create a wilderness and call it peace, but real contentment, benignity, resignation, or harmony, he can never know in wickedness. Herein we find the testimony of the divine presence, the assertion and glory of the divine law. God does not take away peace from the wicked in any arbitrary sense. Wickedness is itself incompatible with peace: the wicked are like the troubled sea when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt The unrest is actually in the wickedness; the tumult does not come from without, it comes from within; whenever a man touches a forbidden tree, in that day he dies. He may find momentary pleasure in the fruit which he has stolen, but no sooner will he have appropriated that fruit than the very tree itself withers away, and the whole garden is as a blighted landscape. If any man who is out of harmony with God claim to have peace he is a liar, and the truth is not in him. Peace is obtainable in one way only, and that is by the divinely revealed way of repentance, confession, contrition of heart, and unreserved and grateful trust in all the mystery of the priesthood of Christ Unity with Christ means peace. It does not mean that the peace is superimposed upon a man as a crown might be set upon his head; it means that in his heart there springs up holy harmony with the divine nature, an assurance and consciousness of rest because the whole motion of the life is in movement with the purpose and law of heaven. We cannot buy peace, we cannot sell peace, we cannot lend one another peace; we can only have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
We are fearfully and wonderfully made: truly how great and how little is man: yet thou hast made him in thine image and likeness, thou mighty and loving Maker. Now we are so triumphant, and anon so dejected; new brighter than any summer day, now more desolate than winter. Thou hast put a song in our mouth, and yet there is sorrow in our heart, which spoils the music. Our life, how changeful! without consistency; now sunny, now cloudy; now on the hill-top, now in the deep valley; now planting flowers, now digging graves. Vanity of vanities! surely all is as a veering wind; there is none abiding, there is only One eternal; as for men, their breath is in their nostrils, they die whilst they say they live. Yet how wondrous art thou to the children of men, in all care and love, in all pity and redeeming compassion! Thou dost care for each one; there is none neglected, there are no orphans; all men say, Our Father in heaven. This is thy purpose; if they do not say it now they will say it some day, brighter than any that has yet dawned upon the hills of time; glad will be that day, brightest of mornings will be that morning. We pray for it, we live in its anticipation, and when men chide us because of our hope we say, the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. We bless thee for what revelation of thee we have seen. Sometimes we look upon thee as righteous and terrible; at other times as fatherly, approachable, all love, always welcoming us to thy smile and protection: but whether we see thee in the one aspect or the other we know that thy way is right, thy purpose is love, and thou wilt, by way of the Cross, bring men to restoration, pardon, sonship. Verily, by way of the Cross! Other way there is none; that way is open; it is filled with angels of love; we are continually invited to walk therein and find the dying yet living Christ, the priestly Sacrifice, the Intercessor and the Victim in one. We have seen him of whom Moses and the prophets did write, Jesus of Nazareth, and we have given our whole love to him. Other king shall not reign over us. He is to us Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, the All-in-all; and to him we give our heart, our mind, our soul, our strength, our hand, our whole being: if he will take it we shall thus be enriched evermore. Amen.