The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Bel boweth down, Nebo stoopeth, their idols were upon the beasts, and upon the cattle: your carriages were heavy loaden; they are a burden to the weary beast.Precious Promises
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.