Behold, the LORD makes the earth empty, and makes it waste, and turns it upside down, and scatters abroad the inhabitants thereof.…
The difficulties, historically considered, of this chapter must be left to the exegete. We concern ourselves with the larger sense it contains of a prophecy of a judgment upon the whole world.
I. THE APPROACHING DESOLATION. (Vers. 1-3.) The figures of emptying, draining, are employed to denote the utter depopulation and impoverishment of the earth; also that of turning upside down, to denote disorganization and demoralization in every civil and religious institution, while the people will be driven as chaff before the wind by the scattering hand of the invader. All ranks will be alike affected and confused together in the coming calamity. "Distinction of rank is highly necessary for the economy of the world, and was never called in question but by barbarians and enthusiasts." A variety of interests and feelings is represented in the different orders of society. Each contributes an element of wealth or of culture to the commonwealth. The untutored instincts of the mass have a certain wisdom in them; but they need to be checked and guided by the intelligence of far-seeing minds. The instinct for progress only safely operates when it is met by a counter sentiment of conservatism. The minister of religion is a necessity in society, and equally necessary the free spirit of the people to check his usurpations. The theory of society is that of a complicated organism, where all the parts are mutually dependent, and each on the whole. If the servant is necessary to, the master, not less so the master to the servant; the lender to the borrower, and the reverse. One of our chief blessings is regular government and good order. How marvelous is the immense, all-teeming, yet quiet and ordered life of London! The slightest menace of disturbance to it makes us feel, or ought to make us feel, keenly the greatness of the privileges so long preserved to us. "We ought," says Calvin, "not only to acknowledge the judgment of God, but also lay it to the blame of our own sins, whenever he breaks down order and takes away instruction and courts of law; for when these fall, civilization itself fails along with them?" Again, God in his judgment is no respecter of persons. No rank is spared, not even the most sacred. On the contrary, to whom much has been given, of them much will be required. The higher the rank the deeper the fall, and the sorer the punishment where there has been ingratitude and unfaithfulness. It is secret disloyalty to the Eternal and his laws which saps the root of life, and causes in the end the mournful sight of a nation mourning, its vigor ebbing away, its great men hanging their heads like drooping flowers. The thought of many cities and Lands once flourishing, now like a flower withered down to the bare stalk, should remind us of the constancy of moral laws, of the fact that "Jehovah hath spoken the word."
II. THE REASON OF THE JUDGMENT. It closely follows upon the guilt of men. And this guilt has polluted the earth. "Blood profanes the land; The land is polluted with blood" (Numbers 35:33; Psalm 106:38). This may be taken literally or generally. Kingdoms and empires have often been "founded in blood" (cf. Isaiah 26:21). And this was a transgression of Divine commandment - the violation of a Divine statute, the breach of a standing covenant of God with men. The allusion may be to the covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:16). But if the prophecy refers to mankind in general, then we must think of the "Law written on the heart" - the Divine teaching within. "It was with the whole human race that God concluded a covenant in the person of Noah, at a time when the nations had none of them come into existence" (Delitzsch). "Therefore hath a curse devoured the earth." There is an awfulness in the logic of the Almighty; there is nothing arbitrary in his conduct, nor meaningless in his words. No curse "causeless comes." The premises of sin contain the conclusion of punishment; and from the fact of curse the fact of "blood-guilt," or of sin in general, may be certainly inferred. "All Israel have transgressed thy Law, even by departing, that they might not obey thy voice; therefore the curse is poured upon us, and the oath that is written in the Law of Moses the servant of God, because we have sinned against him" (Daniel 9:11). The simple and sublime reasoning of the prophets should ever be laid to heart by us and pressed upon the conscience of others. "The land mourns;" trade is dull, taxation is heavy, wars are rife; there is murmuring and discontent. Why? The prophets are ever ready with a because - because of swearing or other falsehood, because of adultery or other impurity, because of the iniquity of statesmen, priests, or prophets, the pleasant places are dried up (cf. Jeremiah 23:10).
III. THE DESCRIPTION OF THE CAUSE. It is conceived as personal. As in Zechariah 5:3 it is said to "go forth over the face of the whole earth," or to be "poured upon" men (Daniel 9:11), so here it is so said to "devour the earth." The Divine anger burns (Isaiah 30:27), and the God of judgment is as a "consuming fire." And under this terrible doom Nature betrays her silent sympathy with the fortunes of man. The drooping grape and the languishing vine seem to reflect the sadness of the people, and visibly to mourn in response to their sighs. And that popular music which charms away the pain of excessive toil, and expresses the fund of health and mirth which lies at the heart of man and the world, ceases; timbrel and lute are hushed, and the merry shouts of the laborers no longer rise from the vineyards. "Jerusalem was uninhabited as a desert. There was none going in and coming out of her children; and the sanctuary was trodden down, and the sons of foreigners were in her high place, a place of sojourn for Gentiles. Delight was taken out of Jacob, and the flute and the lyre ceased" (1 Macc. 3:45). This passage in the prayer of Judas the Maccabee is thought by Vitringa to allude to the fulfillment of the prediction. It is the doom which follows upon the abuse of the gifts of God. Abuse consists either in excessive indulgence or in oblivion of the Giver. He knows how in chastisement to insert a bitter flavor into the most favorite pleasures. The cup will be dashed from their lips, or a want of relish will be felt for it. A mind clouded by remorse will "darken the ruby of the cup and dim the glitter of the scene." If the time comes when a man is compelled to say of even innocent social pleasures, "I have no pleasure in them," can there be a keener mark of judgment on past excess or abuse? Better the crust and the draught from the spring, with healthy appetite and clean conscience, than the repast of luxury and the brimming wine-cup turned to gall on the lips by the secret chemistry of guilt. The city is chaos and the houses are closed, and in the fields, instead of the vintage shouts, are heard the howls of those who miss the sweet wine (cf. Joel 1:5). It seems that the sun of joy has gone down, and the bright spirit of gladness has fled from the earth. The olive, as the vine, is a speaking symbol of fatness, plenty, wealth, and prosperity. But the land will be like an olive stripped and bared of its fruits - a vineyard when the gleaning is over. Still a few will be left (cf. Isaiah 17:5, 6); for never does God suffer his Church to become extinct, the spiritual life of mankind utterly to fail, or his work to come to a standstill. Dark as every cloud of judgment is, it will yet pass, and crushed hearts will be healed and voices now dumb burst forth anew into song. It is at least glimpses of such a future which sustain the prophet's heart under the "burden of the Lord."
IV. RUMORS OF BETTER THINGS. A cry is heard from the sea, from the Mediterranean; it must be from some of that sacred remnant acknowledging Jehovah, extolling loudly his majesty, Israel's God! "He follows out and increases the consolations which he had briefly sketched; for having formerly (Isaiah 10:19-22) said that out of that vast multitude a few drops would be left, which would nevertheless overflow the whole world, in like manner he now says that the small number of the godly, who shall be left out of an abundant vintage, will nevertheless rejoice and utter a voice so loud that it will be heard in the most distant lands. This was done by the preaching of the gospel; for as to the condition of Judaea, it appeared to be entirely ruined by it - the national government was taken away, and they. were broken clown by foreign and civil wars in such a manner that they could never rise above them. The rest of the world was dumb in singing the praises of God, and deaf to hear his voice; but as the Jews were the firstfruits, they are here placed in the highest rank" (Calvin).
1. God can in a moment recreate and restore his Church, as it were, out of nothing. From death he brings life, out of the solitude can cause songs of praise to resound, and converts the scene of mourning into one of joy.
2. Worshippers are fitly employed in extolling God's perfections, and not their own claims to approbation. His benefits should excite our gratitude, and we testify it by singing his praises.
3. The time is to be looked forward to when all nations will call upon the true God. To call upon the Name of Israel's God means the spread of true religion through the world. The knowledge of him merely as the wrathful and avenging God must strike man with dumbness; the knowledge of him as Redeemer must open the heart and unloose the tongue for praise.
4. True religion and human blessedness are coincident. "Honor for the righteous!" wilt be the burden of the song; "Hope to the pious!" the LXX. render. The Jews are meant in the first place, as the chosen people; then probably the elect of all nations, as typified in them. "When the prophet predicted these things, how incredible might they appear to be! for among the Jews alone was the Lord known and praised (Psalm 76:2). To them destruction is foretold, and next the publication of the words and the celebration of the praises of God; but how shall these things be done, when the people of God had been destroyed? Hence we may infer that there were few who believed these predictions. But now that these events have taken place, it is our duty to behold with admiration so great a miracle of God, because, when the Jews had been not only beaten down, but almost annihilated, still there flashed from them a spark by which the whole world was enlightened, and all who were kindled by it broke forth into a confession of the truth" (Calvin).
V. REVULSION OF FEELING. Before this spiritual restoration can come about, an interval of misery must be passed through. A cry of intense pain escapes the prophet's heart: "Wasting away is for me! wasting away is for me!" He sees and feels, with realizing imagination and sympathy, the barbarous oppression from which his people will suffer. Wave upon wave of calamity seems to roll in from the horizon. To escape from the "terror" is to fall into the "pit," to come up from the "pit" is only to be taken in the snare. The windows of heaven will be opened, and a new deluge will cover the earth, which will tremble as with universal shock. Then Jehovah will "hold visitation upon the host of the highest in the height, and upon the kings of the earth upon the earth." They will be imprisoned and shut up in the prison of the lower world. Then there will be a visitation after many days: whether for the purpose of punishment or pardon, the prophet does not say, and commentators are divided. Amidst the obscurity of the passage, some truth that may be used for edification appears to glimmer. All that takes place on the earthly sphere has reference to a supernatural world. There are in a sense "angels" of nations and of men. The rabbinical saying runs that "God never destroys a nation without having first of all destroyed its prince; i.e. the angel who, by whatever means he first obtained possession of the nation, has exerted an ungodly influence upon it. "Just as, according to the scriptural view, both good and evil angels attach themselves to particular men, and an elevated state of mind may sometimes afford a glimpse of this encircling company and this conflict of spirits; so do the angels contend for the rule over nations and kingdoms, either to guide them in the way of God, or to lead them astray from God; therefore the judgment upon nations will be a judgment upon angels also. The kingdom of spirit has its own history running parallel to the destinies of men" (Delitzsch).
VI. FINAL APOCALYPSE OF DIVINE GLORY. The moon blushes and the sun turns pale, and Jehovah of hosts reigns royally upon Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and the elders or representatives of the people are permitted to gaze upon his glory (cf. Exodus 24:9; Exodus 34:29). The glory of nature fades before the surpassing glory of the spiritual and eternal. Our noblest sense is that of vision, and its exercise involves that of imagination. The bright heavenly bodies delight us in part because they are significant and symbolic of light in the intellectual and moral sphere, of him who set them yonder, and who is the Light of the world. We can think of nothing more glorious than the light of the sun, except the glory of the Sun of Righteousness. That must be seen in the soul, in the conscience. And to come finally to the beatific vision; in purity of heart to see God; to close with the great Object who lies behind all the finite objects of our intellectual research; to enjoy that reposeful contemplation of the eternal beauty, of which every imperfect flash and hint reminds us in this twilight of life; - this is the goal of spiritual aspiration in every time, as it was of the prophet's wishful thought, piercing through the darkness of the future. - J.
Parallel VersesKJV: Behold, the LORD maketh the earth empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down, and scattereth abroad the inhabitants thereof.