Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD; awake, as in the ancient days, in the generations of old…
(with Isaiah 52:1 (a)): — Both these verses are, I think, to be regarded as spoken by one voice, that of the Servant of the Lord. In the one, as Priest and Intercessor, He lifts the prayers of earth to heaven in His own holy hands — and in the other, as Messenger and Word of God, He brings the answer and command of heaven to earth on His own authoritative lips — thus setting forth the deep mystery of His person and double office as mediator between man and God. But even if we set aside that thought the correspondence and relation of the two passages remain the same. In any case they are intentionally parallel in form and connected in substance. The latter is the answer to the former. The cry of Zion is responded to by the call of God. The awaking of the arm of the Lord is followed by the awaking of the Church. He puts on strength in clothing us with His might, which becomes ours.
I. We have here a common principle underlying both the clauses, namely, THE OCCURRENCE IN THE CHURCH'S HISTORY OF SUCCESSIVE PERIODS OF ENERGY AND OF LANGUOR. It is freely admitted that such alternation is not the highest ideal of growth, either in the individual or in the community. Our Lord's own parables set forth a more excellent way — the way of uninterrupted increase. So might our growth be, if the mysterious life in the seed met no checks. But, as a matter of fact, the Church has not thus grown. Rather, at the best, its emblem is to be looked for, not in corn but in the forest tree — the very rings in whose trunk tell of recurring seasons when the sap has risen at the call of spring, and sunk again before the frowns of winter. In our own hearts we have known such times. And we have seen a like palsy smite whole regions and ages of the Church of God. Where is the joyful buoyancy and expansive power with which the Gospel burst into the world? If, then, there be such recurring seasons of languor, they must either go on deepening till sleep becomes death, or they must be broken by a new outburst of vigorous life. And it is by such times that the Kingdom of Christ always has grown. Its history has been one of successive impulses gradually exhausted, as by friction and gravity, and mercifully repeated just at the moment when it was ceasing to advance and had begun to slide downwards.
II. THE TWOFOLD EXPLANATION OF THESE VARIATIONS. That bold metaphor of God sleeping and waking is often found in Scripture, and generally expresses the contrast between the long years of patient forbearance, during which evil things and evil men go on their rebellious road unchecked but by Love, and the dread moment when some throne of iniquity is smitten to the dust. Such is the original application of the expression here. But the contrast may fairly be widened beyond that specific form of it, and taken to express any apparent variations in the forth-putting of His power. We may, then, see here implied the cause of these alternations on its Divine side, and then, in the corresponding verse addressed to the Church, the cause on the human side.
1. As to the former. We have to distinguish between the power, and what Paul calls "the might of the power." The one is final, constant, unchangeable. It does not necessarily follow that the other is. The rate of operation, so to speak, and the amount of energy actually brought into play may vary, though the force remains the same.
2. Our second text tells us that if God's arm seems to slumber, and really does so, it is because Zion sleeps. He works through us; and we have the solemn and awful power of checking the might which would flow through us.
III. THE BEGINNING OF ALL AWAKING IS THE CHURCH'S EARNEST CRY TO GOD. It is with us as with infants, the first sign of whose awaking is a cry. For every such stirring of quickened religious life must needs have in it bitter penitence and pain at the discovery flashed upon us of the wretched deadness of our past. Nor is Zion s cry to God only the beginning and sign of all true awaking; it is also the condition and indispensable precursor of all perfecting of recovery from spiritual languor. Look at the passionate earnestness of it — and see to it that our drowsy prayers be like it. Look at the grand confidence with which it founds itself on the past, recounting the mighty deeds of ancient days, and looking back, not for despair, but for joyful confidence on the generations of old; and let our faint-hearted faith be quickened by the example, to expect great things of God.
IV. THE ANSWERING CALL FROM GOD TO ZION. Our truest prayers are but the echo of God's promises. God's best answers are the echo of our prayers. As in two mirrors set opposite to each other, the same image is repeated over and over again, the reflection of a reflection, so here, within the prayer, gleams an earlier promise, within the answer is mirrored the prayer. And in that reverberation, and giving back to us of our petition transformed into a command, we are not to see a dismissal of it as if we had misapprehended our true want. The very opposite interpretation is the true one. The prayer of Zion is heard and answered. God awakes, and clothes Himself with might. Then, as some warrior king, himself roused from sleep and girded with flashing steel, bids the clarion sound through the grey twilight to summon the prostrate ranks that lie round his tent, so the sign of God's awaking and the first act of His conquering might is this trumpet call — "The night is far spent, the day is at hand" — "put off the works of darkness," the night gear that was fit for slumber — "and put on the armour of light," the mail of purity that gleams and glitters even in the dim dawn. Nor is it to be forgotten that this, like all God s commands, carries in its heart a promise. But the main point which I would insist on is the practical discipline which this Divine summons requires from us.
1. The chief means of quickened life and strength is deepened communion with Christ.
2. This summons calls us to the faithful use of the power which, on condition of that communion, we have. So, let us confidently look for times of blessing, penitently acknowledge that our own faithlessness has hindered the arm of the Lord, earnestly beseech Him to come in His rejoicing strength, and, drawing ever fresh power from constant communion with our dear Lord, use it to its last drop for Him.
(A. Maclaren, D.D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD; awake, as in the ancient days, in the generations of old. Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon?