Light appears where least expected. Can these words be applied to Christmas Day?
Peace at last! What is in the Name? Growth here suggests growth in heaven.
Is Christ's kingdom everlasting if it be given up? The sad refrain.
Dense indeed was the darkness in which the last chapter closed, but as it is ever darkest before dawn, so we might expect the brightest dawning to follow such darkness. That expectation would not be unjustified by the scripture itself, for the last verse of chapter 8 tells us of some who prefer any source of assumed intelligence (even though it be diabolical) to the "Word and the Testimony," and who will suffer the consequences of that fatal choice—to them that dawning shall never rise. But the inference is inevitable that there are others, who do cleave to that "Word and Testimony," on whom that light shall break. In this chapter, then, we see that light rising where least expected.
1: Nor shall the gloom beThe exact translation of this passage has been much disputed. The question at issue hinges largely on the precise rendering of one single word which is capable of entirely opposite meanings; and, as the one or the other is given to it, so the rest of the verse is to be understood.
That word is translated in our A. V. "more grievously afflict," and, if this be the right sense here, the antithesis compels reading the preceding context, "At the first did lightly afflict." But the R. V. (with many others) translates the same word in quite the opposite sense: "Hath made it glorious," and then reads the whole verse in conformity with this: "In the former time He brought the land of Zebulon . . . into contempt; but in the latter time hath made it glorious."
Here is indeed a difference! Shall we say that in the latter time greater affliction, or greater honor, comes to this northern part of the land? Our confidence in "God and the Word of His grace" is not shaken by these apparent anomalies. We say either that the difference is of no importance whatever, or the ambiguity itself has been divinely intended, and that both readings have their place; that is, there is what we may term a "near-by," or historical fulfilment, and God did at first afflict the north-eastern portion of the land comparatively light, in the invasions of the Syrians (1 Kings 15:20); and, in a later day, brought heavier suffering upon that same portion, in the carrying away of the people into captivity by the Assyrians (2 Kings 15:29).
But the final intent in the mind of the Holy Spirit looks far beyond that history, for it is Christ who alone is the final fulfilment of this, as of all prophecies, for He did also "make glorious" that same despised district, which had been brought into such contempt that it had become proverbial*—made it glorious by the Lord of Glory coming as the Light to dwell there, for so the Spirit of God uses this passage in the Gospel of Matthew (4:12-16).
Jesus departed into Galilee, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying: The land of Zebulon, and the land of Naphthalim, the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people which sat in darkness saw great light, etc.But in quoting from this scripture, it will be noticed that Matthew omits the ambiguous word rendered, "more grievously afflict." Had he quoted it, that of course would have settled the question; but he leaves out just that part of the quotation entirely, and all we are certain about is that Jesus is the "great light," and that, refusing that center of religious pretension, Judea, He makes His dwelling in that confessedly dark land, sunken to the level of the Gentiles, and loaded with contempt, but, by doing so "loads it with honor," and even the Gentiles who share in the darkness share in the Light. That is quite enough for us to know.
Neither rendering transgresses any lexical or grammatical rule, neither is opposed to any scripture; both are in full harmony with all Scripture; so either, or both, may be adopted without loss or hurt, and the very ambiguity may be of divine intent.
Between verses 2 and 3, we clearly have one of those strange parentheses that are not uncommon in the holy Word of God, and that give room for that heavenly work that was in the mind of God before the foundation of the world, as Eph. 1:4 speaks. In this case, nineteen centuries have passed since that great Light brought to highest honor the dark road by the sea, where Galilee itself is no longer Galilee of Israel, but Galilee of the Gentiles. They are all on one sea-level morally—"there is no difference."
In the next verse we see that nation (as a nation, mark), rejoicing with a joy that can only be illustrated by the peaceful thanksgiving of a harvest successfully garnered and by a victory in a battle that had been well-nigh lost.
If I ask: "Have you ever heard or read of the Jews, as a nation, thus rejoicing?" your answer will at once be: "Far from it; wherever I read or have heard of the Jews since Isaiah's day, they have been in oppression, and in the distress that accompanies that condition. No, the Jews in all those centuries have never been a joyous people." And yet here it is a jubilant nation.
This and similar difficulties have led to the application of this and other such prophecies to the Church. It is a basic mistake! The Church is not a nation at all, but a Body, taken out of the nations (Acts 15:14), whilst Israel is indeed a nation that is like an individual who has died and has been buried, but it too shall have a national resurrection, as our book will in due course show. But between this day of their sorrow and that of their song, lie still deeper distresses, that will be ended forever when they find the rejected Jesus is their promised Messiah, as in verse 6. Though a little pious remnant were awaiting Him, and both angels above, and little children below, "perfected praise," let us be careful not to deduce that the nation itself welcomed Him: its representatives—rulers, scribes, Pharisees—were almost a unit in turning from the Light till they led the thoughtless mass to cry: "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!" No! The Jew is not being preserved, whilst scattered, for nothing. He must again travel through that "dimness of anguish," terrors still await poor "Jacob," but he shall be saved out of them. Then comes this song:
3: Thou hast enlargedVerse three brings a most important question: "Thou hast multiplied the nation and increased its joy," cries the joyful prophet. What nation can that be but that one that alone is beloved as a nation "for the fathers' sakes"? As surely as the Jewish nation must be here in view, so not one letter of this is as yet fulfilled in Christendom at all! It is, it must be, still future. We are living then, between the second and third verses of this chapter of Isaiah, in that unnoticed, and (to every Old Testament writer) absolutely unknown parenthesis in the course of time of which the Spirit of God frequently speaks in the New Testament, as for example:
"Now to Him that is of power to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, but now is made . . . known to all nations for the obedience of faith" (Rom. 16:25, 26).Here in Romans is a glad tidings, not for one nation, but for "all nations." In Isaiah is a glad tidings, not for all nations, but for one! Is not the distinction clear?
Oh, the joy of that hour to the poor, long-suffering, but ever-beloved, and now redeemed nation! It is indeed "life from the dead" (Rom. 11:15). Israel has been, and is, even in this resurrection, a type for us (1 Cor. 10). Nothing could give us a clearer figure of the individual resurrection of the dead than that of this long-buried nation sleeping "in the dust of the earth." So, as we listen to the joy of Israel, we get a feeble pattern of the joy of that long-looked-for morn of resurrection, drawing, as we fondly hope, so near now, and can consider the details with increased interest, for that joy foreshadows ours, when He comes for us.
Two figures are employed to express that gladness. First, "they joy before Thee according to the joy of harvest." Indeed, it is Israel's great ingathering, the feast of tabernacles. Today Israel's year lacks its completion. The feasts that we may call ours, Passover, Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, are all fulfilled, but Israel's feasts of Trumpets, Atonement and Tabernacles are all still in the future. But at that future time, Jesus will not come up to that feast as once He did, "as it were in secret" (John 7:10), but very openly, with clouds and great glory, and every eye sees Him. Jerusalem again will have been captured, and suffered all the horrors of a captured city (Zech. 14). The little remnant of faith that will hold the citadel against the armies of the then world-power will be about to be exterminated; then He will come for their deliverance. Well may they exult!
But in that joy there will be another element, of which Christians ought to know nothing—it is victory over human foes.Those foes, cries Messiah, identifying Himself with His earthly people as a nation, have "compassed Me about like bees, but in the name of the Lord will I destroy them" (Ps. 118:11), so there will be not only the joy of peaceful harvest, but of victory in battle.
It is Jehovah's intervention again: once more the nation will be delivered from the taskmaster. Israel is likened to a poor beast of burden, the neck under the yoke, the shoulder pierced with goads, the back scored with the driver's rod; all these indignities are inflicted on Messiah's people till He interposes, and breaks all these to splinters. It is as in the day of Midian, when 300 men, without weapons, armed only with trumpets, lamps, and broken pitchers, defeated all the mighty host of Midian.
Now all the military equipments, all the munitions of war, even to the personal accoutrements of the soldiery, are burned as never to be needed more (ver. 5). Israel's wars are ended forever. Has anything of this kind ever taken place? There was a peace when Jesus was born in Bethlehem: it was the "pax Romana," a peace maintained by the very weapons needed for it to be maintained. The last war was to lead to a universal, permanent peace. What a baseless dream! Why will men disappoint themselves? Nothing can be more sure than that no human diplomacy, no league of nations, no triumph of democracy—nothing can bring permanent peace to this war-distracted scene save the return of its rightful King to assume its government and oust the usurper, that evil spirit, who is even now enthroned in it. It is Jesus, and He alone, who shall break the arrow of the bow (Ps. 76:13). He, and He alone, shall make wars to cease to the end of the earth (Ps. 46:9); for He, and He alone, can consummate this work, made sure by His atoning death, and cast out Satan from his usurped throne. All Scripture, with convincing harmony, witnesses to this truth, so utterly ignored by all the statesmen of the earth, that as long as that rebellious and usurping spirit called Satan, or the Devil, has his throne where it is this day, on and over the earth, and is not actually cast out into the bottomless pit, wars and wars of ever more violent intensity, will correctly, but sorrowfully enough, express that Usurper's reign.The explanation of all that precedes is given in verse 6. What, or who, has caused all these war-equipments to be destroyed? The answer is another grand chant or song:
6: For unto us a Child is born,Here again we come to a passage overflowing with blessing, yet inviting some prayerful scrutiny, for there are questions in connection with it that we may well ask. "Unto us a Child is born," sings the prophet. But who is meant by "us"? The common answer is, "All mankind." It is assumed to synchronize with that song of the angelic host, "of good tidings of great joy . . . for unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord." But we must then repeat our question, Did mankind thus sing with joy at that birth? Did mankind as a race respond joyfully with, "Unto us a Child is born?" Far from it; the mass of men knew nothing of His birth, and when they saw Him they despised, rejected, and finally crucified Him as the lowest of criminals: Jew and Gentile uniting in spitting on His face, in loading Him with shame and reproach, and in casting Him out of the earth altogether! If that be true, not only is it impossible to see all mankind in the joyous speakers here, but it most justly becomes all mankind (who are today but later reproductions of the same generation who thus dealt with Him) to make the assumed date of His birth to be anything but a day of feasting and revelry. chap. 66:7 it is the birth of One—a Man-child, in whom we have no difficulty in again discerning our Lord, but as the Messiah of Israel. But, mark, He is born before Israel's travail-pains, as that time of distress, the Great Tribulation, is called (Matt. 24:8). But in the next verse, 8, a whole nation is born in a day, and that birth is the fruit of the "travail-pains" of the Great Tribulation, by which the remnant has been severed from the apostate mass, and is owned as the nation of Israel. That is the nation that is speaking in verses 3-7 of this chapter. When the nation is thus new-born it will be as if Messiah were but just then born to them as a nation, although the literal birth occurred 2,000 years before. The birth they thus celebrate, is His birth to them at that time, and the song is, as it were, a continuance of those in Luke.
Thus it is not to the Church that He is born here—nor to the world of men at large.* But that does not nullify the truth that the purpose of His coming into the world is indeed an everlasting source of joy to faith, and that faith will adore the One who "so loved the world" as to send His Son, "not to condemn, but that the world through Him might be saved." That is both infinitely precious and true, but what we have before us now is the precise bearing of these verses 3-7 in Isaiah, and here it is the same Christ born to Israel at that time. Nor must we altogether ignore that our prophet is also a poet and is writing his divine truth in poetic terms. Thus the very bursting on the consciousness of that renewed nation of the tremendous truth that their Deliverer is the Jesus whom they had rejected is perfectly expressed in His birth to them.
So we conclude that the "unto us" refers beyond all question to the only nation ever elected as a nation—the only people among whom the prophet could put himself in saying "unto us." At this time of exalted joy they fully discern in their Deliverer the virgin's Son, Immanuel, promised as the sign in chapter seven.
As Israel's whole history, with all its recorded vicissitudes, gives types of the exercises of the individual Christian, so do the experiences through which the Christian passes, throw back their light on Israel. Thus the Christian may learn all about the birth of Christ at Bethlehem even as a child, but little does it mean, and nothing does he profit, until he awakens, by a divinely quickened faith, to his own personal possession or part in that One so born. But when he does awaken to this mighty truth, that the Lord is his, when for the first time he really knows that he—poor sinner as he is—is the object of His redeeming love, then it is, and not till then, that the Lord is born to him. Is that not true? Has it not been your experience? Then that is precisely what shall occur to that elect nation, when it is new-born in a day (chap. 66:8): long after the land of Zebulon and the land of Napthali saw that great Light (Matt. 4:15, 16).
Now let us listen to the names of glory that the Spirit delights to adorn Him with. They are like the bells on the High-priest's garment, for they ring His praise: Wonderful! Counsellor! The Mighty God! The Father of Eternity! Prince of Peace! Grand and beautiful as they are, there is not one that is not included and enwrapped in the one we know best—"Jesus," for,
"His name encircles every grace
This is unquestionable, for whilst none of these names was ever formally or literally given to Him, any more than that of Immanuel, yet as we have no difficulty in discerning in the Babe divinely named Jesus, the Immanuel of Isaiah, so does that same divine-human Name embrace and include all these five.
"WONDERFUL!" This is not an adjective here, nor is this the first time that we find it as a name. "Why askest thou after my name?" the Angel of the Lord (the Lord Himself in that form) had asked of Manoah, "seeing it is 'Wonderful'" (Judges 13:18), precisely the same word as in our chapter, but in its adjectival form, and it both expresses and hides the Speaker as Incomprehensible. "Wonderful!" indeed then He is, not only in what He says or does, but in the unfathomable mysteries of His own Person, for "none knoweth the Son but the Father." None by searching can find Him out: and when He does come forth to the sight of men He has "a name written that no man knows but Himself" (Rev. 19:21). Too many have attempted to fathom that Name, but in no case has it resulted in anything but humiliating failure.
See how He proved Himself "Wonderful" in that interview with our poor brother (I so speak of him because of his dim insight, so like our own in this day) Manoah, in Judges 13. That poor man would in kindliness and courtesy have given Him food; but see how it is declined, for he must discern someone far higher than a mere human guest. Would he offer, then it must be "to Jehovah." And this Manoah does. Poor enough was the kid in itself, but the "Wonderful One" made it of infinite value by adding Himself to it!
Closely corresponding with Manoah was that young man of Mark 10:17 who also offered Him courtesy in the word "Good Master"; but again He refuses the courtesy, and says in effect, "Thou must offer it to Jehovah," for he must discern in Him the only one who is really "good," that is God, for He only has title to such a term.
Every word that He spoke, every act He did, tells of Him as Wonderful. That He should be both sinless and the Friend of sinners, is infinitely wonderful; yet that is involved in the very name Jesus.
"COUNSELLOR." That He ever was to all, nor did He ever seek counsel from any. How often men, under the superior subtlety of their master, Satan, sought to put Him into such a dilemma that, no matter what He said, He must condemn Himself, or refute His own claims. Did He in such cases take counsel with any? Far from it! The challenge of the apostle can be applied to Him perfectly: "Who hath known the mind of the Lord, or who hath been His counsellor?" (Rom. 11:34). Never was there one instant's hesitation, never a reversal, modification, or regret for anything He ever said. As we see the subtle attacks of Pharisees in league with Herodians and later of Sadducees (Matt. 22); and of scribes and Pharisees in John 8, in spirit we fall at His feet and cry adoringly, "In Thy fathomless wisdom Thou art well named Counsellor!"
"THE MIGHTY GOD." All the efforts of rationalists to take off this pivotal central Name by rendering "El Gibbohr" as "Hero of strength," or "Hero-God," come to nothing, since we have precisely the same name applied to Him to whom the remnant shall return in chap. 10:21. It is as simple, clear, unequivocal a claim of supreme deity for Messiah as could be expressed in human language, yet not more so than in every word He said, every act He did. To give but two proofs of this: Who, but the Mighty God, could have said without instant reprobation, "If a man come to Me, and hate not his father, mother, wife and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple"? Only Incarnate Love who could give another love compared with which that of the dearest relationship on earth is but "hate,"—could give another Life, with which this brief death-shadowed existence could bear no comparison; could have so spoken without being either condemned as the most blasphemous of men, or compassionated as the most insane. Or who could say, "Before Abraham was I AM"? We discern Him but dimly, but even that dim discernment is enough again to make us fall at His feet as we worship Him as "The Mighty God."
"FATHER OF ETERNITY," to which He is entitled as being the only One who so makes "all things new" (Rev. 21:5) as to justify their being eternal. Do you not often ask yourself, Is it possible for the present condition of things to be everlasting? Is Satan to be permitted to usurp the throne of this earth's true King forever with all the consequent miseries? It is impossible. The "mystery of God," that is, the permission of evil by absolute Good, has about come to its end, for the seventh angel is about to sound (Rev. 10:7), and our Lord, Christ, is the Father of conditions that shall never change.
"PRINCE OF PEACE." Precisely in the same way as He is Father of Eternity, so is He Prince of Peace. He is the Author of conditions that involve everlasting, unbroken peace. The waters of the past eternity were unruffled until he who is a sinner from the beginning broke their peace by his rebellion (1 John 3:8), nor is there to this day anything to justify our poet's lines:
. . . . . . and what remains
No, dear Cowper, no. Many a storm shall still break on this devoted earth, and the fiercest of all is still to come, when man's foe, the Devil, shall be cast out of heaven to the earth, and have great wrath because he knows that his time there is short. Till then all man's efforts are utterly vain, and serve only to evidence his incompetence to govern. When He is thus manifested as Prince of Peace, we shall also be manifested with Him in glory (Col. 3:4), for having been first caught up to be with Him, we shall accompany Him on the final stage of His return (1 Thess. 4:13-18).
Having seated Messiah upon His throne, our prophecy follows Him there. His kingdom ever grows: the peace that characterizes it ever extends. Indeed, being divine, this is inevitable, for nothing that is of God can possibly stagnate. Stagnation is the mark of death: growth is the surest evidence of life. Stagnant water we call "dead" water, while the running waters of a spring are termed "living." So with His kingdom there is never stagnation; of its increase there is no end. Note then that here it is the Throne of David, with the limitations of that throne to Israel and the land between the Nile and Euphrates. But it "increases," and that throne seen in Ps. 2 grows to the throne of Ps. 8, where we see everything on earth put under His feet as Son of Man. How greatly has His kingdom increased! All things are within the sway of that sceptre. In this rule the heavenly saints share. It is the distinct promise to the Church as seen in Thyatira; in Revelation 20 it is fulfilment; "the first resurrection" being completed by those who have suffered martyrdom under the two "Beasts" in the day of the "Great Tribulation" joining those who had preceded them (Rev. 20:4). The boundaries of this kingdom is the earth. But still it "increases," and where can it now extend? There is to be "no end" to its increase, then it must have a boundless limitless sphere, as the kingdom of the Son of God. Earth is too small now. Even the rule as Son of Man is too limited. The universe without any bounds—an idea that no finite mind can compass—is finally, after the millennial reign, the ever-increasing kingdom of Him who for us died upon the tree! In that final rule no creature shares, for then God is all in all (1 Cor. 15:28). But we have a place that is not less happy, even if it is not that of rule—we still shall "serve." Does that appeal to us less than ruling? Surely not, for it was in that lowly guise we first knew Him who came not to be ministered unto but to minister and to give His life a ransom for many. What a blessedness there is in the very thought of such an infinity of time! No weariness! Ever fresh unfoldings of divine attractions and glories that forbid all such weariness as is due to those ceaseless revolutions "under the Sun," that caused the wisest of men to groan again and again, "Vanity." Here there is "no new thing" (Eccl. 1:10); there, "all things new" forever, to all eternity new.
All this surely means that there shall be no limit to His reign, either in its duration or in its extent. Yet, on the other hand, is not Scripture equally explicit that His reign does end? Is it not written, "Then cometh the end, when He shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father" (1 Cor. 15:24)? How can He "deliver" it up, if it never ends? How can it never end if it be delivered up? Does not that end it?
Now this is esteemed a satisfactory proof by some that the word rendered "forever and ever" does not carry the unqualified force that we have connected with it; for, as Messiah's kingdom is "forever and ever" and yet is "delivered up" (and so, it is assumed, ended), so those conditions of the finally impenitent which are also said to be "forever and ever" will also come to an end: that is, Scripture does not teach the eternity of retribution; but that even Judas will be finally saved, and Satan fully restored.
Far too solemn are such themes to be the subjects of mere controversy, but they call the more insistently for examination as unbiased as is posible. Yet I must be very brief, and it will be enough to point out that there is a vast difference in Scripture between a kingdom coming to "an end" through the incompetence of its administrator, and being "given up" in perfection to the one from whom it had been received. In this latter case there is still "no end," for it is continued in Him to whom it has thus been given. All the kingdoms and empires of earth end because of their wickedness and incompetence. On the other hand, the replacing in God the Father's hands, in perfect order, with every evil eliminated, of the kingdom received from Him, is essentially different. For even after He has delivered up that perfect kingdom, the King, who has ruled in righteousness for a thousand years, still reigns forever and ever in, and as one with, God, who is all in all.
This is "the day of man" (1 Cor. 4:3, marg.), government is in his hands; it is soon to come to its end, and be followed by "the day of the Lord." Will then man's rule have ceased entirely in that day in which the Lord alone is to be exalted? (Isaiah 2:17). Or do we see in that alone-exalted Lord, a Man, and One in whom man is still reigning, and man's rule has not come to an end; as it is written, "For unto the angels hath He not put in subjection the age to come, whereof we speak, but one in a certain place testified, What is man, that Thou art mindful of him? . . . Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet," and this is directly applied to Jesus. So that while the rule of man in one sense ends, in another and equally true sense, it continues in the Son of Man, Christ Jesus, who is both Man and the Lord, and who is "alone exalted in that day."
But that "day of the Lord" is in its turn followed by that eternal day, called "the day of God" (2 Peter 3:12). Does then that Lord of glory cease to reign, in every sense, or continue to reign, in God (as man continued to reign in Him), for ever and ever? There can be but one answer.
The kingdom of the Son of Man—of Jesus, seen as the perfect representative Man—is surely limited in time. This kingdom He shares with His saints—"they live and reign with Him a thousand years"—and, interpret that as you will, literally or figuratively, it can hardly mean anything else than a certain limited time.
But He is not only Son of Man, He is Son of God, and of His kingdom, in that specific relationship, there is "no end," in the most literal and simple force of the words: "Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever."
But it is neither as Son of Man nor Son of God that we see Him in our verse, but rather as Son of David. Thus, we may say He has three thrones—three spheres of rule—first, over Israel as Son of David; then, over the whole earth as Son of Man; finally, over heaven and earth—all things visible and invisible, as Son Of God.
"The zeal of Jehovah Tzebaoth will effect this." Through all dispensations God is burning with jealousy for just one object, the glory of His beloved Son, in whom is all His delight. Let that Poor nation of Israel, so long under the rod for the crucifixion of His Son, but turn to Him, and at once the zeal of wrath becomes the zeal of love, and shall bring it to the head of the nations of the earth. Let one poor, sinful Gentile but give Him, the Lord Jesus, the confidence of his heart, and at once wrath no longer abides on him (John 3:36), but that same zeal of love enwraps him as embraces the Son Himself. But on the other hand, let the professed people of God, those nations that have taken the name of Christ, and call themselves the "Christian nations," turn from His Son, make little of Him (as, alas, they have done!), and the zeal of God burns against them; but all works to His final fixed purpose to bring Messiah to that throne, here foretold.
Thus the zeal of Jehovah burns to bring the once-despised Jesus to the rule of heaven and earth, till "every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God, the Father." "Blessed are all they that put their trust in Him."
We must now return for a time, and, as in the pages of our own prophet John, listen to "thunderings, voices and lightnings," in threats of those judgments that must precede those days of joy. Yet may we remember for our comfort, that we are over 2,500 years beyond the time Isaiah wrote, and "our salvation is nearer than when we believed."
Thus, after this burst of joy caused by the revelation of Jesus as the true Messiah, we return to the line of the prophecy broken off from the fifth chapter. This is evidenced by the resumption of that sad cry in verse 25 of that chapter: "For all this, His anger is not turned away, but His hand is stretched out still," and making it a refrain by which this part is divided. But if chapter five began in song and ended in sorrow, this part, chap. 9:8-12, reversing this order, begins in sorrow and ends in song.
We come then to chaps. 9:8 to 10:4, in which the Assyrian is used as the rod of Jehovah, clearly divided for us into four strophes, each ending with the doleful refrain to which we have already alluded.
8: A word unto Jacob, Adonai hath sent,A threatening word is sent to Jacob and reaches its intended mark first in the ten northern tribes, but passes on to the whole of Israel. The first droppings of the storm that shall sweep Ephraim away have fallen; how are they met? Do they search out and confess that the cause of the infliction is in their own evil ways? Not at all. They are filled with that "superb courage" that is so highly esteemed among men. Not in the least depressed, but despising all pessimism, they will make the very disaster a benefit by replacing the inferior brick and sycamore buildings with stone and cedar.
Rezin, the king of Syria, had also his foe, and that same foe, the Assyrian, shall not only put an end to Ephraim, but shall invade Judah and threaten Jerusalem, for the language here used seems impossible to be confined to the northern kingdom. The "word" goes on in its course, eventually involving Judah, as the next chapter clearly evidences. That gives point to verse 12, for the Philistines never troubled the northern kingdom: their attacks were ever against Judah.
Human nature is unchanged from that day to this! Nor are there ever lacking, in such times of national chastening, plenty of false prophets to silence the voice of conscience, and prophesy the smooth things that the ear of man loves to hear. Even to this day God's hand is the very last thing that is seen in calamities, disasters, sufferings, sorrows, wars, earthquakes, desolations, famines—the very last. If He be referred to at all, it is but too often to throw on Him the arbitrary and causeless responsibility for the infliction, and to charge Him with being the Unjust Cause of the suffering—our sin has nothing to do with it!
This brings us to the second strophe contained in verses 13 to 17, in which that outstretched Hand of Jehovah falls again heavily on the people, who, although stricken, turn not in genuine repentance to the Hand that has smitten, with confession that their sin necessitated, and that love has prompted the blow; but they again harden their hearts and "despise the chastening of the Lord."
13: For not to their Smiter do this people turn,Thus the blow falls again, and this time on the leaders, those who on the one hand are most highly esteemed in civil life, and who have been accorded positions of honor on account of their age; and, on the other, on the spiritual leaders, called lying prophets: the two political divisions of mankind that will head up in the last days in the "Beast" and "False Prophet," or Antichrist. The former are likened to the majestic palm-branch, in a dignity that Jehovah Himself recognizes, in some sort, as really their due; but as to those who assume a position of spiritual superiority over the people, on these He throws utter contempt. They are but as the mire-rush or as the "tail"; for as a dog fawns on its master with wagging tail, so do these pretended prophets seek only to please their hearers by prophesying the smooth things their itching ears demand. There would appear nothing so despicable in the eye of God as that same religious pretension of which our Lord has said, "Which thing I hate" (Rev. 2:15). But the leaders in both spheres, civil and spiritual, are mis-leaders: the blind are leading the blind, and both come to the same end.
There is something peculiarly terrible and perplexing in the Father of mercies denying Himself the property of mercy even toward the innocent and helpless: looking on apparently unmoved while little children and helpless widows are involved in some universal calamity. There is no discrimination, all suffer alike; for all are component parts of the nation, and it is the nation, as such, not the individual, that is in view when God is thus dealing with the earth in government. Of course, the nation is composed of individuals, but the individual suffering is, in such cases, no evidence of wrath or judgment upon that individual. God is not making personal selections in that way.
So, today, Christendom is but Israel "writ large," as we may say; and have we not heard on all sides the questions: "Why does not God stop human misery? If any mere man having the slightest sentiment of humanity, had the power, would he not put a stop to the suffering at least of the innocent, and let the inflictions fall on those who deserved them? What have widows or little children done that they should be dealt with so mercilessly?" It is an old, old question due to the utter absence apparently of all moral discrimination in the providential government of the earth. The best of men, Job, in his bitter trial wailed, "If the scourge slay suddenly"—that is, if some wide-spread calamity is sent on men, is there any discrimination? Nay. "He mocks at the trial of the innocent" (Job 9:23): there is no discrimination, no pity for the guiltless. There is, apparently, when the soul is on the rack of suffering, only mockery in the very shining of the sun, the rippling of the waters, the singing of the birds; these very sounds that in other times would soothe and cheer, only increase our grief by their discord with it. Then Job adds, "The earth is given over into the hand of the wicked." Could any infidel speak more bitterly? And yet how true it appears to be. How many who are not infidels have repeated that groan. There is no evidence of a just Governor of the earth; it is given over to wickedness.
The light of the whole revelation that God, in His goodness, has given us must be patiently and prayerfully pondered, for it solves the problem, in showing the relative positions of Jesus, the Son of Man, the true King of this earth, on the one hand: and on the other, that of him who is, by creation, the highest of all created intelligences, yet now a rebel, and usurper of this earth's government, the Devil. All earth's discords, injustices, inequalities and calamities are in perfect harmony with the true King rejected and Satan's throne being still here: while, to our unspeakable comfort, One who loves us over-rules all things, so that they "work together," notwithstanding all the confusion, for our truest good in conforming us to the image of His Son.
The next strophe—verses 18 to 21—takes us another step along that path of sorrow that Israel is treading at this time. She is left alone—given up! It is as if a fire were left to work as it would in a mass of inflammable matter, without hindrance.
18: For like a fire doth wickedness burn,The word rendered "wickedness" has in it the idea of a wilful turning away from known truth. It is not applied to mere ignorant wrong-doing. Where truth is known and thus wilfully rejected, there, sooner or later, the rejecters are given up, and left to themselves. Then, unchecked and unhindered, that fire of the perverse human will burns, and, as it burns, provides its own fuel. In the pictorial language of prophecy, the "thorns and briers" that express so graphically man's fallen state, keep the fire ever burning.
This suggests to us a solution of another sad problem in the drama of the ages: the eternity of punishment. As long as ungodliness is in the lake of fire, so long shall that fire continue to burn. Eternity of character alone necessitates eternity of penalty.
This is not due to the sins committed during the few short years of life, as people sometimes allege. It is indeed life, whether it come from Adam or from Christ, that determines the final abode, and the seriousness of the infliction, the many or the few stripes, depends upon privileges unavailed of, and, in this respect there are as many divergencies in heaven or hell as there are individuals; but the continuance of dwelling depends on the continuance of the life in accord with that dwelling.
But Jehovah leaves His people to themselves. Thus given up, the conflagration rages. The tie with Him being broken, none other is respected; brother spares not brother, man's sword is turned against his own kin, and the poor earth, answering to the miserable condition of the man upon it, becomes like a charred cinder. No real victory is ever attained by fratricidal strife: there is nothing but poverty and loss in both defeat and victory. Famine follows, as the handmaid of such war. If brethren do unite, it is not against a common enemy, but against a third brother, Judah. Fratricidal strife is the surest evidence of divine penalty on all.