Jerusalem comforted. The expiation of national sins. The three voices.
The marvelous structure of this chapter may merely provoke wonder without attracting the heart; let us then consider its lovely contents, taking the three parts in order.
The prophet is transported into another scene altogether than that in which he corporeally was. Precisely as the New Testament prophet, John, "became in Spirit in the Lord's day," and Patmos, with all man's injustice, disappears; he is where, by the very word "Lord's Day" in contrast with "man's day" (1 Cor. 4:3, marg.), he sees the Lord exercising just judgment in the midst of the golden candlesticks. In that atmosphere, so clear, so free of earth's obscurations, John sees far into the future, and in that future the rise again of Babylon in another form, the dominance of hostile powers over the Church of God, and its deliverance. For the plan of that book runs along in two strata, the upper occupied with the Church, and the lower with Israel on earth. So the stream of prophecy flows on through the pen of the New Testament Seer as it does through that of the Old, only the former closes by placing our feet, not on the borders of a millennium as does Isaiah, but on the shore of an eternity of bliss; but both end with a reminder of the inflexible righteousness of the government and the stern severity of God against all creature pride, all defiant wickedness.
In all this John is, in a large degree, the counterpart of Isaiah, nor is it one whit more marvelous that the Spirit should transport the Old Testament Seer into scenes still future, than that the same Spirit should do precisely the same with the Seer of the New Testament. Nor do the names of these chosen vessels tell anything but a harmonious story. Little difference is there between "Isaiah," "The salvation of Jehovah," and "John" (Shortened from "Jehohanan"), "The grace of Jehovah." Are they not practically the same? Let us then listen to the three announcements.
1: Comfort ye, O comfort ye My people, saith your God!The repetition of that first word "Comfort ye" is in itself eloquent of the emotion behind the cold print. It is far from being a cold argument that is being worked out; it is the very Heart of Jehovah that is speaking, and the repeated "Comfort ye" tells of the intensity of the emotion under which the words are spoken. It is, as we sometimes speak, a "heart-to-heart" word: Jehovah's Heart speaks to that of Israel. For now again He calls them ammi ("My people") who have been lo-ammi ("not My people") so long.
What limitless significance is there in that one word, ammi, "My people." He cannot possibly leave those whom He thus owns as His in the power of an enemy, whether that enemy be Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Persia, Rome, Antichrist, Devil, Death or Hades; for He is their God at last, their Satisfier, their All. Not the gifts, but the very Giver of all gifts is theirs now. But He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, and that necessitates the resurrection of Israel as a nation as it does the personal resurrection of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and that of everyone who has died through all the ages of time.
The second verse then must be interpreted in direct accord with this key-note; hence nothing that is not of the most tender nature can be admitted. To that city, so long down-trodden of the Gentiles, does Jehovah now speak, and tells her that her appointed time of trouble has at last come to its end, that her sufferings have been accepted as expiation for her guilt, and that she has in them received of the Lord's hand double that which her sin merited.
Thus this threefold "comfort" is all in one line. It is not a Judge who speaks, but rather One who is as a mother comforting her weeping child. It must not be looked upon then as a logical, precise, judicial estimate; but cold reason is bidden to stand aside, and Love is allowed to utter its heart, according to its own blessed illogical reasoning. Just as any mother who has been severely punishing her child, and a malicious neighbor, standing near, insists that the child should be chastised still more. "No," says the mother, as she takes the penitent little one on to her lap; "no, I know the seriousness of his fault, I do not belittle that, but I know too the severity of the punishment that he has suffered, and, in the estimation of my love, he has been punished double that which his naughtiness demanded."
This is not a fancy picture that has no Scripture to justify it. In that malignant neighbor it is surely not difficult to discern one who as the accuser ever opposes the forgiveness and blessing of erring mankind; and there is but One who can rebuke him!
This throws its light on the second member of the verse, "Her sin is expiated," and shows that that expiation is not by the sufferings of a substitute, but by "Jerusalem's" own. This will awaken astonishment and, indeed, questioning; but Jehovah's dealings with Jerusalem (the city standing for the whole nation) are but a picture of His dealings with mankind, where the issues are not for the earth, or in relation to its government, but for eternity, not with nations, but individuals. In His government of the earth, where the inhabitants are divided into nations, the wrong-doing of the nation is expiated, and can only be expiated, by that nation's sufferings as a nation on the earth. Nations, as such, are not rewarded in heaven, nor punished in Gehenna, for they do not exist there as nations.3But earth affords pictures of heaven, the seen helps us to grasp the unseen, and God's ways in truth, divinely recorded for us, give clarifying illustrations of eternal verities. It is thus that we see shadowed in our verse, God's estimate of the atoning sufferings of our Lord.
How filled with divine beauty then do these words, "She hath received of the Lord's hand double for all her sins," become in that light. You and I, believing reader, have also "received of the Lord's hand double for all our sins." It is not, as some greatly err (Oh, how greatly!) in saying that redemption is merely a strictly mercantile transaction, and the sin of the first Adam has been met with an exact "corresponding price" (as they love to put it) by the Last Adam. No, no; a thousand times no! Beneath that "thick darkness over all the land from the sixth to the ninth hour," we can hear One saying to us—even to us—that we there, and there only, have "received of the Lord's hand double for all our sins." What strength of humble, broken hearted, yet joyous confidence withal, that gives! That is Love's estimate—nay, more, that is the strict estimate of Righteousness—of those infinite sufferings of the Sinless One. Worthy of all worship is He! Of the value of those sufferings, the estimate of Israel's as here told is but a faint, faint shadow!
The second announcement in three parts follows:
3: Hark! A voice in the wilderness crying,In this second section we hear two voices, nor have we the slightest difficulty in identifying the first that is heard crying in the wilderness, for the Gospels have told us of one who when asked, "Who art thou then?" replied in the very words of our prophet that it was he, John the Baptist, who was neither Christ nor Elias, nor "that prophet," but only "a voice crying in the wilderness."
That is plain and unequivocal; but equally plain and unequivocal, and infinitely sweeter is it to discern in Him whose way John prepared, none other than Jehovah. The voice cries, "Clear the way for Jehovah!" Then if John is the voice, Jesus must be Jehovah!
With what divine skill is the essential deity of our Lord, His co-equality with God in oneness of life and nature, maintained in the Scriptures. Not only by such plain, simple, clear statements as, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God"; or "Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever," and many others (man's carnal mind at enmity with God may throw doubts and slurs on the genuineness of these didactic statements, irrefutable as they are), but so interwoven is that truth into the very warp and woof of the Scriptures that they must be torn to shreds and rejected in toto before that most fundamental truth can be annulled.
It was a very "cunning workman" that wove the literal veil of the Tabernacle, with its cherubic glories of blue, purple, scarlet, gold and fine-twined linen; but an infinitely more "Cunning Workman" wove the record of that inscrutable Person, the Anti-type to that veil. None can withdraw one single thread of those answering glories that the Spirit has revealed in Him; they shall bear their witness to the divine glory of His Person, the limitless value of His atoning work, untouched and unaffected by all the vain attacks of demon or man, from age to age, forever and forever!
"Clear the way for Jehovah," the first voice cries; fill up the valleys, lower the mountains, bring all to one dead level (or level of death), for only thus shall the figure express the truth that there is no difference in the poor sinful race to which He comes. Let all be buried in baptism, thus owning the justice of the sentence of death on the race (Rom. 5:12), and with all hope in flesh thus buried let them take the place of repentance, there to await—Whom? Jehovah? Aye; but shrink not, tremble not; it is indeed Jehovah who comes, but He is to be found in Jesus, as Saviour from the sins confessed, both their penalty and power!
Let us not overlook another accompaniment of that preparation of the way of Jehovah; not only must it be levelled but straightened. All that is "crooked," Jacob-like, guileful, not "straight," must be abandoned. For baptism there must not be a claim to saintship, but a confession of sins—a much-forgotten truth.
One more piece of work must yet be done on that road. It is level and straight, but still it is rough, and must be made smooth. Those hard rocks, stones, and clods are not mountains, but they must be broken up; so must all hardness of heart by the conviction of guilt in the sight of Jehovah. The mountain may speak of pride, the rough ridges in the road tell of its accompaniment in "the hard and impenitent heart" that refuses the salvation.
Verse 5 shows that in that salvation shall be such an outshining of glory, that all flesh shall see it together. It shall focus the rapt attention of all mankind as if it had but one eye, and that eye could look nowhere else.
Surely that was not the case when the young Child lay in Bethlehem's manger. The "glory" was there, indeed, but so veiled that no flesh saw it, or at least "all flesh" did not "see it altogether." Only a very few could pierce that veil of humiliation, and discern "the glory as of an only-begotten with a Father, full of grace and truth." But suppose for a moment, that today, suddenly, One visibly came from heaven, with radiant hosts attendant, could people look anywhere else? By modern inventions, space and the formation of the earth have been practically eliminated. A voice in one center is heard to the most extreme bound. So much for the ear, but will not the eye become equally farseeing by perfected television so that at His revelation, "Every eye shall see Him" (Rev. 1:7)? Would not that out-rival every other object? Most assuredly it would. It is not merely a truthful man who tells us that this shall be. On no angelic word does its accomplishment hang; but on the very words of that same Jehovah, who Himself said: "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away." It is the true saying of God.
In verse 6 we hear the second voice, with that authority that bespeaks divinity, directing the first to "cry"; and then telling him what the burden of his cry must be—the frailty, the transitoriness of all mankind. Poor man! Each coming into the world with no volition of his own; bringing with him from his parents a crooked, perverse nature that leads him in forbidden paths, and yet with a strange inherent consciousness of being intended for something higher and better. The poet expresses a measure and phase of truth in his lines:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
Man seeks all through the brief days of his vanity for something that shall satisfy and fill that ever-hungering heart, and finds it in nothing under the sun, till he departs with an awful cloud over the future that he cannot see through. Poor man! The grass is his fitting emblem. When at his best, he is but as the herb at its best; i.e., when in flower. But that very zenith is a certain prophecy of its decline; from that moment it fades and falls, and so does all flesh.
"O why should the spirit of mortal be proud?"
That truth of the fleeting transitoriness of human life can but give sobriety to every thoughtful mind. Every day a sermon is preached to an opened ear; the morning speaking of the hope of youth, but in the evening,
"The clouds that gather round the setting sun
But sweet the harp of prophecy with its hopeful contrast, "The word of our God forever abides"; and still more precious is the Apostle's comment that we—even you and I—are vitally linked with that never-dying Word. It is the very gospel of Christ which we have received, so that we, in our spirits (not in our bodies yet, for He is away) partake of that everlasting character, we have eternal life!
Let, then, grass wither, let its flower fade, let this mortal evidence its mortality, yet with life in Christ, the youngest, poorest, feeblest of us "shall never see death"5(John 8:51), for we have been begotten of that Word that abideth forever.
Well has Mr. Kelly written that "as the end draws nearer we do greatly need simplicity to rest upon God's Word. There may be difficulties to such as we are, and the Word seem a weak thing to confide in for eternity, but in truth it is more stable than heaven or earth." More and more is this becoming the one basic conflict: Have we in the Scriptures the only divine revelation of the Heart and Mind of God to a rebel race?
This brings us to the third and last part of this section, verses 9 to 11, in which the third voice is heard, and again in strict conformity with the significance of the number three, we find in it "the revelation of God."
9: Up to the loftiest mountain, O Zion!Zion is here personified as one of those women who announce victory, as inPsalm 68:11, R.V., "The Lord giveth the word: the women that publish the tidings are a great host," and so wonderfully good are these tidings that no hill can be too high for a vantage ground whence to cry; nor can she lift up her voice too loudly in her shout of joy to all the other cities of Judah, "Behold your God!"
What glorious tidings are these! Jehovah comes; not as once in utter weakness, but with a strong Arm to establish a rule that shall right all earth's wrongs, heal all her wounds, and bring to her peace forever. For this He must sweep away all the vain expedients: the tyranny of the one, and the equal tyranny of the many; of autocrat, democrat, socialist, communist, bolshevik and every other futile nostrum by which the Gentile has tried to govern the earth since his foot was placed on Jerusalem in Nebuchadnezzar's day. All must go, for He is bringing reward with Him for that faithful remnant of Israel, and that means retribution for their enemies.
But the stern side of His glorious appearing is not here to be made prominent; in conformity with the key of "Comfort ye," all tenderness must rule towards them, so the prophecy leaves the note of penalty and plays still on the one string of love. How entrancingly lovely is the picture! Here is "the Mighty God," with power irresistible, and with Arm brandished against the foe, turning to His poor people with a tenderness illustrated by no hireling but only by One who is the Good Shepherd. That mighty Arm now takes up, and carries within the folds of His dress, the new-born lambs, and patiently waits on the nursing mothers, gently leading them along, lest, as Jacob said, they should perish by overdriving. Oh, the gentleness of the mighty God!
All this is to be made good to that nation, so dearly beloved for the fathers' sake, in a day soon to come; but surely we too can enter into these lovely intimacies. Do you not remember how careful He was with you in your spiritual infancy, my fellow-believer? How quickly then were your prayers answered! How little you knew then of what has since tried your faith so severely! And those who in their turn tend the little ones of the flock, does He not care for them and identify Himself with the slow-walking of those who thus love them? The mother-sheep will not forsake her lamb, and although the whole flock may be made to linger a bit in consideration for that one, the lamb is as precious to Him as the sheep, and not one single one must be pressed beyond its powers. Precious lesson! Would that we could learn it! We are all too apt to be impatient if the younger ones of the flock do not apprehend in an hour what may have taken us many years to acquire. And who can estimate the shame and sorrow caused by pressing people to go beyond their powers of faith? Oh, that all who assume the blessed ministry of shepherding the flock, might so abide in the Good Shepherd as to be filled both with His tenderness and His wisdom!
This closes the first part of the chapter with "three" so strongly marked upon it, i.e., with God so wonderfully manifested in the three parts, the three announcements and the three voices.
The second part of the chapter, verses 12 to 26, like so many "seconds" in Scripture, deals with contrasts. There are two, and, in this case, in opposition; but One indignantly declines rivalry, and claims supreme, unshared authority in every sphere. Who is it? It is that same tender Shepherd of whose gentleness we have just been reading. "Fine flour" ever was and is He; no one glory, beauty or dignity overweighted another. His gentleness may indeed make us great, and attract to reverent intimacy (may we ever know more of it!), but we must beware of unhallowed familiarity. Hear what follows:
12: Who hath measured waters in th' hollow of His hand?This section fully introduces us into the subject that goes on to, and only ends with the close of chapter 48. It is Jehovah's expostulation with Israel on account of idolatry, that Satanic device for securing the adoration of mankind that was introduced among them after the flood, and from which Abraham was called by the God of glory.
Thus the section opens with the majesty of Jehovah; who shall rival Him? There lies, too, the same indignation in the series of questions as is enwrapped in the archangel's name "Michael," "Who is as God?" To Him all the seas of earth are but a single drop. Let a man stretch his hand to its fullest, he can but cover a few inches, a span which is but too true an expression of his own short transitory life, as the psalmist confesses, "Thou hast made my days as a handbreadth" (Ps. 39:5). But Jehovah's span goes beyond both horizons from east to west without limitation. All earth's dust can be comprehended in one small measure. His scales are not for the petty articles of men's commerce, but mountains are weighed on His steel-beam, and hills thrown into the balances.
To whom does He owe aught as to knowledge? His Spirit moved upon the waters of chaos, and brought beauty and order out of the dark scene of confusion; did anyone aid Him with counsel? Did any instruct Him in the path of right? Did the Creator of all need the training of a child?
Closer still now comes the word, even to the affairs of men. The nations, so mighty in their own eyes, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome—are all but as that drop that hangs for a time and then falls from the bucket as it comes from the well! Or as that fleck of dust that does not affect by its weight the poise of the scales on which it lies. The isles, not the smaller pieces of land surrounded by water, but the great continents that rise from and are bordered by oceans, He lifts them as if they were one tiny atom!
How can such an One be approached in worship? Forest-clad Lebanon has not wood enough to burn, nor in its coverts could beasts enough be found for one burnt-offering. Aye, to Him all nations are but nullity and emptiness. Nothing could more strongly express the divine estimate of all man's boasted powers.
So comes the direct challenge: "To whom then will ye liken God?" To such things as these? A rich man gives an order for an idol, so the craftsman pours the melted metal into a prepared mold, then another coats it with a plating of gold; and lest it should be stolen, silver chains must attach it to its place!
Since the poor cannot afford such costly "spiritual privileges" as that, they must be content with something far inferior; but something they must have—no one can exist without a decent degree of religion. So the poorer man goes to the woods, selects thence a hardwood tree, and by a skillful carpenter fashions it into a form that he can worship; but it must have sufficient base, that it does not totter!
Here there is a pause, a silence like that silence in heaven for the space of half-an-hour (Rev. 8:1), in which we can almost hear Jehovah breathing heavily with indignation till, again like the trumpet-blasts that follow, He bursts out in questions that burn with indignation: Can ye not reason? Can ye not hear? Can ye not see? Do ye not discern? Is not all creation proclaiming truth to you, and telling of His mighty Hand that wrought the whole fabric of creation? It is He who sits above that vault that encircles the earth.10By what has come down to you traditionally, by the witness of geology, do not the very foundations of the earth tell out His eternal power and Godhead? And if the earth itself is but a grain of sand, what can its inhabitants be? They are like little insects that hop. What folly is their pride, how hollow their pretension! Take the highest of them, those potent, grave and reverend signors (for indeed these very ideas are in the word rendered "princes"), they too are as the herbs, for they began hopefully enough, but scarcely were they planted and began to root, than—a puff, and lo, where are they? They have been whirled away as the chaff!
To whom then dare ye liken ME?
Let the heavens declare the glory of God; let the firmament show His handiwork! Let the day utter its speech, let the night teach you knowledge. Look up and see how "martialled on the nightly plain, the glittering hosts bestud the sky." Number them if you can; the stronger the vision, the more the mighty worlds that come within its range.11How did they come forth thus?
Whence and from whom that perfect order? Who can have maintained that Cosmos, so that not a planet shall swerve a hair's breadth from its appointed orbit? Let human pseudo-science attempt an answer, and in its mutually destructive guesses learn its own futility. Then bow thy proud head, O little man, and confess that One and only One—Himself illimitable in all His powers—could thus create, control, maintain these worlds, summon them each by the name He gives them, make them tread with incalculable speed their appointed course, and numbering them, discern at once if one be missing. Oh, the greatness of His might! Oh, the strength of His power! At that awful roll-call, not one fails to respond with "Here!"
Let us ask with trembling reverence: Where shall we find that One of such illimitable powers? Where can He be found? Let us listen whilst He Himself shall by His Spirit answer: "By Him all things subsist" (Col. 1:17). And who is that "Him" who holds the universe in order and keeps it in existence? It is Jesus, the Man who hung on the cross of Calvary!! What but silent awe and spirit-worship befit such a revelation?
In the third section of the chapter, verses 27 to 31, Jehovah turns again to Jacob, who is now Israel, too, for the nation's thigh has been touched in that great tribulation, and now, hanging helplessly on Him who smote, the nation follows in the prophetic path of its sire, and is a "prince with God," or Israel.
27: Why sayest thou, O Jacob; why speakest, Israel:
The chapter closes with a tender, yet slightly reproachful, appeal; as, when certain poor children of "Jacob," were crying amid a storm, "Carest Thou not that we perish?" He answered, "O ye of little faith." So here: Why art thou saying that He who calls each one of that illimitable host of stars above thee by its name, knows the path that it takes under His command, yet takes no interest in, takes no note of thine? Is He less interested in those for whom He died than in mere matter? Whilst He is quite able to guide Arcturus and Orion, are the problems of thy life beyond His ability? Are afflictions raining upon thee both from providences and from injustices? Does He not only leave thee to suffer, but even adds to these sufferings the desolate feeling of loneliness, of being forgotten?
Nay, His silence does but test thy confidence! Then, still hang, O thou thigh-broken child of Jacob, on Him who hath conquered thee by His love, and whom thou mayest conquer by thy helplessness. Never forget that weary as thou mayest be, He, at least, is never weary; the ages of eternity do not sap His ability, nor the weight of all the worlds strain His strength. Creation itself may grow old and be rolled away, but He remaineth from everlasting to everlasting; and since the remotest heavens own His creative skill and maintaining power, and that skill and power are equally expressed in the tiniest creature that the microscope alone brings into thy vision, canst thou reasonably think that thy path is beyond either His wisdom, power, or His interest?
In the last three verses the chapter closes with its final trilogy:
Verse 29: The Source of all true strength.
Even the youths in the freshness of their morning powers succumb to weariness sooner or later, and eventually fall in utter weakness. But there are those who, while the strong are falling, still keep on their way without losing heart; or if at times their step, too, flags, lo, it is again renewed, and as though gifted with eagles' pinions, go on, their faith the wing that lifts them ever upward. Who are these thus blessed? They are those who wait on the Lord, owning their weakness, and drawing ever on the Lord Jesus, that limitless Source, for all that they lack, run without weariness, walk without fainting. May we each prove the truth of this in our journey through our one little life!
1 Lit., "to the heart." The word always has in it the sense of great tenderness.
2 The word I have rendered "trouble," in A.V. and R.V. "warfare," is tzebah, and we have become familiar with it in "tzebaoth," "hosts." The prime meaning of the root is "to go forth as a Soldier," hence "an army," or "host," then "warfare," used figuratively for a miserable condition which is for an appointed time, as inJob 7:1: "Is there not an appointed time for man upon the earth?" Again:Job 14:14: "All the days of my appointed time will I wait till my change come." So here a certain time of trouble that is limited in its duration.
3 InPs. 9:17the word "hell" may give a false idea; it is sh'ohl, the then unknown place of the dead, where they all go. The verse simply tells of the earth being swept clear of the wicked.
4 From "Intimations of Immortality," Wordsworth.
5 That is, "death indeed," the opposite to "life indeed," as1 Tim. 6:19should read —"that they may lay hold of life indeed," or, that which is truly life.
6 This whole line is the equivalent of the one Hebrew word which Delitzsch renders, "Evangelistess."
7 There is some question as to whether Zion is to announce the good news or it is to be announced to her; but both the actual order of the words as written, and when glad tidings are unquestionably to be announced to Zion (as inchap. 52:7), the preposition "to" is clearly inserted, have led me to adopt the former alternative.
8 "Trained," the prime meaning of the root is to "chastise," hence "to discipline," "to teach," or "train" as a child.
9 Heb., tohu, the confusion of chaos (Gen. 1:2).
10 Note it is not the horizon, but the limitless vault of space that here forms His Throne. Link this withJob 26:7, "He stretcheth out the north over the empty space, hangeth the earth upon nothing"; or as Taylor-Lewis renders:
"High O'er the Void He stretcheth out the North,
11 As far as the strongest telescopes witness, space is infinite. Although latest science that is Christian (not the mis-named "Christian Science") finds in space not a vast nothingness but infinity of power: "Outspreading into the trinity of directions, length, breadth and height, and is that by which Divine Power translates itself into a physical universe of energy and motion," and thus witnesses to the unity and trinity of its Creator. ("The Secret of the Universe," Dr. N. Wood.)12 So Alexander. Heb., kashohl yikashel. The reader will see the repetition.