The whole world comes into judgment. What is the everlasting covenant?
The city that becomes "tohu." The pessimism of prophecy.
The song turned to a groan. The earth's regeneration, preceded
by judgment on both heavens and earth.
So interesting and valuable have I found the writing of Delitzsch on this section, that I could wish that space permitted the transcription of most of it; but as it is, I must give a word or two that shall pass on some measure of that interest to my readers, although it will necessarily greatly suffer by the contraction.
He begins by noting that the section is thoroughly eschatological, dealing with the closing days of this age, and apocalyptic, that is, a divine revelation; certain historic events being taken, but "which vanish, like will-o'-the-wisps, as soon as you attempt to follow and seize them; the prophet only using them as emblems of far-off events of the last days, and not to be assumed to be final fulfillments of the prophecies, for in so doing, you will find yourself where will-o'-the-wisps ever lead, in swamps of obscurities and difficulties.
"The particular judgments that we have been following in the preceding 'Burdens' all flow into this last judgment as into a sea; and all the salvation that formed the shining edge of the oracle against the nations is here concentrated in the glory of a midday sun. These chapters form the 'finale' to chapters 13 to 23, and that in a strictly musical sense: what the 'finale' should do in a piece of music, namely, gather up the scattered changes into a grand impressive whole, is done here by this closing cycle. Song follows song 'mid the crashing of judgments, and these songs contain every variety, from the most elevated heavenly hymn to the most tender popular song. Moreover, we do not find so much real music anywhere else in the ring of the words, for Isaiah is fond of painting for the ear, and the reason he does it here more than anywhere else is that these chapters are intended to form a 'finale'—intended to surpass all that had gone before. The whole is a grand 'Hallelujah,' hymnic in character and musical in form." There was no other than Isaiah who was so incomparable a master of language.
Now it is surely good to see that this Christian, competent as he was by his knowledge of the idiom of the language of the Old Testament, was in perfect accord with what we have previously gathered as to the final fulfilment of these prophecies being entirely in the future; nor does it lessen our pleasure to read of this accord in his own choice words and poetical figures that are worthy of forming a commentary on this "prophet of fire."
Further, it serves to confirm the conviction that many of us have long held that our own prophetic book of Revelation is governed by the same principle, and can only be rightly understood by a twofold interpretation: the one referring to near-by, the other to far-off events, distinguished by the words "historical" and "futurist."
Let us turn to our chapter and throw a free translation into a slightly rhythmical form that shall at least give the reader both the sense and some idea of the poetical character of the original.
1: Behold, the earth is emptiedIn the preceding burdens we have had torrents of judgment, each dashing fiercely along in its own channel, directed against nation after nation. But here we have them all joined together in so swollen a river that it sweeps everything before it in one awful cataclysmic catastrophe, which, while it may begin with apostate Israel, as the word "priest" in the second verse suggests, certainly does not end till the whole world is affected.
There is nothing in the past that can possibly be considered as anything like a fulfilment of this prophecy, and so, according to the short and easy method of infidelity, called Modernism, it is calmly swept aside as being spurious, and not written by Isaiah at all! In this way all prophecy is disposed of. If the fulfilment in the past is too evident to be denied, that proves that it was written after the event. If, on the other hand, no fulfilment can be found in the past, then it is evidently spurious! Well, to us there is not the slightest difficulty in recognizing that this "holy man of God" is here being "moved to speak" by that Spirit to whom the future is as clear as the past, and depicting the terrors of that day in which "God will judge the world by that Man whom He hath appointed." It is true that from a human point of view, it was very far off in the day the prophet wrote; but it has come very near now, for that very same Spirit has taught us to "see the day approaching." Does not the book of Revelation also tell the Churches of that "hour of trial that is to come on all the world to try the earth-dwellers," precisely as does Isaiah? Only there we have the comfort of a gracious promise of some who have kept the Word of His patience, not heard in the Old Testament at all. Here, in the hour, there is no discrimination whatever: the whole earth is like a vessel turned upside down; and thus emptied, all classes and conditions are involved in one sweeping overthrow, and the reference to priest as well as people, assures us that it must refer to a time of complete and universal religious apostasy, in which the leaders of religious thought have led the people away from the truth. Now while this must, I believe, refer primarily to the Jewish apostasy, yet the New Testament speaks exactly of the same thing: "For that day shall not come except there come the apostasy first," and every falsely called "Christian" pulpit shall ring with open attacks on the Person and Work of the Son of God. I can leave my readers to decide as to there being any such indications this very day. Even the confession of the fact, sorrowful as it is, turns to a testimony of the truth of the Word of God, and to a brighter hope of our Lord's speedy return. But to go on with Isaiah:
4: The earth doth mourn and fadeth away,There are several things that may make this obscure to us Gentiles, not accustomed to the Hebrew forms of expression, but we shall be losers should we therefore neglect it, for it is "profitable" as well as other parts of God's Word. It would appear clear that the prophecy of judgment begins with a center, Israel, and from that center sweeps in ever-widening circumference till it includes the whole earth. Thus, while in the first verse there is some degree of uncertainty as to whether the Hebrew word ehretz should be rendered "land" or "earth," the word "priest," on the one hand, compelling us to think of Israel alone, where alone was a divinely appointed class of priesthood; on the other, we have a word in verse 4 that can only refer to the whole prophetic earth; and by the time we reach the end of the chapter, all uncertainty disappears, and "earth" is the only equivalent possible. It is, then, the whole prophetic earth that is coming under divine visitation; and in the light of other scriptures, we see in this chapter those fearful preliminary judgments that lead up to and introduce the "day of the Lord," heralding and including His actual appearing.
Our poor earth! It shares in the vicissitudes of that race which, by the body, springs from and is still related to it. It actually suffers for the sin of its dweller, man. In Eden all was unmingled loveliness, for all was well with man; but with the entrance of sin its beauty was sadly defaced, and not till the manifestation of the Son of God, the second Man (and with Him the fruit of His redemption, the sons of God, Rom. 8:19), shall the earth regain its perfection of Edenic loveliness; but that will only be through the birth-pangs of which we are here reading. Thus, we here see the earth like a fading plant, and the "high ones" among men are likened to the blossom at the head of that plant; but that blossom hangs down drooping! But why is this? Because they have all defied God the Creator, by setting at naught all His laws, whether given to the Jew at Sinai, or to the Gentile in conscience and nature, or the professing Christian as to Christ. Is it not true, my reader? Is it not true? As far as it lies within the power of people even the laws of nature are ignored or reversed, and that with a smile of amusement that they had ever been regarded! The apostle could appeal confidently in his day to the teaching of nature, as to the long hair of women being their glory. How little point would that have now! God strictly forbade the changing the distinctive garments of the sexes. Are these things so small that He cares nothing for them? So might it have been said as to simply taking a fruit from a tree. Which shows the direction of the wind better—a stone or a feather?
We have another expression that is full of interest: What is that "everlasting covenant" which the inhabitants of the earth are charged with breaking?
In Genesis 9:8-17, after and closely connected with that sacrifice of a sweet savor that Noah offered (chap. 8:20, 21) within the compass of those few verses, we have exactly a sevenfold recurrence of that word "covenant," which, in itself, is a clear mark of the divine importance attached to it, and among the terms applied to that covenant which God then made with the earth, it is called "everlasting" (ver. 16). Here, then, we clearly have an "everlasting covenant," of which at that time the rainbow was the token, nor need we question that it is to this that the reference is made here. What was the basic principle of that covenant that made it everlasting? It could be nothing but grace, well-founded on absolute justice. This, in a figure, Noah's sweet-smelling sacrifice provided, but the substance of that figure is alone found in the Cross. This "everlasting covenant" of grace, through righteousness, is alone that on which at any time, through all dispensations, God can ever bear with the earth, or any true blessing can come to sinful man, however penitent he may be.
But then has God, in giving that "everlasting covenant" of grace founded on atonement, deprived Himself of all powers of vindicating His government? Must conditions that flout that government, and set at naught the very basis of the covenant, be also borne everlastingly? Far from it, as our chapter evidences.
In verse 10 I have left the word "tohu" untranslated. It is always used of that chaotic condition, the result of sin when visited by God. In Genesis 1:2 it is rendered "without form." I take it that no specific city is intended by the City of Confusion, but as in Rev. 16:19, where it is termed "the great city," not a literal city (for that would not accord with the intensely spiritual and symbolic character of that book), but what man has been building as in united opposition to God, as Babel of old, expressive of their pride.
Nothing could exceed the gloom of the whole picture, and as the central city Jerusalem is really the representative of all Israel, as Babel was the representative of the whole earth, so here there is again a symbolic city that represents the proud building of the whole earth, and it is a desert, its gate in ruins—it is chaos returned.
No one can read these divinely inspired prophecies without being struck with the sharp contrast they present to the prevailing teachers of our day. According to this, Isaiah, with all the prophets of the Old Testament, and the writers of the New, yea, even our Lord Himself, would be branded as "pessimists," for they give but one consistent expectation as to the character of the closing days of this age, and it is one of ever-increasing evil and gloom. Yet in the next verses of our chapter we have indeed a break in the heavy clouds, and a streak of heavenly blue appears for a moment. How welcome that is in times of storm, we all know. Thus Isaiah sings:
13: In the midst of the land, 'mid its peoples,Here we again discern that remnant of Israel, preserved by divine grace, and as long as there is one single true Israelite living (not merely a "Jew outwardly" but "inwardly," as in Romans 2:29), neither "all flesh" nor the earth itself can be utterly destroyed; for Christ, the Messiah of Israel, is to be identified with that remnant. Thus its preservation, and with it, that of the earth and "all flesh" (Matt. 24:22), is assured. Precisely in the same way, and for the same reason, as long as there is one single member of the Body of Christ on the earth, one single true Christian (not merely one outwardly, but in truth), the "great tribulation" of which our chapter speaks, cannot possibly come; for the Church, composed of all these would still be here, and dwelling therein, that effective "Hinderer" to the working of man's assumption, the Holy Spirit.
Here, then, we see a faithful remnant, few indeed, so few that they can only be likened to the olives that may fall when the tree is beaten after the picking; or, after the vintage, when the grapes having been gathered, a bunch or a solitary grape may be seen here and there that has been overlooked. These few are filled with holy joy, and that because Jehovah has at length intervened "to avenge these, His elect, who have cried day and night unto Him." From the east to the west, faith anticipating that day, substantiating those long-hoped-for conditions, hears joyous songs resound. And now the Gentiles "catch the flying joy" and the earth, being likened to a spread-out garment, from its very fringe (lit., "wing") they join in that song with the words: "Glory to the righteous"; that is, the Gentiles shall at that time unselfishly delight in the glory given to that elect remnant of Israel that shall then be recognized as the one absolutely "righteous nation that keepeth truth."
But the song ceases almost as soon as it has begun, and as is so often the case in times of unsettled weather, the clouds again cover the whole scene, as we hear the prophet himself uttering this lament:
16b : My misery! My misery! O woe is me!This sudden change from song to groan, the one verse, as it were, swallowing them both, can but remind us of the effect of that little "opened book" that John took from the hand of the mighty "cloud-clothed angel" in Revelation 10, for when in obedience to his command, he had eaten it, it was in his mouth sweet as honey, but as soon as he had eaten it his belly was bitter. That "little book" tells of Israel's final recovery and perfect blessedness, and consequent blessing to this sin-racked earth. It is very sweet, and this is paralleled by these songs of joy that we have heard in verses 14-16. But after the book is swallowed, and it begins to be digested, it is very bitter, for it then tells of that time of unparalleled tribulation that must come first; and that bitterness can be discerned in these groans that we are now listening to from our prophet. The end is sweet, but the path to it is bitter.
We must not fail to note that however true it may be that this great tribulation begins with the pious Israelite in the land, it does not end there. The very terms, "the floodgates of heaven" and "earth's foundations," indicate a far wider sphere, for the heavens do not cover Palestine only, nor are the earth's foundations beneath that land alone. That, too, is in strict accord with the New Testament prophecy, for after we have seen, in Rev. 7, the sealed 144,000 of Israel's tribes, we behold an innumerable company of Gentiles who have also come out of "the great tribulation," having "washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb," which is, incidentally, a strong testimony to the truth that human suffering does not in itself cleanse human sin as to individuals; the retribution of nations, as such, is different. But to return: I render the next verse very literally thus, for it is graphic and terrible:
19: Torn, torn asunder, the earth!That lies still before us, and not far ahead. Do we not need—living as we do in the very atmosphere of unbelief in the Scriptures—to challenge our own hearts and repeat to ourselves that word so frequently pressed upon us amid those corresponding terrific scenes of the Apocalypse: "These are the true sayings of God"? This is particularly needful for us, living in the comparative quiet which the merciful providence of God has up to this time granted to this land; for it becomes most difficult to realize even the possibility of so awful a calamity falling on New York, Boston or Philadelphia, and sweeping over the whole country. But can we not well understand how a dweller in a devastated, war-torn, famine-stricken, pestilence-filled country could do so easily enough?
The whole creation, which has been groaning and travailing in pain even until now, is here suffering the climactic anguish of its new birth, by which Christ "the Child" is about to be born, the Son is about to be given to Israel, and when He comes and identifies Himself with that beloved,3 though long-rejected people, when "she which travaileth hath brought forth," when "the remnant of His brethren shall return unto the children of Israel" (Micah 5:3), then the new birth of the earth is accomplished, its regeneration has come.
How graphically, with what inimitable strokes, does this master of words picture its agonies and bewilderment; it is first rent by fissures, then these spread wider into chasms, then it reels, totters, sways aimlessly to and fro, as a man overcome with intoxicants, or as a hammock slung between supports; till at last, weighted down with the heavy load of sin that its dweller, man, has put upon it, it falls never to rise again. Its place is taken by a "new earth" wherein righteousness is in the place of government, although not yet "dwelling" there—for that, it must await its perfected condition (Rev. 21).4
We have one final and terrible act still to be fulfilled in the great drama, and this time it involves not only the earth and its dwellers, but the heavens and their dwellers. I am sure that it will have been noted that there have been ever-widening circumferences of judgment in the chapter: first Israel, and the apostate mass, with a little remnant saved; then the whole earth also, with a remnant brought through; but finally the very heavens become involved, as we now see:
21: And it cometh to pass thatThis is indeed a remarkable prophecy, and affords a striking proof of the word in 2 Peter 1:20: "No prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation," that is, certainly not that it is intended to be so obscure that the readers are not themselves to interpret it at all, and therefore this must be left to "the Church," as the Papacy teaches; but the very first meaning of the word rendered "private" is "its own"; no prophecy is of its own interpretation, is to be interpreted by itself. Prophecy, more than any other line of truth, needs the light of all Scripture thrown upon it. So here, no man, apart from the inspiration of God, could have foretold the punishment of a heavenly host as well as earthly kings. Do other scriptures confirm or deny this?
It is exactly what we see in Revelation 19:19, 20; 20:1-3:
"And I saw the Beast and the kings of the earth, and their armies gathered together to make war against Him that sat on the horse and with His army. And the Beast was taken, and with him the False Prophet. . . . These both were cast alive into the lake of fire. . . . He laid hold on the Dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, and cast him into the bottomless pit."
We must then place the two prophecies together in order to correctly understand either. Then we learn that while that fallen star, Satan, is the leading actor in that last scene, yet his host of subordinate spirits are with him, and that as he was not cast alone out of heaven (Rev. 12:9), so he is not cast alone out of the earth, but in both cases, his angels with him; for Isaiah tells us that it is the host of the high-ones on high5 (and that is surely the angelic powers that have followed him in his rebellion) that are shut up in the pit.
Our prophet has before him a picture of a defeated army, from which the prisoners are confined in a pit to prevent escape, and for their final disposition, are "visited" later. In the Old Testament prophet all is upon the earth; but Revelation, true to its name, reveals to us a pit that is "bottomless," and therefore not on earth at all, and there Satan, and (as we should gather from what Isaiah tells us) his host with him, are cast, and there earthly kings accompany them.
The epoch at which all this occurs is clearly the revelation of our Lord, or as it is termed in 2 Thess. 2:8, "the brightness of His coming," and see how perfectly the poetic language of our prophet accords with this, for such is the radiancy of the Lord's appearing that the moon blushes with shame, the ardent sun becomes pale as a lamp at noonday, while prominently exalted before the eyes of His elders is the Lord of glory, in glory.
No hint have we of a "Church" here, no new Jerusalem coming down from God out of heaven, no ranks of heavenly redeemed on white horses; all this has to be filled in by other scriptures. Yet that word "elders" may have a wider bearing than even the prophet himself conceived, and may not only refer to those who shall be owned as elders upon the earth. In that connection we may see in the word a correspondence with Matt. 19:28: "Ye who have followed Me in the regeneration" (and that is the time of which this prophecy speaks), "when the Son of Man shall sit on the throne of His glory" (as here), "ye also shall sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel"—that must surely be on earth. We have other elders in Revelation, chapters 4 and 5, who are symbolically twenty-four in number, also seated each on his throne, and in them we may discern a completion of that scene in the heavenly redeemed. Among these, you whose eye may now be reading these lines, and I, the writer of them (by still greater grace) shall have our part.
But I can easily conceive some saying: "Are not the twelve apostles members of the Church as the Body of Christ, and will not their part be also in the heavens, and not earth? How then can they judge the twelve tribes of Israel on earth, and yet be in heaven?" That is surely somewhat of a difficulty, but in the first place, let us remember that this was said in answer to a bargaining question of Peter: "We have forsaken all, what shall we have therefore?" Nor is the Lord's answer to it complete without that parable of the householder and the laborers, wherein those who make a bargain get exactly what they bargained for, and not a fraction more. If therefore Peter and the rest were to maintain that self-seeking bargaining spirit, they would lose the heavenly place, with its far higher dignities of judging, not twelve tribes merely, but the world, yes, even angels (1 Cor. 6:2, 3). But may we not be assured that those dear men repented of that spirit of their father Jacob (Gen. 28:20-22), and other representative elders of Israel will be seated on those inferior thrones on the earth, while the apostles will have the higher blessings of the heavenly portion? That is assuming, what is not necessarily the case, that they will not, in some way fill both dignities. Further, we may at least be quite sure that neither Peter, James, John, nor you and I, will then esteem any "throne" as giving opportunity for self-exaltation in that day, for we shall have none of that "flesh" that troubles us so much now, but for worship, as giving us more to cast at His feet, and for service, as giving us greater opportunities for that.
How perfectly it all accords with that picture of the kingdom given us on the holy mount! In Him whose very garments radiated a glory that was inherent in His ineffable Person, we see the "Lord Jehovah Tzebaoth reigning gloriously"; in Peter, James and John, as representatives of the earthly saints brought through the sorrows of the great tribulation, we see those "elders" before whom He thus reigns: while the heavenly people have their representatives in the same scene in Moses and Elias, also elders who have reached the goal by the different paths—the one by the resurrection and the other by the rapture. There can be no millennium without those four preceding essentials: 1, Christ in all His personal glory; 2, Raised saints; 3, Raptured saints; and 4, Israel restored to the favor of Jehovah and singing in her joy. The next chapter gives us her song.
1 This term, "new wine," must not be taken as corresponding with our grape-juice, which has neither exhilarating nor (even if taken in large quantities) intoxicating powers as has this "tirosh," or "new wine," to which the Apostle refers at Pentecost: "These are not full of new wine, as ye suppose."
2 Verse 16b, and the first line of verse 17 form a striking illustration of Isaiah's characteristic play on words. It is next to impossible to transfer this to English, but anyone can see it in the language the prophet himself used, which reads thus:
Rahzi-li! Rahzi-li! Ohi-li!Rahzi is from a root "to make thin," so "impoverish," hence "to make miserable," which justifies the rendering "My misery!" The next line has the same word in slightly different forms five times. Its root meaning is "cover," hence "treachery," but the parallelism of chapter 21:2 and 33:1 clearly tells us that this treachery is in robbing, which I have adopted. Whilst very poor English it preserves some idea of the original. The play in verse 17 on the one sound pach is clear enough, but I have found it impossible to transfer.
3 See chapter 9 and comments thereon.
4 This picture of an imperfect, or rather partial, New Creation condition of the earth may perplex some, but the scene is undeniably millennial, not eternal, and corresponds with the present condition of everyone in Christ. There, too, "is a new creation"; there, too, "old things are passed away"; there, too "all things are become new, and all things are of God" (2 Cor. 5:17, 18), and yet how far from perfect in us each, we all know, and thus will it be in the millennial earth. For further comment see chapter 65.
5 See Job 16:19; Ps. 68:18; Isa. 57:15 for the term "on high," referring to heaven.