Samaria's woe. Moral evils not merely literal. Jehovah's anger brings
There are again three main divisions in the chapter:
1: Verses 1-4: Jehovah's threat against Samaria.
The text may be put in metrical form, thus:
1: Woe to the pride-crown of Ephraim's drunkards,The "woe" is on Samaria, the chief city of Ephraim, which was so beautifully situated that the poet can only liken it to a crown, as it stood on its hill above the fertile valleys that surrounded it. When Isaiah wrote all was fair enough to outward appearance, but a deeper insight, given alone by the Spirit of God, discerned that the moral condition of that kingdom was crying aloud for divine intervention; its prime was past. It was a flower still, but only a "fading flower." For its people were so given up to worldly luxury and fleshly pleasures, that, in the spiritual paralysis that these always produce, they could only be likened to drunkards who, stupefied by excess, are lying prostrate in their shame!
It is ever the characteristic mark of the "last days"; so today, under cover of a formal religion called "church-membership," the mass of Christian professors are "lovers of pleasure, rather than lovers of God" (2 Tim. 3:4), and there is again, alas, that same spiritual torpor as wine produces on the brain. But Jehovah has an agent for the infliction of chastening that shall overflow the country like an irresistible flood; and the very beauty of Samaria's rich valleys, and of the city that crowned them, shall only whet the appetite of this conqueror, as the sight of a ripe fig in June, before the time of figs, first fixes the eye, is then plucked, and instantly swallowed. This doom has long been fulfilled on Samaria. Assyria longed for it, Shalmanezer captured it B.C. 721, and its people were led away into captivity. But this does not complete the prophecy in its deeper meaning. But in all judgment on apostasy God knows how to deliver those who confide in Him, and so the prophet continues, Jehovah Himself replacing the beauty of Samaria:
5: In that day Jehovah Tzebaoth shall beSeven years after the fall of Samaria, the Assyrian armies invaded Judah, and threatened Jerusalem, but Hezekiah, who was then reigning, took Jehovah for all his glorying, and placed the matter unreservedly in His hand, with the result that the city was completely delivered (2 Kings 19). But this too cannot be considered the final settlement of the above consoling prophecy; for after Hezekiah's death and the true condition of the people was again evidenced, judgment again overhung Jerusalem, and quite another character of deliverance is foretold than the one which came through the piety of one man. It will not be the hand of God sweeping 185,000 Assyrians off the earth, but both civic and military leaders, judges and generals, will then be divinely equipped to execute the judgment. A defeated foe will be pursued to the gates of his own cities. This, I repeat, has had no satisfactory fulfilment in the past; it can be found nowhere in history, and we must still look to the future for the final fulfilment of these verses.
7: These also through wine have erred, reeling!These verses refer to Judah, where the people have walked in the same path of uncontrolled self-pleasing, termed "drunkenness," as in Samaria, and with even more disastrous results, for their privileges have been greater; for the depth of the fall is always determined by the height of privilege. But even the "priests and prophets" are swallowed up of the very wine that they have swallowed—for thus it literally reads. This we may interpret as, intoxicated with the falsehood they preach, they have imbibed baseless hopes, and the false merriment these hopes give is like that due to excess of wine. They have even received their inspiration for visions as prophets, or for giving judicial decisions that demanded the most sober discrimination from this intoxication; not a spot can be found not defiled with their filth! But again this must most assuredly not be confined to literalism, even if it be taken as literal at all. Rather does it bring before a proud self-satisfied people, what they are really like in the eye of God. They are as repulsive in their senseless pride, in their ill-timed pleasures, as drunkards who foul their own food! Alas, are we, as the present responsible witness for God upon the earth, any better? How repellent must it be to the Lord when He says of it, because of lukewarm self-complacency, "I will spue thee out of My mouth" (Rev. 3:16).
But again we are turned to the compassionate dealing of God with His people, and here get a word that links these lines with our well-beloved 53rd chapter. Our A. V. renders it by "doctrine"; it is really what is "heard," i.e., a report of tidings, and it is a question as to who will receive it. If people do not, their refusal shall not be attributed to its obscurity; it shall be adapted even to those who have just been weaned. Let us hear the prophet:
9: To whom shall He knowledge impart?The prophet on the part of Jehovah asks to whom shall the knowledge of His ways be imparted? It shall be so simple that even infants with nothing but the ability of listening shall be able to understand it; yet that very simplicity will stumble the wise and prudent who in their pride will be blind to its perfections. Patiently too will He work, precept adding to precept, line to line; giving a little here, and then a little more there, till the words become so familiar as to be monotonous. But if thus revealed to babes it is hidden from the leaders of the nation who conceive of themselves as the "wise and prudent." Then another form of speech will be sent them:
11: For with lips that are stammering,Here we get a forecast that the proud will reject the "report"; then He will speak to them in quite a different way, even in the foreign speech of a conqueror. The burden of the speech in their own tongue was "rest for the weary," a tender message of grace. They would have none of it, and thus having refused the love of the truth, they must bear its severe side in judgment.
Does not this accord perfectly with our Lord's words in Matt. 11? He, the true "Isaiah," rejoices that God had hid these things from the wise and prudent, and had revealed them to babes. But no baseless arbitrary selection is this; it is only because the proud will not receive these words of grace, for He cries to all: "Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." That was, is, and ever will be, a word of refreshment for the weary. Nor is it without painful interest that in close connection with this blessed invitation to rest, we immediately hear those scornful men that were rulers, claiming to have perfect ability to attain to rest, in their keeping the sabbath (which word means "rest"; Matt. 12).
But that anticipates a little. We must first let the light of 1 Cor. 14:20 fall on this scripture, for it is there quoted; and mark, we have there, too, the same reference to "children" and "babes" as here:
Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be children, but in understanding be men. In the law it is written, With men of other tongues and with other lips, will I speak unto this people; and yet, for all that, they will not hear Me, saith the Lord. So that tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not.But when the Spirit of God says, "In the law," He would warn us that we must not interpret the gracious gift of tongues in the gospel exactly by the prophet Isaiah. The law and the grace of the gospel are quite in opposition, and while, in the former, the strange foreign speech would be a divinely sent penalty, in the latter, the only point of contact is that it is intended to awaken interest, enquiry and so blessing to those who have not yet believed. Nor is it necessary to infer that they have finally and definitely rejected the report of the gospel, as those "in the law" of whom Isaiah writes.
Jehovah will not alter the style of His proclamation; it shall still be as simple as "precept on precept, line upon line"; only now it shall result in their going on in their own way, and that in their being broken up, snared and made captive. Precisely so, the simplicity of the preaching of the Cross is not to be altered. It may be, and is, "a stumbling-block to the Jew, and to the Greek foolishness"; but change it not, attempt not to replace that simplicity with human learning, oratory or wisdom. Still, to the end, preach Christ and Him crucified to the proud professors of this day, even though it shall, in its very grace, prove God's way of hardening; for it will be to them, alas, a "savor of death unto death." For mark it well, He never makes a heart, that would be otherwise tender, to be hard, for that would surely put the responsibility of that "hardness" upon Him. Nothing can be more hardening than to listen to the gospel, the "tidings" of grace, unmoved. It is nothing but a blasphemous calumny, by an over-weighting of one side of truth, to make God the Author of man's evil. Thus, Jehovah will continue to speak in the simplest, clearest words; but that will be in order that all responsibility for their rejection can only be charged, not to the obscurity of the message, but to those who reject it.
14: So hark to the word of Jehovah,These verses have always been of deep interest to all prophetic students; but whilst clear and simple in one respect they are by no means equally so in another. For instance, we have no difficulty in discerning who is meant by the "Stone," for it can be no other than that Holy One who forms the very Foundation of all God's ways, whether in government or grace. But what or who is meant by "the overflowing scourge" is by no means so simple, and we must give it patient attention.
In the first place, it would appear clear that this scourge is some threatened danger, against which the proud men who rule the Jews believe that their covenant gives them security, and it follows that this "covenant" is in direct antithesis to the "Stone." But as this is a symbol of our Lord Jesus, the covenant, or its object, must stand for someone or something in direct opposition to Him; and at once our minds turn to His great foe, the devil, or one of his human representatives.
Next, the rulers of Jerusalem, the representatives of the nation, are addressed; and these put their strongest confidence in the "covenant." Not of course that their lips actually utter plain words of complicity with the Satanic wickedness that is here attributed to them; that men never do, but always attach fairest words to foulest deeds. In this case the covenant was really with "death and sh'ohl"; the former taking man out of life, the latter receiving his soul after death. Some treaty then has been made by the governors of Jerusalem with the human representative (for no covenant could be made with literal death) of these normally terrifying and irresistible foes, whose own place is outside the sphere of life and light. But if these, their trusted allies, are in the sphere of the spirit, then the foe must also be found in the same sphere. If "death" and "sh'ohl" speak of some spirit wickedness then the "overflowing scourge" must be something of that same nature, even although having also a human representative.
Has this prophecy ever been fulfilled in the past? If not, in what way shall it be in the future? As to the past, it is impossible to find in Scripture anything that can be taken as a fulfilment. In 2 Kings 17:4 we do indeed find an appeal to Egypt for help against Assyria, but that was not by Judah, or the "rulers of Jerusalem," at all, but by Hoshea, the king of the northern kingdom; so that must be abandoned, for this prophecy refers entirely to Jerusalem, or the southern kingdom.
When we do read of Judah in relation to Egypt, we find Josiah actually fighting against it, and losing his life in the valley of Megiddo (2 Chron. 25:22); that assuredly does not admit of an alliance with, or confidence in, Egypt. Nor can it be with Assyria either, for it was against Babylon, not Assyria, that Pharaoh-Necho was on his way when Josiah sought to stop him.
The prophecy therefore must find its definite fulfilment in the future, when there shall again be a Jewish State so organized that it can make an alliance, or covenant; and whilst such a condition may be seen as approaching, it certainly has not yet fully developed.
All Old Testament prophecy converges and focuses on one supreme moment, the revelation of the Lord Jesus, and it is by comparing scripture with scripture, and bringing together the various prophecies that must refer to that same crisis, that we get a connected vision of the whole. Thus Micah (ch. 5:5) writes: "And this Man (the Lord Jesus) shall be Peace when the Assyrian shall come into our land, and when he shall tread in our palaces." Here, then, we have someone called "the Assyrian," in the land of Palestine at that critical moment when the Lord is revealed. Compare with that another scripture which assuredly deals with precisely the same moment of the Lord's revelation:
Behold, the day of the Lord cometh, and thy spoil shall be divided in the midst of thee. For I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle: and the city shall be taken. . . . Then shall the Lord go forth, and fight against those nations, as when He fought in the day of battle. And His feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives (Zech. 14:1-4).Micah has told us that "the Assyrian" will be "in the land" when the Lord shall intervene, and now Zechariah tells us that "all nations" will also be there at the same time. Naturally, we should conclude (as others have concluded), were this all that we had, that the nations must be the eastern nations under the leadership of the literal Assyrian, who certainly came from the east. But we must go further, and turn to the New Testament to a scripture that again refers to precisely the same moment:
And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He that sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness doth He judge and make war (beyond controversy, that is the same Lord, the 'Stone' of Isaiah, who is 'Peace,' as Micah speaks, and whose feet shall stand upon the mount of Olives, as Zechariah tells us) and the Beast was taken and with him the False Prophet and the remnant were slain with the sword of Him that sat upon the horse (Rev. 19: 11, 20, 21).Here, then, it is unmistakably clear that it is "the Beast" who is destroyed at the Lord's return in glory, whilst the hostile Assyrian is also in the land. What, then, is the inevitable deduction? Either that there will be two world-imperial powers—that is, two powers both possessing the rule over the whole prophetic earth (which, in itself, is impossible)—or that under these two names of the Assyrian and the Beast is the one hostile world-power that has the faithful remnant of Israel under its foot at that precise moment of the revelation of the Lord. Nor would there appear to be, as we have already seen, any difficulty in this identification of the Assyrian and the Beast; for when the Old Testament prophets wrote, the Assyrian was the world-power hostile to Israel, and thus is to be taken as the representative of that world-power at any time, irrespective of who might exercise it; that is, the Assyrian of the past must be seen in "the Beast from the sea," the future head of the revived fourth empire of Daniel's second chapter.
This raises the next question: Can the "Beast," thus identified with the Assyrian, be the "overflowing scourge"? That would appear altogether impossible; for the covenant will be between the imperial Gentile world-power (the Beast) and the apostate mass of Jewry, as Dan. 9:27 tells us; and the same object cannot be, at the same time, to the same people, both dreaded as a scourge, and boasted in as an ally. We have thus eliminated both the "Assyrian" and the "Beast" (even assuming them not to be identical) as being this "scourge"—what then is left?
To answer this, let us recur to a similar condition in chap. 8. There too the people had refused the gracious word giving "refreshment to the weary," and this refusal is followed by the waters of the river Euphrates overflowing them, and the covenant that was then between Ephraim and Syria was of no avail. But when considering that chapter we could but see in the history of the past a foreshadowing of what even to this day lies in the future; and in that point of view we took the "Assyrian" not to be a nation at all, but, in the final fulfilment, the false confidence itself! Thus God ever causes men to work out their own destiny, reaping what they themselves have sown. If Ahaz places his confidence in Assyria, then that confidence, Assyria, is sent against Judah as a punishment (ch. 7: 17). Hezekiah reveals all the precious things, the gifts of God's grace, to Babylon, thus making Babylon his confidant; and so to Babylon the Jews go in captivity. That which was the confidence becomes the source of the infliction. So here the word "lies" speaks as clearly of some "strong delusion" as of any literal nation of conquerors, for thus again the confidence becomes the penalty. No doubt, in the day to come, the mass of the Jews who have returned to their land in unbelief, as we see them doing as I write, will make some provision against a literal threatening danger, say of Russia, or Turkey, or both, but God sends them a scourge of another character altogether from which there is no possible escape.
But here, in sharp contrast with the "lies," One is introduced whom we know as "The Amen, the Faithful and True Witness," who ever intervenes in the extremity of man's failure, when every mouth is stopped. Then it is that He lays in Zion, the very mount (note) that speaks of His intervention in grace, a Stone that has these three basic qualities, "tested" (Godward), "precious" (manward), "solid" (selfward), precisely as we read of the huge stones that formed the base of the temple (1 Kings 5:17), "Great stones, costly stones, hewed stones," the same qualities but in reverse order. So the apostle Peter directs our eyes away from himself to his Lord, applying the same virtues, "elect," "precious," a "corner-stone," again Godward, manward, selfward, and none trusting in Him can ever be confounded; he shall be as safe and immovable as the Stone on which he rests.
Here, then, we have the contrasted confidences; the divine in the Stone, the Satanic in the alliance. Then in verse 17, hail and floods, symbols of some divine judgment, sweep over the scene, and all save what answers to righteousness—all that is false; and only that—is swept away! Again, then, we must carefully note the strictly discriminative nature of the infliction. But that is never the effect of an invasion of a literal hostile human army; whether it be Assyrian or Babylonian, Russian or Turk; none of them care in the least for such moral distinctions in those they conquer. They do not slay all those who have no confidence in God, and spare all who have. They do not lead captive the proud and impenitent, leaving the lowly and penitent to liberty. Thus it would seem quite certain that this "overflowing scourge" cannot be a nation of invaders, morally discriminating, but a purely discriminative and spiritual judgment, afflicting some but having no effect upon others. "Every morning it comes by day and by night." That is precisely the way in which one would describe an ever-recurring spiritual terror. No sooner are the eyes reopened, whether in the night or in the morning light, than the terrors that were lost in sleep return. All truth is gone; a gloomy darkness prevails everywhere, and out of that darkness come the scorpion-locusts, the sting of which causes such intense suffering that men who have received the mark of the Beast (the sign of the covenant) seek death, but seek it in vain (Rev. 9:6).
But if spiritual, what "spirit" do other scriptures tell us will at this time be especially active in malignity? Revelation 12 and 13 clearly teach that in midst of the last seven years of Israel's sorrows, Satan (under the fifth trumpet) is cast out of heaven to the earth, finds there one of the "heads" of the "Beast" (and the Beast being the world-power, the Assyrian of that day, its head would be the particular form of government that was then in force) "wounded to death." That is, some revolutionary convulsion has occurred that overthrows all government, of which the previous "trumpet," the fourth, had told us. Satan restores the emperor to his throne (Rev. 13:3, 4); from that day the government of the earth becomes distinctly Satanic, and evidences the "dragon" character by fierce persecution of everything and every one that would acknowledge "the God of the earth" (Rev. 11:4).
The God-fearing remnant of the Jews now begins to "turn to the Lord," and consequently the veil begins to fall from their hearts (2 Cor. 3:16); and in the rejected Jesus they begin to discern God's "Stone." The grossest spiritual darkness covers that sphere that had enjoyed the blessed light of truth. Men, now judicially blinded, are under strong delusion, and "believe a lie." The lie is Satan's deception, the false confidence, sustained by "lying wonders"; and God turns it into an awful penalty—not merely, or alone, at least, material or physical, but preeminently spiritual, to conform to the whole character of the divine dealings in those last days.
Thus do the prophetic scriptures throw their light on each other; and as we have literal foreshadowings of that final heading up of the ways of God with Israel in the Old Testament, so in the New we may see in the overflowing inroads of Christendom by Saracen and Turk in the fifth and sixth trumpet, respectively, similar foreshadowing of the same crisis; but the crisis itself still lies before us.
Finally, a spiritual terror would be in much closer harmony with Luke 21:26 ("men's hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things that are coming on the earth"—do not the very words suggest that the fear comes from a sphere above the earth?) than a visible human hostile army on the earth; for there would be no difficulty in discerning what was coming in such case.
To sum up: In those bitter closing days, when Satan is confined to the earth, and throwing away every mask, he evidences his draconic hatred of all that is of God thereon by a persecution of His people, transcending even anything that has gone before, since it affects spirit as well as body; God works in grace with, and for, a pious remnant of the Jews; and they (not instantaneously, but as the light dawns on the earth) put their confidence in The Stone, while the mass put theirs in the covenant with the imperial world-power. The result is that the devil (by divine permission) sends that bitter literal persecution on the God-fearing Jews called, "The Great Tribulation," while God sends a spiritual anguish, the inevitable consequence of the rejection of truth, on the wretched, but willing dupes of the great enemy of God and man. Thus all are tried (Rev. 3:10).
Verses 20 and 21 speak of the utter inadequacy of all human schemes when God intervenes. The apostates had made a comfortable bed for themselves, as they assumed; it is too short to permit them to stretch themselves upon it. They had provided a covering that shall preserve them in comfort, and lo, it is too narrow to envelop them! For Jehovah is now active in (what we may rejoice that He Himself calls) His strange work. It is His work, necessary and inevitable, but He loves it not. He is not, as we may reverently say, "at home" in it. Two instances in Israel's past history may serve as examples of that "strange work" in the future. When David became established in his kingdom, as is David's greater Son at the crisis of which the prophet speaks, the Philistines "spread themselves in the valley of Rephaim,"2 and then Jehovah burst forth upon them as the breaking forth of waters. At a much earlier day, after Joshua's victory at Gibeon, He cast great hailstones on the fleeing foe. Those judgments shall be repeated, although it does not follow that they will be literal or material. On the contrary, we are told in our own prophetic book of Revelation that among the divine judgments on men at the pouring out of the seventh vial there will fall a great hail out of heaven, every stone about the weight of a talent. This would mean, if literal, certain death for every living thing. No roof could protect, no building could stand. Such an awful storm would level everything on earth, and utterly exterminate all within its sphere. But that sphere is as universal as "the heaven" whence it comes. Not a man then could be left alive. But the subsequent context shows that men are still upon the earth, for they blaspheme; and this, as indeed all else, compels us to see the symbolic force of this hail-storm. The literal in the day of Joshua, provides a symbol of an awful judgment that shall fall on the nations and apostate Jews in the day of wrath to come. For whilst the soft and gentle rain distilling on the earth is a beautiful figure of God's blessing, let the warmth be withdrawn, and nothing but the cold left, and there's no longer blessing in rain, but infliction in hail. So let the love be withdrawn, and nothing but wrath left, what was a blessing becomes an awful judgment, as in our prophecy, of a weight corresponding to the responsibility (see Matt. 25:14-30).
In verse 22 we have the Spirit's counsel: "O do not scoff at these threatening forecasts, for as surely as you do, the fetters that even now bind you will be strengthened; for the Lord God has irrevocably determined a finishing stroke on all the earth." Scoffing is the most hardened form of impiety. The first Psalm gives us three progressive steps in that evil path: first, "the counsel of the ungodly," who maintain a form of respectable religion; next, "the way of sinners," a more active character of evil; and, finally, as here, "the seat of the scornful," confirmed and contemptuous opposition to divine truth.
The prophecy closes with quite a different character of communication—a proverb illustrating Jehovah's ways with His people:
23: Lend me your ear, and list to my voice,Once more the Lord is teaching here by parables, and, as later, by the sea of Galilee, He spoke of a "sower who went forth to sow," so here He uses the ways of a husbandman to illustrate His own. First, he breaks up his ground by cutting into it, and upheaving it with his forceful share: exactly so does God by His Word; but does he do that interminably? Nay, that is not the end desired, and so the farmer further breaks up by harrow the clods into finer pieces; breaks and breaks, for it is by this that his land is made fertile, as you and I, by a corresponding and painful process, ever making us smaller in our own eyes, and more submissive, and so, fruitful. Then on the levelled surface, he scatters the various seeds from which he desires his harvest: first the inferior fennel,3 then cummin,3 then the wheat, noblest of the grains, carefully sown in rows, and not scattered broadcast: then the barley, and finally the coarse spelt, or rye. A good definition of man is that he is an "animal who sows seeds"—no other animal does—so it is God who has taught him this (ver. 26) and the wheat at least grows nowhere without human care, never spontaneously; left alone, it dies out.
But the solicitous care continues to the end. The agriculturalist will never spoil by too rough usage. Rods and staves he must use as flails to separate the grain from the worthless husks; but he never ruins it by excessive crushing. Is man wiser than his Maker? If he thus acts with such intelligence, in dealing with the fruit of his own work, shall not God who gave him that intelligence equally so act? Indeed He will; for He is the real Source of all true intelligence, wonderful in counsel, excellent in wisdom. So He prepares the ground of man's heart by trouble, conviction of sin, and sorrow, and then the good seed falls and fruit follows. But then follows the threshing—the tribulum, or flail, has to be used, and that is what is termed "tribulation," through which alone any can enter the kingdom of God. But in this the wise saint rejoices (Rom. 5:3), for he knows that the end that his divine Husbandman has in view is that he may bring forth much fruit (John 15), and the flail of chastening has that effect on those exercised thereby (Heb. 12:11). How good it would be were we more skilled to read the parables that are about us on every side!
1 As will be seen, I have at the expense of all elegance endeavored to transfer the monosyllabic simplicity of the original; for this is really the point emphasized. For "precept" I have used the monosyllable "charge," to correspond with the Hebrew "tzav."
2 The word "Rephaim" is well worth considering. It has in it a clear suggestion of applying, not merely to a literal people on earth, but to a counterpart of these in the spirit-world, and this gives it peculiar adaptability here. Further, it comprehends in itself the opposite meanings of "strength" and weakness." Thus it is frequently rendered "giants," as in Deut. 2:11: "The Emims were also accounted giants (rephaim)," that is, people of super human height and strength, and so inspiring terror. Yet precisely the same word stands for the spirits of the dead, as in Psalm 88:10: "Shall the dead (rephaim) praise Thee?" Here this meaning is attached for the very opposite cause; because the spirits of the departed are weak, as devoid of body. This gives some suggestion, at least, as to the reason for the strange keen desire of the unclean spirits, in the Gospels, for some material body to indwell, even that of swine being preferred to none, although unclean men are far more in harmony with themselves. They are unclothed, uncovered and unclean; and it is this exposé and weakness that may bring the great distress. All is surely intensively suggestive that in those last quick-coming days, Satan and his hosts will be in very close relation with rebellious man, and when "the Silence of God" ends, and He intervenes, it will be in judgment on both. We can see too how the body being the agent for the carrying out of the desires of the immaterial part of our being, the unclothed state is also comparatively undesirable for us (2 Cor. 5:4).
3 Both of the parsley family.