The woe on Ariel; the significance of, and the play on the word.
Jehovah now looks at a city that has ever been, and will ever be peculiarly dear to Him, for there dwelt David, the man after His own heart. He calls it Ariel, evidently a symbolic name, which lends itself to that play on words with which we have become familiar as a characteristic of our prophet. The Scriptures give us two different renderings of the word: first in 2 Sam. 23:20: "Benaiah . . . slew two lion-like (ariel) men of Moab," the margin reading, "lions of God." This gives the simplest and most direct meaning of Ariel—"the lion of God." But in Ezek. 43:16 the first part of the compound word, "ari" is rendered "altar"; and the whole may also be translated, "altar of God," as the place upon which the fire of God will be kindled and maintained. The chapter divides thus:
Verses 1 to 8: The Voice of Jehovah against Jerusalem.
1: Woe unto Ariel—even unto Ariel!One may discern intense earnestness, emotion, and possibly a kind of pathos, in the repetition of the "Ariel," for it reminds us of a similar repetition when the same divine Speaker foresaw and announced a similar judgment on the same devoted and beloved city—it was spoken in tears that were evident there, and may possibly be discerned here. The Lord was weeping when He cried, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem!" Nor is it without tenderness that He here cries, "O Ariel, Ariel," for the interjection will bear equally well the rendering "O" as "Woe." Thus we ought to be well prepared to see judgment and mercy mingled in what follows.
What cheerful hope lies in the very word "Ariel" when applied as here to Jerusalem! What memories of that far-off prophecy of Jacob when he thus blessed his sons:
Judah is a lion's whelp; from the prey, my son, thou art gone up; he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a law giver from between his feet until Shiloh come; and unto Him shall the gathering of the peoples be (Gen. 49:9, 10).What hope, again I say, when God recalls this faithful promise to mind in the very word Ariel, "God's Lion." Many centuries must pass, but then we shall hear a still clearer voice carrying on the same blessed hope in the Lion of the tribe of Judah, but now "as a Lamb that had been slain," and as such having ability—lacking to all in heaven, earth and under the earth—to open the book of God's counsels as to this earth and bring them into effect (Rev. 5).
It was here that warlike David camped, and here has David's greater Son pitched tent, and shall do again, first sending His armies against it, but eventually showing Himself for it. Oh, how like to His ways with us that is! Trials of various kinds come upon us, and they all cry, as it were, "God is against thee! God is against thee!" But as soon as they have done their intended work in breaking down all our pride, the clouds part, the blue of heaven appears, and the sunshine of His face says what the Cross of Christ has never ceased to say, "Nay, He is for us, and who shall be against us?"
But first, that most dangerous, widespread, and most subtle of all Satan's devices, a formal, conscience-soothing "religion," must be dealt with; and thus the closing words of the first verse are really a strong irony: "Go on, year after year, with your feasts, they will not avert the chastening stroke." Moans and groans are soon to be heard in Ariel, and that beloved city shall be to her Lord as Ariel in another sense, no longer a lion, but a hearth on which may burn His fire of judgment, as on the altar of brass.
That "fire of God," ever burning on that altar, being thus brought to mind, it shall come on Ariel, not as an exterminating flame but as a cleansing fire of chastening love; till low, very low is poor Ariel brought; and, in the place of the song of pleasure and the loud boast, her voice comes as a penitent whisper even from the very dust where she lies in her self-abasement; yes, like those who have a familiar spirit, in a faint whisper, so that it is difficult to catch what is said.
But, when at this extremity, the whole scene changes in a moment, what but the revelation of the Lord from heaven could effect that? This intervention must lie still before us, for nothing of what is described in the following verses has yet been seen or heard on earth:
5: But then shall be as powdered dust the legions of thy foemen,No single city on earth has stood as many sieges as Jerusalem, but it has at least one more still before it, and it is in the harmony of the various prophecies that foretell that siege and its issue, that we arrive at a clear assurance that we have not erred in our interpretation of all. Many today are, and not without much ingenuity, pointing to the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies in the events that are now taking place. It is, however, a fundamental axiom of interpretation that as long as God is dealing with a heavenly, He is not dealing also with an earthly people. The "spirits" of the two dispensations are so absolutely opposed as to make this impossible (Luke 9:55); and so not one single prophecy of the Old Testament is or can be definitively and finally fulfilled today. By this it is not meant that conditions therein foretold are not in existence today—surely they are. To give but one instance: The Lord is sitting at the right hand of God, precisely as Ps. 110 speaks: "The Lord said to my Lord, Sit Thou at My right hand"; but what follows? "Until I make Thy enemies Thy footstool." It takes some strain to force the gospel of grace into that threatening word, and follow the psalm a little further: "The Lord (same word as the second "Lord" in ver. 1, Adohn, i.e., Messiah, Jesus) at Thy right hand shall strike through kings in the day of His wrath. He shall judge among the heathen, He shall fill (the places) with the dead bodies; He shall wound the heads over many countries." Surely our Lord is not doing that today, although still seated at God's right hand—this is not the day of His wrath.
Thus, too, there is a prophecy in Hosea (3:4) that depicts the Jews' condition during this present time: "For the children of Israel shall abide many days without a king, and without a prince, and without a sacrifice, and without an image, and without an ephod and teraphim." None can deny that this describes their present condition with exactness; but when did that condition begin? When Jerusalem began to be trodden down of the Gentiles in 606 B.C.; when the "Times of the Gentiles" began. It began, then, before this parenthetical time of the heavenly calling; it shall continue after that is ended: therefore the prophecy is not having a direct, exclusive or final fulfilment today.
When, then, was this prophecy in these verses 5-8 fulfilled? Or when shall it be? We have two answers, and I quote from Birks on this chapter: "The idea that this has no express reference to Sennacherib's campaign, but is only 'a figurative expression of the truth that the Church shall suffer, but not perish,' (as Alexander), exchanges a clear and definite sense, confirmed by the whole series and order of the visions, for one which is wholly vague, misty and undefined." If that were the only alternative—if the prophecy must find its fulfilment either in the Assyrian invasion of the past in Hezekiah's day, or in the Church of the present day, our difficulties would appear insurmountable; for how can anyone even think that this foretold siege in which Jerusalem is surrounded, towers set against her, and she brought low, can have fulfilment at a time when the same Scripture assures us that this did not take place? As it is written: "Therefore thus saith the Lord concerning the king of Assyria, He shall not come into this city, nor shoot an arrow there, nor come before it with a shield, nor cast a bank against it" (2 Kings 19:32). A strange fulfilment truly! But, on the other hand, that God should "besiege" the Church, we must agree with Mr. Birks, is "vague, misty and indefinite" enough; nay, worse, for we ask, was it the Lord Jesus who distressed and persecuted His Church even to strange cities, or the human persecutor, Saul? Such interpretations of prohpecy are certainly enough to cause all sober minds to reject them.
But the moment that we see that Israel's history is not finished, but shall continue in the future, all difficulty disappears. Every prophecy with one harmonious voice tells us that at the revelation of the Lord Jesus, Israel—represented by the poor remnant of faith—shall indeed be at her last gasp, a humiliation that is so graphically depicted in verse 4. With this, too, compare Ps. 126:1, 2: "When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion we were like them that dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter." But here in our book the dreamers are not Israel, but the victorious enemy who have taken the city (Zech. 14), and in that capture, "dream" that they have at last attained their desire, and made a final end of all claim of God to the earth, since those troublesome witnesses are now silenced, and they are assured of naught but "peace and safety" (comp. Rev. 11:7).
They dream that their longings are fulfilled and Israel is annihilated. They awake, and lo, Israel is conqueror! Her moans and groans, her sighs and cries, are suddenly turned to the laughter of joy, and now the "dreamers" are addressed:
9: Stand, and astounded be!There seems a kind of paradox in verse 9, as so often in Isaiah. The people are bidden to stop as if suddenly struck with some astounding portent. But clear and striking as it is, they are unable to interpret it: for they have both blinded themselves and are blinded. The vision is there, plain for anyone who desires to see, and who is not self-blinded; but these are sunken in a stupor, not due either to wine or strong drink: they are judicially blinded. Having refused truth, having hardened their heart, God has left them to their infatuation.
So here Jehovah cries, "Blind yourselves in your insensate folly, and ye shall indeed be blinded." The vision itself is plain; but how can those sunken in pleasure enter into the thoughts of God? Israel is divided between learned and unlearned: between those who claim that they are quite able to read anything that can be read at all, and those who admit their inability. If, then, the first cannot read this, the fault must lie with the writing, not with their powers—it is a sealed book, that cannot be opened. Thus speak the prophets and priests, the "Seers" among them. But the mass by their admission of their inability expect to escape all responsibility for remaining in ignorance of its contents.
There is surely a very striking correspondence with just that condition of things today. We have a book answering to that "vision," for it is divinely called "Revelation," but, alas, many who claim to be teachers and leaders insist that it is utterly incomprehensible; or are not afraid to term it "dream-literature." Learned as they are, it is a sealed book to them. On the other hand, the great mass of professing Christians care nothing about it, cheerfully admit their incapacity, pay their pastor to read it for them, and if he cannot, who can? Yet God Himself in the Old Testament tells us that it is a vision, something to be seen, and in the New that it is a Revelation, and that must be something revealed.
Now with great strength comes the announcement, Adonai, the supreme Lord, hath spoken; and He Himself, although in human guise, takes up these very words and applies them to that people that represents us all. There, man's heart is seen as the very mother of all ungodliness. Yet that is quite consistent with a form of piety. Head may bow, knee may bend, lip may speak fair and pious words, but that uncontrollable heart will not draw near to God in guileless confidence. And the most serious charge is that people set aside the revelation that God has given, and substitute for the revealed will of God their own precepts. The very Word that He has given set aside! What can God do under such conditions?
He will interpose once more. He will add to all His marvelous works by another still more marvelous. So wonderful is this—so superhumanly wonderful—that when it comes, it shall destroy all man's boasted wisdom, and so eclipse his prudence as to render it invisible, as the noon-day sun extinguishes the light of a taper. That marvel is in God giving His own Son for a rebel race!
Our apostle Paul, while quoting directly from Habakkuk 1:5, yet refers to this in the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia as a solemn warning to his hearers not to trifle with the marvelous glad tidings he was bringing them. This, then, is God's way of hardening judicially: sending such a flood of light and love in the gift of His beloved Son, as only wilfully closed eyes could possibly ignore; such a warmth of love in His atoning death, as only a heart that will not melt, could resist; and when that is the case, that hard heart is hardened indeed.
15: Woe unto them who seek to hide deepAnother "woe" is here pronounced against—the Jew only? Surely not; for the mournful text on which this part of the prophecy hangs is supplied by what is common to Gentile and Jew, the heart, and therefore all come under the same woe, for "as in water face answers to face, so the heart of man to man." What the Scriptures reveal as to the heart of man is in itself quite enough to prove their divine inspiration, for no mere human writer would give such a humbling picture. The heart is the organ placed in the center of man's physical frame; it propels, by its constant, unceasing rhythmic beatings, the vivifying blood into every part of that complex organism so fearfully and wonderfully made—the body. Thus physically placed, well does it stand also for the very innermost citadel of our psychical, moral and spiritual being. The "heart" is in the New Testament "the inner man," that is, what one really is, underneath all external veneer, as distinct and in contrast with what one may appear to be outwardly. It is the birthplace of thought (Matt. 15:19), and so deep is it that no human mind is able to sound its profound depths. It is above all things deceitful; it will convince us of the truth of the veriest lies, and forever does it seek to justify to us every word we say, every act we do. One, and only One, can pierce through all the endless layers of deception that underlie each other, and He has given us the terrible result of His knowledge that it is not only "deceitful above all things," but "desperately wicked." Is there a man who would of himself have so written, including himself in this universal condemnation? Do men so write today? Most assuredly not. It is superhuman, it "is not after man" (Gal. 1:11), and the very opposite of Satan's lie. It is divine!
So here the lips are piety itself, but the heart is not with them; it is far away; planning, scheming in those dark recesses, and hoping (how vainly!) that the fair speech will hide from Jehovah the motives that are beneath it. Oh, the folly of it! What a turning of things upside down! Verse 16 gives us an exclamation of astonishment, the wonder being expressed in the long-drawn-out words. What perversity! Can you claim to have fashioned yourselves? Surely not. You are just like the clay that the potter has fashioned into a vessel. The potter and his clay are surely not on the same level: and that powerless inert vessel of clay might just as well assure the potter that it does not owe its existence to him; or the statue, so beautifully fashioned, declare that the artist really knows nothing about it, as for you to assume that your Maker does not know you to the very depths of your heart with all its secret motives. The Psalmist gives expression to a far more reasonable conclusion when he says: "Thou understandest my thought afar off" (Ps. 139:2).
Verse 17 shows, I apprehend, the close relation between man and his earth, and particularly between Israel and Palestine. Today Israel is a desolate, scattered people, and the land in its desolate condition harmonizes with that sorrowful fact. But that shall not be forever. Israel shall again be in the sunshine of God's smile, and then with corresponding beauty and fertility the land shall accord with that recovery. The wild forest of Lebanon shall become a Carmel, i.e., a very vineyard or fruitful field of God, and what shall then be a fruitful field shall be comparatively despised as wild wood.
This happy change in the sphere of matter shall be paralleled by a still happier correspondence in the sphere of the spirit; joy shall flood the souls of the meek; and that book, so long a sealed book, shall be opened (cf. Rev. 10:1, "a little book opened"—one that had been sealed); and those, once deaf to its voice, shall hear its words, and the eyes of the hitherto blind shall discern their true meaning. For in view of divine wisdom how pitiful is all human pretension, it becomes invisible. Finally, as the climax of these steps of blessing, the Lord Himself shall be the Source of purest, deepest joy—not indeed to the great or wealthy, but to the poor and needy.
How perfect and ever consistent are the ways of God, and how willingly, gladly, does even human reason, when not warped, bow to them! Ever does He hide from the wise and prudent; ever does He reveal to babes. But that never means that all are not equally welcome to all the light and love that is freely offered to all; but as the lowly valleys accept and profit by the rains of heaven that have been rejected and thrown off by the proud and lofty mountains, but which have fallen with absolute impartiality on both, so the self-complacent, and those wise in their own conceit, reject the precious truth that the lowly penitents most gladly accept.
The oppressor and the scoffer have long been in the ascendancy; in that day of which our prophet speaks, they will be looked for in vain. But again, mark the divine hatred and repulsion of all Pharisaic claims to superior holiness. Ever have there been those who think to establish their own superiority by really searching for evil like the carrion birds, and rejoicing if they can but find one ill-considered word, not up to the level of their own supposed correctness; it is enough to call the speaker of it a "sinner." So in verse 20 we have the external foe (the oppressor); then the internal scoffer, and, finally, the Pharisee, distinguished by spiritual pride—all are cut off.
But what as to the little remnant of His people, now called "Jacob," that "Jacob"3 who has, in them, passed through his time of trouble (Jer. 30:7)? This is answered by God: I am the same Jehovah who appeared unto Abraham, and poor Jacob is still Abraham's son, and I am Abraham's Redeemer; and as I redeemed the father, so will I redeem the son—for My Name is Jehovah—the ever-faithful, never-changing God, and Jacob shall nevermore be ashamed and show that shame by blanched face. For shame at having no Deliverer would be closely connected with fear. For then Jacob's children shall see how I have intervened in his behalf, and from that day they shall sanctify My Name, reverence Me alone. In the place of murmuring at My ways with them they shall humbly learn the lessons that those ways are intended to teach for their blessing.
Happy picture of Israel's future, and well, indeed, for us if we can personally appropriate its precious lesson, and trust our God who weaves our web of time with intermingling of mercy and of judgment. In this way there is an unfathomable depth of comfort in the title "God of Jacob."
1This is a paraphrase of a difficult line. The word rendered "mount" in A.V. refers to the military outposts around a beleaguered city.
2A difficult line, as the varying renderings evidence. The Hebrew word is quite capable of being rendered "cry" as A.V., but it may also be derived from a root "to close up," and as applied to the eye, "blind," as it is used of Isaiah's commission in ch. 6:10; and as that would seem clearly in line with the immediate context, I have adopted it, as the Revisers in the margin.
3This name "Jacob" forbids any application to the Church.