Continued expostulation as to the folly of idolatry. Meaning and application
We must again ignore the division caused by the interposition of a new chapter, for although it is true that there is a striking change in the tone of the address, it is in the same line as the preceding. Jehovah having portrayed Israel's sins as a dark cloud, now uses that cloud as a foil to set off the bright light of His grace.
1: Hearken, O Jacob, My servant art thou;Well may Jacob hearken! Well may Israel listen to words so sweet, so tender, so full of perfect knowledge of the way already trodden, which, rough as it has been, has led at last Home! And well may each of us discern an intended application to ourselves personally as in Christ; for it is to Him all these promises are given and we participate in them only as being in Him. It is very precious to see in Israel's blessings a picture of our own without robbing that beloved nation! So in that delightful double view, let us cheerily go on.
How can He who has been the very Former of Israel as a nation, when it was cast into the sea of nations like a new-born babe with no maternal hand but His to cherish it, no heart to care for its feebleness but His—how can He then ever forsake His people? Is it not certain that He will complete the good work thus begun? Oh, fear not, Jacob; thou hast been an unprofitable servant, indeed, but He owns thee for His servant still. He has purposes that demand thy preservation, for He has destined thee to show His praise on earth. Oh, fear not, Jeshurun,2 for He has chosen thee, and after all thy wanderings, He will treat thee as the heavens respond to the parched earth, sending on it gracious dew and rain; so shall His Spirit, of which these are but shadows, fall upon thee, and renew thy national life. Then, as water causes herb and tree to grow, so the effect of that outpouring of the Spirit shall be a corresponding prosperity and vitality. As the very course of a river may be traced by the luxuriant herbage that grows on its banks, so may the presence of the (ungrieved) Spirit be discerned by the lovely fruits of love, joy and peace—yea, of all that the Holy Ghost brings forth wherever He is permitted to govern.
With conscious, yet lowly, dignity will the poor Jew then say that he belongs to Jehovah, nor shall he then, as once, shrink from confessing his name to be Jacob (see Gen. 32); nay, he will make that permanent by writing, and adopt, as the noblest of titles, "Israel!"
6: Thus saith Jehovah, Israel's King,The many and varied readings of verse 7 show what difficulty commentators have found in it, but this at least is sure, that once again Jehovah, who identifies Himself with Israel as its King and Redeemer, the First, the Last, and alone God, challenges all rivalry. Has any proclaimed as has He, regarding that nation, which, since in relation to Himself, as owing its very being to Him, has an endless existence; if so, let the rivals begin even from this time to look forward, and foretell what is still in the future and is approaching.
The terrifying judgments that will befall the nations of the earth, will but strengthen and confirm the faith of Israel's believing remnant, as the present distressing conditions of Christendom do but strengthen the faith of the Lord's people today, for those very conditions have been foretold long ago. It is of great value to note that Jehovah of the Old Testament and Jesus of the New speak precisely the same language, for it is our Lord who said: "Now I have told you before it come to pass, that, when it is come to pass, ye might believe"—wonderful provision of grace, making what might otherwise shake faith to its foundations, to confirm it—that is a divine mark.
There is no other God on whom we poor feeble creatures can lean, no other Rock that, amid all the shifting sands of human apostasy, can provide an immovable standing-place for our feet, than He who speaks in both Old and New Testaments, and whose knowledge is infinite; so that when He says: "I know of none," surely no lower powers can find any.
Note the strong contrasts, drawn in verses 8 and 9, between the two companies of witnesses, Jehovah speaks to Israel, there identified solely with the Remnant, and says: Ye are My witnesses, and I have told you what is coming, so that ye do see, hear, and know. Ye are not in the dark, that that day should overtake you as a thief in the night. The false deities have also their witnesses, who are now in the same complete confusion as the earth was when "without form and void"—suitable witnesses are they for the idols that have their confidence. But we have only to look forward a little and, in the light of what God has told us, the day is coming when none will boast of having had any hand in making so vain and despicable a god. The majority is now on their side, but let them choose their ground, take as firm a stand as possible, yet in a moment shame shall overwhelm them as it did those many prophets of Baal at Carmel.
A graphic and intensely ironic description of the making of an idol, first by a worker in metal, and then by one in wood, now follows:
12: The smith doth make a chisel sharp,The worker in iron (as it literally reads) makes the hard metal to be plastic in the fire, then hammers it into the shape he requires, for "the smith, a mighty man is he," but even he gets hungry, and then his strength vanishes, and he—the maker of a god—faints! But this idol-making is mostly the work of the carpenter, so his work is described in more detail. He first selects his block of wood, and with a measuring line defines the length and breadth of the image that is in his mind; then, having fixed these broad limitations, he marks out the outline, and cuts away all outside these lines. Then, to get a more exact representation, he uses a compass, by which he measures the various parts of the human frame, and makes his image to conform thereto; thus it finally emerges from his hands the "likeness of an image of corruptible man" (Rom. 1:23); and expressing in its form the beauty of the human body, is thus made fit to take its place in the home.
That block of wood, from which the image of a man is made, is traced back to its source. We are told of a forest of noble trees all coming under the one term "cedars"; as "if one should say in order to have apples to eat, I plant an orchard. The meaning there would be—not that the orchard consisted only of apple-trees, but that term covers all."6 So "cedars," in verse 14, covers the cypress and oak that come nearer to suit his purpose. But he passes over these, and the description goes back another step, to the planting of a mountain-ash which depends on the rain for its growth. When this has come to maturity, he cuts it down, and divides it up for various purposes. With a part he makes a fire, and with the other an idol. One half is his servant—the other his god! Could anything exceed the contemptuous irony?
There appears to be no thought here of any spirits behind the images, but that was always in the minds of the heathen. It was a "goddess Diana" that was represented by the image that fell down from Jupiter. The ignorant mass overlook this, and, darkened with superstition, consider the image itself as the god, but the more thoughtful could not possibly conceive of the mere wood itself being a spirit-deity; and 1 Cor. 10 clearly assures us that evil spirits were worshipped behind the image. Nor does there need such an idol for the grossest idolatry. The poor papist (and his misnamed "Protestant" imitator) worships a piece of bread, before which all prostrate themselves at the sound of what they term the "sacring-bell"—could idolatry be grosser? Nor indeed is any object needed, for the light of later revelation shining into every heart finds there a never-ending hunger, and calls even that longing "covetousness, which is idolatry!" Who can claim freedom from it? If we are not satisfied with God in Christ, we too are idolators.
Verses 15 to 17 need little exposition. The contemptuous irony speaks clearly for itself. A block of wood is divided into two parts, and over one of these parts the man cries, "Ha! Ha! It warms me!" and to the other he falls down and cries, "O save me!"
The prophecy goes on in exposing the follies of idolatry thus:
18: Naught do they know, naught understand;In verse 18 there is a strong insistence on divine sovereignty. But does that mean that God arbitrarily closes the eyes that would otherwise have seen? Far from it; for He who was the exact expression of God's substance (Heb. 1:2) did precisely this very thing. He plastered a poor man's eyes with clay mixed with spittle (all graphically speaking of Himself in utter humiliation and contempt), and smeared it on blind eyes. If those eyes had made any pretension to seeing, that would have sufficed to make them blind! Siloam's waters wash away all blindness, and in that humbled Man the once-blind one sees the Son of God (John 9). But the religious self-complacent Pharisees, who confessed to no blindness, were indeed eye-plastered by the lowly grace of Him who healed the blind!
There is surely nothing new under the sun. As it was then, so it is today. At the same moment that the best established truth is rejected, a silly lie is accepted. When the heart is at enmity with God the most stupid fables will be accepted by the hardest-headed business man. Not merely the ignorant mass, but the educated and refined, without shame accept the follies of Romish superstition, the contradiction of the plainest facts by "Christian Science," and the anti-Christian pseudo-scientific hypothesis that is sweeping over Christendom, Evolution, which, by repeating the guesses of the heathen of ages long passed, at least disproves its own claim to have made any advance whatever.
Those idolators of whom Isaiah wrote were not incapacitated by mental affliction, and so worthy of compassion rather than blame; with all the natural powers of moral discernment, they made no use of those powers. It is one of the many evidences of the near approach of the Day, that men so easily believe a lie, for it shows us how soon that "strong delusion" of the near-future shall sweep over truth-rejecting Christendom.
20: Feasting on ashes, his heart has misled;Man's appetite is depraved. He craves after what, were he normal, he too would discern to be as disappointing and valueless as ashes, ever leaving him more hungry than before.
With that undercurrent of evangelic tenderness that so often shows itself coming up to the surface of our book, Jehovah turns to His true Israel, whom He has Himself formed to be His servant to carry out His purposes, and express His praise on the earth. With what attractive affection does He speak: "I have never forgotten thee, through all thy wanderings, thy sins, thy sorrows!" Nor is it less true, nor less attractive to us poor straying ones, as we so often are; for we too have learned something of His sufficiency and faithful love, as one of our poets sings:
Through life, death, through sorrow, aye, through sinning,
"As the clouds have their rising from the swamps of earth, and hide the blue of heaven, so have thy revoltings veiled the light of My love," says the Lord here, and then (Oh, the blessedness of it!) He cries: "I have now blotted them all out: the clouds are dispelled, the mists are gone, for I have redeemed thee. Oh, then return from all thy wanderings to Me!" Do we not say: Who could resist such tenderness? Who could turn away from such love? Not the restored nation, true Israel of the future, for hearken to her song:
23: Sing, O ye heavens, for Jehovah hath done it!What irrepressible joy is in this verse! Like a song-bird that almost bursts its throat in its singing, so this singer feels his inability to give adequate expression to his joy, and calls on all the universe to aid by its music. It is joy unspeakable, and so requiring aid in order to be told. "Ye heavens above, O help my praise! Let sun, moon, and glittering firmament be melodious in harmony with my new-found joy! Ye deep places of the earth, be ye too in accord, so that one full strain of praise may ascend to Jehovah, for He hath redeemed Jacob—shown all His glory in His grace to Israel!" It is magnificent!
With this joyous note this section worthily closes.
The words, "Thus saith Jehovah," indicate clearly enough a new beginning here. It may be a human hand that holds the pen; it may be human lips that are used in the speech, the very lips that confessed to uncleanness at the beginning of the book, but now those lips are used to speak Jehovah's words, and the prophecy goes in a kind of stately march to its present culmination in Cyrus.
24: Thus saith Jehovah, thy Kinsman-Redeemer,In verse 24 Jehovah owns to being Israel's nearest of kin, and therefore his Redeemer. Most assuredly that could only be true when the nation has acknowledged its true Messiah, and is seen as identified with Him. But He is also the Maker of all things. It was He alone who stretched out the starry heavens, commissioning them ever to give their silent but powerful witness to His eternal power and Godhead. That is the first step in this march.
But then His foot falls to earth, and that too must bear the same witness in its lovely surface, so marvelously adapted to its dwellers that evidently none other than the same mighty Worker has spread it out as a park, with forest, mountain, valley and stream. And is there one elect nation amid the inhabitants of these fair scenes that shall be the centre of His ways there? Yes, Israel, the nation that He has formed from its very beginning, and not only created but redeemed.
But where is this beloved Israel? Far forward pierces the Seer's eye, and he tells of Israel captive in that home of earth's proud sophistries, Babylon. Here the false prophets foretell a glowing future. He covers them with ridicule and shame, bringing all their forecasts to naught, so that they appear rather as madmen than divinely inspired prophets. Thus all the wisdom of the world is exposed; its boasted science is shown as foolishness, and its progress as really retrogression. If that be really true, if this be really a divine word, what a light it throws on the unparalleled boasting of this day—boasting that certainly has a very distinct kind of basis. Was ever such progress? Were ever, in all the past ages, such wondrous discoveries and inventions? If one who lived even fifty years ago could return to earth he would hardly know it. When he heard a voice that was familiar to him yet speaking from a city a thousand miles away! Millions of listeners can in their own homes listen to speech, lecture or song from a spot on the other side of the world from any of them, with no more apparent channel of communication between them than the atmosphere or ether! Is not that progress? Is not that true science?
The answer surely depends on what is the goal to which the unsatisfied heart of man would attain. What is that "good thing for the sons of men, which they should do under the heaven all the days of their life"? (Eccl. 2:3). What shall fill that empty longing heart and satisfy it permanently and perfectly? Do all these marvels have that desired effect? Are men more content, more completely satisfied with electricity than with gas? With gas than with candles? Has that wandering, restless heart found its home and sunk to rest with a sigh of satisfaction on Radium? Alas, discontent has kept equal pace with progress. Deeper spiritual darkness, denser perplexity, has come with this increased "wisdom" and "science," till discontent is giving birth to its children in varying spirits of revolution, looming in almost every land. Surely then, the boasted progress has again been backward!
On the other hand, God ever confirms the word of His own servants, for they have but passed on what they have themselves received from Him. When one remembers the day in which the ending of this chapter was written, that Jerusalem was still a great and prosperous city, that the cities of Judah needed no rebuilding, that Babylon was but a struggling petty power, that no potentate of the name of Cyrus was known to exist; there cannot be the least surprise that modern rationalism has to make the prophecy to date after the event. Since no miracles are possible; since the Creator of all has been, always "reverently," expelled from His own universe; and since this would be as wonderful a miracle as any that could be conceived, then to them it follows that Isaiah did not write this prophecy; it came from the pen of "The Great Unknown." Since they know that God is unable to foresee and foretell, their claims certainly approach to omniscience, for who but one omniscient could tell us of the Divine limitations?
But this verse is of peculiar interest to us, since it has been accepted in some quarters as giving the starting-point of the great prophecy of the "seventy weeks" of Daniel 9, a prophecy that never fails to claim and to command the most absorbed attention of the Christian. We reserve detailed comment on it to its more specific reference in the next chapter.
1 This gives the correct idea of the Hebrew word kahnah: "to call by an honorable appellation."
2 "Jeshurun." In verse 1 the nation is first called "Jacob," and then "Israel," so in the next, it is again addressed as Jacob, but here Jeshurun takes the place of Israel. From this it is clear that the word "Jeshurun" bears the same relation to Jacob as does the word Israel. Jacob is the name that brings to the mind all the "crookedness" of him who bore it, so Jeshurun gives the opposite idea, for its meaning is "The upright"—an antithesis of Jacob. Jacob and Israel, Jacob and Jeshurun, are terms that express the man according to both nature and grace.
3 Heb., ohlam. A word of frequent use and various shades of meaning. Its root meaning is "what is hidden," and so "hidden time." From that the transition is easy to an indefinite time, till it gets to be "eternity." Here, as applied to the Jews, it carries with it the idea of permanency, so the rendering "abiding for ever" is justified.
4 Tohu, "without form" (Gen. 1:2), "utter confusion," and so "despair."
5 Lit., "And the workmen they are from Adam": that is those who make the image have their own source no higher than that "man of low degree" made of the dust; what can be expected of such?
6 Nagelsbach in Lange.
7 "Plastered" is quite literal.8 Literally, "to say"; but the verb has in it the idea of thinking, reasoning, as in Ps. 14:1: "The fool hath said in his heart."