The Final cleavage between the Penitent and Impenitent.
We are now looking at the closing scenes on this earth, just prior to the revelation of its true King. The preceding chapter has given a picture of the profusion, luxury, and sensuous pleasure in which the mass are living, and now, in the strongest contrast with this, we have another smaller company who have for their portion, prison and death.
1: The righteous man perishes; none lays it to heart!We know well that sorrow will always grasp at every crumb of comfort, but that these two verses are being fulfilled today in the death of every Christian, can scarcely be esteemed satisfactory. For what discrimination is there in this respect between the pious and the profane, between the believer and the infidel? Death is a very indiscriminating executioner; he takes away all equally. It follows that what is true of the one is equally true of all, so far as impending evil on this earth goes. If the righteous are saved from it by decease, then so are the unrighteous.
The prophecy must therefore refer to some specific hour, when there is a peculiar call for light on the death of the pious alone, who are being taken away, whilst the ungodly are in ease, luxury and profligacy, as in the closing verses of the preceding chapter. It is not the common lot of mankind that is in view here at all, but bitter persecution of the pious, and their slaughter under that persecution.
Today the bereaved have solid
comfort in such words as that it is "far better" for those they have
lost awhile, and they look forward with cheerful hope for that hour,
ever drawing nearer, when the Lord shall descend from heaven with a
shout, and the dead in Christ shall rise first, and together we shall
be caught up to meet our Lord in the air. But suppose that hour to have
passed; suppose the Jews back in their land with a government of their
own; the mass, with Antichrist at their head, have erected an image to
the "Beast," and death is the portion of all who will not worship that
image (Rev. 13:15). Think of what that would mean for their friends.
They stand between the two "hopes"; that of being "caught up" is behind
them; that of sharing in their Messiah's glorious return has not yet
come; so they have apparently lost both. And, lo, they are "taken
away!" Would it not need some special word? Surely it would! And they
get it! It is but as a whisper here, but it rises into a strong divine
voice in Revelation 14. It is precisely such an hour as we have assumed
is to come; and the pious Jews are the saints who are supplying their
quota of martyrs' blood to the river that has run, since the first
trickle from Abel's wounds. This is the comfort given them:
Note the words, "from henceforth." They mark one special moment, and should not be appropriated by any of us now. It is the harmony in the interpretation of prophecy that assures us of its correctness, and both Isaiah and John, both the Old Testament and the New, refer to that "hour of trial" between the coming of the Lord for His present heavenly people and His revelation on behalf of Israel. Those slain during that interval have a heavenly place and blessing, and it is they whose resurrection completes that which is called the "first."
Peace was not their portion here, but to that peace they go; they have forever left the scene in which the wicked trouble, and peace unbroken lies before them now. Look at that tomb! It is blood-stained. True; but look again through the medium of those spectacles called Faith, and lo, it is on their beds they are lying. Hear the shouts of hatred as Stephen falls beneath the shower of stones, but let Faith hearken, and the martyr is quietly "falling on sleep." It is the normal path and end of all who walk with their Lord through a world in which His foe is reigning.
Now the address changes from the persecuted to the persecutors:
3: As for you, ye sons of the sorceress,Jehovah here brings an indictment against His witness upon earth, Israel, under the most scathing terms. They are commanded to draw near, and that part of the nation that is in downright apostasy is first addressed. Jehovah has marked their persecution, even though it might only consist in putting out the tongue in ridicule of the true-born penitent children of faith, whilst their character—the nature that must show itself in some form of evil activity—evidences them as the offspring of rebellion and falsehood. They follow in the path of that ancestry, violence keeping equal step with corruption, as witness those sacrifices even of little ones in the gloomy valleys under the shadow of the rock cliffs. Stones smoothed by the brook, such as once slung by the hand of faith killed the threatening giant, are themselves worshipped as gods,7 everything once used is now worshiped. Can Jehovah look on such scenes with complacency?
Even worse remains, The figures become more repulsive. Jehovah's witness, Israel, in the mass, is likened to an adulteress, who, first putting that Memorial that she was ever to keep in a prominent place, out of sight—behind the door instead of on it,8—abandons herself to the vilest impurity, not even ashamed of her shame, but exposing her lewdness on a lofty mountain, requiring toil and energy to climb, enlarging there her bed, inviting her lovers, and loving their unhallowed company.
Under such repellent terms is simple departure of heart from the Lord pictured. Oh, how little is thought of that among men! No laws are aimed at it; no court takes notice of it; Society is very lenient to such violators; but well may we be sure, and lay it to heart, that the same unfaithfulness on the part of our God's present "witness," the professing Church, is not looked at with any greater complacency this very day; as it is written: "Thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication" (Rev. 2:14-20).
Let us not think for a moment that "our God," who is also "a consuming fire," can endure complacently in Christendom what He so abhorred in Israel, nor that greater privilege diminishes responsibility; it vastly enhances it.
Verse 9 is of deep interest. Israel, in insatiable lust, cares not how far she has to send her go-betweens; and all self-respect stifled, she so lowers herself that her abasement is likened to a descent to sh'ohl, the lowest depths. The representative of that "sh'ohl" is here called "the king," and again we have that agreement that in chapter 28 is termed "the covenant with death, and agreement with sh'ohl," which speaks of some alliance that has in it a voluntary connection with evil powers. But this leads up to a question the answer to which will govern our understanding of other prophetic Scriptures; who is that "king" to whom apostate Israel goes with her present of ointment?
Whilst there may be a pattern of this in the past, yet for the definitive fulfilment we must surely look to that "time of the end," when all the powers of evil are being headed up, and the devil, cast out of heaven, has his only sphere of activity here (Rev. 12). Many excellent commentators insist that this "king" will be found in him who is the Jewish Antichrist. Thus Mr. W. Kelly writes:
This will be the climax of their heartless desertion of Jehovah and rejection of Messiah. They received not Him who came in His Father's name, they will receive another who will come in his own name. The spirit of this has been often verified, doubtless; but it awaits its full signature (sic) in the Antichrist of the last days—The king will be in the land and city destined for Messiah—The Beast and the false prophet, or "the king," perish together.9Thus the writer identifies this "king" of verse 9 with the Antichrist, who is also the false prophet and Beast from the land, of Revelation 13. But we ask, How can that possibly be? Those that are here addressed are, beyond all controversy (nor does Mr. Kelly differ), the apostate mass of Israel; and it is equally certain that the Antichrist, or False Prophet (for we are in full accord with Mr. Kelly, that these are different names for the same person) will be at the head of this last Jewish apostasy. But then it would follow that the apostate mass make an agreement with their own king! Surely no people need to make agreement with their own self-chosen leader.10 Even if this be granted as a possibility, why should they send messengers "far off"; for, as Mr. Kelly very justly says, the false prophet (whom he identifies with this "king") will be "in the land and city destined for Messiah." He will surely be in the land, and in the city too, when it is captured (Zech. 14:9); then why send messengers far off? That in itself would appear enough to condemn the interpretation we are examining; nor has it, as far as I am aware, any support in any other Scripture—it must surely be abandoned.
But assume that "the king" here is the head of the revived Empire, not the Beast from the land of Rev, 13:11, but from the sea (ver. 1), "the party of the first part" in that covenant of which Daniel 9:27 speaks; "And he ('the prince who shall come,' of the previous verse) shall confirm a covenant with many, for one week."
That is, the Roman prince, the prince of the people who destroyed the city Jerusalem, and who at that time had not come, makes a covenant with the mass of the apostate Jews, who are addressed as seeking that alliance in our prophecy. For that purpose they might send their messengers afar, bearing with them presents. That surely is as reasonable, as it is in accord with all Scripture. We have a pattern of this covenant in the history of Israel: "Ahaz sent messengers to Tiglath-pileser, the king of Assyria, to say to him, I am thy servant; and Ahaz took the silver and the gold that was found in the house of the Lord, and in the treasures of the king's house, and sent it for a present to the king of Assyria" (2 Kings 16:7, 8). Ahaz was a fitting representative of the foretold leader of a revolted mass of Jews in the future. Nor is the Gentile Assyrian king a less fitting representative and type of him who shall hold precisely the same political position in the future, the "coming prince" of a future world-empire. That covenant between the Jew and the Gentile our prophet tells us in the words, "Thou wentest to the king with ointment," shall be repeated in the future.This "king" then, in this case, I take it, is not the false prophet, the "Beast from the land," the Jewish Antichrist, but "the Beast from the sea," the Gentile world-ruler of the last days, who, since he becomes completely possessed and energized by the devil, whose own place is the "bottomless pit," is "the Beast that ascendeth thence" (Rev. 17:8); and thus that covenant is, as chapter 28 tells us, "with death and sh'ohl," terms expressive of the lowest source. This, again I say, accords with all Scripture and throws its light on other texts that have, for the lack of it, been misunderstood; but on such subjects, dogmatism does not become us, for we are all only disciples, or elementary learners, in the school of prophecy.11
In verse 10 appears a slight change to pity, even for the wanderer, as Jehovah says: "'Tis a weary road thou art traveling, meeting constant disappointments, yet never despairing of finding something that will satisfy thy ever-hungry heart; with every novelty, thinking that in it at last thou hast a panacea for all thy troubles; and so, with that reviving of a false hope, never taking the place of being sick and thus needing a physician." How perfectly that applies to poor man at all times! Those Pharisees to whom the Lord spoke, really needed Him as Physician as much as the veriest publican and sinner, but resenting such a thing they perished in their pride.
Jehovah continues (ver. 11): "I know there is a fear over-hanging thee, and this has led to that covenant with death and agreement with sh'ohl; but thus in making a Lie thy refuge, thou hast shewn thyself to be a liar; and because I have held My peace, and not interposed in wrath, thou hast not feared Me." Note the reverential fear of God is the best possible antidote to any other fear.
Verse 12 is strongly ironic: "I will tell abroad thy boasted righteousness, and expose its hollowness; and when I am dealing with thee according to its real value, then, in thy trouble, let that rabble in whom thou hast placed thy confidence, save thee! They be of help! Why, a breath disposes of them, a puff of wind blows them away! But he who makes Me his trust shall possess the land, and have his place in My holy mountain. And not only that, but a causeway shall be cast up and make a clear and clean road, and never, in any dispensation, will I permit without penalty, an offence to those who are returning to Me. Better far that a millstone were hanged about his neck and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of the least of the little ones who believe in Me" (Matt. 18:6).
This brings us to these last few verses of our chapter:
15: For thus doth He speak, the High and Exalted,With what solemn grandeur is this part introduced! It becomes in itself a challenge to every opponent of the Scriptures; for we are bold to say that it could not have been conceived by the man who held the recording pen, had he not been himself moved by the Spirit of God. To claim to be the very mouthpiece of God without any justification, is only possible to one insanely fanatical, or inconceivably debased, with conscience so seared that he does not shrink from being a false witness of God—the very climax of wickedness, short only of assuming to be God. Yet being that, the prophet has given such a conception of the one true God as, in its blending of majesty and condescension, cannot be found in all human literature.
Note how the dwelling and the Dweller correspond, as they ever will. God has His own place, high and exalted is He, high and exalted His place, and as He is ever the Holy, so can He only dwell in the holy.
The verse divides into two parts: Jehovah first introduces Himself as "high," that is what He is in Himself alone, then "exalted," as in relation to all creation. Alone in unrivaled supremacy, there is not one on the same level as Himself. It would be "robbery" for the highest archangel to claim equality with Him! Take the wings of light and speed high, high and ever higher, and still higher till the finite mind can conceive no more, and still is He infinitely far above that feeble conception! Nor does His nature ever vary—He is ever The Holy, and that burning seraphic holiness is also infinite.
Well may we veil our faces, put hand over lip as we ask, as two of old, "Lord, where dwellest Thou?" "I dwell in Eternity"—a word far beyond our finite powers to compass; but using our own lives as a stepping-stone, we may at least approach its meaning. Man is said to inhabit threescore years and ten. Call on him during that time, and you may perhaps find him, as we may say, at home; but soon after that, man leaves his dwelling, and the place that has known him, knows him no more. But He, God, His dwelling is from everlasting to everlasting, and thus is ever the "I AM," and ever "Holy" is His Name.
But He, the infinitely high, infinitely exalted, infinitely holy, chooses one other dwelling-place. What other dwelling can by its grandeur be suitable for Him? This—the contrite and lowly spirit! And what is the effect of this exalted One thus coming to dwell? Is it a shrinking fear, a terror, a blasting and withering of all life, as when a conqueror overwhelms a feeble opponent? Nay; it is always the revival of true life with its hallowed accompaniments of love, joy and peace.
How thoroughly this breaks down all barriers of social caste, all national, and all mere ecclesiastical distinctions! Jew and Gentile, King and Peasant, Romanist and Puritan, with all the sub-divisions that man has made, all go to the common dust, and penitence, contrition, confession of sin, and a low estimate of self form the only discriminating boundary. 'Tis with such He dwells, and the spirit (the highest, or reasoning, part of man's being) and the heart (the seat of emotion and feeling) are both revived by that indwelling.
There is not one word as to ecclesiastical position being correct or the reverse, not a whisper of any discrimination because of clear intelligence in the Scriptures. The religious, the reputable, and the moral are not selected; there is solely a distinction that will make a strange severance in all our ecclesiastical companies. Many a self-satisfied heart, in the most perfectly scriptural outward position, will have no such Visitant. Many a lowly and contrite heart, although it may be in a very unscriptural church-association, will (and is today) entertaining that high and exalted Guest. Does my reader ask: "How can I, even I, prepare a chamber that shall attract so wondrous a Dweller?" Shall we seek an answer together? Let us not then look within to see if we can discover any lowliness there; for, even should we assume that we have found it, it will turn instantly to pride because of that very assumption. But let us not be discouraged, but turn our eyes to the Cross, take a long, long look there, and as we discern Who is upon it, and why, we shall see,
"How vile our low estate,
We shall again take our place with penitent Job, and say: "I see Thee with the eye and I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes," and thus shall we "pour contempt on all our pride." Nor shall we esteem this an act of piety, assuming to accept a lowly place, because we know that it is the right thing to do, but simply owning what is the bare fact, save indeed that we can never be contrite enough, or as low as is our true place.We may, if grace permit, go a little further. Another has used this same language, and One with whom we poor sinners of the Gentiles have had some common intimacy, for He said: "If a man love Me, he will keep My words, and My Father will love him, and We will come and make Our abode with him" (John 14:20).
What a divine ray this scripture throws on the other! Isaiah is again seeing the glory of Jesus, and speaking here of Him (John 12:41). It is He who thinks it no robbery to be equal with God, the High and Exalted One, who inhabiteth eternity: it is He who, by His Spirit, with His Father dwells in the contrite heart that knows something of His love and would respond by submissive obedience.
But Jehovah's address continues: "Were I to be forever angry with My frail creature, man, not one of them could endure it. The spirit indeed could not cease to exist, but it would faint or fail, and that breath whereby man became a living soul would cease."
This verse has been much used in the interests of annihilation of the impenitent; but it gives no footing whatever for such an insistence. The prophet gives no revelation here of heaven, paradise, or the lake of fire, but deals solely with the earth and its government, which indeed provides a pattern of eternal things. Here the object is the humble and contrite, and for such there is a limit to their affliction under the chastening Hand of God; but no such limitation is predicated where there is no contrition. Eternity of penalty rests on eternity of character, and if Scripture gives no hope of any change after this life, then equally is there no hope of limitation of penalty—varied however as this is by the measure of privilege enjoyed.
This hungering heart of man must seek satisfaction, and if Christ, in whom is all the fulness of the Godhead, does not satisfy, it will, by the law of its own fallen nature, seek that satisfaction somewhere else. Nor will chastening apart from accompanying grace serve to countervail that law, but when He heals, recalls us from all our foolish wanderings, sheds once more the sunlight of His love on our spirit, heals, guides, and restores, then mourning ceases, and comforts once more abound. The "fruit of the lips" is a poetical form for the noblest use to which the lips can be put. So from God manward, it is that gospel that comes both to those nigh (Jew) and those far off (Gentile), while from man Godward, it is "praise continually" (Heb. 13:15).
Note the last words of verse 18: "To all of them who do mourn," to all who show that mark of true relationship with the true Israel of God, by mourning over the defection. Mourning in a day of apostasy is a very sure and prominent mark of the true child of God; and the mocking cry of "Pessimist" only completes the picture according to this scripture. It is sorrowful that the Scriptures never end with universal peace and responsive praise. So in verses 20, 21 the prophecy closes with the rejecters of grace. Such, not merely the profligate, profane and morally debased, are here in view as wicked. In reality, the publican in the temple was righteous, the Pharisee was wicked. The penitent prodigal was righteous, the proud elder brother was wicked. The self-judged penitent is always the righteous: the self-complacent religious one, ever the wicked.
The ocean may as soon refuse to respond to the gales that blow upon it, and remain calm as a mirror while the storm-blasts tear over its surface, as the restless heart of man find rest apart from Christ!
1 "Pious." Hebrew, "men of piety." The word meaning "gracious," both Godward and manward.
2 The Hebrew word "asaph" has in it contrasted ideas, both "swept away," as in Ezek. 34:29, and "gathered home," as Gen. 25:8. Note how fitting these contrasted ideas are here; the righteous is slain by men, but gathered by God.
3 The picture is of a valley flanked by high rocks—dark and forbidding, a suitable setting for the horrid rites that are described.
4 Another play on the words, for both "smooth" and "portion" are "chehleq." That is, those stones are thy gods, as Ps. 119:57 in the opposite sense.
5 A difficult line as the many varying renderings evidence. I have adopted the translation of Delitzsch, who is followed by Darby, always a conservative. There is a natural shrinking from what is so repellent, but Scripture often uses very plain language for these secret abominations.
6 Too free as a translation, but giving the sense.
7 Small stones were actually worshiped in the New Hebrides prior to the reception of Christianity, as Mr. J. G. Paton tells us.
8 "And these words which I command thee this day shall be in thy heart . . . and thou shalt write them on the posts of thy house and on thy gates" (Deut. 6:8, 9, 11, 20).
9 From Exposition of Isaiah, p. 439, by Mr. Wm. Kelly.
10 For we are looking forward to the day figured by "iron and clay," and thus the God-defying democratic principle of the authorities being elected by an apostate people will have a large place.
11 This is examined in greater detail in the earlier chapters.