The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 27
Lecture III. The Book of Isaiah
Lecture III. The Book of Isaiah.
"The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it."
This is quoted in Matthew iii. 1-8, where it is applied to John the Baptist, as the forerunner and herald of Jesus. The opening of the prophecy, however, is itself conclusive as to its application. The chapter (xl.) and those that follow it are by a new writer, but we have the old familiar cry of the consoling teacher to a troubled nation:—" Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished." It is obviously the cry of hope to a people on the eve of redemption from its troubles. All difficulties will disappear, the crooked will be made straight and the rough will become plain, and, to "the cities of Judah," the cry will go forth—" Behold your God." It is the word of the Lord to His oppressed" people:" it is a promise of deliverance and return: and it can only be applied to Christ or to John the Baptist as his herald, by unlimited adjustment and arbitrary adaptation.
"Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles. He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street. A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth."
"Then the Pharisees went out, and held a council against him, how they might destroy him. But when Jesus know it, he withdrew himself from thence: and great multitudes followed him, and he healed them all; and charged them that they should not make him known: that it might foe fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, Behold my servant, whom I have chosen; my beloved, in whom my soul is well pleased: I will put my spirit upon him, and lie shall shew judgment to the Gentiles. He shall not strive, nor cry; neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed shall ho not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory. And in his name shall the Gentiles trust."
The point of similarity here is that Jesus did not hasten to assert himself, but charged the people not to make him known: and this is taken as a fulfilment of the prophecy," He shall not cry, nor lift page 18 up, &c.,"—a remarkable illustration of the ease with which predictions were found.*
But the "servant" spoken of in the prophecy is not a person at all, but Israel or Jacob, the people, personified.† The Septuagint, indeed, actually reads it so," Jacob my servant, and Israel mine elect:" but this is plain from the two previous chapters. On the same page as this very prophecy, we read (chapter xli. 8), But thou Israel, art my servant," and, in the previous chapter (xl. 27), Jehovah addresses "Jacob" and "Israel," pleading with them. In this same chapter (xlii. 19) He speaks of His "servant" again, and asks "Who is blind, but my servant?"—evidently referring to the people Israel, who could not understand the leadings of God. A little farther on, after many warnings, and descriptions of experiences, and promises of help and comfort, Jehovah again addresses the nation (xliv. 1), "Yet now hear, 0 Jacob my servant, and Israel whom I have chosen." So that this verse," Behold my servant, &c.," comes right in the very midst of a whole cluster of passages relating to the Jewish people as God's" servant," and referring to circumstances and events all occurring in the prophet's day. The identification is perfect. It was that people who were called God's" servant;" it was that people that should be gentle, gracious, and influential: and it was for their sakes that "God would go forth as a mighty man," and" stir up jealousy like a man of war," and" cry, yea, roar," and" prevail against his enemies." All that is in connection with the prediction which Matthew applies to Christ; but the merest glance shews how utterly inappropriate it is in relation to him, who certainly was not" blind," and who knew nothing of God as" a man of war" strong" against his enemies." But the whole thing is quite in harmony with the connected picture of a hard-pressed, suffering people, comforted by God as His "servant," and promised help and deliverance and a new career of glory and prosperity, even to the judging of the Gentiles. The passage can only be applied to Christ by sheer force of arbitrary accommodation.‡
* See a similar case, applying to the people, as this is made to apply to Christ. In Matthew xv. 7, we read, "Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me." But the passage in Isaiah (xxix. 13) is evidently addressed to the people of his own day. Perhaps all that Christ meant was:—" Ye hypocrites, the words of Isaiah fit you well, when he said, &c."
† Mr. Sharpe is of opinion that this and other allusions to the "servant" refer to Zerubbabel, the viceroy or "prince" appointed by Cyrus to conduct the people to Jerusalem from Babylon. See Ezra ii. 1-2, Haggai i. &c., and Zech. iv. 6-9.
‡ Of the sixth verso of this chapter, Matthew Arnold says:—"We are familiar with the application of this to Christ; but it is said in the first instance of the ideal Israel, immediately represented to the speaker by God's faithful prophets bent on declaring his commandments and promises, and by the pious part of the nation persisting, in spite of their exile among an idolatrous people, in their reliance on God and in the pure worship of him. The ideal Israel, thus conceived, was to be God's mediator with the more backward mass of the Jewish nation, and the bringer of the saving light and health of the God of Israel to the rest of mankind." "The Great Prophecy of Israel's Restoration."—Page 47.
"Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed f For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: lie hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not, &c."
Now I feel that any one who sets out to prove that this was never written concerning Christ has a very difficult task before him, not because the evidence is defective, but because he will have a dead weight of sentiment, habit, and prepossession against him: and I confess that I myself find it very difficult to dissociate Christ from the words" He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief." But it must be done.
* The suggestion has been made that the reference is to some well-known representative of the righteous part of the nation—some suffering confessor or martyr—who would be sufficiently recognised by the description given of him, and whoso life and death stood as a testimony against the nation in general, seeing that it was the prevailing iniquity and faithlessness that made him necessary and that sealed Ms doom. It is certainly suggestive that in chapter 1. 5-6, we have this servant of God represented as saying "I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair; I hid not my face from shame and spitting." But this speaker is evidently supposed to be existing in Isaiah's day. See also chapter lvii. 1, where we have a pathetic reference to the central fact that" the righteous perish and no man layeth it to heart." See too chapter lviii. 1, where the prophet is summoned to "shew the people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins." The 53rd chapter deals, in a highly poetic form, with the national sorrow on the one hand, and the national sin on tile other:—that is the central fact.
The person of chapter 58, then, is obviously a people—the people all along treated and spoken of as a person; all along called God's "servant,"—the people also spoken of in Hosea xi. 1, where it is expressly said;—" When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my soil out of Egypt:" i.e. when the people Israel was in its infancy, I brought it up out of the land of Egypt. It is the nation, then, that is called God's servant or son: it is the nation that is now sorrowing," despised and rejected:" and the sorrows and sufferings of the nation were truly described as borne on account of the sins and follies of individuals. The prophet-poet, with a striking fervour of imagery, pictures the servant of Jehovah, the Jewish nation, in captivity: and we sent him there, he cries,—we with our sins and wanderings: "all we like sheep have gone astray, and the Lord hath laid on him (i.e. on the nation, on His page 21 servant Israel) the iniquity of us all." In other words—the nation suffers for the people's sins. And now Israel, he says, is like a lamb brought to the slaughter; the nation has gone to its grave, with the wicked rich despoilers.' The nation itself is personified, and upheld as a separate tiling—not in itself base or evil. It, says Isaiah, had not been violent or false: it was still God's servant, God's chosen, or, as Hosea actually calls it, God's son; the sins of individuals had ruined it for a time, but God would bring it again from the degradation to which those sins had hurled it; and once again it should shine and rule, and" divide a portion with the great," and" divide the spoil with the strong." All this harmonizes with the chapters that go before and after, carries out the figure of the nation as a beloved and chosen servant of God, and leads on to the splendid promises that follow, connected with the restoration of the oppressed nation to its country and its prosperity.
* Take for instance verse 9, which contains more than one misrendering of the Hebrew. The verse The verse reads:—" And lie made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because lie had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth:" and the margin gives us a reference to Matt, xxvii. 57-60, where, curiously enough, a "rich" man is said to secure the body of Jesus;—a wonderful fulfilment of Isaiah's prophecy! thinks the reader. But the true sense is:—Although he was neither violent nor deceitful, ho made his grave with the wicked, and was with sinners in his death. The authorised version bears improbability on the face of it, and adequate knowledge has decided against it.
"But I was like a lamb or an ox that is brought to the slaughter; and I knew not that they had devised devices against me, saying, Let us destroy the tree with the fruit thereof, and let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be no more remembered."
This is Jeremiah's description of his own case, and the suggestion has been made that Isaiah's description of the man "despised and rejected" referred to Jeremiah. But one thing appears to be certain,—that Isaiah wrote entirely concerning his own times, that he referred entirely to the condition of the nation in his day, and that only by arbitrary accommodation and adjustment can his words be taken as descriptive of Christ.
To show how loosely the Evangelists quoted passages from the Old Testament as predictions, just take the reference to the 4th verse of this chapter, in Matt. viii. 16-17.
" When the even was come, they brought unto him many that were possessed of devils: and he cast out the spirits with his word, and healed all that were sick: That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, Himself took our infirmities, and bore our sicknesses."
This is quoted as a direct case of fulfilment; but what is the fact? In the Gospel the case is one of healing physical sicknesses, of taking sicknesses away: in Isaiah, as we have seen, the case is one of the bearing of sorrow for another, in consequence of moral evil,—a totally different thing; and yet Matthew calls it a fulfilment of the prophecy!
"And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed."
"But though he had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on him: that the saying of Esaias the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spake, Lord, who hath believed our report? and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed? Therefore they could not believe, because that Esaias said again, He hath blinded their eyes and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them. These things said Esaias, when he saw his glory, and spake of him."
Now, note here first that the writer attributes to Christ the cry of Isaiah, "Lord, who hath believed our report?" The people did not believe in Christ, and the writer says that Isaiah foresaw this 750 years before, and referred to that, in fact prophesied that, when lie said," Lord, who Hath believed, &c." This is a striking instance page 23 of the loose way in which such old sayings were lifted out of their place in the Old Testament and made to apply to the events of the New. The other quotation will shew the same thing. The writer of "John" expressly says that the unbelief of Christ's hearers was a fulfilment of the prediction "He hath blinded their eyes, &c." The writer of John goes so far as to say that the people could not believe because Isaiah had said that, and that Isaiah said it, having Christ in his eye, 750 years before. What are the facts? Turn to the place where Isaiah has recorded this alleged prophecy of Christ, and what do you find? You find that the reference to the prophet himself is as direct, as explicit, and as limited as anything could be. He tells us how, in the year that king Uzziah died, he saw a vision, in which the Lord spoke to him and said, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" Then he replied, "Here I am; send me." And the Lord sent him, giving him this charge;—.(see verses 9-10.) But not only does the narrative distinctly limit the whole thing to the prophet and the people of his time: the prophet's question, after receiving the charge, and the reply to his question, still more definitely fix it: for he asks," Lord, how long?" and the reply is given," Until the cities be wasted without inhabitant, and the houses without man, and the land be utterly desolate;" a description of things having no relation to anything in the life of Christ, but very true to events that happened in the days of the prophet.
" And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord."
But the moment we turn to the passage, and read what goes before and after, the connection of Christ with the passage utterly vanishes. This promised "Branch" from the stem of Jesse will, it says, be as an "ensign," which shall rally the people, who will be delivered out of the hands of their oppressors, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, and the other unfriendly powers. (See verses 10-16.) The whole reference is purely national and political, relating to the prophet's own day or to a time very near to it. To this "Branch," Zechariah (who wrote about the same time) refers (iii. 8 and vi. 12), and nothing is plainer than that it points to a political leader and deliverer in his own time. See also Isaiah iv. 2, where this "Branch" is promised, again in connection with escape from captivity. The" Branch" is probably Zerubbabel.
"And the Redeemer shall come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob, saith the Lord."
" And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob."
There is considerable difference between the two, but this is a common occurrence. The difference in the words, however, is nothing compared with the difference in sense. Paul quoted the words in relation only to the saving of all Israel, but Isaiah wrote them concerning a salvation accompanied by "vengeance" and" fury "against the enemies of the Lord. In short, Isaiah had in his mind the destruction of political enemies and the triumphs of the nation, (see chapter lix. from verse 17 to lx. verse 14,) while Paul thought only of a spiritual redemption. He quoted words that were moderately apt, but no real prophecy.
Isaiah lxiii. 1 is not quoted in the New Testament, but is often referred to as having a reference to Christ. It is a perilous passage to quote; for this Saviour, whoever he is, is not only like Christ because he comes in" righteousness" and is" red" as with blood, but he is also one who treads his enemies in his anger, and tramples them in his fury: and it is their blood and not his own that stains this awful Saviour.
"The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn;"
" And he came to Nazareth, where ho had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read. And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when ho had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord. And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down; and the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him. And ho began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears."
* The reader will note that various dates are assigned to different portions of this book. This is in accordance with a now generally accepted theory, that the book was written by different hands at different times, from the days of Ahaz to the time of Nehemiah, covering a period of about 300 years.
What then? must we accuse Christ of error or falsification? By no means, though we should be obliged to do so if we accepted the orthodox theory that he meant to say Isaiah really wrote the passage as a prophecy to be fulfilled in Christ. My explanation is that Jesus meant to say no such tiling—that lie simply read the words as a kind of text or motto, and that his announcement of fulfilment only meant that he had the old tidings to tell; and perhaps there was also the feeling that he could tell those tidings in a purer form, in a more spiritual form, uncontaminated with the old thirst for vengeance, and unlimited by local and political references.* In that sense it was true that the old description of the consoling teacher was fulfilled in Christ;—not because Isaiah had the slightest idea of describing any one but himself or some one in his day, but because his description of a consoling teacher was mice more realised, and that in a very pure and perfect form. It was a case of simple adaptation of old words to new events, not as fulfilments of prophecies, but as appropriate illustrations of character.
This finishes our examination of the great prophetic Book of Isaiah, and I am not sorry that it ends with Christ himself quoting that Book; for that leads us to a glimpse of the truth—that he fulfilled old hopes by surpassing them, and realised old dreams by making them more than true. He did not fulfil ancient prophecies concerning himself, for there are none: but he came in the spirit of the old hopes and longings, sifted out the things that were local, earthly, and temporary, and made them universal, spiritual, and eternal: and it will be well for us if our faith in him be based upon things that are universal, spiritual, and eternal too.
* "Believe in Christ's life and doctrine," said Rowland Williams, "you will see how the lisping utterances of a province grew from childhood to a world-wide stature of spiritual manhoo[unclear: d]