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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 27

Lecture II. The Book of Isaiah

page 10

Lecture II. The Book of Isaiah.

Having cleared the way by considering a variety of facts concerning the alleged prophecies in the Old Testament and their fulfilment in the New, I proceed now to name two principles concerning a genuine case of fulfilment of prophecy. First: a prophecy can only be recognised as such when it is simple and direct. If we allow that a prophecy may be complex and cloudy, we open the door to all sorts of impositions and vain imaginations, and men's fancies or prejudices, will create endless arbitrary meanings and interpretations; then, second, the event said to be predicted ought also to be clear, and as little ambiguous as the language that is said to predict it; for, if the language is not clear, the alleged prophecy may be made to mean almost anything; and, if the event is not explicitly stated, we have no guarantee that the alleged prediction and the event are related to one another. To this I will only add Priestley's shrewd remark, that if the passage in question was "not a prophecy when it was originally composed, it could not become one afterwards."

If these are sound rules concerning prophecy,—and I think they are,—we shall have solid ground to stand on, and good honest light to walk by in our examination of the alleged prophecies concerning Christ in the Old Testament, and we shall know what to do with statements such as that once made by a famous theologian,—that the" same prophecies have frequently a double meaning, and refer to different events—the one near, and the other remote—the one temporal, the other spiritual, or, perhaps, eternal. . . . The prophets thus having several events in view, their expressions may be partly applicable to one, and partly to another." We shall know, I say, what to do with statements like that—we shall dismiss them, as a mere contrivance for buttressing up a delusion. For what does that kind of argument come to? It comes to this, that you may make the alleged prophecy mean two things or anything. It would, therefore, be useless to show that the supposed prophecy referred to a political event in the days of the speaker; for, if we allow the loose accommodation of the theologians, the reply will be—"Yes, it is true that the prediction primarily related to the political event in the days of the speaker, but it also related to a spiritual event that should happen hundreds of years after the speaker's death." By proceeding in that wav you can do just what you like with the record. The only safe, the only honest, the only legitimate method is—to find out the speaker's or the writer's meaning, and to stick to that. It is told of a great modern preacher that, in expounding a passage denouncing judgment upon the "young lions" of a people (whatever that meant), he said this undoubtedly referred to England, for were not three young lions quartered on the royal arms? And I believe it was page 11 a bishop who said that Isaiah predicted the modern locomotive and the railroad when he said—"And he will lift up an ensign to the nations from far, and will hiss unto them from the end of the earth: and, behold, they shall come with speed swiftly." However absurd that seems, it is not a whit less absurd than nine-tenths of the expositions of grave divines concerning the so-called prophecies.

I proceed, then, at once to ask—And what in relation to the predictions to be found in the Old Testament was the one meaning and intention? I put the question in that form on purpose, to convey the idea that, in the main the predictions in the Old Testament were related, and did refer, to one thing. What was that one thing? I reply, The restoration of the ancient Jewish people to their country from captivity, and the new splendour of their recovered national life; or the fortunes of the nation when beset by the foreign foe. These were genuine predictions, but they referred to pending events—to political changes already near at hand, needing no supernatural power to foretell, and admitting of no reference to altogether different, and far-off events.

I shall now proceed to show this, dealing first with the alleged prophecies concerning Christ, which clearly relate to pending political or national events; and then considering the alleged prophecies,—which are not prophecies at all, still less predictions,—concerning Christ, but which are purely personal descriptions of present or even past experiences; and, as being the richest of the so-called prophetic writings, I shall take, first, the prophecies of Isaiah. The first passage I shall refer to is one quoted in Matt. i. 21-23:—

"And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet saying; Behold a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us."

The reference is to Isaiah vii. 14. We turn to the passage, and what do we find? We find an account of the siege of Jerusalem by the King of Syria and the son of the King of Israel, and of the going of the prophet to the King of Judah, to reassure him, at the command of Jehovah, who tells him to say to the king," Be not faint-hearted for the two tails of these smoking firebrands," and to promise that the confederacy shall not prosper. Then Jehovah tells the king to ask for a sign to encourage him, but he declines, and then Jehovah says He Himself will give him a sign; and this very sign is described in the verse which is quoted by Matthew and applied to Christ. Here is the whole passage:—

"Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign: Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings."

First of all note here, that the Hebrew word translated "virgin" is rendered "young woman" by the very best authorities; Dr. Vance Smith even suggests "young wife" with the article "the,' page 12 and that" shall conceive" is not the future but the perfect tense, " has conceived." But, in particular, note that this is a sign for Ahaz, the king, to reassure him amid his political troubles, and in view of his capital being at that time besieged by two kings. The prophet expressly says: You shall not be defeated: this confederacy of the two powers will come to nothing; and I promise that before the time a child, now about to be born, is able to refuse the evil and choose the good, and while as yet it is eating infants' food, you shall see the destruction of your enemies. In plain English: Do not be afraid of these two kings, for in a few months they shall be destroyed in or from their own... kingdoms. And this really happened. A year after, one of the kings was slain; and the other the year following. That the child, who was designated as marking the time, should be called Immanuel (or God with us), suggests nothing uncommon. It was an ordinary event, that children should be called by names indicative of God's presence and help. Thus the prophet's name itself, Isaiah, means the salvation of Jehovah; but it was a common custom among the Jews to give these symbolical names, and it was perfectly appropriate that the child, which was to mark the period of the king's deliverance and triumph, should be called Immanuel, or "God with us." In the very next chapter (viii. 10), this same word Immanuel is translated "God is with us," and in connection with a reference to the King of Assyria and the political and military events of the prophet's own day. Barnes, one of the most orthodox of commentators, fairly says of this use of the name of God or Jehovah in giving names to children," In none of these instances is the fact that the name of God is incorporated with the proper name of the individual any argument in respect to his rank or character." The great probability is, that the woman named was the prophet's own wife, mentioned in the very next chapter, as conceiving a son under the very same circumstances. That son, Jehovah told the prophet to call by another symbolic name; that son also he used and gave as a sign; for, said Jehovah, "before the child shall have knowledge to cry, 'my father and my mother,' the riches of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria shall be taken away before the King of Assyria." This, in the 8th chapter, is a precisely similar case to that under consideration in the 7th; and as, in the second case, the wife of the prophet is expressly mentioned as the woman who conceived the son who should be given for a sign, it may reasonably be supposed that the woman in the first case is the same or a similar person. But, be this as it may, three things are plain,—that the birth designated was a sign for a particular and very near event; that the sign related simply and solely to Ahaz and his political needs; and that the child to be born would be eating child's food in a few months from the utterance of the prediction; for it expressly says—Before this child shall have done eating child's food, the two kings that now distress you shall be destroyed. This being the case, it is preposterous to say that the prediction referred to a birth 750 years ahead! What sign would that have been to Ahaz? and what rela- page 13 tion would that have had to the overthrow of two kings 750 years before?

But a few verses towards the end of chapter viii. clinch the whole thing. After comforting his king concerning the two kings against him, and describing the coming deliverance of the one and the destruction of the others, the prophet bursts into a defiance of the opposing kings and armies, and ends in this remarkable manner:" Now bind up the testimony "—or prediction, which I have uttered. "I will now wait for my God. Behold, I and the children whom the Lord hath given me are for signs and for wonders in Israel."' What children? Why, the two children just mentioned—the one to be called Immanuel, and the other Maher-shalal-hash-baz—whose period of infancy would mark the limit of the existence of the invading kings, and who were called by symbolic names, indicating the help of God, and the swiftness of coming doom. But Matthew applies the prediction to Christ? I know he does; but that does not make it a proper thing to do. The prediction is perfectly clear, definite, and circumstantial; it related to particular persons, events, and circumstances in the days of the speaker, and in immediate connection with those persons, events, and circumstances. To take a prediction whose fulfilment is strictly limited to a year or two, and to make it apply to an event 750 years after, is altogether intolerable, especially when, by doing so, it has to be torn from its connection, and violently applied to a set of circumstances utterly different.

A little farther on, in chap. ix. 6, we come upon a passage which has been enormously relied on by those who have desired to find the God-man predicted in the Old Testament, but I will venture to say that the evidence is overwhelming that the wish has here been father to the thought. The verse runs thus:—

"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace."

Now, keep well in your minds that this verse is a portion of the political writings we have just been considering. It is, in fact, only separated by ten verses from the prophet's outburst about his own children being signs of coming triumphs for his country and his king. Immediately upon that, he breaks out into an exultant song of hope about the rising hope of the nation, the king's young son, then only a few years old. All who know anything about the rhapsodies of loyalty, and the exigencies of the State, especially in troublous times, will understand perfectly well the prophet-courtier's joyous burst of song over this hope of the nation, young Hezekiah.* The whole chapter is a torrent of mingled fury and joy—fury against the enemies of Judah, and joy over the nation's hope, the child born to the king. The prophet describes the horrible destructions that will come upon his enemies, and, at the end of every page 14 picture of woe, he shouts—" For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still,"—stretched out, that is, to crush and scatter yet more completely the enemies of Judah. And it is at the head, or in the very midst of this vivid description of approaching desolation, on the one hand, and triumph, on the other, that the verse occurs, "Unto us a child is born." The chapter is full of life, and eagerness, and haste; it relates altogether to surrounding and impending changes; and the" noise," and the "fire," and the "garments rolled in blood," are already there; the very kings and kingdoms are named that will be crushed or ruled by this child that" is born." Now, I submit that it is a monstrous thing to take the verse from its connection and apply it to the birth of a person 750 years farther on—to a person utterly unrelated to the circumstances here vividly described, and utterly unlike the individuals here clearly pourtrayed. The very verse before this describes a battle scene: let us read the two verses together:—" For every battle of the warrior is with confused noise, and garments rolled in blood; but this shall be with burning and fuel of fire. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called "Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace." What a positive incongruity it is, to introduce a description of Christ with a description of a battle-scene, with its "warriors," its" confused noise," its "garments rolled in blood," and its "burning and fuel of fire"! Equally incongruous is it to follow a description of Christ with a description of his sitting on the throne of David as a ruler and a king. But it is a most likely and admirable description of a young king, the living hope of a struggling people, of whom it fitly says, "the government shall be upon his shoulders." But he is called "the mighty God," and "the everlasting Father"? Certainly he is, and with great appropriateness, if you understand the words and their meaning. The names or qualities attributed to this child are—wonderful, counsellor, the mighty god, the everlasting father, the prince of peace. The only words at all requiring notice here are the two names, "the mighty god" and" the everlasting father." The last need mean no more than that the coming monarch would be the abiding father of his country—the glorious ancestor of an unbroken line of kings, as the next verse indicates; and in this very book (xxii. 21) a government administrator is called" a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem." As regards the phrase "The mighty god," note that the particle the is not in the original; it is just a character attributed to the child, and not a personal and peculiar nature. As for the word "god," the Hebrew of that by no means necessarily refers to Deity. Moses is called a god (Exod. vii. 1): "And God said unto Moses, See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh; and Aaron, thy brother, shall be thy prophet." In the Psalms the judges are called gods (Ps lxxxii. 6): "I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the Most High;" and Jesus recognised that fact, in page 15 John x. 35. But this word here rendered "god" is a frequent one in the Old Testament, and is often not translated god. In Job xli. 25, the word is translated "mighty." In Ezekiel xxxi. 11, it is again translated, "mighty," and is applied to the strong king Nebuchadnezzar, to whom this very word is applied, and who is equally called a god. In Ezekiel xxxii. 21 the word is translated "strong," applied to departed herons. So, in the verse before us, the same word is used, and the greatest scholars in the world read it hero or potentate, or render it by a phrase indicating a mighty ruler and conqueror. Martin Luther, in his German Bible, rendered it by two words meaning "mighty" and "hero." The other words require hardly any explanation; for, even as they stand, they are all applicable to such a king as the prophet longed for and hoped for, to rule over the hard-pressed nation; and it was with the genuine fervour and hopefulness of a poet-prophet that he hailed him as—Wonderful, counsellor, mighty hero, the abiding father of his country, the prince of peace.

I would only add, with regard to the application of this passage to Christ, that people who take the words "The mighty God" in their bare literality, and apply them to Christ, will find themselves in a serious difficulty when they come to the words, "The everlasting Father." Are they also to be taken in their bare literality? If not, why not? If yes, then will any orthodox believer explain to us how he is going to avoid "confounding the persons" when he accepts the statement that Christ was not only the Hon of God, but "the everlasting Fatter" too?

With two verses in the beginning of this chapter (Isaiah ix. 1, 2), 1 will conclude this lecture. These are quoted not very accurately, in Matt. iv. 15, 16. The quotation runs thus in Matthew:—

"And leaving Nazareth, he came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is upon the sea coast, in the borders of Zabulon and Nephthalim; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying; The Land of Zabulon, and the land of Nephthalim, by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles; The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up."

Here, a few words from the chapter in Isaiah are lifted clean out of their connection, and made to apply to Christ, just because he is said to have left Nazareth, and gone to live in Capernaum; and this change of residence, we are asked to believe, was predicted 750 years before ! It is too much to ask. But turn to the passage itself in Isaiah, and you find what I have all along been pointing out, that it is part of a long, connected, and sustained description of political events then happening, and that it relates purely to these. In Isaiah the passage is descriptive, not prophetic: it tells of something that has happened, not of something that will happen in 750 years. It tells of a great political event then interesting the nation, the prophet, the court, and the king; and is entirely connected with the invasion of Judah by two kings, the hopes centered in the young prince, and the coming triumph of the nation over all its foes. It is the merest piece of accommodation to cut out this page 16 passage, or a part of it, as Matthew does, and apply it to an event altogether different, to a date unthought of by the writer, and to a set of circumstances as different from those described in the original record as anything could be. Isaiah is writing of kings, and courts, and peoples, and invasions, and battles, and burnings, and the alternations of hope and fear, light and darkness, among the people; and Matthew violently transfers the picture to a scene 750 years after, and to a man who had nothing to do with these things. Of course, it is open for any one to believe that Isaiah had two things in his mind—the burning events of his own day and the change of residence of Christ, 750 years after—and that he merged the two events into one prediction. But he who would believe that would believe anything, and all I can do is to lay the evidence before him, and pass on. But if I were offer such an on advice, it would be this:—Whatever faith you have in Jesus, rest it on surer foundations than on predictions that may fail you at any moment; rest it, as you surely can, upon a moral and spiritual basis which can never fail you—upon the rock of your own deepest convictions, which texts of Scripture can neither give nor take away.

* Another reading of the history of the time would make this refer to young Hezekiah's first child, whose birth, two or three years before the death of his grandfather Ahaz, would naturally cause great rejoicing.