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Isaiah xlii. 13-17.

At the beginning of ch. xlii. we reach one of those distinct stages, the frequent appearance of which in our prophecy assures us, that, for all its mingling and recurrent style, the prophecy is a unity with a distinct, if somewhat involved, progress of thought. For while chs. xl. and xli. establish the sovereignty and declare the character of the One True God before His people and the heathen, ch. xlii. takes what is naturally the next step, of publishing to both these classes His Divine will. This purpose of God is set forth in the first seven verses of the chapter. It is identified with a human Figure, who is to be God's agent upon earth, and who is styled the Servant of Jehovah. Next to Jehovah Himself, the Servant of Jehovah is by far the most important personage within our prophet's gaze. He is named, described, commissioned and encouraged over and over again throughout the prophecy; his character and indispensable work are hung upon with a frequency and a fondness almost equal to the steadfast faith, which the prophet reposes in Jehovah Himself. Were we following our prophecy chapter by chapter, now would be the time to put the question, Who133 is this Servant, who is suddenly introduced to us? and to look ahead for the various and even conflicting answers, which rise from the subsequent chapters. But we agreed, for clearness' sake,7878   See Introduction. to take all the passages about the Servant, which are easily detached from the rest of the prophecy, and treat by themselves, and to continue in the meantime our prophet's main theme of the Power and Righteousness of God as shown forth in the deliverance of His people from Babylon. Accordingly, at present we pass over xlii. 1-9, keeping this firmly in mind, however, that God has appointed for His work upon earth, including, as it does, the ingathering of His people and the conversion of the Gentiles, a Servant,—a human figure of lofty character and unfailing perseverance, who makes God's work of redemption his own, puts his heart into it, and is upheld by God's hand. God, let us understand, has committed His cause upon earth to a human agent.

God's commission of His Servant is hailed by a hymn. Earth answers the proclamation of the new things which the Almighty has declared (ver. 9) by a new song (vv. 10-13). But this song does not sing of the Servant; its subject is Jehovah Himself.

Sing to Jehovah a new song,

His praise from the end of the earth;

Ye that go down to the sea, and its fulness,

Isles, and their dwellers!

Let be loud,—the wilderness and its townships,

Villages that Kedar inhabits!

Let them ring out,—the dwellers of Sela!

From the top of the hills let them shout!134

Let them give to Jehovah the glory,

And publish His praise in the Isles!

Jehovah as hero goes forth,

As a man of war stirs up zeal,

Shouts the alarm and battle cry,

Against his foes proves Himself hero.

The terms of the last four lines are military. Most of them will be found in the historical books, in descriptions of the onset of Israel's battles with the heathen. But it is no human warrior to whom they are here applied. They who sing have forgotten the Servant. Their hearts are warm only with this, that Jehovah Himself will come down to earth to give the alarm, and to bear the brunt of the battle. And to such a hope He now responds, speaking also of Himself and not of the Servant. His words are very intense, and glow and strain with inward travail.

I have long time kept my peace,

Am dumb and hold myself in:

Like a woman in travail I gasp,

Pant and palpitate together.

Remember it is God who speaks these words of Himself, and then think what they mean of unshareable thought and pain, of solitary yearning and effort. But from the pain comes forth at last the power.

I waste mountains and hills,

And all their herb I parch;

And I have set rivers for islands,

And marshes I parch.

Yet it is not the passion of a mere physical effort that is in God; not mere excitement of war that thrills Him. But the suffering of men is upon Him, and He135 has taken their redemption to heart. He had said to His Servant (vv. 6, 7): I give thee ... to open the blind eyes, to bring out from prison the bound, from the house of bondage the dwellers in darkness. But here He Himself puts on the sympathy and strain of that work.

And I will make the blind to walk in a way they know not,
By paths they know not I will guide them;
Turn darkness before them to light,
And serrated land to level.
These are the things that I do, and do not remit them.
They fall backwards, with shame are they shamed,
That put trust in a Carving,
That do say to a Cast, Ye are our Gods.
7979   So the grammar of the original.

Now this pair of passages, in one of which God lays the work of redemption upon His human agent, and in another Himself puts on its passion and travail, are only one instance of a duality that runs through the whole of the Old Testament. As we repeatedly saw in the prophecies of Isaiah himself,8080   Vol. i., pp. 144, 334. there is a double promise of the future through the Old Testament:—first, that God will achieve the salvation of Israel by an extraordinary human personality, who is figured now as a King, now as a Prophet and now as a Priest; but, second also, that God Himself, in undeputed, unshared power, will come visibly to deliver His people and to reign over them. These two lines of prophecy run parallel, and even entangled, through the Old Testament, but within its bounds no attempt is made to reconcile them. They pass from it still separate, to find their synthesis, as we all know, in One of whom136 each is the incomplete prophecy. While considering the Messianic prophecies of Isaiah, which run upon the first of these two lines, we pointed out, that, though standing in historical connection with Christ, they were not prophecies of His divinity. Lofty and expansive as were the titles they attributed to the Messiah, these titles did not imply more than an earthly ruler of extraordinary power and dignity. But we added that in the other and concurrent line of prophecy, and especially in those well-developed stages of it which appear in Isa. xl.-lxvi., we should find the true Old Testament promise of the Deity in human form and tabernacling among men. We urged that, if the divinity of Christ was to be seen in the Old Testament, we should more naturally find it in the line of promise, which speaks of God Himself descending to battle and to suffer by the side of men, than in the line that lifts a human ruler almost to the right hand of God. We have now come to a passage, which gives us the opportunity of testing this connection, which we have alleged between the so-called anthropomorphism of the Old Testament, and the Incarnation, which is the glory of the New.

When God presents Himself in the Old Testament as His people's Saviour, it is not always as Isaiah mostly saw Him, in awful power and majesty—a King high and lifted up, or as coming from far, burning and thick-rising smoke, and overflowing streams; causing the peal of His voice to be heard, and the lighting down of His arm to be seen, in the fury of anger and devouring fire—bursting and torrent and hailstones.8181   Isa. xxxi. But in a large number of passages, of which the one before us and the137 famous first six verses of ch. lxiii. are perhaps the most forcible, the Almighty is clothed with human passion and agony. He is described as loving, hating, showing zeal or jealousy, fear, repentance and scorn. He bides His time, suddenly awakes to effort, and makes that effort in weakness, pain and struggle, so extreme that He likens Himself not only to a solitary man in the ardour of battle, but to a woman in her unshareable hour of travail. To use a technical word, the prophets in their descriptions of God do not hesitate to be anthropopathic—imparting to Deity the passions of men.

In order to appreciate the full effect of this habit of the Jewish religion, we must contrast it with some principles of that religion, with which at first it seems impossible to reconcile it.

No religion more necessarily implies the spirituality of God than does the Jewish. It is true that in the pages of the Old Testament, you will nowhere find this formally expressed. No Jewish prophet ever said in so many words what Jesus said to the woman of Samaria, God is spirit. In our own prophecy, spirit is frequently used, not to define the nature of God, but to express His power and the effectiveness of His will. But the Jewish Scriptures insist throughout upon the sublimity of God, or, to use their own term, His holiness. He is the Most High, Creator, Lord,—the Force and Wisdom that are behind nature and history. It is a sin to make any image of Him; it is an error to liken Him to man. I am God and not man, the Holy One.8282   Hosea xi. 9. We have seen how absolutely the Divine omnipotence and sublimity are expressed by our own prophet, and we shall find Him138 again speaking thus: My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.8383   Ch. lv. 8, 9. But perhaps the doctrine of our prophet which most effectively sets forth God's loftiness and spirituality is his doctrine of God's word. God has but to speak and a thing is created or a deed done. He calls and the agent He needs is there; He sets His word upon him and the work is as good as finished. My word that goeth forth out of My mouth, it shall not return unto Me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.8484   Ibid. ver. 11. Omnipotence could not farther go. It would seem that all man needed from God was a word,—the giving of a command, that a thing must be.

Yet it is precisely in our prophecy, that we find the most extreme ascriptions to the Deity of personal effort, weakness and pain. The same chapters which celebrate God's sublimity and holiness, which reveal the eternal counsels of God working to their inevitable ends in time, which also insist, as this very chapter does, that for the performance of works of mercy and morality God brings to bear the slow creative forces that are in nature, or which again (as in other chapters) attribute all to the power of His simple word,—these same Scriptures suddenly change their style and, after the most human manner, clothe the Deity in the travail and passion of flesh. Why is it, that instead of aspiring still higher from those sublime conceptions of God to some consummate expression of His unity, as for instance in Islam, or of His spirituality, as in certain modern139 philosophies, prophecy dashes thus thunderously down upon our hearts with the message, scattered in countless, broken words, that all this omnipotence and all this sublimity are expended and realised for men only in passion and in pain?

It is no answer, which is given by many in our day, that after all the prophets were but frail men, unable to stay upon the high flight to which they sometimes soared, and obliged to sacrifice their logic to the fondness of their hearts and the general habit of man to make his god after his own image. No easy sneer like that can solve so profound a moral paradox. We must seek the solution otherwise, and earnest minds will probably find it along one or other of the two following paths.

1. The highest moral ideal is not, and never can be, the righteousness that is regnant, but that which is militant and agonizing. It is the deficiency of many religions, that while representing God as the Judge and almighty executor of righteousness, they have not revealed Him as its advocate and champion as well. Christ gave us a very plain lesson upon this. As He clearly showed, when He refused the offer of all the kingdoms of the world, the highest perfection is not to be omnipotence upon the side of virtue, but to be there as patience, sympathy and love. To will righteousness, and to rule life from above in favour of righteousness, is indeed Divine; but if these were the highest attributes of divinity, and if they exhausted the Divine interest in our race, then man himself, with his conscience to sacrifice himself on behalf of justice or of truth,—man himself, with his instinct to make the sins of others his burden, and their purity his agonizing endeavour, would indeed be higher than his God. Had Jehovah140 been nothing but the righteous Judge of all the earth, then His witnesses and martyrs, and His prophets who took to themselves the conscience and reproach of their people's sins, would have been as much more admirable than Himself, as the soldier who serves his country on the battle-field or lays down his life for his people is more deserving of their gratitude and more certain of their devotion, than the king who equips him, sends him forth—and himself stays at home.

The God of the Old Testament is not such a God. In the moral warfare to which He has predestined His creatures, He Himself descends to participate. He is not abstract—that is, withdrawn—Holiness, nor mere sovereign Justice enthroned in heaven. He is One who arises and comes down for the salvation of men, who makes virtue His Cause and righteousness His Passion. He is no whit behind the chiefest of His servants. No seraph burns as God burns with ardour for justice; no angel of the presence flies more swiftly than Himself to the front rank of the failing battle. The human Servant, who is pictured in our prophecy, is more absolutely identified with suffering and agonizing men than any angel could be; but even he does not stand more closely by their side, nor suffer more on their behalf, than the God who sends him forth. For the Lord stirreth up jealousy like a man of war; in all His people's affliction He is afflicted; against His enemies He beareth Himself as a hero. So much from the side of righteousness.

2. But take the equally Divine attribute of love. When a religion affirms that God is love, it gives immense hostages. What is love without pity and compassion and sympathy? and what are these but self-imposed weakness and pain? Christ has told us of the greatest141 love. Greater love than this hath no man, that a man lay down his life for his friends; and the cost and sacrifice in which He thus outmatched man is one that the prophets before He came did not hesitate to impute to God. As far as human language is adequate for such a task, they picture God's love for men as costing Him so much. He painfully pleads for His people's loyalty; He travails in pain for their new birth and growth in holiness; in all their affliction He is afflicted; and He meets their stubbornness, not with the swift sentence of outraged holiness, but with longsuffering and patience, if so in the end He may win them. But the pain, that is thus essentially inseparable from love, reaches its acme, when the beloved are not only in danger but in sin, when not only the future of their holiness is uncertain, but their guilty past bars the way to any future at all. We saw how Jeremiah's love thus took upon itself the conscience and reproach of Israel's sin; how much distress and anguish, how much sympathy and self-sacrificing labour, and at last how much hopeless endurance of the common calamity, that sin cost the noble prophet, though he might so easily have escaped it all. Now even thus does God deal with His people's sins; not only setting them in the light of His awful countenance, but taking them upon His heart; making them not only the object of His hate, but the anguish and the effort of His love. Jeremiah was a weak mortal, and God is the Omnipotent. Therefore, the issue of His agony shall be what His servant's never could effect, the redemption of Israel from sin; but in sympathy and in travail the Deity, though omnipotent, is no whit behind the man.

We have said enough to prove our case, that the true142 Old Testament prophecy of the nature and work of Jesus Christ is found not so much in the long promise of the exalted human ruler, for whom Israel's eyes looked, as in the assurance of God's own descent to battle with His people's foes and to bear their sins. In this God, omnipotent, yet in His zeal and love capable of passion, who before the Incarnation was afflicted in all His people's affliction, and before the Cross made their sin His burden and their salvation His agony, we see the love that was in Jesus Christ. For Jesus, too, is absolute holiness, yet not far off. He, too, is righteousness militant at our side, militant and victorious. He, too, has made our greatest suffering and shame His own problem and endeavour. He is anxious for us just where conscience bids us be most anxious about ourselves. He helps us, because He feels when we feel our helplessness the most. Never before or since in humanity has righteousness been perfectly victorious as in Him. Never before or since, in the whole range of being, has any one felt as He did all the sin of man with all the conscience of God. He claims to forgive, as God forgives; to be able to save, as we know only God can save. And the proof of these claims, apart from the experience of their fulfilment in our own lives, is that the same infinite love was in Him, the same agony and willingness to sacrifice Himself for men, which we have seen made evident in the Passion of God.

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