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Isaiah xlvi.

Chapter xlvi. is a definite prophecy, complete in itself. It repeats many of the truths which we have found in previous chapters, and we have already seen what it says about Cyrus. But it also strikes out a new truth, very relevant then, when men made idols and worshipped the works of their hands, and relevant still, when so many, with equal stupidity, are more concerned about keeping up the forms of their religion than allowing God to sustain themselves.

The great contrast, which previous chapters have been elaborating, is the contrast between the idols and the living God. On the one side we have had pictures of the busy idol-factories, cast into agitation by the advent of Cyrus, turning out with much toil and noise their tawdry, unstable images. Foolish men, instead of letting God undertake for them, go to and try what their own hands and hammers can effect. Over against them, and their cunning and toil, the prophet sees the God of Israel rise alone, taking all responsibility of salvation to Himself—I, I am He: look unto Me, all the ends of the earth, and be ye saved. This contrast comes to a head in ch. xlvi.


It is still the eve of the capture of Babylon; but the prophet pictures to himself what will happen on the morrow of the capture. He sees the conqueror following the old fashion of triumph—rifling the temples of his enemies and carrying away the defeated and discredited gods as trophies to his own. The haughty idols are torn from their pedestals and brought head foremost through the temple doors. Bel crouches—as men have crouched to Bel; Nebo cowers—a stronger verb than crouches, but assonant to it, like cower to crouch.101101   Crouches, Kara`; cowers, Kores. Their idols have fallen to the beast and to the cattle. Beast, "that is, tamed beast, perhaps elephants in contrast to cattle, or domestic animals."102102   Bredenkamp. The things with which ye burdened yourselves, carrying them shoulder high in religious processions, are things laden, mere baggage-bales, a burden for a hack, or jade. The nouns are mostly feminine—the Hebrew neuter—in order to heighten the dead-weight impression of the idols. So many baggage-bales for beasts' backs—such are your gods, O Babylonians! They cower, they crouch together (fall limp is the idea, like corpses); neither are they able to recover the burden, and themselves!—literally their soul, any real soul of deity that ever was in them—into captivity are they gone.

This never happened. Cyrus entered Babylon not in spite of the native gods, but under their patronage, and was careful to do homage to them. Nabunahid, the king of Babylon, whom he supplanted, had vexed the priests of Bel or Merodach; and these priests had been among the many conspirators in favour of the Persian. So far, then, from banishing the idols, upon his entry into the city, Cyrus had himself proclaimed as "the179 servant of Merodach," restored to their own cities the idols that Nabunahid had brought to Babylon, and prayed, "In the goodness of their hearts may all the gods whom I have brought into their strong places daily intercede before Bel and Nebo, that they should grant me length of days. May they bless my projects with prosperity, and may they say to Merodach, my lord, that Cyrus the king, thy worshipper, and Kambyses, his son (deserve thy favour)."103103   Sayce, Fresh Light, etc., p. 140.

Are we, then, because the idols were not taken into captivity, as our prophet pictures, to begin to believe in him less? We shall be guilty of that error, only when we cease to disallow to a prophet of God what we do allow to any other writer, and praise him when he employs it to bring home a moral truth—the use of his imagination. What if these idols never were packed off by Cyrus, as our prophet here paints for us? It still remains true that, standing where they did, or carried away, as they may have been later on, by conquerors, who were monotheists indeed, they were still mere ballast, so much dead-weight for weary beasts.

Now, over against this kind of religion, which may be reduced to so many pounds avoirdupois, the prophet sees in contrast the God of Israel. And it is but natural, when contrasted with the dead-weight of the idols, that God should reveal Himself as a living and a lifting God: a strong, unfailing God, who carries and who saves. Hearken unto Me, O House of Jacob, and all the remnant of the House of Israel; burdens from the womb, things carried from the belly. Burdens, things carried, are the exact words used of the idols in ver. 1. Even unto old age I am He, and unto grey hairs I will180 bear—a grievous word, used only of great burdens. I have made, and I will carry; yea, I will bear, and will recover. Then follow some verses in the familiar style. To whom will ye liken Me, and match Me, and compare Me, that we may be like? They who pour gold from a bag, and silver they measure off with an ellwand—gorgeous, vulgar Babylonians!—they hire a smelter, and he maketh it a god—out of so many ells of silver!—they bow down to it, yea, they worship it! They carry him upon the shoulder, they bear him,—again the grievous word,—to bring him to his station; and he stands; from his place he never moves. Yea, one cries unto him, and he answers not; from his trouble he doth not save him. Remember this, and show yourselves men—the playing with these gilded toys is so unmanly to the monotheist (it will be remembered what we said in ch. iii. about the exiles feeling that to worship idols was to be less than a man104104   See p. 39 f.)—lay it again to heart, ye transgressors. Remember the former things of old: for I am God, El, and there is none else; God, Elohim, and there is none like Me. Publishing from the origin the issue, and from ancient times things not yet done; saying, My counsel shall stand, and all My pleasure shall I perform; calling out of the sunrise a Bird-of-prey, from the land that is far off the Man of My counsel. Yea, I have spoken; yea, I will bring it in. I have purposed; yea, I will do it. Hearken unto Me, ye obdurate of heart—that is, brave, strong, sound, but too sound to adapt their preconceived notions to God's new revelation;—ye that are far from righteousness, in spite of your sound opinions as to how it ought to come. I have brought near My righteousness, in distinction to yours. It shall not be far off, like your181 impossible ideas, and My salvation shall not tarry, and I will set in Zion salvation, for Israel My glory. It is evident that from the idolaters Jehovah has turned again, in these last verses, to the pedants in Israel, who were opposed to Cyrus because he was a Gentile, and who cherished their own obdurate notions of how salvation and righteousness should come. Ah, their kind of righteousness would never come, they would always be far from it! Let them rather trust to Jehovah's, which He was rapidly bringing near in His own way.

Such is the prophecy. It starts a truth, which bursts free from local and temporal associations, and rushes in strength upon our own day and our own customs. The truth is this: it makes all the difference to a man how he conceives his religion—whether as something that he has to carry, or as something that will carry him. We have too many idolatries and idol manufactories among us to linger longer on those ancient ones. This cleavage is permanent in humanity—between the men that are trying to carry their religion, and the men that are allowing God to carry them.

Now let us see how God does carry. God's carriage of man is no mystery. It may be explained without using one theological term; the Bible gives us the best expression of it. But it may be explained without a word from the Bible. It is broad and varied as man's moral experience.

1. The first requisite for stable and buoyant life is ground, and the faithfulness of law. What sends us about with erect bodies and quick, firm step is the sense that the surface of the earth is sure, that gravitation will not fail, that our eyes and the touch of our feet and our judgement of distance do not deceive us.182 Now, what the body needs for its world, the soul needs for hers. For her carriage and bearing in life the soul requires the assurance, that the moral laws of the universe are as conscience has interpreted them to her, and will continue to be as in experience she has found them. To this requisite of the soul—this indispensable condition of moral behaviour—God gives His assurance. I have made, He says, and I will bear.105105   There is a play on the words 'anî `asîthî, wa'anî, 'essā'—I have made, and I will aid. These words were in answer to an instinct, that must have often sprung up in our hearts when we have been struggling for at least moral hope—the instinct which will be all that is sometimes left to a man's soul when unbelief lowers, and under its blackness a flood of temptations rushes in, and character and conduct feel impossible to his strength—the instinct that springs from the thought, "Well, here I am, not responsible for being here, but so set by some One else, and the responsibility of the life, which is too great for me, is His." Some such simple faith, which a man can hardly separate from his existence, has been the first rally and turning-point in many a life. In the moral drift and sweep he finds bottom there, and steadies on it, and gets his face round, and gathers strength. And God's Word comes to him to tell him that his instinct is sure. Yea, I have made, and I will bear.

2. The most terrible anguish of the heart, however, is that it carries something, which can shake a man off even that ground. The firmest rock is of no use to the paralytic, or to a man with a broken leg. And the most steadfast moral universe, and most righteous moral governor, is no comfort—but rather the reverse—to the183 man with a bad conscience, whether that conscience be due to the guilt, or to the habit, of sin. Conscience whispers, "God indeed made thee, but what if thou hast unmade thyself? God reigns; the laws of life are righteousness; creation is guided to peace. But thou art outlaw of this universe, fallen from God of thine own will. Thou must bear thine own guilt, endure thy voluntarily contracted habits. How canst thou believe that God, in this fair world, would bear thee up, so useless, soiled, and infected a thing?" Yet here, according to His blessed Word, God does come down to bear up men. Because man's sunkenness and helplessness are so apparent beneath no other burden or billows, God insists that just here He is most anxious, and just here it is His glory, to lift men and bear them upward. Some may wonder what guilt is or the conviction of sin, because they are selfishly or dishonestly tracing the bitterness and unrest of their lives to some other source than their own wicked wills; but the thing is man's realest burden, and man's realest burden is what God stoops lowest to bear. The grievous word for bear, "sabal," which we emphasized in the above passage, is elsewhere in the writings of the Exile used of the bearing of sins, or of the result of sins. Our fathers have sinned, and are not, and we bear their iniquities,106106   Lam. v. 7. says one of the Lamentations. And in the fifty-third of Isaiah it is used twice of the Servant, that He bore our sorrows, and that He bare their iniquities.107107   Ver. 4, second clause, and vii. Here its application to God—to such a God as we have seen bearing the passion of His people's woes—cannot fail to carry with it the associations of these passages. When it is said, God bears, and this grievous verb is184 used, we remember at once that He is a God, who does not only set His people's sins in the awful light of His countenance, but takes them upon His heart. Let us learn, then, that God has made this sin and guilt of ours His special care and anguish. We cannot feel it more than He does. It is enough: we may not be able to understand what the sacrifice of Christ meant to the Divine justice, but who can help comprehending from it that in some Divine way the Divine love has made our sin its own business and burden, so that that might be done which we could not do, and that lifted which we could not bear?

3. But this gospel of God's love bearing our sins is of no use to a man unless it goes with another—that God bears him up for victory over temptation and for attainment in holiness. It is said to be a thoroughly Mohammedan fashion, that when a believer is tempted past the common he gives way, and slides into sin with the cry, "God is merciful;" meaning that the Almighty will not be too hard on this poor creature, who has held out so long. If this be Mohammedanism, there is a great deal of Mohammedanism in modern Christianity. It is a most perfidious distortion of God's will. For this is the will of God, even our sanctification; and God never gives a man pardon but to set him free for effort, and to constrain him for duty. And here we come to what is the most essential part of God's bearing of man. God, as we have seen, bears us by giving us ground to walk on. He bears us by lifting those burdens from our hearts that make the firmest ground slippery and impossible to our feet. But He bears us best and longest by being the spirit and the soul and the life of our life. Every metaphor here falls short of the reality. By inspired men the bearing of God has185 been likened to a father carrying his child, to an eagle taking her young upon her wings, to the shepherd with the lamb in his bosom. But no shepherd, nor mother-bird, nor human father ever bore as the Lord bears. For He bears from within, as the soul lifts and bears the body. The Lord and His own are one. To me, says he who knew it best, To me to live is Christ. It is, indeed, difficult to describe to others what this inward sustainment really is, seating itself at the centre of a man's life, and thence affecting vitally every organ of his nature. The strongest human illustration is not sufficient for it. If in the thick of the battle a leader is able to infuse himself into his followers, so is Christ. If one man's word has lifted thousands of defeated soldiers to an assault and to a victory, even so have Christ's lifted millions: lifted them above the habit and depression of sin, above the weakness of the flesh, above the fear of man, above danger and death and temptation more dangerous and fatal still. And yet it is not the sight of a visible leader, though the Gospels have made that sight imperishable; it is not the sound of Another's Voice, though that Voice shall peal to the end of time, that Christians only feel. It is something within themselves; another self—purer, happier, victorious. Not as a voice or example, futile enough to the dying, but as a new soul, is Christ in men; and whether their exhaustion needs creative forces, or their vices require conquering forces, He gives both, for He is the fountain of life.

4. But God does not carry dead men. His carrying is not mechanical, but natural; not from below, but from within. You dare not be passive in God's carriage; for as in the natural, so in the moral world, whatever dies is thrown aside by the upward pressure of life, to186 rot and perish. Christ showed this over and over again in His ministry. Those who make no effort—or, if effort be past, feel no pain—God will not stoop to bear. But all in whom there is still a lift and a spring after life: the quick conscience, the pain of their poverty, the hunger and thirst after righteousness, the sacredness of those in their charge, the obligation and honour of their daily duty, some desire for eternal life—these, however weak, He carries forward to perfection.

Again, in His bearing God bears, and does not overbear, using a man, not as a man uses a stick, but as a soul uses a body,—informing, inspiring, recreating his natural faculties. So many distrust religion, as if it were to be an overbearing of their originality, as if it were bound to destroy the individual's peculiar freshness and joy. But God is not by grace going to undo His work by nature. I have made, and I will bear—will bear what I have made. Religion intensifies the natural man.

And now, if that be God's bearing—the gift of the ground, and the lifting of the fallen, and the being a soul and an inspiration of every organ—how wrong those are who, instead of asking God to carry them, are more anxious about how He and His religion are to be sustained by their consistency or efforts!

To young men, who have not got a religion, and are brought face to face with the conventional religion of the day, the question often presents itself in this way: "Is this a thing I can carry?" or "How much of it can I afford to carry? How much of the tradition of the elders can I take upon myself, and feel that it is not mere dead weight?" That is an entirely false attitude. Here you are, weak, by no means master of yourself; with a heart wonderfully full of suggestions to evil; a187 world before you, hardest where it is clearest, seeming most impossible where duty most loudly calls; yet mainly dark and silent, needing from us patience oftener than effort, and trust as much as the exercise of our own cleverness; with death at last ahead. Look at life whole, and the question you will ask will not be, Can I carry this faith? but, Can this faith carry me? Not, Can I afford to take up such and such and such opinions? but, Can I afford to travel at all without such a God? It is not a creed, but a living and a lifting God, who awaits your decision.

At the opposite end of life, there is another class of men, who are really doing what young men too often suppose that they must do if they take up a religion,—carrying it, instead of allowing it to carry them; men who are in danger of losing their faith in God, through over-anxiety about traditional doctrines concerning Him. A great deal is being said just now in our country of upholding the great articles of the faith. Certainly let us uphold them. But do not let us have in our churches that saddest of all sights, a mere ecclesiastical procession,—men flourishing doctrines, but themselves with their manhood remaining unseen. We know the pity of a show, sometimes seen in countries on the Continent, where they have not given over carrying images about. Idols and banners and texts will fill a street with their tawdry, tottering progress, and you will see nothing human below, but now and then jostling shoulders and a sweaty face. Even so are many of the loud parades of doctrines in our day by men, who, in the words of this chapter, show themselves stout of heart by holding up their religion, but give us no signs in their character or conduct that their religion is holding up them. Let us prize our faith,188 not by holding it high, but by showing how high it can hold us.

Which is the more inspiring sight,—a banner carried by hands, that must sooner or later weary; or the soldier's face, mantling with the inexhaustible strength of the God who lives at his heart and bears him up?

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