The prophet's commission.
He is to unfold a theme of consolation, which runs through the whole of the book, introduced by this chapter. He speaks to the prophets: "Ye prophets, prophesy consolation concerning my people" (Targum of Jonathan); or, "O priests, speak to the heart of Jerusalem," according to the LXX . The former is probably correct. The prophets were numerous both in Isaiah's time ( Isaiah 3:1 ; Isaiah 29:10 , Isaiah 29:20 ) and during the Babylonian exile ( Jeremiah 29:1 ). Jehovah is now reconciled to his erring people, and calls them no longer by names expressive of rejection or contempt (as in Hosea 1:9 ; Isaiah 6:9 ), but as my people. "Israel, my people, and I their God," is the great word on which both Judaism and Christianity rest. Now the prophets are to "speak to the heart of Jerusalem." It is to be in a voice clear and distinct and penetrating. "Heart," in Hebrew use, is a comprehensive word; it stands for" intelligence, conscience, feeling," in one (cf. Genesis 34:3 ; Genesis 50:21 , where the Hebrew is, "to their hearts"). Perhaps chiefly the latter here. The vocation of the prophet is now especially to comfort and encourage. And so ever with the preacher. We may compare with these words the scene in the synagogue at Nazareth. Christ announces himself as the Bearer of consolation to the heart of his people, to the heart of mankind, especially to the poor and the distressed and dejected. And surely the burden of every ministry may well be the "Christ of consolation."
I. THE MESSAGE TO JERUSALEM .
1 . "Her warfare is fulfilled." "Warfare" standing for "enforced hardships." The metaphor "very suggestive of the peculiar troubles of military service in ancient times:" "Hath not man a warfare [hard service] on the earth?" ( Job 7:1 ). The idea of an appointed time of service enters into the word—the discharge of a duty for which a man has been enlisted , or solemnly engaged , as that of the Levites in the tabernacle ( Numbers 4:23 ; Numbers 8:24 , Numbers 8:25 ). Life as a period of enforced service. It means for most of us, perhaps for all of us, toil, danger, suffering. From this enlistment the only discharge is by death ( Job 14:14 ; Daniel 10:1 ). Our times are in the hand of God. A period is fixed to all suffering and trial. It may calm the apprehension of calamity in the most susceptible heart to see how quick a bound has been set to the utmost infliction of malice. We rapidly approach a brink over which no enemy can follow us. "Let them rave; thou art quiet in thy grave."
2 . "Her guilt is paid off." For punishment is viewed as the payment of a debt , and so as the satisfaction of the demands of Divine justice. In the Law, the sword and dispersion among the heathen are threatened against the disobedient and the unreformed; but never does Jehovah forget the covenant between him and the people; he is ever ready to suspend punishment when they suspend sin. Here the people are represented "as having suffered what God had appointed them—endured the natural punishment he saw to be necessary. They had served out the long term he had appointed. Now he is satisfied, has pleasure in releasing them and restoring them to their own land." Happy that moment in the personal life when the soul can be assured that suffering has done its work, and that it may be self-forgiven, because God-forgiven.
"At the last, do as the heavens have done:
Forget your evil; with them, forgive yourself."
3. "'She hath received double for all her sins.' The expression seems to denote what is amply sufficient (cf. Jeremiah 17:18 ; Revelation 18:6 )" (Cheyne); "As much as God judged to be sufficient" (Grotius); "Double to be received for large and abundant" (Calvin). The great law of compensation running through life, we must believe, is exact in its operation. God makes no mistakes in his reckonings. Suffering may continue long after sin has been forgiven. If the memory of guilt be still poignant, if the consequences of sin seem still "ever before us," it is as if God were saying, "Not enough hast thou suffered yet to know how precious is the peace of forgiveness." And when that blessed sense of forgiveness steals into the soul, it is the symptom that the hand of God is removed, that the cup of sorrow has been drained, that the medicine has done its work. The justice of our God will exact sufficient from us in the way of suffering; his clemency and mercy will never add a superfluous stroke from the scourge; rather he will stop short of the full exaction—thirty-nine rather than the full forty stripes.
II. THE MYSTERIOUS CALL . From what is to be believed of Jehovah, we pass to what is to be done for Jehovah. So ever does faith push on to practice. The internal act of the mind realizes itself and is made perfect in the external act of the life.
1 . Mysteriously a voice bids the listening heart prepare for Jehovah. It is a "non-Divine, yet supernatural voice." The poetic effect is heightened by the mystery (cf. Isaiah 51:9 ; Isaiah 52:1 ; Isaiah 57:14 ; Isaiah 62:10 ). Similar voices are spoken of in the Book of Revelation ( Revelation 1:10 , Revelation 1:12 ; Revelation 4:1 ; Revelation 10:4 , Revelation 10:8 ). There are times when the breath of coming change is felt stirring, and voices are heard calling to men to welcome it in and to help it on. Whence come they? Who knows? A spiritual world is all about us. It has music, and words; but while "this muddy vesture of decay doth grossly close us in, we cannot hear." But at times they pierce through our sensuality and break up our lethargic indolence. "Clear ye Jehovah's way in the desert." The Divine monarch is about to make a progress. Let the heart of the nation be as a highway for their God ( Psalms 84:5 ). So the Gospels understand the cry. From another point of view, the way of Jehovah through the desert is symbolic of his people's destinies. Babylon, as the scene of captivity, reminds us of the scene of captivity of yore in Egypt. When the temple was destroyed and Israel went forth, it was as if Jehovah had departed—perhaps to his sacred seat in the north, where Ezekiel ( Ezekiel 1:4 ) sees the cherubic chariot. His coming back is the people's coming back under his leadership. The imagery of clearing the way may be illustrated from the practice of Oriental princes. Diodorus tells of Semiramis that, in her march to Ecbatana, she had precipices digged down, and hollows filled up, so as to leave an everlasting memorial of herself—the "road of Semiramis' (cf. Baruch 5:7). Then the glory of Jehovah, eclipsed or hidden through his people's suffering and exile, will shine forth in its splendour, and all mankind shall look on.
2 . Again the voice is heard saying, "Call!" And the prophet answers, "What shall I call?" The burden of the cry is the frailty of man , and the eternity of the truth. Homer compares the race of man to the successive generations of the leaves of the wood; the prophet to the grass and the flowers (of. Psalms 90:5 , Psalms 90:6 ). Israel and Assyria are both politically extinct, and Babylon is hurrying to its end. The thought is suggested, though not expressed, that if Israel is to rise again from its ashes, it can only be by abstaining from all attempts at secular aggrandizement. The new Israel will be, in all the circumstances of its growth, supernatural. And what is true of one people is true of all. Princes, nobles, and monarchs, armies and magistrates, are feeble like grass and will soon pass away. On the one hand, they would not be able to accomplish what was needed for the deliverance of the people; on the other, their oppressors had no power to continue their bondage, since they were like grass and must pass away. But Jehovah had all power, and was ever-enduring, and able to fulfil all his promises, especially those concerning Israel ( Isaiah 44:26 ; Isaiah 45:19 ; Isaiah 52:6 ; Isaiah 63:1 ; Jeremiah 44:28 , Jeremiah 44:29 ). And the healing results are to be known by all mankind.
III. THE INSPIRING VISION —The prophet is carried away in spirit to Palestine, and sees the fulfilment of the promise drawing near. He personifies Zion and Jerusalem, and calls upon them to lift up their voices and announce to the cities of Judah the approach of God. Perhaps he idealizes the city, or is thinking of the city out of sight—the spiritual commonwealth of which the earthly and visible one was the type. Lo! he comes! the God and Leader of the people returning to the city, the temple, the land. He will come in his might; the arm is the very symbol of his almightiness; and it rules " for him," i.e. for the peculiar people, the people of his possession. He comes to recompense his friends and to execute vengeance on his foes. The ruler of a people is fitly imaged as a shepherd, and they as his flock. And now he has sought and found his sheep again, and will once more lead them to green pastures ( Jeremiah 31:10 ; Jeremiah 50:19 ; Ezekiel 34:11-16 ), and, as a good shepherd, will not overdrive the suckling ewes ( Genesis 33:13 ). In the Syrian plains the frequent removal to fresh pastures is very destructive to the young, and shepherds may now be seen in the Orient carrying, on such occasions, the lambs in their bosoms. We need, by any means in our power, travel, and observation, to realize strongly the grave responsibility , the constant anxiety , the patient and unwearied tendance , connected with the shepherd's life in the East. Compare such a life with that of the hunter, who, from watching, pursuing, outwitting wild beasts, comes to partake of their fierce and cunning nature. The life of the shepherd draws upon the fund of love and tenderness in his heart; it is a humanizing life, full of a fine education; elevating by means of condescension. Then how rich a symbol is the pastoral character of the nature of the redeeming God! And how do the numerous passages in the New Testament, in which Jesus is so described, start into life and beauty, when these things are considered ( John 10:1-42 .; Hebrews 13:20 ; 1 Peter 2:25 ; 1 Peter 5:4 )! There is an ineffable union of might with tenderness in the character of the Redeemer-God, which should in some sort be reflected in the pastoral character of Christ's servants ( John 16:15-17 ).—J.
The golden age.
" Every valley shall be exalted ," etc. Everything depends upon how we view the future, whether with the horoscope of history or prophecy. History says the old evils return—war, strife, wrong, selfishness. Then the heart sinks, and inspiration to duty is weakened. But when we go with the prophet to the mountain-tops, we see—
I. PATHS OF PREPARATION . "Prepare ye the way of the Lord." There are the ruins of the old military roads of the Caesars, but the Caesars are gone. There the Ptolemies of olden time made incursions, but their sway is past. But the highways of commerce, the freer intercourse of peoples; the more humanizing influences of equity in law, and reformation in punishment, the kindly workings of pity and charity to the neglected and forgotten;—all these are preparation-paths for the great King who is to reign in righteousness. Not alone through the royal gates of olden prophecies, but through the triumphal arches of redeeming ideas and influences which he has set at work, the Messiah shall come.
II. OBSTACLES REMOVED . "Every valley," etc. This is but a figurative way of stating that no hindrance can affect the onward march of the Redeemer. In Eastern countries the things described here were obstacles sufficient to hinder Solomon in his Eastern journeys. There were limits to his progress when he left his grand basilica to visit his wide domains. Not so will it be with One greater than Solomon.
III. GLORY REVEALED . It is hidden now. Men are dazzled with false glory, with meretricious ideas of empire, and they see no beauty in Christ that they should desire him. But one day—as the aesthetic student realizes in time what is true art, as the musician understands the majesty of Beethoven—the moral nature of men being quickened and renewed by the Spirit, they shall see the glory of the Lord and the excellency of our God. Not some here and there, but man everywhere; "all flesh shall see it together." What a vision! and what a day of jubilee! We need cherish no doubt about it. The vision is not imagination. The grand climacteric result is not predicated from a mere study of the triumph of the strongest forces. God has pledged his own word: "For the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it."—W.M.S.
Human preparation for the Divine advent.
We shall find, with very little seeking, a threefold application for these words:
I. THE MANIFESTED GLORY OF GOD . This was to be displayed and has been shown in two illustrations which are now historical.
1 . The faithfulness and the power of Jehovah in the accomplishment of his people's redemption from exile.
2 . A more striking instance of Divine faithfulness, wisdom, and power, in the giving of the gospel of his grace, in preparing the nations of the earth for its reception, in its actual initiation and inauguration, and in its early and widespread diffusion among men.
II. THE GLORY WHICH WAITS TO RE REVEALED . Christ has come, and we celebrate his advent with joy and gratitude. But it is also and equally true that he is coming. He is still "the Coming One." Across the arid wastes of indifference, and over mountains of opposition and gulfs of apparent impossibility, he is coming, and in time we shall see him—the present, reigning, triumphant Lord. It is a glorious spiritual advance he is to make, and presence he is to confer, and power he is to exert; but it will be none the less glorious or gracious for its spirituality. That, indeed, will immeasurably enhance its worth, for it will be the grander, the truer, the more lasting achievement.
III. THE STRENGTH OF OUR ASSURANCE CONCERNING IT . "All flesh shall see it: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it." There may be many indications that Jesus Christ will one day secure a glorious victory over the disbelief, the vice, the superstition, the selfishness, the indifference of the world; but the strongest assurance we can take to our striving, yearning, sometimes wondering and doubting hearts is that "the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it:" "I, if I be lifted up," etc.
IV. OUR CONTRIBUTION TOWARDS ITS COMING . "Prepare ye the way," etc.; "make straight a highway," etc. The Christian Church has to ask itself the urgent, practical question, what it can do to quicken the coming of its Lord in his redeeming and regenerating power. And it may find its answer here.
1 . Fill up the gulfs of unbelief; let not lack of faith on the part of Christian men hinder the putting forth of Divine power ( Matthew 13:58 ).
2 . Remove the hills of inconsistency; let not profession and exhortation be neutralized by immoralities in life, by wide departures from the will and Word of God.
3 . Take up the stones of blemish; make a patient effort to cast aside lesser evils which, if not serious obstacles, do yet trouble and impede.
4 . Lay down a highway by prayer and zeal.—C.
Needed preparations for Christ.
"Prepare ye in the wilderness the way of the Lord." The figure used by the prophet is one whose forte could only be fully apprehended in that country to which he belonged. Until recent years there were no roads, at least no roads on which vehicles might be drawn; only such paths, often very rough, and steep, and dangerous, as would be made by the passing to and fro of cattle and of men. But a few years ago, when Ibrahim Pasha proposed to visit certain places in Lebanon, the emirs and skeikhs sent forth messengers to all the people on the way the pasha was coming, with a proclamation very similar to this of Isaiah, commanding them that they should gather out the stones, make straight the crooked places, level the rough places, and so prepare the way for his grand cavalcade to march through. Applying this figure to Messianic times, we note that the world wanted Christ, but it was not prepared for him when he came; and it is still true of many human hearts—they do really want Christ, but they are not prepared for him in his spiritual comings.
I. THE WORLD WANTED CHRIST . There is no word which so exactly describes the condition of the world when Christ appeared as the term darkness. "Darkness covered the earth, and gross darkness the people." When God created man, or, let us say, set him forth as the Head of his creation, he put light within him, and was light unto him. But when man sinned by exalting self-will, God took his light away, and left humanity to work out the problem of life in the power of its own self-will. That problem may be stated thus: Man is satisfied with himself, with the light that is in him: then can he find his own way to God and righteousness? Can he answer for himself this question, "How shall man be just with God?" You cannot understand the history of Israel, or of the ancient world, save in the light which this representation throws upon them. Each nation took its own way in trying to solve the problem. Egyptians, and Persians, and Syrians, and Grecians, and Romans, all were working at it. But man, by himself, has always failed to discover any satisfactory solution. The light he had faded. Twilight passed into night; night grew blacker and darker; the stars were hidden by low overhanging clouds; and it was the gloom of moral midnight over all the earth when Messiah came. But the heathen, in their debasing idolatries, were conscious of bondage, and looked for a Deliverer. The Jews, though corrupted with formalism, held passionately to their hope of Messiah. The sins of the world wanted Christ. The woes of the world wanted Christ. The minds and hearts of men wanted Christ, though they could not put into shape of words their inarticulate longings. Humanity had its watchmen at every point of advantage, and again and again the question was eagerly asked, "Watchman, what of the night? watchman, what of the night?" It is interesting to notice that, whilst Christ was a babe, and as yet no shame had gathered about him, all humanity offered homage to him by its representatives, and bade him welcome to the world that so greatly needed him. Shepherds, representing the whole Jewish people, followed the angelic sign, and welcomed the Messiah-Child. Eastern Magi, star-directed, representing the whole heathen world, offered him their gold and frankincense and myrrh. And Simeon and Anna. representing the spirituals the religious classes, hailed him with the joy of believing and loving hearts.
II. THE WORLD WAS NOT HEADY FOR CHRIST . They had made no room for him. The inn was full. He must find a place for himself, where he could—some strange place, out in the stable, in the manger. And there was no better room for him in men's hearts. Only let the story of his life unfold a little. Only let his hands begin to do deeds of charity; only let his lips speak words of spiritual conviction; only let him point out the follies and sins of the age; only let him show that his mission was to the poor, the sorrowing, and the sinning; only let the purity of his perfect life, like a Divine light, reveal the corruption of his times;—and then he is the "despised and rejected of men;" then they hurry him forth out of the synagogue to throw him over the hanging rock; then they lead him forth, bearing his cross, and crucify him between two thieves. How is this? Why does the world want Christ, and yet, when he comes, he finds men so unprepared that they reject instead of receive him? The answer is a very simple one, but a very painful one. Men get to love sin for its own sake. They dislike, indeed, the penalties attached to it; they tremble at the consequences of it; but they love the sin and cherish it. They would gladly enough have welcomed a Saviour who would break off those chains of bondage to Rome, which had been fixed on them as a judgment for their national sins; but they did not want to part with their national pride and exclusiveness. They would gladly have welcomed a Christ who could burn up the great book of death, which so surely treasured up for them "wrath against the day of wrath;" but they did not want to give up the sins that led to spiritual death—the hypocrisy, the sensuality, the multiplied forms of moral evil, which they loved and sought. Therefore who can wonder that, when Christ came as a Saviour from sin, men were not prepared for him—men refused such a Christ? It is evident that the world, in its unpreparedness, needed the intense, arousing, almost terrible, preaching of John the Baptist. The work given to John was to try and alter the views of men in respect of Messiah. He preached "Repent;" change your minds; get another view of sin; see the essential evil and hatefulness of it. To all who came he spoke directly and plainly of the particular sins they loved; he demanded the giving up and putting away of individual and social sins as the necessary preparation for Messiah's coming. This, then, is the one wrong thing—sin loved for its own sake. This was the mountain that must be levelled, this the crooked place that must be made straight, this the rough place that must be made plain, before the glory of the Saviour from sin "could be revealed, and all flesh see the salvation of our God."
III. WHAT WAS TRUE OF THE WORLD IS TRUE OF US . Our souls want Christ. It is sad, indeed, to be sinners, living without God, and without hope in the world. We have often felt that all was not right with us; dark shadows hung all around us, and all before us. We have looked and longed for the light. When we have thought of God and sin and the future we have cried out, "Oh that I knew where I could find him! I would come even unto his seat." Sin in us wants Christ the Saviour. Conscious separateness from God wants Christ the Reconciler. Ignorance wants Christ the Teacher. And Christ wants us. Then why is the old fact of the time of his first coming repeated among us to-day? They wanted him, but were offended at him, and cast him out; cruel hands smote him, fierce nails pierced him, scorn howled around him, and a violent death freed him from a world that was not prepared to greet him. The reason for our rejecting him is the same as theirs. We, too, are unwilling to give up our sins for Christ. We want a Saviour from punishment, from consequences, from fears, from death, from hell; but not a Saviour from sin , from self-confidence, from pride, from independence of God, from our rebelliousness, our lustings, and our self-indulgences. We want a Saviour who will give us a secure title to future bliss; but not one who will take the stony heart away, and give us a heart of flesh; not a Saviour who can deliver us from the very love of sinning, and "create in us a clean heart." Is, then, your path full of the stones, the crooked ways, the rough places, of loved sins? remember that Christ is a Saviour from sin. He is named Jesus, because he shall save his people from their sins. He will not save you at all unless you are heartily willing that he should save you from your evil self, from your loved iniquities.—R.T.
The voice of him that crieth ; rather, the voice of one that crieth. A voice sounds in the prophet's ear, crying to repentance. For God to come down on earth, for his glory to be revealed in any signal way, by the restoration of a nation, or the revelation of himself in Christ, or the final establishment of his kingdom, the "way" must be first "prepared" for him. The hearts of the disobedient must be turned to the wisdom of the just. In the wilderness; either, "the wilderness of this world" (Kay), or "the wilderness separating Babylonia from Palestine" (Delitzsch), in a part of which John the Baptist afterwards preached. Prepare ye the way of the Lord . The "way of the Lord" is "the way of holiness" ( Isaiah 35:8 ). There is one only mode of "preparing" it—the mode adopted by John Baptist ( Matthew 3:2-12 ), the mode pointed out by the angel who announced him ( Luke 1:17 ), the mode insisted on in the Collect for the Third Sunday in Advent. The voice enjoins on the prophets of the captive nation to prepare the hearts of the people for the coming manifestation of God.