The Known Isaiah: Isaiah 40

Isaiah 40  •  11 min. read  •  grade level: 10
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Having now come to the main effort of skepticism against “the vision of Isaiah,” which denies to the noblest of the prophets the last and noblest portion of his prophecy, let us examine with more detail the scripture before us, and the argument of the neo-critics, if argument it can be called. For it assumes, what they ought to prove, that the prophet must have lived in the Babylonian exile while Cyrus was pursuing his career of conquest, and that the Jews there were in despair or indifferent, whom these chapters were addressed to arouse and expostulate, with announcing the certainty of the approaching restoration. It assumes that such an immersion of the prophet's spirit into the future is not only without parallel in the O.T., but contrary to the nature of prophecy. For this rests on the basis of the prophet's own age and corresponds to the needs then felt, however far-reaching into the future. Transient flights forward are allowed; but such a sustained transference to the future as Isaiah would imply for these chapters, if his, is held to be against all example, and to indicate a prophet writing toward the close of the captivity. What they call the internal evidence is their chief ground:—Jerusalem often represented as ruined and deserted, the Jews suffering at the hands of the Chaldeans, and the prospect of return imminent, with the prophet addressing them in person, as not contemporaries of Ahaz and Hezekiah, but exiles in Babylon. Minute as well as more general traits of style, and other spiritual traits are supposed to confirm the conclusion of their difference from the undisputed writings of Isaiah. But what is here given expresses their principal and common plea, whatever the points of difference otherwise.
It is well to observe, by the way, how little the question turns on profound Hebrew scholarship, which their followers everywhere parade as if it were the grand if not sole qualification for judging aright. Whereas it is certain that the stress of their hypothesis lies on that which is open to all.
Our English Professors do not go so far as some who have greatly influenced them. But the well-known F. Hitzig (“Der Proph. Jes., 1833,” a work which Dr. D. says is “the source of much that is best exegetically in more recent commentaries”) lets out the evil root of unbelief. “A prophetic prescience must be limited to the notion of foreboding, and to the deductions from patent facts taken in combination with real or supposed truths. Prophets were bounded like other men (!) by the horizon of their own age; they borrowed the object of their soothsaying (! from their present; and excited by the relations of their present, they spoke to their contemporaries of what affected other people's minds or their own, occupying themselves only with that future whose rewards or punishments were likely to reach their contemporaries. For exegesis the position is impregnable (!) that the prophetic writings are to be interpreted in each case out of the relations belonging to the time of the prophet; and from this follows as a corollary the critical canon: that that time, those time-relations, out of which a prophetic writer is explained, are his times, his time-relations; to that time he must be referred as the date of his own existence” (pp. 463-468)!!
It is hard to conceive a more infidel exclusion of God from inspiration. Believers will surely reject a canon which rests on the merest assumption, and cleave to the apostle's authoritative words, which deny that prophecy was ever brought by man's will, but men spake from God, moved or borne along by the Holy Spirit. It is then a question of His wisdom, Who deigns to vouchsafe no little variety in His communications by the prophets. Here we are discussing not only the most copious but the most varied and comprehensive of all the O.T. company; and Isaiah had already uttered a numerous set of predictions. For these occasion was given in the moral ruin of Israel and even Judah, which faithful kings could not retrieve, however for a time a stay and means of transient blessing. But even then the prophet's word from Jehovah exposed the ever growing evil, called to repentance; and set forth assured deliverance in the end. This was not a partial return from captivity; but glory and righteousness reigning in the chosen people; and not they only, but all the nations flowing to the center of Jehovah's house established on the top of the mountains and lifted above the hills. In vain have the fathers as well as moderns become wise in their own conceits, denying the hope of Israel by-and-by to exalt Christendom now. Rationalists see that this application is groundless, and, having no faith in the true and future fulfillment, count it “ideal,” and the prophecy a mistaken dream. It would, indeed, be the grossest Orientalism to allow that the glorious hopes in Isa. 2:1-4 and 4:2.6 were realized in the return from Babylon, the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, or the Jewish religion since then. How verified will every word be, when on the repentance of the Jews God sends the Lord Jesus, Whom heaven has received till times of restoring all things, of which God's holy prophets have spoken since time began! So Peter preached; so we believe. For the present, the Jews believe not; and the rationalists even less.
The fact is too, that the series of “burdens” in our prophecy opened with as exact a parallel as the case admits of in this book without going farther. For there we had the destruction of Babylon portrayed in the most vivid colors, though there was no historic basis stated in either chap. 13. or 21.; and the implacable part the Medes played in the former, not Medes only but Elam, the Persian contingent; and the destruction is on that first occasion pursued to the end in the day of Jehovah, so as to prefigure the imperial system as a whole judged forever, with the full and final deliverance of God's ancient people—the “all Israel” which shall be saved and set in their own land in that great day, as chap. 14. shows. But the leaving out of Babylon makes an irreparable gap in the circle of these “burdens “; while its judgment most properly opens Jehovah's dealings with the nations, as it first was placed in an imperial position; which in one form or another goes down to the end; and the subsequent notice of the Assyrian, in its exactly proper place (ch. 14), becomes meaningless when taken out of this connection—a mere waif or stray. Hence, these skeptics are compelled by their fatal system to deny these chapters also to Isaiah. It is ever so with scripture no less than morals: one falsehood stuck to soon calls for more to give semblance of consistency. Nothing delivers souls but the truth of God. This they do not look for, and so are in the dark. They confide in the reasonings of Koppe, Hitzig, and such like. Their sole faith is in themselves, even if they shrink from being so outspoken, and perhaps are yet unprepared for the same degree of profanity. The very small residue of faith, which Dr. D. professes in page 230 for the purpose of avoiding misconception, will neither stand in the day of trial, nor does it save his scheme from the charge of incredulity even now.
It is a lack of spiritual intelligence to expect the same method in God's inspiration of Isaiah as with Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel or any other. Each had his own individuality, as God had His special design.
Thus Jeremiah, heartbroken, did very characteristically direct his expostulation to the conscience of the Jews, “alike to king, priests, prophets, and people; as he also held out Babylon rising into its peculiar supremacy on the fall of Jerusalem, but for its idolatry destroyed and the Jew set free by the conqueror, the type of a greater judgment and a full deliverance at the end of the age. At the same time as the moral prophet he proclaims the virtues of the new covenant for all the people restored to the land in that day. But Isaiah had a far higher flight and larger scope than Jeremiah. Yet the latter, who drank the bitter cup of Jerusalem's sorrow more deeply than any other prophet, was given to look beyond their fall to the day “when they shall call Jerusalem the throne of Jehovah; and all the nations shall be gathered unto it, to the name of those who went back to the land after the fall of Babylon, the prophetic word reveals a vast deal more, as it contemplates nothing short of a complete restoration to divine favor for the Israel of “that day.” Hence the force of “My people.” Then there will be no room for attenuating at all the consolation of the message: the appointed hardship will be over; the iniquity pardoned.
The great principles of this immense change follow. First, a spiritual preparation is announced (vers. 3-8). Now this is by all the synoptic evangelists applied to the mission of John the Baptist; and the fourth Gospel declares that the favored herald of the Messiah applied it to himself. To give all these the lie would cost the unbelieving school little, though probably their English disciples might wince. But if the inspired interpretation is to rule, the rationalist house is proved to be built on the sand. For what had the Baptist's testimony to do with the close of the exile? And who that accepts the divine authority of the N. T. can deny that the prophet does bound forward at once many centuries?—the very truth which these critics reject with one consent, for their own gratuitous assumption, which is as opposed to the prophetic text in the O. T. as to the inspired comment in the N. T.
Where again is there the faintest shadow of a restoration from Babylon in vers. 9-11? in 12-26? or in 27-31? We have indeed in Ezra the divine account of the remnant's return after the striking proclamation of liberty by Cyrus. Is it really so that they regard that little and feeble return as fulfilling, “Behold, your God! Behold, the Lord Jehovah will come as a mighty one, and his arm shall rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his recompence before him. He shall feed his flock as a shepherd,” &c. It was the king of Persia who took the initiative; and Ezra himself confesses later on “We (the returned Jews) are bondmen; yet our God hath not forsaken us in our bondage, but hath extended mercy unto us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to give us a reviving, to set up the house of our God, and to repair the ruins thereof, and to give us a wall in Judah and in Jerusalem” (ch. 9:9). Ezra, an inspired man, saw no such way prepared through the wilderness as corresponded with the bright promise, and would have rejected as blasphemous that the return of the remnant then was the triumphal progress of Israel's king, as a Conqueror Zionward, leading before Him His prize of war, the recovered nation itself. Never, never will this be, as the rejected Messiah told them, till they shall say, “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” Alas! how different is all yet, while that word of apostate unbelief stands unjudged, “We have no king but Caesar.” More manifestly than ever are they Lo-ammi.
To the believer it is a prophecy awaiting its fulfillment. Let men beware of palming their worthless expositions on the word of our God. For the consequence of it is that those who lean on man fear not to treat His word with the contempt due only to these misreadings of unbelief. How plain to faith, that the true bearing of what is thus travestied coalesces with Isa. 25:9-12; 35; 52:7-12, 10-12, &c! How absurd to apply all to the Return!
It is quite true then that in the vision the prophet sees and hears the things to come. Even in this introductory chapter it is John the Baptist he hears, the herald of Christ; as he next in the Spirit calls on the Jews to behold Jehovah triumphing on their behalf in His day, to the shame of human presumption, and yet more of idols, to the cheer and joy and strength of His own that have no might, for His is all might, wisdom, and tender mercy.
But repentance, which John preached and symbolized in his baptism, is by the action of the word on the conscience. Thus the Spirit withers up all confidence in self; and this is as much needed by “the people” as by sinners of the Gentiles. “For all flesh is grass: surely the people is grass.” Only God's word abides forever, the incorruptible seed whereby any are begotten again through faith. This Israel will learn livingly.
Then shall they appreciate the grace of their divine Messiah. As His glory and power subserve His goodness to His people, so will they rejoice that their Shepherd is none less than Jehovah, Who counts all creation a very little thing, and the nations less than nothing. What a death-blow to a likeness of Him!—to an image graven by man! He that marshals the host of heaven, and calls each by name, gave poor Jacob his princely name; and He, far from fainting, imparts power to the faint; and they that wait upon Him shall renew strength, as Israel will in that day.