Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,
says Yahweh of Hosts. Zechariah 4:6
Lift up your heads, O gates, and be lifted up, O ancient doors,
That the King of Glory may come in! Who is this King of Glory?
Yahweh of Hosts: He is the King of Glory. Psalm 24:9-10
The purpose of this paper is to present a selection of quotations from John Calvin's commentary on Isaiah. These excerpts from the first thirty chapters represent exceptional insights either on the text itself or on Christian living. John Calvin was one of the great theologians of the Protestant Reformation. All excerpts are from the Baker edition in 22 volumes and given with no modification (except for minimal punctuation changes and updated spelling).
He assigns the reason why he reproves them with such sharpness and severity. It is, that they may not complain, as they are wont to do, of being treated with excessive harshness and rigor. And first he upbraids them with that which is the source of all evils, their revolt from God; for, as it is the highest perfection of righteousness to cleave to God, agreeably to those words of Moses, Now, Israel, what doth thy God require from thee but that thou shouldst cleave to him? so, when we have revolted from him, we are utterly ruined. The design of the Prophet is, not to convince the Jews that they are guilty of a single crime, but to show that they are wholly apostates.
It is as if he had said, that he does not accuse innocent persons, and has no wish to enter into controversy; so that the charges which he makes against them are not brought forward or maintained without strong necessity. For hypocrites are wont to find fault with God, as if he were too severe, and could not be at all appeased. They go still farther, and discover this excuse for their obstinacy, that it is in vain for them to attempt to return to a state of favor with God. If every other expedient fail, still they fly to this, that it is not proper to make such rigid demands on them, and that even the very best of men have something that needs to be forgiven. The Prophet anticipates the objection, by introducing the Lord speaking in this manner--"For my part, if it be necessary, I do not refuse to dispute with you; for the result will be to show that it is your own obstinacy which prevents a reconciliation from taking place between us. Only bring cleanness of heart, and all controversy between us will be at an end. I would no longer contend with you, if you would bring me an upright heart."
Hence we obtain a declaration in the highest degree consolatory, that God does not contend with us as if he wished to pursue our offenses to the utmost. For if we sincerely turn to him, he will immediately return to favor with us, and will blot out all remembrance of our sins, and will not demand an account of them. For he is not like men who, even for a slight and inconsiderable offense, often refuse to be reconciled. Nay, so far is he from giving us reason to complain of his excessive severity, that he is ready to cleanse us, and to make us as white as snow. He is satisfied with cleanness of heart, and if, notwithstanding of this cleanness of heart, there be any offense, he forgives it, and acquits those who have provoked him.
God will not take pains to dig and prune it, and consequently it will become barren for want of dressing; briars and thorns will spring up to choke its branches; and, what is more, by withholding rain, God will dry up its roots. Hence it is evident how manifold are the weapons with which God is supplied for punishing our ingratitude, when he sees that we despise his kindness. Isaiah is still, no doubt, proceeding with his metaphor, and, in order to obtain more eager attention, adorns his style by figures of speech. But we ought simply to conclude, that as God continually bestows on us innumerable benefits, so we ought to be earnestly on our guard lest, by withdrawing first one and then another, he punishes for despising them.
So far as relates to the government of the Church, the more numerous the kinds of assistance which she needs, the more numerous are the punishments to which she will be liable, if she wickedly corrupt what was appointed by God for her salvation. Nor ought we to wonder if at the present day so many distresses threaten ruin and desolation; for whatever calamity befalls us, whether it be that there is a deficiency of instruction, or that the wicked abound, or that foxes and wolves creep into the Church, all this must be ascribed to our ingratitude, because we have not yielded such fruit as we ought, and have been indolent and sluggish. Whenever, therefore, we are justly deprived of those great favors which he freely bestowed on us, let us acknowledge the anger of the Lord.
Here he proceeds to rebuke those on whom no instruction can produce a good effect, and who do not allow any wise counsels or godly warnings to gain admission. In short, he pronounces a curse on obstinate scorners, who set up either the lusts of the flesh or a preposterous confidence in their wisdom, in opposition to God's instruction and warnings. And not only does he rebuke those who are puffed up with a false conviction of their wisdom and are ashamed to learn from others, but he likewise pronounces a general condemnation on all who, through prejudices in their own favor, refuse to hear God speaking, and to listen to his holy warnings.
This fault has been too common in all ages, and we see it in very many persons at the present day, who, though they would shrink from openly rejecting the doctrine of godliness, are yet so far from being truly obedient and teachable, that they haughtily reject everything that does not please them. They acknowledge that they need some bridle, but, on the other hand, are so much blinded by their presumption, that, when God points out the way, they immediately rebel; and not only so, but break out into violent indignation at the censure passed on their proceedings. Nay, where is the man who renounces his own judgment, and is ready to learn only from the mouth of God? But nothing is more destructive than this deceitful show of wisdom; for the beginning of piety is willingness to be taught, when we have renounced our own judgment and follow wherever God calls.
It is asked, How could Isaiah see God who is a Spirit, (John 4:24,) and, therefore, cannot be seen with bodily eyes? Nay, more, since the understandings of men cannot rise to his boundless height, how can he be seen in a visible shape? But we ought to be aware that, when God exhibited himself to the view of the Fathers he never appeared such as he actually is, but such as the capacity of men could receive. Though men may be said to creep on the ground, or at least dwell far below the heavens, there is no absurdity in supposing that God comes down to them in such a manner as to cause some kind of mirror to reflect the rays of his glory. There was, therefore, exhibited to Isaiah such a form as enabled him, according to his capacity, to perceive the inconceivable majesty of God; and thus he attributes to God a throne, a robe, and a bodily appearance.
Hence we learn a profitable doctrine, that whenever God grants any token of his presence, he is undoubtedly present with us, for he does not amuse us by unmeaning shapes, as men wickedly disfigure him by their contrivances. Since, therefore, that exhibition was no deceitful representation of the presence of God, Isaiah justly declares that he saw him. In like manner, when it is said that John saw the Holy Spirit in the shape of a dove, (John 1:32,) the name of the Holy Spirit is applied to the outward sign, because in the representation there was no deception; and yet he did not see the essence of the Spirit, but had a clear and undoubted proof, so that he could not doubt that the Spirit of God rested on Christ.
Secondly, it is asked, Who was that LORD? [Who was Yahweh?] John tells us that it was Christ, (John 12:41,) and justly, for God never revealed himself to the Fathers but in his eternal Word and only begotten Son. Yet it is wrong, I think, to limit this, as some do, to the person of Christ; for it is indefinitely, on the contrary, that the Prophet calls him God. Nor do their views derive any support from the word אדוני (adonai,) which seems particularly to apply to Christ; for it is often applied to God in an absolute and unrestricted manner. In this passage, therefore, God is mentioned indefinitely, and yet it is correctly said that Isaiah saw the glory of Christ, for at that very time he was the image of the invisible God. (Col. 1:15.)
Here the former statement is more fully expressed; for God informs Isaiah beforehand, not only that his labor in teaching will be fruitless, but that by his instruction he will also blind the people, so as to be the occasion of producing greater insensibility and stubbornness, and to end in their destruction. He declares that the people, bereft of reason and understanding, will perish, and there will be no means of obtaining relief; and yet he at the same time affirms that the labors of the Prophet, though they bring death and ruin on the Jews, will be to him an acceptable sacrifice.
This is a truly remarkable declaration; not only because Isaiah here foretold what was afterwards fulfilled under the reign of Christ, but also because it contains a most useful doctrine, which will be of perpetual use in the Church of God; for all who shall labor faithfully in the ministry of the word will be laid under the necessity of meeting with the same result. We too have experienced it more than we could have wished; but it has been shared by all the servants of Christ, and therefore we ought to endure it with greater patience, though it is a very grievous stumblingblock to those who serve God with a pure conscience. Not only does it give great offense, but Satan powerfully excites his followers to raise a dislike of instruction on the pretense of its being not merely useless, but even injurious; that it renders men more obstinate, and leads to their destruction. At the present day, those who have no other reproach to bring against the doctrine of the gospel maintain that the only effect produced by the preaching of it has been that the world has become worse.
But whatever may be the result, still God assures us that our ministrations are acceptable to him, because we obey his command; and although our labor appear to be fruitless, and men rush forward to their destruction and become more rebellious, we must go forward; for we do nothing at our own suggestion, and ought to be satisfied with having the approbation of God. We ought, indeed, to be deeply grieved when success does not attend our exertions; and we ought to pray to God to give efficacy to his word. A part of the blame we ought even to lay on ourselves, when the fruits are so scanty; and yet we must not abandon our office or throw away our weapons. The truth must always be heard from our lips, even though there be no ears to receive it, and though the world have neither sight nor feeling; for it is enough for us that we labor faithfully for the glory of God, and that our services are acceptable to him; and the sound of our voice is not ineffectual, when it renders the world without excuse.
Hence arises a most excellent and altogether invaluable consolation to godly teachers for supporting their minds against those grievous offenses which daily spring from the obstinacy of men, that, instead of being retarded by it, they may persevere in their duty with unshaken firmness. As it is also a general offense that the lively word of God, at the hearing of which the whole world ought to tremble, strikes their ears to no purpose and without any advantage, let weak men learn to fortify themselves by this declaration. We wonder how it is possible that the greater part of men can furiously oppose God; and hence also arises a doubt if it be the heavenly truth of God which is rejected without bringing punishment; for it can hardly be believed that God addresses men for the purpose of exciting their scorn. That our faith may not fail, we ought to employ this support, that the office of teaching was enjoined on Isaiah on the condition that, in scattering the seed of life it should yield nothing but death; and that this is not merely a narrative of what once happened, but a prediction of the future kingdom of Christ, as we shall find to be stated shortly afterwards.
We ought also to attend to this circumstance, that Isaiah was not sent to men indiscriminately, but to the Jews. Accordingly, the demonstrative particle הנה (hinneh,) behold, is emphatic, and implies that the people whom the Lord had peculiarly chosen for himself do not hear the word, and shut their eyes amidst the clearest light. Let us not wonder, therefore, if we appear to be like persons talking to the deaf, when we address those who boast of the name of God. It is undoubtedly a harsh saying, that God sends a prophet to close the ears, stop up the eyes, and harden the heart of the people; because it appears as if these things were inconsistent with the nature of God, and therefore contradicted his word. But we ought not to think it strange if God punishes the wickedness of men by blinding them in the highest degree. Yet the Prophet shows, a little before, that the blame of this blindness lies with the people; for when he bids them hear, he bears witness that the doctrine is fitted for instructing the people, if they choose to submit to it; that light is given to guide them, if they will but open their eyes. The whole blame of the evil is laid on the people for rejecting the amazing kindness of God; and hence is obtained a more complete solution of that difficulty to which we formerly adverted.
At first sight it seems unreasonable that the Prophets should be represented as making men's hearts more hardened. They carry in their mouth the word of God, by which, as by a lamp, the steps of men ought to be guided; for this encomium [eulogy], we know, has been pronounced on it by David. (Ps. 119:105.) It is not the duty of the Prophets, therefore, to blind the eyes, but rather to open them. Again, it is called perfect wisdom, (Ps. 19:9;) how then does it stupify men and take away their reason? Those hearts which formerly were of brass or iron ought to be softened by it; how then is it possible that it can harden them, as I have already observed? Such blinding and hardening influence does not arise out of the nature of the word, but is accidental, and must be ascribed exclusively to the depravity of man. As dim-sighted people cannot blame the sun for dazzling their eyes with its brightness; and those whose hearing is weak cannot complain of a clear and loud voice which the defect of their ears hinders them from hearing; and, lastly, a man of weak intellect cannot find fault with the difficulty of a subject which he is unable to understand; so ungodly men have no right to blame the word for making them worse after having heard it. The whole blame lies on themselves in altogether refusing it admission; and we need not wonder if that which ought to have led them to salvation become the cause of their destruction. It is right that the treachery and unbelief of men should be punished by meeting death where they might have received life, darkness where they might have had light; and, in short, evils as numerous as the blessings of salvation which they might have obtained. This ought to be carefully observed; for nothing is more customary with men than to abuse the gifts of God, and then not only to maintain that they are innocent, but even to be proud of appearing in borrowed feathers. But they are doubly wicked when they not only do not apply to their proper use, but wickedly corrupt and profane, those gifts which God had bestowed on them.
John quotes this passage as a clear demonstration of the stubbornness of the Jews. He does not indeed absolutely give the very words, but he states the meaning clearly enough. Therefore, says he, they could not believe, because Isaiah said, He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart. (John 12:39.) True, this prediction was not the cause of their unbelief, but the Lord foretold it, because he foresaw that they would be such as they are here described. The Evangelist applies to the Gospel what had already taken place under the law, and at the same time shows that the Jews were deprived of reason and understanding, because they were rebels against God. Yet if you inquire into the first cause, we must come to the predestination of God. But as that purpose is hidden from us, we must not too eagerly search into it; for the everlasting scheme of the divine purpose is beyond our reach, but we ought to consider the cause which lies plainly before our eyes, namely, the rebellion by which they rendered themselves unworthy of blessings so numerous and so great.
After having pointed out the remedy for allaying the distresses of the mind, he likewise bids them not fear; for faith, which places our salvation in the hand of God, is not more opposite to anything than to fear. It is impossible, I acknowledge, not to fear when dangers threaten, for faith does not deprive us of all feeling. On the contrary, the children of God are undoubtedly moved by two kinds of fear, one of which arises from the feeling of human nature, even though they be endued with perfect faith. The other arises from the weakness of faith; for no man has made such proficiency as not to have any remains of that distrust against which we ought continually to strive. We must not, therefore, understand the exhortation of the Prophet to mean that the Lord forbids every kind of fear, but he enjoins believers to be armed with such firmness as to overcome fear. As if he had said, "Do not suffer yourselves to be discouraged; and if you are assailed by fierce and severe attacks, maintain unshaken resolution, that you may not be overpowered by dangers, but, on the contrary, live to God and overcome all your distresses."
When there is no repentance, it is unreasonable to expect that God will yield to obstinate men, as if he were vanquished; and the consequence is, that he prepares himself for inflicting severer punishment. Since, therefore, no chastisements had produced any amendment in Israel, he must perish; for when they had been so frequently struck and punished and did not at all repent, this was a proof of the most desperate wickedness.
This is a very severe rebuke, that although the Lord not only admonishes us by words, but actually pushes us forward and constrains us by various chastisements, still we grow hardened, and do not suffer ourselves to be drawn away from our crimes and our lusts. Desperate wickedness if thus evinced, and nothing more heinous could be spoken or conceived. It is a heinous offense when men do not receive instruction as soon as it is delivered to them; it is more heinous when they are not affected by rebukes; it is the most heinous of all when, in spite even of chastisements, they grow hardened, and even kick, or by their headstrong behavior inflame still more the indignation of the Judge, and do not consider why they were punished, or what it is to which the Lord calls them. Accordingly, when no remedies produce any good effect, what must we think but that the disease is incurable and utterly desperate?
This rebuke applies not to the Israelites only but to us also. Already hath the Lord chastised the whole world by various afflictions, so that hardly any part could be exempted from distresses and calamities. And yet all appear to have obstinately conspired against God, so that, whatever He does, they cease not to retain their former character and to carry on their wicked courses. Justly, therefore, might the Lord address to us the same expostulation, and assuredly he addresses us by the mouth of Isaiah; and we ought not to look for another Prophet to threaten new chastisements, seeing that our case is not different from that of the Israelites, and we are involved in the same blame with them.
He says that he has given a loose rein to the fierceness of enemies, that they may indulge without control in every kind of violence and injustice. Now, this must not be understood as if the Assyrians had a command from God by which they could excuse themselves. There are two ways in which God commands; by his secret decree, of which men are not conscious; and by his law, in which he demands from us voluntary obedience. This must be carefully observed, that we may reply to fanatics who argue in the irreligious manner about the decree of God, when they wish to excuse their own wickedness and that of others. It is of importance, I say, to make a judicious distinction between these two ways of commanding. When the Lord reveals his will in the law, I must not ascend to his secret decree, which he intended should not be known to me, but must yield implicit obedience.
Now, if any one allege that he obeys God when he complies with his sinful passions, he is guilty of falsehood by vainly attempting to involve God in the guilt of his crimes, to which he knows that he is led by the failings of his own heart; for on this point no other witness or judge is needed but a man's own conscience. God does indeed make use of the agency of a wicked man, but the man has no such intention. It is therefore accidental, so far as relates to men, that he acts by the wicked and reprobate; for they neither know that they serve God, nor wish to do so. Accordingly if they seize on this pretext, it is easy to prove that when they yield obedience to their own sinful passion they are at the greatest possible distance from obeying God. They have the will of God declared in his law, so that it is in vain for them to seek it anywhere else. So far as they are concerned, they do not perform the work of God, but the work of the devil; for they serve their own lusts. (Eph. 2:2.) Nothing certainly was farther from the intention of the Assyrians than to give their services to God, but they were hurried along by their lust and ambition and covetousness. Yet the Lord directed their exertions and plans to an object which was totally different, and which was unknown to themselves.
Isaiah proceeds with the discourse which he had formerly begun as personating the dead, and concludes that the tyrant differs in no respect from other men, though his object was to lead men to believe that he was some god. He employs an elegant metaphor by comparing him to Lucifer, and calls him the Son of the Dawn; and that on account of his splendor and brightness with which he shone above others. The exposition of this passage, which some have given, as if it referred to Satan, has arisen from ignorance; for the context plainly shows that these statements must be understood in reference to the king of the Babylonians. But when passages of Scripture are taken up at random, and no attention is paid to the context, we need not wonder that mistakes of this kind frequently arise. Yet it was an instance of very gross ignorance to imagine that Lucifer was the king of devils, and that the Prophet gave him this name. But as these inventions have no probability whatever, let us pass by them as useless fables.
He shows that the kings of Babylon will be loaded with such disgrace that they will even be cast out of the sepulchre which they possessed by inheritance, and will exhibit a disgraceful spectacle. It may be asked, Is it of so great value in the sight of God to be buried with our fathers, that to be deprived of it should be reckoned a punishment and a curse? I answer, he does not here speak of the grave as if it were necessary for salvation; but it ought justly to be reckoned disgraceful to be denied burial. And first, we ought to consider why burial has been so highly valued among all nations. This undoubtedly arose from the patriarchs, whose bodies the Lord commanded to be buried in the hope of the last resurrection. The carcasses of beasts are cast out, because they are only fit for rotting; but ours are laid in the earth, that being kept there they may await the last day when they shall rise to enjoy a blessed and immortal life in union with soul.
Various superstitions have arisen as to the interment of bodies. This has undoubtedly been occasioned by the craftiness of Satan, who usually corrupts and perverts everything that is good and useful, for he devised innumerable contrivances by which he might dazzle the eyes of men. We need not wonder that the Jews had a great variety of ceremonies connected with this subject, and they cannot be blamed on account of it, for Christ had not yet been revealed, and consequently they had not so clear a revelation of the resurrection. But in our time the case is very different, for we plainly see the resurrection in Christ, and, every vail having now been removed, we behold clear promises which were more obscure to the Jews. If anyone, therefore, were again to introduce and renew those ancient rites, he would undoubtedly darken the light, and, by putting a vail on Christ who has been revealed to us, would offer to him a high insult. Yet it is not useless to pay attention to burial, for it is the symbol of the last resurrection, which we still look for; but let there be no superstition and ostentatious display in funerals, which all godly persons ought to detest.
Now, if anyone has been entirely deprived of burial, we must examine the cause. Many of the prophets, martyrs, and holy men have been deprived of it. We hear the Church bewailing that the dead bodies of the servants of God have been thrown down to wild beasts and to the fowls of heaven, and that there is none to bury them, (Ps. 79:2, 3;) and every day we see the servants of Christ burned, or drowned, or hanged; and yet their death is glorious and blessed in the sight of God. As the cross of Christ was blessed, so crosses, chains, prisons, and deaths, which are endured by his members, share in the same blessing, and far exceed the prosperity and trappings and splendor and majesty of kings, so that, following the example of Paul, they boldly venture even to glory in them. (Rom. 5:3; 2 Cor. 12:5; Gal. 6:14.)
But as to those whom the Lord permits to remain unburied, when we see nothing else than a token of his anger, we must fall back on this statement and others of the same kind. For example, Jeremiah threatened Jehoiakim with the burial of an ass, because he deserved to be ranked with beasts rather than with men, who, even after death, are distinguished from beasts by being buried. Thus it was proper that the king of Babylon, who had exalted himself above all men, should be cast down below all men, so as even to be deprived of ordinary burial. Isaiah, therefore, foretells that he will not be buried in his own house, that is, in the sepulchre of his father, which came to him by inheritance; for we must not suppose that sepulchres were within houses. The comparisons which are added express more strongly the disgrace which was due to that tyrant. As hurtful or useless trees are rooted out, so he shows that the king of Babylon does not deserve to have any place among men.
This may be regarded as the copestone of that calamity; so that if any detachments of the enemy attempted to escape and to rescue themselves from the slaughter, they had to encounter lions and wild beasts, by which they were devoured. "They will, indeed," says he, "rescue themselves from the slaughter, but they will not on that account be safe, nor will they escape the hand of God." And this is the true meaning of the Prophet, if we carefully examine the scope of the whole passage; for he intended to deepen the picture of that distressing calamity by adding, that even the small remnant [of Moabites] which shall be rescued from the slaughter will fall into the jaws of lions. The hand of the Lord pursues the wicked in such a manner that they cannot in any way escape; for if they avoid one danger, they immediately meet with another. Let us remember that these things are spoken by the Prophet for the consolation of the godly, that they may fortify their minds by some promise against the cruelty of their enemies, who shall at length be destroyed, and shall nowhere find a refuge either in their gods, or in fortresses, or in lurking-places, or in flight.
While the Moabites enjoyed prosperity, they cared little about what was good and right; while it was in their power to rule, and to have their kingdom established, in a just manner, they abused their power for the purpose of tyranny. Now that they were stripped of all authority, and were exiles and fugitives, Isaiah ironically advises them to assemble councils and execute judgments, which they had formerly overturned through fraud and injustice. Isaiah has in view that time when all power and authority was taken out of the hands of the Moabites. The upbraiding is similar to that with which the Lord addresses Adam, (Gen. 3:22,) Behold, Adam is become as one of us, ridiculing him with the biting taunt, that he was not satisfied with his exalted attainments, and wished to rival God himself.
In like manner, the Moabites, not satisfied with their ornaments and wealth, wretchedly harassed and plundered the Israelites and Jews, and formed wicked plans against them. Having abused the excellent gift of God, they therefore deserved to have this reproof addressed to them, which is equally applicable to all the reprobate, who proudly vaunt in prosperity and barbarously abuse it for harassing the godly. Seeing that they basely pollute those things which the Lord had set apart to their proper use, it is right that they should be deprived of them and reduced to the lowest poverty. We have instances of this every day. How comes it that those who were raised to the highest rank of honor fall down headlong, but because the Lord punishes their tyrannical rule and their crimes? The Lord also ridicules their upbraiding and reproachful language, their wailings, and even their complaints; as when they exclaim, "O that I had the wealth which I once enjoyed! O that I were restored to my former condition!" For then repentance will be too late.
Because it was a thing unexpected and incredible that the leaders of a sagacious and prudent nation would destroy the country by their stupidity, the Prophet therefore ascribes it to the judgment of God, that the Jews may not shut their eyes against an example so striking and remarkable, as irreligious men usually attribute the judgments of God to chance when anything new or unexpected has happened. The expression is metaphorical, as if one were to mix wine in a cup, that the Lord thus intoxicates the wise men of this world so that they are stunned and amazed, and can neither think nor act aright. The consequence is that they deceive Egypt because, first, they were themselves deceived. That the Egyptians suffer themselves to be imposed on, and cannot guard against the deception, is the judgment of the Lord.
And yet Isaiah does not represent God to be the Author of this folly in such a manner that the Egyptians could impute blame to him, but we ought to view the matter in this light: "Men have in themselves no understanding or judgment, for whence comes wisdom but from the Spirit of God, who is the only fountain of light, understanding, and truth? Now, if the Lord withhold his Spirit from us, what right have we to dispute with him? He is under no obligations to us, and all that he bestows is actually a free gift." Yet when he strikes the minds of men with a spirit of giddiness, he does it always for good reasons, though they are sometimes concealed from us. But very frequently he punishes with blindness those wicked men who have risen up against him, as happened to those Egyptians who, puffed up with a conviction of their wisdom, swelled with pride and despised all other men. It is therefore superfluous to dispute here about predestination, for the Lord punishes them for open vice; and, accordingly, when God blinds men or gives them over to a reprobate mind, (Rom. 1:28,) he cannot be accused of cruelty; for it is the just punishment of their wickedness and licentiousness, and he who acts justly in punishing transgressions cannot be called the Author of sin.
Let us now attend to the manner of punishing. He delivers them up to Satan to be punished; for he it is, strictly speaking, that mingles the spirit of giddiness and perverseness; but as he does nothing but by the command of God, it is therefore said that God does what Satan does. The statement commonly made, that it is done by God's permission, is an excessively frivolous evasion; for the Prophet has expressed more than this, namely, that this punishment was inflicted by God because he is a righteous judge. God therefore acts by means of Satan, as a judge by means of an executioner, and inflicts righteous punishment on those who have offended him. Thus in the book of Kings we read that Satan presented himself before God, and asked leave to deceive Ahab's prophets; and having obtained it, he then obeyed the command of God, for he could have done nothing by himself. It is unnecessary to produce a multitude of quotations in a matter so obvious.
This is a special prediction against a single individual; for, having spoken of the whole nation, he turns to Shebna, whom he will afterwards mention. (Isa. 37:2.) To this person the Prophet gives two titles, that of "scribe" or "chancellor," and that of "steward of the house," for while in this passage he call him "steward," in the thirty-seventh chapter he calls him "scribe." This has led some to think that, at the time of this prediction, he had resigned his office as steward and that Eliakim was put in his room. But this is uncertain, though the words of the prophet, in reference to Shebna himself, lead us to conclude that he cherished wicked envy, which led him to attempt to degrade Eliakim from his rank. Nor is it improbable that this prediction was uttered when Sennacherib's army was discomfited and Jerusalem was saved in a miraculous manner. (2 Kings. 19:35; Isa. 37:36.) During the interval, many things might have happened which are now unknown to us; and it is not improbable that this treacherous scoundrel, having obtained the highest authority, made an unjust use of it to the injury of Eliakim. It is evident, from the history of the Book of Kings, that Shebna was a "scribe" or "secretary," and one of high rank, such as we now call chancellor.
Shebna had built a sepulchre at Jerusalem, as if he were to live there continually, and to die there. The Prophet therefore asks why he built a splendid and costly sepulchre in a lofty and conspicuous place, as is commonly done by those who wish to perpetuate the memory of their name in the world. He appears to glance at the ambition of a foreigner and a stranger in longing to be so magnificently buried out of his country, and yet eagerly joining with enemies for the destruction of Judea. What could have been more foolish than to erect a monument in that country for whose ruin he was plotting?
As to the sepulchre, we know that solicitude about burying the dead is not wholly condemned; for although "the want [lack] of burial," as one remarks, "is of little importance, yet the desire of being buried is natural to man, and ought not to be entirely disregarded." He does not blame him, therefore, for wishing to be buried, but for his ambition in building a tomb, by which he showed his eagerness to obtain vain and empty renown. But there is another circumstance connected with Shebna that must be observed; for, having wished to deliver the city into the hands of the Assyrians by treachery, he thought that he would reign permanently. He hoped that the Assyrians, if they were successful, would bestow on him the government of the kingdom as the reward of his treachery, and that, if they were defeated, he would permanently retain his rank and authority.
But this will appear more clearly from the words themselves, What hast thou here? He was a foreigner, and as such he could honestly become united to the people of God; but, being a traitor and a foreigner, he had no right to that city or country which the Lord had specially assigned to his own people. Isaiah therefore asks, "Of what country art thou? Though thou hast no connection with the people of God by blood or relationship, dost thou wish not only to reign in this country during thy life, but to procure for thyself a settled abode in it after thou art dead? Wilt thou betray us to the Assyrians, and drive out the actual possessors, that thou, who art a foreigner, mayest enjoy that country of which not even an inch belongs to thee?"
Hence infer that God is highly displeased with that ambition by which men endeavor to obtain undying renown in the world, instead of being satisfied with those honors which they enjoy during their life. They wish to be applauded after death, and in some measure to live in the mouth of men; and although death sets aside everything, they foolishly hope that their name will last through all ages. But God punishes their haughtiness and presumption, and causes those things which they wished to be the records of their glory to become their disgrace and shame. Either their memory is abhorred, so that men cannot see or hear anything connected with them without utter loathing, or he does not even permit them to be laid in their graves, but sends them to gibbets and to ravens, of which we read many instances in history, (Esther 7:10,) and we have seen not a few in our own times.
Whenever I read this passage, I am forcibly reminded of a similar instance, resembling it indeed more closely than any other, that of Thomas More, who held the same office as Shebna; for it is well known that he was Lord Chancellor to the king of England. Having been a very bitter enemy of the gospel, and having persecuted good men by fire and sword, he wished that on this account his reputation should be extensive, and his wickedness and cruelty permanently recorded. He therefore ordered the praises of his virtue to be inscribed on a tomb which he had caused to be built with great cost and splendor, and sent his epitaph, which he had drawn up, to Basle, to Erasmus, along with a palfrey [saddle/riding horse] which he gave him as a present, to get it printed. He was so desirous of renown, that he wished to obtain during his life the reputation and praises which he hoped to enjoy after his death. Among other applauses the most conspicuous was, that he had been a very great persecutor of the Lutherans, that is, of the godly. What happened? He was accused of treason, condemned, and beheaded; and thus he had a gibbet for his tomb. Do we ask more manifest judgments of God by which he punishes the pride, the unbounded eagerness for renown, and the blasphemous vaunting of wicked men? In this inveterate enemy of the people of God, not less than in Shebna, we ought undoubtedly to acknowledge and adore God's overruling providence.
He does not praise the righteousness of the godly, as some have falsely supposed, but shows that, through the blessing of God, they are prosperous and successful during the whole course of their life. Having only stated briefly in the beginning of the verse that "their ways are plain and smooth," he explains more fully in the second clause, ascribing it to the grace of God that in an open plain, as it were, the righteous proceed in their course till they reach the goal.
He promises in general that God will take care of the righteous, so as to lead them, as it were, by his hand. When the wicked prosper and the righteous are oppressed, everything in this world appears to be moved by chance; and although Scripture frequently declares and affirms that God takes care of them, (Psalm 37:5; 1 Peter 5:7,) yet they can scarcely remain steadfast, but waver, when everything that happens to them is unfavorable. Yet it is true that the ways of the righteous are made plain by God's balance, however rough and uneven they may appear to be; and not only so, but he has committed them to the guardianship of his angels, "lest they should be injured, or dash their foot against a stone." (Psalm 91:11.) But for this, they would easily fall or give way through exhaustion, and would hardly ever make way amidst so many thorns and briers, steep roads, intricate windings, and rough places, did not the Lord lead out and deliver them.
Let us therefore learn to commit ourselves to God and to follow him as our leader, and we shall be guided in safety. Though snares and artifices, the stratagems of the devil and wicked men, and innumerable dangers may surround us, we shall always be enabled to escape. We shall feel what the Prophet says here, that our ways, even amidst deep chasms, are made plain, so that there is no obstacle to hinder our progress.
This clause is interpreted by some as an exhortation, "He that believeth, let him not make haste." But I prefer to take it in the future tense, both because that meaning agrees best with the context and because it is supported by the authority of the Apostle Paul. I do acknowledge that the Apostles followed the Greek translation, and used such liberty that while they were satisfied with giving the meaning they did not quote the exact words. Yet they never changed the meaning, but, taking care to have it properly applied, they gave the true and genuine interpretation. Whenever, therefore, they quote any passage from the Old Testament, they adhere closely to its object and design.
Now, Paul, when he quotes this prophecy, adopts the Greek version, "He that believeth shall not be ashamed." (Rom. 9:33; 10:11.) And certainly the design of the Prophet is to show that they who believe will have peace and serenity of mind, so that they shall not desire anything more, and shall not wander in uncertainty, or hasten to seek other remedies, but shall be fully satisfied with this alone. That is not a departure from the meaning, for the word signifying to make haste conveys the idea of eagerness or trembling. In short, the design of the Prophet is to extol faith on account of this invaluable result, that by means of it we enjoy settled peace and composure, Hence it follows that, until we possess faith we must have continual perplexity and distress; for there is but one harbor on which we can safely rely, namely, the truth of the Lord, which alone will give us peace and serenity of mind.
To make the former statement more plain, we must lay down this principle: that God exercises moderation in inflicting punishment, because he is inclined to mercy. This is what he means by the word "judgment;" for it denotes not only punishment, but also the moderation which is exercised in chastening. In like manner, Jeremiah says, "Chasten me, O Lord, but in judgment, not in thy wrath, lest thou crush me." (Jer. 10:24.) And again, I will not consume thee, but will chastise thee in judgment. (Jer. 30:11.) "Judgment" is thus contrasted with severity, when the Lord observes a limit in punishing believers, that he may not ruin those whose salvation he always promotes; and, accordingly, as Habakkuk says, "in the midst of wrath he remembers his mercy." (Hab. iii. 2.) He is not like us, therefore; he does not act with bustling or hurry, otherwise at every moment we must perish, but he calmly waits. Nor is it a slight confirmation of this when he adds that God gives a proof of his glory by pardoning his people.
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