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 chapters 31 through 66 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).
From this threatening we may draw a universal doctrine, that this wickedness shall not pass unpunished; for the Lord will not suffer men with impunity to give to creatures the honor due to him, or to rely on the assistance of men with that confidence which ought to be placed on him alone. He therefore threatens those who shall yield assistance and give occasion to false confidence as well as those who shall make use of their assistance and rely on it for their safety. And if the Lord cannot endure this wicked confidence, where nothing more than temporal safety is concerned, how much less will he endure those who, in order to obtain eternal salvation, contrive various aids according to their own fancy, and thus elevate the power of men so as to ascribe to it the place and authority of God.
Various circumstances are brought forward to present in a more striking light the shamefulness of this wickedness. First, "to deceive the simple," who cannot take care of themselves, is more shameful and flagrant than to deceive sharpers and veterans in crime. It is shameful, secondly, to make use of deceitful blandishments under the pretense of friendship; thirdly, to deceive "the poor," whose poverty we ought rather to have relieved; fourthly, to lay snares in the very court of justice. This is more highly criminal than if a man were attacked by open violence; for the court of justice ought to be a refuge for the poor, and what shall become of them if it be a den of robbers or thieves? If the roads are beset by robbers and if snares are laid, there may be some way of avoiding them; but there is no possibility of guarding against the frauds committed in courts of justice. These circumstances, therefore, ought to be carefully remarked.
The order of the narrative may here have been altered; for he had formerly said that Sennacherib had taken all the cities of Judea, and now he says that he sent Rabshakeh from Lachish, implying that he was besieging it, and consequently he had not yet stormed them all.* But it ought to be observed that historical connection is frequently disturbed, and that what was first in the order of time comes last in the narrative. Besides, the Scriptures frequently make use of a figure of speech in which a part is taken for the whole, and by which it might be said that all the cities were taken, because those which had been left were few, and Hezekiah had no means of intercourse with them. It appeared, therefore, that the king of Assyria had brought the whole of Judea under his dominion, because nearly all that remained was Jerusalem alone, in which Hezekiah was shut up.
This history is more fully related in the Books of Kings, where it is shown how eager for peace Hezekiah was; for he labored to obtain it on any terms. He had delivered up "three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold," which that tyrant had demanded; and he found it necessary to seize the vessels of the Temple, and the golden plates which had been attached to its doors, to make up that sum because his treasury was exhausted. (2 Kings 18:14.) But as such gulfs are insatiable, when he had received that money he next demanded more, and sought to enforce harder conditions. This was done partly in order to provoke and torment Hezekiah, (for, having once abused the ready compliance of the pious king, he thought that he would obtain anything,) and partly because he sought an occasion of renewing the war. Yet it ought to be observed that the people were justly punished for their iniquities, as had been foretold; for although true religion flourished as to external worship, yet their life was not changed for the better, and their wickedness was not removed, nor was the inward pollution cleansed from their hearts. Accordingly, because the people did not repent, it was necessary that their obstinate depravity should be severely chastised. But because the measure of their iniquities was not yet full, God abated the fierceness of his anger, and suddenly, when matters were desperate, brought such assistance as could not have been believed.
*You will find Ken's two appendices (#4 and #5) in our Kings paper most helpful. They clarify the dates of Hezekiah's reign and the campaigns of Sennacherib. Click here to read them; they begin at page 60.
He now attacks Hezekiah in another manner, by telling him that it will serve no purpose to assemble his forces and to make other warlike preparations. For he alleges that Hezekiah has not to do or to contend with a mortal man but with God himself, at whose suggestion, and not at his own, he came hither to destroy the country; and therefore that they who oppose him will fight against God, and consequently all their efforts will be fruitless.
Hence we ought to learn that however earnestly we may be devoted to godliness, and however faithfully we may labor to advance the kingdom of Christ, still we must not expect to be free from every annoyance, but ought rather to be prepared for enduring very heavy afflictions. The Lord does not always recompense our piety by earthly rewards; and indeed it would be an exceedingly unsuitable recompense that we should possess abundant wealth and enjoy outward peace, and that everything should proceed to our wish; for the world reckons even wicked men to be happy on this ground, that they do not endure bad health or adversity, and are free from the pressure of poverty and have nothing to disturb them. In this respect our condition would not differ at all from that of the reprobate.
This example of Hezekiah, who labored with all his might to restore religion and the true worship of God, and yet endured calamities so heavy and violent that he was not far from despair, ought to be constantly placed before our eyes in order that when we shall think that we have discharged our duty we may nevertheless be prepared to endure conflicts and troubles of every kind, and may not be disturbed if enemies gain an advantage at the first onset, and if all at once they would swallow us up.
From these words we conclude how great was the perplexity of Hezekiah; for the earnestness that pervades the prayer breathes an amazing power of anguish, so that it is easily seen that he had a struggle attended by uncommon difficulty to escape from the temptation. Though his warmth in prayer shows the strength and eminence of his faith, yet at the same time it exhibits, as in a mirror, the stormy passions. Whenever we shall be called to sustain such contests, let us learn by the example of the pious king to combat our passions by everything that is fitted to strengthen our faith, so that the very disturbance may conduct us to safety and peace, and that we may not be terrified by a conviction of our weakness if at any time we shall be powerfully assailed by fear and perplexity. It is, indeed, the will of the Lord that we shall toil hard, and sweat and shiver; for we must not expect to gain the victory while we repose in indolence, but after diversified contests he promises to us a prosperous issue, which he will undoubtedly grant.
It is not without reason that our attention is also directed to an almost uninterrupted succession of events, that we may know that he scarcely had leisure to breathe, but, after having scarcely reached the shore from one shipwreck, suddenly fell into another equally dangerous. Let us therefore remember that believers must endure various temptations, so that they are assailed sometimes by wars, sometimes by diseases, sometimes by other calamities, and sometimes one calamity follows another in unbroken succession, and they are laid under the necessity of maintaining uninterrupted warfare during their whole life; so that, when they have escaped from one danger, they are on the eve of enduring another. They ought to be prepared in such a manner, that when the Lord shall be pleased to add sorrow to sorrow, they may bear it patiently and may not be discouraged by any calamity. If any respite be allowed, let them know that this is granted for their weakness, but let not a short truce lead them to form a false imagination of a lengthened peace; let them make additional exertions, till, having finished the course of their earthly life, they arrive at the peaceful harbor.
It may be thought strange that God, having uttered a sentence [vs. 1], should soon afterwards be moved, as it were, by repentance to reverse it; for nothing is more at variance with his nature than a change of purpose. I reply, while death was threatened against Hezekiah, still God had not decreed it, but determined in this manner to put to the test the faith of Hezekiah. We must, therefore, suppose a condition to be implied in that threatening; for otherwise Hezekiah would not have altered, by repentance or prayer, the irreversible decree of God. But the Lord threatened him in the same manner as he threatened Gerar for carrying off Sarah, (Gen. 20:3,) and as the threatened the Ninevites. (Jonah 1:2; and 3:4.)
Again, it will be objected, that it appears to be inconsistent with the nature of God to threaten what he does not intend to execute, and that it takes away from the authority of the word, and causes the promises and threatenings to have less weight. But what we have already said as to the sentence must likewise be maintained as to the form of the words. God threatened the death of Hezekiah because he was unwilling that Hezekiah should die; and, indeed, it would have been unnecessary and even useless to predict it if a remedy had not been provided. Now, as it was the purpose of God to humble his servant by fear and terror, that he might voluntarily condemn himself and might thus escape punishment through prayer, so by harsh language and an absolute threatening of death he intended to slay him, that, rising like a dead man out of the grave, he might feel that life had been restored to him. And thus we must suppose an implied condition to have been understood, which Hezekiah, if he did not immediately perceive it, yet afterwards in good time knew to have been added.
From this reply we learn that Hezekiah was not a stubborn or obstinately haughty man, since he listened patiently to the Prophet's reproof, though he was little moved by it at the commencement. When he is informed that the Lord is angry, he unhesitatingly acknowledges his guilt, and confesses that he is justly punished. Having heard the judgment of God, he does not argue or contend with the Prophet, but conducts himself with gentleness and modesty, and thus holds out to us an example of genuine submissiveness and obedience.
Let us therefore learn by the example of the pious king to listen with calmness to the Lord, not only when he exhorts or admonishes, but even when he condemns and terrifies by threatening just punishment. When he says that "the word of God is good," he not only gives him the praise of justice, but patiently acquiesces in that which might have been unwelcome on account of its harshness; for even the reprobate have sometimes been compelled to confess their guilt while their rebellion was not subdued so as to refrain from murmuring against their Judge. In order, therefore, that God's threatenings may be softened to us, we must entertain some hope of mercy, otherwise our hearts will always pour forth unavailing bitterness; but he who shall be convinced that God, when he punishes, does not in any degree lay aside the feeling of a father's affection, will not only confess that God is just but will calmly and mildly bear his temporary severity. In a word, when we shall have a powerful conviction of the grace of God so as to believe that he is our Father, it will not be hard or disagreeable to us to stand and fall according to this pleasure; for faith will assure us that nothing is more advantageous to us than his fatherly chastisement.
Here the Prophet makes two statements: first, that God is not wearied in doing good; and, secondly, that no man can explore his wisdom. In the former clause he shows that nothing will hinder God from continuing to exercise his kindness; for he is not like men whose resources are exhausted by giving frequently, or who are wearied by continually bestowing new favors, or who repent of their generosity. His kindness is never exhausted; if he was kind to the fathers, he will be not less kind and bountiful to posterity. As to the allegation that God very often acts differently from what we think to be best for us, the Prophet meets it by saying that his purpose is incomprehensible, and warns us that we ought not to murmur though he does not all at once comply with our wishes; because nothing is better adapted to cherish our hope than this sobriety, which leads us to consider how marvelously God works in preserving us, and thus to submit to his secret counsel.
This is a remarkable passage, in which we not only may see the wonderful providence of God, but which likewise contains a striking proof of the truth and certainty of the prophecies. Here "Cyrus" was named long before he was born; for between the death of Manasseh, by whom Isaiah was slain, and the birth of "Cyrus," more than a century intervened. Besides, even though [if] he had been born, who would have conjectured that he should come from the most distant mountains of Persia to Babylon? These things ought therefore to be carefully observed, for they show clearly that it was not by a human spirit that Isaiah spoke. No one would ever have thought that there would be a person named "Cyrus" who should fly from the most distant and barbarous countries to deliver the people of God.
As to the objection made by infidels, that those things might have been forged by the Jews after they were fulfilled, it is so foolish and absurd that there is no necessity for refuting it. The Jews perused those prophecies while they were held in captivity in order that they might cherish in their hearts the hope of deliverance, and would have been entirely discouraged if the Lord had not comforted them by such promises. These records, therefore, supported the hearts of believers in hope and confidence; and I have no doubt that Cyrus, when he learned that God had appointed him to be the leader and shepherd for bringing back Israel, was astonished at those promises, and that they induced him to cherish kind feelings towards the people so as to supply them with food and with everything that was necessary for their journey. Thus the Lord points out the person by whose hand he has determined to bring back his people, that they may not look around on all sides in perplexity.
By the words "light" and "darkness" he describes metaphorically not only peace and war, but adverse and prosperous events of any kind; and he extends the word peace, according to the custom of Hebrew writers, to all success and prosperity. This is made abundantly clear by the contrast; for he contrasts "peace" not only with war, but with adverse events of every sort. Fanatics torture this word evil, as if God were the author of evil, that is, of sin; but it is very obvious how ridiculously they abuse this passage of the Prophet. This is sufficiently explained by the contrast, the parts of which must agree with each other; for he contrasts "peace" with "evil," that is, with afflictions, wars, and other adverse occurrences. If he contrasted "righteousness" with "evil," there would be some plausibility in their reasonings, but this is a manifest contrast of things that are opposite to each other. Consequently, we ought not to reject the ordinary distinction, that God is the author of the "evil" of punishment, but not of the "evil" of guilt.
But the Sophists are wrong in their exposition; for, while they acknowledge that famine, barrenness, war, pestilence, and other scourges come from God, they deny that God is the author of calamities when they befall us through the agency of men. This is false and altogether contrary to the present doctrine; for the Lord raises up wicked men to chastise us by their hand, as is evident from various passages of Scripture. (1 Kings 11:14, 23.) The Lord does not indeed inspire them with malice, but he uses it for the purpose of chastising us, and exercises the office of a judge, in the same manner as he made use of the malice of Pharaoh and others, in order to punish his people. (Exod. 1:11 and 2:23.) We ought therefore to hold this doctrine, that God alone is the author of all events; that is, that adverse and prosperous events are sent by him, even though he makes use of the agency of men, that none may attribute it to fortune or to any other cause.
Here the Prophet describes in lofty terms of commendation the goodness of God, which was to be poured down more copiously and abundantly than before under the reign of Christ, "in whose hand are hid all the treasures" (Col. 2:3) of the grace of God; for in him God fully explains his mind to us; so that the saying of John is actually fulfilled, "We have all drawn from his fullness, and have received grace for grace." (John 1:16.) The fathers were, indeed, partakers of that divine goodness and spiritual kindness which is here mentioned. "How great," says David, "is thy goodness, which hath been laid up for them that fear thee!" (Ps. 31:19.) But he has poured it out far more liberally and abundantly in Christ. Thus, it is a remarkable commendation of the grace of God, which is exhibited to us in the kingdom of Christ; for the Prophet does not instruct us what has been done once, but also what is done every day, while the Lord invites us by his doctrine to the enjoyment of all blessings.
This passage is expounded in various ways. Some think that it condemns universally the life of men, that they may not be satisfied with it or flatter their vices; for we cannot approach to God but by taking away a false conviction of our own righteousness. And indeed none call for physicians but those who are driven by the violence of disease to seek both health and remedies. Accordingly, this passage is compared by them to that saying of our Lord, "What ranks high among men is abomination in the sight of God." (Luke 16:15.)
But the Prophet's meaning, I think, is different, and is more correctly explained, according to my judgment, by other commentators, who think that he draws a distinction between God's disposition and man's disposition. Men are wont to judge and measure God from themselves; for their hearts are moved by angry passions and are very difficult to be appeased; and therefore they think that they cannot be reconciled to God when they have once offended him. But the Lord shows that he is far from resembling men. As if he had said, "I am not a mortal man that I should show myself to be harsh and irreconcilable to you. My thoughts are very different from yours. If you are implacable and can with difficulty be brought back to a state of friendship with those from whom you have received an injury, I am not like you that I should treat you so cruelly."
There is nothing that troubles our consciences more than when we think that God is like ourselves; for the consequence is that we do not venture to approach to him, and flee from him as any enemy, and are never at rest. But they who measure God by themselves as a standard form a false idea and [one] altogether contrary to his nature; and indeed they cannot do him a greater injury than this. Are men, who are corrupted and debased by sinful desires, not ashamed to compare God's lofty and uncorrupted nature with their own, and to confine what is infinite within those narrow limits by which they feel themselves to be wretchedly restrained? In what prison could any of us be more straitly shut up then in our own unbelief?
This appears to me to be the plain and simple meaning of the Prophet. And yet I do not deny that he alludes, at the same time, to the life of men such as he formerly described it to be. In a word, he means that men must forget themselves when they wish to be converted to God, and that no obstacle can be greater or more destructive than when we think that God is irreconcilable. We must therefore root out of our minds this false imagination.
The amount of what is said is, that they cannot say that God has changed as if he had swerved from his natural disposition, but that the whole blame lies with themselves; because by their own sins they, in some measure, prevent his kindness and refuse to receive his assistance. Hence we infer that our sins alone deprive us of the grace of God and cause separation between us and him; for what the Prophet testifies as to the men of his time is applicable to all ages, since he pleads the cause of God against the slanders of wicked men. Thus God is always like himself and is not wearied in doing good; and his power is not diminished, but we hinder the entrance of his grace.
It will be objected that men cannot anticipate God by deserving well of him, and that consequently he must do good to those who are unworthy. I reply, this is undoubtedly true; but sometimes the frowardness of men grows to such an extent as to shut the door against God's benefits, as if they purposely intended to drive him far away from them. And although he listens to no man without pardoning him, as we always bring before him supplication for the removal of guilt, yet he does not listen to the prayers of the wicked. We need not wonder, therefore, if the Prophet accuse the people of rejecting God's benefits by their iniquities, and rendering him irreconcilable by their obstinacy, and, in a word, of making a divorce which drives away or turns aside the ordinary course of grace.
This chapter has been violently distorted by Christians, as if what is said here related to Christ, whereas the Prophet speaks simply of God himself; and they have imagined that here Christ is red because he was wet with his own blood which he shed on the cross. But the Prophet meant nothing of that sort. The obvious meaning is that the Lord comes forth with red garments in the view of his people that all may know that he is their protector and avenger; for when the people were weighed down by innumerable evils, and at the same time the Edomites and other enemies, as if they had been placed beyond the reach of all danger, freely indulged in wickedness which remained unpunished, a dangerous temptation might arise as if these things happened by chance, or as if God did not care for his people or chastised them too severely. If the Jews were punished for despising God, much more ought the Edomites and other avowed enemies of the name of God to have been punished.
The Prophet meets this very serious temptation by representing God the avenger as returning from the slaughter of the Edomites, as if he were drenched with their blood. There is great liveliness and energy in a description of this sort, Who is this? for that question raises the hearts of the hearers into a state of astonishment, and strikes them more forcibly than a plain narrative. On this account the Prophet employed it in order to arouse the hearts of the Jews from their slumbering and stupefaction.
We know that the Edomites were somewhat related to the Jews by blood; for they were descended from the same ancestors, and derived their name from Esau, who was also called Edom. (Gen. 36:1, 8, 9.) Having corrupted the pure worship of God, though they bore the same mark of circumcision, they persecuted the Jews with deadly hatred. They likewise inflamed the rage of other enemies against the Jews, and showed that they took great pleasure in the ruin of that people, as is evident from the encouraging words addressed by them to its destroyers. "Remember, O LORD [Yahweh], (says the Psalmist,) the children of Edom, who, in that day of the destruction of Jerusalem, said, Raze, raze it even to the foundations." (Ps. 137:7.) The Prophet, therefore, threatens that judgment shall be passed on the Edomites, that none may imagine that they shall escape punishment for that savage cruelty with which they burned towards their brethren; for God will punish all wicked men and enemies of the Church in such a manner as to show that the Church is the object of his care.
Here he brings forward nothing new but merely confirms the former statement and shows that this judgment will be dreadful, that none may think that it is a matter of small importance. Accordingly, he describes that horror in strong language [so] that the wicked may fear and that believers, on the other hand, may keep themselves holy and chaste and may withdraw from the society of the wicked. Yet let them endure patiently the unjust and cruel attacks of enemies till the armed avenger come forth from heaven.
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