THE TURN OF THE TIDE: MORAL EFFECTS OF FORGIVENESS
Isaiah 22:1-25 Contrasted With 33
THE collapse of Jewish faith and patriotism in the face of the enemy was complete. Final and absolute did Isaiah’s sentence ring out: "Surely this iniquity shall not be purged from you till ye die, saith Jehovah of hosts." So we learn from chapter 22, written, as we conceive, in 701, when the Assyrian armies had at last invested Jerusalem. But in chapter 33, which critics unite in placing a few months later in the same year, Isaiah’s tone is entirely changed. He hurls the woe of the Lord upon the Assyrians; confidently announces their immediate destruction; turns, while the whole city’s faith hangs upon him, in supplication to the Lord; and announces the stability of Jerusalem, her peace, her glory, and the forgiveness of all her sins. It is this great moral difference between chapters 22 and 33-prophecies that must have been delivered within a few months of each other-which this chapter seeks to expound.
In spite of her collapse, as pictured in chapter 22, Jerusalem was not taken. Her rulers fled; her people, as if death were certain, betook themselves to dissipation; and yet the city did not fall into the hands of the Assyrian. Sennacherib himself does not pretend to have taken Jerusalem. He tells us how closely he invested Jerusalem, but he does not add that he took it, a silence which is the more significant that he records the capture of every other town which his armies attempted. He says that "Hezekiah offered him tribute, and details the amount he received." He adds that the tribute was not paid at Jerusalem (as it would have been had Jerusalem been conquered), but that for "the payment of the tribute and the performance of homage" Hezekiah "despatched his envoy" to him when he was at some distance from Jerusalem. All this agrees with the Bible narrative. In the book of Kings we are told how Hezekiah sent to the King of Assyria at Lachish, saying, "I have offended; return from me; that which thou puttest upon me I will bear. And the King of Assyria appointed unto Hezekiah, King of Judah, three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. And Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was found in the house of Jehovah and in the treasures of the king’s house. At the same time did Hezekiah cut off the gold from the doors of the temple of Jehovah, and from the pillars which Hezekiah, King of Judah, had overlaid, and gave it to the King of Assyria." It was indeed a sore submission, when even the Temple of the Lord had to be stripped of its gold. But it purchased the relief of the city, and no price was too high to pay for that at such a moment as the present, when the populace was demoralised. We may even see Isaiah’s hand in the submission. The integrity of Jerusalem was the one fact on which the word of the Lord had been pledged, on which the promised remnant would be rallied. The Assyrian must not be able to say that he has made Zion’s God like the gods of the heathen; and her people must see that even when they have given her up Jehovah can hold her for Himself, though in holding He tear and wound. [Isaiah 31:4] The Temple is greater than the gold of the Temple; let even the latter be stripped off and sold to the heathen if it can purchase the integrity of the former. So Jerusalem remained inviolate; she was still "the virgin, the daughter of Zion."
And now upon the redeemed city Isaiah could proceed to rebuild the shattered faith and morals of her people. He could say to them, "Everything has turned out as, by the word of the Lord, I said it should. The Assyrian has come down; Egypt has failed you. Your politicians, with their scorn of religion and their confidence in their cleverness, have deserted you. I told you that your numberless sacrifices and pomp of unreal religion would avail you nothing in your day of disaster, and lo when this came, your religion collapsed. Your abounding wickedness, I said, could only close in your ruin and desertion by God. But one promise I kept steadfast: that Jerusalem would not fall; and to your penitence, whenever it should be real, I assured forgiveness. Jerusalem stands today, according to my word; and I repeat my gospel. History has vindicated my word, but ‘Come now, let us bring our reasoning to a close, saith the Lord; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow: though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.’ I call upon you to build again on your redeemed city, and by the grace of this pardon, the fallen ruins of your life."
Some such sermon-if indeed not actually part of chapter 1-we must conceive Isaiah to have delivered to the people when Hezekiah had bought off Sennacherib, for we find the state of Jerusalem suddenly altered. Instead of the panic, which imagined the daily capture of the city, and rushed in hectic holiday to the housetops, crying, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die," we see the citizens back upon the walls, trembling yet trusting. Instead of sweeping past Isaiah in their revelry and leaving him to feel that after forty years of travail he had lost all his influence with them, we see them gathering round about him, as their single hope and confidence (chapter 37). King and people look to Isaiah as their counsellor, and cannot answer the enemy without consulting him. What a change from the days of the Egyptian alliance, embassies sent off against his remonstrance, and intrigues developed without his knowledge; when Ahaz insulted him, and the drunken magnates mimicked him, and, in order to rouse an indolent people, he had to walk about the streets of Jerusalem for three years, stripped like a captive! Truly this was the day of Isaiah’s triumph, when God by events vindicated his prophecy, and all the people acknowledged his leadership.
It was the hour of the prophet’s triumph, but the nation had as yet only trials before it. God has not done with nations or men when He has forgiven them. This people, whom of His grace, and in spite of themselves, God had saved from destruction, stood on the brink of another trial. God had given them a new lease of life, but it was immediately to pass through the furnace. They had bought off Sennacherib, but Sennacherib came back.
When Sennacherib got the tribute, he repented of the treaty he had made with Hezekiah. He may have felt that it was a mistake to leave in his rear so powerful a fortress, while he had still to complete the overthrow of the Egyptians. So, in spite of the tribute, he sent a force back to Jerusalem to demand her surrender. We can imagine the moral effect upon King Hezekiah and his people. It was enough to sting the most demoralised into courage. Sennacherib had doubtless expected so pliant a king and so crushed a people to yield at once. But we may confidently picture the joy of Isaiah, as he felt the return of the Assyrians to be the very thing required to restore spirit to his demoralised countrymen. Here was a foe, whom they could face with a sense of justice, and not, as they had met him before, in carnal confidence and the pride of their own cleverness. Now was to be a war not, like former wars, undertaken merely for party glory, but with the purest feelings of patriotism and the firmest sanctions of religion, a campaign to be entered upon, not with Pharaoh’s support and the strength of Egyptian chariots, but with God Himself as an ally-of which it could be said to Judah, "Thy righteousness shall go before thee. And the glory of the Lord shall be thy reward."
On what free, exultant wings the spirit of Isaiah must have risen to the sublime occasion! We know him as by nature an ardent patriot and passionate lover of his city, but through circumstance her pitiless critic and unsparing judge. In all the literature of patriotism there are no finer odes and orations than those which it owes to him; from no lips came stronger songs of war, and no heart rejoiced more in the valour that turns the battle from the gate. But till now Isaiah’s patriotism had been chiefly a conscience of his country’s sins, his passionate love for Jerusalem repressed by as stern a loyalty to righteousness, and all his eloquence and courage spent in holding his people from war and persuading them to returning and rest. At last this conflict is at an end. The stubbornness of Judah, which has divided like some rock the current of her prophet’s energies, and forced it back writhing and eddying upon itself, is removed. Isaiah’s faith and his patriotism run free with the force of twin-tides in one channel, and we hear the fulness of their roar as they leap together upon the enemies of God and the fatherland. "Woe to thee, thou spoiler, and thou wast not spoiled, thou treacherous dealer, and. they did not deal treacherously with thee! Whenever thou ceasest to spoil, thou shalt be spoiled; and whenever thou hast made an end to deal treacherously, they shall deal treacherously with thee. O Jehovah, be gracious unto us; for Thee have we waited: be Thou their arm every morning, our salvation also in the time of trouble. From the noise of a surging the peoples have fled; from the lifting up of Thyself the nations are scattered. And gathered is your spoil, the gathering of the caterpillar; like the leaping of locusts, they are leaping upon it. Exalted is Jehovah; yea, He dwelleth on high: He hath filled Zion with justice and righteousness. And there shall be stability of thy times, wealth of salvation, wisdom and knowledge; the fear of Jehovah, it shall be his treasure". [Isaiah 33:1-6]
Thus, then, do we propose to bridge the gulf which lies between chapters 1 and 22 on the one hand and chapter 33, on the other. If they are all to be dated from the year 701, some such bridge is necessary. And the one we have traced is both morally sufficient and in harmony with what we know to have been the course of events.
What do we learn from it all? We learn a great deal upon that truth which chapter 33 closes by announcing-the truth of Divine forgiveness.
The forgiveness of God is the foundation of every bridge from a hopeless past to a courageous present. That God can make the past be for guilt as though it had not been is always to Isaiah the assurance of the future. An old Greek miniature represents him with Night behind him, veiled and sullen and holding a reversed torch. But before him stands Dawn and Innocence, a little child, with bright face and forward step and torch erect and burning. From above a hand pours light upon the face of the prophet, turned upwards. It is the message of a Divine pardon. Never did prophet more wearily feel the moral continuity of the generations, the lingering and ineradicable effects of crime. Only faith in a pardoning God could have enabled him, with such conviction of the inseparableness of yesterday and tomorrow, to make divorce between them, and turning his back on the past, as this miniature represents, hail the future as Immanuel, a child of infinite promise.
From exposing and scourging the past, from proving it corrupt and pregnant with poison for all the future, Isaiah will turn on a single verse, and give us a future without war, sorrow, or fraud. His pivot is ever the pardon of God. But nowhere is his faith in this so powerful, his turning upon it so swift, as at this period of Jerusalem’s collapse, when, having sentenced the people to death for their iniquity-"It was revealed in mine ears by Jehovah of hosts, Surely this iniquity shall not be purged from you till ye die, saith the Lord, Jehovah of hosts" [Isaiah 22:14] -he swings round on his promise of a little before-"Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow"-and to the people’s penitence pronounces in the last verse of chapter 33, a final absolution: "The inhabitant shall not say, I am sick; the people that dwell therein are forgiven their iniquity." If chapter 33 be, as many think, Isaiah’s latest oracle, then we have the literal crown of all his prophesying in these two words: forgiven iniquity. It is as he put it early that same year: "Come now, let us bring our reasoning to a close; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow: though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool." If man is to have a future, this must be the conclusion of all his past.
But the absoluteness of God’s pardon, making the past as though it had not been, is not the only lesson which the spiritual experience of Jerusalem in that awful year of 701 has for us. Isaiah’s gospel of forgiveness is nothing less than this: that when God gives pardon He gives himself. The name of the blessed future, which is entered through pardon-as in that miniature, a child-is Immanuel: God-with-us. And if it be correct that we owe the forty-sixth Psalm to these months when the Assyrian came back upon Jerusalem, then we see how the city, that had abandoned God, is yet able to sing when she is pardoned, "God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in the midst of troubles." And this gospel of forgiveness is not only Isaiah’s. According to the whole Bible, there is but one thing which separates man from God-that is sin, and when sin is done away with, God cannot be kept from man. In giving pardon to man, God gives back to man Himself. How gloriously evident this truth becomes in the New Testament! Christ, who is set before us as the Lamb of God, who beareth the sins of the world, is also Immanuel-God-with-us. The Sacrament, which most plainly seals to the believer the value of the One Sacrifice for sin, is the Sacrament in which the believer feeds upon Christ and appropriates Him. The sinner, who comes to Christ, not only receives pardon for Christ’s sake, but receives Christ. Forgiveness means nothing less than this: that in giving pardon God gives Himself.
But if forgiveness mean all this, then the objections frequently brought against a conveyance of it so unconditioned as that of Isaiah fall to the ground. Forgiveness of such a kind cannot be either unjust or demoralising. On the contrary, we see Jerusalem permoralised by it. At first, it is true, the sense of weakness and fear abounds, as we learn from the narrative in chapters 36 and 37. But where there was vanity, recklessness, and despair, giving way to dissipation, there is now humility, discipline, and a leaning upon God, that are led up to confidence and exultation. Jerusalem’s experience is just another proof that any moral results are possible to so great a process as the return of God to the soul. Awful is the responsibility of them who receive such a Gift and such a Guest; but the sense of that awfulness is the atmosphere, in which obedience and holiness and the courage that is born of both love best to grow. One can understand men scoffing at messages of pardon so unconditioned as Isaiah’s, who think they "mean no more than a clean slate." Taken in this sense, the gospel of forgiveness must prove a savour of death unto death. But just as Jerusalem interpreted the message of her pardon to mean that "God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved," and straightway obedience was in all her hearts, and courage upon all her walls, so neither to us can be futile the New Testament form of the same gospel, which makes our pardoned soul the friend of God, accepted in the Beloved, and our body His holy temple.
Upon one other point connected with the forgiveness of sins we get instruction from the experience of Jerusalem. A man has difficulty in squaring his sense of forgiveness with the return on the back of it of his old temptations and trials, with the hostility of fortune and with the inexorableness of nature. Grace has spoken to his heart, but Providence bears more hard upon him than ever. Pardon does not change the outside of life; it does not immediately modify the movements of history, or suspend the laws of nature. Although God has forgiven Jerusalem, Assyria comes back to besiege her. Although the penitent be truly reconciled to God, the constitutional results of his fall remain: the frequency of temptation, the power of habit, the bias and facility downwards, the physical and social consequences. Pardon changes none of these things. It does not keep off the Assyrians.
But if pardon means the return of God to the soul, then in this we have the secret of the return of the foe. Men could not try nor develop a sense of the former except by their experience of the latter. We have seen why Isaiah must have welcomed the perfidious re-appearance of the Assyrians after he had helped to buy them off. Nothing could better test the sincerity of Jerusalem’s repentance, or rally her dissipated forces. Had the Assyrians not returned, the Jews would have had no experimental proof of God’s restored presence, and the great miracle would never have happened that rang through human history for evermore-a trumpet-call to faith in the God of Israel. And so still "the Lord scourgeth every son whom He receiveth," because He would put our penitence to the test; because He would discipline our disorganised affections, and give conscience and will a chance of wiping out defeat by victory; because He would baptise us with the most powerful baptism possible-the sense of being trusted once more to face the enemy upon the fields of our disgrace.
That is why the Assyrians came back to Jerusalem, and that is why temptations and penalties still pursue the penitent and forgiven.