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Isaiah xl. 1-11.

It is only Voices which we hear in this Prologue. No forms can be discerned, whether of men or angels, and it is even difficult to make out the direction from which the Voices come. Only one thing is certain—that they break the night, that they proclaim the end of a long but fixed period, during which God has punished and forsaken His people. At first, the persons addressed are the prophets, that they may speak to the people (vv. 1, 2); but afterwards Jerusalem as a whole is summoned to publish the good tidings (ver. 9). This interchange between a part of the people and the whole—this commission to prophesy, made with one breath to some of the nation for the sake of the rest, and with the next breath to the entire nation—is a habit of our prophet to which we shall soon get accustomed. How natural and characteristic it is, is proved by its appearance in these very first verses.

The beginning of the good tidings is Israel's pardon; yet it seems not to be the people's return to Palestine which is announced in consequence of this, so much as their God's return to them. Prepare ye the way of Jehovah, make straight a highway for our God. Behold the Lord Jehovah will come. We may, however, take the way of Jehovah in the wilderness to mean what it72 means in the sixty-eighth Psalm,—His going forth before His people and leading of them back; while the promise that He will come to shepherd His flock (ver. 11) is, of course, the promise that He will resume the government of Israel upon their own land. There can be no doubt, therefore, that this chapter was meant for the people at the close of their captivity in Babylon. But do not let us miss the pathetic fact, that Israel is addressed not in her actual shape of a captive people in a foreign land, but under the name and aspect of her far-away, desolate country. In these verses Israel is Jerusalem, Zion, the cities of Judah. Such designations do not prove, as a few critics have rather pedantically supposed, that the writer of the verses lived in Judah and addressed himself to what was under his eyes. It is not the vision of a Jew at home that has determined the choice of these names, but the desire and the dream of a Jew abroad: that extraordinary passion, which, however distant might be the land of his exile, ever filled the Jew's eyes with Zion, caused him to feel the ruin and forsakenness of his Mother more than his own servitude, and swept his patriotic hopes, across his own deliverance and return, to the greater glory of her restoration.3636   See p. 47. There is nothing, therefore, to prevent us taking for granted, as we did in the previous chapter, that the speaker or speakers of these verses stood among the exiles themselves; but who they were—men or angels, prophets or scribes—is lost in the darkness out of which their music breaks.3737   From the sequence of the voices, it would seem that we had in ch. xl. not a mere collection of anonymous prophecies arranged by an editor, but one complete prophecy by the author of most of Isa. xl.-lxvi., set in the dramatic form which obtains through the other chapters.


Nevertheless the prophecy is not anonymous. By these impersonal voices a personal revelation is made. The prophets may be nameless, but the Deity who speaks through them speaks as already known and acknowledged: My people, saith your God.

This is a point, which, though it takes for its expression no more than these two little pronouns, we must not hurriedly pass over. All the prophecy we are about to study may be said to hang from these pronouns. They are the hinges, on which the door of this new temple of revelation swings open before the long-expectant people. And, in fact, such a conscience and sympathy as these little words express form the necessary premise of all revelation. Revelation implies a previous knowledge of God, and cannot work upon men, except there already exist in them the sense that they and God somehow belong to each other. This sense need be neither pure, nor strong, nor articulate. It may be the most selfish and cowardly of guilty fears,—Jacob's dread as he drew near Esau, whom he had treacherously supplanted,—the vaguest of ignorant desires, the Athenians' worship of the Unknown God. But, whatever it is, the angel comes to wrestle with it, the apostle is sent to declare it; revelation in some form takes it as its premise and starting-point. This previous sense of God may also be fuller than in the cases just cited. Take our Lord's own illustration. Upon the prodigal in the strange country there surged again the far-ebbed memory of his home and childhood, of his years of familiarity with a Father; and it was this tide which carried back his penitent heart within the hearing of his Father's voice, and the revelation of the love that became his new life. Now Israel, also in a far-off land, were borne upon the recollection of home and of life74 in the favour of their God. We have seen with what knowledge of Him and from what relations with Him they were banished. To the men of the Exile God was already a Name and an Experience, and because that Name was The Righteous, and that Experience was all grace and promise, these men waited for His Word more than they that wait for the morning; and when at length the Word broke from the long darkness and silence, they received it, though its bearers might be unseen and unaccredited, because they recognised and acknowledged in it Himself. He who spoke was their God, and they were His people. This conscience and sympathy was all the title or credential which the revelation required. It is, therefore, not too much to say, as we have said, that the two pronouns in ch. xl., ver. 1, are the necessary premise of the whole prophecy which that verse introduces.

With this introduction we may now take up the four herald voices of the Prologue. Whatever may have been their original relation to one another, whether or not they came to Israel by different messengers, they are arranged (as we saw at the close of the previous chapter) in manifest order and progress of thought, and they meet in due succession the experiences of Israel at the close of the Exile. For the first of them (vv. 1 and 2) gives the subjective assurance of the coming redemption: it is the Voice of Grace. The second (vv. 3-5) proclaims the objective reality of that redemption: it may be called the Voice of Providence, or—to use the name by which our prophecy loves to entitle the just and victorious providence of God—the Voice of Righteousness. The third (vv. 6-8) uncovers the pledge and earnest of the redemption: in the weakness75 of men this shall be the Word of God. While the fourth (vv. 9-11) is the Proclamation of Jehovah's restored kingdom, when He cometh as a shepherd to shepherd His people. To this progress and climax the music of the passage forms a perfect accompaniment. It would be difficult to find in any language lips that first more softly woo the heart, and then take to themselves so brave a trumpet of challenge and assurance. The opening is upon a few short pulses of music, which steal from heaven as gently as the first ripples of light in a cloudless dawn—

Năhămu, năhămu ammi:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people:

Dabbĕru `al-lev Yerushālaîm.

Speak upon the heart of Jerusalem.3838   Every one who appreciates the music of the original will agree how incomparably Handel has interpreted it in those pulses of music with which his Messiah opens.

But then the trumpet-tone breaks forth, Call unto her; and on that high key the music stays, sweeping with the second voice across hill and dale like a company of swift horsemen, stooping with the third for a while to the elegy upon the withered grass, but then recovering itself, braced by all the strength of the Word of God, to peal from tower to tower with the fourth, upon the cry, Behold, the Lord cometh, till it sinks almost from sound to sight, and yields us, as from the surface of still waters, that sweet reflection of the twenty-third Psalm with which the Prologue concludes.

1. Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith your God.
76Speak ye home to the heart of Jerusalem, and call unto her,
That accomplished is her warfare, that absolved is her iniquity;
That she hath received of Jehovah's hand double for all her sins.

This first voice, with the music of which our hearts have been thrilled ever since we can remember, speaks twice: first in a whisper, then in a call—the whisper of the Lover and the call of the Lord. Speak ye home to the heart of Jerusalem, and call unto her.

Now Jerusalem lay in ruins, a city through whose breached walls all the winds of heaven blew mournfully across her forsaken floors. And the heart of Jerusalem, which was with her people in exile, was like the city—broken and defenceless. In that far-off, unsympathetic land it lay open to the alien; tyrants forced their idols upon it, the peoples tortured it with their jests.

For they that led us captive required of us songs,

And they that wasted us required of us mirth.

But observe how gently the Divine Beleaguerer approaches, how softly He bids His heralds plead by the gaps, through which the oppressor has forced his idols and his insults. Of all human language they might use, God bids His messengers take and plead with the words with which a man will plead at a maiden's heart, knowing that he has nothing but love to offer as right of entrance, and waiting until love and trust come out to welcome him. Speak ye, says the original literally, on to, or up against, or up round the heart of Jerusalem,—a forcible expression, like the German "An das Herz," or the sweet Scottish, "It cam' up roond my heart," and perhaps best rendered into English by the phrase, Speak home to the heart.77 It is the ordinary Hebrew expression for wooing. As from man to woman when he wins her, the Old Testament uses it several times. To speak home to the heart is to use language in which authority and argument are both ignored, and love works her own inspiration. While the haughty Babylonian planted by force his idols, while the folly and temptations of heathendom surged recklessly in, God Himself, the Creator of this broken heart, its Husband and Inhabitant of old,3939   See ch. liv., where this figure is developed with great beauty. stood lowly by its breaches, pleading in love the right to enter. But when entrance has been granted, see how He bids His heralds change their voice and disposition. The suppliant lover, being received, assumes possession and defence, and they, who were first bid whisper as beggars by each unguarded breach, now leap upon the walls to call from the accepted Lord of the city: Fulfilled is thy time of service, absolved thine iniquity, received hast thou of Jehovah's hand double for all thy sins.

Now this is no mere rhetorical figure. This is the abiding attitude and aim of the Almighty towards men. God's target is our heart. His revelation, whatever of law or threat it send before, is, in its own superlative clearness and urgency, Grace. It comes to man by way of the heart; not at first by argument addressed to the intellect, nor by appeal to experience, but by the sheer strength of a love laid on to the heart. It is, to begin with, a subjective thing. Is revelation, then, entirely a subjective assurance? Do the pardon and peace which it proclaims remain only feelings of the heart, without anything to correspond to them in real fact? By no means; for these Jews the revelation now whispered78 to their heart will actually take shape in providences of the most concrete kind. A voice will immediately call, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, and the way will be prepared. Babylon will fall; Cyrus will let Israel go; their release will appear—most concrete of things!—in "black and white" on a Persian state-parchment. Yet, before these events happen and become part of His people's experience, God desires first to convince His people by the sheer urgency of His love. Before He displays His Providence, He will speak in the power and evidence of His Grace. Afterwards, His prophets shall appeal to outward facts; we shall find them in succeeding chapters arguing both with Israel and the heathen on grounds of reason and the facts of history. But, in the meantime, let them only feel that in His Grace they have something for the heart of men, which, striking home, shall be its own evidence and force.

Thus God adventures His Word forth by nameless and unaccredited men upon no other authority than the Grace, with which it is fraught for the heart of His people. The illustration, which this affords of the method and evidence of Divine revelation, is obvious. Let us, with all the strength of which we are capable, emphasize the fact that our prophecy—which is full of the materials for an elaborate theology, which contains the most detailed apologetic in the whole Bible, and displays the most glorious prospect of man's service and destiny—takes its source and origin from a simple revelation of Grace and the subjective assurance of this in the heart of those to whom it is addressed. This proclamation of Grace is as characteristic and dominant in Second Isaiah, as we saw the proclamation of conscience in ch. i. to be characteristic of the First Isaiah.


Before we pass on, let us look for a moment at the contents of this Grace, in the three clauses of the prophet's cry: Fulfilled is her warfare, absolved her guilt, received hath she of Jehovah's hand double for all her sins. The very grammar here is eloquent of grace. The emphasis lies on the three predicates, which ought to stand in translation, as they do in the original, at the beginning of each clause. Prominence is given, not to the warfare, nor to the guilt, nor to the sins, but to this, that accomplished is the warfare, absolved the guilt, sufficiently expiated the sins. It is a great At Last which these clauses peal forth; but an At Last whose tone is not so much inevitableness as undeserved grace. The term translated warfare means period of military service, appointed term of conscription; and the application is apparent when we remember that the Exile had been fixed, by the Word of God through Jeremiah, to a definite number of years. Absolved is the passive of a verb meaning to pay off what is due.4040   Lev. xxvii. But the third clause is especially gracious. It declares that Israel has suffered of punishment more than double enough to atone for her sins. This is not a way of regarding either sin or atonement, which, theologically speaking, is accurate. What of its relation to our Articles, that man cannot give satisfaction for his sins by the work of his hands or the pains of his flesh? No: it would scarcely pass some of our creeds to-day. But all the more, that it thus bursts forth from strict terms of dealing, does it reveal the generosity of Him who utters it. How full of pity God is, to take so much account of the sufferings sinners have brought upon themselves! How full of grace to reckon those sufferings double the80 sins that had earned them! It is, as when we have seen gracious men make us a free gift, and in their courtesy insist that we have worked for it. It is grace masked by grace. As the height of art is to conceal art, so the height of grace is to conceal grace, which it does in this verse.

Such is the Voice of Grace. But,

2. Hark, One calling!
In the wilderness prepare the way of Jehovah!
Make straight in the desert an highway for our God!
Every valley shall be exalted,
And every mountain and hill be made low:
And the crooked grow straight,
And rough places a plain:
And the glory of Jehovah be revealed,
And see it shall all flesh together;
For the mouth of Jehovah hath spoken.

The relation of this Voice to the previous one has already been indicated. This is the witness of Providence following upon the witness of Grace. Religion is a matter in the first place between God and the heart; but religion does not, as many mock, remain an inward feeling. The secret relation between God and His people issues into substantial fact, visible to all men. History vindicates faith; Providence executes Promise; Righteousness follows Grace. So, as the first Voice was spoken to the heart, this second is for the hands and feet and active will. Prepare ye the way of the Lord. If you, poor captives as you are, begin to act upon the grace whispered in your trembling hearts, the world will show the result. All things will come round to your side. A levelled empire, an altered world—across those your way shall lie clear to Jerusalem.81 You shall go forth in the sight of all men, and future generations looking back shall praise this manifest wonder of your God. The glory of Jehovah shall be revealed, and see it shall all flesh together.

On which word, how can our hearts help rising from the comfort of grace to the sense of mastery over this world, to the assurance of heaven itself? History must come round to the side of faith—as it has come round not in the case of Jewish exiles only, but wheresoever such a faith as theirs has been repeated. History must come round to the side of faith, if men will only obey the second as well as the first of these herald voices. But we are too ready to listen to the Word of the Lord, without seeking to prepare His way. We are satisfied with the personal comfort of our God; we are contented to be forgiven and—oh mockery!—left alone. But the word of God will not leave us alone, and not for comfort only is it spoken. On the back of the voice, which sets our heart right with God, comes the voice to set the world right, and no man is godly who has not heard both. Are we timid and afraid that facts will not correspond to our faith? Nay, but as God reigneth they shall, if only we put to our hands and make them; all flesh shall see it, if we will but prepare the way of the Lord.

Have we only ancient proofs of this? On the contrary, God has done like wonders within the lives of those of us who are yet young. During our generation, a people has appealed from the convictions of her heart to the arbitrament of history, and appealed not in vain. When the citizens of the Northern States of the American Republic, not content as they might have been with their protests against slavery, rose to vindicate these by the sword, they faced, humanly82 speaking, a risk as great as that to which Jew was ever called by the word of God. Their own brethren were against them; the world stood aloof. But even so, unaided by united patriotism and as much dismayed as encouraged by the opinions of civilisation, they rose to the issue on the strength of conscience and their hearts. They rose and they conquered. Slavery was abolished. What had been but the conviction of a few men, became the surprise, the admiration, the consent of the whole world. The glory of the Lord was revealed, and all flesh saw it together.

3. But the shadow of death falls on everything, even on the way of the Lord. By 550 b.c.—that is, after thirty-eight years of exile—nearly all the strong men of Israel's days of independence must have been taken away. Death had been busy with the exiles for more than a generation. There was no longer any human representative of Jehovah to rally the people's trust; the monarchy, each possible Messiah who in turn held it, the priesthood, and the prophethood—whose great personalities so often took the place of Israel's official leaders—had all alike disappeared. It was little wonder, then, that a nation accustomed to be led, not by ideas like us Westerns, but by personages, who were to it the embodiment of Jehovah's will and guidance, should have been cast into despair by the call, Prepare ye the way of the Lord. What sort of a call was this for a people, whose strong men were like things uprooted and withered! How could one be, with any heart, a herald of the Lord to such a people!

Hark one saying "Call."4141   The technical word to preach or proclaim.

And I said:83

"What can I call?

All flesh is grass,

And all its beauty like a wild-flower!

Withers grass, fades flower,

When the breath of Jehovah blows on it.

Surely grass is the people."

Back comes a voice like the east wind's for pitilessness to the flowers, but of the east wind's own strength and clearness, to proclaim Israel's everlasting hope.

Withers grass, fades flower,

But the word of our God endureth for ever.

Everything human may perish; the day may be past of the great prophets, of the priests—of the King in his beauty, who was vicegerent of God. But the people have God's word; when all their leaders have fallen, and every visible authority for God is taken away, this shall be their rally and their confidence.

All this is too like the actual experience of Israel in Exile not to be the true interpretation of this third, stern Voice. Their political and religious institutions, which had so often proved the initiative of a new movement, or served as a bridge to carry the nation across disaster to a larger future, were not in existence. Nor does any Moses, as in Egypt of old, rise to visibleness from among his obscure people, impose his authority upon them, marshal them, and lead them out behind him to freedom. But what we see is a scattered and a leaderless people, stirred in their shadow, as a ripe cornfield is stirred by the breeze before dawn—stirred in their shadow by the ancient promises of God, and everywhere breaking out at the touch of these into psalms and prophecies of hope. We see them expectant of redemption, we see them resolved to return, we see84 them carried across the desert to Zion, and from first to last it is the word of God that is their inspiration and assurance.

They, who formerly had rallied round the Ark or the Temple, or who had risen to the hope of a glorious Messiah, do not now speak of all these, but their hope, they tell us, is in His word; it is the instrument of their salvation, and their destiny is to be its evangelists.

4. To this high destiny the fourth Voice now summons them, by a vivid figure.

Up on a high mountain, get thee up,

Heraldess of good news, O Zion!

Lift up with strength thy voice,

Heraldess of good news, Jerusalem!

Lift up, fear not, say to the cities of Judah:—

Behold, your God.

Behold, my Lord Jehovah, with power He cometh,

And His arm rules for Him.

Behold, His reward with Him,

And His recompense before Him.

As a shepherd His flock He shepherds;

With His right arm gathers the lambs,

And in His bosom bears them.

Ewe-mothers He tenderly leads.

The title which I have somewhat awkwardly translated heraldess—but in English there is really no better word for it—is the feminine participle of a verb meaning to thrill, or give joy, by means of good news. It is used generally to tell such happy news as the birth of a child, but mostly in the special sense of carrying tidings of victory or peace home from the field to the people. The feminine participle would seem from Psalm lxviii., the women who publish victory to the great85 host, to have been the usual term for the members of those female choirs, who, like Miriam and her maidens, celebrated a triumph in face of the army, or came forth from the city to hail the returning conqueror, as the daughters of Jerusalem hailed Saul and David. As such a chorister, Zion is now summoned to proclaim Jehovah's arrival at the gates of the cities of Judah.

The verses from Behold, your God, to the end of the Prologue are the song of the heraldess. Do not their mingled martial and pastoral strains exactly suit the case of the Return? For this is an expedition, on which the nation's champion has gone forth, not to lead His enemies captive to His gates, but that He may gather His people home. Not mailed men, in the pride of a victory they have helped to win, march in behind Him,—armour and tumult and the garment rolled in blood,—but a herd of mixed and feeble folk, with babes and women, in need of carriage and gentle leading, wander wearily back. And, therefore, in the mouth of the heraldess the figure changes from a warrior-king to the Good Shepherd. With His right arm He gathers the lambs, and in His bosom bears them. Ewe-mothers He gently leads. How true a picture, and how much it recalls! Fifty years before, the exiles left their home (as we can see to this day upon Assyrian sculptures) in closely-driven companies, fettered, and with the urgency upon them of grim soldiers, who marched at intervals in their ranks to keep up the pace, and who tossed the weaklings impatiently aside. But now, see the slow and loosely-gathered bands wander back, just as quickly as the weakest feel strength to travel, and without any force or any guidance save that of their Almighty, Unseen Shepherd.


We are now able to appreciate the dramatic unity of this Prologue. How perfectly it gathers into its four Voices the whole course of Israel's redemption: the first assurance of Grace whispered to the heart, co-operation with Providence, confidence in God's bare Word, the full Return and the Restoration of the City.

But its climax is undoubtedly the honour it lays upon the whole people to be publishers of the good news of God. Of this it speaks with trumpet tones. All Jerusalem must be a herald-people. And how could Israel help owning the constraint and inspiration to so high an office, after so heartfelt an experience of grace, so evident a redemption, so glorious a proof of the power of the Word of God? To have the heart thus filled with grace, to have the will enlisted in so Divine a work, to have known the almightiness of the Divine Word when everything else failed—after such an experience, who would not be able to preach the good news of God, to foretell, as our prophet bids Israel foretell, the coming of the Kingdom and Presence of God—the day when the Lord's flock shall be perfect and none wanting, when society, though still weary and weak and mortal, shall have no stragglers nor outcasts nor reprobates.

O God, so fill us with Thy grace and enlist us in Thy work, so manifest the might of Thy word to us, that the ideal of Thy perfect kingdom may shine as bright and near to us as to Thy prophet of old, and that we may become its inspired preachers and ever labour in its hope. Amen.

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