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Isaiah xli. 8-20, xlii.-xliii.

We have been listening to the proclamation of a Monotheism so absolute, that, as we have seen, modern critical philosophy, in surveying the history of religion, can find for it no rival among the faiths of the world. God has been exalted before us, in character so perfect, in dominion so universal, that neither the conscience nor the imagination of man can add to the general scope of the vision. Jesus and His Cross shall lead the world's heart farther into the secrets of God's love; God's Spirit in science shall more richly instruct us in the secrets of His laws. But these shall thereby only increase the contents and illustrate the details of this revelation of our prophet. They shall in no way enlarge its sweep and outline, for it is already as lofty an idea of the unity and sovereignty of God, as the thoughts of man can follow.

Across this pure light of God, however, a phenomenon thrusts itself, which seems for the moment to affect the absoluteness of the vision and to detract from its sublimity. This is the prominence given before God to a single people, Israel. In these chapters the uniqueness of Israel is as much urged upon us as the unity of God. Is He the One God in heaven? they237 are His only people on earth, His elect, His own, His witnesses to the end of the earth. His guidance of them is matched with His guidance of the stars, as if, like the stars shining against the night, their tribes alone moved to His hand through an otherwise dark and empty space. His revelation to humanity is given through their little language; the restoration of their petty capital, that hill fort in the barren land of Judah, is exhibited as the end of His processes, which sweep down through history and affect the surface of the whole inhabited world. And His very righteousness turns out to be for the most part His faithfulness to His covenant with Israel.

Now to many in our day it has been a great offence to have "the curved nose of the Jew" thus thrust in between their eyes and the pure light of God. They ask, Can the Judge of all the earth have been thus partial to one people? Did God confine His revelation to men to the literature of a small, unpolished tribe? Even most uncritical souls have trouble to understand why salvation is of the Jews.

The chief point to know is that the election of Israel was an election, not to salvation, but to service. To understand this is to get rid of by far the greater part of the difficulty that attaches to the subject. Israel was a means, and not an end; God chose in him a minister, not a favourite. No prophet in Israel failed to say this; but our prophet makes it the burden of his message to the exiles. Ye are My witnesses, My Servant whom I have chosen. Ye are My witnesses, and I am God. I will also give thee for a light to the nations, to be My salvation to the end of the earth (xliii. 10). Numbers of other verses might be quoted to the same effect, that "there is no238 God but God, and Israel is His prophet."139139   Wellhausen. But if the election of Israel is thus an election to service, it is surely in harmony with God's usual method, whether in nature or history. So far from such a specialisation as Israel's being derogatory to the Divine unity, it is but part of that order and division of labour which the Divine unity demands as its consequence throughout the whole range of Being. The universe is diverse. To every man his own work is the proper corollary of God over all, and Israel's prerogative was but the specialisation of Israel's function for God in the world. In choosing Israel to be His mediator with mankind, God did but do for religion what in the exercise of the same practical discipline He did for philosophy, when He dowered Greece with her gifts of subtle thought and speech, or with Rome when He trained her people to become the legislators of mankind. And how else should work succeed but by specialisation,—the secret as it is of fidelity and expertness? Of fidelity—for the constraint of my duty surely lies in this, that it is due from me and no other; of expertness—for he drives best and deepest who drives along one line. In lighting a fire you begin with a kindled faggot; and in lighting a world it was in harmony with all His law, physical and moral, for God to begin with a particular portion of mankind.

The next question is, Why should this particular portion of mankind be a nation, and not a single prophet, or a school of philosophers, or a church universal? The answer is found in the condition of the ancient world. Amid its diversities of language and of racial feeling, a missionary prophet travelling239 like Paul from people to people is inconceivable; and almost as inconceivable is the kind of Church which Paul founded among various nations, in no other bonds than the consciousness of a common faith. Of all possible combinations of men the nation was the only form, which in the ancient world stood a chance of surviving in the struggle for existence. The nation furnished the necessary shelter and fellowship for personal religion; it gave to the spiritual a habitation upon earth, enlisted in its behalf the force of heredity, and secured the continuity of its traditions. But the service of the nation to religion was not only conservative, it was missionary as well. It was only through a people that a God became visible and accredited to the world. Their history supplied the drama in which He played the hero's part. At a time when it was impossible to spread a religion, by means of literature, or by the example of personal holiness, the achievements of a considerable nation, their progress and prestige, furnished a universally understood language, through which the God could publish to mankind His power and will; and in choosing, therefore, a single nation to reveal Himself by, God was but employing the means best adapted for His purpose. The nation was the unit of religious progress in the ancient world. In the nation God chose as His witness, not only the most solid and permanent, but the most widely intelligible and impressive.140140   "Revelation is never revolutionary.... As a rule, revelation accepts the fragments of truth and adopts the methods of religion already existing, uniting the former into a whole, and purifying the latter for its own purposes."... For instance, "in the East each people had its particular god. The god and the people were correlative ideas, that which gave the individuals of a nation unity and made them a people was the unity of its god; as, on the other hand, that which gave a god prestige was the strength and victorious career of his people. The self-consciousness of the nation and its religion re-acted on one another, and rose and fell simultaneously. This conception was not repudiated, but adopted by revelation; and, as occasion demanded, purified from its natural abuses."—Professor A. B. Davidson, Expositor, Second Series, vol. viii., pp. 257-8.


The next question is, Why Israel should have been this singular and indispensable nation? When God selected Israel to serve His purpose, He did so, we are told, of His sovereign grace. But this strong thought, which forms the foundation of our prophet's assurance about his people, does not prevent him from dwelling also on Israel's natural capacity for religious service. This, too, was of God. Over and over again Israel hears Jehovah say: I have created thee, I have formed thee, I have prepared thee. One passage describes the nation's equipment for the office of a prophet; another their discipline for the life of a saint; and every now and then our prophet shows how far back he feels this preparation to have begun, even when the nation, as he puts it, was still in the womb. How easily these well-worn phrases slip over our lips! Yet they are not mere formulas. Modern research has put a new meaning into them, and taught us that Israel's creation, forming, election, polishing, carriage, and defence were processes as real and measurable as any in natural or political history. For instance, when our prophet says that Israel's preparation began from the womb,—I am thy moulder, saith Jehovah, from the womb,—history takes us back to the pre-natal circumstance of the nation, and there exhibits it to us as already being tempered to a religious disposition and propensity. The Hebrews were of the Semitic stock. The womb from which Israel sprang was a race of wandering shepherds, upon the hungry deserts of Arabia, where man's home is the241 flitting tent, hunger is his discipline for many months of the year, his only arts are those of speech and war, and in the long irremediable starvation there is nothing to do but to be patient and dream. Born in these deserts, the youth of the Semitic race, like the probation of their greatest prophets, was spent in a long fast, which lent their spirit a wonderful ease of detachment from the world and of religious imagination, and tempered their will to long suffering—though it touched their blood, too, with a rancorous heat that breaks out through the prevailing calm of every Semitic literature.141141   Mr. Doughty, in his most interesting account of the nomads of Central Arabia, the unsophisticated Semites on their native soil, furnishes ample material for accounting for the strange mixture of passion and resignation in these prophet-peoples of the world. They were trained also in the desert's august style of eloquence. He hath made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of His hand hath He hid me.142142   Ch. xlix. 2. A "natural prophecy," as it has been called, is found in all the branches of the Semitic stock. No wonder that from this race there came forth the three great universal religions of mankind—that Moses and the prophets, John, Jesus Himself and Paul, and Mohammed were all of the seed of Shem.

This racial disposition the Hebrew carried with him into his calling as a nation. The ancestor, who gave the people the double name by which they are addressed throughout our prophecy, Jacob-Israel, inherited with all his defects the two great marks of the religious temper. Jacob could dream and he could wait. Remember him by the side of the brother, who could so little think of the future, that he was willing to sell its promise for a mess of pottage; who, though God was242 as near to him as to Jacob, never saw visions or wrestled with angels; who seemed to have no power of growth about him, but carrying the same character, unchanged through the discipline of life, finally transmitted it in stereotype to his posterity;—remember Jacob by the side of such a brother, and you have a great part of the secret of the emergence of his descendants from the life of wandering cattle-breeders to be God's chief ministers of religion in the world. Their habits, like their father's, might be bad, but they had the tough and malleable constitution, which it was possible to mould to something better. Like their father, they were false, unchivalrous, selfish, "with the herdsman's grossness in their blood," and much of the rancour and cruelty of their ancestors, the desert-warriors, but with it all they had the two most potential of habits—they could dream and they could wait. In his love and hope for promised Rachel, that were not quenched or soured by the substitution, after seven years' service for her, of her ill-favoured sister, but began another seven years' effort for herself, Jacob was a type of his strange, tenacious people, who, when they were brought face to face with some Leah of a fulfilment of their fondest ideals, as they frequently were in their history, took up again with undiminished ardour the pursuit of their first unforgettable love. It is the wonder of history, how this people passed through the countless disappointments of the prophecies to which they had given their hearts, yet with only a strengthening expectation of the arrival of the promised King and His kingdom. If other peoples have felt a gain in character from such miscarriages of belief, it has generally been at the expense of their faith. But Israel's experience did not take faith away or even impair faith's elasticity. We see their243 appreciation of God's promises growing only more spiritual with each postponement, and patience performing her perfect work upon their character; yet this never happens at the cost of the original buoyancy and ardour. The glory of it we ascribe, as is most due, to the power of the Word of God; but the people who could stand the strain of the discipline of such a word, its alternate glow and frost, must have been a people of extraordinary fibre and frame. When we think of how they wore for those two thousand years of postponed promise, and how they wear still, after two thousand years more of disillusion and suffering, we cease to wonder why God chose this small tribe to be His instrument on earth. Where we see their bad habits, their Creator knew their sound constitution, and the constitution of Israel is a thing unique among mankind.

From the racial temper of the elect nation we pass to their history, on the singularity of which our prophet dwells with emphasis. Israel's political origin had no other reason than a call to God's service. Other peoples grew, as it were, from the soil; they were the product of a fatherland, a climate, certain physical environments: root them out of these, and, as nations, they ceased to be. But Israel had not been so nursed into nationality on the lap of nature. The captive children of Jacob had sprung into unity and independence as a nation at the special call of God, and to serve His will in the world,—His will that so lay athwart the natural tendencies of the peoples. All down their history it is wonderful to see how it was the conscience of this service, which in periods of progress was the real national genius in Israel, and in times of decay or of political dissolution upheld the assurance of the nation's survival. Whenever a ruler like Ahaz244 forgot that Israel's imperishableness was bound up with their faithfulness to God's service, and sought to preserve his throne by alliances with the world-powers, then it was that Israel were most in danger of absorption into the world. And, conversely, when disaster came down, and there was no hope in the sky, it was upon the inward sense of their election to the service of God that the prophets rallied the people's faith and assured them of their survival as a nation. They brought to Israel that sovereign message, which renders all who hear it immortal: "God has a service for you to serve upon earth." In the Exile especially, the wonderful survival of the nation, with the subservience of all history to that end, is made to turn on this,—that Israel has a unique purpose to serve. When Jeremiah and Ezekiel seek to assure the captives of their return to the land and of the restoration of the people, they commend so unlikely a promise by reminding them that the nation is the Servant of God. This name, applied by them for the first time to the nation as a whole, they bind up with the national existence. Fear thou not, O My Servant Jacob, saith Jehovah; neither be dismayed, O Israel: for, lo, I will save thee from afar, and thy seed from the land of their captivity.143143   Jer. xxx. 10, cf. xlvi. 27; also Ezek. xxxvii. 25: And they shall dwell in the land that I have given My servant Jacob. Cf. xxviii. 25. These words plainly say, that Israel as a nation cannot die, for God has a use for them to serve. The singularity of Israel's redemption from Babylon is due to the singularity of the service that God has for the nation to perform. Our prophet speaks in the same strain: Thou, Israel, My Servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, seed of Abraham My lover, whom I took hold of from the ends of the earth and its corners.245 I have called thee and said unto thee, My Servant art thou, I have chosen thee and have not cast thee away (ch. xli. 8 ff). No one can miss the force of these words. They are the assurance of Israel's miraculous survival, not because he is God's favourite, but because he is God's servant, with a unique work in the world. Many other verses repeat the same truth.144144   xliv. 1, 21; xlviii. 20, etc. They call Israel the Servant, and Jacob the chosen, of God, in order to persuade the people that they are not forgotten of Him, and that their seed shall live and be blessed. Israel survives because he serves—Servus servatur.

Now for this service,—which had been the purpose of the nation's election at first, the mainstay of its unique preservation since, and the reason of all its singular pre-eminence before God,—Israel was equipped by two great experiences. These were Redemption and Revelation.

On the former redemptions of Israel from the power of other nations our prophet does not dwell much. You feel, that they are present to his mind, for he sometimes describes the coming redemption from Babylon in terms of them. And once, in an appeal to the Arm of Jehovah, he calls out: Awake like the days of old, ancient generations! Art thou not it that hewed Rahab in pieces, that pierced the Dragon? Art thou not it which dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep; that made the depths of the sea a way of passage for the redeemed?145145   Ch. li. 9, 10. There is, too, that beautiful passage in ch. lxiii., which makes mention of the lovingkindnesses of Jehovah, according to all that He hath bestowed upon us; which describes the carriage of the people all the days of old, how He brought them out of the sea, caused His glorious arm to go at the246 right hand of Moses, divided the water before them, led them through the deeps as a horse on the meadow, that they stumbled not. But, on the whole, our prophet is too much engrossed with the immediate prospect of release from Babylon, to remember that past, of which it has been truly said, He hath not dealt so with any people. It is the new glory that is upon him. He counts the deliverance from Babylon as already come; to his rapt eye it is its marvellous power and costliness, which already clothes the people in their unique brilliance and honour. Thus saith Jehovah, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: For your sake have I sent to Babylon, and I will bring down their nobles, all of them, and the Chaldeans, in the ships of their exulting.146146   Ch. xliii. 14. But it is more than Babylon that is balanced against them. I am Jehovah, thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour. I am giving as thy ransom, Egypt, Cush and Seba in exchange for thee, because thou art precious in mine eyes, and hast made thyself valuable (lit., of weight); and I have loved thee, therefore do I give mankind for thee, and peoples for thy life.147147   Ib. 3, 4. Mankind for thee, and peoples for thy life,—all the world for this little people? It is intelligible only because this little people are to be for all the world. Ye are My witnesses that I am God. I will also give thee for a light to nations, to be My salvation to the end of the earth.

But more than on the Redemption, which Israel experienced, our prophet dwells on the Revelation, that has equipped them for their destiny. In a passage, in ch. xliii., to which we shall return, the present stupid and unready character of the mass of the people is contrasted with the instruction which God has lavished247 upon them. Thou hast seen many things, and wilt not observe; there is opening of the ears, but he heareth not. Jehovah was pleased for His righteousness' sake to magnify the Instruction and make it glorious,—but that—the result and the precipitate of it all—is a people robbed and spoiled. The word Instruction or Revelation is that same technical term, which we have met with before, for Jehovah's special training and illumination of Israel. How special these were, how distinct from the highest doctrine and practice of any other nation in that world to which Israel belonged, is an historical fact that the results of recent research enable us to state in a few sentences.

Recent exploration in the East, and the progress of Semitic philology, have proved that the system of religion, which prevailed among the Hebrews, had a very great deal in common with the systems of the neighbouring and related heathen nations. This common element included not only such things as ritual and temple-furniture, or the details of priestly organization, but even the titles and many of the attributes of God, and especially the forms of the covenant in which He drew near to men. But the discovery of this common element has only thrown into more striking relief the presence at work in the Hebrew religion of an independent and original principle. In the Hebrew religion historians observe a principle of selection operating upon the common Semitic materials for worship,—ignoring some of them, giving prominence to others, and with others again changing the reference and application. Grossly immoral practices are forbidden; forbidden, too, are those superstitions, which, like augury and divination, draw men away from single-minded attention to the moral issues of life; and even religious customs are omitted, such as the employment of women in the248 sanctuary, which, however innocent in themselves, might lead men into temptations, not desirable in connection with the professional pursuit of religion.148148   Robertson Smith, Burnett Lectures in Aberdeen, 1889-90. In short, a stern and inexorable conscience was at work in the Hebrew religion, which was not at work in any of the religions most akin to it. In our previous volume we saw the same conscience inspiring the prophets. Prophecy was not confined to the Hebrews; it was a general Semitic institution; but no one doubts the absolutely distinct character of the prophecy, which was conscious of having the Spirit of Jehovah. Its religious ideas were original, and in it we have, as all admit, a moral phenomenon unique in history. When we turn to ask the secret of this distinction, we find the answer in the character of the God, whom Israel served. The God explains the people; Israel is the response to Jehovah. Each of the laws of the nation is enforced by the reason, For I am holy. Each of the prophets brings his message from a God, exalted in righteousness. In short, look where you will in the Old Testament,—come to it as a critic or as a worshipper,—you discover the revealed character of Jehovah to be the effective principle at work. It is this Divine character, which draws Israel from among the nations to their destiny, which selects and builds the law to be a wall around them, and which by each revelation of itself discovers to the people both the measure of their delinquency and the new ideals of their service to humanity. Like the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, we see it in front of Israel at every stage of their marvellous progress down the ages.

So that when Jehovah says that He has magnified249 the Revelation and made it glorious, He speaks of a magnitude of a real, historical kind, that can be tested by exact methods of observation. Israel's election by Jehovah, their formation, their unique preparation for service, are not the mere boasts of an overweening patriotism, but sober names for historical processes as real and evident as any that history contains.

To sum up, then. If Jehovah's sovereignty be absolute, so also is the uniqueness of Israel's calling and equipment for His Service. For, to begin with, Israel had the essential religious temper; they enjoyed a unique moral instruction and discipline; and by the side of this they were conscious of a series of miraculous deliverances from servitude and from dissolution. So singular an experience and career were not, as we have seen, bestowed from any arbitrary motive, which exhausted itself upon Israel, but in accordance with God's universal method of specialisation of function, were granted to fit the nation as an instrument for a practical end. The sovereign unity of God does not mean equality in His creation. The universe is diverse. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; and even so in the moral kingdom of Him, who is Lord of the Hosts of both earth and heaven, each nation has its own destiny and function. Israel's was religion; Israel was God's specialist in religion.

For confirmation of this we turn to the supreme witness. Jesus was born a Jew, He confined His ministry to Judæa, and He has told us why. By various passing allusions, as well as by deliberate statements, He revealed His sense of a great religious difference between Jew and Gentile. Use not vain repetitions as the Gentiles do.... For after all these things do the nations250 of the world seek; but your Father knoweth that you have need of these things. He refused to work except upon Jewish hearts: I am not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And He charged His disciples, saying, Go not into any way of the Gentiles, and enter not into any city of the Samaritans; but go rather to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. And again He said to the woman of Samaria: Ye worship ye know not what; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews.

These sayings of our Lord have created as much question as the pre-eminence given in the Old Testament to a single people by a God, who is described as the one God of Heaven and earth. Was He narrower of heart than Paul, His servant, who was debtor to Greek and Barbarian? Or was He ignorant of the universal character of His mission till it was forced upon His reluctant sympathies by the importunity of such heathen as the Syrophenician woman? A little common-sense dispels the perplexity, and leaves the problem, over which volumes have been written, no problem at all. Our Lord limited Himself to Israel, not because He was narrow, but because He was practical; not from ignorance, but from wisdom. He came from heaven to sow the seed of Divine truth; and where in all humanity should He find the soil so ready as within the long-chosen people? He knew of that discipline of the centuries. In the words of His own parable, the Son when He came to earth directed His attention not to a piece of desert, but to the vineyard which His Father's servants had so long cultivated, and where the soil was open. Jesus came to Israel because He expected faith in Israel. That this practical end was the deliberate intention of His will, is proved by the251 fact that when He found faith elsewhere, either in Syrian or Greek or Roman hearts, He did not hesitate to let His love and power go forth to them.

In short, we shall have no difficulty about these Divine methods with a single, elect people, if we only remember that to be Divine is to be practical. Yet God also is wise, said Isaiah to the Jews when they preferred their own clever policies to Jehovah's guidance. And we need to be told the same, who murmur that to confine Himself to a single nation was not the ideal thing for the One God to do; or who imagine that it was left to one of our Lord's own creatures to suggest to Him the policy of His mission upon earth. We are shortsighted: and the Almighty is past finding out. But this at least it is possible for us to see, that, in choosing one nation to be His agent among men, God chose the type of instrument best fitted at the time for the work for which He designed it, and that in choosing Israel to be that nation, He chose a people of temper singularly suitable to His end.

Israel's election as a nation, therefore, was to Service. To be a nation and to be God's Servant was pretty much one and the same thing for Israel. Israel were to survive the Exile, because they were to serve the world. Let us carry this over to the study of our next chapter—The Servant of Jehovah.

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