This chapter opens a new prophecy, which seems to have been given while the Kingdom of Israel (sometimes referred to as Ephraim) was still standing, before the carrying away of the ten northern tribes into captivity in 721 BC; yet it seems that it was uttered shortly before that kingdom fell (verses 1-4). Its purpose was to predict the overthrow of Ephraim; and it was also to foretell the fact that when that kingdom would be overthrown, the Southern Kingdom of Judah would still survive. Verses 5 and 6 tell us that at the very time of the destruction of the ten northern tribes, the Lord would be a crown of glory to the remnant of His people – that is, to the Southern Kingdom of Judah. This prophecy refers, no doubt, to the prosperous times of good King Hezekiah; but it also expresses the privilege of God’s people in all times! To every true believer, the Lord is a crown of glory. Jesus, speaking of His people in His prayer to the Father, says, “The glory which thou gavest me I have given them” (John 17:22). In Luke 2:32, Christ is expressly said to be the glory of His people. Believers are told (Rom. 13:14) to put on the Lord Jesus Christ – that is, to accept Him as He offers Himself to them. And when they do so, He covers their corruption with His perfect righteousness, so that He may truly be said to be a diadem of beauty to them, and to beautify them with salvation! (Ps. 149:4)
From these glorious and merciful revelations of Christ’s character and love, it is grievous to turn – in the 7th and following verses – to the description that we find there of human perversity and wickedness. And it is even more melancholy when we reflect upon the lamentable fact that the same sin which Isaiah reproved over 2,600 years ago is still the crying sin of our own day! Back in those days, people went out of the way of righteousness through strong drink; and strong drink still leads thousands out of the right way, to their eternal ruin. Our Savior’s warning was never more needed than at our present hour: “Take heed to your selves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares!” (Luke 21:34)
One thing that the prophet complains of is the wretched stupidity of his people; they were unteachable, and they made no improvement in the means of grace which they possessed. They still continued as they were; their mistakes were not rectified, their hearts were not renewed, nor were their lives reformed. Gospel ministers are to teach people knowledge – the knowledge of God and His will – and to make them understand doctrine (verse 9). Isaiah and his fellow prophets had left no means untried to do their nation good. They taught them as children are taught – that is, by “precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little” (verse 10). In our instruction in the things of God, it is indeed necessary that we have precept upon precept and line upon line; for example, the precept of justice must be built upon the precept of piety, and the precept of charity must follow that of justice. The same precept and the same line should be often repeated and inculcated upon us so that we may better understand them, and also so that we may more easily recollect them when we need them.
But alas! What little effect all of this had upon Isaiah’s countrymen! They were utterly unwilling to learn. They would not hear (verse 12) – not even that which would be restful and refreshing to them. The Word of God commanded their serious attention; but where it was preached, they turned a deaf ear to it. They were content to just have “precept upon precept; line upon line” (verse 13); for they went on in the road of external performances, but that was all. It made no real or deep impression upon them; they had no desire to grow and progress in their learning. They had no inclination to progress beyond the letter of God’s Word, in order to learn the spirit of it. But God would reckon with them severely for this! He told them that He would deprive them of the privilege of plain preaching, and that He would speak to them with stammering lips and another tongue (verse 11). By their profane contempt of God and His Word, they were only hastening their own ruin. Since they were content with hearing the bare minimum – precept upon precept, and line upon line – instead of growing and progressing beyond the state of little children (spiritually speaking), now the Lord would give them no more than the bare minimum. They had despised the Word of God when it was freely available, and now He would not give them any more than “here a little, and there a little.” Since they did not want to hear the words of life so that they might be saved, they would now receive just enough of those words to condemn them – but not enough to convert them.
The 11th and 12th verses, in particular, are very striking. The Lord had gently offered rest and refreshment to His people, but they would not hear; and so He threatens that He would soon alter His tone, and send among them armies from a foreign land, who spoke a strange tongue. Is not the Lord offering rest and refreshment to every one of us, even now? Is He not saying, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”? “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me,” He says; “for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls: for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light!” (Matt. 11:28-30) Let us not ignore His voice!
Having reproved those who despised the Word of God, Isaiah now went on to reprove those who defied the judgments of God. In particular, the prophet addressed himself to the scornful men who ruled in Jerusalem (verse 14). These wicked men lulled themselves asleep in carnal security, and even challenged God Almighty to do His worst! (verse 15) They had made a covenant, so to speak, with death and hell. In other words, they thought themselves as sure of their lives – even when the most destructive judgments were abroad – as if they had made a bargain with death itself to not come until they were ready for him. If we are at peace with God, and have made a covenant with Him, then death shall do us no harm. But to think of making death our friend, while we are making the Lord our enemy, is the greatest absurdity that can possibly be.
The Lord, through the prophet, seeks to awaken these foolish people out of their sinful sleep; and He shows them the folly of their carnal security. He tells them (verse 17) that the ground upon which they were building was unsafe, and that their vain confidence will certainly fail them. Their hopes that death would pass over them until they were ready to meet him would prove to be false and deceitful hopes. However, the Lord does not tell them of the danger of the “refuge of lies” that they were building, without also telling them (verse 16) upon what grounds they might build with true security. He does not disturb their false confidences until He has first shown them a firm bottom upon which they may repose themselves: “Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation!”
Obviously, this is a clear reference to Christ, the Chief Cornerstone! (1 Pet. 2:4-8; Eph. 2:20; Matt. 21:42-44; Ps. 118:22) And let us dwell for a little upon this thought of Jesus under the figure of a Stone. Believers are represented as forming a building in which God dwells (Eph. 2:22). In all things, Christ was made like unto His brethren (Heb. 2:17). They are stones, and He is a Stone also – but He is the Foundation-stone; they all rest upon Him. The believer’s great consolation is that the Foundation which He is building upon is of God’s own laying. When he thinks of death and the future judgment, what gives him confidence? It is the assurance that the plan of forgiveness through a crucified Savior, in which he is trusting, is one that has been devised by the very God before Whose judgment-bar he is to appear. And so he triumphantly exclaims, “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth!” (Rom. 8:33) Any scheme of salvation, except the one devised by God Himself, will – sooner or later – prove to be insufficient. It will be (as verse 20 expresses it) like a bed too short for a man to stretch himself upon, or like a blanket too narrow for him to wrap himself in.
The concluding verses (23-29) of this chapter contain a parable, which (like many of our Savior’s parables) is borrowed from the farmer’s occupation; and it is ushered in with a solemn preface that demands attention: “He that has ears to hear, let him hear” and understand! The parable is plain enough. The farmer applies himself to his work with a great deal of pains and prudence; and as his common sense directs him, he follows a method and order in his work. He plows the ground in order to break up the hard earth, so that the land may be fit to receive the seed. And then he sows seeds that are suitable for the soil. Then again, in his threshing (verses 27-28), he proportions it to the kind of grain that is to be threshed out. Some of them are easily gotten out of their husk or ear, and so they are only threshed with a staff and a rod; but bread-corn requires more force, and so it must be bruised with a threshing instrument drawn back and forth over it to beat out the corn. And yet he will not always be threshing it; he threshes it no longer than is necessary to loosen the corn from the chaff. Let us pause and observe that just as bread-corn is bruised, so also was Christ; it pleased the Lord to bruise Him, so that He might be the Bread of life to us.
The general interpretation of the parable is that God Who gives the farmer this wisdom is infinitely wise Himself. It is He Who instructs the farmer in the management of his affairs (verse 26); his skill is from God, just as every good and perfect gift is. But the particular application of the parable is to the Lord’s Church – His vineyard or garden. Christ is the true vine, and His Father is the Divine Husbandman (John 15:1); and by His Word and ordinances, He is continually cultivating it. Does not God, by His ministers, break up the fallow ground in people’s hearts? When the ground is ready for the seed of the Word, does He not sow it in its proper soil? Furthermore, the rod of God is wisely made use of, just as the Word of God is. Afflictions are God’s threshing-instruments; they are intended to loosen us from the world, to separate us from our chaff, and to prepare us for use. God will use them when necessary, but He will proportion them to our strength; they shall be no heavier than what is truly needed. If the rod and the staff will fulfill the purposes of His chastisement, He will not resort to using His cartwheel and threshing instruments. These are sometimes necessary, just as bread-corn must be bruised; yet He will not always chide! His anger shall only endure for a moment; He will not crush us under His feet.
Lord, give us grace to advance in our spiritual life, so that we may not be brought to the point where no more than “precept upon precept” is given to us! Amen.
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