Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.—Isa_1:18.
Isaiah was one of a group or succession of men who might fairly be described as perhaps the greatest teachers of political righteousness whom the world has ever seen—teachers who drank out of the heart of the people, and represented in their turn every section of them. Isaiah himself, if we are to believe tradition, was a man of high social rank, a member of the governing class. His colleagues, or brother prophets, might be like Micah, a man of the people; or like Amos, a herdsman, a gatherer of sycamore fruits. Thus they represented every class, and they stood before their contemporaries, before kings, or nobles, or common people, before all alike, speaking the words of Divine inspiration and conviction. Their mission was simply to hold aloft, without fear of consequences and without thought of personal interest, the ideal national life of a God-fearing people. So they tried the life of those they addressed, their religious profession and their standards of conduct, as with the sword of the Spirit.
The mission of the prophet was to sweep out of the life of his people those contradictions between religious profession and habitual practice which in every age are the besetting danger of all those who live in conventional worship, and with what we might call a tame conscience. The Hebrew prophet is, above all things, the preacher of reality in personal religion, of consistency in personal conduct, and of righteousness pervading every department of national life. It was because of their lack of this reality and consistency that another of these prophets flung out the graphic condemnation of his countrymen; “Ephraim,” he said, “is a cake not turned.” Their devotion to Jehovah was only a half devotion; they delighted in their worship, they gave Him of the external, of the emotions of their life, but they did not turn the cake.
Isaiah begins his prophecy by calling upon the heavens and the earth to witness the exceeding sinfulness of God’s chosen people. “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, for the Lord hath spoken: I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me. The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.” Such ingratitude and sin as this, he naturally supposes, would shock the very heavens and earth. Then follows a vehement and terrible rebuke. The elect people of God are called “Sodom” and “Gomorrah.” “Hear the word of the Lord, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah.” “Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more.”
This outflow of holy displeasure would prepare us to expect an everlasting rejection of the rebellious and unfaithful people, but it is strangely followed by the most yearning and melting entreaty ever addressed by the Most High to the creatures of His hand: “Come now, and let us reason together: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”
The text may be considered in three parts—
An Invitation from God to reason with Him.
The Reasoning and its Result.
The Surprising Sequel.
An Invitation From God To Reason With Him
i. An Invitation from God
“Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord.” The proposition comes from God. It does not arise from the human side at all. It is a piece of pure condescension on the part of the Almighty Himself. Grace comes out of the sovereignty of God. The possibility of salvation comes from God’s grace. It is not in anywise of our conception or of our own doing. We are saved by faith, and that not of ourselves, for faith is the gift of God. God, having made this proposition, proceeds upon the assumption that He knows Himself to be right in this case. It is precisely so in our own affairs, in the common controversies of the day. The man who knows himself to be in the right, who feels himself to have a just cause in hand, is always the first to make the noblest propositions, and to offer as many concessions as are possible without impairing the law of absolute right, truth, and propriety.
I said, “I will find God,” and forth I went
To seek Him in the clearness of the sky,
But over me stood unendurably
Only a pitiless, sapphire firmament
Ringing the world,—blank splendour: yet intent
Still to find God, “I will go seek,” said I,
“His way upon the waters,” and drew nigh
An ocean marge, weed-strewn, and foam-besprent;
And the waves dashed on idle sand and stone
And very vacant was the long, blue sea:
But in the evening as I sat alone,
My window open to the vanishing day,
Dear God! I could not choose but kneel and pray,
And it sufficed that I was found of Thee.1 [Note: Edward Dowden.]
The Rev. James Vaughan, of Brighton, one of the masters in the art of addressing children, makes use of this verse and other four verses which contain the word come, as the basis of an address to children on the afternoon of Advent Sunday. Advent, he calls “Come Sunday,” and rejoices that there is no “Go-away Sunday” in the Christian Year. Then he says: I want to tell you of five beautiful Comings, and when I have told you of all the five, I shall ask you which you like best.
1. I shall call the first the Grand “Come.” You will find it in the 40th Psalm, and the 7th verse: “Then said I, Lo, I ‘come’!” Jesus said it when He was up in heaven. “Then.” When, I do not know. Thousands and thousands and thousands of years ago. “Then said I, Lo, I come!” Jesus was up in heaven, and He saw that we were going to be in this world, and He saw that we should be unhappy, because we were lost; and He saw that there would be a great many sacrifices, but they would not do any good, and the poor people would not be able to save themselves and help themselves; so He said to God the Father—He said it then, “Then said I, Lo, I come. I will go and save them. I will go.” How the angels must have wondered! I should think there was a perfect silence. I should think all heaven was silent when the Son of God said, “I will go to that world.” “Lo, I come!” I am so glad He came. He might have had us all up in heaven without coming here first. Then we should not have had Him as a little baby in a cradle. Then we should not have had Jesus as the Boy of twelve years old, or the young Man, as the pattern for us. It was so kind to say, “Lo, I come!”—better than if He did it all up in heaven.
2. The next “Come” I will call the Gracious “Come.” It is in the 1st chapter of Isaiah, and the 18th verse: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” Perhaps there is a boy or girl in the church this afternoon who has been naughty—who knows that he or she has done something very wrong. I don‘t know what it is. You know. God knows. Now God sends me to you, my dear child, this day, and the message God gives to you is this: “Come now, and let us talk about it. Come now, and let us reason about it. You have been very naughty, and you cannot be happy. Come to Me!” God says, “Listen to Me. I am willing to forgive you. And though your sins be as red as scarlet, though they make you blush, though you know all the waters in the world cannot wash them out, I will do it. Come to Me—really come to Me. Let us reason together about it. I will pardon all. I will forgive all, and you shall have peace!” This is God’s message to the lost child. Do you think that when you come God will not receive you?
Once upon a time, at Athens, the Senate was sitting. At their meeting out in the open fields, as the men of Athens were all assembled together deliberating, making laws, a little bird which was just by an oak-tree came flying into the middle of the assembly. And the poor little sparrow came and nestled itself in the breast of one of the Senators. The poor little thing was terribly frightened, and its feathers were all ruffled. As it came and nestled itself in the breast of one of the old Senators, this cruel man took the little bird out of his breast and flung it to the ground, stamped upon it, and killed it. The other Senators said, “It is shocking! He shall never be a Senator again.” They said more. They said, “He should die for his cruelty. The man who can kill a little bird in that way is not fit to live. He shall die.” And he was actually put to death for his cruelty to the little sparrow! Do you think that those Senators could be so kind to this little sparrow, and that the great God, who loves you, will not receive you when you go to His fatherly, loving breast?
3. Now I must give you a third “Come,” and that is a Tender “Come.” It is in Mat_9:28 : “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Now I may be speaking to some boy who is very tired, tired in a great many ways. I do not suppose he is yet very tired of this life, though life is very hard work, and some little boys even have said, “I am tired of my life.” It is not so with you, perhaps. But possibly you are tired of your work or your lessons; perhaps somebody is teasing you very much; perhaps you have some burden on your mind, something you are always thinking of, so you are always “weary and heavy laden.” Now Jesus says to you, by me, this afternoon, “Come to Me, with that poor, tired, burdened feeling—come to Me, and I will give you rest.” It is so tender. Have you had a tender mother? He is more tender. “A mother may forget.” He will never forget.
I will tell you what happened once. There was a poor woman who was very unhappy and low-spirited, and a clergyman went to see her; and this is what the clergyman said and did. He said to the poor woman, “You are very unhappy.” She said, “Yes, I am.” “What is it?” he asked. “Tell me.” She answered, “Oh, my prayers are poor prayers! I have got such a naughty heart, and I am so cold in my heart, and I do so many wrong things, and grieve God so much.” The clergyman said, “Very well, now you have told me about yourself, have you nothing else to tell me?” “No, sir; nothing else,” she replied, “only that I am so wicked.” “Now,” said the clergyman, “say what I say. Say, ‘Jesus!’ ” She said, “Jesus.” “Oh no!” said the clergyman, “not so; say it feelingly.” Then she said it a little better—“Jesus!” “No, that won’t do; you must say it still better, with all your heart. You must say, ‘JESUS!’ ” She began to cry, and in her tears she said, “JESUS!” And from that moment she began to be happy.
4. Now I come to my fourth “Come,” and I will call it the Echoing “Come”! You will find it at the end of the 22nd chapter of Revelation, the 20th verse—“Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” That is the Echoing “Come!” because it is the man saying it back to God. God said, “Come now!” and man says back to God, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
I was once present with a clergyman who had a very little boy. His name was Georgie. He was playing on the rug. He had a very good father. He said to him, “Papa, I wish Jesus would come; oh, it would be very nice! His father said to him, “What if Jesus were to come and find you in one of your pets—what would you do then?” This puzzled little Georgie for a while. He was a very clever boy, and he made a very clever answer, but not a very good one. He said, “Well, papa, I should not mind.” His papa said, “Why would you not mind?” He said, “Because then I should be Christ’s enemy, and Christ says we must love our enemies; so He would love me.” That was very clever, but not quite right.
5. Now I come to my fifth and last “Come,” that I shall call the Crowning “Come.” You will find it in the 25th chapter of St. Matthew: “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Oh, what a glorious “come” that will be! Do you ever think of Jesus coming? Do you think He will be alone? No. Do you know anybody who has gone to heaven—any dear friends, relations, or anybody else? I will tell you what it will be when Jesus comes. They will come with Him; you will see them. It says so in the 4th chapter of the First Epistle to the Thessalonians: “Them also which sleep in Jesus”—the good ones who are gone to Jesus—God will take, and “bring with him.” Whenever you read that verse always pay great attention to the last words, “with him”—Him, not God, but Jesus. God will “bring with Jesus!” “With Him!” That is, when Jesus comes, God will take care that those dear ones gone to heaven will come “with Him.” If you are there you will see them.
This “now” is not the “now” of time, but of entreaty. Spurgeon, taking the word as temporal, says, “God would not have you live another moment as you are.” This is true and most important, but it belongs rather to the exposition of another text which Spurgeon appositely quotes: “Now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” The note of the present text is tender entreaty rather than urgent warning.
I remember very well, as if it were but yesterday, though it is now some five-and-twenty years ago, being present at a discussion in a little secularist or infidel hall in the east of London, where the controversy turned for a moment upon this very passage. The lecturer of the evening had had the audacity to attack the Bible on the score of its morality. He had quoted the words, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” He had argued that by such language a dangerous facility was given to sin; that, if its effects and consequences could be so easily removed, there was less need for striving against the temptations to it. In the course of the discussion, there rose on the other side one who was to all appearance a common working man, not well educated, but evidently thoughtful, clear-headed, and in earnest. He quietly and very effectively called attention to the context of the passage, the two verses which precede our text. “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings before from mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.” This, he urged, is the true and necessary prelude to what follows: “Come now,” come when this is done, “and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” The passage, he argued, rightly understood, teaches not that sin is a light matter, easily condoned, but that only through true repentance, and through reformation, is there a way to forgiveness and absolution. So far from facilitating sin, it opposes to it the thorny and terrible obstacle of the necessity of retracing, in tears and shame and pain, the devious path, and recovering, at bitter cost, the true, but lost, direction.
The argument was sound in substance, though wrong in form. That the doctrine of the Bible, with reference to sin and repentance and forgiveness, is what the speaker represented it to be, no candid and ingenuous mind could for one moment doubt. But the word “now” of our text,—“Come now,”—was being pressed into a service for which Isaiah never intended it. It is not the “now” of time. It is in the original only a word, closely connected with the preceding word (to which indeed it is actually joined in the Hebrew by a hyphen), and emphasising it. We could express it in English by merely laying a stress upon the word “Come”: “Come, and let us reason together, saith the Lord.” The language of the text thus becomes the language of earnest invitation, of tender entreaty. “Come, I beseech you, and let us reason,” or confer, “together, saith the Eternal.”1 [Note: David J. Vaughan.]
ii. An Invitation to Reason
Our text gives us the highest form of appeal—the appeal to reason. In the earlier pages of the Bible, the appeals of God to sinning men are more dramatic, tragic, in form. They are addressed to the imagination, the emotion, as if men were yet only spiritual children. In Genesis, it is the gates of Paradise closed, and the angel of the flaming sword. Later in the book, it is God directing that an ark be built, and opening the windows of heaven in a destroying flood. In Exodus, it is the smoking of Mount Sinai, God wrapt in cloud and thunder and lightning, and man standing afar off trembling, none daring to draw nigh to the Divine Presence. In David, it is the devastating plague. In Solomon, it is the sensuous richness of temple, of ritual, of sacrifice, and of cloudy incense. All as if men could be moved only by the ruder, the lower motives of their nature. But here, in Isaiah, a new order of appeal is set in action. “Hear, O heavens; and give ear, O earth; for the Lord hath spoken: I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me; the ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.” O that My people would think; “Come now, and let us reason together.”
Napoleon, making a forced march accompanied by his chiefs of staff, came to a river and asked the engineer how wide it was. The officer explained that his instruments had not yet come to the front. The emperor asked him again, rather sharply, for the width of the river. The officer then brought his military cap to the level of his eyes and marked where the line of vision fell on the opposite bank; fixing his attention on that distance he turned carefully and marked where that line fell on the bank where they were standing; he stepped the distance off and gave the emperor the width of the river. Thus in the absence of instruments of precision, he fell back on common sense. In the absence of more stirring commanding voices, let us listen to the voice of our own common sense on this matter of religion.1 [Note: R. Mackenzie.]
When the Forth Bridge was in the course of construction, I remember spending a most delightful and memorable afternoon with one of the leading engineers. He told me that in the vast undertaking there were encountered numerous and difficult engineering problems. Of course they had on the work the very highest mathematical skill which the country could supply, but here was the interesting fact—he told me that most of the difficulties were solved by one man who possesses no great mathematical skill, but has a kind of genius which, without formal rules, can always find its way through a difficulty. He said to me, “Just give him a difficulty, however great it is, and somehow he will come out on the other side of it.” I suppose you all remember the story of John Brown, the commentator, in illustration of his belief that unless common sense is given us by Nature it cannot be acquired, and I suppose that is the general belief. Well, that may or may not be true, but reason in some of its forms is extremely capable of cultivation, and it is important to know how it can be cultivated.2 [Note: J. Stalker.]
Reason and Faith
1. The invitation is, “Let us reason together.” Bishop Butler, discussing the important distinction between objections against the evidence of Christianity and objections against Christianity itself, writes in his wise and guarded way: “I express myself with caution, lest I should be taken to vilify reason; which is indeed the only faculty we have wherewith to judge concerning anything, even revelation itself.” In these days we are often inclined to be afraid of exercising our reason on any matter which trenches in any degree upon the field of revelation. We contrast reason and faith with one another, and assign faith to the domain of revelation, yielding to reason the supremacy over everything outside that domain.
2. Notwithstanding the explicit teaching of the New Testament, the impression has got abroad that faith and reason are opposed to each other, that both cannot flourish in the same man at the same time; that if a man wants to be a man of faith, he must not think deeply, and that if he gives free rein to his reason it is likely to go hard with his faith. In many a circle it is taken for granted that if a man becomes a Christian, he must allow his mind to be shackled, and that if he wishes to think freely and to follow the truth whithersoever it may lead him, he had better not attach himself to the Church.
Now a more mischievous impression could not possibly get abroad. Joseph Glanvill, near the middle of the seventeenth century, wrote this: “There is not anything that I know which hath done more mischief to religion than the disparaging of reason, for hereby the very foundations of Christian faith have been undermined. If reason must not be heard, the being of God and the authority of Scripture can neither be proved nor defended; and so our faith drops to the ground like a house that hath no foundation.” If that was true in the seventeenth century, it is doubly true nowadays, for the entire world is using its intellect as never before.
There are Christians in all parts of the country who are secretly afraid of reason. They do not like to think themselves, they see no necessity for thinking, they feel that if a man thinks about the doctrines of his faith he is almost certain to become a heretic. The man who thinks is to them what Cassius was to Julius Cæsar. “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; he thinks too much.” They prefer men who are sleek and fat. They make religion merely a sentimental and emotional thing; they put no thought into it. They speak of doctrines as something quite superfluous. They take no interest in doctrines, and as for a dogma, it is nothing but a cur to be kicked about the streets. And as for theology, that is something to be steadily eschewed. Theology, instead of being what it is, the greatest of the sciences, is to them only a foolish piece of stupid speculation. It is just such Christians as these who perpetuate the impression that Christianity has nothing to do with the reason, but moves entirely in the realm of the emotions.1 [Note: C. E. Jefferson.]
3. No doubt the use of certain words has had not a little to do with deepening this impression.
(1) An infidel is usually known as a free thinker. The first man who rejected Christianity, and then called himself a “free thinker,” builded better than he knew. That epithet was a telling stroke of genius. The word itself contains an argument against the Christian religion. If a man who rejects Christianity is a free thinker, the implication is that the man who accepts it is a bound thinker—a man whose reason is in chains. But the implication is not fair. A Christian has a right to think just as freely as any other man. All Christians, if they avail themselves of their privileges, are free thinkers. I studied pedagogy first, says Mr. Jefferson,1 [Note: Things Fundamental, p. 36.] and then law, and then theology. I was first a teacher, then a lawyer, and then a preacher. But I never thought any more freely when I was a teacher or a lawyer than I have thought since I became a preacher.
(2) The use of the word rationalist has also been misleading. The word came into common use in the sixteenth century to designate the class of people who gave an exalted place to reason, and the word was seized upon by certain infidel philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who became known throughout the world as Rationalists. The word carries with it the implication that a man who accepts Christianity is an irrationalist; that is, he does not use his reason. If a man reasons, he rejects Christianity; if he refuses to reason, he accepts it. The insinuation is unjust. All Christians are rationalists, or ought to be, in the sense that they make a vigorous use of their minds. The Christian religion is a rational religion, and the evidences for it are rational. It addresses itself primarily to the reason.
(3) The word reason is commonly used loosely. What men call reason is nothing but opinion. A certain man asserts in my presence that the narrative of the Virgin Birth is contrary to reason. He says it very blandly, and with great assurance. But I remind him that a distinguished professor of philosophy, who has one of the finest and keenest minds in America, says that the story is not contrary to his reason. Nor is it contrary to the reason of ten thousand men who read it and believe it, and feel it to be altogether reasonable. It is not correct then for you, my friend, to say that the story is contrary to reason. What you mean to say is that it is contrary to your reason, and that, you know, is another thing. But are you sure that it is really contrary to your reason? What you are probably trying to say is that it is contrary to your opinion.
But opinion is one thing and human reason is another. Opinion is the product of a man’s reading and thinking and hearing. What a man thinks on any subject depends on what he has read and heard and thought. It is for this cause that men’s opinions change from year to year. We hold a certain opinion, and then we read more widely, or live more deeply, and our opinion changes. When you are saying, therefore, that the story of Christ’s birth is contrary to your opinion, you are not saying anything of great significance, for your opinion might change after more extensive reading, or after a little deeper thinking. I travel into Alaska and meet an Eskimo who has never heard of the X-rays, and I say to him, “I have seen every bone in that hand of mine. I know the size and shape and exact location of every bone just as clearly as I should know all this if the flesh were scraped away.” And he looks at me with surprise, and says, “That is contrary to reason.” What the man is trying to say is that it is contrary to his opinion. We should not expect an Eskimo to use language accurately; we might expect it, however, of a New Yorker. Or I travel into the South Seas, and I meet a man there who has never so much as heard of ice, and I say, “My southern friend, I walked across a lake one day in February, and never even got my feet wet.” And he throws up his hands in amazement, and says, “That is contrary to reason.” What he is trying to say is that it is contrary to his experience. When the evangelist tells me that Jesus walked across a Palestinian lake in April, I have no right to say that it is contrary to my reason. It is contrary to my experience. But my experience is rather a diminutive affair. If I am to cut down Christianity to the dimensions of my experience, I shall not have anything left of surpassing value. The fact is, Christ transcends my experience at every point. What He said runs as far beyond me as what He did. “I do always those things that are pleasing unto him.” That is farther beyond me than walking on the water. “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.” I never could say a thing like that.1 [Note: C. E. Jefferson.]
Often the very men who make the loudest profession of acting reasonably have the very least reason in their action. I try to convince a certain man that the sunset is beautiful. I say, “Oh, look at it! Could anything be more glorious!” And he stands with his back to the sunset and will not look at it. He says, “I do not believe what you say. Prove it to me.” And I say, “Turn round and look.” He says, “I won’t.” Is he reasonable? I endeavour to persuade another man that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is great. The orchestra is playing, the instruments are sweeping through the allegro, and I say to this man, “Wagner was right. Instruments cannot carry music higher than that. If music is to travel any farther, it must be by the human voice. Is not that fine?” And the man puts his fingers in his ears, and says, “I do not believe what you say. Prove it to me.” And I say, “Listen!” And he says, “I won’t.” Is he reasonable? I endeavour to persuade another man that a violet is fragrant. I say to him, “This odour is so delicate. Just smell it!” He says, “I won’t. Prove it to me.” I say, “Will you smell it?” He says, “No.” Is he reasonable? I endeavour to persuade another man that sugar is sweet. I say, “This sugar is sweet. I have eaten a piece just like this.” He says, “I do not believe it.” I say to him, “Taste it.” He says, “I won’t.” Is he reasonable? I endeavour to persuade another man that a cube of gold is heavier than a cube of iron. Both are of the same size. I say to him, “Take the gold in one hand and the iron in the other, and you will see.” And he says, “I won’t.” Is he reasonable? I endeavour to persuade another man to become a Christian. I say to him, “Jesus Christ is sufficient for every need of the human soul.” And he says, “I do not believe it.” I say to him, “Try Him!” And he says, “I won‘t.” Is he reasonable?
It was only yesterday I saw a plea for calm reflection in international affairs, sent abroad by an ethical society, in all the chief languages of Europe. It is just a plea for the application of the principles of our Christian morality to every part of our national life. I make no apology for quoting a word or two from this utterance, for in my judgment they are the words of Christian truth.
“Remember,” it says, “that reason and justice alone should decide the merits of any case, whether it be personal or national, national or international. Remember that no nation can safely be the judge in its own cause, because self-interest and pride and anger and force are so liable to pervert the judgment and distort the truth. Remember that as friendly international relations are of vital importance to every people, the time is surely ripe for arbitration to supersede war. Remember, therefore, to press upon your Government,” said this utterance, “the duty of entering into specific agreement for peace, and, instead of war, to proceed by the method of arbitration. Remember that the cost of competitive armaments not only involves a crushing burden for each people to bear, and consequent neglect of social improvement, but engenders bitter feeling, and is provocative of strife. Remember in time of peace the horrors of war, and the harvest of hatred and misery it leaves behind, and ask yourself, each citizen, ask yourself whether it is not criminal to leave it to passion or ignorance, to misunderstandings, or jealousies, or self-interest, to bring any such calamity upon the life of a Christian nation.”1 [Note: Bishop J. Percival.]
iii. An Invitation to Reason Together
The invitation is not merely, “Let us reason”; but, “Let us reason together.” Our reasonings on revelation, and on all the high and mysterious subjects associated with it, must proceed in the full recognition of what is implied in this “together.” We may reason, if we are minded to do so, upon the Trinity, upon the Incarnation, upon the Atonement, upon Final Judgment, upon the Restitution of all things; upon any subject, however lofty and transcendent; provided only our reasonings ever be “together”;—that is, with God,—as those, to whom God is speaking, and with whom God is reasoning; and who are therefore constrained to reason back—if I may be allowed the expression—in all childlike humility and simplicity, reverence and awe;—not as though we were the measure of all things, as the old Sophists maintained that man was,—but in the full recognition of the limitation of our faculties and the poverty of our intellectual resources, and at the same time in the full belief of St. Paul’s words: “Now we see through a glass, darkly; but then, face to face; now I know in part, but then shall I know, even as also I am known.” It has been well said by a great thinker of this century, adopting the language of one of the greatest of the fathers of the Christian Church: “The foundation of our philosophy is humility.” The moment we strive to answer to the invitation, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord,” we shall find that it must be so. No other attitude of mind is possible for us.
When a responsible being has made a wrong use of his powers, nothing is more reasonable than that he should call himself to account for this abuse. Nothing, certainly, is more necessary. There can be no amendment for the future until the past has been cared for. But that this examination may be both thorough and profitable, it must be made in company with the Searcher of hearts. For there are always two beings who are concerned with sin; the being who commits it, and the Being against whom it is committed. We sin, indeed, against ourselves; against our own conscience, and against our own best interest. But we sin in a yet higher, and more terrible sense, against Another than ourselves, compared with whose majesty all of our faculties and interests, both in time and in eternity, are altogether nothing and vanity. It is not enough, therefore, to refer our sin to the law written on the heart, and there stop. We must ultimately pass beyond conscience itself, to God, and say, “Against Thee have I sinned.” It is not the highest expression of the religious feeling when we say, “How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against my conscience?” He alone has reached the summit of vision who looks beyond all finite limits, however wide and distant, beyond all finite faculties, however noble and elevated, and says, “How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?”
Modern history began in the year 1521 when an Augustinian monk, by the name of Martin Luther, went to the Diet of Worms to give an account of himself to the Emperor of Germany. The appearance of Luther before the emperor is a picture that ought to be burned into the retina of the eyes of every young man in America. It is April, and evening has come. The torches have been lighted, and they cast a flickering glow over the faces of the earnest men who have come together to hear this monk from Wittenberg. As Luther goes through the door, the greatest general of Germany taps him on the shoulder and says, “My poor monk, my poor monk, you are on the way to make such a stand as I have never made in my toughest battle.” And what the general said was true. The emperor is there, the electors, and the princes of Germany are there. In front of the king there is a table on which are piled books which this Augustinian monk has written. Luther is now thirty-eight years old. For over fifteen years he has been a monk. The fundamental principles of the Roman Catholic Church have been built into his mind. But as a student he has learned that the church councils can make mistakes. He has said so, and has said so openly. The question before the Diet of Worms is: Will this Augustinian monk recant? The emperor tells him haughtily that he is not there to question matters which have been settled in general councils long ago, and that what he wants is a plain answer without horns, whether he will retract what he has said contradicting the decisions of the Council of Constance. Luther rises to reply, and this is what he says: “Since your Imperial Majesty requires a plain answer, I will give one without horns or hoofs. It is this, that I must be convinced either by the testimony of Scripture or by clear argument. I cannot trust the pope or councils by themselves, for both have erred. I cannot and will not retract.” An awful silence falls upon them all. And then the Augustinian monk continues: “I can do nothing else. Here I stand. So help me God. Amen.”
But in what way can God approach a man in order to reason with him? There are more ways than one.
1. First, and clearly, He may reason through Conscience.
It will be admitted that the first requisite of all moral improvement is that there should be thoughtfulness, seriousness, attention to our conduct. We often hear the excuse, “I did not give it a thought”; to which the only reply can be, “But you ought to have given it.” Self-recollection and self-collection are essential to sound speech, true thought, wise action. And what are these again but a partial human answer to the Divine invitation, “Come, and let us reason together”? It would make that answer far less partial, much more complete, if, when we enter into the innermost chamber of the soul to reflect and collect ourselves, we would remember who meets us there, and whose shrine that chamber is. It is the Eternal Himself who meets us there. The Apostle’s words are true: “Your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own.”
There is, indeed, no human soul surely that has failed at some time or another to be in debate with itself. And what is implied in this? Most certainly condemnation of some course of conduct which seems at the moment preferable; most certainly also a rule, external to the soul, which claims, and on all occasions, to be imperial.
Two anecdotes may be given of the way in which the word “conscience” is understood by children. A Sunday-school teacher asked the question of her class, “What is that within you which makes you uneasy when you have done wrong?” After some hesitation, a small boy with a healthy appetite answered, in a very Scotch accent, “Ma stomach.”
The other anecdote is from James Vaughan, of Brighton. A gentleman was examining a class in a Sunday school and he said to the children, “What is conscience?” They were all much puzzled. One of the big boys said, “It is too big a word for me.” The gentleman then said, “Did you ever feel anything inside you which seemed to say, ‘You ought not to have done this or that,’ or, ‘Go and do that; go and pray’?” “Oh yes, sir,” they all said, “we all have heard that.” Then the gentleman said again, “What is conscience?” And little Benny said, “It is Jesus whispering in the heart.” That was a little boy’s answer. It was very beautiful. There are many of these “whispers of Jesus to the heart.”
2. But again, the soul is instructed by the Providence of God.
The Bible, from beginning to end, is ever exhibiting this blessed truth. The beautiful stories of the earlier patriarchs, the incidental episodes (such as the sweet picture of dutiful devotion in the Book of Ruth), the proclamation of the prophets, the tender verses of the Psalms, as well as the history of the Chosen People, conspire to witness to the consoling fact that “the Lord careth for His people.” And what is the general lesson learnt? Conscience says, “Sin,” “a Judge.” Providence says, “Care, and watchful love,” “a Father”; both teach us that God neither does nor permits anything, except to certain ends before Him conformable to His nature of righteousness. The solemn thought is this, that men may, by deliberate, continued sin, frustrate the loving purpose in themselves; but “God is not mocked,” they shall not frustrate the righteous end.
3. And lastly, God instructs the soul of the creature by the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Conscience speaks of sin and judgment; Providence of watchful, regulated care. What does Jesus Christ teach? (1) In His example, as exhibited in the Gospel, He shows us a righteousness so transcendent that it corroborates the teachings of conscience, a course of action of such unvarying tenderness that it illustrates and manifests the providence of God; (2) He gives the most vivid, the most appalling revelation of the mystery and magnitude of human sin; but with it—what conscience could never do—of the most loving, most complete forgiveness to the penitent, and the brightest hope (after sorrow) as to human destiny, in the tragedy—the love-marked tragedy—of the Passion; (3) And beyond that He displays to us a prospect and a power of attainment to the heights of spiritual longing, by revealing the method and confirming the promise of the implanting of His own life, of His own image, ever more and more fully in the soul of His creature, which is the daily, hourly work of God’s blessed Spirit in those who diligently seek Him.
Gracious Spirit, dwell with me;
I myself would gracious be,
And with words that help and heal
Would Thy life in mine reveal,
And with actions bold and meek
Would for Christ my Saviour speak.
Truthful Spirit, dwell with me;
I myself would truthful be,
And with wisdom kind and clear
Let Thy life in mine appear,
And with actions brotherly
Speak my Lord’s sincerity.
Silent Spirit, dwell with me;
I myself would quiet be,
Quiet as the growing blade
Which through earth its way has made,
Silently, like morning light,
Putting mists and chills to flight.
Mighty Spirit, dwell with me;
I myself would mighty be,
Mighty so as to prevail
Where unaided man must fail,
Ever by a mighty hope
Pressing on and bearing up.
Holy Spirit, dwell with me;
I myself would holy be;
Separate from sin, I would
Choose and cherish all things good,
And whatever I can be,
Give to Him, who gave to Thee.1 [Note: Thomas Toke Lynch.]
The Reasoning And Its Result
i. The Subject of the Reasoning
In the immediate case before us, the case of God’s ancient people of Israel, the subject of argument was their conduct, especially the ingratitude of it in the light of all that God had done for them. But the subject is broader than that. In this very chapter, there is a threefold basis of reasoning, which is of universal application.
1. First of all, God reasons with man on the basis of man’s whole life. There is a constant attempt on man’s part—a device that is repeated from generation to generation and from age to age—to withdraw the greater portion of man’s life from God’s reasoning, or, in other words, to endeavour to reason with God on the basis of some lesser and limited portion of life. You can see it very clearly throughout this chapter. God said to man, “Come, let us reason together.” “Very well,” says man, “let this be the ground of our reasoning. Look at my life as it lies within the circle of its religious action and exercises, the sacrifices I bring to you, the incense I offer, the fasts I make. Let us reason on that basis; let us take our stand there.” And as you will see in this chapter, God utterly rejects reasoning like this, and says, “No, no; I must deal with you on the basis of your whole life, not on any limited or selected part of it which you choose to present and urge.” Now there is great significance in this connection in the opening words of this chapter. God cries out and says, “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth”; man is saying, “Let me be judged and reasoned with on the basis of my life, as that life lies within certain narrow limits, on the basis of my life regarded specially in its religious aspects. Look at me when I am present in the Temple, when I bring my gifts to the altar; deal with me on that ground, let that be the basis of reasoning.” God cries out to earth and heaven, and says, “These are the only limits of man’s life I can recognise—the earth on which he walks, on the surface of which everything is done, the heavens over his head, which look down upon every transaction of his life; that is the basis of My reasoning, and that alone.”
2. God reasons with men on the basis of His own Fatherhood. You will see how in this chapter He reminds all men of it, gives men proofs of it, tells men He has fulfilled it in relation to them. He says, “You are not simply My creatures. You are more—you are nearer to Me. I have done more for you. Hear, O heavens; give ear, O earth. I have nourished and brought up these children; that is My plea.” He declares His Fatherhood by calling them children. He says, “It is not a name with Me; I have fulfilled a Father’s part; you owe everything to Me. Look at your life and see what it looks like in the light of this relationship which I have sustained and fulfilled towards you. Admit,” He says, “My Fatherhood—and you cannot but admit it—and what does your life look like in the light of it? How unnatural and base it becomes. You sink below the brute, you are steeped in more absolute stupidity than the ox or the ass, for the ox knoweth its owner and the ass its master’s crib, but Israel does not know My people.” This is God’s reasoning, and who of us can stand against it? God, our Father, to whom we owe our being, from whom all gifts have come to us, upon whom we depend for everything—what has been our conduct towards Him? “I have nourished and brought up children, and ye have rebelled against Me, flung off My authority, despised My love, lifted your hands against Me”—what can we say to reasoning like this? We cannot excuse ourselves, we cannot justify ourselves; we can only hang our heads in silence and in shame while God says, “Come, and let us bring this reasoning to an end—you know you have nothing to say: admit it.”
3. Thus in this chapter also God reasons with man on the basis of sin’s results. He says, “You have rebelled against Me; has it justified itself in its success? You have rebelled against Me; what good has it done you? Has it brought you freedom and happiness? Has it brought to the land and the nation peace and prosperity?” God Himself gives the answer in searching and terrible words: “Why should ye be stricken any more? Ye will revolt more and more: the whole head is sick and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores; and your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire—that is what sin has done for you.” He points them to the terrible and pitiful results which have come to pass for the individual and the nation through their disobedience towards God; and He challenges them and says, “Now look at it as I have reasoned it out with you.”1 [Note: W. Perkins.]
ii. The Result of the Reasoning
There is, there can be, but one result—our sins are as scarlet; they are red like crimson. “Scarlet” and “crimson” are really synonyms for the one colour, properly “crimson.” According to the Biblical view, sin and piety, anger and love or grace are mutually related as fire and light, hence as red and white; for red is the colour of the fire that shines up now out of the darkness and returns into it, while white, without any mixture of darkness, sets forth the pure, absolute triumph of light.
In a Chinese proclamation, issued by H.H. Tseng Kuo Fan, the energetic official who helped to suppress the Tai Ping Rebellion, there is this sentence referring to the depredations of the rebels. “There is no temple they do not burn, no image they do not destroy. The deities are enraged, they will cool their anger” (in their destruction). The phrase is literally “snow their anger,” anger being regarded as both hot and red.2 [Note: W. A. Cornaby, A String of Chinese Peach Stones.]
1. Their sins were crimson because they were committed in the face of the light. It is a matter of common sense that the servant who knows the master’s will, and yet disobeys, is worthy of more stripes than he who knows it less perfectly. The sinners to whom Isaiah preached, under the more complete revelation of the covenant of grace, sinned against clearer light than the sinners to whom Moses and Joshua preached. How much more, even than those to whom the prophet is preaching, do sinners now sin against the clearer light who have in their hands the last and complete development of the New Testament covenant of grace; and over and above this, the knowledge of the outworking of the completed scheme of grace, under His providence, through two thousand years.
2. They were crimson, because they were committed against special reasons for gratitude and well-doing. Listen to that pathetic complaint: “I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me. The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider” (Isa_1:2-3). And of whom speaketh He this? Not of Israel only. Which of us can recall an hour of life unmarked by some blessing from God? Mercies have been showered upon us. Blessings have been bestowed upon our country, our friends, our family, ourselves—mercies of providence and mercies of grace. Through the whole journey of life we tread upon God’s blessings, strewn as flowers in our way, and their perfume fills the very air we breathe.
3. Their sins were crimson, because they were committed against special covenants and vows. They were sins of faithlessness and recklessness. Is it not so that among men the breach of a solemn bond is more to be reprehended than failure to meet any other engagement? This was the special aggravation of the sin of those to whom the prophet preached. They were solemnly engaged by covenants with Abraham, with Moses, and with David, to be peculiarly Jehovah’s people, as He to be peculiarly their God and Redeemer. In this regard, their sins were more aggravated than those of Sodom and Gomorrah, whose cry ascended up to heaven, and brought down the fires of vengeance. For besides the intrinsic wickedness of doing the deeds of Sodom and Gomorrah, these sinners in so sinning added the guilt of faithlessness to their solemn vows and the vows of their fathers. And it is this that gives their peculiar aggravation to the sins of such as have formally and publicly entered into the covenant of Jehovah in our day. They add to the intrinsic guilt of their transgressions this violation of solemn faith pledged. And on this account it is that their sins are also the most hurtful in their influence, by bringing reproach on the religion of Jesus Christ, as a religion that hinders not its professors from being found faithless.
It was no figure of speech, it was no morbid self-depreciation, St. Paul spoke the real language of his heart when he called himself “the chief of sinners.” I greatly mistrust the state of that man who cannot, at this moment, truly and honestly, lay his hand upon his heart, and say this: “I do not believe that there ever was a more wicked man upon the face of the whole earth than I am.” For only a man’s heart knows its own wickedness. Only a man’s own heart knows the aggravations of his own guilt before Almighty God. It is not a question of acts; it is a matter of thoughts. It is not only what we are positively; it is what we are negatively. It does not depend on what stands in the foreground, but upon what lies behind in the background. It is the convictions you have resisted; it is the feelings God has put into you; it is the early advantages you enjoyed in the nursery, with a pious mother and a holy father; it is the glimpses of particular providences, and the still small voices you have heard; it is the name you have borne, and the profession you have made; it is the hedges you have thrown around you, and the barriers you have overleaped; it is the love you have put away from you, and the grace you have quenched—it is these which make a man’s sins glare before God, like red-hot under an Eastern sun,—it is these which cause a man’s sins to be steeped sevenfold, like the fastest crimson.1 [Note: J. Vaughan.]
The Surprising Sequel
The sequel of the reasoning is that sins which are scarlet become white as show, sins which are crimson become as wool. Acknowledgment of the utter sinfulness of the heart and life is followed by pardon, cleansing, and new obedience.
“I recollect,” says Spurgeon, “that I used to say to myself, when I was quite a lad, ‘If God does not punish me for my sin, He ought to do so.’ That thought used to come to me again and again. I felt that God was just, and that He knew that I did not wish Him to be anything but just; for even my imperfect knowedge of God included my recognition that He was a just and holy God. If I could have been certain of salvation by any method in which God would have ceased to be just, I could not have accepted even salvation on those terms; I should have felt that it was derogatory to the dignity of the Most High, and that it was contrary to the universal laws of right. But this was the question that puzzled me—How can I be saved, since I have sinned, and sin must be punished? You see, in our text, the blessed answer which the Lord Himself gives, ‘Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.’ That is to say, the Lord means, ‘You shall have no sin to be punished, for I will so effectively remove it that there shall be none left upon you. I will be as sternly just to you as a righteous and holy God must be, yet I shall not smite you, for I see nothing in you, or upon you, which I ought to smite.’ O wondrous miracle of mercy and grace!”
This sequel to the reasoning is surprising enough in its completeness and comprehensiveness, and yet it follows naturally (1) from God’s character, (2) from God’s promise, (3) from the nature of God’s forgiveness.
1. God’s Character. He who has seriously “reasoned together” with God is far better prepared to find God in the forgiveness of sins than he who has merely brooded over his own unhappiness without any reference to the qualities and claims of his Judge. It has been a plain and personal matter throughout, and having now come to a clear conviction that he is a guilty sinner, he turns directly to the great and good Being who stands immediately before him, and prays to be forgiven, and is forgiven.
One reason why the soul so often gropes days and months without finding a sin-pardoning God lies in the fact that its thoughts and feelings respecting religious subjects, and particularly respecting the state of the heart, have been too vague and indistinct. They have not had an immediate and close reference to the one single Being who is most directly concerned, and who alone can minister to a mind diseased. The soul is wretched, and there may be some sense of sin, but there is no one to go to—no one to address with an appealing cry. “Oh that I knew where I might find Him,” is its language. “Oh that I might come even to His seat. Behold I go forward, but He is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive Him.” But this groping would cease were there a clear view of God.
This suggests two practical directions—
(1) In all states of religious anxiety we should betake ourselves directly to God. There is no other refuge for the human soul but God in Christ, and if this fails us, we must renounce all hope here and hereafter.
If this fail,
The pillared firmament is rottenness,
And earth’s base built on stubble.
(Milton, Comus, 597–599.)
(2) In all our religious anxiety, we should make a full and plain statement of everything to God. God loves to hear the details of our sin, and our woe. The soul that pours itself out as water will find that it is not like water spilt upon the ground, which cannot be gathered up again. Even when the story is one of shame and remorse, we find it to be mental relief, patiently and without any reserve or palliation, to expose the whole not only to our own eye but to that of our Judge. For, to this very thing have we been invited. This is precisely the “reasoning together” which God proposes to us.
I believe in a man having a place of private resort for the consideration of all the bearings of his life. I have had such places ever since I could remember. I have occasion to go back to them, in recollection, with joy and thanksgiving. Places in far-away quiet fields, where I used to go between school hours and bend my knees behind some blossoming hawthorn hedge, or some old, old tree, and there, as a mere boy in his teens, talk to God till the tears started and life seemed to be going out of me in one great painful shudder. But oh! the sweetness of those hours! One came back even to play and enjoyments of a boyish kind, and work, and suffering, with new life and new hope.1 [Note: J. Parker.]
2. God’s Promise. God would not have made the demand for reform unless it were possible for man to meet it. Where is the power to meet it to come from? Only two answers are possible: either it is inherent in man—this is the answer of nature; or it is supplied from without—this is the answer of grace. The former is the basis of all human efforts which have been or are being put forth to reform the world; the latter is the basis of the Divine method.
(1) The answer of Nature.—The belief in the ability of man to reform himself is founded on ignorance of the real nature of his moral condition, as was the case in the pagan world, or on a deliberate refusal to recognise the truth when it is presented concerning that condition, as was the case in Judaism, and is the case at the present day with those who persuade themselves to a belief in the infinite intrinsic capability of human nature. I see no reason, says the modern enthusiast, why a man, given the necessary favourable environments,—which happily are in a fair way to be supplied,—should not, by a little effort, become perfectly good; why he should not so live as to be able to defy every law in heaven and on earth. Is any one really justified by history or by experience in taking such a view of the question? Neither the religion of the pagan world, nor the philosophy of the Greeks, nor the power and civilisation of the Romans—of their religion we say nothing, for it was unworthy of the name—afford much ground for this belief in human nature. Nor could even the Mosaic law by itself awaken in man a power which would enable him to become righteous—“in that it was weak through the flesh.” The witness whether of history or of experience little encourages belief in the capacity of human nature to reform itself.
All great dramatists and novelists insist upon the fact that sinners cannot cleanse themselves from the inevitable stain which sin always leaves. Shakespeare has painted this truth in its most glaring colours in Macbeth. Macbeth speaks after the murder.
“Whence is that knocking?
How is’t with me, when every noise appals me?
What hands are here? ha! they pluck out mine eyes!
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.”
Lady Macbeth. “My hands are of your colour, but I shame
To wear a heart so white. (Knock). I hear a knocking
At the south entry: retire we to our chamber:
A little water clears us of this deed:
How easy is it, then!”
But in the night time, walking in her sleep, Lady Macbeth is conscious that she cannot remove the stain left by the murder of Banquo:—
Gent. “It is an accustom’d action with her, to seem thus washing her hands: I have known her continue in this a quarter of an hour.”
Lady Macbeth. “Yet here’s a spot.… Out, damnèd spot! out, I say!—One, two; why, then ’tis time to do’t.—Hell is murky!—Fie, my lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?—Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?… Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!”
“There is a lonely little pool of water in a hollow on the mountainside near Tarbet, Loch Lomond, called the Fairy Loch. If you look into it you will see a great many colours in the water, owing to the varied nature of the materials that form its bottom. There is a legend about it which says that the fairies used to dye things for the people round about, if a specimen of the colour was left along with the cloth on the brink of the pool at sunset. One evening a shepherd left beside the Fairy Loch the fleece of a black sheep, and placed upon it a white woollen thread to show that he wished the fleece dyed white. This fairly puzzled the good fol
What of the Night?
The burden of Dumah. One calleth unto me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night? The watchman said: The morning cometh, and also the night: if ye will inquire, inquire ye: turn ye, come.—Isa_21:11-12.
The Oracle of Dumah
1. The Situation
1. “Abrupt in form, enigmatical in meaning, this oracle has nevertheless a certain grandeur and sublimity even for those to whom its sense is obscure.” So says Samuel Cox, introducing one of the best sermons ever preached upon it. And he proceeds to recall Mendelssohn’s use of the oracle: “He who has heard Mendelssohn’s ‘Hymn of Praise’ has at least one proof of its power to excite the imagination and rouse emotion. In that fine work of art, the tenor soloist demands, in sharp, ascending minors, ‘Watchman, will the night soon pass?’ and replies, ‘Though the morning come, the night will come also.’ The demand is thrice repeated in the same sequence of notes, but each time it is raised a whole tone in the scale, to denote the growing intensity and urgency of the inquirer; thrice the answer is given in the same sequence, but for the sake of added emphasis it also is raised a tone the second time; while in reply to the third repetition of the inquirer, the soprano breaks in with the joyful proclamation, ‘The night is departing,’ and the chorus take up and swell and prolong the glad news. As we listen, we feel that the music, splendid as it is in itself, owes no little of its sublimity to the splendid dramatic force of the words to which it is set.”1 [Note: S. Cox, An Expositor’s Note Book, p. 201.]
2. The key to the passage is to be found in its historical circumstances. The period was that of the Assyrian oppression, an oppression which not only harassed and depeopled Judah, but affected the nations around. Sharing in their neighbour’s sin, these nations shared in their neighbour’s punishment, and, like the primary sufferer, were downcast and desponding, asking wearily and anxiously, “How long?” One by one they present themselves to the prophet’s vision—Philistia, Moab, Damascus, Ethiopia, Egypt, Arabia; and now he is speaking of Edom, or, as it is here called, “Dumah,” Judah’s nearest neighbour as well as its oldest and most inveterate foe. “The burden of Dumah,” he says, “What I have to say concerning its present state, what I have to say concerning its future destiny.”
3. The prophet is standing in vision on the border. He has planted himself on the ridge between Judah and Edom—night to right of him, night to left of him; night on the dwellings of Judah, night on the dwellings of Edom, Judah’s ancient foe; the same pall of darkness hangs low over both. And as he waits, the stillness is broken by a solitary cry. It is the voice of some unseen inquirer—not, you observe, in Judah, but in Edom. “Watchman, what of the night?” he says. “Is it nearly over? Are there any streaks of light yet? Do you see the morning star?” And the watchman answers cautiously. He does not commit himself. “I will tell you this much,” he says, “The morning cometh, and also the night.”
Among the many offices that have become obsolete, during the advance of modern civilisation, may be counted that of the watchman. In ancient times, however, the office was considered absolutely necessary for the maintenance of order and safety in towns and cities. It was the watchman’s duty to patrol the streets during the night, to prevent thieves and vagabonds prowling about in the dark. It was his duty to sound the alarm in case of imminent danger. It was his duty to announce the hour, and state the various changes in the weather. Those who listened to his firm, steady, regular step, as he passed their doors, felt a sense of security, and cast themselves with confidence into the arms of sleep. At the entrance of the cities, towers were not infrequently erected, and these were called “watch-towers,” in which watchmen were regularly posted, whose eyes ever swept the distant horizon, to see if anybody was coming, of whom it was necessary to give information.1 [Note: D. Rowlands, in The Cross and the Dice-Box, p. 217.]
2. The Question
1. The question to the watchman, “What of the night?” means, What part of the night is it now? Is it the first, the second, or the third watch? Will the light soon dawn? The A.V. translation, says Dr. G. A. Smith,1 [Note: The Book of Isaiah, p. 276.] though picturesque, is misleading. The voice does not inquire, “What of the night?” i.e. whether it be fair or foul weather, but “How much of the night is passed?” literally “What from off the night?” This brings out a pathos that our English version has disguised. Edom feels that her night is lasting terribly long.
2. It is worth while to point out—for the quality of poetry depends on such minute touches of art—that the sentinel not only repeats his question, but repeats it in an abbreviated form. “Watchman, how far is it in the night? Watchman, how far in the night?” expresses in English the Hebrew abbreviation, though in the Hebrew it is much more telling. And both the repetition of the question and the more brief and winged form of the question on the second utterance of it indicate the extreme urgency of the inquiry, the extreme haste and impatience of the inquirer.
3. The word Dumah means “silence,” “the land of silent desolation.” It is a very suggestive thought. Sin is the great silencer. The end of sin is silence. Assuredly that was true in the case of Edom. It was true of it at the time when the prophet spoke, it was to be true of it still more completely in the ages to follow. Travellers tell us that if we want to know how Providence can turn a fruitful land into barrenness, and make a defenced city a heap, for the iniquity of the inhabitants thereof, we have only to look at Edom, with its hills and plains picked clean of every vestige of vegetation, and its ruined palaces, once the home of busy men, now the haunt of vultures and toe lair of scorpions, all human sound gone—the voice of mirth, the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, the voice of the bride!
4. Of course we are not to take Isaiah’s words literally. No voice, no sound, could reach from Mount Seir to Mount Zion. Nor are we to suppose that the Edomites dispatched an embassy to the prophet at Jerusalem to inquire of him concerning the future fate of Edom. Isaiah was a poet, and describes in a dramatic form the thoughts and questions which rose in his soul as he looked through the ages, and the shadows of coming events passed before him. He had already seen that the Babylonians would conquer Jerusalem; and that they, in their turn, would be conquered by the Persians. But when the Babylonians came against Jerusalem, the Edomites would join them in despoiling the city and slaying its inhabitants. If the Babylonians were to be judged for their sin against Israel and the God of Israel, were the Edomites, who had shared their sin, to escape their judgment?
3. The Answer
The answer is not clear to us now. Perhaps we do not know all the circumstances quite intimately enough. Perhaps it is purposely made enigmatical, as was often the case with an oracle. Perhaps the answer was not clear to the prophet himself. Cox thinks that the prophet, dismissing the Edomite inquirer with a prediction so gloomy, felt some compunction. He cannot see beyond the night; yet the night may have a morning beyond it. Let the inquirer return, therefore, and repeat his inquiries. The prophet hopes he will. He reiterates the invitation. He makes it more warm and urgent. “If ye will inquire, ye may,” turns into the entreaty “return, come again.” Davies understands that the Edomite was answered with the promise of alternations of dawning day and darkening night. The Assyrians, Persians, Chaldeans, Greeks, Romans, Muhammadans would in turn oppress them, and between each oppression there would be but a ray of hope. Perhaps the brightest dawn to them would be the ascendancy of the Herods; but even that would so soon culminate in a darker night.
Its Modern Use
i. The Heart’s Cry to God
It is the cry of the human heart to God. How often do the heavens seem pitiless, and send no answer to our impassioned appeal, but “Morning cometh, and also night.” However sad we are, however racked with suspense, though we have lost the friends we most loved, or apprehend the ill we most fear, the sun shines on, the birds sing, our friends eat and drink and are merry, we have to do our work, to take our food, to talk and smile, to listen to condolences, to endure remonstrance, to go through the whole daily round as though nothing had happened to us. And when the day is over, the night comes, and we have to lie down on a couch which has no rest for us, to drag through the slow weary hours, and long for the morning. At such times, in such moods, our life grows very dark to us. Nature seems to have no sympathy with us; friends and neighbours cannot even understand what our grief is like; our duties are burdensome to us, pleasure even more burdensome than duty. The strain is heavier than we can endure; it seems impossible that we should struggle on long under a burden so heavy. And yet the future holds out no hope to us but death. A few faint, watery gleams of brightness, and then the great darkness will rush down upon us, the night that has no end.
Apart from such special eclipses, times when the darkness thickens, there is the universal and permanent shadow that broods over all, the shadow of this enigmatic and mysterious life. I mean the shadow to which the poet refers when he writes—
So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.
I mean the shadow of which a great Christian thinker spoke when, after a conversation with a friend on the deepest problems of life and death, he wound up the interview with the words: “Ah! think now of the great God looking down on our babblings in the dark!” We are compassed with mystery. The sky is heavy with it, the heart is oppressed with it. Life has its mysteries. Truth has its mysteries.1 [Note: W. A. Gray.]
ii. The World’s Cry to the Church
It is the cry of the world to the Church. The voice comes from Seir. It comes from the men and women of the world. It is addressed to God’s watchman on Mount Zion. It is the cry of the world to the Church of God. Notice first the great variety there is in the manner of the cry, and then the fact of it.
1. The manner of it.
(1) Sometimes it is no more than a question of utter carelessness. There are those who haunt our churches from the indolence of habit, who smilingly confess themselves “sinners” without once remembering the tremendous import of the words they employ; who echo the thrilling penitence of our liturgy in the same tone that inquires the news of the day; who are Christians because their fathers were, and would, without a murmur, be heathens for the same reason.
(2) Sometimes it is the question of the merely curious. Most Christian teachers are familiar with a class of inquirers who, without much sympathy with evangelical verities, sometimes without much attention to moral demands, are greatly taken up with speculative difficulties. They want the mist cleared away from this point, they want the uncertainty banished from that. The consistency of God’s sovereignty with man’s responsibility, the nature and occupation of the unseen world, the destiny of the heathen, the fulfilment of prophecy, the order of the last things—that whole class of interesting but not always practical subjects on which a veil of uncertainty hangs, attracts them much. And they turn in curiosity to the Church, with their appeals to the Church’s wisdom, their demands for the Church’s opinion.
(3) Sometimes the question is ironical, or even contemptuous. “How goes the task with you?” says the world. “With all your money and with all your machinery, what have you to show? How many converted heathens? How many converted Jews? What reduction is there in the statistics of immorality? What increase in church attendance among the working classes? Watchman, what of the night?”
(4) But sometimes it is earnest. Not in any light or trifling spirit, but with a deep sense of perplexity, and an honest desire for help, men turn inquiringly to the Church—at times even in anguish of heart. The agonies of remorse have seized their spirit. The night has come down upon them in exceeding great darkness. Conscience suggests retribution; they ask if revelation confirms it.
(5) And sometimes it is undefined and inarticulate, and then it is the saddest cry of all. This is the cry from Seir. The true translation is “one calleth unto me out of Seir.” It is the utterance of a poor heartbroken weary community; one voice attempting to utter the need, the yearning, the longing of many hearts.
Mr. C. T. Studd once told me a cry of anguish which he heard in China, and which has haunted him ever since. He was negotiating in a Chinese dwelling for the tenancy of a building for an opium refuge. While the negotiations were in progress, he and Mrs. Studd were horrified at a series of piercing shrieks which fell upon their ears. They evidently came from a little girl, and knowing how dangerous it was to interfere in anyone else’s business, they at first disregarded the cries, which were agonising in their character. At last they could bear it no longer, and determined, whatever the consequences, to find out whence the cries proceeded; they followed the sound until they found themselves in a room, where, forcibly held on a rude bed, was a little girl, from whose feet the cruel bandages used in the process of foot-binding were being stripped. One woman held her down by her little arms; another was tearing the bandages from the poor feet; while a third was beating the child with a heavy stick, to divert the pain to other parts of the body, and to punish the little one for her cries. Those cries were heard by a sympathetic man, but there are thousands which are heard only by a sympathetic God. How can we, who have children of our own, be indifferent to the wail of these little ones, into whose cries we may read the agonising question, “Will the night never pass away?”1 [Note: J. Gregory Mantle.]
“He who has seen the misery of man only,” Victor Hugo tells us, “has seen nothing, he must see the misery of a woman; he who has seen the misery of a woman only, has seen nothing, he must see the misery of childhood.”
2. The fact of it. Three things are to be observed here.
(1) When night hangs heavily on the Church, it hangs still more heavily on the world. The Assyrian oppression lay like a cloud on Judah, but in lying on Judah it projected a still heavier cloud upon Edom. We take Judah (as we are bound to do) as a type of the Kingdom of God, and we take Edom (as we are also bound to do) as a type of the kingdoms of sense and sin; and the lesson to be first noted is this, that whatsoever casts a gloom on the one casts the same gloom or a deeper gloom on the other. There never was a greater mistake than to suppose that, because Christianity is bound up with problems, the abandonment of belief is the abandonment of mystery, mystery will meet you still. Do you get rid of the mystery of human sin, or of human pain, or of human inequalities, or of human death, or of any one of those great and pressing perplexities that make existence a puzzle, our belief in the kindness and righteousness of Providence hard? No, you do not. But you get rid of the one fund of hope that can soften these mysteries, the one source of light that can brighten them.
(2) In the midst of this common night there is the significant fact that the world does turn to the Church. It is very suggestive that in the general pressure of the general gloom the Edomite is represented as appealing to the Jew—a votary of the Jewish worship, a representative of the Jewish God. Was there none to consult nearer home? Where were the seers of Idumæa? No doubt there were seers in abundance, necromancers, astrologers, wizards that peeped and muttered. But it is not to these that the questioner turns. He looks away from them all to yonder lonely man on the serrated ridge, clad in camel-skin, now standing still, now pacing backwards and forwards, as he swept the cloud-hung horizon with his eye. It is from him the Edomite expects the oracle. It is on him he depends for the truth. “Watchman,” he says, “prophet of Israel’s race, servant of Israel’s God, what of the night?” Through all ages the principle is the same. Ever, in the midst of the cloud that surrounds us all, the world puts its questions to the Church. It puts them to the Church’s representatives, puts them to the Church’s ministers. We have no more significant testimony to the place which God gives to the witnesses of religion than the way, friendly or unfriendly as the case may be, in which those most removed from their habits and thoughts continually ask their opinion. They are the mark of perpetual notice. They are the subjects of unceasing examination. The question, “Watchman, what of the night?” is raised in a variety of forms, comes through a variety of channels. But there it is, and those applied to must take account of it and face it.
(3) The Church must be ready with some answer. Has the Church an answer to give? It has. The Church is the watchman standing on the tower to look into and ascertain the nature of the world’s night. That, when you come to examine it, gives us a very wide range, perhaps wider than we sometimes think. For what would we include in the night—the world’s night? First of all, unquestionably and fundamentally, the world’s sin, the world’s alienation from God, the world’s wandering from holiness and purity and truth, the world’s rejection of the Divine Spirit in its beneficent and soul-healing power. But that is the starting-point. By the world’s night you must understand all its need, all its heart-breaking, all the problems that weary, harass, and perplex the brain of man, all the tears it is shedding, all the burdens it is bearing, all the sorrows it is enduring, all its chaos, all its discomfort, all its failure, all its darkness. That is the world’s night; and the Christian Church has to do with all of it. And more than that, I say this, that it is the Christian Church, as I have defined it, and that alone, that is competent to understand the meaning of it, to look into the nature of it. And if a remedy is to be found for it at all, it must be found in the name and spirit of Jesus Christ; it must be found by the watchman that has been set upon the tower to note the progress of the night, and to declare the passing away of the darkness. It is only the spirit that rules the Church, or should rule it, that can see clearly into the night.
The Church has an answer, but it is not always ready to give it. The Church is sometimes taken aback by the world’s moral or religious questions, because it does not appreciate the world’s moral or religious difficulties.
Sad, were the question to go up from Edom, “Watchman, what of the night?” and the answer to come back from Judah, “ ‘Night,’ did you say? we are scarcely aware that there is a night!” With one class, that, then, is the reason of the absence of reply—want of perception of the difficulty. And for another class, the reason may be that, while feeling the pressure of the difficulty, they have not obtained a solution for themselves. That is just as sad. Sad, were outsiders to appeal to us, doubting and looking to us for faith, ignorant and looking to us for knowledge, to find that the faith and knowledge they look for are absent—never truly possessed, or if once in a fashion possessed, now well-nigh vanished. Sad, we say, were the question to arise from Edom, “Watchman, what of the night?” and the answer from Judah to be this, “The truth is, we are brothers in blindness; in spite of position, in spite of profession, we know as little as yourselves.”
iii. The Answer of the Church
The answer of the Church is twofold
1. Throughout her history there have been both night and morning. There is a rhythm everywhere here on earth. Things vary and alternate. We have day and night, summer and winter; we sleep and we wake, we have youth and age, we live and die. Tides ebb and flow; moons wax and wane; the flowers have yearly their resurrection and their death. “The morning cometh and also the night.”
Nations rise and fall. Greece cultivates the garden, and Rome breaks down all her hedges; Rome builds walls, and the Goth scales them; patriots purchase liberty, and by and by the people throw their liberty away. And thus, in human history, the continual variation and alternation go on. “The morning cometh and also the night.”
The Church goes down into Egypt, and she is ransomed; again, she is bound with fetters and borne to Babylon. She has palmy days, and then days of adversity. She knows revival, and soon reaction and depression follow. Her Reformation grows to rationalism, her noblest Puritanism to prudishness and politics. The church of the parish falls cold and dead, and the chapels become the centres of spiritual light and life; anon the chapel is made the club-house of petty interests in the village, and life and work revive in the church. The dawn of civilisation seems to break on heathen Africa when the pioneer missionary touches its shore, and ere long civilisation casts darker shadows there than those of heathendom’s midnight. So true it is that “The morning cometh and also the night”!
2. Yet the night is far spent and the day is at hand. Many forms of wrong, cruelty, and vice are impossible now which were possible and even common before the Son of God and Son of Man dwelt among us; nay, even before the Reformation carried through Europe a light by which such deeds of darkness were reproved. The individual man may stand little higher, whether in wisdom or in goodness, than of old; but the number of men capable of high thoughts, noble aims, and lives devoted to the service of truth and righteousness, is incomparably larger. The world took long to make, and may take still longer to remake; but its re-creation in the image of God is just as certain as its creation.
(1) We see the approach of the day in matters of faith. There never was a time in human history when men were so loyal to the landmarks of truth. There never was a time when the blessed Bible was entrenched in so many faithful hearts. True, there are controversies. God be praised! The worst that can ever befall the Christian Church is stagnation. The Kingdom of God is not likely to suffer from any investigation of its truth. To be sure, there are heretics and schismatics. They perish by the way and their work serves to strengthen the battlements of truth, as coral insects toiling in unknown depths leave their bones as a contribution to the continents of coming ages. The truth had never so many stalwart friends as it has this day.
(2) We see it in social and ethical life. Ideals are higher than ever. Character means more. The character of Jesus stands out more distinctly as the Exemplar of morals. His incomparable portrait is the touchstone of character. More is expected of men than ever before in human history. More is expected of kings, of politicians, of merchants, of the average man. Compare the dignitaries of our time with those of a few centuries ago: Queen Victoria with Elizabeth, the President of the French Republic with Louis the Grand, Gladstone with Machiavelli, President Harrison with our continental governors, the citizen, the country gentleman, the ordinary church-goer or the non-church-goer, with those of a hundred years ago. I say ideals are higher and men more eager in striving after them. There is more respect for common honesty, for chastity and temperance, for benevolence. Many of the vices that were common have disappeared from public view.
(3) And we see it in the coming of the Kingdom. It was but a hundred years ago that William Carey sat in his cobbler shop in Northamptonshire, his attention divided between the lapstone on his knee and a map of the world hanging on the wall. He said, “There is gold to be mined in India. I will go down after it if you will hold the ropes.” He sailed for that pagan land a hundred years ago, went down into the mine, and souls have been responding to that deed of consecration, born out of Carey’s travail, in countless multitudes—gold minted in the heavenly treasury and stamped with the image and superscription of our King! Oh, friends, everything is going right. The nations of the earth are coming unto our God. “Watchman, what of the night?” There is no night. The darkness is past and gone, the Sun of Righteousness hath risen with healing in His beams! Be glad and rejoice, O people of God; the sun shineth brighter and brighter unto the perfect day!1 [Note: D. J. Burrell.]
What of the Night?
Burrell (D. J.), Morning Cometh, 1.
Burrell (D. J.), Wayfarers of the Bible, 207.
Butler (A.), Sermons, ii. 339.
Campbell (J. M.), Bible Questions, 204.
Cox (S.), Expositions, iv. 336.
Cox (S.), Expositor’s Notebook, 201.
Crosthwait (E. G. S.), Heavenward Steps, 7.
Davies (D.), Talks with Men, Women, and Children, 3rd Ser., 263.
Gray (W. A.), Laws and Landmarks of the Spiritual Life, 185.
Hunt (W. H.), Preachers from the Pew, 174.
Hutton (R. E.), The Crown of Christ, i. 19.
M‘Kim (R. H.), The Gospel in the Christian Year, 72.