John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: April 4

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John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: April 4


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Isaiah’s Prophecies

Isa_1:1

Although all the prophets were moved by the same Spirit, they were men of different characters, and of different natural gifts and attainments. This appears not only in so much of their personal history and sentiments as can be gathered from their books, but from the style and manner of their utterances.

The prophecies of Isaiah are eminently sublime and magnificent, not only in their style and expression, but in their objects; and these together have directed more attention to this book, among both Jews and Christians, than to any other in the prophetical Scriptures. It has the very important distinction, of being more frequently quoted in the New Testament than any other of the sacred books, excepting only the Psalms and the direct manner in which the divinely-inspired writer speaks of the Messiah—his birth, his sufferings, and his kingdom—has even rendered his prophecies of eminent service in establishing the conviction that the Lord Jesus was He of whom the prophets spoke. Nor can we doubt that He often referred to Isaiah, when He opened the understandings of the disciples at Emmaus, that they might understand the Scriptures, and said unto them, “Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead on the third day,” Luk_24:45-46. It is especially this distinction which has procured for Isaiah the title of “the evangelical prophet,” due probably to Jerome, who says that Isaiah was not only a prophet, but more than a prophet—even an evangelist; and declares that so distinct were his predictions, that he seems to speak rather of things past than things to come. He even calls Isaiah an apostle; and, indeed, there is no portion of Scripture which so distinctly connects the Old Testament with the New. Another (Eusebius) calls Isaiah the greatest of the prophets; and the Jews themselves designate him as “the great prophet.”

Bishop Lowth was the first to point out that the prophetical books are essentially poetical; and that, with the exception of portions which, if brought together, would not exceed the bulk of five or six chapters, the book of Isaiah is poetry of the highest order. It is to him also that we owe the first clear account of Isaiah’s style, although it had been, before his time, highly extolled by Grotius, Sanctius, Bossuet, Fenelon, and others. The first of these compares Isaiah with Demosthenes, and declares that he finds in the former the utmost force and purity of the Hebrew tongue; as he finds in the latter the utmost delicacy and purity of the Attic language. The one and the other is grand and magnificent in his style, vehement in his movements, copious in his figures, forcible and impetuous whenever he would excite to indignation, or strive to render a thing odious. Note: Grotius, Comment., in 4 Reg. xix. 2. To many that will seem faint praise, which merely equals the style of the Hebrew prophet with that of the first of uninspired speakers. But we are to remember that it is of style only that Grotius speaks.

Sanctius expresses himself more warmly; for he finds that Isaiah is more flowery, more ornate, and, at the same time, more grave and more energetic, than any writer known, whether historian, or poet, or orator.

But let us come to Lowth, who speaks of Isaiah in this strain—“Isaiah, the first of the prophets, both in order and dignity, abounds in such transcendent excellences, that he may properly be said to furnish the most perfect model of prophetic poetry. He is at once eloquent and sublime, forcible and ornamented; he unites energy with copiousness, and dignity with variety. In his sentiments there is uncommon elevation and majesty; in his imagery, the utmost propriety; and, notwithstanding the obscurity of his subjects, a surprising degree of clearness and simplicity.”

We will add to this the opinion of some modern continental writers, who have studied this matter closely, and whose views thereon are entitled to a degree of respectful attention which, on more essential points, it might not be safe to concede to them.

One of them Note: Eichhorn, Einleitung, iv., § 533. is unwilling to admit that there is anything in Isaiah to be compared, in sublimity of poetry, to the noble hymn of Habakkuk; but, apart from this, he allows that he finds in the prophecies of Isaiah all that belongs to poetry of the highest order, and such as is rarely to be found in Oriental poesy. The same critic assures us that, as well in regard to style and imagery as to plan, execution, and poetic imagination, the utterances of the son of Amoz may rank with the finest prophetical pieces and the most magnificent canticles of the Old Testament. His style is always in perfect harmony with the objects he describes; and as the subjects vary, so his style varies also. If he makes a recital, it is with a natural simplicity, in which the skill of the writer is felt, but not seen. When he exhorts or rebukes, his invectives are piercing and his aspect is terrible. When he casts his prophetic glance forward to happier times, his genius seems to struggle with his subject for the invention of images more beautiful and comparisons more just. The vision of his call to the prophetic ministry (Isaiah 6) presents to us an admirable picture, in which all the details are traced with the noblest and richest colors, and the charm of which is enhanced by the majestic simplicity of the elocution. In the first chapter, taking the tone of exhortation, it does not suit the prophet to pour out all the fulness of his spirit, or to allow the flame of his imagination to be fully kindled. He therefore contents himself with groans and sighs over the bleeding wounds and sore afflictions of his people, to whom he points out the way of healing and of life. But with what admirable address his colors are changed when he undertakes to depict the glory and blessedness of the Messiah’s reign! Raised above the earth and the mortals who inhabit it, he beholds a new heaven and a new earth. The ancient traditions of his people assume beneath his hand a beauty and majesty which cast the reader into a sublime delight. But his chief merit, and that which gives him a marked preeminence over the poets of the East, is the admirable precision of his expressions, the richness of his imagery, and the perfect contour of his periods. These qualities are remarkably united in his first chapter [Isaiah 1]. He brings to a happy conclusion all that he commences; and in whatever edifice he raises, every stone is fairly placed upon the foundation he has laid. He rushes not precipitately from one subject to another, and under his hand everything takes a proper form and order. Thus, every image has all the finish and development which the circumstances require; and the antitheses, skilfully produced, form one of the fittest features of the picture he presents. If, for example, he. sets before us, on one side, fields given to the flames by the enemy whom God has sent in his anger; he depicts, on the other, the Israelites redeemed from oppression, seated in the midst of the abundance and richness of a plentiful and fertile soil. So, if, in the days of corruption, he shows us the hands of the wicked stained with blood and polluted by carnage, he fails not to contrast this with the time of repentance, when the spectacle of scarlet crime becomes, under the tears of contrition, pure as snow and white as wool. When, in his moral discourses, the prophet dwells longer on the same subjects, he expresses, at first, all his theme in a figurative style, and then explains it more clearly in the proper sense—a process admirably suited to win and detain the attention of the reader.

Another writer, Note: Jahn, Einleitung in das Alle Test. some of whose works are better known in this country, declares that the diction of the prophecies of Isaiah surpasses in beauty, as well as in sublimity, not only Hosea and Micah, but all the other prophets, and in some parts scarcely yields to the poetry of Moses and of Job. The design of it is beautiful, and the execution excellent. The images are clearly presented under the most natural colors. But that which claims our special admiration, is the rich variety in the traits; and even in those which recur often, as in the pictures of the golden age to come, every one has always something particular by which it is more specially characterized, and in which it differs from all the others. As to the language of Isaiah, a purity, constantly sustained, forms one of its principal characteristics. The style, always lively and animated, takes all the colors which present themselves to the pencil of the poet. It is thus that he is subtle and sublime in his promises, severe and vehement in his threatenings, mild and tender in his consolations, and earnest in his instructions. Lastly, there is something, a certain harmony, in the language of this prophet, which charms the ear by its agreeable rhythmical cadence.

Another German author Note: Gesenius, Der Prophet Jesaia, ii. 53-55. of high name, acknowledges that the whole of the book that bears the name of Isaiah is, in a literary point of view, far above all praise. The prophecies of Isaiah, he says, take their place among the finest compositions of the golden age of Hebrew poetry. They consist, for the great part, of prophetic discourses. But that which renders them beyond expression admirable, is a weighty style, full of force and dignity, abundant in images, and replete with rich thoughts, which the sacred writer produces with the most exquisite tact. He likes antithesis and paronomasias, and sometimes delights to mingle them together so as marvellously to enhance the effect. If he often repeats the same image, he knows how to vary it each time by always giving to it a new turn, often by the substitution of metaphorical for literal expression.

Another Note: Hengstenberg, art. Isaiah, in the Cyclop. of Biblical Literature. declares that “Isaiah stands pre-eminent above all other prophets, as well in the contents and spirit of his predictions as in their form and style. Simplicity, clearness, sublimity, and freshness, are the never-failing characteristics of his prophecies…. In reference to richness of imagery, he stands between Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Symbolic actions, which frequently occur in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, are seldom found in Isaiah. The same is the case with visions, strictly so called, of which there is only one, that in chapter sixth, and even this is distinguished by its simplicity and clearness above that of the later prophets. But one characteristic of Isaiah is, that he likes to give signs—that is, a fact then present or near at hand—as a pledge for the more distant futurity; and that he thus supports the feebleness of men. The spiritual riches of the prophet are seen in his style, which always befits his subject. When he rebukes and threatens, it is like a storm; and when he comforts, his language is as tender and mild as (to use his own words) that of a mother comforting her son. With regard to style, Isaiah is comprehensive, and the other prophets divide his riches.”

After this solid weight of testimony, we are tempted to add a few lines from Gilfillan’s sparkling tribute to the great prophet—“The uniform grandeur, the pomp of diction, the almost painful richness of figure, distinguishing this prophet, would have lessened his power over the common Christian mind, had it not been for the evangelical sentiment in which his strains abound, and which has gained him the name of the Fifth Evangelist. Many bear with Milton solely for his religion. It is the same with Isaiah. The cross stands in the painted window of his style. His stateliest figure bows before Messiah’s throne. An eagle of the sun, his nest is in Calvary. Anticipating the homage of the Eastern sages, he spreads out before the infant God treasures of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The gifts are rare and costly, but not too precious to be offered to such a Being: they are brought from far, but He has come farther ‘to seek and to save that which was lost.’”