The Exalted God Of Nations
( Originally Published 1916 )
Isaiah's ministry began in Jerusalem shortly before the close of Hosea's work in Northern Israel. The record of the inaugural vision from which we date the opening of the great prophet's labors was doubtless written years after the event, when later experiences had become fused in memory with the convictions of this early time, yet the narrative gives one of the simplest and clearest accounts of a profound religious experience ever recorded.
In an earlier chapter of this book we noted the fact that the great prophets of Israel were relatively free from ecstatic visions and all such phenomena, but this does not mean that they did not have mystic experience of the divine presence and illumination. Indeed, it would be difficult to name any of the greatest religious leaders of history who have not known something of genuine vision experience. Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all record their visions. Paul was caught up even to the third heaven, whether in the body or out of the body he did not know. Savonarola, Luther, and many lesser Christian teachers illustrate the general truth, and even Jesus himself told his followers in symbolic vision of the temptation that preceded his active ministry. Outside of the Hebrew and Christian religions the phenomena are equally characteristic of other religions. The student of Mahomet's life, for example, cannot question the sincerity of the prophet's conviction of direct divine communication in the earlier days of his ministry.
In all cases of unusual religious excitement it is exceedingly difficult to distinguish the genuine from the spurious. At one extreme we find the ancient priests of Baal cutting themselves, leaping upon the altar, and calling upon their god from morning till evening, the shouting and whirling dervishes of Mohammedanism, or the ignorant adherents of Christianity counting a cataleptic condition as possession by the Deity. At the other extreme we see the exceptional experience of the loftiest souls, to whom there has been given from a power outside themselves direct vision of that which eye hath not seen nor ear heard.
The best test of the validity of such unusual experience is its effect upon the mind and life. To the Corinthians, who were ambitious for the ecstatic gift of tongues, Paul commended speech easy to be understood and speaking with tongues only when it could be interpreted. Similarly we may apply his standard of edifying, that is, building up, to recorded visions. Has the vision truth that can be applied in daily life? Does it lead to higher and more devoted living, or is it an end in itself, a means of self-glorification? With the greatest religious leaders the visions that come are infrequent. Paul looked back more than four-teen years to his, and Isaiah and Jeremiah record such experiences only at the opening of their long ministries.
Examining Isaiah's vision in detail, we find that it contains an overwhelming apprehension of the exalted God which dominated all the prophet's long years of devoted labor and constituted his chief contribution to Israel's conception of God. The song of the seraphim was "Holy, holy, holy," and henceforth the prophet's favorite name for God is the Holy One of Israel. The Hebrew word "holy," kadosh, is but another form of the root that we have met in the wilderness Kadesh, "Sanctuary." Its earliest significance is probably separation or withdrawal, but in Isaiah's vision God's separation from man seems to have the moral element in it, "for the uncleanness of the lips must refer to sinful utterance."
The glory of this God which fills the whole earth is not simply the glory of exaltation and separation, it is a quality which makes Isaiah conscious of his own sin and the need of the people among whom he dwells : "Woe is me ! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King." It is only when his own offending lips have been purified by a coal from the altar that Isaiah is ready to hear the call, "Whom shall I send and who will go for us ?" and to answer, "Here am I; send me."
In the earlier writings of Israel we-have found no such universalism as that implied in the song of the seraphim and no such conception of God's holiness. To the justice and love of God that, Amos and Hosea had apprehended, Isaiah adds holiness and the thought that the glory of this God fills the whole earth.
Testing the vision by the questions : How does it affect the seer's mind and life? Has it truth applicable to the lives of others ? we find in this vision the shaping of a great life and an experience such as has led to many another life of service. A vision of God that reveals first one's own sin and then the need and call of one's generation, and leads on to devoted, wise service is genuine; if such a vision enlarges for all time man's view of God's universality and of his holiness, it may be counted a true revelation.
In the clear light that shone from the face of the exalted, holy God, Isaiah saw and denounced the economic evils of his day with even more power than Amos Commanded. The princes who crushed the people and ground the face of the poor; the wealthy landowners who joined house to house and laid field to field until they dwelt alone on their great estates, absorbing the holdings of the small, independent farmers; the haughty women of Jerusalem mincing through the streets with wanton eyes; the feasters who tarried long at the wine, but regarded not the work of the Lord all these are denounced most scathingly in Isaiah's early sermons.
The prophet's attack upon growing land monopoly shows that he comprehends the fundamental problem of a state that is economically healthy; but he goes deeper than economic conditions into the heart of man when he denounces those who call evil good and good evil, that put darkness for light and light for darkness, that say to the prophets, "Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things." As in Hosea's sense of the people's one vital need, so in this flash of insight reaching to the roots of life, the world must wait for a fuller interpretation until Jesus of Nazareth shall reveal life; it was only those who called good evil and evil good, who seeing deeds of divine compassion called them the work of Satan, of whom he despaired. Upon such Isaiah had pronounced woe, and all experience shows such moral perversity to be the great obstacle to man's spiritual progress.
Isaiah had opportunity to apply his religious principles to the foreign policy of his nation through a succession of crises in which the future was most obscure and party differences ran high. Soon after the inaugural vision a coalition of Israel and Damascus threatened Judah, probably wishing to force her into an alliance against Assyria. In alarm Ahaz determined to call in the help of Assyria and, in doing so, purchased immediate release at the price of making his nation tributary to Assyria. Northern Israel suffered partial depopulation and the loss of much of its territory at this time, and, a dozen years later, its capital, Samaria, was captured and a large part of its inhabitants deported. Judah for the time remained loyal to Assyria and escaped serious trouble, but later King Hezekiah received a deputation from Merodach Baladan of Babylon, who was plotting revolt against his Assyrian overlord; some four years after this Judah, relying upon Egypt for help, was herself in revolt against Assyria.
Through all these complex events, in which little Judah was feeling the full force of her position as one of the small buffer states between the great seats of power to the east and west of her, Isaiah appears constantly as political adviser of king and people. Sometimes his advice was sought; more often it was given undesired. His fundamental principle became clear in the first great crisis Trust God and avoid entangling alliances. After Ahaz had sought assistance from Assyria, however, Isaiah's advice was consistently to remain true to that agreement and to avoid all negotiations with Assyria's enemies whether in Egypt or Babylon.
It may have been Isaiah's influence that kept Judah from compromising herself at the time of Samaria's destruction. Whether this is the case or not, twenty years later his influence was completely overridden by the party that favored Egyptian alliance, and Jerusalem was brought to the verge of destruction. At this crisis, when the Assyrian army had swept over the country and no human power could save the capital city, Isaiah stood forth strong in his assured faith that Yahweh would not permit the city to be captured, and gave expression to his doctrine of the inviolability of Zion.
The issue justified the prophet's faith, for the main body of the Assyrian army met some mysterious calamity, probably the outbreak of a pestilence, on the borders of Egypt, and suddenly withdrew from Palestine. The vindication of Isaiah's faith must have given him greater influence than he had ever known before; it certainly led to the fixing of the nation's faith that Jerusalem could never be captured. A hundred years later another prophet needed to combat this doctrine with all the force possible.
Another aspect of Isaiah's conception of God's working in international events is seen in his teaching that Assyria, in its cruel lust for destruction, was but the rod in Yahweh's hand used to smite faithless Samaria and Jerusalem. God, he was sure, would in time visit judgment upon the self-exalted king of Assyria. Isaiah's emphasis upon the exaltation of God involved ever the corollary that all that exalts itself must be brought low. Arrogance seemed to him, hardly less than to Aeschylus among the Greeks, sure precursor of condemnation and fall.
We thus find Isaiah thinking out much more fully than Amos the complex problem of the divine rule among the nations. Amos had pronounced absolute doom upon Northern Israel in the name of the God of justice, and had hinted at distant Assyria as the instrument of destruction; Isaiah taught that cruel, self-confident Assyria must suffer judgment in turn, and he always found hope for the ultimate deliverance of his own people or of a purified remnant of the people. This doctrine of a remnant is one of the most frequently expressed teachings of the Book of Isaiah and is a fruitful source of the ineradicable hope of future generations of Isaiah's people.
The hope found in the volume of this great prophet's oracles does not limit itself to the saving of a purged remnant; it reaches out to lofty anticipations of an ideal ruler of the house of David, upon whom the spirit of Yahweh shall rest, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of Yahweh, a ruler who shall judge the poor righteously. Out of the age of struggle between Assyria and Egypt in which Judah was well-nigh torn to shreds the prophet looked to a future day when the contending nations should worship together, with Israel a blessing between them.
Many scholars count these wonderful visions of the future as insertions in the Book of Isaiah, expressing a faith which reached such full development only generations after Isaiah's time. Even if this is the case, the later editors who placed these among the original oracles of the eighth-century prophet did so with the justification that the roots of the hope which find such splendid flowering are to be traced to Isaiah who, in his youth, saw the exalted God whose glory filled the earth, and in the strength of that vision was able to see, through the long years of conflict and devastation, the sure purposes of God's mercy to his people.
Even in the struggle of the nations Isaiah's vision of God revealed to him just and beneficent purpose. When his own wisdom was flouted, his party defeated in the nation's counsel, and, in consequence, the enemies were at the gate, his faith never faltered. The unquestionably historic facts of Isaiah's ministry may well justify belief that some at least of the most exalted hopes expressed in the book which bears his name were his genuine utterances.
While Isaiah was working among the noble and wealthy in Jerusalem, the prophet Micah was among the peasant farmers on the western slope of the Judean hills, some twenty miles west of Amos' home. Here the building up of the great estates which Isaiah had pictured was keenly felt. Micah knew from the viewpoint of the common people the terrible results of the haste to be rich that was corrupting church and state.
When Amaziah, priest of Bethel, intimated that Amos was prophesying as a means of livelihood, the herdsman of Tekoa stoutly denied that he was a professional prophet. The reason for his attitude may become clearer as we read Micah's description of the prophets of Judah, "that make the people to err; that bite with their teeth and cry, Peace; and whoso putteth not into their mouths, they even prepare war against him." Professional prophets and priests alike seemed to this champion of the suffering poor to be as mercenary and corrupt as the civil rulers and capitalists of the day. Though such spokesmen of God as Elijah, Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea had raised prophecy to incomparable moral heights, there were evidently seers and prophets in large numbers who were on much the same level as the common soothsayers and diviners of other religions.
All four of the great eighth-century prophets appear within one generation and with a message that is singularly unified, yet each has his own distinct emphasis and way of expressing truth, and they stand forth a lone group against a sordid background of priests who see nothing in religion except ceremonial worship and the living this provides for them, and prophets whose vision is determined by the silver that crosses their palms.
Lonely as the true prophets seem to stand, like towering summits which have caught the rays of a new day while mists and shadows and all lurking things are still abroad in the valleys, they must have reflected their light to many who treasured their truths; how else were their writings pre-served through all the vicissitudes of subsequent centuries ?
The members of the group, although they lived and taught in different districts, seem to have some knowledge of the words of. the others who have spoken before them. Near the close of the Book of Micah the threefold demand of Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah is preserved in perfect summary and with all the appeal of dramatic imagination. The prophet as herald gives Yahweh's summons to a great assize, where the majestic mountains are to be the judges in his impeachment of Israel. God himself then speaks, not in the thunderclap of Sinai, but in the more divine tones of tender pleading, reminding his people of their deliverance from bondage, of his guidance of them through the wilderness, and of their safe passage of the Jordan. Led to penitence by these memories the people ask what they may bring as suitable offering to such a God. Will the gifts of royal wealth, thou-sands of rams, or, of wildest imagination, ten thousands of rivers of oil, or, more precious than all, the first-born child will these be suitable return for the divine benefits received ? In startling contrast to all this the prophet answers : "He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly and to love kindness and to walk humbly with thy God ? "
Here speak again Amos, who conceived God first of all as just; Hosea, who came to know God as of tender compassion; Isaiah, who saw God exalted in holiness and man utterly corrupt before him. In this winnowed truth from his three great predecessors Micah gave to the world one of the most perfect expressions of man's duty to man and God ever framed in human speech. Indeed, it stands alone in its perfection until the two commands of love, on which hang all the law and the prophets, are united.