The Great Contrast!
by John MacDuff
"Comfort, comfort My people!" says your God. Isaiah 40:1
"Lift up your eyes to the heavens, look at the earth beneath; the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment and those who dwell therein, shall die in like manner. But my salvation will last forever, my righteousness will never fail!" Isaiah 51:6
This and the following chapters consist of alternate addresses of comfort, spoken by Messiah to His weary ones, and the replies to these on the part of His people.
"Hearken!" is His first gracious word of invocation. He had closed the preceding chapter with predictions of wrath to the unbelieving; now He turns to the "followers after righteousness," the "seekers after God" (verse 1), the true and genuine Israel of all ages, who, renouncing the sparks of their own kindling — forsaking the false and unreal — were clinging to noble and enduring verities. He exhorts them, even in the midst of doubt and darkness, trouble and perplexity — the mysteries of the present — to exercise simple faith in His love and power.
"Look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah who gave birth to you in pain. When I called him, he was only one; I blessed him and made him many." For this purpose He recalls the example of Abraham, the father and founder of the Jewish nation, who, hoping against hope, and believing against unbelief, was "strong in faith, giving glory to God." "When I called him, he was only one" (verse 2). That is, when he was a unit, a solitary pilgrim and sojourner, from another land, childless, heirless, "as good as dead." But the Almighty Being whom this feeble one served, promised to make of him a great nation — that the barren 'rock' (verse 1) would be turned into a living spring. The stars of the eastern sky were made the emblems of his unnumbered seed. And He was faithful who thus 'promised.' "I blessed him and made him many" (verse 2).
So may His Church and people similarly trust His interposition in the darkest and gloomiest hour of their need: "For the Lord will comfort Zion; He will comfort all her waste places, and He will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and melodious song" (verse 3).
The theme, too, He here selects (His first new word of comfort for the weary) is the same which is associated with the name of the faithful Patriarch — 'You who follow after righteousness' (verse 1); 'My righteousness is near' (verse 5); 'My righteousness shall not be abolished' (verse 6). As "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness" (Romans 4:3); so is Christ "the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believes" (Romans 10:4). 'The righteousness' of Jehovah-Jesus is 'unto all and upon all those who believe' (Romans 3:22). Then the Divine Speaker proceeds to draw the magnificent contrast contained in the motto-words, between the most enduring and noblest of earthly things — and imperishable spiritual realities.
He takes a twofold illustration, from the dissolution of the outer material world — and the dissolution of the human body.
First, He takes an illustration from nature's material framework. "Lift up your eyes to the heavens, look at the earth beneath; the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies." He summons us to lift up our eyes to these same heavens, with their troop of stars — the same lustrous worlds on which the eye of Abraham gazed; or to turn to the platform of earth, with its multitudinous symbols of enduring strength — its rocks and mountains, its plains and oceans and rivers. They are to 'vanish as smoke;' they are to 'wear out like a garment.'
It is not by any means necessary that we deduce from these words, the old theory of annihilation; that the day is ever coming when that mighty mass of planets and universes, with their teeming throngs of life — is to be torn to shreds and atoms, and there is suddenly to supervene a wholesale destruction of matter and being. So far, indeed, as the underived happiness and glory of God are concerned, this might be. He would be infinitely happy and glorious even were every star to leave vacant its throne, every altar-fire in heaven to be quenched — and Himself to be once more alone, the solitary tenant of infinite immensity. But we have nothing either in reason or in Scripture to sanction such doom and destruction of present materialism.
There will be the dissolution of the present economy — only for its reconstruction. Yet, even in this restricted sense, the things that are seen are but temporal and temporary. The present apparent stability is not a real permanence; the so-called 'everlasting mountains' are not everlasting; the earth's pillars of primeval granite will again be overthrown, as they were, millions of years ago, when the globe was the theater of frightful convulsion and dismemberment. There are gigantic elements of destruction at work within it; the volcanoes are slumbering, which are to wrap it in conflagration.
But the Divine Speaker takes another and more patent illustration. There may be those who discredit the thought of any such violence being done to the order of nature — who, as they watch her unvarying sequences, the majestic roll of her seasons — can trace no spot nor wrinkle nor furrow of age, either in heaven above or on earth beneath; and therefore He enforces His comparison from a different point of view.
He takes up the consideration of our own frailty and mortality (verse 6), "And those who dwell therein, shall die in like manner." Who can resist the accuracy and cogency, at least of this averment — that the narrow house "appointed for all living" awaits each one of us; that the path of poverty and riches, childhood and old-age, obscurity and glory — leads but to the grave! The mightiest cannot avert or evade the common doom of the dust! The world's conqueror cannot include this stronghold among his victories. The world's wisest cannot invent the panacea to cure or counteract this great paralysis of life. Sooner or later the words of the Prophet in the case of each one of us will have a too truthful fulfillment, "How is the strong staff broken, and the beautiful rod?" "There is an appointed time to die," and "there is no discharge in that war."
If, therefore, when we look up to the calm worlds above us — star on star, moored like gleaming ships in their quiet nightly haven; or to the steadfast glories of the material globe around us — unshattered, for long centuries, by earthquake or convulsion or storm; if, in such a contemplation, we may fail to own the possibility of dissolution, or even of decrepitude and decay (how in any sense it can be averred that "the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment"); yet too truthful surely, at least, is the figure of transitoriness, evanescence, mutability — when we come to tread the burial-ground, and ponder the problem of our own fleeting life and mortality!
The sun of each one of us is declining. We have the sentence of death in ourselves. The world is sprinkled with sepulchers. It is more a home of the dead — than the abode of the living. These now stout and brave hearts — yes, the stoutest and the bravest —
"Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave!"
In looking to the enduring fabric of outer nature — its unvarying sequences may appear to countersign the scoffer's plea, "All things continue as they were." But, by many a tearful and dismal memory, we cannot so dismiss or negative the stern reality of the words, "Those who dwell therein — shall die in like manner."
And then comes the grand antithesis. "BUT my salvation will last forever, my righteousness will never fail." It would almost seem as if the Savior had this very passage in view, when He uttered, in the after-days of His incarnation, the parallel saying, "Heaven and earth shall pass away — but my words shall not pass away" (Matthew 24:35). Earth's most enduring things will perish! The palace walls will crumble; the human tenant will undergo the same doom of the dust. BUT the righteousness and the salvation of God are beyond the possibility of wreck and decay; the provisions of the everlasting covenant, begun in grace here — will be perpetuated in endless glory hereafter.
The Almighty Speaker, in the strong figures of this verse, would tell of the poor portion which accrues to those who are satisfied, for their all — with what is "of the earth, earthy;" who make their perch, the world's shifting ambitions and perishable riches and fleeting pleasures, who build their nests on any bough, except on the Tree of Life. You who may have tried every such perch, and find how unstable is the footing — how the prowling night-winds of misfortune, or the hurricane of death have bared your nest, or brought the bough on which you had built your nest — with a crash to the ground! Oh! speed your flight upward to lasting realities; pause not until you have folded your wings in the clefts of the true Rock! "My heart is overwhelmed — lead me to the Rock that is higher than I."
It is only, at best, tent-life here on earth; the permanent mansions are above. God would speak to you, in the words which head this meditation, by the magnificent argument of departing heavens, and by the earth undergoing its predicted baptism of fire. But He would speak to you also by a nearer, tenderer plea — by the graves of your households — the many yawning graves and blanks in your homes and hearts!
He would tell you, by the lessons of mortality all around, that if you would wish to lay up what is enduring, you must hold with a loose and feeble grasp — what, sooner or later, will be like the vanishing smoke or the moth-eaten garment, and seek that "salvation which will last forever, and that righteousness which will never fail!"
"When anxiety was great within me — Your comfort gave me renewed hope and cheer!" Psalm 94:19