by John MacDuff
"Comfort, comfort My people!" says your God. Isaiah 40:1
"Sing for joy, O heavens! Rejoice, O earth! Burst into song, O mountains! For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on them in their suffering. Yet Jerusalem says, 'The Lord has deserted us; the Lord has forgotten us!' Never! Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for the child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would not forget you! See, I have engraved your name on the palms of my hands!" Isaiah 49:13-16
Just as the rapturous notes of the triumphant hymn, quoted at the close of the preceding, are dying away on the ear, we are met with a strain on the minor key — a plaintive wail, like the tones of a funeral dirge.
It is Zion impersonated; she is represented as giving utterance to words of deep dejection (verse 14), 'The Lord has deserted us; the Lord has forgotten us!' As Jehovah had just been announcing His purposes of world-wide mercy — salvation "to the ends of the earth" — we may take these words, in the first instance, as the lament of literal Israel — 'The Lord has chosen the Gentile, and in doing so, He has forgotten me. The wild olive has been grafted in; will not the natural olive be rejected?'
Or it may be taken as the wail of the Church universal, prompted in times of rebuke and blasphemy, defection and apostasy, cruelty and persecution, when blood is flowing and martyr-fires are lighted; or worse, when faith is weak, and love is waxing cold, and knees are bowing to Baal. The vessel is in danger, and the cry of the panic-stricken crew is, "Lord, don't you care that we perish!"
Or again, the utterance may be regarded as the exclamation of the individual soul, amid frowning providences and baffling dispensations, when there is no silver lining to the cloud, or in that most awful of human experiences, when, apparently deserted and forsaken, it makes the sorrowful appeal, 'Where is my God now?' In all the three cases Jehovah's reply is the same — the assurance of His inviolable, unchanging, everlasting love.
This He enforces by two arguments. He answers the unworthy lament of Zion, by the use of two beautiful and expressive figures.
The first (what we shall reserve for fuller illustration in a future exposition) is the mother's instinctive fondness for her babe. It is earth's most touching picture of constant devotion (verse 15), "Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for the child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would not forget you!" Mothers have done this a thousand times over. To cover shame; to hush a guilty secret; or at the heathen altar to propitiate a blood-thirsty god — they have forgotten their child. Nature may be thus untrue to her tenderest relationships — a mother may prove herself unworthy of the sacred name!
"Yet," God says, "I will not forget you!" My love is stronger than the strongest of earthly ties. "Many waters cannot quench it, neither can the floods drown it." Or, as it is beautifully said in 'the Song of Songs' of this divine affection, "The coals thereof are coals of fire, which has a most vehement flame" (8:6) — [lit. 'the coals of God']. It is a God-like emotion; there is nothing of the fitful or capricious, of the human element in it — today, furnace-heat; tomorrow, cooled down. It is divine, constant, everlasting. These flames of love on the heavenly altar are fed with "the coals of God!"
The second figure, and one equally beautiful, is taken from the engraver's art (verse 16), "See, I have engraved your name on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me." We have noted, in a previous chapter, the ancient practice of marking or tattooing the skin. These punctures, colored with indigo, were rendered indelible by hot brands; and the custom being often connected with religious rites, they not unfrequently took the shape of crude delineations of altars, or temples, or holy places. It is a reference to this we have here. 'So little,' says Jehovah, 'have I forgotten you, O Zion; I have you engraved, in indelible memorial, on the palms of my hands; so that your walls are continually before me — kept in sacred and everlasting remembrance.'
Perhaps, indeed, it is unnecessary to resort to a heathen practice to illustrate and explain the figure. We know that the Jewish high-priest of old, in his approach to the Holy of Holies, carried on his breast a golden plate, set with four rows of precious stones, on which were engraved the names of the children of Israel. Jesus, the great antitypical High-Priest, bears the names of His covenant people along with Him in His every approach to the throne. Only, instead of the golden breast-plate at the heart — the image is here transferred to the palms of His hands — those hands which are ever lifted up in pleading intercession — the hands which bear still the print of the nails, the perpetual memorial of His love and suffering, and the ground of His people's confidence. "You have engraved me," says Augustine, "on the palms of Your hands — read that engraving, and save me."
Let us take this twofold image for our comfort and consolation. A mother's love! few have not known its lavish tenderness, its sacred intensity — beginning with the cradle and ending only with the grave! , In feeblest infancy, those early hours which memory fails to recall — in childhood's seasons of pain and sickness — how gladly has it surrendered nights of sleepless watching — smoothing the pillow, opening an ever ready and willing ear for the confiding of little trials and ills, to which no other could patiently listen. When youth passes into incipient adulthood, how that love expends itself in anxious prayers! how it follows the absent one in thought by day and in dreams by night, to the far-off land. In the stormy, starless sky, how it travels in spirit to the laboring vessel! how its wakeful ear is alive to every angry gust and every booming wave! Or out amid the surges of battle, or by the camp-fires — how real and acute is its slow martyrdom of palpitating fear — vigils of long suspense and mental torture!
And even if age has dulled other faculties and blunted other sensibilities, what is more touching, than, when death has put a sudden arrest on filial affection — to see that mother bending in anguish, over the love of her heart and the nourisher of her old age — and from which alone she can draw consolation, blurred with the heavy tear-drops of parental sorrow! A mother's love! It is the strongest emotion when first kindled; it is the last to perish. It begins with the birth-pangs; it lingers undying, unquenched, over the tomb.
'This,' says God, 'this, and far more than this, O Zion, is my love to you!'
"Yet I will not forget you!" This promise may well be our solace and support amid perishing earthly friendships and vacillating earthly love — a glorious watchword to take with us through life, a cheerer in passing through the Dark valley. Ay, what will eternity be — but God loving His glorified people, with more than a mother's love! "Yet I will not forget you!" this, as He stoops over each ransomed child, will be the unending lullaby of heaven!
Or, take the other emblem; every individual Christian is engraved — -where? Not on the mountains, for though called 'everlasting,' — they are to 'depart;' not on the hills — for they are 'to be removed;' not on the heavens — for they are to 'vanish as a scroll;' not on the sun — for it is to grow dim with age; on no part of outer nature — on no pillar or cornice or wall of the Almighty's palace; for years would corrode the inscription, time would obliterate it. They have a more imperishable place upon the Hand of God. From that, nothing can erase them! The Patriarch's prayer is answered; they are "engraved as with an iron pen and lead in the Rock for ever;" but that rock is the Rock of Ages!
As the mother's heart is the symbol of love and tenderness — so the palm of the hand is the symbol alike of strength and security. There is Love in God's heart — and Omnipotence in His arm; and these are both pledged and guaranteed in behalf of His Church and people.
Is it the Church in her collective capacity, environed with the powers of evil? She has no might in herself against that great multitude. Had there been none 'stronger than the strong', the dragon of the Apocalypse would long ago have drowned the woman with the flood from his mouth. But He who is with her, is greater than all that can be against her.
Let not Zion, in unworthy misgiving — impugn the honor and faithfulness of her King, saying, "My God has forgotten me!" He cannot forget; He has her walls and battlements so depicted as to be "continually before Him." These walls may be dilapidated; the weeds of apparent forgetfulness may be growing in their fissures. Man-deserted they may be — but God-deserted they cannot be. He, as well as His saints, "loves every stone in her walls and cherishes even the dust in her streets."
The vessel may be tossed by angry storms; but let her steer, not by human landmarks — earthly beacon-lights — but by these two bright constellations here given us: telling of the love of God's Heart, and the power of His Arm — and she will be brought to the desired haven!
Or, in the case of the individual believer, does a cold shadow at times fall across his sunlit path, tempting him to doubt the rectitude of God's ways, and the faithfulness of His promises? Let him trust that inviolable, unforgetting Love. Like Ezekiel's monster wheels, God's providences may be often baffling; but they are "full of eyes." They are not shifting, capricious, untended, unregulated. The eyes of love and power are there; and in their complex evolutions and revolutions they are working out some grand end for His own glory and for His people's good. All else may perish, all else may prove unfaithful. The trusted may requite with base treachery; the 'summer friend' may abandon and forsake in the winter of adversity; the golden prop on which we leaned may give way; the tree under whose shadow we sat, may have its roots sapped and undermined by the stream; brother may be estranged from the early love of brother; the fond embrace of sisters may be among the mingled memories of the past; even the mother may be a traitor to her tenderest instincts and her dearest trust — smiles may be merged into frowns, and love into cold hatred; "They may forget — yet," says Jehovah, "I WILL NOT FORGET YOU!"
"When anxiety was great within me — Your comfort gave me renewed hope and cheer!" Psalm 94:19