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Bible Commentaries

Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New TestamentsSutcliffe's Commentary

- Isaiah

by Joseph Sutcliffe


THE spirit of prophecy is coëval with the promises of our redemption. The human mind is drawn of God to dwell on the cheering objects of its future hope.

A prophet is a man specially called of God, and divinely inspired to foretell future things, and to disclose others on certain occasions which are known only to the omniscient Being. But the main part of his work is to pray and preach; to reprove sin, to cherish piety, and edify the people.

The holy patriarchs were all prophets, and the sons of Noah carried the profession to every part of the earth. But while the true prophet is regarded as the best of men, the prophet in name only is despised as the lowest pest of society.

The Jewish rabbins estimate, that in a succession of years God inspired and sent to their country forty eight prophets, and seven or more, as some contend, prophetesses. Those illustrious men were known in ancient times by a name very appropriate to their profession, as is noticed by the prophet Samuel: “Aforetime in Israel, when a man went to enquire of God, he spake thus: Come, let us go to הראה ha-roeh, the seer; for he who is now called נביא nabi, a prophet, was then called a seer.” 1 Samuel 9:9. Balaam’s words coincide with this distinction. “Balaam the son of Beor hath said, and the man whose eyes are open hath said: he hath said, who heard the words of God, who saw the vision of the Almighty.” Numbers 24:3-4. The “seer” was therefore a man who saw what no one else was allowed to see, and who knew the secrets which were revealed to no other.

The latter name, “prophet,” is said by some to be derived from noub, equivalent to produce, to germinate; and among the Arabs, to be great and elevated, a man who communicates to others the mind and will of God. The revelations communicated to those holy men, regard the present, the past, and the future; whatsoever the Word of the Lord was pleased to reveal to his servants. The finding of Saul’s asses, and our Lord’s annunciation of the death of Lazarus, were discoveries made by the spirit of prophecy.

But the idea of a prophet designates also an orator, a man of rare and incomparable eloquence; a man of courage to declare the boldest truths to sinners, and to announce the most unwelcome tidings of divine displeasure against a guilty nation; a man of purity, whom neither the wealth of princes could bribe from duty, nor their frowns deter from maintaining the rights of God. Such was the voice of Elijah to Ahab in Naboth’s vineyard, and of Samuel to Saul.

It is asserted by St. Paul, that God spake in times past to the fathers in πολυμερως diverse manners.

(1) By the Word of the Lord, the glorious Person of Christ, as noted a hundred times in the Chaldaic paraphrases, or targums of the Jews. And who can this Word be but the God of glory that appeared to the holy patriarchs?

(2) God spake by vision, while the prophet was awake.

(3) He spake by dreams in the night.

(4) By the Baith koll, or daughter of voice.

(5) By inward inspiration, in which the prophet was favoured with a divine abstraction of mind, to see as with the eyes of God, and to speak as the organ of the Holy Ghost.

(6) The Lord on some occasions was pleased to speak to man by the ministry of his holy angels, who are our “watchers” and guardians in the Lord.

But the standing mode, the grand medium of God’s speaking to the Hebrews, was by the oracle in the holy place of the tabernacle. This honour and glory of the divine presence was claimed by all nations. The temples in the dark recesses of India have been laid open to us by our learned countrymen, and by the patient investigation of missionaries. Here we find the race of Shem erecting temples, establishing oracles, and consulting their gods; for alas, they have no temple erected to HIM that made the heavens and the earth. In Japhet’s noble race of princely-looking sons, we find the druids doing in Europe what the brahmins had done in Asia. They preferred rocks and hills for temples, they erected cromlechs on three pillars, or altars for atoning sacrifices, and where human victims often completed the bloody ritual. They invoked the name of their Asas, a name analogous to the Allah of the east, or Elohim of the Hebrews. Here also their gods were consulted in times of trouble, and on all military expeditions.

The Chaldeans filled Babylon and Nineveh with their gods, of which Bel and Nebo were most in favour; gods despised and defied by the Hebrews, and laughed to scorn by their prophets. Isaiah 46:1-7. The Egyptians were the first to build temples to their gods, and were inferior to no nation in rituals and superstitions.

The Greeks followed the example of the Egyptians, in the erection of temples, and if possible more splendid in architecture. Their temples, in early times, had been honoured with sibyls, which the later pythonesses could never equal in celebrity. Having spoken of those women, Isaiah 11:6, I would here translate the words of D’ Ivignè, in his Classical Dictionary. Exodus 3:0; Exodus 3:0. Paris, 1646.

“The sibyls were certain female prophets, filled with the divinity, and living in perpetual virginity. Their name is derived from two words, sios, Jupiter, and boulè, equivalent to counsel, being estimated as councillors of the gods, who made them the nuncios of future things both certain and true, especially with regard to the creation of the world, the final judgment, the advent, the death and ascension of the Saviour, with other mysteries of our faith. Of the decay and fall of monarchies and empires, they have spoken so luminously that their verses seem to be histories of the past, rather than predictions of the future.

“The learned M. Varro gives their number as ten.

(1) The Cumean, or Italian sibyl, who flourished in the time of Abraham, and wore a crown of gold.

(2) The Cumane.

(3) The Persian.

(4) The Lybian.

(5) The Samian.

(6) The Delphian.

(7) The Phrygian.

(8) The Tiburtinian.

(9) The Hellespontian.

(10) The Etythreénian sibyl, of whose verses selections may be seen in St. Clement’s Stromates, book 6.

Lactantius’s Institutes, book 1., which St. Jerome quotes against Jovinian. Augustine’s City of God, book 18. chap. 13.” The late bishop Horsley has also collected a short account of the sibyls. See on Isaiah 11:0, Isaiah 41:23.

Seeing that Varro, Plutarch, and many illustrious gentiles, together with a succession of christian doctors, have spoken of the sibylline verses with so much respect; and seeing the predictions so closely coincide with those of the Hebrew prophets that many have said they were borrowed; we should not lightly despise truth, though the channel in which it flows may seem unhallowed.

It is true, the Arian writers exclaim against their books as forgeries; but assertions and opinions are not proofs. The capitol of Rome was burned a hundred years before Christ, and all the books consumed. To repair the loss, learned men were sent by the senate to Sicily and Greece, who collected a thousand lines of the sibylline verses. By consequence, a forgery would be difficult. But admitting for a moment, that any misguided christian foisted any spurious lines, the extent of his fraud must have been small, and could only be injurious to the cause he wished to defend.

Returning now to the Hebrew oracle, we have a more sure word of prophecy. The Lord said to Moses, and in promises oft repeated, “In all places where I record my name, I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee And I will appear unto thee in a cloud on the mercyseat; there will I meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercyseat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in command concerning the children of Israel.” Exodus 20:24; Exodus 25:22. Leviticus 16:2.

Of the manner of consulting the oracle, we know little. It was done by the high-priest alone, clothed with the ephod, and his holy garments. It is said of Joshua, and of all future princes, “He shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall ask for him after the judgment of the Urim before the Lord. At his word shall they (the army) go out, and at his word shall they come in; he and all the children of Israel with him, even all the congregation.” Numbers 27:21. Now as Moses and the elders saw the God of Israel, and under his feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in its clearness; so the glory continued to shine on the precious stones in the pectoral or breastplate of the highpriest, conferring the high marks of approbation, that God was present with his people, and accepted their devotion.

Another part of the oracle was, in time of need, in cases of distress, or of high events, to ask with reverence, and receive an answer from the mercyseat, as in the defeat before Ai, when the accursed thing was in the camp. The priest asked by name what tribe what family what individual had done the deed; and distinct answers were given. So Achan was taken by name. It was the same when Saul was made king; and when David went up to Hebron and received the crown. Oh happy Israel! What nation had God so nigh unto them? Who was like unto them, a people saved of the Lord.

From the high and glorious oracle of Israel, we cast our regards on the succession of Λογια ζωντα living oracles, whom God divinely inspired for the instruction and salvation of his people. They had no hand in their call and elevation; he drew them from the treasures of his providence, and endowed them with talents and eloquence equal to their work. Their labour, their conflicts, their perseverance proved that the Lord knew whom he had called. Of their courage and zeal, of the reprieves and grace they obtained for their country, the eulogies of posterity fail to do justice to their memory.

The manner in which the prophets were inspired is sufficiently and explicitly described in the old testament, and in the targums or paraphrases of the Jews. In twenty places of the book of Chronicles it is said, that the Word of the Lord spake to such a prophet; and that the Word of the Lord reproved such a prince by such a prophet, just as the Word of the Lord came and talked and reasoned with Jonah. It was the same Word or Angel of the Lord, that spake to Gideon in the vineyard when hiding his corn, in the time of invasion and of war.

When those holy men prophesied before the people they were usually very animated; brilliant in figures, and bold in expression. In secret converse with God, they enjoyed an abstraction of mind far surpassing what we can conceive; and their tongues were touched with the fire of the altar. They saw light in the light of the Lord. They worshipped as with the Messiah in open view, and spake in the full assurance of hope; notwithstanding some nuances which remained on futurity; for “they searched diligently what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ (or Word as above) which was in them did signify, when he testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow.” They handled the law with clean hands, reproved vice with a majesty purely divine, and left the radiance of an immortal hope in Christ shining bright on all their auditories.

The prophets in their political missions, the most critical part of their work, were cautious to deliver the word of the Lord, as the word of the Lord, untainted by public or private opinion. When Micaiah told Ahab that he saw all Israel as sheep scattered on the mountains, the king said, that on his return in peace he would put him to death; and the prophet rejoined, “If thou return at all in peace, the Lord hath not spoken by me.” 1 Kings 22:0. Sometimes, where the case required strong credibility, the prophet gave a sign, more fully to denote the certainty of the event; as when the rod of Moses became a serpent, and when the man of God rent the altar of Bethel in presence of Jeroboam. 1 Kings 13:0.

Symbolical signs were frequent with the prophets, and striking marks of the forbearance of heaven with the incredulous, as when Ahijah rent the new garment of Jeroboam into twelve pieces, and gave him ten, as a pledge that he should be king over the ten tribes. 1 Kings 11:30-31. Jeremiah, to prefigure the siege of Jerusalem, carried a drawing of the city and siege through the streets; and at another time wore a yoke on his neck. Chap. 27, 28. Once we find a prophet baking cakes with dried dung, another eating his meat by weight and measure, a third walking about in a state of nudity, a fourth marrying a woman of ill fame. These singular and striking signs were intended more fully to impress a brutish people with the horrors of their impending captivity.

But the grandeur and glory of the Hebrew prophets did not appear till death had laid their heads in the dust, or martyrdom had hastened them to the tomb. They rarely lived to enjoy posthumous fame. What they said of Egypt, that she should be the basest of kingdoms; that fishermen should spread their nets on Tyre; that the grand squares and palaces of Nineveh should be pastures for flocks; that Babylon should sink in her own morass; that Zion should be plowed like a field; and Jerusalem trodden down of the gentiles, were events which none but the eyes of God could see; and which crowned their character with laurels which never fade away. Their words, like the rock of ages, form a refuge for the church sure and strong, against all the sneers of an infidel world.

Above all, when they speak of forty circumstances of the sufferings of Christ, and enlarge on all the glory that should follow, the word of life flows from them as a fountain, to water and refresh the garden of the Lord. They illuminate the mind with truth, they warm the heart with charity, and raise the church to contemplate all the glorious objects of their future hope. Their words are brief, but brilliant; their metaphors bold, but just; their similes diversified, but luminous; and all the powers of language are sported in poetic numbers to pourtray the glories of Christ, and the exuberant blessings of his kingdom, which exceed all that the eye hath seen, or the ear hath heard. What hope remains for modern poets to excel in sacred verse!

But despised as those prophets were by the world, it should not escape remark, that they were often consulted by princes, and consulted in times of the greatest danger, when like ordinary men they had neither vision nor revelation of the passing events. So circumstanced they owned their weakness, and gave the glory to the Lord. When Elisha was consulted on the rebellion of Moab, he called for a minstrel, and by psalmody raised his soul to heaven till the hand of the Lord came upon him, and then he foretold the gift of water to the army, and victory over their foes. 2 Kings 3:0. It was the same when the Shunamite, on the death of her son, ran to Elisha, who said, Her soul is vexed, and the Lord hath hid it from me. 2 Kings 4:27. He accompanied her home, and in the act of powerful prayer the Lord restored her son to life. Thus the greatest of men needed the use of means, as much as the humblest saint.

On a retrospective view of those prophets, and on the character of their predictions which have received the seals of providence, the credence of their country, and the confidence of the church, we must own that on special occasions, mortal men were allowed to glance on the secrets of the divine prescience under the uplifted curtains which veil the future. How else could they expand their views, wide as all surrounding nations, and penetrate through a chain of causes and consequences, and declare a cloud of events, all of which were contingencies to the piercing eye of speculation. Most assuredly, none but He who understandeth our thoughts afar off, and who has the hearts of kings at his command, could have inspired the holy seers. In the overflowing of his mercy he filled them with celestial knowledge for the support of a suffering church, and for demonstration that Zion is the habitation of his glory, and the place where he delights to dwell.

But in the exuberance of thought, we must not lose our way, in drawing conclusions unworthy of a paternal and gracious God. We must not say that his foreknowledge and determinate counsel are so combined as to involve the doctrine of an absolute fate. This would be to “limit the Holy One of Israel;” this would be to fly into the arms of the stoics, who said that Jupiter himself was bound by the laws of fate. St. Paul has taught us a better way, to exclaim with a plenitude of reverence, Oh the depth of the riches, both of the wisdom and knowledge of God; how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! Romans 11:33. God is still a God, and still a Father; the lawgiver has the law in his own power; he can add to the days of Hezekiah fifteen years; he can postpone the punishment of contrite Ahab to the reign of his son; he can shorten the days of tribulation for his elect’s sake. Yea, he can remove the mitre from Eli’s house, and drive the incorrigible sons of David from their father’s throne; nor must any promise on the contrary side be cited here in defence of crime. See Chrysostom on this subject as quoted in the notes on Jeremiah 36:3.

Here however it may be asked, I do not say wisely, If the Spirit of prophecy was so consolatory to the ancient church, why is it not extended to the present ages? We may reply that, in former ages, the gift was special, and not common. It was given with miracles, when religion was lost in Egypt. It was revived when the Hebrew prophets had to engage in contests with idolatry, and to suffer martyrdom for the truth. It was revived in the church when the ambassadors of Christ had to fight with the great red dragon, in planting christianity in the Roman empire. But now, God having spoken to us by his Son from heaven; the apostles having seen his glory and heard the voice on the mount; and St. Paul having given us epistles as it were from the third heaven, we do not need further light. Why should the course of nature be disturbed by miracles, when the gospel is its own evidence? We are all now called to be prophets, to pray and sing with the Spirit, and with the understanding. The pastor taught of God, as Erasmus says, has a fountain of eloquence in his own breast.

Let it not however be understood, that heaven has in any degree diminished its special cares of the church, or is less attentive when we cry in the day of trouble. Saurin, a popular French preacher at the Hague, has noticed in a sermon, as others had done before, that while the Dutch were struggling to shake off the Spanish yoke, when the enemy’s ships were coming up to bombard Rotterdam, the people being at prayer in the church, the tide ebbed at half flood!!

I have in my possession a letter from Mrs. Malone, of Cork, wife of captain Malone of the ninth dragoons, 1797, stating that after the French grand fleet, with two and twenty thousand troops on board, had entered Bantry Bay, and while the protestants were crying to heaven, there rose a strong north wind which drove them out to sea. Thus the Lord heard prayer, and prevented rivers of blood from being shed in Ireland. Thus also the Redeemer is ever present with the christian as with the ancient church.

JOS. SUTCLIFFE. BRIGHTON, August 21, 1834.

The Chronicle of Eusebius arranges the chronological order of the four major, and the twelve minor prophets, as under.

















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