'He is near that justifieth Me; who will contend with Me? let us stand together: who is Mine adversary? let him come near to Me.9. Behold, the Lord God will help Me; who is he that shall condemn Me? lo, they all shall wax old as a garment; the moth shall eat them up.' -- ISAIAH l.8, 9.
We have reached the final words of this prophecy, and we hear in them a tone of lofty confidence and triumph. While the former ones sounded plaintive like soft flute music, this rings out clear like the note of a trumpet summoning to battle. The Servant of the Lord seems here to be eager for the conflict, not merely patient and enduring, not merely setting His face like a flint, but confidently challenging His adversaries, and daring them to the strife.
As for the form of the words, the image underlying the whole is that of a suit at law. It is noteworthy that since Isaiah xli. this metaphor has run through the whole prophecy. The great controversy is God versus Idols. God appears at the bar of men, pleads His cause, calls His witnesses (xliii.9). 'Let them' (i.e. idols) 'bring forth their witnesses that they may be justified.'
Possibly the form of the words here is owing to the dominance of that idea in the context, and implies nothing more than the general notion of opposition and victory. But it is at least worth remembering that in the life of Christ we have many instances in which the prophetic images were literally fulfilled even though their meaning was mainly symbolical: as e.g. the riding on the ass, the birth in Bethlehem, the silence before accusers, 'a bone of Him shall not be broken,' and in this very contest, 'shame and spitting.' So here there may be included a reference to that time when the hatred of opposition reached its highest point -- in the sufferings and death of our Lord. And it is at least a remarkable coincidence that that highest point was reached in formal trials before the ecclesiastical and civil authorities, for the purpose of convicting Him, and that these processes as legal procedures broke down so signally.
Keeping up the metaphor, we mark here --
I. The Messiah's lofty challenge to His accusers. II. The Messiah's expectation of divine vindication and acquittal. III. The Messiah's confidence of ultimate triumph.
I. Messiah's lofty challenge to His accusers.
The 'justifying' which He expects may refer either to personal character or to official functional faithfulness. I think it refers to both, and that we have here, expressed in prophetic outline, not only the fact of Christ's sinlessness, but the fact of His consciousness of sinlessness.
The words are the strongest assertion of His absolute freedom from anything that an adversary could lay hold of on which to found a charge, and not merely so, but they also dare to assert that the unerring and all-penetrating eye of the Judge of all will look into His heart, and find nothing there but the mirrored image of His own perfection. I do not need to dwell on the fact of Christ's sinlessness, that He is perfect manhood without stain, without defect. I have had occasion to touch upon that truth in a former sermon on 'I was not rebellious.' Here we have to do not so much with sinlessness as with the consciousness of sinlessness.
Now note that consciousness on Christ's part.
We have to reckon with the fact of it as expressed in His own words: 'I do always the things that please Him. Which of you convinceth Me of sin?' 'The Prince of this world cometh and hath nothing in Me.'
In Him there is the absence of all trace of sense of sin.
No prayer for forgiveness comes from His lips.
No penitence, no acknowledgment of even weakness is heard from Him. Even in His baptism, which for others was an acknowledgment of impurity, He puts His submission to the rite, not on the ground of needing to be washed from sin, but of 'fulfilling all righteousness.'
Now, unless Christ was sinless, what do we say of these assertions? 'If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us' -- are we to apply that canon to Him when He stands before us and asks, 'Which of you convinceth Me of sin?' Surely it augurs small self- knowledge or a low moral standard if, from the lips of a religious teacher, there never comes one word to indicate that he has felt the hold of evil on him. I make bold to say that if Christ were not sinless, the Apostle Paul stood far above Him, with his 'of whom I am chief.' What difference would there be between Him and the Pharisees who called forth His bitterest words by this very absence in them of consciousness of sin: 'If ye were blind ye would have no sin, but now ye say, We see, therefore your sin remaineth.'
Singularly enough the world has accepted Him at His own estimate, and has felt that these lofty assertions of absolute perfection were borne out by His life, and were consistent with the utmost lowliness of heart.
As to the adversary's failure, I need only recall the close of His life, which is representative of the whole impression made on the world by Him. What a wonderful and singular concurrence of testimonies was borne to His pure and blameless life! After months of hatred and watching, even the rulers' lynx-eyed jealousy found nothing, and they had to fall back upon false witnesses. 'Hearest thou not how many things they witness against Thee?' He stood with unmoved silence, and the lies fell down dead at His feet. Had He answered, they would have been preserved and owed their immortality to the Gospels: He held His peace and they vanished. All attempts failed so signally that at the last they were fain, in well-simulated holy abhorrence, to base His condemnation on what He had said in their presence. 'How think ye, ye have heard the blasphemy?' So all that the adversary, raking through a life, could find, was that one word. That was His sin; in all else He was pure. Remember Pilate's acquittal: 'I find no fault in Him,' and his wife's warning, 'Have thou nothing to do with that just Person.' Think of Judas, 'I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood.' Listen to the penitent thief's low voice gasping out in his pangs and almost collapse: 'This man hath done nothing amiss.' Listen to the Centurion telling the impression made even on his rough nature: 'Truly this was a righteous Man.'
These are the answers to the Servant's challenge, wrung from the lips of His adversaries; and they but represent the universal judgment of humanity.
There is one Man whose life has been without stain or spot, whose soul has never been crossed by a breath of passion, nor dimmed by a speck of sin, whose will has ever been filled with happy obedience, whose conscience has been undulled by evil and untaught to speak in condemnation, whose whole nature has been like some fair marble, pure in hue, perfect in form, and unstained to the very core. There is one Man who can front the most hostile scrutiny with the bold challenge, 'Which of you convinceth Me of sin?' and His very haters have to answer, 'I find no fault in Him,' while those that love Him rejoice to proclaim Him 'holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners.' There is one Man who can front the most rigid Law of Duty and say, 'I came not to destroy but to fulfil,' and the stony tables seem to glow with tender light, as of rocky cliffs in morning sunshine, attesting that He has indeed fulfilled all righteousness. There is one Man who can stand before God without repentance or confession, and whose claim 'I do always the things that please Him,' the awful voice from the opening heavens endorses, when it proclaims; 'This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.' The lowly Servant of God flings out His challenge to the universe: 'Who will contend with Me?' and that gage has lain in the lists for nineteen centuries unlifted.
II. The Messiah's expectation of divine vindication and acquittal.
Like many another man, Christ had to strengthen Himself against calumny and slander by turning to God, and finding comfort in the belief that there was One who would do Him right, and as throughout this context we have had the true humanity of our Lord in great prominence, it is worth while to dwell for a moment on that thought of His real sharing in the pain of misconstruction and groundless charges, and of His too having to say, as we have so often to say, 'Well, there is one who knows. Men may condemn but God will acquit.'
But there is something more than that here. The divine vindication and acquittal is not a mere hidden thought and judgment in the mind of God. It is a declaring and showing to be innocent, and that not by word but by deed. That expectation seemed to be annihilated and made ludicrous by His death. But the 'justifying' of which our text speaks takes place in Christ's resurrection and ascension.
'Manifest in the flesh, justified in the spirit' (1 Timothy iii.16). 'Declared to be the Son of God with power, ... by the resurrection from the dead' (Rom. i.4).
His death seems the entire abandonment of this holy and sinless man. It seems to demonstrate His claims to be madness, His hope to be futile, His promises to be wind. No wonder that the sorrowing apostles wailed, 'We trusted that it had been He who should have redeemed Israel.' The death of Christ, if it were but a martyr's death, and if we had to believe that that frame had crumbled into dust, and that heart ceased for ever to beat, would not only destroy the worth of all that He spoke, but would be the saddest instance in all history of the irreversible sway that death wields over all mankind, and would deepen the darkness and sadden the gloom of the grave. True, there were not wanting even in His dying hours mysterious indications, such as His promise to the penitent thief. But these only make the disappointment the deeper, if there was nothing more after His death.
So Christ's justification is in His resurrection and ascension.
III. The Messiah's confidence of ultimate triumph.
In the last words of the text the adversaries are massed together. The confidence that the Lord God will help and justify leads to the conviction that all opposition to Him is futile and leads to destruction.
We see the historical fulfilment in the fate of the nation. 'His blood be upon us and upon our children.'
We have a truth applying universally that antagonism to Him is self- destructive.
Two forms of destruction are here named. There is a slow decay going on in the opponents and their opposition, as a garment waxing old, and there is a being fretted away by the imperceptible working of external causes, as by gnawing moths.
Applied to persons. To opposing systems.
How many antagonists the Gospel has had, and one after another has been antiquated, and their books are only known because fragments of them are preserved in Christian writings. Paganism is gone from Europe, and its idols are in our museums. Each generation has its own phase of opposition, which lasts for a little while. The mists round the sun melt, the clouds piled in the north, surging up to bury it beneath their banks, are dissipated. The sea roars and smashes on the cliffs, but it ebbs and calms. Some of us have seen more than one school of thought which came to the assault of Christianity, with colours flying and drums rattling, defeated utterly and forgotten, and so it will always be. One may be sure that each enemy in turn will descend to the oblivion that has already received so many, and can imagine these beaten foes rising from their seats to welcome the newcomer with the sad greeting: 'Art thou also become weak as we? art thou become like unto us?'
We are 'justified' in His 'justification.'
The real connection between us and Christ by faith, makes our justification to be involved in His, so that it is no mere accommodation but a profound perception of the real relation between Christ and us, when Paul, in Romans viii.34, triumphantly claims the words of our text for Christ's disciples, and rings out their challenge on behalf of all believers: 'It is God that justifieth, who is he that condemneth?'
Do you trust in Christ? Then you too can dare to say: 'The Lord God will help me; who is he that shall condemn me?'
'Who is among you that feareth the Lord, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness, and hath no light? let him trust in the name of the Lord, and stay upon his God.' -- ISAIAH l.10.
The persons addressed in this call to faith are 'those who fear the Lord,' and 'obey the voice of His Servant.' In that collocation is implied that these two things are necessarily connected, so that obedience to Christ is the test of true religion, and the fear of the Lord does not exist where the word of the Son is neglected or rejected.
But besides that most fruitful and instructive juxtaposition, other important thoughts come into view here. The fact that the call to faith is addressed to those who are regarded as already fearing God suggests the need for renewed and constantly repeated acts of confidence, at every stage of the Christian life, and opens up the whole subject of the growth and progress of individual religion, as secured by the continuous exercise of faith. The call is addressed to all at every stage of advancement. Of course it is addressed also to those who are disobedient and rebellious. But that wider aspect of the merciful invitation does not come into view here.
But there is another clause in the description of the persons addressed, 'Who walketh in darkness and hath no light.' This is, no doubt, primarily a reference to the great sorrow that filled, like a gloomy thundercloud, the horizon of Jewish prophets, small and uninteresting as it seems to us, namely, the captivity of Israel and their expulsion from their land. The faithful remnant are not to escape their share in the national calamity. But while it lasts, they are to wait patiently on the Lord, and not to cast away their confidence, though all seems dark and dreary.
The exhortation thus regarded suggests the power and duty of faith even in times of disaster and sorrow. But another meaning has often been attached to these words, they have been lifted into another region, the spiritual, and have been supposed to refer to a state of feeling not unknown to devout hearts, in which the religious life is devoid of joy and peace. That is a phase of Christian experience, which meets any one who knows much of the workings of men's hearts, and of his own, when faith is exercised with but little of the light of faith, and the fear of the Lord is cherished with but scant joy in the Lord. Now if it be remembered that such an application of the words is not their original purpose, there can be no harm in using them so. Indeed we may say that, as the words are perfectly general, they include a reference to all darkness of life or soul, however produced, whether it come from the night of sorrow falling on us from without, or from mists and gloom rising like heavy vapours from our own hearts. So considered, the text suggests the one remedy for all gloom and weakness in the spiritual life.
Thus, then, we have three different sets of circumstances in which faith is enforced as the source of true strength and our all-embracing duty. In outward sorrow and trial, trust; in inward darkness and sadness, trust; in every stage of Christian progress, trust. Or
I. Faith the light in the darkness of the world. II. Faith the light in the darkness of the soul. III. Faith the light in every stage of Christian progress.
* * * * *
I. Faith our light in the darkness of the world.
The mystery and standing problem of the Old Testament is the coexistence of goodness and sorrow, and the mystery still remains, and ever will remain, a fact. It is partially alleviated if we remember that one main purpose of all our sorrows is to lead us to this confidence.
1. The call to faith is the true voice of all our sorrows.
It seems easy to trust when all is bright, but really it is just as hard, only we can more easily deceive ourselves, when physical well- being makes us comfortable. We are less conscious of our own emptiness, we mask our poverty from ourselves, we do not seem to need God so much. But sorrow reveals our need to us. Other props are struck away, and it is either collapse or Him. We learn the vanity, the transiency, of all besides.
Sorrow reveals God, as the pillar of cloud glowed brighter when the evening fell. Sorrow is meant to awaken the powers that are apt to sleep in prosperity.
So the true voice of all our griefs is 'Come up hither.' They call us to trust, as nightfall calls us to light up our lamps. The snow keeps the hidden seeds warm; shepherds burn heather on the hillside that young grass may spring.
2. The call to faith echoes from the voice of the Servant.
Jesus in His darkness rested on God, and in all His sorrows was yet anointed with the oil of gladness. In every pang He has been before us. The rack is sanctified because He has been stretched upon it.
3. The substance of the call.
It is to trust, not to anything more. No attempts to stifle tears are required. There is no sin in sorrow. The emotions which we feel to God in bright days are not appropriate at such times. There are seasons in every life when all that we can say is, 'Truly this is a grief, and I will bear it.'
What then is required? Assurance of God's loving will sending sorrow. Assurance of God's strengthening presence in it, assurance of deliverance from it. These, not more, are required; these are the elements of the faith here called for.
Such faith may co-exist with the keenest sense of loss. The true attitude in sorrow may be gathered from Christ's at the grave of Lazarus, contrasted with the excessive mourning of the sisters, and the feigned grief of the Jews.
There are times when the most that we can do is to trust even in the great darkness, 'Though He slay me yet will I trust in Him.' Submissive silence is sometimes the most eloquent confession of faith. 'I was dumb, I opened not my mouth, because Thou didst it.'
4. The blessed results of such faith.
It is implied that we may find all that we need, and more, in God. Have we to mourn friends? 'In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne.' Have we lost wealth? We have in Him a treasure that moth or rust cannot touch. Are our hopes blasted? 'Happy is He ... whose hope is in the Lord his God.' Is our health broken? 'I shall yet praise Him, who is the health of my countenance.' 'The Lord is able to give thee much more than these.'
How can we face the troubles of life without Him? God calls us when in darkness, and by the darkness, to trust in His name and stay ourselves on Him. Happy are we if we answer 'Though the fig-tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines ... yet I will rejoice in the Lord, and joy in the God of my salvation.'
II. Faith, our light in the darkness of the soul.
No doubt there may be such a thing as true fear of God in the soul along with spiritual darkness, faith without the joy of faith. Now this condition seems contradictory of the very nature of the Christian life. For religion is union with God who is light, and if we walk in Him, we are in the light. How then can such experience be?
We must dismiss the notion of God's desertion of the trusting soul. He is always the same; He has 'never said to the seed of Jacob, Seek ye Me in vain.' But while putting aside that false explanation, we can see how such darkness may be. If our religious life was in more vigorous exercise, more pure, perfect and continuous, there would be no separation of faith and the joy of faith. But we have not such unruffled, perfect, uninterrupted faith, and hence there may be, and often is, faith without much joy of faith. I would not say that such experience is always the fruit of sin. But certainly we are not to blame Him or to think of Him as breaking His promises, or departing from His nature. No principles, be they ever so firmly held, ever so undoubtingly received, ever so passionately embraced, exert their whole power equally at all moments in a life. There come times of languor when they seem to be mere words, dead commonplaces, as unlike their former selves as sapless winter boughs to their summer pride of leafy beauty. The same variation in our realising grasp affects the truths of the Gospel. Sometimes they seem but words, with all the life and power sucked out of them, pale shadows of themselves, or like the dried bed of a wady with blazing, white stones, where flashing water used to leap, and all the flowerets withered, which once bent their meek little heads to drink. No facts are always equally capable of exciting their correspondent emotions. Those which most closely affect our personal life, in which we find our deepest joys, are not always present in our minds, and when they are, do not always touch the springs of our feelings. No possessions are always equally precious to us. The rich man is not always conscious with equal satisfaction of his wealth. If, then, the way from the mind to the emotions is not always equally open, there is a reason why there may be faith without light of joy. If the thoughts are not always equally concentrated on the things which produce joy, there is a reason why there may be the habit of fearing God, though there be not the present vigorous exercise of faith, and consequently but little light.
Another reason may lie in the disturbing and saddening influence of earthly cares and sorrows. There are all weathers in a year. And the highest hope and nearest possible approach to joy is sometimes 'Unto the upright there ariseth light in the darkness.' Our lives are sometimes like an Arctic winter in which for many days is no sun.
Another reason may be found in the very fact that we are apt to look impatiently for peace and joy, and to be more exercised with these than with that which produces them.
Another may be errors or mistakes about God and His Gospel.
Another may be absorption with our own sin instead of with Him. To all these add temperament, education, habit, example, influence of body on the mind, and of course also positive inconsistencies and a low tone of Christian life.
It is clear then that, if these be the causes of this state, the one cure for it is to exercise our faith more energetically.
Trust, do not look back. We are tempted to cast away our confidence and to say: What profit shall I have if I pray unto Him? But it is on looking onwards, not backwards, that safety lies.
Trust, do not think about your sins.
Trust, do not think so much about your joy.
It is in the occupation of heart and mind with Jesus that joy and peace come. To make them our direct aim is the way not to attain them. Though now there seems a long wintry interval between seed time and harvest, yet 'in due season we shall reap if we faint not.'
'In the fourth watch of the night Jesus came unto them.'
III. Faith our guiding light in every stage of Christian progress.
Those who already 'fear God' are in the text exhorted to trust.
In the most advanced Christian life there are temptations to abandon our confidence. We never on earth come to such a point as that, without effort, we are sure to continue in the way. True, habit is a wonderful ally of goodness, and it is a great thing to have it on our side, but all our lives long, there will be hindrances without and within which need effort and self-repression. On earth there is no time when it is safe for us to go unarmed. The force of gravitation acts however high we climb. Not till heaven is reached will 'love' be 'its own security,' and nature coincide with grace. And even in heaven faith 'abideth,' but there it will be without effort.
1. The most advanced Christian life needs a perpetual renewal and repetition of past acts of faith.
It cannot live on a past any more than the body can subsist on last year's food. The past is like the deep portions of coral reefs, a mere platform for the living present which shines on the surface of the sea, and grows. We must gather manna daily.
The life is continued by the same means as that by which it was begun. There is no new duty or method for the most advanced Christian; he has to do just what he has been doing for half a century. We cannot transcend the creatural position, we are ever dependent. 'To hoar hairs will I carry you.' The initial point is prolonged into a continuous line.
2. The most advanced and mature faith is capable of increase, in regard to its knowledge of its object, and in intensity, constancy, power. At first it may be a tremulous trust, afterwards it should become an assured confidence. At first it may be but a dim recognition, as in a glass darkly, of the great love which has redeemed us at a great price; afterwards it should become the clear vision of the trusted Friend and lifelong companion of our souls, who is all in all to us. At first it may be an interrupted hold, afterwards it should become such a grasp as the roots of a tree have on the soil. At first it may be a feeble power ruling over our rebel selves, like some king beleaguered in his capital, who has no sway beyond its walls, afterwards it should become a peaceful sovereign who guides and sways all the powers of the soul and outgoings of the life. At first it may be like a premature rose putting forth pale petals on an almost leafless bough, afterwards the whole tree should be blossomed over with fragrant flowers, the homes of light and sweetness. The highest faith may be heightened, and the spirits before the throne pray the prayer, 'Lord, increase our faith.'
For us all, then, the merciful voice of the servant of the Lord calls to His light. Our faith is our light in darkness, only as a window is the light of a house, or the eye, of the body, because it admits and discerns that true light. He calls us each from the darkness. Do not try to make fires for yourselves, ineffectual and transient, but look to Him, and you shall not walk in darkness, even amid the gloom of earth, but shall have light in your darkness, till the time come when, in a clearer heaven and a lighter air, 'Thy sun shall no more go down, neither shall thy moon withdraw itself, for the Lord shall be thine everlasting light, and the days of thy mourning shall be ended.'