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Bible Commentaries

Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture

Isaiah 63

 

 

Verse 1

Isaiah

MIGHTY TO SAVE

Isaiah 63:1.

We have here a singularly vivid and dramatic prophecy, thrown into the form of a dialogue between the prophet and a stranger whom he sees from afar striding along from the mountains of Edom, with elastic step, and dyed garments. The prophet does not recognise him, and asks who he is. The Unknown answers, ‘I that speak in righteousness, mighty to save.’ Another question follows, seeking explanation of the splashed crimson garments of the stranger, and its answer tells of a tremendous act of retributive destruction which he has recently launched at the nations hostile to ‘My redeemed.’

Now we note that this prophecy follows, both in the order of the book and in the evolution of events, on those in Isaiah 61:1 - Isaiah 61:11, which referred to our Lord’s work on earth, and inIsaiah 62:1 - Isaiah 62:12, which has for part of its theme His intercession in heaven. And we are entitled to take the view that the place as well as the substance of this prophecy referred to the solemn act of final Judgment in which the returning Lord will manifest Himself. Very significant is it that the prophet does not recognise in this Conqueror, with blood-bespattered robes, the meek sufferer of Isaiah 53:1 - Isaiah 53:12, or Him who in Isaiah 62:1 - Isaiah 62:12 came to bind up the broken-hearted. And very instructive is it that the title in our text comes from the stranger’s own lips, as relevant to the tremendous act of judgment from which He is seen returning. The title might seem rather to look back to the former manifestation of Him as bearing our griefs and carrying our sorrows. It does indeed, thank God, look back to that never-to-be-forgotten miracle of mercy and power, but it also brings within the sweep of His saving might the judgment still to come.

I. The mighty Saviour as made known in the past and present.

We think much of the meek and gentle side of Christ’s character. Perhaps we do not think enough of the strength of it. We trace His great sacrifice to His love, and we can never sufficiently adore that incomparable manifestation of a love deeper than our plummets can fathom. But probably we do not sufficiently realise what gigantic strength went to the completion of that sacrifice. We know the solemn imagining of a great artist who has painted a colossal Death overbearing the weak resistance of a puny Love; but here love is the giant, and his sovereign command brings Death obedient to it, to do his work. Yes, that weak man hanging on the Cross is therein revealed as ‘the power of God.’ Strange clothing of weakness which yet cannot hide the mighty limbs that wear it!

And if we think of our Lord’s life we see the same combination of gentleness and power. His very name rings with memories of the captain whose one commanded duty was to ‘be strong and of a good courage.’

In Him was all strength of manhood-inflexible, iron will, unchanging purpose, strength from consecration, strength from righteousness. In Him was the heroism of prophets and martyrs in supreme degree.

In Him was the strength of indwelling Divinity. He fought and conquered all man’s enemies, routed sin, and triumphed over Death.

In the Cross we see divine power in operation in its noblest form, in its intensest energy, in its widest sweep, in its most magnificent result. He is able to save, to save all, to save any.

He is mighty to save, and is able to save unto the uttermost, because He lives for ever, and His power is eternal as Himself.

II. The mighty Saviour as to be manifested in the future.

Clearly the imagery of the context describes a tremendous act of judgment. And as clearly the Apocalyptic Seer understood this prophecy as not only pointing to Christ, but as to be fulfilled in the final act of judgment. He quotes its words when he paints his magnificent vision of the Conqueror riding forth on his white horse, with garments sprinkled with blood and treading the ‘winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.’ And the vision is interpreted unmistakably when we read that, though this Conqueror had a name unknown to any but Himself, ‘His name is called the Word of God.’ So the unity of person in the Word made flesh who dwelt among us, full of grace and of this Mighty One girt for battle, is taught.

Keeping fast hold of this clue, the contrast between the characteristics of the historical Jesus and of the rider on the white horse becomes solemn and full of warning. And the contrast between the errand of the historical Jesus and that of the Conqueror bids us ponder on the possibilities that may sleep in perfect love. We have to widen our conceptions, if we have thought of our Jesus only as love, and have thought of love as shallow, as most men do. We are sometimes told that these two pictures, that of the Christ of the Gospels and that of the Christ of the Apocalypse, are incapable of being fused together in one original. But they can be stereoscoped, if we may say so. And they must be, if we are ever to understand the greatness of His love or the terribleness of His judgments. ‘The wrath of the Lamb’ sounds an impossibility, but if we ponder it, we shall find depths of graciousness as well as of awe in it.

Let us learn that the righteous Judge is logically and chronologically the completion of the picture of the merciful Saviour. In this age there is a tendency to treat sin with too much pity and too little condemnation. And there is not a sufficiently firm grasp of the truth that divine love must be in irreconcilable antagonism with human sin, and can do nothing but chastise and smite it.

III. The saving purpose of even that destructive might.

Through the whole Old Testament runs the longing that God would ‘awake’ to smite evil.

The tragedy of the drowned hosts in the Red Sea, and Miriam and her maidens standing with their timbrels and shrill song of triumph on the bank, is a prophecy of what shall be. ‘Ye shall have a song as in the night a holy feast is kept, and gladness of heart as when one goeth with a pipe to come unto the mountain of the Lord.’ And at the thought of that solemn act of judgment they who love the Judge, and have long known Him, ‘may lift up their heads’ in the confidence that ‘their redemption draweth nigh.’ That is the last, and in some sense the mightiest, greatest act by which He shows Himself ‘mighty to save His redeemed.’

So we may, like the prophet, see that swift form striding nearer and nearer, but, unlike the prophet, we need not to ask, ‘Who is this that cometh?’ for we have known Him from of old, and we remember the voice that said, ‘This same Jesus shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven.’ ‘Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness before Him in the day of judgment.’


Verse 2-3

Isaiah

THE WINEPRESS AND ITS TREADER

Isaiah 63:2 - Isaiah 63:3.

The structure of these closing chapters is chronological, and this is the final scene. What follows is epilogue. The reference of this magnificent imagery to the sufferings of Jesus is a complete misapprehension. These sufferings were dealt with once for all in Isaiah 53:1 - Isaiah 53:12, and it is Messiah triumphant who has filled the prophet’s vision since then.

I. The treading of the winepress.

The nations are flung into the press, as ripe grapes. The picture is plainly a figure of some tremendous judgment in which the powers that oppose the majestic march of the triumphant Messiah will be crushed and trampled to ruin. They are trodden ‘in Mine anger, and their life-blood is sprinkled on My garments.’ It is He who crushes, not He who is crushed. The winepress which He treads is the ‘winepress of the wrath of Almighty God,’ and His treading of it is His executing of God’s judgments on those whose antagonism to Him and to His ‘redeemed’ has brought them within their sweep. The prophetic imagination kindles and casts its thought into that terrible picture, which some fastidious people would think coarse, of a peasant standing up to his knees in a vat heaped with purple clusters, and fiercely trampling them down, while the red juice splashes upon his girt-up clothes.

The prophet does not date his vision. It has been realised many a time, and will be many a time still. Wherever opposition to Christ and His kingdom has reached ripeness, wherever antagonistic tendencies have borne fruit which has matured, the winepress is set up and the treading begins. ‘Wheresoever the carcass is, there will the eagles be gathered together.’ ‘Immediately he putteth in the sickle because the harvest is done.’ The judgments tarry long, and Christ’s servants, oppressed or hard pressed, get impatient, and cry ‘How long, O Lord, dost Thou not judge? It is time for Thee to work.’ But long patience precedes the divine awaking, for it is not God’s way nor Christ’s to cut down even a cumbering tree, until the possibility of its bearing fruit is plainly ended, and the last use that He makes of anything is to burn it. The repeated settings up of Christ’s winepress have all been one in principle, and they all point onwards to a final one. There have been many ‘days of the Lord,’ and if men were wise and ‘observed these things,’-which most of them are not,-they would see that these lesser ‘days’ made a ‘final great and terrible day of the Lord’ supremely probable, and in perfect analogy with all that experience and history have testified as to the method of the divine government.

Surely it is strange that the groundless expectation of the unbroken continuance of the present order should be so strong that many should utterly ignore the truth taught by such teachers as these, and reiterated by science, which declares that the physical universe had a beginning and will have an end, and confirmed by Jesus Himself. There will come a to-morrow when the sun will not rise. There will come a to-morrow which will be ‘the day of the Lord,’ of which all these earlier and partial epochs of judgment were but precursors and prophets.

II. The Treader of the Winepress.

The context clearly shows that, in the prophet’s view, the suffering Messiah in His exalted royalty is the agent of this, as of all divine acts. He is clothed with majesty, and it is ‘in His hand,’ or through His agency, that all ‘the pleasure of the Lord’ is brought to pass. The contrast with the figure in Isaiah 53:1 - Isaiah 53:12 is ever to be kept in view. The lowliness, the weales and bruises, the form without comeliness are gone, and for these we see a conqueror, glorious in apparel and striding onwards in conscious strength.

But the access of majesty does not imply the putting off of lowliness and meekness. There is much that is severe and terrible in the figure that rises here before the prophet’s vision, but both aspects equally belong to the glorified Christ, and that duality in His character makes each element more impressive. His long-suffering mercy and more than human tenderness do not hamper His arm when it is bared to smite; His judicial severity does not dam up the flow of His mercy and tenderness. When He was on earth, He wept over Jerusalem, but His tears did not hinder His pronouncing woe on the city. His love leads Him to warn before He smites, but it does not contradict His threatenings, nor augur our impunity. Nay rather, love compels Him to smite. And, more terrible still, it is His very love that smites most severely hearts that have rejected it and learn their folly and sin too late.

III. Why the winepress is trodden.

The context tells us. The triumphant figure, seen by the prophet striding onwards from Edom, answers the question as to His identity with, ‘I that speak in righteousness, mighty to save.’ Then the treading of the winepress, from which He is represented as coming, is regarded as an exemplification of both these characteristics. It is a great act of righteousness. It is a great act of salvation. Similarly, He is represented as having been moved to that destructive judgment by the ‘vengeance’ that burned in His heart, and by His seeing that there were none to help His ‘redeemed.’

So, then, the destructive act is a manifestation of Righteousness, which in such a connection means retributive justice. Awe-inspiring as it may be, the thunderstorm brings relief to a world sweltering in a stagnant atmosphere, and each blinding flash freshens the air. ‘When the wicked perish, there is shouting.’ The destruction of some hoary evil that has long afflicted humanity and blocked the progress of the kingdom which is ‘righteousness and peace and joy,’ is a good. Christ’s ‘terrible things’ are all ‘in righteousness,’ and meant to set Him forth as ‘the confidence of all the ends of the earth.’ To clear His character and government from all suspicion of moral indifference, to demonstrate by facts which the blindest can see, that it is not all the same to Him whether men are good or bad, to write in great letters which, like the capitals on a map, stretch across a whole land, ‘The Judge of all the earth shall do right’-surely these are worthy ends to move even the loving Christ to tread the winepress.

Further, His destructive judgments, however terrible, will always be accurately measured by righteousness. They are not outbursts of feeling; they are in exact correspondence with the evils that bring them down. The lava flows according to its own density and the lie of the land which it covers. These judgments are deformed by no undue severity; no base elements of temper, no errors as to the degree of criminality mar them. They are calm and absolutely accurate judgments of Him who is not only just but Justice.

But the context further teaches us that the true point of view from which to regard Christ’s treading of the winepress is to think of it as redemptive and contributory to the salvation of ‘My redeemed.’ Therefore there follows immediately on this picture of the conqueror treading the peoples in His fury and pouring their life-blood on the earth, the song of the delivered. Up through the troubled air, heavy with thunder-clouds, soars their praise, as a lark might rise and pour its strains above a volcano in eruption-’I will mention the loving kindness of the Lord, and the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord hath bestowed on us and the great goodness toward the house of Israel which He hath bestowed on them, according to His mercies, and according to the multitude of His loving kindnesses.’ Pharaoh is drowned in the Red Sea; Miriam and her maidens on the bank clash their cymbals, and lift shrill voices in their triumphant hymn. Babylon sinks like a millstone in the great waters-’and I heard as it were a great voice of a great multitude in heaven saying, Hallelujah; salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and righteous are His judgments.’ The innermost impulse of judgment is love.


Verse 9

Isaiah

THE SYMPATHY OF GOD

Isaiah 63:9.

I. The wonderful glimpse opened here into the heart of God.

It is not necessary to touch upon the difference between the text and margin of the Revised Version, or to enter on the reason for preferring the former. And what a deep and wonderful thought that is, of divine sympathy with human sorrow! We feel that this transcends the prevalent tone of the Old Testament. It is made the more striking by reason of the other sides of the divine nature which the Old Testament gives so strongly; as, for instance, the unapproachable elevation and absolute sovereignty of God, and the retributive righteousness of God.

Affliction is His chastisement, and is ever righteously inflicted. But here is something more, tender and strange. Sympathy is a necessary part of love. There is no true affection which does not put itself in the place and share the sorrows of its objects. And His sympathy is none the less because He inflicts the sorrow. These afflictions wherein He too was afflicted, were sent by Him. Like an earthly father who suffers more than the child whom he chastises, the Heavenly Father feels the strokes that He inflicts.

That sympathy is consistent with the blessedness of God. Even in the pain of our human sympathy there is a kind of joy, and we may be sure that in His nature there is nothing else.

Contrast with other thoughts about God.

The vague agnosticism of the present day, which knows only a dim Something of which we can predicate nothing.

The God of the philosophers-whom we are bidden to think of as passionless and unemotional. No wave of feeling ever ripples that tideless sea. The attribute of infinitude or sovereign completeness is dwelt on with such emphasis as to obscure all the rest.

The gods of men’s own creation are careless in their happiness, and cruel in their vengeance. But here is a God for all the weary and the sorrowful. What a thought for us in our own burdened days!

II. The mystery of the divine salvation.

Of course the salvation here spoken of is the deliverance from Egyptian bondage. This is a summary of the Exodus. But we must mark well that significant expression, ‘the angel of His face’ or ‘presence.’ We can only attempt a partial and bald enumeration of some of the very remarkable references to that mysterious person, ‘the angel of the Lord ‘or ‘of the presence.’ The dying Jacob ascribed his being ‘redeemed from all evil’ to ‘the Angel,’ and invoked his blessing on ‘the lads.’ ‘The angel of the Lord’ appeared to Moses out of the midst of the burning bush. On Sinai, Jehovah promised to send an ‘angel’ in whom was His own name, before the people. The promise was renewed after Israel’s sin and repentance, and was then given in the form, ‘My presence shall go with thee.’ Joshua saw a man with a drawn sword in his hand, who declared himself to be the Captain of the Lord’s host. ‘The angel of the Lord’ appeared to Manoah and his wife, withheld his name from them because it was ‘wonderful’ or ‘secret,’ accepted their sacrifice, and went up to heaven in its flame. Wherefore Manoah said, ‘We have seen God.’ Long after these early visions, a psalmist knows himself safe because ‘the angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear Him.’ Hosea, looking back on the story of Jacob’s wrestling at Peniel, says, first, that ‘he had power with God, yea, he had power over the angel,’ and then goes on to say that ‘there He spake with us, even Jehovah.’ And Malachi, on the last verge of Old Testament prophecy, goes furthest of all in seeming to run together the conceptions of Jehovah and the Angel of Jehovah, for he says, ‘The Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to His temple; and the angel of the covenant . . . behold, he cometh.’ From this imperfect resume, we see that there appears in the earliest as in the latest books of the Old Testament, a person distinguished from the hosts of angels, identified in a very remarkable manner with Jehovah, by alternation of names, in attributes and offices, and in receiving worship, and being the organ of His revelation. That special relation to the divine revelation is expressed by both the representation that ‘Jehovah’s name is in him,’ and by the designation in our text, ‘the angel of His presence,’ or literally, ‘of His face.’ For ‘name’ and ‘face’ are in so far synonymous that they mean the side of the divine nature which is turned to the world.

For the present I go no further than this. It is clear, then, that our text is at all events remarkable, in that it ascribes to this ‘angel of His presence’ the praise of Jehovah’s saving work. The loving heart, afflicted in all their afflictions, sends forth the messenger of His face, and by Him is salvation wrought. The whole sum of the deliverance of Israel in the past is attributed to Him. Surely this must have been felt by a devout Jew to conceal some great mystery.

III. The crowning revelation both of the heart of God and of His saving power.

{a} Jesus Christ is the true ‘angel of the face.’

I do not need to enter on the question of whether in the Old Testament the angel of the Covenant was indeed a pre-manifestation of the eternal Son. I am disposed to answer it in the affirmative. But be that as it may, all that was spoken of the angel is true of Him. God’s name is in Him, and that not in fragments or half-syllables but complete. The face of God looks lovingly on men in Him, so that Jesus could declare, ‘He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father.’ His presence brings God’s presence, and He can venture to say, ‘We will come and make our abode with Him.’ He is the agent of the divine salvation.

The identity and the difference are here in their highest form.

{b} The mystery of God’s sharing our sorrows is explained in Him.

We may find a difficulty in the thought of a suffering and sympathising God. But if we believe that ‘My name is in Him,’ then the sympathy and gentleness of Jesus is the compassion of God. This is a true revelation. So tears at the grave sighs in healing, and all the sorrows which He bore are an unveiling of the heart of God.

That sharing our sorrows is the very heart of His work. We might almost say that He became man in order to increase His power of sympathy, as a prince might temporarily become a pauper. But certainly He became man that He might bear our burdens. ‘Himself took our infirmities.’ ‘Forasmuch as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, He himself also likewise took part of the same.’

The atoning death is the climax of Christ’s being afflicted with our afflictions. His priestly sympathy flows out now and for ever to us all.

So complete is His unity with God, that He works the salvation which is God’s, and that God’s name is in Him. So complete is His union with us, that our sorrows touch Him and His life becomes ours. ‘Ye have done it unto Me.’ ‘Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?’

For us in all our troubles there are no darker rooms than Christ has been in before us. We are like prisoners put in the same cell as some great martyr. He drank the cup, and we can put the rim to our lips at the place that His lips have touched. But not only may we have our sufferings lightened by the thought that He has borne the same, and that we know the ‘fellowship of Christ’s sufferings,’ but we have the further alleviation of being sure that He makes our afflictions His by perfect sympathy, and, still more wonderful and blessed, that there is such unity of life and sensation between the Head and the members that our afflictions are His, and are not merely made so.

‘Think not thou canst sigh a sigh,

And thy Saviour is not by;

Think not thou canst shed a tear

And thy Saviour is not near.’

Do not front the world alone. In all our afflictions He is with us; out of them all He saves.

 


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Bibliography Information
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Isaiah 63:4". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/mac/isaiah-63.html.

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