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ISAIAH, xl. 1, 2.
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she hath received at the Lord's hand double for all her sins.
THE particulars of the great mystery of Godliness, as enumerated by the apostle Paul, constitute the grand and inexhaustible theme of the Gospel Ministry, 'God manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.* It is my wish and purpose to know nothing among you but this subject; to preach nothing to you but what has a real connexion with the doctrine of Jesus Christ and him crucified, and with the causes and effects of his obedience unto death, even the death of the cross. But a regard to the satisfaction and advantage of my stated hearers, has often made me desirous of adopting some plan, which might lead me to exhibit the principal outlines of the Saviour's character and mediation in a regular series of discourses; so as to form, if not a picture, at least a slight sketch of those features of his glory and of his grace, which endear him to the hearts of his people. Such a plan has lately, and rather unexpectedly, occurred to me. Conversation in almost every company, for some time past has much turned upon the commemoration of Handel; the grand musical entertainments, and particularly his Oratorio of the Messiah, which have been repeatedly performed on that occasion in Westminster Abbey. If it could be reasonably hoped that the performers and the company assembled to hear the music, or the greater part, or even a very considerable part of them, were capable of entering into the spirit of the subject; I will readily allow that the Messiah, executed in so masterly a manner, by persons whose hearts, as well as their voices and instruments, were tuned to the Redeemer's praise; accompanied with the grateful emotions of an
audience duly affected with a sense of their obligations to his love; might afford one of the highest and noblest gratifications of which we are capable in the present life. But they who love the Redeemer, and therefore delight to join in his praise, if they did not find it convenient, or think it expedient, to hear the Messiah at Westminster, may comfort themselves with the thought, that, in a little time, they shall be still more abundantly gratified. Ere long, death shall rend the vail which hides eternal things from their view, and introduce them to that unceasing song and universal chorus, which are even now performing before the throne of God and the Lamb. Till then, I apprehend, that true Christians, without the assistance of either vocal or instrumental music, may find greater pleasure in a humble contemplation, on the words of the Messiah, than they can derive from the utmost efforts of musical genius. This, therefore, is the plan I spoke of. I mean to lead your meditations to the language of the Oratorio, and to consider, in their order, (if the Lord, on whom our breath depends, shall be pleased to afford life, ability, and opportunity,) the several sublime and interesting passages of Scripture which are the basis of that admired composition.
If he shall condescend to smile upon the attempt, pleasure and profit will go hand in hand. There is no harmony to a heavenborn soul like that which is the result of the combination and coincidence of all the Divine Attributes and Perfections, manifested in the work of redemption; mercy and truth meeting together, inflexible righteousness corresponding with the peace of offenders, God glorious, and sinners saved. There is no melody upon earth to be compared with the voice of the blood of Jesus speaking peace to a guilty conscience, or with the voice of the Holy Spirit applying the promises to the heart, and sweetly inspiring a temper of confidence and adoption. These are joys which the world can neither give nor take away, which never pall upon the mind by continuance or repetition; the sense of them is always new, the recollection of them is always pleasant. Nor do they only satisfy, but sanctify the soul. They strengthen faith, animate hope, add fervency to love, and both dispose and enable the Christian to run in all the paths of holy obedience with an enlarged heart.
The Messiah of Handel consists of three parts. The first contains prophecies of his advent and the happy consequences, together with the angel's message to the shepherds, informing them of his birth, as related by St. Luke. The second part describes his passion, death, resurrection, and ascension; his taking possession of his kingdom of glory, the commencement of of his kingdom of grace upon the earth, and the certain disap
pointment and ruin of all who persist in opposition to his will. The third part expresses the blessed fruit and consummation of his undertaking, in the deliverance of his people from sin, sorrow, and death, and in making them finally victorious over all their enemies. The triumphant song of the redeemed, to the praise of the Lamb, who bought them with his own blood, closes the whole. The arrangement or series of these passages is so judiciously disposed, so well connected, and so fully comprehends all the principal truths of the Gospel, that I shall not attempt either to alter or to enlarge it. The exordium or introduction, which I have read to you from the prophecy of Isaiah, is very happily chosen.
If, as some eminent commentators suppose, the prophet had any reference, in this passage, to the return of Israel from Babylon into their own land, his principal object was undoubtedly of much greater importance. Indeed, their deliverence from captivity, and their state afterwards as a nation, do not appear to correspond with the magnificent images employed in the following verses. For though they rebuilt their city and temple, they met with many insults and much opposition, and continued to be a tributary and dependant people. I shall therefore wave the consideration of this sense.
The eye of the prophet's mind seems to be chiefly fixed upon one august Personage, who was approaching to enlighten and bless a miserable world: and before he describes the circumstances of his appearance, he is directed to comfort the mourners in Zion, with an assurance, that this great event would fully compensate them for all their sorrows. The state of Jerusalem, the representative name of the people of God, was very low in Isaiah's time. The people, who in the days of Solomon were attached to the service of God, honoured with signal tokens of his presence and favour, and raised to the highest pitch of temporal prosperity, were now degenerated; the gold was become dim, and the fine gold changed. Iniquity abounded, judgments were impending, yet insensibility and security prevailed, and the words of many were stout against the Lord. But there were a few who feared the Lord, whose eyes affected their hearts, and who mourned for the evils which they could not prevent. These, and these only, were, in strictuess of speech, the people of the Lord; and to these the message of comfort is addressed. Speak to Jerusalem comfortably, speak to her heart, (as the Hebrew word is,) to her very case, and tell her that there is a balm for all her wounds, a cordial for all her griefs, in this one consideration, MESSIAH is at hand. In the prophetic style, things future are described as present; and that which the mouth of
the Lord has spoken of as sure to take place, is considered as already done. Thus the prophet, rapt into future times, contemplates the manifestation of MESSIAH, the accomplishment of his great undertaking, and all the happy consequences of his obedience unto death for men, as though he stood upon the spot, and with John, the harbinger of our Lord (whose appearance he immediately describes,) was pointing with his finger to the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.
This comfortable message consists of two parts. First, the removal of evil; her warfare is accomplished, her iniquity is pardoned. Secondly, A promise of good more than equivalent to all her afflictions; she hath received at the Lord's hand double for all her sins.
I. Two ideas are included in the original term translated warfare.
1. A state of service connected with hardship, like that of a military life.*
2. An appointed time, as it is rendered in Job.†
These ideas equally apply to the Mosaic dispensation. The spirit of that institution was comparatively a spirit of bondage, distance, and fear; and the state of the church, while under the law, is resembled, by the apostle, to that of a minor, who, though he be an heir, is under tutors and governors, and differeth but little from a servant, until the time appointed of the Father.‡ The ceremonial law, with respect to its inefficacy, is styled weak, and with respect to the long train of its multiplied, expensive, difficult, and repeated appointments, a yoke and burden. But it was only for a prescribed time. The gospel was designed to supercede it, and to introduce a state of life, power, liberty, and confidence. The blackness and darkness, the fire and tempest, and other circumstances of terror attendant on the promulgation of the law at Mount Sinai, which not only struck the people with dismay, but caused even Moses himself to say, 'I exceedingly fear and quake,' were expressive of its design; which was not to lead the people of Israel to expect peace and hope from their best obedience to that covenant; but rather to convince them of the necessity of a better covenant, established upon better promises, and to direct their hopes to MESSIAH, who was prefigured by all their sacrifices; and who, in the fulness of time, was to make a complete atonement for sin, by the sacrifice of himself. Then their legal figurative constitution would cease, the shadows give place to the substance and the true worshippers of God would be instructed, enabled, and encouraged to worship him in spirit
*Numb. i. S. † Job, vii. 1. and xiv. 14. ‡ Gal. iv. 1-4. § Heb. xii. 18—22.