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of grace, but, being without Christ, are without a solid hope of good hereafter, though they are forced to feel the vanity and inconstancy of every thing here. But they who know Messian, who believe in him, and partake of his spirit, cannot be comfortless. They recollect what he suffered for them, they know that every circumstance and event of life is under his direction, and designed to work for their good ; that though they sow in tears, they shall soon reap in joy; and therefore they possess their souls in patience, and are cheerful, yea, comfortable, under those trying dispensations of Providence, which, when they affect the lovers of pleasure, too often either excite in them a spirit of presumptuous murmuring against the will of God, or sink them into despondency, and all the melancholy train of evils attendant on those who languish and pine away under that depression of spirits, emphatically styled a broken heart.
3. To be capable of the comfort my text proposes, the mind must be in a suitable disposition. A free pardon is a comfort to a malefactor, but it implies guilt; and therefore they who have no apprehension that they have broken the laws, would be rather offended than comforted, by an offer of pardon. This is one principal cause of that neglect, yea, contempt, which the Gospel of the grace of God meets with from the world. If we could sappose that a company of people who were all trembling under an apprehension of his displeasure, constrained to confess the justice of the sentence, but not as yet informed of any way to escape, were to hear this message for the first time, and to be fully assured of its truth and authority, they would receive it as life from the dead. But it is to be feared, that for want of knowing themselves, and their real state in the sight of him with whom they have to do, many persons, who have received pleasure from the music of the Messiah, have neither found, nor expected, nor desired to find, any comfort from the words.
ISAIAH, xl. 3-5.
make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every vađey shall be
The general style of the prophecies is poetical. The inimitable simplicity which characterizes every part of divine Reve
ope of ✓ and ssiah, mfort
their · those
lation, is diversified according to the nature of the subject; and the magnificence and variety of imagery which constitute the life and spirit of poetry, evidently distinguish the style of the Psalms, of Isaiah, and the other poetical books, from that of the historical, even in the common versions. The various rules and properties of Hebrew poetry are not, at this distance of time, certainly known. But the present bishop of London,* in his elegant and instructive lectures on the subject, and in the discourse prefixed to his translation of Isaiah, has fully demonstrated one property. usually consists either of parallel or contracted sentences. The parallel expressions (excepting in the book of Proverbs) are most prevalent. In these, the same thought, for substance, expressed in the first member, is repeated, with some difference of phrase, in the following; which, if it enlarges or confirms the import of what went before, seldom varies the idea. Almost any passage I first cast my eye upon, will sufficiently explain my meaning. For instance, in the fifty-ninth chapter of Isaiah :
Ver. 1. Behold the Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save,
Neither is his ear heavy, that it cannot hear.
Neither doth justice overtake us :
So in Chap. lv.
Ver. 2. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread;
And your labour for that which satisfieth not?
they the de
So likewise in Psalm ii.
Ver. 4. He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh ;
The Lord shall have them in derision.
And vex thein in his sore displeasure.
be ked ord the
These specimens may suffice for my present purpose. The knowledge of this peculiarity of the poetical idiom, may often save us the trouble of inquiring minutely into the meaning of every single word, when one plain and comprehensive sense arises from a view of the whole passage taken together. This observation applies to the first of the verses in my text. Though it be true that John the Baptist lived for a season retired and unno
* Dr. Lowth.
ticed in a wilderness, and began to preach in the wilderness of Judea, the expression, The voice of him that cricth in the wilderness, does not merely foretell that circumstance. The verse consists of two parallels. The prophet, wrapt into future times, hears a voice proclaiming the approach of Messiah, and this is the majestic language.
In the wilderness prepare ye the way of the Lord ;
The wilderness and the desert are the same here, as likewise in chap. xxxv. where the happy, the sudden, the unexpected effects of his appearance are described :
The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad,
Now to see, by the eye of faith, the glory of the Redeemer in his appearance ; to see power divine preparing the way before him ; to enter into the gracious and wonderful design of his salvation ; acknowledge, admire, and adore him as the Lord, and humbly to claim bim as our God, must afford a pleasure very different from that which the most excellent music, however well adapted to the words, can possibly give. The latter may be relished by a worldly mind; the former is appropriate, and can only be enjoyed by those who are taught of God.
When the eastern monarchs travelled, harbingers went before, to give notice that the king was upon the road, and likewise proper persons to prepare his way, and to remove obstacles. Some of them, (if we may depend upon history,) in the affectation of displaying their pomp and power, effected extraordinary things upon
such occasions. For man, though vain, would appear wise ; though a sinful worm, he would fain be accounted great. We read of their having actually filled up valleys, and levelled hills, to make a commodious road for themselves or their armies, through places otherwise impassable. The prophet thus illustrates great things by small, and accommodates the language and usages
of men to divine truth. Messiah is about to visit a wilderness world ; and those parts of it which he blesses with his presence, shall become the garden of the Lord. Till then it is all desolate, rocky and wild. But his way shall be prepared. Mountainous difficulties shall sink down before him into plains. In defiance of all obstacles, his glory shall be revealed in the wilderness, and all flesh shall see it, for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.
r in -fore
his ord, sure ever
The leading ideas respecting Messiah's appearance, suggested by this sublime representation, are,
1. The state of the world at his coming--A wilderness.
II. The preparation of his way. · Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and bill shall be made low.'
III. The manner and effects of his manifestation. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it.'
1. The word wilderness, I suppose, generally excites the idea of an intricate, solitary, uncultivated, dangerous place. Such is the description Jeremiah gives of that wilderness through which the Lord led Israel, when he had delivered them from Egypt. "A land of Deserts and of pits, a land of drought and of the shadow of death, a land that no man passeth through, and where no man dwelt.'* The world in which we sojourn for a season, does not appear to us in this unipleasing view at first. The spirit, and the things of it, are congenial to our depraved inclinations ; and especially in early life, our inexperienced hearts form high expectations from it; and we rather hope to find it a paradise than a wilderness. But when the convincing power of the Holy Spirit opens the eyes of the understanding, we awake as from a dream; the enchantment by which we were deluded is broken, and we then begin to judge rightly of the world ; that it is a wearisome wilderness indeed, and that our only important concern with it is to get happily out of it. In a spiritual view, a wilderness is a significant emblem of the state of mankind, both Jews and Heathens, at that period which the apostle calls the fulness of time, when God sent forth his Son.t
Israel, once the beloved people of God, was at that time so extremely degenerated, that, a few individuals excepted, the vineyard of the Lord, so highly cultivated, so signally protected, yielded only wild grapes. I Though they were not addicted to imitate the idolatry of the Heathens, as their forefathers had been, they were no less alienated from the true God; and there wickedness was the more aggravated, for being practised under a professed attachment to the forms of his law. They drew nigh to God with their lips, but their hearts were far from him.|| Their very worship profaned the temple in which they gloried, and the holy house of prayer, through their abominations, was become a den of thieves. They owned the divine authority of the Scriptures, and read them with seeming attention, but rendered them of none effect, through the greater attention they paid to the corrupt traditions of their elders. They boasted in their
* Jer, ii. 6.
Gal. ir. 4.
Isaiah, r. 4.
Mark, vij. 6.
relation to Abraham as their father, but proved themselves to be indeed the children of those who had persecuted and murdered the prophets.* The Scribes and Pharisees, who sat in the chair of Moses, and were the public teachers of the people, under an exterior garb of sanctity, of prayer and fasting, were guilty of oppression, fraud and uncleanness : and while they trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others, their real character was a combination of pride and hypocrisy. therefore, he who knew their hearts, and saw through all their disguises, compared them to painted sepulchres, fair to outward appearance, but within, full of filth and impurity.t From the spirit of these blind guides, we may judge of the spirit of the blind people who held them in admiration, and were willingly directed and led by them. Thus was he bful city become a harlot; it was once full of judgment; righteousness lodged in it, but now murderers. I Such a wilderness was Judea when MESSIAH condescended to visit it.
Among the Heathens, ignorance, idolatry, sensuality, and cruelty, universally prevailed. Their pretended wise men had, indeed, talked of wisdom and morality from age to age ; but their speculations were no more than swelling words of vanity, cold, trifling, uncertain, and without any valuable influence, either upon themselves or upon others. They had philosophers, poets, orators, musicians, and artists, eminent in their way; but the nations reputed the most civilized, were overwhelmed with abominable wickedness, equally with the rest. The shocking effect of their idolatry upon their moral principles and conduct, notwithstanding their attainments in arts and science, is described by the apostle in the close of the first chapter of his epistle to the Romans. With great propriety, therefore, the state of the world, both Jew and Gentile, considered in a moral view, is compared by the prophet to a wilderness--a barren and dreary waste. The pursuits and practices of the world were diametrically opposite to the spirit and design of that kingdom which Messiah was about to set up; and, therefore, as the event proved, directly disposed to withstand his progress. But,
il. Before his appearance a way was prepared for him in the wilderness.
The providence of God, by a gradual train of dispensations, disposed the political state of mankind in a subserviency to this great event. All the commotions and revolutions which take place in the kingdoms of the earth are so many detached parts of a complicated, but wisely determined plan, of which the es
* Matth. xxiii. 30, 31,
† Matth. xxiii. 27.
Isa, i. 21.