Here, I. The woeful degeneracy of Judah and Jerusalem is sadly lamented. See, 1. What the royal city had been, a faithful city, faithful to God and the interests of his kingdom among men, faithful to the nation and its public interests. It was full of judgment; justice was duly administered upon the thrones of judgment which were set there, the thrones of the house of David, Ps. 122:5. Men were generally honest in their dealings, and abhorred to do an unjust thing. Righteousness lodged in it, was constantly resident in their palaces and in all their dwellings, not called in now and then to serve a turn, but at home there. Note, Neither holy cities nor royal ones, neither places where religion is professed nor places where government is administered, are faithful to their trust if religion do not dwell in them. 2. What it had now become. That beauteous virtuous spouse was now debauched, and become an adulteress; righteousness no longer dwelt in Jerusalem (terras Astraea reliquit—Astrea left the earth); even murderers were unpunished and lived undisturbed there; nay, the princes themselves were so cruel and oppressive that they had become no better than murderers; an innocent man might better guard himself against a troop of banditti or assassins than against a bench of such judges. Note, It is a great aggravation of the wickedness of any family or people that their ancestors were famed for virtue and probity; and commonly those that thus degenerate prove the most wicked of all men. Corruptio optimi est pessima—That which was originally the best becomes when corrupted the worst, Luke 11:26; Eccl. 3:16. See Jer. 22:15-17. The degeneracy of Jerusalem is illustrated, (1.) By similitudes (Isa. 1:22): Thy silver has become dross. This degeneracy of the magistrates, whose character is the reverse of that of their predecessors, is a great a reproach and injury to the kingdom as the debasing of their coin would be and the turning of their silver into dross. Righteous princes and righteous cities are as silver for the treasury, but unrighteous ones are as dross for the dunghill. How has the gold become dim! Lam. 4:1. Thy wine is mixed with water, and so has become flat and sour. Some understand both these literally: the wine they sold was adulterated, it was half water; the money they paid was counterfeit, and so they cheated all they dealt with. But it is rather to be taken figuratively: justice was perverted by their princes, and religion and the word of God were sophisticated by their priests, and made to serve what turn they pleased. Dross may shine like silver, and the wine that is mixed with water may retain the colour of wine, but neither is worth any thing. Thus they retained a show and pretence of virtue and justice, but had no true sense of either. (2.) By some instances (Isa. 1:23): “Thy princes, that should keep others in their allegiance to God and subjection to his law, are themselves rebellious, and set God and his law at defiance.” Those that should restrain thieves (proud and rich oppressors, those worst of robbers, and those that designedly cheat their creditors, who are no better), are themselves companions of thieves, connive at them, do as they do, and with greater security and success, because they are princes, and have power in their hands; they share with the thieves they protect in their unlawful gain (Ps. 50:18) and cast in their lot among them, Prov. 1:13, 14. [1.] The profit of their places is all their aim, to make the best hand they can of them, right or wrong. They love gifts, and follow after rewards; they set their hearts upon their salary, the fees and perquisites of their offices, and are greedy of them, and never think they can get enough; nay, they will do any thing, though ever so contrary to law and justice, for a gift in secret. Presents and gratuities will blind their eyes at any time, and make them pervert judgment. These they love and are eager in the pursuit of, Hos. 4:18. [2.] The duty of their places is none of their care. They ought to protect those that are injured, and take cognizance of the appeals made to them; why else were they preferred? But they judge not the fatherless, take no care to guard the orphans, nor does the cause of the widow come unto them, because the poor widow has no bribe to give, with which to make way for her and to bring her cause on. Those will have a great deal to answer for who, when they should be the patrons of the oppressed, are their greatest oppressors.
II. A resolution is taken up to redress these grievances (Isa. 1:24): Therefore saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel—who has power to make good what he says, who has hosts at command for the executing of his purposes, and whose power is engaged for his Israel—Ah! I will ease me of my adversaries. Observe,
1. Wicked people, especially wicked rulers that are cruel and oppressive, are God’s enemies, his adversaries, and shall so be accounted and so dealt with. If the holy seed corrupt themselves, they are the foes of his own house.
2. They are a burden to the God of heaven, which is implied in his easing himself of them. The Mighty One of Israel, that can bear any thing, nay, that upholds all things, complains of his being wearied with men’s iniquities, Isa. 43:24; Amos 2:13.
3. God will find out a time and a way to ease himself of this burden, by avenging himself on those that thus bear hard upon his patience. He here speaks as one triumphing in the foresight of it: Ah. I will ease me. He will ease the earth of the burden under which it groans (Rom. 8:21, 22), will ease his own name of the reproaches with which it is loaded. He will be eased of his adversaries, by taking vengeance on his enemies; he will spue them out of his mouth, and so be eased of them, Rev. 3:16. He speaks with pleasure of the day of vengeance being in his heart, Isa. 63:4. If God’s professing people conform not to his image, as the Holy One of Israel (Isa. 1:4), they shall feel the weight of his hand as the Mighty One of Israel: his power, which was wont to be engaged for them, shall be armed against them. In two ways God will ease himself of this grievance:—
(1.) By reforming his church, and restoring good judges in the room of those corrupt ones. Though the church has a great deal of dross in it, yet it shall not be thrown away, but refined (Isa. 1:25): “I will purely purge away thy dross. I will amend what is amiss. Vice and profaneness shall be suppressed and put out of countenance, oppressors displaced, and deprived of their power to do mischief.” When things are ever so bad 2238 God can set them to rights, and bring about a complete reformation; when he begins he will make an end, will take away all the tin. Observe, [1.] The reformation of a people is God’s own work, and, if ever it be done, it is he that brings it about: “I will turn my hand upon thee; I will do that for the reviving of religion which I did at first for the planting of it.” He can do it easily, with the turn of his hand; but he does it effectually, for what opposition can stand before the arm of the Lord revealed? [2.] He does it by blessing them with good magistrates and good ministers of state (Isa. 1:26): “I will restore thy judges as at the first, to put the laws in execution against evil-doers, and thy counsellors, to transact public affairs, as at the beginning,” either the same persons that had been turned out or others of the same character. [3.] He does it by restoring judgment and righteousness among them (Isa. 1:27), by planting in men’s minds principles of justice and governing their lives by those principles. Men may do much by external restraints; but God does it effectually by the influences of his Spirit, as a Spirit of judgment, Isa. 4:4; 28:6. See Ps. 85:10, 11. [4.] The reformation of a people will be the redemption of them and their converts, for sin is the worst captivity, the worst slavery, and the great and eternal redemption is that by which Israel is redeemed from all his iniquities (Ps. 130:8), and the blessed Redeemer is he that turns away ungodliness from Jacob (Rom. 11:26), and saves his people from their sins, Matt. 1:21. All the redeemed of the Lord shall be converts, and their conversion is their redemption: “Her converts, or those that return of her (so the margin), shall be redeemed with righteousness.” God works deliverance for us by preparing us for it with judgment and righteousness. [5.] The reviving of a people’s virtues is the restoring of their honour: Afterwards thou shalt be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city; that is, First, “Thou shalt be so;” the reforming of the magistracy is a good step towards the reforming of the city and the country too. Secondly, “Thou shalt have the praise of being so;” and a greater praise there cannot be to any city than to be called the city of righteousness, and to retrieve the ancient honour which was lost when the faithful city became a harlot, Isa. 1:21.
(2.) By cutting off those that hate to be reformed, that they may not remain either as snares or as scandals to the faithful city. [1.] it is an utter ruin that is here threatened. They shall be destroyed and consumed, and not chastened and corrected only. The extirpation of them will be necessary to the redemption of Zion. [2.] It is a universal ruin, which will involve the transgressors and the sinners together, that is, the openly profane that have quite cast of all religion, and the hypocrites that live wicked lives under the cloak of a religious profession—they shall both be destroyed together, for they are both alike an abomination to God, both those that contradict religion and those that contradict themselves in their pretensions to it. And those that forsake the Lord, to whom they had formerly joined themselves, shall be consumed, as the water in the conduit-pipe is soon consumed when it is cut off from the fountain. [3.] It is an inevitable ruin; there is no escaping it. First, Their idols shall not be able to help them, the oaks which they have desired, and the gardens which they have chosen; that is, the images, the dunghill-gods, which they had worshipped in their groves and under the green trees, which they were fond of and wedded to, for which they forsook the true God, and which they worshipped privately in their own garden even when idolatry was publicly discountenanced. “This was the practice of the transgressors and the sinners; but they shall be ashamed of it, not with a show of repentance, but of despair, Isa. 1:29. They shall have cause to be ashamed of their idols; for, after all the court they have made to them, they shall find no benefit by them; but the idols themselves shall go into captivity,” Isa. 46:1, 2. Note, Those that make creatures their confidence are but preparing confusion for themselves. You were fond of the oaks and the gardens, but you yourselves shall be, 1. “Like an oak without leaves, withered and blasted, and stripped of all its ornaments.” Justly do those wear no leaves that bear no fruit; as the fig-tree that Christ cursed. 2. “Like a garden without water, that is neither rained upon nor watered with the foot (Deut. 11:10), that had no fountain (Song 4:15), and consequently is parched, and all the fruits of it gone to decay.” Thus shall those be that trust in idols, or in an arm of flesh, Jer. 17:5, 6. But those that trust in God never find him as a wilderness, or as waters that fail, Jer. 2:31. Secondly, They shall not be able to help themselves (Isa. 1:31): “Even the strong man shall be as tow not only soon broken and pulled to pieces, but easily catching fire; and his work (so the margin reads it), that by which he hopes to fortify and secure himself, shall be as a spark to his own tow, shall set him on fire, and he and his work shall burn together. His counsels shall be his ruin; his own skin kindles the fire of God’s wrath, which shall burn to the lowest hell, and none shall quench it.” When the sinner has made himself as tow and stubble, and God makes himself to him as a consuming fore, what can prevent the utter ruin of the sinner?
Now all this is applicable, 1. To the blessed work of reformation which was wrought in Hezekiah’s time after the abominable corruptions of the reign of Ahaz. Then good men came to be preferred, and the faces of the wicked were filled with shame. 2. To their return out of their captivity in Babylon, which had thoroughly cured them of idolatry. 3. To the gospel-kingdom and the pouring out of the Spirit, by which the New-Testament church should be made a new Jerusalem, a city of righteousness. 4. To the second coming of Christ, when he shall thoroughly purge his floor, his field, shall gather the wheat into his barn, into his garner, and burn the chaff, the tares, with unquenchable fire.