Here, I. The prophet stands amazed at the stupidity of the greatest part of the Jewish nation. They had Levites, who taught the good knowledge of the Lord and had encouragement from Hezekiah in doing so, 2 Chron. 30:22. They had prophets, who brought them messages immediately from God, and signified to them what were the causes and what would be the effects of God’s displeasure against them. Now, one would think, surely this great nation, that has all the advantages of divine revelation, is a wise and understanding people, Deut. 4:6. But, alas! it was quite otherwise, Isa. 29:9. The prophet addresses himself to the sober thinking part of them, calling upon them to be affected with the general carelessness of their neighbours. It may be read, “They delay, they put off, their repentance, but wonder you that they should be so sottish. They sport themselves with their own deceivings; they riot and revel; but do you cry out, lament their folly, cry to God by prayer for them. The more insensible they are of the hand of God gone out against them the more do you lay to heart these things.” Note, The security of sinners in their sinful way is just matter of lamentation and wonder to all serious people, who should think themselves concerned to pray for those that do not pray for themselves. But what is the matter? What are we thus to wonder at? 1. We may well wonder that the generality of the people should be so sottish and brutish, and so infatuated, as if they were intoxicated: They are drunken, but not with wine (not with wine only, though with that they were often drunk), and they erred through wine, Isa. 28:7. They were drunk with the love of pleasures, with prejudices against religion, and with the corrupt principles they had imbibed. Like drunken men, they know not what they do or say, nor whither they go. They are not sensible of the divine rebukes they are under. They have beaten me, and I felt it not, says the drunkard, Prov. 23:35. God speaks to them once, yea, twice; but, like men drunk, they perceive it not, they understand it not, but forget the law. They stagger in their counsels, are unstable and unsteady, and stumble at every thing that lies in their way. There is such a thing as spiritual drunkenness. 2. It is yet more strange that God himself should have poured out upon them a spirit of deep sleep, and closed their eyes (Isa. 29:10), that he who bids them awake and open their eyes should yet lay them to sleep and shut their eyes; but it is in away of righteous judgment, to punish them for their loving darkness rather than light, their loving sleep. When God by his prophets called them they said, Yet a little sleep, a little slumber; and therefore he gave them up to strong delusions, and said, Sleep on now. This is applied to the unbelieving Jews, who rejected the gospel of Christ, and were justly hardened in their infidelity, till wrath came upon them to the uttermost. Rom. 11:8; God has given them the spirit of slumber. And we have reason to fear it is the woeful case of many who live in the midst of gospel light. 3. It is very sad that this should be the case with those who were their prophets, and rulers, and seers, that those who should have been their guides were themselves blindfolded; and it is easy to tell what the fatal consequences will be when the blind lead the blind. This was fulfilled when, in the latter days of the Jewish church, the chief priests, and the scribes, and the elders of the people, were the great opposers of Christ and his gospel, and brought themselves under a judicial infatuation. 4. The sad effect of this was that all the means of conviction, knowledge, and grace, which they enjoyed, were ineffectual, and did not answer the end (Isa. 29:11, 12): “The vision of all the prophets, true and false, has become to you as the words of a book, or letter, that is sealed up; you cannot discern the truth of the real visions and the falsehood of the pretended ones.” Or, every vision particularly that this prophet had seen for them, and published to them, had become unintelligible; they had it among them, but were never the wiser for it, any more than a man (though a good scholar) is for a book delivered to him sealed up, and which he must not open the seals of. He sees it is a book, and that is all; he knows nothing of what is in it. So they knew that what Isaiah said was a vision and prophecy, but the meaning of it was hidden from them; it was only a sound of words to them, which they were not at all alarmed by, nor affected with; it answered not the intention, for it made no impression at all upon them. Neither the learned nor the unlearned were the better for all the messages God sent them by his servants the prophets, nor desired to be so. The ordinary sort of people excused themselves from regarding what the prophets said with their want of learning and a liberal education, as if they were not concerned to know and do the will of God because they were not bred scholars: It is nothing to me, I am not learned. Those of better rank pretended that the prophet had a peculiar way of speaking, which was obscure to them, and which, though they were men of letters, they had not been used to; and, Si non vis intelligi, debes negligi—If you wish not to be understood, you deserve to be neglected. Both these are groundless pretences; for God’s prophets have been no unfaithful debtors either to the wise or to the unwise, Rom. 1:14. Or we may take it thus:—The book of prophecy was given to them sealed, so that they could not read it, as a just judgment upon them; because it had often been delivered to them unsealed, and they would not take pains to learn the language of it, and then made excuse for their not reading it because they were not learned. But observe, “The vision has become thus to you whose minds the god of this world has blinded; but it is not so in itself, it is not so to all; the same vision which to you is a savour of death unto death to others is and shall be a savour of life unto life.” Knowledge is easy to him that understands.
II. The prophet, in God’s name, threatens those that were formal and hypocritical in their exercises of devotion, Isa. 29:13, 14. Observe here,
1. The sin that is here charged upon them—dissembling with God in their religious performances, Isa. 29:13. He that knows the heart, and cannot be imposed upon with shows and pretences, charges it upon them, whether their hearts condemn them for it or no. He that is greater than the heart, and knows all things, knows that though they draw nigh to him with their mouth, and honour him with their lips, yet they are not sincere worshippers. To worship God is to make our approaches to him, and to present our adorations of him; it is to draw nigh to him as those that have business with him, with an intention therein to honour him. This we are to do with our mouth and our lips, in speaking of him and in speaking to him; we must render to him the calves of our lips, Hos. 14:2. And, if the heart be full of his love and fear, out of the abundance of that the mouth will speak. But there are many whose religion is lip-labour only. They say that which expresses an approach to God and an adoration of him, but it is only from the teeth outward. For, (1.) They do not apply their minds to the service. When they pretend to be speaking to God they are thinking of a thousand impertinences: The have removed their hearts far from me, that they might not be employed in prayer, nor come within reach of the word. When work was to be done for God, which required the heart, that was sent out of the way on purpose, with the fool’s eyes, into the ends of the earth. (2.) They do not make the word of God the rule of their worship, nor his will their reason: Their fear towards me is taught by the precept of men. They worshipped the God of Israel, not according to his appointment, but their own inventions, the directions of their false prophets or their idolatrous kings, or the usages of the nations that were round about them. The tradition of the elders was of more value and validity with them than the laws which God commanded Moses. Or, if they did worship God in a way conformable to his institution in the days of Hezekiah, a great reformer, they had more an eye to the precept of the king than to God’s command. This our Saviour applies to the Jews in his time, who were formal in their devotions and wedded to their own inventions, and pronounces concerning them that in vain they did worship God, Matt. 15:8, 9.
2. It is a spiritual judgment with which God threatens to punish them for their spiritual wickedness (Isa. 29:14): I will proceed to do a marvellous work. They did one strange thing; they removed all sincerity from their hearts. Now God will go on and do another; he will remove all sagacity from their heads. The wisdom of their wise men shall perish. They played the hypocrite, and thought to put a cheat upon God, and now they are left to themselves to play the fool, and not only to put a cheat upon themselves, but to be easily cheated by all about them. Those that make religion no more than a pretence, to serve a turn, are out in their politics; and it is just with God to deprive those of their understanding who part with their uprightness. This was fulfilled in the wretched infatuation which the Jewish nation were manifestly under, after they had rejected the gospel of Christ; they removed their hearts far from God, and therefore God justly removed wisdom far from them, and hid from their eyes the things that belonged even to their temporal peace. This is a marvelous work; it is surprising, it is astonishing, that wise men should of a sudden lose their wisdom and be given up to strong delusions. Judgments on the mind, though least taken notice of, are to be most wondered at.
III. He shows the folly of those that though to act separately and secretly from God, and were carrying on designs independent upon God and which they projected to conceal from his all-seeing eye. Here we have, 1. Their politics described (Isa. 29:15): They seek deep to hide their counsel from the Lord, that he may not know either what they do or what they design; they say, “Who sees us? No man, and therefore not God himself.” The consultations they had about their own safety they kept to themselves, and never asked God’s advice concerning them; nay, they knew they were displeasing to him, but thought they could conceal them from him; and, if he did not know them, he could not baffle and defeat them. See what foolish fruitless pains sinners take in their sinful ways; they seek deep, they sink deep, to hide their counsel from the Lord, who sits in heaven and laughs at them. Note, A practical disbelief of God’s omniscience is at the bottom both of the carnal worships and of the carnal confidences of hypocrites; Ps. 94:7; Ezek. 8:12; 9:9. 2. The absurdity of their politics demonstrated (Isa. 29:16): “Surely your turning of things upside down thus, your various projects, turning your affairs this and that way to make them shape as you would have them—or rather your inverting the order of things, and thinking to make God’s providence give attendance to your projects, and that God must know no more than you think fit, which is perfectly turning things upside down and beginning at the wrong end—shall be esteemed as the potter’s clay. God will turn and manage you, and all your counsels, with as much ease and as absolute a power as the potter forms and fashions his clay.” See how God despises, and therefore what little reason we have to dread, those contrivances of men that are carried on without God, particularly those against him. (1.) Those that think to hide their counsels from God do in effect deny him to be their Creator. It is as if the work should say of him that made it, 4ab7 “He made me not; I made myself.” If God made us, he certainly knows us as the Psalmist shows, (Ps. 139:1; 13-16); so that those who say that he does not see them might as well say that he did not make them. Much of the wickedness of the wicked arises from this, they forget that God formed them, Deut. 32:18. Or, (2.) Which comes to the same thing, they deny him to be a wise Creator: The thing framed saith of him that framed it, He had no understanding; for if he had understanding to make us so curiously, especially to make us intelligent beings and to put understanding into the inward part (Job 38:36), no doubt he has understanding to know us and all we say and do. As those that quarrel with God, so those that think to conceal themselves from him, do in effect charge him with folly; but he that formed the eye, shall he not see? Ps. 94:9.