We have here the honour done to our Lord Jesus by the Old-Testament prophets, who foretold and lamented the infidelity of the many that believed not on him. It was indeed a dishonour and grief to Christ that his doctrine met with so little acceptance and so much opposition; but this takes off the wonder and reproach, makes the offence of it to cease, and made it no disappointment to Christ, that herein the scriptures were fulfilled. Two things are here said concerning this untractable people, and both were foretold by the evangelical prophet Isaiah, that they did not believe, and that they could not believe.
I. They did not believe (John 12:37): Though he had done so many miracles before them, which, one would think, should have convinced them, yet they believed not, but opposed him. Observe,
1. The abundance of the means of conviction which Christ afforded them: He did miracles, so many miracles; tosauta semeia signifying both so many and so great. This refers to all the miracles he had wrought formerly; nay, the blind and lame now came to him into the temple, and he healed them, Matt. 21:14. His miracles were the great proof of his mission, and on the evidence of them he relied. Two things concerning them he here insists upon:—(1.) The number of them; they were many,—various and of divers kinds; numerous and often repeated; and every new miracle confirmed the reality of all that went before. The multitude of his miracles was not only a proof of his unexhausted power, but gave the greater opportunity to examine them; and, if there had been a cheat in them, it was morally impossible but that in some or other of them it would have been discovered; and, being all miracles of mercy, the more there were the more good was done. (2.) The notoriety of them. He wrought these miracles before them, not at a distance, not in a corner, but before many witnesses, appearing to their own eyes.
2. The inefficacy of these means: Yet they believed not on him. They could not gainsay the premises, and yet would not grant the conclusion. Note, The most plentiful and powerful means of conviction will not of themselves work faith in the depraved prejudiced hearts of men. These saw, and yet believed not.
3. The fulfilling of the scripture in this (John 12:38): That the saying of Esaias might be fulfilled. Not that these infidel Jews designed the fulfilling of the scripture (they rather fancied those scriptures which speak of the church’s best sons to be fulfilled in themselves), but the event exactly answered the prediction, so that (ut for ita ut) this saying of Esaias was fulfilled. The more improbable any event is, the more does a divine foresight appear in the prediction of it. One could not have imagined that the kingdom of the Messiah, supported with such pregnant proofs, should have met with so much opposition among the Jews, and therefore their unbelief is called a marvellous work, and a wonder, Isa. 29:14. Christ himself marvelled at it, but it was what Isaiah foretold (Isa. 53:1), and now it is accomplished. Observe, (1.) The gospel is here called their report: Who has believed, te akon hemon—our hearing, which we have heard from God, and which you have heard from us. Our report is the report that we bring, like the report of a matter of fact, or the report of a solemn resolution in the senate. (2.) It is foretold that a few comparatively of those to whom this report is brought will be persuaded to give credit to it. Many hear it, but few heed it and embrace it: Who hath believed it? Here and there one, but none to speak of; not the wise, not the noble; it is to them but a report which wants confirmation. (3.) It is spoken of as a thing to be greatly lamented that so few believe the report of the gospel. Lord is here prefixed from the LXX., but is not in the Hebrew, and intimates a sorrowful account brought to God by the messengers of the cold entertainment which they and their report had; as the servant came, and showed his lord all these things, Luke 14:21. (4.) The reason why men believe not the report of the gospel is because the arm of the Lord is not revealed to them, that is, because they do not acquaint themselves with, and submit themselves to, the grace of God; they do not experimentally know the virtue and fellowship of Christ’s death and resurrection, in which the arm of the Lord is revealed. They saw Christ’s miracles, but did not see the arm of the Lord revealed in them.
II. They could not believe, and therefore they could not because Esaias said, He hath blinded their eyes. This is a hard saying, who can explain it? We are sure that God is infinitely just and merciful, and therefore we cannot think there is in any such an impotency to good, resulting from the counsels of God, as lays them under a fatal necessity of being evil. God dams none by mere sovereignty; yet it is said, They could not believe. St. Austin, coming in course to the exposition of these words, expresses himself with a holy fear of entering upon an enquiry into this mystery. Justa sunt judicia ejus, sed occulta—His judgments are just, but hidden.
1. They could not believe, that is, they would not; they were obstinately resolved in their infidelity; thus Chrysostom and Austin incline to understand it; and the former gives divers instances of scripture of the putting of an impotency to signify the invincible refusal of the will, as Gen. 37:4; They could not speak peaceably to him. And John 7:7. This is a moral impotency, like that of one that is accustomed to do evil, Jer. 13:23. But,
2. They could not because Esaias had said, He hath blinded their eyes. Here the difficulty increases; it is certain that God is not the author of sin, and yet,
(1.) There is a righteous hand of God sometimes to be acknowledged in the blindness and obstinacy of those who persist in impenitency and unbelief, by which they are justly punished for their former resistance of the divine light and rebellion against the divine law. If God withhold abused grace, and give men over to indulged lusts,—if he permit the evil spirit to do his work on those that resisted the good Spirit,—and if in his providence he lay stumbling-blocks in the way of sinners, which confirm their prejudices, then he blinds their eyes, and hardens their hearts, and these are spiritual judgments, like the giving up of idolatrous Gentiles to vile affections, and degenerate Christians to strong delusions. Observe the method of conversion implied here, and the steps taken in it. [1.] Sinners are brought to see with their eyes, to discern the reality of divine things and to have some knowledge of them. [2.] To understand with their heart, to apply these things to themselves; not only to assent and approve, but to consent and accept. [3.] To be converted, and effectually turned from sin to Christ, from the world and the flesh to God, as their felicity and portion. [4.] Then God will heal them, will justify and sanctify them; will pardon their sins, which are as bleeding wounds, and mortify their corruptions, which are as lurking diseases. Now when God denies his grace nothing of this is done; the alienation of the mind from, and its aversion to, God and the divine life, grow into a rooted and invincible antipathy, and so the case becomes desperate.
(2.) Judicial blindness and hardness are in the word of God threatened against those who wilfully persist in wickedness, and were particularly foretold concerning the Jewish church and nation. Known unto God are all his works, and all ours too. Christ knew before who would betray him, and spoke of it, John 6:70. This is a confirmation of the truth of scripture prophecies, and thus even the unbelief of the Jews may help to strengthen our faith. It is also intended for caution to particular persons, to beware lest that come upon them which was spoken of in the prophets, Acts 13:40.
(3.) What God has foretold will certainly come to pass, and so, by a necessary consequence, in order of arguing, it might be said that therefore they could not believe, because God by the prophets had foretold they would not; for such is the knowledge of God that he cannot be deceived in what he foresees, and such his truth that he cannot deceive in what he foretels, so that the scripture cannot be broken. Yet be it observed that the prophecy did not name particular persons; so that it might not be said, “Therefore such a one and such a one could not believe, because Esaias had said so and so;” but it pointed at the body of the Jewish nation, which would persist in their infidelity till their cities were wasted without inhabitants, as it follows (Isa. 6:11, 12); yet still reserving a remnant (John 12:13; in it shall be a tenth), which reserve was sufficient to keep a door of hope open to particular persons; for each one might say, Why may not I be of that remnant?
Lastly, The evangelist, having quoted the prophecy, shows (John 12:41) that it was intended to look further than the prophet’s own days, and that its principal reference was to the days of the Messiah: These things said Esaias when he saw his glory, and spoke of him. 1. We read in the prophecy that this was said to Esaias, Isa. 6:8, 9. But here we are told that it was said by him to the purpose. For nothing was said by him as a prophet which was not first said to him; nor was any thing said to him which was not afterwards said by him to those to whom he was sent. See Isa. 21:10. 2. The vision which the prophet there had of the glory of God is here said to be his seeing the glory of Jesus Christ: He saw his glory. Jesus Christ therefore is equal in power and glory with the Father, and his praises are equally celebrated. Christ had a glory before the foundation of the world, and Esaias saw this. 3. It is said that the prophet there spoke of him. It seems to have been spoken of the prophet himself (for to him the commission and instructions were there given), and yet it is here said to be spoken of Christ, for as all the prophets testified of him so they all typified him. This they spoke of him, that as to many his coming would be not only fruitless, but fatal, a savour of death unto death. It might be objected against his doctrine, If it was from heaven, why did not the Jews believe it? But this is an answer to it; it was not for want of evidence, but because their heart was made fat, and their ears were heavy. It was spoken of Christ, that he should be glorified in the ruin of an unbelieving multitude, as well as in the salvation of a distinguished remnant.