Your Bread and Water
shall be Sure
The thirty-third chapter of Isaiah was called forth at a time when outward circumstances were very similar to the conditions in Europe twenty years ago. Isaiah's people, Israel, dwelt in shuddering fear of their greatest scourge, the hosts of Assyria under the leadership of Sennacherib. A gifted leader to his own people, who did much for their benefit in the building of cities and vast irrigation works, he was nevertheless a ruthless and merciless conqueror to his enemies or those he plundered. 2 Kings 18 and 19 and Isaiah 36 and 37 describe in detail his Palestine campaigns. Now in the time when this thirty-third chapter opens, the children of Israel, having unwisely entered into a treaty with Egypt upon which they had relied for protection, were awaiting in terror for the coming of their dreaded foe.
But Isaiah is not at this moment concerned with the possible fortunes of war. In point of fact the story ended happily for Israel, for after desolating the Judean countryside and setting his armies to besiege Jerusalem, Sennacherib suffered that mysterious destruction recorded in 2 Kings 19 which wiped out the invading host in one night and delivered Israel from the oppressor.
The theme upon which Isaiah is dwelling in the chapter under consideration is the attitude to be adopted by those who had put their trust in God. These had not "gone down to Egypt for help" (Isa. 31. 1) nor relied upon human weapons and the arm of flesh to be their protection, but had looked up to the God of Heaven who promised that while they trusted Him, He would ever be their defence. So in 33.14 Isaiah cries a challenge. "The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless (hypocrites Heb. chaneph—profane). Who among us can dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings? (RSV). A heart searching question indeed, for who, seeing the rapid sweep of the devouring Assyrian host across their fair land, could hope to abide in peace when all their world was being swept away and consumed before their very eyes? Isaiah answers his own question. "He who walks righteously and speak uprightly, who despises the gain of oppressions, who shakes his hands lest they hold a bribe, who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed and shuts his eyes from looking upon evil." These are they who, though caught up in the tide of battle and perchance suffering as would all men, are yet enabled to rise above the tribulations of the moment. This is because they have embraced the standards of another world and put their trust in One who is more powerful than all this world's armies. Although still subject to the trials and tribulations of the flesh, these are promised that they "shall dwell on the heights; his place of defence shall be the fortresses of rocks; his bread will be given him; his water will be sure." Precious promise, the inheritance of all who in every age have put their trust in their God when the wrath of man had raged against them. The Apostle Paul tells us that we are "seated with Christ in the heavenlies". Constant is the exhortation to "look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen" (2 Cor. 4. 17-18). "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, who abides in the shadow of the Almighty" (Psa. 91. 1). In that hallowed sanctum of the Rock of Ages shall he find sustenance, the bread of life and the water of life indeed. "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness" said Jesus "and all these things shall be yours as well." At a time when the advent of abnormal conditions of life amongst us threatens in so many cases the loss of a normal livelihood, good it is to remember the Divine promise "his bread will be given him, his water will be sure".
Now comes a word of assurance. In the midst of this troubled time let the believer but trust in his God and rest secure in that confidence, and (verse 17) "Your eyes will see the king in his beauty; they will behold a land that stretches afar" (RSV). Critical scholars render the latter phrase "the land of far distances". Who is there among us whose heart does not thrill at the prospect of even now, by faith, seeing our King in his beauty; "the chief among ten thousand, the one altogether lovely"? (Song of Solomon 5. 10, 16), and gazing entranced at the glorious vision of the land of to-morrow, a good land, a spacious land, one stretching into all eternity, truly "the land of far distances?" It is only when the thoughts are turned to the eternal promises of God and the heart relies fully upon Him that this glorious prospect of future ages, both for the Church and the world, can be seen stretching into the illimitable future. Why focus our eyes and thoughts upon the black clouds of trouble to the exclusion of that fair land which awaits all men on the other side?
Now in verse 18 the prophet turns for a moment from his lofty station and brings his thoughts back to the present. "Your mind will muse of the terror" (RSV); most translators agree that this is the true sense of the Hebrew. The believer in God, after having firmly established his faith in the unseen things and in the promises of God, looks around him as it were, and asks "Where is the scribe? Where is the receiver? Where is he that counts the towers?" The "scribe" was an Assyrian official accompanying the conquering armies whose duty it was to decide the nature and amount of tribute to be paid by each conquered village or community. The "receiver" (more properly "weigher") was a companion official who received the tribute as it was paid. The "counter of towers" was a reference to a military officer who surveyed the countryside as hostilities proceeded and laid plans for the capture of villages and the siege of walled towns. They are still in the land, still executing their dread work, but for the faithful child of God they are shorn of their terrors. Fresh from the vision of Divine overruling power he looks around and asks "where are they? What power have these man-made forces in face of the protecting care of my God?" Clear from heaven the answer comes, as in Leeser's vivid translation of verse 19 "The barbarous people shall you not see any more, the people of a speech too obscure to be understood, of a stammering tongue, without meaning." To the Hebrews the Assyrians were barbarians, a people notorious for their ruthlessness and cruelty, men of a foreign and unintelligible speech. But here they were in the land of Israel, ravaging its gardens and vineyards and destroying its villages and towns. How then could it be said "the barbarous people you shall see no more?" What use uttering such words when the sad fact was only too obvious to those who looked on things around them. Ah, therein lay the answer. "We look" says Paul, "not on the things which are seen, but on the things which are not seen." So with us, if in the midst of our troubles and perplexities we fix our gaze upon the unseen things of the Spirit, and our hopes upon the promises of God, the glorious vision of "things to come" will blot out the fear and terror of present distresses from our minds. It will leave us in calm and undisturbed possession of that peace which passes all understanding, that peace which converts the wildest storm into the calm of a placid lake, which takes full account of all that the wrath of man can do and finds it of no account in comparison with the overruling power of God. That is why Isaiah, in a fine flight of prophetic vision, exhorted his fellows to turn away from the contemplation of present troubles. "Look upon Zion, the city of our appointed feasts; your eyes will see Jerusalem, a quiet habitation, an immovable tent, whose stakes will never be plucked up nor will any of its cords be broken." Here is a picture of the New Jerusalem, the city of God that shall indeed fulfil the meaning of the archaic name, Urusalim, the City of Peace. The old Tabernacle in the wilderness was often taken down and moved from place to place. In very truth the children of Israel had here no abiding place, and no continuing city. Time and oft their enemies destroyed and defiled their sanctuaries and in all its forty-odd centuries of history that city set in the tops of the Judean hills has never been a city of peace. Yet the time is to come when both literally and spiritually Jerusalem shall speak peace to the nations, and many people shall go up unto its walls to learn of the law of the Lord (Isa. 2. 3). A tabernacle that is at last a permanent dwelling place for the Lord God of Hosts; a sanctuary whose posts and cords shall not be removed any more for ever. "But there" cries the prophet exultantly (vs. 21) "the Lord in majesty will be for us a place of broad rivers and streams, where no galley with oars can go, nor stately ship can pass." It is said that the 46th and 48th Psalms were composed at this time of national stress. How fittingly they mirrored the situation is proven by the constant appeal to those same Psalms when, as at the present time, the storm clouds of trouble loom more darkly and threateningly than is usual. But there is one great difference between the rivers of the city of God and those streams that Isaiah had in mind. "No galley with oars, neither gallant ship shall pass." What is the meaning of such seemingly out of place allusions?
The prophet was thinking of the rivers and canals (mistranslated "streams") which were in that day such a feature of their enemy's country. Mesopotamia is today largely a desert but that is only because the gigantic irrigation system which had been constructed and maintained from earliest times was destroyed and laid waste in the early centuries of this Christian era. The land is flat, and the two great rivers, Tigris and Euphrates, bring down great quantities of water which at certain seasons of the year overflow the banks and turn the whole countryside into a vast inland sea. At other times the rivers are shrunken and the land is dried and parched by the heat of a tropical sun. In the days of Sennacherib these flood waters were controlled by a marvellous system of canals, dams and reservoirs which stored the water and made it available all the year round, in consequence the entire land was covered with wheat fields and fruit trees—almost a Paradise on earth. To those who lived in the mountainous country of Judah such a land of "broad rivers and canals" was a most fitting example of the earthly prosperity promised to the faithful of God. So the force of the promise that the Lord Himself should be to them a "place of broad rivers and canals".
Now with Assyria in the height of her glory and power it was inevitable that the two great rivers should play their part in the conduct of military operations. Through the peaceful countryside ever and anon the war-vessels of the Assyrians came ploughing their way along the waters—galleys rowed by slaves or larger ships with sails. The expression "gallant ship" is from a Hebrew word that is applied in the Scriptures to war vesse1s rather than merchant ships. This was used in this connection in Numbers 24.24; Ezekiel 30.9 and Daniel 11.30 where war vessels are referred to. It was almost at the time when Isaiah penned these words that Sennacherib, desiring to consolidate his power to the south of his dominions, built a great war fleet at Nineveh. He then sailed down the River Tigris to a point where it flowed near the canal system of the Euphrates, along the great Babylonian canals into the Euphrates and down that river to the Persian Gulf whence he successfully attacked the Elamites and eventually returned to Nineveh. The news of these naval operations would reach the ears of the Israelites and cause them to reflect that whilst vessels of war sailed the rivers of Babylon those smiling fields and sparkling waters could know no true peace. Hence the force of the promise which declared that no warships or galleys would ever sail on the rivers of the city of God. To us in this day comes the same cheering reflection. The instruments of the wrath of man will perish with the downfall of man's power—they will find no place in the coming kingdom of righteousness.
"For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; he will save us." There is the answer of supreme faith. We are the servants of the Most High God, "the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity" (Isa. 57. 15). We have devoted ourselves and our lives to His glad service. We are His ambassadors, His representatives to a world in which we move as aliens; for it is true that "here have we no continuing city" (Heb. 13. 14). Surely then we can have confidence that whatever happens to us is known to Him and in fullest harmony with His Will. When the three Hebrew men were threatened with the fiery furnace they made this stirring reply to the Babylonian monarch "Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us. . . But if not, (if He does not so deliver) be it known to you, O King, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up" (Dan. 3. 17-18 RSV). The young man with Elisha was terrified at the apparent certainty of death at the hands of the Syrian armies. When however Elisha prayed and the young man's eyes were opened he saw the hosts of the Lord—horsemen and chariots of fire encompassing them in the mountains round about. So it is with us. The invisible legions of God are fully able to divert from us all the dangers and distresses which it is not His will should come our way. As for the rest, as for those disasters and trials which are permitted to come, shall we not say with Job, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust him" (Job 13. 15).
Let our consideration of this eloquent passage in Isaiah's prophecy be a source of strength and comfort in the coming days. Though darkness encompass the land and fears are on every side, though there are the terrors that fly by night and the arrows that fly by day, the pestilence walking in darkness and destruction wasting at noonday (Psa. 91. 5-6) let it always be true of us that "I have made the Lord my refuge, the Most High my habitation" and in so doing, we shall not be greatly moved.
The above article has been slightly abridged and reprinted here because it was felt so applicable to current events. May this meditation upon Scripture help to hold firm our trust in the living God, in uncertain days when leaders of the nations rage against each other and evil men stalk the Earth - Editor