Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 13: Isaiah, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
TO HIS SERENE HIGHNESS,
EDWARD SIXTH, KING OF ENGLAND, etc.
A TRULY CHRISTIAN PRINCE.
Though I acknowledge that this Commentary has been faithfully and skillfully compiled from my Lectures, yet, as it was drawn up by another person, I was at first afraid, most illustrious King, that if it should appear in public bearing your name on the Dedication, I might be thought not to have acted properly towards your Majesty. But this doubt was removed chiefly by one consideration, that as a Prophet who was of royal descent, and a most noble ambassador of Christ, the supreme King, is highly appropriate to your rank, so the labor which I had bestowed on the explanation of his Prophecies would be accepted and valued by your Majesty. His experience made him acquainted with five kings exceedingly unlike each other in their dispositions, to whom in uninterrupted succession he officiated as a teacher; and it is unnecessary to inform you which of these you should chiefly select for imitation, or to exhort you to that which you show that you are already sufficiently willing to do.
Uzziah and Jotham were favorable to him, though they were not so courageous as they ought to have been in maintaining the worship of God. His chief contest was with Ahaz, not indeed as an open enemy, but as a cunning hypocrite full of fraud and dissimulation. The servants of God cannot have a more dangerous class of enemies. His successor, Hezekiah, not only treated the holy man with reverence, but modestly submitted to his doctrine like one of the common people, and, what is still more, endured patiently severe reproof when it was found necessary. Manasseh, who was the last of them, and whom a strongly supported Jewish tradition represents as having been his son-in-law, subjected him to a frightful kind of torture, and wickedly put him to death. But at the very time when he received assistance from those who were not bad kings, and even during the reign of Hezekiah himself, who was so valiant a supporter of godliness, he never ceased to be harassed by sharp and troublesome disputes, and to undergo severe conflicts, so hard and uncommon is it for men to assent to sound doctrine; and not only so, but they who resolve to discharge the prophetical office honestly and faithfully must carry on a continual war with the world. The more earnestly ought godly kings to labor to aid the servants of God by their countenance, that they may not be distressed beyond measure by the insolence of the ungodly.
But as this virtue is excellent and truly heroic, so, if you search the history of all ages from the beginning of the world, it has been uncommon, and there have been very few by whom it was cultivated. Many have indolently and carelessly, as if it had been a matter with which they had no concern, allowed the truth of God to be crushed without making any resistance. But the greater part have been openly hostile, and have opposed it with violence and rage; and would that they who at the present day profess to be Christians were as earnest in upholding the doctrine of salvation as they are haughty in boasting of the name!
Not to mention others, it may justly be regarded as no ordinary consolation amidst the present distresses of the Church, that God has raised you up and endowed you with such excellent abilities and dispositions for defending the cause of godliness, and that you so diligently render that obedience to God in this matter which you know that he accepts and approves. For although the affairs of the kingdom are hitherto conducted by your counsellors, and although your Majesty’s most illustrious uncle, the Duke of Sommerset, and many others, have religion so much at heart, that they labor diligently, as they ought to do, in establishing it; yet in your own exceptions you go so far beyond them all as to make it very manifest that they receive no small excitement from the zeal which they observe in you. Not only are you celebrated for possessing a noble disposition, and some seeds of virtues, (which at so early an age is usually thought to be remarkable,) but for a maturity of those virtues far beyond your years, which would be singularly admired, as well as praised, at a very advanced age. Your piety especially is so highly applauded, that the Prophet Isaiah, I am fully convinced, will have one that will regard him with as much reverence, now that he is dead, as Hezekiah did when he was alive.
As to the advantage which you will derive from the work, it is better that you learn that from your own perusal, and I have made some observations on that subject in the Preface. There is only one point on which I have resolved to say a few words to your Majesty. After having proclaimed God’s just complaints against an ungrateful people, and threatened against the Jews such punishment as their base apostasy and inveterate rebellion deserved, that the time was at hand when they should be brought into a state of frightful desolation, the Prophet next speaks of a new and amazing restoration of the Church, and promises that henceforth God will secure that, in spite of enemies, it shall always be in a happy and flourishing condition.
Such gladness and prosperity was tasted by those who, after their return from the captivity in Babylon, having set up their altars for sacrifices, could form the expectation of higher blessings than those which they at that time enjoyed; just as we, by beholding the dawn, are led to expect that the rising of the sun will soon follow. But when, in the brightness of his Gospel, Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, arose, all that had been so eloquently described by the revelations of the Prophet was far exceeded by the event. Within a short time the knowledge of the true God was spread almost throughout the whole world. Pure religion, which formerly lay despised in Judea, as in a dark corner, was circulated through all nations and provinces, and began to be honored in such a manner, that innumerable tongues, in harmony of faith, called on God.
Having collected churches in various places, the Son of God erected his royal throne in a conspicuous situation, where it might be beheld from the rising to the setting of the sun. The churches, endowed with extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, not only obtained prodigious communications of the divine goodness, but were themselves striking exhibitions of astonishing power, which even the blind could perceive. And although the Son of God reigned under the Cross, yet, amidst the arduous conflicts of persecutions, his glory shone brighter, and his triumphs were more splendid than if the Church had enjoyed undisturbed prosperity. At length, the haughty loftiness of the Roman empire, yielding submission to Christ, became a distinguished ornament of the house of God.
But the continuance of this prosperity was prevented by the malice and ingratitude of men; and thus the Spouse of Christ, deprived of so costly a robe, degraded from so high a rank, and stripped of such gorgeous raiment, was afterwards reduced to an unsightly and wretched condition. Some remains, indeed, God preserved, as it were in places of concealment; but, as to the external beauty of the Church, nothing but desolation, confusion, and dispersion, was to be seen for many centuries. And we see how, at this very day, the Roman Antichrist, far and wide usurping and tyrannizing over the sanctuary of God, tears, crushes, and tramples under his feet all that belonged to God. For since the purity of doctrine is there corrupted by monstrous errors, since shocking murder has come into the room of lawful government, since the sacraments are in part debased by gross corruptions, and in part exposed to disgraceful sale, what but melancholy ruin is left of the true and natural beauty of the spiritual building?
Yet in our age, contrary to the expectation of all, the Lord hath again begun to raise up that which was fallen, (Am 9:11,) that there might at least be left among us an outline of the true temple, in which God should be worshipped with purity, and according to the requirements of the Gospel. Some inconsiderable persons, taken from the common people, have been selected by him as his architects, to promote this work by pure doctrine. It is, indeed, an arduous and extensive work, though Satan should give us no annoyance. But now that he employs every expedient for breaking down the Church, as soon as any portion of it has been erected, what wonder is it if we have great and sorrowful toil, and make small and feeble progress?
Accordingly, the haughty tyrants scorn us, as if, in our endeavors to overthrow the tyranny of the Roman See, we were laboring to overturn Olympus. Those clever and ingenious men (as they imagine themselves to be) indulge in ridiculing our perseverance, in laboring hard to restore the condition of the Church, as if anything fixed or permanent could be obtained. They imagine that they have so solid a foundation, and are so well defended on all sides, that it would be as difficult to destroy Popery as to mingle heaven and earth. But the opinions of those men are somewhat various. The refractoriness of the world being too great to admit of being placed under any restraint, they hold that we labor in vain when we seek to correct vices, and to promote a pure and faithful administration of the Church.
The witticism of Erasmus is well known. “Whom does Capito expect to be his tenth successor?” He could not deny that Wolfgang Capito was a holy man, and labored with the purest motives to reform the Church; but being convinced that it is idle for the ministers of Christ to struggle to correct the wickedness of the world as if they were endeavoring to cause the rivers to run in a contrary direction, Erasmus, imitating the custom of lazy philosophers, represented all of us, in the person of one man, as chargeable with inconsiderate zeal. But on both sides they are greatly mistaken in not considering that, when we repair the ruins of the Church, we give our labors to the Lord, in obedience to his laws and injunctions, and yet the restoration of the Church is his own work. Nor is it without good reason that this is taught in every part of Scripture, and that it is so earnestly enforced by the Prophet Isaiah. Remembering this doctrine, therefore, and relying on the assistance of God, let us not hesitate to undertake a work which is far beyond our own strength, and let no obstacle turn aside or discourage us, so as to abandon our undertaking.
And here I expressly call upon you, most excellent King, or rather, God himself addresses you by the mouth of his servant Isaiah, charging you to proceed, to the utmost of your ability and power, in carrying forward the restoration of the Church, which has been so successfully begun in your kingdom. First, you daily read and hear that this duty is enjoined on you in the kingdom over which you rule. More especially Isaiah, as I have said, calls Kings the nursing-fathers of the Church, (Isa 49:23,) and does not permit them to withhold that assistance which her afflicted condition demands. Nor ought your mind to be slightly affected by the consideration, that the Prophet pronounces a woe on all kings and nations who refuse to give her their support. Next, your Majesty sees plainly what is urgently demanded by the times. Though you may not have great success in your labors, yet, knowing that this worship is acceptable to God, and is a sacrifice of most delightful savor, you ought not to be turned aside from your purpose by any event, however calamitous. Seeing, therefore, that God exhorts you to be courageous, and at the same time promises success, why should you not cheerfully obey him when he calls?
In another passage Isaiah says, Prepare the way, prepare the way for my people. (Isa 62:10.) It is well known how hopeless was the return of the captives to their native country. Nor did this event take place at that time; but the Prophet, beholding by the Spirit what posterity some time afterwards would actually enjoy, lest any of the godly should be disheartened by so sad a spectacle, meets them beforehand with the assurance that there would be no kind of obstructions so powerful and formidable that God would not break through them to deliver his Church. Not less do we need at this day to be cheered by consolation.
It is of high importance, most noble King, that you should be stimulated to activity by the consideration of the duty enjoined on you; for Isaiah exhorts all kings and magistrates, in the person of Cyrus, to stretch forth their hand to the Church, when in distress, to restore her to her former condition. Yet there is this difference between your condition and that of Cyrus, that he who was a stranger to the Lord’s flock never was expressly taught freely and willingly to come forward and undertake to be a defender of the Church; but to you, to whom the Lord has not only given adoption, but has likewise assigned a distinguished place among his sons, the Prophet may be said to stretch out his hand and call you to this office. So much the more boldly and resolutely ought you, noble King, to proceed in this course.
The matter is, as I have said, full of great difficulties; and still greater are the annoyances by which it is attended, and the dangers in which it is involved; for Satan never ceases to employ innumerable expedients, if in any way he may succeed in subverting or destroying the holy temple of God; and sometimes God intends to make trial of our steadfastness by such attacks. But if you lay it down as a settled principle, that there is nothing which you and your most excellent Council have hitherto undertaken, or are now performing, for restoring the condition of the Church, which is not supported by the authority of God, you will unquestionably feel how wonderfully he accomplishes all those things which he gives in charge to his servants. From this happy result England will derive inestimable advantage; and we, too, will congratulate you on your prosperity, and that of your whole kingdom. Meanwhile, I shall aid those holy exertions by my prayers, as it is my duty to do, since I have nothing better to offer you.
Farewell, most illustrious King! may the Lord prosper and preserve your Majesty for a long period, aid and guide you by his Holy Spirit, and bless you in all things! — Amen.
Geneva, 25th December, 1550.