Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 13: Isaiah, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
THE PREFACE TO THE PROPHET ISAIAH
BY JOHN CALVIN
It is customary to make a great number of statements and dissertations about the office of the Prophets. But, in my opinion, the shortest way of treating this subject is to trace the Prophets to the Law, from which they derived their doctrine, like streams from a fountain; for they placed it before them as their rule, so that they may be justly held and declared to be its interpreters, who utter nothing but what is connected with the Law. Now, the Law consists chiefly of three parts: first, the doctrine of life; secondly, threatenings and promises; thirdly, the covenant of grace, which, being founded on Christ, contains within itself all the special promises. As to ceremonies, they were religious exercises which strengthened the attachment of the people to the worship of God and to godliness, and consequently were added to the First Table. The Prophets, therefore, enter more largely into the illustration of doctrine, and explain more fully what is briefly stated in the Two Tables, and lay down what the Lord chiefly requires from us. Next, the threatenings and promises, which Moses had proclaimed in general terms, are applied by them to their own time and minutely described. Lastly, they express more clearly what Moses says more obscurely about Christ and his grace, and bring forward more copious and more abundant proofs of the free covenant.
To make this matter still more clear, we must go a little farther back, to the Law itself, which the Lord prescribed as a perpetual rule for the Church, to be always in the hands of men, and to be observed by every succeeding age. Perceiving that there was danger lest an ignorant and undisciplined nation should need something more than the doctrine delivered by Moses, and that the nation could scarcely be restrained without the use of a tighter rein, God forbids them to consult magicians or soothsayers, augurs or diviners; enjoins them to be satisfied with his doctrine alone; but at the same time he likewise adds that he will take care that there shall never be wanting a Prophet in Israel. He does this purposely, with the view of meeting an objection which the people might have brought forward, that their condition would be worse than that of the infidels, all of whom had their priests of various orders, their soothsayers, augurs, astrologers, Chaldeans, and such like, whom they had it in their power to visit and consult, but that they would have no one to aid them by his advice in intricate and difficult matters. In order, therefore, to deprive them of every pretense, and to hinder them from polluting themselves by the abominable practices of the Gentiles, God promises that he will raise up Prophets, (De 18:15,) by whom he will make known his will, and who shall faithfully convey the message which he has entrusted to them; so that in future there will be no reason to complain that they are in want of anything. There is an exchange (ἑτέρωσις) of the plural for the singular number, when he uses the word Prophet; for although, as it is expressly interpreted by Peter, (Ac 3:22,) that passage relates literally and chiefly to Christ, (because he is the head of the Prophets, and all of them depend on him for their doctrine, and with one consent point to him,) yet it relates also to the rest of the Prophets, and includes them under a collective name.
When he promised to give them Prophets, by whom he would make known his will and purpose, the Lord commanded the people to rely on their interpretations and doctrine. And yet it was not intended to make any addition to the Law, but to interpret it faithfully, and to sanction its authority. Hence also, when Malachi exhorts the people to adhere to the purity of faith and to be steadfast in the doctrine of religion, he says,
Remember the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded him in Horeb, for all Israel. (Mal 4:4.) 4
He reminds them of the Law of God alone, and enjoins them to be satisfied with it. Does Malachi therefore mean that Prophecies should be despised? By no means; but as the Prophecies are appendages of the Law, and are all briefly summed up in the Law, that exhortation was sufficient; for they who understand that summary of doctrine, and its leading points, and carefully observe them, assuredly will not neglect the Prophecies. It would be absurd to boast of attending to the word, were we to disregard the divine interpretations of it; as many persons at the present day impudently boast of attending to the word, while they cannot at all endure the godly admonitions and reproofs which proceed from the doctrine of the word.
Thus when the Prophets inculcate moral duties, they bring forward nothing new, but only explain those parts of the Law which had been misunderstood. For instance, the people thought that they had discharged their duty admirably, when they offered sacrifices and performed the outward services of religion; for the world measures God by its own standard, and renders to him a carnal and counterfeited worship. The Prophets sharply reprove this, and show that all ceremonies are of no avail, when sincerity of heart is wanting, and that God is worshipped by believing on him, and by actually calling on his name. This had indeed been plainly enough declared by the Law; but it was necessary that it should be earnestly inculcated and frequently brought to their remembrance, and likewise that there should be an exposure of that hypocrisy with which men cloak themselves under the guise of ceremonies. As to the Second Table, the Prophets drew their exhortations from it, for the purpose of showing that men ought to refrain from all injustice, violence, and deceit. All that they do, therefore, is nothing else than keeping up the people’s obedience to the Law.
In threatenings and promises, the Prophets have something peculiar; for what Moses had stated in general terms they minutely describe. They have likewise visions which peculiarly belong to them, by which the Lord revealed future events, in order to apply the promises and threatenings to the use of the people, and to declare more fully the will of God. Moses threatens, “God will pursue thee in battle; thou shalt be harassed by enemies abroad and by internal quarrels at home. Thy life shall hang as it were on a thread; thou shalt tremble at the rustling of a leaf,” (Le 26:36,) and such like. On the other hand, the Prophets say, “God will arm the Assyrians against thee, he will call for the Egyptians by a hiss, he will raise up the Chaldeans, Israel shall be carried into captivity, the kingdom of Israel shall be destroyed, the enemy shall lay waste Jerusalem and burn the temple.” Similar observations might be made about the promises. Moses says, “If thou keep the commandments, the Lord will bless thee;” and then gives a general description of blessings. But the Prophets enter into detail. “This is the blessing which the Lord will bestow upon thee.” Again, by Moses the Lord promises in this manner, —
“Though thou be scattered and driven to the utmost parts of the world, yet will I bring thee back.” (De 30:4.)
But by the Prophets he says, “Though I drive thee into Babylon, yet after seventy years will I restore thee.” 5
As to the free covenant which God established with the Patriarchs in ancient times, the Prophets are much more distinct, and contribute more to strengthen the people’s attachment to it; for when they wish to comfort the godly, they always remind them of that covenant, and represent to them the coming of Christ, who was both the foundation of the covenant and the bond of the mutual relation between God and the people, and to whom therefore the whole extent of the promises must be understood to refer. Whoever understands this will easily learn what we ought to seek in the Prophets, and what is the purpose of their writings; and this is all that seemed necessary to be stated here on that subject.
Hence we may learn in what manner the doctrine of the word should be handled, and that we ought to imitate the Prophets, who conveyed the doctrine of the Law in such a manner as to draw from it advices, reproofs, threatenings, and consolations, which they applied to the present condition of the people. For although we do not daily receive a revelation of what we are to utter as a prediction, yet it is of high importance to us to compare the behavior of the men of our own age with the behavior of that ancient people; and from their histories and examples we ought to make known the judgments of God; such as, that what he formerly punished he will also punish with equal severity in our own day, for he is always like himself. Such wisdom let godly teachers acquire, if they would wish to handle the doctrine of the Prophets with any good result.
So much for the Prophets in general. To come to the Prophet Isaiah, the inscription plainly shows who he was, and at what time he uttered those prophecies; for it mentions the name of his father, Amoz, who is supposed to have been the brother of Azariah, king of Judah. Hence it is evident that Isaiah was of royal descent, and on this point all the ancients are agreed; and yet neither his birth nor his near relationship to the king, (for the Jews assert that he was the father-in-law of Manasseh,) could prevent him from being slain through dislike of the word; and no greater regard was paid to him than if he had been a person of humble rank, or had belonged to the lowest condition of society.
The time when he prophesied is here pointed out by mentioning the names of the kings. Some think that he began to prophesy towards the end of the reign of King Uzziah. They found their conjecture on the vision related in the sixth chapter, by which, Isaiah tells us, he was confirmed in his office. But that conjecture rests on very slight grounds, as will be shown at the proper place. From this description it plainly appears that he prophesied during the reign of Uzziah; and on that point I cannot entertain any doubt.
However this may be, it is evident that, at the very least, he prophesied more than sixty-four years; for Jotham reigned sixteen years, (2Ki 15:33;) Ahaz as many, (2Ki 16:2;) 6 Hezekiah twenty-nine, (2Ki 18:2.) This amounts to sixty-one years. Add the years that he prophesied during the reign of Uzziah, and afterwards during the reign of Manasseh, by whom he was put to death; and there will be, at least, sixty-four years during which Isaiah continued, without interruption, to discharge the office of a Prophet. There is indeed a highly probable conjecture, amounting almost to certainty, that he prophesied ten years beyond the period which has now been stated; but as this does not clearly rest on historical proof, I shall not debate the matter any farther.
All the servants of God ought carefully to observe this, that they may consider how patiently they ought to submit to their condition, how hard and difficult soever it may be, and ought not to reckon it a disgrace that they must endure many and severe trials, while they have before their eyes examples of such patience. It is indeed a very severe trial when they perceive that by their manifold exertions they are doing no good, and imagine that it would be a thousand times better to relinquish their post than to labor so long in vain. Such examples, therefore, they ought frequently to set before them and call to remembrance; how Isaiah, whose labors were numerous and extensive, had little success, and how Jeremiah continued for fifty years to cry aloud to the people, though the result was that they became more and more rebellious, and how no difficulties could turn them aside from their course. We, too, ought to proceed in the discharge of our duty, and patiently to endure every kind of annoyances.
It is proper to observe also the succession of kings, who are here enumerated; for amidst so great a diversity, it is impossible that the state of public affairs could remain unchanged, as we know that, whenever any change takes place in a public station, the greater part of men immediately adopt a new manner of life; and from this source many vexations must have arisen. The unshaken firmness and unbroken courage with which he persevered ought to excite all the servants of God to imitation, that they may never bend or turn aside from the right path.
A question may arise, Was it Isaiah himself, or some other person, that wrote this inscription to his Prophecy? Not one of the commentators whose writings I have hitherto perused answers this question. For my own part, though I cannot fully satisfy my mind, yet I shall tell what I think. The Prophets, after having publicly addressed the people, drew up a brief abstract of their discourse, and placed it on the gates of the temple, that all might see and become more fully acquainted with the prophecy. When it had been exposed for a sufficient number of days, it was removed by the ministers of the temple, and placed in the Treasury, that it might remain as a permanent record. In this way, it is probable, the books of the Prophets were compiled; and this may be inferred from the second chapter of the book of Habakkuk, if it be properly examined, and likewise from the eighth chapter of this Prophecy. (Hab 2:2; Isa 8:1.) Those who have carefully and judiciously perused the Prophets will agree with me in thinking that their discourses have not always been arranged in a regular order, but that the roll was made up as occasion served. That these writings have come down to us through the agency of the Priests, whose duty it was to transmit the prophecies to posterity, (though the Priests were often the bitterest enemies of the Prophets,) is a remarkable instance of the providence of God.
Original text has:Mal 4:3 — fj.
In this comprehensive view of the writings of Moses, as compared with those of the later Prophets, our author does not quote the exact words of the sacred writers. More than one phrase shows that he had chiefly in his eye the promises and threatenings detailed in Le 26 and De 28 — Ed.
Original text has:2Ki 16:3 — fj.