Isaiah 5:20


Isaiah 5, 20.—Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!

If the judgments of men are habitually influenced by their affections, it is not surprising that their speech should bear the impress of the same controlling power. What we hear men say in the way of passing judgment upon things and persons, unless said deliberately for the purpose of deceiving those who hear them, will afford us, for the most part, a correct idea of their dispositions and prevailing inclinations. There is indeed a customary mode of talking, practised by some men, in which familiar formulas of praise and censure, as to moral objects, are employed as if by rote, involving the admission of important principles, and recognizing in its full extent the grand distinction between moral good and evil. Such men will speak familiarly of other men, and of their acts, as right or wrong, as virtuous or vicious, in a manner which implies not only preference of judgment but of inclination; so that if we draw conclusions from their language merely, we should certainly infer that they not

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only understood the principles of sound morality, but loved them and obeyed them. The latter conclusions would, in too many instances, be found to be erroneous, not because the person, in his talk, was guilty of deliberate hypocrisy, or even intended to deceive at all, but because his words conveyed more than he meant, especially when phrases used of course, and by a sort of habit, came to be subjected to the rules of a strict interpretation. But in all such cases it will soon be found, upon a little observation, that the dialect in question, however near it may approach to that of evangelical morality, is still distinguished from it by indubitable marks,—to one of which I shall direct your notice, and have no doubt that it will be immediately confirmed by your own experience.

If, then, you know any one who thus indulges in the use of such conventional expressions as imply a recognition of those principles of morals which are laid down in the Bible, but whose conduct, on the other hand, repudiates and nullifies them—have you not observed, that in expressing his opinions upon moral subjects, he avoids, as if instinctively, those terms of censure and of approbation which belong distinctively to scripture, and confines himself to those which are common to the Bible and the heathen moralists, to Christian ethics and the code of honour. He will speak of an act, or a course of acts, as wrong, perhaps as vicious,—it may even be as wicked, but not as sinful. There are crimes and vices, but no sins in his vocabulary. The difference between the terms, as viewed by such a person, seems to be that vice and crime are referable merely to an abstract

standard, and perhaps a variable one; while sin brings into view the legislative and judicial character of God.

Sin too is associated, in most minds, with the humiliating doctrine of a natural depravity, while vice and crime suggest the idea of a voluntary aberration on the part of one, by nature free from taint, and abundantly able to stand fast in his own strength. By tracing such diversities, however slight and trivial they seem to be when in themselves considered, we may soon learn to distinguish the characteristic dialect of worldly moralists from that of evangelical religion. It will also be found, that in the use of terms employed by both, there is a difference of sense, it may be unintentional, denoting no small difference in point of principle. Especially is this the case in reference to those important principles of morals which bear most directly upon the ordinary business of life, and come most frequently into collision with the selfish interests and inclinations of ungodly men. Two men for instance shall converse together upon truth and falsehood, upon honesty and fraud, employing the same words and phrases, and perhaps aware of no diversity of meaning in their application. In their principles and feelings they shall seem to coincide, both approving and condemning with a perfect unanimity. And yet when you come to ascertain the sense in which they severally use the terms employed by both, you shall find that while the one adopts the rigorous and simple rule of truth and falsehood, which is laid down in the Bible and by common sense, the other holds it with so many qualifications and excep

tions, as almost to render it a rule more honoured in the breach than the observance. The one is so tolerant of innocent deceptions, and of jocose lies, or of conventional concealments and pretences in the way of business, that the other, when he comes to understand him, finds the ground on which he stood swept away by these insidious refinements, and begins to feel that even in morals the old proverb is a true one, what is one man's food may be another man's poison.

There can be no doubt that this unperceived and undefinable diversity in the use of language, exerts a constant and extensive influence on human intercourse, and leads to many of those misconceptions which are tending daily to increase the mutual distrust of men in one another's candour and sincerity. But while it is unquestionably true that the language which men hold in regard to moral subjects, is not, in every case, a sure criterion of their own dispositions, even where there is no direct intention to deceive; there remains, after all allowable deduction upon this score, an extensive field of curious and profitable observation. There are multitudes of instances, to which the force of habit and' colloquial usage, as explained already, do not reach, and which are therefore fair occasions for employing men's expressions as a test of their secret inclinations and the state of their affections. And in this there is very little danger of injustice to the subject of the scrutiny. The cases which have been already mentioned are exceptions to the general rule, or rather to its rigid application, that " out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh;" all tend to favour him whose words are taken as an index to his character. The exception which has been admitted is not that men are often better than their words would represent them, but the contrary. If indeed it were commonly or often true that men employ language which implies a denial or a disregard of moral distinctions, and indeed a preference of evil to good, while in fact they are not only sound in judgment, upon this essential point, but cordially disposed to give the preference to virtue, then indeed it might be possible to do them gross injustice by the use of such a test.

But who pretends to think that men are often, I might almost say ever, better in the bent of their affections and their moral dispositions than in the general drift of their discourse? Who does not know that they are often worse, and that where any marked diversity exists, the difference is commonly in favour of his words at the expense of his thoughts and feelings? If we err therefore in the application of the test proposed, we are far more apt to err in favour of the subject than against him. If his words are in truth an exponent of his feelings, we shall do him justice; if not, there is every reason to believe that he is worse than he appears to be. Let it, however, be observed, that nothing could be more unjust or utterly subversive of impartial judgment, in this matter, than to choose as tests or symptoms mere occasional expressions. Few men are so bad that they never speak good sentiments. And alas for the best, if they must stand or fall by their ability or inability to prove that they have never uttered splenetic, or frivolous, or unbecoming language. The holiest men have had occasion to lament their own delinquencies in this respect; while, on the other hand, notorious profligates and unbelievers have been known to utter sentiments of pure and stern morality, with such apparent earnestness and candour, that the hearers might have been excused for crying out, "Is Saul also among the prophets?" It is not by such ebullitions, whether good or evil, that the heart is to be judged, but by the general tone and tenor of the conversation upon moral subjects. It would not be just or safe to say that he who has been known to bear his testimony to the excellence of virtue, is a good man, even in the worldly sense; or on the other hand, that he who has been heard to speak deridiirgly, or spitefully, or doubtfully of fundamental principles in mor-. als, is infallibly a villain, though the latter conclusion would be far more warrantable than the former, for a reason before stated. But it may be said with due regard to truth and justice, in the abstract, and in application to the character of individuals, that he who habitually, and as if by impulse, takes the side of virtue, without partiality and without hypocrisy, is virtuous himself; and that he who in like manner is invariably prompted, when there is no outward counteracting influence, to call evil good, and good evil, is one who, like the fallen angel, says in his heart, "Evil, be thou my good!" and is therefore a just subject of the woe denounced by the prophet in the text. It may indeed be thought that this expression is descriptive, not so much of those who hate good and love evil, as of those who err as to what is good and what is evil.

But it must not be forgotten that a rational nature is incapable of loving evil, simply viewed as evil, or of hating good, when simply viewed as good. Whatever thing you love, you thereby recognize as good; and what you hate or abhor, you thereby recognize as evil. To hate a thing, and yet regard it as a good thing, is a mere contradiction, if the terms be taken in the same sense, or referred to the same standard of comparison. No man can dislike a taste, or smell, or sound which, at the same time, he regards as pleasant, nor can he like one which he thinks unpleasant. To regard a thing as pleasant is to like it, and to dislike it is to think it disagreeable. But change the standard of comparison, and what appeared impossible is realized. The music which is sweetest to your ear may be offensive when it breaks the slumber of your sleeping friend; the harshest voice may charm you when it announces that your friend still lives. The darling sin is hated by the 6inner as the means of his damnation, though he loves it as the source of present pleasure; and in proportion as the present and the future world are present to his thoughts and his belief, may his affections vary as to the same object. When, therefore, men profess to look upon that as excellent which in their hearts and lives they treat as hateful, and to regard as evil and abominable that which they are seeking after, and which they delight in, they are not expressing their own feelings, but assenting to the judgment of others. They are measuring the object by a borrowed stand

S ard, while their own is wholly different. And if they are really so far enlightened as to think sincerely that the objects of their passionate attachment are evil, this is only admitting that their own affections are disordered and at variance with reason. It is virtually saying: Such a thing is good to my perceptions, but I know that they are wrong. It is just as if a man's sense of taste should be so vitiated through disease that what is sweet to others, is to him a pungent bitter. He may be convinced by argument and testimony, that according to the natural perceptions of mankind the thing is sweet, and that the bitterness is in his own disordered palate. This may satisfy his reason, but whenever that same object comes in contact with his palate, it will still be bitter, till its qualities are changed, or his organs of taste resume their natural and healthful functions. So the sinner may believe on God's authority or man's, that sin is evil and that holiness is good, but as a matter of affection and of inclination, his corrupted taste will still reject the sweet as bitter and receive the bitter as sweet; his diseased eye will still confound light with darkness, and his lips, whenever they express the feelings of his heart, will continue to call good evil and evil good.

These three forms of expression in the text appear to be significant of one and the same thing. The thought is clothed, first, in literal, and then in metaphorical expressions. To put darkness for light and light for darkness; to put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter; is nothing more nor less than to call evil good and good evil, or, as the same idea is differently worded in the margin, to say of evil it is good, and of good it is evil. The character thus drawn is generally applicable to ungodly men. They all put darkness for light and light for darkness. They all put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. They all call evil good and good evil. If the verse be taken merely in this general sense, the woe which it pronounces is a general woe, or declaration of divine displeasure and denunciation of impending wrath against the wicked generally, simply equivalent to that in the third chapter, (verse 11,) " Woe unto the wicked! it shall be ill with him, for the reward of his hands shall be given him."

Such a declaration, awful as it is, and perfectly in keeping with the uniform tenor of the word of God, would furnish no specific test of character, because it would still leave the question undecided, who it is that chooses evil and rejects the good. But it is very obvious that, in the case before us, the prophet is very far from meaning merely to assert the general liability of sinners to the wrath of God. The text is the fourth in a series of six woes, denounced upon as many outward manifestations of corrupt affection. Under the figure of a vineyard which, though sedulously cultivated, only produced wild grapes, he had represented the ungrateful and unprofitable service of the ancient Israel, explaining the parable and summing up its lessons in the seventh verse: "The vineyard of the Lord of Hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry." From this general and sweeping VOL. II.—18*

charge against the nation, he proceeds to an enumeration of particular offences then especially prevailing, but by no means limited to that age or country: and he sets these forth, not as the product of so many evil principles, but as the varied exhibition of that universal and profound corruption which he had just asserted to exist, in general terms.

The first of these specified corruptions is the avaricious and ambitious grasping after great possessions, not merely as a means of luxurious indulgence, but as a distinction and a gratification of pride: "Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth," (v. 8.) Is this an obsolete iniquity in our day, and especially in our favoured .country, where the rich and poor so often exchange places, and where the children of poor parents can aspire to be the masters of the soil, ay, and stop their ears against the claims of their poor creditors, that they whose inheritance was nothing may lay field to field, and be placed alone in the midst of the earth ?" In mine ears, saith the Lord of Hosts, of a truth many houses shall be desolate, even great and fair without inhabitant." It was to such that the prophet threatened woe, and to such that the apostle James exclaimed long afterwards: "Behold the hire of your labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth; and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth." (Jas. 5, 4.)

The next form of iniquity denounced is drunken

ness: ""Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that continue until night till wine inflame them," (v. 11.) Is this too a peculiar vice of ancient times, unknown in modern civilized society, and alas, that I should say it, in the church of God? In this, as in the first case, the description of the crime is followed by its punishment, including not only personal but national calamities, as war, desolation, and captivity. The third sin is that of the presumptuous, blaspheming sinner, who goes on to sin, not that grace may abound, but that God may take vengeance: "Woe unto them that draw iniquity with cords of vanity, and sin as it were with a cart rope: that say, let him make speed and hasten his work, that we may see it; and let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel draw nigh and come that we may know it," (vs. 18, 19.) Have we no such blasphemers, or at least such tacit challengers of vengeance? Let your eyes, and ears, and memory, and conscience answer.

The fourth form in iniquity is set forth in the text. The fifth is that of overweening confidence in human reason as opposed to God's unerring revelation: "Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight;" another marked and hideous feature in the age in which we live. The sixth is drunkenness, considered, not a sin the former case, under the aspect of a personal excess, producing inconsideration and neglect of God, but as a vice of magistrates and rulers, and as leading to oppression and all practical injustice: "Woe unto them that are mighty to drink wine, and men of strength to mingle

s strong drink, which justify the wicked for reward, and take away the right of the righteous from him," (vs. 22,23.) I should blush for my country if compelled to answer to the question, whether such excesses have not been associated even in her borders with official power and official influence; and I must tremble for my country, when I hear the voice of God proclaiming as the consequence of this incestuous connection between vice and power: "Therefore as the fire devoureth the stubble, and the flame consumeth the chaff, so their root shall be as rottenness, and their blossom shall go up as dust: because they have cast away the law of the Lord of Hosts, and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel," (v. 24.)

This rapid recapitulation of the context I have given for two reasons: 1, to show that in this whole passage, the prophet has reference to species of iniquity familiar to our own time and country; and 2, chiefly to evince, that in the text we have not a mere denunciation of God's wrath upon wickedness in general, but the description of a certain outward form in which the prevailing wickedness betrayed itself. It does not teach us merely that punishment awaits those who choose evil in preference to good, but that an outward mark of those who hate God, and whom God designs to punish, is their confounding moral distinctions in their conversation; calling evil good and good evil, putting darkness for light and light for darkness, putting bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. As the other symptoms of a general corruption, which are here enumerated, have their counterparts in modern times, and in the world around us, we are warranted in thinking that the analogy holds good in this case also, and that among the surest signs of those who hate God, and whom God abhors, is their habitual, instinctive disposition to call evil good and good evil.

How this is done, I now invite you to consider, not as a theme of abstract speculation, or as a matter of fact in which you feel no individual concern, but as a practical and personal inquiry of the deepest moment, which, as rational and conscientious beings, you are bound to answer each one for himself. And in suggesting this inquiry, I assume that all who hear me are respectful hearers of the gospel, and professed believers in the truth of Christianity ; that none of you are wont to call in question any of its fundamental doctrines, much less to carp at the first principles of morals. You admit distinctly the essential difference of right and wrong; the excellence of truth, and the turpitude of falsehood; the superiority of reason and conscience to appetite and passion as the guides of human conduct; you allow the will of God to be a binding rule of action, and the Bible to be a revelation of that will. You grant that it reveals the only method of salvation for a ruined world, and that whatever tends to make it known, and give it practical efficiency, contributes to the happiness and elevation of the human race.

From none of these important doctrines would you perhaps be willing to dissent in terms, and so far you are innocent of calling evil good and good evil. 1 do not ask you whether by your conduct you are not belying your profession of these principles;

s for difficult to answer as the question might be, it would interrupt the train of thought which we have been pursuing. But the question which I ask is this; when one who thus admits in words the great first principles of morals, takes away so much on one hand, and grants so much on the other, as to obliterate the practical distinction between right and wrong; when with one breath he asserts the inviolable sanctity of truth, but with the next breath makes provision for benevolent, professional, jocose, or thoughtless falsehood; when in the abstract he asserts the claims of justice, and the obligation to give every man his own, but in application to specific cases thinks it lawful to enrich himself at other men's expense, or to take advantage of another's weakness, ignorance, or error; when he admits the paramount importance of religious duties in the general, but in detail dissects away the vital parts as superstition, sanctimony, or fanaticism, and leaves a mere abstraction or an outward form behind; when he approves the requisitions of the law and the provisions of the gospel in so far as they apply to other people, but repudiates them as applying to himself; when any one does this, or any part of this, or any thing analogous to this, I ask, whatever his professions or his creed may be, whether he does not virtually, actually, call evil good and good evil.

Again, I ask you, whether he who in the general admits the turpitude of fraud, impurity, intemperance, malignity, and other vicious dispositions with their practical effects, and thus appears to be an advocate for purity of morals, but when insulated cases or Bpecific acts of vice are made the subject of discussion, treats them all as peccadilloes, inadvertencies, absurdities, indiscretions, or perhaps as virtues modestly disguised; whether he who condemns drunkenness, but clears the drunkard; he who frowns upon fraud, but smiles upon the fashionable swindler or defaulter; he who hates licentiousness, but loves the libertine; is horror-struck at murder, but can fawn upon the duelbst and flatter the assassin; I ask, whether he who does all this can be protected by the mere assertion of a few general principles from the fatal charge of calling evil good. And, as the counterpart of this, I ask you whether he who praises and admires all goodness, not embodied in the life of living men or women, but detests it when thus realized in concrete excellence; who praises piety, but blames the pious; who extols benevolence, but doubts the motives of the few who practise it; who honours warm devotion, but laughs the wretched devotee to scorn; in short, who worships virtue as a being in the clouds, but hates her when incarnate in the form of a reproving example; whether he who does all this, does not really and practically call good evil.

And I ask you, lastly, whether he who, in relation to the self-same acts, performed by men of opposite descriptions, has a judgment suited to the case of each, a pillar of fire one way and of cloud the other, but the dark side turned to Israel and the bright to the Egyptians; all compassion to the wilful transgressions of the wicked, and all inexorable sternness to the innocent infirmities of godly men; he who strains at a gnat in the behaviour of the meek and conscientious Christian, but can swallow a camel in the conduct of the self-indulgent votary of pleasure; he who lauds religion as exhibited in those who give him no uneasiness by their example, but maligns and disparages it when, from its peculiar strength and brightness, it reflects a glare of painful and intolerable light upon his own corruptions;—I ask whether he who does all this, let his maxims of moral philosophy be what they will, does not, to all intents and purposes, incur the woe pronounced on those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Ah, my hearers, these distinctions may at present appear arbitrary, frivolous, or false, and as a necessary consequence, the guilt of confounding them may fade almost to nothing, to a stain so faint upon the conscience as to need no blood of expiation to remove it. In the present darkness of your minds, that stain may even disappear. But methinks I see already the faint glimmer of a light which is to play upon that fatal spot until it glows and sparkles, a deep, indelible, and damning spot. The day is coming when the eye of reason shall no longer find it possible to look at light and darkness as the same; when the moral perceptions, from acute to agony, shall cease forever to confound the sweetness of true holiness with the envenomed gall and wormwood of an evil conscience; and the woe already heard, shall then be seen and felt; seen by the sinner in the writhings of his fellow-sinners, felt more intensely in his own. From that state many will look back and wonder at themselves, and at what they now are do

ing in despite of reason, conscience, and experience, and with that solemn admonition ringing in their ears, "Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter." Prom the darkness and the bitterness of that damnation, may we all find deliverance through Jesus Christ our Lord.