Preface To The Prophets
(1545 and 1532)To human reason the prophets seem of small account, and little of value is found in them. This is especially so when Master Wisehead comes along. He knows the Scriptures by heart and has them at his finger-tips, and out of the riches of his spirit, he regards the writings of the prophets as mere worthless, dead talk. That is why the lives and works of the prophets are no longer noticed, and only their words and histories are heard. This is no wonder, when God’s Word, too, is despised, even though the signs and events, and the kingdom of Christ, as well, are daily before men’s eyes; and how much more would it be despised, if the stories and the deeds were no longer extant. Just so the children of Israel despised God and His Word when they had before their eyes the manna, the fiery pillar and the bright cloud, and the priesthood and the princedom.
Therefore we Christians ought not be such shameful, sated, ungrateful wiseacres, but should read and use the] prophets with earnestness and profit. For, first of all, they proclaim and bear witness to the kingdom of Christ, in which we now live, and in which all believers in Christ have heretofore lived and will live until the end of the world. It is strong encouragement and encouraging strength to have for our Christian life such mighty and ancient witnesses by whom our Christian faith is greatly encouraged in the belief that it is the right station in the eyes of God, in contrast with all other wrong, false, human holiness and with the sects, which are a source of great offense and temptation to a weak heart, because of the great show that they make and of the multitude of their adherents, and, on the other hand, because of the Cross and of the small number of those who hold to the Christian faith. So, in our days, the hordes of the Turk, the pope, and others are great and powerful causes of offence.
For this, then, the prophets are useful to us; as St. Peter claims, in 1 Peter, that it was not unto themselves that the prophets made known the things that were revealed to them, but to us, “to us,” he says, “they made them known.” For they have thus “ministered to us,” with their prophesying, in order that he who would be in Christ’s kingdom might know that he must first suffer many things before he comes to glory, and that he must govern himself accordingly. By this we become sure of two things’ first, that the great glory of Christ’s kingdom is surely ours, and will come hereafter; and second, that it is preceded by crosses, shame, misery, contempt, and all kinds of suffering for Christ’s sake. Thus we shall not become disheartened through impatience or unbelief, or doubt the future glory, which will be so great that the angels desire to see it.
In the second place, they show us many great examples and experiences illustrating the First Commandment, and it is portrayed in masterly fashion, in both words and illustrations, so as to drive us powerfully to fear of God and faith, and to keep us in them. For after they have prophesied of Christ’s kingdom, all the rest is nothing but illustration of how God has so strictly and severely confirmed the First Commandment, and to read or hear the prophets is surely nothing else than to read and hear God’s threats and comforts. God threatens the godless, who are careless and proud, and if threatening does not help, He enforces it with penalties pestilence, famine, war, until they are destroyed; thus He makes good the threat of the First Commandment. But He comforts those who fear God and are in all sorts of need, and enforces His comfort with aid and counsel, by all kinds of wonders and signs, against all the might of the devil and the world’ thus He also makes good the comfort of the First Commandment.
With such sermons and illustrations the prophets minister richly to us, teaching us that we need not be offended when we see how carelessly and proudly the godless despise God’s Word, and pay no heed to His threatenings, as though God were a mere nothing; for in the prophets we see that things have never turned out well for any man who has despised God’s threatening, even though they were the mightiest emperors and kings and the holiest and most learned people on whom the sun ever shone. On the other hand, we see that no one has been deserted who has dared to rely upon God’s comforts and promises, even though they were the most miserable and the poorest sinners and beggars that were ever on the earth, nay, even though it were a slain Abel and a swallowed Jonah. By this the prophets prove to us that God keeps to His First Commandment, and wills to be a gracious Father to the poor and believing, and that for Him no one is to be too small or too despised; on the other hand He wills to be an angry Judge to the godless and the proud, and no one is to be too great, too mighty, too wise, too holy for Him, whether it be emperor, pope, Turk, and the devil beside.
For this reason it is, in our days, profitable and necessary to read the prophets, so that, by these illustrations and sermons we may be strengthened and encouraged against the unspeakable, innumerable, and (if God will) the final causes of offense given by the damned world. How completely the Turk holds our Lord Jesus Christ and His Kingdom for a mere nothing, compared with himself and his Mohammed! How greatly the poor Gospel and God’s Word are despised, both among us and under the papacy, compared with the glorious show and riches of human commandments and holiness! How carelessly the fanatics, the Epicureans, ▼
▼ For Luther “Epicurean” is synonymous with “unbeliever.”and others like them walk in their own opinions, contrary to Holy Scripture! What an utterly audacious, wild life everyone now lives, following his own self-will, contrary to the clear truth, now as plain as day! It seems as though neither God nor Christ were anything; stiff less does it seem that God’s First Commandment was so strict! But they say, “Wait a bit, wait a bit! Suppose the prophets are lying, and deceiving us with their histories and sermons!” More kings than they, and mightier, yes, and worse knaves than they, have gone to destruction; and these will not escape. Needier and more wretched people, too, have been gloriously helped; and we shall not be deserted. They are not the first to be defiant and boastful, and we are not the first who have suffered and been tormented. See, it is thus that we make the prophets useful to ourselves; read in this way, the reading of them is fruitful.
To be sure, there is in them more of threatening and rebuke than of encouragement and promise, and it is good to observe the reason. The godless are always more in number than the righteous; therefore one must always be more insistent on the law than on the promises. Even without the promises, the godless feel secure, and they are most agile in applying the divine encouragements and promises to themselves and the threats and rebukes to others, and they do not let themselves be turned, by any means, from this perverted notion and false hope. For their motto is Pax et securitas , “There is no need!” They stick to that, and go with it to destruction, as St. Paul says, “Destruction cometh upon them suddenly.”
Again, since the prophets cry out most of all against idolatry, it is necessary to know the form which this idolatry had; for in our time, under the papacy, many people flatter themselves pleasantly and think that they are no such idolaters as the children of Israel. For this reason, then, they do not think highly of the prophets, especially of this part of them, because the rebukes upon idolatry do not concern them at all. They are far too pure and holy to commit idolatry, and it would be laughable for them to be afraid or terrified because of threats and denunciations against idolatry. That is just what the people of Israel also did. They simply would not believe that they were idolatrous, and therefore the threatenings of the prophets had to be lies, and they themselves had to be condemned as heretics.
The children of Israel were not such mad saints as to worship plain wood and stone, especially the kings, princes, priests, and prophets, though they were the most idolatrous of all; but their idolatry consisted in letting go of the worship which God had instituted and ordered at Jerusalem, and where else God would have it, and improving on it, establishing it and setting it up elsewhere, according to their own ideas and opinions, without God’s command, and inventing new forms and persons and times for it, though Moses had strictly forbidden this, especially in Deuteronomy 12, and pointed them to the place that God had chosen for His tabernacle and dwelling-place. This false worship was their idolatry, and they thought it a fine and precious thing, and relied upon it as though they had done well in performing it, though it was sheer disobedience and apostasy from God and His commands.
Thus we read in 1 Kings 12:28, not simply that Jeroboam set up the two calves, but had it preached to the people besides, “Ye shall no more go up to Jerusalem; lo, here, Israel, is thy God, who led thee out of Egypt.” He does not say, “Lo, here, Israel, is a calf,” but “Here is thy God who led thee out of Egypt.” He confesses freely that the God of Israel is the true God and that he led them out of Egypt; but men are not to run to Jerusalem after Him, but rather to find Him here at Dan and Beersheba, where the golden calves are. The meaning is: — One can sacrifice to God and worship Him as well before the golden calves as before a holy symbol of God, for so men sacrificed to Him and worshiped Him before the golden ark. Lo, that is deserting the worship of God at Jerusalem, and thereby denying God, who has commanded that worship, as though He had not commanded it. So they built on their own works and devotion and not purely and alone on God.
With this devotion they afterwards filled the land with idolatry; on all the hills, in all the valleys, under all the trees they sacrificed and burned incense, and all this had to be called serving the God of Israel; he who said otherwise was a heretic and false prophet. That is the real committing of idolatry, — undertaking to worship God, without God’s bidding, out of one’s own devotion; for He will not have us teach Him how He is to be served. He wills to teach us and to prescribe His worship; His Word is to be there and it shall give us light and leading. Without His Word it is all idolatry and lies, however devout it seems, and however beautiful it seeks to be. Of this we have often written.
From this it follows that among us Christians all those men are idolatrous, and the prophets’ denunciations apply to them, who have invented or still keep new ways to worship God without God’s order and commandment, out of their own devotion, and, as they say, with good intentions. For by this they surely put their reliance on works that they themselves have chosen and not simply and solely on Jesus Christ. In the prophets these people are called adulteresses, who are not content with their own’ husband, Jesus Christ, but run after other men, as though Christ alone could not help, without us and our works, or as though He alone had not redeemed us, but we must also do something toward it. And yet we know very well that we did nothing toward having Him die on the Cross, taking our sins upon Him and bearing them on the Cross, not only before the whole world could think of any such thing, but before we were born. Just as little, and even less, did the children of Israel do toward bringing the plagues upon Egypt and Pharaoh and setting themselves free through the death of the first-born of Egypt. God did this alone, and they did nothing at all toward it.
“Nay,” say they, “the children of Israel served idols with their worship, and not the true God, but we serve in our churches the true God and the one Lord Jesus Christ, for we know no idols.” I answer: That is what the children of Israel also said. All of them declared that their worship was given to the true God, and even less than our clergy would they permit anyone to call it the serving of idols. On this account they killed and persecuted all the true prophets; for they, too, would know nothing of idols, as the histories tell us.
For thus we read in Judges 17:1, that the mother of Micah, when he had taken from her the eleven hundred pieces of silver, and returned them, said to him, “Blessed be my son from the Lord. I vowed this silver to the Lord, that my son shall take the silver and have a graven image made of it, etc.” Here one learns clearly and certainly that the mother is thinking of the true God, to whom she has vowed the silver, to have a graven image made of it. She does not say, “I have vowed the silver to an idol,” but “to the Lord,” which name is known among all Jews as the name of the one true God. The Turk also does the same thing; he names the true God in His worship and means Him who created heaven and earth. Likewise do the Jews, Tartars, and now all unbelievers. Nevertheless, it is all sheer idolatry.
Again how strange was the fall of that wonderful man Gideon! To the children of Israel, who desired that he and his children should rule over them, he said, “I will not be your lord, nor will my children, but the Lord (that is, the true God) shall be your lord.” And yet he took the jewels that they gave him and made of them, not an image or an altar, but a priest’s garment, ▼
▼ i.e., An ephod (Judges 8:27).and out of devotion, he wanted to have a worshiping of God in his own city. But the Scripture says that all Israel committed harlotry with it, and this house went to destruction because of it. Now this great and holy man was not thinking of any idol, but of the one true God, as his spirited words bear witness, when he says, “The Lord shall rule over you, not I.” By these words he plainly gives honor to God alone and confesses only the true God and will have Him held as God and Lord.
So, too, we heard above that Jeroboam does not call his golden calves idols, but the God of Israel, who has led them out of Egypt; and this was the only true God, for no idol had led them out of Egypt. Nor was it his intention to worship idols, but because he feared (as the text says) that the people would fall away from him to the King of Judah, if they were to go to Jerusalem, according to custom, to worship God, he invented a worship of his own, by which he held them to him, and yet intended by it to worship the true God, who dwelt at Jerusalem; but it was not to be necessary to worship God in Jerusalem only.
Why many words? God Himself confesses that the children of Israel intended to worship, not an idol, but Him alone; for He says, in Hosea 2, “At that day, saith the Lord, thou shalt call me ‘My husband’ and call me no more ‘My master’. For I will take the name of the Baalim out of her mouth, so that one shall no more remember this name of Baalim.” Here one must confess it true that the children of Israel intended to worship no idol, but the one true God. God says plainly, here in Hosea, “Thou shalt call me no more ‘My Baal’.” Now the worship of Baal was the greatest, commonest, and most glorious worship in the people of Israel, and yet it was utter idolatry, despite the fact that by it they intended to worship the true God.
Therefore it helps our clergy not at all to allege that in their churches and chapters they serve no idol, but only God, the true Lord. For here you learn that it is not enough to say or think, ‘I am doing it to God’s glory; I mean it for the true God; I will serve the only God.” All idolaters say and intend that. Intentions and thoughts do not count, or those who martyred the apostles and the Christians would also have been God’s servants, for they, too, thought that they were doing God service, as Christ says in John 16:2; and Paul in Romans 10:2, testifies for the Jews that they are zealous for God, and says in Acts 26:7, that by serving God night and day they hope to come to the promised salvation.
On the contrary, let everyone have a care to be sure that his service of God is instituted by God’s Word, and not invented out of his own devotion or good intention. One who is accustomed to serve God in ways that have no testimony of God for them ought to know that he is serving, not the true God, but an idol that he has imagined for himself, that is to say, he is serving his own notions and false ideas, and thereby is serving the devil himself, and the words of all the prophets are against him. For this God, who would let us establish worship for Him according to our own choice and devotion, without His command and Word, — this God is nowhere; but there is only one God, who, through His Word, has abundantly established and commanded all the stations and the services in which it is His will to be served. We should abide by this and not turn aside from it either to right or left; do neither more nor less; make it neither worse nor better. Otherwise there will be no end of idolatry and it will be impossible to distinguish between true worship and idolatry, since all have the true God in mind, and all use His true Name. To this one and only God be thanks and praise, through Jesus Christ, His Son, our Lord blessed forever. Amen.
Preface To The Prophet Isaiah
(1545 and 1528)If anyone will read the holy prophet Isaiah with profit and thus understand him the better, let him not despise this advice and instruction of mine, unless he has better advice and is better informed. In the first place, let him not skip the title, or beginning, of this book, but learn to understand it as thoroughly as possible, so that he may not think that he understands Isaiah well, and afterwards have to put up with, it when someone says that he has never understood the title and first line, let alone the whole prophet. For this title is to be considered almost a gloss and a light on the whole book, and Isaiah himself points his readers to it, as though with his fingers, as the occasion and reason for his book. But to him who despises or does not understand the title, I say that he shall let the prophet Isaiah alone or, at least, that he will not understand him thoroughly, for it is impossible to gather or observe the prophet’s writing and meaning rightly and dearly, without a thorough understanding of the title.
When I speak of the title, I do not mean only that you read or understand the words “Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah, Kings of Judah”; but that you take up the last book of Kings and the last book of Chronicles, and take in the whole contents of them, especially the stories, speeches, and events that occurred under the kings named in the title, clear to the end of those books. For if one would understand the prediction, it is necessary that one know how things were in the land, how matters lay, what was in the mind of the people, and what kind of intentions they had for or against their neighbors, friends and enemies; and especially what attitude they took, in their land, to God and the prophet, toward His Word and His service.
It would be will, also, to know how the lands were situated with reference to one another, so that the strange, unfamiliar words and names might not make reading disagreeable and understanding dark and hard. To do my simple Germans a service, I shall briefly describe the country situated about Jerusalem or Judah, where Isaiah lived and preached, so that they may better see whither the prophet turned when he prophesied toward “noonday” or “midnight.” ▼
▼ i.e., South or North.
On the East, the nearest thing to Jerusalem, or Judah, is the Dead Sea, where, in ancient days, Sodom and Gomorrah stood. Beyond the Dead Sea lies the land of Moab and of the children of Ammon. Farther beyond lies Babylon, or Chaldaea, and farther still the land of the Persians, of which Isaiah speaks much.
Toward the North, lies Mount Lebanon and, across it, Damascus and Syria, but farther on, and to the East, lies Assyria with which Isaiah deals much.
Toward the West, along the Great Sea, lie the Philistines, the worst enemies of the Jews; and along the Sea, to the North, lie Sidon and Tyre, which border on Galilee.
Toward the South are many lands, — Egypt, the land of the Moors, the Red Sea, Edom, and Midian, so situated that Egypt lies to the West of the middle.
These are the lands and the names about which Isaiah prophesies as neighbors, enemies, and friends, surrounding the land of Judah like wolves around a sheepfold. With some of them they made alliance after alliance, but it helped them not at all.
After this, you must divide the prophet Isaiah into three parts. In the first he deals, like the other prophets, with two subjects. First, he preaches to his people and rebukes their many sins, especially the manifold idolatry which has got the upper hand among the people, — as godly preachers, now and at all times, do and must do, — and keeps them in check with threats of punishment and promises of good.
Second, he disposes and prepares them to expect the coming Kingdom of Christ, of which he prophesies more! clearly and more often than does any other prophet. He even describes, in Isaiah 7:14, the Mother of Christ, how she is to conceive and bear Him without injury to her virginity, and in Chapter 53, His Passion together with His Resurrection from the dead. He proclaims His kingdom powerfully and in plain language, as though it had then come. This must have been a splendid, highly enlightened prophet. For all the prophets do the same thing; they teach and rebuke the people of their time, and they proclaim the coming and the Kingdom of Christ and direct and point the people to Him, as to the Savior both of those who have gone before and of those who are to come; but one of them does this more than another, one more fully than another; among them all, however, Isaiah does the most and is the fullest.
In the second part, he has to do especially with the empire of Assyria and the Emperor Sennacherib. He prophesies more and at greater length than any other prophet about how the emperor shall subdue all neighboring lands, including the kingdom of Israel, and impose much misfortune on the kingdom of Judah. But there he stands like a rock, with the promise Jerusalem shall be defended and be saved from him; and that is one of the greatest miracles in the Scripture, not only because of the event, that so mighty an emperor should be defeated before Jerusalem, but also because of the faith, with which men believed it. It is a miracle, I say, that any one at Jerusalem could have believed in such an impossible thing. Isaiah must, without doubt, have heard many bad words from the unbelievers. But he did it; he defeated the emperor and defended the city. He must have stood well with God and been a precious man in His sight!
In the third part, he deals with the empire of Babylon. Here he prophesies of the Babylonian Captivity, with which the people are to be punished, and of the destruction of Jerusalem by the emperor of Babylon. And it is here that he does his greatest work, encouraging and upholding a people yet to come amid this future destruction and captivity, so that they might not believe that all was over with them, that Christ’s kingdom would not come, and that prophecy was false and vain. What a rich and full preaching he presents! — Babylon, in its turn, will be destroyed, and the Jews be released and return to Jerusalem. He even tells, with proud defiance of Babylon, the names of the kings that shall destroy it, namely, the Medes and Elamires, or Persians; and he expressly mentions the king who shall release the Jews and help them back to Jerusalem, namely, Cyrus whom. he calls “God’s anointed,” long before there is a kingdom in Persia. For he is concerned altogether with Christ, that His future coming and the promised kingdom o grace and salvation shall not be despised, or be lost upon His people and be of no use to them, because of unbelief or great misfortune and impatience; and this would be the case, unless they expected it and believed surely that it would come. These are the-three things that Isaiah deals with.
He does not treat them in order, however, and give each of these subjects its own place and put it into its own chapters and pages; but they are so mixed up together that much of the first matter is brought in along with the second and third, and the third subject is discussed somewhat earlier than the second. But whether this was done by those who collected and wrote down the prophecies (as is thought to have happened with the Psalter), or whether he himself arranged it this way according as time, occasion, and persons suggested, and these times and occasions were not always alike, and had no order, — this I do not know. He has at least this much order, — he brings in and deals with the first and most important subject, from beginning to end, all the way through the second and third parts; and that is what we ought also do in our sermons, always running along with the other things our most important matter, viz., the rebuking of the people and the preaching of Christ, even though we may now and then undertake, as occasion arises, to preach of other things, such as the Turk or the emperor, etc.
Remembering this, anyone can readily comprehend the prophet and be at home in him, and not be led astray or become impatient because of the order of the prophecies, as it happens to those who are not accustomed to it. We have done our best to make Isaiah speak good, clear German, though he has accommodated himself to it with difficulty and done his best to prevent it. Those who know both German and Hebrew well, will easily see that, especially the hair-splitters, who persuade themselves that they know everything; and there are enough words of threatening and terror against the stubborn, proud, hard-heads, — if that would help.
What profit there may be in reading Isaiah, I prefer to let the reader discover for himself, rather than tell him; and for one who does not, or will not, discover it for himself, there is not much profit to speak about. He is full of living, encouraging, heartening sayings for all poor consciences and miserable, disturbed hearts; and there are enough words of threatening and terror against the stubborn, proud, hard-heads; if that will help.
You should not think of Isaiah, except as a man who was despised among the Jews and considered a fool and madman. For they did not regard him as we now regard him, but, as he himself testifies, in chapter 58, they shot out their tongues and pointed their fingers at him and held his preaching as foolishness, all except a few godly children in the crowd, such as King Hezekiah. For it was the habit of the people to mock the prophets and hold them madmen; and this has happened to all servants of God and preachers; it happens every day and will continue.
It is also to be observed that the thing for which he most rebukes the people is idolatry. The other vices, such as display, drunkenness, avarice, he touches on hardly thrice, but reliance on their own self-chosen idolworship and their own works, or their confidence in kings and alliances, he rebukes all the way through. This was intolerable to the people, for they wanted such conduct to be right. Therefore they are said, at last, through King Manasseh, to have slain him as a heretic and deceiver and, as the Jews say, to have sawn him asunder. ▼
▼ For this legend see Realencyk. 8:714; Scheft-Herzog Encyc. 6:36; Jewish Encyc. 6:636.
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