"The righteous is taken away from the evil to come. He shall enter into peace—they shall rest in their beds, each one walking in his uprightness." Isaiah 57:1, 2
"The righteous man perishes, and no one lays it to heart; devout men are taken away, while no one understands. For the righteous man is taken away from calamity; he enters into peace; they rest in their beds who walk in their uprightness." Isaiah 57:1-2
The early grave is not confined to any rank or station. "Both the small and the great are there" (Job 3:19). While "behold the Lord, the Lord Almighty takes away from Jerusalem and from Judah the stay and the staff,…the prophet and the prudent and the ancient"—He ever and anon rings the solemn warning-bell within palace halls—"Put not your trust in princes, nor in any man, in whom there is no help. When they breathe their last breath, they return to the ground. On that day their plans come to an end." (Psalm 146:3, 4).
On these last words the verse which heads this chapter is a significant comment. Young King Josiah, who ascended the throne of Judah at the tender age of eight, is considered, by most reliable commentators, to be "the Righteous one" here specially referred to. In harmony with Isaiah's prophetic instinct and anticipation, the youthful monarch proved himself to be the most godly of his royal race. Surely, no nobler eulogy could have been written than this—"Like unto him there was no king before him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might,…neither after him arose there any like him" (2 Kings 23:35).
At the age of sixteen he was brought, by means of the perusal of a copy of the Divine Law, under the fervid power of personal piety—and from that day onwards, during a memorable decade, he became priest and king in one. He commenced as an iconoclast, sweeping away from mountain and grove and valley every vestige and memorial of the idolatries sanctioned and encouraged by his apostate predecessors, and restored the purity of the Temple-worship—"repairing the breaches of the House." His acts of public devotion culminated in what may well be considered the eventful day of his reign, when, at the age of eighteen, he summoned his people to a great convocation in Jerusalem. In more than its former pomp and impressiveness, the old feast of the Passover was kept—"all Israel," as in former days, publicly renewing their covenant to their fathers' God. The longing prayer of the hidden 'seven thousand' seemed to have obtained a gracious answer—"Will You not revive us again, that Your people may rejoice in You?" (Ps. 85:6).
But, strange, mysterious dispensation! just when in the flower of his youth, and when his people were prospering in peace and piety under his kindhearted scepter, he is brought wounded and bleeding from the battlefield at Hadadrimmon, where he had gone to stop the march of Pharaoh—and he dies in his chariot before he can reach his palace in Jerusalem. It attests the depth and intensity of the national grief, that a funeral dirge, composed by Jeremiah, was, for many years after, sung on the spot where he received the fatal wound—and the best choristers of Israel tendered annually their services in rendering the mournful strains.
We get but a snatch of these in the plaintive dirge of the prophet who wrote them—"Ah, my brother!…ah!, lord!—or, ah, his glory!" (Jer. 22:18). That it must, however, have been a scene and occasion of no common sorrow is farther evidenced when Zechariah uses it as a figure to describe the great future mourning and repentance of the Jews—"In that day shall there be a great mourning in Jerusalem, as the mourning of Hadadrimmon." (Zech. 12:11). "The righteous," says Isaiah (as by imparted foresight he sees the sudden eclipse of this bright star)—"The righteous (suddenly) perishes," and "merciful men" (or, as that word may be rendered—"the pious," "men of godliness and kindness"—those who are "good," fearing God and loving man) "are taken away."
Josiah's case is in some respects singular. From his public and exalted position, and the manifestation of singular virtues, the mystery we have already dwelt upon in ordinary examples, of early removal, seems intensified. For Jehovah to allow this "beauty of Israel to fall in high places," appears at first sight inconsistent alike with the Divine wisdom and power and love. It looks almost like the frustration of God's plans and purposes—a failure in His sovereign designs. In other respects the mystery is the same, whatever the rank or condition of life may be. It is the architect just completing his work—when that work comes with a crash to the ground. It is the sculptor putting the finishing-strokes of his chisel on the virgin marble—when the toil of months or years strews the floor of his studio. It is the gardener bringing forth from his green-house the choicest long-husbanded plants, in their freshness and beauty, to bask in early summer sun—when a frost or hailstorm unexpectedly comes, and in one night they have perished! It is the gourd of Jonah—the figure that has so often occurred to us—encircling some earth-bower of happiness; blighted, not, as before noted, when the noonday heat is over, or when the sun is westering, and when the shade could be dispensed with; but "in the morning"—when most needed; when, drenched with the night-dews, its growth was stimulated and its permanency seemed ensured.
To apply to those in regal positions what we have already done to those in ordinary stations, we can understand the removal of the hoary-headed kings "who made Israel to sin"—monarchs who had grown grey in iniquity. The land was well rid of such, for they lived only like the fabled upas-tree—to diffuse around them moral corruption and death. We can understand, too, the removal of the aged Israelitish patriarchs and rulers—veteran standard-bearers, who had fought their fight and finished their work, and gone to perpetuate lofty character and service in a better world—the Abrahams and Samuels and Davids who had "served their generation according to the will of God," and who, "well stricken in years," "fell asleep, and were gathered to their fathers."
But the Josiahs of early and brilliant promise—those who lived young lives of highest consecration, and diffused a hallowed influence in their age and sphere! Where is the wisdom, where is the love, in stripping the Temple of such pillars—"Beauty and Strength?" Hardly can their fellows spare them! Why is "the staff broken and the beautiful rod?" Above all (for such thoughts will, despite of better faith, force themselves on the crushed spirit—whether it be the roll of ancient Jewish kings and princes, or the everyday modern bereft British home)—WHY has God—the Great and the Good and the Loving—nurtured affections in the human bosom only prematurely to blight and destroy them? Why has He created tender ties only to be sundered? Why is the young athlete stricken down just when entering the race? Wherefore has God apparently thus made His noblest work in vain?
The words of Isaiah give a twofold answer to these questions and mysteries. The one negative, the other positive.
1. "The righteous is taken away from the evil to come."Utterly perplexing at the time, as we have now seen in the case of Josiah, was that sudden summons—"Thus says the Lord God—Remove the diadem, and take off the crown" (Ezek. 21:26)—just in the midst of his bright career, when he had inaugurated a new era of blessing among the thousands who owned his sway; a happy people rejoicing under the shadow of this young cedar of God. How strange, too, apparently, the recompense for all that pious zeal and youthful consecration, to be hurried away, in the twinkling of an eye, by the cruel shaft of an Egyptian bowman! Where was the Lord God of Elijah and of the faithful and loyal-hearted among His Israel? "Is the Lord's hand shortened, that it cannot save?"
Such might be the musing of the mourning, patriotic band who bore their young King bleeding from the fray; such may possibly have been his own musings, as his life's-blood was ebbing, and when his eyes were dimming among the distant mountains of Samaria.
But ah! he and they were all in ignorance of the future. They had mercifully not revealed to them the impending invasion of the armies of Babylon, and the miseries which were to be entailed on his unhappy city and country! Well was it that God compassionately spared him these sorrows of siege and torture and captivity, plunder of holy treasure and firing the cities of his kingdom, by taking him away from the evil to come. Had his people, at the hour of his death, known of all that was about to befall their land, it would have moderated that loud wail of sorrow which rose from his death.
It is to this Jeremiah refers in the 22nd chapter of his Prophecies, when he thinks of Josiah peacefully sleeping with his fathers, in contrast with the wretchedness and humiliation which tracked the footsteps of his exiled successor. He addresses the nation of mourners, and thus would assuage their bitter grief—"Weep not for the dead (your dead King Josiah), neither bemoan him—but weep sore for him (his unhappy son) that goes away; for he shall return no more, nor see his native country" (ver. 10). God Himself, the Lord whom the young monarch served, does not disguise from him the reason of his early departure. For this is the special message sent to him direct from Jehovah by the mouth of Huldah the prophetess, as recorded in 2 Kings 22:18-20—"To the King of Judah, which sent you to inquire of the Lord, thus shall you say to him…Because your heart was tender, and you have humbled yourself before the Lord,…I also have heard you, says the Lord. Behold I will gather you unto your fathers, and you shall be gathered into your grave in peace; and your eyes shall not see all the evil ('the evil to come') which I will bring upon this place."
What was true of Josiah's early death is, we believe, applicable to most cases. Often when we can see no love or kindness or wisdom in these early graves, it is because the morrow to us is mercifully veiled. God, who foresees all, graciously saves a heritage of sorrow or sin by an early removal. Better the brief loan, with all its hallowed, undarkened memories, than the prolonged life with its possible evils. Better the lamb early taken, than left, footsore and fleece-torn, to pine on blighted herbage and wander amid dry and deserted channels. Blessed, truly, in the beautiful, heavenly sense, are "the undefiled," who have, by early death, escaped the corruptions that are in the world through lust; in the volume of whose heart the white leaves have their virgin purity unblotted and unstained; "taken" before impurity stirred the well of pure thought. More blessed and honored, in one sense, are those—and many such there are—who, by dint of resolute self-discipline and high principle, have bravely fought the long fight, and come out of it unwounded, unscathed; who with unabashed face can make the appeal to the great Heart-searcher, of a good conscience and a blameless life; but safer, at least, are they who, away from the sudden gusts and hurricanes of temptation, have soared early upwards, and with unsoiled plumage, unruffled wings, have sank into the clefts of the Rock forever. If they had been allowed to remain longer on earth, who can tell but some baneful influences might have blighted fair promise and belied fond hopes? But before the storm-cloud could descend, the Great Giver, in mercy, gave the summons.
Oh, what would thousand thousands give, who are now drifting as miserable wrecks on life's sea—health, innocence, purity gone—what would such give to be as they are, inheriting in all its grandeur that best beatitude, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God"? Yes, and in the case of bereaved parents, how many a bitter tear-drop would be dried, and broken heart solaced and comforted, if, remembering all the perils of this world of sin and suffering, and with the bright retrospect of lives suddenly cut short, they would listen to the utterance of Isaiah, like a sweet chime wafted from the Temple of Heaven, "The righteous is taken away from the evil to come!"
But the words of the Prophet give also a positive explanation of the mystery of early death (ver. 2)—
2. "He shall enter into peace—they shall rest in their beds, each one walking in his uprightness." Rather, as it has been rendered, "each one walking straight before him;" or, as Bishop Lowth translates it, "he who walks in the straight path."
Josiah, the youthful, the good, the pious, when he died, "entered into peace." It is a beautiful Old Testament evidence of the immediate blessedness of the departed righteous. His body rested in the tomb as in a 'bed' or couch; his spirit—the spirit that walked so 'uprightly' on earth, with no divergence from the path of duty and piety—continues, in a loftier state of existence, this elevated 'walk.' The work cut short in this lower world is not arrested; it is only transferred. In a higher and loftier sphere he still pursues active ministries of righteousness.
There is an evident contrast between these opening words of the chapter and the terrible refrain with which it closes—"There is no peace, says my God, to the wicked;" none in life, none in death. But "the righteous," thus taken away, "enter into peace."
Another thought, too, is brought out in the original which we miss in our translation, and which suggests the same assurance of immediate bliss. It occurs in the words just quoted—"The righteous is taken away." "Merciful men are taken away;" this in the Hebrew is, "The righteous, the merciful, are gathered"—gathered to their fathers—the same expression regarding Josiah which God Himself put into the lips of Huldah—"I will gather you to your fathers"—"You shall be gathered to your grave in peace." It is not 'taken away,' as if some violent seizure, a wrench from friendship and happiness, and from all association with living souls. No! it is rather a joining of the great company, a being gathered to the gathering of the sainted dead. The early death of Josiah, and such as he, is the morning chime which summons to the upper sanctuary, to unite in the worship of the great congregation. It is the vessel entering the haven of eternal rest; but that haven not in a silent, deserted shore, but a harbor crowded with the loving and the glorified; a world not of loneliness, but rather of fellowship and communion with the great and the good, and the true of all ages.
Reader, if the death of the young was annihilation; if the orb underwent eternal eclipse; if there were even a period of intermediate suspension of consciousness and active energy—then such removal would be mysterious; the blank would be a blank indeed. But the sun has not been blotted out from the skies; it has only disappeared amid these western clouds to illuminate some other section of God's great world; lost to earth, it shines in Heaven. Yes, more; whatever path of uprightness the departed one followed below, he or she is following that path above. Heaven is but an expansion and development of the characteristic traits of earth—"He who is righteous, let him be righteous still; and he who is holy, let him be holy still."
We can stand beside the death-bed of the youngbeliever, and as we are musing over that touching spectacle of baffled energy, paralyzed activity, premature decay of physical and mental power, early removal alike from earth's duties and earth's joys—while on the one hand we can take hold of the negative solace, that by so soon entering the haven he has been possibly spared many a "night and day on the deep"—we can rise to nobler and better and brighter assurances. We can listen as to the whispering of angels hovering around his pillow—"He shall enter into peace—he shall walk in his uprightness."
One other thought on early death may be suggested by these words. The body rests in the 'bed' of the grave, and the spirit has entered into peace in heaven; but while that spirit is there pursuing its onward path of bliss and glory, it has not, in the truest sense, bid farewell to its earthly sphere. If I revert to a thought already dwelt upon, it is because of its elevating comfort. The lips are silenced, the music of the voice is hushed, the blank of the absent is too painfully realized. But "the righteous" survive dissolution even in this world. In their deathless memories of goodness and worth, they continue to "walk." The 'uprightness' is not laid by with their funeral shroud, or merely carved in the epitaph on their gravestones. No! it lives. The sun has vanished, but the glow still reddens the mountain-tops and glorifies the evening clouds.
Josiah died! It was in one sense the last of him, when he was borne away on that bloody coffin from the valley of Megiddo; or, at all events, when, as in great pomp, they laid him in the tombs of the Kings in Jerusalem. It is said that "all Judah and Jerusalem mourned for him." But, in the noblest meaning of the words, he lived on for generations afterwards. We read in 2 Chron. 35:26, "Now the rest of the acts of Josiah, and his goodness (uprightness),…and his deeds, first and last, behold, they are written in the Book of the Kings of Israel and Judah." They were written in a more enduring volume. They were written deep on his own nation's heart. They are written in imperishable memorial in the chronicles of the great and good of all time. He shines, this day, as a clear fixed star in the olden skies, and will thus shine on forever!
"Early death!" That "early" is a term only relative to the body—that which rests in the bed of the grave. The young life which has shone gloriously for God, though now a fallen meteor, has left a track of radiance behind it, for which parent and brother and sister will forever bless Him who gave the transient boon!
You who may, with sad heart, be often and again tempted to mourn those thus early removed—who read that promise of long life apparently broken and stultified on the letters of an early tomb, and who think the Psalmist's words most appropriate to trace on the marble, "He weakened my strength in the way; He shortened my days" (Ps. 102:23); be comforted! God measures existence—we cannot too often repeat it—not by periods, or by decades, or jubilees; with Him character is life, not years; goodness is life, not years. "The righteous," whether he has fallen at the very threshold of existence, or in the prime of youth, or in the glory of manhood, or survived to a green old age—"The righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance."