Golden altarPMT 2015-002 by John Calvin

I am continuing my citation of John Calvin’s postmillennial-like exposition of Isaiah 19:18ff. Calvin does not excellent job on these important verses.

In that day shall there be an altar in the midst of the land of Egypt (Isa 19:19).

Isaiah continues what he had said in the former verse, and states more clearly that the aspect of Egypt will be renewed, because there true religion will flourish, the pure worship of God will be set up, and all superstitions will fall to the ground. He employs the word altar to denote, as by a sign, the worship of God; for sacrifices and oblations were the outward acts of piety. By the midst of Egypt he means the chief part of the whole kingdom, as if he had said, “the very metropolis,”or, “the very heart of the kingdom.”

And a statue to the Lord. Let it not be supposed that by statue are meant images which carry the resemblance of men or of saints; but memorials of piety; for he means that they will be marks similar to those which point out the boundaries of kingdoms, and that in this manner signs will be evident, to make known to all men that God rules over this nation. And indeed it usually happens that a nation truly converted to God, after having laid aside idols and superstitions, openly sets up signs of the true religion, that all may know that the worship of God is purely observed in it.

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Josephus relates (Ant. 13:3:1) that Onias perverted this passage, when he fled to Ptolemy Philometor, whom he persuaded that it would be advantageous to erect an altar there, on which the Jews who dwelt in that country might sacrifice; and he brought forward this passage, alleging that what the Prophet had foretold ought to be accomplished. The wicked and ambitious priest persuaded the king to do this, though it was openly opposed by the Jews; for the king looked to his own advantage, and that scoundrel, who had been deprived of his rank, sought to obtain additional honor and advancement; so that no entreaty could prevent the execution of that wicked counsel. But Isaiah simply describes the pure worship of God under the figure of signs which were then in use; for he has his eye upon his own age and the men with whom he had to do. This passage, therefore, was wickedly and maliciously perverted by Onias.

But not less impudently do the Popish doctors of the present day torture a passage in Malachi to defend the sacrifice of the Mass. When he says that “pure oblation will everywhere be offered to God, (Mal.1:11), they infer that it is some sacrifice different from the ancient sacrifices, because oxen and sheep must no longer be sacrificed, and therefore that it is the Mass. A witty and ingenious argument truly! Now, it is evident that under the legal figure Malachi describes nothing else than the pure worship of God, as Isaiah does here; and we ought carefully to observe such forms of expression, which are frequently employed by the prophets.

This will be clearly explained by a passage in Joel, which we shall quote as an example. “sons and your daughters,”says he, “prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”(Joel 2:28.) Peter shews (Acts 2:16) that this prediction was fulfilled, when the apostles spoke various languages through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Having formerly been uneducated men, they began to be qualified for declaring the mysteries of God. On that occasion we perceive no “”so that it might be thought that Peter quoted that passage inappropriately; but it is evident that Joel there describes nothing else than prophecy, and for the purpose of adorning it, he mentioned “and dreams,”by means of which the Lord anciently held communication with the prophets (Num12:6). He kept in view the ordinary custom of that age; for otherwise the Jews would have found it difficult to comprehend the gifts of the Spirit which at that time were unknown. Having been reared under that preparatory instruction of the Law, they could rise no higher than where they were conducted by sacrifices, ceremonies, sacraments, and signs. So then the prophets addressed them as children, who ought to have nothing set before them beyond what they can learn in a homely style by custom and experience.

This doctrine will unfold to us various passages, the obscurity of which might lead to much hesitation. It is plain that the Prophet speaks of the kingdom of Christ, and that these things were not fulfilled before his coming. We must therefore take away the shadows and look at the reality of things, in order that by the altar we may understand a true and sincere calling on God. But by these signs the Prophet likewise shews that the worship of God cannot be maintained without external acts of devotion, though we have no right to lay down rules for them. Away with the inventions of men, that we may listen to God alone on this subject.

And he will send them a Savior (Isa 19:20).

We cannot serve God unless he first bestow his grace upon us; for no one will dedicate himself to God, till he be drawn by his goodness, and embrace him with all his heart. He must therefore call us to him before we call upon him; we can have no access till he first invite us. Formerly he shewed that they must be subdued by various afflictions in order that they may submit to God, and now he repeats the same thing; for men never deny themselves and forsake idle follies any farther than the scourge compels them to yield obedience. But he likewise adds another kind of invitation, that, having experienced the kindness of God, they will freely approach to Him.

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They will cry unto the Lord. The cry of which he speaks proceeds from faith, for they would never resort to this refuge till they had been allured and delighted by the goodness of God. When the Lord promises that he will send a Savior, by whose hand the Egyptians will be delivered, this can mean no other than Christ; for Egypt was not delivered from its distresses before the doctrine of Christ reached it. We read of various changes which that country suffered for four hundred years, foreign and civil wars by which it was wasted and almost destroyed; but when we would be ready to think that it is utterly ruined, lo! it is converted to the Lord, and is rescued from the hand of enemies and tyrants. Thus Christ delivered that country, when it had begun to know him. In like manner, we must be brought to the knowledge and worship of God, that, where we have suffered various afflictions, we may learn that salvation is found in him alone. Would that the world would now learn this lesson, having suffered so many calamities that it appears to be on the brink of ruin! For what can be the issue but that it shall either perish or by repentance acknowledge that it has been justly punished for so great wickedness?

That he may deliver them. When he adds these words, we ought to draw from them a profitable doctrine, that God assists us through Christ, by whose agency he gave deliverance to his own people from the beginning. He has always been the Mediator, by whose intercession all blessings were obtained from God the Father; and now that he has been revealed, let us learn that nothing can be obtained from God but through him.

And the Lord shall be known by the Egyptians (Isa 19:21).

Isaiah now adds what was most important; for we cannot worship the Lord, or call upon him, till we have first acknowledged him to be our Father. “How”says Paul, “they call on him whom they know not?” (Rom10:14). We cannot be partakers of the gifts of God for our salvation without previously having true knowledge, which is by faith. He therefore properly adds, the knowledge of God, as the foundation of all religion, or the key that opens to us the gate of the heavenly kingdom. Now, there cannot be knowledge without doctrine; and hence infer, that God disapproves of all kinds of false worship; for he cannot approve of anything that is not guided by knowledge, which springs from hearing true and pure doctrine. Whatever contrivance therefore men may make out of their own minds, they will never attain by it the true worship of God. We ought carefully to observe passages like this, in which the Spirit of God shews what is the true worship and calling of God, that, having abandoned the inventions to which men are too obstinately attached, we may allow ourselves to be taught by the pure word of God, and, relying on his authority, may freely and boldly condemn all that the world applauds and admires.

The Egyptians shall know. It is not without good reason that he twice mentions this knowledge. A matter of so great importance ought not to be slightly passed by; for it holds the chief place, and without it there is nothing that can properly be called worship.

And shall make sacrifice and oblation. This passage must be explained in the same manner as the former, in which he mentioned an altar. What would have been the use of sacrifices after the manifestation of Christ? He therefore describes metaphorically confession of faith and calling on God, which followed the preaching of the gospel. Here he includes everything that was offered to God — slain beasts, bread, fruits of every description, and all that was fitted to express gratitude. But we must attend to the difference between the Old and New Testaments, and under the shadows of ceremonies we must understand to be meant that “worship”of which Paul speaks. (Rom 12:1.)

And shall vow vows to the Lord and perform them. What he adds about vows is likewise a part of the worship of God. The Jews were accustomed to express their gratitude to God by vows, and especially they rendered thanksgiving by a solemn vow, when they had received from God any extraordinary blessing. Of their own accord also, when any one chose to do so, they made vows on various occasions (Deut 12:6). And yet every person was not at liberty to make this or that vow according to his own pleasure; but a rule was laid down (Num 30:3). Whatever may be in that respect, it is evident that by the word vows the Prophet means nothing else than the worship of God, to which the Egyptians devoted themselves after having learned it from the word of God; but he mentions the acts of devotion by which the Jews made profession of the true worship and religion.

Hence the Papists draw an argument to prove, that whatever we vow to God ought to be performed; but since they make vows at random, and without any exercise of judgment, this passage lends no aid to defend their error. Isaiah foretells what the Egyptians will do, after having embraced and followed the instruction given by God. In like manner, when David exhorts the people to vow and to perform their vows, (Psa 76:11), they think that he is on their side; but be does not therefore exhort them to make unlawful and rash vows (Eccl 5:2). There always remains in force the law of vows, which we are not at liberty to transgress, namely, the word of God, by which we learn what he requires from us, and what he wishes us to vow and perform. We never received permission to vow whatever we please, because we are too much disposed to go to excess, and to take every kind of liberty with regard to God, and because we act more imprudently towards him than if we had to deal with men. It was therefore necessary that men should be laid under some restraint to prevent them from taking so great liberties in the worship of God and religion.

This being the case, it is evident that God permits nothing but what is agreeable to his law, and that he rejects everything else as unacceptable and superstitious. What a man has vowed of his own accord, and without the support of the word, cannot be binding. If he perform it, he offends doubly; first, in vowing rashly, as if he were sporting with God; and secondly, in executing his resolutions wickedly and rashly, when he ought rather to have set them aside and repented. So far, therefore, is any man from being bound by vows, that he ought, on the contrary, to turn back and acknowledge his sinful rashness.

Now, if any one inquire about the vows of Papists, it will be easy to shew that they derive no support from the word of God. If those things which they highly applaud and reckon to be lawful, such as the vows of monks, are unlawful and wicked, what opinion must we form of the rest? They vow perpetual celibacy, as if it were indiscriminately permitted to all; but we know that the gift of continence is not an ordinary gift, and is not promised to every one, not even to those who in other respects are endued with extraordinary graces. Abraham was eminent for faith, steadfastness, meekness, and holiness, and yet he did not possess this gift (Gen 11:29). Christ himself, when the apostles loudly commended this state of celibacy, testified that it is not given to all. (Matt 19:11). Paul states the same thing (1 Cor 7:7). Whosoever, therefore, does not possess this gift of continence, if he vow it, does wrong, and will be justly punished for his rashness. Hence have arisen dreadful instances of want of chastity, by which God has justly punished Popery for this presumption.

They likewise vow poverty, as if they would have nothing of their own, though they have abundance of everything beyond other men. Is not this an open mockery of God? The obedience which they vow is full of deceit; for they shake off the yoke of Christ, that they may become the slaves of men. Others vow pilgrimages, to abstain from eating flesh, to observe days, and other things full of superstition. Others promise to God toys and trinkets, as if they were dealing with a child. We would be ashamed to act thus, or to pursue such a line of conduct towards men, among whom nothing is settled till it has been agreed to on both sides by mutual consent. Much less is it lawful to attempt anything in the worship of God but what has been declared by his word. What kind of worship will it be, if the judgment of God has no weight with us, and if we yield only to the will of men? Will it be possible that it can please God? Will it not be “will-worship,” which Paul so severely censures (Col 2:23)? In vain, therefore, do they who make such vows boast that they serve God; and in vain do they endeavor to find support in this passage; for the Lord abhors that kind of worship.

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