A Study of Isaiah 35:8-9
“And an highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein. No lion shall be there, nor any ravenous beast shall go up therein, it shall not be found there; but the redeemed shall walk there.”
Among the Old Testament prophets Isaiah is often referred to as the evangelical prophet. He has much to say concerning Christ, he very fully describes to us the blessings of the Gospel dispensation, and in our text, as throughout the prophecy, we have a wonderful setting forth of something of the ministry of Christ. In Matthew chapter 11 when the disciples of John the Baptist were sent to enquire whether Jesus of Nazareth really was the promised Messiah, Christ appealed to words that we find in this 35th chapter of Isaiah. If you make a comparison between Matthew 11:3-5 and what is recorded here in verses 5 and 6, it is apparent that our Lord was directing them to this very chapter concerning the ministry that he was exercising at that time; “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert.” Here then is a word that found its very fulfillment in the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, and so throughout the chapter we are right to understand that it is Christ himself who is spoken of. It is His ministry that is being set before us, and this evening I am to direct your attention to what is said here in verses 8 and 9, and to consider these verses in terms of that ministry of Christ. “And an highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein. No lion shall be there, nor any ravenous beast shall go up thereon, it shall not be found there; but the redeemed shall walk there.” The subject I shall take up is The Gospel Way of Holiness and so my text is found most specifically in these words in verse 8 “….it shall be called The way of holiness.” It is Christ who is declared to be this way of holiness.
1. However, first of all I want us to consider something of what is said with regard to the Gospel way as a highway. This is the expression that is used at the beginning of the 8th verse, “And an highway shall be there.” What is the significance of this? Does it not remind us that here is something that is conspicuous. It is thus indicated that this way of which the prophet is speaking is one that people will very much be made aware of. In fact, here we have a deal of repetition, not only “an highway,” but he goes on to speak of it as “a way,” and then he uses the definite article and calls it “The way.” And we know that there can be no vain repetitions anywhere in the Word of God for “….the scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). There is then much significance in what we found in the first part of this 8th verse. God says that he will establish a way and men will see it, men will be made aware of it. They will not be able to plead that they were altogether ignorant with regard to this particular way. The basic meaning of the word “an highway” is that of something that has been cast up, something that has be lifted up. This is a way cast up in order that it might be seen. Think of that word that we have in Jeremiah 31:21, where the prophet speaks of “….waymarks and high heaps.” Again, here in Isaiah 49:11 God says “….my highways shall be exalted.” God Himself is promising that there will be a way.
Now we must not overlook the historical context in which such promises are set. The reference is to God making a way of escape out of the captivity, those 70 years that the elect remnant would spend in exile in the land of Babylon. When the Babylonians attacked they approached the kingdom of Judah from the north. Nebuchadnezzar’s armies came round what is called the fertile crescent and they fell first upon the cities in the north of the kingdom of Judah and then descended down into the south of the kingdom. Because of their idolatries the Jews were taken and transported away from the promised land, and God’s judgment was upon them for the 70 years of exile. But when he speaks of their restoration, he says he will make a highway even through the wilderness. The land immediately between Judea and Babylon is desert, a waste howling wilderness. God will bring His remnant back by a direct route, from east to west, into that land that He had promised to their forefathers those many years before. Remember “the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.” There is nothing that will frustrate God with regard to that gracious purpose in the restoring of His elect people out of the Babylonian captivity. This is the historical context.
However we know that the 40th chapter is a prophesy of the ministry of John the Baptist, who was the harbinger of Christ. So again I remind you that these things have their spiritual accomplishment in the Lord Jesus Christ. When we think of the ministry of Christ, how true it is that this is a way set forth clearly and plainly. We see this in a threefold sense.
(i) First of all in the Lord’s own ministry, as he begins to exercise His office as the great Prophet who was sent by and from God. In the Gospels, time and again, He is seen as One who speaks plain words to the people. In the 18th chapter of the Gospel according to John, Christ is brought before the High Priest, in that mockery of a trial that He must endure, and how does He answer the charges laid against him? “I spake openly to the world; I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort; and in secret have I said nothing” (John 18:20). Here is a way that is so conspicuous. We see it in the Lord’s own ministry. It is indeed a highway. Also when we come over to the Acts of the Apostles, Paul before King Agrippa speaks concerning the ministry that Christ had exercised (which was being continued by His Apostles), “I am persuaded that none of these things are holden from him for this thing was not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26). When God sent His Son into the world, when He was made of a woman, when He was made under the law, God did these things openly and conspicuously.
(ii) Therefore when Christ gives commission to His disciples he also commands them to exercise their ministry just as He had fulfilled His own. In Matthew 10:27 we read. “What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light; and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops.” Also when he comes to the end of His days on earth, previous to His ascension on high, as He gives the great commission, in what terms does he speak? “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). “An highway shall be there.” This is that that men are not to be unaware of. The charge that is laid upon the Church of Christ is to proclaim His Word, to preach it, and so set the truth before men that none should be ignorant of it.
(iii) Consequently the Word of God is to be proclaimed in clear and unmistakable terms. The fact of sin is to be spelt out. Men must hear unpleasant things concerning themselves. They must be brought to see themselves in the mirror of the Word of God. This involves the preaching of the law that brings with it the knowledge of sin. Paul says, “I had not known sin but by the law,” (Romans 7:7); “….for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). A plain preaching of the law of God is vitally important. There is a lawful ministry of the law (1 Timothy 1:8), even to bring conviction to the hearts of elect sinners. We are not to withhold any truth of God, even though many will say that we dwell too much upon the negative. There is to be a negative ministry. How can there be a truly positive ministry except first there is that negative ring, whereby men are brought to feel themselves to be sinners indeed? Men must be made to understand the awful doctrine of total depravity, to experience their inability, being shut in to their unbelief. The first truth God causes his people to believe in is their own unbelief, so that they cry out with Heman “….I am shut up, and I cannot come forth” (Psalm 88:8).
Only after such a ministry can there be the preaching of the Gospel in all of its fullness, a proclaiming of the riches of the grace “concluded them all in unbelief, that He might have mercy upon all” (Romans 11:32), and Moses declares, “Thou turnest men to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men” (Psalm 90:3). The sick will love to hear of the great and gracious Physician. They are such as see and feel their need of His tender ministry. He came, did He not, as One who would bind up the broken hearted? “A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory” (Matthew 12:20). Paul also was one who exercised such a faithful ministry, “My speech and my preaching,” he says in the 1st Epistle to the Corinthians, “was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1st Corinthians 2:4). And in 2nd Corinthians chapter 3, we have the expression, “we use great plainness of speech” (verse 12). O yes, there is to be plain speaking, friends. Men are to hear of sin and salvation. Does that not sum up the whole of the Word of God? O the simplicity, the sublime simplicity, of this Book. Here we have sin and salvation. Here we have law and Gospel. The law which is a ministration of death and a ministration of wrath, to make the people see what they are, to bring them in guilty before God; and then all the great fullness of salvation that is in Christ, “the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth” (Romans 10:4). The Gospel way then is firstly a highway. It is that which is conspicuous.
2. But the particular theme before us tonight is the truth of the Gospel being a holy way. And I want us in the second place to consider this fact. Here we have that very expression used, “It shall be called The way of holiness.” Now the reason why such a statement is made is because those who walk in this way are a people marked out by this very chrematistic. They are a holy people. “The unclean shall not pass over it,” we are told in verse 8, and again in verse 9 “No lion shall be there, nor any ravenous beast shall go up thereon, it shall not be found there; but the redeemed shall walk there.” It is for that people who are peculiarly the people of God, who are called to a life of holiness. “But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy” (1st Peter 1:15-16). In his hymn on the Gospel way, Gadsby says,
Jesus is a holy way;
Leads to endless joys above
Holy men, and only they,
Walk in this blest way of love.
“It shall be called The way of holiness.”
However, let no one think that they can make themselves holy people. Let no one imagine that they have any ability wherewith they can fit themselves by their righteous deeds, so that in their own strength they might walk in this way that leads to heaven. That is not so. God Himself and God alone is the One who makes the sinner good and holy and acceptable and pleasing unto God. Of this Gospel way John Gill rightly says “It is a way cast up by sovereign grace, which is raised above the mire and dirt of sin, and carries over it and from it.” Mark the fact that it is cast up by God, cast up by His sovereign grace. And the principal reason why it is called the way of holiness is not because of the characteristics of those who are walking in the way; that is a secondary reason. The primary reason is because of the holiness of Him who is the way, even the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, “I am the way, the truth and the life,” he says, “no man cometh unto the Father but by me” (John 14:6). Was not his life a holy life? Was it not a righteous life? He was “made of a woman, made under the law” (Galatians 4:4). He puts Himself in the very law place of His people and He answers for them as their Surety. He honours and He magnifies the law of God by the obedience of His holy life. And then He answers that selfsame law in all its terrible penalties when, in His sin atoning death, He makes the great oblation, that one sacrifice for sins for ever. The Lord Jesus Christ is the One who is set before us here in Isaiah 35:8 as “….The way of holiness.”
“Holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher that the heavens.”
Therefore when the sinner seeks to come to God through the Person and by the work of the Lord Jesus Christ, resting in all of that editorial office of Christ, such a sinner is made acceptable. Although of himself he feels to be so filthy, so unholy, though he feels the awful weight of his sins, yet looking to Christ and trusting in Him he finds acceptance with God. Is not Christ set before us in Scripture as the One who justifies His people? “By him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:39). He is their justifier. That is a great verse concerning righteousness that we find at the end of the 6th chapter of Deuteronomy. Moses as God’s servant says to Israel, “It shall be our righteousness, if we observe to do all these commandments before the LORD our God, as he hath commanded us” (Deuteronomy 6:35) There must be an observance, there must be a doing of the law. Here we are reminded of the importance of the active obedience of the Lord Jesus Christ. He does not just come as the One who will die for His people and by His death make propitiation for their sins. Here is One who also comes, that in and by His life he might have a righteousness with which to clothe His believing people. And so in him they are justified from all things that they could not be justified from by the deeds of the law. Justification is in Christ, but so too is sanctification. “Who of God is made unto us wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1st Corinthians 1:30). And it was by His death on the cross that He accomplished that great work of the sanctifying of His people. In Hebrews 13:12 we read “wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate.” Even their holiness is in Christ and is by His death. “By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Hebrews 10:10); “For by one offering he hath perfected forever them that are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14). Again, in Colossians 1:21 and 22, Paul writes, “And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unplayable and unreproveable in his sight.”
“It shall be called The way of holiness.” Christ is this way of holiness.
Primarily the reference is to Him, but as I have already intimated, what is true of Him as the great covenant Head, must also be true of those who are in Him. And as we come to make some remarks by way of application, I want to concentrate on two particular characteristics that we see as the marks of those who are in this Gospel way.
Firstly we see that they are “wayfaring men.” In other words, those who are in this way, those who are in Christ, are traveling. They are a people who are on a journey. They are not settled in this world, they are strangers and pilgrims on the earth. Here they have no continuing city. How we need to examine ourselves, let us ask ourselves, is this true of us? Are you persuaded that this world is not really your home? Can you say that your affections fly to another world? You desire more and more to be setting your affections on those things that are above, where Christ is at the right hand of God (Colossians 3:2)? How this was such a marked feature in the lives of believers of old. Those spoken of, for example, in the great catalogue of the faithful that we find in the 11th of Hebrews. Paul says, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly, wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for he hath prepared for them a city” (verses 13-16). Here then is one of the marks of true faith, the evidence that a person has the faith of God’s elect. He credits the Word of God, he believes what God is saying here in Holy Writ, what God says about the vanities of this world. And how plainly God speaks to us of this present evil world. “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof; but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever” (1 John 2:15-17). Do you believe it? Do you believe the testimony of Solomon in Ecclesiastes? “Vanity of vanities,” he says, “all is vanity.” Are you one of these wayfaring men, walking in the Gospel way, united to the Lord Jesus Christ by true saving faith? But God does not only speak in Scripture of the vanity of this present world, He also speaks of the glories of another world. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1st Corinthians 2:9).
“I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living” (Psalm 27:13). O, what is the comparison between this world and the world to come? There is no comparison. Remember how Bunyan in the Pilgrim’s Progress speaks of this world as a bubble – Madam Bubble. A bubble just drifts away; and it not only drifts away so that we cannot grasp it, but disintegrates when we try to lay hold of it. It is not the things that are seen that are the eternal things, “While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2nd Corinthians 4:18). How careful we are to be if we are these wayfaring men. We are to “….use this world as not abusing it: for the fashion of this world passeth away” (1st Corinthians 7:31). The believer is one who must live a life that is separated from the generality of people who walk the face of the earth, “….lo, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9). The believer finds that those of this world are not his people. No, his thoughts, his affections, fly to higher things, and holy things. What are those things tonight that take the chief place in our lives, in your life, in my life? How important to you are worldly pursuits, worldly pleasures, worldly possessions? How solemn are the words of our text, “the unclean shall not pass over it.” There is no place for the unclean in this holy way. It is for a sanctified people, meaning a people separated from this world, living a life of faith, crediting what God says. As they walk in this way they walk not by sight, but by faith (2nd Corinthians 5:7). Here then is the first characteristic that we have to examine ourselves with regard to. Are we wayfaring men? Besides reading of these in the way as pilgrims on the earth, they are also spoken of as fools, “the wayfaring men, though fools.” Those who are fools are safe in this way. Now, we are not to think of this word ‘fool’ in a wrong sense. There is a bad usage of the word in Holy Scripture. The Lord Jesus Christ Himself makes that plain in the Sermon on the Mount as he expounds the commandments, and clears them of the glosses of the scribes and of the pharisees. He takes the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt no kill” (Exodus 20:13), and remember how the Lord expounds it, “I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matthew 5:22). There we have the bad sense of the word “fool” (moreh). Praise God that he does elect such sinners, “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise” (1st Corinthians 1:27). But those who are referred to in our text are not he same as Christ is speaking of in the Sermon on the Mount. Here in Isaiah we have the use of the word in a good sense. Those safe in this way are fools in that they reckon themselves to be such ignorant people. They feel themselves to be so lacking in understanding. It is fools in that sense who are spoken of in our text, fools because they fail to understand. One thinks of the word that Christ spoke to those two on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24, “O fools, and show of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (verse 25). The word “fools” that is used there is different from that in Matthew 5. In Luke 24 it is one of those compound Greek words, and it literally means without understanding (anoetos). They are people who are failing to grasp the significance of all those events that they have been witnesses to, and the Lord speaks graciously and tenderly to such. Are not those in the Gospel way marked by this same particular trait? They view themselves as being foolish, and they feel themselves to be such weak and silly creatures. They recognize that they have no ability of themselves, they have no innate strength in themselves. But what does scripture say to them here in Isaiah 35:3? “Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees. Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompense; he will come and save you.” Here are a people who need to know that God is a mighty God, that He is a great God, even the God of salvation. Because they have no stock of strength in themselves, God must do everything for them and in them, “though fools,” unable of themselves to believe anything, slow of heart to believe. And here is the assurance of the text, they are told that they shall not err. None shall err in the Gospel way. They will not descend into grievous errors. They will not descend into immorality of life. They shall endure to the end. Why? Because the good hand of God is upon this people. Their faith has come from God, being his gift to them, and it looks to Him and will end in Him. Friends, is this descriptive of us tonight? As we examine ourselves before this word, can we come in with such characters as this: sick with the emptiness of the world, desiring better things, setting our affections on things that are in heaven, feeling our own folly, our ignorance of the ways of God? In Ecclesiastes chapter 10:15 we find an interesting statement, “The labour of the foolish wearieth every one of them, because he knoweth not how to go to the city.” Have you ever been in that spot? Is not that how we must begin to enter into the Gospel way? We have to be brought to an utter end of ourselves. The Lord Himself must take us by the hand, He must lead us into this way. Again, later on in this Prophecy of Isaiah, we read “We grope for the wall like the blind, and we grope as if we had no eyes: we stumble at noonday as in the night; we are in desolate places as dead men” (Isaiah 59:10). Here is another description of those who are in God’s way. He must constantly come and take them by the hand and lead them on. Left to themselves they soon begin to grope and to feel for the way, and they wonder if they have left it and wondered off into bypath meadow. It is only by God’s grace that any are enabled to continue walking in the right way. And is it not a comfort friends, if we can look back and say, yes, it is only by grace that we have been kept in this way for many years, and this gives us some hope that we are really the Lord’s own people, that we do know the truth of these things? What does God say to us in His Word, “Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16) O that the Lord might be pleased to apply such a word to us, tonight, that we might be those who are in this blessed Gospel way. Those who see it as a conspicuous highway, because we see that this holy way is in fact Christ Himself. In that verse I just quoted from Jeremiah 6, at the end of the verse, we have those solemn words, “But they said, We will not walk therein.” God forbid that such should be the attitude of any of your hearts.
By Henry Sant