A Sermon by Rev. Martin PrykePreached in Bryn Athyn on May 3, 1987

“At the same time spake the Lord by Isaiah the son of Amos, saying, Go and loose the sackcloth from off thy loins, and put off thy shoe from thy foot. And he did so, walking naked and barefoot” (Isaiah 20:2).

The prophet Isaiah served in the kingdom of Judah in the eighth century B.C — a time when the northern kingdom, Israel, had been taken captive by the Assyrians to be settled among the people in the north. This left Judah alone, directly on the path between the two great powers: Assyria in the north and Egypt in the south. Their position was an impossible one, for they were not themselves powerful enough to face either of these nations and yet stood between them as each sought to attack the other. Their only hope was to play off Egypt against Assyria and Assyria against Egypt. At the time of the prophecy of our text, the greatest danger was from Assyria in the north, and it was Judah’s great hope that Egypt would protect them, if only for their own sake.

Assyria sent a force to attack the Philistinian city of Ashdod, stretching themselves along the coastal route toward Egypt. This was close indeed to Judah, and they dreaded the consequences, looking desperately to Egypt and Ethiopia to come to their aid. It was Isaiah’s lot to show them that this hope was not to be fulfilled, that Assyria would, in this instance, conquer. “The king of Assyria [shall] lead away the Egyptians prisoners, and the Ethiopians captives, young and old, naked and barefoot, even with their buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt” (Isaiah 20:4).

It is interesting to note that in this case, as in other cases, Isaiah was commanded not only to speak words of prophecy but also to enact them — to declare them before the people in a dramatic form. It was not enough for him to say that the king of Assyria would take the Egyptians and Ethiopians away captive, naked and barefoot, but he was to demonstrate the prophecy by himself loosing the sackcloth from his loins and putting off the shoes from his feet, to go naked and barefoot for three years. This form of instruction by dramatic presentations was used on occasion by other prophets. These were a living revelation to the people who beheld them, and they must have been a powerful means of instruction to those who recognized that they were not the peculiarities of eccentric individuals, but were deliberate acts of revelation, messages from God.

We are shown in the Writings that the Lord, while in the world, who called Himself a prophet and was indeed the greatest of all prophets, similarly taught by act or example. We know that He suffered Himself to be abused, even to scourging and crucifixion, so that He might teach the people, for then and for all times. In these things was represented the treatment of the Word by the Jews (see Lord 15) and in them was portrayed the attack of all evil against the Divine Truth of the Word and against the Divine Himself. We wonder why it was necessary that the Lord undergo such sufferings. The answer is that it was essential that mankind see in the clearest, the most ultimate, the most unanswerable, manner possible the nature of the hells. During His whole life the hells attacked the Lord, seeking to frustrate His work of redemption. This attack was ultimated at the end in the days of the betrayal, trial and crucifixion; and this was done so that there might be no doubt concerning the state of the church which was then at its end, not any doubt concerning the nature of evil which does indeed inmostly seek the destruction of the Lord Himself.

Because of these things it is said that the Lord bore our iniquities, and this is certainly true, for He did suffer at the hands of the evil of mankind, and He was attacked by the hells even to the cruel physical attacks of the passion. He bore out iniquities indeed! But this term has been given a false meaning by those who believed that Christ the Son has atoned for the sin of all believers. To such the reference to the Lord bearing our sins, which we read in our lesson (Isaiah 53), means that He has accepted the punishment for the sins which believers now commit, and that by this vicarious atonement (or indirect satisfaction of the penalty), we are saved from the consequences of our evil loves and need pay no price.

In the same way the words “Behold the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world” (John 1:29) have been given an incorrect interpretation, when the truth meant by this expression is that the Lord has set us free from the power of the hells, having redeemed us by His victories over them. No sin is actually taken away from a man until, truly repenting, he shuns it as a sin against God. Then alone can the Lord remove it and insinuate a new love of good.

The prophecy of this part of Isaiah foretells not simply the worldly devastation of Judah and the conflicts of the surrounding nations, but also the vastation of the church, showing the states through which all churches go at the time of their decline. The spiritual sense given in the Writings is especially applied to the closing states of the Christian Church, but these states are likewise individual, and so they are the states of all men in whom the church dies.

In the twentieth chapter, with which we are now concerned, the matter dealt with is the state of truth at such a time, and it treats of those who make a false religion for themselves by perverting the teaching of the Word. This is evident in the fact that Isaiah himself enacted the prophecy — for a prophet represents the doctrine of the church. He is the Lord’s teacher of men, and so signifies all teaching or doctrine. That the prophet was to go naked for three years represented that in this state of spiritual decline there is an absence of any genuine truth, for there is no longer any love of good, which is the very life of truth. By this we mean that truths are meaningless and are ineffective with us unless we love good — for it is the love of good which makes it possible really to see truth and to put it to use. Without this love of good we are, in effect, stripped of genuine truth.

Garments signify truths — as garments clothe the body, so truths clothe good. Nakedness is, then, an absence of such truth, which reveals the filthy loves of the degenerate man. Here it is not the innocent nakedness of the celestial whose minds are centered in good rather than truth. We can understand this nature of the nakedness of fallen man when we think about how the perverse reasonings, the self-justifications and twistings of the Word which an evil man uses reflect and show the nature of his evil loves. These do not usually appear to the world, for he hides them to protect his reputation and his worldly welfare; but within his own heart and in the secret places of his own meditation these things are clear, and are recognizable to the man if he is willing to see them.

These false reasonings are indeed our downfall, for as long as a man recognizes and does not justify his evils, there is hope of his redemption; but once he denies their nature and confirms them as being allowable, his way is set toward hell, and repentance becomes increasingly difficult. Such false reasonings are represented by Assyria, the enemy of Judah which is the church.

Assyria is the perverted rational which favors the delights of the natural loves by denying God and attributing all things to nature. The natural loves of man favor such an idea because an acknowledgment of God carries with it human responsibilities which involve the subjugation of the natural man to spiritual principles. But “the fool hath said in his heart, There is no god,” (Psalm 14:1) and by ascribing all things to nature, he relieves himself of the responsibility of conforming to a law higher than himself and so he sets himself free to follow a life which is directed only by his own intelligence, and to himself and his own loves.

Such false reasoning holds all other thought captive, just as the king of Assyria led “away the Egyptians as prisoners and the Ethiopians as captives, young and old, naked and barefoot.” The Egyptians are the scientifics which a man receives through his bodily senses. They are the facts of sensual experience, and include, let it be noted, the scientifics of the Word, which are the superficial knowledges of it stored in man’s memory. The Ethiopians, on the other hand, are the fallacies of the senses (see AE 240:3), which are the appearances of truth into which we are first introduced. These two — scientifics and fallacies of the senses become completely subservient to a perverted rational, which twists them and turns them to its own ends.

False reasonings will destroy those things represented by Egypt and Ethiopia. Their state in such captivity is indeed a state of nakedness, for no genuine truth is left with them. That this was to happen to the young and the old (or boys and old men) signifies that all innocence and wisdom perish as a consequence (see AE 532:3), and consideration will show how this is the case. The innocence of childhood is provided in order that it may remain with a man (even if deeply hidden) as states of affection for what is good and true, and so serve as a basis for regeneration, but if a man deliberately falsifies all that is good and true, these states of innocence will perish in him. Equally the wisdom of old age into which all regenerate men will come (a state of union between good and truth, love and wisdom) cannot be entered into. The young and old will go naked and barefoot.

That we remain clothed in truth should be our constant prayer and endeavor, for by it we are protected from the cruelty of a winter world about us. Yet we will not have such protective clothing unless we seek it in the Word, but, more than that, unless once received, it is preserved in its integrity. No truth must be twisted and distorted for the sake of our own selfish ends. It is not to be tampered with or treated lightly. It is a precious gift to be kept as the unhewn rock of God against which we fear to raise up our graving tool lest what is from us shall destroy what is from the Lord. Amen.

Lessons: Isaiah 20:1-6, 53:1-9, Doctrine of the Lord 15 and 17 (parts)

Doctrine of the Lord

15. (parts) Some persons within the church believe that by the passion of the cross the Lord took away sins and made satisfaction to the Father, and so effected redemption; and some, that He transferred to Himself, bore, and cast into the depths of the sea (that is, into hell) the sins of those who have faith in Him. They confirm themselves in these notions by the words of John concerning Jesus: “Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world” (John 1:29); and by the Lord’s words in Isaiah: “He hath borne our diseases and carried our sorrows: He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and by His wound has health been given us…” Both these passages speak of the Lord’s temptations and passion; and by His taking away sins and diseases, and by the iniquities of all being made to fall on Him, is meant the like as by His bearing sorrows and iniquities.

Therefore it shall first be stated what is meant by bearing iniquities, and afterwards what by taking them away. To bear iniquities means to endure grievous temptations; and also to suffer the Jews to treat Him as they had treated the Word, which they did because He was the Word. For the church as it then existed among the Jews was utterly devastated, and it was devastated by their having perverted all things of the Word so that there was not any truth remaining; and therefore they did not acknowledge the Lord. This was meant and signified by all things of the Lord’s passion. The prophets were treated in a similar way because they represented the Lord in respect to the Word, and derivatively in respect to the church, and the Lord was the Prophet.

17. Something shall now be said of what is meant by taking away sins. To take away sins means the same as to redeem man and to save him; for the Lord came into the world to render salvation possible to man. Without His advent no mortal could have been reformed and regenerated, and so saved. But this became possible after the Lord had deprived the devil (that is, hell) of all his power and had glorified His Human, – that is, had united it to the Divine of His Father. If these things had not been done, no man would have been capable of permanently receiving any Divine truth, still less any Divine good; for the devil, whose power was previously the stronger, would have plucked it out of his heart.

From what has been said it is evident that the Lord did not take away sins by the passion of the cross, but that He takes them away, that is, removes them, in those who believe in Him by living according to His commandments, as He also teaches in Matthew: “Think not that I am come to loosen the law and the prophets. Whosoever shall loosen the least of these commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called the least in the kingdom of the heavens; but whosoever shall do and teach them shall be called great in the kingdom of the heavens” (5:17, 19).

Who cannot see from reason alone, provided he is in some enlightenment, that sins cannot be taken away from a man except by actual repentance, which consists in his seeing his sins, imploring the Lord’s help, and desisting from them? To see, believe and teach otherwise is not from the Word nor from sound reason, but from cupidity and a depraved will, which are proper to man, and from this comes the debasement of his intelligence.