Mr. Hoeksema is a member of Trinity Protestant Reformed Church. This article is the text of his address to the RFPA at their annual meeting on September 27, 2007. Mr. Hoeksema is editor of Redeemed with Judgment, a collection of sermons by the late Prof. H.C. Hoeksema on the prophecy of Isaiah. Volume 1 is now available.
The history of this book goes back some forty or more years. In 1959 HCH (as I will respectfully refer to my father) was appointed professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Churches, a post that he held until his death in 1989. In addition to his seminary duties, and because of a shortage of pastors in the PRCA, he preached regularly in the churches. Especially during the 1970s and 1980s he concentrated his efforts on the prophecy of Isaiah, to the point that it became a maxim that if HCH was preaching, the congregation would hear Isaiah. Particularly during the last year of his life, while on assignment to the Australian province of Tasmania, he made and preached many sermons on the last chapters of the prophecy, sermons that have never seen the light of day in the USA.
His many years of sermonizing have left the church with a legacy of 125 sermons, 49 of which are contained in the first volume ofRedeemed with Judgment, with 76 more to follow in the second volume.
I have often been asked why HCH chose Isaiah for the focus of his preaching, and today I regret never having asked him. A number of times he expressed his intention to write a commentary on Isaiah when he retired, which obviously never happened, and which does not really answer the question why he chose Isaiah. I am not sure that there is a definitive answer. Could it be because of the relatively difficult nature of the prophecy? HCH liked a challenge. Could it be because not very much good, exegetical, Reformed work has been done on the book? Could it be because he always sought to develop Old Testament history and theology with a view to its application to the New Testament church, and that Isaiah is eminently suited for this purpose? Could it be because of the messianic and almost New Testament- like character of much of the prophecy? Perhaps all of these reasons are pieces of the motivational puzzle; but for whatever reason, he did what he did.
After his death in 1989, there was talk of possible publication of his work, perhaps in book form. For reasons unknown to me, nothing ever came of this. However, with a view to this possible project, my late mother and I were able to collect approximately 60 sermon tapes of his Isaiah sermons from various churches, and steps were taken to preserve all of HCH’s sermon outlines. Then for many years nothing happened, although the RFPA contacted me periodically to reaffirm that I still had possession of all the materials.
In 2003 the RFPA requested that I do further research into the possibility of publishing HCH’s sermons in book form. I was able to obtain additional sermon tapes until I acquired approximately two thirds of the 125 sermons verbatim. The RFPA requested samples of edited sermons, both taped and non-taped. I provided these, and based on them, the RFPA commissioned me to produce this work. Since then an edited manuscript has taken shape. The conventions of the spoken word have been edited into the conventions of the written word, and sermons were reconstructed from HCH’s outlines. The manuscript has been copy-edited, revised, corrected, and proofed by RFPA staff and helpful volunteer readers. The result isRedeemed with Judgment.
It may be interesting to the reader to know a little of the character and content of these sermons.
HCH typed his sermon outlines on 5 x 7 note cards, usually about ten cards per sermon. On the first card was the text in as many as three languages—English, Hebrew, and Dutch, the Psalter numbers of his choosing, and handwritten notations regarding when and where he preached the sermon. His outlines were logical, precise, and detailed, which enabled me to reconstruct non-taped sermons with a good degree of confidence in the faithfulness and accuracy of my work. HCH followed the Reformed homiletical model of an introduction, followed by two or more divisions of his theme, which makes it easy to follow his development and explanation of a given text.
By means of editorial comments I have attempted to connect and unify these sermons into something of a cohesive whole. With minor exceptions, HCH preached them in random order, without discernible rhyme or reason, and often with little apparent connection to other sermons. Although each sermon can certainly stand alone on its own merits, by means of occasional remarks I have sought to group them and establish some of the missing connections.
Effort has been made to publish the highest quality book possible. The reason is that the content demands our best effort. This point bears emphasis. You who are members of the RFPA and who support this work should know this. Over the last several years the RFPA staff has developed and codified guidelines and procedures for publishing books that are second to none. Recently a house style document has been formulated as the standard for all its publications. And this is as it should be. We have a tremendous message—the Reformed faith according to the Scriptures. Is it not proper, then, that our form should match our content?
Speaking of content, several points are noteworthy.
First, these sermons are written predominantly in the present tense, even though Isaiah lived and worked some 2700 years ago. HCH almost always preached them in the historical present tense, perhaps in an effort to make the history come alive for the church of today. He takes God’s people by the hand, as it were, and leads them back to the times and circumstances of the prophet in order to make his message relevant to our lives today. By his use of the present tense, he makes the timeless words of Isaiah applicable to the church of the New Testament.
Second, these sermons are exegetical and expository. As I have worked with them over the years, this, above all else, has struck me. HCH never imposes his own preconceived ideas upon a text, and never tries to make it say something that it does not say. He never has an axe to grind, and never uses a passage as a rack on which to hang his hat. Sometimes this results in unexpected explanations and applications. But always he submits himself to Scripture, often explaining the original Hebrew, and invariably follows where it leads.
Third, his sermons are historical. HCH resisted the temptation to jerk a text out of its historical context and immediately apply it to the New Testament church, as is done by many today. Rather, he was careful to develop his sermons against their proper historical background. In so doing, he had the knack—which few have—of making the milieu of a time and culture very different from our own come alive by reducing it to timeless matters of universal doctrine and life.
Fourth, HCH’s sermons are logical and clear, and therefore easy for the average reader to understand. He had the gift of every good preacher—to place a text into its historical context, to synthesize and express concisely its main thought, to break it down into its component parts and explain each of them, and then to put them all back together into a unified whole. One of the clearest examples of this is his explanation of the concept of “the day of the Lord,” found in his sermon on Isaiah 12:1. In addition, HCH loved to set up a seemingly insoluble problem or apparently contradictory situation and then solve it one step at a time. The careful reader will appreciate this and will recognize and take to heart his good instruction and education.
Fifth, his sermons are applicatory. Some of them are quite doctrinal, and in them is good instruction for the church of Christ. Some of them are much more subjective and practical. But in either instance (and without implying a false antithesis between doctrine and life) they are never without application to the lives of God’s people of the new dispensation.
I have become aware that some have expressed the sentiment that HCH’s exposition of Isaiah is intended only for the learned among us—professors, ministers, and scholars—because of its difficult subject matter. I wish to emphasize that nothing could be farther from the truth. It is certainly true that Isaiah is not the easiest book of the Bible to understand. It is also true that ministers, professors, and scholars may read this book with great profit to themselves. But anyone who says such things speaks from ignorance: it is exactly not the purpose of this book to be obscure and difficult. According to my understanding, the RFPA is not in the obscurity business, but is instead in the business of spreading the Reformed faith in a clear and understandable manner.
Great effort has been expended to make sure that in every respect this work will be understandable and clear to the average saint, just as HCH’s preached sermons were. Therefore, at every step of the editing and publishing process, great care was taken to insure the clarity of these sermons to God’s people. The impetus behind this effort is not merely a matter of common sense, although this is certainly a factor: it makes no sense to publish a book that no one will read. Rather, the motivating factor is to be found in the fact that Isaiah is the most significant and important of all the Old Testament prophets. This is evident from the fact that in the New Testament Scriptures he is quoted more often than all the other prophets combined. Rightly he is called the “gospeller” of the Old Testament.
To reinforce my point, allow me to give a few random examples from HCH’s exposition. Some of them are taken from the first volume, and some from the second, which should be in print several months from now. Do you know what fitches and cummin are? Read the sermon onIsaiah 28:25. What is Isaiah’s vision of world peace? Read the sermon on Isaiah 2:4. Do you want to know about a boasting axe and a self-exalting saw? Read the sermon in Isaiah 10:15, 22, 24. HCH says, “Bel had a stroke, and Nebo had a heart attack.” What does this mean? Read the sermon on Isaiah 46:1. Do you want instruction on the origin of evil? Read the sermon on Isaiah 45:7. What is the idea of organic predestination? Read the sermon on Isaiah 43:4. What is the covenant of peace? Read the sermon on Isaiah 54:9, 10. What comprises proper Sabbath observance? Read the sermon on Isaiah 56:1, 2. Examples could be multiplied, but the point is clear.
Many commentators suggest numerous themes for Isaiah’s prophecy. They include: God’s absolute sovereignty and greatness; God’s holiness; the sinfulness of man, rooted in pride and rebellion against God; the inadequacy and condemnation of formalistic worship; God’s faithfulness to His promise of redemption; the election of Judah; the future perfection of the messianic age; the preservation of the remnant; comfort for the church of God; the idea of servanthood, based upon the concept of the servant of Jehovah.
All of these suggestions have some degree of merit, and all of these ideas are present in the prophecy. Many, if not all, closely approach the truth. But all of them are incorrect or inadequate to one degree or another because they do not comprehensively state the theme of Isaiah’s prophecy. The reason for this failure is the lack of a unifying and cohesive covenant concept, which in both its negative and positive aspects underlies the prophet’s message.
The theme of the prophecy is to be found in the prophet’s own words in Isaiah 1:27: “Zion shall be redeemed with judgment and her converts with righteousness.”
This is the explanation of and the solution to understanding the difficulty of this book of Scripture. Isaiah is admittedly one of the more difficult books to understand. The primary reason is that it very abruptly alternates, without transparent reason, between words of judgment and condemnation and words of blessing and promise. Many there are who stumble at this phenomenon because they are not sure who it is that the prophet addresses.
Examples may be cited from the very first chapter of the prophecy. In verses 10-15, the Lord thunders judgment upon Judah. Make no mistake: Jehovah speaks here not to the wicked, but to the church, when He says this:
Hear the word of the LORD, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah. To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the LORD: I am full of the burnt offering of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats. When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination to me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yes, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.
But suddenly in verse 18 the Lord says, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”
In verses 21-24, again addressing the church, Isaiah exclaims:
How is the faithful city become an harlot! It was full of judgment; righteousness lodged in it, but now murderers. Thy silver is become dross, and thy wine mixed with water: Thy princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves: every one loveth gifts, and followeth after rewards: they judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come unto them. Therefore saith the LORD of hosts, the mighty one of Israel, Ah, I will ease me of mine adversaries, and avenge me of mine enemies.
Then, in sharp contrast, we read in verses 25-27:
And I will turn my hand upon thee, and purely purge away thy dross, and take away all thy tin: And I will restore thy judges as at the first, and thy counselors as at the beginning: afterward thou shalt be called, The city of righteousness, the faithful city. Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and her converts with righteousness.
How can this be?
The answer is to be found in the organic idea of the church as the servant of Jehovah, a concept that plays a prominent role in the prophecy and underlies it throughout. There is in Judah, the church, a twofold seed. Not all is Israel that is called Israel. In Judah is the seed of Abraham according to the flesh, as well as the true spiritual seed of Abraham. Though the whole is called “church,” there is nevertheless distinction. This explains the theme of the prophecy: Zion is redeemed with judgment. This does not mean merely that judgment accompanies redemption, as the word with might imply. The idea is rather that Zion is redeemed through judgment, that is,by means of or in the way of judgment. Thus, to natural Israel, the carnal, reprobate majority, come words of impending judgment, curse, and doom, while at the same time to the remnant according to the election of grace—true, spiritual Israel—come words of promise, salvation, and blessing, in such a way that the judgment of the wicked is the salvation and purification of the church.
Such is the biblical and Reformed understanding of Isaiah, as HCH often reiterates.
The Reformed nature of this work bears emphasis. Thousands of religious books are published each year. Many of them are generally evangelical, and many are not worth the paper on which they are printed. There are even fewer decent expositions and commentaries published. In this environment we are consistently and distinctively Reformed in our publications, something that is true also of this book.
I suggest that this is true in two ways.
The first is from a doctrinal viewpoint. Negatively, HCH consistently opposes all misinterpretations of Isaiah, especially the postmillennial and premillennial views, which are the rule among commentators. Positively, he sets forth the doctrines of the Reformed faith—not abstractly or theoretically, but as they are derived from Isaiah’s prophecy. Thus, he emphasizes the truth of the absolute sovereignty of God in all things, particularly in the salvation of Zion and the subservience of all things to that purpose. He upholds the doctrine of divine double predestination, not in the sense of equal ultimacy, but in the organic sense that reprobation serves election. He holds high the complete and totally sufficient sacrifice of Christ, the servant of Jehovah, as the only way of salvation. Examples could be multiplied, but suffice it to say that he clearly sets forth the doctrines of grace.
Second, HCH is Reformed in his approach. He does not bother to refute at length those who place themselves above Scripture. He could have, but he does not waste his time with detailed contradiction of heretics. Instead, he assumes the inspiration, infallibility, and absolute authority of Scripture. This is Reformed. Further, he takes an organic approach to the prophecy. This is unique to the Reformed faith, and solves problems that others cannot reconcile. This organic idea, together with the concept of the covenant, is the unifying principle of his exposition. Still more, his sermons are Reformed because they speak of the comfort of God’s people. The truth of the assurance of salvation and the preservation of the saints is a current issue in the Reformed community; many there are who seek to weaken, compromise, or destroy this significant aspect of our salvation. Although at the time that he preached these sermons he could not have anticipated or known anything about this current controversy, continually he contradicts the Arminian notion that there is no divine assurance of salvation. As HCH is fond of pointing out, Isaiah is a comfort book for God’s people.
Let those who deny this salient truth of the Scriptures hear the voice of Isaiah echoing down through the ages in these sermons!
The Reformed nature of these sermons ought to be an incentive to us to read this book. This is not a coffee-table book—a symbol of piety for all to see but none to read. Nor should it be parked in a bookcase along with other RFPA books. Because it speaks to God’s people who live at the end of the ages, it is meant to be read—perhaps as part of family devotions, which will result in growth and enrichment in the Scriptures.
Second, this book ought to be an incentive to all of us to carry on the work that a small group of men began in the 1960s, and that has grown over the decades. We have something that few others in the whole world have—the God-given and Spirit-driven Reformed understanding of the Scriptures. This in itself is an incentive to carry on the work, because—to borrow a phrase from the prophet—we are a voice crying in the wilderness. In so doing we ought to have a sense of urgency. At this time in history we still have the ability to disseminate the Reformed faith through many means, not the least of which is our books. But when we see the storm clouds of repression gathering on the horizon—as we do if we are aware of current events in the light of biblical prophecy—then we understand that we have been given a window of opportunity to spread the gospel. Because we live in the end times, that window will soon close. Let us therefore labor while it is yet day, ere the night comes, in which no man can work!
Finally, we have an incentive to pass this work down to our generations— just as the ant who gathers her food in the summer against the coming of winter. The current RFPA staff is not getting any younger, and the day is not far off when new blood must take over this work. Parents and teachers, are you listening? If you have children or students who show a good aptitude for the English language and an interest in this work, please encourage them to contact the RFPA. We will be glad to introduce them to this rewarding work.
Thus, as members of the faithful church of Christ, read and get knowledge so that you may be equipped to resist the apostasy that is already rampant in the church and that marks the end times, in order that you may be faithful to your calling to stand fast. Continue this good work, and pass it down to your generations. In this way the church of Christ—the cottage in the vineyard, the hut in the garden of cucumbers, the small remnant according to the election of grace—will be preserved, to the eternal praise and glory of our covenant God.