MY FAVORITE TEXT
Dr. W. A. Criswell
12-28-75 10:50 a.m.
Thank you orchestra and choir for preparing that glorious number from Brahms on the text that I am preaching this morning. I would like for you to do it again sometime, with two things: one, when our people are not on vacation. We have an audience here that fills the auditorium, almost. But our visitors help us. Our people are so largely gone, and I thought that the choir was halfway in. There’s just half of them here. I’d like to hear you sing that glorious passage from Brahms when everybody is here. And I’d also like you to do it starting at 11 o’clock, and then we can have plenty of time, because I’m going to preach a long sermon. So just be seated there real nice and quiet, and don’t look at the clock, and don’t think of the time, and we’re going to have a glorious hour today as the pastor preaches on his favorite text, Isaiah 40:8. And this is the passage: "The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever" [Isaiah 40:8].
We welcome you who are listening to us on radio and on television, and we pray that the message today will be a great encouragement and blessing to you. In our preaching through the Book of Isaiah, we have come to the incomparable fortieth chapter. The people, in vision, in prophecy, are in captivity; they’re in slavery. Their nation has been destroyed. Their Holy City has been set on fire. Their holy temple has been cast down and lies in ruins, and the people in despair sit on the banks of the rivers of Babylon.
Now the Lord God raised up the prophet and sent him with a word, "Comfort ye, comfort ye My people" [Isaiah 40:1]. And then there follows a marvelous, unbelievable prophecy that God shall come, that a great highway will be built for Him in the desert, and every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain shall be made low; the crooked made straight, and the rough places plain; "And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together" [Isaiah 40:2-5]. A prophecy that is beyond imagination: God Himself is coming down to earth in human flesh, and His glory will be seen by all the earth: "for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it" [Isaiah 40:5]. Then follows the passage in which is my text [Isaiah 40:8].
How could such a thing be? Because everything we see in this earth is temporal, and transit, and passing away. We live in a dissolving culture, in a dissolving society. We even live in a dissolving family circle.
And the voice said, "Cry this glorious prophecy of the Lord." And another voice said: "How shall I cry such a prophecy as that? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the Spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass" [Isaiah 40:6-7]. Then the marvelous assurance from God in heaven, "The grass withereth," that’s right. "The flower fadeth," that’s correct. "But the word and the promise of our God shall stand forever" [Isaiah 40:8].
And the reason that is my favorite verse is because it includes the whole revelation of God. You wouldn’t know God without the Book. You wouldn’t know Jesus Christ, not even His name, without the Book. You’d have no assurance of salvation or of heaven without the Book. Our whole life and hope lies in the promise and assurance and revelation of the Lord God written here in the Book, and my favorite verse: "The grass withereth, the flower fadeth, but the word of God shall stand forever." We shall look at it as we expound the text. We shall look at it in three ways.
First: the Word of God is founded, and fixed, and established forever in heaven. Before the foundation of the world was made it was there before Him. God looked upon it; God looks upon it. He everlastingly looks upon it, and what I have in my Book is but a copy of the great and everlasting Word of God that was fixed and founded in heaven.
I turn now to Psalm 119:89: "Forever, O Lord, Thy word is nitsav, nitsav in heaven." Now, how would you translate nitsav? Here, it is translated "settled." "Forever, O God, thy word is settled in heaven" [Psalm 119:89]. I would translate that word "fixed." It is established. It is has been forever there in heaven.
For example, the psalmist will write in verse 152: "Concerning Thy testimonies, I have known of old that Thou hast founded them forever" [Psalm 119:152]. And again the 160th verse: "Thy word is true from the beginning" – from the beginning. "And every one of Thy righteous judgments endureth forever" [Psalm 119:160].
"Forever, O Lord, Thy word is nitsav, fixed, established, founded in heaven" [Psalm 119:89]. And what we have here in this earth and what I hold in my hand is but a copy of the everlasting Word that God has before Him in heaven.
In the United States of America, in Washington, there is a Bureau of Standards of Weights and Measures. There is in Washington a perfect pound, a perfect weight, a perfect ounce. There is a perfect inch, a perfect foot, a perfect yard, a perfect liter, a perfect quart, a perfect gallon. And all of the other measurements in the United States must conform to that standard. They are but repercussions of what they have in Washington. And if a man sells you meat on a scale that doesn’t meet the pound weight in Washington, he can be fined and placed in jail. All of the weights and measurements of United States follow after the pattern of the Bureau of Standards in Washington.
In Washington DC, in the Naval Observatory, there is a clock. And every day at high noon, at twelve o’clock, that clock is set by the concourse of the stars in God’s firmament. And thereafter, every clock in America is set by that one standard of measurement in Washington.
The Lord God said to Moses, "Moses, see that you make everything of this tabernacle according to the pattern showed thee on the mount"; according to the pattern from heaven [Exodus 25:9, 40]. There is a sanctuary of God, a temple of God, a tabernacle of God in heaven. And God gave the pattern of it to Moses and said, "Moses, make every part of it exactly according to the pattern that I have shown thee from heaven." So it is with the Word of God. "Forever, O Lord, Thy word is nitsav, it is fixed" [Psalm 119:89]. It lies before God; the pattern of it is in glory. And what I hold in my hand is but a copy of that that the Lord has in heaven, and saw it, wrote it out before the foundation of the worlds were laid.
Thousands of years ago, there were thirty-nine books in the Old Testament. There are thirty-nine books in the Old Testament today. In the first Christian centuries, there were twenty-seven books in the New Testament. There are twenty-seven books in the New Testament today. They do not change. They are forever nitsav, they are ever fixed, they are ever founded and established in heaven.
The Old Testament Bible I hold in my hand is the same Old Testament Bible that the Lord Jesus Christ held in His hand. And every Hebrew Bible in the earth has the same jot, the same tittle, the same yod, the same samech, the same pe, aleph, teth, shin, daleth. It has the same thing on every page in the exact spot on all the Bibles of the world, and has been that way for thousands of years. It doesn’t change. It doesn’t change.
One of the questions they’re going to ask me on New Year’s Eve, when we have our wonderful service here from seven o’clock when we eat bread – and then after the programming, come up here at eleven o’clock with the pastor for a baptismal service, and then for the pastor to [answer] questions – one of the things that they’re going to ask me is, "What is the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls?"
Well, we’re going to answer that right now, Brother Patterson. The Dead Sea Scrolls have an enormous significance for us who are assured of the transmission of the Word of God. For you see, the oldest manuscripts we had frrom the Old Testament were the Masoretic texts which were written about 900 to 1000 AD. Those were the oldest ones. But the Dead Sea Scrolls are scrolls that were written before Christ. And if you’ve been to Israel, why, there’s a Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem on the campus of the Hebrew University. And in that Shrine of the Book, you will see some of those Dead Sea Scrolls, one of which is the Book of Isaiah, out of which I’m preaching.
Now that Book of Isaiah that you will see in Israel was written about 150 years before Christ. And the text 150 years before Christ that you can look at is exactly like the text of the Masoretes, which was written between 900 and 1000 AD. The significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls is this, mostly this: that the transmission of the Word of God has been faithful and true according to the careful preservation of the edict and mandate of God in heaven. "Forever, O God, Thy word is nitsav, it is fixed in heaven" [Psalm 119:89]. And you can’t add to it and you can’t take away from it. It is fixed by Almighty God.
There were those who cried in their dogmatism saying we must add books to the Old Testament canon, to those thirty-nine; we must add books to them. And in the Council of Trent, and in the Synod of Jerusalem, and in the Council of the Bishops at Hippo, they said we must add to those thirty-nine books the Apocrypha. So they added them. But God said, "Not so, take them out and away." And there’s not a fair-minded Jew in the earth today, nor a fair-minded Christian, who would add the monstrous absurdities of the Apocrypha to this holy revelation. God says "No." And when I hold the Book in my hand, you won’t find an Apocrypha in it.
And there were those who said we must add to the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. We must add other gospels, and we must add other epistles, and we must add other apocalypses. So they wrote gospels and epistles and apocalypses in proliferation. But God said, "No." And in the Book that I hold in my hand, there are twenty-seven books in the New Testament as it has been from the first Christian centuries, and none are to be added and none are to be taken away. And to add those apocrypha, and apocalypses, and epistles, and gospels is like tying fruit to a tree. It withers and rots and fades away. So it is with God’s Word. God’s Word was forever fixed in heaven [Psalm 119:89], and the copy I have of it in this earth is according to the mandate and authority of Almighty God. "The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of God shall stand forever" [Isaiah 40:8].
Not only is the Word of God forever fixed in heaven in the ages past, but in our present generation, it abides incorruptible and imperishable. Simon Peter, in his first epistle, chapter 1 and the last three verses, is discussing my text, Isaiah 40:8. The only thing is, he adds a marvelous word to it. These are the words by inspiration of Simon Peter. We are "born again, not of phthartos, of phthartos" – it’s always a hard word when you put a phi and a theta together for me – "of phthartos. You are born again, not of phthartos seed, but an aphthartos seed, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever. For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower thereof. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: But the word of God endureth forever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you" [1 Peter 1:23-25].
Now in his exposition, in Simon Peter’s quoting of my favorite text, Isaiah 40:8, he adds that word phthartos and aphthartos. What is phthartos, this unusual Greek word, phthartos? It is "perishing, corrupting." Now add an alpha privative to it, a denial to it, a negative to it, to negate: aphthartos, aphthartos, "incorruptible, imperishable, what cannot be corrupted." The Word of God aphthartos – is not possible that it be corrupted. Now isn’t that an astonishing thing? But that is a miracle of God in our present and continuing generation; the incorruptibility, the aphthartos of the Word of God.
The Lord God preserved the life of the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, from the sword of Herod when He was born in Bethlehem [Matthew 2:13-15]. God did that. The Lord God preserved the body, the incarnate Word of Jesus, from corruption when He died and they laid Him in Joseph’s tomb [Acts 13:34-35; Matthew 27:58-59]. The same Lord God preserves His true believers, that they someday appear in heaven justified and redeemed. It is the same Lord God that preserves His Word aphthartos, incorruptible, through all of the present and continuing generations. The Holy Spirit wrote it [2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21], and the Holy Spirit keeps it incorruptible, aphthartos.
How in the world does God do that? How does God keep out corruptions, and emendations, and errors from the Word of God? How does God do it? The way God did that was like this: by the multiplying of the text.
It was a thousand five hundred years after Christ before printing was invented, and all the Bible was in manuscript form. Men wrote it. Now how did God keep corruptions out of it and errors out of it? He did it by multiplying those texts. There are four thousand one hundred five ancient Greek texts of this New Testament. There are almost thirty thousand ancient Latin versions of the New Testament. There are more than a thousand other versions such as Syriac and Coptic, beside the papyri and beside the quotations from the fathers.
I want you to see what a miracle that is. Look, look, look! One thousand five hundred years after Herodotus there was only one manuscript, one copy of his history in the whole world. Look again, one thousand two hundred years after Plato there was only one manuscript copy in the whole world of his great classics, just one. In the whole world today, there’s just one manuscript of the annals of Tacitus, just one manuscript of the Greek anthology, and hardly more than that Sophocles, of Euripides, of Thucydides, of Virgil, and of Cicero.
But of the Bible there are thousands and thousands and thousands of ancient manuscripts. And the reason God did that was so that if a copyist made an error, and if a corruption, an emendation, a correction, or whatever, a tampering with the text, you could easily see it by comparing with all of these other copies. It is as easy as falling off a log to see where a copyist made an error in the Holy Scriptures. And God did it that way. If a copyist made an error here, God saw to it that there were a thousand other copyists who did not make that error. God is doing that today all through this earth.
If there is a modernist translation of the Word of God, the Lord will see to it that there are a hundred other translations that are true and faithful to the infallible Word. God does that in every area of His spiritual life. If there is a preacher over here in this pulpit who apostatizes, God will raise up a preacher in some other pulpit who will be true to the Word of the Lord.
That’s true of the church. If there is a church that turns aside from the faith, God will raise up another church who will be true to it. That’s true of a denomination. If there is a denomination that apostatizes and wanders away from the faith, God will raise up another community of churches and another denomination who will preach the gospel in faith and in power and in the unction of the Lord.
That’s the way God does. That’s the way He keeps His Word incorruptible [1 Peter 1:23], aphthartos. It cannot be – it cannot be – it cannot be corrupted. It cannot, it cannot be written with error. It cannot be continued with emendations, because all of those things God sees to it that they are pointed out, and they are corrected and taken away. That is the Word of God. "The flower fadeth, the grass withereth but the word of God shall stand forever" [Isaiah 40:8].
Now my last and third. Not only is the Word of God fixed in heaven [Psalms 119:89], and what I have here is a copy of God’s Holy Word before Him; and not only is it incapable in the hands of men of being corrupted [1 Peter 1:23-25], aphthartos; but the Word of God endures through all of the ages and the centuries and the eons of the eternity that are yet to come.
"The grass withereth, the flower fadeth, but the word of our God" – yaqum, from the Hebrew word qum, "forever" [Isaiah 40:8]. Now what does qum mean? Qum literally means "rise," rise; finally, it comes to mean endure, unfailingly preserved, kept [1 Peter 1:25]. But qum actually, the basic word means just to arise, to stand. And the imagery that lies back of it is of desolation and dissolution. The grass withers, and the flower fades, and all humanity is like grass [Isaiah 40:7], and everything in the earth is in a passing temporal position. It doesn’t stand. Even the heavens and even the earth shall pass away [Luke 21:33]. But God’s Word is yaqum, qum; that is, rising out of persecution and destruction and corruption and decay and transiency, it stands and rises, and does so forever and forever.
Now, we’re going to look at that in the few minutes remaining. There have been merciless attacks to destroy the Word of God. I mentioned three of them. One, pagan; one, ecclesiastical; and one, rational, which is the awesome, awesome antagonist that we face today.
First; pagan: merciless, and cruel attacks to destroy the Word of God in these days past. Now of all of them, I’m going to choose one, that of Diocletian in 303 AD. Diocletian was the Roman emperor, he was the Roman Caesar. And he saw the spreading influence of the Christian people. And he saw that they based their faith upon a book, upon the Bible. So Diocletian mandated, Diocletian gave authority an edict that all the Bibles of the world should be destroyed, and that the people who loved them and believed in them should be slain.
And in the awesome persecution of Diocletian, Christians died by the myriads, and every Bible in the earth that could be found was burned, it was destroyed. And so successful and victorious was the Emperor Diocletian in what he had done that he thought he had destroyed the Christian faith forever. And he thought he destroyed every Bible in the world.
And over a burned and destroyed Bible, he erected a Roman column and placed this caption on it: Extincto Nomine Christianorum, "Extinct is the name of Christian." And you students of history know who followed Diocletian: Constantine. Do you know in 312 AD, Constantine took off the insignia of the pagans off of the shields of his Roman soldiers and placed on the shield a cross. And underneath, In Hoc Signo Vinces, "In this sign, conquer." When did that happen? Ten years, ten years, less than ten years after Diocletian. You don’t destroy the Word of God, and you don’t destroy the Christian faith. "The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of God," the faith of the Lord, "shall stand forever" [Isaiah 40:8].
Now, not only pagan merciless attack, but ecclesiastical: isn’t that the strangest thing you could ever read of in human history, that one of the bitterest antagonists to the Bible was the dogmatism of the church itself, seeking to substitute for it the doctrines and dogmas and creeds and edicts of men? And when it was sought to take the Holy Scriptures and to place them in the language of the people and to put them in the hands of people, it evoked bitter and awesome persecution. The Bible was taken out from the hands of the people and was denied them for hundreds and hundreds of years, for centuries. Martin Luther was a grown man when he said, "I have never seen a Bible." And Martin Luther was an ecclesiastic all the days of his life. A grown man, he said, "I have never seen a Bible."
John Wycliffe – you are named for him, and there’s not a nobler name in this earth that you could have commanded, the Wycliffe translators – John Wycliffe translated the Bible into the language of the people. He said, "I’m going to make it possible that a plowman will know more of the Word of God than the priest himself, than the king himself."
Before the Inquisition could get to John Wycliffe, he died, and they buried his body. But the inquisitors exhumed his body. They dug it up out of the grave, and they publicly burned it, and they cast the ashes upon the River Swift. And if any man was found in England with a Wycliffe Bible, with a Bible in English, it was hung around his neck, and he was publicly hanged and publicly burned.
And what the English inquisitors did not know was that when they burned the body of John Wycliffe and scattered his ashes on the River Swift, that the River Swift flows into the Avon, and the River Avon flows into the River Severn, and the River Severn flows into the sea. And the sea laves the shores of the continents of the world including the new land of America. And wherever the waters and the tides and the seas carried the ashes of John Wycliffe, there did God scatter the truth of the Word of the living Lord. And you’re doing it today.
You just got through telling me about the tribes that are in Russia that are hearing the Word of God for the first time due to your translation. And then you just got through telling me that over there in the Philippines, there are fifty tribes who have the Word of God, fifty who don’t, and you’re now in the process of reaching those next fifty tribes. And you just got through telling me that a hundred tribes in Old Mexico already have the Word of God in their own language. That’s what you were telling me for just a little while.
Isn’t that glorious? Isn’t that glorious? Scattering the Word of the Lord over the whole face of the earth. That’s God. That’s God.
Not only pagan persecution, and not only ecclesiastical denial: but in our day and in our generation, we face the most cruel, and merciless, and devastating, and effective of all the onslaughts against the Word of the God in the thousands of years of God’s dealing with men; this is the onslaught of rationalism. Rationalism is a denial of the Word of the Lord. The Wellhausens and the Bauers and the Strausses and the Tubingen schools are in this whole earth. They cover the whole academic world. They’re like termites; they live and work at the foundations of every institution known to man.
The rationalist: he denies the supernatural, he denies the deity of Christ. He denies the resurrection, he denies the miracles, he denies the interposition of God in human history. He denies that we’ll ever see God again. He denies conversion. He denies everything that we identify with as God present in the earth, in Immanuel. And so effective have they been that some of the great intellectuals in the world have been swept into their persuasion.
Voltaire, the great French philosopher Voltaire: Voltaire died in 1779. Voltaire said, "A hundred years from now there will not be a Bible in the earth save as an antiquarian curiosity." And the infidel Hume said, "I see the twilight of Christianity." What about that? What about that? Will we finally succumb to the terrible ravages of the cynic, and the infidel, the rationalist? Will we?
Look at Voltaire. "A hundred years from now," Voltaire said – he was a brilliant philosopher – "a hundred years from now, there’ll not be a Bible in the whole world save an as antiquarian curiosity." Did you know one hundred years to the day after Voltaire said that, there was a first edition of Voltaire that sold in Paris for eleven cents, eleven pennies? And on that same day, the British government paid five hundred thousand dollars to the czar of Russia for Codex Sinaiticus. Today, that would be about two million dollars. If you ever go to the French museum – if you ever go to the British Museum in London, go look at Codex Sinaiticus, one of the earliest manuscripts of the Bible in Greek, Old Testament and New Testament.
God says it. And all the Voltaires in the world with their scoffing infidel barbs of cynicism and unbelief cannot destroy it. And as for Hume, he mixed up his sunsets and sunrises. What he thought was twilight was the sunrise.
Why, bless your heart, there’s never been an age when the Bible was so circulated as it is today. Without exception, it’s the best seller in the whole earth year after year after year after year. Who reads a book a thousand years old? Who does? Oh, once in a while you’ll see one of these students, Dr. Estes, and he’s reading Caesar, he’s reading Caesar in Greek – I mean, in Latin!
You know why he’s reading Caesar in Latin? Because Dr. Estes says you do this or you’re not going to graduate. That’s how he reads it. That’s exactly how he reads it. He reads it under coercion, he reads it like that. Outside of a few scholars, there wouldn’t be reading anybody reading Caesar’s "Alles Gallia in tres partes … sunt."
Who reads a book a thousand years old? Or who reads a book of religion? Do you see anybody going around here reading the Avesta of the Parsees? Do you see anybody walking around here who’s reading the Bhagavad-Gita of the Hindu, or the four Vedic hymns of the Hindu? Do you? Do you see anybody walking around here who’s reading the Tripitaka, the three baskets of Buddha? Do you see anybody going around here reading the Six Classics of Confucius? You just don’t. And all over this world, men are poring over the Holy Word of God.
May I say another thing, Dr. Cameron Townsend? Did you know that there’s hardly a book, there’s hardly a book translated in another language that has any circulation in its translation. If a Spaniard, for example, writes a book, he’ll never find any circulation among the Germans or the Italians or the Americans. For example, who are the great authors in Turkey? I never heard of them. Who are the great authors in Afghanistan? I never heard of them. Who are the great authors in Brazil? I never heard of them. Who are the great authors even in China? I never heard of them.
A book translated into another language, introduced to another area, just does not have any circulation. But this Bible is translated into hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of languages, into hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dialects. And it is the same powerful Word of God in some other languages as it is in this one.
Let me tell you, over there in the middle of Africa a Hottentot said, "I feel sorry for you because you can’t read John 3:16 in Hottentot." Isn’t that the beatinest thing you ever saw? He thought the most marvelous, most beautiful language in the world was to read the Bible in Hottentot. The Lord only knows, I’ll never be able to read Hottentot. But it’s beautiful in English, and it’s glorious in German, and it’s glorious in Italian, and it’s glorious in Afghan, and it’s glorious in Chinese, and it’s glorious in every language of the earth. That’s God!
"The flower fadeth, the grass withereth: but the word of our God shall stand forever" [Isaiah 40:8]. All of the persecution of Diocletian did not break one string of its ten thousand-stringed harp. All of the venom of the rationalists in the world does not drown one syllable in their ink. All of the attacks of a Voltaire, and a Hume, and a Bolingbroke, and a Gilbert, does not take one twig away from its vast forest of glorious truth. And all of the Bob Ingersolls and all of the Tom Paines who ever lived does not shorten its life by one half of a second. "The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of God shall stand forever" [Isaiah 40:8].
Now sometime, we are going to meet down here at the church once again as we did, when I started at 7:30 o’clock and preached till 12. We’re going to do that sometime and I’m going to take this text and really preach on it this time; really preach on it. O God bless us!
No wonder we sang the song:
How firm a foundation,
Ye saints of the Lord
Is laid for your faith
In His glorious Word.
What more can He say
Than to you He hath said.
You who unto Jesus –
you’d never know Him were it not for the Book –
You, who unto Jesus
For refuge have fled.
[from "How Firm a Foundation," Robert Keene, 1787]
This is the basis upon which we build our lives, we build our souls; we build our homes, we build our heart’s devotion to God. This is the persuasion we have that the promises of the Lord in Christ are everlastingly Yea and Amen [2 Corinthians 1:20]; not one of them will fall to the ground. The flower may fade, and the grass may wither: but the Word and promise of our great mighty God shall qum, shall rise, shall stand, shall endure forever [Isaiah 40:8].
Now we must sing our hymn of appeal. And while we sing it, if you would like to give your heart to that great and living God, would you come and stand by me right down here? Coming out of the balcony, where men and angels can see you, stand down here like God wants us to do. On this lower floor, into the aisle and down to the front, "Here I come, pastor, and here I am. I have decided for God and here I am." And maybe a whole family of you to come, "Pastor, this is my wife and these are our children. All of us are coming today." Or just a couple you, or maybe just you, as the Spirit of the Lord shall press the appeal to your heart, make it now; do it now; decide now; and on the first note of the first stanza, come. And may the angels attend you in the way as you come, while we stand and while we sing.