“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).
“The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
It took me totally by surprise. I’m used to billboards advertising churches – “Come worship with us!” But this one was different. The church name was displayed prominently at the top (not so unusual) but at the bottom, in big bold letters were the words “Voted Best Place to Worship 2022.” That was a new one.
So I wondered: voted by who? Their own members? Isn’t there a Bible passage about that? Something along the lines of “people who measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves are not wise” (of course there is – 2 Corinthians 10:12). Might there be a cadre of people whose job it is to visit houses of worship to see which is best? (I’m new to the area so maybe that’s a thing here.) What were the criteria for making this judgment?
We need to be careful with this. Worship is all about the exaltation of God. When God’s people live holy lives, then gather to praise God, listen to God, talk to God, and remember what God has done for them (which leads back to praise), that’s worship. It’s not about “place.” Through all this, I may be encouraged, renewed, motivated and instructed, but worship is not about what I get. Worship is about what I give and specifically, about what I give God. The most important thing about it is whether what we offer pleases the Lord. He is not required to accept whatever we offer (Isaiah 1:10-15) and if our text passages are any indication, what gets our vote probably isn’t getting His.
And His vote is the only one that counts.
You’ve likely met religious people who, at least by their talk, seem to be in tune with the Lord. It’s always “God willing,” “praise the Lord,” “bless Jesus.” They’re in church most Sundays, seemingly concerned about church finances, church polity, serving on multiple committees.
On the other hand, there’s something wrong with their lives. Their attitudes are suspect. Easily offended, they are ready to be insulting when things don’t go their way. They are rude in their behavior and pompous in their spirituality. They bring little to the table of God’s family, eat much, and their family is often a spiritual train wreck.
It’s like that with ancient Israel in Isaiah 4. They talk a good game, but there is little in their lives to indicate true spirituality. Always willing for God to work (5:19), their own works are outside God’s will, manipulating truth so as to approve of what God condemns.
These folks can get away with it for a while – just like ancient Israel. But eventually, and assuredly, God will whistle for his disciplinary team, and these hypocrites will be judged and punished, and His indignation is neither easily nor soon assuaged.
The sadness of the situation is emphasized once again in chapter 63. Chapter 59 brought it up first: God was upset that no one stood with Him for justice and righteousness – but that didn’t keep God from accomplishing His purposes.
One of His purposes was to bring about justice. He wanted company in his quest, but He accomplished it alone. Justice would prevail. The nations suffered. Israel suffered.
It wasn’t as though Israel suffered unjustly. She deserved what she got. Her constant straying from God’s embrace resulted in a trampled sanctuary and withheld tenderness and compassion.
At the end of the chapter is an important line: “We are yours from of old, but you have not ruled over them.”
Did God not rule over Israel? How can Israel (or Isaiah) say He did not? Yes, God was in charge, but the people did not submit. The reason this is so important is in consideration of the Kingdom of God in the New Testament. Often, the Kingdom is equated with the Church, thus those in the Church are in the Kingdom. While this idea has some merit, the two are not really equal. The Church is the family of God and therefore His kingdom. But that’s a different matter from God actually ruling in the Church. God’s kingdom is where God is seen to be ruling in the lives of His people. As long as a church fails to yield to the will of God, she may certainly be His family, but not His kingdom, for God doesn’t rule in their hearts any more than He did those of ancient Israel.
Chapter 59 reminds us against too much literalness in reading scripture, and the importance of a comprehensive read rather than a narrow one.
At the end of the chapter, despite the catalog of sins presented in its 21 verses and despite the notion of separation from God because of those sins, God proclaims that His Spirit will never desert His people.
But it does.
In Ezekiel 11, the glory of the Lord, His presence, departs the temple and Jerusalem, symbolizing His departure from His people.
So, in the intervening years between Isaiah and Ezekiel, did God change His mind?
The answer is no.
Isaiah points out that it certainly seems like God has deserted His people given their sorry state. But the problem is not the distance of God from them as much as it is the distance of them from God. Sin is the culprit, and it is of course their sin. And yet, God promises that no matter how bad things get, He will always be there for them. After all, ten chapters earlier He tells the names of His people are engraved on the palms of His hands. The point is, there are times when it will seem God is distant, but He is really not.
On the cross, Jesus cried out to a God who had seemingly forsaken him. His cry comes from the opening line of Psalm 22. But the Psalm is not a Psalm about being forsaken, but about the ever abiding presence of the Lord. It’s only when we read all of scripture and begin to put it together in a comprehensive way that the truth of God begins not only to become clear, but also more hopeful.
Chapter 39 is a bit of a puzzle. What, really, was the problem with what Hezekiah did with the envoys from Merodach-Baladan in Babylon?
Perhaps the answer can be found in what the envoys brought: gifts and letters.
What would the letters say?
Perhaps they were an invitation to join the Babylonian king in rebelling against Assyria. If so, then Hezekiah seems eager to join in the fray and his “showing off” demonstrated his ability to be a viable ally. In addition, his alliance with Babylon gave him protection against Assyria if her army returned.
But God didn’t want Hezekiah making alliance with other nations – or trusting anyone but the Lord. Hezekiah in this obvious breech of faith seals his doom. What he showed, would become Babylon’s.
Our hope never rests on alliances with people of the world. They do not seal or ensure our future. Our hope must be in the Lord and in Him alone.
Isaiah 36-39 mark the hinge of this book, the spine if you will that holds the two major halves together.
Isaiah 36-39 is different from the rest of the book. Just look at its layout. Isaiah 1-35 has been almost all poetry. Isaiah 40-66 is almost all poetry. Both sections are filled with the pronouncements of God. But 36-39 is different. It is nearly all prose and rather than be filled with divine pronouncements, it tells a story.
It is the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah.
Or is it? Sennacherib’s invasion is one of those historical dates we can determine, and it occurred in 701 B.C. But the Bible has Hezekiah ascending the throne in 729/728 B.C – the third year of Hoshea. The dates do work if we allow for a co-regency with his father Ahaz until Ahaz’ death in 714 B.C. Co-regencies were common in the ancient world. Absent information to the contrary, this possibility makes the dates work.
Chapter 36 sets up the conflict, which is not between Sennacherib and Hezekiah at all, but between Sennacherib and God. The King makes certain statements that stand out:
First, Judah has, to her discredit, not depended on God, but on her alliance with the king of Egypt, who is wholly unable to save her. Second, though she says she is depending on the Lord, this is the same Lord whose altars Hezekiah has ruined. (Here, Sennacherib betrays the fact that the doesn’t know the difference between a pagan altar and the altar of the Lord.) Third, Hezekiah cannot deliver them. And fourth (and most important of all), the Lord of Israel is simply incapable of delivering His people any more than any other god could deliver his people against Sennacherib.
These are increasingly bold statements, setting him up for a mighty fall in the next chapter.
Let’s review a bit:
Isaiah has three parts: Chapters 1 – 35 (which are mostly poetry), chapters 36 – 39 (which are mostly prose), and chapters 40 – 66 (which are mostly poetry again).
Chapters 1 – 35 have three parts:
Chapters 1 – 12 (which is an address specifically to Judah and ends in a psalm of joy).
Chapters 13 – 26 (which is an address of judgment against Judah and her surrounding nations, emphasizing the sovereignty of God and ending with judgment against all nations and with a psalm of joy).
Chapters 27 – 35 (which is an address against Judah, using Israel as an example and ending with judgment against all nations and a psalm of joy). Isaiah is such a long book, and so repetitive, that it’s good to be able to keep your bearings.
Chapter 34 is the address against the nations, but Edom is the nation specified to serve as the example to all other nations. Here’s the point: God uses the natural aggressive inclinations of these nations to punish his people for their sins. But make no mistake, Judah is God’s people, and though it is within the plan of God to use the nations against them, God judges them for their cruelty against His people.
How can God do this?
The answer is, God is God. He is sovereign. He will have His way. These nations could have come against Judah and disciplined her with respect and without cruelty, but they saw her vulnerability as a weakness of her God and too advantage. They would learn, much to their own chagrin and much too late, that God perceived weakness was not weakness at all, but surpassing greatness.
Isaiah 27-35 follows a pattern we’ve seen before: a condemnation of the people of God, followed by a condemnation of people of the world, followed by a hymn of praise from the redeemed.
Isaiah 30 continues God’s condemnation of Judah begun in chapter 29 and highlights the contrasting nature of God. The Lord is insistent His people listen to Him, trust Him, and be obedient to Him. But they do not. Instead, they rely on their political alliances and turn from the Lord’s instruction, telling their preachers: “Your sermons must be more pleasant, more interesting, more comforting. Stop with all this condemnation of sin and pronouncements of gloom and doom!” (See verses 10-11).
In the Lord’s anger and disappointment, He will bring punishment upon His people, but it is not what He wants to do. “He longs to be gracious and show compassion.” But He can’t, because he is also a God of justice. He cannot reward or bless people who live defiant of (oblivious to) His will.
This is the contrasting nature of God. He is not just a God of grace. He is not just a God of wrath. He is not just a God of compassion. He is not just a God of punishment. He is all these things. But most of all, he is the sovereign Lord who has His way with all nations – even those He uses to discipline His people. Those nations not His have but one destiny: a fire pit ignited by the the breath of God, a stream of burning sulphur.
As the first readers make their way through this book, they know Isaiah’s prophecies concerning the northern kingdom of Israel have come true. This may give them some degree of pause concerning the love of God. After all, He said he would send the Syrians and Philistines to devour them. He promised to scorch their land with His wrath – and He has (see chapters 9-10). The readers know God has carried away the nation of Israel into Assyrian captivity.
But the readers also know that God has promised similar punishment for them.
Does it mean God has rejected His people, given them up forever?
No. Isaiah 27 (like the end of 10 and all of 11), promises that God’s people will endure – though only the descendants of those He has punished. But these people God restores will be changed. They will be a people who worship God according to His will. The people who are restored are not the same old folks who have endured God’s discipline and come out on the other side as they were before. Those people are forever lost. Restoration comes to those renewed in heart and life.
No matter how God disciplines His people, He never abandons them. But He only blesses those who turn to Him with all their heart.
But who is “Leviathan, the gliding serpent”? Leviathan is mentioned five times in Scripture. He is the creature of God, fearful in appearance and power and under only God’s control. He stands for all that is fearful in consideration of God’s disciplining hand.
With the address to Tyre in chapter 23, the prophet brings to an end his oracles against the nations. It seems most fitting that since he began with the great city of the east, Babylon, that he should end with the great city of the west, Tyre.
The greatness of Tyre, unlike Babylon, consisted not in her military prowess or her conquests or her architecture or culture. It consisted in one thing: her ability to make money – and she did that very well. Tyre, the capital of Phoenicia, was not known for her ruler, but her ability to make rulers for other nations. In every sense for her, the perversion of the golden rule was the order of the day: The man with the gold makes the rules.
Her wealth lifted her up with pride, and seemingly, for that reason alone, God determined to bring her down.
Tyre’s condemnation was not for doing well. It was for leaving out God and trusting in self. Note that on this basis, all nations come under the condemnation of God. But Tyre was not likely to read Isaiah; the book was for Israel. Throughout this section, God is making a specific point: “If the glory of nations is nothing (chapters 13-14); if the scheming of nations is nothing (14-18); if the wisdom of nations is nothing (19-20); if the vision of the nation is nothing (21-22); if the wealth of the nations is nothing (23), then why trust the nations?” The point for Isaiah’s readers, Israel, is that she should trust only God. It is the same message for us.