Isaiah 42

There are so many things one could comment on in this chapter, but familiar themes emerge. The promise of a coming servant who will bring justice and righteousness. He will be a “light to the Gentiles,” and then these words Jesus references when he answers John the Baptist’s disciples question if Jesus was the one:

to open eyes that are blind,
    to free captives from prison
    and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.

And from the context of this chapter, it seems clear to me that Jesus is claiming that he is the Lord, Yahweh himself. Only Almighty God can do the things we read about in the first 9 verses of this chapter. He will:

  • Bring justice to the nations
  • Establish justice on earth
  • In his law the islands will put their hope
  • The Lord will make him a covenant for the people
  • He will be a light for the gentiles

And in one of the beautiful verses in all of Scripture that speaks to his merciful, kind and benevolent heart:

A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.

This is so often us. When life in a fallen world, in a fallen body does its thing to us we can feel on the verge of just giving up. When it all seems so senseless and useless and joyless, he will not give up on us. I think there is a reason why this verse is between the two references to him bringing and establishing justice. Everything can seem so wrong at times, but our hope is that he will eventually set it all right.

Verses 10-17 are titled “Song of Praise to the Lord.” Again, the Lord is doing, and his people respond. Ultimately, here is what he will do:

16 I will lead the blind by ways they have not known,
    along unfamiliar paths I will guide them;
I will turn the darkness into light before them
    and make the rough places smooth.
These are the things I will do;
    I will not forsake them.

We get a taste of this now, a glimpse of the light, but it is never easy. As Jesus says, “In this world you will have trouble.” But he doesn’t leave it there, or we would be without hope. He has overcome the world!

The only other option to Jesus is this:

17 But those who trust in idols,
    who say to images, ‘You are our gods,’
    will be turned back in utter shame.

In a phrase that seems to have become popular in our day, it is a binary choice: God or idols. The point is that we need something. We can’t live without trying to find meaning or hope or significance or fulfillment, and we will either try to find that in the living God or idols. The vacuum in our souls must be filled by something, and only peace with God through Christ will do it.

The final verses reiterate Israel’s sin; they remain deaf and blind. The Lord has given him his great law, but they refused to obey. Thus his anger in the form of war will come, and they will be exiled from the promised land, from God’s presence. It doesn’t say that specifically here, but that is always the result of rebellion against God. Even has he promises not to forsake them, he promises judgment. In Christ we see and experience both.

 

Isaiah 41

God invites the nations to make their case “at the place of judgment,” his courtroom, if you will. In history, the Lord stirred up “one from the east,” who conquered. Some commentators think it’s Abraham, others Cyrus of Persia. But no matter what happens, the peoples always put their hope in idols. The sarcasm is fantastic:

The islands have seen it and fear;
    the ends of the earth tremble.
They approach and come forward;
    they help each other
    and say to their companions, “Be strong!”
The metalworker encourages the goldsmith,
    and the one who smooths with the hammer
    spurs on the one who strikes the anvil.
One says of the welding, “It is good.”
    The other nails down the idol so it will not topple.

This piece of metal is the hope of the nations. All idols we make in our hearts are just as pathetic. This sets up the contrast with those whom God has chosen, the “descendants of Abraham,” those he called and has not rejected, although he could have justly done so. The only reason we do not worship idols is because God himself has chosen us; we will never choose him in our own power.

In verses 8-20, by contrast, it is God who is acting, who is saving, who is creating a people for himself, creating life out of death. He does this for the poor and needy, or as Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. And why does he do all this?

20 so that people may see and know,
    may consider and understand,
that the hand of the Lord has done this,
    that the Holy One of Israel has created it.

Our question is, to whom does the glory belong? There is no gray area here; it is God who saves. He is the one who makes “rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within the valleys,” he who turns “the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs.” He raises the dead!

Then it’s back to idols in the final verses, 21-29. The Lord challenges the idols to present their case, to set forth their arguments. But the problem with idols is that they are “less than nothing,” and their “works are utterly worthless “(v.24). Not only that, but those who choose them are “detestable.” The heart of natural man is darkness. He flees from God as Adam and Eve tried to do. As Isaiah says later, “We all like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” Got must continually remind us:
29 See, they are all false!
    Their deeds amount to nothing;
    their images are but wind and confusion.
There are an infinite number of possible idols of the human heart, but only one living God. Because of the continual, yea ubiquitous temptations of idols, we must do what the Lord says through Jeremiah: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

Isaiah 40

True to the pattern of the previous 39 chapters, right after judgement (the prophecy of the Babylonian exile that ended the previous chapter) comes the promise of salvation. This chapter starts with what I believe to be the heart of God for his people:

Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
    that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.

The word “warfare” is also translated as “hard service” or “time of service,” and the Lord here relates it directly to her sin, which is pardoned, or as the NIV says, “has been paid for.” I read this in one commentary:

ii. Isaiah is a book in three sections. Chapters 1-35 are prophetic, with the theme of condemnation. Chapters 36-39 are historic, and the theme is confiscation. Chapters 40-66 are messianic, and the theme is consolation.

Consolation is a good word for this because God must judge sin, its wages must be paid, but he delights in saving because he is love. He delights in pouring out his mercy and grace, but he cannot compromise his justice. That is why he speaks comfort to his people, because living in a fallen world as a sinner among a world of sinners, and a world of invisible spiritual warfare, is really, really hard. The reference to receiving “double for all her sins” probably refers to the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles, but inevitably points forward to when her sins will finally be paid for by God himself, and thus the Messiah.

This messianic portion starts clearly and forcefully, pointing directly to John the Baptist:

A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all flesh shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

There is a lot to unpack in these few verses. John was literally out in the wilderness crying out. Through the desert of existence, a place devoid of life and flourishing, there shall be a highway, a road with no detours, easily traveled. Interestingly this highway is for God. In one commentary I read this:

Large processional avenues for the triumphal entry of kings or of images of gods are common in the ancient world. This entire verse emphasizes that no obstacle will prevent God from coming in forgiveness and deliverance to His people.

The forgiveness of sin promised here to “all flesh” is the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise to Abram that “all nations” will be blessed through him. Nothing will stop our God from accomplishing his task, as the king himself will become our Savior.

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all flesh shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

I imagine Paul was thinking of just this verse when he wrote in Philippians 2:

10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

The voice crying out asks, what do I cry? That people are like grass and the flowers of the field that withers and falls. The breath of the Lord blows on them, and poof! they are gone. It is to such transient and weak beings that God sheds his love, to which “glad tidings” are spoken. These glad tidings point directly to the angel of the Lord in Luke 2 who declares to the shepherds “out in the field” (where else would you think the coming of the king of the universe would be announced):

“Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; 11 for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

There can be no doubt that this Savior is the same God and Sovereign Lord who Isaiah says “comes to the towns of Judah.” Then the rest of the chapter is a declaration of the greatness of our God, and the utter worthlessness of idols. Isaiah is asking the most obvious rhetorical question in all of history: Who is going to save you, idols or the living God? A piece of wood or the “the Creator of the ends of the earth” (I love how trivial and small is the idol compared to Creator of all things). The chapter ends in hope, that this God, our Creator and Savior, will “not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.” This most astounding of chapters ends with some of the most well-known words in all of Scripture, but words often shorn of their context:

29 He gives strength to the weary
    and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
    and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.

What is that context? Our salvation from sin! Our rescue from the wrath of a holy God! The greatness of our God, his massive power, all of it is brought to bear on saving his people from their sins so he no longer has to meet out its wages to us. He can remain just and holy, and the justifier of many.

No wonder Isaiah preached comfort to start the chapter. We renew our strength and confidence after we stumble and fall because we know God is no longer our judge, his wrath fully and completely satisfied, forever. As Paul says in Romans 8, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” And in Romans 5 he tells us what the payoff is: “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” From that point when he transforms us from enemies to sons and daughters, when he replaces our heart of stone with a heart of flesh, we need never doubt his love and benevolence toward us. Ever. Very good new indeed!

Isaiah 38 & 39

Hezekiah was a great king, but any great human being is susceptible to being, well, human. We can read the events of chapter 38 also in 2 Kings 20. When he becomes sick, the Lord through Isaiah tells him he’s about to die. I gather that he was about 39 when this happened, so he’s not ready to die (are we ever?). He pleads with the Lord to spare his life, and the Lord grants his request. Unfortunately, he doesn’t learn from the mercy God shows him, or from the Lord rescuing him from the Assyrians, that he should and can trust God alone.

In chapter 39 some officials from Babylon come visit Hezekiah after they hear of his illness and recovery, and he does something amazingly stupid. At first we might wonder why what he did was so bad. When the officials of Babylon get there, he proceeded to show them “everything that was in his storehouses.” Isaiah inquires as to who they were and what he showed them, and he confirms it was everything in his kingdom. Why was this not a good thing? Those on whom God has put his name, those whom he has rescued and save, are commanded and obligated to put their trust him him alone.

The need to depend on Yahweh alone has been a consistent theme from Genesis 1 on. The whole history of Israel testifies to it: either God’s people will trust in him alone, or idols. For sinners, though, the temptation is always to look to idols for our comfort or fulfillment or safety. For Hezekiah it was the wealth of his kingdom, as if that could save him or his people from anything. David learned that putting his trust in his army and not his God was a grievous sin. Hezekiah obviously didn’t learn this lesson, and what’s so stupid about is how he has just seen the mighty saving power of his God!

So Isaiah comes to him and declares that everything he showed the Babylonians, all of it “will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left.” The exile is coming, and what is Hezekiah’s response:

“The word of the Lord you have spoken is good,” Hezekiah replied. For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my lifetime.”

What a self-centered punk! After all the good he’s done in that lifetime up to this point, he’s reduced to “It’s all about me!” We know we’ve succumbed to idolatry when it’s all about us. Hezekiah didn’t care a whit about all the suffering that would come upon his family and people, as long as he got “peace and security.” Despicable. Yet that is the sin nature of the human heart, to make it all about us, no matter what we’ve seen God do in our lives and the lives of his people down through the ages. As Calvin says, our hearts are idol factories. So we must pray fervently what John implores in 1 John 5:

21 Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.

They never, ever deliver. Only our Savior God in Christ has, does, and will.

Isaiah 36 & 37

These chapters move away from pure prophecy like we’ve seen up to this point, into history. The events recorded her are also recorded in 2 Kings 18:13-27 and 2 Chronicles 32:1-19.  The Assyrians have destroyed Israel, most of Judah, and now all that’s left is Jerusalem. The Assyrian army has the city surrounded, and an Assyrian commander comes into the city itself to suggest that king Hezekiah may just want to surrender. Three of the king’s officials go out to meet the enemy’s representative.

(One apologetics aside. When I was reading these chapters the specificity stood out to me. It doesn’t read like a made up story, but like history. Like when the Assyrian commander goes to the city it says this: “When the commander stopped at the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Launderer’s Field . . .” He stopped there to magnify the helplessness of the city should they reject his offer and there be a siege. The aqueduct would be the city’s water lifeline. Sounds like something that really did happen.)

The field commander proceeds to mock God’s people, and Yahweh himself. He rightly says they certainly can’t depend on Egypt, but he’ll be spectacularly wrong when he says they can’t depend on their God as well. Throughout many of the previous chapters, through Isaiah God was telling his people what would happen (judgment), but that they must trust him (salvation). In the current situation, there isn’t much evidence that the Assyrian isn’t right. Things do look hopeless. When the commender makes these statements you have to imagine that the people and the king might be tempted to believe him:

15 Do not let Hezekiah persuade you to trust in the Lord when he says, ‘The Lord will surely deliver us; this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.’

and

18 “Do not let Hezekiah mislead you when he says, ‘The Lord will deliver us.’ Have the gods of any nations ever delivered their lands from the hand of the king of Assyria?

It says in verse 2 that the commander brought with him a “large army.” So he was rightly confident that this little defenseless city had any chance against such an army, and those in the city would be rightly freaked out that they had very little chance against such an army. To the Lord, however, such an army is no more than a matchstick easily blown out.

I’m not a big fan of spiritualizing stories in the OT, and would rather seek to learn their meaning in the redemptive-historical context that points to Christ, but this situation is a perfect metaphor for life in Christ. God’s people in this situation are in Zion, God’s city, just like we are in Christ. As they are surrounded by a great army with odds of victory pretty much zero if they depend on their own power, so are we surrounded by sin and death, and all that accompanies those things. We live in enemy territory and a spiritual battle rages around us. In ourselves we have zero odds of victory over sin and death; but in Christ our victory is assured. The cross is an objective fact of history interpreted by God himself (not least of which is upcoming chapter 53 in Isaiah). Our confidence is not in us, in what we can or can’t do, or what we do or don’t do, but in Christ! Against Christ in his obedience unto death, his burial, and resurrection, there is no Assyrian army no matter how large, no matter the apparent odds, that has a chance against us!

Again we see this theme played out in redemptive history: God doing for his people what they could never do for themselves.

Chapter 37 tells of Jerusalem’s deliverance, and the Assyrian’s downfall. Not only does the angel of the Lord strike down 185,000 men in the Assyrian army, but the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, goes back to his land, and his sons strike him down. Such events could not even have been imagined by the people of Judah when they were being mocked by the Assyrian commander with hundreds of thousands of soldiers outside their walls. But God will not be mocked. Hezekiah prayers what we know to always be true:

18 “It is true, Lord, that the Assyrian kings have laid waste all these peoples and their lands. 19 They have thrown their gods into the fire and destroyed them, for they were not gods but only wood and stone, fashioned by human hands. 20 Now, Lord our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, Lord, are the only God.”

Idols cannot save because they are nothing. Only Yahweh is mighty to save. In him alone we trust no matter the odds, no matter the circumstances because our hope is ultimately eternal.

 

 

Isaiah 34 & 35

Chapter 34 is “Judgment Against the Nations,” as it is titled. Isaiah addresses not only the nations, but the entire earth and “all that is in it, the world and all that comes out of it!” The Lord’s anger and wrath will come upon it all; not a pretty picture. Some of the pre-mill commentators think this speaks to the great tribulation, but since there is no such thing, it obviously refers to the second coming of Christ, who will come in judgment.  It also, though, has historical reference with several references to Edom, whose people were the descendants of Esau, Isaac’s older brother. From what I read, where the Edomites once dwelled is to this day desolate, so that part of the prophecy was fulfilled. We see what the stakes are with these verses:

For the Lord has a day of vengeance,
    a year of retribution, to uphold Zion’s cause.
Edom’s streams will be turned into pitch,
    her dust into burning sulfur;
    her land will become blazing pitch!
10 It will not be quenched night or day;
    its smoke will rise forever.
From generation to generation it will lie desolate;
    no one will ever pass through it again.

Here you have temporal and eternal judgment side by side. As steeped as Jesus was in the Old Testament, some of his references to eternal fire certainly come from these verses. But after judgment, as we learn again and again in Isaiah, comes salvation, which we find in chapter 35.

The chapter is full-on Messianic; there is no doubt to what it refers. God himself will transform the desert and the wilderness; i.e. he will bring life to what was once barren, life to what was once dead. Then we read these interesting words:

say to those with fearful hearts,
    “Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
    he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
    he will come to save you.”

How could God’s salvation come with vengeance and retribution? This can only refer to Christ because God’s wrath was poured out on him to save his people! As we’ve learned through these 30-plus chapters, God’s judgment and salvation come together; it’s a package deal. And we see the ultimate package in Jesus! No wonder he said the whole OT is about him. And if there should be any doubt, the next verses speak to healing the blind, deaf, and lame, exactly what Jesus told his disciples to tell John in prison. And in this place God is preparing for his redeemed and ransomed (v. 10), we find:

And a highway will be there;
    it will be called the Way of Holiness;
    it will be for those who walk on that Way.
The unclean will not journey on it;
    wicked fools will not go about on it.
This highway is only for those who have been cleaned, not those who think they can clean themselves. It is critical that we understand this. In God’s economy all human beings are unclean, soiled, and stained by sin. No matter what we do, we cannot wash away the stain; it is with us as long as we live in our fallen, mortal body. So we must be cleaned, and as the text says, redeemed and ransomed. We are those whom God himself has purchased. We can walk the Way of Holiness, we can roll down this highway as the result of salvation, because of what God has done for us, his buying and his cleansing. Every time we crash and burn, we get cleansed again at the cross, and hop right back on the highway.

We only get a small taste of what this salvation means here, but this is ultimately what’s in store for those the Lord has, as Isaiah says with two different words, bought (redeemed and ransomed):

But only the redeemed will walk there,
10     and those the Lord has ransomed will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
    everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
    and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

As Paul says, we are not our own, we were bought with a price, and oh what a great price it was. In judgment was my salvation secured, and our hope is in forever, not this earth or this life. The beauty and brilliance of God’s plan is that it’s not based anything we have done or can or can’t do, because clearly we can’t redeem, ransom or clean ourselves! And as John says, our forgiveness is ground in God’s justice: if we confess, he has to forgive us! The price has been paid. Thank you, Lord!

Isaiah 33

This is another amazing chapter in Isaiah, and another prophecy intermingling historical with eschatological imagery. Isaiah declares woes on the destroyer, i.e. Assyria, and that they will be destroyed; however, judgment will come. Those who were haughty in their sin and pride will be terrified, and Isaiah tells us why:

14 The sinners in Zion are terrified;
    trembling grips the godless:
“Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire?
    Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?”

He answers the questions he puts in their mouths, but when sinners finally see clearly that their sin deserves judgment, there will be no arrogance, only abject fear. I’m reminded of my father who often said he’d “talk to my Jesus” when he got to heaven about this and that, but when he was on his deathbed the last words I ever heard him say were, “I don’t want to die.” He wasn’t so tough when he was about to pay the wages of sin. Everyone, from the most hardened sinner, to the most pious and outwardly moral person will respond like Isiah did (chapter 6) when confronted with the perfect holiness of Almighty God:

And I said: “Woe is me!For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

But the Lord atones for his sins, and he survives to serve the Lord. This speaks to Isiah’s answer to the above questions:

15 Those who walk righteously
    and speak what is right,
who reject gain from extortion
    and keep their hands from accepting bribes,
who stop their ears against plots of murder
    and shut their eyes against contemplating evil—
16 they are the ones who will dwell on the heights,
    whose refuge will be the mountain fortress.
Their bread will be supplied,
    and water will not fail them.

He seems to be saying if you just live a moral life, God will bless you and you won’t be in danger of the consuming and everlasting burning. This points to the historical versus eschatological perspectives in the chapter (and throughout Isaiah). If God’s people in Zion live an upright life, they will be blessed, but as we know they can never quite pull it off, which is the moral of the story.

In Verse 17 Isaiah speaks of their eyes seeing a “king in his beauty,” which in history is Hezekiah, but ultimately is Christ. We know this because we get a vision of prosperity and peace that will come upon the land, and Isaiah tells us why:

22 For the Lord is our judge,
    the Lord is our lawgiver,
the Lord is our king;
    it is he who will save us.

No earthly king can pull it off! So yes, the Lord will give them some semblance of peace and prosperity after he brings judgment in the form of the Assyrians, but ultimately only the Lord himself can rule in Zion. And should there be any doubt this points to eternity, we read these last words of the chapter:

24 No one living in Zion will say, “I am ill”;
    and the sins of those who dwell there will be forgiven.

Everything rides on our sins being forgiven! Jesus’ ministry starts and ends with this declaration of forgiveness, and thus tells us what Christianity is ultimately all about (it’s not all about us being more moral–that is the fruit, not the tree). In Matthew 1, an angel of the Lord tells Joseph in a dream:

21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

Jesus is the Greek form of Joshua which means “the Lord saves.” So according to Isaiah Jesus is our judge, our lawgiver, our king, and the one “who will save us.” And after Jesus is raised from the dead, he tells his disciples in Luke 24:

45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

And notice those who will be forgiven: those who repent, that is those whose hearts are changed, who grieve for there sin, never those who ignore or glory in it. In other words, the Christian life is a life of repentance because we can never fully escaped sin in this life while in these bodies. Thus God has provided a way for sinners to be forgiven so that they can dwell in Zion, meaning with God. We don’t have to react to our wrong doing like Adam and Eve who hid from the Lord God as he was walking in the Garden in the cool of the day. Instead of going away, we can rush toward the Lord God in Christ, to the cross and claim the forgiveness our just God has declared is ours in him. What an amazing way to solve the dilemma of a holy God and sinful human beings. And we go there because of what Isaiah tells us earlier in the chapter:

The Lord is exalted, for he dwells on high;
    he will fill Zion with his justice and righteousness.
He will be the sure foundation for your times,
    a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge;
    the fear of the Lord is the key to this treasure.

Man, I could meditate on these verses for days. There is no limit to what Paul calls in his doxology at the end of Romans 11:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!

This after 11 chapter of explaining the meaning of redemptive history. We have access to the mind of the creator of reality! Historically, this speaks to Hezekiah’s reign, but now it speaks to the reign of King Jesus, and we have access to an endless reservoir “of salvation and wisdom and knowledge.” This means our lives don’t have to be a confusing mess of sin and guilt and frustration, wandering in darkness, stubbing our toes, running into things, and wondering what the heck is going on. We have everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him! And it starts with salvation, the forgiveness of sins.  Praise the Lord!