A King Forgotten and Foretold audio (5MB)
A King Forgotten
It’s a tragic story isn’t it? A nation chosen, indeed created, by God to be his special possession. A nation nurtured and helped along at every point. Rescued from captivity in Egypt, given the law to direct their daily lives, given priests and kings to guide them; and it’s all been for nothing. They’ve failed so badly that it seems there’s no longer any help for them. In a mere 400 years they’ve gone from being a flourishing nation to being under siege, about to be abandoned by God.
Or is it the other way around? Has God abandoned them or have they abandoned God? You see this book isn’t primarily about Israel. It’s really a book about God. And the problem with Israel is that they’ve forgotten who God really is.
You see it there in v4. God is the “Holy One of Israel”. In fact Isaiah uses this expression 25 times to reinforce how bad is their predicament. It’s an expression that encapsulates God’s majesty - he’s the king above all kings - his purity - he rejects all unrighteousness - and his transcendence - he stands above and beyond all sinful behaviour of evil men and women. And if you thought this wasn’t important we’ll see in a couple of weeks time how that word holy is repeated three times for emphasis. Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty. We might say infinitely holy is the Lord God Almighty.
Yet at the same time he’s also the Holy One of Israel: he’s brought himself into a close relationship with this particular nation. And that’s the root of their failure. Their rebellion against him is like the rebellion of ungrateful children towards their parents, indeed of a creature against its maker.
So Isaiah begins with what sounds like the reading of the charges in a court case: God has reared his children, brought them up but they’ve rebelled against him. Even a brief consideration of nature shows that this is an unnatural response.
God has chosen them yet Israel doesn’t know him or understand him (v3). They’ve forsaken him, despised him (v4). And as a result they’re estranged from him.
Still, God hasn’t given them up. He’s disciplined them (v5) but even then they’ve ignored him. And as a result their life as a nation is in tatters.
Look at how it’s described in ch.1. They’ve rebelled against him (v2) and as a result they’ve suffered a national calamity - (vs5-8). Their religious life is a farce, mere tokenism, unrelated to their behaviour outside the Temple (vs10-15).
Their infidelity towards God has led to social collapse, corruption at the top and impending judgement (vs21-25).
Yet even as this list of crimes and punishment are being read out, we discover there’s hope for the future.
A King Foretold
Here’s one of the amazing things abut this prophecy of Isaiah. Always, juxtaposed with God’s judgement we find God’s grace coming to the fore. God’s discipline is that of a loving father, not a vengeful despot. Like the prodigal’s father, at every point God is longing for them to repent, to come back to him. So we find in v18, in amongst the list of their failures, these words: “18Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” God in his unsurpassing grace extends the offer of forgiveness to those who’ll repent, who’ll return to him in obedience.
And then a few verses later we find the promise of restoration. God’s judgement, as severe as it is, is meant not to destroy but to cleanse, to refine. Afterwards, the judges will return, Jerusalem will be redeemed by justice, its inhabitants who repent, by righteousness (26-27), while rebels and sinners are destroyed together.
At the start of ch2 we see the first of many promises of the restoration of Jerusalem as the seat of God’s rule.
Jerusalem will be raised up as the highest of the mountains (2:2-3). Here is the promise of a new regime established in justice, with God as king, providing justice and peace. (4)
And his kingdom will no longer be just over Israel. When it says Jerusalem will be raised up as the highest of the mountains, this isn’t just a matter of its preeminence, though that is certainly part of it. It’s also that it can be seen from the far ends of the earth. It’s raised up so people can find their way to it. We’re told all the nations shall stream into the restored Jerusalem. And why will they come? To learn the Lord’s ways. God will become the Holy One of all peoples, not just Israel. All nations will seek to learn from his law how he wants them to live.
And notice they won’t be brought by compulsion or by force; not even by invitation. No, they’ll come simply because they want to learn from God; because they’ve heard that the Lord God Almighty reigns in Jerusalem.
At this point you might ask the question, “How will they hear?” Well, Jesus told his disciples that the way they live will bear witness to the one they worship. Matt 5:16: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” John 13:35: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The nations will come to God because they see the way we live, the change that his presence makes in our lives.
A Challenge to Israel
These words in 2:2-4 are found in an almost identical form in Micah 4:1-3. Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah. So this may be a song that was being sung around Jerusalem during the siege of the city. It expresses the people’s confidence in God’s protection. But here Isaiah seems to be using it to remind them that a glib recitation of words won’t do. If other nations are going to say “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD” then surely the inhabitants of Jerusalem should do as Isaiah pleads: “5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!”
For too long the people of Israel have presumed on their status as God’s chosen people without responding with faithful obedience. They’ve taken God’s grace and patience for granted. But God’s patience is wearing out. The time has come to make some drastic changes. They need to change their behaviour - to walk in God’s way.
So he highlights the reality of their condition, of their faithlessness to the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel. And the list of their failures is a long one. They’ve forsaken the ways of their people. Their religion has become so corrupted that the city is full of diviners from the east, of soothsayers, like the Philistines. They think they’ve become suave and sophisticated, a cosmopolitan city, taking in the best of all worlds: both east and west. But what they have is a counterfeit. They’ve exchanged the light of the Lord for the light of the east. When he mentions the Philistines he’s saying that by trying to identify with the world they’ve actually sunk down to the dregs.
There’s a danger there for Christians today, isn’t there? We want to appear cool and relevant, but how far will we go to be seen that way?
On the economic and political front they’ve made political alliances with foreigners who have nothing to do with the God of Israel. Their land seems to be prosperous: it’s filled with silver and gold, and there is no end to their treasures. They’ve formed trading partnerships with pagan nations. These have brought them wealth but they’ve also required compromise on the religious front. Multiculturalism requires an acceptance of foreign forms of worship and inevitably this has led to their own worship being compromised. The land is filled with horses, and there is no end to their chariots. They’ve built up an arsenal of military power but at the expense of their independence as God’s chosen people. The land is also filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, literally ‘each to what his own fingers have made’. There’s a certain narcissism in view there I think. They connect their prosperity with the gods of the land, false idols who are meant to bring fertility and wealth. Their security in the face of the growing threat from the Assyrian empire is being bought by alliances with Egypt and Babylon. - well, only time will tell what a mistake that is!
The inevitable result is judgement, but it’s almost a self-inflicted punishment: “9And so people are humbled, and everyone is brought low.” It’s interesting that in the Hebrew there are two different words used here for people. He seems to be saying that when we turn away from the Lord to these false gods, these false forms of security and identity, we begin to lose something of our humanity. Humanity in general is humbled and individuals are brought low, lessened in stature. Only in the Lord can humanity remain fully human. And so the conclusion comes that God could not forgive such a turning away.
The Day Of Judgement
Indeed God will not forgive them this time. He promises a day of judgement when he’ll utterly destroy the idols and high places, the ships that bring the silver and gold from which the idols are made and which form the foundation of trade, the cities that people take such pride in, that give them such a false sense of security. The devastation will be so great that people will run to the hills and rocks to escape God’s fury. They’ll abandon their gold and silver idols in their haste to escape. They’ll realise too late that such things provide no security at all. In fact all they do is weigh them down, delay their escape.
You may have noticed in your own life how hard it is to recognise when things get in the way of your complete devotion to God. It isn’t always easy to see what things are holding you back or weighing you down, hindering you from complete service of God, from complete commitment to the Lord, the Holy One. We need to stop every now and then and examine our lives to see if there’s anything that’s holding us back, anything that we’re using as a substitute for God, anything or anyone that we’re relying on rather than trusting God. We need to do it before God does!
The final verse of ch2 holds a grim warning doesn’t it? “22Turn away from (or Stop trusting in) mortals, who have only breath in their nostrils, for of what account are they?” For the people of Jerusalem it seemed logical to look to Egypt or Babylon for military security when faced by the power of the Assyrian Empire. But when you compare what they can provide with what God can provide in terms of security there’s no comparison is there? It’s like comparing a VW with a Sherman Tank.
For us it seems so easy to trust the advice of experts. We’re told that our future security depends on having the right Super Fund or the right education, or the right job. For some there’s a temptation to bow down to the idols of our age - popularity, success, fashion, health, sport, leisure pursuits, as if these will bring us lasting happiness and security. But Isaiah’s warning is as relevant today as it was then. Don’t put your trust in mere mortals when you have the opportunity of trusting the living God. Don’t diminish your humanity by turning away from the one in whose image you’re created.
The King Revealed
Finally we need to think about how this prophecy has worked itself out. When the Jews returned from exile they thought God was going to fulfill this prophecy. They thought he was going to again establish his reign in Jerusalem. But it didn’t happen did it? In fact the Jews soon reverted to their old habits. Their worship went downhill, the religious leaders failed to keep the people faithful to God. And the Old Testament ends with a warning of another day of judgement for those who fail to repent, yet a promise of salvation to those who do, who revere the name of the Lord.
So are we still waiting? Well, I guess you know that the answer is Yes and No. As we saw in our study of Revelation earlier this year we’re still waiting for the final judgement when God will cleanse the earth of all evil and establish his rule in the new Jerusalem. But at the same time we know that God has already established his kingdom in Jerusalem. Jesus has died and risen to be named the Lord, not only in Jerusalem but in the whole earth. Already nations are streaming, not to an earthly city, but to him, to a spiritual kingdom, to make him their king. His death and resurrection are already allowing our sins to be washed as white as snow.
The message of Isaiah is this: God is the Holy One who expects his people to be holy just as he is holy, but at the same time he’s the God of irresistible grace who forgives us and promises to defend us and protect us from all the attacks of the evil one. But we have to remain faithful to him, trusting him for all we need.
[In a few moments we’re going to sing a new song that sums this up in the words “God is able and he will never fail, God is with us and he will never leave us, never fail us.”]