Well let me begin by saying this is a difficult reading.It’s a difficult reading not only because we need to understand something of the complex history between Assyria and Judah and the covenant relationship between God and the people of Israel … but even more fundamentally it’s difficult because it deals with human pride, death and destruction and where God is in all of that.
And both individually and corporately these are issues that all of us have to deal with at some stage in our lives.
If we think about our own community here … we have seen the building at St Theodore’s DESTROYED … there’s just a plot of land there now … and … hopefully … in the next few months we are going to see part of this site redeveloped as well. As a community we’ve also experienced the passing of loved ones in the past couple of years … and at some point or another, we’ve probably all been prideful in some way … we’ve thought … well … ‘we’re OK … we’ve done pretty well for ourselves.’
When building permits get granted and sites get sold and local residents have no complaints about our plans … we can say ‘God’s in this!’ … ‘God is blessing our work!’ … ‘We’ve been faithful!’And don’t get me wrong … I’m not suggesting that this is not the case, what I am suggesting, following today’s reading, is that things are not always what they seem and that we have to keep coming before the Lord in prayer lest we neglect God in our planning.
So let me pray …
I’m going to begin with a story:
It may come as a surprise to you to hear this, but I am not much of an athlete.It’s not that I’m unfit or incapable … it is simply that I have very little interest in competitive sport … this is very un-Australian! As a child this inevitably frustrated my father, as he from a young age loved sport and played every sport that was accessible to him and was relatively good at it. These days he’s a golfer, playing 2-3 times a week (despite full-time work), with a very respectable handicap. (He has a stack of trophies sitting on the shelf in the Dining Room).
But when I was at school, even though I didn’t really like sport … you know how it is at school … —never having any sporting achievements in sport is kind of tantamount to not having a personality— and so there were those odd occasions that I gave it a bit of a go, in the hope that I might be able to win a ribbon or a prize that I could show off to my friends and take home to my dad. So 3 events stand out in my mind:
1. When I was in Primary School, I trialled for a Cross Country race, only the ten top people in the try-out would get to compete: I came in tenth … out of eleven … however I had trained for a few weeks and the guy who came eleventh just decided at the last minute to try out. Not having come prepared he competed in his school uniform and school shoes.
2. Then in High School, there was a mandatory Swimming Carnival and everyone had to swim in at least one race. Each race had eight competitors. I came third … because five people didn’t show up – But I came home with a 3rd Ribbon!
3. And my favourite … one year, I don’t know why this happened … but my sports house at school came first at the end of the year … and every member of the house got a BLUE first ribbon. FINALLY … I came home from school with a blue ribbon … I don’t know if I even told my parents how uninvolved I was in obtaining the ribbon … NOT IMPORTANT … the point was … I came FIRST.
Actually … IT’S RIDICULOUS … isn’t it, that I would boast about coming first! I mean at least in the first two incidences, I competed … but I effectively did nothing to bring home the BLUE ribbon in this third example. It’s too long ago to remember clearly now … but no doubt I got some boasting rights just for having this BLUE RIBBON hanging in my bedroom!
In today’s passage, we learn something about PRIDE and how God responds to our PRIDE.
Our focus is on Assyria
It’d be helpful to have your Bible open because I am going to jump around a bit …
So turn with me if you will to v7 … about half way through v7 we read: 'It is in his heart [that is the King of Assyria] to destroy, and to cut off nations not a few. For he says: “Are not my commanders all kings? Is not Calno like Carchemish? Is not Hamath like Arpad? Is not Samaria like Damascus? As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols whose images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria, shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols what I have done to Samaria and her images?”
This is clearly a conquering King. A king of Kings (he says are not all my commanders Kings?) These cities that he mentions they were all previously fortified cities that were considered reasonably safe from attack ... and yet these had been conquered by the Assyrians. Now Judah certainly did not have the military might of these other cities. The King of Assyria here is boasting as if to say: ‘with ten of my weakest men, I could conquer Jerusalem …’
And he goes on to say those fortified cities had deities more powerful than those of Samaria or Jerusalem, do they really believe that their god will save them?
But let’s look back at vv5-6 now … [Here God is speaking]
"Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger— the club in their hands is my fury! Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people of my wrath I command him, to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets."
So this passage is actually about Judah …
God is sending Assyria as a rod of his anger against the godless nation of Judah – God’s own people! So really this passage is not about the Assyrians at all! It’s all about the people of God who have turned from their ways … they’ve become as godless as the Canaanites before them and as their Assyrian oppressors. The Israelites living in Judah had forgotten that the covenant relationship between them and God meant that they had to be faithful too. But just as some Christians today can cling to their security in Christ because they go to Church and claim to believe in Jesus, the Israelites went to Temple and went through the motions, ut all the while committed abominations.
God says to them, through the prophet, Jeremiah, in chapter 7: "Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!” —only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?"
and you might recall that Jesus makes reference to this passage when he clears the Temple in the Gospels … thus accusing his contemporaries of exactly the same thing.
Religious practice had become a joke to the people of Isaiah’s day – including those who were priests and prophets – and so God sends a godless nation (Assyria) to ‘spoil, seize, plunder and trample’ another godless nation (Judah). God’s chosen people will not be spared the same judgement as everyone else for committing the most abominable of sins.
So in fact … this passage is all about God.
Heather preached two weeks ago the passage about Isaiah’s commissioning and how the people had put their trust in great Kings, like Uzziah, instead of God. In our reading today, we have the King of Assyria and the King of the Universe placed alongside each other. Just like I boasted about my blue ribbon, the King of Assyria, attributes his victory to himself – he even considers himself greater than the God of Jerusalem because he will conquer these people too. He is arrogant and thinks that this victory is his own, when in fact he is just an instrument in God’s hands. But paralleled with his words in this passage we have God’s words. God’s sovereignty is over Israel AND over the King of Assyria. God can use Assyria to achieve his purposes ut their prideful conquering and injustice will come to an end. We hear God’s words again in vv12-19: "... When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the arrogant boasting of the king of Assyria and his haughty pride. 13For he says: “By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I have understanding; I have removed the boundaries of peoples, and have plundered their treasures; like a bull I have brought down those who sat on thrones." The King of Assyria doesn’t merely accept his victory … he is boastful … prideful … But if we re-read vv5-6 which stand over the King of Assyria’s words, note how the Lord is the great protagonist of this text – listen to how many times the first person is used: "Ah, Assyria, the rod of MY anger— the club in their hands is MY fury! Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people of MY wrath I command him, to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets."
Both God’s people and the Assyrians have sinned … God has determined the fate of both these nations … None of their boasting about being the people of God (in Judah’s case) or being a mighty, victorious, conquering nation (in Assyria’s case) is going to come to anything … God alone is Sovereign and God alone will determine their future. And we see in the subsequent verses of Chapter 10 that a remnant of the House of Israel will come once again to lean on God—not on Kings—and will be restored to their land.
The fate of Assyria is found in Chapter 37.36-38 and Heather will be preaching on this in a few weeks time: "Then the angel of the Lord set out and struck down one hundred eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; when morning dawned, they were all dead bodies. Then King Sennacherib of Assyria left, went home, and lived at Nineveh. As he was worshiping in the house of his god Nisroch, his sons Adrammelech and Sharezer killed him with the sword, and they escaped into the land of Ararat. (701 BCE)."
So in summary, we have seen in this passage that:
• Like the rest of the book of Isaiah: This passage is primarily about God.
• God’s threats are NOT IDLE. At the time of the exile, there were true prophets who were persecuted, beaten and imprisoned for warning the people about the coming judgement of God. Even this event was a type of warning of the exile that was to come.
• We see that God IS CONSTANT in his judgements.
When we look at the Bible, particularly when we look at the sections about judgement, we can sometimes think that God is not ‘constant,’ that God’s treatment of his people is unjust. We can think that he is not ‘harsh’ enough with ungodly people and too ‘harsh’ with godly people. It is for this reason that Jonah (in the book that bears his name) does not want to go to Ninevah to preach to the Assyrian people there – he despises them – he doesn’t want God to show them mercy, he’d rather God just wiped them out.
And remember when we read the book of Joshua last year? Our Christian sensibilities sometimes struggle with a God that would wipe out a nation to enable his own people to have a fertile land to live in. But as we read the breadth of the bible, we start to see something of God’s ‘constancy.’ God will not tolerate godlessness for ever. And though the people of Judah and Israel are his chosen people, he will no less tolerate it from them. If they continue in their godless ways they will meet the same fate as the Canaanites at the time of Joshua.
So in the face of this, as we observe the way God uses Assyria: What are we to make of HUMAN PRIDE, DESTRUCTION AND DEATH AND THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD IN OUR WORLD?
Firstly, PRIDE is a type of idolatry … As soon as I say I take pride in myself … or this project … or my intellect … or my wealth … I LOWER GOD. We can turn back, repent, be reconciled with God. But PRIDE over an extended period of time, dethrones God in our own minds and hearts. Something other than God becomes the object of our worship. And a righteous God cannot endure this forever. He can use it for his purposes as he did with Assyria, but Assyria too will be judged for its godlessness as we have seen.
I think the second thing we have to acknowledge is that we have a Holy God – a Holy God that surpasses the righteousness of any Godly person that we could point to in our world today. It is LITERALLY beyond our comprehension to fully fathom such a God. This is why the psalmist proclaims ‘Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable.’ (Ps 145.3). Chris began this sermon series by reminding us that God is the ‘Holy One of Israel’ (an expression used 26 times in the book of Isaiah). And at the time of Isaiah’s calling (Ch 6), we hear the Seraphs constantly proclaiming Holy … Holy … Holy … We believe in a God that is HOLY and a God who rejects all unrighteousness and ungodliness. His love for his people … even the chosen people of Israel … cannot be ‘blind’ to the fact that they have broken the covenant. And yet we see the same Holy God using an evil, godless, boastful nation to destroy his own people. And perhaps that JARS … with our perception of a Holy God.
Thirdly, our God is a God of history … and a God who intervenes in history … even using godless people to achieve his purpose. When we look at our own world today, there are mysteries that defy our logic:
1. Great natural disasters;
2. Terrorist attacks;
3. The tragic death of a child;
4. Human trafficking … I could go on …
I’m afraid I do not have the answer to why these things happen … However, we cannot conclude that God is no longer sovereign … that God no longer cares … that somehow evil HAS overcome good ... That would make us guilty of the same sin as King Sennacherib of Assyria who believed that tyranny could have the final word. God is Sovereign. Furthermore, we have to believe that God has a plan that is unfolding. The people of Israel were entirely bereft as to why God had seemingly abandoned them when this destruction came. And the Assyrians had absolutely no awareness of being agents in God’s plan. We read the story now 2700 years later, alongside the prophecies of Isaiah and in the light of the New Testament and we begin to make some sense of them. Maybe in another 2700 years historians and theologians will have the answers to some of the mysteries of this present generation.
Today’s passage calls us to reject evil in our own lives and to trust that God is at work in all things Rom 8.28 reminds us that ‘… all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.’
Even God’s ultimate salvation plan for the world involved sending his own precious Son, who would endure the worst of human evil and suffering and the most heinous execution as a criminal in order to restore humanity to himself. Much of this was prophesied by Isaiah 700 years earlier and God used it ALL because of his great love for a godless people.