Reflections on Isaiah 46-47

A line of cattle and oxen, guided by Babylonian priests plod along the road, carrying statues, idols of Bel and Nebo.  They are fleeing; the Persians are coming, led by king Cyrus.  And so the temples of the ancient Babylonian gods are being emptied before they are overtaken.

Compare us, God says, and consider in whom to put your trust.  

Compare the God who has carried his people from the womb to their old age; the God who will continue to carry and save them.  The God who has a purpose for the world that has been declared from the very beginning, and who will fulfill that purpose.

Compare that God to the idols of Babylon, gods that are purchased, forged by the goldsmith and worshiped.  They cannot move themselves, relying on people to carry them around.  They can neither speak nor answer when the people cry out for help, and they are powerless to save.

Listen, God says to the remnant – described here still as transgressors, stubborn of heart, far from deliverance – even so, God is moving and to bring about God’s purpose to redeem and restore them to their home.

It seems so simple, doesn’t it?  How could the people miss the contrast between the living God, able to save, and these powerless idols of stone and precious metal?  On one hand, we do this all the time; looking for fulfillment, meaning and hope in places that cannot meet those needs; looking to people or possessions, wealth or work to save us and make us happy.  Seeking affirmation and validation on how many ‘likes’ we get in the things we share online.

God calls us to remember there is more to life; there is a purpose for which we were created and to which God beckons us to return.  In the midst of chaos and upheaval, in times when we are being stubborn, God is already carrying us, drawing near for redemption.  We might ask what sets the God of scripture apart from all the gods of our own imagination and invention; to this, Isaiah points us back to what God said to Moses (Exodus 3) – I AM that I AM (or, you will know me, by what I do).  We find the difference as we see how God speaks into the world and keeps promises, who acts and heals and transforms.

Isaiah 47: What goes around….

The scene shifts to the perspective of the Babylonians, lamenting for the coming judgment.  They had been the conquerors, taking out the Assyrians, carting away the people of Jerusalem into exile.  They had been on the top of the heap, but it was crumbling around them.  The ‘princess’ of Babylon will sit in the dust and work as a commoner, and for all the pride and position and status Babylon had enjoyed, it will be taken away, while the exiles of Jerusalem declare that it is the God of Israel who has done this, acting to redeem them.

I never thought it could happen to me.

I shall be mistress forever

I am, and there is no one beside me; I’ll never be a widow, never know the grief of losing a child

I am powerful

I have spiritual power; sorceries and enchantments to control the divine

I am secure

I am wise and full of knowledge

No one sees me (i.e. “I can get away with what I want to)

Except…  they won’t.  What they couldn’t imagine happening to them is coming to pass.

Why did God give Israel over to Babylon?  Because of their greed, violence, cruelty, oppression of the poor, abuse of religiosity for personal gain, idolatry and rejection of the God who called them into relationship and community.  The people of Babylon failed to consider that when they acted the same way, the same fate would await them.

What does the example of Babylon invite us to consider about our own lives and attitudes?

It’s tempting to always think of ourselves as ‘the good guy’.  Everyone’s the hero of their own story.  Without humility to recognize we are part of a bigger story, that pride can create blind spots to the things that become our downfall.

Jesus told his disciples that those who live by the sword, die by the sword (Matthew 26:52).

How does Jesus enact and point to a different way forward; a way that breaks this cycle?

 

 

Reflections on Isaiah 45

Lots of things going on here in this passage of Isaiah, but one of the pivotal questions this chapter raises is about the way God works in the world.

As we’ve noted earlier going through Isaiah, God has responded to the need of those who had been taken into captivity in Babylon by raising up a surprising person; Cyrus, the ruler of Persia.  In fact, Isaiah 45:1 names Cyrus “his anointed” – (the literal idea of anointing with oil was a way of demonstrating being consecrated to a task).  Many figures (and objects) were anointed to be set apart for a special purpose or task.  In Hebrew, this word used as a title is: “messiah” – and fascinatingly, it is only used of one person in the Hebrew Bible: the foreign king Cyrus – a man who does not (yet) know the God of Israel (Isaiah 45:4)

 

Both Isaiah and sources outside the Bible like Herodotus’ ‘ Persian Wars‘ and the Babylonian Chronicle describe Cyrus’ rise to power and rule in terms of circumstances that didn’t all have to do with sheer military power.  John Watts (Word Biblical Commentary) describes Cyrus’ rise to power thusly:

Remarkably, this claim of divine sponsorship fits Cyrus’s career. He had profited from many circumstances other than his military strength. He had gained the following of all the Persian tribes with singular ease. He gained an ally in Babylon against Media. Two successive Median armies that were sent against him decided to join forces with him instead. His generosity toward the conquered worked in his favor. He marched without opposition into Armenia and won a surprise victory over the Lydians when their horses were frightened by the smell of Persian camels. And now Babylon, the world’s most heavily fortified city, opens its gates to him without a fight. Truly doors and gates had been opened for Cyrus, and YHWH claims credit for it.

The noted Greek historian Herotodus (born in Persia in the 5th century), described the city of Babylon as having a hundred gates of bronze.  The reference in Isaiah 45:2 to God breaking open ‘doors of bronze’ seem in context to be a clear connection to the victory of Cyrus over Babylon, a key step in the return of exiles to Jerusalem.

All of this is neat, historically – but thinking devotionally about this chapter is also important.  God uses an outsider who doesn’t know him to accomplish an important work of restoring the people of Israel, not for their own sake alone, but for the sake of God’s wider purposes for the world (Isaiah 45:22 “turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!  For I am God, and there is no other.”).  The “insiders” seem upset at God using someone like Cyrus, which is where we get the image of God’s response to Israel that they as the creation of God, (i.e. earthen vessels), aren’t really in a position to critique what God (i.e. the potter) is making and how God goes about it.

There’s a bit of “sit down and shut up” that we could take away from this, but is that really how God is responding to them?  How does it compare with what we find in the story of Job, who also argued with God?  In that case, we find that yes, when God enters the story to speak with Job, Job realizes that he doesn’t have the perspective or wisdom to stand over God.  And yet…  even after calling Job out, it is Job’s friends with all their “pat” theology that God is upset with in Job 42:7 “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”  (emphasis mine).  While it is true that in our perspective, we do not stand over God in judging how God works, we still have a calling to discern a right understanding of God and God’s work in this world.  If God is the ultimate cause of everything, meticulously willing all things to be; then how can we call anything bad or sinful or wrong?

Isaiah 45:7 is problematic from this perspective, however.  “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things.”  In fact, I remember a childhood friend mentioning this verse to me in high school as he was letting go of his faith, insisting that this meant God works evil as well as good in the world.  Some Christians would understand God’s sovereignty precisely in this way – that God has ordained and willed all things, including what we would call as evil.  But is this what is meant by the verse and the broader context of what Isaiah has been talking about?

There certainly is a broad theme from Isaiah’s perspective about God being at work through kings and world events in both the punishment Israel experiences in the first part of the book of Isaiah, and in the deliverance now being described.  Yet the very idea that Israel could rebel against God’s purpose to begin with points to the sense that God creates space for what God does not intend (i.e. sin/violence/evil), but which God permits.

In a dualistic belief system (like Zoroastrianism), the powers of good and evil are balanced.  (think Yin/Yang, to draw from a different tradition).  That doesn’t fit the God who is being revealed to Cyrus, to Israel and to us through history and described in scripture: the God who creates is able to redirect and redeem even the bad things people to to bring good out of them.  It doesn’t mean that evil actions are good just because good came out of them, but that in the midst of it all, God’s ultimate purposes for blessing and restoring the world are not trumped by evil actions or people.  And as we wrestle with these questions, in the light of Job, and the story of Jacob, we find scripture reminding us that the seeking is good; what I find in this passage is a call to trust God in the midst of this, because God’s purpose is that we come to know our creator (personally, experientally, not just intellectually).

This is true of Cyrus, who may have held to the Zoroastrian faith (with a strong dualism between light and dark).  We read in the first half of chapter 45 that God is opening all these doors for Cyrus, not only for the sake of Israel, but that this powerful Persian ruler make know that the God Israel has come to know is the God who has done all these things.

Yet again in Isaiah 45, we find God calling not only Israel, not just Cyrus, but all the nations, to abandon trust in false images of God, in idols of our own creation, to know and trust in the one God who created us:

  • The God who is God alone, there is no other (45:5,6,14,18,21,22)  <- do you sense that this is a theme here?
  • The God who is creator – calling righteousness and salvation to spring up from the heavens and the earth. (45:8)
  • The Potter, the Holy One, the LORD of Hosts
  • The God who did not purpose chaos for creation but for it to be inhabited (Isaiah 45:18-19) <- this is critical; remember that God created the world and filled it and blessed it (Genesis 1)
  • The LORD who speaks in truth, who declares what is right (Isaiah 45:19)
  • A righteous God and Savior (Isaiah 45:21)

Ultimately, we hear not only a message that God has chosen a surprising way to save the people of Israel, but the call to trust in God’s work and in God’s way.  God’s purpose goes beyond Israel to the world.

Where do we wrestle with how God is at work?

Where do we need to speak up against what is evil and destructive, and how do we look for and seek God’s redemptive work even in the midst of the brokenness of the world and of our lives?  (Romans 8:28)

How does what we read here in Isaiah also remind us of God’s work in Jesus, also pointing beyond ourselves and the insiders to God’s concern for the world?

 

Reflections on Isaiah 44

God’s story includes me, but it’s not about me.  There is a fruitful tension between understanding our faith as both individual and interconnected.  We are each a unique creation of God, and we’re individually responsible for relating to God, responding to God’s love and grace / initiative in our lives.  At the same time, God’s loving concern includes the people and world around me, and draws me to move beyond myself.  Both elements are in play here as we reflect on what God is saying here in Isaiah.

By this point as we go through Isaiah, we’re well aware of the existential questions facing the remnant of the Abraham’s descendants.  They have reaped the consequences of personal and national lives and priorities that do not reflect a love of God or neighbor, however much they tried to cover their bases in religious activity and words.  The impact of God’s withdrawal of support and protection have been devastating, and they have been brought to the point of asking ‘what now?  is there any hope?’

In Isaiah 44, we find a continuation of God’s response of hope – God has not given up on them, in their status of being called and chosen to service (remember: being chosen is chosen for a purpose – back to being a light to the nations).  These are words of reassurance and remembrance – the God who formed them from the very beginning, gave them a calling and a blessing, will help them.

Like water poured out on dry land, God promises to pour out God’s spirit on the descendants of the people of Israel, and they shall be revived and flourish like the trees and plants by a stream.

Check out the second chapter of Acts – what connections do you see here?

To a people wondering if they belong, God promises that they are named as belonging to God, and not only the ancestors of Abraham, but others will come to know that they too belong to God, adopting the name of Israel – a powerful image of God’s love for all the nations; God’s desire that all may come to know their creator, and find belonging.

In that context, it makes sense that the middle section of Isaiah 44 reflects on the contrast between choosing to worship idols of our own creation, and coming to know and praise the God who is first and last, the one who reigns over all creation.

Can you hear echoes of other parts of the New Testament that draw on or parallel what you read here in Isaiah?   (Revelation 21:1-6 is one example)

In contrast to powerless idols crafted by human beings, whose proponents know nothing of the world as it truly is, nor can they speak of purpose for the world, notice how God is described:

  • The LORD (YHWH) – the God revealed to Moses (Exodus 3) who is active in history, borne witness to by the experiences of people through time.
  • The King of Israel  – remember that in Exile, the people have had no king; but God reminds them that they are not forgotten, their identity is not lost, and that God (and ultimately God alone) has true authority and power, over Israel and over all the nations.
  • The Redeemer, the Lord of Hosts – In the immediate context, God is acting through Cyrus to rebuild Jerusalem and return the exiles to their homeland.  However large the armies of the world are, however powerful nations and empires – the Lord of Hosts, (could be understood as the army or legion of the heavens), this God is more powerful still.  It is a military term, but one intended to reinforce the understanding that God is able to carry out God’s purposes, despite how overwhelming the opposition may seem to be.

In the midst of this – God speaks to the people a familiar message: “Do not fear, or be afraid.

God, not the powerless, mute idols of human invention, has formed humanity and specifically (reminding the people of Israel), God has formed them.  God will not forget or abandon them.  Indeed their sins have been forgiven, and the call comes: “return to me, for I have redeemed you” (v.22)

The God who stretched out the heavens and made all things, who speaks and guides, and has purpose for this life; this God has acted, is acting and will act to restore.

Notice the types of promises God makes throughout this chapter.

Which promises are for individuals, which are for future generations, which are for the people as a whole?  How do they interconnect?

In the last verse of chapter 44, God’s promise becomes very concrete – Cyrus (the Persian ruler) is the shepherd chosen by God who will enable the temple of Jerusalem to be rebuilt.

It poses the question – in the midst of these promises, in what will we trust?  What will our response be to the challenges of our time?  Despair?  Shame?  Hope?   

 

Reflections on Isaiah 43

There are lots of ways this world will seek to label and define us; to sum us up according to whatever label happens to be more important in the moment; our race or our political leanings, our economic status, gender or how that’s expressed, our faith or marital status or job.

Who are we really, as we make our way through life?

God’s message through Isaiah is:

You’re the one I created.

You’re the one I formed.

You’re the one I redeemed.

You’re the one I have called by name.

You are precious in my sight, honored, loved.

This message is given to the ancestors of Abraham, who are in exile, who have lost almost everything.  Not just property and wealth and land – that hurts, but not as deep as the question about their identity.  Their story was to be one of blessing – they were blessed among nations because God chose to work incarnationally – in history – to bring a people back into relationship with God, to come to know God in such a way that they would become a light to all peoples.  But it seems that they had lost all the signs of God’s presence.  Most of the people of Israel were lost, scattered in the Assyrian invasion.  The temple in Jerusalem, the visible sign of God’s presence, was destroyed, God’s glory (as Ezekiel scathingly put it), had departed.

See, the hurt that ran deeper is one of identity – they felt that they had lost their place in the story, their sense of who they were, of where they were in relation to God.

And into that, God speaks.

Do not fear.

I will be with you

through the rivers, through the fire – you will not be overwhelmed.

Far from abandoning them, abandoning us, God reminds them that we are created and formed for his glory — which boils down to us being made for relationship with God, to recognize God for who God is and to reflect God’s character back into the world.  To receive God’s blessing and to extend that blessing outward.

And God isn’t giving up on that purpose.

Not only for the sake of the people of Israel, not only for our sake – but for the sake of the world; that all of us together might know that there is only one God.

If we skip to the end of chapter 43 we see God outlining how the people had failed in their purpose.

If they (we) were formed to declare God’s praise (v. 21) – pointing the world to God, they had been silent, unconcerned about God (v.22-23).  Instead of offerings that honor and worship God, they have burdened and wearied God with sin and iniquity.  If we remember that sin isn’t an arbitrary list of rules, but a rejection of our purpose, it starts to make sense that sin is the exact opposite of what we are created for.  Instead of experiencing deep life, we cut ourselves off from life.  Instead of being a blessing to the world, sin destroys and distorts our relationships and our work.  This isn’t what God created us for – and it cannot go unchecked.  So God withdraws protection to the same people God chose, and even to God’s own sanctuary.

It is a hard turn to the story.  It’s a reality check.  But it’s not the end of the story.

The center of the chapter takes this close look in the mirror and serves as a reminder of their identity and God’s identity.

God, who created, who saves, who redeems – is not done with them, with us, with the world.

This same God blots out those transgressions and sins – for God’s sake, for God’s purpose.  Our failure is not the last word, but God’s faithfulness.

Remember who we are.

Remember who God is.

Do not fear, but believe.

Reflections on Isaiah 42

When Hope comes in Unexpected Forms…

In the last chapter, we read about God speaking into the hopeless situation of the people of Israel who are in exile.  In contrast to the idols that are formed by human hands, cannot tell what is to come, have no impact or intention toward the people, or ability to save, God declares through Isaiah that the true God, who created all things, still has a purpose and a future for the people of Israel, and that God will raise up ‘one from the east’ to restore his servant people.  The actions of God are to be seen as a witness in history that lead people away from idols and into knowledge of the true God.

In Isaiah 41, this victor from the east is the Persian king Cyrus, who rose to power in 559 BC and conquered the nation of Babylon  twenty years later.  (The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem and taken many of the people away into exile in 586BC)

Now in Isaiah 42, we see God’s response to the powerlessness and emptiness of trusting in idols (“they are all a delusion; their works are nothing, their images are empty wind” – Isa 41:29).

Again we find a reference to God’s servant; but this time the reference is to a (single) person, not a people, as in chapter 41.  By context, we are meant to connect this to the person of Cyrus, who will be explicitly named as God’s servant in Isaiah 45:1.  But here we find quite an odd description of a conquering king.

This (foreigner) is chosen, is one in whom God delights, and is filled with God’s spirit, and will bring justice to the nations.

Critically, notice the character of this servant:

He will not cry or lift up his voice,

or make it heard in the street;

a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick, he will not quench.

There is a gentleness in this strength, particularly towards those who are bruised or ‘dimly burning’ – those who are weak, who are barely holding on.  The exiles in Babylon might well see themselves there.

What does this tell us of God’s way with those who are struggling?

This servant will faithfully bring forth justice that will be established in the earth, the kind that the nations (in this case, the Phonecian coastlands, Israel’s neighbors) have been waiting for.

This servant has been given to the people by the same God who created the heavens and the earth, who gives breath and spirit to the people (not just physical life, but life empowered with the presence of God).  This God:

has called this servant in righteousness,

this servant is given as a covenant to the peoples

a light to the nations

to open the eyes that are blind

to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness

God declares this new action, established in his glory, that calls for praise from the ends of the earth, as we read in Isaiah 10-12

This is a message of hope for people in exile — but we can’t just stop at what this meant for the people of Israel in exile during the time of Cyrus.

For we are reading through Isaiah not just for how God worked in that time, but in light of what God has done in Jesus, and what that means for our time.

For as we read this chapter through the lens of the New Testament witness, we find that the authors of the Gospels and the letters of the New Testament saw in Jesus the deepest fulfillment of God’s promise.

In the Gospel of Matthew, this connection is explicitly made a number of times.

When Jesus became aware of this, he departed. Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them, and he ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased.   [note that in the Greek translation of the text, servant can be translated ‘son’]
I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.
He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory.
And in his name the Gentiles will hope.” (Matthew 12:15-21)

This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.  (Matthew 3:17, after Jesus is baptized)

“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5, at the transfiguration, when the disciples see Jesus as he truly is)

Matthew uses the Greek translation of Isaiah 42, completed centuries before Jesus’ birth, to draw the connection to God’s action then, and God’s ultimate action in Jesus

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus himself connects the imagery in Isaiah to himself, quoting Isaiah 61, but notice the parallels to what we read here in chapter 42.

“…and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  (Luke 4:17-19, Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth)

Notice again how Matthew connects Isaiah 8-9 to Jesus, and how these themes are echoed again in chapter 42:

“He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”  From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  (Matthew 4:13-17)

Notice how righteousness / justice, and good news to those who are crushed is the first thing Jesus speaks to in Matthew’s summary of his teaching in the sermon on the mount:

 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  (Matthew 5:3-6, some of the blessings Jesus proclaims for those who long for justice and who may feel poor and weak in this world)

We could keep going, but let’s pause and take stock of what Matthew and Luke want us to see and connect.  Because the claim is that Jesus as God’s true servant, fulfills in an ultimate way, what Israel could not, what Cyrus could not, what we cannot.  Jesus is a two-way living revelation: in his life as well as his words, Jesus reveals who God is, what God’s character and purposes are, and at the same time, shows us what it means to truly be human; what we are meant to be like in our relationship with God, in our way with each other, in a life of trust and following into God’s way.

For God to use a Persian king to bring justice and mercy to the weak was unexpected, and so too was this true in Jesus’ time; for the Messiah to come and conquer not through the sword, but through declaring and embodying the presence of God in love, insisting a new thing has begun, inviting us to turn away from worthless and hollow things (to change our thinking, the orientation of our lives), to embrace the way of God in this world, and receive life that conquers death.

 


What do these connections between Isaiah and Jesus say to you about God’s way in the world?

 

As you think about what God has done – in your life, in the world – how do you respond?  What does it mean for you to praise God?

 

 

To listen to a recent message on this part of Isaiah 42, the servant of the Lord and the gentle strength of God, click here: True Strength

Reflections on Isaiah 41

When things get tough – what do we rely on for help?  Who do we rely on for help?

At this point in the story of Israel, things have been looking bleak.  They are a conquered and exiled people, without a homeland, without a temple representing the presence of God among them.  Isaiah 40 announces hope – but at the moment, what they can see and experience is still more of the same.

Isaiah 41 opens with an address to the Phoenician cities of the coast, who also had been reduced to vassalage to Babylon – a call to become attentive to what God is about to do; raise up a power from the east who will overthrow nations and kings.  This upheaval causes concern throughout the region, from the coasts to ‘the ends of the earth’.

In response the people gather together – but what they focus on, who they look to for help, makes all the difference.

One response back then was to create idols; creating images of gods that they then looked to to help them.  Maybe that sounds ridiculous; certainly Isaiah points out the folly in creating an idol and looking to it for help.  But idolatry at its heart is investing our hope and worship – that which we give worth to – in anything but God.

When push comes to shove, what is our hope in?  Our savings?  Our military?  In doctors and medicine?  In ourselves?  In an influential or skilled leader?  Those can all be used for good, but none of them hold ultimate hope for us.  Idolatry in the ancient world looked to other gods; not just different in name, but in character – to be their hope.  One friend of mine accuses people of faith as having invented an imaginary friend and calling it ‘God’.

But Isaiah turns this around; calling us not to trust in the things we’ve created or invented and invested with our hope, or even to trust ultimately in ourselves, but to One who has created and chosen us.  To place our hope in One who is active throughout the world, saying to us:

You are my servant, whom I have chosen.

I have not cast you off.

Do not fear, for I am with you,

do not be afraid, for I am your God.

I will strengthen you

I will help you

I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.

In the midst of their exile, God has not forgotten his people or his promise – to work through this small group of people to bless the world; that their redemption would ultimately mean a freedom and redemption for all.

Indeed, though they struggled to see beyond the immediacy of their situation in exile, though they were lowly and powerless like insects, God has provided water for them, water in the desert, preserving them in their exile so that the world would know that God has done it.  He invites them to rejoice in this, to recognize and celebrate what God has done in the midst of their circumstances.

The idols have proven powerless: they cannot speak to the future or make sense of the past (v.22), they cannot bless or curse.  They have not foreseen what God is about to do – to raise up Cyrus of Persia, who will overthrow the immense Babylonian empire and return the captives to Jerusalem.

One of the pivot points of faith is whether or not there is a bigger purpose to this world, a bigger story that we are a part of, that we are a part of and yet did not begin with us.  The story of God in scripture declares an emphatic ‘yes!’ — and invites us to look to God for our hope in this world.

To ponder:

  • What is the difference between doing all we can in a situation and trusting in ourselves instead of God?
  • Where do we find it difficult to see God’s blessings in the midst of our present circumstances?  How can we look for signs of hope?
  • What surprising ways has God worked in your life as you think back?

(Photo of an inscription by Assyrian king Esharddon in Lebanon circa 670 BCE – about 100 years before Cyrus II of Persia began his rise to power)

Reflections on Isaiah 40

In our celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, we rejoice because the powers of evil, of sin, of death itself, are shown not to get the last word.

Our last reading in Isaiah told of the situation around 701 BCE, when the armies of Assyria, bold and arrogant had conquered all but the city of Jerusalem, standing besieged and alone, without strength and without hope.  King Hezekiah had responded to the situation with prayer and repentance, and God had intervened – Jerusalem was spared.  But only for a time.  The core problems in Jerusalem had not changed; idolatry, violence, abuse of the poor and vulnerable, using religiosity to mask the other issues.  God warned Hezekiah that although there would be a reprieve from the Assyrians, the Babylonians would rise up and eventually conquer Jerusalem, taking its people into captivity.  Hezekiah echoed so many in our time in his gladness that at least it wouldn’t happen during his lifetime.

In 586 BCE, Babylon destroyed the city of Jerusalem and many of its inhabitants are sent into exile.  What follows in the Book of Isaiah reflects not only this time of exile, but shows how exile does not have the last word.  God has not abandoned the descendants of Abraham and Sarah.

In reflecting on these passages as followers of Christ, we can hardly help but see them in ‘stereo’; not only reflecting the return from exile which began around 538 BCE, but how Jesus’ ministry and mission were seen not only in light of the Exodus, but as the deepest fulfillment of this sense of return of God’s presence after the exile.

To appreciate the promises here; for the time of the exiles and in light of Christ, it’s important to understand that the exile was traumatic not only in a physical / geopolitical way – the loss of homes, of livelihoods, the conquering of their nation, the loss of leadership, being moved to a foreign land and living there as outsiders — but in terms of how that challenged their identity, particularly in a spiritual sense.  They had seen themselves as God’s people, and Jerusalem and its temple as their sign of God’s protection and presence.  What did it mean for them, for their understanding of God, when Jerusalem and the temple are destroyed?  Or as Ezekiel would put it in even starker terms; when the Glory of the LORD departs the temple because of the sin of the people.  Was God done with them?

No.  A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD….”  The LORD is returning, messengers are summoned to proclaim the good news.  The LORD will be like a shepherd gathering the lambs and gently leading the flock.  God has come to bring God’s people home.

Where do you see these themes picked up in the New Testament?

The largest section of this chapter (verses 12-26) focus on the power of God compared to the nations.  Assyria was powerful.  Babylon was powerful.  The powers of the world loomed large and threw their weight around, just as they do today.  But Isaiah compares them to grass, to dust on measuring scales.  God is the one who established the world and its order.  Using language reminiscent of God’s speech at the end of the book of Job, these words call us to remember God’s majesty and power.

Chapter 40 closes by bringing this description of God into focus: the people have considered themselves forsaken, that God has neglected what is just, and does not care what happens to them.  Can we think of times life has felt precisely like that?  That the challenges facing us or the powers of evil seem insurmountable, or that our concerns are too small for God to care about in the big picture?

To this, Isaiah gently chides: “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”  (in other words: did you forget?)

The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. 

In contrast to nations that come and go, or even our own plans and lives that change, God and God’s purposes endure.

He does not faint or grow weary

God hasn’t gotten tired or given up on us.

His understanding is unsearchable

God’s understanding is like a deep well whose depths are unmeasurable.

He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.

There is an immensely important thread that runs through the story of God and humanity, and it is this: our real strength comes from God alone, whether we feel strong, or whether we are intensely aware of our weakness and need – the call is to trust in God who is able, and who is willing to help his people.

The key to that is the trust.  Do we trust God to provide what is needed, do we trust God to be present in the midst of the trials and struggles, or are we looking to God as a cosmic butler to give us what we want, the way we want it, when we want it?

The pivotal question in this chapter, in the midst of the promise, is indeed about waiting on and trusting in the way of the LORD who is coming.

Those who do, will find their strength renewed, will soar like eagles.

And to that encouraging image; remember that it is not by the incessant flapping of its wings that an eagle soars, but by riding the thermals that lift it up.

When we remember that the Hebrew word for Spirit is the same word as for wind (which is true in Greek as well) – it takes on even deeper meaning.

Ready to Celebrate!

The celebration of Jesus’ resurrection is the centerpoint of the Christian year; the response of God to the sacrifice of Jesus that neither sin nor its effects have the last word in God’s creation and purposes.

In our congregation, many of the decorations and color are removed from the sanctuary in the season of Lent; a reminder of the effects of sin on our lives.   We are invited to take an honest look at our lives, to consider what it means to follow Jesus as a disciple, to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.

Color returns on Palm Sunday, as we join with the crowds who so long ago waved branches and laid their coats on the ground to honor Jesus, riding toward Jerusalem as a king, the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophesy.  The shouts of ‘Hosanna!’, literally ‘Save us!’ embody the hope we place in God as our salvation.  Yet the service is tinged with irony, as the realization that our hopes and expectations can become a subtle trap, when we want God to do things our way and in our time.  We remember how these same crowds turned against Jesus, or fled, when things didn’t go the way they thought it should.

In this week before the celebration of the Resurrection, when color and life blaze throughout the sanctuary to proclaim the power of God who raised Jesus from the dead; let us take time to remember how the Resurrection has meaning precisely because of the Cross.

Some ways to prepare for Easter include:

reading through the scriptures of Holy Week in the Gospels (Here’s a place to start)

Attending a Maundy Thursday service (ours is at 6:30 this Thursday at Memorial Baptist)

Observing Good Friday (The Fond du Lac ecumenical service will also be at Memorial Baptist at noon)

or just spending some time on Saturday to reflect on how often our experience is waiting for God to work – yet remembering that this waiting will turn to joy.

 

Blessings in the season,

-Pastor Brian

Reflections on Isaiah 36-39

These next chapters are worth considering together, as they tell the story that had been unfolding prophetically in the previous chapters.

In a nutshell; Assyria, who had conquered the northern tribes, relocating most of the people of Israel and scattering them among other conquered nations of the area, has turned its attention to the southern tribes of Benjamin and Judah, which had tried to establish their independence against Assyria by seeking military assistance from Egypt.  (notice how they are trying to play one superpower off against the other.  Can we think of parallels in current or cold-war era politics?)  The clues in verse 36:1 allow us to date this siege to 701 BCE, four years after Sennacherib took the throne of Assyria.

God has warned them that Egypt is not going to come through on their support, and indeed, things at the start of this chapter are grim.  The Assyrian king has conquered all of the fortified cities of Judah except Jerusalem, which is clinging to a sort of independence that seems to be hanging by a thread.

[note that this section of Isaiah – chapters 36-39 parallel what is in 2 Kings 18:13 through the end of 2 Kings 20, sometimes repeated verbatim, other times including different material.  Isaiah, for example, omits the detail in the beginning of the story where Hezekiah begins his response to the king of Assyria by attempting to pay off the Assyrian king with a massive gift of silver and gold – some of it stripped from the temple.]

It seems not to matter, because in both accounts, the next scene takes place outside the walls of Jerusalem, with an exchange that reminds me of the castle scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail in reverse.

The Rabshakeh (a title indicating high rank) of Assyria stands with his armies before the walls of Jerusalem and taunts the leading officials of King Hezekiah of Jerusalem in the hearing of everyone nearby, including citizens of Jerusalem watching things from the top of the wall.

Now stay here, while I shall taunt you a second time….

He taunts them for relying on Egypt ( a ‘broken reed’, which is a play on words recalling the reeds of the Nile)

He taunts them with the idea of claiming to rely on YHWH  <- a reference to the name by which God was revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14).   He insinuates that it’s Hezekiah’s fault (offending God) for taking down the high places and altars and insisting that the people are to worship God before ‘this altar’ (meaning the one in the temple in Jerusalem).  It’s a false accusation: Hezekiah is seeking to return people to worship of YHWH, by abolishing idol worship, but it’s an effective way to undermine Hezekiah’s authority, as those reforms were surely not popular with everyone.

He taunts them with the idea that YHWH actually sides with Assyria against his own people – claiming that YHWH himself inspired this action against them.

He taunts them with their powerlessness: even if the Assyrians gave them two thousand horses to make the fight interesting, they don’t have enough warriors to ride them.

It is a call to surrender.  No one will help them; not Egypt, not their God, and they themselves are helpless.  Come out from the walls, and Assyria will “bless” those who give up.

It is completely demoralizing, as the officials on the walls understand, pleading lamely to at least conduct these “negotiations” in a language the ordinary people won’t understand.

Is God able to save?

The Rabshakeh’s clincher, however – gets to the theological heart of this historical / geo-political event.  Don’t trust in YHWH to save you, because Assyria has conquered all the nations and none of their ‘gods’ was strong enough to save them.  And with the conquest of the northern tribes and the capture of Judah’s fortified cities, it surely looks like YHWH cannot protect his people against Assyria either.

And then there’s the deal: come out, surrender, and you’ll be taken away to a different land; deported to where you can’t cause trouble.  But – you’ll have land, food, water, everything you need.  All it will cost is the vision of being a place and a people through whom the nations will come to know YHWH as the one who alone is truly God.  It is surely tempting.  Especially when the alternative is a crowded city running low on food and supplies, with the anticipation of a hopeless wait ending in violence.

But the envoys are silent, tearing their clothes in grief as they appear before Hezekiah to tell the story.

Hezekiah’s response.

In chapter 37, we see how Hezekiah reacts:

  • He responds with grief and humility (tearing his clothes, covering with sackcloth)
  • He goes to the house of the Lord
  • He sends his leaders to seek out Isaiah in order to pray and call on God in light of the situation

Isaiah’s message from God is reassuring: Do not be afraid.  God will defend his own honor and integrity, and the Assyrian threat will defeat itself.

And so we see the first cracks in the smug superiority of the Assyrian Rabshakeh.   The king of Assyria becomes preoccupied with fighting against another city Libnah, and the Rabshakeh is quick to reiterate his threat – don’t assume that this means Assyria has forgotten about Jerusalem.

Hezekiah responds to this renewed threat

  • by returning to the house of the Lord and praying about it
  • by calling upon God to save them – for the unfolding of God’s purpose

Notice how Hezekiah understands this threat in theological terms; not just political independence.  Assyria’s threat is a threat to the claim of God’s name; that is God’s character, power, purpose in the world.  Hezekiah asks for God’s help – for the sake of the kingdoms of the earth knowing that there is one God – YHWH.

Again, Isaiah sends a message to the king – on account of his prayer – God will respond to the mockery of Assyria, mockery that is ultimately directed against God’s own self.  All that they have been able to accomplish is ultimately because God permits it.  And just as God has allowed the pride of Israel and Judah to experience its consequences, so too will God respond to the pride of Assyria (They’re not exempt just because they seem to be standing on the top of the heap at the moment).

The sign will be that in three years, the remnant of Judah will eat from the fields they have sown; in other words, soon, they will be restored, and the king of Assyria will have returned to his homeland without having done so much as fire an arrow against the walls of Jerusalem.

The ending of chapter 37 describes this as having come to pass; the armies of Assyria are destroyed (by the angel of the LORD), and the Assyrian king returns home, where he himself is killed by his sons (while worshiping in the temple of his own god, no less – do we sense some irony there?).

Chapter 38 tells a parallel story (v.6 indicates that this is still at a time when Assyria threatened the existence of Jerusalem) – Hezekiah is sick and at the point of death.  Isaiah again comes with a word from God – get your things in order, for you will die.  Again, Hezekiah responds with humble prayer, and receives an additional word from God: that his prayer has been heard, and will extend his life and mercy toward the city in light of the Assyrian threat.  A miraculous sign of an extended day echoes the promise of extended life for Hezekiah and for the city.

Hezekiah’s response echoes the style of the Psalmist; getting real with God about his struggle and grief, about his hope and cry for healing, and holding on to the trust that God will save.

Finally, in chapter 39, the Babylonians enter the scene.  Like Egypt, Babylon had been an occasional thorn in the side of Assyria, and it’s likely that Hezekiah saw Babylon as a useful potential ally against Assyria.  We can’t help but catch on that this is a mistake, as King Hezekiah eagerly shows the Babylonian envoy all the treasures remaining in the kingdom.  Isaiah’s response to Hezekiah is sobering.  He’d been worried about the Assyrians, but Jerusalem would (and would indeed) fall to the Babylonian empire; and its treasures and people carried away.

The closing thoughts from Hezekiah are sobering as well.  He doesn’t mind, as long as it doesn’t happen in his lifetime.

For reflection:

What situations seem hopeless in our lives, or in the world right now?

What are we relying on for our deepest hope (when push comes to shove)?  [If we’re not sure how to answer that – in what ways do our budget/checkbooks reflect our priorities?  In what ways do the things that we vote on, or comment on, reflect our fears and hopes?  What are we most afraid to lose or let go of?

What are we tempted to surrender to go along and get along?   How do we know the difference between that and stubborn pride that keeps us from letting go of things that are not of God?

On a deeper note; are there times when our past failings keep us from seeking God out here and now?  The Rabshakeh pointed out (indirectly) the idolatry of the people.  And *now* they might call on God for help?  …while we cannot manipulate God into helping us on our terms; God is always ready to have us seek Him

Notice how prayer is pivotal; not in the sense that we always get our way when we pray, but that God allows prayer to make a difference in the way God responds to a situation.  The image we have here of God is one who responds to those who are humble and who seek Him.

Remember that this story is being told in the context of people who had experienced not the Assyrian threat, but the Babylonian one — in which YHWH did allow Babylon to conquer the city of Jerusalem and exile its people — but did not spell the end of God’s mission or purpose for the people.

In what ways might a significant event in our lives seem like a devastating ending, yet mark the beginning of a new way to understand ourselves and God’s work in our lives?

Are there ways that our lives reflect an attitude like Hezekiah’s: “it doesn’t matter what our world / environment / family / nation is like after I’m gone, as long as I don’t have to deal with it.”

 

Reflections on Isaiah 34-35

Wow.  Quite a contrast today as we enter into some extremely dark and violent imagery in chapter 34, followed by words of hope.  How do we make sense of this, not only for the image of God it presents in Isaiah’s time, but what it means for us today?

This is one of those places that brings to mind Greg Boyd’s book “Crucifixion of the Warrior God”, where he insists that (as the New Testament consistently says) Jesus is the definitive revelation of God’s character, and the cross is the center of understanding the nature of Jesus’ ministry and work and way of being in the world.  Therefore, our hermeneutic (way of reading scripture), must be Jesus centered (Christocentric) and cross-shaped (cruciform).  In other words, when we come to passages like this, how do we understand them in light of the God revealed through self-sacrificial love that nonviolently conquers the powers of evil and redeems humanity from sin?

This could go off into a whole other conversation about how we understand God’s inspiration to work in scripture, God working through limited (and historically/culturally embedded) human beings, yet being revealed throughout the Bible, even though we need to read it back through the lens of Christ.

But if we start with the context, and hold it up to the light of Jesus – some interesting things will emerge.

When we’re studying Isaiah, we also need to remember that its finalized (compiled) form came to us after the experience of the Babylonian exile, and that it covers a large span of time across the Assyrian conquest of Israel (the northern tribes), the threat to Judah (centered in Jerusalem), and the Babylonian conquest and exile.  Part of the challenge, passage to passage is understanding what timeframe and events are being referenced.

Chapter 34 starts with a call to ‘the nations’ and ‘peoples’ and the ‘earth’ to bear witness to the judgment of God; a judgment that encompasses not only “all the nations” but all of creation (the skies representing creation that appears unchanging, eternal).   This judgment, (Hebrew root: he-rem) is about justice, and invokes the right of total destruction.  The imagery and vocabulary here are deadly serious.

While chapter 34 itself doesn’t specify the cause for God’s judgment, we have seen throughout Isaiah the causes for God’s anger – bloodshed, abuse of the poor, rejection of God, idolatry expressed spiritually and tangibly – a review of the first chapter of Isaiah will give a sense that is reinforced throughout.    Yet there’s a problem here — while Isaiah 34 asserts God’s *right* to establish justice in this way; we might well ask how God’s goodness is reflected in the kind of total violence and destruction described here; a violence that encompasses all creation.  Arguments that God is God and can do whatever God wants to do only hold water if we let go of the idea that Jesus, and specifically, the Jesus who responded to the sin of the world through the cross, is the perfect revelation of God.

In fact, I think that is what we find here in this chapter – echoed in the experience of Edom (representing the non-Jewish peoples) and of Zion (there’s a strong case to be made that verses 9-17 refer to Jerusalem’s fate under Babylon, and not of Edom itself – particularly when taking into account the post-exilic imagery we find in chapter 35, which we’ll get to momentarily).

Post-exillic Jews, reading Isaiah back through the lens of their experience, saw the cycles of war and conquest, the humiliation of the fall of Jerusalem, through the lens of the working of God who allowed (or in their view) orchestrated this conquest as a response to their sin.  – note, however, that to read Isaiah 34-35 this way is to acknowledge metaphorical language for the sake of establishing the seriousness of what had happened and why.  Otherwise we have to cast these chapters into a yet-to-occur future.  Edom and Jerusalem were eventually reoccupied, and not devastated forever and ever.

The lens that makes sense to me, is to hear in these words the absolute seriousness of what justice could demand in response to the violence, the rejection of God which is not only a religious insult, but a rejection of the very purpose and intended nature of creation, and brutality of humanity.

But when we read this through the lens of Jesus, how has God responded?

By becoming the sacrifice, the ‘ban’ – by standing in the place of broken humanity and embodying the consequence of that – not because God needs someone to beat up – but to expose just how utterly destructive sin is, and to demonstrate God’s astonishingly gracious love, by not destroying humanity, but by taking on all sin and forgiving it, as we find in many places in the New Testament, but summarized in 1 Peter 2:23-24:

When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.

Can we apply this to Isaiah 34?

Let’s take a look at Isaiah 35.

This is transparently a passage about the return of the exiles; a return to Jerusalem, the gracious provision of God for his people, and the joy and celebration that accompany the saving actions of God.

It was, in one sense, fulfilled after the fall of the Babylonian empire, when waves of exiles returned to Jerusalem.  But as NT Wright argues, the religious mood of the Jewish people recognized that there was a significant sense in which they still felt ‘in exile’, longing for the fullness of God’s kingdom to become established.  That’s one of the reasons for the messianic expectations of the people of Jesus’ day, to be heralded by God’s messenger.

So let’s connect some dots.

How is John the Baptist characterized in the Gospels?  As the one who goes ahead to prepare the way of the Lord.  (we’ll find that one in Isaiah 40:3, which also references a ‘highway’ leading the exiles home)

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’ ”   – Mark 1:2-3

More specifically, when in Matthew 11:2-6 / Luke 7:18-23, John the Baptist (who is in prison), sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the ‘one who is to come’, Jesus’ response is:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them – Matt 11:4b-5

These are offered as signs of the presence and unfolding work of the Kingdom of God.  Compare that to the signs of God coming to save his people in Isa 35:5-8

  • The eyes of the blind shall be opened
  • the ears of the deaf unstopped
  • the lame shall leap like a deer
  • the tongue of the speechless [will] sing for joy
  • water will be provided for the thirsty
  • a highway will be established for God’s people, to lead the people in safety back to Zion (to God’s presence)

What, then I find in this, is a graphic description of just how bad it would be for us if mere justice were meted out; but where our sin is taken up and nullified through the sacrificial love of God expressed in Jesus, who is the embodiment and establishment of the hope we catch glimpses of here in Isaiah, in the time of a people wrestling with the radical brokenness of their time.  And which gives me hope for the radical brokenness of our time.


For reference: a podcast where Boyd explains a cross-centered way of reading scripture, and a book review by Roger Olson