Reflections on Isaiah 33

Where do we find justice in the world?

When we learn of the latest atrocities committed by nations against one another – or against their own people – the opening cry of Isaiah 33 feels very relevant.  Why is it that the nation, bent on destruction, dealing treacherously, does not itself experience what it revels in dishing out?  In Isaiah’s time – why does Assyria seem to be able to dominate the area; to conquer and devastate its neighbors.  Will God intervene?

The declaration in Isaiah is essentially – yes; at least in the sense of the reality that what goes around, comes around – there will be a time when the pattern of destruction and betrayal will return to bite those who embrace it.

In the meantime, what are we to do?  Verse 2 echoes the call of the Psalmist – to cry out for God’s grace, to wait for God’s strength daily, to trust God as salvation in times of trouble.   It’s interesting – this isn’t a call to passivity, but notice where ultimate deliverance is located – not in our action or ability, but in God’s intervention.

How do we find ourselves responding when things get tough?  Are we tempted to run?  To fight?  Something different?

 

Verse 3 poses an interesting question — who is the ‘your’ referring to?  Is it referring to God’s majesty, before whom the nations scatter?  Could be.  Certainly as the chapter unfolds, we read about God’s ability to dramatically intervene.  Yet it could also refer to the unnamed nation (though in context most likely Assyria), whose actions create panic and destruction, plundering the land like locusts devastating a field of crops.

Where is our stability in the chaos?

In the midst of such a time, verses 5-6 point to a different response than flight, fight or fear.  For God to be exalted in the midst of this is a claim of trust that God is bigger than even these powerful and arrogant nations, and that in the midst of this destruction, God is yet at work to redeem it.  Isaiah still envisions God present in Zion (i.e. Jerusalem), worthy of worship, filling the city / its people with justice and righteousness -> notice how consistently that emphasis on God’s character and wise leadership comes up.

Critically, Isaiah insists that: “he [God] will be the stability of your times, abundance of salvation, wisdom and knowledge.’

Wow – in our own times, when so few things feel stable; in the political and cultural turbulence of the day, where are we tempted to find ultimate security in what are essentially ‘false gods’?

  • If only we have the right laws?
  • If only we have a strong enough military / police?
  • If only we get the right people elected?
  • If only we get rid of (or shout down, or ignore) the people who don’t think like us?
  • If only we save enough money, or hoard enough things?

But the treasure God offers to those who fear him — that is, the fear that is awe and respect that results in the actions of trust and obedience — is stability, salvation, wisdom and knowledge.

Can you think of times when God has provided those treasures to you in the midst of a difficult situation?

The second section in the chapter describes the unfolding chaos of war; the lifting up of the warriors while those who had sought peace lament.  The roads are empty, the land is being devastated, from Lebanon in the north, to the coastal plain of Sharon in the west, to Bashan east of the Jordan, to Mt. Carmel.  At this point, the Lord responds – those who have sought to stir up war, will end up devastating themselves.

Who can live with God?

But when that happens; when God intervenes — it’s not necessarily good news for everyone (at least those who want to continue getting their own way, living by destroying and taking advantage of others).  It’s not even good news to everyone in Zion.  When God is revealed – some of the people; the godless, the sinners, are terrified.  When God is revealed, and his power and righteousness compared to a devouring fire, and everlasting flame, the question becomes: who can live with this God?

It’s a pretty wild question – we all like the idea of a God who fights for us, who is on our side (and though we wouldn’t want to put it this way, who is tame enough to be on our side.)  But if God is righteous and just; then to the degree we don’t actually want righteousness and true justice; this image of a cleansing, purifying fire is terrifying indeed.

In fact, the response Isaiah poses is that the only ones who can live with God are those whose lives and words are righteous and upright – that is, embracing what is true, and right and just.  And since those are often just fancy words if we don’t bring it to earth, we find an example in those who despise profiting from oppressing others, who reject bribes, who do not feed their minds on what diminishes and harms others — looking on evil, hearing of bloodshed.   I don’t hear this as a willful ignoring of the world around us as much as what we choose to embrace, to take into our lives, to allow to form us.

This prompts the question of what we are really seeking, and whether it will be good news for us when God arrives?

But – we might say – Christians say that God is merciful; that God does not deal with us as we deserve, or else we would all be without hope.  Definitely!  That message of grace is our hope (and notice that the chapter ends on a word of forgiveness).   In the Gospels, we find that Jesus’ message of the arrival of the Kingdom of God is received as good news by many sinners and outsiders.  The thing is, God doesn’t cease to be righteous or just to accommodate us — but calls us to turn to, to seek out, to desire, to embrace that righteousness and goodness, even if we are not there yet.  The big question remains: do we want what God offers us?

In Isaiah, it is those who desire and embrace what is good that find they find a home with God.

They will see the powerful oppressor pass away, and the land established in peace and security.

In this context, how do we hear Jesus’ command to seek first the Kingdom of God — and what does that call from us today?