When God answers…
Lately in my email I’ve been getting a short daily devotional sent from the American Baptist Home Mission Societies, and interestingly enough, the scripture passage last week was about Job’s complaining to the Lord, which paralleled our reading in Isaiah 63:7 through the end of chapter 64. Today’s reading from the book of Job could be paraphrased as God’s reply to that complaint with: “buckle up, buttercup, because I have some questions for you.”
So too, in these last two chapters of Isaiah, do we find God’s response to the complaint of the people. God has not been absent, nor does God lack a plan or purpose for the future of the people.
I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said “Here I am, here I am,” to a nation that did not call on my name.
I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices;
While God did not condemn Job, or the speaker here in Isaiah for questioning — God also returned the favor – challenging the misconceptions they carried.
John Watts notes something even deeper here in God’s response to the prayers in the preceding chapters — the difference between asking God for what we want, and calling on God’s name to seek what God’s will is for us.
In other words; is our approach to God essentially about what we can get out of God, or is it founded on trust in God and the desire to live out of God’s will?
From the beginning section of chapter 65, it seems clear that the people are calling on God, yet taking on practices connected to pagan worship (v.3-4). When religious practices are about seeking to control or manipulate the gods, that’s not worship, that’s magic. It’s about power and control. When the people of Israel, who have received the Torah, who have been guided and guarded by God over the centuries, when they seek help and hedge their bets by following the gods of their neighbors, it’s not a minor thing – it’s a matter of what is really real, and on a relational level, who is truly God.
We can say that God has left truth everywhere that those who are seeking God will encounter the God who “desires that everyone be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4) — and yet to say that all truth is God’s truth is not the same thing as to say that everything is truth, or that everything is equally true. For the people of Israel to (again) embrace idolatry and the religious practices of their neighbors was to embrace untruths about who God is and how God operates. And for a people who prayed that God would remove their enemies, this chapter serves as a stark warning about making sure that we have not ourselves become aligned against God.
And so those who were fired up to ask God to smite their enemies call down God’s opposition upon themselves. For as Watts notes, the problem of idolatry had not been solved by the experience of the exile; the problems of Israel in the 8th century were echoed in the 5th century. It begs the question of what the true healing and hope of the people will be – and for which the New Testament not only provides an answer in Jesus, but which draws abundantly from the promises of God in this same book of Isaiah.
It is this promise of new creation, echoed multiple times in these last two chapters, that points to God’s ultimate purpose – not to exclude, though that is a reality for those who choose to reject God – but to establish a new heavens and new earth (Isaiah 65:17, 66:22, also Revelation 21:1) where life is a blessing, where the curse is undone, where the exiles will return from among the nations and all peoples (all flesh) will come to worship God.
At the same time, we have to admit, the last words of the book of Isaiah are disturbing; a vision of the fate of those who rebel against and oppose God’s work. God’s love is not a whitewash for sin; it is a purifying love that maintains God’s decree: “they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.” In other words – in love, God will oppose every effort we make to bring what is evil into God’s kingdom. In the end, Isaiah closes with a warning, just as it opened with a warning. God’s desire is to bless, to heal, to give life — to oppose God in our selfishness or pride is a path of destruction…so choose what is good! Choose what gives life; seek the God who is ready to be sought out, who holds out hands all day long that we might find what is truly real, and of value in this world.
A personal note: when I started this online series through the book of Isaiah early this year, I had no idea that the end of this devotional on the book of Isaiah would coincide with entering a new season of ministry. This devotional will be my last here as the pastor of Memorial Baptist Church, where I have been blessed to serve alongside many faithful people who have been family and friends to my wife Gabrielle and I. Next month, we begin a new time of ministry at the First Baptist Church of Bloomington, IL, and look forward to how God will grow and shape us all as the journey continues. May God bless and keep us, as we grow in the knowledge of the love of God in Christ! – Rev. Brian Hastings