God's glory – his primary concern
Isaiah had been telling his people that the nation was going to carted off to Babylon for a new period of captivity. Such a captivity would not take place because the gods of the nations had triumphed over the LORD but because of the sinfulness of the people. The Lord had established his covenant with his people and in doing so he had granted them great blessings. Along with these covenant blessings went covenant responsibilities, responsibilities which Israel had dismally failed to fulfil. Politically the people were about to lose their freedom being brought into national bondage and it was all due to their wilful spiritual blindness.
Was God giving up on his people? What do these events mean? What are we to learn from them?
Although the people of Israel were still capable of saying the right things they were incapable of doing the right things! They were, it seems, quite happy to describe themselves as being in a relationship with the Lord and yet their lives showed little if any evidence that this was a living reality for them.
In some ways what Isaiah has to say about Israel in this chapter brings little new information as he had already prophesied against them when he declared just what the Lord's assessment of them was:
Is.29:13 "And the Lord said: "Because this people draw near with their mouth and honour me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,"
How easy it is to say things! The people of Israel found it far easier to say than to be and to do: matters haven't changed materially since then. In the NT era Jesus was confronted by exactly the same problem with the Scribes and the Pharisees. They made a good show of religious devotion and commitment but all they really did was to promote their own human traditions while setting aside what the Lord God had actually said. And so Jesus quoted this same passage from Isaiah:
This is one more of those instances where it is clear that actions speak louder than words.
And how do we match up? If we were accused of being Christians would there be sufficient evidence to convict us? Or would we be found to be following another path, another set of traditions of our own?
Israel did belong to the LORD but had slipped into a state where she thought that profession was all that was necessary. But the LORD has never been content with lip service – he wasn't then and he isn't now!
Yet in his mercy the LORD does not give up on his people. He wasn't about to give up on Israel and he won't with you if you truly belong to him. However the way ahead for Israel would involve the uncomfortable afflictions of stern discipline. And this is a true sign of divine love – while the Lord passes by many others leaving them in their sin he chastens and disciplines the one he loves. Israel would have been wiser to follow the path of obedience and so render discipline unnecessary – and so too would we!
He won't give them up – because they're so nice?
We're not to imagine that the LORD is akin to some doting grandparent who is blissfully ignorant of the misdemeanours of his descendants. We're not to think that he winks and turns a blind eye towards their wrong-
v.4 "Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass,"
This spiritual obstinacy was nothing recent either; it was something that characterised Israel's entire existence:
v.8 "You have never heard, you have never known, from of old your ear has not been opened. For I knew that you would surely deal treacherously, and that from before birth you were called a rebel."
Here we have clear statements concerning the complete lack of any sort of merit to be found in the people of God. In short – indeed Israel was no better than Babylon or any other of the nations! Isaiah would develop this further in just a few chapters time:
Is.53:6 "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way;"
In the NT the apostle Paul would summarise his early argument in the Book of Romans by writing:
The argument from prophecy
Not only did was the Lord fully aware of the shortcomings of his people he addressed them.
Isaiah tells us that one of the reasons why prophecy had such a significant role to play in Biblical religion was to shatter all the possible excuses the people might try to advance to cover their obstinacy. The fact that the LORD had announced what was going to happen before it did and then act in order to bring it about was designed to drive Israel into a corner where she would be forced to recognise the truthfulness of God and her own duplicity.
In the distant past God had prophesied what would take place to destroy any attempts Israel might make to attribute any success to the idols that charmed them:
v.5 "I declared them to you from of old, before they came to pass I announced them to you, lest you should say, ‘My idol did them, my carved image and my metal image commanded them.’"
In the (then) present prophecy was given so that Israel's claims to possessing great knowledge might be exposed:
So the LORD knew all about the perfidy of Israel – he wasn't committed to them because he held a rose-
If the reason why the Lord would not give up on his people was not to be found in them it must be located elsewhere and that is what we are told next. God had his own reasons and Isaiah tells us that they are bound up with his own honour and praise:
v.9 "For my name’s sake I defer my anger, for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off"
v.11 "For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another."
It is just because the LORD sees his own honour and prestige as being inextricably bound up with the people he has chosen and called to himself that the people themselves, and us as Christians along with them, may be confident concerning our final salvation. Our ultimate deliverance is directly linked no so much to our ability to persevere but to his determination to see his own name honoured and glorified. The security of God's people is as sure as the Eternal Honour of God himself.
This had significant implications for Israel and it has significant implications for us too.
God will do what is necessary to prepare his people for their salvation. If they go astray he will discipline and discipline just as severely as is necessary:
v.10 "Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction."
Yet even when the process of purification seems so difficult and they may even be tempted to misread his treatment as abandonment they are reminded that his dealings with them are always gracious. Indeed they are NOT treated as they deserve – if they were refined as silver there would be nothing left at all for they possessed nothing that was inherently good in themselves. This is what we affirm when we say that salvation is all of grace!!
The Call is Renewed
Isaiah reminds the people of Israel about their God before he expresses his disappointment over how they had turned from him to their own hurt. But rebellion against such a God and the forfeiture of such blessings need not be final – this same God still offers his salvation to a recalcitrant people if only they will trust and obey.
Firstly, Isaiah describes the God who thus addresses his people:
He is a speaking God – how this fact is underscored! The chapter opens with the words "Hear this," and then continues with a list of references to the LORD making things known to his people. Now here in v.12 we have another invitation/command issued "Listen" which is repeated in v.14 "Assemble… and listen!"
He is eternal – the first and the last v.12
He is the Creator and Sustainer v.13 – the heavens hear and obey
He is the Sovereign who rules vv.14-
The success that Cyrus would know was also available to God's people because the LORD's instructions to his people were in no way hurtful to their true interests:
How foolish Israel was in turning her back on the Lord's commandments! In doing so she forfeited:
a wonderful peace that just kept on and on flowing like a mighty river,
a glorious righteousness that was as endless as the waves on the sea stretching out as far as the eye can see
an enduring prosperity – such a large number of descendants that would prove impossible to number – the fulfilment of the divine promises made so long before to Father Abraham
a good reputation – an enduring name both in the presence of men and of God
Instead of these blessings Israel was destined for that painful, humiliating exile in Babylon! They knew what they should have done but stubbornly refused to heed God's Word. How foolish! How often do we act in such similar ways to God's people of old? Haven't we heard? Don't we know that the Lord's way is best? And still we turn so often to this side or to that preferring our own wisdom to his! How foolish! I wonder how often we have sung those words of the hymn:
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry
everything to God in prayer!
How many times have we done similar things as well, acting as though the LORD was out to spoil our lives rather than enrich them?
Could it be that Israel had definitively missed God's best? Could it be that we, by our disobedience, have missed it too?
Well Israel would be restored from exile in Babylon and so enjoy a great national and political deliverance but the underlying problems ran deeper and those underlying problems no man like Cyrus would ever be able to resolve. For this more profound deliverance a greater deliverer would be necessary – one endued with the Spirit of God. Isaiah could only prophesy – it would take the coming of the Messiah, Jesus, to provide the solution!
Israel, even after having known such a poor track record with such a list of failure, would yet be spoken to again by her Lord and called to leave Babylon to return home. The Lord hadn't finished with his people and there would yet be a homecoming. And what a homecoming it would be too marked, not by sadness and regret, but by joyful shouting and rejoicing. This deliverance would be great and news of it would encircle the globe.
When the call would come it would be accompanied by reminders of just how the Lord had provided for his people in earlier times yet when the circumstances had been so very similar. If the LORD had been able to provide so abundantly for his exodus-
And looking ahead down the centuries from Isaiah's time to the gospel era those who hear and heed his call to follow Jesus will be able to "come home", as it were, rejoicing. After all if the angels, who dwell constantly in what must be the absolutely wonderful presence of God, are said to rejoice when a sinner is saved surely the saved sinner himself has cause for rejoicing in his own salvation!!
For us today then we too can look back and see not only how God brought his people home from Egypt, or how he returned the exiles from Babylon, we can see how down through the centuries of the Christian era how he has kept his promises, built his church, extended his kingdom and brought his redeemed to glory! We need fear no weakening of his resolve to honour his own name and so he will keep his promises, his power will not diminish in the slightest and so will be well able to keep us and save us to the end. We too should be characterised by outbursts of real joy as we respond to his graciousness!
There is tremendous hope here in this chapter. Even though Israel had messed up big-
And yet there is a conditional element to it all. Yes, salvation is of the LORD but Israel must leave her sins.
That is the meaning of the very last verse of the chapter:
v.22 "There is no peace," says the LORD, "for the wicked."
Would you know this peace, peace with God, everything ordered and in its rightful place – the rich and full blessings that flow from being in a right relationship with the Living God? Then you must understand that such blessing is simply incompatible with wickedness and that you must turn from it in what the Bible calls repentance. But remember too that the Bible doesn't call for a negative renunciation of wrong-
May we not be deceived by the enemy who will try to get us down one way or another – we may have fallen far but not so far that the Lord cannot yet restore. Failures in the past don't need to set the tone for how we live today and tomorrow.
To God be the glory.