Warnings and Promise
Reading: Isaiah 57:1-
Life is full of choices for us. There are many different paths that we could. Now many of those decisions are unlikely to have a major impact upon our lives – it probably won't matter much whether we decide to have cereal or toast for breakfast tomorrow for example. (Though for some fold with food allergies even what we might consider simple straightforward choices will take on a much greater significance.)
But there are other decisions which, far from being minor matters, will have a much greater impact upon our lives and those are the decisions we want to get right. Some of these decisions are pretty obvious because the consequences are stark: Should I get married? Were should I live? What job should I take? Other choices may appear less dramatic at first sight but may prove to be the first step in a long journey which, once embarked upon, becomes increasingly difficult to abandon.
In chapter 56 Isaiah told us about some of the choices that God's people had made and (would yet make) as they waited for God to fulfil his plans. Looking into the future God declared that he intended to extend the kingdom of the promised Messiah, the church, throughout the world. But it just didn't look like that on the ground from where the Israelites were looking – the time of waiting would be a time of testing for them too. They were confronted with a choice: they could trust in the LORD or not.
A part of the nation would not heed God in any significant way and Isaiah had singled out the irresponsible leadership of the nation for severe criticism. The verses at the end of ch.56 that describe the behaviour and attitude of these false teachers and bad leaders do not interrupt the flow of Isaiah's logic but form a natural to what he is about to say next. Poor, ungodly, unrighteous leadership would have awful consequences for the people. So it was then so it is now.
The Effects of Having Unrighteous Leaders – Many Warnings and One Promise
No sooner has Isaiah finished his first description of irresponsible leadership than he goes on to do describe what their leadership actually looks like on the ground.
The first effect is that righteous people suffer unjustly and the innocent are left with no-
God remains committed to his people and will never abandon them – even their death will not shake the peace that he gives.
But the whole tendency of irresponsible leadership will be towards encouraging the privatisation of religion, the internalisation of religion. Religion with its proper emphasis and interest in uprightness and righteousness will be increasingly excluded from the public space.
When the watchmen failed to cry out and warn of coming dangers those dangers didn't wait but flooded in.
Not long after Isaiah died in the reign of King Hezekiah, who was for much of his life a good king. At one stage we read:
2Chron.31:20 "Thus Hezekiah did throughout all Judah, and he did what was good and right and faithful before the LORD his God."
Yet Hezekiah was replaced by his son Manasseh who, until the last days of his life went he repented, was probably the very worst of the kings of Judah:
2Kin.21:16 "Moreover, Manasseh shed very much innocent blood, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another, besides the sin that he made Judah to sin so that they did what was evil in the sight of the LORD."
If poor leadership on the one hand leads to the righteous being sidelined and silenced on the other hand ungodly living takes centre stage with men pursuing their own rebellious appetites. Isaiah lists the type of attitude and behaviour that prevails in such circumstances – King Manasseh was himself guilty of much of it.
The behaviour Isaiah describes is sadly not behaviour that is unknown in our own day:
Mockery – it can't have escaped your notice that instead of reasoned argument to refute views that are disapproved of or deemed "politically incorrect" that name-
Distorted and abusive sexuality
Child sacrifice – I suppose today we might refer more readily to child abuse and to abortion
The list does not make for pleasant reading but how contemporary it is. It's a list that is full of the destructive pursuit of pleasure and perceived self-
vv.5,6 in the valleys
v.7 to high and lofty mountains
And to what depths of shame they will descend as they desert the One True Living God vv.8-
And with what energy they will pursue their godless ends! Even when they are worn down and not satisfied they refuse to give up in the vain hope that they'll finally find the El Dorado for which they're searching.
This is what happens when men reject God and go their own way. They erect new altars and bow down before a new set of idols which promise much but don't deliver.
Isaiah has been speaking to a people that really should have known better. Their ancestors had experienced God working powerfully in their national existence. So Isaiah pressed his questions upon his contemporaries:
v.11 "Whom did you dread and fear, so that you lied, and did not remember me, did not lay it to heart? Have I not held my peace, even for a long time, and you do not fear me?"
These various themes are not unique to Isaiah's day and to his contemporaries as the NT demonstrates by picking up and developing the same ideas:
Suppression of the truth
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools…"
Yes, perhaps they didn't intend to get to this point, perhaps it did all begin with a little forgetfulness here and a little forgetfulness there, a failure to recall here and there… But the end result is clear.
Are you in danger of suppressing the truth? Perhaps you are not reading your Bible as you once did; perhaps you are increasingly listening to those rationalising and rationalistic voices of unbelief; are you "going with the flow" because everyone else seems to be? Don't be surprised: the lust of the eyes and the lust of the flesh and the pride of life always will appeal to our fallen nature.
Misreading of God's patience as indifference or inability
2Pet.2 is a chapter that is all about the influence of false teachers and false prophets. In it Peter uses the same kind of spiritual adultery language that Isaiah had used 7 centuries earlier only Peter was warning about defecting from faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. As Peter continues into his third chapter he continues to follow the pattern laid down by Isaiah as he unveils the attitude of the unbelieving heart:
No refuge outside of God
Isaiah made a simple declaration in v.13 concerning the hopelessness of expecting help from idols:
"When you cry out, let your collection of idols deliver you! The wind will carry them off, a breath will take them away."
Before going on to add:
"But he who takes refuge in me shall possess the land and shall inherit my holy mountain."
The NT once again sharpens this – it is not religion that counts; it is not even faith that counts – it is faith in Christ! Salvation is to be found only in Jesus:
Acts 4.12 "And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved."
The first half of Is.57 lists many warnings about the consequences of turning your back upon God and then ends with a promise that there is yet hope of turning to him and finding a refuge that works, that is secure and profitable.
The second half of Is.57 inverts the order. It begins with a series of wonderful promises before closing with a solemn warning.
The Benefits of Knowing God – Many Promises and One Warning
Even though Isaiah knew the propensity of his fellow Israelites to turn away from God he also knew his God who was and is wonderfully generous and kind. And this God wanted the way to be prepared for men and women to return to him.
The wording of v.14 leads us to think of the ministry of John the Baptist preparing the way of the Lord but can apply to any who works at making the way of the gospel clear to others.
And the gospel begins with God who reveals himself as being high and lifted up – this God with whom we all have to do is greatly exalted, he is outside all the restrictions that time imposes upon us being the One who inhabits eternity and he is further a God who is perfect in his utter holiness.
We poor sullied and lowly creatures might well feel that with such a revelation of God that there is really no hope for us. It should at the very least jolt us out of our complacency and make us fearful. Yet there is more that God wants to tell us about himself. Without in any way compromising the other aspects of his character this God also is pleased to dwell with those who possess a lowly and contrite spirit!
No sinner should imagine that he can just stroll into heaven as though it is his natural home by right. But neither should any sinner lose all hope imagining that heaven will be forever inevitably closed to him! But he will find that contrition and humility that flow out of genuine repentance will be met by the reviving and life-
This is exactly what we find lived out by the Lord Jesus Christ. Having lived from eternity past in exalted and holy perfection our Saviour did not hesitate to leave the glories of heaven behind him in order to take upon himself our flesh and to live amongst us, surrounded by moral filth and sinful failure at every turn. This he did in order to secure the salvation that would be applied by grace to those who would evidence that contrition and lowliness of spirit.
We sing about this often but think just for a moment about one of best known Christmas carols "O little town of Bethlehem. Do you remember the words?
"No ear may hear His coming;
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive Him, still
the dear Christ enters in."
Again and again in this section however it is not man's action that is seen as of first importance but the Lord's! Look through the verses and see just how often it is God who is speaking and declaring over and over "I… I… I…".
He breaks into the lives of sinners, men and women who have sinned against him and caused him great offence. He has taken them as it were to court in his anger; he has chastised them hiding from them the smile of his face; he has often allowed them to go far in their backslidings away from him. But then something remarkable takes place! He determines to heal. He determines to lead and he determines to restore comfort replacing sadness with songs of joy and praise!
Do you want to see an illustration of this? Then think about the conversion of that ardent Pharisee by name of Saul of Tarsus. How agitated and restless this man was! How full of hatred and yet how empty his life really was! He was desperately trying to salve his unsteady conscience by fighting against the followers of that man from Nazareth and then one day, one fateful day, that man from Nazareth met him!
Saul had been kicking against the ox goads, resisting and resisting, but the Lord Jesus in his mercy and grace broke through. Saul was seeking to be converted but Jesus met him and had mercy upon him and Saul was humbled – contrition and lowliness now characterised this formerly proud Pharisee and he became a sinner-
Do you know anything like this? Has God humbled you in order to come to dwell with you and to give you that peace that defies human understanding because it so far surpasses what seems reasonable to human minds?
No you don't need to have an equally dramatic experience to the one Paul had but you do need to know that if you are to be saved it must be all of grace – because no-
What wonderful promises are made to us by our Glorious God and every promise finds its fulfilment in Jesus!
But oh friend don't imagine that these blessings are somehow bestowed on all irrespective of their attitude and response! Peace, real lasting peace with God is offered and offered freely to us because Jesus has paid the price in full. But this peace is only to be had in Jesus. Neglect such a great salvation at your peril! The Lord concludes his list of promises with a stern warning:
"There is no peace for the wicked"