Answers to Prayer
When I was a student my first committee post as a member of the Christian Union was as Prayer Secretary. It was my task to encourage prayer amongst the Christian students and to lead the regular weekly prayer meetings. When I began I was given a book that had been passed down through the years of successive prayer secs. It consisted of a note book where on one side of the page prayer requests were noted and then on the other side was a space for answers received. One thing struck me with real force – there were many requests noted but hardly any answers at all!
There are probably several ways of interpreting that fact. One would be to say that God doesn't answer prayer and I guess many people in the world would readily plump for that explanation. I don't buy into that at all – God does answer prayer but all too often we want to move quickly on to our next request rather than take the time to note down his goodness to us. Sometimes we don't wait for his answers and sometimes we don't recognise them when they do come.
Last week we thought together about praying for revival as we considered the preceding chapter and a hal of Isaiah's prophecy. Now as we come enter the final couple of chapters of his book we are presented with God's response to Isaiah's praying. Isaiah had ended his prayer with a real plea in the form of a double question:
Is.64:12 "Will you restrain yourself at these things, O LORD? Will you keep silent, and afflict us so terribly?"
Let's now see just what the LORD had to say as he gave his answers.
We can be sure that the LORD is answering Isaiah's questions when we get just a little way into chapter 65:
Isaiah had been wondering why the LORD seemed impervious to the cries directed towards him and he also wondered why the LORD did not seem to be doing anything concerning the predicament in which the people found themselves. The LORD's resposne would have been extremely unsettling to those who were complacent (or worse) concerning their spiritual state.
God's silence signified only the delay of a patient God. His failure to act also indicated his patience because if he had acted earlier it would have been a destruction and punitive intervention. He delayed because he longed to see a change in the heart of his people.
The LORD had something which he now wanted to make very clear to the peope that bore his name and who belonged to him – they did not have a monopoly on him, nor did they possess a monopoly on his patience.
As the LORD replies to Isaiah's prayer and his questions he reveals something more of the scope and scale of his generosity towards undeserving sinners. Such generosity may be despised though never with impunity.
Let's look at this more closely.
The Gentiles are Included but what of Israel?
The NT tells us how to interpret this chapter. The opening verses of chapter 65 are quoted by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans and in that context he makes it very clear that v.1 applies to Gentiles and v.2 to Jews
In v.1 God breaks his silence and explains that his purposes involve the inclusion of Gentiles. This does not mean that all Gentiles automatically enter into the blessings that will be mentioned later in the chapter but is does mean that those Gentiles who prove responsive to the gracious offers which the LORD holds out to them will.
In other words membership of God's family will not to be determined by a person's racial or national origins.
Then in v.2 the LORD God moved on to talk about Israel. The hands that we have just been told are held out in mercy to the Gentiles have been held out for a long time to the nation of Israel. It is not that the LORD rejects his ancient people but they have rejected him and have failed to respond to his overtures of grace.
Will God act? Yes, most assuredly he will but his action will prove to be most decidedly negative for those who have spurned him.
Why will his action be so negative when he finally does act?
The answer to that question becomes evident as Isaiah details out just how the nation of Israel has rebelled against their gracious God (vv.2-
Lack of responsiveness v.2a
Doing what is wrong v.2b
DIY religion – they had developed something of a picknmix approach to their worship drawing on pagan practices and dabbling in occultism vv.2c-
Spiritual arrogance – despite this departure from God's ways they nevertheless considered themselves to be a cut above everyone else v.5
When we turn to the NT we find examples of much of these there:
Lack of responsiveness cf. Jn.1:11 "He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him." see also Acts 28:28 "Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen." (This follows a further quote concerning the lack of faith amongst the Jews taken from Is.6:9-
Doing what is wrong cf. Mt 23:23 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others."
Examples of DIY religion and idolatry – these are more commonly found before the days of the NT.
Spiritual arrogance – cf. the story of the publican and the Pharisee who went up to pray in Lk.18:9-
There is a serious warning here for us if we are to seek to imitate Isaiah in his fervent praying for revival: we must be sure that we are not guilty of any rebellious sinfulness that is similar to that of the Jews of Isaiah's own day! If we are then any divine intervention could prove catastrophic for us. Now this is not to discourage prayer but a call not to refuse to respond to God's graciousness.
A Remnant is all that will be Left vv.8-
Sinning against the light and sinning against such great privilege was indeed serious and how easily we would understand it had the Lord decided to finish there and then with the entire nation.
Later Jesus would conclude his parable of the tenants by saying to his Jewish hearers:
Mt 21:43 "Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits."
And this might be understood as just such a total rejection of the Jews.
But that is not what he did – he chose to save some, a remnant. The nation might have been God's chosen nation in an outward manner but not all the citizens of that nation were members of God's family as Paul would later make abundantly clear:
Rom.9:6 "For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel…"
Rom.9.27 "Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved," (this referring to words taken from Isaiah ch.10.)
Even though the body of the nation was so corrupt the LORD nevertheless determined not to throw the nation entirely aside but he promised that he would secure a believing group, a remnant:
And this is just what we find panning out through history – the bulk of Israel resists and rejects the LORD and his Messiah and yet through the centuries there have been those who evidenced genuine spiritual life as they responded to God's gift of his Son. In the beginning of the NT era there was a handful of folk looking for the consolation of Israel, Jesus' earliest followers were of Jews but they were never in the majority and pretty soon the divisions became evident. The greatest hostility towards Jesus and his mission emanates from the Jews in the NT and this hostility has continued down through the centuries. And yet running parallel to this is a steady flow of Jewish converts to Jesus – the remnant of faithful responsive Jewish believers just as the LORD promised there would be.
And so the true people of God, Christians (who are also called "the Israel of God" in Gal.6:16,) are made up not of people who can simply trace their ancestry to Abraham but to all those who have faith in Christ and thus show themselves to Abraham spititual children (Gal.3:29). And this number includes both Jew and Gentile indiscriminately.
The blessings to be enjoyed by the true people of God described as servants of the Lord GOD in vv.13ff are set in mark contrast to those who refuse to respond to God's grace.
In Isaiah's day Isaiah was thinking of those who belonged outwardly to a highly favoured nation with all its many privileges – but outward membership was but a sham if it was not accompanied with an appropriate response of the heart towards God and his gracious calls. Listen to what the LORD says to the unblievers that dominated Isarael:
Blessings or Curses – it must be one or the other
In a list of stark alternatives the LORD distinguishes very clearly between his true servants and those who remain unresponsive and who refuse to pay attention to God.
The importance of paying attention is underlined for us by the repetition of the word "Behold" in the original Hebrew. (In this chapter the word appears 9 times in the original: here towards the end of the chapter as we turn to consider the contrasting fortunes of the believer and the unbeliever the wordis employed 6 times!)
The blessings of the true servant:
He shall eat -
He shall drink -
He shall rejoice -
He shall sing -
He shall have a place in the new creation order -
On the other hand the person who remains stubbornly unresponsive faces a totally different outcome:
He shall be hungry -
He shall be thirsty -
He shall be put to shame -
He shall cry out and wail -
The believer too is promised a new name and there are so many examples of name changes in the Bible. Name changes correspond to a change of circumstances, a change of condition and the vast majority do so in a positive manner:
Abram becomes Abraham (Gen.17:5)
Sarai becomes Sarah (Gen.17:15)
Jacob becomes Israel (Gen.32:28; 35:10)
Simon becomes Peter
Saul becomes Paul
Disciples become Christians (Acts 11:26)
The unbeliever's name will on the other hand become a curse, a byword for disapproval and for death.
It's a wonderful plan of salvation!
God is such a God of grace and he prefers to hold out his hands offering his salvation to all who will respond and receive it rather than to withdraw his offer and punish the ungrateful.
But don't let his patience dupe you into thinking that it is of no importance whether you respond wholeheartedly or not. The outcome couldn't be more significant. In the NT the lines are drawn in a similar manner – Jew or Gentile, it doesn't matter; what does matter is faith in Christ. You are either blessed with Christ or if you refuse Christ you will have less than nothing.
Jesus himself drew attention to the distinction to be drawn between those who believe and those who do not when he spoke about the separation of the sheep and the goats. The animals might look very similar but they would be separated!
But yet it is a day of salvation and God has made full provision through Jesus that all our "former troubles (might) be forgotten, and… hidden from (his) eyes". So let us wholeheartedly respond to Jesus with faith and trust blessing God for his remarkable generosity and kindness.