Times of Refreshing
In 1948 Winston Churchill published the first volume of his History of the Second World War. You may recognise the title: it was called "The Gathering Storm". The imagery of the title is drawn from the world of weather forecasting and illustrates how we often use naturally occurring events help us understand the world of men. In his book Churchill traced the major developments that occurred in world history in the years leading up to the outbreak of the war. The Gathering Storm covers the Treaty of Versailles, the rise of Adolf Hitler, the capitulation of Munich and the entry of Britain into the war. This book makes clear Churchill’s feeling that the Second World War was a largely senseless but unavoidable conflict.
Centuries before Churchill wrote his great history Isaiah was inspired by the LORD God to describe the storm that was brewing for the disobedient and rebellious nation of Israel. It was a storm that was going to break and lead to 70 years of painful and dispiriting exile away from the land where God had promised to dwell in the midst of his people. It would prove to be a sobering experience.
But it would not prove to mark the final destruction of the nation of Israel. At the end of that long period of exile the skies would, as it were, begin to clear and there would be hope once more. There would be a restoration of the nation to their ancestral homeland though life would be very different from before.
The Lord revealed to Isaiah what some of his plans for the future were. We have seen for example that the LORD made known his intention to extend his grace to the Gentiles. These Gentiles who would respond to his ouvertures of grace would wonderfully be made the beneficiaries of the LORD's generosity. These favoured Gentiles would not displace Israel but would enjoy God's grace along with a believing remnant called out of the wider nation of Israel. We have already seen some of those joint blessings to be enjoyed by these servants of the Lord. Now it is time to move on and see what else Isaiah has to tell us about these blessings.
New Heavens and a New Earth
For the moment as Isaiah looks ahead he still has in view the return of his own people after the exile. The time of exile could be likened to living under a very dark and cloudy sky but those clouds will disperse because the LORD decares that he will act. The dark clouds will give way as the LORD makes new heavens and the return to the Promised Land will be a new beginning – it will be like a new earth!
The language is poetic and it expresses the radical transformation that God promises to bring about as he brings his people back from their experience of a diasastrous exile.
The blessings that will be experienced then are described in terms that would have been readily understandable to Isaiah's contemporaries:
No more weeping, no more distress
No more lives being cut short
No more failure to see lives fulfilled
No more hard work without the ability to enjoy the fruits of one's labour
No more tension and no more hostility with one's neighbour
And yet… and yet…
The language that is employed can't be limited to what did in fact take place in the time of Cyrus when Israel did return in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. The fullness of the blessings that are described here will only be realised with the coming of Christ. And so as Isaiah looks towards the future his gaze goes way beyong the blessings of a return from an earthly exile he looks to the coming of the Messiah into the world. And his gaze doesn't stop with the first coming in to the world of that Messiah but goes on to embrace the entire reign of the Messiah including his return in glory when the blessings will be finally enjoy in all their completeness.
The blessings that are to be enjoyed will eclipse every memory of the miseries and disappointments that preceded them.
For Isaiah's contemporaries it would mean the memories of harsh exile would be relegated to the past as they experienced the joys of restoration.
Looking further ahead for Christians it will mean all memories of painful spiritual battles and struggles against sin will one day be over and replaced by the joy of the presence of our returned Jesus! No the former things will no longer be remembered then!
While we still wait for the completion of the divine plan we nevertheless enjoy even now something of what will be enjoyed fully then because the life of the age to come "eternal life" has broken into our lives – we live our Christian lives with something of that "already but not yet" tension. As believers we are actively taking part in the kingdom of God, although the kingdom will not reach its full expression until sometime in the future. We are "already" in the kingdom, but we do "not yet" see it in all its glory.
What Should Mark our Lives in the Light of Such Promises of Blessing?
The answer to that question is given to us in vv.18-
What do you think the opening line is? Is a piece of advice? Or perhaps an exhortation? Or maybe it's a direct command? When all is said and done it doesn't really matter does it? What matters is whether we take the advice, heed the exhortation and obey the command!
"Be glad and rejoice"
There are some 40 verses in the Bible that combine these two ideas of rejoicing and gladness. Earlier in this very book Isaiah has already encouraged his people to do just that when God intervened on their behalf:
Is.25:9 "It will be said on that day, "Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.""
Have you ever stopped to ask yourself just why it is that instructions such as this are given?
The answer must obviously be because we need it! The fact that such instruction is given over and over again is that we tend to overlook it, to ignore it, to undervalue it, to forget it. And God is his mercy calls us back to what we ought to do, he shows us the way we ought to be taking.
Specifically here because God promises to create a new heavens and a new earth believers are to rejoice and be glad. His promise is sufficient for us and we must take ourselves in hand. He doesn't tell us to wait until we feel like rejoicing or when we feel happy he tells us to get on with it. And we do so by focusing upon what he has promised to do, by thinking about what he has promised, by working through the ramifications of what he has promised, by considering what it will mean for us etc. etc. And in this way we "prime the pump" of praise.
Have you ever done this? I'm sure you have, but are you still doing so today? How easy it is to forget, to become familiar with these things and to cease to turn them into subjects of joyful glad praise!
How we need to take this on board. The theme recurs again and again in the Bible. As for Isaiah and his contemporaries who were yet to experience exile they were nevertheless told to rejoice because of the glorious future planned out for them. In brief our rejoicing is to be based upon the promises of God and not upon our understanding of our current circumstances!
But as is so often the case when the Lord wants his people to behave in a certain manner he adds a number of reasons why such behaviour is appropriate. Here in Is.65:18ff he does this by explaining just why he has created Jerusalem – the idealised church of the NT is described as the new Jerusalem Rev.21:2.
Is.65:18b "for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness."
The whole raison d'être of Jerusalem or the church is to be a joy and a delight. How disappointing when the church is filled with everything but joy and gladness! Do we really mean it when we sing hymn such as:
HOW pleased and blest was I
to hear the people cry,
‘Come, let us seek our God today!’
Yes, with a cheerful zeal
we haste to Zion’s hill,
and there our vows and honours pay.
But not only has the church been planned for joy and gladness, the LORD tells us that he will himself delight in his creation and will rejoice and be glad about the church!
Is.65:19 " I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people…"
Surely if God is so pleased with the church we too have cause for rejoicing over the church too!
I have already referred to the way in which blessing has been couched in very material and understandable ways – long life, ability to enjoy the fruits of one's labour etc. We should this interpret this description of temporal blessings as offering us signs and forestastes of greater blessings yet to come. And this is indicated further by a remarkable promise concerning prayer to be found towards the end of the chapter.
The ability to pray is already a great blessing. As Christians we know that we must approach our Heavenly Father through the person and merits of our Saviour. We know too that we are accepted and welcome when we come in his name – such is the welcome extended to every Christian united to Jesus Christ that we may enter God's presence boldly and with confidence. We come too expecting to be heard.
Earlier in his prophecy Isaiah has assured the people of his day that God would listen to them when they cried out to him:
Is.58:9 "Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’"
Indeed, while this is very encouraging it is hardly unusual as similar promises and encouragements to prayer are to be found elsewhere in Scripture. The LORD is recoreded as making the following promise for example in Ps.91:15
"When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble;"
But here in this instance in Is.65 the promise is yet more dramatic and awe-
Is.65:24 "Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear."
In harmony with just such promised blessing Jesus told his own disciples when he was teaching them about how they should pray:
As members of God's people, members of his church by his grace to us through the Lord Jesus Christ, how blessed and privileged we are. And being so wonderfully privileged we really ought to value the blessings that are ours and rejoice in them.
Let us seek to ensure that we be a glad and a rejoicing people when we meet together. Let us seek to ensure that we are glad and rejoicing individuals too. And if God has decided that he will richly bless his church then let us be amongst those who earnestly seek him in prayer – what more can he do to encourage us to pray?
And finally let us seek to live out our life within the church harmoniously with our brothers and sisters in Christ. May peace reign amongst us and disputes find no place. May we indeed live without hurting or destroying one another – may their be purity in the house of the LORD. It is his work, he is the One who promises a new heavenas and a new earth and he brings it to pass in and through the person of his Son, Jesus Christ.
2Cor.5:17 "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come."