Are you surprised by God’s grace? Not always. We often take his grace for granted. What about his judgment? Does that surprise us? Actually, it shocks us, because we think, like Santa Claus, God will always fill our stockings whether we’ve been naughty or nice.
In our last post we saw the surprising combination of judgment and grace in Isaiah’s prophecy of the rising superpower of Babylon. There we learned that “history is not shaped by superpowers but by the Lord,” in Alec Motyer’s words.That’s good news in any political season.
The point of today’s post is to see God’s grace, not just in his acts of mercy, but in his acts of judgment. Surprised? Me too. Hold onto your hats…it’s going to be a wild ride through ten chapters.
The God Who Knows the Nations (Isaiah 15-20)
When I say “Moab,” we all say “huh?” Can you find it on the map? Probably not, unless your Old Testament geography is hyperlinked in your mind to a current map of the Middle East. Today the land Scripture calls Moab is the kingdom of Jordan.
What about Damascus? That one’s a little better, since the ancient city of Damascus is the capital of today’s Syria. Currently, Damascus is distinguished by two quite different titles –it is both one of the world’s oldest currently inhabited cities, and in recent years, the world’s least livable city, due to civil war.
Two more questions on this quiz: How about Cush? Where or what is that? Cush, footnoted in the ESV as “Nubia,” was an ancient empire located near the source of the Nile river, which today is southern Egypt and northern Sudan. The Nile sustains life in the desert from south to north. I remember seeing it from an airplane in 1996 as a vertical green stripe in the midst of yellow sand.
Finally, Egypt. Do you know where that is? Of course.
The point is, we might not know these nations, but God knows each kingdom by name, and he warns them of coming judgment through Isaiah:
- Moab’s pride will be her downfall, God says through tears (Is 15-16).
- Damascus is on God’s cutting block, so don’t lean on them for help (Is 17).
- Cush will be mowed down, but will later turn to the LORD (Is 18).
- Egypt will collapse in civil war; their gods will not save them (Is 19-20).
These warnings are both terrible and merciful. How? The purpose of warning is to bring repentance. The God who knows them graciously warns them.
The God Who Knows Our Hearts (Isaiah 21-23)
In the first cycle of warnings (Isaiah 13-20), God named names. In the second cycle he exposes the heart. That’s helpful for God’s people today, because we may not live in Cush or Moab, but we are tempted in many of the same ways they were.
God’s people are always faced with this choice: will I trust God or will I rely on myself? When crisis comes we find it easier to turn to the Lord. But when things are going pretty well, we lapse. “Bootstraps faith” is what previous generations called it. Picture the futility of reaching down to your shoes and grabbing the laces (or velcro fasteners) to lift your body out of trouble.
“Can I help you?” a friend once offered. “Oh no. I’m fine. I’ve got this.” “Um, no, you actually don’t.”
Our self-sufficient ways are obvious to those around us, but often invisible to ourselves.
It’s not that we’re supposed to become passive and “let go and let God,” it’s that we are to trust and obey. To walk by faith, not to wait to be picked up and carried. “The greatest of sins is to abandon the way of faith” says Motyer in his commentary on Day 25.
What did self-sufficiency look like for God’s ancient people? Take a look at all they did, and the one thing they didn’t do:
In that day you looked to the weapons of the House of the Forest, and you saw that the breaches of the city of David were many.
You collected the waters of the lower pool,
and you counted the houses of Jerusalem,
and you broke down the houses to fortify the wall…
But you did not look to him who did it, or see him who planned it long ago.
Isaiah 22:8b-11 (my emphasis)
What does self-reliance look like in your life or mine?
The God Who Surprises Us By Grace (Isaiah 24)
Chapter 24 tells the “tale of two cities,” according to last Sunday’s preacher. Not Charles Dickens’ story of France and England, but the eternal story of the City of God versus the City of Man.
The City of Man is dubbed “the City of Meaninglessness” by Isaiah (24:10). Without God, our greatest minds and most determined wills are doomed to failure in the long run. The best we can produce is Babel, a city that tries to touch the clouds, but fails because we can no longer understand each other. Such history repeats itself in regular cycles whenever true unity evades us, whether it be the League of Nations, the United Nations or repeated global summits.
Man’s efforts fall apart, not simply from a division of languages, but due to a hostility of desires. Our world returns to primordial chaos, the Genesis 1 world that was “without form (tohu)” and “void (bohu),” before it was formed and filled by God himself. It is the forming– tohu– that Isaiah sees crumbling.
But suddenly, Isaiah tells us, a song is heard. Suddenly light appears! Right smack dab in the middle of this dark chapter:
“They lift up their voices, they sing for joy;
over the majesty of the LORD they shout from the west.
Therefore in the east give glory to the LORD;
in the coast lands of the sea, give glory to the name of the LORD, the God of Israel.
From the ends of the earth we hear songs of praise, of glory to the Righteous One.”
From east to west we hear world wide joy. This is the unity we need, a unity of praise to the one true God! This is the unity we long for, the City of God itself built and sustained by God himself.
Which City Will I Delight In?
But from this mountain top center of the chapter, Isaiah plunges down the other side. The vision fades. Reality rises before him. Evil continues and his people hearts are hardened.
Isaiah is distraught. He wails for his people, even as he knows that the judgments of God are true and right. How should we, the reader, respond?
First, personally we must ask ourselves where our loyalties lie. It is easy to be captivated by the City of Man. It feels so real with its brassy boldness and guilt-free guarantees. The City of God can feel shadowy and far away. Isaiah wants us not just to believe, but to delight in its future reality.
Second, we must pray for those who continue to reject God’s offer of salvation. Family, of course. Friends, yes. But also for our enemies, because the judgment that awaits them is real and terrible. Because as long as we are waiting, there is still time because God is holding it all together.
“We live in a world held together by the undeserved kindness and patience of God.”
How then should we pray?
- We must pray boldly like Abraham did for Sodom and Gomorrah, lowering the price of mercy, while banking on God’s justice. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” Genesis 18:25c.
- We must pray broadly like Jesus taught us, “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44),” because “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God (Hebrews 10:31).”
Amen and amen.