March 5, 2006 Copyright
© 2006, American Journal of Biblical Theology
When one thinks of the church, one envisions a body of believers who have put their faith and trust in God. The Lord of the Church is God. Under His Lordship, the church is a family of brothers and sisters under one loving and guiding Father. God has commissioned the church to spread the good news of His love and His grace to all the world, for it is His will that all the world would be saved. With the Holy Spirit empowering the hearts of each believer, they are motivated to actions that demonstrate God's love among themselves, in their community, and throughout the world as they are fully engaged in the work of ministry. There are many churches today that can be described by this model as they are led by Godly men and women who love the Lord and facilitate others to follow. God seems to have planted his faithful remnant in many communities around the world, and their ministries of prayer and action make a true and meaningful impact for the work of God's kingdom on earth.
For a church to be so characterized, it has only one option among two mutually-exclusive choices: obedience to God rather than obedience to this pagan and secular culture. What happens when a church succumbs to the secular messages of this pagan world? What happens when the true desire of the church is to be accepted by the world rather than be accepted by God? I am reminded of a main-stream denomination church in California that voted to remove all prayer and all mention of God from its worship services so that no person would be "offended." Considering the Bible to be offensive to some, a women's Bible study group was told to choose between disbanding or leaving the church when some began sharing testimonies of salvation. This is a church that wanted to be accepted by its community so much that it chose to discard all matters of faith and godliness. The result is a large social club that has a Christian theme, attempting to present the form of religion, but contains none of its substance. Though this is an extreme example, this same spirit can pervade a congregation in far more subtle ways as the Lordship of God is replaced by the Lordship of individuals or small groups who wish to control the body. The purpose, mission, and work of these churches is shaped by the personal agendas of self-centered individuals rather than by the Holy Spirit. They may "look" like a church, but own little or none of its power as it is simply another secular social club with its own rules of membership and behavior that serves to exclude others who do not conform to the desires of its leadership.
In observing these church cultures, we have identified two ends of a spectrum, where at one end we find a body who is immersed in their love for God, and at the other end a body who is immersed in their love for this world. All of us stand somewhere on this spectrum, and hopefully all who understand the context of faith are seeking to move along that line closer and closer to God. It is for this very purpose that God has revealed Himself to man, so that we would know Him and turn to Him in faith, and by so doing receiving from Him forgiveness for our sins that serve only to separate us from Him.
We see in the history of ancient Israel the consequence that is realized when the church seeks to be worldly instead of Godly. God revealed Himself in a very personal way to Abraham, making him a promise that his faith would be rewarded in a multitude of ways: (1) Abraham and Sarah would have a son in their advanced years, (2) through this son would rise a mighty nation, (3) God would give him and his nation both the land and the protection to live in it as long as they were obedient to Him, and (4) through his seed the entire world would be blessed. Note that the maintenance of that third promise was predicated upon obedience. It is God's expectation that the church will embrace Him as their Lord.
Following the years of the faithfulness of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, the nation grew as it was kept in isolation by the Egyptian Pharaohs. Subjected to continual persecution and bondage in Egypt, God miraculously returned them to the promised land in Canaan in the Exodus that is so well known in history. Prior to entering the promised land, God made another covenant with the people at Mt. Sinai through Moses, a covenant that restated God's promise to give them land and protection as long as they would be obedient to Him. The people agreed that they would be "His people," and He would be "their God." However, though there was always a small remnant of faithful in the body, the preponderant majority of the nation of Israel failed to be obedient to God, instead choosing to follow the sensual and secular pagan religions of the Canaanites. After about 400 years among the Canaanites, their desire to "be like the nations" led them to desire a king rather than the Lord, and God gave them Saul, David, and Solomon who together reigned for about 120 years. David's son, Solomon placed the people of Israel in bondage to his building campaigns, and his son Rehoboam, in his declaration of further bondage split the nation in 917 B.C. He retained the southern kingdom of Judah while the other tribes of Jacob broke away and formed the northern kingdom of Israel.
During the entire history of the northern kingdom none of its kings led the nation to follow God, but rather, became involved in international intrigue, becoming a pawn in the wars among their embattled neighbors. The southern kingdom of Judah contained the remnant of faithful who occasionally included its kings. It is into this period of history that the prophet Isaiah is born.
The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
The lack of a calendar system we use today, historical documents were often identified in reference to the years of the reign of kings. When we compare such historical documents is its a relatively easy process to map those years onto the modern calendar. We find that Isaiah ministered during the years of king Uzziah through Hezekiah, and presumably lived to witness the reign of Manasseh, the godless king who followed Hezekiah. The period of history chronicled by Isaiah is also recorded in 2 Kings 15-21, and 2 Chronicles 26-33. These Old Testament books, as well as many non-canonical writings in history, genealogy, and literature serve to corroborate the life and times of Isaiah. Consequently, the teachings and prophesies of Isaiah are quoted more frequently in scripture than all of the other prophets combined.
We have no scriptural documentation to identify Amoz, though Jewish traditional literature holds that he was a brother of one of Israel's kings, placing him and his family in Jerusalem, and close to the throne. This is certainly consistent with Isaiah's location in Jerusalem and the close association he had with its kings. Isaiah served God during the most turbulent years of Israel's history. Since breaking away as a nation, Israel never served God. God's promise to give them the land was predicated on their obedience, and 20 years into Isaiah's ministry, Israel was obliterated by the Assyrians in 722B.C., with about 30,000 of its people taken captive and the remainder scattered among foreigners who were brought in with the purpose of dissolving Jewish culture. Apostasy refers to the state of rejecting God in favor of the things of this world. Recognizing Israel's apostasy, Isaiah prophesied to Israel for that period of 20 years, calling them back to obedience to God. At the same time, the southern nation of Judah was also falling away from God and embracing the secular and pagan culture, so Isaiah continued to prophesy to Judah until his death, presumably at the hands of Manasseh.
We find in Isaiah's writings the voice of God as he spoke to apostate Israel, to Judah whose population, other than the remnant of faithful, were also falling into apostasy and would face the same demise. Consequently, we hear the voice of God to the church today, a church that is in many ways similar to Judah, a church that contains a remnant of faithful, but also a large body of those who seek to follow the culture of the world.
Finally, we find in the writings of Isaiah the voice of God as He spoke a message of hope for the remnant, a promise that the Messiah would come, a Messiah who would would suffer at the hands of evil men to save the faithful from the curse of sin that separates them from God, a Messiah who would be Jesus.
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the LORD hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me.
The context and content of Isaiah's vision from God is immediately apparent. God equates the apostasy of Israel (including Judah) with rebellion. God has been faithful to His promise to Abraham. He protected them as a nation in Egypt, brought them to the promised land, and protected them as the nation grew. God provided for their needs in the wilderness, and brought them to a land that was fertile and already planted. Never in the history of mankind did people so frequently see the hand of God as they experienced miracle after miracle that each served to protect them and validate the power of God to do so. The people also witnessed the continual presence of the Glory of God as it stood over the tabernacle. As the nation of Israel was forming in the land of promise, it was as close to God as a child is to a loving parent. The opportunities for Israel were limitless. However, Isaiah summarizes the state of Israel, the children of God, in one simple word: rebellion.
Many parents have experienced the rebellion of a child, when that child turns his/her back on the parent, rejecting their love and their hopes, seeking to find their needs met from another source. The rebellion of a child is a good metaphor for apostasy. As the child rebels against the parent and seeks out his/her own entrance into the world, the nation of Israel rebelled against God's authority, denying the covenant made at Mt. Sinai, and chose to become immersed in the secular and pagan culture. Though they wore the garments of the temple, they lived the life of the pagan. They looked religious, talked with religious words, and held to religion's piety, but in their hearts and actions they were fully immersed in godlessness. They assumed that they were righteous by association, simply because they were "children of God," yet they lived lives that were fully secular. Instead of worshipping God, they bowed to the pagan gods and took part in pagan practices that were unlimited in their sinfulness. Their rebellion against God was so complete that God had placed in motion the circumstances that would result in the removal of his hand of protection from them, and they would ultimately lose the land of promise.
At the beginning of Isaiah's ministry, neither nation had yet experienced the removal of God's hand of protection. Israel was not at all concerned about any need for such protection, and Judah thought it was invincible because of God's presence in the Jerusalem temple. While Amos and Hosea would prophesy to Israel in the north, seeking to bring Israel back to God, Isaiah and Micah would prophesy to Judah in the south, warning them of their same need. The children of God have rebelled against their father, and all of the heavens and earth need to hear this message.
The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his masterís crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.
When God looks at the rebellion of the people he contrasts their ignorance with the faithfulness of the dumbest of animals. Certainly the ox is not as intelligent as a human being, yet even the ox is faithful to its owner. The ox responds to its owner's voice as it works for him. The ox knows where its food comes from and recognizes the reward of it for obedient behavior. Likewise, the ass knows where its home is: in the crib of his master. Left to wander, or if engaged in labor, the ass returns to his own master's crib where it receives food and shelter from the master's hand. If even the dumbest of animals can recognize to whom they belong and the source of their sustenance, how much more should people not recognize the same? Yet, in their rebellion, the people do not know their master, and do not give consideration as to the source of their sustenance. We can still see this pattern today. People love their pet animals who are uncompromising in their faithfulness to their master, yet at the same time they either declare that there is no God, or at least demonstrate such a belief in their actions. Like the children of Israel, they chase after this secular culture, embracing its euphemisms, and rationalizing away their own ungodly attitudes and behaviors. When those who call themselves Christians fall into this pattern, they become like the nation of Judah and the message that Isaiah brings against this rebellious nation becomes just as relevant for the church today. It is quite a contrast that unintelligent animals so easily know faithfulness, yet people find it so elusive.
Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the LORD, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward.
The sinfulness of Israel and Judah cannot be understated, and their rebellion against God does not come without consequence. Isaiah characterizes the nation in four ways. As a nation, it does not stand for God as it was called to do. Instead, both nations followed their godless kings into deals with their warring neighbors, deals that pitted them against the nations that God called them to open to Him. The people are laden with iniquity. The image is that of an animal bending under a burden, as the people are overpowered by the burden of their own sin. The sinfulness of the people only serves to enable the wicked, bringing them to positions of power and influence. As a result, the governments of both Israel and Judah are evil and corrupt. Corruption breeds corruption, and such evil overpowers good when that which is good finds no defenders. Corruption stands against the goodness of God, and a corrupt Israel stands condemned of treason against the God who formed it as a nation. The pagan nations do not stand in such judgment, since they have been pagan from the beginning. It was Israel's task to take God to the pagan nations. Instead they have abandoned God in order to be like the pagan nations.
God is a Holy God, and in order to maintain His Holiness He cannot condone any measure of sin. Consequently, there is a consequence to Israel's apostasy: God's anger. God must deal with Israel's sin, or God is not God. Likewise, God must deal with our own sin as He exercises His sovereignty. Biblical prophesies frequently describe the anger of God as being provoked by the sinfulness of man. The destruction of mankind in the flood of Noah's generation and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah are examples of the consequence of God's provocation. Can God again demonstrate His anger towards the sinfulness of man with similar events of destruction?
Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more: the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. 6From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment.
The consequences of sin go far deeper then an event of final destruction. Sin brings a destruction that is slow and painful. God promised both the land and protection to His children simply in exchange for their obedience. When we turn our back on God we, like the ancient Israelites, step out from under that hand of protection the God promises, and the consequences of our choices can be epic. It is God's will that no person should suffer the consequence of separation from Himself, yet God allows us to make choices that are clearly not in our own best interests, choices that do bring suffering upon ourselves. God describes the state of apostate Israel like that of a body which is stricken with a mortal sickness. Every act of rebellion only serves to stricken the body with additional sickness, weakness, wounds, bruises, and sores. Without God there is no source of healing for this insidious decay. Without God there is simply no hope. Why would anyone choose such suffering? Why do we prefer to experience the consequence of sin rather than simply trust in God?
Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire: your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers.
Just as the children of God are individually called to obedience, so is their nation. The consequences of sin that are realized by individuals are also realized by the nation from which they are formed. A godless people will form a godless nation, a nation that is likewise outside of God's hand of protection, exposed to the ravages of sin's consequences. Both Israel and Judah have already experienced the consequence of their apostasy as God's hand of protection has been lifted. Thinking of themselves as a pair of mighty nations, both Israel and Judah were simply annoyances to their far superior neighbors. Rather than seeking protection in the arms of God, their godless kings chose alliances among their larger, warring neighbors, and by so doing entering into their continual conflicts as each of the larger nations were continually bent on conquest. As a result, both nations found themselves with a tenuous and dangerous friend on one side, and a deadly enemy on the other. Continued military skirmishes resulted in the destruction of most of their smaller cities as the conquests of their neighbors continually included their own people and land.
When we step out from under God's protection, we enter a dangerous land. Depending upon ourselves for our own security, we are subject to far greater powers that would defeat us. Why is it that we are so astonished when we suffer defeat? Why do we blame God for our own demise? Rebellion against God is our own choice, and as we are free to make that choice, we are also free to suffer the consequences.
And the daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city.
The state of the people and the state of the nation are also mirrored in the state of Jerusalem: exposed by their choice of abandoning God's hand of protection. The picture painted here is one that fits the context of the feudal kingdom structure. Kings lived in walled cities, and during times of siege, the people in the surrounding communities would run to the protection provided by the city walls, leaving their cottages and loges exposed. The vineyard is not going to slow the invading army's advance on the cottage any more than the garden of cucumbers will protect the farmer's lodge. When we rebel against God, and choose to step outside of his hand of protection, we step outside of the fortified walls, placing our trust in the grapevines and cucumbers to stop the power of the advancing army. is it any wonder that so many people are so defeated? Is it any wonder that even those who call themselves Christians fail to experience victory in their lives, as they are buffeted by every passing storm?
Except the LORD of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, and we should have been like unto Gomorrah.
There was one very significant difference between the state of the pagan nations, the state of Israel, and the state of Judah: the remnant. The pagan nations had no remnant of faithful believers, so they were not guilty of apostasy. They were, and are, simply lost and in need of the knowledge of God's grace. The kingdom of Israel contained almost no remnant at all. Since Amos and Hosea prophesied there, we know that a remnant remained, but we find no indication of their influence in any of the nation's history. Furthermore, we find no evidence of the miraculous protection of that remnant when Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians. However, we do know that refugees from the north fled to Judah, and this certainly could have included the remnant. The remnant of Judah was substantially larger, and as a nation, Judah survived for over 100 years following the destruction of Israel. When Judah was destroyed by Babylon, its king Nebuchadnezzar took the remnant captive, protecting them from the subsequent annihilation of the remainder of the kingdom. God always kept his promise to protect those who were faithful to Him, and as Isaiah repeats God's word, he notes that it is the remnant that has kept Israel and Judah from suffering the same demise as both Sodom and Gomorroah, cities that were destroyed by God during the lifetime of Abraham and his nephew, Lot, cities that demonstrated a clear lack of any remnant of faithful people. The demise of Sodom and Gomorrah were examples of God's wrath against a community that contained no remnant.
How much of our world today is protected against utter destruction because of the existence of a remnant of faithful believers?
Hear the word of the LORD, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah. 11To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the LORD: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats. 12When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? 13Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. 14Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them.
As Isaiah continues, he speaks to the faithless of the city, both its leaders and its citizens. As we consider the state of ancient Israel and Judah, we must always keep one truth in mind: These were a very religious people. If you were to walk down the streets of Jerusalem, you would find yourself surrounded by the appearance of religious piety. After all, these were the children of God, the chosen people. They defined themselves by (1) their descent from Abraham, and (2) by the presence of God in the temple. They wore religious clothing that conformed with the Law and with their traditions. The leaders of the city as well as its inhabitants looked religious and pious, and and they were convinced of their own righteousness because of it. They continued to burn the traditional sacrifices, but God refused to accept them. We may remember Adam's sacrifice that came from the heart, and Cain's sacrifice that came from arrogance and contempt. God accepted the former, and rejected the latter. We did not learn from this lesson. Though they rejected God in their hearts, they maintained the hypocrisy of their traditions, continuing in their celebration of holidays and feasts, events that became objects of their own consumptions and lusts rather than days that were spent honoring God and remembering what He had done for them. God is not impressed with vain sacrifice.
And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.
Among all of these verses, this statement is arguably the most pointed, serving as the fulcrum of this passage: God does not even receive their worship. Though they lift their hands and shout praises, though they fall prostrate to the ground and recite many prayers, their hypocrisy is known to God. Their worship is simply a show for one another, a testimony among themselves of how religious and pious they are. This is a worship that is permeated by self-centered pride rather than by a genuine love for God. Just as God rejects the sacrifices, offerings, and holidays, he rejects the worship of those who do so only for show. The Jews invested about 800 years in these traditions, and were so well-ingrained in them that they were able to perpetuate them for yet another 400 years without giving consideration to their purpose of worship.
How much of today's worship is done in vain? When we come together to worship, do we worship God, or do we follow a traditional process of behaviors while we continue to worship only ourselves? If God rejects the worship of those who are not truly worshipping Him, will he reject our worship? God will not hear when our hands are full of blood: when we stand before Him condemned by Him of our sin, sin that we will not even acknowledge ourselves. For the Jews, this blood was in many ways quite literal as they had on their own hands the blood of those whom they killed, those who criticized their godless tradition and called upon the people to turn to God. The propensity for the Jews to kill the leadership of the remnant was universal: their persecution of the prophets continued through the crucifixion of the Messiah at Calvary.
The Christian church cannot stand in arrogance and piety on this issue. We have seen throughout history how the organized Christian church followed this same pattern, particularly in the dark ages when those who criticized the church were frequently persecuted and burned at the stake. Though the organized church may not be as apt to kill its critics as it did in the past, it still has the means and purpose to persecute those who would challenge it. God was not the central authority of Israel or Judah, and too often, God is not the central authority of the church. Like the ancient Jews we may continue to wear the religious clothes, speak religious words, and recite an endless litany of pious prayers. However, it is not the clothes, words, or prayers that honor God: it is only the heart that honors God. When those clothes, words, and prayers are offered to God as a genuine act of worship of a beloved God, that worship is received. Paul notes in the 12th chapter of his letter to the Romans how God accepts the worship of people when i t comes from their heart, without regard to the content that characterize that worship.
Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; 17Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. 18Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
Up to this point, the state of Israel and Judah looks quite hopeless. Likewise, the state of the modern church that has also rebelled against God looks similarly hopeless. However, God has always been a God of new beginnings. God always offers forgiveness for those who will repent of their sin and turn to Him in faith and trust. It is amazing that God has watched the children of Israel immerse themselves in apostasy for, at this point, 700 years, and yet His offer of forgiveness still stands. Can the people turn from their wicked ways and accept God's offer of forgiveness. When called upon to become washed, the religious Jews answer, "we are clean." When called upon to put away their evil, they answer, "we have done no evil." When called upon to learn to do well, they reply "we keep the law," when called upon to seek judgment they reply "our courts offer sound judgment," when called upon to relieve the oppressed they reply, "there is no one who is oppressed who does not deserve it," when called upon to rightly judge the fatherless they reply, "they are bastards, they do not deserve to be treated like I should be treated;" their response to the widow is similar. Yet, they maintain their piousness and self-declared righteousness. Though this is an apt description of the religious leaders in ancient Israel, is there a thread of such attitudes in religious leadership today?
Again, God offers forgiveness. To those who will put away such prideful and self-centered attitudes and turn to Him in faith and trust, God offers complete forgiveness, a completely new start. As bad as one's sins may have been, God will forgive them entirely, holding us accountable only for our love for Him and not for what we have done in the past.
If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land: 20But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.
God's covenant offer to Israel is the same covenant offer that He made with them 700 years ago at the foot of Mt. Sinai: if you will be obedient, you will receive the land and the hand of God's protection. However, if you refuse and rebel against God, you will step outside of that hand of protection, you will lose the land, and you will be devoured by the sin of this wicked world.
The choice given to Israel is the same choice given to people today. God offers blessing and protection to those who will place their faith and trust in Him. When we refuse to place our trust in God, we make the choice to reject that offer of blessing and protection, depending upon ourselves to survive in this wicked world, and depending upon ourselves for our own salvation. Satan may lead us to believe that we can do these things on our own, but any form of true reason (vs. 18) reveals the inefficacy of such a choice. To reject God's offer of blessing and protection, as well as God's offer for salvation from the eternal consequence of our sin is in itself an act of self-destructive foolishness.
This is not the end ... it is only the introduction to the prophesy of Isaiah. As we read through this lengthy oracle, we will experience the demise of the northern nation of Israel and the dissolution of the southern nation of Judah through the eyes of the prophet. Isaiah exposes the signs and judgments that are illustrated in historic events. Isaiah exposes at great length the consequences of the rebellion, not only of Israel and Judah, but that of the surrounding nations who by attacking Israel are in their own hearts attacking their God, declaring themselves as the enemies of the Lord Most High. Isaiah continually exposes the various sins of the nations and calls upon them to repent and turn to God, warning them of the coming judgment that will take the form of the destruction of the kingdoms. As Isaiah presents his prophesy against the wickedness of Israel and Judah, he never fails to weave through that message the offer of forgiveness and restoration to those who will repent and turn to God.
When we look at the southern nation of Judah, and use reason to compare it with the church today, we will find many parallels. Both groups are convinced of their own righteousness, yet both groups exhibit a bent to worldliness and sin. Consequently, the prophesy of Isaiah to Judah is just as relevant for the church today. So stand in rebellion against God is to take ourselves out from under his hand of protection, and the experience of both Israel and Judah is an example for us today, that we would not make the same mistakes and suffer the same fate, but that we would put down our arrogance and pride and return to God that which He truly deserves: His Lordship over us and over the body of believers, His church.