16. Idols?

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.16.  Idols? You have to be joking!

Isa 40:18    With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him?

The subject of idols crops up again and again in the Old Testament. They make us realise that superstition is there lurking in the background of humanity. Solomon wrote of God, He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart,” (Eccles 3:11) yet in a fallen world, that inner searching for something more gets twisted into superstition which was seen again and again in the false religions of the nations that surrounded Israel, and then which found its way into their consciousness and lives. Thus, near the beginning of the book, Isaiah declared, “Their land is full of idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their fingers have made.” (Isa 2:8) Idols (or images) were the tangible expression of idolatry – the worship of idols. The word ‘idols’ occurs 20 times in Isaiah and ‘idol’ 28 times. Now we have moved into this more positive phase of the book, it is used in a derisory manner as the prophet exalts the Lord.

The purpose of verses 18 to 20 might be summarized as ‘don’t compare Him to idols’ and then verses 21 & 22 exalt the Lord, showing how He is so different.

Verse 18: No Comparison! “With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him?”  Hey people, Isaiah challenges the people, stop and think about this. Stop and think about what you know about God, and then look at these idols you have around you. Come on now, look at these idols you have, think about how they are made and then stop and think about the Lord. Really, there is no comparison is there!

Verse 19: Idol manufacture: “As for an idol, a metalworker casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it.”  Be honest, you know how an idol is made. You only have to go along to a goldsmith’s workshop and you see how an idol, either wood or cast in metal is made and then overlaid with gold and has silver chains attached to it. Were such chains used to help it down in place in the home, so it couldn’t be easily removed? We don’t know, but the point is that this idol is made by other people.

Verse 20: The process: “A person too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot; they look for a skilled worker to set up an idol that will not topple.”  Look, he continues, even the very poor who may not be able to afford an image covered in gold or silver, has an idol. Their idol is very basic. They look around for some hardwood that will last and they find someone who can work with wood to shape it and create a basic image for them, something that will last, be stable and not keep falling over. They actually put effort into all these considerations, but they are still very obvious objects, things you can see and things you know exactly how they came about.

This is what Isaiah is pressing in on, the ordinariness of these objects, objects that are man-made and which, therefore, have no life, no power, or ability to change circumstances, change the world. We would never believe such foolish things and yet there are things in twenty-first Western life that may not have the same appearance but to which we give the same credibility. What are the things that we rely upon, what are the things that the world uses as a substitute for God, things we believe can help us survive, things we must hold on to and view as precious, not to be let go of?

A point to ponder. Of what in our lives do we give greater importance than the Lord? Comfort? Pleasure? Success? Appearance? Modern technology? Work? Leisure? These are the modern ‘idols’ that many place first in their lives. These deceive us because there appears no similarity to the things we see ‘pagan peoples’ worship, and we consider ourselves so much more sophisticated, but they are still things that modern Western man puts in front of God. They can be very simple, for even just a person we can exalt and put before God. If we honour and exalt such a figure that they blank out God, they become an idol. I won’t bother to dignify some more scientific atheists by naming them, but they are idols in the minds of some in their ‘followers’.

The worship of ‘self’ or of ‘me’ is an idol, something that replaces God and which we esteem above anything else. Watch the way some journalistic columnists write, above contradiction, claiming the high ground, beyond question, elevating themselves to the position of little gods. Listen to some politicians and you find the same thing.

Now do the same comparison exercise that Isaiah has just done. Does it make sense to make appearance or personal success or pleasure & leisure – or people – the  governing feature of our lives when there is the Lord, the almighty One, standing there with open arms calling us into real relationship? A last thought. You could easily take one of the idols that Isaiah has been talking about and destroy it. What effect would it have had? None, except in the mind of the superstitious idol-worshipper. Now to do a modern comparison, it is probably easier to imagine you are separated off from these possible ‘idols’ we have been thinking about.  Imagine you contract a fatal illness. Suddenly all these things we have listed above become worthless. Success becomes meaningless. Materialism becomes meaningless. Pleasure becomes meaningless. Celebrities and atheistic scientists and politicians become meaningless. The only thing of meaning before you, is life. The threat of its removal suddenly puts everything else in perspective. No our idols may not sit on a shelf, but they are just as insidious if they become substitutes for God – until our life is seriously under threat and then we start thinking sensibly.

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, please forgive me if I put things or people before you. Please draw my heart. I purpose to make you first before all else.

 

12. The Powerful Shepherd

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.12. The Powerful Shepherd

Isa 40:10      See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.

We have just seen the call to shout the good news that God is coming. Now we have two pictures describing the coming Lord.  First it is the picture of an all-powerful God but then it is of God who comes as the Shepherd of Israel, so let’s look, first of all, at the picture of the all-powerful God. “See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.” (v.10) Perhaps we should split that up so as to note exactly what it is saying.

“See”. Twice there is a call to observe. It is thus a call to really take note of what the prophet is saying. How we are often so casual when a prophetic word comes! If you have ever received a personal prophetic word, could you say exactly what it was a month later? Look and watch carefully, is the instruction.

“the Sovereign Lord comes”.  Many versions just put, “the Lord God” but the emphasis, we should see, is the same. It is God who is Lord of all, God who is sovereign. From verse 12 on the prophet is going to bring a word that emphasizes this, and we need to believe it and take it on board. God IS Lord of all things, Jesus IS ruling at his Father’s right hand. We may not understand why He gives such freedom to sinful mankind to do such awful things as history reveals, but I believe when we get to heaven, if He allows us to see every detail of history with His eyes, we will never be able to criticize Him for anything He did or didn’t do.

“with power”.  This God we are considering here is the Creator of the whole world, as we shall shortly be reminded and any Being who has that power is indeed mighty. When Jesus Christ, the Son of God, exercised his ministry we see in the gospels, example after example of him exercising the power of the Godhead as he deals with sickness, makes provision, walks on water, casts out demons and raises the dead. This is power!

“and he rules with a mighty arm”. This power is used for one end: to rule. To rule or reign means to be supreme over all peoples and circumstances so that His will is brought about. That is what God does and that is what He is coming to do. When Jesus comes back we see he will exercise this rule over all things (see Rev 19) We saw it in the previous study.

“See, his reward is with him”. Some versions use the word ‘recompense’ which really means a payment with a purpose.  The Bible is quite clear, the Lord rewards the righteous, e.g. Gen 15:1, 1 Sam 26:23,  1 Kings 8:32, Psa 58:11, Prov 11:18, 13:21, 22:4. When God comes He will judge between men and the righteous will be blessed or rewarded. In the New Testament we read, “a man reaps what he sows,” (Gal 6:7) for that is how God has made it to be.

“and his recompense accompanies him.” The two things go together – God and His reward. God’s character is to do good and so wherever He can He blesses His people. He will not bless evil, but He will bless His righteous people.

So here is the comfort for the downtrodden people of God: your God is coming, and His desire is to bless you. He will come to deal with evil (and he has the power to do that) and will reward and bless righteousness. Hallelujah!

But there is further reassurance, for this could be really scary and so we find this second picture in verse 11: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” (v.11) Verse 10 could leave us feeling somewhat awed with talk of the Lord’s sovereignty and His power and His mighty arm and His acts of judgment, but now the prophet speaks to the faithful, to believers whose consciences may be over-sensitive. Hey, he says, for you who are His flock, He will come like a shepherd and a shepherd is known for caring for His flock – see Psa 23, and the following verses here: “He gathers the lambs in his arms, and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”  (v.11b) What words of tender care!

If you are a young believer, have no fear, don’t be over-awed by Him, for His desire is to lift you in those strong arms that can be used for war, but instead He will use them to protect you and give you a sense of loving security, He will hold you close to His heart. And those of you teachers and evangelists who feel responsible for the young ones in the faith, be reassured the He will so gently be there for you in your caring role and He will so gently guide you and lead you in it.

This last verse in this part helps balance the strength of the first part. Yes, God is coming, and He is coming in power and will deal with the ungodly, but those who are faithful, those whose hearts are turned towards Him, know He is coming with love and care and compassion. He is for you!  Hallelujah!

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, I recognise that your heart is to come more fully into my heart, my life, my circumstances and I bow before you who are the Lord of all.

11. Tell the Good News

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.11.  Tell the Good News

Isa 40:9   You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!”

What have we seen in these verses of this chapter so far? First, a call to comfort Israel with the news that God has dealt with their sins (v.1,2). Second, a declaration that God is coming to them (v.3-5). Third, a recognition that we humans are prone to unfaithfulness under the pressures of life and especially when God comes with discipline or even holds back and delays (v.6-8). So what follows?

Now we find an instruction to those who believe this good news (?Isaiah) to go up to a high place where they can call out so all can hear, shout it out loudly and don’t fear what people will say:  You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid.” (v.9a) God wants the good news sharing; He wants everyone to hear it.

Throughout the Bible we find God’s intent is that the people of this fallen world – nations throughout the world – know Him. He called Israel to display Him, as He will shortly say, to be “a light to the Gentiles” (42:6, 49:6), and He will make them to be those who carry His light (58:8,10, 60:1,3,19); it is a common picture in Isaiah.

Now here’s a question. If He is coming anyway (and He is!) why does He place so much importance on us hearing about it before it happens?  Is it because He wants us to prepare ourselves, and put our lives straight, before He comes? That is what seemed to have happened with the ministry of John the Baptist. Or is there some other, perhaps bigger, purpose?  This we considered in earlier studies.

The truth is that the Lord wants our hearts to be revealed before He comes. He wants to see the response of our hearts when we have heard the good news. Perhaps some will scoff at it: “Oh yes, we’ve heard that before!” Perhaps some will deny it outright: “God doesn’t care about us. He won’t come to us!” But then there will be those whose hearts leap with joy when they hear He is coming. God is concerned with truth, with the reality of our lives. Again and again His word comes to reveal our hearts.

In the four gospels, it is quite clear that again and again he spoke things that seemed like pearls before swine, truth about himself that fell on deaf ears, truth that was rebuffed or even rejected outright. But the truth is there to be seen. God sees it, you see it and I see it. We know the truth about ourselves in these sorts of situations and that lays the ground open for the Holy Spirit to come and convict and change us. The word of God reveals hearts.

So what is the word to be shouted from the rooftops? (OK, the mountain tops!) “Say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” (v.9b) The message is, God is coming, God is available to us. So often, mistaken modern Christianity focuses on people’s failures and although somewhere along the line we do need to face our failures, the first thing we find both John the Baptist and Jesus declaring in their preaching in that the kingdom of heaven has come near,” (Mt 3:6) and “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Mt 4:17). And how was that kingdom expressed? “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Mt 11:5) Wonderful! The apostle Paul gives us a little insight: the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” (1 Cor 15:24,25) i.e. the reign of Jesus began when he started his ministry two thousand years ago and will continue until he returns again. Today, now, he continues to overcome his enemies – unrighteousness, evil, sin, sickness etc. These are his enemies and he comes to overcome them.

We have already seen it before, in general terms, when God arrives in the wilderness, it is transformed. When Jesus turned up in the spiritual wilderness of Israel, wherever he went it was transformed because, as he declared using the Isaiah 61 verses, he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18,19, quoting Isa 61:1,2) That was good news! Now the amazing thing about Jesus’ ministry, and it has often left me wondering, was that he did not appear to do a ‘Four Spiritual Laws’ or any other such presentation and certainly didn’t do any in-depth counselling before he healed people – he just healed them. All it needed was for them to come to him, but the record shows that they didn’t necessarily become followers of him – but he still healed them, knowing this. It was that same thing we’ve already just noted, when God turns up, the wilderness is transformed.

Now we have to be careful here because assuredly God did want Israel’s heart to change and that is why Isaiah and the other prophets spoke. Yet, it is clear He brings words of comfort and assurance and, in Jesus’ case, brings amazing acts of healing etc. in order to touch and change people’s hearts. Clearly Jesus did these things to attract and move people, even though many would walk away unmoved. The Lord says and does these things for those who are often referred to as ‘the remnant’ who will believe. For you and me our calling is to seek to bless the people around us, sharing God’s love in word, practical and miraculous deed, and leave the outcome up to Him.  May it be so.

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, please open my eyes that I may realise more fully the wonder of what you have done for me in Christ and the wonder of what you have done already in my life.

 

10. Human Frailty

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.10.  Human Frailty

Isa 40:7   The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them.  Surely the people are grass

We saw the prophetic picture: “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.” (v.6b) and we considered how God sees mankind as He designed us to be before sin entered the word, and how we can be living in redeemed relationship with Him. That was verse 6, the good news, but now we have to move on to maintain a right perspective in verse 7.

Oh, how we so easily loose a right perspective!  You see the folly of mankind as it is displayed in Psa 2:Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?  The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, “Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.” (Psa 2:1-3) The picture is of pride and arrogance that first of all misunderstands God’s love and tolerance, and then thinks they can oppose God and get their own way.

So much of the time our problem is that we lose perspective and much of the rest of the chapter is about regaining a right perspective about God and us. It is not that God wants us to be cringing, servile creatures – in fact exactly the opposite – but to become the opposite we first have to realize the truth about God and then us. Although, in my chapter breakdown at the beginning of this series, I made a division at verse 12, there is a hint of verses 12 to 31 here in verse 7, a declaring of a right perspective.

Very well, what particular aspect of grass and flowers are we now talking about? That they are beautiful? Not quite! “The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them.” (v.7a) Oh! There are two things in this verse. These ‘plants’ die off so easily and especially when God blows on them.  We considered in the previous study, the picture of faithfulness and I said then we are now talking about frailty shown in failing faithfulness. We need to see this in the big picture.

What challenges our faithfulness?  Trials and tribulations, and when we are going through times of discipline (that the Lord brings as He ‘blows’ on us) we can see these as times of trouble, and we then grumble. That is what is at the heart of this, not only our frailty but, as we just said, frailty in respect of our faithfulness, especially under times of testing, times of discipline. Trials show the quality (or otherwise) of our faithfulness.

We used Abram as an example just now, and the way the Lord taught him should be an example to us. He had received the words of blessing from the Lord, he left his home and went to Canaan and there the Lord promised that this land would belong to his descendants (of whom at the moment there was no sign!). As soon as a famine strikes Canaan, he flees to Egypt where he gets into trouble (see Gen 12:10-20) Faithfulness to the vision, to the word of God, appeared transient and he had to learn.

So, just in case there might be any misunderstanding the word continues: “Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall.” (v.7b,8a) This is surely the truth. It only needs a few trials and tribulations to strike and we wither and fall. Now we may not like it and object to it, but if we do it simply means we have not been through a Job type of situation. The message of such situations is not condemnation, but just recreating an awareness that left to ourselves we are weak, and we need the Lord and His grace.

But that is not the end of it, it is just one side of it. The other side of this, the all-important side is, “but the word of our God endures forever.”  (v.8b) When God speaks He means it and He will ALWAYS do what He says, so if He says He is coming – He IS coming. If He deems it right to wait a while, so be it. Be patient, remain faithful and continue to believe. The contrast here in these verses is between our inability to remain faithful to the Lord, and the Lord’s cast-iron constancy that is seen in His faithfulness to His word, to His plans, to His declared will.  As the Lord described Himself to Moses, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”  (Ex 34:6) See also Deut 7:9, 32:4, Psa 33:4.

That is what these three verses are about, about how we may truly believe all that the Lord says. We may not fully understand what He says, but when we do we will see that He is absolutely true to what He says, always!  Our faith may waiver in the face of passing time or in the face of trials, but He means what He says, and He will remain true to it (even if we misunderstand His timescale), and so He WILL do it. So, remember, he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil 1:6) Hallelujah!

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, I recognize my frailty and my constant need of your grace. Strengthen my faith, strengthen my resolve. Thank you that you are here for me.

9. Human Glory

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.9.  Human Glory

Isa 40:6   A voice says, “Cry out.”  And I said, “What shall I cry?” “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.

The significance of the passing of time in Scripture is fascinating.  For instance, there are periods of waiting, waiting for seeds to grow, waiting for the right time, waiting for time to pass. Sometimes when we are waiting we think it is the end. Israel must have felt that when they went into the Exile.  Israel might have wondered about it in Jesus day when there has been silence from heaven for over four hundred years. The disciples thought it when Jesus body lay in the tomb until the third day.

One of the things about time passing is that it is so easy to forget what God has said when His word comes, or even to be led into doubt that we have heard aright. That must have been the case when Sarai urged Abram to take the servant girl, Hagar, to use here to continue the family line (Gen 16:1-4). Time passing challenges our faithfulness.

Now Israel are in a ‘desert state’ or ‘wilderness state’ as the word of the Lord comes to comfort them. No doubt time has passed but now the Lord has said He is coming’ it seems their period of waiting is coming to an end, but for God to be rightly received there needs to be a right perspective, a right way of thinking about Him, and that right thinking always has to start with a recognition of what we are. In comparison to the Lord we small and insignificant and in the verses to follow in this chapter we are going to be reminded of something of the Lord’s greatness, but before we do that we have to see our smallness, and our frailty. Humility requires right understanding.

That is where I got to as I approached these verses but then I realised something. There is a difference between verses 6 and 7. If verse 7 was absent, we would think that verse 6 is really good; it is only when the balance or counterpart of verse 7 comes that we find our aspirations dashed. So think again. The truth is that there are two sides to revelation about mankind and the way God thinks about us, and it is important to consider them both and so we will take verse 6 here and verse 7 in the next study.

The prophetic word rolls out: A voice says, “Cry out.”  And I said, “What shall I cry?” (v.6a) Isaiah hears the word, the instruction to call out to his people and his instinctive reply is to ask what he is to call. It could be anything. It could be about their sinfulness, it could be about God’s greatness, it could be about judgment, it could be about blessing, it could be about another nation or people, but instead it is a general declaration about mankind: All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.” (v.6b)

Right, stop right there. Think about this description as it stands. We are like grass. Grass? Grass covers a lot of this earth.  God must like grass. Grass is useful for feeding cattle and when it turns into straw it has other uses. There are also many sorts of grass, and some of them are purely ornamental (we have at least five different sorts of ornamental grasses in our garden apart from the grass on the lawn.) Grass is quite a good picture.

But then he speaks about “the flowers of the field”. I don’t know if you have ever observed a ‘meadow’   Listen to Wikipedia’s definition of a meadow: “A meadow is a field habitat vegetated by grass and other non-woody plants. Meadows are of ecological importance because they are open, sunny areas that attract and support flora and fauna that could not thrive in other conditions.” Those ‘other non-woody plants’ are either flowers or other plants we often refer to as weeds. There is a big thing in the UK about growing ‘meadows’ specifically because of the wild flowers that grow in a meadow. There is something quite special about the wild flowers that grow in the midst of grass.

Now, there is a key word in the midst of picture language, ‘faithfulness’ and we said above that the passing of time challenges our faithfulness. Some versions have the word ‘beauty’ instead but incorporate a note about ‘constancy’ or ‘faithfulness’.  The versions that lack ‘faithfulness’ have just half the picture, I believe, because it is not only about frailty, it is about faithfulness and when we go on into verse 7, frailty shown in failing faithfulness. We will consider some more about that aspect in the next study, but for the moment consider our faithfulness as a flower that stands out in the midst of a field of grass. It is beautiful in the eye of the Lord.

Elsewhere in Scripture we find, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honour” (Psa 8:4,5) and the writer to the Hebrews takes that quote and slightly extends it: “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, a son of man that you care for him? You made them a little] lower than the angels; you crowned them with glory and honour and put everything under their feet.” In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them.” (Heb 2:6-8) Before we let the enemy put us down, let’s remember this is how God sees us, this is what He designed us to be, and in the present prophetic picture our faithfulness (when it is there) is something beautiful to behold, something that blesses the Lord. Let’s make sure we hold on to it.

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord help me remain faithful to you in every area of my life. Thank you that you have a plan for my life, you are blessed by it and yet have more for me. Open my eyes to your possibilities for me.

8. The Glory of the Lord

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.8. The Glory of the Lord

Isa 40:5a   “And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together.”

And the result? “And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together.” (v.5a) God’s presence will be seen by all.  There is God’s intent declared, not that the people become rule keepers but that they become again (even as they had been during the Exodus) a people with God in their midst, and that is how they would be known throughout the world. God revealed.

When Jesus had completed his work on the cross and ascended back to heaven, he poured out his Spirit in a sovereign act on the Day of Pentecost so that his presence would be there within every believer from then on. His intent from then on would be to flow in and through his people so that the glory of God would be revealed on the earth. Now this matter of God’s glory appears again and again:

“I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.  And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” (Jn 17:4,5) Jesus had the glory of God in heaven, put it aside when he came to earth but ‘glorified’ the Father by what he did, and then returned to heaven to reclaim the glory he had before he left heaven. Glory in this sense is God’s splendor.

That splendor is seen in God’s acts – as in Jesus on earth in the verses above. Also in history: “I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army.” (Ex 14:4) That splendor evokes praise and worship: “to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!” (Eph 3:21) That splendor reveals who He is and therefore He wants it to be seen, His deeds declared: “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.” (1 Chron 16:24”

It is a means of bringing sinful men and women to their senses: “although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God… they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images.” (Rom 1:21-23) His splendor is there to be seen by those who have eyes to see and hearts that are searching.

But His glory has also been revealed as an immense brightness where His presence is particularly manifested in the presence of His people on special occasions: the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai.” (Ex 24:16) and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” (Ex 40:34,35) and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” (1 Kings 8:11) Thus now in Isaiah we come to this amazing declaration: “And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together.” Somehow, sometime, the presence of God is going to come in such a way that everyone will see it and realise who and what they are seeing.

In that high priestly prayer of John 17 we find Jesus’ intent in asking for the things he was asking: “so that the world may believe that you have sent me,” and “the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (Jn 17:21,23) and earlier he had said, “I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do,” (v.4) and both sets of verses are followed by talk about God’s glory.

How this will be worked out may appear a mystery, but one that is abundantly clear, that God’s intent has been that through His people – Israel and now the Church – He will be revealed to the rest of the world, and we find it in the most simple of verses: “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:16) May it be so. Amen.

7. How to Prepare (2)

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.7. How to Prepare (2)

Isa 40:3a,4  make straight in the desert a highway for our God, Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.”

We are considering all the obstacles to be removed and the most direct route to be achieved as spoken of in the verses above. We noted so far some of the obstacles, unrighteous attitudes, words and behaviour, that act as obstacles that need to be removed on this ‘Holy Way’, and then thought about being those who yearn for the Lord to come, making a direct path. Now we need to perhaps consider some of the things to be dealt with, that we see in these verses, and consider what they do and why they need dealing with. We have considered the idea of a straight highway implying a need for a hungry heart that yearns for God to come quickly, so now let’s pick up on the ‘ground features’ of verse 4, the details, and see what they say to us.

“Every valley shall be raised up.” Valleys are low places on the earth and speak of the low times of our lives or perhaps, to be more precise, the low feelings we have. When we have allowed the enemy to pull us down we no longer feel we are the glorious children of God that we are in reality. Low self-esteem (and especially low spiritual self-esteem) is an enemy and obstacle to seeing the glory of the Lord come. We need to take hold of the truths of who we are, we need to raise up these valleys so that the highway of faith can allow the coming of the Lord.

Now before we press on with each of these we need to remind ourselves of something we considered before – that these could be words of declaration from heaven, declaring the sovereign will of God that will be executed, and so we need to see each of these as God’s intentions; He is working to do these things, so taking that first one, He is working to lift your faith and impart those truths into your heart.

“every mountain and hill made low.” In this context mountains are major obstacles that obscure vision. You just can’t grasp the panorama of God’s plan, purposes and intents when there is a big mountain obscuring the view. ‘Hills’ in this context are smaller vision obstructions that we take for granted, and that is the difference here between a mountain and hill; the mountain we are very much aware of but the hill we take for granted and just live with. The ‘mountain’ dominates us. Addictions are mountains, failing relationships tend to be mountains, mounting debts are mountains. They are things that fill our view, dominated our subconscious thinking at the very least, if not our conscious thinking, and they are things we feel are beyond us. We know they should not be there, but they are, and we don’t know how to remove them.

How to overcome mountains? It’s a long-term process, I suggest, to build faith and it comes by you spending time with God in His word and in prayer, and when we have the opportunity on a Sunday with the people of God, giving ourselves wholeheartedly to worship and when opportunities arise, receive prayer. When Jesus said, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you,” (Mt 17:20) he was speaking about faith actions and faith comes from hearing and faith grows. It has to exist, and it only needs a mustard seed portion, but it does need faith. David overcoming Goliath is an example of overcoming a ‘mountain’ (see 1 Sam 17) and we should learn from him.

Overcoming and removing ‘hills’? The first thing is to recognise them. They are part of the landscape but not blatantly obvious. We remove them the same way as mountains. Remember, anything that diminishes vision – too much TV, too much computer games, too much sloppy reading and so on. Don’t tolerate it.

“rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.” Rough ground is stony and hard and rugged places are tough going. They speak to me of hard-heartedness, set in my ways, refusing to be open to correction. If these things remain, they will hinder and prevent the coming of the glory of the Lord.

If that’s what you want, then accept the misty, grey, unchanging life of dark places, little vision, little excitement, but realise that that is not what God wants for you and He is there just waiting for your heart change that says, “Lord, I want more, I want vision, I want life, I want to see you!” When you can say that genuinely, watch out, He will be there!

 

7. The Mystery – of the Anointed Preacher

Focus on Christ Meditations: 7.  The Mystery – of the Anointed Preacher

Isa 61:1,2   The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, .

As we briefly browse some of Isaiah prophecies in our search for hints of the Coming One in the Old Testament, to focus the ‘mystery’ that the apostle Paul spoke about, especially in respect of Christ himself, we cannot move on into the New Testament without first observing this most truly remarkable prophecy, not as remarkable as the Isa 9 word perhaps, but remarkable nevertheless.

Imagine you were a Jew living in Israel, say twenty years before the birth of Christ. You go along to the local synagogue on a Saturday morning to hear the scrolls read, and the rabbi expound the week’s reading before conducting prayers. This morning the scrolls of Isaiah are brought out and the above ‘chapter’ is read. I wonder what you would have thought about it?

Perhaps you hear these words and hear them as Isaiah explaining his own ministry. As a prophet, the Spirit of God is on him and by the Spirit’s enabling he brings God’s word, a word that can bring healing to those with broken hearts who are anguished by the hurts of life. For those who feel prisoners to dark thoughts, to feelings of inadequacy, and to failure, he sometimes had words of comfort and encouragement for those whose hearts were inclined towards the Lord. He proclaims that today is the day of God’s blessing for those same ones who seek the Lord, a day when God comes to judge all the negative things that inhibit our relationship with Him and comfort those who mourn, not only for the loss of loved ones, but for their own state perhaps.

Oh yes, God’s word does all these things but it seems it is limited to the spiritual world. You think of others in your community, the sick, the infirm, the disabled, yes even those troubled by evil spirits (and there do seem to be a lot of them) and you dare to wonder why God’s word, read and expounded every Saturday, seems unable to touch them – but you keep those thoughts to yourself for it seems unworthy of God.

You allow your mind to wander back to those earlier chapters of Isaiah. First there was that tantalising suggestion of a child who would come to bring the presence of God to the land in chapter 7, and yet there was linked with him the thought of judgment, but it was unclear and somewhat of a mystery. And then in chapter 9 there had been those almost unbelievable words about this child being God Himself, an even greater mystery. And then in chapter 11 there were words about a ‘branch’ of the house of David who would come (v.1) with the Spirit of God upon him (v.2,3) and as he rules he will bring justice (v.3-5) and the end result will be a life of incredible peace where, The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” (v.6) This was all going to be the work of one who was coming with the powerful presence of God upon him to achieve these things. Surely that must be what is being referred to here, now, in Isaiah 61, surely this must be more than just what Isaiah achieved through his ministry?

And so the questions would have hung in the air and fifty years on from this imaginary moment, in the synagogue of Capernaum in the north of Israel, in Galilee, a demon possessed man would cry out in response to the presence of God that had come (see Mk 1:23) and would be delivered by the Coming One. The word of God had been read week by week and expounded week by week and the man had been able to remain there untouched. But now….   A while later, presumably in the same synagogue, a man with a shriveled hand (see Mk 3:1), quite probably a regular attendee of the synagogue who had heard the word being read many times but who had remained unchanged, this man found the presence of God so obviously there that he walked out healed.

The truth was that weeks before, not in Capernaum but in Nazareth, Jesus walked into the synagogue as was his regular custom (Lk 4:16), it being his local synagogue, and whether it was because he volunteered to read the scrolls or whether they had heard of his preaching already (Lk 4:14,15) and they wanted to honour him, he was handed the scroll of the day which just happened to be the Isa 61 prophecy and, after he had read it out loud for all to hear, he declared, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21) The response to him was one of challenge, not a good start one might think, and anyway what did that actually mean? Was he saying that he has like Isaiah, a prophet-preacher whose words would heal and release – or what?

The ‘what’ we have already seen in the previous paragraph. This child – now grown man – did indeed come with the powerfully presence of God upon him for when he spoke demons were cast out and sick and disabled people were healed. This was not merely a ministry of words, but a ministry of power and authority. No wonder the initial response in the Capernaum synagogue had been, “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching–and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.” News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.” (Mk 1;27,28)

Up until now, the ministry of the local synagogue had merely been to read and proclaim the word of God; now Jesus brought a new possibility, it could be (see Jn 14:12) a ministry that changed more than intellects, it changed whole lives – but they weren’t ready for that, for ‘religion’ then and now, wasn’t and so often isn’t open to let Jesus be Jesus, the Messiah, the Anointed One.

If there was any doubt about it, Jesus himself spelled it out: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Mt 11:4,5) or, as Peter summarized it on the Day of Pentecost, “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.” (Acts 2:22)

But back in the days before Jesus came, the Isaiah 61 prophecy hung there, so to speak, like a wanted poster; yes, this is what we want, if only it can be, but how can such a thing be? The words only version is pretty good, but is there something more? How can ‘something more’ come about? The mystery tantalizingly hung there, words declared by God, words that stirred questions, words that brought the possibility of hope, words just waiting to be fulfilled. Does that sound familiar?

To reflect upon: Jesus said anyone who believed in him would do the things he had been doing (Jn 14:12). Does our church do that?

6. The Mystery – of the broken servant

Focus on Christ Meditations: 6.  The Mystery – of the broken servant

Isa 52:13-15      See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. Just as there were many who were appalled at him – his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness – so will he sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.

We pursue our quest to see Jesus Christ revealed throughout the word of God, and specifically here to consider ‘the mystery of Christ’, as we see it through the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come… to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.” (1 Pet 1:10,11) In the previous study we considered the almost unbelievable words of Isa 9. Now imagine a scribe of the day before Christ, reading what we now call Isaiah 52 and 53. “The servant” of the Lord had been the subject of a number of prophecies earlier in Isaiah, again clearly referring to the Coming One.

In verse 13 of chapter 52 he reads, “See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.”  OK, that seems to fit with the glory that was there in the Isa 9 prophecy. He reads on: “Just as there were many who were appalled at him– his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness.” (v.14) What? How can he one minute be exalted and the next moment be described as one who is so ‘disfigured’ and ‘marred’ that there were many who were appalled at him?

Verse 15 seems more confusing, so quickly run on into the next chapter to see if it makes more sense: “Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?” (53:1) This seems to have a sense of “Who could have believed it would be like this, that God’s means of coming in power would appear in this way?”  Dead right! What are you saying Isaiah? How does this fit with your glorious words of the earlier chapter 9? We need to read on.

“He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground.” (v.2a) This must refer to that child again. Ok. “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (v.2b) What? This doesn’t sound like a great leader, a mighty ruler like David who, when younger, had been described as “a boy, ruddy and handsome.” (1 Sam 17:42) or as the king that Solomon portrayed in his epic poem: “My lover is radiant and ruddy, outstanding among ten thousand.” (Song 5:10) This one would be characterized by his ordinariness; he is not going to get a following because he looks good, like King Saul had done and been described as, “an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites–a head taller than any of the others.” (1 Sam 9:2) So how is this one going to be that mighty ruler?

“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” (v.3) What is this all about? Despised, rejected, one we did not esteem, one whose life seems associated with sorrows and suffering? What sort of great ruler is this? Clearly not like any ‘great ruler’ the world has known previously! Read on.

“Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.” (v.4) Hang on! We, the onlookers, thought that what we saw was God striking him, dealing harshly with him and yet he was taking OUR weaknesses, our sorrows? How could that be? How can this servant do such a thing? Read on verses 5 to 7 and it is equally bad. This is seriously confusing, this is indeed a mystery!

And the teachers tell us that this is Jesus? Well, the apostle John wrote, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (Jn 1:10,11) That fits. When Matthew records Jesus’ healing ministry, he writes by way of commentary, “This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases.” (Mt 8:17) The apostle Peter, speaking of all that happened to Jesus summarized it, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Pet 2:23,24)

But what about the mighty ruler prophecy of Isa 9? It was only as the incredible account of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ was rolled out that the apostles and prophets saw the mystery, saw how apparently irreconcilable prophecies were in fact true, opposites – ruler and wreck – fulfilled in the same person: “being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:8-11 – Paul writing) and “The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead–whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.” (Acts 5:30,31 Peter preaching) and “After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” (Heb 1:3 the unknown writer)

It will be as Isaiah said it in those verses we jumped over at the end of chapter 52:  Yet many shall be amazed when they see him—yes, even far-off foreign nations and their kings; they shall stand dumbfounded, speechless in his presence. For they shall see and understand what they had not been told before. They shall see my Servant beaten and bloodied, so disfigured one would scarcely know it was a person standing there. So shall he cleanse many nations. (v.14,15 Living Bible) When the mystery is revealed to those with eyes to see, their first reaction is to stand dumbfounded that such a thing could be. Amazing! Incredible! Wonderful!  Thank you Lord!

To reflect upon: Conquering king and beaten servant. Majesty and meekness. Strength and weakness. Power and powerlessness. Honor and shame. Do we see that our faith is a combination of all these things?

4. The Mystery – of a child

Focus on Christ Meditations: 4.  The Mystery – of a child

Isa 7:14     Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel

In searching out the ‘pre-history’ of Jesus we need to note that the prophecies in the early chapters of Isaiah (Ch.7 & 8) and there is mystery shrouding both of them. We have seen previously how the apostle Paul spoke of the ‘mystery of Christ’ and it is only when we come to examine the prophecies that are applied to Jesus that we see they are shrouded in whole areas of confusion or uncertainty.  In the previous study the mystery was why such a small town such as Bethlehem should be chosen over the greater city, Jerusalem. Confusing for the wise men, and confusing for those who sought to understand the prophecies.

To understand this and understand something of the mystery (or confusion), we need to see the historical context. It is a time of turmoil and when Isaiah first went to him with his son (7:3) it was to encourage Ahaz. The kings of Aram and Israel (the northern kingdom) had already come against Jerusalem and failed. Let’s see what follows:

The Historical context: First see Isaiah’s family: “the LORD said to Isaiah, “Go out, you and your son Shear-Jashub.” (7:3) and that name means ‘a remnant will return’. See also the role of Ahaz, king of Judah (the southern kingdom).  The Lord tells Isaiah to encourage him, (see 7:3-9) and at the end of it says, ask for a sign of confirmation (7:10) but Ahaz refuses (7:11). It’s almost like he says, I don’t need any sign, I can handle it, they failed to take Jerusalem once, I can deal with them.

It is into this unbelieving context that the Lord speaks, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” (7:14) Well that sounds good, God being with us, especially when it continues, He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.” (Isa 7:15,16) That is even better, these present two antagonists will be destroyed.

If it stopped there that would be fine but instead it goes on to warn that the King of Assyria will be the one who deals with them but he will also come and deal with you! (7:17-25) The confusion here? You haven’t spotted it yet? This child is somehow going to be an indication that God is with them, but the end result of God being with them is that they are (after the initial worries about the first two kings are removed) going to be judged and the land destroyed.

The Second son: Now when we move on into chapter 8 we find the Lord telling Isaiah to name his next son, ‘quick to the plunder, swift to  the spoil’ which would speak of destruction and he adds the same words we saw in 7:16 Before the boy knows how to say `My father’ or `My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria,” (Isa 8:4)  which explains the name. This is followed by a long prophecy against Judah, so twice has this word come – a double sided word, one side removing the present threat and the other side bringing an even bigger judgment. So is ‘Immanuel’ (God with us) good news or bad? It depends were you stand before God.

The ‘Virgin problem’: But there is another problem. We find Isaiah a) has one son, b) brings a prophecy about another but born of a virgin (a young girl, previously unmarried), and then c) has another son by ‘the prophetess’. I have split these things out to remind us that there are three events here. The vagueness of this situation has led scholars to wonder if his first wife died and then he took anther wife, a prophetess, who then bears the second child; how else could the second child be born from a virgin, a young girl, previously unmarried? The two prophecies (7:14-16 and then 8:1-4 on) clearly link the two sons but we are still left with confusion about ‘a virgin’ because Isaiah’s family life is not spelled out in more detail. Isaiah is quite clear about it, however: “Here am I, and the children the LORD has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the LORD Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion.” (Isa 8:18)

The Immanuel aspect: So, was this prophecy about ‘Immanuel’ something to do with the Messiah? Looking at the context it is purely historical, applying to Isaiah’s day, but then we come to the New Testament and Matthew is quite specific. Joseph is serious stressed that his betrothed appears to be pregnant and it is only a God-given dream that allays his fears. As a commentary to this Matthew writes, All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”–which means, “God with us.” (Mt 1:22,23) Huh? Where did that come from? The Isaiah ‘Immanuel prophecy’ was all to do with judgment and Matthew now applies it to the coming of the Son of God because Mary IS a virgin in the full sense. Does Matthew see that that which appeared almost bizarre in Isaiah’s day, a warning of judgment, is now a message of mercy and grace? Or is there more?

In the excitement of Christmas we tend to think of Emmanuel or Immanuel as a lovely picture of God coming, but after Jesus was born an elderly prophet who met them at the Temple declared, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” (Lk 2:34,35) In other words the ministry of this child will be two edged. For those with hearts open to God, he will lift them, but for those who remain hard-hearted, stubborn and rebellious, he will be the means by which God will judge them and bring them down.

Isaiah’s Immanuel was all about judgment and yet (and here we go back to 7:3 and his first son’s name) the ultimate end would be salvation for the faithful remnant. Suddenly we get a bigger picture: the mystery of Immanuel and the virgin is that the Messiah will come to bring both blessing and judgment. At Christmas, we tend to focus only on the former but the bigger picture says, no, it is both! There is both hope and warning here and we would be wise to heed them both.

To reflect upon: in thinking about the coming of Jesus, do we hold this balance of blessing versus judgment, which all depends on those who receive or reject him? How might that affect the way we think of others?