Notes from a sermon preached by surprise on 22.03.09pm
Background to Isaiah
So what do we know about Isaiah?
We’re told in chapter 1:1 that Isaiah prophesied during the reign of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah (the Southern Kingdom). Uzziah reigned from 786 BC, Hezekiah, 697BC. Chapter 6:1 tells us that he started in the year that Uzziah died, ~736BC.
These were difficult days for the Kingdom of Judah, days when the Assyrian kings began to threaten and advance upon them. Ahaz was tempted to join a coalition against the Assyrians, but in the end asked them for mercy. His successor, Hezekiah, against Isaiah’s advice, led a revolt against the Assyrians. This was a disastrous move ending up with Judah being destroyed in 701BC, except for it’s capital, Jerusalem. Jerusalem eventually fell to the Babylonians in 586 BC with them being thrown into captivity in Babylon. This lasted until 539BC when Cyrus, King of the Persians, defeated the Babylonians, and the Jews were allowed to return home.
The book that bears his name can be divided up into three sections:
• Chapters 1-39 are set in the 8th Century BC – these are the years leading up to Judah’s defeat by the Babylonians and their exile into Babylon, and explain why God allowed them to be Exiled.
• Chapters 40-55 are set in the 6th Century BC – these contain prophecies that bring words of hope to his exiled people.
• Chapters 56-66 are set in 539BC onwards and speak to the Exiles who had returned to Judah
As you can see, this book covers an extraordinary scope of time and situations. This scope, and also the way it falls into these three distinct sections has made some wonder if it was written by more than one author. Perhaps Isaiah wrote the first section 1-39, and others following in his school of prophets (a bit like painters in the Renaissance had schools, learning from a master, and students paintings being named after their master). Other say that the first section is Isaiah speaking into his own time, and the other sections being future predictions God had given him.
To be honest, it doesn’t matter which it was. What is important to us is what this book has to say to us in its entirety as we’ve received it.
So what’s Isaiah about? Some have called it the Gospel in the Old Testament.
The first section talking about why they were exiled looks at human sinfulness, individual and corporate, and the consequences of that.
The second section where God brings the exile hope, talking about their being brought back home, talks about salvation, God’s plan to restore us and our world. One thing that is startling about this is the sheer expanse of salvation. It’s not just about me and my eternal life, it’s far bigger than that.
The final section where God brings words of challenge to those that return from Exile, talks about Christian living and what it means to live in the light of God’s salvation.
Isaiah is a large book, and we’re going to look at the second and third sections. Tim’s was supposed to be doing this opening sermon today, but as he’s unwell, I’ve going to look at Isaiah 41 as I was going to next week – maybe Tim might be able to come back to Isaiah 40 then instead!
41:1-7 – Invitation to the Nations Rejected in Favour for Idols
The chapter opens with an invitation from God to the world to come and meet with him. Islands and nations is a way of describing the whole of the Gentile world. It talks about meeting in the place of judgement, but this is not about judgement, but about making a treaty, building a relationship together.
The meeting begins with God describing his power and influence. He talks of a commander who is moving across the world, defeating all in his path, subduing their kings. His power is awesome. He turns them to dust with his sword, to windblown chaff with his bow. ‘Who is behind this?’ God asks, ‘Does he do this on his own? No, he is my servant, and I am the one who has called him to it and empowered him to do it’
This commander isn’t named here, but he is clearly a figure of power who changes the shape of the world. The point is clear though, God is involved in the world, planning, moving and controlling. His sovereignty is over all.
This is who I am! God is declaring. I am the sovereign God! Trust in me, side with me.
What happens now reminds me of the opening chapter of Romans 1:18-20:
18The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
Although God’s power and sovereignty is clear, and his invitation to them has been made, they instead say to each other that they are good enough without him, that they are strong enough. Instead of God they trust in the idol that they have just formed on the anvil and nailed down to the floor so it doesn’t topple.
Here is a warning to the nations, and an encouragement to the Jews in exile. God is in charge, and non-can withstand him. He moves nations as he will, blowing them away as if they don’t exist. His people may have done wrong, which is why he has allowed them to be exiled, but if the nations mistreat them or revile him, then he can move against them in power that they cannot withstand.
Three Pictures of Consolation
The scenery now changes, moving from the scale of the nations, to look to the Jews in exile, with three descriptions of the salvation God is going to bring to them.
1) 41:8-13 – The Victorious Servant
The first description is of the Jews as God’s victorious servant.
At this point in time, the Jews must have been feeling rejected and scorned by God. They had been thrown from the Land he had given them, cast into a foreign nation, away from their Temple and worship, everything that gave them their identity and relationship with God. They must have been afraid that this was it, God was angry with them, furious at what they’d done. Perhaps they thought they’d blown it. Perhaps they felt afraid of God, fearful of what he might do to them next.
Maybe there are times when you feel like this? That you’ve let God down, that he’s angry with you, or abandoned you?
Perhaps as the church today in the West, this speaks a bit into our situation where the church has moved out of the mainstream to the edges of our society? Has God abandoned us? Is the world against us? What hope have we got?
‘Do not fear’ says God. Listen to the descriptions God uses to talk about them:
• ‘O Israel my servant’
• ‘Jacob, whom I have chosen’
• ‘descendents of Abraham my friend’
• ‘I took you’
• ‘I called you’
• ‘I have chosen you and have not rejected you’
Do not be afraid, let me take you by the hand and help you. What a wonderful picture of a parent and child. On their own a child might be frightened, scared, lonely, but when a parent takes them by the hand they become invincible, confident and determined. God takes the Jews by the hand.
And what does he say about those who stand against them. I often find that if you pick out the descriptive words you get a great sense for what is going on:
• ‘you will not find them’
Everything is turned upside down. No longer will they be the fearful opposed nation, but the confident triumphant one.
2) 41:14-16 – The Transformed Worm
The second description that of the transformation of the Jews.
The first picture talks about how God sees them – not as his enemy to be rejected, but as his chosen children. The second picture looks at how they see themselves.
When things have gone wrong for us, our estimation of ourselves tends to go down. The Jews must have had a rock-bottom opinion of themselves. They’d blown it big time – lost their homes, jobs, friends, nation, religion, maybe even their God himself. It couldn’t have got any worse.
In verse 14 God calls them a worm, little Israel. That must have been how they felt. Ever been there?
Was digging yesterday, creating a vegetable patch, removing turf and turning over the soil. Found worm after worm. Totally helpless and prone. A worm could never defeat nations. A worm could never be rich or powerful. A worm could never be on the cover of OK magazine. Bottom of the heap.
But this little helpless creature is transformed. From a worm to a mighty beast with many teeth, great strength and vigour, before whom all fall. He threshes mountains, crushing them, smashing hills to chaff, blowing them away. What a change!
Remember Gideon cowering in his winepress, scared witless of the Midianites? What did the angel say when he came to him? ‘The Lord is with you Mighty Warrior!’ We might be the smallest of the small – on our own – but with God we can be metamorphosised into something so much more brilliant.
3) 41:17-20 – The Needy Sustained
Finally the picture moves from the national scale to a more individual scale. God is not just concerned with the transformation of nations, but the plight of the individual.
The people are thirsty, desperately in need of water, sustenance. Their tongues are parched, but wherever they look for water, they find none. All they can see are barren heights, desert and parched ground. There is no water here, no hope for sustenance.
When times are tough, it’s always the poor that suffer most. The rich and powerful can provide for themselves, but here Isaiah is portraying the plight of those in the most difficult positions. But just as al is not lost for the nation, so hope is not lost for these in dire straits. God sees their need and the barren wastelands burst into water! The deserts are transformed into rich verdant gardens. All can see and know that God is at work here – can anyone else do this?
What does this picture suggest to you? I suspect that Babylon wasn’t a desert, suggesting that this is more of a symbolic description. Does it relate to the barrenness of their lives? Or their need for spiritual sustenance? Or their lack of hope? Whatever it might be, or whatever your need might be, this tells us that God is capable of bringing the sustenance that is needed in impossible ways.
41: 21-29 – Futility of the World’s Trust in Idols
Not time to go through this in detail, but having talked about these three pictures of the salvation that God will bring his people, Isaiah returns to the meeting between God and the nations. The nations have rejected him in favour of their idols. But what can these idols do? What can they say? Nothing…
But instead there is a hint of what is to come for the nations, God has stirred up one from the north, a new commander, and he’s heading their way… Good tiding for Jerusalem.