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Sunday, December 06, 2009

In Spite of the Gold Calf -- Isaiah 48

Adoration of the Golden Calf by Nicolas Poussin: imagery influenced by the Greco-Roman bacchanal (couirtesy of Wikipedia)

It is easy in a book like Isaiah—where the prophet-author wanders in and out of the same group of themes—to lose track of the main focus (or foci). So I find very helpful the summary by John Oswalt in his New NIV Application Commentary. According to Oswalt, in chapters 40-66 Isaiah anticipates the two main questions that the exiles would be asking:

"Doesn't the Exile prove that Yahweh has been defeated and his covenant with Israel nullified by …"
  • The pagans and their gods?
  • Israel's sins, which continue even into the Exile?
 In chapters 1-39 Isaiah's concern has been rather with Israel's overconfidence that her covenant relationship with Yahweh would make her immune from conquest, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and Exile. But, as he anticipates the later audience, he knows that this overconfidence in the covenant and its promises has been destroyed. For the time being in Exile, they have given up hope in a Davidic kingdom, and surprisingly in chapters 40-66 there is not talk of a Davidic line, although we know that, once Israel is again in her land, God through Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi will once again speak of a Davidic messiah. But Isaiah's exile audience does not need that Davidic focus yet. They need to know the answers to the two questions posed above.

In most of what we have read in chapters 40-47 the focus has been on answering the first question. Most emphatically God denies that Israel's exile proves the pagans are stronger than he. On the contrary, the exile was possible only because Yahweh willed it. And furthermore, through Cyrus, Yahweh's chosen instrument, it is Yahweh who will humble proud Babylonia and restore his people to their homeland.

But the second question remains to be addressed, and he will do so in this chapter. Israel will be restored not because she is now sinless, but because God has determined that she will. In fact, Israel had learned her lesson about the worship of "gods" other than Yahweh. Never again would she succumb to that temptation. But there were many other sins, including some that had plagued her from the beginning of her national existence under Moses: stubbornness, unbelief, pride, materialism, greed, lust, etc. And these—which Isaiah himself in his own day had seen most clearly (v. 8)—would continue to hinder her full and prompt experience of God's intended blessings.
“Listen to this, O house of Jacob, you who are called by the name of Israel and come from the line of Judah, you who take oaths in the name of Yahweh and invoke the God of Israel— but not in faithfulness or righteousness— 2 you who call yourselves citizens of the holy city and rely on the God of Israel— the LORD Almighty is his name:  (Isaiah 48:1-2 NIV adapted).
What in these two verses do you think are the ways in which Israel did show her faith? The text says that she faithfully identified herself as God's covenant people. She resisted the temptation to give up the faith of her ancestors: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. She did not simply assimilate into Babylonian culture and lose her identity. If you think this is a trivial accomplishment, ask yourself how easy is it for you today to take a public stand among business associates or colleagues or neighbors, affirming your faith in Jesus?  For Israelites in the exile to fail to assimilate meant not only ridicule and discrimination, but sometimes economic and even physical abuse by their pagan neighbors. If you want to know the price of being a law-observant Jew in Babylon at this time, just read the Book of Daniel. For keeping the set times of daily prayer dictated by the Jewish traditions, Daniel was thrown into a den of hungry lions (Daniel 6).

Think too of how Jews were treated by so-called Christians from the Middle Ages and onward, coming to a climax in the Naziism and Communism of the 20th Century. It was definitely to their credit that the Israelites of the Babylonian Exile retained their faith and identity.

Secondly, she continued to make promises backed by the name of Yahweh. To do this, and then keep those promises was a testimony to the faithfulness of Yahweh himself, who keeps his promises.

What did many of the Jews in Exile fail to do? Unfortunately, many did not always keep the promises made in God's name. And by failing in this way they brought dishonor to the name and reputation of Yahweh among the pagans. God's name was dishonored. And this was tragic. They did not act in "truth" and "righteousness".

After Isaiah's death, but before the beginning of the Exile, God promised through the prophet Jeremiah: “If you will return, O Israel, return to me,” declares the LORD.“If you put your detestable idols out of my sight and no longer go astray, 2 and if in a truthful, just and righteous way (emet and ts'dakah) you swear, ‘As surely as Yahweh lives,’ then the nations will be blessed by him and in him they will glory.”  (Jeremiah 4:1-2 NIV)

Again "truth" (or "faithfulness") and "righteousness" are combined with making promises in Yahweh's name. If Israel before the Exile abandoned her idolatries and  acted in truth and righteousness, God promised to bless the nations through her. But Israel did not do either of those things; so the Exile came.

In chapters 40-66 God addressed the Exiles after the time of Jeremiah. At that time, although the idols had been put away, the truth and righteousness had still not blossomed, at least not among much of the Jewish community in Exile. Clearly under such conditions, the nations could not be blessed as God wanted them to be.

But did that mean also that God had abandoned Israel, annulled his covenant with them, and denied all possibility of a return to their land? Through Isaiah, God assures them that this is not so. He will still honor his covenant with Abraham and Moses and David. Even though in Exile God's people commit sin, even though in Exile they are without the temple and sacrifices which formed an integral part of God's covenant through Moses, still he will respond to their repentance, confession, and faith. He doesn't require the temple sacrifices in order to forgive them.

If you read these charges against the Israelites in Babylonia and are tempted to write them off, just consider, if you will, the current statistics that show the same rate of divorce, adultery and similar social ills among professing Christians in the USA as among the rest of the population. Does this allow us to point a finger at these Jewish exiles in Babylonia?

If we are to understand God's heart and Isaiah's intention in these indictments in Isaiah 48, we must understand them in constant reference to ourselves. We too believe, we too want to be faithful, but we too sin—all too often we too fail God. And thanks to the abiding faithfulness of the God who has promised us salvation, we are not abandoned by him, but always wooed back into repentance and forgiveness.  Paul wrote to Timothy: "The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; 12 if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; 13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself" (2 Timothy 2:11-13). the Jews of the exile did not deny Yahweh; so neither did he deny them. But many were not faithful in their moral behavior, and—as Paul puts it so clearly—God remained faithful to them also, for he cannot deny himself!
3 I have foretold the former things long before they happened, my mouth announced them and I made them known; then suddenly I acted, and they came to pass. 4 For I knew how stubborn you were; the sinews of your neck were iron, your forehead was bronze. 5 Therefore I told you these things long ago; before they happened I announced them to you so that you could not say, ‘My idols did them; my wooden image and metal god ordained them.’ 6 You have heard these things; look at them all. Will you not admit them? “From now on I will tell you of new things, of hidden things unknown to you. 7 They are created now, and not long ago; you have not heard of them before today. So you cannot say, ‘Yes, I knew of them.’  8 You have neither heard nor understood; from of old your ear has not been open. 

Well do I know how treacherous you are; you were called a rebel from birth. 9 For my own name’s sake I delay my wrath; for the sake of my praise I hold it back from you, so as not to cut you off. 10 See, I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction. 11 For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this. How can I let myself be defamed? I will not yield my glory to another.  (Isaiah 48:3-11 NIV)
Isaiah's description of Israel' sins continuing in the Exile is based upon his knowledge of her earliest history in the Wilderness of Sinai, as well as her behavior during his own lifetime. Can you recall from the stories of the Wilderness in Exodus examples of Israel's stubbornness? How about her failure to believe God's promises? Verse 5 mentions Israel's claiming her idols were responsible for what in actuality Yahweh himself did. Can you recall an example of that? Read Numbers 21:8-9 and 2 Kings 18:1-4 for an example.

In these verses God refers to "former things" (v 3) that the Jews of Isaiah's day could have known were predicted already by Moses in Deuteronomy, and "new things" (v 6) that were not revealed before Isaiah's own day. What are these? The "former things" would have been the Exile, Israel's repentance in exile, and the return to their homeland (Deuteronomy 30:1-10). The "new things" would be the fall of Babylon and the previously unknown role of Cyrus as God's agent to restore the Jews to their homeland.

In vv 4-6a  we learn that Judean idolaters living at the time of the fall of Jerusalem and the beginning of the Exile, might have stubbornly refused to admit that their own idols did not tell them in advance of that event. But Moses' prophecy (Deuteronomy 30:1-10) was already in writing centuries before the event, showing their claim to be foolishness. 

The words "from now on" (v 6) refer to things Isaiah did not speak of in chapters 1-39, and which pertain to the very distant future anticipated by God. These are the "new things". They concern some matters in the exiles' near future, such as the fall of Babylon, the advent of Cyrus, and the return to the homeland of Judah.  But they also concern how God will finally deal with the sin of humanity through his Servant, the messiah Jesus. This is in the remote future of both Isaiah's first hearers and the exiles.  They are not matters of common coinage among the pagan "predictions", nor have they been delineated in earlier Israelite prophecy in the detail and richness that Isaiah will describe them in the coming chapters.

In 8b-11 God (not Isaiah) is probably the "I" spoken of. He knew how wicked, treacherous and rebellious they could be, from the very "birth" (v 8) of the nation to the present time. Why does not God simply reject them then? Why not just say they have broken the terms of the covenant? For the same reason that Moses argued with him in prayer, when at Mt. Sinai itself they made a gold calf and worshiped it (Exodus 32:11-14): for God's own name's sake. This is the only reason why he saves people like you and me today! We too, like Israel, are wicked, treacherous and rebellious—are we not (Romans 3:23)? Which one of us cannot remember acts of deliberate disobedience? Was it because we are faithful and righteous that God saved us? And is it because we all have perfect records that he keeps us in his love today? Certainly not! It is because his "name" is The Gracious, Loving and Merciful God. Who else would send his own Son to be mocked, to suffer horrible and shameful execution on a cross, to bear the penalty for our sins, to die and rise again, all for the sake of ungrateful and rebellious sinners, many of whom were former blasphemers and persecutors of believers like Saul of Tarsus.
“Listen to me, O Jacob, Israel, whom I have called:  I am he; I am the first and I am the last. 13 My own hand laid the foundations of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens; when I summon them, they all stand up together.  14 “Come together, all of you, and listen: Which of [the idols] has foretold these things? Yahweh's chosen ally will carry out his purpose against Babylon; his arm will be against the Babylonians. 15 I, even I, have spoken; yes, I have called him. I will bring him, and he will succeed in his mission.  

16 “Come near me and listen to this: “From the first announcement I have not spoken in secret; at the time it happens, I am there.” And now the Lord Yahweh has sent me, with his Spirit. 17 This is what Yahweh says— your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:  “I am Yahweh your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go. 18 If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your righteousness like the waves of the sea. 19 Your descendants would have been like the sand, your children like its numberless grains; their name would never be cut off nor destroyed from before me.”   

20 Leave Babylon, flee from the Babylonians! Announce this with shouts of joy and proclaim it. Send it out to the ends of the earth; say, “Yahweh has redeemed his servant Jacob.” 21 They did not thirst when he led them through the deserts; he made water flow for them from the rock; he split the rock and water gushed out. 22 “There is no peace,” says Yahweh, “for the wicked.” (Isaiah 48:12-22 NIV adapted)
Verses 12-15 are spoken by Yahweh himself. They reaffirm what Isaiah has prophesied in the preceding chapters about Cyrus and his mission, which will be successful. In verse 16 the "I" and "me" refer to Isaiah, who did not speak these things "in secret" but put them in writing long before the Exile occurred. At the time of fulfillment, through his writings he is "there". The "now" is during the exile, and at that time via his Spirit-inspired writings "Yahweh has sent me, with his Spirit".

In verses 18-19 God indulges in some "what if" thinking. If Israel had heeded the warnings given in Isaiah 1-39—and of course the warnings of the other true prophets—Israel's "peace" (shalom) would have been like a river, flowing full with the spring rains, bringing life and refreshment to humans, animals and plants. 

The Hebrew word shalom in ancient Hebrew did not just refer to the absence of war or of worry and fear. It was more than peace of mind. It meant all-inclusive well-being, everything right in your relationship to God and man. That is why Isaiah writes twice in this book "there is no shalom for the wicked" (48:22; 57:21). The wicked can enjoy an absence of war and even a kind of peace of mind, but they cannot be right with God and man until they are made right through faith in Jesus, God's Messiah and Savior.

Jesus is the Prince of Peace, because some day he will return to Earth and bring the only perfect world into existence, the new heavens and new earth. The lion will lie down alongside of the lamb. And today he brings in the lives of those who trust him, complete well-being (Hebrew shalom, St. Paul's "grace and peace" in Galatians), not only of mind and emotion but wholeness in all of life. A right relationship with God and with our fellow humans.

In the days of Isaiah and Jeremiah, before the Exile, this could have also been Israel's experience instead of the chastisement of the Exile. But now (verses 20-22), almost a hundred years later, the time of release from that Exile has come. The "second Exodus" has arrived. As the Israelites fled Egypt under Moses with shouts of joy, so now they will flee Babylonia. Once again, "Yahweh has redeemed his servant Jacob". Verse 21 recalls the experience of the Wilderness Wanderings, the route to the Promised Land, which will again be Israel's residence.

God is a Redeemer. His saving acts come not because we deserve them, but "for his name's sake", since he is the Saving God. But in order to enjoy his grace, each of us must believe the Good News he sends. That Good News ("gospel") for us today is the coming in human flesh of the promised Servant of Yahweh, Jesus of Nazareth, and his sacrificial death for our sins, and his triumphant resurrection. If you claim this for yourself, you will enjoy "peace like a river" as deep as "the waves of the sea". If you have already done so, will you not share this good news with others during the upcoming season of the Incarnation, which we call "Christmas"?