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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Passing the Cup of God's Wrath - Isaiah 51:17-23

Although Scripture clearly promises that there will be a final judgment of God on every human being, it also describes how in the course of history itself God occasionally brings judgment on nations that anger him especially by their cruelty and rejection of his laws. We see that first in the destruction of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. Many centuries later God brought severe judgment on Egypt for its treatment of the descendants of Jacob (Exodus 1-15).

Most of the subsequent historical judgments of God described in the Bible were against nations who attacked Israel and made God's people suffer. But on three occasions God brought judgment upon Israel herself: the destruction of Samaria by the Assyrians in 722 BC, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BC, and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. In modern times we witnessed God's anger and judgment on the Nazi regime of Adolph Hitler who savagely murdered three million harmless Jews in extermination camps in the 1940s. There are many ways in which throughout history God has handed the "cup of his wrath" to offending nations.

In these seven verses Isaiah resumes in a general way his picture of the condition of the Jewish community in Babylonia for the entire period of the exile prior to the fall of Babylonia to Cyrus the Great of Persia (586-538 BC). In a sense, this seems redundant at this point in the prophecy, since he has said this before in other words and has moved on to other subjects built upon his earlier statement of this condition. 

17 The Jewish exiles (called "Jerusalem" here) are depicted as sleeping off a hangover from too much wine that they have drunk. That wine represents the punishment that God meted out to them in the form of the exile. This imagery is also found in Jeremiah (25:15) and is revived in the New Testament Book of Revelation (Rev 14:8, 10, 19; 18:3; 19:15). The cup from which they drank is called the "cup of his wrath" because God had been very angry at their pre-exilic idolatrous conduct (Isa. 2:8; 10:11; Jer. 16:18), which constituted a flagrant breach of the terms of his relationship with them, expressed in the laws of Moses. It is called the "bowl of staggering", because it confused their thinking and made it impossible for them to defend against the armies of Nebuchadnezzar that attacked Jerusalem and destroyed it (586 BC; 2 Chron. 36:15-19).

18 "There is no one to guide her …" This verse may be a retrojection, describing the confused thinking of the military and political leaders at the time of the Babylonian invasion of Judah, or it may describe the spiritual condition of the people in exile. 

19 The verse says that "these two things have befallen you," yet appears to list four! But we must remember that in Hebrew poetry the same two items may be repeated with two synonyms. Thus, "ruin and destruction" are regarded as approximately the same things as "famine and sword". The point is that the destruction wrought on Judah by the Babylonian army ("sword", "destruction") produced extreme human hardships ("ruin", "famine"). And since these words are addressed to the Jewish exiles already in Babylonia, the inference is that they still suffer the after-effects of what happened in Judah that sent them to Babylonia. In Babylonia they may have recovered outwardly from those former conditions, in that they may be eating well and have homes, but the emotional and spiritual trauma of being landless and God-less still tortured them.
The twofold rhetorical questions: "Who can comfort you?" and "Who can console you?" ring in their ears, and remind the attentive reader that at the outside of this second part of Isaiah (40:1-2) God commands the "voice of one crying" to "Comfort, comfort my people!" — using the verb "comfort!" twice.

20 The "sons" of Judah are her citizen defenders, who were struck down in the attack of Nebuchadnezzar's troops and left lying in the streets. They were the visible evidence that Judah had drunk of the wine of God's anger, for they were "filled with the anger of Yahweh" and his "rebuke".

21-23 Now in the typical language of reversal of fortunes, God promises the exiles that having made them suffer in captivity for the sins that angered him, he will now turn his attention to Babylonia and punish her for her many sins, among which would also be their treatment of the Judeans! This was what God already did to the Assyrians, whom he used to punish the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC. He called them the "rod of my anger" (Isaiah 10:5). God used this "rod" to administer a spanking to his chosen people. But because Assyria thought that it was her own might and the might of her gods that had defeated Israel and inflicted suffering upon them, God would punish her as well:
When the Lord has finished all his work against Mount Zion and Jerusalem, he will say, “I will punish the king of Assyria for the willful pride of his heart and the haughty look in his eyes.  13 For he says: “ ‘By the strength of my hand I have done this, and by my wisdom, because I have understanding. I removed the boundaries of nations, I plundered their treasures; like a mighty one I subdued their kings. 14 As one reaches into a nest, so my hand reached for the wealth of the nations; as men gather abandoned eggs, so I gathered all the countries; not one flapped a wing, or opened its mouth to chirp.’”  15 Does the ax raise itself above him who swings it, or the saw boast against him who uses it? As if a rod were to wield him who lifts it up, or a club brandish him who is not wood! 16 Therefore, the Lord, the LORD Almighty, will send a wasting disease upon his sturdy warriors; under his pomp a fire will be kindled like a blazing f (Isaiah 10:12–17 NIV)
God fulfilled this promise when he sent a plague on the army of Sennacherib, king of Assyria, when it was investing and besieging the city of Jerusalem (Isaiah 36-37). The plague is depicted figuratively as an angel of God (37:36-37).

The comfort of God's believing people today is the knowledge that in his astounding love and grace, the Son of God himself drank the cup of God's righteous judgment on us as he hung on a Roman cross in AD 33. This was done so that you and I, if we commit ourselves to his saving mercy and care, trusting that he died for us, may rest assured that we will never have to drink that cup ourselves.
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. (1 Peter 3:18 NIV)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

God's Identity and Ours -- Isaiah 51

“Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek Yahweh:  Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; 2 look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth. When I called him he was but one, and I blessed him and made him many. 3 Yahweh will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of Yahweh.  Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing.  (Isaiah 51:1-3 NIV).”
As I commented a few weeks ago, when we were studying chapter 48 in which God accused the exiles of sinful rebelliousness, the fact that they fell short of God's ideal behavior is not different from the situation of many of us who are Christians. We are God's people not because we are sinless, but because Christ died for us and we believe.

In this section of Isaiah the prophet alternates between mentioning the Jewish exiles' failures and their persistent faith. Here he describes his addressees as "you who pursue righteousness" and "you who seek Yahweh" (v. 1). This can hardly be a description of a worthless people.  If they are doing the right thing by pursuing righteousness, then what precisely is their problem? All of the promises of deliverance  given in these verses imply that they needed encouragement that their faith and efforts were not in vain.

1-2   Here is a perfect example of where it is important to read the entire context before drawing conclusions. Usually, if I were to say to you "Look to the rock," you would think that the rock was God, and that looking to him meant trusting him. He is called "our Rock" in the Psalms. But verse 2 is merely repeating the thought of v. 1 in different words, as is the custom in Hebrew poetry. The rock is Abraham and Sarah. What does God mean when he asks them to look to Abraham and Sarah? Yes, he was an example of faith. And Isaiah does call him a rock, which we tend to think of in terms of solid faith. But significantly he also calls him and Sarah a "quarry". What important aspect does that term add? How does a quarry differ from a rock? He mentions, that from one man (and his wife) God made a huge nation (v. 2). How is that relevant to the exiles plight?  This leads up to v. 3, where he seems to draw his conclusion.

3 In Ezekiel 33 God described the Jews in Israel right before the exile as using the same argument about Abraham being one but now they are many to justify their false confidence that with their present numbers they could keep the land and protect it from the Babylonian armies. Through Ezekiel God warned them that that attitude would get them nowhere.
Then the word of Yahweh came to me: 24 “Son of man, the people living in those ruins in the land of Israel are saying, ‘Abraham was only one man, yet he possessed the land. But we are many; surely the land has been given to us as our possession.’ 25 Therefore say to them, ‘This is what the Lord Yahweh says: Since you eat meat with the blood still in it and look to your idols and shed blood, should you then possess the land? 26 You rely on your sword, you do detestable things, and each of you defiles his neighbor’s wife. Should you then possess the land?’ 27 “Say this to them: ‘This is what the Lord Yahweh says: As surely as I live, those who are left in the ruins will fall by the sword, those out in the country I will give to the wild animals to be devoured, and those in strongholds and caves will die of a plague. 28 I will make the land a desolate waste, and her proud strength will come to an end, and the mountains of Israel will become desolate so that no one will cross them. 29 Then they will know that I am Yahweh, when I have made the land a desolate waste because of all the detestable things they have done.’ (Ezekiel 33:23-29 NIV)
But here in Isaiah God used the one-to-many imagery in a different way. The renewal and repopulating of the land after the exile would not by a people violating the dietary laws or relying on the force of arms, but through the compassion of Yahweh, as he looked upon the ruins and wished to comfort his people. He, not they, would make their deserts like Eden. He, not they, would produce joy, thanksgiving, and singing. This was a promise of grace.

“Listen to memy people; hear memy nation:  Law will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations. 5 My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations. The distant coastlands will look to me and wait in hope for my arm.  6 Lift up your eyes to the heavens, look at the earth beneath; the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies. But my salvation will last forever, my righteousness will never fail.  (Isaiah 51:4-6 NIV)

4-5 Count the number of times the word "me" and "my" occur in verses 4 and 5. Yes, 11 times! Do you see the emphasis of God here? Israel's salvation—and even the salvation of the distant nations—will not be based upon what they do, but on what God does for them. Three images describe what God will bring: his righteousness, his salvation and his arm. The meaning of the first two is fairly clear.
“Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. (Exodus 6:6 NIV)
Is. 48:14    The LORD’S chosen ally will carry out his purpose against Babylon; his arm will be against the Babylonians.
Is. 51:5    My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations. The distant coastlands will look to me and wait in hope for my arm.
Is. 51:9    Awake, awake! Clothe yourself with strength, O arm of the LORD; awake, as in days gone by, as in generations of old.   Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces, who pierced that monster through?
Is. 52:10    The LORD will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.
Is. 53:1    Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
Is. 59:16    He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him.
Is. 63:5    I looked, but there was no one to help, I was appalled that no one gave support; so my own arm worked salvation for me, and my own wrath sustained me.
Is. 63:12 who sent his glorious arm of power to be at Moses’ right hand, who divided the waters before them, to gain for himself everlasting renown,
In verse 6 the heavens and earth—symbols of what will seemingly last forever—are said to be even less enduring than the salvation that God offers to those who trust in him.
“Hear me, you who know what is right, you people who have my law in your hearts: Do not fear the reproach of men or be terrified by their insults.  8 For the moth will eat them up like a garment; the worm will devour them like wool. But my righteousness will last forever, my salvation through all generations.”  (Isaiah 51:7-8 NIV)

Again, the people who are addressed are defined as those who "have my law in your hearts". This reminds us of the description of the New Covenant promised by Jeremiah in chapter 31, especially verses 33-34:
“This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares Yahweh. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know Yahweh,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares Yahweh. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”  (Jeremiah 31:33-34 NIV adapted)

Who are those who will insult and demean the Jews of the New Covenant? In the books of Ezra and especially Nehemiah we read of those who ridiculed the Jewish returnees and their attempts to honor Yahweh by rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and the temple. In the days of the Maccabees, Jews who believed in the law of Yahweh and wished to keep all the terms of his covenant with them were hounded and persecuted. And of course, when Jesus appeared as the promised Messiah, those Israelites who honored him and believed in him were not only insulted and persecuted by Romans and Greeks, but even by the leaders of the Jewish nation, who did not have Yahweh's law written in their hearts.
Awake, awake! Clothe yourself with strength, O arm of Yahweh; awake, as in days gone by, as in generations of old.  Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces, who pierced that monster through? 10 Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made a road in the depths of the sea so that the redeemed might cross over? 11 The ransomed of Yahweh will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away. (Isaiah 51:9-11 NIV)
It seems almost rude to modern Western Christians to command God to wake up. We need to read the prayers of Moses and other great heroes of faith in the Old Testament. It was quite normal for men and women of faith in those days to speak to God in ways that they felt were intimate and trusting, but which seem to us as culturally impolite. Saints like Isaiah knew that God was just and loving and protective of his own. When they did not see this happening, the normal reaction was to call upon God to "Wake up!" God himself is referred to by the words "arm of Yahweh." What were the "days gone by" to which Isaiah refers? Who or what was "Rahab" that was "cut in pieces"? See Isaiah 30:7 for a clue:
An oracle concerning the animals of the Negev:  Through a land of hardship and distress, of lions and lionesses, of adders and darting snakes, the envoys carry their riches on donkeys’ backs, their treasures on the humps of camels, to that unprofitable nation, 7 to Egypt, whose help is utterly useless. Therefore I call her Rahab the Do-nothing. (Isaiah 30:6-7 NIV)
See also Psalm 87:4, where "Rahab and Babylon" means "Egypt and Babylon."  Do not be misled by the identical English spellings of "Rahab": the letters and sounds of this name for Egypt and the name of the believing harlot Rahab in Joshua are different. No possibility of confusion existed in Hebrew: only in our English Bibles.

What famous biblical event is referred to in v. 10? How is this similar to what God is promising the exiles here?

How were the returning Jewish exiles properly called "the ransomed of Yahweh" (p'dûyê Yahweh) in verse 11? The same Hebrew verb is translated either "ransom" or "redeem". This is the only time this verb is used in the second half of Isaiah, although the concept is expressed with other terms. Furthermore, this verse is a verbatim repetition of Isaiah 35:10. There the context is the following:
And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness.  The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it.  9 No lion will be there, nor will any ferocious beast get up on it; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, 10 and the ransomed of Yahweh will return.  They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away. (Isaiah 35:8-10 NIV)
In Isaiah 29:22 it is said that Yahweh is the one who "redeemed/ransomed Abraham". Since no sacrifice or payment was made to bring Abraham out of Ur and into the covenant with God, what can be the meaning here of "ransomed/redeemed"? It seems likely that the answer is the use of the name "Abraham" in 29:22 as a name for Israel, his posterity, just as the nation Israel is often called "Jacob". So God certainly did "ransom/redeem" the nation Israel from Egypt with both the sacrifices of the Passover lamb and with the judgment on Pharaoh in the Red Sea. The phrase "the ransomed of Yahweh" then is a term for the nation Israel, always referring back to the Exodus event, although it has a continuing relevance to Yahweh's powerful presence among them to save and purify.
“I, even I, am he who comforts you. Who are you that you fear mortal men, the sons of men, who are but grass, 13 that you forget Yahweh your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth, that you live in constant terror every day because of the wrath of the oppressor, who is bent on destruction?  For where is the wrath of the oppressor? 14 The cowering prisoners will soon be set free; they will not die in their dungeon, nor will they lack bread. 15 For I am Yahweh your God, who churns up the sea so that its waves roar—Yahweh of Hosts is his name.  16 I have put my words in your mouth and covered you with the shadow of my hand— I who set the heavens in place, who laid the foundations of the earth, and who say to Zion, ‘You are my people.’” (Isaiah 51:12-16 NIV adapted)
One of the many tricks that Satan uses on believers is to get them focusing on their circumstances instead of on their identity? What difference should it make in what circumstances we find ourselves, if we are "sons of God"? Similarly, he deceived Eve in the garden of Eden by getting her to focus on the particular circumstance of the prohibition of eating the fruit instead of on the character of the God who made her. See how God reverses that perspective in these verses by focusing Israel's attention on his own identity and on theirs as his chosen people. How can Israel fear? Only by forgetting who God is and who they are. Our circumstances are constantly changing: today everything goes well and we are ebullient. tomorrow everything goes wrong from the moment we get up from bed, and we are miserable. But nothing changes in who God is or who we are. It is a matter of keeping our focus on the unchanging things. Are you ill? You are still God's child, and he your lover and healer. Are you unemployed? He is still you lover and your provider. Have you been insulted by someone? He is your lover who gives you the power to return good for evil.

Let us all use these certain truths about our Savior God and about our own secure position in his love to revolutionize the way we live each day.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Suffering Servant Sustains the Weary—Isaiah 50

In chapter 49 the Suffering Servant Messiah was introduced, and his calling, his initial apparent failure, and his eventual success are described. Already—in the section describing his initial apparent failure (49:4 and 7a)—the Servant is called "despised" and "abhorred".
Contrary to the impression created by the translation "abhorred by the nation" which is used by the ESV and NIV, the Servant is abhorred by the gōy, a Hebrew term never used of Israel, but only of foreign nations, "gentiles". It is possible that it is used here globally for "people" in general, as the ancient Greek translation suggests by using the plural "the nations", including the Jews as well as gentiles. When thinking of those who despised and abhorred Jesus, we tend to focus on the Jewish leaders who condemned him to death. But in Isaiah 53, the key Isaiah passage that predicts his death, the Servant is "despised and rejected by men", not specifically Israel. Here is how it reads:
"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" (Isaiah 53:3).
Resuming and expanding the thought of the Servant's rejection, chapter 50 describes the Servant's teaching ministry both to those who accepted him and his detractors. 

    (Isaiah 50:4-9) The Lord Yahweh has given me the language of instruction, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught. 5 The Lord Yahweh has opened my ears, and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back. 6 I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting. 7 Because the Lord Yahweh helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame. 8 He who vindicates me is near. Who then will bring charges against me? Let us face each other! Who is my accuser? Let him confront me! 9 It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty? All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.

4 We say that some people are "born teachers", and it is true that they seem to have a gift that one associates with birth. But in fact most good teachers are the product of long and careful cultivation. Although he was the Son of God, Jesus must have acquired his gift of teaching by long years of practice as he matured. His precocious knowledge of scripture is shown in Luke's account of his sitting among the teachers in the Jerusalem temple, asking pointed questions that displayed an extraordinary understanding of the scriptures. There was at least one synagogue in Nazareth, where he must have gone with his parents. Our text in Isaiah suggests that the purpose of this deep familiarity with the scriptures and ability to communicate it had a primary aim. What was it?
God's strength to sustain the weary is a theme already broached in Isaiah 40:28-29. Jesus invited "weary" people to come to him. He sustained them with the "language of instruction" (l'šôn limmûḏı̂m).
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,i and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28-29 NRSV)ii
But what were they weary of? What heavy burdens were Jesus' listeners carrying that he could relieve them of? Matthew himself records another saying of Jesus that provides us with a clue:
The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they don't practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23:2-4 NRSV)
In order to prevent accidental breaking of a scriptural law, the scholars of Jesus day did something called "building a hedge around the Torah." This meant adding something more stringent to the commands so as to make sure that the less stringent scriptural law would not be accidentally broken. This would be like setting a speed limit at 25, just to make sure drivers would not exceed 30 MPH. The result was a very tightly controlled daily life that could become a great and needless hardship on ordinary people who did not have the leisure that the wealthy had to spend on convenient ways to comply with these laws.
But the second way in which the yoke of the law was a "burden", was that it came to be regarded by the general public as a condition of acceptance with God. What we call "justification by works" may not have been the way learned scholars and religious leaders understood of role of the law, but ordinary laymen soon came to see it that way.
The Pharisees and scribes referred to the law of Moses as a "yoke" which faithful Jews took upon themselves in order to serve God. And Paul used that term in a more negative sense to show that it was a "yoke of slavery" (Gal. 5:1) in the bad sense.iv
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
Humanly speaking, the secret of Jesus' inner rest was the fact that he had taken upon himself his Father's "yoke" and "learned" of Him. This means that he put his Father's yoke, as expressed in the scriptures themselves, in place of the "yoke of the law" as taught by the rabbis.
The imagery here is important to grasp. Undeniably, the word "yoke" (ʿōl) in ancient Hebrew parlance could refer to enslavement (Gen 27:40; Lev 26:13; Deut 28:48; Is 14:25). But it is often overlooked that it could have a positive side. And that side is what Jesus alludes to when he invites the weary to take his yoke upon them. A "yoke" was a device placed on the shoulders of oxen that enabled two of them to pull together.

In other words, it implied joint effort. This was undoubtedly the reason why Old Testament law forbade yoking together an ox and an ass (Deut 22:10), since the two would not work properly together and this would produce unequal pulling, resulting in inefficient work and perhaps cause suffering to one or both of the animals. St. Paul applies this law to a marriage and other partnerships between a believer and an unbeliever, when he urges the Corinthian Christians: "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?" (2 Corinthians 6:14 NIV).
As Jesus used the term, we who come to him in faith for forgiveness and a new form of life will become yoked to him, so that each of us pulls life's load jointly with him. In a sense, this teaming is also unequal. But the Lord knows how to work in teamwork with us so that it is efficient and not cruel to the human partner.
We are invited to take his yoke upon us and learn from him.
Of course, Jesus' "language [literally, tongue] of instruction" was used against those who opposed his Father's words and will: he used it effectively against the Pharisees and scribes.
But moving on to the next phrase, how was Jesus' ear "wakened" each day to listen to God?
Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. (Mark 1:35 NIV)
5 Although this verse immediately follows v. 4, where listening and being taught is the theme, the words "opened my ears" may have a slightly different implication here. Notice this is immediately followed—as though by way of explanation—by the words "I was not rebellious." The focus here then is not so much on knowledge acquired as on obedience to God's will. Surely this is one of the main impressions one gains from reading the gospel accounts of Jesus' public ministry: he was obedient as every stage to the will of his Father. This is a deliberate contrast to the description of Israel as God's imperfect servant in 48:8, which reads:
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. (Isaiah 48:8 NIV)
This Servant is not rebellious, but completely obedient. Why is it necessary to establish his complete obedience? What is Isaiah preparing us for that will be revealed in chapter 53? Yes, the death of the completely obedient, sinless Servant in order to take upon himself the sins of the disobedient servant!
Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. 6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6 NIV)
In the gospel accounts Jesus made it quite clear that he was sinless:
The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.” (John 8:29 NIV) …Which one of you convicts me of sin? (John 8:46 ESV); see also “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” (1 Peter 2:22 NIV)
6 How is this verse related to the preceding one which we were just discussing? To what lengths did Jesus' obedience to his Father's will take him? Again we cannot avoid looking ahead to 53:10, where it is said that "it was Yahweh's will to crush him and cause him to suffer" (53:10). In the Gethsemane prayer Jesus asked that not his own, but his Father's will be done (Luke 22:42). This physical treatment—being struck on back and cheek, being spat upon and insulted—was literally received by Jesus according to the gospels, all in connection with his arrest, trial and preparation for crucifixion (Mark 14:65; 15:17-19; Luke 18:31-33). In Luke 18:31-33 Jesus told his disciples that it was "written by the prophets about the Son of Man [himself]" that he would be "handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again."
7-9 The Servant will be obedient to the extent that he will be abused and falsely accused. In chapter 53 we will learn that he will be put to death, and that in order to achieve forgiveness for the world's sinful people. But did he also have confidence that his mission would succeed and himself be exalted and rewarded with honor? Yes, that is the meaning of verses 7-9. According to widespread belief in those days, people who suffered were being punished by God for sins. If the Servant suffers, it must be because he was a rebellious sinner. We have seen above that he denied being rebellious. But now he announces that Yahweh himself will vindicate him as the innocent One who suffers only instead of others who deserve it. He will "not be disgraced" (7); or "put to shame (7). No accuser can prove him guilty of anything (8-9). These are words such as Samuel the prophet used to the people when he stepped down as the political leader of Israel in favor of the first king (1 Sam 12:1-5). But they were also echoed by Jesus himself when he challenged his opponents in John 8:46 with the words: "Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?"
This leads to the next section, verses 10-11, apparently also spoken by the Servant:

    (Isaiah 50:10-11) Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the word of his servant? Let him who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God. 11 But now, all you who light fires and provide yourselves with flaming torches, go, walk in the light of your fires and of the torches you have set ablaze. This is what you shall receive from my hand: You will lie down in torment.

The Servant here addresses his followers and his opponents. The former can expect to have to trust in the name of the LORD while walking without light. All of us have to do this at times. Not that we are ever without the light that comes from God's word, the Scriptures. But we sometimes face situations where the choice of a God-honoring course may not be clear to us. In those situations our best course is to do what appears to most honor Christ.
To the latter he warns that the artificial "light" that they create for themselves, while ignoring the true light of the world, will only burn them in the end. From the hand of the Servant himself they will receive consignment to eternal torment and fire. The words "they will lie down" can also be translated as "they will fall sleep"—this is a typical way of referring to death using sleep s a metaphor.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Now about freedom from a different bondage … (Isaiah 49)

With this chapter we turn a corner in the argument of the second half of Isaiah. Throughout the chapters we have been reading God speaks through Isaiah's writings to a future generation of his people who will find themselves in exile in distant Babylonia, without temple or priesthood, nursing a strong sense of discouragement, if not utter despair. Although God himself has not failed them, they know that they are where they are through their own failure to keep the covenant he gave them on Mt. Sinai. Some may remember the words at the end of Deuteronomy (30:1-10), the promise that God would bring them back from exile. But others may not. Gloom was the order of the day.
As I mentioned in our last class, there were essentially two problems that looked insurmountable to them: (1) first, they were exiles in a foreign pagan land with no hope of ever returning to their homeland, where they would also have to have Babylonian permission to rebuilt their temple—very unlikely; and (2) second, even if this could be accomplished, how would they ever be able to rectify their relationship with the God whose covenant they had broken?
In chapters 40-48, which we have now finished studying, God gave them the answer to the first question: he would raise up a Persian king to conquer Babylonia and issue a decree allowing the Jews to return to Israel, where a later Persian king would permit them to rebuild the temple. But what about the second problem? That will be the focus of the next section, chapters 49-55, of which todays chapter (49) is the beginning. This in turn has three subdivisions: (1) first (chs 49-52) God assures them that he has not abandoned them but wants to renew his covenant relationship with them and deal with their sin. But in this section he does not yet tell them how. (3) In the third section (chs 54-55) he invites them to participate in a deliverance from their sins that is seen as accomplished. (2) It is the middle section in which he describes how (ch. 53), this is the section in which the final and ultimate realization of the "Servant of Yahweh" is revealed, the suffering and rising Savior whose salvation can be spread to the entire Earth.

  1. Listen to me, you coastlands; hear this, you distant1 peoples:2 Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name. 2 He made my mouth like a sharpened sword,3 in the shadow of his hand he hid me;4 he made me into a polished arrow5 and concealed me in his quiver. 3 He said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.”6 4 But I said, “I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing. Yet what is due me is in the LORD’s hand, and my reward is with my God.” 5 And now the LORD says— he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD and my God has been my strength— 6 he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:1-6 NIV).

If you were asked who the servant is who speaks and is spoken of here, you might legitimately think (1) the prophet, (2) the nation Israel, (3) the faithful remnant within Israel, or (4) the messiah (Jesus). In some of these verses you could make a case for any of these. But if you try to make it work in all the verses, it only really works for (4), the messiah.
In chapters 40-48 repeatedly God has referred to "the servant of Yahweh". And in all of these—or some would say in all but one—the servant is the nation of Israel itself. She is Yahweh's servant, despite being temporarily in exile, who will fulfill his will and reveal him to the nations. But she can only do that, once she is set free from exile and her sins are removed. And so the time has come in ch. 49 to reveal that there is another Servant who is the realization of all that Israel should have been and more. He too is physically the descendent of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David, although in the second half of Isaiah (unlike in the first half: Isa 9:6-7; 16:5; 22:22) nothing is explicitly said about his Davidic ancestry.
Why does the Servant address the nations of the world here, instead of just the exiles? And how are those nations to hear his words, since they are contained in this Hebrew scroll in the possession of the Jewish exiles? How will the Servant accomplish these things?
How does verse 2 describe Jesus the Messiah? How was he hidden? How is he a sword or an arrow?
How does verse 4 describe his earthly experience of ministry? Notice that nothing is said of the Servant's "sin"; only that he himself speaks/thinks that his labor is futile. In what sense could one say that it looks like Jesus' ministry was a failure?
Verses 5-6 show a turn of fortune ("but now"). Now the Servant is "honored" in God's eyes, although v 7 says he is "deeply despised, abhorred by the nations".7 What part of the Servant's task is "not enough" according to these verses?

  1. 7 This is what the LORD says— the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel— to him who was despised and abhorred by the nation, to the servant of rulers: “Kings will see you and rise up, princes will see and bow down, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” 8 This is what the LORD says: “In the time of my favor I will answer you, and in the day of salvation I will help you; I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people, to restore the land and to reassign its desolate inheritances, 9 to say to the captives, ‘Come out,’ and to those in darkness, ‘Be free!’ “They will feed beside the roads and find pasture on every barren hill. 10 They will neither hunger nor thirst, nor will the desert heat or the sun beat upon them. He who has compassion on them will guide them and lead them beside springs of water. 11 I will turn all my mountains into roads, and my highways will be raised up. 12 See, they will come from afar— some from the north, some from the west, some from the region of Aswan.’” 13 Shout for joy, O heavens; rejoice, O earth; burst into song, O mountains! For the LORD comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones. (Isaiah 49:7-13 NIV).

Verse 7 shows a recurring theme in Old Testament prophecies about the coming Servant of Yahweh, the Messiah: they usually are not explicit that he will die and rise again, but they intimate it by describing a dramatic change of fortunes. At first he is despised and rejected, then he is honored and exalted. Between these two dramatically opposite attitudes lies the event that changes it all, the resurrection. Kings normally remained seated in the presence of their subjects. For a king to stand usually meant to honor the subject. But this verse also says the kings will "prostrate themselves" —lie flat on the ground before the Servant. This already happens in the case of Christian monarchs. The King of England was reported to have risen from his seat when the Hallelujah chorus began at the first performance of Handel's Messiah. And when Christ returns, we are told that "every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Phil 2:9-11; see Isa 45:23). The Servant will succeed and be honored "because of the faithfulness of Yahweh" who has chosen him, i.e., God the Father.
How does this passage explain what God faithfully does to enable the Servant to succeed? Read verses 8-12 and point out phrases that tell you how.
Verse 13 is a final shout of triumph and praise to God who gives the victory. Why are the heavens and the earth, and mountains, asked to celebrate? Isaiah speaks of the creation celebrating with joy also in Is. 44:23 
Sing, O heavens, for the LORD has done it; shout, O depths of the earth; break forth into singing, O mountains, O forest, and every tree in it! For the LORD has redeemed Jacob, and will be glorified in Israel. 
Do they rejoice for God, like the angels do? Or does the Servant's success somehow benefit them? One answer involves St. Paul's clear statement that, as all of creation came under the curse after Adam's sin, so it will be freed from that curse and restored to Edenic perfection at the second coming of Christ, when all believers will receive their resurrection bodies: 

  1. Romans 8:18-23  I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

This leads us to the third and last section of this chapter:

  1. Isaiah 49:14-50:4 But Zion said, “The LORD has abandoned me, the Lord has forgotten me.” 15 “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! 16 See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me. 17 Your sons hasten back, and those who laid you waste depart from you. 18 Lift up your eyes and look around; all your sons gather and come to you. As surely as I live,” declares the LORD, “you will wear them all as ornaments; you will put them on, like a bride. 19 “Though you were ruined and made desolate and your land laid waste, now you will be too small for your people, and those who devoured you will be far away. 20 The children born during your bereavement will yet say in your hearing, ‘This place is too small for us; give us more space to live in.’ 21 Then you will say in your heart, ‘Who bore me these? I was bereaved and barren; I was exiled and rejected. Who brought these up? I was left all alone, but these—where have they come from?’” 22 This is what the Sovereign LORD says: “See, I will beckon to the Gentiles, I will lift up my banner to the peoples; they will bring your sons in their arms and carry your daughters on their shoulders. 23 Kings will be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers. They will bow down before you with their faces to the ground; they will lick the dust at your feet. Then you will know that I am the LORD; those who hope in me will not be disappointed.” 24 Can plunder be taken from warriors, or captives rescued from the fierce? 25 But this is what the LORD says: “Yes, captives will be taken from warriors, and plunder retrieved from the fierce; I will contend with those who contend with you, and your children I will save. 26 I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh; they will be drunk on their own blood, as with wine. Then all mankind will know that I, the LORD, am your Savior, your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.” 50:1 This is what the LORD says: “Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce with which I sent her away? Or to which of my creditors did I sell you? Because of your sins you were sold; because of your transgressions your mother was sent away. 2 When I came, why was there no one? When I called, why was there no one to answer? Was my arm too short to ransom you? Do I lack the strength to rescue you? By a mere rebuke I dry up the sea, I turn rivers into a desert; their fish rot for lack of water and die of thirst. 3 I clothe the sky with darkness and make sackcloth its cover.

Notice that now it is no longer the Servant-Messiah who speaks, but "Zion"—that is, the Israelite exiles. Have you ever had someone give you a promise that you simply couldn't bring yourself to believe? Did you ever say to someone, "You're joking! You can't mean that!"? Just image yourself as a Jew living in pagan Babylonia in the days of Ezekiel and having these verses read to you in synagogue and explained by the rabbi that they meant Yahweh was going to do all these things for Israel. How unbelievable they must have seemed! In this section Isaiah anticipates that reaction, and has to persuade the incredulous that God would do these very things.
He answers the claim that Yahweh has "forgotten" the Jews in exile in verses 14-16. God does not enter into covenants with people that he intends to cast off and forget. His tender love is greater than that of a mother toward the baby at her breast.
In 50:1-4 he answers a second objection: The exiles think that Yahweh has divorced Israel as a husband might divorce an unfaithful wife. God asks them where is the certificate of divorce that he served on them. Look in the prophets—the scriptures. Does God ever say, even in the heat of his anger against the idolatries of the pre-exilic kings, that he has divorced Israel? No. Without such a certificate, Israel is still Yahweh's wife: unfaithful, but still a wife. Do you remember what happened to the prophet Hosea, and what God told him to do? He married a woman named Gomer and a daughter and a son, each with symbolic names that God instructed him to give: Lo-ruhamah and Lo-ammi. The names meant "not pitied" and "not my people", and symbolized how God would punish these sinful Israelites. But after Gomer committed adultery against Hosea, God told him to seek her out, pay for her, and make her his wife again, and he renamed the children "pitied" and "my people".

  1. Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” 11 The people of Judah and the people of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head; and they shall take possession of the land, for great shall be the day of Jezreel. (Hosea 1:10-11);
    4 For the Israelites shall remain many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar, without ephod or teraphim. 5 Afterward the Israelites shall return and seek the LORD their God, and David their king; they shall come in awe to the LORD and to his goodness in the latter days. (Hosea 3:4-5)

Here too, in Isaiah 49, framed by those two sections, God holds out to them a glorious promise: that he will bring back to Israel out of far-flung dispersion and exile, believing Jews from distant lands (v. 22), brought there by gentiles who believe and honor the God of Israel. 
When will this happen? During Paul's day his gentile converts brought gifts and famine relief to the Jewish church in Jerusalem, and some think that Paul fancied this to be a partial fulfillment of such verses as these.8 But these gentile believers were not bringing back Jewish believers to Israel; so this can hardly be a real fulfillment. 
With many scholars I believe that these verses refer to what will yet happen at the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus. Of course, if we want to speak of partial, non-literal fulfillments, there is a sense in which, during the present age, when gentile believers like you and me succeed in winning Jewish friends to Christ, we bring them and present them to the Lord. This is not a real literal fulfillment, but it is part of what we should be about. Can you imagine how thirsty Jesus is today for the faith of his own people, according to the flesh? Our churches today are largely "Jew-free", and this is a terrible tragedy. Where is the love for the earthly relatives of Jesus, where is the effort, the prayers, the time, the giving of funds? What agency devoted to Jewish evangelism are you in communication with? Jews for Jesus? Chosen People Ministries? The man who led me to Christ in university was a gentile, but he loved Jewish people, and he spent several days a week on the streets of New York City talking with interested Jews about Jesus. You have Jewish neighbors: do you invite them to events at musical events on Sunday afternoon at College Church? Most Jews love good music. You work alongside Jewish people on your job. Do you inquire about their families and show a personal interest in them, that may lead to your being able to share the gospel with them? Some people think it demeans a Jew for you to imply that you have a relationship to God that she doesn't. But not if you really believe what we say we do. Instead it implies that these friends of yours are incapable of believing what God promised and did in Jesus. They might surprise you! 
Years ago, when Wini and I lived in Oak Park, Wini had a friend a volunteer on the staff of the Oak Park Public Library where she worked who was an elderly Jewish widow. This woman fled Nazi Germany barely missing being sent to the extermination camps. Yet she saw God's work in Wini and confessed that she wished she could believe, but couldn't. We entertained her in our home and patiently explained the gospel as best we could. Still she felt unable. On the eve of her death she sent a message to Wini saying she wanted to talk: she had made some kind of decision. She died before we could find out what it was. We would like to think she decided to believe Jesus was her messiah who died tos ave her. But we cannot know. What is important is not to underestimate the potential openness of Jewish acquaintances to the gospel, and to seek to befriend Jewish people for the sake of Jesus, who yearns to have them come to him.
Unsaved Jews are not as a group any more wicked that we were before we believed. 
Please do not confuse God's covenant relationship to his people with the personal salvation of all its individuals. I expect to see in Christ's eternal kingdom many Israelites from David's day, Elijah's day, and even from the exilic period. They will have been saved on the terms of the Abrahamic covenant: by faith in what God promised to them (Gen. 15:6), to the degree that those promises were capable of being understood. But will we see many Jews of the OT period in the future kingdom of Christ—who knows? Perhaps the majority we will will not see. But even a minority of that long history of a numerous people—is still a lot of people! Elijah underestimated the size of the believing remnant in the days of wicked King Ahab—7,000 who had not been willing to worship other gods. That was a good-sized remnant. 
There is most certainly a valid covenant between God and the physical descendants of Jacob, the Jewish people. Paul recognized its continuance when he wrote in Romans:
"To them belong9 the adoption, the glory, the covenants …" (Rom. 9:4). Notice that he did not write "belonged" (past tense), for even after the resurrection of Christ and the rejection of him by the majority of the Jewish people, God's covenant with their fathers remained. He also wrote "covenants" (plural), referring to those with Abraham, with Israel at Mt. Sinai, and the New Covenant mentioned in Jeremiah. All of those covenants, Paul viewed as still valid and operational during his missionary travels. They were not abrogated by the cross and resurrection of the Messiah. And this was the basis of Paul's conviction that a future removal of the spiritual blindness remains, and that at that time "all Israel will be saved" (Romans 11:26).
God keeps his promises, and God has a plan to undo the defection of his ancient people as well as the gathering in of a new people among the nations. You and I should be active as his hands and feet to accomplish some of this. 

1 For mērāḥôq in Second Isaiah see Is 43:6; 49:1, 12; 60:4, 9; 66:19. In this part of the book the word always has a spatial, not a temporal, meaning. In the first half of the book it sometimes has a temporal one ("long ago, from of old"): Is 22:11; 25:1; 37:26.
2 LXX "you peoples! After a long time it will stand." For διὰ χρόνου in Isaiah, see Is 30:27.
3 See Rev 1:16; 2:16; 19:15, 21, where Jesus has a mouth from which a sword emerges. See Heb 4:12, where the word of God itself is like a two-edged sword. For words as swords and arrows Ps 57:4; 64:3; Prov 25:18, .
5 See Jer 51:11 for brr "sharpen".
6 Jn 17:10
7 Although the text says "abhorred by the nation" (singular), the word for "nation" is gōy which is never used of Israel. Therefore, the meaning must be the gentile nations.
8 "Among the chief representatives of Israel in the new community of believers are Paul and Barnabas, who declare at Acts 13:47 that they are committed to the assignment given to the Servant (Isa 49:6). Similarly, at Acts 26:17-18 Paul assumes the obligations cited in Isaiah 49, and at Acts 28:28 solemnly confirms that the mission has been discharged. Thus Simeon’s prophecy finds it dramatic fulfillment" (F. Danker, “NUNC DIMITTIS,” Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 56).
9 In verbless clauses in Koine Greek, the present tense verbs "is" and "are" are usually omitted, leaving what are sometimes called "nominal sentences". But if the verb is "was" or "were" (past tense), it must be written explicitly. So since no past tense verb occurs here, the present tense interpretation of most translations is required. The NJB translation of this verse is therefore incorrect.