Reason to Rejoice

12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.

15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Philippians 1:12-18 ESV

One of the truly amazing things about Paul is his attitude of selflessness and total lack of self-obsessiveness. While he held the title of apostle and had been hand-picked by Jesus Christ Himself, Paul never saw himself as better than those to whom he ministered. He knew he was a leader and took seriously the responsibilities that came with his position. It was as if he lived by the counsel given to elders in the church by the apostle Peter.

Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. – 1 Peter 5:2-3 NLT

But unlike the average elder, Paul had responsibility for a much larger and geographically dispersed flock. He had helped plant churches throughout Asia, Galatia, Macedonia, and Achaia. And even though he was writing this letter while under house arrest in Rome, he didn’t make it all about himself. In fact, his focus is clearly on those to whom he is writing. And he seems to be aware that they were upset over news of his imprisonment and pending trial in Rome. But rather than milk their sympathy and make it all about his less-than-ideal circumstances, he assured them that everything was okay. He attempted to assuage their concerns over his well-being by giving them a rather up-beat appraisal of his situation.

“…what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.” – Philippians 1:12 ESV

Basically, Paul assured them that “it’s all good!” There was nothing for them to worry about because God had His hands all over Paul’s circumstances. And Paul even seems to brag that everybody in the Emperor’s Imperial Guard was now aware that Paul was in prison because of His faith in Christ. It’s important to remember that the whole reason Paul was in Rome was because he had been accused of bringing a Gentile into the restricted area of the temple, and in doing so, violating Jewish religious laws. This was a crime worthy of death. And Paul had appealed for a hearing before Caesar because he knew he would never get a fair trial in Jerusalem, where the Jewish religious leaders were out to get him.

So, when Paul states that even the Roman guards had figured out that his imprisonment was due to Jesus Christ, it was because he had been busy sharing Christ with each and every guard he met. In the book of Acts, Luke records, “When we arrived in Rome, Paul was permitted to have his own private lodging, though he was guarded by a soldier” (Acts 28:16 NLT). In other words, Paul was under 24-hour watch, with a litany of Roman soldiers taking turns to guard him. And you can only imagine how Paul took advantage of this captive audience to relate the good news of Jesus Christ. As a result, the gospel was spreading throughout the Imperial Guard and the court of Nero.

From Paul’s perspective, as long as Jesus Christ was lifted up, that was all that mattered. And he was stoked that his imprisonment had actually emboldened the believers in Rome to step up their game and increase their influence over the pagan culture in Philippi. He joyfully related that, “because of my imprisonment, most of the believers here have gained confidence and boldly speak God’s message without fear” (Philippians 1:14 NLT).

And Paul revealed that he was unconcerned and unaffected by the news that there were others preaching the gospel in his absence. In fact, he was glad to hear it. Yes, he realized that there were some who were doing it for the wrong reasons. He describes them as being motivated by envy and rivalry. These individuals were jealous of Paul and his notoriety. They saw him as competition and were taking advantage of his incarceration to elevate themselves to positions of power and prominence. But, as long as the gospel was being shared, Paul was joyous, not jealous. He also knew that there were others who preached the gospel with pure motives, and he rejoiced in their work as well.

“…the message about Christ is being preached either way, so I rejoice.” – Philippians 1:18 NLT

Remember the context. Paul is under house arrest in Rome. He is under 24-hour guard and facing a trial before Nero, the Roman Emperor and a notorious enemy of the followers of the Way, or Christians. It had been several years since Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem and his hearings before the local authorities on trumped up charges.

He had no idea what the future held for him. But he will later allude to the only two options that seemed possible: Acquital or death.

“For I fully expect and hope that I will never be ashamed, but that I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. And I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die. For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better. I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live.” – Philippians 1:20-24 NLT

And Paul was willing to accept either outcome. If God chose to release Paul, the apostle would simply return to his work of sharing the gospel just as he had been doing. But if the divine decision required Paul to die, he would do so gladly, fully believing that “to die is gain.” But Paul’s main concern seems to be for the Philippian believers. He wants them to be encouraged, not discouraged. He doesn’t want them to worry about him or to lose sleep over the possible failure of the gospel. Paul’s imprisonment was not going to bring the spread of the good news to a screeching halt. There were other messengers.

And Paul wanted the believers in Philippi to know that they too had a job to do. His forced absence should motivate and mobilize them, not lead to despair and defeat.

“Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ. – Philippians 1:27 NLT

Paul gave a similar charge to the believers living in Colossae.

“We ask God to give you complete knowledge of his will and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding. Then the way you live will always honor and please the Lord, and your lives will produce every kind of good fruit. All the while, you will grow as you learn to know God better and better.” – Colossians 1:9-10 NLT

Imprisonment was not an impediment for Paul. He saw it as just one more way to spread the gospel to those who desperately needed to hear it, including Roman guards. And Paul didn’t want the Philippian believers to let his incarceration to cause them consternation. As far as Paul was concerned, it was all part of God’s will and part of the divine plan to spread the gospel around the world. And, as long as Jesus Christ was being proclaimed, Paul had more than enough reason to rejoice – even while under house arrest.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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The Fellowship of Faith

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. Philippians 1:3-11 ESV

When reading the letters of Paul it is essential to remember that, in most cases, he was writing to a community of believers, not a single individual. There are those cases where he wrote personal letters addressed to individuals, such as Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. But the majority of his correspondence was addressed to a corporate body of believers located in a specific city or community. This letters are usually referred to as his pastoral epistles. In them, we get a glimpse of Paul’s strong sense of calling as a shepherd over the flock of Jesus Christ.

At one point in his ministry, Paul told the elders of the church in Ephesus:

“I have done the Lord’s work humbly and with many tears. I have endured the trials that came to me from the plots of the Jews. I never shrank back from telling you what you needed to hear, either publicly or in your homes. I have had one message for Jews and Greeks alike—the necessity of repenting from sin and turning to God, and of having faith in our Lord Jesus.” – Acts 20:19-21 NLT

He wasn’t boasting, but simply reminding these men that he had made their spiritual well-being his highest priority. Without an ounce of pride or arrogance, Paul was able to say to them:

“I declare today that I have been faithful. If anyone suffers eternal death, it’s not my fault, for I didn’t shrink from declaring all that God wants you to know.” – Acts 20:26-27 NLT

And then he challenged to follow his example.

“So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders.” – Acts 20:28 NLT

Paul had a deep and abiding sense of love for the church, the body of Christ. Yes, he cared for each individual Christian, but he knew that the strength of the church lie in the overall health of its constituency. While the body of Christ was made up of individual believers, God had chosen to place them within a single unit where their spiritual gifts, talents, and mutual love for one another could have the greatest impact. Paul made this point clear when writing to the church in Corinth:

“For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” – 1 Corinthians 12:14 NLT

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” – I Corinthians 12:27 NLT

His emphasis was always on unity and community.

“But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” – 1 Corinthians 12:24-26 NLT

So, as we read the opening lines of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, we must keep in mind that he is writing to a group of people. Even their reading of his letter would have taken place in a group context. But typically, we tend to read Paul’s letters as part of our personal devotionals. And, in doing so, we make the mistake of reading the letters as if they are addressed to us as individuals. We take every personal pronoun personally. When we see the word “you,”  we assume Paul is somehow speaking to us as an individual. So, when we read, “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ,” we apply it to ourselves. When Paul states, “I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding,” we read it as if he is addressing us individually, and by name.

But each of these personal pronouns used by Paul are plural in nature. He is addressing the body, not the individual. You could almost read them as, “you all.” So, as you make your way through this letter, imagine it is being read to you as you sit alongside your brothers and sisters in Christ from your local fellowship. Yes, his admonitions most certainly apply on an individual basis, but we miss the point of his letter if we fail to see them as messages to the corporate body of believers.

With all that in mind, look at how Paul opens his letter to the church in Philippi. He expresses his thanks to God for their very existence. He is grateful that God has allowed him to play a part in the establishment of this local fellowship. Remember, it all began with the conversion of a woman named Lydia, who came to faith in Christ after hearing the gospel from Paul and Silas. This wealthy and influential Gentile woman became a key leader in the new faith community there in Philippi, even hosting the fledgling church in her home.

Paul is grateful to God, because he realizes that the ministry he played a part in establishing was continuing without him. Paul was under house arrest in Rome and unable to visit the many churches he had helped to plant. But he was encouraged to know that the believers in Philippi were his partners in the gospel. In his absence, the message of the good news of Jesus Christ was being spread throughout the city. The Greek word that is translated as “partnership” is koinōnia, and it can also be translated as “fellowship.” Even though they were separated by many miles, Paul shared a sense of unity and mutual commitment to spreading the gospel throughout Philippi.

But while Paul was concerned about the good news of Jesus Christ be taken to every corner of Philippi, he knew that the success of that enterprise hinged on the spiritual health of the faith community to whom he wrote. Paul always maintained a balance between his desire for salvation and sanctification. He greatly desired to see people come to faith in Christ, but was equally concerned that they grow in their knowledge of and likeness to Christ. That is why he told the believers in Philippi that he was confident that God “who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.” God would finish what He started – in the church there at Philippi, but also in the lives of each individual believer.

Yet, it is essential that we see Paul’s emphasis on spiritual growth within its corporate context. Any increase in Christ-likeness we may experience is not for our own benefit. The gifts of the Spirit we have been given are not meant for us, but are intended to benefit and bless the body of Christ. Our salvation is not meant to be myopic and self-centered, but other-oriented and selfless in its focus.

When Paul states that his prayer is that their “love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment,” he is speaking to the entire body of believers there in Philippi. He desires that their love for one another grow exponentially. He longs that their knowledge and discernment increase steadily. But knowledge and discernment of what? The will of God. What is excellent or, as the New Living Translation puts it, “what really matters.” And, later on in this same letter, Paul will summarize exactly what he means.

“And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing.” – Philippians 4:8-9 NLT

And as their love, knowledge and discernment grows, they will become “pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:1-11 ESV).

The fruit of righteousness. That’s an interesting phrase that can be easily overlooked. Paul is letting his audience know that their corporate increase in righteousness will have benefits. It will produce fruit. And if you think about it, a tree that produces fruit does so, not for its own benefit, but for the benefit of others. And when Paul discusses the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5, the list of attributes he provides are all outwardly-focused: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

None of these things are meant to benefit the individual. Love is meant to share, not hoard. Joy is something we give away, not greedily pursue for own satisfaction. Peace is something we enjoy with others, not in isolation. Patience is impossible without the presence of others in our lives who put it to the test. All of these things are meant to be mutually shared and enjoyed as a faith community. As Paul told the believers in Corinth: “A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other” (1 Corinthians 12:7 NLT).

So, Paul begins his letter to the believers in Philippi by reminding them that they are in partnership with him and with one another for the cause of Christ. They were in this together. Christianity is a team sport, not an individual event. Our salvation is meant to be lived out in community, not isolation. Our sanctification is intended to be a group activity, not an individual pursuit done in secrecy and seclusion.

The fellowship of faith is powerful. The community of faith is transformational. The greatest impact any believer will have will be in proportion to his or her connection to and reliance upon the faith community into which God has placed them.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Call to Holiness

1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,

2 To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:1-2 ESV

As we begin our study of Paul’s letter to the believers in Philippi, it’s essential that we establish the historical context behind this document. Obviously, the opening line, which serves as the salutation to the letter, establishes Paul as its author. But we also find the name of Timothy, his young protégé and spiritual son in the faith. Timothy was alongside Paul as he penned this letter while under house arrest in Rome.

Paul had ended up in Rome by virtue of a series of complicated and, obviously, God-ordained events that had begun with a plot on his life. Paul had returned to Jerusalem in order to meet with James and the other leaders of the Jerusalem church. He made a report regarding his work among the Gentiles, and this news was met with great joy. But, while James and his associates were excited about what was obviously a sign of God’s hand upon Paul and his missionary efforts, they reported that the believing Jews in Jerusalem were less-than-enthusiastic about Paul’s work because of some disturbing rumors they had heard. It seems that Paul had been accused of teaching Jews that, once they came to Christ, they no longer had to keep the law of Moses. James presented Paul with the basic gist of the rumor.

“…they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs.” – Acts 21:21 ESV

James was concerned that once these Jews heard that Paul was in town, they would stir up trouble for him. So, he recommended that Paul go through a period of purification, signaling to his critics that he was still a faithful Jew. Paul had agreed to the recommendation and, as the seven days of purification were coming to a close, he had made his way to the temple to complete the process. But Paul ended up being accused of bringing a Gentile into the restricted area of the temple reserved solely for Jews. A mob descended upon Paul and they had every intention of putting him to death. But Paul was rescued by Roman soldiers and put under arrest. A small faction of the Jews swore an oath among themselves that the would fast from food or drink until they had put Paul to death.

When the plot was exposed, Paul was shipped to Caesarea where he appeared before the Roman governor, Felix. Paul would remain in Caesarea for two years, under house arrest. Eventually Felix was replaced by Festus, who decided to send Paul back to Jerusalem for trial. But Paul, knowing that he would not receive a fair trial in Jerusalem, appealed to his right as a Roman citizen to appear before Caesar in Rome. He was granted his request and was shipped to Rome, where he remained for two years under house arrest, awaiting trial before Caesar.

It was from Rome that Paul wrote this letter. But why is any of this background information relevant? It is because the entire letter to the Philippian believers is filled with words of encouragement. Here was a man who had spent years facing trumped-up charges that had left him imprisoned for a crime he had not committed. He was still facing a plot on his life and the prospect of appearing before Caesar with no guarantee that his trial would end in either his acquital or release.  In fact, he would tell his brothers and sisters in Philippi:

“For I fully expect and hope that I will never be ashamed, but that I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. And I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die.” – Philippians 1:21 NLT

Long before Paul ever arrived in Rome, he made a similar statement to the believers living there.

“If we live, it’s to honor the Lord. And if we die, it’s to honor the Lord. So whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” – Romans 14:8 NLT

So, here was Paul, writing to the believers in Philippi and attempting to encourage them in their faith. And the words that Paul writes to these people carry far more significance and weight where you consider the circumstances under which he wrote them. Consider this well-known declaration by Paul found later on in his letter.

“I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little.” – Philipiians 4:11-12 NLT

And he follows this expression of contentment in the face of adversity with the confident assertion: “For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13 NLT). This was a man who knew what he was talking about. He was not offering pious-sounding platitudes, but well-tested counself based on his own personal experience.

Paul had a strong attachment to the believers in Philippi because he had played a major role in their coming to faith. Early on, in the book of Acts, Luke records Paul’s arrival in Philippi, a Roman colony. Paul had the privilege of leading to Christ a woman named Lydia, along with her entire household. Her home had become the meeting place for the fledgling congregation. It was in Philippi that Paul and Silas were imprisoned for casting a demon out of a young slave girl whose masters profited from their use of her as a fortune teller. Once freed from her demon, she was of no use to these men and they turned their anger against Paul and Silas. After having been severely beaten, Paul and his companions were imprisoned. But Paul was not someone who let obstacles stand in his way, even the bars of a prison cell. It was while they were in prison that Paul and Silas led to Christ the jailer in charge of their care.

Once released from jail, Paul and Silas eventually made their way to Thessalonica, but it seems that Paul made at least one return trip to Philippi some time before the penning of his letter to them. His letter was in direct response to a gift he had received from them that had been delivered by a man named Epaphroditus. Paul would use this young man to deliver his letter, allowing him to return home and put to rest any concern they had over his well-being. It seems that Ephaphroditus had become deathly sick during his time in Rome, but had recovered.

“I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need,  for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill.” – Philippians 2:25-26 ESV

Paul was happy to send him home and included a word of commendation, praising Ephaphroditus for risking his life in order to minister to Paul’s needs.

But back to Paul’s salutation or greeting. He describes himself and Timothy as servants. The Greek word he used is doulos, and it refers to a bondservant or slave. It literally meant, “one who is subservient to, and entirely at the disposal of, his master; a slave.”

So, Paul doesn’t set himself as some kind of superior leader who deserves respect and honor, but describes himself as a lowly slave. This is the same designation Paul used when writing to the church in Rome.

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God. – Romans 1:1 ESV

Little did he know that, when he wrote these words, they would be prophetic. He would later become like a slave, living under the auhtority of the Roman government and completely subservient to their will. But he would see be serving Christ even while subject to the power and control of Rome.

And Paul addresses his letter “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi.” They are saints or hagios, a Hebrew word that carries a depth of meaning. It is often used to refer to holiness. But it can also mean “to be set apart.” According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, hagios was used “of things which on account of some connection with God possess a certain distinction and claim to reverence.” Like the temple itself and the items found within it, believers have been set apart by God for His use. They belong to Him. Which is what led Paul to tell the believers in Rome:

Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. – Romans 6:13 ESV

Paul had a deep desire to see his brothers and sisters in Christ live up to their calling as children of God. And he will plead with them to live lives that are set apart, reflecting their unique status as saints of God.

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel… – Philippians 1:27 ESV

Here was a man well-acquainted with what it means to suffer for his faith. He had first-hand experience with what it looks like to live as hagios in a world that stood in direct opposition to all he believed in and stood for. At the core of his message to the Philippian church will be Paul’s call to spiritual maturity in the face of adversity. They were a relatively healthy congregation, but they were surrounded by darkness and faced with the constant temptation to compromise their faith. And he will use his own walk with Christ as an example of what holiness looks like in real life.

But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 3:13-14 ESV

And Paul knew well, that this determination to press on and strive for the goal of Christ-likeness would require the grace and peace of God. But as Paul also knew, he could do all things through Christ who provided all the strength he needed.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

They Shall Declare My Glory

15 “For behold, the Lord will come in fire,
    and his chariots like the whirlwind,
to render his anger in fury,
    and his rebuke with flames of fire.
16 For by fire will the Lord enter into judgment,
    and by his sword, with all flesh;
    and those slain by the Lord shall be many.

17 “Those who sanctify and purify themselves to go into the gardens, following one in the midst, eating pig’s flesh and the abomination and mice, shall come to an end together, declares the Lord.

18 “For I know their works and their thoughts, and the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory, 19 and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations. 20 And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, on horses and in chariots and in litters and on mules and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord, just as the Israelites bring their grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the Lord. 21 And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the Lord.

22 “For as the new heavens and the new earth
    that I make
shall remain before me, says the Lord,
    so shall your offspring and your name remain.
23 From new moon to new moon,
    and from Sabbath to Sabbath,
all flesh shall come to worship before me,
declares the Lord.

24 “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” Isaiah 66:15-24 ESV

After 66 chapters, it would be easy to assume that the entire book of Isaiah is all about the nation of Judah. And while they are one of the main topics of the book and the key recipient of it the messages contained in it, they are not its primary focus. God is.

All throughout the book, Isaiah has communicated the glory and greatness of God. What set the people of Judah apart was their God. He was the reason they were a nation in the first place. He had called Abraham out of Ur and made from him a great nation consisting of descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. The whole purpose behind Isaiah writing the book that bears his name was to express God’s glory and expose the guilt of the people of Judah for refusing to reflect that glory to the nations. They were to have been a living, breathing witness to the rest of the world of what it looks like to live in unbroken fellowship with God Almighty. But they had failed. Instead of bringing glory to the name of God through submission to His will and obedience to His commands, they had displayed an open disregard for His holiness and greatness by pursuing false gods. They had profaned the name of God by their actions and, while God was obligated to punish them, He was still determined to protect the integrity of His reputation by remaining committed to the covenant He had made with them.

Throughout this book, the glory of God is juxtaposed to the sinfulness of humanity. And the divided kingdoms of Judah and Israel are highlighted as glaring examples of mankind’s stubborn rejection of God’s revealed glory. He had chosen, rescued, led, protected, and provided for them. He had given them His law as a guideline for living in relationship with Him and one another. He had provided them with the sacrificial system as a means of receiving forgiveness for the times they inevitably failed to live up to His law. And each time God displayed His power among them, showered His grace and unmerited favor on them, and maintained His covenant commitment to them, He was revealing His glory. But rather than responding in gratitude and with a renewed determination to remain faithful to Him, the peoples of Judah and Israel had continued to treat God’s glory with disdain and indifference.

So, the book of Isaiah tells us what God intends to do. It reveals His plans regarding His disobedient children and the rest of mankind who live in open rebellion to Him. While the punishment of Judah is a major theme of the book, the future restoration of Judah and Israel is given far more significance. And the primary point behind their restoration will be the glory of God. Isaiah has already told us what will happen in that day.

And you will say in that day:

“Give thanks to the Lord,
    call upon his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples,
    proclaim that his name is exalted.

“Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
    let this be made known in all the earth.
Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion,
    for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” – Isaiah 12:4-6 ESV

Notice that God is the main focus of these verses. He will receive thanks. It is His deeds that will be made known. His name will be exalted. Praises will be sung to Him and about Him. Because He alone is great. God’s restoration of His people will not go unnoticed by the rest of the world. They will recognize His glory and greatness as He displays His covenant faithfulness. But they will also see and experience His glory in the form of His judgment. As Isaiah has made clear, the day is coming when God will reveal His glory as He metes out justice to the nations.

“My mercy and justice are coming soon.
    My salvation is on the way.
    My strong arm will bring justice to the nations.
All distant lands will look to me
    and wait in hope for my powerful arm.
Look up to the skies above,
    and gaze down on the earth below.
For the skies will disappear like smoke,
    and the earth will wear out like a piece of clothing.
The people of the earth will die like flies,
    but my salvation lasts forever.
    My righteous rule will never end!” – Isaiah 51:5-6 NLT

Again, don’t miss the emphasis of these verses: My mercy and justice. My salvation. My strong arm. My righteous rule. It will all be about God and His glory. In fact, verse 18 of this chapter clearly states that the focus of all that happens in the end times will be the glory of God.

“For I know their works and their thoughts, and the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory…”

The Hebrew word translated “glory” is kabowd and it literally means “heaviness.” But it is primarily used to refer to weight or significance of something or someone. Used of God, it is an expression of His greatness, magnificence, and majesty. God’s glory is what sets Him apart as the one true God. Isaiah 43:7 tells us that we were made for God’s glory. In other words, our very existence points back to His majesty as the Creator-God. The psalmist tells us that “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1 ESV). The apostle Paul reminds us that, as believers, we are vessels of clay in which the very glory of God is contained (2 Corinthians 4:7).

God is all about His glory, and He can reveal His glory in a variety of ways. In fact, all that He does reveals His glory. When He saves, He received glory. When He judges, He is glorified. When He displays His righteous indignation against sinful mankind, the glory of His character is revealed. God’s merciful and gracious gift of His Son as payment for the sins of man is a manifestation of His glory. And Jesus told His followers that, when they bear fruit, “This brings great glory to my Father” (John 15:8 NLT).

So, back to the closing verses of Isaiah 66. What does any of this have to do with God’s glory? God talks about coming in fire and rendering His anger in fury. He describes His judgment as resulting in the deaths of many. In fact, the very last verse in the entire book states:

“And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” – Isaiah 66:24 ESV

And while that description may leave us feeling a bit discomfited, we must not overlook the reality that it too reveals the glory of God. He is going to deal with rebellious mankind once and for all. And less we think that God is being a bit too harsh, we have to remember that He has been extending grace and mercy to the nations for centuries. He has been showing great patience for generations. But the day is coming when His patience will run out and His righteous judgment will be poured out. And, as the book of Revelation reveals, when the period of the Tribulation comes and God begins to His final judgments upon humanity, the vast majority of them will refuse to repent.

Everyone was burned by this blast of heat, and they cursed the name of God, who had control over all these plagues. They did not repent of their sins and turn to God and give him glory. – Revelation 16:9 NLT

…and they cursed the God of heaven for their pains and sores. But they did not repent of their evil deeds and turn to God. – Revelation 16:11 NLT

And yet, notice what God is going to do. Isaiah reveals that there is a day coming when God will display His glory in yet another way. He will send messengers to all those whom He spares from judgment, giving them a second and final chance to see and experience His glory in the form of salvation.

“I will perform a sign among them. And I will send those who survive to be messengers to the nations—to Tarshish, to the Libyans and Lydians (who are famous as archers), to Tubal and Greece, and to all the lands beyond the sea that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory. There they will declare my glory to the nations. – Isaiah 66:19 NLT

God will be glorified as He redeems and restores a remnant of His rebellious people, Israel. But He will also be glorified when He spares and saves a portion of sinful mankind. And the outcome of all God’s activities in those days will be the worship of Him.

“All humanity will come to worship me
    from week to week
    and from month to month. – Isaiah 66:23 NLT

And the apostle John provides us with a marvelous description of that day, when God and His Son will rule over all the earth and their glory will fill the earth.

No longer will there be a curse upon anything. For the throne of God and of the Lamb will be there, and his servants will worship him. And they will see his face, and his name will be written on their foreheads. And there will be no night there—no need for lamps or sun—for the Lord God will shine on them. And they will reign forever and ever. – Revelation 22:3-5 NLT

We shall declare His glory.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

What Are You Waiting For? Rejoice!

“Before she was in labor
    she gave birth;
before her pain came upon her
    she delivered a son.
Who has heard such a thing?
    Who has seen such things?
Shall a land be born in one day?
    Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment?
For as soon as Zion was in labor
    she brought forth her children.
Shall I bring to the point of birth and not cause to bring forth?”
    says the Lord;
“shall I, who cause to bring forth, shut the womb?”
    says your God.

10 “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her,
    all you who love her;
rejoice with her in joy,
    all you who mourn over her;
11 that you may nurse and be satisfied
    from her consoling breast;
that you may drink deeply with delight
    from her glorious abundance.”

12 For thus says the Lord:
“Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river,
    and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream;
and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip,
    and bounced upon her knees.
13 As one whom his mother comforts,
    so I will comfort you;
    you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
14 You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
    your bones shall flourish like the grass;
and the hand of the Lord shall be known to his servants,
    and he shall show his indignation against his enemies. Isaiah 66:7-14 ESV

As the book of Isaiah comes to a close, we see God attempting to assure His chosen people that they reason to hope. In spite of all that was presently taking place around them and the judgment God had promised to bring on them, they had reason to rejoice. Because God was not going to forget them. He would not completely abandon them. And to drive home His point, God reminds them of just how quickly they had become a nation. He describes Zion as a pregnant woman. Zion is synonymous with Jerusalem, the city of God, and Mount Zion is where the city of Jerusalem is located.

So, in verse seven, God describes Zion as having given birth to a son. But in verse eight He clarifies that the son is representative of a nation or people. And the birth of this nation was extremely quick and relatively free from pain. Like a woman who gives birth before her labor pains start, the nation of Israel came on the scene in a relatively short period of time and without a great deal of emotional or physical travail. This does not mean that the nation of Israel had a pain-free path to becoming a major force in that area of the world. They fought many battles and faced a variety of enemies, but God brought them to power and prominence in a relatively short period of time. It was His doing and, therefore, it was a miracle.

And yet, here they were facing the very real threat of destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. God had clearly told them that their city would be defeated, their temple destroyed, and their people deported to Babylon as captives. Which is why God reminds them that what He did once, He could do again.

“Would I ever bring this nation to the point of birth
    and then not deliver it?” asks the Lord.
“No! I would never keep this nation from being born,”
    says your God. – Isaiah 66:9 NLT

Yes, they were going to fall to the Babylonians and they would be removed from the land. But God was promising to return them to the land. They would be reborn as a nation. And while this prophecy would be fulfilled in part when the remnant returned to Judah under the leadership of Ezra and Zerubbabel, then later under Nehemiah, there is much about God’s promise that remains unfulfilled.

While a remnant did return to Judah and Jerusalem after 70 years of captivity in Babylon, the nation of Israel has never experienced anything remotely similar to the former glory it enjoyed under the reigns of David and Solomon. There is no king in Jerusalem. And, while the Jewish people once again live in the land of promise and occupy the city of Jerusalem, they are surrounded by enemies and under constant threat of attack. Yet, God tells the people of Judah in Isaiah’s day to “Rejoice with Jerusalem! Be glad with her, all you who love her and all you who mourn for her” (Isaiah 66:10 NLT). What a strange thing to say to a people who are facing inevitable defeat and deportation. Why would God tell them to rejoice over a city that is facing destruction? Because He has plans in store for the city and the nation of which they were unaware. And He outlines the nature of those plans in two short verses.

“I will give Jerusalem a river of peace and prosperity.
    The wealth of the nations will flow to her.
Her children will be nursed at her breasts,
    carried in her arms, and held on her lap.
I will comfort you there in Jerusalem
    as a mother comforts her child.” – Isaiah 66:12-13 NLT

This is where the as-yet nature of this promise can be seen. He promises peace and prosperity. He describes a day when the nations will flow to Jerusalem to honor her, not destroy her. And it is clear that these things have not yet taken place. They remain unfulfilled. But just as Zion gave birth to a nation once before, it will experience another miraculous and pain-free delivery of God’s covenant people. In a remarkably short period of time, God will repopulate Zion with His people and when they see it happen, they will rejoice. In fact, God says, “Everyone will see the Lord’s hand of blessing on his servants – and his anger against his enemies” (Isaiah 66:14 NLT). 

The scene being described here is eschatological in nature. It involved end-times events what remain as-yet unfulfilled. But God is promising His people that they will happen. Their inevitability is assured and, therefore, even the people of God in Isaiah’s day had reason to rejoice. The prophet Jeremiah records the words of God assuring His people of His intentions to restore them. In a sense, they will be born again, all according to His grace and mercy.

“Nevertheless, the time will come when I will heal Jerusalem’s wounds and give it prosperity and true peace. I will restore the fortunes of Judah and Israel and rebuild their towns. I will cleanse them of their sins against me and forgive all their sins of rebellion. Then this city will bring me joy, glory, and honor before all the nations of the earth! The people of the world will see all the good I do for my people, and they will tremble with awe at the peace and prosperity I provide for them.” – Jeremiah 33:6-9 NLT

Three times in this passage God says, “I will….” He promises to heal, restore, rebuild, cleanse, and forgive. And He describes a day when the city of Jerusalem and the people of Israel will once again bring Him joy, glory, and honor. And Isaiah recorded similar words of promise earlier in his book.

The Lord will comfort Israel again
    and have pity on her ruins.
Her desert will blossom like Eden,
    her barren wilderness like the garden of the Lord.
Joy and gladness will be found there.
    Songs of thanksgiving will fill the air. – Isaiah 51:3 NLT

And Isaiah’s words were not wishful thinking, but were based on the promise of God.

“My mercy and justice are coming soon.
    My salvation is on the way.
    My strong arm will bring justice to the nations.
All distant lands will look to me
    and wait in hope for my powerful arm.” – Isaiah 51:5 NLT

And Isaiah is so convinced of God’s faithfulness, that he pleads with Him to fulfill His promise sooner than later.

Wake up, wake up, O Lord! Clothe yourself with strength!
    Flex your mighty right arm!
Rouse yourself as in the days of old
    when you slew Egypt, the dragon of the Nile.
Are you not the same today,
    the one who dried up the sea,
making a path of escape through the depths
    so that your people could cross over? – Isaiah 51:9-10 NLT

He knew, based on past history, that God was fully capable of doing all that He had promised. It was just a matter of when He would do what He said He would do. And as far as Isaiah was concerned, He wanted God to fulfill His promises in his own lifetime. But, whether Isaiah lived to see God’s promises fulfilled, he was convinced they would happen just as God had said they would.

Those who have been ransomed by the Lord will return.
    They will enter Jerusalem singing,
    crowned with everlasting joy.
Sorrow and mourning will disappear,
    and they will be filled with joy and gladness. – Isaiah 51:9-11 NLT

While the fulfillment of these promises has not yet happened, the rejoicing should already be taking place. All those who have placed their hope in the reality of a living, all-powerful God should find reason to rejoice in the promises of God. While He has done great things and His past exploits are deserving of our praise, there is much that remains yet to be done. But God is faithful. He is a covenant-keeping God who never fails to do what He has promised to do. And with all that He has said He will do clearly articulated for us by Isaiah, we have more than enough reason to rejoice – even now.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

No Place For Pride

1 Thus says the Lord:
“Heaven is my throne,
    and the earth is my footstool;
what is the house that you would build for me,
    and what is the place of my rest?
All these things my hand has made,
    and so all these things came to be,
declares the Lord.
But this is the one to whom I will look:
    he who is humble and contrite in spirit
    and trembles at my word.

“He who slaughters an ox is like one who kills a man;
    he who sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck;
he who presents a grain offering, like one who offers pig’s blood;
    he who makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like one who blesses an idol.
These have chosen their own ways,
    and their soul delights in their abominations;
I also will choose harsh treatment for them
    and bring their fears upon them,
because when I called, no one answered,
    when I spoke, they did not listen;
but they did what was evil in my eyes
    and chose that in which I did not delight.”

Hear the word of the Lord,
    you who tremble at his word:
“Your brothers who hate you
    and cast you out for my name’s sake
have said, ‘Let the Lord be glorified,
    that we may see your joy’;
    but it is they who shall be put to shame.

“The sound of an uproar from the city!
    A sound from the temple!
The sound of the Lord,
    rendering recompense to his enemies!” Isaiah 66:1-6 ESV

As human beings, we tend to put a lot of significance in those things that we have made with our own hands. We take great pride in our achievements. We boast in our accomplishments.  In short, we celebrate our own success. And there is no better example of this kind of self-exaltation than the pride-filled words of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon.

“Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” – Daniel 4:30 ESV

And it’s interesting to note that Nebuchadnezzar’s beautiful city was located in the same area where Nimrod and his followers had attempted to disobey God and build a city for themselves, complete with a huge construction project as a permanent monument to their own self-importance and significance.

“Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens so that we may make a name for ourselves.” – Genesis 11:4 NLT

But there plans were contrary to God’s will and He confused their language and scattered them to the four winds. And before the sound of his own pride-filled voice had died away, Nebuchadnezzar would receive some ego-diminishing news straight from God’s throne room in heaven.

“It is hereby announced to you, King Nebuchadnezzar, that your kingdom has been removed from you! You will be driven from human society, and you will live with the wild animals. You will be fed grass like oxen, and seven periods of time will pass by for you before you understand that the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms and gives them to whomever he wishes.” – Daniel 4:31-32 NLT

Which brings us back to Isaiah 66. God opens up this section of His address to the people of Judah with the reminder: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool” (Isaiah 66:1 ESV). He was reminding His covenant people that He was the sovereign ruler over all, including them. He was the King and all glory and honor was due to Him and no one and nothing else. And yet, God exposes a pride problem among His people. They were guilty of placing far too much value on the temple they had built for Him. It had become the symbol of their own significance. They treated it like a box they had built in which to contain the God of the universe. And yet, as God had said in response to King David’s plan to build the temple:

Thus says the Lord: Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” – 2 Samuel 7:5-7 ESV

God didn’t need or ask for a temple to be built. What He desired was a people who would worship and obey Him. As the prophet Samuel had told David’s predecessor: “Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22 NLT). But the Jews had become enamored with their temple. Its very presence among them gave them a false sense of security and an over-confident belief in their own spirituality. They had come to value the temple they had created more than the Creator for whom they had built it.

So, God gives them a stark reminder of His criteria for measuring spirituality.

“But this is the one to whom I will look:
    he who is humble and contrite in spirit
    and trembles at my word.” – Isaiah 66:2 ESV

Notice that God looks for humility and contriteness in His people. But what do these two words mean? The Hebrew word translated “humble” means “poor, afflicted, humble, wretched.” It conveys the idea of need and abject dependence. But it also reveals an awareness that the one who is humble fully recognizes his or her condition. There is no false sense of pride or arrogance about them. The word translated “contrite” means “stricken” or “smitten” and seems to indicate the reason for the individual’s lowly condition. It provides the “why” behind their humble estate. They have been brought low by some circumstance of life and their condition has left them a clear sense of need. Which is why God describes them as trembling at His word.

A humble or poor person has nothing to bring to God. They are in no condition to offer the God of the universe anything and they recognize it. A contrite or stricken person understands that any suffering they experience is deserved. Even their righteous deeds are little more than filthy rags to a holy God. As sinners, they understand that they deserve little more than judgment from God. Which is why they tend to turn to God in fear and trembling, treating Him with the honor He deserves. They desire to do what He commands them to do.

But the people of Judah put a lot of stock in their keeping of the various religious rituals associated with their temple worship. God mentions the slaughter of an ox, the sacrifice of a lamb, and the offering of grain and frankincense. But then He turns around and labels these so-called acts of worship as little more than murder, animal cruelty, abomination and idol worship. In other words, even worship, when done in pride and with an attitude of self-righteousness, is unacceptable to God.

Yes, they were keeping God’s commands by offering the appropriate sacrifices at the proper times and according to the temple calendar. But God says, “they did what was evil in my eyes and chose that in which I did not delight” (Isaiah 66:4 ESV). Even their adherence to His commands concerning sacrifices was tainted by their refusal to live in submission to Him in the rest of their lives. They were disobedient and disingenuous. And so, God warns them what is going to happen next.

I will send them great trouble—
    all the things they feared.” – Isaiah 66:4 NLT

But don’t miss the reason behind God’s declaration of judgment. He says that when He had called, they had refused to answer. When He spoke, they had failed to listen. Instead, He says, “They deliberately sinned before my very eyes and chose to do what they know I despise” (Isaiah 66:4 ESV).

And to make matters worse, these very same people mocked the faithful remnant of God. These prideful and pompous individuals turned their anger and arrogance on those who had chosen to remain obedient to and reliant upon God. In their hatred for these faithful few, the majority of the people of Judah chose to cast them out of their midst. They wanted nothing to do with them. But God assures His remnant that justice is coming. He will bring shame to all those who stand pridefully opposed to Him and who treat the faithful with contempt. God was going to bring judgment on the people of Judah in the form of vengeance on behalf of all those who were humble and contrite.

God was going to humiliate the non-humble. He was going to strike down the non-contrite. Their religious play-acting was not going to save them. Their pride in their own achievements and over-confidence in their self-righteous activities were not going to protect them from the wrath of God. They were missing the one thing God was looking for: Humility. And James, in the letter that bears his name, reminds us that God “gives greater grace.” And then James goes on to remind us that God’s grace is reserved for the humble. “Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble.’ So submit to God” (James 4:5-6 NLT).

Submit to God. There is the key. But submission requires an admittance of God’s superiority and our own inferiority. He is greater and more glorious and fully deserves our humble and contrite submission to His will. And when we come to Him in humility, we receive His grace – free of charge and fully apart from any merit on our part.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

New and Improved

17 “For behold, I create new heavens
    and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered
    or come into mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
    in that which I create;
for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy,
    and her people to be a gladness.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem
    and be glad in my people;
no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping
    and the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
    an infant who lives but a few days,
    or an old man who does not fill out his days,
for the young man shall die a hundred years old,
    and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
    they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
    they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
    and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain
    or bear children for calamity,
for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the Lord,
    and their descendants with them.
24 Before they call I will answer;
    while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall graze together;
    the lion shall eat straw like the ox,
    and dust shall be the serpent’s food.
They shall not hurt or destroy
    in all my holy mountain,”
says the Lord. Isaiah 65:17-25 ESV

As we saw in yesterday’s blog, God gave the faithful remnant of Judah His assurance that they could expect Him to do something new. And here He gets specific. He tells them that the day is coming when He will create new heavens and a new earth. While this statement most likely left the people of Judah scratching their heads in wonder, it would have reminded them of the very first verse in the first chapter of the first book of the Pentateuch: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1 ESV). Their God, the one who created earth and heavens as they knew it, was going to re-create all things. And the point seems to be that the same power used to form the universe out of nothing was behind the promise to do a new thing for them. If God could create the universe ex nihilo, literally, out of nothing, and He had plans to create an all-new heavens and earth, then fulfilling His promises to the faithful remnant would prove to be no problem.

God assures His people that one day He will replace the old, sin-damaged universe with something new and pristine, and there will be no longing for what used to be.  God is going to make all things new, including the city of Jerusalem and the heart of every person who lives in it. The apostle John describes the vision he was given of this new Jerusalem.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. – 21:1-2 NLT

And the prophet Ezekiel records the promise concerning God’s renovation or recreation of the hearts of His people.

“And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.

“And you will live in Israel, the land I gave your ancestors long ago. You will be my people, and I will be your God. – Ezekiel 36:26-28 NLT

This news was meant to bring joy to the people of Judah. As they faced the prospect of a coming invasion by Babylon, their hopes for the future looked bleak. But God was letting them know that He had a much better plan in store for them. He knew something they didn’t know. He had insights into their future to which they were blind and oblivious. And His pronouncement concerning the recreation of the heavens and earth, the city of Jerusalem, and the hearts of His people, was meant to encourage them. He wanted them to know that He was in full control of their fate and that they had reason to rejoice, rather than to despair.

God describes a day when there will be no more sorrow or tears. The painful results of living in a fallen and sin-fractured world will be non-existent. Infant mortality rates will rise dramatically because babies will no longer die just days after birth due to disease. Rather than experiencing premature and unexpected deaths, people will live to ripe old ages. In fact, God states that the average lifespan will be “like the days of a tree” (Isaiah 65:22 ESV). And people will live their extended lives in homes they have built and harvest grapes from the vineyards they have planted, without any fear of invasion from outside forces.

No longer will they have to fear that all their hard work will be in vain. There will be no enemies to confiscate their goods or plunder their property.  And the older generation won’t have to worry about the next one squandering their inheritance through misfortune or misbehavior. God’s blessing will span the generations.

For they are people blessed by the Lord,
    and their children, too, will be blessed. – Isaiah 65:23 NLT

Think about the sheer magnitude of this promise. It means that there will never be another occasion for anyone to write or read the following words:

And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel. – Judges 2:10 ESV

When God states that they will be His people, and He will be their God,” He means it. And He gives them an example of what that new relationship will look like.

“I will answer them before they even call to me.
    While they are still talking about their needs,
    I will go ahead and answer their prayers!” – Isaiah 65:24 NLT

No more broken fellowship due to sin. No more unanswered prayers because of unfaithfulness and infidelity. They will enjoy the same kind of unhindered fellowship with God that Adam and Eve experienced in the garden before the fall. The entire creative order will be restored to its former pre-fall glory, with even the animosity between animals and mankind removed.

But all of this amazing imagery begs the question: When will all of this take place? It is easy to deduce that what God is describing here remains as yet unfulfilled. We still live in the same fallen world and experience all the pain and suffering that accompanies it. The descendants of the peoples of Judah and Israel live in the land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem, but it is safe to say that they don’t experience the things promised in these verses. They are surrounded by enemies and plagued by the constant threat of attack. In his commentary on the book of Isaiah, Franz Delitzsch states:

But to what part of the history of salvation are we to look for a place for the fulfillment of such prophecies as these of the state of peace prevailing in nature around the church, except in the millennium? (Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Prophecies of Isaiah).

God is describing a future day that remains as yet unfulfilled. It will part of the Millennial Kingdom established by Jesus Christ when He returns to earth in His second coming. In that day, all that God has promised will be fulfilled. His Son will set up His Kingdom on earth, will He will reign from the throne of David in Jerusalem for a thousand years. And, as part of that Kingdom, a remnant of the people of Israel will return to the land and be restored to a right relationship with God, just as these verses have promised. But it is important to note that this future physical and literal manifestation of Christ‘s Kingdom will be the culmination of the spiritual aspect of His reign that began with His first advent.

When God invaded the darkness of this world through the incarnation, the Kingdom made its entrance into the world. Jesus was just as much the King then as He is now and will be when He returns. But His subjects, the Jewish people, rejected Him as their King. They refused to acknowledge Him as who He claimed to be, the Son of God and their long-awaited Messiah. But their rejection of Him did not in any way diminish the reality of His right to be King of kings and Lord of lords.

He rules and reigns in the hearts of all those who have placed their faith in Him as their sin substitute and Savior. It is true that those of us who call Him Lord do not always submit to Him as such. We don’t always allow Him to be the King of our lives. But when we do submit to His authority over our lives, we experience the blessings that come as a result. We enjoy the peace that comes with submission to His will. We experience the joy that accompanies obedience to His commands. We have the privilege of knowing, in part, what it will be like in those future days. We get to experience a foreshadowing of the promises yet to come. As the apostle Paul put it:

Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love. – 1 Corinthians 13:12-13 NLT

All that God has described in these verses reflects the love of God. He has expressed His great love for mankind through the gift of His Son. And, one day, He will send His Son again, as a further and final expression of His love, renewing the world He has made and restoring mankind to a right relationship with Himself. And God punctuates His promise with the following statement:

“In those days no one will be hurt or destroyed on my holy mountain.
    I, the Lord, have spoken!” – Isaiah 65:25 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Faithful Few

Thus says the Lord:
“As the new wine is found in the cluster,
    and they say, ‘Do not destroy it,
    for there is a blessing in it,’
so I will do for my servants’ sake,
    and not destroy them all.
I will bring forth offspring from Jacob,
    and from Judah possessors of my mountains;
my chosen shall possess it,
    and my servants shall dwell there.
10 Sharon shall become a pasture for flocks,
    and the Valley of Achor a place for herds to lie down,
    for my people who have sought me.
11 But you who forsake the Lord,
    who forget my holy mountain,
who set a table for Fortune
    and fill cups of mixed wine for Destiny,
12 I will destine you to the sword,
    and all of you shall bow down to the slaughter,
because, when I called, you did not answer;
    when I spoke, you did not listen,
but you did what was evil in my eyes
    and chose what I did not delight in.”

13 Therefore thus says the Lord God:
“Behold, my servants shall eat,
    but you shall be hungry;
behold, my servants shall drink,
    but you shall be thirsty;
behold, my servants shall rejoice,
    but you shall be put to shame;
14 behold, my servants shall sing for gladness of heart,
    but you shall cry out for pain of heart
    and shall wail for breaking of spirit.
15 You shall leave your name to my chosen for a curse,
    and the Lord God will put you to death,
    but his servants he will call by another name,
16 so that he who blesses himself in the land
    shall bless himself by the God of truth,
and he who takes an oath in the land
    shall swear by the God of truth;
because the former troubles are forgotten
    and are hidden from my eyes. Isaiah 65:8-16 ESV

There is a lot of bad news in the book of Isaiah. It is filled with indictments regarding the sins of the people of Judah. And it contains warnings concerning God’s pending judgment for those sins. God was not going to allow their unfaithfulness and disobedience to go unpunished. As the holy and righteous God, His character would not allow Him to do so. But as the book comes to a close, God has some good news to convey to His chosen people.

The cluster of grapes to which God refers is meant to represent Judah. It contains both good grapes and bad ones. And while the bad grapes were essentially good for nothing, God vows to protect entire cluster in order to spare the remnant of good grapes that contain “new wine.” While the entire nation was guilty of open rebellion against God, there were those who had remained faithful. So, God vows not to destroy them all. He will show great patience in dealing with His people, refusing to eliminate those who have remained His servants.

“I will not destroy all Israel.
    For I still have true servants there.” – Isaiah 65:8 NLT

The few who have remained true to God will be rewarded by Him, because they have chosen not to give into the pressures to compromise their faith in God. While all their friends and neighbors were worshiping false gods, these faithful few will refuse to turn their backs on God. And just to make sure that we know how difficult that choice will be for them. God describes what they were up against. They were swimming against the prevailing current of their day. They were going against the popular perspective and risking everything to resist the moral sell-out of the majority. God speaks directly to the immoral majority:

“…the rest of you have forsaken the Lord
    and have forgotten his Temple,
and because you have prepared feasts to honor the god of Fate
    and have offered mixed wine to the god of Destiny…” – Isaiah 65:11 NLT

The crowd had long ago turned their backs on God, choosing to worship false gods with names like Gad, the Babylonian god of fortune, and Meni, the Babylonian god of fate or destiny. How ironic that these two gods were among the many idols the people of Jjudah worshiped. In doing so, they were displaying their hope that these false gods would somehow improve their fortunes and change their fate. While Yahweh had been pronouncing His coming judgment, the people of Judah were busy calling on gods whom they hoped would counter God’s will. But God throws cold water on their hopes for a positive outcome by telling them, “I will destine you to the sword” (Isaiah 65:12 ESV). He alone had control over their fortunes. He alone could determine their destiny. And it would not be pretty.

“…all of you shall bow down to the slaughter…” – Isaiah 65:12 ESV

Why? Because when God called, they refused to answer. When He spoke, they did not listen. Their lives were marked by doing the exact opposite of what God had called them to do. It was a case of blatant disobedience, not innocent ignorance. They knew that what they were doing was in direct violation of God’s commands. But they did it anyway.

And, in verses 13-16, God describes the dramatic contrast between His treatment of the faithful remnant and the disobedient majority. His servants would eat, drink, rejoice, and sing songs of joy. But the rest would starve, thirst, be put to shame, and experience unimaginable sorrow. And the actions of the unfaithful majority would leave an indelible stain on the name and reputation of israel. Isaiah tells them:

Your name will be a curse word among my people,
    for the Sovereign Lord will destroy you
    and will call his true servants by another name. – Isaiah 65:15 NLT

But this is not the first time this promise has been made. Back in chapter 62, God had told them that the day was coming when he would call them by a new name.

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
    and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet,
until her righteousness goes forth as brightness,
    and her salvation as a burning torch.
The nations shall see your righteousness,
    and all the kings your glory,
and you shall be called by a new name
    that the mouth of the Lord will give. – Isaiah 62:1-2 ESV

We are not told what that name will be. But the sinful actions of the people of Israel will leave their name unusable. If you recall, the name Israel was given to Jacob after he had wrestled with God, and that new name meant, “God prevails.” And God would later reinforce that name change, telling Jacob, “no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name” (Genesis 35:10 ESV). Then God followed up these words with a statement designed to provide proper gravity to this name change.

“I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.” – Genesis 35:11-12 ESV

Now, generations later, God was letting the descendants of Jacob know that He was going to keep that promise. Even after the northern kingdom of Israel had been taken into captivity into Assyrian and the southern kingdom was exiled into Babylon, God promises that he will one day reunify His people, creating a single kingdom over which one King will rule.

“Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land. And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms.” – Ezekiel 37:21-22 ESV

In His revelation to John, Jesus said, “The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name” (Revelation 3:12 ESV). While Isaiah does not tell us what that name will be, Jeremiah does. He writes, “In that day Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this will be its name: ‘The Lord is Our Righteousness’” (Jeremiah 33:16 NLT). Jerusalem and all Israel will know what it is like to experience the righteousness of God, not only in their midst, but in their lives, community, and the world.

This will not be the old Jerusalem restored, but a brand new city that comes down from heaven. All will be new. In fact, we are told that God will create a new heaven and a new earth and John provides us with a description of it.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” – Revelation 21:1-4 ESV

A new heaven. A new earth. A new city. A new name for the redeemed and restored remnant of God. The day is coming when God will put aside His anger and forget the evil of earlier days. The faithful few will enjoy the forgiveness of God and the incredible blessing of having their hearts made pure and new.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Here I Am!

1 I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me;
    I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, “Here I am, here I am,”
    to a nation that was not called by my name.
I spread out my hands all the day
    to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
    following their own devices;
a people who provoke me
    to my face continually,
sacrificing in gardens
    and making offerings on bricks;
who sit in tombs,
    and spend the night in secret places;
who eat pig’s flesh,
    and broth of tainted meat is in their vessels;
who say, “Keep to yourself,
    do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.”
These are a smoke in my nostrils,
    a fire that burns all the day.
Behold, it is written before me:
    “I will not keep silent, but I will repay;
I will indeed repay into their lap
    both your iniquities and your fathers’ iniquities together,
says the Lord;
because they made offerings on the mountains
    and insulted me on the hills,
I will measure into their lap
    payment for their former deeds.”
Isaiah 65:1-7 ESV

Isaiah has prayed. Now, God responds. And the first thing God does is leave the people of Judah without excuse. Ever since the creation of the world, God has made Himself known to all mankind, not just the people of Israel.  The apostle Paul drives home this point in his letter to the Romans.

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. – Romans 1:19-20 ESV

And Paul goes on to conclude, “So they are without excuse.” God revealed His invisible attributes to mankind, but they chose to worship the creation rather than its Creator. So, God would later reveal Himself to Abraham, calling him out of Ur and directing him to the land of Canaan. Abraham was given a greater revelation of God, beyond that which the rest of the world had enjoyed. And God even made a covenant with Abraham, promising to create from him a great nation, the people of whom would occupy the land of Canaan for generations. And God fulfilled that promise, and by the time Isaiah wrote the book that bears his name, the descendants of Abraham had been living in the land for centuries. But as we have seen, although God had continued to give His chosen people further revelations of Himself through His law and the sacrificial system, their behavior made it appear that they didn’t know Him at all.

And in the opening verse of this chapter, God indicates that He had a purpose behind His decision to make the nation of Israel His precious possession. When He had given them the law, God had told them that if they obeyed it, “you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6 NLT). Notice that they were to have been his own special treasure from among all the peoples of the earth.  They were to have been His priests, representing Him before all the peoples of the earth. They were to have been His holy, set-apart nation among all the people of the earth. In other words, they were to have been witnesses to the nations of what it looks like to have a right relationship with the Creator-God of the universe.

But they had proven to be lousy priests and poor witnesses. Rather than bringing God glory by living holy lives, they had profaned His name among the nations, leaving God the job of reclaiming the glory His name deserves.

“I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them.” Ezekiel 36:23 ESV

And in verse one, God indicates that He has been calling out to the nations, “Here I am, here I am.” He has been extending an invitation to all the nations “not called by my name,” and the people of Israel had been His chosen means of communicating that message. The apostle Paul used this very passage to let the Gentile believers in Rome understand that God had always intended to use the people of Israel as His means of sharing His grace and mercy with the world. Paul will repeatedly quote from the book of Isaiah to build his case that God’s plan in choosing Israel had far greater implications than just their personal enjoyment of His blessings. God had something much grander in mind.

But not everyone welcomes the Good News, for Isaiah the prophet said, “Lord, who has believed our message?” So faith comes from hearing, that is, hearing the Good News about Christ. But I ask, have the people of Israel actually heard the message? Yes, they have:

“The message has gone throughout the earth,
    and the words to all the world.”

But I ask, did the people of Israel really understand? Yes, they did, for even in the time of Moses, God said,

“I will rouse your jealousy through people who are not even a nation.
    I will provoke your anger through the foolish Gentiles.”

And later Isaiah spoke boldly for God, saying,

“I was found by people who were not looking for me.
    I showed myself to those who were not asking for me.”

But regarding Israel, God said,

“All day long I opened my arms to them,
    but they were disobedient and rebellious.” – Romans 10:16-21 NLT

Don’t miss the significance of what Paul is saying here. The very people whom God had chosen to be His means of reaching a lost world had to be constantly invited by God to come back to Him. Rather than doing what He had called them to do, they had proven to be disobedient and rebellious. And God describes their rebellion as anything but subtle. They flaunted it in His face, worshiping false gods right in front of Him. They had disregarded His laws concerning sacrifice, offering inappropriate and unclean gifts in unacceptable ways. They practiced necromancy, a form of divination through attempted communication with the dead. They were guilty of involvement in the occult and witchcraft. Their unholy actions had left them an unholy people, no longer set apart for God and no longer able to be His witnesses to a lost world.

All their religious activity will leave them feeling puffed and prideful. And while they will brag about their holiness, God describes them in less-than-flattering terms.

These people are a stench in my nostrils,
    an acrid smell that never goes away. – Isaiah 65:5 NLT

God finds all their religiosity repulsive. While He had been calling out to them with open arms, they had been embracing false gods and pursuing other loves. And the apostle Paul tells us what happens to all those who replace a personal relationship with God with religion.

They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. – 2 Timothy 3:5 NLT

They were religious but lacked the one thing God was looking for: godliness. Their actions failed to reflect their status as His chosen people. So, God was obligated to punish them for their rebellion. He could not and would not allow them to continue to drag His name through the mud. Their disobedience demanded His divine discipline. And when God says, “Behold, it is written before me,” He is referring to the covenant He had made with them. There was a legally binding agreement between God and His people that spelled out their obligations and His. It clearly articulated what God expected of them and what He would do if they kept or broke their part of the covenant. And while they had failed to do what they said they would do, God would prove faithful to His covenant promise. He vows to bring upon them all the curses He had warned them about.

“I will not keep silent, but I will repay;
I will indeed repay into their lap
   both your iniquities and your fathers’ iniquities together.” – Isaiah 65:6-7 ESV

It is important to remember that God had warned them what would happen if they failed to be His priests and His holy nation. He had let them know well in advance what the ramifications would be if they failed to be His witness to the nations. They would end up scattered among the nations, worshiping gods they never knew before.

For the Lord will scatter you among all the nations from one end of the earth to the other. There you will worship foreign gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, gods made of wood and stone! There among those nations, you will find no peace or place to rest. And the Lord will cause your heart to tremble, your eyesight to fail, and your soul to despair. Your life will constantly hang in the balance. You will live night and day in fear, unsure if you will survive. – Deuteronomy 28:64-64 NLT

They would lose their witness. Their role as a light to the nations would fade because they had failed to remain faithful to the call of God. But as we have seen all along in the book of Isaiah, God would remain faithful to them because He had plans to bring salvation to the world through them. Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, would be born as a Jew and would become the Priest who lived a perfectly holy life and offered a perfectly holy sacrifice on behalf of the sins of all mankind.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Clay In Need of a Potter

8 But now, O Lord, you are our Father;
    we are the clay, and you are our potter;
    we are all the work of your hand.
Be not so terribly angry, O Lord,
    and remember not iniquity forever.
    Behold, please look, we are all your people.
10 Your holy cities have become a wilderness;
    Zion has become a wilderness,
    Jerusalem a desolation.
11 Our holy and beautiful house,
    where our fathers praised you,
has been burned by fire,
    and all our pleasant places have become ruins.
12 Will you restrain yourself at these things, O Lord?
    Will you keep silent, and afflict us so terribly?
Isaiah 64:8-12 ESV

Isaiah, fully aware of the corporate sins of the people of Judah, and his shared guilt as one of their number appealed to God to intervene. He knew that there was nothing they could do about their circumstances. They were facing God’s just and righteous judgment. He also knew that the likelihood of the people changing their rebellious behavior on their own accord and through their own strength was negligible. It wasn’t going to happen. And he had a long history of evidence to use in support of his premise.

So, Isaiah called out to God. He begged God to “rend the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 54:1 ESV). He knew the only hope they had was the supernatural intervention of God on their behalf. Unless He showed up like He did in Egypt when He released them from their captivity, the people of Judah would continue to live as slaves to sin and face their own exile in the land of Babylon.

And to paint an even bleaker picture, Isaiah Judah as being filled with sinners. In a rather blunt assessment, Isaiah states, “we are not godly. We are constant sinners; how can people like us be saved?” (Isaiah 64:5 NLT). Even if they were to dress up in their best efforts, wearing them before God like garments of righteousness, they would appear as filthy rags to God. In other words, Isaiah knew that the people of Judah were not going to earn their way into God’s good graces by self-produced righteousness. 

So, Isaiah addresses God as their Heavenly Father. He appeals to God’s divine parental instincts, and he utilizes a metaphor intended to illustrate God’s sovereignty and man’s dependency. Isaiah compares God to a potter and the people of Judah to a lifeless lump of clay. The relationship between the two, while symbiotic, is anything but co-equal. This real-world illustration is meant to juxtapose power with passivity and willfulness with submissiveness. And Isaiah wasn’t the one who came up with this compelling analogy. God had used the potter/clay comparison to drive home a point to the prophet Jeremiah.

The Lord said to Jeremiah: “Go down at once to the potter’s house. I will speak to you further there.” So I went down to the potter’s house and found him working at his wheel. Now and then there would be something wrong with the pot he was molding from the clay with his hands. So he would rework the clay into another kind of pot as he saw fit. – Jeremiah 18:1-4 NLT

Jeremiah was given a visual lesson on God’s sovereignty over His chosen people. Like a potter who fashions a lump of clay, God has the prerogative to do with His people as He sees fit. If He sees a flaw, He has every right to remake them according to His divine will. He doesn’t have to ask them for permission. It would be utterly ludicrous for a potter to seek advice from the clay. In fact, earlier in his book, Isaiah points out the absurdity of that image to the people of Judah.

How foolish can you be? He is the Potter, and he is certainly greater than you, the clay! Should the created thing say of the one who made it, “He didn’t make me”? Does a jar ever say, “The potter who made me is stupid”? – Isaiah 29:16 NLT

And the apostle Paul picked up on the very same thought in his letter to the believers in Rome.

Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? – Romans 9:20-21 NLT

We have no business casting doubt on God’s goodness or questioning His motives or intentions. But, like Isaiah, we can appeal to His sovereign will and humbly submit ourselves to His intervention in our lives. After all, as Isaiah puts it, we are all the work of His hands. He made us and He has every right to do with us as He sees fit. And we can rest in the fact that God does nothing in regards to us that is void of His love. As the author of Hebrews makes clear, “the LORD disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child” (Hebrews 12:6 NLT).

Isaiah acknowledges that God has every right to be angry with His rebellious people. They had repeatedly turned their backs on, practicing every imaginable form of idolatry. They had been unfaithful, and God was wholly justified in His anger towards them. Which is why Isaiah pleads with God, “Don’t be so angry with us, Lord. Please don’t remember our sins forever” (Isaiah 64:9 NLT). And He asks God to look down on their situation and recognize the sorry state of their condition. But all of what Isaiah describes had not yet happened. He is painting a picture of Judah’s future as pre-ordained by God and prophesied by his very own lips. He describes their holy cities already as lying in ruins. Jerusalem was in ruins. The temple was a burned-out shell of its former glory. All that had once been beautiful was an eyesore.

The fate of Judah was dark. And the hope of Judah was dim unless God intervened. So, Isaiah intercedes on behalf of his people, begging God, the potter, to take matters into His own hands.

After all this, Lord, must you still refuse to help us?
    Will you continue to be silent and punish us? – Isaiah 64:12 NLT

It is as if Isaiah had read Paul’s words in his letter to the Romans:

…even though God has the right to show his anger and his power, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls, who are destined for destruction. He does this to make the riches of his glory shine even brighter on those to whom he shows mercy. – Romans 9:22-23 NLT

Isaiah was counting on God’s patience and mercy. He was putting his hope in God’s character as a loving Father, and believing that He would once again make the riches of His glory shine bright on the people of Judah. No, they didn’t deserve it, but isn’t that the essence of mercy? It is God’s unmerited or undeserved favor, poured out by a loving God who does for His own what they could never have done for themselves.

Not only were they unwilling to change, but they were also incapable. Judah was were little more than a lump of clay in need of the hands of the potter. And Isaiah longed to see God refashion His people into vessels for honorable use (2 Timothy 2:20). He knew that their transformation would only happen through God’s power and, that way, God alone would get the glory. As Paul told the believers in Corinth:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. – 2 Corinthians 4:7 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson