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 intended 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 their plans were contrary to God’s will so, He confused their language and scattered them to the four winds.
But back to Nebuchadnezzar. Before the sound of his own pride-filled voice had time to fade, he 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 He alone deserved all glory and honor. 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 with 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, a form of 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.