A Faulty Foundation.

14 Therefore hear the word of the Lord, you scoffers,
    who rule this people in Jerusalem!
15 Because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death,
    and with Sheol we have an agreement,
when the overwhelming whip passes through
    it will not come to us,
for we have made lies our refuge,
    and in falsehood we have taken shelter”;
16 therefore thus says the Lord God,
“Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion,
    a stone, a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation:
    ‘Whoever believes will not be in haste.’
17 And I will make justice the line,
    and righteousness the plumb line;
and hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
    and waters will overwhelm the shelter.”
18 Then your covenant with death will be annulled,
    and your agreement with Sheol will not stand;
when the overwhelming scourge passes through,
    you will be beaten down by it.
19 As often as it passes through it will take you;
    for morning by morning it will pass through,
    by day and by night;
and it will be sheer terror to understand the message. – Isaiah 28:14-19 ESV

In this section, God calls the leaders of Judah, “scoffers.” The Hebrew word is latsown, and it is used in the book of Proverbs to refer to the worst kind of fool. This individual is one who shows frivolous contempt for what is good and right.

“Scoffer” is the name of the arrogant, haughty man
    who acts with arrogant pride. – Provers 21:24 ESV

From their place of power in the capital city of Jerusalem, these men derided God and His prophet, making light of any threats of pending judgment. In fact, they were bold enough to shake their fist in the face of God, bragging about their ability to thwart any plan He may have for their destruction.

“We have made a covenant with death,
    and with Sheol we have an agreement,
when the overwhelming whip passes through
    it will not come to us,
for we have made lies our refuge,
    and in falsehood we have taken shelter.” – Isaiah 28:15 ESV

While it is doubtful that this represents the exact words of these men, it conveys the heart behind their actions. They were convinced that they could make an alliance with a nation like Egypt and save themselves from the threat of the Assyrians. They were proud of their clever plans to gain the assistance and protection of other nations, having used lies and deception to accomplish their goals.

But what they didn’t realize was that they had really made a pact with death and the grave. They had unknowingly sealed their own fates and those of the people of Judah. Their attempts to save themselves had actually doomed the entire nation.

And yet, in spite of their arrogant and prideful scorning of God and His call to repentance, Isaiah announces that God has a plan for the nation.

“Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion,
    a stone, a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation:
    ‘Whoever believes will not be in haste.’” – Isaiah 28:16 ESV

God speaks in the past-tense, indicating that He had already done something significant in Jerusalem that would long-lasting implications on the fate of the people of God. While the leaders of Jerusalem were busy making pacts with foreign nations that would seal their doom, God had laid a massive foundation stone on which the future fate of the nation would rest. A cornerstone was a massive hand-carved rock that was used to establish the orientation of the entire foundation of a structure. Every other stone was aligned with it, ensuring that the foundation was sure and the remainder of the structure rested on a solid, reliable base of support.

And while the people of Judah most likely missed the significance of God’s statement, the New Testament authors did not. Peter, in speaking about Jesus as the living stone, rejected by men, actually quotes from this passage in Isaiah.

As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture:

“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
    a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,

“The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone,”

and

“A stone of stumbling,
    and a rock of offense.”

They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. – 1 Peter 2:4-8 ESV

Jesus was and is the cornerstone. And God revealed to the people of Judah that it had been His plan all along to send His Son as their Savior and Messiah. It would be on Him that the future hopes of Judah, Israel and the nations of the world would rest. As Paul makes clear, even the Gentiles who placed their faith in Christ were building on the foundation established by God in Jesus Christ.

…you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. – Ephesians 2:19-22 ESV

God had chosen to use the people of Israel as the means by which He would bring salvation to the world. He would send His Son into the world, born as a Jew into the lineage of King David. Jesus would not be born as an Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Canaanite, or Philistine. He would be born a Hebrew, to an obscure couple from the backwater town of Nazareth and He would make His entrance into the world in the unimpressive town of Bethlehem. And yet, He would be the cornerstone on which the fate of Israel and the nations of the world would rest.

God states that all who believe in this cornerstone will “not make haste.” They won’t be in a hurry to flee from danger or run from the threat of pending doom. They will rest in the promise of God. They will find His foundation sure, steady and reliable. But the people of Judah were not resting in God. They were unwilling to rely on His plan of salvation. Instead, they were running around trying to make alliances with everyone else but God. So, He warns them:

“I will test you with the measuring line of justice
    and the plumb line of righteousness.
Since your refuge is made of lies,
    a hailstorm will knock it down.
Since it is made of deception,
    a flood will sweep it away.” – Isaiah 28:17 NLT

God uses the imagery of a builder’s tools to convey His point. He will measure whether the people of Judah are aligned with the cornerstone. He will determine whether they fall in line with the righteousness and justice He had established for them as a nation. And He will find that they fail to measure up. So, He will tear them down so that He might one day rebuild on that solid foundation.

“I will cancel the bargain you made to cheat death,
    and I will overturn your deal to dodge the grave.
When the terrible enemy sweeps through,
    you will be trampled into the ground.
Again and again that flood will come,
    morning after morning,
day and night,
    until you are carried away.” – Isaiah 28:18-19 NLT

Rather than building on righteousness and justice, they had erected a rickety structure that relied on lies and falsehood as its foundation. And when the storms of destruction came, it would fall.

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

Until the Fury Has Passed.

10 If favor is shown to the wicked,
    he does not learn righteousness;
in the land of uprightness he deals corruptly
    and does not see the majesty of the Lord.
11 O Lord, your hand is lifted up,
    but they do not see it.
Let them see your zeal for your people, and be ashamed.
    Let the fire for your adversaries consume them.
12 O Lord, you will ordain peace for us,
    for you have indeed done for us all our works.
13 O Lord our God,
    other lords besides you have ruled over us,
    but your name alone we bring to remembrance.
14 They are dead, they will not live;
    they are shades, they will not arise;
to that end you have visited them with destruction
    and wiped out all remembrance of them.
15 But you have increased the nation, O Lord,
    you have increased the nation; you are glorified;
    you have enlarged all the borders of the land.

16 O Lord, in distress they sought you;
    they poured out a whispered prayer
    when your discipline was upon them.
17 Like a pregnant woman
    who writhes and cries out in her pangs
    when she is near to giving birth,
so were we because of you, O Lord;
18     we were pregnant, we writhed,
    but we have given birth to wind.
We have accomplished no deliverance in the earth,
    and the inhabitants of the world have not fallen.
19 Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.
    You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a dew of light,
    and the earth will give birth to the dead.

20 Come, my people, enter your chambers,
    and shut your doors behind you;
hide yourselves for a little while
    until the fury has passed by.
21 For behold, the Lord is coming out from his place
    to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity,
and the earth will disclose the blood shed on it,
    and will no more cover its slain. – Isaiah 26:10-21 ESV

The opening verses of this chapter record the joyful song of the people of God who will live through the Tribulation and be alive when Christ returns to the earth. They will experience the salvation of God as He sends His Son to earth a second time, to defeat the enemies of God and redeem a remnant of the people of God – the people of Israel. And yet, in verse 9, Isaiah communicates his deep longing to see this day fulfilled.

In the night I search for you;
    in the morning I earnestly seek you.
For only when you come to judge the earth
    will people learn what is right. – Isaiah 26:9 NLT

Isaiah, as a prophet of God, fully realizes that the people of earth will never give God the glory, honor, and worship He is due until His Son returns to judge the world. In fact, he makes note of the fact that the universal grace of God, experienced by all who live on the earth, does nothing to change the way they treat God.

Your kindness to the wicked
    does not make them do good.
Although others do right, the wicked keep doing wrong
    and take no notice of the Lord’s majesty. – Isaiah 26:10 NLT

As Jesus Himself said, “For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike” (Matthew 5:45 NLT). And yet, the wicked ignore God’s goodness and continue to rebel against Him. From Isaiah’s vantage point as a prophet of God, he sees the enemies of Judah gloat over the fallen state of God’s people. These pagan nations don’t know what Isaiah knows, that God is going to bring down His judgment. And Isaiah pleads with God to do just that.

Show them your eagerness to defend your people.
Then they will be ashamed.
    Let your fire consume your enemies. – Isaiah 26:11 NLT

Speaking on behalf of the people of God, Isaiah acknowledges a trust in God’s faithfulness: “O Lord, you will ordain peace for us” (Isaiah 26:12 ESV). While the current conditions surrounding Judah were bleak, Isaiah knew that God had future plans that would include a time marked by peace and blessing. The entire history of the people of God had been the result of God’s gracious mercy and grace. He had been their ruler all along. Every other king had faded from the collective memory. Every nation and its king who had ever threatened to destroy them would be forgotten as well.

Again, speaking on behalf of a remnant of those who had remained faithful to Yahweh, Isaiah states, “O Lord, you have made our nation great; yes, you have made us great. You have extended our borders, and we give you the glory!” (Isaiah 26:15 NLT). There were still a few in Judah who recognized that their very presence in the land of Canaan had been God’s doing. It had been God who had given them victories over their enemies and had allowed them to inhabit cities they had not built and enjoy the fruit of vineyards and olive groves they had not planted. 

Looking back over his peoples’ history, Isaiah knew that there had been times when they had sought God in the midst of their trials and tribulations, but He seemed nowhere to be found. The nation had suffered like a pregnant woman going through labor pains, but without experiencing the joy of giving birth. “We, too, writhe in agony, but nothing comes of our suffering” (Isaiah 26:18 NLT). In fact, Isaiah admits that Israel, as a nation, had done nothing to usher in salvation, for themselves of the world.

We have accomplished no deliverance in the earth,
    and the inhabitants of the world have not fallen. – Isaiah 26:18 ESV 

But Isaiah expresses his hope in God. He fully trusts in the goodness of God and is assured that even physical death will prove to be no problem for Almighty God.

But those who die in the Lord will live;
    their bodies will rise again!
Those who sleep in the earth
    will rise up and sing for joy!
For your life-giving light will fall like dew
    on your people in the place of the dead! – Isaiah 26:19 NLT

Isaiah seems to be expressing a belief in the resurrection of the dead. He knows that His God is more powerful than death and is fully capable of restoring to life all those who died while believing in God. The author of Hebrews wrote of the Old Testament saints like Noah, Abraham, Rahab, and David, who placed their faith in God and yet died in their faith.

All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth. Obviously people who say such things are looking forward to a country they can call their own. If they had longed for the country they came from, they could have gone back. But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. – Hebrews 11:13-16 NLT

They all eventually died, but their deaths were not the end. God will one day resurrect all the faithful who have died and fulfill His promise of eternal life. And as Isaiah so eloquently puts it:

…those who die in the Lord will live;
    their bodies will rise again!
Those who sleep in the earth
    will rise up and sing for joy! – Isaiah 26:19 NLT

So, with that assurance in mind, Isaiah tells the people of Judah:

Go home, my people,
    and lock your doors!
Hide yourselves for a little while
    until the Lord’s anger has passed.
Look! The Lord is coming from heaven
    to punish the people of the earth for their sins.
The earth will no longer hide those who have been killed.
    They will be brought out for all to see. – Isaiah 26:20-21 NLT

Don’t panic. Don’t stop trusting God. Be patient and believe that God will one day do what He has promised to do. Isaiah tells his fellow citizens to keep their eyes open and their focus on the future. The Lord is coming from heaven. And the apostle John was given a vision of what that glorious day will look like.

Then I saw heaven opened, and a white horse was standing there. Its rider was named Faithful and True, for he judges fairly and wages a righteous war. His eyes were like flames of fire, and on his head were many crowns. A name was written on him that no one understood except himself. He wore a robe dipped in blood, and his title was the Word of God. The armies of heaven, dressed in the finest of pure white linen, followed him on white horses. From his mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will release the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty, like juice flowing from a winepress. On his robe at his thigh was written this title: King of all kings and Lord of all lords. – Revelation 19:11-16 NLT

Things looked bleak in Judah, but the future of the nation was bright. There were going to be difficult days ahead. Judgment was going to come. The nation of Judah would eventually fall to the Babylonians, and the people would end up in captivity for 70 years. They would one day return to the land and rebuild the city of Jerusalem and the temple of God, but they would remain without a king for generations, even until this very day. But God is not done. His plan is not yet complete. The day is coming when His fury will pass by, and He will once again extend His grace and mercy to His people.

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

Keys to the Kingdom.

15 Thus says the Lord God of hosts, “Come, go to this steward, to Shebna, who is over the household, and say to him: 16 What have you to do here, and whom have you here, that you have cut out here a tomb for yourself, you who cut out a tomb on the height and carve a dwelling for yourself in the rock? 17 Behold, the Lord will hurl you away violently, O you strong man. He will seize firm hold on you 18 and whirl you around and around, and throw you like a ball into a wide land. There you shall die, and there shall be your glorious chariots, you shame of your master’s house. 19 I will thrust you from your office, and you will be pulled down from your station. 20 In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, 21 and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your sash on him, and will commit your authority to his hand. And he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. 22 And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. 23 And I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father’s house. 24 And they will hang on him the whole honor of his father’s house, the offspring and issue, every small vessel, from the cups to all the flagons. 25 In that day, declares the Lord of hosts, the peg that was fastened in a secure place will give way, and it will be cut down and fall, and the load that was on it will be cut off, for the Lord has spoken.” – Isaiah 22:15-25 ESV

In this portion of the oracle against Jerusalem, attention is focused on two individuals, Shebna and Eliakim, whom God will use as human representations of Jerusalem’s problem. Shebna was the official secretary to the king. In a sense, he was the second most powerful man in the kingdom, acting in a role similar to that of secretary of state. Evidently, Shebna had used his influential position to amass for himself great wealth and prestige. He had even made plans to build an opulent tomb to memorialize himself after his death. While the people of Judah were worrying about how they were going to survive the threat of an Assyrian invasion, Shebna was focused on his legacy.

But God had other plans for Shebna. This egotistical and self-obsessed man was warned by God that his position was in jeopardy and that his tomb would never be occupied, at least not by him.

For the Lord is about to hurl you away, mighty man.
    He is going to grab you,
crumple you into a ball,
    and toss you away into a distant, barren land.
There you will die… – Isaiah 22:17-18 NLT

There is no doubt that Shebna was a powerful and influential man, but he was no match for God. He had used his access to the king to line his own pockets and build his own reputation. His love of self had long ago replaced his love for God and the people of Judah. Isaiah refers to Shebna as a shame to his master’s house. He had become a disgrace to his position as the royal administrator to the king of Judah, and God was going to replace him.

“Yes, I will drive you out of office,” says the Lord. “I will pull you down from your high position. And then I will call my servant Eliakim son of Hilkiah to replace you.” – Isaiah 22:19-20 NLT

We know from chapters 36 and 37 that both of these men served in the administration of King Hezekiah. In the fourteenth year of Hezekiah’s reign, Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, invaded Judah and sent an emissary to Jerusalem with a warning that the king surrender the city or face annihilation. The text tells us that Hezekiah sent two men to meet with Sennacherib’s spokesman.

And there came out to him Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebna the secretary… – Isaiah 36:1 ESV

These two men both served the king and enjoyed unprecedented influence over his affairs. But God warned Shebna that the day was coming when only Eliakim would remain, and he would step into the role from which Shebna would be forcibly removed by God.

The real point in all of this is not the fates of these two men, but the future well-being of Jerusalem and the people of Judah. Shebna had been obsessed with his own personal well-being, in the form of material wealth, power, and status. He had used his royal position to further his own agenda. But God was concerned about the future state of His people. Which is why He was going to remove Shebna and replace him with Eliakim.

“I will dress him in your royal robes and will give him your title and your authority. And he will be a father to the people of Jerusalem and Judah. I will give him the key to the house of David—the highest position in the royal court.” – Isaiah 22:21-22 NLT

God knew the hearts of both men and saw in Eliakim a radically different disposition. Unlike Shebna, Eliakim would be a father to the people of Jerusalem and Judah. He would be selfless, not self-obsessed. He would use his influence over the king to improve the nation’s welfare, not his own. And God mentions that He will give Eliakim the key to the house of David. As the personal secretary to the king, he would have unprecedented power and authority. He would hold the keys to the kingdom in his hand, acting as a representative of the king himself. And God knew that He could trust Eliakim to use his representative authority wisely and with the best interests of the king and the people in mind.

Jesus used this concept of the keys to the kingdom on several occasions. The first was when He blessed Peter for having acknowledged Him as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 ESV). Jesus told Peter:

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” – Matthew 16:19 ESV

In due time, after His death and resurrection, Jesus would pass on His royal authority as King to His disciples. They would serve as His representatives on earth, acting as His emissaries with full access to His authority as King. Later on in his gospel, Matthew records another occasion when Jesus referenced the keys of the kingdom again. This time it followed a discussion He had with the disciples regarding sin within the body of Christ. Jesus warned that if a brother or sister in Christ commits a sin against a fellow believer and when confronted, refuses to repent, He is to be removed from the fellowship and treated as an unbeliever. And Jesus followed this teaching with the assurance:

“Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” – Matthew 18:18 ESV

Again, in the scenario, Jesus described, He was letting the disciples know that they had authority to act on His behalf. He was entrusting His power as King to them.

And back in Isaiah, God was stating that any kingly authority Shebna enjoyed was going to be removed and given to Eliakim. Why? Because Shebna had abused his access to the keys to the kingdom. He had misused his authority.

And while Eliakim would prove to be a much more faithful steward of the responsibilities placed upon him, he too would eventually fail. Yes, for a time, Eliakim would exhibit the characteristics of a reliable and trustworthy steward, and God would use him.

“He will bring honor to his family name, for I will drive him firmly in place like a nail in the wall.” – Isaiah 22:23 NLT

But no man can live up to the standard required by God. In fact, no man was ever meant to replace God as the keeper of the keys to the kingdom. Even faithful Eliakim would prove unable to live up to the task handed to him by God.

“The time will come when I will pull out the nail that seemed so firm. It will come out and fall to the ground. Everything it supports will fall with it. I, the Lord, have spoken!” – Isaiah 22:25 NLT

God knew that the people of Judah were prone to put their faith in men. He was well aware that their natural tendency was to trust in anything and everyone but Him. So, God would one day remove Eliakim to further expose the peoples’ ill-placed hope in man.

But this brings to mind yet another reference concerning the key of David, the keys to the kingdom. It is found in the last book of the Bible. Once again, it comes from the lips of Jesus Himself, who introduces Himself to the church in Philadelphia with the following description:

“The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.” – Revelation 3:7 ESV

Jesus is the King. He is the one who holds the key of David. He is the fulfillment of the promise made by God to David.

“And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.” – 2 Samuel 7:16 ESV

Eliakim would enjoy the privilege and responsibility of wielding the key of David for a time. The disciples too were given the unique privilege of acting as Christ’s representatives on earth, stewarding His power and authority as they spread the good news of salvation. And every other follower of Christ who has ever lived has been given the keys to the Kingdom, the supernatural power of God, made ours through the sacrificial death and resurrection of the Son of God.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:18-20 ESV

It is faith in God that matters. It is the power of God as displayed in the Son of God that gives us hope. Our faith is to be in Him, not man. Our hope is to remain focused on what He has done, and He will do.

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

Faith, Not Fear.

The oracle concerning the wilderness of the sea.

As whirlwinds in the Negeb sweep on,
    it comes from the wilderness,
    from a terrible land.
A stern vision is told to me;
    the traitor betrays,
    and the destroyer destroys.
Go up, O Elam;
    lay siege, O Media;
all the sighing she has caused
    I bring to an end.
Therefore my loins are filled with anguish;
    pangs have seized me,
    like the pangs of a woman in labor;
I am bowed down so that I cannot hear;
    I am dismayed so that I cannot see.
My heart staggers; horror has appalled me;
    the twilight I longed for
    has been turned for me into trembling.
They prepare the table,
    they spread the rugs,
    they eat, they drink.
Arise, O princes;
    oil the shield!
For thus the Lord said to me:
“Go, set a watchman;
    let him announce what he sees.
When he sees riders, horsemen in pairs,
    riders on donkeys, riders on camels,
let him listen diligently,
    very diligently.”
Then he who saw cried out:
“Upon a watchtower I stand, O Lord,
    continually by day,
and at my post I am stationed
    whole nights.
And behold, here come riders,
    horsemen in pairs!”
And he answered,
    “Fallen, fallen is Babylon;
and all the carved images of her gods
    he has shattered to the ground.”
10 O my threshed and winnowed one,
    what I have heard from the Lord of hosts,
    the God of Israel, I announce to you. – Isaiah 21:1-10 ESV

babylon-1200x831x300God now turns His attention to the land of Babylon, located on the eastern side of the Fertile Crescent about 55 miles south of modern Baghdad. The oracle describes Babylon as “the wilderness of the sea.” This was likely because of its close proximity to the Persian Gulf. The use of the term “wilderness” seems to contradict the fertile and fruitful nature of that part of the world, so it is more likely a description of its post-judgment condition.

The great city-state known as Babylon has come to symbolize mankind’s attempt to build powerful religious and commercial centers that ultimately stand opposed to God. During the 16th-Century, Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin regularly referred to Rome and the papal state as Babylon. Even the apostle Peter used the name Babylon to refer to the city of Rome in his first letter.

She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son. – 1 Peter 5:13 ESV

In Peter’s day, Rome was the capital of the empire that ruled the world, and it was marked by religious pluralism, immorality, military power, and commercial success. So, in Peter’s mind, Rome was the modern-day embodiment of ancient Babylon.

The book of Revelation speaks of a future Babylon that will be destroyed by God for the role it plays as part of Antichrist’s earthly government during the Tribulation.

“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
    She has become a dwelling place for demons,
a haunt for every unclean spirit,
    a haunt for every unclean bird,
    a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast.
For all nations have drunk
    the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality,
and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her,
    and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living.” – Revelation 18:2-3 ESV

Chapter 17 of Revelation describes this future city as a “great prostitute…with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality” (Revelation 17:1-2 ESV). John goes on to provide further details regarding this future incarnation of the infamous city-state known as Babylon.

The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality. And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.” – Revelation 17:4-5 ESV

The spirit of Babylon is always alive on the earth. Of course, in Isaiah’s day, it took the form of the actual nation of Babylon, which had become one of the major forces vying for control of that part of the world. The Babylonians, Assyrians, Medes, Persians, Elamites, and Egyptians were all in a constant state of warfare, jockeying for position and brokering alliances in an attempt to seize the upper hand in the battle for domination. And during the Chaldean dynasty and under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar II, Babylon would rise to its greatest period of power and influence.

But the oracle describes Babylon’s fall coming as the result of a desert wind, a sirocco, blowing across the land, leaving a wake of destruction in its path. This devastating “wind” would be sent by God in the form of the Elamites and Medes. These two nations would bring an end to Babylon’s reign as a world power. And what is truly amazing is that this prophecy was given 200 years before the events actually took place. At this point in time, Elam and Media were not even major players on the world scene. Media was little more than a tribe and Elam, which would later become the Persian empire, is referred to by its tribal name. And yet, God is predicting the fall of Babylon to the combined forces of the Medes and Persians.

And Isaiah is shocked by what he hears. The news of Babylon’s pending doom leaves him reeling. Not because he had any love affair for the Babylonians, but because it all sounded so far-fetched and unbelievable. The stability of the entire region was up for grabs. Nothing was certain anymore. Just when he thought things had settled down and the geopolitical landscape had stabilized, Isaiah hears news of more change, accompanied by more war and bloodshed. And he reacts accordingly.

“My stomach aches and burns with pain.
    Sharp pangs of anguish are upon me,
    like those of a woman in labor.
I grow faint when I hear what God is planning;
    I am too afraid to look.
My mind reels and my heart races.
    I longed for evening to come,
    but now I am terrified of the dark.” – Isaiah 21:3-4 NLT

He describes the uncertainty and instability of the times.

“Look! They are preparing a great feast.
    They are spreading rugs for people to sit on.
    Everyone is eating and drinking.
But quick! Grab your shields and prepare for battle.
    You are being attacked!” – Isaiah 21:5 NLT

God commands Isaiah to post a watchman on the wall, to keep a lookout for what is to come. A train of soldiers and their supplies is on its way. The watchman is to remain vigilant, looking for the inevitable signs of God’s judgment against the Babylonians. It will happen just as He has predicted. And, sure enough, the day comes when the watchman sees exactly what God has prophesied.

“Day after day I have stood on the watchtower, my lord.
    Night after night I have remained at my post.
Now at last—look!
Here comes a man in a chariot
    with a pair of horses!” – Isaiah 21:8-9 NLT

The armies of the enemy have arrived. And the watchman cries out, not a warning, but a statement declaring the inevitable outcome.

“Babylon is fallen, fallen!
All the idols of Babylon
    lie broken on the ground!” – Isaiah 21:9 NLT

Isaiah’s day was marked by a constant state of turmoil and political unrest. The nation of Judah was surrounded by powerful enemies who were constantly threatening the stability of the region and the security of Judah. But God was trying to let the people of Judah know that He was in control. He was not dismayed by Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Media, Elam or any other nation. They were little more than pawns in His hands. What God wanted was for the people of Judah to wake up and realize that He was their hope and help. Their fear of the circumstances surrounding them was unwarranted. God was not only aware of all that was happening, He was in control of it. He was letting them know ahead of time, exactly what was going to take place. The events God predicted were so certain that a watchman would see them coming.

Isaiah reacted to this news as if everything was out of control. The world was falling apart. There was nothing anyone could count on. But God wanted Him to understand that just the opposite was true. God was sovereign over all. He had everything well in hand. There was not reason to panic or fear. Which is why Isaiah was able to say:

“…what I have heard from the Lord of hosts,
    the God of Israel, I announce to you.” – Isaiah 21:10 ESV

The chaos of the times was not meant to cause fear, but to instill faith in the people of God, as they looked to Him who was sovereignly orchestrating each and every outcome.

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 Discipline of God.

An oracle concerning Egypt.

Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud
    and comes to Egypt;
and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence,
    and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them.
And I will stir up Egyptians against Egyptians,
    and they will fight, each against another
    and each against his neighbor,
    city against city, kingdom against kingdom;
and the spirit of the Egyptians within them will be emptied out,
    and I will confound their counsel;
and they will inquire of the idols and the sorcerers,
    and the mediums and the necromancers;
and I will give over the Egyptians
    into the hand of a hard master,
and a fierce king will rule over them,
    declares the Lord God of hosts.

And the waters of the sea will be dried up,
    and the river will be dry and parched,
and its canals will become foul,
    and the branches of Egypt’s Nile will diminish and dry up,
    reeds and rushes will rot away.
There will be bare places by the Nile,
    on the brink of the Nile,
and all that is sown by the Nile will be parched,
    will be driven away, and will be no more.
The fishermen will mourn and lament,
    all who cast a hook in the Nile;
and they will languish
    who spread nets on the water.
The workers in combed flax will be in despair,
    and the weavers of white cotton.
10 Those who are the pillars of the land will be crushed,
    and all who work for pay will be grieved.

11 The princes of Zoan are utterly foolish;
    the wisest counselors of Pharaoh give stupid counsel.
How can you say to Pharaoh,
    “I am a son of the wise,
    a son of ancient kings”?
12 Where then are your wise men?
    Let them tell you
    that they might know what the Lord of hosts has purposed against Egypt.
13 The princes of Zoan have become fools,
    and the princes of Memphis are deluded;
those who are the cornerstones of her tribes
    have made Egypt stagger.
14 The Lord has mingled within her a spirit of confusion,
and they will make Egypt stagger in all its deeds,
    as a drunken man staggers in his vomit.
15 And there will be nothing for Egypt
    that head or tail, palm branch or reed, may do. – Isaiah 19:1-15 ESV

Cush.pngNow, God turns His attention to the land of Egypt. Located in close proximity to the land of Cush, Egypt was another potential ally for Judah in their efforts to forestall God’s judgment at the hands of the Assyrians. But, as before, God makes it quite clear that neither Cush or Egypt could prevent what God had planned for Judah. The only thing that could prevent their destruction was repentance, and they showed no interest in changing their ways.

So, God lets the people of Judah know just how helpful Egypt will prove to be as an ally. This powerful nation will find itself experiencing devastating destruction on all fronts. Their economy will suffer. Their ancient way of life will be radically altered. And their once-powerful political structure will collapse.

And the first 15 verses of this oracle are bracketed by statements describing the source of their fall.

Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud
    and comes to Egypt;
and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence,
    and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them. – Isaiah 19:1 ESV

The Lord has mingled within her a spirit of confusion,
and they will make Egypt stagger in all its deeds,
    as a drunken man staggers in his vomit. – Isaiah 19:14 ESV

All that Isaiah describes in this oracle will be the direct result of God’s actions. This is a not-so-subtle reminder to Judah that they need not fear the Assyrians. They needed to fear God. He was calling them to repentance. He was demanding that they return to Him and honor Him as the one and only God. What the people of Judah needed to realize was that the Assyrians were nothing more than instruments in God’s hands. He was using them as His rod of discipline against His wayward children. But rather than accept the loving discipline of God, the people of Judah were looking for a way of escape. They were attempting to find a savior to rescue them from all that God had planned for them.

God knew their hearts, and He was well aware that they would seek a way of escape. They would turn to one of the surrounding nations to rescue them from the very discipline of God. But God wanted them to know that their efforts would prove futile and pointless. Judah’s real adversary was the Lord. And there was nothing they could do to stop His coming judgment, short of repentance. There was no nation strong enough to stay His hand.

What the people of Judah needed to know was that their seeking of salvation in someone or something other than God would prove pointless. Their only source of help and hope was God Himself. Their plans to turn to other nations for assistance was nothing less than turning away from God. They would be refusing His will as manifested in the form of His loving discipline. And yet, that is exactly what they were planning to do. And when the Assyrians eventually arrived at the gates of Jerusalem, even King Sennacherib knew their intentions.

Then the Assyrian king’s chief of staff told them to give this message to Hezekiah:

“This is what the great king of Assyria says: What are you trusting in that makes you so confident? Do you think that mere words can substitute for military skill and strength? Who are you counting on, that you have rebelled against me? On Egypt? If you lean on Egypt, it will be like a reed that splinters beneath your weight and pierces your hand. Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, is completely unreliable!” – 2 Kings 18:19-21 NLT

Even this pagan king knew that Egypt would be no match for the forces of Assyria. But what King Sennacherib didn’t know was that he would prove no match for God. All of these prideful, powerful and self-inflated nations were nothing more than tools in the hands of God. He could and would do with them as He wished.

And God describes the Egyptians as devolving into a nation marred by civil war and inner turmoil. Their circumstances will leave them confused and in search of answers. So, they will “inquire of the idols and the sorcerers, and the mediums and the necromancers” (Isaiah 19:3 ESV). They will seek help from their litany of false gods, but find themselves short on answers and void of solutions. Instead, they will fall to a stronger, more powerful nation. The economy of Egypt will suffer greatly.

And in the midst of it all, the Pharaoh and his counselors will be at a loss as to why any of this is happening. God even mocks Pharaoh, telling him to ask his wise men as to the source of their misery.

Where then are your wise men?
    Let them tell you
    that they might know what the Lord of hosts has purposed against Egypt. – Isaiah 19:12 ESV

All that is described in these verses is the handiwork of God. And He wants His people to understand that their propensity to turn to a nation like Egypt for help and hope will prove futile. God is going to do what He has planned to do, and there is nothing anyone can do about it, including Egypt. Judah can make all the alliances it wants, but there is no nation strong enough to thwart the will of God. And He makes that point painfully clear.

And there will be nothing for Egypt
    that head or tail, palm branch or reed, may do. – Isaiah 19:15 ESV

Whenever the people of God reject Him and place their hope and trust in the things of this world, they will find themselves highly disappointed with the outcome of their strategy. In the case of Judah, they were considering Egypt as a source of rescue. But what they were failing to understand was that the very thing they were trying to escape was the sovereign will of God for them. God’s coming judgment was not intended to be merely punitive, but restorative in nature. He was going to break them so that He might heal them. He was going to chastise them, but only because He loved them.

For the LORD disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child. – Hebrews 12:6 NLT

Long before the author of Hebrews penned those words, Moses shared a similar sentiment with the people of Israel as they prepared to enter the promised land.

Think about it: Just as a parent disciplines a child, the LORD your God disciplines you for your own good. – Deuteronomy 8:5 NLT

No one likes discipline, even when done in love. In fact, we do everything we can to avoid or escape it. But, as followers of God, we must understand that His discipline is always intended for our good and fully backed by His love. The people of Judah needed to open their eyes and see that their rejection of God was the source of all their problems. Their failure to honor God had brought upon them the loving discipline of God. And, while not enjoyable in the moment, God’s discipline always proves profitable, resulting in our holiness. And the author of Hebrews puts the benefits of God’s loving discipline in terms we can understand and must wholeheartedly believe.

“My child, don’t make light of the Lord’s discipline and don’t give up when he corrects you. For the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child.”

As you endure this divine discipline, remember that God is treating you as his own children. Who ever heard of a child who is never disciplined by its father? If God doesn’t discipline you as he does all of his children, it means that you are illegitimate and are not really his children at allSince we respected our earthly fathers who disciplined us, shouldn’t we submit even more to the discipline of the Father of our spirits, and live forever?

For our earthly fathers disciplined us for a few years, doing the best they knew how. But God’s discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness. No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening—it’s painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way. – Hebrews 12:5-11 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

Fear God, Not Man.

11 For the Lord spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: 12 “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. 13 But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. 14 And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. 15 And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.”

16 Bind up the testimony; seal the teaching among my disciples. 17 I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him. 18 Behold, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion. 19 And when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? 20 To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn. 21 They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry. And when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will speak contemptuously against their king and their God, and turn their faces upward. 22 And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness. – Isaiah 8:11-22 ESV

Like any prophet of God, the greatest danger Isaiah faced was compromise. He had been commissioned by God to speak truth and deliver what would be a very unpopular message to a very stubborn people. They were not going to accept what he had to say and he would find himself facing intense opposition. Isaiah would soon discover that he was a lone voice, crying in the spiritual wilderness of the city of Jerusalem. So, God warns him “not to walk in the way of this people” (Isaiah 8:11 ESV). He had been called to walk a different path. But he would face the constant temptation to soften the message given to him by God in order to find acceptance among the people. If he was not careful, he would end up telling them what they wanted to hear, rather than what God had told him to say. And God was very specific in His warning to Isaiah.

“Don’t call everything a conspiracy, like they do,
    and don’t live in dread of what frightens them.” – Isaiah 8:12 NLT

The Hebrew word translated as “conspiracy” is qesher and can also refer to “an alliance.” But it refers particularly to an unlawful alliance. If you recall, there had been an alliance made between the northern kingdom of Israel and the Syrians. These two nations had joined forces with the intention of conquering Judah. In their fear, the people of Judah, under the leadership of Ahaz, had made their own alliance with the Assyrians. Rather than trust God, they had chosen to put their hopes in a pagan nation. And God has already warned Ahaz that his unlawful alliance would prove to be disastrous.

Now God is warning Isaiah not to allow fear to cloud his thinking. He is not to see things the way the people do. Their fear of Israel and Syria was driving their behavior and influencing their decision making. And they had determined that the only solution to their problem was an unlawful alliance with Assyria. If Isaiah was not careful, he could easily find himself swayed by the fears of the people and placing his hope in something or someone other than God. But God strongly warns Isaiah not to let this happen.

“Make the Lord of Heaven’s Armies holy in your life.
    He is the one you should fear.
He is the one who should make you tremble.
    He will keep you safe.” – Isaiah 18:13-14 NLT

Isaiah was to fear God, not man. He was to put his hope and trust in God Almighty, not an unlawful alliance with a pagan nation that would prove to be no match for the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. And, as far as Israel and Judah were concerned, God had their fate already planned out.

“But to Israel and Judah
    he will be a stone that makes people stumble,
    a rock that makes them fall.
And for the people of Jerusalem
    he will be a trap and a snare.
Many will stumble and fall,
    never to rise again.
    They will be snared and captured.” – Isaiah 8:14-15 NLT

Ahaz and the people of Judah feared the Israelites and the Syrians more than they feared God. And in doing so, they had failed to regard God as holy. They had refused to believe that He alone could keep them safe. As a result, they had allowed their fear of man to trump their fear of God. Now, the God who could have saved them, would be the God would cause them to fall. Because they had refused to see God as their sole source of safety and refuge, He would become a trap and a snare to them.

But Isaiah was to maintain his trust in God, no matter what happened. And when he discovered that the leadership and the people of the nation had rejected his message, Isaiah determined to take it to as many faithful followers of Yahweh as he could find. And Isaiah, having heard the warning from God, boldly claims his intention to remain faithful.

“I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him.” – Isaiah 8:17 ESV

Yet God knew that Isaiah’s commitment to remain faithful to Him was going to be constantly challenged. The people around him, even his own disciples, would eventually tempt him to turn to something other than God in order to gain insight and help.

“Let’s ask the mediums and those who consult the spirits of the dead. With their whisperings and mutterings, they will tell us what to do.” – Isaiah 8:19 NLT

In their desperation, people will seek guidance from the dead, rather than turn to God. They will resort to witchcraft and sorcery. In a sense, they will make another unlawful alliance with the occult. Yet Isaiah is encouraged to “Look to God’s instructions and teachings,” because all those who “who contradict his word are completely in the dark” (Isaiah 8:20 NLT). And, not surprisingly, when the people fail to get the answers they are seeking from the unlawful alliances they have made, they will curse God. When they find themselves weary and hungry, they will blame their king and their God. Rather than take personal responsibility for their circumstance, they will find a convenient scapegoat. But everywhere they look, they will see “trouble and anguish and dark despair” (Isaiah 8:22 NLT).

Failure to fear God is costly. It has severe ramifications. Their future circumstances were directly tied to their refusal to place their hope and trust in God. Their decision to make unlawful alliances with the ungodly and unrighteous was going to result in undesirable consequences. But, through it all, Isaiah was to remain faithfully fearful of God. He was to keep on trusting even when everyone around him was abandoning ship. They would find themselves in a state of spiritual darkness. But there is good news and it comes in the very next chapter. In spite of Judah’s rebellion against Him, they would experience His grace and mercy. He would one day penetrate the darkness of their lives with “a great light” (Isaiah 9:2 ESV). But more on that tomorrow.  

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

Whom Will You Trust?

1 In the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, king of Judah, Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah the king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to wage war against it, but could not yet mount an attack against it. When the house of David was told, “Syria is in league with Ephraim,” the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.

And the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out to meet Ahaz, you and Shear-jashub your son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field. And say to him, ‘Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, at the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria and the son of Remaliah. Because Syria, with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, has devised evil against you, saying, “Let us go up against Judah and terrify it, and let us conquer it for ourselves, and set up the son of Tabeel as king in the midst of it,” thus says the Lord God:

“‘It shall not stand,
    and it shall not come to pass.
For the head of Syria is Damascus,
    and the head of Damascus is Rezin.
And within sixty-five years
    Ephraim will be shattered from being a people.
And the head of Ephraim is Samaria,
    and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah.
If you are not firm in faith,
    you will not be firm at all.’” – Isaiah 7:1-9 ESV

This section of chapter seven sets up a long discourse regarding the lack of faith among the people of Judah, and it began at the top, with their king. Isaiah summarizes the situation, mirroring the words found in 2 Kings 16 and 2 Chronicles 28.

1 In the seventeenth year of Pekah the son of Remaliah, Ahaz the son of Jotham, king of Judah, began to reign. Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. And he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God, as his father David had done, but he walked in the way of the kings of Israel. He even burned his son as an offering, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. And he sacrificed and made offerings on the high places and on the hills and under every green tree. – 2 Kings 16:1-4 ESV

Ahaz was a wicked king who proved unfaithful to Yahweh. And, through his leadership, he led the people of Judah to practice all kinds of idolatry. In doing so, he emulated the actions of the northern kingdom of Israel, where they had long ago replaced Yahweh with their false gods.

It was the northern kingdom of Israel that made an alliance with Syria in hopes of mounting an attack against Judah. And when new of this plan reached the royal court in Judah, “the hearts of the king and his people trembled with fear, like trees shaking in a storm” (Isaiah 7:2 ESV). They were terrified.

So, God commanded Isaiah to deliver a message to Ahaz, and he was to take his son, Shearjashub (“a remnant shall return”), with him. It is not clear why God had Isaiah take his son, but it could be that the presence of this young boy was intended to help calm the fears of Ahaz. The message God gave Isaiah to deliver to Ahaz was simple and clear.

“Tell him to stop worrying. Tell him he doesn’t need to fear the fierce anger of those two burned-out embers, King Rezin of Syria and Pekah son of Remaliah.” – Isaiah 7:4 NLT

After delivering God’s call to cease fearing, Isaiah was to provide Ahaz with insight into the plans of the kings of Syria and Israel.

“We will attack Judah and capture it for ourselves. Then we will install the son of Tabeel as Judah’s king.” – Isaiah 7:5 NLT

This two-fold message from God had to confuse and disturb Ahaz. How was he supposed to remain calm when two nations had allied against him and were planning to depose him? But this is where Ahaz had a choice to make. He could either look at his circumstances and lose hope, or he could look to God and trust Him. Which is why God had Isaiah provide Ahaz with a powerful assurance.

“This invasion will never happen; it will never take place.” – Isaiah 7:6 NLT

While Ahaz saw the kings of Israel and Syria as formidable foes and a real threat, God describes them as nothing more than burned-out embers. Ahaz and the people of Judah had nothing to fear from these two nations. Their plans would come to nothing. God even exposes the limited sovereignty of the king of Syria. He was the head of a single capital (Damascus) in a solitary nation (Syria). He was nothing compared to the Almighty God who rules and reigns over all. And God went on to provide Ahaz a prophecy concerning Israel’s fate: “within sixty-five years it will be crushed and completely destroyed” (Isaiah 7:8 NLT). Within 13 years, Israel would fall to the Assyrians. And about 62 years after this conversation between Isaiah and Ahaz, the king of Assyria would begin relocating people from other conquered nations into the former land of Israel, making repopulation by the Israelites virtually impossible.

The king of Assyria transported groups of people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim and resettled them in the towns of Samaria, replacing the people of Israel. They took possession of Samaria and lived in its towns. – 2 Kings 17:24 NLT

God knew what was going to happen to Israel, so He let Ahaz know that the entire nation of Israel was no stronger than their king and, therefore, there was no reason for Ahaz and the people of Judah to fear.

This is where Ahaz was faced with a choice. Would he trust the word of God, delivered by the prophet of God? Or would he allow the circumstances surrounding him to overwhelm him with fear? From Ahaz’s perspective, the news of Syria and Israel’s plans to depose him were real and deserving of his concern. He was facing attack from two powerful enemies, and God had even confirmed their plans. But God had also told him that it would not happen. Their plans would not to nothing.

And sensing Ahaz’s fear and anxiety, Isaiah gave the king one more message from God.

“If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.” – Isaiah 7:9 ESV

Ahaz was going to have to trust God. Essentially, God was warning Ahaz that without faith in Him, they would fall. Fear and faith are not meant to co-exist. The presence of fear in the life of a child of God is evidence of a lack of faith. It reveals a distrust of God and doubt regarding His power and His promises.

As Moses was nearing the end of his life and the people of Israel were preparing to enter the promised land, under the leadership of Joshua, he told the people:

“So be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid and do not panic before them. For the LORD your God will personally go ahead of you. He will neither fail you nor abandon you.” – Deuteronomy 31:6 NLT

The circumstances facing the people of Israel were formidable and frightening. They were getting ready to enter a land filled with fortified cities protected by powerful armed forces. But Moses had told the people, “the Lord your God himself will cross over ahead of you. He will destroy the nations living there, and you will take possession of their land” (Deuteronomy 31:3 NLT). And they had a choice to make. Would they cross over, putting shoe leather to their faith? Or would they remain on the wrong side of the Jordan, giving evidence of their lack of trust in God?

Ahaz had a decision to make, and it was not an easy one. The threat was real. The fears were justified. But His God had spoken. He had the word of God Almighty assuring him that nothing was going to happen. But he was going to have to take God at His word and trust Him.

5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
    and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
    and he will make straight your paths. – Psalm 3:5-6 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

Return!

1 The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth;
    for the Lord has spoken:
“Children have I reared and brought up,
    but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
    and the donkey its master’s crib,
but Israel does not know,
    my people do not understand.”

Ah, sinful nation,
    a people laden with iniquity,
offspring of evildoers,
    children who deal corruptly!
They have forsaken the Lord,
    they have despised the Holy One of Israel,
    they are utterly estranged.

Why will you still be struck down?
    Why will you continue to rebel?
The whole head is sick,
    and the whole heart faint.
From the sole of the foot even to the head,
    there is no soundness in it,
but bruises and sores
    and raw wounds;
they are not pressed out or bound up
    or softened with oil.

Your country lies desolate;
    your cities are burned with fire;
in your very presence
    foreigners devour your land;
    it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners.
And the daughter of Zion is left
    like a booth in a vineyard,
like a lodge in a cucumber field,
    like a besieged city.

If the Lord of hosts
    had not left us a few survivors,
we should have been like Sodom,
    and become like Gomorrah.

10 Hear the word of the Lord,
    you rulers of Sodom!
Give ear to the teaching of our God,
    you people of Gomorrah!
11 “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
    says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
    and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
    or of lambs, or of goats.

12 “When you come to appear before me,
    who has required of you
    this trampling of my courts?
13 Bring no more vain offerings;
    incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
    I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts
    my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
    I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands,
    I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
    I will not listen;
    your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
    remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17 learn to do good;
seek justice,
    correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
    plead the widow’s cause.

18 “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
    they shall become like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
    you shall eat the good of the land;
20 but if you refuse and rebel,
    you shall be eaten by the sword;
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” – Isaiah 1:1-20 ESV

As the name of this book implies, it was written by the prophet, Isaiah, during the reigns of the following kings of Judah: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. It is considered a pre-exilic book, which simply means it was penned before the southern kingdom of Judah was defeated and destroyed in 586 B.C. by King Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian forces in 586 B.C. The result of this God-ordained calamity was that many of the people of Judah were taken captive and ended up living in exile in the nation of Babylon.

Isaiah was one of many prophets chosen by God to carry a message to the nation of Judah, warning them of pending judgment if they did not repent of their ways. He repeatedly called on them to return to Him or face destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. If they refused, they would find their capital of Jerusalem destroyed, their temple demolished, and their status as a major player in the region wiped out. If they ignored the message of Isaiah, they would find their exile from the land of promise lasting 70 long years.

So, Isaiah was chosen by God to deliver a stark message to the people of God, warning them of disaster to come. It would not be an easy task. Like all of God’s prophets, Isaiah would find an non-receptive audience who refused to listen to his words. And of the four kings during whose administrations Isaiah would prophecy, only two would show any interest in obeying God. They would attempt to apply the words of Isaiah and call the people to repentance, but their efforts would fall short.

But notice how God’s opens up His indictment of Judah. He addresses heaven and earth.

“Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth;
    for the Lord has spoken.” – Isaiah 1:2 ESV

He wants everyone, in heaven and on earth, to know just exactly what He has against the people of Judah, who He describes as children He has reared and brought up. They were the descendants of Abraham. As such, they were the direct result of a promise God had made to Abraham many generations earlier.

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” – Genesis 12:2 ESV

The people of Judah were that great nation. They had been blessed by God and He had intended them to be a blessing to the other nations of the world. But as God makes perfectly clear, they had not been obedient children.

“…but they have rebelled against me.” – Isaiah 1:2 ESV

His criticism of His people is very blunt and far from flattering. He compares them to an ox and a donkey, two domesticated animals that aren’t known for being the brightest beasts in the barnyard. But God gives the ox and the donkey more credit than His own children. At least an ox recognizes its owner and a donkey knows where to go to get fed by his master. But the people of Judah were at a distinct disadvantage. Number one, they didn’t know God, their master. And they had no clue where to go to have their daily needs met. They were feeding themselves at the wrong trough.

Look at verse 4. God spares no mercy in describing the spiritual state of His people.

…sinful nation
…a people laden with iniquity
…offspring of evildoers
…children who deal corruptly
…they have forsaken the Lord
…they have despised the Holy One of Israel
…they are utterly estranged

Not exactly a flattering picture. But God isn’t done. He goes on to question the absurdity of their situation. Why in the world would they willingly continue to rebel against Him and suffer the consequences? They were bruised and beaten from the impact of it all. But they weren’t willing to do anything about it. God had already begun His judgments against them. Some of their cities were “desolate” because the enemies of the people of God were constantly attacking them. A lot of their problem was related to the failure of their ancestors to do what God had commanded them to do when He placed them in the promised land. They were to have completely destroyed all the inhabitants of the land so that they would not end up worshiping their false gods. But they had never fully followed through on their commitment, instead allowing the nations to remain in the land and to draw their hearts away from God. Now they were paying for it.

It was only the grace and mercy of God that had kept them from becoming a total wasteland like the once-flourishing cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. God even refers to them Sodom and Gomorrah, asking whether they think their sacrifices were enough to prevent their coming destruction.

I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
    and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
    or of lambs, or of goats. – Isaiah 1:11 ESV

God was fed up. He was worn out by their tendency to simply go through the motions. And He wanted them to know that He was running out of patience.

When you spread out your hands,
    I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
    I will not listen;
    your hands are full of blood. – Isaiah 1:15 ESV

He pulls no punches. He doesn’t sugarcoat the problem. And, He gives them very clear instructions as to what they need to do to remedy the issue.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
    remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
   learn to do good;
seek justice,
    correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
    plead the widow’s cause. – Isaiah 1:16-17 ESV

They had their work cut out for them, because they weren’t doing any of these things. But did God really expect them to pull this off? Was He going to sit back and wait for them to get their proverbial act together – on their own? No, look at what He says next.

“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
    they shall become like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
    you shall eat the good of the land.” – Isaiah 1:18-19 ESV

All they needed to do was return to Him. That was going to be the gist of Isaiah’s message. Just repent. Return to God and allow Him to do what He can only do. But God was clear what would happen if they refused to return.

“…if you refuse and rebel,
    you shall be eaten by the sword;
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” – Isaiah 1:20 ESV

Wow! That’s just the first 20 verses of this entire book. And Isaiah hasn’t even said a word yet. But he will. In fact, he will have a lot to say. But he won’t find many takers on what he has to offer. He will warn. He will plead. He will pray. He will beg. But the people of Judah will prove to be stubborn and set in their ways.

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

To the Least of These.

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – Matthew 25:31-46 ESV

Matthew’s entire gospel has been centered around the kingdom of heaven and Jesus’ right to rule as the heir of David. And Jesus has spent a great deal of time trying to correct His disciples’ errant views of that kingdom. When the Messiah finally showed up, they fully expected Him to set up His kingdom in Jerusalem and restore Israel to its former place of power and prominence. But Jesus had been out to change their perceptions regarding the kingdom. First of all, rather than sit on throne in David’s former palace wearing a golden crown on his head, He was going to hang on a cross, wearing a crown of thorns. His first coming was going to require His sacrificial death on behalf of sinful mankind. He had come to redeem, not reign. He had come to conquer sin and death, not Israel’s earthly enemies. He had come to restore men to a right relationship with God, not return Israel to its pre-exilic condition.

As His two parables inferred, Jesus was going to go away. He would die, be raised back to life, and then return to His Father’s side. But He would return one day. First, He would come for His bride, the church.

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.  Therefore encourage one another with these words. – 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 ESV

This event will usher in the period known as the Tribulation. With the removal of the church at the Rapture, the Holy Spirit, who indwells each and every believer, will be removed. The apostle Paul refers to this reality in his second letter to the Thessalonians.

Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed… – 2 Thessalonians 2:1-8 ESV

Jesus made it clear that only one thing kept the “man of lawlessness” from showing up. The Holy Spirit who indwells His church. When the church is removed at the Rapture, the restraining influence of God’s Spirit, in the form of God’s people, will allow the Antichrist to rise to power. The period of the Tribulation which will follow the Rapture of the church will be a time of unprecedented suffering, marked by unrestrained sin and unsurpassed rebellion against God. Jesus described this seven-year period in stark terms:

“For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” – Matthew 24:21 ESV

And at the end of the seven years of Tribulation, when Jesus returns to earth the second time, He will come as a conquering king. John describes His arrival in Revelation.

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. – Revelation 19:11-16 ESV

And He will judge al those who live on the earth at that time. The book of Revelation makes it clear that many will come to faith during the period of the Tribulation. In spite of the absence of the church, God will continue to show grace and mercy to the world, bringing both Jews and Gentiles to faith. Many of them will suffer martyrdom at the hands of the Antichrist. All of them will be persecuted and have to endure the plagues, famines, wars, and cosmic upheavals God brings on the earth during those days.

But when Jesus finally conquers those in rebellion against Him, including Satan, the Antichrist, and the false prophet, He will judge all those on the earth. And that is what this passage is all about. Jesus told His disciples, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne” (Matthew 25:31 ESV). Notice the conditional nature of this statement. Jesus stated that His reign would begin with His second coming. It will be then that He sits on His glorious throne, not now. And one of His first acts as King will be to judge the nations.

He will gather all the nations, including Jews and Gentiles, and separate the sheep from the goats, the believers from the unbelievers. And “he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left” (Matthew 25:33 ESV). Then, Jesus will reveal how He made the determination between these two groups of individuals. He will make known the criteria for His judgment. To the group on His right, the sheep, He will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34 ESV). And He will tell them why they are going to inherit the kingdom. The word “for” could be translated “because,” and Jesus will explain that their judgment is based on their expressions of love for Him. He was hungry and they fed Him. He was thirsty and they provided Him with water. They had welcomed as a stranger. They had provided Him with clothes and visited Him while He was in prison.

But these people will wonder how they accomplished any of these things since Jesus was not even among them during the days of the Tribulation. And Jesus will explain that their treatment of others was an expression of their love for Him. So, Jesus was not teaching a form of salvation by works, but works that are a tangible proof of salvation. It is exactly what James discussed in his letter.

“How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” – James 218 NLT

During the incredibly difficult days of the Tribulation, these people will show incredible faith by loving the unlovely, meeting the needs of the helpless and hopeless, protecting the innocent, and caring for “the least of these.” All at great risk to their lives. Their love for Christ will show up in their love for others. And Jesus makes it clear that their selfless, sacrificial actions were an expression of their faith and love for Him.

“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” – Matthew 25:40 ESV

But what about the rest? How does Jesus address all those on His left? He flatly states: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41 ESV). Then He tells them why.

For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” – Matthew 25:42-43 ESV

They showed no love to anyone. They sacrificed nothing on behalf of others. They ignored the needs of all those around them. And in doing so, they revealed their lack of love for Christ. Their actions gave proof of their sinful state. Their failure to love was evidence of their lack of faith in Christ. And Jesus makes the fate of both groups perfectly clear

“…these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – Matthew 25:46 ESV

As James wrote, “faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26 ESV). That truth applies today and it will apply during the Tribulation. Faith in Christ brings life change. It is tangible and transferable. Our love for Him should show up in our love for others. His sacrifice for us should instill in us a desire to sacrifice our own lives for the sake of others. And our lives of love will be the greatest evidience of our saving faith.

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.

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

Behold, I Am Coming Soon.

32 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

36 “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. 37 For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, 39 and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. 42 Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? 46 Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. 47 Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. 48 But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ 49 and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, 50 the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know 51 and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. – Matthew 24:32-51 ESV

fig-tree.jpg

Jesus is attempting to open the eyes of His disciples and help them develop a long-term perspective regarding His Kingdom. They were focused on the here-and-now, and having trouble understanding that His talk of His coming death in Jerusalem was anything but bad news and something to be avoided at all costs. This entire chapter contains the surprising and difficult-to-comprehend words of Jesus as He reveals the bigger picture regarding God’s plan of redemption. The death of Jesus on the cross would be just the beginning of the much larger, comprehensive plan of God. It would include the resurrection of Jesus, as well as His return to His Father’s side. But, even more importantly, it would require His eventual return to earth as the conquering King.

And while Jesus knew that there would be a long delay before His return would take place, He wanted His disciples to live with a sense of eager anticipation. If they expected it to happen and kept their eyes open, looking for the signs of its approach, they would be able to endure the struggles that would come along the way.

Jesus used the visual lesson of a fig tree in order to help the disciples understand that there would be visible, recognizable signs associated with His coming. The budding of a fig tree is a clear sign that summer is near. It is unmistakable and irrefutable. In the same way, Jesus states, the signs of His return will be undeniable. Jesus even assures His disciples that “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matthew 24:34 ESV). But what does this mean? Was He saying that the events associated with the end times would take place during the lifetimes of His disciples? The answer would seem to be, “No.” But while they were alive, they would begin to see the early signs of His return. The budding of the fig tree provides a premonition or portent of something to come. The budding of the tree does not mean summer has arrived, but that it is coming. In the same way, the disciples would live to see signs that would point to Jesus’ coming. They would not live to see His actual return, but they would be given clear indications that it was going to happen.

Each generation of believers has been given signs that His coming is eminent and inevitable. These signs act as assurances of God’s faithfulness and are meant to encourage us to continue to wait eagerly and hopefully.

The earth would continue to go through all kinds of struggles, including earthquakes, famines, floods, disasters and even wars. The apostle Paul reminded the believers in Corinth: “Those who use the things of the world should not become attached to them. For this world as we know it will soon pass away” (1 Corinthians 7:31 NLT). The apostle John wrote, “this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave” (1 John 2:17 NLT). Even Jesus, earlier in this very same discourse, warned His disciples:

“…you will hear of wars and threats of wars, but don’t panic. Yes, these things must take place, but the end won’t follow immediately. Nation will go to war against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in many parts of the world. But all this is only the first of the birth pains, with more to come.” – Matthew 24:6-8 NLT

But while there will be clear signs along the way, the actual day and date of the Lord’s return will remain a mystery. We will know it is coming, but we will not know when. Jesus indicated that even He did not know the day or the hour. God the Father alone has access to that information.

The second coming of Jesus will be a surprise. And it will catch the majority of people living on earth at the time completely off-guard and unprepared. Jesus used the days of Noah as an apt point of comparison. In a way, Noah’s building of the ark was a clear sign that something was coming. And Peter seems to indicate that Noah warned his neighbors of God’s coming judgment and the availability of salvation made possible by the ark.

[God] did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness… – 2 Peter 2:5 ESV

The New Living Translation reads: “Noah warned the world of God’s righteous judgment.”

But the people in Noah’s day ignored the signs and refused the message of Noah. Instead, they busied themselves, “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark” (Matthew 24:38 ESV). They went on with their lives, oblivious to the warning signs and ignorant of what was about to happen, until “the flood came and swept them all away” (Matthew 24:39 ESV). And Jesus made it clear to His disciples that the same thing was going to happen when He finally returned. It would catch the world unprepared and completely off-guard.

The next few verses have created a great deal of controversy over the ages. Some have attempted to use them as proof of the Rapture of the church. But it is important that we keep them within their context. Jesus has been talking about His second coming, not the Rapture. And so the context is one of judgment, not salvation. When Christ returns the second time, He will be coming as a righteous judge to deal with sinful mankind once and for all. His coming will take place at the end of the Tribulation. During that time, there will be those who come to faith in Christ and endure great persecution at the hands of the Antichrist. But when Christ returns, He will defeat the Antichrist and his ungodly followers. And He will cast Satan, Antichrist and the false prophet into the lake of fire or hell.

Then the devil, who had deceived them, was thrown into the fiery lake of burning sulfur, joining the beast and the false prophet. There they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. – Revelation 20:10 NLT

And all those who are living on the earth at that time will be judged as well, with their ultimate destination being hell.

It would seem that, based on the context of the second coming, that those who are removed are those who are not believers. They will be judged and condemned, then sent to the destination God has prepared for them. But those who remain symbolize those who came to faith in Christ during the great Tribulation.

The main point Jesus was making was that of remaining prepared and fully expectant that His return could be any day. Which is why He said, “stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:42 ESV). He added, “you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44 ESV).

We are to live our lives with a sense of eager expectation, and conduct ourselves as if it could be today. The waiting is difficult. The delay can easy cause us to lose hope and take our eyes off the prize. And Jesus provided His disciples with a warning in the form of yet another parable. A faithful and wise servant will stay vigilent and diligent while his master is away, conducting himself as if the master could walk in the door at any minute. But the wicked servant will use the delay as an excuse to sow his wild oats. His true, sin-prone, self-centered nature will manifest itself.  And Jesus warns that the servant’s master, like the Messiah, will return when everyone least expects it. And when he does, he will bring just judgment on the wicked servant.

Again, Jesus was trying to get His disciples to understand that there was much more to the Kingdom than they ever imagined. His first coming was just the beginning. And His eventual departure would not be the end. He was coming again. He had promised to do so. And they needed to live their lives as if it could and would happen. They were to stay diligent and vigilant. They were to remain faithful and wise. Unlike the wicked, followers of Christ are to stay alert and awake, fully prepared for His return.

“Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.”

“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” – Revelation 22:11-13 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.

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