Cut Off and Dried Up

Awake, you drunkards, and weep,
    and wail, all you drinkers of wine,
because of the sweet wine,
    for it is cut off from your mouth.
For a nation has come up against my land,
    powerful and beyond number;
its teeth are lions’ teeth,
    and it has the fangs of a lioness.
It has laid waste my vine
    and splintered my fig tree;
it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down;
    their branches are made white.

Lament like a virgin wearing sackcloth
    for the bridegroom of her youth.
The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off
    from the house of the Lord.
The priests mourn,
    the ministers of the Lord.
10 The fields are destroyed,
    the ground mourns,
because the grain is destroyed,
    the wine dries up,
    the oil languishes.

11 Be ashamed, O tillers of the soil;
    wail, O vinedressers,
for the wheat and the barley,
    because the harvest of the field has perished.
12 The vine dries up;
    the fig tree languishes.
Pomegranate, palm, and apple,
    all the trees of the field are dried up,
and gladness dries up
    from the children of man. – Joel 1:5-12 ESV

The relentless waves of locusts have come and gone, leaving a lunar-like landscape in their wake. The land of Judah has been stripped bare of all vegetation as these voracious insects devoured every plant in their path.  Joel paints a grim picture of the aftermath of their devastating destruction, describing the grape vines as being “laid waste,” the fig trees as “splintered,” the fields as “destroyed,” and the trees of the field as “dried up.” And he calls on the people of Judah to mourn their loss. In fact, he addresses several distinctly different groups of individuals, in an obvious effort to show the non-discriminatory nature of the locust judgment.

First, he speaks to the drunkards (Hebrew: shikkowr), those who spend their days intoxicated by the fruit of the vine. These individuals were going to find the days ahead especially difficult to endure. While they would survive in the short-term, living off the surplus of wine from the last harvest, the day would come when the shelves at the local convenience store would be bare, and the storage vats would be dry. Suddenly, the drunks would find themselves with nothing to drink, and no way to satisfy their insatiable desire for wine-fueled escape. It will be a rude and unpleasant wake-up call, like an alcoholic having to go cold-turkey.

Joel compares the overwhelming numbers of the locusts to that of a vast human army “powerful and beyond number.” But he describes their capacity to devour and destroy as being like the teeth and fangs of a lion.  Then, Joel provides a graphic description of the devastating consequences of this vast army’s destructive power.  And he uses the voice of God to portray the scene.

It has destroyed my grapevines
    and ruined my fig trees,
stripping their bark and destroying it,
    leaving the branches white and bare. – Joel 1:7 NLT

This judgment from God has impacted the land of God. The land of promise, provided by God to the people of Judah, has had to suffer because of their sin. It was His grapevines that had been stripped bare, and the fig trees that were stripped of their bark and left with fruitless branches had been His property. The sins of mankind always impact the creation of God. Even the original fall left the created order under a curse. The apostle Paul describes creation as groaning under that curse, awaiting its re-creation at the return of Christ.

Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. – Romans 8:20-22 NLT

Next, Joel turns his attention to the priests. The loss caused by the locust infestation was going to make a very different impact on their lives. Joel describes the “grain offering and the drink offering” as being “cut off from the house of the Lord” (Joel 1:9 ESV). With the fields left stripped bare and the vines devoid of fruit, there would be no grain or wine to use in the sacrificial system. Like a gasoline-powered engine with no fuel to fill its tank, the temple rituals would grind to a halt, leaving the priests with nothing to do, but mourn.

The fields are ruined,
    the land is stripped bare.
The grain is destroyed,
    the grapes have shriveled,
    and the olive oil is gone. – Joel 1:10 NLT

No grain for the grain offering. No wine for the drink offering. No olive oil for the lamps. All the way back during the days of the exodus from Egypt, God had provided the people of Israel with instructions regarding the importance of grain, wine, and oil in the sacrificial system He had instituted.

“These are the sacrifices you are to offer regularly on the altar. Each day, offer two lambs that are a year old, one in the morning and the other in the evening. With one of them, offer two quarts of choice flour mixed with one quart of pure oil of pressed olives; also, offer one quart of wine as a liquid offering. Offer the other lamb in the evening, along with the same offerings of flour and wine as in the morning. It will be a pleasing aroma, a special gift presented to the Lord.” – Exodus 29:38-41 NLT

And notice what Moses says. These offerings of wine, oil, and grain were “a special gift presented to the Lord.” The Jews were to present these offerings to the Lord, in obedience to His commands, but also in appreciation for His goodness and grace. The apostle Paul used the drink offering as a way to describe his commitment to live his life in obedience to the cause of Christ.

Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. – Philippians 2:17 ESV

Because of their sins, the people of Judah had brought the judgment of God on themselves. But their disobedience wasn’t going to impact them alone. It would rob God of the glory and honor He deserved.

Finally, Joel addresses the farmers and the vine-growers. With no grain or grapes to harvest, they would have plenty of time to weep and mourn. Joel uses the Hebrew word, yabesh, and it is translated as “ashamed.” But it can mean “to dry up” or “to wither away.” Joel seems to be saying that the barren fields and fruitless vines would act as a visual representation of the spiritual condition of God’s people. They were dried up and withered. They were spiritually fruitless and non-productive.

Don’t miss the picture Joel is painting. The farmers have no grain to harvest. The vine-growers have not grapes with which to produce wine. As a result, the drunks have no wine with which to get drunk. But the people have no wine or grain to offer up to God. Not only can the drunks not sin, but the people can’t effectively find forgiveness for their sins. And the priests, whose primary job was to act as “the ministers of the Lord,” would find themselves with no role to play. Rather than wearing robes of righteousness and presenting offerings of thankfulness to God, they would be wearing the sackcloth associated with mourning and weeping tears of sorrow and regret.

And Joel summarizes the situation, revealing that the destruction of the locusts had been all-encompassing in its scope.

The grapevines have dried up,
    and the fig trees have withered.
The pomegranate trees, palm trees, and apple trees—
    all the fruit trees—have dried up.
    And the people’s joy has dried up with them. – Joel 1:12 NLT

Virtually every living thing had been impacted by the judgment of God as manifested in the locust plague.  Grapes, figs, pomegranates, palms, apples, and all other fruit trees were destroyed. But, more significantly, so was the joy of the people. As the crops had withered, so had the joy of the people. The Hebrew word for “joy” that Joel used is sasown, and it could be used to speak of gladness, rejoicing, or “the oil of gladness“ that was used in times of celebration. The people of Judah had no reason to rejoice or celebrate. Their sins had brought the judgment of God. And while the primary target of God’s judgment had been nature itself, the people would feel the consequences.  And in the book of isaiah, the prophet speaks of “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:2), describing a future day when God will restore joy and gladness to His rebellious people. 

…to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. – Isaiah 61:3 ESV

Sin always brings death and destruction. It always results in sorrow. Ultimately, it prevents mankind from giving God the glory and honor He deserves. And, as this passage so powerfully illustrates, it leaves the people of God spiritually barren and fruitless, dried up and devoid of joy.

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

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

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

 

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Then They Remembered…

I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord,
    the praises of the Lord,
according to all that the Lord has granted us,
    and the great goodness to the house of Israel
that he has granted them according to his compassion,
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
For he said, “Surely they are my people,
    children who will not deal falsely.”
    And he became their Savior.
In all their affliction he was afflicted,
    and the angel of his presence saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
    he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

10 But they rebelled
    and grieved his Holy Spirit;
therefore he turned to be their enemy,
    and himself fought against them.
11 Then he remembered the days of old,
    of Moses and his people.
Where is he who brought them up out of the sea
    with the shepherds of his flock?
Where is he who put in the midst of them
    his Holy Spirit,
12 who caused his glorious arm
    to go at the right hand of Moses,
who divided the waters before them
    to make for himself an everlasting name,
13     who led them through the depths?
Like a horse in the desert,
    they did not stumble.
14 Like livestock that go down into the valley,
    the Spirit of the Lord gave them rest.
So you led your people,
    to make for yourself a glorious name.

15 Look down from heaven and see,
    from your holy and beautiful habitation.
Where are your zeal and your might?
    The stirring of your inner parts and your compassion
    are held back from me.
16 For you are our Father,
    though Abraham does not know us,
    and Israel does not acknowledge us;
you, O Lord, are our Father,
    our Redeemer from of old is your name.
17 O Lord, why do you make us wander from your ways
    and harden our heart, so that we fear you not?
Return for the sake of your servants,
    the tribes of your heritage.
18 Your holy people held possession for a little while;
    our adversaries have trampled down your sanctuary.
19 We have become like those over whom you have never ruled,
    like those who are not called by your name. Isaiah 63:7-19 ESV

After hearing God’s grand plan for the future redemption of His people, Isaiah responds with a somewhat nostalgic recollection of all of God’s great and gracious redemptive activities on behalf of the people of Israel. And he does so in the form of a prayer.

He starts by recalling the myriad examples of God’s merciful kindness or favor. Throughout this prayer, Isaiah will focus on the undeserved nature of God’s love for the people of Israel. They have been the undeserving recipients of God’s unmerited favor. Every single incident involving God’s love toward Israel “he has granted according to his mercy and love” (Isaiah 63:7 NLT). The Hebrew word for mercy is racham, and it can be used to refer to a mother’s womb. From Isaiah’s perspective, the children of Israel have been cared for and protected by God like a baby in its mother’s womb. An unborn baby does nothing to earn its place of safety and security, but enjoys nourishment and protection because of the gracious actions of its mother. And Isaiah did not come up with this comparison on his own. He had heard it from the lips of God Himself.

“Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
    all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from before your birth,
    carried from the womb (racham).” – Isaiah 46:3 ESV

Of His own accord, God had made the people of Israel His children and He had every right to expect them to live up to their position as His sons and daughters. God had agreed to be their Savior, providing them with protection and rescue when necessary. In return, He asked that they not deal falsely with Him. He expected them to remain faithful to Him.

Isaiah recounts the history of his people, recalling the many times in which God stepped into their circumstances and rescued them. He describes God as suffering along with them. When the found themselves experiencing difficulty, God was empathetic, but also immediate in His response.

he personally rescued them.
In his love and mercy he redeemed them.
    He lifted them up and carried them
    through all the years. – Isaiah 63:9 NLT

But how had they responded to God’s gracious acts of redemption? By rebelling against Him and, by doing so, grieving His Holy Spirit. As a result, they would find their relationship to Him becoming antagonistic rather than affectionate. From their vantage point, God would appear more like their enemy than their gracious, loving Father. But God was not the one who had reneged on the relationship. The fault was all theirs.

Their unfaithfulness to God would result in His loving discipline of them. They would discover the painful consequences of their willful decision to violate their covenant with God. Their failure to remain faithful to Him would cost them. Their choice to worship false gods would cause them great pain and suffering. And Isaiah recounts the many times the people of God had called out to the very one they had abandoned, in the hopes that He would rescue them yet again.

“Then they remembered…” (Isaiah 63:11 NLT). It took the very real presence of trials to get them to recall the true identity of their Savior. It had been God who had rescued them from their captivity in Egypt. It had been God who had brought the plagues upon the people of Egypt. And it had been God who had provided them with a path across the Red Sea, allowing them to escape the armies of Egypt. They remembered and they cried out.

Now, Isaiah cries out. He turns His recollections of God’s past mercies into a call for His immediate intervention into their current state of affairs.

Lord, look down from heaven;
    look from your holy, glorious home, and see us.
Where is the passion and the might
    you used to show on our behalf?
    Where are your mercy and compassion now? – Isaiah 63:15 NLT

Isaiah begs God to do as He has done so many times before. He knows that they don’t deserve God’s favor, but he pleads with Him to extend His mercy and compassion yet again. Like Moses and the Israelites standing on the shore of the Red Sea with Pharaoh and his army bearing down on them, the people of Judah found themselves in a similar situation. They were in trouble. The enemy was bearing down on them and they had no way of escape. The only hope they had was God.

And Isaiah addresses God as their loving Father, appealing to His sense of responsibility for His children.

Surely you are still our Father!
    Even if Abraham and Jacob would disown us,
Lord, you would still be our Father.
    You are our Redeemer from ages past. – Isaiah 63:16 NLT

Isaiah knows that God is faithful. He is not questioning God’s commitment to His covenant promises or raising doubts about God’s everlasting love. He is simply appealing to God’s unchanging nature. He is the very same God who has rescued the people of Israel time and time again, in spite of their unfaithfulness to Him. So, Isaiah is simply asking God to respond to their current situation with the same sense of mercy and grace.

Isaiah had a healthy understanding of the sovereign will of God. He knew that nothing happens in this life apart from the will of God, including the rebellion of the people of God. When Isaiah asks the question, “why do you make us wander from your ways and harden our heart, so that we fear you not?,” he is not blaming God for the sins of the people of Judah. He is simply acknowledging that God could have prevented their unfaithfulness, but chose not to. To put it another way, God gave them free rein to practice free will. He allowed them to live according to the desires of their hearts. The apostle Paul provides us with a powerful reminder of what it looks like when God “abandons” men and women to live according to their own desires, and it is not a pretty picture.

…instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles. So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. – Romans 1:23-24 NLT

Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. – Romans 1:28 NLT

God does not cause us to sin. James makes that point perfectly clear.

And remember, when you are being tempted, do not say, “God is tempting me.” God is never tempted to do wrong, and he never tempts anyone else. Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. – James 1:13-15 NLT

God was not responsible for the sins of the people of Judah. But Isaiah knew that the only way they could have remained faithful would have been through the intervention of God. And the only way they were going to return to God was if He acted on their behalf. They didn’t have it in them to do so on their own accord. Which is what led Isaiah to plead: “Return and help us, for we are your servants, the tribes that are your special possession” (Isaiah 63:17 NLT).

Isaiah knew their only hope of salvation was God. They had no other options. If He did not intervene on their behalf, they were doomed. Isaiah knew the his own people well and realized that if repentance, as evidenced by changed hearts, was the only way God would rescue them, it would never happen. They were far too stubborn for that to happen. And Isaiah includes a sad expression of his outlook on their current state of affairs.

Sometimes it seems as though we never belonged to you,
    as though we had never been known as your people. – Isaiah 63:17 NLT

This was his honest opinion. As he looked at the circumstances surrounding the people of Judah, it was as if they had never been chosen by God. Things had deteriorated so badly, that they were unrecognizable as God’s chosen people. They looked no different than any other nation on the planet. Their distinctiveness had long ago dissipated. Rather than living as set apart by God, it appeared as if they had been set aside. But Isaiah was not willing to give up, as the rest of his prayer will reveal.

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

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

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

No Peace

1 Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save,
    or his ear dull, that it cannot hear;
but your iniquities have made a separation
    between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you
    so that he does not hear.
For your hands are defiled with blood
    and your fingers with iniquity;
your lips have spoken lies;
    your tongue mutters wickedness.
No one enters suit justly;
    no one goes to law honestly;
they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies,
    they conceive mischief and give birth to iniquity.
They hatch adders’ eggs;
    they weave the spider’s web;
he who eats their eggs dies,
    and from one that is crushed a viper is hatched.
Their webs will not serve as clothing;
    men will not cover themselves with what they make.
Their works are works of iniquity,
    and deeds of violence are in their hands.
Their feet run to evil,
    and they are swift to shed innocent blood;
their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity;
    desolation and destruction are in their highways.
The way of peace they do not know,
    and there is no justice in their paths;
they have made their roads crooked;
    no one who treads on them knows peace.
Isaiah 59:1-8 ESV

Judah’s sorry state of affairs was not an indictment against God’s power to save. He was fully capable of bringing them relief. After all, He was the very source of their current condition. It was God who had chosen to use the Assyrians as His instruments of judgment against His rebellious people. And He was the one who had warned that future judgment would come in the form of the Babylonians. The circumstances in which the people of Judah found themselves were, in a sense, self-inflicted. They had brought it on themselves because they had refused to listen to God’s calls to acknowledge their sin and return to Him. They had repeatedly stiff-armed God’s prophets, including Isaiah, rejecting their messages and stubbornly maintaining their love affair with false gods.

So, in this chapter, we see Isaiah delivering a message to his fellow Judahites that leaves them without excuse. He will not allow them to blame God. He refuses to let them cast God as the villain and themselves as the innocent victims. This was not a case of divine parental abuse or abandonment. They were the cause of their own pain and suffering. And Isaiah conveys that message in stark terms.

It’s your sins that have cut you off from God.
    Because of your sins, he has turned away
    and will not listen anymore. – Isaiah 59:2 NLT

They had abandoned God. Not the other way around. In fact, God had patiently and persistently called on them to repent. He had rescued them time and time again from the consequences of their own sinfulness. He had lovingly disciplined them for their unfaithfulness, welcoming them back with open arms. But they had responded to His grace with ingratitude and continued infidelity. And the prophet Jeremiah describes their stubborn refusal to repent with a sense of shock and surprise.

O Lord, do not your eyes look for truth?
You have struck them down,
    but they felt no anguish;
you have consumed them,
    but they refused to take correction.
They have made their faces harder than rock;
    they have refused to repent. – Jeremiah 5:3 ESV

That the people of Judah were guilty was beyond debate, and Isaiah reveals why. He provides a list of evidence that is both lengthy and appalling. It includes murder, depravity, lying, injustice, perjury, dishonesty, and violence. And these manifestations of their own wickedness were showing up in every area of their lives – from their homes to their courts of law. Iniquity was ubiquitous. And while not every member of their society was equally complicit, they all stood equally condemned. There was a corporate culpability shared by all, from the youngest to the oldest and the richest to the poorest. At some level, every single individual in their community stood before God as guilty, having committed their own fair share of sins against Him.

The list Isaiah shares is similiar to one that the apostle Paul gave to the believers in Colossae. He reminded them that, even as Christians,  they needed to continue to purge their lives of those sins which mark the lives of each and every human being who walks this planet.

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. – Colossians 3:5-6 ESV

Mankind, apart from help from God, is hopelessly addicted and attracted to the very things that bring the wrath of God. We can’t help it. And Paul warned the believers in Rome how a holy God must deal with those who continue to live lives of unholiness.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. – Romans 1:18 ESV

But not only does a life of ungodliness and unrighteousness bring the judgment of God, it breeds destruction. Isaiah describes the people of Judah as hatching adders’ eggs. Their evil actions were going to produce some seriously negative consequenes. And it doesn’t take a herpetologist to understand that hatching the eggs of a poisonous snake brings more of the same.

And Isaiah compares their sinful actions with the weaving of spider webs.  You can’t expect to produce clothes with that which is ephemeral and fragile. The life of ungodliness can produce nothing of lasting value. It may appear attractive but, in the end, it leaves you with nothing tangible or beneficial from all your effort.

Just how bad was it in Judah? Isaiah is unsparing in his assessment.

All their activity is filled with sin – Isaiah 59:6 NLT

Their feet run to do evil, and they rush to commit murder – Isaiah 59:7 NLT

They think only about sinning… – Isaiah 59:7 NLT

Not exactly a flattering picture. Their lives were inundated by sin and rebellion. It permeated their community. It influenced every facet of their corporate experience, from the halls of the king’s palace to the lowliest peasant’s hut. And, as a result, they were all experiencing the consequences that come from living in open rebellion against God and pursuing a way of life that is in direct violation to His call to holiness.

They don’t know where to find peace
    or what it means to be just and good.
They have mapped out crooked roads,
    and no one who follows them knows a moment’s peace. – Isaiah 59:8 NLT

No peace. No joy. No justice. No righteousness. Without God, none of these things are achievable. You can’t walk away from Him and expect to find what only He can deliver. A life of sin is a dead end. It offers hope, fulfillment, satisfaction, and peace. But it can’t deliver on its promise. Pursuing the false gods of this world may appear attractive, but they will never produce a single promise they offer. God was offering His people peace. They could be restored to a right relationship with Him and enjoy peace with the One who had made them. They could enjoy peace in their community as they allowed God to guide their actions and change their attitudes. But as long as they continued to refuse Him and choose their own paths, they would find themselves living in turmoil and in constant pursuit of the one thing for which all men long: Peace.

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

Sinners In Need of a Savior

14 And it shall be said,
“Build up, build up, prepare the way,
    remove every obstruction from my people’s way.”
15 For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
    who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
    and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
    and to revive the heart of the contrite.
16 For I will not contend forever,
    nor will I always be angry;
for the spirit would grow faint before me,
    and the breath of life that I made.
17 Because of the iniquity of his unjust gain I was angry,
    I struck him; I hid my face and was angry,
    but he went on backsliding in the way of his own heart.
18 I have seen his ways, but I will heal him;
    I will lead him and restore comfort to him and his mourners,
19     creating the fruit of the lips.
Peace, peace, to the far and to the near,” says the Lord,
    “and I will heal him.
20 But the wicked are like the tossing sea;
    for it cannot be quiet,
    and its waters toss up mire and dirt.
21 There is no peace,” says my God, “for the wicked.” Isaiah 57:14-21 ESV

Verse 13 ended with the promise:

But he who takes refuge in me shall possess the land
    and shall inherit my holy mountain. –
Isaiah 57:13 ESV

The Hebrew word translated “refuge” is chacah, and it means “to flee for protection.” This is an open invitation from God to His people offering them to place their hope and trust in Him. But He knew they had options, so He challenged them to make their decision. The next time they found themselves in trouble, they could cry out to Him, or they could turn to their assortment of false gods and see how well they fared.

But God makes it clear that, when deliverance comes, it will come from one place: From His hand. The day was going to come when the people of Judah would hear the long-awaited words, “Rebuild the road! Clear away the rocks and stones so my people can return from captivity” (Isaiah 57:14 ESV), and they would come from the mouth of God, not some lifeless idol. And Isaiah differentiates God from the so-called competition by describing Him as “the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy” (Isaiah 57:15 ESV). He is the transcendent God who is above all. He is not relegated to earth and subject to the whims of men. He is not the product of man’s minds or hands and does not require their help in moving from one place to another. He is also eternal, without beginning or end. Every idol the people of Judah worshiped came into existence because someone took the time to manufacture it. And it would one day decay and fall apart. But not God.

And He alone is holy, totally pure and free from any and all forms of defilement. John reminds us, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5 ESV). God’s very character makes Him unmatched and unparalleled. There is no one besides Him.

“I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God.” – Isaiah 45:5 ESV

Yet, this transcendent, holy, incomparable God has made Himself known to mere men. But only to those who meet a certain condition or requirement.

“I live in the high and holy place
    with those whose spirits are contrite and humble.
I restore the crushed spirit of the humble
    and revive the courage of those with repentant hearts. – Isaiah 57:15 NLT

Notice the attributes of those to whom God reveals Himself. They are contrite and humble, crushed in spirit, and marked by repentant hearts. In other words, they are cognizant of their need for God. No pride. No self-righteousness. No arrogant boasting in their own self-earned standing before God. No, the people to whom God reveals Himself are those who are contrite or broken in spirit. They have been crushed by cares of the world and their own efforts at trying to live righteous lives in their own strength. When Jesus delivered His great invitation, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28 NLT), He was addressing all those who were worn out and beaten down by trying to earn favor with God through self-effort.

God reveals Himself to the humble, those who recognize their true spiritual condition and their need for someone higher and greater than themselves to save them. And this requirement of humility is found throughout the Scriptures.

Though the Lord is great, he cares for the humble,
    but he keeps his distance from the proud. – Psalm 138:6 NLT

One’s pride will bring him low,
    but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor. – Proverbs 29:23 ESV

God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. – James 4:6 ESV

The people of Judah had become prideful and arrogant, thinking of themselves as somehow better than everyone else because of their unique standing as God’s chosen people. In one of the many confrontations Jesus had with the Jewish religious leadership of His day, He warned them, “Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones” (Matthew 3:9 NLT).  Their status as descendants of Abraham gave them no merit before God. Their Hebrew heritage did not impress God or somehow indebt Him to them.

God was looking for those who would humbly recognize their need for Him. His anger against them was real, and it was perfectly justified. He was just and right to punish them for their rebellion against Him. But He wants them to know that His anger can be abated and assuaged if they will only turn to Him and seek His salvation. That is the essence of the gospel message. Sinful men must reach the point where they are willing to admit their sinfulness and humbly acknowledge their complete inability to earn God’s favor through acts of self-righteousness. They must turn to the sole source of salvation made possible through the grace of God. And the apostle Paul puts it in terms we can understand.

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. – Romans 5:6 NLT

God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:8 NLT

Recognizing God’s holiness and coming to grips with our own inherent sinfulness is the key to experiencing God’s graciousness as revealed through His Son’s sacrificial death on our behalf. Jesus told His disciples, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent” (Lue 5:31-32 NLT).

As long as the people of Judah continued to see themselves as spiritually healthy and in no need of a divine doctor, they would continue to suffer the deadly symptoms of their sin. God reminds the people of Judah about their stubborn refusal to take His punishment of them seriously.

“I was angry,
    so I punished these greedy people.
I withdrew from them,
    but they kept going on their own stubborn way.” – Isaiah 57:17 NLT

And yet, God delivers the amazing news:

“I have seen what they do,
    but I will heal them anyway!
    I will lead them.” – Isaiah 57:18 NLT

God offers to heal them in spite of them. He promises to lead them even though they had consistently refused to follow Him in the past. But the key to experiencing His healing and help was humility. They were going to have to admit their need for Him. And all that God had been doing to them and around them was so that they might know the reality of their sin and their need for His salvation.

The apostle Peter reminds us of the biblical truth: “God opposes the proud but favors the humble” (1 Peter 5:5 NLT). But he goes on to tell us what to do in response to that truth.

So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor. – 1 Peter 5:6 NLT

But what does that humility look like? It is not just a matter of recognizing our sinfulness and our need for a Savior. It involves a daily dependence upon God and a growing recognition of His love for us and His ability to provide for all our needs, cares, and concerns. Peter goes on to say:

Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you. – 1 Peter 5:7 NLT

And God assured the people of Judah, “I will comfort those who mourn, bringing words of praise to their lips. May they have abundant peace, both near and far” (Isaiah 57:18-19 NLT). All they had to do was humble themselves before Him.

But God knew there would be those who refused to acknowledge their sin and admit their need for His salvation. So, He warns them:

“But those who still reject me are like the restless sea,
    which is never still
    but continually churns up mud and dirt.
There is no peace for the wicked.” – Isaiah 57:20-21 NLT

Like the sea that is never calm, but in a constant state of perpetual upheaval, these unrepentant, prideful, and stubbornly self-righteous individuals would never know the peace that comes through humble contrition and willing submission to “the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy” (Isaiah 57:15 NLT). 

Confession of our sin is key to receiving cleansing from our sin. Admission of our guilt is a critical step in experiencing the blessing of God’s grace. Those who refuse to see themselves as sinners will never recognize their need for a Savior. Which is why the apostle John so strongly warns us:

If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts. – 1 John 1:8-10 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

Have I No Power to Deliver?

1 Thus says the Lord:
“Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce,
    with which I sent her away?
Or which of my creditors is it
    to whom I have sold you?
Behold, for your iniquities you were sold,
    and for your transgressions your mother was sent away.
Why, when I came, was there no man;
    why, when I called, was there no one to answer?
Is my hand shortened, that it cannot redeem?
    Or have I no power to deliver?
Behold, by my rebuke I dry up the sea,
    I make the rivers a desert;
their fish stink for lack of water
    and die of thirst.
I clothe the heavens with blackness
    and make sackcloth their covering.”
Isaiah 50:1-3 ESV

The first three verses of chapter 50 continue the theme established in the preceding chapter. God knows that when the people of Judah find themselves in captivity in Babylon, they will accuse Him of abandonment. He addresses His children, the people of Judah, as if they are already in exile, and He defends Himself against their charges of forsaking their mother, Israel. He had not divorced her and sent her away – even though He had every right to do so. She had been unfaithful to Him. She had committed spiritual adultery against Him, not once, but repeatedly. And He had not sold her into slavery in order to pay a debt. God owes no man anything. He is obligated to no one.

This was not a case of God having grown discontent with His wife, Israel, and jettisoning her for a younger, more loving spouse. He makes it very clear to His children that their captivity was their own fault. It was their sins that had caused God to do what He had done.

“No, you were sold because of your sins.
    And your mother, too, was taken because of your sins.” – Isaiah 50:1 NLT

When the inevitable consequences of their repeated sins against God finally came to fruition, the people of Judah would be quick to blame God. They would see themselves as the innocent victims, having been abandoned by their heavenly Father. But God would have none of it. He would not allow them to deny their own guilt and cast dispersions on His character and integrity.

And what makes Judah’s sin so egregious is that they had been warned by God, repeatedly. He had sent His prophets, like Isaiah and Jeremiah to call them to repentance. And they had the northern kingdom of Israel as living proof of what happens when God’s people remain stubbornly unwilling to heed His warnings and return to Him. The northern tribes of Israel had rejected God’s calls to repent and had suffered the consequences.

When Josiah was king of Judah, the Lord said to me, “Jeremiah, you have no doubt seen what wayward Israel has done. You have seen how she went up to every high hill and under every green tree to give herself like a prostitute to other gods. Yet even after she had done all that, I thought that she might come back to me. But she did not. Her sister, unfaithful Judah, saw what she did. She also saw that I gave wayward Israel her divorce papers and sent her away because of her adulterous worship of other gods. Even after her unfaithful sister Judah had seen this, she still was not afraid, and she too went and gave herself like a prostitute to other gods. Because she took her prostitution so lightly, she defiled the land through her adulterous worship of gods made of wood and stone. In spite of all this, Israel’s sister, unfaithful Judah, has not turned back to me with any sincerity; she has only pretended to do so,” says the Lord. – Jeremiah 3:8-10 NLT

Israel had been conquered by the Assyrians, had its capital city of Samaria plundered, and its people taken as captives to Nineveh. And the people of Judah had watched all this happen, but had remained unmoved and unimpressed by God’s judgment against their brothers and sisters. They continued to forsake God and pursue false gods. And al the while, they attempted to fool God into believing that they remained faithful by going through the motions of religious ritual and outward law keeping. But it was all a facade, intended to deceive God into believing that they remained devoted and sincere.

And God accuses them of ignoring His many calls to repent.

“Why was no one there when I came?
    Why didn’t anyone answer when I called?” – Isaiah 50:2 NLT

Isn’t it interesting how, when we find ourselves in trouble, we immediately call out to God for rescue. Yet, when we are living in sin and enjoying the temporal pleasures that sin offers, He calls out to us, and we ignore Him. He pleads with us to repent and return to Him, but we are too enamored with the false sense of joy and contentment that a lifestyle of sin provides.

That God did not prevent the fall of Judah had nothing to do with a lack of power on His part. He could have, but He chose not to. And He reminds them that His power is unlimited.

“For I can speak to the sea and make it dry up!
    I can turn rivers into deserts covered with dying fish.
I dress the skies in darkness,
    covering them with clothes of mourning.” – Isaiah 50:3 NLT

All of this is reminiscent of the story of Job, the man of God who found himself having lost everything – his children, his health and all his wealth. He was under intense emotional, physical and spiritual attack, wrestling with trying to understand the why behind his condition. And he stated:

“If only I knew where to find God,
    I would go to his court.
I would lay out my case
    and present my arguments.” – Job 23:3-4 NLT

Job was anxious for an opportunity to plead his case before God. All his friends had accused him of being a sinner suffering the obvious consequences of God’s anger. But Job had pleaded innocence, persistently claiming that he done nothing deserving of his fate. And he was convinced that, if he could just have a hearing before God, he would receive a fair trial and a just decision.

“Then I would listen to his reply
    and understand what he says to me.
Would he use his great power to argue with me?
    No, he would give me a fair hearing.
Honest people can reason with him,
    so I would be forever acquitted by my judge.” – Job 23:5-7 NLT

But Job felt like God was nowhere to be found. He claimed, “I go east, but he is not there. I go west, but I cannot find him” (Job 23:8 NLT). God seemed hidden and concealed and yet, Job was able to say:

“But he knows where I am going.
    And when he tests me, I will come out as pure as gold.
For I have stayed on God’s paths;
    I have followed his ways and not turned aside.
I have not departed from his commands,
    but have treasured his words more than daily food.” – Job 23:10-12 NLT

The people of Judah could make no such claim. They were guilty as charged and fully deserved the punishment they had received. Job had suffered greatly, but had done nothing to deserve it. And yet, despite his innocence, he knew that casting blame on God was not the answer. In fact, he wrote, “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding” (Job 28:28 NLT).

Had the people of Judah only understood the reality of that thought. But they had no fear of God. In spite of what had happened to Israel, they continued to emulate the sins of Israel, forsaking God for lifeless idols made by human hands. They practiced deceit and lived a lie. They ignored God’s laws and violated His calls for justice and righteousness. They turned their backs on the very one who had the power to deliver them. And they would suffer the consequences for their sins.

But what about innocent Job? He had done nothing to deserve his sorrowful circumstances. What did God do for Him?

…the Lord restored his fortunes. In fact, the Lord gave him twice as much as before! Then all his brothers, sisters, and former friends came and feasted with him in his home. And they consoled him and comforted him because of all the trials the Lord had brought against him. And each of them brought him a gift of money and a gold ring. So the Lord blessed Job in the second half of his life even more than in the beginning. – Job 42:10-12 NLT

God blessed and restored him. And, amazingly, that was exactly what God planned to do for the rebellious nation of Judah. He would bless and restore them. Yes, they would suffer for their sins. They would pay the price for their disobedience. But God, the faithful, covenant-keeping God, would redeem them from their captivity and restore them to the land of promise. Despite the gravity of their circumstances, His hand was not shortened, and His power to redeem was not diminished in any way. And the day will  come when the people of Judah and Israel will acknowledge God just as Job did.

“I had only heard about you before,
    but now I have seen you with my own eyes.
I take back everything I said,
    and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance.” – Job 42:5-6 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

No Peace For the Wicked

12 “Listen to me, O Jacob,
    and Israel, whom I called!
I am he; I am the first,
    and I am the last.
13 My hand laid the foundation of the earth,
    and my right hand spread out the heavens;
when I call to them,
    they stand forth together.

14 “Assemble, all of you, and listen!
    Who among them has declared these things?
The Lord loves him;
    he shall perform his purpose on Babylon,
    and his arm shall be against the Chaldeans.
15 I, even I, have spoken and called him;
    I have brought him, and he will prosper in his way.
16 Draw near to me, hear this:
    from the beginning I have not spoken in secret,
    from the time it came to be I have been there.”
And now the Lord God has sent me, and his Spirit.

17 Thus says the Lord,
    your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
“I am the Lord your God,
    who teaches you to profit,
    who leads you in the way you should go.
18 Oh that you had paid attention to my commandments!
    Then your peace would have been like a river,
    and your righteousness like the waves of the sea;
19 your offspring would have been like the sand,
    and your descendants like its grains;
their name would never be cut off
    or destroyed from before me.”

20 Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea,
    declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it,
send it out to the end of the earth;
    say, “The Lord has redeemed his servant Jacob!”
21 They did not thirst when he led them through the deserts;
    he made water flow for them from the rock;
    he split the rock and the water gushed out.

22 “There is no peace,” says the Lord, “for the wicked.” – Isaiah 48:12-22 ESV

That last line is a virtual promise from God and it is all-encompassing in its scope. As the book of Isaiah has made painfully clear, God was going to deal with the wickedness of His chosen people. He would no longer tolerate their blatant acts of spiritual infidelity and moral compromise. They had sinned against Him, and they were going to suffer the consequences. And God has revealed that His chosen method of punishment would be the Babylonians. Just as He had chosen Israel to be His prized possession, He had chosen Babylon to be His preferred means of punishment. He would use King Nebuchadnezzar and his army to invade the land of Judah, destroying its cities and taking captive its people. Babylon’s victory over the people of Judah would be according to the will of God. In fact, according to the prophet Jeremiah, God decreed that their rise to global dominance would be His doing.

“With my great strength and powerful arm I made the earth and all its people and every animal. I can give these things of mine to anyone I choose. Now I will give your countries to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, who is my servant. I have put everything, even the wild animals, under his control. All the nations will serve him, his son, and his grandson until his time is up.” – Jeremiah 27:5-7 NLT

But notice that God puts a time limit on Babylon’s rule. And it will be because they act wickedly, punishing the people of God disproportionately and wrongly taking credit for their success.

“I was angry with my people;
    I profaned my heritage;
I gave them into your hand;
    you showed them no mercy;
on the aged you made your yoke exceedingly heavy.” – Isaiah 47:6 ESV

They would let their many victories go to their heads and assume that they would remain in power forever. They would get cocky, claiming, “I am, and there is no one besides me; I shall not sit as a widow or know the loss of children” (Isaiah 48:8 ESV).

But as God has promised, “There is no peace for the wicked.” He would bring judgment against the Babylonians, and Jeremiah makes that fact plain.

“Then many nations and great kings will conquer and rule over Babylon.” – Jeremiah 27:7 NLT

And God has already decreed that His chosen instrument for bringing judgment on the Babylonians will be King Cyrus of the Persians.

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
    whose right hand I have grasped,
to subdue nations before him
    and to loose the belts of kings,
to open doors before him
    that gates may not be closed:

“For the sake of my servant Jacob,
    and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
    I name you, though you do not know me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other,
    besides me there is no God;
    I equip you, though you do not know me.” – Isaiah 45: 1, 4-5 ESV

God would punish wicked Judah by using the Babylonians. Then He would repay the Babylonians for the wickedness by using the Persians. And God would use Cyrus, the Persian king, to return the people of Judah to the land of promise.

And in verses 12-21 of Isaiah 48, God calls His people to recognize His hand in all of this. He has told them all that is going to happen, long before any of it has begun. He has predicted their fate, including their fall at the hands of the Babylonians and their eventual restoration to the land. And two times, God calls on the people of Judah to pay attention to what He is saying.

Listen to me, O Jacob,
    and Israel, whom I called!” – Isaiah 48:12 ESV

“Assemble, all of you, and listen!” – Isaiah 48:14 ESV

Draw near to me, hear this…” – Isaiah 48:16 ESV

But the people of Judah suffered from a severe hearing problem. God even laments, “Oh that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea…” (Isaiah 48:18 ESV). If they would have listened to what He had said, obeying His commands and living in keeping with His divine decrees, things would have been markedly different. But listening proved difficult for them. And, through His prophets, God had continually called to them, begging for them to heed what He had to say.

“Listen, you foolish and senseless people, with eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear. Have you no respect for me? Why don’t you tremble in my presence?” – Jeremiah 5:21-22 NLT

The root of their problem was rebellion, fueled by a lack of fear of God.

“But my people have stubborn and rebellious hearts. They have turned away and abandoned me. They do not say from the heart, ‘Let us live in awe of the Lord our God.’” – Jeremiah 5:23-24 NLT

And God reminds the people of Judah that He has been there from the beginning. The one who created the world, had called them and made them His own. He had been beside them all along the way. He had spoken to them, provided for them, and guided and protected them. They had no reason to doubt His goodness or question His word, and now He was telling them that King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians were coming. But He was also letting them know that He had plans for the Babylonians as well.

“I have said it: I am calling Cyrus!
    I will send him on this errand and will help him succeed. – Isaiah 48:15 ESV

God was going to punish Judah for their wickedness, but He was also going to redeem and restore them. And to make sure they understand the inevitability of His plan, He speaks of it in the past-tense, as if their exodus from Babylon has already taken place.

“Yet even now, be free from your captivity!
    Leave Babylon and the Babylonians.
Sing out this message!
    Shout it to the ends of the earth!
The Lord has redeemed his servants,
    the people of Israel.” – Isaiah 48:20 ESV

God’s word is irrefutable and unchangeable. His prophecies are not wishful thinking or some form of positive motivational, name-it-and-claim-it rhetoric. He is the God of the universe who is all-knowing and all-powerful. His word always comes to fruition. Which means, had the people of Judah done what He had said and lived in obedience to His commands, their “peace would have been like a river.” But, instead, they would learn the painful lesson that “there is no peace for the wicked.”

Taking God at His word is difficult. We are wired to doubt. Just as Eve allowed Satan to cast doubt on the word of God and cause her to disobey His command, we are prone to hear the promises of God and question their validity and credibility. Not only do we wonder whether God will do what He has said, we find ourselves questioning whether He can. And when we do, we fail to live in awe of the Lord our God.

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

Too Ignorant to Know It

All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. 10 Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? 11 Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together.

12 The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. 13 The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. 14 He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. 15 Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. 16 Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” 17 And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”

18 They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. 19 No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” 20 He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?” – Isaiah 44:9-20 ESV

God has made Himself perfectly clear by boldly declaring, “besides me there is no god” (Isaiah 44:6 ESV). Then, as if to see if His audience has gotten the message, He asks, “Is there a God besides me?” (Isaiah 44:8 ESV). And, just in case they failed to nnow the answer to the question, He gave His divine opinion: “I know not any” (Isaiah 44:8 ESV).

He has established Himself as the Creator-God, the one who made Israel. He is Jehovah, the King of Israel. He is their Redeemer, the Lord of Hosts, the first and the last. And He alone is able to “declare what is to come, and what will happen” (Isaiah 44:7 ESV).

And yet, the people of Judah continued to worship false gods – idols they had made with their own hands. They had substituted worship of and reverence for the one true God with the adoration of lifeless and powerless statues made of wood and stone. And God systematically and somewhat sarcastically exposes the absurdity of their actions.

Over time, the people of Israel had adopted an assortment of pagan gods, from Baal and Molech to Ashtoreth and Chemosh. The Israelites seemed to be equal-opportunity idolaters. They were not picky. And, they never really replaced the worship of Yahweh, they simply added the other gods to the mix, creating a confusing syncretistic amalgamation of for virtually every occasion. But God Almighty had warned them about this very thing. All the way back when Moses was leading them to the Promised Land, God had provided them with the Ten Commandments, and the very first command on the list had been: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3 ESV). And He would later expand on that command, providing them with clear and irrefutable details regarding His expectations.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” – Deuteronomy 5:8-10 ESV

And yet, the people of Israel had proven themselves incapable of obeying this very command. All that God had told them not to do, they had done – repeatedly and knowingly. They were operating out of obstinance, not ignorance. They knew exactly what they were doing and they knew it was wrong. So, God decides to show them the sheer lunacy behind their actions.

“How foolish are those who manufacture idols.
    These prized objects are really worthless.
The people who worship idols don’t know this,
    so they are all put to shame.”
– Isaiah 44:9 NLT

Notice that God uses the third person. It is as if He is asking the people of Judah to consider how idiotic it is for those other nations to worship false gods. He wants them to step back and take a long and close look at just how ridiculous idolatry really is.

“Who but a fool would make his own god—
    an idol that cannot help him one bit?”
– Isaiah 44:10 NLT

That had to have hurt. God was not pulling any punches, but wanted them to see the sheer stupidity of what they were doing. Not only were they disobeying His commands, they doing so in order to worship gods they had made with their own hands. And God goes out of His way to ridicule the “mere humans—who claim they can make a god” (Isaiah 44:11 NLT).

God paints the image of a craftsman working diligently to manufacture the tool he will use to manufacture the god he is going to worship. His efforts leave him worn out before he has even begun to make his god. The effort required to make the god he is going worship leave him hungry and faint.

God describes a wood carver going through the process of selecting just the right tree from which to make his god. Then he proceeds to cut it down, carefully delineating which part of the log will become his god and which part he can use build a fire to keep himself warm.

“He cuts down cedars;
    he selects the cypress and the oak;
he plants the pine in the forest
    to be nourished by the rain.
Then he uses part of the wood to make a fire.
    With it he warms himself and bakes his bread.
Then—yes, it’s true—he takes the rest of it
    and makes himself a god to worship!
He makes an idol
    and bows down in front of it!”
– Isaiah 44:14-15 NLT

When you step back and examine idolatry from an objective viewpoint, it is not difficult to see just how ridiculous it appears. But God says, “The people who worship idols don’t know this” (Isaiah 44:9 NLT). They are blind to the reality of their actions. They are incapable of seeing just how bizarre and nonsensical their actions appear. Which is why God goes out of His way to expose the sheer stupidity of what is going on in Judah. They enjoyed the privilege of being created by the one true God, and being chosen as His prized possession. And yet, they were busy creating their own gods out of wood and stone, and expected these man-made deities to provide for and protect them.

“He burns part of the tree to roast his meat
    and to keep himself warm.
    He says, “Ah, that fire feels good.”
Then he takes what’s left
    and makes his god: a carved idol!
He falls down in front of it,
    worshiping and praying to it.
“Rescue me!” he says.
    “You are my god!”
– Isaiah 44:16-17 NLT

And while it may be easy for us to judge the people of Judah and question their sanity, we would be wise to examine our own lives to see if we might be guilty of the very same thing. Their sin seems blatant to us. But God reveals that they were blind to it.

“Such stupidity and ignorance!
    Their eyes are closed, and they cannot see.
    Their minds are shut, and they cannot think.” –
Isaiah 44:18 NLT

They couldn’t see what they were doing. And, if we are wise, we will recognize that we have the same capacity to blindly and ignorantly worship gods made with human hands. While our idols may appear more sophisticated and less religious in nature, they are false gods nonetheless. Tim Keller, in his book, Counterfeit Gods, describes an idol in terms that may make you a bit uncomfortable.

What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give…

An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I ‘ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.” There are many ways to describe that kind of relationship to something, but perhaps the best one is worship.

When put in those terms, it becomes a bit more easy to see how we can have idols, in spite of our more enlightened and sophisticated mindset. And, like the people of Judah, we can find ourselves deluded and unaware of the fact that we have created substitutes for God. We have turned to other things in the hopes that they might deliver what only God is capable of providing: Peace, hope, security, joy, contentment, satisfaction, and salvation. And God warns that we all run the same risk the people of Judah did. If we are not careful, we will find ourselves putting our hope in the wrong god, and failing to recognize the futility of our actions.

“He trusts something that can’t help him at all.
Yet he cannot bring himself to ask,
    “Is this idol that I’m holding in my hand a lie?”
– Isaiah 44:20 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

Human Vs Holy Help

1 Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help
    and rely on horses,
who trust in chariots because they are many
    and in horsemen because they are very strong,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel
    or consult the Lord!
And yet he is wise and brings disaster;
    he does not call back his words,
but will arise against the house of the evildoers
    and against the helpers of those who work iniquity.
The Egyptians are man, and not God,
    and their horses are flesh, and not spirit.
When the Lord stretches out his hand,
    the helper will stumble, and he who is helped will fall,
    and they will all perish together.

For thus the Lord said to me,
“As a lion or a young lion growls over his prey,
    and when a band of shepherds is called out against him
he is not terrified by their shouting
    or daunted at their noise,
so the Lord of hosts will come down
    to fight on Mount Zion and on its hill.
Like birds hovering, so the Lord of hosts
    will protect Jerusalem;
he will protect and deliver it;
    he will spare and rescue it.”

Turn to him from whom people have deeply revolted, O children of Israel. For in that day everyone shall cast away his idols of silver and his idols of gold, which your hands have sinfully made for you.

“And the Assyrian shall fall by a sword, not of man;
    and a sword, not of man, shall devour him;
and he shall flee from the sword,
    and his young men shall be put to forced labor.
His rock shall pass away in terror,
    and his officers desert the standard in panic,”
declares the Lord, whose fire is in Zion,
    and whose furnace is in Jerusalem. – Isaiah 31:1-9 ESV

Where do you turn in times of trouble? When the going gets tough, what are your go-to options for finding relief? The answer probably depends upon the circumstances. There are a lot of times in life when things can take an unexpected turn for the worse. In no time at all, we can find our life circumstances surprisingly altered and our need for a solution suddenly become a top priority. And the list of potential battle zones is a long one. It includes our health, relationships, emotional state, and financial stability. Things can be rocking along quite well and then, suddenly, the bottom drops out. Our world gets rocked by an unexpected and unwanted bit of bad news. And, again, the question is, where do you turn in those times?

For the people of Judah, things were looking dramatically dire. They were facing the threat of joining a long list of regional powers who had fallen at the hands of the Assyrians. It was only a matter of time before the enemy was at the gates of Jerusalem and the collapse of their once-mighty nation became an all-too-real possibility. And, with that potential outcome looming on the horizon, the leaders of Judah had come up with a plan. They had determined to seek aid from the Egyptians. It was going to cost them, but it seemed like the only viable option left open to them. Or was it?

Throughout this book, Isaiah has gone out of his way to communicate to the people of Judah that they had another option, and a much better one at that. They could repent. They could humble themselves before God and ask for His forgiveness. After all, everything they faced was coming through His sovereign hands and was intended to punish them for their rebellion against Him. But they could avoid the coming destruction if they would only turn back to God. In fact, He had told them:

“Only in returning to me
    and resting in me will you be saved.
In quietness and confidence is your strength.” – Isaiah 30:15 NLT

But, so far, they had refused God’s gracious offer. So now, Isaiah tells them what will happen to them because they chose door number two over door number one. In selecting Egypt as their savior of choice, they were making a huge mistake. It wasn’t that Egypt was a bad choice, it was that it was the wrong choice.

What sorrow awaits those who look to Egypt for help,
    trusting their horses, chariots, and charioteers
and depending on the strength of human armies
    instead of looking to the Lord,
    the Holy One of Israel. – Isaiah 31:1 NLT

The problem was that Egypt, rather than being a possible God-appointed option, had become an option other than God. Seeking aid from Egypt was not necessarily a sin. It was that they were seeking aid from Egypt without seeking input from God. The leaders of Judah were circumventing the Almighty because they seemed to know that His help was going to require that they obey His commands. His rescue was going to demand their repentance. And they would rather grovel before Egypt, than humble themselves before God.

Just to stress the point that their choice of Egypt as a potential source of aid was not the root of their problem, consider the story of Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus, found in the gospel of Matthew. After the visit of the wise men, Joseph received a dream from God, instructing Him to take his wife and child to Egypt.

After the wise men were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,” the angel said. “Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” – Matthew 2:13 NLT

In this case, Egypt was a good choice because it was the God-ordained choice. Joseph and his young family found refuge from their enemies because they relied upon the wisdom and will of God.

But Judah was guilty of making Egypt a substitute for God, not a possible solution from Him. They were relying on human solutions to what was a spiritual problem. Rather than trusting in God, they were putting all their hope in Egypt’s vast military might. But even King David had known that human resources were insufficient replacements for God.

Some nations boast of their chariots and horses,
    but we boast in the name of the Lord our God.
Those nations will fall down and collapse,
    but we will rise up and stand firm. – Psalm 20:7-8 NLT

And another psalmist echoes David’s sentiments.

You are my King and my God.
    You command victories for Israel.
Only by your power can we push back our enemies;
    only in your name can we trample our foes.
I do not trust in my bow;
    I do not count on my sword to save me.
You are the one who gives us victory over our enemies;
    you disgrace those who hate us. – Psalm 44:4-7 NLT

And Isaiah lays out the root of the problem:

For these Egyptians are mere humans, not God!
    Their horses are puny flesh, not mighty spirits! – Isaiah 31:3 NLT

They are not God. And they were not intended to act as stand-ins for God. That is the issue here. The leaders of Judah weren’t seeking solutions from God, they were seeking options other than God. But our God-replacements always fall short. They can’t deliver what we demand from them. They are incapable of living up to God’s standard. And yet, despite their abysmal track record, we turn to them time and time again.

And the amazing this is how patient God is with us as we continue to seek help from our pseudo-saviors. He was the same way with the people of Judah. He even told them that, in spite of their stubborn rebellion and refusal to repent, He would continue to protect them.

The Lord of Heaven’s Armies will hover over Jerusalem
    and protect it like a bird protecting its nest.
He will defend and save the city;
    he will pass over it and rescue it. – Isaiah 31:5 NLT

We know from the book of 2 Kings, that King Sennacherib eventually besieged Jerusalem, but was miraculously defeated by the hand of God.

That night the angel of the Lord went out to the Assyrian camp and killed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers. When the surviving Assyrians woke up the next morning, they found corpses everywhere. Then King Sennacherib of Assyria broke camp and returned to his own land. He went home to his capital of Nineveh and stayed there. – 2 Kings 19:35-36 NLT

God did what the Egyptians could never have done. He defeated the enemy of Israel, without any aid from a single human being. In a night, 185,000 of the enemy were killed, without a sword being drawn, an arrow shot, or a spear thrown. It was all the work of God.

But at this point in his message to the people of Judah, Isaiah predicts another victory over the Assyrians that is markedly different from the one over Sennacherib. In this case, Isaiah is talking about something that will take place in the future, when God not only gives the people of Judah victory over their enemies but restores their hearts to Himself.

“I know the glorious day will come when each of you will throw away the gold idols and silver images your sinful hands have made.” – Isaiah 31:7 NLT

On this future occasion, God will do for the people of Judah what they could never have done for themselves. He will accomplish for them things the Egyptians could never have done. First of all, He will dramatically alter their hearts, transforming them from a rebellious and idolatrous nations to a faithful remnant who worships Him alone. On top of that, He will destroy their enemies in a way that no other nation on earth could do.

“The Assyrians will be destroyed,
    but not by the swords of men.
The sword of God will strike them,
    and they will panic and flee.
The strong young Assyrians
    will be taken away as captives.
Even the strongest will quake with terror,
    and princes will flee when they see your battle flags,”
says the Lord, whose fire burns in Zion,
    whose flame blazes from Jerusalem. – Isaiah 31:8-9 NLT

Isaiah describes a victory like nothing the people of Judah had ever seen before. It will be a decisive victory that culminates the end of the age. And because God is going to accomplish this in time, Isaiah pleads with the people of Judah to repent and return to Him now.

Though you are such wicked rebels, my people, come and return to the Lord. – Isaiah 31:6 NLT

He is a great God. He is a reliable God. There is no reason to trust in anything other than Him. No matter what we are facing, our God is sufficient to handle any and all circumstances. He wants us to trust Him. He desires that we turn to Him.

Come and return to the Lord!

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

Where Do You Turn?

1 “Ah, stubborn children,” declares the Lord,
“who carry out a plan, but not mine,
and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit,
    that they may add sin to sin;
who set out to go down to Egypt,
    without asking for my direction,
to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh
    and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt!
Therefore shall the protection of Pharaoh turn to your shame,
    and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt to your humiliation.
For though his officials are at Zoan
    and his envoys reach Hanes,
everyone comes to shame
    through a people that cannot profit them,
that brings neither help nor profit,
    but shame and disgrace.”

An oracle on the beasts of the Negeb.

Through a land of trouble and anguish,
    from where come the lioness and the lion,
    the adder and the flying fiery serpent,
they carry their riches on the backs of donkeys,
    and their treasures on the humps of camels,
    to a people that cannot profit them.
Egypt’s help is worthless and empty;
    therefore I have called her
    “Rahab who sits still.” – Isaiah 30:1-7 ESV

As God’s chosen people, the nation of Judah was to have one source of protection and provision: God. He had promised to meet all their needs and to protect them from all their enemies. Long before they ever arrived in the land of Canaan, God had told them:

“If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully keep all his commands that I am giving you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the world. You will experience all these blessings if you obey the Lord your God:

Your towns and your fields
    will be blessed.
Your children and your crops
    will be blessed.
The offspring of your herds and flocks
    will be blessed.
Your fruit baskets and breadboards
    will be blessed.
Wherever you go and whatever you do,
    you will be blessed.

“The Lord will conquer your enemies when they attack you. They will attack you from one direction, but they will scatter from you in seven!

“The Lord will guarantee a blessing on everything you do and will fill your storehouses with grain. The Lord your God will bless you in the land he is giving you.” – Deuteronomy 28:1-8 NLT

But this promise was conditional. It required that the people of God obey His commands and worship Him alone. And years later, when Solomon dedicated the temple in Jerusalem, God had reminded them what would happen if they failed to remain faithful to Him.

But if you or your descendants abandon me and disobey the commands and decrees I have given you, and if you serve and worship other gods, then I will uproot Israel from this land that I have given them. I will reject this Temple that I have made holy to honor my name. I will make Israel an object of mockery and ridicule among the nations. – 1 Kings 9:6-7 NLT

And God made it perfectly clear to Solomon and the people of Israel that the fall of Jerusalem would be their own fault – for having abandoned Yahweh as their God, and their sole source of provision and protection.

“And though this Temple is impressive now, all who pass by will be appalled and will gasp in horror. They will ask, ‘Why did the Lord do such terrible things to this land and to this Temple?’

“And the answer will be, ‘Because his people abandoned the Lord their God, who brought their ancestors out of Egypt, and they worshiped other gods instead and bowed down to them. That is why the Lord has brought all these disasters on them.’” – 1 Kings 9:8-9 NLT

So, at this point in the book of Isaiah, we are looking at a time, long after Solomon had dedicated the temple when the nation of Israel had been divided in two because of Solomon’s failure to remain faithful to God. The southern kingdom of Judah was under intense pressure from foreign enemies and was turning its gaze to Egypt as a potential source of help and hope. They were making peace overtures to the very nation from which God had freed them from slavery generations earlier.

But God calls them exactly what they were: Stubborn children, and He used a word typically referring to dumb, untrainable oxen. It carries with it the idea of rebellion. Like an ox that refused to get into the yoke and plow, the people of Judah were refusing to do what God had called them to do. They consistently resisted His efforts to teach and train them. So, God warns them:

“What sorrow awaits my rebellious children,”
    says the Lord.
“You make plans that are contrary to mine.
    You make alliances not directed by my Spirit,
    thus piling up your sins. – Isaiah 30:1 NLT

God had not told them to turn to Egypt. He had not given them permission to make an alliance with Pharaoh. And their efforts to do so would prove to be more fuel on the fire of His judgment against them.

“For without consulting me,
    you have gone down to Egypt for help.
You have put your trust in Pharaoh’s protection.
    You have tried to hide in his shade.” – Isaiah 30:2 NLT

This is the crux of the matter. They were refusing to seek God’s counsel, and they were rejecting God’s promise of provision and protection. Rather than trust God, they were putting all their hope in Pharaoh. But they were going to find him to be a lousy replacement for God.

“But by trusting Pharaoh, you will be humiliated,
    and by depending on him, you will be disgraced.” – Isaiah 30:3 NLT

Their plans were not going to produce the results for which they were hoping. Rather than help, they would experience humiliation. In the place of deliverance, they would find disgrace. The nation of Egypt was powerful, and its borders stretched from Zoan in the north to Hanes in the south. But Pharaoh and his mighty army would prove no match for the Lord of Hosts. And God destroys any lingering hopes the people of Judah might have that their plans will succeed.

“all who trust in him will be ashamed.
    He will not help you.
    Instead, he will disgrace you.” – Isaiah 30:5 NLT

Israel's route.jpg

With their failure well established, Isaiah now provides the people of Judah with a visual description of the Judean emissaries’ trip to Egypt to deliver payment for their assistance. The route described is remarkably similar to the one that the people of Israel took when they left Egypt under Moses’ leadership centuries earlier. In order to escape detection by the Assyrians, the caravan would wind its way south, through the Negeb, “a land of trouble and anguish” (Isaiah 30:6 ESV).

But this time, they would not be accompanied by God or enjoy His protection. They would encounter an unforgiving desert, occupied by lions and venomous snakes. Their donkeys and camels would be weighed down with riches and treasures intended as payment for Pharaoh’s help. They would be paying dearly for their stubborn refusal to obey God. Their rebellion against Him would end up costing them. And the worst part was the cost to benefit ratio was going to be minimal.

“All this, and Egypt will give you nothing in return.
   Egypt’s promises are worthless!” – Isaiah 30:6-7 NLT

The imagery here is powerful. The people of Judah were going backwards. They are pictured as returning to the very place from which God had delivered them. They were regressing rather than progressing. Their former deliverance from Egypt was not taking the form of a vain hope of deliverance by Egypt.

And God sarcastically refers to Egypt, using a fairly cryptic monicker: “Rahab who sits still” (Isaiah 30:7 ESV). There is much debate as to what this phrase actually means and how it should be translated. The name “Rahab” is used elsewhere in Scripture to refer to Egypt (Psalm 87:4). But the Hebrew word rahav is also used in the Old Testament to refer to a mythical sea monster, the symbol of chaos. That’s why the New Living Translation reads “the Harmless Dragon.” Egypt is described as being shebeth, idle or inactive. Rather than stepping into the situation and providing Judah with assistance, the nation of Egypt is shown to be completely still, providing no help whatsoever. This entire transaction between Judah and Egypt will prove to be an expensive boondoggle that produces none of their hoped-for results.

What a sad and sobering lesson. And yet, as 21st-Century Christians, we can fail to learn anything from this dark moment in the life of the nation of Judah. It is so easy to miss the similarities between our lives and theirs. While we may not face invasion from a foreign power, we are under spiritual attack each and every day of our lives. The apostle Paul would have us remember:

We are human, but we don’t wage war as humans do. We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments. We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ. – 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 NLT

Notice what Paul says. We are to use God’s weapons, not worldly ones. And our battle is against human reasoning and false arguments. Because we are under the constant temptation to use human wisdom to solve spiritual problems. We too easily find ourselves listening to false arguments that prompt us to turn to something or someone other than God. But we are to take those thoughts captive and teach them to obey what Christ would have us do. Turning to Egypt rather than God will never produce the desired results. Placing our faith in something other than God will always prove empty and futile. But God is always faithful. He is there when we call. He responds when we cry out. He not only wants to rescue us, He has the power to do so.

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 Potter and the Clay.

Astonish yourselves and be astonished;
    blind yourselves and be blind!
Be drunk, but not with wine;
    stagger, but not with strong drink!
10 For the Lord has poured out upon you
    a spirit of deep sleep,
and has closed your eyes (the prophets),
    and covered your heads (the seers).

11 And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” 12 And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot read.”

13 And the Lord said:
“Because this people draw near with their mouth
    and honor me with their lips,
    while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,
14 therefore, behold, I will again
    do wonderful things with this people,
    with wonder upon wonder;
and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish,
    and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.”

15 Ah, you who hide deep from the Lord your counsel,
    whose deeds are in the dark,
    and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?”
16 You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay,
that the thing made should say of its maker,
    “He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,
    “He has no understanding”? – Isaiah 29:9-16 ESV

The people of Judah were spiritually dull and complacent. Isaiah compares them to a man stumbling around under the influence of alcohol. But he makes it clear that their stupor and instability is spiritual in nature, and it has been brought on them by God.

For the Lord has poured out on you a spirit of deep sleep.
    He has closed the eyes of your prophets and visionaries. – Isaiah 29:10 NLT

Part of the punishment He has brought against them is their inability to discern the right thing to do. In spite of all their pride and arrogance, they were incapable of understanding what it was that God was doing. The signs were obvious, but their eyes were blinded to the reality of what was going on around them and to them.

All the future events in this vision are like a sealed book to them. When you give it to those who can read, they will say, “We can’t read it because it is sealed.” When you give it to those who cannot read, they will say, “We don’t know how to read.” – Isaiah 29:11-12 NLT

Isaiah, as the prophet of God, had been pleading with them to trust God. He had exposed their misplaced trust in Egypt and other pagan nations. He had warned them of God’s pending judgment. And he had made it clear that repentance was the solution to their problem. But they had remained stubbornly unwilling to listen to a word he said. And he delivers a stinging indictment from God.

“These people say they are loyal to me;
they say wonderful things about me,
but they are not really loyal to me.
Their worship consists of
nothing but man-made ritual. – Isaiah 29:13 NET

There were guilty of giving God lip-service. They claimed to be His loyal subjects, but they were simply going through the motions. Their words were not backed by appropriate actions. And what they alleged to be worship was nothing more than a set of man-made rules and rituals they performed by rote. Their hearts were not in it.

Not only that, they suffered from the mistaken impression that God Almighty was unable to see what it was that they were doing. In their warped and twisted minds, they fully believed that they could hide what it was they were doing from the penetrating gaze of God. And Isaiah gave verbal expression to their thoughts.

“The Lord can’t see us,” they say.
    “He doesn’t know what’s going on!” – Isaiah 29:15 NLT

And why did they have this remarkably naive outlook? Because they somehow believed that they had done a good job of hiding their actions from Yahweh. But Isaiah delivered the sobering news that their impressions were wrong. Deadly wrong.

What sorrow awaits those who try to hide their plans from the Lord,
    who do their evil deeds in the dark!
– Isaiah 29:15 NLT

Of all people, the Jews should have known that their God was omniscient. Nothing was hidden from His sight. And their own Scriptures were filled with reminders of this very fact.

For the Lord sees clearly what a man does,
    examining every path he takes. – Proverbs 5:21 NLT

“Doesn’t he see everything I do
    and every step I take?” – Job 31:4 NLT

The Lord is watching everywhere,
    keeping his eye on both the evil and the good. – Proverbs 15:3 NLT

“I am watching them closely, and I see every sin. They cannot hope to hide from me.” – Jeremiah 16:17 NLT

And that same understanding of God’s all-knowing, all-seeing capacity is carried over into the New Testament. The author of Hebrews states:

Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes, and he is the one to whom we are accountable. – Hebrews 4:13 NLT

And yet, we seem to believe that we can hide our actions from God. Not only thought, we sometimes have the false impression that we can keep God from knowing what we are thinking. But David, the great king of Israel, throws a wet blanket on that perception.

O Lord, you have examined my heart
    and know everything about me.
You know when I sit down or stand up.
    You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.
You see me when I travel
    and when I rest at home.
    You know everything I do.
You know what I am going to say
    even before I say it, Lord. – Psalm 139:1-4 NLT

Think closely about that last line. God knows what you are going to say even before you say it. A thought, unexpressed, is not hidden from God. He knows our inner thoughts. He even knows the motivations that flow from the condition of our hearts. He can tell the difference between an act of charity done out of selflessness and kindness and one done for the self-centered reward of recognition.

But Isaiah exposes the lunacy behind their false perception of God.

“Your thinking is perverse!” – Isaiah 29:16 NET

The Hebrew word Isaiah used is hophek, and it literally means “to turn things upside down.” The people of God were guilty of twisting the truth and perverting the reality of God’s omniscience. In a sense, they were guilty of wishful thinking. They could only hope that God was blind to what they were doing. But He wasn’t. And to press home his point, Isaiah uses a metaphor that compares God to a potter and Judah to clay.

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

God wasn’t like a lifeless lump of clay. They were. The Creator-God who made each and every one of the people of Judah was not the one who was ignorant, blind and clueless. They were. And they had no right to question what God was doing around them or to them. They were like clay in the hands of the Potter, and He would do with them as He wished. Their compliance was not needed. Their submission was not necessary. And their denial of God’s omniscience or omnipotence did not diminish His knowledge or power one iota.

God had sent His prophet, Jeremiah, with a similar word of warning to the people of Israel. He too used the metaphor of the potter and the clay.

“O Israel, can I not do to you as this potter has done to his clay? As the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand. If I announce that a certain nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down, and destroyed, but then that nation renounces its evil ways, I will not destroy it as I had planned. And if I announce that I will plant and build up a certain nation or kingdom, but then that nation turns to evil and refuses to obey me, I will not bless it as I said I would.

“Therefore, Jeremiah, go and warn all Judah and Jerusalem. Say to them, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am planning disaster for you instead of good. So turn from your evil ways, each of you, and do what is right.’” – Jeremiah 18:6-11 NLT

But the people of Israel suffered from the same problem as the people of Judah. They were too stubborn and incapable of grasping the significance of the prophet’s words. So, they responded:

“Don’t waste your breath. We will continue to live as we want to, stubbornly following our own evil desires.” – Jeremiah 18:12 NLT

How ridiculous their words sound. How arrogant and ignorant can they be? And yet, as the people of God, we far too often exhibit the same characteristics. We boldly reject the words of God, demanding that we be allowed to live our lives the way we want to. We stubbornly determine to do things our way, rather than obeying God’s will for our lives. And we ignorantly assume we can hide our thoughts and actions from God. But He knows. He sees. And, as the Potter, He does what He has to do to mold His children into the vessels of glory.

Centuries later, the apostle Paul picked up on Isaiah’s metaphor of the potter and the clay and used it to address to believers in Rome.

But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to Him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” Does not the potter have the right to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for special occasions and another for common use? – Romans 9:20-21 Berean Bible

God will do what He has to do to bring about the transformation He has planned. His will is never thwarted. His design is never altered. In our arrogance and pride, we may believe that are the ones in control. But Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Paul would have us understand that God alone controls our destinies. And it is far better to submit to His will than to resist it.

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