I Am Doing A New Thing

14 Thus says the Lord,
    your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
“For your sake I send to Babylon
    and bring them all down as fugitives,
    even the Chaldeans, in the ships in which they rejoice.
15 I am the Lord, your Holy One,
    the Creator of Israel, your King.”

16 Thus says the Lord,
    who makes a
way in the sea,
    a path in the mighty
waters,
17 who brings forth chariot and horse,
    army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot
rise,
    they are extinguished, quenched like
a wick:
18 “Remember not the former things,
    nor consider the
things of old.
19 Behold, I am doing a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make
a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.
20 The wild beasts will honor me,
    the jackals and the ostriches,
for I give
water in the wilderness,
    rivers in the desert,
to give
drink to my chosen people,
21     the people whom I formed for myself
that
they might declare my praise.

22 “Yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob;
    but you have been weary of me, O Israel!
23 You have not brought me your sheep for burnt offerings,
    or honored me with your sacrifices.
I have not burdened you with offerings,
    or wearied you with frankincense.
24 You have not bought me sweet cane with money,
    or satisfied me with the fat of your sacrifices.
But you have burdened me with your sins;
    you have wearied me with your iniquities.

25 “I, I am he
    who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
    and I will not remember your sins.
26 Put me in remembrance; let us argue together;
    set forth your case, that you may be proved right.
27 Your first father sinned,
    and your mediators transgressed against me.
28 Therefore I will profane the princes of the sanctuary,
    and deliver Jacob to utter destruction
    and Israel to reviling. –
Isaiah 43:14-28 ESV

The people of Judah were plagued by near-sightedness. They couldn’t see things that were far away. So, they tended to live in the here-and-now, focusing their sights on the circumstances right in front of them. When God had broken the news to King Hezekiah that the nation of Judah and the city of Jerusalem would eventually fall to the Babylonians, the king had responded positively, because he realized it would happen long after he was gone.

“This message you have given me from the Lord is good.” For the king was thinking, “At least there will be peace and security during my lifetime.” – Isaiah 39:8 NLT

For Hezekiah, the threat of Babylonian invasion was out of sight, out of mind. He didn’t care, as long as his immediate circumstances remained unchanged. As the psalmist says, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1 ESV). He does care about our current condition and willingly steps into our circumstances, providing help and hope. But there are times when it may appear that He is nowhere to be found or that He is indifferent to our pain and suffering. Our prayers seem to go unanswered and our pleas for help appear to land on deaf ears.

But God is always at work. He operates behind the scenes in ways we cannot see or comprehend. He never sleeps. He never gets distracted. He never loses interest or finds Himself surprised by the conditions surrounding our lives. He has a plan and He is always working that plan to perfect. And He confirmed that reality through the prophet Jeremiah.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” – Jeremiah 29:11 NLT

And God’s plans include the present and the future. They are all-encompassing, reaching far into the distant past and well into eternity. And in this chapter, God is attempting to convince the people of Judah that He has a preferred future in store for them. But they are going to have to look beyond the immediate conditions in which they find themselves and trust God for their future redemption.

The Babylonians were coming. They would destroy the city of Jerusalem and demolish the temple of God. They would take captive thousands of the citizens of Judah. But God declares that He will one day do to Babylon what He did to Egypt. The day was coming when He would turn the tables and “send an army against Babylon, forcing the Babylonians to flee in those ships they are so proud of” (Isaiah 43:14 NLT). And just in case the people of Judah can’t fathom that happening, God reminds them what He did in Egypt when He provided the Israelites with passage through the Red Sea on dry ground, and then destroyed the army of Egypt in the waters.

“I called forth the mighty army of Egypt
    with all its chariots and horses.
I drew them beneath the waves, and they drowned,
    their lives snuffed out like a smoldering candlewick.”
– Isaiah 43:15 NLT

But then, God tells them to forget all about that, because it was ancient history. They needed to prepare themselves for what God was about to do in their day.

“For I am about to do something new.
    See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?”
– Isaiah 43:19 NLT

The truth was, they couldn’t see it. They were oblivious to it. God was revealing aspects of His future plans for the nation of Judah and they had no way of knowing that any of this was going to happen. But that seems to be the point of this passage. God knows things we don’t know know. He sees things that are imperceptible to our human eyes. He has plans in store for us of which we are unaware. But while they were blind to God’s future plans, they should have trusted Him. Two times in this chapter God describes Himself as their creator.

“But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
    he who formed you, O Israel.”
– Isaiah 43:1 ESV

“I am the Lord, your Holy One,
    the Creator of Israel, your King.”
– Isiah 43:15 ESV

He made them and He had plans for them. And those plans included their future redemption.

“For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
– Isaiah 43:3 ESV

“I, I am the Lord,
    and besides me there is no savior.”
– Isaiah 43:7 ESV

“Thus says the Lord,
    your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.”
– Isaiah 43:14 ESV

He was their creator, Savior, and redeemer. He had made them for a reason and had redeemed them out of slavery in Egypt because He had a purpose for them. His entire relationship with them had been marked by repeated acts of salvation and redemption. And He was not yet done. There was more to come and it would be like nothing they had ever seen before. Just as God had made a pathway through the Red Sea so the people of Israel could cross over on dry ground and escape their captivity in Egypt, He would one day create a pathway through the wilderness, allowing the people of Judah to return from their captivity in Babylon. And He reveals why He will do this new thing.

“I have made Israel for myself,
    and they will someday honor me before the whole world.”
– Isaiah 43:21 NLT

This is another one of those passages that has a now-not-yet aspect to it. The people of Judah would eventually return from their captivity in Babylon. The Persian king, Cyrus, would issue a decree making possible the return of a remnant of the people to the land of Judah. But notice was verse 21 says. God declares that the day is coming when the people of Judah will honor Him before the whole world. This is a statement describing their future obedience and unwavering faithfulness to God. That has not yet happened. But it will. The prophet Jeremiah describes this coming day.

“For the time is coming when I will restore the fortunes of my people of Israel and Judah. I will bring them home to this land that I gave to their ancestors, and they will possess it again. I, the Lord, have spoken!” – Jeremiah 30:3 NLT

And Jeremiah goes on to record some significant aspects of God’s promise regarding this future day.

“I will establish them as a nation before me,
    and I will punish anyone who hurts them.
They will have their own ruler again,
    and he will come from their own people.
I will invite him to approach me,” says the Lord,
    “for who would dare to come unless invited?
You will be my people,
    and I will be your God.”
– Jeremiah 30:20-22 NLT

Ever since their return from captivity in Babylon, the Jews have had no king. To this day, Israel, while a nation, has no king. But the day is coming when God will place His own Son on the throne of David and He will rule from the city of Jerusalem over the entire world. And as Isaiah records, in that day, God promises to do for the people of Israel and Judah something truly remarkable.

“I—yes, I alone—will blot out your sins for my own sake
    and will never think of them again.”
– Isaiah 43:25 NLT

And as God makes clear in the closing verses of this chapter. this will be in spite of them, not because of them. He will forgive them, not because they deserve it, but because He is a covenant-keeping God who will fulfill His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He will do a new thing.

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

Their Works Are Nothing

21 Set forth your case, says the Lord;
    bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob.
22 Let them bring them, and tell us
    what is to happen.
Tell us the former things, what they are,
    that we may consider them,
that we may know their outcome;
    or declare to us the things to come.
23 Tell us what is to come hereafter,
    that we may know that you are gods;
do good, or do harm,
    that we may be dismayed and terrified.

24 Behold, you are nothing,
    and your work is less than nothing;
    an abomination is he who chooses you.

25 I stirred up one from the north, and he has come,
    from the rising of the sun, and he shall call upon my name;
he shall trample on rulers as on mortar,
    as the potter treads clay.
26 Who declared it from the beginning, that we might know,
    and beforehand, that we might say, “He is right”?
There was none who declared it, none who proclaimed,
    none who heard your words.
27 I was the first to say to Zion, “Behold, here they are!”
    and I give to Jerusalem a herald of good news.
28 But when I look, there is no one;
    among these there is no counselor
    who, when I ask, gives an answer.
29 Behold, they are all a delusion;
    their works are nothing;
    their metal images are empty wind. – Isaiah 41:21-29 ESV

This chapter opened with God calling all the nations of the earth to appear in court in order to bring their case against Him.

“Listen in silence before me, you lands beyond the sea.
    Bring your strongest arguments.
Come now and speak.
    The court is ready for your case. – Isaiah 41:1 NLT

That courtroom scene is picked up again in verses 21-29, with God standing in judgment against the false gods of the pagan nations. With a hint of sarcasm, God calls on all the idolaters to bring their so-called gods into the courtroom. Incapable of physical movement on their own, these false gods must rely upon human assistance just to appear before God Almighty. And to make matters worse, God demands that they speak up, defending themselves by providing proof for their own existence.

“Present the case for your idols,”
    says the Lord.
“Let them show what they can do,”
    says the King of Israel.
“Let them try to tell us what happened long ago
    so that we may consider the evidence.
Or let them tell us what the future holds,
    so we can know what’s going to happen.”
– Isaiah 41:21-22 NLT

God wants these non-existent gods to explain all that has happened in the world since the beginning of time. This should have been easy – except that false gods can’t actually speak. Anyone can provide a plausible explanation of the past, as long as they have the faculty of speech. But idols are speechless because they are lifeless. And if they are incapable of explaining the past, they have no hope of predicting the future. They have no idea of what is to come because they are mindless.

God demands that they predict the future as proof of their divinity. In essence, God is simply challenging them to do as He does. He demands that they measure up to His standard of divinity. But they can’t because they don’t exist. And, with ever-increasing sarcasm, God calls on them to do anything that might give evidence of their existence.

In fact, do anything—good or bad!
    Do something that will amaze and frighten us. – Isaiah 41:23 NLT

God is throwing down the gauntlet. But He expects no reply because the gods of the nations are nothing more than the figment of man’s imagination and the work of man’s hands. All of this is intended to remind the people of Judah that their God, Yahweh, is the only true God. They have nothing to fear from the gods of the Assyrians or Babylonians. And they have no reason to prostitute themselves in worship of these false gods. And God makes His point painfully clear, addressing the non-existent gods and all those who worship them.

But no! You are less than nothing and can do nothing at all.
    Those who choose you pollute themselves. – Isaiah 41:24 NLT

Later on, in this very same book, Isaiah provides an in-your-face assessment of the stupidity of idols.

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.
Who but a fool would make his own god—
    an idol that cannot help him one bit?
All who worship idols will be disgraced
    along with all these craftsmen—mere humans—
    who claim they can make a god.
They may all stand together,
    but they will stand in terror and shame. – Isaiah 44:9-11 NLT

Yet God, who is all-knowing and all-powerful, reveals that He will do what the false gods are incapable of doing. He will predict the future and then fulfill it.

“But I have stirred up a leader who will approach from the north.
    From the east he will call on my name.
I will give him victory over kings and princes.
    He will trample them as a potter treads on clay.” – Isaiah 41:25 NLT

God boldly claims that He will raise up a powerful leader from the north who will act as His divine instrument, accomplishing God’s will on earth. As will be revealed later in the book of Isaiah, this leader will prove to be King Cyrus of the Persians.

“When I say of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd,’
    he will certainly do as I say.
He will command, ‘Rebuild Jerusalem’;
    he will say, ‘Restore the Temple.’” – Isaiah 44:28 NLT

God was going to use Cyrus, an idolatrous, pagan king, to bring about the future restoration of Jerusalem and the temple. God has already decreed that Jerusalem would fall at the hands of the Babylonians and the people of Judah would end up as captives in Babylon. But He would one day restore them, and Cyrus would be His chosen instrument.

This is what the Lord says to Cyrus, his anointed one,
    whose right hand he will empower.
Before him, mighty kings will be paralyzed with fear.
    Their fortress gates will be opened,
    never to shut again.
This is what the Lord says:

“I will go before you, Cyrus,
    and level the mountains.
I will smash down gates of bronze
    and cut through bars of iron.
And I will give you treasures hidden in the darkness—
    secret riches.
I will do this so you may know that I am the Lord,
    the God of Israel, the one who calls you by name.” – Isaiah 45:1-3 NLT

Unlike the false gods of the nations, Yahweh could predict the future because He is the one who sovereignly controls the future. Everything happens under His watchful eye and according to His divine will. And God challenges anyone to speak up who could claim to have known about any of these things.

“Who told you from the beginning
    that this would happen?
Who predicted this,
    making you admit that he was right? – Isaiah 41:26 NLT

No one speaks up, because no one knew that any of these things were going to happen. There was not a single human being or false god who was aware of God’s future plans. And yet, all along, God had been telling His people what He was going to do.

“I was the first to tell Zion,
    ‘Look! Help is on the way!’
    I will send Jerusalem a messenger with good news.
Not one of your idols told you this.” – Isaiah 41:27-28 NLT

The idols are speechless because they are lifeless. These false gods are defenseless because they are powerless. They can’t explain the past. They can’t predict the future. They can’t provide wisdom. They can’t offer help or hope. But God can, and He does. Because He is sovereign over all.

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

I, the Lord…I Am He

1 Listen to me in silence, O coastlands;
    let the peoples renew their strength;
let them approach, then let them speak;
    let us together draw near for judgment.

Who stirred up one from the east
    whom victory meets at every step?
He gives up nations before him,
    so that he tramples kings underfoot;
he makes them like dust with his sword,
    like driven stubble with his bow.
He pursues them and passes on safely,
    by paths his feet have not trod.
Who has performed and done this,
    calling the generations from the beginning?
I, the Lord, the first,
    and with the last; I am he.

The coastlands have seen and are afraid;
    the ends of the earth tremble;
    they have drawn near and come.
Everyone helps his neighbor
    and says to his brother, “Be strong!”
The craftsman strengthens the goldsmith,
    and he who smooths with the hammer him who strikes the anvil,
saying of the soldering, “It is good”;
    and they strengthen it with nails so that it cannot be moved.

But you, Israel, my servant,
    Jacob, whom I have chosen,
    the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
    and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, “You are my servant,
    I have chosen you and not cast you off”;
10 fear not, for I am with you;
    be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

11 Behold, all who are incensed against you
    shall be put to shame and confounded;
those who strive against you
    shall be as nothing and shall perish.
12 You shall seek those who contend with you,
    but you shall not find them;
those who war against you
    shall be as nothing at all.
13 For I, the Lord your God,
    hold your right hand;
it is I who say to you, “Fear not,
    I am the one who helps you.”

14 Fear not, you worm Jacob,
    you men of Israel!
I am the one who helps you, declares the Lord;
    your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.
15 Behold, I make of you a threshing sledge,
    new, sharp, and having teeth;
you shall thresh the mountains and crush them,
    and you shall make the hills like chaff;
16 you shall winnow them, and the wind shall carry them away,
    and the tempest shall scatter them.
And you shall rejoice in the Lord;
    in the Holy One of Israel you shall glory.

17 When the poor and needy seek water,
    and there is none,
    and their tongue is parched with thirst,
I the Lord will answer them;
    I the God of Israel will not forsake them.
18 I will open rivers on the bare heights,
    and fountains in the midst of the valleys.
I will make the wilderness a pool of water,
    and the dry land springs of water.
19 I will put in the wilderness the cedar,
    the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive.
I will set in the desert the cypress,
    the plane and the pine together,
20 that they may see and know,
    may consider and understand together,
that the hand of the Lord has done this,
    the Holy One of Israel has created it. – Isaiah 41:1-20 ESV

Judah was in an unenviable position, in both a physical and spiritual sense. It seems that they were located in the very epicenter of a region that attracted conquering nations like honey draws bees.

Assyrian domain.jpgIf you look at any maps that reveal the extent of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, you find Judah positioned precariously in the middle of all the action. The threat of defeat at the hands of more powerful nations was a constant reality. If it weren’t the Assyrians, it would be the Babylonians.

Babylon's domain.jpgAnd God has already warned Hezekiah that Jerusalem would eventually fall to the Babylonians, who weren’t even a major player on the scene at the time.

But even more unenviable than Judah’s geographic location was its position in respect to Yahweh. They had been unfaithful to the Faithful One. They had repeatedly disobeyed Him and dishonored His name by worshiping false gods. And God, by virtue of His holiness and righteousness, was obligated to punish His people for their serial spiritual adultery.

And yet, God has provided His rebellious people with a somewhat surprising message of assurance, saying, “Comfort, comfort my people” (Isaiah 40:1 ESV). In spite of all that the people of Judah had done to offend a holy God, they would find Him to be compassionate and gracious. He promised to one day restore them.

But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.
    They will soar high on wings like eagles.
They will run and not grow weary.
    They will walk and not faint. – Isaiah 40:31 NLT

It would have been easy for the people of Judah to look at their circumstances and lose heart. They were a seemingly insignificant nation surrounded by more powerful enemies who were intent on their destruction. What was Judah when compared to the world-dominating power of Assyria? What hope did they have when the ten tribes of Israel to the north had fallen to Sennacherib and his forces? But in chapter 41, God assures His people that they have nothing to fear from these other nations. They were mere pawns in His hands, and their power was insignificant when compared with His.

God summons as witnesses all the Gentile nations of the world. Like a prosecuting attorney in a court of law, He addresses them, delivering in no uncertain terms a defense of His sovereignty.

“Who has stirred up this king from the east,
    rightly calling him to God’s service?
Who gives this man victory over many nations
    and permits him to trample their kings underfoot?
With his sword, he reduces armies to dust.
    With his bow, he scatters them like chaff before the wind.
He chases them away and goes on safely,
    though he is walking over unfamiliar ground.”– Isaiah 41:2-3 NLT

In response to these questions from God, the Gentile nations would have most likely stated that the pagan gods of the Assyrians and Babylonians were responsible for their victories. But God’s questions are intended to be rhetorical, and He provides the only correct answer: “I, the Lord, the first, and with the last; I am he” (Isaiah 41:4 ESV).

And yet, the pagan nations continue to place all their hopes in their false gods. They attempt to manufacture some semblance of security just as they manufacture the idols they worship.

The idol makers encourage one another,
    saying to each other, “Be strong!”
The carver encourages the goldsmith,
    and the molder helps at the anvil.
    “Good,” they say. “It’s coming along fine.”
Carefully they join the parts together,
    then fasten the thing in place so it won’t fall over. – Isaiah 41:6-7 NLT

But these man-made totems will prove no match for the Lord of Hosts. They have no power. And any power that the kings of these pagan nations wield has been given to them by God. As God revealed to Daniel in a dream:

“Praise the name of God forever and ever, for he has all wisdom and power. He controls the course of world events; he removes kings and sets up other kings.” – Daniel 2:20-21 NLT

So, God turns His attention to the people of Judah, reminding them of their unique position as His chosen people. Of all people on the earth, they were to be envied, despite all that was happening around them. The nations beyond the seas had no god to save them. Their idols would prove powerless in the face of the Assyrian and Babylonian armies. But Judah had no reason to fear because they belonged to God.

“Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.
    Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you.
    I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.” – Isaiah 41:10 NLT

If they looked at their circumstances, they were bound to experience fear and discouragement. But, as God’s people, they were to look to Him. They were to trust in Him. Because He had promised to do what no other god could do: To strengthen them, help them and hold them up. They had nothing to fear, even though they were surrounded by more powerful enemies because God was in control and was on their side.

Those who attack you
    will come to nothing.
For I hold you by your right hand—
    I, the Lord your God.
And I say to you,
    ‘Don’t be afraid. I am here to help you.” – Isaiah 41:12-13 NLT

Notice what God tells them. They would be attacked. Their enemies were real, and the prospect of warfare was as well. God didn’t promise them freedom from warfare, but the assurance of His help. And the apostle Paul reminds us that we can expect warfare in our lives as well.

Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.

Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm. – Ephesians 6:10-13 NLT

God promises the people of Judah that a day is coming when the tables will be turned. They will become the victor rather than the victim. The lowly “worm” will become the aggressor, wreaking havoc on its enemies and gladly glorying in the greatness of God.

Then you will rejoice in the Lord.
    You will glory in the Holy One of Israel. – Isaiah 41:16 NLT

God tells them that, just when things are looking like they couldn’t get any worse, He will show up.

“When the poor and needy search for water and there is none,
    and their tongues are parched from thirst,
then I, the Lord, will answer them.
    I, the God of Israel, will never abandon them.” – Isaiah 41:17 NLT

At their greatest moment of need, their great God will show up. And He will provide for them in ways that are beyond their imaginations. He will work a miracle that leaves no doubt that their salvation was divinely ordained and orchestrated. And God tells them why He is going to act on their behalf.

“I am doing this so all who see this miracle
    will understand what it means—
that it is the Lord who has done this,
    the Holy One of Israel who created it.” – Isiah 41:20 NLT

God’s greatest works always appear at our greatest moments of need. It is in our periods of most intense crisis that God reveals His power and proves His faithfulness to us. It is when we need Him most that God tends to show up best. It is in those times that He intervenes and says, “I, the Lord…I am He.”

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

Yet I Will Praise Him

A writing of Hezekiah king of Judah, after he had been sick and had recovered from his sickness:

10 I said, In the middle of my days
    I must depart;
I am consigned to the gates of Sheol
    for the rest of my years.
11 I said, I shall not see the Lord,
    the Lord in the land of the living;
I shall look on man no more
    among the inhabitants of the world.
12 My dwelling is plucked up and removed from me
    like a shepherd’s tent;
like a weaver I have rolled up my life;
    he cuts me off from the loom;
from day to night you bring me to an end;
13     I calmed myself until morning;
like a lion he breaks all my bones;
    from day to night you bring me to an end.

14 Like a swallow or a crane I chirp;
    I moan like a dove.
My eyes are weary with looking upward.
    O Lord, I am oppressed; be my pledge of safety!
15 What shall I say? For he has spoken to me,
    and he himself has done it.
I walk slowly all my years
    because of the bitterness of my soul.

16 O Lord, by these things men live,
    and in all these is the life of my spirit.
    Oh restore me to health and make me live!
17 Behold, it was for my welfare
    that I had great bitterness;
but in love you have delivered my life
    from the pit of destruction,
for you have cast all my sins
    behind your back.
18 For Sheol does not thank you;
    death does not praise you;
those who go down to the pit do not hope
    for your faithfulness.
19 The living, the living, he thanks you,
    as I do this day;
the father makes known to the children
    your faithfulness.

20 The Lord will save me,
    and we will play my music on stringed instruments
all the days of our lives,
    at the house of the Lord.

21 Now Isaiah had said, “Let them take a cake of figs and apply it to the boil, that he may recover.” 22 Hezekiah also had said, “What is the sign that I shall go up to the house of the Lord?” – Isaiah 38:9-21 ESV

Hezekiah had been severely ill, and the prophet Isaiah had given him the divine prognosis that his illness would end in death. In his despair, Hezekiah prayed to God and received the news that he would be healed and his life would be extended an additional 15 years. The book of 2 Kings provides additional details concerning Hezekiah’s miraculous recovery.

Then Isaiah said, “Make an ointment from figs.” So Hezekiah’s servants spread the ointment over the boil, and Hezekiah recovered! – 2 Kings 20:7 NLT

Sometime after these events, Hezekiah composed a poem commemorating the occasion and recording the diverse range of emotions he had experienced.

Hezekiah had been rocked by the news of his pending death. It was unexpected and had caught him completely by surprise. Like anyone facing the prospect of an untimely death, Hezekiah thought about all those he would leave behind.

“Never again will I see the Lord God
    while still in the land of the living.
Never again will I see my friends
    or be with those who live in this world.” – Isaiah 38:11 NLT

He couldn’t help but feel that he was being robbed of life, and denied the joy of experiencing all the pleasures that come to the living. Like all men, he had a difficult time imagining what existence beyond death might look like. He refers to his soul being confined to Sheol, the abode of the dead. The ancient Jews did not have a well-developed understanding of the afterlife. Their concept of the blessings of God was closely tied to life on this side of death, not beyond it. Which led Hezekiah to wonder whether his premature death was the result of his own sin. He couldn’t help but consider that he had somehow displeased God and his terminal illness was a form of divine punishment. For the Jews, disease was viewed as a sign of God’s displeasure. The apostle John records a scene from the life of Jesus that reflects this common misperception.

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. “Rabbi,” his disciples asked him, “why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?” – John 9:1-2 NLT

The disciples were reflecting the commonly held view that blindness was a curse, not a blessing. So, this man or his parents must have done something that angered God and brought about his blindness.

Hezekiah shared this mindset and saw his illness as a curse from God. Which led Hezekiah to pray incessantly, his voice sounding like the coos of a dove as he moaned out his pleas for God’s mercy. And yet, he somehow believed that his calls for healing would be ineffectual.

“But what could I say?
    For he himself sent this sickness.
Now I will walk humbly throughout my years
    because of this anguish I have felt.” – Isaiah 38:15 NLT

His illness was God’s doing, and there was nothing he could do about it. But his poem takes a dramatic turn at this point. Suddenly, Hezekiah begins to reflect his gratefulness for the dark night of the soul he experienced.

“Lord, your discipline is good,
    for it leads to life and health.
You restore my health
    and allow me to live!
Yes, this anguish was good for me,
    for you have rescued me from death
    and forgiven all my sins.” – Isaiah 38:15-17 NLT

God provided healing and the assurance that his life would be extended another 15 years. Hezekiah’s sorrow was immediately replaced with joy. His despair was replaced with delight in God’s mercy and unmerited favor. God was allowing him to live and, not only that, forgiving his sins in the process. Because Hezekiah believed his illness was the result of sin, his healing could only have happened if God forgave his sin.

You can sense Hezekiah’s rather earth-bound and limited view of life and the afterlife. From his human perspective, life was essential if one were going to praise God.

“For the dead cannot praise you;
    they cannot raise their voices in praise.
Those who go down to the grave
    can no longer hope in your faithfulness.” – Isaiah 38:18 NLT

He shared the commonly-held view that this life was where God’s blessings were to be enjoyed and where our devotion to God was to be displayed. You see this mindset reflected in the psalms.

The heavens belong to the Lord,
    but he has given the earth to all humanity.
The dead cannot sing praises to the Lord,
    for they have gone into the silence of the grave. – Psalm 115:16-17 NLT

Even King David had shared this view of life and death.

Return, O Lord, and rescue me.
    Save me because of your unfailing love.
For the dead do not remember you.
    Who can praise you from the grave? – Psalm 6:4-5 NLT

From Hezekiah’s perspective, long life provided an opportunity to praise God. “Only the living can praise you as I do today” (Isaiah 38:19 NLT). And he intended to take advantage of every single moment God was going to give him on this earth.

I will sing his praises with instruments
every day of my life
    in the Temple of the Lord.” – Isaiah 38:20 NLT

Hezekiah’s desire to spend his remaining years praising God is commendable. His ecstatic reaction to the news of his healing is natural and normal. He had been facing certain death and, suddenly, he had been given a new lease on life. In the excitement of the moment, Hezekiah expressed his desire to repay God by dedicating his life to the praise and glory of God. And again, this reaction by Hezekiah is commendable, but it raises some unavoidable questions: Are we only willing to praise God when He gives us the desires of our heart? Had God not chosen to heal Hezekiah, would the king have praised the Almighty anyway? Would he have accepted the will of God even when it seemed to contradict his own human understanding of what it means to be blessed by God?

The prophet Habakkuk provides us with a much more balanced illustration of how we, as humans, should understand and respond to the seeming incongruities of life.

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms,
    and there are no grapes on the vines;
even though the olive crop fails,
    and the fields lie empty and barren;
even though the flocks die in the fields,
    and the cattle barns are empty,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord!
    I will be joyful in the God of my salvation! – Habakkuk 3:17-18 NLT

The apostle Paul shared this same viewpoint, declaring to the believers in Rome that, even in the face of trials and troubles, we have ample reason to praise God.

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. – Roman 5:3-5 NLT

In Hezekiah, we have reflected a similar but significantly different sentiment.

Lord, your discipline is good,
    for it leads to life and health.
You restore my health
    and allow me to live! – Isaiah 38:16 NLT

The question is whether we, as those who believe in the sovereignty of God, are willing to accept both the good and the bad of life as coming through His hands. It was right for Hezekiah to rejoice in God’s healing. It was appropriate for him to respond with praise and adoration at his miraculous restoration by God. But the fact is, God does not always heal. Things do not always turn out for the better. Those with terminal illnesses do not always receive an additional 15-years of life. But those facts do not alter the goodness of God. They do not do anything to diminish the divine sovereignty of God. In our greatest moments of darkness and despair, our attitude should be that of Job who, when facing the loss of all that he had, was able to say:

“Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” – Job 2:10 NLT

Praising God in the good times is easy. Praising Him the difficult times requires faith and a strong belief that His will is always right and His plan, while not always clear to us, has our best interest in mind.

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

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

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

 

 

Faith, Not Fear.

The oracle concerning the wilderness of the sea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He describes the uncertainty and instability of the times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The One True God.

10 For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
    will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising,
    and the moon will not shed its light.
11 I will punish the world for its evil,
    and the wicked for their iniquity;
I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant,
    and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless.
12 I will make people more rare than fine gold,
    and mankind than the gold of Ophir.
13 Therefore I will make the heavens tremble,
    and the earth will be shaken out of its place,
at the wrath of the Lord of hosts
    in the day of his fierce anger.
14 And like a hunted gazelle,
    or like sheep with none to gather them,
each will turn to his own people,
    and each will flee to his own land.
15 Whoever is found will be thrust through,
    and whoever is caught will fall by the sword.
16 Their infants will be dashed in pieces
    before their eyes;
their houses will be plundered
    and their wives ravished.” – Isaiah 13:10-16 ESV

In this, the first of ten oracles Isaiah received from God, detailed and devastating descriptions are given regarding a day of coming judgment. Babylon, the veritable poster boy of pride and arrogance, is used by God as a symbol for the pagan nations of the earth, who reject Him and persecute His people, Israel.

But the judgments described in these verses are universal in nature and global in scope. They are not merely God’s plans for the destruction of Babylon. They encompass the entire world and all those who are living on it at the time the judgments fall. And verse nine makes that point white clear.

Behold, the day of the Lord comes,
    cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,
to make the land a desolation
    and to destroy its sinners from it. – Isaiah 13:9 ESV

And verse 11 elaborates on God’s future plans for pouring out His righteous wrath on sinful mankind.

I will punish the world for its evil,
    and the wicked for their iniquity;
I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant,
    and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless. – Isaiah 13:11 ESV

In his letter to the believers in Rome, Paul clarifies the basis for God’s coming day of judgment on the nations”

…he will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and instead live lives of wickedness. – Romans 2:8 NLT

They are self-absorbed and self-reliant. They are stubbornly disobedient to the truth of God. And the result is that they live lives of wickedness, violating the expressed will of God. According to Paul, their actions and attitudes are a willful snub against God, who has made Himself known to them through His creation.

But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. – Romans 1:18-20 NLT

Mankind’s rejection of God has been an ongoing affair, since the day Adam and Eve disregarded His command and decided to satisfy their own desires apart from and outside of His will. And that is what the world has been doing ever since.

Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles. – Romans 1:21-23 NLT

Rather than worship the Creator-God, they worshiped the creation itself. They fabricated their own gods – lifeless, powerless stand-ins for the one true God – a product of their own imaginations and their own hands. And Paul says that God gave mankind over to follow their own self-absorbed standard of living.

So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies. They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen. – Romans 1:24-25 NLT

And mankind’s rejection of God has continued for generations. And over that time, we have seen the human capacity for sin increase exponentially – to the point where sin is not longer viewed as sin. Right is wrong and wrong is right. What God condemns, man now glorifies. What He denies and deems off-limits, we defend and demand as our right. And Paul painted a prophetic picture of the day and age in which we live.

That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires. Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men, and as a result of this sin, they suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved. – Romans 1:26-27 NLT

But the sinful act is not the issue here. It is the rebellious hearts that ultimately lead to the shameful desires and the sinful actions. The rejection of God always result in rebellion against the will of God. And Paul provides a graphic description of what this way of life, lived without God, looks like.

Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy. They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too. – Romans 1:29-32 NLT

But Isaiah reminds us that God will not put up with mankind’s rebellion against Him forever. There is a day coming – that day – when He will judge sinful mankind, not for the individual sins they have committed, but for their refusal to accept Him as God. Their sinful behavior is nothing more than a byproduct and evidence of their lack of a relationship with God. The Scriptures make it clear that ALL humanity has sinned against God. They all stand as guilty before Him. But those who have placed their faith in the offer of salvation made possible through His Son, have received forgiveness for their sins. They have been made right with God. And, as Paul puts it, they live free from the threat of future condemnation.

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. – Romans 8:1-2 NLT

But for all those who refuse God’s gracious offer of salvation through faith in His Son, condemnation and judgment remain inevitable and unavoidable. Which is exactly what Isaiah is warning. He speaks of God’s wrath and fierce anger. He describes that day as one that will feature cosmic disturbances in the sky and incredible violence on the earth. And he is not the only prophet who wrote in starkly graphic terms concerning this coming day.

I will veil the heavens and darken the stars.
I will cover the sun with a cloud,
    and the moon will not give you its light. – Ezekiel 32:7 NLT

The Lord is at the head of the column.
    He leads them with a shout.
This is his mighty army,
    and they follow his orders.
The day of the Lord is an awesome, terrible thing.
    Who can possibly survive? – Joel 2:11 NLT

And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. – Daniel 12:1 NLT

The world has experienced its fair share of dark days. There have been countless wars and periods of civil unrest. We have invented new and ever-more-deadly means of wreaking havoc on one another. Our capacity and propensity for sin has increased, not decreased. And yet, God is not blind. He is oblivious to what is happening on the life-sustaining planet He created. He is well aware of the sorry state of things on earth, and one day He is going to deal with it. All that Isaiah predicts in these verses will take place. And the book of Revelation reveals the details concerning the coming day of God’s judgment on sinful mankind.

In his vision, given to Him by God, John sees a time when God’s wrath will take the form of famine, widespread disease, civil unrest, earthquakes, and bizarre cosmic disturbances. Ane while we may see signs of those things already happening, their quantity and intensity will be like nothing we have ever experienced before. Not only that, there will be strange, inexplicable phenomena taking place that will clearly reveal that God is the cause behind all that is happening. The seas will be turned to blood. The drinking water will become bitter and poisonous. The primary crops for making bread will be destroyed. Starvation will be widespread. Civil unrest will be worldwide, not localized.

And as if all that is not enough, God will unleash demonic activity on the earth like nothing anyone has ever seen or experienced before. People will suffer and die at the hands of demons. But before we express sorrow and regret over this sad state of affairs, look at what John records.

But the people who did not die in these plagues still refused to repent of their evil deeds and turn to God. They continued to worship demons and idols made of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood—idols that can neither see nor hear nor walk! And they did not repent of their murders or their witchcraft or their sexual immorality or their thefts.  – Revelation 9:20-21 NLT

No repentance. No remorse. In spite of all that God brings upon them in terms of His divine judgment, they remain stubbornly unrepentant. They will cling to their false gods and continue to snub their noses at the one true God.

And the bleak picture that Isaiah paints is a prophetic glimpse into this future time of God’s judgment. It has not yet arrived, but it will. And while the vivid descriptions of its outcome may leave us confused and confounded, the psalmist would have us rejoice. Because God’s coming judgment is a sign of His sovereignty over the earth. He will one day make all things right. He will restore His creation to its former glory. He will rid the world of sin once and for all.

Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice!
    Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise!
Let the fields and their crops burst out with joy!
    Let the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the Lord, for he is coming!
    He is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with justice,
    and the nations with his truth. – Psalm 96:11-13 NLT

Justice will prevail, because God is a just and holy God. He will step into His creation and reclaim His rightful place as God. And all the world will one day acknowledge Him for who He is: The one true God.

Let all the world look to me for salvation!
    For I am God; there is no other.
I have sworn by my own name;
    I have spoken the truth,
    and I will never go back on my word:
Every knee will bend to me,
    and every tongue will declare allegiance to me. – Isaiah 45:22-23 NLT

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

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

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

The Destruction of the Destroyer.

Woe to Assyria, the rod of my anger;
    the staff in their hands is my fury!
Against a godless nation I send him,
    and against the people of my wrath I command him,
to take spoil and seize plunder,
    and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.
But he does not so intend,
    and his heart does not so think;
but it is in his heart to destroy,
    and to cut off nations not a few;
for he says:
“Are not my commanders all kings?
Is not Calno like Carchemish?
    Is not Hamath like Arpad?
    Is not Samaria like Damascus?
10 As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols,
    whose carved images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria,
11 shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols
    as I have done to Samaria and her images?” 

12 When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes. 13 For he says:

“By the strength of my hand I have done it,
    and by my wisdom, for I have understanding;
I remove the boundaries of peoples,
    and plunder their treasures;
    like a bull I bring down those who sit on thrones.
14 My hand has found like a nest
    the wealth of the peoples;
and as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken,
    so I have gathered all the earth;
and there was none that moved a wing
    or opened the mouth or chirped.”

15 Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it,
    or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it?
As if a rod should wield him who lifts it,
    or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood!
16 Therefore the Lord God of hosts
    will send wasting sickness among his stout warriors,
and under his glory a burning will be kindled,
    like the burning of fire.
17 The light of Israel will become a fire,
    and his Holy One a flame,
and it will burn and devour
    his thorns and briers in one day.
18 The glory of his forest and of his fruitful land
    the Lord will destroy, both soul and body,
    and it will be as when a sick man wastes away.
19 The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few
    that a child can write them down. Isaiah 10:5-19 ESV

God’s ways are not our ways. His actions are not always understandable by us. In fact, there are times when, from our vantage point, the ways of God appear unjust or unfair. We can read many of the accounts recorded in Scripture and wonder how a loving God can act so harshly, even to His own people. When confronted with stories like the flood that wiped out an entire generation of people, we can end up questioning His goodness. And, of course, His command to the people of Israel to eliminate all the nations occupying the land of Canaan is particularly difficult for us to reconcile with our belief in an all-loving and merciful God.

And, as today’s passage so clearly portrays, there were times when God used the pagan nations to punish His chosen people, then turned around and punished the very ones He used for their actions. It sounds so capricious and temperamental. God comes across more as a tyrant than a loving and gracious sovereign. But our perspective is limited by our vantage point. We see things only from our earth-bound and man-focused point of view. So, we must be careful in judging God or indicting Him based on a limited understanding of His will or His ways. As Moses so eloquently and accurately stated:

He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect. Everything he does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright he is! – Deuteronomy 32:4 NLT

In today’s passage, we find God describing the nation of Assyria as “the rod of my anger” and “a club to express my anger” (Isaiah 10:5 NLT). He will use them to punish Judah, His own chosen people, whom He describes as “a godless nation.” God will utilize Assyria like a workman uses a tool to accomplish a task. He will go on to compare Assyria to an ax or a saw, a rod or a wooden cane. These instruments are lifeless and incapable of accomplishing anything of significance apart from the one who picks them up and puts them to work according to his will.

But God makes it clear that the king of Assyria “will not understand that he is my tool; his mind does not work that way” (Isaiah 10:7 NLT). His own pride and arrogance will not allow him to see himself as an unwilling instrument in the hands of a sovereign God. From his perspective, his actions will be according to his own will. He will attack Judah because he wants to, not because God has sovereignly ordained it.

His plan is simply to destroy,
    to cut down nation after nation. – Isaiah 10:7 NLT

He will be doing what he wants to do, unaware that his actions are part of the sovereign will of God. In attacking Judah and Jerusalem, he will be doing what he has always done. He will be following a well-established strategy that had resulted in the defeats of other nations. He will not recognize the hand of God in this victory any more than he had in all the others. In fact, he arrogantly boasts:

So we will defeat Jerusalem and her gods,
    just as we destroyed Samaria with hers. – Isaiah 10:11 NLT

Little did the king of Assyria know or understand that his coming victory over Judah would be God’s doing and not his own. His success would be God-ordained, not the result of his own strategic thinking or military might. But that will not be how he sees it.

“By my own powerful arm I have done this.
    With my own shrewd wisdom I planned it.
I have broken down the defenses of nations
    and carried off their treasures.
    I have knocked down their kings like a bull.
I have robbed their nests of riches
    and gathered up kingdoms as a farmer gathers eggs.
No one can even flap a wing against me
    or utter a peep of protest.” – Isaiah 10:13-14 NLT

And yet, God makes it perfectly clear that, when the Assyrians have completed the task He has set out for them, He will turn His judgment against them. He will punish them for their role in the destruction of His people – even though He is the one who ordained it.

After the Lord has used the king of Assyria to accomplish his purposes on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, he will turn against the king of Assyria and punish him—for he is proud and arrogant. – Isaiah 10:12 NLT

Yes, God would use Assyria to punish godless Judah, but their actions would not be against their will. The king of Assyria, like the people over whom he ruled, would be acting in keeping with his nature. He was proud and arrogant. He was power hungry and convinced of his own invincibility. And God would use the king of Assyria’s pride-filled ambition like a workman wielding a sharpened ax. But unlike a lifeless, inanimate ax, the king of Assyria would boast in his accomplishments, taking full credit for the destruction of Jerusalem. But God points out the absurdity of this kind of arrogance in the face of His sovereign will.

But can the ax boast greater power than the person who uses it?
    Is the saw greater than the person who saws?
Can a rod strike unless a hand moves it?
    Can a wooden cane walk by itself? – Isaiah 10:15 NLT

And God goes on to describe the ramifications for Assyria’s part in the fall of Judah. God would punish them, not because they did exactly what He ordained them to do, but because they did it joyfully and with no recognition of His hand in it. They acted arrogantly and willingly in all that they did. So, He warns them that their punishment would be severe. He threatens them with a plague among their all-powerful troops. He predicts the destruction of their once-glorious army. As the Holy One and the Light of Israel, He would consume them as easily as fire destroys thorns and briers. The once great nation of Assyria would be destroyed in a single night.

The Lord will consume Assyria’s glory
    like a fire consumes a forest in a fruitful land;
    it will waste away like sick people in a plague.
Of all that glorious forest, only a few trees will survive—
    so few that a child could count them! – Isaiah 10:18-19 NLT

This pattern is repeated all throughout the Scriptures – all the way to the book of Revelation. God will use the Antichrist to bring judgment on the world, then cast him into hell for his efforts. In the end, God will unleash demonic hordes on humanity to torment and kill them. But, after their work is done, God will cast them and Satan into hell for all eternity.

We may not understand the ways of God. We may not even like the ways of God. But as God will point out much later on in the book of Isaiah:

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
    “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so my ways are higher than your ways
    and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:8-9 NLT

His ways are always right and just. His divine will is always perfect and His actions are never in error or motivated by injustice or unrighteousness. That may be difficult for us to comprehend, but our inability to understand God’s ways does not diminish God’s character. Our limited perspective may not allow us to fully grasp the ways of our unlimited, all-powerful God, but rather than question His goodness, we should find comfort in the fact that He is in complete control of any and all things.

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

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

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

Faith in, Not Fear of the Unknown.

1 Cast your bread upon the waters,
    for you will find it after many days.
Give a portion to seven, or even to eight,
    for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.
If the clouds are full of rain,
    they empty themselves on the earth,
and if a tree falls to the south or to the north,
    in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie.
He who observes the wind will not sow,
    and he who regards the clouds will not reap.

As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.

In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good. Ecclesiastes 11:1-6 ESV

 

As Solomon begins to wrap up his book, he returns to a theme he has addressed before: The uncertainty of the future and man’s inability to discern what the future may hold. To a certain degree, Solomon finds himself between a rock and a hard place. He has discovered that there is nothing in this life that really brings true joy and meaningful satisfaction. He has tried it all. He is wise beyond belief. He has wealth beyond measure. He has experimented with every imaginable form of pleasure and self-gratification. And none of it has brought any sense of purpose or fulfillment. He describes it as little more than chasing the wind, like trying to catch smoke in your hands. So, his less-than-optimistic conclusion has been that, chasing after all the physical stuff you can see and touch is ultimately an exercise in futility. Wine, women and song are not enough. Palaces, gardens, vast orchards and fruitful vineyards can not produce contentment. Enough is never enough. Life, even with all its pleasure-producing pursuits, ends in death. And that raises the other distressing issue for Solomon: Nobody knows what happens next. Death is a like a door behind which lies a foreboding and forbidden future. Only God knows what lies behind its closed and locked door. So, there is futility in life and uncertainty in death. All the way back in chapter nine, Solomon shared his somewhat pessimistic view of the future.

It seems so wrong that everyone under the sun suffers the same fate. Already twisted by evil, people choose their own mad course, for they have no hope. There is nothing ahead but death anyway. There is hope only for the living. As they say, “It’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion!” – Ecclesiastes 9:3-4 NLT

For Solomon, death was an unknown. But life, in spite of its inherent problems and potential risks, was at least something you could remotely impact. Which is what led him to share the proverbial statements found in the opening part of this chapter. There are certain rewards that come as a result of living life. Solomon was a horticulturalist. He had many vineyards and orchards. As king, he had thousands of acres of crops that produced abundant harvests used to feed his people or fill his treasury through export. And he acknowledges that if you “cast your bread upon the waters”, it will eventually come back to you. In other words, if you export your grain in ships and sell it to other nations, you will eventually reap a financial reward. Your diligence to plant and harvest will come back in the form of profit.

And when you make that profit, invest it wisely and diversely. In other words, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Give a portion to seven, or even to eight,
    for you know not what disaster may happen on earth. – Ecclesiastes 11:2 ESV

Diversification makes for a good investment strategy. You don’t want to have all your wealth in one place, because you never know what may happen. Disasters come. The market can drop like a rock. Be prudent. Invest wisely. 

And take advantage of the opportunities as they present themselves.

If the clouds are full of rain,
    they empty themselves on the earth – Ecclesiastes 11:3 ESV

Learn to read the signs. Plant in a timely fashion. If you misread the clouds, you may fail to plant before the rains come. If you procrastinate, you’ll miss the window of opportunity. Once again, Solomon is encouraging prudence and wisdom. You may not be able to control the future, but you can take advantage of the present situation. Plant before the rain, not after it. And don’t let the threat of storms keep you from doing what you know needs to be done. Conditions will rarely be perfect in this life. There will be few times when the stars align and the circumstances turn out just as you had hoped. Don’t delay. Yet, some of us seem to live by the tongue-in-cheek advice of Mark Twain: “Never put off till tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well.”

Solomon would strongly disagree with Mr. Twain, instead sharing the insight he gained from years of living and working on this planet: “Farmers who wait for perfect weather never plant. If they watch every cloud, they never harvest” (Ecclesiastes 11:4 NLT). If you fail to take advantage of the moment, it may just pass you by. Which is what he seems to be inferring when he says, “if a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie” (Ecclesiastes 11:3 ESV). In other words, what’s done is done. Once the tree has fallen, you can’t plant it back in the ground. Once the rain has fallen, it makes no sense to plant. If you wait for everything to be just right, you’ll never accomplish anything.

At the end of the day, life is full of mysteries and inexplicable situations. Even with all the advancements in science, we still don’t know exactly how a baby forms in the womb of its mother. We can watch the progress through the use of sonograms, but we can’t see or explain how God has ordained the process of birth, from the moment of conception all the way to delivery. Even with all our technology and scientific know-how, much of it is still hidden from us. Solomon was wise enough to know that he would never understand the ways of God. There are things that happen in life which only God can explain, and He is not obligated to share all that He knows with us. He often leaves us in the dark, wrestling with our questions and struggling to understand His ways.

The bottom line for Solomon was to work wisely and diligently. Start sowing your seed in the morning and don’t stop until the sun goes down. Do what you can do and then leave the rest up to God. You don’t know what kind of outcome your efforts will produce. But rather than worry about it, do what you can to impact that outcome positively. Work hard. Be diligent. Act wisely. Use common sense. Don’t procrastinate. In some sense, Solomon is promoting the idea behind the old adage, “make hay while the sun shines.” None of us knows how long we have on this earth. But God does. And since He chooses not to divulge the length of our days, we should do all that we can to make the most of the days we have. Moses put it this way: “Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom” (Psalm 90:12 NLT).

Solomon’s own father, David, put it this way:

Lord, remind me how brief my time on earth will be.
    Remind me that my days are numbered—
    how fleeting my life is.
You have made my life no longer than the width of my hand.
    My entire lifetime is just a moment to you;
    at best, each of us is but a breath.” – Psalm 39:4-5 NLT

Death is an inevitable reality for all of us. David died. So did Solomon. And so will you. You can attempt to prolong your life. But God already knows your expiration date. Solomon would recommend that you spend more time enjoying the life you have, rather than futility chasing after the life you don’t have. Find joy in today, rather than wasting time pursuing a tomorrow that may never come.

But more importantly, for those of us who are believers in Jesus Christ, we have no need to worry about the future, because it has already been taken care of for us. Our future is secure. Our eternity is set. So, we are free to live our lives free from anxiety, focusing our efforts on doing the work for which God has created us.

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. – Ephesians 2:10 NLT

Solomon had an inordinate fear of the future. He let the uncertainty of death rob him of peace. He found himself forced to find all his joy and satisfaction in this life, using the limited resources of this life. Occasionally, he caught glimpses of the blessings of God in the form of a loving relationship or the fruit of his labor. He was able to enjoy a good meal with a close friend, or a deep sleep after a hard day’s labor. But he lived with an unhealthy fear of the unknown. He had lived his whole life pursuing more, but the one thing he really needed was faith.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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

Take Courage.

21 Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul stood up among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. 22 Yet now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. 23 For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, 24 and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ 25 So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. 26 But we must run aground on some island.”

27 When the fourteenth night had come, as we were being driven across the Adriatic Sea, about midnight the sailors suspected that they were nearing land. 28 So they took a sounding and found twenty fathoms. A little farther on they took a sounding again and found fifteen fathoms. 29 And fearing that we might run on the rocks, they let down four anchors from the stern and prayed for day to come. 30 And as the sailors were seeking to escape from the ship, and had lowered the ship’s boat into the sea under pretense of laying out anchors from the bow, 31 Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” 32 Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the ship’s boat and let it go.

33 As day was about to dawn, Paul urged them all to take some food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have continued in suspense and without food, having taken nothing. 34 Therefore I urge you to take some food. For it will give you strength, for not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.” 35 And when he had said these things, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat. 36 Then they all were encouraged and ate some food themselves. 37 (We were in all 276 persons in the ship.) 38 And when they had eaten enough, they lightened the ship, throwing out the wheat into the sea. Acts 27:21-38 ESV

pauls-journey-to-rome

Earlier in the voyage. Paul had warned the ship’s officers of a bad premonition he had regarding the outcome of their voyage if they proceeded. And Paul had minced no words, saying, “I believe there is trouble ahead if we go on—shipwreck, loss of cargo, and danger to our lives as well” (Acts 27:10 NLT). But the soldier in charge of Paul and the rest of the prisoners on board had listened to the advice of the ship’s captain and crew, who had all agreed to keep sailing, in search of a safer port. Now, they found themselves in a predicament. They had sailed for days in violent seas, their ship battered by the waves and wind. The storm was so intense that it blocked out the sun during the day, thrusting Paul and his 275 shipmates into a perpetual state of darkness. For days on end, the sailors had battled the storm, unable to eat or sleep, and Luke indicates that they finally abandoned all hope. 

But in the heat of the storm, Paul addressed the crew, reminding them that they should have heeded his initial advice. All that he had predicted had come true, and now they were on the brink of disaster. Things were out of their control. They had done all they could do, but the storm had proven too great and their attempts to save themselves, too small. Yet, this wasn’t a case of Paul telling them, “I told you so.” He wasn’t rubbing their noses in their failure to heed his advice. He was letting them know that His God was greater than the storm.

22 “But take courage! None of you will lose your lives, even though the ship will go down. 23 For last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me, 24 and he said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Paul, for you will surely stand trial before Caesar! What’s more, God in his goodness has granted safety to everyone sailing with you.’ 25 So take courage! For I believe God. It will be just as he said. 26 But we will be shipwrecked on an island.” – Acts 27:22-26 NLT

Right in the middle of what was probably the worst storm any of these sea-hardened sailors had ever experienced, Paul stood up and told them to take courage. He encouraged them not to fear. Can you imagine how ludicrous his words must have sounded to those men? Here was some Jewish prisoner and landlubber, attempting to calm their fears and assure them that none of them would die. All would turn out well. And, even more incredibly, this man was basing his words on a dream he had received from his God.

Paul had faith, and his faith would prove contagious. He had heard from God and he believed what he had been told. So, he told the men, “euthymeō” – take courage. They were to be of good cheer. Now think about what Paul was saying. The storm was still raging. The waves were still crashing against the side of the boat. The rain was still pouring down. The noise must have been deafening. But Paul was telling them to take courage and he clearly stated why they should. “For I believe God. It will be just as he said” (Acts 27:25 NLT). Paul trusted God. Even in the midst of the storm. Nothing had changed. Their circumstances had not improved. Paul was telling them to trust a God they didn’t know and couldn’t see, while everything was crashing down around them. Paul had learned not to focus his attention on immediate circumstances. What was happening around them was not proof of what was going to happen to them. While they had abandoned all hope, they had not been abandoned by God, and Paul told them as much. “God in his goodness has granted safety to everyone sailing with you” (Acts 27:24 NLT).

This story reminds me of a poem written in 1774 by William Cowper.  

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sov’reign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow’r.

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.

All the sailors could see was the storm raging around them. They were drenched from the incessant rain and weakened from going for days without food. They had lost all hope. They had probably called out to their various gods, begging for salvation. They had thought about their wives and children at home and the likelihood of never seeing them again. They had exhausted all their mental and physical resources trying to save themselves. And now, Paul was telling them that his God had everything under control. They would be safe. There would be a shipwreck, but not a single man would be lost.

As the storm progressed, the sailors determined that their best hope of salvation was to abandon ship. Under the pretext of setting out additional anchors to keep the ship from running aground on the rocks, these men attempted to lower the ship’s skiff or lifeboat. But Paul warned the guards who were watching he and the other prisoners, that if the sailors did not stay on board, everyone would die. So, the soldiers cut the ropes to the lifeboat, allowing it to drift away in the storm. Now, they had to trust God. There were no other options. For the sailors, the lifeboat had become an idol, a false hope of salvation. But Paul knew that it would have failed them. They would not have survived the storm in a boat so small. Their best hope for salvation was to remain in the ship and under the watchful care of God Almighty. But their actions reflect those of every human being who, when caught in the storms of life, attempts to find a way out. They seek a way of salvation and escape. Rather than place their trust in a God they can’t see, they rely on something more tangible in nature. When the Israelites had been set free from slavery in Egypt and found themselves in the wilderness, they began to wonder about this God of Moses. While Moses was up on the mountain talking to God, the people determined to make their own god, an idol made of precious metal. They sought to create a god of their own making, something they could see. Their leader had disappeared. He had gone to the top of the mountain and they had assumed he was not returning. And the God that had rescued them seemed to have bailed on them. So, they took matters into their own hands and fabricated their own source of salvation.

Paul wanted everyone to know that the best course of action was to remain right where they were. They were to stay on the boat, not to abandon ship. What they believed was going to be the source of their death, would actually play a vital role in their salvation. They were going to have to trust Paul, who had placed his trust in God. And Paul was so confident, that he encouraged the men to eat so that they could regain their strength, assuring them, “For not a hair of your heads will perish” (Acts 27:34 NLT). Then, Luke tells us, “everyone was encouraged and began to eat—all 276 of us who were on board” (Acts 27:36-37 NLT). The faith of Paul had infected the entire ship. When everyone else on board had abandoned hope and the sailors had tried to abandon ship, Paul had remained confident in the faithfulness of God. Instead of fear, he had exhibited faith. When everyone else was panicking, he was trusting. While the crew had grown weak and abandoned all hope, Paul had remained strong. He was exhibiting the very characteristics he had encouraged the Corinthians to have. “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (1 Corinthians 16:13 ESV). And his courage had made an impact on all those around him.

 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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

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

To Caesar You Shall Go.

1 Now three days after Festus had arrived in the province, he went up to Jerusalem from Caesarea. And the chief priests and the principal men of the Jews laid out their case against Paul, and they urged him, asking as a favor against Paul that he summon him to Jerusalem—because they were planning an ambush to kill him on the way. Festus replied that Paul was being kept at Caesarea and that he himself intended to go there shortly. “So,” said he, “let the men of authority among you go down with me, and if there is anything wrong about the man, let them bring charges against him.”

After he stayed among them not more than eight or ten days, he went down to Caesarea. And the next day he took his seat on the tribunal and ordered Paul to be brought. When he had arrived, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many and serious charges against him that they could not prove. Paul argued in his defense, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense.” But Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, said to Paul, “Do you wish to go up to Jerusalem and there be tried on these charges before me?” 10 But Paul said, “I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you yourself know very well. 11 If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.” 12 Then Festus, when he had conferred with his council, answered, “To Caesar you have appealed; to Caesar you shall go.” Acts 25:1-12 ESV

Paul had been held in what amounts to a state of suspended animation for two years by the governor, Felix. A trial had been held, but no decision made. No clear charges had been brought against Paul worthy of his execution, but, rather than release Paul and face the wrath of the Jewish leadership, and a potential riot by the Jewish people, Felix had chosen to leave Paul in Roman custody. Somewhere around 57 A.D., the emperor Nero recalled Felix and replaced him with Porcius Festus, the former procurator of Palestine. He became the new governor of the province of Syria, which included Judea and, therefore, the city of Jerusalem. Luke indicates that three days after having arrived in Caesarea, Festus made a trip to Jerusalem and met with the chief priest and other religious leaders of the Jews, most likely referring to the Sanhedrin or high council, the very same group who had brought charges against Paul two years earlier. The Jews brought Festus up to speed on their complaints against Paul and even begged him to allow them to conduct a trial on their home turf, which would have required that Paul be transferred from Caesarea to Jerusalem. Once again, they had an ulterior and sinister motive, They intended to have Paul ambushed and murdered along the way. Two years earlier, there had been more than 40 men who had vowed to neither eat or drink anything until they fulfilled their pact to put Paul to death. Their plot had been exposed and had resulted in Paul being transferred under Roman armed guard to Caesarea. Obviously, these men had been forced to break their fast, but their hatred for Paul had never diminished. It seems that they were more than willing to renew their vow and recommit themselves to Paul’s destruction when given the opportunity.

But Festus refused the Sanhedrin’s request, instead demanding that they bring a delegation to Caesarea, where he would conduct yet another trial so that he could hear the specifics of the case for himself. This at least reveals that Festus was going to give Paul a fair hearing, rather than simply turn him over to the Jews to do with as they saw fit. Festus most likely had looked into the case enough to have known that Paul was a Roman citizen and, therefore, according to law, deserving of a fair trial.

About a week later, the Jews arrived in Caesarea, and the trial was begun. Once again, the Jews had come prepared to paint Paul in the worst possible light. In fact, Luke records that “the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many and serious charges against him” (Acts 25:7 ESV), but he also states that they had no proof. Their charges were all fabricated and fictitious. And when Paul was given a chance to defend himself, he simply stated, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense” (Acts 25:8 ESV). Now, it seems obvious that there was much more to this trial than Luke records. But it was likely a repeat of all that had been said in the trial that had taken place two years earlier before Felix. And there would have been court records from that previous trial to which Festus had access. At this point in his chronicle, Luke doesn’t appear interested in providing a word-for-word record of all that was said in the trial, but in showing that nothing had changed. Two years had passed, but the facts remained the same. The Jews were determined to see Paul put to death, and Paul was convinced of his own innocence.

Now, at this point, we see the political nature of the situation. Festus was a new governor, appointed by the emperor, Nero. He wanted to make a good impression. And, as the former procurator of Palestine, Festus was well acquainted with the volatile nature of the Jewish situation. He also knew that Rome preferred peace over rioting and insurrection, so, seeing an opportunity to throw the Jews a bone and give in to their request to have Paul tried in Jerusalem, he broached the idea with Paul. As a Roman citizen, Paul had a say in the matter and it is clear that Paul knew his rights. He responded to the governor’s request boldly and clearly:

10 “No! This is the official Roman court, so I ought to be tried right here. You know very well I am not guilty of harming the Jews. 11 If I have done something worthy of death, I don’t refuse to die. But if I am innocent, no one has a right to turn me over to these men to kill me. I appeal to Caesar!” – Acts 25:10-11 NLT

There is no indication in the text that Paul had been directed by the Spirit of God to demand a trial before Caesar. It would appear that Paul knew there was still the likelihood of a plot against his life, and he was doubtful that a trial in the city of Jerusalem, where hatred against him was high, would result in a fair and unbiased outcome. Paul was a Roman citizen and knew his rights. He also knew he was innocent and that his hopes of receiving a fair and unprejudiced trial would be under Roman jurisdiction, even if that meant he had to travel all the way to Rome. One of the things that should strike us is that Paul’s Roman citizenship plays a huge factor in this entire portion of Paul’s life story. Had he not been a Roman citizen, he would never have made it out of Jerusalem alive. The Roman tribune who had rescued him two years earlier from the Jewish mob that had been trying to beat him to death in the temple courtyard, would have flogged Paul and allowed him to undergo trial by the Jews. He would never have sent Paul to Felix for trial. And whether we recognize it or not, Paul’s citizenship was part of God’s sovereign will over Paul’s life. Paul was born in Tarsus, not by chance, but because of the preordained plan of God. Paul would state as much in his letter to the church in Galatia: “But even before I was born, God chose me and called me by his marvelous grace” (Galatians 1:15 NLT). God had chosen Paul. God had determined the time and place of his birth, and the parents to whom he would be born. Paul’s Roman citizenship was not a coincidence or some form of blind luck. It was a part of God’s plan for Paul’s life and, more importantly, for God’s predetermined plan to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth. Paul was appealing to go to Caesar, to stand before the most powerful man in the world at that time, and he had the right to do so. Not only that, he had the God-ordained responsibility to do so.

And, after conferring with his counselors, Festus announced to Paul: “To Caesar you have appealed; to Caesar you shall go” (Acts 25:12 ESV). After a two-year delay, Paul was going to see his dream of going to Rome fulfilled. But it would not be exactly as he had imagined it. Paul had longed to visit Rome for some time. He had a deep desire to minister to the congregation of believers who had formed there. A year or two earlier, Paul had written a letter to the church in Rome, while he was in the city of Corinth, and he had told them:

God knows how often I pray for you. Day and night I bring you and your needs in prayer to God, whom I serve with all my heart by spreading the Good News about his Son.

10 One of the things I always pray for is the opportunity, God willing, to come at last to see you. 11 For I long to visit you so I can bring you some spiritual gift that will help you grow strong in the Lord. 12 When we get together, I want to encourage you in your faith, but I also want to be encouraged by yours. – Romans 1:9-12 NLT

Now, Paul was going to get his prayer answered. Not in a way that he would have imagined or even desired, but according to God’s sovereign will. He was going to get to minister to the believers in Rome, as a prisoner. And while in Rome, Paul would write four of his other letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Paul’s stay in Rome would end up providing him with time to minister and to put his thoughts in writing, ultimately providing the universal church with the vast majority of the content that makes up the New Testament. God had a plan for Paul. He had a purpose for the life of Paul. And that plan included a trip to Rome.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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