Monday 27 August 2012

The gates of Zion (Isaiah 3-4)

In this week’s study of Isaiah Chapters 3 to 4, we find God speaking to the men and women of Zion, confronting each gender with their respective struggles and sins, in terms that each could understand. It was picture language of course, as much of what God said to the men applied to the women as well, and vice versa. But as we learned in the previous chapters of Isaiah, identifying the idols of our hearts - the things which draw us away from loving God - is a tricky thing. It can be a very painful thing.

How does God do this? He speaks to our deepest and darkest fears. In this passage we keep meeting the phrase, “In that day.... in that day.” It was a day of judgement, when God would pour out his anger on our sin. It was a day when our deepest fears become reality. But you see, it would also be a day, when God can finally do his work of salvation in us - not by taking away our dreams but fulfilling them more wonderfully than we could ever imagine.

When men are no longer men

What is the nightmare scenario for men? To lose control. Men are terrified of looking weak and incompetent. Even when we know we are not up to the job, we still try to put on a show or we pass the buck to someone else under the guise of humility.

You see, the deepest worry of every man is not losing his job. It’s not losing all his money. No, the nightmare is this: to have a job that comes with all of the perks - the office, the car, the business cards - but to be absolutely useless. People are kow-towing to you in the hallways, but you know that they’re making jokes at your expense behind your back.

Isaiah Chapter 3 begins with God stripping the city of all its men - all its strong men, all its influential men, all its political leaders, all the intelligentsia - leaving behind children. “And I will make boys their princes, and infants shall rule over them.” (Isaiah 3:4) By that Isaiah does not literally mean kids and teenagers. No, these are childish men. Men who are good at pointing all the problems but never the solutions. Men who are only concerned with their own needs, not the needs of others. Isaiah gives us a picture - a dialogue - between two such men.

For a man will take hold of his brother
in the house of his father, saying:
“You have a cloak;
you shall be our leader,
and this heap of ruins
shall be under your rule”;
in that day he will speak out, saying:
“I will not be a healer;
in my house there is neither bread nor cloak;
you shall not make me
leader of the people.”
Isaiah 3:6-7

Here are two brothers living in their dad’s house, shifting the responsibility to one another. “You deal with this mess,” one says. “No, it’s not my mess, you take care of it!” the other replies. Look at the reasons why. The first guy says to his brother, “You have a cloak.” What he is saying is, “You look the part.” A lot of us do this, even though we know superficial it is to choose our leaders based on their appearances, we still want the pastor with the PhD. We still want the CEO who went to Cambridge. We want the guy with the cloak.

But then look at the brother’s response, “In my house there is neither bread nor cloak.” What is he saying? In part, its, “I’m not qualified,” which kinda sounds humble. But in reality he is telling his brother that he needs a real job. He doesn’t have bread. He needs a real job that will pay him enough to feed himself. He’s got his own problems and he doesn’t have time to solve the problems of others.

Here is a picture of judgement for men - and notice, it’s not fire and brimstone. It’s worse than that. It is the loss of control. Its that frustration of only being able to see the problems, never the solution. Its that dreadful feeling of uselessness and worthlessness that makes you feel like less than a man. That is God’s judgement on these men: he strips them of their manhood. The real question is why? We can understand judgement as wrath and anger and pain - though you might disagree with that - at least that makes sense. But why does God judge men in this peculiar way? Because sin means stripping God of his godhood.

For Jerusalem has stumbled,
and Judah has fallen,
because their speech and their deeds are against the Lord,
defying his glorious presence
For the look on their faces bears witness against them;
they proclaim their sin like Sodom;
they do not hide it.
Woe to them!
For they have brought evil on themselves.
Isaiah 3:8-9

The expression in verse 9, “the look on their faces,” is similar to when we say in Cantonese, “Pei Min,” or “Give face.” That is these men were giving face to one another, acknowledging each other’s status and achievements, all the while, ignoring God. The picture here is of men and women sinning against God, but more than that, living their lives independent of God. They couldn’t care less what God thought of their deed and actions. “They proclaim their sin like Sodom, they do not hide it.” This is the essence of sin: rebellion. God is no longer our ruler. God has no say, no significance and no control over our lives. I hope you realise that when sin is defined in this way, it doesn’t just mean doing bad things - stealing, lying and cheating - but this means we can look quite respectable on the outside and still be rebelling against God in our hearts. Sin means I get to call the shots; I am the boss of me.

God says one day he will remove all the men of influence and expose sin for what it is: the futile attempt of settings ourselves up as mini-gods. If you look back to the list of leaders in the beginning of the chapter, you see there, amongst the elders and leaders - the soothsayer and the clever enchanter. Meaning, the men that the people of Jerusalem looked to for leadership and inspiration were not simply strong, smart and sexy - they were pagan worshippers who led God’s people away from God. Such that, when God finally removes these men from leadership, it never crosses their minds to turn to God. What do they do? They turn to one another. The man says to his brother, “You take their place.” The men still want to be in control. Even in the face of disaster; even in the face of desperation, it never crosses their minds to repent of their self-sufficiency, to turn to God, to ask for help.

Man’s desire is always to dominate at all costs. They must always have the remote control (even though they can never decide what’s good on TV). They must keep driving on ahead at full speed (even though the GPS tells them they’re way off track). God says to these childish men, one day they will be stripped of their dominion, for it is God who gave them their dominion in the first place. For it is God who entrusted dominion into their hands in the first place, not for personal gain, not for personal glory, but for God’s glory. And one day, even the most stubborn man will have to acknowledge that he is not lord of all, God is.

Man’s desire is always to dominate, but next, Isaiah speaks to the women, whose deepest desire is to be desired.

When women are no longer women

The Lord said:
Because the daughters of Zion are haughty
and walk with outstretched necks,
glancing wantonly with their eyes,
mincing along as they go,
tinkling with their feet,
therefore the Lord will strike with a scab
the heads of the daughters of Zion,
and the Lord will lay bare their secret parts.
Isaiah 3:16-17

If every man wants to be the boss, Isaiah reveals to us that every woman wants to be beautiful. If the worst nightmare for men is that one day, they will lose all control over their lives, then the deepest fears for any woman is that one day, she will no longer be loved. God says to the women of Zion, that day will come when you will be stripped of all your articles of beauty. Why? Because for these women, it wasn’t enough to be beautiful. They wanted to be noticed. Or put it another way, beauty was no longer the end but a means to an end. Everything about the way that they dressed, even they way that they walked, said, “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!” The women of Zion used their feminine beauty as a tool to gain prominence, attention, worship.

In that day the Lord will take away the finery of the anklets, the headbands, and the crescents; the pendants, the bracelets, and the scarves; the headdresses, the armlets, the sashes, the perfume boxes, and the amulets; the signet rings and nose rings; the festal robes, the mantles, the cloaks, and the handbags; the mirrors, the linen garments, the turbans, and the veils.
Isaiah 3:18-23

Now the application of these verses is not: Women can’t wear makeup or that girls can’t wear jewellery or nice clothes. That’s not the point. Please don’t quote me by saying, “Calvin taught us that all the girls must only buy the cheapest, the most worn out and tatty clothes from second-hand shops. Maximum 3.99 pounds!” That is not the application of these verses.

Why does God say that one day he is going to throw out your entire wardrobe? And let’s face it - it’s a pretty long and extensive list. Many of you girls have these very things at home. In your minds, you might be going, “No! Not my Prada shoes!” Nothing is left out of this list, as if to say, every single thing will go. Why does God say this?

Because sisters, as much as you might think that these things make you look more beautiful, they don’t. Not in God’s eyes.

You see, as many times as you might like to look in the mirror and say to yourself, “You’re worth it!” dressed in your finest clothes, with stunning makeup, hair-done up; as much money as you might spend, as much time as you might dedicate to making yourself look stunning; it is nothing compared to having someone else say to you, “You are worth it.”

The most beautiful women in the world can be at the same time, the most insecure. They were the supermodels and catwalk models of their day. They were beautiful, but that wasn’t enough for them. They had to be always beautiful. They had to always be reminded that they were beautiful. And the more attention that they received, the tragic thing was this, the less they believed it. That’s why they needed “accessories.” The handbags, the perfume, the scarves, the headbands, the flowing dresses. These accessories became essential. They might have said, “I’m worth it,” to themselves, but their hearts were saying, “These things are all I’m worth.”

And God says to these women, “The day will come when all your articles of beauty will be stripped away. In fact, on this day of judgement, you won’t even want to put on your makeup. Rather, you will dress yourselves in sackcloth.”

Instead of perfume there will be rottenness;
and instead of a belt, a rope;
and instead of well-set hair, baldness;
and instead of a rich robe, a skirt of sackcloth;
and branding instead of beauty.
Your men shall fall by the sword
and your mighty men in battle.
And her gates shall lament and mourn;
empty, she shall sit on the ground.
Isaiah 3:24-26

Beauty becomes meaningless without the beholder. Loveliness is emptiness when there is no one to love. Why are these women of Zion dressed in sackcloth? Why are their heads shaven? It’s not because someone took their clothes away and shaved their heads; no, it’s because they are in mourning. Their men have fallen by the sword. Their husbands have been killed in battle.

Isaiah says, “Her gates shall lament and mourn.” The whole city is in mourning. The entire city has been stripped of its beauty. The entire city is covered in ashes. She is empty. It is a description of hollowness, worthlessness, even meaninglessness. She sits on the ground. Lifeless.

And seven women shall take hold of one man in that day, saying, “We will eat our own bread and wear our own clothes, only let us be called by your name; take away our reproach.”
Isaiah 4:1

I know there are guys who read this verse and go, “Cool.” It isn’t cool. It is tragic and frankly, humiliating. Seven women chasing after one man (“You can be Monday, You can be Tuesday, You’re Wednesday...”). They don’t say to this man, “Love me. Take care of me. Protect me.” No, these women will look after themselves, they will feed and clothe themselves. But what they say to this man is, “Let us be called by your name.” It is a proposal of marriage.

Guys don’t get this. Mention marriage to a guy and he’s thinking about how much the wedding is going to cost or how cool he is going to look dressing up like James Bond. Girls have been thinking about their wedding day since five. They know what flowers they want to have, which dress they are going to where, what colour tablecloths to get. They’ve thought about the kind of house they are going to live in and how many girls and boys they want to raise. Why? Because the deepest desire in a woman is to be desired, to be cherished. To be loved.

Here we learn that even in the most desperate of times of judgement, even when the only guy available is a loser who can’t provide for these women, who isn’t thinking of their well-being but his own selfish gain - these seven women would still rather be loved by a loser of a husband than not loved at all. “Take away our shame,” they say to him.

Yet notice as well, that earlier, this was the same thing the man was asking of his brother. “Lead us! Take care of this mess!” Don’t you see, Isaiah is not describing two different nightmares but one and the same. Not two situations but the same worst case scenario. They lose their identity. They lose their purpose. They lose control. And they come to the point when they recognise that they can’t look within, they need to find help from outside themselves.

Both men and women recognise a need that they can’t fulfil themselves, and they turn to someone outside to fill that need - whether it is beauty or purpose. And it is here that Isaiah speaks of a day - the same day, in fact - that these men and women of Zion will finally recognise God as the only one who can give them the significance, the worth and the affirmation that they so long for.

The branch of the LORD

In that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honor of the survivors of Israel. And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning.
Isaiah 4:2-4

It’s still Zion, the same place. And it’s still the same people, “the daughters of Zion,” though these are those of remain in Jerusalem, called “the survivors of Zion.” It is even the same day, the Day of the Lord.

But something has dramatically changed. These survivors are now filled with pride and honour. The branch of the LORD is described as beautiful. In case you didn’t get that, these were the two sins of the men and women back in Chapter 3. The men were proud of their strength and prowess and this led them to rebel against God. The women were haughty in their own looks and beauty that wanted more to be worshipped than to worship God. These were the same sins which resulted in judgement on the men and women of Zion. And yet, pride and beauty characterise the new redeemed community in Jerusalem. How can this be so? Because God is at the centre of the city.

Then the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy. There will be a booth for shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.
Isaiah 4:5-6

The word for “canopy” (khupah) is the Hebrew word describing a wedding chamber, or the honeymoon suite, if you like; while “booth” (succoth) means tent, especially reminiscent of the tent of God during the Exodus. Here is a dual image of a wedding and worship. God comes as the true bridegroom of Zion, cleansing her by a spirit of fire and judgement and clothing her with beauty and righteousness. God comes as the redeemer of his people, pouring out forgiveness for their sin, sheltering them from the heat and rain. God saves the men and women in his city in such a way that strips them of the idols of their hearts but at the same time, fills their deepest longings and desires with himself. Zion is fruitful once again, not a heap of ruins. God takes away their shame and calls them by his name: holy.

The question I want to end with is: How do we get this? God’s promises are for Jerusalem, we’re in Cambridge. Isaiah speaks of a future day to come, can we apply this to our lives today?

To answer that, look back to verse 2, because its packed with clues and descriptions. Isaiah calls this new community of God, the branch of the LORD - and that word branch refers to a new family tree, meaning that God will raise a new people. He calls them survivors who “remain in Jerusalem.”

The reason why Christians can look at these words and know with absolute certainty that they have received these promises is because of Jesus, who once turned to his disciples and said to them, “You are the branches.” It was his last conversation with them before going to the cross. Jesus was on a steady course to his death - where he would be humiliated, despised and rejected - but he wanted his disciples to know that through his death, they would receive life; through his humiliation, glory. And Jesus said this:

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you,ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.
John 15:5-8

Jesus says to us, “I am the vine, you are the branches,” and calls us to remain in him. He is calling us to find our deepest satisfaction, our truest joy in nothing else and no one else but him. Apart from Jesus, we wither and die, but in Jesus, we find life, purpose, joy, righteousness, peace. Love. And the reason why Jesus chose to say these words on that day was because that was the day when he would take our shame, our rejection and our sin. On the cross, Jesus took God’s punishment for sin on our behalf. It was the same day and the same event, both judgement from God and salvation through God’s Son, Jesus.

Isaiah was speaking of this day - a day when our deepest fears come to life. God would pour out his full anger for our sin; God will expose the shame of our sin, on this day. Yet, Christians know that on this day, Jesus took the penalty for our sin and offers us forgiveness, reconciliation and life. That is what we see on the cross. That is why we keep coming back to the cross, to see our sin, to see our God, and to see our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
Isaiah 53:4-5

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