Wednesday 5 September 2012

Preaching to the city: A review of Isaiah Chapters 1 to 5

The first five chapters of Isaiah have but one message: judgement. Each chapter is focussed on one specific audience: the people of Jerusalem.

So on the one hand, the topic is hard to take in. On the other, it is easy to assume the message is not for us today - that it’s meant for ancient Israelites or pagan worshippers.

I asked myself: Why does Isaiah spend five whole chapters on a topic either no one wants to hear or everyone thinks is meant for someone else? I used to think it was because his hearers were thick and stubborn; Isaiah kept hammering on about the same things over and over again out of frustration and anger with his friends.

After spending the past month studying these chapters together at the Chinese Church however, I have come to see a different side to the prophet. I think that Isaiah is a man who understands his audience all too well. He understood their diversity - in thought, in age, even in gender. He recognised their depth - in idolatry, in influence and in sin.

Put it like this: the things that a preacher chooses to focus on week by week in his Sunday sermon is not simply a reflection of his audience but often times, a reflection of what he thinks of his audience. Pastors in Cambridge love to preach on Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus; or his encounter with the rich young man. Why? Because they want to reach the students, the professors and the influential. That’s our primary audience here in this city, or so we think. Conversely, Chinese Church pastors rarely let a year go by without preaching another sermon on the prodigal son - an all-time favourite for Lunar New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival - when wayward sons and daughters are encouraged to come home to honour their parents/ their church/ their God.

Isaiah preached judgement. He wasn’t popular but that does not mean that he wasn’t perceptive. Isaiah knew his audience well. Isaiah spoke in such a way that everyone got the message: “This is God’s word speaking to me. This is God’s verdict on my life.” How did he accomplish this? By recognising the depth and diversity of his hearers; the same way we would recognise the depth and diversity of people in a city like Cambridge. He used words that resonated with each generation - past and present. He acknowledged differences between the local and the foreigner. He included both men and women. And he made the connection between our life-goals and our lifestyles. Here is a quick review of what we have learned so far in Isaiah Chapters 1 to 5.

Chapter 1: The past and the present

Isaiah begins by comparing and contrasting the city’s past and present. “Hear, o heavens and give ear, O earth,” is the prophet’s way of evoking Israel’s memory of its past experience in the desert under the leadership of Moses. Moses used the same words (in Deuteronomy 32) calling all of creation to bear witness to God’s word of promise. God had given them freedom from slavery. He had blessed them with a land to call their home. Finally, God had given them his law, which they were to obey as his people.

Isaiah however, recalls these same words to testify against their rebellion against God. “Children I have reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me.” (Isaiah 1:2) In doing so, Isaiah is teaching us an important lesson about sin - it’s not a slip-up. Sin is not one-off. Rather, sin is a way of life lived in continuous rejection of God. Israel had repeatedly rejected God since the time of Moses, and all of creation stood as witnesses to their waywardness.

If their past was characterised by rebellion, then Israel’s present was marked by hypocrisy. “When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts?” (Isaiah 1:12) They were observing all the festivals and traditions as prescribed in the law to the letter, yet God rejected all of their offerings, even their prayers. “When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you.” (Isaiah 1:15) Why? The people of Jerusalem were using worship as a smokescreen. They were using their church attendance as a poor excuse to neglect their obligation to “bring justice to the fatherless (and) plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:17)

The theme of justice (and righteousness) runs through the opening chapters of Isaiah to describe more than simply right action, but rather, right relationship. In essence, to act righteously is to reflect the character of God in generously loving and providing for the weak. The chapter ends with a prophecy foretelling how the city of Zion will be “redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness.” Paradoxically, God will save his people through a single act that will display both his love for them as his chosen people, as well as his judgement upon them as rebels.

Chapter 2: The outsider and the insider

Chapter 2 focuses on the events surrounding the “latter days” - a future final plan predetermined by God that will include both the chosen people of Jerusalem as well as the foreign nations. In a vision, Isaiah describes the foreign pagan nations streaming up the “mountain of the LORD,” saying to one another, “Come, let us go up to...the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways, and that we may walk in his paths.” (Isaiah 1:3) Here were outsiders being brought into the kingdom of God and what drew them to God’s presence was his word - the gospel.

Conversely, the actual house of Jacob - the people of Israel, the insiders who grew up learning about God all their lives in Sunday School - were being called to follow the nations in their pursuit of God (Isaiah 2:5). Sadly, Israel had emulated the nations in a different way - through the worship of idols and pagan gods. “They are full of things from the east and of fortune-tellers like the Philistines... their land is full of idols” (Isaiah 2:6, 8)

The rest of the chapter is given to describing the events of the final day of judgement when God alone is exalted above all the symbols of the pride of men. Faced with the presence of a holy and awesome God, the idol worshippers flee to “the caves of the rocks and the holes of the ground.” (Isaiah 2:19) casting away “their idols of silver and... gold... to the moles and to the bats.” (Isaiah 2:20) In other words, even the most precious idols - silver and gold - become worthless and are thrown out with the trash.

Chapters 3 & 4: The men and the women

Chapters 3 and 4 repackages the same events of the Day of the LORD - God’s final day of judgement - in such a way as to reveal the innermost idols of the men and women of Zion. The way Isaiah exposes the deepest desires of the men and women is interestingly, not by asking them to talk about their hopes and dreams, but by confronting each with their worst nightmares.

For men, our worst nightmare is lose control. Isaiah paints the scenario of God stripping the city of all its leading men, its strong men, its influential men, its smartest men, its honourable men, leaving behind childish men. “I will make boys their princes and infants shall rule over them.” (Isaiah 2:4) One brother passes the buck to the other to clean up the mess, “You have a cloak; you shall be our leader, and this heap of ruins shall be under your rule.” (Isaiah 2:6) No one wants the responsibility, yet every guy in the room is still an expert on what needs fixing.

To the proud women of Zion who flaunt their beauty in order to draw attention to themselves, Isaiah speaks of a day when God will strip away both beauty and the beholder. The anklets, headbands, pendants, bracelets; the Prada, Maybelline and Jimmy Choos - every single item of beauty in their cupboards and dressing tables - will be gone. But that is nothing compared to mourning the loss of their husbands killed in battle. “Your men shall fall by the sword... empty, she shall sit on the ground.” (Isaiah 3:25-26) Beauty becomes meaningless without a beholder. Loveliness becomes emptiness without a beloved.

Yet for all this, the vision of that same day of judgement ends with a promise of glorious salvation. God himself will restore the remnant of Jerusalem and his presence will unmistakably cover the entire city. “For over all the glory there will be a canopy. There will be a booth for shade by day from the heat, and a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.” (Isaiah 4:5-6) Judgement is not the last word in the plan of God, but restoration, fulfilment, joy, beauty, strength, life. And ultimately, Jesus, the branch of the LORD.

Chapter 5: The people and their land

Chapter 5 begins quite unexpectedly, with Isaiah singing a love song that would have caught his friends off-guard. “Ah, a breath of fresh air after all this doom and gloom,” they would have said to themselves. “Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard,” (Isaiah 5:1) Isaiah began. It was a song about a farmer, pouring all his money, time and energy into a plot of land to grow grapes. For all his expense and effort however, the garden yields nothing but wild and stinky grapes. Isaiah reveals his song to be a parable of Israel’s unfaithfulness and unfruitfulness. In the same way that the Beloved looked for good grapes but found only bad, so God “looked for justice, but behold bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry.” (Isaiah 5:7)

Repeatedly, God pronounces a “woe” on the people of Jerusalem. “Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field.” (Isaiah 5:8, see also verses 11, 18, 20, 21 and 22) Each “woe” is a cry of lament. God’s heart is broken to behold the sin of his people. They have spurned his love and rejected his call to repentance.

What is unique in this chapter, compared to the previous four, is how judgement is portrayed from God’s perspective. He sees our sin and knows the true condition of our hearts better than we realise ourselves. Here we get three descriptions of what sin is and does. Firstly, sin is selfishness: we add house to house, degree to degree, job to job - not to provide for others, but to separate ourselves from the riffraff and exalt our personal status. (Isaiah 5:8) Secondly, sin is an addiction that can never be quenched, but leaves us hollow and empty. “Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink.” (Isaiah 5:11) Thirdly, sin is the rejection and deceptive manipulation of God’s word. “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20) “They have rejected the law of the LORD of hosts.” (Isaiah 5:24) For each and every sin, God responds with certain judgement, yet he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:32), lamenting over their hardened rebellion, and calls us to turn from destruction.

Curiously, God’s final words of judgement is reserved not for the people but for their land. “For all this his anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still.” (Isaiah 5:25) He calls forth the nations to bring complete destruction upon the city of Jerusalem, to the extent that “if one looks to the land, behold, darkness and distress, and the light is darkened by its clouds.” (Isaiah 5:30) Why is this? I think that Isaiah is teaching us the full extent of the punishment of sin - something that goes beyond physical death. God judgement is truly seen in the complete removal of his blessing - no more temple, no more city, no more kingdom - not a single trace left of God’s presence in a place which was once the symbol of his elective love. Christians cannot help but recall another incident in the New Testament recording how darkness fell upon the land, just moments before a lone voice cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:45-46) For believers, the last word of God’s judgement is not Hell - as real and certain as it is - but Jesus. On the cross, God displays his full judgement for sin and his divine love for sinners, through the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ on our behalf.

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