The stubborn faithfulness of God

“The former things I declared of old;
they went out from my mouth, and I announced them;
then suddenly I did them, and they came to pass.
Because I know that you are obstinate,
and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass,
I declared them to you from of old, before they came to pass I announced them to you,
lest you should say, ‘My idol did them,
my carved image and my metal image commanded them.’

“You have heard; now see all this; and will you not declare it?
From this time forth I announce to you new things,
hidden things that you have not known.
They are created now, not long ago;
before today you have never heard of them, lest you should say, ‘Behold, I knew them.’
You have never heard, you have never known, from of old your ear has not been opened.
For I knew that you would surely deal treacherously,
and that from before birth you were called a rebel.

“For my name’s sake I defer my anger,
for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you,
that I may not cut you off.
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver;
I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,
for how should my name be profaned?
My glory I will not give to another.

—Isaiah 48:3-11 (ESV)

Israel had a long history of faithlessness to God—it’s what got them taken off into exile—but despite all that, he refused to give up on them. He reminds his people of the many times in the past that he had told them what would happen, and then brought about what he predicted; and look at verses 4-5. Why did he do this? “Because I knew how stubborn you are”! If God had simply done good things for them, would they have given him the credit? No, they would have given the credit as they saw fit, to the idols they themselves had made. God told them what he was going to do before he did it so that they would know who was truly responsible. They could always refuse to admit that knowledge—and sometimes they did; that’s why God has to say, “You’ve heard these things. Won’t you admit them?”—but they would have no excuse and no justification for their refusal.

This is also why he says, “From now on I will tell you of new things, of hidden things unknown to you. They are created now, not long ago; you have not heard of them before today, and so you cannot say, ‘Yes, I knew of them.’” This is the reason, or part of the reason, why God chose to use Cyrus to return the Jews to Israel: because it was a new thing, something he hadn’t done before, and that his people couldn’t and wouldn’t have predicted. It also gave him the opportunity to predict—by name—the appearance and success of someone from a pagan nation, someone who didn’t worship him or even know of his existence, and thus to demonstrate in a new way that he truly is the God of the whole world, the LORD Almighty, not just the God of Israel.

And he does all this despite Israel’s willful refusal to listen. “See,” he says, “I have refined you, but not as silver.” In Malachi 3, the prophet says that the Lord will sit as a refiner of silver; this is significant because the refiner of silver burns away all the dross, all the impurities, until only the silver is left, and in its absolute purity he can see his face reflected in it. Here, the Lord is giving up on that, at least where Israel is concerned. Their time in exile hasn’t brought them around to repentance, it hasn’t brought them to a spirit of true faithfulness—but there’s no point in leaving them in the fire; there’s no point in refining them further, because it wouldn’t accomplish anything. To try to refine them as silver would leave nothing of them at all, because everything would burn away, and so God declares, “I delay my wrath . . . I hold it back from you,” simply for the sake of his own reputation and his own praise.

There’s a real note of grief and sorrow in this chapter. After all God has done for his people and all the promises he’s made them, and even after the promise to bring them back from their exile in Babylon, they remain obstinate, unwilling to open their hearts, unwilling to seek him first; and so here, it seems to me, we have God conceding that that isn’t going to change. Their neck remains unbending iron, their forehead remains obdurate bronze, and their ears remain insistently closed, refusing to hear what God would tell them; and so he says, “I am the LORD your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go”—the very thing his people refused to believe, because they thought they had a better idea what was best for them, and which way they should go.

They thought they knew best, and they refused to accept his correction, and so all God can do is cry out, “If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your righteousness like the waves of the sea. Your descendants would have been like the sand, your children like its numberless grains; their name would never be cut off nor destroyed from before me.” If only . . . if only. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” Jesus cried out, “how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings; but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate, and you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

And yet, despite it all, God remains faithful. He delivers his people from Babylon, bringing them back to Jerusalem, even though it won’t be the deliverance he desires, even though he knows it won’t bring them his peace because their hearts remain wicked; he delivers them because he has promised, because his nature requires it, because who he is is to be faithful and to keep his word. He remains faithful and delivers his people because even though they don’t believe in him, even though they don’t listen to him, even though they don’t trust him, yet he is who he says he is; he is faithful even when his people don’t expect him to be, don’t trust him to be, maybe at some level don’t want him to be, and even when they will never respond to his faithfulness with faithfulness of their own.

You cannot outrun God, and you cannot go beyond his faithfulness; no matter how far you may go in your sin, repentance isn’t about turning around and trying to find your way back to God, because he’s already there—repentance is simply about accepting being found. No matter what may come and how far you may push it, you cannot go beyond the faithfulness of God until you’re dead—and maybe, somehow, not even then. You just can’t. If you don’t believe that, just look at Jesus; just look at how far God has already gone, and think about it for a while.

So what does God ask from us? To trust him. To trust in his faithfulness, and to live out of that trust. Being faithful to God isn’t a matter of doing certain things, or living in a certain way; that’s what results from faithfulness. The faithfulness God desires is a matter of trusting him enough that we live as he calls us to live, not out of duty, but because we really believe that he teaches us what’s best for us, and because we trust him that he truly is directing us in the way in which we should go.

(Excerpted, edited, from “The Stubborn Faithfulness of God”)


Photo:  The Granite Cross, © 2012 Tobias Lindman.  License:  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

Posted in Religion and theology, Scripture.

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