In these passages, we see the grief of God. If ever there was a people who had reason to trust God, it was the Israelites. Just look at all the miracles and mighty works God did for their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and then for them as a nation. They were a slave race, being worked to death—literally—by the Egyptians, and God broke them out, and led them through the Red Sea to get the army off their trail; you’d think they’d respond with unstinting gratitude and trust. Nope. Before they’ve even halfway escaped, they’re already complaining and reminiscing about the good old days—when, sure, the Egyptians worked them to exhaustion every day from morning until night, and if they ever slacked off, the overseers would whip them back to work—but hey! they had onions!
Things didn’t get better from there, either; God would keep raising up leaders, and for a while, the people would follow, but as soon as they got the chance they were off chasing after other gods again. Finally, things got so bad that God allowed his people to be conquered and dragged off to Mesopotamia; but they didn’t learn their lesson. Indeed, his proclamation of deliverance, of an end to their exile and a return home, was met with distrust, complaints, and resistance, as we’ve seen over the past number of weeks. In consequence, Isaiah has responded alternately with frustration and anger at his people’s stubborn disbelief and by pleading with them to trust God for all he’s done for them, and for what he’s going to do.
Both of these things reach their peak in this chapter. As we’ve been reading through Isaiah 40-55, what’s commonly called Second Isaiah, I’ve talked about it as one section of the larger book, and it is; but in its turn, it’s most definitely divided into two parts. This chapter is the end of the first part; with chapter 49, something new begins, and we’ll talk about that next week. What we can see here is a clear statement of the problem Israel presents—their stubborn refusal to be faithful to God, and his equally stubborn determination to be faithful to them anyway.
Look how this chapter begins. Remember, we’ve had God’s repeated promise to bring his people back out of exile, and his repeated statements that he will do so by raising up Cyrus, king of the Medes and the Persians, to conquer Babylon and carry out his purposes. We’ve just had, in the passage we read last week, an extended description of the judgment God will visit on Babylon through Cyrus, bringing them down from their pride and arrogance to a point of utter defeat and humiliation. All this should be good news—but as far as response from God’s people, we’ve seen disbelief that he can actually do what he promises, refusal to turn away from their idols to put their trust in him alone, and nationalistic whining that God would use yet another pagan to set them free rather than enabling them to free themselves. What we haven’t seen any sign of is faithful obedience to the commands and will of God.
As a consequence, God begins by addressing his people through his prophet, and he piles on the descriptions: “Listen to this, O house of Jacob, you who are called by the name of Israel”—the name which God had given to Jacob—“and come from the line of Judah, you who take oaths in the name of the LORD and invoke the God of Israel.” All this marks them as the people who belong to him: he’s the one who chose them, he’s the one who named them, he’s the God with whom their nation is identified and in whose name they take their oaths. He is, we might say, the God of their civil religion, in the same way as our public officials and witnesses in our courts swear on the Bible and end their oaths of office with the words, “so help me God.” But just as we have a lot of people who say those words and mean nothing by them, so Israel’s outward participation in the rituals of their faith said little for the reality of their beliefs; and so God says, “Though you call upon me and take oaths in my name, it’s neither in truth nor in righteousness.” Their faith, he says, is false, because it’s not based in real knowledge of him nor does it produce any real willingness to live as he wants them to live.
This is a pretty strong charge. In contemporary terms, he’s saying that the faith of the nation as a whole—not of everyone in it, of course, but of the nation as a whole—is nominal. It’s a matter of outward show with no inward reality, of religious exercise without any real faith. This wasn’t an issue which was unique to them, of course; if we want to be honest, looking around at the church in this country, we’d have to wonder if God would say much the same sort of thing to us, if Isaiah were alive in our day. There certainly are other voices saying this; one is Michael Spencer, who had a column in the Christian Science Monitor this week—you might have seen it—in which he predicted the complete collapse of American evangelicalism within the next ten years, to be followed by “an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West” in which “public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity” and we’ll see actual persecution of believers in this country. His reason for this conclusion, though he doesn’t put it in the terms Isaiah uses, boils down to pretty much the same thing: American Christians invoke the name of the God of Israel, but not in truth or righteousness. As a consequence, he argues, the church in this country is as hollow as a soufflé rising in the oven; all it will take is one slam of a door to bring it down.
Now, I happen to think, and have argued elsewhere, that Spencer’s conclusions are overstated; I also think he’s left the Holy Spirit out of the equation altogether. That said, I think he’s called attention to a real problem in much of the American church; I think we need to realize that Isaiah’s words to Israel here hit a lot closer to home than we might like to think. It seems to me that verse 2 offers us something of a clue as to why. At first glance, this might seem like an odd follow-up to verse 1; but consider the description of the people of Israel here: “you who call yourselves citizens of the holy city and rely on the God of Israel.” Here as in verse 1, God is identified as the God of Israel; and what does the prophet say in response: “The LORD Almighty is his name.”
That’s subtle, but I think it’s a rebuke to the parochialism of Israel. Their concern is only for themselves, and they see their God as just “an amiable local deity who exists to keep track of Israel’s interests,” as John Oswalt puts it. Instead of seeing themselves as a nation formed by the only God of all time and space for the purpose of bringing all the nations to the worship of that God, they see themselves as a nation like any other nation, with a god like any other nation, out for their own best interests like any other nation; and since they’re a small nation, they must have a small god, and thus they keep running after the gods of the bigger, more powerful nations in hopes of improving their geopolitical standing. What God wants them to see is that the nation ought to be only of secondary importance; he’s promised to return them to their homeland, yes, but not because their political independence or political power are of any significance whatsoever. It is, rather, for his own sake, for the sake of his reputation and his glory. What matters is God’s plan for the world, and their faithfulness to serve him by doing their part in it.
Of course, they don’t get this, and they don’t particularly want to; but God keeps working 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.” During Advent, we looked at Malachi 3, where the prophet says that the Lord will sit as a refiner of silver, and we talked a little about what that meant; we talked about the fact that 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 is, I said, a sad tone to 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.