Saturday, May 4, 2013

Isaiah 1: Judgment & Grace

“When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause.

 “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.  If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”  How the faithful city has become a whore, she who was full of justice! Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers. Your silver has become dross, your best wine mixed with water.  Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow's cause does not come to them.

Isaiah prophetic ministry takes place during the reign of four kings of Judah: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. It was a long ministry and he is the first of the writing prophets whose prophecies were written down for posterity to read because it speaks not just to his generation but to future generations till the end of time. It consists of 66 books, paralleling the 66 books of the Bible. While bible chapter divisions are medieval inventions, it is probably by divine coincidence that the judgments of Israel & Judah take up the first 39 chapters, corresponding the 39 books of the OT, while chapters 40-66 corresponds to the 27 books of the NT. Chapter 40 begins with the familiar words: "A voice cries: 'In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God" which is also found in Matthew, the first book of the NT. While we should not read too much theology into chapter divisions, it gives us a broad overview of Isaiah: from judgment (chapters 1-39) to grace (chapters 40-66).

Isaiah starts off his book with a call to the heavens and the earth to hear the word of Lord against Judah:

Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the Lord has spoken:
"Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me.  The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master's crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the Lord, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged.

 A prophecy of impending doom of Judah is coming:
Your country lies desolate; your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence foreigners devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners.  And the daughter of Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a lodge in a cucumber field, like a besieged city. If the Lord of hosts had not left us a few survivors, we should have been like Sodom, and become like Gomorrah.

In the midst of judgment, there is hint of grace and mercy: "If the Lord of hosts had not left us a few survivors, we should have been like Sodom, and become like Gomorrah"--in other words, total destruction if not for God's mercy.

The Good News of God's grace cannot be understood apart from the Bad News of God's judgment. One cannot fully understand divine grace apart from divine judgment against sin. Grace in fact has no meaning if the hearer is not aware of the severity of divine judgment again sin. Preachers who want to preach grace apart from sin ends up with a half-baked "Good News" and produce believers who think God owes them a favour, rather than they owe God a favour.

So, Isaiah, having pronouncing divine judgments against sin, offers this piece of good news: "Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land." This hope of divine mercy cannot be understood without reading the earlier prophecies of divine judgments.

 May God help us appreciate His divine grace deeper as we understand more the severity of His judgment against sins: "Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates".

 Father, how amazing is Your grace towards us undeserving sinners. You have called us who were formerly rebels Your children because of what Christ has done for us at the Cross. Thank You Lord for the Cross. Amen.

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