Monday, April 5, 2010

Isaiah 1-12: Bad News, Good News

All right, so now we move into Isaiah.  I'm going to put up a sidebar that lists the books of the Old Testament in the order they appear in the Tanakh, so you know that I'm really not being arbitrary.

Isaiah was written during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah - who, if you remember, were really good, good, really bad, and really good, respectively.  So this was right around the time of Israel's fall.  The prophecies in Isaiah are mostly about Judah and Israel, but there are some about other nations too.

The beginning prophecies are about Judah and Jerusalem, and they are condemning the sin of the people.  Now this is interesting to me, because this was written mostly during the time of good kings.  But if you remember, the high places were still in place all the way until the reign of Hezekiah.  What it sounds like to me is that the people were basically following the law, sacrificing to God and observing the feasts (with the exception of Passover) and whatnot, but they were also serving other gods and just not doing good.  So God says that he doesn't even like their sacrifices or feasts or any of the things they do "for" him, so that he's not even going to listen to their prayers anymore.

The first several chapters go back and forth between good news and bad news.  The bad news is, God is going to destroy Jerusalem and Judah to judge them for their wickedness and idolatry.  The good news is, he is going to restore Jerusalem and people will worship God from their hearts.  The bad news is, first will come a day of judgment against all the people who are proud, adulterous, who don't take care of the poor and needy, who take bribes and permit sin, and against the leaders and rulers who are corrupt.  The good news is, there will always be a remnant of the faithful.  Even though God is not going to punish Judah, he is not going to leave them alone forever.  He's going to make sure that Judah never entirely forsakes him, and he's not going to forsake them either.

Then Isaiah describes a vision that he has during the year that Uzziah died.  He has a vision of the throne of God, what Paul calls the "third heaven," and he sees these angels called seraphim gathered around God's throne.  These seraphim are so high up on the angel hierarchy that they are actually in the direct presence of God, standing before his throne all day and night, and yet even they must cover their eyes with two of their wings.  And all day long they say to each other, "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory."

What I understand about the Hebrew language is that they don't have comparative or superlative suffixes like English and other languages do.  That is, we add the "er" and "est" suffixes of words to show degrees of how extreme something is.  Hebrew doesn't have that; instead, the word would be repeated - twice for the comparative, three times for the superlative.  (Another way to state a superlative would be to say "X of Xs," as in "king of kings" and "song of songs.")  So it would be like, instead of saying "better," they would say "good good," or "good good good" for "best."  That is what they are doing here.  As my old Bible teacher said once, "God is not 'holy.'  God is not 'holy, holy.'  He is 'holy, holy, holy.'"

When Isaiah sees God like this, he is completely overwhelmed by the holiness, the perfection, the goodness, the righteousness, the otherness, the un-humanness of God.  God is holy - holy, holy, holy - and Isaiah knows that he is not.  He does what every thinking, feeling person does when they encounter God: he falls flat on his face.  Then he does the second thing every thinking, feeling person does when they encounter God: he acknowledges his sin.  But then, amazingly, one of the seraphim takes a burning coal from the altar and touches it to Isaiah's lips.  Now, it doesn't say so, but I have to imagine that this would hurt, even in a vision.  Don't you think?  But the coal cleanses him.  And then God asks for a messenger to send, to speak on his behalf - as if he really didn't know who he was going to send.  And Isaiah, quite unlike Moses, volunteers to be sent wherever God wishes him to go.  I find it interesting that it's only after Isaiah's been cleansed that he mentions being sent.  I don't think this means we have to overcome our sin and become perfect in order for God to use us, though.  Remember, Isaiah didn't actually do anything to become clean - he just acknowledged his uncleanness, and it was God who declared him clean.  I think this means that in order to receive God's calling on our lives, we have to acknowledge our sin and accept his cleansing forgiveness.  And I think that the process of cleansing may not be painless.  I don't think it was for Isaiah.

One thing I have always wondered is whether this vision took place before Isaiah received the prophecies recorded in chapters 1-5, or if the whole thing is written chronologically.  It seems as if this story is the beginning for Isaiah, but I don't know.

Then it goes back to prophecy, and this time there's a specific context: Ahaz, the bad king, is at war, and God tells Isaiah to tell Ahaz not to be afraid because Judah is going to win.  God invites Ahaz to ask him for a sign to know that this is true, but he says he will not test God.  But God says he will give a sign himself, and guess what it is?  "A virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call his name Immanuel."  Immanuel means "God with us" - this is the first time Isaiah references Messiah, I think.  I wonder if Ahaz knew that this sign was not really related to his little battle.  Because then God goes on to tell about more bad things that are about to happen to Judah, and also, that Israel and Samaria are going to fall.  That happened during the reign of Hezekiah, from what I understand, so it must have been pretty close to the time.

Then there's another Messiah prophecy.  After a bunch of talk about gloom and darkness and destruction, it says that the gloom is going to end, that the people who are walking in the darkness will see a great light, and the light will shine on them.  Deliverance is going to come in the form of a child, who will be given the throne of David, but he's more than just another king.  It says he will be called Mighty God and Eternal Father - somehow, this child is going to be God.  I wonder what the Jews think about these names, what they thought at the time this prophecy was written.  Obviously they are holding on to the part where it talks about him reigning over David's kingdom, but what about the part where it calls him God?

But for now, Israel is not doing so hot.  I think this next prophecy is against the ten tribes that now form the nation of Israel, specifically, because it mentions Ephraim.  Ephraim is only one tribe but its name becomes synonymous with the nation of Israel.  God says they are proud and they do not seek God, that the teachers are leading the people astray.  There's a repeating phrase in the next several paragraphs: "His anger does not turn away, and His hand is still stretched out."  Basically Israel is acting wickedly, even in tribe fighting against tribe.  So God says that Assyria is his instrument for justice and judgment.  But, don't forget, Israel was God's instrument of judgment against Canaan, and now they're getting busted for their own sin.  Well, the same thing is going to happen to Assyria, because they're not good either.  So basically God is saying that after he's done with Israel, Assyria is going to be judged as well.

But then there's more good news: another Messianic reference, and it talks about a time of paradise - the wolf dwelling with the lamb and the leopard with the goat and things like that.  When that happens, the remnant of the Jews will be restored from all the countries where they will be scattered to.

So this has been kind of a cyclic passage - good news, bad news, and super good news - the news of a coming Savior.  The thing is, Israel has gotten itself really screwed up, screwed up beyond repair.  God wants his people to return to him, but their hearts are so hardened that it's going to take something really drastic to repair the damage that's been done.  For almost the first time, we're getting a glimpse of what God has planned.

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