Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Isaiah 52-66: Restoration for the Transgressors

Okay, I know I dropped the ball again for a while on this blogging thing.  It's difficult to blog about these prophetic books because they kind of say the same thing over and over and while that's not a bad thing, it makes it difficult to feel like I'm saying anything new.  So my next several posts may be a bit shorter and cover larger passages, because I'm really trying to just point out what sticks out to me.

Anyway, so in chapter 52 Isaiah starts talking about the exalted servant of God.  And then in chapter 53 he talks about the suffering servant.  Jews believe these are two different people, whereas Christians believe both passages are referring to the same person: Jesus the Messiah.  I have always wondered what the Jews think about chapter 53, because the language is that of sacrificial atonement - that our sins, sorrows, transgressions, etc., are placed on this person, that he is a guilt offering, that somehow this bearing of our iniquities justifies us.  For Jews who believe that justification comes through keeping the Law and making animal sacrifices, what does this passage mean to them?

Recently, the thing that has struck me about Isaiah 53 is that it's not just our wickedness that Jesus atoned for.  Verse 4 says "Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried."  In the margin of my Bible I wrote this:  "Not just our sins, but our sorrows - not just our wrongs, but also our hurts.  Jesus knows what all of our pains, griefs, shame, trauma, feel like, because He carried it.  It, too, was nailed to the cross, which means it, too, will be redeemed."  To me, that is a very comforting thought.

The next three chapters are pretty positive: God's lovingkindness and covenant of peace can never be shaken, God offers mercy freely, God's boundless mercy is incomprehensible because God Himself is incomprehensible, being obedient to God will yield blessing, etc.

Following this are three chapters of warnings and judgments and stuff like that.  There's an indictment of rulers who don't acknowledge God as higher than them, and there's a call to fasting so that God will hear.  But as it is, the text says, God doesn't hear because the people's sins have created a barrier between themselves and Him.  I find the juxtaposition of these two verses very telling: 59:1 says, "Behold, the LORD's hand is not so short That it cannot save; Nor is His ear so dull That it cannot hear."  Then the very next verse says, "But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear."  So it's not that God can't hear, but that He doesn't - I think He's waiting for repentance - He's waiting for us to turn from our wickedness in order to truly seek Him.  Because the thing is, people would cry out to God and stuff, but at the same time they were holding on to these idols and sinful practices and stuff, so it wasn't really God that they wanted; they just wanted a bailout.  And I think this is what I do too.  What I pray for the most is help when I'm in trouble.  I think I need to seek God for His own sake, not just to be my cleanup crew.

Chapters 60-66 cover a few different ideas, but I think they all are built around the central theme of the Day of the Lord, the restoration of Zion, and the redemption of man.  Someof the language is very messianic (or at least was used by Handel in writing Messiah): "Arise, shine; for your light has come, And the glory of the LORD has risen upon you."  Some of the language sounds like the book of Revelation: "No longer will you have the sun for light by day; Nor for brightness will the moon give you light; But you will have the LORD for an everlasting light, and your God for your glory," and, "the days of your mourning will be over," and (chapter 65) "behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; And the former things will not be remembered or come to mind."  Chapter 61 opens with the passage that Jesus read in the synagogue when He began His ministry: "The Spiri of the Lord God is upon me, Because the LORD has anointed me To bring good news to the afflicted . . ."

But at the same time that all this happy glorious stuff is going on, God also says that at this time He will judge the nations and will pour our His wrath on those who are wicked.  But to those who follow God, God will show mercy and compassion and will save them.

Chapter 65 reminds me of the book of Romans (actually it's quoted in the book of Romans), because it talks about God being found by people who didn't seek Him, while at the same time He is pursuing people who want nothing to do with them.  Paul says that this is referring to the Gentiles compared to the Jews.  All this time, God has been making appeal after appeal to the Jews, and they really couldn't care less what He has to say.  But when the gospel is brought to the Gentiles, they accept this brand new God that they didn't even know before.  But in this future time that Isaiah keeps referring to, the time when God makes a new heaven and earth, everyone will acknowledge God and everything will be great.  Even lambs will be safe in the company of animals that used to be their predators.  It just now struck me that this is the context of the verse, "Before they call, I will answer; and while they are still speaking, I will hear."  Does that mean that this verse doesn't apply to right now?  Because it seems to me that God does and has answered prayers before they were prayed or even at the same time.  So if God is already doing that now, I wonder what this verse will mean about what things will be like in the future.

Anyway, so the chapter ends basically with a comparison between the future state of the righteous and the future state of the wicked.  It's very clear that everybody ultimately will see and know who God is and will bow before Him, but only some will share in His glory and joy.  For those who persisted in transgression, there is only agony and death, which really sucks. 

I think the message is clear - the message of this whole book - that God extends mercy and forgiveness to everybody (because He makes intercession for the "transgressors," who are the wicked people - that's all of us), but not everybody is going to participate in that.  Ultimately, God is going to come down and give everybody what they really want, and it's either going to be Him, or it's going to be Not Him.  It's a message to take God seriously, to take repentance seriously, and not to be complacent about the thought of God's judgment, because it's real, and it's coming.  It's a sobering thought, but only if you're living outside God's mercy.

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