There are certain figures in the Bible who really inspire us by demonstrating how possible it is for fallen humans to honor God with their lives. Isaiah is one of them. Leading the charge in the small yet hefty section of major prophetic books in the Bible, Isaiah’s sixty-six chapters are filled with timeless messages from God which reveal His heart to us and allow us to get a glimpse of human history through His holy eyes. Like the prophets Jeremiah and Moses, Isaiah shares some of his personal reactions to God’s messages, treating us to a few back-and-forth exchanges between Yahweh and one of His most devoted servants. There is much to be learned from these conversations.
I shall make mention of the lovingkindnesses of Yahweh, the praises of Yahweh, according to all that Yahweh has granted us, and the great goodness toward the house of Israel, which He has granted them according to His compassion and according to the abundance of His lovingkindnesses. (Isa. 63:7)
In Isaiah 63, we find the prophet beginning a long petition to Yahweh with some words of reverent praise. We can know this praise is sincere because Isaiah is the one saying them. Unlike the times when a bunch of rebellious Israelites gather together and butter God up with a bunch of insincere schmoozing, Isaiah is a devoted follower who has not held back from doing what God asks of him. Like all long-term prophets, Isaiah’s calling has turned his life upside down. By now he has a far reaching reputation as a no-nonsense truth speaker. He is respected, but not liked. He has had his share of humiliating assignments from God along with being beaten, mocked and assaulted by God’s enemies. But though he has good reason to dislike his fellow countrymen, here we find him crying out with the heart of a true patriot. What starts off sounding like a psalm of praise quickly erodes into a very troubled cry for Yahweh to have mercy on His people who have been triumphed over by their enemies. Isaiah understands that Yahweh is angry and that He is punishing Israel for her many sins. But living in the midst of nationwide suffering and despair has stirred up compassion within Isaiah’s human heart. He is frustrated by the pain all around him and discouraged by Yahweh’s emotional distance and lack of protection.
Look down from heaven and see from Your holy and glorious habitation; where are Your zeal and Your mighty deeds? The stirrings of Your heart and Your compassion are restrained toward me. (Isa. 63:15)
After praising Yahweh and then reminding Him of the great miracles He did for Israel in the past, Isaiah now points out that it’s been a while since the last glorious display of God’s saving power. He knows why—Yahweh is angry at the people’s sins. But now he dares to suggest that the people aren’t the only ones to blame.
Why, O Yahweh, do You cause us to stray from Your ways and harden our heart from fearing You? (Isa. 63:17)
While blaming God for the people’s rebellion might sound blasphemous at first, it’s theologically correct. When God first called Isaiah to be His prophet, He bluntly told the prophet that He would intentionally prevent people from turning away from their sins.
He said, “Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand.’ Render the hearts of this people insensitive, Their ears dull, And their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, Hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed.” (Isa. 6:9-10)
What Isaiah sees happening around him is exactly what Yahweh said would happen. People are remaining hardened in their hearts and the land is being ravaged by their enemies. This whole situation makes the prophet groan. Here in Chapter 63, he is asking Yahweh to lighten up—to stop blocking hearts from repenting and to come to Israel’s defense as He has in the past.
Return for the sake of Your servants, the tribes of Your heritage. Your holy people possessed Your sanctuary for a little while, our adversaries have trodden it down. We have become like those over whom You have never ruled, like those who were not called by Your Name. If only You would tear the heavens open and come down, so that mountains would quake at Your Presence—as fire kindles the brushwood, and fire causes water to boil— to make Your Name known to Your enemies, so that nations will tremble at Your Presence! (Isa. 63:17-64:2)
We can identify with this. When our homeland finds itself attacked by terrorists or threatened by war or in an economic crisis, don’t we also cry out to God to save us? In such times, it’s easy to minimize the seriousness of our sins. After all, as Isaiah points out next, we’ve all sinned. We’ve all fallen away. No one is perfect.
All of us have become like something unclean, and all our righteous acts are like a polluted garment; all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities carry us away like the wind. No one calls on Your Name, striving to take hold of You. For You have hidden Your face from us and have delivered us into the power of our iniquities. (Isa. 64:6-7)
Notice how once more Isaiah divides the responsibility for sin between the people and God. Yes, they’ve sinned, but God is the One who hides His face from them and hands them over to the power of sin. The idea of God handing people over to be dominated by sin is found in the New Testament as well. In Romans 1, Paul emphasizes three times how God punishes willful rebellion by causing the rebels to be completely powerless against their own flesh.
Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator… For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions… And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil… (Rom. 1:24-29)
Today we’re taught to blame sin on Satan and ourselves, but never on God. Yes, it is our fault for initially rebelling against God, but in many cases God describes Himself as forcing people further into sin by intentionally removing the illumination they need to repent. Even Jesus spoke of intentionally preventing people from repenting through the use of parables.
And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says, ‘You will keep on hearing, but will not understand; You will keep on seeing, but will not perceive…” (Mat. 13:10-14)
When’s the last time you heard someone quote this passage as an explanation for why Jesus taught in parables? It’s shocking to contemplate that our loving Lord who came down to earth to save us all went around intentionally giving sermons that no one could understand. This is what Jesus says He did, but since we don’t like this, we ignore Jesus’ explanation of His own behavior and make up a bunch of guff about how He spoke in parables in order to make His lessons exceptionally clear. No, He didn’t. To make such a claim is to completely reverse God’s truth. Now who do we know who is always trying to reverse truth? Ah, yes, Satan. So then, the next time you hear a pastor peddling the popular answer for why Jesus spoke in parables, you’ll know who he’s getting his information from. It’s amazing how much sharper our discernment skills become when we read the Book for ourselves.
So now that Isaiah has pleaded his case for two chapters, we’re feeling pretty sympathetic to his cause.
Yet Yahweh, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You are our Potter; we all are the work of Your hands. Yahweh, do not be terribly angry or remember our iniquity forever. Please look—all of us are Your people! Your holy cities have become a wilderness; Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. Our holy and beautiful Temple, where our fathers praised You, has been burned with fire, and all that was dear to us lies in ruins. Yahweh, after all this, will You restrain Yourself? Will You keep silent and afflict severely? (Isa. 64:8-12)
So what will Yahweh say to all this? Isaiah seems to have made a pretty good case for God lightening up and being merciful once again…or has he? Now we get to hear Yahweh’s side of the story.
“I permitted Myself to be sought by those who did not ask for Me; I allowed Myself to be found by those who did not seek Me. To a nation that did not call on My Name, I said, ‘Here am I, here am I.’ All day long I have held out My hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways which are not good, following their own thoughts—a people who continually provoke Me to My very face, offering sacrifices in gardens and burning incense on altars of brick; who sit among graves and spend their nights in secret places; who eat the flesh of pigs, and whose pots hold broth of unclean meat; who say, ‘Keep away; don’t come near me, for I am holier than you!’” (Isa. 65:1-5)
Yahweh isn’t so quick to blow past the issue of willful rebellion. He reminds Isaiah of just how merciful He has been: calling out continuously to a nation that only scorned Him. Extending open arms towards a people who provoke Him to His face by breaking His Laws and worshiping other gods in front of Him on a regular basis.
“Such people are smoke in My nostrils, a fire that keeps burning all day. Behold, it is written before Me: I will not keep silent but will pay back in full; I will repay into their bosom—both their sins and the sins of their ancestors,” says Yahweh. “Because they burned incense upon the mountains and scorned Me on the hills, I will measure into their bosom the full payment for their former deeds.” (Isa. 65:5-7)
If you’ve ever gotten a faceful of smoke while you’re cooking outdoors, you can understand the unpleasant picture Yahweh is painting here. Willful rebellion intensely bothers Him—it’s like constant smoke in His face from a fire that never stops burning. This metaphor is just as applicable today as it was in Isaiah’s time. Sometimes we try to imagine God listening to all the prayers of His people at the same time and we wonder how He manages to sort it all out. But this isn’t the only thing God listens to. Just as He hears the prayers of His devoted people, He also hears all the thoughts and insults of those who hate Him. The world today is a constant thunder of blasphemy in God’s holy ears. Does this bother Him? It certainly does, and just as Isaiah witnessed, God’s patience has its limits. The day comes when His wrath overtakes His grace and life on earth suddenly becomes quite unpleasant for certain people. Yet even in the midst of all this, Yahweh never forgets those who really care about Him.
“As when juice is still found in a cluster of grapes and people say, ‘Don’t destroy it, there is still a blessing in it,’ so will I do on behalf of My servants; I will not destroy them all. I will bring forth descendants from Jacob, and from Judah those who will possess My mountains; My chosen ones will inherit them, and My servants will dwell there.” (Isa. 65:8-9)
Looking into the future, Yahweh sees that there will be descendants of the current rebels who will actually seek Him. For their sake, He will not totally destroy all of Israel, but He will preserve a remnant so that their family lines can continue and those faithful few can be born. The description here of those faithful servants one day possessing Israel’s land is figurative. God is not meaning that one day all Christians will squish into the land associated with the political nation of Israel, nor is He saying that one day the political nation of Israel will contain only citizens who zealously serve Him. This is a reference to Heaven being put in earthly Jewish terms. Whenever we see Yahweh launching into descriptions of the perfect life that His faithful ones will someday experience in a perfect place that they inherited from Him, we need to realize He is talking about the eternal joys of Heaven. Nothing on this fallen planet is ever going to get as blissful as Yahweh describes the new “Jerusalem” being in the Old Testament.
“But as for you who forsake Yahweh and forget My holy mountain, who spread a table for Fortune and fill bowls of mixed wine for Destiny, I will destine you for the sword, and all of you will fall in the slaughter; because I called but you did not answer, I spoke but you did not listen. You did evil in My sight and chose what displeases Me.” (Isa. 65:11-12)
After reminding Isaiah just how far-reaching His mercy is to consider the choices of those who aren’t even born yet, God returns to the subject of those who willfully rebel against Him. Once again we see the reference to idolatry as Yahweh describes His people not only forsaking Him, but also chasing after the pagan gods of Fortune and Destiny. Once again He emphasizes how He called to the people but they refused to listen to Him and chose evil instead.
While Isaiah was correct in pointing out God’s sovereign control over all that exists and noting that God can and does force us into sin, he downplayed the fact that back when his people did have the option of coming to God, they refused to. Yahweh doesn’t punish people for sins they had no choice in committing. When He blocks rebels from repenting and hardens people’s hearts, it is only AFTER they have squandered the many chances He gave them to come. God wants every soul to be saved—this isn’t an attitude He picked up after the cross, it’s how He has always felt. God loves human beings and has always given them all the illumination they needed to understand who He was and what He wanted from them. It is only through willfully shunning the Holy Spirit’s teaching that we end up in Hell or given over to sin on earth. This is a very important principle to keep a mental grip on, because it steers us clear of accusing God of being unfair in His judgments. Under both Covenants, God has always been far more merciful and gracious than we deserve. He gives us plenty of chances to come. As He Himself said, He held out His hands “all day long” to rebellious Israel only to finally get fed up. We have no grounds for ever accusing God of being unfair or impatient with us. When He does finally come down on us, our punishment is deserved a thousand times over, which is why we find Him so unmoved by Isaiah’s plea. Instead of cutting short His planned punishments, Yahweh reminds the prophet that there are two types of people in this world: those who respect God and those who defy Him. Each group will get what they have coming to them. God will not be mocked.