The Pursuit of God

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Isaiah 26:3 In Context: Does God really give us perfect peace?

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Our Gods are not always in the mood to be succinct. Sometimes we find Them giving very long speeches, and when this happens, it’s important not to let those chapter breaks get in your way. The start of a new chapter does not necessarily indicate the start of a new thought. For the sake of avoiding chapters with a ridiculous amount of verses, many long speeches in the Bible get divided up into multiple chapters. Isaiah 26 is a good example of this. In this lesson, we want to get a better understanding of what is meant by Isaiah 26:3:

“You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in You, all whose thoughts are fixed on You!” (Isa. 26:3)

This is one of those verses we love to include on lists of Bible promises, and yet it sounds a bit too good to be true, doesn’t it? After all, can you acquire perfect peace merely by straining those trust muscles and trying to focus on God? No, but you can do a fabulous job of stressing and worrying. So what kind of lame promise is this? Well, who said it was a promise? And who said Yahweh was talking to us? To get things in perspective, we need to figure out what Yahweh is talking about, and that means we need to scroll back to find the beginning of this speech. That turns out to be easier said than done, because when we go to the first verse of this chapter, we find this phrase:

On that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah: “We have a strong city. Salvation is established as walls and ramparts.” (Isa. 26:1)

Well, this is helpful in that it tells us that verse 3 is a lyric of a song which folks in Judah are singing to God. So God is putting words in the mouths of His followers here. He’s saying that on some future day, people will be breaking out in some kind of joyful song. That sounds nice, but what day are we talking about? To answer this question, we need to keep flipping back through Isaiah until we find the start of this speech.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

The spiritual climate of Isaiah’s world is exceedingly dark and Yahweh is revving up to dish out some major spankings. In his very long collection of prophetic messages, Isaiah predicts the coming destruction of the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel, as well as the fall of other nations who are considered to be world powers at this time. Think about the present day: which nations come to mind as most powerful? The U.S., the U.K., Germany, China and France are all good candidates. Well, in Isaiah’s time, some of the heavy hitters were Tyre, Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt. In the book of Isaiah, we find Yahweh predicting the fall of all of these powerhouses and then some. Each time He launches into another doomsday speech, out come the very exaggeratory metaphors and dramatic imagery.

It’s a big deal when a world power goes down, and remember that Isaiah’s sense of “the world” was a lot smaller than ours is today. You don’t gloss over it when a top world power goes down—especially if you’re an ancient Jew who is addicted to exaggeration. When Yahweh is talking to Jews, He talks like a Jew, and that means talking as if the whole planet is being destroyed every time some significant crisis happens. So this is what we find in the section of Isaiah we’re in. First Isaiah 23 is a long message about the fall of the very impressive port city of Tyre. As a person living in the present age, you’re just not going to get worked up about the fall of some city that means nothing to you, but to Isaiah’s people, the idea of Tyre going down was a huge deal. Their Tyre was like our New York City—it was a famous city and a major hub of world trade. So when Isaiah goes on in Chapter 23 about Tyre getting utterly crushed, that was very shocking stuff. And while everyone’s wondering about what kind of impact the destruction of Tyre will have on the rest of the world, Isaiah suddenly ramps up the dramatic language and starts painting a picture of the entire globe in mourning.

Look! Yahweh is about to destroy the earth and make it a vast wasteland. He devastates the surface of the earth and scatters the people. Priests and laypeople, servants and masters, maids and mistresses, buyers and sellers, lenders and borrowers, bankers and debtors—none will be spared. The earth will be completely emptied and looted. Yahweh has spoken! (Isa. 24:1-3)

Well, this certainly sounds grim. Obviously Yahweh is ticked. But when Yahweh dishes out threats in the prophetic books, He always gives justification for them, so now we need to look for His explanation of why He’s going to unleash such epic destruction. That explanation comes in the next couple of verses.

The earth mourns and dries up, and the land wastes away and withers. Even the greatest people on earth waste away. The earth suffers for the sins of its people, for they have twisted God’s instructions, violated His laws, and broken His everlasting Covenant. (Isa. 24:4-5)

The mention of a Covenant is an important clue, because Israel is the nation that Yahweh has made a Covenant with. He didn’t haul the people of Tyre into a desert and lay down hundreds of laws for them to follow, but He did do this with the Jews. Does God punish people for breaking a Covenant that they don’t even know about? Of course not, so the fact that a Covenant is suddenly being mentioned tells us that Yahweh has changed audiences. In Isaiah 23, He was chewing out the people of Tyre for their many sins. But now He’s turned the focus onto Covenant violators.

Now Isaiah is a Jew, and the ancient Jews were passionate little bigots who felt their ethnicity was the superior one.  Naturally, they wanted the whole world to conform to their way of doing things, and for the man Isaiah, this means that he wants the whole world to adhere to Yahweh’s Covenant.  Right now Isaiah doesn’t care about the concept of spiritual illumination.  He understands that Yahweh should be honored, and he expects everyone else to understand this as well.  So when Isaiah looks around and sees Jews and foreigners doing evil, in his mind he condemns them all of willful defiance, even though many of these people simply didn’t know better.

We Christians often fall into the same merciless mindset today.  We can become very intolerant of folks who are engaging in certain actions which we know that God says are wrong, and we don’t leave any room for the possibility that the people we’re condemning might not understand God’s moral code to the extent that we do.  Not every doctor who commits an abortion is trying to spit in God’s face.  Not every gay couple is trying to flaunt a disrespect for God.  It is because we can’t see into people’s hearts that we end up misjudging them so often, and Isaiah is falling into the same trap here.  He looks around and sees people doing wicked things, and he condemns them all as hardened rebels.  Then he longs for God to do something.

Now in Isaiah 26—the chapter we’re interested in—we’ve got Jews in Judah singing a song to Yahweh. The long speech that Isaiah 26 is part of starts here in Chapter 24.  In Chapter 23, Yahweh focused on the destruction of a single city.  But now in Chapter 24 He begins to address the topic of worldwide rebellion.

PROPHETIC STYLE

Now when you read through the Old Testament prophets, you’re going to notice that each man has a different style of delivering God’s messages. Jeremiah is a big one for saying “Thus says the Lord” and then quoting Yahweh using first person language. So Jeremiah would say something like this:

“This is what Yahweh says: ‘I will smash Judah and crush all of you sinners in the land. I am fed up with your unceasing rebellion.’”

But while Jeremiah likes to use a conversational style, Isaiah likes to use third person narration. Isaiah would say:

“Yahweh says He will smash Judah and crush all of the sinners in the land. He is fed up with their unceasing rebellion.”

Hear the difference? Jeremiah would say: “My friend Joe said: ‘I want a hamburger.’” But Isaiah would say, “Joe wants a hamburger.” Both men are passing on messages from God, they’re just using a different style. Because Isaiah favors a narrative form over a conversational form, there are far less quotation marks in the text of his book.

Now both Jeremiah and Isaiah interject their own opinions into their speeches. Jeremiah records whole conversations in which he and Yahweh are going back and forth. Jeremiah is also big on speaking on behalf of his people. So with Jeremiah, you have to be watching for changes in speakers. It’s not all God talking. Jeremiah frequently rotates who he’s speaking for.

It’s easy to forget that the Old Testament prophets were more than just God’s mouthpieces. They were men with their own frustrations and fears. In Isaiah 24, Isaiah starts off by summarizing what Yahweh has told him. He’s using classic Isaiah style, which is to use third person narration instead of direct quotations. When Isaiah speaks, it’s like he’s describing visions that Yahweh has shown him. And after describing a very bleak scene of the whole earth being crushed and everyone sitting around in perpetual mourning, he then describes a remnant of folks who have somehow survived the epic catastrophe and are praising God.

They raise their voices, they shout for joy; from the west they acclaim Yahweh’s majesty. Therefore in the east give glory to Yahweh; exalt the Name of Yahweh, the God of Israel, in the islands of the sea. From the ends of the earth we hear singing: “Glory to the Righteous One.” (Isa. 24:14-16)

Now don’t miss the contradiction here. In verse 1, we were told that:

Yahweh is about to destroy the earth and make it a vast wasteland. (Isa. 24:1)

In verse 2 we were told that “none will be spared.” In verse 4, we read:

The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers, the heavens languish with the earth. (Isa. 24:4)

Now if the whole earth is some barren wasteland and God has slaughtered everyone, how come there are a bunch of people all over the earth praising God in verses 14-16? The earth can’t be a wasteland and full of partiers at the same time. It can’t be all withered like some dried up raisin and still have a bunch of cheerful people in it. This contradictory language is telling you that these images are not literal. They are exaggeratory.

If you want a good dose of how ridiculously extreme our Gods can be, check out how many times the Roman Empire gets spanked and the entire globe gets destroyed in the book of Revelation. Have you ever used those trick candles on a birthday cake that blow out and then relight themselves again? That’s the world in the book of Revelation. Yahweh wipes mankind out so many times that it becomes downright humorous. In negative biblical prophecies, humans end up behaving like the creatures in some zombie horror film: every time God gives a prophet a vision of absolute destruction, the next vision shows people suddenly populating the earth again. We die, but we don’t die. The earth gets smashed, burned up, crushed, leveled, and vanquished, yet here it still is. To take such language literally is only going to lead you into a confused muddle, yet this is what many so-called Bible “experts” are going to encourage you to do. They’ll want you to take the images in Isaiah 24 literally and assume that Yahweh is really talking about wiping out the entire planet. Well, no, He isn’t. He’s being utterly exaggeratory, and once we realize this, we need to ask why.

COUNTERING DESPAIR

Isaiah lives in a world that is spiritually dark. God’s chosen people are wallowing in the lowest depths of depravity and it seems like no one is ever going to repent of anything. Isaiah the man is seriously depressed about all of this. And if Isaiah is down in the dumps despite his constant words from Yahweh, what must other believers of his day feel like?

So why is Yahweh making a bunch of empty threats about obliterating evil from the face of the earth so that the righteous can finally breathe a sigh of relief? Why does He promise that one day Jews living under the Old Covenant will enjoy a perfect life of trial-free bliss in Israel when He knows for a fact that this will never be? This is about boosting hope and perseverance for a people who are really feeling burned out with trying to honor God. And as a demonstration of just how fried Isaiah personally is, listen to how he responds to the vision Yahweh gives of the righteous partying in an evil-free world:

But I said, “I waste away! I waste away! Woe is me. Deceit still prevails, and treachery is everywhere.” (Isa. 24:16)

Isaiah isn’t invigorated by this vision of wicked people being purged from the earth—it actually bums him out because he can’t help but compare that picture with his current society. He feels like he’s wasting away in a world where evil seems to be going unchecked. This prophet is seriously down in the dumps, so Yahweh keeps the visions of epic destruction coming.

Destruction falls like rain from the heavens; the foundations of the earth shake. The earth has broken up. It has utterly collapsed; it is violently shaken. The earth staggers like a drunk. It trembles like a tent in a storm. It falls and will not rise again, for the guilt of its rebellion is very heavy. (Isa. 24:18-20)

Isaiah is not just feeling overwhelmed by the epic evil in his own homeland. He looks around and sees nations that are all ruled by evil rulers and whose national religions promote the worship of demonic idols. Isn’t Yahweh supposed to be the Supreme God? Isn’t He supposed to be the only God? So why isn’t He fixing this mess and shutting the faces of these evil people with their false gods? Yahweh says that He will.

In that day Yahweh will punish the gods in the heavens and the proud rulers of the nations on earth. They will be rounded up and put in prison. They will be shut up in prison and will finally be punished.

The moon will be put to shame and the sun disgraced, for Yahweh of Heaven’s Armies will rule on Mount Zion. He will rule in great glory in Jerusalem, in the sight of all the leaders of His people. (Isa. 24:21-23)

This is exactly what Isaiah is longing for: a day of epic judgment when Yahweh will exterminate all of these spiritual rebels and fill the holy city of Jerusalem with His glorious Presence. Isaiah is a Jew. He’s living under the Old Covenant. In his mind, if God is going to show up anywhere, He’s going to show up in Jerusalem. After all, Yahweh accepted Solomon’s Temple as His house of worship. Of course the Jews in Isaiah’s time are abusing the Temple, and that’s extremely depressing.

Imagine if there was a huge statue of Jesus erected in your community and every day people are spitting on it, throwing garbage at it, publicly mocking it, and putting blasphemous graffiti all over it. As a Christian, you’d find this very upsetting, because that statue of Jesus symbolizes your God. Well, this is how stressful it was to Yahweh’s followers when evil kings and priests would do inappropriate things in the Temple. It felt like Yahweh was being publicly attacked—which He was—and no one was doing anything about it. It was very stressful. True Yahweh followers longed to see Him forcibly oust all of the mockers and turn the Temple back into the God-honoring place that it was supposed to be. So Yahweh assures them that this is what He’s going to do. Isaiah sees visions of Yahweh being so radiant in Jerusalem that the sun and moon are embarrassed by how pathetically dim their light is compared to His. This finally perks our downcast prophet up and now he bursts out in praise at the start of Chapter 25.

Yahweh, You are my God and I will exalt You and praise Your Name. For in perfect faithfulness You have done wonderful things, things planned long ago. (Isa. 25:1)

Feeling very high on the vision of Yahweh reigning in glory from Jerusalem, Isaiah waxes on about how fabulous Yahweh is, then he starts describing how fabulous life will be when Yahweh comes to rule over a world that has been purged of all spiritual rebellion. It will be sheer heaven.

In Jerusalem, Yahweh of Heaven’s Armies will spread a wonderful feast for all the people of the world. It will be a delicious banquet with clear, well-aged wine and choice meat. There He will remove the cloud of gloom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth. He will swallow up death forever!

The Sovereign Yahweh will wipe away all tears. He will remove forever all insults and mockery against His land and people. Yahweh has spoken! (Isa. 25:6-8)

If you get hung up on references to Jerusalem, you’ll miss the point. This is about sincere believers having their ultimate dream come true: getting to dwell in a world where their all-powerful God is behaving the way they want Him to. And what do the ancient believers want God to do? The same things that we want Him to do today: stomp out all pain, death, and suffering. Banish all those who are refusing to align with Him and let the true believers have a fabulous time basking in His uplifting Company and generous blessings. Since Yahweh is speaking to a patriotic Jew, He sets the stage for this bliss in the earthly nation of Israel and makes Jerusalem the party epicenter. There’s simply no way to describe God being exalted to an ancient Jew if you don’t talk about Jerusalem and the Temple. In ancient Jewish minds, these earthly locations were intimately associated with the concept of Yahweh being glorified. Since Yahweh is encouraging ancient Jewish believers in this passage, He paints a picture of a spiritual paradise using imagery that they can ring with.

In that day the people will proclaim, “This is our God! We trusted in Him, and He saved us! This is Yahweh, in whom we trusted. Let us rejoice in the salvation He brings!” (Isa. 25:9)

Notice the reference to perseverance being rewarded. These believers waited through miserable times, and then they were richly rewarded by Yahweh for their faithfulness. This is a pep talk.

For Yahweh’s hand of blessing will rest on Jerusalem. But Moab will be crushed. It will be like straw trampled down and left to rot in a pile of dung. God will push down Moab’s people as a swimmer pushes down water with his hands. He will end their pride and all their evil works. (Isa. 25:10-11)

What’s with this sudden attack on Moab? Well, the country of Moab was a neighbor of Israel. The Jews hated the Moabites and vice versa. The fact that Yahweh suddenly throws in a reference to Moab here indicates that the Moabites are currently being a source of grief to the Jews. It’s all part of the pep talk: Yahweh is assuring these frustrated believers that they’re going to be rewarded for their faithfulness.

CHAPTER 26

Now we finally get to Chapter 26, and Isaiah is still going on about how happy the Jews living in paradise are. But remember, a purge has happened. Yahweh has wiped out all of the spiritual rebels, so it’s only true believers who are being described as bursting out in song in Chapter 26.

In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah: “We have a strong city; God makes salvation its walls and ramparts. Open the gates that the righteous nation may enter, the nation that keeps faith. You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in You, all whose thoughts are fixed on You! Trust in Yahweh forever, for Yah, Yahweh Himself, is the Rock eternal. He humbles those who dwell on high, He lays the lofty city low; He levels it to the ground and casts it down to the dust. Feet trample it down—the feet of the oppressed, the footsteps of the poor. The path of the righteous is level; You, the Upright One, make the way of the righteous smooth. Yes, Yahweh, walking in the way of Your laws, we wait for You; Your Name and renown are the desire of our hearts.” (Isa. 26:1-8)

This passage includes the verse we’re trying to understand. Now we can see that this is the jubilant song of a bunch of sincere Yahweh followers who are celebrating how great life is now that their patient endurance is being rewarded with blissful times. Yahweh has freed them from the tyranny of wicked rulers. There’s no more mockery of God going on around them. They’re looking around at how great their lives have become and they’re thinking back to the old days and saying, “It’s so worth it to wait on God.”

So what should we make of this reference to perfect peace? Is this a promise we should be taking literally? No. For starters, God’s not even talking here. Jubilant Jews are talking—Jews that don’t really exist, but rather are fictional characters in the fictional vision Isaiah is seeing. Yahweh is using exaggeratory language and unrealistic images to get across the point that those who are sincerely seeking Him will be rewarded for their choices. They’ll come out on top eventually. They’ll end up with the grand prize, while all those who refuse to submit to Yahweh will be destroyed.

So how is the man Isaiah responding to all of this? He’s going to tell us:

In the night I search for You; in the morning I earnestly seek You. For only when You come to judge the earth will people learn what is right. Your kindness to the wicked does not make them do good. Although others do right, the wicked keep doing wrong and take no notice of Yahweh’s majesty. O Yahweh, they pay no attention to Your upraised fist. Show them Your eagerness to defend Your people. Then they will be ashamed. Let Your fire consume Your enemies. (Isa. 26:9-11)

Isaiah is more than a little frustrated by how long Yahweh is taking to fix things. Notice how he tries to prod God along here by urging Him to let His fire fall. How swift we are to cry out for judgment when we’ve decided that we’re on the safe side of mercy. How quick we are to tell God that He should stop giving others time to repent once we ourselves feel safely across the salvation line.

Notice how Isaiah informs Yahweh that Yahweh’s methods aren’t working. Isaiah says that the wicked aren’t being impacted by anything Yahweh does. And just how does Isaiah know who is and isn’t being impacted? Can Isaiah see into people’s hearts? No. Is Isaiah wiser than God? Not hardly. Isaiah’s not being a very good model of talking to God with respect here. But he’s frustrated, and when we humans are frustrated, we often start talking like we’re smarter than God.

Yahweh, in distress we searched for You. We prayed beneath the burden of Your discipline. Just as a pregnant woman writhes and cries out in pain as she gives birth, so were we in Your Presence, Yahweh. We, too, writhe in agony, but nothing comes of our suffering. We have won no victories on earth, and the earth’s inhabitants have not fallen. (Isa. 26:16-18)

It’s no picnic being a prophet of Yahweh in a world that so openly hates Him. Isaiah is falling back into a grim perspective here. He says that he and other sincere believers have strived for nothing. What good has come of their suffering? None, as far as Isaiah can see. They haven’t gained any victories. The rebels haven’t fallen. It’s a real bummer to be in the righteous camp right now, and as Isaiah sees true believers getting mowed down by the God haters, he clings to the hope of a future resurrection.

But those who die in Yahweh will live; their bodies will rise again! Those who sleep in the earth will rise up and sing for joy! For Your life-giving light will fall like dew on Your people in the place of the dead! (Isa. 26:19)

Isaiah then concludes this chapter by telling the true believers to go hide out in their homes and wait for Yahweh to suddenly unleash His judgment on the earth.

Go home, my people, and lock your doors! Hide yourselves for a little while until Yahweh’s anger has passed. Look! Yahweh is coming from heaven to punish the people of the earth for their sins. The earth will no longer hide those who have been killed. They will be brought out for all to see. (Isa. 26:20-21)

This idea that Yahweh would suddenly show up on earth in some awesome way to annihilate the wicked and reward His faithful ones was a very important concept for the Jews. Today we Christians get so fixated on the idea of a Second Coming that when we talk about God coming to earth, we only think of Jesus. Well, the ancient Jews thought of Yahweh, not Jesus. In the book of Revelation, it is Yahweh, not Jesus, who claims to be the First and the Last—a title which He established for Himself back in the Old Testament (see Applying Revelation 1: The Greeting (vs. 1-8)). It is Yahweh who is the Alpha and Omega, and it is Yahweh who says that famous line:

“Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with Me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” (Rev. 22:12)

Jesus also speaks in Revelation, but He does not spend as much time in the spotlight as Yahweh does, because the main audience in Revelation is Jewish believers who still view Yahweh as the superior Being. You see, if you’re going to understand the New Testament, you have to start with the Old Testament. Then you’ll realize that Yahweh has been using dramatic imagery to encourage burned out believers for years. You’ll also understand that it is utterly absurd to try and take prophetic language too literally. Does Yahweh really keep humans in “perfect peace” on this earth? No. He certainly gives them some measure of peace, but He also puts them through many peace-robbing trials. We’re here to grow and mature, not float around in bubbles of peace (see Soul Before Earthsuit: Understanding God’s Priorities). We’ll never actually experience the perfect living conditions being described in Isaiah, but such images really helped boost the hopes of a struggling remnant who were trying to stay faithful to God.

What you get out of this passage depends on what you focus on. You can choose to get all huffy about the fact that Yahweh boldfaced lied to these people by making promises He had no intention of literally fulfilling. Or you can focus on how awesome it is that a Being as massive, powerful, and independent as Yahweh is showing such concern for the struggles of His followers. Here in Isaiah, we find God Almighty encouraging tiny specks in a highly personalized way. And while we won’t ever be kicking back in a refurbished Jerusalem, our Gods have some pretty sweet rewards in store for those who choose to submit to Them in this world. So do we need to get bummed because we don’t have access to perfect peace? No. We have access to three perfect Gods, and They are more than enough.

FURTHER READING:
Practicing Discernment: Bible Promises
Zephaniah 3:17 In Context: Does God really sing over us?
Distinguishing Between the Real End Times & the Day of Yahweh

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