The Pursuit of God

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Understanding God’s Promises: Yahweh Promises to Bless Israel (Isaiah 30:18-33)

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This is a continuation of Understanding Yahweh’s Wrath: Judah’s Alliance with Egypt (Isaiah 30:1-17).

In our previous lesson, we learned that the tiny nation of Judah is in a major crisis.  Not that long ago, the fearsome Assyrian army sacked the kingdom of Israel, exiled all of the people living there, and absorbed that territory into their own growing empire.  Now the small southern nation of Judah is all that’s left of the original nation of Israel, and things are looking bad.  Ticked by rumors of rebellion, King Sennacherib [seh-NACK-ker-rib] of Assyria invades Judah, destroys several of her strongest cities, and then surrounds the city of Jerusalem with his massive army, effectively cutting off all incoming supplies.  This is called sieging and it was a common warfare tactic in Bible times. 

We don’t know exactly when Isaiah spoke his message in Chapter 30.  We can tell by what’s being said that Judah is under attack.  King Hezekiah is trying to buy military assistance from the nation of Egypt—the only country around who can even hope to hold off the Assyrians.  The problem is that Hezekiah made this decision without consulting Yahweh.  Yahweh is Israel’s national God, and as such He should be the first One the people consult whenever Israel is in trouble.  Judah is the southern part of the original nation of Israel, and Jerusalem is the capital city of Judah.  Yahweh’s famous Temple is inside of Jerusalem, along with the royal palace, so where does Hezekiah get off making alliances with other nations and the gods of those nations without consulting Yahweh?

Yahweh is very angry here in Isaiah 30, but not just with Hezekiah.  All of the people living in Judah at this time are being defiant spiritual rebels.  As we learned in our last lesson, they are telling Yahweh’s prophets to shut up and go away because they hate the sound of Yahweh’s Voice.  Meanwhile, the land is peppered with shrines to idol gods and everyone’s worshiping and praying to those gods while they ignore Yahweh.  When they then decide to reach out to Egypt and her gods for help, it’s beyond defiant.  Clearly these people need a harsh spanking to motivate them to repent out of their rebellion.  So Yahweh brings in Sennacherib and lets him stomp all over the Jews.  People are getting hacked down by swords and dragged off as slaves.  Women are getting assaulted.  Property is being burned.  And the whole time, Yahweh makes it clear that He’s the One directing all of the devastation.  This isn’t happening because the Assyrian gods are stronger than He is or because the Assyrian army has more muscle—this is about Yahweh punishing rebellious brats.

Now in our last lesson, the emphasis was on wrath.  But once we reach verse 18 of this chapter, the tone suddenly softens and Yahweh starts talking about grace.  Here’s where Christian prosperity teachers start yanking out the ego-pleasing one liners, compiling them into those Bible promise books, and trying to make it sound like all you have to do is ring a bell and your servant Yahweh will come running to do your bidding.  But of course this is not at all what Yahweh is saying. As we go through the second half of this chapter, we’ll point out some of the verses that get commonly misapplied and help you understand what Yahweh is really saying.  And it so happens that the first four verses we’ll discuss are all prosperity favorites.

COMMONLY QUOTED – ISAIAH 30:18

Therefore Yahweh is waiting to show you mercy, and is rising up to show you compassion, for Yahweh is a just God. Blessed are those who wait for His help. (Isa. 30:18)

It’s easy to see why this one’s a favorite, but before you start naming and claiming, remember who it is that Yahweh’s talking to in this chapter: hardcore rebels in ancient Judah.  It was just back in verse 9 that we were told:

These are a rebellious people, deceptive children, children who do not want to obey Yahweh’s instruction. (Isa. 30:9)

Our Gods judge us by our soul attitudes, and in the first part of this chapter, Yahweh makes it clear that these people are refusing to submit to His Authority, revere Him, trust Him or depend on Him.  How can Yahweh possibly be pleased with such twerps?  He’s not pleased at all—He’s disgusted.  But if He’s not pleased, then why is He promising to bless them?  He’s not.  Here’s a critical rule of discernment that you need to keep in mind: God’s promises are always conditional.  This means that you can always turn a promise of God into an IF-THEN statement.  For example, here’s verse 18:

Therefore Yahweh is waiting to show you mercy, and is rising up to show you compassion, for Yahweh is a just God. Blessed are those who wait for His help. (Isa. 30:18)

Yahweh says He’s going to show people mercy and compassion.  But’s what the IF condition?  What do people have to do to qualify for such gracious treatment?  It won’t be actions God is looking for, but soul attitudes.  Look at the language here:

Blessed are those who wait for His help.

Yahweh’s saying it’s only those who wait for God’s help who are going to receive gracious treatment.  So now we can rephrase this verse this way:

IF these Jews wait for Yahweh’s help, THEN He will give them mercy and compassion. 

Now we have one step left: translate the IF action into a soul attitude.  Whenever Yahweh requires specific behaviors from people, He wants those behaviors to be driven by soul attitudes which please Him. There are four soul attitudes which you’ll find Yahweh emphasizing over and over again: reverence, submission, dependency and trust.  So which attitudes is He looking for here?  Well, for starters we know that these punks in Judah aren’t giving Him any of these attitudes.  Yahweh started this chapter by railing at the Jews for turning to Egypt instead of Him for help.  He said:

“Woe to the rebellious children!” declares Yahweh. “To those who carry out plans that are not Mine!  They form an alliance, but not by My Spirit, and in doing so they heap sin upon sin. They go to Egypt without asking Me. They look for shelter under Pharaoh’s protection and look for refuge in Egypt’s shadow.” (Isa. 30:1-2)

Why aren’t these Jews asking Yahweh for help when they know that He claims to be the only true God and the Supreme Authority over all created things?  Because they don’t trust Him.  The fact that they are worshiping other gods in Judah makes it obvious that these people are rejecting what Yahweh is saying about Himself.  Not only are they refusing to trust His description of how things really work, they’re refusing to submit to His Authority as the Supreme God.

Can these Jews defend themselves on their own?  No, they can’t even breathe on their own.  All humans are totally dependent on the true Gods to sustain them, but these Jews in Judah are refusing to embrace their dependency on Yahweh.  Lastly, they’re refusing to revere Him, even though they have been presented with plenty of evidence of His awesome power.  You see, when Yahweh says “I’ll treat you graciously if you wait for Me,” He doesn’t mean, “All you have to do is bide your time and I’ll surely rain down the earthly goodies.”  This is how we try to interpret verse 18 today because we’re not appreciating context.  But when we really think about what God’s saying, we realize that for these particular Jews to wait on Him alone for help would require a massive change in their current soul attitudes.  Right now, these Jews are putting all of their hopes in the power of Egypt and the Egyptian gods.  They’re taking a very hostile, hateful stance towards Yahweh.  When Yahweh tells these people to wait on Him, what He’s really saying is that they need to start sincerely revering, submitting to, trusting in, and depending on Him. It’s only THEN that He’ll pour on the grace.  So now let’s revise our IF-THEN statement to add in the soul attitudes that Yahweh is looking for.

IF these Jews in Judah wait for Yahweh’s help with soul attitudes which please Him (reverence, submission, dependency and trust), THEN He will show them mercy and compassion. 

See how it works?  Every promise God gives can be rewritten into an IF-THEN statement.  If you can’t identify both components, it’s because someone has intentionally cut off portions of what God said.  We do this all the time, because we don’t want to face how conditional God’s promises are.  God never gives us a free pass to just spit in His face without consequences.  As God teaches you about the soul attitudes which please Him, start looking for references to those soul attitudes in any promise that you come across.  If you can’t easily identify the soul attitude He wants by looking at the wording of the promise, then you need to go back to the original context and figure out who He’s talking to and what the soul attitudes of those people were.  Any positive promise which is spoken to a rebellious group of souls will always require an improvement in soul attitude, before the goods are delivered.

COMMONLY QUOTED – ISAIAH 30:19

O people of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. He will be gracious if you ask for help. He will surely respond to the sound of your cries. (Isa. 30:19)

Here the audience is clearly specified: this promise is being directed to the Jews who are living in Jerusalem.  The city of Jerusalem was built across the tops of multiple hills, one of which was called Zion.  It was on top of Mount Zion that Yahweh’s Temple was built, so when God refers to the people of Zion, He’s talking to souls who understand who He is and what He wants—He’s not talking to souls who have never heard of Him.  Because these Jews have been spiritually educated about who Yahweh is, they are being held spiritually accountable for how they are responding to the truths Yahweh has shown them.  The more you know, the more God will expect from you: this is how it works with Divine judgment.

Let’s now apply our promise discernment process by changing this promise into an IF-THEN statement.  The original text says:

O people of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. He will be gracious if you ask for help. He will surely respond to the sound of your cries. (Isa. 30:19)

And here’s our conditional statement:

IF the people in Jerusalem ask Yahweh for help with soul attitudes which please Him, THEN He will be gracious to them, help them, and put an end to their stressful earthly circumstances.

As a Christian who wants to mature in your own walk with God, here’s a critical principle to bear in mind: God’s ATTITUDE towards you is more important than the way He is currently ACTING towards you. Like us, God’s actions are driven by a wide variety of motivations, and if you want to properly assess why He’s doing what He’s doing in your life, you need to look past WHAT He’s doing and ask Him to help you understand WHY He’s doing it.  For example, God strikes Dan and Ben with the same terrible illness.  Because God is angry with Dan, His motivation for striking Dan sick is to discipline him.  But God is pleased with Ben, and His motivation for striking Ben with the same illness is to bless Ben by teaching Ben truths that will strengthen his relationship with God.  Because God’s attitude towards these two men is different, they need to respond to God’s actions differently.  Dan needs to repent out of his rebellion and re-submit to God’s Authority.  Ben needs to view his illness as a growth opportunity and ask God to help him learn everything that God wants to teach him.  See how it works?  God is a complex Being, and when we oversimplify Him, we end up in a mess.  Many Christians are taught that if God is bringing trials into their lives, then that must mean He is mad at them.  Well, no, such an assumption is far too general and it does not leave room for God to do the same actions with different motivations.

It is because God is such a complex Being, that you need to be very cautious when you’re asking other people to help you assess why God is treating you a certain way.  Most Christians do not have a correct understanding of how God judges us.  Instead of focusing on soul attitudes, they start looking at their earthly circumstances to help them assess God’s current attitude towards them, and this often leads to wrong assumptions.  The fact that your life is falling apart does not necessarily mean that God is angry with you.  Failing health, financial stresses, relational conflicts—before you go leaping to the wrong conclusions about why God is creating problems in your life, you need to ask Him to help you accurately discern His attitude towards you.  This is actually very easy to do once you understand what God cares about, and He will gladly teach you what He cares about when He sees that you sincerely want to please Him.

COMMONLY QUOTED – ISAIAH 30:20-21

Though Yahweh gave you adversity for food and suffering for drink, your Teacher will no longer hide Himself. You will see your Teacher with your own eyes.  Your own ears will hear Him. Right behind you a Voice will say, “This is the way you should go,” whether to the right or to the left. (Isa. 30:20-21)

What is the “adversity and suffering” that Yahweh is giving to these Jews?  Well, their country is under attack by a bunch of ruthless warriors.  Sadism abounded on battlefields in Bible times and soldiers went out of their way to degrade, terrorize, and torture their victims.  Don’t miss how Yahweh is taking full responsibility for the horrors that are happening in Judah right now.  He isn’t saying, “Rats, how did these clever Assyrians slip past My guard and attack My chosen people?”  He isn’t saying, “That darn Satan has bested Me again!”  Today the Church tries hard to convince you that our Gods have nothing to do with evil and that They loathe the thought of humans in anguish.  This is a deliberate contradiction of what our Gods teach in the Bible.

No one willingly drinks adversity and suffering—Yahweh is talking about force feeding here in verses 20-21.  He’s saying that He’s been ramming misery down the throats of these rebellious Jews and His motivation has been to discipline them.  But then He says that He will no longer hide Himself.  He says that these Jews will see Him and hear Him clearly guiding them in life.  This is metaphorical language for God drawing these souls closer to Him and becoming more communicative with them.  He’s promising to increase the intimacy between Himself and these Jews–but what’s the condition?

Remember how we said that Christians intentionally slice and dice what God says in the Bible in order to pretend His promises are unconditional?  This the case with the verses we’re dealing with here.  Verse 21 is often isolated and presented as a blanket promise to all of us.  But no, this is not what God is saying.  His promises always have conditions.  Since there are no conditions listed in verses 20-21, we need to look before and after these verses for help.  In the two verses before this, Yahweh has been laying down the same condition: these Jews must change their soul attitudes towards Him before He’s going to help them.  In verses 18 and 19, Yahweh talked about these Jews asking Him for help.  But as we continue on, He describes more actions that really help us understand the soul attitudes that He’s demanding.

Then you will destroy all your silver idols and your precious gold images. You will throw them out like menstrual cloths, saying to them, “Good riddance!” (Isa. 30:22)

The more we read, the clearer things get, which is why we need to avoid settling for one liners.  Here Yahweh describes these idol worshiping Jews in Judah actually destroying all of their false god paraphernalia.  Not only do they get rid of the physical statues, but notice how Yahweh describes them having an attitude of total disgust and repulsion.  He even whips out the gross image of a cloth soaked with a woman’s menstrual discharge to help us understand the strength of repulsion He’s talking about.  He’s not talking about people tossing out their idol statues with an indifferent “whatever” attitude.  It’s more like they’re saying, “Yuck!  Get this foul thing away from me!  What do I want with false gods when I’m a follower of Yahweh?”

Our Gods have no problems with using graphic, gross, and crude language in order to drive home a point.  Under the Old Covenant, bodily discharges were considered unclean, nasty things.  Making physical contact with menstrual fluids was as disgusting to the Jews as handling human poop would be to us today.  We need to not miss the intense repulsion Yahweh is describing here, because the only way these Jews are going to react this negatively to the gods they are currently worshiping is if they have a massive change of soul attitude.

Then Yahweh will bless you with rain at planting time. There will be wonderful harvests and plenty of pastureland for your livestock. The oxen and donkeys that till the ground will eat good grain, its chaff blown away by the wind. (Isa. 30:23-24)

Under the Old Covenant, Yahweh made this conditional promise to the entire nation of Israel:

“IF you embrace soul attitudes which please Me, THEN I will greatly bless your earthly circumstances.”

Under the New Covenant, this promise no longer applies, but many Christian leaders will try to tell you that it does.  Yet in the Gospels, the main point we find Jesus saying is this:

IF you embrace soul attitudes which please your Creators, THEN you should expect your earthly circumstances to become more difficult because the world will hate you for loving the true Gods.”

There are some important differences between the Old and New Covenants, and this promise business is one of them.  In Isaiah’s time, the Old Covenant was still in effect, which is why you’ll often find Yahweh promising to bless Israel’s earthly circumstances IF she repents out of her spiritual rebellion and starts embracing right soul attitudes.  But of course she doesn’t, so she is plagued with endless hardships.  Once you understand what’s really going on in the Old Testament, you should realize how wrong it is to say, “Poor Israel, she’s so unfairly picked on.  The Jews have always been innocent victims and it’s just not right.”  When you talk like this, what are you saying about Yahweh?  You’re grossly insulting Him.  You’re accusing Him of being an uncaring Creator who has never done much to help His chosen people.  You’re blowing off everything He says about how the Jews treated Him, and you’re totally discounting His sovereignty by talking as if He hasn’t always been controlling Israel’s situation.  Here in Isaiah 30, what does Yahweh say about the persecution of the Jews?  He says that He is the One persecuting them.  He’s the One force feeding them misery because they’re being such unrepentant little snarkers.  As serious Christians, we should always be siding with our Gods, not against Them, and this isn’t hard to do when we take the time to listen to Their assessment of a situation.  If our Gods are angry, Their anger is more than justified—this is Discernment 101.

In that day, when your enemies are slaughtered and the towers fall, there will be streams of water flowing down every mountain and hill. The moon will be as bright as the sun, and the sun will be seven times brighter—like the light of seven days in one! So it will be when Yahweh begins to heal His people and cure the wounds He gave them. (Isa. 30:25-26)

Here again, Yahweh claims full responsibility for trashing these Jews.  He’s the One doing the spanking—the Assyrians are just functioning as His spanking paddle.  Getting so focused on the instrument that we forget to see the God behind it is what the Church teaches us to do, because she doesn’t want to face the sovereignty of God.  When a gunman kills school children, she talks as if God had nothing to do with it.  When terrorists attack a city, she blames it on demons and wicked humans.  But in the Bible, our Gods teach us to stop downplaying Their involvement in this world.  They say that everything that happens is part of Their purposeful plan.

Here in verses 25-26, Yahweh is painting a cheery picture of these Jews enjoying much better times.  He describes their enemies being slaughtered, and then He throws in several exaggeratory nature images to paint a picture of happy times.  Abundant water that would make it easy to raise crops and tend to herds, extra bright light and the end to night—these images are purely symbolic and should not be taken literally.  Instead of getting distracted by symbols, we want to pay attention to how Yahweh is describing His own attitude changing towards these Jews.  He was trashing them—now He is describing Himself as starting to heal them.  To make sure we’re understanding Him right, let’s do an IF-THEN summary.

IF these rebellious Jews start embracing soul attitudes that are pleasing to Yahweh, THEN He will change His attitude towards them.  He’ll go from being angry to being gracious.  He’ll stop punishing them, and instead will start healing them. 

Are you seeing how making IF-THEN statements help us stay focused on the important issue of soul attitude?  Whenever you come across promises, curses, or threats in the Bible, pause to rephrase them into IF-THEN statements in your mind.  This will help you stay focused on spiritual priorities instead of getting all caught up in symbolism.  Our motivation for reading the Bible should be to better understand who our Gods are and how we can please Them—not to find ways of manipulating Them.

Look! Yahweh is coming from far away, burning with anger, surrounded by thick, rising smoke. His lips are filled with fury; His words consume like fire. His hot breath pours out like a flood up to the neck of His enemies. He will sift out the proud nations for destruction. He will bridle them and lead them away to ruin.

And you will sing as on the night you celebrate a holy festival; your hearts will rejoice as when people playing pipes go up to the mountain of Yahweh, to the Rock of Israel.

Yahweh will cause people to hear His majestic Voice and will make them see His arm coming down with raging anger and consuming fire, with cloudburst, thunderstorm and hail. (Isa. 30:27-29)

Once we realize that all of this dramatic imagery is just an expansion of a conditional promise, it really puts things in perspective.  In the prophetic books, we’ll often find Yahweh getting quite descriptive about how glorious life could be for the Jews IF they would stop rebelling against Him.  But since they refuse to meet His reasonable conditions, the fabulous circumstances He describes never happen in real life. 

Today many followers of Judaism as well as many Christians are fiercely clinging to a belief that Israel’s glory days are coming.  They base this theory on Old Testament prophecies—prophecies which they are slicing and dicing so they can ignore the conditions that Yahweh attaches to every single promise He gives.  Don’t fall for such foolishness.  Israel is never going to come anywhere close to experiencing the fabulous times that Yahweh describes in certain sections of the Old Testament.  Under the Old Covenant, she had centuries of chances to change her ways and experience the good life, but she couldn’t be bothered.  Now that Christ has come and Yahweh has changed His Covenant, the old promises no longer apply.

At Yahweh’s command, the Assyrians will be shattered. He will strike them down with His royal scepter. And as Yahweh strikes them with His rod of punishment, His people will celebrate with tambourines and harps. Lifting His mighty arm, He will fight the Assyrians. Tophet [TOE-fett]—the place of burning— has long been ready for the Assyrian king; the pyre is piled high with wood. The breath of Yahweh, like fire from a volcano, will set it ablaze. (Isa. 30:31-33)

Arms were symbols of power in Bible times, so when Yahweh “lifts His mighty arm,” it means He’s flexing His God power.  Tophet was a pagan altar on which the Jews burned their living infants to death in honor of the Ammonite god Molech [MO-leck]This altar was located in the valley of Ben-Hinnom which was located right outside of Jerusalem.  Heaven forbid the Jews should have to trek too far from Yahweh’s Temple in order to sacrifice to false gods.  It was because Ben-Hinnom was so strongly associated with bitter grief, screaming, and intense human anguish that Jesus later used it as a parallel for Hell.  By New Testament times, the term for Ben-Hinnom was Gehenna [geh-HEN-nuh], and Jesus is actually using the term Gehenna in several of the famous “Hell” verses.

“Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” (Mt. 10:28)

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of Gehenna as yourselves!” (Mt. 23:15)

“If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into Gehenna.” (Mt. 5:30)

The fact that Gehenna and its fiery torments was still such a powerful metaphor in New Testament Jewish society underscores what a major role the worship of idols played in their nation’s history.  And the fact that these people were willing to inflict such emotional and psychological trauma on themselves in order to appease Molech leaves no doubt that they were more than capable of committing themselves to Yahweh.  The Jews clearly had no problems pulling sacrificial devotion out of themselves, but despite the fact that Yahweh was so much kinder than the hideous idols that the Jews clung to, they refused to submit to Him.  The idea of submitting to the true God was so intensely repulsive to them that they spent centuries defying Him.

Back in Isaiah 30, Yahweh is using the tools at hand when He refers to the king of Assyria roasting in Tophet and His own breath igniting the fire.

Lifting His mighty arm, He will fight the Assyrians. Tophet—the place of burning— has long been ready for the Assyrian king; the pyre is piled high with wood. The breath of Yahweh, like fire from a volcano, will set it ablaze. (Isa. 30:33)

As disturbing as references to menstrual cloths and Tophet are, don’t miss how wonderful Yahweh is being to speak to these Jews within the context of their culture.  Our Gods fully understand our human perspective, and They know how to make Their will clear to us.  Here in Isaiah 30, Yahweh has been using very familiar language and metaphors to drive home one key point: He wants these stubborn Jews to repent out of their rebellion and get serious about pleasing Him.  Because we know Israel’s history, we don’t have any hope for these Jews, but for thousands of years, Yahweh has been using accounts of their incessant rebellion to help us understand what a good and gracious God He is.  Happily we don’t have to follow ancient Israel’s terrible example.  We can choose to listen when our Gods teach us, and embrace the soul attitudes that They say please Them.  Reverence, submission, trust and dependency: when we focus on these things, we will end up in a fabulous place.

FURTHER READING:
Soul Before Earthsuit: Understanding God’s Priorities
Practicing Discernment: Bible Promises
Isaiah 26:3 In Context: Does God really give us perfect peace?

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