The Pursuit of God

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Understanding Yahweh’s Wrath: Judah’s Alliance with Egypt (Isaiah 30:1-17)

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In Bible times, all nations had national gods, and Yahweh was the national God of Israel.  In modern times, we don’t have national gods, and this greatly affects the way we view things like wars.  Today, if America and China attack each other, the world would see a bunch of humans warring against each other for the usual human reasons such as greed or pride.  But if instead we were operating like the folks in Bible times, then we’d see things very differently.  America would have national gods who all Americans honored, and China would have national gods who all of her citizens honored.  When America and China attacked each other, what the world would see is the gods of America going up against the gods of China.  You see, it would no longer be a human war.  The humans might have started the tiff, but their gods would be the ones who would finish it.  If China won the war, then Chinese soldiers would go back to their country and a huge celebration for the Chinese gods would commence.  Meanwhile, American soldiers would return to their country and a huge mourning and pleading ceremony would be held for their gods.  Both countries would shower their gods with gifts and offerings, but for two different reasons.  The Chinese would be trying to reward their gods, while the Americans would be trying to appease their gods who they would assume must be mad at them for not defending them well. 

When wars were lost in Bible times, there were only two explanations: either your country’s gods were ticked at you, or they were too weak to overcome their divine opponents. Now sometimes you had good cause to think your gods would lose before you even started a battle.  If the country who is attacking you has fought with you before and you lost, that would cause you to worry that your gods just weren’t beefy enough to take their gods on.  In this kind of situation, the smart thing to do would be to get your gods some back up, and you do this by forming military alliances with other countries.

To interpret Old Testament prophecies correctly, we have to understand how very religious the Old Testament peoples were.  There are no atheists in the Bible—every nation is a staunch believer in the existence of gods who are constantly getting involved in human affairs. Of course most of the gods being worshiped in Old Testament times were nothing more than delusions, but our delusions still have a very powerful impact on us.

Now God judges us by our soul’s response to Him, not by our external behavior.  It’s never what someone’s doing that’s the problem, but why they are doing it.  This is a critical point to understand because in the prophetic books, we find Yahweh chewing out a lot of people for certain actions.  In this lesson, we’re going to discuss Isaiah 30, and in this chapter Yahweh is railing at the Jews for making a military alliance with the nation of Egypt. So what is God’s problem?  Is He really anti-alliance?  Is He saying it’s wrong for countries to ever buddy up?  No, this is not what He’s saying.  Anytime you want to understand why God is angry or pleased with someone,  you have to look past the external action He’s talking about and realize that what He’s really responding to is soul attitude.  Yahweh is clearly taking major offense at the fact that a Jewish king has made a military alliance with the king of Egypt.  To understand why, we have to understand the worldview of that Jewish king, because how we perceive the world around us affects our soul attitudes. 

JUDAH & EGYPT

As we said before, the Israelites consider Yahweh to be their national God.  But they don’t respect Him, nor do they put much effort into worshiping Him.  They have many other gods who they consider more interesting than Yahweh.  Of course none of those other gods are real, but the Jews are telling themselves that they are real, and that’s a very important point.

Suppose you believe that your coworker has a thousand dollars in cash in her purse.  Based on this assumption, you sneak off to the breakroom when no one’s looking and you start rifling through her purse.  Now it turns out that you were wrong about the thousand dollars.  In reality, your coworker doesn’t have any money in her purse.  Because she knows she doesn’t have any money, when she walks in and sees you holding her purse, she doesn’t leap to the conclusion that you were trying to steal from her.  When you say you were just looking for aspirin, she believes you, fetches some out, and puts her purse back. Because she doesn’t know what your intentions were, she doesn’t view you as the shady little thief that you are.

But what does God see?  He sees you trying to steal.  God also knows that there’s no money in the purse, but does the fact that you’re operating on false assumptions get you off the hook with Him?  Not at all.  God judges you by your intentions, no matter how out of touch you are with reality.

None of the other gods that we read about people worshiping in the Old Testament were real gods.  Yahweh was the only real God in the bunch, but because people were assuming that their other gods were real, Yahweh judged them within the context of those wrong assumptions.

When the Jewish king asked the pharaoh of Egypt for a military alliance, the Jewish king was not only looking for military muscle, he was looking for the help of the Egyptian gods.  Were the Egyptian gods real?  Not at all, but because the Jewish king assumed those false gods were real, he got in big trouble with Yahweh.  You see, by trying to enlist the help of other gods, the Jewish king was saying, “My own nation’s God can’t be counted on.  He’s not strong enough to handle my problems.  He can’t be trusted.  I don’t like Him.  I don’t respect His Authority or care what He thinks.  So I’m going to enlist the help of the Egyptian gods instead.”  It is this rebellious soul attitude that Yahweh is addressing in Isaiah 30.  The actual alliance isn’t the problem—it’s all the things that come with it: the rejection of Yahweh, and the elevation of false gods as being superior to Him.

Now the biblical world was filled with gods, and most gods acknowledged the existence of other gods (at least this is what people told themselves).  What made Yahweh so unique is that He said He was the only real God.  He said all the other beings who people called gods were nothing more than absurd fantasies.  Yahweh mocks the whole notion of other gods quite a bit in the Old Testament prophetic books.

Well, it’s one thing for a god to claim that he’s the best and the strongest.  But it’s highly bizarre for Yahweh to say that He is the only true God.  When the Jews look around, they think they see evidence that there are many real gods—not just Yahweh.  So despite Yahweh’s claims that every other god is a phony, the Jews keep on worshiping the delusions which they’ve decided to pretend are real.

Now not everyone understood that the national God of Israel claimed to be the only real God.  But the Jews did understand this, and this is what got them in such big trouble whenever they started fussing around with false gods.  Once Yahweh declared all other gods to be phony, He demanded that His followers submit to His view of reality.  When the Jews refused to do so, they were expressing soul rebellion, and it was that rebellious attitude which Yahweh punished them for.  It’s always about attitude with God.

ISAIAH 30

So now that we understand all of this, let’s dive into the text of Isaiah 30 and hear what Yahweh has to say.  Notice how right off He accuses the Jews of being rebellious.

“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)

Alliances were big decisions, and kings didn’t make them lightly.  In these times, it was a given that you should consult whatever gods you worshiped before you made any big decisions—especially if you were a king.  Because our Gods are so good in Character, They take into account the cultures we are living in as well as our place in history before They cast judgment.  Today there are some folks who run around stark naked because they live in very hot climates where clothes just aren’t practical.  When you’re born into a culture where nudity is the norm, God doesn’t accuse you of trying to be immodest because He knows you’re not.  It’s a totally different thing for some jungle woman to go around shirtless than it would be for an American to pop into a grocery store stark naked.  The jungle woman is not trying to draw attention to her nudity or shock anyone—the American woman is.

God judges us within our cultural contexts, and in the time of the prophet Isaiah, kings didn’t form alliances without consulting the wisdom of their own gods first.  Since Yahweh is the national God of Israel, it is beyond insulting that this Jewish king has refused to seek Yahweh’s opinion before trying to make a deal with Egypt.  Here’s an important rule to bear in mind: the angrier God is, the more intense the rebellion is that He’s reacting to.

Yahweh is a very gracious Being—He isn’t some short tempered monster who goes flying off the handle the moment someone breathes wrong.  Yet in the Old Testament, we find Yahweh doing a whole lot of raging.  Those who don’t know Yahweh personally listen to how angry He sounds and leap to the wrong assumption that He must be a short tempered God.  This is how the stereotype that the God of the Old Testament is some mean Monster was born—from a bunch of folks who know nothing about the real Yahweh.  Because the truth is that Yahweh is a gracious Sweetheart who couldn’t be more loving and kind.  Once you understand who He really is, you realize how bad the rebellion problem was among the Jews.

This same principle applies to Jesus—He is incredibly gentle, gracious and kind.  So when you see Jesus expressing irritation with His own disciples in the Gospels (which He does a lot), what should you conclude?  That Jesus is some hard to please Stickler?  No, Jesus isn’t the problem in these situations.  The problem is that His disciples are being rebellious pills (see Know Your Bible Lesson 53: Stubborn Disciples).  You see, the better you personally get to know your Creators, the more accurately you’ll interpret Their behavior.

So in Isaiah 30, Yahweh has specified why He’s mad: Israel has grossly insulted Him by running off to befriend the Egyptian gods—those same gods who they know Yahweh trashed with His famous ten plagues.  Talk about insulting.  And since the Jews are treating Him with such disdain, Yahweh’s not about to let this alliance work out for them.

“But hiding in Egypt will bring you only shame; Egypt’s protection will only disappoint you. Your officers have gone to Zoan [a city in northern Egypt], and your messengers have gone to Hanes [a city in southern Egypt], but they will be put to shame, because Egypt is useless to them. It will give no help and will be of no use; it will cause them only shame and disgrace.”  (Isa. 30:3-5)

It’s in the book of Isaiah that we find many fabulous verses about how sovereign Yahweh is.  He is in absolute control at all times, so there’s no way Israel can go sneaking behind His back and cut deals with other gods without Yahweh knowing about it.  Yahweh tells these rebellious Jews that their alliance with Egypt will blow up in their faces.  It will be an alliance that only makes their troubles worse, not better.

So why are the Jews trying to form an alliance in the first place?  What are they feeling so threatened by?  Well, at this time in history, a scary thing is happening.  Not that long ago, there was a nation named Assyria who was one of Israel’s northern neighbors.  Assyria’s always been a bit of a bully, but now she’s really gone berserk and she’s quickly taking over the world.  Nation after nation is being gobbled up by her, and what was once a single nation has mushroomed into an empire. Israel has always been a very small country, but she’s even smaller since an ancient civil war left her split into two kingdoms.  Judah is the name of the southern kingdom, and Judah is where the prophet Isaiah lives.  The king in Judah right now is a man named Hezekiah.  Hezekiah is definitely one of the better Jewish kings, for he shows more respect for Yahweh than most other kings did.  But when Assyria launches an attack on Hezekiah’s kingdom, he goes scrambling to Egypt for help.

Isaiah lives through the reigns of many Jewish kings: kings of the north, and kings of the south.  He even sees the northern kingdom of Israel (which kept the name Israel) completely swallowed up by the mighty Assyrians.  That terrifying event happens during the reign of Hezekiah—all the more reason why Hezekiah figures he can’t afford to wait on Yahweh.  The much larger nation of Egypt is far to the south and therefore out of reach for Assyria right now.  So Egypt seems like the best hope Judah has.  But of course Yahweh totally disagrees with this logic.  He says that He is Judah’s Hope and Protector.  Yahweh also says that He is the One controlling Assyria’s activities and that He is intentionally handing nations over to her as a way of disciplining those nations for rebelling against Him.  So according to Yahweh, everything is quite under control.  But according to the people of Judah, everything’s in a terrible mess.

This is a message about the animals in southern Judah:

The caravan moves slowly across the terrible desert to Egypt—donkeys weighed down with riches and camels loaded with treasure—all to pay for Egypt’s protection. They travel through the wilderness, a place of lionesses and lions, a place where vipers and poisonous snakes live. All this, and Egypt will give you nothing in return. Egypt’s promises are worthless! Therefore, I call her Rahab—the Dragon Who Just Sits. (Isa. 30:6-7)

With the Assyrians controlling the coastal highway, Hezekiah’s guys are risking their lives on a danger filled desert route to carry wealth to Egypt which will hopefully buy her support.  Yahweh says it’s all a waste of time.

Rahab was the name of a sea dragon who was greatly feared and considered impossible to kill.  By calling Egypt Rahab, Yahweh is acknowledging the lofty opinion the Jews have of Egypt’s power and strength—but then He says that this mighty dragon will just sit there like a useless lump and prove to be no help at all.

Now go and write down these words. Write them in a book. They will stand until the end of time as a witness that these people are stubborn rebels who refuse to pay attention to Yahweh’s instructions. They tell the seers, “Stop seeing visions!” They tell the prophets, “Do not prophesy the truth to us. Tell us flattering things instead. Prophesy illusions. Get out of the way! Stop blocking our path! Stop telling us about the Holy One of Israel!” (Isa. 30:8-11)

Here the rebellious soul attitudes of these Jews are described in detail. They recognize that Yahweh is speaking through Isaiah, and they know that His words are true and His prophecies are accurate. But they don’t want to hear it.  Truth angers them.  Dealing with God angers them.  They hate Him and they want Him to go away.

This is the reply of the Holy One of Israel: “Because you despise what I tell you and trust instead in oppression and lies, calamity will come upon you suddenly— like a bulging wall that bursts and falls. In an instant it will collapse and come crashing down. You will be smashed like a piece of pottery— shattered so completely that there won’t be a piece big enough to carry coals from a fireplace or a little water from the well.” (Isa. 30:12-14)

Judah’s already under attack—that’s why she’s rushing to Egypt for help.  But here Yahweh is predicting even worse trouble for her: total annihilation.  This prophecy will be fulfilled centuries later in the time of the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel when Yahweh totally destroys the kingdom of Judah.

COMMONLY QUOTED – ISAIAH 30:15

This is what the Sovereign Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel, says: “Only in returning to Me and resting in Me will you be saved. In quietness and confidence is your strength. But you would have none of it.” (Isa. 30:15)

Here’s a verse that often gets trimmed to sound like a pretty promise for modern day believers.  Yet the context of this verse makes it clear that Yahweh is talking to unrepentant rebels.  Not only that but this is Old Covenant theology, and under the Old Covenant, there was no sense of permanent salvation.  As long as you had right soul attitudes, Yahweh said you could expect to end up on the right side of eternity.  But if you decided to get all snarky with Him and refused to respond to His convictions, then He said that you would be eternally damned by Him.

As a Christian, you should not be viewing your salvation as something you are constantly losing.  Under the New Covenant, once our Gods accept us, They never cast us out again.  They will certainly discipline us, and They make it clear that our choices on earth will have eternal consequences.  But a true Christian should not be living in fear that one carnal moment will end up landing him in Hell.

Since Bible promise books tend to support prosperity theology—which is the belief that God will reward good spiritual choices with great earthly circumstances—you could easily twist this verse into a promise that God will “save” us from any trouble we have—health, financial, or otherwise—if we just “return and rest.”  Well, no, whenever we try to turn Old Covenant comments into New Covenant promises, we quickly go astray.

Setting our greed for blessings aside, let’s turn our attention to the positive truths Yahweh is expressing here.  First, He’s demonstrating how incredibly gracious He is by talking this way to people who are giving Him such attitude.  It’s only spiritual rebels who Yahweh calls to “return” to Him, but why should He ever bother with giving us more chances?  We certainly don’t deserve them.  When we rebel against God, it’s intentional.  So here’s our first encouraging lesson: God is gracious.

Now we’re always saying that God judges us by our soul attitudes.  What soul attitudes is Yahweh saying He wants in this verse?  Let’s look at the language again:

“Only in returning to Me and resting in Me will you be saved. In quietness and confidence is your strength.”  (Isa. 30:15)

What do you rest on?  Only something you trust.  You wouldn’t lean your weight against a rickety ladder or a paper wall.  When Yahweh talks about resting in Him with quiet confidence, He’s talking about the soul attitude of trust.  When He talks about rebels returning to Him, He’s talking about souls submitting to His Authority.  Trust and submission are critical soul attitudes, as are dependency and reverence.  These Jews are refusing to embrace any of these attitudes, which is why Yahweh is so angry with them.

So what does being quiet have to do with anything?  This is another picture of trust.  When a baby is content, he relaxes and rests quietly in his mother’s arms.  When a baby is upset, he starts fussing and wailing. Here in verse 15, Yahweh’s describing the kind of soul trust that pleases Him: it’s a calm, confident trust that He is good and that He can be counted on.

So what if you’re already trying to trust God?  If this is where you’re at, then you should be encouraged by this verse which reminds you that your soul attitude is one that pleases God.  Reverence, submission, dependency and trust—whenever we’re embracing these four soul attitudes, we’re going to be pleasing our Gods.

“You said, ‘No, we will get our help from Egypt. They will give us swift horses for riding into battle.’

But the only swiftness you are going to see is the swiftness of your enemies chasing you! One of them will chase a thousand of you. Five of them will make all of you flee. You will be left like a lonely flagpole on a hill or a tattered banner on a distant mountaintop.” (Isa. 30:16-17)

Yahweh’s been calling these Jews to repent and return to Him for quite some time now, but this is the answer they’ve been giving Him: “No!  We’re going to Egypt for help!  Egypt is who we trust, not You!”  Because of this, Yahweh promises disaster.

At this point in the chapter, there is a dramatic shift in tone as the focus turns from destruction to hope.  But who is the hope for?  Is Yahweh really just going to set His wrath aside, shrug off the past, and decide to rain blessings down on the heads of those who are spitting in His face?  This is how many Christians think He operates because they do not really look at what He’s saying.  Yet as we’ll learn in our next lesson, Yahweh’s promises of blessings always come paired with conditions, and those conditions always come down to right soul attitudes.

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

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