Great Discernment Needed

Isaiah 44:9-23

There are few areas of life where discernment is so necessary as in the area of idolatry. The problem is that our hearts are usually blind to our own idolatries. We don’t see it when we make fame, respect, money, security, relationships, sports teams, or just plain stuff our idols. We have significant blind spots when it comes to the matters of the heart. Jeremiah tells us that the heart is deceptively wicked. Just how deceptive, though, is the human heart? Isaiah gives us a vivid, not to say humorous illustration of how blind people can be to their own idolatry. As modern people, though, we have an additional problem that the ancient people didn’t have. Our problem is that many of our idols are less tangible, less visible. This means that we have an extra layer of deception that is possible. We look at a passage like this, and we are tempted to miss the application to ourselves entirely. We say, “Look at those poor benighted ancient people. They didn’t have a clue. In our modern, progressive, enlightened world, we don’t bow down to a piece of wood.” However, people do bow down to trees. Some people worship creation, what we call the tree-huggers. They seem to bow down to a piece of wood as well. Maybe the passage is more relevant to our modern day than we might have thought.

The first point to consider is that we become like whatever we worship. Our passage says that those who fashion idols are nothing. The witnesses to idolatry neither see or know. Verse 18 says that they don’t know or discern. Even more evocative is verse 20, which says that he feeds on ashes. The ashes are the ashes of the burnt log which constitutes the better half of the log. Psalm 115 puts the matter as clearly as anywhere in Scripture: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel, feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.” So, we could put the matter this way: whoever worships a block of wood becomes a blockhead. The amazing thing about this principle is that it also works the other way. If we worship the one true God, then we become like Him. We are all worshipers. Every human being worships something or someone. If we worship ourselves, we turn in on ourselves, and become narcissists. If we worship other people, then we become sycophants with a dependent personality. If we worship Satan, we will become satanic. But if we worship God, we will become, eventually, as like him as it is possible for created beings to be.

Secondly, we see the absolute folly of idolatry. This passage makes fun of idolatry. It is funny, isn’t it? Look at how much effort goes into making an idol. First you gotta tools in order. The ironsmith is first. He labors over the coals, but if he doesn’t drink enough water, he becomes faint. Imagine becoming faint while making your tools! And if that wasn’t enough, he got hungry, too! Making your own idols is hungry, painstaking work. What a mundane and wearisome task this is, to create your own creator!

Next, we move on to the carpenter. Here we can see just how much discernment is needed. He has to know which one of the trees in the forest contains his god. Look carefully, Mr. Carpenter. You wouldn’t want accidentally, now, to pick the wrong tree, would you? Even more discernment is necessary, however, once the right tree is cut down. Which end of the log is right for the fire, and which end of the log is your god? What catastrophe would result if you accidentally picked the wrong end of the log? Notice what the carpenter says after disposing of both ends of the log. After he puts one end in the fire, he says, “Ah, I am warm, and I love looking into that fire.” Notice incidentally that he sees the fire, but he doesn’t see the light! After he makes the idol, he says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” How stupid, when really, both ends of the log are really only fit for the fire. Why is this so stupid? Well, it seems clear from the way Isaiah puts this that one end of the log is really only as valuable as the other end of the log. Again, that is why Isaiah says that he is feeding on ashes in verse 20. His soul is feeding on the burned side of the log, when he thinks he is feeding on the “god” side of the log.

Even more clearly and obviously, verse 18 tells us that these idol-makers haven’t got a clue. Don’t miss the point in verse 18 that God has shut their eyes. This is a judicial blindness that God has leveled against these idolaters. The idolater’s own heart also leads him astray, however, as verse 20 says, “a deluded heart has led him astray.”

The third point of our passage is that the creator of something is more exalted than the thing that is created. In verse 21, the Lord God says, “I formed you.” The true God forms and creates His creation. He is not created by the creation. This seems like a very obvious point, but people don’t seem to understand this about less tangible things. They forget that we are just as involved in making money or forming relationships as we would be in making a block of wood into an idol.

As verse 13 points out, the foolish idolater makes the idol into the form of a human being. That is as high as he can go. In all forms of idolatry, in fact, humanity can never get higher than itself. Look at all other religions, and they drag God down to the level of human beings. The Greek gods are a case in point. They were petty, selfish, lascivious, arbitrary, and cruel. They were no better than human beings.We cannot form our maker. How foolish it is, then, to believe that we can make an idol, when, after it is made, we have to baby it along, take care of it, make sure it doesn’t get burned up the fire that we used the other half of the log for. So, it is not just that the Creator is greater than than the creation. It is also a question of providence: the one true God takes care of His people, rather than the people taking care of God.

The fourth thing we see in our passage is that only the one true God can deliver people. He idolater asks his block of wood to deliver him, after he took such pains to make the god. Who really has the greater power to save? But in verse 22, we see that God is the one who blots out the transgressions of the people. Everything in verses 21-23 forms a contrast with what came before. God says that Israel is God’s servant in verse 21. This is opposed to the end of verse 17, where the idolater falls down in order to serve the dumb idol. God created us, whereas the idolater creates his own creator. God delivers His people from their sins, whereas a block of wood can do absolutely nothing except burn in a fire. Even the trees themselves find a proper place in God’s reckoning. The end of verse 23 has the trees singing the praises of God Almighty. Surely that is a better use for trees than making idols out of them!

So what do we really need from all this? We need to recognize our Creator. Great discernment is needed. There are many things out there which human beings worship. How do we know if we are worshiping the one true God? The answer is that God has to open up our eyes before we can see that. Just as Jesus opened the eyes of the blind, so also He opens the eyes of those who were spiritually blind before. What God does is the absolute opposite of what the idolater does. The idolater takes a tree that is alive and makes something dead out of it. God, however, does the opposite in bringing home a sinner to Himself: He takes a spiritually dead person and makes him alive. Verse 22 says this so clearly: “I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you.” This leads us to the second takeaway.

The second thing we can take away from this is that we need the forgiveness of sins more than anything else in the whole world. That is something to sing about, as verse 23 says. We can only have the forgiveness of sins in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This whole passage ought to point us to a much better, infinitely wiser carpenter than this poor benighted fool of Isaiah 44. Jesus never does any of these things. Yet He came to earth to take on a created human nature in order to redeem us from our own sinful stupidity. What kind of a God would do that for His enemies? Only the one true God does that. Putting our faith in the one true God means that our faith resides in the only God who can save His people from their sins. No other idol or god in any false religion has a god who can save. Only the one true God saves.

Lastly, there is a note of final judgment in this text. Verse 11 says that those who make and worship false gods will be put to shame. They will all assemble together, therefore they shall be put to shame together. The only way to escape that shame is to put your faith and worship in the only being in or out of this universe that is worth believing and worshiping, and that being is the one God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who forms the universe, and every human being in it. May we all sing to Him, as the heavens themselves do in verse 23, even the depths of the earth, the mountains, and all the trees of the forest.

Advertisements

A Friendly Introduction to Biblical Literacy

Posted by Paige (Yes, I’m still around here sometimes!)

I’m pleased to be able to share with you a quirky biblical literacy resource that I created this year. Originally commissioned for a women’s Bible study conference last fall, this half-hour talk instructs beginning Bible students in the difference between “doing devotions” and studying a passage, using Isaiah 61 to reinforce my main points.

It’s meant to be a primer, so the content won’t interest most readers of this blog. But if you listen for just a few minutes, you’ll likely think of a few people who would benefit from this kind of friendly instruction. (Of course, if you listen to the whole thing I will be flattered!)

This talk is on YouTube not because it’s a video of me speaking, but because I created slides to accompany it, for the sake of visual learners. The talk can be enjoyed profitably just as an audio recording, too. Please pass this link along, as appropriate. Thanks!

A Friendly Intro to Biblical Theology, Take Three

(Posted by Paige)

Here is a link to a 30-minute talk that I gave at a Bible study conference this October. It’s another introduction to redemptive history, this time tracing the theme of God’s inclusion of the Gentiles through the Old and New Testaments. I also play around with a connection between the Syrophoenician woman and Paul’s words about the “mystery” of Gentile inclusion in Ephesians 3. It’s on YouTube this time NOT because it’s a video of me speaking, but because I made slides to illustrate the audio. Please listen if you like, and pass the link on to others who might benefit, especially those who are just getting to know the Word.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Vineyard, O Vineyard!

In 2 Samuel, Nathan conceives of a very special way of convicting David of his sin: get David to condemn himself out of his own mouth! He tells David an outrageous story of a rich man oppressing a poor man by stealing the poor man’s one and only sheep and sacrificing it, seemingly oblivious of the fact that his own sheep and cattle could provide plenty of supply in this regard. David becomes angry at the rich man, whereupon Nathan tells him “You are the man.” And that doesn’t exactly mean “You da man” in today’s slang, either.

Isaiah does exactly the same thing in Isaiah, chapter 5. We know right away that something is wrong when Isaiah says that this is a love song, but uses the lament form of poetry to sing it. This song was possibly written at the time of the grape harvest, such that the impact of grape harvesters sympathizing with the vineyard keeper would be more likely to blind the readers until just the right moment (which is verse 7).

Certainly, everyone’s sympathy is for the vineyard keeper. Look at everything He did for the vineyard: chose a great location (vs 1), cultivated the field, cleared it of stones, chose the very best vines, set a protecting watchtower (probably out of the stones He had cleared from the field), put a wine vat in it (vs. 2), all in the expectation of the best possible grape harvest. There was nothing more that could possibly have been done for it (vs 4).

In verse 3, the scene shifts to the courtroom, and here is where Isaiah’s rhetoric is incredibly brilliant. For he invites the listeners to be the judges before the listeners know that they are actually the defendants! But, as Alec Motyer notes, it was as if grace had never even touched them.

As verses 5-6 make clear, further effort on the part of the vineyard keeper would be completely counter-productive. The language in verse 6 certainly echoes the curse on the earth given in the Fall, only here in Isaiah, the curse falls directly upon the people, rather than upon the land. In Genesis, of course, the people are cursed too, but with different language.

In verse 7, we see the real kicker. The judges of verse 3 are the defendants after all. It should be noted here Isaiah’s wordplays. The word “justice” (mishpat) sounds just like the word “bloodshed” (mishpach). And then the word for righteousness (tsedaqah) sounds very similar to the word for “outcry” (tse’aqah).

The real marvel of this passage, however, comes in the realization that Jesus has taken this curse of the vineyard on Himself. After all, He is the true Vine. He was trampled, made waste, crowned with briers and thorns, and ultimately abandoned. We need to be branches in His true vine, persevering by God’s grace.

Lastly, I should note that all the insights in this post are from other people: John Mackay, Geoffrey Grogan, John Goldingay, Alec Motyer, and John Oswalt.

Does God Create Evil?

The text under consideration is Isaiah 45:7, in the ESV: “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.” Now, this rendering doesn’t seem nearly so problematic as the KJV, which reads like this: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” Here is the Hebrew:

 יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֹשֶׁךְ עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם וּבוֹרֵא רָע אֲנִי יְהוָה עֹשֶׂה כָל־אֵלֶּה׃

Now, the word in question is ra’. This word has a range of meanings centering around two main meanings, “evil” and “bad.” The question is, what is the meaning of ra’ here? John Calvin says this, “Fanatics torture this word evil, as if God were the author of evil, that is, of sin; but it is very obvious how ridiculously they abuse this passage of the Prophet. This is sufficiently explained by the contrast, the parts of which must agree with each other; for he contrasts “peace” with “evil,” that is, with afflictions, wars, and other adverse occurrences.” Then he goes on to note that “we ought not to reject the ordinary distinction, that God is the author of the “evil” of punishment, but not of the “evil” of guilt.” Indeed, the contrast does point the way here toward that understanding of ra’ as “bad.” Whatever it is, it is the opposite of “shalom,” which means “peace, well-being.” This is similar to E.J. Young’s approach (quoted by Baltzer, though missing a key sentence). Young argues that this refers to more than just calamity. It refers to the absolute decree of God. This means that God ordains whatsoever comes to pass, and yet God is not the author of evil. The difficulty with this position is that the Hebrew here is bara’, which is used of absolute creation by God everywhere else it is used (for instance, Genesis 1:1). Whatever the ra’ is, God created it. Therefore, I believe that Calvin’s approach is better. The context must allow its say in how we define the term ra’. So the ESV is a better translation than the KJV here, though the older usage of the word, if remembered, rescues the KJV from obsolescence.

On Isaiah 9:6

The text is as follows:

כִּי־יֶלֶד יֻלַּד־לָנוּ בֵּן נִתַּן־לָנוּ וַתְּהִי הַמִּשְׂרָה עַל־שִׁכְמו

ֹ וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ פֶּלֶא יוֹעֵץ אֵל גִּבּוֹר אֲבִיעַד שַׂר־שָׁלוֹם׃

The ESV has “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” The New World Translation (the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ translation) is little different from this. It translates El gibbor exactly the same way, capital letters and all.

The phrase I wish to look at is the phrase “Mighty God” (El gibbor) There is only one other place in the entire Bible where this phrase is found, and that place is Isaiah 10:21. There, the phrase refers obviously to the Holy One of Israel (vs 20), the LORD (vs 20), which is “Yahweh,” in Hebrew. Therefore, there can be no question about the fact that in chapter 10, verse 21, El gibbor refers to God. However, the Jehovah’s Witnesses will say that in 9:6, though the verse does refer to Jesus, it doesn’t mean “Almighty God,” but “Mighty God.” This is not born up by the exegesis, since the same phrase describes the Father in 10:21 as describes the Son in 9:6. Furthermore, if Isaiah 9:6 refers to Jesus, then Jesus is the Father. That is, He has the same substance as the Father. Therefore, Isaiah 9:6 is a great place for Christians to go to prove to Jehovah’s Witnesses that Jesus is God.

The Righteous Shoot

Isaiah 11:1-9
A forest fire is a terrible thing to witness. It destroys everything in its path. Nothing remains alive. The devastation is so intense that you might wonder how in the world anything could ever grow there again. However, as you look at that place a year later, and then another year later, you will see that the forest is coming back. It is the most amazing thing. Sometimes, a tree that topples over can have a shoot come out from it, a new growth. If the root system is not completely destroyed, then that can happen, even from seemingly the most dead trees, this could happen.

Now change the image just slightly. Imagine a forester coming through a forest, chopping down trees, because the trees were dead. The trees had been dead for many years. They had no good root system in them at all. But now, something different is about to happen. The root will be changed. The root will take in nutrients from the soil again. It is nothing short of a resurrection. In a way, that is what we see in Isaiah 11. We see this all happening by means of one who is anointed. “The anointed one,” is what the word “Messiah” means. He can bring this renewal because of three things: His qualifications, His performance, and the results of that performance.

First, we see His qualifications. They are laid out for us in verses 1-2. We see from verse 1 that the Messiah is a fruit-bearing branch. You might remember in chapter 5, where Isaiah sings (on God’s behalf) the song of the vineyard. That song tells of how the farmer planted the vineyard, and cultivated it, and cleared the area of stones. He guarded it by putting a watchtower there. And then he looked to see fruit, good fruit. But the only fruit that the vines produced was bad fruit, wild grapes. There was nothing more that He could have done for it than what He had actually done. The end of that vineyard then is to be destroyed. This is a metaphor for Israel, of course. It is Israel about whom the prophet is speaking. But now in chapter 11, we see a shoot. A new growth that will produce fruit. That is the Messiah’s first qualification, that He is a fruit-bearing branch.

The second qualification is that He has the Spirit of the Lord. There are seven ways in which He has the Spirit of the Lord. They are listed in verse 2: the Spirit rests on Him, is a Spirit of Wisdom, is a Spirit of understanding, a Spirit of counsel, a Spirit of might, a Spirit of knowledge, and a Spirit inspiring the Fear of the Lord. Seven, of course, is the number of completion and perfection. So the Messiah has the Spirit of the Lord to perfection. That is His second qualification.

From verses 3-5, we see His performance. We move from His qualifications to His performance. How does He do? Well, He delights in the fear of the Lord. That is almost a prerequisite for the Messiah. Everything He does, He does because He fears the Lord. That is, He reverences the Lord, worships the Lord perfectly.

The second way in which He performs well is in the area of jurisprudence. Notice the contrast between how the Messiah judges, and how we judge. We think that we have to see something or hear something in order to be able to judge. But since the Messiah has the Spirit of the Lord, which includes knowledge, wisdom, understanding, and counsel, He can make the proper judgment, without jumping to conclusions based on what His eyes saw, or what His ears heard. Furthermore, in the area of jurisprudence, He judges with righteousness. He never makes a mistake as a judge. How often do we judge incorrectly, because we make too hasty a judgment, based on what our eyes and ears heard! How often have we discovered that our eyes were deceived, or that we heard something wrong! No such problems exist with the Messiah, because the Messiah has the Spirit of the Lord resting on Him.

Those who are righteous will be judged accordingly, and those who are guilty will be judged accordingly. In short, He is a righteous and faithful Messiah.

In verses 6-9, we see the result of the Messiah’s performance. Obviously, these results would never come about, were it not for the fact that we have a well-qualified Messiah who performed everything He was supposed to do. So, we can see the progression from qualifications to performance to results. What are the results? They comprise the complete reversal of the curse that came upon sin. It was because of sin that wolves eat sheep, leopards eat goats, lions eat cattle, bears eat cattle, and cobras bite children. Ultimately, what we see here is that death will be no more. All those meat-eating creatures will have no more need to eat meat. Eating meat, of course, implies that the animal has to kill another animal. Now, this reversal of the curse is not limited merely to animals. Some scholars say that this passage has nothing to do with animals. I disagree, since animals too came under the curse of sin. But I also think that Isaiah is talking about more than just animals. That is because of verse 9, which says this: “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” The first word “they”obviously refers to all the animals listed in the previous three verses. It is those animals that will not hurt or destroy because they know the Lord. At this point, it becomes fairly obvious that the animals are a figure of speech for people. Ultimately, of course, it is human beings who know the Lord. The knowledge of the Lord must that knowledge that comes by the Spirit of the Lord mentioned in the beginning of the passage. So let me clarify what I’m saying. Animals are not left out of this renewal that is going to take place. But the primary meaning of the passage is that human beings will not hurt or destroy, because they will know the Lord. And all of this happens because of who the Messiah is, and because of what He has done.

But someone (and certainly the Jews do this) might ask to whom this passage refers. We Christians say that Isaiah is talking about Jesus. But it is very interesting to observe what the Jews before Christ said about this passage, in comparison with what the Jews after Christ said about this passage. Jews before Christ had no problem saying that this passage was talking about the Messiah. The Aramaic paraphrase of the OT, called the “Targum,” says that this is talking about the Messiah. But after Jesus came to earth, the Jews would no longer say that. They changed their argument, since Jesus was not the Messiah for which the Jews were looking.
But does this passage talk about Jesus? Well, consider what we have learned so far. Firstly, the person must be a descendant of Jesse. Have you ever wondered why Isaiah wrote “Jesse” here instead of David? The reason is that one who is coming must be another David. The genealogies in Matthew and Luke prove that Jesus is a descendant of David, both through Solomon and through Nathan. We saw this especially in our sermon on Matthew 1, where Matthew takes great pains to point out that Jesus is the Davidic King.

Secondly, this person, whoever he is, must be more than human, because he must possess the Holy Spirit perfectly. He possesses the Holy Spirit seven-fold, as it were. Remember that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at His baptism in the form of a dove, and rested upon Him, as it says right here in verse 2: “And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.” So, this person must be more than human. The NT constantly affirms that Jesus was more than human, that He was in fact God Himself, come to dwell with us, “Immanuel.”

Thirdly, consider the performance of Jesus Christ. That is, consider what Jesus has done. On the cross and in His resurrection from the dead, Jesus judged the world. That is the beginning of the end. Jesus is the Righteous and Faithful One, in contrast to Israel.

Fourthly, consider that the knowledge of God is even now spreading over the whole earth. That is fulfilling this prophecy that the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. That has happened and is happening because of who Jesus is, and because of what He has done. Therefore, this passage is talking about Jesus.

In this Christmas season, we observe that verse 1 hints at the Incarnation of our Lord. It says “shoot.” that shoot comes from the line of David. That is, it will be born from the line of David. As we celebrate Christmas this year, we must remember that we worship a God who is not far off, but who has come near, even into our very flesh and bone, becoming a man.

For us, the applications are numerous. First, we must worship God in Spirit and in truth. Specifically, we must worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, one God. When we become united to Christ by faith, we acquire the Holy Spirit. We possess what Jesus possesses. Jesus possesses the Holy Spirit, and so now do we also. By being united to Christ by faith, we participate in the same qualifications that Jesus has, in a creaturely way, of course. We will never be God, but we can possess the Holy Spirit, and be part of that Branch. Indeed, we will be vines that bear fruit, because we are attached to the Root.

Secondly, by way of application, we must participate in Christ’s performance. Christ is the only truly righteous person who has ever existed. His performance with regard to the law was perfect. Christ was so strong with regard to the law, that He did not have to crush the weak in order to get His own way. So must we do. We cannot crush the weak. Rather, we must give them justice. Your brother or sister in Christ is hurting, and what do we do? We should help to bear their burdens. Mourn with those who mourn, laugh with those who laugh.
To what then can we look forward? Why should we do these things? Because the heavens and the earth will be renewed. It is not just that death has now been vanquished, such that the wolf can lie down with the lamb. It is that the purpose of God for the world will now be fulfilled. It has already begun in the spiritual realm. Hearts and lives are being saved because of the preaching of the Gospel. The knowledge of the Lord is being spread. Let me interject one thing here. It says in verse 9 that there will be no more destruction because of the knowledge of the Lord. That means that the knowledge of the Lord must be there first, before there will be any peace. It is completely fruitless to say that we can have peace in this world without the knowledge of the Lord. And since the NT has defined that knowledge of the Lord as being in Jesus Christ, it therefore follows that there is no peace without Christianity.

But can you imagine what it would be like for there to be no war, no death, no suffering, no evil in this world? That is what Isaiah asks us to imagine. That has started with Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. All of this has started. It has not finished yet. For that, we must wait. But we must live our lives with this vision fixed in our imagination. It is that vision which God has prepared for all eternity for His people. That is the vision that is life-changing. And it will come to pass. Therefore, be in Christ, and live for Christ. Participate in Christ’s qualifications, and in His performance, by faith alone, and you will also participate in these wonderful results. A Savior is born!