Posts tagged ‘Isaiah’

Sneaky Polytheism

File:Mt-olympus gods.jpg
Credit: Mt. Olympus gods / Wikimedia

One of the most startling religious claims made by the ancient Israelites was that their God was the only true God. God Himself argues for His singularity when He says through the prophet Isaiah:

 I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from Me there is no God. (Isaiah 45:5)

This echoes the command God gives to the children of Israel through Moses:

You shall have no other gods besides Me. (Exodus 20:3)

In our religious milieu, unlike in the ancient world, the majority of people of faith are monotheists – that is, they believe there is only one God.

Yet, even if monotheism is common to believe, it is much harder to practice. Isaiah explains why when he speaks of the fall of Babylon:

Now then, listen, you lover of pleasure, lounging in your security and saying to yourself, “I am, and there is none besides me. I will never be a widow or suffer the loss of children.” Both of these will overtake you in a moment, on a single day: loss of children and widowhood. They will come upon you in full measure, in spite of your many sorceries and all your potent spells. You have trusted in your wickedness and have said, “No one sees me.” Your wisdom and knowledge mislead you when you say to yourself, “I am, and there is none besides me.” (Isaiah 47:8-10)

God’s judgment on Babylon feels horrifyingly harsh to us. But notice what God’s judgment is in response to. It is in response to those who say of themselves:

I am, and there is none besides me. (Isaiah 47:8, 10)

Sound familiar – like what God has just claimed for Himself two chapters earlier in Isaiah?

It turns out that the Babylonians were not just worshiping many gods, they were putting themselves in the place of God, claiming, “We are all who matter! We are all we need! There is no one else who can do what we do!”

Even if theological polytheism no longer appeals to many of us, sociological polytheism is just as prevalent in our day as it was in Isaiah’s. We are incessantly tempted to believe that our moment in history is the pinnacle of history. We understand what those who have gone before us did not and could not. We can solve the problems of the world – and, indeed, must solve the problems of the world – because our forebearers were too doddering to do so. We are quick to quip: “I am, and there is none besides me.”

This kind of arrogance is what leads Isaiah to say: “Your wisdom and knowledge mislead you” (Isaiah 47:10). Our forbearers were not as incompetent as we can sometimes think they were, and we are not as smart as we can sometimes think we are.

So, what do we need? We who declare “I am” need to humble ourselves before the true and great “I AM” (Exodus 3:14). We need to realize that having “none beside me” is not desirous, but disastrous. We, in short, need to know our place. We are under God and beside each other. That’s right where we’re supposed to be. And that’s a great place to be.

January 17, 2022 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Beauty of Simplicity

Credit: Jess Bailey Designs / Pexels.com

In our complicated world and time, simplicity can be a blessing.

When the prophet Isaiah is preaching, the people of Israel accuse him of insulting them with his simple teaching. They scoff at him and ask:

Who is it he is trying to teach? To whom is he explaining his message? To children weaned from their milk, to those just taken from the breast? For it is: Do this, do that, a rule for this, a rule for that; a little here, a little there. (Isaiah 28:9-10)

The people of Israel accuse Isaiah of trying to teach them the ABCs and 123s of theology when they fancy themselves to be graduate-level students. They are not dopey youths; they are highly educated and enlightened adults. So, they scoff at Isaiah.

What they do not perceive is that it is not merely Isaiah who is trying to teach Israel the basics. It is God Himself. But since they will not listen to Isaiah, God will use foreign invaders to get through to His people. These invaders will conquer Israel and carry them off into exile until they learn to listen to God. Isaiah warns:

Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues God will speak to this people. The word of the LORD to them will become: Do this, do that, a rule for this, a rule for that; a little here, a little there. (Isaiah 28:11, 13)

As we read the rest of Isaiah, we quickly learn that the Israelites were not heeding God’s most basic commandments. They were worshiping idols, plundering the poor, and abusing the vulnerable. The Israelites did not need a graduate-level course in theology, even though that’s what they demanded. Instead, they needed to obey what they already knew to do.

As we enter into a new year, Isaiah’s message of simplicity presents us with a question: what simple things are we overlooking in our lives to which we need to attend? Have our hands become stingy or our words become prideful or our thoughts become lustful or our relationships become callous or our prayers become rote or our hearts become cold? To us, Isaiah would also say: “Do this, do that, a rule for this, a rule for that; a little here, a little there.” A little attention here and a little attention there to even the most elementary matters in our lives can go a long way.

Often, a new year is an opportunity to set lofty goals and make grandiose resolutions. If you have such a goal or resolution, I certainly don’t want to dissuade you, but I do want to invite you, along with whatever big project you plan to tackle this year, to continue to consider the smaller and simpler things in life that need your attention and affection. Attention to small things can make a big difference. So, begin with those. And remember: those small things are gifts from a big God.

January 3, 2022 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

When the Heavens Open

Credit: Min An / Pexels.com

The prophet Isaiah requests of the Lord:

Oh, that You would tear open the heavens and come down. (Isaiah 64:1)

As Isaiah makes his request, he is remembering when God met with Moses on Mount Sinai, giving him His law, and the mountain trembled in fire and smoke:

When You did awesome things that we did not expect, You came down, and the mountains trembled before You. (Isaiah 64:3)

Though the people trembled when God gave His law, they did not obey His law, and so God has hidden Himself from people:

All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on Your name or strives to lay hold of You; for You have hidden Your face from us and have given us over to our sins. (Isaiah 64:6-7)

Because of Israel’s sin, rather than rending open the heavens and coming down, God has closed up the heavens and gone home. So, Isaiah ruefully asks:

How then can we be saved? (Isaiah 64:5)

Around 730 years after Isaiah mourns God’s hiddenness in heaven, the Gospel writer Mark records:

Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, He saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on Him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are My Son, whom I love; with You I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9-11)

In Christ, the heavens are torn open once again as God returns to His people once again. But that is not all that is torn.

When Christ dies on a cross, Mark recounts this scene:

The curtain of the temple was torn open in two from top to bottom. (Mark 15:38)

The curtain in question is the curtain that guarded the Holy of Holies – the place where the ancient Israelites believed God dwelled. When Christ died, it was torn open so God’s inner sanctum could be seen by all and any.

It turns out that God does eventually answer Isaiah’s prayer. But He answers the prophet’s prayer in a greater way than he could have ever imagined. Not only does God tear open the heavens and come down, as is revealed when Jesus is baptized, He also tears open the curtain to His own inner sanctum so that we may go in, as is revealed at Jesus’ death. Because of the cross, we can walk right into the place of salvation.

The heavens that once separated us and God separate us no more. God is with us – and, one day, we will be with Him.

October 25, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Perceiving and Understanding

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In Matthew 13, Jesus tells His disciples about a farmer who goes out one day to scatter seed. Some seed falls on a path, where it is eaten by birds. Other seed falls on some rocks, where it springs up, but then quickly dies. Other seed falls among the thorns, which proves also not to be fertile ground. Finally, some seed falls on good soil, where it springs up and yields a crop. In Jesus’ telling, the seed is His word and our hearts are different kinds of soil. We are to hear His word and let it take deep root in our hearts, like the good soil.

After He finishes His parable, Jesus’ disciples ask Him:

“Why do you speak to the people in parables?” (Matthew 13:10)

Jesus’ answer is insightful and unsettling all at the same time:

The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.” (Matthew 13:11, 13)

Jesus’ final line is an allusion to Isaiah 6:9. The disciples, Jesus says, unlike the crowds who listen to His parables, see Him and perceive who He actually is. They hear Him and understand what He is actually saying.

But not all the time.

In Luke 24, after Jesus has risen, He appears to two of His disciples while they are walking along a road, but they do not recognize Him. They see Jesus, but they do not perceive who He is. Jesus then asks them what they are talking about. Ironically, they are talking about Him – His death and reports of His resurrection. Jesus responds by explaining to them how the Scriptures forecast, foretell, and point toward Him. But they still don’t get it. They hear Jesus, but they do not understand what He is saying. They are those of whom Isaiah once spoke. The disciples in Luke 24 are behaving like the crowds in Matthew 13.

One of the struggles of the Christian faith is that no matter how much we study, learn, experience, or walk with Jesus, we still have blind spots. There are things we see, but don’t perceive – hear, but don’t understand. Even if we are disciples, we still have a bit of crowd in us.

Walking in faith, then, means “walking humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). It means admitting that for all we may assume we see and know, there’s still plenty of room to grow. But this limitation also leaves blessedly endless room for maturation. This is one of the reasons Christians have been studying the Bible and meditating on the life of Jesus for millennia and are still learning. The treasures of God are inexhaustible.

After Jesus explains how the Scriptures point to Him, the disciples invite Him over for supper, still clueless to who He is. But then:

When He was at the table with them, He took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Him. (Luke 24:30-31)

The disciples perceived and understood anew. This is an experience that can happen for us, too. So, keep seeking to perceive and understand. Jesus will open your eyes as you break bread with Him and He breaks bread for you.

September 6, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Temporary Peace and Perfect Peace

In a story that has largely flown under the radar, a week ago Saturday, the United States signed a deal with the Taliban that begins the process of ending the war in Afghanistan. The process of withdrawing our troops will be a protracted one, and the end of this war is anything but certain. Mujib Mashal reports for The New York Times:

The agreement signed in Doha, Qatar, which followed more than a year of stop-and-start negotiations and conspicuously excluded the American-backed Afghanistan government, is not a final peace deal, is filled with ambiguity, and could still unravel … 

The withdrawal of American troops – about 12,000 are still in Afghanistan – is dependent on the Taliban’s fulfillment of major commitments that have been obstacles for years, including its severance of ties with international terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda. 

The agreement also hinges on more difficult negotiations to come between the Taliban and the Afghan government over the country’s future. Officials hope those talks will produce a power-sharing arrangement and lasting cease-fire, but both ideas have been anathema to the Taliban in the past.

This war may finally end – but only maybe. What’s more, the lack of American presence in the region could lead to the re-oppression of historically marginalized groups there:

The United States, which struggled to help secure better rights for women and minorities and instill a democratic system and institutions in Afghanistan, has struck a deal with an insurgency that has never clearly renounced its desire for a government and justice system rooted in a severe interpretation of Islam.

Though the Taliban get their primary wish under this agreement – the withdrawal of American troops – they have remained vague in commitments to protect the civil rights that they had brutally repressed when in power.

In short, the peace agreement that is being forged in this region is a very tenuous one and comes with a price that include the loss of some civil rights.

The prophet Isaiah famously prophesies the coming of the Messiah as One who will be the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). What is sometimes missed in Isaiah’s description of the Messiah, however, is how this Prince of Peace will establish His peace:

He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. (Isaiah 9:7)

The Prince of Peace will bring His peace by establishing “justice and righteousness.” An enduring peace cannot be accomplished by overlooking injustice and righteousness – by looking past sin – but only by dealing directly with sin. This is why human peace treaties – no matter how noble – always seem to be temporary. For as long as there is sin in this world, there can be no perfect peace.

Thus, though we may wait expectantly for and even celebrate a peace treaty for Afghanistan, we rest assuredly in the perfect peace our Prince of Peace will bring on the Last Day when He will:

…judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4)

That’s perfect peace. And it’s coming – no matter what happens in Afghanistan.

March 9, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Best of Times and the Worst of Times

Jean Duplessis-Bertaux, Depiction of the storming of the Tuileries Palace during the French Revolution

Jean Duplessis-Bertaux | Depiction of the storming of the Tuileries Palace during the French Revolution

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”[1]

So begins Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Though the story is set during the French Revolution, its opening line strikes a universal tone. Life comes mixed with good and bad, wisdom and foolishness, faith and doubt, light and darkness, hope and despair. This is true even of Jesus’ life. For example, in Mark 7, Jesus heals a blind man:

Some people brought to [Jesus] a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Him to place His hand on the man. After He took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put His fingers into the man’s ears. Then He spit and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means, “Be opened!”). At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. (Mark 7:32-35)

On its surface, this story looks like one that should be marked only by joy. After all, a blind and mute man gets healed! But right before Jesus heals this man, He looks up to heaven and lets out “a deep sigh” (Mark 7:34). The Greek word for this sigh is stenazo, which denotes a groan of sorrow (e.g., Romans 8:23).  Why would Jesus groan in sorrow right as He is getting ready to do something as joyful as a healing?

Like Charles Dickens, Jesus knows that even when it’s the best of times, it’s also the worst of times. He knows that even as He is getting ready to do something great, evil is not far off. Indeed, Jesus knows that He will soon face the horror of the cross. And so He lets out a groan.

The Old Testament prophets spoke of a Messiah who would come and do many miraculous things, including that of making the deaf hear and the mute speak:

Your God will come, He will come with vengeance; with divine retribution He will come to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. (Isaiah 35:4-6)

Notice even in this prophecy that the best of times and worst of times are comingled. On the one hand, the Messiah will open the eyes of the blind and unstop the ears of the deaf. This is good. On the other hand, the Messiah will come with “vengeance” and “divine retribution.” This sounds bad. But it also seems strange. Isaiah says, “With divine retribution [God] will come to save you.”  Just how does God intend to use His retribution for our salvation?  Isn’t His retribution supposed to lead to condemnation?

Timothy Keller notes that, when Jesus came, retribution and salvation were not so much in tension with each other as they were complimentary to each other, for Jesus “didn’t come to bring divine retribution; He came to bear it.”[2] On the cross, Jesus took the retribution our sins deserve so we could receive the salvation we could never earn. This is how divine retribution can lead to our salvation.

In A Tale of Two Cities, a kind of dualism runs through its opening salvo. There is good and bad, hopefulness and despair, and the reader does not know which one will ultimately prevail – or if either will prevail. In the case of Christ, though good and bad, hopefulness and despair are real and are in tension with each other, there is no doubt which will finally carry the day. Jesus may have groaned. But He still healed. And Jesus may bear divine retribution on a bloodied cross, but He still brings salvation out of an empty tomb. In Christ, the tension of Dickens is resolved. And that’s why we can have hope.

______________________________

[1] Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1999), 1.

[2] Timothy Keller, King’s Cross (New York: Dutton, 2011), 94

October 26, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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