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Last Sunday of the Church Year: Isaiah 65:17-25

What image comes to mind when thinking of the life to come?  In the language of the New Testament, the new heavens and the new earth are frequently described as a feast or a perfect city.  This imagery can also be found in the Old Testament, such as the vision of the temple in Ezekiel.  However, this language of feasting and bridegrooms and cities tends to color our understanding.

More often in the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit describes the life to come in terms of unimaginable fruitfulness.  The blessings of this life will be magnified beyond our ability to comprehend them in our current state.  Moses clearly set before the eyes of Israel the blessings which came with obedience in Deuteronomy 28.  Fruitfulness in the field, fruitfulness in the pasture, fruitfulness in the home (which translates to the blessing of many children), all of these things come for those who follow after the Lord faithfully.  This should not be perverted into a prosperity gospel, as if the Lord is just waiting to make us rich when we choose.  Israel at no point in her history came close to this kind of obedience to the will of God.  Rather, Moses shows the source of the imagery in Isaiah:  fruitfulness is the language of blessing and perfection in the Old Testament.

Paul refers to the beginning of this section in his discussion of the hardening of Israel in Romans 10. The Lord seeks out a nation which did not seek him, which is to say, the Gentiles (Isaiah 65:1). Israel provokes Him because of the hardness of her heart. Therefore, judgment must come upon Israel. “I will not keep silent, but I will repay” says the Lord (Isaiah 65:6). The partial hardening has come upon Israel so that the Gospel may go forth to bring in the fullness of the nations.  Judgment must come upon those who have rejected the Lord, even though they be His own chosen people. But God has not failed in His promises.

This, then, is Isaiah’s point when discussing the great Day when Christ returns in glory to bring about the new heavens and the new earth.  The judgment upon His people will come to an end. “I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.  I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people” (Isaiah 65:18-19).  All of the former things, those things which separated Israel, will pass away and be no more.  There shall finally be one flock, one Shepherd.

When Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, the partial shall give way to the fullness. There will be unimaginable fruitfulness in an unending joy. Isaiah 65:20 should be understood in this light.  Isaiah does not mean to say that death will remain in the life to come, but rather this fruitfulness will translate also into life.  Where we suffer the pain of miscarriage and infant mortality, then this evil will be no more.  Where we struggle to live to a hundred years, then it will be thought odd should a man die so young!  But as Revelation 21:4 makes clear, death shall be no more in that day.

They will build and inhabit their houses.  They will plant and enjoy their vineyards.  Those things which others had taken away in this life shall be theirs forever.  The Lord will execute judgment on those who afflicted them (Ezekiel 28:25-26).  His people will have justice and vengeance upon their enemies, and the Lord shall be in their midst.  “Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear” (Isaiah 65:24).

Is this language only poetic?  I do not think so.  On the one hand, it is written for a people who have been exiled and are lamenting the loss of their home.  The Lord had placed them in that land, after all, so the grief is particularly strong.  Also, because the imagery shifts, especially moving forward into the New Testament, it should not be interpreted in a literalistic way.  One would have to assume that death was part of the new heavens and the new earth if that was the case!

On the other hand, Isaiah presents a picture of the life to come in all of its glory.  No longer shall there be a curse.  No longer shall there be division and unfaithfulness among His people.  No longer shall foreigners occupy the land of promise.  The Lord will be among His people in glory and majesty.  Adam worked in the garden before the fall into sin.  Laboring in vain is part of the curse, not laboring in itself.  It may be that we will find a new labor, receiving from the hand of God those tremendous blessings which sin has destroyed in this life.  But whatever the reality will be, it does not change that Christ will reign triumphant over sin and death, rendering judgment on His enemies.

Twelfth Sunday after Trinity: Isaiah 29:17-24

Distress and judgment shall come upon Jerusalem!  Isaiah says very clearly that foreign armies will surround the city and bring it down to the ground.  “And you will be brought low; from the earth you shall speak, and from the dust your speech will be bowed down” (Isaiah 29:4).  Yet this judgment will be swift and intense.  Isaiah compares the coming of these armies to “fine dust” and “passing chaff” (Isaiah 29:5).  They “shall be like a dream, a vision of the night” (Isaiah 29:7).  The fire of the Lord descending upon Jerusalem shall come quickly and pass by so quickly that there will be no time to prepare.

However, a yet greater judgment than this is poured out upon Israel.  The Lord is hardening their hearts because of their sins.  They will be blind, drunk without drinking wine, and asleep (Isaiah 29:9-10).  This is the Lord’s judgment upon a sinful and rebellious people, lest they turn and see and be healed (Isaiah 6:10).  Paul cites this verse in Romans 11:8 as evidence that the Lord will bring about a great wonder through this hardening.  Israel will stumble so that the nations may be brought in.  Everything will be turned right-side up.  Even the “spirit of deep sleep” in Isaiah 29:10 points to this, because it is the same sleep God poured out on Adam (Genesis 2:21), on Abraham (Genesis 15:12), and on Saul and his army (1 Samuel 26:12).  It is a sleep which marks a great turning point in the history of God’s salvation.

But Israel cannot see this for what it is.  They are like men attempting to read a sealed book or illiterate men who cannot read it at all (Isaiah 29:11-12).  Jesus cites Isaiah 29:13 against the Pharisees in Matthew 15:8-9, because the hardness of the hearts leads them, as it did their fathers, to honor God only in words and not with their heart.  Therefore, the Lord will “again do wonderful things with this people” (Isaiah 29:14) who He once delivered from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm (Deuteronomy 4:34).  He will turn things upside down in His almighty power.  As Paul says when he cites Isaiah 29:14 in 1 Corinthians 1:19, “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men,” a reversal which finds its fullest expression in Christ crucified, the stumbling block of the Jews.

Yet this is a stumbling block because the clay desires to say that it is not made by the potter or that the potter lacks understanding (Isaiah 29:16).  Why should God upset everything in this way?  Why should Jerusalem, the city of God’s favor (1 Kings 11:36), be cast down?  “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God” (Romans 9:20)?  God will do as He pleases for His own purposes, hardening Israel to bring in the fullness of the Gentiles.  “How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways” (Romans 11:33)!

Therefore, the lectionary reading for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity describes this reversal which is meant to make Israel jealous (Deuteronomy 32:19-22).  Lebanon, noted for its forests throughout Scripture (Judges 9:15; 1 Kings 4:33; 5:6; 7:2; etc.), will be reduced to a field, perhaps an orchard.  But the fruitful field will be regarded as a mighty forest.  Those who are deaf shall hear.  Those who are blind shall see.  The ruthless will come to nothing.  Those who watch to do evil will be cut off.  “Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, ‘I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.’ But of Israel he says, ‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people’” (Romans 10:20-21).

Jacob will then see his children in his midst, the children of the promise, because “it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7).  His jealousy for the Lord will lead to a real change of heart.  Those who have gone astray will understand and those who murmur against God will accept His instruction (Isaiah 29:24).  No longer will stumble over the cornerstone Christ, but they will believe in Him and be grafted in again to their own natural tree.  The sons of Levi will be purified, and they will offer up a sacrifice in righteousness (Malachi 3:3), living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1).

Trinity: Isaiah 6:1-7

I have talked earlier about Isaiah 6 at some length in the article “The Holiness of the Lord,” and I would encourage readers to read or re-read that article in conjunction with this lectionary study.  Briefly, Isaiah 6 speaks of the Lord’s utter uniqueness or holiness, from which even the sinless seraphim must avert their eyes.  But because all of Scripture is an inexhaustible mine, I will add additional notes here.

Isaiah 6 forms what is commonly referred to as Isaiah’s call.  This vision of the Lord is not Isaiah’s earliest, as his ministry has already begun in the days of Hezekiah (2 Kings 19).  Nevertheless, the clear language of Isaiah 6:8 justifies this title.  The Lord appears to Isaiah and sends him to the house of Israel to proclaim His Word (see the parallel calls of Jeremiah 1 and Ezekiel 2).

The reference to Uzziah, or Hezekiah, in Isaiah 6:1 places this passage shortly after the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel.  His father Ahaz (or Amaziah) reigned in Judah when the last king of Israel, Hoshea, was set upon the throne (2 Kings 17:1).  However, by the end of Hoshea’s brief reign of nine years, Hezekiah had ascended to the throne of his father (2 Kings 18:1).  Even though Uzziah’s reign in Judah is long (compare 2 Chronicles 26:3 and 2 Kings 18:2, noting that the two authors have different starting points for counting), it still places Isaiah 6 within decades of the fall of the northern kingdom.

Regarding the passage itself, the Holy Spirit reveals through it several important truths about the Lord.  Holiness has already been mentioned elsewhere, as noted.  Closely connected to His holiness is the glory of the Lord.  Even though the “train [or hem] of His robe” is all that can be seen in Isaiah 6:1, it is enough to make the ground shake (Psalm 18:7; 77:18) and the house to fill with smoke (Exodus 19:18; 1 Kings 18:10-11; Revelation 15:8).

In addition to this revelation of the Lord’s holiness and glory, this passage also points to the Lord’s mercy and sovereignty.  The Lord is merciful, because Isaiah should have been destroyed at even this veiled appearance of the Lord.  “Man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20).  Yet the Lord does not reveal the fullness of His glory and covers over the sin of Isaiah, so that he is able to stand in His presence.

The Lord is sovereign, because His question “whom shall I send” reveals His will.  It should not be interpreted as a question of uncertainty, as if the Lord does not already have in mind what He will do.  He is not deliberating.  A statement in the form of a question frequently occurs in the Bible (see, for example, Revelation 7:13-14).  Rather, the Lord appears to Isaiah precisely so that His will is carried out with respect to the remaining kingdom.

Being the Old Testament reading appointed for Trinity Sunday, a few concluding notes regarding this central revelation are in order.  First, the doctrine of the Trinity proceeds from good and necessary consequences of various statements in the Bible.  The word itself appears nowhere in Scripture and is really only the best we have, even if the word itself can lend itself to misunderstandings.  But we should not imagine that it is not a clear teaching of the Bible for that reason, nor should we assume that verses like Isaiah 6:3 do not need to be unpacked.  The Holy Spirit fully reveals that God is the Most Holy Trinity, even if we have to take some steps to make this clear to us.

Second, regarding Isaiah 6:3 in light of the previous note, the threefold repetition of “holy, holy, holy” in itself is not a decisive “proof.”  Repetition may be only for emphasis also in the Bible, such as Jeremiah 7:4, Numbers 6:24-26, or the very common tendency of the Psalms to restate ideas in succession.  The threefold holy here also expresses the utter holiness of God, holy in a way in which we will never be.  Nevertheless, it is true that there is a hint of the doctrine of the Trinity here, but hints need to be clarified with far clearer passages.

Fifth Sunday of Easter: Isaiah 12

The song of Isaiah 12 actually forms the last part of a long subsection beginning in Isaiah 7.  Isaiah is sent to Ahaz in the face of an impending invasion from Syria and Israel to tell him that they will come to nothing.  Ahaz, however, does not believe, even when the Lord invites him to do what is normally forbidden by testing the Lord (Isaiah 7:12).  God gives the sign of Immanuel both as a promise of future deliverance in Christ (Matthew 1:23) but also to show faithless Ahaz that He will still do what He said by bringing the invasion to nothing (Isaiah 7:16).  However, the Lord declares that Assyria will come to sweep faithless Judah away (Isaiah 7:17-20).

Though Assyria will wipe away Judah, yet God will also bring Assyria into judgment, a promise which He emphasizes beginning in Isaiah 10.  Even though God will send His people away into exile, He will also bring them back (Isaiah 10:20-23).  The righteous Branch, that is, Christ will come forth “from the stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1), the seemingly dead remains of the tree of the house of David.  Jesus will be “a signal for the peoples” and “in that day the Lord will extend His hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of His people” (Isaiah 11:10-11).  Just as the Lord would bring back His people from exile, so He would also gather together His people from all the ends of the earth.

This, then, is the greater context for Isaiah 12.  “In that day,” that is, in the day when the Lord gathers His people in the second time, “I will give thanks to You” (Isaiah 12:1).  This is closely related to last week’s reading in Lamentations 3, where Jeremiah declared his hope in the Lord even in the face of the Lord’s wrath.  God will turn away from His fierce anger which lasts but a moment and bring His favor which has no end (Psalm 30:5; Job 13:15).

Isaiah 12:2 is unusual in that the Lord’s name is repeated twice in a row, first in a shortened form and then in its usual fuller form.  The NKJV renders it the most literally:  “For Yah, the LORD, is my strength and song.”  This form also occurs in Isaiah 26:4.  Perhaps this doubling is used for emphasis, especially since both references speak of the Lord as “strength.”

The imagery of “water from the wells of salvation” finds important parallels in passages like John 4 where Jesus speaks of living waters to the woman of Samaria; John 7:37-19 where He speaks of the Holy Spirit as “rivers of living water”; Ezekiel 47:1-12, where the prophet sees the river which flows forth from the temple; and Revelation 22:1-5, which speaks of the river of life in New Jerusalem.  On that day, when the believer draws water, he will call upon the name of the Lord and praise Him for what He has done (Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13; 1 Chronicles 16:8; Psalm 9:11; 105:1).

Two other words are noteworthy in this text.  The first is “gloriously” in Isaiah 12:5.  This word has the most basic meaning of “rising,” and it is used in this sense in Isaiah 9:17 where it describes smoke rising into the sky and in Psalm 89:8 where it describes the raging of the sea.  Both a column of smoke and a raging sea bring to mind a sense of awe, a rising that brings with it a sense of power.  It can also describe the rising of pride, that is to say, presumption and arrogance, as it is used in Psalm 17:10.  But the word is most often used to describe the exaltedness and the “rising” of God:  Psalm 93:1; 110:6; and Isaiah 26:10.  If the sea and smoke are exalted, how much more so the Lord!

The other is “cry aloud” or “shout” in Isaiah 12:6.  It is used in several other places, like Isaiah 10:30; 24:14; 54:1; Jeremiah 31:7; and Esther 8:15.  But its most colorful usage and the one which shows its most basic meaning occurs in Jeremiah 5:8 and 50:11, where it describes the cry of stallions.  While the translation “to neigh” doesn’t make much sense in relation to men, it is an extremely intense shouting, much like a stallion crying aloud.  Perhaps it is related to the loud whinnying of a horse who sees a long lost companion returning.

The Holiness of the Lord

Holiness means to be “set apart.” If something is chosen out of a group and set apart from the rest, it has become “holy” in a basic sense. It is no longer common, but rather unique to a certain degree. Whatever characteristics it may share with the original group, it now has a clear and distinguishing feature in being set apart.

In a pagan sense, holiness only applies to objects and places. A particular area is set apart for religious purposes. A particular object becomes the “property” of the “god.” It is taken out of common usage and set aside for a particular religious usage. But this sort of mentality focuses on the “boundaries,” so to speak. This exact area or this exact thing is now sacred. It is a locational holiness, a clear dividing line that makes it possible to know what is sacred property and what is common property, as if God had moved into and possessed an apartment.

It should be noted that this object-holiness and place-holiness also occurs in the Bible. Moses is commanded to remove his sandals “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). But the place is not holy because it has been set apart for God for whenever He decides to show up, like a pagan temple, but rather it is holy because the holy God is there. Objects also may be holy in a Biblical sense, as seen throughout Exodus and Leviticus. But the object is not holy because it is “God’s property,” but because it has been set aside according to a command from the Lord. Though a full exploration would take this article too far afield at the moment (and it is worth returning to at another time), it is enough to say that it is God who makes holy and not man who makes things holy for God.

This is probably the easiest to see with a sort of holiness that applies only to the Bible: personal holiness. The Lord says: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). “You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Leviticus 20:26). And to quote Paul, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). To be holy as Christians means to be set apart from the world, to be taken out of darkness and into His marvellous light. As Paul emphasizes in Romans, such personal holiness expresses itself in obedience, in the good works which flow forth from faith. We are not holy in the sense of “do not touch!” We are holy because we are conformed to Him who is holy.

This admittedly long preface sets up the main question: what does it mean for God to be holy? God’s holiness cannot mean that He is set apart for God. It is man who is set apart for God. Nor does God’s holiness mean that He conforms to the will of God, so to speak. The Lord gives the Law, and the Law-Giver is not the same as the one who is set under the Law (Christ, of course, placed Himself under the Law, but He had to condescend to do so).

Rather, God’s holiness consists in that He is the utterly set apart, unique, and almighty Lord of heaven and earth. His holiness has no equal and no parallel. “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (Numbers 23:19). “I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (Hosea 11:9). “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed” (Malachi 3:6).

These last quotations show a tendency about how we think of God’s holiness. God is holy; we are not. God is righteous; we are not. This is certainly true, but it is not exclusively how the Word presents the holiness of God. Isaiah 6 gives perhaps one of the most instructive passages here. The Lord appears to Isaiah in the temple attended by the seraphim (who only appear here in the Bible). Isaiah sees little more than the feet of the Lord, the very bottom hem of His garment, and yet this is enough to fill the whole temple with His glory. His reaction is quite natural: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5). Isaiah recognizes that his uncleanness, his sin, has made him unfit for being in the presence of God, and therefore he fears that he will be destroyed, as is only natural. The all-holy God cannot abide the presence of sin.

Yet it is the seraphim themselves who should be noted here. These fearful creatures, whose name means “the burning ones,” defy Isaiah’s exact description. At best they have a head and feet or legs and six wings and hands, though not much else is said about them. I personally think that it is their voice which causes the thresholds to shake (though one could also reasonably say it is the Lord’s voice). The seraphim alone are enough to inspire awe and holy terror. Yet with their wings they hide their faces and their feet, and with their awe-inspiring voices they cry “Holy, Holy, Holy, the Lord of Armies! The whole earth is full of His glory!” These angels, who are not spoiled with sin and can indeed stand in His presence, still must veil their eyes before the awesome holiness of the Lord.

To put it simply, God is not holy only because we are sinners who cannot stand before Him. God is holy because He is the One Who Is. He was holy before sin entered the world. He is holy even in the midst of sinners now. He will be holy even after sin comes to an end. The Lord is holy in a wholly unique way, and even in eternity, God will remain utterly set apart.