Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Fear, Dread, Sanctuary

It's around 735 B.C. The tiny land of Judah is all that is left of the Golden Age of unified Israel, which spanned from the Euphrates to Egypt (gone at this point for almost 200 years). It is but a vassal state - one of countless others - to the mighty Assyrian Empire. Judah's neighbors to the north - godless Israel and Aram - grow restless against the Empire, and begin planning a rebellion. They approach Judah to join with the conspirators, but Judah refuses. Unwilling to have an Assyria-loyal state on their southern border during a rebellion, they besiege Judah in order to replace king Ahaz with someone more friendly to their interests. The Israelite-Aramean alliance first conquers Judah's southern port city of Elath on the Gulf of Aqaba (2 Kings 16:6). The Edomites join in, attacking middle Judah and taking Judeans prisoner. Then the alliance crosses the Israelite border to the north, travels the 10 miles to Jerusalem, and besieges the city. King Ahaz sits on the throne in the city of David, but "he did not do what was right in the sight of the LORD his God, as his father David had done. But he walked in the way of the kings of Israel, and even made his sons pass through the fire, according to the abominations of the nations whom the LORD had driven out from before the sons of Israel. He sacrificed and burned incense on the high places from before the sons of Israel" (2 Kings 16:2-4). A dark day in which to live. A pagan Empire controls the world. The last place in the world to bear the LORD's name is on the verge of being utterly overwhelmed from the outside by its neighbors (and relatives), and the political and religious leadership within the little land are completely corrupt and no different from the peoples of the world. Where is the LORD? Is the only thing left of Him Solomon's Temple, now stripped of gold to offer as tribute to pagan conquerors, filled with images, shrines, and altars to false gods, and managed by a priesthood who don't even have the Law in their possession? Millennia later this situation will be called the Syro-Ephraimite War (Isaiah 7:1,2). And we think we live in tough times.

Into this situation steps Isaiah. He is given children, who are both his disciples (faithful to the LORD) and sermon illustrations (every preacher's child can identify with that!). Isaiah and his son A-Remnant-Shall-Return (whose name comes back in 10:21,22) meet Ahaz as the king is inspecting the waterworks of Jerusalem. Isaiah and son tell the king not to fear, for the threats against Judah will not be successful. The invitation to the message is given: "If you will not believe, you surely shall not last" (Isaiah 7:3-9). Is Ahaz going to listen to Isaiah? No. Not just because of Ahaz's evil nature, but because it is part of the plan communicated to Isaiah at the prophet's commissioning (6:9,10). What if God told you to do something that He guaranteed would not be popular or successful? What does that say about our modern standards of ministry success? Is it significant that Jesus (Matthew 13:14,15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40) and Paul (Acts 28:26,27; Romans 11:8) both appropriate these words for their own ministries? Ahaz won't listen to Isaiah, prophet of the LORD. So the LORD Himself speaks to the king who sits on the throne of David (7:10-16).

The LORD tells Ahaz to ask for a sign. Ahaz refuses, mocking God, for the war had made him even more rebellious against the Lord: "...in the time of his distress this same King Ahaz became let more unfaithful to the LORD" (2 Chronicles 28:22). The "you" in 7:13 is plural, so it's likely we're back in the royal court now. The LORD mentions that Ahaz has already tried the patience of men - 120,000 Judean warriors have been killed, along with Ahaz's son Maaseiah, the chief steward of the house of David, Azrikam, and Ahaz's second-in-command Elkanah (2 Chronicles 28:6,7). Like I said, bad days in this tiny country. So the LORD Himself promises a sign. A "virgin," probably Abi, daughter of Zechariah (2 Kings 18:2), will bear a child. Before the child is old enough to be morally responsible, the threat to Judah will be gone. The boy's name will be God-with-us (appropriate name seeing the boy's role as a sign from God). The boy's given name will be Hezekiah, one of the most godly kings of Judah's history. His symbolic name, given in Isaiah, also serves to begin the centuries long process of preparing the world for the birth of Jesus, Who will perfectly be God-with-us and will also be a sign of deliverance. But don't lose sight of the scene in the royal court. Soon-to-be Queen Abi has just heard that the baby she will bear will grow up in days much brighter than the ones of her engagement and nuptials.

Ahaz still refuses to believe. He will appeal to Tiglath-pileser III of Assyria, a pagan Emperor, to come save him. The Emperor will come and destroy the rebellion of Israel and Aram. He will not stop, but will crack down even on Judah to insure that the rebellion is not contagious. The LORD reveals the deliverance brought by Assyria will be oppression for Judah (7:17-25).

Isaiah's second son Swift-is-the-Booty-Speedy-is-the-Prey is born nine months after Isaiah has an intimate evening with his wife the prophetess (she must be able to hear from the LORD directly to agree to name her son Maher-shalal-hash-baz, right?). Men, I think our lives would be more interesting if we started referring to our wives as "the prophetess." Isaiah's wife serves in ministry with him, faithful to the LORD. She doesn't have to preach. The children she bears in her relationship with her husband are the prophecies. I think we can see both of them living Deuteronomy 6:7. So the boy is born and the prophecy is given (8:1-8).

All of this great story has been introduction to the point that seems to be relevant to Christians today.

Isaiah issues a challenge to the entire world to throw their best plans and obstacles at the small remnant of the faithful of God (8:9,10). What is Isaiah's confidence? Immanuel. A godly king will be born and rule in the house of David again, but that's only a sign of the true power. The true power and true source of confidence is "God is with us."

Isaiah is told "with mighty power" by the LORD "not to walk in the way of this people." Ahaz ignored the LORD. Isaiah and his disciples, his family - they will not ignore the LORD. Will we?

"You are not to say, 'It is a conspiracy!' in regard to all that this people call a conspiracy, and you are not to fear what they fear or be in dread of it. It is the LORD of hosts Whom you shall regard as holy. And He shall be your fear, and He shall be your dread. Then He shall become a sanctuary" (8:12-14).

The LORD doesn't call them "My people," but "this people" (6:9,10; 8:11,12; 9:16) - the distancing between Himself and Judah reflects their unfaithfulness. He identifies Himself as "the LORD of hosts," or armies. Not just the heavenly armies, but all the armies of the world, be they pagan-earthly or angelic-heavenly. He is in utter control as mighty Sovereign over all. This is His name throughout this section. We are not to focus on the conspiracies of man, the little motes of dusts swirling around the pieces on God's chess board. We are to fear, yes, even dread the One Who is holy (set apart, transcendent, radically removed and different and above us and all the powers of the world). When He becomes our fear and dread, that stripped-down, watered-down, thoroughly syncretized religious symbol of yesterday's glory (Solomon's Temple) is vastly overshadowed by the LORD Himself, Who Personally becomes "a sanctuary" to His people. Even the future generations of the faithful, forced into Exile when their homeland was destroyed, knew Him as "Sanctuary" (Ezekiel 11:16), even with the great Temple completely wiped off of Temple Mount. Why are we obsessed with the conspiracies, the truth of which no human will ever know? We are we so distracted? Where is our Fear, Dread, and Sanctuary?

Because the peoples have their eyes, ears, hearts, and minds focused on the conspiracies of man, they are shocked by the LORD, Who breaks them (8:14,15).

Isaiah speaks now, and every time I read this I want to stand up and roar! "Bind up the testimony, seal the law among my disciples. And I will wait for the LORD Who is hiding His face from the house of Jacob; I will even look eagerly for Him. Behold, I and the children whom the LORD has given me are for signs and wonders in Israel from the LORD of hosts, Who dwells on Mount Zion" (8:16-18). His disciples/children become the ark of the covenant to the remnant, for they hold the testimony and law of God within themselves. "Mount Zion" here is not the physical hill with that dilapidated building, but heaven itself (Isaiah's seen the intrusion of heaven into that place...he's had a vision of the Real in 6:1-7). Even with God bringing massive judgment on the land, God's people stand firm and wait on their King. On one hand we are so distracted and fearful of what the great powers of man might do to us; on the other hand we love this world so much that we're afraid our comfort, entertainment, and pleasures will be threatened. Isaiah and family (disciples) stand alone in a great roiling sea of unfaithful humanity, but their eyes are on the LORD of hosts.

They consult false spiritualities and walk in darkness (8:19-22), but Isaiah stands in contrast: "To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn" (8:20).

Let us stand firm, waiting on the King, refusing to lower our eyes to the games of the bugs crawling at our feet. Children of the King, prophets and prophetesses of the land, FEAR, DREAD, SANCTUARY!!

"Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, Who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory" (Colossians 3:1-4).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well nice to see you are doing well out in the desert Isaiah !