The audio file of this blog is found here:
'Stop scaring us'.
'That's just Project Fear'
'It's not real - this is just a big conspiracy'.
They're putting micro chips in your vaccine ...
All very much in common there with the prophet Isaiah's issues before the invasion and captivity in the eighth century before the Christian era.
Do you believe me?
I PROMISE you, Isaiah 8 is a passage with a lot in common with our time.
Let's check it out, because the fear that causes denialism, conspiracy theories and coweringly inappropriate inactivity were all current in the responses made in Israel to the threats in ancient near eastern politics in Isaiah's time, and Isaiah 8 gets to the heart of the issue.
Isaiah arrives on the scene as a Divinely prophet to pronounce judgement on Jerusalem in the form of an invasion by the Assyrians and Babylonians and hope that would arise out of the ruins in the future in the form of a King from David's line as promised in 2 Samuel 7, the creation of a new covenant that God's people could actually obey and walk in as promised in Exodus 19 and in the form of God's blessing to the Nations as promised to Abraham in Genesis 12.
It was this HOPE that inspired Isaiah to speak out against the idolatry and corruption of Israel in his day.
Chapters 1-39 are the prophecies of judgement, but run through with glimmers of the hope that is to come then the Exile to Babylon happens and from chapter 40-66 Isaiah picks up the message of hope and unpacks and unfolds it further.
Now, our passage crops up in the first judgement section that runs from chapter 1-12 which focuses on God's judgement and hope for Jerusalem.
Chapters 1-2 see Isaiah proclaiming judgement on Jerusalem for its' covenant rebellion, idolatry and injustice and he says the Lord is going to send the Nations against this old Jerusalem to besiege it and conquer it and to be like a purifying fire to purge it and build a New Jerusalem populated by a remnant that has repented and turned back to God.
Isaiah says THAT's when God's people will come to the New Jerusalem from all the Nations and learn about God's justice bringing about an age of universal peace and harmony for ALL nations.
That becomes the story line which gets repeated over and over throughout the book getting filled in with increasing detail as it goes along.
At the centre of this section we're looking at - in chapter six - comes Isaiah's enormous vision of God sitting on His throne in Heavenly Glory in the Temple, surrounded by heavenly creatures shouting that God is Holy, holy, holy and suddenly Isaiah is convicted of his sin and of his peoples' sin ... he's convinced he'll be destroyed but God sends an angel with tongs to take a coal from the altar filled with God's holiness but instead of burning and destroying Isaiah that holy thing cleanses Isaiah's mouth ... the holy thing cleanses from sin rather than destroying the sinner ...
Isaiah assumes he is done for but God says 'you're PURIFIED, now GO!'
He is commissioned to keep announcing God's judgement, but because Israel is too far gone, Isaiah's warnings will have a paradoxical effect: they will harden people's hearts in the face of the coming judgement.
Israel will be chopped down like a tree and its' stump left in the ground.
That stump itself will be scorched and burned, but after all that burning, God says this smouldering stump will be a holy seed that will survive into the future.
WHAT is that stump all about?!
Well, in chapters 7-12 Isaiah confronts bad King Ahaz in Jerusalem - who is living proof that good parents like David can have bad children like Ahaz - and announces that the Assyrians will be the first to lay the axe to the tree but after this destruction God will send a new King called 'Immanuel' which means 'God with us'(that's chapter 7) and Immanuel's Kingdom will set God's people free from violent oppressive Empires (chapter 9).
Isaiah describes this coming King as a new shoot that will emerge from the old stump of David's family.
He is the Holy Seed from Isaiah 6, and that King is going to be empowered by God's Spirit to rule over a New Jerusalem and bring justice t the poor and all nations will look to this Messianic King.
His Kingdom will transform ALL of Creation bringing peace.
And right down in amongst all of that in the midst of all that good stuff in chapters 6, 7 and 9 lies the passage we're looking at in Isaiah 8:12-17
By the time we get to this passage in Isaiah 8, the way of faith has been decisively rejected.
The King of Assyria is looked to for safety and security more than the Lord and His covenant commitments ... His solemn promises.
What follows is terrible to consider, but as Alec Motyer says in his commentary on Isaiah: "What now follows has the inevitability of Biblical logic: the alternatives to the way of salvation are always ways of destruction ..." (Motyer 1993 p. 88)
And yet, vv. 9-22 of this chapter contrast the choices and the experience of the worldly ones and the remnant ... the godly and the ungodly.
It's now all about the contrasting attitude of the faithful remnant and NO LONGER about the 'nationalist' but faithless descendants of Abraham.
I need to point out the reference in v. 8 which over-arches this account of the experience and the outcome of the faith and faithlessness of Jerusalem and of Israel in this chapter.
The great hope in the darkness of chapter 7 was of Immanuel, the coming Messianic King named as 'God with us'.
In 8:8 we read of the great flood water of the Euphrates ... which was the mighty water-course of Babylon, the invader and the instrument of God's judgement, storming into Judah with the cry of woe:
"Its outspread wings will cover the breadth of your land,
It is a weird bit of language which translators struggle to translate because it sounds so ... well ... 'it can't mean that'!
What it says is that the raging torrent of the conquering forces from Babylon are flooding through the land 'BECAUSE God is with us'.
This terrible experience, this judgement (in this case war but it could as easily have been plague and pestilence) is coming on Judah and Jerusalem BECAUSE God is with us ... not because He's abandoned them at all!
It is the sign of the faithful covenant God being with them not having abandoned them that He brings the consequences He has promised on spiritual adultery.
And to the faithful amongst His people ... there's a very strange but tough truth comfort in what Isaiah says there.
The first sign of His coming in faithful judgement is v. 9's international collapse.
Now please bear in mind where this prophetic passage sits in the development of God's dealing with His people.
There will be terrible things happening.
And the impact of those things will be to separate - to some extent - the sheep from the goats AMONG HIS HISTORIC PEOPLE.
What we're about to look at in this passage is all about the different attitude of the faithful remnant amongst God's people ... what marks THEM out from the rest.
At the start of such difficult times there is this visible phenomenon ... for the sake of OUR discussion let's call it 'the Church'.
But hard times put the pressure on and what defines the faithful remnant that didn't turn back and get destroyed is the attitude of the faithful amongst the visible 'church'.
This is a huge turning point in the flow of Biblical theology here ...
Motyer: "The importance of the present section is tha it brings us to the point of definition in the doctrine of the remnant. 'A remnant shall return' no longer means simply that there will always be survivors to continue the nation on earth but that there is a distinction between the secularised, politicised professing people of God and those, within that people, who turn to Him in repentance and faith, who look to His Word and obey it."
If you block out the small subsections and analyse the structure of this passage it all centres down onto vv. 12-15 ... the fear of the ungodly in v. 12 mirroring the fate of the ungodly in vv. 14b -15 then inside that the fear of the godly in v. 13 and the privilege of the godly in v. 14a.
The key issue in the definition of the faithful remnant as opposed to the ungodly amongst the apparently godly is this issue of who, what and how you respond to this thing we call 'fear'.
It's absolutely fascinating to see how the structure highlights this issue and I've seen 'Fear' as important enough and as counter-cultural enough to produce a podcast on this that you can access here:
These with the subject of what fear is and how to relate to it in a godly way. It's a sort of lecture/ interaction with a work by John Flavel dating from 1684 but INCREDIBLY relevant to our current experiences in Wales.
But before we get too carried away, let's have a look into the text.
"Raise the war cry, you nations, and be shattered!
Listen, all you distant lands.
Prepare for battle, and be shattered!
Prepare for battle, and be shattered!"
This sounds pretty terrible but it's important to note that in the conflict of the Nations being foretold here, the Remnant are going to be secure, but they will not be immune from the consequences of the conflict.
They aren't immune to the calamities of the people they are part of, but in all of it they have their transforming fear of God and surrounded by the hopelessness of the rest they have God and His promise to cling on to.
The thing about those who aren't leaning on God and fear consequences rather than their Creator is that they set about solving problems on their own.
Faith of COURSE acts, but in all of that faith relies primarily upon its' Creator ... and that's a distinguishing feature of the FAITHful Remnant.
So Isaiah speaking for God directly addresses the more powerful nations that are party to the treaties the godless Israelites run to for refuge.
"Devise your strategy, but it will be thwarted;
propose your plan, but it will not stand,
for God is with us"
You can see these powerful military allies ... godless nations that will plunder Jerusalem's Temple and whose pagan gods will come as part of the package ... are going to bring nothing but disaster.
Ally yourselves with them and you will share in their destruction.
I'm reminded of Psalm 146: "Do not put your trust in princes,
in human beings, who cannot save.
4 When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.
5 Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God."
Something a little bit unusual happens next ... but there's a really good reason for why this happens here, just in terms of the gathering of the faithful Remnant of the people.
"This is what the Lord says to me with his strong hand upon me, warning me not to follow the way of this people ..."
Two things here to notice ...
Firstly God makes a POWERFUL impression on Isaiah as He speaks ... Heb “with strength of hand/power.”
Secondly, God warns Isaiah in this powerful way to separate himself from his people - Heb “he warned me against (or “from”) walking in the way of these people, saying.”
The NET translates really helpfully:
v. 11 "Indeed this is what the Lord told me quite forcefully. He warned me not to act like these people:"
The Remnant STARTS with Isaiah, and it starts with separating himself from the crowd.
And it was the Word of the Lord that exerted the necessary pressure on Isaiah to distance himself from the people.
As Motyer (an Anglican minister) puts it: "His separation was not self-appointed exclusivism but (like all true separation) obedience to the Word of God."
I can't see anything to object to in that!
So HOW is Isaiah to express his difference from his people?
"‘Do not call conspiracy
everything this people calls a conspiracy;
do not fear what they fear,
and do not dread it."
I need to point out here that the verbs Isaiah uses now switch decisively into the plural ...
Here are things Isaiah needs to stand apart from ... and it starts by specifying the rejection of the rumblings of the conspiracy theorists.
Conspiracy theories ultimately thrive on feeding fears and on the suspicion that there is NO Sovereign God in control - active, operating authoritatively in this world, working out all things according to His purposes and His Providence.
In all thirteen of its' other occurrences in the Old Testament the noun used here translated 'conspiracy' refers to internal rebellions .... to treason.
It's not easy to work out what actual rebellion v. 12 is referring to but it seems likely that the security treaty King Ahaz was negotiating with Assyria in preference to relying on the LORD is what's being referred to ... and it''s being referred to as treason, against the LORD.
Not entrusting your destiny to Him is treason against the great King, because it effectively puts its' trust in man, and not in the Sovereign Lord.
The non-Remnant have a fresh definition of 'treason' ... and Isaiah is to preserve the theologically accurate and actually faithful one, in distinction from them.
Motyer: "Those who lived under the word and promise of God were thus called to hold aloof from popular clamour for the supposed safety of political alliance and worldly armed strength."
Maintaining the fear of the godly as opposed to the de facto godless is absolutely key to that enterprise.
Isaiah and those who will become his disciples - the faithful remnant - are to have no part in a fear-ridden society but to stand out for their distinctly different lifestyle ... calm in reliance on God in the midst of life's big storms and apparent threats.
However, it is CRUCIAL to notice that Isaiah and the Remnant are not in any sense conventionally fearless.
"The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
he is the one you are to fear,
he is the one you are to dread."
Life in a fallen world can be utterly fearful ... the faithful are not immune from that.
But the key thing is who or what in response to your fallen experience you will chose to fear.
Only the fool is the person without fear, because (as Flavel points out in his Treatise on Fear) fear is natural and natural fear is useful to mankind in a fallen world.
So where you place your fear is at least as important as where you place your faith ... in fact they are both the two sides of the very same coin, and where you place them will determine your outcomes.
Fearing God above all will protect you from the mis-steps you will take on your own initiative, if the fear of mankind gets to dominate your thinking.
Fearing God above all will characterise His faithful remnant, will protect their eternal destiny and will lead them into the privileges of the godly.
NET helpfully translates: "He will become a sanctuary ..."
Because the metaphor of protection (“sanctuary”) does not fit the negative mood that follows in vv. 14b-15, some contend that the Hebrew word miqdash, “sanctuary” probably needs to be emended to an original moqesh, “snare”, a word that appears in the next line
But why would the scribes who copied this manuscript get the word wrong here but not in the very next verse?
I don't buy that.
those who rebel against him by relying on their own wits and alliances - the help of man - rather than relying on Him a contrast that works out in the rest of v. 14.
Now, 'sanctuary' is a holy place not an asylum-seekers camp.
It is the place where the Lord comes to dwell amongst His people ... but where He comes (as in the Tabernacle and the Temple) in the tangible reality of His holiness.
It was a holy place, but it was also a place of sacrifice for sin where provision was made for sinners to be made safe and welcome when they entrusted themselves to Him in His holy presence.
The appointed means and way of grace allowed some to enter His fellowship and presence ... but that same presence to those who didn't come that way always spelled to the unfaithful non-Remnant their doom ...
To those who do not stand apart as His faithful remnant, He is a stone of stumbling, a trap and a snare
Just as the idolatry of the nations they sought alliances got installed at the bricks and mortar Jerusalem temple became a trap and a snare ...
" for both Israel and Judah he will be
a stone that causes people to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.
And for the people of Jerusalem he will be
a trap and a snare.
15 Many of them will stumble;
they will fall and be broken,
they will be snared and captured.’"
Motyer: "The same God in His unchanging nature is both sanctuary and snare; it depends on how people respond to His holiness."
The first pair of words ("a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall") flesh out the people's attitude to God ... they ignore Him and therefore trip over Him.
The second pair of words (for the people of Jerusalem he will be a trap and a snare") describe God's hostility to them over their rebellion.
Now this all works out in vv. 16-22 as the consequences of fearing mankind more than god get worked out.
Firstly, the faithful need to separate themselves out.
"Bind up this testimony of warning
and seal up God’s instruction among my disciples.
17 I will wait for the Lord,
who is hiding his face from the descendants of Jacob.
I will put my trust in him.
The faithful remnant here say 'I will wait for the Lord'.
But of the others v. 21 says 'they will .... curse their God."
Ahaz alienated God's favour by seeking foreign military alliances rather than God.
Isaiah and his disciples aren't immune from the suffering that led to ... but a the clouds of what was coming were gathering, they were sustained by an expectant, sure, patient hope.
That's the way of the remnant, but the fearers of mankind fell into despair.
Isaiah's testimony is utterly distinct from them:
18 Here am I, and the children the Lord has given me.
We are signs and symbols in Israel from the Lord Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion."
In the course of the history that Isaiah prophesies, the Temple on Mount Zion, the city of Jerusalem and its' inhabitants will be conquered militarily, destroyed and scattered abroad.
But God still dwells on Mount Zion throughout all of it, and His faithful remnant are His signs and symbols standing out for their covenant keeping God amongst the historic people of Israel.
Have you noticed that Isaiah and his followers are a sign?
Have you ever wondered where you get a name like Isaiah?
Isaiah's name is a name that means simply: 'God saves'
But in spite of these signs they were given, the fear of man crowding out the fear of God, King Ahaz and the nation rejected the fear of God for the fear of mankind, turned openly to spirits and to mediums in the ensuing fear that gripped them, utter darkness lies ahead of them along that road ...
So, verses 19-22 predict the ensuing national collapse.
Why did it get so bad as this?
Because they feared man more than God, succumbed to the fear Flavel describes as sinful fear, and jumped from the high board of God's covenant care.
It is a terrible way to discover that your negligent actions have emptied your swimming pool.
It appears then, from the verses at the central focal point of the structure of this passage, that where you put your fear is at least as important as where you place your faith.
At the end of this fearful year 2020 and at the dawn of this New Year 2021, that truth comes as a particularly fresh revelation to me.
Let's resolve as we head into 2021, not really knowing what it is that this year holds for us, to renounce the fear of mankind and to fear the loss of the fellowship and careful support of the One Who has loved us with an everlasting love.
Let's resolve not to let our fears drive us to put our trust in alliances or allegiances, deals or vaccines, politicians or medics ... but to thank our Father God Who we can trust with all the issues these things raise and bring His faithful remnant with Him into Glory.
The best of anything else we aspire to pales towards insignificance in comparison.