THIS WEEK'S LESSON

PLAYING GOD

After a minister had preached a searching sermon on pride, a woman who had hard the sermon waited for him and told him that she was in much distress of mind, and that she would like to confess a great sin.  The minister asked her what that sin was.

“’She answered, ‘The sin of pride, for I sat for an hour before my mirror some days ago admiring my beauty.’

“’Oh,’ responded the minister, ‘that was not a sin of pride – that was a sin of imagination!’” – C. E. Macartney, compiled by Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times, p. 1100.

 For this lesson, read Isaiah 13, 14, and 19.  The many gods of the ancient Near Eastern people were part of a vast cosmic community.  As in human society, the relationships between these gods were hierarchical; some gods were more important, more powerful, and had wider domains than others.  None of these ancient Near Eastern gods possessed exclusive power.

A God without Borders – Unlike the gods of the other ancient Near Eastern people, the God of Israel – whose personal name in Hebrew is YHWH (probably pronounced something like Yahweh), which is usually translated as “the LORD” – is (not just was!) very different.  He is not merely the King of the gods; He denies the divine power and authority, even the existence, of any other being who could be called “god,” and He does not permit people to acknowledge them either.

Although YHWH was the national deity of Israel in the sense that He made a unique covenant with the Israelites, all people on the planet Earth have been subject to Him since He created the entire human race.  Moreover, He created the entire universe, including the sun, moon, and stars, and all regions of the cosmos: “Heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.”  He is the universal and international God, without borders.

The book of Isaiah begins by holding God’s covenant people, especially those in Judah and those from the northern kingdom of Israel, accountable to Him.  But then He asserts His authority over the nation of Assyria.  He did not hold the Assyrians responsible for keeping all the laws of His covenant with Israel, which they did not know.  Rather, He judged them for their pride and brutality, which violated universal moral norms.

Isaiah 13 begins a new section of the book of Isaiah, which is indicated by a reminder of the prophet’s identity – “Isaiah the son of Amoz saw” (verse 1) – and the recurrence of the term oracle (utterance) to introduce sections within chapters 13 through 23.  These chapters pronounce judgments on the nations of the ancient Near East, with a special focus on Babylon. 

As in the judgment against Assyria, the LORD indicts nations for offenses tat they should have recognized as sins, especially those of pride and cruelty.  However, the bulk of these prophetic oracles dramatically depict the nations’ fates when they fall before divine judgments.

Isaiah’s prophetic voice pounds the message home: the Judge of all the earth has arraigned all nations and has found them guilty of high crimes against Him and against humanity, for which they deserve severe punishment or destruction.  Therefore, their condemnation is just and they cannot escape it because the Lord is the supreme Sovereign, and even the strongest and most boasted human power is nothing to Him. 

Even if Isaiah’s oracles did not reach the Gentile nations that theyi addressed, their messages should have impressed on Isaiah’s countrymen several points that are just as relevant for modern “new covenant” Christians.  First, as part of the human race, we are no better than anyone else because we, too, have sinned.  Second, if even those outside of God’s covenant with limited knowledge of right principles are accountable, ten we within the covenant, to whom special divine revelations have been entrusted in the inspired writings bear a much greater responsibility.  Third, we are totally dependent on God’s mercy – not help from other people – for our survival, so our best course is to trust Him and accept the remedy for our sins that He offers.  Fourth, if we have a positive relationship with Him, we do not need to fear anything or anybody because He has absolute power to take care of us.

So what kind of remedy does the Lord offer?  Isaiah previously communicated God’s free offer of pardon to His covenant people.  Now, in the midst of the judgment oracles against the nations, Isaiah 19:18-25 prophesies divine mercy and blessing for the Egyptians and the Assyrians who had been major enemies of God’s people, but Isaiah says they will worship Him in the future!

This remarkable prophecy, like other classical prophecies (not including the apocalyptic prophecies of Daniel and Revelation), was conditional.  It would be fulfilled if the Egyptians and Assyrians would turn to the Lord.  As it turns out, in later centuries, many Egyptians and Assyrians did accept the lord and the gift of salvation through the Christ’s sacrifice.  Today most modern Assyrians are Christians.

Isaiah 19 reveals God’s character and intentions: He is wiling to freely forgive and bless people of any nation if they accept His borderless lordship and worship Him.  The fact that He can do this for Egyptians and Assyrians implies that He can also do it for others.  What kind of God is this?  Who is like God?

Heaven’s Gate – In Isaiah 14, a taunt against Satan, the fallen “Day Star, son of Dawn” (Isaiah 14:12), is blended into a taunt against the king of Babylon.  Why?  Compare Revelation 12:1-9, where a dragon identified as Satan tries to destroy a child as soon as it is born.  In Revelation 12:5, the child is clearly the Christ.  But it was King Herod who tried to kill Jesus as a young child. The dragon is both Satan and the Roman power represented by Herod, because Satan works through human agents.  Similarly, Satan was the power behind the king of Babylon and the prince of Tyre.

Like literal Babylon, Rome and the “Babylon” of Revelation are proud, ruthless powers that oppress God’s people.  See especially Revelation 17:6, for it is “drunk with the blood of the saints.”  They rebel against God, an idea implied in the name “Babylon” itself.  In the Babylonian language, the name is bab ili, which means “the gate of gods” referring to the place of access to the divine realm.  Compare this to Genesis 11, where people built the tower of Babel (Babylon) so that by their own power they could rise to the divine level of immunity from any accountability to God.

When Jacob awoke from a dream in which he saw a ladder connecting heaven and earth, he exclaimed” This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:17).  Notice that the “house of God” is “the gate of heaven;” that is, the way of access to the divine realm. Jacob named the place “Bethel” which means “house of God.”

The “gate of heaven” at Bethel and the “gate of gods” at Babylon were opposite ways to reach the divine realm.  Jacob’s ladder originated in heaven, revealed from above by God.  But Babylon, with its towers and ziggurat temples was built by human beings from the ground up.  These opposite ways represent contrasting paths to salvation: divinely initiated grace versus human works.  All true religion is based on the humble Bethel model: “For by grace you have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8-9).  All false “religion” including legalism and “secular” humanism, is based on the proud Babylon model.

Isaiah’s message contains warning and hope for this Lord’s people of all eras.  The warning is that pride does come before a fall (see Proverbs 16:18).  Satan tempts us to be proud like him, supposing that we are our own masters who are in charge of our destinies.  But God promises to bring down such arrogance with a mighty crash.

Final Triumph of Zion – As in Isaiah 13 and 14, aspects of literal Babylon apply to later powers, and the “king of Babylon” represents fusion of human rulers with the mastermind behind them, Satan himself.  So, a message that Babylon is fallen (Isaiah 21:9), can be repeated at a later time (Revelation 14:8, Revelation 18:2), and Satan is finally destroyed after the millennium.  While the destruction of literal Babylon was a judgment “day of the Lord,” another “great and terrible day of the Lord” is on the way.

Similarly, in Isaiah 24, the prophet’s vision reaches through conditions with which he is familiar to the time when “the moon will be abashed and the sun ashamed; for the Lord of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem” (Isaiah 24:23).  Isaiah undoubtedly thought the vision applied to the Jerusalem he knew, but the book of Revelation explains that it will actually be fulfilled in the New Jerusalem.  “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Revelation 21:23).

Look at Isaiah 28:21, where God’s work of destruction is His strange “deed.”  It is strange for Him, because He doesn’t want to do it but it is, nevertheless, a deed, or an act.  It is true that sin carries the seeds of self-destruction.  But because God has ultimate power over life and death and He determines the time, place, and manner of final destruction, it is pointless to argue that He ultimately terminates the curse of sin in a passive way, by simply allowing cause and effect to take its natural course.

Isaiah saw that following Assyria, Babylon would conquer Judah.  But he also sat that in spite of super human rulers of the darkness of his world, working through God’s enemies and presuming to play God he Lord would decisively prevail and bring eternal peace to our troubled planet.

QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT - Does Isaiah see hope for people of other nations?

Even after spending a few years in a Zen monastery, Canadian songwriter Leonard Cohen told an interviewer “I’m not saved.”  What was his problem?  What did he need to know about salvation?

What we see in Isaiah, chapters 24-27, is what we see reflected in the entire Bible, which is that no matter the suffering, pain, and desolation now, in the end God and goodness will triumph over evil.  What then, is the only thing we can do if we ourselves want to be part of that final victory?

Why are pride and arrogance such dangerous sins?  Why are they so hard to put away?  Can it be because by their very nature they blind people to their need to put them away?  After all, if you are proud, you think you are OK, and if you think you are OK, why bother changing?  How can dwelling on the Cross and what it represents (the only means of saving any person) be a powerful cure for pride and arrogance in anyone!

The scene of judgment seems to be largely terrifying and horrifying for many.  But oftentimes, the fear of impending judgment impels people to seek the Lord and finally to enter into the way of salvation.  What lesson can we learn from the scenes of the judgment in the book of Isaiah?