Text: Isaiah 50:10-51:8 • Scripture Readings: Isaiah 50:10-51:8, 17-23; John 15:18-27, 16:32-33
November 6, 2011
Why do we have such high regard and fond memories of our grandparents? It is not just because they shower their grandkids with all kinds of presents and attention, and they end up being spoiled. But most of all, it is their love for the grandkids that we all remember so well.
In Scriptures, we read about Israelites always remembering their father Abraham when they think of the past, and of God fulfilling his covenant promises to them because of his promises to Abraham the father of their nation. When the Israelites groaned as slaves in Egypt, God heard their cries, “and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (Exod 2:24). When Jesus told them that his True Word will set them free, the Jews protested, using Abraham’s name, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone” (John 8:33) Even when Peter preached to the Jews, “For the promise is for you and for your children” (Acts 2:39), God’s covenant with Abraham was on his mind, “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant” (Gen 17:7). God’s covenant promises to Abraham were also in Paul’s mind when he assures Gentiles of their inheritance, “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:29).
It is this remembrance of God’s faithfulness to Abraham that Isaiah reminds Israel when they again would become hopeless slaves in a foreign nation, this time in Babylon, “Look to Abraham your father” (Isa 51:2). Previously, in Chapter 50, Isaiah tells us of the Servant of the Lord who will listen to the Lord, and suffer greatly in order to sustain his weary people (Isa 50:4-9).
In turn, the people of God for whom the Servant suffers are called to listen to and obey the voice of the Lord. It is the Servant himself who would give them listening ears so they would be able to obey, and thus be forever redeemed from sin and God’s wrath.
Isaiah 50:10–11 introduces the next chapter by asking God’s people to respond to the call for obedience to the voice of the Servant. First, even in the darkness of life, “trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God.” Or, second, if they “equip [themselves] with burning torches” and “walk by the light of [their own] fire,” i.e., if they put their trust on their own resources, “they shall lie down in torment” forever.
Israel has had a history of disobedience from their wilderness wanderings through the reign of their kings, so why should they obey the voice of the Lord now? Isaiah 51:1-8 gives them three reasons why, all starting with, “Listen to me!” or “Give attention to me!” First, in verses 1-3, the Lord’s past calling and blessings on their forefathers testify to his faithfulness and righteousness. Second, verses 4-6 assure them of redemption from their present sinfulness, a redemption that will spread from Israel to the Gentile nations. Third, verses 7-8 guarantee them of the Lord’s vindication, just as the Suffering Servant will be eternally vindicated.
Past Calling and Blessings
Only a few, around 50,000 of the original nation, would return from the Babylonian exile, so it was easy for them to be discouraged. Their homes, fields and cities were in ruins, and there is no Temple where they could again worship the Lord. They knew their situation was God’s judgment on their violations against God’s law and on their trusting in alliances with other nations instead of the Lord’s covenant promises.
In the midst of this discouragement and hopelessness, Isaiah called on Israel to remember father Abraham and mother Sarah. If God can make a great nation from Abraham and Sarah, a barren couple in their old age, who were “as good as dead” (Heb 11:12), then he can restore Judah which was practically non-existent after it was destroyed and scattered throughout the Babylonian empire. If God could accomplish an impossible task, humanly speaking, in Abraham and Sarah, why would he not be able to restore a few and powerless remnant into an established nation once more?
If this remnant would “pursue righteousness … [and] seek the Lord” just as Abraham did, God would deliver his blessings and comfort. Isaiah reminds them to look back, not only to the rock Abraham from which they were hewn and dug, but to the day when God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, but God created a lush, beautiful garden of Eden where there was an abundance of blessings and provisions for his people. If God could create such a beautiful garden out of nothing, why can’t he create another out of a barren, dry desert, just as he created Isaac from Sarah’s barren womb?
When God chose and called Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees, he was but one person. But God promised that he would be blessed with innumerable descendants and that they would be given a land flowing with milk and honey. The Lord fulfilled all these promises of blessing and multiplying and a land for his offspring, except for one that is yet to be accomplished: in Abraham “all the families of the earth shall be blessed”
When Israel is restored, it would be the beginning of “joy and gladness … thanksgiving and the voice of song” in the whole world. How would the Lord accomplish this blessing of all the earth? He would send his own Servant who would accomplish all righteousness by perfectly obeying the voice of the Lord, even in the face of all kinds of suffering and humiliation.
In addition to Israel, many in the world will listen and obey the voice of the Lord, and they will pursue righteousness and seek the Lord. They would see righteousness and justice accomplished by the Servant of the Lord, and thus will be blessed (Isa 51:5). In this way, God’s covenant promises to Abraham long ago would be fulfilled. Zion, which would include Jews and all nations of the earth, would again become Eden, the garden and tabernacle of the Lord.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, when discouragement and hopelessness set in due to life’s problems, sufferings and trials, what do you do? To whom do you run? Who is your Rock? Look back to what God has done for you in the past: when there was no food on the table; when your relationships are on the rocks; when your health was failing; when your school grades were low; when you failed that board exam; when you didn’t get the job you dreamed of.
Look back! And see how the Lord turned your despair and hopelessness into joy and thanksgiving! Therefore, trust in the Lord’s promises and obey his Word, because his Word is forever and will not change or fail. Unlike the Old Testament Jews, we are able to look not only back to Abraham, but to Christ the Servant of the Lord, who accomplished all righteousness and justice to bless all the nations with salvation.
Present Salvation for All Nations
Why obey the voice of the Lord? First, because of his record of faithfulness in the past. Second, because his salvation has been going out to all the nations since Christ poured out his Holy Spirit on that day of Pentecost when 3,000 souls from many nations received his gospel.
Isaiah again calls God’s people to listen, give attention, because the Lord will send his teaching and justice as a light to the nations, just as he said earlier, “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6).
But it is not only Israel to whom the Lord’s righteousness and salvation has gone out. Faraway nations and coastlands wait and hope for the mighty arm of God to deliver them, not only from physical suffering, oppression and hunger, but more importantly, from sin and alienation from God.
This is so because physical deliverance is only temporal; suffering, oppression and hunger may be alleviated for a while, but they always return. But deliverance from sin and God’s judgment is eternal. Isaiah tells the people to look to the heavens and the earth. If God wills, the heavens will vanish like smoke, and the earth will wear out together with its inhabitants. Only the righteous God and his Word will remain forever, “my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will never be dismayed” (verse 6). His righteousness will never be hindered from accomplishing the salvation of the nations.
Of course, this is hyperbolic language. The heavens and the earth will not vanish, but will be restored, including the people that God has saved (Rom 8:21). Beyond this present heaven and earth, the truth of the Lord is going out to the nations until this present universe is replaced by a new heaven and new earth, and God’s people are brought to heavenly glory.
What great comfort! The covenant blessings that Christ has inaugurated when he came into the world 2,000 years ago are going out to the whole world, and nothing can prevent him from completing the work that he has begun in you. He is the light to nations who will bring you to heavenly glory at the completion of the salvation of his people. The Word of God that stands forever (Isa 40:8) assures you that nothing will separate you from the love of God in Christ (Rom 8:38-39). Christ himself has said so, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall pass away” (Matt 24:35), “until all is accomplished… to the end of the age” (Matt 5:18; 28:20).
Why obey the voice of the Lord? First, in the past, he had proven to be faithful and trustworthy. Second, because his salvation has been going out from Judah to all the nations since Christ first came preaching the gospel. Third and last, he has assured his people that he would vindicate himself and his people by punishing his enemies.
His Eternal Righteousness Will Vindicate
The Lord encourages his people in the midst of hostility coming from their enemies. Those who know God’s righteousness because his law is in their hearts will face reproach and reviling from the unrighteousness. Like the small remnant of the Jews who faced ridicule and hostility from their enemies as they started rebuilding their lives, we also face similar opposition as Christian pilgrims in this unbelieving world. But the Lord encourages us, “Fear not!” “Do not be dismayed!”
The Servant of the Lord faced the same reviling. We learned in Chapter 50 that his enemies struck his back, pulled out his beard, and spit on his face to shame and revile him (Isa 50:6). All because he was obedient to the voice of the Lord and was fulfilling all his law. He set his face like flint towards the goal that was set before him: to save his people from sin.
Our culture tells us that we are blessed when people speak well of us. Persecution is a word that is just about gone from the Christian vocabulary. Evangelicals long to be accepted by the mainstream of society, and conformity to the culture is the norm in the churches. But this is so foreign to the teachings of Jesus and his apostles. Believers are in the world, but not of the world—distinct in lifestyle and worldview—bringing persecution down on themselves. But in the West and in the Philippines, evangelicals know little or even no persecution because instead of being distinct from the world, many of them are conformed to the world’s ways and thoughts.
The bad thing about this comfortable status is that persecution will surely come, because Jesus and his apostles said it will come in this age and will be with us until the end of the age. Thus, we are now seeing the situation changing. We do not suffer persecution here as much as in many parts of Asia, Middle East, and Africa, but we see the preaching of the gospel slowly being pinched. Less and less opportunities are open to Bible studies and preaching in public schools and universities. Laws are being enacted that are anti-Christian, such as the anti-spanking law. Even same-sex marriage is gaining ground.
In many evangelical churches, pastors invite unbelievers to become Christians so that they may reap material blessings from God. Very few call on the congregation to listen to the voice of God and to seek after righteousness given by Christ. The Christian life is portrayed as a blessed, comfortable, happy life, and if trials and sufferings come, it is because of lack of faith. The result is that many in the churches are not prepared for sufferings and persecution sure to come, so they become easily discouraged and disillusioned in their faith. So instead of facing their situation squarely, they blame God.
Jesus encourages faithful believers to be ready for the world’s hatred and mocking because of their faith:
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you… If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you”
Persecution is sure to come but believers will overcome it because of Christ, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). This gives us comfort and hope, since Christ’s sufferings did not end in sin and death, but instead he overcame all temptations in his perfect obedience to the voice of the Lord. Because of his perfect life, his sacrificial death was acceptable to God, so he overcame death and was raised for our justification. Just as he overcame the world, we will also overcome the world now, partly, but in the age to come, perfectly.
What about unbelievers who persecute and revile us? Isaiah has a word for them: If you don’t listen to the voice of the Lord, you will wear out like garment, and the moth and worm will eat you up (Isa 50:9; 51:8). This is a picture of hell, of which, at the end of Isaiah’s prophecy, God’s people will have a look on those who dwell and suffer there for eternity, “For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched”
(Isa 66:24). Jesus paints the same imagery to describe eternal hell, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). This is why Isaiah says that those who do not trust and obey the Lord shall lie down in torment forever (Isa 50:11).
What will remain? Only the righteousness and salvation of the Lord will remain, because they are eternal. Then the words of Christ will be vindicated:
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely hon my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matt 5:11-12).
While persecutors will suffer eternal torment, God will reward his faithful people with everlasting salvation and righteousness in the new heavens and the new earth (Isa 66:22).
Finally, brothers and sisters, Isaiah comforts us later in Chapter 51 with a joyful reversal. Those of you who have listened to and obeyed the voice of the Lord will not be like Judah who were drunk with the cup of the Lord’s wrath. The Lord used their enemies, Assyria and Babylon, to make wicked Israel drink from the cup of his wrath, so they became like staggering drunks. While the unbelieving world persecutes you, you are as if drinking the cup of the Lord’s wrath.
But no, you are not. It was Christ himself who drank the bitter and dreadful cup of God’s wrath in your place, because of your sin, not his. This is why he cried to his Father in the garden as he faced death, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Even in the face of suffering the cup of God’s wrath, he obeyed the voice of the Lord.
Because Christ drunk the cup of God’s wrath, you who are now afflicted are able to drink the cup of blessing which Christ gives to you after his blood was shed on the cross for your sin. You can also partake of Christ’s body broken for you. Christ who pleads your cause and intercedes for you will take the cup of God’s wrath from your hands, and give it to those who persecute you.
Today, you have the joy of partaking of Christ’s body broken and his blood shed for your sin. As people who have listened to the voice of the Lord, you are God’s ransomed people who, like the Jews in Isaiah 35:10, have been released from captivity and returned with singing to heavenly Zion:
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain gladness and joy,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.