Rebuilding the Foundations
Many years ago I was visiting friends who had just put their one-year-old son to bed. I couldn't have been there five minutes when their son came running out into the living room, saying hi and announcing that he was tired. Apparently "tired" meant that it was time to get up.
It was cute, but his parents wanted him to go to bed, so after a couple rounds of this, they spanked him before putting him back in bed. This in no way deterred him, and each time he raced toward the living room, I wanted to shout, "Stop! Please stop! You're just going to get spanked again!"
This is the place we begin our commentary today. God is mourning over Israel just the way I mourned over my friends' one-year-old. God complains first that they are sinners, evil-doers, and corrupters. Then he says:
Why should you be stricken anymore? You will revolt more and more. The whole head is sick and the whole heart feint. From the sole of the foot to the head there is no health in it, but wounds, bruises, and putrefying sores. (vv. 5-6a)
Here it is God himself issuing the punishment to Israel, yet he is horrified by the effects of his discipline on them. They have been punished so thoroughly that there is no health in their (figurative) body, yet they just go on revolting against him.
Why won't they stop? Why won't they change their ways? This was God's mournful cry.
Isaiah then goes on to explain what is meant by wounds and putrefying sores:
Your country is desolate; your cities are burned with fire; strangers devour your land in your presence. (v. 7)
This situation has got to have been under Ahaz. Of the four kings under whom Isaiah served, Ahaz was the only evil one. In response God turned him over to both Syria (2 Chr. 27:5) and Israel (2 Chr. 27:8). The situation was so bad that Israel's prophets and leaders had to rebuke their army for taking so many Judean captives.
It has been a long time since I've worked on Through the Bible, so let's make sure we stay caught up. We know that Israel was God's nation, but there came a point where Israel split into two nations. The northern kingdom kept ten tribes and kept the name Israel. The southern kingdom kept just two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, and became known as Judah, separate from the northern kingdom of Israel.
I have always found it odd that it was Benjamin rather than Simeon that stayed with Judah because the territory assigned to Simeon was completely enclosed in the territory assigned to Judah (map). Apparently, not all the tribes did a good job of maintaining their ancestral lands.
The split between Israel and Judah happened under Rehoboam, the son of Solomon and grandson of King David. He was the fourth king of Israel, so the tribes did not stay united long after coming under the rule of kings.
In almost all cases, God's punishments are redemptive. His punishments to Israel were to bring about repentance. Here in Isaiah 1:4-8 we find God scratching his head about why Judah won't repent in response to the ravaging of their country.
I hate to miss any opportunity to correct widespread misinterpretations caused by our traditions or habits.
In Romans 2:4, Paul asks Jewish Christians in Rome why they don't understand that the kindness of God leads to repentance. The verse actually reads, "Or do you not know that the kindness of God leads to repentance?"
Most Christians interpret this to mean that only the kindness of God leads to repentance, and that the harshness, wrath, and judgments of God should not be emphasized because they don't.
If you read the context of that verse, however, it is obvious that Paul is emphasizing something different. The kindness of God, like his discipline, wrath, and judgment, is for repentance, not for continuing in sin. Just like God was puzzled at the Jewish lack of repentance in Isaiah 1, so Paul was puzzled that Jewish Christians were interpreting God's kindness as permission to continue in sin.
"God is good to me, so obviously I don't need to repent." That is the mindset Paul is fighting.
Our passage in Isaiah shows us that God expects his punishments to bring about repentance, just as Paul expected God's kindness to lead to repentance.
Try reading Romans 2:4 emphasizing different words. Nowadays the emphasis is on the word "kindness":
Don't you know that the kindness of God leads to repentance.
The emphasis should be on "repentance":
Don't you know that the kindness of God leads to repentance.
Can you hear the difference?
The former emphasis produces an obviously false teaching: only God's kindness produces repentance. The other emphasis produces an obviously true teaching, that God is kind to us because he wants us to love and obey him.
Ahaz was preceded by two good kings, Uzziah and Jotham, who both were described as mighty. For over fifty years Judah had lived in security and prosperity because of the obedience of their kings, yet despite losing almost everything except Jerusalem itself, they continued in unrighteousness under Ahaz.
I remember a conversation I had once with a Christian that was, I suppose, addicted to his job and career. He had been living in poverty and need for at least twenty years. He was famous among his friends for repeated and incredible unfortunate events on his jobs.
This Christian was just like the nation of Judah under Ahaz. God punished him and punished him, and he continued on. All his friends marveled, just as God marveled at Judah. I wound up telling him that if Balaam had been like him, the angel with the flaming sword would surely have killed him because he would not have stopped.
I am pleased to report that this Christian eventually repented—publicly in front of the whole church.
The point, however, is that this can happen to any of us. This Christian man did not picture himself as being in rebellion. He pictured himself as doing what needed to be done to support his family. All the while, God was punishing him with painful punishments, including the impoverishment of his family, trying to get him to see that the only One who should be in charge of the support of our families is King Jesus himself (cf. Matt. 6:25ff).
We need to be careful to ensure that our "good" is not the enemy of God's will for our lives.
There is one more verse we should cover. In verse 9, Isaiah tells us that God left Judah a remnant. This is a theme that we find throughout the Scriptures. Originally, God made Adam (lit. "Man"), but when they went astray he destroyed everyone except Noah and his family. After the flood, he promised never to destroy all of mankind again, but he did continue to trim his people down to a remnant. Over and over he builds his people all over again based on this righteous remnant.
Even in this era, the apostle Paul tells us that God left only a remnant of earthly Israel to be a portion of spiritual Israel. The purpose of this is to provoke Israel to jealousy and eventually save them all (Rom. 11).
Church history shows that God still operates under the same plan. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus writes a letter to the church of Sardis, promising to walk in white with those "few" who have not defiled their garments (Rev. 3:4). He tells the church in Pergamos that they have evil people in their midst, and he threatens to fight against "them" with the sword in his mouth. He does not threaten to fight against the remnant that is not evil, but just against the evil ones in their midst.
Down through the centuries, all the way to our time, we find God working in the same way. As the organized churches lose their zeal, both in their own midst and towards the world around them, God moves on to an individual or a group of individuals to build a new foundation, a new igniting of zeal for each generation.
Note: I am not sure enough about that last paragraph to want to leave it alone. I would love to have a place, preferably on this page, to discuss that paragraph and put my thought to the test with others who love and know history, or even current events in the church. Not sure how to do that on this site in a way I'm satisfied with yet. I will work on it.