June 30, 2019
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
Isaiah and Jeremiah are the two books of the Bible I never preached through paragraph by paragraph. I did preach through Ezekiel in that way, but both Isaiah and Jeremiah are still longer books, and Isaiah considerably longer. What is more, they challenge the preacher with their substantial amount of repetition. I have through the years preached many sermons from Isaiah, but most of them in either the Advent or the Lenten season, and most of them focusing on the best-known passages in the book. I preached one series on the four so-called “Servant Songs,” a number of times from the last of them, the immortal 53rd chapter, and sermons at Christmas from chapters 7 and 9, texts the whole world is familiar with: “Behold a virgin will conceive and bear a son…” or “Unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” In my preaching this summer I plan to consider several texts from Isaiah that I have not preached before; texts that I think are representative of the book as a whole.
Isaiah is the second longest book in the Bible, after the Psalms, some 66 sometimes lengthy chapters. But the importance of the book is not derived from its length. No other of Israel’s prophets said so much so clearly about salvation, about the savior himself as both “Mighty God” and “Suffering Servant,” about sin and forgiveness on an individual level or the transformation of the whole world by the grace and power of God, about the consummation of history in either heaven or hell or about the life of faith meantime. No wonder from ancient times Isaiah has been referred to as “Isaiah the Evangelist,” as if Isaiah wrote a Gospel like Matthew or Mark, but 700 years before the birth of Jesus Christ.
More than that, none of the other prophets had Isaiah’s literary genius. Some of the world’s most elevated, moving, and memorable poetry is found in this book; passage after passage of almost insupportable power and beauty. No wonder Handel’s Messiah depended as much as it did upon Isaiah! No wonder so many of Isaiah’s texts have been etched upon the consciousness of the world or inscribed upon her great buildings, as Isaiah 2:4 is inscribed on a wall at the United Nations Building in New York.
Isaiah lived in momentous times. His ministry extended from the middle of the 8th century B.C. through the early years of the 7th century. It began during the years of the growing Assyrian menace. He was witness to the catastrophe when Israel fell to Assyria in 721 B.C. He was King Hezekiah’s advisor when Sennacherib, the Assyrian emperor, invaded Judea and besieged Jerusalem in 701 B.C. and threatened to end Judah’s existence as a national and ethnic community, as Assyria had ended Israel’s existence twenty years before. This was the occasion when the Assyrian army was destroyed by the Lord and sent homeward a shadow of its former self. Sennacherib would later boast on an Assyrian inscription in stone in Nineveh that he had bottled up Hezekiah in Jerusalem “like a bird in a cage,” but, significantly, would say nothing about having conquered the city or plundered it. Isaiah was an older man coming to the end of his ministry when Babylon began its ascent as the new great power on the world stage. An ancient Jewish tradition is that Isaiah was martyred during the reign of King Manasseh who was unwilling to hear any more of Isaiah’s condemnations of Judah’s idolatry. Indeed, he may be the one the author of Hebrews is referring to when, in chapter 11, he speaks of men of faith who were “sawn in two.” It was the kind of thing Manasseh would have done during the years of his defiant unbelief!
Although three of the four kings of Judah, during whose reigns Isaiah served as the prophet of the Lord, were good kings, however ineffective, the people, by and large, were, at best, largely nominal in their faith and, at worst, descending to complete accommodation to the idolatrous worldview and lifestyle of the peoples around them.
Isaiah was, first and foremost, a preacher and a greater preacher perhaps there has never been. Dr. Packer once described the preaching of Martyn Lloyd-Jones as Isaianic. The highest possible compliment! He meant that it was preaching that exalted God; that punctured man’s pretensions and exposed his pride, selfishness, corruption, and futility; that threatened sinners with divine judgment but then in the most compelling way offered to the penitent salvation now and forever through faith in the Savior. [cf. I. Murray, Lloyd-Jones, vol. 2, 325] Before the Lord Jesus said, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden,” Isaiah had, in the Lord’s name called out, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters…”
The verses we are about to read are very typical of the prophets. They are an indictment of the Jews for their accommodation to the religious principles and the morality of the world around them and so their betrayal of the covenant Yahweh had made with them. This account of Judah’s moral and theological declension, very typical of the prophets, will be followed by the promise of God’s future intervention to save his people, also typical of Isaiah’s sermons. But this morning we will concentrate on Isaiah’s stern condemnation and his appeal to the Jews to repent.
v.2 Now the Lord himself speaks and invokes the heavens and the earth as witnesses to the truth of what he says. Israel has spurned her privileged place; has squandered her election and redemption.
v.4 “Holy One of Israel” is Isaiah’s characteristic way of referring to the Lord; holiness is the very characteristic of his being: both his otherness – God is far above and beyond all his creatures – and his perfect purity, goodness, justice, and love.
v.7 What have the Jews gained by their disobedience and their rebellion? Certainly not security; certainly not happiness! Foreigners were threatening their very existence.
v.8 The metaphors suggest a flimsy existence, easily destroyed.
v.10 It was a powerful convention or trope of prophetic preaching to compare the Jews to Sodom and Gomorrah, cities that were a byword for the worst excesses of paganism. Not only were some of Sodom’s sins practiced in Judah, but the Jews had less excuse.
v.11 Here we begin a passage, like others in the prophets, in which the Jews are condemned for ritualism that divorced outward action from the commitment of the heart. Isaiah is not rejecting the outward forms, they were commanded to be done in the Law of God; but he is rejecting the Jews’ way of practicing them, without loyalty, faith, obedience, or love. Such was the religion of the ancient near eastern world, as it would be of Greece and Rome. The rituals were all that mattered. The gods – not morally admirable themselves – didn’t care how you lived your life, they only wanted your gifts!
v.16 What is required is repentance and obedience offered from the heart. This is simply another version of the Apostle Paul’s “put to death your sins” and “practice the new life God gives to those who trust in him.”
v.18 “Scarlet” and “Red” are the colors of blood guilt. [Motyer, 48]
Now let’s clear the air as we begin. I’m morally certain that most of you cannot be characterized as Isaiah characterized his contemporaries: people whose religion is a pose, whose loyalty to God is a sham, and whose so-called worship merely an exercise in hoping that tit would be rewarded with tat. To be sure, there may be some here this morning who are described in vv. 2-15. There have always been such in the church of God and, of course, the unbelieving world, whatever its religious or philosophical convictions, is certainly described in these verses: indifferent to their moral failing, confident of their own goodness, and utterly lacking any real fear of the judgment of God.
But this text speaks to all of us no matter, since the sin that led us to Christ in the first place, is the sin that still bedevils our lives, and God’s forgiveness that we received when first we sought it is the same forgiveness we continue to need every day. But what is even more relevant to our case is this: like those Jews in Isaiah’s time – these are our spiritual ancestors don’t forget – our understanding of God’s forgiveness and the extent to which we prize and treasure that forgiveness is the index of our spiritual condition. Divine forgiveness is the measure of our problem because we need it desperately on account of our pride, our endless sins of omission and commission, and our colossal failure to appreciate the moral chasm that separates us from a holy God. Isaiah is all about our sin and need for forgiveness, all about the mercy of God who stands ready to forgive, and all about the justice of God who cannot save unless first he removes our sin.
We do love God; we really do. We want to live for him; we really do. But like those Jews our problem, one of the principal problems of every Christian’s life, perhaps the primary reason our lives are the shadow of what they might be and ought to be, is that rather than stand amazed at the forgiveness of God, we are inclined to take it almost entirely for granted. Is it not so with you? It is with me! I long ago realized that the first reason for the congregation to confess its sins together in worship on the Lord’s Day is that were we not to do this, far too many Christians, real Christians, would hardly ever confess their sins to God or seek their forgiveness. Why does the Bible so often remind us to confess our sins to God and ask for their forgiveness? Why did the Lord Jesus make that prayer for forgiveness part of his model prayer? Because not only do we need God’s forgiveness constantly, but a constant reckoning with God’s mercy toward us, his forgiveness of our sins, a sense of that forgiveness kept on the soul is essential to the true Christian mind and the true Christian life.
Certainly, that was the problem here! The Jews, like so many people in our world today, were worried about all the wrong things. They were worried about foreign nations and their threats to Judah’s national life; they were not worried about the wrath of God. They feared the loss of their personal peace and prosperity; they hardly gave a thought to their peace with God. They thought too well of themselves to think that their own sins were the real threat to their well-being or the pressing problem of their lives. They would never have thought to say of themselves, as Isaiah says of them later, “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.” [59:2] With their ancient near eastern mindset, they thought too little of God’s holiness or his mercy to think that their relationship with him was the be-all and the end-all of both their present and future life. And as a result, they thought not at all, or scarcely at all about the forgiveness of their sins or whether the Lord might extend that forgiveness to them after all that they had done to offend and grieve him. “Forgiveness of sins; what sins?” Whether they would have said that, it is what they really thought. Actions speak louder than words. When people sin against God with little conscience it is certain they do not care to obtain his forgiveness of their sins.
“‘Come now, let us reason together’, says the Lord: ‘though your sins are like scarlet they shall be as white as snow…’” fell on stone-deaf ears. If you don’t think your sins are like scarlet, who cares if they become white as snow! He who despises the disease, despises the doctor. It is easy to demonstrate in this way how the importance we attach to God’s forgiveness and whether we are amazed, humbled, and thrilled by it is a true index of our spiritual condition. Is this not why more people are not concerned to obtain God’s forgiveness and why the possibility of such forgiveness does not move them? They don’t really think they need it. And if they should need it, surely God will give it to them; why wouldn’t he? Surely, we can see the deep and dangerous error in that indifference to God’s holiness and in that failure to grasp our need of his mercy.
But how do we tell, you and I, Christians that we are; how do we tell how much we really care about or think of God’s forgiveness? After all, it is a very bad habit of ours to imagine ourselves more spiritually minded and more grateful to God than we actually are. What Christian does not know that about himself or herself? Well, in the Bible, we are given a way to measure our estimation of God’s forgiveness of our sins. We are taught to tell how much we care about God’s mercy by the alacrity and the generosity and the purity of the mercy, the forgiveness we extend to others.
As the Lord taught his disciples after he taught them his model prayer, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive you.” [Matt. 6:14-15] That is a statement that ought to make us pause and spur us to action more than it does! Over the next many chapters Isaiah will pile up the evidence that the people of Israel did not treat one another with mercy. Forgiveness was not characteristic of their behavior because they had no real appreciation of God’s mercy. But what of us?
Do we forgive others as God has forgiven us? Really? Well, let’s think about God’s forgiveness. “Your sins shall be white as snow.” After all the sins that the Jews in Isaiah’s days had committed and were committing against God and God’s goodness toward them, “white as snow”? Really? White as snow? That “white as snow” reminds us that God does not simply promise to ignore the wrong we have done, the constant pettiness, impurity, cruelty, anger, vanity, envy, selfishness, and indifference toward God and our neighbor. No, the Bible says that God treats us rather as if we were heroes of moral virtue. He takes delight in us. Later in Isaiah we will read that when God forgives us he heals us, restores us, comforts us (57:18-19); he causes us to ride on the heights of the earth (58:14); he makes us beautiful (60:9); he becomes our everlasting light and brings an end to our sadness (60:19-20); as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, the Lord rejoices over us (62:5).
God will not make our sins beige or pale gray! The stains will not still show! He will make them white as snow. Or, as he says elsewhere in Isaiah and in the Bible as a whole: he will blot out our transgressions and remember them no more; he will separate our sins from us as far as the east is from the west; he will cast them behind his back, he will tread them under his feet; and cast them into the depths of the sea.
That is how God forgives! Now, how do we forgive? Well, I’ve had wives tell me that, of course, they have forgiven their husbands. And it is perfectly obvious to me and would be to you that they have done no such thing. She so plainly remains bitter toward him and is still quick to recall his offenses. And I’ve had husbands make the same dubious claim about their forgiveness of their wives. But they are still obviously angry, offended, and defensive. And, indeed, in such cases a husband or a wife may have understandable reasons. We may feel real sympathy for them. But, we would not want God to forgive us in that way: grudgingly, half-heartedly, still angry over our sins, still remembering them in detail, still holding us at a distance as if we stank. Or, in our modern, therapeutic world, forgiveness is sometimes recommended as an act of personal power, even a way to extract our revenge. We tell the person who has offended us that we forgive him or her in hopes of seeing the person squirm; in hopes of showing him how much better we are than he or she. How far this is from that “quality of mercy” which “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven” and blesses both “him that gives and him that takes.” [Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1] Or we can confuse forgiveness with mere indifference. We don’t care enough for a person’s opinion to take real offense at what he or she says about us. That is a temptation I have not always resisted! But that is not how God forgives, caring so little about us that our sins against him don’t bother him. God is offended by our sins; they do grieve him, holy and loving as he is. Yet he stands willing to forgive our sins, egregious as they are. Here in Isaiah 1, the Lord offers it freely to people who have made a life of spitting in his face and despising his gifts!
God’s forgiveness is certainly not a way of putting us down. It is not a grudging willingness to overlook faults if only the sinner does enough to prove his sincerity. It is not indifference to sin because he doesn’t think enough of us to care what we do. Nor is it simply the withholding of punishment. It is the outpouring of his blessing upon us; it is the demonstration of his love for us; it is his making things better than they ever were or could have been before! That is God’s forgiveness, and we, Paul says, are to forgive others as God has forgiven us! [Eph. 4:32]
We are Christians, brothers and sisters. Forgiveness ought to be our life’s blood! We ought to rejoice every day to have received it, ponder every day at what cost God has extended his forgiveness to us – the humiliation, suffering, and death of his only Son – and rejoice over every opportunity to show our admiration for that forgiveness so generously extended to us times without number, by extending forgiveness to others in a way as much like God’s as we can muster. Do you have any idea what power there is in such forgiveness? What blessing it bestows upon both the giver and the receiver of it? What changes will come to pass, must come to pass, when forgiveness is practiced with the vengeance with which God practices it?
Think of Ananias greeting Paul in Damascus, in that house on Straight Street. Had some of Ananias’ friends been harried and dragged to prison by Saul the chief persecutor of Christians? Had Ananias been thinking of the harm that Saul would do to Christians in Damascus? But God had told Ananias that he had forgiven Saul and that he was going to change Saul’s life root and branch. And that was enough for Ananias, godly man that he was. He went to that house, walked up to Saul, this vicious enemy of every Christian, now blind and confused, and greeted him, “Brother Saul!” Two enemies, now not just friends but members of the same family. That is forgiveness!
I love the story from the life of James Garfield, one-time President of the United States. Garfield, little known to Americans because he was assassinated so soon after taking office in 1881, was one of the most gifted and certainly one of the most worthy men ever to be elected to that office in American history. Garfield was not only a Christian, he was a Christian minister!
Garfield’s marriage got off to a rocky start. She loved him – Lucretia –, but she was a shy, retiring woman who struggled to express her feelings, and Garfield was an eloquent man who expressed his feelings powerfully. More than that, he was not really in love with her and both of them knew it. He married her more out of duty than passionate love and he felt keenly the lack of that passion he wanted to have for his wife. They were usually apart during the first five years of their marriage as first the Civil War – in which Garfield rose quickly through the ranks to become a General of the Union Army – and then his election to Congress kept him far from home in Ohio. Then, to make matters worse, Garfield had an affair with a young widow, a reporter for the New York Tribune. With this woman Garfield found himself overcome with the feelings he had never felt for his wife. But he was a man of honor and knowing the wrong he had done before God and to his wife, he went home and confessed his sin to Lucretia. She forgave him on the condition that Garfield end the affair immediately, which he did.
This is what he wrote to her in expressing the shame of his infidelity and his repentance. “I believe after all I had rather be respected than loved if I can’t be both… I hope when you…balance up the whole of my wayward self, you will still find, after the many proper and heavy deductions are made, a small balance left on which you can base some respect and affection.” Is that not something like the spirit in which we should be speaking to God; not because we doubt that he stands ready to forgive us, but because we know so well how much there is to forgive!
But that is not the end of the story. As Garfield witnessed Lucretia’s pain, the heartbreak he had caused her, he began to see her in a new light. He saw for the first time the depth of her emotion – which had been precisely what he had not seen before – and slowly he began to fall in love with his wife. As the years passed their marriage became the storied love affair that Garfield had dreamt of but had long thought he would never enjoy. [C. Millard, Destiny of the Republic, 100-102] That is what forgiveness sought and forgiveness received in human relationships can achieve. How much more when we confess our sins and seek forgiveness from the Almighty Himself, the Triune God, and when he gives us that forgiveness with all his heart.
That was what the Jews had forgotten and what, alas, so many of them would never know: the sense of being loved by God, of feeling his smile upon you. And, still more, if you have the blessing of God, you will certainly have not only the best of this world – whatever your outward circumstances may be – but that perfect life you have been made for and that you long for.
We must not be, you and I, among those multitudes who hardly ever intentionally and seriously ponder God’s forgiveness of our great and many sins. We must be those who reason it out; who think about both our sin and God’s forgiveness until the amazement and the gratitude and the hope and the peace and the love and the joy that flows from that forgiveness take hold of our hearts. And what better way to honor God’s forgiveness than to imitate it in our relationships with others, to aspire to be and work to be and pray to be as generously forgiving as God has been forgiving to us. Christians become greater, better, deeper persons by the contemplation of God. The greater God seems to them, the greater they become, drawn onward and upward by that vision of the glory of God. A small view of God cannot make large Christians. And God is as great as he is, as large as he is first and foremost because of his mercy!
Here are our marching orders, brothers and sisters. Here is our calling. Here is the great thing to be done in our lives while we remain in this world: become by careful reflection, by the regular confession of our sins, by faith in Christ, by the imitation of God, by the practice of humility as the unworthy sinners that we are, and by loving God for his mercy; I say, to become champions of divine forgiveness; for ourselves and for others. Nothing would bring greater blessing either to you or to others, nothing would so adorn your profession of faith in Jesus Christ, and nothing would please more your God and Savior who delights to be merciful than to see you delighting in mercy. Be someone special! This spirit of forgiveness; this love of forgiveness is special; far too rare and extraordinarily special!