Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Comfort My People: The Prophecies Of Isaiah, Day 1. Introduction

Comfort My People:
The Prophecies Of Isaiah
Day 1

KEY VERSE: "'Comfort, comfort My people,' says your God." Isaiah 40:1

Isaiah 40:1 will be our key verse for the entire study because even though this book contains many charges of sin and messages of coming judgment, it is also overflowing with words of comfort. The scope of the book of Isaiah is broad. He begins with troubles which were current in his time: the sad spiritual condition of Israel and Judah and the penalties for continuing on down a wayward path. But then he moves on into the future, foretelling the first advent of the Messiah and King, predicting the birth and life and death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. He predicts the eventual ingathering of all Israel into her land as one nation united in their service to the Lord. He then moves on into the kingdom age and the second advent of Christ when He will rule from the throne of David forever. 

Nobody likes giving bad news and Isaiah would doubtless have preferred to prophesy only good things for Israel and Judah. He would rather have spoken only comforting words to his people. But because he cared for them, and because he loved and honored the Lord, he could not hold back what the people needed to hear. It was necessary to confront them with their sins and give them the opportunity to search their hearts and come to a place of sorrow and repentance. It was vital to spell out the consequences if they did not repent. Isaiah wouldn't have been a friend to them if he hadn't told them the truth.

The Bible doesn't tell us much about Isaiah's personal life. His father was a man named Amoz who named his son Isaiah which means "the Lord is salvation". The rabbinic literature makes the claim that Isaiah's lineage came from the child Jacob's son Judah sired with his daughter-in-law Tamar. Isaiah's father Amoz is thought to have been a younger son of King Joash of Judah. The close family connection to the kings explains why Isaiah had so much access to the four kings during whose reigns he performed his ministry. Isaiah was a married man and had two sons with his wife who was an unnamed prophetess. He must have lived quite a long life, for if we naturally assume he was a grown man when he was called into the ministry, he prophesied for about sixty years or so, making him around eighty years old at his death. It is thought that he was one of the prophets martyred during the reign of King Manasseh when Manasseh embraced idolatry and persecuted the men of God who spoke out against the sins of Judah. 

Isaiah received his calling into prophetic ministry during the reign of Uzziah (also known as Azariah) and a few chapters on he will describe how his calling came about. But the book of Isaiah begins abruptly with a call to repentance. "The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth! For the Lord has spoken: 'I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against Me. The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner's manger, but Israel does not know, My people do not understand.'" (Isaiah 1:1-3) This section of Isaiah reminds me of how the ministry of John the Baptist began, for when we first meet him, he is calling out, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" and referring to the religious leaders as a "brood of vipers". 

The Lord, as a holy and righteous judge, calls on the heavens and the earth to witness His charges against the children of Israel. Because their rebellion has persisted through many generations, He calls no human witnesses but asks the very creation to give testimony to all the sin it has seen. The creation existed before Israel was a nation and it is able to substantiate every instance of her rebellion against the Lord who rescued her from Egypt and set her up as a sovereign nation. He uses the examples of an ox and a donkey, animals known for their stubbornness, and points out that even these willful animals know their owner and recognize their master's voice. He's saying, "That stubborn donkey in your barn stall is more righteous than you! For he knows his master's voice. He knows who provides for him. But you, Israel, have forsaken your Master. You have forgotten the One who provides for you."

Isaiah will frequently speak of Judah and Israel as simply Israel. The kingdom split during the days of Solomon's son Rehoboam, with the ten northern tribes seceding and forming their own kingdom of Israel and the two southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin becoming known as the kingdom of Judah. But the Lord always has and always will view the twelve tribes as a whole, as one nation, and often we find His prophets speaking of Israel as if it is still one united kingdom.  

"Woe to the sinful nation, a people whose guilt is great, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the Lord; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on Him." (Isaiah 1:4) Isaiah's ministry began when the threat of Assyria loomed over the people. The Assyrians had already attacked the northern kingdom of Israel and she was in imminent danger of falling. As those of you who studied the kings with us know, Assyria eventually conquered the ten northern tribes and took the majority of the people captive, settling foreigners in the land to rule over the remnant of citizens who were left. Isaiah wants the people to see that their troubles are a direct result of their rebellion against the Lord. Because they have abandoned Him, He is taking His protective hand off them. It's imperative that they understand their sovereignty depends on making the Lord sovereign over their lives. 

"Why should you be beaten anymore? Why do you persist in rebellion? Your whole head is injured, your whole heart afflicted. From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness---only wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with olive oil." (Isaiah 1:5-6) Some scholars believe the words of Chapter 1 were spoken during the time of King Ahaz of Judah, when the northern kingdom of Israel was being conquered by Assyria and taken captive. Judah herself was under constant threat by Assyria. Both Israel and Judah had become extremely idolatrous and the continual fear and threat of war was a result of their sins. We find they became ill from the inside out, with their minds and hearts turning away from the Lord and turning toward the false gods of the nations around them. I love the metaphor here of comparing Israel and Judah to a human body. It first became sick in its head and in its heart, beginning with its king and government. A few of Judah's kings actually renounced idolatry and rid the nation of pagan altars but the majority of the kings of Judah at least tolerated idolatry, with most of them indulging in it themselves. Israel's kings went astray from their very beginning, with Jeroboam setting up golden calves to worship in place of worshiping the Lord at Jerusalem. So the body (the twelve tribes) became sick at its head and heart (the government) and from there the illness spread out to make sores on the skin (the spread of idolatry from the kings to the citizens). 

"Your country is desolate, your cities burned with fire; your fields are being stripped by foreigners right before you, laid waste as when overthrown by strangers. Daughter Zion is left like a shelter in a vineyard, like a hut in a cucumber field, like a city under siege. Unless the Lord Almighty had left us some survivors, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah." (Isaiah 1:7-9) God would have been within His rights to destroy them as He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. If we think about it, Israel and Judah were guiltier than Sodom and Gomorrah. The children of Israel were the people the Lord loved as a father loves a child. He rescued them from slavery in Egypt and brought them out into a new land, driving out the wicked Canaanite tribes before them and planting His people in their place. Israel and Judah had no excuse for turning their backs on the One who delivered them from oppression and built them into a great people. Yet somehow they longed for the gods of the people the Lord had driven from the land rather than the God who had kept them safe. Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord is pointing out that He would have been righteous and blameless had He decided to be done with them. The heavens and the earth whom the Lord has called to witness His charges against the people will affirm that any penalty He hands down is fair. He desires instead to extend mercy. A large majority of the people have gone astray but there is still a faithful remnant. For their sake He is unwilling to destroy the nation. 

The ministry of Isaiah lasted through the reign of four kings, three of whom were good kings and who served the Lord. During the times of the three good kings, some semblance of temple worship was restored and the people were obeying the religious rules while their hearts longed for other gods. They were bringing sacrifices and offerings as required by the law but their heads and hearts were still sick. "Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah! 'The multitude of your sacrifices---what are they to Me?' says the Lord. 'I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.'" (Isaiah 1:10-11) The people were observing the letter of the law but their offerings were brought by unrepentant hearts. This is the same as apologizing to the Lord for a sin while not really being sorry for it. This is the same as confessing a sin to God while intending to go right out and commit it again.

"'When you come to appear before Me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of My courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to Me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations---I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide My eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood!'" (Isaiah 1:12-15) The people would bow in the temple in the ancient posture of head and hands raised to heaven but all the Lord could see was the blood on their hands. When a nation falls into sin it corrupts the government. It corrupts the morals. Crime is rampant and justice in the courts is perverted. Officials begin to take bribes and rule in the favor or whoever is able to pay for a verdict. We find in the books of the prophets that the poorest of the people, the widows and the orphans, were not being protected as the law demanded. Their rights were being trampled underfoot because of the greed and covetousness of judges. 

When we are living in sin and rebellion the only prayer the Lord wants to hear is a prayer of sorrow and repentance. King David, when repenting of his sin of adultery and murder, understood this. He didn't come into the Lord's courts with a burnt offering but with a broken and contrite heart. "You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; You do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart You, God, will not despise." (Psalm 51:16-17) The law required sacrifice and offerings for sin but these had to come from a heart that was sorrowful. Otherwise they were meaningless. This is why David said the Lord would take no delight in a burnt offering, for if the heart isn't in it, the sacrifice isn't acceptable. So instead David brought to the Lord what was necessary to receive forgiveness: a broken and contrite heart. 

David knew the only One who could wash the blood from his hands was the Lord. "Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me." (Psalm 51:10) When the people came to the temple with unrepentant hearts and lifted their hands to heaven, all the Lord could see was the blood on them. He couldn't heart their prayers because they were insincere. They didn't have a broken and contrite heart, so when they came into the Lord's courts with their offerings, He viewed this as an abomination. It was a desecration of the temple to have such a complete disregard for His holiness as to speak hypocritical prayers in His presence. They might as well have not brought offerings at all. The Lord despised their offerings, but "a broken and contrite heart You, God, will not despise".

As the song goes, "What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus." David knew his Redeemer and although he was far from being a perfect man, he was a man who sincerely repented of his sins. He was a man who desired a relationship with the Lord above all else. He was a man quick to weep in sorrow at the realization of his failures. This is the form of worship our God approves. We can throw everything we have into the offering plate at church but if our hearts are far from our Redeemer, we might as well have left our wallet in our pocket. When this life is over we won't enter into the joy of our Lord on the basis of what we gave or what religious rituals we performed. We will enter His eternal presence on the basis of having had a broken and contrite heart, a heart that cried out to our Redeemer, "Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow." (Psalm 51:7)

Below is our worship song link for today.

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