Thursday, December 29, 2016

Comfort My People: The Prophecies Of Isaiah, Day 177

Comfort My People:
The Prophecies Of Isaiah
Day 177

We study the song of Isaiah in today's passage and it's also the song of his people, the song of a people who know their Savior and Redeemer.

"I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord, the deeds for which He is to be praised, according to all the Lord has done for us---yes, the many good things He has done for Israel, according to His compassion and many kindnesses." (Isaiah 63:7) The word used here for "kindnesses" is the Hebrew "hesed" which is a steadfast, continuing, unfailing love and an adherence to the covenant God made with Abraham. 

It's good for us to think back on the kindnesses of the Lord. He's brought us a long way from where we were, when we stumbled about in the darkness, groping our way through this world. He's come through for us in many ways and has healed us of a number of things and has answered a great deal of our prayers.

The Lord speaks, "He said, 'Surely they are My people, children who will be true to Me"; and so He became their Savior. In all their distress He too was distressed, and the angel of His presence saved them. In His love and mercy He redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old." (Isaiah 63:8-9) As we studied yesterday, our God sees our afflictions. He sees the wrongs done to us and He never turns a blind eye to our suffering. When we are distressed He is also distressed, just like an earthly father whose child is hurt. The Lord told the prophet Zechariah that He would avenge the people on their enemies because whoever touched them touched the apple of His eye (in other words, whoever hurt them was also poking their finger into the pupil of the Lord's eye, something He cannot ignore). The same thing can be said of those who make up the church. An offense against one of us is an offense against God Himself.

Isaiah sighs heavily in the midst of this prayer, thinking about how his people turned aside from the Lord in spite of all His goodness toward them. "Yet they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit. So He turned and became their enemy and He Himself fought against them." (Isaiah 63:10) After pleading with the people through many prophets and several godly kings, God had no recourse but to discipline these wayward children. You may recall from Isaiah 28:21 that the Lord referred to this fighting against His own people as "His strange work" and "His alien task". It went against the grain to act against the people He had always acted for. Like a parent who would much rather not have to sit a child in a corner or remove a privilege because of disobedience, the Lord would much rather not have had to discipline His people. He had no choice, but He found it distasteful and sad. It broke His heart but, for the good of these children, He had to use strong measures to get them back on the right path.

Isaiah knows the people will be taken captive to Babylon and this must have grieved him very much, but the Lord graciously gives him a glimpse of their eventual repentance there. "Then His people recalled the days of old, the days of Moses and his people---where is He who brought them through the sea, with the shepherd of His flock? Where is He who set His Holy Spirit among them, who sent His glorious arm of power to be at Moses' right hand, who divided the waters before them, to gain for Himself everlasting renown, who led them through the depths? Like a horse in open country, they did not stumble; like cattle that go down to the plain, they were given rest by the Spirit of the Lord. This is how You guided Your people to make for Yourself a glorious name." (Isaiah 63:11-14) In their distress the people cry out, "Where are You, Lord?" Haven't we all asked this in our troubles? Haven't we said, "Where are You, Lord? Why have You let this happen to me? Are You going to come and rescue me?" You may have heard the expression, "If you feel far from the Lord, guess who moved?" The Lord was not far from His people; they had moved far from Him. This was the reason for the defeat of their nation and their captivity in a foreign land. God had begged them for centuries to repent, to turn back, and to be close to Him and know Him. 

Thinking back on all the awesome works of the Lord on behalf of Israel, the people mourn. God has done great things in the past and they need Him to do great things again. They realize they have fallen very far from the Lord and they wonder if He has forsaken them. So now they implore this God, who has been so merciful in the past, to look down on their plight and help them. "Look down from heaven and see, from Your lofty throne, holy and glorious. Where are Your zeal and Your might? Your tenderness and compassion are withheld from us. But You are our Father, although Abraham does not know us or Israel acknowledge us; You, Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is Your name." (Isaiah 63:15-16) The captive people no longer feel like descendants of Abraham or citizens of Israel. Their nation is in ruins. They have lost everything they had. And the blame for all of this is laid at their own door. "Abraham would be ashamed of us," they say in grief. "He would not recognize us as the covenant people of the Lord. We have fallen so far from our Redeemer and have sinned against Him for so long, and now we are captives in a pagan land, given new names that strip us of our national identity, speaking a language that is foreign to us, living according to the customs of our conqueror. If the Lord lined us up in front of Abraham, he would have no idea who we are."

Yet they still are the covenant people of the Lord. At the beginning of our passage today, they had already come to the conclusion that God's kindness (hesed) toward them is a never-ending covenant love. So they remind the Lord, "You are our Father! Please don't forget us. Please rescue us and take us home. You performed great works on our behalf in the past and gained glory for Your name. Do it again!"

The people, like little children, wonder why God didn't stop them from their wayward ways sooner. I remember a nasty fall I took once as a child, climbing into the lower limbs of a tree in the yard while my mother sat nearby in a lawn chair reading a book. If you've ever fallen flat on your back and experienced all the breath being knocked out of your body, you can imagine how scary this was for a small child. When I was able to get some air back in my lungs, I turned angrily on my mother and said, "Why didn't you stop me?" Now mind you, I was in the habit of climbing halfway up that same little tree just about every day and had never fallen before, but I blamed my mother for not seeing it coming. As the parent, I felt it was her duty to supernaturally foresee all harm and to save me from it. This is the attitude of God's people in the next verse. God did not really harden their hearts against Himself; God never turns away the one who seeks Him. But as they grieve miserably in a foreign land the people ask their Father why He didn't stop them before it got this far. "Why, Lord, do You make us wander from Your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere You? Return for the sake of Your servants, the tribes that are Your inheritance." (Isaiah 63:17)

The truth is, the more we sin the harder our hearts grow. God didn't harden their hearts; they did it themselves. Now that they have seen the error of their ways they want to know why God didn't take away their free will and force them to obey. But God is a gentleman. He doesn't force His way in where He is not welcome. 

"For a little while Your people possessed Your holy place, but now our enemies have trampled down Your sanctuary. We are Yours from of old; but You have not ruled over them, they have not been called by Your name." (Isaiah 63:18-19) A clearer and perhaps better translation of this verse can be found in some other versions of the Bible, "We have become like those over whom You have never ruled". They have drifted so far from the Lord they are like the pagan nations who never knew Him at all. But they want to find their way back to Him. And if He will not intervene for their sake, perhaps He will intervene for the honor of His own name. His nation and His sanctuary lie in ruins. The nations surrounding Israel are blaspheming His name, claiming He is a God who cannot protect His own temple. The people, in their sorrow and repentance, say, "Lord, we know we don't deserve Your help. We have sinned so much we wouldn't blame You if You abandoned us forever. So we come to You not on the basis of our own righteousness, but on the basis of Your righteousness. Show the world that You are God, the only God!"

This is how we all must come to the Lord, knowing we are unworthy of His love but willing to ask for and receive it anyway. We will never be saved by our own works but must trust in the One whose work on the cross was enough to save us all. He did it not because we were righteous, but because He is. He loves us not because we are worth it, but because it's His nature to love. And He is our only hope, for He is the only God, and the name of Christ is the only name by which we can be saved.

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