We live in a time when it feels like everything is falling apart: worldwide pandemic, economic trials, racial tensions, destructive fires, increasingly intense hurricanes, international tensions, vitriolic rhetoric and partisan political divisions. Where is God in all of these troubles?
Isaiah lived in a similar time. His beloved nation was falling apart and on the verge of collapse. In the midst of the gathering gloom, God spoke to Isaiah and sent him to bring hope to his people in the midst of the darkness. We have a lot to learn for our own time from this majestic book of the Bible.
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Vision of Hope Amidst the Gathering Storm
The Book of the Consolation of Israel
The Universal Mission: “Nations Shall Come to Your Light”
Redeemed Israel, Redeemed World, Redeemed Creation.
The purpose of God and the mission of God’s people in every time and place.
Redeemed Israel, Redeemed World, Redeemed Creation. The purpose of God and the mission of God’s people in every time and place.
Chapters 56 to 66 of Isaiah reflect a different and later period of time in the history of the Resettled people of Israel ( about 530 to 510 BC.) Theses chapters contain several different, and seemingly independent passages, but they all speak about the character of God and how the people of Israel should relate to God. These later chapters have a “universal” character in this respect: they begin with the particular acts of God in dealing with the people of Israel, but then they take a further step of making general statements about God’s intentions and purposes for all creation and all people. Today, we will look at 5 of these later chapters. What do they tell us about God and our response to the God who is revealed here ?
I. Chapter 54: “For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you.”
The God who disciplines us for our sins but never stops loving us.
Question: How do you see this working in your own life ? In recent history ? In our world today ?
II. Chapter 55: “Seek The Lord While He Will To Be Found”
The God who wants to be found, known and loved.
Question: How have you experienced God seeking you out ?
III. Chapter 56: “My House Shall Be Called A House of Prayer For All People”
The God who wants to redeem all humanity, not just his favorites.
Question: How does this relate to what Jesus says in Matthew 28: 16-20 ? How does is apply to our world today ?
IV. Chapter 57: “I Dwell In the High and Holy Place, But also With The One who has A Contrite and Humble Spirit”.
The God who is infinitely remote and, at the same time, intimately near.
Question: Do you see these attributes of God as impossibly contradictory ? How have you experienced God in prayer ? Very distant ? Very close ? Not sure ?
V. Chapter 58: “Is this not the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked , to cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh ?
The God who cares about poor people and expects those who worship God to alleviate the misery of those who suffer.
Question: How does this compare to what Jesus says about the Last Judgement in Matthew 25 ?
Can we worship and serve and love God without caring about our suffering fellow human beings ?
In what ways does our prayer life connect to our political and economic life ?
Introduction: As we saw last week, chapters 40 to 54 of Isaiah are called “The Book of The Consolation of Israel”. Instead of constant threats of impending doom, this part of Isaiah is joyful and hopeful and looking ahead to new horizons for the people of Israel and the whole world. But it also includes meditations on how God has used the people of Israel to demonstrate his mercy and to reveal his redeeming purpose for the people of Israel and “all the nations (Gentiles)”.
And, in the eyes of the New Testament writers and all subsequent Christian readers, and the composer of Handel’s “Messiah”, these passages also look ahead to Jesus and the redeeming work of God revealed and made available through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
Today, we look at the four “servant songs” in this latter portion of Isaiah. Each of them paint a different picture of the way that God has worked through the people of Israel through the Babylonian Exile and the return to the Promised Land.
I. First Servant Song : Isaiah 42: 1-4
“Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights.” (compare Matthew 3: 13 – 17 and Matthew 17: 5)
“He will faithfully bring forth justice in the earth.”
II. Second Servant Song: Isaiah 49: 1 – 6
v. 2 Called by name (compare Jeremiah 1:5)
v. 4 Labored in vain ( compare I Kings 19: 4- 18)
v. 6 Light to nations (compare Matthew 5: 14 – 16, Matthew 28: 16 – 20, Acts 13: 46-48)
III. Third Servant Song: Isaiah 50: 4 – 11
v. 4 The Lord has given me a tongue of one who is taught (compare Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10)
v.6 Gave my back to the smiters (compare Matthew 26: 27)
v. 10 Walks in darkness and has no light yet trusts in the name of the Lord. (compare Psalm 23)
IV. Fourth Servant Song: Isaiah 52:13 to 53: 12
v. 4-6 Wounded for our transgressions (compare I Peter 2: 24-25)
v. 10-11 He makes himself an offering for sin (compare 2 Corinthians 5: 18-21)
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1) In the first Servant Song, it says a bruised reed he will not break and dimly burning wick he will not quench”. What do you think that meant in the original context of the return from Babylonian exile? What would it mean today?
2) In the second servant song, the servant confesses that he thought that his life was in vain. Do you ever think that your work is in vain? What is the remedy to doubt and despair? What is your answer to those thoughts or feelings?
3) In the third servant song, the servant “walks in darkness where there is no light, but trusts in the name of the Lord.” Have you ever experienced a time when it seemed like you were walking in darkness with no light? Did you trust in the Lord immediately? Did it grow gradually? Were you tempted to give up? what kept you going?
4) In the fourth servant song, it speaks of the vicarious suffering of the servant for the rest of the people. How do you feel about this concept of someone suffering for the sake of another person? How do you feel about Jesus and his suffering ministry?
We have had some trouble with our recording this week, so the Isaiah Bible study did not get recorded this week. Instead, we will do the teaching during the Zoom meeting on Thursday from 10:30 to 11:30 AM. We invite you all to join us.
Introduction: Chapter 39 ends about 700BC. Chapter 40 begins about 140 years later in
approximately 560 BC. In those intervening years, the nation of Israel has been completely
destroyed. The northern tribes have disappeared into the Assyrian empire, never to be seen or
heard from again. The southern tribes have been taken in exile in Babylon (modern day Iraq).
The city of Jerusalem, including the Temple, has been destroyed. The few remaining Jews in
Palestine have intermarried with non-Jews and have become “Samaritans”. The Jews in
Babylon have developed a new form of worship, no longer centered on the Temple sacrifices,
but on the study of the Torah, led by a new group of teachers called “rabbis” and meeting
together in small communities of Jews called “synagogues”. The Jews in Babylon have
experienced a new revival of their expression of faith which is disconnected from the Temple,
the monarchy of David’s line, the promised land and their capital city of Jerusalem.
Then, unexpectedly, another power shift has occurred. Cyrus, the King of Persia (modern day
Iran) has defeated the Babylonians (modern day Iraq) and is allowing the Jews to return to their
ancestral homeland. Thus begins a “new birth of freedom” (to borrow Abraham Lincoln’s
words) for the Jewish people. And thus begins a new commissioning for “Second Isaiah”, a new
prophet calling God’s people to a new chapter in their life of faithfulness to God.
I. Chapter 40 New Prophet – New Commissioning From God
A. Second Isaiah’s Call from God (remember Isaiah’s call from God in chapter 6)
1) “Cry Out !” “What shall I say ?” “ Comfort…Speak…Proclaim.”
2) Four truths
a. Jews are still God’s Chosen people. God has not forgotten his Covenant.
b. Penalty for past sins/unfaithfulness is paid in full – double, in fact.
c. God will bring his people home to the Promised Land.
d. God’s Word is reliable , promises are true.
II. Chapter 41 Trial of the Nations (non-Jews)
A. The Nations are as powerless as their man-made gods (idols)
B. Israel’s God – the Creator of all things, is preeminent
“I, Yahweh, the first and with the last, I am he.”
(Remember Moses at burning bush “I Am”.)
C. Therefore, to Jews: “Fear Not. I am your God…. I will not forsake you””
III. Chapter 42 & 43 The First “Servant Song” (there are four more)
A. “My chosen, in whom my soul delights “ (v1-4)
B. “A light to the nations” (v 6-9)
C. “Sing a New Song” (v. 10 – 13)
D. “I have called you by Name” (43: 1-7)
E. A new Exodus (43: 15-21)
IV. Chapter 45 Cyrus, God’s Anointed
Just as God used “the Nations” ( pagan Gentiles) to punish Jews, now God is using one to liberate them.
Questions for Discussion and reflection
1) How is the state of the Jewish faith and nation during the Babylonian Exile like the Christian church in the Western world today ?
2) How is the COVID crisis like the Babylonian exile ? What should we be doing now ?
3) Who is the Servant in chapter 42 ? People of Israel who remained faithful during Exile ? Jesus ? Both ?
4) How is the experience of the Jews at the end of the Babylonian exile similar to what happened after the Holocaust in World War 2 ?
5) What can we Christians learn about God and about our faith in God from both of these experiences ?
SHOW DOWN AT JERUSALEM: GOD VS. ASSYRIAN EMPIRE ”
Last week, Chapter 35, Isaiah’s great Vision of the Victory of God, a redeemed people Israel, all humanity and all creation. Now, in Chapter 36, snapped back to cold, cruel and Frightening. Reality of the present moment. Purpose of prophecy and of god’s promises in the Bible: not “pie in the sky, bye and bye, when I die”. Instead, it is an affirmation of the deeper reality and the larger perspective of God’s purpose for our lives and for our world.
Chapter 36: Attack of Sennacherib
1) Psychological warfare: “Cut a deal with us and live …or die a miserable death. Take your pick.”
2) Mocking their faith: “Are you going to trust your god against us ? Don’t be fools.”
Chapter 37: The Tables Are Turned
1) Isaiah call the bluff: Trust God
2) Hezikiah’s “looking up” prayer (recall Isaiah’s vision of Chapter 6)
3) Isaiah’s prophecy of reassurance
4) “Angel of the Lord” destroys Assyrian army
Chapter 38: Hezekiah’s Illness and Answered Prayer
Chapter 39: A New Threat on the Horizon: Babylon
MIND THE GAP This threat occurred in approximately 700 BC. The Babylonian Exile happened in 597 BC (104 years later). The people of Israel returned from Babylon to Jerusalem, beginning in about 560 BC. Hence the gap between the end of Chapter 39 and the beginning of Chapter 40 in approximately 140 years. For this reason, most modern Bible scholars think that chapters 1-39 were written by “First Isaiah” and chapters 40-54 were written by “Second Isaiah” and chapters 55 – 66 were written by “Third Isaiah”.
Questions for reflection and discussion
1) As mentioned in the introduction, Chapter 35 is vision of the Victory of God ad the ultimate redemption of all creation, which serves as a preparation for the hard times coming in chapter 36. Compare this to Romans 8: 28 to 39.
How do we find meaning and hope and strength in these passages ? How do they help us cope with worries, threats and fears in our life ?
2) In Chapter 36, the Assyrians are using “psychological warfare” on the people of Jerusalem.In what ways do we face similar challenges to either “trust God” or “face reality” and trust something or someone other than God when facing our fears ?
In what ways have you been able to overcome your fears through trusting God ?
3) If you were a 2020 version of Isaiah, what would you say to our American society today about trusting God ? What people or things or assumptions keep us from fully trusting God today ?
Context for these chapters is the political crisis that has intensified in the reign of King Hezekiah. The Assyrians are about to capture the northern part of the land of Israel, destroy their cities and carry most of their inhabitants into slavery. And the Assyrians are preparing to do the same to the southern part of the land of Israel ( called Judah) and its capital city, Jerusalem. Hezekiah pays a ransom to the Assyrians for a while, but then makes a military alliance with Egypt and rebels against Assyria. These chapters are written in the midst of this great political and existential crisis for the Jewish people.
I. Human Schemes and God’s Plans
-Crisis of drunken and foolish political and religious leaders
-Covenant with Death (Alliance with Egypt)
-God’s promise to protect Jewish people
Chapter 29 Song of “Ariel” (Mountain of God – in other words Jerusalem)
-God will defend it against all foreign enemies
II. Alliance with Egypt is a False Solution
-Rebellious Children vs. 1- 17 “Speak to us smooth things”
- Gracious God v. 18
-God in Action vs. 19 – 33
Chapter 31 Don’t trust Egypt – trust the God who liberated you from Egypt
III. The Desert Shall Rejoice and Blossom
Chapter 35 How God turns a seemingly hopeless situation into something beautiful.
Questions for discussion and reflection
1) For good or ill, there is no “separation between Church and State” in the Bible. IN the minds of ancient people, both Jewish and pagans of various kinds, political power, military power and spiritual power were mutually reinforcing. The Kings were representatives of the “gods” ad wars were fought under the protection of the same “gods”. If one nation conquered another nation, that was evidence that their “gods” were stronger. How do you react to this notion? Does this idea still have some resonance in our thinking when it comes to war?
Think of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” or FDR’s famous prayer on D- Day.
2) In our passages today, Isaiah criticizes poor leadership from kings and religious leaders. The people of Jerusalem want to hear “smooth things” from their religious leaders, not the unvarnished truth (Is. 30: 10).
In what ways do political leaders, and everybody else, want to hear “smooth things” from religious leaders and religious people today? In what ways are religious leaders called by God to speak hard truths tour society today?
3) If you were Isaiah in 2020 America, what would you say to our people about where we invest our trust and hope?
4) God promises to make the desert “rejoice and bloom” (Isaiah 35). What would that look like to you if God were to make our world “rejoice and bloom” today?
People of Israel surrounded by constant and unrelenting warfare between Assyrians, Babylonians and Egyptians, all of which have powerful armies and preset a constant threat to people of Israel and other smaller groups (Philistines, Moabites, Ethiopians.) Constant threat from foreign armies creates great pressure on Jewish political leaders to make alliances with, or pay bribes to, the more powerful nations – and to accommodate elements of pagan idol worship to please the stronger nations with which they form alliances. God – speaking through Isaiah – constantly reminds the people of Israel that they are investing their hope and loyalty and trust in the wrong directions and that it will cost them dearly.
I Oracles Against The Nations - Chapters 13 through 19
Babylon 13: 1- 14:23 Assyria 14: 24-27 Philistia 14: 28 – 32 Moab 15: 1-16: 14 Damascus 17: 1 -14 Ethiopia 18: 1- 7 Egypt 19: 1-25
Main message to all of these nations: you are investing all of your hope in man-made idols and in your military and commercial might. It will all come crashing down one day. You will only find redemption and fulfillment and national salvation by investing your hope in the Creator God of Israel.
II. Isaiah’s Barefoot and Naked Public Witness - Chapter 20
What’s the point ? This is how you (Epypt and Ethiopia) will end up if you keep trusting in yourself.
III. Isaiah’s Apocalypse - Chapters 24 – 27
Chapter 24 “Behold the Lord will lay waste the earth and make it desolate..”
Chapter 25 Two cities: The destroyed city of human pride. The Redeemed City of God (Compare Revelation chapter 18 and 21)
Chapter 26 A Song of Victory of God – and a lament for those who still refuse to listen.
Chapter 27 A Song of the Redeemed Vineyard of Israel ( Compare with the lament for the failed Vineyard in Chapter 5)
Chapter 5 Chapter 27
no fruit fruit
no rain rain
abandoned (no wall) guarded
thorns and briars no thorns and briars
world invades vineyard fruit of vineyard goes out to world
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
Apocalyptic writing is rooted in a particular time (Isaiah – about 700 BC; book of Revelation about 100 AD). It speaks of God’s judgement on human pride and idolatry and God’s redemption for people and nations which repent and return to God’s purpose and God’s vision of what a good world looks like. And apocalyptic writing also speaks to universal truths which apply to many different times, and ultimately , to eternity.
1) When considering this year of 2020, would you call it an “apocalyptic” year ? Why ?
2) If you were a 2020 Isaiah, what would you say to our people in the US today ?
3) What do you think God is saying to us about our ultimate trust, loyalty and love in the midst of the various crises we are now experiencing ?
4) How does the vision of the redeemed vineyard in chapter 27 apply to us ?
Chapter 6: Isaiah’s Vision and Call to be a Prophet to His People
A Vision of God: “I saw the Lord” vs. 1-4
Confession of sin: “Woe is me ! For I am lost…” v. 5
Cleansing: “Your guilt is taken away” vs. 6 – 7
Commissioning: “Here am I. Send me. … Go…” vs. 8-13
Reality check : Go and tell my people the truth. Most of them do not want to hear it and will reject you. Go anyway.
Chapter 7: Threat of Invasion – Sign of Immanuel
Background: Read 2 Kings 16: 1 – 20 (Ahaz, 20 year old king – scared to death)
Sign of Immanuel – Promise and threat. Sovereignty of God and absolute reliance on God.
Chapter 8: Gathering Gloom “And they will be thrust into thick darkness.”
Chapter 9: Dawn “The People who walked in Darkness have seen a great light”
Chapter 10: Future Hope “Only a remnant will return”.
Chapter 11: A future king of David’s line “A shoot from the stump of Jesse”.
Chapter 12: Future Gratitude: “And in that day, you will say ‘Give thanks to the Lord,”
Questions for reflection and discussion:
1) In these chapters, we have many favorite passages that we read during Advent and Christmas and understand to apply to Jesus. But before we jump ahead 250 years, what did they mean in the immediate context of Isaiah’s time and place ? What was his main message to his people ?
2) As far as we know from history, these Messianic prophecies of Isaiah did not come to pass in any obvious and dramatic way. No David-like king emerged to defeat the enemies of the Jewish people in that particular time and place. Was Isaiah mistaken in what he said ? What role did the faith and receptivity of the Jewish people play in the fulfillment (or non-fulfillment) of Isaiah’s prophecy ?
3) The fulfillment of God’s promises are on God’s timetable, not ours. Are there times in your life when you wish God’s promises would be fulfilled on your timetable ? What have you learned from the process of waiting and being disappointed ?
4) Is waiting on God a waste of time ? What does it mean to live in hope ? What are some ways that you have experienced hope in God’s purpose as a positive motivator in your own life ?
Consider: History is filled with people who “dreamed the impossible dream” and the world as we know it was changed by these visionaries. Modern notions of democracy, human rights, abolishing slavery, equal rights for women and racial minorities were once widely believed to be impossible and impractical.
What impossible dream is God calling you and me to believe in, pray for and invest our lives in today ?
God continues to speak to us through the Word “which is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword”. Reading and listening to and praying with God’s Word is one important way that God guides us through the difficult times in which we live.
If you are not able to join us for the discussion group, we encourage you to read the relevant chapters of Isaiah and watch the video.
The Vision of Isaiah…Concerning Judah and Jerusalem In the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, Kings of Judah. (Isaiah chapters 1- 5)
Introduction: The Life and Times of Isaiah.
The historical period covered by the book of Isaiah is about 220 years (from 742 B.C. to 510 B.C.). For this reason, most modern Bible scholars conclude that there were probably 2 or 3 authors, which they call First Isaiah, Second Isaiah and Third Isaiah. If there were only one Isaiah, he would have been about 240 years old when the later chapters were written. So, it’s better to think of the author as an “Isaiah school” of preachers/prophets, each following, and building on, the teachings of the original Isaiah.
The book is in three different sections which refer to three different times:
1) Chapters 1–39 (when Israel was trapped between two “super powers”: Assyria in the north and Egypt in the South. Isaiah begins his prophetic ministry in “the year that King Uzziah died” – about 740 B.C. and ending about 701 B.C.)
2) Chapters 40 – 55 (around the time of the fall of Babylon 539 B.C. and the exiles return to Jerusalem).
3) Chapters 56 -66 (around the time of resettlement and rebuilding the destroyed city of Jerusalem and surrounding countryside about 530 to 510 B.C.)
I Historical Context: “Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place”
Israel (northern part of Promised Land) and Judah (southern part including Jerusalem) were a small country (about the size of Connecticut) caught between a rising empire to their north – Assyria (think Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine) and a declining one to the south – Egypt (think New York and New Jersey). The rulers of the people of Israel had to decide which of these neighboring super-powers to align with. And it was not going well. The northern part (Israel) had been conquered and part of the Assyrian empire extended to only 8 miles north Jerusalem and the threat of invasion was imminent in the midst of Isaiah’s career. Isaiah’s ministry began in 740 BC –“the year that King Uzziah died” and extended through the reigns of kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, each of whom tried to make an alliance with either Assyria or Egypt. The period on which Isaiah comments is from 740 to 701 BC. This is the period covered in chapters 1 – 39 of Isaiah. About one hundred years later, in 597 BC, the Babylonian empire (which emerged from the Assyrian empire) completely destroyed Jerusalem and forced the Jews into exile in Babylon. This period of time is not covered at all in the book of Isaiah.
About 40 years later, Babylon (modern day Iraq) is conquered by the Persians (modern day Iran) and Cyrus, the king of Persian, allows the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Promised Land. This period of time is covered by chapters 40-55 in the book of Isaiah. The period of resettlement an rebuilding was a long one (from about 530 to 510 BC) and this period is covered in chapters 56 to 66 in the book of Isaiah.
II. Who Is the Real King ? What has gone wrong with our country ?
Chapter 1 Isaiah’s vision : nominal kings and the real king. We have forgotten who is really in charge. Repent and return to the real king before it’s too late.
“ Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” 1: 16 – 17
Chapter 2: Vision of a potential restored nation and judgement on human pride.
“Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths. …He shall judge between the nations and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come let us walk in the way of the Lord.” 2: 3-5
Chapter 3: Judgement on wayward sons and daughters.
“Woe to them, for they have brought evil upon themselves” 3: 9
Chapter 4: Vision of a Redeemed people
“ In that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel.” 4: 2
Chapter 5: God’s love song of Lament for his wayward people
“He looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” 5: 1-7
Here is a theme that continues throughout Isaiah and throughout the entire Bible. On the one hand, people can really make a mess of the world when they abandon God and God’s purpose. On the other hand, God is always ready and willing to forgive and redeem and renew his people. Despite our failures as individuals and as a society, God is always calling to us to return to our God.
Questions for reflection/discussion
1) We live in an anxious time. Many people, from many different perspectives (conservative, liberal, religious, secular, Black, Hispanic, White, Native American etc., etc.) are asking “what has gone wrong with our country ?”
Pick one of the categories listed here (conservative, liberal...etc.) and try to summarize. As sympathetically as you can manage, what a person of that persuasion would say has gone wrong with our country. Try to pick a category with which you do not identify. If you consider yourself liberal, for example, try to give a heartfelt and sympathetic rendering of what you think a conservative would say.
2) Now, like Isaiah, try to give a short summary of a Vision of what kind of society God wants us to be.
3) Now try to give an account of what thoughts, words, behaviors, relationships we need to repent of in order to move toward the Vision that God has for our society.