Wednesday, 8 October 2014

(282) October 9: Isaiah 41-42 & Colossians 1

Ask God to open your mind, heart and will to understand, delight in and obey what you read.

To discover:­
As you read consider how God acts for Israel’s good.

To ponder:
Chapter 41 begins with God commanding silence from the nations, and calling them in their weariness, no doubt through suffering and anxiety, to strengthen and meet with God for judgement. The LORD then tells of how, just as he has called every generation to fulfil his purposes, he has displayed his righteousness in calling a ruler in the east to serve him by pursuing, subjecting and destroying nations, and remaining unscathed in doing so (41v1-4). This almost certainly refers to the Persian Cyrus (see 45v1), who would be God’s means of judging Babylon amongst others. As we have seen throughout, God uses even the evil motives of the rulers of the world to execute his justice.
            In response the earth is said to tremble, with people encouraging each other to be strong and make new idols to turn to for help (41v5-7). Yet here, God encourages Israel himself, telling her she need not fear, as she is his chosen servant, descended from his friend Abraham. He therefore promises to strengthen and uphold Israel in the face of this threat. His “righteous right hand” probably refers to the fact that this reflects his commitment to do right by his promises to both Abraham and Israel (41v8-10). So God states that all who rage against Israel will be ashamed by defeat and destruction, and reiterates his promise to help the small nation of Israel because he is her redeemer – presumably, referring to the relationship he entered into with her through the Exodus (41v11-14). What specifically God will do, is make Israel like the sledge used to separate wheat from the chaff, but with focus on them reducing the hills to nothing. As in 40v4 this probably refers to him enabling the people to return home across the mountains from their exile in Babylon with ease – as they did after Cyrus’ decree that they could. And so they would rejoice in the LORD (41v15-16). All this reflects our ultimate protection because of God’s commitments to us in Christ: Nothing can separate us from his love, and he will bring us to the glory to come with equal ease.
           41v17-20 may look to the final state when the new creation will thrive. But more likely, it is figuratively describing how God will not forsake his people, but enable those in exile who thirst in their need of better life to then thrive, causing others to recognise that this miraculous transformation was from God. Here, again, God calls the nations’ idols to give evidence that they are actually gods and so can predict the future from past events, or do anything at all so that they should be feared. It’s a challenge to Isaiah’s hearers not to put their trust in idols as they face the rising threat of Persia (as in 41v7), for they are not only worthless, but less than nothing in the sense that they actually lead astray. Those choosing them are “detestable” because they give false gods the honour and trust that God alone is due. We should view the self-conceived gods of our day in this way too.
            Here Cyrus’ attack of Babylon from the north is predicted. He calls on God’s name probably only in the sense that he acknowledges Israel’s God as he would have those of the other peoples he conquered (see Ez 1v2-4). And the point of the prediction would be that when the events happen it would be recognized that no-one else but God foretold it. Indeed, he challenges the idols to say which of them predicted it, stating that none can answer, so proving that they and their images are nothing (41v25-29). We should see the fact that all these things came to pass as proof that Israel’s God is the one true God too.
            So far Cyrus and Israel have been described as servants (41v2, 8). 42v1 introduces a third. Like the second he is chosen, and like the first, he executes justice. But he is different: He will receive strength from God, be delighted in by him, and act justly with respect to all nations in the power of his Spirit. He will not do this in a way that oppresses the weak, and he will continue until justice fills the entire earth will all peoples hoping in his law, ie. trusting it to provide the order and wellbeing law should bring (42v1-4). The descent of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism presents him as this servant. And with great solemnity, God declares that he is the creator and states that in his righteous commitment to his promises, he has called this servant to embody a new covenant agreement between him and his people, and to be a light for Gentiles, which probably implies his teaching (as 42v4) flowing from Israel to the nations, enabling them to escape the darkness of evil and ignorance. This suggests 42v7 is primarily figurative, as Jesus himself taught (Jn 9v39).
            In the light of all this, God affirms that he alone is the LORD and will not give his glory to others by having people praise idols. The point seems to be that as people see his reality proved by his former predictions about Cyrus coming to pass, they should turn to him from idols in readiness for these “new things” he is predicting about the coming servant (42v8-9). So the islands of the world (ie. distant places across the sea) are called to sing a new song to God, as are closer lands (eg. Kedar, that borders Israel). In particular they are to glorify God for marching in judgement against his enemies (42v8-13). Here God speaks personally of how he has held this judgement back in silence, but now he will cry out like a woman in childbirth, suggesting his judgement will lead to the birth of a new order. So he will destroy the earth, implying those in it, whilst also guiding the spiritually blind out of their darkness into a place of stability, described as smooth ground they can’t stumble on. The key mark of those who will not experience this salvation, is that they trust in idols not the LORD (42v15-17).
            Now a blind and deaf servant is described (42v18-19). Whereas the previous servant brought light, this one is in darkness like the Gentiles (see 42v6-7), and in what follows, is clearly Israel (as 41v8). The people have seen God’s acts (in Judah’s exile), but don’t see or hear their significance. For the sake of his righteousness being witnessed by the nations in Israel’s adherence to the law, he made their law great and glorious (as Deut 4v6-8). But instead of displaying its goodness, they disobeyed, provoking God’s judgement, and leaving them plundered and imprisoned by Babylon. And so God asks who from Israel will listen to Isaiah, acknowledging that it was the LORD who brought this about in his burning anger (42v20-25). Today many still baulk at the idea that God was behind these events. But he wants to stress he was, so that we prepare for the judgement to come by coming under the rule of his Spirit-anointed servant, Jesus Christ. 
Praying it home:       
Praise God that in Christ he brings light into our darkness. Pray that many would turn from idols to the light of Christ.

Thinking further:
None today.

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