And the Lord said:
“Because this people draw near with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,
therefore, behold, I will again
do wonderful things with this people,
with wonder upon wonder;
and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish,
and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.”
The Story: Talk, as they say, is cheap. Along with cheap talk, we also have “lip service,” “spin,” “empty words,” and just plain hypocrisy. We hear it from politicians, from salespeople, and from one another. We find it offensive and rightly so. God, speaking through His prophet, made it clear that He also finds it offensive. The people’s hearts and lips ran in two different directions. Fear of God was something they were told to have so they said they had it. What they should have feared was the discontinuity between their hearts and words. Note that God referred to “this people,” not “My people.” Their words sound great, but their hearts give away their true identity. God’s solution was to do more and greater wonders. Unlike the deliverance of the Exodus, these wonders would be wonders of judgment and then deliverance that would confound even the wise and discerning (see 44:24-28)
The Structure: Jesus rebuked the Pharisees with this text (Matthew 15:1-20). They had created rules and traditions, he said, that “made void the Word of God,” giving as an example persnickety rules about tithing that, they claimed, took precedence over honoring father and mother. They were, in fact, paying the Law of God lip service. Explaining His judgment to His disciples, Jesus said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.” The application of the text is clear. We should not be guilty of paying God, His Word, or other people lip service. “Little children,” wrote John, “let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18). To be of value, a Christian worldview has to be connected with a change of heart. God’s truth needs to capture not only our minds and behavior, but our emotions, imaginations, and hearts as well.
When are you susceptible to paying God and others lip service rather than rendering the heartfelt love commanded by Scripture?
“Would that I had thorns and briers to battle!
I would march against them,
I would burn them up together.
Or let them lay hold of my protection,
let them make peace with me,
let them make peace with me.”
The Story: These verses are part of a second “Song of the Vineyard.” In the first song (Isaiah 5:1-7), Isaiah sang about how God provided all the best for Israel and Judah, He looked for a harvest of good grapes, but instead, all He received were useless wild grapes. “He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry.” Judgment would follow. In this song, God complained not about wild grapes, but about complacency. “Would that I had thorns and briers to battle. . . . Or let them lay hold of my protection.” Let it be one or the other. Instead, God’s people were like the church in Laodicea about which Jesus said, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15-16).
The Structure: While there is genuine apostasy and crops of wild grapes in the Church and in the lives of some Christians, for the most part, our problem in the West is not outright unfaithfulness, but a lack of zeal. We’re lukewarm at best. Most churches and most Christians don’t have masses of briars and thorns for God to battle. Yet most churches and most Christians don’t lay hold of God with yearning and a desire to earnestly seek Him (verse 9). Like the Laodiceans, we say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing,” to which God responds that we haven’t realized that we “are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17). As my friend Hugh Whelchel of The Institute for Faith, Work, & Economics says, most Christians hang around the bus stop, ticket to Heaven in hand, passively waiting rather than living out the full implications of their faith and Christian worldview with zeal.
Are you lukewarm? Is your congregation? What can you do about it?
In the path of your judgments,
O Lord, we wait for you;
your name and remembrance
are the desire of our soul.
My soul yearns for you in the night;
my spirit within me earnestly seeks you.
The Story: There is a waiting that can be best described as passive. Waiting for the bell at the end of the school day. Waiting for quitting time. Waiting for the commercials to end and the show to resume. The waiting Isaiah described here is not this sort of passive waiting. This text describes active waiting. God’s judgments are right, and so, Isaiah wrote, we wait in their path. And those who wait in the path of God’s judgment prepare for God’s coming with faithfulness, obedience, and love. Thus, Isaiah pointed to God (His name and remembrance) as “the desire of our soul.” Even at night, his yearnings were for God. Deep inside, he sought God with earnestness. It’s an “I can’t wait” sort of waiting that is prepared, expectant, and joyful at the prospect of God’s coming to set all things right.
The Structure: In a sermon about human mortality, Cyprian, the third-century bishop of Carthage in North Africa and a martyr, described active waiting: “Our part, my dear brothers, is to be single-minded, firm in faith, and steadfast in courage, ready for God’s will, whatever it may be. Banish the fear of death and think of the eternal life that follows it. That will show people that we really live our faith.” To put it another way, our part is to prepare ourselves for death or the Day of the Lord—whichever comes first—in such a way that we await God’s judgment with confidence: confidence in Christ’s death for us and confidence in the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification in our lives. If we want to end our lives with the confidence Paul had when he wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7), we will need to fight the good fight, run the race, and keep the faith, actively waiting for “the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8).
What do you yearn for and earnestly desire? How does that make your waiting for the end of this life—by death or by the Second Coming—passive or active?
In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah:
“We have a strong city;
he sets up salvation
as walls and bulwarks.
Open the gates,that the righteous nation that keeps faith may enter in.
You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you,
because he trusts in you.”
The Story: When God commissioned Isaiah, He told him that his preaching would “make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes.” How long, asked Isaiah, will I have that unpleasant task? God replied, “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the Lord removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.” (Isaiah 6:9-13). So Isaiah’s message was, for the most part, a message of judgment against Israel and Judah. But it was not a message of God’s hatred for His people or any other people. Throughout the book, there are refrains like the songs of deliverance in chapters 26 and 27 that reminded his hearers that God was for His people. He sought their best and a day would come when they would receive His best. Keeping that in mind would gave His faithful people peace even in the face of the prophesied judgment and national calamity to come.
The Structure: God is also for you regardless of the pains of this life. Difficulties, sorrows, and burdens are part of life. God “disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness,” and “for the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant” (Hebrews 12:10-11). Beyond that, we suffer judgment for our sins: Rob a bank and go to prison; mistreat friends or family members and they go away; stop attending church and spiritual life withers. “In that day,” however, these will all be behind us. So as we live in this “valley of tears,” we remember, as Paul did, that “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Corinthians 4:17). Isaiah’s message is the same. Recalling God’s faithfulness and the joys of “that day,” we will find ourselves in perfect peace amid all the storms of life.
How can you disengage from this world and all its troubles in order to set your heart on “that day” and the perfect peace of God?
O Lord, you are my God;
I will exalt you; I will praise your name,
for you have done wonderful things,
plans formed of old, faithful and sure.
For you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin;
the foreigners’ palace is a city no more; it will never be rebuilt.
The Story: Isaiah 25 is a song of praise to God for His justice. The events of this life do not escape God’s attention. Just as the souls of the martyrs beneath the heavenly altar awaiting Judgment Day cry out, “How long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10), so Isaiah and the godly of Israel awaited a day of reckoning. Those who betrayed, invaded, and destroyed God’s people would, when the time was right, face judgment. Sin and tyranny may seem to have free rein in the present, but they have no future. Even in the present, God’s “plans formed of old, faithful and sure” control the world. The power and dominance of sin and tyranny, signified by vast cities and grand palaces devised by human desire and ingenuity, will crumble. The glory of God’s goodness and the vindication of His faithful ones will inspire songs of praise forever.
The Structure: Do you remember Ben Hadad? No, he wasn’t a movie star, and actually there were three of them. Give up? They were kings in mighty ancient Damascus. Ben Hadad I conquered the northern part of Israel as a mercenary for King Asa of Judah (1 Kings 15:18-20). His son, Ben Hadad II, waged war on Israel with regularity during his 30-year reign (2 Kings 6:24). Finally Ben Hadad III had Israel under his thumb for many years (2 Kings 13:3). All three were powerful, influential, and feared, but you’ve probably never heard of them. For all their might, they no longer matter. Nor do Alexander the Great, Attila the Hun, Keiser Wilhelm, or Joseph Stalin. Their empires lie in ruins and their memory has all but vanished. What has happened to the emperors and empires of the past will one day happen to all emperors and empires. They will become heaps and ruins that will never be rebuilt. But the King of Kings and Lord of Lords will rule with justice forever amid the unending praise of His people.
How does remembering history help us to keep calm in the present?
The earth mourns and withers;
the world languishes and withers;
the highest people of the earth languish.
The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed the laws,
violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt;
therefore the inhabitants of the earth are scorched, and few men are left.
The Story: Isaiah 24 through 27 look forward to the time of God’s final victory at the end of time. Thus these words apply to all the earth and all its inhabitants. God will come in judgment to “empty the earth and make it desolate.” Why the whole earth? Because, as Isaiah sang, all people have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, and broken the everlasting covenant. This refers to the natural law, the law written on every human heart. All know the truth, all violate what they know, and all are guilty. Paul may have had this text in mind when he wrote in Romans 1:18-19: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” This is the root of the curse that devours the earth and scorches one and all.
The Structure: As J. Budziszewski writes in his book “What We Can’t Not Know,” there was a time when nearly everyone would agree that there is a universal moral code: Don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery. That’s no longer the case today. A high school teacher friend tells me that even Adolf Hitler gets a pass as someone who was only trying to do his best in his culture. Morality is today what we make up to suit our circumstances, just as presumably thousands of generations before us have done. But as Budziszewski points out, natural law is not one of many possible moralities, it is the only possible morality. Without it, human life degenerates into moral chaos and the strong enforce the morality they find most beneficial. Simply read today’s newspaper to see the results. A curse devours the earth and the inhabitants of earth are scorched.
Do you believe in a universal moral code, the natural law? What evidence of suppression do you see in the people around you? How do you suppress the truth you know? What happens when we suppress moral truth?