In that day man will look to his Maker, and his eyes will look on the Holy One of Israel. He will not look to the altars, the work of his hands, and he will not look on what his own fingers have made, either the Asherim or the altars of incense.
The Story: The religion of Baal and the Asherim (plural for Asherah), was do-it-yourself theology that fed the worship of human ingenuity and activity. Baal and Asherah were fertility gods—that is, they controlled the fruitfulness of flocks, herds, fields, orchards, and married couples. In an agrarian society, that made them the gods of wealth. Look to them and appease them with incense, animals, and even human sacrifices, it was thought and taught, and you would grow rich from their blessings. Judgment, like the harsh judgment this chapter foresees for Damascus, would make clear to one and all that this idolatrous system was false from the ground up. Rather than worship the Baals and Asherim in order to grow rich, people, reduced to poverty, would throw away their idols (Isaiah 2:20) and look to the only true God, the Holy One of Israel Who made everything and rules over everything.
The Structure: A pastor friend in a very wealthy part of the country says he often receives visits from people after business crises. Why, oh why, they want to know, did God allow my business to fall apart? He knows why, but never tells them because they (1) would never believe him and (2) need to make the discovery on their own. God slammed them against the wall because He loves them and will not permit those He loves to build their lives on false and damaging idolatry.
Crises of any sort—financial, family, health, national—demand that we reevaluate our ways of doing things. Specifically, they challenge us to ask where we’re putting our faith and trust. Is it in business success? In having the perfect family? In our intellectual prowess and Christian worldview? Or is our faith and trust in the Holy One of Israel, our Maker? Is it in glory like the glory of Caesar Augustus or in humility like the humility of the God Who was born for us in a stable?
How do you treat the crises in your life? How do problems focus your attention more acutely on the Holy One of Israel, your Maker, who was incarnate for you?
Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;
and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
The Story: The meaning of “The Song of the Vineyard” (Isaiah 5:1-7) is straightforward. God brought His people into the Promised Land, “to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8). There He gave them every advantage and blessing. But instead of the fruit of righteous lives and faithfulness, the people responded with sin and idolatry. Someone has pointed out that beginning with verse 8, Isaiah lists six “wild grapes,” introducing each with the words “Woe to those who.” These are greed (8-10), debauchery (11-17), arrogance (18-19), perversion of the good (20), pride (21), and injustice (22-25). Jesus, no doubt, had this song in mind when He told the parable of the tenants who refused to give the owner of the vineyard his due (Matthew 21:33-44; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-18). It also seems to have informed His parable of the barren fig tree that was given one last chance (Luke 13:6-8).
The Structure: While the Song of the Vineyard is a song of judgment, it is also a song about God’s patience. After God gave Israel the Promised Land, their faithfulness lasted only as long as the generation of conquerors. After they died, “there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel. And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals” (Judges 2:10-11). That was somewhere around 1380 B.C., nearly 650 patient years before Isaiah wrote. And still He gave His people warning after warning. God continues to be patient with each of us, with His Church, and with the world. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness,” wrote Peter, “but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Peter went on to say that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief,” but for now, there is still time to repent, to grow in holiness, to tell the good news of God’s patience to others.
How should you be living during this era of God’s patience? How can you best serve Him and your neighbor?
In that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honor of the survivors of Israel. And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning.
The Story: This text forms what Bible scholars call an inclusio with 2:1-5. That is, the texts are bookends around 2:6-4:1, an oracle of judgment against Jerusalem and Judah. God through His prophet condemned His people for sorcery and idolatry (2:6) and for wealth that led to idolatry (2:7-9). The day will come, prophesied Isaiah, when the people will hide in caves and holes in the ground because of their terror at God’s right and just judgment (2:19). They would, in fact, do whatever they could—throw away idols (2:20), find new leaders (3:4-7)—but to no avail. Isaiah foresaw a time of chaos and horrible suffering (3:24-4:1). But, again, that wasn’t the end of their story. Some would survive as branches still attached to the vine (see John 15:1-17). They would see a new day, a day of beauty, honor, cleansing, and the glory of God.
The Structure: Many have observed that the Church today is being winnowed. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke for more than just Catholics when he wrote in 1969 (!), “And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.” One can only wonder whether the pope had this text in mind as he wrote. In any case, while hard times may be a reason for sadness, it is never a reason for despair. Advent reminds us that God comes to His people in unexpected ways at unexpected times. And so we live in hope.
How will your life and the life of your congregation become “beautiful and glorious”? How can you grow in faithfulness despite what may be hard times ahead?
The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say:
“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.”
Come. O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.
The Story: During Advent, Worldview Bible will focus on Scriptures that are appropriate for the season beginning with texts from Isaiah. While God gave Isaiah many oracles of judgment against Judah, Israel, and their neighbors, the judgment was punctuated by visions of hope. “Ah, sinful nation,” Isaiah wrote in 1:4, “a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the Lord, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged.” They were destined for judgment, but that would not be the end of their story. This text refers to the God’s coming to His people. It’s unclear, however, whether it points to His first coming as the babe in the manger or His second coming as the Lord of Glory. What is clear is that in the midst of their sin and God’s judgment, the people of God always have a hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11).
The Structure: Advent is not just a season to prepare for Christmas, that is, the Feast of the Nativity. The first half of Advent traditionally focuses on Christ’s Second Advent, that is, His coming again in glory. Our God is the God Who comes to us. Like Israel of old, the people of God today, His Church, is fragmented, caught up in worldly pursuits, concerned with power and prestige, and, to one degree or another, unfaithful. We are, as I’ve often said, God’s great big dysfunctional family and far from the vision of unity and love Jesus prayed for in John 17. Yet we have a future. It is to the Church that the nations will come—to the Church that the nations are coming—to learn God’s ways. In a confused, nihilistic culture, we offer hope and a word from God. We offer the opportunity for all to know God’s ways and walk in His paths. And broken as we are, God has a plan for His People that is beyond what we can imagine (1 Corinthians 2:9-10).
How high or low are your expectations when you think about the Church? About your own spiritual life? How do Isaiah’s words inform and change those expectations?
1 John 5:21
Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.
The Story: John’s final word in this letter appears abrupt and a bit out of character. While he’s talked about how “He is the true God” (verse 20), there’s been nothing in the letter about idolatry per se. That’s certainly not because there was a shortage of idols. John ministered for many years in Ephesus, the center for the worship of the goddess Artemis (Acts 19:23-41). This letter probably circulated among the churches in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) where idolatry was also practiced. If the Christians were tempted to idol worship, why wait until the end of the letter to add what might be seen as a non sequitur postscript? I suspect that either John wanted this warning to jump out at the end as something unexpected and thus memorable, or that he wasn’t so much concerned about Christians worshiping Artemis as he was about their loving and putting their hope in this passing world and all the allurements it offers (2:15-17).
The Structure: Yesterday was Thanksgiving, when we gave thanks for all the blessings of this life. Today is “Black Friday,” the shopping day that moves the bottom line of the retail industry from red to black with a torrent of buying more and more of the blessings of this life, with no regard for the next. American Christians are certainly not tempted to worship Artemis, but we are children of our culture as well as children of God. Putting our hope for happiness in “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (2:16) comes far too easily for us. Advent begins this Sunday. While we typically see Advent as a time of feasting and celebration, traditionally it is a time to fast in preparation for the feasting and celebration during the Twelve Days of Christmas (December 25-January 5). Fasting during the world’s season of indulgence may well be what we need to keep ourselves from idols.
What are your idols? How do you indulge them? What do you need to do to keep yourself from idols?
1 John 5:18-20
We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them. We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
The Story: John, now at the end of his letter, offered three final reminders of what his readers knew. First, “anyone born of God does not continue to sin.” The Christian, in fact, wars against sin in his life, knowing that victory over sin and holiness is God’s plan for his life and thus God keeps him safe. Second, his readers knew that they were children of God in a world controlled by the devil. The devil hates God and thus hates His children, intending to make life as difficult as possible for them. Third, they knew that in Christ they had the truth—the truth about God, about the human person, about sin, about salvation, about life and death. These, John wrote, contrary to the false teachers, were not up for discussion, debate, or amendment. This was and still is the path to eternal life in which we share in the dynamic life and love of the Trinity and thus live the fullness of our humanity.
The Structure: On Thanksgiving we typically give thanks for all the good things of this life, and we should. God’s blessings are all around us. A day set aside to remember that is in itself a blessing. But at some point, the things of this life and our relationships in this life fade away. Death will take us, and these will all vanish. There are, however, for the Christian, things that never vanish, that can never be taken away. If we are children of God, our life is with God and our brothers and sisters forever. Victory over sin and our growth in holiness is forever. The truth that we study, the Christian worldviews we develop, the way we live out what we believe will, undoubtedly need corrections, but Truth is forever. Thanksgiving—whether we’re going somewhere or everyone is coming to your house—can be a long, frantic, and exhausting day. In the activities of the day, don’t let these three great things “we know” slip from your grasp. Remember them and give thanks.
How can you maintain your spiritual focus on this busy day?