Written by Pastor Ed
Due to technical difficulties, a recording of Pastor Ed’s Sermon is not available.
God Over All
April 12, 2015
Books of the Bible – Isaiah
Isaiah 5: 1-7
Please click on the Timeline below to increase the clarity:
It was a troubled time. Politically the world powers seemed to be coming and going with some regularity. First one nation would be the dominant force in the world, and then another would rise up and conquer the world. Wars seemed to be constant which lent a certain air of instability to life.
Beside the world powers, each little country, kingdom, and group seemed eager to make the most of a bad situation. If a world power seemed about to collapse, well that seemed like a good time to try and gain independence or carve out a little more territory for oneself. Or if nothing else, att least make a raid into neighbouring areas and take what you could.
Socially and religiously it was also a somewhat confusing time. There was a great disparity between the rich and the poor, and the gap was widening. Justice was bought and sold; the rich could seemingly do as they pleased, while the poor had little recourse to justice. Even the religious leaders were corrupt, at least many of them, and were part of the privileged wealthy class.
Yes, there were attempts at reform from time to time, but they were often half-hearted and didn’t last very long. It was hard to get people to change their way of thinking. The primary belief of the time was that you could tell which of the gods was the strongest by who won the battle. After all, if you won, then obviously God was on your side and was stronger than the other countries gods.
But then it was hard to tell what god to worship since different countries seemed to win at different times. So it was good to make alliances and hedge your bets. The tough part was knowing how to pic ka winner. So the safest thing was to erect altars to numerous gods and hope you didn’t offend any.
Such was the milieu in which we find the Old Testament prophets. As you can see on the chart in your bulletin, the prophets fall into three basic time frames, under three different foreign rulers, the Assyrians, who were then defeated by the Babylonian empire, who were eventually superseded by the Persians. The land of Palestine lay on major trade routes and so was prime real estate. And the rulers of Israel and Judah had a habit of making alliances or trying to assert their independence which didn’t sit well with the ruling powers.
Several words about the prophets in general before we focus on Isaiah. First of all, prophets in the Old Testament were not first and foremost future predictors, as we often think of prophets. Yes, they spoke of things that were to come, but they spoke primarily to their own time and people. In a sense one could say they were simply good readers of their time. Their message tended to be, if you keep going the way you are going, this is what will happen. They spoke the word of the Lord to their time and place.
So secondly, we need to hear their message first and foremost in their own context. It had to make some sense to the people who first heard the prophets speaking. We can’t read a lot of modern ideas and inventions into the Old Testament. We might also note that several of the books we call prophets are not included among the prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible, but rather placed in a sections called writings. We’ll note that when we get to those.
A third thing to note about the prophets is that while they often spoke words of judgement, they did not stand apart from their communities, but were very much a part of them. Unlike many modern day preachers of judgement who want to claim that they are above reproach, the Old Testament prophets suffered with the people, mourned for what was to come, and hoped and prayed that the people would change their ways and be saved.
Finally, the Old Testament prophets give us a counterpoint to the official history of the time. We looked earlier at the historical books, Kings and Chronicles, which cover this same period. Those are the histories written by the rulers and the religious authorities. They uphold the institutions of the day and speak of the glories of the kings. The prophets, however, often give us a different picture and so we need to read both to get a clearer picture of life in these troubled times.
So what can we say about the book of Isaiah. Well, if you looked at the chart very closely, you may have noticed there are three Isaiah’s listed. Most modern scholars are agreed that the book of Isaiah as we have it currently is actually a composite of three books, written at different times, by three different authors. The first book, chapters 1 to 39, were probably written or spoken by the Isaiah whose vision is recorded in Chapter 6. He was probably a priest in the temple where he had his call or vision, and we are told he was the son of a man called Amoz. Other than that we know very little about him, as with most of the prophets. His message was primarily one of warning of the coming disaster, with Babylon at the gates of Jerusalem, laying siege, and eventually conquering the city.
Second Isaiah, chapters 40 to 55, from the period of the exile comes most likely from a disciple or follower of the first Isaiah, as does Third Isaiah, probably from the post-exilic time. While they speak some of the same message, their tone and message also speak to the specific times in which each of them lived. Their message is one of hope and comfort, a promised return to the land. And it was probably during the latter’s time that the book in its current form was compiled into what we know today as the book of Isaiah.
And perhaps no other Old Testament book is as well-known as the book of Isaiah, or at least as often quoted. If you read the book of Isaiah, you probably ran across many familiar passages, known either from New Testament quotes, or from hymns and songs. Over 70 hymns are listed in the Scripture index as having allusions to Isaiah, and of course if you’ve ever sung or heard Handel’s Messiah you will recognize many passages.
So, given that broad range of times and places, is there an overall message from the book of Isaiah as we now have it, or should we simply see it, looking back, as a great place to read Jesus into the Old Testament?
Well, Ivan Friesen in his Believer’s Church Commentary on Isaiah says this,
“The over all purpose of the book is to show how God’s rule among his own people becomes the means by which the nations of the earth receive the blessing promised to Abram in Genesis 12:1-3 and reaffirmed during Abraham’s lifetime.” (BCC Isaiah p.18)
Put more simply, I would say that the overarching message of the book of Isaiah is the God, the God of who delivered the children of Israel out of Egypt, Yahweh, is God not only of the children of Israel, but God over all. “Gott uber alles” The God who created the earth, delivered God’s people from slavery, and would eventually provide a way of salvation for all, was the Lord of history.
We may think that’s obvious, part of our belief, but for the people of Isaiah’s day and particularly when the walls of Jerusalem were under siege, this was almost unbelievable. As I mentioned earlier, every nation had their own gods, and when nations went to war it was not just the armies who were fighting, it was the armies with the backing of their god. “God on our side” is not a new slogan.
Well, that seemed to work, except here was Isaiah telling the people that, in fact, God was going to defeat his own people. They not only be defeated, but they would be carried off into exile. In fact, God was even going to go so far as to use a foreign king to carry out God’s purposes! Who ever heard of such a thing! What kind of God is this?
Often we can find a clue to the message of the prophet if we are given an account of their call, and that is certainly true in Isaiah’s case.
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the hem of his robe filled the temple! seraphs were in attendance above him; each with six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’” (Is. 6: 1-3)
This was no tribal god. This was no local deity. This was a God who ruled over all the earth, was above every nation, tribe, and tongue. While the Babylonians may have conquered a vast empire while worshipping their god, Marduk, that did not make Marduk the lord of history. Only the God proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah could claim such a place. It was that God, Yahweh, whom the people are called to trust and worship for whatever happens.
And while their God may punish his people for a time because of their sins, God still cares for his people as he does for all of creation. As the defeat of Jerusalem comes about, just as the prophet said it would, and the people are carried off into exile, the word through the prophets becomes one of hope.
“Comfort, comfort, my people” (Is. 40:1) And to show that I really am the God over all, not only will I restore the fortunes of my people, but eventually all the nations will receive their just rewards. While things may be difficult, whether in exile or even after returning from exile, know that it is the same God who rules even then.
So is there a message in the book of Isaiah for us as well? Since we live on this side of the Incarnation, of Jesus, we can look back and read many things in Isaiah that point toward the coming Messiah and apply those passages to Jesus. And that’s certainly one way to read the book.
But Isaiah’s original message is also one that I think we need to hear. How often does God become reduced to a tribal god, as though God were only resident or available to one nation? How often have nations gone to war claiming that it was only they who had God on their side? How often do we act as though God is our own personal protector and certainly must not have also cared about those other people who didn’t avoid disaster?
I have also been in discussions about whether Jews and Muslims worship the same God as we do. Aside from the fact that all three religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all trace their roots to Abraham, my response, as I think Isaiah’s would be, is that there is only one God, sovereign over all. While we might view God differently or have different understandings of God, we believe there is only one.
And perhaps more broadly, as in Isaiah’s day, we can ask the question of where we put our trust. We too live in a world of uncertainties. War seems to be a part of life these days and society is increasingly polarized. Whether it’s political, sociological, or religious, we live in a time of rapid change and upheaval. And people are looking for solutions, something to hang on to to provide some stability.
And there are more than enough people willing to offer answers, again whether those are political, religious, or otherwise. Everyone promises that if you will only follow them, adopt their philosophy, or vote their party into power, then everything will work out great.
But Isaiah’s message still rings true. There is only one in whom we should put our trust, the one sovereign Lord of all history who is worthy of worship. A God who wants a people who will worship and follow his ways, loving justice, caring for the poor, seeking peace. And even when things seem to be going badly, it is this same God who remains in control and will ultimately triumph.
All too often we, like the people of Isaiah’s day, want to figure out who’s going to win and then throw our lot in with them. We treat God as a commodity that’s useful as long as we seem to be getting the better end of the deal. We weigh the claims of everyone who has solutions and try to figure out what might work for us.
The ultimate call of the prophets was to return to the one and only true God, the only God who is constant throughout history and is Lord over all. The one who is not partisan, who pays no attention to political parties or national boundaries, but is Lord of all. Putting our trust in the God proclaimed by Isaiah and shown to us most fully in Jesus means we need never wonder if we’ve chosen correctly.
Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts. the whole earth is full of God’s glory!