Updated: Nov 12, 2020
Humans think we shape the world with impunity, that "to the victor go the spoils". But God has an even bigger plan for the world, and thus for human history in which salvation will be offered to the world, and the unrighteous will be held accountable. What we need to worry about is which "wide" of history we are on. The Jews seem to have forgotten that as they mourned their condition and questioned God's plan.
How Hard Is It to Be a Puppetmaster?
Which is harder: to tell someone what to do and force them to do it, or to let someone entirely on their own come to the conclusion of what needs to be done and then to do it? Obviously it's the latter. Think about it this way. If you've ever been a manager or teacher, what's your success rate of the people you've managed or taught making the right decision and doing the right thing -- even after you've specifically taught them to do it?
Few things are more frustrating than teaching someone to do one thing only to have them do something else when they actually had the choice! Conversely, few things are more rewarding than observing those same people make the decisions -- all on their own -- that bring about the best good for the company or the school.
That's what amazes me the most about God. He lets us make our own decisions, and yet those decisions never halt His greater plan. And as we learn this week, God is not unwilling to use wicked people and their wicked schemes as part of His plan. When that happens, we have to trust that He will still hold them accountable for their wickedness.
Where We Are in Isaiah
Last week introduced this second part of Isaiah, focusing on God's message of hope to the weary Jews who are realizing the consequence of their rebellion and unrighteousness. Here's an outline for these chapters:
Part 1: Israel should be motivated by God's grace (40-55)
A. God graciously delivers His people (40)
B. God graciously chose Israel (41-48)
1. Salvation is through God alone, not idols (41-44)
2. God's plan for Israel's salvation is inscrutable (45-46)
3. God will still punish the idolaters (47)
4. Israel should trust and believe God's plan (48)
C. A servant will be Israel's model and salvation (49-55)
1. God will send a servant to deliver Israel (49-52)
2. The servant's suffering will lead to Israel's deliverance (53-55)
Part 2: Israel should thus live according to God's righteousness (56-66)
* The final chapters alternate between how Israel should be behaving and how she is actually behaving, but we will talk about that when we get there.
So, the larger section we're currently in focuses on grace. That's a concept we should understand from the New Testament really well. We do not deserve God's blessing of salvation. We have not earned it. But God graciously extends the offer and we should thankfully receive it. And it's all about Jesus -- He quite literally did everything (because we could do nothing for ourselves). And so what should be the attitude and lifestyle of a Christian? We've talked about this a whole lot, particularly when we've studied Paul's letters. We should humbly live for Christ.
But rather than talk about what that means, I want you to think about this question:
what happens when a Christian forgets that we're the unworthy recipient of the gracious gift of salvation?
We've all been there, and we all have friends who seem to be acting that way. What does "unthankful Christian" look like / live like?
To make a long story short, we start to live like the Jews that Isaiah was warning in his messages. They had forgotten what God had done for them, so they had started to look for other sources of help in their problems. They had also started to live like the world around them, oppressing the poor and weak for personal gain and being selfish (which just accelerated their problems).
What does that look like for Christians today? "Selfish" and "self-centered" probably covers it. Not caring about the needs of others. Not looking out for the best of others. All of the things the New Testament warns us about.
That has a devastating impact on our relationship with God as well as on our families. We lose sight of God's plan and become focused on ourselves. And we then find ourselves in a similar position to the Jews Isaiah is talking to.
[Note: if you feel like your relationship with God is really solid right now, this passage is still for you. It's just entirely on the "encouragement" side and less on the "admonishment" side. But let's be honest -- all of us would love to have a stronger relationship with God, right?]
Brief Complaint about the Choice of Passages
I'll say this and move on. I'm a little bit frustrated that of everything in chapters 41-47, Lifeway chose a passage that essentially repeats what was in the passage we studied last week. That's not to say that it isn't important! But there is so much else in these chapters. What it means to be the people of God -- chapter 41 or 42. How God's plan are difficult for us to understand or foresee -- chapter 42. Nothing can separate us from God -- chapter 43. The very interesting role of Cyrus the Great -- chapters 44 or 45. The fall of Babylon -- chapter 47. God's plan is ultimately for Israel's good -- chapter 48. I'll try to tap into some of that when I talk about this week's passage. All of that to say: reading the rest of these chapters will give you plenty of great material to better explain this week's passage.
Getting Ready for Sunday School
This passage, and thus this lesson, is about trust and grace. Both of those involve admitting that we don't understand the big picture like God does, and also that He is not under obligation to run His plans through us before He enacts them.
Be looking in yourself, particularly with the condition of the world today. What would you have done differently than God? Take that to God. Ask Him to help you come to peace with where things are, and ask Him to help you understand your role in our crazy world.
Then, dig a little deeper -- are you unhappy with the state of the world because of the impact it has had on you (rather than on the people around you)? Ask God if you have become that "unthankful Christian" I mentioned above. If you're afraid you have, then simply ask God to speak to you through these words recorded by Isaiah.
Part 1: The True God (Isaiah 46:3-7)
3 “Listen to me, house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been sustained from the womb, carried along since birth. 4 I will be the same until your old age, and I will bear you up when you turn gray. I have made you, and I will carry you; I will bear and rescue you.
5 “To whom will you compare me or make me equal? Who will you measure me with, so that we should be like each other? 6 Those who pour out their bags of gold and weigh out silver on scales— they hire a goldsmith and he makes it into a god. Then they kneel and bow down to it. 7 They lift it to their shoulder and bear it along; they set it in its place, and there it stands; it does not budge from its place. They cry out to it but it doesn’t answer; it saves no one from his trouble.
These verses can be summarized in a pair of brilliant contrasts:
The people who make idols have to carry those idols; but God carries His people.
The people who make idols have to use their skills to make the idol look pretty; but God has made His people into [potentially] something beautiful.
A lot of this is a repeat from last week, particularly verses 18-20. Whatever you didn't cover about that last week, here's your second chance!
I love the word choice here; it's simply beautiful. And it's very timely.
Think about (and even list) the changes in our world
during the past year
during the past 5 years
during the past 20 years (since 2000)
during the past 40 years (since 1980)
We're going to bring this back up during the final section, so please take this seriously. Think about these changes with respect to you individually and your family, with respect to our country, and with respect to our world. (Of course, this can work both ways -- we can also think about the changes we thought we would have seen but haven't.)
I was born in 1975, so growing up, 80s behavior was normal. Looking back, of course, I'm now shocked that anyone survived that decade. (I can kind of say the same thing about the 70s. And maybe the 90s. Hey, we didn't start the fire. Right?)
(And I also really kinda miss it. Culture scholars have called that the enduring appeal of Peanuts: we think about our childhood and wonder how we can get it back. But I digress.)
So much has changed in my own life. Not the least of which is my perspective! In the 80s, I thought of my school teachers as ancient. And they were basically women in their 20s and young 30s! I thought that my parents and grandparents were indestructible and unchangeable. I thought that the world was beautifully diverse and tolerant.
I graduated from Texas A&M in 1997. My hair was absolutely amazing back then. It's mostly gone now. In 2000, we were worried about the fallout of Y2K, not 9/11. I was a pipeline engineer, freshly married. We were going to have our first baby in August of that year. And we had just recently started struggling with this weird feeling that we would later identify as a "call to ministry". That may as well have been another world, right?
But now my hair is turning gray. (What's left of it, that is.) I'm noticing those skin spots that I used to associate with old people. If I don't get a good night's sleep, I don't do so well the next day. Those Progressive "parent coach" commercials? I think they're hilarious.
All of that to say . . .
God is with me. God will bear me up with age takes my energy. God will strengthen me when I lose the desire to fight for what's right. God will guide me when the world becomes ever so much more confusing.
Wow, that's beautiful. Why exactly would I waste my hopes on an idol of my own making?
Side Topic: What's an Idol?
I've gotten some questions to this end. How do we know if something's become an idol? For example, we have an "image" of Jesus on the wall of our sanctuary (in the stained glass). Is that bad? This is actually an ancient debate that culminated is a massive wedge between the Roman church and the Byzantine church. Romans allowed Christians to make sculptures and paintings depicting Bible events and put those in churches; Byzantines refused. Rome's rationale was that Jesus is God incarnate -- the "image" of God to help us see and know God. Constantinople's fear was that the people would eventually start to worship those images. Indeed that happened (we still see it today when Catholics get very excited about a piece of toast or bark or cloud that looks like Jesus or Mary), but not always. God created us with five senses. Seeing and touching helps us learn. That stained glass window in our sanctuary is beautiful and helps set a proper atmosphere for worship. The problem comes when we get focused on the object itself rather than what it points us to. We venerate the statue rather than what the statue is supposed to point us to (and that's doubly problematic when the statue is of a regular person!).
(Hezekiah actually gives us a great example of this in 2 Kings 18. There, it says that Hezekiah destroyed the bronze snakes that Moses had made (700 years before in Num 21:9) because Jews had been worshiping them. Anything can become an idol after time.)
The same goes with the more abstract things we've talked about in the previous weeks: making an idol or wealth or medicine or power or whatnot. When we become focused on the object itself rather than the One who has made it available to us, that's when it's become an idol. If it's a good gift, it comes from God. We enjoy it because God is gracious and loving. If we keep that perspective, we prevent things from becoming an idol.
If you didn't focus on idols last week, then focus on that this week. What are the most important things in your life? Do you know if they've become an idol to you?
If you did, then frame this section like this: when you look back over your life, what has changed? What has remained the same? If you remember times God has seemed distant, why was that? Had God left you? What are the constants you can count on?
If none of those constants included God and His love for you, these next few verses will shed some light on that perspective.
Part 2: The Trustworthy One (Isaiah 46:8-11)
8 “Remember this and be brave; take it to heart, you transgressors! 9 Remember what happened long ago, for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and no one is like me. 10 I declare the end from the beginning, and from long ago what is not yet done, saying: my plan will take place, and I will do all my will. 11 I call a bird of prey from the east, a man for my purpose from a far country. Yes, I have spoken; so I will also bring it about. I have planned it; I will also do it.
Verse 8 might seem a strange combination of phrases. "Transgressors" is used of people who have rebelled against God. Why would God want them to be brave? Well, when Paul quoted Psalm 14 about the number of people who seek after God, how many did he say?
1 The fool says in his heart, “There’s no God.” They are corrupt; they do vile deeds. There is no one who does good. 2 The Lord looks down from heaven on the human race to see if there is one who is wise, one who seeks God. 3 All have turned away; all alike have become corrupt. There is no one who does good, not even one.
So, yeah. God is speaking to His people here. They are transgressors -- rebels (no small part of the reason they are in the pickle they are in) (whatever that means).
What are they supposed to remember and take to heart? The God created them and carries them. They can be brave (in facing their future) because they are transgressors . . . and yet God still carries them.
You could spend all day with this but do a quick "Bible knowledge survey": name times God's people rebelled against Him. The third chapter of the Bible describes a rebellion, and the third from the last chapter describes a rebellion. And many of the chapters in between.
The moment God rescued Jacob's descendants and turned them into the nation of Israel, they started complaining and rebelling. They disobeyed His commandments. They worshiped false gods. (They went to God's sworn enemies for assistance when they should have relied on God.)
So, think about it -- if God is God alone and is in complete control of the flow of history and wanted the Jews destroyed completely, wouldn't it have happened by now? The fact that they're still here, that God still claims them as His people, isn't that the most amazing "vote of confidence"? Should they not be brave and take heart, thinking "Wow, God must really love us!" But as long as they remember that they are transgressors, and that God's love for them is of grace, then they will not make the tragic mistake of the past Jews (including Hezekiah) who thought they were somehow special in themselves.
Here's a valuable exercise: do a Bible search for the word "remember". Look particularly at the times the people are told to remember something. Why? What? One representative example is Exodus 13:3:
Then Moses said to the people, “Remember this day when you came out of Egypt, out of the place of slavery, for the Lord brought you out of here by the strength of his hand. Nothing leavened may be eaten."
When they (we) are told to remember, it's about something God has done for us. And often it points to something we're supposed to do in response. Here's another example that sounds a lot like our passage (Deuteronomy 7:18):
Do not be afraid of them. Be sure to remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and all Egypt.
When we remember what God has done in the past, we should take heart about what God can and will do today, or in the future.
But God takes it a step further. We might draw the conclusion that God's actions have been reactionary. "Look: the Jews have gotten themselves in trouble again. I'd better go rescue them." That's not how God works at all. He is the one who directs human history.
If you Google "world history timeline" you'll find some impressive attempts at putting all of civilization history onto on massive poster. Awesome, even.
All of that is somehow shaped by God. ("Somehow" in that He works through and with human free will, making His superintendence that much more incredible.)
Before God created the universe, He had a plan. His plan was to create a unique creature that could have a special relationship with Him -- humans. And then when they exercised their right to rebel, He had a plan to restore that relationship with Him through the life and death of His Son, Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Divine Trinity. (I know, this got deep quick.) And then, His plan was that everyone who trusted in the perfect work of Jesus would be saved and pass that message on to future generations so that as many people as possible could be restored to the Father.
Obviously, this is our "Impact Your One" tie-in. This week, the emphasis is simply about telling stories of our experiences these past few weeks. How did those gospel conversations go? Who are people we need to join you in continuing to pray for? What new opportunities do you think you'll have in the weeks to come?
Jeff Gongwer is our regional representative for Georgia Baptist Missions. He spoke to a group at our church and basically said this:
The church does not have a mission in the world. The church is God's mission for the world.
In other words, God does not simply have a plan for us. We are God's plan . . . for reaching the people around us.
And God clarifies that this means that God uses godless people to accomplish His purposes. This "bird of prey" (which is the "man for My purpose") refers to Cyrus the Great.
Aside on Cyrus the Great. He is explicitly identified in Isaiah 44:24, 28, and 45:1. (This is actually one of the reasons why some scholars believe a second person wrote these chapters after the exile -- because who could possibly know the name of the person who would overthrow Babylon in 100 years? Seriously, that's their reasoning.) He was the king of the Persians who conquered the kingdom of Media in 559 BC and the kingdom of Lydia in 546 BC. While that was happening, the successors to Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon were being very poor kings. And so, in 539 BC, Cyrus entered Babylon unopposed.
Cyrus did not fear God. He allowed the peoples he conquered to maintain their ancestral religions and even encouraged them to rebuild the temples that may have been destroyed in wars. But that was of political expediency, not because of any innate connection to the spiritual world. And yet, God called Cyrus His "anointed" (the Hebrew word for "messiah"!) in 45:1. Shocking!
But think about it. The policies Cyrus set in place would be used by his successor Darius to not only allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem but also to help fund the rebuilding of the temple and the walls! This is in direct fulfillment to the messages of hope that God has been giving through Isaiah! Indeed, Cyrus was fulfilling Isaiah's prophecies, and that makes him one of God's anointed, even though he did not believe in God. That's not a far cry from Saul, who was also called God's anointed, and yet killed God's priests and tried to kill David.
Aside on God's Plan and Evil Humans. The point? God is not just willing to use non-Christians to accomplish His purposes, He does it all the time. And of necessity! Every action we take has been shaped by innumerable actions taken by others, each of which has been shaped by innumerable actions themselves.
This is confusing and disquieting to some believers. Chapters 1 and 2 of Habakkuk essentially address this exact scenario: "They are evildoers, God. How can You tolerate them, let alone use them?" The answer: those evildoers will be fully punished for their evil, but it is not for us to question God's understanding of the big picture. (This is how I look at it: for God to prevent evildoers from doing any evil would mean to subvert all free will, which God has said He will not do. Therefore, He brings our evil into His plan, like the story of Joseph illustrates.)
Does this mean that God caused the fall of Jerusalem and the fall of Babylon? Well, no -- no more than He caused World War II or the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Human sin comes with terrible outcomes. But somehow, those two terrible events will forward (1) the spread of the gospel, and (2) Christ's return and the last battle.
Application. If human beings have not accomplished our self-destruction yet, that's because God has prevented us from doing it. We can trust that everything that happens is a part of God's larger plan for humanity.
What about your life right now? I'm sure you have been utterly disrupted by the pandemic. Have you thought about how this pandemic fits into God's larger plan? I don't know how it does, but I know I should be praying for that purpose to be accomplished, and I should be looking into opportunities it has opened for me that weren't there before. For example, churches have expanded their digital presence of necessity, which has expanded our reach. Churches have been reminded the importance of cooperation. Churches have been forced to streamline their budgets. Some have done so more effectively than others.
(I don't think we could ever justify cutting outreach or children's ministries! But look at the fine print: 73% of churches haven't cut any of these, so it's not as dire as it might look.)
We should be praying for whatever good that can come out of every circumstance. And moreso, we should be praying that God shows us what we need to do to either bring about that good or to make the change that will bring about a future good.
Part 3: The Just One (46:12-13)
12 Listen to me, you hardhearted, far removed from justice: 13 I am bringing my justice near; it is not far away, and my salvation will not delay. I will put salvation in Zion, my splendor in Israel.
For those of us Christians who trust God and His plan, this is the news we want to hear. God knows that there is great injustice at work in the world. He does not ignore it. But He will bring about judgment against it in the way that is best. We don't need to worry about that.
Who are the "hardhearted" here? (If "thickhearted" were a word, that would be what this means.) Whereas earlier "transgressors" referred to God's people, these "removed from justice" refers to God's enemies. Certainly, it refers to those in Babylon who will be brought down by the Persians. But it also refers to the Persians who will not escape justice for their own great evil.
The word for "justice" also can mean "righteousness". It's a brilliant wordplay that can mean two different things: (1) those people who do not live according to God's standard of justice will be brought to face God's justice; (2) those people who are not right with God will be held accountable by God because it is right for God to do so. See that? God's justice will prevail because God's righteousness demands that He be just.
And the ultimate result? God will bring salvation to His people. Jews would think in terms of Zion, so it makes sense that He use that specific place. And it's not wrong: Jesus brought us salvation by His actions in Jerusalem, and when the Holy City brings the news heaven and new earth, it will be located at Jerusalem. But I think the Jews reading this would have thought that God was talking about the Jewish city of Jerusalem.
So, this lesson is about challenging ourselves and our perception of the world.
Do we believe that God is in control?
Do we believe that God can bring good out of this?
Have we been looking for how God is working through this in our own lives?
Are we willing to trust God's bigger plan?
What areas are we not trusting God -- will we talk to Him about them?
Will we draw closer to God during this time?