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God Saves: The City of God vs. The City of Man (Isaiah 25)

Updated: Nov 13, 2020

God's fiercest enemies are like waves that break on the rocks. Even they will acknowledge that God is sovereign. And yet God still invites all people -- even His enemies -- to end their resistance and join Him for the great feast at the end of all things when death itself will be destroyed. That deserves our song of praise!

Famous Arch-Enemies

Sometimes, an enemy is so great that he needs a prefix. Can you name these fictional heroes' archenemies?

  • Roadrunner (Wile E. Coyote)

  • Batman (Joker)

  • Superman (Lex Luthor)

  • Spiderman (any of the Sinister Six)

  • Sherlock Holmes (Professor Moriarty)

  • Perry the Platypus (Dr. Doofenshmirtz)

  • G.I. Joe (Cobra)

  • Optimus Prime (Megatron)

  • James Bond (Blofelt)

  • Popeye (Bluto)

  • Professor X (Magneto)

  • He-Man (Skeletor)

  • The Smurfs (Gargamel)

  • Austin Powers (Dr. Evil)

If you have a favorite hero, you probably have a favorite arch-nemesis. What's one of your favorite exchanges? Or, what was a favorite dastardly plan your enemy concocted? Or what about a favorite catchphrase? (He might not have been on the list above, but I giggle every time I hear the exchange from Goldfinger: "Do you expect me to talk?" "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!" Oh, it's so silly, I can't help but smile. Like the whole rest of the Goldfinger plot. Or any James Bond movie plot.)

What's the purpose of an arch-enemy? To raise the stakes to the highest level. To create a very elaborate and worrisome plan. To capture the hero and put him in mortal danger while explaining that elaborate plan. Why? Because when the hero foils it, the hero is that much more heroic. (It's so cliched that making fun of it has become its own trope, like this scene from Austin Powers.)

For an arch-enemy to "work" as a plot device, it needs to be just a little silly. My favorite parody of this is in the Disney summer cartoon "Phineas and Ferb". While the main characters are having fun during their summer vacation, their pet platypus (yep) who is also a secret agent (yep) is waging a war with the criminal mastermind Dr. Doofenshmirtz (yep), usually at his headquarters Doofenshmirtz Evil Incorporated (yep).

  • In "Rollercoaster", Doofenshmirtz plans to reverse the rotation of the earth by covering the eastern seaboard in tinfoil and using a giant magnet on it.

  • In "The Fast and the Phineas", he creates a ray-gun that can deflate every inflatable, but mounts his deflate-inator in a blimp.

  • In "Toy to the World", he plans to build a giant wall around the city and charge people a toll to use the gates.

You get the picture. It's about how silly the idea of an arch-enemy really is. Kind of like this dad-joke-comic.

But if you stop and think about it, we need these arch-enemies to be silly and bumbling and narcissist and hubrist. Why? Because imagine if they ever got their act together and succeeded at just one of their dastardly plots. They'd destroy the city. Or the country. Or the world. Or the universe. Or the multiverse. It just wouldn't be very fun to read or watch. The end of Infinity War, when Thanos seemingly succeeded in killing half of all life in the universe, led to an entire year of speculation as to how the heroes were going to undo that catastrophe. The stakes really weren't that high if you think about it.

Does God Have an Arch-Enemy?

Let me start steering this strange topic in the direction of our lesson. Does God have an arch-enemy? The answer is no. Let me get out in front of this. Satan is not God's arch-enemy. Satan does not pose any sort of real threat to God. When we sing that God has no rival, we mean that literally. Nothing in the universe can threaten God or thwart any of God's plans.

But let me modify the question: does God have enemies? Do beings oppose God? Yes! Including Satan and demons and every person who hates the truth. But they know that they cannot harm God in any way (their "opposition" to God in our passage this week is laughably inconsequential), so they adopt this attitude: "I cannot harm God, but I can harm those whom God loves." So, basically, people and this good earth.

In other words, as we read about God's enemies in Isaiah, we need to get the idea of an arch-enemy out of our heads. God is "invincible", and so we can truly and completely trust Him and His promises.

People, on the other hand, are pretty fragile. We need to understand and appreciate that.

We worry about large-scale wars, major pandemics, massive forest fires, and hurricanes, but the truth is that people are killed every day by single terrorists, regular illnesses, minor floods, and accidents. People are extremely fragile! And that's important to come to grips with because if people lose their minds over the million deaths caused by COVID-19, how are they going to react if there's another Bubonic Plague (killed half of Europe) or smallpox (killed 350 million people just a century ago)?

Or what about the things that cause our greatest thinkers to lose sleep at night -- things like the artificial intelligence singularity, or a bio-engineered super-disease, or an asteroid, or North Korea's nuclear weapons?

Or what about the unique threats to God's people -- things like government persecution (as in Communism), or militant opposition from religions like Islam, or the opposition and manipulation of Satan?

Goodness, we have so much to fear!

How does any Christian look at and experience these awful realities and sleep at night? Simple. (Not easy, but simple). We remember that God is sovereign. These terrible things that threaten us do not pose a threat to God. We never have to worry about God being deposed or overthrown or injured or compromised. God always wins.

When Jesus sent His disciples into the world, He warned them about the persecution and dangers they would face. But He sent them with this powerful statement:

Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt 10:28)

Yes, there are dangers in the world. Yes, terrible things might happen to you. But this world is only temporary. You need to worry more about what happens in the next world. And if you belong to Jesus, there is nothing for you to fear.

Wait a minute. Is that supposed to be comforting?

Yes, it is comforting. In fact, it's the only comfort and the best comfort. We cannot prevent death. And if we're honest, "better" or "worse" kinds of death only apply to someone else. The old saying goes, "Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die." That's because death is our truest and ultimate enemy. But death cannot harm God. Therefore, all we need fear from death is the momentary unknown of passing from this life into the next. And in the next life we will be safe in the presence of God because of the sacrificial love of Jesus.

[However, for those who have not trusted in the saving work of Jesus Christ, things are very different.]

When we realize that God is sovereign over the earth and the sun and the entire universe, we are released from our fears of all of the catastrophes that are out there. We are given the ability to be amazed that the earth exists at all, that humans haven't been able to destroy ourselves yet! God's preservation of life is astounding and miraculous. If some catastrophe comes (and it will come one day -- just read Revelation), it will only come as a part of God's plan. And it won't threaten heaven in any way.

So, with that surprisingly heavy introduction out of the way, let's move on to the passage!

Where We Are in Isaiah

Last week, I mentioned "The Little Apocalypse". Well, it's time to study it! In chapters 13-23, God offered prophecies about specific nations/peoples. We studied the one about the wealthy city-state of Tyre. This might have given you the impression that such nations are the movers and shakers of the earth, and God simply reacts to them. Well, "The Little Apocalypse" in chapters 24-27 should fix that mistaken impression!

About Ancient Apocalyptic Literature. When we studied Revelation a few years ago, I mentioned that every ancient culture had some tradition of apocalyptic literature. No matter which ancient civilization you study, you'll eventually find something that reminds you of Revelation. Here's why:

"Apocalypse" is essentially the Greek word for "revelation" and refers to a vision of the end of days. It usually focuses on some sort of cosmic battle between good and evil. It's purpose is to let the reader know that good will win. Almost without exception, it follows this pattern: at the end of days, said nation/people/civilization will have its enemies rise up and begin to destroy it, and it will look like "evil" (meaning their enemies) will triumph. And then that nation's god/gods (representing "good") will fight against and defeat those enemies. Apocalyptic literature of the ancient world often includes visions, extreme symbolism, and the symbolic use of numbers (numerology).

In the Bible, the book of Revelation is the most complete example of apocalyptic literature. Here are other passages often included in this discussion:

  • Isaiah 24-27

  • Ezekiel 38-39

  • Joel 3

  • Zechariah 9-14

  • Matthew 24-25

  • Mark 13

But each of those passages is missing something often characterized as "apocalyptic". For example, Isaiah 24-27 doesn't have numerology or strange visions. For my part, I think we read passages like Isiah 24-27 as a kind of apocalyptic literature, but we don't try to interpret it with the exact same rules as Revelation. Isaiah 24-27 has its own rules and its own context. The content and purpose is the same: God wins. But we're not going to go looking for Revelation in Isaiah.

Isaiah 24-25 are about God's coming judgment of the earth: the destruction of God's enemies and the deliverance of God's people. Isaiah 26-27 are about the eternal future that God has prepared for everyone in His holy city.

The words "song" and "city" tie these four chapters together. This is partly where Augustine got his idea for "The City of God", where it's the "city of God" against the "city of man". The song of the earth is a lament for their destruction. The song of heaven is a praise for God's great victory.

We're only covering 25:1-10 in our lesson, but I encourage you to read all four chapters. They're an incredible experience. I particularly want to highlight 26:18-19 -- Israel was tasked with taking salvation to the nations but utterly failed because they did so according to their own design; but those saved according to God's plan will live forever. These two verses clearly indicate God's worldwide mission as well as the bodily resurrection from the dead. Sadly, the Jews would argue about both truths.


Part 1: Singing Praise (Isaiah 25:1-5)

25 Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you. I will praise your name, for you have accomplished wonders, plans formed long ago, with perfect faithfulness. 2 For you have turned the city into a pile of rocks, a fortified city, into ruins; the fortress of barbarians is no longer a city; it will never be rebuilt. 3 Therefore, a strong people will honor you. The cities of violent nations will fear you. 4 For you have been a stronghold for the poor person, a stronghold for the needy in his distress, a refuge from storms and a shade from heat. When the breath of the violent is like a storm against a wall, 5 like heat in a dry land, you will subdue the uproar of barbarians. As the shade of a cloud cools the heat of the day, so he will silence the song of the violent.

Chapter 24 established most of these motifs. Because the earth is filled with wicked people, God is going to completely devastate the land. All of their raucous songs of debauchery will be silenced as the city they live in is ruined. But Isaiah doesn't even want the righteous to sing for joy because he is so overwhelmed by the devastation! He knows that the wicked brought it upon themselves, but he is still dismayed by their awful fate.

So, instead of singing a song of "joy", Isaiah sings a song of "awe". The more I've thought about this, the more I think I understand. In heaven, when every tear has been wiped away, we will experience the purest joy, and we will sing to the glory of God with all abandon. But on earth, our songs of praise must always be tinged with a bit of regret and remorse. Why? Because our own sin has contributed to the state of the world. And everyone who is suffering from the calamities of the world, they're all people. And but for the grace of God we could be them. So, we rejoice in God's greatness, but we don't rejoice in the destruction of the wicked. That's a fine distinction.

Isaiah's response to God is very intense and personal. Basically, that's worship.

Worship is our response to God's presence.

Whatever we do when we encounter God, that's our worship. Maybe it's singing, maybe it's being silent, maybe it's falling to our knees. Whatever that response is, it's worship. It must be personal ("You are my God") -- others cannot worship on our behalf. (By the way, this is true of Sunday mornings. We don't show up to "watch the praise team worship". What would that even be? No, the purpose of anyone on the platform in your church is to lead the congregation to participate together in an act of worship.)

Isaiah's focus is entirely on God. Verse 1 by itself is a dissertation on worship. "Exalt" -- "lift up". "Praise" -- "thanksgiving" as well as "speak highly of". "Wonders" -- "God's miraculous power". "Plans" -- "God's providence". "Long ago" -- "God's eternity". "Perfect faithfulness" -- I can't think of a better way to describe what Isaiah captures with these words. Verse 1 perfectly and astonishingly explains why we worship God.

Verse 2 offers an example. Your Lifeway material doesn't understand the use of the word "city", trying to figure out "which city" Isaiah is talking about. No, just go back to Isaiah 24:10-13. There, "city" represents human civilization. (Note: we've talked about that before. "Civilization" is tied to the development of cities.) In cities, humans tend to elevate themselves, accumulating power and wealth and setting aside God. But that can only be temporary. God will cast aside even the greatest human achievement. This is basically what Paul gets at in 1 Corinthians 1:

18 For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is the power of God to us who are being saved. 19 For it is written,
I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will set aside the intelligence of the intelligent.
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn’t God made the world’s wisdom foolish? 21 For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of what is preached. 22 For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. 24 Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God, 25 because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
26 Brothers and sisters, consider your calling: Not many were wise from a human perspective, not many powerful, not many of noble birth. 27 Instead, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong. 28 God has chosen what is insignificant and despised in the world—what is viewed as nothing—to bring to nothing what is viewed as something, 29 so that no one may boast in his presence.

We can think of Paul as simply explaining what Isaiah was singing in chapter 25.

What will be the result? Those who thought of themselves as the "strong" of the earth will realize that they are no match for God Almighty, and they will bow down. (Our prayer: that they bow down in submission and repentance in this life, not in defeat and destruction at the final judgment.)

Verses 4 and 5 give another example. As wicked people have been building up their strength (in their cities) and oppressing the poor and the outcast, God has been their stronghold and refuge. This is an important and somewhat difficult motif in scripture -- I think particularly of Psalms 5, 18, 27, 31, 46, 59, 61, 62, 71. When no one else defends the poor and needy, God does. Now, this doesn't mean that bad things don't happen to the poor and needy! Rather, it means that God is with them, sustaining them through their woe, and when their bodies give out, He preserves their souls (assuming they have placed their trust in Him).

Compared to God, the might of the wicked is like the ocean waves that toss ships with ease but break harmlessly on the rocks. It reminds me of Macbeth:

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.

Isaiah 25:1-5 creates the proper attitude -- toward God, toward ourselves, and toward one another. And that leads to some important questions:

  • How has God been our refuge? Think of specific times God has taken care of you.

  • How have we been God's agents in protecting the poor and needy? God does not have to act directly and supernaturally -- He often uses people. In what ways have you (and your church) taken care of those in need?

What an amazing passage!


Part 2: Feasting Together (Isaiah 25:6-8)

6 On this mountain, the Lord of Armies will prepare for all the peoples a feast of choice meat, a feast with aged wine, prime cuts of choice meat, fine vintage wine. 7 On this mountain he will swallow up the burial shroud, the shroud over all the peoples, the sheet covering all the nations. 8 When he has swallowed up death once and for all, the Lord God will wipe away the tears from every face and remove his people’s disgrace from the whole earth, for the Lord has spoken.

And then things just go from amazing to amazinger. Please read these verses a few times. Anything I say to explain them will ruin their perfectness.

Let me just pound out some comments:

  • "This mountain" would eventually go on to be known as "Mount Zion". It is literally Jerusalem (and specifically the Temple Mount) but figuratively refers to God's dwelling place with God's true people.

  • "All peoples" is jarring in its generosity. Everyone will be invited to this feast, not just the Jews. But not everyone will accept (see where our lesson stops in verse 10b).

  • "Feast" sets up Jesus' amazing parable about the Wedding Supper of the Lamb (Luke 14:15-24 -- how many people reject God's invitation) and the intimacy of God's relationship with His people in eternity.

  • "Burial shroud" means death. Death is the human city's truest enemy, the ender of every dynasty and army. The fear of death is also Satan's greatest source of power over us (Heb 2:15) and his ability to manipulate us.

  • "Swallowed up death" means unequivocally that we will experience eternal life with God. How did so many Jews miss this?

  • "Remove His people's disgrace" in this context specifically refers to their stupid and indefensible decision to trust Assyria and Babylon above God. If anyone didn't deserve to enjoy God's hospitality, it would be the people who specifically rejected God's offer of protection!

When we study Jesus' context for His words, we see the bigger picture much more clearly. Consider what He said about the Roman Centurion:

Matt 8: 10 Hearing this, Jesus was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with so great a faith. 11 I tell you that many will come from east and west to share the banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Even more poignant is what He said at the Last Supper

Luke 22: 15 Then he said to them, “I have fervently desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks, he said, “Take this and share it among yourselves. 18 For I tell you, from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”

The description of how rich the feast is is quite intentional. J. R. R. Tolkien tried to tap into this when he described the culture of the dwarves, how they feasted with the best meats and wines and everyone had their fill (and then some).

In the ancient world, banquets were cultural centerpieces. Kings and nobles would throw banquets in order to show off their wealth. People would attend banquets with the intention of taking their minds off of their otherwise-difficult existence. The "usual" meals of the day were a modest breakfast of breads and some sort of fruit or vegetable, and a more substantial dinner which sometimes included a meat. To drink would be a wine vinegar. God worked into the Jewish calendar a regular cycle of feasts intended to show them

  • how God regularly provided for their every need,

  • how they needed to make a habit of celebrating life.

In this passage, we see that God was also preparing them for the way life would be in eternity.

The fact that God has prepared a banquet with the finest meats and the finest wines and invited everyone demonstrates what kind of God He is. But what's better is the insinuation that this is to be the normal existence on Mount Zion, not the occasional!

When we read these verses, we see that God did not reveal to John something new in the Revelation, but rather reminded John of a promise that He had made since the foundation of the earth. Read these verses again with new understanding:

Revelation 7: 14 Then he told me: These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and they serve him day and night in his temple. The one seated on the throne will shelter them: 16 They will no longer hunger; they will no longer thirst; the sun will no longer strike them, nor will any scorching heat. 17 For the Lamb who is at the center of the throne will shepherd them; he will guide them to springs of the waters of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Revelation 21: 1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 I also saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.
3 Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look, God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away.

How amazing are those verses now! How comforting!

[But also catch this incredible inversion of the motif: Rev 19: 17 Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and he called out in a loud voice, saying to all the birds flying high overhead, “Come, gather together for the great supper of God, 18 so that you may eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of military commanders, the flesh of the mighty, the flesh of horses and of their riders, and the flesh of everyone, both free and slave, small and great.”]

If you can do so without awful flashbacks, think about some of the favorite banquets you have attended -- a wedding? an award? a fundraiser? What was so great about it? What could have made it better?

The great feast God has prepared for us is incomparable.


Part 3: Trusting God (Isaiah 25:9-10)

9 On that day it will be said, “Look, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he has saved us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him. Let’s rejoice and be glad in his salvation.” 10 For the Lord’s power will rest on this mountain.

You can tell that I didn't save much time for this final part. And that was a mistake because it's the most important part! Thankfully, it's the truth that you should be most familiar with. Essentially, in these verses Isaiah illustrates the truth that Paul later explained:

Romans 10: 8 This is the message of faith that we proclaim: 9 If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 One believes with the heart, resulting in righteousness, and one confesses with the mouth, resulting in salvation. 11 For the Scripture says, Everyone who believes on him will not be put to shame, 12 since there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, because the same Lord of all richly blesses all who call on him. 13 For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

In this passage, Paul quotes Isaiah 28:16 and Joel 2:32. God was always quite clear about His message of salvation. Granted, we did not know how He was going to accomplish that plan, but we should have known that God always had a plan to provide eternal salvation to anyone who called upon Him for it.

Here are two wrap-up questions for us:

  • Do you know that you have received God's salvation in Jesus Christ? Can you truly say that God is your God?

  • Do you know how to explain this good news to someone else? How to invite them into a saving relationship with God through Jesus?

May these verses be as great a blessing for you as they were for me. We will talk more about God's plan of salvation in the weeks to come.

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