Isaiah 1:1-31: Isaiah’s Call for Spiritual Reformation
This is the text of last Sunday’s sermon. I have been reading and re-reading Isaiah’s sermons since June 23 of this year. The depth is overwhelming. What struck me though is where he chose to begin his sermons (or, at least what his editors chose as the first sermon in this collection). The first complaint is that Israel (Judah) does not know her God. Everything else, chapters 1:4-66:24 follows this announcement that the people to whom God has revealed himself do not know Him–at all. If the church accepts Isaiah as canonical and thus must make application of his words to the church, then he is also saying the church does not know God either. This has to change.–jerry
Isaiah 1:1-31: Knowing God: Isaiah’s Call For Reformation
2 Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth!
For the LORD has spoken:
“I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
3 The ox knows his master,
the donkey his owner’s manger,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.”
Several years ago, DA Carson wrote a book on prayer he titled A Call to Spiritual Reformation. It is 230 pages of very heavy theology and exegesis concerning they why and what of prayer. In order to introduce his subject matter, he spends several pages surveying the landscape and investigating several things that the church, Christians in general, are missing or needing.
In fact, his first chapter is titled “The Urgent Need of the Church.”
Well, there are a lot of things he surmises the church needs.
- Personal morality-holiness. “Our culture,” he writes, “is heating up and destroying us.” But this is not our greatest need.
- Perhaps it is a need for a ‘combination of integrity and generosity in the financial arena.’ Nope, that’s not it either.
- Could it be that we need more evangelism and church planting? But Carson writes, “evangelism-at least the evangelism that has dominated much of the Western world-does not seem powerful enough to address our declension.”
- Perhaps, he suggests, we need more disciplined, biblical thinking.
- Then again we could need vital corporate worship. The need to be involved in politics and policy making also ring bells.
But none of these things ranks high on Carson’s list of things that the church needs in order for spiritual reformation to take place. Instead, Carson writes this:
There is a sense in which these urgent needs are merely symptomatic of a far more serious lack. The one thing we most urgently need in Western Christendom is a deeper knowledge of God. We need to know God better.
When it comes to knowing God, we are a culture of the spiritually stunted. So much of our religion is packaged to address our felt needs-and these are almost uniformly anchored in our pursuit of our own happiness and fulfillment. God simply becomes the Great Being who, potentially at least, meets our needs and fulfills our aspirations. We think rather little of what he is like, what he expects of us, what he seeks in us. We are not captured by his holiness and his love; his thoughts and words capture too little of our imagination, too little of our discourse, too few of our priorities.
In the biblical view of things, a deeper knowledge of God brings with it massive improvement in the other areas mentioned: purity, integrity, evangelistic effectiveness, better study of Scripture, improved private and corporate worship, and much more. But if we seek these things without passionately desiring a deeper knowledge of God, we are selfishly running after God’s blessings without running after him. (15-16)
I sense this is a great problem we are facing in the Church still. The pressure is felt more acutely in some ways and places. There’s always the pressure of keeping up with the church down the road and sometimes, in some churches, that pressure causes great compromise in the way things are done and the things that are said.
I sense that this lack of knowledge of God is still the main problem we face. Oh, I don’t mean the simple lack of knowledge as in facts and figures-although that is a problem too. But the fact is that Carson is right! We spend so much time on the extra-curricular nonsense that really fail to get at the heart of God. His solution is, of course, that we should be praying.
As I read through Isaiah 1, several times since June 23, I noticed that these words preface the entire book of Isaiah: I reared up children, but they rebelled; my people do not know me. What a sad, sad state of affairs this is. To bring this into our own context, I would ask: Do we know our God?
I don’t mean: Do you know God in the sense of, ‘have you heard of God?’ I mean, do you really, deeply, truly know him? Do you have inside of you a unquenchable hunger and thirst for God? Do you seek first His Kingdom and righteousness? Is he your first and last thought each day? Can you say with the apostle, “I want to know Christ-yes the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead”?
Paul wrote to the Colossian Church:
For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. 10And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully 12giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. 13For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
But he also said something like this:
33Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
34″Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
35″Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay him?”
36For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.
Or according to the Westminister Shorter Catechism: What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. In other words: to know him!
But the Israelites didn’t know God. They didn’t make time to know him. What then of all that follows in chapter 1:4-23? It is my contention that these things Isaiah talks about in those verses are not the reasons why Israel did not know God but rather these are the consequences of Israel not knowing God. And you can see that it was a rather dreary list of consequences.
Let’s look at them ever so briefly.
- Verses 5-6: There was a great deal of physical suffering among the people. Beating. Wounds. Welts. From top to bottom, there was no soothing their wounds. How much of our suffering is because we really do not know God?
- Verses 7-9: They were economically and socially falling apart. They were desolate and their cities laid waste.
- Verses 10-17: This is probably the most damning of all the consequences: Their worship of God was meaningless. But listen, how can we worship the true God in any meaningful way if we don’t know the God we are worshiping? How can we understand and know what he prescribes if we have spent no time in his presence? If we have not gone out of our way to be involved with him, to walk with him, to know him…how can we properly worship? Oh, don’t make this mistake: They had all the forms right. They knew the right moves, the right steps. They had all the motions down pat, but there was no meaning to any of it. Any of us can go through the motions. Here’s the trick: Do you go away from worship sometimes feeling like you have just gone through the motions? Do you ever have a sense that things are just not right? I suspect that the days when we feel that way it is because we have settled for mere ceremony and motions instead of moving from a hunger for God. Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness, they will be filled.
- Verses 18-20: They were a people who paraded their sins around. Scarlet, or deep red, is not a color easily missed. They were stained greatly with sin because they didn’t walk with the Lord.
- Verses 21-23: Look at all the rest. There was no justice and they tolerated murderers-those who defile the image of God by destroying those made in His image. Their offerings were worthless. They were cheats-watering down water. Their silver was impure. And they tolerated rulers among them who would do nothing about any of this. Do you think we have leaders among us, do you think we tolerate leaders-and I remind you that the prophet here is talking about God’s people and that if this is so then he is also talking to the church!-do you think we tolerate leaders among us who look like these ones Isaiah is saying they tolerated? I think we do and I think the reason so many in the church tolerate these shameless, greedy rebels among them is because, again sadly, they do not know God.
This was quite a fix these Israelites had gotten themselves into through the years. It is a rather embarrassing fix, to be sure. But God did not turn his eye blind or his ear deaf to it. I think it would be easy to assume that the God of the Old Testament is angry and filled with rage, but that is simply not the picture I see: Scattered throughout Isaiah, over and over again, are these little advance signs-little pictures of grace and hope. We see the same in chapter 1. God does not turn an eye blind to the unscrupulous, recalcitrant, rebellious human: Instead, he enters into it and sets about fixing the disaster we create.
We are good at rebelling and creating messes. God is better at repairing completely what we wreck.
He will purify his people. He will restore justice. He will avenge himself against his enemies. He will deliver Zion. He will take away their faithlessness and shame. The prostituted, Sodom and Gomorrah will once again become the City of Righteousness and the Faithful City! God is going to set straight all the crookedness. God will return the City to its state of purity and righteousness and glory; a place where He can put His Name.
You see this was about God’s glory too. The people suffered mightily, yes, but also I think God suffered. The city on the hill, the people of God, the light of the world had become little better than Sodom and Gomorrah, little better than a prostitute, less than barnyard animals, the scorn of the nations, a habit for murderers and disgrace and idolatry. The people to whom God had revealed himself did not know God and, as a result, no one else did either. There are mighty consequences that ripple throughout the land when those who should know God fail to do that very first, primary thing.
I’m glad Isaiah began where he did, that is, by pointing out that what he said had an historical context during the reigns of four different kings. What this tells me is very simple: These kings who were supposed to be the guardians of God’s Name among the people had failed. They had allowed the nation to slide, run headlong, into this decrepit state. What this tells me is that we cannot count on kings and leaders to do what must be done; it also tells me that these men could do very little to revive Israel and get them out of the funk they were in. This is exactly why the end of the chapter says, over and over again, “I will…I will…I will…I will…I will…” and all of the ‘I’s’ refer to God.
You see we have this problem: We don’t know the God who has made himself known. And it is going to take nothing short of his intervention, again, to get us fixed. And he did just that: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son. How did God do all these things spoken of by Isaiah? He sent Jesus of Nazareth who announced the in-breaking of God’s kingdom, with power. He began to turn people’s hearts back to God. It was through Jesus that God began to undo all the stupidity of man.
On the other hand, we learn what the church is to be like also. We are people who are to know God. When we know God-when we truly, deeply, know God-when He is our daily pursuit-then everything else will fall into place. Suffering minimized. Faithfulness accentuated. Worship made meaningful because we know whom we are worshiping. Sin cleansed because there is no sin among us. Not tolerating corrupted leadership. A place of righteousness. You see, when we learn about who God is, and what God expects, then we begin to understand who and what God expects us to be.
So the question I leave you with today is this: What is your daily pursuit? What is your daily ambition? Are you seeking first God? If God called court right now: Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth! What would God say about us? Would he say we are people who know Him? Or would he say we are people who do not understand? I guess a lot of that has to do with what we want Him to say, doesn’t it?
Soli Deo Gloria!