Seeing the Lord in times of change
Isaiah is generally considered to be one of the greatest prophets in Israel’s history. He is directly quoted twenty-one times in the New Testament, and is credited with providing the most detailed description of Christ’s death and resurrection in the Old Testament, albeit seven hundred years before he was born in Bethlehem! Moreover, Isaiah accurately predicted the Babylonian captivity of Judah, the rise of the Persian ruler Cyrus, and the eventual return from exile.
Isaiah prophesied during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, a period of approximately sixty years. Isaiah commenced his ministry at a critical juncture in world affairs: three and a half thousand kilometres to the west, a community was being established on the Palatine Hill in the centre of the Italian Peninsula that would eventually become the world’s greatest superpower; the first athletic and cultural games were being staged at Olympia in Greece; and Assyria was flexing its military and economic muscle in the Near East and the Levant.
Closer to home, the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah had both enjoyed something of an economic and military renaissance under their respective kings, Jeroboam II (793-753) and Uzziah (791-739). Although the northern kingdom was flagrantly idolatrous, the southern kingdom still maintained a veneer of orthodoxy which, in reality, masked a deepening spiritual and moral decline. The fortunes of both nations were about to change, however, with the deaths of their long-time monarchs and the emergence of a new world order.
In 739 B.C.E., after a reign of fifty-two years, Uzziah died. The chronicler of the history of Israel applied this epitaph to his memorial: “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his father Amaziah had done. He sought God in the days of Zechariah, who had understanding in the visions of God; and as long as he sought the Lord, God made him prosper” (2 Chron 26.4-5).
Now, suddenly, fifty years of stability and prosperity — a generation in Biblical terms — had come to an end. Interestingly, it was at this moment of political uncertainty that Isaiah had one of the greatest spiritual experiences of his life — an experience that would lay the foundation for his history-shaping prophetic ministry.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke. So I said: “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth with it, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged.”
Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.” And he said, “Go, and tell this people …” (Isaiah 6.1-9)
The earthly throne of Jerusalem may have been empty, but the throne of heaven was very much occupied! Indeed, God was sending a message to his people that he was still in control and that his purposes would be accomplished, not just in Judah but throughout the world. The phrase, “the whole earth is full of his glory”, is a euphemism for God’s universal sovereignty; the action of his Spirit in establishing a kingdom without geographical boundaries or epochal limitations (see Num 14.21; Hab 2.14; Dan 2.44; Luke 1.32-33).
Not surprisingly, ‘God’s reign’ became a major theme of Isaiah’s prophetic message. Over and over he encouraged people to ‘fear not’, assuring them that the Lord was in control of their circumstances. In chapter forty, for example, the prophet highlighted God’s omnipotence in creation and his sovereignty over nations, and then asked,
“Why do you complain, O Jacob, and you, Israel, why do you say, ‘My plight is hidden from the Lord and my cause has passed out of God’s notice?’ Do you not know, have you not heard? The Lord, the everlasting God, creator of the wide world, grows neither weary nor faint; no man can fathom his understanding. He gives vigour to the weary, new strength to the exhausted. Young men may grow weary and faint, even in their prime they may stumble and fall; but those who look to the Lord will win new strength, they grow wings like eagles; they will run and not be weary, they will march on and never grow faint.” (Isa 40.27-31 New English Bible)
In a similar vein, Jesus challenged his disciples to look to God as their source regardless of the prevailing economic and political climate: “If God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith … but seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Mat 6.30, 33).
Isaiah’s experience shows us that in times of uncertainty and significant change, the most important thing we can do is to look to the Lord, the always-the-same, never-changing one. As the writer to the Hebrews declared in a letter to a people whose world was being turned upside down by persecution, “Since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (Heb 12.28). The Living Bible describes it as “a kingdom nothing can destroy”. I like that! The Amplified Bible says that it is “a kingdom that is firm and stable and cannot be shaken”. What a contrast to the political and economic kingdoms of this world that here today and gone tomorrow! (Isa 40.6-8; James 1.10-11).
The key to maintaining an eternal perspective in the midst of social and economic upheaval, as the writer to the Hebrews points out, is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the source and sustainer of our faith.
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12.1-2)
In the context of the letter, ‘the sin’ that the writer is referring to is the sin of unbelief leading to disobedience, or the sin of renouncing Christ and abandoning one’s faith in the face of discrimination and persecution. To put it simply, it is the sin of ‘giving up’ and ‘giving in’. In order to complete the journey we need patient endurance — the ability to resist the temptation to quit and the determination to overcome the obstacles that lie in our path. The spirit of endurance is the product of ‘looking unto Jesus’.
The Greek word ‘aphorao’, translated look, is a compilation of two words, ‘apo’, away from, and ‘horao’, to see. It literally means to turn away from one thing in order to see something else. Moreover, the word suggests a steady, contemplative gaze rather than a quick, superficial glance. It is the kind of look an art enthusiast would give to Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.
‘Looking unto Jesus’ connotes not just a thoughtful reflection on his life and work, but a dynamic connection with his presence and his person. It is reminiscent of the way in which Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, focused her undivided attention on his countenance, and listened intently to his word (Luke 10.39). If the truth be told, we draw strength from his presence, not just his example. Paul testified that “the Lord stood with me and strengthened me” (2 Tim 4.17). Likewise he prayed that the Ephesians would be strengthened with might through his Spirit or presence (Eph 3.16).
The supreme revelation of the Bible is that of the sovereignty of God in human history. Indeed, the scriptures begin with a revelation of God as Creator (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” – Gen 1.1) and end with a revelation of God as Redeemer and Restorer (“I saw a new heaven and a new earth … He who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new’” – Rev 21.1,5).
Whatever one’s interpretation of the Book of Revelation may be, the ultimate message is clear: The Lord reigns in spite of a hostile world system, cataclysmic natural disasters, and repressive socio-economic programs. Let us therefore join our voices on earth with the voices of those in heaven, and declare to the farthest reaches of the universe, “Alleluia, for the Lord God Omnipotent reigns!”