Category Archive: Bible – OT – Isaiah
When Jesus talks in Matthew 6:19-21 about “treasures on earth” and describes the earth as the place “where moth and consumption destroy and where thieves break through and steal,” I suspect we think of clothing, eaten by moths, and of money stolen by thieves. (The word I’ve translated “consumption” here doesn’t mean “rust,” for which James 5 uses a different word, but rather means “eating” and in Malachi 3:11 refers to grasshoppers or locusts.)
Interestingly, though, in Isaiah 51, we have similar language, but there it’s applied to *people”: “Do not fear the reproach of men, nor be afraid of their insults, for the moth will eat them up like a garment, and the worm will eat them like wool” (51:7-8).
This destruction coincides with the change in the heavens and the earth: “The heavens will vanish away like smoke, the earth will grow old like a garment, and those who dwell in it will die in like manner” (51:6). These things are temporary but, says Yahweh, “my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will not be abolished…. My righteousness will be forever, and my salvation from generation to generation” (51:6, 8).
Coming back to Matthew 6: we take Jesus to be talking about rich clothing (which can be eaten by moths) and about gold and silver. And rightly so. But notice that in the earlier context, the hypocrites have their reward in the praise and notice they receive from men, while the righteous are to wait for their reward from God their heavenly Father, who sees their alms, prayers, and fasting in secret (6:1-18).
If we hear Matthew 6 in the light of Isaiah 51, then, it’s not just clothing and gold that Jesus has in view. There is coming a change in the heavens and earth — the coming of God’s kingdom in the near future, in Jesus’ time — and the very men whose praise and notice we’re tempted to seek as our security, our treasure, will be consumed and destroyed. But God’s saving righteousness is forever, and that is the treasure on which we’re to pin our hopes.
Isaiah 56 describes the good news of coming salvation in terms of the inclusion of eunuchs in the house of God. Formerly, they were excluded from the assembly of Yahweh; they could not draw near to God (Deut 23:1). But why were they excluded?
As with many other exclusions from the assembly — for instance, the exclusion of those who have an emission or who have touched someone who is dead — the reason is symbolic, symbolic of something in the Old Creation so that when Christ comes and we enter the New Creation these exclusions no longer apply. Death results from sin, and if you touch someone dead it spreads so that you yourself are symbolically dead, and you may not bring that stench of death-as-a-result-of-man’s-sin into God’s presence. So too with the eunuch.
What is a eunuch? A eunuch is a man who is physically unable to beget, a man who by reason of damage to his organs of generation barren and fruitless. His fruitlessness symbolizes those who do not bear fruit to God’s glory, and, as Jesus teaches, those who do not bear fruit will be cut off and burned (John 15).
But now associate that with Mark 11:12ff. and the cursing of the fig tree. In my previous blog entry, I noted that Jesus, in his temple action, quotes from Isaiah 56 about his house becoming a house of prayer for all nations. This is not a statement about how it was always supposed to be, but about the salvation that was still future in Isaiah’s day. And Jesus makes it clear that that time of salvation is now here. But the context in Isaiah 56 also talks about the eunuch who is not to see himself as a withered tree. The fig tree that represents the fruitless temple and those who take refuge in it withers under Jesus’ curse, but when Jesus comes, eunuchs are no longer fruitless; they may enter God’s house and have a fruit better than sons and daughters and a name that will never die.
One step further: What’s the first reference to fig trees in the Bible? Genesis 3, where Adam and Woman sew fig leaves into garments with which they hide their genitals from each other. (Not from God: When he comes, they want something bigger to hide behind and so they hide behind the trees of the Garden.) Specifically, then, the first appearance of fig leaves is as garments that cover the source of man and woman’s fruitfulness.
The temple and those who use it as their hideout have fig leaves but no fruitfulness toward God. They are Adam and Woman, covering their fruitlessness. But Jesus exposes their fruitlessness. They are eunuchs who are banned from His house.
I have read many, many commentaries on Mark 11:12ff. All of them mention that Jesus quotes Isaiah 56:7: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” But none of them mention what is in the context.
They focus on the “all nations” and point out that the “son of a foreigner” will be welcome in the temple (Isa 56:3a, 6-8). But in the same context, we have this: “Let not the eunuch say, ‘Here I am, a withered tree'” (Isa 56:3b). In the Septuagint, the Greek word translated withered here is exactly the same word that Mark uses in this context to describe the fig tree that Jesus curses.
He sandwiches Jesus’ temple action between two accounts of that fig tree — the cursing and the result — so that we will read what Jesus does in the temple in light of what he does to the fig tree and vice versa. The temple that rejects Jesus and has become a hideout for robbers is a barren, fruitless fig tree and Jesus’ curse will make it wither. But the eunuch who trusts in Jesus is not withered; he’s fruitful, and he will have a place in Jesus’ house and an everlasting name that will not be cut off (Isa 56:4-5).
The other day, in a discussion with a friend, I called to mind a sermon I once read by C. H. Spurgeon. Spurgeon’s eschatology was, shall we say, unusual. From various statements he made, it seems clear that he was a premillennialist of sorts, but certainly not a dispensationalist. In fact, he disagreed vigorously with Darby and you’ll spot what is surely a reference to Darby’s innovative views in the last quotation below (“new schemes and fancies and interpretations of prophecy”).
But where most premillennialists today talk as if the world is going to get worse and worse and worse until finally, at last, Jesus comes back to rescue us, Spurgeon … well, Spurgeon talks differently. The sermon is on Isaiah 52:13ff.:
The text, then, claims for Jesus Christ that the influence of His grace and the power of His work shall be extended over many nations, and shall have power not over the common people only, but over their leaders and rulers. “The kings shall shut their mouths at Him”; they shall have no word to say against Him; they shall be so subdued by the majesty of His power that they shall silently pay Him reverence, and prostrate themselves before His throne. Kings, mark you….
Kings have not shut their mouths at Him yet; they have mostly opened their mouths wide against Him, and reviled and blasphemed Him and persecuted His saints. There must be brighter days to come for this poor world yet, when even princes shall humbly obey our Lord…. Assuredly the day will come when the mightiest prince shall count it his highest honour to have his name enrolled as a member of the Church of Christ. “Yea, all kings shall fall down before Him; all nations shall serve Him” (“The Sure Triumph of the Crucified One,”Spurgeon’s Sovereign Grace Sermons 46-47).
Notice that Spurgeon is not talking about this happening after Jesus returns (e.g., in a millennium in which Jesus will rule on earth). He’s talking about something that will happen before Jesus returns, something that he expects in the future between the time he preached this sermon and the time of Jesus’ return. Here’s more:
The success of the gospel is in no jeopardy whatever. Jesus must reign till He hath put all enemies under His feet. If the devil can persuade you that Christ is goin gto give up the war, or is going to fight it out on another line, and dispense with your efforts, you will soon grow idle. You will find an excuse for laziness in some supposed conversion of the world by miracle, or some other wonderfu laffair. You will say the Lord is coming, and the war will all be over at once, and there is no need for your fighting it out now.
Do not believe it. Our Commander is able to fight it through on this line; in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, by the power of the Eternal Spirit, we are bound to keep right on till this world yields before God…. Brethren, Popery must fall, Mohommedanism must come down, and all the idol gods must be broken, and cast to the moles and to the bats. It looks a task too gigantic, but the bare arm of God — only think of that — His sleeve rolled up, Omnipotence itself made bare, — what cannot it accomplish?
Stand back, devils! when God’s bare arm comes into the fight you will all run like dogs, for you know your Master. Stand back, heresies and schisms, evils and delusions; you will all disappear, for the Christ of God is mightier than you. Oh, believe it. Do not be downhearted and dispirited, do not run to new schemes and fancies and interpretations of prophecy. Go and preach Jesus Christ unto all the nations. Go and spread abroad the Savior’s blessed name, for He is the world’s only hope. The cross is the banner of our victory. God help us to look to it ourselves, and then to hold it up before the eyes of others, till our Lord shall come upon His throne (50-51).
The last phrase (“till our Lord shall come upon His throne”), with its suggestion that Jesus is not yet enthroned (on earth, presumably), is the hint that suggests that Spurgeon was a premillennialist. I’m not. But if what Spurgeon preached was premillennialism, then we need more of it. Which is to say, would that all who fall into the premillennialist camp today shared Spurgeon’s solid hope in the “sure triumph of the Crucified One.”
(March 25, 2005, Sermon Notes)
For several Sundays, we’ve been looking at Isaiah’s songs about the Servant. Israel was to be God’s Servant but Israel was blind and deaf. But God didn’t abandon His plan to bring blessing to the world through Israel, His Servant. He sent one man to be His Servant, to represent Israel, and to carry out His task faithfully.
In Isaiah 50, we learned that the Servant’s task would involve suffering followed by vindication. Now, in Isaiah 52-53, we discover that the task involves suffering and triumphing as a representative and as a substitute.
THE MYSTERY OF THE SERVANT’S EXALTATION (52:13-15)
The song starts with Yahweh’s announcement that His Servant will act wisely, taking the best path to the right goal. That path will end up with a triple exaltation (“exalted, lifted up, made high”: see Paul’s invented word “superexalted” in Phil. 2:9).
But the surprise is that the path to that exaltation is the path of humiliation. The Servant will be exalted above all men because he will be humiliated more than all men.
Through that humiliation, the Servant will triumph. He will “sprinkle many nations,” which alludes to the Old Covenant washings (which Heb. 9 calls “baptisms”). Israel was sprinkled when God established His covenant with her at Sinai and God promised to sprinkle her when He restored her after her exile (Ezek. 36:25). Israelites who were afflicted with “leprosy” also had to be sprinkled to be restored to the community (Lev. 14:7).
The Servant, however, will not merely sprinkle Israel; he will sprinkle “many nations.” Gentiles, too, will be brought into covenant and will draw close to God through him. When the church carries out the Great Commission, discipling the nations by baptizing them and teaching them to obey Jesus, the Servant is “sprinkling many nations.”
The Servant is triumphant and even the kings of earth, who may have spoken against him or against his people, will shut their mouths in awe when they hear the news of him. His path might look like failure, but it mysteriously turns out to be the route to exaltation over all the rulers of the earth.
THE MEANING OF THE SERVANT’S SUFFERING (53:1-9)
But who could believe this report? Who recognized that the suffering Servant was the “arm of Yahweh” that had rescued Israel from Egypt in the past, Yahweh’s own personal power and presence? Not the people to whom his followers preached and not those followers themselves, at first. Human wisdom can’t recognize the meaning of this Servant’s suffering.
The Servant grew up before Yahweh as a tender plant, but he grew out of dry ground. The nation of Israel and the house of David weren’t fertile territory for the coming of this Servant.
Nor was the Servant attractive in the way that David was. Even his own people rejected him. His whole ministry was characterized by suffering and by the end people didn’t even want to look at him. It appeared as if everything about him added up to nothing because it all ended in apparent failure and in death.
But now the Servant’s followers recognize that he was suffering as a substitute, carrying away our griefs and sorrows. That was what Jesus was doing when He healed the sick and cast out demons (Matt. 8:16-17) and that was what He was doing on the cross. At first, his followers thought he was stricken by God for his own sins, but later they saw that he was wounded and crushed for ours. He suffered to bring about the peace and healing we needed.
We had wandered away from our shepherd like sheep â€” all of us, but also each one of us â€” but our iniquity was laid on the Servant instead of on us. Like a sheep who doesn’t fight back when he goes to be sheared or like a lamb who doesn’t retaliate when he is slaughtered, Jesus did not lash out or defend himself.
But no one of His generation understood what was happening. Verse 8 is often translated as if it were saying, “Who will report that he had any children?” but “generation” isn’t usually used in the sense of offspring. More likely, it refers to His contemporaries: “Who of His generation will report that He was cut off from the land of the living, and that it was for the transgressions of my people that He was stricken?”
No one recognized it, even when they saw His burial. He would normally have been buried with the other criminals, but instead He lay in a rich man’s tomb. That tomb was a foretaste of glory, a sign of God’s favour because He was faithful in His speech and actions. But no one recognized it until later. Only then did they understand the meaning of His suffering and death. Only then did they acknowledge Him as our substitute.
THE REWARD FOR THE SERVANT’S FAITHFULNESS (53:10-12)
The Servant was innocent, and yet “it pleased Yahweh to crush him.” It is not that Yahweh took pleasure in the crushing of the Servant in itself. Rather, it pleased Yahweh to crush His Servant because of what that crushing was and what it would accomplish.
The Servant died as “a trespass offering,” as the kind of offering you would bring, not for inadvertent sins or sins of human weakness, but for sins of outright rebellion and for direct violations of God’s holiness. God made Jesus the final trespass offering so that we who were rebels might live as God’s people.
The amazing thing is that this death wasn’t the end of the Servant’s life. After being offered as a trespass offering, the Servant would see his seed, the offspring God promised to Abraham and to Israel and to the Servant, seed like the sand on the seashore. He would “prolong his days,” living forever to carry out Yahweh’s pleasure. He would look back at his work and what it accomplished and be satisfied.
The Servant was faithful and God declared him righteous. But the Servant was not faithful for himself only. He knew how to bring others to share in his own righteousness, to share in his status but then also to be transformed into people to begin to live in righteousness. He did it by bearing their iniquities.
Because the Servant chose this path, Yahweh promises to reward him: “I will allocate to him the many and he will allocate the strong as spoil” (a better translation than the NKJV’s “I will divide him a portion with the great, and He shall divide the spoil with the strong,” which makes it sound as if Jesus were just one “great one” among many and which obscures the fact that the word translated “the great” here is the word translated “the many” elsewhere in this passage).
Yahweh gives the Servant “the many,” the ones for whom he died, the people who were once horrified (52:14) but who are now justified (53:11) because he bore their iniquities. They are allotted to the Servant as his reward. More than that, he will conquer the earth so that all “the strong ones” (= the “kings” of 52:15) are the spoils of war for him to do with as he pleases.
He receives this reward because he poured out his soul unto death (to which Paul alludes when he says that Jesus “emptied himself”: Phil. 2:7), was counted as a transgressor, bore the sin of “the many,” and interceded for the transgressors.
That is the solution to the mystery of His exaltation: His humiliation wasn’t punishment for his own sins but was the punishment for the sins of others and therefore the path to glory. Jesus died as a substitute, as the faithful one who bore the sins of “the many” He came to save, so that we could be declared righteous and become His seed who will inherit the world with him.
In Isaiah 50:7, the Servant says that he set his face like flint. The word “flint” appears rarely in the Bible and in all but one case (besides this one) it is used to refer to the rock which Moses struck (Deut. 8:15; 32:13; Ps. 114:8; the exception is Job 28:9).
Does the reference to “flint” here, taken together with the Servant’s earlier statement about giving his back to the strikers (Isa. 50:6), hint that the Servant will be that rock which Moses struck, that, as a result of his being the flint which is struck, water will flow from Him to Israel and the world?
Certainly Paul tells us that the rock was Christ (1 Cor. 10:4), and Isaiah 50 implies that it is by enduring this suffering faithfully and then being vindicated by God that the Servant will accomplish his mission. I wonder if both of those things aren’t implied here by a subtle allusion to the flint being struck in the wilderness to give water to Israel.
THE SERVANT’S PATTERN
(March 20, 2005 Sermon Notes)
In Isaiah 42, Yahweh presents His Servant as the one who will bring justice to the world. But Israel, the Servant, is blind and deaf. And so Yahweh promises another Servant who will be a true Israel and who will restore Israel and bring salvation to the world.
But how would that happen? Through the Servant’s faithfulness in suffering and his vindication by God. That will bring comfort to the weary (50:4) and light to those who walk in darkness (50:10), but it will also mean torment for those who don’t listen to the Servant’s voice (50:11).
THE SERVANT’S FAITHFULNESS (50:4-6)
In 50:1-3, Yahweh complains that no one listens to Him. Now there is one who does. The Master gave His Servant a disciple’s tongue to comfort the weary. That disciples’ tongue depends on a disciple’s ear. Every morning, Yahweh opened His Servant’s ear to hear Him and obey.
Israel’s ear was plugged (Isa. 48:8), but Yahweh opened the Servant’s ear. Unlike Israel, the Servant didn’t rebel or shrink back. Instead, he even voluntarily gave himself to people who would oppress him and shame him.
Jesus willingly entered shame and suffering. He was faithful even to death. And His pattern is our pattern. If we are united to Jesus, we should expect to share in His sufferings (e.g., Rom. 8:17; Phil. 3:10). We can’t do that on our own, but God opens our ears so that we hear His voice and He gives us Jesus’ Spirit, the Spirit of a faithful Servant, so that we obey Him.
THE SERVANT’S CONFIDENCE (50:7-9)
The Servant didn’t hide his face from shame because he knew that “Master Yahweh” would help him and therefore he would not ultimately be put to shame and so he set his face like flint to do what God sent him to do.
His confidence is found in the nearness of his Justifier. People will condemn him, but the Judge is on his side and He will vindicate him in the end. That vindication will include the overthrow of the Servant’s opponents, who will become like old moth-eaten clothes, slowly but surely deteriorating.
When men condemned Jesus, God vindicated Him by raising Him from the dead. And we can know that God will vindicate us, too. God is the justifier and no one else’s charges against us will stand (Rom. 8:31-39).
THE LORD’S SUMMONS (50:10-11)
If you fear Yahweh and obey His Servant’s voice, you may still be walking in the darkness. If you are, follow the Servant’s pattern of faith. Trust in Yahweh’s name and rely on Him to vindicate you.
Those who don’t trust Him walk in their own light and gird themselves for war with their own flaming arrows. But that fire will destroy them. Our Master Yahweh will make them “lie down in torment.” But to us He will say what He says to Jesus: “Well done, good and faithful Servant.”
THE SERVANT’S MISSION
(March 13, 2005 Sermon Notes)
In Isaiah 41, God calls Israel His Servant. In Isaiah 42, He promises His Servant success in his worldwide mission. But He adds that no one is as deaf and blind as His Servant.
Israel was to bring blessing to the Gentiles, but Israel couldn’t. But God promises a Servant who will both restore Israel and bring salvation to the world. In Isaiah 49, that Servant proclaims his mission to the world.
The Servant calls the distant Gentile regions to listen to him. In Isaiah, only Yahweh says, “Listen to me” (46:3, 12; 48:12; 51:1, 7; 55:2). The Servant speaks with Yahweh’s own authority and everyone must listen up.
Jesus could do that because He is God Himself and we need to “Hear Him” (Mk. 9:7). But now, in Christ, we are God’s Servant. When we proclaim God’s Word, it comes with God’s authority and people must listen.
God has prepared the Servant from the womb, already calling him by name. In everything he experienced, God was sharpening him and preparing him for service. That was true of Jesus and it is true of us also.
God made the Servant’s mouth like a sharp sword. God’s Word is a sword (Judges 3; Eph. 6:17; Heb. 4:12; Rev. 1:16; 19:15) and by that Word the servant wins the victory. He is also a sharp arrow, able to conquer from afar. But God didn’t use the Servant right away. He prepared Jesus (and He prepares us), keeping us safe for the right time.
Who is the Servant? He is Israel (v. 3)! The nation couldn’t accomplish this task, but the Servant will be a man who bears Israel’s identity and carries out Israel’s calling faithfully. He is Jesus and he is us in Christ. Through Christ â€” the head and the body â€” God will be glorified in the world.
But the Servant’s work looks like a failure. Jesus’ people rejected Him. His disciples abandoned Him. His labour led to the cross and grave. At times, we too serve â€” some even die â€” without seeing fruit from our work.
We share the Servant’s weariness. We must also share his hope. His work looks like a failure, but God will justify and reward him. With that joy set before Him, Jesus endured the cross and God did indeed vindicate Him and exalt Him and reward Him (Heb. 12:2) and He will do so for too. Those who trust in the LORD will not labour in vain (Isa. 65:23).
Yahweh formed the Servant to restore Israel, and the Servant could be sure he would succeed by God’s strength and be glorified in God’s eyes. But now Yahweh promised more. He promised to make him the light to draw the nations out of darkness and the salvation the whole world needs.
THE SERVANT’S SUCCESS
(March 6, 2005 Sermon Notes)
During Lent, people often fast. Fasting may sometimes be appropriate as we think about our sin and Christ’s suffering. But we may not act as if we don’t know that Good Friday was followed by Easter. Jesus’ suffering was not defeat. It was victory. Isaiah 42 shapes our preparation for Good Friday this year by pointing forward to that victory.
GOD’S JUSTICE IN THE WORLD (42:1-4)
God sends His servant to bring salvation to the world. In Isaiah, God’s chosen servant is Israel (41:8-9), through whom all the nations would be blessed. But Israel herself needs salvation. Here, God’s servant is a faithful man who will carry out Israel’s calling. That Servant is Jesus Christ, our head, but it includes us as His body.
Jesus is God’s chosen one in whom He delights, and in Christ we are too. Jesus received God’s Spirit, and in Christ we have too. Jesus will bring forth justice to the nations, and in Christ that’s our calling too.
“Justice” here involves God’s condemnation and overthrow of the idols and their servants as well as the establishment of righteousness in the world. God is going to make things right, and all who trust in Him will enjoy His justice as it comes to expression in forgiveness and peace.
The Servant will accomplish this goal by meekness and humility. He won’t quarrel or out-shout his opponents. His people will be “broken reeds” that snap and pierce his hand (Isa. 36:6). They will be smoldering wicks in a lamp, giving little light. But he won’t destroy them (Matt. 12:14-21). He lets them pierce his hand and leave him in darkness.
Is that failure? No. It’s victory. Literally, verse 4 says that he won’t be splintered (like the reed) nor will he smolder (like the wick). Even death won’t stop him from establishing God’s justice in the world to save all the Gentiles who hope in his law (= in his name, Matt. 12:21).
EXTENDING GOD’S COVENANT TO THE WORLD (42:5-9)
The Servant’s mission is backed by the God who called him, who is the creator, not just of Israel, but of the world (v. 5). He called the Servant in His faithfulness to His covenant and He won’t abandon him (or us!).
He will make him a covenant for “the people” (Israel). The covenant is a person. Only in Jesus would Israel enjoy God’s covenant promises. But so would Gentiles because He is a light to the Gentiles, to rescue them from the blindness and slavery of sin and draw them to Himself (Isa. 60:1-3). He drew us from darkness to light (1 Pet. 2:9) and now we also are the light of the world (Matt. 5:14-16).
God won’t share His glory with idols. In the end, through the servant’s work, the world will turn from idols and glorify Him alone. Just as He brought about the former things (return from exile), He will bring about this victory, too. The Servant will be successful. The Creator guarantees it!