The holy highway: Isaiah 35

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Today’s reading: Isaiah 31-35.

I’ve been hiking in the desert when it was so hot and dry that you would die without the water you carried with you. I’ve also been there in the spring when the streams overflowed with water, rushing through the sand and past the cacti in a way that seemed impossible in a previous season. Isaiah uses these miraculous desert streams to describe the transformation God brings in a believer’s life. The transformation begins when one steps onto the holy highway.

Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will be there, nor will any ferocious beast get up on it; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, and the ransomed of the LORD will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away. Isaiah 35:6-10

It’s a way out of the desert. It’s a road from the dead dryness of a life without God’s blessings.

A clear way. It’s a raised up roadway. There isn’t any doubt about where the path lies. “This is the way; walk in it.” It’s the way of Jesus. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” The problem for people in the western world is not that they fail to see the road, but that they reject it.

A way that is holy. Holy means set-apart. The LORD, who created the highway, is set-apart from all imperfections. His holy highway leads travelers into his presence. They must set themselves apart from a godless life in order to travel it. They aren’t holy before they enter the roadway, but they become holy, set-apart, sanctified – by the Holy Spirit – as they walk the way.

A secure way. Isaiah says there are no wild beasts to threaten travelers on this road. It’s his way of saying that the LORD protects those who travel on it. There may be difficulties along the way, but those who travel this highway are certain to reach the destination. In regards to the security of our salvation, those who remain on the holy highway cannot lose it.

A way for the redeemed and ransomed. The highway isn’t for everyone. The wicked won’t be there, nor the fools. The redeemed will be. These are those who have been bought back by their kinsman-redeemer. Jesus is the kinsman-redeemer who offers to buy back all of mankind – if they accept his offer by faith. The ransomed will be there. These are the travelers who have been set free, delivered from danger, and rescued by payment of the ransom price. Jesus paid the ransom for our sin at the price of his own life.

A joyful way. The pilgrims on this road show their joy by their singing. They are glad because sorrows are left behind as they travel farther down the road.

A way home. The road leads from the desert and ends up in Zion. For some it was or will be the actual city of Jerusalem. For others it will be the new Jerusalem, our heavenly home. It’s a highway to an eternity of fellowship with God, beginning now and continuing in heaven.

Engineering has done much to tunnel mountains and bridge abysses, but the greatest triumph of engineering is that which made a way from sin to holiness, from death to life, from condemnation to perfection! Who could make a way over the mountains of our iniquities but Almighty God? None but the Lord of Love would have wished it. None but the God of Wisdom could have devised it. None but the God of Power could have carried it out. Charles Spurgeon

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Betting on the wrong horse: Isaiah 30

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Today’s reading: Isaiah 28-30.

When trouble shows up at your doorstep, there are a limited number of ways to react.

  • You can try to handle it alone.
  • You can ask someone for help.
  • You can ignore the problem (for a while).
  • You can try to run.
  • You can worry.

There may be a few other possibilities, but these were the main categories that were available for the people of Jerusalem and Judah as they faced a major problem. The Assyrian army had defeated Israel and was flooding their country. They recognized they needed help, but they looked for help in the wrong place. They turned to Egypt instead of the LORD. They looked for natural rather than supernatural aid. They wanted help they could see rather than the invisible hand of God. They didn’t want to wait on God; they wanted to do something now. So they sent their ambassadors off to Egypt, but God chastised them.

This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it. You said, ‘No, we will flee on horses.’ Therefore you will flee! You said, ‘We will ride off on swift horses.’ Therefore your pursuers will be swift!” Isaiah 30:15-16

They placed their bet on the power of horses rather than the power of God. Surely the horses of Egypt could help defeat the enemy! If not, then the horses would allow them to escape. Isaiah told them that Egypt could not rescue them, and if they relied on men their enemies would chase them down and quickly capture them. But there was a better way.

  • Repentance, turning away from their rebellion and turning back to God
  • Rest, waiting for God to act rather than trying to solve the problem themselves
  • Quietness, another word for stillness and expectant waiting on God
  • Trust, faith that God would rescue them

It’s fair to ask how much we should do on our own and how much we should leave to God. We aren’t rocks, but people with minds and wills. Isaiah didn’t condemn the people for responding to the crisis, but for responding in a worldly way.

  • They ignored God.
  • They made unholy alliances.
  • They put their trust in men rather than God.

Isaiah closes by reminding the people of God’s compassion. Though they have made poor choices, God stands ready to help them when they return to him. Their enemy is destined for destruction. Those who wait on the LORD will be blessed.

But they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40:31

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Tale of Two Cities: Isaiah 24-26

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Today’s reading: Isaiah 23-27.

In Dickens’ saga of the French Revolution it was the best and worst of times simultaneously, but in Isaiah’s vision the worst comes first. Only after the destruction of the disobedient world does the vision turn bright. But like Dickens’ classic, there are two cities – the disobedient city of the world destined for judgment, and the blessed city of the faithful that will endure forever.

The ruined city lies desolate; the entrance to every house is barred. In the streets they cry out for wine; all joy turns to gloom, all gaiety is banished from the earth. The city is left in ruins, its gate is battered to pieces. So will it be on the earth and among the nations, as when an olive tree is beaten, or as when gleanings are left after the grape harvest. Isaiah 24:10-13

Isaiah speaks in generalities rather than specifics. The city isn’t named; it consists of all cities throughout time that have or will abandon God. The time isn’t given since these judgments have taken place in the past and will occur again in the future. One thing is clear, however – the vision includes a final judgment that will encompass the entire earth.

  • God says the devastation will be complete and total.
  • The world, not just a particular part of it, will wither.
  • The judgment is for breaking the “everlasting covenant,” which I take to be man’s failure to acknowledge God’s claim as creator and Lord.
  • No sinner will escape the judgment.
  • The supernatural forces of evil will be punished at that time along with the earthly leaders who serve them.

A remnant of faithful believers survives the destruction. God prepares a new city for them. “We have a strong city; God makes salvation its walls and ramparts” (Isaiah 26:1). He prepares a feast there. He removes the veil of death that has hung over all men since Adam’s transgression. He wipes away every tear. He gathers his people from all the places they have been exiled and they worship him together on the holy mountain.

Isaiah’s vision is consistent with the other end-time prophecies of the Bible. A day is coming, the day of the LORD, when God will judge the wickedness of unbelievers and Satan himself. The earth will be shaken and everything ungodly will fall down. Out of the rubble God will build a new Jerusalem for his faithful ones, both Jew and Gentile. Isaiah spoke these words to comfort the Jews who would face exile to Babylon, but they also comfort believers who face affliction today. All that God requires is that we believe in him and turn away from our sinful rebellion.

In that day they will say, “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the LORD, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.” Isaiah 25:9

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Who holds the key? Isaiah 22

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Today’s reading: Isaiah 18-22.

When you got the keys to your first car, you received much more than the freedom of a set of wheels. You also received the power of that car and authority over its movement. Keys are important. We talk about key ingredients, key leaders, key principles – all because of the significance of keys. Today’s devotional is about a nation and a man who forgot who held the keys of the kingdom.

The nation was Judah and the man was Shebna. He was the king’s treasurer, holding the keys to the wealth of the kingdom. Isaiah looked down the years to come and saw evil actions coming from the nation and the man. The event that precipitated their sin was Assyria’s invasion in the reign of King Hezekiah. We know that the Assyrians were eventually defeated when God destroyed their army with a plague. At the time of the prophecy, however, all the people saw was the rising tide of the enemy army overwhelming Israel, wiping out the towns around Jerusalem, and then surrounding the city itself.

Isaiah described the split personality of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. On the one hand, they undertook great preparations for the siege, including building a tunnel to bring water into the city. On the other hand, they partied as if there was nothing they could do to change their fate. “Eat, drink, and be merry,” they said, “for tomorrow we die.” In all their preparations, however, they made no acknowledgement of God’s control over their situation. They forgot that he held the key to their future. They did not turn to him for forgiveness or help.

Some of the most important men in the city fled at the threat of the Assyrian conquest. They didn’t know God would soon destroy the enemy army. They ended up being captured by the enemy instead, and apparently Shebna was among those who were captured. Isaiah predicted this, and on behalf of God said that Shebna’s authority would be taken from him and given to Eliakim. Isaiah said this about Eliakim:

I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I will drive him like a peg into a firm place; he will be a seat of honor for the house of his father. All the glory of his family will hang on him: its offspring and offshoots–all its lesser vessels, from the bowls to all the jars. Isaiah 22:22-24

Shebna’s peg was broken off to make way for Eliakim, whose authority foreshadowed that of Jesus Christ. Centuries later the apostle John recorded Jesus’ words as he took up the mantle of authority exemplified by Eliakim. Jesus described himself as “him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open (Rev. 3:7).”

When we face trouble we need to remember who holds the key. We can do our part to overcome our problems, but ultimately the outcome is in God’s hands. We need to acknowledge that, and not sin by ignoring his authority. We also need to avoid the fatalistic outlook that says there is nothing that can be done in the face of adversity. With God’s help, all that is needed can be done. The question is, are we right in our relationship with him so that we can receive his help?

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The day of the LORD: Isaiah 13

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Today’s reading: Isaiah 13-17.

For the day of the LORD is near upon all the nations. As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head. Obadiah 1:15

The Golden Rule says, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Obadiah seems to be saying the opposite: “what you do unto others will be done unto you.” Though simple, the concept is frightening in its implications for those who carry out programs of cruelty and oppression. That’s the message that Isaiah brings to all the nations around Jerusalem – Babylon, Assyria, Damascus, Moab, and the Philistines. God will use them to judge his rebellious people, but their surpassing cruelty will be turned back on their own heads. None will feel it more than the ruler of Babylon. It will happen on the day of the LORD.

How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” But you are brought down to the grave, to the depths of the pit. Those who see you stare at you, they ponder your fate: “Is this the man who shook the earth and made kingdoms tremble, the man who made the world a desert, who overthrew its cities and would not let his captives go home?” Isaiah 14:12-17

The rulers of Babylon, past and future, share much with Satan, and some interpret these verses to describe Satan’s fall from glory. But they seem more appropriate to the pride and cruelty of the Babylonian kings, and the terrible fate that falls on them at the day of the LORD. This terrible day is a once and future event, seen by Isaiah in Babylon’s near future, but coming again at the end of the age before Jesus’ return.

The day of the LORD is a day of wrath.  God punishes the wicked and evil with anger and destruction.

It is a day of cosmic upheaval. The heavens are darkened; sun, moon, and stars all fail to give their light.

It is a day of terror. The people flee and become scarce. Their hearts melt and anguish overwhelms them.

It is a day when the proud are humbled. Like the king of Babylon, all those who exalted themselves  and sought to ignore God will instead find they cannot escape God’s judgment.

Isaiah’s weighty message about Babylon wasn’t delivered to them, but to the  people of  Judah. God meant to console the people and give them hope in the days to come when they found themselves captive in a foreign land. Babylon’s days were numbered, but God would continue to care for his chosen people. As for us, we can rejoice in our days of trouble, knowing that God is sovereign. He will continue to take care of us even when events make us doubt him, and he will ensure that wicked oppressors are punished.

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Boasting when humility is needed: Isaiah 9

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Today’s reading: Isaiah 9-12.

Between two major prophecies about the Messiah, the prophet Isaiah tucks a little story about the foolish pride of the Israelites. Before the story Isaiah proclaims that a child is born, the wonderful counselor who will be the prince of peace and establish a righteous government on David’s throne for all time. After the story the prophet describes the millennial kingdom of the Messiah when even nature is restored to peaceful coexistence as the wolf lives with the lamb and the lion eats straw like the ox. But the Messiah’s kingdom lies somewhere in the future. The present reality consists of foolish men who ignore God’s rebuke and pridefully believe they have the power to overcome the consequences of their sin.

The story goes like this. The northern kingdom of Israel has suffered much from the attacks of the Assyrians. Though God has allowed this invasion to discipline the Israelites, the people of the northern kingdom have failed to see God’s hand at work. Like any proud people who have been attacked, they vow to rebuild and fight back. They say, “the bricks have fallen down, but we will rebuild with dressed stones.” We’ll build it back better than before! No humility, no contrition, no searching for God’s favor – just proud boasting. If the tone sounds familiar, it should. It’s the same language we hear from our leaders when we suffer any kind of attack. For the Israelites, the story ends sadly as within a few years Assyria completely defeats them and destroys their nation.

Jonathan Cahn, who leads a worship center for Messianic Jews and Gentile believers, has written a book, The Harbinger, based on this story. He points out how our reaction after the the attacks of September 11, 2001, was eerily similar to the words of the ancient Israelites. In Congress, Tom Daschle quoted the exact words of the boasting Israelites in Isaiah 9 as he proclaimed America’s resolve to rebuild. The point of Cahn’s book, and the intent of Isaiah’s story, is to humble us and teach us to repent when God allows calamity to overtake us. God gives grace to the humble, but pride leads to destruction. America continues to suffer in many ways because of its rebellion against God. Humility has to start with individuals, however. Now is the time for each of us to examine our own hearts and confess our personal rebellion against God, so that God can pour out his grace on us. That grace comes through faith in the prince of peace that Isaiah foretold. He is coming back to rule and reign, and his kingdom will unite Jews and Gentiles in worship and obedience.

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Hearing but not listening: Isaiah 6

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Today’s reading: Isaiah 5-8.

“You’re not listening to me!” How many of us heard that from our mother growing up? She said it to grab our attention. We weren’t doing what she wanted, either through ignorance or rebellion, and she was determined to change our behavior. God tells Isaiah to deliver the same message to the people of Judah. The question is whether the people still had the ability to change or had completely crossed the line and were destined for judgment.

“Go and tell this people: ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” Then I said, “For how long, O Lord?” And he answered: “Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, until the LORD has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken.” Isaiah 6:9-12

Did God intend it as prophesy? These words came true. The people were warned but did not change and suffered ruin as a result.

Did God intend it for warning? Like the mother calling down her disobedient children, God may have overstated his warning  in order to provoke a reaction that would lead to change. I doubt God works this way.

Did God intend his words to harden the hard-hearted? This seems more likely. God knew the truth of his words, rather than producing repentance in the rebellious, would only make them more opposed to his will.

Jesus quoted these same words in reference to the religious people of his day. You can find it in all the gospels: Matthew 13, Mark 4, Luke 8, and John 12. He said it was a reason for speaking in parables, “so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.” He said this after sharing the parable of the seed and the soil. In that parable, Jesus said the seed sown on good soil represented the person who heard the word and understood it, bearing much fruit as a result. Yet many people in Jesus’ day, and Isaiah’s day, and still to this day, do not understand when they hear. Why?

  • They’re not paying attention.
  • They’re too busy with other things.
  • They don’t care.
  • They reject the message and the messenger.

It seems there are two groups of people who Isaiah and Jesus are dealing with – those who are searching for the truth and willing to listen to God, and those who have shut their eyes and ears to the truth. It’s not that the message is too complex to comprehend. Rather, the people are too opposed to the message to accept it and obey it. Therefore the writer of Hebrews can say to those struggling with doubt in his day and our day, “if today you hear his voice, harden not your heart.” Today, a multitude of voices clamor for your attention. It’s time to turn off the distractions and spend some time listening to God’s word. Once you’ve heard it, don’t shut it out, but let it penetrate through your eyes and ears to your heart, and do what it says.

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