The Bible in a Year – 13 May

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

13 May, Isaiah chapters 64-66

The final climax of Isaiah’s prophecies continues in the apocalyptic style that I described yesterday, describing events that could be related to the immediate rebuilding of Jerusalem, or to its second destruction in 70CE and the subsequent spreading of Christianity as the new worldwide religion, or to the future and final ingathering of all God’s people on the last day.

 

Some interpreters would also add the renewal of the nation of Israel from 1947 as part of this vision. There remains controversy within the Church as to whether that was a fulfilment of prophecy, part of God’s plan, or merely a political phenomenon of our time.  Was it part of God’s plan that there should be Jews living in Jerusalem in order that it can feature as the central location of his final act of redemption (whatever that might look like in practice)? Or is the worldwide church – messianic Jews as well as gentile Christians – the ‘new Israel’ with God’s presence in the risen Christ in all places, and Jerusalem no longer anywhere special except as a matter of historic interest? The site of the Temple, of course, is now a mosque, so God is still worshipped there but in a different way.

 

These are not easy questions, and Isaiah may have understood nothing of the circumstances of the 21st century. What we can say with certainty, though, is that these final chapters of the longest and most profound of the books of Biblical prophecy leave the reader in no doubt that what matters to God is not forms of worship or religious allegiance (66:1-4) but an openness to the work of God’s spirit in “making all things new”.  Since the first day of creation the Spirit has been working, creating, constantly and restlessly seeking to bring all things to perfection, and only those who are open to the Spirit of God will have a place in paradise.

The Bible in a Year – 11 May

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11 May. Isaiah chapters 54-58

Once again we are presented with a full five chapters of Isaiah, when even a few verses from almost anywhere in them would be enough material for a reflection.

 

The broad brush approach is that in these chapters God promises to the small number of Israelites who would return to Jerusalem that although they may have felt like widows or childless women (i.e. lacking support and with no hope for the future), in fact in the fulness of time God would provide them with many descendants – not just in the literal sense, but as God’s promises of mercy and redemption would be extended from Israel to the rest of humanity.  The covenant first made with Noah (one family) and that with Abraham (likewise) would be renewed with this small band of people.  Every time God brings judgement, he leaves room for a small number of faithful people to be the seeds of new life, both physically and spiritually. It was only with the death and resurrection of Jesus that the promise could be fulfilled, but like so much of Isaiah there is a message both for the people of his own time and for future generations.

 

In and among these great promises, though, are some passages condemning the leaders of Israel for their idolatry and other sins. Isaiah saw that even with God’s promise of starting with a clean slate and the offer of forgiveness, it would not be long before people started to live in a selfish, greedy and godless way.  Such is fallen human nature. The true remnant were those who returned in humility, willing to live by the law of love and not just the ritual law.

 

Such is the overall message. But I also want to pick out one of the many sub-themes running through these chapters.  “everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” (55:1). “Is not this the fast that I choose: … to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?” (58:6,7)  “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness” (58:10).

We don’t need to interpret those verses as a parable or metaphor. They are a clear command: generosity, hospitality and sharing are at the heart of God’s kingdom.  It is no coincidence that one of the clearest signs of revival in a church today is when its members get involved in local food banks, “junk food” projects, or soup kitchens; or in the Fairtrade movement which seeks to ensure that people across the world who produce the food an other goods we consume are fairly treated, well paid and enabled to build up their own communities.  For food and hospitality are at the heart of what it is to be human, and what it is to belong to God. Be generous to those in need, and he will be generous to you.

 

The Bible in a Year – 10 May

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10 May. Isaiah chapters 49-53

This is a lengthy passage of verse, beginning and ending with two of the “songs of the Servant”. These are usually identified as prophecies of Jesus Christ, and chapter 53 in particular is seen as describing his crucifixion, which Christians believe was a willing sacrifice by a sinless man, according to the will of God who lived in him, to settle with God the debt owed to him by all people for their sins.  There is far more in them than I can look at in detail now. Many books have been written and sermons preached to try and explain this – the commentary I am following devotes 21 pages to these chapters – but few as poetically as the “second Isaiah” (whoever that was) writing over five hundred years before the event.

 

Many of the phrases in these chapters have been used by composers over the years, from the sublime music of Handel in his “Messiah” (“he gave his back to the smiters”; “surely he has borne our griefs an carried our sorrows”; “all we like sheep have gone astray”), to contemporary songwriters (“how beautiful upon the mountains  are the feet of him who brings glad tidings”; “led like a lamb to the slaughter in silence and shame”; “the redeemed of the Lord shall return and come with singing unto Zion” [=Jerusalem]) – and many more.  For the promises here are not only the restoration of the tribe of Israel/Judah to the Holy Land for a second time, but of the reconciliation of all creation to God once and for all time.

 

In between these servant songs are words addressed, at least in part, to the people in captivity in Babylon. Did they rush back to Jerusalem at the first invitation of God? No, it seems they needed much encouragement.  To many of them who had been born there the “old country” held no attractions; like all refugees, they were crushed and in despair at ever being a free people or having their own home again; the journey seemed daunting, and much hard work would be needed to rebuild the ruins.  Despite those setbacks, it was their only hope.

 

But these passages contain many hints that it is not only the Jewish people who were being addressed, but the whole world.  People would flock to join them from all directions, and would together become witnesses to the Servant’s redeeming love. Together they would be a renewed Israel that would be a “light to the Gentiles” (a phrase repeated when Jesus was dedicated to God as a baby).  This is what we mean by the Church – all those who have been drawn from whatever held them captive, by the love of God shown in his suffering servant, to join his people in the new Jerusalem.

 

Like the captives here, people rarely walk into a church the first time they hear of Jesus and ask to be baptised and join the community of the redeemed. The Christian faith seems strange to those who were not brought up in it, it needs to be explained with many words of encouragement, and for many it is a journey of many years.  Yet we equally believe that Christ is the only way to God, and that those who make this journey to faith in Jesus will find themselves in the “new Jerusalem”, the Kingdom of

The Bible in a Year – 9 May

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9 May. Isaiah chapters 45-48

These chapters reveal explicitly what has only been hinted at in the preceding ones: that God would use another foreign ruler, Cyrus, to do his bidding in releasing Israel from slavery.  He is called ‘anointed’ which is actually the word for ‘Messiah’, a title of many kings of Israel/Judah before it was applied supremely to Jesus.  This shows that God can in fact use anyone, even a pagan king, and not just those of “his religion”, to bring about his will.

 

This is an important point in the run-up to our parliamentary elections – you will find Christians who consider Conservatives “un-Christian” for their social policies, others who consider Labour “un-Christian” for their socialist roots, others who find the Liberal Democrats rather too liberal when it comes to matters of morality. But all the parties have some politicians who profess to be Christian and are upright in character, others who profess faith but whose faults are evident, and others who make no claims to faith.  Yet any of them could be used by God to bring about much needed changes in our society.  Deciding who to vote for is never a simple matter of “one is good and the others are all evil” and as usual the Archbishops and other faith leaders are calling most of all for people to use their right to vote and not neglect it.

 

The remainder of this passage is a contrast between the Babylonians who relied on their religion (a mixture of idol-worship and astrology) to keep themselves as the dominant power in the region, and the remnant of Israel who appeared powerless and in captivity but who would in fact be freed by their invisible but all-powerful god to rebuild Jerusalem by the very “Messiah” who at the same time would destroy the Babylonians in the name of the God of Israel (or rather, of the whole earth).  Whoever is elected to govern our country should be humble enough, and a person of faith, to recognise that it is God who ultimately directs a nation’s fate, in accordance with the way that its people live and worship.  It may seem now that the Conservatives with their “strong and stable” leadership are here to stay, and maybe it is God’s will that they are in charge for the time being, but the time could suddenly come when that all changes.

 

 

The Bible in a Year – 8 May

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8 May. Isaiah chapters 42-44

This section of Isaiah is particularly complicated, continually switching as it does from condemnation of Israel’s past sins, to encouragement for those now in exile, to predictions of the return to the promised land, and then the Servant Songs of which the first starts this passage (42:1-9). It may have been intended to refer to Cyrus, the Persian king who released the captives, but in that case why portray him in such meek terms (“ He will not cry or lift up his voice … a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench”) while at eh same time declaring his mission to bring justice, not just to Israel but the whole earth? For that reason, Christians have traditionally seen this as one of the genuine prophecies of the saving work of Jesus Christ.

 

Throughout these chapters God reminds his hearers of his own power and glory (the creator of all things, 42:5; the one who saves, comforts and protects (43:1-3); their father (43:6); the only real God (43:10-13); the King who brought his people out of Egypt (43:15-21); the one who forgives sins (43:25); the one who knows us before we are born (45:1-2); “the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts, the first and the last” (43:6, echoed by Jesus’ words in the book of Revelation). Yes, they would be rescued, but that rescue would only flourish into a revived nation of Israel if they never again forgot that they were God’s chosen people, and who it was that saved them.   In our own lives it is the same: there is always the promise of forgiveness, healing and restoration from whatever afflicts us, but it can only bear fruit if we honour the one who brings it about.

 

 

 

 

The Bible in a Year – 7 May

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7 May. Isaiah chapters 36-41

To repeat the last paragraph of yesterday’s post: the commentary I am following suggests that the natural break in the book of Isaiah between the prophecies of exile and of return, usually understood as being between chapters 39 and 40, could equally well be between 33/34 or 35/36, depending how you look at it.  So today’s six chapters most likely cover that turning point.

 

Chapters 36 to 39 (apart from the “writing of King Hezekiah after he had recovered from his illness” in 38:9-20) are history rather than prophecy, and are a slightly abridged version of 2 Kings 18-20. So for comment on that, see my earlier blog post http://www.pilgrims.org.uk/the-bible-in-a-year-26-27-april/

 

Chapters 40 and 41 on the other hand are a return to prophesy, addressed to Israel as a whole. For all their sins and the punishment that God has brought by destroying their temple and their way of life, he will not destroy them completely.  As with Noah, as with the people of the Exodus, enough will survive to return and revive the worship of God in Jerusalem again.

 

This prophecy comes, however, not after the story of the exile to Babylon – we are not there yet – but after the first invasion of Judah by Sennacherib in 701BC. The final capture of Jerusalem was not to be for over a hundred years yet; Hezekiah would live longer but not see it, as Isaiah prophesied.

 

At one of the low points in my life, when I seemed to have lost the sense of God’s presence, he gave me a sign: that of the turning of the tide.  Those who watch the tide cannot easily tell the moment it is at its lowest point.  It is enough to know that, when things seem to have got as low as they can get, there will be a turning, an increase, a returning of the waters. And in God’s time things would, and did, get better.

 

If we maintain the metaphor of the turning tide, Chapter 40 is like the Severn Bore roaring upstream, leaving its watchers in no doubt what is on its way. Many of the words are familiar from the opening aria of Handel’s “Messiah”, as John the Baptist who came as a prophet to prepare the way for Jesus was understood to be fulfilling the role of “one in the desert calling, prepare the way of the Lord”.  It seems the terror to be wrought on the people of Judah was such that God had to promise them the happy ending even before the worst had come.

The Bible in a Year – 6 May

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

6 May. Isaiah chapters 32-35

Chapters 32 and 33 are once again reference to particular political circumstances – King Hezekiah’s desperate and ultimately pointless attempt to appease the Assyrians by giving away all the treasures of Jerusalem.  Isaiah calls on the people to look beyond the immediate threat and to trust God who would eventually vindicate them and rule peacefully over them – but only when God’s Spirit descends (32:15) – a verse that some see as pointing towards the day of Pentecost rather than events in Isaiah’s own time.

 

But once again, that salvation from God can only come when the people truly turn to him in the midst of disaster: “‘Who among us can live with the devouring fire? Who among us can live with everlasting flames? Those who walk righteously and speak uprightly, who despise the gain of oppression, who wave away a bribe instead of accepting it, who stop their ears from hearing of bloodshed and shut their eyes from looking on evil” (33:14-15).

 

In chapter 34 the Lord’s destruction turns from Jerusalem to “all the nations” and particularly to Edom (one of their traditional enemies).  Some Christian interpretations of chapters 34-35 see them as referring to the “last days”, the period before Jesus returns at the end of time. Maybe so, but the primary historical meaning must be that all the empires of the Ancient Near East (from Egypt to Babylon) would fall one by one over the coming centuries.

 

Chapter 35 offsets the dystopian horror of 34 by presenting a vision of the return of God’s people to Zion. Again it has a double meaning (as ‘Zion’ often does), both for the literal return of the remnant of Israel to Jerusalem from exile, and for the entry of God’s faithful people into paradise after the final judgement.  When John the Baptist asked how he was to know whether Jesus was the Messiah, the answer Jesus gave was that he performed miracles of healing for the blind, deaf, dumb and lame (35:5-6), clearly showing that he understood this passage in Messianic terms.  But the way to paradise is not for everyone: only for God’s people, who are the “redeemed” (in Christian understanding, those who have put their faith in Jesus), and not for ‘fools’ (those who ignore God’s instruction) or the ‘unclean’ (those who refuse to repent of their sin) (35:8).

 

The commentary I am following suggests that the natural break in the book of Isaiah between the prophecies of exile and of return, usually understood as being between chapters 39 and 40, could equally well be between 33/34 or 35/36, depending how you look at it.

 

The Bible in a Year – 5 May

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5 May. Isaiah chapters 28-31.

Isaiah’s prophecies in chapter 28 condemn not only the political leaders of Israel and Judah but also their priests, who all alike are pictured as being drunk and out of control.  The priests teach the law by rote, as if that is what matters in itself, rather than striving for the ‘rest’ (fellowship with God) to which to law is meant to lead us. Because of this, and the lies and falsehoods that the leaders resort to in an effort to preserve at least themselves from danger in a time of war, God’s judgement will come.

 

The parable of the farmer at the end of the chapter compares those who continually beat others down with religious rules to someone who ploughs the field constantly without ever actually sowing crops, and uses heavy equipment to crush the most delicate herbs. This temptations to resort to legalism (applying rules rather than compassion and common sense) and to make tradition more important that relevance, is ever present in any religion. Rules are to lead us to love of God and neighbour, never ends in themselves, and tradition should be a living thing, not a fixed way of doing things that can never change.  When Jesus said “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30) he may have had passages like this in mind, as well as the many uses in the Old Testament of a yoke as the symbol of oppression.

 

In chapter 29 the focus turns to Jerusalem itself, whose eventual destruction is again prophesied.  But throughout these passages are hints of the “remnant” of which Isaiah writes elsewhere, the faithful few believers who will carry on the true faith following the devastation of cities and peoples.  As with the story of the destruction of Sodom, it only takes a few people who hang on to faith in bad times in order for it to flourish again in better times.

 

Chapters 30 and 31 are a polemic aimed at the leaders in Jerusalem who thought that a military alliance with Egypt would enable them to resist the Assyrian empire.  But Isaiah’s consistent message is that God had appointed the Assyrians to carry out his judgement, and resistance was futile. It was too late now for the nation as a whole to turn back to God, although some individuals might.  But as so often in the prophets, images of judgement and destruction are interspersed with reminders that God is still the merciful parent (the leaders of Judah are his ‘rebellious children’) who will always, eventually, have compassion and bring his people back.  But it will only be when they cast away all their idols that the Assyrians themselves will be defeated, and then by God and not by swords.

 

The Bible in a Year – 3 May

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3 May. Isaiah chapter 18-22

These chapters continue the series of political oracles of previous ones, and as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, it really needs a proper commentary to understand them.  But the gist of them is that Judah should not rely on any of these foreign nations, even Egypt, for protection against Assyria, for all of them would fall to Assyria in due course.  Judah was better being independent.

 

In this ‘Brexit era’ in Britain it would be easy to see in this a message that we  should be proud to be self-reliant (“strong and stable” in our Prime Minister’s words). But time and again God warns his people that self-reliance, even reliance on the gifts that God has given, are actually a recipe for disaster just as much as relying on others for help.  The Lord alone is our refuge, strength rock and so on.  If Britain has a prosperous future then, just as for Judah in Isaiah’s day, it will only be if we turn to God.  That does not mean declaring ourselves a “Christian country” in some neo-Crusader sense and tearing down mosques. Rather it means being continuing to be open, tolerant, generous in foreign aid, welcoming of strangers (especially those in need such as refugees), and committed to trade justice rather than “free trade” or damaging trade barriers.

 

The last of these oracles in chapter 22 is directed at two particular government ministers – the commentary explains that these were real men. One of them was self-seeking and corrupt, and would be deposed and replaced by the other who was God-fearing and like a father to his people.  Nevertheless he too would be brought down by the unrealistic expectations placed upon him.  Neither should we expect too much from our own leaders at this politically difficult time.  But as an election looms we should ask ourselves, “who would lead this country in the most unselfish, generous ways?”

The Bible in a Year – 2 May

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2 May. Isaiah chapters 13-17

These prophecies take poetic form, and like all poetry are to be taken symbolically more than literally.  I had to turn to a commentary to even begin to understand these (and other parts of Isaiah) – for the record, it’s Barry Webb’s book in the “Bible Speaks Today” series.

 

According to Webb, what is important is not the specific prophecies against specific political units of the 8th century BC (Babylon, Assyria, Edom, Philistia and Egypt). Indeed he thinks “Babylon” stands for any empire that opposes God.  Rather the overall thrust of the whole of chapters 12-27 is a reminder that however chaotic, destructive and frightening world events may seem to be (in the course of about 200 years, first the Assyrians and then the Babylonians would first conquer and then be conquered), the will of God is supreme. God can use and then cast aside any earthly power in the course of bringing his ultimate plan (redemption of the world) to fruition.  Along the way there will be casualties, innocent as well as guilty. Only in the world to come will all of earthly history make sense and God’s righteous judgment be given.

 

We need to bear this in mind at a time when the “powers that be” are being shaken up again.  The near east (and especially Syria) ravaged by conflicting powers, each apparently as bad as the others; the European  Union looking increasingly unstable; Russia back in the hands of an autocrat and even the USA with a president who plays loosely with democracy; and North Korea threatening nuclear war.  We can only pray with increasing urgency “God’s will be done”.