I invite you to take your Bible and turn with me to Isaiah chapter 30. If you’re using the pew Bible in front of you, it’s on page 800 – no, page 590. I want to offer you a challenge. That is, to put your bulletin in your Bible when you go home, and come back to this chapter. I’d encourage you to read this chapter and camp in it for a while as I have been camping in it because it’s profound. What God promises and what He warns will be the bookends of your Christian experience. I’ll come back to that in just a moment. We’re going to look at the entire chapter, but for our purposes right now we’re going to read just several of the verses.
We’ll start with verse 1 in Isaiah 30:
“’Ah, stubborn children,’ declares the Lord, ‘who carry out a plan, but not mine, and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit, that they may add sin to sin; who set out to go down to Egypt, without asking for my direction, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt! Therefore shall the protection of Pharaoh turn to your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt to your humiliation.’”
Drop down to verse 15:
“For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.’ But you were unwilling, and you said, ‘No! We will flee upon horses’; therefore you shall flee away; and, ‘We will ride upon swift steeds’; therefore your pursuers shall be swift. A thousand shall flee at the threat of one; at the threat of five, you shall flee, till you are left like a flagstaff on the top of a mountain, like a signal on a hill.
Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.
For a people shall dwell in Zion, in Jerusalem; you shall weep no more. He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry. As soon as he hears it, he answers you. And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left. Then you will defile your carved idols overlaid with silver and your gold-plated metal images. You will scatter them as unclean things. You will say to them, ‘Be gone!’”
This is God’s Word. Thanks be to Him! Would you join me in prayer?
Holy Spirit, we come to You pleading with You for mercy upon us. Unless You intervene, these are simply words on a page or words spoken by a man. It is You who causes Your Word to become alive and powerful in our own experience. We so desperately need to hear a Word from You. So even as You have assembled this group of people in their exact quantity and arrangement, You have designed a message, a meeting, an interaction with the living God. Would You cause us to leave this place knowing that we have encountered You? Make it such that our lives will never again be the same. We ask for great things because we ask in Jesus’ name, amen.
I had a conversation with one of our young adults this past week in which he asked me, “So what is walking in the Spirit, what does that really look like? What is genuine Christianity? What is this true spirituality I keep hearing about? How would you summarize all of that?” My response to him was what I’ve already said. It just so happens I’ve been kind of camping out in a chapter of the Bible that talks about what that really is and frames all of our Christian experience in a way that leaves you staggered with its uncanny precision to where we are today. This isn’t just a passage spoken 2,700 years ago. It’s God’s truth to us today. The passage really centers on verse 18, which the best scholarship says is the center not just of this chapter but the center of all of Isaiah’s prophecy. And you could make a case to say that verse 18 of this chapter is the centerline, the backbeat of the whole Bible. Verse 18 says, “Therefore the LORD waits to be gracious to you. Therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the LORD is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for Him.” I’d like us to unpack that verse in the context of the whole chapter, better yet, in the context of the story, the true history in which and to which this prophecy was spoken.
The story is set roughly 700 years before Christ was born; 2,700 years back. The northern kingdom of God’s people, Israel, has already been wiped out. They’ve been deported into captivity. The southern, the remaining southern kingdom of Judah, still stands. It’s headquartered; the capital city is Jerusalem and the king is Hezekiah. The world superpower at that time was Assyria. King Sennacherib ruled over that empire and he was on the march. He was wiping out every other city-state, kingdom, city, fortified place. He was dominating with his military machine. No one stood in his way. Judah was in the crosshairs. He was coming. Two hundred thousand of the most well-trained, well-equipped fighting men, special forces, were in route. And God’s people in Judah were terrified. The threat was overwhelming. They had seen what had been done to all the neighboring kingdoms and they knew they didn’t stand a chance. And they were panicked. They were fearful. They were inadequate. They were uncertain. They were hopeless. And the core thought was, “We’ve got to do something! Right or wrong, we’ve got to do something.” And it’s that reality to which this process, this prophecy, is written.
The prophecy has two parts. There’s a warning and there’s welcome. And you’ll discover that it’s those two pieces that serve as the guardrails through which you and I will walk the rest of our lives. There’s a steady and recurring warning. There’s a steady and recurring welcome.
A Steady and Recurring Warning
Let’s look first of all at the warning in the first seventeen verses. The warning comes to us in two parts. First of all, don’t ignore God’s voice. Over and over throughout all of Scripture and throughout all of my life and yours, there’s the warning, “Don’t ignore God’s voice.” Or better, “Don’t let any other voice speak more loudly, more persuasively, more convincingly than His voice.” You read why that warning is necessary in verse 9 where the prophet says, God says through the prophet, “For they are a rebellious people, lying children, children unwilling to hear the instruction of the Lord. Who say to the seers, ‘Do not see,’ and to the prophets, ‘Do not prophesy to us what is right! Speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions, leave the way, turn aside from the path, let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.’” Simply put, “We don’t want to hear it anymore! We don’t want to submit to this authority that you declare to stand. We wish to be our own authority.” And suddenly, we’re right back where we live, aren’t we?
Our Only Authority
The apostle Paul, when writing about our times and his, says this in 2 Timothy chapter 4 verse 3. “The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” Here’s the beginning, the first warning that comes over and over again, and will for the rest of your life – don’t let any voice speak more loudly, more persuasively, more convincingly than the voice of God recorded for us in His Word. This is our only authority, our only reliable authority, and this is the one that stands unchanged and unchanging.
Flannery O’Conner, in a letter to one of her friends, Betty Hester, said, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” And she’s right! The truth doesn’t change. Don’t let any other voice speak more loudly than the voice of God. Even your own voice. You heard David Strain quote Paul Tripp not long ago from this pulpit when he said, “No one is more influential in your life than you are since no one talks to you more than you talk to yourself.” Here’s the rest of the paragraph. “You’re in an unending, incredibly important conversation with your own soul every moment of every day. You interpret, organize and analyze what’s going on inside and outside of you. You talk to yourself about the past, the future, and about what you’re experiencing at this very moment. You’re saying things to yourself that will shape your desires, your theology, your choices, and your actions.” First warning – don’t let any voice be more influential in your life than the voice of God recorded for you in His Word. That’s the first warning.
Don’t Rely On Any Functional Savior
You see, this is what takes us to the second warning. When you stop listening to God’s voice, when the truth becomes optional, then you begin to look for what we call “functional saviors,” alternatives. That’s the second warning in this passage. Don’t rely on any functional savior. I’ll define that in a moment, but let me show you where this comes from. Verse 1 of chapter 30,
“’Ah, stubborn children,’ declares the Lord, ‘who carry out a plan, but not mine, and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit, that they may add sin to sin; who set out to go down to Egypt, without asking for my direction, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt!’” Functional saviors are when you’re under threat or when you’re disappointed or when you feel insignificant, insecure, dissatisfied, discontent, and you look around and say, “Who can I go to, to get me through? Where do I turn?” And you say, “I know! I’ve always got this! This is what’s going to get me through!” A functional savior is something that we think will work to resolve our crisis, something that will get us through, something that will get us over, something that will make it good, something that brings rescue or security, significance, or satisfaction.
The Insufficiency of Functional Saviors
And in Isaiah 30, in the face of this imminent threat of the Assyrian army bearing down, God’s people did the unthinkable. They emptied their treasuries, they emptied their temples, they loaded up their pack animals with all their most precious things and sent them south to the superpower, just to their southern border – Egypt. And they said, “Would you please, in exchange for all this treasure, would you please ally your military might with us, because maybe together we can stand against Assyria?” And just like it always happens, Egypt took all the treasure but never came through. That’s what will always happen with our functional saviors. They may seem to work for a while, but they’ll always disappoint us in the end.
And notice that in going to Egypt, they’re going back to their former place of captivity. Now you understand, right? Egypt was a place where they were slaves for 400 years, where they were mistreated, abused, owned and even killed when all the boy babies were killed because they were afraid of being overrun by their slave population. The point is, a familiar past, even a broken and painful one, is often preferable to an unfamiliar and unknown future. That’s what’s going to happen when you look at what threatens you, what leaves you feeling empty, and instead of turning to the One who offers to always be enough you go to a functional savior.
Now I get it! You’re not turning to Cairo, Egypt. You don’t think some foreign power is going to get your through. For you, it might be how you look. It might be who your Daddy is or was. Where you grew up. Where you went to school. Your career. Your security. What your net-worth is. What your credit limit is. It might be what your wife thinks of you; what your husband thinks of you. What your kids think of you. How your kids perform in school. The list goes on. You could fill in the blanks; we all have them. We all have these places where we say, “This is bad, this is hard, but I’ve always got this.” And we tend to wrap our fingers around it and say, “As long as I have this, I’m okay! As long as I’ve got my health, as long as I’ve got enough cushion in the bank. As long as I have enough time; as long as I cut a break here sometime soon I’ll be okay.” They’re functional saviors that may work for a while, but in the end, they will disappoint us and they will alienate us.
Notice in verse 1 the prophet says that they “may add sin to sin.” It echoes what the prophet Jeremiah said in Jeremiah 2:13 when he said, “My people have committed two sins. They have forsaken Me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns, that cannot hold any water.” Look, all these functional saviors to which we turn, in and of themselves they’re not bad things. Most of them are really good things until we say, “This becomes ultimate! I have to have this to be happy!” Or turn it around, “If I do not have this, there’s no way of me getting through! There’s no way that I can be secure or content.” They’re all over in our lives. We have an arsenal of functional saviors; every one of us. And the safety’s off and they’re on a hair trigger. We deploy them at will and regularly.
Marked By Shame
So what happens when we pursue them when we hang onto them? And why are we warned against them? Well, verse 3 tells us; “Therefore shall the protection of Pharaoh turn to your shame and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt hear humiliation.” Verse 5, “Everyone comes to shame through a people that cannot profit them, that brings them neither help nor prophet, but shame and disgrace.” You hear the words repeated over and over? Humiliation, disgrace, shame, shame, shame. This is not to say, “Shame on you.” It’s to say, “When I hang on to these functional saviors, my life is left marked by shame.” Why? Because they’ll always slip through your fingers. They will always collapse. This is exactly what Isaiah says in verse 13. “Therefore this iniquity shall be to you like a breach in a high wall, bulging out and about to collapse, whose breaking comes suddenly in an instant. And it’s breaking is like that of a potter’s vessel that is smashed so ruthlessly that among its fragments, not a shard is found with which to take fire from the hearth or to dip up water out of the cistern.” The functional saviors to which you and I are clinging, while they may work for a little while, they will collapse, they will fail, and leave us marked by shame.
Is it any wonder that you and I today struggle to the degree that we do with the shame that marks us out, that we hope nobody else finds out about, that we do everything in our power to conceal? Is it any wonder? So there’s a warning! Don’t let any voice speak more convincingly to you than the voice of God speaking authoritatively through His Word. Secondly, don’t cling to functional saviors. They’re going to let you down!
A Steady And Recurring Welcome
That then turns us from a warning to welcome. And the welcome comes to us in a series of promises and invitations that really center, again, on verse 18. “Therefore the LORD waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the LORD is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.” Do you hear the words, “grace” and “mercy” over and over again? Grace for our inadequacy. Mercy for our failure. The Lord waits to be gracious to you. As soon as you cry out, He is eager to show you grace and even mercy. The question is, “What do that grace and mercy look like?” I wish I had several hours to slow way down because this is where this passage becomes so precious. I only have a few minutes to list the five pictures of God’s grace and mercy in this passage.
First picture. In answer to our isolation and loneliness, He offers us a place, a home, a dwelling. At the threat of being displaced and alone, He says in verse 19, “For a people shall dwell in Zion, in Jerusalem. You will have a home, you will belong, and it will be with Me. There will be dwelling belonging to you and Me through the Gospel.”
An End to Weeping
Second picture. In answer to our grieving, He promises our weeping will come to an end. That’s the next phrase, “You shall weep no more.” I look around here at faces and I know many of you are struggling with grieving, some of it beyond words. I know some of the specifics. Most of it I’m sure I don’t know. But it’s there, isn’t it? The picture of God’s grace and mercy today is that weeping will come to an end. He ensures it. He will make all things new. And as Psalm 30 says, “Weeping endures for the night, but joy will come in the morning.” It’s coming.
He Answers You!
Third picture. In answer to our sense of abandonment, He will answer us, verse 19, “He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry. As soon as He hears it, He answers you.” And let me qualify this because I know some of us have been praying for weeks, for months, for decades for something to happen or change and nothing has moved and we think, “How can that be true? As soon as He hears you, He answers you! Surely He will be gracious to you at the sound of your cry. How does that work?” Answer – It doesn’t work like Siri. When you say, “Hey Siri, your phone springs to…” And I realize that a bunch of your phones just sprang to life, right? That’s not how it works.
As a matter of fact, the way it usually works is so clearly pictured in John chapter 11, again, a place where I’d love to linger. But here you have three people that Jesus loves – Mary, Martha, and Lazarus – and Lazarus is sick. He’s dying. And the sisters send word to Jesus and they say, “The one you love is sick.” That’s the message. The rest is implied. “Come quickly! We’ve seen You do it before. We’ve watched You heal. You have the power. You can do something. Come on!” Can you imagine the silence at the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus as nothing happens and Jesus doesn’t show? And he gets sicker, his breathing gets shallower, and finally, it stops and he’s dead. This isn’t in the Bible, but you can imagine what went through Mary’s and Martha’s minds – “Jesus, how could You? How could You? How could You not show? You could have fixed this! How could You not come?” I mean actually they asked the question at the grave. Martha says, “Jesus if You had come, You could have healed him. You could have stopped this.” They knew what Isaiah said. “Surely he will be gracious to you at the sound of your cry. As soon as he hears it, he answers you.” He will answer!
The point is this; you and I can be assured that God will never ever give us less than what we ask for. Ever! He’ll either give us what we ask for or, like with Mary and Martha, He’ll give them something far better, something that they do not even know to ask for right now. If we trust Him. He’ll never give us less. That’s the promise of the Gospel.
He Promises to Shepherd Us
The third picture is, in answer to our confusion and lostness, He promises to shepherd us. Verse 21, “Your ears shall hear a word behind you say, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.” It’s interesting, in the Old Testament, that phrase, “turning to the right or turning to the left” is repeated a number of times, or, “not knowing their right from their left.” The imagery is foolishness, disobedience, or outright rebellion. Turning to the right or the left – it’s not staying on the path but straying. The point that I take from that is this. Even when we’re walking in immaturity, foolishness or outright disobedience, our Shepherd promises,
“Whether you turn to the right hand or to the left, your ears will hear My voice saying, ‘Now this is the way, walk in it. I will shepherd you. I will not fumble you.’” That’s the promise.
Intimacy With Himself
Last picture! In answer to our suffering, even senseless suffering, He offers intimacy with Himself. Verse 20, “And though the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore but your eyes shall see your teacher.” Your eyes. Meaning that you won’t look to someone else who seems so much farther ahead of you in his walk or her walk with the Lord and say, “Man, I wish I could teach the Bible like she does.” Or, “I wish I could pray like he does.” No, your eyes will see your teacher. He’ll make Himself known to you and deepen the intimacy between you and Him personally. It resonates with what Job says in one of my favorite Old Testament passages. Job 19 verse 25 when he says, “I know that my Redeemer lives and that in the end, he will stand upon the earth and after my skin has been destroyed, after he’s been in the grave, yet in my flesh, I will see God. I myself will see Him with my own eyes, I and not another. How my heart yearns within me.” Can you picture that? One day you’ll see Him face to face and you will know fully, even as you are now fully known, but right now He is making Himself known progressively from one degree of glory to another.
I have to pause here just for a moment and point out to you, do you see where the adversity and affliction come from in verse 20? Look at it again. I’m not making this up. “Though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore.” “Though the Lord give you the adversity and the affliction” – meaning the hard stuff? The things that you’re right now pleading with God to take away? They’ve come to you by His hand! Can you imagine?
Elisabeth Elliot tells a story that unpacks this. She tells about being at the home of friends in northern Wales who raised sheep. And she tells the story of watching one day as this farmer did for this large flock, herd, a gaggle of sheep what was unthinkable. There was a parasite in that area that not only caused a great deal of suffering to these sheep but actually caused death in many of them. So once a year he had to fill up this huge vat of this highly toxic antiseptic. And he had to immerse each of these sheep in this vat and cover them up, not just their feet and shoulders, but head, ears, nose, snout, everything. And he had to hold them underwater until their skin was saturated with this antiseptic to rescue them from what would otherwise likely kill them. Listen to how Elisabeth Elliot writes about this:
“One by one, John seized the animals. They would struggle to climb out the side and Mac, the sheepdog would snarl and snap at their faces to force them back under. When they tried to climb up the ramp in a panicky way at the far end, John the farmer would catch them, spin them around, force them under again, holding them – eyes, ears, and nose – submerged for seconds. As their provider and protector were pushing their heads under, drowning them, at least as far as they could tell, their panicky eyes would look up over the edge of the vat and it was easy to see what they were thinking. ‘Why on earth would he do such a thing to us?’”
Elisabeth Elliot finishes with this. She said:
“I’ve had some experiences in my life which have made me feel very sympathetic to those poor sheep. There were times I couldn’t figure out any reason for the treatment I was getting from my great Shepherd, whom I trusted. Like these sheep, I didn’t have any hint of an explanation.”
“Though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your teacher and your ears shall hear a word behind you saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.” The result? Last verse in the chapter, last verse in our passage. “Then,” verse 22, “Then you will defile your carved idols overlaid with silver and your gold-plated metal images. Then you will scatter then as unclean things and you will say to them, ‘Be gone.’” Meaning you’ll finally unclench your white-knuckled grip from hanging on to all those functional saviors when you say, “I’ve got to have this. This has to be mine. If I don’t have this, I can’t be joyful. My life doesn’t work if I don’t have this.” Then, you’ll finally say, “Be gone!”
How Does This Happen?
One last question. How does this happen? How does this become mine? Back to verse 18, “Therefore, the LORD waits to be gracious to you. Therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the LORD is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.” Here it is. Everything we’ve talked about describes what God does. But one phrase talks about who God is. Did you see it? Verse 18, “For the LORD is a God of justice.” Therefore, He shows grace and mercy. It doesn’t make sense, does it? How do God’s justice and His mercy and grace combine in the same verse? Answer? It takes a cross. It’s only because of the cross can any of this be true for you and me because at the cross Jesus received the full justice that my sin deserved. He was treated the way I deserve to be treated. 2 Corinthians 5:21 makes it so plain. “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us so that in him we would become the righteousness of God.” That’s what we prayed, and that’s what we were assured of early in this service. Because justice was fully and completely poured out upon Jesus, the Father can now look to me and in union, with Christ He extends to me mercy and grace. That’s how this works.
And so the invitation stands in verse 15. “For thus says the LORD God, the Holy One of Israel, ‘In returning and rest shall you be saved, and quietness and trust shall be your strength.’” That’s the invitation for every one of us. You’ve got a footnote. It says, “returning” – literally, it’s in repentance. And repentance, and rest, faith in Him, will you be saved. And quietness and confidence will be your strength. In other words, are you going to turn back to Him? God, today, stands waiting, to receive you back. And He’s willing to condescend even to the extent of being the God of last resort. He’ll wait until you’ve tried everything else and says, still, the prophet says, “The Lord waits. He longs to be gracious to you. Therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait, who long, for Him, and find Him to be their ultimate deliverer.” Is that you today? Not just at the beginning of your Christian but at every moment, every moment of your Christian life. That’s the invitation. Let’s pray!
Father, because You wait, long to be gracious to us, because You exalt Yourself to show mercy to us, we trust that You are a God of justice and we are blessed when we turn to You, and repentance and faith come back, and learn to find You to be our one true Savior, our ultimate joy, our peace, our redemption, our Deliverer, and our joy. We look to You. Bring us home, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
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