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Isaiah 5:8-30

Following his mourning of Israel as the unproductive vineyard, Isaiah takes his hearers through a series of woes on the wicked. The chapter ends with an army coming onto Jerusalem, akin to the judgment Isaiah proclaims verses 6-7 on the vineyard. Just as the land of that vineyard will be desolate, so will the land of Jerusalem be desolate. The message in the immediate context is the coming judgment from Assyrian army, but it was more than that. As Isaiah goes through the list of misdeeds, it is hard to see how it’s different from any of the previous things that the prophet condemns Israel for. But there are some important nuances to his delivery, and many things we can learn.

There is a unique characteristic Isaiah’s proclamation about “those who rise…that they may run after strong drink (v. 11)” (in essence, drunks). In verse 13, he says “my people go into exile for lack of knowledge.” In our modern day, Rick Warren tells us that church needs a reformation of “deeds not creeds”. But while there may be a lack of action in our churches, good Christian works cannot be sustained unless you’re reminded who you are doing them for: Your Lord and Savior, hung on a cross.

This to me is one of the trappings of the social church, and to a certain degree, modern evangelicalism. While it is a good thing that the church is involved in social programs, if the message isn’t preached constantly from the pulpit, then there is the danger the church will becoming the church of the social/political agenda, as is clearly seen with the ecumenical movement’s vigorous support of the HHS Mandate and all it entails (i.e., universal distribution of the morning after pill).

When Isaiah again condemns “those who are wise in their own eyes” in verses twenty one, I see the connection to the lack of knowledge. By not studying God’s law vigorously, the Israelites have invented their own knowledge to distract them from its truth (just as Jeroboam build high places in Israel after the split of the one kingdom, to distract the ten tribes from the temple in Jerusalem). This connection between lack of knowledge and disobedience convicts me in one way: I’m a football/ESPN fan. I don’t mean to condemn everyone who watches the network or who has a favorite team, but, like any other good thing, you can get too much of it. And with so much sports knowledge out there, it’s easy to eat their cotton candy and get puffed up.

That leads to the recurring them throughout this book: everyone who is doing evil, whether it is those who are compiling wealth (8-10), the corrupted judges (23), or the drunkards, they do it to the hilt and make it their livelihood to do wrong. (Think of our own noble rebel culture). This is why God sends an earthly army as His instrument of punishment.

Now, to the connection between 6-7 and 25-30. Again, the devastation is obvious, but the specific language brings up great points for us to follow. In verse 26, Isaiah says God will “whistle for them (the army) from the ends of the earth”, the same phrase that Jesus uses when He sends out the disciples in the great commission. Paul Kretzmann interprets this, not only as the judgment of the Assyrians, but in a secondary sense, the destruction of Jerusalem by the romans in AD 70. Once again, we see why it would have enraged the Jewish religious leaders when Jesus told the parable of the vineyard. While He was not their political Messiah, Jesus was proclaiming a civil judgment on them. Let us take head from these verses and know that God does stand to judge us if we put our confidence in our acts of service to Him. Save us, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Isaiah’s Vineyard Prepares the Way

Personally, I’m not enamored with sermon illustrations.  If they go on too long, my mind wander. To me, a good sermon analogy is short, to the point, and leaves you thinking about the significant point of the passage.

But Jesus used parables a lot, and so did the prophets. Isaiah 5:1-7 contains one such parable, that of a vineyard. It bears a stark resemblance to two of Jesus’ parables in the new Testament., and in it, we see how Jesus’ interpretation of the Law and the Prophets set him apart from the Sadduccees and their clinging to the Torah over the prophets.

First, Isaiah’s words. He set up the scene: Israel is God’s vineyard, and the vineyard has produced “wild grapes” (meaning sour). God planted and fertilized his vineyard (the book of the law and the prophets), and there is no excuse for Israel’s lack of production. Therefore, here is God’s judgment on the vineyard: “It shall be devoured.” (v. 5), and not just devoured, but driven off the map. “I will command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.” (v. 6) This language is mirrored in the end of the chapter, where Isaiah describes the coming

Compare this statement of judgment on the unfaithful to Luke 13:6-9, where Jesus tell the parable of the barren fig tree. The planter of a fig tree comes to the servant and tells him to cut down the unproductive vine, but the servant asks his master to wait another year. The difference from Isaiah is clear.: in Isaiah, God has had enough of Israel’s sin, and he is sending this generation to judgment. In Luke, the servant intercedes for the tree, and there is another chance, although judgment is not off the horizon. The servant represents Christ, who intercedes for us now,  and in some sense, our pastors and other leaders who intercede for Christians.

The other similar parable is the one of the wicked tenants in Luke 20:9-18. In this parable, Jesus uses the same set up, although the owner in His parable doesn’t get the return on his investment in the vineyard just because there wasn’t a crop. The owner of vineyard (God) doesn’t get a return on his investment because of wicked tenants (the Jewish religious leaders) beat every messenger (prophet) that the owner sends, and then they kill the son of the owner, Jesus. But both stories have the same ending: judgment on the vineyard. It is no wonder that the Jews wanted to seize Jesus after he told this parable; Jesus could not have made their unfaithfulness so clear, and unfortunately, they continued to seek refuge in their own works.

What does this show us about the importance of parables? It shows us that God does not exist only in the regulations of the law, although we would be foolish to deny that God speaks there. But God’s word speaks to us as we go about our lives every day,  in the field, in the office, or on the road, and we would be foolish to think our actions are without consequences.

So, here is the meaning of this passage: God’s word is to produce fruit in us, and just reading it isn’t enough. Even unbelievers who deny the truth read the Scriptures with vigor to disprove its truth. We must purge our hearts of our unclean thoughts and works, so that God’s word may take its free course in us, because ultimately, we can be our own worst enemy when it comes to our own salvation.

(All Scripture quote from ESV)

(More Isaiah studies)

Isaiah 2-4: God’s Mercy Throughout (Part 3)

(All scripture quotes from ESV)

I had an odd experience in preparing my study for Isaiah 2-4. I read the text, the notes, and the commentary, but the most I learned about it when was I listened to Isaiah 2-4 online. As I heard Isaiah’s sermon flow together, I realized how little I’d learned about reading everyone else’s thoughts on it.

After Isaiah’s firey first chapter, the prophet then continues to deal with his main theme: Israel has transgressed against her maker and is deserving of condemnation. There is a perfect kingdom to come, so this transgressed one must be judged. God wants all men to be saved, but that requires judgment.

The structure of the three chapters is very straightforward: God’s perfect kingdom (2:1-5), the judgment at the end of times (2:6-22), the present judgment on Judah (3:1-4:1), and again, the glorified branch of the Lord (4:2-6). As I wrote in an earlier post, I struggle greatly with the structure that Isaiah uses: visions of God’s perfect kingdom, followed by decries of judgment. But God always gives us hope in the midst of sufferings, for we are never completely free of sufferings, even if it appears this way.

Isaiah 2:2 begins with a familiar phrase: “in the latter days”. Joel will use this latter on, in the passage Peter quotes in his sermon to the Jews on Pentecost in Acts 2. This is definitely a phrase that means “after the end of this world, when God has established his kingdom on earth. In 2:5, Isaiah calls Judah to “walk in the light of the Lord”. This concludes His calling the church from all nations to come to mount Zion, but it also serves as a transition to the section on judgment. When the Judah Isaiah was calling comes into the light, their sin is exposed.

Isaiah’s proclamation of the final judgment juxtapositions two things: God’s glory in judgment, and man’s helplessness before God in the face of that judgment. Israel has used its worldly standards for its society and has put its trust in material things, and above all its riches. But when God comes in his might, man will flee in fear and try to hide, just as Adam and Eve tried to hide in the garden and Israel hid before God’s face when he came down at Mount Sinai. The temptation Israel gave into was to think they were doing well. And that is one of the hallmarks of wealthy people: they see all their wealth, and to a certain degree, they are delusion because they had to break so many rules to get that wealth. But what does God say? “Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?” (v. 22)

Too often, we need to be reminded that God’s judgment also means wrath as well as salvation. Many of the modern praise songs say “Mighty, mighty, mighty”, but God has said he will judge the unbelievers. In the Te Deum, we sing with the cherubims, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Sabbath” but those words can only be sung in joy after we recount Christ’s work for us in the later verses.

Then Isaiah moves to the present (chapter 3): just as Judah will be judged on the last day with all people, so they will be judged here and now for their sins. Because of their confidence in their possession,  poverty will grip the nation. This will come through one form: a lack of leadership (v. 4, 12), which will be passed down to the people as they will have no one who will be able for households.

As in Isaiah 1:9, the prophet once again compares Judah to the city Lot fled “they proclaim their sin like Sodom” (v. 9). This comparison is to show the depth of Judah’s falling: “they do not hide (their sin) Woe to them! For they have brought evil on themselves.” (v. 9b) This corruption lies in the mind, because Israel has believed that their living it up on the wealth of the land and burning incense in the high places is the right way of living.

But, after Isaiah speaks of “seven women shall take hold of one man” (4:1), he then again goes back “in that day” (v. 2) “The branch of the Lord” is indeed Christ, the branch of David. As in 1:18, Isaiah speaks of God washing us (v. 4), and God creating a pure Israel, and the language of verse 5 (“a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night”) is reminiscent of God leading Israel in the dessert.

God has a blessed plan for people: even though we may sin in this life and run far from His mercy, God will discipline us when we do, so that we see the folly in trusting in the things of this life. And He will establish a Kingdom beyond this, which is what Jesus came to proclaim. Thanks be to him!

Isaiah Study Part 2: Forgiveness for Man in a Broken World

The key point that I’ve learned about Isaiah was from Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller, who said in an Issues, Etc. interview on the book, where he said that the book was mostly just the preaching of law and gospel, which opened my eyes to a different view of the text. Before that, when I turned to the prophets, I always read their books like psalms, songs that happened to be about judgment. As I studied, I read the book as speeches declared from a pulpit, and it brought a different flavor to the writing. Too often, I would look at the psalms as five or six key verses that I’d carry around, a song of praise, and when I’d take that attitude to a prophet, I would end up only taking away “Though your sins are like scarlet…” or “Do justly, love mercy,…” and not that those aren’t important verse. But I was leaving on the table all that was in the book: condemnation of sin, and love of the savior.

To clean-up something from the previous post, let me also say that, the Saduccees and the Pharisees would not have been keen on passages that denounced the temple so stringently, as I noted in my previous post.

Isaiah moves his call to something a little more specific: what Israel needs to do. “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”(Is. 1:16-17 ESV). This the final proof, the sign of Israel’s unbelief: how they are treating the poor in society is a sign of their lack of faith. But while Israel needs to take care of the widows and orphans, it is just as an important that they have right standing.

This is where the church needs to make a clear distinction: while we must take up the cause of the fatherless and the widow and the fatherless, our salvation does not lie in such things. In lies in our redemption that Christ has given us, which Isaiah is about to describe.

Isaiah 1:18 is one of the signature verses of the book, and unique in that does not explicitly mention Christ. But it does state what Christ does for us, and we should consider it closely, noting several things.

First, notice how the train of Isaiah’s sermon shifts. He spends the first sixteen verses giving commands and making declaration (“Give ear, O earth” [v. 2]; “Your country lies desolate” [v. 7]), but in verse 18, he know says, “Come, let us reason together”. This is not thinking together, as our language might indicate, but God coming to judge Israel, in its finality. As Paul E. Kretzman notes in his commentary, this sentence is passed without the consideration of how man feels about it. God has already made this decision, in the garden with Adam and Eve: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow”. Man is forgive in his sight, in spite of his sin.

But the Isaiah goes on to remind Israel that just because God has forgiven them, they do not have a license to mess around. In verses 19-20, he uses the blessings and curses format that is common in Deuteronomy, when Moses makes his farewell sermons to Israel: “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword.” It is the same choice that has always been before Israel: accept God’s blessing and covenant, or be subject to his judgment. It is the same choice we face every day, and thanks be to God, we have an advocate that stood in our place, Jesus Christ.

Isaiah Study Part 1: God’s Prophet Gets to the Heart of the Matter

When I volunteered to take over the leadership of a proposed young adult Bible study at St. John, I got a little more than I asked for. I naturally thought of Isaiah because I hadn’t studied it in depth. When I took Old Testament in college, I was all wore out by the time we got to the prophets, and we didn’t spend much time on Isaiah. Isaiah is well known because of how often it is quoted in the New Testament, but as I have gotten into the text, I have found so much more there.

Isaiah comes to Israel at a time not unlike our own. Dr. Luther notes, that while Isaiah 1:1 puts the prophet himself It was 190 years since the split of the two kingdoms, even longer since the time of David. In the intervening years, most of the kings of Judah have been good, although there was still incense being offered in the high places. Judah probably puffed up its chest during these two hundred years. After all, they had the temple and a Davidic king, and their cousins to the north were involved in mass idolatry and constantly changing monarchs. It would have been easy for Judah to be lulled into a false sense of spiritual security.

But even still, they didn’t do all that God had commanded them. Dr. Stephen Stolhmann, my Old Testament professor, told our class that, given how exuberantly the Passover was celebrated in Hezekiah’ time, it likely wasn’t celebrated that often.

And this is how Isaiah come to Israel: in the first chapter, the prophet laments, “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” (Is. 1:3 ESV) The notes in the Lutheran study Bible make the interpretation clear: even animals have natural knowledge of who their masters are, in spite of their limited brains. Israel has a book of the law, the whole thing spelled out in front of them. They read it, and they have no clue what it means because their consciences have been harden.

And it is from this point that Isaiah moves on to Israel’s source of security: their temple worship. “Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.” (Is. 1:13 ESV) This to me is the real art of Isaiah 1:2-20, the prophet denouncing the people who are trusting the means over the messenger.

Here we must note an important distinction: while the means of grace God gives can save us, it is merely an unworthy mask to what is truly behind us. I remember an Issues Etc. interview (sadly, the name of the guest escapes me), where the pastor noted that Jesus, while critical of the Pharisees’ behavior, he does observe the temple rituals and festivals, because of its position. But while those means are good, they are just that: means. God’s grace and favor is something else.

This situation presents itself in many ways in our modern society. There are religious sects, such as the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who claim Christ, but add to the teachings of Scripture. These bodies have amassed quite the following and public fascination, and the secularist like to lump them in with the true church, but the scripture makes it clear what they are.

And even in our own church, there are those who go to church every Sunday, but who often go off and serve other gods. We must guard our hearts, so that we do not allow sin and such contempt to creep into them, and run constantly to our Lord and Savior for his forgiveness and mercy. Amen and Amen.

Isaiah and Jesus: where the Pharisees and Sadducees Missed the Boat

There are two points I’ve learned about how to read the New Testament that give me a greater understanding of the text. The first, I learned from Pastor Arnold Jurchen in Bible study at Holy Cross Lutheran church in Goehner, Nebraska. The second I recently read in the Lutheran Study Bible’s introduction to the prophets, and will be a key point in the upcoming study I’m preparing for the book of Isaiah.

In that Bible study, Pastor Jurchen addressed the issue of why the Jews in Jesus’ day didn’t believe that he was the Messiah. He said that Jews in the Old Testament laid out two Messiahs: one was the suffering servant, the other was the eternal heir of David. From that, it’s pretty easy to determine who the Jews wanted to believe in. The point from the Lutheran study Bible heightened that point: the Sadducees, Pharisees and other religious leader held the Books of Moses as authoritative over the prophets, or at least as more important than the prophets. That shocked me when I read it, but in a way that made sense.

At the time of Jesus, the Jews, after generations of struggle, had gotten a temple, and some measure of control in Jerusalem. With their nose up to the Romans, the teachers of the law said to themselves, “Listen, the previous generations really screwed up. We’d better observe the law of Moses to the hilt. Our fathers didn’t, and they themselves shipped hundreds of miles away from God’s promised land. If we return in repentance and keep the temple law, eventually, we’ll get the Rambo Messiah who’ll kick out the Romans.”

But they forgot a couple of things: one, God works in spite of our failings. In Isaiah 1:12-17, God bemoans the sacrifices that Israel was offering up, and tells them to concern themselves with social justice. Even though Isaiah and the other prophets proclaimed God’s judgment, they proclaimed his forgiveness for those who repent (even in exile). When you go to the New Testament, you see Jesus healing the widows’ son and feeding large crowds, caring for the needs of lesser people. When you read John 7-8 (Jesus at the Feast of Booths) and see the dialogue, it’s clear that the Jews want to use their allegiance to Moses (“we are Abraham’s children”), but if you read Isaiah, you see that claiming Abraham isn’t valid if you are persisting in sin. The answer wasn’t to reestablish the temple which could be destroyed again (and was); the answer was to look to the hope that, in repentance and faith, God would send His Messiah.

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