By Scott Grant

Point of despair

There are times in life, when God is very gracious, when he makes us aware of our spiritually bleak condition. We may be brought up short when simply going through the motions of life begins to trouble us. Or we may glance back over life and wonder how things would be better now if we had made different decisions in the past. These moments may sneak up on us slowly, or they may crash into us. It may feel like something is gnawing at us, or it may feel like something has knocked us off our feet. However they happen, and however we feel about them, these moments of spiritual awareness come upon us as an opportunity for change. Awareness of our spiritually bleak condition can open us up to the possibility of spiritual renewal.

Isaiah 48 comprises two sections (Isaiah 48:1-11, 12-22). Each section starts out with some bad news. In the first section, the Lord accuses Israel of hollow worship. In the second section, he tells Israel how it could have profited if it had only obeyed him. In each section, we’re brought to the point of despair as we become aware that our worship has been hollow or that our sins have cost us dearly. The Lord brings us to this point, though, only to hold out to us the possibility of spiritual renewal.


Awareness of hollow worship (48:1-11)

In the first two verses, the Lord accuses Israel of worshipping him in form only. The people swear by his name invoke him. They "call themselves after the holy city," believing that God is with them because they consider themselves the true residents of Jerusalem, the Lord’s city. They lean on the Lord—thinking that he will come through for them. In reality, it’s all a sham. They claim to worship the Lord, but "not in truth or righteousness"—not sincerely, and without living in a manner that befits such a claim.

The charge is insincere worship. The evidence for the charge, in verses 3 through 8, is Israel’s resistance to the prophetic word, both past and present, the "former things" and the "new things."

The former things are events the Lord predicted "long ago" and that came to pass. This is likely a reference to the exodus, which the Lord predicted and brought about. The reason given here for the Lord’s use of predictive prophecy is Israel’s resistance to truth, symbolized by a neck as stiff as iron and a forehead as hard as bronze. Because of Israel’s resistance to truth, and its reliance on other gods despite its claim to worship the Lord, it would tend to attribute positive developments to "my idol," "my graven image" and "my molten image." The Lord says that he predicted the events of the exodus so that when they did take place, Israel would not attribute them to the work of their idols. Yet, after the Lord delivered Israel from Egypt, the people fashioned a golden calf and said, "This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt" (Exodus 32:4). In the first two lines of verse 6, the Lord invites the people to perceive and speak of that which should be obvious—that the Lord predicted and accomplished the former things.

The new things are likely a reference to events involved in a new exodus—a return from Babylon to Jerusalem, but especially a greater return from exile engineered by Isaiah’s "Servant" figure (Isaiah 42:1-4). The Lord’s reason for the use of this new predictive prophecy is so that Israel will not be able to say that it anticipated the positive developments.

Israel is wont to claim knowledge of coming events, but in fact its "ear has not been open" to the Lord, which would give it true knowledge. The Lord, on the other hand, not only has had advance knowledge of coming events, he has had advance knowledge that Israel "would deal very treacherously" with him. Israel has usually said one thing in apparent response to the Lord but done another. Earlier, the Lord identified his people as being "named" Israel; now, in verse 8, he says Israel has been "called" a "rebel from birth."

So, this is the Lord’s case against Israel. His people worship in pretense only, they are hardened against the truth, they take credit for what the Lord does, and they deal treacherously and rebelliously with the Lord. Could the Lord make such a case against us?

Is our worship genuine? Do we come here to seek the Lord and to be formed by him, or is this just some kind of cultural thing we do because, well, we’ve always done it and we’re supposed to do it? Or do we think doing all these church things offers some kind of guarantee that God will come through for us? All the while are we living in such a way that would disavow a claim of allegiance to the Lord? Does God’s word just bounce off our necks of iron and foreheads of bronze? If we achieve something, or if something good happens to us, do we take credit for it? Do we take credit for what the Lord does? Power and knowledge reside with him, not us, but we like to think that in our power and our knowledge we can make good things happen for us. Is there a treacherous, rebellious streak in us? In all likelihood, the Lord could make quite a case against us.

So, what does he do with his case against Israel? What does he do with the case he could make against us?

The Lord delays his wrath; he restrains it; he does not cut Israel off, either as a nation or as his people. Instead, he says he has refined and tested Israel—a likely reference to the forthcoming exile. In that the Lord will refine Israel, but not as silver, he will not destroy it. Because Israel was nothing but dross (Isaiah 1:22), there would be nothing left if he refined it as silver. The "furnace of affliction" in which the Lord will test Israel is reminiscent of the furnace of Egypt, where the Lord prepared Israel for the exodus (Deuteronomy 4:20, 1 Kings 8:51). The Lord will not destroy; he will refine and test. Thus, in verse 11, he will "act."

Why does the Lord refine and test and not destroy? The Lord says it has to do with "my name," "my praise" and "my own sake." If he destroyed Israel instead of refining and testing it, and ultimately delivering it, his name would be profaned and his glory would be given to another.

God’s concern for his name has to do with his nature and his reputation. When he acts in his name (as he always does), he is acting in a way that is consistent with, and expressive of, his nature. He wants people to be absolutely clear about who he is. He also cares about his praise—that is, the praise people offer him. He wants people to praise him. Although he acts on behalf of us, and not to destroy us, he does so for his own sake, to do what pleases him and promotes his desires. The Lord has tied his reputation to his people, and what happens to them could result in others’ either praising him or discounting him. He does not want anyone thinking that his glory—his beauty and awesomeness and worth—belong to anyone else, and if he destroyed his people, there would be reason for people to think that beauty and awesomeness and worth lie elsewhere.

In that the Lord is concerned for his name and his praise and his glory, then, he is concerned for us. John Piper explains:

So God acts for his name, and he acts for us—and they are one and the same act. Instead of destroying us, he refines us and tests us in the furnace of affliction because, to put it crassly, he can’t help himself, and so that others may praise him, which is what they really need to do.

The fact that God acts for his name and praise and glory, then, is supremely comforting for us. We trust in the Lord’s nature, not ours. We trust in what he has said about himself. The Lord could make an insurmountable case against us. From time to time we need to feel the weight of that case, and even be crushed by it—by the truth that our worship is hollow, that we live in a way ill befitting one claiming allegiance to the Lord, that our necks are stiff as iron and our foreheads as hard as bronze, that we take credit for the Lord’s work, that we deem ourselves the source of power and knowledge, that we deal treacherously and rebelliously with the Lord. In the face of such evidence, what does the Lord do? Because he is jealous for his name, he acts to bless, not destroy. In refining us and testing us, he acts to make us better. Thus God is glorified.

I had been out of college for about a year. One day I finally acknowledged that my faith was hollow, that in attending church and Bible studies I was simply going through the motions. All alone in a cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains one night, I had to acknowledge, "I’m not sure what I believe." It was a spiritually lucid moment. Instead of pretending to believe, I acknowledged that I wasn’t sure what I believed. Then I had to decide what to do about it. As I pondered, two paths opened up before me in my mind—two, and only two, possible ways of living. The first path was to cast off restraints. That was the path that my friends in college took, but I was close enough to them to see the emptiness in their souls. I didn’t want to take that path. The other path I envisioned was essentially remaining on the one I was on, but because I was now aware that I had serious doubts about the reality of God and of Jesus Christ, taking that path, in my mind, meant that I would have to fake it for the rest of my life.

For a few minutes, because the path of casting off restraints seemed so unsatisfying, I actually entertained the option of faking belief in Jesus Christ for the rest of my life. When the hypocrisy of taking such a path finally dawned on me, I was horrified that I had even thought of it. Both paths were unacceptable. I concluded that God would have to show me his reality. I prayed that he would. Over the next two years, he did. It was a long, painful journey back to him, but I found the third path, and I am walking on that path today, 20 years later, absolutely convinced of the reality of God and of his Son, Jesus Christ—and absolutely convinced that a brief moment of spiritual awareness in a little cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains turned my life around. Becoming aware of the hollowness of my faith, and asking God to do something about it, was a new beginning.


Awareness of ‘what could have been’ (48:12-22)

This section begins just as the first section, with the Lord imploring his people to listen to him. Again, he addresses Israel as the people he has "called" (in verse 1, the same word is translated "named"). Even though in the last section the Lord said that Israel had been "called a rebel from birth," he still says Israel is the people he has called. The Lord says, "I am he," speaking of his self-existence, and, "I am the first, I am also the last," indicating that he starts things and finishes what he starts.

The Lord created the heavens and the earth, and when he calls to creation, it responds, and stands ready to listen to him. Therefore, the people of Israel, which the Lord has also created, should assemble and listen to him. By use of a rhetorical question, the Lord says that none of Israel’s idols has declared "these things," the new things of the previous section that pertain to release from Babylon.

Who is it that the Lord "loves," who carries out the Lord’s "good pleasure" on Babylon, also referred to as the Chaldeans? This is likely a reference to Cyrus of Persia (Isaiah 44:28, 45:1), the "bird of prey from the east" (Isaiah 46:11). The Lord looks on Cyrus with affection because Cyrus will accomplish the Lord’s good purpose, defeating Babylon and liberating Israel. In verse 15, the Lord, with emphatic use of the first-person pronoun "I," guarantees Cyrus’ success. Throughout this chapter, the Lord is making the point that it is he, not Israel or its idols, who speaks in advance about the things that will happen and brings them to pass.

Once more, in verse 16, the Lord invites Israel to listen to him, but with a more intimate invitation: "Come near to me.…" He wants Israel to listen to the way in which he has declared what he will do. He has not spoken in secret but openly. All of what he has promised and accomplished should not come as a surprise to Israel, unless its neck is as stiff as iron and its forehead as hard as bronze. The Lord is telling his people about the open way in which he has spoken to them so that they will check the record and that his word will break through their thick skulls. He says that "from the time it took place" (what he spoke about), he was "there," accompanying his word and ensuring its effectiveness.

The Lord is speaking in the first three lines of verse 16. Then someone else speaks in the last line: "And now the Lord God has sent me, and his Spirit." Who is this? The language is similar to other places in Isaiah where the "Servant of the Lord" speaks (Isaiah 49:1-6, 50:4-9). The anointed one of Isaiah 61:1-3 speaks in a similar manner, saying that "the Spirit of the Lord is upon me." The last line of verse 16, then, is an interjection by the Servant that anticipates the Servant Song of Isaiah 49. The Servant speaks up here because it is he, not Cyrus, who will in the power of the Spirit accomplish the true return from exile.

Despite the fact that there is something within us—the New Testament calls it the "flesh"—by which we too could be called "a rebel from birth," the Lord has "called" us his own, and called us to something great. As the first and the last, he finishes what he starts, and for us that means he finishes what he starts in us (Philippians 1:6), and that he brings about the deliverance he promises for us. As creation stands ready to listen to the Lord when he speaks, so should we, whom the Lord has created. What’s he saying to us? He’s saying that idols that we have manufactured through our own knowledge and power can’t tell what’s going to happen. Our knowledge and power are no hedge against the future. The Lord, on the other hand, speaks to us of his intention to deliver us, emphatically attributing both the declaration to deliver us and the accomplishment of that deliverance to himself.

Sometimes, just as Israel in verse 16, we get a more intimate invitation from the Lord, something that feels like, "Come near to me, listen to this." In this case, what he wants us to hear is that he has not spoken in secret about his intention to bless us. He has declared it to us in his word long ago. He invites us to check the record, and to see if he’s been true to his word. But there’s more to it than even this. The Lord calls us to him in an intimate way to give us an intimate message. The message is this: He has not spoken in secret. That means he has shared his secrets with us. Jesus told his disciples, "No longer do I call you slaves; for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you" (John 15:15). The Lord has shared his secrets with us; that means we’re his friends.

The deliverance he promises us is not through Cyrus but through the Servant of the Lord, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who was anointed by the Spirit for his task and has sent the Spirit to us to continue his work in us and through us (Matthew 12:17-21, 3:16, John 14:16-17).

In verse 17, the Lord identifies himself to Israel as "your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel." Despite Israel’s resistance, he is still in the redemption business, though in his holiness, he cannot disregard sin. The Lord more specifically identifies himself as the one who teaches Israel to profit and who leads it in the way it should go. He then says what would have happened if the people of Israel had obeyed his teaching and his leading. Their "well-being" (literally, "peace") would have been as continual as a river. And their righteousness—their faithfulness to the covenant—would have been as powerful as the waves of the sea. Their offspring would have been as numerous as the grains of sand on a seashore. Israel, if it had heard and obeyed the Lord’s commandments, would have been consistent, strong and fruitful.

Finally, the Lord says that if Israel had obeyed the Lord’s commandments, its name would "never be cut off or destroyed from my presence." The Lord earlier said that he restrains his wrath "in order not to cut you off." The implication of verse 19 is that Israel some day will be cut off as the nation of God’s choice. One day that happened—all those who belonged to Israel in name only were cut off, when the Lord would reconstituted Israel around his Son (Matthew 21:42-45).

We must pay close attention to the teaching and leading of the Lord. The reason given here is that it will profit us. That’s why we emphasize the teaching of the scriptures. The scriptures teach what God teaches. If we obey them, we will profit. But our necks are stiff and our foreheads are hard. So we need to keep studying and keep teaching and keep praying so that we might embrace the teaching and leading of the Lord, that we might obey him and ultimately that we might be consistent, strong and fruitful.

Why does the Lord tell the people of Israel of "what could have been"? It almost seems as if he’s kicking them when they’re down—unless, of course, there’s still a chance for them. If there’s still a chance, then verses 17 through 19 would offer tremendous encouragement. The people would see what they’d been missing and lament that they forfeited such blessings through disobedience. But if the flame of faith is still flickering, they’re likely to greet another chance with great joy. Verses 17 through 19 are designed to provoke change.

Verse 20 then bursts upon them: "Go forth from Babylon! Flee from the Chaldeans!" The Lord teaches them to profit; the Lord leads them in the way they should go. He’s still doing it! The Lord is offering them release from captivity, and commanding them to leave Babylon and return to Jerusalem. If they obey, and if they continue to obey, their well-being will be like a river, their righteousness like the waves of the sea, their descendants like the sand.

Not only are they to leave Babylon, they are to proclaim their release loudly and joyfully. Earlier it was the Lord, and only the Lord, who "declared" things. Now his people are to declare how the Lord has redeemed them. They are to send notice of their redemption to "the end of the earth" so that the nations might know that the Lord redeems.

The Lord then reminds his people of how he provided water for them in the wilderness after he redeemed them from Egypt (Exodus 17:1-7). The Lord has in mind a new exodus, this time from Babylon, and with this almost parenthetical reference to the exodus, he’s assuring his people that he will provide for them on their wilderness journey back to Jerusalem (Isaiah 43:19).

The first reward for obedience in verse 19 was literally "peace." Now, in verse 22, though the Lord is offering his people another chance, he says, "There is no peace for the wicked." This is a reminder that the blessing of peace, or well-being, which was one of the covenant blessings to be bestowed in the promised land, is contingent on true reform. The "wicked," those who continue in disobedience, will enjoy no peace. It’s another way that the Lord is challenging his people to return to him.

What if we feel as if we’ve really blown it? It hits us that we haven’t paid attention to the Lord’s commands and that we have suffered because of it. We have forfeited the consistency, strength and fruitfulness in life that the Lord offers to those who listen to his teaching, follow his leading and obey his commands. Maybe some of you have arrived at a point where you think about "what could have been" if you had obeyed the Lord.

What would it be like for you today if you were to hear the Lord speaking to you, "I want to give you another chance"? That’s what the Lord is saying to you in this passage. Just as he told Israel to flee from the Chaldeans, he’s telling you to flee from sin. Jesus told the woman caught in adultery "from now on sin no more" (John 8:11). Paul tells us, in language reminiscent of Isaiah 48:20: "Flee immorality" (1 Corinthians 6:18). As we saw last week in our study of Revelation 17:1-19:10, Babylon is a picture of the world—humanity in opposition to God. We heard the voice from heaven tell us, "Come out of her [Babylon], my people, that you may not participate in her sins and that you may not receive of her plagues" (Revelation 18:4). Jesus told his disciples to "flee" Jerusalem when the Romans attacked—to free themselves from the Jews’ pagan-like nationalist, and very worldly, agenda. There is this opportunity to flee the sin that holds us captive and to move toward the Lord, seeking to obey his commandments.

The first commandment to obey is to leave a life of disobedience and enjoy the freedom of true humanity that God offers. The second is to express the joy in our hearts that God has put there as a result of the deliverance he has wrought, telling others our stories of redemption. The conversion of one sinner, or the return of one lost follower of Jesus, is good news for the world, even the end of the earth. It’s one more life, one more voice, added to the chorus of those singing the praises of God’s glory, going out to all creation. We then declare what the Lord has declared to us.

Leaving a life of sin may feel like walking into a wilderness with no water, but the Lord has always provided for people who commit themselves to following him. You can return to the Lord, and as you sink your roots into his word and do your best to follow him, your life will be marked by consistency, strength and fruitfulness.

On the other hand, there is no peace for the wicked—for those who reject the Lord and his commands. The Lord is telling you the way by which you can profit in life. Don’t turn your back on him for a life that in the end yields no peace, no wholeness—only loneliness and bitterness.

In the 1929 Rose Bowl, Cal’s Roy Riegles recovered a Georgia Tech fumble, became disoriented and ran the wrong way. One of his own players tackled him before the goal line, but on the next play, just before the first half ended, Georgia Tech kicked a field goal. He became known as "Wrong-way Riegles." Riegles himself tells the story of what happened at halftime:

For those of you who have become painfully aware that you have made a mess of your life because of sin, the Lord, in this passage, is telling you get up off the floor and back in the game.

An opportunity

Moments of despair brought on by spiritual awareness, then, can be an opportunity. In your spiritually destitute condition, God wants to refine you, and he offers you another chance. It’s a new day.

(1) John Piper, Desiring God, © 1986. Multomah Books, Sisters, Ore. © 1996 John Piper. Pp. 47-48.

(2) The News Herald. Oct. 16, 1998.

Scripture quotations are taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE ("NASB"). © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. Where indicated, Scripture quotations were also taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION ("NIV"). © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

Isaiah 48:1-22
10th Message
Scott Grant
May 21, 2000