The book of Romans opens with the Apostle Paul's statement that he was "called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son," (Romans 1:1b-3a RSV). It is that prophetic foreview of the work of our Lord Jesus and the gospel, that occupies our attention in "the gospel according to Isaiah." This section, beginning with Chapter 49, provides perhaps the clearest picture in the whole Bible of the ministry of Jesus. It is an amazing passage which leads us to the very Holy of Holies, which the 53rd chapter of this book represents. This prophecy was given 725 years before our Lord appeared. A modern counterpart of that would be if someone in the twelfth century, during the time of the Crusades, had written a document that described in accurate detail, including his name, the Presidency of Ronald Reagan in twentieth century America. That is how accurate the predictive element of this section is.
Chapter 49 opens with the Servant of Jehovah describing his own ministry.
Listen to me, O coastlands,
and hearken, you peoples from afar.
The Lord called me from the womb,
from the body of my mother he named my name.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, "You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified."
But I said, "I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my right is with the Lord,
and my recompense with my God."
And now the Lord says,
who formed me from the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength -- " (Isaiah 49:1-5 RSV)
It is not hard to see in that section the events our Lord fulfilled in the days of his flesh. This passage is addressed to the Gentile peoples of earth, reaching far beyond Israel to the "coastlands," the continents of earth. The first declaration is that the Savior's name was given to him before he was born: "from the body of my mother he named my name." When Mary was found with child, an angel visited Joseph and told him that the holy issue to be born of Mary was to be called, Jesus. In Verses 2-3 the servant describes how he was taught of God, and yet taught in obscurity. Growing up in that carpenter's shop in Nazareth, our Lord learned radical truth that would be like "a sharp sword." But he learned it in obscurity, hidden away like "an arrow in a quiver," as he describes it here. Yet during those times, he was made aware of what God had called him to do: "He said to me, 'You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.'" This, of course, became our Lord's objective as he moved into his ministry upon reaching manhood.
Verses 4-5 speak of his experience of rejection by the people to whom he came. At first his ministry was sensational. He attracted crowds everywhere he went. But soon he began to experience rejection and apparent failure, so that in the end he had to say, "All have forsaken me." This is reflected in these words, "I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity." Even in those words, however, there is a confidence that God will recover and do his will: "Yet surely my right is with the Lord, and my recompense with my God." He clearly understood that God would fulfill through him the work he had sent him to do, which he says is, that he might "bring Jacob back to him." He came to reach the wandering, disobedient nation of Israel and to bring it back to God.
In this section we can see that both the nation and the servant are called Israel "Israel, my servant" and yet they are clearly distinguished. This is the answer to those, particularly among the Jews, who say this is not referring to a man but to the nation only. Clearly both figures are reflected here.
Verses 8-13 continue the description of what God has called his servant to do. There is a remarkable promise in Verse 6, where Yahweh looks on to the worldwide ministry that the Servant will have.
"It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the preserved of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."
Thus says the Lord,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the servant of rulers:
"Kings shall see thee and arise;
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves;
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you." (Isaiah 49:6-7 RSV)
Here is a ministry that reaches far beyond the land of Israel going out to all the nations. Though in some places he would be despised, in other nations kings would acknowledge his authority. This has been fulfilled many times in history. Queen Victoria declared that she viewed herself as a servant at the feet of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Napoleon and other leaders of history had great things to say about Jesus. Throughout history many leaders have humbly acknowledged their dependence upon this amazing Person, so that these words have been adequately fulfilled. In Verse 14 of this chapter, Israel (or Zion, a name for Jerusalem) cries out,
But Zion said, "The Lord has forsaken me,
my Lord has forgotten me." (Isaiah 49:14 RSV)
Many Jews feel this way yet today. Frequently you hear them say that while they were the chosen people (some admit they still are), yet they feel that God has forsaken them. They cannot understand the wanderings through the centuries, the nameless horrors of the Holocaust, and other persecutions. But Yahweh reminds them, in Verses 15-16:
"Can a woman forget her sucking child,
that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are continually before me." (Isaiah 49:15-16 RSV)
That is God's word that he will not forget his promises to Israel. Paul takes this up in Chapters 9, 10 and 11 of Romans, and asks the question, "Has God cast off his people whom he knew?" Romans 11:2a KJV). His answer is, "Absolutely not." God will fulfill these promises.
Here Jehovah reminds them, "Though you may feel neglected and forgotten, I cannot cast you off. I will never forget you, 'Can a mother forget her sucking child?'" Proverbially, of course, mother love is the strongest love of all. Many mothers continue to love their children no matter what they do. But it is unfortunately true that mothers can forget their children. This week the papers were filled with an account of a mother in New York who systematically suffocated all nine of her children. Mothers can forget their children, but God cannot: "Behold, I have inscribed you, engraved you on the palms of my hands." We are reminded of that scene in the gospels when Jesus, after his resurrection, appeared to his frightened disciples, huddled together in the upper room, and said to them, "Behold, my hands and my feet and see that it is I," Luke 24:39). Those wounds in his hands were marks of love and their very names were engraved in his hands.
Though this passage is addressed to Israel (Zion) as a nation, we Christians have a right to claim these promises for ourselves. In Hebrews 12 the writer says we believers have not come to Mt. Sinai, the mountain that cannot be touched, to the intolerable sound of the trumpet and the darkness, etc. "But," he says, "we have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, to the heavenly Jerusalem," (Hebrews12:22 RSV). Therefore these promises apply to us on a spiritual level.
This entire section is a great word for discouraged hearts. If you ever feel like God has forgotten you, that he has turned his back on you? Perhaps you have made mistakes and you think that God is going to punish you all the rest of your life. In our prayer requests this morning there is an appeal for a man who feels forsaken, discouraged, defeated. Many people feel that God has totally forgotten them.
I was in Atlanta on Thursday and Friday last, speaking to a group of Southern Baptist pastors. I was encouraged to hear one of them, a preacher of a large Baptist church in Atlanta, say that he had learned that he was preaching to the wrong crowd of people. He thought he was preaching to what he called "America 1," the average family a man and his wife, their two-and-a-half children, driving a Cadillac or a Lincoln, living in a beautiful home on an acre of ground, etc. But he discovered that the group he was really speaking to was what he called "America 2." They live in high-rise apartments, drive Porsches or BMWs, have probably gone through two or three divorces, and their family consists of his, hers and their children. They are all living empty lives, climbing the corporate ladder, feeling the rush and restlessness of life, troubled by many inner problems and distresses. That is the world of today, here in Silicon Valley too.
But God has a ministry to the discouraged and defeated ones. He will restore and do a work that will leave them amazed and baffled at the wonders that he produces. Read on at Verse 19, where God says to Israel:
Surely your waste and your desolate places
and your devastated land --
surely now it will be too narrow for your inhabitants,
and those who swallowed you up will be far away.
The children born in the time of your bereavement
will yet say in your ears:
"The place is too narrow for me;
make room for me to dwell in."
Then you will say in your heart:
"Who has borne me these?
I was bereaved and barren,
exiled and put away,
but who has brought up these?
Behold, I was left alone;
whence then have these come?" (Isaiah 49:19-21 RSV)
Hear the amazement at the increase of population, the return of prosperity, and the blessing of God upon the people! That is the wonder of the gospel. How many here could tell how God has changed their lives and blessed their hearts beyond their dreams. We sang earlier this morning,
All my confusion He understood.
All I had to offer him was brokenness and strife,
But he made something beautiful of my life.
That is the gospel in action. The rest of Chapter 49 describes in beautiful words this promise to his people. Chapter 50 continues with God's answer to the charge of forgetting his own people. Yahweh asks in the opening verse:
Thus says the Lord:
"Where is your mother's bill of divorce,
with which I put her away?
Or which of my creditors is it
to whom I have sold you? (Isaiah 50:1a RSV)
Though the people felt like God had forgotten them, divorced them, and cast them off, God says, "All right, prove it! Where is your bill of divorce? Where is a bill of sale to these people whom I have allegedly sold you?" They cannot produce it, of course, because it has not happened. But God says to them,
"Behold, for your iniquities you were sold,
and for your transgressions your mother was put away.
Why, when I came, was there no man?
When I called, was there no one to answer?" (Isaiah 50:1b-2a RSV)
This was the reason for their trouble. It was not God's fault that they were made to wander through the nations of earth enduring terrible trials. This verse asks, "Where were you when I came? Why when I called did no one answer?" He is speaking, of course, in foreview, of the ministry of Jesus. I remember that John's gospel opens with a statement in the prologue, "He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not," (John 1:10-11 RSV). That was true not only of the Jewish world, but the Gentile world as well. He came unto all the world, but through the centuries he has been rejected and not listened to by almost all.
This rejection did not happen because of any lack of power on God's part. It goes on to claim that God has ample power to deliver. The problem is human pride; that obstinate resistance to being helped which we all feel in our hearts at times. It is an unwillingness to admit that we need anyone. That is why the gospel can only be received by those who have been humbled, those who understand their lack and their need.
But the prophecy does not stop with that. The passage goes on k tell us what God does to overcome that terrible obstacle of pride. How does he deal with this? How does he remove this block? Once again we hear the Servant of Jehovah himself, telling us of his own experience.
The Lord God has given me
the tongue of those who are taught [of one who is taught, of a learner]
that I may know how to sustain with a word
him that is weary.
Morning by morning he wakens,
he wakens my ear
to hear as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious.
I turned not backward.
I gave my back to the smiters,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I hid not my face
from shame and spitting. (Isaiah 50:4-6 RSV)
Two remarkable things are described here by the servant. He says, first, "Morning by morning God taught me truth. I listened to my Father." Remember the many times Jesus said in his ministry, "The things that I say unto you I have heard from my Father." Again and again he made that claim. He had the ear of a learner. He pored over the Scriptures. He saw himself in them. He understood what his work would be. There came dawning into his heart the revelation that he was to endure anguish, pain and rejection. But, as he says, "I was not rebellious. I was willing to go ahead. I gave my back to the smiters and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard. I hid not my face from shame and spitting."
It is well for us to remember frequently the sufferings of Jesus, the sheer physical agony that he went through. Think of the Upper Room and the Last Supper when he said his soul was "exceeding sorrowful unto death" (Mark 14:34 KJV); the shadows of Gethsemane among the olive trees; his loneliness, his prayers, his disappointment with his disciples; his bloody sweat, the traitor's kiss, the binding, the blow in the face; the spitting, the scourging, the buffeting, the mocking, the crown of thorns, the smiting; the sorrowful way and the burdensome cross he had to bear. Think of his exhaustion, his collapse, the stripping of his garments, the impaling on the cross, the jeers of his foes and the flight of his friends; the hours on the cross, the darkness, his being forsaken of God, the terrible cry of anguish, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34 KJV). And then the end at last, "It is finished" (John 19:30). This is all seen in anticipation by the prophet and was all fulfilled in Jesus.
But that is not the end. It is well to remember what the book of Hebrews says, ''We have not a high priest who cannot be touched with the feelings of our infirmities," (Hebrews 4:15a KJV). He has been through it all. "He was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin," (Hebrews 4:15b KJV). The chapter closes with a word of warning and a word of encouragement. First the word of encouragement:
Who among you fears the Lord
and obeys the voice of his servant,
who walks in darkness
and has no light.
yet trusts in the name of the Lord
and relies upon his God. (Isaiah 50:10 RSV)
That is the word for all who feel forsaken. God cannot and will not leave you. He will deliver you. But what about those who do not trust him, those who insist on trying to work it out their own way?
Behold, all you who kindle a fire,
who set brands alight!
Walk by the light of your fire,
and by the brands which you have kindled!
This shall you have from my hand:
you shall lie down in torment. (Isaiah 50:11 RSV)
That is not spoken as a vengeful God, but it is a realist speaking. He is saying, "If you turn to something else, if you try to work it all out yourself, if you 'build your own fire' and try to warm yourself by other means, well, then, you will have to take the inevitable results. You will lie down restless, miserable, unhappy; in torment because that is what that kind of a choice leads to."
Chapters 51 and 52 give specific steps which believers can take when they feel discouraged and forsaken of God. This marvelous section is gathered around two different phrases, "Hearken to me," and "Awake, awake," each of which is repeated three times. These give great insight into God's program for the discouraged.
"Hearken to me, you who pursue deliverance,
you who seek the Lord;
look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were digged.
[The next verse tells what these two figures stand for.]
Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you;
for when he was but one I called him,
and I blessed him and made him many. (Isaiah 51:1-2 RSV)
In other words, if you are discouraged look back to where you have come from! Israel was to look back to Abraham, back to the time before he left Ur of the Chaldees. He had nothing. He was but a rock in a hard place! God called him and gave him everything. Look at Sarah. She was 90 years old before she underwent the labor of childbearing. Yet God multiplied her offspring to become the nation of Israel.
When you are discouraged, look back. You may not be what you want to be, or even what you ought to be, but thank God you are not what you were! Remember Paul's words to the Corinthian believers, ". . . neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God," (1 Corinthians 6:9b-10 RSV). But the apostle continues, "And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God," (1 Corinthians 6:11 RSV). Look back. Has God changed you? Has he altered your inner life and changed your heart? In the words of the old hymn,
Count your blessings.
name them one by one,
And it will surprise you.
what the Lord has done.
Then also look ahead, God says.
"Listen [Hearken] to me, my people,
and give ear to me, my nation;
for a law will go forth from me,
and my justice for a light to the peoples.
My deliverance draws near speedily,
my salvation has gone forth,
and my arms will rule the peoples;
the coastlands wait for me,
and for my arm they hope.
Lift up your eyes to the heavens,
and look at the earth beneath;
for the heavens will vanish like smoke,
the earth will wear out like a garment,
and they who dwell in it will die like gnats;
but my salvation will be for ever,
and my deliverance will never be ended. (Isaiah 51:4-6 RSV)
Look ahead! A new day is coming! God is at work. We are not headed for darkness and despair, we are headed for peace and light and glory; for power and ministry such as we could never dream. In Second Corinthians 5 the apostle says, "This light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us an exceeding weight of glory," (2 Corinthians 4:17). That is what lies ahead. We must go through darkness here for a while, but it will not last forever. Once in a meeting where people were sharing their favorite Bible verses, I heard a man say, "My favorite are those verses that begin, 'And it came to pass. . .' When I face discouragement, I say to myself, 'It didn't come to stay, it came to pass.' " That is what God is saying. It will not last forever. We are headed for light, for peace, and for glory. Verse 7 adds another "Hearken." Do not only look back and look ahead, also look around!
"Hearken to me, you who know righteousness,
the people in whose heart is my law;
fear not the reproach of men,
and be not dismayed at their revilings.
For the moth will eat them up like a garment,
and the worm will eat them like wool;
but my deliverance will be forever,
and my salvation to all generations." (Isaiah 51:7-8 RSV)
We were reminded this morning of a threat to Wycliffe Translators in Oklahoma by Marxist professors who are arrogant and callous enemies of the truth. But no one need fear. There is an invisible destruction going on in their lives. An unseen judgment is already taking place, one which is called here, the judgment of the moth and the worm. Have you ever gone to your closet to pick out and wear a fine woolen garment which was hanging there, only to find a cloud of moths fly out of it? They had riddled it with holes, and you were unaware that anything was going on. That is the picture here the moth and the termite which destroys foundations. That is why we are told again and again in the Scriptures not to fear the bluster and arrogance of cruel and violent people, because God is undermining them. The psalmist says in Psalm 73, "He has set their feet in slippery places," (Psalms 73:18). We ought to feel sorry for them, hollow shells as they are for their foundations are being undermined.
In response to this, Israel cries out with desire to see this happen immediately.
"Awake, awake, put on strength,
O arm of the Lord [that is, the Messiah];
awake, as in days of old,
the generations of long ago.
Was it not thou that didst cut Rahab [Egypt] in pieces,
that didst pierce the dragon [Pharaoh, king of Egypt]?
Was it not thou that didst dry up the sea,
the waters of the great deep;
that didst make the depths of the sea a way
for the redeemed to pass over?
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 51:9-11 RSV)
Don't you feel this way at times? Don't you want to say, "Lord, I've had it here. Come soon." That is how the Bible ends: "Even so, come, Lord Jesus." But God says we must wait, but he will not leave us comfortless during the waiting.
"I, I am he that comforts you;
who are you that you are afraid of man who dies,
of the son of man who is made like grass,
and have forgotten the Lord, your Maker,
who stretched out the heavens
and laid the foundations of the earth,
and fear continually all the day
because of the fury of the oppressor,
when he sets himself to destroy?" (Isaiah 51:12-13a RSV)
"I will comfort you," says God, "I will come in my own time. But in the meantime I have a work for you to do." He tells us what that work is in Verse 16:
"And I have put my words in your mouth,
and hid you in the shadow of my hand,
stretching out the heavens
and laying the foundations of the earth,
and saying to Zion, 'You are my people.'" (Isaiah 51:16 RSV)
God wants to tell others of this wonderful way of deliverance, of the encouragement he has for those who are discouraged of heart. "I have put my words in your mouth," he says, so that we can share with others what he has done for us. He calls then to Israel to awaken itself.
Rouse yourself, rouse yourself,
stand up O Jerusalem,
you who have drunk at the hand of the Lord
the cup of his wrath,
who have drunk to the dregs
the bowl of staggering. (Isaiah 51:17 RSV)
Through the rest of the chapter God describes Israel's task, to speak to the nations, to rouse itself to tell the world about God. There is a third call to "Awake" in Chapter 52, where God again says he will truly bless this nation.
put on your strength O Zion;
put on your beautiful garments,
O Jerusalem, the holy city;
for there shall no more come into you
the uncircumcised and the unclean.
Shake yourself from the dust, arise,
O captive Jerusalem;
loose your bonds from your neck,
O captive daughter of Zion. (Isaiah 52:1-2 RSV)
What will happen in the earth in the day when Israel recognizes her Messiah? Paul tells us in Romans that the whole world is awaiting that day of discovery. That is reflected here in verse 7:
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good tidings,
who publishes peace, who brings good tiding of good,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, "Your God reigns." (Isaiah 52:7 RSV)
A few years ago I was in England, preaching in some churches in the London area. I spoke one night in a crowded Methodist chapel, where many were singing the chorus, "Our God Reigns." I was amused to see in the song sheet from which the congregation was singing that the typist had made an error in the title of the hymn, and it read, "Our God Resigns"! Many Christians act as if God has resigned. But he has not. Our God reigns! This is what we must declare. We must show it on our faces, and let it be heard in our voices. God will come and the terrible times will end. We (and Israel) will one day hear the welcome summons:
Depart, depart, go out thence [from the time of trouble],
touch no unclean thing;
go out from the midst of her, purify yourselves,
you who bear the vessels of the Lord. (Isaiah 52:11 RSV)
That is what is required of Christians today. We are not to go along with all the mistaken ways of the world, chasing illusions, and seeking things that will not satisfy. Rather, we should cleanse ourselves, for the promise is,
For you shall not go out in haste,
and you shall not go in flight,
for the Lord will go before you,
and the God of Israel will be your rear guard. (Isaiah 52:12 RSV)
We are so often like the Israelites at the Red Sea: the water before us, Pharaoh's army hard on our heels. We do not know where to turn or what to do. But then the word of the Lord comes, "Stand still, and see the salvation of your God," (Exodus 14:13). That is the way out. Trust in your Lord. He will open a way through the sea.
Thank you, our Father, you who know us so well, that you can encourage us in the midst of our distress. We are not forsaken, we are not neglected. You have inscribed us in the palms of your hands, and you will not forget your promises to us. Thank you, in Jesus' name. Amen.