Our nation was stunned and shocked at the deaths of seven astronauts at Cape Canaveral on Tuesday last. I could not help but think that the tragedy confirmed much of what we have been learning in Isaiah's prophecy, especially his words from last week, "All flesh is but grass, and its beauty as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever," Isaiah 40:6-8). James says, "Our life is but a vapor which appears for a little while and then vanishes away," (James 4:14). Certainly that was dramatically illustrated in the shuttle tragedy. One moment the astronauts were with us, smiling and laughing, and the next moment they were gone, vanished from the earth.
This tragedy has had a sobering impact on our nation because, in some ways, space travel has become our proudest achievement. We were hit right where we felt most confident and successful. I hope it has had a humbling effect upon our people. Pride is the great enemy of mankind, yet it is one of our commonest feelings.
The Word of God warns against pride because it cuts us off from the grace and goodness that God wants to give. Isaiah warns that prideful man can never obtain anything from God. God gives only to those who recognize their need. This is exemplified in our Lord's opening words in the Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," (Matthew 5:3).
There is a beautiful promise contained in Chapter 44 of Isaiah to which we come today. The chapter opens with these wonderful words, spoken by God through the prophet:
"But now hear, O Jacob my servant,
Israel whom I have chosen!
Thus says the Lord who made you,
who formed you from the womb and will help you:
Fear not, O Jacob my servant,
Jeshurun whom I have chosen.
For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my Spirit upon your descendants,
and my blessing on your offspring." (Isaiah 44:1-3 RSV)
Here is pictured the refreshment of spirit that God gives to those who are thirsty, those who recognize the dryness of their lives and who come to him for supply. Notice that the promise extends even to their offspring. Here is a great word for families: God will bless them if they take the place of suppliant need before him.
As we have already seen many times in Isaiah, all this is to be ultimately true of the nation of Israel. We must never steal these promises away from the Jews. God will fulfill them literally one of these days. But this is also applicable to those who, by faith in Jesus Christ, have become sons and daughters of Abraham. These promises, that God will pour water on the thirsty, and streams on the dry ground, are made to us, as well. This is one of the most remarkable paradoxes in the Scripture. What man could ever devise a plan that if you fail, you win, if you lose, you will succeed, if you are broken, you will be lifted up? But that is God's plan. He always deals realistically with us. He will not force us to be humiliated, but he wants us to face the whole picture. He is totally honest. He knows exactly who we are and what our problem is. The folly of man is that he seeks to smooth that over and to pretend to be something he is not. All this is remarkable proof that the Bible is a divine Book, for no man would ever come up with a program for success that starts with an admission of failure.
A couple of weeks ago my wife and I were in Palm Springs, sharing in a ministry with Dr. Lewis Smedes, a professor from Fuller Seminary. He went to the Los Angeles county jail one day to spend a few hours helping some of the prisoners there with their spiritual problems. As he was eating alone in the cafeteria at lunch time, he met a man, a lawyer, who spends a whole day each week helping prisoners in the county jail. But he did not use his legal expertise to counsel them. He sought instead to help by reading the Scriptures to them and aiding them in spiritual matters.(In order to help in that he wore a clerical collar.) Dr. Smedes said to him, "Don't you find it rather depressing, working with these losers all the time?" The man replied, "I don't look at them that way. To me there are only two kinds of people in the world: the forgiven and the unforgiving. These men and women are locked up physically. You can find a key, open the door and let them out, but no one yet has found the key that opens their inner life except God." That is a beautiful expression of what Isaiah is saying. If you are locked up inside yourself, prisoner to your own pride and self-sufficiency, God can open the door and let you out. This is what he promises to do and has done for centuries.
The prophet goes on to give God's disclosure of the kind of God he is.
Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel
and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
"I am the first and I am the last;
besides me there is no god.
Who is like me? Let him proclaim it,
let him declare and set it forth before me.
Who has announced from of old the things to come?
Let them tell us what is yet to be.
Fear not, nor be afraid;
have I not told you from of old and declared it?
And you are my witnesses!
Is there a God besides me?
There is no Rock; I know not any" (Isaiah 44:6-8 RSV)
Critics of the Bible sometimes complain that God is constantly bragging about himself. But this is not empty boasting. It is simply declaring reality. It is an attempt on God's part to save his creatures from the folly and danger of following false gods. The passage goes on to describe the stupidity of the idol worship that the Israelites were falling into. The prophet describes a metal smith who melts metal, pours it into a mold to make an idol of it, and in the process he becomes tired. Isaiah points out what a ridiculous thing it is that a man makes a god who has no power to help him even while he is making it. Then he describes a carpenter who carves the figure of a man out of a block of wood, then uses the chips that he has carved off the block to build a fire to warm himself. He then bows down and worships the idol, seeking deliverance from something his own hands have made. What a ridiculous concept!
When we read a passage like this we are tempted to say, "Surely this does not apply to us. We are not idol worshippers." But we are really not that far removed from this kind of practice. As I drive down here on Sunday mornings I often notice people out in their yards worshipping a shiny, bright, metal idol. They pour expensive fluids into it, polish and shine it, and bow down before it. Have you ever noticed the change that comes over them when they get into it and take off down the street? Mild, inoffensive people, who never utter a word in anger, blast out of their driveways, leaving a trail of rubber as they depart, transformed with an illusion of power. We worship the automobile, which has become the symbol of luxury, beauty and power.
Silicon Valley is one of the great idol-manufacturing areas of the world, shipping out computers, these strange machines with their flashing lights and weird symbols, to the worshipers of knowledge in the far corners of the earth. Many today worship the god of sex, thinking that sex will satisfy them and fulfill their needs. But the god of sex will not deliver them. It is true we do not have idols of wood and stone any longer, but the ideas behind them remain the central idols of the American people. The prophet declares of the idolater, Verse 20:
He feeds on ashes; a deluded mind has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, "Is there not a lie in my right hand?" (Isaiah 44:20 RSV)
The folly of worshipping any god other than the true God is that people deceive themselves. They are left dissatisfied, feeling, they have been feeding on ashes. The soul, as well as the body, needs food. It looks for that which satisfies. But those who look for satisfaction in drugs or sex discover that they have been feeding on ashes. They have been deceived, failing to recognize that there is "a lie in their right hand." The right hand is the symbol of what you grasp, who you look for help from. But those who follow idols are unable to see that they will not satisfy, but will leave a taste of ashes in the mouth. Many businessmen worship the god of power. They are climbing the corporate ladder to the top, seeking honor and recognition, dreaming of the prerequisites of the presidency of the company. When they have all they want, however, they will find it has turned to ashes. Many students worship knowledge. They feel confident that the wonderful things they are learning will help them control life. But it all turns to ashes. They do not recognize the "lie that is in the right hand." The only hope, as this passage makes clear, is found in the God who formed us. God says:
Remember these things, O Jacob,
and Israel, for you are my servant; [remember the ashes upon which you have been feeding]
I formed you, you are my servant;
O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.
I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud,
and your sins like mist;
return to me, for I have redeemed you. (Isaiah 44:21-22 RSV)
Over and over again, as we have seen all through this prophecy, the heart of God breaks through to plead with his people to find their satisfaction in him. He pleads for them to turn from these false values and seek his face and his forgiveness, which he has already provided for them, having "swept away their transgressions like a cloud." They may claim this forgiveness by believing that it applies to them.
A chapter division should come in at this point, after verse 23, for the closing verses of Chapter 44 really belong with Chapter 45. Here is an amazing prediction, already historically fulfilled, of the coming of Cyrus the Great of Persia, the conqueror of Babylon. Isaiah has foreseen and described the threat of Babylon, that great empire of the ancient world. Even though Babylon had not yet come into prominence as a world power, Isaiah sees beyond its rise under Nebuchadnezzar and his conquering of much of the world, to the time when the Persians shall rise and Cyrus the Great will come and take Babylon captive. Cyrus is actually named here in this prophecy, 150 years before his birth.
Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
who formed you from the womb:
"I am the Lord, who made all things,
who stretched out the heavens alone,
who spread out the earth -- Who was with me? --
who frustrates the omens of liars,
and makes fools of diviners;
who turns wise men back,
and makes their knowledge foolish;
who confirms the word of his servant,
and performs the counsel of his messengers;
who says of Jerusalem, 'She shall be inhabited,'
and of the cities of Judah, 'They shall be built,
and I will raise up their ruins'; (Isaiah 44:24-27 RSV)
This is anticipating the seventy years of captivity in Babylon and God's promise to raise and restore Jerusalem, even naming the one who will do this.
...who says of Cyrus, "He is my shepherd,
and he shall fulfill all my purpose';
saying of Jerusalem, 'She shall be built,'
and of the temple, 'Your foundation shall be laid.'"
[Ignore the chapter division here and read right on.]
Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped, (Isaiah 44:28-45:1a RSV)
God calls Cyrus his "anointed," which is the word "Messiah." He does so because Cyrus would be his instrument to deliver Israel from Babylonian captivity. Cyrus prefigures the great Deliverer who was yet to come, God's true Messiah, who would fulfill these words in an even greater way. The prophecy goes on to say that God says to Cyrus,
"I will go before you
and level the mountains,
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze" (Isaiah 45:2a RSV)
That is a reference to the gates of the city of Babylon. Cyrus conquered the city by diverting the Euphrates River, which flowed under the gates protecting the city, so that his army marched into the city in the dry river bed. God says to Cyrus, Verse 4:
For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other,
besides me there is no God;
I gird you, through you do not know me. (Isaiah 45:4-5 RSV)
This is one of the most remarkable confirmations that God is the God of history. He is in control, whether men know it or not. He regulates the affairs of nations and takes full responsibility for all that they ultimately do, even though they do not recognize this. What an encouragement this ought to be to us when we see the high and the mighty of earth strutting about in vain ambition, making great promises of what they are going to do. Let us recognize that they only can do what God says they can do. Here God uses a king who does not even know him to be his instrument to deliver Israel. God gives another very important word in Verse 7:
I form light and create darkness. (Isaiah 45:7a RSV)
Cyrus and the Persian people were followers of Zoroaster, a philosopher who believed in monotheism (a single god), whom they called the god of Light, and another supernatural being opposing him, whom they called the god of Darkness. Here God claims that he created both light and darkness. He goes on:
I make weal and create woe,
I am the Lord, who do all these things. (Isaiah 45:7b RSV)
In the phrase "weal and woe," God is speaking of circumstances; that he is behind the circumstances of calamity, as well as of blessing. We must view the tragedy at Cape Canaveral in the light of a verse like this. As the moral Judge of !he universe, God says that he takes responsibility even for disasters but as the Savior of man he also is behind the blessings that come our way. Isaiah strongly sets forth the fact that God is in total control of all of life.
Seen in that light, how shall we evaluate the proud boasts of men that they are in control of their own destiny? God takes that up in the very next passage, at Verse 9, Chapter 45:
"Woe to him who strives with his Maker,
as an earthen vessel with the potter!
Does the clay say to him who fashions it, "What are you making?"
or "Your work has no handles?" (Isaiah 45:9 RSV)
It would be ridiculous if clay were to say to the potter, "I don't like the way you're doing this. This design does not appeal to me at all." Listen to the irony of this passage.
Woe to him who says to a father, "What are you begetting?"
or to a woman, "With what are you in travail?"
[as though these events were under human direction.]
Thus says the Lord,
the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker:
"Will you question me about my children,
or command me concerning the work of my hands?
I made the earth,
and created man upon it;
it was my hands that stretched out the heavens,
and I commanded all their host." (Isaiah 45:10-12 RSV)
This is the God with whom we have to deal. How incredibly arrogant of man to criticize the workings of a God like that! This passage is designed to humble man in his proud confidence and to show him how dependent he is upon the God whom he dares to criticize. C.S. Lewis well has said, "To argue with God is to argue with the very power that makes it possible to argue at all." How foolish man is to attempt that!"
From this passage we learn that human folly takes many forms: either self-sufficiency -- man imagining that he is God and that he can run the world -- or idolatry, where man trusts something else as god other than the true God. Either one, according to this account and as confirmed by history, results in slavery and tragedy. This is what is behind the rise of totalitarianism in our day.
Some years ago I ran across a very astute statement about this subject. Someone has written:
If a man does not believe in God, his own ego becomes the ruler of his life. Since there are no standards of right and wrong existing apart from himself, right becomes that which pleases him, and wrong that which does not minister to his ego. Since he himself is the supreme consideration, he is restrained by nothing but his own wishes, and easily reaches the conclusion that the best possible worldis one in which his will is supreme. He therefore enforces it upon others to the limit of his ability.
The denial of God thus becomes the seed from which totalitarianism develops. Freedom is possible only if men believe in God and seek to do his will. William Penn was right when he said that if men will not be governed by God, they must be governed by tyrants.
That is a remarkable statement of what the Scriptures declare -- that throughout history, behind the rise of slavery and bondage, is this inevitable substituting of the supreme will of an egoist for the mind of God. God's answer is found in Verses 22-23 of this same chapter:
"Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:22-23 RSV)
How hopeless it is for man to find his own way out of the morass which he has made for himself! The Spirit of God used this verse to speak to the heart of a fifteen-year-old boy in England in the last century. That boy, Charles Hadden Spurgeon, took shelter in a little Methodist chapel on a cold and snowy day in 1850. As there was no preacher, the deacon read the text, "Look unto me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth," and seeing a lonely boy sitting in the back, the deacon (who could not speak very well) addressed him directly and said, "Young man, look unto God and he will save you." Spurgeon said, "I looked, and I was saved." He went on to become one of the great preachers of the English church.
But this is the out which God offers to mankind: "Look to me." Do not look to science, or to technology. These are fine in themselves, they give certain creature comforts, but they cannot deliver you. They cannot satisfy you or meet your need. If you pursue them they will turn to ashes. God is the only Deliverer from human hurt and failure.
We can move quickly through Chapters 46, 47, and 48, because they deal with the same subject, the historic fall of Babylon. The idols of Babylon are judged in Chapter 46. We are told that these idols must be carried about, but God promises to carry us. Look at this word in Verses 3-4, Chapter 46:
Hearken to me, O house of Jacob,
all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from your birth,
carried from the womb;
even to your old age I am He,
and to gray hairs I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
I will carry and will save. (Isaiah 46:3-4 RSV)
That is a promise that is getting very precious to me, addressed as it is to "gray hairs." The Lord will carry us even into old age. The wisest question you can ever ask yourself is, "Does my god carry me, or do I have to carry it? Is it ultimately myself that I am looking to for help, for strength, and for inner peace, or does my God supply that?" That is the question God raises and answers many times through this passage.
In Chapter 47 the prophet looks beyond historic Babylon to mystery Babylon, referred to in the book of Revelation; that strange combination of religious powers which in the last days challenges the truth of God; and, as Revelation describes, is the source of all occult practices. Look at these verses:
Stand fast in your enchantments and your many sorceries,
with which you have labored from your youth;
perhaps you may be able to succeed, [this is rich sarcasm]
perhaps you may inspire terror.
You are wearied with your many counsels;
let them stand forth and save you,
those who divide the heavens,
who gaze at the stars,
who at the new moons
predict what shall befall you. (Isaiah 47:12-13 RSV)
Here is God's view of astrology and horoscopes, all such attempts to rely upon the stars as a guide for life.
Behold, they are like stubble,
the fire consumes them;
they cannot deliver themselves
from the power of the flame.
No coal for warming oneself is this,
no fire to sit before! (Isaiah 47:14 RSV)
They are absolutely useless when it comes to truly directing life. The section closes in Chapter 48 with a wonderful appeal again from God.
Thus says the Lord,
your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
"I am the Lord your God,
who teaches you to profit,
who leads you in the way you should go.
O that you would hearken to my commandments!
Then your peace would have been like a river,
and your righteousness like the waves of the sea;
your offspring would have been like the sand,
and your descendants like its grains;
their name would never be cut off
or destroyed from before me." (Isaiah 48:17-19 RSV)
Many times (like Jesus weeping over Jerusalem), God bewails the fact that men in their obstinacy will not come to him and be set free. The chapter and the section close with this revealing word:
"There is no peace," says the Lord,
"for the wicked." (Isaiah 48:22 RSV)
The wicked are not necessarily murderers and criminals. They are anyone who has any god other than the one God. God is Lord of his own earth and heaven. He is the One to whom we must look for life, liberty, joy and peace. Yet men turn their backs on this God who can supply all they need, and walk off into restlessness and lack of peace.
In this context, I often think of a cartoon I once saw of a little boy who had put some of his belongings in a scarf, tied them on a stock, put them over his shoulder, and kept walking around and around the same block. A policeman who saw him go around several times said to him, "Son, what are you doing?" The boy said, "I'm running away from home." The policeman said, "Why are you just going around the block?" The boy replied, "Because I'm not permitted to cross the street." How many people wander restlessly around and around the same course, seeking something new, something different, but they are not permitted to cross the street. Ultimately there is nothing left for them but to go back into the house. When they do, they will not find a harsh Judge but a loving Father who says,
"Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God and there is no other.
By myself I have sworn,
from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness
a word that shall not return:" (Isaiah 45:22-23a RSV)
Here is something as inevitable as anything in all of life. This is a solemn word of God.
'To me every knee shall bow,
every tongue shall swear.'
Only in the Lord, it shall be said of me,
are righteousness and strength. (Isaiah 45:23b-24a RSV)
Paul picks up these words in the book of Philippians and says they are true of Jesus. He is the One who fulfills this. Because of his obedience unto the death on the cross,
God has exalted him and has given to him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow ... and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:9-11)
It is our privilege to do that now, when confessing his name means salvation. Ultimately the whole universe will confess it, but then it will merely be an admission that he was what he claimed to be. Till then, "there is no peace to the wicked."
If someone here is seeking peace, may I urge these words upon you. These are not empty promises. God means this. He does speak peace to a troubled heart, to those who feel empty, lonely, miserable and rejected. God offers to "pour out water upon those that are thirsty and streams upon the dry ground."
Thank you, Father, for this precious promise to us. How beautifully it has been fulfilled in so many lives present here, and through all the ages of time. We pray if any here among us are looking for peace that they will turn to you. May we who already have come and know you recognize how foolish it is to trust in anything else but your presence in our lives. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.