I saw Halley's Comet this week. I thought I had better see it since I will not be here when it comes around again. It was not too impressive. As I observed it through binoculars, it seemed to be nothing more than a bright star with a little tail. But seeing it reminded me of the wonders that have been discovered by astronomers in recent years as they have been able to go beyond the earth's atmosphere to see things they could not see before. One of those marvels is what has been called the "Black Holes" of space. These strange phenomena are referred to as the "sewers" of space because they seem to swallow up stars. Even whole galaxies pour into them and disappear. Astronomers have surmised that "Black Holes" are huge, incredibly dense stars, so powerful in their gravitational force that even light cannot escape from them and thus we cannot see them.
As I read about those "Black Holes" I thought immediately of what is called in the book of Revelation "the bottomless pit." That term seemed to be an apt description of those space phenomena. Here is what the opening verses of Revelation 20 describe as the use that God makes of the "bottomless pit."
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years were ended. After that he must be loosed for a little while. (Revelation 20:1-3 RSV)
That "bottomless pit" comes at the end of the great period of trouble upon the earth, yet future, of which our Lord Jesus himself said, "then shall be great tribulation such as has not been since the beginning of time, no, nor ever shall be," (Matthew 24:21).
There are many passages of Scripture that point to that terrible period of judgment that is coming upon the earth. In the section of Isaiah we come to today, beginning with Chapter 24, there is a vivid description of that time of trouble that lies yet ahead for the nations of earth. Recognize how clearly this accords with what is in the book of Revelation.
Behold, the Lord will lay waste the earth and make it desolate,
and he will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants.
And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priests;
as with the slave, so with his master;
as with the maid, so with her mistress;
as with the buyer, so with the seller; as with the lender, so with the borrower;
as with the creditor, so with the debtor
[all classes of earth are judged alike].
The earth shall be utterly laid waste and utterly despoiled;
for the Lord has spoken this word.
The earth mourns and withers,
the world languishes and withers;
the heavens languish together with the earth.
The earth lies polluted
under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed the laws,
violated the statutes,
broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore a curse devours the earth,
and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt;
therefore the inhabitants of the earth are scorched,
and few men are left. (Isaiah 24:1-6 RSV)
Further word of this devastation is given later in the chapter.
The earth is utterly broken,
the earth is rent asunder,
the earth is violently shaken.
The earth staggers like a drunken man,
it sways like a hut;
its transgression lies heavy upon it,
and it falls, and will not rise again.
On that day the Lord will punish
the host of heaven, in heaven [that is the devil and all his angels],
and the kings of the earth, on the earth.
They will be gathered together
as prisoners in a pit [a bottomless pit];
they will be shut up in a prison,
and after many days they will be punished. (Isaiah 24:19-22 RSV)
Most obviously that parallels what the book of Revelation says.
In Isaiah 25 the prophet looks beyond this time to the new heavens and the new earth.
And he [God] will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations [the veil of blindness to truth]. He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day, "Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us." This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation." (Isaiah 25:7-9RSV)
What a beautiful picture that is, in contrast to the first. Chapters 26 and 27 return to the terrible time of judgment coming on the earth. We will not take time to read these, though I urge you to read them through at your leisure. Beginning with Chapter 28 the prophet introduces a series of six "woes." These are like stop signs, warning of some danger that lies ahead.
The word "woe" does not necessarily mean "You're going to get it." It really means "Beware, watch out; you are about to be drawn into a black hole of destruction." While these "woes" focus primarily upon Judah and Jerusalem (picturing the time of trouble that awaits Israel before her hour of deliverance comes) let us also remember that the Apostle Paul tells us that all these things that happened to Israel are "written down for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come," (1 Corinthians 10:11b RSV). What is literal and physical to Israel is a picture of the spiritual peril we face in our own lives. If we are not careful we too may be drawn into a time of terrible destruction. (I do not have time to develop the literal application to Israel, so I will focus solely on the spiritual application to our own lives.)
The first "woe" is found in Chapter 28.
Woe to the proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim,
and to the fading flower of its glorious beauty,
which is on the head of the rich valley of those overcome with wine!
Behold, the Lord has one who is mighty and strong;
like a storm of hail, a destroying tempest,
like a storm of mighty, overflowing waters,
he will cast down to the earth with violence.
The proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim
will be trodden under foot; (Isaiah 28:1-3 RSV)
This is further described in Verse 7:
These also reel with wine
and stagger with strong drink;
the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink,
they are confused with wine,
they stagger with strong drink;
they err in vision,
they stumble in giving judgment.
For all tables are full of vomit,
no place is without filthiness. (Isaiah 28:7-8 RSV)
At first glance these terrible words seem to describe the danger of alcoholism, picturing the ultimate fate into which one who has given himself to strong drink can be drawn. This is in line with many other Scriptures which warn about intoxication, drug abuse, or anything that takes over the body and the mind. But this is figurative language, primarily. This "woe" is pronounced on Samaria, the chief city of the tribe of Ephraim, and the capital of northern Israel, which stood like a crown, on a hill above fertile valleys. It is a picture of the moral condition of the inhabitants of Samaria. History tells us that these people were given over to the love of fleshly pleasures; they lived for luxury.
This, then, is a warning against loving the good life so much that it becomes the chief aim of life. Such a lifestyle produces a paralysis of the spirit. People become dull and apathetic. They stagger about like drunken men, finally giving themselves over to shameful filth and debauchery. This is a description, then, of uncontrolled self-pleasing -- the "self-actualization" we hear so much of today. The New Testament warns of times when "men shall be lovers of pleasure, rather than lovers of God," (2 Timothy 3:4 RSV). This is what Isaiah is warning about. He raises a "Danger Ahead" sign. Woe to those who go this route.
This is a great peril to spiritually-minded people. Do you sometimes catch yourself wanting more of the luxuries of life, thinking constantly of a new car, a new house, of climbing the corporate ladder, etc.? Yesterday's Hippie (who wanted to drop out of life) has become today's Yuppie, who is trying to get as much of the material values of life as he can. We are surrounded with this here in Silicon Valley. We are constantly besieged by appeals to accumulate the "good things of life." The advent of the California lottery has introduced television scenes of people participating in the "big spin." There is a new fever seeming to possess people, to spend their hard-earned dollars on lottery tickets, hoping they will be the one in five million who will suddenly be made rich beyond their wildest dreams. This is the spirit of our age. There is great danger in it. That is what this "woe" is about. Beware! Watch out! You are being sucked into something that can be spiritually destructive. With each of these warnings, a way of escape is given. This is always the way of Scripture. Here it is stated in Chapter 28, Verses 9-10:
"Whom will he [God] teach knowledge,
and to whom will he explain the message?
Those who are weaned from the milk,
those taken from the breast?
For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
line upon line, line upon line,
here a little, there a little." (Isaiah 28:9-10 RSV)
That is a beautiful description of how the Bible is written. Unlike theological books, there is not a chapter on sin, another on heaven, another on angels, etc. The Bible mixes it all together, interspersing one truth with another, so that a balanced approach to life is given, "precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little, there a little."
This verse sets forth the way to avoid being trapped by the seductive lure of the good life. Study your Bible! Read what God says. Look at life as he sees it. See through the allurement of the television commercials! Remember the words of Paul in Romans 12: "Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed ..." (Romans 12:2a KJV). Let your thinking be changed. Let the word of truth transform your view of life so that you see life as it really is. That is the way of deliverance.
Our Lord Jesus put it very beautifully in one verse in the Sermon on the Mount: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and [then] all these things will be added unto you," (Matthew 6:33 KJV). Many Christians have reversed that, giving themselves continually to efforts to get ahead, forgetting that they are to put first the things of God. Forget about status symbols and accumulation of wealth. Seek godliness first -- concern yourself with being a righteous man or woman right where you are. The promise is that then God can trust you with the things of wealth. All these things that "the Gentiles seek after," Jesus said, "can then be added safely to you," ( Matthew 6:32). A second "woe" opens Chapter 29. Your version may say "Ho," but it is really the same word in Hebrew.
Ho [Woe to] Ariel, Ariel,
the city where David encamped!
Add year to year;
let the feasts run their round.
Yet I will distress Ariel,
and there shall be moaning and lamentation,
and she shall be to me like an Ariel.
And I will encamp against you round about,
and will besiege you with towers
and I will raise siege works against you.
Then deep from the earth you shall speak,
from low in the dust your words shall come;
your voice shall come from the ground like the voice of a ghost,
and your speech shall whisper out of the dust. (Isaiah 29:1-4 RSV)
Ariel is another name for Jerusalem ("the city where David encamped"). The word means "the Lion of God," or another meaning is, "the altar of God." As is the case with Hebrew words, both meanings apply. Jerusalem was intended of God to have been a lion and an altar to the nations of the earth. A lion is a symbol of authority, while an altar is the symbol of moral cleansing. The nation Israel was to have spoken to the world with authority gained through the cleansing of God. But what has Jerusalem and Israel become instead? We get a very vivid description of it in Verses 13-14 of this same chapter:
And the Lord said:
"Because this people draw near with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote;
therefore, behold, I will again
do marvelous things with this people,
wonderful and marvelous;
and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish,
and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hid." (Isaiah 29:13-14 RSV)
Israel's problem was what we would call "mechanical religion," meaningless, external conformity to a performance of religious things. This is a grave danger. When you feel yourself becoming dull spiritually, it is a warning sign that says, "Watch out! You are headed for trouble.'' This happens to all of us on occasion. It is healthy to ask yourself at times, "Have I lost my zest for God? Do I sing the hymns mechanically? Do the truths of Scripture appear to me dull and common place? Have I lost the sense of joy in my Christian experience?" That is a danger sign. That is what this "woe" is referring to. There is a Black Hole ahead into which you are being drawn. God's provision for this is found in the latter part of Verse 5 and in Verse 6:
And in an instant, suddenly,
you will be visited by the Lord of hosts
with thunder and with earthquake and great noise,
with whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire. (Isaiah 29:5b-6 RSV)
Suddenly God will send into your life some experience -- a disaster, perhaps -- something that will get your immediate and undivided attention. That is God's action to wake you up to the danger of drifting away from the vitality of a spiritual walk.
I have always appreciated the story of the two students at Duke University who went to a costume party dressed as blue devils, the mascots of Duke. They started out to the party, but by mistake they stumbled into a prayer meeting, setting off a great exodus through the doors and windows. One rather stout lady became wedged in a pew and began to scream in terror. Forgetting that they were causing her agony, the two young men rushed forward to help her. As she saw them advancing she raised her hand and said, "Stop! Don't you come any further. I want you to know that I have been a member of this church for 25 years -- but I've been on your side all the time!" That is what we call a moment of truth. It is a very valuable experience.
At times God will send something that wakes you up suddenly to the drift in your life. This is why he has spoken so helpfully through the prophets and the apostles, warning us of the danger of spiritual drift and the danger of mechanically living as a Christian. The third "woe" comes in the middle of Chapter 29. Verse 15:
Woe to those who hide deep from the Lord their counsel,
whose deeds are in the dark,
and who say, "Who sees us? Who knows us?"
You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay;
that the thing made should say of its maker,
"He did not make me";
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,
"He has no understanding"? (Isaiah 29:15-16 RSV)
Here the danger is the error of thinking that the Lord does not see what is going on in your life. This is a widespread danger today among Christians. Some actually believe they can allow evil thoughts, pornography, bitterness, attitudes of hate and rebellion, etc., to pervade their minds and that God does not see this, and even if he does, he will do nothing about it.
Notice how the prophet reacts to that. Verse 16 is a cry of amazement: "You turn things upside down! Do you really think that the One who made you does not know you, that he does not understand what is going on in your life?" It is incredible that anyone would allow himself to think that way. Yet many people feel that God is so remote from their lives he has no real interest in what they are doing. When we begin to feel that way we are in need of a warning, a stop sign that says, "Watch out! You are drifting into danger." Verses 18-19 describe what that condition requires.
In that day the deaf shall hear
the words of a book,
and out of their gloom and darkness
the eyes of the blind shall see.
The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,
and the poor among men shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 29:18-19 RSV)
Notice the change of attitude. Instead of proud confidence that they can go on their own way with impunity there is a change. Those who have been deaf to the words of God begin to read the words of the Book; the eyes of the blind are able to see, and the meek again experience fresh joy in the Lord. Bring your condition to God and ask him to restore to you the joy, the sense of vitality, the living quality of truth. The latter part of Verse 23 shows what will happen to those who do this.
They will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob,
and will stand in awe of the God of Israel. (Isaiah 29:23b RSV)
Rather than imagining God to be unconcerned and indifferent, they will wonder at his majesty and greatness.
And those who err in spirit will come to understanding,
and those who murmur will accept instruction. (Isaiah 29:24 RSV)
That is the mercy of God, raising a warning signal to men to turn and recover the blessing they have proudly set aside. The fourth "woe" comes in the opening verse of Chapter 30:
"Woe to the rebellious children," says the Lord,
"who carry out a plan, but not mine;
and who make a league, but not of my spirit,
that they may add sin to sin;
who set out to go down to Egypt,
without asking for my counsel,
to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh,
and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt!" (Isaiah 30:1-2 RSV)
This is the danger of self-confidence, the danger of an arrogant and rebellious spirit that despises God's counsel. Someone has well said,
Trained men's minds are spread so thin
They let all sorts of darkness in.
When they find light, they tend to doubt it.
They don't love light, just talk about it.
This is the condition of man who really do not want to hear what the Lord says. Verse 9 further describes such people:
For they are a rebellious people,
sons who will not hear
the instruction of the Lord;
who say to the seers "See not,"
and to the prophets, "Prophesy not to us what is right;
speak to us smooth things,
leave the way, turn aside from the path,
let us hear no more of the Holy One of Israel." (Isaiah 30:9-11 RSV)
What a rebellious, arrogant spirit that describes! Such a one is headed for a Black Hole of destruction. It lies not far ahead. Verse 15 describes what is needed.
For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel,
"In returning and rest you shall be saved;
in quietness and in trust shall be your strength." (Isaiah 30:15a RSV)
Here is a marvelous invitation. God is saying, "You are headed for trouble, but if you will turn around you will find what you are looking for 'in quietness and trust shall be your strength.'" The condition of the one who responds is described in Verses 20-22:
And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, "This is the way, walk in it," when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left. Then you will defile your silver-covered graven images and your gold-plated molten images [your false gods]. You will scatter them as unclean things; you will say to them, "Begone!" (Isaiah 30:20-22 RSV)
The effect of truth upon a life is that of guidance: one hears a voice behind saying, "The decision you have made is right; walk in it." He will turn away from the false gods of the world: lust, pleasure, fame, the pursuit of public recognition and self-exaltation and find quietness. Your Teacher will instruct you from the Word itself. The fifth "woe" is in Chapter 31:
Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help
and rely on horses,
who trust in chariots because they are many
and in horsemen because they are very strong,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel
or consult the Lord!
And yet he is wise and brings disaster,
he does not call back his words,
but will arise against the house of the evildoers,
and against the helpers of those who work iniquity. (Isaiah 31:1-2 RSV)
Here the danger lies not in self-confidence but in a misplaced confidence, in trusting the counsel of another-especially (as it is pointed out here) that which is pictured by Egypt. Egypt is always a symbol of the world in its wisdom. Here is a warning against following this kind of worldly wisdom. The problem with it is stated in Verse 3:
The Egyptians are men and not God;
and their horses are flesh and not spirit.
When the Lord stretches out his hand,
the helper will stumble, and he who is helped will fall,
and they will all perish together. (Isaiah 31:3 RSV)
I see that happening to many people who take the judgment of the world instead of the counsel of God. Many have brought their marital problems to counselors who were unbelievers and were told, "If you do not get along with your mate, get a divorce. You don't have to subject yourself to strife." Some have followed this advice, and have found, as the prophet warns here, "the Egyptians are but men, and their horses are but flesh." They will all perish at last. Taking such counsel will only open you up to far greater agony and pain than you had before.
Rather than working their problems through according to the guidance of the Lord, there is a commitment among many to such wrong advice. Young people are told, "Sex is only natural. Go for it." This is the spirit that has taken over the schools and most of public life. But that is worldly counsel which is from Egypt. Businessmen are told that lying, cheating and sharp business practices are all right. Business is business, as the saving goes. But that too is from Egypt, the counsel of the world. What should one do? The answer comes in the opening words of Chapter 32, which is part of this fifth woe:
Behold, a king will reign in righteousness,
and princes will rule in justice. (Isaiah 32:1 RSV)
What you need is a King in your life, the Lord himself who will rule in righteousness and justice. You will then find,
Each [man] will be like a hiding place from the wind,
a covert from the tempest,
like streams of water in a dry place,
like the shade of a great rock in a weary land.
Then the eyes of those who see will not be closed,
and the ears of those who hear will hearken.
The mind of the rash will have good judgment,
and the tongue of the stammerers will speak readily and distinctly. (Isaiah 32:2-4 RSV)
What a difference it makes if you have a King in your life! The Lord himself will be to you like a "hiding place from the wind, like streams of water in a dry place." This beautifully describes the refreshment of spirit that comes to those who, while walking in the midst of life and not trying to run away from it, feed their inner life with the strength and beauty of the Lord their God. How wonderfully this describes the escape from the danger of a misplaced confidence. The final "woe" is found in Chapter 33.
Woe to you, destroyer,
who yourself have not been destroyed;
you treacherous one,
with whom none has dealt treacherously!
When you have ceased to destroy,
you will be destroyed;
and when you have made an end of dealing treacherously,
you will be dealt with treacherously. (Isaiah 33:1 RSV)
This "woe" is different than the others in that it is not pronounced upon Judah, Jerusalem, or Israel, but upon its enemies, specifically upon the nation Assyria. It is not, therefore, a chastisement of a loving Father, but the just retribution of an angry Judge. The evil that is punished here is treachery, unwarranted attack, cruelty.
Christians can be guilty of this too. In our bulletin this morning there is a poignant plea for prayer from someone who says, "I can't control my tongue. I have a habit of lashing out at people. I hurt and cut them. I have a critical spirit." A failure to judge ourselves and a tendency to attack others is frequently found among Christians. You can be a victim of that kind of attack as well. In either case, when we ask "What can we do about it?" the answer is given in Verse 2:
O Lord, be gracious to us; we wait for thee.
Be our arm every morning,
our salvation in the time of trouble. (Isaiah 33:2 RSV)
This is a prayer from the heart. As we sang a few moments ago, "Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil" (Matthew 6:13, Luke 11:4), is a prayer that ought to be on our lips every day. The prayer, "Be our arm every, morning," depicts a spirit that is aware of its fatal tendencies and asks God for help daily in the midst of the pressures of life. Verses 21-22 state what God promises in this connection.
But there the Lord in majesty will be for us
a place of broad rivers and streams,
where no galley with oars can go,
nor stately ship can pass [no warship can attack].
For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler,
the Lord is our king; he will save us. (Isaiah 33:21-22 RSV)
There are the six Black Holes of life: Self-pleasing, religious externalism, self-deceit, wrongly placed confidence, rebellious attitude, and cruel attacks upon others.
These are the danger areas where God in his mercy erects a sign that says, "Stop! Listen! Beware!" The Apostle Paul gives us a marvelous explanation of God's dealings with us in this connection. "If we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened, so that we may not be condemned along with the world," (1 Corinthians 11:31-32 RSV).
How foolish we are to follow the values and counsels of the world, poured daily into our minds through television, radio, and the press. Let us never forget that it is the world that is suffering from illusions and delusions. Its principles are wrong, hurtful and destructive. Much of the agony of life comes from the commitment that people often unconsciously make to these principles. But God has given us guidelines and wisdom from on high.
Isaiah 34, which returns to the final judgments of earth, is another terrible scene. But it emerges at last in Chapter 35 in a beautiful picture of the inner life of those who rest upon the strength of God in the midst of the world around.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
"Be strong, fear not!
Behold, your God
will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
He will come and save you." [That is the refuge of the believer.]
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a hart,
and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert; (Isaiah 35:3-6 RSV)
And a highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not pass over it,
and fools shall not err therein.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing,
with everlasting joy upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35:8-10 RSV)
Those beautiful words will be literally fulfilled to Israel in the day of their return to the Messiah. But they describe the heritage of believers right now.
Our inheritance is peace, love and joy. Inwardly we are to have those no matter what the world around us is like. If we feed upon the riches of truth given to us, and live in daily fellowship with the Lord who is our present possession, then those refreshing graces will possess our hearts. I close with the marvelous words of James Russell Lowed,
Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet 'tis truth alone that's strong.
Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne.
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadows.
Keeping watch above his own.
Thank you, Lord, for these wonderful words of reassurance, that you know and understand life to the full and You tell us what it is like if we will but listen. Remove the blindness from our eyes. Open our hearts to the great riches that are waiting for us in fellowship with our living, loving Lord. Help us to pursue these, to become obedient to truth, to be searchers after the revelation that you have given that we may be effective and powerful in our witness in the world in which we live today. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.