Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Isaiah 8 & The Death of the Wicked

[This entry follows a sermon called "Do Not Be Conformed To This World, Part 2".  Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

Once I heard the news of the death of Osama bin Laden, I was quite certain that the first sentence of this week's blog entry would read, "I am going to veer off my normal course of gaining my topic from Sunday's sermon due to the news of Osama bin Laden's death."  Yet, the more I thought about this moment in our history along with the text from Sunday, I couldn't help but think that we have a providential match.

In Isaiah 8, the call from God to Isaiah is that he must not be conformed to the world in which he lived...a call which was not limited to that day but remains even now (cf. Rom. 12:2).  The threat of allied forces coming from the north left people in fear and filled the national atmosphere with speculative conspiracy theories.  If Twitter and Facebook existed in that day, no doubt they would have been filled with such statements.  Yet, God speaks to Isaiah that he must not go the way of the nation.  Isaiah summarized God's words this way: "For the LORD spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people..." (8:11).

The fact that God's words came "with his strong hand upon" Isaiah means that God's power was felt as His words entered the ear and heart of the prophet, and God's powerful word was that he must "not...walk in the way of this people."  His response to world events must reveal the fact that he fears his holy God (8:13) and that God's Word is bound up in His heart (8:16).  Not only that, but when others are making inquiries of the dead (or anyone else, for that matter) to find hope and help, Isaiah must go "to the teaching and to the testimony" (8:20).  If people don't speak according to this word, says the second half of that verse, it is because there is no light in them...their hearts are dark.

With that brief synopsis of what God says to Isaiah, it is easily seen that these verses can be applied to the historic events of recent days.  The situation is only different...allied forces are not clamoring on our border, and fear is not sweeping the nation as the worldly response to such things.  Rather, a major terrorist has been killed as part of a military action, and celebration is sweeping the nation.  The question we must ask is...how are we to respond to such things?  Are we free to respond however we feel like responding?  Or, is there a right way to respond, and how does the Scripture inform our response to the death of Osama bin Laden?

Before we get to that, it seems appropriate to say that human beings are prone to immediate, emotional responses to things of this nature.  Do you remember the movie Pearl Harbor?  It portrayed the Japanese attack which precipitated the United States' entry into World War II (with artistic license).  I remember sitting in the theater and watching this movie, and the actual attack scenes seemed to go on forever!  By the time the movie was over, my sense of patriotism was very high, and I had a renewed appreciation for those who were there.  Yet, there was something else...I struggled with anger toward the Japanese.  It took a few days before I could honestly look at anyone of Asian descent and not need to fight off feelings of animosity.  I imagine it was far more difficult for those who lived through the attack and particularly those who were connected to Pearl Harbor in some direct way.

The same kind of rise in patriotism sprung  up in many people upon hearing the news of bin Laden's death.  Finally, that chapter was closed, and "public enemy #1" was no longer a threat.  Spontaneous rallies and celebrations took place in a variety of locations, and Monday morning news shows focused their time and energy on the story...covering every possible angle.  Joyous statements flooded cyberspace and newspaper headlines.  It seemed that the natural way to respond to this important event was to immediately celebrate.  Is this the way a Christian responds to such an event?  Let me give you a few things to chew on.

First, one has to acknowledge that the evil of Osama bin Laden was very visible.  From the 1998 bombing of the American embassy in Kenya to the attacks of September 11, 2001, his evil schemes are well known to us all.  If they weren't before Monday, they have been explained once again.  In the minds of many, evil is distinctly linked to the name of Osama bin Laden.  Second, we do want to acknowledge that through this military action, we can certainly say that no more innocent people will die at the hands of this terrorist.  I am glad for this.  However, it is very naive to think that evil has taken any kind of real hit here.  Satan was not defeated in the death of Osama bin Laden.  Not only that, but the human heart is as dark now as it was Sunday afternoon before bin Laden died, and history tells us that there is always another evil man waiting to step into public action.  So, there is a sense in which I am glad that no more death will come through his schemes and at his hands, but that cannot be where we end our thinking.

If we are to be distinct from the world, then we need to consider what warnings or affirmations the Scripture would give us to shape our thoughts.  The first thing that comes to mind is that the Scripture would not have us celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden.  In Ezekiel 33:1-6, God tells the prophet that within any people, there must be a watchman...to warn them of the impending danger of an attacking army.  If the people ignore the danger and die, then their death is their own fault.  If the watchman doesn't warn them, though, their blood is on his hands.  Then, in verses 7-9, God takes this societal example and points the prophet to a spiritual truth.  God tells Ezekiel that he is the spiritual watchman for the people of Israel, and when God speaks a word of spiritual warning...that sin will lead to destruction...Ezekiel must pass it on.  If they hear his warning and won't repent, then their suffering at God's hand is their own choosing.  However, "If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand" (v. 8).

After giving this instruction, then God gives Ezekiel the message.  He is to tell them that their sins will lead them to destruction, but even if they are destroyed for their continued sin and unbelief, Ezekiel is to make sure they understand this: "As I live, declares the LORD GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?" (v. 11).  God established that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23), and yet God was not prepared to celebrate or take joy in the death of those who would die because of their persistent sin.  Why?  This verse says that He longed for them to turn and live.  Yet, there is a bigger, governing principle here...God is holy.  He is separate and distinct in everything He does.  Mankind proudly and joyfully looks at the death of the wicked and says, "HA!  He got what was coming to him!"  God looks with sobriety at the fact that the person could have turned and lived, yet because of his unbelief, he had to receive the penalty of his sin.  In Isaiah 8, God says, "You respond to world events in the understanding that I am holy...and you be holy because I redeemed you to be holy."  A holy response to the death of the wicked is not celebration, rallies, and chants of "USA! USA! USA!"  (Also, see Proverbs 24:17-18 for further study.)

The second thing that comes to mind is that no Christian should ever rejoice in a man or woman's entrance into eternity apart from Christ.  This follows along the same line as the first point, but when we maintain a biblical picture of hell in our hearts and minds...of eternal, conscious torment...then sobriety should engulf our souls at the possibility of one entering that place.  To think of hell as if it were our place of vengeance for those we consider evil is wrong.  Christians must not rejoice when anyone enters a Christless eternity.  (By the way...if you'd like to read a book which gives a pretty thorough...and scholarly...treatment of the doctrine of hell, I recommend Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment.)

Third, thinking in this worldly, celebratory way can lend itself to a works-righteousness view of salvation.  Over the last 36 hours, I have heard people say things like, "He's answering to GOD now!"  Yet, it is said in a way that is arrogant...as if the one saying it will not one day face the same God.  My greater fear is that those who are saying these things believe they are in a better standing with God because they are not like Osama bin Laden.  They are good citizens, pay their taxes, raise their children to be good citizens, do good in their community, etc.  This works-righteousness just 'feels right' to the lost man or woman because it makes sense in his/her view of justice.  Yet, we too often forget that though we do have an inherent sense of justice, it has been marred by sin. 
This temptation is in all our hearts.  As Christians think about the death of the wicked, there is a Satan-originated temptation to think, "I am so much better than _________."  Or, in the paraphrased words of the Pharisee in Luke 18, "God, thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this [terrorist, Osama bin Laden.]."  Brothers and sisters, our righteousness is like filthy rags before a holy God, and in times like these, it seems very necessary to remind ourselves of that fact.  Otherwise, we will convince ourselves that our non-terrorist way of living somehow contributes to our good standing before God...such thinking devalues the work of Christ on the cross and must be shunned.

Fourth, making light of the death of the wicked is inappropriate for Christians.  Again, this is just a little further down the same line of thinking as the first two.  No doubt, Facebook and Twitter will be flooded with songs, one-liners, and jokes regarding the death of Osama bin Laden.  Late night talk show hosts will have new material for a while.  Yet, if we are going to be those who do not rejoice in the death of the wicked (point 1) and those who take hell seriously (point 2), then it should follow that we will not allow ourselves to publicly or privately involve ourselves in such things.  Too often, my mouth engages in witty banter before my brain engages fully, and while I can see God granting grace and progress in the battle, it still rages on.  Just recently, I made a comically-intended comment to a friend about a subject that should be serious.  I was immediately cut to the heart and had to repent...seeking forgiveness from my friend and confessing to God.  Those of us given to sarcastic humor may struggle the most with this idea (in any situation, not just this event), but it is a necessary battle to fight.

Finally, the conquering of evil hearts comes with guts not with guns.  What I mean by this is that in these areas where radical Muslims live, it is going to take courageous believers to go and speak the gospel of grace.  I read the story of a pastor in Algeria whose church has been burned to the ground twice by radical Muslims.  His congregation of 300 has been diminished to 10 through continual threats and attacks.  The pastor's statement was this: "Even if it was just me, I would be here until death in this church."  I am a comfortable American pastor, and I know that I write these words as a comfortable American pastor.  However, if radical Muslims are going to be converted, then believers in the US (and other countries) will have to literally lay their lives on the line for the sake of the gospel.  Praying for unreached people groups is an absolute necessity, but prayer alone doesn't take the gospel to unreached people groups...people who are being prayed for take the gospel to unreached people groups. 

Acts of evil and violence will not end until Jesus returns and sets right all that is wrong, but men and women and young boys and girls may be saved from lives of evil and violence if we will be more steadfast in our gospel mission.  This doesn't mean that governmental restraint of evil...and military restraint of evil...should cease.  What it does mean is that we cannot look to the government or the military to provide a peace that only Jesus can bring...to individuals and to the world.

I'm certain that more could be said about these things, but let me end with a general principle from Isaiah 8 that should govern how we respond to world events...no matter the nature of the news.  May God's Word come to us with the powerful hand with which it first came to Isaiah, and may we heed the warning "not to walk in the way of this people..." (8:11).  May we not think as the world thinks about this historic death...may we not respond as the world responds to this historic death...may we not celebrate as the world celebrates this historic death.  Instead, by God's grace and in the power of His Spirit, let us be holy, for the One who saved us is holy.