[This entry follows a sermon titled "God's Message for the World". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]
The oracles found in Isaiah 13-23 are weighty words. They are called ‘burdens’ in the King James Version, and when one reads through them, we understand why. The writer to the Hebrews wrote, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31), and considering the jaw-dropping nature of God’s judgment, this statement is absolutely true.
In the world in which we live, there is a trend of skipping over God’s judgment all together (or minimizing it) and heading straight for His love and mercy. This is an understandable thing because the Bible’s depiction of judgment is quite incredible, and it is more palatable to think on God’s love and mercy instead. It also may be understandable because Uncle Bob (or Aunt Mabel) isn’t a Christian, and we don’t want to think about those we love suffering as the Scripture describes.
Yet, as understandable as it is, the various teachings which skip or minimize God’s judgment also skip or minimize God’s teaching on the subject. Some do this dismissively, thinking that since they can’t reconcile God’s justice and love in their minds, they can dismiss the one they like the least. Others do this painstakingly, trying to look at the Scriptures (and even passages on judgment) in ways that fit what they want to be true. Needless to say, I believe that both those who ignore the Scripture and those who try to make the Scripture fit their desired end have failed in their understanding of the biblical witness.
Now, having said all of that, there is a pressing question that lingers after studying this heavy section of Isaiah. Why all the talk about judgment? Why deal with nations individually? It’s as if Isaiah is saying, “Babylon, it is a fearful thing for you to fall into the hands of the living God. Moab, it is a fearful thing for you to fall into the hands of the living God. Tyre, it is a fearful thing for you to fall into the hands of the living God. Edom, it is a fearful thing for you to fall into the hands of the living God. Damascus, it is a fearful thing for you to fall into the hands of the living God.” And he just keeps going and going! Why is all this talk of judgment so necessary?
This is a great question, and I think there are answers. God's pronouncement of judgment is not purposeless, and it's not just information He wants to communicate. It is ultimately meant to foster faith. It may not seem like that at first glance, but let me give you three examples of what I mean. How does the reality of judgment feed our faith?
(1) It gives us confidence in the sovereignty of God. The sovereignty of God speaks of His power. In human terms, a king is the sovereign over his domain. In the days of Isaiah, kings were understood to lay down the law and enforce it…the buck stopped at their throne. The king’s vision for the kingdom was lived out in the way he punished and rewarded certain action. God is the King of the Universe…that is His domain. He has laid down the law, and one cannot transgress His laws without facing Him and receiving the due penalty for that transgression.
God has a vision for His kingdom…a vision of holiness, of righteousness, of justice, of peace…and God will being that vision to fruition. The evil that often seems to reign in this world will be dealt with by the Sovereign of the Universe. If God did not deal with evil nations and evil men, then His vision would never be accomplished…He would not be a just God…He would not be worthy of our worship. Yet, Isaiah’s oracles of judgment remind those hearing his message that God is sovereign over all things. Their lives of faithful suffering as the servants of God will not be meaningless. It is not for God’s people to take revenge, for God has said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Rom. 12:19).
Now…let me clarify. The judgment of God is not an opportunity for the believer to shake his finger in the face of the world and arrogantly say, “You’ll get yours! Just you wait!” If it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, then it should make our souls tremble. Instead of boasting, we recognize that apart from the grace of God, the sentence of condemnation would be ours as well. We look to the cross, where our condemnation was endured by Christ. We entrust the souls of others into the Lord’s hands, knowing He will judge justly. We carry the message of the gospel (which brought us from condemnation to reconciliation) to the nations (who need to be brought from condemnation to reconciliation), knowing that the sovereign God who judges also justifies the one who believes (Rom. 3:21-26).
(2) The pronouncement of judgment leads to assurance in the hearts of believers. This was implied in the last paragraph, but it is worthy of its own heading. How do oracles warning of God’s judgment give assurance to believers? The simple answer is…the heart of the believer is genuinely struck by messages of warning. The believer knows that what God has said will come to pass, and that person is sent back to the basis of his/her acceptance with the Lord.
When the believing heart hears threats toward those are unbelieving and unfaithful, it is stirred. “How will I escape such a terrible threat? I am just as sinful as those who received that oracle. How can I be certain?” Then, the believing heart finds its resting place…in the person and work of Jesus. “Jesus is my faithful high priest forever. He didn’t make atonement with the blood of bulls and goats but with His own blood. He is not ashamed to call me ‘brother.’ God has accepted me on the basis of Christ’s work, so that my sin is no longer held against me.”
This is not a one-time experience. Our assurance in Christ is built over time, not in a single moment. Each day, we must remember that our standing before God is in Christ. Listen to the writer of Hebrews again, “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. As it is said, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts in rebellion’” (3:13-15).
It is ‘today’, and the warnings of Isaiah 13-23 are as true and relevant today as they were when they were first uttered. The judgment of God is certain and serious, and His wrath is against all unrighteousness and ungodliness (Rom. 1:18). How does that strike your heart? Does it stir you, or do you turn a blind eye? Does it take the eyes of your heart back to the cross, seeing the Son of God stricken with the wrath of God in your place? Having seen this, do you reaffirm the confidence of your salvation…carrying it one step closer “to the end”? If so, then God’s judgment has led to assurance in your heart. See how it works?
(3) Finally, the pronouncement of God’s judgment is meant to lead to repentance in the lives of unbelievers. As Isaiah is preaching these messages in Judah and Jerusalem, certainly there is the expectation that those living in unbelief will repent and believe. We see it in Isaiah 22:12 – “In that day the Lord GOD of hosts called for weeping and mourning, for baldness and wearing sackcloth.” These words were spoken in Jerusalem about Jerusalem. God’s call was for repentance. It’s what God called for back in 1:19 – “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat of the good of the land.”
It is God’s call toward the end of the book as well. God is still confronting sin, and yet he is calling for repentance. “I will declare your righteousness and your deeds, but they will not profit you. When you cry out, let your collection of idols deliver you! The wind will carry them off, a breath will take them away. But he who takes refuge in me shall possess the land and shall inherit my holy mountain” (57:12-13). It’s one of those great “but” statements in the Scripture. Judgment seems sure, but the one who will turn and take refuge in the Lord will inherit the holy mountain.
The severity and certainty of God’s judgment does not need to be the final word. In fact, through the pronouncement of judgment, God desires the repentance of the unbelieving man and woman. He wants them to “seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near” (55:6). How? Isaiah 55:7 – “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”
It is true that judgment is a weighty subject, but according to God, it is a needed subject. It reminds us of His sovereignty, it helps build assurance in believers, and it calls for repentance in unbelievers. May it have God’s desired effects on our souls!