God's Power on God's Terms (Isaiah 29; Ray Ortland)

Isaiah 29

"The Lord says: 'These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from meTheir worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught'" (Isa 29:13, NIV).

[Oswalt, John N. Isaiah: The New Application Commentary. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan. 2003. Isaiah: God Saves Sinners by Raymond C Ortlund Jr.]

Do you think you have God figured out? Did you know that your greatest breakthrough might be when you hit a brick wall? Did you know that the most constructive thing that might happen to you is when your world falls apart? Sometimes we Christians need that, because we think we have God figured out.

Do you think that you should be able to explain everything as a believer? We do know something about God, because he has revealed himself to us. But imperceptibly, unintentionally, we can slide into the feeling that if we know God at all, we should be able to explain everything. But the fact is, we can't explain everything. Sometimes God doesn't make sense, to us.

Does God confound you and you're OK with not being in control? When God surprises you so that you can't see through what God is doing in your life into the reason behind it, when he becomes opaque and mysterious, you are seeing something. You are seeing that God is God and you are not God. You are encountering him at a new level of profundity. You are discovering what it means to trust God and surrender to God rather than control him. If God never shocked you, you wouldn't really know him, because you wouldn't be able to tell the difference between your notions of God and the reality of God.
God works in mysterious ways, often beyond our comprehension or desire. If you are in Christ, God never gives you what you deserve. In grace, he gives you what you need. You need encouragement. He gives it. You need confrontation. He gives it. At all levels of the multi-layered complexity of your being, right down to the very roots of what you are, beyond your own self-understanding, God can see how you need victory and how you need defeat. And he enters into your subjectivity with mercies both severe and sweet. The gospel equips us with large understandings of God, so that we can make large allowances for the full range of his ways and stop resenting him and meekly surrender to the deep work of renewal he wants to accomplish in us.

The structure of Isaiah 29 highlights three glories of the God with whom we are dealing in every instance of life.
1.       The victory of God over all — his friends and his enemies (29:1-8) [The Victory of God]
a.       The complacent church brought low (29:1-4)
b.       The malicious world frustrated (29:5-8)
2.       The mystery of God over all — the learned and the unlearned (29:9-14) [The Mystery of God]
a.       Willful blindness made blind (29:9, 10)
b.       Blasé ignorance made ignorant (29:11, 12)
c.        Religious dullness made dull (29:13, 14)
3.       The sovereignty of God over all — the ruthless and the meek (29:15-24) [The Sovereignty of God]
a.       Practical atheism discredited (29:15, 16)
b.       Moral disorder righted (29:17-21)
c.        Spiritual greatness revived (29:22-24)

I. Habitual Presumption (29:1-8)

"Worshiping" God in order to get what we want. Isaiah is addressing Jerusalem, the city of David, Mount Zion (Isa 29:8). Why does he call it "Ariel"? That word means "altar hearth" — that is, the stone surface of the altar where fire consumed the sacrifices (Ezekiel 43:15,16). So, why "Ariel"? What Isaiah can see is that Jerusalem itself is an altar, where sinners worship a holy God through sacrifice. But then Isaiah says, "Add year to year; let your cycle of festivals go on" (Isa 29:1). This is a sarcastic poke at their annual round of worship events and festivals and celebrations — so elaborate, so beautiful, so empty. He's saying, "Carry on with your religious routine. But it's getting you nowhere." Why? Jerusalem's problem is that they believe they have immunity from judgment simply because they are God's own chosen people (Isa 29:1, 13). Though they may not be blatantly worshiping idols like the pagans, they too are trying to manipulate God to get what they want. They do what they think they should do, based on what they were taught and responding to human demands, but their hearts are not devoted to God (Isa 29:13).

God is both holy and gracious. What is the problem? Jerusalem does not see her privilege and her peril. The God she worships is a fiery personality — not erratic but holy (Heb 12:28, 29). For us sinners, God is both high-voltage danger and overflowing salvation. And the only refuge from his holy wrath is his holy love in Christ, our substitute on the altar of his cross. In other words, the only escape from God is in God. But the worship of these people is impervious both to the heat of his anger and to the warmth of his love. They neither tremble nor rejoice in God's presence. They just go through the motions. In God's sight they are wasting their time "worshiping" God. So God pronounces distress, mourning and lament upon them (Isa 29:2). God will make his own people become like the sacrifice on the altar. We must either accept God's sacrifice with genuine repentance and faith or become the sacrifice ourselves.

Will our worship be consumed WITH God, or will it be consumed BY God? But worship without the reality of who God truly is means nothing to him. This is when God does his strange work (Isa 28:21): "I will encamp against you... and will besiege you ... and I will raise siege works against you" (Isa 29:3). God himself becomes our enemy. Our God on the attack against us? How does that make sense? It makes sense because we need it more than we know. We need to do serious business with God more than we know. If we are under siege, God is the one we must primarily reckon with, not just Assyria, their immediate obvious adversary.

The worst of times may be the best of times. When he brings us down into the dust, so low we can barely cry for help (Isa 29:4), that's when, as the gospel reveals, the Holy Spirit enters in to intercede with groanings too deep for words (Rom 8:26, 27). That's when God becomes more meaningful to us than ever before. Yield to the victory of God. Let him win. In your defeat, God will lift from your heart that old lust for control, and you will be free.

God is a devouring fire. In 29:5-8 Isaiah says that the One who burns like a fire in Jerusalem will confront the world with "the flame of a devouring fire" (Isa 29:6). He is showing us what God is like. He is saying that the very forces through which God may afflict his own people — God turns that formidable human power into dust and chaff. He can do it "in an instant, suddenly" (Isa 29:5). All by himself, without our help, he frustrates the schemes of those who oppose his cause and his people (Isa 29:8).

The victory of God — the one who besieges us is also well able to defend both himself and us. He knows just what to do every step of the way. Surrender to him.

II. Blinding Disconnect (29:9-14)

Blind yourself; indifference to God's word (Isa 29:9-10; 6:9-10). Isaiah is so frustrated with the spiritual malaise he sees in his generation, he blurts out in 29:9-10, in essence, "Go ahead and be blind, if that's what you want! You have so offended God that, even as you continue to worship, he'll darken your minds from understanding the gospel" (cf. Isa 6:9-10). This seems to not make sense to us. We don't understand how this can work, much less be fair. But this is very real. There is mystery in the ways of God. The key to this section is the picture of the two men in Isa 29:11-12. You see a literate man, a learned man, in 29:11. Someone hands him a sealed scroll, like a closed Bible. But he's too lazy to open it up and find out what it says. You see an illiterate man, an unlearned man, in 29:12. Someone hands him a sealed prophetic scroll too. But he can't read, and he has no interest in learning. Isaiah sees both responses among the people of God. Both are symptoms of unbelief. And Isaiah is saying that God hardens a distaste for his truth into spiritual blindness. The blindness Isaiah is lamenting is not the darkness of a primitive pagan culture out in the bush. The blindness he is so worried about is the tiring, rote, habitual, ritualistic worship of the people in covenant with God (29:13-14).

Keeping outward tradition and worship without inner heart transformation. Jesus applied this text to the Pharisees, who worshiped God punctiliously (Mt 15:1-9). They were saying all the right things, doing all the right things. They feared God. But their fear of him — even this interior dimension of worship — was only a doctrine taught by human instruction. It was just an idea, a concept in their minds, a catechetical answer, not a Spirit-imparted awareness transforming their hearts. Beneath the beautiful observance, they were using the worship of God as a mechanism for avoiding God, for controlling God, for setting limits on God. They were like Flannery O'Connor's character Haze Motes: "There was already a deep black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin." God-evasion can look good. You can deceive even yourself. In his  teaching on repentance, Calvin says that one way to get real with God is "to flee splendor and any sort of trappings." So which do you really prize — tradition or God? You cannot serve two masters. You must choose between authentic worship and pious blasphemy. "Without love in the heart, the seeming gift of worship is but mockery of the Most High." When form replaces freshness, when rote replaces reality, worship treats God as less than the living God, and he is offended. Isaiah says that God visits such worship with an unlikely miracle (29:14a).

How much is your heart powerfully moved? "Wonderful" and "wonder" are OT words for "miraculous"and "miracle." And the age of miracles is not over today. God is able today to transform head-only religion into empty-headed religion with no answers for our real problems. "The wisdom of their wise men shall perish" (Isa  29:14b; cf. 1 Cor 1:19). Truly, God is not mocked. Outside the Bible itself, no one has explained the urgency of personal reality with God more helpfully than Jonathan Edwards:
"If we are not in good earnest in religion, if our wills and inclinations are not strongly exercised, we are nothing. The things of religion are so great, the responses of our hearts cannot be commensurate unless those responses are lively and powerful. In nothing is vigor in the actings of our inclinations so appropriate as in religion, and in nothing is lukewarmness so odious. True religion is evermore a powerful thing; and its power appears primarily in its inward exercises in the heart, its principal and original seat."
No power, no authentic Christianity. The Bible warns us that some people hold to the form of godliness, but their lives deny its power (2 Tim 3:5). They attend church dutifully, but their hearts are far from God. Their religion is orthodox, beautiful nothing. Older people need the power of godliness in their hearts because they have little time left to get ready for Heaven. Middle-aged people need the power of godliness in their hearts because they are strongly tempted to coast, to rest on their laurels, to become dull and mediocre. Young families need the power of godliness in their hearts because they are forging the convictions that will shape their home for a lifetime. Singles need the power of godliness in their hearts because they can gain or they can forfeit single-minded devotion to Jesus. Students and teenagers need the power of godliness in their hearts because they are being targeted by the world with brilliant and attractive seductions. Children need the power of godliness in their hearts while they are young and open, to be set apart to God forever. We Presbyterians, for example, need the power of godliness in our hearts because the sin of the Presbyterian church is to settle for the doctrine of the power of God rather than pressing on by faith into the experience of the power of God.

If you have a troubled child, for example, what will be most helpful to your child? Wouldn't it help your child for him or her to see your heart enthralled by a sense of the glory of Jesus? Or would that damage your child somehow? Your child might just think, If God can change Dad and Mom, maybe he can help me too.

The mystery of God — if he has poured out upon you "a spirit of deep sleep" (Isa 29:10), he can also awaken you (Eph 5:14). Bring your emptiness out into the open before him. If you come out of hiding, so will God, and he will do a new miracle of grace in your heart.

III.  (29:15-24)

God does whatever He pleases. I hope you love the sovereignty of God. You really can, because his sovereignty is his freedom to do whatever he pleases (Ps 115:3). Aren't you glad that God is free, unbound, supreme in this universe? Our unbelief doesn't neutralize God. Our unbelief is where God starts out with us (Eph 2:4, 5). The practical atheism Isaiah exposes in Isa 29:15, 16 —this very American way of thinking — cannot stop God.

The humble and needy will rejoice. Isaiah sees in the forests of Lebanon a picture of human nobility and might. But God will cut it all down and humble it into a common field. And in an ordinary field the prophetic eye discerns such luxurious growth to come, it will someday be a mighty forest (Isa 29:17-19). The values of human society now don't make sense. But God is promising to change things around. "The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the LORD...the ruthless shall come to nothing" (Isa 29:19-21). Fresh joy in Christ will flood the world. That beautiful eruption of unpersecuted spiritual vitality will not be a mid-course correction in the plan of God. This "fresh joy" will fulfill God's ancient covenant with Abraham, Isaiah explains 19:22-24. God has been moving in this direction from the beginning. This is salvation. He began it in sovereign grace; he continues it in sovereign grace; he will consummate it in sovereign grace. We should trust him for that, however perplexing his strategies may be along the way.

Our part is meekness. It is the meek and poor alone whom God blesses (Isa 29:19). In 1971 my dad and mom were ministering to the student body of Taylor University in Indiana. For one week in the dead of winter God visited that campus with fresh joy. I was listening the other day to a recording of my parents' report to their church soon afterward. They said that one night, as the students met in the gym, God gave them the meekness to begin confessing their sins. They began to get real with God and with one another. They yielded to the work he wanted to do. Their confessing went on for hours, because real repentance can't be hurried. Real repentance is not general and vague but detailed and thorough. At one point late into the night, Dad suggested they take a short break to stretch their legs. In my parents' own words,
We were not at all prepared for what was about to happen. When those kids stood up, you would have thought it was the split second after their most crucial basketball game against their toughest opponent, they had just won by a hair and became number one in the nation. They went wild with joy. It was like back in Leviticus, shouting and falling on their faces (Lev 9:24). We had never experienced anything like it. They were hugging each other. They would run for somebody and say, "Did you ever think this would happen to us? Praise God! Isn't this beautiful?" We kept trying to start a song to get them to calm down. But for ten minutes you couldn't stop it. It was like taking a Coke bottle and shaking it up and then taking the lid off. They could not be held down. They had to express themselves.
"The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the LORD, and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel" (Isa 29:19, ESV). God wants this for us. It is his ancient covenant purpose. He might have to do a strange work to get us there. Will we trust him and follow him in meekness, wherever he leads?