Feet of clay

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Daniel 2

It’s the biblical equivalent of an Achilles’ heel.  When a leader has a flaw that makes him vulnerable he is said to have “feet of clay.”

The phrase originates in the book of Daniel which, like Ezekiel, is set in the Babylonian captivity.  Daniel, along with others, is carried away to Babylon and then hand-picked to serve in their civil service.  Just like Joseph, Daniel rises through the ranks of this foreign land through the wisdom of the Spirit.  And like Joseph, he gains prominence through the interpretation of a dream.

King Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a giant statue that is destroyed by a rock:

32 This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, 33 His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay. 34 Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces. 35 Then was the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold, broken to pieces together, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, that no place was found for them: and the stone that smote the image became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth.  (Daniel 2:32-35)

Daniel gives this interpretation: the various body parts are kingdoms.  The head of gold is Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon.  Following his empire will come three more kingdoms.  The fourth won’t so much have feet of clay.  The fourth kingdom is represented by feet of clay mixed with iron.

Iron and clay tell us that this kingdom will be strong but brittle.  Its demise will come at the hands of a “stone” which seemed small and inconsequential compared to such towering might.  Yet as the stone strikes a blow at this fourth kingdom, it fells it and takes over the world.  (Daniel 7 also picks up this theme of the four kingdoms and their destruction by the Rock – the Son of Man.)

And so “when the fulness of time was come, God sent forth His Son,” the Rock (Galatians 4:4).  He grew up in the kingdom of iron and clay.  And He appeared to have no chance whatsoever.  He was crushed under foot by the Romans.  And yet, within three hundred years the empire that crucified Him confessed Him Lord. Today, His kingdom continues to fill the earth.

Look at the mightiest empires of today.  Think of the most immovable powers opposed to the gospel of Jesus.  They don’t just have feet of clay.  They are feet of clay.  And they must topple as every enemy is brought under Christ’s feet.  (Psalm 110:1)

Thus saith the LORD

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Ezekiel 37

“Says who?”

Children learn that phrase very quickly.  A sibling tells them to set the table.  What happens next depends entirely on the source of the command.  If the reply comes: “Thus saith mum!” things might just get moving.

Hundreds of times the Bible says: “Thus saith the LORD.”  Even when  the LORD is speaking, He continually reminds His people that these are His words carrying His authority.

This is not a mere assertion of power. “The LORD” is His covenant name.  It’s a reminder of His faithful love – like a husband saying to His wife, “You know me:  you can trust me.”

From the very beginning, life came through the Word of the LORD.  The Spirit hovered over the waters (Genesis 1:2).  And it’s the Spirit (or Breath, which is the same word in Hebrew) that carries the Word.  So through the Spirit and by the Word, God brings life.  That was true in creation.  But it’s equally true in salvation.  And the book of Ezekiel images this brilliantly:

Ezekiel was exiled along with the people of God in Babylon.  He had witnessed the spiritual death of the nation, estranged from both their land and their God.  But in chapter 37 he’s given a vision of how spiritual life can be breathed once again into a people who are dead in their sins.

The hand of the LORD was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the LORD, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones, And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry.  And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord GOD, thou knowest. Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus saith the Lord GOD unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live: And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the LORD. So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone. And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them. Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.  So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army. Then he said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts. Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. And ye shall know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves, And shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the LORD have spoken it, and performed it, saith the LORD.  (Ezekiel 37:1-14).

It might have seemed that Israel was too far gone to ever see spiritual renewal.  Yet the LORD showed Ezekiel the truth: they were much worse than he thought – dead.  Yet through the Spirit (or Breath), and by the Word, life could be breathed into the most moribund people.

What hope is there for our nations today?  None: at least from a human perspective.  People cannot bring themselves to spiritual life any more than corpses can assemble themselves for battle!  In the word however, there is almighty power.  As we testify to Jesus by the Spirit, God brings people out of spiritual death and puts His Spirit in us.

Do we understand the power that we unleash when we speak the name of  Jesus.  It might feel weak and foolish to tell about our Lord, about His cross, about His work in our lives, to mention the Scriptures and to name His name.  But, be bold!  There is resurrection in our weak little words.

Sour grapes

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Ezekiel 18

They looked lovely on the vine, but the acid bursts into your mouth and you realise they are unripe. You spit them out proclaiming, “I didn’t want them anyhow!”

“Sour grapes” has come to mean disparaging something you had previously desired – probably because you can’t attain it.  This particular sense originates with Aesop, though it’s difficult to know whether Aesop came before or after Ezekiel.

Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel use the phrase, but in a surprising way.

“What mean ye, that ye use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge? As I live, saith the Lord GOD, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel.”  (Ezekiel 18:2-3; cf Jeremiah 31:29-30)

The context is exile.  Ezekiel is with the people in Babylon and they have a popular saying: “The fathers eat sour grapes, but the children’s teeth are set on edge”. In other words, the Israelites claim to be suffering because of the sins of their ancestors.

The Lord GOD wants to set the record straight.  Ezekiel 18 refutes such fatalism.  It highlights three case studies of prominent men who either sin or act righteously.  Their actions are typical kingly behaviour and the verdicts pronounced on their lives sound very much like the verdicts given on Israel’s rulers in the books of Kings.

In verses 5-9 we have a righteous man.  He begets a son who acts wickedly (verses 10-13).  This son begets another son who does righteously (verses 14-17).

What should we take from these three case studies?  Well it’s certainly true that none of these exalted men suffer for the sins of their fathers, they are responsible for their own lives.  As the repeated saying goes: “The soul that sinneth: it must die.”

But step back for a second and we see something else: the prophet is telling us a story.  The narrative turns from a good king to a fall and finally, a return to righteous rule.  The Israelites in exile would still have remembered good king Josiah.  They knew of his sons – who ruled wickedly and presided over their exile.  But the people were waiting for a righteous royal Son to set things straight.

This story is the real antidote to fatalism.  The LORD’s answer is not a proclamation of individualistic self-determination.  Instead it’s a proclamation of the coming King, who determines us for life and not death.

Ezekiel writes of Him in places like chapter 34.  There the LORD says,

“I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even my servant David; he shall feed them, and he shall be their shepherd. And I the LORD will be their God, and my servant David a prince among them; I the LORD have spoken it. And I will make with them a covenant of peace”.  (Ezekiel 34:23-25)

When fatalism threatens, individualism is no response.  God’s answer is the reign of a Messiah whose kingdom brings righteousness to wayward sheep like us.  Through a stronger King, God is for life and not death:

“I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth”, saith the Lord GOD: “wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye”.  (Ezekiel 18:32)

Great is thy faithfulness

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Lamentations 3

The Bible’s description of exile sometimes sounds like it is at a distance. It happens to those people who deserved it for having committed those sins.  Lamentations feels very different.  Here the anonymous author (traditionally thought of as Jeremiah), lays bare the horror of Jerusalem’s destruction.  It’s a first person lament.  Jeremiah identifies fully with both the sin and the sorrow of his people.

This is an arresting combination.  We have a category for sin and a category for sorrow but find it difficult to unite the two.  A sinner deserves judgement without pity.  A poor wretch receives sympathy but not censure.  Yet Lamentations holds both things together – the people are wicked and pitiable.

Behold, O LORD; for I am in distress: my bowels are troubled; mine heart is turned within me; for I have grievously rebelled: abroad the sword bereaveth, at home there is as death.  (Lamentations 1:20)

The author pleads with the LORD to “behold” with kindness.  Yet for much of the book, the LORD is described as an enemy of the people.

He hath bent his bow like an enemy: he stood with his right hand as an adversary, and slew all that were pleasant to the eye in the tabernacle of the daughter of Zion: he poured out his fury like fire. The LORD was as an enemy: he hath swallowed up Israel, he hath swallowed up all her palaces: he hath destroyed his strong holds, and hath increased in the daughter of Judah mourning and lamentation.  (Lamentations 2:4-5)

Behind the enemy forces of Babylon stands the God who has ordained their brutalities.  He is justly punishing His people for their sins.  And this punishment seems to be falling uniquely on the author:

I AM the man that hath seen affliction by the rod of his wrath. He hath led me, and brought me into darkness, but not into light.  Surely against me is he turned; he turneth his hand against me all the day.  (Lamentations 3:1-3)

One man seems to stand at the head of the people, bearing the brunt of God’s just judgement.  And yet, his statement of faith is at the very heart of the book.  One man, suffering in the place of the people, sees through the enmity of the LORD and hopes in His mercy and compassion:

This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope.  It is of the LORD’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.  They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.  The LORD is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him.  The LORD is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him.  It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the LORD.  It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.  He sitteth alone and keepeth silence, because he hath borne it upon him.  He putteth his mouth in the dust; if so be there may be hope.  He giveth his cheek to him that smiteth him: he is filled full with reproach.  For the LORD will not cast off for ever:  But though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies.  For he doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men.  (Lamentations 3:21-34)

In our writings we emphasize something by putting it at the beginning or the end.  In Hebrew the important part is in the middle.  These words are the centrepiece of Lamentations.  Surrounded by suffering, death and judgement, they rise up like Mount Zion proclaiming the LORD’s great faithfulness.

How can the author trust in God when He seems to be the cause of their woes?  How can he seek refuge in the very One who brings judgement?

This man has incredible faith.  He takes the punishment at the head of his people, he bears the yoke, turns the other cheek and waits to be vindicated.  In the morning he is certain that he shall see the great faithfulness of the LORD.

This man of sorrows is pointing us to Christ.  Christ voices our laments before the Father and He takes responsibility for our sins.  Christ entrusts Himself entirely to Him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23).  On the cross He is the true Temple that’s torn down.  On the cross He endures the ultimate exile for sin.  Nonetheless, He maintains an unshakeable faith in His merciful Father.  He knows that God “will not cast off forever” and that the new morning will bring mercy.

On Easter Sunday, Jesus came through the judgement of God and He offers us refuge on the far side of destruction.

Whatever is lamentable in our own lives – whether sin or sorrow – we need to know that Christ has taken up our laments Himself.  And He has come through to innumerable mercies.  Know for certain that the cross gives way to resurrection and so allow Christ’s faith in the Father to be yours.  Our songs of lament will turn to hymns of praise.

“Great is Thy faithfulness,” O God my Father,
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not
As Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be.
“Great is Thy faithfulness!” “Great is Thy faithfulness!”
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided—
“Great is Thy faithfulness,” Lord, unto me!

Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest,
Sun, moon and stars in their courses above,
Join with all nature in manifold witness
To Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thy own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!

Can a leopard change his spots?

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Jeremiah 10:1-25; 13:15-27

Can people change?  Really change?

Aristotle thought so.  Here’s how:

“it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate man.”

If you want to change, then perform righteous acts and you will become righteous.  It’s ancient wisdom.  But it’s very modern too.  Pick up any magazine and it will instruct you in the 5 steps to a flatter stomach, a de-cluttered house, a cholesterol free diet and a whole new you.  Do and you will be.  Aristotle lives today!

This is exactly why Martin Luther called Aristotle “a damned, conceited, rascally heathen”.   In fact Luther said, “Should Aristotle not have been a man of flesh and blood, I would not hesitate to assert that he was the Devil himself.”  Luther said this because Aristotle’s philosophy is the opposite of the Bible’s.  Aristotle says, Do and then you’ll be.  The Bible says No.  The problem is our being. And no amount of doing can change that!

Can a leopard change its spots?  No!  The leopard by itself can only be a leopard.  It can be an aggressive leopard or a tame leopard but it can’t stop being a leopard.  And the Bible applies this truth to humanity.  In Jeremiah chapter 13, we read the prediction of imminent doom which was facing the people of God.  Judgement is coming, the Babylonians will sack Jerusalem, the people will be carried away into exile.  They cannot escape:

Judah shall be carried away captive all of it, it shall be wholly carried away captive. Lift up your eyes, and behold them that come from the north… And if thou say in thine heart, Wherefore come these things upon me? For the greatness of thine iniquity are thy skirts discovered, and thy heels made bare.   Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.  (Jeremiah 13:19-23)

Judgement is coming upon the people for their sins.  But the LORD is adamant that they cannot avert it and they cannot change themselves to deserve salvation.

At this point, the Aristotles of this world are fuming.  Surely we just need to apply ourselves, to learn best practice, to try harder and never give up?  No, responds the Bible, our doing does not have the power to affect our being, any more than a leopard can change its spots.

In Matthew chapter 7 Jesus would say something very similar, but using a horticultural illustration instead:

Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?  Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.  A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.  (Matthew 7:16-18)

Just as a tree brings forth fruit, so our being brings forth our doing.  Our behaviour can no more change our being, than an orange tree can become an apple tree by stapling on Granny Smiths.

If we are to be saved, our very being needs to change.  But we cannot effect such change ourselves.  Instead, Jeremiah directs our gaze to the One who is truly righteous.

“Behold, the days come”, saith the LORD, “that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS”. (Jeremiah 23:5-6)

There is One who is truly good and who brings forth judgement and justice from His own righteous being.  Notice too that He is called “a righteous Branch.”  It’s a suggestive botanical reference, especially given Jesus’ quotation above.  King Jesus will not merely be the righteous Branch for Himself.  He will become THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.  The Branch shares His life with us such that His righteousness becomes our righteousness.

We cannot become righteous through righteous deeds.  But we can be grafted into the righteous Branch – Jesus.  If we come to Him we have a change of being. Instantly, we are righteous in Him.

And out of our new natures comes a new kind of righteous doing.  This is the glory of the “new covenant” which Jeremiah speaks of:

I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts.  (Jeremiah 31:33-34)

People can change.  Really change.  But not through our own efforts.  It takes “Christ our righteousness” to surround us and the Spirit of Christ within us.  But, organically, from our new beings springs forth new behaviour.

Aristotle was wrong.  Righteous acts do not make righteous people.  But those made righteous in Christ will start to do righteous acts.

Be horribly afraid

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Jeremiah 2

What could be so bad that it warrants this warning?  A scientist morphing into an insect?  An alien monster rampaging through a spaceship?  What dread terror might have birthed the saying: “Be horribly afraid”?

Answer:  The refusal of God’s abundant grace.  According to God, that is the horror of horrors!

This striking imperative – “Be horribly afraid” – occurs in the book that follows Isaiah – Jeremiah.  And, incredibly, it’s addressed to the heavens:

“Pass over the isles of Chittim, and see; and send unto Kedar, and consider diligently, and see if there be such a thing.  Hath a nation changed their gods, which are yet no gods? but my people have changed their glory for that which doth not profit.  Be astonished, O ye heavens, at this, and be horribly afraid, be ye very desolate, saith the LORD.  For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.”  (Jeremiah 2:9-13)

Here’s the picture.  When God’s people exchange their Glory (i.e. Christ) for foreign gods, it’s a bit like walking past an overflowing Fountain and, instead, sinking your shovel into dry ground.  You forsake Living Waters (i.e. the Spirit) and dig for mud.  You exchange fullness of life for emptiness and death.

And the LORD says: “Be horrified!”

I don’t know what you consider to be a ‘nightmare scenario’, but this is God’s.  He is appalled that people would refuse the Fountain of Life that is His Son and instead prefer broken cisterns.  How can we spurn Christ in favour of false saviours that will not satisfy?  The LORD’s question echoes against a desolate heavens.  There can be no answer.  The angels are astonished and horribly afraid.

Here we have a profound definition of sin. At bottom, sin is not a failure to act or give or pray or perform.  It’s not about doing wrong or even neglecting what’s right.  First and foremost, sin is a failure to receive. It’s our refusal to drink from the Fountain of Living Waters.

Some refuse to drink from Christ and dig at the broken cistern of greed.  Some slake their thirsts with lust.  And some sink a murky well of moral self-righteousness.  But the primary sin – the sin underlying every other sin – is the forsaking of Christ.  And we see its horror when we realise that He is a Fountain of Living Waters!

The LORD’s picture here is haunting: we are thirsty souls, chasing satisfaction in all the wrong places.  And when the cisterns run dry we’re left with a mouthful of mud.  At those times we may feel foolish enough to confess our stupidity.  But Jeremiah 2 tells us we haven’t come to the heart of the problem yet.

Every evil we have ever committed has been twofold.  We may end up hating our broken cisterns (but usually only once they’ve failed us).  Yet the first evil is to spurn the love of Jesus.  We have despised His overflowing grace and prized ditch-water instead.

And yet – be astonished O earth at this – He still offers His Living Waters today.  That is the kind of LORD He is.  He continues to overflow for appalling sinners.

In John chapter 4 the LORD Jesus stands by a literal well.  He speaks with a woman who, figuratively, has dug many broken cisterns in her life.  She has gone through 5 marriages and is on her 6th partner when Jesus meets her.  She is a prime example of ‘looking for love in all the wrong places.’  So how will the LORD of Jeremiah 2 approach her?  Does He stand over her in judgement and make her “horribly afraid”?  No, He stands with her and offers the Living Waters yet again.  As you hear His words to this woman, know that He makes the same offer to you today:

Jesus answered and said unto her, “If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water”.  The woman saith unto him, “Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water?”…  Jesus answered and said unto her, “Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again:  But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life”.  (John 4:10-14).

A new heavens and a new earth

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Isaiah 66

Isaiah could be called “a tale of two cities”.  Yet both cities are Jerusalem.

There’s an old Jerusalem – the one in which Isaiah’s listeners live.  They face a terrifying judgement: threatened by Assyria but effected by Babylon.  The city is sacked, God’s house (the temple) is destroyed, the people are carried away into exile and the LORD’s judgement is all too clear.  The second half of chapter 2 is a good example of the judgement upon old Jerusalem.

But there’s a new Jerusalem too.  This city is an unbreachable stronghold, a place of eternal peace and prosperity.  Those who dwell in the new Jerusalem will have nothing to fear.  This is expounded in first half of chapter 2.

Isaiah holds out no hope for old Jerusalem.  Neither better defences nor greater godliness will avert the coming judgement.  The LORD’s universal judgement will not avoid but rather begin with the house of God (1 Peter 4:17).  “God’s house” has an interesting triple meaning: it can mean the temple, it can mean God’s household (i.e. His people) and it can mean Christ (John 2:19-22)!  Judgement on the world starts at the top and works its way down.

But if that’s the bad news, here is the good news: resurrection will also start with the house of God.  Christ will be raised up, and He – as the true Temple – will provide the true meeting place with God.  Thus a people will be raised in Him.  A new Jerusalem will rise from the ashes.  And this new Jerusalem will be the capital of a new creation.

For those who take refuge in Christ, they will come through cosmic judgement to cosmic salvation.  They will survive the judgement of old Jerusalem and find themselves in the new Jerusalem.  And this new city will be the centre of “a new heavens and a new earth.”

Isaiah is the first person to use that phrase in the bible, but it’s picked up by Peter and John in the New Testament.  In Isaiah 65 the LORD says:

“For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind.  But be ye glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create: for, behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy.  And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in my people: and the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in her, nor the voice of crying”.  (Isaiah 65:17-19)

The word “new” does not imply that the “old” world will be thrown away.  It’s a word which, if left by itself, means “new moon.”  There’s not a brand new moon every month – but each month the moon goes through a kind of death and resurrection and is renewed. It will be the same with creation.  The whole world will take the path of Christ Himself – through death and into resurrection. Just as Christ did not replace his old body in the tomb with a resurrection body, so this world will not be cast aside but rather redeemed.

And Isaiah means this quite literally:

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock: and dust shall be the serpent’s meat. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the LORD.  (Isaiah 65:25)

In a culture that says “Make the most of now– Isaiah begs to differ.  You don’t need to see the Himalayas before you die.  You can see them afterwards.  You don’t need to despair when your body stops working, it will start again.  You can mourn your loved ones who have died in Christ, but you will hold them in your arms again.  This body, this kind of life and this world will be raised, redeemed and renewed into even greater glory.

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.  And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.  And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.  And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.  (Revelation 21:1-5).

Holier than thou

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Isaiah 65

Isaiah addresses the blindness of human unbelief.  He proclaims the LORD’s word to a “people walking in darkness.”  But while he insists that human wickedness is a disease, he never prescribes human religion as the cure.  No, healing is found only in the Righteous King.  He is the LORD of the temple vision, He isImmanuel, the Prince of Peace, the Spirit-filled Branch and ourSacrificial Lamb.  The Messiah alone is our salvation.  Only He can bind up the brokenhearted.  Therefore we cannot save ourselves and all our own efforts at righteous living fall under this damning indictment from the prophet:

“We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.”  (Isaiah 64:6)

Notice that Isaiah does not label our unrighteousness as filthy.  It’s our righteousness that is the problem!  Isaiah campaigns tirelessly against human religion because it transmits that foulest of diseases: self-righteousness.

And so Isaiah begins and ends by opposing this dreaded enemy.  Chapter 1 sees the LORD taking aim at the religion of his day.  His soul hateth their “vain oblations” and “solemn assemblies.”  (Isaiah 1:13-15).

At the end of his prophecy, he returns to this theme.  The LORD preaches against those religious folk

which say, Stand by thyself, come not near to me; for I am holier than thou.  (Isaiah 65:5)

“Holier than thou” is the slogan of the self-righteous.  A “holier than thou” person curls their lip at the unwashed heathen.  They consider sin to be beneath them.  They are apart from the masses and above reproach.

And the tragedy of these kinds of people is that they claim to represent God.  Worse still, the world tends to believe them.  Thus, a world that despises “holier than thou” Christians, feels roughly the same way towards God.

But here is what God wants the world to know:  He also despises the “holier than thou” types.  Here is His verdict on the religious:

“These are a smoke in my nose, a fire that burneth all the day”.  (Isaiah 65:5)

God hates the “holier than thou” religious, because they commit two grievous errors.

Firstly they have no actual interest in holiness in itself.  What matters is their holiness in comparison to you.

CS Lewis sees this clearly in “Mere Christianity”:

“Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone”.

The same can be said of holiness.  Those who are “holier than thou” are not interested in holiness.  They simply use it as a tool for exalting themselves over you.

That’s the first problem with these people.  The second is this: they completely misunderstand holiness.

For them, holiness is about standing apart and keeping others at bay.  Yet the truly holy person is not estranged from, but committed to others.  We know this because we have already met the One who is superlatively holy.  In Isaiah 6 we saw the LORD Jesus who is “Holy, Holy, Holy.”  While His holiness makes Isaiah cry “woe is me” it is not because the LORD wants separation.  The problem is Isaiah!  And so in His holiness the LORD makes forgiveness fly to him.  He sets Isaiah on his feet and commissions him to preach to the people.   Instead of a shut-off holiness – this is an outgoing holiness.

His name throughout Isaiah is “the Holy One of Israel” – a title indicative of His redeeming activity.  He goes out to save a people.  His holiness certainly contrasts with our sin.  But that’s not because He shuts Himself away from us – the very opposite.  While we shut ourselves down, He pursues us with a fierce and relentless passion.  This is His holiness – His complete commitment to the salvation of His people.

And so, in contrast to those who claim to be “holier than thou”, Isaiah 65 begins with a picture of true holiness:

I have spread out my hands all the day unto a rebellious people.   (Isaiah 65:2)

From early morning until last thing at night, the LORD Jesus stretches out His arms to reconcile His people.  His holiness does not seek distance from sinners.  It doesn’t erect an insulating wall against sin.  It’s the opposite:  holiness is an arms-wide offer to the wicked.  It’s about pursuing the rebellious with steadfast love.

May we turn from “holier than thou” self-righteousness.  Instead let us know true holiness in the outstretched arms of the Holy One.

Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard

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Isaiah 64

It’s probably Paul’s quotation of Isaiah 64 that has become the best known version of this phrase:

“As it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man…  (1 Corinthians 2:9)

Such words can be the equivalent of a magician’s puff of smoke.  When stumped for answers, the Bible teacher can stroke their chin and chant: “Ahhhh… Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard…”  Ignorance is rebranded as “mystery” and we’re all ushered away from the scene of the controversy.  But that’s not what Paul nor Isaiah meant.

Let me quote Isaiah 64 in a more modern translation:

Since ancient times no-one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for Him.  (Isaiah 64:4)

Here is the thing which “eye hath not seen” – a living God.  In a world full of gods who claim to be God – there’s only One true God.  And the mark of this true God is this: He works and His people wait.

All the other gods wait while their people work.  They sit back on their thrones, distant and waiting to be impressed.  Human religion has humans working and the gods waiting.

Isaiah says that the real God is the One who works while we wait.  “He acts on behalf of those who wait for Him.”  It’s the total reverse.

Human religion has humans working for a waiting god.
The Bible has God working for His waiting people.

Human religion has humanity centre stage doing it all while God idly watches.  The gospel has God shooing us off the stage. He seats us in the audience to watch Him work salvation for us.

That’s what marks Him out as the true God, and this is what “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard.”  It’s utterly unique: He acts on behalf of those who wait for Him.

Why does He do it that way?  Well we all know the phrase “If you want a job done properly, do it yourself!”  That’s what He’s said earlier in Isaiah:

The LORD saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation.  (Isaiah 59:15-16)

If you want a job done right, do it yourself.  So His own Arm works salvation for Him.  We have already met “the Arm of the LORD” in Isaiah 53:1.  He is the King who became the Servant who became the Lamb.  Christ is God’s Arm who works salvation for Him.

Jesus comes into our world, into our humanity.  He is God the Son, doing human life for us.  In our place and on our behalf He lived the life we should live and then died the death that we should die.  He rose again to new life and ascended to the Father as our perfect Sacrifice and Priest.  As the Arm of the LORD He does it all and scoops us up into the Father’s presence.

What do we do?  Well we are simply beneficiaries of His mighty acts of salvation.  He works for us, we wait on Him.  What a God!  Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard such condescension and love!

No rest for the wicked

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Isaiah 57

It’s the sort of phrase your cheery postman might say on his rounds.  “Must push on I’m afraid, no rest for the wicked eh?”  We smile and wave and get on with our day.

Yet this saying is the biblical equivalent of verses such as “these shall go away into everlasting punishment” (Matthew 25:46) or “the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever” (Revelation 14:11).  “No rest for the wicked” describes exactly the same dreaded reality.  The rest-less fate of the wicked is a chilling thought.

Let’s hear it in its context in Isaiah.  First the LORD declares,

“Peace, peace to him that is far off, and to him that is near, saith the LORD; and I will heal him. But the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked.“  (Isaiah 57:19-21)

For Isaiah, there are two options: peace or turbulence.  “Peace” has to come upon a people who would otherwise walk in the darkness of death.  It’s the result of the LORD’s “healing” of a sick humanity.  Left in our natural state, we are a “troubled sea.”

That’s important to note.  The wicked are not at the mercy of a troubled sea.  The wicked are a troubled sea.  Their judgement is not an imposition from outside.  Their judgement is to be left to their own unruly ways.

To be left to oneself is to be restless.

Those who assume the government to be on their shoulders can have no peace.  It doesn’t require the LORD to send such people into a state of turmoil.  Their very rebellion is their judgement.  They clamour for an independence from the Prince of Peace, yet He is the One who rules over the surging seas.  Judgement is only ever a confirmation of what a person is, and therefore of what a person has chosen.  The LORD stands for peace.  But the wicked stand against His ways.  Thus there can be no peace for them.

Yet over and above the troubled seas, Jesus still brings a word to still the storm:

“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”.  (Matthew 11:28-30)