In our evening services of worship, we are making our way through the Book of Isaiah. This Sunday we will consider the famous chapter 9, “For unto us a child is born….” As I am preparing this message, it occurred to me afresh that it might be helpful to furnish you with a brief road map to the book of Isaiah.
Isaiah writes in the second half of the 8th century BC (740BC). With a resurgent Assyria pushing down from the North, things look increasingly bleak for the people of God. Isaiah writes to confirm their worst fears. Within 20 years, Israel, to the North, will be forever swallowed up by this ravenous regime. And in about 150 years, Judah would suffer the same fate at the hands of Babylon (The next superpower, taking over where Assyria left off in 612 BC. Babylon occupies essentially the same geographic footprint as the Assyrian Empire). Notwithstanding this rather bleak political future, Judah’s biggest problem is God and their unravelling relationship with him. Outwardly, they are very religious. Inwardly, however, their spiritually is rotten to the core, corrupted by selfishness, idolatry, injustice, infighting, and sexual immorality.
The key issue at stake, as Isaiah records God response to His ancient people, is how can God bless a people who deserve only His curse? Is there any hope for a sinful people who have repeatedly demonstrated a manifest inability to keep covenant with God. It seemed as if God had only two options: Either destroy Israel because of their sin, or overlook their sin, placing His desire for communion with them above His desire for justice. But in His unguessable grace, God has found a tertium quid (a third way). Salvation would come, but it would only come through judgment. This would be true for Israel, they would be exiled for their sin, the pagan nations (and by extension the pagan gods) would seem to win, and God would seem impotent by comparison. But it would also be true for Messiah, the Servant of the LORD who would come to absorb all our sorrows and all our sins and pay for them before God in our room and stead (Isaiah 53).
Telling this story, Isaiah is a story of 3 main divisions (1-39; 40-55; 56-66). And I encourage you to read this outline with an open Bible. Scan through the book of Isaiah and see if you can see these divisions for yourself.
Chapters 1-39 contain an introduction (1-5) in which Isaiah’s present day, disastrous situation is contrasted with the glory to come. Chapter 6 details Isaiah’s call to ministry. A ministry that, if judged from the immediate response of God’s people, will be largely ineffective. But the wider perspective of faith, Isaiah’s preaching will fulfill God’s purpose to harden Israel in their sins. Chapters 7-39 explores the folly of looking down to man (political saviors) in the hope of fixing what sin has broken. The section begins and ends with two kings, one good, the other bad (Ahaz and Hezekiah) who illustrate this principle. Ahaz in the negative (he looks to Assyria for salvation) and Hezekiah in the positive (he looks to YHWH in faith). In between these two narrative accounts, you have 3 sections detailing God’s Judgment over the nations (13-23)— the very nations Israel wanted to emulate and to lean upon for salvation, God’s Lordship over history (chapters 24-27), and the folly of refusing to trust God (28-35). The big lesson in this first section is that, no matter what trials face us in life, God can and must be trusted. There is simply no other solid footing anywhere. All other sources of deliverance will not only prove ineffectual, they will actually leave us worse off.
Chapters 40-55 deal with God’s determination to redeem Israel despite the exile. From the perspective of Isaiah’s contemporaries, this was a major question: Could Israel trust a God who would deliver them to (and not from) their enemies? Chapters 40-48 show God’s power to deliver Israel from the God’s of Babylon (the very God’s who seemed to win in the exile— Daniel 1:1ff). In other words, the exile did not happen because YHWH was weak, arthritic, and impotent. Chapters 49-55 show that he can provide an even greater redemption— he can redeem us from the alienation sin always produces in the lives of His people.
The final section of the book (56-66) addresses the people of God returning from exile. The theological center of this section (60-62) stresses that obedient foreigners who live sola gratia (by grace alone) are more truly the people of God than purebred Jews who rely on birthright and rituals. This is always the temptation for God’s people— we trust the badges of orthodoxy: our family tree, our Reformed heritage, our religious rites, rubrics, and rituals, rather than hurling ourselves at God’s feet, pleading only the merits of Christ, suing for mercy on the basis of free, undeserved, unconditional grace.
In the final analysis Isaiah presents us all with the key question? In what, or in whom are we trusting to make life alright again? As Ligon Duncan tweeted yesterday: Whatever you think is going to give you ultimate satisfaction in life is what you worship. What are you trusting to save you? To this question Isaiah lends a bracing answer: ‘If you will not stand by faith (in Christ), you will not stand at all. (Isaiah 7:9).” May God grant us all this faith this Christmastime.