Gleanings from the Bible: Isaiah

Isaiah is a magnificent work, speaking of Judgement, Restoration, and New Creation. It spans the warning time prior to the Exile, gives encouragement to the Exiles in Captivity and looks to a glorious future kingdom. It even points, quite remarkably, to Jesus as God’s Servant-Messiah. Whether written by one two or even three authors, there is a cohesion that spans the book as we have received it. In this blog we only touch on a few of the book’s treasures.

Isaiah’s commissioning is an inspiration in itself. It embraces a realisation of his own sinfulness and that he is a member of a sinful nation. But it also shows his  willingness to do whatever God wants of him, despite the discouraging nature of the task. God tells him that the message will harden the hearts of the listeners and when Isaiah asks, “For how long?” he gets the answer, “Until they are completely ruined!”

A Book of Judgement

Isaiah’s call introduces him to the fate of most prophets. No-one wants to listen to bad news, particularly when they are being held accountable!

I don’t think that things have changed. Anything resembling criticism of society, its trends, lifestyles, “rights” and so on, especially if it comes from a biblical perspective, brings (ironically) an avalanche of counter criticism, condemning such judgemental attitudes! The result is that people are often afraid to speak out on issues that might be controversial and instead stick to the safe (read, majority) opinions which they are sure most of their friends will “like”. A related result is that the Christian church, while safely criticising politicians, will very often follow the crowd, rather than challenge it. The warning of 7:9 is pertinent…
“If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.”

This was the sort of predicament that Isaiah faced, and yet he stood up and spoke out. He criticised the meaningless offerings, injustice and oppression of the most vulnerable (1:17), superstitions, divination and pagan customs (4:6), those who monopolised land (5:8), those who chased after drink, who turned values upside down and presented lies as truth (5:20). He accused Judah of being like a vine that produced bad fruit (5:1-7). He was scathing about idolatry (44:12ff) and called on Israel to wash their sins away.

     Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow,
though they are red like crimson
they shall be like wool. (1:18)

And herein lies an important observation. The prophet shares in the condemnation of the people. The judgement comes not from him but from God. The prophet can take no delight in his pronouncements. Moreover the aim of judgement is restoration. It is an act of punishment (of justice) but also an act of discipline.

 A Book of Encouragement and Restoration

Even in the first 39 chapters, which are predominantly about the judgement of Judah and other nations, God holds out hope for the future, beyond the devastation of Jerusalem and the Exile to Babylon…

     I will restore your leaders as in days of old,
      your rulers as at the beginning.
     Afterward you will be called
     the City of Righteousness,
     the Faithful City. (1:26)

     The Lord will have compassion on Jacob;
     once again he will choose Israel
     and will settle them in their own land. (14:1)

     Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you;
     therefore he will rise up to show you compassion.
     For the Lord is a God of justice.
     Blessed are all who wait for him! (30:18)

By chapter 40 there is an even greater sense of encouragement…

      Comfort, comfort my people…
      Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. (40:1)

There is the promise of a return couched in the language of the Creation and Exodus stories. “Don’t look to the past. I am doing something new!” Out of the wilderness and chaos God would use the great Persian King, Cyrus as his servant to make a way back to the Promised Land, through a desert now running with water and brimming with life. Here is a Creator who knows what will happen and causes it to take place, in stark contrast to a created idol, which is powerless to know or do anything!

A Book about the Messiah

But Isaiah’s prophecy looks forward to an even greater hope. That of a Messiah, a servant of God and a deliverer and saviour for the nations. References are scattered through the book. Even while telling Isaiah that he will destroy Judah and Jerusalem, God rather cryptically adds…

     But as the terebinth and oak
     leave stumps when they are cut down,
     so the holy seed will be the stump in the land. (6:13)

Now he could just be referring to the small remnant left behind from the Exile but as we continue to read, we find references picked up by the New Testament in association with Jesus Christ…

     The people walking in darkness have seen a great light…”
… He will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God…” (9:2-7)

     A shoot will come from the stump of Jesse [the line of David]
…The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him…
…with righteousness he will judge…   (Chapter 11)

     The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news… (61:1-3)
quoted by Jesus as referring to himself

 

Then there are the so-called “Servant Songs” (eg 42:1-7, 49:1-7, 50:4-9). It’s not always clear with whether in each case it refers to the prophet, to Israel or to the coming Messiah. What is clear is that the Messiah fulfils the servant role, where Israel failed to be a covenant and witness to the nations. When we arrive at chapters 52-53 it would be hard to apply the words to any other than Jesus Christ, in one of the most moving pieces of poetry found anywhere in the Bible and one that has brought me to tears on more than one occasion. I cannot edit it any more than I have…

     Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
          his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
          and his form marred beyond human likeness—
15 so he will sprinkle many nations,
          and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
     For what they were not told, they will see,
          and what they have not heard, they will understand.

   Who has believed our message
          and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
          and like a root out of dry ground.
   He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
          nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
          a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
   Like one from whom people hide their faces
          he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain
          and bore our suffering,
          yet we considered him punished by God, ”
          stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
          he was crushed for our iniquities;
          the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
          and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
          each of us has turned to our own way;
          and the Lord has laid on him
          the iniquity of us all…
He was oppressed and afflicted,
          yet he did not open his mouth;
          he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
          and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
          so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgement he was taken away.
   Yet who of his generation protested?
   For he was cut off from the land of the living;
          for the transgression of my people he was punished.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
          and with the rich in his death,
          though he had done no violence,
          nor was any deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
          and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
          he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
          and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered,
          he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
          by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
          and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, n
          and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
          because he poured out his life unto death,
          and was numbered with the transgressors.

For he bore the sin of many,
          and made intercession for the transgressors.

A Book about the Future Kingdom

And it is on the strength of the ministry, the life, death and resurrection, of the Messiah that Isaiah can look forward still further, beyond the return from Exile, beyond the first coming of the Messiah to the culmination of God’s Kingdom. Again, there are references throughout the prophecy, but more particularly towards the end of the book…

     See, I will create
new heavens and a new earth. (65:17)

     Before they call I will answer;
          while they are still speaking I will hear.

     The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
          and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
          and dust will be the serpent’s food.
     They will neither harm nor destroy
          on all my holy mountain,”
          says the Lord. (65:24-25)

We will see some of this language picked up in Revelation, when all will be put right and people of every nation will stand before God and acknowledge him. Justice will be done and peace will finally reign. In this life however we do well to heed Isaiah’s exhortation:

Isaiah 55
     “Come, all you who are thirsty,
          come to the waters;
          and you who have no money,
          come, buy and eat!
     Come, buy wine and milk
          without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
          and your labour on what does not satisfy?
    Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
          and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
          listen, that you may live.
   I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
          my faithful love promised to David…

Seek the Lord while he may be found;
          call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways
          and the unrighteous their thoughts.
   Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
          and to our God, for he will freely pardon…

 12 You will go out in joy
          and be led forth in peace;
          the mountains and hills
          will burst into song before you,
          and all the trees of the field
          will clap their hands…

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Gleanings from the Bible: Song of Songs.

In my younger days, when this book was known as the Song of Solomon, there was a tendency for the Christians I mixed with to understand it as an allegory for Christ and his Church. Apart from the fact that marriage is frequently used in scripture as an analogy for the covenant relationship of God with his people and Christ with the Church, there is little reason to interpret Song of Songs that way. There is no internal evidence and the New Testament doesn’t refer back to it.

No, quite simply this is a poem about the exclusivity and richness of two people in love, delighting in one another. As a part of Scripture and the body of Wisdom Literature, it reminds us that love and sexual attraction are God’s gift, to be thoroughly enjoyed within the bounds that God has set for us.

The spontaneity of love is hinted at, with Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires (2:7 and 3:5). It has to do with giving and responding from the heart.

Catch for us the little foxes
the little foxes
that ruin the vineyards
our vineyards that are in bloom

…suggests an attention to detail in the relationship, whether presenting attractively to one’s spouse or dealing with the everyday small things that could mar the relationship. It is obviously expressed here by a couple in the prime (bloom) of life.

Elsewhere there are the poetic (if somewhat quaint to our ears) compliments expressed one to the other, which keep the romantic love alive:

Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates
     with choice fruits,
     with henna and nard,
     nard and saffron,
     calamus and cinnamon,
     with every kind of incense tree,
     with myrrh and aloes
     and all the finest spices.
You are a garden fountain,
     a well of flowing water
     streaming down from Lebanon.

We might feel awkward expressing ourselves exactly like this, but you get the idea.

A NOTE ABOUT LOVE

You frequently read, “All you need is love,” or something similar. It’s used in all sorts of contexts to justify various ideas and lifestyles. But it’s not true and at its worst amounts to superficial sentimentality. I think I know what people mean when they say that though. They are appealing to the idea that love covers a multitude of sins and that if you do what is loving and good for the other person then you will be doing the right thing – fulfilling the spirit of good laws and transcending bad ones.

But, love needs guidance and wisdom. For example, sometimes parents can love their children by giving them everything they want and bailing them out whenever they get into trouble of their own making. And in doing so they can ruin the ones they love. Love can be misdirected from one’s spouse to another, with painful and prolonged results. Love can lead people to make bad choices in a partner, or to enter a sexual relationship without a commitment to marriage. Statistics have long shown that people who live together before marriage are less likely to stay together when they get married than those who waited. De facto relationships often leave an “out” in the minds of the participants, which can often leave the woman literally carrying the baby. Remember, this is a generalisation, but an important one. Just ask the church organisations, which attempt to give aid in a huge number of broken relationships.

God (who is love) has given us ample instruction in the Old and New Testaments as to the boundaries in which love is to be most enjoyed and practised. Those boundaries are the safeguards for a love which may at times be tough in its administration but which ultimately has the long-term good of the other person in mind. Amongst Paul’s writings about purity in relationships 1 Corinthians 13 has served couples well on their wedding day. Would that we read that New Testament chapter frequently alongside the beautiful Old Testament Song of Songs to experience the love of God permeating our relationships in all its fullness.

…and now I should go and help my wife and tell her how wonderful she is – which she is of course! 🙂

Gleanings from the Bible: Ecclesiastes, Emptiness and the State of the Church.

We know that Ecclesiastes emphasises the emptiness of life without God, but does this emptiness also extend into the lives of those who do believe in God and even take the name Christian? Does it extend further to our church practices and worship? While claiming to follow Jesus Christ, do we in fact live as though he doesn’t exist? Do we go through the motions but not experience anything akin to the sort of close relationships we have with other people?

We are familiar enough with the idea that a Christian, who is not practising the basics of the faith, tends to drift away from God and is unlikely to experience much spiritually. But do we really know what we are talking about when we use words like “spiritual” and “spirituality”?*

Some Christians are suspicious of the words, “experience” and “spiritual.” They always seems so subjective, undefined and unreliable. Couldn’t they merely be the product of emotional manipulation, whether deliberate or not? Are they not just the feelings of fear, or guilt, or ecstasy, generated by chemical combinations responding to the immediate environment? Can we then dismiss spiritual experience and the worship that goes with it as meaningless? Well yes and no. Every feeling, whether we label it chemical, psychological or spiritual, is experienced through our bodies and more particularly, our brains. But that does not make experience meaningless. It simply means that that is how human beings function.

I suspect that people generally are actually starved of experience while being drowned by it. For example, we have abundant access to dramatic photographs, from all over the globe, sometimes oversaturated and bursting with exaggerated life. On social media we flip through them, wanting to experience them all, thinking, “Wow!” at every swipe, yet never pausing to take them in at any depth. We exist as multiple generations, who have been raised on the likes of Sesame Street, fast paced, switching from sketch to sketch, and now with all the attention span of a demented monkey. We don’t want to miss a thing! We want to see what is happening everywhere and we want to see it now!

And yet it often seems so superficial. Experience for experience sake. Meaningless. A chasing after wind.

It is almost inevitable that this carries over into spiritual life and worship. We want to experience God but some of us don’t experience anything very much. Some seem afraid of the word, “experience” and others have found that their former spiritual experiences no longer give the buzz they once did. Churches have tried new ideas, embraced technology and ramped up the music but are they offering anything that can’t be readily found outside its doors?

And still the general populace still appears to crave spirituality. An experience beyond the mundane cycle of life, which the excesses of modern life do not provide. I’ve noticed the public response to disaster and death; the candles and vigils, the placing of wreaths, the televising of funerals, the growing interest in Anzac Day in Australia. As the writer of Ecclesiastes states,   he has also set eternity in the human heart (3:11).

I think that a great problem is, that while Christian and non-Christian alike desire spiritual experience, there is often a low expectation that it will be found in church. Non-Christian, unchurched people, have absolutely no expectation that church can provide anything meaningful. Ritualists may find that the theatrical forms of worship can no longer compete with the costume dramas and special effects of Hollywood. Young people see the liturgies as repetitious and lifeless. Conservative Evangelicals, are sometimes so wary of spiritual excess that anything emotional is either suppressed or ignored. Charismatic denominations discover that the predictability of mainline churches, from which they once fled, has caught them up in formats that no longer provide anything novel. And I wonder if all of this is behind the move away from traditional beliefs towards Progressive Christianity, whose adherents seem to feel that Christianity has failed and now seek  “God” through new avenues. Effectively a new faith only tangentially connected to its roots. Some churches and associated organisations are admired for their fine social conscience and welfare work, but even that doesn’t seem to be attracting new members to the ranks.

Am I being over critical? Have I caught the Negative-Ecclesiastes-Virus? In the western world, have our Christian lives and worship really become superficial and devoid of direction? Is there a solution?

Let me express a few thoughts, while admitting that I can be as much a part of the problem as anyone else. These are not exhaustive…

The first has to do with expectations. Our society has become so sceptical and cynical that we find that we do not expect God to act in any special way. This affects the frame of mind in which we come to worship. It affects our prayer life and ultimately it affects our enthusiasm.

A second has to do with relationship. If we only relate to God through set pieces, words and sacraments, then it can be like a marriage that never progresses past the marriage preparation course and the wedding ceremony. This includes people who study doctrine and theology, but fail to apply it in a life-transforming way. Where study replaces relationship.

A third has to do with fear. The fear, not just of change, but of  being changed. A fear of losing control over one’s life and emotions.

A fourth has to do with disappointment. The accumulated experience of nothing very much happening, or happening fast enough, which takes us back to low expectations.

A fifth has to do with perseverance. Our society has trained us to expect everything immediately, and we become bored easily. We readily give up, especially when it comes to talking to God.

I want to acknowledge now that we each have different personalities, which are attracted by different forms of worship, so what I am expressing here are the things would attract me to a church or fellowship. But I do suspect that they might be attractive to others.

There are the regular, vitally important things like finding a welcome and friendship and having a useful part to play in the fellowship. If I am attending a Christian Church I expect orthodox Christian beliefs drawn from the Bible and expressed in the Creeds, otherwise it ceases to be Christian at its core. I also expect the gospel to be proclaimed. By which I mean, affirming that Jesus is the Messiah, who died so that we may be forgiven, and who rose from the dead to assure us of life beyond the grave. By submitting to Jesus as Lord, and receiving his Spirit we are born into God’s (spiritual) family and a spiritual transformation begins within us, gradually changing us to be more and more in character like Jesus Christ. This life-changing experience is fundamental to all that follows. It is the unique and vital thing that nothing else in society offers. But from what I hear such proclamation with the opportunity for people to respond in a faith commitment is too often absent from many churches. Such churches have ceased to offer anything meaningful. The relationship with God, through Jesus Christ and the infilling of the Spirit, then become the motivation for right living and serving our fellow human beings.

The relationship with God is nurtured through reading the Scriptures, prayer and joining others in worship. The obvious things which are the bread and butter for growing Christians, known by so many, but practised by relatively few! Prayer that is not fed by meditating on God’s Word to us is like a love, which has no guidelines as to what it is that truly benefits the object of that love. And reading the Scriptures, without prayer mingled with meditation, is like reading the marriage guidance book and never speaking to your spouse. This is the personal foundation, which we then bring to corporate worship.

I am not going to tackle the many aspects of worship here but I want to suggest that churches not be afraid to talk about the Holy Spirit and encourage their members to pray that they be filled with the Spirit each day. Have a least one expression of worship in the week, which is unpredictable and freer in form and where the work and gifts of the Spirit can be discussed. Give opportunity for prayers for healing (of all sorts) with the testimonies of those who have experienced God at work. Generate the realistic expectation that God will make a difference to people’s lives. Pray together for specific people and things and keep a record to encourage further prayer. Pray that God will control what happens as you meet together and then do not be afraid if something unusual occurs.

I think that people are bypassing church because they perceive that nothing happens there. Of course we cannot and should not be manufacturing spiritual experience artificially. Nor should we forget Jesus’ observation, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We do have to beware of becoming dependent on dramatic experience and the obviously miraculous.

However I am still much inspired by the stories of revival both from the past and as it is currently happening in other parts of the world (if rarely reported). Revival of worship, the experience of God’s power, and the influx of people into his Kingdom, come through the perseverance of prayer. Experience seems to indicate that the starting point is people – sometimes just a few – motivated by the Spirit, gathering regularly, expectantly and persistently to ask God to pour out his Spirit on his people.

In the meantime, I’d be happy to settle for seeing people grow in their faith. For hearing the person who said, “That’s just me. I’ll never be any different,” saying years later, “I’m enjoying my quiet time with God each morning. I don’t lose my temper now like I used to. I am more positive about life. I’ve patched up my relationship with my neighbour/friend/relative. I believe I’m seeing the fruit of God’s Spirit working in my life!”

And perhaps that’s where it starts, at a personal level, with your everyday relationships. Your non-Christian neighbour may, in the deepest recesses of her heart, desire spiritual experience and some purpose and significance in life, but won’t venture into the alien world and language of the local church. But she may notice the way you have changed and venture to ask, “What do you believe?” or share her own woes, presenting you with the opportunity to expectantly pray with her and watch what God does! The question is, “Will you know what to say?” That is an area of training that a growing church will want to engage in.

A Christ-filled life, even an imperfect one, is a stepping stone for others to seek and find Jesus Christ. It is the way to experience the reality of God from day to day. To push back the negativity of a meaningless cycle of life and to touch that eternity (if only partially) that God has placed in our hearts.

So don’t give up. God is powerfully at work in the world at large. Invite him, each day,  to work in your life and that of your fellowship… and see what happens!

*  [I take “spirituality” to mean those practices and experiences associated with knowing God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit (as opposed to just knowing about them). You may have a better definition.]

Gleanings from the Bible: Ecclesiastes.

If ever there was a wisdom book for our western world, this is it! It is a sober wake-up call about life without God and, coincidentally, to a society living to excess!

The message has been ascribed to Solomon, and while the authorship is debated there is no doubt that he would have been in an ideal position to sample all that life had to offer and comment on its meaning, or otherwise.

The author’s point is simple but depressing. What goes round, comes round. Pleasure has no point to it, no productive purpose. Most of our work is done to make others envious. We’re all going to die and we have no control over the time. You can’t take anything that you’ve worked for with you. We will then be forgotten by following generations.

How are you feeling?

We know these things are true but we tend to push them to the back of our mind, only to be brought out of mothballs briefly when we attend a funeral or find that a loved one has contracted cancer, or when the business collapses. In the extremities of life we think about purpose and mortality, but as the author of this book records, They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart. (5:20)

Never has this been so true as it is today, when every form of entertainment and every piece of information is at our fingertips via phone, tablet, TV and whatever else our technological world has in store. We are constantly distracted from thinking about the significance of life, and not just by binge-watching TV, or wallowing in the addictions associated with pornography, sex, drugs and alcohol, or even food! Many people’s lives are consumed by their work, or a sport or hobby, or the acquisition of power and wealth. Their time is spent in travelling and the collection of new experiences. We all look for some sort of significance, even if it only the proverbial “fifteen minutes of fame” – or five seconds of fame if it is Facebook or Twitter!

The author of Ecclesiastes tried it all. Well, everything that was available in his day. And do you know what? He found that when he stopped to think about it, he was left feeling emptiness and I think rather bitter — It’s all meaningless and it doesn’t ultimately satisfy!

So did he have an answer to it all?

I think he did. And I think that there are two aspects to it, both summed up in the following verses…

     A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This        too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?  To the
person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness… (2:24-26)

The first is to acknowledge that life is from God. It is he who gives it meaning. He has set eternity in the human heart. The writer’s advice in chapter twelve  is…

     Remember your Creator
     in the days of your youth,
     before the days of trouble come
     and the years approach when you will say,
     “I find no pleasure in them”

With God as the focus of life, the pleasures of life have a context, a meaning and a fulfilment. In other words, pleasure is most enjoyable when God is at the centre of the way you live.

So the other aspect to this advice is to live a life that is balanced. Like a bicycle wheel with God as the hub. In a western world, that seems to be frantically trying to live life in excess, stop a moment and smell the roses, enjoy the simple things of life, find enjoyment in your work, meditate and pray, fear God and keep his commandments (12:13).

In a wider biblical context we can see that God has given us the purpose of knowing him and sharing in his glory. The People of God are called to make God and his Son, Jesus Christ known to all humanity. And when we do so God gives us the ability to properly and maximally enjoy the life that he has given us, even as we look forward to the next life he has prepared for us.

Have a joyous New Year!