All posts by dsloan

Death as a Mythical Creature in the Bible

Grim Reaper
Grim Reaper – Lost his Sting! by Waiting for the Word (https://www.flickr.com/photos/waitingfortheword/)

Did you know that Death is a mythical creature in the Bible? Just as Motu is an enemy of Ba’lu in Canaanite mythology and Thanatos is a negative god in Greek mythology, in the Bible Death (Hebrew maveth, Greek thanatos) is an enemy who sends messengers (Prov 16:14), has a son named Calamity (Job 18:13-14), ensnares people (Psalm 18:4; etc.), leads them to the Underworld (Ps 49:14), and devours them (Hab 2:5). Yet the Bible teaches that the Lord will himself ransom his people from Death (Hos 13:14) and devour Death (Isa 25:8). The Lord swallows up the great swallower! Paul speaks of Death as having “reigned” (Rom 5:14, 17), but Jesus’ resurrection means that Death does not reign over Jesus (Rom 6:9), and so Jesus will defeat all of his enemies, the last one being Death (1 Cor 15:26, 54-57). Christ has taken away Death’s keys (Rev 1:18), and though Death is one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, bringing destruction wherever he goes (Rev 6:7-8), Jesus will force him to give up the dead that he has swallowed (Rev 20:13) and will throw him in the Lake of Fire (Rev 20:14).

Here I Am Lord (Isaiah 6)

One of my favorite hymns is “Here I Am, Lord” by Dan Schutte.

In continuing my series of posts on Isaiah I want to look more closely at the context of this famous Isaianic passage. This is the “Call of Isaiah,” where Isaiah is commissioned for his prophetic ministry. The passage begins with a statement that Isaiah’s vision took place “in the year the King Uzziah died” (Isa 6:1). This is a significant time in Israel’s history. Uzziah had been a good and prosperous king. During his 52-year(!) reign the borders of Judah and Israel expanded to include a territory that had been unprecedented since the time of Solomon. These were good years for God’s people. But they were marred when the good king Uzziah “became proud, to his destruction,” trying to take on a priestly role by burning incense in the temple (2 Chron 26:16, ESV). God struck Uzziah with leprosy, and for the rest of his life Uzziah was excluded from the house of the Lord (2 Chron 26:21). By the time Uzziah died, the Assyrian empire had already expanded enough that it was clear who was going to be the next superpower. This was a time when Israel’s optimism was dying and its impending doom was evident.

In the year that king Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple.  [Isaiah 6:1]

Uzziah may not have been able to enter the temple, but there was a king who could – Yahweh.  There was a king who would never be struck down with leprosy – Yahweh. There was a king who was high and lifted up, far beyond Uzziah and Tiglath Pileser III – Yahweh. There was king who would never die – Yahweh.

Isaiah saw him. And he saw him as glorious. The seraphim cried out that “all of the earth is filled with his glory” (6:3). So great was his glory that “the thresholds of the doorways shook” and “the temple was filled with smoke” when the seraphim cried out. So great was his glory that Isaiah cried out:

Woe to me! For I am ruined!
For I am a man of unclean lips,
And I live among of a people of unclean lips
for my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh Tsebaoth!  [6:5]

No one is holy enough to see God and live. But an exception is made for Isaiah. Like Esther, when she stood before the king and he extends his gold scepter that she may live, so Isaiah stands before the King of Kings, and a glowing coal from the altar is extended to him. The seraph tells Isaiah:

Behold, this has touched your lips,
and your wickedness has been removed
and you sin has been atoned for.  [6:7]

What a beautiful picture! This sinful man can have his sins removed in an instant … to the point that he can see God and live! What excitement must have entered Isaiah! And he is so excited that when he hears the Lord say, “Whom should I send? Who will go for us?” Isaiah eagerly jumps up: “Here I am! Send me!”

Notice that Isaiah did not hear where he is going or for what purpose. All he knows is that there is a message that must be proclaimed, and Isaiah is eager to be the messenger. After seeing how God can remove the sin of “a man of unclean lips” in an instant, it seems obvious to Isaiah what the mission is. After all, he “lives among a people of unclean lips.” Give him a few coals from the altar, send him off, and things are going to be great! Who cares that the great King Uzziah is no longer leading the people? God himself is on the throne! Who cares that the Assyrians are advancing? They are no match for Yahweh! I can almost see Isaiah with his hand up in the air, jumping up and down: “Ooh, ooh, pick me! Pick me!” And then he gets the message:

Go and tell this people:
“Listen intently, but don’t understand,
Watch closely, but don’t get it.”

Harden the heart of this people,
Deafen its ears, and blind its eyes,
Lest they see with their eyes
And hear with their ears
And understand with their heart
And turn that he would heal them.  [6:9-10]

Ouch! Not the message Isaiah was hoping to preach! Isaiah’s mission is to have a “failing ministry” – at least according to modern Christianity’s definition of success and failure. The possibility of healing is there! Just like Isaiah’s sin was taken away, so could the sin of the people be taken away if only they would see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and return to God. But that was not God’s plan. God’s plan was to have Isaiah preach while the people harden their hearts.

Then I said, “Until when, Lord?”  [6:11]

How long does it need to be this way?

Until cities are desolate, with no one living in them,
And houses, with no man,
And the land is desolate, a wasteland,
And Yahweh casts man out,
And the forsaken area is multiplied in the land.
And though a tenth remain in her,
It will be burned again.
Like the terebinth and the oak,
Which when they are cut down become a stump,
The seed of holiness is its stump.

Ugh! Destruction and then more destruction. This is Isaiah’s message. The people must be taken out of the land. Indeed, this is the same thing Moses had proclaimed centuries earlier (Deut 28, 31-32), but perhaps Isaiah had hoped for something better in his time. Don’t we all? Don’t we all hope that people will repent and the Lord will pour out blessing on all of us? But that’s not always the case. Sometimes when we eagerly say, “Here I am! Send me,” we are signing up for something much less pleasant. But this too is the Lord’s will. There is a time to build up and a time to tear down.

The good news in all of this is that there will always be a seed of holiness. God leaves the stump when he cuts down the tree. And there is hope for the stump and for the seed, as we will see in future chapters. But for now, we must remember that it is our mission to preach, even if the effect of our preaching is to harden the hearts of those who listen. Judgment is coming. But even in this we can see the Lord seated on a throne.

The Tenants of the Vineyard (Isaiah 2-5 and Mark 12:1-12)

Isaiah 2:2-4 gives a glorious description of the future of Zion:

It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the LORD
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go the law,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.  [Isaiah 2:2-4, ESV]

Surprisingly the rest of the chapter will be very negative in its assessment of Jerusalem. In between the positive and the negative are these words:

O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the LORD.  [2:5, ESV]

This is the cry of Isaiah, because as Isaiah said at the end of Chapter 1, God is going to avenge himself on the leaders of Judah and bring justice to the fatherless and the widow. This will be the theme of Chapters 2 and 3:

And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled,
and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low,
and the LORD alone will be exalted in that day.  [2:17, ESV]

It is not until Isaiah 3:10 that we get positive words:

Tell the righteous that it shall be well with them,
for they shall eat the fruit of their deeds.  [3:10, ESV]

But then the words immediately turn negative again. This is because Isaiah 2-5 is directed against the leaders of Judah. God has compassion for those mistreated by the corrupt leaders of Judah, and God here announces to these leaders their doom:

My people—infants are their oppressors,
and women rule over them.
O my people, your guides mislead you
and they have swallowed up the course of your paths.

The LORD has taken his place to contend;
he stands to judge peoples.
The LORD will enter into judgment
with the elders and princes of his people:
“It is you who have devoured the vineyard,
the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people,
by grinding the face of the poor?”
declares the Lord GOD of hosts.  [3:12-15, ESV]

In Chapter 5 Isaiah will sing the song of God’s vineyard, how God did everything for the vineyard and yet it did not yield good grapes for him, and so God will let the vineyard be destroyed. Jesus takes up this theme in Mark 12, but with a slightly different emphasis. Whereas Isaiah 5 speaks of the destruction of the vineyard, Mark 12 speaks of the judgment of the tenants and of the giving of the vineyard to others. Clearly Jesus is interacting not only with the song of the vineyard in Chapter 5, but also with God’s plan in Isaiah 1-4 of taking out the corrupt leaders in Judah and replacing them with godly leaders. The leaders in Mark recognize this, for Mark 12:12 says:

And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them.  [ESV]

Matthew and Luke both close Jesus’ parable with an allusion to Isaiah 8:14-15, where the Lord becomes a stumbling block to both houses of Israel. The corrupt among God’s own people will find the Lord to be a stumbling block and will be destroyed for that very reason. Two chapters later in Luke Jesus follows this up with a promise to the apostles:

I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  [Luke 22:29-30, ESV]

We see here Jesus’ goal: to rid Israel of its ungodly leadership. This was the goal of Isaiah when he ministered in his day. God has compassion on the poor, and he will not tolerate the abuses of the poor that take place under ungodly leadership.

This makes me wonder about the way I lead. Do I do so in a way that the poor will be cared for? Do I listen to the voices of the oppressed? It was a great threat for the early church when in Acts 6 it becomes clear that the Hellenist widows are being neglected in the daily distribution. The apostles are attempting to care for the poor and are failing. But they quickly set things right, appointing Spirit-filled leaders who will make sure that no one gets neglected. How is the church doing today? Are the poor overlooked? Are there those who are oppressed? Is the vineyard failing to bear fruit because of oppressive leadership? We must watch ourselves, lest the Lord become a stumbling block to us!

As I read Isaiah or the Gospel of Luke or Deuteronomy or the Epistle of James I am constantly confronted with a message of care for the poor. Having been taken advantage of by some who are poor in America, I find myself holding back from caring for the poor. Having been brought up in a Republican environment I am tempted to resist government intervention in the market. But I cannot let these experiences and views drive me to a place where the poor and oppressed are neglected. What am I going to do to combat the fact that those who are born to poor families tend to not get as good of an education and to not have as many opportunities to succeed in life? What will the church do to make sure justice is available to all? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I cannot read Isaiah and not ask these questions. Friends, let us not be the haughty who will be humbled. Let us be the righteous, who “shall eat the fruit of their deeds.” “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD.”

Isaiah 1-2 and the Gospel

As I read Isaiah 1-2 I cannot help but think of Jesus — not because I see Isaiah 1:18 as a direct prediction of the work of Jesus (see my previous post), but because I see the hope that is expressed by Isaiah as fulfilled by Christ. I hear Yahweh’s lament in Isaiah 1:2-4 (ESV):

Children have I reared and brought up,
but they have rebelled against me. . . .
Ah, sinful nation,
a people laden with iniquity,
offspring of evildoers,
children who deal corruptly!
They have forsaken the LORD,
they have despised the Holy One of Israel,
they are utterly estranged.

and I think of John Chapter 8, where Jesus has a debate with the leaders of Israel over who their father is.

We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, “You will become free”? (John 8:33, ESV)

Oh, the irony! Israel has been enslaved for centuries, and Jesus offers freedom, and the Jewish leaders deny they are enslaved! So Jesus basically tells it like it is – they think they are sons of Abraham, but they are really sons of the devil (John 8:34-47). Likewise Isaiah sees Israel as “offspring of evildoers” (Isaiah 1:4, ESV).

But Isaiah has a hope for Jerusalem, and so does Jesus. Isaiah speaks at the end of Chapter 1 of God’s vengeance upon his foes (1:24). At first one may think the Assyrians are in view here, but they are not. It is “you” — the leaders in Jerusalem who are oppressing the fatherless and the widow — that God is turning against (1:25). And God plans on replacing them with judges like at the beginning (1:26).

Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city.

God has a plan for Jerusalem:

It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the LORD
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go the law,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore. (Isaiah 2:1-4, ESV)

Remove the sin from Israel and you remove its oppression. “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32, ESV). The Book of Acts will pick up on this idea in Isaiah 2:3 of “the word of the Lord” going out “from Jerusalem”:

And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7, ESV)

Samaria received the word of God (Acts 8:14)

The Gentiles also received the word of God (Acts 11:1)

But the word of God increased and multiplied. (Acts 12:24, ESV)

So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily. (Acts 19:20, ESV)

These statements and others show that Luke (the author of Acts) views the history of the church as the partial fulfillment of Isaiah 2:3 — partial because swords are not yet being beaten into plowshares, but the fulfillment in part confirms that the fullness is indeed coming. Luke structures the Book of Acts according to the statement of Jesus that “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). According to Isaiah 2:3, Jerusalem is where the word must begin. According to Isaiah 49:6 it must go to all of the promise land (all Judea and Samaria) and also “to the end of the earth”:

It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. (Isaiah 49:6, ESV)

Now nations flow to Zion — not Zion as defined by the religious elite in Jerusalem, but Zion as defined by Jesus.  The first thing that happens in Acts before the word of the Lord goes out is that a replacement for Judas is chosen — a twelfth leader is selected. This is in fulfillment of Jesus’ words in Luke 22:28-30 (ESV):

You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Isaiah’s hope that Zion would be renewed is fulfilled in the gospel. The corrupt leadership in Jerusalem is replaced by Jesus and the Apostles, and the word of the Lord begins to go out from Zion. There is still more coming of Isaiah’s promises, but you cannot help but think that Isaiah longed to see the days of Jesus’ ministry. Those days are here for us to experience, whether we are naturally part of Israel or are “the nations” — Gentiles given Israel’s blessings by God’s grace. For those of us who are “the nations,” the natural response according to Isaiah is this:

Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.

Come Now, Let Us Reason Together (Isaiah 1:18-20)

Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be eaten by the sword;
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Isaiah 1:18-20 (ESV)

Oftentimes Christians quote a verse with little knowledge of its context. As I am reading through Isaiah right now I thought I would share some thoughts on reading this verse not as an isolated promise text, but as a part of Isaiah’s literary masterpiece.

Typically you will hear 1:18 quoted without reference to 1:19-20. When this is done it sounds like God is saying, “I have a deal for you: I will take away your sin and replace it with purity.” But this is only part of the deal. Not only does God wash away the sins of his people but he also offers the benefits of purity: “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land.”

In verses 21-23 God describes the city of Jerusalem as a city where the poor are oppressed and uncared for. In this sense “the faithful city has become a whore” (1:21). It is because of this that Israel is facing calamity, both physically and militarily (1:5-8). The cry of the whole chapter is:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.

Isaiah 1:16-17 (ESV)

The emphasis on widows and orphans runs throughout Isaiah. It is this line of thought that is reflected well in James 1:27:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

Isaiah describes other attempts at religion in his first chapter. The people are bringing God a “multitude of … sacrifices” (1:11), but the religion of Israel is an abomination to God (1:10-15). At the end of the chapter we see hints that Israel is pursuing Canaanite worship rituals, which Isaiah says will result in their death (1:29-31).

The central point of the chapter (where we began in verses 18-20) is then this: You need to wash your sins away so that you can eat the good of the land rather than be eaten by the sword! A little bit of historical context may help here. Isaiah prophesied “in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (1:1). The days of Uzziah were good days for the nation. Both the northern kingdom (Israel) and the southern kingdom (Judah) were expanding during this time. These were the best years for Israel/Judah since the days of Solomon. But by the end of the 8th century BC the northern kingdom would fall to the Assyrians, and Judah too would be invaded with the Assyrians laying siege to Jerusalem.

It is not clear when in this time frame Isaiah said these words, but based on verses 5-9 it is likely that these words came toward the end of the period. Judah had seen Israel fall and was in danger of falling itself.  Sacrifices likely abounded as the people tried to appease Yahweh (and perhaps other gods as well, though Hezekiah himself worked to put an end to idol-worship and to focus people on Yahweh-worship). But God wanted one thing: justice for the oppressed.

As I think about how to apply this today, I realize that I must be a Christian who fights for justice. Other religion is no religion at all. We can make all kinds of prayers and sacrifices for God, but if we freely benefit off of the oppression of the poor in the process, God will not hear our prayers. God would say to the Christian today, “Come now, let us reason together. Your sins have been like scarlet; let’s change that. If you agree to this, I will bless you. If you do not, you will experience my wrath.” Of course God’s blessing does not always mean eating the good of the land in this life and his wrath does not always mean military defeat. But the basic message remains the same. We need to fight for justice, or God will bring us to justice. Lord, help us.