Isaiah (Part 68): Continuing Covenant Focus (Ch 57)
The mockers of chapter 57 verse 4 are those Jews who thought the more pious of the Jews to be wasting their time in their pursuit of God. But God floods light on their position. It was the mockers who, in love of themselves while trying to manipulate not only God but also local deities of surrounding nations, should be mocked. They, according to verse 5, pursued the false gods Baal and Molech. Baal was a god of fertility, supposedly supporting life of people as well as animals and crops. Worship of Baal included sexual activity—having sex before the god to inspire him to act favorably for life and reproduction. So, verse 5 begins accusing the Jews of burning with lust under every green tree—the places for the worship ceremonies. Verse 5 continues by speaking of the children sacrificed to the god Molech, a god of the underworld who would take satisfaction in death. Thus, from gods of life to death the Jews tried anything that would help their situation.
This unfaithfulness to God—this adultery (see verse 3)—is followed in description by the Jews’ prostitution. Instead of turning to their Caregiver God for help, they worried and fretted and tried to find safety through making alliances with surrounding nations. Of course, these alliances always put Judah in a position of servitude to the others. They tried to ally themselves to Assyria, then to Babylon, and then to Egypt. But, as God explains in verses 12 and 13, their gods and alliances failed. Judah ended up in captivity to Babylon.
But the end of verse 13 expresses hope. God still calls for his people to take refuge in him. And he still promises that those who do will inherit the land and possess his holy mountain. God again uses the imagery of land/mountain to represent his care and security for them.
The next section—57:14-21—shows God’s rescue. Verse 14 begins with God calling out to build up the road to his holy mountain that he has just described. In language reminiscent of Isaiah 40:3, this road is that by which God’s people may find their way to blessing. Paradoxically, God claims living in a high and holy place (terms of transcendent imagery) while at the same time explaining that he lives “with the oppressed and lowly of spirit” (57:15).
We learn in the following verses that judgment was deserved. Judgment was deserved in both perspectives of Isaiah’s prophecy. In the near term scenario, the Jews deserved judgment for leaving God for other means of care (through gods and alliances). In the broader perspective, humanity deserved the judgment of death for placing faith in themselves apart from God.
And the people cannot save themselves. If God turns away forever, humanity is lost. But God promises to rescue, and in his rescue, he brings peace to the one who is far or near (57:19). The far or near can speak of those seeking God already and those who still have a way to go spiritually. It can also be speaking of the Jews as those near and the other nations as those far away, indicating the New Covenant incorporation into community of all the people of the earth.
Chapter 58 is about relationship’s community focus. The chapter begins with God exhorting Isaiah to cry aloud so as to show his people their transgression. We need to pause to realize where we are in God’s story. In the last couple of mini-sections, Isaiah has been recounting the book as a whole. He had gone back to speak of Judah’s sin in forsaking God that led to the Babylonian captivity. Then he spoke of God providing rescue, and we understand that through the immediate servant Cyrus as well as the ultimate Servant Jesus. So then we are now at a point beyond the time of God’s rescue. In other words, for the immediate fulfillment, the Jews are back in their own land having been freed from captivity by Cyrus. In the ultimate fulfillment, we—the people who have received Christ in faith—live now in the beginning kingdom, freed from sin and death by Christ. It is to these two post-rescue period groups that God urges Isaiah to cry aloud and tell of transgression. What is this transgression for those second-temple period Jews and for us of the New Covenant? Notice how God slowly brings the situation into focus. Verse 2 tells us that we do seek God. We delight to know his ways. We look for righteous judgments. We delight in the nearness of God. These are all good signs! These are all things that true lovers of God should be doing. And they appear as more than ritual activity; seeking and delighting are words of the heart.
In the first part of verse 3, we, the seekers of God, turn to him in puzzlement. We ask why in our fasting does God not seem to respond. The answer comes in verses 3b through 7. It appears that though our concern for God is real, it is in silo form. We care only about ourselves individually in relation to God. God describes our fasting (our approach to him) in verse 5. We deny ourselves, bow our heads in devotion, and are repentant. However, God says that our fast (our approach toward covenant relationship) ought to include more. How much better if when we fast before God, instead of merely not eating and storing our food, that food were to be given to others in need. In other words, the covenant community of God is not single individuals relating to God in multiple covenant relationships. Rather, we are one community, and therefore our relationships with each other as we join our hearts to God is important in how we define true, everlasting, loving life.