The Modern Relevance of an Ancient Voice
Why is Isaiah Important to Me?
Like all the books in the Bible, Isaiah has an incredible relevance to people of all times, places and circumstances. The book of Isaiah is widely considered by biblical scholars as an invaluable ancient relic, yet an essential modern revelation of God - an amazing combination of timeliness and timelessness. Readers and seekers from diverse cultures, economic circumstances, and time periods open it up and find it speaking directly to them. Obviously, some books will speak more forcefully in some times and circumstances, but the impact and influence of the prophetic voice of Isaiah is always life-changing. And as divine destiny would have it - we can encounter and hear that voice today.
Because of both its depth and width, Isaiah is even more everlastingly relevant than some other books, such as Obadiah or Nahum, whose messages were more single-issue driven - timely not necessarily timeless. Isaiah truly has something for everyone. What does not speak to one person can be powerfully meaningful to another, and something one may have glanced over at one point in his or her life jumps off the page in another. I want us to discover some of the things in ancient Isaiah that I believe have a unique significance for the present day.
The Uniqueness of Yahweh
I do not believe there is any question that this concept is the most significant for our day. We live “in an age where exclusivism of any sort is close to being the unpardonable sin. Tolerance and deconstructionism rule the day, except that intolerance of those who insist on the possibility of absolute truth is not only permitted but encouraged. Syncretism (amalgamation of different religions) is encouraged so that it is understood that all religions are equally valid as expressions of each worshiper’s personal preference. The deception in all of this is that it represents an adoption, whether conscious or unconscious, of a worldview that has profound consequences for human life.
In fact, in all of the countless ways of thinking about reality it can be grouped into just two categories: Either ultimate reality is an intrinsic part of the psycho-socio-physical universe, inseparable from it, or ultimate reality is somehow separate from, other than, that universe. All of the religions of the ancient world except one, and all the religions (and philosophies) of the modern world except three, fall into that first category. “God,” whatever “god” may be, is the world as we know it; there is nothing else. What are the real-time implications of such a view? They are strikingly similar around the world, because we are explaining ultimate reality by comparison with this world. Some of those implications are these:
There is no ultimate meaning in life. Our existence is an accident. Thus humans are finally without value.
There is no goal in life. We came from nothing, and we go to nothing. The only law is survival for the maximum time possible.
Conflict between destructive forces (evil) and constructive forces (good) is both endless and inevitable.
Ethics are always relative. The only enduring “good” is a maximum of comfort, pleasure, and security.
Self-interest is paramount.
In view of the preceding, the acquisition and use of power is of maximum importance.
Because there is an element of spirit power that is beyond physical manipulation, we must find “spiritual” ways to tap into that power. Since the entire universe is connected, it is possible through use of correct technique to become identified with those spirit powers and have their power at one’s own disposal.
Human behavior is largely determined by forces outside of human control or understanding. Furthermore, the only reason for recording behavior is self-serving, so careful attention to actual events is insignificant. Therefore, history writing as an attempt to understand human behavior is both fruitless and pointless.
In all the ancient world, there was only one people group who systematically and consistently denied all of the above: the Israelites - Jews. Sometimes a people might deny one or two for a period of time, but inevitably they fell back into the overall system. But the Israelites did not. They felt the pull of this way of looking at reality, and again and again they adopted one or another of its implications. Yet they were always called back until, in the postexilic era, “the opposing tenets to every one of these began to become second nature to them. What are these opposing tenets?
We were created in the image of a good and consistent God to be the stewards of his creation under his lordship. Therefore, human life is of ultimate value.
We are called to share the character of God, and yet we can choose not to. Thus it is possible both to progress toward and regress from the ultimate goal of experiencing his life.
The Creator is the Good. There is no conflict in him. Evil is not a cosmic reality but simply the absence of the Good in our lives.
The character of the Creator is the absolute standard of ethics, against which all behavior may be measured.
Surrender of one’s self-interest into the care of the Creator is the most personally beneficial thing one can do.
Acquisition of right standing with the Creator is the most important thing one can do.
The attempt to gain spiritual power through the use of technique apart from submissive, obedient relationship is strictly forbidden.
Human behavior can be evaluated according to a consistent standard. Furthermore, it is possible to record that behavior with accuracy and integrity. Therefore, history writing is an important key to understanding human behavior.
Why and how did the Hebrews (all alone) stubbornly hold to these concepts, which became the foundation of all of Western culture? It is because they held a different view of reality from all other culture and societies around them. They alone believed that God is not the world. They alone believed that deity, humanity, and nature are not all parts of one indivisible whole. That view is nowhere better expressed in the Bible than in Isaiah. The technical term for this concept is transcendence. If God is the ultimate reality behind all things, then there is only one such reality. And if there is only one reality who created the world as an expression of his will and purpose, then to give ultimate obedience to anything else is ultimate disaster.
Such a being cannot be manipulated by means of any created thing; to even think of it is laughable. So how do we acquire his power so that we can meet our needs? That is just it: We cannot. We must entrust the satisfaction of our needs into his hands, believing that he really is true and good and that we are precious to him. That has been the sticking point with humans ever since our first mother and father. We are afraid to entrust our fragile selves into our Maker’s hands. We believe the lie the first rebel told them and us: God is not for you; he wants to use you to satisfy his own self-interest. Fearing to surrender, we create gods in our image, foolishly believing the lie that somehow we can gain power to use for ourselves and never have to surrender.
If the Western world is to survive, we must recover our spiritual roots in the Bible, and there is no book in the Bible that makes those roots more clear than does Isaiah. Somehow we must remind ourselves that the “inclusive” worldview will not help us to become more human but less. To be sure, there is a sinful “exclusivism” that is nothing more than arrogance. That is not biblical faith. Nevertheless, the only basis for human worth is in the biblical understanding that all of us share the image of the one Creator. To embrace some wooly-headed syncretism is not to come closer to righting the wrongs of the world; it is to lose the very basis for saying there is a right and a wrong. In that world the only right is the will of the person who can shout the loudest and hit the hardest. That is not the way of hope.
But suppose, as some think, the battle for the soul of the West is already lost. If so, it becomes doubly imperative for contemporary believers to know the truths of Isaiah. When we are called “bigots” and “closed-minded,” we must know in our own souls why that is not the case. And when it becomes expensive and inconvenient to maintain this “this faith, we need to be able to know why we should maintain it anyway. There are no better resources for this than the ones we find in the book of Isaiah.
We live in an age that, because of its abandonment of the biblical worldview, has made status, position, and power the absolute good. A major function of education has become not the acquisition of knowledge but the enhancement of self-esteem. The irony in all of this, as was argued above, is that in the unbiblical worldview, humanity has no significance whatsoever. We are an electrochemical accident. Thus, the more we cut ourselves off from the transcendent Creator, the less significant we become. The result, as is clearly seen in Camus, Sartre, and Kafka, is a downward spiral of despair. The more we try to puff ourselves up by cutting ourselves off from God, the less there is to puff up.
More than ever we need to hear the words of Isaiah, who tells us that the way to significance is not through arrogance but through humility, not to demand that others serve us but to serve others. How much we need to recover from Isaiah the prototype for what the apostle Paul called “the mind of Christ.” This “mind” or attitude is almost completely foreign to us fearful and phobic descendants of Adam and Eve. We are so afraid of loss, of discomfort, of pain that we will sacrifice almost anything, or anyone, to avoid them. Yet, as Isaiah shows us, the way to real power is through powerlessness.
If we are to believe that, we need to be steeped in Isaiah’s teaching. We need to be reminded again of the folly of depending on human glory for anything lasting. We need to hear again that God can be trusted—trusted enough to lay down our own foolish pride. We need to be motivated in deep ways by the realization that the sole Creator of the universe, the just Judge, the betrayed Father, has not cast us off but has chosen us to be the evidence to the world that he alone is God. We need to learn again that his honor before the world is so precious that it is worth any price to him to find a way to renew his character in us.
How desperately modern Christians, who have allowed their ways of thinking to be reshaped according to the wrong model, need to allow Isaiah’s view of servanthood to reshape our outlook. The cross is still foolishness to the Greeks. To win is to lose? To lose is to win? To die is to live? To live is to die? To rise is to fall? To fall is to rise? To take the lowest place is to sit with the King? To take the highest place is to sit in the dust? Come on! Yet, as we who have found God in Christ know, all that is absolutely true. But how are we going to believe that unless we consciously allow our minds to become saturated with that point of view? If we do not, the other understanding of reality will take us by default.
The Sovereign God of History
Considered simply as a philosophy, transcendence has some serious weaknesses. This is why, apart from perhaps Confucius and Aristotle, it has rarely been considered seriously by philosophers. In the first place, anything that is utterly removed from the psycho-socio-physical universe would have no contact with that universe and could not communicate with it. Thus, transcendence would seem to be an interesting and perhaps useful mental construct, but it would have no relevance to everyday life.
Both the Greeks and Confucius sought for a way around this by positing the existence of certain norms in life that reflect the activity and nature of this transcendent element, which Aristotle called “the Unmoved Mover” and Confucius called the “Tao” or “Way.” Why is it that no culture where everyone lies or everyone steals can long survive? Is it not because there is a single, transcendent originating force behind all cultures? This argument seems to have been more persuasive in China than it was in Greece, because the following of “the Way” became a major cultural force through a great part of China’s history, whereas this way of thinking had largely died out in Greece by the beginning of the Roman period. But even in China the Tao had no means of intervening in the life of the world to right any wrongs that might be there.
This highlights the second serious weakness of transcendence: the necessary impersonality of the originating force. One of the characteristics of human personality is its transitoriness. Our moods flit back and forth like hummingbirds. So do our affections and even our convictions. Surely the element from which all things extend and which forms the foundation of all that is could not have those characteristics. Furthermore, that force must of necessity be completely unconcerned with our response to it. It determines all things and is not itself determined by anything. All of this is much too ethereal and cerebral for most people caught up in the business of daily life, trying to survive for another day.
The other worldview, that of continuity, seems to offer a much more useful and practical way of understanding the way things are. Here the forces of the universe are given personalities on the analogy with us humans. But a study of mythology convinces one that the forces are forces still, only wearing masks that give them the illusion of personality and approachability. But behind the masks they are just as inscrutable and implacable as any “Unmoved Mover.” What the overlay of human personality does give them is an element of capriciousness and arbitrariness that is not good news.
So how do we arrive at the biblical view, which is definitely not the worldview of continuity, but neither is it the same kind of transcendence as has just been described? If we ask the Hebrews where they got their concept of God, they will tell us that they did not get it either by extrapolating from this world or by logical deduction. Instead, they tell us of a God who broke into their experience, revealing a distinct will for their behavior and calling them to submission and obedience. They tell us of a God who interacted with the “with them in their choices and in the consequences of those choices, revealing a complex and many-faceted personality.
How can we ever find God, if he is truly transcendent? The answer is that we cannot. As the New Testament says it, “No one has ever gone into heaven” (John 3:13). On this score the philosophers are right. But suppose the philosophers’ logic is too limited. Suppose the transcendent One can retain his otherness while intersecting his world at any point and in any time. And suppose the problem of personhood is ours and not his. Suppose it is possible to be fully personal and yet entirely self-consistent. Suppose it is possible to interact deeply and faithfully with other persons and yet never vary from what One is in Oneself. This changes the question of knowing completely.
If such a being chose to, he could come to us, somehow translating himself into terms we could comprehend. For the One who spoke the universe into existence, that kind of translation should not be so hard. But what language should he use? Should he use the language of nature? How can he? How can nature convey personhood? How can nature convey an intended will? How can nature convey the necessity of surrender and obedience? How can nature convey ethical absolutes that are a concomitant of a loving, committed relationship? The language God chose was the language of human interrelationships, the language we call history. Why is it that the earliest examples of extended works of history are found in the Hebrew Bible? It is because that is the arena in which God chose to make himself known. In the arena of human relationships, choices, and decisions, God revealed his nature and character and the nature of reality to his people.
The Hebrews would deny that their creation of historical narrative betrayed any special perception on their part. Rather, they would tell us that God simply broke in upon them and called them to make certain choices, telling them what would be the consequences of the various choices. When they discovered that those consequences did follow, we can imagine that they said to themselves: “It would be a good idea to record this so that when we come this way again, we won’t make the same mistakes again.” That was precisely what God wanted. How could he teach them a complicated truth like monotheism, especially when all their more brilliant neighbors were polytheists? He could call them into a historical covenant relationship, whose first stipulation was that they must worship him alone. How could he teach them he was not a part of this world, an even more complex idea? He could make it a covenant stipulation that they not make or worship idols. How could he teach them that there are absolute ethics? By requiring them to emulate the character of the one transcendent deity. Thus, their own historical experience became the basis for their knowledge of God.
All of this is portrayed for us in the book of Isaiah. There we see the truth of God being worked out in Israel’s experience. Religion is not about mystic rites. Rather, it is about what you are going to do about the Assyrian threat. It is about how you treat the poor and downtrodden. It is about how you represent yourself and your God to foreign ambassadors. It is about how you continue to function when your entire life has fallen in on you, largely as a result of your own stupid choices. Religion is about ethics in daily life. This is the truth that is always in danger of being lost, and it is especially in danger now as the West progressively cuts its Christian moorings and all unconsciously drifts off into a pagan sea.
The study of history is dying around us. Why? Because such a study must believe that real choices are possible, that real progress toward a worthwhile goal may be made, and that there is a single overarching standard by which those choices may be evaluated and by which progress may be judged. Without these (and biblical transcendence is the only basis for them) the whole reason for studying the past at all is lost. The only thing that matters is me, now. Who cares what some old dead people did? As for learning from them, that’s crazy. We all do what we have to do. The past is gone, and the future will be more of today, only maybe worse.
So what can counter these tendencies? A strong dose of the truth of Isaiah, that there is a God who is at work in the corporate history and in our individual histories. We can know him in the daily experiences of life, as the Israelites did. Knowing him in that way, we can then recover for ourselves, and maybe for our culture, the reality that human choices matter, that we are headed somewhere, and that the transcendent God is calling us to go with him.
Realization of Righteousness
One of the chief values of studying the New Testament in the context of the Old is the corrective value of the Old. Many of the weaknesses in the church today are a result of misreading the New Testament because of ignorance of the Old Testament. For instance, the excessive individualism and privatism of the modern evangelical church is only possible if one is almost wholly ignorant of the Old Testament. To be sure, the Old Testament cannot be read alone. To do so is to fall into the opposite ditch from the one into which exclusive New Testament readers fall. By reading the Old Testament alone, one can easily miss the love of God that is clearly there and come to see him only as an austere and implacable Judge. But when the two Testaments are read together, there is a wholistic, invaluable presentation of the truth.
Because Isaiah sums up so many of the Old Testament teachings, it is especially helpful in achieving a balanced theology. One of these areas of balance desperately needed today is in the area of realized righteousness. Modern evangelical theology has become dangerously one-sided, and this is especially apparent in American public life. At the same time that evangelicalism has become the dominant expression of Christian faith in America, public morality has collapsed. Is this only coincidental? I fear not. Reacting against the loss of a concept of personal salvation in the so-called mainline churches and an increasingly cultic mentality in the holiness movement, evangelical theology in the first half of the twentieth century put increasing emphasis on “imputed righteousness.” That is, God calls us righteous because we have accepted the saving work of Christ on the cross. There was a strong reaction against “works righteousness” with its suggestion that one could somehow earn merit with God by doing good things. This understanding can be wonderfully freeing. We don’t have to wonder whether our behavior is good enough to deserve a relationship with God; we can know we are his simply because we have accepted his offer of eternal life in his Son. This is genuinely good news.
But the problem with this overemphasis on “subjective righteousness” is that it cuts the nerve of “objective righteousness.” The believer can easily feel that in the end his or her actual behavior is of little significance. If this is then coupled with a false idea of the security of the believer, the effect can be pernicious. We can essentially live in conscious sin, secure in the fact that God sees us as righteous and that we can never lose our salvation. Thus, we see persons in the highest offices in the land claiming to be “born-again Christians” while living lives of conspicuous immorality and showing neither remorse nor repentance when caught. How we need to hear Isaiah’s excoriation of such behavior! The people of God must manifest the life of God or give up the right to be called the people of God.
As always, the truth has two sides, and Isaiah makes this masterfully clear. On the one hand, it is true that in ourselves we are incapable of being righteous on the standard required of us by God. We are doomed to failure and deserve the condemnation that comes on that failure. We cannot ourselves to God by ourselves, and the failure of the good Hezekiah underlines that point. If we are ever to have a relationship with God, it must be on the basis of His grace alone. He must come to us as he did to the captive Judeans with words of comfort and grace, assuring us that he has not cast us off and that he has provided a means through his Servant whereby we may be restored to a life-giving relationship with our Father. That is one side of the truth, a side that dare not be lost.
But there is another side that equally dares not to be lost. This is the truth relating to the whole purpose of salvation. Why does God bring us into a relationship with him? A truncated view based on a misreading of the New Testament alone would say that it is so we can spend an eternity of bliss praising our Savior. This is an incredibly self-serving picture, both from a human and divine point of view. That is not, however, the New Testament teaching, as becomes clear when we read the two Testaments together. God calls us into a relationship with him so that his original purpose may be realized for us. What is that purpose? That he might share his character with us. This is obvious from the covenant. God’s purpose in giving the covenant is so that the people might be holy as he is holy. Such holiness is not a cultic thing but a way of right and peacefully living in the world and with other people.
As discussed above, Isaiah represents this point in a powerful way in chapters 56–66, where he synthesizes the demand for righteousness from chapters 1–39 with the offer of free grace in chapters 40–55. In chapters 56–66, Isaiah, much as Paul does in his letters, asks what that grace was for. Was it in order that God’s people should revel in their chosen-ness while engaging in religious practices that were self-serving and ultimately perverse? Of course not! It was in order that they should live lives of justice and righteousness and in so doing become a lamp through which God’s light should shine on the nations.
But how is that possible, given a long history of failure? It is possible through the same grace that restored you to a relationship with God in the first place. The demand is from God, but so is the provision. Clearly Isaiah is not promoting some arrogant claim to having arrived spiritually. Nor is he suggesting that the believer’s relationship with God is ever on any basis but divine grace. But he is saying that if a believer is not a conduit for the Holy Spirit’s righteousness (32:15–16; 44:1–5), then he or she is missing a large portion of what the grace of God came to do.