Sunday, 16 October 2011

What it takes to rule God's way - Isaiah's story

Isaiah has got everything!

There is that wonderful vision Isaiah has in Isaiah 6. It locates Isaiah firmly in the Southern Kingdom, in Jerusalem. It is in the Temple that he has that remarkable vision.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty;

And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!’
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

But that was not entirely the beginning. He had already had something to say while Uzziah had been alive. In 2 Kings Uzziah, King of the southern Kingdom of Judah gets only a qualified commendation. He did what was right … Nevertheless … Jotham reigned for 16 years and gets the same verdict – the tell-tale Nevertheless has an ominous ring to it. About Ahaz the former prophetic writers in II Kings 16 have no doubt – he did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord God.

It will come as no surprise that in Isaiah as in Amos and Hosea there is a rhythm of quite severe critique – the book opens in that ominous fashion as Isaiah speaks out against the wickedness of Judah

Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth;
for the LORD has spoken:
I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.

In Isaiah 5, Isaiah sees the southern kingdom of Judah as a vineyard, it is much loved by God … and yet it is over-run with weeds.

Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
why did it yield wild grapes?

The reason is given from 5:8 – the social injustice of the people is condemned – the amass houses and fields, they squander all they earn on strong drink – people are bowed down, everyone brought low.

The Lord of hosts is exalted by justice,
And the Holy God shows himself holy by righteousness (verse 16)

But the people call what is evil good, and what is good they call evil, what is darkness they think of as light, and they regard the light as darkness.

Isaiah has an indictment to make against the people. And what is worse, something else is happening on the borders of the land. For it is in the reign of Uzziah, of Jotham and of Ahaz that the great Assyrian power is on the move. And by the time Hezekiah comes to reign in Jerusalem calamity has befallen the northern kingdom. The Assyrians have swept down, like a wolf upon the fold, and destroyed the northern kingdom, taking away its inhabitants to far off Assyria and populating its cities with Assyrians and other foreigners.

Hezekiah comes to rule in Jerusalem over the tiny rump of the southern kingdom, Judah, and things are under great threat. The verdict given by those prophetic historians in II Kings 18 is that he did what was right in the sight of the Lord.

But events on the world scene are moving quickly. Much remains that is wrong in Jerusalem and Judah. And King Sennacherib of Assyria turns his attention on the people of the southern kingdom of Judah.

This is the point at which we reach the first really incontrovertible archaeological evidence for what is described in the Bible. II Kings 18:13ff describes the Assyrian attack on Lachish. Lachish has been excavated … and even more remarkably, the Assyrians made a detailed record of their conquest of Lachish, of the overthrow of its people and of the way they herded them into exile. The reliefs that told the story were discovered in Nineveh, and in the 19th century removed to the British Museum … and in my book they are even more exciting than the Elgin marbles.

Under the Assyrian onslaught, the Southern Kingdom of Judah is forced back to little more than the area immediately around Jerusalem. This is a crucial time for the southern kingdom and Isaiah plays a crucial role. Anticipating the threat of a siege Hezekiah builds a tunnel to bring water from a spring just outside the city to the Pool of Siloam inside the city wall – and some of the group I was with three years ago walked the length of Hezekiah’s tunnel - discovered by the archaeologists.

The collapse of Jerusalem does not happen. Something else is going on instead. Assyria is facing the rise of another, even mightier empire … and they are beginning to be overstretched.

And so as Hezekiah’s final illness nears its end Isaiah comes up with his final words of warning.

II Kings 20:16-19

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, ‘Hear the word of the LORD: Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the LORD. Some of your own sons who are born to you shall be taken away; they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.’ Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, ‘The word of the LORD that you have spoken is good.’ For he thought, ‘Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?’

So significant is this close-knit relationship between Isaiah and King Hezekiah that in the Book we know as Isaiah this narrative from II Kings is reproduced almost word for word in chapters 37,38, 39.

The final words of Isaiah 39 are the words I have just read … finishing with the commendation of the King

Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, ‘The word of the LORD that you have spoken is good.’ For he thought, ‘There will be peace and security in my days.’

The Book of Isaiah has the same rhythm of stern warning and then the promise of hope that we have come to expect in the Books of the Prophets. The Book of Isaiah is akin to that Book of the Twelve in that within this one book, it would seem that there are the words of more than one prophet. Between Isaiah 39 verse 8 and Isaiah 40 verse 1 much happens. Hezekiah is succeeded by arguably the worst of all the kings of Judah, Manasseh, there is momentary respite under Josiah, but then the calamity happens. Babylon pushes Assyria out of the way, and the southern kingdom collapses.

Isaiah 40 is written after the fall of Babylon – and there is hope from that point on in the book, hope in exile. And that prophet we will come to later.

But for now I want to stick with Isaiah of Jerusalem.

For there is one thing more this prophet does. And what he does impacts on us as Christians immensely. And it impacts on what we do in our world today.

For Isaiah is not just negative. He presents the kings he speaks to with a pattern for their reign. Isaiah outlines in some of the most memorable passages in this first part of Isaiah what it takes to be King.

First, for a king to be worth his salt, God must be with him. Even in the reign of Ahaz, Isaiah has confidence that such a king would be born … indeed, arguably, Hezekiah fits the bill.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel

Immanuel, God with us – that’s the first thing you look for in a King.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

You recognise in a king worth his salt one who is a wonderful counsellor, in whom God’s presence is felt as Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. One with authority who brings real peace. And whose kingdom is built on those twin foundations of justice and righteousness.

The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,

In the words of Isaiah 11 he will have
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

And his kingdom will be a kingdom where the peacemakers are blessed …

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
They will not hurt or destroy
on all God’s holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

As Isaiah speaks he has so much to be critical of Judah, of the surrounding lands. But he is clear – this is what it takes to be King in the way God wills.

And he is confident it will come to pass.

Chapter 32:1

See, a king will reign in righteousness,
and princes will rule with justice.
Fleetingly kings were seen who rose to this challenge.

But not for long.

Calamity came with the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon.

And even when the people return, they are under subjugation first to the Persians, then to the Greeks, then to the Syrian Seleucids, then to the Egyptian Ptolemies. Momentarily Mattathias and his sons most notably Judas Maccabaeus establish a kingship – but as you can see in the apocryphal books of I and II Maccabeus they do not have what Isaiah knows it takes to be king.

And then comes Jesus, whose birth we will before very long be celebrating …

And all this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet Isaiah,

Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel. God is with us.

Jesus comes with a simple message – The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news (Mark 1:15).

And he knows full well what shape that kingdom will take, and what shape his kingship will take too.

It’s defined by those passages from Isaiah that come Christmas we will be reading once again.

But the words of the Prophet Isaiah speak through those Kings he was addressing way back in the 8th century BC, they speak through Jesus Christ 2000 years ago to our day and our age.

For this is what it takes to rule in God’s way in God’s world. These are the things we should be looking for in those who offer to rule over us.

We should look for those of whom it could be said God is with them, we should look for those in whom the wise counsel of a mighty God who is an everlasting father and a prince of peace can be seen.

The twin foundations on which any rule must be built are justice and righteousness.

Anyone seeking a position of authority, be it in government or any position of responsibility would do well to seek the spirit of the Lord, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and might, a spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. It’s vital that you don not judge by what the eyes see or simply by what the ears hear, but with righteousness stick up for the poor, decide with equity for the meek, and use the power of the word, not the power of the sword.

Righteousness and faithfulness gives rise to a peace that is founded on justice and righteousness.

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