Hope Under Fire
Undeserved suffering is one of the great tragedies of life in a fallen world. But what about the times when you’re suffering as a consequence of your own sin? Even in those times, God tells his people to not be afraid, because he redeems them from his judgment.
The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction Commentary, Alec Motyer
The Book of Isaiah, chapters 40-66 (NICOT), John N. Oswalt
Isaiah: God Saves Sinners, Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr.
Podcast: Play in new window | Download
If you’ve ever been a victim of abuse or have interacted with those who have been, you probably realize how important it is for the victim to realize, and really believe, that what happened to them is not their fault. In the movie Good Will Hunting, one of the big turning points for Will, the main character, is when Sean, his counselor, tells him repeatedly: “It’s not your fault.” It probably makes intuitive sense to even those of us who have not been victims of that kind of abuse that such a thought would be a comforting, hopeful one. But what about the times when you are suffering, and it is your fault? Is there still hope for you? In this passage, God’s people, Israel, were suffering. One verse of our passage describes their suffering as waters, like drowning in a torrential storm, and then it describes it like fire, in which it is obviously painful for humans to be. And the text tells them in no uncertain terms that it is their fault. God is the one who sent the fire in judgment on them, because they sinned against him. And yet, the passage is also full of hope. God tells his people, while under his judgment, to fear not, because God redeems His people from His judgment. So we’ll look first at God’s judgment, then at God’s commitment to His people, then at God Himself, and finally at God’s coming redemption.
Our passage begins with a call to the deaf to hear, and to the blind to see, and we learn right away that the blind and deaf one is God’s servant, messenger, or dedicated one. Here the servant referred to is the nation of Israel, God’s people under the Old Covenant, who were his servants on earth, and those entrusted with his message. In verse 20 we read that Israel saw many things, but did not observe them; his ears are open, but he does not hear. Not only did Israel live in the same world in which we all live, where God has revealed himself in the things that have been made, but Israel had seen God work miraculous wonders in their midst. Most obviously, they saw God bring plagues upon Egypt, part the Red Sea, and bring them out from their captivity in Egypt. They saw God lead them in a pillar of cloud and fire through the wilderness. They saw him give them victory over the peoples of Canaan. In the land, they saw God increase their glory and might, especially under King David and his son, King Solomon. The LORD took them from a small and insignificant tribe to a glorious kingdom, and verse 21 tells us why: For the display of his righteousness, he magnified them, the people to whom his law was given, so that his law might be magnified through them. He magnified them so that his righteousness might be on display through them.
And yet, Isaiah sees them prophetically in exile in verse 22: Now instead of being glorious, they are a people looted and plundered. When Babylon conquered them and took them into exile, they destroyed their temple and plundered their goods. Their glory has been turned to shame, and now not only are they in this desperate condition, but there is none to rescue them, no nation putting themselves on the line to restore them. They’ve seen that now, and so in verse 23 Isaiah invites them to listen again, and consider, verse 24, who it was who gave them up to be plundered like this? And he tells them: It was the LORD, against whom we have sinned, in whose ways they would not walk, and whose law they would not obey. They have seen God’s mighty works, they have heard the stories of such works and they have heard God’s law, but they have not truly seen and heard. God performed mighty works and gave them his law not simply so they might have his law, but so that they might do it, and so that through them, God’s righteousness might be on display. But they have not done it, and so God has poured on him the heat of his anger, verse 25, and the might of battle, which set him on fire all around, but he did not understand. Though it burned him up, he did not take it to heart.
And yet, Isaiah calls out to them again here: Open your eyes! Listen! Can’t you see that in this exile, God is showing you something and saying something to you? He’s showing you that there is something wrong with you. He’s showing you that you have sinned against him, that you have refused to walk in his ways and obey his law. Does that sound discouraging to you? It shouldn’t. The fact that God does this with his people should give us great hope, and let me explain why. First, nothing God did in the exile made his people blind and deaf. Nothing he did made them sin against him or refuse to walk in his ways and obey his law. That was already true of them, and the truly hopeless thing for God to do would be to just leave us in that condition. But instead he comes to us through the prophet Isaiah and says, “See! Hear!” which implies that though we are blind and deaf under sin, he still wants us to see and hear, and he can give us the power to do so! Even though we sin against him, the fact that he still comes after us shows that he isn’t done with us! That’s one of the things you need to see and hear when you are facing God’s judgments.
So in Hebrews 12:6 we read that “the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” When you go through unique seasons of suffering or hardship, then, open your eyes and ears to what God might be doing through that. I say might because we cannot always know for sure what God is doing in any given circumstance of our lives, but might it be that God is using hardship in your life to wake you up? When you go through suffering and hardship, give that earnest consideration. Are there sins in your life that you have been rationalizing or ignoring? Are there sins you have given up fighting and accepted as part of your life? Are there sins you have been hiding? God sees them, and he is committed to waking his people up from them, even through fire if that’s what it takes. Notice the value of other voices in that process in this passage. The people of Israel did not see and hear on their own, so God sent Isaiah to them to tell them why they were in exile, so that they might see and hear. As you consider what God may be doing in your life through your particular hardships and sufferings, don’t consider that alone. Tell other brothers and sisters in Christ, talk with a pastor, tell them what you are going through, and ask them to help you consider what the Lord may be doing in you through it. Whatever you do, though, don’t get so caught up in self-pity or trying to fix your hardships that you miss what God wants to do in you through your hardships.
So there is hope in the fire. It proves that God hasn’t cast us off for our sins. He wants the blind and deaf to see and hear, and he has the power to give sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. But when verse 25 of chapter 42 ends, the people are still blind and deaf. They have not understood or taken it to heart. Our hope, then, cannot ultimately be in our ability to see and hear. Our hope, rather, is in God’s commitment to us, and that’s where chapter 43 takes us.
God’s commitment to his people
Though we have not understood, the but of chapter 43 is this: Now, thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. Before we understand, before we come to our senses, before we see and hear, while still in the fires of God’s judgment, God says, “Fear not.” How can he say that? Because he formed us, he redeemed us, he called us by name, and we are his. Nations are formed in all sorts of ways, but Israel was the one nation formed by God himself. He called Abraham and promised to be God to him and to his offspring after him. He changed the name of one of Abraham’s descendants, Jacob, to Israel, and promised to be God to him and to his offspring after him. And when the descendants of Jacob were in slavery in Egypt, God redeemed them. The word “redemption” there was a marketplace term. So, for example, if someone became poor and sold part of his property, a relative of his could come and “redeem” that property with his money (Lev 25:25) so that it became his. You could even read this part of verse 1, then, as “Fear not, for I have bought you” and it makes sense, then, why God would say at the end of verse 1: You are mine.
That’s why God does not just do away with his people when we sin against him. He formed us, he bought us, and we are his. And that issues in the assurance of verse 2. There he does not promise that you will never go through deep waters or fiery trials, but he does promise to be with you through them, and in the end, they will not have the last word. So even when you are still in the middle of the hardships of your life, even when they are your fault, know this: God is with you in them. He will never leave you, never forsake you. When you cry out to him in prayer, he will be there to hear you. When you turn to his word, it will still be true. When you need strength, he will still be there to give it. And his discipline, while painful, is still measured. The water and the fire is never in control; God is, and he will only give you so much of it as to accomplish his good purposes in you through it. The flame is designed to consume your sin, but not to consume you. It hurts you, but is ultimately only designed to kill those parts of you that you want to kill anyway.
God gives further assurance of that in verse 3, where he again identifies himself as the LORD our God, the Holy One of Israel, our Savior. Then he says I give Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you. In verse 4 he uses parallel language: I give men in return for you, people in exchange for your life. You can think of the ransom as the redemption price. To redeem Israel, God paid a ransom price. In the case of the Exodus, that ransom price was Egypt. Though God brought the Israelites safely through the Red Sea, he returned the sea back on the Egyptian warriors who had oppressed them. In other words, he exchanged the life of the Egyptians for the life of his people, and here the suggestion is made that will do that again, adding Cush and Seba, two other African nations bordering Egypt. And why does God do that? Why would he give people in exchange for us all?
Verse 4: Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you. Consider the unfathomable grace in these words. Remember that the people to whom God is speaking these words are the same people who were blind and deaf, who sinned against him, who would not walk in his ways, who would not obey his law, and who, even after God sent fire on us all around, did not understand or take it to heart. And while all those things were true of us, God said: You are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you. This shows us two significant truths, two truths that if you can get them both and keep them both together, can give you peace in any fire: First, God does not love you because you are lovable. In yourself, you are blind, deaf, disobedient, and without understanding. And yet, second, He really does love you, and not just in some begrudging way. His people are precious in his eyes, and honored, so much so that he willingly trades the life of other humans for the lives of his people.
Then in verse 5 we get a window into how God will redeem Israel from their exile. He will call his sons and daughters from north, south, east, and west. When God magnified his law for his righteousness’ sake and made Israel great in the land, his sons and daughters were all together. One of the consequences of exile, though, is that they were scattered among the nations. So here, God says he will bring them back together and redeem them from their exile. He says in verse 7 that his redemption will extend to everyone who is called by his name, whom he created for his glory, who he formed and made.
Did you catch that? Why did God create and form a people? For his glory. Why did God magnify his law and make it glorious back in verse 21? For his righteousness’ sake. Before God makes anything, he is eternally, infinitely, and essentially glorious. Before God magnified his law, he was eternally, infinitely, and essentially righteous. So why did God magnify his law? To reveal his righteousness. The command to have no other gods reveals that God is the only true God. The command not to lie reveals that God is truth, and so on. Why did God form a people to be his own? That they might reveal his glory; that they might ascribe glory to him in their worship, and reflect his glory in their lives.
Let’s summarize a bit of the logic thus far, then: God’s people are sinful; no two ways about it. He did mighty works among them and magnified his law, but they sinned against him and refused to obey it. So he sent judgments on them to warn them, and they still didn’t understand. God’s people are a sinful people, but they’re still his people. He made them with a particular purpose: His glory. And though they have not reflected his glory, and have ended up in a shameful position because of their sins, he is still committed to being glorified in them. So when they were in slavery in Egypt, he redeemed them, that they might serve him in the wilderness. And now that they have refused to serve him, and have gone into exile as a result, he is committed to redeeming them once again, and bringing them all together, for his glory. God’s commitment to God, God’s commitment to his glory, is good news for us, because we who are his people were formed for his glory, so that though we sin against him, and though we go through deep waters and fiery trials, we can be sure that neither the waters nor the fire will consume us, because God will not fail to be glorified in us. His glory is the very reason we exist. Do you have that kind of assurance when you look ahead to your future? Do you have that kind of assurance in the middle of your trials?
Maybe you’d like to. Verses 1-7 show us that God is committed to our redemption, even when we are under his judgments. But is he able to do it? Verse 8 begins to address that question.
There God says bring out the people who are blind. Those are his people he calls out in verse 8. Then in verse 9 the nations gather with them, and they hold a trial scene of sorts, which we’ve seen before in Isaiah if you’ve been with us for the earlier sermons. This time they call witnesses. The nations call theirs, and God calls his. God’s witnesses are his blind and deaf people. God says he chose them in verse 10 so that they might know and believe him and understand who he is. And then he reveals what is true of him, that they were intended to see: Before him no god was formed, nor shall there be any after him. That’s the verdict. The other witnesses were invited to show the former things. Did any of them declare that they would save and then do it? No. But God did. Repeatedly, God has. He declared he would bring his people out of Egypt, and he did. And when God did that, there was no strange god, no other god, among the people of Israel. So they know he did it, and they are to be witnesses of these things.
That yields the conclusion of verse 13: Henceforth I am he; there is none who can deliver from my hand; I work, and who can turn it back? In other words, if I want to redeem my people, who can stop me? I’m the only true God! In the ancient world, the gods had an origin story. The main god of Babylon, Marduk, was the child of Apsu and Tiamat. Before him they were formed, but before Yahweh, the God of Israel, there was no god formed. After Marduk other gods were formed, but after Yahweh there were no other gods. There were none before him, and none after him, which means what? It means he’s the only one! Every other being that exists exists because he made them, and none of them are equal to him. And when Israel looks back on their history, if they are looking for who said they would save, and who did it, there is only one candidate: The same God who made everything, the only true God. So if he works, if he decrees to do something, who can turn it back?
Babylon seemed powerful, and Israel no doubt wondered how they could be delivered from Babylon’s hands. But even Babylon was only an instrument of God’s judgment, and he never surrendered his rule over them. They won’t be able to stop God from redeeming his people out of their exile, nor will their gods be able to stop him. And once God has redeemed them, they will not be able to go take Israel back to themselves, because none can deliver from his hand. So even when you face God’s judgments, even when you are afflicted, don’t fear those who afflict you. God is determined to bring you out of that judgment once the discipline has reached its intended end, and no one will be able to stop him. If you are in God’s hands, no one can snatch you out, because he is the only true God, without equal or competitor. Let’s look finally, then, at the specifics of what this coming redemption is that God has planned.
God’s coming redemption
When we come to verse 14, for the first time in this section of Isaiah that began in chapter 40, God mentions Babylon. Here’s what the redemption will look like: God will so move against Babylon that they will run away as fugitives. Though they boast now in their great ships, the day is coming when they will use those ships to flee their glorious land. Verses 16-17 remind us of the Exodus, when God made a way in the sea, and a mighty path in the waters. But amazingly in verse 18, God tells us to remember not those former things. Typically you would think if God were telling us not to remember a former thing, maybe he’d be telling us not to remember our former sins, or maybe not to remember our former judgments. Here he’s telling us not to remember his former act of salvation! Why? Well, it is possible to get so hung up on the glory of something God did in the past that you lose sight of what he is doing in the present, and of what he will do in the future. Perhaps there was a time in high school or college, or in a former city or church, where you really saw God work in your life in powerful ways, and now you’re mainly discouraged and discontent that your present experience is not like that. That’s when you need to forget the former things. The same Holy Spirit who filled you then is in you now; what is he doing in your life now, and what does he promise will come?
For Israel, the new thing God was going to do was to make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, instead of making a way through the waters of the Red Sea. He will really do a work of new creation, so that, as the end of verse 20 says, there will be drink for his chosen people, the people whom he formed for himself, that they might declare his praise. Here we encounter this concept again of God forming his people for his glory, though here we see the way they will glorify him: They will drink of his new creation, and declare his praise. Again, they will not make him glorious, but they will declare him to be glorious, because they have seen his work of redemption, and have been satisfied with the waters of a new creation.
God defeating Babylon, God rescuing his people from that exile, that was the new thing God was doing in the time this prophecy addressed. But it was not his final act of redemption. After all, you and I were not the people God brought out of Egypt, nor were we the people who went into exile. How, then, could we be considered God’s people? How can we not be afraid when facing God’s judgments? Are the promises of this text really for us? Well, remember that God said he would call his sons and daughters from the north, south, east and west. Babylon was east of Israel, so that explains the reference to the east. Assyria was north of Israel, and Assyria had taken God’s sons and daughters from the northern kingdom of Israel into exile, so maybe that explains the reference to the north. But the reference to the west and south suggests something more expansive. It suggests that God has people who are truly his sons and daughters, who were not Israelites. When Jesus came, he explained it this way: “I have other sheep who are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16). God has a people he chose from before the foundation of the world in every tribe, language, people, and nation, for his glory, he is determined to redeem them, and he sent Jesus as their redeemer.
They were a sinful people. All of us, no matter how much of God’s revelation we have received, have rebelled against it. Some of you grew up with very little of it, having heard little of the Bible and with minimal exposure to Christians. And yet you had the revelation of God in all that he made. You knew him, but did you give thanks to him? Did you love him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself? The very things you criticized others for doing; don’t you see in yourself desires for the same things? And many more of you probably grew up with plenty of exposure to the Bible and to Christianity. Yet for how much of your life did you see but not see, and hear but not hear? How many of you here today come regularly and hear the preaching of God’s word without really hearing? How many continue in your sins without repenting?
See today. Hear today. Do you see why the world isn’t the way it’s supposed to be? Do you see why your life isn’t the way it’s supposed to be? Because God has set his creation on fire to wake us up! Wake up. There is a real God, and we have sinned against him. But while we were yet sinners, God redeemed us, not by making the waters into dry ground as at the Exodus, nor by making water in the wilderness as when he brought the people back from their exile. Remember not those former things, for the new thing God was doing for our redemption was coming himself. God gave Egypt, Cush, and Seba as a ransom for Israel, but when Jesus came he said he came to give his own life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). He said here that he would give men in return for us, peoples in exchange for our lives, but in Christ he became man, and gave himself in return for us, himself in exchange for our lives.
That’s the only way we could ultimately be redeemed. We have refused to obey God’s law, and God’s law requires a punishment for sin. It is not ultimately a foreign nation from which we need to be saved; it is the wrath of God from which we need to be saved. So God saves us from God. Did you catch that in this passage? In verses 1-7 of chapter 43, he says he’ll be with them in the fire and will bring them out from it. But who sent the fire? Chapter 42:25 makes it clear: God did. God redeems his people from his judgment, and God has redeemed us from his judgment by sending Christ to bear that judgment in our place, as our ransom. That’s how precious in God’s eyes you are. That’s how honored you are, how loved you are. Not only does he give men in return for you; He gave himself in return for you. What higher price can anyone pay? As Jesus himself said: Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13). In Christ God was truly with us through the deep waters and fiery trials, as Christ went through the fire of God’s wrath on our behalf.
And as God promised to bring his people out, so he brought Christ out of the fire when he raised him from the dead. In Christ our redemption has been fully accomplished. And because it is, he now calls to all, from north, south, east, or west, and promises that whoever believes in him will be redeemed. The redemption has been accomplished. Get in on it. See! Hear! Recognize your own sinfulness, and trust the redeemer for salvation! He will not only redeem you once, but he will continue to work in you, and none will be able to snatch you from his hands, until the day of our final redemption comes, the redemption of our bodies, when we will be raised from the dead to live with him and glorify him in a new creation forever. God chose us for this purpose, God has redeemed us for this very purpose, and God will not fail to accomplish all his purpose.
So when God sends fiery trials into your life, don’t be afraid. Open your eyes and ears and learn from them. Examine yourself, seek counsel from your church family, and ask God to reveal if there be any offensive way in you. Use every season of hardship in your life as an opportunity to repent, whether that specific hardship was caused by a specific sin in your life or not. Then, against the backdrop of your sin, consider the incredible love of God for you. Consider his love, that while you were still his enemy, while you were still without understanding, he redeemed you, not with the ransom of his enemies, not with the ransom of other mere humans, but with his own blood, which he took on flesh to offer on your behalf. Look to the cross and see with all your sinfulness, that you are precious in his eyes, honored, and he loves you. Look to him as the only true God, who will not fail to deliver you from sin and keep you to the end. And even now, may we live out the purpose for which God created us and redeemed us.
The shape of God’s people under the Old Covenant was one earthly nation: Israel, and their redemption was from earthly rulers (whether Egypt or Babylon). But their redemption pointed to a greater redemption, the redemption some of them enjoyed by faith, and the redemption that has made us a people: The redemption from sin that Jesus accomplished for us on the cross. That’s a redemption that spreads to all God’s children from the north, south, east, and west, a redemption that forms us into a heavenly people, who exist on earth not in one earthly nation, but in many new nations called churches. And why has God made us such a people? For his glory. Church, we do not exist so each of us can have a nice community of friends and a sense of purpose in life. Those things are nice, and I’m encouraged to hear how many of you experience those things in this church. But let’s not undersell our purpose. We exist for nothing less than the glory of God, to declare his praise. That’s why he chose us before the foundation of the world, that’s why he redeemed us, and that’s why he will come again to transform our lowly bodies to be like Christ’s glorious body. So let’s not just be nice people who do nice things. Let’s declare his praise in our worship, let’s encourage one another with this message of our redemption, especially when we go through fiery trials together, and let’s go out to be his witnesses among our neighbors, and among all the nations of this earth, until the final day of our redemption, which God will surely bring.