Listening to God
We hear a lot of voices today, and it’s possible to “hear” without really listening and processing what we hear. With some voices that’s appropriate, but in this text God calls us to truly listen to his promise of salvation.
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.
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Today people talk about how Gen-Z’ers are digital natives. I don’t know if millennials are properly digital natives, but I’d consider myself a television native. Growing up in my house, we had televisions in multiple rooms, and I’d frequently just have music videos or sports on in the background of my life. As a result, I saw a lot of commercials growing up, the point where now I often watch commercials without even being cognizant of what’s happening in the commercial. I hear the words they’re saying, but my brain is doing nothing with them. My wife on the other hand grew up most of her life without a television. So sometimes we’ll be watching TV together, and I’ll be trying to talk to her during commercials, and I can’t get through, because she’s actually listening to the commercial! This same dynamic can occur with respect to God’s Word. It’s possible to genuinely listen to the words of a sermon, like my wife does the words of a commercial, but it’s also possible to “hear” the words of a preacher, and your brain does nothing with them, like mine does nothing with the words of commercials. It’s especially possible to do that with God’s word if we don’t really love God, and therefore don’t want to know what he really says. We may want to be able to reassure ourselves that we are Christians, but we don’t want to know what God really says in scripture, because that might mean we’d have to change our beliefs and behaviors. In this passage, that’s called being obstinate, which means being unwilling to change in light of what God says. That’s the condition Israel was in when Isaiah spoke these words to them, and we still struggle against a similar tendency to avoid really hearing what God really said. Yet even though that’s rue of us, what we’re going to see in this passage if we really listen is that God’s Word to us is not a word of condemnation; it’s a promise of salvation. Therefore, listen to God’s promise of salvation. To help you do that, we’ll look in this text at why he speaks it, why he does it, who he is, and what we must do with it.
Why he speaks it
Our passage begins with this call to hear or listen to God. It is addressed to God’s people, Israel, who he identifies as his people in two ways. One is by their lineage or descent: They are the house of Jacob, their ancestor, who God named Israel, and they come from the waters of Judah, their nearer ancestor. God also identifies them by their profession. Not only are they descended from Israel and Judah, but they have not sworn off that ancestry. They still swear by the name of the LORD, which remember, all caps, is Yahweh, the God of Israel, as the parallel makes explicit: They confess the God of Israel. However, verse 1 ends by clarifying that Israel does not do this in truth or right.
Here we see the phenomenon of false profession. This text shows us that it is possible for someone to come from a long lineage of people who belonged to the people of God, and to themselves profess faith in the God of Israel, but for that profession to be a false profession, meaning it is not reflective of a heart that sincerely loves the God of Israel. But isn’t it judgmental of Isaiah to assume that he knew their profession was false? If someone says they’re a Christian, who are we to judge? That is a common assumption today, but it is not an assumption the Bible shares, nor one that is even applied consistently today. Imagine someone comes to you and tells you they’re an anti-racist, from a long line of anti-racists, but then you see them marching in a Klan rally. Wouldn’t we all expect to say, “I don’t think you’re an anti-racist?”
Similarly, Isaiah knew Israel’s profession was overwhelmingly false because the people of Israel were not living in a way that reflected a heart that loved the God of Israel. In the earlier chapters of Isaiah, he demonstrated how despite their show of religion, they oppressed their poor and worshiped other gods, and this revealed a heart that did not sincerely love the God of Israel. To use a word from chapter 48 here, their actions showed them to be obstinate. Not only were they engaged in serious, observable sin; they were engaged in serious, observable, unrepentant sin, and that led Isaiah, who held the office of prophet and was therefore entrusted by God with the authority to pronounce such judgments under the Old Covenant, to pronounce their profession to be a false profession. Isaiah would not have been faithful to God or loving to the people of Israel if he had pretended their profession was genuine, and neither will we as a church be faithful to God or loving to people if we affirm their profession of faith in Christ while their life contradicts it. If you are here today and you come from a long line of Christians, and maybe you even call yourself a Christian, but you are living in serious, observable, unrepentant sin, you should not assume your profession is a true profession. God sees your heart, and he will not be fooled by any lineage or profession if your heart does not sincerely love him.
In fact, it’s because Israel’s profession was not genuine that God spoke his promise of salvation. The question the first section of our passage addresses is why doesn’t God just do the saving work? Why does he also tell his people in advance that he’s going to do it? If someone is in debt and I plan to bail them out by paying down their debt, why not just do it? Why tell them in advance that I’m going to do it, and then do it? Look at verses 3-5: “3 “The former things I declared of old; they went out from my mouth, and I announced them; then suddenly I did them, and they came to pass.4 Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass,5 I declared them to you from of old, before they came to pass I announced them to you, lest you should say, ‘My idol did them, my carved image and my metal image commanded them.’” Basically God is saying, it’s been my general approach to tell you what I’m going to do ahead of time because I know your profession is false, and in fact you are so obstinate and rebellious that if I don’t tell you ahead of time that I’m going to do it, you will give the credit for what I have done to your idols rather than to me.
Now sometimes Israel still did that. The Exodus narrative is maybe the clearest example. God told them ahead of time he was going to release them from slavery in Egypt through Moses, then God did it, and after God did it, they made a golden calf, and literally said of it: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Ex 32:4). But what God telling them ahead of time did is it removed any good excuse for this kind of behavior. It demonstrated how ludicrous ascribing our deliverance to a golden calf was, so that when we do, it can only be because we are obstinate. That’s why God speaks his promise of salvation, rather than just getting right into the saving work. He knows our flesh is obstinate, and so he wants to remove all excuse for taking what he does and ascribing it to an idol.
Not only does he want to remove all excuse for taking what he does an ascribing it to an idol; he always wants to remove all excuse for taking what he does and ascribing it to ourselves. That’s what verses 6-8 show us. From this time forth, he says, he makes a new promise, and this too is intentionally designed to counteract our obstinance, as verse 7 makes clear. There he’s saying I didn’t tell you these things ahead of time, so that when they happened you wouldn’t be able to say, “Ah see; I knew this was how this was all going to go.” So God tells us enough of his promise of salvation ahead of time that when he saves, it is clear that it is he who did it, but he also leaves some of it hidden until the proper time, so that we do not begin to think we know the future and can give up depending on him.
God speaks his promise of salvation rather than simply getting down to the work of salvation because he knows our flesh is obstinate. Do you know that too? Don’t you sense within you a tendency, that no matter how clear God makes it, no matter how strong the arguments are for his existence or the truth of his word, you tend to always look for a way to explain away what he’s clearly said or done, or to rationalize your disobedience? God gives you evidence after evidence that he’s real and good, but you still find reasons to doubt him. I know I find that in myself. Or consider how often we downplay the involvement of God in our lives, and ascribe the good we have to secondary causes. God speaks his promise to give us the food and clothing we need ahead of time so that when he provides it, we would give him the glory, and yet how often do we talk about the good things we have in life as though God were uninvolved in giving them to us? More importantly, God speaks his promise of salvation so that when we go from people who are obstinate and dead in our trespasses and sins to people who sincerely love God, we would ascribe all the glory for that work to him! Is that how you communicate to others what God has done in your life? If your story sounds like, “Well you know I grew up in a Christian family and when I was 6 I prayed the prayer and everything,” do you see how that doesn’t exactly demonstrate the glory of God in your salvation? Or if your story sounds like, “Well I was really empty but I went to this retreat and realized I needed God, so I started taking my faith more seriously,” do you see how that kinda makes it sound like you got it together and started doing better, instead of God giving you new life from death?
God speaks his promise of salvation instead of just doing the saving work because he knows this tendency in us to downplay his glory and give it to another. Don’t give in to that tendency. Give God all the glory for his saving work, because as we’ll see next, his glory is not only the reason he speaks his promise of salvation—his glory is the reason he does the work of salvation.
Why he does it
When you come to the end of verse 8, it should leave you asking, “So why does God save us at all?” He knows we’re a people who deal treacherously, that we were rebelling against him from before birth, as verse 8 puts it. He knows we’re of the same nature as those who he delivered from Egypt, who then gave the glory for that deliverance to a golden calf. We really are that bad. In the words of Philadelphia rapper Shai Linne – “We’re cursed from our birth, sinning from the beginning, the womb to the tomb, depraved to the grave.” So why doesn’t God just condemn us?
Verse 9 tells us: For my name’s sake I defer my anger; for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off. Did you catch that? It doesn’t say, “For your sake I defer my anger; for your sake I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off.” It says, “For my name’s sake I defer my anger; for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you.” It is, of course, good for us too that God defers his anger and does not cut us off, but if you want to know the ultimate reason God does that, the ultimate reason God acts out of love toward us rather than out of wrath, the ultimate reason is right there in verse 9: For God’s name’s sake, for the sake of his praise. The idea here is this: Once God chooses a people to be his people, his name is now tied to those people. So if God simply condemns his people, it would suggest that God was unable to save them, and that he had even been defeated by some other god such as the gods of Babylon who seemed to conquer Israel.
And that’s simply not true. So for his own sake, instead of cutting us off, he refines us, as verse 10 makes clear. What was God’s purpose in Israel’s exile, if not to cut them off, and what is God’s purpose in all the afflictions we face in this life until we reach our heavenly home? It’s not to cut us off, but to refine us. When metal is refined in a fire, the goal is not to consume the metal, but to consume its impurities, so it comes out pure. We saw another fire last week in chapter 47. There, speaking of Babylon, God says in verse 14 that they are like stubble; the fire consumes them. But in chapter 43 he said to his people that when we walk through fire we shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume us (43:2). So here in 48:10, the fire does not consume us, it refines us. Instead of condemning us for our obstinance, God puts us through affliction to purify us from our obstinance.
How does God do that through affliction? One way is that through affliction, God exposes our sin. It can be easy to feel like a pretty good Christian when everything in your life is going well. But then God turns the heat up: The money gets tight, the cancer diagnosis comes in, your kids won’t obey, your spouse isn’t loving you the way you’d expected, you have a close encounter with violent crime, or a host of other things, and what comes out of you? Isn’t it often anger, resentment toward God, unbelief, fear of people, escape to worldly comforts? Now here’s the catch, and the genius of God’s approach: Those things were already inside us. Our sin is like a mouse hiding in a trash can. It lies hidden and dormant, until you bang the trash can, and it scurries out. So God tries us in furnace of affliction to expose our sin.
The beauty of that, then, is once it’s out in the open, it can be dealt with. Once the fire exposes the imperfections, it can also burn them away, and it’s this process to which God is committed in the lives of his people. We cooperate with God in that process when we are willing to confess our sin as God exposes it, and when we let the affliction do its work to burn it away. Let’s take just one of the earlier examples I gave: Your money gets tight. What if in that time, instead of giving in to anxiety, gripping your money even more tightly and becoming less generous, and directing all your prayers toward, “God, give me more money,” you saw it as an opportunity to put to death the love of money? What if you said, “Ok, now that I have less money, I must learn to love God more than money?” And every affliction, really, is the deprivation of some good, and so every affliction can be used by God to expose the impurities in our love for him, and to burn them off, by teaching us to love him more than that of which affliction deprived us. Afflictions are one of the ways God says to us, “Listen!” Are you receiving your present afflictions that way?
Your afflictions have a greater purpose, because you exist for a greater purpose than yourself and your own comfort. You exist for nothing less than the glory of God himself, and therefore your afflictions are a stewardship, meant to be used for the glory of God, and that’s where God returns in verse 11. He reiterates: For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will give to no other.
Now what do you make of the fact that God is so concerned for his glory? Is that petty of God? I think of the track “Forgot about Dre” from Dr. Dre’s 2001 album, where he responds to those who claimed he fell off after his time with Death Row in the 90s. He says in the song, “I ain’t havin that.” The song is one big vindication of his literal name. In a sense, that’s what God is saying here: I ain’t havin my glory going to idols, or my name being profaned/forgotten, but it is not petty of him to do so. And the reason is because God is the one being deserving of ultimate glory. Let’s say someone produced a great work of art, but people ascribed the work of art to someone else, and instead claimed the true artist was a terrible artist. Wouldn’t it be just of them to say, “No; I made that piece of art.” We have intellectual property laws for this very reason. We also have slander and libel laws for a similar reason. If someone spreads lies about you that damage your name, it’s not petty of you to say, “I ain’t havin that.” It’s right. It’s just. And so also it is right and just of God to act for the sake of his name, because of who he is, and that’s where out text takes us next.
Who he is
So verse 12 begins with the call to listen repeated again, and now the focus turns to who God is. He says in verse 12, “I am he; I am the first, and I am the last. My hand laid the foundation of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens; when I call to them, they stand forth together.” That’s why it’s right and just for him to act for his own name’s sake. He is the true God, the one without beginning or end, the one who made all things. Before anything else existed, he existed, and therefore the only reason for creation, the only ultimate goal that was even possible for creation, was God himself. If God is all there was, then God can only create for God. Everything that exists exists for God and his glory, and therefore it is right and just that when his name is at risk of being profaned, God act for his own name’s sake, to ensure that it is not.
And therefore, he has a right to be heard. Listen to him because he’s not just another talking head. Listen to him because he’s the one who made you and everything else. We listen to a lot of voices today. We listen to family and friends, podcasts, people on TV, bosses, and so on. But have you ever had those times where you realize what someone is saying to you or about you is exerting a massive influence over you, when it should not? You realize, “Why am I letting this person’s words affect me so much?” Well, there is a flipside to that. There are some to whose words we really ought to listen. If you were trying to fix a broken phone, wouldn’t you want to listen to the voice of the one who made it? Wouldn’t you trust that voice more than others? And especially if the maker of the phone still owned the phone, wouldn’t you feel like you need to respect their wishes for how it is to be treated?
So God says listen to me—I made all this, I made you, and it’s all ultimately mine. Listen to him. Assemble, all of you, and listen, verse 14 says. You know that’s a big part of why we assemble as a church every Sunday? We assemble to listen to God’s word as it’s read aloud and preached. In this case, the specific message to which God wanted the people to listen is spelled out in verses 14-16. There he speaks of one he loves who will perform his purpose on Babylon. God has spoken, called him, and will prosper him. We know from chapter 45 that the one God is speaking of here is Cyrus, the ruler of Persia, who would come hundreds of years after Isaiah first spoke and wrote these words. So God says again in verse 16, “Draw near to me, hear this.” This is God’s promise of salvation. This one he loves will come, he will conquer Babylon, free Israel from their captivity, send them back to their land, and rebuild their temple. The word to which God wants us to listen is the promise of salvation. He acts for his own sake, and for his own sake, he promises salvation to his people. For his own sake, he speaks for our good.
And, in fact, this is always how he’s spoken. Look at verse 17. There he speaks again of who he is, and says that he is the one who teaches you to profit, who leads you in the way you should go. What’s he saying? He’s saying I’m the one who teaches you for your good! I want you to profit! And he says in the verses that follow that if you had just listened to me, you peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea! You would have experienced my blessing, and not my curse! When you hear God talking about acting for his own name’s sake and for his own glory, it can be tempting to feel like that means he isn’t acting for our good, but one of the big points of this whole chapter is that the two are tied together! If God has chosen you to be his, his glory is wrapped up in your good! And if you would just listen to him, if you would just trust him, and walk in his ways, you would experience that!
So listen to him because of who he is. He is the creator of all things, and therefore he knows how his creation and how you were meant to function better than you do. He is the creator of all things, and therefore he is the rightful owner of all things. You owe it to him to listen to him and to consider how he wants you to live. And he is good; he is the one who speaks for your profit, so that you might experience his blessing, if only you would listen. So if we’re listening, what then must we do with this promise of salvation? That’s where our passage ends.
What we must do with it
Verse 20 tells us: Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea, declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it, send it out to the end of the earth; say, ‘the LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob!” In short, we must respond to what we hear from God by going out from Babylon, and going out to the end of the earth. And we can do so because we have confidence, verse 21, that the LORD who redeems will also sustain us, whereas, verse 22, there is no peace for the wicked. In other words, there would be no peace for Israel if they remained obstinate, and there would be no peace for them remaining among the wicked in Babylon.
When it comes to going out from, God literally meant for the Israelites that when Cyrus came and conquered Babylon, they were not to stay in Babylon, but to go out from it, return to Jerusalem, and rebuild the temple. And they did that. They went out from Babylon, but they never went out to the nations. And that’s because though they were released from exile in Babylon, and went out from Babylon geographically and politically, they never really went out from Babylon spiritually. Rather, they continued in their obstinance and wickedness, and did not experience peace, because there is no peace for the wicked. For verses 20-21 to really come to fruition, for the sake of God’s name and glory, God would have to send one greater than Cyrus. Though Cyrus could be called a servant of the LORD in a sense, there is a greater servant we will encounter further in the coming chapters of Isaiah. The LORD loves him, not only as his chosen instrument, but as his only Son. The new thing God did that was hidden from his obstinate people is that God himself came in the person of his Son to take on human flesh and dwell among us. Jesus Christ was the servant sent by the LORD not to execute judgment on Babylon’s rebellion, but to bear the judgment we deserved for our rebellion. In Christ, God himself entered the furnace of affliction. On the cross he was afflicted for our sake, and though he truly died, he was not ultimately cut off, but rose again on the third day. In him we can truly say that the LORD has redeemed not only his servant Jacob, but his people from every tribe and language and people and nation.
His promise now is that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. His promise now is that whoever believes in him will be freed from their obstinate ways and given the power to obey his commandments. His promise now is that whoever believes in him, though you will go through the furnace of affliction with him, he will be with you in it, and you will be risen with him in the end. Listen to his promise! Listen! Though you and I are obstinate sinners in our flesh, cursed from our birth, sinning from the beginning, God is committed to getting the glory he deserves by saving a people who don’t deserve it, and God has done this by sending his own Son to die in their place and rise from the dead, so that whoever believes in him will be saved, and will give all the glory for their salvation to God. So what must we do with this glorious promise? We must go out from, and we must go out to.
We must go out from Babylon, though for us, Babylon is not some nation, but the present evil age into which we were all born. Coming to Christ entails going out from the world, not geographically, but spiritually. Faith entails repentance. It means making a fundamental break with the world. It means no longer listening to the voices of the world over the voice of God. The present evil age is familiar to many of us, just as Babylon eventually became familiar to Israel, and in that sense it feels safe. Especially if you’ve lived apart from Christ for some time as I did, you learn how to operate in the world: What to say, what not to say, how to dress, how to succeed. And sometimes even after you have gone out from it, you start to think it wasn’t so bad back there. All Christians on some level struggle against the temptation to keep one foot in the world, but listen: There is no peace there. Our memory is fickle; we tend to remember the good of the world, but forget that part of how God saved us was he showed us that we were never going to have peace apart from him, because no such peace exists. It still doesn’t. Go out from Babylon. Stop flirting with the love of money, the allure of “coolness”, and the petty hope of a comfortable life in this world. You cannot hold on to all that and take hold of Christ. You must go out from.
And, you must go out to. You must declare with a shout of joy and proclaim to the end of the earth, “the LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob!” And do you know how we say that today? It sounds something like “Christ died for our sins and on the third day rose again.” Do you see how once we’ve been redeemed, this becomes the natural response? It is a joyful thing to be saved by God, is it not? It is a joyful thing to realize you were a rebel from birth, but God has saved you by the death and resurrection of his own Son, and he is committed now to refining you through all your afflictions, and to supplying your every need until the day he comes again to take to you to be with him forever. So tell your neighbors, tell your family, tell your friends, that Christ has died and risen again, and call them out from the world to Him. Let’s send people from our church to the end of the earth, where there are still so many people, so many whole groups of people, who have never heard the name of Jesus Christ, and who still do not know that he died for people from their tribe and rose again so that all might hear and listen, and so that God would be glorified not only among us, but to the end of the earth.
God has spoken. He has promised a great salvation, and he has done it. He promised it ahead of time, so that when it happened, we would know it was he who did it, and so give him the glory he deserves. Though our flesh is obstinate, he is so committed to his glory that he has sent his Son to save us, and he will now refine those who are in his Son through every trial, until the day we are purified and blameless at the return of Jesus Christ. Listen to him in your affliction; let it refine you. Remember who it is that is speaking to you. He is the first and the last, the creator of all, who has chosen to glorify his name by doing us good. Listen to him, go out from the world, and go out to the end of the earth with the good news of what he has done, for his glory.