The LORD’s Invitation
As we close our series of sermons through this section of Isaiah, we see here what the LORD would have us do with all that we’ve seen of his glorious promises: Come to him.
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.
One of the joys of being part of a church family is the amount of time you spend eating together. I’ve often found when my wife and I invite you all over, you will ask, “What can I bring?” Sometimes we say nothing, but often we’ll say you can bring a dessert or drinks or something like that. What if we were to say, though, that not only do you not need to bring anything, but you aren’t allowed to bring anything? What if we were to say we are throwing a feast, and the only people allowed to come are those who bring nothing? Perhaps on one level it would offend your pride: You mean I’m not allowed to contribute anything? But on another level, might it not be like a breath of fresh air? You mean I don’t need to bring anything? That’s the kind of invitation God issues in the passage on which we are focusing today. Today we are concluding our series of sermons through this section of Isaiah, which has focused on addressing the people of Israel in a state of exile. In exile, they were stripped of their land, stripped of their wealth, and stripped of any illusions of righteousness: They were in exile because that was God’s judgment on their sin. And yet, to these people with nothing, God says, “Come.” And indeed, it is only those with nothing who can come to the LORD’s feast. That tends to offend our pride, but it’s also the most inclusive invitation the world has ever known, with the most glorious promise attached to it. So come to the LORD with nothing, and he will give you everything. He will satisfy the thirsty, and he will pardon the wicked.
He will satisfy the thirsty
Our passage today begins with a glorious word from the LORD: Come. On one level, it’s a command. When the LORD tells you to come, you ought to come. On another level, it’s an invitation. God telling us to come means not only that we ought to come; it means we get to come. But is the invitation extended to us? The first verse doesn’t simply say, “Come everyone” and stop there. It says “Come everyone who thirsts.” That’s an interesting qualification, isn’t it? People who thirst don’t so much have something as they lack something: They lack water. Yet it is they who are invited, because the LORD doesn’t need water. He has plenty of it, and so the invitation to come goes out to those who thirst, and it is an invitation to come to the waters, we read. Not only does the invitation go out to those who lack water, but to those who lack money: We read next that God invites “he who has no money” and ironically tells them to come, buy and eat! He offers them not only water to satisfy the need of hydration, but wine and milk, rich, luxurious drink to enjoy, without money and without price. He goes above and beyond the need.
How will the LORD convince us to come, though? He’s invited us, but what’s his appeal? Again, he could simply say, “I am the LORD, your creator, I have commanded you to come, and therefore you ought to come. If you do not come, I will punish you.” That would be right and good for him to say, and he does speak like that sometimes, but he also speaks like verse 2: Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Not only ought you to come, but it’s just foolish not to! Why do you keep spending your money and your labor on stuff that doesn’t satisfy, when there is water for the thirsty, wine and milk for those with no money? If you’ve ever been in material poverty yourself or tried to love those who are, you know the problem isn’t always a lack of income. The problem is often, rather, that the one in poverty is spending their money on things they don’t really need at the expense of things they do. So here, God diagnoses our condition in a similar way through the image of food: You’re spending your money on toy bread, the kind kids play with in their toy kitchens, and so you have no money left for the real bread that can actually satisfy your hunger. So of course you’re hungry. Why keep doing that?
This is the natural condition of all humans. We spend our money on that which is not bread, and our labor on what does not satisfy, and so we end up thirsty and poor. Have you hit that moment yet, where you realize even the best things in your life don’t provide the deep satisfaction for which your soul longs? I think of Kelly, a member here, who grew up apart from the LORD, and set goals for her life. By age 25, she’d accomplished most of them: Graduated with an advanced degree, got a good job, bought a condo in Old City, and yet found she was still empty. Why? She’d spent her money on that which is not bread, and her labor on what does not satisfy. Now, of course, our world, our flesh, and the devil conspire to cover up that emptiness. We can, for a time at least, and many for a lifetime, paper over it with entertainment, substances, and positive thinking, but one of the roles of the prophets in the Bible, like Isaiah, is to peel back the fake veneer we put over reality and to expose our situation for what it really is. Consider the things on which you literally spend your money and your labor. Are they really providing the deep satisfaction for which your soul longs, or are you still always looking for something else, something better, the next thing, in hope that it will give what nothing else, to this point, has?
The further deception of these things that do not satisfy is that if we can just move on to a bigger and better version of them, then that will satisfy. So if you’re unsatisfied with your job, your living situation, and your relationship status, get a new job, move, and get a new boyfriend or girlfriend. How many times are you going to do that, though, before you finally consider that maybe these things simply were never made to deliver the deep satisfaction for which your soul longs? How much more of your money and labor are you going to put into them? Is the next travel experience really going to be the one? How long will the satisfaction it provides last? How deep will it go? You only get one life here. Don’t waste it constantly looking for the next better thing.
Furthermore, as long as you insist on papering over the thirst, you will never come to the LORD and receive everything. You can’t keep buying that which is not bread, and come to his feast. To extend the metaphor, it’s as though God invites you to come, but you say, “No thanks; I’ve already got groceries bought and dinner is in the oven.” So you keep spending your money on that which is not bread, and your labor on that which does not satisfy, because the only way to come to the LORD is to come to him with nothing, and you still are trying to convince yourself you have something. The invitation is to those who are thirsty, to those who have no money, and so you won’t respond to it if you think you aren’t that thirsty, or you at least have some money. That’s why it is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven, and many of us here today on a global and historical scale, are rich. It’s hard, then, to adopt what Jesus calls “poverty of spirit,” that deep sense that of all I have, I really have nothing that will truly satisfy, and I have nothing to offer the LORD as the host of the feast.
If you think, “You know, my life is pretty satisfying, but I should probably add a spiritual component,” you will never find the true God that way. If you think, “You know, I’m a pretty good person, but I have to admit I’m not perfect, so I better turn to God to help,” you will never find the true God that way. You’re still relating to him as though you have something to bring to the table. You aren’t relating to him as one who “has no money,” but as one who’s somewhat middle class, and so you won’t see this invitation as applying to you. As Timothy Keller, a pastor who just recently passed, has put it, to receive God’s grace, all you need is need, all you need is nothing. Yet that’s the one thing many don’t have. Give up the game. Stop living a lie. Admit it: Apart from the LORD, you’ve got nothing. You’re thirsty, and you’ve got no money, because you’ve spent it all on things which do not satisfy. But come to him thirsty, and he will fill you with water, wine, and milk. Come to him with nothing, and he will give you everything.
What exactly does that mean though? How does one come to an invisible, spiritual being, who is everywhere? Though the image of an invitation to a feast is used, it is clearly not as simple as going to a certain house and eating material food. And it is to him we must ultimately come, as is made clear in verse 3: Incline your ear, and come to me. How do we do that, though? The second half of verse 2 begins to bring clarity: Instead of spending your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy, the LORD says, “Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” Here we see confirmation that the eating and drinking spoken of is not the eating and drinking of the body, but the eating and drinking of the soul, which feasts here on the very words of God as we hear them. Incline your ear, verse 3 reiterates, hear, again, that your soul may live.
In other words, don’t come to the LORD telling him about how even though you haven’t been perfect, you’ve tried your best to be better. Come to him with nothing, and instead, listen to his word as it spoken here through the prophet Isaiah, and as it is spoken by those set apart to preach his word to you. His word is what is good. His word is rich food for our souls. As the prophet Jeremiah testifies, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me the joy and delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts” (Jer 15:16). Are you eating God’s Word? Is it your food? Is attending the gatherings of your church to hear the public reading and preaching of God’s Word a priority for you? If you are able to read, are you hungry to read God’s Word as it is written down for us in scripture? I’ll warn you now: Listening to God’s Word will not usually give you the quick dopamine hit of a TV show, TikTok video, or a drink. As our pastoral resident Dave has put it, that stuff gratifies, but does not satisfy, whereas God’s Word may sometimes not gratify, but it will satisfy in the long run if you listen diligently to it with preparation and prayer, lay it up in your heart, and practice it in your life. Come to the LORD by listening to his Word.
And the second half of verse 3 tells us what you will hear in it: You will hear God promise, to those with nothing, to make with you an everlasting covenant, his steadfast, sure love for David. David was a king in Israel, with whom God made a covenant, promising that his offspring would rule on his throne forever. He said that even when David’s offspring sinned against him, he would discipline him with the rod, but his steadfast love would not depart from him. Now God is saying he will make that same kind of covenant with all those who come to him with nothing. He will give you his steadfast, sure love, that will never end.
So, you see, God does not satisfy the thirsty by giving them more or better versions of the bread that does not satisfy. This is a mistake many make in coming to the LORD. They think, “You know, I’ve been trying for years to succeed in my career, to prosper financially, to have better relationships, and I keep failing. Now I see what I’ve been doing wrong: I’ve been doing it on my own strength, without dependance on the LORD!” So they think they’re coming to the LORD, when in fact they’re trying to use the LORD to get what they really want: The career, the house, the relationship, and so on. Meanwhile, God is saying, “No! Why are you spending your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? I’m inviting you to something different, something better! I’m inviting you to myself, to come and listen to my Word, wherein I tell you of my love for you that will never end.” That’s how he satisfies the thirsty. His love for you, proclaimed in his Word, is the rich food your soul needs. That’s the waters, the wine, the milk, the bread that satisfies. Come to him with nothing, and he will give you that.
But that is not all you need. If our passage ended at verse 5, you might think we are simply thirsty, poor people in need of food and water. And so today even, sometimes we present the gospel as though our problem was a lack of satisfaction, and Jesus is then proclaimed as the savior from an empty, unfulfilling life. That’s true, gloriously true even, but it’s not the whole truth. Remember even in verse 2, it is we who have chosen to spend our money and labor for that which does not satisfy, and we are culpable for that. We are thirsty because we have chosen to turn from the LORD, the spring of living water, and have instead given ourselves to things that do not satisfy. Yet even as such, even to us, the LORD says come, come with nothing, and I will you everything, because not only will he satisfy the thirsty; he will pardon the wicked.
He will pardon the wicked
So in verse 6 the command shifts from come to seek, but the idea is essentially the same. The added detail we get in verse 6 is that the invitation has an expiration date. As with any feast, there comes a time when the doors close, the feast begins, and none are then permitted to enter. So, Isaiah now tells us to seek the LORD while he may be found, and to call upon him while he is near. You cannot go on being undecided about Jesus indefinitely. The day of your death and his return are fast approaching. At that time the feast will commence, and only those who have come to him in this life will be admitted to it.
And again, as before we got some clarity on what coming to the LORD looks like, in terms of listening to his Word, here we get clarity on what seeking the LORD looks like, in terms of verse 7: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD.” Because we are sinners, seeking the LORD means we must change course, and turn from what we’ve been seeking by nature. There are two things here we are told to turn from, to forsake, as we return to the LORD himself: Ways and thoughts. Ways you can think of roughly as actions, wicked actions, those things that do not conform to the standard of God’s law, which requires us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. It should come as no surprise, then, that if we are required love the LORD also with our mind, that his law also makes a claim on our thoughts, and coming to him requires that we give up not only our evil actions, but our evil thoughts as well. Evil thoughts would include the desire for, or the entertaining fantasies of, sin, even if we do not act on them outwardly.
You see, if you say, “Ok fine, I won’t commit adultery,” but in your thoughts, you still enjoy fantasizing about sex with people to whom you are not married, you haven’t really forsaken the sin. Similarly, if you say, “I’ll always be nice to people,” but in your thoughts, you still enjoy rehearsing their flaws, perhaps even envisioning scenes where you tell them off, you haven’t really forsaken the sin of anger. To seek the LORD means to really forsake your wicked ways and thoughts. Think of it this way: Part of coming to the LORD with nothing is renouncing all your pretend gods: We’ve talked about renouncing everything that’s not God as unable to truly satisfy. That’s coming to him thirsty. Part of it is ia slo renouncing all your pretend goodness: We’ve talked about coming to him with no claims of our own goodness. That’s coming to him with no money. But verse 7 shows us that it also involves renouncing all your true evils. By nature, we have pretend gods, pretend goodness, and true evils, both in our ways and thoughts. What this text is showing us is that to come to the LORD and receive everything from him, you must leave all those things. That’s what the Bible calls repentance. You can only come to the feast if you bring nothing. Leave it all. Empty yourself, and he will fill you. Come to him with nothing, and he will give you everything.
And so once again, the command to forsake something is met with a glorious promise. As verse 7 continues, let him return to the LORD, and the wicked will not find a judge ready to punish. Instead, verse 7 tells the wicked to return to the LORD, that the LORD may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. That’s what God does to those who come to him with nothing. He opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble. Jesus once told a parable of a son who wishes his father dead, demanded his share of the inheritance, and then squandered it all on wicked ways and thoughts. But then he realized he was thirsty, and had no money, so he returned to his father with nothing, no money, no good deeds, and having forsaken his sinful ways and thoughts. Here’s what he said to his father: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21). No excuses, no pleading of good works, no “I really did have a hard life” or “I at least tried my best”. That’s what it sounds like to come to the LORD with nothing. And the Father in the story, who represents our heavenly Father, had compassion on him, abundantly pardoned him, restored him to the position of a son, and feasted with him.
Some are prone to think that they are too far gone in their sins to return to the LORD, or have committed too many, or too severe of sins, to be forgiven. Some may think they’ve been forgiven too many times already, only to sin again, and now their opportunity for pardon from God has run out. But today is still the day where the LORD may be found; today he is still near. Consider the counsel of the long dead pastor John Bunyan, “This therefore should encourage them that for the present cannot stand, but that do fly before their guilt: Them that feel no help nor stay, but that go, as to their thinking, every day by the power of temptation, driven yet farther off from God, and from the hope of obtaining of his mercy to their salvation; poor creature, I will not now ask you how you came into this condition, or how long this has been your state; but I will say before you, and I pray you hear me, O the length of the saving arm of God! As yet you are within the reach thereof; do not thou go about to measure arms with God, as some good men are apt to do: I mean, do not conclude, that because you cannot reach God by you short stump, therefore he cannot reach you with his long arm. Look again, “Have you an arm like God” (Job 40:9), an arm like his for length and strength? It becomes you, when you cannot perceive that God is within the reach of your arm, then to believe that you are within the reach of his; for it is long, and none knows how long.”
And given that we are prone to think either that we need not forsake our sinful ways and thoughts, or that we might as well not, for fear that the LORD will not abundantly pardon, the rest of our passage gives us three basic reasons to forsake our wicked thoughts and ways and return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on you. The first is in verses 8-9, and it is simply this: That our ways are not his ways, and our thoughts are not his thoughts. As high as the heavens, the stars, the sun, and so forth are above the ground on which we stand, so high are his thoughts and ways above ours. When we measure our righteousness against the standard of the people around us, we may be able to convince ourselves that we are basically good people, and that there is no need for us to forsake evil thoughts and ways. But when we measure them against the LORD’s thoughts and ways, it’s quickly clear that our thoughts are not his thoughts, neither are our ways his ways. Can you imagine a being without so much as a wicked thought, a being whose every inclination is only toward love, justice, wisdom, holiness, goodness, and beauty? That is the LORD, and do you see then, especially when you get down to your thoughts, how easy it should be to recognize that our thoughts are not his thoughts, and our ways are not his ways?
Not only are his ways and thoughts not our ways and thoughts; his ways and thoughts are higher than our ways and thoughts. In what sense this is true is explained in verse 10. There we read that as the rain and snow come down from heaven, from up high, and do not return there without first watering the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, so that it gives seed to the sower and bread to the eater, that’s what the word that goes out from God’s mouth is like. It will not return to him empty, but will accomplish that for which he sent it. Do you see how much higher that is than our thoughts and words? We often devise plans and do things that do not produce their intended result. But as surely as the rain and snow come down and give seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so surely does God’s Word, the expression of God’s thoughts, the thing through which he acts, so surely does that accomplish the purpose for which he sends it. So if God says he will abundantly pardon, he will. If God says he will make with you an everlasting covenant, he will. And if God says his Word satisfies, it will. That’s why you keep listening diligently to it, even in times when it feels like it “isn’t working”. When the rain and snow hit the ground, plants don’t spring up immediately. It looks for a time like it “isn’t working,” and yet it eventually provides seed to the sower and bread to the eater. So also in time God’s Word will provide bread to the eater. Not only that, but it is seed for the sower. We keep proclaiming God’s Word, rather than turning to other things, even when it feels like it “isn’t working,” because in time, it always accomplishes what God ordains.
And then, finally, our passage, and this section of Isaiah on which we’ve been focusing, closes with the results that God’s Word will produce. This is what it will accomplish. You shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace. The whole creation, mountains, hills, and trees will rejoice, and there will be a new creation, the existence of which will testify to the glory of the LORD forever. I’ve been talking about this idea of satisfaction throughout this sermon, but here even that becomes more concrete. What is it to have deep satisfaction? It’s to have joy and peace. It’s to have a maximal happiness (joy) that you know cannot be taken away (peace). Do you believe you could have that, though you are thirsty, without money, and wicked? You can, because the LORD offers it, and he invites you to come and get it. You can, because as the rain and snow don’t return to heaven without first watering the earth so that it gives seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall God’s word not return to heaven until it accomplishes all he ordained for it, to produce in all those who come to him this incredible joy and peace, and to bring about a whole new creation.
This was the hope of Israel in exile in Isaiah 40-55. The day was coming when God would bring them out in joy, and lead them forth in peace, and a whole new creation would rejoice with them. And it is our hope as well, as we continue to live in exile, in a world still marred by thorns, a world in which we still thirst, and a world in which wicked thoughts and ways remain. It is our hope as well because David’s son has come. It’s impossible to see this in your English translation because we don’t have a universally accepted second person plural in English, but in Hebrew, the “you” of verse 2-3 is plural: Incline your ear and come to me, and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, and so on. But then in verse 5 it is singular. Why? Because as we’ve seen throughout chapters 40-55 of Isaiah, this is one representative Israelite to come. As God made David a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander of peoples, so he speaks in verse 5 to that representative Israelite, David’s son, who we now know is Jesus Christ, and tells him that he will call a nation that he does not know, and a nation he does not know will run to him, because the LORD has glorified him.
Jesus Christ has come to enter our exile. Though he came eating and drinking, he willingly deprived himself of food and drink for 40 days in the wilderness, and said that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matt 4:4). On the cross he cried out, “I thirst,” and was given only sour wine to drink. Though he was the one truly righteous man there ever was, he went through the emptiness, the starvation, the punishment, that our wicked ways and thoughts deserved, and so God glorified him by raising him from the dead, making with him an everlasting covenant, his steadfast, sure love for David, and now all who are in him, all who turn from their pretend gods, their pretend goodness, and their very real evils, to turn to him, are abundantly pardoned, and included in that same covenant. Forsake your idols, forsake your illusions of your own goodness, forsake your evil ways and thoughts, and come to him while there is still time. Come to him with nothing, and he will give you everything. He will begin even now to produce in you the joy and peace that comes from believing the message of his love for you in Christ, one day he will come again. In that day we will go out in joy, and be led forth in peace, to glorify his name forever.