While Israel was in exile, they needed to remember two big things that we also need to remember while we are away from the Lord: Our sin, and God’s grace.


Isaiah 43:22-44:23

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.

Sermon Transcript

Ondine is a figure in ancient Greek mythology. She’s a water nymph who fell in love with a human, but the human eventually rejected her love. She cursed him by depriving him of all automatic bodily functions, such as breathing. So he could still breathe, but he had to remember to do so. Eventually, however, he got tired, fell asleep, and died in his sleep because he stopped breathing. The man Ondine cursed had a great need for oxygen, and he had the means of obtaining it, but he had to remember both his need, and the means of provision. In the story of the Bible, humanity is also under a curse, though we are cursed because we are guilty of sin. If we remain in it, we are destined to perish eternally away from the favorable presence of God. This was represented in the story of Israel’s exile, which is the context into which our passage today speaks. Israel had sinned against God, and so was cursed with exile to Babylon, in which they were defeated in battle, their capital city destroyed, and they were removed from their land. They had a need, then, not only to be freed from exile, which our passage last week addressed, but they had a need for their sin to be dealt with, which our passage this week addresses. They needed forgiveness for their sins, and power to change from their sinful ways, and we need the same things. And, much like the man in the story of Ondine’s curse, we not only have a need, we have provision. We will see in this passage that the God against whom we have sinned is, unlike Ondine, also a gracious God, who forgives sin and gives sinners the power to change. But in order to benefit from that, we too must remember our need, and the provision available to us. So, remember your sin and God’s grace. To do that, this passage directs us to remember who burdened who, to remember what God promised, to remember who God is, and therefore, it calls us to return to God.


Remember who burdened who


In the passage just before this one, God said that he formed the people of Israel for himself, so that they might declare his praise. Our passage, then, begins with a contrast: Yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob, but you have been weary of me, O Israel! I formed you for my praise, yet you did not even so much as call upon me. Instead, you’ve grown weary of me. What’s that look like? In verse 23 God says they have not brought him their sheep for burnt offerings, or honored him with their sacrifices. Now, we know from Israel’s history that they were generally good at offering the required sacrifices. Earlier in Isaiah 1:11, God says to the people “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts.” The problem in our passage, then, is not that the people did not bring sheep for burnt offerings. The problem is that they did not bring them to God. To put the emphasis in the proper place in verse 23, it would sound something like, “You have not brought me your sheep for burnt offerings, or honored me with your sacrifices.” They offered their sacrifices, but not their hearts, and therefore God does not receive the sacrifice as being offered to him.


And God knew their sacrificial offerings were not reflective of their heart, most obviously because God knows all things. Man looks on outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart (1 Sam 16:7). If your participation in worship gatherings or even your personal practice of spiritual disciplines does not proceed from a heart that loves God, God knows, and he is not pleased with it. But in God’s exchange with the Israelites here, he does not appeal to his omniscience, his knowledge. He presents them with evidence that their sacrifices do not proceed from a heart that loves God, and the evidence is not that they did not present them with sufficient emotion. That’s what we typically assume today: Worship is inauthentic if the worshippers don’t really put their heart into it, by which we mean if they don’t express a high degree of emotion on it. Certainly emotional expression can be a God-glorifying part of our worship, but here the evidence that the worship of Israel was inauthentic is given in verse 24: But you have burdened me with your sins; you have wearied me with your iniquities. So again, verse 27: Your first father sinned, and your mediators transgressed against me. What’s the simple litmus test, then, as to whether your worship is authentic? If you spent last night disobeying what God commands, and you came here this morning, not to confess and turn from those sins, but to cover them up, and you plan to go from here and disobey God’s commands again. Such a person is more than capable of high levels of emotional expression in worship, and yet God will still say of their worship: “You did not call upon me.”


And if you’ve ever tried to offer God such worship, you know it’s wearying! It’s wearying when you don’t love God to get out of bed on a Sunday morning, drag yourself to church, sing these songs, listen to the scripture readings, pray along with the prayers, and listen to some guy talk for 40 minutes. It’s wearying to go through your week feeling like you probably should be getting up earlier to pray, you probably should go to Citygroup, you probably should give your money away, you probably shouldn’t engage in sexual activity with someone to whom you aren’t married, and so on. And the temptation, when we feel that weariness, is to blame God, as though he’s the one who has burdened us with burdensome commandments. But God addresses that at the end of verse 23: I have not burdened you with offerings, or wearied you with frankincense. In other words, I have not required of you excessive offerings and frankincense. In Egypt, Pharaoh required the people to produce bricks without the necessary materials. That’s excessive and oppressive. But I’ve just been reading through Leviticus in my personal time with the Lord, and if you pay close attention to Leviticus, one thing that becomes apparent throughout is that God is not requiring that kind of service from his people. Over and over again he makes provision for their capacities. He requires certain sacrifices, but then if someone can’t afford it, he requires of them a less valuable sacrifice. He requires the people come together at certain times, but then if someone is providentially hindered from doing so, he has mercy on them.


God’s commandments are not burdensome. He commands that we not worship other gods, he commands that we not worship him according to our own devices, he commands that we treat his name with fear and reverence, that we set aside one day in seven for the activity of worship, that we honor our mother and father, that we not hate our neighbor, that we not take without permission that which belongs to someone else, and so on. None of that is crazy. It’s how we were created to live. So if such things feel burdensome or wearying to us, it reveals not that God is a harsh master, but that we are sinful servants! So when you feel burdened or wearied by God, remember who’s really burdened who. God hasn’t burdened you, but, verse 24: You and I have burdened him with our sins, and have wearied him with our iniquities.


Of course, in an absolute sense God cannot be burdened or wearied. Just chapters before this, in Isaiah 40:24, Isaiah said, “The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary.” But by way of reminder, when you see the words printed in your Bibles like they are here, line by line with lines indented differently, that’s indicating to you that you’re reading a translation of Hebrew poetry, as opposed to the familiar paragraph format of verses 9-20 of chapter 44. And in poetry, poetic, imaginative language is intentionally employed that is not intended by the author to be taken literally. So here, God paints a picture through poetry that does lead us to imagine the one who does not faint or grow weary being burdened and wearied by our sins. When we sin, we are adding a task to God. Now he must either punish us for our sins or he must forgive them, and in this sense, our sins burden him. Imagine an employer assigns an employee certain work to get done for the week. That’s what employers are supposed to do, that’s how things get done in a business, and it’s negligent managers who give employees no direction. But if the employee hates the employer, they may receive their work as though it is burdensome, when in fact it is reasonable, and then they may choose not to do it. What does that do to the employer? It burdens them, because now they probably have to pick up the ball the employee dropped, and now they have to figure out what to do with that employee. That’s the kind of poetic image God is giving us here. Remember who burdened who.


But, amazingly, the next thing God tells us is that although our sins have burdened and wearied him, instead of dealing with that by punishing us for our sins, he says, “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” Do you see this is not a God who is out to burden you, but a God you’ve actually burdened, and who has nonetheless chosen to bear that burden and forgive you for it? The image here of blotting out transgressions is as though there is a legal record, a rap sheet, listing all the ways you’ve transgressed his law. He could use that sheet to punish you, but instead he says he deletes everything on it! He says he will not even remember our sins! Again, this does not mean that God ceases to be omniscient, but it means in relating to us, he will not deal with us as our sins deserve. He will treat us as though we never committed them. And he says he will do this for his sake. If he formed us for his glory, that we might declare his praise, as the previous passage showed us, what good is it if he condemns us all for our sins? Condemned people don’t declare God’s praise. But forgiven people do. So God blots out our transgressions for his sake, and will remember our sins no more.


Do you see what that means if you’ve sinned against God? It means there is hope for you! Yes, your sin, at its very core, was a refusal to glorify God, and yet verse 25 shows us that God is glorified not only in judging sin, but in forgiving it. As William Perkins once said: “Sin does not abolish grace but rather can lead to further illustrations of it.” So God says in verse 26: Put me in remembrance. I will remember your sins no more, so remember me! When you are guilty of sin, when you realize that you have burdened God, and he has not burdened you, remember that he is the one who blots out your transgressions for his own sake. Remember that he’s not remembering your sins. Remember his grace, and still remember your need. Our text goes back there next, when in verse 27 God states the charges against the people, and in verse 28 pronounces the curse that was carried out in the exile to Babylon: The priests were profaned, Israel was delivered to destruction and to reviling. To be an Israelite became a shameful thing. In exile, the people were tempted to think God had burdened them, but God’s commands were reasonable, and he is even the God who blots out their transgressions of those commands. It was they who burdened him with their sins, and that’s why they were in exile. So remember who burdened who, and yet even in exile, under God’s judgment, God promised further deliverance.


Remember what God promised


So in chapter 44, after announcing judgment, we have a “but now”. God begins reminding them again of who they are to him: Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen, thus says the LORD who made you, who formed you from the womb and will help you: Fear not. This is the third passage now in which God has told his people, while in exile, to not be afraid, and here he adds another reason, this time regarding something he will do. He will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground. From that poetic image God gets specific: I will pour out my Spirit upon your offspring and my blessing on your descendants. What this indicated to the people in exile was first of all that they would have descendants, which would have been a significant comfort to them. But not only will they have descendants; they will have descendants on whom God will pour out his Spirit. That means they will have a source of spiritual life within them, coming from the very Spirit of God himself. So in verse 4 they will spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams. A tree by a flowing stream always had life because the stream gave it life. But here, the descendants of Israel could spring up among the grass, apart from the stream, because they had a steady supply of life from the Spirit of God.


Recall that Israel’s worship of God became weary to them because they did not love God, but now God promises that their descendants will not only exist, but will receive power from him to love him. The picture in verses 3 and 4 is of a people whose service to God is refreshing and joyful, because it springs from a fountain of life. If you’ve ever had one of those nights where you can’t sleep, you know how hard the next day at 3pm feels. It’s wearying to try to work with no energy. But when you’ve got that full night’s sleep, some good time in prayer, maybe a good workout and a solid meal, you can engage your activities for the day with energy and joy. That’s the contrast from the wearying service of 43:22 to 44:3-4. When the Spirit brings new life, he brings new energy to serve God, and his commandments, which were never burdensome in the first place, no longer feel burdensome, but become our joy and delight.


And verse 5 shows us that it also becomes our joy and delight to identify with God and his people. It tells us that this one will say, “I am the LORD’s,” and another will call on the name of Jacob, and another will write on his hand, “the LORD’s,” and name himself by the name of Israel. Recall that in verse 28 of chapter 43, God said he would expose Israel to reviling. That means they were insulted, and it would be a shameful thing to belong to them, and to worship their God. But when God pours out his Spirit on the descendants of Israel, they’ll be proud to serve the LORD, and proud to identify with his people. And notice that the two go together. Though the LORD was perfect, while Israel was a sinful people, those on whom God pours out His Spirit are eager to identify not only with the LORD, but with Israel, not because Israel is so great, but because they are the LORD’s.


This addresses the issue of identity, an issue with which the modern West has something of an obsession. In the ancient world, to the degree people thought about identity, their identity was assigned to them by their tribe. So, for example, you were a wife of a shoemaker, a mother, a German, and a Roman Catholic, to choose an example from medieval Europe. And in the modern West we’ve rightly recognized a real problem with that: If your tribe assigns you your identity, your tribe can assign you an oppressive identity. They can tell you you’re a serf who must serve your Lord, to use another example from medieval Europe, or they can tell you you’re a slave who must serve your master, to use an example from more recent American history. So the modern West has said instead of looking to your tribe for your identity, you should look inward for your identity. You should identify your deepest feelings about who you really are, and then insist on that to the world. Think of the popular song from the 2017 movie “The Greatest Showman”: “Look out, cause here I come, and I’m marching on the beat I drum. I’m not scared to be seen, I make no apologies. This is…me.” You rule you; you submit to no tribe. This approach has many problems too, though. To mention just a couple: For one, the feelings within you are diverse; how do you know which one is the real you? For another, such an identity is very fragile. You were made for God, and if you try to decide on your own identity, God will not affirm it, and you have decided you won’t let any tribe affirm it, so instead of needing God’s affirmation or needing your tribe’s affirmation, you’ll feel a need for everyone’s affirmation, and guess what? You’ll never get it.


Christian identity, though, is different from both modern and ancient identity. Unlike modern identity, it is assigned to us from the outside: By virtue of being humans, we are images of God. But unlike traditional identity, it’s not assigned to us from a tribe who can use it to oppress us: Rather, it’s assigned to us by a God whose commandments are not burdensome, a God who blots out transgressions when we fail to live in accordance with our assigned identity, and a God who pours out his Spirit on us, so that we willingly and joyfully identify ourselves, like modern identity does, but we willingly and joyfully identify ourselves with Him, and acknowledge gladly that we are not our own, but instead say, “I am the LORD’s,” unlike modern identity. And we go even further, to identify not only as the LORD’s, in submission to his loving authority, but we identify with his imperfect, sinful people, and submit to the authority God has given them. The one who names himself by the name of Israel is saying they will submit to the prophets, priests, and kings God gave authority in Israel.


So even as you remember your need, remember God’s grace. Remember his promise to give you his Spirit. Though God’s commandments are not burdensome, when you hear them, when you really understand the spirituality of them, that they make a claim not only on our actions, but on our thoughts and desires, because you are a sinner, you should feel weak to obey them. In fact, you should feel totally powerless to do so. Remember your need, but remember God’s grace. If you are in Christ, God has poured out his Spirit on you. You don’t have to serve the LORD using only your own strength to do so. Remember that God’s Spirit is in you, working in you to will and to work for God’s good pleasure. Rely on his strength. And remember who you are. If you are in Christ, you are not most fundamentally who your tribe of origin said you were, nor who you feel yourself to be. You are the LORD’s. Remember who you are, and then remember who God is.


Remember who God is


Verse 6 takes us into another speech from God, and the theme of the speech is in verse 6: I am the first and the last, besides me there is no god. The speech concludes with the same basic sentiment: Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any. You know you really are guilty of sin. You know your flesh is weak. Israel had the proof right in front of them: They were in exile, under the dominion of a nation more powerful than they. How could God blot out their transgressions? How could God pour out his Spirit, to change their hearts and make them willing, joyful servants of him? How could his commandments no longer feel burdensome? How could he bring his people to the point where they would be eager to publicly identify him as their God and publicly identify with his people? He could do so because there are no other gods in his way. He is the first and the last, and therefore he is the rock in whom we can trust. Remember who he is.


And it helps us remember who he is to contrast him with who he is not. He is not an idol, and from verses 9-20, Isaiah basically puts idols to shame. Here’s what happens with idolatry, he says: We turn from the God who made everything, to something God made. In this case, that’s either metal or wood. In the case of metal, verse 12, instead of the idol strengthening him, the one who crafts the idol becomes weak, because he has to expend so much strength making the idol. Or consider the carpenter, verse 13. He carves an image that looks like not like a god, but a man! He goes and cuts down a tree that God made. With part of the tree he starts a fire and warms himself with it. With another part of the tree he starts a fire and cooks his food over it. Then with what’s left, he makes an idol, and bows down to it and worships it! And here’s what he’s really looking for, verse 17: “Deliver me, for you are my god.”


We’ve had to point out many times in this series through Isaiah, and will likely have to keep doing so, that we do not typically bow down to and worship statues or wood figures in America. But it’s important to remember that some still do, and many throughout the world still do. And, it’s important to remember that we will are prone to look to and rely on created things to deliver us. We may not bow down to and worship figures of people, but we are still prone to look to people themselves for our deliverance. Remember what we said about identity. How often do we still look to other people to give us a secure sense of identity? That’s where we inevitably turn when we turn from the LORD. How often do we look to substances or pleasurable experiences to give us hope for our future? But when we do that, we have not only forgotten who God is, we have forgotten who we are. We have forgotten our greatest need. We’re treating the unpleasant symptoms, without tracing the symptoms back to the root.


Why was Israel in exile? Why are we in exile, away from the presence of the LORD, in whom there is fullness of joy, at whose right hand are pleasures forevermore? Sin was the problem, sin that needed to be blotted out, and a sinful nature that found God’s commandments burdensome, that needed to be renewed. Who could do that? Certainly not some idol that you just used part of to cook your dinner. Certainly not some mere human, a sinner like you. Certainly not a substance or a vacation. God’s answer is: I, I am he who blots your transgressions for my own sake. I will pour out my Spirit, and there is none to stop him. So remember who God is, and remembering all these things, return to him.


Therefore, return to God


After ridiculing the idols, in verse 21 the command to remember these things is given, and then a summary of them is repeated. Remember who you are: You are my servant, I formed you, and therefore, you will not be forgotten by me, God says. And now, verse 22: I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you. Here God speaks of this work of blotting out their transgressions as though it is completed. Earlier he said he blots out their transgressions for his own sake, and here he speaks as though he has done it, and yet they are still in exile. How can this be? God is just, so sin must be punished, hence the exile. And yet God is the God who blots out transgressions. How is that just? And even if he blots out our past transgressions, what about the future ones?


Well, Isaiah is a prophet, and that means he is given insight from God’s Spirit into realities that weren’t yet fully revealed in his day. In verse 22 he speaks of a day when all the sins of all God’s people would be blotted out like a cloud. As a cloud is here for a time and then gone, verse 22 speaks of a day when the sins of God’s people would be gone like mist goes, and that day came when God the Father sent God the Son to suffer on our behalf. In chapter 43 we saw that even Israel’s mediators, the priests, sinned against God, so God provided a better mediator, who was tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. He humbled himself to take on the position of a servant. The one who was one in being with the LORD, humbled himself to say, “I am the LORD’s” and took upon himself the responsibility to serve the LORD. To him, God’s commandments were not burdensome, but on the cross, the burden of our sins was placed on him. He was truly burdened with our sins and wearied with our iniquities, and so he was profaned, delivered to destruction, and reviled for our sins. Yet God poured out His Spirit on his dead body, and he sprung up from the tomb, and like a tree by a flowing stream he lives forever now to pour out His Spirit on whoever believes in him.


On the cross, all the sins of all those who would believe in Christ were blotted out. They were erased from our rap sheet, written on his, and he paid the penalty for them in full. He accomplished our redemption. In him is a perfect record of righteousness, a full payment for sin, and eternal life. So now God says to all you who hear today: Return to me. Remember your need. Remember who burdened who. But remember his grace. He has provided for the redemption of whoever believes in him. So return today. In the words of Jesus, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30). With the redemption Jesus has won, with his Spirit poured out on you, God’s commandments go from burdensome to freeing, and service to him goes from wearying to energizing.


And if you do return to him by faith, identify yourself with him and his people publicly. How do you name yourself with the name of the LORD today? You do what Hyeji did this morning: You get baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. How do you name yourself by the name of Israel today? You do what Hyeji, Steve, Nancy, and Anthea did today: You join the church, the Israel of God, by joining a particular church. Christ is the ultimate offspring of Israel, and all who are one with him through faith thereby becoming the true Israel, the recipients of the promised Spirit. If that’s you, be baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and join a particular church. The text assumes that those who receive the Spirit will be eager to do just that. And if you would like to learn more about that, in God’s providence we have our baptism and membership class starting today after the service, and you’re welcome to come even if you didn’t sign up or plan to come prior to today.


To you who are in Christ, have you grown weary in doing good? Don’t blame God or his commandments. Blame your sin, and return to him, for he has redeemed you, and he will pour out his Spirit upon you to strengthen you. Have you wandered back to your idols? Return to Jesus, for he has redeemed you, and he will pour out his Spirit upon you to fuel a love for God and a vision of his glory that outweighs the counterfeit glory of any idol. And when he does, verse 23 shows us that instead of God’s people bowing down to the trees, even the trees, along with all creation, will sing God’s praises, for the LORD has redeemed Jacob, and will be glorified in Israel. Remember your sin, but remember God’s grace, and remember that day is coming.