We all go through periods of not feeling good about ourselves. Indeed, things go wrong for one reason or another. And sometimes we only have only ourselves to blame. And other times . . . well it can seem that somebody has got it in for us.
Life isn’t always easy. We lose our way. And sometimes it can seem to be one thing after another—where bit by bit we lose the people or things around us, and piece by piece our lives seem to be fall apart.
At such times, even God may seem to be distant. It’s as though he’s taken a step back and allowed things to happen, or even is the instigator of our dilemma. It’s as though he no longer cares. And so we become lost, floundering, in need of a big boost. And all we can think of are happier times. The simpler days, when life was rosy, when everything was good, and the times when it seemed we never had a problem in the world.
Sound familiar? Well, if it does, you’re not alone. Because this Old Testament passage from Isaiah records a message to a group of people who fit precisely the description that I’ve outlined.
Only in their case, they were miles away from home—having been carted away by an invading army. They’d been physically separated from their families, their friends, and even their possessions, with no hope of returning. It seemed to them that God had deserted them. And indeed, maybe it wasn’t that God had just turned his back, but that he was the instigator of their misery. It was like he didn’t care—or that they were getting what they deserved. And, as a consequence, the people were longing for the good times—for the times when everything was rosy. And so they kept bringing up all the great things that God had done for them in the past, hoping that things would get better.
Going through a bad time? Well, rest assured that you are not alone. Furthermore, the same message that was intended to give God’s people in the past hope, may well do the same again now. Because this passage from Isaiah is not a passage of doom and gloom, but one that gave advice and encouragement to a people who were feeling very down. And if it was appropriate for God’s people in exile to hear that, then how much more so, should it be appropriate for us to hear it too.
B. THE MESSAGE OF ISAIAH
Now, God’s message (as recorded by Isaiah) comes in three parts.
1. The Need To Live In Hope (18-21)
Firstly, that no matter how down and discouraged the people were feeling, the people should not dwell on the glory of the past. Not because what they were thinking about was bad. On the contrary, recalling what God had done for his people was a very healthy thing. However, they were stuck there. And so this message to the people, therefore, was one of hope. Because what God was about to do, would make all the past events pale into insignificance.
Yes, the former things that they were thinking of were great events. The way God had rescued his people from Egypt; how they had crossed the Red Sea; how God had provided food and water in the desert; how he’d protected them from their enemies; and how he’d given them the promised land. They were all good positive things.
And then there were the Judges that he gave them to keep them on track. And the prophets that followed, including prophets like Elijah—Elijah, who God used in even raising the widow’s son back from the dead. Yes, all these (and more) were great events. And they brought some consolation in their current distress.
But they were nothing to what God was going to do next for his people.
Instead on looking at the past, God suggested, the people should look forward to what he was going to do next. That he was going to rescue his people and bring them home. But not just home in a physical sense—returning them to their own country—but rescue them in a spiritual sense too, where their relationship with God would be restored.
A new age would be heralded, where the world would be put right. And the whole of creation would be involved in giving glory to its creator. And God’s people would surround him and offer praise. Images of heaven indeed.
2. The Need To Acknowledge Our Own Faults (22-24)
Secondly, and this might seem harsh, but God suggested that although they might wish to blame others for their predicament, even God himself, they shouldn’t consider themselves to be totally blameless for the situation that they found themselves in.
And here we need to understand the nature of sin—in biblical terms—as having both an individual, and a community basis. Because here they were languishing in a foreign country, miles from home, and all they could do was blame God for their situation. And as far as they were concerned none of their predicament was self-inflicted.
However, as God pointed out, the reason that they were in that dilemma at all was because they had failed him. As individuals, and as a community they had put themselves before him. They had even directed their worship away from him to other things. And therefore, if they couldn’t be loyal to him, how could they simply expect God to turn a blind eye?
Far from their situation being undeserved, they were only experiencing what they were due—the punishment that they deserved. However, their predicament was not simply a means to punish them—his so-called followers—for their neglect of him. Rather its purpose was to shake them out of their complacency about their spiritual condition, and get them to return to a relationship with him.
And God wanted to make this point very clear. It’s not that the people as a whole didn’t offer worship to God. They did. And they even offered all the correct sacrifices, and whatever else was expected of them. But they did it name only; their hearts weren’t in it. They were just going through the motions. And as a consequence, their worship never reached him, because it had been offered by a people incapable, through its sinfulness, of acceptable worship.
On the one hand they had expected God to be at their beck and call. But when it came to the other way around, they had not been interested in devoting their lives to God at all.
3. To Remember Forgiveness Is Part of God’s Nature (25)
And the third thing that God suggested, was that no matter what their failings, despite all that they had done or not done, despite all they had gone through, he wanted to forgive them anyway.
Now in previous incidents, the emphasis on God’s forgiveness had come, mainly, out of a need to maintain his own reputation and glory. After all, God may have had many reasons to wipe his hands of his people, through their rejection of him. But what would that action have said to the surrounding nations, who believed that their so-called ‘gods’ were much more powerful. But in this case, it’s different. There’s no hint that God wanted to restore his people because of his own sake. Indeed, God’s readiness to forgive people this time, seems to proceed simply from the fact that it was in his nature to want to forgive. In other words, God’s people could take heart, that whatever had happened, whatever they had done (or not done), God was a forgiving God—a God who cared, even when his own people had let him down so badly.
Isaiah’s recording of God’s message of hope then, comes in three parts—to a people who were lost, far from home, with no hope, and where all they could do was to look at the glorious past. Indeed, this message would have been a very welcome blast of fresh air. And if it was relevant to the exiles of Isaiah’s day, then so too should it be relevant to us today.
1. The Need To Live In Hope
Because, firstly, we too need to remember not to dwell on the things of the past—even the positive things. Because no matter what great things God has done, what comes next will make the past pale into insignificance. When we’re down, when we’ve lost direction and hope, even though it’s probably natural to look back, we need to learn to keep our eyes focussed on the future, and on the promises of God.
Of course, each of us might like to recall the things that God has done for us personally, in addition to the things that he has done for the faithful of the past. But we need to learn to be people who live in hope, who have something to look forward to, rather than get stuck even in the glories of the past.
And in that, we have an advantage over the people of Isaiah’s day. Because they were given only a glimpse of the things to come. However, with the later birth of God’s son in the world—whose very nature encapsulates the hope to which the message in Isaiah was pointing—we should be much more sure of the future and what God has planned for us. It should be much easier then to accept that what God has done for us in the past is nothing to what he will do in the future.
2. We Need to Acknowledge Our Own Faults (22-24)
Secondly, we need to remember, that no-one is entirely innocent, and that it is no use trying to place the blame entirely on others—or even God—for our predicament. Paul, writing to the Roman church said, ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23).
Whatever our predicament is, whatever we are going through, we need, at least, to examine that in some small way that we may in some way be to blame.
(Having said that, remember that although God’s people were sent into exile—in a sense as a punishment they deserved—God’s motivation was, rather, that the people should be shaken out of their complacency and restored to a full relationship with him.)
When we are going through a rough time, it is, therefore, a good time to stop and think of our own relationship with God—and whether we need to be shaken out of our complacency where he is concerned. And not just in regard to our individual sins—the things that we do or don’t do as an individual—but in the part we play, the responsibilities that each of us has as members of a community, a nation, and an international community as well.
3. Forgiveness Is Part of the Nature of God (25)
And thirdly, we need to remember that despite everything, God is a forgiving God. No matter what we’ve done—as individuals or as a community—he is only too willing to restore us to new life. Forgiveness is in God’s nature. It’s part of who he is.
Now it is true, that some people feel as though they’ve been too bad to be forgiven. That what they’ve done in the past is too horrible for anyone, even God, to forgive. However, the sin that God accused his people of committing was that of neglecting God and serving others—and just going through the motions regarding God himself, of expecting him to be a puppet, but without any personal commitment in return.
Now I ask you, could there be any worse sin? And yet even that God was willing to forgive, if only his people would turn and embrace a full relationship with him again.
When things go wrong, and they do for all of us, then, we can lose our way, we can feel as though God is very distant, and we may resort to thinking of better times. And those three things are the same things that God’s people were feeling when God responded in the days of Isaiah, in a real and positive way.
But the solution to the problem, the prophet Isaiah records is threefold. We need to concentrate not on what God has done in the past, but on the promises of God for the future. We need to acknowledge that even in some way we may be in the wrong, and we need to stop blaming others—even God himself—for our predicament. And we need to hold on to the fact, that no matter what we’ve done, God wants to forgive. All we need to do is to pursue a relationship with him, and let him forgive.
Three things that if we take seriously should give us hope in even the most traumatic periods of life.
Posted: 9th September 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis