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Offering Hope for the Future
Spring Quarter: Prophets Faithful To God’s Covenant
Unit 3: Courageous Prophets of Change
Sunday school lesson for the week of May 9, 2021
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: Isaiah 29:13-24
Key Verse: Isaiah 29:24
- Describe God’s intentions regarding the spiritual condition of Israel.
- Give an example of a similar condition today.
- Create a personal plan to guard against unfaithful worship.
Scholars tell us that the word “Isaiah” means “Jehovah is salvation” and that a predominant theme of the book of Isaiah is God’s sovereignty over history. The fictitious pagan fertility gods were imagined to be caught in never-ending cycles of birth, life, and death. For pagans, history endlessly turned on itself. Their gods were doomed to the same repetitious beats as were mere mortals.
But by contrast, the God of Israel stood outside history. Since he brought all things into being (Isaiah 40:21-31) it simply couldn’t be otherwise. God demonstrated mastery over history by giving Isaiah visions of what would occur before, during, and after the Babylonian exile. That tragedy extended from the destruction of the temple in 538 BC until release from captivity in 530 BC.
However, the most immediate new thing that God would do was to use a foreign power, Assyria, to accomplish his will by disciplining Israel for their sin and corruption. During Isaiah’s tenure as a prophet (740-681 BC), Assyria was the region’s sole superpower. Founded in Mesopotamia in about 1750 BC, that nation’s period of most military expansion began in about 1100 BC.
We are informed that Assyria’s most coveted prize, Egypt, lay to the west. However, several smaller nations on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, including the divided northern and southern kingdoms of Israel and Judah, stood in its path. Therefore, the risk of invasion was always present.
Two centuries prior to Isaiah’s time, King Solomon had accumulated immense wealth through his initiative of international commerce. That fact, along with prosperity in the interim, made the covenant people an appealing target for the aggressive Assyrian Empire. Both Israel and Judah experienced years of prosperity after they divided into two kingdoms (Isaiah 2:7). Assyria menaced both for years.
Even though the threat lessened with the reign of less hostile Assyrian monarchs, things changed for the worst when Tiglath-Pileser III reigned (745-727 BC). He renewed Assyrian designs against both Israel and Judah (2 Kings 15:29). The prophets Hosea and Amos had issued the earlier warnings, in the eighth century BC (examples: Hosea 10:6; Amos 3:11). At the time, their prophets must have sounded absurd to a nation enjoying peace. But during Isaiah’s ministry as a prophet, predicted doom became reality.
Now, Ahaz, king of Judah from 735 to 715 BC, allied with Assyria to prevent aggression by Aram and northern Israel by paying steep tribute in the process (2 Kings 16:7-8). Eventually, however, he rebelled against Assyria and shifted allegiance to Egypt.
The prophets warned both northern Israel and southern Judah against such entanglements, but they were ignored (Hosea 7:11, 16). Point? God instructed both nations to put their trust in Him, not pagan empires and their fictitious gods.
Beginning in the time of Hezekiah’s reign (about 726-695 BC), Isaiah predicted five “Woe Sermons” that included further warnings against such alliances. These five “woes” on the people of the Lord (chapter 28-33) are the following: one on the drunkards and scoffers (28); one on the deceivers of God (29), our text; one on the rebellious who show confidence in humankind, not God (30); one on those who make alliance with the enemy (31-32); and one on treacherous destroyers (33).
The “woe” sermons establish the rationale behind God’s judgment yet also offer hope that God would someday restore the nation predicted to fall. Today’s study concerns both.
The failure to heed the contents of the scroll in Isaiah 29:11-12 is a sad observation regarding ignorance of the Word of the Lord.
The late Dr. Billy Graham once said: “one of the greatest tragedies today is that although the Bible is an available, open book, it is a closed book to millions – either because they leave it unread or because they read it without applying its teachings to themselves. No greater tragedy can befall humankind as a nation than paying lip service to a Bible left unread or a way of life not followed.”
Thus, the characterization we see here is insincere piety. The people’s worship was little more than going through the motions; it was empty and meaningless. “With their mouths and with their lips” the people professed loyalty and devotion to God, but their hearts weren’t in it.
Isaiah had confessed his own and his people’s unclean lips when he was called by God (Isaiah 6:5). Here the lips appeared to speak what was right. But whatever pious words they uttered were nullified by hearts that had little passion or desire for a genuine relationship with God. And centuries later, Jesus would apply these very words to the teachers of the law and Pharisees in his day (Matthew 15:1-9; Mark 7:5-8). There, Jesus adds his own characterization: “hypocrites.”
In verse 14, the Lord vows to get the attention of these people whose worship is simply “learned by rote” by doing “shocking” and “amazing” things. Literally the promise is, “I will treat this people wonderfully, wonderfully and with wonder.”
But what is this wonderfully wonderful wonder? The second half of the verse before us is cited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:19 as justification for his statement, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us, who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Paul goes on to comment on how God has “made foolish the wisdom of the world” and brought it down to nothing by means of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:9-25).
The cross of Christ should move us to humble worship – the kind that was sadly missing in Isaiah’s day. No “mere human ruler” (Isaiah 29:13), no matter what they may be, can produce the degree of worship that the wonder of the cross can. So may we who have accepted the crucified and risen Christ as savior never lose our sense of wonder even in the face of the world’s ridicule.
It has been correctly stated that the mood of true religion is one of wonder and expectation. Whenever religious people lose this mood, we may be sure they have lost their way.
The late Bishop Gerald Kennedy once described the church as the “dwelling place of wonder.” Oh, how I like that! At its best, it is!
Scholars inform us that the text before us consists of three sections, related in that the second two parts respond to and interpret the first. The section begins (vv. 15-16) with another prophetic woe speech indicting the addressees in terms of their actions. They are doing the unthinkable, believing they can hide their plans from God.
The second part (vv.17-21) contains an announcement of the Lord’s own plan, to bring salvation through a transformation of nature and destruction of “the tyrant,” the “scoffer,” and evil-doers.
The final section (vv. 22-24), both linked to and set off from the preceding by an introductory “therefore,” gives another announcement of salvation for the “house of Jacob.”
Those who view themselves to be wise and intelligent are frequently those who “go to great depths to hide their plans from the Lord.”
The wayward seem to think that God is subject to the same limitations that restrict humans. Supposedly, he cannot know or see what is planned or done “in darkness.” But as David rightly observes in Psalm 139:12, “even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
The reason the plotters and schemers of Isaiah 29:15 think and act as they do is that they have a faulty view of God. They have turned his authority structure “upside down.” And such is the inevitable outcome when humans refuse to acknowledge that they are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). They think of themselves as the potter, as if they were in charge.
True worship can never come from a mindset that considers human beings to be the potter. This displays the utmost contempt for the true potter, who is God alone. Ignoring the prophet’s insistence to trust God instead of pagan nations was absurd.
Specifically, Isaiah is attacking Jerusalem’s reliance on Egypt for relief from Assyrian aggression. In effect, the leadership has refused to take the prophet’s word seriously as the word of God. They have been both arrogant and faithless.
Instead of the expected announcement of judgment following an indictment, this passage (29:17-21) announces salvation and the establishment of justice. It brims with “reversals” of previous proclamations of judgment against God’s people.
“Lebanon” in verse 17 was known for its forests, which supplied lumber for building projects (see 2 Chronicles 2:8-9). To take a majestic forest and create “a fertile field” from it isn’t a comment on the quality of the forest or the field as much as it is that of massive reversal. Likewise, fields that had already proven themselves fertile would become instead “forest.” Isaiah used these upheaval images as metaphors for the massive changes Israel would undergo when God renewed them in ways they never expected. This theme continues through the end of our lesson.
In the announcement of reversals, we see that there is a message concerning power and the powerful, proclaiming the reversal of stature. The deaf will hear, the blind see, the meek and needy will celebrate, the tyrant and scoffer will be no more, and those who corrupt the courts to deny justice to those who need it will be cut off.
Those who find themselves oppressed will rejoice over how God acts on their behalf. A key phrase here is “the Holy One of Israel (v.19). It occurs in 31 verses in the Old Testament and 25 of those are in Isaiah. The rejoicing of which this verse speaks is to be found in Him (Isaiah 12:6), not in pagan nations (Isaiah 10:20; 31:1). He is the Maker, the Sovereign Lord, the Redeemer, and the Lord Almighty.
The unholy spirits of demonic realm correctly recognized the Holy one in the person of Jesus (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34). Some humans also correctly came to recognize him that way as well (Acts 3:14; 1 John 2:20). In the Beatitudes, Jesus echoed the promise in this and other verses we have discussed (Matthew 5:5, Luke 6:20).
God assured the nation by invoking the names of two patriarchs with whom God had established his covenant centuries before (Exodus 2:24; etc.). But the record of Scripture is that God’s people proved themselves incapable and unwilling to maintain a holy status before God. Moses had introduced God’s perfect law to the people (Exodus 20), but they did not obey it. Important point! Their restoration then was not precipitated by unused effort on their part, but in God’s unilateral act of mercy.
If, at the time of restoration, Jacob were to observe “Israel,” the nation bearing his name, as changed by God (Genesis 32:28), he would see renewed devotion to God. In spite of the Israelites unfaithfulness, they will remain as God’s creative “work.” As such, God has remained committed to them until he finishes what he started in them. Human unfaithfulness does not deter God (2 Timothy 2:13).
To keep God’s “name holy” is to acknowledge God’s inherent holiness. Simply stated, we cannot add to God’s holiness. But we can add to the number of those who know and honor his holiness and who also worship him. Israel would come to worship and obey God with a sense of awe and reverence when he turns everything upside down (see Isaiah 29:17).
So how do we revere or honor God’s name? We honor God’s name by our words, our worship, and our witness. We also honor God’s name when we honor what God honors and, of course, that is humankind.
Now, God’s love for Israel in his settlement and resettlement (reformation) were only shadows of God’s act of mercy ultimately accomplished through the word of Christ on that cross. Paul wrote, “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). We come to Christ admitting that we depend on his generous gift of salvation (Ephesians 2:8,9) and the “rest” in our eternal home that is to follow (Hebrews 4).
Today’s scripture passage offers hope to all those who feel distanced from God despite any robust spiritual heritage. In every generation, churches are filled with those who have devoted themselves fully to God. Yet at the same time these churches are also filled with those who attend out of habit or a sense of duty. Outsiders may consider this latter group to be highly religious. However, the true spiritual state of this latter group is not unknown to God. He feels the coldness of their worship. He sees the plans they made without consulting him in prayer or study of scripture. And the careless ways these congregants treat their neighbor are not hidden from God.
Critically important! The way back now is the same as it was in Isaiah’s day.
First, we need to live mindful of the reality that God judges each person justly. God sees our true spiritual condition, even if we don’t allow ourselves the same insight.
Second, we need to repent of our sins.
Third, we need to realize that God the Father, through the completed works of Jesus Christ and the present indwelling of his Holy Spirit, is able and willing to free us so we can love him with the entireties of our hearts, souls, and abilities (Matthew 22:37).
Fourth, we need to decide if we are willing to allow God to renew us.
As Bishop Mike Watson used to put it, “Dear God, let it be!”
Resources for this lesson
- What self-tests can you conduct to ensure that your heart matches what you say about God?
- What can you do to protect yourself from spiritual blindness and deafness?
- What can and should you include in your prayers that will correctly acknowledge God’s positions relative to yours?
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (halbradyministries.com).
- “2020-2021 Standard Lesson Commentary, Uniform Series, International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching,” pages 305-312.
- “The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume VI” pages 243-249.
- “Interpretation a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Isaiah 1-39” by Christopher R. Seitz, pages 212-215.
- “A Popular Survey of the Old Testament,” by Norman L. Geisler, pages 245-246.