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Isaiah 48-53: The Great Redeemer: Chapter 5: Unrighteous Worship

Isaiah 48:1, 2 begins,

1 “Hear this, O house of Jacob, who are named Israel and who came forth from the loins [mayim, “waters”] of Judah, who swear by the name of the Lord and invoke the God of Israel, but not in truth nor in righteousness. 2 For they call [qara, “name”] themselves after the holy city and lean on the God of Israel; the Lord of hosts [Yahweh Sabaoth] is His name.”

The prophet addressed his word to Israel and Judah. His terminology is interesting, because together they were the “house of Jacob,” whose name means “deceiver, supplanter, usurper.” Prophetically speaking, they were not living up to the name Israel (“God rules”), nor even Judah (“Praise”).

Although these nations were distinct and separate, they were united in sin and rebellion against God. For this reason, both were destined for captivity. Yet the prophet foresees the future when Israel and Judah would be reunited as one nation under the Messiah.

Unrighteous Believers

It should be noted that they “invoke the God of Israel;” that is, they swear by Him, “but not in truth nor in righteousness.” No doubt they saw themselves as righteous and most did not believe that they were actually worshiping idols. So also we read God’s accusation in Jer. 2:23 directed at Judah,

23 “How can you say, ‘I am not defiled, I have not gone after the Baals’? Look at your way in the valley! Know what you have done!...”

Again, in Jer. 2:35 God said to Judah,

35 “Yet you said, ‘I am innocent; surely His anger is turned away from me.’ Behold, I will enter into judgment with you because you say, ‘I have not sinned’.”

The problem then is the same problem today—inadvertent idolatry. Many invoke the name of Yahweh, the God of Israel and Judah, and yet they continue in sin. They sin because the law is not written on their hearts. The law is not written on their hearts because they do not know the law, nor is it a revelation to them.

Hence, when they say, “I have not sinned,” it is evident that they do not know the law, because, as Paul says, “through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). Further, Paul says in Rom. 7:7, “I would not have come to know sin except through the law; for I would not have known about coveting if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’.”

John concurs, giving us the proper definition of sin, in 1 John 3:4, “sin is lawlessness.”

Those who do not know the law are sure to fall into sin many times. They cannot rely on their cultural views about right and wrong, for every culture is flawed. Some think they can just rely on the Holy Spirit—and theoretically, this could work—but that view normally comes out of a heart of lawlessness. Relying on the Holy Spirit is good, but too many use it as an excuse to reject the law and thereby become lawless. The Holy Spirit does not lead anyone into sin.

Changes in the Law

Under the New Covenant, the Holy Spirit writes the law on our hearts (Heb. 8:10). It is a contradiction for a man to reject the law and still expect the Holy Spirit to write it on his heart. There were many changes in the law (Heb. 7:12), defined more fully in the book of Hebrews. Yet these were changes only in form, such as a change of priesthood from Levi to Melchizedek, from animal sacrifices to the perfect Sacrifice of the Lamb of God, from the earthly Jerusalem to the heavenly, and from the old land of Canaan to the “better country” which Abraham sought (Heb. 11:16).

No change came to the moral law that defined right from wrong. It is just as wrong today to steal, murder, or commit adultery as it was before Jesus died on the cross. And yet many cast aside the entire law, thinking that they may do what the law forbids as long as they are “led by the Spirit.” This is a great deception, which Paul addresses when he asks, “Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” (Rom. 6:1).

Traditions of men are men’s ideas and understanding of the law—not the law itself. If our understanding is not rooted in the Holy Spirit’s revelation of the law, we will certainly fall short at some point. This has been a problem from the beginning and continued in the days of Isaiah and Jeremiah. Hence, the prophets accused Israel and Judah of sin, while the people denied the charges, saying, “I have not sinnedI am innocent.”

So who was right in this dispute? 1 John 1:10 says,

10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.

Dealing with Guilt

Guilt is an inner force that is destructive, for we instinctively know that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Hence, guilt causes us to be self-destructive, because we believe in our hearts that we deserve to die. But no one must wallow in guilt after applying the blood of Jesus to the altar of his heart. The penalty has been paid in full. The New Covenant faith that was seen in Abraham is in us as well and causes God to impute righteousness to us. Rom. 4:20-24 says,

20 yet, with respect to the promise of God, he [Abraham] did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, 21 and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform. 22 Therefore it was also credited to him as righteousness. 23 Now not for his sake alone was it written that it was credited to him, 24 but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.

I have noticed that many who cast aside the law are attempting to relieve inner guilt which they think is caused by the law. They think that if they study the law, it will only increase this guilt. This would be true for those who retain an Old Covenant mindset, where the law makes demands of perfection that the “old man” cannot possibly fulfill. But the New Covenant reverses this and puts the responsibility upon God to cause us to fulfill the law. Our faith is in His ability to bring us to perfection, not upon our own will and self-discipline.

There is a lawful and an unlawful way to deal with guilt. The lawful way is to rely upon God to fulfill His promise in us. The unlawful way is to cast aside the law in hopes of exempting oneself from its jurisdiction. The irony is that the law defines the very nature of God that such people hope to attain apart from the revelation of the law.

It appears that such lawlessness was as much a problem in the days of Isaiah and Jeremiah as it is today. Men do not know how to deal with guilt in the lawful way that God has provided through the New Covenant.

In Isaiah 48:1 the prophet puts his finger upon the root problem of Israel and Judah—and, by extension, the problem of the entire world. While they invoke the name of the true God, they do not really know Him. They invoke His name and yet run from the law as if this can avoid guilt. They need a revelation of the law and the New Covenant.

Contrasting Natures of God and Men

God then identifies Himself further, as Isaiah 48:3 continues,

3 “I declared the former things long ago and they went forth from My mouth, and I proclaimed them. Suddenly I acted, and they came to pass.”

The Lord of hosts has declared things from the beginning, and everything came to pass as He said. Such is the God of Truth, which stands in utter contrast to those who invoke the name of God “but not in truth.” The Holy Spirit is “the Spirit of Truth” (John 16:13), and those who are led by the Spirit are guided into all truth. If truth is not transmitted, there is something wrong, for truth is one of the main evidences of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives.

When the Holy Spirit is poured out in the great end-time move of God, I believe that truth will be poured out upon the people. Most are looking for miracles of healing—which will also be seen—but healing, I believe, will be secondary to the outpouring of truth. Healing changes one’s body and perhaps one’s mind, but truth alone will change the course of history.

God continues in Isaiah 48:4, 5,

4 “Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead bronze, 5 therefore I declared them to you long ago, before they took place I proclaimed them to you, so that you would not say, ‘My idol has done them, and my graven image and my molten image have commanded them’.”

In Hebrew metaphoric language, a stiff neck means a man refuses to bow or submit to the sovereign God. He thinks his own opinions and traditions of men are truth. He thinks God should bow to man’s understanding whenever there is disagreement. The clay tells the Potter what to do. “God, here is what I want, and here is how you should run the universe.”

Idols are not just molten images. Ezekiel 14:3 reveals that men have idols in their heart, which are men’s strong beliefs and understandings that remain unsubmitted to the mind of God. Men think they worship God, while actually worshipping their understanding of who God is.

But God tells them in Isaiah 48:6-8,

6 “You have heard; look at all this. And you, will you not declare it? I proclaim to you new things from this time, even hidden things which you have not known. 7 They are created now and not long ago; and before today you have not heard them, so that you will not say, ‘Behold, I knew them.’ 8 You have not heard, you have not known. Even from long ago your ear has not been open, because I knew that you would deal very treacherously; and you have been called a rebel from birth.”

Here God tells the people that He is now proclaiming “new things” and “hidden things which you have not known.” This sets the stage for the next few chapters that reveal the salvation of the Messiah through the New Covenant promises of God. This plan of salvation has been revealed from the beginning, but the ears of the people had not been open to understand what they were hearing.

Both Israel and Judah (and the entire world) have dealt “treacherously” because they have been rebels from birth. The treacherous old man of flesh has been with us since birth. But when God opens the ears of the people to hear the “new things,” they will know the God of Israel in ways they never knew before.

This new revelation reveals the hidden truth of the Messiah and His New Covenant work. While most of the people would not understand the word of the prophet, either in Isaiah’s day or in the days of the Messiah’s coming, the prophecy is set forth in clear terms in the next few chapters.

God’s judgment upon Israel gave Babylon power for a season. God used Babylon to test and refine Israel, which is the overall purpose of divine judgment. To refine is to remove “dross” (Isaiah 1:25) and “chaff” (Matt. 3:12).

The Promise Keeper

Isaiah 48: 9 says,

9 “For the sake of My name I delay [arak, “extend, make long”] My wrath [aph, “nose”], and for My praise [tehilla, “song of praise”] I restrain [chatam, “muzzle”] you, in order not to cut you off [karath, “cut, cut off, or make a covenant”].

When God acts “for the sake of My name,” it is to keep his promises. When God makes a promise, His “name” (i.e., reputation) is at stake. If He were unable to keep His promises for any reason, it would be a disaster for the universe, for God would either prove Himself to be incapable or foolish. Either way, God would prove to be less than sovereign.

The Hebrew way of saying, “delay My wrath,” is literally to “extend My nose.” An angry man was pictured as having flared nostrils. Likewise, patience (or long-suffering) is written as having a long nose. The Hebrew metaphor indicates that because God has promised to save us (Israel and ultimately the world as a whole) through the New Covenant, He delays judgment.

We see this in the century-long delay of judgment upon Jerusalem after the 185,000 Assyrian troops were destroyed. The judgment was delayed until the great regime change when Babylon conquered Assyria. Hence, the prophet seems to ignore Assyria entirely. He focuses upon the next empire, Babylon, as if it were the dominant power in His day.

God Muzzles Israel

The prophet also says, “I restrain you in order not to cut you off.” The Hebrew word again suggests a double meaning just under the surface. The word chatam means “a muzzle,” which was used to restrain animals so they do not bite or do something that would require the owner to cut them with a whip. God too restrains us in many ways for our own good.

The word karath, “to cut or to cut off,” is also the word used to make a covenant. So we read in Gen. 15:18, “On that day the Lord made [karath, “cut”] a covenant with Abram.” The covenant was described earlier in Gen. 15:9 and 10, where Abram took animals and “cut them in two.”

In Isaiah 48:9, however, the word karath is used to tell Israel that God would not cut them off. Instead, He was keeping His covenant that He “cut” with Abram for His name’s sake.

God Refines Israel

Isaiah 48:10 continues,

10 Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.

The purpose of refining metal is not to destroy the metal but to remove the impurities. Hence, the metaphor for divine judgment is to apply “fire and brimstone” (Rev. 21:8)—not to destroy those who are being judged, but to purify them so that they can be saved. The Greek word for brimstone (i.e., sulfur) is theion, divine “incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev. 5:8). The word is derived from Theos, “God.” In other words, it is God’s way of purifying people to “burn” them as incense, so that they are induced to pray for deliverance.

Such fire and brimstone is “the second death,” John says in Rev. 21:8. The first death is mortality, which we received from Adam’s sin. The second death is its antidote, dying to self, being crucified with Christ, so that we may also live (Rom. 6:6). The basic principle is found in a literal rendering of Rom. 6:7, “for he who died has been justified from sin” (The Emphatic Diaglott). Hence, the first death is the problem; the second death is the solution.

All Glory Goes to God

Isaiah 48:11 says,

11 For My own sake, for My own sake, I will act; for how can My name be profaned? And My glory I will not give to another.”

If the fire of God were to destroy Israel, then the promises of God would fail, not only to Israel but to “all the families of the earth” who were to be blessed by the seed of Abraham (Gen. 12:3). For this reason, God says, “I will act,” that is, “I will take action.” God cannot simply destroy them for their sin while blaming men for what they have done by their own “free will.” No, if men’s “free will” had been able to thwart the promises of God, thereby profaning His name, then He should never have made promises that He could not keep.

But thankfully, we have a sovereign God who had the wisdom to draw up a plan that would succeed and bring Him total victory. Creation will indeed fulfill its purpose. He will receive a well-deserved song of praise (tehilla).

And because He has done this by His own power, wisdom, and love, His glory will not go to someone else. The devil will not win. The devil will not succeed in obtaining 98 percent of humanity, as many have been told. In the end, there will be no songs that praise the devil for his great power and glory.