Have you ever had to draw a boundary with someone you love that was excruciatingly difficult? The kind where you feel you have been cornered at last – and you have no other option but to cut them off somehow? The kind where their choices and/or behavior have tied your hands so that you are no longer able to reach to them, help them or have relationship any more? It’s a difficult place to find oneself. I think we sometimes live in denial that it is a real place because it is so painful to have to arrive there. But the Bible is full of stories of this kind of extreme breaking of relationship. Isaiah chapter one describes the raw emotion of just such a scenario.
Before we explore Isaiah, however, let’s consider other examples of extreme boundary-setting in the Bible. Our readings recently in Deuteronomy, for example show a great approach to initiating relationship with boundaries. They show the graciousness of God in setting out the boundaries ahead of time with His people, His new nation – as they were growing and forming into community. Blessings for obedience. Curses for disobedience. Both “for their good always.” Deut.6:24 He laid the choices all out there – from the start. Sadly, we know the end of the story. Isaiah is just one example of their consistent idolatry, sin and choice of cursing.
Other faithful individuals with similar encounters of excruciatingly painful cutting-off include:
- Noah with his friends and family who did not come on the ark
- Jacob with Laban
- Joseph with his brothers
- David with Absalom
- Esther with Haman
- Jesus with the rulers & Pharisees
- The Church with the brother living with his father’s wife (1 Corinthians 5)
- Paul with Hymenaeus & Alexander (1 Timothy 1:20)
I imagine, if we put our heads together, we could add many, many more similarly difficult relationship decisions found in the Bible.
You might be asking yourself why is it important to highlight this issue? The simple answer would be that the Bible itself highlights it – often. A more complex answer involves the idea of God, espoused by many, who think Him capricious, vindictive and vengeful because they do not (or choose not to) see the whole picture portrayed in the Scriptures. They isolate stories of judgment and are guilty of judging God Himself. They do this by taking the perceived severity of punishment out of the whole context of how God is working with people. They forget that breaking relationship was initiated by man (Adam) – not God. He is a God of love who, ever since sin entered the world, is in the business of trying to redeem and restore. Perhaps looking at this Isaiah case study will help reinforce this concept in our minds.
So what are the kinds of emotions involved in this type of breaking of relationship? Isaiah 1 outlines God’s emotions in great detail. I will follow through the chapter here, picking out words and descriptions. God feels like a parent with a completely rebellious and uncontrollable child. He feels abandoned, despised, rejected. He feels anguish at having to witness their downfall. He has no pleasure in His “family” anymore. Their behavior is an abomination to Him. Their rote, legalistic going-through-the-motions of relationship are worthless and empty – from His point of view. This ritualistic love they show is more painful than them just going away. He cannot endure them any longer. He hates their hypocrisy. He has been burdened and wearied by them to the point of no return. He has tried to reason with them so many times, but to no avail. He feels like hiding from them. He feels like not listening to them anymore. It’s almost like He is expressing that He would do almost anything to get away from the overwhelming sense of frustration and despair over their foolishness that presses on Him. These are not capricious or unfeeling emotions.
He sees that His people are “weighed down” in sin. 2 Timothy uses this same phrase and elaborates on the meaning. They are “weak,” easily “captivated,” led by “impulsiveness,” “always learning but never able to truly know truth.” 2 Timothy 3:6 Their “whole head (leadership/men, thinking?) is sick.” And the whole heart (women, emotions?) is faint. v.5 “The whole body (the entire nation?)” is riddled with pain, infection and disease. They are dying without remedy. Even the land suffers! They are vulnerable. They are besieged by their enemies. Yet, In spite of their terrible state, they still refuse to be counseled, to change, to make different, better choices that would lead to different, better outcomes. The word “Alas!” sums up well the anguish of painful emotions that characterize this helpless feeling of watching a person (or group of people) throw away the blessings of life with their own hands. I can deeply relate to all of God’s emotions and descriptions in my own frustrated and imperfect dealings with recalcitrant people, can’t you?
His people have taken their sin, and betrayal of His principles to such extremes that, against God’s compassionate inclinations, He is forced to take action. In their best interest He will send vengeance, discipline, punishment upon them. Not to extinguish them – but to force them to make a choice….Be refined, repentant, restored and redeemed OR be left to be crushed under the consequences of your own choices. Crushed meaning- to come to a bitter end – dying as a “tree without leaves,” or “as a garden without water,” or as a fire of your own making “with none to quench it.” v.30-31
And in this chapter, God calls them Sodom and Gomorrah, over and over. Like those ancient cities, their sin had taken them to nearly irretrievable depths – if they don’t act quickly. The sins of Sodom outlined in Ezekiel look like this:
Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.
These are still things that plague humans – right down to modern Western society. Pride, wealth and idleness filled with modern idols, are just as lethal as those of Sodom or Isaiah’s day.
Perhaps this passage is why Jesus, too, picks up the imagery of Sodom to condemn those of his own day who rejected him and his teachings:
Then He began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent…”And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to the grave; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.” At that time Jesus said, “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight.”
Isaiah and the Jesus sing the same chorus as if to say: “Wake up, people! You are sick with a fatal disease called sin. It’s blinding you, weighing you down and stealing your life away. You suffer, your nation suffers, your land suffers. Wake up! Isaiah’s message includes 39 chapters along this same theme. But it concludes with an additional 27 chapters that outline the Messianic hope. A hope God meant to motivate and help the process of repentance. Jesus/Messiah will come and conquer sin. He will come and restore the earth. He will regenerate and populate it with faithful people who have been redeemed and counted righteous because of obedience to the God of Israel. Wake up! Take heed! Your redemption is drawing near!”
And thus starts this amazing vision/prophecy/message of Isaiah which means “Jehovah has saved.” His name is in the future tense! It is a done deal. It IS going to happen. The question is, “Did they want to be a part of it?” And that same question remains, “Do we want to be a part of it?” It is the consistent resounding question through all the uncomfortable meetings between sinful men and the righteous God in the Old Testament. It is the identical message spoken by the Lord Jesus.
The message is just as relevant today as it was on the day Isaiah wrote it down. Be redeemed from sin by the longsuffering God who has saved those who want to be saved through His great love as evidenced in His son! It is a choice we each have both the responsibility and the consequences for making.