Icarus and Israel

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 22.12-13
12 The Lord, the LORD Almighty,
    called you on that day
to weep and to wail,
    to tear out your hair and put on sackcloth.
13 But see, there is joy and revelry,
    slaughtering of cattle and killing of sheep,
    eating of meat and drinking of wine!
“Let us eat and drink,” you say,
    “for tomorrow we die!”

Reflection: Icarus and Israel
By Erin Newton

Icarus was a boy in Greek mythology whose father crafted for him waxen wings. He warned the boy not to fly too close to the sun or too low toward the sea. Icarus was careless and prideful and flew too close. His wings melted under the sun’s rays sending the boy to his death. Even today, people are warned, “Don’t fly too close to the sun!”

The prophet Isaiah turns his attention to Jerusalem again. It is another forecast of judgment upon Israel. The scene breaks with a vision of the people on the rooftops eating, drinking, and being merry.

They are celebrating when they should be lamenting. God commanded his people to repent and show their sorrow. Instead, the people are filled with pride, self-assuredness, and the sense that they are invincible.

Self-sufficiency blinds them from danger. The walls they have built, the weapons they have forged, the armies they have built up give them a sense of security even when God has promised destruction.

In the Valley of Vision, the people are blind. Instead of being alert, looking for God to act, they are drunk on their own power.

Like the Greek tragedy of Icarus, Israel carelessly journeyed outside the parameters set by God. What happens when we are so sure of ourselves, so self-sufficient that we scoff at warnings?

On a large scale, we operate with the attitude that all our ventures will not fail. We have made ourselves a firm foundation built upon our hard work. We rarely need to ask for help and think of ourselves as never wrong. The pains of the world around us are simply beyond the scope of our concern.

On a personal level, we trust in our own goodness. We have lived a Christian life for so long that our good deeds have certainly outnumbered our bad deeds by now… or so we hope. We have a tidy list of Christian chores to do each day that builds our sense of self-sufficiency. We lean heavily into our own understanding and trust in ourselves.

We like to think we aren’t so foolish as to ignore the call to repentance. When we hear about abuse, violence, slander, or intimidation done under the name of Christ, we are forced to react. Do we shrug it off thinking, “I could never commit that sin,” or do we respond with heartfelt grief and sorrow?

Divine Hours Prayer: The Morning Psalm
But let the righteous be glad and rejoice before God; let them be merry and joyful.
Sing to God, sing praises to his Name; exalt him who rides upon the heavens; Yahweh is his Name, rejoice before him!
Father of orphans, defender of widows, God in his holy habitation! — Psalm 68.3-5

Today’s Readings
Isaiah 22 (Listen -3:53)
Luke 4 (Listen -5:27)

Read more about A Sword Unsheathed
The watchmen called out warnings but no one listened…The fire alarms went off but no one fought the fire.

Read more about The Limits of Ministry
God requires watchmen on the wall to faithfully call out warning but holds people responsible for their response.

Be on Lookout

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 21.6-7
6 This is what the Lord says to me:
“Go, post a lookout
    and have him report what he sees.
7 When he sees chariots
    with teams of horses,
riders on donkeys
    or riders on camels,
let him be alert,
    fully alert.”

Reflection: Be on Lookout
By Erin Newton

Ancient cities that stood a chance against an invasion were those with walls and towers. The walls were built to provide protection and watchtowers were a means of looking beyond the immediate landscape. Those on a tower could signal for help, much like the beacons of Minas Tirith in The Lord of the Rings.

Isaiah’s prophecy continues to describe impending disaster. The vision of judgment returns to Babylon though she had been the center of prophecy earlier. This time, God commands Isaiah to send someone to the watchtower to wait for a sign. The lookout was to stay alert, fully alert.

What was the lookout expecting to see? Signs of chariots and horses, people coming from distant lands. The fall of Babylon had been prophesied and they awaited the confirmation, “Babylon has fallen!”

Isaiah preached to his defeated brethren. Exile awaited them. Israel longed to see the fulfillment of the prophecies against their enemies. Yet, the person on the tower was not directing armies. They had to sit by and wait.

What does it mean to be fully alert? In this instance, it is not a call to arms. It means an attentiveness to what is going on around them. It means watching for God to work. To be alert is to be undistracted by the world.

The New Testament continues this call to be alert. Jesus told his disciples to watch and pray in Gethsemane. Peter failed to stay alert but was more than eager to defend Jesus when Judas betrayed him.

Some Christians with a vigilante spirit confuse the call to alertness with a call to arms or a declaration of war. The New Testament is not calling us to be ready to defend our Savior with a sword.

However, there is the call to stay alert for the return of Christ. But those who are alert will be dressed in battle gear unlike any military uniform. “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet” (1 Thessalonians 5.8).

Most often, alertness is linked to prayer. It is the same command from God to Isaiah and Jesus to his disciples. Watch and pray. Perhaps it would serve the Great Commission more if we understood our position on the watchtower as an attentive messenger and not a zealous militia.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Love the Lord, all you who worship him; the Lord protects the faithful, but repays to the full those who act haughtily. — Psalm 31.23

Today’s Readings

Isaiah 21 (Listen -2:32)
Luke 3 (Listen -5:24)

Read more about The Sword Versus The Cross
They might wave a “Jesus” flag, but they want to be saved by less demanding things. Many want to be saved by the sword.

Read more about Of Pride and The Sword
In scripture the sword is not inanimate. The sword is hungry, with an appetite to devour individuals, races, nations, kings, and empires.

The Empire Has No Clothes

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 20.1-6
1 In the year that the supreme commander, sent by Sargon king of Assyria, came to Ashdod and attacked and captured it—2 at that time the Lord spoke through Isaiah son of Amoz. He said to him, “Take off the sackcloth from your body and the sandals from your feet.” And he did so, going around stripped and barefoot. 
3 Then the Lord said, “Just as my servant Isaiah has gone stripped and barefoot for three years, as a sign and portent against Egypt and Cush, 4 so the king of Assyria will lead away stripped and barefoot the Egyptian captives and Cushite exiles, young and old, with buttocks bared—to Egypt’s shame. 5 Those who trusted in Cush and boasted in Egypt will be dismayed and put to shame. 6 In that day the people who live on this coast will say, ‘See what has happened to those we relied on, those we fled to for help and deliverance from the king of Assyria! How then can we escape?’ ” 

Image Note: Image is from a 19th century photograph of a statue of Emperor Caligula.

Reflection: The Empire Has No Clothes
By John Tillman

What is Isaiah up to, going naked for three years?

Isaiah isn’t some kooky outsider among the prophets. He is the most intellectually, politically, and relationally elite prophet in Israel or Judah’s history. His writing, had he been British, would be equated with Milton or Shakespeare. Had he been Spanish, Miguel de Cervantes. Had he been American, Ralph Waldo Emerson or Maya Angelou. He was a literary giant.

Isaiah was also accustomed to the company of kings and the halls of power. This isn’t some stunt by an influencer trying to get attention. Isaiah isn’t an edgy comedian or an out-of-town hippie. He’s not a reality television show contestant striving for ratings. To us, this would be like a stodgy, erudite, professor/pastor/poet/statesman suddenly pulling off his bowtie and cardigan…and everything else.

Isaiah’s nakedness mimicked the way captives from Cush and Egypt would be treated by Assyria. They would not only be marched into exile, but would do so naked, with bare buttocks and bare feet. The bare feet would be physically punishing. The bare buttocks would be emotionally punishing.

Why would Isaiah portray Egypt’s suffering so graphically?

Judah was seeking protection from powerful political allies. Rather than rely on God, they leaned on Egypt. Like the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, Isaiah confronted people with the truth, “The empire has no clothes!” Isaiah’s constant nakedness would not let Judah escape the image of shamed and conquered Egypt. The sight of their political allies being publically humiliated struck fear in their hearts. “See what has happened to those we relied on…how can we escape?” 

It is not uncommon for groups, including the church, to lean on “strongmen” who promise protection. Political strongmen can be individuals, small local groups, or national political machines. They say: “Only I can defend you.” “Without me, you’ll lose everything.” “Look what I can do for you.”

We would do well to recognize that these are the same promises made to Christ in the wilderness. “All this I will give you if you bow down.” Every time God’s people or his church have bargained with power for protection, it has ended in shame.

We don’t need more naked emperors trying to clothe us. If anything, we might need to be willing to be stripped and shamed, to remind others that the emperors they trust have no clothes.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Morning Psalm
Lord, how great are your works! Your thoughts are very deep.
The dullard does not know, nor does the fool understand, that though the wicked grow like weeds, and all the workers of iniquity flourish, they flourish only to be destroyed forever; but you, O Lord, are exalted forevermore. — Psalm 92.5-7

Today’s Readings

Isaiah 19-20 (Listen -4:49)
Luke 2 (Listen -6:11)

Read more about Naked Humility, Unexpected Salvation
May we practice naked humility, humbling ourselves before we are humbled and stripping away pride before it is stripped away.

Read more about No Princes
The princes of this land cannot save us, nor do they intend to.
Their fine bracelets are shackles.

Banners, Trumpets, Repentance

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 18.2b-3
2 … Go, swift messengers,
to a people tall and smooth-skinned,
to a people feared far and wide,
an aggressive nation of strange speech,
whose land is divided by rivers.
3 All you people of the world,
you who live on the earth,
when a banner is raised on the mountains,
you will see it,
and when a trumpet sounds,
you will hear it. 

Luke 1.76-79
76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; 
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, 
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation 
through the forgiveness of their sins, 
78 because of the tender mercy of our God, 
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven 
79 to shine on those living in darkness 
and in the shadow of death, 
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

Reflection: Banners, Trumpets, Repentance
By John Tillman

All nations will see God’s banner.
All people will hear God’s trumpet.

To us, a banner might seem festive. A trumpet might play a melody or a song. This is not Isaiah’s meaning. The “banner” is not about celebration but confrontation. It is a military symbol, a standard that would be borne into battle or before a king’s processional. It announces a conquering army, not a celebrative party. 

The trumpet denotes not the melodies of a tune but the movements of war. Trumpets of war signal attack. Trumpets preceded the tumbling of Jericho’s walls and Gideon’s triumph over the Midianites. Trumpets also signal coronations. Trumpets announce the enthronement of a new ultimate authority. The trumpet and banner mean that a battle has been won, a coronation is occurring, and a new king and his kingdom are being announced.

Zechariah saw in his son, John, a proclaimer of God’s coming kingdom. John’s banner had one word and his trumpet one note, “repent.” Whether kings, soldiers, tax collectors, or regular citizens, John told the powerful to stop abusing their power. (Luke 3.10-14) Ultimate power was coming and all would be called to submit to him—even John himself.

Isaiah saw victory in the future, and all people streaming to worship under the banner of God, the king of kings. People who were feared would peacefully worship God. People who were aggressive and violent would bring gifts to God’s temple. People of strange, intimidating speech would open their mouths in worship.

Before Christ conquers the world, we must allow him to conquer our hearts. May our walls crumble at his trumpet. May our kingdoms fall under his banner. May our aggression be turned to compassion and our violent speech to virtuous worship.

This is what we work towards. This coming kingdom that John announced, we still announce. Sometimes we do so with abounding hope. Other times, like John languishing in prison or Isaiah, disturbed by his visions, we may despair, wondering how far off this kingdom truly is. But even in doubt, Christ points us to his finished work. (Matthew 11.4-6) To John, he pointed out healings and signs but Jesus points us to his cross and the empty tomb.

May we, like John, point the powerful toward repentance.
May we lower our flags of allegiance under his banner of love.
May we declare the ultimate victory of Jesus, freeing all people from the kingdoms of sin and darkness.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Deliverance belongs to the Lord. Your blessing be upon your people! — Psalm 3.8

Today’s Readings
Isaiah 17-18 (Listen -3:44)
Luke 1,39-80 (Listen -9:26)

Read more about No Such Thing as God Forsaken
May we resist the urge to apply judgmental texts to others before we have humbly examined our own hearts.

Read more about Jesus with Axe and Fire
May we ask him regularly to cut down our idols. May he burn out of our souls impurity and selfish desires.

Taunting Ourselves

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 14.3, 26-27
3 On the day the Lord gives you relief from your suffering and turmoil and from the harsh labor forced on you, 4 you will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon: 
How the oppressor has come to an end! 
How his fury has ended! 

26 This is the plan determined for the whole world; 
this is the hand stretched out over all nations. 
27 For the Lord Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? 
His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back? 

Reflection: Taunting Ourselves
By John Tillman

God promises those who suffer under oppression that one day he will turn the tables and they will taunt those who harmed them.

Isaiah’s taunts target specific oppressors such as Babylon, Assyria, and the Philistines. God expands these taunts to include the whole world—any nation who takes up the spirit of Babylon. There are still nations of this kind today and some of us may live in them. We should be careful not to take up Isaiah’s taunts too quickly—we may end up taunting ourselves.

Babylon considered itself the ultimate pinnacle of human achievement. They felt they deserved to wield ultimate power because of their ultimate enlightenment. They considered themselves the light of the world and a provider of peace. Babylonian exceptionalism was part of their core belief system.

Babylon’s utopian self-concept was a lie. Their definition of peace was murdering anyone who resited them. Their definition of achievement was enslaving the smartest people from other nations and re-educating them to serve the empire. Their definition of light was snuffing out the gods of other nations and absorbing them.

Babylon, in the Bible, is both a literal kingdom and a figurative representation of all human opposition to God. When God says, “I will wipe out Babylon’s name and survivors, her offspring and descendants,” he isn’t speaking literally of human offspring. He is speaking of nations who would follow the spirit of Babylon—those who succeed her, ascend her throne, and continue her prideful destruction of the weak. 

Babylon’s highest value is ultimate autonomy and unrestricted freedom—at least for the very, very powerful. Many pursue ultimate autonomy today as well. The dirty little secret of ultimate autonomy is that it only exists for those willing to take it by force or those privileged enough to have it handed to them.

The spirit of Babylon is not only adopted by nations or people groups. It is often adopted by individuals. Has any part of our heart been taken over by the spirit of Babylon?

Babylon disdains God’s demands for righteousness and justice.
Babylon rejects God’s definitions of sin and holiness.
Babylon honors the brutal and brutalizes the gentle.
Babylon protects the powerful rather than the weak. 
Babylon uses freedom to harm others.

One day we will taunt Babylon, but first we must come out from among her. Let us root out Babylon’s influences in our own lives and hearts.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
God is a righteous judge; God sits in judgment every day. — Psalm 7.12

Today’s Readings
Isaiah 14 (Listen -5:04)
Matthew 27 (Listen -8:45) 

This Weekend’s Readings
Isaiah 15 (Listen -1:34)Matthew 28 (Listen -2:39)
Isaiah 16 (Listen -2:32)Luke 1,1-38 (Listen -9:26)

Read more about Prepare for the End
Christians, just like the nation of Israel, can become complacent about the coming of judgment.

Read more about The Fall of a Superpower
When we read the oracles against other nations, it is easy to distance ourselves from them.