The Fall of a Superpower

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 13.6-8
6 Wail, for the day of the Lord is near;
    it will come like destruction from the Almighty.
7 Because of this, all hands will go limp,
    every heart will melt with fear.
8 Terror will seize them,
    pain and anguish will grip them;
    they will writhe like a woman in labor.
They will look aghast at each other,
    their faces aflame.

Reflection: The Fall of a Superpower
By Erin Newton

Babylon is one of those places you read about all the time in the Old Testament. It served as the locus for much of the ancient Mesopotamian world during the first and second millennia BCE. Because this important city was part of the empires which dominated Israel, “Babylon” was often used as a token word for all enemies of God.

Isaiah 13 opens a series of “Oracles against the Nations” which describe the coming judgment on the superpowers of the ancient world. Unsurprisingly, Babylon is listed first as it was the dominating nation during Isaiah’s prophetic ministry.

The imagery provides a vision of God’s coming judgment as an army marching upon the enemy. The language speaks more of the emotional response than the specific tactics. Babylon will be gripped with fear and terror. Pain and anguish will come upon this powerful nation. Babylon will be like a woman in labor. She will be unable to flee, caught between painful contractions and escalating agony. The people will look at one another perhaps as a plea for help, only to be met with the same look of fear in their neighbor’s face.

When we read the oracles against other nations, it is easy to distance ourselves from them. We are often tempted to identify with God’s chosen people, the favored character of the story. At times, this is beneficial. It can be a source of hope when the powers in our lives seek to destroy us.  

There is also the need to read these oracles and understand why Babylon was listed as an enemy. Babylon embraced idolatry and morality that was contrary to the law of God. While we often avoid reading ourselves into these texts, it’s important to realize we share in the same sinful nature and are at risk of adopting the practices of the world.  

Thankfully, we are reconciled to God through Christ and need not fear being the enemy of God. We know that we are secure from his wrath because Jesus has endured our judgment. These prophetic passages are a means of examining our lives, ensuring we do not follow the way of Babylon.

It also heralds the supremacy and sovereignty of God throughout the whole world. We are confident that God will judge the powers that seek to destroy our lives. “No power of hell, no scheme of man can ever pluck me from his hand.”

Music: “In Christ Alone” by Stuart Townend.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you; let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me. Let none who look to you be put to shame. — Psalm 25.1-2

Today’s Readings
Isaiah 13 (Listen -3:11)
Matthew 25 (Listen -10:01)

Read more about How to Read Prophetic Judgment
The best way to read prophecy is to imagine yourself not as the speaker, but as the spoken to.

Read more about Default Settings for Scripture
The “default settings” of our mindsets about scripture have a big effect on our ability to make use of them

A King Unlike Any Other

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 11.3b-4a
3 … He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;
4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.

Reflection: A King Unlike Any Other
By Erin Newton

Here in Texas, we love drought-resistant plants like lantana. Each winter, however, one must cut it down to the ground. All winter the tiny stump endures the harsh cold. By the look of it, this plant is dead. But without fail, each spring the tiniest of green leaves emerge. Within weeks, it returns to its former glory, full of flowers.

Isaiah prophesied about the coming destruction of Jerusalem. The city and the people were to be cut to the ground. The entire Davidic family tree would be felled by the invasion of the Assyrians and Babylonians. All that would remain of Israel was a stump. A signal of the end of growth. Not the uprooting of a weed that is tossed away and forgotten. A mournful sign for all to see.

Despite this dreadful warning of judgment, the prophet turns to deliver a message of hope. Growing out of death would be a sprig of life. From a stump would be a sprout of hope. But this new growth was different from the stump. Although the roots were the same, identified as the same type of tree, this shoot would bear fruit and reverse the world order.

The offshoot would function in a judicial way, the key role of an Israelite king. But the prophet points out this king would be unlike former kings. The Spirit of the Lord would rest upon him much like it did for David and Solomon, but the result would be a perfect system of justice. This king would not be swayed by popular opinion or persuasive orators.

In righteousness he would judge. The powerful would become weak. The lowly would be raised up in dignity. Isaiah describes the reversal of the animal kingdom too. The adversarial role of predator and prey is demolished. Like calves eating peacefully with cubs, so will all humanity embrace peace and equality.

This is the work of the Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace. Unlike Israel, waiting for the Spirit of God to return in salvation, we know that this prophecy of hope was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

This chapter and the song of praise that follows are opportunities for us to meditate on the drastic difference between Jesus and any leader we have ever known. Even with the Spirit upon the ancient kings, none could compare with Christ. Let us remember this as leaders today vie for our devotion.

Divine Hours Prayer: A Reading
Jesus taught us, asking: “How can you believe, since you look to each other for glory and are not concerned with the glory that comes from the one God?” — John 5.44

Todays Readings
Isaiah 11-12. (Listen -2:39)
Matthew 25 (Listen -6:04) 

Read more about Hope In the Tree of the Cross
At the roots of the tree of the cross, we find healing, peace, and power. As we follow Christ, we will become like this tree.

Read more about Hope Amidst Destruction
Amidst crumbling moral foundations and corrupt spiritual leadership the Lord always reserves a remnant.

Clear the Old Growth

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 10.33-34
33 See, the Lord, the Lord Almighty, 
will lop off the boughs with great power. 
The lofty trees will be felled, 
the tall ones will be brought low. 
34 He will cut down the forest thickets with an ax; 
Lebanon will fall before the Mighty One.

Matthew 3.10b
10b Every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

Reflection: Clear the Old Growth
By John Tillman

I worked, for a few weeks, as a lumber surveyor’s assistant in the piney woods of East Texas.

I would drive a stake in the ground and then plow as straight a path as possible along a compass heading, dragging a long, smooth strip of hard plastic, called a “chain.” I wasn’t to turn to the left or the right. Unless it was impossible, I had to push straight through brush, bushes, or thorns. 

The surveyor would step on the chain to stop me when the tape reached the stake. Then, I would drive another stake and wait. By tugging on the chain, he would signal me to continue straight or turn 90 degrees left or right. In this way, we marked off squares of wooded land, and calculated the value of its trees based on the ratio of “quality” trees to trees that were not useful or valuable.

In Macbeth, the wicked-hearted king is given a prophecy that he cannot be defeated until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane. Macbeth assumes he is invincible. For when does a wood travel?

Similarly, Assyria grew overconfident. Sennacherib knew God’s word well enough to twist its meaning in his threats to Jerusalem, yet he had no respect for God. He thought he was a god and all other gods were idols. He expected to overwhelm Jerusalem as easily as Samaria. Sennacherib’s army was an impossible, forest-like foe, covering the ground and overwhelming the land. 

The foes we face don’t determine our fate. Like Hezekiah, we can turn them over to God. Isaiah promised that the Assyrian army would be cut down in a day. The “lofty” and “tall” trees would fall before God’s ax. 

In the ancient near east, trees were valuable and important—especially the highly valued cedars of Lebanon. Yet no earthly value or importance will stop God’s judgment. God’s ax “is already at the root of the trees.” (Matthew 3.10)

Instead of focusing on outward enemies we have little control over, let us survey our inner forest and the foes we find there. With sober judgment, let us clear the old growth, turning neither to the left nor the right, cutting down pride, selfishness, hatred, fear, greed, and lusts so that better fruits may flourish in the forests of our hearts. 

“Every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Those who are planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our god. — Psalm 92.12

Today’s Readings
Isaiah 10.5-34 (Listen – 5:13)
Matthew 24 (Listen – 5:59)

Read more about Uprooting and Replanting
People uproot thornbushes and burn them. Then they plant fruitful vines in their place.

Read more about The Ever-Patient Agriculturalist
God wants to give us every opportunity to flourish. We, however, can put a halt to his husbandry…uproot in our hearts what he plants…

Evil, Judgment, or Discipline?

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 9.12b
12 …Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised.

Reflection: Evil, Judgment, or Discipline?
By John Tillman

Bad things were happening to Judah. Why?

Three times in this chapter, Isaiah repeats, “Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised.” (Isaiah 5.25; 9.12, 17, 21; 10.4

Sometimes “bad things” happen simply because evil exists. Stephen King, who has spent a lifetime writing about evil, put it this way in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, “The world has teeth and it can bite you with them any time it wants.”

Sometimes bad things happen as part of God’s judgment. Individuals or groups, by action or inaction, spurn God’s calls for justice, and as Johnny Cash sang, “You can run on for a long time…sooner or later, God’ll cut you down.”

Sometimes bad things happen as part of God’s discipline. Discipline is not “pleasant,” scripture says, but is not intended for harm. Where judgment destroys evil, discipline attempts to turn us from it. Discipline proves that we are loved by God and he intends good things for us.

God’s hand of blessing and protection was lifted from Judah, allowing great suffering, but no matter how bad it got, the people still wouldn’t return to God. They’d do anything other than repent. Anything other than helping the hurting. Anything other than admitting complicity in suffering. Anything other than walking humbly, loving mercy, or acting justly.

Some explain bad things happening saying, “We are being judged because of those sinners over there!” However, Israel’s prophets never say, “This drought is because of those sinful Moabites.” Judgment begins in the house of the Lord.

We need to pause and consider what kind of suffering we are enduring. Are we simply facing an evil world? Are we being judged? Are we being disciplined? Is God’s hand upraised against us?

If we are suffering for doing good, let us rejoice. (1 Peter 3.13-17) In suffering of this kind, God is our comforter and partner.

If we are suffering for resisting evil, let us endure. However, let us not turn to evil means of survival, but rather overcome evil with good.

If we are suffering for sins of commission or omission, for our apathy toward or complicity in the suffering of others, let us repent. For God longs to lead us back to himself. His raised hand of discipline will lower to wipe our tears and “there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress.” (Isaiah 9.1)

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; let the whole earth tremble before him. — Psalm 96.9

Today’s Readings

Isaiah 9.8-10.4 (Listen – 8:50)
Matthew 23 (Listen – 4:53)

Read more about Different Kind of Exile
Peter encourages his exiles not to allow the oppression and suffering they are going through to be something that crushes their faith.

Read more about The Wrong Fear
This is how people act when they are living in fear. But this is not the reverent fear of the Lord that Peter speaks of.

Temple Confrontations

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 6.1-6
1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another: 
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; 
the whole earth is full of his glory.” 
4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. 
5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” 

2 Chronicles 26.18-19
18 They confronted King Uzziah and said, “It is not right for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord. That is for the priests, the descendants of Aaron, who have been consecrated to burn incense. Leave the sanctuary, for you have been unfaithful; and you will not be honored by the Lord God.”

19 Uzziah, who had a censer in his hand ready to burn incense, became angry. While he was raging at the priests in their presence before the incense altar in the Lord’s temple, leprosy broke out on his forehead.

Reflection: Temple Confrontations
By John Tillman

Unlike many prophets we have read, Isaiah was no outcast. He was a palace insider, accustomed to power, a friend to kings. According to Jewish tradition, he may even have been of royal blood himself. There is no question, however, that Isaiah’s writing is among the most treasured of the prophetic books. He was a highly educated, poetic, artistic, skilled writer who lived in a golden age of mostly good kings. 

We often think that a bit more power, a bit more influence, one “godly” leader will be just what we need to restore a “golden age.” But every earthly golden age has been built by corrupt power that stood on the backs of oppressed people.

Isaiah saw this power and pride up close. He saw it corrupt the hearts of at least two good kings—Hezekiah and Uzziah. Both were exemplary leaders up to a point. Both were brought down by pride.

Uzziah’s death, interestingly, is mentioned right before Isaiah describes encountering the Lord in his Temple. Uzziah’s experience in the Temple was humiliating, (2 Chronicles 26.21) resulting in his exile and death. Uzziah’s fate must have been in the back of Isaiah’s mind as he was confronted by a vision of God’s heavenly throne room overlapping the physical Temple.

Standing where Uzziah was struck with leprosy, Isaiah expected to be ruined. He knew that he, like Uzziah, was unclean before the Lord. But Isaiah’s outcome was different. Uzziah angrily claimed purity and was made unclean. (2 Chronicles 26.18-20) Isaiah fearfully confessed uncleanness and was made pure. 

Like Isaiah, we need to be confronted with our individual and collective uncleanness. (Isaiah confesses both.) That confrontation can go like Uzziah’s or like Isaiah’s. When we confess that we deserve censure, the censer of God burns away our sin, yet we are miraculously not consumed.

Normally, when ritually clean things touched ritually unclean things, the clean became contaminated. However, the coal from the altar purified Isaiah as Jesus purifies us. Jesus touched unclean lepers and they became clean. No matter how corrupted or sinful we may be, Jesus is willing to make us clean. (Matthew 8.2-3)

Isaiah can testify that golden ages aren’t what they are cracked up to be. Rather than an earthly golden age, we need a heavenly one. This begins by acknowledging that we deserve ruin, and getting renovated instead.

“Here am I, Lord. Send me.”

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. — Psalm 85.10

Today’s Readings
Isaiah 6 (Listen – 2:24)
Matthew 20 (Listen – 4:22)

This Weekend’s Readings
Isaiah 7 (Listen – 3:51), Matthew 21 (Listen – 7:10)
Isaiah 8-9.7 (Listen – 7:02), Matthew 22 (Listen – 4:56)

Read more about Where is the Love?
Thank Jesus for caring enough about you to keep kicking over your tables and cleaning up your mess.

Read more about Seeking After a Seeking God
God is a seeking God, he is always ready to meet us where we are…He will meet with us in a corrupted Temple, as he met with Isaiah.