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Word of the week

Tremble

At long last we come to the end of our journey through the magnificent Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah. We have barely scratched the surface, but I hope that least we have mined it for most of the rich deposits it contains. Just when I thought that could not mine any more such gold from the Book I found this last nugget in the final chapter, the counsel to “tremble at God’s Word.”

We have learned that the Book of Isaiah was written a time of great turbulence in the history of Judah and Israel, namely the Assyrian and Babylonian Exile. The first part of the Book which studied in the early summer seems to cover the period of Judah’s history when the threat of an Assyrian invasion is imminent.

Despite attempts by the Northern Kingdoms to form an alliance with Assyria recorded in Chapter 7, they are quickly overwhelmed by the much stronger foreign power that now faces south and threatens Judah. The prophet Isaiah becomes somewhat a “thorn in the flesh” to the Kings of Judah, especially Ahaz warning of God’s impending punishment of the nation because their idolatry and oppression of the poor.

All the assumed prosperity especially within the southern Kingdom of Judah with the disastrous domestic and foreign policy of a succession of Judean kings would lead to conquest and enslavement. The Assyrian invasion was launched by Tiglath-Pileser III and Shalmaneser V 434-432 BC and continued some 10 years later by King Sargon of Assyria who finally conquered Samaria capital of the Northern Kingdom in 724 BC. News of Sargon’s activities filter through to Jerusalem and he is named in Chapter 20:

In the year that the supreme commander, sent by Sargon king of Assyria, came to Ashdod and attacked and captured it—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.” (Isa 20:1-2)

By the time Hezekiah for whom Isaiah was a key advisor, is now King of Judah and it clear from reading chapters 36 to 39 that Judah is very much a vassal state of the Assyrian empire. Although clearly a godly man, Hezekiah seeks to appease the Assyrians by paying tribute denuding Judah of its most precious resources to do so. We read of this in 2 Kings 18:6:

At this time Hezekiah king of Judah stripped off the gold with which he had covered the doors and doorposts of the temple of the Lord, and gave it to the king of Assyria.” (2 Ki 18:6)

But, then a new power threatens from the East, the neo-Babylonian empire. We see the effects of Hezekiah’s disastrous domestic and foreign policy when he displayed incredible naivety by inviting Babylonian envoys to see the riches of his palace and temple in Jerusalem and we read of an ensuing conversation between him and Isaiah the prophet about this recorded in Chapter 39:

The prophet asked, “What did they see in your palace?” “They saw everything in my palace,” Hezekiah said. “There is nothing among my

treasures that I did not show them.” Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of

the Lord Almighty: The time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your predecessors have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the Lord.” (Isa 39:4-6)

The Babylonian exile took place after the fall of Jerusalem some 100 years

later in 586 BC after Hezekiah died. Jewish tradition holds that Isaiah was martyred by Hezekiah’s son Mannaseh who undid that huge religious reforms of his father and so was martyred long before the Babylonian exile itself. It was to be 67 years before the “faithful remnant” who was so dear to his heart that Isaiah gave his son that name, “Shear-Jashub”, returned under the Persian empire. The Book of Isaiah is a “rollercoaster” of a body of literature which brings to us the promises of God’s coming Messiah whose mission as a messenger of Good News and whose role as the suffering Servant of the Lord would redeem Israel and the Nations of the world. In amongst the rather gloomy chronicling of such a violent period of history, is the golden thread of the light of God’s promise to redeem His people and the assurance of His love for them despite their disobedience.

In can be inferred from v 1-2 of chapter 66 that the focus the returning exiles would be the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem which we see recorded in Ezra and Nehemiah, but Isaiah warns his readers that God is more interested in those who tremble at His word (v2).

The Book of Isaiah is filled with accounts of people who ignored God’s message through His faithful prophet and suffered the consequences. We have seen from my summary of the background geo-political and religious history of this great Book that those featured in it largely failed to tremble at God’s word. I wonder do we “tremble” at God’s word or do we only pay lip service to it? Do we read scripture because it gives us a warm fluffy feeling and skip over the tough bits? Or, do we read it and allow it to read us? Both St Paul and the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews caution their readers that God’s Word has an innate power of its own:

All Scripture is God- breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may bethoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17) “For the word of God is live and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Heb 4:12)

Surely such attributes should be a cause for awesome respect? St James further cautions us of the danger of ignoring such a powerful facet of God’s activity in the world:

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he

looks like.” (Jas 1:22-24).

The Word of God both written and Incarnate in Jesus is a tremendous and awesome gift of God to us Isaiah, though not an easy read, is proof enough of the dangers of failing to tremble at God’s word and the incredible vision and foresight of Isaiah is proof enough of the awesome respect we should have for it.

Amen

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