I was in a bit of a dilemma this week, trying to work out what to preach on today. Two weeks ago, we finished the series of sermons on the book of Galatians; and so, we’re due to start something new today. However, I’m reluctant to start a long series of sermons right now, because it will only be interrupted by Christmas. So, I didn’t want to start something new and then have to put it on hold until the middle of January. Also, I also don’t like thinking about Christmas too early. So, what should I preach on today and over the following one or two Sundays before Christmas?
So, I was in a bit of a dilemma, trying to figure it out. Eventually I came up with a plan which might work. Over the next three Sundays, I thought we’d look at the book of Isaiah. Isaiah, of course, is a big book. So, we’re not going to study all of it in three weeks. But, in a book I have at home, the author divides the book of Isaiah into three parts: chapters 1 to 39; chapters 40 to 55; and chapters 56 to 66. And in chapters 1 to 39, Isaiah speaks about God’s great king who rules on God’s behalf. And in chapters 40 to 55, he speaks about God’s suffering servant, who will make atonement for God’s people. And in chapters 56 to 66, he speaks about God’s messenger, who will proclaim God’s salvation. So, Isaiah tells us about a king, a suffering servant and a messenger. He’s talking, of course, about the Lord Jesus, who came into the world as a king, and who suffered and died for God’s people, and who proclaims salvation to all who believe in his name. And so, over the next three weeks, as we approach Christmas, we’ll spend our time in those three parts of the book of Isaiah to see what we can learn about the Lord Jesus.
And that means that today, we’re focusing on the first part of the book of Isaiah. And I have three main points to make. The first is that these chapters teach us about God’s judgment of the world. The second is that these chapters teach us that God is a great and holy king who rules over all. The third is that Isaiah revealed that God the king was going to send a human king to rule on his behalf.
So, turn with me to chapter 1 which begins in verse 2 with the Lord complaining about his people. Isaiah calls on the heavens and earth to hear that God raised up children, but they have rebelled against him. When Isaiah says the Lord raised up children, he’s referring to the people of Israel. Of all the nations of the world, God chose them to be his special people. He rescued them from their slavery in Egypt. He brought them through the Red Sea, destroying their enemies, but saving them. He brought them through the wilderness, protecting them and providing for them along the way. He brought them through the River Jordan and into the Promised Land of Canaan and helped them to take over the land and to settle there. And in the land he blessed them with many good gifts. He cared for them the way parents care for their children. But despite all his kindness and faithfulness, they rebelled against him. They disobeyed his laws and they even turned away from him and bowed down to false gods. I reared children, but they have rebelled against me. Look now at verse 4 where he describes them as
[a] sinful nation;
a people loaded with guilt,
a brood of evildoers,
children given to corruption.
They have forsaken the Lord;
they have spurned the Holy One of Israel
and turned their backs on him.
Look now at verse 10, where he refers to Israel as Sodom and Gomorrah. Sodom and Gomorrah, you’ll know, were those cities which we read about in the book of Genesis and which the Lord destroyed because of their wickedness. And the Lord is now comparing his own people to those wicked cities. And he goes on to say that he has had enough of all their sacrifices and burnt offerings. Now, it was the Lord who commanded his people to bring their offerings and to sacrifice them before him. However, he’s now had enough of them. He calls them ‘meaningless’ offerings; and they’re meaningless because during the rest of the week, they did what was evil and wrong. So, when they came to the temple, they were only going through the motions and though they worshipped the Lord with their lips, their hearts were far from him.
Look now at verse 21 where he complains that the faithful city — that is Jerusalem — has now become a harlot. When a man and woman are married, they promise to forsake all others and to take one another as their spouse. And the Israelites were meant to forsake all other gods and to devote themselves to the Lord alone. But the people of Israel turned from the Lord and they went after other gods. They were unfaithful to him.
Jump down to verse 6 of chapter 2, where Isaiah complains that they are now full of superstitions from the east; and they practice divination like the Philistines; and they clasp hands with pagans. Instead of separating themselves from the pagan nations, they have become like the pagans nations. According to verse 8 of chapter 2, the land had become filled with idols, to which they bowed down.
Turn over now to chapter 5 where we have the song of the vineyard where Isaiah compares the Lord to the owner of a vineyard; and the people of Israel are the vineyard. The owner planted the vineyard carefully and made sure everything was just right for it. But when he looked for fruit, he discovered that, despite everything he had done for it, the vineyard only produced bad fruit. So, what should he do? Well, in this little parable, the owner decides to take away the hedge and the wall around the vineyard, so that it will be trampled over and destroyed. In other words, because of the sin and rebellion of his people, the Lord was going to bring judgment on them. He was going to remove his protection and let the pagan nations come and overthrow the people of Israel and take the people away into exile.
The Lord reared children, but they rebelled against him. Therefore he was going to bring judgment upon them. And later in this first part of Isaiah, we see that the Lord is not only angry with Israel, but he’s angry with all of the nations and he’s announcing his judgment on them. If you’ve got an NIV Bible, all you have to do is read the chapter headings, starting with chapter 13 which has the title:
A prophecy against Babylon.
Then he speaks against Assyria in the middle of chapter 14, and against Moab in chapter 15, and against Damascus in chapter 17, and against Cush in chapter 18, and against Egypt in chapter 19, and against Babylon again in chapter 21 and against Edom and Arabia in the same chapter, and against Jerusalem in chapter 22 and against Tyre in chapter 23. And chapter 24 begins like this:
See, the Lord is going to lay waste the earth and devastate it.
The whole earth! And chapters 28 to 33 are known as the book of woes, because Isaiah pronounces God’s judgment on his sinful people. And in chapter 34, Isaiah announces that the Lord is angry with all nations and his wrath is upon all their armies. He will totally destroy them and will give them over to slaughter.
Throughout these chapters, Isaiah made clear that the Lord was angry with the nations, including the nation of Israel; and he warned them of the Lord’s judgment which was coming on them. In those days, the Lord punished the nations by sending other nations against them. He used one king to punish another king. But every time the Lord punished one nation for their sin and rebellion it was a foretaste of the great and terrible Day of Judgment which is coming on the world, when Jesus Christ returns to earth to judge the living and the dead, everyone who has ever lived. On that day, all the people will be brought before the Lord to be judged for what they have done.
God the King
Well, in chapter 6 we meet the Holy One of Israel, whom the Israelites and other other nations had spurned. And we see that he has the right to judge the world, because he sits enthroned above the world.
So, if you turn to Isaiah 6 you’ll see that it begins with a notice that the earthly king has died. King Uzziah was king of Judah between 791 and 739 BC. Judah, of course, was the southern part of Israel. So, the earthly king of Judah had died. However, what did Isaiah see in his vision? He tells us that he saw the Lord, seated on a throne. Please note that the word ‘Lord’ is in lower case letters. When ‘LORD’ appears in capital letters, it’s God’s special covenant name, the name he revealed to Moses and which speaks to us of his faithfulness towards his people. But when ‘Lord’ appears in small letters, it’s the Hebrew word ‘A-don-ay’ and it means ruler. In other words, it refers to God’s sovereignty, his supreme power and authority over all. And Isaiah saw the Lord seated on a throne. Sitting on a throne also speaks to us of God’s sovereignty. You and I don’t sit on thrones, but a king sits on a throne. However, sitting on a throne speaks to us not only of God’s sovereignty, but it also speaks to us of his role as judge, because the throne was the place where kings sat in order to hear disputes and to make judgments. This was true of earthly kings at that time and it’s true of the Lord. In Psalm 9, the psalmist says about God:
you have sat on your throne, judging righteously.
So, when Isaiah tells us that he saw the Lord, seated on a throne, he’s telling us that the Lord is the sovereign king who is sitting on the throne, which is his judgment seat.
Furthermore, in Isaiah’s vision, the Lord is ‘high and exalted’ and ‘the train of his robe filled the temple’. In the ancient world, and probably today, thrones were set on a platform so that the king would sit above his subjects. And the Lord God was also seated up high. At least one commentator suggests that the Lord’s throne was above the temple and the hem of his robe hung down into the temple. However, most commentators take it that his throne was in the temple and his royal robes filled it. However, by mentioning his robes, Isaiah is once again conveying to us that the Lord is a king.
And the temple, of course, is heaven. And as is fitting for heaven, the Lord was surrounded by angels. Isaiah refers to them as ‘seraphs’. This is the only time the Bible refers to them. In other places, the Bible speaks about ‘cherubim’, surrounding the ark of the Lord in his temple. So, the use of the word ‘seraph’ is noteworthy. The word means ‘burning one’ and so it’s possible that these particular angels are agents of judgment, burning or fiery ones, sent by the Lord, to carry out his judgments. In any case, these angels each have six wings with which they covered their faces and feet and flew. So, instead of looking directly at the Lord, they covered their faces. And the angels cried out:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty.
The whole earth is full of his glory.
The sovereign Lord is holy, which means he is set apart from all others, because he alone is God. And because he’s holy, he’s set against all that is evil. And by repeating the word ‘holy’ three times, the angels are saying that he is supremely and perfectly holy. They also refer to him as ‘the Lord Almighty’. Literally they said he is ‘the Lord of hosts’, which reinforces the idea of his kingship, because he rules over the host of heaven, which are his angels. And he displays his glory, his greatness, throughout the world in what he has made and by what he does.
And after the angels cry out, the temple shook and was filled with smoke. This reminds us of the time the Lord came down on Mount Sinai in the days of Moses. At that time, the mountain trembled and it was covered in smoke and the people were terrified. And in Isaiah 6, Isaiah was also terrified. He cried out:
Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips. And by eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.
He knows the Lord is the supreme king who rules and reigns and who sits in judgment. And he knows that the Lord is holy. And he’s terrified, because he knows he’s a sinner.
Well, by this vision, Isaiah is making clear that the Lord is the one who has the right and authority to judge the nations, because he’s the one who rules over the nations of the world; and everyone in the world is answerable to him, because he alone is King and Judge over all. And since the Lord is supremely and perfectly holy, he is against all that is evil and he will judge and condemn the world for its wickedness.
And so, what we read in Isaiah 1 to 39 about God’s anger and his judgment on the world is not idle. These are not just words. Earthly kings and presidents and prime ministers make all kinds of empty promises and idle threats. They’re empty and idle, because they don’t have the power to do what they say they will do. But the Lord sits on a throne, high and exalted over all. He is powerful and mighty and holy and he’s able to carry out his judgment on the world; and no one can stop him. And sure enough, at the end of the first part of the book, in chapters 36 to 39, we read how one earthly king threatened another earthly king. Sennacherib, king of Assyria, threatened Hezekiah, king of Judah. But the Lord sent an angel to put to death 185,000 of Sennacherib’s men, so that Sennacherib, that mighty king, was defeated. The Lord rules over all; and he judges the nations.
But, having said that, there is a note of hope in Isaiah 6, isn’t there? One of the angels came to Isaiah with a live coal which had come from the altar. And the angel touched Isaiah’s mouth with the coal and took away his guilt and cleansed him from his sin. So, while the Lord is against all that is evil and is determined to judge the world for our wickedness, forgiveness is available. Sinners can be washed and cleansed and pardoned. You can be washed and cleansed and pardoned. The altar in the temple was the place were sacrifices were presented to the Lord. And all the sacrifices in the Old Testament pointed beyond themselves to the true sacrifice for sins, which is Jesus Christ, God’s one and only Son. God’s one and only Son became one of us and he took the blame for what we have done wrong. He was condemned in our place and he suffered the wrath of God for us, so that whoever trusts in him as the only Saviour of the world, receives the forgiveness of sins and peace with God. Though your sins are like scarlet, we read back in Isaiah 1, they shall be as white as snow. Though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.
And so, though the Lord is the supreme king who sits on a throne to judge the nations, there is forgiveness and peace for all who trust in his Son.
Christ the King
So, God is the great king. But in Isaiah chapters 1 to 39, Isaiah foretells how God will send a human king to rule on his behalf. And, of course, we now know that that human king is the Lord Jesus, God’s one and only Son who became one of us.
I don’t have time to refer to all the relevant passages, so let’s turn straightaway to chapter 11, which is a passage we studied last Christmas. Isaiah speaks of a time when a shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; and from his branch a root will bear fruit. Jesse, of course, was the father of David, the great king of Israel. And by referring to the stump of Jesse, Isaiah is speaking of a time when the kingdom of Israel will be laid low and will be very weak. In the days of David and Solomon, the kingdom was very great. It was like a strong and mighty tree. But the time was coming, when it would be greatly reduced and would become only a stump compared to what it was before. But at that time, a shoot will come up and will begin to grow. And a branch will appear. Though the kingdom had become small and weak, a new king will come from it; a new king will emerge. And this new king is the Lord Jesus. He came into the world as a king. Isn’t that what the angel Gabriel said about him? And he came into the world when Israel was only a stump, a weak nation which had no importance in the world. When the Lord Jesus was born, Israel had been taken over by the Romans and it was only a Roman province and it’s glory days were long gone. It wasn’t a mighty tree, but only a small stump. But in those days, the Lord Jesus was born. And he was born as a descendant of King David.
And according to Isaiah, this root, this branch will not be dry and lifeless, but it will be fruitful. Do you see that at the end of verse 1? This new king will bear fruit, which means he will accomplish all that the Lord had planned for him to do.
And Isaiah goes on to describe how the Spirit of the Lord will rest on this new king; and the Spirit will equip him with all the wisdom and knowledge and power he needs to rule over God’s people on God’s behalf. He will rule with justice and righteousness; and his kingdom will be like no other, because his kingdom will be over a renewed earth, a transformed world, a world like the Garden of Eden before the fall, where there will be no sorrow or sadness or trouble or pain, and where the wolf and the lamb and the leopard and goat and the calf and the lion and so on will live side by side in safety.
Of course, it hasn’t happened yet, has it? The world as we know it is still full of sorrow and sadness and trouble and pain and sin. But Isaiah is holding out to us the promise of life in a new and better world, where all of God’s people will live in peace and safety on God’s holy mountain. He spoke of the coming of Christ the King, who came the first time to suffer and to die for his people. But he will come a second time, to condemn his enemies forever and to gather his people into this new and better world where they will live with him forever.
Well, my time is done. But do you see? Throughout the first part of Isaiah, the Lord announced judgment on this present world, because of the sin and rebellion of the people in this world. Even God’s own people in Israel had turned away from him.
And his warnings are not idle words, because the one who announced this judgment is the Lord, the Great King, who is seated on a high and exalted heavenly throne, from where he judges the world.
And yet Isaiah was also able to announce the coming of the Lord’s King who will rule forever over a new and better world. And so, instead of judgment and condemnation, which is what we all deserve, there’s the hope of everlasting life in that new and better world. And the way to receive life in that new and better world is by turning now to God in prayer, asking him to pardon you for the sake of Christ the King who suffered and died for sinners to cleanse them from their guilt. — So, ask God to pardon you. And ask him to give you the free gift of eternal life, so that when Christ the King comes again, he’ll bring you into this new and better world to live with the Lord forever. And then, all who already believe: you must stand firm in the faith and you must endure all things, because this is the hope that Christ the King gives to you, if you remain faithful to the end.