Saturday, June 23, 2007

Isaiah's Message of Hope and Comfort - Part 1

One of my favorite books in the Hebrew Scriptures is Isaiah. My favorite chapter in this Prophetic book is chapter 40. You can find the full text, here.

The previous 39 chapters in Isaiah are largely concerned with God's judgment of Isarael because of her stiff-necked rebellion and her turning away to the false gods of the surrounding pagan nations. But in chapter 40, Isaiah takes a turn, and the rest of the book speaks largely of God's compassion for His people, His invitation for Israel to return and be forgiven, and His ultimate salvation and restoration for all nations who love the true God.

Chapter 40 is a message of hope and comfort that is particularly meaningful to me right now. It begins:

"Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the LORD's hand
double for all her sins" (Isaiah 40:1-2).

The God of the Bible is loving and kind. But He is also Holy - morally perfect in every way. He is the standard by which we measure right and wrong. He has established certain Laws for us to follow, the most famous encapsulation of which are found in the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). I've pointed out before that His intention in giving us His Law is for our good (Deuteronomy 10:13), though we often don't see it that way.

Since God is perfect in every way, He is a perfect judge. This aspect of God's character is not as appealing as His perfect Love. We're happy to have a God who loves us; we don't like the idea of a God who will judge us. But judge us, He will - in this life or the next. Perfect justice demands a judgment.

One of the most natural instincts in people is the desire for justice - for others! Look at the reaction to the OJ trial. There was outrage in certain communities when OJ was accused in the first place ("No justice, no peace!"), and there was outrage in other communities when he was aquitted ("He got away with murder!").

People inherently want justice - they want to know that evil will be punished and righteousness rewarded. One of the key messages of Isaiah 1-39 is that God is a God of justice. But God is also merciful. He understands when His people fall short of the mark. So, He has provided a way of forgiveness. As a Christian, I believe the way of forgiveness is ultmately through the provision of God's Messiah, Jesus Christ. But in Isaiah, the Messiah is only hinted at (Jesus would not arrive on the scene until some 700 years later).

In Chapter 40, God begins with words of comfort. He says that His punishment will cease, and invites His People to return to Him, and He will not only forgive them, He will restore to them "double" for all their sins. I know as a father, there are times when my children do something wrong and I punish them. Sometimes they just take their punishment stoically; others times they grudingly apologize. But sometimes, they will come to me, truly broken and contrite. In times like these, I'm moved out of compassion to relax their punishment a bit. This is a small echo of how our Heavenly Father deals with each of us. He is always ready to forgive us, and that forgiveness is never a mere restoration to our prior state; it always involves a further reward (ultimately, the believer's reward is Heaven, which is far, far beyond anything we deserve):

"He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust" (Psalm 103:9-14).

Knowing that I have not always lived up to the standard of the 10 Commandments brings the realization that I deserve justice. But knowing that God is merciful and forgiving, gives me great comfort and an assurance that no matter how things turn out in my present situation, I will dwell in His house forever (Psalm 23).

More on Isaiah 40 in future blogs.

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