Sunday, July 12, 2020

Isaiah 19

Egypt was much more than a country in the Old Testament. It was a symbol of everything the Jews left behind when they followed God, a land of idols where people worshipped animals and Pharaohs became gods.

Being a slave in Egypt was like being a slave to sin. The Promised Land was communion with God. Turning to Egypt meant going backwards. And there were always people who wanted to go back.


As soon as the Jews left Egypt, there were people complaining to Moses about the lack of food and shelter in the desert. The prophets had to fight the same temptation. Isaiah warned his people not to turn to Egypt for protection against Assyria. Jeremiah warned them against escaping to Egypt rather than accepting exile in Babylon.

This is how Isaiah frames the choice:
Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the Lord.  
- Isaiah 31:1 
Relying on Egypt made sense. Assyria was expanding rapidly and rolling up every kingdom in their path. Being conquered meant death, destruction, and exile. The Egyptians were the only people with the size to fight back. They were even offering a military alliance.

But Isaiah wanted the people of Judah to look at the world through a spiritual lens. The Assyrians were God’s chosen instrument to punish them for rebelling against Him. It was their own fault that they were coming. An Egyptian alliance was a way to avoid reckoning with what they had done. It wasn’t going to work.

There was less to Egyptian society than met the eye. It was far removed from the height of its power under the Pharaohs. The Egyptians no longer even ruled themselves. An Ethiopian king was pulling the strings.

Their way of life was built on a river and not a rock. Dry up the Nile and it would die:
The waters of the river will dry up, and the riverbed will be parched and dry. The canals will stink; the streams of Egypt will dwindle and dry up. The reeds and rushes will wither, also the plants along the Nile, at the mouth of the river.  
Every sown field along the Nile will become parched, will blow away and be no more. The fishermen will groan and lament, all who cast hooks into the Nile; those who throw nets on the water will pine away.  
Those who worth with combed flax will despair, the weavers of fine linen will lose hope. The workers in cloth will be dejected, and all the wage earners will be sick at heart. 
- Isaiah 19:5-10 
All their glory, all their power, all their tradition and history -- it was all a facade. Building the pyramids required a mind-boggling amount of engineering and logistical ability. It would have seemed God-like to shepherds like the Jews. There was certainly nothing in Judah to compare to them. But they were ultimately just giant tombs in the middle of the desert.

In The New Penguin History Of The World, historian J.M. Roberts sums up Egypt’s legacy to human history:
Yet the creative quality of Egyptian society, seems, in the end, strangely to miscarry. Colossal resources of labor are massed under the direction of men who, by the standards of any age, must have been outstanding civil servants, and the end is the creation of the greatest tombstones the world has ever seen. Craftsmanship of exquisite quality is employed, and its masterpieces are grave-goods. A highly literate elite, utilizing a complex and subtle language and a material of unsurpassed convenience, uses them copiously, but has no philosophical or religious idea comparable to those of Greek and Jew to give to the world. It is difficult not to sense an ultimate sterility, a nothingness, at the heart of this glittering tour de force. 
None of this would come as a surprise to Isaiah. He dismisses the Egyptians as idiots (19:11) who make plans by consulting mediums and carving up animals to look at their intestines (19:3).

To be sure, they would have said the same things about him. The Assyrians had just obliterated Israel, Judah’s bigger and more powerful neighbor to the north. Israel was where 10 of the 12 tribes had settled and it contained most of the wealth and resources of the Jewish people. The only explanation that Isaiah could give was that it was all part of God's plan. All he had were promises from a God no one could see. It wasn't exactly as tangible as an army.

Those are the kinds of moments when your faith is really tested. Believing in God when everything is going well doesn’t mean much. It's much harder to rely on Him when all the evidence is pointing the other way.

The first thing to do is look back at all the times in the past where God has come through for you. The second is to carefully examine the other options. The Apostle Paul extended Isaiah’s description of Egypt to all of mankind:
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.  
- Romans 1:21-23 
It doesn’t matter how big or strong an army looks. It’s still made up of of human beings who have to put their faith in something. People who don’t believe in God don’t stop believing in unseen things. Americans believe in astrology and aliens a lot more than they used to.

So how do we test any of these belief systems? Jesus said to look at the fruit they produce. Isaiah's words are still bearing fruit in people's lives thousands of years later. Let's go back to J.M. Roberts to see about Egypt:
In reflecting on the nature of Egyptian history, there is always a temptation to revert in the end to the great natural images of the Nile always physically present to Egyptian eyes. It was so prominent, perhaps, that it could not be seen for the colossal and unique influence that it was, for no context broader than its valley needed consideration. While in the background the incomprehensible (but in the end world shaping) wars of the Fertile Crescent raged across the centuries, the history of Old Egypt goes on for thousands of years, virtually a function of the remorseless, beneficent flooding and subsidence of the Nile. On its banks a grateful and passive people gathers the richness it bestows. From it could be set aside what they thought necessary for the real business of living: the proper preparation for death. 
As a wise man once said, it all comes down to a choice. Get busy living or get busy dying.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Isaiah 18

Jerusalem was at the crossroads of the ancient world. After prophesying about countries to the north (Babylon) and east (Moab) in Chapters 13-17, Isaiah turns south in Chapter 18.

Assyria was sending its armies towards Judah to counter the growing power of Egypt, which had been taken over by an Ethiopian king in 715 BC. Those two countries began looking north and making trouble among smaller kingdoms like Judah that Assyria saw as being within its sphere of influence.

As someone who advised King Ahaz, Isaiah had connections in the royal court of Jerusalem who would have told him about the messengers from Ethiopia, which was then called Cush:
Woe to the land of whirring wings along the rivers of Cush, which send envoys by sea in papyrus boats over the water.  
— Isaiah 18:1-2 
He tells those messengers to keep Judah out of their schemes. What was happening to God’s people was part of His plan, and no interference from a foreign power would change things. They would not be able to defend Judah. Only God could save it. And it would happen on His schedule:
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.  
This is what the Lord says to me: “I will remain quiet and will look on from my dwelling place, like simmering heat in the sunshine, like a cloud of dew in the harvest.”  
— Isaiah 18:3-4 
But Isaiah also had good news for the Ethiopians, although they would not have seen it like that:
At that time gifts will be brought to the Lord Almighty from a people tall and smooth-skinned, from a people feared far and wide, an aggressive nation of strange speech, whose land is divided by rivers — the gifts will be brought to Mount Zion, the place of the Name of the Lord Almighty.  
— Isaiah 18:7 
The Ethiopians had no reason to care about the God of the Jews. Like most people in those days, they viewed the power of gods as being reflected in the strength of their people. God's people were descendants of escaped slaves who ruled a couple of no account kingdoms that were nothing but pawns on the geo-political chessboard. The odds were that either would survive the coming conflict between Egypt and Assyria were slim.

Yet, like so many other prophecies that Isaiah made, this one was fulfilled. The Book of Acts, which follows the Gospels in the New Testament, tells the story of how Christianity came to Ethiopia. A court eunuch was reading from the Book of Isaiah in Jerusalem when he ran into a disciple who explained how Jesus fulfilled those prophecies. (Acts 8:26-40)

That’s the power this book can have. Isaiah called something 700 years in advance and then his own words were used to make it happen. Imagine something you said in 2020 having that type of impact in 2720.

The north African church went on to play a huge role in early Christian history. It was the Bible Belt of the Roman Empire. St. Augustine, the most influential Christian thinker for 1,000 years, was from modern-day Tunisia. But all that was swept away by the Muslim conquests of the 600s, which created an empire that stretched from Persia to Spain:

Ethiopia was the one exception. It's a land of high mountains and rivers that has always been impossible to conquer. It was the only Christian country in North Africa that didn't become Islamic, and the only African country not colonized by Europeans in the 19th and 20th centuries. The result is a land which doubles as a religious time capsule.

The Ethiopian church was cut off from the rest of Christianity in the Middle Ages. The people of Western Europe had only the vaguest idea of what was on the other side of the Muslim world, so garbled tales of an unknown Christian kingdom who had defeated the Islamic armies grew into a myth of a fabulously wealthy land who would ally with them in a war of civilizations. The king of that land became known as Prester John. Explorers searched for an African El Dorado for hundreds of years until the Portuguese made contact with the Ethiopians in the 1500s and were convinced they had found him.

It wasn’t just Christians. In the late 20th century, a tiny community of Ethiopian Jews called Beta Israel, which had been cut off from the rest of the Jewish world for millennia, was discovered. After a long rabbinical debate, they were officially welcomed back and evacuated to Israel in airlifts as part of Operations Moses and Joshua in the 1980s.

The existence of these types of isolated communities is proof of how artificial so many of our religious differences are. Imagine telling an Ethiopian Christian that the Catholic Church in Rome was the one holy church of Christendom that possessed the keys to salvation and that their church, despite stretching all the way back to the original apostles and surviving hundreds of years of Islamic persecution, was a fraud. It's absurd on its face. Obviously Jesus can save people who know about him and have access to his words and deeds through the Bible. The Holy Spirit doesn't need an intermediary in a funny hat.

The Ethiopian Church was neither Protestant nor Catholic. They wouldn’t have even known the difference. All that really mattered is that they were following Jesus. The fact that they were Christians at all was a miracle.

The fact that anyone becomes a Christian in this crazy modern world that we live in is a miracle. I hadn't heard about Barry Zito, the former Cy Young winner, in years when he appeared on The Masked Singer. So I went to his Wikipedia page to see what he had been up to since retiring from baseball. Imagine my surprise when I saw that Zito was a born-again Christian with a memoir about how all the fame and money that came with being a pro athlete hadn't actually made him happy and had taken him on a journey that ended with finding Jesus. Needless to say, this isn't a story being told in the media.

Does it matter what type of church that he goes to? Or what type of Christian that he would say that he is? Theology is important, but it shouldn't be a weapon to divide people. The whole point of the gospel is that it's a message that anyone can understand. You don't need a PhD. All you have to do is accept the gift of salvation that Jesus gave on the cross. That's it. There's no need to divide up people into smaller groups than that.
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.  
My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another, "I follow Cephas"; still another, "I follow Christ." 
Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?
- 1 Corinthians 1:10-13
The test of whether anyone is a Christian is simple. This is what the Apostle John says:
We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did. 
Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.  
Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother or sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them. 
- 1 John 2:3-11
God had our salvation planned out before we were born. He told the Ethiopians what would happen 700 years before He did it. What happened in their country is a miracle. What happens to any Christian is a miracle. We all became part of God's family thanks to His miraculous grace. So if you are arguing theology, make sure you are doing it out of love or don't do it at all.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Isaiah 17

Isaiah saw doom coming for everyone in the ancient Middle East. The Jewish people weren’t different from their neighbors who worshipped other gods. All had rebelled against God. All would suffer the same fate. He would use Assyria to clear out the whole region.

Syria was one of the first to fall. Israel was right behind them. The two had been linked ever since forming an alliance to invade Judah and install a puppet king in 727 BC.

It was a shocking betrayal of a fellow Jewish kingdom. The original kingdom of Israel had split in half after the death of King Solomon in 931 BC. The northern one kept the name and 10 of the 12 tribes, while the southern kingdom of Judah, where Isaiah lived, had only two.

The prophet didn't hold his tongue when their invasion failed. Israel stood with Syria so they would fall with them too:
“The fortified city will disappear from Ephraim [Israel], and royal power from Damascus; the remnant of Aram [Syria] will be like the glory of the Israelites,” declares the Lord Almighty.  
- Isaiah 17:3 
He was proven right when Israel was conquered by Assyria in 721 BC. The survivors went down in history as the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel” after they were resettled across the Assyrian Empire and assimilated. All kinds of groups from all over the world have claimed to be their descendants. The Mormons even think they wound up in North America.

But Isaiah did offer them some consolation. God still had a plan for their people:
"In that day the glory of Jacob will fade; the fat of his body will waste away. It will be as when reapers harvest the standing grain, gathering the grain in their arms — as when someone gleans heads of grain in the Valley of Rephaim.  
Yet some gleanings will remain, as when an olive tree is beaten, leaving two or three olives on the topmost branches, four or five on the fruitful boughs,” declares the Lord, the God of Israel.  
- Isaiah 17:4-6 
There would be a few survivors from Israel who would make their way into Judah, just as there would be a few from Judah who would survive the Babylonian exile a century later. And from that tiny remnant, God would rebuild Jewish culture, send them a Messiah, and change the world.

It would be like when an olive tree was harvested. Olives were one of the pillars of the Jewish economy in those days. They were a symbol of God’s relationship with His people. It took a long time for an olive tree to bloom. The land had to be cultivated for years before they would yield a crop. Only a few olives would be left after the harvest was finished. The rest would be taken away.

In this analogy, God was not pleased with what the trees had produced. He had given His people a land to call their own and they had produced a society that was just as corrupt and unjust as everyone else around them.

The only thing left to do was start over:
So the Lord will cut off from Israel both head and tail, both palm branch and reed in a single day; the elders and dignitaries are the head, the prophets who teach lies are the tail. Those who guide this people mislead them, and those who are guided are led astray.  
— Isaiah 9:14-16 
Most Biblical scholars believe that Judaism as we know it began during the Babylonian Exile. They view the adoption of monotheism as a gradual process that took hundreds of years and only became complete when the Jews came into contact with those ideas in Babylon.

The Old Testament becomes revisionist history in their view, turning a far more complicated story of religious evolution into one of good and evil that the vast majority of Jews at the time it was written would not have recognized. But here's the key point: Just because they wouldn't have recognized it doesn't mean that it's not true.

It's all a matter of interpretation. The kings of Israel and Judah who worshipped gods besides God saw themselves as acknowledging spiritual realities and uniting nations that included many people of non-Jewish descent. They saw prophets like Elijah and Isaiah and Jeremiah as dangerous zealots who represented the beliefs of only a small minority of people.

And they were right. Eljiah even complains to God that he is the only prophet left in all of Israel at one point. In that sense, the modern scholars and the writers of the Old Testament are saying the exact same thing.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that most of the Jewish people between the exodus from Egypt (around 1300 BC) and the Babylonian exile (around 600 BC) didn't actually worship God. Who wants to bother with following all the laws in the Old Testament when you could pick and choose from the religious practices of your neighbors and find a belief system that flatters your ego and doesn’t ask you to make personal sacrifices? Why wander through the desert for 40 years when there were get rich quick schemes all around you?

It was only when they were stripped of their land and forced into poverty in Babylon that they took God’s demands seriously. This is how historian Paul Johnson describes the process in his landmark work A History of The Jews:
Thus scattered, leaderless, without a state or any of the normal supportive apparatus provided by their own government, the Jews were forced to find alternative means to preserve their special identity. 
Hence it was during the Exile that ordinary Jews were first disciplined into the regular practice of their religion. Circumcision, which distinguished them ineffaceably from the surrounding pagans, was insisted upon rigorously and the act became a ceremony and so part of the Jewish life-cycle and liturgy.  
It was in exile that the rules of faith began to seem all-important: rules of purity, of cleanliness, of diet. The laws were now studied, read aloud, and memorized.  
The Exile was short in the sense that it lasted only a half century after the final fall of Judah. Yet its creative force was overwhelming. 
Or, to put it another way:
At that day shall a man look to his Maker, and his eyes shall have respect to the Holy One of Israel. 
- Isaiah 17:7 
The Book of Isaiah is essentially the DVD commentary from the director of the movie. God said what He would do and why He was doing it. Read it closely and you will see that not only were most of the criticisms of Biblical scholars anticipated, God was making them, too.

And long after modern scholarship is forgotten, people will still be reading Isaiah and learning those lessons from him.
Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, “Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.” The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.  
- Psalm 2:1-4

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Isaiah 16

Pride comes in many forms. You don’t have to rule the world to have it.

It’s easy to see how great empires like Assyria and Babylon could become proud and arrogant. But the same thing can happen to smaller and seemingly less significant countries:
We have heard of Moab’s pride — how great is her arrogance! — of her conceit, her pride and her insolence; but her boasts are empty.  
- Isaiah 16:6 
Moab played almost no role on the world stage. It was conquered by the Assyrians as they expanded towards Egypt in the early 700s and eventually vanished from the pages of history. The only reason that anyone has heard of it these days is because of the Old Testament.

So what were they so proud of? Isaiah never says exactly. But he implies that it had something to do with their crops:
Lament and grieve for the raisin cakes of Kir Hareseth. The fields of Hesbon wither, the vines of Sibmah also. 
The rulers of the nations have trampled down the choicest vines, which once reached Jazer and spread toward the desert. Their shoots spread out and went as far as the sea.  
- Isaiah 16:7-8 
Pride is relative. The natural comparison for the Moabites wouldn’t have been the Assyrians. A people who grew the “choicest vines” would have had more money than some of the poorer farming and herding communities around them. Being more successful than someone else is all it takes to get a big ego.

Everyone struggles with pride to some extent. It’s part of the human condition.

My issues tend to come from work. The natural temptation for me is to take great pride in what I do. I cover the NBA for a living. It’s a job that a lot of people would love. People always ask about it when they meet me.

But here’s the problem. Pride makes you miserable because anxiety always follows right behind it. The two are linked at the hip.

It all comes back to identity and how I define myself as a person. If I think that I’m better than someone else because of something that I have done or some other characteristic about myself, then I am giving that thing (whatever it is) power over me. It’s a four-step process:
1. I take pride in X.
2. I need X to feel good about myself.
3. I worry about losing X.
4. I become anxious. 
In my case, if X is my job, then it doesn’t take much for me to start worrying about my job security. There have been a lot of times where I have worried about losing my job for no reason at all. It’s no way to live.

It's not that I couldn't get fired or laid off. Sportswriting isn't a very stable industry. But there's no point in worrying about something that I can't control.

That is what Jesus means when he says to build your house (read: identity) on a rock:
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock."  
"And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”  
- Matthew 7:24-27 
You should be anxious if your identity comes from something you can lose. The only way to get real freedom is when you put it in something that you can’t.

Let’s go back to the Moabites. What happens to a people who define themselves by their crops and fields?
So I weep, as Jazer weeps, for the vines of Sibmah. Heshbon and Elealeh, I drench you with tears! The shouts of joy over your ripened fruit and over your harvests have been stilled. 
Joy and gladness are taken away from the orchards; no one sings or shouts in the vineyards; no one treads out wine at the presses, for I have put an end to the shouting.  
- Isaiah 16:9-10 
The Moabites didn’t have a great answer to that question. We know from archeological records that they worshipped a god called Chemosh. But they could not sustain their worship without a land to call their own. Without anything to define themselves by, they assimilated into the societies around them and lost their identity as a people.

The Jews survived because they had an answer. Their tribal identity wasn't based on something fleeting. Even in exile, they continued to worship their God as the Creator of the universe, and that worship sustained them and allowed them outlast their conquerors and their neighbors. No human being, or group of humans, is going to last forever. If pride is relative, then the comparison point for any of us shouldn't be each other.

The Assyrians and Babylonians might have had more reason to be proud than the Moabites, but it wasn't reason enough. Nothing than any man can do comes close to God:
Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: "Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me." 
"Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone -- while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?" 
"Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in its thick darkness, when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said 'This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt?'"
- Job 38:1-11 
As Moab found out, pride comes before the fall. The only way to avoid the same fate is to take pride in God instead of yourself.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Isaiah 15

Isaiah had a message for everyone. None of his neighbors, no matter their size, escaped his notice.

It’s easy to see why he prophesied about Assyria and Babylon. But why care about a relatively unimportant country like Moab? It was located in modern-day Jordan, across the Dead Sea from Judah:

The Moabites weren’t friendly neighbors. The Jews had to fight their way through them to get to the Promised Land after leaving Egypt, and their relationship had been chilly ever since. But there were also plenty of ties between the two peoples. Ruth, a Moabite, was David’s grandmother. His parents hid in Moab during his conflict with Saul.

Judah and Moab had bigger problems than each other in Isaiah’s lifetime. They were like Poland before World War II, trapped between two superpowers locked on a collision course.

Isaiah saw the danger coming:
Ar in Moab is ruined, destroyed in a night! Kir in Moab is ruined, destroyed in a night!  
Dibon goes up to its temple, to its high places to weep; Moab wails over Nebo and Medeba.  
Every head is shaved and every beard cut off. In the streets they wear sackcloth; on the roofs and in the public squares they all wail, prostrate and weeping.  
- Isaiah 15:1-3 
Moab never had a great chance of long-term survival. It was a tiny fish in an ocean of sharks. The Middle East was the crossroads of the ancient world, a highway that massive armies marched up and down for thousands of years, destroying anyone in their path and scattering survivors in every direction. The Moabites were repeatedly conquered and absorbed within larger empires until their identity was erased and they forgot they were a people. The same thing happened to the overwhelming majority of smaller tribes like them. It was nothing short of a miracle that the Jews survived to modernity

Isaiah could have gloated about what was to come. But he had the exact opposite reaction:
My heart cries out over Moab; her fugitives flee as far as Zoar, as far as Eglath Shelishiyah. They go up the hill to Luhith, weeping as they go; on the road to Hornonaim they lament their destruction. 
- Isaiah 15:5 
My heart laments for Moab like a harp, my inmost being for Kir Hasereth. When Moab appears at her high place, she only wears herself out; when she goes to her shrine to pray, it is to no avail. 
- Isaiah 16:11-12
There was no reason for him to care. When the Moabites went to their shrines and high places, they weren't worshipping his God. They wouldn't have recognized him as a prophet. He might as well have been some guy yelling on a street corner to them.

Isaiah cared because God cared. They were His people, too. Even if they didn't acknowledge Him. The God of the Old Testament is often seen as a bloodthirsty tyrant who cared nothing for non-Jews. But His concern for the Moabites wasn't an isolated incident.

Jonah was a prophet who lived a generation or two before Isaiah. God told him to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, and preach repentance. But he didn't want too. The Assyrians were hated and feared for their militaristic culture and bloodthirsty foreign policy. Jonah wanted them punished not saved. He booked passage on a ship to cross the Mediterranean and get as far away from Assyria as possible. That’s how he ended up in the belly of a whale.

After his famous experience at sea, Jonah went to Nineveh and ministered to the people there. God told him why he had to go:
“And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left — and also many animals?”  
— Jonah 4:11 
Once again, there was no reason for God’s mercy. The Assyrians didn’t deserve it. He did it out of love anyway.

Just because the Jews were God’s people didn’t mean he didn’t care about anyone else. The whole point of Him blessing them was so that they could be a blessing to all mankind.

Like the rest of the Bible, it all points back to Jesus. It wouldn’t have made sense for the Messiah to be born into a random group of people with no context for his mission. Jesus grew up within a culture that stretched back thousands of years and was waiting for someone like him to emerge. The prophecies that Isaiah made about his life 700 years before he was born are some of the most powerful evidence for who he was. Everything that he did was spelled out beforehand. That’s why a universal God created a specific group of people.

The course of history changed once Jesus came to Earth, died for our sins, and was resurrected. His disciples expected him to raise the banner of a greater Israel and overthrow the Roman Empire. He told them to go to every nation on Earth in peace and make disciples instead. Jesus didn’t need a nation of his own. Politics no longer mattered in the kingdom of God.

There was a small window of time in history where God needed to interfere in politics to produce a certain outcome. That time is over. The Apostle Paul explicitly spelled out the new way of doing things:
There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good; first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.  
- Romans 2:9-11 
As a rule, people should be very careful about assuming that God is on their side in an international conflict. God has people on every side. It's always tempting to believe that He has enlisted you on a holy crusade. But wars are usually fought for less spiritual reasons.

People began wrongly claiming to be the new Israel almost as soon as the Romans destroyed the original one. Look up "British Israelism" on Wikipedia. This was a real movement that had a lot of power in the 1800s. The kids today would call it swagger jacking.

The funny thing is that it wasn't all that great to be Israel. God held them to the same standards as everyone else. He helped them clear out the original inhabitants of the Promised Land, but He used the Assyrians and Babylonians to do the same thing to them when they rebelled.

God has no favorites. We all come up short in His eyes. Jesus died for each and every one of us. There are people from every tribe, tongue, and nation in front of the worship seat of God in the Book of Revelation.

He has a message for every country. Even the ones no one cares about anymore.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Isaiah 14

Isaiah saw far beyond the immediate danger to his people. He also saw the much bigger threat coming down the road.

The Assyrians were Public Enemy no. 1 in his time. But they were never able to conquer his homeland of Judah. That task fell to the Babylonians a century later. They sacked Jerusalem, destroyed The Temple, and exiled the survivors for another 70 years.

Babylon has been the ultimate boogeyman in the Jewish imagination ever since. The city became the symbol for everything evil in the world, a representation of the Kingdom of Man that stands in opposition to the Kingdom of God. There’s a reason the Book of Revelations features a character called “The Whore of Babylon”.

Isaiah doesn’t hold back when talking about the King of Babylon in Chapter 14:
The realm of the dead below is all astir to meet you at your coming; it rouses the spirits of the departed to greet you — all those who were leaders in the world; it makes them rise from their thrones — all those who were kings over nations.  
They will all respond, they will say to you, “You also have become weak, as we are; you have become like us.”

All your pomp has been brought down to the grave, along with the noises of your harps; maggots are spread out beneath you and worms cover you.  
- Isaiah 14:9-11 
Nebuchadnezzar II was one of the most powerful kings of all-time. Judah was barely a bump in the road for someone who ruled almost the entire known world. This is a man who built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, in the middle of a desert in 600 BC:

In his time, Nebuchadnezzar was as famous and accomplished a man as had ever lived. He created a legacy that should have lasted forever.

Yet who has heard of him now? His bones are rotting in some long forgotten tomb, just as Isaiah said. He might as well have never existed for as little as people these days care about him.

Not much lasts after 2,600+ years. The sheer scale of human history is hard for Americans, whose country has been around for less than 250, to fully appreciate.

Take our Presidents. We spend so much time worrying about their legacy and what the judgment of history will be on their time in office. Will they one day be on Mount Rushmore?

The reality is that it won’t take that long for people to forget every face on that mountain. Our Presidents will mean about as much to future generations as the faces on Easter Island statues mean to us.

Most of human history has already disappeared in the sands of time. The Jews were in Egypt for longer than the U.S. has been a country. The Pharaohs were in power for longer (3,100 years) than the entire span of Western Civilization. All that is left of them is a bunch of giant tombs in the desert. Who were the greatest Pharaohs in Egyptian history? Who cares?

The same thing will happen to the U.S. There might be something we recognize as America in 2500. By 3000? No chance. We will be lucky if people have even heard of this country when we are as far into the future (4800) as Nebuchadnezzar is from us.

Most people reading this would probably say there won't even be a world we will recognize at that point. Either because of global warming or a nuclear winter or The Singularity or the second coming or some other apocalypse.

That might be right. But people have always believed the world was coming to an end. Europeans in the 9th century AD thought the coming of the new millennium meant the end times were here. The Apostle Paul thought it was right around the corner a thousand years before.

Jesus constantly talked about the coming apocalypse, although he admitted that was the one thing that he didn't actually know about:
But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  
- Mark 13:32
The key distinction for all of them is that just because their world was ending didn’t mean the world was. The world that Jesus grew up and lived in around Galilee and Jerusalem ended when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 AD. The ancient Jewish world that Isaiah knew ended when Babylon destroyed the original in 587 BC. The same thing will happen to the one that you and I know.

The good news is that the fate of mankind doesn’t hinge on the fate of the U.S. The days of nations mattering in the kingdom of God ended with Jesus. There was a plan in the Old Testament for a Jewish society to last long enough for the Messiah to be born into it. The Gospels told his story and the Book of Acts showed how his disciples founded the Christian church. Everything after is just an intermission until Revelations. Then end is already written.

The impact that even Pharaohs and Presidents have on the course of human history is miniscule. All the world is a stage and all the men and women merely players. We have our exits and our entrances. The music cuts, the lights come down, and you get ushered off so that someone else can take your spot.

Your entire career becomes a one-minute TV ad. That’s how quickly it all goes by:

Jay-Z has a song called “Forever Young” about how he wants his music to live forever. It won’t. People won’t remember Beethoven or Mozart. They won’t remember him.
What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.  
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.  
Is there anything of which one can say, "Look! There is something new?" It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. 
No one remembers the former generations, even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them. 
- Ecclesiastes 1:3-4, 9-11
Every human being wants to leave a mark on this world that lasts beyond our death. But none of us will be able to do. Even the greatest kings end up being eaten by maggots and worms in their own tombs.

There’s only one man whose name will live forever. And that’s because he didn't stay in his.
This is the plan determined for the whole world; this is the hand stretched out over all nations. For the Lord Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?  
- Isaiah 14:26-27