Thursday, February 24, 2022

Isaiah Outline

The Book of Isaiah takes a long and winding road to its historical climax in Chapters 36-39. The Jewish people are on the verge of annihilation, with the Assyrian Army camped outside the gates of Jerusalem, looking for blood. A lot happened to get to that point. You can divide the first 35 chapters into six different sections that set the stage for what’s about to happen: 

1-5: The moral foundations of the story. 

6-8: The historical background. 

9-12: The big picture 

13-23: The local context 

13 - Babylon
14 - Babylon 
15 - Moab
16 - Moab 
17 - Israel
19 - Egypt
20 - Judah 
23 - Tyre

24-28: God’s justice 

29-35: The final warning 

36-39: The war and its miraculous conclusion

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Top 10 Books of 2021

I read a lot of books this year. I’ve always enjoyed reading but I made more of an effort to do it over the last 12 months. Part of it was that I spent a lot of time waiting in hospital rooms. But I also decided that every time that I wanted to mindlessly scroll through a social media feed, I would read a book instead. 

It made a big difference for my peace of mind. There’s something calming about unplugging from all the noise and losing yourself in a book. It helps you to think and put things in perspective. Reading books isn’t for everyone but more people should do it. 

The big thing is that it’s not a homework assignment. You can get caught in a mindset where you have to finish a book once you start it. But that’s not the case. You want to give a book a little bit of time before you give up on it but that only goes so far. If a book is boring or poorly written then you should stop reading it. Forcing yourself to read a bad book is why people don’t read. 

Here’s the 10 books I found most interesting this year, in no particular order. Most weren’t written in 2021 but there’s no reason they should be either. People have been writing books since the beginning of time. The ones that stick around usually do so for a reason. It’s the new ones you can’t be as sure about. 

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe 

A good rule of thumb is that if a book gets made into a movie then it was probably pretty good. This was by far my favorite Wolfe book. He goes behind the scenes of the Apollo program and does a fantastic job of capturing the insanity of it all. Wolfe has a keen eye for the absurdity of the human condition and there’s no better example than the culture of the fighter pilots who competed to be astronauts in the 1960s. They were absolute maniacs in the best possible way. They all had to act like what they were doing was no big deal even though they devoted their lives to it and they were treated like gods for doing it. It’s a great window into describing what life was like in those days while also being hilarious. 

The True History of the American Revolution by George Sydney Fisher 

What if everything you learned about the Revolutionary War in school was wrong? This is not the first book to ask the question but it was one of the most interesting ways to ask it. It was written early in the 20th century, when the British Empire was at its peak, and asked why they were rolled so easily by the Founding Fathers, who were essentially a bunch of glorified thieves and all-around ingrates. His answer is that the British threw the war as part of a political dispute between the Whigs and the Tories. They were the Republicans and Democrats of their day and they hated each other more than they cared about America. One of the interesting things about reading books written so far in the past is that they reveal the underlying assumptions of their day, which are usually very different from what they are today. No one now would ask the question because the British haven’t been an empire for almost a century. 

Here’s a fun fact I learned from this book. The reason the US Military Academy is based in West Point is because that was one of the key strategic sites in the Revolutionary War. The British wanted to cut off New England from the rest of the colonies and they needed to control the Hudson River to do that. 

Medical Nemesis by Ivan Ilich 

This might have been the wildest book I read all year. I have a lot of respect for modern medicine given that it saved my life but I’m also a lot more aware of its limitations now that I’ve seen the system up close and personal. Ilich doesn’t have any respect for it. He thinks it kills more people than it helps. He doesn’t so much push the Overton Window so much as smash it into a million pieces. I’m not sure that I agree with everything that he says in this book but I’m glad I read it. It will challenge a lot of your assumptions about the world. 

The Godfather by Mario Puzo 

Books are usually better than movies so if the movie was good than you have to think that the book was too. I read another one of Puzo’s novels and it was really good too. He knows what he’s doing and he knows how to create characters that stick with you for a long time. Michael. Sonny. Fredo. Don Corleone. Even Johnny Fontane is a compelling character in the book. Like all great novelists, Puzo understands the human condition. And that’s what great art is all about. 

Moby Dick by Herman Melville 

Just because it’s a long book that they assign in school doesn’t mean that it’s not good. I wasn’t sure if it would be worth my time to read Moby Dick but it definitely was. I read pretty fast so I was able to get through it pretty quickly. Your mileage may vary if you don’t. The good news is that it’s about way more than just a hunt for a whale. Melville is giving everything you need to know about the whaling industry which was way more interesting than you might think. His tongue-in-cheek defense of why whaling is a noble calling was one of the funniest things I’ve read all year. 

It’s Better to be Feared by Seth Wickersham 

I wasn’t sure if there was much more to be said about Tom Brady and Bill Belichick but Wickersham found a way. To be fair, I stopped paying attention to the conversation around them a long time ago so he might be repeating stuff that everyone else already knew. But he has known them since the beginning and they both gave him a ton of access. He humanizes them a bit and gives some insight into why they have been so successful. I still can’t say that I would ever root for either but I respect what they have done more after reading this. 

The Comanche Empire by Pekka Hamalainen 

One of the problems with how Americans learn history is that we treat Native Americans as part of a single monolith. But different tribes had very different cultures and histories. The Comanche were no more like the Lakota than the French are like the English. The rise of the Comanches happened simultaneously with the rise of the US because it was based on the combination of power of horses and guns, which were both introduced by Europeans to the North American continent. This book tells their entire history and way of life and it’s the kind of book that every society deserves to tell their story.  

Conspiracy by Ryan Holiday 

The story of how Peter Thiel took down Gawker is so unbelievable that it’s easy to take it for granted. Holiday is given incredible access by both Thiel and Nick Denton to give both sides of it. The interesting part is how it upends your assumptions about what success actually looks like. Was getting revenge actually psychologically healthy for Thiel? And was being taken down actually good for Denton? Things aren’t always what they seem nor do our successes and failures end up having the consequences that we might imagine. 

The Afghanistan Papers by Craig Whitlock 

This is the book to read if you want to understand politics in 2021. Reading this and then going back to look at some of the coverage of the withdrawal from Afghanistan will blow your mind. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad. The short version is that tactics don’t matter if there’s no strategy behind them. We spent the last 20 years arguing about tactics when there was never any chance that any of it was going to work. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying or uninformed. Probably both. Draw your own conclusions from there. 

Hyperreality by Frank Mulder 

This one is short but sweet. It’s for anyone who has wondered whether we are going down the wrong path as a society and whether there is something fundamentally wrong with the way we live our lives in 2021. It’s a good one to keep in mind the next time you decide to get in an argument with someone online or think you know someone based on what they post on social media.

Monday, July 5, 2021

Isaiah 35

For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may stay for the night, but joy comes in the morning. 

- Psalm 30:4-5 
The relationship between God’s anger and favor is one of the main themes of the Book of Isaiah. The prophet spends a lot of time talking about the coming judgment, both for his country and the entire world. But he also talks about the other side of that judgment. 

All the pain and suffering in this world will be redeemed. God and His people will live together and return creation to the paradise that it was always supposed to be. The judgment of Chapter 34 is followed by the celebration of Chapter 35: 
The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. 
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God. 

— Isaiah 35:1-2 
The key is that God is the one who would make it happen. The people of Judah and Israel couldn’t do it on their own. The story of the Old Testament is them partnering with God and failing. They weren’t able to live by His commands. They started pursuing their goals instead of His. Things then went horribly wrong, like they always do once that happens. 

The judgment they experience in the Book of Isaiah is the direct result. It would be hard. But they would survive. That is the promise that Isaiah makes to them, over and over again. It couldn't have been easy to believe given how hopeless their situation seemed

But in the end, God would save them. Not because they are good but because He is. They didn’t have to put their hope in themselves. All they had to do was hold on and wait: 
Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” 

— Isaiah 35:3-4 
The first step in receiving help is accepting that you need it. It was easy for Isaiah’s people to forget that. Help from an unseen God, especially when it came attached to a bunch of commands, didn’t seem necessary. It was easier for them to believe in chariots and foreign alliances. They could see those. 

The Assyrian invasion was a painful reminder of how powerless they actually were. The Assyrians casually destroyed their armies and laughed at their alliances. Judah was a bug they crushed without giving it a second thought. The only thing left to do at that point was to return to God. 

The same basic principle holds true for us, almost 3,000 years later. We all have feeble hands, knees that give way, and fearful hearts. It just may not be obvious when everything is going well. It’s only when times are tough that we realize how much we can’t control. 

My experience over the last few months has brought that home to me. I’m 33 and I was just diagnosed with cancer. The doctors don’t know why I had the gene mutation that caused it, how I will respond to chemotherapy, or how long I would stay in remission if the chemo does work. 

There's still so much that we don't know about cancer, and that we never can. Doctors don't go "you only have X months to live" when they diagnose you with terminal cancer. That's only in movies. They can't actually predict their future. So they just give you the numbers on likely outcomes and let you figure it out from there. 

In “The Emperor of All Maladies”, Siddhartha Mukherjee finds the earliest recorded case of cancer in human history in a medical document written by Imhotep, the royal physician of one of the Egyptian Pharoahs, around 2,500 B.C. It was about 1,800 years before the events of the Book of Isaiah. Treatment has progressed by leaps and bounds since, but I’m still in the same boat as the unknown cancer victim that he wrote about. I'm at the mercy of a disease that we don't really understand, hoping for a miracle to save me. 

That makes me no different than anyone else. When you have a health crisis in a public position, you get a small taste of the pain in the world. I’ve talked to people with all kinds of cancer, and people who have buried their spouses, or their kids. 
It's a little overwhelming. There’s an ocean of suffering out there that is easy to miss unless you or someone you love is part of it. 

The one person who didn’t miss it was Jesus. It was all brought right to him: 
When they heard about all Jesus was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat from crowding him. For he had healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him. 

— Mark 3:8-10 

Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he had and his disciples were not even able to eat. 

— Mark 3:20 
There are so many stories in the Gospels about Jesus going to do something, only to be interrupted by massive crowds of people who needed his help. They had been sick or blind or possessed for years. Or their whole lives. Or their kids were dying. And they heard that this man might be able to cure them. So they dropped whatever they were doing and rushed to see him. 

                                                                        CC: SongSimian 

They weren’t willing to take no for an answer:
Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet.

The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter. “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” 

“Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  

Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left you daughter.” 

— Mark 7:25-29 
There were times where Jesus didn’t want to heal. He was a man just as much as he was God. He got worn out. He needed a break sometimes. In this passage, he leaves the Jewish settlements and heads to the Gentile city of Tyre, where he meets a woman who wants him to heal her daughter. He tells her that his mission is to “the children” (i.e. the Jews) and that it wouldn’t be right to give their “bread” (his healing) to the “dogs” (Gentiles). 

But she has no time for that. Her need is too urgent. Pride will not get in the way. She tells him that she will take the children's “crumbs”.

We will all be in her shoes at some point. Life is hard. It humbles all of us. Everyone is going through something, even if it’s not always obvious on the outside. 

The hope isn’t that all the pain and suffering will go away tomorrow. It’s that it will ultimately be redeemed by God.
Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth like a wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, and the thirst ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reads and papyrus will grow. 

 But only the redeemed will walk there, and those the Lord has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away. 

— Isaiah 35:6-10

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Isaiah 34

The war between Assyria and Judah wasn’t a battle of good vs. evil. It’s not that the Assyrians weren’t doing evil things. Burning Judah to the ground and selling its people into slavery obviously qualifies. It was what they had done to most of the ancient Middle East

But fighting them didn’t necessarily make the people of Judah good. They had done plenty of horrible things of their own. Conflicts between two nations are rarely binary. Just because one side is bad doesn’t make the other good. It’s more likely that both are bad

That’s why Isaiah condemned both sides during the war. There was no reason for God to help either. And that same principle could be extended to all mankind: 
Come near, you nations, and listen; pay attention, you peoples! Let the earth hear, and all that is in it, the world, and all that comes out of it! 

The Lord is angry with all nations; his wrath is on all their armies. He will totally destroy them, he will give them over to slaughter. 

 -- Isaiah 34:1-2 
God is an impartial judge. He treats everyone the same. That’s what is often missed in the Old Testament. Helping His people establish a nation in the Promised Land was as much about taking the land from other people as it was giving it to them. The Philistines, Canaanites, and other warring tribes of the region had committed grave crimes against their neighbors and their own people. Israel was a tool that God used to bring them to justice. 

But the same standard applied to them, as well. God warned them repeatedly about what would happen if they acted like the people they had replaced. The Promised Land was a privilege, not a right. It could be taken away as easily as it had been given. 

In 750 BC, about 400 years after the exodus from Egypt, God raised up a shepherd named Amos as a prophet to Israel, the northern of the two Jewish kingdoms. Amos was one of the first of the Old Testament prophets. The heart of his message would be repeated by Isaiah a few decades later, and by their successors again and again over the next few centuries: 
There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court and detests the one who tells the truth. You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. 

Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine.  

For I know how many are your offenses and how great are your sins. 

 -- Amos 5:10-12 
In 722 BC, Assyria conquered Israel and deported the survivors. God used Assyria to punish Israel just as He had used Israel to punish the Canaanites and Philistines. Then history repeated itself. The Assyrians, like the Israelites, oppressed their neighbors and created an unjust society. So He raised up the Babylonians, who did the same things as the Assyrians and were punished in turn by the Persians. That cycle has continued ever since, from the Persians to the Greeks and Romans all the way to the British and American empires. 

It’s easy to be depressed when you study history. Humans never change. We have been killing and oppressing each other for as long as we have been around. Nor do we show any signs of stopping. But God has promised that the cycle will not go on forever. There will come a time where He will stop using nations to judge each other, and will step into history and judge them Himself: 
All the stars in the sky will be dissolved and the heavens rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves from the vine, like shriveled figs from the fig tree. 

-- Isaiah 34:4 
That promise is also a warning to Christians about how we should relate to the nations of this world, even our own. If God is angry with all nations, the obvious implication is that there are no righteous ones. Putting your faith in any of them is foolish. 

American Christians have long placed our faith in this country. We trace our roots to the Puritans, who founded an explicitly Christian government for Christian people. And even as we have moved beyond those roots, we still believe that we are a force for good in the world. Americans believe that all of history has been building to the moment where the US and its system of government dominate the globe. It’s a progressive view of history that says we will continue progressing to even greater heights as long as we stay true to our ideals. 

That’s why every presidential election becomes a titanic battle to determine the moral character of our nation. We have spent the last four years being told that everything will go back to normal once Trump is gone. But the sad reality is that normal is really bad. Most of the evil things that America does won’t stop regardless of who is in the White House. 

The War in Yemen is a perfect example. Saudi Arabia, with the full backing of the U.S. government, intervened in their civil war in 2015, and began a vicious military campaign that has lasted for five years and killed hundreds of thousands of people. It’s a human rights catastrophe that we are ultimately responsible for. The Saudis are using our weapons with a military that we built for them. This policy began under Obama, continued under Trump, and will likely keep going under Biden. Read about the history of American foreign policy and you will see this kind of thing happens all the time

In "The Jakarta Method", Vincent Bevins describes how the U.S. helped the Indonesian military engineer a coup of a Communist-led government in the 1950s, kill almost a million people, and then export that process all over the world during the Cold War. It really isn't that surprising when you think about it. A battle for worldwide domination tends to be a race to the bottom. Anything you do can be justified by the fact that the other side is doing it. 

That's why the U.S. spends so much time talking about how evil our enemies are, whether it was the Nazis in World War II, the Soviets in the Cold War, or Vladimir Putin in modern times. And it's not that any of them would have been better if they had our level of global influence. It’s that no nation can responsibly wield that kind of overwhelming power. That’s why God condemned superpowers so strongly in the Book of Isaiah

America is the Assyria of our day. We spend more money on our military than every other major nation combined. The military is the one institution in our society we still have faith in. There's no question that we have used it to defeat a lot of evil nations. But just because our enemies are bad doesn't make us good. 

So how should American Christians respond beyond not blindly putting our faith in America? The Bible gives us a fairly relevant historical model. The first Christians lived primarily in the Roman Empire, which like the U.S., ruled most of the known world, either directly or indirectly. And Rome was far more hostile to the faith than America ever has been.

One of the interesting things about the letters in the New Testament, which were written in the first century AD, is how little they have to say about politics. Paul wrote a letter to believers in Rome, while both he and Peter wrote numerous letters from Rome. Yet none ever talked about who was a good or bad Emperor, much less overthrowing a tyrannical system of government that forced people to worship the Emperor as a god. 
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God had established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do will bring judgment on themselves.

For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you.

-- Romans 13:1-3
These are some of the most challenging verses in the Bible for American Christians who were raised to believe that rebelling against the British was one of the most noble acts in human history. Paul had every reason to fight the Romans. They imprisoned and ultimately killed him for preaching the gospel. The same thing happened to Peter. Yet his advice was the same:
Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing god you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

-- 1 Peter 2:13-17
What both Peter and Paul understood was that justice wasn't in their hands. God would punish the Romans for their crimes, just as he would punish everyone else. They were less concerned about what other people did to them than what they did to other people. They knew that their sins had to be forgiven on the cross. And they were grateful that they were. So they spent the rest of their lives telling other people the good news instead of playing the game of thrones. 

The same lessons apply to us. America is a country with a lot of power, just like Rome and Assyria. And it will continue to misuse that power, just like every other empire before it. Christians aren't asked to wield power in this world. We are here to tell people that this world won't last forever, and that there will be justice for everything that happens in it. 

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Isaiah 33

Isaiah asked a lot of his people. Their country was being devastated by the Assyrian army, the Nazis of their day. And they weren’t even supposed to get help from their bigger and more powerful neighbors, who were gearing up for their own war against Assyria. 

He wasn’t quite saying to turn the other cheek. The Assyrians still had to be punished for their crimes: 
Woe to you who plunder, though you have not been plundered; And you who deal treacherously, though they have not dealt treacherously with you! 

When you cease plundering, you will be plundered; When you make an end of dealing treacherously, they will deal treacherously with you. 

-- Isaiah 33:1-2 
The people of Judah, along with their other victims, would be avenged. But they would not be the ones to do it. That task fell to God:
“Now will I arise,” says the Lord. “Now will I be exalted; now will I be lifted up. You conceive chaff, you give birth to straw; your breath is a fire that consumes you. The people will be burned to ashes; like cut thornbushes they will be set ablaze.” 

-- Isaiah 33:10-12 
Isaiah’s message went hand in hand with his calls for people to put their faith in God to get them through the crisis. They were not supposed to do anything. Their salvation was not in their own hands.

The bigger issue was their own lack of faith. The Jewish people had gone their own way over the previous century, creating an unjust society that oppressed the poor and ignored every commandment that God had given them. That was the real source of their problems. 

It would have been a difficult message to hear. No one wants to believe they are ultimately responsible for their own misfortune. The more natural reaction would have been to focus on what had been done to them and vow revenge. 

There was an obvious boogeyman. The Assyrians were led by a ruthless king named Sennacherib. He ran the imperial bureaucracy for his father Sargon II until his death on the battlefield in 705 BC. The problem for Sennacherib was that he had not campaigned himself, and military service was how Assyrian kings gained legitimacy. So he had a hard time controlling their massive empire when he took over. Babylon, their most important territory, instantly revolted. 

Sennacherib’s response was doubling down even further on violence and cruelty, which is saying something given Assyria’s history. Sargon II had conquered Israel, the northern of the two Jewish kingdoms in the ancient Middle East, in 722 BC, and ethnically cleansed the region. Sennacherib showed even less mercy when he fought his way to the gates of Babylon. His army sacked the city and killed tens of thousands of people. They did the same thing in their march towards Jerusalem in 701 BC. Judah, like Israel before it, looked doomed. 

It all worked out in the end, exactly as Isaiah promised. The Assyrians put Jerusalem under siege, but never conquered it. Their army mysteriously withdrew rather than attack. The city was saved. So was the nation of Judah, as well as the Jewish people. 

But the Assyrian Empire had not been destroyed. They had plenty more armies, and still controlled most of the known world. Sennacherib sat on the throne in their capital city of Nineveh like nothing had happened. One of the reasons why we know the story told in the Book of Isaiah is true are the monuments that he built, which listed Jerusalem among the huge number of cities that he besieged, but not on the list of ones that he captured. The failed campaign was a footnote in the history of the Assyrian Empire. Justice had not really been served. 

The main characters in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove had to deal with the same issue. It tells the story of a late 19th century cattle drive from Texas to Montana led by two aging sheriffs. A woman (Lorena) is abducted from their party by a group of bandits. One of the sheriffs (Gus) rescues her in a dramatic firefight, but the leader of the bandits (Blue Duck) escapes. Gus decides to let him go rather than chasing him through the countryside: 
“Son, this is a sad thing,” said Gus. “Loss of life always is. But the life is lost for good. Don’t you go attempting vengeance. You’ve got more urgent business. If I ever run into Blue Duck I’ll kill him. But if I don’t, somebody else will. He’s big and mean, but sooner or later he’ll meet somebody bigger and meaner. Or a snake will bite him or a horse will fall on him, or he’ll get hung, or one of his renegades will shoot him in the back. Or he’ll just get old and die. Don’t be trying to give back pain for pain. You can’t get even measures in business like this.” 
His decision fits the broader themes of the book. The plot twists and turns and goes in unexpected directions. It doesn’t end when the cattle drive does. Not every crisis is resolved. Bad guys get away. The good guys don’t always “win”. 

The more important question in that situation was what “winning” would even mean. Lorena was in no shape for a manhunt, while Gus was needed by his friends back on the cattle drive. There was no guarantee that he would find Blue Duck, or that he would capture him if he did. The odds were that he would be throwing away the lives of a lot of people for nothing. 

What Gus says perfectly sums up the Christian perspective on revenge. We know that we live in a fallen world that will not be made whole until Jesus returns. There is no such thing as perfect justice on this side of eternity. But the good news is there is another side. God has promised us that every wrong will be addressed. We don’t have to live our lives consumed by vengeance. We can let things slide. After all, that’s what God did for us. 

Life is hard, and it comes in unexpected ways. Blue Duck is captured in Lonesome Dove, years after the cattle drive is over. Gus and his friends had nothing to do with it. There was just only so long that he could get away with his life of banditry before it caught up with him. 

Sennacherib didn’t escape justice, either. He fought numerous wars in the years after his failed siege of Jerusalem, extending the reach of the Assyrian Empire even further and destroying many civilizations in its path. The promise of vengeance that Isaiah had given him was probably the furthest thing from his mind when it finally happened in 681 BC: 
One day, while [Sennacherib] was worshiping in the temple of his god Nisrok, his sons Adrammelek and Sharezer killed him with the sword, and they escaped to the land of Ararat. And Esarhaddon his son succeeded him as king.

-- Isaiah 37:38
There aren't many worse ways to go than being murdered by your own children. But death is death even in the most pleasant circumstances. There's only so much time we are given in this world, and we all have to stand before God when we die. How we get there doesn't really matter all that much. 

There's no need for revenge. Life is hard enough as it is.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Isaiah 32

Isaiah knew he would be ignored. It was one of the first things God told him after he became a prophet:
He said, “Go and tell this people: ‘Be ever hearing but never understanding, be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” 
- Isaiah 6:9-10 
The people he was talking to wouldn’t understand him. Not because they were deaf or blind, but because they were spiritually blind. Our eyes filter an overwhelming amount of sensory information from the world around us and turn it into something our brains can understand. We only “see” a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum. It’s the same thing with our brains and the way they filter our experiences. 

The world is too complicated to understand without a filter. That filter can be religious, societal, or cultural, or some combination of all three. Everyone takes things on faith, even if those things aren’t spiritual claims. The average American is taught to believe that science has all the answers, and that supernatural explanations are relics from our unenlightened past. 

Most people have not actually investigated the nature of the universe for themselves. Where would they even start? They have just been taught how to think about it from a young age, and assume that everyone else thinks similarly, and that the ones who don’t are ignorant. 

In his famous (or at least famous in unbearably pretentious circles) commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005, David Foster Wallace tells a story about a religious person and an atheist: 
There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God. And the atheist says: “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.’” 

And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. “Well then you must believe now,” he says,” After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, man, all that was was a couple of Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to the camp.” 
Both interpretations could be right. Maybe it was luck that some Eskimos were there to save the atheist’s life. Or maybe God heard his prayer and sent them. There’s no way to “prove” either answer. 

The same thing is true for the events of the Book of Isaiah. Most historians believe some sort of plague struck the Assyrian army when it was besieging Jerusalem and forced them to withdraw, saving the city. Isaiah believed that it was an angel using a plague to save Jerusalem

Each interpret events through their particular worldviews. Christians have to remember that people with a more secular worldview will never “see” the same things as us. So the only way to change their mind is to change their worldview. Everything else is a waste of time. 

God allowed people to make up their own mind when Jesus came to Earth the first time. That will not be the case when he returns. The promise that Isaiah makes in Chapter 32 is quite different from what God tells him in Chapter 6: 
See, a king will reign in righteousness and rulers will rule with justice. 

Each one will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land. 

Then the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed, and the ears of those who hear will listen. 

-- Isaiah 32:1-3 
Our job, until that happens, is to help people open their eyes. It’s not to get angry about their blindness. 

Christianity is not about a series of rituals and behaviors that will lead to a better life on Earth. That’s part of it, but it’s not the main thing. Nor is it about “traditional values” or a certain way you have to live your life. None of that stuff will save you. It will not make you a righteous person, or holy before a righteous God. Having a couple of kids, a spouse, a good job, and a white picket fence is not a ticket into the kingdom of heaven. Voting for a particular party or giving all your money to charity or devoting your life to good works isn’t one, either. 

The Jewish religious leaders in Jesus’ day devoted their lives learning the Law that God gave to Moses. They knew it inside and out and made their people follow it down to the letter. They were as righteous and holy as any men who ever lived. But that’s a low bar to clear in comparison to the standard of God: 
For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbled at just one point is guilty of adultery. [emphasis added] For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” 

If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. 

- James 2:10-13 
The good news of Christianity isn’t that there’s a long list of rules that you have to follow to be a good person. The rules by themselves will not save you. They aren’t that important in the big picture. They are the end products, not the cause, of Christian life. 

The good news is that the Creator of the universe took on human flesh and walked among us for a short period of time in ancient Israel 2,000 years ago. Then he was killed and rose from the dead. Now we have the chance to follow him and to spread that good news to the rest of the world. 

If you don’t make that good news the foundation of your life, and your identity, then all of the other stuff doesn’t matter. You might as well not do it all. You are better off doing whatever you want and not following any rules than trying to be a Christian without a relationship to Christ. Both paths are equally fruitless. It’s just more obvious with the former than the latter. 
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” 

-- Matthew 7:21-23 
Pat Riley, who has won titles as a player, coach, and general manager in a more than 50-year career in the NBA, coined a famous saying when talking about the challenges of maintaining success -- "Keep the main thing, the main thing". Winning a title creates opportunities for everyone involved and turns star players into celebrities. But all those opportunities ultimately stem from winning basketball games. So people that lose focus on the main thing will ultimately lose everything else, too. 

That's why Isaiah always came back to preaching repentance and belief in God. He had many specific pieces of advice to his people, like telling them not to trust in foreign militaries to save them against the Assyrians, but he knew that it would all be ignored if there wasn't change in their hearts. Their spiritual rebellion against God was the ultimate cause of their problems, as well as their only chance of a solution to them. It does not good to point out all the evil things happening right in front of someone if they can't even see them. 

We are dealing with the same issues almost 3,000 years later. The difference is that Isaiah was pointing his people to the coming of the Messiah. We, on the other hand, are lucky enough to be living on the other side of that. 

The main thing in Christianity is Jesus. The religion is built around his message and what he did in his time on Earth. The rest of it won't make sense unless people learn to follow him. That's the only way that people will ever be able to open their eyes.