Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Isaiah 1: 27-31

  27 Zion will be redeemed with justice
And her repentant ones with righteousness.
28 But transgressors and sinners will be crushed together,
And those who forsake the LORD will come to an end.
29 Surely you will be ashamed of the oaks which you have desired,
And you will be embarrassed at the gardens which you have chosen.
30 For you will be like an oak whose leaf fades away
Or as a garden that has no water.
31 The strong man will become tinder,
His work also a spark.
Thus they shall both burn together
And there will be none to quench them.

Chapter 1 closes out with a strong statement of judgment and a series of vivid metaphors. Indeed, the writer in me is seeing the writer in Isaiah, and I'm flooded with verses that tie in with what he is saying. I hope I don't inadvertently get us sidetracked too far from his points today!

Picking up from where we left off last week, remember that Isaiah is speaking of the end times here. (As it turns out, Chapter 2 will continue with this theme.) According to my study Bible, Zion originally referred to a designation for the hill Ophel (a mountain near the Mount of Olives). There seems to be some discrepancy as to what area is exactly covered under 'Zion.' But, when Isaiah uses 'Zion' in his prophecy, he speaks of Jerusalem.

The term "repentant ones" used in verse 27 is more literally translated "returnees." The King James Version says 'converts,' and the Reformation Study Bible explains the reference to mean those "ransomed, transferred or freed from ownership by another through the payment of a price...." The term refers to the "remnant" of the tribes of Israel, preserved by God, who will return to Jerusalem in the end times at Jesus' second coming and earthly reign. God's promise of old--permanent sanctification of His relationship with His people--shall be fulfilled through these "repentant ones."

But, there must also be a "smelting away" of the "dross," to use last week's words from verse 25. The "New Jerusalem" will be a holy city, one that must be devoid of sinfulness in any form if the Lord is to preside over it.

"It is a universal ruin, which will involve the transgressors and the sinners together, that is, the openly profane that have quite cast of all religion, and the hypocrites that live wicked lives under the cloak of a religious profession—they shall both be destroyed together, for they are both alike an abomination to God, both those that contradict religion and those that contradict themselves in their pretensions to it."
--Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary on the Bible
I hadn't really thought of transgressers and sinners being different, but the Hebrew definitions help to make clear the distinctions [all following definitions from Strong's]. The word for transgress means, "to breakaway (from just authority), i.e. trespass, apostatize, quarrel." The transgressor is a rebel. Matthew Henry termed these the "openly profane." Then, there are those who may not be profane, but are not true followers either. A sinner is "a criminal, or one accounted guilty." Are we all guilty before God? Yes, we are. Thank God for the saving, merciful grace and forgiveness through Jesus Christ, however, that we may not be forever condemned as guilty! That's the difference between the "repentant ones" and the "sinners." Finally, those who "forsake the Lord" will also face eternal judgment, 'forsake' meaning "to loosen, leave or relinquish" [a relationship with God].

"For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.  These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed—for our testimony to you was believed."
--II Thessalonians 1: 6-10

With verse 29, Isaiah depicts through a nature metaphor the difference between paradise and, well, truly, Hell. Simple words like oaks and gardens carry a bit more weight than at first glance.

An alternate translation for 'oak' is 'terebinth,' which is another type of sturdy tree that would have been prolific in the area. From reading in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, a terebinth could reach as high as 40 feet with a huge spread of branches. It featured berries in season and, alternatively, lost its colorful leaves in season ("an oak who leaf fades away"). It was under these mighty trees that Judah and Israel chose to offer up sacrifices in worshiping their created idols.

"They offer sacrifices on the tops of the mountains and burn incense on the hills, under oak, poplar and terebinth, because their shade is pleasant...."
--Hosea 4:13

Likewise, 'garden' does not refer to a household flower or vegetable patch. In Biblical times, gardens were walled enclosures featuring amazing varieties of plants, fountains and other sources of running water, and planned seating areas. Yes, think Eden--a paradise, in which one could sit and enjoy the pleasantness and peacefulness of beautiful surroundings. No wonder God began the story of Man in such a place! The Hebrew for 'garden' in its most basic form means "a covered or hidden place." [Strong's]

I think Isaiah is referring to the heart when he speaks of the garden in this passage. God knows our hidden-most place and what dwells in that place. "Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against Thee." (Psalm 119:11, KJV) But Jerusalem had turned from His word. It had become a "garden with no water." (vs. 30) How can the heart of the believer be filled and maintained without the living water of God? "He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, 'From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.'" (John 7:38)

In contrast to the lushness of a garden of paradise, Isaiah tops off his nature metaphor with a counter dry, parched metaphor to represent sinful man and his works. Rather than the strong oak, we read of the strong man who is reduced to timber, with his fruit also to be tossed into the fire. The Reformation Study Bible says, "Drought and fire are metaphors for judgment. Water in Isaiah signifies free, gracious, and bountiful salvation. The absence of water signifies separation from God’s blessings." These metaphors tie together perfectly!
Couple this with the King James', which reads "the strong shall be as tow." Tow is the fiber that comes out of flax when it is being processed for use in making thread. The Hebrew means "something shaken out." [Strong's] The tow is the weak, undesirable leftovers on the threshing floor. John the Baptist used his own tow-like metaphor in pronouncing the arrival of the Messiah:

"His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
--Matthew 3:12
If we find ourselves in that dry, parched land, may we know in the wellspring that is our heart that living water is at hand by promise of His Word.

"Oh that my ways may be established
To keep Your statutes!
Then I shall not be ashamed
When I look upon all Your commandments.
I shall give thanks to You with uprightness of heart,
When I learn Your righteous judgments.
I shall keep Your statutes;
Do not forsake me utterly!"
--Psalm 119: 5-8

"God's Universal Reign," begins a five-chapter discourse with a look at the New Jerusalem. Chapter 2.... 'Til next Wednesday!


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Next week: Isaiah 2: 1-5

Note: I read from the New American Standard Bible translation,
specifically, The MacArthur Study Bible (NASB).
I will quote other sources if used in a post.

I also use
Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible
(with notes from the King James Version).