Seed, Sanctuary, and Salvation:
An Overview of Isaiah 40-66 by Jules Grisham (1)
I want to discuss a series of four tensions which underlie the entire thematic structure of Isaiah, and if we keep these in mind through everything we’ll be studying through these next several weeks, we’ll be enriched in our understanding of the whole book. And these are, first, the tension between the holiness of God and the arrogant sinfulness of man; second, the tension between the exalted condition for which we were created and the miserable reality in which we find ourselves; third, the tension between the unconditionality of God’s covenantal promises and the conditionality of our remaining in the bonds of covenant; and fourth, the tension between the one and the many, between one through whom the blessings and obligations of the covenant are mediated and the many to whom these blessings and obligations flow.
Thus, first: we might begin with what is perhaps the overwhelmingly distinctive characteristic of Isaiah which emerged as we studied through the first 39 chapters of his book: and that is the juxtaposition of the utter holiness of God with the arrogant sinfulness of fallen humanity. He frequently refers to God as the Holy One of Israel. And in fact, as we’ll see, this very thing is an important evidence for the unity of the whole book. Isaiah uses that phrase “the Holy One of Israel” 12 times in chapters 1-39, and 14 times in chapters 40-66 – as compared with the appearance of that phrase only 6 times outside the book of Isaiah in the whole Old Testament. In Isaiah 6, where we read of the prophet’s overwhelming experience of God’s presence at the time of his calling in the last year of King Uzziah’s reign, we saw how Isaiah was nearly overcome, near suffocated, by the intensity of the blazing holiness of God’s glory drawing near upon him. In fact, he fell down as one stricken unto death, crying out, “Woe to me, for I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips!” God’s exalted throne was surrounded by the seraphim – literally, “the burning ones” – who hovered near the throne like great flames all around it. And their repeated refrain was “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty!” Remember how we said that in Hebrew, if you want to emphasize something, or indicate the sense of superlative, you repeat it – as in “gold gold,” which we would translate “pure gold”; or as in when God said to Adam in the garden that if he were to eat of the forbidden fruit, what we read as “you will surely die,” in the Hebrew, literally reads “you will die die!” So here: God is holy, holy, holy – and nowhere in Scripture is anything raised to such a super-superlative as this. Not only is God really and assuredly and in all very holy, but he is the holiest of all-possible holiness! “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty.”
But what is holiness, anyway? As we said last semester, it’s important to review now, because this concept is so important for understanding, well, not just Isaiah, but the entirety of Scripture: to be holy means to be set apart, to be set apart from the profane, the common, the everyday, the worldly. Holiness denotes set-apartness, otherness. God is Light, and in him is no darkness at all. And that Light in its awesome purity penetrates and burns through all darkness and sin. God is utter, absolute, and infinite holiness. And that’s the whole problem – from our perspective, anyway – because we’re not. We’re not holy! That’s one way of thinking about our whole predicament: as God’s image-bearing creatures we were made, we were created, to abide and to thrive in God’s presence. But on account of our sinfulness, by which our souls have been polluted with so much darkness, the prospect of that very thing for which we were created to enjoy – God’s presence with us in blessing; God with us – has become the one thing above all others most to be feared! Though we were created in his image, and though we’ve been called to be holy, because he is holy, yet we know that we’re anything but holy. And the sad fact is that, were God to draw too nearly to any of us without the protective fire-suit of Christ’s righteousness wrapped around us, we would be destroyed. In our sinfulness, were we to set eyes upon the holy God who’d created us, we would surely die – we would die die! And this tragedy of our condition finds its consummate expression in Exodus 33:20: “You [sinful man, sinful woman] cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Why? Because God’s holiness is a sin-consuming fire whose very approach would incinerate sinners like us, but for his grace to us in Christ, by whose life and death on our behalf we’ve been given as our own the one property which can withstand the intensity of God’s holiness – righteousness. Christ’s righteousness is the gift given to us by which we can withstand the holiness of God as he would draw near to us; it is our protective suit in the consuming fire, without which, well, we’d be toast toast! “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty!”
And that’s the juxtaposition which Isaiah works with throughout his entire book: God is holy, and we’re not. God is Light, and no matter what comforting delusions we concoct as to our own merit and worth in God’s eyes, we are clothed in darkness and sin; we are rebels in a fallen and sin-tainted world, and God will not brook such rebellion forever. He will draw near to us whether we want him to or not, because it is his will that he will reclaim his creation. And as for whether that approach take on the dreadful aspect of an approaching consuming fire, bringing the certainty of wrath and ruin, or whether that same approach be the loving approach of a father’s longed-for embracing of his children – this all depends on our stance. Will we turn from our arrogance and vanity and cruelty and self-centered self-reliance, and repent of these things, and turn once again to him in reliance upon him and in conformity to his word and will? Or will we persist in the delusion of our own self-righteousness? Isaiah’s message is overwhelming: God will not abide our disobedience forever, and he loathes, his soul hates, the empty and idolatrous worship we dare to offer him – as if we could compel his blessing given our sinfulness. There is a hope, but that hope is found only at the bar of God’s judgment: the message of God’s salvation, the gospel, entails the knowledge of what we really are (sinners) in light of what God really is (holy, holy, holy). And only then, in that painful, frightening acknowledgment of reality, does the path to salvation become clear, which is given by God alone, in the broken body and shed blood of Christ on our behalf, received and rested upon by faith. The gospel entails the knowledge of what we really are in light of what God is, and of what we will be when and only when we let God make us into what we ought to be.
Here is the great biblical theme of living by sight vs. living by faith. Will we trust in the things seen and foreseeable on the basis of our own limited experience? Will we invest in the things of this world? Will we live life as if it’s all about nurturing and protecting my “identity” in the here and now of an unending present? Or will we see that our narcissism is in effect an idolatry – an idolatry of our own identity? Will we see that the things of this world will perish along with this world? Will we see that in limiting our lives to the horizons of our own choices of the foreseen and available options, we are utterly closing ourselves off from the transcendent, from God who calls us from beyond the horizon of the foreseeable, anchored in a future reality from which he is beckoning us, toward a destination and a condition which surpasses anything we can even imagine? Will we live lives whose prevailing principle is choice, or will we live lives whose prevailing principle is calling? The two are radically opposed. One is closed, pantheistic, bound to the here and the now and the me; the other is open to an unseen but beckoning future, and is all about transformation from this limited and flawed identity to the image-bearing child of God which our Lord is calling us to become! Amen! The choice is between trusting the evidence of our eyes – all is here before us, look to the here and now, and make sure that your options are unhindered – vs. trusting the word of God – which hinders some of our choices as it calls us to a better future. Which will it be? A life by sight or a life by faith?
God is calling us to a destiny which so transcends anything we could earn, so transcends anything we could build or fashion or design ourselves, so transcends anything we can even imagine, that the only way to get there is through faith – through a living and vital faith which trusts in God’s purposes and in his power to bring them perfectly to fruition, and abandons reliance on our own choices as if those are the path to happiness. Those choices in themselves snare us in our own delusions, bind us and limit us to what is foreseeable, keep us in fear of the unknown as we seek to fashion and cling to our own idolatrous hopes for security and happiness, and finally close us off from the reality of God’s calling us from beyond the horizon of the foreseeable, to a future which is immeasurably greater than anything we could ever choose ourselves. The kingdom of heaven is ours through faith, not through the delusional value of our works. That is the great theme of Isaiah, and it’s the great theme of Scripture. Amen!
So there is the juxtaposition between the holiness of God and the sinfulness of fallen man. And if this gives us a template for understanding the troubled relationship between God and men in the largest sense, it also applies all the more concretely in the context of Isaiah’s situation – to the nation of Judah and its capital city, Jerusalem – because here was the nation upon whom God’s plan for the redemption of the world rested. He had forged this nation in the wilderness, on the basis of his promises to the patriarchs, and he had brought this nation into the Promised Land, a sort of garden Sanctuary, a land consecrated by God’s special presence, a theocracy, in which a special Law was required for this nation to be sufficiently consecrated as to remain in it. This nation, alone among the nations, had been drawn out from among the constellation of other nations, and had been fashioned to function as a kingdom of priests, serving the Most High God. To them had been given the promise of the Seed who would arise from among them and who would, there in that promised Sanctuary land, through his obedience, reverse the curse of Adam and restore God’s blessing to the earth. But for all this which God had promised to come to pass, the nation had to be holy, as God himself is holy. But! Now the crisis: having received all these blessings, the nations and its leadership had persisted in outrageous and ongoing sin – permitting rampant injustice and violence, offering false and empty worship – and so God called Isaiah to serve as his prophet, and to call this errant nation to task.
Now, it’s really important to understand is the notion and role of the prophet. Isaiah is a prophet of God. And what that means is that he was a man called by God and commissioned to serve as his Word-bearing ambassador. And he is to take his message to any and all to whom God directs him – even the king himself – and to call them to account and to remind them of their covenant obligations to a still higher authority. This is an astounding office in the context of the ancient near east, where kings routinely arrogated to themselves divine attributes and origins and powers. Think of how scary this would be to march into the throne-room of some puffed-up but very lethal potentate, and to rebuke him in the name of a higher authority. This was the task of the prophet, and it was often a very thankless one, from the vantage point of “winning friends and influencing people.” Very often, prophets ended up persecuted or even executed. But the very fact that such people obeyed God’s calling and commission, and carried his Word into whatever dangerous situation God called them to, this means that they are living pictures of lives of faith. Here are people who put obedience to God’s Word above even fear of personal harm; and they could only do this – we can only do this – if we trust in God, if we have faith in his intentions and his sovereign right and power. God is the great king to whom even all the puffed-up potentates on earth owe their allegiance. And it is the job of the prophet to serve as God’s Word-bearing ambassador, from the heavenly court, to pronounce that sovereign authority and its implications and consequences.
Thus, Isaiah was sent to the nation of Judah to pronounce God’s indictment, his “covenant lawsuit,” for what amounted to a sustained and outrageous breach of covenant. As had been set forth in the stipulations to which they had agreed as a people back at Sinai, and as had reaffirmed on several occasions since then: God’s judgment would now come upon them, as the stipulations in the event of covenant breach kicked in. And it’s exactly this relentlessness of Isaiah’s pronouncement of “woe,” of the certainty of coming judgment, which makes Isaiah 1-39 such a tough study if you’re really more in the mood for a Sunday morning pick-me-up! I mean, as you work your way through this, you almost begin to feel beaten up: judgment is coming, righteous and terrible and awesome and utter and complete. And not just would the Davidic dynasty be overthrown, not just would the temple be burned to the ground and the holy city of Jerusalem leveled, not just would the people be sent into exile from the land which had been their special promised garden on earth, but even the entire earth would be subsumed in judgment, and all would be returned to a condition of primeval darkness and chaos, “formless and empty,” “wild and waste.” All the striving and fighting and hoping and longing and loving and positioning and angling – everything – would seem to be headed toward this ultimate grim fate. It would all come to ruin. Vanity of vanities, emptiness, futility. There’s a fun message for you! No wonder the prophets were so unpopular!
But this was not the entirety of Isaiah’s message. Though judgment was coming, certain and terrible and thorough, yet God had made promises which were full of hope and grandeur and beauty. The people of God would be restored, and the mountain of the Lord’s temple would be raised above all other mountains, and the nations of the world would stream to it to offer their praises and worship to the Holy One of Zion, and they would beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and lions would abide in peace with lambs and infants with cobras and vipers. Though judgment was coming, yet somehow, beyond that judgment, loomed the blessings of a peace, a condition of shalom – shalom, that marvelous Hebrew word which means so much more than mere cessation of hostilities, but the abiding rest of completion, like a Sabbath forever, rest from all vain striving, rest from our fears and compulsions, and anxieties, rest in the assurance of blessing and the presence of God forevermore! Amen!
And if we could compress all the blessing of this promise into one word and one overwhelmingly and stupendously grand conception, it would be expressed in the word Isaiah used to signify this condition to come in Isaiah 7:14 – “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.” “God with us” and we with him, abiding in the midst of his glorious splendor, enjoying him and glorifying him in a condition of unhindered joy, of everlasting life anchored in God’s own life, overflowing with his empowering Spirit, delighted by the bounty of things when the kingdom of the world shall have become the kingdom of God and of his Christ, of life lived in all the fullness of its possibility! This is God’s promise to his people, and it is that for which we most eagerly yearn. Indeed, it is what we were created to enjoy.
But now we come to the second juxtaposition, the second tension, which we find pervading the pages of Isaiah. We’ve just been discussing the tension between God’s holiness and our arrogant sinfulness. Now, tied very closely to that, we see the tension between God’s glorious plans for us and our self-inflicted inability to enjoy the fruition of those plans of our own accord. God created us to enjoy Immanuel and shalom – God with us and peace; but our sinfulness has made this impossible, and we find ourselves cut off from either one! Having sought in the fever of our greed and folly to usurp God’s Lordship in our lives, and to become masters of our own worlds, by ignoring his Word and will and setting ourselves up as the authority on what we would and wouldn’t do – having sought to displace God’s place and to become like gods ourselves, we found that we’d lost even the dominion that we’d enjoyed, and were now enslaved to a creature, Satan, and were enmeshed in a condition of sin and misery, in bondage to sin, and confronted by the inevitability of death. In fact, as we’ve seen, our sinfulness has wreaked such havoc in the fabric of things that the creation itself was contaminated by it, and were we in our darkness and rebellion even to enter into the holiness of God’s presence, we would be consumed like kindling in the intensity of that holy fire. We could not withstand the blazing purity of the one who made us in his own image. What a tragedy that is! And that, in a nutshell, in that picture of blessedness intended and blessedness lost, is the template by which we can understand the entire history of redemption as recorded in the pages of Scripture, by which God has been preparing us for restoration, reconciliation, and ultimately for everlasting life in the presence of his holiness. The whole of redemption history can be understood as the story of how God has been working it so that he might once again draw into our midst, “God with us” – but without killing us in the process!
And the means by which he’s been carrying out this great work of restoration and consummation has been, from the very beginning, covenant. Covenant is the structure by which he’s been operating in history to redeem, restore, and abide with his people. And that’s our next major concept for understanding not just this great book of Isaiah, but the entirety of Scripture. Covenant is the means, the structure, by which God’s been operating in human history to redeem, restore, and abide with his people. Now, what do we mean when we say covenant? What is its character?
A covenant is a formally constituted (in our case, bilateral) relational bond, entailing mutual obligations and expectations on both parties. Scripture often likens the covenantal bond between God and man to the covenantal bond between a man and a woman in marriage. Like marriage, that is, it is a formally constituted relationship which is exclusive and inviolable. The bond entails obligations on both parties, and promises both blessings in the event of mutual faithfulness and loyalty, and sanctions in the unfortunate event of unfaithfulness and disloyalty. So if both partners abide by the stipulations of the covenant bond of union, untold blessings will ensue. But if they don’t – say, if one or both parties stray outside the bonds of the covenant relation by infidelity – then all manner of unpleasantness will ensue, as the sanctions of the covenant breach kick in. Right? Unlike marriage, however, God’s covenant is characterized by two further features: first, that it is unilaterally imposed (Abraham didn’t have any say in it, for example; and Moses didn’t bargain with God and add an eleventh commandment or subtract the tenth commandment -- hey, what do you say if we except this minus the bit about covetousness!); and second, that it is distinctly hierarchical (that is, the covenant between God and man sets forth a unique relationship, as between the Lord of the covenant and the covenant vassal, or subject, that is, you and me).
And as we consider the way this covenant actually operates in Scripture, we come to our third tension – that is, the tension between the covenant’s unconditional aspect, on the one hand – by which God promised that certain things would come to pass regardless of anything we did or didn’t do – and its conditional aspect, on the other – by which God obligates us to remain faithful to the stipulations of the covenant if we hope to share in the ultimate blessings of that covenant’s ultimate fulfillment.
All throughout Scripture, even in the New Testament, there’s a conditional aspect to our relationship to God. If you do or don’t do so-and-so, then x…. It is entirely possible – and, tragically, it is not all that uncommon – that people may elect to cut ourselves off from God’s people and the promised blessings of God’s presence. God doesn’t force anyone to be saved against their will. You know, we shouldn’t understand the biblical doctrine of predestination in such manner, ever, as to think either that some are denied the benefits and blessings of salvation against their will. As if people were out there longing to be saved, but God says, “sorry, no room at the inn. No room for you.” No! No one, no one, who would receive the grace of God in Jesus Christ will be turned away. Similarly, though, we could turn that around, and point out that no one, but no one, is saved against their will. No one forces us to dwell in the household of God, as a member of God’s family. That’s Islamic theology, which will keep you in the House of Islam even if they have to kill you to do it. (Right? If a Muslim converts to Christianity, it is deemed religiously appropriate – a religious duty – for the family to kill the “offender” if he doesn’t change his mind. Let me suggest that in that very fact, that people have to be physically threatened to stay, shows the bankruptcy and tyranny which is at the heart of that system. It’s also interesting to consider linkages in this regard between Islam and Communism. Consider: each system is driven by the motive of world dominion – but not simply toward the end of ruling the world and exploiting it, but in a terrifyingly utopian way of really transforming it into its own fearful image – making everyone Communist, making everyone Muslim; or else.) But in this appeal to threat and violence is the emptiness of such man-made utopian systems. God, on the other hand, won’t save a person against his or her will – though he will always save us in spite of ourselves, and must always change our will in the process.
People can, and unfortunately do, fall away from the covenant blessings and benefits of God’s redemption. But – and here’s my point – their falling away does not and cannot void the promises that God had made. In fact, even if every single one of us should, God forbid, fall away from the fellowship of Christ and his people – still, God’s promises would stand, and the promised blessings would come to fruition, though having cut ourselves off, we wouldn’t experience those blessings ourselves. Romans 3, verses 3-4: “What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God's faithfulness? Not at all! Let God be true, and every man a liar!” Even if every person fails and falls away from covenant obedience, still God’s covenant will stand and come to fruition. Why? Because he’s promised it would! Amen!
No matter what we do, God’s covenant will not fail. And that’s the great tension that Isaiah saw: he knew that the covenant could not fail, because God had promised its ultimate fulfillment. And yet before his eyes he was witnessing the failure of the people to live up to the conditional aspects that that same covenant demanded of them. And so the question: how could God’s covenant come to fruition in any meaningful way if God’s people should fail and be excluded from that very fruition? Do you see the tension there? It’s really profound. How can we resolve these seemingly contradictory messages of hope and judgment? What’s the hope of a fulfilled covenant if none of us who’ve lived up to its obligations – and none of us have – will have any place at the table to enjoy those promised benefits? How can the covenant be fulfilled if none are left standing who’ve fulfilled its requirements….?
And this gets us into the really deep stuff. This gets us into an examination of the fourth tension, as between the one and the many, between the one through whom the covenant promises and obligations are mediated, and the many – all of us – to whom those promises and obligations flow. And what I hope we’ll see is that the point where these two tensions intersects, between the unconditionality of God’s promises and the conditionality of our remaining within the covenant bonds, on the one hand, and between the mediator and the many, on the other, can be none other than the person of Jesus Christ. You’ve read Paul refer to Jesus as the head of the church, and to the church as Christ’s body – indicating a living organic union between them, a covenant bond and more than a covenant bond – a bond of union, by his Spirit poured out upon us and into our hearts, sealing us in him and ingrafting us into his life, as we receive him through faith. Christ is the representative head of God’s people; he is the covenant head, the covenant mediator; and we are the covenant body.
What we see when we read through Scripture is that this head/body distinction has characterized the covenant relation between God and man from the very beginning. Whenever God has entered into a new stage of his covenant with his people, he has done so through a particular person, a mediator, through whom the particular promises and/or obligations of that stage of redemption history were passed to the people identified with him. Thus, in the earliest form of God’s covenant relation with his people, we see Adam and Eve, placed in their garden sanctuary, the special place in all the world where God’s presence was most intense, and the place in the world where sin – rebellion against his will – could be least abided. Here was the place of the very threshold of heaven, the gateway through which man might have passed into glory had he not sinned. And in this first form of the covenant, Adam was the covenant head, he was the mediator. It was to Adam that God had communicated the requirements of perfect righteousness there in the garden, and it was upon his obedience that the hope of humanity rested.
We tend to look at Adam and Eve simply in terms of deducing principles of marriage between a man and a woman – which is fine, as far as that goes, but it doesn’t get to their really deep significance in redemption history. Yes, they’re the sort of prototypical husband and wife, and we can learn much from them given that their relationship was constituted in the conditions prevailing before the fall. But much more, they are the original prototype of covenant head and covenant body whose ultimate fulfillment is Christ and the church. When we look at Adam and Eve, we are to see in them the parallels between Christ and the church. Did you ever have fun speculating about things, and get wondering, hey, what would have happened if only Eve had sinned, if only she’d eaten the forbidden fruit? Well, if only Eve had sinned, she would have died, but her sin would not have been imputed to her progeny. But that’s not the case with Adam’s sin. In fact, covenantally-speaking, we’re not guilty of Eve’s sin, but of Adam’s sin. That’s what Romans 5 and other passages in the New Testament are all about. We’re guilty of Adam’s sin, not of Eve’s sin. Why? Because Adam, not Eve, was the covenant head and mediator. Because Adam had been established by God as the covenant head, the representative head, of humanity, and he remains the head of fallen humanity. In short, as fell Eve, so fell Eve; but as fell Adam, so fell humanity – so fell the entire human household over which Adam was the head. And as with Eve, so with us: we as individuals may do what we may, and what we do surely has its effects on us, but as Adam the covenant head of humanity failed, so failed the whole body, so failed and fell humanity! Had he succeeded, had he not fallen, so humanity would have been blessed by the imputation of his blessing. But he fell, and we fell in him and with him. It’s as if he as the head of the household decided not to pay the bills: the consequence of that failure is that all of us who dwell in that household will feel the unpleasant effects, as when, say, the heat and electricity get turned off!
Redemption seen in this light, then, is God’s invitation to us to depart from this dysfunctional household of our birth – the household of fallen humanity over which Adam is the head – and to enter into the household of Christ, the new Adam, and to the loving family which lives there. It’s not that in leaving the household of Adam and entering into the household of Christ we are any better in ourselves than we were before, but merely by entering into the sounder conditions of Christ’s household, the benefits of his righteousness are imputed to us. To push our metaphor too far perhaps, Christ has paid the bills, and we can enjoy the benefits of heat and electricity again – of light and heat! – not because we paid for it ourselves, but merely because we’ve come to live in his house.
Likewise, just as with Adam’s house, we can choose to leave Christ’s household. We can cut ourselves off from Christ and his family, and can go back out into the storm. In this sense – and let’s just shift metaphors for a moment, to make things even clearer – we can think of the world itself as the household of Adam, being pelted by the storm of God’s wrath and displeasure. God’s covenant of grace – the structure of the household of Christ – is our shelter from the storm raging outside, and our hope. Do you see this? Adam failed to pass the probation of obedience to God’s will and Word there in the Garden, and the result of this failure of the covenant head was not only his failure to enter into heaven, but his exile from paradise, and the imputation of that failure to all his progeny, to all who would be born in the household of Adam. But Christ is God’s provision of a second Adam, one who passed the probation of perfect obedience which Adam had failed, and the result of this success by the covenant head was the entrance into heaven itself, and the imputation of his righteousness to all those in his household, to all those who would be reborn by the Spirit in him. So far, so good? Good!
But! Before Jesus himself came into the world, God had been working on this house of redemption for a long time. At the very moment that our first parents were expelled from the garden Sanctuary and sent off into their exile, God made a promise to them that One would one day come who would reverse the effects of this terrible Fall. A seed of the woman would one day come forth who would overcome the seed of the serpent and would pass that probation of works that Adam had failed. Adam and Eve would die, as God had said they would, and yet not without the consolation of a promised redemption, not without the consolation that somewhere – long beyond the horizon of the visible, perhaps, but promised nevertheless – loomed the seed through whom even they themselves might be restored. Judgment was coming, but hope was given, too.
After these things, that first world, “the world that then was,” wound down and ground down in its degrading spiral of sinfulness until its end was decreed, but a righteous line was preserved, culminating in faithful Noah, a type of the promised seed, in whom resided the hope of God’s promise as that ark traveled across those lonely waters from the old world to the new. With Noah God then covenanted a new (or better, a renewed) creation order, one which he promised to sustain until the consummation of his redemption and the final judgment and end of all things. This order would be the arena in which his redemption would be planted and nourished and cultivated and finally harvested. In one sense, as we’ve seen with Isaiah, this world, too, would come to an end in wrath and judgment, but this time the whole thing was preceded by a promise. Do you see that? It’s important. In other words, absent that promise which God had made to Adam long before Noah, the postdiluvian, post-flood, world would have failed just as miserably and just as completely as the prediluvian world did. But this time, God’s promise would stand over against that failure.
We see the one and many pattern again in Abraham: God’s promises are made to him and through him to all his seed. All his descendants, all those in his “covenant household” who dwell therein would partake in the blessings and benefits of the promises which God now made to him. To be sure, given individuals could stray. They were free, as it were, to dismember themselves from the covenant and its promised blessings. But regardless of the actions of individuals, the covenant itself – grounded in the promises of God to Abraham – would stand. No matter how unfaithful any given individuals from among the covenant family might be, yet God would remain faithful to his promises. And the picture of this unconditionality of God’s covenant is given us most splendidly, you may remember, in Genesis 15, when God himself, in the aspect of the smoking firepot, passed through the animals which had been cut in two halves. Here in this utterly astonishing scene is recorded God’s enacting of a self-maledictory covenant oath. In passing between these sacrificed animals, he was saying in effect, “If these promises fail, so let happen to me what happened to these animals I am now passing through.” If even one party should fail – and P.S., I will not fail to keep my promises – but if even one party (i.e., you) should fail, I will bear the burden of that covenant breach. Even if you fail to keep the conditions of the covenant, I will bear the burden of that failure, in order that my promises should be fulfilled as I have declared them. Praise be to God almighty! Do you see the gospel there, shining so brightly in Genesis 15!
But the basic problem remained: someone had to do what Adam had failed to do. We’re always talking, rightly, about how our salvation is by grace and through faith and not by works. That’s absolutely right, insofar as we mean we are not saved on the basis of our works. But in a deeper sense, we are saved by works! We’re saved by Christ’s work of righteousness, as we rely upon that and rest upon him and receive the benefits of his works through faith. Heaven had to be earned.
Adam was placed in a garden sanctuary, Eden, a place of God’s special presence where no sin could be countenanced. Here was the very threshold of heaven’s access; here was the land of probation; and here was the place where the stark choice could be made, as between “God with us,” secured in the everlasting sacrament of the tree of life, or exile, brokenness, alienation, misery, and death, secured in the disobedience of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil! Adam failed this probation test. As the covenant head of humanity, he proved himself through his disobedience unwilling to abide by the limitation which God had imposed on his freedom to choose his own actions. And in that choice, he chose the path of self-reliance and pride, and fell into sin. And when the covenant head sins in the theocratic land of God’s holy presence, the result is eviction from that land of heaven’s access, banishment from the presence of God. Exile!
And so what we see through the first several books of the Bible is God’s working in this restored post-flood creation, this renewed world order, prefaced as it was by that redemptive promise made to our first parents at the moment of exile – working to forge a covenant people and to restore them to a Promised Land, a renewed garden Sanctuary, flowing with milk and honey, a renewed theocracy, the place of God’s special presence. Here in this place, God was restoring this portion of humanity to abide there at the threshold of heaven’s access; and here in this place, these people were given a law, and the requirement of obedience to this law, as mediated through Moses, as the basis for their continuing in the land. As Adam had failed the test of righteousness in the garden, so now would the Promised Seed pass that test there in the Promised Land Sanctuary, and from that holy threshold would open the doors to paradise! But the problem is that, just like in “the world that then was,” the world before the flood: left to their own devices, human beings would fail the test again. Left to their own devices, they would end up in exile again, and the world itself would spiral down to its end in judgment. But as God’s promise to Adam preceded his covenant with Noah and the establishment of this renewed world order, so God’s renewal of that promise he’d made to Adam, now made again and far more specifically to Abraham, preceded his covenant through Moses, such that even should the human parties to Moses’ covenant fail, and find themselves as Adam had found himself, evicted from the Sanctuary land, banished from God’s presence, and exiled; yet even so, God himself had promised unconditionally that the covenant would be fulfilled! In spite of human failure, God would succeed on their behalf, and through that success, they would be restored and redeemed and drawn up through faith in glory!
Well, we’ve been speaking about the tension between the one and the many. The great backbone, the spine, of the Old Testament is the development of this “one and many” structure of the covenant as it becomes clearer and clearer all along the way. Abraham’s seed were to be many – like the stars in the sky – but his Seed (capital “S”) – the righteous seed in whom all God’s promises would find their fulfillment – was to be One. It becomes increasingly clear through the pages of Scripture that the fate of God’s people was bound up in the righteousness of this one, who would be their mediator, whose righteousness would flow downward to them as their reliance upon him flowed upward in a vital bond of love and loyalty between head and body, and specifically, between king and people. In other words, when God made his covenant with David in 2 Samuel 7, promising to establish his throne forever, we see one last renewal of God’s promise concerning the coming Seed, building upon the earlier Seed-promises to Adam and to Abraham, and we see the picture coming into focus – that this longed-for Seed of Abraham, the Righteous One, would be the Davidic King. The king would fulfill the righteous requirements of the law, fulfilling the Mosaic covenant, embodying the culmination of the Davidic covenant, and fulfilling the promises of the Abrahamic covenant. And in him, in that king’s household, the nation – God’s people, Abraham’s seed – would be blessed. Again, individuals might fail, but God’s promises would not. The hope of the righteous redeemer, in whom God’s people could place their trust and thereby receive the imputation of his benefits – as flowing to his own family – this would come to pass, so sayeth the Lord!
As for David, alas, he failed almost immediately upon receiving this royal (Davidic) covenant. In 2 Samuel 7, God establishes his throne, and we read that he enjoyed rest on all sides; peace was at hand, shalom. David was himself a type of the promised Seed, there in the Sanctuary place of God’s presence. As the covenant head of God’s people he was closer to the conditions of Eden then anyone had been since Adam. He had everything to choose from and enjoy in this garden. But what did he do? He took of forbidden fruit! In the very next chapter! He covets another man’s wife, steals her, commits adultery, lies, tries to ensnare the innocent man into his sin to cover it up, and finally turns to murder! And we know David’s heart from the Psalms! Good Lord, he knew better than to do these things! He knew these things opposed God’s will, and yet he did them anyway. It has resemblances of the Fall all over again! (Although, it’s interesting on this score that David did what Adam did not do: he confessed and repented. And as a result, the punishment for this outrage was spread into the next generations of his dynasty, as the rest came to an end, and blood and violence resumed their normal, terrible preeminence.) In short, the promised Seed would be of David’s line, but was not to be David himself.
Now at last, to Isaiah! Here is Isaiah, sitting atop all this remarkable redemption history, waiting still for the Promised Seed to emerge out of the House of David, but beset by the dreadful realization that the monarchy itself had failed. Until Ahaz, individual kings did stupid and awful things, and God’s chastisement fell upon them accordingly, but as we saw last semester from Isaiah 7, when Ahaz broke his alliance with the Lord as with his sovereign Great King and aligned himself with Assyria, and imported Assyrian religious idolatry into the heart of Judahite religion – here not some mere permission of heterodox practices in the high places, but the very paganization of the official state religion of God’s theocracy! – for this Isaiah was given to foresee the coming judgment upon the nation; that the Lord would raise “the rod of his wrath,” Assyria, to bring the judgment up to Judah’s neck before delivering them, and that even then, beyond that threat would loom the final blow, from the Babylonians, as we saw in chapters 38-39.
The Davidic monarchy itself was failing! And, as we’ve seen, the failure of the people – even the failure of any given king – that was one thing. But the prospect of the failure and fall of the entire monarchy – that was quite another! David had failed utterly as covenant head of his people to live a life of perfect righteousness and perfect obedience. But he had repented, and his son had succeeded him. So, too, with Solomon, and with each of the others. God had been very gracious, very patient. But now, with the prospect of the actual fall of the monarchy looming on the horizon, it must have seemed like Eden all over again. As the covenant head fails and falls, so fails and falls the nation…. As with the original garden Sanctuary, so now with this Sanctuary of the Promised Land: the consequence of the covenant head’s failure is eviction, exile.
But! The tension remained: yes, they had failed, and as a result faced wrath and ruin and exile. But what about God’s promises of a coming Seed, first to Adam, then restated more specifically to Abraham, then restated more specifically still to David? What would come of those promises? They would yet stand! Even though left to their own devices, humanity had failed its second chance in the Sanctuary threshold of heaven, yet God’s promise preceded the flood, and his promise preceded the entry into the Promised Land, and his promised preceded the fall of the monarchy. Though his people had failed the obligation of righteousness, yet God would not fail to keep his promises, and now the glory of his purposes would be revealed in all the perfection of their splendor.
So here is Isaiah, being given to see the glory of the coming king, who will be none other than “Immanuel,” “God with us,” Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, whose throne shall endure into the ages upon ages, whose reign shall know peace, shalom, rest on all sides; whose very kingdom is synonymous with the kingdom of heaven come to earth, when the kingdom of the world shall have become the kingdom of God and of his Christ! What a magnificent vision that is…! But who could possibly bear such a burden of exaltation? Even Solomon himself would be crushed and ridiculous, even blasphemous, to be clad in such glorious vestments. Who but God himself could bear such glory? Somehow, as Isaiah’s name said, “the Lord is salvation.” But at the same time, this Promised One, would be the anointed one, the Messiah, the Davidic King.
And just how God effected this still staggers the mind all these centuries later: God himself condescended to become the son of David! You almost need to chew on that for a moment to let its impact really sink in: God himself became a descendant of David, in fulfillment of the covenant promises! God himself condescended to assume the Davidic kingship as the son of David, but in doing so he exalted that throne beyond all measure and established it forever, because he was the Son of God. And in him, in his household, we are secured all the way to glory.
Chapters 1-39 was all about this amazingly rich theme: the coming of the glorious king. Now, as we’ll see, Isaiah will cast his gaze long into the future, into the conditions prevailing at the time of the exile which he’d so clearly foreseen, and will surprise us with something that, given everything we’ve read to this point, is still marvelously and astoundingly unexpected. Now the picture of this coming Messiah will broaden in a most astonishing way, and we will turn from the language of triumph and glory and kingship, to that of a servant who suffers for our transgressions.
What we turn to now is one of the most beautifully moving and powerful pictures of hope ever written. In it, we will be given to see God not in his usual aspect of almighty glory and splendor, but as rejected and broken on our behalf. Here is a picture of God’s love for us which astounds us still, and which would be fulfilled in the person of Jesus, our humble and compassionate Lord, born in a manger, who suffered and died on a cross. A God who suffers on our behalf….. a picture of the God’s love which surpasses all the depths of our imaginings.
(1) Originally delivered as a lecture at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Bethesda, Maryland, on January 9, 2004.