When God condescended to meet Moses on the mountain and caused his goodness to pass before him and proclaimed his name (Exodus 33:19). he did so in the context of grace and compassion. Consequently the name he proclaimed, the character God described to Moses included compassion, grace, faithful (covenant) love, forgiveness, and justice. (Exodus 34:5-7) Similarly our text which portrays God as terrifying in the righteous exercise of his justice immediately follows his declaration that the nations would be blessed as they come to Zion and participate in Gospel benefits.
A. Glorious Lord v. 10-18
1. God is awesome in his justice v. 10
in his majestic glory and avenging justice, God strikes abject fear into those who would oppose him. Even for the prophet’s warning, hiding in the rocks will be futile – God wins.
God will not tolerate hypocrisy and idolatry forever. He will make his glory and expectations known and do it in such a way that his identity is obvious. People will not be left to guess why things happened the way they did, who it was that caused the basis of their confidence to be ineffectual. It will be the king in his splendor who exercises just judgment on a rebellious people.
There are two things to remember here: first, God does not behave like a snake, striking without warning. Isaiah is giving clear warning here in chapter 2 about judgment that will fall but is still yet future, judgment which would be averted if they would heed the warning (remember Nineveh!). Second, God would be absolutely justified in destroying his people – consider all he had done for them for the last 800 years and how they had responded. They had taken his gifts and returned him insincere worship, having devoted their hearts to other gods.
An offended God who has the power to execute judgment is fearsome in every respect if you are deserving of his wrath; yet for the righteous, the name of the Lord is a strong tower, a place of safety Prov 18:10
2. He shows his supremacy by subduing all his enemies v. 11, 17
God has appointed a day of judgment – see Acts 17:31 which is really the culmination, the final day, toward which every other act of judgment points. Each time God has brought his rod of correction or his wrath down on mankind, He intends that people will be reminded of the final day when the Man he has ordained will judge the world in righteousness. On that day, everything prophesied will occur universally, in an all-encompassing way – sin and sinners will be judged completely and finally, Yahweh will be the acknowledged sovereign of the universe by all mankind.
Meanwhile, as God judges the nations in an ongoing way, these things promised occur in miniature, foreshadowing the last “day of the Lord”. In fairly rapid succession, nations and world powers came under the judgment of God according to his eternal plan: Israel (including Judah), Assyria, Egypt, Babylonia, Medo-Persia, Greece, Rome – each in their turn discovering the futility of their efforts to do what is contrary to God’s purpose. By giving a predictive warning to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, when the people saw its fulfilment they would know for certain Who had brought about their downfall.
Isaiah in verses 12-18 systematically identifies the things that represented safety and security to the Jewish people. One by one every last symbol of man’s misplaced confidence will be shown for what it truly is – that it is part of creation and is no match for the Creator. The bankruptcy of man’s own genius will be displayed (v. 11, 17) – everything he has done, everything he has purchased will fail to protect him (v. 15-16) All the places he would consider a safe refuge will be overthrown (v. 13-14); even alliances he has made with foreign powers will fail in his purpose (v. 16).
This does not mean that man’s accomplishments are intrinsically worthless; even a gold or silver idol can be a finely crafted work of art. Many of the ancient sculptures housed in various museums are greatly admired for their beauty and rightly so, even though they represented objects of worship to their creators. And that is what made them worthless, that men trusted in them rather than in God.
3. “no gods” will be truly demonstrated as such v. 18
Isaiah uses the word elilim, idols (the same word is used in Lev. 19:4; Lev. 26:1, from elil, vain or worthless, nothing; it is therefore equivalent to “not-gods”) a wry play on words – el and elohim, names used for the true God. God himself will cause them to “pass away, to vanish”; not a single trace of idol-worship will remain after God has completed judging his people.
Here, at the end of the list, is the root of the problem, the source of all that was wrong with Judah and Jerusalem. They had crafted a god of their own making, one they could manipulate to give them what they wanted and thought they needed. It was their abandonment of the true God and loyalty to their own idols that led to all the issues for which God criticized them in chapter 1 – hypocrisy, injustice, immorality, pervasive sinful behavior. In order for the church to be the center of world attention, idolatry must be eradicated so Yahweh will be the sole recipient of worship.
History has shown the positive effect of God’s judgment – no form of idolatry such as was practiced in Isaiah’s day survived the exile. Which brings us to a third thing to remember – God’s hand of judgment was also a hand of correction; the primary purpose of this series of events was to turn God’s people back to him, to cause them to trust in and obey him. Whenever God brings difficulty on his people, it is never more harsh than is necessary to achieve his benevolent purpose – their good and his glory.
In a way that only God can accomplish, the same glory that was so fearsome to behold is the same glory that is so alluring and irresistible. Truly the unrighteous have everything to dread when confronted by a holy God; however, the righteous find that same holiness desirable and are compelled to draw near to him. Ultimately, all humanity will be confronted by this glorious God to the everlasting punishment of some and to the eternal bliss of the rest.
B. Trust re-oriented v. 19-22
1. Yahweh is shown as clearly superior v. 19
God’s people had many things wrong but one thing they understood: a holy God intent on exercising his authority and power in judgment is to be feared. One does not attempt to negotiate with him, to cajole him into a better mood, to minimize the need for him to have such an attitude. Rather they will be as John describes in Revelation 6:15-17 “Then the kings of the earth, the nobles, the military commanders, the rich, the powerful, and every slave and free person [will] hid[e] in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains. And they [will] sa[y] to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the One seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb, because the great day of Their wrath has come! And who is able to stand?”
By their determined efforts to escape the terrifying judgment of the Lord, the idol-worshipers demonstrated the uselessness of their idols. Even if the false gods had the power to provide wealth, comfort and confidence, they were unable to provide protection from the God of gods and Lord of lords. Rather than hide in the shadow of their gods, trusting them to shield them from the wrath to come, they did their best to hide from God altogether. If they had only recognized that there is one safe place to hide, “under the shadow of the Almighty”. Psalm 91:1
2. Worthless idols are abandoned v. 20
Objects of value – silver and gold – will not be sold to the highest bidder, not left behind in homes or places of worship, not discarded by the roadside; they will be thrown to the moles and bats, creatures who live in dark caves and burrows, hidden at least in theory from God’s sight.
In short, they will be ashamed of their foolishness; for in prosperity they think that they enjoy the favor of God, as if he showed that he takes delight in their worship; and they cannot be convinced to the contrary, until God actually make evident how greatly he abhors them. It is only when they are brought into adversity that they begin to acknowledge their wickedness. John Calvin
Perhaps several emotions are mingled together here –
- shame, for having invested so much by way of money and effort for something that proved to be useles
- contempt, for the impotence of that for which they had risked everything – prosperity, health, security, even their eternal souls
- fear, for the consequences meted out by a just and holy God on those who received his blessings and thanked their idols rather than him
As their absolute foolishness for trusting in idols is put on display that same foolishness is highlighted even further as they run away from the only secure refuge, God himself. Still determined to save themselves rather than throw themselves on God’s mercy, they try to find safety in their own choices. If their gods won’t save them, they must save themselves; in so doing, they don’t abandon their idolatry but rather exchange a silver or gold idol for the idol of self.
3. God uses whatever means necessary to convince his people to trust him. v. 21
The prophet paints a picture of the King of all the universe arrayed in his royal splendor going forth to war against evil and those who would oppose him. By showing his absolute dominion over all his enemies, God makes it plain that he is the one who should be trusted. And that is the underlying purpose of God displaying his terrible wrath against sin – to turn his people from their sin, not to destroy them in their sin.
[H]e means the scourges by which God would take vengeance on a wicked people, yet it is not without good reason that he immediately adds, his magnificent glory; as if he had said, “It is according to the measure of his own glory that God ought to be dreaded by the ungodly, in whose destruction he displays his boundless power.” But though the ungodly are not reformed or made to bow down by any punishment, they are forced to tremble when they feel the presence of the wrath of God. In quite a different manner do punishments instruct the elect to fear God; for, in consequence of being subdued by strokes, they learn to bear the yoke. Isaiah therefore declares that the glory of God will be more illustriously displayed when he shall come forth as a righteous judge; for when he conceals himself he is not observed, and they scarcely think of his existence.
Hence let pastors learn how they ought to deal with drowsy consciences, which must be awakened by the judgment of God, that they may regard that judgment with actual dread. Though we often sing to the deaf, yet terror pierces even hearts of iron, so that they are without excuse. Frequently, too, it happens that some are healed; and in like manner believers gain advantage from it, when they learn the terrific forms of punishment which await the ungodly and reprobate. John Calvin
There is much in this passage to encourage us. God through his church will prevail; the world will be conquered by the Gospel and not by Satan. His majestic glory will be displayed for all mankind to see as will the magnificence of his plan, how God wisely and perfectly ordained the events of history from Creation to Consummation. God’s people will persevere, there will be a remnant preserved, because Redemption has always been God’s intent. After God has come in judgment on Judah and Jerusalem, then the nations will be added in large numbers to his church to the extent that as John declared in Revelation 7:9 he could see “a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”
There is also a profound warning here – we must be certain our minds and hearts are captive to the one who deserves our worship, our loyalty, our love. We live in a land of plenty surrounded by those who preach the Gospel of “BE what you want to be, DO what you want to do, HAVE what you want to have” (www.revike.org); the temptation to succumb to thinking that ultimately leads to that destination is pervasive and persuasive. We have a government and financial advisors who want us to believe that their programs and their strategies will safeguard us from cradle to grave. In the face of such unbiblical thinking we must work and pray diligently that we keep our trust unwaveringly centered in God and not in men.