Time is precious. Not right now, honey. Time is money. I don’t have time. Where did the time go? How long will that take? We want fast food, we need speed limits, food has sell-by dates, bumper stickers tell us “Once you’re over the hill you pick up speed.” “If Americans are not the most time-conscious of all people, why then does American English contain more references to the concept of time than any spoken language currently in use?”*
Cell phones and kitchen stoves and car radios and even some thermometers include clocks. Many people wear watches, the school day is regulated by the clock, employees punch a clock. How long until dinner, the end of the shift; how long before I can go home, how much time does he have left? All common questions that we either ask or hear. And then the one we probably hear the most: what time is it?
Implied in the question is the idea of anticipation – at a particular time something is going to happen. Someone will arrive, change will occur, the wait will be over. All of those could be read into what the questioner asked of Isaiah: “Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what time of night is it?” In two short prophetic bursts Isaiah speaks a message of great foreboding and one of hope.
In one sense these prophecies show how God would continue working out the promises he made to two brothers: Esau and Ishmael. Not brother to each other, each a brother to a younger man whose lot in life was profoundly different from their own. And that because of God’s purpose and not their own doing. There’s also good reminder of what God expects us to be doing in the time he has allotted us.
A. Esau v.11-12
In response to Isaac’s prayer for his barren bride Rebekah, later her prayer for understanding (what’s going on inside me?) the Lord spoke to her from heaven: You are carrying twins, representative of two nations, elder shall serve the younger. (Gen 25:23) She did indeed give birth to twins, Esau followed by Jacob. Grew to adulthood, moved to own tents nearby; Esau a hunter, outdoorsman, Jacob a homebody.
Both heard stories growing up, God’s covenantal promises to Abraham, renewed with Isaac. Understood that as part of birthright, blessing would be passed on along with double share of the property. One day, Esau back from the hunt, smelled stew Jacob was cooking, realized how famished he was. Esau: Give me some stew. Jacob: Let’s make a deal. Esau got the stew, Jacob the birthright.
In a moment of passion based on decades of character development, Esau by action showed what he thought of the birthright. And God. As far as he and family knew, birthright and blessing went together; by despising one, showed contempt for the other. Instead of outrightly rejecting Esau, God promised territory (Deut. 2:5), land of Edom, but not posterity (Obad. 1:18). Quite the opposite – “there shall be no survivor for the house of Esau, for the Lord has spoken.”
God judges those who reject him; God viewed Esau as unholy (see Heb. 12:16), consequently was justified in bringing consequences to him and his descendants. It is one of those descendants who approached Isaiah, asked “what time it was”. Didn’t care if Isaiah had a watch, wanted to know how much longer the night of God’s judgment would last. Response: Morning is coming then the night; if you want to know more, come back later.
Isaiah, the watchman, could not give a timeline; only major events on the timeline. And they were two: morning, then night. In setting up prophecy, Isaiah does a play on words: Esau was also called Edom (Gen. 25:30); moving vowel from beginning to end of word changes meaning from “red” to “silence”. There would be morning, a reprieve from present judgment, then night would return and it would be silent – no survivors.
Chilling prophecy – darkness of God’s hand of judgment; but don’t overlook window of opportunity. Morning comes. Question comes: what will you do in the morning? Would Edomites turn from rebellion against God, from idolatry, animosity against God’s people and turn to the Holy One of Israel in true repentance? Or would they continue on their path to the night of destruction?
B. Ishmael v.13-17
Isaiah then turns focus to another people group – those of Kedar. People of Kedar were descendants of second son of Ishmael (Gen. 25:13). Generation previous to Esau, Abram and Sarai heard God’s promise but became impatient. Sarai’s clock had stopped ticking, Abram’s was winding down; time to give God a helping hand. And so they did, along with Hagar’s help; at expected time along came Ishmael. Ah, problem solved.
Not so fast. Promise was that Abraham and Sarah, not Abraham and Hagar would have son. God would keep his promise. Son of promise would be Isaac, not Ishmael. In due time, promise kept; then real trouble began. Zero tolerance nothing new, Sarah had none for Hagar and rival to her son. Evicted with food and water by Abraham, wandered in the desert until provisions ran out. Finally collapsed, waiting to die – situation hopeless.
Visited by an angel, “Get up, take care of your son”; saw a well of water, kept them alive, strengthened for rest of their journey. Also told by angel about God’s promise: “I will make him (Ishmael) a great nation”. God promised Ishmael great posterity (Gen. 16:10), both to Abraham and then to Hagar, but not the promise of fixed dwelling place (Gen. 16:12). It was to the great nation promised to Ishmael that Isaiah spoke. (Gen. 17:20; 21:14-19)
Distress of war would come to Kedar; would be hard and painful, would be many refugees fleeing hardships of war. Forced for sake of safety to leave home, no hope of ever returning, far from any place familiar and out of provision. Very much like Hagar. Yet in the wilderness was an oasis: Tema, source of food and water, place of protection from enemies.
God’s message to Kedar is more specific and more restrained: within a year the enemy would have done his worst. Would be many casualties, much hardship, but God promised preservation of a remnant even among the hopeless. Not only would many have opportunity for escape, God had seen to specifics of provision for their needs.
C. Watchman v.12, 14
Like watchman, God uses us to work and to warn and to witness.
God’s clock is ticking! What time is it? “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” “Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today”.” see Psa. 95:7-9; Heb. 3:7, 13, 15; 4:7
Time to get to work – emphasis is on task, not time; what should be done, not how long we have to do it. We don’t have forever, no guarantees of tomorrow; need to be doing the right work now as diligently as possible.
Once long ago, a prince asked that his tutor prepare him for the life beyond. “There is plenty of time for that when you are old,” the tutor replied. “No!” exclaimed the prince, “I have been to the cemetery and measured the graves, and there are many shorter than I am.”
Tomorrow may be too late to take God seriously. God has never promised us tomorrow: “Now is the day of salvation.”
Time to warn those estranged from God that judgment is coming. God has appointed the day and the judge; the day known only to God, the Judge is Lord Jesus. (Acts 17:31) Skepticism or outright denial will not change God’s plan. Must remind/warn them that God will not be patient forever; to leave this life a stranger to God is to seal destiny for eternity, separated from blessings of heaven and God’s gracious presence.
Time to take to seekers the bread and water of life. Refugees from war Satan is waging in the world, those who acknowledge they are unable to fix their own problems, unable to save themselves. We’ve been introduced to Bread of Life, the source of Living Water; our job to take others to meet him. We do that by conversation, interaction, the daily stuff of life outside walls of sanctuary. Inside the sanctuary, equip saints for work of ministry (Eph. 4:12); outside walls, where ministry happens, being example to world by serving one another.
Night has not fallen yet; still time for work of redemption accomplished by Christ on Calvary to be applied to those seeking him in faith. “But how can they believe on him whom they have not heard?” Rom. 10:14 We must show them and tell them of the Lord Jesus who came into the world to save sinners.
* Meador & Chisholm, WALK WITH ME (Ventura CA: Regal Books, 1990), p. 53.