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Occasional Letters: All’s Well that Ends Well

D Newell, Glasgow

Visiting some friends recently I overheard a lady confessing that, when reading a book, she likes to sneak a peek ahead just to make sure it all ends happily. I can well understand her concern. After all, no one really relishes gloom or misery. Years ago the conclusion of Agatha Christie’s famous detective novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, gave me, a boy who instinctively identified himself with the story-teller, a terrible shock. And Christie, I note, is shelved in Waterstone’s bookshop under "Cosy Crime"; cosy, indeed! But one of the wonderful things about God’s Word is that, although it faithfully (and often very graphically) discloses to us the appalling judgments to be poured out on planet Earth during the Great Tribulation, it also constantly looks ahead to the grand climax – the righteous, peaceful and altogether joyous reign of the Lord Jesus Christ over the world He created. We must always keep the glorious end in view. It’s that which bolsters us up, giving encouragement to our service.

In Isaiah 6 the prophet received the shattering revelation that his ministry would be largely ignored by his own people. The final verse of the chapter also disclosed that ultimately all would end well. But the keynote, initially at least, seemed to be failure. Isaiah must have been struck by the stark contrast between monarchs: "In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple" (Is 6.1). We cannot be certain whether Judah’s sovereign was still alive at the time of this vision, but this much is clear – Uzziah was no longer functioning as king. His error in seeking to usurp the priesthood had been rewarded with leprosy, which terminated his kingly office so that his son had to rule in his place (2 Chr 26.21). Yet while Uzziah could not combine the kingly and the priestly, there was One who could. Not until John 12.41 do we learn that the figure Isaiah the prophet saw seated on a kingly throne yet filling the Temple at Jerusalem was none other than the Lord Jesus – the ultimate prophet, priest and king. He alone perfectly revealed God in His life, redeemed men by His death, and will reign righteously at His return. Indeed, Christ is the fulfilment of every Old Testament office, as He is the answer to every Old Testament longing. There is disagreement among the experts as to whether Isaiah 6 looks back to the writer’s original conversion or whether (in keeping with the book’s narrative sequence) it records a subsequent shattering experience of God’s greatness. I incline to the latter view, if only because the series of six "woes" pronounced on Israel’s sins in chapter 5 reaches a fitting climax in the seventh "woe" which Isaiah pronounces on himself (6.5). The nation might be guilty of greed (5.8), drunkenness (5.11-12), irreverence (5.18-19), wilful perversity (5.20), pride (5.21) and injustice (5.22-23) – but the prophet too was unfit to stand before the awesomeness of Jehovah. It’s a painful lesson. Every preacher and teacher has solemnly to examine his own soul in the light of the message he delivers. And what a monumental sight filled Isaiah’s gaze – a figure so towering and immense that just the hem of His robe completely swamped Solomon’s great Temple. No wonder the prophet was overwhelmed. Uzziah failed, Israel failed, Isaiah might fail, but (and here’s the point) such a God can never fail.

However, it was not simply God’s immensity that disturbed the prophet; the seraphim proclaimed His essential character. "Above [the throne] stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke" (vv.2-4). They did not intone the popular mantra that God is loving – no, divine holiness was their theme. Our God is utterly separate from all that defiles, immeasurable in His splendour and spotlessly pure in all His ways. Everything about Him is holy: His is a holy love. That seraphimic announcement was supported by their activity (significantly, more energy was needed to conceal themselves in the presence of Jehovah than to engage in His service) and accompanying physical phenomena (the doorposts shook and the Temple was filled with smoke). There followed, not surprisingly, Isaiah’s trembling admission of personal corruption: "Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts " (v.5). The reference to "unclean lips" is, I think, the key to his confession. That, you see, was the mark of the leper: "his clothes shall be rent", and his head bare, and he shall put a covering upon his upper lip, and shall cry, Unclean, unclean" (Lev 13.45). But, you might say, surely it was Uzziah and not Isaiah who was the leper? Yes – but in the burning light of divine holiness Isaiah realised that both he and his nation were spiritually leprous before God. That’s what happens to anyone confronted with the majesty of Jehovah: every speck of dirt, inside and out, is shown up. As R A Torrey put it, "The man who thinks well of himself has never met God".

But this is where grace steps in with cleansing: "Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged" (vv.6-7). An altar speaks of sacrifice, and the only sacrifice in the Bible of any intrinsic value is the once-for-all work of Calvary. Note this: on the basis of a work yet to be accomplished Isaiah’s sin was purged. And it was all of God – the prophet was simply the passive recipient of divine mercy. Travelling home on the train the other day I read a paperback entitled, with disarming directness, Who Saves, God or Me? Can anyone doubt the answer? Long ago, in the most unorthodox of classrooms, Jonah learned that "salvation is of the Lord" (Jonah 2.9). That’s why it is eternally secure. And the response to grace was not complacency but consecration. For the first time in the chapter the prophet now actually heard God’s voice directly: "Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me" (v.8). The beneficiary of divine mercy instinctively wished to be of service to his benefactor, volunteering for duty before he even knew the details of his assignment. There’s zeal for you! The commission, however, was a tough one: "Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed" (vv.9-10). Mmm – not the kind of ministry to make a man a sought-after preacher. But the passage is crucial because it was quoted both by the Lord Jesus (to explain His shift from plain into parable teaching) and by the Apostle Paul (to explain Israel’s resistance to the gospel). By nature all men are opposed to the truth of God. Understandably, Isaiah felt compelled to ask about the continuance of a work destined to be so disappointing: "Then said I, Lord, how long?" (v.11). The answer must have staggered him. "Until the cities be wasted without inhabitant, and the houses without man, and the land be utterly desolate, And the Lord have removed men far away, and there be a great forsaking in the midst of the land" (vv.11-12). You will continue preaching, said the Lord, until there is no one left to preach to. There would be no lasting national revival, nor would Israel be spared from God’s disciplinary judgment. Like evangelists and teachers today Isaiah had to stick faithfully to his task regardless of the results.

It all sounds very depressing, doesn’t it? But don’t forget to read to the end. We don’t stop Romans at chapter 2, nor do we close Matthew with chapter 27. Isaiah 6 concludes on an unexpected note of comfort: "But yet in it shall be a tenth, and it shall return, and shall be eaten: as a teil tree, and as an oak, whose substance is in them, when they cast their leaves: so the holy seed shall be the substance thereof" (v.13). Yes, God would remove His people into captivity; but in due time a little remnant would return, though they would face persecution in the land ("it…shall be eaten"). Perhaps the ESV most clearly gives the sense of this difficult verse: "though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled". Israel would return to its land only to be burned down to the stump. Yet, as Nebuchadnezzar learned in Daniel 4.26, a tree stump can sprout once more. So will it be in a coming day when, its eyes miraculously opened to its Messiah, "all Israel shall be saved" (Rom 11.26; Zech 12.10). Astonishingly, the very same root word used to describe Jehovah in v.3 is used of the tiny Jewish remnant ("the holy seed ") in v.13. How much His people mean to God, and what free grace blessings He has in store for them! Despite the failure of Israel (and, we might add, despite the loud protests of the amillennial camp), God isn’t through with the Jew. The ultimate outlook both for the church and for Israel is bright, because our glorious God is in sovereign control. All will yet be well!

To be continued.

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