Isaiah 8 — Safe on a Rock

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michaelspotts

Puritan Board Freshman
This morning, my devotional reading landed in Isaiah 8, which promises that God is a sanctuary to those who fear him. The following is the fruit of my study today, and I hope it is of some use to you. Comments and questions are most welcome! The same post is more readably formated here.

Safe on a Rock — Finding Sanctuary in Politically Turbulent Times

By Michael Spotts:.

A man pulls nervously at the tassels on his badly worn keffiyeh. Not fifty years old, his dusty face is tilled with wrinkles running like fault lines from his chin to his brow, formed under the stress of many uprisings and violent movements that have rocked his homeland. His hand shakes; for a moment the brittle lead protruding from a roughly carved pencil threatens to snap as he sets it to the paper. Only two circles remain to be filled on the narrow slip, but these two matter most. He is voting for President in a country where the wrong choice may cost his life, or those of his family.

Perhaps other unfortunate souls, like this man, must think carefully about politics, weighing possible outcomes with fear and trembling. But for most of us, especially in the affluent West, political theory is somewhat like belief in the gods—remote, even mythical. Tradition informs us that a pantheon of competing forces exists with tremendous powers, to whom we owe dreadful reverence. But in practice, thunderbolts fall rarely and we would rather not pay figureheads too much attention. So, to deal with the tedious complexities of the system, we employ a special caste of devotees who attend on our behalf. Ministers of State, we call them.

With the mantel of government passed over to specialists, the majority of us sleep peacefully, believing it’s enough that we live by the Two Great Commandments of civil religion—mind your own business, and refrain from blaspheming Big Names too loudly or often. Do these, we say with conviction, and you can rest assured, the Fates will leave you alone. Submit regular tithes in the form of taxes, and the Powers-that-Be—somehow, miraculously—will even insure you get that annual raise, and an Elysian retirement in the suburbs. This, I say, is the limit of the average citizen’s political piety, especially in peaceful times. It is belief verging on willful agnosticism, but always with two fingers crossed by way of a pennant or patriotic bumper sticker or a hand over the heart.

As much as we prefer civics to stay on Olympus, each generation faces the possibility of an incarnation, when theoretical phrases suddenly descend from the clouds of rhetoric and become matters of the most personal sort. Shapeless verbal abstractions culled from textbooks—Democracy and Fascism; Free-Market Capitalism; the Monroe Doctrine; Manifest Destiny and the Glorious Revolution—have power to take on flesh and dwell among us as concrete realities. What was previously just a slogan uttered behind a podium now makes the difference between who stands or lays at a funeral; which direction a family flees in the night; whether one has a comfortable home, or a heap of slag and broken furniture.

It matters little where you live. The most insulated man, melting comfortably into his recliner to watch the evening news, finds himself haunted by a grim specter rising out of the annals, shaking chains ominously and warning that peace and prosperity come in fragile cycles, no region of the globe excepted. Today’s posh neighborhoods might be tomorrow’s slums. The mall and the battlefield can occupy the same real estate in the span of one decade. Oppressed peoples sometimes get a leg up on their taskmasters, ascending to wreak vengeance upon those who ruled without mercy. A land of smug consumers may very well be consumed in a heartbeat. Who can forget the extreme bounty of Americans in the 1920’s, immediately followed by the dismal Depression of the 1930’s? Or the peace of Poland in September, 1939, that was succeeded just one month later by the complete occupation of the Nazis?

If any group on earth has borne the ceaseless grind of political consequence, it is the Jews. The Old Testament records twenty centuries of turbulent overthrows which they endured, replete with periods of harsh subjugation, bloody purges, ages of exile and enslavement. They knew the effects of what is vacuously call ‘regime change’. Tyrants vied for their allegiance, sword in hand. Bountiful farms held this day might be taken the next, swept clean by locusts of the two-legged sort, hovering in swarms just across the border. The children of Israel constantly faced decisions about who to trust and obey, at staggering cost. Into this context of social instability came the remarkable words of the prophet Isaiah,

“For the LORD spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.” Bind up the testimony; seal the teaching among my disciples.” [Isa. 8:11-16]

The pictures in this text are potent, especially in light of military technology of the time. Sanctuaries founded on stone communicate the idea of an impregnable fortress, a stout castle able to withstand every storming foe. Fear the LORD, the promise said, and He will shroud you with solid stone. Here is a guarantee of political deliverance to believers. But contrary to natural expectations, the way of refuge described by Isaiah would not be a physical outpost huddled in the Judean wilderness. Unlike the long-impenetrable mountaintop retreat, Masada, which fell to Lucius Flavius Silva in AD 70, the rocky rampart promised by Jehovah would be distinct from anything ever built. It would be God himself. “Fear the LORD of hosts [...] and he will become a sanctuary.” Moreover, the peace he would bring wouldn’t consist in exerting overwhelming military power, but would somehow involve taking to himself the humble flesh of man and walking among us with humility and grace. In the previous chapter, Isaiah prophesied, “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (God with us).” The apostle Peter interpreted this passage of Isaiah, saying,

“Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders [those in power], which has become the cornerstone [upon which all institutions shall come to rest]. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” [Acts 4:11]

Into a roiling tempest of civil fear, God spoke peace to the Israelites. Not the political peace that comes with having good rulers, strong shelters or superior armies—but the peace of mind one receives through faith in a promise, that better things are in store for God’s people, if in the distant future. Rather than freeing the Jews from temporal pain, the Lord made a way for them to be saved from his own wrath against sin. Instead of pouring out his judgment on Roman occupiers, the Son of God received the full penalty due to sinners, drinking it to the dregs on the cross, and thereby substituting himself on behalf of all who cast themselves on his mercy. “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.” [Isa. 45.22]

This way of peace would involve, in many cases, continued or even increased suffering at the hands of enemies in this world. Stephen was bludgeoned to death with rocks. James was martyred with a sword. Paul is said to have been beheaded, and Peter crucified upside-down. Jesus cautioned his disciples, “all men will hate you because of me,” and, “in me you may have peace [but] in the world you will have tribulation.” [Matt. 10:22, John 16:33] In practice, the sanctuary offered by Christ seems less like a bastion ensconced on mountain top, and more like a rocky tunnel passing through a vale of hardship before letting out to heaven. Cyprian was able to see glory in this hard path, exclaiming that “in persecution, earth is shut, but heaven opens; Antichrist threatens, but Christ protects; death enters, but immortality ensues; the world is taken from us, but Paradise is awarded; the life of time is quenched, but the life of eternity is accomplished.” [1]

Understandably, these good tidings were not universally received as such. As Isaiah predicted, many were offended at the idea of a Messiah who would not bring instant transformation to the human institutions persecuting them. They wanted political solutions now. They wanted worldly peace and affluence. So they stumbled headlong, placing their faith in others to deliver them from calamity.

“They cried out, ‘Away with him, away with him, crucify him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar.’ [John 19:15]

Instead of fortifying themselves upon the rock-solid pledge of Christ, that everlasting joy would eventually be given to God’s people, these faithless souls built spiritual shanties upon the unstable platforms of politicians, priests, and power-brokers, inevitably to fall and never rise. In contrast to such tragic examples of chronological myopia, true believers have always viewed themselves as pilgrims in this life, passing through to their real home in the next. Their eye has gazed out with Job, to the resurrected state. “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself.” [Job 19:25-27] The Patriarch Abraham is their model, who “went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” [Heb 11:9-10] Though the land was promised to him for the life to come, yet he regarded it presently as a foreign place. Likewise, resting in Christ means not regarding temporal nations as our true home.

As I survey the landscape, I see many professed Christians fixated on securing their fortunes in this world. They expend tireless energy and wealth trying to sway politics and form public opinion. They appear unsettled by the potential outcomes of every election. I hear them grinding their bones, trying to create a “Christian” country—a bona fide spiritual homeland upon the crust of this structurally condemned property called Earth. I wonder, do they not hear anthem of the saints in the book of Hebrews?

“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland [...] but as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” [Heb 11:13-14, 16]

Believers are entitled to a homeland, a better country, a city of God—but that home is heavenly, awaiting us after the resurrection. It does not exist in this age, nor can it be coerced into being by voting, education, or arms. This is not to say we should renounce all civil activity. For the glory of God and good of our neighbors, we should strive for the best possible society. We should do good and instruct others to do likewise. But we must always bear in mind the gates of Paradise remain barred on this side of Eden. The Lord’s prayer, “Thy kingdom come,” will not expire in this life. His kingdom will not arrive in fullness any sooner than the King himself does.

Therefore, rather than fomenting political instability in order to bring about our over-realized version of the millennium—which, I add, already exists, because Christ has bound the Strong Man and now reigns from the right hand of the Father in heaven—I say, rather than obsessing over how to depose every unbelieving despot and transform all society into a wholly Christian one, the Bible urges the Church to a different kind of revolution, one that is principally concerned with the Church and one’s soul.

“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” [1 Pet. 1:11]

As ambassadors of Christ living in a strange land, saints are called to see their true enemies, not as men and women flying unfamiliar banners in distant lands, or standing to one side of the stage at political rallies, but as those insidious forces of sin operating deep within our own hearts. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” [Eph. 6:12] Not politicians, but personal lust and pride and unbelief, are the adversaries which our energies should be predominantly concentrated against. The inspired Epistles say little of earthly systems and thrones, documents and demarcation—but repeatedly muster us to reform ourselves to alignment with the rule of Christ. For once, I would like to see a Christian busily advocating the death penalty, who is equally dedicated to daily crucifying himself. [1 Cor. 15:31] Before worrying ourselves with how others should vote in a Democratic society, we must bow low before the throne of our Monarch and accept his yoke. This is the first concern of Peter in relation to government,

“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” [1 Pet. 1:13-17]

Like Daniel in Babylon, we should not be above serving idolatrous leaders, provided they don’t impose on us to participate in sin. At that point, God forbid, we are free to enter heaven through the digestive tracts of lions. “Then,” Ignatius said, “it is better for me to die for Christ than to reign over the ends of the earth [... It is our part to] stand firm and immovable as an anvil when it is beaten upon.” [2]

I leave you with an exhortation to receive the peace of God through faith, believing Jesus’ promise that “all who come to me I will never cast out.” [John 6:37] Recognize that being a Christian does not guarantee worldly peace or prosperity, but may actually militate against them. In fact, Paul’s second missionary journey undertaken specifically to “strengthen the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” [Acts 14:22] Instead of becoming overwhelmed with political anxiety, trust God to guide all things for good to his Church, and devote yourself to personal conformity with Christ. Pray for the powers that be, and make it your goal to live faithfully to your true King.

“I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” [1 Tim. 2:1-3]

“Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.” [1 Thes. 4:11-12]
Tertullian once said, “It does not matter where you are in the world, if you are not of the world.” [3] Friend, wherever you are, may the Lord Jesus Christ bless your service as an ambassador of his heavenly kingdom, the Jerusalem above which is free. [Gal. 4:26] I look forward to standing with you on that day.


[1-3] All quotations taken from Horatius Bonar's Words Old and New.

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