This last year has been difficult here in Louisiana with hurricanes and the Covid pandemic. Directly or indirectly we have experienced the trouble of these disasters. We all know the disaster to varying degrees. We have seen the cities affected. More than that, we have seen and do know the people affected.
So, the cry “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64.1) seems like a fitting cry to the Lord in hard times. The Israelites had suffered many years of exile by the time of this writing. They had lost the land God had given; they had lost the city God had given; they had lost the temple God had given. They cried to the Lord to appear in a dramatic and powerful way “open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence” (v. 1).
They look not only to God to manifest himself powerfully in the natural world through a rending of the heavens and a shaking of the mountains, but they look for the coming of the Lord in the geo-political world where the “nations might tremble at [his] presence” (v. 2). After all, they had suffered at the hands of the Assyrians and the Babylonians. For the Israelites, God was God over all things, over all lands, and over all peoples — and they wanted to see him rouse his mighty self right now.
God proved mighty to save in the past
They knew God was mighty because God proved mighty to save in the past. They have experienced the work of the Lord in their lives as a people. These verses (vv. 3-4) point to earlier verses in Isaiah 63.15-19:
- Isaiah recalls the “holy and glorious habitation” of God (v. 15);
- We hear of Abraham and Israel (Jacob) (v. 16a);
- Isaiah calls God the “Redeemer from of old” (v. 16b);
- Isaiah talks of Israel as “servants” of the Lord and “tribes that are your heritage” (v. 17);
- We are reminded of “the holy people [who] took possession for a little while” (v. 18a);
- We hear how the enemies of Israel “trampled down [God’s] sanctuary” (v. 18b).
In spite of this historical relationship, the Israelites now feel “like those not called by your name” (v. 19). That is to say, they feel like the relationship that God had maintained with Israel no longer is in effect. To wit, they feel like they’ve never known God — “like those not called by your name.” In all their difficultly, it feels as if they have been abandoned by God, as if they never knew him.
That’s where Isaiah 64.1 begins, and it is precisely where Isaiah 64.4 points. “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.” They know God works. They’re not always sure how God works, but they know God works. Why is God not working to save them now?
they know the problem: themselves
Perhaps, as they recognize in vv. 5-7, it’s because of sin. A holy God cannot countenance the sins (v. 5b), the transgressions (v. 5b), and the iniquities (v. 6b) of the people. They realize they are “unclean.” What that means is that they realize they are unfit to come before the Lord. They believe their sin prevents them from coming to God.
They know they have been delivered into the hand of their iniquity (v. 7b). They are reaping what they have sown in their relationship with God. And they know it.
Yet, they still call upon the Lord in language reminiscent of Jeremiah 18, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are the work of your hand” (v. 8). They plead with God to stop being angry with them on the basis of God’s creational and covenantal relationship with them. If they can’t find forgiveness, then maybe they can find some other way to see God act to save.
They plead with God not to be angry any more. God’s wrath, God’s anger is like God just letting us go our own way. It’s really as if we didn’t know him (cf. Isaiah 63.19) any more. That is God’s wrath — he leaves us alone; he leaves us to our own human devices which, ironically, have gotten us in trouble in the first place.
“Do not remember iniquity forever….we are all your people” they cry to God (v. 9). “We have a relationship,” they cry to God in these verses; we have a relationship with you, redeemed with Redeemer, created with Creator — even if we have failed to act righteously in that relationship with you.
All the things that matter to the Israelites, that express that relationship with God, all the things have been razed and ruined: the holy cities, the land Zion, the city Jerusalem, and the temple. And they cry to the Lord, “After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silent and punish us so severely?” (v. 12).
it’s not about the stuff
That’s how destruction and desolation feel — like we are not God’s people, like God has left us alone. The things that were once so important — the land, the city, the temple — now are gone. And the Israelites cry: “Don’t you care about your people anymore God?”
I suggest to you that God does not care about this stuff we think is so important. God cares about us. God cares about souls. God cares about redemption. God cares about “those who wait for him” (v. 4).
The text is not “those who wait for holy cities;” it’s not “those who wait for Zion;” it’s not “those who wait for Jerusalem;” and it’s not “those who wait for the temple.” The people feel abandoned in losing all those things. We may feel that way. But it’s not about the things. God moves in mysterious ways for those who wait on him.
I remembering seeing an interview with an NFL player in the aftermath of Katrina. He plays for the Detroit Lions, and he played college ball at Michigan. He also happens to be from New Orleans. The network interviewed him and his mother. He related that all the material things didn’t really matter; what mattered was the family, the people, the relationships.
When we cry to the Lord in great distress for help, for healing, for restoration, we must understand that help, healing, and restoration are not about stuff for God. Help, healing, and restoration for God are about the soul. It’s about our relationship to God.
our business is to know God
J. I. Packer, the modern theologian, explains: “Once you become aware that the main business that you are here for is to know God, most of life’s problems fall into place of their own accord.”
You see, God does not stir his might to save a building, a home, or a church. God stirs his might to save a soul, to save a family, to save a people. God stirs his might to operate in loving relationship.
When the people of Israel cry to God for restoration in Psalm 80, the refrain repeated three (3) times is “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (vv. 3, 7, 19). In v. 2, we hear: “Stir up your might and come to save us!” God stirs his might to save a soul, to save a family, to save a people. God stirs his might to operate in loving relationship.
That’s the essence of Advent. A people in deep need calling to God, waiting for the Lord to come is what Advent means. The essence of Advent is the call of the people to God — it’s not just a call to appear, but to be mighty to save. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64.1).
And God did appear. God does appear. God will appear. His name is Jesus. God stirred his might in and through Jesus Christ. “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him” (Isaiah 64.4).
A text for the table: Isaiah 64.1-12
Image Credit: “Brothers of the Book.”