Isaiah 33:5-6, 17, 20-22 Sunday after Ascension
May 28, 2017
St Paul’s Anglican Church
“LORD is Exalted”
The Scriptures furnish us the background for the Isaiah passage read together this morning! Once we understand the background, the text becomes crystal clear – and much more valuable – to us!
The Assyrians — world power of 700 BC — were overrunning the nations of the earth. They then turned toward Judah… and threatened Jerusalem.
The armies of Sennacherib, King of Assyria, had already conquered the Northern Kingdom, and those ten tribes had been enslaved and scattered throughout the vast Assyrian empire, never again to return to their homeland, only to be known in the days of our Lord as “Samaritans” – for other subjugated peoples were brought in for the purpose of intermarrying — breaking down national identities.
As an interesting sidebar, you might have seen the headlines almost three years ago when Isis overran Mosul (in Iraq) where sat the famous city of Nineveh (capital of the Assyrian empire involved in our Old Testament lesson this morning). The first thing they did was to wire explosives and destroy the tomb of Jonah (who preached repentance there)! Well, the explosion opened up a passage to a previously untouched palace belonging to Sennacherib and his son, Esarhaddon! A silver archaeological lining!
At the time Isaiah wrote the words which form our lesson for today, Jerusalem was under siege. King Hezekiah had attempted to meet the ever-increasing demands of Sennacherib for more and more tribute in order to spare the Holy City. Even the Temple had been stripped of its gold in an attempt to placate the ruthless Assyrian. In spite of shipments of treasure, Sennacherib broke his promise and sent an army of almost 200,000 men to encircle and attack Jerusalem with war chariots, siege engines, great catapults (or trebuchets) to hurl huge stones over the walls, battering rams, and great rolling shelters to protect them as they tunneled (like termites) through the massive protective walls of the city.
By any standard of man’s wisdom, the situation for Jerusalem seemed utterly hopeless! King Hezekiah (who according to the Bible “did that which was right in the eyes of the LORD”) along with his court had humbled themselves and put on sackcloth in place of their royal attire. Over their heads they had sprinkled ashes as a sign of humility.
Utter despair filled the air, for they had all heard reports of what happened to the inhabitants of other cities to which the Assyrians laid siege!
The LORD’s spokesman, Isaiah, prophet of the Most High, had received assurance from the Almighty that the city would be spared. He expresses that assurance in the poetic verses before us this morning.
The lesson opens with the quiet affirmation of the majesty of God. He is exalted. He dwelleth on high… a nice way to address God in our prayers!
Isaiah then confirms the LORD’s special concern for Jerusalem. He made Zion His unique center of worship. In spite of the falling away of many of His servants, in spite of idolatry and widespread unrighteousness, Faith was still alive in Jerusalem! The Word of the LORD was still taught, and He was still worshipped by a remnant as absolute Ruler. The prophet stresses that God Himself is the real treasure which the city possessed – not the silver and gold which had been worthless as tribute and ransom. Just as Martin Luther’s thesis #62 (and probably the choicest of all of the 95 theses) states: The true treasure of the church is the most holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.
Isaiah reassures the people they shall again see their king without sackcloth… without ashes… without downcast eyes. Thine eyes shall see the king in his beauty – dressed again in his royal raiment. The people will again be able to go forth from inside the walls of the embattled city and travel to other parts of the land. Quote… They shall behold the land that is very far off.
The prophet paints a vivid picture of a quiet, peaceful Jerusalem. The city where the great liturgy of worship is performed will be like a permanent tent that is never taken down. …not one of the stakes thereof shall ever be removed, neither shall any of the cords thereof be broken.
The prophet knew how the Assyrians depended upon the great, broad Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. He stresses that the LORD gives this kind of comfort, this sustaining of life: But there the glorious LORD will be unto us a place of broad rivers and streams… There will be no disturbance of this panorama of harmony and tranquility. There will be neither pirate ships nor war vessels to threaten the peace.
And why is the prophet so sure of this? Because the LORD God is sovereign! He makes the laws! He passes judgment on the keeping (or not keeping) of His Laws. And He is the Chief Magistrate Who executes reward and punishment… For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king; he will save us. This worldview has been lost to a great portion of Christ’s Church this morning, for it has become so heavenly-minded that it is no longer of any earthly good! And this is sad!
Unquestionably, there were cynics who ridiculed this visionary who dared to hold forth some superstitious belief that a supernatural Power would intervene to defeat the obviously invincible forces besieging the city.
Then there were the wishful thinkers who did not really much believe in God nor in His prophets, but maybe luck or perhaps chance would favor them. Maybe things were not quite as bad as they seemed.
Last, there were the faithful believers who did cling to the sovereignty of Almighty God – who believed the prophet, not knowing how God would deliver them, but with quiet confidence trusting that He would!
We know from Scripture that Jerusalem was miraculously spared… and we do well never to despair when the Almighty is on His Throne! Overnight, the irresistible Assyrian forces surrounding the Holy City were utterly destroyed. You might want to take time to read the 37th chapter of the Prophecy of Isaiah in order to glean the choice details!
There we read: …the angel of the LORD went forth, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians a hundred and fourscore and five thousand [185,000]: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses.
There have been many theories advanced as to what actually happened to Sennacherib’s mighty army. Of course, we know that God could have destroyed them by supernatural means. Usually, however, God transforms and uses the forces of His Creation to perform His miraculous wonders!
This was probably a tremendously virulent, rapidly-spreading disease. In hot, dry regions, cholera can produce this type of epidemic. Most of us are familiar with cholera – and sometimes under a different name: dysentery. One hundred years ago, it was known in the Midwest as “Summer Complaint” (cholera infantum). Cholera dehydrates and neutralizes its victims through restlessness, nausea and chills. Painful vomiting, muscular cramps and insatiable thirst lead up to circulatory failure – resulting in collapse and sudden death!
The agent of Asiatic cholera which swept through Europe and the United States in the 19th century was discovered in 1883 and is known today as the “vibrio comma” since the organism is shaped like a comma.
It is important to note that prevention of all these diseases is simply a matter of sanitation (especially washing of the hands). The Assyrian forces apparently did not know this – or were careless in enforcing it!
To supply so large an Assyrian force, it would, of course, have been necessary to haul water in large barrels or tanks. Can you picture an Assyrian warrior dipping his unwashed hand in a water tank for a drink? I certainly can! If these became contaminated with the cholera organism, the entire force could have been infected — and decimated — in a very short period of time…
Sennacherib returned to Nineveh with the remnants of his army. While he was praying in the temple of his heathen god, two of his sons ran him through with a sword, validating yet another prophecy of Isaiah (also found in the 37th chapter of the Prophecy of Isaiah).
With prophecy, there is usually a topical meaning for the time and circumstances of the prophet, and another more profound, far-reaching meaning extending into another time and other circumstances – sometimes into eternity itself.
Today’s lesson is no exception. Jerusalem is a figure for Christ’s Church. God promises to protect His Church. Though she may suffer adversity and though she may be surrounded and besieged on all sides by implacable foes, the LORD promises that she will not be destroyed. I will build my church, said Jesus, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it! And so she has survived – from the very real danger of enemies within… and from the equally nefarious dangers of enemies without — heretics… agnostics… humanists… evolutionists… atheists… communists. (to name only a few). Her faithful members have been ridiculed, hounded, imprisoned, tortured, martyred, yet she prevails like that great tent pitched in the desert whose stakes cannot be removed, whose cords cannot be torn.
And the Head of that Church – one humbled, rejected, and insulted (by the Assyrian counterparts of His day) and filled with sorrows — is now alive… having defeated death! And on top of that, He is ascended to the Right Hand of God! Thine eyes shall see the king in his beauty. Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords has walked this earth, has been crucified, resurrected and seen by hundreds of the faithful and known personally by millions. He is ascended and sits at the right Hand of God where He intercedes for us… and calmly dismantles His enemies!
He is our Law-Giver, He is our Judge, He is our King! And if we acknowledge Him as Lord, if we fall at His feet in repentance, if we ask His forgiveness, if we worship Him worthily… He will save us, too – in our individual challenges… as families… as a church… and as a nation!
The LORD is exalted! And we celebrate it this day! World without end…