Isaiah 17: Praise God for His Judgement
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Isaiah, and this morning we’re going to be reading from chapters 17 and 18 as we continue our series through the book of Isaiah.
So I realized as I was writing this, this is the 100th sermon I’ve preached. I thought about doing thee sitcom thing, where I just piece together bits and pieces of sermons from the past two years, but instead, Isaiah.
Isaiah’s a book about the fall of the nation of Judah. It’s a story of humanity’s sin, the distance between who we are and who we are meant to be, and in spite of all we’ve done wrong, God’s redemption, and the coming of the kingdom of God on earth. We talked about how God is reversing sin, bringing what the Bible calls peace, shalom, the distance closed, so that we, and all of creation will be restored back to our original purpose; everything will be made whole and right. We need to learn both to hope for the world as it will be and to live as citizens of the coming kingdom of God, which makes us travelers, exiles in this world and in our nation.
The past several weeks, I’ve been talking about the tools God is using to bring about his kingdom, in contrast with the tools the enemy uses to do his work in the world. God doesn’t use the same tools the enemy uses to do his work. The enemy uses violence, shame, accusation, social and economic oppression. God isn’t going to establish his kingdom that way. He isn’t going to use death against us, or violence, or oppression to establish his rule and reign.
The Lord uses things like natural consequence, time, and memory to reverse the effects of sin on the world.
Last week, I spent the whole morning talking about one of the most powerful tools of God in establishing his kingdom here on earth: hospitality, a word literally meaning stranger-love. You see, no one is born into the kingdom God is establishing. We are brought in and given shelter when we are still enemies of the kingdom, saved through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus even though we are sinful and broken. If we are children of God, it’s because he adopted us as sons and daughters. And so we should recognize that we are exiles in this world, and show the same love to the strangers in our midst.
This week, I’m again going to spend the whole sermon talking about a single tool God is using to establish his kingdom here on earth: judgement; judgement. We often reel against the idea of the judgement of God, but we shouldn’t. We only despise the judgement of God because we misunderstand the purpose of his judgement. We need the judgement of God, desperately, or else we will remain dead in our sin. And without the righteous judgement of God there can’t be any forgiveness in our lives or the world, or peace.
Read with me, Isaiah, chapter 17, starting with verses 1-3, and then I’m going to skip down to v.7. [Isaiah 17:1-3;7-11]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly. Lord, please show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free.
I meet a lot of people as a pastor who have been burned pretty hard by the church, so they hate this word, judgement. Usually people despise the judgement of God because they’ve experienced shame at the hand of his people—but the judgement of God does not bring about shame; shame is a weapon of the enemy, and God does not use it. Sometimes his people do, though. That’s only because we are sinners.
I usually joke with people who’ve been burned by the church, that the only problem with Christianity is all of the Christians. If it weren’t for all of the people in the church, the church would be perfect. I’ll tell you this morning: God is good. Me though? I’m a sinner, and I’m broken. If there is anything good in me, it is the work of God, the Holy Spirit, in my life. I hope that doesn’t sound strange coming from a pastor, because that’s meant to be one of the foundational truths of Christianity: we are all, each of us, sinful and broken. In fact, the only way to become a Christian is to admit you are sinful and broken; but we forget this.
And so, the main problem with correctly understanding the righteous judgement of God is all of the unrighteous judgement of people claiming to judge in his name. When we think of the judgement of God, we tend to think of scenes like in the Mandy Moore movie, Saved!, where she throws a Bible at someone across the parking lot and shouts “I am filled with God’s love.” And we think, how can Christians judge the people around them, say they are sinful, when there is so much broken in them?
But just because Christians have made a mess of God’s judgement, it doesn’t mean God’s judgement is bad; it just means we need to be careful to differentiate between the righteous judgement of God and the unrighteous judgement of his people. Isaiah’s going to help us.
One, my first point from the text this morning is this: The judgement of God is true and universal. The judgement of God is true and universal.
By universal, I mean no one will be excused from the judgement of God. Anne-Elise and I were reading through this part of Isaiah this week, and she’s looking at a map as I’m reading through the oracles against various nations, and she concludes, “So God’s pronouncing judgement on the whole world, everyone except his own people.” And I said, no. God is pronouncing judgement on everyone, but he’s also pronouncing judgement on his own people—even Isaiah, himself.
Remember, Isaiah started his book by pronouncing woes on the sins of his own people, and then in chapter six, when Isaiah is called to be a prophet, the very first woe he pronounces in light of the perfection he sees in God is on himself—he says, “Woe is me.”
Whatever you’ve believed before today about the way in which God saves his people, know this: God does not exclude his own people from judgement, not even his prophets. What’s more, we need God to judge us, or we can’t possibly be forgiven. And we need God to judge the world, or we can’t possible have peace or be forgiven.
We misunderstand the judgement of God, his reasons for judging humanity, and the results of his judgements. God judges us, not to make us ashamed, but to rid us of sin so we can have a place in his kingdom. His judgement is good, right, and equitable.
Some of you already know this about me, but at least for the past nine generations, the men in my family have all been lawyers. Even today, my oldest brother is a lawyer, and let me tell you—even though I chose a different profession, the law is in my blood, which is why I’ve never liked the usual analogy people use to explain God’s judgement.
If you’ve ever tried to picture the judgement of God, you’ve probably imagined a judge in a courtroom—like in the show “The Good Place”—with a robe and gavel and a stern look on his face. He’s probably sitting higher than you, talking about laws and balances and saying things like “my hands are tied.” So God is a judge in a courtroom, and you’re the one standing trial. And to your surprise—maybe you didn’t think you’d done anything really wrong—you’re found guilty, and the sentence is death. But when the bailiff comes to take you away, the judge stands up, takes off his robes, and orders the bailiff to take him instead to the execution.
And let me pause and say, I’m not trying to criticize people who use this analogy—it can be super helpful for a lot of people to understand atonement. I’m just saying I’m not one of those people for whom it’s helpful, and I know it’s my own fault. I way overthink it, because the law is in my blood.
I’m over here like: so in this so-called justice system, every crime is a capital crime, and you’re guilty whether or not you intended to commit a crime. And in Christianity, the people and children of God are forgiven. So the judge allows his people and his family to avoid any kind of consequence, but if you’re not in the family, if you weren’t part of that group, for everyone else he condemns them to die—that doesn’t seem just.
And the reason I’m picking on this analogy is because—the way I just said that, that kind of cruel injustice—is what people have experienced oftentimes in the church, and it’s what people are afraid of, repulsed by; that’s what a lot of people have assumed the God of Christianity is like. For everyone inside the Church, we have a blank slate—we can commit the worst crimes, the worst atrocities, and expect to be met with grace and forgiveness. But if you’re not in the group, if you’re not part of the family for whatever reason, you’re judged harshly and condemned. People outside of the church see our faith as having a wild double standard. We sin, and are forgiven by the judge. They sin, and are condemned.
It’s like the Christian church in Germany in the days leading up to WWII who allied themselves with the Nazi party and, in the words of one German pastor, “poured out rivers of grace without end,” without ever issuing a call to confession or repentance or discipleship. Or, more recently, it’s like how sexual abuse has largely been ignored in the church under the guise of forgiveness, with pastors and priests being offered new positions and churches to try again, be given a second shot.
In the Bible, it’s like how Roman citizens were allowed access to a trial, while non-citizens could be killed with impunity. Similarly, in our own even-more recent history, it’s like the all-white juries when my parents were coming up in New Orleans who would forgive their own for literal murder, and then condemn a man or woman of another race to die horribly for the smallest things. That was called justice and done in the name of the Lord with the enthusiastic support of many Christian people.
This is the kind of judgement and forgiveness people are afraid of—a partial judgement, where some people are given a pass while others are made an example, where if the truth is ever told, it’s told with a slant to avoid any actual need to speak the truth of what was done or repent.
Sadly, this is what people have assumed the God of Christianity is like, why they are so quick to point out the sins of Christians, the mistakes church people make, as if our mistakes might excuse their own. They think, if God is just, and he is willing to forgive his own people for terrible things, then he should be willing to forgive us, too. And again, the main problem with correctly understanding the righteous judgement of God is all of the unrighteous judgement of people claiming to judge in his name. But all throughout scripture, we see that God does not judge partially. He does not privilege one nation over another, one group over the other. He is a just judge.
In v.3 in our passage, God says the fate of God’s people is just like the fate of the surrounding nations. We’re all in this together. They are not excused from the day of judgement because they are God’s people. God’s judgement is universal, and that’s a good thing, because that is what’s right, and the world needs to be set back right.
I’ll never forget one shower Friday, when we open our doors to the people in our community experiencing homelessness, I was going around as I usually do asking about needs and offering to pray for people, and I asked one person if he would allow me to pray for him, and he answered, “I don’t know, pastor. Let me ask you first—do you pray for yourself? Do you need prayer, too?” I told him, yes. Yes I do. Two things are true of me at the same time: I am wretched, and I am beloved by God.
In theology we call this a dialectic, when two things are true at the same time, and they pull against each other, like two opposing cables on a suspension bridge crossing the distance between God and his people, and if either side ever stopped pulling against the other, everything would collapse. The dialectic here is that we, God’s people, are both wretched and beloved, we are both judged by God and forgiven by him. Both of those are true at the same time, and they both have to be true for the other to mean anything.
Whenever we try to whitewash or make excuses for our actions, whenever we fail to tell the truth about ourselves we are excusing forgiveness as well. Forgiveness can’t exist without truth and judgement. We’re left, as v.11 tells us, only with incurable pain.
This is why, whenever people confess sin to me, this is my practice; this is what I actually do, and perhaps why I don’t have very many friends: I’m not going to tell you it’s alright, because it’s not. And I don’t say, well that sort of thing is pretty common, or I do that too, because that doesn’t help us. And I’m not going to say we’ll find a way to make it better, because we may not. I ask people to tell the truth, the whole story, without excuses, hiding nothing; and then I tell people, your sin has caused more damage in your own life, and in the world around you than you could possibly imagine.
But, there is another piece to this dialectic, another cable to the bridge between God and his people, and this is my second point: the truth and judgement of God lead to forgiveness and peace. The truth and judgement of God lead to forgiveness and peace. In our passage, in v.2, hopefully you caught a glimpse of the purpose for all of this judgement pronounced: Isaiah repeat his language of peace in the land, of everything being as it should; saying the flocks will lie down and none will make them afraid.
Going back to how we imagine God as judge, I want to make some changes to the analogy, to help us understand what the judgement of God is actually like. First, in our country, there is a separation between the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary powers, but in the kingdom of God, God is all. He is not a judge on a bench, he is a king on a throne, but this scene we’re imagining isn’t in his court, because the judgement we’re awaiting is whether or not we will be able to enter his city at all.
See, in Isaiah’s times, judges would hear cases, not in a courtroom, but at the city gates, because judges were responsible for keeping the peace of the city. The king would post trusted, wise elders at each gate to the city. If people from the outside wanted to enter the city, they needed a judgement as to whether or not they were able to come in—so you see, judgement and hospitality go hand-in-hand. If a person was a refugee, or a stranger, or was pleading to the king for justice, they would go to the gates of the city to be heard. To even arrive at the judgement of the king, himself, is already a mercy, because that means the king has left his throne to come to the outer gates of the city. So, you can see, it’s already a mercy that God the Son, Christ Jesus, emptied himself, left his throne, and sought us out when we were still enemies and cried out to him to offer us a judgement to enter his city. He came to us. If he had stayed on his throne, we would still be excluded from his kingdom, in a spiritual place the Bible calls the outer dark.
Second, you aren’t on trial for small little things that really weren’t all that bad. You’re already outside the city of God, already condemned. The king has come out to us to offer a judgement as a means of overturning the condemnation already brought upon us—we have exiled ourselves by rebelling against him and his kingdom, but he has come out to us, into the dark, to find us.
Third, there’s no jury, no audience to this judgement, no accountant listing good vs. bad as though the king doesn’t know us each intimately. There’s no us vs. them, no comparison to other people. There are no laws besides the King’s word; his hands aren’t tied. And the king, himself, is your only advocate. It’s just the king, and we’re all being judged together—humanity—though our fates will be as individual as our choices, just as God loves the whole world and yet relates to us as individuals.
Third, we need to understand that death is not the judgement passed down by God. Death is the natural consequence of our actions, as Isaiah’s already shown us; death is our inevitable end unless God intercedes. Death is our crime, not our sentence. We let death and darkness into the world like an army into a city, and now we’re ruled by it. But the king has ruled that death cannot enter his kingdom, and so we have a choice. We can remain in death outside of the kingdom, or we can follow the king back into the city.
And now we arrive at the part of this analogy which the Bible calls judgement. Judgement, which is a mercy granted us that we might enter the kingdom of God. The judgement of God is to strip us bare of all excuses and falsehoods before we can enter his city, take every weapon of the enemy out of our hands, and make us clean. He asks us to denounce the ways of the world from which we’ve come, and learn the ways of his kingdom.
The king asks, children, why are you fighting, and why have you not forgiven each other? Truth, now—he knows it already. Why is there suffering in the world, he’ll ask, and what are we going to say? That it’s his fault, he should have done more—he’s done all. The reason suffering is in our world is because we were not enough like him—we didn’t love what he loves and do what he does. What have you done for your neighbors who were in need? The king asks. Where is your brother, and why aren’t you his keeper? Why was this elderly person not cared for, why was this child alone, why is there so little justice? No excuses left, no blame to be placed, only truth. Nothing hidden, no story spun, no misunderstanding.
On the day of the judgement of God, all of our lives will be laid bare, right there before the king and everyone. All of our struggles understood, outcries heard, shames exposed. Truth, painful truth, like admitting your own failures, sin, and struggle to the entire church body. Not everyone will seek the judgement of the Lord, some people will find it unbearable and prefer to stay hidden in the dark, but for those who come and confess, he will be both faithful and just to forgive them, not because their sins are small, but because their sins are against him and he is large enough to forgive even large things.
And I know what you’re thinking: my analogy is really long and confusing, and you’re going to stick with the courtroom one. That’s fine, like I said, unless you’re like me, that’s a great analogy. But just know: the judgement of God is painful, but it is also a mercy, and it’s our only way to peace, the only tool powerful enough to rid us of death and darkness.
My invitation to you today is to seek the judgement of God. As we read these passages where death and sin are made plain, and nations are brought to ruin, let’s rejoice that these things are not allowed to remain hidden or last forever, that God is bringing all hidden things into the light. And know that there is hope, still, in the judgement of God to escape death and find peace. Now, in this life, and fully in the next. If you cry out to him, and allow him to lay you bare in judgement, if he is gracious enough to convict you and you confess, you are able to enter his kingdom and learn his ways. The judgement of God can be painful, yes, but it’s also the only means of entering into life.
I would invite you, too, if you are a Christian, into your proper role in the judgement of God. It’s not to throw Bibles at people or yell at them with signs. The proper role of the Christian in participating in the judgement of God is to speak the truth in love and mercy at all times. Speak the truth of people’s sin and brokenness without using the enemy’s weapon of shame. Speak the truth that you, yourself, are just as sinful and broken as the people around you. Speak the truth that you only have life and light because of the judgement and hospitality of God. Pray with me.