October 8, 2020
Hope is an exercise in expecting God to do what seems like the least likely thing possible—maybe even the thing that is impossible. But hope is exactly what we need because what could be more unlikely, more impossible, than people like you and me overcoming sin on our own and making a way to be right with God again. These verses in Isaiah 19 illuminate how God’s purposes—even his judgment—always aim towards salvation and reconciliation, even of those who seem farthest away and least likely ever to return.
Having hope is an exercise in expecting God to do what seems like the least likely thing possible—maybe even the thing that is impossible. But hope is exactly what we need because what could be more unlikely, more impossible, than people like you and me overcoming sin on our own and making a way to be right with God again.
We saw this Sunday in our Grow Groups as we talked about God’s judgment against the pagan and materialist people of Tyre in Isaiah 23, which serves as a paradigm for God’s judgment against everyone who chooses idolatry, immorality, and injustice over true worship, sincere obedience, and steadfast love. In one sense, it is shocking because God brings down an economic power that seems invincible.
Now I want us to consider another, earlier prophetic oracle about the foreign nations that surround Israel, but this one is astounding in the opposite direction—it surprises us not only that God can judge nations that rebel against him, but he can also redeem them and reconcile them to himself. In this case Israel might have been perfectly happy with some wrathful revenge that could settle old scores with Egypt and Assyria, their past and present oppressors. But God doesn’t want revenge. He aims for redemption—even for Gentile nations, the purpose of God’s judgment is to make a way for salvation.
Here’s Isaiah 19, beginning in v. 19:
In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt. When they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and deliver them. And the Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians will know the Lord in that day and worship with sacrifice and offering, and they will make vows to the Lord and perform them. And the Lord will strike Egypt, striking and healing, and they will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their pleas for mercy and heal them. In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and Assyria will come into Egypt, and Egypt into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.” (Isaiah 19:19–25)
If hope requires stunning reversals from our present expectations in our current circumstances, then God’s words in Isaiah 19 are about as hopeful as any in the Bible. It is hard to overstate how unexpected—and honestly, even undesirable—God’s words here would have sounded to Israel. This isn’t the kind of thing Isaiah would have just made up!
In the days of Moses, Israel cried out to God because of their slavery under Egypt (Exodus 2:23–24). But in “that day”—the day of the Lord—Egypt will be able to cry out to God for deliverance from the oppression of the idols for whom they slaved. One day Egypt will no longer be an object of wrath, but rather an object of God’s mercy (Ephesians 2:3–7).
Like the reversal in v. 20 of Egypt crying for deliverance rather than being the oppressor from whom deliverance is sought, Yahweh will make himself known to Egypt, no longer as an act of judgment, like when God says to pharaoh, “I will send all my plagues on you yourself, and on your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth” (Exodus 9:14). Now he will reveal himself as an act of grace that invites them into the covenant life of those he has redeemed for his glory (Isaiah 19:21).
Now the Lord will strike Egypt as he did during the plagues. But now the blows won’t harden their hearts, but rather will humble them, leading to healing and hope because they repent and turn to him seeking mercy in the only one it can be found (Isaiah 19:22).
This is such a radical transformation in their hearts that Egypt and Assyria, great superpower rivals of the Ancient Near East, are now reconciled, both united in worship that acknowledges the supremacy of the one true God (Isaiah 19:23).
And while this seems like a stunning plot twist, it’s been God’s plan from the beginning, right there at the climax of the covenant God makes with Abram: “…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3b).
God called Abram with the intention to make his family a blessing to all of the families of the earth. Isaiah anticipates that the coming of the kingdom of the Messiah will fulfill that blessing even to those who might have seemed least likely to receive it (Isaiah 19:24).
The blessing Yahweh gives through the Messiah means that it is no longer only Israel that can be called God’s very own people and the special work of his hands, but these titles of affection, honor, and covenant loyalty can extend even to those who were once the sworn enemies and oppressors of God and his people (cf. Romans 5:10) and idolators who refused to know and serve God (Exodus 5:2).
Reflecting on this passage today should prompt us towards two responses:
First, these words should swell up tremendous gratitude in our hearts for the grace of God that we have in Christ. Probably very few if any of us are descended from Abraham, and so we aren’t any more likely recipients of God’s blessing than Egypt and Assyria were. Perhaps you’ve had Christians in your family back for generations, but at some point one of them became a Christian only because someone else from another nation who spoke another language told them about Christ for the very first time. We did nothing to make that happen, and yet our lives are changed because someone spoke a faithful word of witness to an unlikely convert.
Second, that gratitude should make us eager today to see the gospel continue to spread even and especially to people who have never had a chance to hear the truth about Jesus Christ. Fifty-nine percent of the world’s population belong to people groups where fewer than 2% are evangelical Christians. They not only don’t know Christ, they don’t know anyone who knows Christ. So someone needs to go to tell them. And so our gratitude for the gospel should overflow in generosity so that we can support people who will witness to the gospel, and in prayers for those who will share and for those who will hear, and in being faithful ourselves to step into any opportunity we have to speak about Christ to anyone who has not yet believed in him, even to “those people” we feel certain would never believe..
And we need to do this not because missions is the most important thing in the world but because the global worship of the glory of God that Isaiah describes here is. As John Piper puts it:
Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever. Worship, therefore, is the fuel and goal in missions. It’s the goal of missions because in missions we simply aim to bring the nations into the white-hot enjoyment of God’s glory. The goal of missions is the gladness of the peoples in the greatness of God…. (J. Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions, p. 11)
On Sunday we’ll hear more in our Grow Groups from Isaiah 25 about how good that day will be when death and sadness are defeated and all the redeemed will join in a feast of worship and celebration of the victory of God.
On Zoom or in the room, we’ll see you there.