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Isaiah 56-59: Contrasting the Righteous and the Wicked Print E-mail
Sunday, 11 January 2009

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It is a glorious Christian truth that through faith in Christ we are declared righteous before God. Theologians call this ‘imputed righteousness’ which means that Christ’s righteous life is credited to our account. We saw this last week in the book of Isaiah. In 53:11 we read: by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous. Thus through the work of Christ at the cross we are counted righteous before God.

So then, does that mean that God no longer expects His people to actually live righteous lives? I mean if we are counted righteous in Christ, then what does it matter if I sin like the Devil and do whatever I want? Who needs righteous living when you already have a righteous standing before God? Or even if we do not want to go that far, can we not at least pay minimal attention to how we actually live as long as we have a ‘relationship’ with Christ?

Isaiah is answering these questions for us in chapters 56-59. Lest God’s people make the above conclusions, he begins with this statement: Thus says the Lord: Keep justice and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed (56:1). He leaves no room for doubt: God’s people must obey God’s commands and live righteous lives. In the next few chapters he will contrast righteous living and wicked living among God’s ‘people.’ He does this to call Israel, particularly the returning exiles, to righteous living before God. I want to simply look at the first three chapters this morning to note the contrast between the righteous and the wicked, while also identifying God’s response to each. Even though my outline in the bulletin does not reflect this, I want to conclude by focusing on the call to repentance in chapter 59. So let’s begin with chapter 56.

The righteous obediently worship, while the wicked lead foolishly (ch. 56).

We have already seen Isaiah’s teaching about the inclusion of the nations in God’s work of salvation. We see this again in 56:2-8. Look at that with me. Isaiah emphasizes the importance of not profaning the Sabbath. He claims that even foreigners and eunuchs will be welcome if they will keep the Sabbath. As the fourth commandment makes clear, the keeping of the Sabbath was important in the worship of Israel. Other nations (foreigners) would have thought that setting aside a whole day for rest was strange. Yet, this is vital in the worship of Yahweh and the righteous will not profane the Sabbath.

A difficult question that we do not have time to fully explore here is what do we as believers in Christ do with the Sabbath commands? Many simply bring over the ideas of resting on the Sabbath and apply it to Christians by teaching that we should not work on Sundays but be involved in corporate worship. Although I do think the New Testament teaches the importance of corporate worship (see Hebrews 10:19-25), the language of keeping the Sabbath is not carried over into the new covenant. Thus, the principle for us from this passage is not necessarily that we abstain from working on Sundays, but rather that we worship the Lord in the ways that He prescribes in the New Testament. The righteous will obediently worship the Lord and we are to keep the Sabbath holy in this way.

Isaiah goes on in chapter 56 to describe the wicked leaders in Israel (see 56:9-12). Instead of shepherding the people faithfully, they are lazy drunks who are more interested in their own gain than they are protecting the sheep under their care. The Lord condemns such foolish leading through the prophets’ words.

How does the Lord respond to these actions of the righteous and the wicked? He grants joy to the foreigner and the eunuch who keeps His Sabbath. The Lord will make them joyful in my house of prayer (verse 7) and gather them in to be a part of His people. Yet, He will destroy the work of the wicked leaders by unleashing the beasts of the field to devour them. To the righteous He grants joy and to the wicked destruction.

The righteous humbly seek God, while the wicked arrogantly serve idols (ch. 57).

In chapter 57 Isaiah describes the arrogant idolatry of the wicked. Look at verses 7-10. As in the days of old, Israel will continue to struggle with idol worship even after they return from exile. Isaiah continues to point out the folly of such action. They are looking to the fertility gods of the pagans for help but it is only the Lord who can provide what they need. Yet, they pursue their idols wherever they can with seemingly no shame.

But the Lord will not dwell with these idolaters. Rather, even though He is high and exalted, the Lord will dwell with the humble and the contrite. Look at verses 14-15. The Lord is the Sovereign ruler of the universe and He dwells on high. Yet, He is pleased to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite. Even though He was angry with His people for a season, He will once again revive those who humble themselves and confess their rebellion. If they will but admit their need for Him, He will heal, lead, and restore (v. 18).

Thus, while the arrogant go on arrogantly pursuing their idols, the righteous humble themselves before the Lord and repent of their sins. The Lord responds to the righteous with comfort and peace. Look at verses 18-19. Yet, He withholds such peace and comfort to the wicked idolaters. Look at verses 20-21. Only those who humble themselves before the Lord will know peace.

The righteous faithfully fast, while the wicked hypocritically fast (ch. 58).

In chapter 58, we see Isaiah contrasting true and false fasting. What does he call false fasting? Look at 58:1-5. The people were giving the appearance of following the Lord. Isaiah says that they were seeking the Lord daily and delighted in knowing His ways. They asked Him for righteous judgments and delighted in drawing near to God. And they fasted. So then, what was the problem? They were doing all of this trying to get what they wanted from God. Isaiah says that even in their fasting they were seeking their own pleasure. Likewise, their ‘devotion’ to God had no impact on their relationships with others. They mistreated their workers and were constantly fighting with one another. Isaiah concludes: Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Such external acts will never manipulate the Lord.

What then is true fasting? Isaiah speaks to this in verses 6-7. Look at those with me. To say that we love God and are worshipping God in spirit and truth while at the same time we are ignoring the needs of others around us is hypocrisy. Make no mistake, the gospel is not just loving and serving people (as some called the social gospel), but it is not ignoring peoples needs either. True fasting is not just refusing to eat bread. It is using the bread that we have to see that others eat as well. There is a call to all worshippers of Yahweh to be involved in sacrificially meeting the needs of others. Such a thought is convicting to me.

Do we come in on Sunday mornings, go through the motions of worship, and ignore the needs that are all around us? How are you loosing the bonds of wickedness and undoing the straps of oppression? How are you sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house? The Lord, through Isaiah, is condemning Israel’s worship not because they are singing the wrong songs but because they are refusing to fight for justice among the needy. Once again, the true worship wars have very little to do with the externals and much more to do with the heart.

How does worshipping God produce in us a longing to meet the needs of others? It is because we know that the only way that we can come into the presence of Almighty God is due to His great compassion on us. We were dead in our sins and trespasses and unworthy of any help. Yet, the Lord sent us Christ to die in our place and to redeem us from our sins. In light of such compassion and mercy, how can we not live sacrificial lives for others? How can we not use our resources to meet the needs of those less fortunate? Since next Sunday is Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, I want to return to these verses, but I hope you see the connection between true worship and sacrificial service of others.

How does the Lord respond to the two types of fasting? We have already seen that He will not be manipulated by mere external acts of worship, but what about true fasting? Look at verses 8-12. You will never out-give the Lord. We may give away money and food, time and energy, but the Lord gives us Himself. He will heal us and hear us. He will cause His glory to be our rear guard. He will guide us continually and satisfy our desires. So then, give yourself and your stuff away with no fear, for the Lord will be with you. Those who try to manipulate the Lord with their rituals will be kept in the darkness, but those who serve with their whole-heart will be kept in the light of the Lord.

Isaiah makes a clear contrast between the righteous and the wicked in these chapters. He also tells us how the Lord will respond to both groups. Our conclusion from this should be obvious: we want to be among the righteous. We want to be numbered among those who will have joy in God’s house, those who will be comforted by God and have peace, and those whose paths will be lighted with the Lord Himself.

Yet, a problem remains and Isaiah addresses it in chapter 59. Look at verses 1-15a. We are numbered among the wicked because of our sins. They have separated us from the Lord and driven us away from salvation. What hope can we really have of ever being numbered with the righteous? Look at verses 15b-21. The Lord was displeased with our sin. He knew that we were helpless rebels and if left to ourselves we would never obey. So, He acted. He did what we could not do for ourselves. His own arm brought him salvation. He put on the helmet of salvation and garments of vengeance. So then, how can we be sure that we receive salvation and not vengeance? Simple: repentance and faith. The Redeemer will come for those who turn from transgression, those who repent and trust in the Lord.

The only way that we can live holy lives and be numbered among the righteous is through faith in the Redeemer sent to Zion. True saving faith in Him will not only declare us righteous but it will work in us righteous living. It will drive out laziness and folly. It will humble us before our God. It will give us compassion for others and their needs. Thus, if you want to be numbered among the righteous this morning, then repent of your sins and trust in Christ. He is faithful to not only declare us righteous, but to also equip and lead us in living righteous lives. Amen.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Monday, 19 January 2009 )

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