Reformed Quarterly Volume 9, Issue 1
A seasoned and dedicated missionary, Dr. Paul B. Long is Chairman of the Missions Department at RTS. Long served from 1953 – 1980 in the Belgian Congo (Zaire) and Brazil, planting many churches in these pioneer areas. He holds a Ph.D. in intercultural studies from Fuller Theological Seminary and is the author of The Man in the Leather Hat and Other Stories.
“Forget the former things,” God said through Isaiah to the nation of Judah (43:18-19). “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” What could such a message of hope mean to the people of Isaiah’s time?
ISAIAH AND HIS TIMES
For 150 years before the days of Isaiah, the Assyrian Empire had been expanding. As early as 840 B.C. Israel, under Jehu, had begun paying taxes and bribes to foreign kings to avoid total destruction and enslavement. While Isaiah was a young man, the Northern Kingdom was destroyed, the best of its population was deported, and new vassal peoples were placed in the land.
Soon, the Assyrian forces were pushing into the Southern Kingdom with irresistible force. More than forty-six strongly fortified cities were destroyed. Some 200,000 citizens of Judah were carried away as captives, and during the prophet’s old age Jerusalem, the Holy City, was surrounded by Assyrian forces under the command of King Sennacherib.
God intervened, and the city was spared for a time; but what was this “new thing” God promised to do in their midst? How could the people of Judah perceive the hand of God during this destruction? Could the people trust such a prophet of hope to transmit the true message of Jehovah, God of Israel?
Signs of the times were striking at the very foundation of Judah’s society. In failing to worship God, the people adopted customs of their pagan neighbors. The family structures were seriously affected. Family disintegration, child abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, sex deviations — all accompanied a rejection of God in favor of self-gratification and indulgence. And Isaiah warned:
You have abandoned your people, the house of Jacob. They are full of superstitions from the East; they practice divination like the Philistines and clasp hands with pagans. Their land is full of silver and gold; there is no end to their treasures. Their land is full of horses; there is no end to their chariots. Their land is full of idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their fingers have made (Is. 2:6-8 NIV).The arrogance of man will be brought low and the pride of men humbled; the Lord alone will be exalted in that day, and the idols will totally disappear. Men will flee to caves in the rocks and to holes in the ground from dread of the Lord and the splendor of His majesty, when He rises to shake the earth (2:17-19).
Stop trusting in man, who has but the breath in his nostrils. Of what account is he (2:23)?
ISAIAH AND HIS GOD
Where did Isaiah get his authority and from whence came his message? A man of the palace, related to kings, with a royal education and potential influence, he became a spokesman for God, and the revelations he faithfully proclaimed contained both warning and hope. Over the course of his long ministry, conditions throughout the land deteriorated rather than improved. And the prophet of God incurred the wrath of both kings and people. Tradition indicates his faithfulness to God finally brought him to martyrdom. His mission was clear from his account of his call.
Isaiah encountered God:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple (6:1).”Woe to me,” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (6:5)
He was cleansed by God –forgiven. A seraph flew with a live coal from the altar and touched his lips, saying, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for” (6:7).
Isaiah’s call from God to be His prophet was clear, for he heard the Lord say: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” And Isaiah responded, “Here am I; send me!” God said, “Go and tell this people” (6:9), and the rest of the prophet’s life was dedicated to preaching God’s judgment for sin and God’s salvation through the coming Messiah.
ISAIAH AND THE “NEW THING” GOD IS DOING
Isaiah implores his people not to consult mediums and spiritists, but to inquire of God, looking to His law and testimony. Failure to live by God’s Word will only bring destruction, he warns.
Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness (8:22).
Then the prophet announces the birth of a child who will become ruler and who will be called “Wonderful Counselor,” “Mighty God,” “Everlasting Father,” “Prince of Peace.” “The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this” (9:6-7).
Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress…The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned (9:1a,2).
A new aspect of this promise is the inclusion of the nations under the rule and blessings of the God of Israel. “He will bring justice to the nations” (42:1), and “He will not falter or be discouraged till He establishes justice on the earth” (42:4).
Furthermore, God’s covenant people will be used by Him to help bring in this promised rule of justice.
I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness (42:6-7).
Isaiah was convinced that his nation would become a messianic nation to the world. Instead, he lived to see his homeland destroyed and his people carried into foreign captivity. To the end, however, he continued preaching with unwavering faith the messages God gave him, even though he did not fully understand them.
God’s messages through Isaiah have eternal relevance. Without fully understanding how God is working His purposes out, God’s covenant people know He is in charge of His world and is bringing all creation to acknowledge His Lordship.
I will set a sign among them, and I will send some of those who survive to the nations…and to distant islands that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory. They will proclaim my glory among the nations”…all mankind will come and bow down before me (66:19,23).
Isaiah never expected the scattering of God’s people throughout the world to lead to the establishment of God-fearing groups and synagogues among pagan peoples. He could not have known that the holy Scriptures of Israel would be regularly read and discussed by both Jews and Gentiles in places far removed from his homeland. He could not have known that the synagogues and the God-fearers would become the basic contact for the New Testament missionary outreach which spread the gospel rapidly throughout the known world soon after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
GOD IS STILL DOING NEW THINGS
The mission of the Messiah whom Isaiah announced is still enlarging the kingdom of God. Missionaries are still being sent by God to proclaim His salvation to people who “sit in darkness.” God’s covenant people are still being scattered, persecuted, and martyred for the God they honor and the messages they proclaim by word and conduct. Without fully understanding the significance of their sacrifices, God’s faithful representatives seek to be “a blazing torch,” “a crown of splendor in the Lord’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of God” (62: 1b, 3).
One of the striking new things God is doing to enlarge His kingdom today among the nations is the increased scattering and redeploying of His people among the nations, religious groups, and cultures which have yet to acknowledge Christ as their Lord and King. Leadership in world missions now seems to be shifting from the western nations of Europe and North America to nations of the other two-thirds of the world. Doors are open to Christian representatives from non-western countries and peoples, although Americans and Western Europeans are not permitted to enter. Dedicated Christians from Korea, South America, and Central Africa now penetrate people-groups neglected by former mission efforts and forge ahead into new areas of opportunity. The sacrifices made by many modern missionaries equal those of the martyrs of the first Christian century.
At Reformed Theological Seminary we see one example of “a new thing God is doing.” Outstanding Christian leaders from many parts of the Two-Thirds World now study with us to enlarge their vision for equipping their people to become more effectively involved in the Lord’s mission to increase His kingdom. Representatives from Korea, China, Japan, Indonesia, India, Taiwan, The Philippines, South America, Central American and Caribbean nations, Africa, the Middle East, Canada, and Communist-occupied countries of Central Europe now enrich our RTS Christian community.
But what about the U.S.A., Canada, Mexico, and Western European nations, where the residues of a once more Christian heritage now face forces characteristic of Isaiah’s times? Disintegration of the family, child abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, sex perversions, and rejection of God in favor of self-gratification, all of which marked Isaiah’s ministry, prevail among God’s people today. We are much in need of Isaiah’s faith, his vision of God’s plans for His creation and His creatures. God is still in control. God still loves His people. And God is still doing “a new thing” among us in the enlargement of His kingdom through His faithful servants.