Focus Scripture: Isaiah 58: 1-5 (NLT)
Out of Exile – Now What?
Last week we learned that the Israelites were banished from Jerusalem and sent into exile in Babylon. According to one commentary (Nelson, 2008), before the Babylonian exile, the Israelites had been an independent, political state. Now, none of these conditions existed. “They were a powerless, subject people in a great empire whose rulers thought Yahweh was only one petty god among many.” With their lives now controlled by the Babylonians, the Israelites experienced tremendous temptation to surrender all their previous claims to have an exclusive revelation from God. “In addition, they were tempted to surrender those behaviors which had been designed to separate them from the surrounding pagan cultures. Thus, there was a real danger that they would become assimilated into those cultures, preserving some Judean customs, but surrendering the covenants God had made with them” (The Chronological Study Bible, eBook, by Thomas Nelson, 2008).
The Israelites are now released from captivity. In today’s lesson, we see that God refuses even to listen to the Israelites when they fast and pray. What has changed in the intervening years? To understand the drastic shift, we should take a look at chapter 58 and the beginning of chapter 59.
The early verses of Isaiah 58 describe the situation in Jerusalem soon after the exiles returned home. Although the religious leaders carried on with their religious devotion, they had allowed their pious practices to become a substitute for ethical behavior. And God was not impressed. No matter how “religious” their action appeared to be, it did not address the real needs of the community. The situation in Jerusalem after the Exile showed a vast gap between those in power and those on the margins of society.
- In what ways are the Israelites hypocritical? How did they get to this point?
- How can the church be instrumental in closing the massive gap between those in power and those on the margins of society?
- What are the purposes of fasting? What kind of fast does the Lord require?
Willful Choice to Sin
In verse 59:2, the prophet announces that the iniquities of the people have stood as barriers separating them from God. Isaiah informs the people that the true problem does not reside with God but in humankind’s willful choice to sin. Things haven’t changed much from then until now, especially in impoverished communities. And there’s been a tendency to engage in a never-ending game of blaming the victims and obscuring the truth about the causes of the injustice.
Focus Scripture: Isaiah 59: 2-8 (NLT)
- According to Isaiah 59: 2-8, why are the people cut off from God?
- What sinful acts have the people committed that prompt God to hide God’s face from them?
- In what ways does the situation described by Isaiah differ from the circumstances fueling the anger and violence in our present-day society? In what ways is the situation similar?
Let God Arise
People in the community described in Isaiah 59 had willfully sinned, thereby creating a gulf between themselves and God. Although the people cried out for justice, God was displeased with them and did not listen. Not only that; those who sought to do the right thing were oppressed, ridiculed and treated harshly by their peers. The message in Isaiah 59:15-21 tells us that the Lord was displeased because there was no justice in the community. Verse 16 in the NLT says: “[God] was amazed to see that no one intervened to help the oppressed. So he himself stepped in to save them with his strong arm, and his justice sustained him.”
Focus Scripture: Isaiah 59:15-21
- In what ways can the situation in v. 16 be compared to the situation in Sodom? (Gen. 18:20-21; 19:13)
- In what ways has God himself historically stepped in to save people “with his strong arm”?
Church in Community Exercises
I submit to you that the circumstances that give rise to anger, despair, and violence among the disheartened people of Judah in the days of the Prophet Isaiah are the same conditions plaguing today’s neighborhoods. I wonder if God is displeased to see rampant violence occurring in and around our communities. Does it raise the question: What social, economic, and spiritual factors lie at the root of such violence?
|Circumstances in Isaiah’s Day
|Same sin, new setting
|Isaiah tells us that in Judah, no one is speaking the truth (v. 4). Truth stumbles in the public square so that uprightness cannot enter (v. 14). The people are talking oppression and revolt, conceiving lying words and uttering them from the heart (v. 13b).
|In 2015 in some places in America, racism, homophobia, elitism, sexism, and similar varieties of hatred are running rampant. These forms of bigotry are fueled by conflicting beliefs, half-truths, and opposing interpretations of what is good and right and true.
|Isaiah says that the people of Judah are denying the Lord and turning away from following God (v. 13b).
|In the present day, people are still turning away from religion and exiting the church in record numbers. The Pew Research Center study of the Religious Landscape in 2014 revealed that people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, and people who believe in “nothing in particular” now makeup roughly 23% of the U.S. adult population. As in Isaiah’s day, people continue to snub God.
|Isaiah says that the people in Judah rush to shed innocent blood (v. 7). Of course in Isaiah’s day, the weapons of choice were swords and knives and objects that could be used to bludgeon each other.
|In 2015 the weapons of choice are guns. And people on both sides of the conflict seem ready to shoot each other at the drop of a hat. Gun possession, is on the rise, made possible by extremist gun lobbies, unjust laws like “stand your ground,” and lopsided enforcement of weapon registration rules from state to state. And because of our current culture of intolerance, people are trusting in guns more than they’re believing in God.
- On a daily basis, we hear stories about the violence occurring in our communities. Should the church intervene in the community’s cycle of violence? If so, how?
- What do you consider to be the church’s current strengths and weaknesses in this area?