God Makes Our Desert Bloom
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, November 30, 2003
Copyright © 2003, P. G. Mathew
The Lord will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the Lord. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing.
God's Plan for His People
Isaiah 51 tells us that God has a wonderful plan for our lives. As Jeremiah says later on, it is a plan to prosper us, a plan to give us hope and a bright future.
When Isaiah looked on Zion, he described her as a ruin, a wasteland, a desert. God's people had brought this condition upon themselves by deliberately breaking the covenant of God, which pronounces blessing for obedience and the curse of death and desolation for disobedience. Because of their covenant disloyalty, the people of God experienced the divine punishment of disease, defeat, famine, death and, finally, exile to Babylon. God's threatenings do come true.
But had God forgotten Zion? Had he failed to keep the covenant he made with his people? Was the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. the final act of God in their lives? Was God abandoning them when he exiled them to Babylon?
Not at all! God reveals in this chapter that, despite all their wicked disobedience, he still has a plan for his people-a plan to bless Zion and cause her desert to blossom. This is also God's message for us. We are Zion, the people of God, and he chose us, not to destroy us, but to bless us.
Our lives can be compared to a desert wasteland because, through the fall of Adam, we all have fallen and become failures. We have been ruined by sin and are deserving of everlasting judgment. Yet through Isaiah, God is telling us: "The Lord will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the Lord. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing" (v. 3). God's plan is to restore the desert wasteland of the lives of his people.
Our Ruined Condition
Isaiah likens Zion's condition to that of Abraham and Sarah when he was one hundred years old and she was ninety. When the God of glory called them out of Ur of the Chaldees, he promised to give them children as numerous as the stars of the heavens. But they were impotent, and now their bodies were as good as dead.
Abraham and Sarah could be described as ruins. But God came to change their ruins to Eden. He blessed them in their old age, and, through Isaac, a multitude of people came out of them.
So God says in verse 1: "Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the Lord: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth. When I called him, he was but one, and I blessed him and made him many." When God blesses his people, even the desert blooms.
This multitude that God brought out of Abraham and Sarah later became slaves to the Egyptians, who tried to wipe them out through genocide. But Egypt did not succeed. The eternal I AM, the covenant Savior, came to Zion's aid and destroyed her enemies. Isaiah 51:9 tells us he cut Rahab, that is, Egypt, to pieces and pierced her through.
Now, in Isaiah 51, the people of God are in exile in Babylon. It seems to them that God is asleep and has forgotten his covenant promises. So Zion prays, "Awake, awake! Clothe yourself with strength, O arm of the Lord; awake, as in days gone by, as in generations of old. Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces, who pierced that monster through? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made a road in the depths of the sea so that the redeemed might cross over?" (vv. 9-10) Zion was saying, "God, we know of your great deeds in the past. But now you seem to be asleep and unaware that we are in exile. Arise, awake, and clothe yourself with strength! Act savingly once again in our behalf!"
The truth is, God was not asleep and had not forgotten his people. The eternal, transcendent, almighty, uncreated, self-sustaining God cannot forget. But the people of Zion had forgotten their God. Thus the Lord rebuked them: "I, even I, am he who comforts you. Who are you that you fear mortal men, the sons of men, who are but grass, that you forget the Lord your Maker?" (vv. 12-13) The reason for our fear is that we forget God.
Our God is always awake and always involved in his creation, especially in the lives of his people. Ever-present and all-knowing, he is not the God of the deists, a God who abandoned the world after creating it as a watchmaker abandons the watch after winding it. But because they forget their covenant Lord, God's people became fearful of their enemies, who are mortal men, mere grass. They forgot that the immortal God will guide the entirety of his creation to its God-ordained end. So Isaiah tells us that the heavens and the earth, which appear to be so solid and enduring, will vanish like smoke, but God's salvation and righteousness shall endure forever (v. 6).
So Zion's fear of man was a result of forgetting her almighty, eternal, covenant Lord. Additionally, Zion was continually rejecting God's guidance. God spoke to his people through his holy prophets, just as he speaks to us today through those who bring God's word to us, whether preacher, teacher, father, mother or elder. But Zion rejected the good counsel of God's prophets, and listened instead to false prophets who counseled her she would prosper, even as she sinned more. This is how the devil counseled Eve, telling her, "Go ahead, eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. You shall not die." There will always be false prophets who will contradict the eternal, everlasting word of God.
God's people suffered terrible consequences for their wicked disobedience, as Jeremiah tells us in Lamentations 2:13-15, 20, 21 :
What can I say for you? With what can I compare you, O Daughter of Jerusalem? To what can I liken you, that I may comfort you, O Virgin Daughter of Zion? Your wound is as deep as the sea. Who can heal you? The visions of your prophets were false and worthless; they did not expose your sin to ward off your captivity. The oracles they gave you were false and misleading. All who pass your way clap their hands at you; they scoff and shake their heads at the Daughter of Jerusalem: "Is this the city that was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of the whole earth?."
"Look, O Lord, and consider: Whom have you ever treated like this? Should women eat their offspring, the children they have cared for? Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord? Young and old lie together in the dust of the streets; my young men and maidens have fallen by the sword. You have slain them in the day of your anger; you have slaughtered them without pity."
We are told four times in the first chapter of Lamentations that there was no one to comfort Zion: "Among all her lovers there is none to comfort her" (v. 2); "This is why I weep and my eyes overflow with tears. No one is there to comfort me, no one to restore my spirit" (v. 16); "Zion stretches out her hands, but there is no one to comfort her" (v. 17); and, finally, "People have heard my groaning, but there is no one to comfort me" (v. 21). We should take this as a serious warning not to treat the word of God with contempt. Eventually there will come a day and an hour of his wrath.
Isaiah 51 also speaks about the cup of God's wrath. As Zion rejected her Lord, he gave her the full cup of his wrath, and she had to drink it. This is the "theology of the cup." The idea is that when God gives us the cup, we have no choice: we must receive it and drink it. Thus Isaiah cries:
Awake, awake! Rise up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath, you who have drained to its dregs the goblet that makes men stagger. Of all the sons she bore there was none to guide her; of all the sons she reared there was none to take her by the hand. These double calamities have come upon you-who can comfort you?-ruin and destruction, famine and sword-who can console you? Your sons have fainted; they lie at the head of every street, like antelope caught in a net. They are filled with the wrath of the Lord and the rebuke of your God (Isaiah 51: 17-20).
Verse 23 illustrates the extent of Zion's ruin:
"[Y]our tormentors . . . said to you, 'Fall prostrate that we may walk over you.' And you made your back like the ground, like a street to be walked over." Foreign invaders ordered the people of Zion to lie down on the street, where they walked over them. This is the ruined condition of God's people.
Is there any hope for Zion? Is there any remedy for us? Yes. God proclaims in verses 4-6: "Listen to me, my people; hear me, my nation: The law will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations. My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations. The islands," which stands for the whole world, "will look to me and wait in hope for my arm."
In spite of Zion's ruined condition, God's covenant with her is still in force; thus, God promises to redeem, bless, and restore his people. But how can God justify the unjust? How can he save a sinful people who reject and disobey his law?
The God of the covenant is just and holy; so he justly saves his people Zion, and through her, the whole world. This was God's plan from the beginning and it is still in force. This is what God spoke to Abraham: "All peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (Genesis 12:3).
So the law of God will go out, and, unlike Zion, there will be One who will completely welcome and obey it. By his perfect keeping of the law there will be everlasting righteousness and, therefore, everlasting salvation. Though all have sinned, there is yet One who will love God and obey his law.
Not only Zion, but the whole world will look to this One for light and salvation. God will once again lift up his arm of everlasting power, as he did in the exodus from Egypt. Thus the Lord declares through Isaiah: "My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations. The islands will look to me and wait in hope for my arm" (51:5); and, "The Lord will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God" (52:10).
Many passages in Isaiah speak about this person who will fulfill, embrace, love and obey God's law. This one, who will be both righteous and righteousness, is our salvation. This holy arm, the salvation of the Lord, is described in chapters 42, 49, 50 and 53 as the suffering servant. He is the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Cup of Wrath Removed
Isaiah came to understand his own state of utter ruin and despair as he stood before God: "'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). The prophet realized that he was subject to sudden and sure destruction, which he deserved.
But Isaiah was not destroyed. In verse 6 he says: "Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, 'See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.'" The altar speaks about sacrifice, meaning someone being killed in place of the sinner. This is what the live coal symbolizes. This is the gospel.
The prophet Isaiah's experience in chapter 6 mirrors that of Zion in chapter 51. Everything is dark and bleak. God gave the cup of his just wrath into the hand of Zion. She drinks it and is staggering under it, about to be wiped out.
But that is not the end of the story. Suddenly a great light of hope bursts onto the scene. In verse 21 we read, "Therefore hear this, you afflicted one, made drunk, but not with wine. . . ." This message is addressed to a hopeless, ruined, afflicted people who drank from the cup of God's wrath and are now staggering around, confused, hopeless, fearful and miserable, finding no one to help them. In this condition of total helplessness, the message of hope and amazing grace comes to Zion: "This is what your Sovereign Lord says, your God, who defends his people. . ." (v. 22). In the midst of this miserable situation, God is saying: "I am your Sovereign."
What is God telling his people? First, he is saying, "I am in complete control. There is no one above me. I am in charge of the universe. I am in charge of your life. I am in charge of your enemies. There is no one able to deter me from my commitment to save you. Even you cannot resist me if I choose to save you. When I call, you will come, and you will be saved."
Secondly, God is saying, "I am your Lord, the covenant Lord, the eternal I AM. I promised to save you from all eternity, and nothing is going to change that divine determination."
Thirdly, he is proclaiming that he is the true God, over against all the idols of the nations. He says, "I am God!" And not only that, he says, "I am your God."
Finally, he is telling Zion, "I am your Defender. It is as if we are in a court of law; you are my client and I am your defender, who successfully defends you against any and every charge made against you." Paul refers to this when he says, "What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31) The answer is, no one! He is our Sovereign, our Lord, our God, and our Defender.
After addressing his audience and introducing himself, God now makes an amazing pronouncement. He begins with the word "behold," meaning that something wonderful which demands our complete attention has come upon the scene, and what follows is unbelievable and inexplicable. God says, "Behold, I have taken out of your hand the cup that made you stagger; from that cup, the goblet of my wrath, you will never drink again" (v. 22).
How can this be? Is it just to take away the punishment we deserve? Yes, because God has given our cup of his wrath to a substitute, one who fulfilled God's law fully in behalf of us. That substitute is the suffering servant of the Lord, the true disciple of chapters 42, 49, 50, and 53, the perfect God/man. So God himself comes and takes the cup from our hands. But he is just and someone must experience punishment for our sins. (PGM) So he gives the cup into the hand of his Son, who receives it and drinks it for us.
Jesus Christ drank the cup of God's wrath for us! In John 10:11 he says, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." And in John 18:11 when Peter wanted to save Jesus by using his sword, Jesus told Peter, "Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?"
Jesus also spoke of this cup in Matthew 26:27 as he celebrated the Lord's Supper: "Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.'" And Matthew 26:39 reveals that this cup, taken away from us, came to Jesus at Gethsemane: "Going a little further, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, 'My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.'" But the truth is, it is not possible. It was determined before the creation of the world. "'Yet not as I will, but as you will.'" The Son submitted freely to the drinking of, not his cup, but our cup of God's just wrath.
Isaiah 53 tells us, "Yet it was the Lord's will to crush him and cause him to suffer" (v. 10). Why did Christ have to suffer? Because God is thereby just in justifying sinners who believe in Jesus Christ. "He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed" (v. 5).
So God promised in Isaiah 51:22, "From that cup, the goblet of my wrath, you will never drink again." This is eternal security. Because of Christ's sacrifice in our behalf, we are healed forever. We sinned, he died, and so we live. God gave us the cup of wrath, which we deserved; yet, behold, he is taking it from our hands, and we shall never drink from it again.
In Romans 8:1 Paul declared, "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." This is grace, amazing grace. This is the gospel. This is the supernatural remedy for our ruin.
Our Everlasting Rejoicing
The removal of the cup is the negative aspect of God's remedy for our ruin. But God has done much more than that for us. In place of the cup of his wrath, he has given us a cup of salvation. David declared, "You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows" (Ps. 23:5) and in Psalm 116:12-13 the psalmist says, "How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord."
We cannot but rejoice in view of all that God has done! He forgave all our sins and gave us the perfect righteousness of the suffering servant, Jesus Christ. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Jeremiah 23:5-6 tells us, "'The days are coming,' declares the Lord, 'when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteousness.'" Paul reflects on this when he says, "It is because of [God] that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God-that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption" (1 Corinthians 1:30).
Jesus Christ is our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, redemption, and life. Through him our deserts bloom and wastelands flourish. Once we were dead in sins, but God has poured his Spirit upon us and made us alive in him. We are forgiven, justified, and seated with God so that we can commune with him, blessed with the everlasting presence of God. The cup of God's wrath is gone and the cup of salvation has come to us. It is no longer a cup, but it is a well of salvation, the spring of water welling up to eternal life. It is a river of life, as described in Ezekiel 47, flowing from the throne of God in such mighty abundance that it makes the desert bloom. On the banks of this river will grow fruit trees of all kinds. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruits, for they are the fruit of the Spirit of God: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
This is God's re-creation, renewal, and restoration of his ruined people. He will make us like Eden-yea, even better than Eden, for those who have been redeemed by Christ are superior to Adam before his fall. As the glorious bride of Christ, we are seated with him; we are justified; we have eternal life; and we are infallible in Jesus Christ. That is better than Eden.
Rejoice, church of God! God has given you an eternal salvation, better than anything this world can give you. In Isaiah 51:6 God contrasts his salvation with creation. Even though the creation looks very solid and unbelievers run after it, God says it will vanish like smoke: "The earth will wear out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies. But my salvation will last forever, my righteousness will never fail."
Our tormentors told us to lie down on the street that they might walk over us, but now everything is changed. Zion asked God to wake up in chapter 51, but now God says in chapter 52, "Awake, awake, O Zion, clothe yourself with strength. Put on your garments of splendor, O Jerusalem, the holy city. The uncircumcised and defiled will not enter you again. Shake off your dust; rise up, sit enthroned, O Jerusalem. Free yourself from the chains on your neck, O captive Daughter of Zion" (vv. 1-2). Too long we have been lying down in defeat, letting our tormentors walk on us. Now we are called to awaken, to shake off the dust, to put on garments of splendor, and to be seated with Christ. What dignity! What salvation! What blossoming and blooming of the desert when Christ comes in!
Isaiah 51:11 describes the rejoicing at our salvation: "The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away." And Isaiah 35:1-6 paints a glorious picture of this salvation, the blossoming of our deserts:
The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God. Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, 'Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.' Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.
The fullness of our salvation is still awaiting, but even now we have been given eternal life and have received the down payment of the Holy Spirit. Even now we are forgiven, justified and adopted. Even now fruit of the Spirit is evident in our lives. Even now we rejoice, yea, we rejoice even in tribulations. Even now we are given a foretaste of the Lord's great banquet.
The cup of wrath is gone, and the cup of salvation is in our hands. Isaiah 12:1-3 proclaims: "In that day you will say: 'I will praise you, O Lord. Although you were angry with me, your anger has turned away and you have comforted me. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The Lord, the Lord, is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.'" That is the gospel. Then Isaiah says, "With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation." You see, it is not a cup- it is a well; and, in fact, it is a river, filled with the water of life. Jesus says, "Come unto me and drink, and out of your innermost being shall flow rivers of living water."
All this is spoken to Zion, the people of God. But how can we know that we are included in Zion? How can we know that the cup of wrath is taken away from us and that we have received the cup of salvation? There is only one way: We will trust in Jesus Christ alone. If we do not, we will have to drink the cup of God's wrath ourselves. That is the theology of the cup. We cannot reject it. There is an eternal judgment for all who refuse to believe in Jesus Christ. Therefore, I urge you to trust in Jesus Christ even this day and be saved. Amen.
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Copyright © 2003, P. G. Mathew
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