For with fire and with his sword
the LORD will execute judgment upon all men,
and many will be those slain by the LORD.
‘Those who consecrate and purify themselves to go into the gardens, following …. abominable things—they will meet their end together,’ declares the LORD.
‘And I, because of their actions and their imaginations, am about to come and gather all nations and tongues, and they will come and see my glory.'” -Is. 66.15-18
We are suffering from a terrible theological famine these days. I refer not to the need for lofty religious speech and intellectual striving, though I am convinced that we modern believers are far too lazy when it comes to studying the Scriptures. I am speaking instead of the fact that we are languishing in immaturity, lovelessness, and lawlessness; pulled and jerked by the powers of entertainment, wealth, and various forms of idolatry, and we scarcely realize that a famine of hearing the word of the Lord is upon us. We are inundated with words about the Lord, but it is rare still for us to hear the word of the Lord.
One of the obvious rotten fruits of this condition is our conspicuous inability to discern the difference between the works of God and the works of the flesh. In this regard we are nearly as ignorant as the atheist next door. We have been unwilling to ask painful questions, even if they are of the kind set forth in the Scriptures. We have thus robbed ourselves of the knowledge of God, as He is.
Passages such as Isaiah 66 are mostly unfamiliar to modern Westerners. They do not fit into our Wal-Mart/McDonald’s/HD-TV culture. To a large degree, popularized modern “gospels” have left us devoid of foundations, and we are in need of recovery. Many ask:
“What’s the big deal about the issue of Israel? And the last days? Old Testament prophets? How can any of it be relevant if I don’t understand it and it doesn’t appeal to my immediate sensory needs? If it doesn’t make me immediately happy, if it doesn’t bring immediate resolution to my curiosity, if it isn’t presented in a manner that entertains and keeps my attention, what have I to do with it?”
We have lost the ability to muse and contemplate, and succumbing to what C.S. Lewis called a “post-human” state we’ve become consumers, incapable of valuing anything that doesn’t instantly gratify our souls. We shirk the truth, especially when it is difficult to consider or receive.
Little do we realize that nothing is more relevant to our life upon the earth than the radically theological nature of passages such as Isaiah 66. When I say theological, I do not mean that this is the stuff of advanced intellectuals. I mean that these portions of Scripture are not meant only to fill up space in our Bibles or even to give us a chart on the last days, but chiefly to reveal the nature and character of God Himself. In that sense, they are intensely theological, for theology is simply the study of God.
If we do not know the Lord as He has revealed Himself, and if we have failed to love Him as He has revealed Himself, what will change our disposition toward Him when darker days are upon us?
“For if they do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” -Lk. 23.31
Do we really love the God of the Scriptures, or have we been guilty of making Him after our own liking?
In Isaiah 66 the Lord reveals Himself as “fire”. This is not merely a sentimental description of Himself as passionate and fervent; though no one is more passionate or fervent than the Lord. Here he is revealing Himself as holy and as Judge. If we have only loved Him as Savior and have failed to love Him as Judge, we have not yet loved Him as He is. What do we know of the God who comes with fire? He “was, and is, and is to come” with fire, and we need to prayerfully reflect on Him in this way. We need to ask Him for the foundational understanding of His nature in this context. Consider this from J. Alec Motyer:
With fire, or ‘as fire’, has the same construction as Exodus 3.2, where ‘fire’ is defined as a motif of the unapproachable, deadly holiness of God (cf.Gn. 3.24; Ex.19).
…. The whole of human history, from the fall to the last day, is bracketed about by the sword of holiness. In 59.17 ‘righteousness’ was the first garment the Lord put on; in 61.10 it was among the garments passed onto the Anointed One, who, returning from treading the winepress of wrath, ‘speaks in righteousness’ (63.1).
(The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction & Commentary by J. Alec Motyer, IVP Academic; 1993, p. 539)
What do we know of the ‘deadly holiness of God’? Is this some heretical teaching; some sadistic description given by an armchair theologian who has been locked in his study far too long, removed from the real world? Or have we been so devoid of the Biblical view that we cannot even recognize the God who “will execute judgment upon all men, and many will be those slain by the LORD” as being God?
I recently heard a lecture by a widely heralded OT theologian named Walter Brueggemann; a man whose commentaries I have appreciated over the years. In the middle of his lecture, while referencing the various Divine judgments in the Scriptures, he actually stated that he was “embarrassed about the violence of Yahweh.” The military advances of ancient Israel, the chastening of His people in the wilderness wanderings, the death of Aaron’s sons, the story of Uzzah and the ark, and other acts of judgment came together to bring this intellectual giant to a great conundrum. With all of his advanced training, he could not reconcile the merciful God with the God who “will bring down his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire.”
I understand that this is not an easy subject, but it needs to be prayerfully approached, for the Jesus of the Gospels who blessed children, washed the disciples’ feet and healed all manner of disease is also the Jesus of Isaiah 63, who tramples the nations in His wrath. His mercies and His judgments are intricately linked for they are the expression of His nature: “full of grace and truth.”
“Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.” -Rom. 11.22
We have failed to see God as the Scriptures have revealed Him. We have thus been reduced to a casual understanding of the Gospel, and the fear of the Lord is foreign to our common Christian existence. We make light of sin and we are unwilling to give a place to the consideration of God’s dealings with Israel and the Church.
I realize that this subject is vast and fraught with all kinds of perils and misunderstandings, but the fact that many believers have been satisfied to consider the modern establishment of Israel as the final fulfillment of the prophetic Scriptures regarding the Jewish return to the Land is a disclosure of how hollow our understanding of God is. We are not eager for truth, nor jealous for His glory, so we jump at any apparent fulfillment because the thought of apocalyptic judgement is just too difficult to bear. We need to see that the burden and vision shattered the prophets themselves. One OT scholar has called the prophets “tragic figures,” for they had peered into a burning bush that popular Christendom has been unwilling to look upon; namely, the future “distress” of Jacob- a time of tribulation “like no other” that he will be saved out of. The prophets were weeping men, praying men, voices in the wilderness, and we have sought to dilute and silence their cries. But our prophetic calling as God’s people in these last days will not afford us that deceptive luxury.
I am not encouraging some kind of fatalism regarding Israel, and this is certainly not an anti-Semitic or supercessionist rant. I am not raising questions regarding what is modern and political, but what is eternal and Biblical. The lens through which we view Israel has been more patriotic than prophetic, and our perceptions have been formed much more through media and popular Christian thought than through a true and prayerful perusal of the Scriptures. We are eager for convenience much more than we are jealous for truth. What can be said of the Church, who is called to be the “pillar and ground of truth” but has failed to obtain a jealousy for truth in Her inmost parts?
On the other side of the ditch is the ever-rising tide of replacement theologies of various brands. They are gaining great ground in our day, and they need to be challenged by a church that has been given to prayer and to the Scriptures. Mere nationalism, and the heresy of supercessionism, are both a deviation from the prophetic testimony, and this is much more of a theological crisis than we realize.
Karl Barth has declared that the Church is the only entity with the authority to actually speak of the Lord. What, then, can be said of the world’s conception of Him when the Church has drifted from, or failed to come into, a revelation of God as He has set Himself forth in Scripture? Are we willing to give prayerful contemplation to His declaration of coming judgment upon Israel and the nations of the world? You may ask,
“What good would it do? How would it be of help to us? Why even speak of such things?”
These questions needs to be put before the Lord, for He is the One who has spoken through “His holy servants the prophets.” The subject of Israel and her future is not a modern fad or a fringe interpretation of something barely addressed in Scripture. It is a central issue of the faith, and it has to do with the Lord’s eternal purpose.
It is right to rejoice in the reality of Israel’s present salvation (as Jewish souls come to faith one by one around the world), and to anticipate their future salvation (when a “nation” will be “born in a day” at the end of this age), but not without understanding that the final salvific reality will not be established until a staggering time of purging and sifting has occurred, just as the prophets have declared (Am. 9.8-15, Jer. 30.3-10, Dan. 12.1, Zech. 13.8-14.9, Matt. 24.21). Are we expecting this? Have we taken time to pour over the Scriptures in this light, or is our theological box already sealed and unwilling to make room for this kind of consideration, painful though it may be? Who is the God of the Scriptures, what is His true heart with regard to the issue of Israel, and are we truly in alignment with Him along these lines?
Isaiah 66, like hundreds of other passages, is a statement of a time to come. We are too quick to celebrate the present State in a presumptuous manner without considering all that the Scriptures have declared with regard to the end of this age and Israel’s experience within it. We need to recognize that the preservation of Israel as a people, and the modern return of Jews to the Land is a remarkable testimony to the faithfulness of God. He will keep His covenant engagements, and He is continuing to pave the way for the salvation of His remnant. But that glorious salvation of “all Israel” will not be finished before the great trouble comes.
It is much easier to spiritualize or make mystical these kinds of passages for it relieves us from a sense of responsibility to the Jew in the present and gives God’s last days dealings with Israel an ambiguity that comforts us in our indifference. Our present salary and future retirement mean more to us than our formation in Christ and our witness to Jew and Gentile, for we haven’t heeded the prophets with regard to the issue of Israel.
Many have erroneously concluded that the present State is the ultimate promised return to the Land and that things must be progressing positively toward the promised end. They have assumed that God must be bringing things to a close; there will be no trouble in the Land, only revival and improvement. Some even say that “Jacob’s trouble” is yet ahead, but it will only be like the proverbial speed bump- a bit of discomfort, a minor shaking, and then it will be over. “Since it is the promised final return, surely nothing can stand against the State. It’s inviolable.”
This conclusion has left many- even precious brothers and sisters in the Land itself- in a detached condition, taking a “What does it matter to me?” posture. The mystery of Israel, which Paul propounded so adamantly in Romans 9-11 is either spiritualized (on the replacement side), reduced to a mere political issue, or taken presumptuously to mean that the “trouble” ahead will be insignificant. We see no need to gain understanding of what the prophets and apostles of Scripture have declared along these lines. We see no responsibility to weep and pray for the salvation of Jews in the present; or to make every effort to bring them the Gospel (though Paul said “to the Jew first”!); or to live in a way that demonstrates the nature of God, thus moving them to jealousy after their Messiah. The Church is also robbed of considering the Lord’s future dealings with His people, when He will:
“…. shake the house of Israel among all the nations as one shakes with a sieve, but no pebble shall fall to the earth. All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword, who say, ‘Disaster shall not overtake or meet us.'” -Am. 9.9b-10
We are happy to build our savings accounts, prepare for retirement, or fashion our all-too American ministries to the neglect of our responsibility to the Jew. We are free to disregard, neglect, and dismiss any consideration of our responsibility to him in the trials that are on the not-too-distant horizon, for whether we spiritualize the passage away or treat them as already fulfilled, we are off the hook. But the prophets, in keeping with their calling, do not share in our pipe-dream.
Do we wish for Israel to be restored on the grounds of man-centered politics? Is our knee-jerk celebration of the modern State a revelation that we are somehow self-sufficient in our Christianity? Do our sophisticated scholars, who have pulled a slight of end by talking about “the end of [the Jewish] age” have any idea what they are tampering with? I am calling the Church to consider her great and costly privilege of standing with the Jew in an hour when that identification will mark us as unworthy of our own freedoms and rights. In a word, the apostolic church that identifies with Jacob will be considered “the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.” But we shall take up that identification joyously, knowing that whatever it costs, it will mean the salvation of the remnant of Israel; which is to say, “life from the dead,” and the fulfillment of our “blessed hope.”
The Scriptures are clear- whatever the condition might be politically in the events leading up to the return of the Lord, there will be a devastation the likes of which we have not seen, so declared Jesus Himself:
For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will. -Matt. 24.21
And how do we know that this “great tribulation” was not fulfilled with the events in 70 AD, or the horrors of the Crusades, or even the more recent devastation of the Nazi-Holocaust? The Lord Himself gives the answer:
But immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. (vv.29-30)
Our calling is not primarily with supporting every decision that modern Israel makes, but with befriending and preaching the Gospel to the Jew, contending in prayer for the salvation of the people, and preparing for a time of great distress, whereby the Church will be called to stand with the Jew, even to the point of death, that the remnant might be saved. This is the Church’s eschatological destiny: to be a “Corrie Ten-Boom” type corporate witness to the people of Israel in a time when the nations are raging against the Lord’s “holy covenant” and against His chosen people.
When the Lord meets with them “face to face in the wilderness of the nations” it will primarily be through His Body. It will require more than a sentimental affinity for Israel. It will require a people living on the basis of resurrection life- a people of prayer, a people of authentic love, a people of the Book, a people who have mercifully identified with Israel, even in her unbelieving state. A people who know by revelation that because of His choosing, they are ‘set apart’ before they are holy, manifestly speaking. It is by our extension of mercy that they shall obtain mercy, and there will be great loss in this life for those who extend that mercy. But the King is coming soon, His reward is with Him, and He is worthy of it all.
We need to ask if any of our theological/eschatological conclusions been formed on the basis of self-preservation. There is too much at stake for the church to be bound by myopic views when it comes to the issue of Israel, as with all of the glorious mysteries of the faith.
If all we have is an optimistic enthusiasm for the modern State of Israel, we have not adequately weighed the testimony of the prophets. We need to be a people that is capable of worshipping the Lord who deals out judgment upon those who reject Him. Our humanism has got to be entirely wrung out of the garments of our faith. We need to consider that the “falling away” which Paul predicted will likely have to do with the disillusionment of believers who cannot fathom that a God of love would go so far in sifting His own, until all the “sinners” of His people have perished. (Amos 9.9-10)
Adolph Saphir (1831-1891) was a Messianic Jewish teacher and author whom Spurgeon highly commended. His voice needs again to be heard by the Church in the 21st century. He once wrote that many Jews would:
….return [to the land] in an unconverted state.
…. They are to be brought to Jerusalem, in order to be judged. (Ez. xxii. 17-22)
If they had returned to their own land in a converted state, it is impossible that God would pour out upon them His wrath. It is in Judea that, according to the prophet Zechariah, the Spirit shall be poured out upon the nation, and their hearts be turned unto the Redeemer (Zech. xii.).
A second restoration is spoken of in Isaiah 11.11, 12, 15, 16 and 66.19, 20.
….There are thus two restorations- one before, the other after the great crisis; one partial, the other complete; one which provokes the enmity of the nations, the other in which the nations rejoice and even co-operate.
(Adolph Saphir, Christ & Israel, Keren Ahvah Meshihit, Jerusalem; 2001, pp. 168-170, emphasis added; see also David Baron)
Saphir clearly anticipated a “partial” return to the land (which we believe began about 120 years ago with the modern Aliyah/Zionist Movement), which would set the context for the wrath of God to be poured out upon “all the sinners of My people.” The establishment of the modern State of Israel, and its subsequent devastation, will precede the national conversion and salvation of Israel at the “day of the Lord.” The whole nation, after being shaken as in a sieve and seeing glimpses of its Messiah and King through a mostly Gentile Church in the nations (Ez. 20.32-37), will look upon the pierced One with great mourning, and be saved (Zech. 12.10-14). They shall return to the Land in an ultimate way ( Isa 49:22; Isa 60:9; 66:20; Zech 8:23). The Lord Himself shall “plant His feet on the Mount of Olives,” and “mourning and sighing shall flee away.” In that day, they shall never be uprooted again, and the mercy and righteousness of God will be their fountain. The “everlasting covenant” will have its ultimate fulfillment.
There must come a death before the Millennial glory ensues. For Israel to become a “light to the nations” their man-centered political prowess must necessarily be dashed to the ground. Out of the dust and smoke of Jacob’s trouble will emerge a glorious remnant, wholly cast upon the mercy and goodness of their God. The revelation of God, given through the carrying out of His wise and concentrated judgements will result in the copious and unfading outpouring of His life-giving mercy. He will cause a nation to be born in a day and to function as a witness-people for a “thousand years” to follow. Oh, how we ought to cry, “Come quickly, Lord!”
The future death and resurrection of Israel provides the most poignant eschatological reiteration of the cross of Jesus Christ. It will be a statement to the nations of the reality that life issues out of death when the Lord is its Author, and the nations shall for the first time behold a national witness in the earth; namely, the redeemed of the Lord, Israel, His beloved nation.
If we stumble over the necessity for death and resurrection, we need to ask the question of how we were saved? Did we come into the experience of new life without experiencing death? What do we expect for Israel? That somehow they would be saved and made into priests by the power of human government? That they would progressively improve without first coming to terms with the One who has a covenant controversy with them? We are Christians by profession and secular humanists by our truest feelings, and we need to be delivered from that condition if ever we would be to Israel what the Lord has desired us to be.
We must remember that there are many precious men and women of God in the Land. The Lord continues to pour out mercy, calling His people to Himself. We long for the spirit of prayer to increase in the Church of Israel and for the Gospel to spread throughout the Land in our day. Without a doubt, the surrounding nations have functioned in hatred, deception, and great violence, and they will be called to account for it. Indeed, in the last analysis, when Israel has been purged and sifted, it is the surrounding nations that the Lord makes war with. He comes as the great Deliverer to the remnant of His people, and it will be a Day of great woe for those who have inappropriately touched “the apple of His eye.”
The Church is called more than ever to give Herself on behalf of Israel. Not from a mere political allegiance; a naive desire to spread Democracy in the Middle East; nor out of a sentimental attachment to relics or locations in the Land. It is from a merciful identification with His people, in recognition of the holy covenant, through intercession and witness both now and in the “time of trouble,” when the nations will rage against them. It is with a singular and unwavering desire for their salvation, fasting and praying for laborers to be raised up as effectual witnesses both now, and during the time of great “tribulation” to come. And chiefly, it is with a radical jealousy for the glory of God in the earth.
The “actions and imaginations” of present day Israel are hardly different from the actions and imaginations of popular American culture. The Lord will not always permit this of a people who have been called as “a light unto the nations,” a “nation of priests” that will “bless the families of the earth.” The prevalence of abortion, pornography, extortion and lies, and all other manners of sin in the Land will not go unjudged in Israel any more than in America. We need to realize that He will go to great lengths to establish His glory in the earth, and to bring a remnant back to Himself, “that they may know that I am God.”
Any coming of the Lord related to “actions…. and imaginations” must be a coming in judgment. Consequently, the “glory” referred to would be that of the Judge. The reference to “glory” in verse 18, however, leads to the gathering of the world into Jerusalem as an accepted people. It must be, therefore, that “actions” and “imaginations” refer to what has preceded; just as “glory” refers to what follows.
(Motyer, ibid., p. 541)
God will come “with fire” because He will not change who He is, and His judgments are ultimately His mercies. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. If we are offended at His dealings we have yet to know Him adequately. It is for this reason that the Lord has given us the Scriptures. Israel’s future, and the nature of God’s dealings, are not unlike that which has already been recorded in the Scriptures.
Now these things happened to them [Israel] as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. -1 Cor. 10.11
He is merciful and kind, compassionate and gracious, holy and pure, true and faithful, humble and wise. All who despise His nature and His government, all who reject His merciful pleas and condescensions, and all who turn a deaf ear to His glorious Son, “will meet their end together.”
We need to understand that this is who God is, and He does not change. Go back to the Scriptures, dear saints. Do not interpret the issue of Israel by watching popular Christian TV or listening to the media on either side. Go to the Scriptures. Go to the place of prayer. Do not swallow another man’s theology without giving yourself to a “Berean” kind of searching. Open the Scriptures yourself and ask the Lord for a greater revelation of Himself.
There is nothing more crucial than knowing the God of Israel, exactly as He is, and not as we have fancied Him to be. He is coming with fire, saints, and when the smoke of that trial clears, it will be as Oswald Chambers said, “Jesus only, Jesus ever.” He will severely judge the nations that came against Jerusalem, and rescue the captive ones of His people. His glory will touch and quicken new life in the entire cosmos, His choosing of Israel, His own name and covenant will be vindicated forever. That people which constituted a beleaguered and scattered company, will be set in place as a “nation of priests, My holy nation,” according to the testimony of the Lord Himself. And “there will no longer be a curse, for Jerusalem will dwell in security.” (Zech. 14.11)