A word of warning and a word of welcome go forth in these two chapters of Isaiah. A word of warning to those who live as if there is no God and a word of welcome to those whose trust is in the Lord. The peoples spoken of are the Babylonians and the people of Israel, but ultimately it is the human condition on display.
Long before this time of exile Moses spoke to the people of Israel addressing just this issue. At the conclusion of his life and ministry he encouraged the people to trust in God’s grace, listening to the voice of the Lord, holding fast to him, and thus being blessed rather than bound, choosing life rather than death. (Deuteronomy 30:15-20) Words of wise counsel yet the people turned to idols, fell from their place, and are again in need of rescue and redemption.
The people are stiff necked and hard headed (48:4), not deserving of grace, and yet grace is never deserved, but gratefully received. The Babylonians live as if there is no God, the epitome of worldliness, and of trust in their own strength. The Israelites also bow down to things that they can create and carry, worshipping lifeless images rather than the living God.
An all too familiar story then and now, yet God in his proactive grace intervenes. He reminds the people of his glory and character that is displayed in the way he rescues and atones rather than punishes as they, and we, deserve. “For my name’s sake I defer my anger, for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off. Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver, I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.” (Isaiah 48:9-11)
For God’s sake and for his glory he will not allow us to be carried away, but instead he glorifies his name in the way he rescues and shows longsuffering patience and compassion. Rather than worshiping lifeless idols that burden and destroy – “these things you carry are borne as burdens” (46:1) – we are invited to turn to him who is the source of life. Those who turn to him are borne by him with peace like a river (48:18) and they are assured that they will never be cut off.
There is no shortage of idols in our own lives and we can all cite numerous instances of our stiff-necked, hard-headed wandering. This is grave and true, yet truer and greater still is the character and glory of God who resolutely seeks his people with grace through his own faithfulness. Will you heed his voice, pray to cast your idols aside, and be found by him?
This is the same God who in time most fully and faithfully seeks us in Jesus his Son who says to us, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28)