The Great Reversal

Several years ago I went as a visitor to a friend's church. And after a hymn and a prayer, the person leading said, 'And now we're going to have our reading from the prophet Zechariah.' And up got this elderly man with a long white beard and great shock of white hair. And as he made his way to the front, my friend leaned over and whispered, 'My word! The old boy's here in person!' Well, you may have the same image of the prophet Isaiah - old, out of date, and unlikely to be relevant. So at the start of this new series (Isaiah 47-53), let me say a few things to introduce, or reintroduce, Isaiah. Isaiah was a prophet. Which means he received words from God in order to pass them on. And he did that partly by preaching and partly by writing, which is how we come to have this book of the Bible. And Isaiah's ministry began in the year 740BC - 740 years before the Lord Jesus came. And it went on until about 700BC. At that time, in the run-up to Jesus' coming, God was working in the world through a nation - Israel. If you go and see Spielberg's film 'The Prince of Egypt', it's about how God used Moses to lead his nation out of slavery in Egypt so they could live for God in their own land. And the film ends with God giving Moses his law at Mount Sinai. (Which, as you know, provides the first reference to medicine in the Bible: 'Moses went up on the mountain and received the tablets from the LORD.' (Two to be taken daily, presumably.)) Now before the Israelites went to take over the promised land, one of the things God said through Moses was this. He said that if in the future they turned away from him, he would discipline them. And that his ultimate discipline would be to allow another nation to invade them and send them into exile (see Deuteronomy 28.30-68). 600 years on from Moses, you get to Isaiah's day. The Israelites were in their own land and increasingly turning away from God. And God revealed to Isaiah the fact that he was angry; that he was about to put that exile-warning into practice; and that he was going to do it through the Babylonians. The Babylonians were going to come, overrun the land of Israel, and cart many of the Israelites off into exile in Babylon itself. And Isaiah 47 is a message from God to/about the Babylonians, for the time after that had all taken place. For example, verse 6. God says to the Babylonians:

I was angry with my people and desecrated my inheritance;I gave them into your hand.

Now imagine you'd been an Israelite believer in the year 587BC, when the Babylonians rode into Jerusalem and dragged you off to Babylon. At best you might have felt that God had rejected you for good. At worst, you might have begun to question whether your God really existed at all. You might have looked around yourself in Babylon at this amazingly advanced, rich, buzzing, impressive, secular society and said to yourself, 'Well, they seem to be making a success of life as unbelievers. In fact, they seem to be getting a better life as unbelievers than we ever did as believers. So why not just settle in and be like them?' And this part of Isaiah's book was written for those people who would one day find themselves in exile, asking that question. Which is why it's utterly relevant to us. Because we live in an even more amazingly advanced, rich, buzzing, impressive, secular society than Babylon. They could do hanging gardens and ziggurats. We can do men on the moon and Dolly the sheep (and the Angel of the North!). We live in a society where people look successful without God. Which makes you think, 'Why not just settle in and be like them?' Well, Isaiah's answer to those OT believers in exile was this. The Babylonians may look successful without God at the moment. But very soon, God is going to judge them and put an end to their society. Look at Isaiah 47.1. Isaiah pictures Babylon as like a proud, self-confident woman, sitting pretty at the top of the pile of life. And he delivers this message from God:

"Go down, sit in the dust, Virgin Daughter of Babylon; sit on the ground without a throne, Daughter of the Babylonians. No more will you be called tender or delicate. {2} Take millstones and grind flour; take off your veil. Lift up your skirts, bare your legs, and wade through the streams. {3} Your nakedness will be exposed and your shame uncovered. I will take vengeance; I will spare no one" (vv 1-3).

Which is exactly what happened next in history. Cyrus, King of the Persian empire, invaded Babylon, and that was the end of them - literally overnight. And the Bible says that what happened to Babylon is an example of what will happen to the whole world at the end of time when the Lord Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead. That's why we had that reading from Revelation 18. You know how we might refer to someone as a 'right little Hitler'. Hitler was a historical figure, but his name has become a code-word for all dictator-types. In the same way, the book of Revelation uses Babylon as a code-word for all secular societies - ie, all societies that are organised without reference to God. It's saying that Babylon stands for what all secular societies are like And that the fall of Babylon stands for how God will judge secular people at the end of time. So as we live in our secular society, and see unbelievers apparently making a success of life without God, and as we ask ourselves, 'Why not just settle in and be like them?', Isaiah 47 is the answer for us, just as it was for the Israelites in exile. That introduction was as short as I could make it. I hope that helps us get our bearings in Isaiah. And I've got three headings for the rest of our time: first, THE MARKS OF SECULAR SOCIETY; secondly, THE BELIEFS OF SECULAR SOCIETY; and thirdly, THE FUTURE OF SECULAR SOCIETY. First, THE MARKS OF SECULAR SOCIETY As Isaiah predicts how God is going to judge Babylon, he shows us what secular society is really like. So that rather than be seduced by her, we'll do what Romans 12.2 tells us:

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Secular society means society organised without reference to God. And when human beings push God out of the centre, human beings take centre-place. Self takes the place of God. And according to Isaiah, the marks of a secular society are self-glorification, self-indulgence and just plain selfishness. Let's start with self-glorification. Verse1 again:

"Go down, sit in the dust, Virgin Daughter of Babylon; sit on the ground without a throne, Daughter of the Babylonians. No more will you be called tender or delicate.

(v 5) "Sit in silence, go into darkness, Daughter of the Babylonians; no more will you be called queen of kingdoms.

(v 8) "Now then, listen, you wanton creature, lounging in your security and saying to yourself, 'I am, and there is none besides me.

Secular society is self-glorifying society. Isaiah paints a picture of status and glory. Because when people stop believing there's a God to be glorified and lived for, life becomes the search for our own glory and the chasing of our own ambitions. And when you think about it, our society's values run in the opposite direction to verse 1 ('Go down'). Secular society is all about going up. So we talk about 'yuppies', upward mobility, promotion. Life is presented to us as a ladder up which we're to climb. Onto the GCSE rung so we can get onto the A-level rung so we can get onto the degree rung to get onto the job rung to make yourself something, to get yourself status. At the moment everyone's pointing the finger at Mr Mandelson's house in Notting Hill. But he's only what we all are, by nature. Why are we looking for that new house? Because we need more room, or because we want more status? Why do we want a new car - more luggage-capacity or more status? Why do we want more money, or promotion or another job, or want people to know where we went to school or what class degree we got or which team we play for? And we play the self-glorification game not just as individuals but as a society. Self-glorification is largely what lies behind the Millenium hype. As we watch the television advert and walk through the dome we're being invited to think, 'Aren't we wonderful? Glory be to mankind for all we've achieved We can make things out of rock that last 1000 years.' Which sounds quite cool until you look at Mount Everest. Self-glorification. Then self-indulgence. Because when people stop believing there's a God to serve they only have themselves to serve. Verse 8:

"Now then, listen, you wanton creature, lounging in your security ...

Being wanton is about having all you want and more. Revelation 18 talks about the 'glory and luxury [that Babylon] gave herself' and 'the merchants of the earth [who] grew rich from her excessive luxuries' (Revelation 18.7,3). It's a portrait of materialism and affluence - fed by the free market economy. I picked up a book a while ago written by an advertising executive about the advertising industry - the merchants, as Revelation puts it. The title of the book was: 'The Want Makers.' And one sentence at the start summed it up: 'The aim of the advertising men is not to meet needs but to create wants.' And how well they do it. (And how well we fall for it.) But the secular society doesn't just want more money and material possessions. It measures everything in money and material possessions. So in the media, again and again you see the state of the nation being equated with the state of the economy. 'Good economy means good life.' Nonsense! But that whole attitude now sucks right down into the student and school world. I was reading The Times University Guide the other day and it reported that more and more university applicants were asking not, 'Where will I get the best education?' but, 'Which course will get me the best starting salary?' So education becomes just a leg-up to better earning power. And this attitude follows through into the working world. A Christian dentist in our congregation told me the other day that he'd been shocked talking to one of his dental school contemporaries. This contemporary was seeing far more patients than he could properly care for - in order to support his lifestyle. Because in the secular society, a patient simply equals money. Ten equals the new hi-fi. A hundred the skiing holiday. A thousand the new car. Self-glorifying, self-indulgent. And then also just plain selfish. Because when people stop believing there's a God who says that I am to love everyone as my neighbour, I only have myself to love. Verse 6:

I was angry with my people and desecrated my inheritance; I gave them into your hand, and you showed them no mercy. Even on the aged you laid a very heavy yoke.

In the secular society, so long as you're well-off, it doesn't matter that other people aren't. It didn't matter to Babylon that she treated the Israelites badly. So long as the Israelites worked to make them rich, the Babylonians were happy with the set-up. In fact, the Babylonians knew their treatment of the Israelites was wicked, but it didn't disturb them because they were comfortable. Verse 10:

You have trusted in your wickedness [literally that means 'you have been self-confident while living in your wickedness'] and have said, 'No one sees me.'

To put it in today's terms, the secular society says: All that matters is that there's coffee on my table - never mind the injustices and poverty where it came from. All that matters is the return on my investment - never mind the morality of interest (which is debatable, Biblically), or the ethics of my bank. Self-glorifying; self-indulgent; and just plain selfish. Those are the marks of the secular society. We live in one; we are very much products of one. But believers are called to see through her rather than be seduced by her. We need to repent of the secular values we've already imbibed, and we need to be on guard against imbibing more. Secondly, THE BELIEFS OF A SECULAR SOCIETY As Isaiah predicts how God is going to judge Babylon, he shows us what secular society really believes. I always smile to myself when a non-Christian says to me, 'Well of course I don't believe anything.' What they means is: 'I don't believe what you believe.' But no-one believes nothing. We all have beliefs. And secular people believe two basic things and they're both here in Isaiah 47. Verse 8 goes to the heart of it:

"Now then, listen, you wanton creature, lounging in your security and saying to yourself, 'I am, and there is none besides me.'

Where might you have heard those words before? 'I am and there is none beside me'? Just look back over to chapter 45, end of v22. Where the LORD says:

I am God and there is no other.

So what are the secular people really saying in 47.8? They're really saying, 'I am God'. Unbeliever don't believe nothing. They believe they're God - the centre of their own universe. And if you believe you're God, you basically believe two things. First, if you believe you're God, you believe you are in control of life and the future. Verse 7:

You said, 'I will continue forever - the eternal queen!'

(v 8) 'I am, and there is none besides me. I will never be a widow or suffer the loss of children.'

In other words, 'I am in control. I made myself what I am, and I can keep myself where I am. And I can prevent bad things happening to me.' The secular society is full of optimism about the future - everything's fine, everything's getting better. The only snag for that belief is, of course, death. So you have not to think about death and when it happens to others you have to smother it with undertakers and get it out of sight as quickly as you can. (Full marks to the Saturday Times Magazine for running a main feature on the funeral industry this weekend - very 'non-PC'!) In the secular society, however many die around us, we who are left still go on saying (verse 7) 'I will continue forever', despite the evidence being 100% against us. Then, secondly, if you believe you're God, you believe you're accountable to no-one but yourself. That's the other characteristic of being God. Verse 10:

You have been self-confident while living in your wickedness and have said, 'No-one sees me.'

The secular society says, 'I'm not accountable to anyone for the coffee farmer or the methods of my money-making. So long as I have coffee on my table and a return on my money, the ends justify the means.' 'No-one sees me.' 'I will continue forever.' 'No-one sees me.' Those are the two foundational beliefs of the secular society. Beliefs which have forgotten that there is a God who sees and that there will be a day of judgement. So: Thirdly, THE FUTURE OF THE SECULAR SOCIETY As Isaiah predicts how God is going to judge Babylon, he shows us where secular society is really heading. He's predicting that this amazingly advanced, rich, buzzing, impressive, secular society is going to be brought down by God's judgement. Verse 1 again:

"Go down, sit in the dust, Virgin Daughter of Babylon; sit on the ground without a throne ...

(v 7) You said, 'I will continue forever-- the eternal queen!' But you did not consider these things or reflect on what might happen.

Ie, 'You didn't consider that there is a morality in this universe, or reflect on what might happen when the God behind that morality swings into action.' And God did swing into action in judgement on the Babylonians in 539BC. Cyrus King of Persia overthrew them completely. And the book of Revelation says that judgement of one small group of people back then is a tiny example of the judgement of everyone who's ever lived that Jesus will do at the end of time.

So what should we do about all this?

What is God saying to the secular person, the person who doesn't yet believe in him? Well contrary to popular belief, God is being enormously kind, because he's spelling things out so that we know the score and can take sensible action. Verse 11. What God says to Babylon here applies to anyone who remains unbelieving:

Disaster will come upon you,

[Not 'might come upon you', as if we might have lived good enough lives to be OK when we face judgement; but 'will come upon you' because none of us has lived a life that's really good in God's eyes. If nothing was done to rescue the situation, we'd all have judgement coming to us.]

(v 11) Disaster will come upon you, and [he goes on] you will not know how to conjure it away. A calamity will fall upon you that you cannot ward off with a ransom [ie, we can't avoid judgement. And he goes on]; a catastrophe you cannot foresee will suddenly come upon you [ie, we don't know when our time will come].

That isn't threatening. It's enormously kind, because it makes the score absolutely clear. We are all in trouble because we haven't lived properly for God - we're all secular at heart. Judgement will therefore come on us all. We can't avoid it. And we don't know when our time will come. And God is saying those things so that we have time to take the sensible action. Which is to turn back to him, apologise for ignoring him, ask him to forgive us and to start life over again with God at the centre. And that's why Jesus came that first time. He came to die under the judgement we deserve so we could be let off that judgement, ie forgiven. And when God speaks like this about judgement, it's not with the glee of an ogre who can't wait to get started; but with the patience of a loving Creator who never wants it to come to that for any of us here in this building tonight. He tells us about judgement to save us from judgement. So this chapter is a word for the secular person, the person who doesn't yet believe in God and give him his central place. But it's also a word for the believer, for the person who has turned back to God, found forgiveness through Jesus and started life over again with him. Let's end with verse 4, the only verse not addressed to Babylon (notice how it's not in inverted commas in the NIV translation). It's a reminder to believers of ultimate realities:

Our Redeemer [our Rescuer] - the LORD Almighty is his name - is the Holy One of Israel.

As we live in our secular society and look around, we see people apparently making a success of life without God. And we're tempted to ask, as the exiles did, 'Why not just settle in and be like them?' And the answer is that status and success and money and material possessions and comfort and health are not the ultimate reality in life. The Lord is. And we may know him better than Isaiah did, now that Jesus has been. Jesus the Redeemer who died to rescue us from the judgement that our secular hearts deserve. And Jesus the Holy One who will return one day to judge and uphold his holy standards for the universe. And on that day, the only thing that matters will be not my degree result or my bank balance or my house or my physical fitness. The only thing that will matter is whether in this life I found his forgiveness and came back on his side. Book recommendation Isaiah, Barry Webb, in the Bible Speaks Today series, IVP

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