Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Jerusalem is Despoiled

"Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord's hand double for all her sins." Isaiah 40:1,2


    Amid the hustle and bustle of the holiday season it is easy to forget why we celebrate Christmas. Most of us know, of course, that it is a celebration of the birth of Christ. But why is the birth of Christ worth celebrating? What is so special about a baby born in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago?
    It was, in fact, an event for which pious Jews had been waiting for literally centuries. One of the striking features of the religion of ancient Israel was the work and ministry of the prophets. A prophet was a person who received direct revelations from God, and was thus authorized to speak on His behalf. The writings of many of these prophets are contained in the Bible, especially in certain sections of the Old Testament, the oldest part of the Bible, and the part that was written mainly in Hebrew.
    Much of what the prophets had to say was directed toward their contemporaries. They denounced sin and corruption and warned of impending judgment from God. But their warnings came in a historical context. They had a sense of Israel's past, and had a vision of the future as well. Thus as a part of their prophecies they would sometimes predict future events.
    One of the greatest of all the prophets was Isaiah who was active around 740 to 690 B.C. It was a time of moral and spiritual decline in Israel, and a time when Israel was threatened by its powerful neighbor to the north, the Assyrian Empire. Isaiah warned what would happen if Israel did not repent of its sins. The northern kingdom of Israel, in fact, was conquered and taken away into captivity by the Assyrians in 722/721 B.C., leaving only the beleaguered southern kingdom of Judah.
    Later, a strange incident happened. King Hezekiah of Judah made the mistake of showing a visitor from Babylon all of the royal treasures. Isaiah was alarmed and made a stunning prediction: the royal treasures, along with the royal family, would someday be carried off to Babylon.
    This, of course, raises huge questions. First of all, why? And secondly, is there any hope? Will the captivity eventually end? And then there is the theological question: if Israel was God's chosen people, how then could He allow them to be carried into captivity by a pagan empire?
    It is these momentous issues that are addressed in the second half of the Book of Isaiah. The theme of this part of the book is introduced by the quotation at the beginning of this blogpost – a text memorably set to music by George Frederick Handel in Messiah. The message comes from God Himself and is directed to His people Israel. In these latter chapters of the book Isaiah will point out that the cause of the disasters that will befall Judah is the sins of the people. But the prevailing tone of this part of the book is one of comfort and hope: "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God" (Isa. 40:1). Her "warfare" (military service, hardship, calamity) is "accomplished," or completed. But in order for that to happen something else must happen: "her iniquity is pardoned": and that, in turn, requires something else: "for she hath received from the Lord's hand double for all her sin" (v. 2).
    The kingdom of Judah would be carried away into captivity because of her sins. Yet God would have mercy, and her captivity would eventually end. But as we read through the second have of Isaiah it become evident that something larger is in view – something grander and more majestic. For sin is a universal problem that affects the entire human race. And the forgiveness of sin will require something extraordinary in the way of an atonement. And so, way back in the 8th Century B.C. the prophet Isaiah had a vision of a coming Messiah Who would bring salvation to the world at large. Isaiah could look forward, and under divine inspiration could see, however dimly, the glory to come. Today we have the advantage of being able to look back seeing it actually accomplished. And the fulfillment of the prophecy began on that Christmas Day 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem.

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