Woe to Ariel, Ariel,
  the city where David encamped!
Add year to year;
  let the feasts run their round.
Yet I will distress Ariel,
  and there shall be moaning and lamentation,
  and she shall be to me like an Ariel.
And I will encamp against you round about,
  and will besiege you with towers
  and I will raise siege works against you.
Then deep from the earth you shall speak,
  from low in the dust your words shall come;
your voice shall come from the ground like the voice of a ghost,
  and your speech shall whisper out of the dust. (Isaiah 29:1-4 RSV)

Ariel is another name for Jerusalem ("the city where David encamped"). The word means "the Lion of God," or another meaning is, "the altar of God." As is the case with Hebrew words, both meanings apply. Jerusalem was intended of God to have been a lion and an altar to the nations of the earth. A lion is a symbol of authority, while an altar is the symbol of moral cleansing. The nation Israel was to have spoken to the world with authority gained through the cleansing of God. But what has Jerusalem and Israel become instead? We get a very vivid description of it in Verses 13-14 of this same chapter:

And the Lord said:
"Because this people draw near with their mouth
  and honor me with their lips,
  while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote;
therefore, behold, I will again
  do marvelous things with this people,
  wonderful and marvelous;
and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish,
  and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hid." (Isaiah 29:13-14 RSV)

Israel's problem was what we would call "mechanical religion," meaningless, external conformity to a performance of religious things. This is a grave danger. When you feel yourself becoming dull spiritually, it is a warning sign that says, "Watch out! You are headed for trouble.'' This happens to all of us on occasion. It is healthy to ask yourself at times, "Have I lost my zest for God? Do I sing the hymns mechanically? Do the truths of Scripture appear to me dull and common place? Have I lost the sense of joy in my Christian experience?" That is a danger sign. That is what this "woe" is referring to. There is a Black Hole ahead into which you are being drawn. God's provision for this is found in the latter part of Verse 5 and in Verse 6:

And in an instant, suddenly,
  you will be visited by the Lord of hosts
with thunder and with earthquake and great noise,
  with whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire. (Isaiah 29:5b-6 RSV)

Suddenly God will send into your life some experience -- a disaster, perhaps -- something that will get your immediate and undivided attention. That is God's action to wake you up to the danger of drifting away from the vitality of a spiritual walk.

I have always appreciated the story of the two students at Duke University who went to a costume party dressed as blue devils, the mascots of Duke. They started out to the party, but by mistake they stumbled into a prayer meeting, setting off a great exodus through the doors and windows. One rather stout lady became wedged in a pew and began to scream in terror. Forgetting that they were causing her agony, the two young men rushed forward to help her. As she saw them advancing she raised her hand and said, "Stop! Don't you come any further. I want you to know that I have been a member of this church for 25 years -- but I've been on your side all the time!" That is what we call a moment of truth. It is a very valuable experience.

At times God will send something that wakes you up suddenly to the drift in your life. This is why he has spoken so helpfully through the prophets and the apostles, warning us of the danger of spiritual drift and the danger of mechanically living as a Christian. The third "woe" comes in the middle of Chapter 29. Verse 15:

Woe to those who hide deep from the Lord their counsel,
  whose deeds are in the dark,
  and who say, "Who sees us? Who knows us?"
You turn things upside down!
  Shall the potter be regarded as the clay;
that the thing made should say of its maker,
  "He did not make me";
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,
  "He has no understanding"? (Isaiah 29:15-16 RSV)

Here the danger is the error of thinking that the Lord does not see what is going on in your life. This is a widespread danger today among Christians. Some actually believe they can allow evil thoughts, pornography, bitterness, attitudes of hate and rebellion, etc., to pervade their minds and that God does not see this, and even if he does, he will do nothing about it.

Notice how the prophet reacts to that. Verse 16 is a cry of amazement: "You turn things upside down! Do you really think that the One who made you does not know you, that he does not understand what is going on in your life?" It is incredible that anyone would allow himself to think that way. Yet many people feel that God is so remote from their lives he has no real interest in what they are doing. When we begin to feel that way we are in need of a warning, a stop sign that says, "Watch out! You are drifting into danger." Verses 18-19 describe what that condition requires.

In that day the deaf shall hear
  the words of a book,
and out of their gloom and darkness
  the eyes of the blind shall see.
The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,
  and the poor among men shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 29:18-19 RSV)

Notice the change of attitude. Instead of proud confidence that they can go on their own way with impunity there is a change. Those who have been deaf to the words of God begin to read the words of the Book; the eyes of the blind are able to see, and the meek again experience fresh joy in the Lord. Bring your condition to God and ask him to restore to you the joy, the sense of vitality, the living quality of truth. The latter part of Verse 23 shows what will happen to those who do this.

They will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob,
  and will stand in awe of the God of Israel. (Isaiah 29:23b RSV)

Rather than imagining God to be unconcerned and indifferent, they will wonder at his majesty and greatness.

And those who err in spirit will come to understanding,
  and those who murmur will accept instruction. (Isaiah 29:24 RSV)

That is the mercy of God, raising a warning signal to men to turn and recover the blessing they have proudly set aside. The fourth "woe" comes in the opening verse of Chapter 30:

"Woe to the rebellious children," says the Lord,
  "who carry out a plan, but not mine;
and who make a league, but not of my spirit,
  that they may add sin to sin;
who set out to go down to Egypt,
  without asking for my counsel,
to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh,
  and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt!" (Isaiah 30:1-2 RSV)

This is the danger of self-confidence, the danger of an arrogant and rebellious spirit that despises God's counsel. Someone has well said,

Trained men's minds are spread so thin
  They let all sorts of darkness in.
When they find light, they tend to doubt it.
  They don't love light, just talk about it.

This is the condition of man who really do not want to hear what the Lord says. Verse 9 further describes such people:

For they are a rebellious people,
  lying sons,
sons who will not hear
  the instruction of the Lord;
who say to the seers "See not,"
and to the prophets, "Prophesy not to us what is right;
  speak to us smooth things,
  prophesy illusions,
leave the way, turn aside from the path,
  let us hear no more of the Holy One of Israel." (Isaiah 30:9-11 RSV)

What a rebellious, arrogant spirit that describes! Such a one is headed for a Black Hole of destruction. It lies not far ahead. Verse 15 describes what is needed.

For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel,
  "In returning and rest you shall be saved;
  in quietness and in trust shall be your strength." (Isaiah 30:15a RSV)

Here is a marvelous invitation. God is saying, "You are headed for trouble, but if you will turn around you will find what you are looking for 'in quietness and trust shall be your strength.'" The condition of the one who responds is described in Verses 20-22:

And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, "This is the way, walk in it," when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left. Then you will defile your silver-covered graven images and your gold-plated molten images [your false gods]. You will scatter them as unclean things; you will say to them, "Begone!" (Isaiah 30:20-22 RSV)

The effect of truth upon a life is that of guidance: one hears a voice behind saying, "The decision you have made is right; walk in it." He will turn away from the false gods of the world: lust, pleasure, fame, the pursuit of public recognition and self-exaltation and find quietness. Your Teacher will instruct you from the Word itself. What a difference it makes if you have a King in your life! The Lord himself will be to you like a "hiding place from the wind, like streams of water in a dry place." This beautifully describes the refreshment of spirit that comes to those who, while walking in the midst of life and not trying to run away from it, feed their inner life with the strength and beauty of the Lord their God. How wonderfully this describes the escape from the danger of a misplaced confidence. The final "woe" is found in Chapter 33.

Woe to you, destroyer,
  who yourself have not been destroyed;
you treacherous one,
  with whom none has dealt treacherously!
When you have ceased to destroy,
  you will be destroyed;
and when you have made an end of dealing treacherously,
  you will be dealt with treacherously. (Isaiah 33:1 RSV)

This "woe" is different than the others in that it is not pronounced upon Judah, Jerusalem, or Israel, but upon its enemies, specifically upon the nation Assyria. It is not, therefore, a chastisement of a loving Father, but the just retribution of an angry Judge. The evil that is punished here is treachery, unwarranted attack, cruelty.

Christians can be guilty of this too. In our bulletin this morning there is a poignant plea for prayer from someone who says, "I can't control my tongue. I have a habit of lashing out at people. I hurt and cut them. I have a critical spirit." A failure to judge ourselves and a tendency to attack others is frequently found among Christians. You can be a victim of that kind of attack as well. In either case, when we ask "What can we do about it?" the answer is given in Verse 2:

O Lord, be gracious to us; we wait for thee.
  Be our arm every morning,
  our salvation in the time of trouble. (Isaiah 33:2 RSV)

This is a prayer from the heart. As we sang a few moments ago, "Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil" (Matthew 6:13, Luke 11:4), is a prayer that ought to be on our lips every day. The prayer, "Be our arm every, morning," depicts a spirit that is aware of its fatal tendencies and asks God for help daily in the midst of the pressures of life. Verses 21-22 state what God promises in this connection.

But there the Lord in majesty will be for us
  a place of broad rivers and streams,
where no galley with oars can go,
  nor stately ship can pass [no warship can attack].
For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler,
  the Lord is our king; he will save us. (Isaiah 33:21-22 RSV)

There are the six Black Holes of life: Self-pleasing, religious externalism, self-deceit, wrongly placed confidence, rebellious attitude, and cruel attacks upon others.

These are the danger areas where God in his mercy erects a sign that says, "Stop! Listen! Beware!" The Apostle Paul gives us a marvelous explanation of God's dealings with us in this connection. "If we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened, so that we may not be condemned along with the world," (1 Corinthians 11:31-32 RSV).

How foolish we are to follow the values and counsels of the world, poured daily into our minds through television, radio, and the press. Let us never forget that it is the world that is suffering from illusions and delusions. Its principles are wrong, hurtful and destructive. Much of the agony of life comes from the commitment that people often unconsciously make to these principles. But God has given us guidelines and wisdom from on high.

Strengthen the weak hands,
  and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
  "Be strong, fear not!
Behold, your God
  will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
  He will come and save you."
[That is the refuge of the believer.]
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
  and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a hart,
  and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness
  and streams in the desert; (Isaiah 35:3-6 RSV)

Verse 8:

And a highway shall be there,
  and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not pass over it,
  and fools shall not err therein.
No lion shall be there,
  nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
  but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
  and come to Zion with singing,
  with everlasting joy upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
  and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35:8-10 RSV)

Those beautiful words will be literally fulfilled to Israel in the day of their return to the Messiah. But they describe the heritage of believers right now.

Our inheritance is peace, love and joy. Inwardly we are to have those no matter what the world around us is like. If we feed upon the riches of truth given to us, and live in daily fellowship with the Lord who is our present possession, then those refreshing graces will possess our hearts. I close with the marvelous words of James Russell Lowed,

Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet 'tis truth alone that's strong.
Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne.

Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadows.
Keeping watch above his own.
Commentary by Ray Stedman

Isaiah as a Young Man

Wachet Auf

October 10, 2020
July 16, 2021