Learning Life Lessons
by Jack Wald | September 30th, 2018

Isaiah 3:1-4:6

It is believed that when Isaiah compiled his book of prophecy, he began with Isaiah 6:1.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple.

Perhaps, after he died, there was another collection of his prophecies that was circulating and that was put as a prologue to his book. Perhaps Isaiah did this himself.

At any rate, there is an order within these five chapters and chapter 2:1 to 4:6 can be read as a unit. This unit is bracketed with a vision of how Jerusalem will be, the new Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:1–5)
This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
2 In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.
3 Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
5 Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

At the end of this unit is a second vision of how Jerusalem will be. (Isaiah 4:2-6)
In that day the Branch of the Lord will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land will be the pride and glory of the survivors in Israel. 3 Those who are left in Zion, who remain in Jerusalem, will be called holy, all who are recorded among the living in Jerusalem. 4 The Lord will wash away the filth of the women of Zion; he will cleanse the bloodstains from Jerusalem by a spirit of judgment and a spirit of fire. 5 Then the Lord will create over all of Mount Zion and over those who assemble there a cloud of smoke by day and a glow of flaming fire by night; over everything the glory will be a canopy. 6 It will be a shelter and shade from the heat of the day, and a refuge and hiding place from the storm and rain.

These are beautiful passages that give us hope in the midst of a chaotic and uncertain world. It is this chaotic and uncertain world that Isaiah talks about in the verses in-between these two hopeful visions. In particular, Isaiah talks about the reality of religious and social life in Jerusalem in his time.

Human history is similarly bracketed with idyllic visions. Genesis begins with the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1:30–31)
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.

and ends with the hope of a heavenly existence in heaven. (Revelation 21:3)
God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.

It is the in-between that is so messy. Human history is a history of the rich and powerful oppressing the poor and weak. Isaiah’s description of the leaders of Jerusalem is a part of this history.

In chapter 2, the text from last week, Isaiah bemoans the pagan practices of the people of Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:6)
They are full of superstitions from the East;
they practice divination like the Philistines
and embrace pagan customs.

Although they are wealthy, “their land is full of idols.” Once again idolatry raises its ugly head.

So God will humble them. Isaiah prophesies,
11 The eyes of the arrogant will be humbled
and human pride brought low;
the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.
12 The Lord Almighty has a day in store
for all the proud and lofty,
for all that is exalted
(and they will be humbled),

The people of Jerusalem do not humble themselves so they will be forced to be humble. All that is high and exalted, all the things people take pride in will be torn down and destroyed. They will flee to caves and throw their sacred idols of silver in the rocks where they will become the possession of the bats and moles who live there.

They have such confidence in themselves, such confidence in their leaders, and Isaiah finishes with an exhortation and a question:
22 Stop trusting in mere humans,
who have but a breath in their nostrils.
Why hold them in esteem?

This reflects the wisdom of Psalm 146. (Psalm 146:3–5)
Do not put your trust in princes,
in human beings, who cannot save.
4 When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.
5 Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God.

This is the picture of religious life in Jerusalem that God is condemning through his prophet, Isaiah.

I talked in the sermon a couple weeks ago about Isaiah’s connection between idolatry and social justice. Where idolatry thrives, social justice suffers and chapters 2 & 3 are an example of this. Chapter 2 is a judgment against the religious life of Jerusalem, against their pagan practices and idolatry. Now, in chapter 3, Isaiah describes the depth of the depravity of Jerusalem’s social life.

Judah and Jerusalem, its capitol, will be judged. How bad will it be? (As I move through this prophecy of judgment, put yourself in the shoes – or sandals – of those who first heard this prophecy. How do you think they reacted as Isaiah moved through the details of the coming judgment?)

3 See now, the Lord,
the Lord Almighty,
is about to take from Jerusalem and Judah

What will be taken? Food, water, any hope of support from someone else. This was certainly disheartening to hear.

What else will be taken?
2 the hero and the warrior,
the judge and the prophet,
the diviner and the elder,
3 the captain of fifty and the man of rank,
the counselor, skilled craftsman and clever enchanter.

Isaiah was the royal prophet. His audience were the ones he is saying will be deported. Do you think they liked his preaching that day? This prophecy was fulfilled about 100 years later when Babylon conquered Jerusalem and took the religious and civic leaders of Jerusalem into exile.

5 People will oppress each other—
man against man, neighbor against neighbor.
The young will rise up against the old,
the nobody against the honored.

Social order will be destroyed. The values that made living in Jerusalem pleasant will disappear.

In cultures where technology moves slowly, the elderly are respected because they hold the wisdom necessary to be successful. In cultures where technology moves rapidly, like ours today, the elderly are given less respect because they are unable to keep up with the technological changes.

Isaiah is speaking to a culture where technology moved slowly so respecting elders was a high value. Rashi, a medieval French rabbi, in commenting on this verse says the “children behaving insolently against the elders” is the worst punishment, worse than exile or death. The prospect that in the future the young would rise up against the old was a huge shock.

Verses 6 & 7 say that Jerusalem will be a city without leaders. No one will want to accept the responsibility of leading. It will be every person for themselves. What is the result of all this?

8 Jerusalem staggers,
Judah is falling;

Woe to them!
They have brought disaster upon themselves.

And so, Isaiah warns the people, God will rise in judgment.
13 The Lord takes his place in court;
he rises to judge the people.
14 The Lord enters into judgment
against the elders and leaders of his people:
“It is you who have ruined my vineyard;
the plunder from the poor is in your houses.
15 What do you mean by crushing my people
and grinding the faces of the poor?”
declares the Lord, the Lord Almighty.

Wealth is viewed by many people as a blessing from God, but here Isaiah is very clear that when wealth comes from the oppression and exploitation of the poor, the anger of God rises and judgment is coming.

As Isaiah spoke out his prophecy, the wealth of Jerusalem was on display. What did God have to say about this?
16 The Lord says,
“The women of Zion are haughty,
walking along with outstretched necks,
flirting with their eyes,
strutting along with swaying hips,
with ornaments jingling on their ankles.
17 Therefore the Lord will bring sores on the heads of the women of Zion;
the Lord will make their scalps bald.”

God will take away all glamour and glitter of their parade of wealth and replace it with shame. He may have looked out at his audience and seen what he describes.
18 In that day the Lord will snatch away their finery: the bangles and headbands and crescent necklaces, 19 the earrings and bracelets and veils, 20 the headdresses and anklets and sashes, the perfume bottles and charms, 21 the signet rings and nose rings, 22 the fine robes and the capes and cloaks, the purses 23 and mirrors, and the linen garments and tiaras and shawls.

This is what happened when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem about 150 years later. The wealth of Jerusalem was taken by the Babylonians and then what happened to the wealthy who paraded their wealth?
24 Instead of fragrance there will be a stench;
instead of a sash, a rope;
instead of well-dressed hair, baldness;
instead of fine clothing, sackcloth;
instead of beauty, branding.

The rich and powerful women became slaves in Babylon. They were torn away from their high and lofty status and reduced to the status of a lowly servant.

And what about the men?
25 Your men will fall by the sword,
your warriors in battle.
26 The gates of Zion will lament and mourn;
destitute, she will sit on the ground.
4 In that day seven women
will take hold of one man
and say, “We will eat our own food
and provide our own clothes;
only let us be called by your name.
Take away our disgrace!”

So many men would die that only one out of seven would survive.

This is a prophecy that was meant to get the attention of the people of Israel. Isaiah is telling them the coming destruction will be worse than they can imagine. As Isaiah moved through his prophecy, each step was a harsher slap in the face to the people of Jerusalem.

In the same way that Jesus confronted the Pharisees with harsh words of condemnation in order to get their attention and cause them to repent, Isaiah is provoking with the hope that repentance will be the response.

But what happened? Did the people respond in repentance? About 100 years later Jeremiah was a prophet in Judah and idolatry was still a huge problem. Jeremiah delivers his word from God to people who have already suffered the loss of Jerusalem. He tells them: (Jeremiah 44:2-6)
“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: You saw the great disaster I brought on Jerusalem and on all the towns of Judah. Today they lie deserted and in ruins 3 because of the evil they have done. They aroused my anger by burning incense to and worshiping other gods that neither they nor you nor your ancestors ever knew. 4 Again and again I sent my servants the prophets, who said, ‘Do not do this detestable thing that I hate!’ 5 But they did not listen or pay attention; they did not turn from their wickedness or stop burning incense to other gods. 6 Therefore, my fierce anger was poured out; it raged against the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem and made them the desolate ruins they are today.

Jeremiah warns the people who remain in Judah and are determined to go to Egypt to escape the Babylonians that they need to repent or face further destruction. How do they respond? (Jeremiah 44:16-17)
“We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord! 17 We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem.

They not only did not repent, they were defiant in their practice of idolatry.

Is the connection between idolatry and social injustice still there? (Jeremiah 22:2–3)
‘Hear the word of the Lord to you, king of Judah, you who sit on David’s throne—you, your officials and your people who come through these gates. 3 This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.

Why didn’t the people of Jerusalem learn? Why did they not listen to the prophets? Why did they not repent? Why did they not learn from the example of their ancestors who suffered because of their idol worship and injustice? Why did they not learn from the judgment of God when Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians?

Have you ever heard this quote before? “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” The quote is most likely due to writer and philosopher George Santayana, and in its original form it read, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

According to Santayana’s philosophy, history repeats. Long before Santayana, the writer of Ecclesiastes made this same observation. (Ecclesiastes 1:9–10)
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.

We need to learn from the mistakes of people who came before us.

When you are a little child your parent might say to you, “Don’t keep your glass of milk so close to the edge of the table or it might spill.” How does the parent know that? Probably because they, at some point in their past, had the glass of milk too close to the edge of the table and knocked it over.

In my first years of school, kindergarten and first grade, we were taught to look both ways before crossing a street. Why were we taught that? Because people crossed the street without looking and were hit by a car.

Life is full of lessons learned from mistakes that were made.

It has always seemed sad to me that Abraham and Isaac did not have a conversation about what to do when you travel to another country.

In Genesis 20 (Genesis 20:1-7) Abraham lived with his wife, Sarah, in the Philistine town of Gerar. She was very beautiful and he feared someone else would kill him so he could take her as his wife. So he told them she was his sister. Abimelek, the king of Gerar, sent for Sarah and took her into his harem. But God came to Abimelek in a dream and said to him, “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.” Being duly warned, Abimelek returned Sarah to Abraham.

In Genesis 26 the son of Abraham, Isaac, also went to Gerar and when the men of that town asked him about his wife, Rebecca, he told them she was his sister. Because she was very beautiful, he feared he might be killed so someone else could take her to be his wife.

But then Abimelek, king of the Philistines, discovered she was the wife of Isaac and was upset. He remembered what had happened with Abraham and did not need to be warned by God again what he needed to do.

Why didn’t Abraham ever sit down with Isaac and tell him, “Look son, when you go to another country, especially Gerar in the land of the Philistines, make sure you don’t tell anyone that Rebecca is your sister. I did that with your mother Sarah and it caused a lot of trouble.”

The problem is that Abraham did not learn very much from his own mistakes. Earlier, in Genesis 12, Abraham went with his wife, Sarai, to Egypt because there was a famine in Canaan. (Genesis 12:10–20)
11 As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. 12 When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”

The Egyptians did see that Sarai was a very beautiful woman and she was taken to Pharaoh’s palace. This caused Abraham to be treated favorably but God inflicted serious diseases on Pharoah and his household. Pharoah discerned that this was because Sarah was the wife of Abraham and sent them on their way.

We do not often learn from history, either ours or the history of others.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he reminded them of the history of Israel as they fled from Egypt and into the wilderness. (1 Corinthians 10:1–11)
For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.

Paul is making a theological point as he recounts the history of Israel, but then he writes:
6 Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 9 We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. 10 And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.
11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come.

We are supposed to learn from the mistakes our parents made. We are supposed to learn from the mistakes those who came before us made so we do not make the same mistakes. This is why history and historians are so important.

Unfortunately, not everyone learns from the mistakes of those who came before them. Will Rogers was an American humorist and commentator who once said, “There are three kinds of men. The ones that learn by readin’. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”

We need to be able to learn from our own mistakes. Abraham seemed to have difficulty doing this, making the same mistake in Gerar that he made in Egypt. Some of us also have difficulty and find ourselves slipping into the same mistakes over and over.

Good leaders are those who learn from their mistakes. Good leaders are those who learn from their losses, learn from their defeats.

Doris Kearns Goodwin is a historian who has written wonderful biographies of some of the US presidents. She has a new book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, in which she explores the highs and lows of four US presidents who faced difficult national crises: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson.

In an interview with Christiane Amanpour on CNN, she talked about one quality that makes a good leader. Good leaders are made, not born. Good leaders are not perfect. They make mistakes. They suffer terrible losses. And then they learn from those losses and mistakes. Abraham Lincoln was president of the US during the American Civil War in the middle 1800s. He suffered from an almost suicidal depression. “But he came out of it because he said to himself, ‘I don’t really want to live now, but I’ve not yet done anything to make any human being remember that I have lived.’ So he kept going until he could make that difference in the world.”

Teddy Roosevelt was president of the US in the early 1900s. His wife and mother died on the same day in the same house. He went to the wilderness of the American west in a great depression. But he learned from that and became a greater leader of both the west and east of the US.

His nephew, Franklin Roosevelt was paralyzed from the waist down from polio which sent him into a depression but he came out of that with a greater empathy for the suffering of others. He became a larger leader and led the US out of the Great Depression and through WWII.

Kearns says, “I think the real difference is to learn through loss. You can get wisdom through it.”
“And the difference with President Trump is he has said the reason he has the very, very best temperament for anyone who’s ever run for the presidency, is because he’s never, never lost, because he always wins. But that’s the only way you grow. All of us grow through our mistakes, we grow through learning. Lincoln liked to say, “I’m smarter today than I was yesterday because of what I’ve learned.” But unless you can reflect on your losses, unless you can absorb them and then become stronger as a result, then you just stay static.”

I know this is true from my own life. I have changed, I have matured as a leader in the past 19 years that I have been pastor of RIC – and that change has come through painful losses, painful mistakes. I have had to deal with parts of myself I did not like, parts of myself I did not want others to know. I had to admit that I am not a perfect leader. It is not easy to deal with our losses, our mistakes, our weaknesses, but that is how we grow in character. That is how leaders grow to be great leaders.

Bad leaders are those who refuse to examine their life, refuse to be reflective about their losses, or refuse to learn from their mistakes.

As followers of Jesus, we need to become great leaders. When we submit to Jesus and become his followers, we are saved. But then the Holy Spirit begins to work to transform us using the process of being saved. God wants us to be made whole, to be holy, and this cannot be done without confronting the hurts and pain of our past. It cannot be done without seeking healing for the parts of us that have been wounded. It cannot be done without reflecting on our mistakes and failures and learning from them.

If we fail to be reflective and fail to deal with our weaknesses, our pain, our losses, our mistakes, then, as Doris Kearns Goodwin says, we are static. This will block us from developing deeper intimacy with Jesus. This will prevent us from receiving from God the blessings he wants to pour into our lives.

Despite the exhortations of Moses and Joshua, the exhortations of Isaiah and the other prophets, Israel did not learn from their failures, the mistakes of their elders. They continued in their idolatry and suffered greatly because of it.

Where is idolatry in our lives? What is most important to us? I may say that God is first in my life, but what do I spend most of my time thinking about. What do I spend most of my time fantasizing about? Where does my money go? What do I do with the time I have?

Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 10:31)
whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.

As followers of Jesus, we live for Christ. Anything we do, no matter how noble it is, can become an idol when that thing becomes more important to us than Jesus.

Idolatry is very tricky and we so easily slip into making success or fame or wealth an idol. We work hard at our school and at our job and raising our children, but for what end? Why are we doing what we do? Are we doing what we do for the glory of God? Or is our pride sneaking in? These good things can become idols in our lives.

Where is idolatry in your life?

How do we handle our losses, our failures, our mistakes? Psalm 78 describes people who kept on sinning in spite of all the wonders of God. The psalmist writes, (Psalm 78:35–37)
They remembered that God was their Rock,
that God Most High was their Redeemer.
36 But then they would flatter him with their mouths,
lying to him with their tongues;
37 their hearts were not loyal to him,
they were not faithful to his covenant.

They did not learn from their mistakes. They gave praise from the surface but deep within their hearts was self-interest and rebellion.

Knowing we are deeply loved by God, we can be reflective and examine ourselves. We do not have to hide from others. We can acknowledge our weaknesses, our mistakes, our failures – and then learn from them. This is how we grow in our relationship with Christ. This is how we begin to use the spiritual gifts God has given us in more healthy ways. This is how we grow in character to be more like Christ.

Be brave, be courageous. Know you are deeply loved and cooperate with the Holy Spirit and those he brings into your life to work at the process that will make you whole and holy.