Isaiah Study: The Contrast Between Righteousness and Wickedness

If you’ve been following this blog for the past month and a half, you know we’ve been studying Isaiah 40-66. After six weeks, you might think we’re starting to run out of material, but that’s not the case. I feel like we’re only about halfway through mining the rich treasure trove of the last 27 chapters of Isaiah. This section of the book is an extended dialog where God speaks about redemption and reconciliation, but that isn’t the only thing He talks about.

In the first post for this study, I made a list of key themes that I want to study more extensively in this section of scripture. The list included (among other things) a sharp contrast between prosperity for the righteous and no prosperity for the wicked. This is also connected to another theme that runs through this section of scripture: the importance of obedience. Since God’s nature and character are unchanging (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8), we can conclude that He cares just as much about this topic today as He did thousands of years ago when He talked with Isaiah. Therefore, reading these words and figuring out what message He had for His people then can also help us learn what He wants to say to us today.

Outcomes for the Righteous and Wicked

In Isaiah 40-66, there are several passages showing a sharp contrast between two groups of people. On the one hand, you have the righteous people who listen to God, treat Him with respect, and follow His commandments. On the other hand you have the people who disregard God’s words, spurn Him and profane His ways, and disobey His commands. God discusses the outcomes of these two groups in clear-cut language.

This is what the Lord, your Protector, says,
the Holy One of Israel:
“I am the Lord your God,
who teaches you how to succeed,
who leads you in the way you should go.
If only you had obeyed my commandments,
prosperity would have flowed to you like a river,
deliverance would have come to you like the waves of the sea.” …

“There will be no prosperity for the wicked,” says the Lord.

Isaiah 48:17-18, 22, NET

I’m sure this message put Isaiah’s readers in mind of the blessings and cursing section of Deuteronomy. Near the end of that book, Moses reminded the people of Israel about the blessings God promised for faithfulness to His covenant and the curses that would come upon them if they disobeyed (Deut. 28-30). Isaiah’s original readers were in the position Moses talked about when he said, “When you have experienced all these things, both the blessings and the curses I have set before you, you will reflect upon them in all the nations where the Lord your God has banished you” (Deut. 30:1, NET). Now, the people of Isaiah’s day had an opportunity to turn back to God, receive deliverance, and inherit the prosperity that comes with obeying God’s commands.

The curses that God lays out in Deuteronomy and the statement in Isaiah that “There will be no prosperity for the wicked” are straightforward facts. It’s not a threat so much as it is a revelation about how the world designed by God works. If you do things that align with God’s righteous character, your life will turn out better than if you live wickedly. Sometimes, this rule is difficult for us to see evidence of. It often looks like people who disobey God have all the good things while righteous people are beset by trails.

We’re not the first people to wonder why there seems to be so much evidence contradicting this rule of “prosperity for the righteous/no prosperity for the wicked.” David, Asaph, and Jeremiah all said they saw evildoers prospering, and they wrested with how those observations might relate to God’s promises. All three concluded that the answer is found by looking at the end result of people’s lives (Pss. 37; 73; Jer. 12). No mater how prosperous the wicked seem, they often lead bitter and violent lives and–unless they repent and change (Ezek. 18)–they will be cut off from God in the end.

Similarly, David, Asaph, Jeremiah, and many other people throughout history wondered why righteous people struggle when God said they will prosper. Here again, we need to consider the end result. Even when following God, there will still be ups and downs in your life. Things might even seem downright terrible (just look what happened to some of the people in the faith chapter), but ultimately God works all things out for good in the lives of those He calls into His family (Rom. 8:28). Even during the midst of trials, the righteous can have peace that transcends outward circumstances. Interestingly, the word translated “prosperity” in Isaiah 48 is shalom, which is more typically translated “peace” and also means “wholeness.” The righteous get a sense of “wholeness” that comes from being in relationship with God. The wicked, having rejected God, do not.

Image of a woman studying her Bible overlaid with text from Psalm 37:1-4, NET version: "“Do not fret when wicked men seem to succeed. Do not envy evildoers. For they will quickly dry up like grass,
and wither away like plants. Trust in the Lord and do what is right. Settle in the land and maintain your integrity. Then you will take delight in the Lord, and he will answer your prayers.”
Image by MarrCreative from Lightstock

The Importance of Obedience

God wants us to follow Him with genuine hearts–hearts on which the New Covenant is written. This covenant is not engraved on stone tablets like the kind Moses carried down from Mount Sinai, but on “tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor. 3:1-3; Heb. 8:7-10). Our hearts. And when our hearts are following God, that results in obedience from the inside-out. We’ll walk in His ways because we’re being transformed by His spirit. Just as in Isaiah’s day, God is looking for obedience that shows our hearts are in the right place.

This is what the Lord says,
“Promote justice! Do what is right!
For I am ready to deliver you;
I am ready to vindicate you openly.
The people who do this will be blessed,
the people who commit themselves to obedience,
who observe the Sabbath and do not defile it,
who refrain from doing anything that is wrong.”

Isaiah 56:1-2, NET

As we discussed in the post about Sabbath-keeping in Isaiah 40-66, we find an abundance of joy and blessings when we walk in covenant with God and do the things He commands. There’s a special relationship between God and the people who sincerely follow Him. Even though He loves everyone with a selfless, beneficent desire for their good, His familial/friendship love is reserved for those who commit to living in relationship with Him.

For the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity,
whose name is Holy, says:
“I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also who is of a contrite and humble spirit,
to revive the spirit of the humble,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.” …
“I create the fruit of the lips:
Peace, peace, to him who is far off and to him who is near,”
says Yahweh; “and I will heal them.”
But the wicked are like the troubled sea;
for it can’t rest and its waters cast up mire and mud.
“There is no peace,” says my God,
“for the wicked.”

Isaiah 57:15, 19-21, WEB

As in the verses we looked at earlier, God reveals a sharp contrast between the wicked and righteous. One prospers, one does not. One is full of peace, the other has none. Having peace/wholeness and experiencing blessings is a natural state for those who walk in relationship with God. Even if their circumstances aren’t great right now, they know things will work out for good in the end and their relationship with God can give them a supernatural peace.

In contrast, the wicked don’t enjoy the peace and prosperity that comes with being in relationship with God. They’re not necessarily stuck in that state, though. God is always eager for people to reconcile with Him and if they do, God promises, “None of his transgressions that he has committed will be remembered against him” (Ezek. 18:22, WEB). There’s always the opportunity for us to move from one category to the other (Ezek. 18; 33).

Image of a man studying his Bible overlaid with text from Ezekiel 33:12-16, NET version: “The righteousness of the righteous will not deliver him if he rebels. As for the wicked, his wickedness will not make him stumble if he turns from it. ... Suppose I say to the wicked, ‘You must certainly die,’ but he turns from his sin and does what is just and right. ... None of the sins he has committed will be counted against him. He has done what is just and right; he will certainly live.”
Image by Anggie from Lightstock

Hoping and Praying for Good Outcomes

The sharp contrast between long-term outcomes for the righteous and wicked might seem harsh. But as I mentioned before, what God lays out here and in other passages throughout the Bible is simply a revelation about how His world works. He designed and created the universe, and He has the “inside scoop” on how to live in a way that results in a good outcome. We can either listen to Him or reject His counsel. Either way, we’ll reap the consequences (good or bad) that He tells us about beforehand.

“But you who forsake Yahweh,
    who forget my holy mountain,
    who prepare a table for Fortune,
    and who fill up mixed wine to Destiny;
I will destine you to the sword,
    and you will all bow down to the slaughter;
because when I called, you didn’t answer.
    When I spoke, you didn’t listen;
but you did that which was evil in my eyes,
    and chose that in which I didn’t delight.”

Therefore the Lord Yahweh says,
    “Behold, my servants will eat,
    but you will be hungry;
behold, my servants will drink,
    but you will be thirsty.
Behold, my servants will rejoice,
    but you will be disappointed;
Behold, my servants will sing for joy of heart,
    but you will cry for sorrow of heart,
    and will wail for anguish of spirit.”

Isaiah 65:11-14, WEB
Image of a man praying with the blog's title text and the words " In Isaiah 40-66, God draws a sharp contrast between the outcomes for those who live righteous and wicked lives. One enjoys peace and prosperity, the other does not unless they repent and change."
Image by Shaun Menary from Lightstock

These aren’t the sort of feel-good, reassuring verses that we like to spend our time reading. If it just said, “My servants will eat, drink, rejoice, and sing for joy of heart,” then we might spend a lot more time reading Isaiah 65. But it also contains information about what will happen to those who forsake God, ignore His voice, and do things He calls evil. And those verses give us pause, as they should.

When we read these hard verses, it’s an opportunity to take a look at ourselves. If we see ourselves in any of those descriptions, then we can repent and recommit to following God with our whole hearts. He is always eager to hear sincere repentance and grant forgiveness. He also offers us help through His own indwelling Spirit, His words written in our hearts, and His energetic working inside us to accomplish salvation (John 14:16-7, 26; Phil. 2:12-13). We’re not left alone on this journey. Jesus and the Father work in us, and apply their righteousness to us (Jer. 23:6; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:24).

These verses might also make us think about others and grieve because we don’t want these terrible things to happen to anyone. That is also a godly response. God “desires all people to be saved and come to full knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4, WEB). He is “not wishing that anyone should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9, WEB). When we wish that people wouldn’t need to go through such terrible things, it’s a desire God shares. And even though we can’t make people come to God–He’s the one who opens eyes and draws hearts to Him (John 6:44; 14:6)–we can share our hope with people around us and pray for others to come to know God (1 Peter 3:15-16; 1 Tim 2:1-4).

We can also take comfort from scriptures like these in Isaiah. When we’re walking with God, we are among those blessed by His favor. These good, comforting, and encouraging words are for us. He teaches us how to succeed. He sends deliverance over us like ocean waves. He vindicates us, revives us, heals us, and gives us peace. He fills us with joy. There is a “day of vengeance of our God” proclaimed in this section of Isaiah, but it is also “the year of Yahweh’s favor,” filled with comfort, provision, and joy for the Lord’s people who faithfully follow Him (Is. 61).

Featured image by Inbetween from Lightstock

Song Recommendation: This Is The Year (Isaiah 61) by Deborah Kline-Iantorno & Vince Iantorno

2 thoughts on “Isaiah Study: The Contrast Between Righteousness and Wickedness

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