Isaiah Study: God is Incomparable and Irreplaceable

Last week, I started studying Isaiah 40-66. These are the last 27 chapters of the book, and they record an extended dialog where God speaks candidly about His feelings, desires, and plans. In this passage, He revealed His plans for ancient Israel’s immediate future at the time, for the Messiah’s coming (included the four famous Servant Song passages), and for events that are still in the future for those of us reading Isaiah today.

If you go back and read last week’s post, you’ll see 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) God’s defense of His reputation and His power to achieve all He’s promised. Another related point is that God is incomparable and sovereign, so trying to replacing Him with idol worship is foolish.

God shows so much emotion in this section of scripture, and much of it is related to the topic of who He is and how people ought to relate to Him. He’s angry and heartbroken when His people turn away, cutting off contact with Him. He’s confused by Israel’s forgetfulness about all He’s done in the past. He wants them to see Him for who He is and give up their foolish attachment to gods made from wood and stone. Though some of the specific wording is closely connected to Israel of Isaiah’s day, the passages also hold meaning for us today. The specifics of our struggles might be different but we’re not immune from developing an inaccurate view of the Lord.

Mi Chamocha

After God parted the Red Sea in Exodus, Moses and Miriam led the people in a song of joy that includes these words: “Who is like you, Yahweh, among the gods? Who is like you, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?” (Ex. 15:11, WEB). In Hebrew, “who is like you?” is mi chamocha (which is where we get the names Michael and Michelle). You can hear parts of this Hebrew prayer in The Prince of Egypt’s soundtrack (click here for lyrics with a translation; click here for the song).

As I read through Isaiah 40-66, the phrase mi chamocha kept coming to mind. In the Exodus song, the question, “Who is like you, Lord?” is a rhetorical one. The answer should be obvious when we look at His creation and marvelous miracles, such as rescuing Israel from Egypt–there’s no one who can compare to the Lord. Many years later, though, the descendants of those people who once sang mi chamocha aren’t so sure of the answer. And so God asks a series of questions near the beginning of the passage we’re studying in Isaiah.

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand,
and marked off the sky with his span,
and calculated the dust of the earth in a measuring basket,
and weighed the mountains in scales,
and the hills in a balance?
Who has directed Yahweh’s Spirit,
or has taught him as his counselor? …

To whom then will you liken God?
Or what likeness will you compare to him? …

“To whom then will you liken me?
Who is my equal?” says the Holy One.

Isaiah 40:12-13, 18, 25, WEB

Isaiah’s readers–past and present–need this reminder. In our modern world, it’s easy to forget how awe-inspiring God is. We’re jaded, tired, and distracted; often out-of-touch with the marvels of God’s creation and forgetful of His wonderful works. We need reminders of our insignificance and God’s mighty power (Is. 41:14-20). Yet like Isiah’s first audience, we’ve already witnessed God’s goodness. Now we need to remember it and worship Him accordingly, recognizing that there is no other god (Is. 43:10-13; 44:6-8; 46:5-11; 63:7-14; 64:4).

Image of a woman worshiping with her arms raised and a quote from Isaiah 42:8, WEB version: “I am Yahweh. That is my name. I will not give my glory to another, nor my praise to engraved images.”
Image by Ruby-Rose from Lightstock

Foolish Idolatry

When we turn away from God and put something else in His place, we’re guilty of idolatry. In ancient Israel’s case, this often took the form of literally worshiping other gods. My guess is that most of you reading this today aren’t tempted to carve a block of wood into a shape and bow down to it. Our idolatry temptations are more subtle. They’re still there, though, and it’s still important to be careful of them. The Apostle John makes this clear with the final admonition of his first letter: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5: 21).

God’s feelings about idolatry take up huge parts of Isaiah 40-66. He keeps coming back to this topic. He seems genuinely puzzled by how a people to whom He’s revealed Himself and who’ve seen Him work wonders could turn from Him and bow down to images they made themselves. It’s simply absurd.

Everyone who makes a carved image is vain.
The things that they delight in will not profit.
Their own witnesses don’t see, nor know, that they may be disappointed. …

No one thinks,
neither is there knowledge nor understanding to say,
“I have burned part of it in the fire.
Yes, I have also baked bread on its coals.
I have roasted meat and eaten it.
Shall I make the rest of it into an abomination?
Shall I bow down to a tree trunk?”

Isaiah 44:9, 19, WEB

God is a logical, rational being and He gave humans the ability to think that way, too. Sometimes, though, understanding is clouded to the point that people can’t even figure out that the same wood they cook their food over doesn’t turn into a god just because someone carved it into a shape.

Over and over God and Isaiah come back to the topic of idolatry, challenging their readers to think about what they’re doing (Is. 44:9-20; 46:5-7; 57:3-11). If people really realized who and what God is, they’d know they could never replace Him. As such, proving who He is and that He’s the one responsible for what happens to His people is a key part of God’s purpose in this section of scripture. He even says one of the main reasons for prophecy is to disprove idols.

I have declared the former things from of old.
    Yes, they went out of my mouth, and I revealed them.
    I did them suddenly, and they happened.
Because I knew that you are obstinate,
    and your neck is an iron sinew,
    and your brow bronze;
therefore I have declared it to you from of old;
    before it came to pass I showed it to you;
    lest you should say, ‘My idol has done them.
    My engraved image and my molten image has commanded them.’

Isaiah 48:3-5, WEB

God is all-powerful. He created everything that exists and He determines the shape of the future. We can rest assured that, just as He accomplished His purposes in the past, so He will bring His future plans to pass as well. And if we ever start losing sight of Who God is and wondering if He has the power to follow-through on all the things He’s promised, we can come back to passages like Isaiah 40-66 for reassurance and reminders (Is. 41:20; 45:7; 46:9-10; 55:8-17; 59:1).

Image of a man praying while studying and a quote from Isaiah 49:23, 26, WEB version: “Then you will know that I am Yahweh; and those who wait for me shall not be disappointed.” ... “Then all flesh shall know that I, Yahweh, am your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.”
Image by WhoisliketheLord Studio from Lightstock

God is Incomparable and Sovereign

Have you ever noticed how much the Bible talks about names? That’s because names in Hebrew culture are connected to a person’s reputation. In an Eastern society, like the one where the people in the Bible lived, family connections, honor, and reputation are extremely important (for more on this topic, see Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien and Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus by Lois Tverberg).

God uses this cultural trait to emphasize how much He cares about the way people perceive Him. It is vitally important to Him that we remember who He is and realize that nothing and no one can compare to Him. Notice these words in part of God’s commission to Cyrus that’s recorded in these final chapters of Isaiah:

I am Yahweh, and there is no one else.
Besides me, there is no God.
I will strengthen you,
though you have not known me,
that they may know from the rising of the sun,
and from the west,
that there is no one besides me.
I am Yahweh, and there is no one else.
I form the light
and create darkness.
I make peace
and create calamity.
I am Yahweh,
who does all these things.

Isaiah 45:5-7, WEB
Image of a smiling woman worshipping with the blog's title text and the words "God’s reputation in our eyes affects our relationship with Him. The more we accurately we see Him, the more properly we relate to and respect Him. "
Image by Pearl from Lightstock

What people think of God doesn’t change who He is; He is the sovereign Lord and creator of all things whether humans believe it or not. Still, He cares about how people–especially His people–view Him. He puts His name on us and tells us not to misuse that Name (Ex. 20:7; Num. 6:27). His reputation in our eyes affects our relationship with Him; the more accurately we see Him, the more properly we relate to Him.

“Listen to me, O Jacob,
and Israel my called:
I am he.
I am the first.
I am also the last.
Yes, my hand has laid the foundation of the earth,
and my right hand has spread out the heavens.
when I call to them, they stand up together.

Isaiah 48:12-13, WEB

The world is full of distracting and worrisome things. That’s true for us today just as it was true in Isaiah’s day. We battle things that vie for our attention and hearts, offering to fill our time with comforting distractions rather than what really matters. We also hear and see constant reminders that the world is violent, unstable, and full of threats to our security and way of life.

God’s word cuts through that whole thick pile of distractions and worries like a sharp blade. How could we spend time in useless distractions when the Creator of the universe wants to speak to our hearts? How could we waste our time worrying about “what ifs” when the all-powerful Lord says He will deliver and preserve us?

God is incomparable and irreplaceable. Who is like the Lord? Only He Himself. There’s no one who can compare and nothing which can replace Him. We need to remember that. It will help keep our hearts in the right place and our eyes on the goal of eternal life with the Lord.

Featured image by Inbetween from Lightstock

The Start of an Isaiah Study

I had kind of an odd work schedule last week which left me with very little time for Bible study on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, but a Wednesday and Friday to arrange as I pleased. I spent most of Wednesday morning reading through Isaiah 40 to 66 (the end of the book) and taking note of themes that keep popping up. This last section of the book is an extended dialog where God reveals His plans for ancient Israel’s immediate future, for the Messiah’s coming, and for events that are still in our futures today.

I love passages from this section of Isaiah, but this is the first time I’ve sat down and read all the way through in one setting to get the full context. Usually, I spread reading this many chapters out over several days, or jump around within them when studying a topic. Though that’s my usual study plan, I feel like I’ve been building up to this more in-depth study for a while now. Back in January, I read Isaiah 40-45 when talking about how God uses the word “name” in Isaiah 43. Just last month, we were in Isaiah 63 to talk about the Lord as a warrior. I also quoted verses from the last half of Isaiah in “What Does ‘I Lift Up My Soul’ Mean?” and “Cultivating Lives of Peace and Joy.”

My most recent study of Isaiah began earlier this month when I started a daily scripture writing program about trust (similar to the ones I have posted at this link). One of the verses on that list was Isaiah 50:10, and for some reason it didn’t seem familiar even though I’m pretty sure I’d read this very passage recently. As I flipped back looking for a good starting point to read for context, I realized I had to go back all the way to Chapter 40 to find the beginning and I’d need to go all the way to 66 to find the end. Now seemed a good time to take a closer look at that whole section.

Image of a woman writing in a notebook, with text from Isaiah 50:10, WEB version: "Who among you fears Yahweh and obeys the voice of his servant? He who walks in darkness and has no light, let him trust in Yahweh’s name, and rely on his God."
Image by Corey David Robinson from Lightstock

Key Themes For Study

In addition to providing context for the verse in Isiah 50 that caught my eye last week, reading this whole section of Isaiah also gives us context for the famous Servant Song prophecies about the Messiah. These prophecies pointing to Jesus Christ are found in Isaiah 42:1–9; 49:1–13; 50:4-11; 52:13– 53:12. As I read the final 27 chapters of the book, though, I realized the Servant Songs aren’t the only Messianic prophecies here. Also, God’s words in this section of scripture aren’t just for people who were looking forward to Jesus’s first coming. They’re also for us awaiting His second coming.

Following a conversation Isaiah has with King Hezekiah in chapter 39, the Book of Isaiah shifts from a blend of history and prophecy to a poetic, passionate message from God. Chapter 40 begins with God’s call, “Comfort, comfort my people.” Here, we learn about the voice of one who will cry out, “Prepare the way of Yahweh in the wilderness! Make a level highway in the desert for our God” (Is. 40:1-3, WEB). If you’ve got a good memory, you might recognize this phrase from the New Testament as well; every gospel identifies John the Baptist as the voice making the way ready for Jesus’s coming as Messiah (Matt. 3:1-3; Mark 1:1-4; Luke 3:1-4; John 1:19-23). The Messianic themes in these chapters start well before the more famous Servant Songs.

There’s a lot going on in these chapters, as you might suppose when we’re looking at such a large chunk of scripture. Even just a short summary of key themes is quite a long list. This isn’t even every topic covered in this section of scripture; just the ones that stood out to me most:

  • God is motivated by justice
  • God as a husband
  • God as a warrior
  • God as a potter, with us as His clay
  • God’s defense of His reputation and His power to achieve all He’s promised
  • God is incomparable and sovereign; idol worship is foolish
  • Redemption, deliverance, salvation, restoration
  • Calling a Servant to redeem God’s servants
  • Covenant faithfulness; God never abandons His people
  • Sins push God away from us and we need to own-up to that
  • Prosperity for the righteous; no prosperity for the wicked
  • The importance of obedience and Sabbath keeping
  • Joy in relationship with God
  • Reminders to “fear not!”
  • God is doing/making something new

Reflections

Image of a woman studying the Bible, with the blog's title text and the words "Isaiah 40 to 66 is an extended dialog where God reveals plans and desires that are just as relevant for us today as they 
were for the original audience."
Image by MarrCreative from Lightstock

We don’t have time to cover all these themes in today’s post, and I haven’t had time to dig-deep into any of them yet. I plan to keep coming back to this list quite a bit over the next few weeks; I won’t need to worry about finding new blog post ideas for a while! For the rest of today’s post, I’m just going to share some of my reflections and take-aways from reading this whole section of scripture. In future posts, we’ll dive deeper into some of the specific topics.

As I read these chapters, I was struck by how much emotion God shows. He’s passionately engaged with His people. He talks about His anger with them when they turned away from Him; abandoning their relationship with the Sovereign Lord to bow down to a block of carved wood. He fights to rescue them as a fervent warrior and calls for them to return to Him as a husband who desires His wife. He even says at the end that He finds joy and happiness in His people.

God’s feelings about idolatry take up huge parts of this section of Isaiah. Reading it all together, I was surprised how often God came back to this topic. It seems to boggle His mind. Look at who He has shown Himself to be and all that He’s done for this nation in the past. Yet they turn from Him and bow down to images they made themselves? Even just with a little common sense they should be able to figure out that the wood they cook their food over doesn’t turn into a god just because they carved it into a shape. Over and over God and Isaiah come back to this point, challenging their readers to think about what they’re doing. If only they would realize who and what God is, they’d know they could never replace Him.

I’m looking forward to continuing this study over the next few weeks. If this post inspires you to take another look at this part of Isaiah, then you’re welcome to join me. If you do, I’d love to hear what you find in your study. You can leave comments on the posts or send me an email. I always think it’s fascinating how God can reveal different insights to people about the same passage of scripture since we each approach study with different perspectives and interests.

Posts in This Series:

Isaiah Study 1: God is Incomparable and Irreplaceable

Isaiah Study 2: Joy in the Sabbath Covenant With God

Isaiah Study 3: Looking Toward the Messiah

Isaiah Study 4: Doing A New Thing

Isaiah Study 5: The Contrast Between Righteousness and Wickedness

Isaiah Study 6: The Lord’s Desire for Justice

Featured image by Inbetween from Lightstock

The Purpose of Your Redemption

Often when we bring up redemption, we talk about how Jesus redeemed us and why He needed to. We’re sinners–people who’ve broken God’s laws and in doing so earned a death penalty. Jesus shifted that penalty onto Himself. When we accept His sacrifice for our sins, the burden of that sin and the associated death penalty is lifted away so we can live forever with Him.

As incredible as all that is, there’s more to redemption than simply saving us from our sins. God has a purpose for us after we’re redeemed. There’s something He wants us to do and someone He intends for us to become. I find this an exciting thought. God doesn’t start a wonderful work in our lives and then just let us sit there wondering, “Now what?” He gives us a purpose and a goal as well as a dynamic relationship with Him.

Leaving Egypt To Serve God

The way that God delivered ancient Israel from Egypt is a type of how He delivers us from sin. There are so many parallels between the Passover story and the crucifixion story that we don’t have time to go into them all now. In summary, they’re both stories of God’s incredible redemption of a chosen people for a specific purpose. In Exodus, the Lord gives Moses a purpose that he’s supposed to share with Pharaoh for why God wants to take Israel out of Egypt.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and tell him, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has said, “Release my people that they may serve me!

Exodus 9:13, NET

God sets up a contrast here. “The Egyptians ruthlessly made the children of Israel serve” as slaves (Ex. 1:13, WEB), and now God commands them to free His people so they may serve Him instead. This command is repeated over and over early in Exodus as Moses and Pharaoh go back and forth on whether Egypt will obey God’s demand to let Israel go.

The Hebrew word translated “serve” is abad (H5647). It’s used 290 times in the Old Testament. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament connects it with two root words that mean “to do or make” and “to worship, obey” (entry 1553). It’s used both of forced labor for an oppressive master and for joyful service given to God. Abad is also the word used for the type of service the Levites performed in God’s tabernacle and temple. As such, when used of serving God, it involves worship and obedience in our actions. We might say, then, that the reason God redeemed His people is so that they could serve Him as joyful worshipers doing actions that glorified Him.

Image of a woman with her hands raised in worship, with text from Exodus 1-0: 3 and 9, WEB version: "Moses and Aaron went in to Pharaoh, and said to him, “This is what Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, says: ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, that they may serve me. ... “We will go with our young and with our old. We will go with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and with our herds; for we must hold a feast to Yahweh.”
Image by Ruby-Rose from Lightstock

“So That”

There’s a simple phrase that Paul uses in Romans and 2 Corinthians to indicate God redeemed us for a purpose. Jesus died for us and we are crucified alongside him “so that the body of sin would no longer dominate us, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” and “so that we serve in newness of the spirit, and not in oldness of the letter” ((Rom. 6:6, NET and Rom. 7:6, WEB; emphasis added).

Now that we’ve been redeemed, we’re to serve God and be reconciled to Him because “God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:20-21, NET, emphasis added). In these passages, Paul draws our attention to the purpose for redemption. God accomplishes our salvation so that something can happen next. Peter uses this type of language as well.

you yourselves, as living stones, are built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood and to offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. … But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. You once were not a people, but now you are God’s people. You were shown no mercy, but now you have received mercy.

1 Peter 2:5, 9-10, NET

Like ancient Israel (whom Peter references by quoting Hosea), we are called and chosen for a specific purpose. It is “so that” we can proclaim God’s virtues and “offer spiritual sacrifices.” In other words, we’re redeemed so we can serve God, just as the children of Israel were in Exodus.

Next Steps in Light

Image of a man walking in the woods reading a Bible with the blog's title text and the words "God didn't start a wonderful work in our lives just to leave us wondering, "Now what?" He gives us a purpose and a goal."
Image by HarveyMade from Lightstock

So far, we’ve seen the purpose God has for us after redemption described a few different ways. We’re to serve God in the spirit. We’re to become righteous like God. We’re to proclaim His virtues and goodness. Putting it all together, we could sum up our purpose as sincere, obedient worship that results in righteous action.

The book of Hebrews dives deep into this idea. It lays out Jesus’s relationship to the Old Testament sacrifices for sin, explaining how He fulfills them all by offering Himself once as a final, perfectly effective sacrifice. It also describes what we should do next after receiving redemption.

For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a young cow sprinkled on those who are defiled consecrated them and provided ritual purity, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our consciences from dead works to worship the living God.

Hebrews 9:13-14, NET

So since we are receiving an unshakable kingdom, let us give thanks, and through this let us offer worship pleasing to God in devotion and awe.

Hebrews 12:28, NET

Look at the wording here. Jesus died for us and purified us so we can “worship the living God.” Then, because we realize that God is offering us incredible gifts, including a place in His kingdom, we should “offer worship pleasing to God in devotion and awe.” These verses also echo other passages that talk about the importance of worshiping God in the spirit (John 4:23-24; Phil. 3:2-3).

As redeemed people, we walk with God in a new, spiritual life. His goal in redeeming us is to make us fully part of His family. Along with that position as family members in covenant with God comes a purpose for us to accomplish. We have a role now; a way that we’re supposed to live. We ought to serve God in the spirit of the law, modeling His righteousness and worshiping Him joyfully. After all, when we consider the gift of redemption, it’s clear that we have much to be joyful about.

Featured image by Pearl from Lightstock

Song Recommendation: “Redeemed” by Big Daddy Weave

What Does “I Lift Up My Soul” Mean?

Have you ever been curious about the phrase, “I lift up my soul”? It’s something I’ve heard so much by this point in my life as a Christian that I don’t really think about it anymore. There’s even a “To Thee I Lift My Soul” song in our church hymnal. After hearing, reading, and singing it so often, I just assume I know what it means.

Then I read the first couple verses of Psalm 25 again this past Tuesday, and I started wondering. Is “I lift up my soul” just a poetic phrase for prayer–directing your soul up to God? Or might it be something else; like perhaps David saying he’s lifting up his soul like an offering? Maybe the meaning isn’t as clear as I thought. At the very least, I suspect there’s more here to learn.

Image of a woman with her hands raised to heaven, with text from Psalm 25:1-2, CJB version: "I lift my inner being to you, Adonai; I trust you, my God. Don’t let me be disgraced, don’t let my enemies gloat over me.”
Image by Ruby-Rose from Lightstock

Trusting With The Soul

We find the phrase “I lift up my soul” in three psalms where the writers talk about lifting up their souls to God. Let’s take a look at those verses:

To you, Yahweh, I lift up my soul.
My God, I have trusted in you.
Don’t let me be shamed.
Don’t let my enemies triumph over me.

Psalm 25:1-2, WEB

Preserve my soul, for I am godly.
    You, my God, save your servant who trusts in you.
Be merciful to me, Lord,
    for I call to you all day long.
Bring joy to the soul of your servant,
    for to you, Lord, do I lift up my soul.

Psalm 86:2-4, WEB

Cause me to hear your loving kindness in the morning,
for I trust in you.
Cause me to know the way in which I should walk,
for I lift up my soul to you.

Psalm 143:8, WEB

These psalms are all prayers directed at God asking Him for something. They’re also about trust; every one of these psalms mentions it when they’re talking about lifting up the soul. This makes sense since there isn’t much point in prayer if you don’t trust God enough to think He might answer.

As I read these psalms, I see a deeper level of trust than just the basic thinking God might be paying attention. There’s a hopeful expectation here and a certainty that God can and will respond. This type of trusting prayer involves the direction and dedication of the soul (naphesh in Hebrew, which means a breathing, living being). You don’t point your soul toward someone who doesn’t care or lift up your life to them if you don’t think they’ll help. We need trust if we’re going to have a “lift up the soul” type of relationship with God.

Image of a man walking in the woods reading a Bible, with text from Psalm 86:2-4, TLV version: “Watch over my soul, for I am godly. You are my God—save Your servant who trusts in You.
Be gracious to me, my Lord, for to You I cry all day. Gladden the soul of Your servant, for to You, my Lord, I lift up my soul.”
Image by HarveyMade from Lightstock

A Longing Soul

The NET translators opt for a less poetic and more literal phrase when translating “lift up my soul.” In this version, Psalm 25:1 reads, “O Lord, I come before you in prayer.” A footnote on that verse says, “To ‘lift up’ one’s ‘life’ to the Lord means to express one’s trust in him through prayer.” The translators opt for the “prayer” meaning in this verse, though they also see nuances in the Hebrew that they discuss in another footnote.

Hebrew words often have multiple meanings. The word “lift up” is nasa, and it’s no exception to this rule. The basic meaning is to lift, carry, or take. The phrase can gain slightly different meanings depending on context. In the Psalms, for example, it’s used figuratively rather than of literally picking up and carrying an object.

In a footnote on Psalm 143:8, the NET translators say, “The Hebrew expression נָאָשׂ נֶפֶשׁ (naʾas nefesh, ‘to lift up [one’s] life’) means ‘to desire; to long for.'” From this perspective, nasa seems synonymous with the longing soul spoken of in other psalms and songs where the writers want to be close with God more than anything else (Psalm 63:1; 84:1-2; 130:6).

Yes, in the way of your judgments, Yahweh, we have waited for you.
    Your name and your renown are the desire of our soul.
With my soul I have desired you in the night.
    Yes, with my spirit within me I will seek you earnestly;
    for when your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.

Isaiah 26:8-9, WEB

This also makes me think of King Solomon’s prayer at the temple dedication. He asked that God would hear His wayward people’s prayers if they “return to you with all their heart and being … and direct their prayers to you” (1 Kings 8:48, NET). Similarly, Samuel urged Ancient Israel, “direct your hearts to Yahweh, and serve him only” (1 Sam. 7:3, WEB). Paul does much the same thing in one of his letters, praying, “may the Lord direct your hearts toward the love of God and the endurance of Christ” (2 Thes. 3:5, NET).

The desires of our souls and the directions of our hearts show God what matters to us. When things are right between us, our prayers show that He matters to us. Lifting up our longing souls to Him demonstrates that He’s our hearts’ desire.

Image of a woman worshiping with hand raised and a smile on her face, with text from Psalm 143:8, TLV version: “Make me hear Your lovingkindness in the morning,
for in You I trust. Show me the way I should go, for to You I lift up my soul.”
Image by Pearl from Lightstock

Other Things We Could Lift Up

Trusting God with our lives and showing our desire for Him in our prayers is a very good thing. There are also negative things that we could lift our souls to, but shouldn’t. In Psalm 24:4, the writer says that only someone “who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood” can dwell with God. In Hosea 4:8, God charges His people will wickedness when they “set their heart on their iniquity” (“set their heart” is the same phrase in Hebrew as “lift their soul”). We can choose whether we aim our souls in the right direction or turn them toward evil.

The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) lists three categories of meaning for nasa. The first is a literal or figurative lifting up, which we’ve already looked at. The second is “bearing the guilt or punishment of sin” (entry 1421). There are several Bible verses that say the soul/person who sins will bear/lift/carry their iniquity for that transgression. Here are two examples:

“If anyone (naphesh) sins, doing any of the things which Yahweh has commanded not to be done, though he didn’t know it, he is still guilty, and shall bear (nasa) his iniquity. He shall bring a ram without defect from of the flock, according to your estimation, for a trespass offering, to the priest; and the priest shall make atonement for him concerning the thing in which he sinned and didn’t know it, and he will be forgiven.

Leviticus 5:17-18

The soul (naphesh) who sins, he shall die. The son shall not bear (nasa) the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear (nasa) the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be on him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be on him.

Ezekiel 18:20, WEB

When we sin, we’re carrying that like something we’ve lifted up and put on our shoulders. We don’t bear the iniquity of someone else, but we are responsible for the things that we do as a living, breathing naphesh. This would be a big problem for us if we had to keep carrying all our sins, but God provides a solution.

Carrying Away Our Sins

Image of a woman looking up at the sky with the blog's title text and the words "As people who've had Jesus lift away our sins, we can lift up our souls and lives to Him trusting that God will continue to hear and deliver us."
Image by Brightside Creative from Lightstock

The third category of meanings for nasa describes the solution to the problem of us bearing the load of our gilt and sin. If you’re carrying something, someone else can come in, lift that burden, and carry it away. That’s what Jesus does with our sins. Because of His sacrifice, “Sin can be forgiven and forgotten, because it is taken up and carried away” (TWOT entry 1421).

Yet it pleased Yahweh to bruise him.
    He has caused him to suffer.
When you make his soul (naphesh) an offering for sin,
    he will see his offspring.
He will prolong his days
    and Yahweh’s pleasure will prosper in his hand.
After the suffering of his soul (naphesh),
    he will see the light and be satisfied.
My righteous servant will justify many by the knowledge of himself;
    and he will bear (nasa) their iniquities.
Therefore I will give him a portion with the great.
    He will divide the plunder with the strong;
because he poured out his soul to death
    and was counted with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sins of many
    and made intercession for the transgressors.

Isaiah 53:10-12, WEB

There are so many verses that speak of Jesus taking away our sins, washing away our sins, and removing sin from us (for example, John 1:29; Rom. 11:26-27; Heb. 9:25-26; 1 John 3:5). Our souls were weighed down with sin, but He lifts that burden off our shoulders. We don’t have to carry our guilt anymore. We get to do something else with our souls now.

The psalmists wrote centuries before Jesus’s sacrifice but (judging by the Messianic psalms he wrote) we know at least David had an idea of the incredible deliverance God promised. These writers also had the Old Covenant sacrifices pointing toward the Messiah’s ultimate sacrifice that would take away sin once and for all. They knew less about God’s plan for redemption than we do today, yet they were still so filled with trust and confidence in God that they lifted up their souls to Him.

How much more should we lift our souls to God now that we’ve been freed from carrying around the burden of sin? Lightened and rescued by Jesus’s sacrifice, we lift our hands, hearts, and souls to God with joy and thanksgiving, confident in His goodness and faithfulness.

For there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all, revealing God’s purpose at his appointed time. … So I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or dispute.

1 Timothy 2:5-6, 8, NET

Featured image by Temi Coker from Lightstock

Song Recommendation: “Lift” by Sue Samuel

Pentecost: A Time of Joyful, Spiritual Life

Pentecost kinda sneaked up on me this year. This is the only one of God’s holy days where we’re not given a specific date to observe it on (like the 14th of Nissan or the 1st of the 7th month). It moves around a little each year, always 50 days after the wave offering on the Sunday following Passover. This year, Pentecost is happening tomorrow, on June 5th.

Many Messianics and Jews count the omer each evening as a new day begins, praying a specific blessing. In Leviticus, God told His people through Moses, “You must count for yourselves seven weeks from the day after the Sabbath, from the day you bring the wave offering sheaf; they must be complete weeks. You must count fifty days—until the day after the seventh Sabbath” (Lev. 23:15-16, NET). That’s what the word “Pentecost” means–it’s transliterated from the Greek word pentēkostē, or “fiftieth” (as in we’ve counted up to the fiftieth day).

Much like Passover, Pentecost takes on additional significance for the New Testament church. After Jesus’s resurrection and His ascension to the Father on the Sunday when priests in the temple did the wave sheaf offering, He remained here on earth with His disciples for 40 days. Then, He told them to stay in Jerusalem and wait (Acts 1:1-5). They did as they were told, no doubt expecting something to happen at Pentecost since it was coming up just 10 days from when they last saw Jesus. “Now when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place,” and the Holy Spirit came on them in a powerful way (Acts 2:1-4).

What about us today? We have instructions from the Old Testament about Pentecost, traditions that tell us God established his Sinai covenant with Israel on this day, and the story of the New Testament era of the church getting its start on Pentecost in the first century. Clearly this day is important and God tells us to keep observing it, but what is the significance for believers today?

A Time of Hope and Sharing

When I’ve written about Pentecost before on this blog, I usually focus on the book of Ruth. It’s traditionally read on Pentecost because of the connection with gleaning. In Leviticus 23, God included these instructions when He told us how to keep Pentecost, which coincided with the wheat harvest:

When you gather in the harvest of your land, you must not completely harvest the corner of your field, and you must not gather up the gleanings of your harvest. You must leave them for the poor and the resident foreigner. I am the Lord your God.’”

Leviticus 23:22, NET

It’s this instruction to landowners that allowed Ruth to glean for grain in Boaz’s field to keep herself and Naomi alive (Ruth 2). She started gleaning during the barley harvest (around Passover time) and continued on through the wheat harvest (around Pentecost time). This is one of the social safety nets God built into ancient Israel. He cares deeply about the poor, widow, and orphan–the people who struggle most to provide for themselves. A good man like Boaz would even order his workers to drop extra grain for someone like Ruth (2:16).

Ideally, harvest isn’t a time for hoarding your new wealth into a barn. It’s a time for sharing your bounty and offering hope for a brighter future. This principle works on a spiritual level as well. If we sow “in righteousness” and “reap according to kindness” while seeking the Lord and doing good, we will “from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Hos. 10:12-13; Gal. 6:7-10, WEB). Pentecost is a joyous festival day where we remember all the good Lord has given us to “harvest” in our lives and gather with others who are also doing their best to sow good things.

Image of a man standing in a field with his hands raised in worship, with text from Deuteronomy 16:10-11, NET version: “Then you are to celebrate the Feast of Weeks before the Lord your God with the voluntary offering that you will bring, in proportion to how he has blessed you. You shall 
rejoice before him—you, your son, your daughter, your male and female slaves, the Levites in your villages, the resident foreigners, the orphans, and the widows among you—in the place where the Lord chooses to locate his name.”
Image by Aaron Cabrera from Pixabay

Gifts from the Lord

When we look at the book of Exodus, keeping in mind that the Israelites left Egypt right after Passover and it took about two months to travel all the way to Mount Sinai on foot, it seems reasonable to accept the Jewish tradition that says God gave the 10 commandments on Pentecost. That would place the establishment of one of the most important covenants in scripture on this holy day.

At Sinai, Yahweh set Israel apart to Himself as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” He warned them to purify themselves and respect His holiness, then presented the terms of the covenant starting with the 10 commandments (Ex. 19-24). Finally, the people said, “We will do all that Yahweh has said, and be obedient” (Ex. 24:7, WEB). This covenant was an incredible gift–the only fault with it was in the people who couldn’t keep the covenant as perfectly as God did. That’s why we needed a New Covenant established on better promises (Heb. 8).

Jesus enacted this New Covenant on Passover when He shared bread and wine with His disciples (Luke 22:19-20), outlined the terms of the new covenant (John 13-17), and died to end the old covenant and establish the new (Heb. 9:11-28). Then on Pentecost, He started giving His New Covenant church the gifts involved in these better promises.

Now when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like a violent wind blowing came from heaven and filled the entire house where they were sitting. And tongues spreading out like a fire appeared to them and came to rest on each one of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them. …

Peter stood up with the eleven, raised his voice, and addressed them… “this is what was spoken about through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it will be,’ God says, ‘that I will pour out my Spirit on all people, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.'”

Acts 2:1-4, 14, 16-18, NET

Life in the Spirit

There is a beautiful symmetry to think that on the same day, centuries apart, God gave His people the Law and the Spirit. For us today who “serve in the new life of the Spirit,” we get to keep the law on a spiritual level as God always intended. Because of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, “the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 7:5-6; 8:3-5).

Pentecost helps remind us to rejoice in the abundant gifts God gives us, particularly the gift of His Spirit. God Himself is dwelling in us. That’s a wonderful thing. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that Paul writes about the “joy that comes from the Holy Spirit” (1 Thes. 1:6, NET) and says joy is part of the fruit of the spirit (Gal. 5:22). Even after being thrown out of a city for preaching God’s word, “the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:52, NET). The joy of the Lord is a persistent, irrepressible thing.

We can also have this same joy when we follow God in the spirit and intent of the law.  We know that God’s kingdom consists of “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. For the one who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by people” (Rom. 8:17-18, NET). As we use the gifts God gives us and cultivate spiritual lives, God’s holy days remind us to also embrace the joy that comes along with being a child of the living God.

Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you believe in him, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 15:13, NET

Featured image by J F from Pixabay

The Lord Is a Warrior, and That’s a Good Thing

I’ve been revisiting my Spiritual Warfare series of posts as I work on my next study guide about the Armor of God. While most of that series’ focus is on us fighting spiritual battles with God’s help, studying that topic also highlights a role God fills which I don’t think we talk about all that often. We often discuss the Lord as shepherd, priest, savior, king, deliverer, and much more. He’s also a warrior, but when was the last time you heard anyone quote Isaiah 63:1-6, where the Lord is dressed in garments stained red with the blood of those who opposed Him?

I suspect part of the reason we shy away from discussing verses like that is we’re not really sure what to do with them. I’m as much guilty of that as anyone else. Take, for example, God’s command that ancient Israel completely wipe out the inhabitants of the promised land when they went in to claim their inheritance. I understand that God is righteous in all He does and that His perspective is different than mine, and I know this is a command He was within His rights to give. I trust Him, but I still don’t want to think too much about the violence of that.

At the same time, knowing God can and does fight is strangely comforting. I want the Warrior God by my side when I read that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens” (Eph. 6:12, NET). I can’t fight that on my own. Maybe knowing what kind of enemy we face and how helpless we’d be against it on our own is why so many Bible writers find the image of God as a warrior something to rejoice about.

Image of four warrior riding toward a sunset, with text from Exodus 15:2-3, NET version: “The Lord is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation.
This is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
The Lord is a warrior—
the Lord is his name.”
Image by ha11ok from Pixabay

The Warrior God

It’s a long passage when typed out in verse like this, but I want to quote the first part of Isaiah 63 so we can take a closer look at it together. While the violent imagery is probably the first thing we notice when reading this, I also want to notice the tone. How does the author want us to feel about this picture of God?

Who is this who comes from Edom,
with dyed garments from Bozrah?
Who is this who is glorious in his clothing,
marching in the greatness of his strength?
“It is I who speak in righteousness,
mighty to save.”
Why is your clothing red,
and your garments like him who treads in the wine vat?

“I have trodden the wine press alone.
Of the peoples, no one was with me.
Yes, I trod them in my anger
and trampled them in my wrath.
Their lifeblood is sprinkled on my garments,
and I have stained all my clothing.
For the day of vengeance was in my heart,
and the year of my redeemed has come.
I looked, and there was no one to help;
and I wondered that there was no one to uphold.
Therefore my own arm brought salvation to me.
My own wrath upheld me.
I trod down the peoples in my anger
and made them drunk in my wrath.
I poured their lifeblood out on the earth.”

Isaiah 63:1-6, WEB

Isaiah isn’t startled or horrified by the idea of God trampling His enemies in a winepress. He’s impressed. He uses words like, “glorious,” “greatness,” and “righteousness” to describe the Lord in this passage. When Yahweh is speaking, He talks of His vengeance and wrath as being connected to salvation and redemption.

It might not be the first thing that comes to mind when we think of God, but the Lord as a warrior is a solidly Biblical image. And, like everything else God is, His actions as Warrior are a good thing. There are many other passages that speak to this theme as well, particularly in songs praising the Lord for filling the role of warrior king. For example, after ancient Israel crossed the Red Sea and saw the Egyptian army destroyed, the song they sang started out like this:

“I will sing to Yahweh, for he has triumphed gloriously.
He has thrown the horse and his rider into the sea.
Yah is my strength and song.
He has become my salvation.
This is my God, and I will praise him;
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
Yahweh is a man of war.

Exodus 15:1-3, WEB

We’re probably far more familiar with “God of peace” as a title for Yahweh, but “man of war” is just as valid a description. That seems contradictory at first, but sometimes peace requires a warrior to maintain it. For example, Paul writes, “The God of peace will quickly crush Satan under your feet” (Rom. 16:20, NET). There’s no disconnect for God to fill both roles.

Image of helmet and sword lying on a stone wall, with text from Psalm 24:7-8, WEB version: “Lift up your heads, you gates!
    Be lifted up, you everlasting doors,
    and the King of glory will come in.
Who is the King of glory?
    Yahweh strong and mighty,
    Yahweh mighty in battle.”
Image by ArtCoreStudios from Pixabay

Warrior Messiah

Continuing this theme of exalting God as a Warrior, David praises “the King of glory” who is “Yahweh strong and mighty, Yahweh mighty in battle. … Yahweh of Armies is the King of glory!” (Ps. 24:8, 10, WEB). That’s a Messianic psalm, which means this mighty warrior God is the being we now know as Jesus Christ. This psalm isn’t an isolated passage. The sons of Korah also write a similar Messianic psalm:

My heart overflows with a noble theme.
I recite my verses for the king.
My tongue is like the pen of a skillful writer.
You are the most excellent of the sons of men.
Grace has anointed your lips,
therefore God has blessed you forever.
Strap your sword on your thigh, mighty one:
your splendor and your majesty.
In your majesty ride on victoriously on behalf of truth, humility, and righteousness.
Let your right hand display awesome deeds.
Your arrows are sharp.
The nations fall under you, with arrows in the heart of the king’s enemies.
Your throne, God, is forever and ever.
A scepter of equity is the scepter of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness, and hated wickedness.
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your fellows.

Psalm 45:1-7, WEB

Reading these messianic prophecies, it’s easy to understand why so many Jewish people of Jesus’s day were confused about why He wasn’t overthrowing the Romans and restoring the kingdom to Israel right then. Even the 11 apostles thought He might do that (Luke 19:11; Acts 1:6). They didn’t realize until later that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of a Messiah who would suffer for our sins in His first coming–winning victory in the spiritual battle against the devil–and that He’d return a second time with His warrior role more visible.

Then I saw heaven opened and here came a white horse! The one riding it was called “Faithful” and “True,” and with justice he judges and goes to war. His eyes are like a fiery flame and there are many diadem crowns on his head. He has a name written that no one knows except himself. He is dressed in clothing dipped in blood, and he is called the Word of God. The armies that are in heaven, dressed in white, clean, fine linen, were following him on white horses. From his mouth extends a sharp sword, so that with it he can strike the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod, and he stomps the winepress of the furious wrath of God, the All-Powerful. He has a name written on his clothing and on his thigh: “King of kings and Lord of lords.”

Revelation 19:11-16, NET

This sounds a lot like that passage where we started in Isaiah, doesn’t it? Here’s the King of kings and Lord of lords wearing a garment dipped in blood and treading the winepress of God’s wrath. This shouldn’t surprise us, knowing that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever!” (Heb. 13:8, NET). He’s just as much a warrior today as He will be in the future and as He was in the past.

Making Warriors of Us

As we continue to walk with God, we learn more and more about the spiritual warfare that’s part of our Christian experience. When God called us to join His family, He also revealed our part in a grand metanarrative that spans creation’s history. There’s a battle going on in the spiritual realm between good and evil and we’re right in the thick of it. As a Warrior, God is perfectly capable of defending us. He also equips us to defend ourselves and to fight alongside Him.

Now I, Paul, appeal to you personally by the meekness and gentleness of Christ (I who am meek when present among you, but am full of courage toward you when away!)— now I ask that when I am present I may not have to be bold with the confidence that (I expect) I will dare to use against some who consider us to be behaving according to human standards. For though we live as human beings, we do not wage war according to human standards, for the weapons of our warfare are not human weapons, but are made powerful by God for tearing down strongholds. We tear down arguments and every arrogant obstacle that is raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to make it obey Christ.

2 Corinthians 10:1-5, NET

Here again we have this contrast between peace (in this case meekness and gentleness) and war. Paul is appealing to His readers using Jesus’s meek, gentle character in order to stir them up to fight. I think part of this seeming disconnect has to do with the way God fights. When God goes into battle, He does so from a standpoint of righteousness, justice, and faithfulness (Is. 11:5; 59:17). His warfare is consistent with the rest of His character, and ours should be too.

Paul told Timothy that in order to “fight the good fight,” he “must hold firmly to faith and a good conscience” (1 Tim. 1:18-19). God equips us with weapons that are effective against spiritual enemies and even for taking our own thoughts captive as we wage war inside our own minds (Rom. 7:23). As we draw nearer to Him and learn more and more about who He truly is, we’ll be better equipped to face spiritual battles with the Warrior God at our side.

Featured image by azboomer from Pixabay

Song Recommendation: “Out of Bozrah” by The Lumbrosos (this video also shows a dance that goes with the song; I always loved dancing this one)