Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 1/10/1993
Is. 29:9 Be delayed and wait. Blind yourselves and be blind. They become drunk, but not with wine; they stagger, but not with strong drink. 10 For the Lord has poured over you a spirit of deep sleep. He has shut your eyes, the prophets, and he has covered your heads, the seers. 11 And the entire vision shall be to you like the words of a sealed book, which when they give it to the one who is literate, saying, "Please read this," he will say, "I cannot, for it is sealed." 12 Then the book will be given to the one who is illiterate, saying, "Please read this." And he will say, "I cannot read." 13 Then the Lord said, "Because this people draw near to me with their words and honor me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from me, and their reverence for me consists of tradition learned by rote, 14 therefore I will once again deal marvelously with this people, wondrously marvelous. And the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discerning of their discerning men shall be concealed."
A staple of Evangelical exhortation is statistics about the unreached peoples of the world: so many languages into which Scripture has not yet been translated, so many tribes or countries with either no access or minimal access to the gospel. And our hearts are rightly stirred as we think of the danger these people are in of passing into eternity without Christ. But there is a danger that faces us as well. Yes, it is dangerous to be inundated with dozens of translations, countless teachers and preachers on tape, bookstores full of "Christian" (?) paraphernalia, parachurch organizations, fellowship groups, retreats, conferences, all comfortably accessible from our easy chairs at home or our padded pews at church. The danger is that of becoming the kind of people to whom frightening passages like the one we have read today are addressed.
This passage was written to comfortable people during what is often called "the silver age" of Israel and Judah. The wealth and affluence amassed under Jeroboam II in the Northern Kingdom and Uzziah and Jotham in the South had started reminding people a bit of the golden age the united kingdom had enjoyed under Solomon. They thought they were headed back to that kind of greatness and that this was a sign that God was pleased with them. But this spiritual complacency was somehow compatible with the fact that they also lived in an age of ongoing idolatry. There had been half-hearted religious reforms, but the "high places" had not been taken away (2 Kings 15:4, etc.). These high places had one purpose: they were locations for idol worship. So the people were compromised, trying to worship Jahweh and idols. And they could not be brought to see the contradiction.
Well, we do not bow down to images of wood and stone. But the Evangelical movement would be hard pressed to claim with any credibility that we worship Jahweh alone. We find ourselves visiting the high places of commercial success, cultural acceptance, etc., and, worse, bringing practices we learned there back into the Temple of the Lord. So blind and unattuned have we become to the differences between the two that we do not even realize we are doing it. Our comfortably compromised and accommodated lives are made evident by the unspoken "buts" that lurk beneath the surface of our prayers: "Lord, I want to follow you with all my heart . . . but . . . don't call me to the mission field . . . don't ask me to forgive that person . . . just wait until I buy X and then I will start tithing . . . I'm too busy right now, but as soon as life settles down and gets a little less hectic . . . ." Yeah, right. Have we forgotten? God does not tolerate competition! The very first Commandment is "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." If we have broken that one, how should we expect to keep truly any of the rest?
In Israel, compromise led to apostasy. And so we come to the reign of Ahaz (2 Kings 16), who sacrificed his own son to Moloch, desecrated the Temple by using its treasures as a gift to placate the king of Assyria, and even had a pagan altar copied and adapted to the alleged worship of Jahweh. None of these things would have been possible, none of them would have been accepted, had the people not become used to compromise and accommodation under the previous kings. But when compromise proceeds one small step at a time, the outward forms of true spirituality can collapse very quickly when there is no longer any substance to them or any reality behind them. The apparent suddenness of that collapse is then an illusion. One wonders where our compromises are leading.
There was a revival under king Hezekiah in 2 Kings 18, which was more far reaching than previous ones under Uzziah. As far as Hezekiah himself was concerned, it reached the heart. But for most of the people it was too little and too late. Its results in their lives were only superficial, as shown by the fact that they immediately returned to their syncretism and pagan practices as soon as he died. It shows us that a compromised people can return to outward conformity to accepted religious practices for a while without their real commitments being altered. There is rightly a strong hunger for revival in many of God's people today. But we too quickly jump onto the bandwagon of emotional hype assuming that it is the revival we need. As a professor at a Christian college I have seen students weeping at the altar on Monday who on Wednesday were just as unfocused, just as prone to cut corners and offer half-hearted efforts to the Lord in their classwork, as they were before. Yet everyone was all excited that revival had come because of all the weeping. I doubt the Lord was any more impressed than I was. The tendency to mistake superficial religious emotion for real revival is just one more indication of how compromised we have become. We can no longer tell the difference.
It was to just such a generation that Isaiah wrote the words that are before us today. What he is saying is that if you despise the Word of God by giving mere lip service to it, then God may take it away. Oh, it will still be there, but you will no longer be able to profit from it. The blindness of heart and mind that you have been practicing will be confirmed, and that confirmation itself will be God's judgment against you. You will get what you have wanted. It is as if God said, "OK, you want to be surrounded by my Word without taking it seriously? You want to harden your heart in spite of all my messages? OK, fine. I'll help you!" The older theologians referred to this punishment as "judicial hardening," that is, a hardening of heart that is judicial, that comes as judgment on those who have already been hardening their own hearts. It is among the most fearful judgments that can come upon the sons of men.
The classic example of a person who experience this judicial hardening is Pharaoh. In Exodus there is a very interesting progression in the accounts of Pharaoh's reactions to God's commands to let his people go, and then to God's judgments (Ex. 5:2-7, 7:3, 7:13, 8:15, 9:12, 9:34-35, 10:16-17, 20-27, 11:9-10, 14:9). First it simply says that Pharaoh's heart was hard--he was a naturally stubborn person, in other words. But as the truth of Moses' message became more inescapable, it begins to say that Pharaoh hardened his heart. He made a deliberate and conscious decision to turn away from what now he really knew was the truth. And when he has done this long enough, we finally come to the last phase, where we read that God hardened his heart. God had had enough. And so he says, as it were, "You want a hard heart? OK, here you go. I hope you like it." The hardening that God does is only after Pharaoh has shown himself committed to a hard heart himself. God's hardening is then the means by which he punishes Pharaoh, ensuring that he will incur the last plagues and be drowned in the Red Sea. But it is also itself a part of the punishment, and perhaps the worst part of all.
Paul speaks of the same phenomenon in Romans when he says that God gives people who have been suppressing the truth in unrighteousness over to a reprobate mind (Rom. 1:21-28). Romans gives us the doctrinal explanation; Pharaoh provides the example; and Isaiah gives us the warning that other examples can be created as well. And that we can be among them.
Truly this is the most fearful of all God's judgments. To have the Word of God so easily available and so frequently and powerfully expounded is the greatest of privileges. But it entails a great and awesome responsibility, to hear and to obey. God's greatest punishment is reserved for those who hear the Word of God and take it for granted, take it lightly, disobey it like Pharaoh or give only lip service to it like Israel. What more terrible fate, what more woeful calamity can there be than to have the God who is infinitely longsuffering and patient say to you in the words of Isaiah, "Ok, then, be blind!" What more terrible fate, what more woeful calamity can there be than to have the God who is infinitely compassionate and loving finally say to you, "OK, you want to harden your heart? You insist on it? Fine. I'll help you! And I hope you like the result, because you are going to have to live with yourself that way for the rest of eternity." That is "judicial hardening."
Now, what bothers me is that I hear so much talk of revival, but when I look around for evidence of something more than what happened in Hezekiah's day, I do not find enough to make me the least bit comforted. My greatest fear as I look at the Evangelical movement, so compromised with materialism, so thinly removed form secularism, so increasingly shallow in her spirituality, yet so comfortable in her lukewarmness, is that God has already pronounced a judgment of judicial hardening against the American church. But I do not know that he has done so--only that he would be within his rights if he did. And so I ask you to join me in getting on my knees daily and praying that he will be merciful and delay that doom and give us yet a great harvest of souls who will worship him not just with words, nor honor him not just with their lips, but truly draw near to him in their hearts. And lest that same judgment fall on us as well, let us rededicate ourselves to that end.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams
Updated 4/4/2004 10:10 AM