A basic rule of thumb when New Testament Christians approach Old Testament texts is to discover its primary interpretation, while allowing for secondary applications. That is, the OT text must be allowed to speak on its own terms, and be understood in its own time, culture, and context.
However we may well be able to also get some application from it for our own times, as long as we don’t take that to be the passage’s primary interpretation. I say this because I found another intriguing OT text in my daily reading which I want to give modern-day application to.
Sure, it was written to a different people at a different time, but we can still get plenty of spiritual lessons from it, if not direct warnings ourselves. I refer to Isaiah 30, which begins this way: “‘Woe to the obstinate children,’ declares the LORD, ‘to those who carry out plans that are not mine, forming an alliance, but not by my Spirit, heaping sin upon sin’” (v 1). While written of course to Israel, there is plenty that Christians today can draw from this.
I especially want to focus on Is 30:9-11:
For these are rebellious people, deceitful children,
children unwilling to listen to the LORD’s instruction.
They say to the seers,
“See no more visions!”
and to the prophets,
“Give us no more visions of what is right!
Tell us pleasant things,
Leave this way,
get off this path,
and stop confronting us
with the Holy One of Israel!”
This is an incredible but sadly typical passage on the state of God’s people, and their rejection of God, his word, and his prophets. They simply do not want what Yahweh has to say to them, and instead only want pleasant words – nice stuff.
Jeremiah of course had said similar things: the people did not want the truth about God’s disgust at their rebellion, idolatry and immorality, and about coming judgment. They only wanted to hear pleasant things. And the real tragedy here is that the church today is hardly any different from the ancient Israelites.
We too just want the sweet syrupy stuff, and refuse to countenance any hard words, words of rebuke, or words of judgment. The biggest church in America for example is a perfect reflection of this. All you will hear there is ‘how to be a better you’ and the like.
You will not hear there anything about the cruciform life, the need to die to self and sin, the need for personal holiness and regular repentance. All you will get is a completely me-centred message week in and week out. And there would be thousands of other churches in the same boat.
Just imagine if the prophet Isaiah tried to get into one of these churches today. He would be barred at the door and prevented from getting in. ‘Sorry bud, but your message is far too negative, judgmental, harsh, and demanding’.
He would be told that he needs to be more accepting, affirming, loving and positive. Most churches would see him as a trouble-maker who is intolerant and un-Christlike. The ancient Israelites rejected him and his word, and plenty of churches today would likely do the same.
But let me offer some commentary and further application here. John Oswalt remarks: “Strikingly, the main difference between true and false prophecy was that false prophets said nice things about their hearers. They said things their hearers wanted to hear. They spoke of peace and prosperity and of God’s certain deliverance.
“The true prophets spoke of these things as well, but they were always in the context of repentance and changed behaviour. Those features were notably absent from the preaching of the false prophets. For them the ‘good news’ was unconditional. This is what Isaiah means when he says that people are asking him to ‘prophesy illusions’ (30:10). They are asking him to promise good consequences without appropriate causes.”
Alec Motyer comments: “They did not want a supernatural message (10ab), nor a message of moral demand (10cd), but a ministry that left the surface of life unruffled (pleasant/‘smooth’), a ministry of trifles (illusions)…. They did not ask that preaching should cease but only that it be innocuous, void of moral imperatives and without the backing of the ultimate moral authority of the nature of God.”
Is this not a perfect description of so much of the Western church today? Are we any different at all from the Israelites of old? We too would rather hear lies than the truth. We too prefer to be deceived. Gary Smith puts it this way:
“There is irony in the prophet’s characterization of their wishes, but what it all boils down to is that these people are in effect demanding to be deceived by false assurances. This desire to optimistically believe that the love and grace of God will somehow make everything work out well in the end is still a false hope that many church attendees rely on today, even though their daily walk demonstrates that they have little interest in following the instructions in God’s Word. Although positive messages of hope are much more encouraging and enjoyable to hear, the truth should always be valued above a deceptive lie that lulls one to sleep.”
Or as John Oswalt remarks elsewhere, “No one wishes to receive condemnation or to be challenged to behavior which is difficult or costly. We would much rather hear counsel which encourages us to take the path of least resistance and encourages us to good opinions of ourselves. But in fact such counsel takes no account of our unholiness and God’s holiness. It is as though bright light could be brought into a barn and not reveal dust, dirt, and manure. So the universal experience of the biblical prophets was to speak words which were full of demand for renunciation and commitment and to be rejected for their harshness, while others were all too willing to receive privilege and honor for saying what people wanted to hear.”
Talk about a perfectly relevant word for today’s church. No wonder we hear so very little preaching from books like Isaiah. We do not want to upset the masses, lose the crowds, diminish our income, and cause any feathers to be ruffled.
So we avoid giving messages like that of Isaiah to stay liked, popular and cool. But that simply makes us into false prophets. “But my people love it this way” as Jeremiah pointed out (5:30-31). We really want to ‘stop being confronted with the Holy One of Israel!’
But the very thing we need to deliver us from our bondage, our apathy, our carnality, and our compromise is an encounter with the Holy One of Israel. We desperately need to meet him in all his holiness, splendour, majesty and awesomeness (to use a word almost totally stripped of its meaning in church circles today).
Only a fresh revelation of the holy God that we serve will do – one that drives us to our faces, crying out, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty,” as Isaiah experienced (Is 6:5).
Let me finish with the words of a modern-day prophet, “The decline of the knowledge of the holy has brought on our troubles. A rediscovery of the majesty of God will go a long way toward curing them. It is impossible to keep our moral practices sound and our inward attitudes right while our idea of God is erroneous or inadequate. If we would bring back spiritual power to our lives, we must begin to think of God more nearly as He is” (AW Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy).