A Political Vision
“For sheer grandeur and majesty, probably no book in the Hebrew Bible can be compared to Isaiah.”
That is Longman and Dillard. There are three major movements in this book, prophecies made in the 8th century B.C. The first one is judgment with some mercy (1-35, 1-12 Judah, 13-35 the nations are judged). The second movement is exile, and this forms an historical hinge that explains why Judah is being sent off into exile in 36-39. And then the final section is the inversion of the first, mercy with some judgment. And this section is a stunningly beautiful section regarding the comfort given through the character and promises of God.
Chapter 60, the chapter we’re going to look at today, is located within this section and is prophetic, which means it raises lots of interpretive questions, way more than we could cover in this short time together. So, let me just summarize to say that some of the prophecies within this section are fulfilled in the near future, some in the future from when it was written, some in the far future. It’s kind of like those mountain ranges we’ve talked about in the past, where you look at a range, a peak way in the distance, but there are many lesser peaks in between. Or, kind of like an Italian meal. We used to go over to our Italian relatives, and you think you’ve eaten dinner, but no, you’ve just had a couple courses, and they’re just warming up. And prophecy is like that. You think you’ve seen it fulfilled, but no. There’s way more coming in the future. Or, like Cinderella’s slipper. It may be worn by many, but it only truly fits one. And so, these prophecies may see incremental fulfillment, but ultimately, they only fit one and head into the future. Or, like skipping stones on a pond. You see many contact points, but then one point where it submerges. And if we had time, we could look at many of the details in this passage that are like that.
Look, for example, at verse 10, where it says that “foreigners shall build up your walls.” You can see an almost immediate fulfillment in Cyrus, the king of Persia, helping to rebuild the walls. But that is certainly not the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy. Same with the wise men visiting. Verse 6, you see a fulfillment. They bring gold and frankincense in Matthew 2, partially fulfilling this, but it’s heading beyond. In Isaiah 61:1-2 you see a specific fulfillment in Jesus when he stands up in the synagogue in Luke 4:18-19 and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” But he stops halfway through verse 2, communicating you’re only seeing partial fulfillment now. You will see ultimate fulfillment in the future.
Now, if you’re looking at this passage from a dispensational perspective, you’re going to locate Isaiah 60 in the millennium. The difficulty with that is, although that may be true, it can’t stay there. Because you notice at the end of Isaiah 60, it is “forever” language. It goes way beyond a limited amount of time. You’ll see in verse 19, “the Lord will be your everlasting light. ” “Mourning shall be ended,” verse 20, and you will “possess the land,” verse 21. How long? “Forever.”
So, this passage finds its ultimate fulfillment, as we saw in our study of Revelation, in Revelation 21, where Revelation 21 quotes Isaiah 60. There’ll be no more tears, no more mourning. Revelation 21:4. Kings will bring their glory into this new heaven and this new earth fulfilling Isaiah 60. We don’t have to guess what this is ultimately heading toward. It is an indescribably big vision.
It raises the question, why would we start a series on politics, which feels very swampy, in a passage like Isaiah 60, which is the exact opposite? It is soaring into the future. Well, there are many reasons for that, but one reason is, we desperately need to get a big vision of politics, and that vision can only come from God.
One of the things that jumped out in the survey that many of you took … Thank you very much. 760 of our people took that survey. That is a huge percentage of teens/adults. It’s almost half on the email list. That’s a big segment. Throughout the series, I’m going to sprinkle in some of the results. Today I just want to share one example, question 6. We were asked: “When I think about politics and politicians, I feel…” First of all, energized and hopeful, 2%. So, yeah, there were barely any of you who said you were excited about this series. Second, I feel conflicted or uncertain, 16%. Third, I feel disappointed or discouraged, 44%. And then, I feel disgusted or cynical, 37%. And 2% were not sure. So, if you add disappointed and disgusted together, you have over 80% of our church. And I feel like that’s probably accurate, unfortunately.
The vast majority of us, when we hear the word “politics” or think about politicians, it is not a positive thing at all. And so, obviously today I’m not going to fully resolve that, because we’re going to be talking up high, big vision. And it’s going to frustrate some of you because you came, and you want to get into the issues. And I promise you, we will give you reasons to get mad sooner than later. We will not let you down.
Next week, on July 4th, I’m going to talk about the difference between a healthy Christian patriotism and an unhealthy Christian nationalism. That could never go badly. Yeah! The following week, Steve Kaminski is going to talk about the relationship between politics and power, and some other related issues which are really vital for us to understand. The week after that, I’m going to talk about hills to die on. How do you know the difference between issues to really take a stand on and issues to not? Then we’ll really get into some of the practical issues. And then, Matt Nestberg is going to try to pick up the pieces at the end and map out a way for us. How do you walk forward with your brothers and sisters, even if you differ on key political issues?
So, that’s where we’re heading. Today, our goal is, if we can do nothing other than stimulate our imagination to think about a way of thinking about politics. And it’s going to have practical implications (if we really capture it) so that we’re not merely reacting to current events or failed attempts in the past or trying to muddle through a middle way, but that we’ve captured the vision of God. What does he think about politics? And how does that shape the way we think and do them?
Isaiah, 60, God is doing 4 things here. He is recreating, revealing, redeeming, restoring. Let’s look at those one at a time. God is first, recreating. This is new creation language. It flows from verse 20 of chapter 59.
“Zion, your Redeemer has come; therefore, arise, [verse 1] shine.”
This is a prophetic imperative, which means God is not just telling them to do something. He is actually recreating, energizing, mobilizing them to the brightness of his glory. Like in Genesis 1:3 when God says, “Let there be light,” and there was what? Light. He wasn’t just telling light to do something; he was bringing it forth. Or, when Jesus called Lazarus to come forth from the darkness of his tomb and he came out, and with help, grave clothes coming off, he’s squinting in the brightness. Or, when the disciples woke up (we saw this a few weeks ago in our Mark study) to the brightness of Jesus’ glory on the mount of transfiguration. “Arise. Shine.” And this light is so bright against the darkness. God is recreating.
Number 2, he is revealing, specifically the darkness. Verse 2,
“Behold, darkness shall cover the earth.”
Now, notice, this is not just a Jewish problem. This is a universal problem. Throughout the chapter, you see these glimpses of darkness. In verse 10, “In my wrath, I struck you.” Verse 15, they’ve been “forsaken and hated.” Verse 18, violence. They’ve been victims of “violence and devastation, destruction.” And they are not innocent! If you go back to chapter 58, you will see Israel confronted for their hypocrisy.
“You fast,” and yet you oppress your workers.
“You fast [58:4], yet quarrel and fight.”
You’re doing this “deep” worship to God, and at the same time you’re quarrelling and fighting with one another. You’re taking advantage of people. You assassinate people’s character with a pointed finger (58:9) you speak wickedness leading to 59:1-2. Look at that.
“Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God.”
And this sin was not just an individual sin, it was also social, political, even structural. Look at 59:14.
“Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away.”
Stop for a second. Those two words are key. And typically, when they appear together, and they travel together a lot, they communicate two things. Justice, in the Hebrew “mispat,” is “right in principle,” having to do with law. And righteousness, “tsedeq,” is “right in practice,” having to do with lifestyle. So, your laws and your lifestyles resulted in God’s way standing far away.
“…for truth has stumbled in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter.”
Truth. Oh, you can tell the truth to your wife and kids. You can whisper it to your coworker, but truth can’t go public. Society has so deceived itself that truth appears an invader, a criminal. You’re an enemy if you tell the truth.
Verse 15, “Truth is lacking, and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey. The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. [Verse 16] He saw that there was no man and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him.” [Verse 20] ‘And a Redeemer will come from Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,’ declares the Lord.”
God is revealing darkness and sending a Redeemer.
Number 3, God is redeeming. Verse 3,
“And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”
Who’s the “your”? Israel. This is the fulfillment of Genesis 12:3. God said to Abraham,
“In you all the families of the earth shall be [what?] blessed.”
All of the families of the earth who were judged and scattered in Genesis 11, Genesis 12:3 will be blessed through the seed of Abraham.
What ethnicity is Jesus? Everybody’s looking at me like it’s a trick question. It’s not. He’s Jewish. How about all of his disciples? Jewish. How about the writers of the New Testament? All Jewish, except one, maybe, Luke. How about when the new heaven and the new earth come surrounded by walls with gates. What are the names on the gates? Twelve tribes of Israel. The foundations? The twelve Apostles of the Lamb, all Jewish.
What is the point? The point is, Israel is the conduit, the mediator, the channel of God’s blessing to the world. You’ll never understand the blessing of God unless you look to Israel. Even more, look to the true Israelite, Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth, the life.
So, what is this vision that we are getting, this big vision of redemption that God is painting? We don’t have time to look at all the details today. So, in 60 seconds I want to skim this section to see the vision of redemption, and then we’ll come back and look more specifically at several key images.
Here’s the skim. Verse 4, “Lift up your eyes all around, and see; they all gather together, they come to you. Verses 6-7, they come by land. Verses 8-9, they come by sea, ships. Verses 10-11, they come through open gates. Verse 12, “For the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste.” This vision is universal, but not teaching universalism. Verses 13-14, sons of oppressors come. Verses 15-16, the oppressed come. Verses 17-22, everything is made new. Bronze becomes gold, rulers become righteous, violence becomes praise, darkness – light, mourning – sadness, least becomes greatest. That’s the vision here.
Look at three images. Number 1, the ships of Tarshish in verses 8-9. What is interesting about these ships is that they are always objects of God’s wrath, except here in Isaiah. Let me show you some examples.
Isaiah 2:16, “Against all the ships of Tarshish, and against all the beautiful craft. And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled, and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low.”
Isaiah 23:14, “Wail, O ships of Tarshish, for your stronghold is laid waste.”
Jonah fled from God in what? A ship of Tarshish. And so, it’s very interesting that only here, verse 9, ships of Tarshish are mentioned not under condemnation, but actually redemption. They are pictured as clouds floating and doves flying (verse 8). They become vehicles of transporting God’s children from afar, not away from the presence of God like Jonah, but into. Even commerce is redeemed here.
Second image, the milk of nations (verses 15-16). And here we see two sets of three. “Whereas you have been” (verse 15) forsaken, hated, abandoned “with no one passing through,” I will make you [second set of 3] majestic forever.”
Now, we need to pause there, because that word “majestic” is very interesting. It is the word “arrogancy.”
Proverbs 8:13, “God hates [this word] arrogancy.”
Proverbs 16:18, “[Arrogancy] Pride goes before destruction.”
In the beginning of Isaiah, the nations are judged for their “arrogancy.” Isaiah 13:11, 14:11, 16:6, God is saying, “I will stomp your pomp.” That’s the word, pomp. And God is going to crush it.
But here, God is transforming arrogancy into excellency. God — and this is just mind-blowing — God even redeems pride. Through the cross, God takes pride down into the grave, kills it, and raises it up into a forever excellency. You talk about redemptive power. If God can do that to your pride and my pride, he can do anything! He even redeems arrogancy. “I will make you majestic forever.”
Secondly, I will make you (verse 15) a source of rejoicing, “a joy from age to age.” Do you ever feel like you’re unnecessary, a bother? Whether you’re in the room or not in the room, it really doesn’t matter. His promise is targeted toward the one who feels neglected, abused, mistreated, ignored, irrelevant. I will make you a joy from age to age.
Third, I will make you find nourishment in unlikely places. Isaiah 60:16.
“You shall suck the milk of nations; you shall nurse at the breast of kings; and you shall know that I, the Lord, am your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.” The unrivaled one of Jacob.
This is an extremely uncomfortable image with an unimaginable message. Rulers, kings, presidents, governments are generally known more for the harm they bring than the help they provide. They tax heavily, they pervert justice, they crush opponents, they take advantage of the most vulnerable. They do what God warned that they would do in 1 Samuel 8. Six times he says they will what? Take, take, take, take, take, take.
But here, what are they doing? The Mighty One of Jacob will redeem politics and politicians so that they will no longer suck the life out of their people, but actually bring life to those under their care. The most vulnerable are nourished by the most powerful. Greedy politicians are pictured here as selfless mothers, feeding and caring for others.
Third image, the overseers and taskmasters. Verse 17, second half. “I will make your overseers peace and your taskmasters righteousness.” Your governor will be shalom. Who’d you vote for? Shalom, peace. And that word for peace, as many of you know, is not just an inner tranquility, but it is a comprehensive wholeness. Things are as they are supposed to be. That’s your governor. That’s your president, is peace. Your taskmasters, righteousness. What is God doing here? What is he saying to us? He’s saying, I am going to redeem politics.
Number 4, God is restoring. In the end, verse 20.
“Your sun shall no more go down, nor your moon withdraw itself; for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of mourning shall be ended. Your people shall be all be righteous; they shall possess the land forever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands [God is saying, I’m very hands on], that I might be glorified.”
It could be translated, “That I might display my beauty.” Verse 22,
“The least one shall become a clan, and the smallest one a mighty nation [God is applying the gospel ultimately to politics.]; I am the Lord; in its time I will hasten it.”
He will restore all things in this garden city, this new and improved Eden that God with his own hands plants through his Son, Jesus. So, in light of the fact that God is recreating, revealing, redeeming, restoring, what does that mean for us today? Is that just a “pie-in-the-sky” talk of a vision? I think it has huge implications as to how we think about politics today.
Four things that flow from those four. Number 1, therefore, politics are beautiful. You’re going to have to use your imagination here. Now, obviously, when I say politics are beautiful, I’m talking about politics in an ultimate sense, not the partisanship we generally think about. But when we look at the world through the eyes of its Creator, we see everything differently. And Jesus is teaching us to do that.
We’re going to see, at the end of August, we’re going to come to a section in Mark where Jesus held up a coin and asked whose inscription, whose likeness, is this? And they answered what? Caesar. And then Jesus said, Mark 12:17,
“‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they marveled at him.”
A little shock and awe there. Why? Well, the coin in the hand is Caesar’s, but the hand on the coin is God’s. Jesus was saying, “Yes, that coin was made in the image of Caesar. But your hand, you, were made in the image of God.” And you will never understand politics until you put it in its place. You were made to glorify, to bear the image of your Maker. Put politics back in its place. It’s a coin with an image of Cesar. You are God’s. You bear the image of your Maker. You were made for God, not Caesar. God is ultimate, not Cesar. And we experience the beauty of politics, not when we try to make it into something it was not intended to be, but when we simply use it as it was designed by God. And when we do that, even politics can be beautiful.
Second, politics are terrible. Sorry, we’re not home yet. The brightness of Isaiah 60:1 is contrasted by the darkness of Isaiah 60:2. As he said in 59:14, “Truth has stumbled in the public squares.” Alexander Hamilton wrote in “The Federalist,”
“Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason without constraint.”
It’s a nice way of saying people will kill, rape, steal from one another if there isn’t any authority over them. And so, James Madison, though, also wrote in “The Federalist,”
“A statesman must first enable government to control the governed [that is so they don’t kill each other]; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.”
There’s the rub. The same passions in those who are governed exist in those who govern. And so, how do you bridle both? It feels a tad circular. And this is the tension our country’s fathers wrestled with and set up separation of powers, which can help but does not get to the heart of the problem. We tend to idolize our freedom and canonize our politicians. And this darkness, as Isaiah is describing, can only be understood with the language of idolatry. As Joe Rigney writes,
“The heart of idolatry, then, is that we receive creation not as a gift, but as a god. We set the Creator in his creation in the scale of values and worship the gifts over the giver. Creation, rather than being a means of enjoying the Creator, becomes his rival. We become fixated and entranced on God’s good gifts, seeking in them something we will never be able to find. Sex, food, approval, wealth, family, friends, job, nature, government — all these become God’s rivals. The potency and pleasure present in the world, cut off from its vibrant connection to the triune origin, [In other words, from God, for God] becomes God’s enemy and our death. Its power and capacity to delight us remains, but it now leads us down the wide road to destruction.”
Kaitlyn Schiess writes,
“Political participation has a unique ability to inspire idolatry in people precisely because it so often involves promises of protection and provision, requires sacrifices, legitimizes authority, and inspires submission and worship.”
So, we who were designed to exercise dominion, twist it, turn it, invert it, and politics becomes the idolatrous manifestation of that exercise of dominion. Politics are beautiful. Politics can become terrible.
Number 3, politics are changeable. And this is one of the primary messages of Isaiah 60 that must capture our imagination. Here, God is redeeming things that many of us don’t think can be redeemed — the wealth of nations, the ships of Tarshish, the milk of kings, governors, taskmasters — all redeemed through the Mighty One of Jacob, the Redeemer. Jesus will transform them one day. Revelation 21 pictures business, politicians streaming into this new heavens and new earth, transformed.
So, how does this shape the way we think about and do politics today in this time of now but not yet? Let me just suggest a couple ways. We’ll see many more as we work through the series.
First of all, a relationship with politics must be multi-faceted. It must be multi-faceted. At times we’re resisting, at times we’re embracing. You see that in the New Testament, right? At times Paul is claiming his Roman citizenship and using it. At times he’s pushing against the rulers and denouncing them. At times we’re called to pray and honor government officials. And other times we’re saying, “We can only obey God, not man.” As believers, we have to recognize in the now but not yet, we have a multi-faceted relationship with government. We at times will embrace, at times will confront.
Also, our relationship must be reasonable. Meaning, we’re not manic nor cynic. Do you know what I mean by manic? We don’t have this exaggerated optimism that, “Hey, this election will change our country forever!” Are you not tired of hearing people say, “This is the election of the century”? For those of us who’ve been living for a while, we’ve been hearing that for a long time. What’s happening there? It’s this manic view of politics, this idolatrous assumption that if we could just get this, this is key. We’ve got it! But then it’s really easy to swing over to the other side, right? And become cynic. What’s the use? I can’t make a difference. Nothing’s ever going to change, so what does it matter?
Having this vision of God’s view of politics wipes out both manic and cynic and gives us a reasonable God-driven vision of politics. Our eyes become trained. We begin to see bits of Isaiah 60 working their way out in a political campaign, on a social media post, in the board room, in the planning, in conversations around the water cooler. Shafts of light shining through a cracked wall characterized by darkness, but you can see the light. You can see the words of kindness. You can see the reasonableness. You can see the vision of confidence in something way beyond ourselves that allows us to respond differently and shapes the way we do and think.
And I’m not talking about some kind of post-millennial, we’re just going to work our way into the kingdom, bring it ourselves. That’s not it. Jesus is doing this, as is made clear in Isaiah 60. And he starts in us as we daily pray. This is what we’re praying when we say, “Let your kingdom come.” This is what we’re praying for. Do it in me, Lord. Do it in us. As Colossians 1:19,
“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things [even ships of Tarshish], whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
And finally, politics, therefore, are beautiful, terrible, changeable, hopeful. Hopeful. On November 9, 1938, Adolf Hitler intensified his persecution of the Jews in what is known as “Kristallnacht,” night of the broken glass. Jewish homes were burned, businesses destroyed, synagogues vandalized. And about 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, over time, had become convinced that to oppose the Jews was to oppose God. In a letter shortly after Kristallnacht, he described the Jewish people as “the apple of God’s eye,” the means through which the spiritual riches have been and will be poured out into the world through Christ. And he knew Christ must be proclaimed to the Jewish people, but he had a big vision of what God had done, was doing, and would do.
And so in light of that, he became frustrated with the confessing church, that is the Protestant church leaders of Germany, because every time something new happened, a new crisis … because the anti-Semitism of the Nazis did not all start at once; it built and became more and more obvious. And as it became more obvious, the confessing church kept wanting to change what they were going to do and how they responded. And that frustrated Bonhoeffer, so he wrote a letter, an advent letter in 1938. Part of it says this:
“It is particularly noticeable that such a ‘responsible reappraisal’ [that is reappraising what should we do] always begins the moment serious difficulties appear. We then speak as though we no longer had ‘a proper joy and certainty’ about this way, or, still worse, as though God and his Word were no longer as clearly present with us as they used to be. In all this, we are ultimately trying to get round what the New Testament calls, ‘patience’ and ‘testing.’ Paul, at any rate, did not begin to reflect whether his way was the right one when opposition and suffering threatened, nor did Luther. They were both quite certain and glad that they should remain disciples and followers of their Lord. Dear brethren, our real trouble is not doubt about the way upon which we have set out, but our failure to be patient …. We still cannot imagine that today God really doesn’t want anything new for us, but simply to prove us in the old way. That is too petty, too monotonous, too undemanding for us. And we simply cannot be constant with the fact that God’s cause is not always the successful one, that we really could be ‘unsuccessful’; and yet be on the right road.”
Just stop there for a moment and take that in. Do you hear what he’s saying? You know, everybody is thinking. “Oh, you don’t want to end up at the wrong side of history. What if we need to work our way in and work with the Nazis?” No. Can you conceive of the fact that you might have a right position, and it might end up unsuccessful, but you might be on the right road?
“But this is where we find out whether we have begun in faith or in a burst of enthusiasm.”
You will never say this if you don’t have a vision — God’s vision. You will be tossed all around by the latest news report, the latest panic. What should we do now? What should we do now? What do you think? How should we posture ourselves? How do we fit our way in so that we can find a way to be on the right side? What Bonhoeffer is saying is, maybe there are times where you’re on the right road. It appears unsuccessful, but God is not through.
And, you know, he backed that up with his life. He was executed for opposing Hitler. Many of his family members were killed. But as we look back on what they did, we look back, and we say, anything you could do to oppose what happened was the right thing. That vision — that God has poured out riches through Israel and is spreading them out through Gentiles, will culminate them in this new heavens and new earth — is not just an empty dream. It shapes the way we think and react today to what is happening here and now.
Let’s pray. Jesus, you promised that in the world we would have tribulation. You promised that there would be times when we would think: What are we doing? We are on the wrong side of this one. Just as you, Jesus, appeared to be on the wrong side when you were humiliated and nailed to a cross. But the story doesn’t end there. And our story doesn’t either. So, Mighty One of Jacob, Redeemer, Redeemer of even politics, do that work in us, we pray. Give us a big vision. Lift our eyes up so that as we walk through this series, we can interpret what is happening in our country through the lens of the gospel — creation, fall, redemption, restoration. God, you are up to good things. We don’t want to just start with a burst of enthusiasm. We start with our eyes fixed on you. Enable us to continue, we pray, in Jesus’ name, amen.