Remember these things, O Jacob,
and Israel, for you are my servant;
I formed you; you are my servant;
O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.
I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud
and your sins like mist;
return to me, for I have redeemed you.
Sing, O heavens, for the LORD has done it;
shout, O depths of the earth;
break forth into singing, O mountains,
O forest, and every tree in it!
For the LORD has redeemed Jacob,
and will be glorified in Israel.
(Isaiah 44:21-23 ESV)
Throughout his prophecy, Isaiah keeps calling the people of God by the twin names Jacob (“he supplants” or “he takes what belongs to another”) and Israel (“contender” or “God prevails”). Sometimes he tells them outright not to be afraid. Other times, like this, he seeks to allay their fears by reminding them of great truths about their relationship with God.
Yesterday the Lectionary had us at the beginning of Isaiah 49. There we saw that we are Called from Birth to be servants. It is in our DNA. When he begins the passage here in Isaiah 44 he says, “Remember these things.” What things? If you look back to the paragraph just before this, God has just spent a considerable amount of time explaining to Israel that He (God) is not an idol carved with hands or molded out of bronze. He is a living God.
It is easy today to look at the household gods of the Hindi, for example, or even little figures of ancient gods that you can buy in tourist stores in Turkey, and say, “That’s just a figurine. There’s no deity behind that!” But the peoples who lived in Old Testament times didn’t have that perspective. In the 700s BC the gods of Greece and Rome were considered by many to have real power. Remember the climax of the riot at Ephesus? Remember the cry of the people, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:28)
For a god to have a discussion with a man is not unheard of. Many of the Roman myths include conversations between the gods and heroic human figures. But for a God to claim that a man or a people are the primary concern of his heart is quite a different thing. “You will not be forgotten by me” is a unique statement. The gods were to be feared only. A god who offered tender compassion and love? That’s news.
God also reminds Israel that He (God) “formed” them. This is a bit of a play on words, considering in the previous paragraph he was talking about how men form gods out of wood and bronze. Not so, says God. I formed YOU.
It also seems obvious that the sins God says he has blotted out like a mist are chiefly Israel’s repeated history of aligning themselves with foreign gods for political reasons. That is why God calls them back: “return to me, for I have redeemed you.”
In his wonderfully accessible book, The Applause of Heaven (2002), author Max Lucado explores the Beatitudes in very personal terms, offering those who believe pathways to joy through the blessing of God. John 15:7 says, “there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” However you look at it, whether one person returns to the Lord or whether the entire nation does, it occasions great joy in Heaven. And God is quick to remind us that we wouldn’t choose to return to him even if we wanted to. All the action begins and ends with him: “Sing, O heavens, for the LORD has done it.” All the excitement in heaven is over him. “For the LORD has redeemed Jacob, and will be glorified in Israel.”
Our son and daughter-in-law just had their first child on December 18, and good friends of ours had their third baby last night. Upon hearing that news one of the things people often say is, “Good work!” Or, “You guys make beautiful babies!” Something like that. But all the work is the Lord’s! No matter what has happened in your life, all the glory goes to God.
You are a servant, and God has given you marching orders: go out and call Jacob/Israel back to the Lord. If you are a Christian today, that means he wants you to speak prophetically to those who once were part of the church and have “fallen away.” Do that. But recognize that when they come back it will never be because of your persuasive argument or your preaching ability. The Lord will redeem his people, and all of his servants will clap their hands and join in the applause.