What would the great prophet Isaiah say about the times we live in today? He was a much respected preacher at the Temple in Jerusalem in the 8th century BC. He had the ear of government and of king Hezekiah. His call as a prophet about 742 BC coincided with the beginnings of the westward expansion of the Assyrian empire, which threatened Israel and which Isaiah proclaimed to be a warning from God to a godless people. Where might Isaiah be based today? Where would his influence be strongest? Where would he get a hearing of the head of state? Edinburgh? I don’t think so. London? No. Paris? Unlikely? Rome? Not. Geneva? Possibly? Washington? Perhaps. Maybe as Chaplain to the United States Senate such as was Peter Marshall, a Scot (1902 – 49) from Coatbridge who had emigrated. In 1937, he became pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. In 1946 he was appointed as US Senate Chaplain, serving from January 4, 1947 until his sudden death of a heart attack just over two years later, at age 46.
Isaiah might cast a broad view over the western world and he might be very critical of what his eyes see. In chapter 5 Isaiah likens the People of God to a vineyard much loved and tended and cared for by its owner. The soil was rich; he cleared away the stones and boulders; he planted only the best vines; he added a watch tower and a wine press; he waited for the harvest. When it came, the grapes were bad, too bad to be used. The wolfsbane, or wild vine (2 Kings 4:39), does bear beautiful berries, but they are bitter, foul-smelling and poisonous in nature.
Might God say today through Isaiah ‘I have given my people of the western world everything. My Son Jesus Christ to be their light and life; His Church to be their community and succour; its sacraments to be their saving grace; ministers and pastors as their leaders and teachers; devout and prayerful seeking Christians throughout the centuries; learning and discoveries; wisdom and knowledge; understanding of the universe; science and technology; medicine and healing; prosperity and wealth.
And what have they become with these gifts? They are now almost Godless. They have forgotten God, abandoned Jesus Christ, ignore the Scriptures; they neglect worship; turn to false idols, principally themselves; they love money and fame irrespective of merit; they are deceitful and dishonest; they are certainly immoral and advocate and encourage this in their children; they are angry and disputatious; they are rebellious and ungovernable; their leaders are poor in character and lacking in good values; many people are addicted to pleasure, entertainment, alcohol and drugs; they suffer much in mind and body; they are weak and self-indulgent; they die without hope.
The Churches have lost their way; leaders are afraid to speak out; any who attend churches seek comfort rather than truth, they long for rest rather than struggle. They are ashamed of Jesus Christ and welcome other pseudo-saviours. What has happened as consequence? Closed churches, shrunken congregations, new generations without the knowledge of Faith, worship of other gods and idols, human, collective, national. Noise and chatter, empty conversation, fanciful philosophies, alternative lifestyles. Life on line. Substitute relationships, made up images, false projections, a bitter harvest of loneliness.
Charles Spurgeon (1834 - 1892), the great 19th century Baptist minister wrote, “I have been thinking of the advantages of my own position towards the Lord, and lamenting with great shamefaced that I am not bringing forth such fruit to him as my position demands. Considering our privileges, advantages, and opportunities, I fear that many of us have need to feel great searchings of the heart.” Look at the Church of Scotland. How many gifted ministers does it have? How many gifted leaders? How many skilled and able members? Enough to revive the world – if dedicated to Jesus Christ and filled and empowered by the Holy Spirit. What do we see? Corporate management, concentration on property and finance, use of algorithms to decide which churches to close and which to keep open. Strategy built on trust in self and unredeemed human arrogance.
The state of the western world is an affront to our Maker and Creator. Isaiah puts words into God’s mouth. ‘What more could have been done to my vineyard’. There was nothing left undone by the owner of the vineyard. He did all he could do. In the same way, God cannot be blamed at all for the wild grapes Israel produced. God did all He could do, apart from making people robots, acting apart from or against their wills. The fault lies with humans, not God. One commentator wrote, “It will be seen then…that every soul of every human had the chance of becoming a fruitful vineyard; and if it became the reverse, it was due to no failure in either the wisdom or grace of God”. God may do a work in His people, but His people may receive that work in vain. Jesus healed ten lepers. One (a Samaritan) came back to say ‘Thank you’ (Luke 17 : 12 - 19). Paul warned, ‘we then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain’. (2 Corinthians 6:1) Most preachers seem to preach in vain. People do not change. The kingdom does not seem to come. Evangelism is a real struggle with limited success. The entire political and social, cultural and educational ethos of the land is against Christianity.
A Christian Isaiah might recall the 500 centuries of Christian expansion from Europe to other continents. He might consider the merits and demerits of the British Empire and its 300 years of dominance. He would evaluate the world influence of America in the last 100 years. He would compare it favourably to those of Russia, Germany and China. He might conclude that much good has been accomplished in the defeats of tyrannies but that all is now under threat from internal decay. A Christian Isaiah would certainly highlight the distinction between rich and poor in the world generally and within the rich countries of northern Europe and north America specifically. Perhaps being a prophet he would foresee the future. Would it be declension and destruction? Would Russia invade Europe, fire off missiles and reduce its cities to rubble as they have done in Ukraine. Would Russia provoke a nuclear war? In his own time Isaiah prophesied ‘And now, please let me tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it shall be burned; And break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will lay it waste; It shall not be pruned or dug, But there shall come up briers and thorns. I will also command the clouds That they rain no rain on it.’ (5 : 5 - 6)
The prophets of the Old Testament were not all that successful in their exhortations to repentance, not even with promises of redemption. Indeed they suffered much for their messaging. Jeremiah was terribly abused. Micah was murdered. Jesus Himself pointed out to some of his adversaries. ‘Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.’ (Luke 11 : 50 - 51) The history of Israel after the time of Isaiah was troubled. The land and people were successively conquered by Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Seleucids and Romans. Jerusalem was flattened in 70AD. Islam took Jerusalem over for centuries.
Extraordinarily it was not until 1948 that the People of God re-established their nationhood on their ancient promised land. It is in our lifetime that they have prospered and that the words of the prophet Isaiah have been fulfilled. ‘The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendour of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendour of our God...Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow’. (Isaiah 35 : 1 – 2 and 6b – 7) Israeli genius has fulfilled this by means of sea water desalination and drip feed irrigation. You can see it with your own eyes.
A Christian Isaiah would criticise the free for all lifestyles of so many westerners and the moral lawlessness of its contemporary ethos. He would contrast this way of life with the 10 Commandments and with the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. He would recall people to the Living God, to the Risen Jesus and to the Holy Spirit. Could he change the body politic? Would presidents and governments listen? Could laws be repealed as in Roe V Wade in America? It appears that this could happen there. But could it happen here in liberal Europe where Christian influence is so weak? Would people vote for Christian values to be reinstated in schools? Could a Christian Isaiah initiate a great revival of Christianity in the western world? In the Christian dispensation, the New Covenant, the power of the Holy Spirit is made available. Denunciation of society is replaced by the positive message of salvation, friendship with God and fellowship with the Risen Jesus Christ with access to His powers of resurrection and eternal governance. In the New Testament this was always set against the impending end of the present times. Lately there is little such urgency abroad in the western world. There are pockets of enthusiasm for Jesus’ Second Coming. Pentecostal Christianity is growing throughout the world, especially in Africa, South Korea and Brazil. These are not ‘western’ countries. There is residual practising Christianity throughout Europe and America still. Great good works and large scale humanitarian activity pour forth to the poorest and most suffering of the world in the name of Jesus Christ or by agencies motivated indirectly by Him. ‘He looked for justice, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold, a cry for help.’ (5 : 7) Maybe not entirely.
Isaiah criticised the capitalism of the day. People buying up more and more buy-to-let properties. He regarded the practice as self-defeating. When the Assyrians come, he says, these places will be destroyed. (Like the Russian destruction of Ukrainian homes.) He criticised the overuse of alcohol, of partying and carousing. Instead of morning prayers, people were getting drunk. In Scotland men and women gather in pubs before lunchtime to drink. In Las Vegas men and women gather at gaming machines in the early morning and stay there the whole day. That is their only purpose. The Glastonbury pop festival has just passed after an absence due to Coronavirus. The music and dancing attracted many and some of their activities were broadcast worldwide. At the other end of Europe the noise is that of missiles and bombs exploding. There is no dancing. Isaiah warned those who party endlessly and celebrate everything but God. ‘But they do not regard the work of the Lord, nor consider the operation of His hands. Therefore my people have gone into captivity.’ (5 : 12 - 13)
Isaiah had his mockers. “Let God hurry; let him hasten his work so we may see it. The plan of the Holy One of Israel—let it approach, let it come into view, so we may know it.” (v19) This was the cynical response of Isaiah’s contemporaries to his dire warnings. ‘Bring it on’. He would take on the new atheists in debate today. John Lennox does that for us. ‘Socrates defined an educated person to be someone who was aware of his own ignorance. The New Atheists show no awareness that their atheism, far from arising out of open inquiry, is the rigidly dogmatic premise from which their inquiries proceed, that colours all their observation, and determines their conclusions.’ (Gunning for God, p 87) He does not get on the 6 00pm news! Westerners have the luxury of debate in a secure environment. Isaiah and his opposition were not so fortunate; they were in existential crisis. For them it was not just words and argument. Maybe a Christian Isaiah would point that out. He cared – the mockers did not.
There is a recklessness about living just for pleasure, without thought of consequences. Legalisation of homosexuality led in time to AIDS. Today there is monkey pox. But the practice is more prevalent than in previous generations. It is a kind of collective death wish - but it takes the good down with it. Likewise we live in a society in which traditional roles of male and female are being abolished. What was once thought harmful is now exalted and highlighted in films, on television, in drama and in the printed and electronic media. 50 years of Pride! Isaiah would be counter-cultural and politically incorrect ‘Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight’ (v20 – 21). As was St Paul in his day. ‘For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.’ (Romans 1 : 21 - 27) Both men would be sent to jail in Britain today.
Judicial corruption was rife in Isaiah’s time. He criticised those ‘Who justify the wicked for a bribe, And take away justice from the righteous man!’ (v23) This conduct was against the Law of Moses. “And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right” (Ex. 23:8). Again: “You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous” (Deut. 16:19). King David praised the man who refuses to take reward against the innocent (Psa. 15:5) and condemned as “wickedness” the reception of bribes. (Psa 26 : 10). Proverbs 17 : 23 reads “The wicked accepts a bribe in secret to pervert the ways of justice.” The rule of law is central to secure civilised society. Our legal systems are modelled on the Old and New Testaments and informed by Roman practice. Central to the integrity of law was the knowledge of the judgement of God. Without God, legal systems succumb to corruption. Russia is a clear example of political power actively influencing its courts. China behaves likewise. Judges give sentences according to what the government wants as it has done and is doing in Hong Kong. Independent judiciary is a great luxury resulting from the altruism of the teaching in the Bible. Societies, nations and empires fall into decay due to judicial corruption.
Britain has always had its financial scandals. Tony Blair’s government ordered the cessation of bribery inquiries into armaments sales to Saudi Arabia in 2007. It was reported that ‘Tony Blair's government broke the law when it abandoned a fraud investigation into a multibillion-pound arms deal between BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia, the High Court ruled yesterday. Two senior judges condemned the Government's "abject" surrender to a "blatant" threat when the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) halted its inquiry into allegations that BAE had made secret payments to Saudi officials in order to secure a series of massive contracts. BAE has always denied any wrongdoing.’ In 2020 the aircraft manufacturing business Airbus paid $4 billion to France, Britain and America to resolve foreign bribery scandals. During the pandemic in 2020/21 corruption took centre stage and its toll on the public was also more clear-cut than ever. UK hospitals were unable to access high quality or reasonably priced personal protective equipment (PPE) for their staff and patients, planning decisions being based on who you know rather than in the public interest. Friends and families of politicians made fortunes. There is endless scope for prophetic exposure of bribery in western nations and much more so in totalitarian states worldwide.
Isaiah declared God’s coming judgement. It was uncompromising and it did not have the salvation and redemption offer of Christianity. ‘Therefore, as the fire devours the stubble, And the flame consumes the chaff, So their root will be as rottenness, And their blossom will ascend like dust; Because they have rejected the law of the LORD of hosts, And despised the word of the Holy One of Israel. Therefore the anger of the LORD is aroused against His people; He has stretched out His hand against them And stricken them, And the hills trembled. Their carcasses were as refuse in the midst of the streets. For all this His anger is not turned away, But His hand is stretched out still.’ (5 : 24 – 25) Isaiah 5 concludes dramatically. ‘Behold, darkness and sorrow; and the light is darkened by the clouds.’ (v30) These words were harsh but merciful and intended to prevent total and eternal destruction. Did the people listen? During Isaiah’s lifetime Jerusalem was spared in 701 BC when the Assyrian King Sennacherib of Assyria laid siege to the city but due to an outbreak of plague among his soldiers suddenly broke camp and retreated. (2 Kings 19 : 35 – 36; Isa 37 : 33 – 35). In 597 BC Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II and many of its inhabitants were transported to exile. ‘How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy. (Psalm 137 : 4 – 6)
Isaiah would surely draw attention to and express concern about the Islamification of Europe. Islam does not accept that Jesus was the Incarnate Son of God. Islam does not accept that Jesus died for the sins of humanity on Calvary. Islam rejects the Gospel of forgiveness through His resurrection life. Islam has no equivalent to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and thereafter. Islam replaces Jesus with Mohammad and regresses from love and grace to laws and duties and uncertainty about what happens after death. It seeks to make the world into one ‘House of Islam’ through violence such as Muslims are perpetrating throughout the continent of Africa at the present time. For the articulation of such observations a Christian Isaiah would be charged with hate crime.
So – would a Christian Isaiah today prophesy the destruction of western Europe and of America? He would point out the connection between internal corruption and eventual oblivion. There have been 22 empires in world history. All have declined to inconsequence. The British Empire has had its day. America’s empire is already in retrenchment. Vladimir Putin wants to replace these with a new Russian Empire. China is determined to rule the world within the next 30 Years. Europe and America are nearly de-Christianised. Democracies require Christianity to maintain the balance between freedom and governmental authority. Respect for law and good neighbourliness are essential. But recalling people to Jesus Christ is regarded as a hate crime in the politics of today. Isaiah 30 : 10 – 11 reads ‘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, prophesy illusions. Leave this way, get off this path, and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!”
A Christian Isaiah would receive the same response today in the midst of impending national and international danger to the offer of salvation and of eternal life in Jesus Christ.