Sermon on the Mount, The Emmaus View

Emmaus View,

A new creation. (Version 1.4)

The new creation

A pretty peculiar priest

Isaiah presents the events of his age as a series of cataclysmic floods, spilling over from the Euphrates basin. These were part of a process and Isaiah’s images of devastation are intersperses with those of a glorious outcome. As with the flood in the times of Noah, God would intervene, bringing about a new creation in a new Eden. Of all Isaiah’s writings, those immediately preceding the culmination of the process (Isa 32:1-35:10) give the clearest picture of what it involved and provide a roadmap for interpreting the transition that Hezekiah and his people faced. Isaiah watched the process at work as Assyrian carried Ephraim into exile and decimated Judah. Then, with Judah lacking the strength to birth the child it bore, God intervened to do a new thing, a new creation that restored Eden.

Several monarchs later, a similar process would recur as a series of Babylonian ‘floods’ swept Judah into exile. Left to start again, like unclean animals in a wilderness, God intervened in the same way. Twice the survival of Israel had seemed impossible and twice they had survived as new creations in the wilderness. As John the Baptist began his ministry, the shedding of innocent blood meant the land was unclean and therefore its people were like those returning from the Babylonian exile. The stage was set for another creative act of God and the restoration of a way in the wilderness (Matt 3:3, Isa 40:3).

Isaiah 32-35, a pattern for restoration

Flood imagery comes to the fore when Isaiah prophesied concerning Immanuel (Isa 7:10-8:18) and then again in his Noahic allusions to a divine banquet and the vineyard of a new Eden (Isa 24:1-27:13). Both hint at the significance of deluge like processes and the latter in particular suggests that, as with Noah’s flood, the restoration of an Eden would result from a sovereign creative act of God. In Isaiah 32:1-35:10, the prophet unpacks in grater detail what that would entail. In doing so he establishes a template that provides context to the ministry of first John the Baptist and later Jesus.

Isaiah’s prophetic picture of the new creation starts with an introduction (Isaiah 32:1-20), the cities and palaces of Judah are forsaken and left to thorns and flocks ‘forever’, i.e. until the end of their age when God intervenes to create a new age (see Appendix M). The devastation is a prelude to the restoration of righteous authority, as an outpouring of the Spirit then leaves justice dwelling in the wilderness with the result that it becomes a fertile field (Isa 32:13-16). The three chapters that follow expand upon this vision of a catastrophic judgement and the creation of a new Eden.

Isaiah 33-34, going back to the beginning

In Chapter 33 (Isa 33:1-24), Isaiah anticipates restoration of an apostate Judah, from which treacherous destroyers have not been eliminated and people no longer travel on the way, the messengers of peace weep and Eden-like land decays to the sort of desert place anticipated in Chapter 32. He declares that it is time for the Lord to act against Zion, that fire will purge her and only those who long for righteousness will survive. Even Lebanon, Carmel and Sharon will wither. The trees of Lebanon were thought to rival those of Eden (Ezek 31:16), the slopes of Carmel were famed in antiquity as a beautiful “garden with fruit trees,” (cf. Song 7:5)1 and the Plain of Sharon was clothed in verdant forests2, yet all perish. They have conceived only useless chaff and given birth to only worthless stubble. Nevertheless, God will ensure Jerusalem remains a place from which flows blessing. Chapter 34 adds further graphic detail to this predicted purge (Isa 34:1-14). A terrifying judgement upon the peoples would see Israel’s wise teachers (the stars) become corrupt and disappear (rot away), the sanctuary from which they dispense their knowledge (the sky) vanish (rolled up like a scroll that is finished with) and the people die like withering vine leaves. God judges the descendants of Isaac as a sword falls upon Edom and Zion experiences recompense for her controversies3. Evoking the fate of Sodom, streams turn to pitch, reducing the land to a wilderness, void of human authority and inhabited only by unclean animals4. As God stretches a line of formlessness (tohuw) across this polluted land and conforms it to a plumb line of emptiness (bohuw), it becomes once again like the formless (tohuw) void (bohuw) of Genesis (Isa 34:11, Gen 1:2), an ‘uncreated’ land beneath a starless firmament.

Isaiah 34-35, creating Eden amidst the emptiness

Amidst the prophetic picture of desolation, the Spirit begins to move over the emptiness (cf. Gen 1:2). As it draws the unclean inhabitants together in that wilderness, they begin to fulfil the basic purposes for them that God declares in the scroll (i.e. Gen 1:20-25) and multiply after their kind. As they seek to obey what they can, God renders judgement, casting the lot so that none will be without their mate5. Once again, it is as in the original Eden, where God called the animals together so that Adam could name them and rule over them. Then, finding no suitable mate for Adam, God ‘cast the lot’ for him, rendering the judgement that he should have a mate with whom to multiply after his kind, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh (Gen 2:23)6.

Chapter 35 depicts the outcome. The wilderness blossoms (a prelude to abundant fruitfulness) and the Glory of God is revealed. Lebanon, Carmel and Sharon wasted away (Isa 33:9), however the wilderness comes to resemble their former glory (Isa 35:2). As the unclean animals acknowledge the authority of God, this desert becomes an Eden-like fruitful wooded garden, wherein God’s Glory dwells. Streams break forth from this land as they once had from Eden (Isa 35:6, cf. Gen 2:10-14), spreading its blessing abroad. Amidst all this, a ‘way’ appears by which the ransomed of the Lord can return (Isa 35:8). This is the way called for in Isaiah 40 (Isa 40:3) and thus the way that John the Baptist was establishing.

In Isaiah’s prophecy, just as in the beginning, the Spirit hovers over the chaos, God renders judgement and an Eden comes into existence. Isaiah summarises the process (Isa 42:14-17) and ties it into his earlier predictions. The birth of a remnant sees God laying waste hills and withering vegetation, then God leads people by an unfamiliar way, levelling the rugged and once again, in effect, declaring “Let there be light” amidst the darkness. Isaiah makes the connection between this process and re-establishing an Eden even more explicit in chapter 51, when he declares “For the Lord will comfort Zion, He will comfort all her waste places; He will make her wilderness like Eden, And her desert like the garden of the Lord” (Isa 51:3a, NKJV).

Reading the scroll and casting the lot

Reading from the scroll and casting the lot played a pivotal role in the transformation envisaged by Isaiah (Isa 34:16-17), for teaching and judicial functions that reveal the will of God are of strategic importance in the genesis of any godly remnant. As Deuteronomy assigns both roles to priests (Deut 17:9-11, 21:5, 33:10), they are particularly evident during the infancy of revival movements (cf. Mal 2:7, Lev 10:9-11), their repository of sacred knowledge functioning as a sort of spiritual DNA to steer a remnant’s Spirit-empowered embryonic development.

The revival of Asa’s reign7 drew many from the estranged tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh and Simeon back to Jerusalem. However, there had been no teaching priest or law for many years and so, when Jehoshaphat decided to continue in his father Asa’s reviving footsteps, he sent priests and Levites throughout the country to teach from the book of the Law (2 Chr 17:5-11). Similarly, Josiah’s reviving reforms saw Levites used as teachers (2 Chr 35:1-3), whilst the King of Assyria recruited a teaching priest to assist in the resettlement of Samaria (2 Kgs 17:27). However, perhaps the clearest example of God using a teaching priest under such circumstances came during the re-establishment of Judah following the Exile. There we find Ezra sent by the Persian king Artaxerxes to appoint a judiciary and to teach the law (Ezra 7:10-11, 25).

Times of new beginnings also saw Israel casting the lot before God to assign roles and property, as when tribes were assigned to occupy lands or Levites were allocated jobs (Leviticus 16:8, Numbers 36:2, Joshua 18:10, 1 Samuel 10:20, Levites in 1 Chron 24:31). The casting was usually the responsibility of an anointed leader, thus Joshua and David both cast lots and some suggest that the High Priest used the Urim and Thummim in a similar manner8. Whether through such an anointed agent, or directly, the lot casting associated with Isaiah 34’s new beginning fell to God, ensuring that the animals fulfilled godly purposes, rather than anything the corrupt wisdom of men might have imposed.

Overcoming death

When Isaiah delivered his prophecy (Isa 32:1-35:10), Hezekiah and his nation faced death, but, amidst the residue of Assyria’s devastation, God was about to declare the time of new creation that saved them, humbling Sennacherib’s pride and unexpectedly extending Hezekiah’s reign. Thus, the account of Hezekiah’s illness as reported in Isaiah 38:1-3 and the sign of the sun’s movement on the steps of Ahaz (38:7-8), demands to be read as a figurative re-enactment of the process that led to Hezekiah’s change of fortune. The process of national collapse had been set on course by Ahaz’ steps, then proceeded until Sennacherib became a fatal boil. Yet, when Hezekiah humbled himself, God promised to reverse the inexorable descent of the shadow of Assyrian domination, winding back the clock to an earlier, godlier, state. The Assyrian’s arrogance, as with Adam’s (Gen 3:7), necessitate applying the produce of the fig.

Hezekiah’s humbling saw his circumstances changing for the better (2 Chr 32:20-26). His miraculous deliverance, together with the implied promise of 15 years free from Assyrian conquest, brought him regional fame and renewed wealth. However, his subsequent vanity before a delegation from Babylon (Isa 39:1-8) leaves Isaiah lamenting where this behaviour would lead. After Hezekiah’s death, Judah would see another flood from Mesopotamia. The Babylonians would sweep into Palestine, reducing both Judah and Edom to wastelands (cf. Jer 49:17-18).

Jeremiah’s devastated Judah

When Jeremiah reflected upon the devastation caused by Babylonian invasions (Jer 4:23-31), his prophecy drew upon the language of Isaiah to describe the state to which God was reducing the land. It was becoming an unpopulated wilderness, a place without form (tohuw) and empty (bohuw), and with its sky devoid of light (cf. Gen 1:2). Thus, Jeremiah’s words find their precedent in Isaiah’s use of Noahic re-creation imagery. For Noah, as at Gibeah, and Sodom, re-birth arose out of the judgement that saw cities and lands depopulated by a cataclysm. Thus, Jeremiah also drew heavily upon the imagery of remnant birth. The people would flee to the thickets like Adam and Eve (Gen 3:8) and hide amidst the rocks as at Rimmon (Judg 20:47). Although Judah dressed in scarlet and adorns herself with gold, like those in the poetry of Isaiah’s opening verses (Isa 1:18-2:4, 3:16-4:6), her lovers would despise her. For Jeremiah had heard a cry like that of a woman in a difficult childbirth and gasping for breath, as was Rachel (Gen 35:16-19), like one stretching out her hands as she faints before her murders, as did the harlot at Gibeah (Judg 19:26-27). This reduction to formless void would be, as Isaiah’s had predicted, part of the process of remnant birth, for, as at the height of Noah’s flood, God was once again wrenching the land from the contaminating grip of wicked men in preparation for re-establishing a righteous way within it.

Psalm 106, hope for a dead people

Whilst Psalm 105 describes Israel’s deliverance from Egypt (Ps 105:1-45), Psalm 106 updates the record to include the persistent rebellion that had led (Ps 106:1-48), as in Jeremiah’s time, to the exile. By serving idols and sacrificing their offspring they angered God, who then let those they hated rule over them and oppress them. The behaviour of their leaders repeatedly rendered the Day of Atonement ineffective and left their unclean land suffering the covenantal curse of subjugation (Deut 19:8-13).

As with Adam and Cain, idolatry and bloodshed had brought a sentence of death and a curse upon the land and, as with Jacob and the Benjamites, Judah’s corporate survival depended upon the nation being born again. Therefore, the author of Psalm 106 offered hope to his fellow captives by recollecting earlier occasions when God remembered those in captivity, mercifully relented and showed compassion (Ps 106:45-46). Such hope found its reward in Ezra’s day, when the grant of Cyrus allowed the return of a remnant, conceived amidst the death of Judah and gestated in exile under the ministry of the Son of Man, Ezekiel. These folk, still soiled by their time amongst the nations, gathered in the deserted ‘wilderness’ of Jerusalem, where Ezra read from the scroll, property was allotted and God’s people found the way back to cleanliness.

Law in the wilderness

The concept of doing away with contamination by re-birthing Israel in the wilderness was hardly new to Isaiah. It was, in effect, what God did with Abel, Noah, Isaac and Joseph. Similarly, the Book of Exodus describes how the Israelites survived a ‘flood’ and then assembled in Sinai to hear the Law.

In Moses’ case, as for Isaiah’s unclean animals and Ezra’s returnees, inherently contaminated individuals survived a cataclysmic event and the Spirit then gathered them in the wilderness. At Pentecost, they came under the authority of God (Exodus 19:16-20:18). In the precursor of the feasts of the seventh month, Moses then instructed them to prepare themselves and assemble. The prophet wrote down the law, built an altar, erected a pillar for each tribe, and then publicly proclaimed those decrees (Exod 24:3-8). Such pillars served as reminders of legislation (Gen 28:22, 31:51, Josh 4:1-9), calling ancient agreements to remembrance and serving as the cornerstones for Israel9, at least until David’s line assumed their role. Hence, when the exiles of Judah return from Mesopotamia, Ezra read the Law and Zechariah provided a prophetic reminder of the Law giving in Sinai and that first Day of Atonement. Of the role of David’s heir he said, “For behold, the stone That I have laid before Joshua: Upon the stone are seven eyes. Behold, I will engrave its inscription,’ Says the Lord of hosts, ‘And I will remove the iniquity of that land in one day” (Zech 3:9, NKJV).

The Tent of Meeting outside the camp

At Sinai, the people were willing to make the Law their own and Moses sprinkled them with the blood of the covenant. He then went before God for forty days. However, that good work was soon undone, for the idolatry of the Golden Calf rendered the camp unclean. In recognition of this change in status, Moses converted the people’s gold to dust, then forced them to consume it (Exod 32:20, cf. Gen 3:14). He then subjected them to the sword of the Levites, precipitating a mini-cataclysm that restored control. Finally, he pitched a Tent of Meeting far off in the wilderness, where the camp’s uncleanliness could not affect it. Thereafter those who sought the Lord went out to it, like those who went to meet with John the Baptist.

Pitching the Tent of Meeting in the wilderness left Moses with two roles that the text of Exodus contrasts. As leader of those who went out to seek God, he continued to deal with God on a face-to-face basis (Exod 33:11). However, as the godly leader of an unclean camp it was a different matter. His intercession for this wayward nation solicited a guarantee that God’s presence would go with them. However, his request to see the former glory (Exod 33:18) evoked the assurance that the Lord’s glorious goodness would be apparent in judgement. In contrast with events a few weeks earlier, nobody in the camp would now see the divine face and live (Exod 33:20, cf. Exod 24:9-11, Gen 32:30).

The divine face, or even its impartation through Moses, was a fearful thing to an unclean camp (Exod 34:30-35, 2 Cor 3:7)10. Hence, Moses used a veil when he went amongst the people, removed it whenever he went in before the Lord, then only replaced it once he had delivered God’s commands to those who sought their Lord outside the camp. Only by turning away, from both the camp and Moses as he tried to represent it, would God preserve these people in the way that Moses desired. When God turned away it left people at the mercy of both the natural forces and their human foes. Yet, for the servant of God amidst his exposed nation, there remained an assurance of protection. If the prophet would station himself on a rock, i.e. an incorruptible bit of wilderness. Then when the glory passed by, God would hide Moses in a crevice, still close enough to hear God’s whisper, but sheltered by the divine hand from the forces of chaos afflicting the camp (Exod 33:22).

Moses experience provided the precedent for the Rock of Rimmon episode. As God withdrew his protection from Benjamin, the only survivors were those who forsook the protection of walled cities to hide in the wilderness crevices of Rimmon. Moses’ cleft also set the scene for Elijah’s time in that same place. As the wrath of drought fell on Ahab’s kingdom, God took Elijah to a remote place (the brook Cherith) where the activity of the unclean animals of the wilderness sustained him (1 Kgs 17:5-6). Later, as he fled again before an un-repentant monarchy, God took him to a cave on Horeb (1 Kings 19:9-13). There, God withdrew his controlling hand and reminded the prophet of Moses. As God turned his back, the elemental forces of wind, earth and fire unleashed chaos11, reminding Elijah that for all Jezebel’s arrogance, Ahab’s kingdom was ripe to fall. Following the hubbub came the soft whisper of God’s voice, which having heard, Elijah veiled his face with his cloak and went forth.

As with Moses and Elijah, the onset of an unclean land repeatedly saw God continuing to meet with prophets in far-off places outside the ‘camp’. Hence, the Ark resided at Kiriath-jearim whilst Samuel resolved Israel’s cleanliness issues (1 Sam 7:1)12 and Ezekiel met with the Glory of God at Chebar, a name that means ‘far-off’13. Similarly, those seeking to avoid the contamination of an unclean land could do so in the wilderness. Such were the Rechabites (Jer 35:6-7), whose abstinence from wine suggests a Nazirite like lifestyle and who lived in tents as the fall of Judah approached.

The path to Eden, a path to cleanliness

As John began his ministry, the subjugation was happening again, this time with Rome annexing Judea as a province (following unrest caused by Herod’s tyrannical son Archelaus). As the region came under direct Roman rule, people found themselves on ‘foreign soil’ and effectively in exile, without even moving an inch. The folk who sought John’s ministry came out of an unclean land and from amongst a people separated from their God by sin. Their rulers made crooked paths and their nation embraced idolatrous foreign practices. Thus, one could once again say of it, that it devoured men and bereaved the nation of its children (Ezek 36:13). Isaiah identified with such people as he claimed that amongst the strong they are like the dead (Isa 59:10). They were supposed to be sons of Abraham, but in God’s sight, they were cut off from Israel and lifeless in their sins (Rom 11:13-20, Eph 2:1), their nation like a tomb full of Ezekiel’s dry bones (Ezek 37:11, Matt 23:27). Thus, they resembled the rebellious Judah that Babylon carried into exile, a sovereign nation no more, but dust from which God was already creating afresh.

That Jesus understood John’s ministry in terms of Isaiah 34-35 is evident at the time of John’s imprisonment. For, as John began to question whether he had been right to put his faith in Jesus, Jesus instructed him to look at what was happening (Matt 11:3-5). The blind were receiving sight, the deaf were hearing and the lame were walking - all predictions from Isaiah 35 (Isa 35:5-6). Furthermore, Jesus also called John’s attention to the cleansing of ‘lepers’. For, as with those who returned from exile in Babylon, God was removing the unclean spirit from the land and cleansing the inherently unclean (Zech 13:2). The leprosy that Jesus heals in Matthew 8:2-4, was very clearly the divinely imposed uncleanliness of tsara`ath, whose sufferers were, like Isaiah’s animals, inherently unclean, and yet Jesus’ words were cleansing them. Uncleanliness was being removed, even those with tsara`ath, whom God had personally declared unclean, were being restored. Yet, Jesus also called John’s attention to the raising of the dead, which, whilst miraculous in its own right, also carried a symbolic significance derived from Isaiah’s words. Before Isaiah’s envisioned cataclysm the dead will not live, nor the deceased rise, but after it the dead will come to life and corpses will rise (Isa 26:14,19).

An Eden for an Adam-like Messiah

In Isaiah’s day the Eden that was Israel had become irretrievably corrupted by human judgements, hence God overturned it and reduced it to a formless void. Then, in the wilderness thus created, God began a new creation. The spirit gathered the willing yet unclean and as they sought to obey, God taught them righteous judgements and gave them purpose. As Jeremiah spoke, God was once again rendering Judah formless and void. As in Moses’ day the faithful moved into the wilderness and continued to meet with God in a far-off place. Then the Spirit gathered them to the ruins of Jerusalem where Ezra read from the scroll and cast the lot.

The parallel between Isaiah’s time of creation and that of John the Baptist, confirm that the Spirit was gathering a group of inherently unclean people (such as Matthew’s beloved tax collectors) in the wilderness. As the agencies of chaos whittled away at Judah, gradually rendering her formless and void, a new creation was beginning amidst her waste places. John, having removed himself into the wilderness, by ‘read the scroll’ as a teacher and ‘cast the lot’ as a judge (Luke 3:10-14), was diligently playing his part in establishing a new Eden. A sanctuary fit for God to entrust its care to Matthew’s Adam-like Messiah.

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1 Ewing, W and Roland K.Harrison, “Carmel,” ISBE, 1:618.

2 A. F. Rainey, “Sharon,” ISBE, 4:451-53.

3 Culver, Robert D, “2159 רִיב (rı̂b) strive, contend,” TWOT, 845-46.

4 The lack of any who can lead signifies a lack of authority. Ostriches, snakes, owls, ravens, hawks and jackals were all unclean.

5 Isaiah 43:18-20 revisits the topics of chapter 35 and confirms that this is a pivotal moment. In 43, the Lord declares that He is doing a new thing, making a way in the desert, where the unclean wild animals (owls and jackals) honour Him because He provides them with water (a common metaphor for his judgements).

6 My bones and flesh was an idiomatic saying for ‘blood relative’ (cf. 2 Sam 5:1, Judg 9:2).

7 The contrast between the comment on Abijam at 1 Kings 15:1-3 and that on Asa at v 11 indicates a period of reform, see also 2 Chronicles 14:2-5 for Asa’s attitude

8 Urim also appear to have had an oracular function (see Num 27:21, 1 Sam 28:6, Ezra 2:63), however tradition is mixed over whether they were like some form of lot casting mechanism.

9 After Joshua re-enacted the Red Sea crossing, he wrote the law on the stones of Mt Ebal as a prelude to building an altar and reading the law (Josh 8:32). Again, when he renewed the covenant at Shechem, he wrote the Law and erected a stone (Josh 24:25-27).

10 See also footnote on 2 Corinthians 3:13 in NET.

11 Water was also an elemental force, but at that time God had just brought it back under control.

12 The same principle probably lies behind David’s behaviour after his census rendered Israel unclean (1 Chr 21:18-30). Although the Jebusites were David’s captives (2 Sam 5:6-9), he renounced all right to the threshing floor of Araunah and purchased it as if were ‘foreign’ land.

13 Strong, “3529 כְּבָר,” Concordance.