It's been heart-breaking over the past few years to see social media posts of friends mourning the loss of loved ones due to COVID or other conditions. Many of the losses were just remarkable people from all accounts, people who were, in a Biblical sense, righteous. It's all the more heartbreaking for those of us mourning their losses, as we puzzle over the premature passing of a righteous adult. It isn't uncommon to question God's wisdom and care in these times.
And yet, Isaiah 57 opens with a question posed to Israel:
The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart; devout men are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil. Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death.
I do not know that this is the situation of the righteous people perishing this year, and I am not necessarily suggesting that it is. I just want to raise the possibility of what Isaiah 57 poses here, that sometimes the loss of a righteous person isn't a tragedy but a sparing. God claims to have taken people in the past to spare them from living in evil times. It is possible that He has done so within our lifetimes as well.
Two of my favorite Christian singers come to mind: Keith Green and Rich Mullins. Both were flawed individuals who perished in completely preventable deaths (Keith Green was flying his Cessna when it crashed, killing all 12 members of the over-boarded plane. Rich Mullins was ejected from his rolled jeep and hit by an oncoming vehicle). These tragedies are inexplicable. Despite both men having personal flaws that in some ways are reflected in their deaths, they both had been involved in active ministries that, had they continued until today, make me wonder whether they could have made an even more significant impact for the Kingdom of God.
For example, here is a list of songs they wrote that continue to encourage so many of us today:
Create In Me A Clean Heart (Green)
O Lord, You're Beautiful (Green)
There Is a Redeemer (Green)
Awesome God (Mullins)
Sing Your Praise To the Lord (Mullins)
Step By Step (Mullins)
In addition to their music, they were involved in ministries that I sincerely wish had continued through the 90s and beyond. Their message was one that I think would have been an important corrective to where the evangelical movement headed after they had passed! For example, this article describes Keith Green's lasting legacy through his ministry: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevin-wax/the-legacy-of-keith-green-a-conversation-with-matt-papa/ The author Trevin Wax writes,
He was A. W. Tozer behind a piano – blunt, abrasive, cutting – but the prophetic fire in his bones was always set to a melody that somehow made the medicine palatable. He had that “thing” all real prophets have: the anointing to offend with enough grace to keep you listening.
Some key hallmarks of his ministry included:
Green's speaking out against the development of a Christian music industry and the potential for greed and idolatry, and putting his money where his mouth was...he ran his music ministry on donations alone.
Green modeling a way for the newly-converted countercultural hippies to enter the Christian fold while keeping their heavy emphasis on community as well as some of the more colorful aspects of their culture, in terms of clothes and hairstyles.
His song, "Asleep in the Light" is a biting indictment of himself and his listeners for when they are too self-focused and lazy and don't have burning hearts for others, including others' salvation. Many other songs blend his energy and passion with a prophetic call to a change in behavior.
Similarly, regarding Rich Mullins, the author of this article (https://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/comment/2020/01/16/why-the-world-misses-rich-mullins) muses,
Countless times in recent weeks and months, I have found myself wondering if one of the voices the world misses most in moments like this is that of Rich Mullins.
Mullins' quotes are revealing for why he would resonate in our current times and potentially help to draw back those who are leaving the faith out of disillusionment:
Christianity is about learning to love like Jesus loved and Jesus loved the poor and Jesus loved the broken–hearted.
Forged in the fires of human passion, choking on the fumes of human rage, with these our hells and our heavens so few inches apart, we must be awfully small and not as strong as we think we are.
Written in 2020, the article cited above concludes with:
The world of 2020 is, as Mullins might have acknowledged, a world we are partly made of and which is also partly of our own making. If we are going to remake it in a better way, doing so with mercy leading and love as the strength in our legs is surely a good place to begin.
Amen. And yet God saw fit to allow these two men to pass away long before our present difficulties. The Lord knows best, even if I mourn the messages lost from two men who spoke from inside the church and inside orthodoxy and yet were not afraid to call out themselves and other Christians regarding laziness, greed, idolatry, lack of passion, half-hearted worship, compromise, and selfishness. The same sorts of things that Isaiah emphasized throughout the 57 chapters of the book we've covered thus far.
Looking at chapter 57 itself, what messages do we see?
vv. 1-2 The righteous are spared the trouble of living through evil times. They aren't taken away as a punishment.
vv. 3-10 Isaiah takes a detour from condemning Judah's leaders and veers toward the people themselves. They follow witchcraft, practice adultery, and engage in prostitution, mockery, lust, and idolatry. They follow the worst of the practices of the people around them--namely, child sacrifice. They found no joy and pleasure in all this, but still continued doing it.
v. 11 poses some thought-provoking questions:
Whom have you so dreaded and feared that you have been false to me, and have neither remembered me nor pondered me in your hearts? Is it not because I have long been silent that you do not fear me?
These are great questions for today, and the fear question is one that I have discussed elsewhere: https://www.isaiahfortoday.com/post/_fear I am still convinced that many American Evangelical veered more deeply into the political arena due to fear. Rather than trusting in the Lord, we have been convinced that our political activism and alignment with a particular party is essential for protecting faith in the United States. Failure to tow party lines (rather than Biblical principles) in a number of areas can result in ridicule, ostracism, and cancelling. So-called Christians troll one another as well as Christian leaders on the internet and excoriate one another for any deviation of the current party line. What have we so dreaded and so feared that God is not the very first One that we consult in all of this? Rather than asking His blessing on what we've already decided to do, we show that we do not actually fear Him in our behaviors.
Isaiah 57 continues.
vv. 12-13 God says, consequently, that He will "expose" their righteousness and works--"they will not benefit you." He will not answer their prayers.
And then the rest of the chapter describes the type of person who He does favor and will bless--the righteous person. This person "makes the Lord his refuge." Who or what is our substitute refuge today? What do we do and where do we go when we are distressed? Do we avoid our problems, opting for a Netflix binge instead? Are we acting out our pent-out frustrations from a pandemic with a frenetic hedonistic search for fun? Are we looking for political strong men for relief from real and imagined problems? What is our refuge, besides the Lord?
Verse 14 then revisits the road motif that we've encountered before in Isaiah (for example, https://www.isaiahfortoday.com/post/highway-of-holiness).
John Oswalt, in the NIV Application Commentary for Isaiah writes this about this passage:
While righteousness is expected of God's people, any attempt to produce it on their own will result in the most corrupt spiritual pride. The only hope is for God to deliver his people from sinning just as he delivered them from the consequences of sin when he restored them from captivity. Once more the highway imagery comes to the fore. But this is not a highway for God (cf. 40:3-5), nor is it a highway for the people to return from captivity (cf. 11:16). Rather, this is a highway on which the 'contrite' (57:15) can return to God admitting their own inability to do what is right...
God is the "high and lofty One" in Isaiah 57, and He "lives" in a high and lofty place but says that He also lives with those who are contrite and lowly in spirit.
So, pretty much the opposite of what we are trained to be like in American culture. We definitely lack the advantages of our southern hemisphere and Asian brothers and sisters in terms of cultural preparedness to live the Christian life. We often live as if we are the most blessed and fortunate of Christians, but we don't even know what we're missing as we have to step-by-step undo what we've been taught in terms of self-aggrandizement and viewing our personal rights as the highest good.
Righteousness is not an end in itself. Whenever it becomes so, it merely becomes another idol, a device to earn the favor and blessing of the divine world. God does want righteousness, but only as a by-product of our relationship with him. He, 'the high and lofty One,' wants to live with and in us. In that way alone will we be able to live lives that reflect his character...Today America is suffering from a failure of evangelical theology. The 1970s and 1980s were widely recognized as the age of the evangelical. The movement was large enough and influential enough to gain the attention of the national media; leading figures in the movement became forces to be reckoned with. Yet, concurrent with that popular recognition was the hastening moral decay of the nation. The connection between these two is not coincidental. To a generation that wanted to "feel good" at all costs, we declared a feel-good religion. All one has to do to gain a heaven of bliss and an earthly life of abundance is to say 'yes' to Jesus' wonderful plan for life. This decision has no necessary bearing on a person's behavior (emphasis mine).
What is the solution? Oswalt says it better than I can:
So we evangelicals need to come to God in contrition--contrition for spiritual pride, contrition for our arrogant dependence on accepting Christ as a magical act, contrition for bringing reproach on the name of God, contrition for not allowing God to heal us, individually or collectively, of our persistent sinning, contrition for not believing that God can indeed impart his righteousness to us, contrition for our unwillingness to fully surrender to God, contrition that our 'standing' before God has been more important to us than our relationship with him.
I'll let Oswalt close us out:
But the good news is that God is merciful. He wants to live with us and in us. He wants to heal us...the message of these verses, and indeed of this entire last part of the book, is that while God expects real righteousness and justice in our lives, he also expects to do that in us and for us as a by-product of our loving relation with him. When it is he whom we want, then righteousness will be as natural to us as the grapes are on the branch. That righteousness, instead of having the stink of pride, will be a gentle fragrance because it will be all unconscious.
We may not longer have Keith Green or Rich Mullins among us. We may have lost some remarkable believers and others in the past few years. Yet God's message to us is still the same as it was when Isaiah 57 was written. We are the unrighteous that need to repent and we are being called to be the contrite righteous that God would like to dwell in and with. He is still extending this invitation.