“Woe to the rebellious children! This is the Lord’s declaration. They carry out a plan, but not mine; they make an alliance, but against my will, piling sin on top of sin. Without asking my advice they set out to go down to Egypt in order to seek shelter under Pharaoh’s protection and take refuge in Egypt’s shadow. But Pharaoh’s protection will become your shame, and refuge in Egypt’s shadow your humiliation. For though his princes are at Zoan and his messengers reach as far as Hanes, everyone will be ashamed because of a people who can’t help. They are are of no benefit, they are no help; they are goo for nothing but shame and disgrace.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Think for a minute about who you turn to when you need advice before anyone else. Call to mind this person’s face. Think about the conversations you’ve had with him and the counsel he’s given you. What is it about this person that makes you so inclined to seek him out before anyone else? Is he particularly wise? If so, what garnered him this distinction in your mind? Have the two of you shared particularly significant experiences together and so you feel like he knows you better than anyone else? Do you seek him out because of his position? Let me ask one more question: Did you even fleetingly think about God as the person you turn to first for advice? The places we go when we need help say a lot about us. They said a lot about Israel too. Today and tomorrow, I want to look with you at an example from Isaiah that has much to teach us about where to seek help first and the character of God.
I’ve recently finished a two week survey of Isaiah with my congregation at our Wednesday evening Bible study. It was a wonderful refresher for me, and a reminder of just how rich this magnificent collection of prophecy is. We have been slowly working our way through the prophets generally this fall and I am amazed once again at just how powerful words written more than 2,500 years ago can be. Even though they don’t offer us a whole lot of direct life application since they are written to a people living under a different covenant with God than we have, what they reveal about God’s character and the applications that alone has for our lives is stunning. If you’ve ever been guilty of thinking the prophets are either boring or else reveal nothing but an angry God who looks for opportunities to smite His people, it’s time for you to reengage with them. One of the points I have made again and again to our group is that what we see in the prophets more than anything else is God’s fierce commitment to restoring His people to a relationship with Him.
In any event, Isaiah was written at a time when the nation itself was mostly ruled over by good and righteous kings. Nonetheless, several generations’ worth of spiritual and moral rot had started to manifest themselves in a culture that was broken. There was a sheen of religiousness and faithfulness over the top of the people, but underneath was a mess of corruption that was baked right into the system.
The first major section of Isaiah is mostly concerned with predicting the downfall of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians as a punishment for their incorrigible commitment to idolatry. Following this, Isaiah offers various words of prophecy against the nations around Israel. It is a reminder that the God of Israel was the God of the whole world and not merely regionally concerned as all the other gods then were. Coming out of this, Isaiah begins to look forward, talking about some of the challenges the people of the southern kingdom of Judah will deal with in the future. The people have been committedly walking a path away from the faithfulness to God’s covenant He had been calling them to for years and trouble was coming because of it.
Here in chapter 30, Isaiah offers a prediction that had to have been pretty depressing in its outlook. It had to do with where the people were going to look for help when things got dicey. One of Israel’s perennial temptations was to look for help in all the wrong places. They were a small nation surrounded by larger ones. They also occupied a strategically important geographical location. This means they were attacked again and again and passed from one nation’s control to another. They were constantly in need of protection. The question always was: where were they going to seek this protection. God wanted them to know if they looked in the wrong places, they were not going to find what they were seeking.
In this case, Israel was looking to Egypt for help. Historically speaking, Isaiah was probably looking forward to late in the tenure of the prophet Jeremiah when Babylon was bearing down on the people and had in fact already conquered the city of Jerusalem once. After that initial conquest, the people remaining in the city assassinated the governor Babylon had put in place to rule over the people on their behalf. Knowing this act would attract the swift and deadly vengeance of the Babylonian army, the people had a choice. Jeremiah counseled them strongly to remain and submit to the Babylonians. This advice went over about as well as you might have expected it to go. The counter-proposal was to go to Egypt and let the nation that once held them in bondage for 400 years protect them from Babylon’s reach. They went with this option. It wasn’t the wise one.
More than anything in this first part of chapter 30, that’s what God wanted them to know. They were looking for help in the wrong place. They were making an alliance with a nation that could not save them instead of depending on their God who had already promised to take care of them. If they pushed on with this course of action when the time came, they were not only going to fail in their efforts to find shelter from Babylon, they were going to be embarrassed because of their folly in betting on the wrong horse.
Think for a minute about how often we look for help in all the wrong places in our own lives. Now, no, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever seek help from a person. God puts wise people in our lives for a reason. We should seek counsel from trusted counselors when we are in need of help with a situation. That’s not what God is talking about here. But because we often run to that kind of situation when faced with a challenge like this, I wanted to set it on the table so we could knock it off the table here together.
What Isaiah has in mind here are those times when we are in over our heads with life and are looking for something to soften the blows we know are coming our way. Perhaps we’ve made some poor choices and the consequences are coming due. Maybe someone else has done that and we’re preparing to be the victims. It could also be we are simply facing an unexpected tragedy and don’t know how we’re going to make it through it. This was the kind of situation the people of Israel were in. They needed help and faced a moment of decision. Were they going to trust in a nation they knew to be strong from the past that they could see, or a God they couldn’t. In a given moment, that’s a more challenging decision than it seems like it should be.
When life gets overwhelming, assume it’s not God for a minute, where else do you turn? Money? Health? Friends? Work? Children? Government? Sex? A drug of some kind? There are all kinds of options. What God wanted Israel to understand is the same thing He wants us to understand today: These things will not help us. When push comes to shove, they are going to fail us. They are going to fail us and we are going to look like failures for ever putting any trust in them in the first place. Or, as Isaiah put it, “They are of no benefit, they are no help; they are good for nothing but shame and disgrace.”
When life gets hard, there’s only one place that makes any sense to turn and its not a place at all. He is a person. God’s help doesn’t always come in the ways and times we want, but it does always come. He won’t shield us from all the consequences of our bad decisions, for instance, but He will help us pick up the pieces and start figuring out how to put them back together again when we’re again willing to do life His way. He will allow us to be tested at times because He has a bigger picture in mind that He wants to prepare us for. That testing won’t often (or ever) be particularly pleasant, but it is for a purpose. Sometimes God let’s things seem to fly out of control on us so that we will trust Him more and see our trust in Him grow as we experience His incredible rescue. Trusting God isn’t easy. But it is worth it. And if you’ll do it, I can guarantee that at the end of the day, you’ll be glad you did.