Ask Steve: Isaiah and the Purging of Israel

Question: Steve, I am currently reading through the book of Isaiah and trying to understand its major themes. I see that one of the book’s themes has to do with holiness. Can you explain how God will eventually purge Israel of unholiness and make them fit to participate in His rule according to the book of Isaiah?

Answer: The holiness of God is one of the major themes in the book of Isaiah. God’s holy character is the reason why He demands holiness from all people, especially from His covenant nation Israel. However,Israel failed to live up to God’s standard, and they were eventually judged and exiled for their unrepentant rebelliousness and breaking of the Mosaic Covenant established by God in Exodus 19-24. Though God’s holy character justifies divine judgment and final separation from those who are guilty of sin, the Lord does not forever cast off Israel. Because of the unilateral, unconditional nature of the Abrahamic Covenant established with Israel’s forefathers in Genesis 12:1-3, God preserved Israel in the many years leading up to the days of Isaiah, and declared plans to continue to preserve them until the end of time. In fact, God plans to redeem the nation of Israel and forgive them of their sin. God declares though the prophet Isaiah that He plans to make Israel glorious in the future by forever purging it of unholiness and making them fit to participate in His earthly kingdom.

The first way that the Holy One of Israel will purge His people of unholiness is to judge His people with righteous wrath. The nation of Israel was guilty of empty ritualism, idolatry, and apostasy, which are some of the main themes explored in the book of Isaiah. These practices have characterized Israel since the day of their exodus from Egypt, but God had been patient not to destroy or scatter the nation of Israel. The sins of Israel had reached a new level by the time of Isaiah’s epoch, and God planned to no longer withhold His judgment. He moved forward to uphold His holiness and truthfulness to the Mosaic Covenant curses by allowing Assyria to capture and exile Ephraim (Isaiah 8) and allowing Judah to suffer a similar fate by Babylon in 586 B.C. (Jeremiah 52).

By executing holy judgment, God taught the nation of Israel the seriousness of His holy wrath against sin, which was meant to convict them to repent and turn to God in obedience. Passages such as Isaiah 27 demonstrate that God’s judgment on Israel usually precedes His promise of Israel’s repentance. God declares a day in which Israel turns to God in humility and faith, and God forgives them, declares them righteous, and makes them fit for the eschatological messianic kingdom.

God plans to purge Israel of unholiness by removing all hindrances that cause Israel to stumble. In other words, the Lord has executed judgment and will carry out final judgment for nations and peoples that have caused Israel to pursue idolatry, paganism, and alliances with other nations. Passages such as Isaiah 17, 18, 19, and 20 speak of the fall of Gentile nations such as Egypt,Ethiopia, and Damascus to underscore the book of Isaiah’s theme of the sinfulness of the nations. These Gentile nations are under God’s wrath because of not only their pride and unbelief, but their evil influences on Israel’s devotion to Yahweh. Israel abandons God by trusting in human alliances rather than God. An example is Israel’s deal with Egypt in Isaiah 30.

In the following chapter, the prophet Isaiah pronounces a woe on Judah for turning to Egypt for aid (v. 1-2) and not heeding the counsel of the Lord. Because of this, God vowed to embarrass the alliance by bringing defeat to both the helper (Egypt) and the one seeking help (Judah). Such alliances prove deleterious because it not only instigates Israel to misplace their faith, but allows pagan religion to infiltrate the lives of the Israelites, which is a constant theme that runs throughout the Old Testament (Ezekiel 20:7, Joshua 24:14, Jeremiah 2:17).

The purging of Israel and making them fit for God’s glorious kingdom finds its fullest power in the work of God’s Servant, the divine Messiah whom the prophet Isaiah declared would come to destroy the penalty, power, and presence of sin. It is because of this Servant that Israel, and believing Gentiles, can be purged from unholiness, be made holy, and be qualified to enter the kingdom of God.

The Servant’s work is rooted in the unilateral, eternal New Covenant that God establishes with Israel. Such a covenant is mentioned in Isaiah 59:20-21, in which a Redeemer is promised to be sent to save Zion and all faithful Israelites who turn from their transgressions. This eternal covenant is an extension of the Abrahamic Covenant in that it spells out specifically how God plans to preserve Israel, make them His holy people, and use them to bring lost Gentiles to Himself. The New Covenant is further elaborated in passages such as Jeremiah 31:33, in which God declared that He would put His law within Israel and on their heart, that He would be their God, they would be His people, and they would find forgiveness for their iniquity. The promise-plan of God to Israelis a theme that constantly runs throughout the Old Testament, and in the book of Isaiah, the promises of God become clearly delineated in the discussion the spiritual salvation and deliverance of Israel.

The New Covenant was enacted in the work of the suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, which became the source of mankind’s spiritual salvation. The Suffering Servant is one of the most prominent themes in the book of Isaiah because it speaks about the monumental achievement of the Suffering Servant in removing sin so sinners can be forgiven and made righteous. The Servant is depicted to be an innocent man (v. 9) who dies for the sins of those around Him (v. 4, 11). He bears their sin (v. 12) and is punished as the atonement so that people can find eternal justification before God. God’s wrath is satisfied, and He allows the Servant to see the light of life and observe the fruit of His blessed work (v. 11). It is because of the Servant’s work that Israel can have the penalty, power, and presence of its sins removed someday, which God promises will happen at the last days (Isaiah 62). The Suffering Servant’s atonement is the direct fulfillment of the New Covenant and makes possible the inevitable fulfillment of the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenant with Israel.

When the remaining remnant of Israel finds spiritual salvation in the final days, God will bring physical salvation to the nation of Israel by delivering them from their oppressors and setting up the messianic kingdom. Passages such as Isaiah 34 and 47 speak of the judgment of pagan nations that have either caused Israel to stumble into sin or have been constant oppressors to the sons of Jacob. In keeping with the blessings and curses promise of the Abrahamic Covenant, God plans to destroy such oppressors and bring them to an end (Isaiah 63:1-6).Israel will no longer be tormented or influenced by the forces of sin through the neighboring nations. However, passages such as Isaiah 59:20-21 describe the necessity of national repentance before God plans to deliver them from their enemies. In other words, the deliverance from spiritual sin through the New Covenant re-birth comes before the deliverance from the physical presence of sin. The purging of Israel spiritually is a necessary precursor to the purging of Israel physically, which has been described in the Old Testament (Isaiah 62) as a necessary reality before the messianic kingdom can come to Zion.

The last step of God’s plan to purge Israel of sin is through the actual rule of the Messiah in the messianic kingdom. Passages such as Isaiah 65 describe the conditions of the millennial kingdom, in which the world will flourish with righteousness, holiness, and justice. Even the animal kingdom is restored to peace and health (Isaiah 11:6-9, 35:9). The Messiah, son of David, will rule from His throne in Jerusalem and enforce His holy law throughout Israel and the world, resulting in a habitual pattern of obedience and righteous conduct among people (Isaiah 28:6, 32:16). False teachers, oppressors, and gross sinners will be dealt with (Isaiah 16:5, 24:23) so that they will not instigate sin anymore amongst the redeemed people of Israel. In essence, the messianic kingdom will be the period in which God continually draws people to the New Covenant, but also curbs the practice of sin through out Israel(and the world) by His governing authority.

In conclusion, God will make certain that His promises to Israel will be carried out. However, God is holy, so Israel must also be made holy to be fit for eternal worship. Isaiah describes the various ways that God plans to purge His people of unholiness so He can make them fit for His rule. God has paved the way through His Son’s death on the cross. Once Israel partakes of that covenant, then it will find spiritual purging, and purging of the land.