And it shall be said, "Build up, build up, prepare the way, remove every obstruction from my people's way." For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: "I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite. For I will not contend for ever, nor will I always be angry; for from me proceeds the spirit, and I have made the breath of life. Because of the iniquity of his covetousness I was angry, I smote him, I hid my face and was angry; but he went on backsliding in the way of his own heart. I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will lead him and requite him with comfort, creating for his mourners the fruit of the lips. Peace, peace, to the far and to the near, says the Lord; and I will heal him. But the wicked are like the tossing sea; for it cannot rest, and its waters toss up mire and dirt. There is no peace, says my God, for the wicked."
In order to see our text in its proper relation to what has gone before, let's go back to 56:9.
The Corruption of Israel
Beginning with 56:9 Isaiah describes the corruption of his people Israel. Isaiah 56:9–12 tells how the leaders have utterly failed to care for the people. For example, verse 11:
- The dogs have a mighty appetite;
- they never have enough.
- The shepherds also have no understanding;
- they have all turned to their own way
each to his own gain, one and all.
Then 57:1–13 describes what becomes of a people when their leaders go bad. Verses 1–2: the righteous perish and are taken away. Verses 3–4: adultery and sorcery and cruelty abound. Verse 5a: sexual fertility rites are taken over from the Canaanite religions. Verse 5b: child sacrifice is practiced (for example, in 2 Kings 21:6 where Manasseh offered up his son and dealt in soothsaying, mediums, and wizards). Verses 6–13a: a long description of idolatry. This is what the people of Israel offered back to God in those days for all his mercy to them ever since the days of Abraham and Moses and David.
Yet even at the end of this section (57:13) God holds out hope to individuals who will take refuge in him instead of chasing after their kicks in violence or adultery or sorcery or child abuse: "But he who takes refuge in me shall possess the land and shall inherit my holy mountain."
God's Response to Israel's Rebellion
That brings us to our text in Isaiah 57:14–21. Here is God's response to Israel's hard-hearted rebellion and corruption and idolatry. Let's take it a verse at a time first to see the flow of thought, and then come back to one central piece to dwell on together.
There Will Be a Great Turning to God
Verse 14: "And it shall be said, 'Build up, build up, prepare the way, remove every obstruction from my people's way.'" (Compare 40:3–4; 62:10.) This is God's way of saying: there is going to be a great turning to me; prepare for it. Build roads, as it were. Remove boulders and fallen trees, and fill up gullies. Get ready for my people to return. This is more than a few individuals taking refuge in God. It is a great reversal. A people movement: "Remove the obstacles for my people!"
God Condescends to Live with Humble People
Verse 15: "For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: 'I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the contrite.'" The hope of verse 14—that the rebellious people would return—is possible because, even though God is unapproachable in holiness, yet he condescends to live with crushed and humble people. And when he lives with them, they will be revived. They will return crushed and humbled by their sin, and God will come to them and give them a new lease on life—forever.
God Will Not Remain Angry at His People Forever
Verse 16: "For I will not contend for ever, nor will I always be angry; for from me proceeds the spirit [NASB: the spirit would grow faint before me] and I have made the breath of life." A second reason for hope that God will receive and dwell with the returning people is that he promises not to remain angry with them forever. He created Israel for his glory (43:7) and he knows the limits of their spirit. He will not utterly destroy. His case against them will not terminate in total condemnation. He will find a way to acquit them—not just drop the charges (like they did in Scott County).
God Is Not Naïve
Verse 17: "Because of the iniquity of his covetousness I was angry, I smote him, I hid my face and was angry; but he went on backsliding in the way of his own heart." This verse has the effect of highlighting the salvation that comes before and after. It reminds us that God is not naïve. He does not look at his people through rose-colored glasses. He knows how they kept on going away from him no matter how he warned and punished. It is an appalling thing to be struck down by God for walking in your own proud way, and then to stand back up and keep right on going the way you were. That was Israel in verse 17. Which makes verse 18 all the more amazing.
God Will Heal by Humbling (the New Covenant Hope)
Verse 18: "I have seen his ways but I will heal. I will lead him and requite him with comfort, creating for his mourners the fruit of lips [NASB: I will lead him and restore comfort to him and to his mourners, creating the praise of lips]." In spite of the severity of their disease of rebellion and willfulness, God will heal. How will he heal? Verse 15 says that God dwells with the crushed and humble. Yet the people of verse 17 are brazenly pursuing their own proud way. What will a healing be?
It can only be one thing. God will heal them by humbling them. He will cure the patient by crushing his pride. If only the crushed and humble enjoy God's fellowship (v. 15), and if Israel's sickness is a proud and willful rebellion (v. 17), and if God promises to heal them (v. 18), then his healing must be humbling and his cure must be a crushed spirit.
Isn't this Isaiah's way of prophesying what Jeremiah called the new covenant and Ezekiel called a new heart? Jeremiah said, "Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel . . . I will put my law within them and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (31:31, 33).
Ezekiel says, "A new heart I will give you, and a new Spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes."
Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all see a time coming when a sick, disobedient, hard-hearted people will be supernaturally changed. Isaiah speaks of healing. Jeremiah speaks of writing the law on their hearts. Ezekiel speaks of giving them a new heart of flesh. But the same salvation is in view by all three. So the healing of Isaiah 57:18 is a major heart transplant—the old hardened, proud, willful heart is taken out and a new soft, tender heart is put in which is easily humbled and crushed by the memory of sin and the sin that remains. This is a heart that the lofty One whose name is Holy can dwell with and give life to.
Peace to the Near and the Far
Verse 19: "Peace, peace to the far, and to the near, says the Lord; and I will heal him." The fruit of lips that God creates as he heals the heart is a song of peace. Peace with God, and peace in the world when his work is done, and peace within.
But the most encouraging word for us in verse 19 is the word "far." "Peace to the far." The promise of these verses has to do with Israel—God will one day bring this people to repent and acknowledge Jesus Christ, and receive a new heart. When the full number of the Gentiles is brought into the kingdom, God will banish ungodliness from Jacob and draw the mass of Israel into the Christian church for salvation (Romans 11:24f.).
But where are we Gentiles in this passage? We are in the word "far." The prophecy is not just for Israel. It is also for those who are afar off—the Gentiles, the nations. In Ephesians 2:17 Paul referred to this verse and said, "And Christ came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near . . . So you [Gentiles] are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God."
The fulfillment of Jeremiah's new covenant, Ezekiel's new heart, and Isaiah's healing comes in Jesus Christ. Christ is the one who opens the way for a great returning to God (57:14). Christ is the one in whom the lofty One whose name is Holy comes to dwell with the crushed and humble (57:15). Christ's death is why God can acquit a guilty people without dropping charges (57:16). It is by his stripes we are healed (57:18). And he is our peace with God (57:19). Everything hoped for in this great passage comes to us—even to us Gentiles—in Jesus Christ. We can read it as a personal offer of hope to any of us who will accept the healing of humbling and the cure of a crushed spirit.
The Lofty One Dwells with the Humble
Now let's narrow our focus in the text to one truth and ponder it for the time we have left. If you ask from this text, What is the best result of being healed by God? the answer would be: to have the lofty One whose name is Holy dwell with you and give you life (v. 15). The opposite is verse 17 where God turns his face away in anger. So to have God with us and not turned away from us is health. This is the greatest thing in the world: to experience forever and ever the life-giving presence of the lofty One whose name is Holy.
So from verse 15 the truth I want us to focus on is this: The lofty One whose name is Holy dwells with crushed and humble saints.
There are three things I want to observe about this truth, and there is a story I want to tell to illustrate these three things.
- It is surprising that the lofty One whose name is Holy dwells with crushed and humble saints.
- It is not compromising when the lofty One whose name is Holy dwells with crushed and humble saints.
- It is healing when the lofty One whose name is Holy dwells with crushed and humble saints.
And now the story!
The Good King and a Crushed and Humbled Woman
Once there was a land where the people were ruled by a king who was so wise and so powerful and so uncompromising that none of his subjects could come near to him—at least not the way they felt now.
His palace was high in the White Mountain and his throne in the palace was very lofty. Huge winged creatures surrounded the mountain. And the palace seemed to float on a cloud of fire.
The people of the land were very resentful of the king's authority, and had no respect for his power or wisdom. It hadn't always been this way. The first people in the land had stood in awe of the king and marveled that all his power and wisdom and riches were spent doing good for his subjects. It was as though he exalted himself in order to show kindness.
But somewhere along the way, for some strange and dark reason, his subjects began to resent the fact that he exalted himself. Suddenly it didn't matter that his laws were good; what mattered was that they were laws. And the people rebelled, because they started to hate being told what to do. They wanted to make their own laws and appoint their own kings. And so things went very bad.
Then something unexpected happened. A rumor was heard in the most rebellious town that the king had left his lofty throne, had passed through the cloud of fire, and was coming down the Valley of Shades. That evening in fact, he appeared on his horse at the edge of town with his royal blue cape and blazing eyes and a host of White Mountain warriors that stretched out of sight up the valley.
The town's people knew that one word of command and they would all lose their heads. They cringed and sneered and trembled. But the king gave no command. He got off his horse and walked down a side street as though he knew the town well. He stopped at the house of an old widow and knocked. When she opened the door, her mouth fell open and she began to cry. The king went in and shut the door. They spoke until it was late. She fed him supper. She gave him a straw mattress. And in the morning he was gone, but on the table was a velvet box.
After the king had gone, the people of the village were amazed. Why had the king come? And to dwell with that woman! Her husband had been killed erecting a tower of rebellion against the king. She herself had once been part of the prostitution religion which the king loathed. And after her husband died, she served the local resistance as a volunteer. Only recently had she stopped coming to the protest assemblies.
But the king had come and dwelt in this old woman's house. This was very surprising. It is surprising that the lofty One whose name is Holy dwells with any of his subjects, not to mention an old conspirator.
Surprising, yes, but not compromising. Not long ago this old woman, who had so long resisted the king's authority and had done all she could to flaunt her rebellion, had found in the archives of the town library an ancient copy of the king's edicts. She had taken it home and began to read. As she read she began to weep. For days and days she read and wept and wept. She began reading them comfortably in her chair, but she finished reading them on the floor, bent over, trembling and crying.
The edicts of the king were good. His plans and purposes for the land were glorious and sure. She saw and felt for the first time that real freedom and fulfillment didn't come by setting up her little rebellious plan against the king's, but by accepting the wonderful place he would give her in his plan.
She was crushed and humbled. From that day on she would be the king's if he would have her. So when the king entered her house, he didn't enter the house of a rebel. He entered the house of one who in all brokenness and contrition revered his throne. So his visit was not a compromise, because the pride of his hostess had been crushed. It is not a compromise for the lofty One whose name is Holy to dwell with crushed and humble saints.
And now the woman sat staring at the little velvet box. To her it was not little. She was tempted to bow before it. Her hand trembled. Even a visit from the king had not made her presumptuous. Slowly she opened the box, and saw a delicate golden ring and a hand-written note from the king. She took up the note and read to herself,
With this I cancel every sin
And heal now every hurt within.
The one who wears the royal ring
Will be the daughter of the king.