At the end of Isaiah, the prophet talks about the relationship between new life and the heat of judgement. Given the devastation we’re seeing from the immense fires since September in Australia, these verses have special relevance.
This doesn’t justify arson, or the political opportunism seeking to advance, distract, manipulate and use the suffering of others to feed self-interest. The relationship between new life and the heat of judgement speaks to all of us. It’s here, and not with pyromania, or political opportunism that the Word found in the prophetic meets with the pyrophytic.
Horticulturalists tell us that some Australian plants have ‘fire-activated seeds.’ According to Britannica, these ‘pyrophytic plants’ include the ‘lodgepole pine, Eucalyptus, and Banksia. They have ‘serotinous cones or fruits that are completely sealed with resin.’
As if planned to suit the dry, flammable Australian climate, these pyrophytic plants can ‘only open to release their seeds after the heat of a fire has physically melted the resin. Other species, including a number of shrubs and annual plants, require the chemical signals from smoke and charred plant matter to break seed dormancy.’ [i]
This isn’t all that different from how God’s mercy and judgment function towards creation. The goal of chastisement is the newness of life – reconciliation and redemption – to produce new life from the heat of judgement. Not just rehabilitation, but total heart transformation.
As Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer, God ‘looks to the humble and contrite in spirit, those who tremble at His Word (66:1-2 see also Psalm 51).’ This doesn’t mean trembling before God as though He were an old, bearded man with a stick, looking to control through a crushing fear and paralysis. God doesn’t need tools that would “convince a man against his will.” For He knows all too well that this “man will remain of the same opinion still.” The fears of those who refuse to hear are harsh enough. Humanity is not the hostage of a mean-spirited old man.
Through Ezekiel, we can know with certainty that God isn’t a manipulator or deceiver. He doesn’t desire [take pleasure in] the death of the sinner but desires the sinner’s correction (Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11). Although God desires all people ‘to be saved, and to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim. 2:4), not everyone who says to Him ‘Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.’ (Matthew 7:21).
Tremble in this sense, therefore, is a verb, not a noun. It’s decisive movement; to be both moved, and to move. It illustrates heartfelt response based on God’s movement in Jesus Christ towards humanity. He is an event, not an idea. After having heard and responded to this Word, caution gives way to trust. Like eyes that have only known darkness, now adjusting to the light.
Tremble speaks of our immediate response to a confrontation with this Word. It is directly related to the imperative in verse 5, which summons us to ‘hear’. God looks for our attention. He looks to those who receive His Word with joy, and humbly live out their reply. Hearing with reverence empowers trust and gives reasons for doing so.
Isaiah teaches us that God is not absent. He hears, sees, speaks and acts. His mercy, as the louder of the two, is never far from His judgement! He never is without a plan, promise or pathway to fulfilling both. God will keep His Word. He will do this by overcoming His enemies; those who’ve made themselves gods, those who, in His name justify themselves through sterile, empty rituals, or celebrate a return to the tyrannical lordship of superstition, animism, and the man-made gods of the Ancient Near East. God’s judgement applies to all who are ‘not hearing; not responding’ – those doing whatever is right in their own eyes, but evil in His; delighting in sin, instead of delighting in the things that God delights in. (66:3-4).
For example: ‘Oh that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river and your righteousness like the waves of the sea [constant; regular; never failing].’ (Isaiah 48:18)
Peace flowing like a river is a promise! It is God’s promise to Zion and those who dwell therein (66:12-13). As is the rejection of God’s commandments, which outline a relationship with Him, so is the rejection of ‘the peace of God which surpasses all understanding’ (Philippians 4:4). This is more than a peace treaty. The imagery of living, unstoppable peace is interconnected with a life liberated by the restored joy of salvation, and a clean heart, made right by Christ, in Christ, through Christ, and with Christ.
Hence Paul can write, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always again I say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.’ This promise of peace like a river to all who hear and respond will ‘guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians, 4:4-6, ESV)
Isaiah notes Jerusalem (Zion) will rejoice for peace will flow like a river. God will nurture the city and its inhabitants. He will comfort them, as He confronts them. Hearts will rejoice, bones shall flourish like grass and the hand of the Lord shall be known to His servants and His enemies. Divine justice will bring to account those who have made themselves His enemy.
Our hope in the midst of deep anxiety is awakened by the life of the pyrophytic. These plants teach us that there will not just be peace after the firestorm, there will be new life! These fires will end and the rains will come again.
Our hope in the midst of deep anxiety is shored up in the promise of the prophetic. New life springs forth from the heat of judgement. Like melting resin, hardened, stubborn hearts are freed to be free for God.
In this movement; in this trembling where we move and are moved, may heads and hearts be turned back towards Christ, and therefore towards one another, away from bitter blame and political opportunism. May the light of the prophetic meeting with the pyrophytic, bring to us a renewed confidence in God’s promise.
Therefore, may we as a nation sing along loudly, even if with an exhausted sigh, the words from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who after the loss of his wife to fire wrote:
In despair I bowed my head. There is no peace on earth I said. For hate is strong and mocks the song, of peace on earth, good will to men…then the bells, rang more loud and deep, God is not dead, nor does he sleep! The wrong shall fail; the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.
It’s a good word for Epiphany, 2020. As the world turns the corner into a new decade, let faith in Christ reign, and may the people say, “Amen.”
[i] Britannica, 5 Amazing Adaptations of Pyrophytic Plants. Sourced, 6th January, 2020.