READ : Isaiah 57:14-21
The Bible promises us that those who belong to God will some day live with him in heaven. Better yet, it promises that God will some day live with us on earth. In fact, if you’re willing, he will live with you right now.
One spring day in 1909, my grandmother stood on a pier in the city of Rotterdam, waiting to board a steamship that would carry her to America, and away from her homeland forever. Around her stood four of her children, one of whom was my father, aged three. Her husband, my grandfather, had already emigrated to the United States, having gone there to start a new life for his family. He worked for a full year until he managed to save enough to bring his wife and children over to join him.
Now my grandmother was saying goodbye to all her family, and to all that was familiar and dear to her. As she turned to board the ship, her father – my great-grandfather – embraced her and said to her, “Always remember, you can never lose your eternal home.”
It’s hard to leave your homeland behind. It’s hard to be an exile, to live as a stranger in a strange land, to speak in a foreign language, to watch your children and grandchildren grow up as part of an alien society. If you are an American, someone in your family tree has probably had that experience. But if you are a Christian, you are living that experience right now.
When the people of Israel were carried into captivity in Babylon, they felt all the anguish of exiles. That pain made God’s promises all the more precious to them, for the theme of the later chapters of the book of Isaiah is that the Lord is planning to bring his people back home again. He tells the prophet to comfort his people, to announce to them that their time of suffering has come to an end.
He commands that a highway be built through the wilderness, to make the crooked places straight and the rough places smooth, to raise the valleys and lower the hills, so that his people’s journey home can be quickly and easily accomplished. Here in Isaiah 57 God says, “Build up, build up, prepare the way, remove every obstruction from my people’s way” (Isaiah 57:14).
But this return from exile is not just a story out of the Old Testament. These promises and commands of God are about more than just the ancient Israelites. Israel’s Babylonian exile, just like their earlier years of wilderness wandering during the time of the Exodus, are really a metaphor of the Christian life. Here in this world, we too are living as exiles, far from our true home. We are passing through the wilderness of the world, on our way to a heavenly promised land.
The apostle Paul told the Christians in Philippi that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). The book of Hebrews speaks of believers who “acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth,” people who “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one,” and it goes on to add, “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (Hebrews 11:13, 16), a city that’s not in this world.
So all the promises to exiles in the Bible are really promises to us, to us who are committed to spending our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. For Christians every homeland is only a place of pilgrimage; we live in our own countries as resident aliens, for our true native land is the city of God.
The God of the Exile
The 57th chapter of Isaiah contains a magnificent statement by the God of Israel, that is, the God of the exile, the God of faithful pilgrims and strangers of every age and race. Isaiah writes,
For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, 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 lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite. . . . I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will lead him and restore comfort to him . . . . Peace, peace, to the far and to the near,” says the Lord, “and I will heal him.”
Did you notice how God is described in this passage? He is “the One who is high and lifted up,” says the prophet. Our attention is directed upwards; we are invited to contemplate God on a vertical plane, to picture him as being immeasurably lofty. This is picture language, not meant to be taken literally. The Bible isn’t trying to tell us that God is literally up in the sky, living beyond the clouds. It uses the imagery of altitude because this is a natural way for us to think about God’s majesty and glory, his greatness.
The message we’re intended to take from this language is that, in contrast to our puniness and weakness, God is infinitely powerful and great. The technical term for this quality of God is transcendence. When we say that God is transcendent we mean that he is utterly above and beyond us, so far greater that we can’t even begin to comprehend how small we are in comparison.
Next the prophet says that God is the One “who inhabits eternity.” Not only is God infinitely great, he is also eternal which means he is utterly without boundaries or limits. He is not bound by time – he has no beginning and no end. He is not bound by space – he is everywhere present at once. He has unlimited power and strength. God can do whatever he wants to, whatever he chooses to do, whatever is consistent with his character and will. Nothing can thwart or frustrate his purposes: not time, not distance, not evil, not fate or chance, not people, not powers or principalities.
Once again Isaiah’s point is the difference between God and us. “All flesh is grass,” as he earlier cried. “The grass withers, the flower fades” (40:6-7). But God is forever. In contrast to our short little lives, God continues through all eternity ever the same, always faithful, always constant. As the hymn says,
We blossom and flourish, as leaves on a tree, and wither, and perish, but naught changeth Thee.
Finally, Isaiah testifies here to the holiness of God: “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy . . .” Whenever the Bible mentions God’s name, it is his nature that is in view. You remember how in the model prayer Jesus gave his disciples, the first thing he taught us to say was “Hallowed be your name.” When we pray that, we’re not just asking, “May your name be kept holy.” We’re saying, “God, may your nature be recognized for what it is, may we always remember and acknowledge who you truly are.”
God is the Holy One. God’s holiness in the Bible doesn’t simply point to his purity or his moral perfection. It also suggests his separateness, his otherness. God, as one theologian has said, is the “Wholly Other.”
All this testimony to God’s utter transcendence is summed up in a direct statement by the Lord himself: “I dwell in the high and holy place” (v. 15). The New Testament puts it this way: God is “the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:15-16).
Where does God dwell? Far above us, it turns out, far beyond us, far away from us sinful human beings. Which, frankly, is bad news for us. If this is all there is to say about God – that he is infinitely great, and eternal, and holy, and dazzling in his perfection – then we haven’t got much to hope for. We haven’t a chance of ever even seeing him, let alone getting close to him.
An Amazing Promise
Thankfully, that’s not all there is to say about God. In fact, after restating his greatness and distance from us, God scarcely pauses for breath before going on to say how close he is to us, despite our weakness, despite our smallness, despite our sin.
I dwell in the high and holy place [the Lord says], and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite. . . .
Where does God dwell? Not just far away, “up there,” in the high and holy place, but right here, with us, if only we will humble ourselves and turn to him.
Many years ago now, when I was a young minister serving in my first church, I invited the members of the congregation to submit Bible passages they would like to hear sermons on. One person wrote a letter to me quoting these verses from Isaiah 57, and adding,
God’s own words declaring his greatness and majesty, but at the same time declaring that he will dwell with him who is of a humble and contrite heart. This is what amazes me, over and over again. Our God and Father, holy and majestic, and yet willing with his mercy and forgiving love to be so near to us! That’s what thrills my heart. That is why I would like to hear you preach a sermon on this text.
So I did, and you’ve just heard it.
The Bible has many amazing promises for the people of God. The Lord promises that one day we will live with him in heaven (John 14:1-6). Better yet, he promises that one day he will live with us on a new earth, with a new heaven, and that he’ll wipe every tear from our eyes (Revelation 21:3-4).
But best of all, he promises that we don’t have to wait til we die, or til Jesus comes again. We can know him and live with him in his presence right here and now. He will come and dwell with us, if we have a heart that is contrite and a spirit that is humble.