Given for the Saints at Medicalodge, Neosho, MO, on 2/22/09.
"Because you have said, "We have made a covenant with death, and with Sheol we have an agreement; when the overwhelming scourge passes through it will not come to us; for we have made lies our refuge, and in falsehood we have taken shelter" (Isa. 28:15).
The idea of making a covenant with death is very bizarre, but since it's the topic of Isaiah's prophecy for Israel, it's worth taking a closer look. For decades, I have looked at this verse and it's follow up (Vs. 18), exactly backwards. Vs. 18 declares, "Your covenant with death will be annulled; your agreement with the grave will not stand." I had always considered this latter verse good news to counter balance the verse quoted above (Vs. 15). That's not what God showed me about this recently. You'll notice that in Vs. 15, the prophet said that the people of Israel had taken shelter in falsehood. By calling their refuge in falsehood a "covenant with death," Isaiah mocks their unrealistic view that national calamity will not overtake them. He had prophesied that God would punish them for their sins by allowing them to be taken captive by the armies of Assyria (Northern Kingdom of Israel) and Babylon (Judah). The people of Israel had consistently resisted this message, continuing on in their sinful ways, refusing to repent as the prophets had all demanded. Because of the hardness of their heart, Isaiah declared, "When the overwhelming scourge sweeps by, you will be beaten down by it. As often as it comes it will carry you away; morning after morning, by day and by night, it will sweep through....the Lord, the Lord Almighty, has told me of the destruction decreed against the whole land" (Vs. 18-19,22).
Those are hard words which God put in the mouths of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, Ezekiel, and others, words which fell for the most part on deaf ears, as the children of Israel hardened their hearts to the words of the Lord. The thing about Isaiah that unfailingly moves me is that he never leaves people in despair, but always gives them hope in the magnificent grace of God and His ways of snatching victory out of the jaws of defeat. To demonstrate this, Isaiah used a farming metaphor. Comparing God's ways to a farmer's methods, the prophet asked, "When a farmer plows for planting, does he plow continually? Does he keep on breaking up and harrowing the soil?" (Vs. 24). The answer, of course, is "NO!" He plows for the purpose of making the soil ready for the seed he will sow such as caraway, cumin, wheat, barley and spelt (a kind of wheat).
When the seed grows into a plant and produces its crop, the farmer uses just the right instrument to harvest it, which Isaiah said was learned from God: "Caraway is not threshed with a sledge, nor is a cartwheel rolled over cumin; caraway is beaten out with a rod, and cumin with a stick. Grain must be ground to make bread; so one does not go on threshing it forever" (Vs. 27-28). I have used "divine combine" as a similar metaphor to describe the dealings of God in our lives, a process which feels like we are being knocked about in God's threshing machine. I find it comforting to know that God uses just the right tool to mold us into His will, a tool used in a process which certainly isn't comfortable at the time for us, but one which will bring the desired results. He doesn't use a sledge hammer when a tap with a ruler will do the job more effectively.
Perhaps the reason Isaiah 28, intrigues me so much is that I had made my own covenant with death in the past, in just the way Isaiah defines and condemns it. After receiving the Baptism in the Holy Spirit, I "glomped" onto Kenneth Copeland's "name it and claim it, bind it and banish it" theology with all my might. His teachings that such self effort on my part would keep death at bay, and bring prosperity to boot, were very seductive. I hoped, that by following Copeland's detailed schemes for defeating the devil and his minions, getting healed, and becoming and remaining prosperous, I could stand against Satan and avoid death, disease and deprivation. Heady stuff indeed, which turned out to be merely a stepping stone in my education. God knew that I needed to be set free from the fatalism and fear generated by Fundamentalist doctrine. He used Copeland's teachings to help with that process, but the Lord knew I could not live there.
In Isaiah's words, God told me to "Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch the tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes and spread out to the right and to the left" (Paraphrase of Isa. 54:2-3). That is always the goal of our encounters with God. He never leaves us the same as we were, but always urges us farther and deeper, as we follow Him.
The idea of making a covenant with death so it cannot harm us reminded me of Job, who had made his own covenant. He was not so much concerned with protecting himself, but rather his 10 children, who had a habit of feasting and drinking in each other's homes. "When a period of feasting had run its course, Job would send and have them purified. Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, 'Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.' This was Job's regular custom" (Job 1:5). God has His ways to smash our attempts to control Him. In Job's case, the method seemed excessively harsh: A messenger ran to Job to tell him, "Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother's house, when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!" (Job 1:18-19).
So much for man's feeble attempts to control the divine, which, by the way, is the basis of all pagan worship. Remember the Baal worshippers whom Elijah stood down on Mount Carmel (I Kings 18)? The mighty prophet had called a summit between himself as the lone representative of the Lord God Almighty, the people of Israel, and "the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel's table" (Vs. 19). As you may recall, the prophets of Baal were instructed to prepare a bull as an offering to their god; then he prepared a bull and put it on the altar he had constructed. Elijah's test was simple: "Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire, he is God." Though the prophets of Baal called on the name of their god from morning until noon, nothing happened. When Elijah taunted them, asking, "What, is he sleeping?", they became more and more desperate slashing themselves with their swords and spears until the blood flowed copiously (Vs. 27-29). We remember that God heard Elijah's prayer in a most dramatic way: "Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench" (Vs. 38). Here you have a dramatic example of the difference between self effort and Spirit controlled action. The results showed which count in a show down with evil.
The Apostle Paul, who knew first hand the folly of depending on self effort to attain righteousness no matter how religious it may seem, asked, "Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him? For from him and through him and to him are all things" (Rom. 11:34-36). He further commented to the Corinthian brothers, "For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ" (I Cor. 2:16). Accessing the mind of Christ is something that several of you have groaned to us about, as you tried unsuccessfully to appropriate it for yourself. And here again is the obvious, you can't get into the mind of Christ or even close by self effort. It's totally a God job!
God will use whatever means or measures He deems appropriate to show us who is boss, who is in control. Isaiah had pointed out that the farmer does not thresh caraway with a sledge because it would destroy the crop. The prophet referred to the nation of Assyria as the "rod" of God's "anger, in whose hand is the club of my wrath" (Isa. 10:5). As we know, Babylon was used in the same way against Judah. "But," someone protests, "the Northern Kingdom was never heard from again, so how is that not harsh punishment?" To us, it certainly seems harsh, but He who knows the end from the beginning, declares, "My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose" (Isa. 46:10).
It helps me to remember that God's treatment of Israel was foreordained, a prelude to the grace offered by the New Covenant. To me, Deuteronomy 28, is the scariest chapter in the bible, for it spells out in terrifying detail the punishments to be meted out when they failed to keep the Law. It makes me want to fall on my face before God in appreciation of the gift of grace we enjoy. Under law, our standing with God depended upon our works, but thanks be to God for our Lord Jesus Christ, who delivered us from the sin which was inevitable under Law, and from the Law itself, which Paul said, killed him: "Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death" (Rom. 7:9-11).
Let me be blunt here about the folly of thinking, as some of our religious leaders have stated, that this nation is now on the ropes because we have not kept the commandments. That conclusion is a clear misunderstanding of the gospel. So many Christians were upset and outraged because the Ten Commandments were removed from the Alabama Court House steps. We do NOT live by the Ten Commandments, but by the life of Christ within us! Trying to follow the Old Covenant while living under the New is making a covenant with death!
Don't bother trying to e-mail those stones to me; the technology hasn't been perfected yet. Besides, I am NOT saying we can thumb our noses at righteousness. I'm reminding us all that we are no longer married to the law, but rather to Christ who was "raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God..... But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code" (Rom. 7:4,6). The Ten Commandments, which by the way can be used as a Covenant with Death in the sense Isaiah used the term, were EXTERNAL!. Christ and His Spirit are INTERNAL!
The people who are still trying to convince themselves that they can be good if they try harder will find out like Job did that man's righteousness is just "skin deep." In spite of his offering sacrifices for them regularly, all of his children died. Many of us believe that Peter spoke the truth when he wrote that "God is not willing for ANY to perish, but for ALL to come to repentance" (II Pet. 3:9). Likewise, Paul spoke the truth when he wrote to Timothy that God "wants ALL men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (I Tim. 2:4). Like Paul, "we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of ALL men, especially of those who believe" (I Tim. 4:10). Because we believe that "the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of ALL men" (Titus 2:11), we don't fret about the eternal destiny of Job's children, who died in order for God to make the point to him that his covenant with death had been annulled.
My covenant with death was annulled in a similar manner. A group of us at the church I was attending had taken on the challenge of getting a terminally ill friend healed. We applied all the techniques that Brother Copeland had recommended: confessing our belief in healing, quoting Bible verses, binding Satan, pleading the blood, and praising God for doing what we expected Him to do. Our friend died a long and hideously painful death, but instead of thanking the Lord that she was at peace and inhabiting her perfect glorified body, I moaned and complained to God about the fact that we did everything "right," but she still died. He stopped me mid-whine by asserting, "Ruth is MY business." I got it instantly that His will was sovereign and our feeble efforts counted for nothing.
Truth to tell, so much of what passes for Christian duty MAY fell into the category of a covenant with death. The litmus test is this: are we trying to manipulate or control God? Convince Him to grant our request? Prevent anything bad from happening to us? Those were my motivations for following Copeland's rules for getting ahead with God. If any of this hits home with you, don't worry. God isn't worried about it, nor concerned, because when He's ready to advance your theology, He will take care of it in His inimitable way. At the end of his ordeal, Job got it. He saw it, or rather, he saw God, which is always the point of the exercise, no matter how strange or painful it may be. When the "overwhelming scourge" passes by, bizarre as it sounds to the carnal mind, we do not put faith in our covenant with death, in our self efforts to ward it off, but rather in the sure knowledge that "everything comes from God" (I Cor. 11:12), "who works all things by the counsel of HIS own will" (Eph. 1:11). What Israel didn't know and many Christians seem unaware of as well is that "it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Phil. 2:13).
By His faith in that good news, we surrender our covenant with death and everything else to Him, knowing that He does all things well.
Father, we thank You that no matter what comes to us from Your hand, it is designed to grow us in grace, to help us see You as You are so we can be like You. It is not by strength and not by might, but by Your Spirit, Father, that we live and fellowship with You. Amen Jan Antonsson
17178 Highway 59, Neosho, MO 64850 (Snail Mail)
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Working for Jesus? Surrendering to God, II
Fighting the Good Fight? Surrendering to God, III
The Family Fix, Surrendering to God, V
Your Mortal Body, Surrendering to God, VI
Echoes From Sodom, Surrendering to God, VII
Judgment: His or Ours? Surrendering to God, VIII
Why did Christ have to die? Surrendering to God, IX
The Pearl of Great Price,Surrendering to God, X
Tested by Fiery Trials, Surrendering to God, XI
Sibling Rivalry, Surrendering to God, XII
When Parents and Churches Fail, Surrendering to God, XIII
The Blessed Hope of His Appearing, Surrendering to God, XIV
Does God Need Us? Surrendering to God, XV
Does God Need Our Faith? Surrendering to God, XVI
The Glory Road
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email@example.com This site was created on 02/20/09
by Jan Antonsson, Webmeister