My People?

On that day Israel will be the third party with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people and Assyria the work of my hands and Israel my heritage.”

Isaiah 19:24-25

I grew up in what I have come to refer to as a “brimstone” church. Out of respect for my brothers and sisters in other denominational traditions, I’ll forgo labels. Suffice it to say that by the time the pastor was done, those who weren’t “right with God” could smell the sulfur and feel the heat. Like Martin Luther, I spent the early years of my life convinced I was a goner, tortured by the weight of God’s displeasure with me.

Of course, none of us should casually dismiss God’s judgment. We believe God is pure love, as we are told in in 1 John 4:8. However, our modern ears hear the word “love” emptied of any concept of judgment. This option doesn’t work. Is love possible without justice? To those keen on the attempt, try explaining God’s love to someone who was trafficked. Can God love them without smashing the chains of their oppressors?

Interestingly, this is exactly the sort of question with which Israel’s prophets wrestled. They knew that God had chosen them and set them apart to be both a peculiar witness to God’s steadfast love and faithfulness (Exodus 19:5–6) and a blessing to the nations (Genesis 12:3b). This identity was both a word of judgment to those who would do violence against God’s people, like their Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, Seleucid, and Roman oppressors, and the call to bear witness to the Lord to the ends of the earth.

Isaiah opens his prophetic work at a time when Assyria was breathing down Israel’s neck, threatening doom, and kings like Hezekiah were looking to make a deal with their former enemy Egypt to come and save them. Is the enemy of my enemy truly my friend? Can God use even oppressive Egypt and Assyria, as well as broken and frail Israel, for God’s purposes? To what end? When will our enemies get their comeuppance?

In answer to this, Isaiah pens one of the most brilliant insights into God’s mysterious and grand purposes. Though Isaiah issues pronouncements against Egypt as a warning to Israel, verses 18 through 25 of chapter 19 testify to something beyond the presenting political struggle. When God acts, Isaiah tells us, not only will Israel be redeemed, but room also will be made for Egypt and Assyria. On that day, Isaiah tells us, there will be an altar to the Lord in both Egypt and Assyria, with a road between them—a road winding right through the heart of Israel, standing as a repairer of the breach between peoples and nations. Though Egypt will be struck, that punishment will be tempered with grace, and they, too, shall be healed (v.22). When God acts, not only will Israel be blessed, but Egypt and Assyria will also be called “my people” (v.25).

Please don’t read my words as an invitation to any form of universalism, or cheap grace. God’s judgment is real, and it is fierce; we ought never to toy with God or mistake our purposes for His. However, there was something missing from those brimstone services of my youth that the church needs to remember: In Jesus Christ, God’s purposes of reconciliation and redemption have been accomplished, the burden of our sin and shame dealt with, and grace extended to all who will receive it (John 3:17). When Jesus cried “It is finished,” his statement wasn’t conditional (John 19:30).

What this means is that in Christ all of us have a path back. Even we who have been God’s severest enemies find the possibility of being called His people, not because we are worthy but because God’s justice is tempered by the outstretched hand of compassionate love. Or, as I like to say some Sundays, “Your Judge has, from the beginning, been your Redeemer.”

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