By Rosie Moore.
“Go, my people, enter your rooms and shut the doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until his wrath has passed by.” Isaiah 26:20.
In this series titled Big Questions, we’ve been looking at questions from the Bible. You can stop paging through your Bible, as this week’s big question isn’t there! It’s just a question from inside my own head as I read and re-read the many Watsapp messages applying Isaiah 26:20 directly to our nation in lockdown until the end of Passover on 16th April. When I see a verse in splendid isolation, I like to read what comes before and after the little gem to make sure that it actually says what I thought it said! Without context, it’s tempting to make myself the centre of the text and miss the depth of God’s message for all time. This week, as I allowed verse 20 to take its place within the whole chapter, against the backdrop of the rest of the Bible, I began to see that this little verse is indeed God’s word to His people, but in a far richer sense than I first imagined. Now that you’ve stocked up on all your supplies and are finally able to take a breath, I’d urge you to read chapter 26 slowly on your own. I will highlight extracts and draw out the main themes of the text, before considering how these apply to our own state of emergency.
Isaiah 26 is essentially a song about two cities. The first is the strong city that God himself has made for all His people. Its gates are always open to its righteous citizens who keep faith. Salvation itself is the city’s walls of defence. There is safety, protection and privilege for those who live within its walls:
“In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah:
We have a strong city;
God makes salvation
its walls and ramparts.
2 Open the gates
that the righteous nation may enter,
the nation that keeps faith” (Isa 26:1-2).
But the alternative is a lofty city of human pride and self-sufficiency. Its inhabitants will be humbled and its useless walls will be demolished and levelled to dust. The bricks and mortar of this proud city are no protection at all, and the feet of the poor will trample down the symbols of their oppression:
“He humbles those who dwell on high,
he lays the lofty city low;
he levels it to the ground
and casts it down to the dust.
6 Feet trample it down—
the feet of the oppressed,
the footsteps of the poor” (Isa 26:5-6).
Isaiah 26 is a song of trust, praise and meditation for God’s people, but it also asks each one of us which city we call home.
Wedged between the two cities is one of the most encouraging promises that God’s people can hear in times of turmoil:
“You will keep in perfect peace
those whose minds are steadfast,
because they trust in you.
4 Trust in the Lord forever,
for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal (Isa 26:3-4).
In the Hebrew, “perfect peace” is a double peace that comes to those who are devoted to God and firmly fix their eyes on Him under all circumstances. It is a steady and stable attitude that rests on his unchanging love and mighty power, unshaken by surrounding chaos.
Profound peace from God is nothing like the transitory peace that comes through the Headspace app on our cellphone, a session of yoga or a long walk on the beach. It’s not based on circumstances or state of mind, but on the eternal Rock (Phil 4:7; Isa 26:4).
The waiting room
Throughout Isaiah’s prophecy, he is moving between the present (700BC) and the future. While the prophet is pointing to God’s glorious future, he never forgets the harsh realities for God’s people living on earth now. Verses 7-21 describes that present waiting room:
It’s a time when many people happily receive God’s benefits, but reject God himself and continue to do evil. They refuse to learn from God’s grace or his warnings (Isa 26:10). It’s a time when some people are blind to the hand of God in their lives (Isa 26:11), and when other gods rule instead of the One True Lord (Isa 26:13). It’s a time when God’s people are longing for redemption and groaning in distress, discipline and disgrace (Isa 26:9; 16-18).
But at the same time, it’s also a world where God always makes a level path for the righteous (Isa 26:7). It’s a time when God’s faithful people wait and yearn for His name and His renown, rather than seeking their own fame. It’s an opportunity for God’s people to walk in faith and obedience (Isa 26:8-9). The waiting room is a world where God establishes peace for his people and grows them into a commonwealth that glorifies His name (Isa 26:15). Best of all, it’s a world where the dead will live again:
“But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead (Isa 26:19).
It’s into this great tension that God speaks the poignant word that’s been shared all week on social media:
“Go, my people, enter your rooms and shut the doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until his wrath has passed by” (Isa 26:20).
It’s a truly amazing instruction, which is just as relevant for God’s waiting people today. But does this verse promise that God will keep us safe in our houses until the end of Passover, when the COVID threat has passed us by?
Hide yourselves for a little
It’s impossible to understand what this verse promises us today without looking through the lens of what happened in Egypt 1750 years before Isaiah was born: Isaiah 26:20 is a vivid picture of the first Passover night when the angel of death passed over the Israelite houses whose doors were marked by the blood of the lambs. The parallels are unmistakeable.
“When the Lord goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down (Isa 26:20).
At this first Passover in Egypt, God’s people literally hid themselves in their homes for the night until He led them safely out of slavery to their promised country.
But God’s word to His waiting people today must also be seen through the lens of what Jesus did on the cross at Passover in 33AD. Isaiah’s song longs for redemption, but God did indeed come to earth to bring redemption! He came in the form of His Son, the Passover Lamb that we remember at Easter, whose blood hides us from the wrath of God. This season of Lent is the time to marvel at this great peace that the Lord accomplished for us, just as Isaiah foretold (Isa 26:12). And it is the only basis for the perfect peace described in Isaiah 26:3-4.
The gospel tells us that anyone can enjoy the safety of the strong city of God, but we must trust in the salvation God Himself has provided. It is Jesus’s righteousness, and not our own, that makes us a “righteous” nation (Isa 26:7;2). Only His salvation forms our “walls” of protection (Isa 26:1). Jesus is the Lord of all the earth (Isa 26:13) and in Him the dead will rise again (Isa 26:19).
Jesus is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s song and He is the only safehouse that exists in this world.
The only safehouse
Our true safety depends on which passport we hold and to which city we belong. That is the primary message of Isaiah 26. But what does exactly does Isaiah 26 promise the people of God in our current lockdown, as we wait for COVID to pass?
Let’s think beyond our ‘safe’ middle class houses for a moment and imagine what it’s like to be God’s faithful people working in hospitals and ICU’s, pharmacies, old age homes, in the streets and the supermarkets, risking their lives to bring the viral pandemic under control. They are being sent out of their homes to protect the vulnerable. Imagine for a moment God’s people who are homeless, split from families or hooked up to a respirator fighting for their lives. The reality is that many of God’s faithful people don’t have “safe houses” to lock themselves into. But does that mean that they’re not secure or protected by God? Does that mean that they cannot “wait and hide themselves for a little” during this pandemic, or any other disaster?
Of course not! Scripture shows us that the image of hiding in our houses is a metaphor, (although very apt and sensible counsel for our time). Our hiding as Christians entails trusting that, for a little while, we suffer grief in all kinds of trials, our faith will be refined and prove genuine (1 Peter 1:6-7). It is believing that “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor 4:17). Our waiting includes longing with all of creation for the earth’s final redemption (Romans 8:18-27; Isa 26:16-21), as well as praying with hope in the promises of God’s word. But it also means acting lovingly for the good of others who need our help (Micah 6:8), caring not just for our own families, safe in our own homes, but for our neighbours too. Wherever we are and whatever we face in the coming weeks, we can give thanks and rejoice, because our hope, protection and safety are rooted in God’s good purposes (1 Thess 5:16-18; Rom 8:28-30).
So, in answer to our big question, Are we safe in our houses? the answer is Yes and No. Staying home is the best way to flatten the curve of coronavirus in our nation, but not even Buckingham Palace was a safe place for Prince Charles! And more importantly, no one is safe from the incurable virus of sin which infects us all, not from the outside, but from the inside of every human heart. No amount of social distancing can save us. The only cure for this deadly virus is the vaccine God has provided. Jesus is the Passover Lamb that takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).
Lockdown over this Easter period is a good time to unite as families and a nation, to reflect on how broken our world really is and how much we need a Saviour. It’s a good time for Christians to remember that we’re just campers here (1 Peter 2:11), citizens of a heavenly city with solid foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Heb 11:10). There is only one “safe house” to lock down in, and that is the house built on the Rock (Matt 7:24-27; Luke 6:47-49). Jesus himself told us how this is done:
“Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.”
Building on the Rock
My friends, this song of Isaiah has been a great blessing to me this week. Whether you know Christ in a personal way or not, the current State of Emergency asks us all some urgent questions. Let none of us be like those who will not learn that we’re beyond human help (Isa 26:10-11). I appeal to you to humbly ponder these questions and lock down in prayer:
- To what city do you belong —God’s safe city, or a flimsy city built on money, self-righteousness and pride?
- Do you experience the peace of a steadfast mind (Isa 26:3-4)?
- What are your heart’s desires (Isa 26:9)? Do you long for Christ’s salvation to reach the ends of the world? Do you yearn for His return to bring final redemption to our world? Do you live for God’s renown (Isa 26:8)? Or do you just hope for immediate relief from COVID-19 and safety in this world?
Prayer based on 1 Peter 1:3-6:
We praise you, God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! Thank you that in your great mercy, you have given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We take safety and hope in an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade, kept in heaven for us. Protect our nation, protect our homes, especially the most vulnerable among us. Thank you that through our faith in Jesus, we are shielded by your power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. Keep us faithful as we wait in our houses for our true home, and give us grace to hide ourselves in you.
In Jesus’s name, Amen.