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Lesson 8: The Man Who Cried For God to Come Down (Isaiah 63:15-64:12)

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In the early years of my ministry, I attended a lot of pastor’s conferences and seminars because I felt overwhelmed with the demands of the ministry and I was looking for any help that I could get. But I soon began to realize that such conferences typically offered some method or strategy for ministry, but they left me feeling empty and not helped. While I still feel overwhelmed by the demands of the ministry, and I feel especially inadequate to preach on a text like this, I believe that the main method that Christ uses to build His church is godly men who devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4).

I agree with Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Revival [Crossway Books], p. 310; I am indebted to his final two chapters, pp. 291-316, for this sermon), who observed that never before has the church had so many methods available to us, but at the same time, so little experience of the power of God. Christians need to know the living God in a deeper way. And, we need to entreat God to pour out His Spirit through a revived church, so that His power in salvation would turn millions in repentance and faith to Him.

Through God’s Spirit, the prophet Isaiah saw a desperate future time in Israel’s history. Because Isaiah predicted conditions that would take place about 100 years after he wrote (after the Babylonians conquered Judah), liberal critics have said that Isaiah couldn’t have written this. But I believe that God revealed the future to the prophet and led him to pray this prayer as a gracious way of teaching us how to lay hold of Him and His power in times of great spiritual need.

Isaiah pictures God as shut up in heaven, removed from His people who are suffering because of their sin. In an emotional outburst, the prophet calls upon God to rend the heavens and come down in great power, even as He did at Sinai, to restore His people and to make His name known among the nations. We learn that …

Those who feel the lack of God’s working should cry out to Him to come down in power to make His name known.

We might call Isaiah’s prayer, “revival praying.” Our text reveals five characteristics of “revival praying”:

1. Revival praying begins when some of God’s people feel the lack of His working in our day.

The mood of this prayer is Isaiah’s overwhelming sense of the desperate situation of God’s people. He feels as if God is up in heaven and not even noticing what is happening (63:15). God’s former power is not being experienced: “Where are Your zeal and Your mighty deeds?” His former mercies are not known. Isaiah boldly complains that God is emotionally cold toward him (63:15)!

Furthermore, God’s cities have become a wilderness. His temple is burned to the ground and trodden under foot (64:10-11; 63:18). None of God’s people are calling on His name; they’re all under the power of their sin (64:6-7). It’s as if they had never been under God’s rule or called by His name (63:19). Isaiah deeply feels the desperate need of God’s people, and so he prays with urgency and strong emotion.

Lloyd-Jones emphasizes Isaiah’s emotion in this prayer by pointing out the word “Oh” in 64:1:

Is there an ‘Oh’ in your praying? That is ... a very good test of prayer, that this ‘Oh’ comes in. ‘Oh, Lord.’ Or are you such good people, and doing such excellent work, as evangelicals, busy with this organisation [sic] and the other, that all you need do is to ask God to bless you and to keep on ...? Do you know what it is to say, ‘Oh, Lord’? ... Somebody once said that a sign, the best sign, of a coming revival is that the word, ‘Oh’ begins to enter into the prayers of the people (ibid., p. 301).

His point is that complacency with the existing low spiritual condition among God’s people is the enemy of revival. Remember the lukewarm church at Laodicea? They were content: “We’re rich and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing.” But God’s evaluation was that they were “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17).

I know of two ways to keep yourself from lapsing into lukewarmness and thinking that it is normal. First, steep yourself in the Bible so much that when you hear of the worldliness of the modern church, you are appalled. If you spend your time watching TV and movies, those worldly sources will flavor your view of what is normal. You will hear of worldliness in the church and shrug it off as no big deal. God’s Word must shape your worldview.

Second, read church history and read some of the great men of God from the past. You will learn how God has worked in history, and you will read men who were not tainted by our modern worldview. Of course, they were somewhat tainted by the view of their day, as we all are. But the fact that they wrote in a different time and culture will often jar you to see how far we have drifted. That is the start of revival praying—when some of God’s people begin to feel the lack of His working in our day.

2. Revival praying lays hold of God as He has revealed Himself.

Isaiah knew God as revealed in His Word and he laid hold of God and appealed to Him based on His holy and gracious nature. Matthew Henry (Matthew Henry’s Commentary [Revell], 4:373) observes, “The most prevailing arguments in prayer are those that are taken from God himself.” That’s what Isaiah does here. His prayer is a lesson in applied theology, as he teaches us a number of things about the character of God. To pray as Isaiah prayed, we need a correct understanding of who God is. Note four things:

A. God is the holy and glorious God who dwells in heaven.

“Look down from heaven, and see from Your holy and glorious habitation” (63:15). Immediately, Isaiah recognizes that there is a great gulf between himself and God. Isaiah is on earth below; God is in heaven above. He must look down to behold things here. So Isaiah begins his prayer as Jesus instructed us: “Our Father, who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name.” Years earlier Isaiah had had a vision of the Lord in heaven:

I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory.” And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke (Isa. 6:1-4).

It was a devastating, yet transforming, experience for Isaiah. Now, when he comes before God, he recognizes the great separation between himself as a sinful creature and God in His glorious holiness. So he approaches Him with the proper humility. Leonard Griffith (This is Living [Abingdon Press], p. 134) wrote,

Too often we start to pray at the wrong place. Prayer should begin not with ourselves but with God—a conscious awareness that we stand before him as creatures before the Creator, subjects before the King, servants before the Master, children before the Heavenly Father. A university student, burdened by a personal problem, spent an hour with Phillips Brooks, the great Boston preacher. When he returned to the college, a friend asked him, “What did Dr. Brooks say about your problem?” The student looked surprised. “I forgot to mention it,” he said. “It didn’t seem to matter anyway when I talked with Phillips Brooks.” That should be the effect of prayer and it will be the effect if we come consciously into the presence of God. Before ever becoming a recital of our own problems prayer is a devotional exercise whereby we lose ourselves in God and rise from our mortality to his eternity, our smallness to his greatness, our weakness to his power.

B. God is the mighty God who acts with awesome power.

“Where are Your zeal and Your mighty deeds?” (63:15). “Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at Your presence—as the fire kindles the brushwood, as fire causes water to boil—to make Your name known to Your adversaries, that the nations may tremble at Your presence!” (64:1-2). Isaiah knew God as the mighty God. When He comes down in His power, everyone trembles before Him.

Isaiah is referring here to God’s power as revealed in the exodus. God had performed signs and wonders in Egypt, He parted the Red Sea and led His people safely across. He closed the sea on top of Pharaoh and his pursuing army. He led His people to Mount Sinai, where He called Moses up the mountain to Himself, to give him the Ten Commandments. On that awesome occasion, God warned that neither man nor beast should come near the mountain, lest they die. There were thunder and lightning, the mountain was covered in a thick cloud and smoke, there was the sound of a loud trumpet, and the whole mountain shook violently (Exod. 19:16-19).

The exodus in the Old Testament is a type of God’s power in redeeming His people. That type is fulfilled at the cross of Christ. It takes the same mighty power of God to save a lost soul from Satan’s domain as it did to deliver Israel from Pharaoh’s domain.

I believe that we put too much emphasis on the human decisional aspect of salvation and not enough emphasis on the fact that salvation requires God’s mighty power to change hearts that are captive to sin. The crucial question is not, “Did you make a decision to invite Jesus into your heart?” The crucial question is, “Has God changed your heart through His mighty power?”

If God has saved you from your sins, you are a different person than you were before (2 Cor. 5:17). It is not that you never sin after salvation. But now you hate sin and fight against it, whereas before you went along with it. Now you love God and the things of God, whereas before you were indifferent or hostile toward God. If there is no change in your heart, there is good reason to question whether God has saved you. Revival praying calls upon the mighty God to come down with power to transform the hearts of hardened sinners.

C. God is the sovereign God who judges sin.

Isaiah asks a bold question (63:17): “Why, O Lord, do You cause us to stray from Your ways, and harden our heart from fearing You?” Some want to tone this down, to mean that God has permitted, not caused, Israel to stray and grow hardened. But the Hebrew verb is causative. H. C. Leupold, a conservative commentator, says that this is an example of how a man under distress can get entangled in his illogical thoughts (Exposition of Isaiah [Baker] 2: 347)! But many other Scriptures affirm that God hardens the hearts of sinners (Isa. 6:9-10; Exod. 4:21; Deut. 2:30; Josh. 11:20; John 12:40; Rom. 1:18-32; 9:18; 2 Thess. 2:11-12). Geoffrey Grogan is more on track when he writes, “[Verse 17] recognizes that God has established that moral law in which sin hardens the heart and does so by divine design …” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 6:343). Isaiah is not blaming God for Israel’s sin nor making God the author of sin. Rather, he is affirming that God righteously has judged His sinning people by giving them the fruit of their ways.

What does this mean for us? Martyn Lloyd-Jones (p. 300) expresses the warning like this:

… it is a terrible and a dangerous thing for God’s people to be disobedient. For sometimes God punishes our disobedience not only by turning his face from us, by leaving us to ourselves, but he even seems to drive us into sin, and into error, and to harden our hearts....

Be careful how you treat God, my friends. You may say to yourself, “I can sin against God, and then, of course, I can repent and go back and find God whenever I want him.” You try it. And you will sometimes find that not only can you not find God but that you do not even want to. You will be aware of a terrible hardness, a callosity in your heart. And then you suddenly realize that it is God punishing you in order to reveal your sinfulness, and your vileness to you.

So, when we come to God in prayer for revival, we must see that God is the holy and glorious God who dwells in heaven. He is the mighty God who acts with awesome power. He is the sovereign God who judges sin, sometimes by allowing sin to take its hardening course in our lives. But, also,

D. God is the gracious, compassionate Father who will restore us.

“For You are our Father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not recognize us. You, O Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is Your name” (63:16). “But now, O Lord, You are our Father, we are the clay, and You our potter; and all of us are the work of Your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, O Lord, nor remember iniquity forever; behold, look now, all of us are Your people” (64:8-9).

Isaiah is laying hold of God as the gracious, compassionate Father of His people who will restore them, no matter how much they have sinned, if they will turn back to Him and cry out for mercy. As Isaiah 55:6-7 puts it,

Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the Lord, and He will have compassion on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.

Revival praying knows God as the holy, glorious, mighty, sovereign God who judges sin, but also as the gracious Father who will forgive and restore when we turn back to Him.

Thus, revival praying begins when some of God’s people feel the lack of His working in our day. It lays hold of God as He has revealed Himself.

3. Revival praying openly confesses sin and vindicates God’s righteous judgments.

“For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment [the Hebrew means, “a menstrual cloth”]; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. And there is no one who calls on Your name, who arouses himself to take hold of You; for You have hidden Your face from us, and have delivered us into the power of our iniquities” (64:6-7). Isaiah doesn’t blame God, but rather confesses the people’s sin and acknowledges sin’s devastating effects because of God’s righteous judgment. One mark of revival is that God’s people stop blaming God or others for their sin, and own up to it for what it is.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones points out (p. 40) that people hate the doctrine of sin and the doctrine of God’s wrath. He also emphasizes (pp. 41, 101, 157, 231) that a sure sign of revival is that people begin to groan and agonize under the conviction of sin. They become so conscious of their unworthiness and wretchedness that they feel that they cannot live. Some who have been Christians for years begin to doubt whether they ever have been Christians. Why? Because a fallen sinner cannot draw near to a holy God without becoming even more conscious of his own sinfulness.

I’ve had Christians tell me, “Steve, I grew up in an abusive home. I was always put down. I don’t need to see how sinful I am. I need to focus on how much God loves me so that I can build my self-esteem.” There is a mixture of truth and error in those words. The truth is, we are new creatures in Christ, and we should not dwell on what we were in Adam, but rather on what we now are in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 4:22-24). But the errors are that we are to build our self-esteem and ignore our sinfulness. Rather than focusing on ourselves, we are now to see ourselves in Christ so that we esteem Him and extol His grace and love.

And the fact is, the closer you draw to God, who is light, the more you see the darkness of your own sinful heart (Job 42:6, Isa. 6:5; Luke 5:8; 1 Tim. 1:15). If you truly know Christ, this will not drive you to despair, but it will cause you to be on guard against your own propensity toward sin and to glory all the more in the cross of Christ, where His grace freely flows. Show me a man close to God and I’ll show you a man who is painfully aware of his own sins and quick to confess and forsake them.

4. Revival praying is motivated by God’s glory.

Notice the devastation which sin brings the people of God (64:10-11). Cities where people had enjoyed life, where children had laughed and played in the streets, were destroyed. The people were slaughtered or carried off into slavery in a foreign land. God’s temple, where His people had formerly sung His praises, was burned and in ruins. But in spite of all this pain, Isaiah didn’t pray, “Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down to make us all happy once again!”

No, Isaiah, like all who pray effectively, was motivated by something higher than man’s happiness. He was moved to pray because he wanted God to be glorified. He wanted God’s name to be known. He wanted the nations to tremble in God’s presence (64:2). Even so, those today who pray for revival must be moved above all by the fact that God’s honor is tarnished because of the sin of His people. We must pray for His glory to be revealed that the nations may tremble in His presence!

5. Revival praying understands and lays hold of God’s grace.

There is a strange irony in Isaiah’s prayer. He openly confesses the great sin of God’s people, yet at the same time he boldly appeals to God to act on their behalf. He prays some rather gutsy things here! “God, You’ve closed up Your heart toward me!” (63:15). “You’ve caused us to stray from Your ways!” (63:17). “Will You restrain Yourself at these things, O Lord? Will You keep silent and afflict us beyond measure?” (64:12). How can he say these things? Isaiah understood that we don’t come to God based on our merit, but based on His unmerited favor.

God’s grace never gives us warrant to sin so that grace might abound (Rom. 6:2). Isaiah here points out that God acts on behalf of the one who waits for Him. He meets with the one who rejoices in doing righteousness, who remembers God in His ways (64:4-5). God’s abundant grace should motivate us not to sin. But His grace also means that if we do sin, if we will turn from our sin back to God, He, like the father of the prodigal son, will come running to meet us with open arms. He’s that kind of gracious God!

Conclusion

Del Fehsenfeld Jr., the founder of Life Action Ministries, used to ask this searching question: “If revival in this land depended on your prayers, your faith, your obedience, would we ever experience revival?” (Cited in “Spirit of Revival” [2/99], p. 11.)

Today, we see many of God’s people who are hurting. Many are in captivity to sin. Many churches are offering worldly programs, techniques, and counsel that heal the wound of God’s people superficially (Jer. 8:11). True healing can only come when the living God moves powerfully in hearts to convert sinners and to bring repentance and revival to His people. We need to join Isaiah in praying, “Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down!”

Discussion Questions

  1. Where is the proper balance between focusing on God’s love and grace and focusing on His holiness and wrath against sin?
  2. Can people make a decision for Christ and yet not be saved? How can a person know that God has truly saved him?
  3. What are the marks of genuine revival?
  4. How can we set forth God’s grace without promoting license?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Discipleship, Engage, Evangelism, Glory, Grace, Prayer, Spiritual Life