We know a glorious God. A God worth trembling before.
Look at the opening words of Isaiah 66:
Thus says the Lord: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool…’
A king who uses our planet, all 5.9 sextillion tonnes of it, as a footstool.
This is an image of immense royal power which gives us a glimpse of the magnitude of God’s glory.
The truth of God’s glory has been a theme throughout Isaiah. It is there from the beginning, famously in chapter 6, where the prophet was confronted with that overwhelming vision of God’s glory:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called 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 shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.
If we form this picture in our minds, we can see that our God is glorious. He is big. He is weighty. He is worthy. He is in no way dependent or beholden to us.
‘what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest?’
God had commanded his Old Testament people to build the temple. However, God would use Haggai to chastise them for being slack in rebuilding it when they returned from exile. However, God did not need a temple. God was not dependent on the sacrifices that were offered in the temple.
‘All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the LORD’.
God is the creator of all things and so he is above all things (Isa 66:2). All things are dependent on him. This is part of his glory (Rev 4:11).
The God of Isaiah is a glorious King and a glorious Creator who stands in awesome and complete authority over all that exists. In Isaiah, he is the one that makes mountains quake and turns the seabed into a road. He is the one who uses mighty king Cyrus as a tool to achieve his own purposes. He is the one who can somehow, impossibly, unfathomably, take a people soaked in sin and redeem them to himself, despite his utter and overwhelming holiness and purity.
As we busy ourselves each day in the pastoral trenches; as we work to build up the temple of God, it is useful to pause and remind ourselves why.
We know the glorious God; we really believe with Isaiah:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory’.
Why do you do what you do? Pride in achievement? Fear of failure? Peer pressure? Financial necessity?
The rightly ordered ministry, like the rightly ordered life, begins with a true vision of the glory of God. Isaiah glimpsed it in a prophetic moment. However, we know where the ultimate vision of the glory of God is found.
2 Corinthians 4:6 says:
For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
For my life and ministry to be rightly ordered, I need a clear vision of the glory of God. This is why my own personal relationship with Christ matters so much, because he is the way God reveals his beautiful, terrifying, trembling-worthy glory to us.
Amid sorting out your M’s or your rosters, running the structures and programmes, and meeting with all the people, are you daily renewing your vision of the glory of God by contemplating Christ?
We know a glorious God. A God worth trembling before. And in Isaiah 66, that glorious God gives a word of promise to those who tremble at his word.
A word of promise for those who tremble at his word
God could direct his gaze of blessing anywhere in all of creation. But where does he particularly direct it?
But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word. (Isa 66:2)
He directs it to the person who is humble and contrite in spirit. The person who trembles at his word, who truly sees the glory of God.
If I truly see how big and weighty and worthy God is, what option do I have but humility and contrition? What option do I have but to see my smallness in the shadow of his greatness?
I was recently bushwalking in Tasmania and saw massive, old growth trees towering above me, with diameters greater than my height. They were glorious trees. I felt small and humble in their presence – and they were just trees!
How much more must I see myself as small and humble if I see how glorious God, the creator of those trees is?
If I see the glory of his holiness, how deeply will I see my unworthiness before him; how much cause do I have for broken-hearted contrition before him?
If I truly see the glory of God, as it is revealed to me ultimately in Christ, how could I not be who Christ calls me to be; poor in spirit, mourning and meek, hungry, and thirsty for righteousness?
Yet I very often fail.
Which is why I am so grateful that there is another who has always walked in dependent (John 5:18-19), reverent awe (Heb 5:7) before God; who walked in perfect humility and submission before God, even to death on a cross (Phil 2:5-11).
What he has done on the cross reveals new depths to God’s glory and gives more reason to tremble before him; to tremble with joy and wonder and awe at his grace and love. How could I not tremble before that God?
How could I not tremble at his word? The word breathed from the lips of a glorious God is a glorious word. When the Lord of all the earth and the creator of all things speaks, his word is to be received with humility.
It is a humbling wonder that the God of glory chooses to speak to lowly and pitiful human beings at all. Certainly, each word from the lips of a God like that is a precious gem or a nugget of gold.
If the God of glory speaks, his words demand to be received with humble, awed faith.
His words of command demand humble and awed obedience. His words of warning demand humble and awed heeding. His words of promise demand humble and awed trust.
In Isaiah 66, we find beautiful words of promise for those who tremble at his word. We are united by faith to the one who ultimately and truly trembled at God’s word and who at the same time was God’s ultimate and true Word to us. And so, these words of promise are for us.
Firstly, we have the promise that God looks on us. Despite the darkness of our sin, we do not tremble before a hostile force in fear of our lives. We tremble before an Almighty Saviour who is for us.
Secondly, we have the promise of verse 5:
Hear the word of the Lord, you who tremble at his word: ‘Your brothers who hate you and have cast you out for my name’s sake have said, “Let the Lord be glorified, that we may see your joy”; but it is they who will be put to shame. The sound of an uproar from the city! A sound from the temple! The sound of the Lord, rendering recompense to his enemies’.
Isaiah experienced this hostility (Isa 5), however Jesus experienced the full humiliation as he hung on the cross. The leaders of Israel looked up and mocked him, even as he fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecies and was pierced for our transgressions.
Jesus promised his disciples that they would share in that hostility, and we see it happen as the rest of the New Testament unfolds. Those who tremble at God’s word, and therefore submit themselves to live in accord with God’s word, have regularly been hurt and marginalised by others who claim to worship the same God.
This is currently happening to evangelicals in the Church of England. It is where the Diocese of the Southern Cross came from. I lived this for years fighting battles in the Uniting Church over sexuality, back in the day. But ultimately God promises to vindicate those who keep faithfully humbling themselves before his word. Eventually the burden of the hostility will be lifted. Because the God of glory will judge those that imposed it as enemies and give them what that deserves.
Thirdly, those who humbly tremble at God’s word have the promise of a glorious future that involves a newborn people and a new home.
Throughout Isaiah, God has promised judgement against the corruption and sin of his chosen people and his chosen city. At the same time, he has promised them restoration and redemption. In Isaiah 66:6-14, God paints a beautiful picture of future blessing. He gives the image of Zion, giving birth to a new nation in a miraculous way, where the birth comes before the pain of labour. This new nation is mothered by a new Jerusalem.
At the beginning of the book, when Jerusalem’s judgement is in view, she is pictured as a frail and derelict shelter in a veggie patch and as a wretched besieged city. She is compared to Sodom and Gomorrah and called a shameful whore.
But here at the end, the New Jerusalem is a mother able to satisfy and delight her children; to happily feed them and bounce them on her knee. She lives in a peace and prosperity that God will provide for her and so her children will rejoice and flourish. After so much tribulation, they will know the comfort of her motherly embrace. And, in verse 15, God deepens the image of comfort and blessing. Zion’s motherly comfort is actually God’s motherly comfort. What a beautiful image of the warmth of God’s care and love for his people.
From verse 18 the promise of blessing grows and embraces God’s ancient promises to Abraham about all nations being blessed through him. God declares that he will gather all nations and tongues to see his glory. Messengers of his glory will go out in every direction, and people from all nations will be brought to him.
The great sign has been set in the resurrection of Christ. The apostles and evangelists who wrote the New Testament considered themselves to be living the outworking of this promise as they carried the gospel to the ends of the earth. Their message has been shared and reshared until eventually we have come to see the glory of God. We have been brought to the holy mountain of God, the new Jerusalem from above, who is our mother.
We have the privilege of worshipping the God of glory now as citizens of the new heaven and new earth, by faith. We have the hope of the day to come, when all trouble and tribulation will be gone, and all nations will gather around the glorious throne. We will sing:
‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’! (Rev 7:10)
We will sing this with joy and comfort and triumph, and we will never tire, and the joy and comfort and triumph will never cease. This is the promise of God to those who are humble and contrite in spirit and who tremble at his word.
But we must not just tremble at his words of promise. We must also tremble at his words of warning.
A word of warning for those who do not tremble at his word
While it is always nice to finish with the positive, that is not what God does as he finishes the book of Isaiah. In verse 2 God talks about those he esteems, but in verse 3 he talks about a different group. People who go to his temple to offer the sacrifices proscribed by God’s law. However, they might as well splash pigs’ blood on his altar, or even commit a homicide; that is how much God despises their sacrifices.
While these people offer sacrifices, they do not tremble before God’s glory, and they do not tremble at God’s word. Their attitude and approach to him is something quite different.
They go to God’s temple and offer their sacrifices, but this flows from self-interest, not awe at God’s glory. They choose their own way. They set the terms of their relationship with God. Their souls delight in abominations, and they choose the opposite of what delights God (Isa 66:3-4).
They would go to the temple and offer sacrifices, they would fast in sack cloth and ashes, but then they would cheat and exploit one another. They would seek the blessing of pagan gods, alongside YHWH. They would do the opposite of trembling at his word. They ignored his word.
In Acts, many centuries later, Stephen confronted the descendants of those whom Isaiah confronted. They had just rejected God’s ultimate and definitive word to them. And Stephen said to them: ‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit, like your fathers.’ (Acts 7:51)
Stiff necked, refusing to bow in humility before God. Their hearts did not truly belong to the God of glory, and so their ears do not truly listen to the God of glory. Since God really is glorious, the outcome of persisting in that path must be what God says it is.
For behold, the Lord will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to render his anger in fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire will the Lord enter into judgement, and by his sword, with all flesh; and those slain by the Lord shall be many. (Isa 66:15)
God warned his people through the prophet Isaiah. But they did not listen, so after the great slaughter, the temple was destroyed, and they went into exile.
God warned a later generation through Jesus, the true trembler at God’s word and himself God’s Word. They also offered sacrifices and kept fasts, but they were deaf to the ultimate and decisive arrival of God’s Word among them. And the judgement he promised came once again. After the great slaughter, that temple is no more, but is replaced by a new one that needs no mountain to stand upon.
Those events in history stand as warning signs of the final fate of all who ignore God’s word instead of trembling at it, including those who are visible and active in his temple.
What does it mean to tremble at this word from God?
Firstly, we should heed the word of warning. In our various forms of pastoral ministry, we are engaged in the life of God’s temple, just like the enemies of God in Isaiah 66. Like them, it is possible for us to do it to fulfil our own agendas and desires, instead of an outworking of our wonder at the glory of God, seen in the face of Christ.
It is possible for us to not listen to God, even while we do all the things in his temple, the church. Perhaps to hear the things we want to hear and ignore the things we don’t. To handle his word carefully in the pulpit, but then ignore it in the rest of your ministry; to ignore what God says about love or patience of holiness as you step out of the pulpit into lounge rooms or staff meetings or your home.
We must repent and seek God’s forgiveness and strength to change. We must tremble at God’s word of rebuke so that we can tremble at his word of grace, in Christ.
Secondly, we should trust the word of promise. Some have been through the wringer in the last little while. Some of you feel like you are still in it and the handle is still turning. In the face of that, God’s promise to you is, ‘I see you and I care for you’. Trust that word.
Our God is glorious.
Through God’s ultimate word in Christ, we have come to know and love and worship a God who is big and weighty and worthy, as Isaiah did.
Tremble at his word because you tremble at his glory.