Words for the Remnant
If I were to tell you today that I had bad news and good news for you, which one would you want to hear first? I’ve usually found that it’s better to get the bad news first so that the good news can offset the bad—because getting the good news first just puts yourself in a bad, bad place...
It’s like me saying: “Good news! It’s Mother’s Day, so it’s a good day to celebrate the physical or spiritual mothers in your life today over Mother’s Day lunch! Bad news. Today’s passage contains six messages—and I’m preaching.” Or I could say: “Bad news. Today’s passage contains six messages, and I’m preaching—but good news! I have a wife who could go into labour any second, so it’s best I hurry it up!”
Today’s passage in Isaiah 8 does contains six messages, and the first three messages in the first half of the chapter are messages of bad news. They are messages of judgement for Israel and Syria, for Judah, as well as for Assyria.
The final three messages in the last half of the chapter—while not explicitly good news, are good nonetheless because they are messages of encouragement for the faithful few who were actually listening to Isaiah and were actually responding to God in faith.
You’ll notice that the first half of the chapter, and these first three messages, are really a recap of everything we saw in chapter 7 last week. But here’s the first message of bad news, and it’s directed to Israel and Syria.
Bad News #1: Israel and Syria (8:1-4)
Verses 1-4 show us how the “sign of Immanuel” from last week was initially fulfilled, at least in part, by Isaiah himself. God tells Isaiah to get a large tablet, essentially a public sign that says “Belonging to Maher-shalal-hash-baz” on it. According to my Bible’s footnote, that name means “The spoil speeds, the prey hastens,” which speaks about the way that Assyria was to take over the northern kingdoms of Israel and Syria.
And then Isaiah’s own wife becomes pregnant, and Isaiah is told to give his child that exact name—Maher-shalal-hash-baz. (I asked Emily if we could name our baby boy this, and she told me “maybe for the second child...”). But why was Isaiah’s child given this name? Verse 4: “for before the boy knows how to cry ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria” (Isaiah 8:4).
So Isaiah’s own son is basically playing the part described by “Immanuel” in chapter 7. Isaiah’s own son is the boy whose conception and birth sets off a ticking clock, and before he gets to a certain age Assyria will swoop in and the northern two kingdoms, that everyone was so afraid of, won’t be a threat to Judah anymore.
We should note that while Isaiah’s son seems to fulfill the role of Immanuel, he isn’t actually given that name. Nor was Isaiah’s wife a virgin at the time of the prophecy. And so, like we saw last week, this points to another fulfillment of this prophecy still in the future, a virgin- born son who truly will be “God with us.”
Nevertheless, Isaiah’s son acts out this sign which is bad news for Judah’s two northern enemies—Israel and Syria. And yet, on the heels of this, God also has bad news for Judah—which is again, something we saw last week.
Bad News #2: Judah (8:5-8)
Verse 5. “The Lord spoke to me again: ‘Because this people has refused the waters of Shiloah that flow gently, and rejoice over Rezin and the son of Remaliah, therefore, behold, the Lord is bringing up against them the waters of the River, mighty and many, the king of Assyria and all his glory. And it will rise over all its channels and go over all its banks” (Isaiah 8:5–7).
The “waters of Shiloah that flow gently” is probably a reference to a gentle stream that helped keep Jerusalem supplied with water at that point, perhaps related to the pool of Siloam (John 9:7). And here this phrase is used as an image of God’s gentle protection for his people in Judah and Jerusalem.
But God’s people aren’t interested in that. Instead, they have rejoiced “over Rezin and the son of Remaliah,” which probably speaks about them cheering while they watch these two kings get destroyed by Assyria. In other words, the people of Judah are celebrating as Assyria destroys their two enemies to the north because they’ve put their trust in Assyria, not God.
But remember what we heard last week? By putting their trust in Assyria, they people made a huge mistake. And that’s what God describes here in verses 7 and following. He compares Assyria to the River (which your footnote might indicate as the Euphrates River), which ran through the land of Assyria, and describes the Assyrians invading Israel like a river flooding “over all its channels” and “over all its banks.”
Then, verse 8 tells us that this river “will sweep on into Judah, it will overflow and pass on, reaching even to the neck, and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel” (Isaiah 8:8).
The language of “neck” there pictures someone almost drowning in a flood, and the water keeps rising, and only their head stands above the water. And, in fact, when Assyria did invade Judah, they filled the whole land except for the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem, like the head of Judah, alone stood above the flood of the Assyrians.
And what that means is that neither Judah or Assyria is going to get what it wants. Judah wants Assyria to be their saviour, and that won’t happen. Assyria wants to take over all of Judah, and that won’t happen either. God will allow Assyria’s flood waters to rise to Judah’s neck, but no further. Jerusalem will be spared (which is a key idea in this passage, as we will flesh out in a little bit).
Despite that, this is still bad news for Judah—and verses 9-10 seem to bring bad news for Assyria as well.
Bad News #3: Assyria (8:9-10)
“Be broken, you peoples, and be shattered; give ear, all you far countries; strap on your armor and be shattered; strap on your armor and be shattered. Take counsel together, but it will come to nothing; speak a word, but it will not stand, for God is with us” (Isaiah 8:9–10).
Assyria’s plans to destroy Jerusalem won’t be fulfilled, because of Immanuel—God is still with His people.
So in the first few verses of this chapter we have three messages of bad news: 1) Bad news is coming to the northern kingdoms who tried to attack Jerusalem. 2) Bad news is coming to Judah, who trusted in Assyria instead of God. 3) But bad news is also coming to Assyria because God is not going to let them get what they want—and because God is still with His people.
Did you catch that? God is still with His people. We saw that already in verse 8, where the land of Judah was called “Your land, O Immanuel.” Immanuel means “God with us.” Similarly, verse 10 says that the plans of the peoples won’t stand, because “God is with us.”
Does that seem strange to you? On the one hand, you’ve got the people being judged and punished by God because they’ve rejected him. And at the very same time, you’ve got some people being spared and saved by God because He is with them.
That can be hard to wrap our heads around, until we remember the idea of the “remnant” that we’ve heard a few times in Isaiah already. The idea here is that many of the people of Israel and Judah were faithless and would be destroyed by God’s judgement. But there were a faithful few, a remnant, who would be spared and saved, and God would be with them.
Isaiah 1:9 said “If the Lord of hosts had not left us a few survivors, we should have been like Sodom, and become like Gomorrah.” Isaiah 6:13 compared Judah to a tree, which would be cut down, and only the stump would remain, and from that stump would grow a branch from which would come the Messiah. Both of these passages tell us that many would be destroyed, but a remnant would be spared. Down in Isaiah 10, we’ll read: “A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God. For though your people Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return” (Isaiah 10:21–22).
This is a really important idea for us to wrap our heads around, because it’s a concept that runs right though to the New Testament. In Romans 9, the apostle Paul picks up on these words to explain why only a few of his Hebrew kinsmen had believed in their Messiah. He explains there in Romans 9:6-8 that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring...This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring” (Romans 9:6–8). And he goes on to quote from Isaiah 1 and 10 to show that this is not a new idea (Romans 9:27-29). Though most of the people were faithless, God had always saved a remnant.
So here’s the big idea, as introduced by Isaiah and developed by Paul: just being born into a Jewish family wasn’t enough. What was needed was personal trust in the Lord. And because the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem didn’t have that, and because they trusted in Assyria instead, most of them were going to experience God’s judgement for their wickedness.
But a faithful remnant would be spared. And with that remnant in mind, we can now make the transition to the second half of this chapter where we find the good news—Isaiah’s three messages to this remnant.
This is so important, because most of Isaiah’s words up until now have been addressed to the people as a whole, warning them of judgement and calling them to repent. But here, through the rest of chapter 8, he speaks to the remnant of the faithful, encouraging their faith by sharing very personally what God had said to him.
And his three messages go like this: first, while everybody else is fearing people, you fear the Lord. Second, while everybody else is tripping and stumbling, you find safety in the Lord. And third, while everybody else is searching for guidance, you listen to God’s word.
Let’s consider these three messages of encouragement in turn. First, while everybody else is fearing people—you fear the Lord.
Encouragement #1: While Everybody Else Is Fearing People, You Fear the Lord (8:11-13).
We find this message in verses 11-13: “For the Lord spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: ‘Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (Isaiah 8:11–13).
Chapter 7 showed us how the people of Judah were in terror of their northern enemies. “The heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (Isaiah 7:2). They were terrified of this conspiracy between Israel and Syria to knock Ahaz off the throne.
And God tells Isaiah—and through him, the faithful remnant—not to get worked up about the things that the people were worked up over. Don’t fear what they fear. Instead, the faithful remnant is to fear God. “But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honour as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (Isaiah 8:13). Ahaz and the people of Judah were so terrified by those other human kings because they did not have a proper fear of God.
But for Isaiah and the faithful remnant, it needed to be the other way around. They needed to fear God instead of others. Because when we fear God, we need not fear anything else.
Jesus explained this same idea in Luke 12:4-7, as we read this morning: ““I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Luke 12:4–7).
Do you notice there how fearing God leads to not fearing anything else? When we know His power, when we know what He is capable of, when His awesomeness makes us tremble, we realize that nothing else can come close to his power and we have no reason to fear anything else.
Just food for thought: often times when we talk about the fear of God, we tend to feel the need to explain it away. “Oh, it doesn’t really mean fear. It just means ‘respect.’” Now clearly, there is a wrong way to fear God. There is a fear that would make us want to run away from Him, and even hate him, and that’s clearly not what’s described here.
Instead, what Isaiah and Jesus describe is a fear that draws us to God and would make us never want to run away from God. A fear that intertwines with joy and captivates us. It’s the fear you feel if you were at the edge of the Grand Canyon, standing before something so big and dangerous but majestic and wonderful and you can’t help but feel drawn to it.
And when Isaiah and the remnant had a proper fear of God, they would find that they had nothing else to fear. But here is the second message of encouragement for Isaiah and his faithful listeners in verse 14-15: while everybody else is tripping and stumbling, you find safety in the Lord.
Encouragement #2: While Everybody Else Is Tripping and Stumbling, You Find Safety in the Lord (8:14-15).
“And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.’” (Isaiah 8:14–15).
Notice the first few words there. To those who fear the Lord, “he will become a sanctuary.” God will be a safe and a holy place for His people, like the temple, where they meet with him in safety. That is who God is to those who fear Him. But to everybody else, to those who don’t fear God, He is like a big roadblock that they trip and fall and injure themselves on. He becomes a source of judgment and disaster to those who reject Him.
And so this is the second message of encouragement to the faithful remnant: while everybody else is tripping and stumbling over God and His word, you will find safety in the Lord as you fear Him and trust in Him. Finally, here’s the third message of encouragement: while everybody else is searching for guidance, you listen to God’s word.
Encouragement #3: While Everybody Else Is Searching for Guidance, You Listen to God’s Word (8:16-22).
This is the message that comes out in verse 16, when Isaiah writes, “Bind up the testimony; seal the teaching among my disciples” (Isaiah 8:16). “Bind up” speaks about wrapping something up to keep it safe, and quite possibly speaks about a scroll containing the words of Isaiah. Similarly, “sealing” was something you did to a document to verify that it was the final copy.
These words speak about how Isaiah had written down God’s words, and that written revelation was to be kept safe and treasured by those who were still listening to God. In the midst of a wicked nation, the Lord’s disciples were going to listen to and treasure God’s revealed word.
And they were going to do that, even if it meant being patient. Don’t miss the connection between verse 16—treasuring and keeping God’s word—and verse 17, where Isaiah writes, “I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him.” God had made promises which would be fulfilled, but not right away. The Lord’s followers, starting with Isaiah, would need to be patient, waiting for and hoping in the Lord. And as they waited, this faithful remnant themselves were a part of God’s message to Israel.
In verse 18, Isaiah writes, “Behold, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion.” The author of Hebrews quotes Isaiah’s words here in Hebrews 2:13—and in doing so, he shows us that these words should not be taken to refer just to Isaiah’s physical children, but to the spiritual family of faithful disciples who had gathered around Isaiah. This suggests that there was a Paul-and- Timothy type relationship between Isaiah and the faithful remnant (which shows us that discipleship/mentorship is so grounded in the Word, from OT to NT).
And these children—Isaiah’s physical children, as well as his spiritual disciples—were themselves signs and warnings to the rest of the nation as they patiently waited for God’s word to be fulfilled. Isaiah’s physical children were certainly signs, walking around with names like “A Remnant Shall Return” and “The Spoil Speeds, the Prey Hastens.”
But beyond that, the faithful remnant themselves were an uncomfortable warning to the nation of Judah. As they refused to join in with the wickedness around them, as they refused to be afraid of what everyone else was afraid of, as they quietly waited for God’s promises to be fulfilled, they were a silent reminder that this was the proper response to God’s word, and that judgement was coming to all who didn’t respond to God in this way.
But meanwhile, while this faithful remnant is trusting in God’s word and waiting on Him, what was the rest of the nation up to? We find out in verse 19: “And when they say to you, ‘Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,’ should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living?” (Isaiah 8:19).
This is what was going on in Judah at this time. Instead of inquiring of God, listening to His prophets and His word, the people were turning to witches and necromancers—people who claimed to speak with the dead. Just get this: instead of seeking truth from the living God, they would rather seek messages from dead people.
And you can hear the disgust in Isaiah’s voice as he says, “should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living?” (Isaiah 8:19). And then, in verse 20, he redirects his disciples by giving this message to them: “To the teaching and to the testimony!” (Isaiah 8:20).
While everybody else is ignoring God, and trying to get messages from dead people, you pay attention to what God has already revealed. You pay attention to the words of His prophets. You listen to God’s word.
And the chapter ends with a stark warning for those who will not do this: “If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn. They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry. And when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will speak contemptuously against their king and their God, and turn their faces upward. And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness” (Isaiah 8:20–22). Those who reject God’s word find themselves in darkness and despair, and it’s their own fault for not listening to their God.
So there we have it: Isaiah’s three messages of encouragement to the faithful remnant. 1) While everybody else is fearing people, you fear the Lord. 2) While everybody else is tripping and stumbling over the Lord, you find safety in Him. And 3), while everybody else is searching for guidance, you listen to God’s word.
Three messages. And all that we’re going to do next is ask two simple questions, as we did last week: How do these messages point to Jesus? And what do these messages have to say to us?
What Do These Messages Have to Say About Jesus?
We ask that first question—how do these messages point to Jesus? —because we know that all Scripture points to Jesus and is fulfilled in Jesus. And we know, from the New Testament writings, that Isaiah chapter 8 is no exception.
1 Peter 3, for example, quotes Isaiah 8 and applies the words directly to Jesus. “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy” (1 Peter 3:14–15). Peter quotes Isaiah 8:12-14 and shows that Jesus Christ is the Lord of hosts whom we must honour as holy.
1 Peter 2:8 quotes Isaiah 8:14 and tells us us that Jesus is the “stone of offence and a rock of stumbling” which unbelievers stumble over today. The same theme shows up in 1 Corinthians 1. The message that Jesus died on the cross to pay for the sins of His people was a major stumbling stone for the people in His day. It made no sense to them. The life and death and resurrection of Jesus caused so many people to trip and stumble, then and now.
So this passage points to Jesus because Jesus is the Son of God, and everything this passage says about God is fulfilled in Jesus, the holy one and the stumbling-stone.
But this passage also points to Jesus because Jesus is the perfect prophet of God. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1–2). And everything this passage says about Isaiah is perfectly fulfilled in Jesus as well.
We see that in Hebrews 2:13, which quotes Isaiah 8:18 as we saw earlier, showing us that Christ is the true and better Isaiah, the one who has spoken God’s word once and for all, and who has gathered about Him a community of faithful listeners who receive His words with faith instead of running all over the place seeking truth from everywhere else
And because this passage points to Jesus and is fulfilled in Jesus, that means that this passage is for us who follow Jesus. This is not just a piece of history. Isaiah chapter 8 is the living and active word of God—and it is for us.
And with that, we finally turn to consider what these three messages of good news from Isaiah to the remnant have to say to us today.
What Do These Messages Have to Say To Us?
1) Let’s consider Isaiah’s first message to the remnant. While everybody else is fearing people, you fear the Lord. The Lord Jesus. And we’ve already seen that Peter applies this message to Christians.
Here’s what he says: “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:14–17).
Peter assumes that followers of Jesus will be mistreated and slandered. Just count on it. But, he says, don’t be afraid of them. Instead, fear the Lord. Honour Christ as holy, and always be prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.
That’s a command, by the way. This is not optional. You don’t have to become C.S. Lewis and write books to defend your faith, you have been commanded to always be ready to make a defence when you get asked about the hope that you have in you. And that assumes, by the way, that you are living and acting in such a way that it’s obvious you do have a hope in you.
Isn’t it true that what holds us back from sharing our faith is fear? We’re afraid of other people. We’re afraid of what they think and how they will treat us. We’re afraid of what will happen when we get branded a “Christian.” So we hide our hope and we keep our faith to ourselves, whether it’s at school or at work—or maybe even at home!
Peter, pointing to Isaiah, shows us the better way. Replace your fear of other people with a fear of the Lord. Get to know God in His word, look around you at the world that He made, and tremble that this Creator would know and love you and send His galaxy-creating son to suffer hell in your place on a bloody cross one afternoon outside of Jerusalem.
Tremble at God’s awesomeness and power, and what He is capable of, and what He has done. And you will find that the more you fear God, the more you honour Him as holy, the less fear you will have left over for people’s thoughts or opinions of you.
2) Isaiah’s second message is that while everybody else is tripping and stumbling over the Lord, we find safety in Him.
Once again, we can see this in our world today, as more and more people get more and more offended with Jesus and His followers.
The gospel is offensive to those who don’t believe it, as Paul implies in Galatians 5:11. Like we’ve been hearing in Adult Sunday School, the gospel is a challenging and uncomfortable message to those who reject it. It’s hard to hear that we are totally depraved, and on our way to face God’s judgement in Hell, and our only hope is to repent and trust in the Saviour who bore hell in our place.
But that’s the truth. And that offensive message, this offensive Jesus, is safety and salvation for those who believe. So here’s the encouragement for us from Isaiah’s second message of good news today: don’t ever water down the gospel.
That’s a constant temptation we face, especially here in the West. We see people tripping over the gospel, stumbling over Jesus, and so we try to sand down the edges to make the gospel easier to believe. To make Jesus seem more lovey-dovey and cuddly. But we need to remember that if we take away the offence of the gospel, we take away the gospel itself. “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” says 1 Corinthians 1:18.
And just a few verses down, we read, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews [hear the Isaiah 8 reference there?] and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22–24). The parts of the gospel that offend people are the parts of the gospel that save people. So let’s never try to water it down or make it easier to believe. In the end, we’ll wind up with something that isn’t even the gospel any more, and can’t save anybody.
3) Last but not least, Isaiah’s third message is that while everybody else is running around searching for guidance, you listen to God’s word.
I’m pretty sure that most of us don’t really struggle with the temptation to look up a psychic and talk to a dead relative of ours... but we are tempted to listen to all kinds of messages and sources of truth that are just as dead. Whether it’s our own opinions or feelings, or ideas we’ve grown up with, or advice we got from a friend, or some nice quotes we read on the internet, it’s easy to build up our own Bible of words to live by.
But we’ve already been given words to live by. And we need to train ourselves, when we hear good-sounding messages from out there in the world, or from in here in our own hearts, to ask, “Is that true? Does that line up with God’s word?”
And the encouragement for us today is, in the words of Isaiah 8:20, “To the teaching and to the testimony!” Rejoice that God has given us His word, and don’t let any other message ever get in the way of hearing and believing and relying on and obeying God’s perfect word.
While everybody else is fearing people, fear the Lord. While everybody else is tripping and stumbling over the Lord, find safety in Him—don’t ever water down the gospel. While everybody else is searching for guidance, listen to God’s word—to the teaching and to the testimony!