I remember the thought popping into my head as if it were yesterday: “Why are we doing this?” I was eight or nine, sitting in the back of the family minivan on the way to church. I think this was the first time such a question had ever occurred to me. I grew up in a Christian family, and we went to church every Sunday. Why did we do it, though? Not all of our neighbors did. Nor did all of our family members. Well, I did not have many good answers to my question on that day decades ago. Thankfully, I could give you a lot of good reasons to go to church now! We gather to hear God call us to worship, to receive from him, and to respond to him in gratitude. We hear the preaching of the gospel which the Spirit uses to convert sinners. We are strengthened more and more in our faith and assured of our salvation.
One good reason may make us a bit uncomfortable, however: a large part of ministry is helping God’s people prepare for their death. I have seen this in my own life recently, as someone I loved left this life and went to be with his Savior. Year after year of faithful preaching and teaching had prepared him—he knew where he was going. Do we? Death comes for us all; so how should we think about death? Isaiah 26 helps us here. This chapter has been one of my favorites ever since that day in class when Dr. S. M. Baugh made an offhand comment about how he would like to hear a funeral sermon on Isaiah 26:20. I think he is right. I also think it is good for us to consider this part of God’s Word before the time comes for our own funeral.
Much of the book of Isaiah is God bringing a lawsuit against his people, using his prosecuting attorney: the prophet. Again and again, we see that the people of Israel have broken the law of this holy, holy, holy God described in Isaiah 6. Exile is coming for them—it is a lot of bad news. That does not mean there is no good news in Isaiah, however. In fact, some have called Isaiah the fifth Gospel because of how vividly it portrays the gospel of Jesus Christ. Isaiah 53 is probably the most well-known example of this, but there is much gospel in Isaiah 26 too.
Isaiah 24–27 is what some commentators call “the Isaiah Apocalypse.”1 These chapters are very similar to the book of Revelation—using apocalyptic imagery, the prophet records what he foresaw would happen after the people of God returned from their exile in the east. In chapter 24, we read about the coming worldwide judgment. Chapter 25 tells us that the citizens of heaven will be feasting. The twenty-seventh chapter closes this section with a description of a future time of almost unimaginable blessing. It is in this context that we read Isaiah 26. It is prophesying of the time between Christ’s first and second comings. What we read here is the experience of all of us who trust in Christ; and it is good news! Because Christ has redeemed us, death ushers us into blessing, not condemnation. Before we get to that, though, we need to have a better understanding of our final destination: the city of God.
The Strong City (vv. 1–6)
In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah: “We have a strong city; he sets up salvation as walls and bulwarks. 2 Open the gates, that the righteous nation that keeps faith may enter in. 3 You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. 4 Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock. 5 For he has humbled the inhabitants of the height, the lofty city. He lays it low, lays it low to the ground, casts it to the dust. 6 The foot tramples it, the feet of the poor, the steps of the needy. (Isa 26:1–6)
This is a song that gave hope to residents of Judah who would soon experience God’s judgment and exile. It focuses on the city of God and the people who inhabit it. We see that this city is stronger than any other city—it is set up by God; therefore it is an eternally strong city. Why? The presence and protection of God himself sustains and strengthens its walls. We can ask at this point, “What exactly is in view here? What is this city?” We know that this never really described Jerusalem, at least not in Isaiah’s day! After all, soon after this, the Babylonians came in and broke through Jerusalem’s defenses. This song is about a city far greater than the earthly Jerusalem. Consider with me Hebrews 11:8–10:
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.
This is that city prophesied in Isaiah 26. This is why the remnant of God’s people could have hope, even in those dark days: though the earthly Jerusalem’s days were numbered, they still had this city, the heavenly Jerusalem. And what a city it is!
In verse 3 we read about peace—a relationship restored in unity (it is actually “peace, peace” in Hebrew—total and complete peace). Why is there peace in this city? Well, peace is partly secured by the extinguishing of any and all external threats. Think about it: the gates of this city are opened (v. 2)—an ancient city under threat would close its gates immediately and keep them sealed! Chapter 25 recalled the fate of the proud city of sinful man—God would destroy it. Therefore, this strong city is secure because the lofty city has been laid low. This leads to assurance and security (v. 4).
The other side of God bringing his people to glory is the judgment of the wicked (to see this clearly, read about Moab in chapter 25). Really, this is the central theme in Isaiah 24–27: the proud city will be completely destroyed, and God’s city will be strengthened forever. In verse 5 the repetition of “lays it low” shows certainty and finality. The lofty city has fallen, never to rise again. Indeed, the lofty city is thrown to the ground and the dust, overrun by the oppressed and poor. Meanwhile the gates of the strong city are open to the righteous ones who trust in God. Peace is given to those who rely on God, their divine Rock.
The remnant of Judah in Isaiah’s day could rest assured that the city of God would remain secure, while the city of man would be judged and destroyed. We can take comfort and rejoice in this too, Christian. After all, the salvation of this city and its citizens is what Christ earned for us. The poor, oppressed people did not help win the victory—we would be helpless and hopeless if God himself did not come and work salvation for us. Our survival is not dependent upon ourselves, on the defenses we can construct, but upon Jesus Christ alone. His is the strong city. It is our city because of what Christ did for us. We are its citizens even now. Yet we still wait for that day when we will see
the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev 21:2–4)
In the meantime, we often suffer. One day we will die, if Christ does not return first. Isaiah 26 does not brush over these facts. It gives us confidence to trust our God and Savior even as we await this city in its fullness. We will see God’s comfort to us suffering citizens in part two.
- J. Alec Motyer, Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1999), 182.
©Christopher Smith. All Rights Reserved.
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