Bitter for Sweet (1)

May 18, 2003 / No. 3150

Dear radio friends,

     The prophet Isaiah was given a very unpleasant task in the unfolding of the history of God’s redemption.  According to chapter 6 of the prophecy of Isaiah, which records for us his commission by God, God made it very plain to Isaiah that he would not be an outward success.  In the verses 9-12 of Isaiah 6 God told him what he could expect.  God said that the cities would “be wasted without inhabitants, the houses without man, and the land utterly desolate, and the LORD have removed men from far away, and there be a great forsaking in the midst of the land.”

     The primary function of the prophet Isaiah was that he was an instrument of God in the hardening of men — the hardening of men through the proclamation of the truth of God — the truth of God calling men to forsake their sin and to fall down before the living God.  That truth would be used of God to harden men in such a way that they would be exposed ultimately to the judgments of the almighty God.

     The reason for Isaiah’s commission was the condition of Israel, specifically of Judah and the city of Jerusalem, its capital.  Jerusalem and Judah had become apostate, that is, so miserably turned away from what they should have been according to God’s covenant made on Mount Sinai, that they were ripe now for judgment.  Outwardly you would say that the religious worship of God was going on fine.  Outwardly you would say “wherein is the problem?”  If you read Isaiah 1 and 58, you will get the picture of flourishing religion.  All the Old Testament offerings are being brought, the temple doors are opened and polished.  But the prophet complains throughout the prophecy that all of this service had lost its soul and its power in the lives of the people.  Though outwardly they were religious and the forms of religion were in evidence, there was no power of that religion in their daily life.  There was no vital godliness.  All of their religion was merely an outward sham or show.  It had not changed the conduct of their life.

     So, in the midst of all of their religious ceremonies, in the midst of their fastings and feastings and sacrifices, God, through the prophet Isaiah, called them a Sodom and a Gomorrah because, although they knew the truth of the living God, they practiced wickedness in their lives and they excused it because, they said, “After all, are not these outward religious items in place in our life?  We go to the temple.  We are called by the name of God.  So, does personal wickedness and lust and evil and hatred really matter all that much?  Does it really matter that we live for the world and not for God if, at least, we go to the temple once a week?”

     Under these situations God called Isaiah to labor and told him that in his call of the people to repentance he would be met not with success but with the hardening of heart until at last God would consume them.

     God expressed a word in Isaiah 5:20, a word which really captures the heart of the sin of the people in his day and the heart of sin in our day — a word, then, of great warning that our eyes today be opened.  This is what He said:  “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!”  That verse is found in the context of many woes that Isaiah is pronouncing upon the people of his day.  We read, for instance, in verse 18 of that chapter, “Woe unto them that draw iniquity with cords of vanity, and sin as it were with a cart rope.”  There he pictures people who are bound to their sins with lies.  They were drawing their sins with cords of falsehood.  There is the picture of animals dragging a cart behind them, tied to it by a rope.  So the people drew their sins behind them by falsehood.  If they would give up their lies and their falsehoods, if they would stop their excuses, they would not drag their sins along with them.  But they loved their sins.  So they were tied to them, to the lies of their excuses, by deceiving themselves, by excusing themselves, by saying, “It’s not sin, it’s not that bad, it didn’t happen, it’s not that serious.”  Through such means they were tying themselves to their sins and dragging them through their life.

     We have in verse 19 these words:  Woe unto them “that say, Let him make speed, and hasten his work, that we may see it:  and let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel draw nigh and come, that we may know it!”  That was a woe upon those who were daring God to bring judgment upon them for their sin.  They would say, “Is that what you call him, Isaiah?  You call him the Holy One of Israel?  Well, let him come.  Let him hasten his work.  Then we will know it.”  They were, so to speak, empiricists.  They believed nothing that could not be demonstrated.  So they said, “Isaiah, show us those judgments you are talking about.  Then we’ll believe you.  You say the Holy One will judge us?  Well, we will believe that when we see it.”

     Then another woe that was spoken in verse 21:  “Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!”  And he goes on with others.

     The verse I called your attention to, verse 20, is spoken in the midst of many woes that Isaiah is pronouncing upon a hardened people.  But I say that verse 20 is unique and stands out in its importance because, more than anything else, it was expressing the evil attitude of Isaiah’s day and of our day.  Here you have the mother of all the other sins.  This is the womb out of which comes forth all of the other sins.  What is it?  “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; … that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!”  Now that is exactly the spirit of the age in which we are living.  That is exactly the condition of our country and of much of the church itself, and of the whole world.  It is what we could call a redefining of sin.  That  takes place also in the church.  “Don’t call it sin anymore.  Change the standard so I can feel good about myself and about the sin.  Let’s call evil good.”  That’s the way of taking care of evil.  Now good must be defined by what is convenient for ourselves or what we think.  What is evil then is only this, that someone would say, “That’s wrong.  You may not do that.”  That is evil.  To judge or to say that something is wrong.  God says that when that happens, then we are standing — a nation, a society — on the brink of judgment.

     In those words of woe in Isaiah 5:20, there is a basic presupposition that is being made.  A presupposition is something you assume true and you operate on the basis that it is so.  So when God says, “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil,” there is a basic assumption.  That assumption is this:  there is an unchangeable, clear, irrevocable standard of that which is good and evil.  The only basis for God pronouncing woe upon those who switch it around, the only basis for God pronouncing woe upon those who call evil good and good evil is that there is indeed something that is good and always has been good and ever shall be good, and there is something that is evil and always has been evil and ever shall be evil.  You see, if good and evil are simply what you make them to be, what man decides at any given time, if they are changeable and left for you to decide what will be good and evil, then God has no basis for pronouncing woe upon those who switch it.  If darkness can become light, and if bitter can become sweet, if circumstances — changing times, human feelings, culture — determine good and light and sweet, and if they can change from the one to the other, then our text has no meaning.  But the basic presupposition is that there is an unchangeable, there is an irrevocable standard of good and evil, of light and darkness, of bitter and sweet.  It is a standard that God has set.  And it is based upon God Himself.

     We ask, “What is that standard?”  We are told in verse 24 of that chapter the following:  “Therefore as the fire devoureth the stubble, and the flame consumeth the chaff, so their root shall be as rottenness, and their blossom shall go up as dust:  because they have cast away the law of the LORD of hosts, and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.”  There you have it!  The inflexible standard of what is good and of what is evil is the law of Jehovah of hosts.  It is the Word of the Holy One of Israel.  The truth underscored in our text, and found from Genesis to Revelation (that is, in the entire Bible), is this:  God’s law is the foundation of the whole moral universe.  God’s law is the expression of God’s character.  In God’s law, God has inscribed the obligation incumbent upon the creature, upon man before God.  The Ten Commandments, and the whole Word of God as it is the expression of the will of God, determine what is good and what is evil.  God’s Word determine what is light (that is, correct morally), and what is darkness (what is immoral and filthy).  God’s Word determines what is sweet (that is, pleasing to God and to man) and God’s Word determines what is bitter and foul.  And that determination or standard is expressed in the Ten Commandments of God.  In the first four of those commandments we deal with man’s obligations to God.  In the second six we deal with man’s obligations towards his neighbor.  The law that Jehovah hath made is unchangeable and irrevocable.  It is the consistent standard of that which is good and evil.  It declares the obligation that the creature has to God and to man.  It declares that man is accountable for his actions, for his thinking, for the state of his heart to God.  Like it or not, no one can escape it.  God is the living God.  And on His own character He has determined what is good (namely, to obey Him and keep His law), and He has determined what is evil (namely, to disobey Him and break His law).  That is light and the other is darkness.  God’s law and obedience is good; disobedience is evil.  God’s law is light; disobedience is darkness.  God’s law is sweet; disobedience is bitter.

     And it is so because God has said so.  That law of God declares not only the irrevocable and the unchangeable standard of good and evil, but it is the basis, then, of God’s judgments upon man and also the basis upon which God judges men today.

     The law of God was the basis of the atonement of our Savior Jesus Christ exactly because God’s law determined good and evil and required punishment for us as we have broken that law.  We have broken the law of God at its heart!  That is our sin. And we needed a Savior to bear away that disobedience from the sight of God.  The law of God is the basis of the atonement of Christ — Christ was there satisfying the justice of God against us who have transgressed His law.  That is why He went to the cross — to take away the guilt of our sins.

     But also on the basis of God’s law God continues to judge.  There is a hell.  There is a hell because good is good and evil is evil, as defined by God.  In other words, the law of God is the foundation of the whole moral universe.  It has a basic presupposition.  There is an unchangeable standard of what is good and what is evil.  And that is the law of God.

     I do not need, I trust, to tell you that this is exactly the basic truth that is being denied today.  Men grit their teeth at this.  They say, “We won’t hear this.  We will call evil in terms of what we think evil is.  And we will call good in terms of what we imagine good to be.  And don’t preach to me!  Don’t tell me what is evil and don’t tell me what is good.  And don’t bring to me the fact that there is an absolute standard, a standard not developed by culture, not developed by man, but developed by God Himself.  Don’t tell me that!  If you try to tell me that, if you try to preach that way to me, I’ll say you’re bigoted, you’re narrow, and you’re prejudiced.  You’re an enemy to society!”

     Man will say, “Good is determined by what one feels like, as long as he doesn’t hurt someone else.”  Even then, that is not really true, even when they hurt someone else, they will still do it.  They will abort a child.  Man says today that he will determine what is good; he will determine what is evil.  And really the only thing that is evil is this:  If one denies that man has the right to determine his conduct.

     Now the Word of God flatly asserts that.  The Savior, Jesus Christ, flatly asserts that.  The cross of Jesus Christ declares:  “Man does not have the right to determine his conduct.”  He has no right to determine morality.  He has no right to determine what will be evil and what is not evil or good.  This is of God alone.

     But, you see, man will say, “The only evil is for you to say that.  The only evil is to take away the inherent right,” they claim, “of man to decide for himself what is good.”  What is that?  The Bible calls that pride — the pride of hell, the pride of the devil.  The Bible calls that arrogance.  The Bible calls that foolishness.  The Bible calls that slavery.  You are going to determine what is good and evil?  God says that you are a fool!  And you will end up in the slavery of that which is corrupt and base.

     But man says, “We will determine what is good and we will determine what is evil.  Good is simply that we have the right to do what we please.  And evil — well, evil is even to hint that another person’s decisions are evil.”  Our age is, therefore, engaged in an all-out war against God.

     Next week, I’m going to come back to this passage as we have not yet finished with it.  Our time is quickly slipping away.  Next week we will go on to explain how exactly today there is this horrible perversion, this horrible switching, this twisting of calling that which God says is evil good and calling that which God says is good evil.  And we hope also next week not only to point that out, but to point out the gospel and the wonderful pronouncement of God’s Word to us in Jesus Christ.  Until that time, may God be with you and bless you.

     Let us pray.

     Father, we thank Thee for Thy Word, and we pray for its entrance into our hearts.  Give us to meditate upon Thy Word.  And give to us hearts of humility that we may not stand in arrogance before Thee, but we may, by Thy grace, be broken and contrite before Thy holy law and know ourselves as those who have transgressed that law and have broken it in every point, in order that we may also know the wondrous grace of God in giving His Son to take away our guilt, so that we might be righteous and now desire to do that which is good in Thy sight and to spurn that which is evil in Thy sight.  Through Jesus Christ do we pray, Amen.