Mid-Watch Report: December 2000
The Death of Understanding

by Rev. Sterling M. Durgy

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Mid-Watch Report The American Night Watch (TM)

of  The American Night Watch
Vol. I   No. 4         December 2000

The Death of Understanding

Text: Isaiah 29:9-24, 30:8-19.

Note: The following discussion is based upon a reading of the passages from Isaiah cited above. For reasons of space and with the desire not to abuse our permission to quote from the NASB, these verses are not printed here. However, you are encouraged to read these passages before reading the following discussion. It is believed that if you do so, the following discussion will be much more meaningful. “The Creator Connection,” an article published in the August 2000 edition of the Mid-Watch Report, also provides background helpful to this discussion.

Isaiah was commissioned to be a servant of God in one of the most exalted encounters with God in all of Scripture (Isaiah 6:1-13). Yet, one of the underlying themes of this great book is that many of the people of Isaiah’s time were incapable of understanding Truth - and that they were so because they chose to be.

What was written in Isaiah has application beyond his people and his times to those of us who live afterward (Isaiah 30:8, Romans 15:4 cf. I Corinthians 10:11). Jesus of Nazareth quoted from the book of Isaiah more than from any other book of the Old Testament. And the manner in which Jesus did so indicates that it is not just the words but also the historical situation that holds significance for His hearers.

Still more evidence for the importance of Isaiah’s message today stems from the lofty themes it discusses. Much of the Old Testament focuses upon God’s relationship to Israel and Isaiah is no exception. But it is in Isaiah that we catch, perhaps, the clearest glimpse of the God Who is not just a deity of Palestine, not just a deity of the Hebrew people, but the Creator -- the Lord of all creation and of all people.

As God used Isaiah to call his people to consider what God revealed to them through history and Word, God uses Isaiah to direct our attention to them as well (Isaiah 2:5, 8:20, 43:1-13, 48:1-26, 51:1-4). The promises and warnings of Isaiah are part of God’s ministry to the end that we not make the same mistakes as the people of Isaiah’s time; mistakes that have eternal consequences for good or for ill.

The willful, spiritual ignorance of Isaiah’s day that commanded so much of God’s attention then will capture our attention today if we are wise enough to learn from the past.

“Sanitizing” Religious Discussion

Isaiah describes the people of his time as unable to understand the message of the Lord. In fact, one of the judgments God brings upon them is the inability to understand Truth (29:9-14). However, this spiritual darkness did not begin as judgment from God. Rather, God’s judgment followed the stubborn refusal of the people, over time, to listen to God.

In considering this, it is important to understand the special relationship the Hebrews were to have with God. Paul writes of his people that they are “. . . Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen” (Romans 9:4-5). Earlier Paul writes of the Jews, “. . . they were entrusted with the oracles of God” (Romans 3:2); in other words, with the Word of God. However, Isaiah writes of the people of his time:

For this is a rebellious people, false sons,
Sons who refuse to listen
To the instruction of the Lord;
Who say to the seers,
   “You must not see visions”;
And to the prophets,
    “You must not prophesy to us what is right,
    Speak to us pleasant words,
    Prophesy illusions.
    Get out of the way, turn aside from the path,
    Let us hear no more
        about the Holy One of Israel.” (30:9-11)

We must not draw the conclusion from these words that these were not religious people. They were. We learn that they were able to claim some righteous deeds, they spoke about spiritual things, they sought spiritual guidance, and they observed the religious customs unique to the Jews. But in every case their activities were not pleasing to the Lord because religious activities became substitutes for a true commitment to the Lord (Isaiah 57:12, 29:13, 8:19-20, 1:10-15, 59:1-2, cf. Ezekiel 33:30-33). Not only did the people sin against the Lord and one another blatantly, they wanted to sanitize conversation from anything that might remind them of their sin. Their attitude was much like that of Cain who, when confronted with the fact of his brother’s death, brazenly responded, “am I my brother’s keeper?” Even though Cain knew well what he had done, he hoped to exclude it from his conversation with God (John 3:19-21).

If we focus upon Isaiah 30:9-11 alone, we might be inclined to believe that the sin of the people was the rejection of visions and prophecy. Consideration of the entire verse in the context of the book, however, shows that Isaiah was not just speaking about a particular route for revelation. Their sin was not so much the rejection of the means as the rejection of the message God was speaking to them. In their time this involved the rejection of the prophets as well as the Law. In ours, it would be the rejection of the written Word of God, the Holy Scriptures, either by ignoring them or by rejecting their relevance. These writings, of both testaments, are the product of true prophetic work. They, therefore, comprise the body of writings that the Christian church recognizes as canonical and authoritative. In any case, Isaiah’s words focus upon a rejection of the substance, not a rejection of the means of communication.

In his excellent commentary on Isaiah, John Oswalt observes that the words of Isaiah 30:10-11 represent the attitude of the people expressed in their demeanor and actions rather than the actual words spoken to Isaiah. If there is an exception to this, it may very well be the very last phrase. “The Holy One of Israel” was a favorite expression of Isaiah. Isaiah uses it 29 times, whereas it is used only 7 times elsewhere in Scripture.1 It is quite likely that the people Isaiah preached to recognized the uniqueness of Isaiah’s reference to God and used it back at him in their reply. One can almost hear the people rebuff Isaiah with the words, “Let us hear no more about ‘the Holy One of Israel!’”

In any case, the stubborn refusal of the people to listen to the message of God’s prophets was coupled with a reinterpretation of Judaism in a manner that accommodated their sins. This combination rendered them incapable of understanding the truth. By cleansing religious discussion they removed Truth from their thought processes. They were more than spiritually dead - they had rendered themselves incapable of understanding spiritual things. And in so doing they rendered themselves incapable of being spiritually awakened.

Just how far this rejection went is indicated in Isaiah 29:11-12. In the time of Isaiah only a minority of the people, the scribes, had the training to read. The people were dependent upon their scribes to indicate and intepret what was written. However, Isaiah indicates that not only were the illiterate unable to understand the written message of Isaiah, the educated, literate responded to Scripture as if they are illiterate as well. The written Word was not meaningless, it was rendered meaningless to certain individuals by their actions and attitudes.

The events reported in Isaiah occurred seven centuries before the ministry of Jesus Christ. The passing of hundreds of years brought many changes, and many Jews devoted to the Lord served Him well during that time. Nevertheless, Jesus confronted a nation of people in the same spiritual state as those in Isaiah’s time, which Jesus clearly indicated by quoting Isaiah 6:9-10 (Matthew 13:14, Mark 4:12, Luke 8:10, and John 12:39) and Isaiah 29:13 (Matthew 15:8-9 and Mark 7:6-7).

Nor are people who think of themselves as Christians immune from such a condition. In the Revelation to John we read in a letter to one of the churches of Asia Minor, “. . . you say, ‘I am rich; and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked . . .” (3:17). These New Testament references teach us that willful, spiritual ignorance may arise in any culture at any time.

A Double-lock on Spiritual Ignorance

The people of Isaiah’s time rejected a specific message. The true understanding of God came to them from His acts in history (the calling of Abraham, the exodus under Moses, the life of David, and so forth) and His Words (the Books of Moses, the message brought by prophets such as Samuel, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, and others). But they rejected both. When they did so, they rejected a particular kind of knowledge: revealed Truth.

Both Judaism and Christianity are built upon the reality that there are things that we as human beings cannot know unless our Creator reveals them to us. This stems from the fact that we are created beings -- creatures -- part of creation. As such we are necessarily finite - in other words, limited in what we are able to see, know, and understand. There are, then, some things that we can only learn from our Creator; the only One great enough, trustworthy enough, and wise enough to be able to communicate to us what we cannot learn on our own.

When the people rejected the message of Isaiah, they rejected the knowledge God wanted to reveal to them. They preferred their own limited, finite point of view to the universal, eternal Truth God brought to them. Like turtles pulling into a shell or a clam shutting its shell, they closed themselves into a position that felt safe but ignored the greater realities all around them. But human beings aren’t clams or turtles with an instinctual response to withdraw behind a shell whenever threatened. The human rejection of revealed Truth is a common expression of the sinfulness of the human heart. As if this rejection of truth wasn’t devastating enough in the past, our own culture has added a new and even more destructive twist.

We often use the word “skepticism” from a Christian perspective to describe an attitude that refuses to accept Scriptural Truth. The word “skepticism” is also used in our culture to describe an approach that investigates beliefs before accepting them. For instance, science is said to engender an attitude of skepticism; any proposition or theory is to be investigated in a careful and systematic manner before it is accepted as valid. While some have made this a consistent philosophy of life, I believe that it is not hard to see that, in our culture, skepticism is often applied in a selective manner. For example, “political correctness” describes a set of beliefs that, in some segments of society, people are vilified for questioning.

However, rather than focus upon this selectivity in the present discussion it is more important for us to consider the manner in which skepticism has been applied to human language. This trend is much too large to discuss here in any depth.2 But we do not need to do so to recognize its role in contemporary culture. The trend that concerns us here is the attack upon human language itself as a means of communication.3

The simplest correction to this is to see language as something that is uniquely human, and to deal with it at that level. This might seem paradoxical to those who wish to pit “humanism” against “Christianity,” but the two are not necessarily opposed. If God created human beings, and we believe that He did, and if He pronounced human beings “good,” and Genesis states that He did, and if part of human life in the Garden of Eden was language, and Genesis indicates that it was, then language must be inherently human. And if language has remained a part of human social existence it must be because it has continued to serve a social purpose. And if that is true, then language must be, at some level, adequate. And it is this level of adequacy that is all we need to maintain that human beings can communicate effectively about things that are important to human beings - including truths brought to us by our Creator.

The most unfortunate aspect of the current intellectual situation is that it cuts off Scripture before one even considers its message. If the attitude of Isaiah’s time puts God’s Word into a locked box, current attitudes put that locked box into a locked vault. When people are convinced that truth cannot be conveyed through language, they do not generally seek truth, and thus they are less apt to search Scripture. If they do approach Scripture, perhaps to find justification for views they wish to promote, they have then set themselves up to conclude that they can interpret Scripture to mean whatever they want according to their own feelings.4

What this means in a practical sense is that many people today feel no need, as Isaiah did, to be cleansed by the Word and work of God (Isaiah 6:5-7). Their thinking and their arguments are much more complex than those of Isaiah’s time,5 but in a very real sense they are saying the very same thing even more firmly, “Let us hear no more about ‘the Holy One of Israel.’”

The God who says, “Come to Me …”

If Isaiah provides a perspective on what is happening on our time, it also provides the perspective from which the people of God should minister. Given God’s pronouncement at Isaiah’s commissioning that many people would not listen to his message, we might expect that the rest of the book would consist solely of promises of judgment. But this is not the case.

Isaiah is a book of contrasts - of the darkest truths about human nature coupled with the greatest assurances of God’s love and good will. The one rings true when compared to the world in which we live and the human nature revealed to us by people of different locations and cultures; the other provides great comfort in the face of the troubles of this age. Indeed, it is the assurance of God’s abiding grace that gives us the courage to face up to the darker truths of this book and our world.

What so many people, non-Christians and Christians alike, forget about the message of Scripture, is that no description of the evils that beset mankind stands alone. Indeed, if it did there would be no need for Scripture. The darkness of the message about the condition of mankind provides the backdrop before which the brightness of God’s love and redeeming power shines even more brightly. God the strong Redeemer and Savior, Lover of mankind, still calls, “Turn to Me and be saved all the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 45:22, cf. Matthew 11:28-30).

Paul instructed Timothy to “preach the Word” and “do the work of an evangelist” both “in season and out of season” (II Timothy 4:1-2, 5). Paul was saying that, like Isaiah, who was sent to a people with the knowledge that most would not listen, we must go forth with more faith in the power of God’s Word and the Spirit of Truth than in the strength of spiritual darkness.

Further, a community of faith that not only preaches but lives by God’s Word can attract many darkened hearts to true Light (Philippians 2:15-16, II Corinthians 3:1-4). -SMD

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1 Dr. John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-39, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, R. K. Harrison and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. gen. eds. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), 19, 552.

2 The work of Immanuel Kant laid much of the intellectual groundwork for the development of thought that we are discussing here. The writings of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Franz Kafka (1883-1924), Michel Foucault (1926-1984), Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924-), and Jacques Derrida (1930-) demonstrate, in broad stokes, the development of thinking that has become commonplace in our own time.

3 For anyone giving serious thought to the situation of our times, it is important, I strongly believe, to give consideration to the over-generalization of principles. Another way to describe this is the misapplication of knowledge. I prefer the first way to describe it, however, because the specific problem I am referring to is taking an insight that is true in a one situation and applying it - “generalizing” it - to a much broader situation in which it becomes untrue or partially true. With regard to language the over-generalization involves taking the valid insight that “all people speak from a particular point of view” (a Kantian insight) and then generalizing it to say “therefore, no one who speaks about something can be understood by anyone else.” This latter point of view, often called nominalism, is pushed to extremes. It has often been pointed out by D. A. Carson, Ravi Zacharias, and others that those who attack the ability of language to communicate effectively use language themselves to communicate that to us - and in the process nullify their contention that language is inadequate.

4 This means that, in the contemporary view, I can interpret truth for myself, or I can do it as a part of a group that agrees upon a meaning. In either case, the decision is made by what I feel to be true rather than by the text. My intent, not the intent of the author, is what becomes important.

5 Not only complex but arguably convoluted as well.

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