Kind of a morbid title, but fascinating at the same time. And it’s such an incredible biblical principle. I’m only just now realizing how much it pervades every aspect of our lives.
I’ve been reading through Isaiah recently, which really means I’m happily absorbing the first chapter still after three weeks. As someone with a developing love of the poetic, I find Isaiah captivating. Here’s a really cool example in Isaiah of the principle above with some vivid imagery.
Isaiah 1:24–26 Therefore the Lord declares,the LORD of hosts,the Mighty One of Israel:“Ah, I will get relief from my enemiesand avenge myself on my foes. I will turn my hand against youand will smelt away your dross as with lyeand remove all your alloy. And I will restore your judges as at the first,and your counselors as at the beginning.Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness,the faithful city.” (ESV)
Context: the first half of the chapter is Isaiah spelling out how corrupt Israel has become. Look at the 4th line. Get relief from what? What could anyone possibly do to God? Is God tormented or physically hurt by anyone? No obviously not. So what is he talking about? He’s saying that all the surrounding nations are looking at Israel and mocking Him because of it. How so? When the nation that is supposed to stand for justice, charity, hospitality, protection for the widows and orphans, etc., acts continuously contrary to those ideals, the surrounding nations see that and conclude that Israel’s God is either weak or doesn’t care, and thus the things he stands for aren’t important. They in effect say, “Why not kill my neighbor, steal his wife and land, and live like a king and do whatever I want? Israel is as corrupt as we are, and their God is supposedly the real God and stands for justice, but they aren’t punished, so obviously there is no reason to try and uphold justice, there is no reason to try and make peace with my neighbor, or welcome the foreigner in my land. Nothing will happen to me if I don’t, so why deprive myself of what I want? Their God is just like ours.”
And so, the most high God endures the mocking caused by His own representatives’ actions. How does He respond? He says “I will turn my hand against you” – that is to say remove his protection from them – “and (here’s where it gets really good) will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy.”
As a former engineering student this is such illuminating word painting! A smelter is used to separate and purify metals by adding heat and a carbon reacting agent. Science. So what happens is you take your metal and put it in the smelter, then tremendous heat is added and eventually a carbon reacting agent, such as charcoal in the old days. We know that when we heat things up chemical reactions takes place more readily, that’s why we wash dishes in hot water. Introducing the carbon causes the oxygen (the impurities) in the metal to bind to the carbon creating carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, thus purifying the metal down to its base element, such as gold, silver, or iron. But where did the oxygen come from? Oxygen is in the air, and over time, when it comes in contact with metals, it most often causes some form of oxidation which is science-speak for… rust. Are you getting the picture that God has set for us? He’s saying in verse 25 that regarding Israel He’s looking at a giant lump of metal, and He knows there’s pure gold (it’s true that gold doesn’t rust at normal temperatures but bear with me) in it somewhere, but it’s been so oxidized and rusted over time that it’s elemental composition has changed, and the only way to get it back to it’s former beauty is to inject ridiculous amounts of heat and chemicals until the metal is literally changed back into it’s pure form and all the excess is burned away. An alloy is a metal in itself, it’s just not a pure one, so God is saying, “I don’t like what you have become.”
At the end of 26 we see the result of His smelting process – Israel shall be called (by their neighbors) righteous and faithful, restoring God’s rightful reputation as the God who cares about righteousness and justice.
For me, verse 25 really illustrates my point. The base metal was dead so to speak. It had been alloyed into something else that no longer resembled the original. Without putting it to the fire, thus causing the “death” of the alloying metals and compounds, the base metal could never be “resurrected.” This is an unfortunate reality of the life we live, that is; I can’t get positive change of character without the painful death of something else within me.
We all have things we want changed. I often want to be more disciplined for example (this is most often not followed up with real-life effort). The reality is, I can’t be more disciplined and remain lazy, right? These two things can’t both be true of me at the same time. If I legitimately want to be more disciplined, I must sacrifice (to use a very christian-y word) my desire to sleep in an extra hour if I’m going to get up one hour early. So the positive discipline for me in terms of getting out of bed only comes with the death of sleeping in.
In other words, most of us (I assume) want to be closer Jesus. So then this principle forces us to ask the question, “what am I willing to give up to get the closeness I desire?” Maybe it’s the death of a habit. Maybe it’s a mindset towards someone else. But how often do we think of change this way? Do we realize that there won’t be any positive change until there has been death first? In fact there can’t be! One might think this flies in the face of God meeting us where we’re at – the “come as you are” principle – but that principle only applies when we are humble and willing to change. The context of “come as you are” is our broken state, not a self-righteous one. God always opposes the proud (James 4:5, 1 Pet. 5:5, Prov. 3:34), which incidentally should lead us to the broken state, but that’s a different topic. I think, at least for me, the reality is God has already met me and now he’s saying it’s time to move. It should affect the way I pray, the way I love my family, the way I serve others. It should affect everything. How often I’ve found myself thinking thoughts like, “If only this person did this, then things would be right.” “If only I had a little more of this, then things would be better.” So lame. These thoughts express an immature (but understandable!) desire to improve life without giving anything up. Thankfully, God happens to be quite jealous for us, and His Spirit lives in us! This is good news if the goal is to be more like Him. It’s bad news if the goal is an easier life.