Why, O Lord, do You cause us to stray from Your ways
And harden our heart from fearing You?
Return for the sake of Your servants, the tribes of Your heritage.
One dreadful condition in our Christian walk is to stray away from God and not be concerned about it. In Isaiah 63:17, the prophet laments that the Israelites no longer walked in God’s ways and no longer feared His Name. But how did this happen? How is it possible for a nation who experienced God’s power and received God’s revelation to turn away from Him? If we look at Israelite history, it was not a national decision to drop God from their religious practice and pursue another god or gods. The reason is two-fold: THEY FORGOT TO LOVE GOD AND TO LOVE HIS WORD.
It all started with a slow but steady departure from the love of His Word and an increase in love for material things. Before entering the Promised Land, Moses gave them a clear command:
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deut. 6:4-9)
In other words, they shall love God with their whole being and love His word by making it visible in every aspect of their lives. But why was this command necessary? In the next verses, Moses tells the Israelites that they will inherit a land with “great and splendid cities” which they did not build, and live in “houses full of all good things” which they did not fill, and enjoy abundance of water from cisterns they did not dig, and eat the produce of vineyards and olive trees which they did not plant, and fill themselves to their satisfaction. However, when they begin to enjoy a life of plenty, they are warned:
“…watch yourself, that you do not forget the Lord who brought you from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deut. 6:10-12).
But as the years and decades and centuries went by, the Israelites forgot the warning and, little by little, forgot their God.
Isaiah 63:17 gives two signs of this backslidden state. First, the Israelites NO LONGER WALKED IN GOD’S WAYS. Their identity was no longer a nation whose God is the Lord but a people where all forms of idol worship can be found (Read 2 Kings 17 for a summary of Israel and Judah’s departure from God). By forgetting God and His word, the Israelites took the path of idolatry and became like the nations around them. A second sign is that the hardened heart NO LONGER FEARS GOD. It is easy to talk about being God-fearing people because we think that fearing God is simply equal to respect and reverence. However, we should not dismiss the fact that the Bible also admonishes believers to be afraid and take God seriously. In Hebrews 12:25, for example, the writer warns:
“See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven.”
In Revelation 2:4-5, God tells the church at Ephesus:
“But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore, remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lamp stand out of its place—unless you repent.”
This is a frightful condition. But how is this possible? We get the answer from the text itself. The prophet cries,
“Why, O Lord, do You cause us to stray from Your ways; And harden our heart from fearing You?” (Isa. 63:17).
The prophet was asking God why He caused the Israelites to be hardened. Now, we should not think that God suddenly made a decision to let the Israelites grow cold and backslide even though they were in good standing before Him. The Bible states that He does not tempt His people to sin (James 1:13); He cannot be blamed for the spiritual decline of His people. Ellsworth explains:
When we who are God’s people drift into sin, God for a while gives us opportunities to repent. If these opportunities are scorned, He lets us go by giving us over to our sins. The first form His chastisement takes is removing from us the desire to turn back to Him. (Ellsworth 17)
The blessing the believer has is that God’s chastisement will not lead to eternal condemnation. But the hardhearted believer will not be spared from the difficulties of being far from God in this life. Hence, in order for them to return to God, the prophet cries out:
“Return for the sake of Your servants, the tribes of Your heritage.” This means that if we drift far from God’s ways and become entangled in the desires of this world, and have dropped deep into spiritual apathy, we can only return to God if He returns to us and revive in us a heart for Him.
Let us take this message to heart. If we are still walking in God’s word and still fear His Name, it is God's grace on us. We should seriously thank Him for the grace He gives so that we will not stray away. The various means of grace (i.e. Sunday worship, Lord Supper, Bible Studies, Prayer Meeting, Cell Groups, Fellowship with believers) are manifestations of His grace on us who if left on our own can easily be swayed by the cares of this world. But if we know we are far from Him, let us repent, seek His face again and return to Him.
Questions to ponder
- Am I losing my love for God and for His Word and becoming more occupied with earthly pursuits?
- Am I in a state when I no longer care about my spiritual condition?
- In my daily routine, are there clear warnings that I am starting to depart from His ways?
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