ALTHOUGH ISAIAH 66 ENDS on a note of apocalyptic decisiveness and hope (Isa. 66:18-24), intermingled with a frankly missionary theme (Isa. 66:19), the beginning of the chapter provides one more warning. This warning (Isa. 66:1-6) captures our attention here.
The text envisages the time when the temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt. All along Isaiah has predicted that Jerusalem would be destroyed and with it, implicitly, the temple. He has also prophesied that a remnant would return to the city and begin to rebuild. Yet never should they forget that God cannot be reduced to the dimensions of a temple: "Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?" (Isa. 66:1-2). Solomon understood this when he led Israel in prayer at the dedication of the first temple (1 Kings 8:27). Nevertheless it is a lesson soon forgotten as successive generations slip into a religious ecclesiasticism. Somehow they think they are good because they go through the prescribed religious motions. But God insists that offering a prescribed animal at the newly built temple when one's heart is far from the Lord is no better than offering up the sacrifice of an unclean animal---indeed, it may be as repulsive to the Lord as sacrificing a human being, for the entire exercise becomes so awesomely God-defying (Isa. 66:3). These religious people finally descend to religious persecution of those who want to follow God's word (Isa. 66:5). Once again the Lord threatens massive judgment (Isa. 66:4, 6).
What, then, will the Lord look for among the remnant that returns from exile? "This is the one I esteem," God says: "he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word" (Isa. 66:2). A few verses later, Isaiah directly addresses the faithful as "you who tremble at his word" (Isa. 66:5). They are contrasted with those who do not answer or listen when the Lord calls and speaks (Isa. 66:4). None of this is new. One of the lessons the Israelites were to learn through their years of wilderness wandering was that "man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD" (Deut. 8:3). This is of perennial importance---not only careful listening to every word that God has spoken, but listening characterized by humility, contrition, and godly fear (Isa. 66:2). In every generation, what ultimately distinguishes the true from the false among God's people, the blessed from the cursed, is faithfulness or unfaithfulness to the Word of God.