Let the Wicked Return to the Lord

While we’re busy dividing “us” from “them” or “the righteous” from “the wicked,” it’s easy to miss one simple fact: we are the wicked.

Sometimes, we have a hard time thinking that God could ever reach a certain person. He is too bad or she is too far gone for God to reach, we think. This was how the Israelites thought of the gentile nations. Despite the fact that the call to minister to the nations was built into Israel’s very makeup (Gen. 12; 1 Kings 8), the Israelites had a hard time carrying out that mission. There was no way that God could reach those people. And furthermore, they didn’t deserve mercy. Their punishment was just. Right? Wrong. God rebukes such thinking in the next verse.

 

In the book of Isaiah, there is an abrupt transition at chapter 40. After many chapters of pronouncing judgment and the need for restoration, the prophet shifts gears: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isa. 40:1–2). So begins what has aptly been called the Book of Comfort or the Book of Consolation—Isaiah 40–66, a glorious recitation of God’s affection for His people and His promises of blessing for them.

In the midst of the Book of Comfort is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible. Isaiah 55 begins with a plea from God: “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (v. 1). The invitation—echoed later in Jesus’ words in John 4 and 6—is almost too good to be true. Who would believe that someone would offer food for free? And if someone did, surely the food would not be worth eating.

But no. God goes on to plead with His hearers to forsake their practice of pursuing food that does not satisfy: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” He then reveals the goodness of the food that He offers: “Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live” (Isa. 55:2–3). The food is rich, and it is good. It is no earthly food; this food, the food that truly satisfies, is the Word of God. The one who listens to God will be filled.

This is not a call to abandon all other interests than the Lord but rather a call to recognize Him as the highest pursuit. Where are we ultimately finding satisfaction? In success, money, or power? Or in the One who made us, who knows us, and who calls us to Himself? The things of this world cannot ultimately satisfy, because they were not made to. We are called to forsake our empty, unfulfilling, self-focused endeavors and to come to God and be satisfied.

God offers this rich food to His people, the Israelites. The offer is in keeping with His promises to them in the past, as He notes by referencing His covenant with David in verses 3–4. The richness of the Word of God as revealed to Israel is so attractive that other nations will come to hear it (v. 5). For Israel, it is easy to hear this Word. But still, they are urged to “seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near” (v. 6).

But the call to seek the Lord, as hinted at in verse 5, does not go out only to Israel; it goes out to the nations as well. All nations and all peoples are called to seek the Lord. Moreover, “the wicked” are called to seek the Lord: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (v. 7). To the ancient Israelites, “the wicked” referred to those from the surrounding nations, the very people referred to in verse 5. They were the ones who did not know or serve the Creator of heaven and earth. And yet, here is a call for mercy, for pardon, for the very people who had oppressed God’s chosen nation.

Sometimes, we have a hard time thinking that God could ever reach a certain person. He is too bad or she is too far gone for God to reach, we think. This was how the Israelites thought of the gentile nations. Despite the fact that the call to minister to the nations was built into Israel’s very makeup (Gen. 12; 1 Kings 8), the Israelites had a hard time carrying out that mission. There was no way that God could reach those people. And furthermore, they didn’t deserve mercy. Their punishment was just. Right?

Wrong. God rebukes such thinking in the next verse. To those who think they know the way that God ought to operate, how He ought to dispense His mercy, God says: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LordFor as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:9).

This verse is often generalized to speak of God’s being something other than us. He is the Creator, and we are the creature. He is, by definition, higher than us, and we cannot access His thoughts. He has made Himself known to us, so to that extent, we can know the mind of God, and based on that, we can try to reason the way that He does—to think God’s thoughts after Him. But we cannot think in precisely the same way that He thinks.

While this verse can certainly be generalized legitimately, it’s important that we recognize the context in which it occurs. God is not speaking of His thoughts as generally higher than ours. He is speaking of His thoughts as higher than our thoughts specifically when it comes to how “the wicked” should be viewed—that is, “the wicked” are to be called to return to the Lord and to be welcomed.

This was likely a shock to the Israelites, and it can be shock to us, too. It’s easy to fall into the trap of dividing “us” from “them” and of thinking of “them” as unworthy. When we do that, we run the risk of placing our thoughts higher than God’s thoughts, thinking that we know better than He does.

But God delights to show mercy—and it’s a good thing for us that He does. While we’re busy dividing “us” from “them” or “the righteous” from “the wicked,” it’s easy to miss one simple fact: we are the wicked. The Israelites began to think that they were better than the nations, but they weren’t, and they should have known that (see Deut. 9:4–6). We also are not more righteous in ourselves than those who do not know Christ, yet God in His mercy has provided righteousness for us (Rom. 5:8; 2 Cor. 5:21).

The story of the Old Testament is God’s calling a wicked people to Himself and accomplishing His purposes in spite of their wickedness. God does this by means of His Word, the very same “rich food” we are called to eat in Isaiah 55:2. This Word in verses 10–12 is likened to the rain and snow that water the earth. As the rain causes plants to grow, so the Word of God makes things happen: “It shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (v. 12).

This active, generative Word is God’s revelation in Scripture and especially in the person and work of Christ. The next verses tell us what the Word accomplishes: creation joins in song in praise of the Creator, and new life springs forth in a reversal of the curse of Genesis 3 (Isa. 55:12–13). This new life happens not only in the new heavens and new earth but also in the fallow ground of human hearts when they are regenerated by the Holy Spirit. For the sake of His own glory God does this: “It shall make a name for the Lord, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off” (v. 13).

Praise God that His ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts higher than our thoughts, for He has brought us, the wicked, near to Him, that we might feast on His rich food. And praise Him for the power of His Word, which has brought us to new life. May our lives shine forth the glory of His name.

Kevin D. Gardner is associate editor of Tabletalk magazine and a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He is an ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. This article is used with permission.