Remember the woman Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong encountered who confronted him, saying she wanted nothing to do with the God of the Old Testament? She was asserting that its God was harsh and cruel. Give her, she said, the New Testament God!
Well, I am pretty sure many of us have wondered just exactly what Old Testament she was reading. It certainly was not the one we read. We all know that her idea of the “harsh and cruel” God of the Old Testament does not square with truth at all. We could all turn to many passages in the Old Testament where the gracious God we serve is presented in living color.
No, we are not going to review all those passages today. We will just focus on a few verses in Isaiah 54, a passage which shows the lovingkindness of our God. Here, Isaiah starts out with a foundation of the patriarchs; he then builds on God’s promises to Abraham and Sarah; and finally progresses to a discussion of God’s eternal compassion.
Isaiah 54:1 “Sing, O barren [that is, Sarah], you who have not borne! Break forth into singing, and cry aloud, you who have not labored with child! For more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married woman,” says the Lord.
One of the themes which Isaiah weaves into this chapter is that of fecundity—fertility or fruitfulness. Just as He did with Sarah, God will reverse the plight of the desolate—the barren—by the miracle of His promise. Notice, Galatians 4. Paul elaborates on this subject, quoting the last half of Isaiah 54:1, applying it spiritually.
Let us take a look for a minute.
Galatians 4:21-25 (Phillips Paraphrase) Now tell me, you who want to be under the Law, have you heard what the Law says? It is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave and the other by the free woman. The child of the slave was born in the ordinary course of nature, but the child of the free woman was born in accordance with God’s promise. This can be regarded as an allegory. Here are the two agreements represented by the two women: the one from Mount Sinai bearing children into slavery, typified by Hagar (Mount Sinai being in Arabia, the land of the descendants of Ishmael, Hagar’s son), and corresponding to present-day Jerusalem—for the Jews are still, spiritually speaking, “slaves.”
That is important: The religions of today’s Jerusalem, those being, of course, Judaism, Islam, and worldly Christianity, do not liberate their adherents. Present-day Jerusalem is not the locus of freedom in any way.
Continuing in verse 26, Paul makes a distinction between the Jerusalem below, and the Jerusalem above:
Galatians 4:26-31 (Phillips Paraphrase) But the free woman [that is, Sarah] typifies the heavenly Jerusalem, which is the mother of us all [God’s people], and is spiritually “free.” [It is here that Paul quotes Isaiah 54:1.] It is written: ‘Rejoice, O barren, you who do not bear! Break forth and shout, you who do not travail! For the desolate has many more children than she who has a husband.’ Now you, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as then the child born according to the flesh [that is, Ishmael] persecuted the one born according to the Spirit, so also now. But what does the Scripture say? Drive out the slave and her son, for the son of the slave will never be a coheir with the son of the free woman. Therefore, brethren, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.
Physically, or, genetically, we could say that Israelites and Ishmaelites are half brothers, at least in the sense that both are descended through Abraham.
But, spiritually, the cleavage between them is absolutely vast. For God’s people are the people of promise, born of the Spirit. We need to drive far from us the ways of those enslaved to sin. We are not able—and indeed, we are not commanded—to drive the slaves themselves away. But, God commands us to separate ourselves from their ways.
Let us go back to Isaiah 54. Here Isaiah elaborates on the theme of fertility versus desolation or bareness.
Isaiah 54:2-3 “Enlarge the place of your tent, and let them stretch out the curtains of your dwellings; do not spare; lengthen your cords, and strengthen your stakes. For you shall expand to the right and to the left, and your descendants will inherit the nations and make the desolate cities inhabited.”
The promise is of fruitfulness. When the promise materializes, desolation and barrenness take a back seat. God makes this particular iteration of the promise to Jacob, but it is substantively the same promise He made to Abraham.
Genesis 28:14 Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; and you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south.
In Isaiah 54, the prophet states this fruitfulness in terms of expansion, spreading out, “to the right and to the left.” (He did not use the north, south, east, and west nomenclature.)
Turn to Isaiah 49 to see a prophecy regarding this expansion, at least in physical terms. Isaiah compares the ruin and desolation which results from barrenness with the expansiveness—the growth—that invariability comes with fruitfulness.
Isaiah 49:19-21 For your waste and desolate places, and the land of your destruction, will even now be too small for the inhabitants; and those who swallowed you up will be far away. The children that you will have after you have lost the others, will again say in your ears, ‘The place is too small for me; give me a place where I may dwell.’
Decided population growth will characterize the Millennium. This is in marked contrast to the situation in Israel today, where Israel’s barrenness is borne forth by demographic figures which indicate population contraction, not growth. Disobedient Israel is already barren, desolate in some ways. It will only get worse in the short run, of course.
Isaiah 54:6 “For the Lord has called you like a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit, like a youthful wife when you were refused,” says your God.
This clearly has spiritual application to the calling of people by God. What does God say to this woman “forsaken and grieved in spirit?”
Isaiah 54:7-8 “For a mere moment I have forsaken you, but with great mercies I will gather you. With a little wrath I hid My face from you for a moment; but with everlasting kindness I will have mercy on you,” says the Lord, your Redeemer.
The woman Mr. Armstrong came across, the one who perceived the God of the Old Testament to be harsh and cruel, must have narrowly focused on Old Testament passages which speak of God’s punishment of His people. Admittedly, there are a good number of them. But, she did not maintain a broader perspective. For those passages are in fact speaking of this “brief moment” of time, that relatively short period of time, when God is angry. She apparently could not see the “everlasting love” which this God of the Old Testament so commonly evinces—and promises.
Turn to Jeremiah 32. First of all, please, notice the time factor.
Jeremiah 32:37 (Expanded Bible) I forced them [drove them out] from their land, because I was furious and very angry with them. But soon [Notice that word “soon”, God is not going to leave them alone, separated from Himself, for long] I will gather them from all the lands where I forced them to go and I will bring them back [restore them] to this place.
In Isaiah 26, God again stresses this pattern which runs through the Scriptures: the pattern of the brevity of a time of trial versus the eternity of God’s compassion. In Isaiah 26, God is saying that there is a time to hide, or hunker down, as John Reid puts it. Perhaps we could say, a time to flee, rather than to fight.
But, for how long? How long do we need to hide, to flee?
Isaiah 26:20 (Holman) Go, my people, enter your rooms and close your doors behind you. Hide for a little while until the wrath has passed.
Just a little while. Now, there are several New Testament references to this concept of the brevity of tribulation versus the eternity of God’s rest. Christ put it this way in John 16:
John 16:21 (Phillips Paraphrase) When a woman gives birth to a child, she certainly knows pain when her time comes. Yet as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers her agony for joy that a man has been born into the world.
In II Corinthians 4, Paul uses this terminology.
Another clear example appears in Romans 8. Here, in an amazing passage, the apostle connects this pattern with hope. Paul takes the pattern out of the context of Israel’s history—that is the context in which Isaiah states it. Paul states it in the context of the creation at large.
Romans 8:18-21 (Phillips Paraphrase) In my opinion whatever we may have to go through now is less than nothing compared with the magnificent future God has planned for us. The whole creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the sons of God coming into their own. The world of creation cannot as yet see reality, not because it chooses to be blind, but because in God’s purpose it has been so limited—yet it has been given hope. And the hope is that in the end the whole of created life will be rescued from the tyranny of change and decay, and have its share in that magnificent liberty which can only belong to the children of God!
Let us go back to Jeremiah 32. This next passage states another pattern besides the one of the shortness of trial in comparison to the eternity of grace. There is another pattern, though both are related. That other pattern is one of scattering and gathering, two opposite actions.
Jeremiah 32:37 Behold, I will gather them out of all the countries where I have driven them in My anger, in My fury, and in great wrath; I will bring them back to this place, and I will cause them to dwell safely.
This pattern is stated as a dichotomy, a merism by Solomon in Ecclesiastes 3:5: “A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones.”
Scattering—throwing—is an image of trial or tribulation, as God scatters His people over the earth, in effect separating Himself from them in the sense that they are not with Him in Jerusalem. Scattering contains the concept of dividing, disunity. As well, scattering contains an image of thrusting away, often violently pushing away from yourself.
We will see how often—as in Jeremiah 32—God connects this thrusting away with the emotion of anger. On the other hand, gathering—the opposite of scattering—is informed by the image of pulling to oneself, not pushing away. There is here the idea of unity. The image also contains the concept or the aspect of gentleness rather than violence. Gathering, specifically, the gathering of God’s people, represents the on-going grace and compassion of God. As an example, consider Christ’s image of gathering in Matthew 23:
Matthew 23:37-38 (Holman) Jerusalem, Jerusalem! She who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, yet you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate.
Another image which informs this scattering/gathering pattern appears in the New Testament’s image of fishing. Early in His ministry, when Christ was in the process of calling His disciples, He told Peter and Andrew that He would make them “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19 and Mark 1:17). This is not predominately a reference to line fishing, as exampled by many types of sport fishing, but refers to net fishing, not unlike that practiced today by commercial fisherman. The image of such a fisherman is one of gathering, or bringing the net, with its load of fish, towards the fisherman.
The disciples—and that includes us today—would work with Christ in a gathering, reconciling, work. Hold on to that word reconciling. It is another word, commonly appearing in the New Testament, which refers to the work of gathering.
There are many Old Testament passages which talk about this scattering/gathering dichotomy—this pattern. I will review a number of them here.
Zechariah 7 connects scattering with God’s anger by showing the reason for the scattering.
Zechariah 7:8-14 (Holman) The word of the Lord came to Zechariah: “The Lord of Hosts says this: Make fair decisions. Show faithful love and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor, and do not plot evil in your hearts against one another. But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder; they closed their ears so they could not hear. They made their hearts like a rock so as not to obey the law or the words that the Lord of Hosts had sent by His Spirit through the earlier prophets. Therefore great anger came from the Lord of Hosts. Just as He had called, and they would not listen, so when they called, I would not listen,” says the Lord of Hosts. “I scattered them with a windstorm [notice the implied violence here] over all the nations that had not known them, and the land was left desolate behind them, with no one coming or going.”
This second example also connects scattering with God’s wrath.
Ezekiel 36:18-19 (Holman) “So I poured out My wrath on them because of the blood they had shed on the land, and because they had defiled it with their idols. I dispersed them among the nations, and they were scattered among the countries.”
This next particular passage introduces the shepherd symbolism, as Christ, the Good Shepherd, gathers His flock. So, not only fisherman, but shepherds, gather. Another image. Notice also the reference to fruitfulness.
Here again, notice the connection of shepherd imagery with gathering.
Jeremiah 31:10-11 (Holman) Nations, hear the word of the Lord, and tell it among the far off coastlands! Say: The One who scattered Israel will gather him. He will watch over him as a shepherd guards his flock.
Here is a third scripture which connects gathering imagery with the work of a shepherd. This is a good example of the gentleness implicit in the act of gathering, the opposite of the violence often associated with scattering.
Isaiah 40:11 (Holman) He protects His flock like a shepherd; He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them in the fold of His garment. He gently leads those that are nursing.
Zechariah 10 contains another example of this pattern.
Zechariah 10:9-10 (Expanded) I have scattered them among the nations, but in those faraway places, they will remember me. They and their children will live [survive] and return. I will bring them back from the land of Egypt and gather them from Assyria. I will bring them to Gilead and Lebanon until there isn’t enough room for them all [as in Isaiah 49].
Isaiah 11:12 (Holman) He will lift up a banner for the nations and gather the dispersed of Israel; He will collect the scattered of Judah from the four corners of the earth.
Zephaniah 3:19-20 (Expanded) At that time I will punish [deal with] all those who harmed [oppressed] you. I will save my people who cannot walk and gather my people who have been thrown out. I will give them praise and honor in every place where they were shamed. At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you back home. I will give you honor and praise from people everywhere [among all the peoples of the earth] when I will return your exiles.
Ezekiel 11:17 (Expanded) Therefore say: This is what the Lord God says: I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.
As a last example, I want to cite Isaiah 66. Here, God extends his promise to gather to include other nations, nations outside Israel.
Isaiah 66:18-19 (Holman)“Knowing their works and their thoughts, I have come to gather all nations and languages; they will come [Hold on to that word, “come.” We will revisit it later. It is yet another code word for this action of gathering] and see My glory.
Now, I will cite four New Testament passages which speak of this same pattern of scattering/gathering, but often in different terminology. Paul often uses the verb reconcile instead of the verb gather, but the meaning is much the same.
First, in Romans 11 Paul shows that God’s scattering of Israel had great value for the Gentile nations. Again, the scope of God’s gathering activities goes beyond Israel, as we saw in Isaiah 66. In Romans 11, Paul puts the scattering/gathering into a spiritual context:
Romans 11:15 For if their being cast away [that is, the scattering of Israel] is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be [that is, the gathering up of Israel] but life from the dead?
As a second example, consider II Corinthians 5. Paul avers that the work of God today is one of gathering, reconciliation, bringing together. God still scatters at times—as Ecclesiastes 3 said, there is a time to throw stones away—we have experienced that scattering, we know all about that. Yet, gathering remains a big part of Christ’s intercessory work. He is the Good Shepherd who gathers His sheep. This in fact is His primary work.
II Corinthians 5:18-19 (Holman) Everything is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: That is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed the message of reconciliation to us.
This is basically referring to the ministry, but God is saying in general that His people share in Christ’s work of gathering. Paul continues:
Time will not allow me to review the third and fourth New Testament scriptures. You may want to write down the references and review them later.
In Ephesians 14:18 Paul demonstrates how God’s gathering work is also one of unification—in this case, unifying Jew and Gentile. A fourth New Testament reference to gathering appears in Colossians 1:19-22.
As I wind down, I want to go back to Isaiah 54. God uses His covenant with Noah to remind Him, and us, of His commitment to display age-enduring compassion and kindness on His people. Not just for today, while we are in the flesh. God will shower His kindnesses on us forever. That is something we might forget sometimes. But, we dare not forget it.
Isaiah 54:9-10 “For this is like the waters of Noah to Me; for as I have sworn that the waters of Noah would no longer cover the earth, so I have sworn that I would not be angry with you, or rebuke you. For the mountains shall depart and the hills removed, but My kindness shall not depart from you, nor shall My covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has mercy on you.
The promise God made to Noah (and all mankind through him) is recorded in Genesis 9. Notice the quality of changelessness which underlies the covenant.
Genesis 9:11 (New International Version) “I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
God states the covenant twice, does He not!
Now, Christ tells us in Luke 17 that the time just before the Day of the Lord and His return will be similar to what it was like just before the Flood.
Luke 17:26-27 (Holman) “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be in the days of the Son of Man: People went on eating, drinking, marrying and giving in marriage until the day Noah boarded the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.”
Beyond this, however, in Isaiah 54, Christ tells us that the time after the Day of the Lord will also be similar to the time after the Flood. After those horrific days soon to come upon us, God will remember the covenant of peace He established with Noah after the Flood and will never again rebuke His people.
Now, Noah was in the ark for about 370 days, about the same length of time as the Day of the Lord. Noah was hidden in the ark—as a place of safety, protected from God’s wrath—for a relatively short period of time, about a year. He and his family came out of that tribulation—that is exactly what it was for those not in the Ark—they came out of that trial with a promise of God’s everlasting kindness.
Similarly, those who survive the troubles at the end of this age will also come to that same promise, the promise of everlasting peace.
Isaiah 54:10 “For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed, but My kindness shall not depart from you, nor shall My covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has mercy on you.
As Paul said, Christ is doing a work of reconciliation—gathering—even now. Upon His return to the planet in power and great glory, Christ will continue to fish, to shepherd, to gather, to reconcile. He will ultimately reconcile all of creation to the Father. And we, God’s special people, will have a part in that reconciliation—gathering with Christ.
I will conclude by touching on yet another image of gathering. I mentioned it briefly before. It is entailed in the verb “come” which serves as yet another code word for God’s work of drawing people to Himself in reconciliation. The difference between the verb “gather” and the verb “come” is one of viewpoint. The focus of the verb “gather” is on the gatherer, as Christ gathers His sheep. The focus of the verb “come” is often on the ones being gathered. They have a role in the gathering process; they must accept—or reject—the invitation.
In Matthew 11, Christ issues His own invitation to come.
Matthew 11:28 (Holman) “Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
As far as I can see, the last reference to Christ’s work of gathering appears in Revelation 22, where I will conclude. Here is an invitation to come. I want you to notice that it is not only Christ who issues the invitation. His Bride issues it as well.
Revelation 22:17 (Holman) Both the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” Anyone who hears should say, “Come!” And the one who is thirsty should come.
That woman was wrong. The God of the Old Testament is not harsh and cruel but filled with loving kindness and graciousness towards us forever. We have not even begun to plumb the depths of His love for us.