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’My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Isaiah 13-15: The Weapons of his Indignation
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Isaiah, and this morning we’re going to be reading from chapter 14 as we continue through the book of Isaiah.
Isaiah’s a book about the fall and the failings of the nation of Judah. It’s a story of humanity’s sin, and in spite of all we’ve done wrong, God’s redemption, and the coming of the kingdom of God on earth. Our future life everlasting is not in some far away heaven, but here on earth, together with God and everything restored to the way it was meant to be. God’s kingdom will be here; his kingdom already is here, but not yet fully.
We started this series talking about the sin of the world, sin meaning the distance between who we are and who we are meant to be—and last week we talked about how God is reversing sin, bringing what the Bible calls peace, shalom, the distance closed, so that we, and all of creation will be restored back to our original purpose, we will be made whole and right.
We need to learn both to long for the world as it will be and to participate in revealing that world in word and deed to our broken world.
But how? That’s the question I want to ask today. How is God going to undo sin and evil in the world? And what’s more: what’s our role; how can we participate in evil’s undoing in the world? What tools do we have, what lessons can we learn?
Read with me, Isaiah, chapter 14, starting with verse 4, through 21. [Isaiah 14:4-21]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly. Lord, please show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about power this week, power and brokenness. My thoughts started when I read a book this week called The Cross and the Lynching Tree, by theologian James Cone. It’s a disturbing book in the best possible way, and I would recommend it if you’ve been struggling, as I have, this past year with understanding the issues surrounding race in America and how they relate to God and what he’s doing in the world.
He opens the book with a discussion of how difficult the book was to write, looking into what is possibly the most broken and sinful aspects of our history as a people—and part of the difficulty with addressing things like oppression is that the brokenness of the world sometimes can be overwhelming and seem irreversible, like there’s nothing to be done.
In the midst of these reflections, I got news that the same area in Western Louisiana where several people from our church worked all last fall, which was so devastated after hurricanes Laura and Delta this year, has now flooded from the heavy rains of this past week.
I know one family who just finished this month replacing the flooring of their home, which they had to do because of the damage caused by the hurricanes, moved the furniture back in, just in time for their house to flood. We’re going to go carry their furniture to the curb, and tear up the new floor. That kind of loss can be demoralizing. It can make you feel like there’s no coming back from this. I’m not sure what, if anything I can do about it, and sometimes our efforts feel like a band aid on larger issues.
It’s that sense of being overwhelmed in the face of something wrong, which Isaiah is speaking to in the text this morning. So if you’ve ever been overwhelmed with the need of the people around you; if you’ve ever felt like you or someone you love is too far gone to have hope for restoration, you need to listen.
Isaiah is writing in our passage of the period of time right before his nation is going to fall. Babylon has come to power in the region, the king of Isaiah’s nation is dead, and Isaiah sees clearly that his nation is going to fall, his people will be captured and brought into slavery.
What can you say in the face of everything going wrong? How can God possibly make these things right? What tools is he going to use? And what can we do in a world with so much brokenness?
My first point from the text this morning is this: God has dispensed with the weapons of the enemy. God has dispensed with the weapons of the enemy; dispensed with them, gotten rid of the weapons of the enemy.
In our passage, the weapon in Babylon’s hand is a rod, which would have been the primary tool of an overseer of slaves. It’s symbolizing, in the passage, the means by which people oppress, exert power over others in the world. What does that rod represent, what are the weapons of the enemy? What are the means by which evil gains power in the world?
Evil has always used death, violence, need, and shame as tools of gaining power. That’s not an exhaustive list, but that gives you a good start. If you can make a person fear you, or depend upon you for their survival, or feel ashamed of themselves in comparison to you, you gain power over them and people like them. Satan lays these tools at our feet to tempt us—take them up, he says, and shape the world as you see fit.
In Isaiah’s day this looked like the siege of a city, like the siege Jerusalem, Isaiah’s city, was about to endure. Babylon knew, if you camp outside the city so no supplies can get in, if you make a people hungry enough, you have power over them. If you encamp your armies around their city to make them afraid. If when the city falls you plunder their wealth, you strip them naked and overpower them, if you take the most honored people among them and humiliate them brutally, then that people will be made afraid; they will do whatever you tell them to do.
In our time, we can look at things like share-cropping, which weaponized need and dependence, lynching, as I’ve already mentioned, which is shame and violence together, gang violence, which makes our city afraid; economic disparities, which create need and shame, societal segregation like the all-black school I taught in when I first moved to New Orleans, which causes shame and educational disparities, which perpetuate need. We can look at those things, if we are willing to look, and see in those things the weapons of the enemy.
Oftentimes, when we as a people are victimized or oppressed with one of the weapons of the enemy, their response, oftentimes, when we take the rod out of the oppressor’s hand, we turn around and use it on him. Do violence against the violent, kill the people who threatened to kill you, take what he has until he is needy, push them down far enough that they become ashamed. It’s an understandable desire—it’s the plot of every movie, it’s the way of the world—but this is not what the Lord has done, so if you are hoping to walk in his ways, this is not what you should do.
So what is God doing about it, and how is he calling us to participate?
The Lord, in our passage, takes the rod out of the hand of the oppressor, yes, but then he breaks it, throws it away. He dispenses with it. He has no need for the weapons of the enemy, because, as we’ll see throughout the book of Isaiah, the Lord has weapons of his own indignation, to quote Isaiah 13:5, which are far more powerful than the ones used by evil.
Throughout scripture we see God dispensing with the weapons of the enemy. He breaks shame, dispenses with it, by adopting you as a son or daughter, giving you his inheritance and name. You will not be ugly, or without a family, or a sinner, or a mess, or crazy, or unsuccessful, because your identity will be: you are a child of God. Your reputation will be wrapped up in everything the Lord has done, your work will be his work, your beauty will come from him.
God breaks need, he dispenses with it, by providing for us, and by himself being our portion. He not only feeds the thousands, he is the daily bread, he is the wine that overflows, he invites us to his table to eat and drink and have part in him.
God breaks violence and death, he dispenses with them, by taking away their finality. Death is so terrifying because it seems to be everlasting, large, ominous, and empty. But God has made life to be everlasting rather than death. You don’t need to worry about whether or not you will die, because death is brief and momentary. You should worry about how you’ll live, because death is swallowed up with life, God has broken death like a rod taken out of the hands of the violent—it has no sting, no victory anymore.
So, if we are to follow God in his ways, if we are to participate in what he is doing in the world, we need to break and dispense with the weapons of the enemy. We cannot, as a church, attach ourselves to businesses, movements, interest groups, politicians and others who use shame, fear, death, and need to gain power. We convince ourselves if the church can just use their power—not do the same things they do, but ally ourselves with them—we would use their power rightly, do good with it, enact justice; but we can’t ally ourselves with those who use the weapons of the enemy, because God has called us to break the weapons of the enemy and dispense with them. You can never do good with fear and violence, if fear and violence themselves are of the enemy. “Darkness cannot cast out darkness.”
And because God is dispensing with the weapons of the enemy, we have to recognize that every king and kingdom who rules using the weapons of the enemy will fall and come to nothing. In the end, the only king will be Christ, and his kingdom the only nation.
So God breaks and dispenses with the weapons of the enemy, but we see through this section of Isaiah, the Lord gathering his own weapons of indignation, his own tools to do his work in the world. This is my second point from the text. God builds his kingdom with natural consequence, life, steadfast love, and memory. God builds his kingdom with natural consequence, life, steadfast love, and memory. Again, that’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start.
We talked a lot about natural consequence two weeks ago, and how God uses the consequences of our own actions as a means of judgement, so we won’t focus on that again today; instead I want to focus on time and memory as tools God is using to cause his kingdom to come on earth.
We don’t often think about how time and memory are created things, but God created time as he created everything else, and he’s not bound by it. He is able to use time to swallow up even the greatest kings and rulers, the strongest empires and nations. And the Lord uses memory and forgetting as a means of ridding the earth of every consequence of the death, violence, need, and shame they used to oppress peoples.
Have you ever thought about how powerless we are against time? Even if you were to rule the entire earth in your lifetime, if your face is on the currency and every person knows your name, you still only have one lifetime to rule, and then you’re gone. Meanwhile, God is raising his people to everlasting life.
Notice, the passage we just read is in the literary form of lament, but it’s not a normal lament—it’s imagining the death of the kings of Assyria and Babylon, these great empires ruling half the world, and instead of mourning Isaiah leads his people to rejoice. God will inevitably judge these empires, just as he’s judged us. It’s meant to taunt the powerful and teach humility. God has imposed time on us, he’s numbered our days, and they are brief. Even the mightiest person will die, and suffer the same fate as the rest of humanity.
It reminds me of Shelly’s poem on the same topic, where he imagines a traveller who discovers a fallen statue in the middle of a vast desert on which is written:
’My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
But nothing beside remains, the whole empire this great king had built is lost to time and memory. This is the fate of every person. If I told you the names of the kings of whom Isaiah is speaking, you wouldn’t recognize them. They’ve been forgotten, and their empires lost. At the time, I’m sure their rule seemed interminable, their armies unconquerable. They erected statues meant to last for all of time, and now no one knows their names. Yet God’s love is known to millions around the world. His love is far stronger than any weapons of the enemy; God love really is unending and unconquerable; it’s even eternal, unchanged by time.
Endless wars are fought in our world to determine who will own what land, and in the end God has already told us that the meek, the weak, will inherit the earth. Why? Because God loves them, and God’s love is eternal; therefore it’s stronger than any of the weapons of the enemy. It’s steadfast, unfading, unfailing; love never ends. It will persist into eternity.
Time and memory are intertwined, and God uses memory as well to enact justice in the world and build his kingdom. Over and over again in scripture God says he is noticing and remembering acts of compassion and mercy, those who build up and support life, those who care for the meek and the oppressed. Those things God sees and remembers.
The Lord is also actively causing to be forgotten the works of evil in the world. Twice in our passage he says to Babylon, I will cause your names and your works to be forgotten. This is a theme in scripture. He says over and again in the prophets, I will blot your name and your deeds from the book of life, meaning their names and works won’t be recorded or included in God’s account of the world, not remembered in the story he is writing in our world. God will so thoroughly redress past wrongs that he will make evil deeds, not just past, but irrelevant to his redeemed earth.
For us, this means that all of the works we do in our lives that seem overlooked, the help we give that no one notices or praises us for—God notices, and he remembers. Words of truth spoken in rooms that did not hear them. Lives spent caring for children, for the marginalized, for the elderly—those are lives the Lord notices and remembers. Those lives are well-lived. They are worthwhile. The history books of our world are filled with conquests, the lives of the powerful, those who rule using the weapons of the enemy. The Lord’s book, though, is filled with the lives of the loving, the caring, the true, oftentimes those who on earth have been forgotten. Many who are unknown here on earth and quietly doing the work of the kingdom will be renowned in eternity.
And much of what fills our history books and news feeds will be forgotten in eternity, made irrelevant. This is part of why Paul tells us, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
What does this mean for us? How do we participate in this?
It means, don’t dwell on the evil things done to you, or the things you’ve done that you can’t forgive yourself for. Speak the truth as often as it needs to be spoken and no more. Do the difficult work to heal, to forgive, because in eternity those acts will not be allowed to hold any sway over you.
In any way you can, use life, love, and memory to counteract the works of evil in the world. This is participating in the work of our Father in heaven. When people hate you, love them in return. When they make you afraid or ashamed, remind them of your life and humanity. Cause the works of caring for the meek, lowly, and marginalized to be noticed and remembered among you, make loving people renowned in your own life and community, and work toward healing of the wrongs people have done around you.
Friends, my invitation for today is this: as we participate in God’s work of building the kingdom, let’s lay down the weapons of the enemy, and take up the weapons of the Lord’s indignation. There is no good that can be done using fear, shame, or violence of any sort. God is breaking those weapons in two. And fear no one who uses those tools to attempt to gain power over you. Their lives are brief, and then no one will fear them; they will be brought low; their works forgotten. Instead, rest in the life, love, and memory of the works of the Lord.
And I’ll close with this: you aren’t able to participate in the work of the Lord in the world unless you are of the people of God, unless you begin with confession of your own sin in the world, that you are not perfect, and that you need God to make you whole. If you don’t know where to start, start there: God, I’m a sinner, and I don’t do the things you do in the world. Please forgive me, and show me how to walk in your ways for your name’s sake. Pray with me now.