MAIN IDEA: Turn to the God of Israel alone to receive salvation and honor.
Culture of Honor and Shame
The Lord God knows us. He knows our desires and what motivates us. He is our Creator. Our passage today reveals God seeking to “touch the nerve” of the world and appeal to the deepest desires of people.
The deepest desire of people in the time of Isaiah and during the age of the Babylonian and Persian empires is the desire for honor. The opposite of honor is shame. Honor and shame go hand in hand. The dominant theme of this passage is the attainment of honor and how to avoid shame.
For us to understand how God is reaching out to the people in that time, we need to build a cultural bridge. Honor and reputation are fundamental values in the ancient world. Our society is very different. We live in a society which focuses on guilt and innocence. We do not live in an honor-shame culture, so the impact of this passage is lost on us. If we don’t understand the desire for honor, we will not understand this passage.
To understand, we need to examine the difference between shame and guilt.
Shame is the loss of honor
Shame is the loss of honor. Honor comes from society. Having honor in society requires a public claim of value. There is no honor if there are no people to bestow honor. Honor and shame come from the opinions of others. People with value in society, have honor. If society rejects us or places us in a lower status, there is shame. A community is a very important part of honor.
Honor and reputation are fundamental values in the ancient world. Honor is regarded as the ultimate achievement and shame is the greatest failure. It is such a dominant aspect of the society that academics refer to those societies as “honor-shame cultures.” In those societies, life revolves around making sure you and your family received the public honor and avoided public shame. Honor is more important than wealth and achievement.
Punishment in honor-shame cultures is less about inflicting physical pain than it is about making people feel shame. Parading captives from war with rings on their noses are meant to inflict shame. Making someone wear the Scarlet Letter A, putting people in stocks, and public flogging. The pain is in the shame more than it is in the physical punishment. Punishment is very public because of the more public the punishment, the more pain from the humiliation. Everyone takes part in the process of shouting words of ridicule.
In contrast to public humiliation is the process of public honor. Elaborate public ceremonies of honor are an important part of a king’s rule. The culture goes to great lengths to have the entire populations show honor to the king.
In today’s age, honor and shame are predominant in agrarian cultures and less so in industrialized cultures. This explains why eastern cultures, particularly Asia and the Middle East, are considered honor and shame cultures. The industrialized western world does not have an honor-shame culture.
Perhaps you have met someone from Asia and noticed that their last name is listed first. This is because they honor their family, the collective society. Family comes before the individual. Children in an honor-shame culture go to good schools to honor their family, not personal achievement. Children obey in public, so their family will not have shame. Refusing to be concerned about honor is to be shameless.
In working with Easterners in business, there are practices Westerners need to adopt. Bowing is a custom to show honor. When receiving a business card, never put it in your pocket, that is shameful. To say no to a request is shameful. Instead, you will hear, “that will be very difficult.”
Muslims and Jews live in an honor-shame culture. To reject Islam or Judaism is to bring shame to the family. To be caught in adultery is to bring shame to the family.
Guilt is the loss of innocence
When the rest of the world feels shameful, Western cultures feel guilty. Guilt is the loss of innocence. It is an internal emotion stemming from wrongdoing. To have guilt, a law must be broken. We may feel guilty apart from others. For example, we may do something which nobody knows about, and we will feel guilty for breaking the law. We feel guilty regardless of other people knowing about our crime.
While Easterners feel honorable, Westerners feel innocent. We value that our democracy believes innocent until proven guilty. The public shame of a trial dissipates when we are vindicated by innocence.
In cultures of honor and shame, secrecy and deception are common strategies for defending one’s honor. Saving face is the greater, higher virtue. If nobody knows of the deception, then all is good. But, in a culture of guilt-innocence, to lie and deceive brings too much guilt.
In the East, the virtuous person lies to protect their honor. In the West, the virtuous person tells the truth even if it brings shame to their reputation.
Here is an extreme example. In an honor-shame culture, people may not feel remorse if they murder. They will feel remorse if the murder dishonors themselves or their family. In a guilt-innocence culture, people will feel remorse because they know they are not innocent.
Our culture does have shame. But not to the same degree.
Cultural Bridge: Honor and Shame
Knowing all this helps us to grasp the fuller impact of this passage. Isaiah is writing to an honor-shame culture. He is making it very clear that God wants the world to know there is only one way to obtain honor, and that it is from worshipping the God of Israel. Worshipping idols is shameful.
We will look at these in more detail. Notice how many times the passage addresses honor and shame. Six times in the passage we see mention of the concept of honor and shame. There are people who walk behind and bow down with humiliation. And, there are people who have glory and are not put to shame.
If we understand the essence of how people in the ancient world value honor as the ultimate virtue and achievement, then we understand how God is appealing to the very core of their being. God is aiming at what they value the most, their honor.
The God of Israel Alone is the God of Honor
God tells the Israelites that, because He is their God, they will have honor, and the rest of the world will be put to shame. The other nations will be put to shame is because they manufacture idols and not the God of Israel.
There is a day when the shame of Israel comes to an end. The defining element of the Babylonian captivity is the national suffering of shame and humiliation. The acts of the Babylonians against the Jews are acts to inflict shame. It is a shame to adopt a new name, new language, and a new culture.
God promises a reversal of fortunes. Instead of shame, the Israelites will receive the honor. People from other nations will suffer shame and will walk behind the Israelites. They will bow down and make supplication to the Israelites. They are put to shame and humiliated because their idols fail. They will humbly proclaim, “Surely, God is with the Israelites. There is no other God. All the other gods are false. Only the God of Israel is the one true God.” As the saying goes, they will have egg on their face.
The Israelites face eternity with the confidence of never facing shame or humiliation. Instead, they are people of honor. The honor does not come because they are Israelites, but it comes from the God they worship. In the end, the God of Israel is victorious. The honor is shared collectively. Those who belong to the God of Israel share in His honor and glory.
The honor is not just for the Israelites, but it is for all people who worship the God of Israel. We receive glory and honor, not because of anything we have done, but because we belong to God. We never are in shame. We have the honor that comes from the family name as adopted children. We obtain all the privileges and rights as children of the King of all kings.
The Apostle Paul writes to the church in Rome. He quotes Isaiah 28:16, saying, just as it is written, “Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, and he who believes in Him will not be put to shame (disappointed).” (Romans 9:33).
The God of Israel Alone is the Creator
The reason the God of Israel alone is the God of honor is that He is separate from Creation. Idols are created, not Creator. God is distinguished from the idols.
- Idols exist with matter, and God exists outside of matter. God is a Spirit.
- Creation is temporal. It exists within time. God exists outside of time. God is eternal.
- Idols are finite, and God is never-ending. He is infinite.
- Creation is in a continual flux of change, and God never changes, He is immutable.
As we contemplate these attributes of God, it is not difficult to understand how making a graven image is dishonoring. How people might take wood, rocks, metal, or any other thing from creation to have it represent anything god-like is preposterous. Anything made to represent the God of Israel is truly blasphemy.
We are insulted when people compare us to animals. It is humiliating. Making an idol subjects God to shame and humiliation. There is nothing to compares to the God of Israel. He is not part of creation. He is transcendent. He is superior and set apart.
God is the sovereign Author of creation. Verse 18 emphasizes God’s intimate involvement and powerful control over creation. He creates, forms, makes, and establishes creation. God did not make the earth a place which is for waste, but a place to be inhabited. In other words, God did not make the earth in vain. God has a purpose in His creation. His purpose stands alone.
The idols have no claim in forming the earth. They have no claim as to the purpose of the earth. The point God is making is that the idols have no stake in calling the shots. God alone has the legitimate claim to all the honor of being Sovereign. When the great parade of honor takes place, there is only one who sits on the throne in that parade receiving all the glory, and on it, sits the King of glory.
The Apostle John tells us:
And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, “To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.” (Revelation 5:13)
The God of Israel Alone Proves to Be Right
God continues to proclaim His honor. In doing so, He shames the people who turn to idols for salvation.
God is open and upfront in His declarations. God speaks plainly and openly to the people of Israel, the offspring of Jacob. God does not speak in secret or the dark. People who don’t tell the truth whisper or speak in dark places. Not God. He openly proclaims the truth. Every word God speaks is upright.
God mocks the people of other nations who put their faith in idols. He calls them fugitives and people who have no knowledge. God is publicly shaming them for praying to an idol that cannot save. God is calling upon the nations to reason with Him. Just as He did in previous passages, God is telling them to present their case and justify why it is honorable to carry about a wooden idol.
Declare your case. Consult together. God gives them questions they need to be asking of their idols. Who has announced this from of old? Which idol gives prophecy which comes true? Which idol says Cyrus will become king and set the Israelites free? Which idol has long since declared it?
God asks them, “Is it not I, the Lord?” The answer is obvious. Yes, it is the Lord. And because it is the Lord, they must arrive at an obvious conclusion. There is no other God besides the God of Israel.
It is important for us to understand the connection between God the Creator, God the Sovereign over history, and God the Savior.
We need salvation. Those needing salvation must turn to another being for help. If we can save and help ourselves, we don’t need a savior. In our need for salvation, it is foolish of us to call for help from within creation. The only way we may have help is if a being outside of creation, who is not part of creation, comes and rescues us. God unequivocally qualifies as the Being who exists outside of creation.
Furthermore, it is important that the being outside of creation has power over creation. It is one thing to be separate from creation, but it is yet another thing to have the power and control. God proves He has power and control because He proves He is directing History. God uses the example of calling Cyrus the Great, girding him with power and victory, and directing Cyrus’s heart to save and rescue the Israelites from captivity. He is powerful. True power controls history.
God the Creator and God the Sovereign is righteous in declaring He alone is God and Savior. He is honorable. Trusting in idols is shameful.
The God of Israel Alone is Able to Save
God is merciful and loving. He uses His power and authority to save people who are dead in this creation. God says to all the earth, “Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.”
God declares mercy. And, in that declaration, there comes a warning. God says, “I have sworn by Myself, the word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness and will not turn back, that to Me every knee will bow, and every tongue will swear allegiance.” (Isaiah 45:23)
In hearing this, we have great confidence that it will happen. God swears by His name. To swear by something is to instill confidence. When a president takes the oath for office, they place their hand on a Bible. In doing so, they are swearing to God that they will do what they say. The confidence of the oath is in the Bible they place their hand upon. People swear they are telling the truth by saying, “I swear on my mother’s grave.” God swears by Himself. There is no higher place to swear. If what happens does not happen, then the God of Israel is not God.
If people want to know what will happen at the end of the age, all we need to do is refer them to Isaiah 45:23. God is aiming every event in redemptive history toward the fulfillment of this objective. This objective restores the proper relationship between creature and Creator. Right now, this objective is not complete. But, it will be.
God is sovereign over His creation, and He intends on restoring order. Creation is in chaos when part of creation obeys God, and the rest does not. He will not sit idly by while people disobey Him as Lord. God’s declaration that every knee will bow to Him is both an invitation, and a warning.
Isaiah is touching upon what is considered the most important virtue held by people of his age. He is telling them the only way to avoid shame and to have honor is to submit themselves to God.
Isaiah tells us of two responses. There are those who come to God, and there are those who are angry at Him.
Respond in Angry Pride
Let’s look first at those who respond to God in anger. They are angry at God because they want to be lord. They are filled with pride. It is a matter of authority. They even go so far as to say God doesn’t exist. Instead of saying God exists, they deny He exists, because they know if He does, they have to obey Him. They don’t trust God with their life, they rather trust themselves. They don’t like giving up their control. They choose to disobey God and be in rebellion to Him.
We might wonder, how could someone possibly reject the God who loves them and cares for them? Why do people reject God who knows what’s best for them? The answer is easy. It is human nature to live in prideful rebellion. Anyone who has a two-year-old or a teenager understands.
There is only one outcome for people who rebel against the Creator. In the end, God says that they will be put to shame (Isaiah 45:24).
The New Testament echoes the words of Isaiah as it speaks about those who reject God as being put to shame. Jude describes those who don’t come to God as being like wild waves of the sea, casting up their own shame like foam,” and that for them, the black darkness has been reserved forever (Jude 1:13). Paul says that they are people that their god is their appetite and all they care to consume is earthly things. Because of that, their glory is their shame (Philippians 3:19).
How about you? Do you swear your allegiance to obey God? Will you live eternally in shame?
Respond in Joyful Humility
The way to live in honor is to respond with joy. Those who respond with humility and obey God are the offspring of Israel (v.25). These are people who are “in the Lord.” They belong to God. They are in Him. The New Testament describes those who are “in Him” as being in union with Christ. We are in Christ through baptism, buried with Him and risen with Him. We are in Christ because we are together alive, risen, and seated with Christ in the heavenly places. In Christ, we are justified. We receive forgiveness of sins. We stand before God without sin because, in Christ, we have His righteousness.
“In the Lord all the offspring of Israel will be justified and will glory.”
The only thing that separates those who receive glory from those who are put to shame is faith. Those who receive honor and glory don’t receive it because they do good, go to church, or belong to the right family. The reason they receive glory is because they have faith in God. They believe He is the Creator, the Sovereign Lord who is able to save. They believe that there is only one way to be saved, and that is to give their life to God as a servant. They gladly bend their knee and declare allegiance saying, “Only in the Lord are righteousness and strength.” To them, God bestows honor.
Salvation requires bending the knee and swearing allegiance. It’s not just swearing allegiance, but it is also bending the knee. It is submitting the body, our works, our actions, to be conformed to the will of God. The Apostle Paul understands this well. In his letter to the church in Philippi, he writes that it is his earnest expectation and hope “that he will not be put to shame in anything.” He says that he lives with all boldness so that Christ will be exalted in his body, “whether by life or by death.” (Philippians 1:20)
When we come to God, we bend our knee to His will and commands, and we swear allegiance to Him as Lord. We no longer live for ourselves, but we live for Him who died and gave His life for us.
God promises all those who are in Christ a future, not of shame, but glory.
Only Jesus Takes Away Our Shame
Though we don’t live in an honor-shame culture, we understand shame. Those times that we were in school in school, and our clothes were different; we may have suffered shame. When we didn’t have the right answer for a question, or when we dropped the ball during a game, we felt shame. We didn’t feel valued by others.
Do you suffer shame? Do you know someone who does? Some people suffer shame because of sin. Others suffer shame because they are sinned against. Perhaps something terrible took place in their life. Chances are, every one of us has shame. Shame can be very painful. People with deep shame feel alone and unwanted.
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve hid from God from the shame of their sin. Ever since then, we all suffer the shame and wants to hide from God. We know are not worthy and we feel as though we have no value.
God is saving us from living in eternity in shame. God restores us to a place of honor by sending His Son. The death of Christ makes it possible for us to be restored. God is merciful, loving, and abounding in grace. There is good news for our shame. The Bible says that when Jesus died on the cross, not only did He bear our sins, but He also wore our shame (Hebrews 12:2). He was in complete shame, being mocked and ridiculed.
Because of Jesus willingness to bear our sin and shame, God exalted Jesus from the lowest place of shame (death on the cross) to the highest place of honor. Jesus sits on the throne of glory and honor! Jesus’s death and resurrection is the only remedy for the shame we feel over our grievous sin-failures. Because we are in Christ, we sit with Him in His place of honor. We are valuable to God as His precious children. God restores us and conforms us to the image of His Son. There is no higher honor.
Don’t be ashamed of the gospel. Sharing the gospel is the most honorable gift of truth we may give this hurting world.
Rejoice, Christian; we will spend eternity living a life of glory and honor in Christ!