Mountains Will Tremble Before Him: Isaiah 64:1-9

What does this mean? (vv.13)

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

Do you ever have moments when you just wish that God would intervene and make things right? I think we all do from time to time. It might be we just feel we need him and he feels distant—we feel alone, or overwhelmed, or frustrated. It might be that our life does not make sense—our finances are a mess, we are addicted to something unwholesome, our relationships seem broken or we are struggling with our family. It might be that we are horrified with the way things are. Why can’t God show up and deal with the warmongers, those that promote hatred, those that sow discord and those that use terror as a means to their own ends? Maybe, more positively, we have simply arrived at the elusive spiritual fulfilment of the Apostle Paul—“to live is Christ and to die is gain” [Phil 1:21]—a readiness for the Day of the Lord and the New Heaven and the New Earth.

There are all sorts of reasons to want God to show up, but the sort of arrival of God described here might not be what we always have in mind. The Advent of God described in Isaiah 64 certainly seems far away from a baby in a manager. This is the full-on might of God the Father, Yahweh God of Israel, showing up in all his power, glory and majesty. God appearing in creation as only the creator can.

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

Isaiah was writing to a people that knew this God of power, glory and majesty. For centuries they had known the reality of this God who made mountains tremble. Moses had made a covenant with him and experienced him in the burning bush. The nation had seen him settle in smoke and cloud on Sinai. They had followed him—a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. He had dwelt with them in the holy of holies. And yet, more recently they knew his reality only by his absence. They knew what it was to be in exile, to be a pawn played by the big nations.

The experience of old, turned into a desire for salvation, for restoration, for vindication and for judgement of those brash big nations and their false gods. They wanted the nations to quake and squirm before their God, their Yahweh. Israel did not get the answer from Yahweh they hoped for. When the Father did rend the heavens it was indeed God who came down. But it was the Son who came down and became a man. A man who commanded the elements, but whose mission was not one of smoke, fire and trembling. No mountain trembled, at least not at his first Advent. Later, in his death and his resurrection, the cosmos would be set on a path to being remade but to the casual observer this was not Isaiah’s Day of the Lord. The first Advent happened 2,000 years ago—We still await the second.

 

Who is this God? (vv.45)

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

Israel did not invent their God. Israel experienced their God. Firstly through the patriarchs who he brought to the Promised Land working through day-to-day agriculture and farming, through world events and through asking remarkable things of unremarkable people. Later they experienced him through deliverance from slavery , through plagues upon their captors and through parted-water and desert wandering.

They were called to be a holy nation. God loved them so much that he gave them his precious law. Not a law just of legal statements but a law of life-giving instruction explaining who this God who acted on their behalf was. Instructing them to wait upon him in worship, sacrifice and praise—to centre a nation on doing right before him. But like us, when experience receded to memory they forgot, they turned away, they sinned by looking elsewhere for life and reward. Despite understanding that a God who can rend mountains is not one to be crossed, the people of Israel looked to Baal and other manufactured gods. They were led astray by other peoples they should have shared their faith with.

Idols of wealth, sex and power are not discoveries of our modern world—though we have developed, promoted and even marketed them. Humankind has struggled with such idols from the moment we looked from the true God to others with whom we hope to find satisfaction. That original choice, to question our relationship with God opens up the possibility of plugging that gap with alternatives that feel good in the short term, but fall to dust in the longer term, and in the age to come. We, like our ancient counterparts, struggle to remember the ways of God.

 

Why is this a problem? (vv.67)

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

A God who makes mountains tremble is a problem for frail, sinful people. Such holiness and majesty that makes mountains quake is hostile to our lack of holiness. The language of the Bible on this matter, so we are told, is dated and outmoded. But we know our moral brokenness, our sin, is not removed by it being unpopular or inconvenient. The gospel of Good News only makes sense when we understand the bad news of our brokenness. Of course God did not make us broken—humanity chose that path.  Isaiah’s language of uncleanness picks up on a central theme of the law. He explains that despite our best efforts our attempts at doing right fall short of the perfection of God.

Theologians have tried to capture our difference from God in terms of righteousness in precise and sophisticated language, but the Prophet Isaiah’s language of filthy rags says it all. And as Isaiah nails our unrighteousness so well, he also captures the terrible consequences. This is poetic language, but no less sobering and disturbing for that. The fallen condition means that all will shrivel like a leaf and the wind of our sins blows us away as dust.

 

When will this happen? (vv.89)

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

The God who shakes mountains is also a God of mercy and grace. As the potter he wants to remake us. The Two Advents are the means of this mercy and grace being worked out to refashion us. Advent is the coming of God who as potter can refashion us to cleanse us from sin, give us new life so that we will not shrivel, re-clothe us with royal garments and restore relationships.

That First Advent —the Incarnation of the Son as a baby—the story of the God-man Jesus is the story of the rending of the heavens firstly in Incarnation and secondly in Resurrection. Nothing less than a shockwave that makes space-time tremble as the New Creation is initiated. A new creation in which ultimately sin will not consume us as its power has been broken. A new creation in which resurrection eclipses the shrivelling finality of death. A new creation in which our filthy rags are replaced with spotless robes. A new creation in which relationships are made whole and wholesome.

The Second Advent, the so-called second coming, is Isaiah’s Day of the Lord. That day is when God completes both mercy and judgement and on that day:

[He] rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before [Him!] (64:1)

Right now of course we are caught between two Advents. It is here that we can encounter our Father as the potter. We can acknowledge him in his glory and majesty and know him in the mercy revealed at that first Advent. We will not know the completion of God’s work until the day when mountains tremble but we can continue the journey, to that day, by being re-moulded by him.

We can be clay in his hands; he gives us freedom to choose. One of the key ways to transformation, to be clay in his hands, is to learn what it means to wait. Waiting for God is central to the Christian faith. Why else would we find the psalmist crying time-and-again: ‘how long O Lord?’ Our Western societies have lost any sense of waiting. The patient waiting for the age to come stands in stark contrast to the spirit of the age—the spirit of secular Christmas. The Bible promises more, but at a pace which is down to God. We don’t know when that day of second Advent will come. But we do know that patient waiting on him is the key. Waiting is not passive—as we wait we are moulded and refashioned.

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

Author: PsalterMark

Psalm addict, disciple, son, husband, father, academic, theologian, cacti grower, steam enthusiast and ale drinker

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