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the former things—and the future things

It’s easy to look back with hindsight and wonder at the inability of people to see what is plainly obvious to us. For example, in the first century God walked this earth. He had taken on human form and lived as a man, and was eating, sleeping, working, and doing all the things that normal, ordinary humans do. He was human in every way it means to be human. He didn’t stop being God. He had come to be the Messiah, the Savior of the world. Despite all the miracles he performed, many couldn’t recognize him.

Think of the miracles. He walked on water. He shushed a storm with just a word. He touched lepers and they were cleansed of their leprosy. He healed a man who had been blind from birth. He called a man out of a tomb though he had been dead four days. That’s when the body really begins its decomposition. He cast out demons and turned water into wine. People watched as he healed a man with a shriveled hand. It was obviously shrunken and deformed due to disease yet in front of all in that synagogue, Jesus healed his hand. They saw the healing.

In spite of all the evidence, many refused to acknowledge his true identity. This is because they were expecting someone else. The miracles Jesus performed could be really handy—in the sort of Messiah they were expecting. Imagine having a guy in an army who could take a kid’s lunch and feed the entire army with it. Imagine having a guy who could touch those who were injured and heal them. Actually, he doesn’t even need to touch the injured. As we see with the Roman centurion, he only has to speak the word and the injured would be healed! If the injury were truly severe and the soldier died, well, he could raise the dead. Such an army would be unstoppable. The problem is Jesus didn’t muster an army.

Throughout Israel’s history God had rescued them from enemies, usually through military might. When he rescued them from Egypt, he defeated Egypt through the plagues. When they entered the land of Canaan, they defeated the Canaanites in battle. When they were oppressed by their enemies during the time of the judges, God raised up judges who raised up armies to defeat those enemies. Surely God must do the same when it was Rome oppressing them! Of course this is what the Messiah will do! But Jesus didn’t raise an army. Instead, he told them to love their enemies and do good to those who persecute them.

The people were disappointed. This is common and very ordinary behavior on the part of humans. We expect that if God did something one way, he will do it the same way again, right? Hundreds of years before Jesus was born, in the time of Isaiah the prophet, the same expectations were there. God warned the people through Isaiah that he was not bound by his previous methods of working in the world.

“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

Isaiah 43:18–19 ESV

The immediate question is what are the former things Israel must not remember? Isaiah speaks of these things numerous times. In chapter 41 God is rebuking them for their idolatry, for bowing down to idols they themselves crafted and expecting similar results to what they had experienced.

“Set forth your case, says the LORD; bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob. Let them bring them, and tell us what is to happen. Tell us the former things, what they are, that we may consider them, that we may know their outcome; or declare to us the things to come. Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods; do good, or do harm, that we may be dismayed and terrified. Behold, you are nothing, and your work is less than nothing; an abomination is he who chooses you.”

Isaiah 41:21–24 ESV

Israel assumed the way God had worked in the past—his incredible acts to rescue them from their oppressors—meant God would once again rescue them. They assumed they could predict what God would do in the future so God challenges their idols to reveal what is to come. They cannot, of course, for they are nothing. After promising in chapter 42 to send his Chosen Servant, the one on whom he will put his Spirit, God refers to the former things again.

“I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols. Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.”

Isaiah 42:8–9 ESV

What sets the Lord apart is his ability to declare what he will do before he does it, and then actually do that thing. Here he indicates that the ways in which he worked in the past do not control how he will work in the future. In other words, God is not required to repeat the same miracles he once performed, nor can Israel demand that he do so. In Isaiah 43 he tells them he is their Savior. He will call all his sons and daughters to salvation from all over the earth (Isaiah 43:1–7). Then he says this:

“All the nations gather together, and the peoples assemble. Who among them can declare this, and show us the former things? Let them bring their witnesses to prove them right, and let them hear and say, It is true.

“You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior.

“I declared and saved and proclaimed, when there was no strange god among you; and you are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and I am God.

“Also henceforth I am he; there is none who can deliver from my hand; I work, and who can turn it back?”

Isaiah 43:9–13 ESV

What is remarkable here is God connects their idolatry with their assumption that he will act in exactly the same manner as before. They were witnesses of God’s power. They had seen it throughout their history. In their idolatry, however, they began to presume upon God, thinking he was somehow bound to act in precisely the same ways he had acted before. They had begun thinking he was just like their idols. Controllable. Able to be manipulated. Forced to bless, as it were.

It is after this that God tells them to not remember the former things, to not consider the things of old. Yes, God had once turned water into dry land, but he is God and can act in a very different way should he choose to do so. He specifically says he can turn dry land into waterways! That is, he can do the literal opposite of what he once did! He cannot act contrary to his character, but one thing is clear throughout Isaiah’s writing is Israel has no real clue who God is. They don’t really know his character, which is why they began to presume upon him in the first place.

Every Israelite “remembered” the exodus from Egypt. They understood their history and knew the stories of how God had rescued them. They assumed this was the only way he would—or could—act. Though the prophets warned of conquest and exile, they assumed they were protected from such harm, despite their sin and ongoing idolatry against God. We should not be surprised, then, when we come to John 1.

He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.

John 1:10–11 ESV

Quite simply, Jesus wasn’t what they were expecting, He was the “new thing” God was planning to do. He declared a virgin would conceive, and she did. He declared Bethlehem would be the place, and it was. He declared his Servant would have the Spirit upon him, and he did. He declared his Servant would suffer, and he suffered. He declared his Messiah would conquer death, and he conquered death.

The truth is God’s character never changes, and he always acts according to his character. How this works out, however, may be very different. How often does God do things in ways that surprise us? How often do we miss out on what God is doing among us by focusing on what we were expecting rather than what he was doing?

When we find ourselves in need and we bring our needs to God, we should always allow God to be God and answer our prayers in any way he chooses. One time he might rescue you from the problem. Another time he might choose to change you instead of changing your circumstances. It may even be that the struggle you are experiencing is for the benefit of another and God is calling you to simply endure faithfully, that others may be encouraged by your experience.

When you ask God for a miracle he may answer with something very ordinary, and when you expect something very ordinary God may well respond with a miracle. The important point here is this: we should always be looking to the Lord to find where he is working in our lives. Further, we should not be disappointed when he works differently than we were expecting. This was Israel’s problem with Jesus. He was not what they expected, yet he was exactly what they needed.

God is not an idol. He does not exist to submit to our demands or to our expectations. He is God and he is the Sovereign Lord, and he is love. For this reason we can trust him. We don’t have to know how he will answer our prayers, but we do know that he will. If—when?—he answers differently than we were expecting, let us be okay with this. God is good. He can be trusted, even when we don’t understand.

As Isaiah makes clear, God is the one who determines the end from the beginning. He determines what he will do and when he will do it. We are witnesses of this. We have seen what he has done and while we cannot predict with certainty what he will do in the future, we know he is in control. We know he will do the things he has said he will do, and that includes walking with us come what may. What God desires from us is our faith. He desires that we trust him, which is why he rarely tells us what he is planning to do. Even when that plan is unexpected, let us continue to trust him.