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God’s Word for You

Isaiah 1:27-31 The finality of hell

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, December 29, 2023

27 Zion will be redeemed with justice,
and those who return to her, with righteousness.
28 But rebels and sinners will be destroyed together,
and those who forsake the LORD will perish.
29 For you will be ashamed of the oaks you have desired;
and you will be embarrassed by the gardens you have chosen.
30 You will be like an oak whose leaf withers,
and like a garden without water.
31 The strong shall become tinder,
and his work a spark.
Both of them will burn together,
with no one to quench them.

The chapter ends with a promise and a reminder of God’s threat about unbelief. First, the promise. Zion, the true Zion, will be redeemed. To be redeemed here is “ransomed” (padah), which is to pay the price owed or demanded. The people of God are redeemed with the blood of Christ from the debt of sin, which is death and hell. Isaiah says: “Proclaim to Jerusalem… that her sin has been paid for” (Isaiah 40:2).

Isaiah picks up on the cult of the sacred oak. The details of the cult are unimportant. It involved sacrifice and sexual sins like so many of the other Canaanite cults. Luther says simply, “They planted and prepared them (oaks) on every mountain and on pleasant hills, and next to them they erected altars and idols. They did everything with great zeal and great expense. They established new kinds of worship in opposition to God after forsaking the temple in imitation of their fathers and of the Gentiles. They sought piety according to their own feelings” (LW 16:26).

These sacred oaks, for all their vitality and beauty and sturdiness are nothing more than kindling to God. Oak? Its leaves will wither, and the whole strong tree will dry up and crack and fall down. Garden? What’s a garden without water? It will become a desert. Do you think you are strong? Do you think that your strong mascot, the oak, makes you physically or spiritually strong? You’re going to end up as tinder, the dry stuff they start fires with. Your work, whatever it is, will be nothing more than a spark that begins the fire you will burn with forever in hell. As Gerhard says: “Death is terrible, judgment more terrible, but the hell that will follow the death and judgment of the ungodly is the most terrible” (On Hell, Or Eternal Death §1). “The rider of the pale horse was named Death, and Hell was following close behind him” (Revelation 6:8).

It is not as if this will surprise anyone. What doctrine of the Bible is more famous and well-known throughout the world than the doctrine of hell and its torments? What do the comedians mock more than hell? “Weep and howl about the miseries that are coming upon you” (James 5:1). They are like the man a few years back who wanted to play a trick by pretending to fall off the rim into the Grand Canyon, and he so often did things like this that when he misjudged his steps and actually fell to his death, they didn’t even realize that he wasn’t still pretending, and they finished their hike before discovering that he was dead. The comedian who mocks hell will learn the hard way. God brandishes his weapons (Psalm 60:4) and points to the gates of hell and shouts warnings to everyone. “Whoever does not believe, will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). “Those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:29). “All will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness” (2 Thessalonians 2:12).

It is significant that Isaiah concludes both the first and last chapters of his book with the doctrine of hell. Here, hell is the fire that burns to punish sin, ignited by the sin itself: “His work a spark.” In chapter 66, the duration is emphasized: “Their worm will not die, and their fire will not be quenched, and all flesh will be horrified by them” (Isaiah 66:24). When Isaiah says that those who are judged and punished “will be ashamed… embarrassed” (verse 29) he is being as gentle as he can.

Scripture says that punishment is payment for guilt. “I will punish you according to what you have done, says the LORD. I will kindle a fire in the forest, and it will consume everything around you” (Jeremiah 21:14). There the imagery takes us to the damned, imagining that they have been set in the beautiful grove of Paradise, only to discover that they are trapped in a never-ending forest fire that will choke and torment them for all eternity. What was at first the redness or blush of embarrassment will become the redness and blackness of being burned and scorched, over and over, again and again, forever, “with no one to quench them.” The finality of punishment is carefully rendered as a non-finality. It is final because, once the sentence is pronounced and the judgment begins, it can never be revoked. It is not final only in the sense that the punishment of God does not end in death or annihilation. The suffering of the individual does not end with the destruction of that individual. The suffering continues forever, without rest, without end. This terrible agony was intended only for the devil and the other fallen angels, the demons and devils who were thrown from heaven. “They lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him” (Revelation 12:8-9). Peter says: “The angels that sinned—God sent them to hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment” (2 Peter 2:4).

Before we turn the page on this chapter, we must remember the reason for all of this saber rattling. The Lord, the God who is compassionate and loving, wants to rescue us from our sins and from the terror of everlasting punishment. He does not want a single human being to experience what the devil and his demons will endure. Therefore, he sent his own Son to endure this pain in our place, so that the punishment our sins earn and deserve has already been paid for with the blood of Jesus on the cross of Calvary. “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18-19). “He suffered all this for us so that we would be saved.” And so we pray: “Save us, O Lord our God, and gather us from the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise.”

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith
About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please visit the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church website.


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