A Broken Wall
I have seen before what happens when a tragedy strikes suddenly and without warning. A gentleman I knew lost his wife in a terrible car accident. One day she was there, smiling, cheerful, beautiful. And the next day she was gone. In another case, a man went down with a stroke and died quickly. There was no hint of a health problem before he died.
As a minister, I see so much of this, and it all has one thing in common. Those who experience this kind of sudden loss feel numb for some time thereafter. They often say, “It just hasn’t hit me yet.” Or “I can’t feel anything.” It is different when someone dies after a long illness. The wife, the husband, the kids have all prepared themselves and can enter more gently into grief. But it doesn’t work the same way when death is sudden, unexpected, unfair, or even evil.
On the morning after the World Trade Center tragedy, I was watching speeches from the floor of the House and the Senate. Our lawmakers were angry, and frankly, a little spaced out. They were probably much like the rest of us: Stunned. A little bit numb. They resembled nothing more than the family members after a sudden and tragic loss. The whole country was in those days like a big family that has had several people wiped out in an accident. Only this was no accident.
The Congressmen were in an awkward position. Leaders have to say something at a time like this, even when there is not much to say and when they are in no emotional condition to say it. The most honest expression of feeling on that tragic day was the spontaneous singing of “God Bless America” by the Congress assembled on the steps of the Capitol.
But on the morning after the speeches were given, there was one line in one speech that made my blood run cold. It was a quotation from the Prophet Isaiah. The whole congress assembled felt it was important to send a message to the terrorists on this tragic morning. They were more than a little angry and they were in a defiant mood. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle quoted one verse from Isaiah; “The bricks are fallen down, but we will build with hewn stones: the sycamores are cut down, but we will change them into cedars.” The line was delivered in complete innocency by a man who did not know the context of the passage.
I was so stunned by the quotation in this time and place that I didn’t hear another word he said. Let me explain to you why I was so affected by this statement. The passage in question comes from the ninth chapter of Isaiah and is part of a much larger and repeated theme. At the time this prophecy was given, Israel had long since been divided into two kingdoms. The House of Israel in the north, led by the tribe of Ephraim, and the House of Judah in the south led by the tribe of Judah.
The House of Israel had departed permanently into idolatry and had completely corrupted the worship of God. Over a period of time, they had suffered repeated incursions that were characterized by Isaiah as chastisement from God. Then comes this passage from Isaiah, and the quotation Senator Daschle chose on that fateful day:
The Lord sent a word into Jacob, and it hath lighted upon Israel. And all the people shall know, even Ephraim and the inhabitant of Samaria, that say in the pride and stoutness of heart, “The bricks are fallen down, but we will build with hewn stones: the sycamores are cut down, but we will change them into cedars.”
They were brave and defiant. Their enemies had destroyed cities and cut down their crops. They were going to be strong and rebuild. But they weren’t asking the right questions about why these things were happening to them. Here is God’s response to their defiance:
But the LORD has strengthened Rezin's foes against them and has spurred their enemies on. Arameans from the east and Philistines from the west have devoured Israel with open mouth. Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised. But the people have not returned to him who struck them, nor have they sought the LORD Almighty. So the LORD will cut off from Israel both head and tail, both palm branch and reed in a single day; the elders and prominent men are the head, the prophets who teach lies are the tail. Those who guide this people mislead them, and those who are guided are led astray (Isaiah 9:11-16 NIV).
Now this is all history. And yet it also has prophetic overtones that shouldn’t be ignored. Most people in reading prophecy don’t realize that there is a difference between Israel and the Jews. There was, at the time this was written, a house of Israel and a house of Judah. The first time the word “Jew” is found in the Bible, the Jews were at war with the house of Israel.
I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit (Isaiah 5:1-2 NIV).
Here is the picture. In Palestine, the ground is very rocky and all the stones have to be gathered out of a field before you can plant. They commonly used the stones to build a wall around the field. You can see this in parts of Britain and Ireland. The rocks have to go somewhere, so they go into a wall. Hedges could serve as windbreaks and to keep the animals out of the field. I don’t know if deer like grapes as much as they like our tomatoes, but a hedge sounds like a way of dealing with them.
This owner went to great trouble to develop a vineyard. But it produced wild grapes and bad wine. And the separate history of the house of Israel was that they corrupted the worship of God from the very beginning and never repented in their entire 200 plus year history. So what is the interpretation of this song? It continues:
Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it." The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress (Isaiah 5:3-7 NIV).
If you will read the statements of the founding fathers of this country, you will know that they believed we had been granted this fair land by the providence of God. And in fact, God did build a hedge around us and protect us. There have been times in our history when we have been chastised with war and calamity, but we have turned back to God in prayer and have been delivered. That was then. Now, a case can be made that the hedge around us as a people has been down for some time.
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight. Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent. Therefore, as tongues of fire lick up straw and as dry grass sinks down in the flames, so their roots will decay and their flowers blow away like dust; for they have rejected the law of the LORD Almighty and spurned the word of the Holy One of Israel. Therefore the Lord's anger burns against his people; his hand is raised and he strikes them down. The mountains shake, and the dead bodies are like refuse in the streets. Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised (Isaiah 5:20-25 NIV).
Why? Because Israel never seems to get the point. God chastises them and they don’t have a clue. The statement we began with: “The bricks are fallen down, but we will build with hewn stones: the sycamores are cut down, but we will change them into cedars,” is very much our own blindness to what is happening to us and why it is happening.
Finally, in this long series, Isaiah declares this:
Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches? Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives or fall among the slain. Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised (Isaiah 10:1-4 NIV).
The reason Senator Daschle’s words hit me so hard was because I could see the hand writing on the wall. Yes, we have to rebuild. Yes, we have to fight back. Yes, absolutely we must search and destroy the evil men who perpetrated this murderous attack. But there is another kind of defense that we need to rebuild at the same time.
Again the word of the LORD came to me: "Son of man, say to the land, 'You are a land that has had no rain or showers in the day of wrath.' There is a conspiracy of her princes within her like a roaring lion tearing its prey; they devour people, take treasures and precious things and make many widows within her. Her priests do violence to my law and profane my holy things; they do not distinguish between the holy and the common; they teach that there is no difference between the unclean and the clean; and they shut their eyes to the keeping of my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them. Her officials within her are like wolves tearing their prey; they shed blood and kill people to make unjust gain. Her prophets whitewash these deeds for them by false visions and lying divinations. They say, 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says'— when the LORD has not spoken. The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice. “I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none. So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign LORD (Ezekiel 22:23-31 NIV).
What have we done wrong? Why should God be angry with us? Well let me give you an idea for starters. At the very founding of this republic, in the very first words put on paper, the founding idea was set forth: “We do hold these truths to be self evident. That all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
For a very long time now, the people of this country have been teaching our children that there is no creator. Don’t argue with me on this point. It has been established in the courts and the parents of two or three generations have allowed it to stand. And this has been done without considering the consequences. The consequences being that we no longer have a Guarantor of life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness.
And so since there is no Creator to put a hedge around us, and since we have not maintained the hedge, we suffered a horrible loss of life on 9/11. Now we are about to suffer a great loss of liberty. And our pursuit of happiness has turned to gravel in our teeth. It would be fair to say that God thought he had a deal with us. We honored him in our founding documents and he built us into the greatest nation the world has ever seen.
And then we forgot all about God, despised his word, denied him as the Creator and Guarantor of our life and liberty. We trust our own devices, our own arms to protect us. And then the World Trade Center brought us down to the ground. How could we have been so blind? How could we have been so unprepared? Could it be that, having closed our eyes to God we became blind to many other things as well.
We were all stunned into silence over the tragic loss of life in New York on 9/11. But are we greatly troubled over the loss of life in the millions of unborn children we have allowed to be destroyed since the 1970s. What is the number by now? 40 million? 50 million? Since we have no Creator and no Guarantor of life, we can give or take life as we choose. What is special about your life that you should keep it, or your liberty that you should have it?
Then since we don’t need God, why be surprised if he isn’t around? I don’t think for a moment that God killed all those poor souls who died in New York on 9/11. But I do think we have told God to butt out of our lives and our country’s affairs and he has done just that. Is there any hope for us? Yes, but not much. We got a wake up call on 9/11. I fear we are going to have to have another one. A long time ago, after Solomon had built the Lord a temple and dedicated it with a great prayer, the Lord appeared to him by night and said:
I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a temple for sacrifices. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land (2 Chronicles 7:12-14 NIV).
Odds are, you have heard those words before. How bad is it going to have to get before we, as a people, respond to them?
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