Judgment, Fire and Sword
For the LORD will execute judgment by fire and by His sword on all flesh, and those slain by the LORD will be many. (Isaiah 66:16)
Then they will go forth and look on the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm will not die and their fire will not be quenched; and they will be an abhorrence to all mankind. (Isaiah 66:24)
What brought me to this study in the first place was a request to take a closer look at these phrases concerning a worm that will not die and fire that will not be quenched. In doing so I was compelled to carefully consider the context, first of all of the surrounding passages and equally important the truths about God that are revealed in the rest of Scripture as a backdrop.
There is great confusion among Christians as well as non-Christians as to how God feels about sinners and how He relates to them, particularly in judgment. Most people have a sense of what they think is justice, of fairness, of morality and they feel that there are certain things about life that just need to be in a certain order for it to make sense. But because sin has distorted our perceptions of what constitutes justice we have often mistaken revenge and punitive punishments for justice and have woven those ideas into much of our political 'justice' systems as we do it on earth.
As a result of our twisted and selfish ideas about justice and fairness and consequences, it is dangerous at best to try to measure the Word of God and its references to justice and judgment based on human teachings and assumptions about justice. That can actually lead us to set up humanism by which to judge God using our own standards instead of allowing God to define what is real and true and authentic from His perspective.
Another thing I am seeing in this verse from Isaiah about judgment is a reference to the sword of the Lord. This is an interesting reference that shows up many times throughout the Bible but its meaning is actually rather different than many usually first assume. We must be careful to not confuse literal language with symbolic language when seeking to grasp eternal truths from God's Word. It is very helpful to allow other references to the same symbol or concept come into place in order to gain a better picture of what God may be trying to convey. It is also vital that any interpretation be in accordance with what has already been revealed about the true character of God, especially as revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus.
As soon as the word sword is mentioned it is often easy to jump to conclusions without stopping to first allow the passage to speak for itself. The ideas that immediately come to our imaginations related to swords usually have to do with aggression, killing, anger, hatred, violence and bloodshed. While most all of these things are certainly involved in the common use of swords, it is unwise to not question all of these assumptions when it comes to God's use of the term in His Word. If we make fail to challenge our assumptions we will usually end up believing that God's motives and feelings are more reflective of how we might feel when using a sword instead of allowing Him to define His own reasons for using that term.
It does seem to be rather clear from an extended perusal of the Bible on this topic that the term sword and the concept of judgment are very closely linked. This is something that has been observed by many students of the Word but again, we must be careful to not jump to conclusions too quickly about these terms based on our typical preconceptions. Most people's notions about judgment are pretty closely linked with dark views of God as some all-powerful Being waiting for any excuse to unleash pain and suffering on anyone who doesn't cooperate sufficiently in satisfying His demands. In short, most people's views of God are not much different than their opinions about an abuser who is eager to take advantage of a victim.
In no way am I trying to diminish or discount the powerful messages embedded into these verses. In fact, I personally believe that the enormous truths brought to light here are even more intense that these words of Scripture can convey. But it is the false assumptions about God that we bring to the passage that cause us to come to mistaken conclusions as to what this is really trying to tell us just as our mistaken beliefs about God and judgment and death prevent us from properly perceiving the truths buried in the last verse of this chapter.
A few other verses were brought to my attention this morning as I meditated on this text. These other verses shed light on this topic and I also remembered a very helpful explanation about the meaning of the symbol of sword that I heard some time ago from James Wilder. He did a very careful exegesis of this symbol throughout the Bible in the context of Jesus' question to His disciples in the upper room just before they moved into the final events of His life on earth. If this passage is not considered carefully in the context of the larger use of this term sword throughout the Bible it can easily become very confusing. But in the light of other uses of this symbol by Scripture it actually becomes very exciting and instructive.
Notice the things that can be learned from a few other texts about this term.
Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:11-12)
In His right hand He held seven stars, and out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword; and His face was like the sun shining in its strength. (Revelation 1:16)
Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to SET A MAN AGAINST HIS FATHER, AND A DAUGHTER AGAINST HER MOTHER, AND A DAUGHTER-IN-LAW AGAINST HER MOTHER-IN-LAW; and A MAN'S ENEMIES WILL BE THE MEMBERS OF HIS HOUSEHOLD. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it. (Matthew 10:34-39)
What I am observing in this last chapter of Isaiah is a contrast between those who truly follow God from the heart and those who might profess to obey Him but choose to ignore His instructions. When God talks about using the sword He is often referring to events that bring about exposure of the thoughts and intents of the heart that have largely been hidden from public view, both in the cases of people who profess to follow Him as well as in the lives of people that we often may have written off as hopelessly lost. One of the greatest surprises that will occur in the final judgment is how many will be lost that we assumed would be saved and how many will be saved that we assumed would certainly be lost.
The ideas of judgment, fire and sword are all closely related symbols or terms that God uses repeatedly to convey the real truth about how His judgment happens. But judgment is not just about some future event, though that will certainly be the grand culmination of it. Judgment is something that is going on all the time and is intensifying as we near the last days of this earth's history. Therefore it is vitally important that we better understand what is really going on in true judgment and how the symbol of the sword and the fire of God fits into all of this, especially if we want to properly align both our lives and our beliefs to be prepared to go through this process and not be eliminated.
Before I quit this time I want to make just another note about what I am seeing in these verses. Notice that verse 16 from Isaiah 66 says that this judgment by fire, this sword of the Lord will apply to ALL flesh. This is totally consistent with the amazing truth I have been learning about hell and heaven over the past few years. As Herb Montgomery has put it so aptly, “Heaven and hell both have the same zip code.” Indeed they do, as I discovered for myself during a personal study of the Word of God on this topic some time ago. Everyone is going to be exposed to the fires of hell, and that fire is certainly unquenchable because it is the very essence of God Himself. But the real surprise is what that fire really is and why it consumes some and yet brings more life to others.
With that context it becomes much more clear that the use of the term sword also applies to everyone as well. Everyone is going to be exposed to the cutting of the sword of the Lord. But upon closer examination of this verse we can see that not all who come under that sword will die from it. The last phrase of this verse says that those slain by the Lord will be many – but not all! There are going to be those who will survive the cutting sword of the Lord, and if we understand what this really means we just might be more willing to ask for God to apply that sword to our hearts and minds right away.