In the final chapter of Isaiah, the prophet speaks God’s words of both warning and invitation to his people: “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (66:2).
God is setting out a sharp contrast between those who are religious—offering ceremonial sacrifices—but who have actually “chosen their own ways” and delight “in their abominations” rather than in God. Yet these autonomous figures still defend their godly motives—calling out, “Let the LORD be glorified, that we may see your joy” even as they hate those “who tremble at [the LORD’s] word” (66:5).
It’s striking in this context that the theme of humility—of one who “trembles” at God’s word—is twice repeated. How many of us actually tremble when we read the Bible? I suspect we more often snooze, or regularly check on our smartphones, as we read. So, we ask, is Bible reading what Isaiah had in mind as he reported God’s words here?
Before chasing that question let’s consider the language of trembling. All of us can picture a trembling child who comes into the parents’ bedroom after waking from a nightmare. Is that what God wants from us?
The answer is both yes and no. Yes in the sense that when our ways oppose God’s ways we ultimately lose . . . and that has frightening implications! But, on the other hand, what of God’s disposition—is he an angry being? One who means to frighten us? The answer is a firm, no! As the Bible says virtually from first to last, God’s love and mercy endures forever.
The real focus of Isaiah is on God’s word. It’s his word, after all, that reassures us of his love and mercy. And his word is what the serpent challenged in Eden and continues to challenge. God’s word presents truth; and it exposes the serpent’s lie that we creatures can presume to live like gods.
A second feature of Isaiah 66:2 is God’s invitation to humility. It’s a parallel element in his call for us to tremble at his word. If we recall Eden as the ultimate measure of this theme, humility is our recognition that Adam was wrong in accepting the serpent’s premise. We are not gods and we never will be. So to be contrite is to say, “I was wrong, very wrong. Have mercy, O Lord.”
But there’s still more to explore here. God’s word is more than a collection of thoughts, themes, and theologies. For one, followers of Christ speak of him as the living Word. John’s gospel starts with this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”
In this summary we find a communing and communicating God: One God who exists eternally in his distinctions as Father, Son, and Spirit. And through the creation he pours himself out to us, sharing his loving communion with all who listen and respond to him—to both the Word and to his words.
And this is where the friction starts. Many people are ready to affirm a silent, innocuous God—a God who allows us to enjoy self-deification. But the actual God who is rich with words and who invites us to a conversation that centers on his beloved Word is hardly passive and innocuous.
And in that sense God is dangerous—because all who reject the Son “shall not see life” (John 3:36). The Father loves us enough to send the Son to confront and resolve our sin. And the Son—Jesus—is the antidote to pride. He reveals his Father to us. He gives us his life by sharing his Spirit with us. And he embraces the humility of crucifixion to make it all work.
Yet those who don’t tremble are legion.
Some are Christian intellectuals who started as church kids but who now stand aloof from the simple faith of the Bible. In scholarly conferences, for instance, the discrimination is often made between “critical thinking” and “pre-critical thought.” At one level there’s a point being made—sound academic work relies on careful, formal analysis, with broad awareness always in play. But in too many cases the call to “critical thinking” is a cover for a complete and arbitrary—presuppositional—dismissal of the living and speaking God. This is just the opposite of a humble and contrite spirit.
And there are, far more often, those who simply prefer what the world offers. And by “world” I’m recalling Jesus in John 17 who prayed for his followers whom the world “hated” in the same way they hated Jesus: because he offered his Father’s words. Words of truth and life.
So what does God want? More than anything else God the Father wants us to enjoy his Word; and God the Spirit will happily help us embrace the sweet humility of listening to the one who is Truth. It’s what we were made for!