I remember the first time I learned about God as the all-consuming fire. It was when I first heard about Moses (the un-cut version – not the nicey-nice children’s version). Take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground. It was such a strange and foreign image to my mind – God being a fire. But I was young and have since learned more about this consuming fire.
The next time I remember reading about fire in the Bible was when I read about the Hebrews in Babylon. They would not bow down, so they were thrown into the fire. But then there was a fourth person in the fire! And when the three men came out (yes, they walked right through the blazing inferno), not even a hair was singed on their bodies. Okay, make a mental note: not only is God an all-consuming fire, but He can rescue His faithful followers out of a fire. (You have no idea how much I want to continue talking about this amazing story…but I digress.)
In college my Old Testament professor drove home the image of fire as a metaphor for judgment. For some reason this concept has stuck with me more than all the others. It seems like fire is sprinkled all throughout the Bible: God as the pillar of fire. Elijah at Mount Carmel. Endless sacrifices. The refiner’s fire. The tongues of flame at Pentecost. The fiery pit of hell (and those are just the ones I could think of off the top of my head). Aside from these examples, the largest majority of references to fire actually pertain to judgment (whether from God or man). Frankly, I see why fire is used as a metaphor for judgment. The imagery is frightening. I can’t think of a worse way to die either – to be burned alive in a fiery blaze.
It’s with all these pictures in mind that I read through the first chapter of Isaiah. First my eye caught the words “Sodom” and “Gomorrah” (v. 9-10), and I recalled Genesis 19:24:
Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the LORD out of heaven. (ESV)
Terrifying reminder number one. Surely the Judahites’ ears perked up a little when they heard Isaiah speak the name of those two condemned cities. And then in Isaiah 1:10 he calls them “you leaders of ‘Sodom'” and “people of ‘Gomorrah.'” I’m sorry, did he just refer to us as the leaders of the worst cities ever? Why yes, I think he did.
He goes on to describe their self-centered approach to worship, calling it sinful and false (v. 13). Now those are fightin’ words, Isaiah. We’re just doing what’s in the Law. We’re following our religion. And how’s that working out for you? God says He wants none of your sacrifices, He’s sick of your offerings, He gets no pleasure from your animal sacrifices, wishes you’d stop bringing your meaningless gifts, is disgusted by your incense offerings, hates your celebrations and festivals, believes all of this is a burden to Him and He cannot stand them (v. 11-14). He even refuses to look when they lift up their hands in prayer because their hands are covered with the blood of the innocent (v. 15). If we’re being honest, maybe Sodom and Gomorrah is a fitting description for them after all.
Following this laundry list of all the things appalling to God, Isaiah (God) tells them “Wash yourselves and be clean! Get your sins out of My sight. Give up your evil ways.” (v. 16, NLT)
Anytime someone says “get out of my sight,” it’s usually uttered with absolute contempt or disdain. And usually, the person isn’t joking around. It’s a serious matter and requires an immediate response. I suppose you could call it an ultimatum. Do X or else Y will happen to you. Isaiah goes on to tell them what they should do (v. 17) and in verse 18 we read a familiar passage:
“Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool. (ESV)
But we often miss v. 19-20, “If you will only obey Me…But if you turn away and refuse to listen, you will be devoured by the sword…” (oh boy, another judgment metaphor). He tells them, I don’t care for all your “religious”, lack-luster, disingenuous worship. I want your obedience. I want to take away your sins, and I want to make you holy. In v.24-26 Isaiah tells the people that God will use judgment or discipline to make this happen. He would even bring renewal through the appointment of godly leaders. Again in v. 27-28 He reminds them to repent (wash yourselves, be clean, give up your evil ways!) and if they don’t, they’ll be destroyed, consumed. And we finally arrive at the image of fire in v. 31:
The strongest among you will disappear like straw;
their evil deeds will be the spark that sets it on fire.
They and their evil works will burn up together,
and no one will be able to put out the fire. (NLT)
Their own sins will set them on fire, and no one will be able to put it out. It’s one thing to have a blazing fire that can be contained. It’s a completely other thing to have a devouring fire that can’t be extinguished. That’s complete destruction. That’s an all-consuming fire. And that‘s how God describes Himself on several occasions (Deut 4:24, 9:3, Is 30:27, 33:14, Lam 2:3, Heb 12:29). What do I even make of this?
The passage in Deuteronomy tells us that God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. He refers to Himself as a jealous God several times as well (Ex 20:4-5, Deut 5:9, 6:15, Ez 38:19 and it goes on and on), and it’s almost always coupled with anger (as burning or kindled or smoking – in other words, like a fire). Perhaps we have a hard time with this fiery, jealous anger, because when we respond with jealous anger, it’s sinful. I believe we could have moments of divine jealousy, but I think those are rare. But God does not sin. His jealousy is completely legitimate and founded. His jealousy is the Lover’s jealousy written in Song of Solomon 8:6:
Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death, its jealousy as enduring as the grave. Love flashes like fire, the brightest kind of flame.
When the Bible speaks of God’s jealousy, it is usually a jealousy for His holy reputation and for those things and people who belong to Him – 1) God is jealous for His name, 2) He is jealous for Jerusalem/Zion, and 3) He is jealous for us (Ez 39:25, Zech 1:14, James 4:5). First, He is unwilling to share His glory (Is 42:8, 48:11). Interestingly God’s glory is known as the shekinah glory, and when He manifests His glory on earth, it appears as a brilliant light that blazes like a fire (Ex 30:44-45; 1 Kings 8:10-11; Ez 1:28; Matt 17:1-8). It is something that no man can behold in its fullness and still live to tell about it (Ex 33:20). Secondly, God is jealous for the place where He has said He would make His name, eyes, and heart dwell (1 Kings 9:3, 11:36; 2 Kings 21:7). This again is connected to His reputation. And finally, like the jealous lover, God is not willing to share His people (who also bear His name) with anyone or anything (Ez 36:22-32). He will defend the holiness of His name wherever He has made His name to dwell. We are caught up in a love that is as fierce as a fire.
This jealousy, though it is a burning desire for His glory, somehow manages to be great news for us. Actually it is our only hope. In the Ezekiel 36 passage, God declares:
23I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (ESV)
His motivation is for “the holiness of [His] great name,” but we benefit from this jealousy as He makes us holy and gives us His Spirit who makes it possible for us to obey Him. The all-consuming fire came down to earth, but He didn’t devour and destroy. He came to save (John 3:16-17; 1 Tim 1:15). John 1:1-5, 14 tells us of the light that came down:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it….14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (ESV)
This is the greatest news! This is the gospel. The people spoken of in Isaiah whose own sin had set them on fire have a God who is greater than their sin. They have a God who is greater than the Law which they were trying so hard to follow (Rom 8:1-4). Come, though your sins are as scarlet, I will make them as snow. Come, I will cleanse you, giving you a new heart and putting My Spirit in you. Come, I have set My name on you as seal, and I am the jealous Lover. You are Mine.