“So shall they fear the name of the LORD from the west, and his glory from the rising of the sun. When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the LORD shall lift up a standard against him.”
~Isaiah 59.19, King James Version
Today, a standard is a measurement by which all other things are judged. To raise or lift up a standard not only means to display it (often used in connection with a flag) but to raise the bar concerning our moral behavior. A standard can be the expectation, the norm, the criterion. But in the biblical narrative, the phrase that the Old Testament prophet Isaiah employed has several meanings which include “to put to flight; to cause to disappear or hide; and to drive hastily.” In the fifty-ninth chapter of the writings of Isaiah, he discusses the sinful plight of the children of Israel. He writes, “Indeed the Lord’s hand is not too short to save and His ear is not too deaf to hear. But your iniquities have built barriers between you and your God and your sins have made Him hide His face from you so that He does not listen” (1-2). Isaiah then goes on to write about their sins in great detail: “Your hands are defiled with blood and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies and you mutter injustice. No one makes claims justly; no one pleads honestly. They trust in empty and worthless words; they conceive trouble and give birth to iniquity” (3-5). And because of these evil deeds “justice is far from us and righteousness does not reach us. We hope for light but there is darkness, for brightness but we live in the night” (verse 9). And the experience and expressions of life that it creates are soul- numbing: “Justice is turned back and righteousness stands afar off. For truth has stumbled in the public square and honesty cannot enter. Truth is missing and whoever turns from evil is plundered” (14-15). And because there was no justice, no one to intercede on their behalf, “God’s own arm brought salvation and His own righteousness supported Him” (15b, 16).
Unfortunately, the spiritual condition of the children of Israel sounds similar to that of today’s American Church. Generation after generation of meaningless indulgence, of half- hearted discipleship, of spiritual immaturity has tainted our speech. Ironically, we, who trust in a Savior who is described as “the word made flesh,” trust in words that are void of meaning and ability. Truth, drunk with power, is slurred and stumbling in the marketplace. The presence of honesty would only bring shame. We mock the good Samaritan as a goody two- shoes and beat him to entertain the masses. What a great fault we will have to admit, that our standard is now based on that of the world’s convictions, that we are too afraid to raise the bar for fear of ostracization, too weak to lift the standard, our energy exhausted due to the toll of living two lives.
We know but willfully forget that we have an identity and with it a calling that goes beyond who we are and is deeper than who we perceive ourselves to be, that trumps and trivializes, that undermines and undercuts the authority of race. We know and willfully accept its standards though they have compromised our witness and soiled our identity as Christians. We believe in and do repeat its worthless speech because it gives us power as our lips are its author. But, we also have a standard of holiness and of righteousness that is not dependent upon us for life, identity, strength or continuity. God’s standard remains in the absence of faith and in the presence of hopelessness. And I’m so glad that God does not need our arm to raise it!
We need only return to the Standard- Bearer whose criterion for holiness does not include race and is not prejudiced in the administration of right- standing with Him, who does not steer our purposes or enter into relationships with us according to stereotypes. When I am overwhelmed by this hyper- racialized society, when I feel that its words might overtake me and that I might never find myself again, I can turn to God’s standard and it lifts my countenance. God be praised.