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Preserved by Jehovah

Note: This article is a modified version of a graduation address delivered for Hope PRCS in Walker, MI, in June 2021. The eighth grade class text was Isaiah 43:2, and the class theme “Preserved by Jehovah.”

“When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.” Isaiah 43:2

 

Water and Fire

How blessed is the knowledge of Jehovah’s preservation of us as promised in Isaiah 43:2.

Water and fire always threaten our safety. “When” says the text, not “if.” “When thou passest through the waters…and through the rivers…when thou walkest through the fire…” Although water is essential to life and the sprinkling of water in baptism is a beautiful sign, too much water can drown us, even as God used water to destroy the first world in the flood. Thus water (lots of water —“waters” and “rivers” plural) is sometimes used in Scripture as a symbol of destruction, as is fire, which burns hot and consumes. Waters and fires that threaten to destroy!

Water and fire are figures. The “waters” were literal waters for Israel when they approached the Red Sea, and the “rivers” were literal rivers when Joshua and all the people came to the Jordan with the ark. The “fire” and “flame” were literal when Daniel’s three friends were cast into Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace. However, the text is using a figure in which the overflowing water and burning flames represent the greatest adversities and difficulties that threaten the spiritual destruction of the individual believer and God’s church in the world. God does not promise to preserve our physical life should an enemy of the gospel tie us to a stake and set us on fire. God is promising the preservation of our soul.

There are three ways we might experience the waters and fires. First: in anticipation. Sometimes the difficulties loom before us like a Red Sea. We are not in it yet, but we see, anticipate, and dread it. Maybe what we fear as deep water or hot fire are the difficulties accompanying the first day or week at a new job or school. It is not uncommon for many incoming freshmen to tremble in fear as they look ahead at the size of their new school building, the large number of students, the new faces, the number of changes, the advanced curriculum, and all the pressures coupled with a sense of their own inadequacies and insecurities.

Second, sometimes the great adversities are unexpected. What began as just another day at work quickly became the day you will never forget as you fell off a roof and were paralyzed for life. Or you answered your phone to discover that your older sister was in a serious automobile crash, is being airlifted to the hospital, and your parents are racing to see her before she dies. Before you even have time to fear the water and fire, they suddenly surround you.

Third, other times our experience is that we are in the midst of the water and fire, and they are unrelenting. Faith grows dim; destruction seems certain. God brings a destructive kind of cancer, and in addition to the ravages of the disease itself, there are the intense chemo treatments and drugs that leave you nauseous and frail so that you feel mentally, emotionally, and spiritually deflated month after month. And the fear—will this bring death? Perhaps you endure crippling anxiety and periodic panic attacks, and even stop attending school for a time. Or perhaps your home does not feel like a refuge from the world but a battleground for your parents’ strained marriage. How long will these waters roar and this fire rage?

In addition to any personal adversity, there is always the adversity that threatens to destroy God’s church (“Jacob” or “Israel” in v. 1). When Isaiah first wrote these words, he was speaking from the prophetic viewpoint as he beheld Judah in captivity in Babylon, where they were far from their smoldering temple and where they would dwell seventy years surrounded by all the carnal pleasures of Babylon and the reproach of their cruel captors. The trouble was God’s chastisement for Judah’s sin.

Our world is so wicked, and Satan’s goal is to use all the immorality and the easy access to it through technology to overwhelm you in evil so that you reject God for a life of rebellion. How great also are the threats that can appear within the church in the corruption of the holy gospel, or in hatred and strife among biting and devouring brethren. Yet the deepest water and the hottest fire for the church is always the fear that in the greatest adversities, God is against her. True Israel always knows her sin and that she deserves God’s wrath. Thus she is tempted to fear the water and fire of Babylon’s hatred as an expression of God’s hatred.

 

I Will Be with Thee

How lovely is the promise of Isaiah 43:2!

Jehovah! When we are in distress, we need a protector who is greater than the water and fire and one who so loves us that he is willing to use his power to protect and preserve us. We are not greater than the water and fire (trust not in yourself!); neither are our parents, officebearers, teachers, or friends. But God is. Jehovah loves us. Jehovah has formed us. Jehovah has redeemed us. Jehovah has made a covenant with us and calls us by name and promises to be faithful to Jacob-Israel forever. Even when Jehovah is angry with Israel, he will chasten his elect remnant in love and bring them to repentance and restore them.

With us! God is not merely watching over us when we are in the water and fire so that he sees us; he is actually with us as the Son of God was with the three friends in Nebuchadnezzar’s burning fiery furnace. Jehovah is with us by uniting us to his Son Jesus Christ so that we are “in Christ” by faith. When we are “in Christ,” we have a protective barrier that surrounds us: Christ. If the waters will touch you, they must surge past Christ. If the flames will touch you, they must burn through Christ.

The water and fire of God’s wrath, which we all deserve for our sins, cannot touch us. On the cross, Christ was submerged in the waters of God’s just judgment, and he suffered the flames kindled by God’s just wrath against our sins. That is our redemption. “I have redeemed thee, O Jacob!”

Now when the waters and fires of adversity come, God sends and controls them. He does that now in the exalted Christ. Christ sends and controls the fiery devil, fiery cancer, and whatever happens to you this year at work or school. We are in Christ and Christ will avert all water and fire or turn it to our profit.

Sometimes you feel all alone in the water and fire. God says, “I will be with thee.” Sometimes the church must pass through fires that cause so much hurt to the soul that you say something remarkable: “I would rather have my body burned in a fiery furnace than pass through these fires of adversity that cause so much pain, sorrow, and grief to my soul.” Nevertheless, the believer always continues with joy and gratitude because God is with us and strengthening our faith. Even when he sorely chastens us, he is with us in love.

“I will be with thee.” You believe him, don’t you? You see his faithfulness, don’t you, in your own life and in his history-long preservation of his church? He is with us in the water and fire.

 

Originally published September 2021, Vol 80 No 9