The sinners in Zion are afraid;
Fearfulness has seized the hypocrites:
"Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire?
Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?"
It is indeed a frightening image to perceive the glory of the Lord as a consuming fire. Fire is mentioned throughout the Bible as an instrument of purging, cleansing, and destruction of wickedness. And so, knowing that we are all sinners and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), we ought rightly to be afraid of such fire, for it could surely consume US in its "everlasting burnings." But since the prophet Isaiah asks here who shall dwell WITH that fire, we must stop and reflect: How can one dwell with the fire that devours the godless, the sinners, the hypocrites, the traitors, the rebels, and those whose first love is not the Lord our God?
Just as fire devours and destroys that which is in its way, it also illuminates and casts light into dark places. The Lord Jesus spoke about such illumination:
18 "He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
19 "And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.
20 "For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.
21 "But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God."
The light of God's fire exposes us to His scrutiny. If we have any sense at all of our own sinfulness, then our natural reaction would be to hide from that light, from that fire that may consume us. But the consuming fire of the Lord's light and glory also serves another purpose: to purge us of sin.
I will bear the indignation of the LORD,
Because I have sinned against Him,
Until He pleads my case
And executes justice for me.
He will bring me forth to the light;
I will see His righteousness.
It is only by coming into the light of the Lord that we can see His righteousness and His justice--and, most importantly, His mercy. By facing the devouring fire that threatens to consume us, we offer ourselves up to the Lord for confession and judgment. By acknowledging our sin, we come to the place that God seeks to bring us: repentance. It is the willful change of heart and mind to put off sin and to desire the things of God, that allows us to stand in the midst of that fire and dwell there unscathed. It is only by putting off the deeds of our sinful nature that we can stand before the Lord of heaven and know His salvation.
We gain nothing by avoiding God's holy fire. By scuttling into dark places, by hiding behind worldly philosophies that excuse our sinfulness, by ignoring the unmistakable consequences of our lies and pride and idolatry, we only postpone facing that fire. Eventually, we WILL be judged, and unless we have embraced the light that is Jesus Christ, we will be cast into the everlasting fires that await Satan and his minions. (Matthew 25:41) This Jesus who saves us came Himself to bring sword and fire.
49 "I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!
50 "But I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am till it is accomplished!
51 "Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division."
The division of which He speaks is the division between those who choose Him and those who do not (John 3:16-17), between those who shall know everlasting life and those who are "already condemned" because they loved darkness rather than light. The fire He brings is that same fire of the Lord that consumed the Lord's enemies and the rebels among the Israelites in the Exodus. The fire He brings is the same fire that will purge the world of all unrighteousness. The fire that Jesus brings is the devouring fire that cleanses repentant sinners of unrighteousness and restores us to peace with God.
And so who may dwell with that fire?
15 He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly,
He who despises the gain of oppressions,
Who gestures with his hands, refusing bribes,
Who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed,
And shuts his eyes from seeing evil:
16 He will dwell on high;
His place of defense will be the fortress of rocks;
Bread will be given him,
His water will be sure.
The injunction is simple: put off the sin of oppression, falsehood, idolatry, violence, and evil. The bread of the gospel of Jesus Christ will be given to those who repent and dwell in righteousness and integrity. The water of life will flow in a never-ending stream for those who dwell with God's glory. The Lord Himself will be our defense against evil and we will dwell with Him on high--up on that mountain where we first beheld the consuming fire that so frightened us once before.
The light that shines forth from the Lord our God is a consuming fire that sinners in Zion and godless people everywhere ought indeed to fear. But those of us who love the Lord and obey His Word, those of us who acknowledge our sin and repent of it and embrace Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord of our lives, we shall dwell with that devouring fire with no harm. We will dwell there with the Lord as our righteousness, and we need never fear the everlasting burning of the glory of the Lord.
Heavenly Father, You know all my ways, and it thus amazes me that You would send Your Son to die for me even before I came to repentance and faith. Thank You, Lord God, for being the righteousness that I need, for being the rock and fortress of my salvation, but being my strength when I am weak and my song when I am victorious. Rise up, Lord, in Your glory, grace, and mercy, and draw me into Your fire, to purge me of wickedness and corruption, to make me, dear Lord, more like Your beloved Son Jesus. In His holy name I pray, Amen.