Wickedness is a raging fire. It is a self-absorbed flame licking up all in its path. It is a self-destructive flame feeding on itself. Have you heard about a controlled burn? The problem with a controlled burn is that it can easily become an uncontrollable conflagration. Wickedness cannot be controlled. What I mean by that is that you cannot play around with it; practicing just a little wickedness here and there. It will never be the subject of a controlled experiment or a controlled burn. My guess is that most people do not set their foot on the path of wickedness thinking, “let it burn me up along with everyone around me.” They probably thought they could manage it; that it would be a controlled burn.
Isaiah 9:18-21 is the third strophe in the oracle found in Isaiah 9:8-10:4. Why must the northern kingdom fall? Because wickedness burns like a fire. It greedily consumes briars and thorns. In Exodus 22:6 there is a command dealing with a fire that gets out of control and spreads to the thorn bushes and destroys stacks of grain or even the field. The person who started the fire is responsible to make restitution. The thorn bush infamously burned hot and quick. Because of this, it became the symbol for an out-of-control fire. So, this fire of wickedness has raged so much that it has reached and set fire to the thicket of the forest. So much so, that a swelling up of smoke is the result. Often smoke is used to symbolize the presence of Yahweh. Here, it signals the conflagration of evil. It is a billowing stench of rebellion.
Ah, but there is another flame here. There is the overflowing rage of Yahweh of Armies. This flame also burns up the land. In this flame, the people, not the thorn bush, are the fuel. Have you heard about firefighters starting a fire to put out a fire? Sometimes, a fire is left alone so that the land can reset itself. The forestry department has discovered that years of putting out fires has allowed underbrush to thrive and create fuel for the fire. So, today, when a fire is ignited, the fuel is plentiful and the fire rages with an intensity that is frightening. The fire of Yahweh is about his anger. Yes. And we cannot dance around the issue. Holiness overflows with an anger directed at wickedness. But sometimes the fire is necessary for cleaning; for purifying. Too much underbrush has been allowed to grow. The more wickedness we have the more fuel for the fire we have. So, this second fire is about punishment. To be sure. Punishment is not an evil concept no matter what our modern minds may think. It is a necessary burning. To clean and to stop the fire of wickedness from burning even more out of control.
The wickedness that raged in Israel was all about mistreating each other. No man spared or had mercy on their brother. Isaiah uses the imagery of feeding on your own body to emphasize the self-cannibalism that was taking place in the northern kingdom. They sliced off on the right and remained hungry. They eat on the left and are not full. They may think that they are only hurting their neighbor, but in reality they are chewing up themselves. Manasseh was consuming Ephraim. These two half-tribes; brothers descending from Joseph; should have been unified. They were brothers. Both of them turn against Judah. Manasseh and Ephraim probably represent all of Israel here.
What should have been a healthy nation that was dedicated to Yahweh of Armies, was cannibalizing itself. They cut off a slice of their own arm and greedily ate it up without finding any sense of contentment. So, the fire of wickedness raged out of control. Yahweh’s anger overflows because it is the most vulnerable who are always hurt the most by this conflagration. Israel ate and consumed and people suffered. In this, God’s anger does not turn back and his hand remains stretched out to discipline. His fire is about cleansing and stopping the ugly fire of wickedness.
Wickedness is a raging fire. You cannot control it. You cannot play with it. It burns up everything around it. The old excuse “I’m not hurting anyone but myself” has never been true. It is true that you are hurting yourself. Absolutely. It is a self-destructive fire. But it also burns up those around us. And if we become self-absorbed enough, we stop caring who else gets hurt. We cut off a slice here and there, without a thought of the pain that is being inflicted. As we cut and slice and consume, we are never satisfied. Wickedness is a raging fire I tell you. There is this Switchfoot song that says, “You are the fire that burns me clean.” Allow God to be the fire that burns you clean. Everyone stumbles over wickedness. Everyone needs the burning clean fire of God. Which fire will you choose? Shalom.