A warning from Isaiah about the consequences of failing to be good stewards of God’s creation
Isaiah was a prophet to Israel and Judah, living in Jerusalem in the latter half of Israel’s Kingdom period, from around 742 to 687 BCE. Despite believing he was inadequate for the role, God entrusted Isaiah with messages for God’s people and the neighbouring nations.
The first 39 chapters of Isaiah contain a lot of warnings, especially to rulers and leaders. Isaiah warned the often-corrupt rulers that Assyria and Babylon would execute God’s judgement on Israel because of their idolatrous ways. They had worshipped other gods, like Baal, and there would be consequences for failing to keep their covenant with their true God and their oppression of the poor. There is also, however, a message of hope for Israel, that one day God would fulfil God’s covenant promises to Israel and it would become a blessing to the nations.
The last paragraph of Isaiah 39 contains one such warning to a good king, King Hezekiah, and a slightly concerning internal reflection when he hears the prophecy.
Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the Lord. And some of your own sons, who will come from you, whom you will father, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my days.” (ESV)
The Message version of the last verse drives home the reality that, although King Hezekiah was considered a good King, in that he obeyed God’s commands and worshipped God, he could still be somewhat cavalier about the future his own children would be facing. He wouldn’t actually have to face it himself.
Hezekiah replied to Isaiah, “Good. If God says so, it’s good.” Within himself he was thinking, “But surely nothing bad will happen in my lifetime. I’ll enjoy peace and stability as long as I live.”
This is an attitude that continues to be echoed down through the centuries to today. Contemporary warnings may not be about future slavery in another nation, but there have been loud and consistent warnings from scientists around the world, and for some time, that things are not well with our home. The earth is in trouble. Perhaps scientists are today’s modern-day prophets, warning of impending catastrophe as merely the consequences of our actions by failing to be good stewards of God’s creation.
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned world leaders in July 2022 that half of humanity were in danger zones of climate change fuelled wildfires, extreme storms, floods, and droughts. No nation was immune and a choice had to be made between collective action or collective suicide. Yet he was concerned that humans continued to feed an addiction to fossil fuels. The Cop27 UN Climate Summit in Egypt in November this year is one of the last opportunities for key leaders to come to agreements concerning climate change responses before the planet reaches a tipping point of environmental “no return”.
The deforestation of the Amazon, one of the planet’s “lungs” will have global consequences. As the rainforest is cleared and burned, temperatures rise and droughts extend which weakens the resilience of the forest, leading to more fires. Australia is not much better being the only developed nation listed on the World Wide Fund for Nature’s 24 global deforestation fronts. Australia destroys a Melbourne Cricket Ground-sized area of forest and bushland every 86 seconds.
Animal extinctions are at an all-time high with Australia one of the worst offenders in the world. It has the highest mammal extinction rate with 35 percent of global mammal extinctions since 1500. Even the internationally beloved Koala is on the endangered list since February 2022, while some reports say they are functionally extinct with low numbers, inbreeding, severe illness, habitat clearance, fires, feral predators, and sterile populations all contributing to their decline.
Attitudes like King Hezekiah’s do not help. The “I don’t have to worry about climate change or overpopulation or animal extinction or land clearing or extreme weather events as I won’t be alive to see it” mentality has no place for those of us who follow the creator and sustainer God. Rather, Christians have a responsibility to be wise and nurturing stewards of planet earth. This can start with simple things like ethical choices about what we purchase and who from, how we vote, what we eat, reducing our consumption and, therefore, waste, and changing habits around the home like recycling and planting gardens, fruit, and vegetables.
It can also take on more community and global aspects like lobbying politicians for environmental reforms, protecting Indigenous communities and land rights, and supporting a plan for half the planet to be a nature reserve.
The Church too has a responsibility to do its part in response to the climate emergency. It can not afford to be contributing to the problem with theology that promotes the destruction of the environment. The Uniting Church in Australia has long wrestled with this. The NSW and ACT Synod’s Future Directions Framework is an attempt by the church to make arrangements for the church’s long-term sustainability. One of its key undergirding principles for the vision of being a contemporary, courageous and growing church is “an ongoing and active commitment to the stewardship of the earth”.
With the climate crisis warnings all around us, it is important not to respond the way King Hezekiah did when told of impending doom. Ignoring the problem, leaving it to future generations, and continuing to engage in the same behaviours that contributed to the problem is not the answer. Rather, Christians need to be courageous, wise, and even vocal about being good stewards of the planet that God created for us, our grandchildren, their great-grandchildren, and the countless generations beyond.
Dr Katherine Grocott