A Convicting Image.
The imagery of Scripture is profound. Yes, the words of the Bible were God breathed to the humans God chose to record his written word. These words are enriched in our understanding by the images they often depict. Many Old and New Testament words are pictures that reveal more clearly the intended thought or lesson under consideration. I am always inspired by such terms as agreement, the New Testament term sumphoneo, transliterated in English as symphony. When I study texts about agreement the idea of harmony gives it a thrilling side-note. Or, the word translated sin, which actually portrays missing the mark. Sin is missing the mark of God's design for living this life. Of course, there are hundreds of word pictures that ancient believers would have grasped in an instant because they they were part and parcel of their daily existence. Terms like shepherd, flock, stones, bread, water, and so many others registered truth to them in concrete ways. Visible truth is impacts.
The Old Testament words filthy rags register deeply in me. Isaiah used them in his prophecy to Judah before they were conquered and taken into Babylonian exile. He wrote---
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy
rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. Isaiah 64: 6, NIV
Isaiah's words condemned the sinfulness of the nation, guaranteed their coming destruction, but gave them the rich hope of a coming Messiah and restoration of the nation. The filthy rags of Isaiah 64: 6 references their self-righteous religious systems that ignored the voice and dictates of God. The prophet condemned Judah because they had established worship and sacrificial rituals that gave them a a pretense of righteousness apart from obedience to the God who had chosen them and blessed them. They had become self-righteous as a nation. Isaiah reckoned himself to be among them.
The rebuke of filthy rags convicts me when the unholy trinity of me-myself-and-I become even peripheral features of my personal faith and service. Surely God is pleased by those acts of righteousness that are consistent with biblical faith and glorify him. We were created for good works. Several Scriptures amplify this thought---
Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. Genesis 6: 9, ESV
And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before
the Lord our God, and he has commended us. Deuteronomy 6:25, ESV
And they were both (Zechariah and Elizabeth) righteous before God, walking blamelessly
in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord”
Luke 1:6, ESV
Read through Hebrews 11 and meet the ancients who lived by faith and sought the righteousness of God. The point being that our righteous works and deed that honor God and seek his glory aren't the filthy rags that Isaiah condemns. The Apostle Paul wrote, "For we are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10, ESV).
Filthy rags is convicting when, as my grandmother Holmes used to say about me, I "...get a little too big for my britches". That is, when my actions as a believer, pastor, husband, father, and spiritual leader become self-motivated and self-gratifying. It's been most visible in my ministry life when I'm a little too proud of ministry numbers, when comparison to others makes me look a little better, and when my fruit inspection crosses that fine line of judgement.
These are really strange times. Read the posts on social media, the sensationalized reporting of pastoral failure, the many articles about the sexual abuse so rampant in ministry life, declines in church life cross the nation, and the assessments of the spiritual landscape of our nation. How many times have I rejoiced that at least I'm not in those numbers. You know, more than a little prideful and egocentric. That's when filthy rags come to mind. They condemn any hint of self-righteousness.
Years ago, when I was a seminary student, a wise, older pastor friend gave me some sound advice. He told me to write the words FILTHY RAGS in the front cover of my old Bible. That old KJV Bible is stored away with my seminary textbooks and class notes. That thought, however, has been a fresh reminder of what Isaiah spoke to the people of Judah. When I get to feeling a little too good about myself, matters of personal faith, the call to ministry, our family life, and all the other factors of self-approval, I am reminded that all of these variables are about him, and not me.
Filthy Rags, a convicting image.