One classic Advent text, traditionally read during Christmas Eve services, is Isaiah 9:2-7. This is a messianic prophecy about the way in which Christ our king will defeat God’s enemies, establish his kingdom, and usher lasting peace into the world. It includes these words from verse 5:
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire.
These are not words of judgment, as if the warriors themselves, who wear the boots and garments “rolled in blood,” are being thrown into a fire; rather, apparel that they wore in order to conduct war is being burned. But notice it’s not simply being destroyed; it’s being used for a good purpose: as “fuel for the fire.” Fire for warmth and cooking is good and necessary. In this way, this verse is much like another Advent text, Isaiah 2:4: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.”
Both verses describe ways in which God transforms the suffering, failure, and defeats of the past (or present) into something that will be in the best interests of his people. No experience, no matter how painful, is wasted; our ever-resourceful God uses it all for our good.
We see this principle at work even in the conversion of the “wise men from the east” in Matthew 2:3: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
How did these pagan astrologers learn about the birth of a “king of the Jews” and why would they care? My ESV Study Bible offers this insight:
The wise men would likely have been familiar with OT prophecy through interaction with Jews in Babylon, and they may have remembered Balaam’s prophecy that “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17). This was understood by Jews to point to a messianic deliverer (e.g., Dead Sea Scrolls, Damascus Document 7.18-21; Testimonia 9-13).
Did you notice this: “through interaction with Jews in Babylon”? The deportation and exile of Jews to Babylon, the empire by whom God judged and punished Israel for her sin, represented the worst failure on the part of God’s people. Yet even through this experience God would ultimately bring these pagans into a saving relationship with the one true God. Who could have imagined at the time of Judah’s humiliating defeat that God was, as always, working his redemptive plan?
God transformed this experience, in the words of Isaiah, into “fuel for the fire.”
I believe there’s a lesson here even for God’s people today—not least of all a lesson for me. Not that most of us Christians are fighting in a literal war. Our clothing is not stained with blood. Our Enemy’s attacks rarely leave visible marks. Yet one day, in God’s glorious future, when we can see “face to face” what we now see only in a “mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12), we will see how God transformed all our suffering into “fuel for the fire.”
So what’s the worst thing you’re facing right now? A scary medical diagnosis? A broken marriage? Family strife? Job loss? Academic failure? Loneliness? Confess your fears to God, embrace the promise of Romans 8:28, and trust that our Lord is using this difficult trial for your good.
1. The ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 1822.