"For it is the day of the Lord's vengeance, the year of recompense in the controversy of Zion" (Isaiah 34:8).
"For thus saith the Lord unto me, As the lion and the young lion growling over his prey, if a multitude of shepherds be called forth against him, will not be dismayed at their voice, nor abase himself for the noise of them: so will the Lord of hosts come down to fight upon mount Zion, and upon the hill thereof" (Isaiah 31:4, A.R.V.).
"A noise shall come even to the end of the earth for the Lord hath a controversy with the nations; he will enter into judgment with all flesh: as for the wicked, he will give them to the sword, saith the Lord" (Jeremiah 25:31, A.R.V.).
"Why do the nations rage, and the peoples meditate a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against his anointed, saying, Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast away their cords from us. He that sitteth in the heavens will laugh: the Lord will have them in derision. Then will he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure: Yet I have set my king upon my holy hill of Zion. I will tell of the decree: The Lord said unto me, Thou art my son; this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me, and I will give thee the nations for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel" (Psalm 2:1-9, A.R.V.).
I want us to consider the meaning of that little phrase "the controversy of Zion". We know that, in the Word, Zion and Jerusalem are often synonymous terms. If there is a difference, it is that Zion denotes the intrinsic values of all that Jerusalem is supposed to represent and contain. We recognise that difference and must keep it in mind. When we come to Zion, we are coming to the high peak, the ultimate significance of all that Jerusalem stands for.
Jerusalem the Storm Centre of the Nations
Speaking of Jerusalem, we know from history, from the Scripture, that Jerusalem has always been, and still remains, the storm centre of the ages. There is a little phrase in the Old Testament used of Jerusalem that she would be "a cup of reeling unto all peoples" (Zech. 12:2), and behind the phrase is a picture. It really sets forth a threshold, and on that threshold a cup full, and those who come to that threshold and drink of that cup stagger and reel, are thrown into confusion, and Jerusalem is said, in that picturesque way, to be like that to the nations. The nations coming against Jerusalem would find that on the very threshold they met something that threw them into confusion, completely upset all their calculations. She would be to the nations a cup of reeling. To the nations, yes, that is what Jerusalem truly has been and still is. They do not find that they can just play with Jerusalem, do as they like with Jerusalem. They meet something that is more than Jerusalem, something they cannot cope with.
Jerusalem a Sign to Israel Herself
And not only to the nations. Jerusalem has always been a decisive point to Israel herself, a kind of sign, a barometer, a tell-tale, representing the spiritual condition of Israel. If Jerusalem was in the ascendant, it was because the spiritual life of the people was in the ascendant. If Jerusalem was other than in the ascendant, that represented the spiritual life of Israel, its condition. Jerusalem was always indicating spiritual life, and Jerusalem's security and peace was always bound up with the spiritual condition of God's people. The condition of Jerusalem was always a spiritually controversial matter, whether to the nations or to Israel.
A Greater Controversy Over the Spiritual Jerusalem
If these things are true - and they lie right on the face of history - if they are true in relation to the earthly and temporal Jerusalem and people of God, they are even more true in relation to that of which the earthly is but a figure after all, what Paul calls "the Jerusalem that is above" (Gal. 4:26), and what the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, whoever he was, speaks of when he says "ye are come unto mount Zion" (Heb. 12:22). It is that controversy over this superior and supreme Zion that is to hold our attention at this time. For there is undoubtedly an even greater controversy over what is meant by the spiritual and heavenly Zion than has raged over the earthly. This is the very thing to which Paul himself refers in his letter to the Ephesians, when he speaks about 'our wrestling being with principalities and powers and world rulers of this darkness, and hosts of wicked spirits in the heavenlies' (Eph. 6:12). That follows straight on from his presentation of the Church, the Body of Christ, and this is only another way of saying that there is a tremendous controversy in heaven over this thing. This is the occasion of cosmic upheavals and uprisings and disturbances, something of a furious character going on in the unseen, directly and immediately related to this, the Church, the Jerusalem which is above, the Zion of God.
It is to this same thing that Peter referred when he said, quoting from Isaiah, "It is contained in scripture, Behold, I lay in Zion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: ...A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence" (1 Pet. 2:6,8), something that immediately raises a controversy, throws things into the realm of conflict and dispute.
Again, it is to this very thing that John refers in the Revelation, when he sees that multitude who have "come out of the great tribulation, and... washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (Rev. 7:14) - the victorious host over all the forces of evil; and then he says later: "And I saw, and behold, the Lamb standing on the mount Zion" (Rev. 14:1). This is a presentation of the tremendous conflict that circles round this that is called Zion.
Jerusalem A Sign of the Times
Yes, and just as Jerusalem, or, if you will, Zion, is a sign of the times in the temporal and earthly and historical realm, so it is in the spiritual. I am not launching into prophecy, but the earthly Jerusalem has always been a sign of the times, and still is. It has come to be almost commonplace to say: 'Watch Jerusalem, and you will know the time of day; watch Jerusalem, and you will know where you are in the dispensation'. A sign of the times. Why? Because God is acting in this whole world in a related way. Watch, and you see the movement of nations, the movement of policies; you see things shaping, forming, moving in the whole world. God is moving and acting worldwide in a related way, and acting in the earthly history in relation to Jerusalem. It is very significant. A sign of the times so far as the world is concerned, a sign of the times so far as the nations are concerned; God moving.
This is something that we should lay hold of, in days when everything seems to be in the melting pot, everything seems to be in tumult and disturbance. We should remember that God is not only the God of Christians, He is the Lord of all creation, of heaven and earth, and that all the nations are as a drop in a bucket with Him. They are in His hand, and He is manipulating the course of history and the movement of nations; all these things that are happening are not just wild, lawless, run-amok events in the world. They are all governed from heaven relatedly, every one of them. There is no political movement that is not under heaven's government just now, in a related way, concerning something, and all the nations are like that with the Lord. It is all indicative of God's object, God's interest. It is a sign of the times, it is a sign of spiritual conditions; for God is not only acting in that kind of chronological way, working coldly, mechanically, to a programme and timetable; He is moving upon a spiritual basis; it is all connected with spiritual conditions, and spiritual conditions are all related to it.
Now, having said that, we arrive at this, that it is made clear in the Word of God - and we will not spend time in dividing between the temporal and the spiritual - that 'Zion' will be the occasion of the supreme and final conflict in the history of this world, this present world order. Zion - if you like, Jerusalem - will be the scene and the occasion of the final consummate conflict of the ages of this world. It will be upon Zion that everything is focused.
Zion a Representation of Spiritual Things
Now, let us keep to our side of this matter. What does Zion symbolize? Let us say it again, as we have said it before: Zion, the earthly, the literal, the material, the temporal, is, after all, at most a symbol, a representation, of spiritual things. Those spiritual things can be detected in the material, for God's material things always contain the elements of His spiritual, and Zion therefore symbolizes a full heavenly and spiritual testimony to Christ in the significance of His Person, and the value of His work, and finally to His God-determined destiny. Now that is a big statement. If you could break that up and grasp it, you could comprehend the whole history of the earthly Zion, Jerusalem, and understand what that is all about. It is true, in its realm, of the earthly: for there in Zion, when Zion was as God intended it to be, you had a full, heavenly, spiritual representation or embodiment of God's mind concerning His king and His reign, and the basis of it was always the altar and always the sanctuary. There are your elements. We are not going to follow those too closely, we have so much on hand.
But let us transfer that in its spiritual meaning to this Zion to which we are come. What is Zion, then, for us? The Zion to which we "are come", this "Jerusalem that is above", nay, this Jerusalem of which we are citizens, this Jerusalem which has no existence apart from the people of God themselves, who are the Jerusalem of God; what is it? It is this: a full, a heavenly, a spiritual representation, embodiment, expression of Christ in the significance of His Person in God's universe; the full, heavenly value of His work (that, of course, means the work of redemption by His Cross); and the full declaration of the place that God has eternally destined that He should occupy. That is the testimony of Zion. It is no small thing, because any one of those three things could occupy the Christian for a whole lifetime and more. The significance of the Person of Christ in God's universe - can you range that, can you fathom that, can you exhaust that? The value of His work by His Cross - have you ever plumbed that? The eternally predestined place that He shall occupy in God's universe - can we comprehend that? Put those three things together, and they constitute the testimony of Zion, and no wonder there is a controversy, and no wonder that the controversy is as great as it is. You are not surprised, are you? This is no little campaign, no little battle, no little fight. This is ultimate, this is all-inclusive. But let us go on.
This conflict and controversy has three aspects. One, as to the nations; two, as to the realm of Christian profession; three, as to the ministry of the testimony of Zion.
(1) The Controversy with the Nations
The controversy has to do, in the first place, with the nations. We have already stated that in general terms, but we will look at it more closely. I am keeping to the Scriptures; I am not outside of the Scriptures, although I am not quoting every chapter and verse. The convulsions, the upheavals, the conflicts, the unrest, the frustrations in national and international affairs, are all related to this testimony of Zion. That is saying a tremendous thing. It means, in other words, that they are all related to the inheritance of God's Christ. The nations are related. We read in Psalm 2: "Ask of me, and I will give thee the nations for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession". That follows upon: "I have set my king upon my holy hill of Zion". So that all that is happening in the nations, between them and amongst them, is connected with this whole matter of Zion's testimony as to the inheritance of God's Christ, and of course the inheritance of the saints with Him.
We have some very striking and forceful illustrations of this kind of thing in the Bible. We are all so very familiar with the controversy with Egypt and with Pharaoh and with the gods of the Egyptians. What a terrific conflict that was! How long-drawn-out, how thorough, moving with steadily growing momentum and force, working itself down ever deeper, exhausting all the opposition - but what a conflict! The whole cosmic realm was involved, natural phenomena, the sun, heaven, blackness, darkness; all nature was in convulsion. Everything was gathered into this controversy with Egypt, with Pharaoh. What was it all about? Something that God had in the nation; that is all. Something that belonged to God, something that in the sovereignty of God was chosen to be the vessel of His testimony in the earth. And so the nation, this mighty kingdom of Egypt, is thrown into convulsions, and all nature is thrown into convulsions, over this one thing at the heart of the nation.
Then consider Babylon. True, the people have failed the Lord and have been sent away into Babylon, but the Lord has not forsaken, and the Lord has not given up, and the Lord has not abandoned His testimony. So - what do we read? Well, let us look at it in Isaiah 63:14,15: "Thus saith the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: For your sake I have sent to Babylon, and I will bring down all of them as fugitives, even the Chaldeans, in the ships of their rejoicing. I am the Lord, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King". "I have sent to Babylon, and I will bring down all of them" - the margin says "all their nobles" - "I will bring down all of them as fugitives", "for your sake". Do you know what happened in Babylon? It is a wonderful story. It just looks like the pageantry of world empires, one following another. But no; God says, 'I have brought all this about'. We cannot take time now to go over the story of the overthrow of the Babylonian Empire - the onward march of Cyrus, the approach to the doors; when they were all inside, off their guard, in revelry, that night Belshazzar was slain. The doors were found unfastened and unguarded, and in came the next empire. The Lord's word about this is: "For your sake I have sent to Babylon". All this, the overthrow of empires - and the Babylonian Empire was one of the greatest in the history of this world - what is it for? Because of a people right in the midst. All this is focused upon some deposit of God in the nations. The controversy is with the nations over some object, and that object is this Zion.
And if that was true of the historical and earthly, it is even more true of the spiritual and heavenly. God has a deposit in the nations, and we are told that He has visited to take out of "the nations a people for His Name" (Acts 15:14). He has got in the nations a people for His Name, and the things that are happening in the nations, though we may not be able to detect and follow and define, are happening in a related way. Just as the nations will vomit out the Jews and be glad to get rid of them, as did Egypt, so a true people of God in the earth will make this world sick, so that the world will want to get rid of them, and the sovereignty of God will make the very attitude of antagonism and hatred and expulsion His own way of securing His people. He is working in the nations. It is a tremendous thing to recognise this. "For your sake". Our point is that, just as the nations are being dealt with, or have been dealt with, in relation to Israel of old, so the world is being dealt with in relation to this Church that is in the "field" (Matt. 13:44).
In Matthew 24 we have some of those signs of the end of the age given to us - wars, rumours of wars. Now you may say, as some do, 'Well, there always have been wars and always will be wars. What is the difference between those of Matthew 24 and the others?' Well, to begin with, have you counted the number of wars in recent years? There have been more wars in recent years than in any previous time in the history of this world; we are never out of war, whether it be hot war or cold war. I am not going to dwell upon those signs, and the signs in the heavens. But what is the statement here? The Lord said: But all these things are the beginning of travail (birthpangs) (Matt. 24:8). Have you grasped that? - "the beginning of birthpangs". We are far advanced beyond the beginnings, I think, in this matter. But be that as it may, birthpangs. Then something has to be born. That is how the Lord viewed this whole situation, this upheaval, in the nations, this tumult, this unrest, this frustration - for you know that is the word that is really so a propos of the situation. When He said "distress of nations, in perplexity" (Luke 21:25), the Greek words employed by Luke suggest a picture of a trade, a business, which has no way out. It is a business that has become shut up.
But then the Lord says, 'When you see this state of things, the nations having no way out...' Is that not true? 'No way out'. They are trying all the time to find a way out - a way round this situation, a way out of this dilemma, this predicament - and they cannot find it. All their expedients and policies and diplomacies are failing; they are having to make compromises all the way round, and none of their compromises gives them a way out. Then the Lord says: "When these things begin to come to pass... lift up your heads; because your redemption draweth nigh" (Luke 21:28). 'Your way out cometh'. We know the way out. That, however, is only said in order to emphasize this, that this is the beginning of travail, of birth-pangs; something is emerging, is going to have a way out. That which has been locked up in the nations is going up. The Church is the only Body that has a way out.
But that is so much in keeping with what Paul says in his letter to the Romans, chapter 8, verses 19 to 22. "We know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now", as it "waiteth for the revealing of the sons of God". Yes, there is travail and groaning in the creation. We can hear it with our spiritual ears.
Let us proceed. There has to be a testimony in the nations upon which God can work, which justifies His judgment of the nations, which gives significance to His government of the nations and of the world. There must be a testimony in the nations, and such a testimony as will provoke God to jealousy. We have so often quoted in this connection the words of the prophet: "I am jealous for Zion with great jealousy, and I am jealous for her with great wrath" (Zech. 8:2), and that is connected in the prophecies with this. The Lord has a controversy with the nations; He is jealous over something; something is there that is very precious to Him, and very important. He must have a testimony like that; and when He has got it, His sovereignty comes into operation in all sorts of ways in relation to it. He may work on the long, patient line, but 'His mills', while 'grinding slowly', are 'grinding very small':
"Though with patience He stands waiting,
With exactness grinds He all".
It is all related to that which is in the earth. There is something in this earth, in this world, which is a disturbing factor. It has set up inflammation. That is true wherever the true Christian goes. You get an adequate testimony, and you see the inflammation, the conflict, that is set up. There is something there. You do not have to try to make trouble, you have nothing whatever to do to precipitate it. It is spontaneous, it happens. You may be the meekest, and the mildest, and the quietest person on God's earth; but if Christ is vital in you, or in a company of such, you will find that your very presence provokes something, and that provocation has the direction of - "We must get rid of this; it is foreign to us, it does not belong to us, it is something that is not of our constitution; we must get it out of our connection.' That is the world's attitude. That is the attitude of the Devil and his kingdom. There is something provocative in this earth, something disturbing.
That is all we can say about the relationship of Zion to the nations. I trust you see more than I have said, as to the significance of God having an adequate testimony in this world, and what a tremendous thing it is.