Study On The Book Of Isaiah
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Chapter 56 launches us into the seventh and final part of Isaiah’s vision (chapters 56-66). It relates to the period following the arrival of the first returnees from Babylon. Isaiah saw that time in prophetic vision; we see it in the clear light of history (see the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai and Zechariah). The Judah to which they returned had been incorporated into the Persian Empire, so they were home but still not their own masters. Their numbers and resources were limited, and neighboring groups viewed them with suspicion or outright hostility. But the most serious problems arose from the fact that this small community lived “between the times”, so to speak. The return from exile had begun but was far from complete (v. 8). The community lived in the tension between the “now” and the “not yet”. They had the beginnings of what God had promised but not the fullness of it. It was a time in many respects like our own, between the first and second comings of Christ. The kingdom of God has come, but is yet to come. It is an exciting time but also a difficult one, when (as Paul puts it) “we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we await eagerly for …the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). Waiting tests our patience and our faith. This final part of the book is about life in the interim – waiting for a new world.
These first eight verses are a fitting introduction to what follows, serving as a kind of charter for the restored community. Those whom God has freed from condemnation and despair have an obligation to do His will, and these verses set forth very clearly the ideals God has for them. They are to be marked by two things: justice and openness.
Justice (vv. 1-2): It was injustice that had brought Israel to ruin. God had looked for justice, but found only bloodshed and cries of distress. Religion had become divorced from social responsibility, ritual from right living, and so God destroyed Jerusalem and drove His people out of it rather than permit such monstrous dishonoring of His name to continue. Now those who will wake on the other side of this nightmare and have the opportunity to make a fresh start are reminded that God has the same passionate commitment to justice that He always had, and that He expects them to share it. They are to maintain justice and do what is right because His righteousness is about to be revealed (v. 2). Their life together is to be a visible sign that the kingdom of God – His reign of perfect justice and righteousness – is just around the corner, breaking in and already making its presence felt.
Openness (vv. 3-8): There is no direct command here, but the implication of what is said is very clear: the Lord accepts the foreigner and the eunuch who sincerely seek Him, and His people must do the same. This was a very difficult and sensitive issue, for there were specific statements in the Law of Moses excluding emasculated men and foreigners, especially Moabites and Ammonites. These were powerful reminders to Israel that the holiness God demanded of His people was totally incompatible with physical mutilation (as practiced in pagan cults), and that His love for them was no casual thing. He was adamantly opposed to those who sought to harm them. These laws had never been meant to exclude genuine converts, as the stories about Rahab and Ruth show quite plainly. They were to be an open community, warmly embracing all who genuinely bound themselves to the Lord (vv. 3, 6). Eunuchs in particular were to be treated with compassion. Isaiah had foreseen that members of the royal family would be made eunuchs in Babylon. This passage makes it clear that God does not intend to exclude them from His coming kingdom, nor should His people, who await its arrival.
Isaiah 56:1-8 Reflection Questions:
Where in the gospels does Jesus speak on this thought in verses 1-2?
Where in the gospels talks about a eunuch?
Does this study affect your view on a convert to Christianity from the LGBT community?
Peace (Shalom) is perhaps the richest word in the Old Testament. “Shalom” stands for complete wholeness, the sum total of covenant blessing, the full enjoyment of all that God has promised. But in practice such peace is an elusive thing, because it depends on being in a right relationship with God. Where the relationship is wrong, peace is lost. The problem of their sin had to be dealt with to God’s total satisfaction. And that, as we saw in chapter 53, is what the Servant achieves. The witnesses in 53:5 are aware that their relationship with God has been fully restored, not by anything they have done, but by what the Servant has done for them. So as we come to chapters 54 and 55 the blockage has been removed. The flood gates of divine blessing have been flung open, and peace begins to flow like a river. Notice the references to peace in these chapters. Peace, then, is the key that links these two chapters together, and connects both of them to the Servant Song in chapter 53. And the promised realization of this peace in all its fullness is the reason for the joyful singing with which the whole section begins (54:1) and ends (55:12-13).
Every promise fulfilled (54:1-17): Isaiah, then, saw the ideal future for which he and all God’s faithful people longed in terms of a covenant of peace that would be the culmination of all that was promised in the covenants that had marked Israel’s history from the very beginning. In chapters 54 and 55 these covenants come under review. First, there was the covenant with Abraham (54:1-4). The barren woman (v. 1), the tent (v. 2), and the mention of descendants (v. 3) all recall Abraham’s circumstances and the promises that were made to him. The covenant with their father Abraham long ago about their promised land will stand. With the reference to the Lord as Israel’s Maker, Husband and Redeemer in verses 4-8 the focus shifts to the Sinai covenant. As the Lord then took Israel as His bride and entering into a covenant with her at Sinai, so He would take her again and renews His relationship with her. The Sinai covenant would stand. The covenant with Noah is the next to come into view in verses 9-17. The covenant with Noah was a covenant with the entire human race. God’s commitment to Israel is as firm and unshakeable as His commitment to the world He has created (v. 9). He will not destroy them because He is committed to preserving and blessing His world, and they are the means He has chosen to do it. Finally a grand vista opens up for us in verses 11-17 – a whole renewed universe! And at its center is the city of God, the point where heaven and earth meet and God is present with His people forever (vv. 11-17).
The banquet spread (55:1-2): The invitation; “Come, all you who are thirsty” must be seen against this background. It is a call to all to come and share in “the heritage of the servants of the Lord” that has just been described. The gates of the city of God stand open. A banquet is spread. All that remains is for the invited guests to come. No money is needed; the rich fare is free. And when the metaphor gives way to explicit statement in verses 6-7, we are told precisely what that delightful and satisfying food is. It is mercy and pardon, and it is freely available because it has already been paid for in full.
The everlasting covenant (55:3-5): The phrase “an everlasting covenant” means the fulfillment of all that was promised to David. And, like the earlier covenants, this final covenant will have a sign to confirm it which will be nothing less than a permanently renewed universe (v. 13). Here is the climax of the whole movement of these two chapters with their review of the various covenants. The final covenant between God and His people will not cancel out the earlier covenants but fulfill them, perfectly and completely. The final outcome of the work of the Servant will be the full realization of all that God has promised from the beginning. All the promises of God will find their “Yes” and “Amen” in Him.
Sin, pardon, and glory (55:6-13): All of these words must have been very hard to grasp for people whose world has been turned upside down. To them it must have appeared too vast to comprehend, too ambitious, like a fantastic dream. But if so, it was because their human minds, like ours, were limited and sinful. God’s thoughts were as high above their as the heavens were above the earth (vv. 8-9). And God is insistent; it is no dream, no mere fancy He has set before them. His plans will shoot and blossom as surely as parched ground when rain pours upon it (v. 10). His Word, which once spoke the universe into existence, has gone forth again, and has lost none of its power. Nothing can frustrate it, or divert it from its course (v. 11). There will be a new creation, a new world, and the return from exile will be the first step towards it (vv. 12-13). No wonder chapter 55 throbs with excitement.
It also rings with certain urgency, however. There are decisions to be made. There is a banquet spread, but the guests must come. There is pardon available, but the wicked person must forsake his own way and seek the Lord while he may be found (vv. 6-7). No-one need be an outsider, but neither will anyone be forced to enter, and the invitation to do so will not be extended indefinitely. In the end, the vision of Isaiah has a sharp evangelistic edge to it. We will see this even more clearly in our study of chapters 56-66.
Isaiah 54:1-55:13 Reflection Questions:
How is your relationship with God and, what are you doing to build on your relationship?
Where in the gospels is a parable about a “banquet”?
Have you been inviting guests to the “banquet”?
Now the Servant steps into full view again. We cannot mistake Him, for 52:13 echoes the words that first heralded His presence in 42:1. But this time He is going to command our attention for much longer. This fourth Song is the most elaborate and poignant of them all. It is the jewel in the crown of Isaiah’s theology, the focal point of his vision. And yet it comes upon us suddenly, almost intrusively. It is as though, just as we were in danger of forgetting His central importance, the Servant steps forward again and insists that we look at Him and acknowledge that nothing that we have just been contemplating is possible without Him. He is the key to it all. At the same time, however, He is self-effacing. For in this Song He never utters a word. He is as silent as a lamb (53:7). His presence is powerful, but it is others who bear witness to Him, not He Himself. And the first witness is none other than the Lord God: “See, My Servant.”
God’s wisdom revealed (52:13-15): This first stanza is in a sense a summary of the entire Song; it begins at the end so to speak, with the Servant’s exaltation (v. 13). It then reverts to His deep suffering (v. 14) and concludes with reflection on the stunned reaction that the sudden reversal in His fortunes will bring (v. 15). Sprinkling, with blood, water or oil, had to do with cleansing, with making a person or thing fit to be in the presence of God. The One that the people regarded as unclean (they were appalled at Him, v. 14) will turn out to be the One who cleanses others. It is a paradox so astounding that it will dry up every accusation and cause every mouth to be stopped (v. 15) The wisdom of God displayed in the Servant will utterly confound human wisdom.
Despised and rejected (53:1-3): The speakers in verses 1-6 are witnesses. We no longer see the Servant through the eyes of outsiders, but through the eyes of insiders, Israelites who have come to understand the meaning of the Servant’s sufferings, and announce it to the world. It is through their witness that those who formerly had not heard come to see and understand. The witnesses begin by reflecting on their own past attitude to the Servant (vv. 1-3). At first He had shown promise. He had grown up before the Lord like a tender shoot, like a dead plant suddenly springing to life in a wasteland (v. 2a). But that promise did not seem to be fulfilled. The more He grew the less impressive He became. He appeared ordinary, even unattractive (v. 2b). And when, in the course of His work He met strong opposition, derision and suffering, He became even less desirable to know (v. 3). Even those who did not actively persecute Him found it more prudent to turn away than to take His part. To their shame, the witnesses confess that this is exactly what they themselves had done (v. 3). Perhaps they had not expected the Servant’s sufferings to become so severe that He would lose His life. But this is what happened. The words [pierced and crushed] in verse 5 indicate a violent death. His human tormentors had merely been instruments that were providentially used; it was God who had struck Him down (v. 4b).
Healed by His wounds (53:4-6): In this third stanza, the witnesses testify to the completely new understand of the Servant’s death that they have now arrived at. Yes, it was God, ultimately, who crushed Him, but it was not because He deserved it. The witnesses realize that they themselves deserved those sufferings and that death, but that the Servant took their place. Substitution was not a new thought to the Israelites; it was enshrined in the Law of Moses. But now the witnesses see that this same principle is at work in the suffering and death of the Servant. Their peace with God, the healing of their broken relationship with Him, was secured by the Servant’s death (v. 5). He was pierced for their transgressions and crushed for their iniquities. The comfort they have received, the good news of their pardon, has been provided at tremendous cost.
The sinless, silent sufferer (53:7-9): In this fourth stanza a lone witness speaks, most likely Isaiah himself. At his call back in chapter 6, confronted with the awesome holiness of God, he had confessed that he himself was unclean and that he dwelt among unclean people (v. 5). Immediately he was assured of his own cleansing (by the symbolism of a live coal taken from the altar). But what of his fellow Israelites, given their deep-dyed sinfulness exposed in chapters 1-5? How could they ever be pardoned without God’s holiness being compromised? Now Isaiah sees the answer (v. 8b). They were like sheep that had gone astray, but the Servant, like a lamb, had been slaughtered in their place (v. 7). This stanza carries us beyond the Servant’s death to His burial, and ends on a rather uncertain note. The Servant was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich (v. 9). He was an innocent man who had been done to death like a criminal, and His burial was a mixture of honor and dishonor. If His career ended at that point it would be hard to tell what even God’s final verdict on Him had been. Was His work finished to God’s satisfaction or not?
Crowned with glory and honor (53:10-12): In this final stanza we get the answer to that question. First we hear from Isaiah (vv. 10-11a), then from the Lord (vv. 11b-12), and both affirm the same central truth. The Servant’s death will not be the end of His career. God will place His seal of approval on His work by raising and exalting Him, and the will of the Lord (all of God’s plans) will prosper in His hand. Like a guilt offering, the Servant’s death will provide perfect satisfaction for sin (v. 10). But in startling contrast to what happened in a normal guilt offering, the victim, in this case, will not cease to exist. He will die, yes. But afterwards He will see the light of life, be satisfied (see the fruit of His sacrifice), and justify many (bring them into a right relationship with God) (v. 11). That is, the Servant will accomplish His God-given mission not only by His death, but also by His life beyond death. He will be a new kind of guilt offering that will utterly surpass anything that has gone before.
Isaiah 52:13-53:12 Reflection Questions:
Has the Lord Jesus Christ become the key to your life; not just on Sundays, but for every minute of every day? What will it take for you to get there?
Are you aware what the Lord Jesus Christ has done for you; if so, how are you announcing it to the world?
How are you building on your relationship with God?
These few chapters (51:12-55:13) reveal the riches of God’s grace more brilliantly than any other part of the book. They bring us to the very heart of Isaiah’s gospel. This part of the book sets out from the same point as the previous one, and again the message of comfort moves against the backdrop of the terrible events predicted in 39:5-7. Isaiah’s cry, “Awake, awake!…O arm of the Lord” (51:9) is answered here by the challenge, “Awake, awake!…O Jerusalem…Awake, awake, O Zion” (51:17; 52:1). In other words, the ball is thrown very firmly back into the human end of the court. It’s not the Lord who needs to awake, but His people! It is not the inactivity on His part which is blocking the fulfillment of what He has promised to them, but their own spiritual lethargy. Although it was Isaiah’s cry in 51:9 which called forth this challenge, the challenge itself is not directed to him. In fact, it is Isaiah himself who delivers it. His own eagerness for God to act is admirable, it is the lack of such eagerness in others that is the problem.
God and His people (51:12-16): This opening part of the passage is basically an affirmation that the covenant between the Lord and Israel is still intact (vv. 15-16). This is the language God had used when He had first claimed Israel as His own at the exodus (Ex. 20:2). It’s the language of relationship and commitment – not their commitment to Him, but His commitment to them. And that had always been the solid ground of their security and comfort. Therefore, they had nothing to fear (vv. 12-14), and nor do we. As Paul put it, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31)
Not condemned (51:17-23): Security, however, does not justify passivity. Quite the reverse; it calls for decisive action. The first call to action is to awake and rise up (v. 17). Fear paralyses us; being secure in God and His love for us sets us free. Fear is not the only thing that paralyses. So does a sense of being condemned, of being under judgment. Jerusalem certainly experienced this in the eighth to sixth centuries BC, and for her it was not just a feeling but an actuality. God gave her the cup of His wrath to drink, and she staggered and fell under its potent impact. It was a bitter draught, and it unmade her (vv. 17b-20). She was down because God had struck her down. But here she is told that that wrath has been removed. God has taken the cup from her and given it to her enemies (vv. 21-23). The objective facts are that she is not condemned anymore; she is forgiven. The problem is that she is still laboring under a sense of condemnation, and it is like a drug which stupefies her. “Awake,” Isaiah says, “Rise up, you are not condemned, and you must not go on behaving as though you are.”
Loved and valued (52:1-10): The second call to awake, in verses 1-6, is intended to counter a third deadly cause of spiritual paralyses – a sense of utter worthlessness. Zion had been defiled, enslaved, sold, oppressed, and mocked; no wonder she felt worthless. The word [nothing] in verses 3 and 5 captures it exactly; she has been sold for nothing and taken away for nothing. Sadly, as we all know, those who are treated as nothing eventually come to feel that they are nothing, which is exactly how Zion feels here, and it’s hard to awaken people to love, life and confidence again when they are sunk so low. No one whom the Lord values so highly (that’s you!) can be worthless, no matter what indignities they have suffered. And the exciting news that breaks out here again and demands to be shouted from the rooftops is that the Lord is about to give fresh expression to His love for Zion by totally reversing her circumstances – and all the world will see Him do it (vv. 7-10).
Ready to leave (52:11-12): The climax is reached in verse 11 which echoes the Awake, awake of the two previous units and brings us to their logical outcome. The people of God are to keep alert because their salvation is near. They are to live as those who are expecting the Lord at any moment, as travelers who are packed and ready for the last leg of their journey home. That is how it had been in the original exodus. They were not delivered yet, but they were sure they would be soon. The same air of keen expectancy permeates the present passage. A new exodus is about to take place. All they will carry this time will be the vessels of the Lord (v. 11), the holy vessels that Nebuchadnezzar removed from the temple when exile began. Nor will they leave in haste, as their ancestors did when they fled Egypt. They will go out with dignity and decorum, like priests in procession (v. 12a). But the real glory of this exodus, as of the first, will be the presence of God with them. He will go before them and behind them, guiding and protecting them every step of the way (v. 12b).
Isaiah 51:12-52:12 Reflection Questions:
Are you stuck in spiritual lethargy? What are you going to do about it?
What encourages you most about this study? Why?
What has God called you to do? What is stopping you?
These verses are about the pilgrimage to Zion – the pilgrims themselves, the doubts that trouble them, the faith that sustains them, and the joy that awaits them at their journey’s end. Pilgrimage to Zion was something that every Israelite of Old Testament times knew about. Three times every year, at the three great festivals – Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles – the pilgrims came, streaming to Zion from every corner of the land. When possible, whole families went together, meeting friends along the way. They laughed, they talked, they sang, and finally they rejoiced together before the Lord in Zion as they recalled God’s goodness to them and renewed their commitment to Him and to one another. Some of the happiest memories of childhood and family belonged to these occasions.
The exile to Babylon, however, was to produce an experience of deprivation more terrible. Many were to grow up with no personal memories of Zion at all, never having seen it, let alone gone there. For them pilgrimage to Zion could only be hoped for, not remembered, and the hope itself must often have seemed like a distant mirage – enticing, but cruelly unreal. Many would simply give up believing that it could happen. A minority, however, would cling to it, not as a kind of mental trick to help them feel better, but as the evidence of an unquenchable confidence in the faithfulness of God and the reliability of His promises. These are the ones the Lord addresses with obvious pleasure in verses 1-7; they are plainly dear to Him.
They are described in verse 1 as those who pursue righteousness and who seek the Lord. They have grasped the heart of true religion: holiness of life flowing from personal relationship with God. Jesus said that the only future that matters (the kingdom of God) belongs to such people (Matt. 5:6). Their expectation of what God will do in the future profoundly shapes how they live in the present. They do not rely on their unaided consciences to tell them how they should live; they know what is right, because they have God’s law in their hearts (v. 7).
These pilgrims, then, are faithful Israelites. They may not have literally set out yet, but they are pilgrims none the less. For they know where their home is and long for the day when they will be there, and it is the promises of God, which they believe, that draw them towards it. Zion will be rebuilt; the wastelands around her will blossom again like the garden of the Lord (v. 3). It will again become a place of joy and gladness and thanksgiving (v. 3), and it will stand forever as undeniable evidence of God’s righteous, saving character (v. 8b).
Another group of pilgrims is alluded to in verses 4-6. They are a much larger group, coming from the nations and the distant islands, drawn towards Zion by the promise that light is about to dawn, and the justice they long for is soon to become a reality. These are the “other sheep” Jesus spoke about who would one day hear the shepherd’s voice and be gathered into the fold (John 10:16). They have joined the pilgrimage because they are convinced that only the Lord, the God of Israel, can mend the world’s ills; and they are right (v. 6)!
In the end there are only one people of God, the ransomed of the Lord, and when all God’s purposes for them have reached their goal they will all be together in one place – Zion, the city of God. They will enter it with singing, and joy will be their crown forever (v. 11).
As so often, Isaiah’s vision reaches far beyond the particulars of history to its end; beyond the return from Babylon to the consummation it foreshadowed. And he can hardly wait for the dawning of that final day. There were many obstacles in its way, but he was sure that the strong arm of the Lord had not lost any of its ancient power (v. 9). Isaiah did not doubt either God’s ability or His will. But there was what we might call a “holy impatience” about this great man of faith. “Do it now,” he cries in effect, “Do it now” (vv. 9-10). The Bible itself ends with a very similar cry (Rev. 22:20-21). It should be our cry also.
Isaiah 51:1-11 Reflection Questions:
How often during the year do you recall God’s goodness to you and your family? Will you do it more often?
When going through tough times, do you have an unquenchable confidence in the faithfulness of God and the reliability of His promises?
Do you have God’s Word in your heart?
Where are you with your personal relationship with God?
Once more the Servant speaks, letting us into some of the most deeply personal areas of His life: His communion with God, the physical and mental suffering which marks His way, and the assurance of final vindication that lifts Him up. The words of the Servant are for Israel first of all; but, as a part of Scripture, they are also for us. In this third Servant Song the world at large is left out of the picture, and attention is focused on the Servant Himself and His ministry to the people of God.
The Servant is a skilled counselor because He himself has been taught by the Lord. He is a disciple before He is anything else, and as such His outstanding characteristic is attentiveness to God (v. 4). This, as we recall from chapter 48, is exactly what Israel has failed to do. In stark contrast to Israel, too, He is not rebellious (v. 5). His whole intent is to translate the instruction He receives into obedient action, no matter what the cost. As a disciple He does not shrink from the suffering: He does not draw back, or hide His face, but sets it like flint (vv. 5-7). There is nothing He will not endure if obedience demands it. But finally – and this is important – His confidence is not in His own power to endure, but in the Lord who helps Him, and who will vindicate Him in the end (v. 8). This Servant doesn’t speak from a lofty vantage point; far from it, no one has felt the struggle more intensely, or paid a bigger price for obedience. He is the perfect disciple.
Again His identity teases us. But more important at this stage is the question: why the powerful portrait of the Servant at this point? What impact is it intended to have on those still on the knife-edge of belief or unbelief that was reached at the end of the previous section? We don’t have far to look, because verses 10-11 at once drive the message home. The Servant is not simply to be admired or wondered at; He is to be obeyed (v. 10). In short, in describing His own discipleship the Servant has shown them what God requires of all His people; not empty profession, but wholehearted, costly obedience. The Servant and the challenge that He brings, force a separation between the true and the false, the righteous and the wicked, the saved and the lost – among those who profess to be God’s people.
While this should exercise our consciences mightily, and cause us to search our hearts, it is at the same time reassuring, and provides some relief from the impasse we were left with in verses 1-3. There will never be a generation of God’s people that rises as one to the faith and obedience that He requires of them. Some will and some will not. Some, by their persistence in indifference or rebellion, will show themselves, in the long run, not to be His people at all. But God’s ultimate purposes will not be frustrated by their mixed response. There will always be those who genuinely do rely upon their God (v. 10), and they will move on in faith to inherit all the glorious things He has promised. In the end, as we have seen, it will be the Servant, whose testimony we have heard in verses 4-9, who will force the division between the true and the false among God’s people. The “fear the Lord” and “to obey the Word of His Servant” are one and the same thing. We must all decide whether or not we will follow Him!
Isaiah 50:4-11 Reflection Questions:
Morning by morning do you listen to God’s instruction?
Are you willing to obey God’s Word even if it means ridicule or suffering a loss of some kind?
How much do you rely on your own strength in adversity versus relying on God who helps you?
Do you call yourself one of Christ’s disciples? If so, what does that mean for you?
At last the particular issue of the Lord’s choice of Cyrus has faded into the background, but a deeper tension in the relationship between God and His people remains to be worked through. How could God abandon Zion and still be committed to its people? As long as Zion lay in ruins, the sense of being abandoned by God would prove exceedingly hard to shake off. Some, like Daniel, would be resilient enough to rise above it. Most would sink into deep depression and find the struggle to believe and hope again long and difficult. These verses are about that struggle and the pain at the heart of it.
Zion’s lament and the Lord’s response (49:14-21): Zion’s lament in verse 14 is in the end, irrational and groundless; it simply does not accord with the facts. God, being the God He is, can no more forget His people than a mother can forget the baby at her breast (v. 15). Like a master architect, He thinks about the plans for them day and night (v. 16). Like a father who is inordinately proud of His daughter God will not rest until His people are decked out like a bride (vv. 17-18) and settled like a happy mother with her family about her (vv. 19-21). Zion’s children will return to her, and more besides; she will overflow with them. She herself will not be able to comprehend the full extent of the blessing that will break over her. The images are mixed and do not always cohere logically, but they all affirm God’s love for His people and His tireless commitment to their welfare.
The choice facing the world (49:22-26): This of course, means that the rest of the world has a decision to make. They can co-operate with God by blessing His people (vv. 22-23), or they can defy Him by continuing to persecute them (vv. 24-26). They can share in the blessing God intends to bestow on His people, or they can entirely cut themselves off from it. But they cannot claim any relationship with God that bypasses identification with His people. The picture of kings and queens serving God’s people as foster fathers and nursing mothers in verse 23 is not one of abject submission but of love and affection; inclusion rather than exclusion. The horror of gruesome defeat is reserved for the warriors and the fierce of verses 24-26 who are too proud to change. But either way, all will know, in the end, the invincible strength of God’s commitment to His people (v. 26b).
The divorce that never was (50:1-3): After this powerful affirmation, the opening verses of chapter 50 look rather anti-climactic. In fact, however, they are more like a quiet appeal at the end of a stirring sermon. The sermon began with Zion’s sorrowful lament (49:14); it ends by addressing her children (50:1), especially those who would find themselves cruelly separated from her. Has the Lord divorced their mother? No, He has not, for no bill of divorce has been issued. Has He sold her to clear a debt? No; the very suggestion that He has creditors is preposterous. The explanation for Zion’s destruction is the sin and transgressions of its people, not any cooling of affection or straitened circumstances on God’s part. Since there has been no divorce, the Lord can take Zion back, and since He has not sold her she is still His to claim as by right. Furthermore, as the Creator He has the power to make good everything He has promised her (vv. 2b-3). The only hindrance is the one that has always been there, namely, the unresponsiveness of her children to His Words and deeds (v. 2a). But the need for change is urgent, for there is the possibility of a new beginning if only God’s people will grasp it by faith and move forward into it. That is the challenge with which this sermon ends. Hardly anti-climatic, but a tense and uncertain moment, for the response the Lord seeks is apparently lacking.
Isaiah 49:14-50:3 Reflection Questions:
Have you ever felt that God has forgotten you? How do verses 14-21 help you?
Is that something that you are going through, making it a struggle to believe and hope again long and difficult?
Does this study offer you any encouragement? How so?
Are you responsive to God’s Word? How can you improve on it?
First the Servant Himself speaks in verses 1-6. Two messages to the exiles follow in verses 7-12, drawing out implications of what the Servant has said. The movement is from the Servant Himself to the people of God who are associated with Him. With the return of the Servant the sharp rebuke of the previous chapter gives way, once more, to comfort. Strangely, although the sinfulness of God’s people is crying out for remedy, the Servant does not address them directly at all. He speaks to the world at large (v. 1).
A polished arrow (vv. 1-6): But who is the Servant? Verse three says His name is Israel. But how can this be, since, as we have already seen, a key aspect of His mission is to restore Israel to a proper relationship with God (v. 5)? We are forced back to the conclusion we reached in chapter 42, that He is a figure who embodies all that the nation of Israel was called to be, and therefore one who is truly worthy of the name – God’s perfect Servant. He is far greater than Jeremiah, or any other Old Testament prophet for that matter. He is prophet par excellence. If that doesn’t satisfy us, we shall just have to wait, because for the moment He is hidden in the shadow of the Lord’s hand, and concealed…in His quiver like a polished arrow (v. 2).
A new people of God (vv. 7-13): As we move on to verse 7, however, the word Israel reverts to its normal sense, and the focus shifts back again from the Servant of God to the people of God, the surviving remnant of the nation. After the repetition of previous promises in these verses we discover new things here; the whole passage is nuanced by its close relationship to the Servant Song which follows. Of course, neither of the expressions is new to us; they were both used with reference to the Servant Himself in 42:6 and, as we saw there, they refer to God’s intention to extend His salvation to all peoples, to bless the whole world that He has created. Isaiah underlines the fact that God will achieve this great goal through the Servant Himself and through His restored people. As they are brought back into right relationship with God, God’s people become one with God’s Servant in His worldwide mission.
This means that the very idea of the people of God begins to undergo a kind of metamorphosis. Those whom God restores to Himself become a sign of His commitment to extend this same blessing to all people. The shout of praise then, in verse 13 is the “Hurrah!” of mission accomplished – a cause of rejoicing to the whole earth. But by the time we reach that point the theme of comfort for the people of God is no longer focused narrowly on the captives in Babylon. They may be its most immediate point of reference, but it reaches beyond them to embrace all people. And the key to all this is the Servant of the Lord, Israel is to understand that its entire future in God’s purposes is intimately bound up with Him.
Isaiah 49:1-13 Reflection Questions:
Why do you think the Servant addresses the world at large and not directly to His own people’s concerns?
Why do you think the New Testament Jewish people had a hard time with God offering salvation to the whole world (Gentiles)? Do these attitudes happen today?
Why do you think that the exiles found these sweeping visions from Isaiah difficult to grasp?
Conceptually, chapters 47 and 48 form one large unit dealing with the fulfillment of the Lord’s purpose to use Cyrus to free His people from captivity in Babylon. The captives are portrayed here as residents of one city but citizens of another, a tension between place and citizenship that can be resolved only by returning to where they belong. The logic of the whole unit is that Babylon is doomed (chapter 47); leave it, and set out for Jerusalem, your true home (chapter 48).
Babylon: defiant but doomed (47:1-15): The portrait of Babylon is a classic study in worldly power and arrogance. She is the queen of kingdoms (v. 5) and believes that she will remain so forever (v. 7). She has an utterly false sense of security, which leads her into self-indulgence and complete indifference to the needs of the weak and vulnerable in her midst (vv. 6, 8). She considers herself so self-sufficient that all notions of accountability are excluded. She is proud of her wisdom and knowledge (v. 10), and has perfected a form of religion (astrology) which enhances her sense of power over her own destiny without making any moral demands upon her (vv. 9b, 12-13). She is the complete symbol of worldly success. However, the virgin city will be violated (vv. 1-3, 8b-9, 12-15). In short, her sense of impregnability is a complete illusion. She is like the man who built his house on the sand, or the rich man who did not reckon on what the night would bring. Babylon is the city of destruction.
We must note two things carefully before we move on. First, Babylon here is not merely the ancient city of that name, and the poem does not simply look forward to what was to happen to it in 539 BC when Cyrus conquered it. Like Jerusalem, with which it is contrasted, it is both a concrete historical reality and a symbol, and it is the symbolic significance of Babylon which is primary here. Secondly, the sin of Babylon is not simply its pride and self-absorption, but its self-deification. Twice uttered I am, and there is none besides me (vv. 8, 10), is a direct challenge to the Lord’s identical claim in 45:5. Babylon represents humankind organized in defiance of God – the kingdom of mere mortals, in contrast to the kingdom of God. In this sense “Babylon” is still with us, and still stands under judgment of God. The historical Babylon of the sixth century BC was merely on manifestation of it.
“Leave Babylon!” (48:1-22): Now we are in better position to understand the challenge of chapter 48, where the contrast between Babylon and Jerusalem is developed. The reference to Jerusalem as the holy city in verse 2 has symbolism associated with it also, because by the sixth century it was to be little more than a forsaken ruin with most of its citizens in exile. But for all that, it would continue to be the place God had chosen as the center of His kingdom on earth, and the announcement concerning Cyrus in the previous chapters have made clear His intention to raise it up again. It would once again be “the holy city”, not just in the sense that no evil will be found in it, but that God Himself would return to it and rule from it. The holy city was to become the symbol of their future hope – the coming of God’s kingdom. The challenge of chapter 48 is that they should live constantly in the light of that hope, expecting its realization at any moment.
The people certainly profess to be citizens of the kingdom, but their lives give little evidence of it; the old sins live on, it is as though their suffering taught them nothing (vv. 4-6). The Lord is tempted to discard altogether what is left (vv. 9-10), but there is more at stake here than their own betterment; there is the honor of the Lord’s name (v. 11). The world must know it is He, and not Babylon, Bel and Nebo, who rules the world and for that reason He will press on, regardless of how His people respond.
There is anger but also sadness in this chapter and this brings us to the heart of Israel’s sinfulness (vv. 1, 12, 16-18). God has opened His heart to them. He has given them His Law; He has spoken to them through His prophets, but they have not listened, and they are still not listening! Verse 22 is a tragic note on which to end, but it underlines powerfully the serious nature of failure to listen to God; it shuts us out from the peace of God. Isaiah has been speaking here of a situation that was to emerge after his own lifetime. The basic sins and failures he describes may just as well have been looking at himself, or even speaking directly to the church in our own day and age. We need no great imagination to recognize ourselves in his stinging rebukes. Sadly, the sins of the people of God do not alter.
Isaiah 47:1-48:22 Reflection Questions:
How does the symbolism of Babylon touch your life (now and/or in the past)?
Are you living constantly in the light of the hope of expecting Christ to return at any moment? What does that mean to you?
God has opened His heart to you, are you listening?
This whole chapter is in effect an elaboration of the last two lines of 45:20, “Ignorant are those who carry about idols of wood, who pray to gods that cannot save.” Bel and Nebo were pagan gods. Cyrus’s conquest of Babylon enhanced the status of Bel and Nebo rather diminishing it. But how different things are now; the greatness of Bel and Nebo is a distant memory, while the Lord is known and worshipped by millions. It is easy, of course, to see this in hindsight. It’s much harder to take the long view when evil is in full flight. That, however, is exactly what Isaiah does here. He asks the exiles to look beyond the present to what will finally be the case, and paints a graphic picture of the shame and disgrace that await all man-made religion and those who trust in it.
But he goes further. In verses 3-7 he asks Israel to reflect again on the fundamental absurdity of idolatry and the contrast between it and their own covenant faith. “Idolaters carry their gods,” says the Lord, “but I carry you. I have carried you since you were born, and I will never stop carrying you until your days are done.” There it is in a nutshell; false religion is based on works, true religion on grace. So it has always been and so it always will be (see Eph. 2:8-9)
The last part of the chapter, though, comes as something of a shock (vv. 8-13). Surely if God carries His people in His arms He could be expected to use only affirmative, comforting language in His dealings with them. Not so! God’s love is robust, not weak and indulgent. He cares for His people too deeply to deprive them of necessary rebuke. Rebels, He calls them, stubborn-hearted, and you who are far from righteousness (vv. 8, 12). We might think for a moment that He has turned His attention to the pagan idol-worshippers. But this is clearly not the case. Remember this in verse 8 is the sequel to listen to me, O house of Jacob in verse 3. The audience is the same.
So what then is the reason for the strong language the Lord uses? The answer lies in His reference to Cyrus as a bird of prey in verse 11, probably reflecting again the shocked response which Isaiah expected the Lord’s choice of Cyrus to evoke. How could it be right for God to choose such a man, and how could He have His people’s best interests at heart in doing so? But such a response is equivalent to rebellion against God, for it calls into question not just His sovereign freedom, but His goodness – and that is to strike at the very heart of the covenant relationship. It was because He loved Israel that the Lord chose her in the first place, and because of that same love that He had carried her ever since. How dare they doubt His goodness? The strong language is shocking, but it is the language of loving discipline rather than rejection. It is intended to jolt the people of God out of a very dangerous and sinful state of mind, and has their ultimate good in view. However many rough patches there may be in His relationship with them along the way, it is the Lord’s grace rather than their sinfulness that will triumph in the end; He will grant salvation and splendor to His people (v. 13). The two problems that have to be overcome are their circumstances and, more importantly, their heart condition. Both will be taken up afresh in our next study of chapters 47 and 48.
Isaiah 46:1-13 Reflection Questions:
What are some man-made religions today in the 21st century?
Where in Exodus does God talk about carrying His people?
What have you learned about God’s character from this study?