Study On The Book Of Isaiah
If you would like to comment on one of the lessons simply click on the title of the lesson and you will be take to the lesson page where you will find a comment section at the bottom
There have been plenty of incentives for intercession since the beginning of chapter 62, not least the promise of decisive intervention by God in the vision we have just been considering. But so far, intercession has been talked about rather than actually done. Now, however, we move from declarations of intent and exhortation to prayer itself. And what a prayer! There are many fine intercessory prayers in Scripture, the greatest of all, of course, is our Lord’s high-priestly prayer (see John 17) in which He interceded for us all. The present prayer is less well known, but has the same stamp of greatness on it.
The voice we hear in 63:7 is Isaiah himself. He stands in the prophetic tradition of intercessory prayer which goes right back to Moses. And like Jesus he prays with prophetic vision, not just for himself and his own generation, but for future generations as well. Intercession glorifies God because it is an expression of utter dependence upon Him. It recognizes that we need to be delivered as much from ourselves as from our enemies, and that deliverance of this radical kind can be found only in God. It is His gift, not our achievement.
The prayer begins as all prayer should, with an acknowledgment of the sheer goodness of God (63:7-9). Isaiah recalls the days of old, the acts of God that called Israel into existence, and sees that they were marked by grace from the beginning to end. God felt their distress, saved them from the perils of the way, lifted them up and carried them when they were weak, and rightly expected that they would return His love by being true to Him. But sadly it was not so. They rebelled against Him, and grieved His Holy Spirit (v. 10a). So in order to preserve His holiness, the Father had to become an Enemy and judge those He loved (v. 10b). The days of old were days of immense grace on the Lord’s part, and immense ingratitude on the part of His people.
The second part of the prayer (63:11-14) is about how “recalling the days of old” has been central to the relationship between God and His people from generation to generation. The memory of former things has brought assurance of God’s power and faithfulness, but also of their own deeply ingrained sinfulness, and has raised painful uncertainties in their minds. True prayer, however, must rise above such thoughts. It is not enough to look back or look within. The intercessor must look up, for all true intercession is founded on the conviction that, however we feel, God is sovereign, and deliverance can be found in Him alone. That truth had been embedded deeply in Isaiah’s soul by the vision of God that had inaugurated his ministry. Now it injects fresh confidence into his praying. He lifts his eyes to the God whose throne is lofty…holy and glorious (63:15), and calls on Him to intervene (64:1).
Isaiah has become so identified with those for whom he prays that, as far as his language is concerned, there is no difference between him and them. Their Father is his Father, their sins are his sins, and so are their doubts and perplexities and hard questions. By his praying he brings them to the Father when they are too weak or proud to come themselves. He acts as a true intercessor. It is likely that later generations of Israelites used this very prayer to lament the destruction of the temple and seek God’s forgiveness. If so, it did double duty; it lived on after Isaiah himself had died, and became the prayer of the very ones for whom he had interceded. It gave them voice in one of the darkest moments of their history.
Isaiah 63:7-64:12 Reflection Questions:
What are some other intercessory prayers found in Scripture?
Do you see yourself like Isaiah, as a true intercessor?
Where do you look when you pray?
This terrible scene bursts upon us almost with the suddenness of the Day of Judgment itself. Yet, it is exactly what we should be expecting at this point, for it is simply the obverse side of the reality that the previous chapter directed us towards – the final coming of God’s kingdom. Nor have the previous chapters failed to warn us that this would have a dark side to it. This chapter repeats, with greater intensity, the substance of 59:15b-20: it is Isaiah’s description of the “day of vengeance of our God” whose arrival was anticipated in 61:2.
In common usage, vengeance is a word which has connotations of deliberately harbored malice and personal vindictiveness. It is the opposite of love. And yet the Bible insists that there is a proper time and place for vengeance, for without it a host of evils would never be righted and there would be no moral government in the universe. It is the final calling to account of those who have oppressed others and apparently got away with it. Vengeance is punishment, but punishment with a particularly sharp edge. The wrongdoer is confronted in a very personal way with the wrong he has done and is made to pay for it. In vengeance the tables are finally turned.
Here in Isaiah a lone avenger comes from Edom. His garments are splendid, but they are also dreadful, covered in crimson stains. Isaiah wonders who he is, and what terrible work he has been doing. The questions are natural ones and are answered almost before they have left Isaiah’s lips. The avenger is God Himself, and the stains on His garments are blood. He has trodden the nations in the winepress of His wrath. But there is another, even more pressing question which is implicit in the other two. Not just “Who?” and “What?” but “Why?” And this question brings us to the very heart of the passage, for the answer is given in terms of God’s special relationship with His people. The key is in verse 4. The day of vengeance is the year of His “redeemed” (His people), and He has long had this day in His heart (in His plans and purposes) precisely because of His deep commitment to them. Saul of Tarsus was later to learn that the Lord and His people are one; he could not persecute the one without clashing with the other. This passage teaches that people everywhere are destined, one day, to learn the same lesson. The judgment in view is final and universal (v. 6), but the reference to Edom in particular gives the passage a special emphasis (v. 1). It is the nations as persecutors of His people which will be the special objects of God’s fury on the final day. They will meet God as the powerful avenger of His people.
God’s people are the special objects of the world’s hatred, and it may often seem to us that those who reject the Lord mock us with complete impunity and that there is no redress available to us. But it is not so! This passage assures us that nothing we suffer goes unnoticed, and that every wrong done to us will be repaid in full. It answers our cry for just redress, but takes the responsibility for achieving it out of our hands and places it where it properly belongs. The Lord Himself is our Avenger.
Isaiah 63:1-6 Reflection Questions:
Why should we leave vengeance to God?
What should you do when you want to take revenge yourself?
What does Jesus say about this subject?
Where in the gospels does Saul of Tarsus learn his valuable lesson?
This chapter picks up from where the previous one ended. If righteousness and praise are to spring up before all nations, the question is how and where? The answer has already been given in previous chapters, but now it is taken up again with fresh vigor. It is from Zion that righteousness will shine out like the dawn, and salvation like a blazing torch, and all nations will see it (vv. 1-2). Zion was profoundly important to Isaiah, not just because he was a patriot, but because he was acutely aware of its strategic significance in God’s purposes. He could not keep silent about it (v. 1a). The future of Zion in God’s plans was the theme of his preaching, and when preaching became impossible it became the theme of his prayers (vv. 6-7). In chapter 61 he thanked God for clothing himself in salvation; now he affirms again that God will do the same for Zion. Isaiah’s own words (vv. 1-5) merge into those of the Lord (vv. 6-12). The prophet and his Lord are completely at one; their hearts are fired by the same vision. In the similar way the historical Zion (Jerusalem) opens out into the city of God of the last days, the kingdom of God comes to earth. There is continuity; the new will emerge from the old. But there is also discontinuity. The new will be so different from the old that it will require, and be given a new name (vv. 2b-5, 12).
At times the description of Zion in this chapter is very concrete – its name, its land, its walls. In other places it’s more abstract: glory, salvation, righteousness. But in a sense the last verse of the chapter is the key to it all. The real glory of Zion will be its inhabitants: the Holy People, the Redeemed of the Lord (v. 12), gathered in from the nations as well as from Israel (v. 10). The chapter as a whole is much more about God’s delight in His people than about bricks and mortar. Cities, land, walls, people, glory, are all aspects of one dazzling reality: God with His people and they with Him forever. Descriptions of Zion in a passage like this are, at their deepest level, descriptions of the people of God in their final, glorified state.
Verses 1-5 rise to the climax of 5b: your God will rejoice over you. It is an impressive reminder of how significant God’s people are to Him. His interest in them is not casual, but focused, determined, and full of love. They are destined for glory (v. 2), to be held aloft as a trophy in the Lord’s hand (v. 3), and to be married to Him as His bride forever (vv. 4-5).
The reference in verse 5 to God rejoicing prepares the way for the switch to God as speaker in verse 6. He has a word of encouragement for all those who, like Isaiah, give themselves no rest but call on the Lord unceasingly to bring His plans for Zion to fruition. They are like watchmen whom God has set on Jerusalem’s walls. He is the one who has raised them up as intercessors, and therefore they are licensed to be bold. They are to give the Lord Himself no rest until His promise is fulfilled. The Lord is not offended by such bold intercession; it is precisely the kind of praying that He desires and commands. But there is a fine line, as we all know, between boldness and presumption. Boldness of the kind we are talking about here is justified only where prayer is based directly on the revealed will of God. That is why the encouragement to be bold in verses 6 and 7 is followed immediately by a divine oath and a divine proclamation, in which the Lord’s purposes are reaffirmed in the strongest possible terms.
The oath (vv. 8-9) concerns God’s determination to bring His people finally to a position where they will no longer be preyed upon and exploited by their enemies. Instead, they will have a rich reward for their toil, eating and drinking in God’s presence and praising Him for His goodness, because there is no-one greater than Himself to swear by, the Lord swears by His own right hand and …mighty arm. His own invincible power is the guarantee that His oath will be fulfilled.
The proclamation (vv. 10-12) is in effect an announcement that the time has come for the final great pilgrimage to Zion to begin. The promise of a Savior is about to be fulfilled (v. 11), so those still in captivity in Babylon are set out quickly as a vanguard to the multitudes who follow, both Jews and Gentiles (v. 10). The future city of God will be a far cry indeed from desolate, ruined Jerusalem of the sixth century BC. It will be full of holy, redeemed people, the joy of the whole earth (v. 12).
Rightly understood, there is tremendous encouragement in this passage for us in our own praying, for so much of what Isaiah confidently expected is now happening. We live in the last great era of history. The promised Savior has come to Zion, a banner has been raised for the nations by the worldwide proclamation of the gospel, and the final great pilgrimage has begun. If Isaiah had good reason to pray boldly for the fulfillment of God’s promises concerning Zion, how much more do we! “Father, may your kingdom come, may your will be done!” Amen!
Isaiah 62:1-12 Reflection Questions:
With piety, study and action, are you completely at one with Jesus?
Are you fired up by the gospel? What are you doing to share it?
What does this study on this chapter say to you about God’s character?
Do you really understand how much God loves you? Don’t forget it, because that’s exactly what the enemy, the world, and the flesh wants you to think…you’re not good enough, too sinful, you don’t deserve it, etc.
Two starkly contrasting realities open up before us here: the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance (v. 2), and both arise from the truth on which the previous chapter ended. Things will not go on as they are forever. One day God will bring them to a sudden end. The intervening period, however long or short, is a time of opportunity. But it is not taken lightly, for terrible judgment awaits those who carelessly let it pass. Full treatment of the day of vengeance, however, is held over until 63:1-6; chapter 61 concentrates on the time of favor, and above all on the Person who ushers it in.
It begins with Him in verses 1-6. No-one introduces Him; He speaks for Himself, demanding our attention quite unselfconsciously and without arrogance, but with tremendous authority (v. 1). He is someone of quite extraordinary importance. We have me Him before, of course in chapters 42:1 and 11:1. He is both the Servant of chapters 40-55 and Messiah of chapters 1-35, for this is what we must notice – these are one and the same person. Here is the great theological breakthrough of Isaiah’s vision and the heart of his gospel. The Messiah must suffer and rise again. Only then can the year of the Lord’s favor be ushered in.
Good news for the poor (61:1-6): The Servant-Messiah speaks as an anointed preacher, and the burden of His preaching in the year of the Lord’s favor (v. 2). This is most certainly referring to the Year of Jubilee as described in the Law of Moses. The preaching of the Servant-Messiah is like the blast of the ram’s horn which ushered in the Year of Jubilee; it proclaims the arrival of a time of grace, a time of release. Members of the restored community, like many before them, may have wondered at these words, since the full identity of the Preacher was yet to be revealed. Nevertheless, they would have found much here to encourage them in their particular situation. But the fulfillment that came with Jesus has given it far richer meaning for us today. The “year of the Lord’s favor” which He inaugurated is still in force, and will continue to be so right through until His coming again. Throughout this whole period the good news which is preached is the Christian gospel. The poor to whom the message is preached are not just those who grieve in Zion (v. 3), but the poor in spirit everywhere. The comfort they receive is not just release from exile, but release from condemnation through the forgiveness Jesus has won for them. Through God’s grace they become mighty oaks displaying the Lord’s splendor (v. 3), priests of the Lord engaged in His service (v. 6a), and the eventual inheritors of all things (v. 6b). The rebuilding of Jerusalem’s ruins after the exile was a significant work, made possible by the presence and operation of the Spirit. But the building of the church through the Spirit-empowered preaching of the gospel is a work that surpasses it by far.
Grace and justice (61:7-9): The key word we read here in verse 7 is “instead.” This is grace at work, and the grace of God is a most powerful agent of change. God’s grace we see here is not something distributed at a whim. It is the expression of a relationship in which there is discipline, but also healing and renewal. The double portion of blessing in this passage answers to the double portion of hard service in 40:2, and it is the ministry of the Servant which is the bridge between the two. Grace rests on atonement as its foundation. It is free, but not cheap. That is why Isaiah can move so naturally from grace in verse 7 to justice in verse 8; there is ultimately no conflict between them. His grace in binding up the broken-hearted and setting the captives free is just as much an expression of His justice as His punishing their oppressors. For the truth is that He hates robbery and iniquity (v. 8), and all that He does reflects that in one way or another. The final demonstration of this will be a new, everlasting covenant which He will make with His people, in which every promise He ever made will be fulfilled and the whole world will wonder at His grace so powerfully displayed in them (vv. 8b-9).
A song of thanksgiving (61:10-11): Praise and thanksgiving are the natural response to grace, especially grace that has been personally received and experienced. Here a single voice rings out: I delight greatly in the Lord, my soul rejoices in my God (v. 10), but the blessing for which he gives thanks is not a new one; it is the common blessing of verse 3 reduced to their essence: he has been clothed with salvation and arrayed…in a robe of righteousness (v. 10b). He has been given a righteousness that is not his own, and he is assured that the same Lord who has set him right will one day set the whole world right: the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations (v. 11). The speaker is none other than Isaiah himself. His own guilt has been taken away and his sin pardoned (6:7). He himself has already tasted the blessings of the age to come, and as the herald of that age it is entirely appropriate that he should be the one to lead the rest of us in praising God for his glorious grace. It is the theme song of the redeemed in every age.
Isaiah 61:1-11 Reflection Questions:
Where in the gospels does Jesus preach about the “poor in spirit”?
Where in the gospels does Jesus read Isaiah 61:1-2 in the synagogue at Nazareth?
Journal on a time when God’s grace has been personally received and experienced by you.
How often do you praise and thank God for the grace He bestows upon you?
Zion has re-entered by the back door, so to speak, in 59:20. Now in this chapter it expands to fill the whole horizon of the text again, and the atmosphere changes completely. The gloom and darkness of chapter 59 give way to brilliant light. Only the merest traces of darkness remain, as something distant and definitely off-stage (vv. 2, 12). If the previous chapter was like a long dark tunnel, this is the light at the end of it.
In a vision Isaiah sees the Lord Himself rising over Zion like the sun, and filling the whole city with His glory, so that it becomes a magnet drawing all nations towards it (vv. 1-2). Although it is focused on Zion, the vision of this magnificent chapter is world-wide in its scope. It begins with thick darkness covering the whole earth, as at the beginning of creation itself. But here it is spiritual darkness, the darkness of moral evil and spiritual blindness. It is the “shroud” of 25:7 that enfolds all peoples and covers all the nations. But then, as in Genesis, the scene is transformed as light pierces the darkness, and the new world begins to emerge. If the world called into existence in Genesis 1 was “very good”, this one is far better (vv. 19-20). The city at its center represents everything that was promised in the original creation, now brought to triumphant and glorious fulfillment, and the heartbeat of the city is worship; how could it be anything else (vv. 7, 14b)?
In this chapter Zion is not the physical city that was rebuilt after the exile. It is the kingdom of God come down to earth; the new creation. Of course the return from exile contained the seed, but it is the full-grown plant, the final outworking, which Isaiah has directly in view here. If we are to understand his words aright we must see them for what they are – a vision of the end comparable to Ezekiel’s vision of the city of God (Ezek. 40-48), or to John’s vision of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21-22).
Let’s now take a look at a few particular aspects of this vision. The first thing it affirms is that the kingdom of God will conquer all other kingdoms. Nations and kings will come to Zion, not to conquer it, but to acknowledge that the God who has chosen to reveal Himself there is the only God and to submit to Him (vv. 3, 14). Those who refuse to do so will perish (v. 12). The power of human kingdoms will fail, and the kings of the earth will amass their wealth only to lay it down one day at the feet of the King of kings (v. 5).
The final triumph of the kingdom of God will be absolute and will involve judgment (v. 12). But the second truth that comes through very clearly is that many, from all corners of the globe, will enter it willingly (vv. 6, 9-10). Zion’s gates will stand open…day and night to welcome all who wish to enter with good intent (v. 11). In other words, citizenship in the kingdom of God will not be limited to Jews only, but will be open to people of all nations. Believing Gentiles will honor those of the faithful who were Zion’s children before them and be grateful to share in their heritage.
There is one more truth which emerges strongly in verses 15-22 as it draws to a close. Isaiah bombards us in this final part of the chapter with expressions such as everlasting, never…again, no longer, and no more. He is telling us that the confusing flux of history will issue at last in a state of permanent peace, righteousness and praise (vv. 17-18). Human regimes are never entirely benevolent, and sometimes turn upon those they are supposed to protect. Life as we experience it has many loops, dips and detours, when events seem to be turning back upon themselves rather than advancing towards a goal. But here Isaiah assures us yet again that there is indeed a goal, a point of arrival, and that when it is reached there will be no danger of relapse into frustrations and sorrow of the past (v. 20). God’s rule, fully realized, will be as perfect and permanent as God Himself.
With that we might expect the passage to end. But no; with exquisite lightness of touch Isaiah brings us back in the very last line to that attitude of poised expectancy which should mark our present living. The end is not yet; it will come in its time. But when it does come it will come swiftly (v. 22), so we must be ready for it.
Isaiah 60:1-22 Reflection Questions:
Where in the Gospel of Matthew is it shown that Gentiles came to worship Jesus?
Where in Matthew does it describe that Jesus is the promised light that dawned in Jerusalem?
Are you ready for the end? How is your relationship with God?
Repentance does not come easily to any of us, and it is hardest of all for people who have become accustomed to using religion as a cover for their sin. When their prayers go unanswered, they find it easier to blame God than to take a long hard look at themselves. But Isaiah will not allow such evasion. “It’s not God who is the problem,” he says, “but you” (vv. 1-2); then, with devastating directness, he pulls aside their mask and holds up a mirror so that they can see themselves as they really are (vv. 3-8). It’s not a pretty sight: violence, lies, perversion of justice, hearts set on evil, ruin and destruction, and no peace. Can these be the people of God? Yet which of us who has had the courage to look into the depths of our own hearts has not found such things lurking there? The mirror which the prophet holds up shows us ourselves as well, and as we read on it is as though we have entered a dark tunnel. The inveterate and desperate wickedness of the human heart is like a deep rooted infection and ruins everything. Religion can’t cover it, we cannot face it, and it makes God hide His face and turn away (v. 2).
What can we do but weep? Weeping, in fact, is exactly what we get here. Verses 9-15a is what is generally called a communal lament, of which there are many examples in the Psalms. It’s the kind of prayer that is prayed by desperate people and comes out in long, wracking sobs. The good thing about weeping is that it means we have given up pretending that things are alright, or that we have the resources to deal with them. It means we have come to an end of self-justification and self-trust. We have faced the fact that deliverance, if it is to come at all, must come from outside ourselves.
The turn-around comes at last in verses 15b-16: “The Lord looked…He saw.” It’s not as though He suddenly became aware of something which up to this point had escaped Him. It is quite clear from verse 2 that this is far from the case. He has been well aware of the situation, but unwilling to be used by a community which has no intention of changing its ways. He has withdrawn so that they may taste the full, bitter consequences of their sin. But verse 15 indicates a deliberate change on His part. He decides, in His mercy, to turn His face to the community again, and He does so in response to the lament of verses 9-14. He will intervene for the sake of those who mourn. To them His ears are open. For their sakes He looks, sees and takes action.
In verse 17 the Lord girds Himself for battle, like a warrior, and the garments He puts on make His purpose very clear. He puts on righteousness, salvation, vengeance and zeal. The first two have to do with the deliverance of His people; the last two deal with the punishment of their enemies. Taken as a whole, this powerful picture of God girding on His armor expresses the truth that He will not stand by while His people are destroyed; He is totally committed to saving them. The intervention depicted here is so drastic and so overwhelming that any thought that He is indifferent or powerless is utterly driven from human minds. People everywhere fear His name and stand in awe of Him (v. 19).
Verse 20 reads like a summary of it all. It is fundamentally a promise (The Redeemer will come) but also a challenge (to those who repent), but what of the rest? The fact that God will come makes the need for a change of heart imperative for everyone. In due time of course, the Redeemer came in the person of Jesus the Messiah. He came to Zion of His day and found some there who received Him. Many did not, however, even though Jesus reiterated the demand for repentance in the strongest possible terms. But the final coming – the ultimate reference point for Isaiah’s vision – still lies before us, and since we stand much closer to it than earlier generations the demand for repentance is doubly urgent now! The final intervention of God is good news for God’s people; that is where the main emphasis of Isaiah’s vision falls. But it must never be viewed with complacency. It calls for readiness and where necessary, repentance.
Verse 21 draws the chapter to a close with one final word of encouragement. It is addressed particularly to the faithful ones who have just been referred to in the previous verse. God’s covenant with them stands firm. His spirit rests upon them, and His Words have been placed in their mouths. And these two precious gifts will remain with them and their descendants, forever. In other words, apostasy will never destroy the church. In every age God will have those who speak His Word and are sustained by His Spirit. It should surely be our fervent desire to be numbered among them.
Isaiah 59:1-21 Reflection Questions:
When it comes to blaming God for their circumstances in life, what other Old Testament book comes to mind?
What are some Psalms that would be called “communal lament?”
Are you ready if Jesus came back today?
How are going out and speaking His Word?
Appropriately the topic of this chapter follows that of the previous passage. For fasting was a kind of ritual mourning. From early times it was associated with bereavement, repentance, and prayer. The Law of Moses prescribed fasting only in connection with the Day of Atonement, but fasts were also proclaimed in times of national emergency. In later times the trauma which resulted from the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 587 BC gave rise to regular fast days to mark these terrible events.
The fast days were impressive, solemn occasions, when the whole community gathered. This was good in itself, but it was also dangerous, for it created an impression of piety which was often far removed from the real state of affairs. It imposed a uniformity of observance which disguised the difference between those who were genuine and those who were not (vv. 1-2). At its worst it could degenerate into self-righteousness. Religion that drifts into superstition and self-righteousness becomes a hollow thing, lacking integrity and power. This is the inevitable outcome when leaders fail to speak to God’s people about their sins and challenge them with on-going need for repentance. The command of verse 1 is an urgent one, which is still relevant today.
After the exposure of wrong fasting (vv. 1-5) comes a description of the kind of fasting that truly pleases God (vv. 6-12). It is fasting accompanied by genuine repentance, especially turning away from exploitation and quarrelling (vv. 3b, 4a, 6). It is not simply to go without food on the set fast days, but to adopt a lifestyle in which self-indulgence and greed are totally given up and replaced by generosity towards the poor (v. 7). This is the kind of fasting that pleases God and leads to His blessing being released (v. 9). The great paradox of the life of faith to which we are called is that blessing comes through self-denial, which we receive through giving, and that we gain our lives by laying them down. The only repentance that counts with God is the sort that can be seen in the way we live, especially in how we treat other people.
Conditions proved to be very difficult in Palestine after the return from exile. On the fast days the people cried out to God to hear them, and give them the good things He had promised (v. 3). The terms light, healing, righteousness and glory all refer to the same reality: full realization of covenant blessing for which they were longing (v. 8). But Isaiah here warns all who desire these good things, and even back up their petitions with fasting, that they cannot expect to be heard until they change the way they are living.
After this the closing exhortation to keep the Sabbath (vv. 13-14) seems like an anticlimax, until we remember the connection between the Sabbath and justice that was made back in 56:1-2. The exploitation of workers denounced in verse 3 may well have involved denying them rest that the Sabbath provided, and the idle words of verse 13 were perhaps glib rationalizations that justified such behavior. In any case, the call for true Sabbath observance, like the call for true fasting, is a call for a changed heart and life, not just the more meticulous observance of a ritual. There is no shortcut to joy and victory (v. 14); they come through repentance, and a willingness to live God’s way.
Isaiah 58:1-14 Reflection Questions:
Have you ever fasted? If so, what was the focus of your fast?
What is God seeing when He sees how you are living?
Are you willing to live God’s way? If so, what does that mean?
“Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus said, “for they will be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). There could be no more apt summary of this passage. It follows naturally from this previous one, and is addressed to the same situation. But the focus is different. Now it is the faithful, godly ones who are primarily in view; the wicked are mentioned only in a footnote. We are taken deeper here into what it means to be godly. It is not only to have a robust, indomitable faith in God’s promises, or the heroism of a martyr. It is to be contrite, to be penitent; to be a people who know in their hearts that they are no better than their fellows, and who weep for their own sins and for that of others as well (v. 15). It is the mourners whom God comforts (vv. 18-19). The wicked are never comforted, because they will not weep. They have no humility, and are not sorry for their sins.
There are significant echoes here of earlier passages. The promise of comfort harks back to 40:1; build up…prepare the road (v. 14) recalls 40:3-4, the reference to God as the high and lofty One (v. 15) echoes 6:1. The effect is to assure the faithful that God still reigns, that He is with them, and that His purposes are on track. But the way spoken of here (v. 14) is something rather different from the one back in chapter 40. It is no longer the way back from exile in Babylon; those on view here have already trodden that way. It is the way through the present trials to their final resting place in the kingdom of God which is still to come (v. 13b). In this sense, God’s faithful people are always exiles and pilgrims. They will not be fully at home until God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Then their mourning will give way to praise from which every tinge of sadness has at last been removed (v. 19).
Isaiah 57:14-21 Reflection Questions:
What’s your definition of being godly?
What is the major difference between the godly and the wicked?
For a community under stress, the quality of its leadership is critical. Leaders are to be watchmen (56:10), alert to dangers that threaten from the outside, and shepherds (56:11), nurturing and strengthening the inner life of the community. Where such leadership is lacking, the sort of situation develops which we see here. Instead of being open in the right sense – to people sincerely seeking the Lord – the community becomes open to evil people who want to exploit it (56:9). Good people are attracted, and no-one comes to their defense (57:1-2). Superstition and false religion flourish and become a cover for all kinds of wickedness (57:3-10). The fear of the Lord is lost, and other, unhealthy fears take over (57:11). And finally, God is left with no option but to judge.
Some of the details are elusive, but the overall impact is very clear. Sin will not be eradicated from God’s people until the very end. In the waiting time the struggle against it goes on unabated at both the personal and corporate levels. And where godly leadership is lacking, old evils come flooding back, even after a remarkable experience of God’s grace. It proved to be so in the period following the return from Babylon, and it is still so in the church today.
After the ideals laid out in 56:1-8, this passage comes as a shock like the shattering of a dream. But that is not the whole story. Not all fall away in the waiting time. Isaiah speaks of those who cherish the dream and would rather die that give it up (57:1-3); they take refuge in the Lord, and will finally inherit all things (57:13b). The contrast between them and the apostates whose attitudes and behavior we have already seen could hardly be more stark. As the pace quickens, and history hurtles more and more rapidly to its end, the difference between the true and false, between those who really are God’s people and those who are not, will become more and more obvious. The waiting time is a time of sifting.
This sifting involves pain, and can be very alarming, but it should not cause us despair. The failure of leadership which in fact happened in the post-exile community, and the resulting divisions and apostasy on the part of many, did not frustrate God’s plan to send Jesus when the time was right. Nor will similar failings in the church today prevent God’s purposes from reaching their final goal when Christ returns. The dream will not die, because it is God’s dream, and those who remain true will share in the fulfillment of it.
Isaiah 56:9-57:13 Reflection Questions:
Where are you spiritually, during our waiting time before Christ’s return?
Where are you with your relationship with Christ? How will you improve on it?
Can you see the leadership qualities in today’s study apply to our personal life? In what ways?
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?