Study On The Book Of Isaiah
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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?
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?