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?