Isaiah 61:1-11 The Year of the Lord’s Favor


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?

Isaiah 60:1-22 Zion’s Future Glory


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?

Isaiah 50:1-21 A Desperate Situation


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?

Isaiah 58:1-14 True Fasting


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?

Isaiah 57:14-21 Comfort for those who mourn


“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?