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In the last essay we studied Isaiah 65:17-66:6, which began the final section of the book. We saw that 65:17-25 contained a message of hope and 66:1-6 sounded a note of judgment. In this essay we are studying 66:7-24, which will conclude our study of the book of Isaiah. In verses 7-14 Isaiah returns to the theme of hope and to the theme of Jerusalem/Zion as mother. Verse seven is about a mother giving birth. The mother is not identified until the next verse, bur she is the New Jerusalem. Thus with the powerful metaphor of an effortless and pain-free birth, Isaiah declares that there will be no more pain in the New Jerusalem. It also is an allusion to Gen 3:16, which tells us that pain in childbirth resulted from Adam and Eve’s Fall into sin. Thus Isaiah is seeing a New Jerusalem where the effects of the Fall will be ended.
In verse eight, we see four rhetorical questions, all of which expect a negative answer. “Who has heard of such a thing?” No one! “Who has seen such things? No one! “Shall a land be born in one Day?” Of course not! “Shall a nation be delivered in one moment?” Absurd!
The rest of the verse then reveals to us a couple of important things. “Yet as soon as Zion was in labor, she delivered her children.” Those words tell us that the mother Isaiah was speaking about is Zion or Jerusalem. And the child to whom she was giving birth is the re-born nation. Once again I remind you that we are dealing here with images. This projected rebirth of the nation can have more than one fulfillment. For example, the nation was re-born in a sense after the Exile. It also was re-born in a sense with the birth of the New Israel, the Church. And it will be re-born in another sense in the end-time.
Verse nine anticipates the objection that all of this is impossible. Isaiah answers the objection by speaking for God who offers a couple of rhetorical questions that expect a positive answer. If he opens the womb, will he not deliver the child? If he is the one delivering the child, will he close the womb? In other words, he is saying that if he begins something, he has the power to complete it. Thus he will make these things happen.
All right, someone please read 66:10-11. Thanks. In light of what has just been said, verses 10-11 tell us that all who love Jerusalem can rejoice with her. Perhaps they have had reason to mourn over her in the past; but now they can rejoice, because of the good news just revealed that the city, as well as the nation, will be re-born. But that is not the end of the good news. The New Jerusalem also will meet all the needs of her people, as a mother’s breast provides for the needs of an infant. In other words there will be no lack of supply. And they will find comfort in the city as well.
Verses 12=13 expand on what we have just seen in verses 11-12. God declares that it is he who extends these blessings to the people of the New Jerusalem. And the first blessing he mentions is “peace like a river.” Of course you recognize that this phrase was incorporated into the first line of the great hymn, “It is well with my soul”: “When peace like a river attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, you have taught me to know it is well, it is well with my soul.”
The Hebrew word for “peace” is shalom. The NRSV translates shalom as “prosperity.” But in my opinion, “prosperity” is too limited a translation of shalom. In this book the term shalom has been closely associated with the Servant/Messiah. For example, in chapter nine, he is called the “Prince of peace”; and we are told that he brings “endless peace” (9:6-7). Thus this shalom is not merely prosperity; it is peace with God that is available only through his Servant/Messiah.
The second blessing that God will extend, as translated by both the NIV and NRSV, is “the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream.” The word translated “wealth” literally is “glory.” The glory of nations will be like an overflowing stream. Again, I believe that ”wealth” may be a bit limiting as a translation, though not nearly as much as “prosperity” for shalom. I think they translated as “wealth,” because they saw it as a parallel to “prosperity.” However, we have seen in earlier chapters that the nations will bring their wealth to Zion. So that is a legitimate thought, even though the wealth of nations is only one aspect of their “glory.” Oswalt says that the main point is that in the new order Zion’s children will be privileged children. They will be carried on their mother’s (Zion’s) arm and playfully bounced on her knee.
Verse 13 continues the theme that God is the ultimate source of the New Jerusalem’s blessings. As mother Jerusalem comforts, he comforts. This is one if the few places in the Bible where God is directly compared to a mother. But notice that God is mot compared to a nursing mother. The New Jerusalem, Zion, is compared to a nursing mother (in verse 11); but God is not. In paganism the gods often were pictured as nursing, or impregnating someone, or giving birth. The Bible always avoids images of that type. It honors the separateness of God from us. He may be spiritually like a father or a mother, but God never is literally involved with us in those ways.
Verse 14 shows the results of God’s blessings for God’s servants, that is, the believers. Their hearts will rejoice, and their bodies will flourish the way grass flourishes in the spring. But then Isaiah immediately shifts back to the theme of judgment on God’s enemies. Isaiah uses classic images of God’s wrath—fire, windstorm and sword—to express God’s judgment on his enemies.
The Hebrew word translated “payback” in the NRSV and “bring down” in the NIV carries the idea of “return,” says Oswalt. God is returning, or paying back, to sinners his anger in response to their rebellion and sin.
Verse 16 speaks of God’s using the sword to slay many of the rebellious ones. Oswalt suggests that this is a reference to what sinful human beings do to one another because of their sin. I don’t think Isaiah intended this imagery to be taken literally. The death spoken of is primarily spiritual.
I believe verse 17 refers back to the thought in 65:2-4, where participation in these same pagan cults and practices, worshipping in the pagan gardens and eating swine and other forbidden foods, was condemned. The idea of “following the one in the center” is unclear. Oswalt says it could mean following a person who was leading the worship, or it could refer to an idol that was placed in the center of the garden.
The Hebrew of the first part of verse 18 is unclear. The NRSV and the NIV translate it differently. But it is clear from the rest of the verse that God will gather the nations of the earth, and they will see his glory. Then verse 19 says that God will give a “sign” to them, probably a miracle of some sort, and will send “survivors” to the nations. The “them” here cannot be the gathered unbelieving Gentile nations, because there is no scripture that says there will be survivors among them. Therefore the “them” must either be the Jewish remnant (Oswalt’s choice), or the New Israel, which I would prefer. I agree with Oswalt that the matter is unclear enough that we must sit lightly on our interpretations of it. Of the various countries mentioned, some are unknown, but Isaiah obviously was describing the ends of the earth.
Although the purpose of this end-time mission is to show the nations the glory of God, verse 20 tells us that one result will be that many “brothers” (NRSV “kindred”) will be brought back as an offering to the Lord. It seems to me that these can be interpreted as Gentile converts to Christ, although Oswalt interprets them as end-time Jewish converts brought back by the Gentiles. And notice that Isaiah describes the believing Gentiles as “clean” vessels. And then in verse 21 the Lord says he will make some of them priests and Levites. That would have been absolutely shocking to Jews. Not even pure Israelites could be priests unless they were from the tribe of Levi. And God is saying he will make Gentile believers priests. This clearly symbolizes the breakdown of barriers between Jew and Gentile that was to come about in the Church.
Verse 22 reminds us of the new heavens and earth that God is going to create. We saw that prediction earlier in 65:17. God also declares that he will keep Israel’s name and descendants before him, as he had promised. Then in verse 23 he reminds us that all flesh will worship him continuously. Finally, in verse 24 the book ends with a final reminder that those who refuse God’s love will experience his wrath.
In the last essay we studied Isaiah 65:1-16. We began by noting that those sixteen verses are an answer to the questions raised in the previous section, the lament of 63:7-64:12. And we noted that God responded with blunt words. In verses 1-2 he declared that Israel’s problem was not due to his silence, or to his unwillingness to save. On the contrary, he was anxious to be sought out; he wanted to be found. Thus the problem was on Israel’s side of the relationship. It was because they were rebellious and sinful.
In this essay we are studying 65:17-66:6. The final section of the book begins at this point. And the opening segment, 65:17-25, begins that final section with a note of hope. As you can see in verses 17, God is going to create a new heaven and earth. And the old heaven and earth, the old sinful and deformed world, will be forgotten. It will not even come to mind.
Isaiah definitely is getting a glimpse of the end-times here. I suggest that you immediately go to Rev. 21:1-4 to see the apostle John giving a very similar description of the end-time.
Now then, coming back to Isaiah 65:18-19, notice the repeated words for “be glad,” “rejoice,” “joy,” and “delight.” Verse 18 tells us we are to rejoice, because God is creating a New Jerusalem and its people as a joy, meaning that their very nature will be gladness and joy. But notice in verse 19 that this newly created Jerusalem and God’s people who dwell in it will produce joy in God as well. And there will be no more weeping or cries of distress in this New Jerusalem. Isn’t that a beautiful thought! This was God’s intention when he first created this world. He wanted to create creatures capable of loving him and one another freely with joy. And although sin and death entered into the picture, because of angelic and human freedom, in the end, the ultimate will of God shall be done.
Verses 20-25 give us concrete examples of why there will be no more weeping or cries of distress in the New Jerusalem. First, verse 20 tells us that there will be no more premature deaths. Babies no longer will die in infancy; old people will live a full lifetime; and 100 years of age will still be the time of youth. Indeed, as we learned back in 25:7, death will be destroyed.
The last clause of verse 20 is difficult. It literally reads, “but the sinner, the son of 100 years, shall be accursed.” Interestingly, notice that neither the NRSV, nor the NIV, translates the word “sinner,” but it is definitely is there. According to Oswalt, the clause can mean one of two things. One, it can mean that the sinner who lives 100 years would still be under a curse. Or two, it can mean that the sinner would be cursed by only living 100 years. I believe the English translations do not translate the word “sinner” because there aren’t supposed to be any sinners in the New Jerusalem. Neither Oswalt nor Delitzsch are any help at this point.
Verses 21-22 allude to one of the curses for breaking the Old Covenant. Deut. 28:15 and following sets forth a long list of curses for breaking the Covenant. In that list verse 30 says, “You shall become engaged to a woman, but another will take her. You shall build a house, but not live in it. You shall plant a vineyard, but not enjoy its fruits.” Here in verses 21-22, God is saying through Isaiah that the people of the New Jerusalem will not be cursed in that way. On the contrary, they will build houses and live in them. They will plant vineyards and eat the fruit thereof. Indeed they will be long-lived and stable like a great tree. For people who had known only instability, uncertainty, and lack of security, this was a wonderful promise.
Verse 23 extends the blessings to future generations of the happy believers. Not only will the believers not labor in vain, their children will not be born to terror. The NRSV translates “terror” as “calamity” and the NIV as “misfortune.” The reason for this, of course, is that they are part of the blessed family of God. Do not miss the fact that the verse includes multiple generations. There are the blessed ones, their children, and the descendents of the children. In our fallen world, children and grandchildren often suffer for the sins of the parents. Adultery and addictions to alcohol, drugs, and gambling are but two kinds of examples of sins that often devastate children and grandchildren. In the new heaven and earth, that will not happen.
Verse 24 tells us that in the New Jerusalem communication with God will be perfect. As you well know, in this present, fallen world, all sorts of things interfere with our prayers. Even the most spiritual people, those who are most gifted in the area of prayer, speak of “wondering thoughts” and “dark nights of the soul,” when they cannot “get through” to God. But in the New Jerusalem, God will answer before we call, and he will hear (as Oswalt says, in the sense of taking appropriate action) at the very moment we speak.
In verse 25 God, speaking through Isaiah, uses the same kinds images that Isaiah used in 11:6-9 to describe the Messianic kingdom. Therefore we have here a clear identification of the messianic kingdom with the end-time New Jerusalem. We will do well to remember that these are images. They may not be literal. The point is like humanity, nature will be at peace; and we will be at peace with nature. Even the serpent will be pacified, but interestingly, his curse (Gen. 3:14) will remain.
Following the hope passage of 65:17-25, we find a judgment passage in 66:1-6. But unlike some earlier judgment passages, this one is set in a context of hope. In verses 1-2 God declares that he is the creator of everything. Therefore no house built by human hands of itself could honor God. As Delitzsch puts it, “God will have no temple at all if men think by temple-building itself to do him service.” As the second half of verse two indicates, it is the human heart that God wants as his sanctuary. God declares that he “looks upon,” or as the NIV puts it, “esteems” the one who is humble, the one who is contrite in heart, the one who trembles at his word. This same point was made back in 57:15, where God announced that he dwells not only “in the high and holy place,” “but also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit.”
Verse three is an outstanding example of Semitic hyperbole. It is intended to shock, and many Old Testament prophets use the technique (Amos 5:21-25; Jer. 7:21-22; Micah 6:6-8). God’s point is not that sacrifices and ritual worship are evil in themselves. After all, God set up the Old Covenant sacrificial system. His point is that people with unclean hearts will make unclean offerings. They choose their own ways instead of God’s.
Verse four indicates that God eventually will choose for them. That is, he will punish their sinfulness. They will experience all of the fears that they have tired to avoid with their pagan rituals. Moreover they will experience the alienation from God that those who do evil in his sight experience. If you look at 65:12, God used the same language there.
In verse five, God announces to his own what is going to take place. Notice that there are two groups: those who tremble at God’s word, and those who hate those who tremble. The latter will be put to shame. The situation is the same today. Those who believe God’s word and try to live by it are called “fanatic,” unbalanced,” etc. But in the end, those who persecute the believers are the ones who will experience shame.
In verse six, Isaiah speaks of a noise coming from the city that he soon recognizes as the voice of God. Then he realizes that the voice is coming from the temple and that it is speaking judgment against God’s enemies.
In this essay we are studying Isaiah 65:1-16. We aren’t doing the entire chapter, because a new section begins at verse 17. The first part of the chapter is an answer to the questions raised in the previous section, the lament of 63:7-64:12.
Notice that God responds to the lament with blunt words. In verse one he declares that Israel’s problem was not due to his silence, or to his unwillingness to save. He had not hidden his face, as he was accused of doing back in 64:7. On the contrary, as the NIV (rightly in my opinion) translates it, he revealed himself to those who didn’t ask, and was found by those who didn’t seek for him. In other words, he was anxious to be sought out; he wanted to be found. The problem was on Israel’s side of the relationship.
Then in verse two God continues by saying that he was reaching out to Israel, but they were going their own rebellious way. This reminds one of 59:1-2 where God said much the same thing. Back there he said that was fully able to save, but Israel’s sins formed a barrier between him and them. The point is that the problem is not that God is unresponsive; rather it is because Israel is rebellious and sinful.
Paul quotes verse one in Rom. 10:20. Interestingly, Paul quotes it for his context as a reference to Gentiles. That is, some of the Gentiles were listening to God better than the people of Israel. And then in the very next verse, Rom. 10:21, Paul quotes Isaiah’s verse two in reference to the Israel of his day. That is to say, Paul saw the Israel of his day as rebellious and sinful in the same way that the Israel of Isaiah’s day had been.
In verses 3-5a God continues to spell out Israel’s sinfulness. Notice how God details what the “not good” ways mentioned in verse two were. They had chosen religious practices that provoked God to his face. That is, they were brazen in their pagan practices. They sacrificed in gardens. We talked before about how pagans planted groves and gardens for their worship. They offered incense on bricks, another pagan practice.
Verse four gets a little creepy. God says that they sat in tombs. Of course contact with the dead made Jews ceremonially “unclean.” So when Israelites participated in cults that did such things, they knew they were sinning against God. They also spent the night in secret places. I don’t know what that means, and Oswalt was not of help there. But the next one is clear. They ate swine’s flesh, which was forbidden by the Jewish law (Lev. 11:7; Deut. 14:4). And they ate some kind of stew with forbidden foods, probably meats, in it.
Then in verse five we see the crowning irony. These persons who, as we have just seen, are profoundly unclean, warn others to stay away from them, “for I am too holy for you.” As Oswalt points out, it is characteristic of this sort of pagan mindset to believe that their unholy activities make them holy. This is the height of self-deception. They are totally defiled, but do not recognize that fact.
Now then, as you would expect, this activity is not acceptable to God. Indeed it is an acrid smell in his nostrils. It is as if a fire that burned all day was emitting stinky smoke. Another way to interpret the images is this. A Hebrew idiom for anger is “the nose grows hot.” So it is possible that God was saying that their sinful activities make him angry like a fire that burns all day.
In verse six, “it is written before me” could mean either that the sins are written down before God, or that his decree of judgment on the sins is written down. Either way, the point is that judgment is certain. God will repay.
Back at the end of the lament (64:12), Israel had begged God to speak. Now it appears that they may prefer that he not speak, because he is going to speak a judgment that will repay them for their sinfulness. This is not a new message. You will recall that in 63:10 Israel was informed that their Savior had became their enemy, because of their rebellion. Oswalt says that the idea of repaying them “into their laps (literally “bosoms”) is an expression that means into the very center of their lives.
Finally, interestingly, verse seven suggests that the repayment, that is the judgment, will come on their rebellious ancestors as well as on them. In other words, what they were doing was not new. Their fathers also had participated in idolatrous pagan practices.
After announcing judgment on those who had not been obedient, as we have just seen, God offers assurance to those who have been obedient. The basic point of verse eight is that God will not destroy the good (that is, the obedient) with the bad (the disobedient). In the analogy, the cluster of grapes has both good and bad grapes on it, but only the bad grapes are destroyed, not the whole cluster. This is the concept of the remnant that we have seen before in Isaiah and elsewhere in the Bible. For example, In Isaiah chapter ten, after pronouncing judgment on the nation of Assyria (vv. 12-19), there is a promise of restoration for the repentant remnant of Israel (vv. 20-27). Another example that is closer to this chapter is 57:13. That verse comes right at the end of a segment (57:3-13) in which God is pronouncing judgment on idolatrous people in Israel; but in verse 13, he says that those who would take refuge in him (that would be the remnant) would possess the land.
Interestingly, the next verse in our passage, verse nine, makes the same point as 57:13. Not only will there be a remnant that will survive, they will inherit the land.
In verse ten God begins to talk about the land. Sharon is the fertile plain along the coast, running from Joppa to Mt. Carmel. The valley of Achor is a rather barren, hilly area, running north from Jericho. The Valley of Achor is best known as the place where Achan and his family, who had stolen sacred things, were stoned to death. That story is found in Joshua chapter seven. These particular two areas probably were chosen because they are on the western and eastern sides of the Promised Land and represent the whole.
In verses 11-12, God turns his attention once again to those who are in rebellion against him and speaks directly to them. As you can see, these people went after other gods, specifically Fortune and Destiny. The god of Fortune (gad) was a well-known god from the region of Syria. The god of Destiny, on the other hand, is not otherwise known. In verse 12 God announces what he will do to those who have abandoned him for these gods. He destines them for the sword. The verb “to destine” comes form the same root as the god Destiny. Therefore God is being ironic. Those who pursue the god of Destiny are destined for the sword. The last two lines of the verse clearly show that the sins in question were deliberate. These people knew what they were doing.
In verses 13-14 God continues to speak to the rebellious ones; and as he does so, he distinguishes them from God’s servants. Notice that verse 13 makes the distinction with six beautifully balanced lines that contrast the two groups. “My servants shall eat, but you shall be hungry. My servants shall drink, but you shall be thirsty. My servants shall rejoice, but you shall be put to shame.” In other words God’s servants will be blessed, and the sinners will be punished. Then verse 14 sums up the difference with a kind of restatement of the last two lines of verse 13.
Verses 14-15 continue the contrast between the two groups, but not in the highly patterned form of verses 13-14. In verse 15 the Lord says that the name of the rebellious ones will become a curse for God’s servants. And the servants will be given another name. Then verse 16 tells us that the result will be that the servants of the new name will draw people to the God of truth, a God who is willing to hide the “former troubles” from his sight.
In this essay we are studying Isaiah 64. Isaiah, having called on God in the previous chapter to do something, he now pleads with him to break into Israel’s desperate situation once again. Isaiah longs for that Servant/Messiah to destroy Edom, Israel’s enemies, and come striding to Zion. Using another image, he asks God to break through the dome of the heavens and shake the most stable of earth’s foundation, the mountains. This feeling of desperation comes from the fact that Israel’s sins have utterly defeated them. And the nations round about are gloating about Israel’s apparent failures and weaknesses. Isaiah knows that nothing less than “God’s direct intervention can break the power of the people’s sin and make them a witness to the nations instead of a laughing stock.”
Verse two continues the sentence of verse one. Isaiah uses two analogies to illustrate the breaking in of God that he is longing for. If he would come as when fire sets brush ablaze, or water to boil, this would make God’s name known to his adversaries. In Isaiah’s book, and elsewhere in the Old Testament, “fire” is associated with the presence of God. Now the overall context convinces me that Isaiah is asking God to come against his enemies in judgment, as the lone warrior, the Servant/Messiah, was pictured as doing in 63:1-6. But Oswalt interprets it as a setting on fire of the hearts of Israel’s people. He suggests that the fire in Israel then would reveal the character of God’s name to the nations and cause them to tremble at his presence. I guess both interpretations are possible.
Verse three appears to be a reference to the time of the Exodus when God did so many wonders for Israel, including his making mount Sinai quake at his coming. Isaiah is longing for God to do it again. Notice that Isaiah mentions the unexpected nature of the Exodus miracles, and he is hoping that Israel will have another unexpected visitation. This reminds me a bit of some of the expectations I saw after the famous Asbury College revival of 1970. People wanted it to happen again, so they tried to make it happen again, especially around the anniversary date of February third. But we cannot make God visit us. He does it unexpectedly. It was the same with the birth of the Savior in 4 BC. It happened unexpectedly. And Matthew tells us it will be the same at Christ’s second coming (Mt. 24:36-44). He will come suddenly, unexpectedly.
We see in verse four that Isaiah was rightly convinced that there had never been, and never would be, a rival to God. Why? Because from ancient times to Isaiah’s present, no one ever had heard of, or had seen, a God like him. He is the God who works for those who wait for him. This is a significant insight. Whatever else one might say about God based on Israel’s history, he is the Savior, the Redeemer. And he works for those who wait for him. As you well know, the New Testament calls us to wait expectantly for Christ’s return. As mentioned earlier, it will occur at an unexpected time. But we evangelical Christians will not be taken by surprise, because we are waiting expectantly for him to come.
The translation of verse five is quite difficult, and the NIV is much better, in my opinion, than the NRSV. At any rate, in this verse Isaiah points out another important truth. God “meets, or as the NIV translates it, “comes to the help of,” those who joyfully do what is right and remember God’s ways. So our waiting is not to be a matter of doing anything we want. It is a matter of doing God’s will in the world. It is a matter of living out God’s covenant life, of living according to his ways that include “integrity, honesty, faithfulness, simplicity, mercy, generosity, and self-denial.” If we live this way, God will meet us, or come to our help. In other words, he will be with us; he will see us through whatever comes our way.
But in the middle of verse five, Isaiah suddenly breaks off his discourse on how God meets those who gladly do his will and returns to the hard reality that the people of Israel were not in that positive situation. They were sinning, and God was angry about it. To Isaiah this seemed to be a vicious circle. They cannot do righteousness unless God helps them, but God won’t help them unless they do what is right. So Isaiah cries out, “How then can we be saved?” In effect he was asking if it were still possible for them to be saved?
In verses 6-7 Isaiah further describe the hopeless condition of the people. “We have all become like one who is unclean,” in other words, like a leper. “And all of our righteous deeds are like” filthy cloths. The NIV says, “filthy rags.” Indeed they are live decaying leaves that blow away in the wind. Verse seven declares that the situation is so bad that there isn’t even anyone who cares enough about what is going on to cry out to God, or to try to lay hold of God. And then Isaiah mentions the viscous circle again, “for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.”
Verses 8-12 bring the lament to a close. Notice the “Yet,” literally “But now” at the beginning of verse eight. Isaiah reminds the Lord that he is Israel’s father in the sense that he created them as a people. And he could have added that the Lord entered into a covenant with them. In other words he is responsible for their existence.
Isaiah used the image of the potter and the clay twice before in the book, in 29:16 and in 45:9. In both of those instances, the idea was that the created item has no right to criticize the one who created it. Here Isaiah uses the image quite differently. He suggests that a potter ought not throw away an item in which he has invested so much of himself. Although Israel’s sin cannot be denied, neither can the relationship that God established with her by his grace.
In verse nine the prophet pleads for mercy for Israel. He reminds God that they are not just any people; they are his people. You will recall that Moses used this same argument, along with a couple of others, when he interceded for the people after the golden calf incident (Ex. 32:11, 14). Notice that Isaiah does not ask God to ignore Israel’s sin; rather he asks him to mercifully reduce his anger and not to remember her sin forever.
Notice the use of the word “holy” in verses 10-11. The cities of Judah are called “holy,” and the ruined temple is called “holy.” Earlier in the book, in 62:12 and 63:18, the people were called “holy.” But the reality is they are not holy. And here the cities and burned temple are called holy, though there is little evidence that they are. The point seems to be that they are holy because they belong to God. Thus this becomes another argument by Isaiah for God to have mercy on Israel. She never has deserved God’s love. It always has been a matter of grace. So Isaiah is asking for more grace. Discussion
Isaiah closes out the lament in verse 12. It reads, “After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?” These two questions basically sum up Isaiah’s, and thus Israel’s, hopes and anxieties. Isaiah is asking God if he will continue to do nothing in the face of all that Isaiah has pointed out. Will he continue to keep silent, and will he punish them severely? Or will the Servant/Messiah, the lone warrior of 63:1-6 come to their rescue? Of course we know that the Lord did act, though Isaiah wasn’t around to see it. God remained faithful, as always, to the faithful remnant in Israel. He acted to move Cyrus of Persia to permit all of the Jews in Exile who wished to return to Palestine and reestablish their nation to do so. And from our vantage point, many centuries after Isaiah, we know that the Servant/Messiah did come to the rescue. He just didn’t come in the time and way that Isaiah might have envisioned.
In our last essay we studied Isaiah 62. In this essay we take up chapter 63. Verses 1-6 tell of a lone warrior who comes in judgment and exercises power on behalf of his people. The story begins with a watchmen seeing an imposing figure striding from the direction of Edom. Edom was a perennial enemy of Israel, so much so, that the name had come to symbolize all of her enemies. Bozrah was the capital of Edom. The person obviously was someone to be reckoned with, because he was splendidly robed and walked as one who had authority. This person had to be challenged, so the watchman cried out, “Who is this that comes form Edom?”
The person answers, “It is I, announcing vindication [literally righteousness], mighty to save.” The NIV is better, “It is I, speaking in righteousness, mighty to save.” Only God can speak like that, because only God is mighty enough to defeat all enemies and mighty enough to save his people. Thus this person is the Servant/Messiah who has been a prominent figure throughout the book. The fact that he says he is “mighty to save” is important. Although the passage has a strong element of judgment, it ultimately is about salvation. God, who speaks truth, says that his people are delivered, because he has defeated all their enemies.
In the story, in verse two, the figure (the Servant /Messiah) is now close enough that the watchman can see that his garments are not dyed red, but are stained red. And that prompts another question, “Why are your robes red, and your garments like theirs who tread the wine press?” And the Messianic figure answers in verses 3-6, saying in effect, my garments are stained because I have been treading the winepress. However it is the winepress of God’s judgment and wrath. The image is intended to convey the idea that he has attacked the enemies of God’s people and trampled them like grapes in a winepress. The Servant/Messiah has totally triumphed. This is gruesome imagery, but it is effective. You may recall that the book of Revelation uses the same imagery in Rev. 14:17-20.
Some people are put off not only by the bloody wrath of verse three, but by the idea of vengeance in verse four. But notice that the vengeance is paralleled in the second half of the verse by redemption. That is extremely important. The purpose of the wrath and vengeance is not to express a mean spirit, or to say that God is bloodthirsty. Rather it is to express the fact that destruction of sin and death and all the enemies of God is necessary for the salvation of his people.
Notice in verse five that the Servant/Messiah stresses the fact that he did it alone. He is appalled and grieved at the universality of human sinfulness, which meant there was no one to help him. We saw almost the same language used in 59:15-17 when God was appalled at the lack of justice and of anyone to intercede or intervene. So he worked salvation by his mighty arm. Here he is appalled by the sinfulness and the lack of anyone to help him with the judgment; and once again, he does it alone by his might arm. In reality he is the only one who can do it. We human beings are helpless because of our sinfulness. Thus The Servant/Messiah is the only one who can save the world.
Verse six summarizes the theme of judgment. However, as we think about this, we must never forget that long before the Servant/Messiah exercises God’s wrath (which remember is in the end-time) he poured out his own blood for our sakes. Indeed some early commentators interpreted this passage as symbolizing the destruction of sin and death on the cross, and they interpreted the blood on his garments as his own. That was a wrong interpretation, because this passage is about end-time judgment. But the cross certainly is there in the background. Salvation is available to all because of the cross; and those who experience the terrible wrath set forth in this passage are those who refused to repent and believe.
In verse seven Isaiah begins what is called a community lament. That is, he laments Israel’s sinfulness and the perceived unwillingness of the Lord to intervene in his people’s situation. As you can see, the prophet begins the lament with a statement about the goodness of God. The Hebrew word hesed begins and ends verse seven. It means “steadfast love” as the NRSV translates it at the end of the verse. It also could be translated “loving kindness,” or just “kindness,” as the NIV does it. Interestingly, the NRSV translates it as “gracious deeds” at the beginning of verse seven. I personally don’t think “kindness” alone gives the full meaning, and I think it should be translated the same way at both the beginning and end of the verse so the English reader will have some understanding that it is the same word. At any rate, the idea is that the Lord has treated Israel with loving kindness, which includes doing good deeds for them and extending mercy to them.
In verse eight Isaiah moves to God’s gracious election of Israel to be his people. And their responsibility in return was to be absolutely loyal to him and to live lives that would be true to his character. They were not to be false with him. A single verse from the days when God made the Old Covenant with Israel expresses that quite well. It is Deut. 28:9, which reads in the NIV, “The Lord will establish you as his holy people, as he promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the Lord your God and walk in his ways.” Because of that covenant, God became their savior.
Now the first part of verse nine has serious translation problems. I don’t like the NRSV translation at all. So let me read it again from the NIV: “In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them.” The “angel of his presence” (literally of his face) is the Lord himself visibly present. Some interpret this figure as Christ himself. Another Old Testament example of this is seen in Ex. 33:2, 14-15.
Notice that Isaiah did not say that God would keep them from distress; he told them he would save them in their distress. That’s important.
In verse ten, Isaiah turns to the fact that Israel had failed to be loyal to God. On the contrary she rebelled against him. This grieved, literally hurt, God’s Holy Spirit. Indeed God’s love and holiness both were offended. And this created a totally different situation. He who had been their savior became their enemy.
But then in verses 11-13 Israel began to reflect on the glory days of the Exodus when God acted with great power on their behalf. And they wanted to know where God was in their day. The focus of their remembering was two-fold. One was the great miracle of the parting of the sea, and the other was the manifest power of the Holy Spirit. In verse 14 they also remembered that back in those days the people found “rest” in Canaan as cattle find “rest” in a green valley.
Verses 15-19 begin the lament proper. The prophet speaking for the people calls on God to take action. In verse 15 Isaiah expresses the feelings of the people when God seems far away. Oswalt likens it to what an individual feels who is experiencing what John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.” Isaiah reminds God that he is their father and Redeemer Abraham and Jacob may deny their children, but God cannot.
Verse 17 expresses the main complaint. They have been unable to break way from their sinning, because God won’t help them. Scholars, including Calvin, agree that Isaiah did not mean by this that God forces people to sin. The point is that Isaiah knows that there is no hope of escape from sin if God doesn’t do something. So Isaiah calls on God to turn back to his people who are God’s heritage. Canaan was the tribes’ heritage. The tribes are God’s heritage.
The text of verse 18 is difficult, but the likely sense is this. After Israel took possession of the holy sanctuary, they were dispersed temporarily (a reference to the exile). During that time of exile the sanctuary was trampled. That is, it was in a ruined state. Then verse 19 makes the sad declaration that Israel has long been like a nation that God does not rule. They are like a people that are not called by God’s name.