In the last essay we concluded our study of Isaiah’s great poetic proclamation of salvation that comes through the Suffering Servant, in 52:13-53:12. The poem tells of the power of God’s “arm” to redeem Israel, and us, from the ultimate enemy, sin and death. Specifically we studied 53:4-12.
In this essay we are studying chapter 54. As Isaiah moves from the Suffering Servant poem into chapters 54-55, he offers what Oswalt calls “an invitation to salvation.” And he begins in 54:1-10 with the image of “a wife restored.” In the Suffering Servant poem, Israel was called to believe it could be restored to God. In this passage Isaiah writes as though the restoration is about to take place, and Israel is to bask in that reality.
Notice in verse one that Isaiah personifies Israel as a barren woman who can rejoice because she now has many children. She is to sing and shout in response to the good news of her salvation seen in the Suffering Servant poem. Interestingly, the apostle Paul quotes this verse in Gal. 4:27 where he is talking about the experience of Sarah and Hagar in the Old Testament. He sets forth Sarah as a type of “the Jerusalem above,” which is the New Covenant community. And he quotes Isa. 54:1 in relation to Sarah. In Paul’s mind, Sarah (representing the Church) is a barren woman who has many children released from the bondage of sin; and she rejoices. In Isaiah’s imagery, Israel was a barren woman who could rejoice because God’s people were about to be released from the bondage of the Babylonian exile.
Moving to verses 2-3, we see Isaiah use the imagery of expanding one’s tents. In the Near East the women were responsible for setting up and maintaining the family’s tents. And the Lord commands Israel, through Isaiah, to expand her tents. Now the only reason for enlarging tents was to accommodate a growing family. And remember, Israel already has been described as barren, because she is still enduring the Babylonian Exile. So this command was like a promise. God will keep his word. Israel, when she is redeemed, will expand on all sides. Her children will dispossess the nations and populate the “desolate cities.” Surely Isaiah intended that this description of what God is about to do to prompt his readers to think about the original conquest of Canaan.
Isaiah’s culture considered childlessness shameful. A barren woman was at best a failure, and at worst a sinner whom God was punishing. Israel actually had sinned, and the Lord had sent her into exile in shame as punishment. Now we see in verse four that the days of shame soon will be past. She is not to fear, or be discouraged. For she will be fruitful and will forget her earlier shame and disgrace. Notice the mention of her “youth” and her “widowhood.” Oswalt suggests that these probably were intended to symbolize her entire life. She has known shame and disgrace her entire life, but that is about to nd.
Verse five tells why Isel no longer needs to know shame and disgrace. Her maker, the God of all the earth, is her husband and Redeemer. What imagery! What could be greater than having God himself as a loving husband? That’s why Israel can sing (verse one); why she can spread her tents (verse two); and why she can surrender her fear (verse four).
In verse six Isaiah provides two pictures. The first is that of a forsaken wife who is grieved in spirit. She is unhappy and bitter. That is a picture of Israel in exile. The other picture is that of “the wife of a man’s youth.” That makes one think of a laughing bride with dancing eyes and much hope for the future. In the case of Israel, the latter had become the former. In Oswalt’s words, “the laughing eyes have been turned into bitter eyes by broken dreams and scattered hopes. The bride has been rejected, and the fault has been all her own . . . . But, wonder of wonders, Her Husband, who is her Maker, calls her back to all that might have been and yet will be again.”
Verses 7-8 explain the situation from God’s point of view. Because of Israel’s sinfulness, God abandoned her (v. 7) and hid his face from her (v. 8), for a moment, meaning the Exile. But his character is love (1 Jn. 4:8, 16). And he reaches out to her with great compassion.
There is an important factor here that we must not overlook. The key element in Israel’s restoration is not the return to the land. Although returning to the land is important, restoration of their relationship with the Lord is much more important. They will no longer be abandoned. The Lord’s face will no longer be turned from them. As God redeems them, he restores them to his favor, because he is love. The best biblical analogy for what is revealed here is the story of Hosea and Gomer in the book of Hosea. Gomer was a prostitute when Hosea married her. Although Gomer persistently defiled her marriage by returning to prostitution, and ended up on the slave block (3:1-2), Hosea in obedience to God purchased her, and returned her to his home and love to symbolize God’s steadfast love for Israel.
As you can see in verses 9-10, Isaiah is continuing in the same vein; but he changes the image. He now speaks of Noah and the flood. Just as God bound himself not to destroy humanity again by flood, he binds himself not to remain angry at Israel. Indeed God’s love is more secure than the mountains. His “covenant of peace (shalom)” is permanent.
Now then, in the next paragraph Isaiah once again shifts the poetic imagery. He began the chapter, in verses 1-9, with the image of a restored wife. Then in verses 10-11 he changed to the image of Noah and the flood. Now in verses 11-17 he shifts to the image of a rebuilt city. But the focus remains the same throughout. God is restoring Israel’s relationship to him. He is restoring her to divine favor.
Verse 11 begins with a three-fold description of Israel’s present wretched condition. First, she is “afflicted.” Oswalt translates it, “poverty-stricken.” In any case Israel is suffering. Second, she is “storm-tossed,” which means that she lacks stability like a ship tossed on the great waves of a storm. And third, Israel is “not comforted.” At the very least that means that she is unhappy. She is upset about her suffering and instability. But, as you can see, God (through Isaiah) is comforting her now.
In the rebuilding process, he will set her “stones in antimony.” “Antimony” is thought to be a black mortar used to make colored paving stones stand out. Oswalt says it could be a reference to mosaics. The foundations of the city will be laid with sapphires, the pinnacles of the walls with rubies, the gates with jewels, and the walls themselves with precious stones. This glorious imagery is used to drive home the point that their situation will be drastically changed. From being afflicted, storm tossed, and not comforted, they will become wealthy, stable, secure, and comforted.
Verses 13-14 are important, because they make it clear that the primary meaning of the change is spiritual rather than material. In these verses Isaiah explains what he means by the extensive use of jewels. And as he does so, he speaks not of wealth, but of being taught by the Lord, and of experiencing the wholeness of shalom.
Notice in verse 14 that the city will know righteousness, in addition to peace and wholeness. Being righteous and doing what is right go hand in hand with shalom. And notice that the city also will be secure. It will be free from oppression and fear.
In verse 15 the Lord reveals that if trouble comes to them after the restoration; and he knew it would, because trouble comes to everyone, it would not come from him. And those who make trouble for God’s people will fall.
In verse 16 the Lord asserts his sovereignty. No part of his creation is exempt from his purposes. In reverse order from what is in the text, God creates the warrior-destroyer; and he creates the blacksmith who makes the weapon used by the warrior. In other words, even though people with free will may cause havoc, they never are out of God’s control. And as he goes on to say in verse 17, no weapon that is fashioned against Israel will prosper. It doesn’t eliminate the power of our enemies to harm us, but they will not prevail. The same is true of those who use the tongue against us. They might harm us, but they will not prevail against us.
The “heritage” (inheritance) of God’s servants, and that includes us, is the restoration that has been laid out by Isaiah: shalom, righteousness, and freedom from fear. And we must never forget that God is the source of all of this. And it is critical that we grasp the fact that the restoration is about our relationship to God, not about personal prosperity.