Last Sunday we studied Isaiah 54, the first half of a two-chapter section that Oswalt called “an invitation to salvation.” Isaiah begins chapter 55 with an invitation to the thirsty to “come to the waters.” Elsewhere in the book water is associated with the Holy Spirit. For example, in 44:3, Isaiah wrote, “I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground. I will pour my spirit upon your descendents, and my blessings on your offspring.” In the New Testament Jesus used this same imagery with the Samaritan woman (John 4:10-14) and at the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:37-39). And notice that the invitation is offered to those with no resources. The “waters,” wine,” and “milk” are offered free. Anyone can come and buy “without money and without price.”
The idea of the first sentence of verse two, the question about spending one’s money, and therefore one’s labor, “for that which is not bread,” for “that which does not satisfy,” points to the frequent attempt by persons to buy what God offers for free. As the second part of the verse says, all one has to do to receive God’s spiritual “food” is listen to what God is saying through the prophet, and then come and eat.
In my opinion the NRSV has a weak translation of the last clause of verse two, where it says, “and delight yourselves in rich food.” The NIV is much better, and more literal. It reads, “and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.” The word “soul” needs to be translated as such, because it carries the idea of one’s whole being. The whole person benefits from this rich spiritual food.
In verse three we see further information about the meaning of listening to (and of course obeying) God. If we listen and come to him, our souls will live. “Coming” implies a positive response, a response of faith. Those of you with an NRSV will notice that it once again does not translate “soul” as such.
Now then, this first sentence of verse three proves that the coming to “eat” in verses two was metaphorical. It had nothing to do with returning to Israel and eating the food there. Rather it had to do with eating spiritual food for salvation of the soul through the sacrifice of the divine Servant.
The second sentence of verse three adds even more to our understanding. When we hear and come to the Lord, we participate in an “eternal covenant” that he has put in place. And it is a covenant based on the Davidic covenant. Now this gets a bit complicated, but it is worth the mental effort. The Mosaic covenant that provided the primary basis for the Old Testament, or Covenant, had been broken by Israel’s sinfulness. Thus a New Covenant was needed. You may recall that Jeremiah, like Isaiah, had perceived this. Please turn to the book of Jeremiah, and read verses 31:31-34.
As you can see, Jeremiah perfectly saw the need for a New Covenant. And he understood the nature of it. It would be different from the Old Covenant in that it would be based on our relationship with God rather than on the Law. Isaiah also saw this. As I mentioned above, he declares that the New Covenant would be based on God’s steadfast love for David. God determined to institute the New Covenant by means of a Davidic Messiah, whom we realize is the Suffering Servant.
These connections that I am making are vital for a proper understanding of Isaiah and fairly important for the larger picture of evangelical theology. As Oswalt points out, in the earlier chapters of the book, despite the corruptions and fears of the house of David in Isaiah’s historical time (7:2, 13), it still was described, “as the child, the shoot of Jesse, through whom God’s kingdom is to be established.” Then in chapters 40-55, which we are just finishing up, we have seen that the divine Servant is the one who is to fulfill those messianic hopes. For example, 42:1-4 reads in part, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold . . . I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations . . . He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.” Then 49:6-9 says in part, “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth . . . I will keep you and will make you a to be a covenant for the people . . . to say to the captives, ‘Come out,’ and to say to those in darkness, ‘Be free!’” (NIV).
Moving on to 55:4-5, verse four clearly is speaking of about the historical David. David’s name is the last word of verse three; and then verse four begins, “I made him a witness.” The “him” is David. So Isaiah declares that the historical David was a witness to the power of God as Israel’s leader and commander.
Verse five is another matter. Most scholars are convinced that Isaiah refers to someone other than David in verse five, but they disagree on who the other is. Many recent commentators have taken it to be Israel, and others including Oswalt, take it to be the Davidic Servant-Messiah. We won’t go into the arguments, but I believe Oswalt is correct. The verse is significant either way, because the role of calling and receiving the nations is important. But if Oswalt is right, and this is the Davidic Messiah, it establishes how God chose to fulfill his promise to David that David never would lack a descendent on the throne of Israel. The Davidic Messiah is the eternal king of the New Israel. And notice that it is God, the Holy One of Israel, who is promising this.
Following the great promises of verses 3-5, Isaiah commanded Israel in verse six to seek the Lord. The Lord obviously wanted to be found. And it was not information they were to seek. Rather they were to seek a relationship with him. And notice that there was a sense of urgency about it. The time when the Lord would be near and could be found might run out before they did it. And the same is true for us. Whether in Old or New Testament days, the wicked must seek the Lord while he may be found.
In verse seven Isaiah told them how “the wicked” were to seek the Lord. They were to forsake their ways and thoughts and “return to the Lord.” And the same is true for us today. Undoubtedly this is true for unbelievers. But we don’t want to make the mistake of thinking that we don’t at all fit into the category of the wicked. Any refusal to do what God wants is wickedness. And most of us are guilty of stubbornly hanging on to at least some of our own ways and thoughts. That’s why we must give up our ways and thoughts for God’s. And notice how merciful God is. He is anxious for us to repent and return so that he can “abundantly pardon.”
I think it is quite clear that for the Jews, deliverance from Babylon was a secondary matter. The primary thing was seeking forgiveness for their sins. And we must not forget that the basis for that offered forgiveness was what the suffering Servant had done on their behalf, and ours too, as we saw outlined in chapter 53.
Verses 8-9 explain the matter further. God’s ways and thoughts not only are different from ours; they are higher. The word “ways,” as it is being used here, refers to a person’s pattern of behavior. The word “thoughts” refers to the values and perceptions that underlie our behavior. And we must turn from our ways and thoughts because they are not of God. Indeed they are sinful. Proverbs 21:2 makes the same point. It reads, “All deeds are right in the sight of the doer, but the Lord weighs the heart.”
In verses 10-11 we see a second reason for seeking the Lord. The first was because our ways and thoughts are not his. Now second, we should seek him because his word is completely dependable. It is like rain that comes from heaven when it is needed. That kind of rain produces a good crop, which in turn provides adequate food (bread) and enough seed for next year’s crop.
God’s word likewise comes from heaven and accomplishes God’s spiritual purposes on the earth. By means of his word God has revealed his plans and purposes to humanity, especially his plan of salvation. Here in Isaiah he revealed that he would send his divine Messianic Servant to suffer on our behalf and make possible the forgiveness of our sins.
Finally, verses 12-13 serve as a conclusion to both the segment, verses 6-13, and the section, chapters 40-55 (Oswalt). Many recent commentators believe the verses refer to the return from exile. And they do. But again that is secondary to the restoration of sinners through the word of God. The outlandish imagery expresses the joy of all creation at God’s saving grace. The return from exile was an important event, but it was the forgiveness of sin that is the “eternal sign.” Like God’s “eternal love” in 54:8 and his “eternal covenant” in 55:3, it is permanent.