In this essay we are taking up the long-awaited chapter 61. Having revealed the blessings of God that will come to the city of God in chapter 60, the prophet turns in chapter 61 to the one who will bring about those blessings.
The speaker is the anointed One, the Servant/Messiah, who is announcing his role in God’s deliverance. You recognize immediately that it is the passage read by Jesus in the synagogue, as recorded in Luke 4:16-21. That is important, so please take time to read Luke 4:16-21 right now. Notice that Jesus, after the reading, announced: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Thus Jesus clearly claimed to be the Messiah.
Coming back to Isaiah 61, the Servant/Messiah first announces that the Holy Spirit is upon him. Then he declares that he is anointed for certain ministries. There are seven ministries listed in the three verses. First he is “to preach good news to the poor” (NIV). The NRSV translated the word “poor” as “oppressed.” The “poor” here are not just those in physical poverty, as the following announced ministries show. Indeed the following six ministries detail the first. Thus the Messiah’s overarching ministry is expressed in this first declaration: he preaches good news to the poor.
Second, the Messiah binds “up the broken hearted.” People’s hearts are broken for many reasons. However some heartbrokenness is more serious than other heartbrokenness. Thus the “poor” includes those who are so broken by life that they are ready to give up, or may already have given up. But those hearts can be healed.
Third, the good news for the poor includes proclaiming “liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.” Those who are bound by addictions, and those who have been misused or abused by others, are in prison just as surely as those who are behind bars. And they need to be set free. Of course those who actually are behind bars can be set free in spirit and can minister fro Christ there. Also included here are those in bondage to sin, who need forgiveness and deliverance.
Moving to verse two, fourth, the Messiah’s good news includes proclamation of “the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God.” These two balance one another. The “Lord’s favor” is his grace at work. And in the end-time, God’s grace will abound as he raises the righteous dead and transforms the righteous living. On the other hand, the unrighteous, those who refuse his grace, will face God’s wrath, or vengeance.
Fifth, the Messiah will “comfort all who mourn.” In other words, those who receive grace will be comforted, regardless of their category of need, whether it is need for healing, release, or forgiveness.
Sixth, the Servant/Messiah “will provide for those who mourn in Zion.” In other words the Lord will take care of all of us who partake of his grace. He will meet all our needs: physical and spiritual.
Finally, seventh, the Servant/Messiah will replace our sackcloth and ashes with “a garland” (NIV “crown of beauty”). That means he will “dress us up” in a beautiful, festive headdress. Our mourning will be replaced with the “oil of gladness,” and our faint spirits with a “mantle” or “garment” (NIV) of praise. Afterwards we will be like oak trees. Indeed we will be called “oaks of righteousness,” because we will be permanent, with godly character. And we will display God’s glory.
Verses 4-9 express the results for historical Israel of what we have seen in verses 1-3. There are seven results listed. The first result is the rebuilding of the ruins of Jerusalem (v. 4). Second, the foreigners, who once oppressed Israel, will now serve them (v. 5). Remember though that the foreigners who will be serving Israel will be full participants in the blessings of Israel (56:3, 6-7). The picture isn’t one of a situation where the oppressed have become the oppressors. Third, the Israelites will be priests to the nations (the Gentiles) and will enjoy their wealth (v. 6). Fourth, the Israelites will receive a “double portion” of blessings (like an eldest son), because they had experienced double shame (v. 7). The NIV doesn’t bring out the “double shame” part. Fifth, the Lord will reward them with an eternal covenant, which we now know is the New Covenant (v. 8). Not to do so would be injustice and robbery, both of which God hates. Sixth, “their descendants shall be known among the nations.” This is more important than it looks on the surface. Many nations have disappeared. They have been absorbed into other nations and people groups. But that has not been the case with the Jews of Israel. They still are a definable people group in the world and are recognized as such (v. 9a). Finally, seventh, the world will acknowledge that they are a people blessed by God (v. 9b). Oswalt applies this both to modern-day Israel’s existence as a nation and to spiritual Israel, which is New Israel, the Church.
Scholars, as in other places, are divided over who is speaking here. Some believe it is the Servant/Messiah, as in verses 1-3. Others, including Oswalt, believe it is Zion, the people of God, who is speaking. Zion is expressing her joy in the Lord and in what he has done for her. It is important to notice that her joy is in the Lord. In other words it is a rejoicing over the One who has blessed them, not just over his blessings.
Zion summarizes God’s blessings with one broad-ranging image. He has clothed her with “the garments of salvation.” There is no more significant blessing than salvation. Our deliverance from sin and death is paramount. And earlier in the passage we saw other aspects of salvation: healing of broken hearts, release from prisons of addiction and abuse, etc. Notice that the new garments include a “robe of righteousness.” That is to say, our salvation includes righteous living. It isn’t a matter of being saved and continuing in sin. We receive a “robe of righteousness” so that we can live righteous lives. And notice further that the righteousness is a gift from God. We cannot live righteously on our own. We need the power of the Holy Spirit. There is one more thing to notice, and that is the wedding imagery. The new clothing is like wedding garments. Salvation is a relational matter. We enter into a lifelong love commitment that God always will honor.
Finally verse 11 tells us that God will make the joyous scene just described happen just as surely as vegetation grows. God’s salvation and blessings are guaranteed by the fact that he is God. He is creator, sustainer, and redeemer; and although Satan and other evil ones can cause havoc, they cannot stop his ultimate will.