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.