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.