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Friday, June 18, 2010

Summer Daze

For you friends who wonder if I will continue my weekly Bible studies over the summer—which obviously has begun weeks ago!—the answer is...

Did you hear an answer? I didn't. I guess the author is out on a summer walk or other irresponsible use of his time.

Seriously, I don't know how my time will go this summer. I like writing Bible studies, but right now I am tied up with lots of other chores.

There are two possibilities:

  • I could re-post some of my older studies from about three years ago. Some of you may not have followed them during the year that I composed them.
  • Or—I could compose irregularly, as time is available. If I do this, it will have to be a spinoff of work I am doing on a new commentary on First and Second Samuel

I think you might like the latter. A few years ago my wife Wini and I taught a unit on the life of David for our church's choir Bible study. It was fun. Now that I am doing an in-depth study of First and Second Samuel I am seeing aspects that were not apparent to me then.

So maybe ....

(It will help if you pray that God will make me super-efficient over the summer, and keep me focused on serving Him above all other competing loyalties.)

Keep checking back to this site, and see what turns out. In any event, even if I compose nothing new during the summer, we will have a new unit planned to begin in the Fall for 2010-11.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Isaiah's Vision of the End, chapters 65-66

In these chapters, the prophet foresees the condition of Israel recently restored to the land of their ancestors and confronted with opportunities both to fulfill God's will and to relapse into complacency and idolatry. It is not an ideal picture—not one that Isaiah would have liked to paint. But it is realistic. Even today, among the people of God, we have always two groups: one eagerly  pursuing God and his righteousness, and the other complacent and dangerously close to the edges of Christian profession.

The Two Classes of People in the Restored Israel, 65:1-16
“I revealed myself  to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me.  To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, ‘Here I am, here I am.’ 2 All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations — 3 a people who continually provoke me to my very face, offering sacrifices in gardens and burning incense on altars of brick; 4 who sit among the graves and spend their nights keeping secret vigil; who eat the flesh of pigs, and whose pots hold broth of unclean meat; 5 who say, ‘Keep away; don’t come near me, for I am too sacred for you!’ Such people are smoke in my nostrils, a fire that keeps burning all day. 6 “See, it stands written before me: I will not keep silent but will pay back in full; I will pay it back into their laps— 7 both your sins and the sins of your fathers,” says the LORD. “Because they burned sacrifices on the mountains and defied me on the hills,  I will measure into their laps the full payment for their former deeds.” 8 This is what the LORD says: “As when juice is still found in a cluster of grapes and men say, ‘Don’t destroy it, there is yet some good in it,’ so will I do in behalf of my servants; I will not destroy them all. 9 I will bring forth descendants from Jacob, and from Judah those who will possess my mountains; my chosen people will inherit them, and there will my servants live. 10 Sharon will become a pasture for flocks, and the Valley of Achor a resting place for herds, for my people who seek me. 11 “But as for you who forsake the LORD and forget my holy mountain, who spread a table for Fortune and fill bowls of mixed wine for Destiny,  12 I will destine you for the sword, and you will all bend down for the slaughter; for I called but you did not answer, I spoke but you did not listen. You did evil in my sight and chose what displeases me.” 13 Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says:  “My servants will eat, but you will go hungry; my servants will drink, but you will go thirsty; my servants will rejoice, but you will be put to shame. 14 My servants will sing out of the joy of their hearts, but you will cry out from anguish of heart and wail in brokenness of spirit. 15 You will leave your name to my chosen ones as a curse; the Sovereign LORD will put you to death, but to his servants he will give another name. 16 Whoever invokes a blessing in the land will do so by the God of truth; he who takes an oath in the land will swear by the God of truth. For the past troubles will be forgotten and hidden from my eyes." 

The first group are characterized as not consulting God or even answering, when he called them by the prophets and the written Scriptures (65:1-2, 5, 12). God always gives maximum opportunity to be found and understood, even—or especially—to those who seem indifferent. In v 2 he is depicted as holding his hands out wide in a plea. It reminds us of Jesus' invitations to those who hated and opposed him most: "Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy loaded, and I will give you rest".  

The behavior of this group is a strange contradiction. On the one hand they say to others, "Keep away; don’t come near me, for I am too sacred for you!" (v 5), and yet they offer pagan sacrifices in gardens and burn incense on brick altars (vv 3, 7), they sit among the graves and spend their nights keeping secret vigil; they violate the dietary laws of Moses by eating pork, with the broth of other unclean meat (v 4), they "forget my holy mountain" (v 11) which may mean that they ignore Moses' law that sacrifices can be offered only in Jerusalem, they spread a table for Fortune and fill bowls of mixed wine for Destiny (v 11). The "keep away from me—I am too sacred" reminds us of the Pharisees of Jesus' day. But the other half of the description doesn't match their behavior. They didn't offer pagan sacrifices in the gardens.  But we have to assume that there were people like this in the community of the returning exiles.  God's verdict on them is: "Such people are smoke in my nostrils" (v 5). A powerful image!

Because of this, God's judgment awaits them. That judgment will be certain even if delayed, just as certain as a person snorts and blows offending smoke from his nose.  It will be measured, but also full. "I will measure into their laps the full payment for their former deeds.” (v 7).  To each according to his deeds, is both the Old and New Testament promise.

But another group—a godly remnant— will be spared God's judgment.  Verses 8-10 tell us: "“As when juice is still found in a cluster of grapes and men say, ‘Don’t throw all of it away, there is some good in it,’ so will I do in behalf of my servants; I will not reject them all. 9 I will bring forth true descendants from Jacob, and from Judah those who will possess my mountains; my chosen people will inherit them, and there will my servants live. 10 Sharon will become a pasture for flocks, and the Valley of Achor a resting place for herds, for my people who seek me."

In vv 13-15 there is a sequence of contrasts between the fate of the faithful group, called "my servants", and the unfaithful one, called simply "you".  The faithful will eat, drink, rejoice (v 13), sing (v 14), and receive "another name" (v 15). The unfaithful will go hungry and thirsty, be put to shame,  cry out from anguish, and have their name become a curse.

The Glorious New Creation,  65:17-25
“Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth.  The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. 18 But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. 19 I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more. 20 “Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed. 21 They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.  22 No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the works of their hands. 23 They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the LORD, they and their descendants with them. 24 Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear.  25 The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the LORD. 
Here is another of Isaiah's "Utopian" visions. If they are not just general anticipations of better times phrased in the idioms of the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy 28-29, but real predictions, they can only be fulfilled literally at the end of history, when God does indeed create a new heavens and a new earth, i.e., an entirely "new" universe on the analogy of the first one that he created in Genesis.
But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. (2Peter 3:13)
[The Apostle John wrote:] Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. (Revelation 21:1)
And even then some of the details of this paragraph have to be taken only figuratively. The words in verses 20 and 22 about extreme longevity and dying are to be understood as just another poetic way of saying that no one will die.  The old curses of Genesis 3 have been reversed. And if so, then not just the limited life spans but death itself will be done away with.  In the new heavens and new earth there will be no more curse, so v 20 is again mere figurative language.

Certainly, since God is omnipotent, he can make all of these things happen literally, including making lions eat straw like the oxen (v 25). But they could also be images meant to suggest peace and reconciliation. All the hostility and killing which in this life can cause such sorrow and pain will no longer exist.

But since all believers in all ages—both before and after the First coming of our Lord—will experience a bodily resurrection and enter that kingdom in the new heavens and earth, this promise was available also to the Jews for whom Isaiah wrote these chapters. In a sense, they already in their own day were a godly "remnant", as the preceding verses make clear. And since we too as believers in the present Church Age will also participate in that bodily resurrection and live in that new heavens and new earth, these promises are also for us. In Romans 8 Paul anticipates that the creation itself will be liberated from the bondage to decay that was part of the curse deriving from the first sin.
 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; 21 because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:18–23)
Verse 24 is a conscious reversal of the situation described in 65:1, where God also eagerly awaited the prayers of the rebels in Israel, only to find that they weren't interested.

The Worship that God Demands, 66:1-4
(Isaiah 66:1-4)  This is what the LORD says: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.  Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? 2 Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?” declares the LORD. “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.  3 But whoever sacrifices a bull is like one who kills a man, and whoever offers a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck; whoever makes a grain offering is like one who presents pig’s blood, and whoever burns memorial incense, like one who worships an idol. They have chosen their own ways, and their souls delight in their abominations;  4 so I also will choose harsh treatment for them and will bring upon them what they dread. For when I called, no one answered, when I spoke, no one listened. They did evil in my sight and chose what displeases me.” 
When the exiles returned to Israel in the days of the prophet Haggai, they had to rebuild Jerusalem. And this meant rebuilding both the walls of the city and the temple on Mount Zion. It was therefore appropriate for them to consider at this time what the new temple would be. Unlike the Babylonian gods among whose people they had lived and who lived in earthly temple buildings, Yahweh lives above. For 70 years they had lived and prayed and heard God's prophets Ezekiel and Daniel, all without a temple for him. Yet he was there to guide, rebuke and encourage them. This proved that God didn't need a temple. Yet through his prophet Haggai he instructed the returnees to build a new temple on the site where Solomon's had once stood. How should they regard this new temple?

The earlier temple of Solomon had been poetically called Yahweh's "throne" and the ark in the holy place his "footstool". But Isaiah reminds the returned exiles what Solomon prayed at the consecration of his first temple (1 Kgs 8:22-53): that Yahweh is too big to be confined in a temple building (1 Kgs 8:27).
[Solomon prayed:] “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!  (1Kings 8:27)
Heaven is his "throne"; and the earth is his "footstool". The temple and its ark were merely symbols of a heavenly reality. God has created all these things that the new temple builders were making for him (v 2).
And the new sacrificial rites, of which the exiles had so long been deprived, and which they lovingly re-engaged with, needed to be understood in their proper place too and not overestimated. They will be acceptable to God only if offered by persons who are obeying his Word. If not, then they are not only worthless, but disgusting: Verse 3 describes sacrifices made by insincere worshipers this way: "But whoever sacrifices a bull is like one who kills a man, and whoever offers a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck; whoever makes a grain offering is like one who presents pig’s blood, and whoever burns memorial incense, like one who worships an idol."

The one whose sacrifices will please God is described in v 2:  “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite, and trembles at my word." (‏wᵉḥārēḏ ʿal-dᵉḇārı̂).1  This Hebrew phrase occurs one more time in the Bible, in Ezra 9:4, where it describes the godly remnant among the returning exiles, who did not intermarry with surrounding pagans. So the stress is on those who fear to disobey and displease God. This kind of devotion and obedience is what drives true worship of God.  In Second Isaiah this description recalls 57:15, which reads:
"For this is what the high and lofty One says— he who lives forever, whose name is holy:  “I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite" (Isaiah 57:15). 
To be "lowly" is to be humble, always serving others and loving them better than one loves oneself. To be "contrite" means to be conscious of one's own shortcomings instead of criticizing others. Another word for this quality is the word "meek", which today has a bad flavor. But all this reminds us also of our Savior's Beatitudes:
(Matthew 5:3-10) “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
What today is so glibly called "counter-cultural" is usually just extremely self-serving behavior. The true "counter-cultural" behavior of Jesus was in asking his disciples to look to the needs and interests of others before their own. Not the assertive person, but the giving and sacrificing person pleases God and will eventually be rewarded in the New Heavens and the New Earth. And it is the worship of people who act like this that God loves to receive. Their sacrifices, their songs of praise, are not disgusting to him, but utterly delightful.

The Lord Vindicates Zion, 66:5-13
(Isaiah 66:5-13)  Hear the word of the LORD, you who tremble at his word: “Your brothers who hate you, and exclude you because of my name, have said, ‘Let the LORD be glorified, that we may see your joy!’ Yet they will be put to shame.  6 Hear that uproar from the city, hear that noise from the temple! It is the sound of the LORD repaying his enemies all they deserve. 7 “Before she goes into labor, she gives birth; before the pains come upon her, she delivers a son.  8 Who has ever heard of such a thing? Who has ever seen such things? Can a country be born in a day or a nation be brought forth in a moment? Yet no sooner is Zion in labor than she gives birth to her children. 9 Do I bring to the moment of birth and not give delivery?” says the LORD.  “Do I close up the womb when I bring to delivery?” says your God. 10 “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice greatly with her, all you who mourn over her. 11 For you will nurse and be satisfied at her comforting breasts; you will drink deeply and delight in her overflowing abundance.” 12 For this is what the LORD says: “I will extend peace to her like a river, and the wealth of nations like a flooding stream; you will nurse and be carried on her arm and dandled on her knees. 13 As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.” 
Here the ones whose worship God delights to receive are addressed: those who "tremble at his word" (the ḥārēdîm). According to v 5, they have been mocked by the outsiders with the sarcastic words: "Let the LORD be glorified, that we may see your joy!" But the mocked godly people are the remnant, on the basis of which, God will rebuild the nation. The godly remnant is always seen that way in scripture. They are never to remain only a small minority, but to become the nucleus of the reborn whole.

And so, in vv 7-13 Isaiah gives the promise that out of the small remnant of returnees who truly love Yahweh and obey him in the face of the mockery of the ungodly, will come the Messiah and the reborn kingdom. At the time of Jesus' birth this godly remnant can be seen in the persons of Elisabeth, Mary, Simeon, Anna, John the Baptizer,  the Twelve men that Jesus chose as apostles, Mary Magdalene, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus and many others. Paul considered himself part of that believing remnant of Israel that will some day be expanded when Jesus comes to embrace "all Israel" (Romans 11).

The Reign and Righteous Anger of God, 66:14-24
(Isaiah 66:14-24)  When you see this, your heart will rejoice and you will flourish like grass; the hand of the LORD will be made known to his servants, but his fury will be shown to his foes. 15 See, the LORD is coming with fire, and his chariots are like a whirlwind; he will bring down his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. 16 For with fire and with his sword the LORD will execute judgment upon all men, and many will be those slain by the LORD. 17 “Those who consecrate and purify themselves to go into the gardens, following the one in the midst of those who eat the flesh of pigs and rats and other abominable things—they will meet their end together,” declares the LORD. 18 “And I, because of their actions and their imaginations, am about to come and gather all nations and tongues, and they will come and see my glory. 19 “I will set a sign among them, and I will send some of those who survive to the nations—to Tarshish, to the Libyans and Lydians (famous as archers), to Tubal and Greece, and to the distant islands that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory. They will proclaim my glory among the nations. 20 And they will bring all your brothers, from all the nations, to my holy mountain in Jerusalem as an offering to the LORD—on horses, in chariots and wagons, and on mules and camels,” says the LORD. “They will bring them, as the Israelites bring their grain offerings, to the temple of the LORD in ceremonially clean vessels. 21 And I will select some of them also to be priests and Levites,” says the LORD. 22 “As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the LORD, “so will your name and descendants endure. 23 From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the LORD. 24 “And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” 
The Bible never soft-pedals God's righteous judgments, never tries to make them less fearful or bloody. If we were writing these verses, we would not speak of the righteous going out and looking on the eternally rotten bodies of the damned. We would consider that "unloving", perhaps even disgusting. Not a suitable picture of "the God I believe in"! But there is no other God but the one portrayed in the Bible. And we had better not consider ourselves superior to him as he is portrayed. If you think this is just part of the somewhat "outmoded" Old Testament view of God, then read again the end of the Book of Revelation, and even more to the point, the words of our own loving Savior in the gospels.
And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.  (Mark 9:47-48)
Our understanding of the eternal destinies of unbelievers must be based on the plain statements of scripture, but since some aspects are probably metaphorical, we have to rest on our understanding of the infinite wisdom and justice of God. However he sees fit to mete out his justice will be the right way. We rest in that confidence, because we know him and trust him. As Abraham said to him, "Shall not the God of all the earth do what is right?"

The positive side of this vision is found in vv 18-23.  As Christians, we tend to think of "missionaries" as something distinctly Christian. But God intended the ancient Israelites also to be missionaries, spreading the knowledge of the true Creator who also received prayers and granted forgiveness and gave rules for right living.

In this passage the prophet anticipates the day when Israel will have seen God's glory in the person of the Suffering Servant Jesus (v 18), will have believed in their Messiah, and will have a message to share with the nations of Earth. They will proclaim God's glory among the nations (v 19). They will bring converts from all over the world to Jerusalem (v 20) to meet in person the risen, exalted and returning Messiah. Older forms of worship and calendrical occasions such as New Moon and Sabbath will be filled with new meaning through their faith in the Messiah Jesus (v 23).
In the meanwhile, as we pray for the peace of Jerusalem and for Jews and gentiles everywhere who need to see the glory of God in the person of Jesus, we pray for missionaries who carry this message to distant parts of the globe.  

1 The Hebrew word for the one who trembles at my word (ḫārēdîm) is the word in Modern Israeli Hebrew for the ultra-orthodox Jews who dress traditionally and observe the strict dietary laws, etc.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

The Servant's Good News — Isaiah 61-62


What is so remarkable about this second half of the book of Isaiah is how the prophet alternates description of Israel's sins with sections of encouragement and comfort. In our last posting, our teacher explained how in chapter 59 we learn that even those Israelites who believed God's promises of a return from exile and a redemption through the Suffering Servant experienced spiritual failure, and needed the encouragement offered in chapter 60—encouragement like that which God also gives to Christians today in the promise of the indwelling Holy Spirit to produce godly living in us (Romans 7-8). Isaiah promised the Jewish exiles "Your people shall all be righteous, and they shall inherit the land forever" (60:21).

This in turn leads the prophet to a further description of the coming blessings upon Israel and those of the nations who join themselves to her in faith (chapters 61-62).
1.    The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release … for the prisoners, 2 to announce the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. (Isaiah 61:1-3 NIV)
61:1 This is the first reference in Isaiah to the Suffering Servant as an "anointed" person. Other than here, the word "anointed" appears only in 45:1, where it describes Cyrus the Great of Persia, whom God raised up to set the Jewish exiles free to return to their homeland. Both in the case of Cyrus and of the Servant, the anointing is in order to carry out a commission from God. Cyrus was to proclaim to the Jewish captives in Babylonia liberation from exile in a foreign and pagan land; the Servant was to proclaim to Jewish (and associated gentile) captives a greater liberation from sin and death. Now it is possible to see in the Servant's ministry a near-view comforting of the returning exiles as they faced discouragement at the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding their land. Certainly there were "brokenhearted" Israelites at that time who were filled with discouragement. They needed to hear promises of God's blessing upon them and the fulfillment of the promises (see v 4 "they shall build up the ancient ruins").

But it is impossible to read these verses and not feel that the plight addressed goes beyond those times. And it was this understanding that also underlay Jesus' words to the synagogue in Nazareth, when he was called upon to read and comment upon this passage in the weekly assembly (Luke 4).  In the time of Ezekiel and Daniel there was a physical exile and detainment in Babylonia that was both painful and discouraging. It left God's people wondering if there was any hope of the fulfillment of the ancient promise to Abraham and to Moses. But Jesus taught that there was a spiritual exile from God, a captivity to sin and death, that was a more profound danger than the ancient physical one.

Jesus was not alone in his day in reading these lines this way. But he alone as God's promised Servant knew—and indeed was himself— the true answer to that predicament.  Others in his day argued about what the answer might be. He alone did what was necessary to provide the answer. When he stood to read Isaiah 61 on that Saturday in Nazareth, he was the embodiment of the answer. As Cyrus "proclaimed" liberty not just by talking about or promising it, but by announcing it as a fact which he had performed by the royal authority that was his, so Jesus announced redemptive liberty from sin and death as a fact which he had accomplished by the authority that was his. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation didn't just talk about freeing the American slaves, it enacted that freedom the moment Lincoln pronounced its words.

Notice that the parallel with the first part of this verse suggests that the anointing of the Servant is by filling him with the "Spirit of my lord Yahweh".
The Servant's mission is to people called the "poor", the "brokenhearted", the "captives" and the "prisoners". In short, to all who are in desperate need. The terms need not be taken absolutely literally. At least, when Jesus quoted them in Nazareth, he was addressing people who did not consider themselves literally poor or in prison. But sin has enslaved everyone and impoverished us all.
His message to them was good news because it promised a meeting of their need. It was an announcement, not a demand. That is why it was good news then and remains good news to us today.

The language is the language of debt canceling and amnesty—often announced by a new king who had just come to the throne. That is what the words "year" and "day" refer to.

The Servant's words also constituted an invitation to those who needed this liberation. If the Servant tells us here that God has given him the authority to announce or proclaim this debt cancellation, he is implicitly inviting all with debts to come to him and ask for that cancellation.

There is an interesting clause in the ancient Babylonian law code of Hammurabi that illustrates the thought. This code was issued at the initiation of Hammurabi's reign and was  inscribed on a pillar which stood in the public square. At the end of the text the king invites anyone who sees on the pillar a ruling that affects any injustice done to him to come and receive redress. In our passage here the Suffering Servant is entitled by virtue of his suffering for the sins of the world (Isaiah 53) to offer amnesty and forgiveness of the "debt" incurred by sin to anyone who will come and claim it. When Jesus stood and read this words in the synagogue of Nazareth and then said "This day this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21), he was making the same offer on the basis of his future death on the cross.

The words "year of the LORD's favor" express the positive side: the experience of the person freed from poverty and imprisonment. The words "day of vengeance of our God" express the other side of the coin. The oppressed person is freed, but the oppressor must be judged and punished.

In historical terms, Israel was freed from captivity, but the Babylonians who put them there had to be punished, which they were by the armies of Cyrus the Great of Persia. In terms of the Suffering Servant's mission, those oppressed by sin and death are delivered by accepting the good news of the Servant's suffering in their places. But also the great oppressor who put enslaved them must be judged.

The true fulfillment of that took place at the Cross, when Jesus "disarmed the powers and authorities [i.e., Satan and his demons], [and] made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross" (Colossians 2:15).

But Christians today have to heed Paul's command "Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. 13 Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. 14 For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace (Romans 6:12–14 NIV)". It is our privilege as partakers of the same promises of victory over the oppression of sin to read the following passages in both their historical and their transferred meaning.
2.   They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor. 4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations. 5 Aliens will shepherd your flocks; foreigners will work your fields and vineyards. 6 And you will be called priests of the LORD, you will be named ministers of our God.  You will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast. 7 Instead of their shame my people will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace they will rejoice in their inheritance; and so they will inherit a double portion in their land, and everlasting joy will be theirs. 8 “For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and iniquity.  In my faithfulness I will reward them and make an everlasting covenant with them.  9 Their descendants will be known among the nations and their offspring among the peoples. All who see them will acknowledge that they are a people the LORD has blessed.” (Isaiah 61:3-9 NIV)
61:3 But in the verses that follow, the prophet's words focus exclusively on those who will have been mistreated and will receive God's rewards and comforts. They will receive the symbols of celebration and joy instead of those of mourning and sadness: a garland, fragrant oil to anoint the face and hands, lovely clothing. Even in the physically impoverished circumstances of the initial return to Zion under Zerubbabel, the sheer joy of being "home" again could not be overestimated. But because of the intense joy of this experience, we need to read the following verses as the language of joyful hyperbole.

61:4 The rebuilding of ancient ruined cities did actually take place after the return under Ezra and Nehemiah. But in the immediate context the full fulfillment will take place at Messiah's second advent.

61:5-6 The nations serve the Judeans (cf. 60:4-16), and the Judeans in turn the nations as priests. At Sinai God described his people as a "kingdom of priests" (Exodus 19:6). For "priests" merely substitute the word "missionaries", and you have the concept. This ideal would now come to pass. In our last class we claimed that those verses in ch. 60 would find fulfillment at the Second Coming, when after "all Israel" calls upon her Messiah and is saved (Romans 11), she will again be God's witness to the nations. If the picture of Israel as the bearer of God's gospel to the nations and receiving physical gifts in return seems strange to you, it can be seen in miniature in the days of the ministry of Peter and Paul. Most of the earliest missionaries of the Gospel were believing Jews, and the center of the outreach was Jerusalem. Because Paul's converts in a real sense owed their salvation to Jewish missionaries, they sent gifts of support to the poor saints in Jerusalem. What we see there in miniature, is what will transpire when the "blindness in part" which has befallen Israel during the present age is lifted and she becomes God's prodigal son, "no longer worthy to be called your son", but welcomed with open arms and a fatted calf.  But we should also be clear that the true "wealth of the nations" brought to Israel at that time will be new believers, just as Paul brought along with the money from his churches also gentile believers to present to the church in Jerusalem.

61:7 The mention of the "double portion" of inheritance refers to the right of the "firstborn" to an inheritance portion twice the size of his siblings. All nations are children of God by creation. But Israel is God's "firstborn" son by redemption. Therefore, Isaiah anticipates that will be blessed above the other nations.

61:8-9 The blessing promised here to repentant and converted Israel is an "everlasting covenant". Some think this is the final aspect of the fulfillment of the covenant with Abraham, given in Genesis: Israel as Abraham's "seed" will become a blessing to the nations of the earth, only possible once they themselves are "blessed" by receiving forgiveness of sins through their Messiah (cf. Acts 3:26). In v 7 the word translated "offspring" (ESV; "descendants" in NIV) is literally "seed".   Only one other covenant in the OT is called "everlasting", the one with David in 2 Samuel 7, which however focuses on the perpetuity of the royal line of David, fulfilled in the ultimate Son of David, Jesus.
3.    I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God.  For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11 For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign LORD will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.  (Isaiah 61:10-11 NIV)
61:10 As we have learned, Isaiah's language makes quick turns from one speaker to another. In vv 8-9 the Lord God is the speaker. But in v 10 it is believing Israel. Verse 10 is the song of thanksgiving of the converted Israel, which can apply also to the converted and redeemed Christian. We too are clothed with the garments of salvation. We are adorned as the bride of Christ. We are priests of God, indeed a royal priesthood: "But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light"  (1 Peter 2:9). We wear Christ's own righteousness like a robe. Some of the imagery of v 3 is repeated here. Although the righteousness in v 10 can be seen as conferred right standing with God, that promised in v 11 is tangible and visible right living that emerges like a new sprout from a planted seed. It provides the evidence to the observing "nations" that God has produced  a dramatic change in Israel, as it provides evidence to family and friends that God has made a great change in our lives.
4.    (Isaiah 62:1-7 NIV)  For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet, till her righteousness shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch. 2 The nations will see your righteousness, and all kings your glory; you will be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will bestow. 3 You will be a crown of splendor in the LORD’S hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God.  4 No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate. But you will be called Hephzibah, and your land Beulah; for the LORD will take delight in you, and your land will be married. 5 As a young man marries a maiden, so will your sons marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you. 6 I have posted watchmen on your walls, O Jerusalem; they will never be silent day or night. You who call on the LORD, give yourselves no rest, 7 and give him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth.
62:1 Chapter 62 is generally entitled "the Vindication and Salvation of Zion". Like portions of many other OT prophets, this chapter promises that the Lord will someday make his people, whom his once cast off because of their sins, to be to the praise of his glory. What I like to think of as the "economy" of God is that he never really loses anything that he can redeem. Of course, over the centuries of human history billions of individuals may have gone to their graves in unbelief. But larger entities in God's redemptive program are never completely lost. In the garden of Eden Satan attempted to ruin God's creation, which consisted of the heavens and the earth, but especially the human race. When Adam and Eve fell into sin, death entered the scene. Death and alienation from God. And this resulted in the Earth itself—animals, plants, everything—entering what Paul calls the "bondage to decay" (Romans 8:18-25). Someday a redeemed human race will rule a redeemed Earth, freed from that bondage. The earth itself groans in anticipation of that coming freedom. A part of what Satan thought to ruin was God's chosen people Israel. And so, although that nation fell from God's favor by rejecting her Messiah, God will redeem her as well. And that redemption will constitute a vindication not just of Israel's status as a chosen people, but also of God who chose her.

As is frequently the case in Isaiah, it is not clear who speaks in v 1. Since his not remaining silent seems to refer to persistent intercessory prayer, it must either be the prophet himself or the godly remnant. . He will not keep silent until Israel's "righteousness" and "salvation" shines so brightly that all nations will see it. The same theme is taken up again in vv 6-7, where it is clear that it is the faithful human intercessors for Israel who are in view. They are not to keep silent, not to give Yahweh any rest, until he fulfills his promise to Israel and restores her. St. Paul certainly applied this to himself, when in Romans 10:1 he wrote: "Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for [my fellow Jews] is that they may be saved".

62:2 The new name to be given to Israel refers to what the prophet talks about in v 4. Once sent into exile as punishment for her idolatries and called "the deserted woman" and "the desolate woman", she will now be called Hephzibah ("My Sweetheart") and "the happily married woman".  These terms reference a common metaphor for God's relationship to Israel: he was her husband, and she his wife. Verse 5 makes this clear. Other so-called gods seduced her, and her  worship of them was labeled "adultery", for which she was divorced and sent away to Babylonia. But now God will re-marry her.

A similar metaphor is applied to Christ and his church: he is the Bridegroom and we his bride. But the specific form of the metaphor in Isaiah and elsewhere in the Old Testament is unsuitable to be simply equated to Christ and his church, since it presupposes the renewal of a previous marriage which was ended by a divorce. This fits a restored Israel, but is untrue of Jesus and the Church. The genius of the Old Testament metaphor, as was acted out in the life of the prophet Hosea, is that a wife guilty of adultery is first divorced and sent away and then retrieved and re-married. This theme of God's unending concern to restore wayward Israel stretches from Moses' words at the end of Deuteronomy to Malachi's.
5.     (Isaiah 62:8-12 NIV)  8 The LORD has sworn by his right hand and by his mighty arm:  “Never again will I give your grain as food for your enemies, and never again will foreigners drink the new wine for which you have toiled; 9 but those who harvest it will eat it and praise the LORD, and those who gather the grapes will drink it in the courts of my sanctuary.”   10 Pass through, pass through the gates! Prepare the way for the people. Build up, build up the highway! Remove the stones. Raise a banner for the nations. 11 The LORD has made proclamation to the ends of the earth:  “Say to the Daughter of Zion, ‘See, your Savior comes!  See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.’” 12 They will be called the Holy People, the Redeemed of the LORD; and you will be called Sought After, the City No Longer Deserted.
62:8-10 When God takes an oath, you know he is deadly serious. Men swear by God, but God can only swear by himself, which he does here ("by his right hand and his mighty arm"). What he swears is "never again". He has already taken such an oath in 54:9-10.
6.    “To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth.  So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again. 10 Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the LORD, who has compassion on you. (Isaiah 54:9-10 NIV)
God swears that he will never do again something that he has done before to Israel. What he did before was the Babylonian exile. This will not be repeated. But what are we to make of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the worldwide dispersion of the Jews that followed? Isn't this God's doing it "again"?

62:11-12  There is no easy answer to this question. But a partial answer is to see this promise as contingent upon Israel's heeding the Lord's proclamation to the "ends of the earth" given in v 11, and accepting her coming Savior, so as to be called as in v 12 "the Holy People, the Redeemed of the LORD". They did not fulfill that condition in AD 30, but according to Romans 11:26, they will do so in the End Time and will receive the promised "Deliverer" who comes "out of Zion".  Then there will truly be a "never again".

Verse 11 should be compared to Zechariah 9:9 ("Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; he is righteous and having salvation, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey") and to Matthew's application of it to Jesus' "triumphal" entry into Jerusalem on Passion Week in Matthew 21:5.

Personal Reflection

Beyond all the discussion of how the details of these two chapters should be interpreted historically and prophetically there remain in them several glowing and timeless truths about our God. Like the good shepherd in Jesus' parables, he is not unconcerned about his straying sheep. He doesn't just content himself with the 99 who do not stray. His heart is always with the one that does. It makes no difference whether that "one" is ethnic Israel, his ancient chosen people, or individuals today who wander from a once vibrant faith in Jesus into unhealthy beliefs and behavior. We all know individuals like that. Sometimes they are relatives, sometimes even our own children. If we cannot wash our hands of them or cease to care for them, it is because our love mirrors God's own love for them. As unlovable as they may act, he created them and he paid the price of their redemption in the Cross of Jesus.

Will there be a miracle turnaround for these individuals like that predicted here for the rebellious and unbelieving Israel? We simply do not know. But for our part we cannot claim to be followers of a God who never ceases to love and pursue the strays, if we are unwilling to do likewise. God's part is his persistent offer of forgiveness and restoration. Our part is not to give the impression to these strays that the way back to God has been closed off. The Father of the prodigal son stands in the road looking for him, with arms open to welcome him home. We act on behalf of that loving Father.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Removing a Spiritual Obstacle to a Glorious Fulfillment of Promise — Isaiah 59-60

[We are pleased again to welcome as our guest contributor Winifred Hoffner, who has contributed earlier postings on Isaiah.]


In the earlier chapters of our study (40-55) Isaiah assures captive Israel that while they are incapable of freeing themselves,  God is willing and abundantly able to deliver them from their captivity and to restore them completely.

In chapters 56-59 Isaiah looks into the future and sees how delivered Israel will still be totally incapable of living righteously before their God.

In chapter 58 we saw how they would fail to live up to God’s righteous commands and so they would turn even more religious, increasing their fasting and their rituals, while on the very same day acting unjustly toward their neighbor, their employee, anyone who disagreed with them.

In chapter 59 they seem to be asking: “Why is not God blessing us as promised?”  Isaiah tells them in no uncertain terms why the blessings they were expecting have not materialized.

"Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. 2 But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.  3 For your hands are stained with blood, your fingers with guilt. Your lips have spoken lies, and your tongue mutters wicked things. 4 No one calls for justice; no one pleads his case with integrity. They rely on empty arguments and speak lies; they conceive trouble and give birth to evil.  5 They hatch the eggs of vipers and spin a spider’s web. Whoever eats their eggs will die, and when one is broken, an adder is hatched.  6 Their cobwebs are useless for clothing; they cannot cover themselves with what they make. Their deeds are evil deeds, and acts of violence are in their hands.  7 Their feet rush into sin; they are swift to shed innocent blood. Their thoughts are evil thoughts; ruin and destruction mark their ways.  8 The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths. They have turned them into crooked roads; no one who walks in them will know peace.  9 So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows.  10 Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like men without eyes. At midday we stumble as if it were twilight; among the strong, we are like the dead.  11 We all growl like bears; we moan mournfully like doves. We look for justice, but find none; for deliverance, but it is far away.  12 For our offenses are many in your sight, and our sins testify against us. Our offenses are ever with us, and we acknowledge our iniquities: 13 rebellion and treachery against the LORD, turning our backs on our God, fomenting oppression and revolt, uttering lies our hearts have conceived. 14 So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. 15 Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey" (Isaiah 59:1-15 NIV)
•    Their sin has put up a barrier between them and God.
•    They do not seek justice for others. No one calls for justice (v.4), instead they indulge in  lies and evil deeds.
•    Everything that they do is evil, violent. Evil is ingrained in them so that their every action gives birth to more evil. They rush into sin (v.7); they shed innocent blood.
•    Their ways are destructive, and no one who follows in their way will ever find wholeness and peace. (v.8)
•    Justice is driven back;  righteousness stands at a distance;  truth and honesty evade them; they live in darkness.
•    In v. 13 Isaiah lists other sins: “rebellion and treachery against the Lord, turning our backs  on God, fomenting oppression and revolt, uttering lies our hearts have conceived.”

    In v. 13 notice the first two are sins against God from which naturally progresses sins against fellow man.  In 56:1 God commanded justice and righteousness from them as testimony of their salvation, their restoration. But they are utterly incapable of producing this fruit because of the barrier that they have put up between themselves and God. These first 15 verses present a very bleak picture reminiscent of Romans 7 where Paul writes:
 "We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. … 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:14-18, 24 NIV)
    That is the dilemma Isaiah says Israel too is facing. They cannot in their own strength live righteously and seek justice.    What is to be done?
 15  The LORD looked and was displeased that there was no justice. 16 He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him. 17 He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head; he put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak. 18 According to what they have done, so will he repay wrath to his enemies and retribution to his foes; he will repay the islands their due. 19 From the west, men will fear the name of the LORD, and from the rising of the sun, they will revere his glory.  For he will come like a pent-up flood that the breath of the LORD drives along. 20 “The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,” declares the LORD. 21 “As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the LORD. “My Spirit, who is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth, or from the mouths of your children, or from the mouths of their descendants from this time on and forever,” says the LORD. 1 “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon (Isaiah 59:15-60:2 NIV)
    God sees their condition and is “appalled”, but he is also merciful. He himself will come and do for them what they cannot do for themselves. With his own arm and his own righteousness and armed as a warrior he will do battle for them.  What is the enemy that he is fighting? The main enemy is sin itself.  The “suffering Servant” revealed in Is. 53 would come humbly and would allow himself to suffer the punishment his straying sheep deserved. In ch. 59 the Servant comes as a conquering warrior wearing the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation, and garments of vengeance. In this manner “The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,” declares the LORD. (59:20) . What he is defeating here is sin itself as it reigns in his people. As the repentant allow the Spirit of God to fill their lives and his word to fill their mouths they will become a witness to the surrounding nations so that:
"From the west, men will fear the name of the LORD, and from the rising of the sun, they will revere his glory" (59:19).
    Despite the constant sin and treachery of his people, the Lord remains faithful, his covenant will be kept, his promises will be fulfilled.


 In this chapter Isaiah states plainly that sin is preventing the fulfillment of God’s purpose. Note the short, sharp phrases in vv.2-3, ... your sins ... your hands ... your fingers ... your lips ... your tongue. Nonetheless, the last word is still that of confidence. When God saw “that there was no one” (v.16) then the Lord arrays himself as a warrior and proceeds to accomplish his purposes. Isaiah’s answer to the problem of sin continuing to exist even in restored Israel is the answer to the problem of continuing sin even in the redeemed Christian. We cannot overcome it by ourselves, but Christ, the divine warrior, can defeat sin for us through his Spirit who lives in us, as Rom. 8 tells us. This victory results in our being able to live as Paul asks us to live in Col. 3.
13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. 15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.  (Colossians 3:13-16 NIV)

Isaiah 60

    Now we turn to Isaiah 60, which I think is one of the most beautiful chapters in all the Bible.  Whereas in ch. 59 we read: “We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows”, here in chapter 60 all is light, brightness, dawn, radiance.
 “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. 2 See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. 3 Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn (Isaiah 60:1-3 NIV)
    This chapter promises the glory of Zion that will be the direct result of her people believing in and submitting to the suffering Servant.

    The Lord gives two commands: “Arise,” “Shine,” accompanied by the strength to fulfill the command... “the glory of the Lord rises upon you.”

    By herself Jerusalem could not arise for the sins of her people separated them from God. But due to Christ’s cleansing power she is able to arise, and having received the Lord’s own perfect, holy light, she is able to radiate that light.

    Following in this chapter we find the glorious results that come from obedience to the command of v. 1.
  • verses 4-8 offer promises of great wealth and prestige among the nations.
  • verses 9-14.   The promise that other nations will come to their light and walk by their light.
  • verses 15-16. They will become an object of rejoicing instead of an object of hatred.
  • verse 17.  Peace and righteousness will rule forever.
    This is a glorious picture of a bright future for Zion. When will this promise be fulfilled? Has it already been fulfilled?  As we have seen in previous chapters of this section (56 ff) the promises are all mixed in with commands. The primary command being that they believe in the suffering servant. See 59:20 “The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,” declares the LORD.  Many who returned from the exile did not believe. Some did: the post exilic prophets, Ezra, Zerubbabel, and others. But many did not, as we saw in ch. 59. And so the promises of ch. 60 were not fulfilled immediately upon the return from Babylon. And again when Jesus came most of Israel rejected him, and so while the first three verses of this chapter may well be seen as referring to the first advent of Christ, much more of this chapter has yet to be fulfilled.

    Many scholars say that the promises in this chapter will never be fulfilled literally; that they are all spiritual. And while we can find many spiritual applications from this chapter (and we will attempt to do so this morning) I would like us also to explore together what other scholars believe will be a true literal fulfillment of these promises. They will be fulfilled at the Second Coming of Christ when, as Paul says in Romans 11, “all Israel will be saved.” Paul says: “I tell you mystery.” The mystery is that for a while Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of Gentiles had come into the kingdom, and then all Israel will be saved. He backs up his prediction of national Israel turning to Christ in the last days by quoting Isaiah 59:20-21 (which we have just read). I believe this turning of Israel to her Messiah is also what Zechariah refers to in Zech.12:10,

  “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son" (Zechariah 12:10 NIV).

    When the command that they believe in the suffering servant will finally be obeyed, we will see the promises of Isaiah 60 come to pass. Let’s compare some of the images here in Is. 60 with the description of the New Jerusalem that we find in Revelation 21.

  • Rev. 21:23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. (Is. 60:1 and 20)
  • Rev. 21:24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.
  • Rev. 21:25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there.
  • Rev. 21:26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. (Is. 60:11-14)
  • Rev. 21:27 Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Is. 60:18)


    This then is the glorious future for Zion that God revealed to Israel through Isaiah; a future dependent upon his command that they believe in the suffering Servant and that they live righteously by the enabling of his Spirit. What does this chapter have to say to us today?

    1. “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. 2 See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. 3 Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn" (Isaiah 60:1-3 NIV).   Do we “arise” by the enablement of his Spirit, allowing the Spirit of God to work in us so that his righteous character shines through us? If so, then nations will  come to him.

    2. Isaiah speaks of great riches coming to them in V. 9.  We all have received rich blessings from God. What is the purpose of all the blessings that God bestows upon us? Is it so that we might take pride in what we have accomplished? Are they for our own enrichment, or to make life easy? No. The purpose is to honor the Lord. We use all that he has given us to bring him glory. This is the thought of vv. 10-16.

    3.   "Instead of bronze I will bring you gold, and silver in place of iron.  Instead of wood I will bring you bronze, and iron in place of stones"  (Isaiah 60:17 NIV).  Isaiah speaks of a wonderful transformation here, bronze into gold; iron into silver. How are we transformed, so that we become lamps through whom Christ’s life can shine undimmed?We are so transformed when we allow him to turn us from people who are helpless in sin into righteous people who are “more than conquerors” (Rom. 8).

     4. "I will make peace your governor and righteousness your ruler. 18 No longer will violence be heard in your land, nor ruin or destruction within your borders, but you will call your walls Salvation and your gates Praise" (Isaiah 60:17–18 NIV).   Where does real peace come from? Only from God. When we turn our lives over to  him his peace rules our hearts, his wall of salvation protects us, and no violence can ever separate us from him.

    5.   "Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end" (Isaiah 60:20 NIV).  The days of sorrow, as depicted in ch. 59, were the days of sin and ignorance when all was darkness and the light of God’s presence was not felt. And so for us until we recognize Christ, the light of the world, as our savior.

    6. "Then will all your people be righteous and they will possess the land forever.  They are the shoot I have planted, the work of my hands, for the display of my splendor" (Isaiah 60:21 NIV).  As Christians we are dependent upon God both for the origin and the sustaining of our spiritual life (the shoot I have planted, the work of my hands).  Hence the life that we live must be carried out in obedience to the one who formed it. And the whole purpose of that life is “for the display of my splendor.”

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Under-Servants Examining Themselves — Isaiah 57-58

Inner reflection is not one of the "big" things in today's society. We tend to blame all our unhappiness on outer factors: our next-door neighbor's loud kids, our boss' constant criticism of how we do our jobs, the government's obvious failures to rectify the problem of current joblessness. Or if there is no obvious "villain" around to pin the blame on, we think we just need more time partying, more time spent in Facebook, better "creature comforts", a newer medication. Looking inward at our spiritual condition to find out if there is some problem "under the hood" is not a high priority for us.

But God, through the prophet Isaiah, has a word for Israel that we would do well to consider today. It is that real happiness comes from the sacrifice of the Suffering Servant (ch. 53), accepted by faith (chs. 54-56), but also by examining how we now live as his redeemed "under-servants". One of the perpetual tasks of the Suffering Servant's "under-servants" is genuine self-examination. And that is what chapters 57 and 58, which we study today, are about.

I. God Accuses the Wicked, 57:1-13
The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart; devout men are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil. 2 Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death. 3 “But you—come here, you sons of a sorceress, you offspring of adulterers and prostitutes!  4 Whom are you mocking? At whom do you sneer and stick out your tongue? Are you not a brood of rebels, the offspring of liars? 5 You burn with lust among the oaks and under every spreading tree; you sacrifice your children in the ravines and under the overhanging crags.  6 [The idols] among the smooth stones of the ravines are your portion; they, they are your lot. Yes, to them you have poured out drink offerings and offered grain offerings. In the light of these things, should I relent? 7 You have made your bed on a high and lofty hill; there you went up to offer your sacrifices.  8 Behind your doors and your doorposts you have put your pagan symbols. Forsaking me, you uncovered your bed, you climbed into it and opened it wide; you made a pact with those whose beds you love, and you looked on their nakedness.  9 You went to Molech with olive oil and increased your perfumes. You sent your ambassadors far away; you descended to the grave itself!  10 You were wearied by all your ways, but you would not say, ‘It is hopeless.’ You found renewal of your strength, and so you did not faint.  11 “Whom have you so dreaded and feared that you have been false to me, and have neither remembered me nor pondered this in your hearts? Is it not because I have long been silent that you do not fear me? 12 I will expose your righteousness and your works, and they will not benefit you.  13 When you cry out for help, let your collection [of them] save you! The wind will carry all of them off, a mere breath will blow them away. But the man who makes me his refuge will inherit the land and possess my holy mountain.” (Isaiah 57:1-13 NIV adapted)

Good leadership is vital to a community, whether political or spiritual. And so we can understand how God's criticism of post-exilic Israel began in 56:9-12 with their leaders, who were lazy and indifferent to the needs around them. But it's all too easy to blame all our problems on poor leadership. A community handicapped by poor leaders can take the lead in demanding a higher standard of obedience to God. The readers of these chapters were not doing that.

So in the first 13 verses of ch 57 the subject changes from the leaders to the people themselves. How are they described?

1-2 When people die at the expected old age, or when there is no difference between the number of godly and ungodly who die at a young age, perhaps it is not significant. But when it seems that only the godly people who are dying young and unexpectedly, should we consider this a sign? And if so, what? At least at this particular time in Israel's history, God says he was taking the godly ahead of time to spare them the judgments to come. But this implies that what was to come was worse than mere physical death. Otherwise, it spares the godly person nothing. Verse one says it was to spare them from "evil". This could mean the evil actions perpetrated by Israel herself or the "evil" of God's judgment on Israel. Some scholars think that this section refers back to an earlier period before the exile. The rest of this part of Isaiah, as we saw last week, seems to reflect conditions when the exiles had returned. And we have seen that, while Israel learned some important lessons from God's punishment in the exile, such as the evils of idolatry, they did not return to their land wholly reformed, any more than you or I have lived completely faithful and godly lives since our conversions. And while the first generation may have returned in a contrite and reformed state, this may not have lasted into the next generation of young people. So it may not be necessary to assume an earlier period here.

In contrast to some of the godly who died young, others are described as "mockers" (57:4).  The mockers could be mocking the true prophets of God or the scriptures being taught by the likes of Ezra and the prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. If it appeared that there were more godly people than ungodly ones dying young, the mockers may have claimed this as proof that godliness did not pay. These verses then could represent God's reply to their mockery. Early death was not a sign of foolish faith but of God's mercy on the faithful. But we have to be careful not to apply this idea too generally. We do not always know why God takes a believer home early. If it is to spare them from some harm or evil, he obviously has left others of us, either because the particular evil would not affect us or because he wants us to refine our faith by passing through it.

5-9 In verses 5-9 we have a picture of flagrant idolatry. In general, the post-exilic prophets—such as Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi—do not inveigh against idolatry in Israel. There is only one place (in Zech 13:2), where God threatens to "cut off the names of the idols from the land, so that they shall be remembered no more; and also I will remove from the land the prophets and the unclean spirit". But since otherwise there is no mention of idolatry in Israel after the return under Ezra, these verses in Isaiah might either be referring to the pre-exilic and exilic period, or be referring to "spiritual" idolatry rather than the literal worship of idols. The sexual imagery was commonly used by the ancient Israelite prophets for literal idolatry, either because Canaanite idolatry often combined worship of the idols with sexual immorality, or because Israel's relationship to Yahweh was depicted as that of a faithful wife to her husband, and pursuit of other "gods" was like adultery.

10 These Israelites were not deterred from the pursuit of other "gods" by either the expense or effort involved or by the initial lack of good results (no immediate benefits of better crops and livestock). They showed remarkable "faith" in these other gods!

In 11 God is curious why they were so able to persevere in their faith and sacrifice to these useless "gods", when they cannot do so with him. Maybe, he thinks, it is because he was been too long silent in addressing them?

In 12-13 come the threats of judgment.The outward show of pseudo-"righteousness" is exposed by the inner "idolatry" of the people. Those "works" will not save the doers from God's judgment. Not even if they amount to quite a "collection"! For they are mere idols and can be blown away like chaff by the wind of God's judgment.

II. God Comforts the Contrite, 57:14-21
And it will be said:  “Build up, build up, prepare the road! Remove the obstacles out of the way of my people.”  15 For this is what the high and lofty One says— he who lives forever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite. 16 I will not accuse forever, nor will I always be angry, for then the spirit of man would grow faint before me— the breath of man that I have created. 17 I was enraged by his sinful greed; I punished him, and hid my face in anger, yet he kept on in his willful ways. 18 I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will guide him and restore comfort to him, 19 creating praise on the lips of the mourners in Israel. Peace, peace, to those far and near,” says the LORD. “And I will heal them.” 20 But the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud. 21 “There is no peace,” says my God, “for the wicked.” (Isaiah 57:14-21 NIV)

God is no great Sadist who derives pleasure from catching us in our failures and then lowering the hammer of his judgment.  He delights in seeing people awaken to their sins, admit them, and change their behavior. That is what true "contrition" means. It isn't just a sad face: it's a hopeful one of someone determined to correct his attitudes and actions. I love v 18: God says "I will heal him, guide him, restore comfort to him, create praise on his lips, give him peace". Those are not the words of One who loves to create pain and misery! And in v 20 the real punishment of those who refuse the path of contrition is the very lifestyle they create and maintain, one that constantly casts up mire and mud and destroys any peace they might have.

III. True Fasting, ch. 58

The same pattern that we saw in chapters 56 and 57 continues here: commands followed by promises conditioned on obedience to the commands.
 “Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet.  Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins.  2 For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them (Isaiah 58:1-2 NIV)

1-2 These verses may be referring to Israelites responding to the earlier command to "seek Yahweh while he may be found; call upon him while he is near" (55:6). But those described here did not continue with 55:7 "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts". Mechanical, outward "seeking" through mechanical Bible study or formal prayers can lead to the false sense of obedience and pleasing God. Both practices have to be producing a quality of love, compassion, generosity and service that shows a true encounter with God.

There is a certain irony here, in that the people addressed profess to be seeking feverishly to know God's will, using study of scripture and prayer accompanied by fasting—very rigorous. Yet they seem to have difficulty hearing God even when he shouts in their ears what their sins are and blasts them awake with trumpets!

The people made special inquiries to God about decisions they must make, when the answer was right there in God's commands to act honestly and compassionately with others. It does not good to ask God in prayer if you should pay your debts or the wages of your employees, or whether you should have premarital or extramarital sex. The answer should be obvious from the scriptures you study each day. No special revelation of God's "will" is necessary.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it?  Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.  4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. (Isaiah 58:3-4 NIV)

The question posed here indicates that the people knew somehow that God was not pleased with them. How? Perhaps through the voices of the prophets of their own time—Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, those who had been shouting into the deaf ears. They had declared to the people their "rebellion and sins" (v. 1). So this is the people's response. Instead of contrite repentance they offered objections and excuses. "But we have fasted and humbled ourselves," they protest. "Can't you see how much we love you by this?"

In v. 4 God's answer is that on the very days they were fasting they were drafting the eviction notices for their tenants and foreclosing on the loans that were outstanding, and withholding wages from employees, and even getting into fist fights with those who disagreed with them. Hardly signs of a true desire to live according to the commands of God in the Torah! "You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high" (v. 4).

Now let's be clear: the illustration of all this sinning taking place on the day of the fast doesn't mean that it was okay to do it on other days of the week! This was merely God's way of making the point that religious activity can be so superficial that it can go on at the same time as sinful behavior, and the latter can be completely unnoticed by the worshiper. In the church at Corinth while worshipers were show-casing their so-called "spiritual gifts" of tongues and prophecy in the worship services, they were oblivious to the needs of poor members who didn't have enough to eat! This wasn't worship. This wasn't exercising the gifts of the Spirit. This wasn't love. This was "noisy gongs" and "clanging symbols" (1 Cor 13). This was "giving my body to be burned", which profited them nothing (again 1 Cor 13)!

God is not impressed with a beautiful worship service in College Church, if there are individuals in the congregation that morning with known needs who are not being helped. I always thought that more beautiful that how the choir sang on Sunday mornings was the sight of Kristen or Phyllis wheeling Gini Aamodt into the sanctuary so that she would participate with us in the worship service. I'm sure that was sweeter music in the ears of the Lord Jesus than the anthem each morning, for it was the true worship of obeying God's commands to help the needy.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?  Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? 6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:5-7 NIV)

How does one show true self-denial? And what is the point of self-denial? We live in a day of fitness craze. the suburban streets and bike paths are filled with people feverishly pursuing the athletic physique, the lithe lean bodies that bespeak conditioning. Now there is nothing wrong with trying to keep the bodies God endowed us with healthy. But is all this self-denial just in order to impress others with our physical appearance? If so, it isn't substantially different from what these Israelites were doing in fasting. It was a form of self-denial that others could see and admire. And maybe it produced healthier and more attractive bodies.

But God is not pleased with that kind of self-denial. For you see, true God-honoring self-denial always has in view a benefit to others. Denying yourself your own rightful money repaid by forgiving a debt to a friend out of work. Denying yourself the privacy of your own home by taking someone in who needs a place to stay. Denying yourself a well-earned evening of relaxation with TV in order to invite a grieving friend over to talk and pray together. Denying yourself a pleasant Saturday afternoon reading a book in order to help a neighbor with his yard work.  Self-denial unconnected with relieving another is like the medieval monks who engaged in flagellation, having themselves beaten to drive away sinful temptations. It accomplishes nothing but pain. And it makes no good impression on God.
Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. 9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, 10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. 11 The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame.  You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. 12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. 13 “If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the LORD’S holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, 14 then you will find your joy in the LORD, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.” The mouth of the LORD has spoken.  (Isaiah 58:8-14 NIV)

Here comes the harvest of true self-denying service! All that pointless, self-serving "self-denial" could produce was darkness, frustration, unanswered prayer, lack of true guidance from God, a feeling of unsatisfied needs, weakness, spiritual dryness, and lack of accomplishment. do you notice how what is promised here is the exact opposite? Light (v 8), prompt healing (v 8), answered prayers, true guidance from God, needs satisfied, strength, springs within that never fail, successful rebuilding of the community.

And what is this attributed to? Not doing just "as you please" but as God pleases. Now don't misread this passage. It appears to be about the Sabbath, but the real meaning goes much deeper. Believers in Jesus follow his example in doing good on every day of the week and resisting strict sabbatarianism with all its confining rules. And condemning "doing as you please" isn't a code word for prohibiting "secular" things on Sunday such as watching a baseball game. Instead, "doing as you please" means violating the commands of God in scripture, letting your own wishes—not God's—guide your life, not just on Sunday but every day. The true worshiper is not the person who makes the best impression in church, but the one whose life is consumed with serving others in the name of Christ.

The bottom line is v 14: "then you will find your joy in the LORD, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob". And the chapter ends with the answer to the question that began it, "Why don't you answer when we fast and pray?" This is God's answer: "The mouth of the LORD has spoken"!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Suffering Servant's Invitation, Isaiah 54-56

Throughout scripture there are times when God makes promises to His people. Sometimes these are accompanied by commands, and it is understood that the promises are in some way conditioned by the fulfillment of the commands. Other promises are independent of any command. They are what we call "unconditional" promises.

An example of the former type is the promise given by Paul and Silas to the Philippian jailor: "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved" (Acts 16:31 NIV). The latter type is exemplified by Paul's prediction of the Second Coming of Jesus: "According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever"  (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 NIV).
Here in the 55th and 56th chapters of Isaiah we have a number of promises. And we will see that by and large they belong to the first type, for they are alternated with commands that, if they are obeyed, will make the fulfillment possible.

Over a month ago I mentioned to you the helpful analysis of this part of Isaiah by John Oswalt in his NIV Application Commentary. Oswalt considers the Book of Isaiah to fall into several parts which are somewhat analogous to stages in the conversion and subsequent life of a New Testament believer: conviction of sin (chapters 1-39), promise of redemption(chapters 4-52), God's basis for the redemption (chapter 53), invitation to receive forgiveness (chapters 54-55), and the terms for godly living as a redeemed person (chapters 56-66).

Chronologically, the final part of Isaiah (chapters 56-66) assumes the spiritual condition of Jewish believers and gentile converts from the time of the Babylonian exile until the coming of the Messiah. In some ways it is like an extended Advent season. Those addressed are believing Jews, who have believed God's promise of a saving Messiah, the Suffering Servant, are seeking to live by his Word, but still await the actual coming of this promised Servant.

Chapter 53 revealed for the first time God's marvelous plan to redeem His sinful creatures from the consequences of their sins. It was through the Suffering Servant, fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth seven centuries after Isaiah's death.

That chapter is a tough act to follow! But after the table is set, the children must be called to dinner. And chapters 54 and 55 constitute the ancient equivalent of God's call to sinners to the Kingdom Banquet made possible by the Suffering Servant.
 “Sing, O barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the LORD. 2 “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes. 3 For you will spread out to the right and to the left; your descendants will dispossess nations and settle in their desolate cities. 4 “Do not be afraid; you will not suffer shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood. 5 For your Maker is your husband— the LORD Almighty is his name— the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth. 6 The LORD will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit— a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God. 7 “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. 8 In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you,” says the LORD your Redeemer.  9 “To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth. So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again. 10 Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the LORD, who has compassion on you. 11 “O afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will build you with stones of turquoise, your foundations with sapphires. 12 I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of sparkling jewels, and all your walls of precious stones. 13 All your sons will be taught by the LORD, and great will be your children’s peace.   14 In righteousness you will be established: Tyranny will be far from you; you will have nothing to fear. Terror will be far removed; it will not come near you. 15 If anyone does attack you, it will not be my doing; whoever attacks you will surrender to you.  16 “See, it is I who created the blacksmith who fans the coals into flame and forges a weapon fit for its work. And it is I who have created the destroyer to work havoc; 17 no weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and this is their vindication from me,” declares the LORD.  (Isaiah 54:1-17 NIV)

It is a joyous invitation. The word "gospel" means "good news", and the good news of the Suffering Servant's accomplishment in chapter 53 is set to the music of the gospel invitation. Chapter 54 addresses exiled Israel's fears that she is too far gone to be helped by the Suffering Servant. Like a barren wife she has failed Yahweh, her Husband, by not producing children. Like a widow she is now without a Husband, pining in exile. Like a divorced woman, she was found wanting because of her spiritual "affairs" with the "gods" of the surrounding nations, and her Husband has divorced her and sent her away. Like a city, she has been attacked, conquered, burned and left in ruins. What possible hope is there?

Remarkably, God answers her through the prophet by asking her to join him in song! Chapter 54 begins with an invitation to share God's joy by joining him in song. The prophet Zechariah, who prophesied after the exiles returned from Babylonia (3:17) spoke these words:  "The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing".

The first metaphor of the community of believers in God's promised Servant is that of a barren wife become fruitful (54:1). Wives who were childless often figure as the beneficiaries of God's miracle births.  Barren Sarah gave birth to the child of God's promise Isaac. 
Barren Hannah gave birth to the prophet Samuel. 
Barren Elisabeth gave birth to John the Baptist.  And, although infertility is no sign of God's displeasure with a woman—neither now nor in antiquity—in the metaphorical language of biblical spirituality childlessness is a picture of spiritual fruitlessness. Unfaithful Israel was compared to a vine bearing wild inedible grapes, to an olive tree producing leaves but no fruit, and to an unfaithful wife.

Isaiah's picture of the barren wife here is intended to portray a pre-conversion state, when no fruit at all is produced for God. It is applied here historically to those Israelites who disregarded the covenants of Abraham, Moses and David, and gave themselves to idolatry, until God lowered the boom and destroyed their kingdom, sending them into exile. But it could just as well describe anyone in any age who has not yet embraced God's Suffering Servant Messiah and Savior. We were all dead in sin, and without any fruit for God. We were barren trees, fit only to be chopped down to clear the ground.

But now this previously unfruitful wife has more children than the wife who has not suffered childlessness (v 1). Jesus told those who believed in him: "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit  that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name" (John 15:16).  Paul describes the experience of all of us who received life from Christ:  "And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God" (Colossians 1:10).

The comforting promises that follow in chapters 54 and 55 apply to those who can sing with God because they have joyfully embraced the Servant portrayed in chapter 53. These promises are understood to be conditional on that attitude of faith.

The Jewish exiles who returned under Zerubbabel, Nehemiah and Ezra would face many challenges from surrounding peoples very much like the Arab terrorists who oppose Israel's right to exist in her land today. God caused Cyrus the Great to grant them the right of return to their ancient land. But locals who had occupied it in the interim opposed them and sought to deny them that right.  This made it necessary for the returning exiles to take arms to defend themselves while they rebuilt their ancient temple and city.

If they trusted God's promises and returned to obeying his ancient laws, he promised to defend them and to enlarge their area of habitation in the land of their fathers (“Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes" Isaiah 54:2).

He reassured them that the punishment they had suffered in exile was a momentary complication of their enduring covenant relationship to Him. "For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back" (Isaiah 54:7).

He reminds them that his commitment to them is as firm as his promise to Noah never again to destroy all human life on earth with a flood (v 9).

Isaiah 55
 “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.  2 Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.  3 Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David. 4 See, I have made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander of the peoples. 5 Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations that do not know you will hasten to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendor.” 6 Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near.  7 Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. 8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. 9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. 10 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. 12 You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.  13 Instead of the thornbush will grow the pine tree, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow. This will be for the LORD’S renown, for an everlasting sign, which will not be destroyed.”  (Isaiah 55:1-13 NIV)

Like chapter 54, chapter 55 begins with an invitation. This time not to celebrate in song, but to come to the messianic banquet, the banquet of salvation. God's board is heavily laden with rich and luscious food and drink. It is free to the invited, but costly to the Provider. And the nourishment that God offers to his own is not "junk food", what  in v 2 Isaiah calls "what is not bread" and "what does not satisfy" (55:2), but wholesome, nourishing and rich food. Jesus seems to have alluded to this passage when he said: "Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal." (John 6:27).

Of course, this reminds us of Jesus' claims to be the Bread of Life and the Living Water, and of his striking statement that "my flesh is meat indeed and my blood is drink indeed" (John).  "So Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life  in you." (John 6:53).

But as we have seen above, here too there is a condition. The food is free, but it must be appropriated. When God says (in 55:3) "give ear and come to me, hear me …" this implies an eagerness to learn and to change one's thinking and behavior.

God promises in v 3b "I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David." This is the first and only time in chapters 40-66 that Isaiah refers to David, although he did so often in chapters 1-39.  In the exile, but before the prophet announced in advance the basis of Israel's redemption by the Suffering Servant (chapter 53), it was not appropriate to inject false dreams of a return to the glory of the Davidic dynasty. But now that Isaiah has made clear the nature of the new "kingdom of the spiritually redeemed", he can use the Davidic covenant as an illustration. For that covenant (2 Samuel 7), like the covenant to Abraham, was conditioned only upon faith. So also will this "new" covenant be.

In some respects this covenant  will not for these Israelite exiles be something totally new. It is "new" in the same sense that Jeremiah's "new covenant" would be new (Jeremiah 31:31-37). The covenant would embody all that the previous covenants to Abraham, Moses, and David did; in that sense it was not "new". But the way in which the Israelites would relate to that covenant would be different. The law would no longer be something external, only learned about from priests or in the law courts situated in the city gates. It would be internalized. And the hearts and minds of the people would be changed from hearts of stone to hearts of flesh, so that the requirements of that covenant could be written on their hearts. There would be a constant inner desire to obey their Lord, even if there would be occasional failures.  This was already quite different from the covenant at Sinai, where the recipients of the covenant and its laws were "stiff-necked" and rebellious from the start.
“This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time [of exile],” declares the LORD.  “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.  I will be their God, and they will be my people"  (Jeremiah 31:33 NIV)

As early as the third year in the reign of Jehoshaphat, King of Judah, there was a beginning of teaching the Torah in the towns.
"In the third year of his reign he sent five of his officials … to teach in the towns of Judah. 8 With them were … Levites—… and … priests. 9 They taught throughout Judah, taking with them the Book of the Law of the LORD; they went around to all the towns of Judah and taught the people"  (2 Chronicles 17:7-9 NIV)

But this was short-lived. After the return from Exile, in the days of Ezra the scribe and following, Israel's knowledge of the scriptures would grow exponentially. Synagogues would teach it. And although prior to the printing press individual homes would not have copies of the scripture, there would develop an intensive program of teaching the Torah in all the towns of Israel where there were a minimum of four male heads of families. Out of this would grow the institution of the rabbis, who were not priests, but who offered their services free of charge to train young men to be teachers of the Torah. One of these young men was Saul of Tarsus. Ideally, in this atmosphere God's Torah would no longer just be on scrolls in the temple, but would be in the minds and hearts of all His faithful children. In chapter 54, verse 13, God gave them the promise: "All your sons will be taught by the LORD, and great will be your children's peace." Some of that teaching by the LORD would come in the exemplary lives of the parents, but most of it would come from family and community immersion in the scriptures.

In 55:5 God gave a promise that only those who obeyed the two commands to (1) rejoice in the Suffering Servant and (2) come to the waters could claim:  "Surely you will draw nations you know not, and nations that do not know you will hasten to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with (his) glory.” (Isaiah 55:5 NIV adapted). Compare also:  "I bring near my righteousness; it is not far off,and my salvation will not delay; I will put salvation in Zion, for Israel my glory" (Isaiah 46:13).  Israel's God would become attractive to the surrounding nations through Israelites who radiated the joy of His redemption and the "glory" with which He would endow them.

The period of the Second Temple, which began in Ezra's day and extended to AD 70, when the Romans destroyed Herod's temple, was a period of increased influx of gentile converts. There were more women than men, because male adult converts had to undergo circumcision. These males attended the synagogues, especially in the Diaspora, as "God-fearers". But hundreds of gentile men did submit to circumcision and the pledge to abandon idolatry and keep the Kosher laws and pay the annual temple tax, and make pilgrimage to Jerusalem to sacrifice. One of these was the Ethiopian eunuch, whom Philip met (Acts 8) as he was returning home from Jerusalem after a festival and explained to him the meaning of Isaiah 53.

Isaiah continues to alternate commands and promises to these Jewish exiles.
"Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; 7 let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts"  (Isaiah 55:6-9 NRSV)

To the exiles who read these words, it was tempting to think of their God as far away, in the land of Israel, not near and accessible. But the life of faith—both for the ancient Jewish exile and for us today—is not a passive one. It involves seeking God through the means he has provided. In the pre-exilic period this was through prophets and priests and the temple. In the exilic and post-exilic ones it was through hearing, memorizing, and obeying the Scriptures. In Orthodox Judaism today the word for Bible study is d'rash, the same Hebrew word that is translated "seek!" in 55: 6. But it also involves active prayer: "call upon him while he is near".

But seeking and calling upon God can also refer to the experience of conversion. In 55:7 God's mercy and pardon result from seeking him and calling upon him. In Babylonia the Jews were unable to make animal sacrifices. It wasn't because the Babylonians forbade it: it was because God himself did. According to the law of Moses, the only place where he would accept animal sacrifices was in the Jerusalem temple, which was now in ruins. Therefore the pardon that is offered here in Isaiah is not on the basis of offering an animal sacrifice, but of believing God's promises about the Suffering Servant, and calling upon him to forgive.

If these ancient hearers fulfilled the condition of seeking and calling upon God in faith, God's word of promise would never fail:
"As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. 12 You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.  13 Instead of the thorn bush will grow the pine tree, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow. This will be for the LORD’S renown, for an everlasting sign, which will not be destroyed.”  (Isaiah 55:10-13 NIV)

The return to Israel and life in that homeland would be joyful and spiritually successful if the exiles truly trusted the LORD.  And if they did, God guarantees here that nothing can prevent it from happening, for his Word is irresistible and powerful.
Isaiah 56
This is what the LORD says: “Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed. 2 Blessed is the man who does this, the man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.” 3 Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.”  And let not any eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” 4 For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant— 5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off. 6 And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve him, to love the name of the LORD, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant— 7 these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” 8 The Sovereign LORD declares— he who gathers the exiles of Israel:  “I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.” 9 Come, all you beasts of the field, come and devour, all you beasts of the forest! 10 Israel’s watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all mute dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep.  11 They are dogs with mighty appetites; they never have enough. They are shepherds who lack understanding; they all turn to their own way, each seeks his own gain.  12 “Come,” each one cries, “let me get wine! Let us drink our fill of beer! And tomorrow will be like today, or even far better.”  (Isaiah 56:1-12 NIV)

We saw in 55:5 a promise that the believing and obedient Israelite returning to Israel would become an attraction to gentiles, a witness to the power of the God of Israel. In 56:3-8 we are introduced to God's special words of encouragement to non-Israelites who chose to make him their God. It was illegal to make any man a eunuch in ancient Israel. So the eunuchs who are addressed here must be converts from paganism. In the pagan palaces men whose duties brought them into close contact with the kings wives had to be castrated. Some of these former palace servants from Egypt, Syria, Arabia, and Ethiopia, came in contact with Jews living in their lands during the Exile and were attracted to their faith. Pre-exilic custom prevented such people from entering the temple, or claiming to be a part of God's people. But now God promises them that he will give them "a memorial and a name within his temple precincts". In Herod's temple an outer court within the temple was open for gentile worshipers. This allowed persons otherwise not allowed into the inner precincts to pray to the God of Israel. This is what verse 7 means:
"I will bring these people to my holy mountain (i.e., into the temple precincts) and give them joy in my house of prayer.  Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”  (Isaiah 56:7 NIV)

This means that they would be given full access to all the forms of worship available in the temple to Jewish believers. Jesus quoted this verse when he drove the money-changers out of the court of the gentiles: “It is written,” he said to them, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers'" (Matthew 21:13; see Luke 19:46). For by the commotion of their buying and selling and the noise of the sacrifical animals they were selling they were making it impossible for the gentile worshipers to pray.

But the community of the Return to Israel was not always faithful. This included some of the leaders as well. We can read about the scathing rebukes leveled against them in Zechariah and Malachi. Here they are called blind watchmen (v 10), guard dogs that do not bark a warning but have ravenous appetites (v 10-11), and greedy, drunken shepherds (v 11-12).  This is a warning to any community of believers, including our own, that membership in that community does not excuse us from constant vigilance against selfish indulgence. Drunkenness is not the only form that such indulgence can take. We do not have to be Trappist monks in order to practice some self-denial. Entertainment should not be more important to us than fellowship and service to others.

Isaiah will have more to say on that subject in chapters 57 and 58.

Now, we who read these chapters are not Jewish exiles in Babylonia. Nor are we living five centuries before the coming of the Suffering Servant. How are we to apply these words to ourselves and our friends?

Like those first hearers, some of our friends—or maybe even you yourself—may feel that they have lived too long without at care in the world for God or for spiritual concerns. It is now too late for us. Let this message be given to those who still have their lives ahead of them. But that is precisely the point of Isaiah: Israel too had blown it, after centuries of living in the Promised Land, with a covenant, laws to guide, a temple to worship in! They too felt it was too late. My friend, it is never too late to turn to God and accept the forgiveness that Jesus won for you through his death for our sins! Never!

Others of us are like the eunuchs in Isaiah's message. We were once excluded from the community of faith like pariahs. We wonder if now we will be received. Our previous style of living was scandalous, enough to make the believers avoid us.  But now we have taken that step of faith and now wonder: Am I now welcome? And if so, how am I to live in this community? Isaiah's answer is: Yes, you are welcome. Under the New Covenant God welcomes all nations and races to come and participate in the great Messianic Banquet. It is yours, and you do not need to let your past exclude you.

But for all of us, regardless of what category we fall in, God tells us in this prophecy that we must cultivate the new relationship with God that he has opened to us. Cultivate it by "seeking the LORD" in Bible study, and "calling upon him" in regular prayer. This you can do alone, but it will help you to do it in a supporting community of believers in your local church.