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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.