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.