Prophecies concerning God’s judgment and salvation
The message of Isaiah, a prophet and servant of God
Few biblical books have been more quoted or influential than Isaiah. Its status as one of the Major Prophets is due to its length, scope, and enduring significance.
Tradition associates this book with the prophet Isaiah who lived in Jerusalem at the end of the eighth century before Jesus.
But the composition of it appears to be more complicated, for the prophecy addresses three distinct communities:
- those threatened by the Assyrians in the eighth and seventh centuries (chapters 1–39),
- those deported by the Babylonians in the sixth century (chapters 40–55),
- and those restored to Jerusalem by the Persians in the fifth century (chapters 56–66).
The scope of the prophecies implies that the book was compiled and edited by scribes over the centuries and completed after Isaiah’s death. Prophecy was primarily a spoken event, not a written text, so it was left to the prophets’ disciples to collect and preserve their teachers’ messages.
Isaiah is a master of prophetic word and action. He often dramatizes his messages in ways that are sure to unsettle and be remembered.
His brilliant analysis, skillful prose, and creative metaphors demonstrate the artistry necessary to speak effectively to king and commoner alike.
Restoring Repentant People
For Isaiah, the troubles on the horizon are not the willful actions of tyrants; they are orchestrated by God. These troubles are God’s just punishment on His errant children for what they have done.
But Isaiah knows that God is not content with merely judging; He is committed to restoring His repentant people. The prophet directs his oracles primarily to Judah, even though he often turns a prophetic eye to the surrounding nations (chapters 13–23).
Isaiah looks to Israel’s distant past to understand his own troubled day. The exodus, for example, becomes the pattern for a new exodus one day when the exiled faithful—the remnant—will come home.
The New Creation
God’s covenants with Abraham, Israel, and David form the foundation of Isaiah’s future hopes. In particular, one born from David’s royal line is destined to rule, establishing peace and justice throughout the world.
Prophecies of a new creation (chapters 65–66) reflect the original idyllic scene where God and humanity enjoy pristine and perfect interactions in the garden.
In some ways, the new creation will be like the first; but unlike the first, it will usher in an era of peace for a desperately broken world.
GOD’s Remarkable Servant
Some of the most memorable and moving aspects of Isaiah’s message are the Servant Poems (42:1–9; 49:1–7; 50:4–9; and 52:13–53:12); these poetic verses portray and pay tribute to the career of God’s remarkable Servant, whose faithful obedience makes the world right.
Early Christians read these lines in light of Jesus’ life as God’s Servant.
In the time of Isaiah, prophets are known to be astute observers of their particular times and places.
They speak what they understand to be God’s words to the people about how their thoughts and actions, especially their actions, relate to God’s expectations for them.
When the people fall short of such expectations, prophets tell them what God thinks and what the consequences might be.
Isaiah sees an amazing picture of the future, a future which only God can create. In that vision, Jerusalem and the temple of the only God will sit on the highest mountain at the center of the world.
In that day, all the nations of the world will stream to the holy city and seek God’s guidance and instruction. God will sit as King and Judge, dispensing real justice — not some man-made counterfeit — not only in international but also local matters.
Perhaps, most amazingly for a world weary of war, this will be a time when war is a thing of the past and its lethal instruments are turned into tools for life and peace.
The prophet warns of a time when only a few of God’s people will be left. The shredded fabric of families will leave the most vulnerable exposed and desperate.
Women, who in this ancient Israelite society depend on relationships to men for social and financial security, will resort to doing whatever they can to survive beyond the deaths of their fathers, brothers, and husbands.
Although the framework of their culture will seem to have crumbled, the story will move forward as the God of Israel remembers His own. There will always be a remnant of those who follow the Lord. Utter despair gives way to hope.
This prophecy echoes stories of the great exodus, when God led Israel out of slavery in Egypt and guided them safely through the barren, rocky crags of the Sinai Peninsula.
God was their comfort and sustainer, an ever-present guide and protection. The ancients spoke of traveling beneath the cool shade of a cloud by day and a pillar of warm, bright fire by night.
Now the prophet sees ahead to a day when God will provide His people rest and comfort — a new exodus — in His chosen place, Zion.
Prophets like Isaiah not only speak their messages, but they sometimes act them out. Isaiah is a master of both prophetic speech and prophetic acts.
It is common for God to ask prophets to expose important aspects of their families’ lives to demonstrate a message He wants to convey. Perhaps it is because the prophet speaks for God and Israel is God’s family.
In this case, God tells Isaiah to embed His message into the name of his child. And what is that message? “Ahaz, the two countries currently threatening you will soon be conquered by a greater power — Assyria.
It will attack quickly, defeat soundly, and carry off the spoils of war from Damascus and Samaria. So there is no need to fear them; instead, trust in your God.”
No one wants to believe that God would use foreign power to wreak destruction on other lands and peoples. Yet, as God is holy, so God’s place must be holy. He simply cannot dwell where holiness is not. He cannot make a larger-than-life Zion out of an earthly Jerusalem, unless that place (and its people, of course) are right.
At best, these people seem to think that paying lip service to God is enough; at worst, they don’t even care about God. A simple explanation is the people must be clean and holy.
And this condition of rightness, holiness, and cleanliness is a product of how they are — in relation not only to God, but also to each other and the very land itself; these things are inseparable. The consequences of their failure to ensure the holiness of this sacred place by being right with God, land, and others are dire indeed.
God must cleanse His people and place because He determines to be represented within and by them. So, better days will come again, and His covenant people will be set right and be happy and prosperous again.
Manasseh and Ephraim are family; they have a common language and common culture, and they come from common stock. In every way that matters they are brothers, but they are at war with each other. And they don’t stop there. They turn against Judah, their southern relative.
Amazingly, God has chosen them all to be His people, a nation of promise and destiny.
How sad that it’s come to this! What is God to do with His children? God will not abandon them, yet neither will God put up with their destructive consumption, their greed and injustices.
Indeed, their wrongdoing takes its own course of self-destruction, and God will not stop it. Sometimes God’s judgment consists of Him stepping back and leaving people to their devices — letting their will be done.
There are no capricious acts with God. God, and no one else, is the undoing of Israel. He may use Assyria as His agent to chastise the people of Judah for their wrongdoing, but judgment is never God’s last move.
When God judges — when God punishes — He does so for a reason. His judgment is always measured, finite, and based on His covenant loyalty. God takes no delight in His people’s suffering; but sometimes, tragically, it is necessary.
Willful ignorance and blatant disregard for God and others cannot be ignored. In the end, God’s purpose is to repair a world deeply injured by sin and its consequences. So His next move is to rescue and restore His covenant partners. Reconciliation and grace always follow destruction.
Isaiah, like many prophets, bears a burden: speaking as God’s mouthpiece in the world. But the burden he bears is nothing compared to the punishing burden Babylon will face for the violence it inflicts on the small nations it is annexing.
Isaiah “sees” this message; no one knows how. Was it a vision? Was it a dream? Was it an insight gleaned from some ordinary moment in his extraordinary life?
While most of Isaiah’s messages are directed to the people of Judah, he pronounces other oracles against neighboring nations and empires.
This is typical of most prophets. Chapters 13–23 contain a number of oracles (or prophetic messages) addressed to the nations and cities such as Assyria, Philistia, Moab, Damascus, Cush, Egypt, Babylon, and others.
Each message is distinct, for the sins of their citizens and the threats they face are unique to them. Still each message contains an overriding, dominant claim: God is sovereign over all the earth; and although He has a special relationship with Israel and Judah, all the nations must ultimately bow before God.
An ethnic group of Arameans control what will one day be the southern region of Syria; it is known as Aram. Damascus is its capital.
Out of fear of Assyria and its brutal expansion west, Israel and Aram form an alliance and try to bully Judah and her king, Ahaz, into joining the futile confederation.
But the prophet Isaiah holds a different opinion. He boldly instructs the king not to make any alliances or form any confederation as the Assyrian threat grows; instead, the prophet says, trust in God and God will protect you.
But Israel and Aram attempt to force Judah into their alliance, unseating her king and replacing him with someone they can control. So Ahaz makes an alliance, not with Israel and Aram, but with their enemy, Assyria.
When he asks for the empire’s help, they eagerly agree. Although Assyria assists Ahaz in warding off one threat, Assyria itself constitutes an even greater threat as Judah will soon experience.
At times God watches “behind the scenes” quietly, calmly. But when it is the right time, God knows where and how to act.
Throughout history nations rise and fall, but God is as constant as the summer heat and the cool fall breezes.
Many nations such as Ethiopia look for diplomatic solutions and alliances in the face of the Assyrian threat. But Isaiah counsels them to stand back and watch, for he knows what God is about to do.
Before the harvest, that is, before the armed rebellion against Assyria is set to begin, God moves in, pruning, lopping, clearing, and preparing the world for a better day.
It is said “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Too true: in order to communicate a spiritual message, sometimes God uses a physical action — something everyone can see or hear — much like a picture. In this instance the actions of Isaiah become the picture God wants His people to see.
The prophet himself becomes the focus of attention as he demonstrates in shocking ways what God is intending to do to Israel’s southern neighbors, Egypt and Ethiopia. God is able to speak with clarity because all attention is focused on this prophetic drama that is being played out before them.
Isaiah is given a vision of a frightening event. It comes roaring at him like a sandstorm blowing across the Negev. The vision is harsh and violent, but very real.
The prophet describes this vision and the others like it as “burdens,” for it is hard to bear such bad news. This particular vision is given to the “sea of Wilderness” or Babylon; it is the second prophecy predicting Babylon’s punishment ( chapters 13–14 ).
He addresses a series of burdensome messages to other cities, nations, and peoples. What is common to all of these prophecies is that God is angry with these nations for the harsh way they treat His covenant people, and He will not just let it go.
So God has decided to punish them, and He warns his prophet ahead of time what is about to happen. This message is welcome news to the Judeans who suffered beneath the cruel tyranny of these foreign powers. On the one hand, God used Judah’s enemies to accomplish His purpose. On the other, they have overstepped the limit.
This message beginning with verse 15 is laid on the people of God living in and around Jerusalem.
The prophet’s word is a corrective to those who proudly and confidently presume that they enjoy a privileged status with God by virtue of where they live and who their ancestors are. After all, God has pledged to King David that his dynasty will continue.
The Judeans assume this means they will not have to worry about their enemies, regardless of how faithful or faithless they are to God. So when the enemy threat materializes on their border and moves right into bowshot, they do what most people do: they make reasonable, defensive preparations.
But what they forget to do is key: they forget to turn to God. They put their trust in their weapons and their engineering skills. They ignore the One who established the city and made them a nation in the first place. So God tells Isaiah to have a talk with Shebna, the caretaker of the royal palace. God is about to make a change.
For a period under David and Solomon, the Israelites live in harmony with their neighbors. But jealousy and envy are frequently under the surface.
The people of Israel occupy a key location that becomes a battleground for domination by world powers because of its important trade routes. At some point, every single one of Israel’s neighbors attacks and abuses this little nation.
This oracle has to do primarily with the city of Tyre, a port on the Phoenician coast famous for the people’s advanced technologies and skills in shipbuilding, sailing, and trading. But those who sail across the Mediterranean so easily are getting ready to face hard times.
For generation after generation of God’s people who have watched their country being attacked repeatedly and humbled by their enemies, Isaiah’s words must provide a great deal of comfort.
Nothing could be more traumatic than to know that the temple to the one True God is under siege and finally destroyed. When Isaiah’s words are heard, many audiences must think of a restored temple in Jerusalem.
God Himself is promising to lay the foundation for that restored temple, assuring that those who trust in His work will never have to rush around again to figure out how to save themselves from another invader.
God’s foundation will hold firm, no matter what, so there is every reason to be confident. Early Christians see in Isaiah’s message a promise of a new temple, a temple not made with hands.
Simon, whom Jesus names “Rock” (Peter), refers to this prophecy when he writes of believers coming to Jesus to form a spiritual house (1 Peter 2:6).
Jesus’ followers confess Him to be the stone that forms the foundation for God’s new temple. He is the cornerstone: though rejected by some, He is chosen and precious in God’s sight.
In Scripture God is often described as having the strength of a lion. The power and skill of the lion are legendary. Here the picture Isaiah paints is of a hungry lion fixated on his prey, refusing to be distracted by the threats of its victim’s would-be protectors.
The prophet uses this picture to inspire and encourage the faithful. Zion and the people of His holy mountain are God’s great prize; they are His possession, and He is not about to give them up.
He will defend His prize and not share it with the predator-nations that surround Judah. Isaiah is clear in declaring that God will use these predators for His purposes, but He will not be frustrated by their schemes.
Isaiah looks down the corridors of history to see the arrival of a good king who will do what is right, repair what is broken, and restore justice to the oppressed. More than any other prophet, Isaiah speaks of this coming king, God’s anointed ruler.
When the Messiah comes, He will shelter His people from harm and deal finally, decisively with evil. No longer will wrong be called right, folly be celebrated, evil triumph, and complacency and apathy rule the day. When this good king arrives, the world — with all of its problems — will be set right.
If Assyria thinks it has a license to do whatever it wishes, to destroy whatever is in its path, to betray with impunity, then it is sure to be surprised when God shows up to rescue His people.
The Edomites take advantage of Judah during the Babylonian conquest. Like parasites they eat away at the land, the strength, and the resources of Judah.
Edom is a place of incorrigible violence, filled with devastating evils. In a word, Edom has become like Sodom and Gomorrah. God cannot let that stand, so He comes to vindicate His covenant people.
The image Isaiah paints here of Edom and its grim future is hellish. The great, bustling civilization of Edom is reduced to nothing and eventually annihilated; its land becomes a wasteland, the haunt of fearsome desert creatures.
Hezekiah ascends to the throne as Judah’s king in 715 B.C. He may have served for a time as co-regent with his father Ahaz, so when the Assyrian army marches against him and issues its demands (apparently in 701 B.C.), Hezekiah has many years of experience.
As a king of David’s royal line, Hezekiah’s reign is anchored to a promise God made to King David hundreds of years earlier. Indeed Judah enjoyed some success, but now all seems uncertain.
Not long before Hezekiah takes the throne in Jerusalem, Israel, his northern neighbor, succumbs to invaders from Assyria. Now more than 20 years later, the Assyrians are moving against Jerusalem and her king. With bullying words and intimidating tactics, the Rabshakeh tries to force the Judean king to surrender Jerusalem and its citizens.
Ironically — or perhaps providentially — the place where Isaiah met Ahaz, Hezekiah’s father, with God’s message turns out to be near the place where the Rabshakeh now makes his demands upon Judah.
These are sad times for Judah and Isaiah. Although Isaiah has served as a court prophet for several of Judah’s kings, he and King Hezekiah have gotten to know one another particularly well over the years.
Now the aging king is about to die. On many occasions Hezekiah seeks Isaiah’s counsel and takes it seriously. Even if he doesn’t always do exactly as he should, it is clear that he is genuinely concerned about the welfare of his subjects.
With Isaiah’s help and perhaps a bit of his pestering, Hezekiah comes to understand that Judah’s national welfare is not separate from his and his people’s personal relationships with God.
Hezekiah becomes confident that God will restore his health and bring him back from the edge of death. Ironically, many years earlier his father Ahaz refused to ask for a sign even though God insisted that he do so.
The son, it seems, has learned a valuable lesson; so he asks for a sign because he wants to know when he will be well enough to return to God’s house and offer thanks to Him among the rest of his citizens.
Unfortunately, with some people, it is only in the bitterness of disease and in death’s dark shadow that a person learns to embrace life and live it to the fullest.
Hezekiah’s near-death experience embitters his soul, but it also moves him toward wholeness. What Hezekiah does not know is that the Babylonians have their eyes set on dominating the rest of the world.
For years, the Assyrians and Babylonians have coexisted, but the Babylonians are not content to remain a regional power. As they build their empire — annexing lands, conquering peoples, gaining strength — they begin to take an interest in little Judah. Hezekiah doesn’t account for how his actions might affect his nation. He simply isn’t that shrewd.
During Isaiah’s life, the Northern Kingdom (composed of ten Israelite tribes) flourishes and then falls, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah is battered by surrounding nations but persists. Eventually the Southern Kingdom itself falls, not to Assyria but to Babylon.
Shockingly, the Babylonians destroy the capital and raze the temple where the Holy One of Israel is uniquely present with the people.
The Lord determines these events because their failings — as Isaiah described in such detail — and their refusal to correct their attitudes and behavior necessitate punishment on the order of national destruction.
God’s covenant people have broken their part of the agreement and be-come unfit to live as people of Zion.
The scene has shifted. The situation has changed. The threat from Assyria now seems a distant memory. A new reality encompasses the people of God: Jerusalem and its glorious temple have been destroyed, and the key citizens of Judah have been carried off into exile by the Babylonians.
While tradition credits the entire book to Isaiah of Jerusalem, many scholars think these next 16 chapters are recorded by another prophet years later in the spirit of that great prophet of Jerusalem who proclaimed much of the previous writings.
Whether this was Isaiah speaking in the future prophetically or another person used by the Spirit to continue Isaiah’s ministry, the traditions and ideas of Isaiah are so closely followed by the next chapters that they have been collected and included in this large book named after Isaiah.
The time and circumstances are different, so the message is a bit different too. It is equally passionate about righteousness, Zion, and the Holy One of Israel. These events occur about two centuries after Isaiah’s death in the land of exile — Babylon.
During the time of Jesus, John the Baptist wanders around Israel in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets warning the people that they need to correct their attitudes and behaviors, to bring them better in line with what God expects and desires. He declares (warns, actually) that God is coming and will set things right.
During the circumstances of exile, the people don’t fully understand who or what this voice in the wilderness will be; centuries later, as the early Christian community looks back over the life of Jesus and John, they recognize the anonymous voice.
Isaiah’s message is not just doom and gloom. God determines that His people may return home to rebuild their lives! God uses the new king, Cyrus of Persia, to accomplish this glorious restoration. God does not allow His punishment to last forever.
Now, in this new time, God smoothes the rocky way between Mesopotamia and all Israel; He makes the deserts between the present place of exile and their home just east of the Mediterranean Sea burst with sweet water and bloom with beauty and good things to eat. Treacherous roads and threatening beasts yield to God’s desire that they return safely.
In chapters 40–55, for the most part, the message is one of comfort and encouragement to God’s downtrodden and discouraged people. Many centuries later, these words will be understood in light of the Anointed One.
The nations fashion new idols in the hopes these new gods will be able to protect them during the coming battles against the eastern hero, Cyrus of Persia.
If powerful Babylon can fall before him and his mighty army, what chance do other nations have? But Israel has nothing to fear. For God’s covenant people, Cyrus’ rise to power is good news; his ascension and Babylon’s defeat are God’s answers to their anxious prayers.
Cyrus’ campaign to build his empire is not simply the will of man or a coincidence of history; it is the outworking of God’s plan to redeem and restore His scattered people. It was God who sent His disobedient covenant partners into exile; it will be God who brings them back home.
This poem is the first of several Servant Songs. God’s special Servant is described in various ways. In this song (42:1–9), the Servant is portrayed as one who faithfully establishes justice in the world and serves as a light for the nations.
In the second song (49:1–13), the Servant is called from the womb and ordained to restore the nation of Israel and take salvation to the ends of the earth.
In the third song (50:4–9), the Servant is portrayed as a teacher, intimately in touch with God, yet brutally beaten and disgraced by his enemies.
In the fourth song (52:13–53:12), the suffering and rejection of God’s Servant takes priority over his other tasks; yet even in his suffering God is working to repair the world from the harm done by sin and evil.
The identity of the Servant is much debated. On the one hand, Isaiah often refers to God’s people, Israel, as “the servant of the Eternal” (41:8–9; 42:19; 45:4; especially 49:3). Yet at other times the Servant seems to be an individual, distinct from Israel, with a special mission to and for Israel.
Early Christians hear these Servant Songs and reflect on Jesus’ significance; they better understand His role as the light of the world, teacher, and Suffering Servant of God. They see His life and ministry as the embodiment and representative of true Israel and therefore the fulfillment of these words.
They use the prophet’s poetry to formulate songs and sermons that express not only Jesus’ unique relationship to God but also His unique career as the Light of the world.
The prophet appeals to a powerful memory: the exodus. He reminds God’s people — all descendants of slaves in Egypt — how God liberated them from oppression, how God devastated the powerful army that pursued them in order to take them back to the whip and lash, back to servitude in Egypt.
Stories of the exodus have been told time after time for many generations; they are permanent fixtures in their minds. The prophet evokes these amazing memories to comfort them and assure them that what God is about to do is like what God did do for their ancestors centuries ago.
All of the nations that Israel encounters are involved in some form of idol worship. They imagine these gods and fashion these images in order to satisfy a desire — a God-given desire — to connect with something, with someone out there.
Human beings know at some deep, intuitive level that God exists, life is sacred, and there are mysteries more profound than the daily grind. This is why every human civilization exhibits some form of religious life and devotion.
But instead of seeking the God who is, people have a tendency to create the gods they want, gods that give them control over the complexities and problems of life.
Israel is elected by God for a number of reasons. Perhaps two of the most significant are to bear witness to the one True God and to warn the nations against idolatry.
According to Scripture, idol worship is not some neutral, unfortunate habit people get themselves into; it is more than just a waste of time, hope, and effort. It is a dangerous substitute — a counterfeit experience — that adversely misshapes and disorders their lives. To persist in idolatry is to give way to malevolent evils and to miss out on a relationship with the one True God.
God has a special mission for Cyrus, the Persian emperor: to lead the world and free His exiled people. The Scripture is clear: God, not kings, directs history. Kings — and sometimes their subjects — often need to be reminded of that. The Eternal, the one True God, stands above and behind human history, directing and orchestrating its events.
True peace begins with knowing God. Those who listen and live by His teachings find that wholeness and goodness flood into their lives. The wicked, however, face a different reality; they live with constant danger and problems.
There are many kinds of love — and not enough words to tell the differences. Hebrew has a word for “love” that is related to its word for a woman’s womb. English has no such word. It is too bad, for it is difficult to describe womb-love, the bearing-and-birthing love of a mother, the kind of love that the Lord has for the people of God’s promise, Jacob’s children.
God shaped this people as His own and bound them with no ordinary promise. God loves them in the same way a mother loves the child growing in her womb. It can’t be said so neatly and completely with one “love” word, but that is the idea that threads its way through this text.
The prophet speaks, but his words are those of the Servant of God. The Servant is in tune with God, the Master Teacher. He teaches as he has been taught, and — for the first time it seems — He understands that suffering is an integral part of the work God has for him. The reality for God’s Servant and any who follow him is this: to be close with God means to be at odds with people.
This sounds too good to be true. God’s people fear He is asleep, so they attempt to rouse Him to action. They remind Him — and themselves — of when God rescued His people long ago and defeated Egypt.
Rahab, a monster of mythic character, is linked to Egypt, a nation of legendary power and cruelty. The prophet assures his discouraged audience that God will come through again for His people.
It will be for them like it was when God rescued the Hebrew slaves. The exiled people of God will be freed from Babylon, and God will smooth out and level off the perilous desert highway that leads from Mesopotamia to the promised land.
This promise stands to God’s covenant people: nothing can happen to them unless God wills it and makes it so. Only if they invite it will destruction come.
Throughout this time of rebellion and punishment God makes it clear that they hold their fate in their own hands. And if they haven’t understood the message, God tells them who will do the nation-building — an unworldly restoration. He says that He provides the raw materials; He creates the tools and provides the skills with which the builders build. He alone is responsible for restoring the nation.
And no matter what charges the adversary may concoct, God will not be put off. Even though Israel rebelled and was unfaithful at one time, that is in the past. The future is sure: God’s faithfulness to His covenant, His enduring love for His people, will stand for all time. So the challenge goes out from the prophet to God’s people — speaking on God’s authority — to align themselves with God, accept Him as God, and they will surely win.
The triumph of God over Israel’s enemies is certain. Filled with joy and expectation, God’s covenant people leave behind a strange country and begin the long, dangerous journey back to the promised land.
But instead of fear and trepidation at the potential perils ahead, they are overwhelmed with a sense of peace and joy. Instead of holding dangers around every turn, the land and creation itself join in the celebration to welcome the exiles home.
There is no need to worry about long, hard climbs or treacherous descents, for the mountains and the hills cheer them on. There’s no need to fret about shade from the sun’s blazing heat, for majestic trees grow up to cast their long, cooling shadows across the desert’s arid land. The prophet’s vision of the journey home is nearly complete.
These words must have come as a surprise to the Hebrews. They were the called-out ones and had been commanded to keep themselves separate from their pagan neighbors.
Now they hear these words of inclusion. They are told it doesn’t matter who they are or where they’ve come from or what “imperfections” they might have. Any who have bound themselves to Israel’s God — even if they’re not Israel, even if they are not “whole” — belong to Him and will enjoy all the wonders that He has in store for them.
One day it will be clear that they are a sign of God’s goodness and mercy, that God’s justice is on display through their lives. They are to live as the light of God to the neighboring countries.
Reactions vary to the awful events that sweep over Judah in the wake of the Babylonian invasion.
Some people think that the God of Israel is defeated. This is exactly what the Babylonians hope the people will think and say; it makes the job of the tyrants and their deputies that much easier.
So when the prophet announces that Israel’s God can and will rescue His displaced people, many reason that God may want to rescue them but cannot, for He is no match for the might of Babylon. Others are apparently wondering if God simply couldn’t hear their cries for help in the first place.
Is Babylon too powerful? Are the exiles too far from home to be heard? The prophet knows the fears that reside in anxious hearts; but more than that, he knows the truth.
Once again the scene shifts. The exile is receding in the past and the remnant of Israel — those who survived God’s judgment and Babylon’s cruelty — are working hard to rebuild their lives and communities.
But life back in Jerusalem under Persian rule is not faring as well as they hoped. So once again a prophetic voice breaks the silence to address a discouraged population.
Most people are facing terrific difficulties. Despite what their prophets have spoken, Jerusalem is a mere shadow of the great city their parents and grandparents knew.
People doubt whether God is really alive, or really all that powerful, or really even cares. But the faithful know that God is powerful and does care; they are determined to convince their countrymen that He has their well-being in mind. He can make this people and this place great again, if they just trust and follow Him. Soon the whole world will be caught up in this brand new thing God is doing.
This section of Isaiah is written to a singular female as if she is the mother of the Jews. But this woman isn’t just any woman — she is Jerusalem. Cities are often described as female because they are like mothers supporting a brood of children (the population). This capital city of God’s special favor, of God’s presence, is filled with His people of the promise and is poised to become something new and glorious.
This Hebrew title “Messiah” is based on a verb rightly translated “to anoint.” Kings and priests are “messiah-ed” during this period. But prophets like Isaiah and those who stand in the tradition of the great Hebrew prophets are also anointed.
Living and working in Jerusalem in these days is much different than in earlier times. Wracked by the ages and ruined by overt destruction and covert neglect, the citizens of the holy city face disillusionment and disappointment.
The people who come back after exile in Babylon do not return to a gloriously restored city and temple, but to a difficult land and contentious neighbors.
The prophet is inspired by the spirit of God to restore hope, to help, and to comfort. As a spiritual guide he is compelled to convince people that God remains with them and that He still desires what is good, right, and true for and within them.
Centuries later, in a synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus will pick up the scroll of Isaiah and read these inspiring words. He will say in no uncertain terms that the Scriptures are being fulfilled right then and there in their hearing ( Luke 4:16-21 ). The year of jubilee will have arrived.
A divine drama is played out with the chorus on one side, the soloist on the other.
The “people” ask a question, and God rings out a response. Dramatic, to say the least. What trials and tribulations the Israelites have been through! What highs and lows! It is all God’s doing in response to their faithlessness.
But this is history, and now they find themselves living and working in a brand new time; a new day is coming — of restoration, peace, and glorious reputation for God’s people such as they’ve never had before. The renewal is international in scope, without peer in the world. And this, too, is God’s doing.
His capacity for mercy is great. He loves His people beyond comprehension. This is why He should be recognized and appreciated by all as the one True God. He keeps saving and delivering, restoring and supporting the people, just as God has done since that moment of binding promise made so long ago.
The prophet is convinced that there is no hope apart from God’s decisive action. It is not enough to address God’s people and the nations and urge them to do better next time.
The world cannot be repaired this way; in fact, it can’t be repaired from below at all. It must be made new from above.
So the prophet turns to God and utters a prayer, “Rip open the heavens. Come down. Strike your enemies with terror. Do for us what You did for Your people in times past.” This is what it will take to restore God’s people, illumine the nations, and repair a world desperately broken by sin.
The creation the prophet sees — the new earth — is radically different from the one everyone knows. At some deep level, everyone recognizes that the everyday world is not the world as God intends it; things are not the way they are supposed to be.
But God will make everything new again. In that day, the painful past will recede and vanish. Unbridled joy and celebration will eclipse grief and sorrow. Jerusalem, the holy city, will become the center of the world. Long lives will be the norm. Peace will be secure without exception.
God’s blessing will settle over all creation. Creation itself, with all its complexities, will be made new. No predator. No prey. Just peace and harmony throughout. This is a world only God can create when He creates it anew.
If we could see things as they truly are, we’d see the universe as one giant temple founded and perfected by God’s hand. But even the universe with its staggering dimensions — dimensions that stretch the imagination — cannot contain its Maker.
God is greater still. So how could some house made for Him on earth ever be grand enough, glorious enough, great enough? It could not; but with all His greatness and power, God still has His eye on us. What does God want from us if not the best building we can build, and also the most and best sacrifices and rituals that we can possibly perform? Simply put, God is looking for people who are humble, broken, and ready to follow what He says.
God desires to bring people like these close and make them safe, but He cannot if they refuse. His loving purpose is for them to live well, to be well, but He cannot make it so if they choose badly and do what He hates.
The prophet reflects on the mystery of birth. Jerusalem, the mother, is about to give birth to a new nation. God, the midwife, is there to make sure the birth goes well. Throughout Isaiah’s prophecy it is clear that God has initiated all the things that have happened to Israel and Judah.
The destruction of Jerusalem and her glorious temple, the decades of exile in a foreign land, and now the return and restoration of Jerusalem are God’s work, pure and simple. Now all of these events and judgments point to a single moment when Jerusalem will resume its place as God’s chosen city and will open its gates to believing pilgrims. The prophet asks: will God prevent this new birth from happening? After having brought His people this far, it is unthinkable that God would turn back now.
Now is the time for Jerusalem to rejoice. Mourning the fate of Israel and Judah has been a Jewish preoccupation for a long time. Ever since Assyria came down and took the northern territory captive, the people have been grief-stricken.
But now that God has announced the good news, mourning is no longer appropriate; it indicates a lack of faith in His plans. After enduring so many years of grief and desolation, can God’s covenant people now turn and trust Him to deliver this baby overnight?
Trust and joy belong together. Zion is like a fertile young woman; she will have all the children that God wills and she desires. Be happy, the prophet says, and let the celebrations begin.