God Gathers Jew and Gentile
In our day, we highly value beachfront property. What do you prefer for your holiday? A walk along the beach or a retreat in the mountains? In Isaiah’s day, the most valued real estate was Mt. Zion, the holy city, Jerusalem with God’s temple at its center. What is of utmost value in Isaiah 41 is God gathering his people into a covenant dwelling with him. God is gathering his children from the ends of the earth and so the imagery of Isaiah 41 reflects this in terms of geography. The closer one is to God’s holy mountain, the better. The coastlands in Isaiah’s prophecy refer to those on the fringe, those far away from God’s mountain. God’s redemption and restoration of his creation has not stopped with the gathering of Israel to Mt. Zion. He continues to gather some from every tongue, tribe and nation, from the ends of the earth. In our text, God addresses the coastlands, those people who have yet to stream into the holy city on Mt. Zion.
From Isaiah 41 we learn about how God gathers people into his covenant love. The first announcement God makes to those living on the fringe, far away from his community, is “Listen to me in silence.” At first this does not seem to be the best way to start a dialogue. Someone has to speak first and it is God who initiates the conversation of redemption and restoration. Is God rude to say, “Be quite and listen to me”? He is hardly rude since he is God, the Creator and Sustainer of all life. It makes sense that he initiates the conversation and demands attentive silence. Do you remember when you first fell silent to hear the voice of God call you home into his heart of love? How far away from God were you when you first heard his voice call you home? Some English translations choose “islands” in place of coastlands. An island is even farther removed from God than the coastline. How far away from the epicenter were you when God called you to follow him?
God is interested in striking up a dialogue. He commands that those far away from him listen to him first but he quickly encourages them to become strong, to renew their strength as they hear his words calling them to his home. Alec Motyer correctly understands this text to be a calling of the Gentiles. He notes that “peoples,” sometimes translated “nations,” is the word in the Hebrew text referring to the Gentiles, those people groups that are not of Israel. He writes that this word “is at the heart of Isaiah’s message that the Gentiles are to be fellow-heirs with Israel” as already announced in Chapters 19 and 27 of Isaiah’s prophecy. God’s word declares strength to the Gentiles so that they might enter into a dialogue with him. God says, “Let them speak.” This is good news! God desires to hear all of us from the ends of the earth speak to him. When God calls you, what will you say to him?
How beautifully and perfectly does the Old Testament flow into the New Testament. Jesus and his apostles did not announce a new gospel good for Jew and Gentile together, but merely declared what the prophets foretold to be fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world.
In his initiation of a dialogue, God says, “let us together draw near for judgment.” What an odd place to start. Why not start with some positively held common ground? Alec Motyer again is helpful in reminding us that the language before us best fits the scene of a courtroom. God is gathering the peoples of the earth into his courtroom. After all, if anyone is to be justified and reconciled into a relationship with God, all barriers of sin must be removed and the relationship between God and humanity must be established. God as the Judge gathers us. In (2-4) God declares in court his sovereignty over the nations of the earth. He is the Lord, the first and the last. He is the great “I am.” He has never changed. He has been the great King over all the earth from the beginning. And from the beginning of time, he has called some from every tongue, tribe and nation.
Try to remember the first messages you heard about God and his salvation. If you first heard about God’s love and acceptance but not much if anything about God’s justice and demand for perfect obedience, then you, most likely have struggled with later messages you have received concerning God the Judge, who pours out wrath upon sinners. But if you heard the gospel as it unfolds in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, then you heard up front that God shall judge the wicked and by the way, “There is none righteous, no not one….for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” After you heard this disturbingly true message you then received, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those of us who are in Christ Jesus.” If this is the order you received, then you have, perhaps, had less difficulty receiving God the Judge, who from the beginning has been the Sovereign over all the earth.
God is gathering people to himself and he does so as the great warrior King. In (5) the coastlands, the people floating on their islands of self-sufficiency and oblivion have seen God and heard his voice and they are filled with fear. You may not think that this is a good way for God to get the dialogue started. But this is the way God does it and for good reason. The estranged people are not only afraid but they draw near to God. They answer his call and come to his holy mountain. The call of God moves them to help their neighbors to assure that everyone will be strong. A community is born. Workers are not merely looking out for personal profits but helping one another become profitable. This is what Isaiah says in (7).
Israel, God’s people, living at the epicenter of his covenant sees God gathering the Gentiles. In (8) God turns to speak to them. He reminds them who they are: 1) servants of God; 2) chosen of God; 3) offspring of Abraham, God’s friend; 4) former wanderers from the far reaches of the earth. This distinction between Jew and Gentile has nothing to do with us as members of the human race, but everything to do with God’s grace and mercy lavished upon us. All of us were wanderers when God gathered us. Regardless of our nationality or ethnicity, God loves us and relates to us. He does so purely out of mercy and grace. As the apostle Peter wrote: “And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” Or as the apostle Paul wrote to Titus, “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy….”
There is plenty of God’s love to go around. God assures Israel of his love. First he reminds Israel that she has not been “cast off,” to make room for the islanders, these strange newcomers to the covenant. Secondly, he says, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God.” God does not have to clear his house of older children to make room for younger children. There is plenty of room for all of us to dwell in his holy presence. Israel hears God declare the strengthening of the coastlands and perhaps she feels threatened and so God says in (10) “I will strengthen you….” In (10-16) the main image is that of God’s righteous right hand, describing God’s infinite and royal authority. He will use his unlimited power to strengthen Israel against all her enemies. She need not fear as the Gentiles stream into the worshipping community.
In (14) God refers to Jacob, his chosen Israel, as a “worm.” He then describes Israel as a powerful force conquering her enemies. God wants all of us to know that it is his strength in us that causes us to prevail. When my brother Stephen sang in the Biola University Chorale in the 1980’s, the choir was invited to sing at the Crystal Cathedral. As they were rehearsing an arrangement of the hymn, “Alas and Did My Savior Bleed,” complete with the lyrics, “Would he devote such sacred head for such a worm as I,” Robert Schuler, interrupted asking the director to rephrase the line, “Would he devote such sacred head for such a one as I.” In the temple of the power of positive thinking there was no room for reference to us humans as worms. But the Holy Scriptures calls all of us worms, dogs, sinners, and foreigners as those who are estranged from God. The good news is that we worms are made strong in Christ Jesus and thus called, children, heirs, beloved, and bride.
In the dialogue God the Judge comes round to reveal himself as the Caretaker of everyone, including the poor and helpless. In (17-20), God promises to supply great volumes of water to the thirsty. God gathers us from our saltwater islands where we have floated desperately seeking fresh water to soothe our parched tongues. He calls us inland to his holy mountain and to our eyes it seems as if we have been called into the wilderness, a veritable desert. But he causes springs to burst and fruitful evergreen groves to flourish. Such a lavishing of life is a proof of God the Caretaker of all people. After all, the Caretaker God is the Creator God. The warrior King, the Sovereign over the nations wields his right hand to strike the enemies of his people. But the hand of the Caretaker God, the Creator, gives good gifts to his children.
Have you in silence heard God’s voice calling you? Have you ever been struck by divine fear? Have you made your way into the temple of God? Have you ever put your trust in the God who promises living water and everlasting growth? At the very center of God’s love for us, the Son of God, dying upon the cross, cried out “I thirst,” so that we might never thirst again. Mary the mother of Jesus and the disciple John were among those Jews who heard and saw Jesus die on the cross and they put their faith in him. The Gentile, Roman Centurion heard and saw the same and said, “Surely, this man is the Son of God.” God gathers all of us to the cross of his beloved Son that we might listen to him, fear God, and never thirst again.
Isaiah 41: 21-29
“Our Day in Court”
In the first part of Isaiah Chapter 41 we discovered that God gathers his people from every tongue, tribe and nation. He enters into a dialogue with them. God assures both Jew and Gentile of his help and salvation. He offers to everyone, including the poor, living water and eternal life. What happens when God’s people sin, developing a culture apart from God’s law and grace? Will God keep his promise to strengthen them against their enemies? Will he help and save them? Judah had corrupted her worship of the one, true God, who made these promises to her. Judah had added to the worship of Yahweh, the worship of numerous idols.
Our text is God’s decision to communicate to Judah about his promises and her sins. He chooses to set up a courtroom scene. He plays the Judge – in other words, he plays himself, for he is the King of Jacob. God presents the Plaintiff in the case to be Judah’s many idols. Judah is the Defendant. The case concerns a claim of ownership: To whom does Judah belong? (Please bear in mind, that though God is Judge and we must all appear before him, our text is a dramatized prophetic message designed to capture Judah’s attention and heart.)
The prophet Isaiah delivers this drama as part of his prophetic writings designed to elicit Judah’s repentance. God, the King of Jacob, as Judge speaks first: “Set for your case; bring your proofs.” The case is about who possesses Judah. God’s reasoning behind this case has to do with worship and life devotion. The line of reasoning is as follows: You belong to whomever you worship. But you can only truly belong to a genuine divinity. Judah has been worshipping a good number of idols. God the Judge directs these idols as the Plaintiffs in this mock case to first prove that they are genuinely divine – truly gods. In (22-23) God says in the courtroom: the first proofs you present must be your ability to evaluate the past and to foretell the future. This would be proof that you are actually gods who can actually receive worship and who can actually own, control and authorize the lives of your worshipers. The Plaintiffs are unable to present these proofs and so God the Judge says in (24) “Behold, you are nothing, and your work is less than nothing.” The Plaintiffs are nothing even before failure to present proofs in court. The Plaintiffs don’t actually exist! Judah has been worshiping gods that don’t exist. This is God’s first purpose in holding this mock court. He desires Judah to face the fact that her idolized gods do not exist.
In contrast to these idols, which “are nothing,” whose “work is less than nothing,” God has actually done something. In (25-27) God claims to be the only God, who speaks, and then acts upon his word. For that matter, he is the only God who speaks! Through the prophet Moses God delivered the law complete with his promise to bless those who obey the law and to curse those who disobey it. Throughout the law God promises his mercy graciously poured out upon the lawbreakers. Moses functions as a Mediator for between sinful Israel and the Just and Merciful God. And so, what will God do? Will he enforce the curse upon Judah for her breaking of his law? Or will he show Judah his mercy? God has promised to strengthen Judah against her enemies. Will he keep this promise now that Judah has been exposed in her longstanding idolatry? In (24) God tells Judah what he thinks about her idolatry. To the fictitious god in his courtroom, God says: “an abomination is he who chooses you.” Judah has chosen this fictitious god along with many more.
Abomination is a term that may represent several Hebrew words. The one used here, “Toebah,” is used often in the context of idolatry and consistently in correlation to one of the 10 Commandments. The first of the 10 Commandments is: You shall have no other gods before me. As this law is interpreted, it is often rephrased, “You shall worship God alone.” Is there any hope for Judah? In the courtroom, God has addressed Judah’s idols as Plaintiffs claiming to be the owners of Judah as Judah has worshipped them, devoted herself to them. But God finds these idols to be human inventions amounting to nothing. In contrast God says: “I am the only one who has done something for Judah.” In (25-26) God says that he has declared in the past what he will do for Judah in the future. He presents himself as the only one who has spoken and acted on behalf of Judah in her past, present, and future. What will he do about his promises to Judah and about Judah’s sins? In (25) God says, “I stirred up one from the north, and he has come, from the rising of the sun, and he shall call upon my name; he shall trample on rulers as on mortar, as the potter treads clay.” This is most likely a description of the Babylonian Empire, which God elsewhere describes as an instrument to do his will, though it was an evil empire. Earlier in this chapter in (2) Isaiah describes this same one, only he comes from the east. This description coupled with (25), the one who comes from the north, accurately describes the path of Babylon’s armies. Though Babylon is due east of Jerusalem, the roads between the two were arched north, following the curve of the Fertile Crescent, skirting the impassible dessert to the east of Jerusalem and to the west of Babylon. The new empire, Babylon swept north to conquer the Assyrian empire and then swept south along the Great Trunk Road into Israel then Judah. Nebuchad-nezzar was Babylon’s king during this march. He was king at the destruction of Jerusalem. But he was followed by king Cyrus, who was in many respects, a better king than he. The Holy Scriptures sometimes describe him in nearly Messianic terms. The “he” in (25), most likely refers to a personification of the Babylonian Empire and may more specifically refer to Cyrus, who eventually released Judah to return to rebuild Jerusalem. Babylon indeed swept down upon Judah, trampling many rulers along the way, like a potter treading clay. As John Calvin notes, “to call upon the name of the Lord,” in some contexts describes a repentant heart of a true follower of God, but in other contexts it describes a person who is willing to be an instrument of God’s will in the world regardless of his personal devotion to God. And so, most likely, God is saying in his courtroom that he has sent Babylon, and finally Cyrus as his two-part response to Judah’s sins against him.
In (26) God again addresses these idols: “None of you knew anything about my plans and so you were unable to declare what I would do concerning Judah – after all, you can’t even speak! And so, no one on earth has heard your voice or predictions. How ironic that anyone, let alone Judah would fall before you offering devotion due only to my holy name!” None of these idols were able to hear God’s plans and say, “You are right!” Only the one, true God has spoken and the first words he spoke concerning Judah was, “Behold, here they are!” He said so in Zion, the holy mountain of God dwelling with his people, the holy city Jerusalem with his temple in the center. “Behold, here they are!” is God showcasing his covenant people to the world. “Look! Here are my people with whom I dwell! See their exclusive devotion to me! See my love for them! See their love for me!” But such a sweet covenant fellowship was short lived. During King David’s reign Judah was a light to the nations. During Solomon’s reign Judah’s light was even brighter as the nations streamed into his courts to behold the Wisdom of God. Sadly, in the latter years of his reign Solomon littered Jerusalem with hundreds of temples and shrines to the gods of his 900 wives. And from there, Judah’s devotion went downhill into a sick syncretism of idolatry.
God tells the idols of his two-part response to Judah’s sin and this is recorded in (27). The first response is his announcement to the world that Judah belongs to him: “Behold, here they are!” The second part of his response is captured in the words, “and I give to Jerusalem a herald of good news.” The herald is the prophet Isaiah, who proclaims again and again to Judah that God will punish her sins through the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and its taking of Judah into captivity. But God will not abandon his promises to Judah – his promises of strengthening and restoration. This is the good news the herald, Isaiah preaches to Judah. Who is listening to God in his courtroom? God mocks the idols again (28), “But when I look, there is no one….who, when I ask, gives an answer?” God says this for the benefit of Judah, who hopefully is listening in the courtroom of Isaiah’s sermon.
Finally, God recaps his assessment of Judah’s idols in (29):
“Behold, they are all a delusion; their works are nothing; their metal images are empty wind.” What a striking description of our idols – “metal images are empty wind”! Isaiah’s words usher us today into the courtroom of God so that we might hear his words for our own good. Have we heard God’s promises to his covenant people? He has made a way for his covenant law to be enforced and for his mercy to be lavished upon his sinful children. Have we heard God’s good news? Though we have grievously sinned against him, not once but repeatedly for generations, he has atoned for our sins so that we might be restored. In the first part of Isaiah 41, God has promised to bring this restoration to Jew and to Gentile, and so this good news is for all of us.
Our choice today is the same as the choice of Judah. Will we receive our God’s harsh discipline toward our repentance and restoration? Will we discard our idols, mere metal images, empty wind? Now we know that the God who has worked in the past for Judah, has worked in the center of history, for all of us, in the sending of one greater than Cyrus, one whose holiness does not even compare with Cyrus’ rare moments of doing what is right in the eyes of the Lord. This Jesus did not merely give us a ticket to return to Jerusalem, but he went to Jerusalem himself to die on the cross to save his people from their sin. God has spoken good news to us! Let us hear and believe his holy gospel.
Isaiah 43: 1-15
“God Alone is Savior”
A question that often arises in the study of the Prophets of the Old Covenant is, “Is God’s covenant community exclusively the members of national Israel and Judah?” In Isaiah’s prophecy, most recently in Isaiah 42, we have discovered that God has made his saving promises to Jew and Gentile alike. As God includes the Gentiles, some from every tongue, tribe and nation, he reassures Israel that she remains in his love.
Another question that arises often in the study of Isaiah’s prophecy is this: “When Isaiah addresses Jacob, Judah and Israel, is he referring to the present and near future of his people, or is he referring to the distant future?”
In Isaiah 43:1-15 God speaks to Jacob, to Israel but he pulls back from the immediate discussion of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and captivity of Judah, couching his promises in light of his work as Creator and as the Lord of the Last Day of Judgment and Restoration. Notice in (1) and in (15) God describes himself as “the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob,” and as “the Lord, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King.” This could mean that it is God who organized the 12 Tribes into a nation. But it most likely means more than this. Most likely, it is God saying that his forming the nation of Israel is part of his entire work as Creator and Redeemer of all people groups, using Israel as his instrument of salvation.
On the eve of Jerusalem’s destruction and Babylonian captivity of Judah, God reminds his people that he is their Creator and that he is the Lord of the Final Judgment and Restoration. Isaiah 43 flows from God’s statements in Chapter 42 reassuring Judah that he will keep his promises. Isaiah’s prophecy makes clear the global scope of divine redemption.
This text seems to address God punishing Judah for her disobedience through Babylon and of his restoration of Judah through his Messiah. It becomes problematic if we force our text upon any historic developments of restoration apart from Messiah. For example, the text before us does not promise to Israel a reprisal of her as a nation in this present age. Many have considered the inception of the modern State of Israel to be a fulfillment of our text. This is problematic as the modern state of Israel has been more agnostic than devout Judaism. It is also problematic in view of what the apostles of Jesus have proclaimed about redemption and the restoration of God’s covenant people. This does not mean that we should be opposed to the modern State of Israel. There may be a long list of valid reasons for us to support the nation of Israel in the present global parade of nations. But it would be problematic for us who have embraced the gospel of Jesus Christ to view these promises of redemption and salvation to be fulfilled in such a modern state. In other words our text is not a slam-dunk argument for our support of Israel over against Palestine or any other such political position.
It is altogether critical that we as followers of Jesus honor with gratitude and respect all Jews as those who are not only made in God’s image, but have been the preservers of God’s Holy Word and as those who are deeply loved by the God, who is forever known as the Lord of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. After all, it is through Israel that we have received Jesus the Messiah. We should regularly pray for the restoration of the Jewish people through Christ’s ministry of reconciliation.
In our text, God personifies an entire people group as one person -
“O Jacob” and “O Israel.” Both are the names of Isaac’s son, God changing his name from Jacob to Israel. Firstly, God says that he created this people group. Secondly he says “Fear not, for I have redeemed you.” The curse of God’s law hangs over disobedient Judah. But God has from the days of Moses proclaimed his mercy and love toward his disobedient people. His redemption of the world includes his redemption of Judah through Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of this promise of redemption. Judah’s return to Jerusalem under the edict of the Babylonian King Cyrus is a hint to a greater redemption through the blood of Jesus. Zerubbabel’s temple left Judah weeping and wanting for the glory of Solomon’s temple. Herod’s temple, a first century expansion of Zerubbabel’s temple, was never completed. It had a larger footprint than even Solomon’s temple. It was destroyed in 70 A.D. and has yet to be rebuilt, two mosques sitting on its site to this day. But Jesus claimed to be the true temple of God, the true location at which we gather into the presence of our heavenly Father. His apostles have declared that the church is the temple of living stones. In heaven there is no temple for God and the Lamb are the temple. It is to this glorious restoration that God focuses his promises through Isaiah’s prophecy. Our text seems to be describing something greater than Judah’s captivity and return to Jerusalem in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.
Thirdly, God says to Judah, “I have called you by name, you are mine.” The name Jacob means “leg-puller” because Jacob came through the birth canal grasping the leg of his twin, Esau. It came to mean “deceiver.” And to this day, if I jokingly tell you a fib, then you will say, “You are pulling my leg.” But God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, which means, “He has striven with God,” referring to Jacob’s wrestling match with the Angel of the Lord. Who won the match? God did and so he subdued deceitful Jacob transforming him into a submissive follower of the Lord. God says to a sinner like Jacob, and to his descendents, Judah, “You are mine.” God the Father is not like an earthly parent who disowns his prodigal child. When God spoke these loving words through is prophet Isaiah, Judah was more spiritually corrupt than those portions of the American church with whom we would find it difficult to fellowship. Yet God says to Judah, “You are mine.” Do you long to hear God say this of you? Have you wandered far from God, devoting your life to all kinds of idols? God says, “You are mine.” Return to his loving embrace. There is no security known among the human race or in this cruel world that comes close to such a love as God’s love for his erring children.
Concerning these poetic descriptions of floods and fires in (2) Alec Motyer says that they describe tribulations in the distant future of God’s people. These descriptions fail to merely describe Judah’s captivity in Babylon, which, for the most part was the beginning of a generational and peaceful landing place for the majority of the captives. The majority of present day Judaism is rooted in the Babylonian Talmud and its culture, considering it to be superior to the Jerusalem Talmud and its culture. Flood and fire does not describe the experiences of Judah in Babylon. But it does describe the plethora of persecutions the Jews have suffered in the past two millennia. In (3), God promises to be the covenant Lord present with his people through difficult times. He promises to maintain his infinite Holiness and to be Judah’s Savior. The burden of proof lies with those who consider God as Savior to narrowly mean, the political and economic champion of Israel. God as Savior in (3) means something more than assuring that Israel as a nation would never again lose of battle or a war. The fair reading of Isaiah would lead us to conclude that God is working toward the restoration of the soul of Judah, returning to pure worship of Yahweh and his Messiah.
God has chosen to bring his redemption of the world through Israel, not through Egypt. This amazing civilization, one of the greatest human enterprises of all history, has not been God’s chosen instrument to bring light to the nations. Instead God chose the obscure and mixed up Israel of whom he says in (4) “you are precious in my eyes, and honored and I love you.” How we long to hear God say this concerning us! And he does say this of any of us who are united to his true Israel, Jesus Christ, the Lord.
In (5-7), God promises to gather his people, who have been scattered in the Diasporas of history. God’s promise seems to be a wider gathering than only Israel as he says in (7), “everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” This is the reversal of God’s scattering of the people at Babel long before he formed Israel from the descendents of Abraham. In (8) he does not speak of a gathering of blood, but of defect. He does not say, “I will gather those of you who have Jewish blood coursing through your veins,” but he does say, “if you are blind and deaf, then I will gather you.”
In (9ff.) God returns to his courtroom scene we considered in the second half of Chapter 42. Now, he gathers into his courtroom the nations of the world asking them to testify to the past, to present a more accurate case than he has declared. But they are not his only witnesses. In (10) God cryptically mentions a singular witness who is not blind and deaf, one who infinitely parses the past and in the future gives sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. This witness testifies to God alone as Savior. In (11) God declares “I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior.” His singular witness testifies that this is indeed so. The nations are witnesses to the deafness of Judah’s idols and that God alone is the Savior. “I am he,” declares the Lord God.
In light of this great salvation, this redemptive work of God, the Creator and the Lord of the Final Judgment and Restoration, God says in (14) “For your sake I send to Babylon and bring them all down as fugitives, even the Chaldeans, in the ships in which they rejoice.” He tells Judah to view her captivity in Babylon as a mere part of God’s redemptive work on her behalf. This captivity is “for your sake.” And, surprise of surprises, it is also for the Chaldeans, the Babylonians, who pride themselves in their human accomplishments, including a fleet of ships. God’s redemption and restoration of his people serve as a display of divine sovereignty and grace to the great empires of this world. God alone is Savior, the one who says, “I am he - I am the Lord, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King.” As Moses wrote in Deuteronomy and quoted by Isaiah in Chapter 45, “Besides him there is no other.”
“I will Pour My Spirit”
Isaiah 44: 1-8
The God of Isaiah’s prophecy is the Creator who speaks. In (1) His people are commanded to hear his message. This particular message of God is divided into two parts, both introduced by the prophetic formula: “Thus says the Lord….” The first message is a promise. God promises to pour his Holy Spirit upon his people. The second message is a commission of this Holy Spirit filled people to proclaim God in the world.
God does not speak as an alien, but as One who enjoys a relationship with his people. Jacob is God’s servant, but even more so, Jacob is chosen of God. By this the text does not simply mean that God has chosen Jacob to be his servant, but that Jacob is more than a servant – God’s people are his beloved children specially set aside to enjoy a relationship with God. This beautiful description of Jacob’s relationship to God is repeated twice in our text. God describes himself in this relationship as the Creator, “the one who formed you,” and as the Savior, “the one who will help you.”
Characteristically, when God speaks, he often says, “Fear not!” He then reminds his people of the righteousness he has given to them. Here he calls Jacob, not only his servant and chosen child, but also “Jeshurun,” meaning “the upright one.” God’s people are the righteous ones, by God’s grace and legal declaration. Now that God has identified this beautiful covenantal relationship, he speaks his two messages.
The first message is a promise. God promises to pour his Holy Spirit upon his people. In (3) prior to mentioning the Holy Spirit, he likens the pouring of the Holy Spirit upon spiritually dry people to water poured out upon a thirsty land, streams upon the dry ground. In other words, this Hebrew couplet written by Isaiah is not God’s promise to provide water for Israel’s crops and then God’s promise to give his Holy Spirit. This couplet makes one promise, the Holy Spirit poured out upon spiritually dry people. This promise is not the Holy Spirit for one generation, but for many generations. (4) makes it clear that God is using the rain and dry land imagery to describe his one promise of the Holy Spirit: They, that is, Jacob’s descendents, shall spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams.
Unfortunately, we must make this point as the church is infiltrated with the wolves in sheep clothing who preach a health/wealth gospel. They say, God promises economic prosperity like the rain upon the dry ground. And he also promises to you his Holy Spirit. But here in our text, there is one promise: that of the Holy Spirit.
In (4-5) God tells us what the sign of the Holy Spirit is. How do you know if someone has been filled with the Holy Spirit? The Spirit filled person says, “I am the Lord’s,” meaning “I belong to the Lord.” In other words, the Spirit filled person recognizes his relationship to God as God has ordered it. Are you God’s servant? “Yes, I belong to the Lord.” Are you God’s chosen child? “Yes, I belong to the Lord.” Are you Jeshurun, the upright one? “Only my Redeemer is the upright one, but yes, he has exchanged by sins for his righteousness and so, yes, I belong to God.”
How do we know if a person is Spirit filled? He recognizes God’s ownership of him and he will also “call on the name of Jacob.” He will not only pray to God but he will acknowledge that God is his only hope. This is what it means to call upon the name of the Lord. The Holy Spirit filled person is one wholly dependent upon God, lifting up holy hands in prayer, asking God to do what he alone can do.
The Spirit filled person recognizes God’s ownership of him, confesses he dependency upon God and thirdly, he will publicly identify himself as God’s possession – he will write on his hand, “The Lord’s” and name himself by the name of Israel. The Spirit filled person makes his/her union to Jesus Christ public information. This is perhaps the clearest text in the Holy Scriptures providing an answer to the question: How do I know if I am filled with the Holy Spirit?
What a beautiful and stirring message God has spoken to us! I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring and my blessing on your descendents!” The prophet Joel delivers this same message of God in his day: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.” On the day of Pentecost, the apostle Peter preached that Joel’s prophecy had been fulfilled in the gospel proclaimed that day by the male and female disciples of Jesus filled with the Holy Spirit.
With so many people telling you what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit, remember today what God said through his prophet Isaiah. These are the three marks of the Holy Spirit filling you: 1) personal recognition that I belong to God; 2) personal and prayerful confession that I am wholly dependent upon God; 3) public proclamation that I belong to God and thus my identity is inseparable from his Christ, my Savior.
The first message is God’s promise to pour his Spirit upon his people. The second message, beginning in (6) is God’s commission of his Holy Spirit filled people to proclaim God in the world. What are people, who are filled with the Spirit, to do? They are to proclaim God in the world. Jesus told his disciples that he would send the Holy Spirit to remind them of his teaching. The apostles teach us that the Holy Spirit enlightens our minds to understand and to apply the Holy Scriptures. The disciples at Pentecost boldly preached the gospel with clarity. This bold clarity in word proclamation is the core mark of a person filled with the Holy Spirit.
Before God delivers his second message, he once again describes who he is in relation to his people. He is first of all, “the King of Israel.” He is the benevolent dictator of his kingdom. He is also the “Redeemer,” the one who has ransomed his people from their oppressive captors – sin, death, Satan and Self. The Redeemer King is the Alpha and the Omega – he is the infinite God who has set the beginning and the end of time for his creation. He is the only God. No one else compares to him. All of these descriptions of the nature of God and his relationship to his people are to be declared by Spirit filled people.
If you are Spirit filled then you are the one who positively responds to God who says in (7) “Let him proclaim it.” In the presence of God and the world all of us who are Spirit filled proclaim God to be King, Redeemer, and the infinite Alpha and Omega, the only true God with whom there is no comparison. This is what Holy Spirit filled people say. Some people may think that the Holy Spirit helps them to say something new, something creative, something expansive. But our text tells us that the Holy Spirit keeps us and our proclamations focused on the basics – who is God? What is his relationship to his people? What has he promised to them? Does he keep his promises? Yes he does through Jesus Christ, our Lord!
Secondly, God says to Spirit filled Christians: “Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen.” This is not our ability to predict the future, but rather our willingness to proclaim what the Holy Scriptures have revealed to us concerning the future. Much has not been revealed to us, but what has been revealed is the glorious hope of the coming of Jesus with many other details necessary for holy life and persevering faith until the end. Spirit filled Christians proclaim what the Bible has said about the future. Spirit filled people do not receive from God new revelation to impart to others. They speak the very words of God as they appear in the holy writ.
If you don’t like my interpretation of these verses, then look at (8) where God says, “You are my witnesses.” We are not saying anything new. We are witnesses to what God has said and done, preserved in his written word and so we declare this written word to the world. Notice in (8), as witnesses, we enter into a divinely directed script. God asks a question to prompt us as witnesses: “Is there a God besides me?” We respond: “There is no Rock; I know not any.” How is such a bold faith produced in such feeble people as we? God has poured out the Spirit of his Son into our hearts so that we can make the good confession: “There is no Rock; I know not any.”
“The God Who Bears Us”
The main theme of Isaiah, Chapters 42 through 46, is that God is God and Savior alone. God assures his people that he loves them. Though he must punish their idolatry, he will, nevertheless out of his loving kindness and tender mercy, restore them to his covenant. God appeals to his people, as if they are in his courtroom. He commands them to forsake their idols and to testify to his uniqueness as the only God, the infinite One, who controls the beginning and the end. He is the King of his people and he is their Redeemer.
Isaiah often poetically describes the making of idols. His words are humorous, colorful and convicting. Idolatry is often defined as our worshipping the good gifts God has given to us. It is certainly true that we have often elevated family, money, vocation, nature, sex, and reputation above God. All of these beautiful, pleasing and useful gifts from God have eclipsed his holy and loving nature so that we rarely devote any time and energy to basking in his love, meditating upon his holiness, and pondering his wondrous works in this world.
One of the reasons this is the prevailing presentation of our propensity toward idolatry is that few of us believe that we would ever be so crass or unenlightened to actually make an idol. This is the error of superstitious and uneducated animists who have time on their hands for arts and crafts as they sit on the dirt floors of their equatorial huts. This is the oriental practice of Buddhists and Hindus. In the west, we think that only Roman Catholics with their penchant for statues of Mary and the saints have made idols. But we Reformed and evangelical Christians would never actually make an idol.
We are actually one more step removed, in our minds, from this text. We grant that as we elevate any good gift from God, we are actually making an idol just as a person might carve a statue and worship it. But we think that we would never worship an object that represents something evil, something opposed to God and his good gifts. If there is one thing we never do is to worship anyone or anything out of fear, attempting to keep an evil entity at bay and in our good graces. We have risen far above any practice of appeasing evil deities. With all of this in mind, consider Isaiah 46 with me towards our wholehearted devotion and worship of the One, true, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Through the prophet Isaiah, God is preparing Judah for her captivity in Babylon, an empire that had accumulated a pantheon of gods. Bel, that is Marduk, was the patron god of the city of Babylon, the head of the Babylonian pantheon. He was the solar calf, the bull calf of the sun. In astrology Marduk is associated with the planet Jupiter. In the Enuma Elis, the Babylonian creation myth, Marduk becomes the supreme god through his warring against the other gods. He is able to transform his body into fire or into the four winds to destroy anything in his path. He can turn into the seven winds, like a tornado to destroy. His mightiest weapon is his taking the form of the rain-flood. When Marduk sets out for battle on his storm chariot, his four horses pulling him have poison in their mouths. In his mouth Marduk holds a spell that destroys and in his hand he holds an herb that is the antidote for any poison hurled at him. He is the destroyer of the gods, to be greatly feared. But he will not harm you should you bow to him, make images of him and worship them in sincere devotion.
Nebo, the second god mentioned in our text, is Marduk’s son. He is the god of writing and wisdom. Every New Year, Nebo would write the decrees of fate issued from his father, Marduk. One purpose of Nebo was to be a buffer between Marduk’s destructive power and his worshippers. But anyone who read the scrolls of his wisdom would be filled with great fear, left to fate and the rash transformations of Marduk into forms of destruction. Upon such idolatry, an empire was built keeping the masses under the thumb of emperors who ruled in the name of Marduk.
Isaiah writes, “Bel bows down; Nebo stoops.” How is it that such great gods are brought to such a humiliating posture? Precisely through the worshippers making images of them and carting them around the city on the backs of beasts of burden. Here is the irony of Isaiah’s poetry. The bull calf of the sun, is borne on the streets of Babylon on the backs of livestock! These beasts of burden become weary from such pageantry. These beasts cannot assure the safety of the idols they carry so precariously and they are but slaves, beasts of burden, which must do the bidding of their human masters.
The lesson in all of this ironic poetry for us is convicting. Our worship exposes the nature of our gods. Manmade worship exposes any god to be less than divine as its rituals and customs betray that humanity is actually in control of it all. This is a good reason for us to carefully assess our worship of the One, true God. Do our rituals and customs in worship betray our control of God, or do our rituals and customs proclaim that God controls us? We falsely think that pagan idolatry is simplistic superstition, but it is often a complex circularity betraying our desire to take the serpent in Eden seriously, that we can actually become gods controlling the affairs of our lives. The Persian king Cyrus, as he rose to power in Babylon evoked the name of Marduk to maintain his power. Before him, Nebuchadnezzar, named himself after Nebo to declare to his subjects that he was the human potentate who was thick with the god of writing and wisdom. God humbled him to live like a wild beast bereft of writing and wisdom.
While all of this is instructive to those of us who must live in an evil empire, the surprising twist of the imagery is yet to come in (3-4). Surprise of surprises! God likens himself to a beast of burden! While the beasts of burden in the streets of Babylon bear idols of Bel and Nebo in parades promoting pagan worship, God bears his people. The “remnant of the house of Israel” are the few who have not succumbed to idolatry but have remained faithful to the true worship of Yahweh. What kind of a god bears his subjects on his back? Would the God who is the Creator and Controller of the universe humbly stoop to bear his subjects? Would not such a great God, the only God, demand his subjects to carry his litter in the victory parade? What kind of a God would humbly carry his people showcasing them as the precious objects of his love? The only God known to do this is the One who sent his Son, who gently bears, who carries the lambs in his arms.
How long has God carried us? He has carried us from the womb through our old age. He says, “I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.” What a beautiful image of the gospel for us today! As much as I loathe the trite little anonymous poem, “Footprints in the Sand,” its point is biblical and most reassuring: There is one set of footprints because God alone has carried us through the trials and challenges of our lives. We often think of God above us, the object of our adoration. Now we must also think of God beneath us supporting us, carrying us so that the world might know that he cherishes us and showcases us. Even as God’s people must live in the evil city of Babylon, God will carry them. He will never leave them nor forsake them. He will not stumble in the street hurling his prized possession into the muck and mire of evil and harm.
This bearing God comes into historic focus in the coming of the Son of God, our Lord Jesus, who bore our sins upon the cross. God our Savior is a bearing and forbearing God. Remember this verse from the 1787 hymn, “How Firm a Foundation.”
Even down to old age all my people shall prove
My sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love;
And when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,
Like lambs they shall still in My bosom be borne.
In (5) we return to the main theme of Isaiah 42-46, that God alone is God and Savior. “To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, that we might be alike?” There is no other god like Yahweh! There is no other God who is both so high above us living in unapproachable light and yet who has stooped to bear us through the streets of this dark and evil world.
Meanwhile, surrounding the remnant children of God, idolaters pay precious sums of money to commission an artisan to make a statue then fall down before it in worship. They lift the idol upon their shoulders and bear it. They position the idol where others can see it but it is stationary. It cannot speak let alone save. Rather than commission a stationary idol, God says, “You be stationary! Stand firm and remember the history of redemption.” It is God and God alone who has spoken and redeemed. Not Nebo, the God of writing and wisdom, but Yahweh whose counsel stands. He is wisdom and we are attentive to his eternal words preserved in writing. This God shall accomplish all his purpose.
Only a few in Judah were listening to God’s prophet Isaiah. And so, in (12) God says, “Listen to me, you stubborn of heart, you who are far from righteousness.” If Marduk could speak, he would say to the stubborn: “I am transforming into ball of fire, hurling downward to consume you.” But God who does speak, says to the stubborn: “I will 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.” God has made good on his promise. In Jesus Christ, he has brought his righteousness near, so near that Christ’s righteousness has become our righteousness. As the apostle Paul wrote, God has done so, “In the fullness of time” or “at just the right time.” Jesus came to Jerusalem, the very city where Isaiah’s message rang in the streets. Jesus came to the city to lay down his life for the world. But God did not leave his Son to decay in another man’s tomb: He raised his Son to new and glorious life, placing him in the heavenly Zion. He did this “for Israel my glory.” Is this a hint to Jesus, the true Israel? Is this a foretelling of the glory of Christ? More completely, it is a prophetic hint to Christ sharing his glory with all whom God has born through the dark streets of this world. All of us who belong to Jesus shall share in his heavenly glory forever and ever. Amen.
In Isaiah’s prophecy, Chapters 38-55 are known as the Book of the Servant, containing songs and poems offered in the voice of the Suffering Servant. Jewish scholarship mostly assigns these scripts to the prophet Isaiah responding to the words of Yahweh, the Lord God. But New Testament authors, also Jewish yet members of the church, assign these scripts to Jesus, the Christ, that is, the Messiah. For our Jewish neighbors, it is difficult if not impossible to imagine the Messiah suffering. After all, he is God’s victor coming to restore national Israel to her former glories. For Christians, the suffering of the Messiah is central. It is the message of the cross of Jesus Christ. Isaiah, along with the other Old Covenant prophets, foretells this mystery to be revealed in the coming of Messiah. Jesus declares that he is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy and his apostles unpack for us this glorious mystery of the gospel – Jesus, the Messiah comes to suffer first and then enter into his glory. The restoration of all things will come at the end of this age as Jesus returns a second time as the great victor King over all the earth.
Isaiah 50 is the third song of the Servant. The first three verses are the words of Yahweh. Verses 4-11 are the words of the Suffering Servant. As the Suffering Servant speaks, we discover his voluntary submission to his heavenly Father and to the divine mission of the gospel. As these songs are sung, the mission of the Suffering Servant becomes clearer, but never as clear as the appearance of the incarnate Son of God in the fullness of time. The continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament is aspect of God revealing himself to us through human authors writing over a period of 1,500 years. This continuity has moved Christian to retain the Jewish Scriptures of the Old Covenant as the inspired words of God flowing into the New Testament Scriptures equally inspired. When speaking to our Jewish and Muslim neighbors it is politic to refer to the Old Covenant Scriptures as “The Jewish Scriptures.” But within the church community, we have chosen to use the distinction of the Old Testament from the New Testament to showcase the continuity of all 39 books of the Christian Bible.
God the Father speaks first in Isaiah 50: “Thus says the Lord, ‘Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce, with which I sent her away?’” In Deuteronomy 24 the law reads: “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife….” God often describes his covenant relationship to his people in the language of the covenant of marriage. In our text, God’s point is this: If he ever wrote a certificate of divorce, severing his covenant relationship with his people, then the possibility of reconciliation is prohibited. Has God completely and finally cut off Israel? Judah’s sins were so blatant, deceitful and prolonged that God had every right to do so and in fact, he spoke through his prophets, “You are not my people.” But did he write an irreversible certificate of divorce? Apparently not!
In Romans 11 the apostle Paul writes of God cutting off from the vine the Jewish branches. He says that God also grafted in the Gentiles branches to make the Jews jealous unto repentance. Paul warns the Gentiles: “The Jews were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.” And so, it is apparent that God did not write an irreversible certificate of divorce. Every Jew or Gentile who puts his faith in Jesus is grafted into Christ, that is, united to Jesus Christ and together is the bride of Christ.
God continues to speak using another allusion to his law in Exodus 21: “Or which of my creditors is it to whom I have sold you? Behold, for your iniquities you were sold, and for your transgressions your mother was sent away.” God’s law makes provision for a man’s debt to be paid in the selling of his sons to work off his debt in another man’s estate. This is an irreversible contract. But this man in debt, may not write such an irreversible contract for his daughter. He can arrange her marriage, settling his debt through the bride price, but if her husband is not pleased to marry her, then she can be redeemed. Until her redemption by her father, she must serve the man who contracted her employment, but he must release her upon her father’s redemption. God uses these laws to prove that he is free to redeem his people, whom he has contracted to serve in Babylon. He shall redeem his daughters. (By the way, these laws are among those which move many to accuse God’s laws of promoting slavery, but the person who reads them closely will discover that they prevent the kind of slavery of oppression so prevalent in a world that ignores God’s laws.)
Alluding to these laws of slavery, Jesus proclaims, “If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.” Or as the apostles preached, “In him we have redemption through his blood.” In a world haunted by a history of enslavement and presently trafficking women and girls this is truly good news. But God uses his law here in Isaiah 50 as proof that he has not irreversibly cut off Israel from his covenant love in Jesus the Messiah. God says in (2) “Is my hand shortened, that it cannot redeem?” The answer is “certainly not!” God describes his unlimited power over the whole of his creation and he has reserved his right and liberty to redeem all his people form their sins.
Beginning in (4) the Suffering Servant sings his third song. His first lines describe his humility in his descent to earth as the incarnate Son of God. The Lord God has given him a human tongue with the purpose of speaking comfort to the weary. What a beautiful picture of Jesus, the Word of God proclaiming the gospel of redemption! This is the foretelling of Jesus who come to earth saying, “Let not your hearts be troubled….Come unto me all you who are weary and I will give you rest.”
In (5) the Suffering Servant says, “The Lord has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious.” What a beautiful picture of Jesus who perfectly does his Father’s will. This is Jesus in Gethsemane praying, “Not my will but your will be done.” This is Jesus, the only member of the human race to perfectly obey God’s law. As the author of Hebrews notes, “He was made like us in every respect but for sin.”
In (6) the Suffering Servant says, “I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.” What a horrific foretelling of the suffering of Jesus! This is Jesus in Caiaphas’ house where the kangaroo court concluded: “He deserves death.” Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?”
In (7-8) the Suffering Servant says, “I know that I shall not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near.” What an amazing allusion to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead! Most certainly Jesus suffered shame upon the cross but as the apostle Peter preached, God did “not abandoned his Son to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.”
In (10) the Suffering Servant who has put his trust in God even during his darkest moments, calls us to put our trust in God: “Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God.” This is Jesus’ call to all of us to fear God and to obey his voice. In Chapter 9 of his prophecy, Isaiah writes, “The people walking in darkness shall see a great light.” The apostle John wrote in his Gospel, “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” Put your trust in God who has shone the light of his Son into your darkness.
In (11) the Suffering Servant concludes his song with a foreboding warning: “Behold, all you who kindle a fire,
who equip yourselves with burning torches!
Walk by the light of your fire,
and by the torches that you have kindled!
This you have from my hand:
you shall lie down in torment.” Indeed many of us and many more in this world have attempted to kindle their own inner light. The world is full of teaching about finding light within ourselves or in the many ways we can manufacture light through human wisdom and ingenuity. Jesus has declared, “I am the light of the world! Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Why then would we try to walk by the light of our own fire? All who do so are warned. The Suffering Servant says, “This you have from my hand: you shall lie down in torment.” This is an allusion to the death of anyone who refuses Jesus as the light of the world replacing him with one’s own inner light or some other flickering flame. Why argue about whether or not the torment Jesus promises to those who refuse him is momentary or eternal? Either way, this promise of death in torment means separation from the light of the world, Jesus Christ.
The Suffering Servant has preached the gospel to us today, holding out the promise of his taking upon himself our shame and punishment. God the Father has promised to redeem his children, to unite us to his Son. The Suffering Servant has warned us of a torment to come upon all who replace him. Take these words to heart and put your trust in God. If you have yet to profess faith in Jesus the Messiah, then do so today.