This post continues a series of extracts from a draft chapter in the book The Words of the Covenant: A Biblical Theology, Vol. 1 (forthcoming, d.v.). Read the series.
God and Israel: A Special Bond
Isaiah 54 is a reminder to Israel that she bears a special relationship to Yahweh, who is both her Redeemer and Husband (Isa. 54:5). This role of husband has been seen already in Hosea (2:16) and will be repeated in Jeremiah (Jer. 3:14, 31:32).
It is no coincidence that what might properly be labelled “New covenant blessings” follow the atoning work of the Suffering Servant. The overtures of God to Israel ought to be taken for what they plainly are: a promise of a perpetual bond guaranteed by the covenant faithfulness of God. Like all the prophets, Isaiah is not backward in showing Israel her sin. But again, like the other prophets, he is a prophet of hope: “But My kindness shall not depart from you, nor shall My covenant of peace be removed” (Isa. 54:10).1 The “covenant of peace”—which is an expression that is appended to the redeemed priesthood in Numbers 25:12 and Ezekiel 37:26, or to restored Israel depicted as a haven in Ezekiel 34:25—is in Isaiah 54:10 a reference to God’s people as restored and protected (Isa. 54:17). But each use of the phrase is prophetic and concerns the things to come when the New covenant is enacted.
The prophet makes reference to the Noahic covenant (Isa. 54:9) to underscore the unwavering commitment of God to Israel. A great theme of Isaiah is what might be called “the Glory of God in a gloriously restored Israel.” The nation will be restored in their own land, with their own king and with their priesthood. Jerusalem (Zion) will become the most prestigious city in the world. This is the word of God in the prophets. It cannot be reinterpreted to say something it didn’t mean when it was uttered.
This unalterable word accomplishes what it was sent out to do (Isa. 55:11). I have made the strong claim that there exists a natural connection between God’s thoughts, God’s words, and God’s actions. If I am right about this, then the purpose for which God sends out His word (Isa. 55:11) matches the content of the words He chooses to utter. To put it another way, the result of the word of God closely corresponds to the words He “sends out.” In fact, to believe that the accomplishment of God’s word does not match the words He uses is just as absurd as trying to test a prophet while neglecting the words he uses when speaking a prediction.
The fulfillment is in the words; the purpose resides in what is said. It is folly to interpret Isaiah 55:8 as saying “My meaning is not your meaning.” If that were true, there would be no logical reason for God to say anything to the creature.
The vital connection between the Lord and the nation He created for Himself means that social justice is never too far out of the mind of God’s servants (e.g. Mic. 6:8; Isa. 1:16-17). Perhaps the clearest example of this concern is found in Isaiah 58:
Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:6-7)
A true people of God must reflect the character of God. All of life is moral. A life that mirrors God will understand why the character of God is both the source and the goal of their humanity. This is aptly put in a recent publication:
There is no moral thought that is not, quite simply, human thought, no human being that was not born to think responsibly about being, living, and doing; yet there is no moral thought that does not depend for whatever effect it may have upon a gift for which no human source can be credited. The relation of the self to God may or may not be consciously recognized, but whether it is or not, it underlies the sense of responsibility which gives the moral its character of urgency. But to the extent that it becomes conscious, it becomes explicit. Developed and self-conscious moral thinking begins and ends by calling on God.2
The question in verse 6 resonates with the heart cry of God. He calls His people to care for others like He does. They don’t, we don’t. That is another reason why Christ will come to spread justice and mercy over the face of this world. He will “come to Zion” (Isa. 59:20), and, with echoes of the New covenant portents of Deuteronomy 30:6, He will pour the Spirit upon His people so that they shall indeed be motivated to fulfill their moral calling (cf. Isa. 59:21).
When the Deliverer finally comes, He will initiate the ascendency of Israel and of Jerusalem (cf. Isa. 49:13; 62:1-4, 12): that is the theme of chapter 60.3 God is shown bidding His city to take its rightful place at the top of the future world’s government (Isa. 60:9-14). This same prediction comes from the prophet Zechariah after the Exile. God still intends to make Israel “the head and not the tail” (Deut. 28:13). Isaiah even states that, “the nation and kingdom which will not serve you shall perish, and those nations shall be utterly ruined” (Isa. 60:12).
True, interpreters often like to qualify this idea by speaking of the glorified Zion as a means to the end of turning the nations to God.4 But this is not what the texts say, and in my opinion the sentiment is encouraged by a nascent unbelief in the preeminence of the nation of Israel in the new order.
If Israel is indeed the bride of Yahweh (Isa. 54:5) it would not be surprising if one of God’s aims is to glorify her (Isa. 62:5). I see no reason to deflect that away from where God Himself places it. The affinity between bride and husband ought to be considered in such contexts. Then there will be no confusion created by the nations coming to glorify Israel in the new kingdom. The Lord’s presence will only make it more natural.
The two chapters 61 and 63 have common eschatological themes within them.
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me,
Because the LORD has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD… (Isaiah 61:1-2a)
Readers of the Gospel of Luke are very familiar with these verses. They were quoted by Jesus Himself at the synagogue at Nazareth right after His baptism and temptation5. Here in Isaiah they clearly refer to the One whom God calls to bring deliverance. He is the Messiah (Psa. 2:2; 45:7). And He is the “Branch,” the man of the Spirit (cf. also Isa. 42:1), who shall rule in righteousness and peace in the kingdom, and whom the Gentiles will seek (Isa. 11:1-10). And this is surely Isaiah’s Servant (“He has sent Me”), and He is Moses’ Prophet (“To proclaim liberty… to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord”). This passage ties in the roles perhaps more conclusively than any that have gone before.
The Spirit of God, who will give Him His mission and empowerment, endows the Servant to “heal,” (actually to “bind up,” chabash), and to “set free.” This Deliverer also speaks for God sui generis. Meditation of this text alone should have rid all doubts from the minds of Jesus’ auditors about His claims.
1 The word translated “kindness” in Isaiah 54:10 is the familiar hesed, perhaps better translated “loyal love.” Anderson refers to this word “one of the most important theological terms in the Old Testament.” – Bernhard W. Anderson, Contours of Old Testament Theology, 60. Leon Morris, “It is too much to that the word originates in the usages of covenant…It is possible to have hesedhwithout a covenant, but it is not possible to have a covenant without hesedh.” – Testaments of Love: A Study of Love in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 69
2 Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 38
3 McClain wrote, “Nothing in the whole field of Old Testament prophecy could possibly surpass the brilliance and grandeur of the 60th chapter of Isaiah; and its central theme is the restoration and world supremacy of the nation of Israel.” – Alva J. McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom, 211
4 See, e.g., James M. Hamilton, Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, 211 n.145. A fuller summation of Isaiah 60 is found in Thomas R. Schreiner, The King in His Glory, 340. However, Schreiner’s eschatology makes him look for a non-literal fulfillment of the promises (Ibid, 341).
5 See Luke 4:16-21.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.