Isaiah 50

Back in college I memorized this entire chapter, and I wonder if I would have understood then its redemptive-historical significance. The first few verses are the Lord speaking of Israel’s sin. Then verse four transitions into the “Sovereign Lord” speaking about the Servant’s obedience and vindication. The first verses seem to imply that Israel was blaming God for their predicament, but the Lord will have none of it. Their sins and transgressions caused the Lord to exile them.

By contrast, the Servant not only listens and obeys, he is willing to obey in the face of suffering:

I offered my back to those who beat me,
    my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard;
I did not hide my face
    from mocking and spitting.
Because the Sovereign Lord helps me,
    I will not be disgraced.
Therefore have I set my face like flint,
    and I know I will not be put to shame.

It must have been difficult for those looking for a conquering Messiah to contemplate how this might relate to the Servant. I know Jews interpret chapter 53 as relating to Israel, so they can’t see this back or beard or face as literal. We believe otherwise because Jesus did exactly this. As he contemplated the shame of the cross, Jesus must have often thought of these verses. He knew what would happen on the other side. His determination (like flint) was rooted in his belief that he would be vindicated, and how much more vindication can you get than the resurrection! Not only that, his life and teaching and name now span the globe, billions follow him. Vindication indeed! One one day every knee will bow . . .

The last two verses are very heavy and speak dramatically to the divide in the human heart. It is a stark contrast:

10 Who among you fears the Lord
    and obeys the word of his servant?
Let the one who walks in the dark,
    who has no light,
trust in the name of the Lord
    and rely on their God.
11 But now, all you who light fires
    and provide yourselves with flaming torches,
go, walk in the light of your fires
    and of the torches you have set ablaze.
This is what you shall receive from my hand:
    You will lie down in torment.

Either we admit our natural blindness and complete dependence on our God, or we think we’re sharp enough to have this thing called life figured out, and that we really don’t need him. Most of those in the latter category “believe in God,” but as James says, even the demons believe and tremble. Of course this all goes back to Genesis 3 and Satan’s temptation that we will “be like God.” In this universe there is only room for one, and apart from him, the source and ground of existence, is only torment.

Isaiah 49

This chapter is drenched with Jesus. It’s given the title by the NIV as, “The Servant of the Lord.” This Servant tells the “islands” and “distant nations”:

Before I was born the Lord called me;
    from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.

The reference to the nations reminds me of these verses in Psalm 2, a thoroughly Messianic Psalm:

I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:

He said to me, “You are my son;
    today I have become your father.
Ask me,
    and I will make the nations your inheritance,
    the ends of the earth your possession.

God’s promise of salvation and his Messiah’s mission is always universal. Israel was a stepping stone to the entire world that God so loved. In verse 3 he calls this Servant “Israel,” but then says in verse 5 that he will “gather Israel” to the Lord, that he will “restore the tribes of Jacob.” The name Israel, given to Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, means wrestle with God. Right after calling the Servant Israel it says:

I have labored in vain;
    I have spent my strength for nothing at all.
Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand,
    and my reward is with my God.

To the followers of Jesus his life and ministry certainly appeared in vain as he hung dying on a Roman cross. He himself greatly feared what he had to endure, but his obedience was our righteousness, and we became his reward. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross,” and that joy, as incomprehensible as it is, is us!

Then in verse 6 we read these prophetic words:

I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
    that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

We read the same words in the mouth of Simeon in Luke 2 when Jesus is brought to the Temple by his parents. Once they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, there were no doubts among his followers who Jesus was, and that the salvation he brought was available to people of every nation on earth.

The rest of the chapter is a recitation of God’s faithfulness to his promise to save, both to Israel and to the Gentiles. Too many Christians miss what is so obvious here because they don’t carefully read the Old Testament: salvation is completely based on what God will do for us. Too many Christians embrace a type of moralism as if their relationship to God turned on whatever they do or don’t do. After telling us what he will do, the “Sovereign Lord” says that “those who hope in me will not be disappointed.” Christians who focus on or get hung up on what they do or don’t do are missing the point. Our hope is in HIM! As we go forward a few chapters we’ll learn that this means that he will provide a way that our sins will be paid for, his wrath satisfied in this Servant, so that we sinners can have a relationship with a holy God, our consciences as pure as if we’d never ever sinned. 

And finally, this is a generational gift.

16 See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
    your walls are ever before me.
17 Your children hasten back,
    and those who laid you waste depart from you.
18 Lift up your eyes and look around;
    all your children gather and come to you.
As surely as I live,” declares the Lord,
    “you will wear them all as ornaments;
    you will put them on, like a bride.

Our children are never “strangers to the covenant.” We baptize them because they are part of the covenant. God’s promises in Christ are promises to them. This generational promise signified in baptism is a powerful reality in helping to equip us to keep our kids Christian.

Isaiah 46-48

These three chapters depict God’s sovereign decrees in history to accomplish his ends of judgment and salvation, all for his glory. I think I’m beginning to see why Isaiah, and the Lord through him, continue to pound home the juxtaposition of the power of the Lord to the futility of idols. In chapter 48 we read these words from the Lord:

11 For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this.
    How can I let myself be defamed?
    I will not yield my glory to another.

The cynic reads these words and see a megalomaniac, a being who is obsessed with his own power. But human beings were created to rightly find their glory in their Creator. Without the fall, man would never have sought glory elsewhere. After the fall, man’s hope, fulfillment, significance, purpose, everything that makes a human being a human, is unnaturally oriented to idols. It’s a binary, either/or choice. There is no neutral ground. If we do not worship or glory in our Creator, will will worship and glory in idols. So the whole of Israel’s history is a very long object lesson in the futility of idols versus God’s power to save his people Israel, and all of it pointing to we who are now, the fulfillment in Christ.

The Lord also declares his sovereignty over history, referring to a man he will bring from the east to fulfill his purpose. This is Cyrus, the Persian king referred to in previous chapters, who will destroy Babylon years into the future. I’ve read how “critical” scholars say this must have been an interpolation because Isaiah couldn’t have known what would happen to Babylon a hundred plus years in the future. Of course they beg the question and assume either there is no God or God is not the author of Scripture. They assume it’s solely a human book, but cannot prove it.

An apologetics point. We know from the discoveries at Qumran that the complete book of Isaiah found there dates from 125 BC, and is almost identical, word for word, to the Masoretic text, which is a thousand years older. We know by this that not only is it possible for scribes to transmit a hand written text accurately over a very long time, but that Jews and their scribes took the text of what they considered Scripture very seriously. The “critical” scholars want us to believe that once Isaiah passed from the scene and his writings became part of the Prophets whose words Israel revered, some scribes in the future would willy nilly just change whatever they wanted to reflect current history (basically lying in the text), and everyone would accept those changes without question. I don’t buy it. As Peter tells us, and this is good enough for me:

For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

We know God can predict the future because he is the author of all of history, as we read here in chapter 48:

Remember the former things, those of long ago;
    I am God, and there is no other;
    I am God, and there is none like me.
10 I make known the end from the beginning,
    from ancient times, what is still to come.
I say, ‘My purpose will stand,
    and I will do all that I please.’

God is always pointing us backward to what he has done so that we can confidently look forward to what he promises he will do.

Chapter 47 is a prediction of the fall and devastation to come upon Babylon, and 48 another recitation of Israel’s rebellion and idolatry. You’d think by now they/we would have gotten the message, but we live in a fallen world where the gravitational pull of sin, in and all around us, is slightly less powerful than a black hole. By God’s grace and power we can escape the pull, but the force of the pulling never stops while we traverse through a world dominated by Adam and Eve’s rebellion, and ours. The chapter ends with a perfect contrast with the two possibilities of life:

17 This is what the Lord says—
    your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
“I am the Lord your God,
    who teaches you what is best for you,
    who directs you in the way you should go.
18 If only you had paid attention to my commands,
    your peace would have been like a river,
    your well-being like the waves of the sea.

Among other blessings. The other option is in the final verse:

22 “There is no peace,” says the Lord, “for the wicked.”

The peace the Lord gives can only be had in Christ because by nature we are all wicked, dead in our sin. This is obviously implied by “If you had paid attention.” We can’t! But in Him we are granted peace apart from our works, which then flow out of the right relationship with him he himself established. What amazing grace!


Isaiah 45

In this chapter, the Lord is letting it be known in no uncertain terms exactly who is the boss. He twice mentions the king of Persia, Cyrus, whom he will use to deliver Israel from their captivity in Babylon some 150 years in the future. The point the Lord makes is a simple one, but one we seem to continually forget: He is God. We are constantly tempted to believe our circumstances are somehow autonomous and beyond his control. We treat him as if he’s the ultimate Pinball Wizard: like the deaf, dumb, and blind kid, he sure plays a mean pinball, but once the ball goes, where it comes down nobody knows. I think for many if not most Christians, God is more the deist than the biblical God. However, the God of the Bible, Yahweh, declares:

I am the Lord, and there is no other;
    apart from me there is no God.
I will strengthen you,
    though you have not acknowledged me,
so that from the rising of the sun
    to the place of its setting
people may know there is none besides me.
    I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form the light and create darkness,
    I bring prosperity and create disaster;
    I, the Lord, do all these things.

Verse 7 is a big problem for those who don’t see God as sovereign over all things. Whatever disaster means, it certainly means things we would call “evil.” I’m thinking of natural disasters or war or accidents, things that cause many people to either quit believing in God, or refusing to follow him. Undoubtedly, such things are difficult if not at times seemingly impossibly to accept. But the Lord makes his case in the rest of the chapter that we must.

Just as he said to Job, you may think you can question the creator of all of reality, but it is his creation, and he can do with it as he wishes. Having said that, the God is Israel is not a capricious God. By definition, being the ground of all existence, he cannot do wrong. He says in verse 19, “I, the Lord, speak the truth; I declare what is right.” And as we saw back in Deuteronomy 32 that Moses understood who is this Lord Israel follows and declares:

I will proclaim the name of the Lord.
    Oh, praise the greatness of our God!
He is the Rock, his works are perfect,
    and all his ways are just.
A faithful God who does no wrong,
    upright and just is he.

Moses had seen a lot of nasty stuff in his day, but this is the conclusion he came to after his long and tumultuous life. Regardless of events or circumstances that might appear imperfect, unjust, or wrong to us, they are not because God is orchestrating this ultimate reality show we call life to its perfect end. He clearly uses sinful, fallen means to achieve his righteous ends. Just look at the cross.

The only other option to the the true and living God is idols, and he calls them over and over again in this chapter, like he’s done in others, what they are, nothing. The choice is a stark one. We either find in him all our meaning, hope, fulfillment, purpose, significance, acceptance, everything humans crave, in him, or try to find it in illusions. But many people will go to their graves clinging to those very illusions. The perfect end I refer to ends this chapter:

22 “Turn to me and be saved,
    all you ends of the earth;
    for I am God, and there is no other.
23 By myself I have sworn,
    my mouth has uttered in all integrity
    a word that will not be revoked:
Before me every knee will bow;
    by me every tongue will swear.
24 They will say of me, ‘In the Lord alone
    are deliverance and strength.’”
All who have raged against him
    will come to him and be put to shame.
25 But all the descendants of Israel
    will find deliverance in the Lord
    and will make their boast in him.

Notice the Lord makes a universal plea hearkening back to “all the peoples of the earth” who will be blessed through his promise to Abraham, and that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. This we now know was all accomplished with perfect justice in Christ, and before him, every knee will bow, and every tongue confess. Here the stark choice has its ultimate fulfillment, the sheep and the goats. There will be those who bow down and worship in gratitude for his “deliverance and strength,” and those who “have raged against him.” I love how God’s vision is always eschatological. These descendants were those promised to Adam and Eve, through Noah, Abraham and the Patriarchs. These are us! And the Lord God, Jesus Christ, is our only boast!

Isaiah 44

The chapter begins with the Lord again affirming that he has chosen and formed Israel, his people, “in the womb.”  He further promises he will bless them by “pouring out his Spirit” on their offspring. I have no doubt this is a reference to Pentecost. These people, us, will love to be called by the name of the Lord, even to writing it on our very heads. We want to be known as the Lord’s! And how true is that. Billions of people all over the world love and proclaim his name!

Verses 6-20 are a wonderfully mocking recitation of the futility of idols compared to the Lord, Israel’s King and Redeemer. Written next to verse six I have Luke 23:3 written down. There Pilate asks Jesus a pointed question:

“Are you the king of the Jews?” “You have said so,” Jesus replied.

By affirming that he is Israel’s King, Jesus is declaring nothing less than what verse six says of Israel’s King, he is The Lord himself, Yahweh, and their Redeemer. Here we have yet another in the many claims Jesus made to his divinity all throughout the gospels.

This God, our God, Jesus, is then compared to the worthlessness of idols. But there really is no comparison because idols are literally nothing. They are the very definition of vacuousness, and then in verse 18 we have this description of those who worship them:

18 They know nothing, they understand nothing;
    their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,
    and their minds closed so they cannot understand.

In Calvinist terms this is known as total depravity. Those who worship idols, i.e. anything other than the true and living God, are incapable of doing anything else. We note the stark contrast in this chapter. You have those whom the Lord has chosen and “formed in the womb,” and then you have everyone else. Salvation is uniquely, completely, and totally a work of the Lord! Unless the Lord himself takes the plaster off their eyes and opens their minds, idolaters will always remains in darkness. Verse 20 affirms this:

20 He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him;
    he cannot save himself, or say,
    “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”

He cannot save himself. Can it be any more clear that we, without God forming us to be his, are dead in our sins? Not mostly dead, a la Westley in Princess Bride, but completely, totally dead. As Miracle Max says, “There’s a big difference between all dead and mostly dead.” He further clarifies, “Mostly dead is slightly alive.” But most Evangelicals want it both ways. Yes, we’re dead in our sins, as Paul says in Ephesians 2, not “mostly dead.” As he further says in Romans, “the wages of sin is death.” And Yes, God promised Adam that he would “surely die” if he ate “from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

But most Christians can’t stand the idea that God has the sovereign right to elect those whom he will save, and those he will not save. That he is the one who will chose who will spend eternity with him. So only to be fair, God has to give everybody a shot. I’ve heard it said, and I cringe, that God will not force himself on anybody, as if God’s supernatural act of raising his people spiritually from the dead is a form of coercion analogous to man’s force over other people. As Martin Luther argued, mankind, every single one of us, has a will in total bondage to sin. We are all deaf and blind idolaters by nature. Only a supernatural act of God’s grace can rescue us from ourselves.

The final verses of the chapter are God declaring again that he will redeem Israel, and isn’t this a picture of exactly what he does with his church? He chose, saved, formed, and redeemed Israel. Out of all the people’s of the world, they were the only ones he chose, and the purpose of his active work of redemption is sin:

22 I have swept away your offenses like a cloud,
    your sins like the morning mist.
Return to me,
    for I have redeemed you.”

The Lord proclaims that Israel will be brought back and Jerusalem established, and the temple rebuilt. So this is history, but eschatologically this refers to the new heavens and earth where he will dwell with his people forever. That is why he had to deal with our sin, which him himself did in Christ.

Isaiah 43

Yahweh almost appears to be schizophrenic. Is it judgment or salvation? It’s almost as if he can’t make up his mind. I wonder what those reading this chapter, or all of Isaiah, without the 20/20 hindsight we have this side of the resurrection would have thought about it. Maybe, why can’t the Lord make up his mind! But if you look at it with a redemptive-historical lens it all makes perfect sense. Even those the Lord himself created and formed, his people Israel, are always prone to wander.

Like Israel we can’t ever in this life, in this body, perfectly obey God’s law. We can never, as Jesus commands, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” After 56 years on this year in this body, it is more clear than ever that perfection isn’t in the cards. I think this is one of the reasons we get the historical object lesson of Israel; despite their inability, God himself comes to the rescue:

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
    I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
    they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
    you will not be burned;
    the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior;

The Lord our God owns us; he purchased us because he redeemed us. We are his! I’m not sure about the historical references of waters, rivers, fire, and flames (some commentators think he hearkens back to the Exodus), but surely they can be metaphors for the challenges of life. As the saying goes, stuff happens. Life is hard, but we can have confidence that God himself is our Savior. And we know this salvation isn’t primarily about the physical people of Israel and their land and enemies. We now know it is a salvation from sin and death, ultimately. Our confidence (I like that we can “walk” through fire; no hurry, no panic) has to be eschatological, rooted in eternity and the promise that we will be like Jesus, sown perishable, as Paul says, raised imperishable.

The Lord promises to bring back his exiled people, which is a picture of those exiled in sin brought back to his presence. This promise is to:

everyone who is called by my name,
    whom I created for my glory,
    whom I formed and made.”

I love this image of God as architect or artist, one who molds and shapes, this God is our Savior. He is the one doing the acting, the initiating, we the responding. And he does it all not primarily for our good, but for his glory. Always gotta start and end with his glory. This is further clarified in these following verses of those who are the Lord’s witnesses, those he has chosen:

so that you may know and believe me
    and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
    nor will there be one after me.
11 I, even I, am the Lord,
    and apart from me there is no savior.
12 I have revealed and saved and proclaimed—
    I, and not some foreign god among you.
You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “that I am God.
13     Yes, and from ancient days I am he.
No one can deliver out of my hand.
    When I act, who can reverse it?”

Could it be any more clear who does the saving? Where the focus should be? Not on our sin, but on his saving, his glory, his power. I love verse 12. He has revealed and saved and proclaimed. His activity in communication (revelation and proclamation) surrounds, comes before and after, his action, his salvation. Although it’s likely reading something into the text that isn’t there, this can easily refer to God’s revelation in redemptive history up to Christ, the salvation that was brought to the world in Christ, then the proclamation of that salvation after his resurrection. Something tells me God had this all very carefully planned out.

In the final 14 verses, the Lord again declares his salvation from Babylon. He tells Israel they will go on sinning, and even that he will continue to be burdened and wearied by their sins. But even their sin will not deter him from his ultimate mission:

25 “I, even I, am he who blots out
    your transgressions, for my own sake,
    and remembers your sins no more.

And he wants to make it very clear in the last three verses that this has absolutely nothing to do with anything they could have done to earn it, even their religious observances. He saves in spite, never because of. What comforting words to sinners in need of saving. We know now how he can not remember our sins, which are ever before us: He gives us, as Paul declares, his very own righteousness in Christ! How counter intuitive it is to us in our fallen state that sinners can have a clean conscience. The writer to the Hebrews puts it well:

19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.

As always it should be, full assurance is ours if we focus on Him!

Isaiah 42

There are so many things one could comment on in this chapter, but familiar themes emerge. The promise of a coming servant who will bring justice and righteousness. He will be a “light to the Gentiles,” and then these words Jesus references when he answers John the Baptist’s disciples question if Jesus was the one:

to open eyes that are blind,
    to free captives from prison
    and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.

And from the context of this chapter, it seems clear to me that Jesus is claiming that he is the Lord, Yahweh himself. Only Almighty God can do the things we read about in the first 9 verses of this chapter. He will:

  • Bring justice to the nations
  • Establish justice on earth
  • In his law the islands will put their hope
  • The Lord will make him a covenant for the people
  • He will be a light for the gentiles

And in one of the beautiful verses in all of Scripture that speaks to his merciful, kind and benevolent heart:

A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.

This is so often us. When life in a fallen world, in a fallen body does its thing to us we can feel on the verge of just giving up. When it all seems so senseless and useless and joyless, he will not give up on us. I think there is a reason why this verse is between the two references to him bringing and establishing justice. Everything can seem so wrong at times, but our hope is that he will eventually set it all right.

Verses 10-17 are titled “Song of Praise to the Lord.” Again, the Lord is doing, and his people respond. Ultimately, here is what he will do:

16 I will lead the blind by ways they have not known,
    along unfamiliar paths I will guide them;
I will turn the darkness into light before them
    and make the rough places smooth.
These are the things I will do;
    I will not forsake them.

We get a taste of this now, a glimpse of the light, but it is never easy. As Jesus says, “In this world you will have trouble.” But he doesn’t leave it there, or we would be without hope. He has overcome the world!

The only other option to Jesus is this:

17 But those who trust in idols,
    who say to images, ‘You are our gods,’
    will be turned back in utter shame.

In a phrase that seems to have become popular in our day, it is a binary choice: God or idols. The point is that we need something. We can’t live without trying to find meaning or hope or significance or fulfillment, and we will either try to find that in the living God or idols. The vacuum in our souls must be filled by something, and only peace with God through Christ will do it.

The final verses reiterate Israel’s sin; they remain deaf and blind. The Lord has given him his great law, but they refused to obey. Thus his anger in the form of war will come, and they will be exiled from the promised land, from God’s presence. It doesn’t say that specifically here, but that is always the result of rebellion against God. Even has he promises not to forsake them, he promises judgment. In Christ we see and experience both.