Saturday, July 16, 2011

Hope and Healing from Isaiah, part two

Isaiah 40-55

Isaiah offers many words of comfort to the exiled people in chapters forty through fifty-five. Three characters dominate this section. Babylon serves as the oppressor agent who deported Judah. The people of Judah, the community of exiles, are the helpless victims. Yahweh, the God of Israel, comes as the emancipator who will act powerfully on behalf of the exiles.

Chapters 40-48 speak of God’s deliverance. They will be delivered from Babylon’s power. Chapter 40 begins this section offering encouragement to the exiles. To a people wondering if they have been abandoned by God, the Book of Consolation begins by saying,

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to
Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been
completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received
from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.

God’s people, though they have sinned and have been victims to an oppressor, will receive comfort and release. The author uses compassionate, tender language, reminding them of the Lord’s glory which will be revealed (3-5), assuring them of the surety of the Lord’s word to them (6-9), exhorting them to remember the recompense that accompanies the coming Lord (9-10), and depicting God’s relationship with his people as a shepherd and his sheep,

He tends his flock like a shepherd; he gathers the lambs in
his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads
those that have young.

Abused people need to hear that God will be gentle with them and will stay close to them. God promises to come and deal tenderly with his broken, oppressed people in exile. Brueggemann writes that the comfort given in this chapter is a “transformative solidarity; that is, not simply an offer of solace, but a powerful intervention that creates new possibilities.” The rest of the chapter (12-31) describes the essence and character of this Shepherd, who redirects their disenchanted eyes to himself, the One who will usher forth those new possibilities of hope and healing.

Isaiah reminds us that God is majestic (12-26). These qualities, his knowledge, his uniqueness, and his sovereign control over the world, are themes repeated throughout the next eight chapters. Hurting people are called to lift their eyes afresh to this incredible God. The exiles are called to put their faith this sovereign Lord, who has not forgotten them and has infinite knowledge about their situation and absolute power to deliver them in his time. Isaiah also comforts the exiles with the reality that god does watch over his people (27-31). In spite of Assyria and Babylon, Isaiah “encouraged the people to remember that God never relaxes; He is always watching His people.”

Chapters 41-48 declare the end of their misery. God will regather his people and make Babylon fall. Isaiah exhorts the Jews to live righteously, rejecting the trappings of Babylonian idolatry. One day God will open the way for them to leave Babylon. Until then, they need to trust in their God who is greater than any pagan nation.

God reminds his people that all nations are subject to God’s power (41:1-7, 21-29). Here the deliverance of God’s people by the hands of Cyrus is prophecied. The Lord promises to protect his chosen people; as the Redeemer he will be loyal to his servant (8-20). Isaiah provides three pictures of consolation in the victorious servant (8-13), the transformed worm (14-16), and the needy sustained (17-20). These pictures assure the exiles of divine intervention in the face of human hostility (the servant whose enemies are vanquished), personal weakness (the worm which becomes a threshing-sledge), and adverse circumstances (the desert traveler miraculously provided for). Here God reconfirms that Israel is Yahweh’s chosen people, despite the “deep disruption” of exile. Abused people need to know that in spite of perhaps years of oppression, they still belong to the Lord.

In chapter 42 and 43, Isaiah contrasts the faithfulness of the servant of the Lord with the unfaithfulness of the Jews. God’s servant will come and rescue Israel from bondage. God calls his people in this section to wait for the promise of the Lord to be fulfilled. The Jews are able to wait under oppressive circumstances not because of their faithfulness but because of the sterling faithfulness of the Lord and the surety of His promises. God will not accomplish his work with more oppression. Oswalt writes,

God’s answer to the oppressors of the world is not more
Oppression, nor is his answer to arrogance more arrogance; rather,
In quietness, humility, and simplicity, he will take all of the evil
Into himself and return only grace. That is power. Furthermore,
He will accomplish this task in truth. . . . [T]his work will be
accomplished; depend on it.

This call to depend on the faithfulness of Yahweh, to rely on his character, to trust in his Word, beckons the victims again to turn their eyes from their unfaithfulness and from their oppressors instead to the Lord.

Isaiah presents the uniqueness of God in chapters 44 – 45, reminding the people of how great are his promises. God is their Redeemer, contrasted with the worthless idols and their makers (44:6-23). Then God predicts more about the work of Cyrus (44:24-45:8). Isaiah describes God as sovereign over his creation (45:9-13) and calls the Gentile world to submit to God (45:14-25). The themes of God as Redeemer and as Sovereign surface. Both themes are essential to apply to his oppressed people. Willem VanGemeren writes,

Within Yahweh are two creative forces: the force to create
(recreate) and the force to redeem. Yahweh is the Creator
of the heavens and the earth. . . . While in exile, Israel
needed the reassurance that Jerusalem would be repopulated
and rebuilt and that the temple would be restored. The power
of Yahweh in creation, renewal, and redemption stands in
stark contrast to the impotence of the practitioners of magic
and divination.

While in exile the Jews had to believe in God’s sovereignty in order to wait for his redemption. He was not limited by their limitations of time, resources, or circumstances. Limitations would not stop God from redeeming his chosen people.

Isaiah declares that God is superior over the Babylonians in chapter 46 and predicts Babylon’s fall in chapter 47. Again the prophet portrays the character of God who can be trusted. Note the reminders from the Lord in these verses: I have upheld you since you were conceived (46:3); I have made you and will carry you (46:4); I am God and there is no other (46:9); and My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please (46:10). Babylon is warned, “Disaster will come upon you, and you will not know how to conjure it away.”

The Lord then exhorts Israel in chapter 48, continuing the themes of the exaltation of Yahweh, the dismissal of Babylon, and the emancipation of Israel. Stubborn Israel has neglected her covenant relationship. Nevertheless, God will free and redeem them:

“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.” The Lord will do this for his name’s sake, a phrase God repeatedly proclaims with emotion and passion. God calls them to remember the prophecies that their ancestors ignored about the coming captivity (1-11). Now God desires people who will return to their homeland with belief, not unbelief. Isaiah exhorts the people again to remember God’s sovereignty (12-19). Finally, he tells the people to prepare to leave Babylon (20-22). They must trust that just as God provided for the Jews when they escaped Egypt, he would provide for them as well in their second Exodus.

Chapters 49-55 speak of restoration. God will restore them to Jerusalem. David Payne writes of the difference between the sections of chapters 40-48 and 49-55, both addressed to the same people, the Jewish exiles in Babylon:
The exiles’ attention is drawn away from their unhappy situation
in Babylon, and directed towards the homeland, and in particular
to the mother-city. In prosaic fact, Jerusalem lay in ruins during
the exilic period; but the prophet is confidently looking forward
to its restoration and its future glories. This message was one of
permanent validity – setting hope and confident expectation in
front of God’s people in times when their vision tends to be limited.

This section of The Book of Consolation hinges on the concept of the servant of the Lord. The theme of the servant includes parallel applications of the text. First God is speaking to exiled Jews who long to return home. But the Spirit also uses these Scriptures to speak of another application. In contrast to the servant mentioned in chapters 40-48, this servant “will be God’s agent to bring his covenant to the people and his justice to the nations. In subtle but nevertheless clear ways the focus has shifted from the physical captivity of the Judeans to the moral and spiritual captivity of Israel and the whole world.” God uses Isaiah’s text to speak to the current situation of the recipients of the book as well as to future events.

Chapters 49-50 describe the servant, who will be rejected by his people and will take salvation to the Gentiles. The servant’s mission is described in 49:1-13. The imagery used here again is replete with words of consolation: “They will neither hunger nor thirst, nor will the desert heat or the sun beat upon them. He who has compassion on them will guide them and lead them beside springs of water.” God will be a shepherd to his needy people. Oswalt writes,

It is because of the character of the compassionate God who will not
lead them astray that the flock may expect to be cared for and protected.
It is significant that the attribute of God to which the OT returns again
and again is his compassion: his tenderness and his ability to be touched
by the pain and grief of his people. His transcendence and almighty
power are never forgotten, but it is his compassion to which they
return with wonder again and again.

Israel is assured of their coming restoration in 49:13-26. God answers the doubts of his people as to whether or not they have been abandoned, assuring them that he could no more forget them than could a mother the child at her breast. David Payne writes, “The present oracle responds to such despairing plaints with a message of miraculous hope.” Isaiah predicts the time when the Mighty One of Jacob will be their warrior and thus prove himself to be their Deliverer and Redeemer. Isaiah contrasts the sin of the Jews with the obedience of the servant in chapter 50. He opens the chapter reiterating God’s loyalty to his people by implying that he has not divorced them. It was because of their sins that the Jews experienced slavery, not because God had abandoned them. Obedience, suffering, and quiet confidence mark God’s servant.

The believing remnant will be exalted according to chapters 51-52:12. The text develops the theme of everlasting salvation of the people of God in nine strophes (51:1-3,4-6,7-8,9-11,12-16,17-23; 52:1-2,3-6,7-12) connected by the repetition of imperatives (listen, 51:1,4,7,21; 52:8; look, 51:1-2; awake, 51:9,17; 52:1; and depart, 52:11). The Lord wants the full attention of his people. He will be faithful in the present and future just as he was faithful in the past. His salvation will last forever. The idea of God’s righteousness is developed in this chapter. God will comfort his people, set the cowering prisoners free, and cover them with the shadow of his hand. He has taken away the shame of their sin and will take vengeance on their tormentors. The Lord has “sovereignly and graciously exchanged the shame of their exile and alienation for the glory of his presence.” The prophet exulted in the good news he brought to the people. When God brings redemption, his people will burst into joyful songs because of his comfort and redemption. As the Jews leave Babylon and in God’s people’s eschatological release and return, they are to confidently leave, knowing that God goes ahead of and behind them. Hughes writes,

Which city will be our home, our identity – Babylon or Zion?
The people of God cannot remain as they are. Israel had to
leave Egypt. The exiles had to flee Babylon. We too, must
decide and get moving. . . . Isaiah gives us two reasons
to remake our lives into a holy pilgrimage, spreading the
good news as far as we can (52:12). First, our motivation
is not panic but confidence, not loss but gain. Secondly, we
have God himself as our strong escort all the way. He is
on the move. He goes before his people in victory and
follows after to guard the stragglers. His loving presence
surrounds us. We have no reason to stay put, and we have
two good reasons to press on.

Isaiah reveals the servant as a suffering one who will be exalted in chapters 52:13-53. The centerpiece of this entire six-chapter section (49-55) is chapter fifty-three, picturing God’s people as suffering servants and prophetically pointing to the slain Lamb of God. In these sixteen chapters, Isaiah “envisions the renewal of a remnant united behind the servant.” The Lord Jesus Christ is prophecied with detail in this the last of the four Messiah/Servant Songs: “This section contains unarguable, incontrovertible proof that God is the author of Scripture and Jesus the fulfillment of messianic prophecy.” The Servant Song offers hope to hurting people, testifying,

“Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows. . . .But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. ” The healing God provides through the atonement is understood in a wholistic sense here: the healing of the person, restoring wholeness and completeness.

Salvation is prophesied as coming to the Jews and Gentiles in chapters 54-55. Israel can rejoice in the results of the suffering Servant’s redemption. The glory of the Lord will be revealed, barrenness will transform into fruitfulness, and fear and shame will be replaced by peace and rejoicing. Israel will be regathered and saved. Chapter 54 speaks of Israel’s numerical growth (1-3), her regathering (4-8), her security (9-10), and her peaceful future (11-17). People who have endured oppression will revel in the unfailing love of the Lord and not be shaken. Isaiah invites the entire world in chapter 55 to come to the Lord for salvation. An everlasting covenant is described. The effects of sin will be reversed and God will redeem his people.

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