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ISAIAH 40-55. THE CONTEXT
In Isaiah 40-55 (Second Isaiah or Deutero-Isaiah), the prophet is preparing the people for the end of their exile and their return to Jerusalem. He begins by saying, “Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (40:1-2). He relays God’s promise, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (40:4-5). Chapters 40-55 are full of promise and call for a joyful response by the people.
Chapters 42-53 of the book of Isaiah contain four Servant Songs. The Servant is God’s agent to do God’s work in the world.
• The first song (42:1-4) tells of the call of the Servant to “bring justice to the nations” (42:1).
• In the second song (49:1-6), God further defines the Servant’s mission. The Servant is “to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel” (49:6a). But the Servant’s mission doesn’t end with Israel. God says, “I will also give you for a light to the nations, that you may be my salvation to the end of the earth” (49:6b).
• The third song (50:4-9) doesn’t use the word, “servant,” but nevertheless describes the work and tenacious faith of the Servant. God has given the Servant a tongue to teach and encourage the people (50:4). God has given the servant an ear to hear God and to hear the people (50:5). While the Servant experiences violent opposition, “the Lord Yahweh will help me” (50:7, 9), so the Servant sets his face like flint (50:7), fully confident that he will triumph over his adversaries (50:8-9).
• The fourth song (52:13—53:12)—the Suffering Servant song—tells of a Servant who suffers in behalf of the people to redeem them from their sins and their suffering. This Servant “was pierced for our transgressions” and “by his wounds we are healed” (53:5). “He was oppressed, yet when he was afflicted he didn’t open his mouth. As a lamb that is led to the slaughter…, he didn’t open his mouth” (53:7). “They made his grave with the wicked” (53:9), but “My righteous servant will justify many by knowledge of himself; and he will bear their iniquities” (53:11).
The identity of the Servant, who seems to be an individual in some places and a group in others, has been a subject of scholarly debate, but with little consensus. Some think of the Servant as Israel, and it is likely that the prophet thought in those terms—although the prophet might have had in mind an individual such as Hezekiah or Cyrus.
But ultimately, while not named as such in this book, the Servant is to be the messiah—and the messiah is to be Jesus:
• Matthew links Jesus with the Servant when he says, “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying: ‘He took our infirmities, and bore our diseases” (Matthew 8:17, quoting Isaiah 53:4).
• He does so a second time in Matthew 12:17-21, quoting Isaiah 42:1-4.
• In the book of Acts, the Ethiopian eunuch quoted Isaiah 53:7-8, which Philip used to explain Jesus to him (Acts 8:32-35).
• In his letter to the Roman church, Paul quotes Isaiah 52:15 to speak of the preaching of the gospel of Christ (Romans 15:20-21).
“The identification of the servant with Christ allowed the Church to develop a concept of a suffering Messiah, a concept essentially foreign to Judaism” (Myers, 928).
Chapters 54 and 55 continue to flesh out the work of the Servant. They call the people to rejoice, because “the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer” (54:5). They promise that God’s “loving kindness shall not depart from you” (54:10). They invite those who thirst, “Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (55:1). They counsel, “Seek Yahweh while he may be found” (55:6). They promise, “For you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace (55:12).
ISAIAH 55:1-7. AN URGENT INVITATION
A dozen imperative verbs give verses 1-7 an urgent tone—but a happy urgency. These verses invite the listener to eat and drink (vv. 1-2)—to listen and live (v. 3)—to experience an everlasting covenant and steadfast love (v. 3)—to be glorified (v. 5)—to find the Lord (v. 6)—and to receive the Lord’s mercy (v. 7).
It sounds too good to be true, like the promises of a carnival barker or a Madison Avenue ad agency—but these offers come, not from someone who is trying to exploit our weaknesses, but from Yahweh, who wants to save us. These promises have the backing of the one who created the universe—who is willing and able to fulfill his promises. Moreover, he waits longingly, like a loving father waiting for an errant child to return—hoping for the opportunity to give—to satisfy—to love—to save.
ISAIAH 55:1-2. EAT YOU THAT WHICH IS GOOD
1“Come, everyone who thirsts, to the waters! Come, he who has no money, buy, and eat! Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2Why do you spend money for that which is not bread? and your labor for that which doesn’t satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat you that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.”
“Come, everyone who thirsts, to the waters” (v. 1a). Yahweh is extending an invitation that, at first blush, appears to be universal—”everyone,” the invitation says! But then we see a qualifier that limits the invitation—”everyone who thirsts,” it says! Those who don’t hunger or thirst need not apply.
Thirst is a physical craving—even stronger than the craving for food. A person cannot survive long without water. A person crossing a desert or afloat in a life raft on a salty ocean will crave water above all else. But hunger and thirst also serve as metaphors (symbols) for spiritual longings. Jesus will promise, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6).
But who isn’t thirsty? People who have a plenteous supply of water aren’t likely to be thirsty. A call to drink will have more appeal to some than to others. The people most likely to hear the voice of a street vendor hawking water in a village market are those who are desperate for a drink. Their ears will perk up at the word “water.” They will hear that sound through the hubbub of the crowd. Their hearts will leap at the prospect of a drink—if they have a coin to buy a cup of water. If they have no money, such an invitation will only remind them of their thirst and their poverty.
On a spiritual level, the self-satisfied and self-righteous don’t hunger and thirst for righteousness, because they believe themselves to be perfectly all right—superior to other people. They pray, “God, I thank you, that I am not like the rest of men” (Luke 18:11), but their prayers avail them nothing. But those who hunger and thirst for righteousness pray, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13), and they go down to their house justified—”for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
Those who exalt themselves are usually people who have reason to be proud of their achievements. Wealth makes it difficult to be humble. Jesus says, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter into the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to enter in through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24-25). People who think of themselves as “self-made” have a problem. But religious people have a problem too. The scribes and Pharisees and chief priests—the ones who killed Jesus—were not the worst of the worst but the best of the best. We who are in leadership positions in the church need to remember to pray, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
“Come, he who has no money, buy, and eat” (v. 1b). How unexpected! Yahweh’s invitation is open to those who have no money. The thirsty person won’t have to produce a coin to purchase a drink. The hungry person won’t be faced with the inflated prices that we see at street fairs and sports arenas. The father or mother won’t have to mortgage the house to buy the kids a hot dog and soft drink. Everything here is free!
“Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (v. 1c). This seems paradoxical (absurd or contradictory). How can a person buy something with no money? If God intends to offer something without payment, we would expect the invitation to say, “Come and take what you need.”
The words “without price” provide a clue. Yahweh is offering that which is without price—priceless—beyond price—too precious to have a price tag. Some people would protest that everything has a price tag and everyone has his or her price, but the truly precious things in life are beyond price. If someone wanted to buy your child, what would you charge? How would you set the price? Well, O.K., there are moments which you might not charge very much, but those pass. How much would you charge for your freedom? For your eyes? For your health? Those are priceless—beyond price.
Yahweh is offering that which is priceless—too precious to have a price tag. “Wine” and Yahweh is offering that which is priceless—too precious to have a price tag. “Wine” and “milk” serve as metaphors for that which is beyond price—for that which sustains life. Yahweh isn’t offering just wine and milk but a place at the banquet table. What would a king charge for a place at his table? How much would you expect God to charge for a place at his table? If God were to name a price, how would you raise the money?
But this is an offer of pure grace. God has something priceless to offer, but he intentionally sets a price that everyone can afford—FREE! The only requirement is that we respond to the invitation—that we “come, buy and eat!” While this verse does not say that those who fail to respond will go hungry, it implies as much. “Come, buy, and eat!” is the invitation. Don’t go hungry any longer!
“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread? And your labor for that which doesn’t satisfy?” (v. 2a). In this context, “spend your money” is a metaphor (a symbol) for investing one’s life. “Bread” is a metaphor for that which gives strength and sustains life. Yahweh asks the people why they invest in that which gives them no strength and has no potential to sustain their lives. Why do they invest in that which pays no dividends? Why do they fritter away their lives on things that don’t count?
Just imagine the homiletical possibilities in this verse. Think of the frivolous ways that people spend money—expensive cars and boats and RVs and McMansions. Those things provide a certain amount of pleasure, but in many cases they cost more than the person can afford and thus end up mortgaging the person’s future. In many cases, they are an attempt to buy prestige—to impress the neighbors. One wonders if the neighbors wouldn’t be more impressed by a kind word or a generous gesture or a life well-lived.
And one wonders how long the pleasure will last. It is great fun to get behind the wheel of an expensive new car or boat or RV. What about five years later? Will it still be fun when the maintenance bills begin to mount? Will we still celebrate the decision to buy the expensive toy when it is ready for the junkyard? Why do we work to impress the Jonses, whom we really don’t like all that well anyway? Why do we buy into the rat-race? Why do we “labor for that which doesn’t satisfy?”
Of course, many people who could never buy a luxury car or RV nevertheless invest their lives in “that which does not satisfy.” They spend their money on frivolous things and their time on purposeless living. Why do they buy “that which is not bread” and “labor for that which doesn’t satisfy?”
“listen diligently to me, and eat you that what is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness”(v. 2b). This is not a rebuke but an invitation. Yahweh invites the people (including us) to “eat what is good.” This isn’t an invitation to a diet of broccoli and wheat germ. Yahweh says, “Let your soul delight in fatness”—meaning rich, tasty food.
Of course, it is not an invitation to eat marbled beef and supersized desserts either. It is an invitation to invest our lives in things that really satisfy—things rich in purpose and meaning. At its root, it is an invitation to join Yahweh at his banquet table—to invest our lives in relationship to God—to allow God to set the direction for our lives—to live in faith that God will provide what we need to live joyfully. To live in that kind of faith causes fear to shrink and confidence to grow. It leads to purposeful living—to lives that bring great satisfaction.
ISAIAH 55:3-5. I WILL MAKE AN EVERLASTING COVENANT WITH YOU
3Turn your ear, and come to me; hear, and your soul shall live: and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David. 4Behold, I have given him for a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander to the peoples. 5Behold, you shall call a nation that you don’t know; and a nation that didn’t know you shall run to you, because of Yahweh your God, and for the Holy One of Israel; for he has glorified you.
“Turn your ear, and come to me; hear, and your soul shall live: and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David” (v. 3). Yahweh expands the invitation with two additional benefits. The first is that “your soul may live” and the second has to do with “an everlasting covenant.”
“an everlasting covenant” (v. 3). Earlier, Yahweh promised David: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16; see also 2 Samuel 23:5; 1 Kings 8:23-26; 1 Chronicles 17:23-26; 2 Chronicles 1:9). The unconditional (everlasting, eternal) nature of that covenant contrasts with the covenant that God made with Moses. In that covenant, God promised blessings to the people if they were faithful, but warned about severe punishment if they were unfaithful (Deuteronomy 28).
However, even under the “everlasting covenant,” Yahweh is not bound to ignore the people’s unfaithfulness. He said:
“If his children forsake my law,
and don’t walk in my ordinances;
if they break my statutes,
and don’t keep my commandments;
then I will punish their sin with the rod,
and their iniquity with stripes.
But I will not completely take my loving kindness from him,
nor allow my faithfulness to fail.
I will not break my covenant,
nor alter what my lips have uttered.
Once have I sworn by my holiness,
I will not lie to David.
His seed will endure forever,
his throne like the sun before me.
It will be established forever like the moon,
the faithful witness in the sky”
This is, in fact, what has happened. Because of the people’s unfaithfulness, Yahweh allowed the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem and to take the people into exile. Now Yahweh is bringing that exile to an end. He has lifted up the Persian king, Cyrus, who will allow the exiles to return to their homeland and to rebuild Jerusalem.
“Behold, I have given him for a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander to the peoples”(v. 4). The “him” in this verse is David. God established a covenant with David, who became a witness, a leader, and a commander. With God’s help, David became a great king and Israel became a great nation. David’s accomplishments served to witness to God’s power—and God’s plans for Israel.
But David is long-since dead. Now Israel, freed from exile, will serve as a witness to Yahweh (43:10; 44:8) (Muilenburg, 646; Hanson, 179).
“Behold, you shall call a nation that you don’t know, and a nation that didn’t know you shall run to you” (v. 5a). Who is the “you” of this verse? It could be Israel, although references to Israel are more typically plural while the “you” in this verse is singular. It could be the Davidic Messiah (Oswalt, 440). Dunn thinks this verse to be addressed to Darius the Persian king (Dunn, 818). The question remains unresolved.
“because of Yahweh your God, and for the Holy One of Israel; for he has glorified you” (v. 5b). But if the identity of “you” remains unresolved, the identity of the speaker is clear. The speaker is “the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel”—the one who created the heavens and the earth—the one who is completely holy but who nevertheless, in love, identifies with oft-disobedient Israel.
ISAIAH 55:6-7. SEEK YAHWEH WHILE HE MAY BE FOUND
6Seek Yahweh while he may be found; call you on him while he is near: 7let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to Yahweh, and he will have mercy on him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
“Seek Yahweh while he may be found; call you on him while he is near” (v. 6). Can’t God always be found? Isn’t God always near? While it is true that God does not forsake those who seek him (Psalm 9:10) and that “those who seek Yahweh shall not lack any good thing” (Psalm 34:10), it is also true that there are times when the Lord seems either more or less accessible.
These people are coming to the end of a decades-long exile that was punishment for their sins. During this exile, they felt that the Lord had abandoned them. Now the prophet is bringing them word that their exile is drawing to a close and that the Lord has drawn near once more. It is a golden moment, one that they dare not allow to pass unacknowledged. If they seek the Lord now, “while he may be found,” the Lord will have mercy on them and pardon them (v. 7). If they fail to seek the Lord now, the implication is that Yahweh will abandon them to their wickedness. During their exile, they have known what it feels like to be abandoned. Now is their opportunity to reverse that. All they have to do is to “seek the Lord while he may be found” and to “call upon him while he is near.”
There are rich homiletical possibilities in this verse. There are times and seasons when it is easy to seek and find the Lord. A young person in a church youth group can find it easy to seek the Lord. We feel drawn to seek the Lord’s blessing when we get married or when a baby joins our family. We feel drawn to seek the Lord’s help when illness besets us or grief drives us to our knees. There are other moments when, for no apparent reason, we feel mysteriously drawn to the Lord. Our response in those moments will determine the direction that we will take—possibly for the rest of our lives—for eternity. It is vitally important that we admit the Lord into our lives in those moments when “he may be found”—when “he is near.”
In a similar vein, there are moments when parents can help their children to establish a relationship with the Lord—moments that pass quickly and seldom return. When our children are small, they emulate our spiritual values. If we are seeking the Lord in our own lives, they are more than likely to seek the Lord in their lives. If prayer and worship are an important part of our lives, they are more likely to become part of our children’s lives as well. We have a few years when we can read our children Bible stories and take them to Sunday school and church. We have a few years when we can encourage them to participate in a church youth group. But those years pass quickly. With each passing year, our influence diminishes while the influence of our children’s peer group grows. It is vitally important that we help our children to seek the Lord while there is still a chance that they will find him.
“let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts” (v. 7a). Brueggemann understands “the wicked” in this context to be Jewish exiles who have so accommodated themselves to life in Babylon that they have no intention of joining the exiles who will soon journey to Jerusalem (Brueggemann, 160). In our context, wickedness and unrighteousness have a thousand faces—religious rebellion, failure to love our neighbor, thievery, unchastity—the list goes on and on.
“and let them return to Yahweh, and he will have mercy on him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (v. 7b). It is these wicked and unrighteous people (v. 7a) whom the Lord seeks to save—not the best of the best but the worst of the worst. The Lord will show such people mercy—will abundantly pardon them—will set them on a new course. The Servant will make this possible.
But first these people must return to the Lord. There will be no grace apart from their response to the Lord’s offer of mercy.
ISAIAH 55:8-9. FOR MY THOUGHTS ARE NOT YOUR THOUGHTS
8“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” says Yahweh.
9“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways,
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts” (v. 8a). In the case of these exiles, we can only imagine their thoughts. Subjected people tend to focus on how to get along—how to avoid punishment—how to gain advantage—how to get a bit more bread or a better job. Captives resent, perhaps even hate, their captors, but nevertheless curry their favor. These exiles must resent God for placing them in such unhappy circumstances—and who can blame them? They might hope to escape, but fear the consequences of failure. Many of them will prefer their current circumstances to returning home to a wrecked city. Many of them will try to discourage their neighbors from leaving.
But God isn’t limited by such myopic thinking. God can think of a grand strategy to free the exiles—a strategy that will involve raising up a Persian king who will let God’s people go. It is a far-fetched scenario—one that a publisher would probably reject as improbable—but God thinks such thoughts and then turns them into reality.
God thoughts are also higher than our thoughts. It isn’t that we have no Godly thoughts, because most of us do. However, we have other thoughts, too—some of them anything but Godly—private thoughts and beliefs that often lie hidden in the recesses of our hearts. Sometimes they are so unexamined that we are hardly aware of them. Sometimes they are so dark that we would have difficulty acknowledging them even to ourselves. Sometimes they are the product of rationalization—”I had to do it!”—”Everyone does it!” “They deserved it!”—”It was for a good cause!”
One reason that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts is that God’s thoughts are not contaminated by evil. Another reason is that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16) and we fall far short of that standard.
“‘neither are your ways my ways’, says Yahweh” (v. 8b). Our “ways” are our actions, which grow naturally out of our thoughts (Matthew 12:34; 15:19; Mark 7:21). That is one reason that it is so important to invite God to cleanse our thoughts. Evil thoughts give rise to evil actions.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (v. 9). God’s power of understanding is infinite and ours is finite. God speaks a word and creates a universe—a universe so wonderfully complex that we peel back wonder after wonder only to discover that there is always another layer of wonder left to explore—and God does all this while we are struggling to understand first year algebra.
The same thing is true, of course, on the spiritual level. Our understanding of spiritual matters merely scratches the surface. To understand God’s thoughts and actions, we would have to multiply our spiritual understanding by infinity (an impossible operation mathematically). But God has revealed a great deal to us through the scriptures and through Jesus Christ—has revealed all that we really need to know. Nevertheless, at best, our thoughts and ways are like those of an infant as compared with the Lord’s thoughts and ways.
We often compare ourselves with other humans. We take a certain amount of satisfaction (or perhaps dismay) when we realize how well (or poorly) we compare with other people. But the scale by which we compare ourselves to others is very tiny—like the millimeter scale on a ruler. We might be a millimeter better or worse than another person but, if we were to measure ourselves against God’s standards, the ruler would have to stretch to the farthest star and beyond to show us God’s stature.
ISAIAH 55:10-11. MY WORD SHALL NOT RETURN TO ME VOID
10For as the rain comes down and the snow from the sky,
and doesn’t return there, but waters the earth,
and makes it bring forth and bud,
and gives seed to the sower and bread to the eater;
11so shall my word be that goes forth out of my mouth:
it shall not return to me void,
but it shall accomplish that which I please,
and it shall prosper in the thing I sent it to do.
“For as the rain comes down and the snow from the sky, and doesn’t return there, but waters the earth, and makes it bring forth and bud, and gives seed to the sower and bread to the eater” (v. 10). In that dry climate, rain and snow give life—cause for celebration. Rain and snow cause seed to sprout and plants to grow. This cycle gives “seed to the sower and bread to the eater.” Both seed and bread are essential. Bread gives life this year. Seed holds out the promise of life next year.
“so shall my word be that goes forth out of my mouth: it shall not return to me void,
but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing I sent it to do” (v. 11). Just as the rain and snow accomplish God’s purpose in providing bread, so also God’s word, as spoken by the prophet, accomplishes its purpose in creating and sustaining life. God exercised power through his word from the very beginning:
• “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3; see also 1:6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26, 29-30).
• “The word of Yahweh is right” (Psalm 33:4).
• “By Yahweh’s word, the heavens were made” (Psalm 33:6).
• God’s “word is settled in heaven forever” (Psalm 119:89).
• God’s word “is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105). “All of (God’s) words are truth” (Psalm 119:160).
Now God is exercising power through his word as expressed by the prophet.
ISAIAH 55:12-13. FOR YOU SHALL GO OUT WITH JOY
12For you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing; and all the trees of the fields shall clap their hands. 13Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree; and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree: and it shall be to Yahweh for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
“For you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing; and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (v. 12). This describes the journey that the exiles will take on their return to Jerusalem—the new Exodus. They shall not depart in fear but in joy. No soldiers will pursue them as during the first Exodus (Exodus 14), but these exiles will enjoy a peaceful journey. They will not have any cause to wonder, as during the first Exodus, why God has placed them between a rock and a hard place.
With a bit of poetic license, the prophet sees mountains and hills bursting into song and trees clapping their hands as the exiles pass by on their way home. The homecoming promises to be a grand celebration.
Redemption always prompts celebration. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus gives a series of parables about celebrations sparked by the redemption of sinners. He tells of a shepherd who has a hundred sheep, one of which is lost. The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to find the one lost sheep. When he finds the lost sheep, he returns home and “calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.’ I tell you that even so there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance” (Luke 15:6-7).
Then Jesus tells of a woman who has ten coins and loses one. She searches and finds the lost coin. “When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the drachma that I had lost.’ Even so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner repenting” (Luke 15:9-10).
And then he tells of a son who takes his share of the inheritance and wastes it in wanton living. The son finally “hits bottom” and returns home to beg his father for a job. But the father greets him joyfully and says to the slaves, “‘Bring out the best robe, and put it on him. Put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. Bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat, and celebrate; for this, my son, was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found.’ They began to celebrate” (Luke 15:22-24). When the elder son protests, the father responds, “But it was appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for this, your brother, was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:32).
We should assume that there is a cheering section in heaven that rejoices every time we choose rightly and prays for us every time we choose wrongly. We should anticipate hearing great applause when we enter heaven—a grand roar from the assembled saints.
“Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree; and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree” (v. 13a). The thorn and brier are noxious plants that make life difficult. As such, they are the perfect metaphor for the exile that these people have been enduring.
The traveler who encounters thorns and briers must search for a way through them. The farmer who must clear them from the field must try to avoid their thorns. Like a tree that bears no fruit, thorns and briers are good for nothing except to be “thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:19). The farmer can take satisfaction in seeing them burn, but beyond that thorns and briers bring no pleasure.
But cypress and myrtle are desirable. As such, they are a fitting metaphor for the journey that these exiles will take through the desert on their way to Jerusalem.
The Ark of the Covenant, God’s dwelling place in the tabernacle and temple, was made of cypress (Genesis 6:14). Solomon used cypress and cedar in the construction of the temple (1 Kings 5:8-10), and lined the sanctuary with cypress (2 Chronicles 3:5). The people will use myrtle branches (among others) to construct booths for the Feast of Tabernacles (Nehemiah 8:15).
The point is that Yahweh will remove obstacles and will prepare a pleasant way through the wilderness for these exiles on their return to Jerusalem.
“and it shall be to Yahweh for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off” (v. 13b). What is the “it” that shall be a memorial to the Lord? It cannot be the joyful celebration that attends the journey of these exiles to Jerusalem, because that will be a moment in time rather than a lasting memorial. It cannot be the substitution of cypress and myrtle for thorns and briers, because that, too, will be temporary. The memorial must be these people—the people of God—their restoration—”the saving activity of Yahweh” (Newsome, 162). It is the redemption of these people that will serve as “an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
There is a certain amount of poetic license at work here. The exiles will return to Jerusalem, but the mountains and hills will not burst into song during their journey. The trees will not clap their hands. The exiles will face a formidable task of restoring Jerusalem while surrounded by hostile neighbors. But King Cyrus will set them free and will permit them to rebuild the temple—and will even return to the exiles the temple vessels that Nebuchadnezzar carried away from Jerusalem so many years earlier. The exiles will restore Yahweh-worship in Jerusalem, and will rebuild the temple. King Darius will support their efforts. See the books of Ezra and Nehemiah for an account of the exiles’ travails and triumphs.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Brueggemann, Walter, Westminster Bible Companion: Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Holladay, William, Unbound by Time: Isaiah Still Speaks (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 2002)
Hanson, Paul D., Interpretation Commentary: Isaiah 40-66, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995)
Kaiser, Otto, The Old Testament Library: Isaiah, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983)
Muilenburg, James (Introduction and Exegesis of Isaiah 40-66); and Coffin, Henry Sloane (Exposition of Isaiah 40-66), The Interpreter’s Bible: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Oswalt, John N., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998)
Saleska, Timothy E., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Seitz, Christopher R., The New Interpreters Bible: Isaiah, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M.,Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Watts, John D. W., Word Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 34-66 (Dallas: Word Books, 1987)
Copyright 2007, 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan