Isaiah (Part 56): Salvation to the World (Ch 49b)
Isaiah 49:8 tells us that the Servant will be the covenant and, by the covenant, restore the land and make them possess the desolate inheritances. We see definite Abrahamic covenant language in this verse. Land, as an inheritance promised to God’s people, always signifies his secure caregiving relationship. We saw that first in the Garden called Eden (pleasure). God placed his newly created image-bearers in that land of his pleasure and emphasized his caregiving security. God called Abram from Ur of the Chaldees to travel to a land that he would give him. We learn from Hebrews that Abram expected more than mere dirt; he “was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). Abraham’s descendants grew in number in Egypt and were rescued by God from that land and led back to his Promised Land. And again when Judah was exiled to Babylon, God ensured that they would return to his land. God even assures us of his New Covenant that a new heaven and a new earth is in store (Is 65:17; 66:22; 2 Pe 3:13; Rev 21:1).
But it is interesting, almost startling, that in verse 8 we suddenly realize that this land promise given to Abraham and his offspring is being fulfilled by the Servant for a people other than the nation of Israel. Can that be right? We need to review God’s covenantal system.
God established a covenant (a vital, contractual agreement) with himself (think Trinity here) to create image bearers with whom to enjoy everlasting love relationship in the glory of God. By its very nature, a covenant carries obligation for fulfillment on penalty of death. Of course, our sovereign God would see to it that this covenant would be realized. In the beginning, then, God created Adam and Eve, his image bearers. God made with them a covenant of life that flowed from and into his covenant of creation. But Adam and Eve failed in covenant faithfulness and for that received the penalty curse of death. Would this destroy God’s original covenant of creation? Had God failed? God, of course, knew that Adam would fail before he ever created. To ensure his plan, God immediately set his process of redemption and restoration in motion with his Genesis 3:15 promise.
His image bearers had been unfaithful. But God reestablished a covenant of faithfulness with Abraham that pointed toward promised blessing and restoration. It was, in fact, simply on the basis of Abraham’s belief that he was counted righteous—meaning, that he was given status as faithful to the covenant. But it was God alone, in Genesis 15, who passed between the cut animals of the covenant, indicating that he alone would ensure its completion. Thus, that covenant of faithfulness looked forward to Abraham’s offspring—the man (Adam’s and Abraham’s descendant) / God (God’s Son)—who, through faithfully keeping covenant with God, would receive those promises of blessing and land (secure relationship with the caregiving God) for an everlasting inheritance. God gave circumcision as a sign of this covenant.
We learn of another covenant in Exodus 19. Abraham’s offspring, the children of Israel, are formed into a covenant nation at the base of Mount Sinai after escaping from their Egyptian captivity. That Mosaic Covenant was not, like the others, an everlasting covenant. It was intended, we read in Paul, for a couple of specific reasons:
- The Mosaic Covenant, with its concentration on Law, was to highlight that when deliverance came, the rescue would be seen to be by God’s grace alone (Romans 4:14-16).
- The Mosaic Covenant argued that sin itself needed to be dealt with, not ignored. Therefore, the Law in the Mosaic Covenant drew attention to the sin (Romans 7:7 – 8:11).
This focus on sin was the guardianship that Paul speaks of in Galatians 3 that needed expression only until Christ came, who through his own faithfulness would put sin away (Daniel 9:24).
And Christ did come as promised as the offspring of Abraham. He put an end to the Mosaic Covenant. And, as the second Adam, he was faithful to God’s covenant of life, living by word and action in dependency on the caregiving God. As we discussed last time, the death he then suffered fulfilled the curse of that original covenant and opened the way for all those of God’s created image bearers who would have faith in him to be reborn as his child, rather than Adam’s, and therefore, by that faith, be justified—found in favor of—and stand in righteousness—faithfulness to the New Covenant of life.
Circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant. Since the Abrahamic Covenant was an everlasting covenant, did its circumcision sign need to continue? The answer is no. Circumcision, as a covenant sign, had a specific meaning attached to it, and when that meaning found fulfillment, the need for that sign was finished. A new sign in establishing the New Covenant of life took its place. Let’s examine this change.
Have you ever wondered why God would establish and designate a sign as something which was normally hidden? How could it signify something if no one ever (or ever usually) saw it? This is a puzzle only if we confuse the meaning of the sign. If we understand circumcision to be a sign designating that its possessor is a covenant member, we do have problems. First, hardly anybody would see the sign to know that the person was a covenant member. Second, what about all those covenant members who were female and didn’t carry the sign? Either they weren’t really covenant members or the sign didn’t really mean much in identification. But it is not the sign that is at fault; fault lies with our understanding of its significance. Circumcision was, as the Bible puts it, a sign of the covenant, not a sign of membership in the covenant. The covenant was made with Abraham, based on his faith, promising blessings to and through his offspring. Who would see this sign? A husband and a wife who together uncovered themselves in the normal course of their sexual relationship would see this sign, calling to mind the covenant and its intended blessings through the offspring. The sign is perfectly suited in purpose and significance.
When a covenant is made, the Hebrew terminology is that parties “cut” a covenant. For example, in Genesis 15:18, it reads, “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram.” The word translated “made” is the Hebrew word for “cut.” This cutting has to do with the division of the animals along the path that the parties walk in ratifying the covenant. The point is that they promise death as penalty for breaking the covenant. Therefore, a cutting and a spilling of blood is part of the covenant process. We certainly see this in the Abrahamic covenant sign of circumcision. There is a cutting and blood spilling as the sign is applied.
When Christ came, he fulfilled the sign of circumcision by himself being the offspring of Abraham—the one who would both inherit the blessings and be the means of extending the blessings to his children. Thus, the sign for circumcision was fulfilled. In establishing a New Covenant of life, Jesus, the Abrahamic Covenant fulfillment, himself was cut and his blood was spilled, providing a new covenant sign. Thus, the New Covenant sign is not water baptism as some suppose. It is the cross itself. In celebrating the Lord’s Supper, it is a time that puts us in mind of reflecting on the covenant sign of the cross as we symbolically take in the cut body and spilled blood of our Lord. (Note: the Lord’s Supper itself is not the sign. The Lord’s Supper is the time of reflection. This is analogous to the time of reflection, in the pre-Christ era, when the husband and wife uncovered for relations. We reflect on the signs and their covenant meaning.
This covenant cutting imagery shows itself in many passages. Just before the covenant mentioned in Daniel 9:27 is a “cutting off” of the Messiah in 9:26, using the same Hebrew word as was used in Genesis 15:18 for “making” the covenant. We even see this same “cutting off” word used in Isaiah 48:19 where we learn that Israel, as a nation, would be cut off for their covenant failure.
The rest of this section in Isaiah 49 (verses 9 through 13) continues the message of the caregiving provided by God through the Servant. The “barren heights” will become the pasture grounds for the Servant’s followers. The heights were barren or desolate (verse 8) because the covenant Jews were removed. But as the Servant brings in the people from the world (verse 12) these barren heights will be no longer desolate.