Isaiah (Part 60): Abrahamic Covenant (Ch 52)
In climactic fashion, Isaiah 52 brought together Israel the nation, Israel the Messiah, and Israel the Messiah’s offspring in explanation of God’s redeeming plan that would bring about Zion—God and his image bearers dwelling together in love forever. This plan is actually what the Abrahamic covenant focuses on. The Abrahamic covenant can appear at times to be unrelated to our lives and God’s overall purpose. It includes cut up animals, promises to a long ago man about a far away land, and some kind of old covenant flavor out of step with the New Testament’s New Covenant. But God doesn’t have multiple redemption plans for multiple ethnic peoples. There is one plan, and the Abrahamic covenant highlights it. So let’s take a more in-depth look.
In Genesis 12, God tells Abram, whose name means “exalted father,” that he will make of him a “great nation.” In fact, although we do not have specific covenant language yet in this chapter, all three major covenant blessings are promised. Verse 1 calls Abram to a promised land. Verse 2 gives Abram the promise of many offspring. And Verse 3 specifies that all the peoples or nations of the earth will be blessed through Abram.
In Genesis 15, the covenant takes on a formal construct. Again, two of the major covenant blessings are reiterated. God promises offspring as numerous as the stars in verse 5. And in verse 7, God promises land. When Abram asks for assurance, God conducts the formal covenant ceremony, having Abram split certain animals and lay them out on each side of a path. Normally, the two entering into covenant agreement pass along this path together indicating by their walk that should they break the covenant, their lives (just as the animals along the path) would be forfeit. But in this situation, Abram does not march along the path. God alone passes there as a flame, indicating that he alone will be responsible for seeing the covenant purpose and blessings accomplished. And God reiterates that promise of land in verse 18.
Years later and after the incident of attempted covenant fulfillment by Abram through Hagar and Ishmael (chapter 16), God reconfirms the covenant with Abram. In Genesis 17, God again promises offspring (verses 5-6) and land (verse 8). But this time there is a difference. This time the promises move beyond merely gaining the land and offspring as God characterizes these blessings as everlasting (verses 7-8).
In Genesis 22, God reiterates the blessing of offspring (22:17a) and the blessing to the nations that would come through Abraham (22:18).
While at first glance this covenant may seem rather straightforward, difficulties arise. We know that the name Israel at times is applied to the physical offspring nation that comes from Abraham. At other times, we see the name applied to the Messiah as the only true covenant keeper. And further, Israel also becomes the collective name of the Messiah’s own offspring of faith. So when looking back at the promised blessing of the Abrahamic covenant, we have to wonder to which Israel God is making these promises.
In some cases we don’t have to wonder at all. Paul seems to settle the question at least partially. In Galatians 3, Paul develops an argument for certain promises spoken to Abraham and to his seed to mean that they are given only to Christ, the seed of Abraham. But Paul does not seem to obtain this idea simply through inspired revelation. He focuses his argument on the Hebrew singular (not plural) rendering of “seed” (not “seeds”). Looking back at the Hebrew (for instance, in Genesis 22:17b-18), we do find that the word offspring there is singular. But, all collective nouns would be presented in singular fashion. If a teacher decided to take her 2nd grade students to a museum, we would state, “The class is going on a field trip.” Although the singular verb is used indicating “class” to be singular, it is a singular group made up of several individuals. Therefore, even though offspring is singular in verses 17b-18, how does Paul know (or how can we know) that God really intends offspring to mean one person (Messiah) rather than all Abraham’s progeny? The Hebrew itself gives us an answer. In Hebrew, if a noun means only one person, accompanying pronouns will be singular. If a noun is a collective noun (as class in the previous example), the accompanying pronouns will be plural. In Genesis 22:17b, we read, “Your offspring will possess the gates of his (singular in Hebrew) enemies.” Because of the singular pronoun, the “offspring” here seems to mean one individual, and that one individual (Messiah) is then responsible for bringing the blessing to the world mentioned in verse 18. So Paul wasn’t guessing in Galatians 3. He was providing good exegesis.
Now let’s look back at Genesis 17. Notice here in verse 5 that God changes Abram’s name from Abram (exalted father) to Abraham (father of a multitude). Why the change and why now? Back in chapter 12 when Abram was promised that a “great nation” would come from him, the name Abraham would have been just as fitting, wouldn’t it? What is different in the promise of chapter 17?
In Genesis 17:4, God says that Abraham will become “the father of many nations.” This certainly is different from chapter 12 in which Abram was told he’d become the father of “a great nation.” Israel was that great nation. Who, then, are the “many nations”? Ishmael (Abram’s first son by Hagar) and Esau (Isaac’s first son) did not qualify. We are told that they are not the children of the promise. Thus, Abraham’s only son of promise, Isaac, led to Isaac’s only son of promise, Jacob. Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, became that one great nation through all his descendants.
We realize here that the one special descendant of Jacob’s—the Messiah, the one who would go on to bless the world—claims offspring from a multitude of nations. Thus, it is through the Messiah to the Messiah’s offspring that we see fulfillment of the Genesis 17 promise that Abraham would be the father of many nations.
Even beyond this deduction of logic, we see support again in the Hebrew language. The phrase in 17:4 is “father of many nations.” At times, the Hebrew will separate the words out as we see in the English phrase. But at other times, “father” is combined with the preposition into one word. Thus, (in English) it would look like this: “fatherof many nations.” The interesting fact here is that whenever the Hebrew combines those two words into one, the fatherhood spoken of is not progenitorial. In other words, it shows a relationship that is not of an actual, physical descendant. We may say Edison was the father of the light bulb or a rabbi is called father by his disciples or Paul calls Timothy his son in the faith. These expressions (in Hebrew) would be written as “fatherof” with the noun-preposition combination. Our oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew show that in Genesis 17:4, “fatherof” is combined indicating a non-progenitorial relationship. Thus, it is not Abraham’s physical offspring—the Jews—who are thought of with these promises, but rather the Messiah’s offspring are those that God has in mind. Of great significance, then, is the fact that we do not read of the “everlasting” quality of these blessings until Genesis 17 when the promise is made to the Messiah’s offspring. Therefore, we cannot, in our eschatology or ecclesiology, insist that God still has some special promises to conclude for the Jews based on the Abrahamic covenant. All everlasting promises, according to Genesis 17, apply not to the Jews as an ethnic people, but rather to the Messiah’s offspring, his people (Gentiles and Jews) of faith.
But those promises in Genesis 12 and Genesis 15 that were given to the physical offspring of Abram—were they fulfilled? Did God keep his promise in those cases? The answer is yes. Review these verses:
Joshua 21:43 “So the Lord gave Israel all the land He had sworn to give their fathers, and they took possession of it and settled there.”
Joshua 23:14 Joshua: “I am now going the way of all the earth, and you know with all your heart and all your soul that none of the good promises the Lord your God made to you has failed. Everything was fulfilled for you; not one promise has failed.”
Deuteronomy 10:22 “Your fathers went down to Egypt, 70 people in all, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars of the sky.”
1 Kings 4:20a “Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand by the sea.”
God’s promises do not fail, and God’s promises to Israel as a nation did not fail, as Joshua made clear. But those fulfilled promises do not qualify Israel as a nation to receive everlasting promises. Those God reserved for his everlasting people—Messiah’s offspring. And thus, we see the story of God’s redemption—the story of Israel. Israel is the main player throughout. We begin with Israel as the physical offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—a nation of priests. We see Israel become the only true Israel—the true striver/worker with God—the Messiah Servant. Finally, we see Israel become the Messiah’s true offspring—all those who have faith in God as caregiver and in his rescue through Christ.
This story of Israel is the story of restoration. It is a story whose motif mimics the exile from the Garden to the end of exile in restored relationship with God. The nation Israel was exiled (in judgment) in Egypt and Babylon. But they had their exodus (forgiveness) in return back to the land (security, relationship, rest of God). Jesus, the Messiah Servant, had exile (judgment) as he went to the cross. But the sin offering was paid in his exodus from death to resurrection of life. We too, the Messiah’s offspring, had our exile from God under curse of death. But that was lifted by Christ so that in our end of exile—our exodus—we receive forgiveness and life everlasting.
Lamentations 4:22a (in a combination of NASB and Young’s Literal Translation) says, “Your iniquity has been completed, O daughter of Zion; He will exile you no longer.”
Isaiah’s next section begins in verse 13 of chapter 52 and continues through the end of chapter 53. This section is called “The Suffering Servant.” Our first mini-section extends into the first verse of chapter 53. In verse 52:13, God starts by asking us to consider what we have just heard in chapters 51-52. He starts by saying, “See.” This word is often translated in other versions as “behold.” It is not a word of awe (as in “lo and behold”). It is merely a term to mean “notice this.” God is wanting us to notice how the Servant proceeded through his work. The Servant, unlike Israel the nation, depended solely on God, his caregiver. We learn in the Gospels that Jesus did not say or do anything of his own accord, but moved and spoke according to God’s leading. This is right relationship with God. And it is not meant to depict slavery for slavery’s sake. If God not only does, but IS all virtue—all truth, goodness, and beauty—then surely we must understand that in order to have complete, joyous, perfect lives, they must attend to perfect truth, goodness, and beauty—and that is God. This, we learn in verse 13, is what the prudent or wise Servant does. And because of this prudent attitude, the Servant will be raised, lifted up, and greatly exalted.
Verse 14 through the first line of verse 15 presents a parallelism. The parallel thought is actually in the first line of verse 14 and the first line of verse 15. The rest of 14 is a parenthetical thought providing description of how the Servant was appalling. If, for the moment, we skip over that portion, we would read, “Just as many were appalled at [him], … so He will sprinkle many nations. The word sprinkle should remind us of the Aaronic priest sprinkling the blood on the altar. The sprinkling action is a startling action (imagine being sprinkled yourself by blood or anything for that matter). In fact, the Arabic implication of the word does mean to startle. So the picture presented here is, first, the sight of the bloodied body of the Servant appalling us, and then being startled/appalled in even greater degree as the blood of that sight sprinkles us. We learn that kings shut their mouths in amazement. They had not expected this. The kings or nations of the world did not expect a criminal of lowly status from a lowly, inconsequential nation to affect the powerful nations of the world. They had not heard that this would happen. None of their wise men had predicted it. None of their thinkers would have deduced it.
And then we reach 53:1. Attention turns from these other nations to the nation of Israel. The Jews certainly had heard of this. Their prophets and their writings were full of God’s rescue. Even this very book of Isaiah was giving them a detailed script. And yet…we find in the first cry of 53:1, “Who has believed what we have heard?” The implication is that even though they had the prophecy, no one believed it!