Isaiah (Part 79): Zion’s Rescuer and Zion's Restorer (Ch 61-62a)
In Isaiah 61 we take a step back. Chapter 60 was the realization of Zion. In chapter 61 we have presented to us Zion’s Rescuer. The first three verses are familiar. In Luke 4:16-21, Jesus enters the synagogue in Nazareth, reads Isaiah 61:1-2a, and then proclaims that he is the fulfillment of these verses. In so many words, Jesus tells the people that he is the Messiah, the appointed one of God, the one to rescue people for righteousness. But…they reject him. Luke 4:22-30 highlights their rejection. Now, if we turn to John’s summary of this in the first chapter of his Gospel, we learn something interesting about this rejection and the Messiah’s acceptance. In John 1:11 we learn that “He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him.” This is immediately after a broader description in verse 10 that the Messiah created the world but the world did not recognize him. The point in moving from verse 10 to verse 11 is that on the broad scale, the world which he made, because of its rebellion, did not accept Jesus, and on the finer scale of the covenant people of God, they too did not accept him. This is absolute horror! The world rejected him, and even those with whom God had made covenant relationship rejected him. There seems to be no hope. The Zion purpose of God—to have everlasting love relationship with his image bearers—seems dead in the water. But then we get to verse 12 of John 1. There John says that to all who did receive him—those who did trust and hope in God’s caregiving—were made children of God through Christ. That is, they were no longer considered children of Adam (or children of condemnation for broken covenant), but they were now reborn as children of Jesus—children of God with righteous (covenant faithfulness) as their inheritance.
And so, turning back to Isaiah 61, we find that Jesus came to do two things: to speak (bring good news, proclaim liberty and freedom, and proclaim favor and vengeance) and to do (heal brokenhearted, comfort mourners, provide for mourners, and give a crown and clothes). He came to speak and do that for those who received him—those of faith.
These are the people, then, who are mentioned in verse 3b as “righteous trees.” How did they become righteous (faithful to the covenant)? They inherit the faithfulness of their father Jesus to whom they’ve been reborn and through his death. These are the trees planted by the Lord (61:3). Notice that this echoes the description of 60:21.
These righteous ones are they who, in 61:4-7, rebuild the ancient ruins. Of course, in the immediate, literal fulfillment context, this verse speaks of the rebuilding of the temple after the return from exile in Babylon. But that picture is merely a picture. It is intended to show the greater prophecy fulfillment of humanity’s return from captivity to sin and death. Jesus, as the Messiah Rescuer, has redeemed, renewed, restored us so that we no longer are in captivity to sin and death, but rather we now belong to God in covenant relationship with him. This is the mending, the rebuilding of the ancient ruins of previously broken covenant. Zion’s purpose is restored.
Notice then verses 5 and 6. These should not be limited to stale views of mere Gentile / Jewish contrast. God, here, is intent on showing intimate relationship with those who belong to him. Those who do not are on the outskirts—beyond the confines of covenant community (61:5). Those who belong to him are the ones who become priests (61:6). Think of the temple picture. Only the priests were the ones who entered the Holy Place and only the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies. Only the priests were the ones who had the intimate communication with God. The picture, then, is that those apart from covenant relationship never experience the intimate contact that we who do have covenant relationship experience with our God as priests. We are a priesthood. This was the intent in covenant relationship even back at Mt. Sinai as God declared that by his covenant, Israel would be a kingdom of priests (Ex 19:6). Their failure does not diminish our gain as children and heirs to the perfect covenant keeper Jesus. We have inherited that perfect priesthood.
Verse 7 is difficult. The idea of inheriting a “double portion” puts us in mind of the first born inheritance rights. But this does not appear to be the intent of this passage. Double inheritance is never contrasted with double shame in the OT scheme of first born rights. Compounding the difficulty is that we read in the first half of verse 7, a second person address to the covenant people. Yet in the last half of verse 7, a change to third person is noted in relation to the covenant people.
We must proceed slowly and deliberately to understand this passage. First, the HCSB introduces verse 7 with the word “Because.” This is not accurate. Most other translations start this verse with the word “Instead.” “Instead” shows contrast; “because” implies associated reason. What God intends here is merely contrast, not reason. Additionally, the “double” shame could be better translated “abundant” shame. The Hebrew speaks of “more than” rather than simply and exactly twice as much. So the verse 7 statement literally should be rendered, “Instead of your abundant shame—disgrace! they [or the nations/non-covenant people] cry out in joyful accusation to your lot in life. Therefore, in their land they shall possess abundant joy forever!”
This provides a better understanding of the particular words, but we are still mystified by the change in address from second person to third person. (The NIV attempts to remove the problem by changing everything to third person. But that is not what the original Hebrew gives us.)
The major problem is that we hold too strongly to the (relatively) modern verse delineation. It is actually not the first part of verse seven that is set in contrast to the second half. Rather, it is the second half of verse 6 that is in contrast to the first half of verse 7. The second half of verse 6 states that riches and wealth from the nations will come to Zion. As noted in chapter 60, these riches and wealth are the glory of the nations that come to support the covenant with God. The word translated “boasts” in verse 6 is actually a word meaning “exchange to possess.” The clause should, then, be translated, “you will possess (in exchange) their riches [verse 7] instead of your abundant shame, as when they cried, ‘Disgrace!” about your portion.”
By regarding the passage in this way, we find a reason for the switch from third person to second person and then back to third person. The passage from verse 3b and on should be read as follows:
3b And they will be called righteous trees, planted by the Lord to glorify Him.
4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins; they will restore the former devastations of many generations.
5 Strangers will stand and feed your flocks, and foreigners will be your plowmen and vinedresses,
6 but you will be called the Lord’s priests. They will speak of you as ministers of our God; you will eat the wealth of the nations, and you will possess their riches
7 instead of the abundant shame you received from them when they cried out, “Disgrace!” about your portion.
Therefore, they will possess their land doubly and have eternal joy.
Notice, then, that the Messiah is speaking about his covenant people fulfilling the covenant purpose. In the middle of that declaration, he pauses to address the covenant people, assuring them of their possession and intimate relationship with God. In 7b he merely sums up in line with his previous declaration. This is the reason for returning to third person. And I think, this is the only way to legitimately and comprehensively understand this passage.
The next mini-section (61:8-9) tells us that Yahweh loves justice. But who is speaking here? The Messiah had been speaking. Suddenly, verse 8 confronts us with the words, “For I, Yahweh, love justice.” Did the Messiah stop speaking and Yahweh begin without any textual transition? Well, that is possible. We have seen abrupt changes previously. However, I’m not so sure this is merely a transitional change.
We know that the Messiah (Jesus) is, in fact, not only fully human, but also fully God. Thus, Jesus, as God, can speak not only with the authority of God, but also identifying himself as the Father (Is 9:6) in his Godhood. God is the one who promised deliverance and rescue. God said that it would be done by his strong right arm. While we always understand that the working of humankind is actually the working of God among us, we also understand that the rescue by Christ was a rescue by God in more intimate connection than even God through human. It is God in the flesh that brought about our rescue. And so, as we read the words of the Messiah stating that he, Yahweh, loves justice, we understand that our Redeemer is, in fact, our God!
Verse 9 tells us that we will be known among the nations. How is that? John 13:35 provides the answer. We will be known by our love. This is not a simple, provoked kindness. This love is the love of Christ—a self-sacrificial giving for the benefit of another. It is radical selflessness. It is wholehearted concern and care for another. From the OT through the NT, God intends love to distinguish us. And that love is not of the mere sappy sort. This ought to bring each of us to deep meditation and contemplation. Do we live in love? Really? Seriously? Love of a kind that gives life for another? That is how Christ said we would be known. Are we known by that? I do not say these words lightly. I do not throw them out at others without realizing their full effect on me personally. In all sincerity, I wonder at my perceived satisfaction of soul! How can I think and rest in relative blissful life circumstance when, according to him whom I claim to be my LORD, life sacrifice is supposed to be my very identity as a Christian? It is something to ponder—for us all to consider and with which to grapple and to come to full satisfaction in heart and mind.
The chapter finishes in verses 10-11. Here again is a seeming change in speaker. The speaker speaks of joy in the Lord for clothing him in garments of salvation and a robe of righteousness. Who speaks here? Again, I would submit that the speaker has not changed. Jesus is fully God and yet fully man. He, as firstfruits, represents all humanity. Through his work, even he approaches God wrapped in a robe of righteousness—of faithfulness to the covenant. And he declares that all of us who follow him—who are born of him—have this same robe of righteousness wrapped about us. We are saved! Humanity is saved! We are saved through the work of the rescuing Redeemer. And as he stands before God, bedecked in his perfectly righteous glory, he stands there for you and for me. We OWN that glory because we are born of him.
Still, even here, we see Christ, the rescuer (the man), recognizing that glory, turning it all back to God who designed, prepared, planned, and effected our atonement. This correlates well with I Corinthians 15:28: “And when everything is subject to Christ, then the Son Himself will also be subject to the One who subjected everything to Him, so that God may be all in all.”
Chapter 62 takes another step back from the realization of Zion in 60 and the Messiah’s work in 61. In 62, God is speaking again, recounting his authority, control, and plan for his purpose to restore his image bearers to covenant relationship. Immediately we read that God both speaks and acts, reminding us of the Messiah speaking and doing at the beginning of chapter 61.
In this chapter, God still is speaking to Zion, his purpose. We find that Zion shines in righteousness and salvation, mimicking the thought that began chapter 60. Understanding the second person “you” in this chapter as relating to the Jews themselves would prove confusing in some verses. For example, God speaks of Zion marrying, saying, “Your sons will marry you.” If the “you” is the Jews, we would be left with the incoherent idea of “The Jews’ sons will marry the Jews.” Only by maintaining consistency with the idea that Zion symbolizes God’s covenant purpose may we comprehend the passage intelligibly.
Verses 6 and 7 provide an exciting depth of hope. God appoints watchmen for Zion. This, no doubt, refers to us—Christ’s righteous trees—who are the children of Zion and, as Paul said, look to our blessed hope of final and ultimate realization of relationship with our God. We are even urged in verse 7 to call upon God for that hope to come, as John did ending Revelation (and thus our Bible) crying out, “Come, Lord Jesus!”