Isaiah (Part 80): Zion's Retaliator (Ch 62b-63a)
Zion’s Rescuer was Christ. Zion’s Restorer is God. Chapter 62 discusses the Restorer God in the backwards progression related to Zion that we have been reading since Isaiah 60. We started there with Zion’s realization; stepped back to understand Zion’s Rescuer; and took another step back last time to begin reviewing the activity of Zion’s Restorer who sent the Rescuer. We learned that God would transform Zion (his purpose of relationship), through the imagery of a woman, from seeming barrenness and desertion to fruitfulness and fulfillment (being married). God also impressed on his people the need to keep watching for Zion’s restoration as well as to urge God toward that purpose. It is not that God needs urging; it is that our urging itself keeps alive our hopeful desire for that which will ultimately fully satisfy our image bearing.
In verses 8 and 9 of chapter 62, we read that the Restorer has sworn that his people’s food and drink will no longer be given to their enemies. This is imagery, but as with most imagery, it pictures real life events. Let me explain with another part of this passage. Verse 8 begins with God swearing by “His right hand and His strong arm.” That phrase itself is imagery telling us that God is totally able and determined to do what he says he will do. No one gets confused about this imagery. No one insists that this phrase must be understood literally so that we must conclude (1) that God’s right arm is stronger than his left arm and, well, (2) that he has arms at all (remember, God is spirit). Insistence on literalness here would miss the point rather than make it. But still we understand the connection of this figurative expression to the literal fact that most people are right-handed and therefore their right arms are stronger than their left ones. As we leave that first phrase to get into the body of the verse, we have the same kind of image that has a basis in literal fact but which proves to be a figurative picture for God’s teaching purpose. God had directed the capture and captivity of Judah. The enemies of Judah received Judah’s land that should have been controlled by Judah to produce food and drink. That is a literal fact. But God uses it as a picture for the greater sense of God’s rescue of Zion. God’s people would no longer be given over to the world, but rather the purpose of Zion would be realized through Zion’s fulfillment with the people of God.
The last three verses provide another image, one that by now is quite familiar. God calls for a highway to be built up. This is the road, the bridge, the means by which people may come back to right relationship with God. We saw it first used in Isaiah 11:16. It was used again in Isaiah 35:8. In Isaiah 40:3, we read the source of John the Baptist’s message of the “straight highway for our God.” And again in Isaiah 57:14, God urges to “build it up, build it up.” The highway of our current passage results, in verse 12, in Zion’s fulfillment. Zion will be called “Cared For, A City Not Deserted.” This shows God’s covenant obligation as the Caregiver.
The final mini section of the Zion section (chapters 60-63a) presents God as Zion’s Retaliator. This is found in the first six verses of chapter 63. The other three mini sections had to do with Zion’s fulfillment in reestablishing relationship with God. The theme of this last mini section almost makes it seem as if it shouldn’t be included with the others because it speaks not of building up Zion but of judgment on those not included in Zion. However, judgment must accompany rescue in order for the glory of the redemption to shine fully. We will discuss that in a moment, but first, let’s look at the passage.
The first three verses follow a question-answer format. Someone of might, splendidly dressed (although his garments are stained crimson), is seen coming from Edom. The questioner asks who it is. The answer is given at the end of verse 1 where we learn that it is God himself. In verse 2, the second question comes: Why are his garments stained red like the garments of the workers in a winepress? And God answers in verse 3 (maintaining the grape-pressing analogy) by saying that he is trampling, not on grapes, but on the nations opposed to him. The two words, both translated “trampled” in the HCSB, actually are different words in the Hebrew and show a progression of intensity from walking on to trampling.
Here again we view literally based images used for figurative purposes. Not only is the winepress meant as a figurative image, but the reference to Edom is figurative as well. Edom is the land of Esau, the brother of Jacob. Genesis gives account of God’s relationship with only one of these two sons of Isaac. The point of that Genesis story is to show us that God will have relationship with only those who will trust in him. Jacob (Israel) and Esau, then, represent more than merely themselves and their offspring. They represent the dualistic division of the entire human race, and this theme carries through the OT and the NT with particular final emphasis in Revelation. There are two categories of people: those who trust in God and those who trust in self. These are the earth-dwellers and the heaven-dwellers, the children of Adam and the children of Christ—those of Edom and those of Israel. Thus, when God strides away from Edom with his garments stained with blood, we must understand this as God’s judgment upon all those of the world who refuse to trust in God.
Verses 4 through 6, ending this mini section, emphasize not only God’s judgment, but also the fact that, just as in the rescue (Is 59:15b-16), God accomplishes the judgment alone.
Judgment is a part of redemption. In order for Zion to shine in glory, unrighteousness must necessarily be punished. Without judgment, the glory is not complete. But this truth must be handled carefully. The glory of the rescue must include judgment because of the existence of evil. Evil must be defeated not simply ignored or else the value of the rescue is not fully realized. This is not to say, however, that all virtuous glory must be accompanied by renouncing evil. God existed before the world began—before evil ever was. God was fully, perfectly, and infinitely glorious without the presence of evil. If God could not have realized perfect glory without judging evil, it would make the existence of evil necessary so that he could judge it and be perfectly glorious. This is part of eastern religion symbolized by the yin-yang Taoist concept of balance. Light and dark, day and night, male and female, birth and death—all of life supposedly carries this balance of opposites that are actually interdependent. In other words, according to the concept, although for example light and dark are opposites, neither could exist without the other. One necessarily requires the other for definition of itself. It is like a coin that has two sides. You can’t imagine a one-sided coin. Each side is different and opposite, yet one cannot exist without the other. But as this philosophy is carried to good and evil, it would posit that God and Satan are both necessary beings—one could not exist without the other. Also, then, good could not exist without evil. But this is the case only if we understand goodness to be part of a moral scale. If, rather, it is the inherent essence of God, goodness is not a scale at all but rather a distinct quality. Redness, for example, is a primary color. It does not require yellowness or blueness in order to exist.
Therefore, when we say that judgment is necessary for the glory of the rescue, we’re not speaking in absolute terms of the glory of good. What we are saying is that if evil exists, the triumph of good must then necessarily judge the evil. But ultimately, goodness can, does, and will exist without the presence of evil.
I think this is an important distinction, especially in light of some Calvinistic explanations that don’t seem to understand this difference. One argument against Calvinism’s limited atonement is in trying to determine a reason that a God of infinite love would limit his rescue to only a select few. If God, without purpose, arbitrarily decides to save only some, God’s activity in loving could not be understood as infinite. Many Calvinists attempt to answer this problem by suggesting that the purpose involved is bringing greater glory to God. In other words, God receives more glory from the contrast of some being rescued while some are judged than he would by all being rescued. This explanation, however, does not work because it grasps at the offshoots of the yin-yang philosophy. It essentially argues that the greatest glory requires a contrast with evil. This is proved false by the pure, eternal existence of God himself. Realizing that “greater glory” cannot be the answer, some Calvinists (like R.C. Sproul) do not use that explanation. Still, however, when asked why a God of infinite love would limit his rescue to only a select few, Sproul replies merely with “I don’t know.” That answer is honest and one that does not directly contradict the necessary and independent nature of love and goodness, but it is still ultimately unsatisfying.
Starting with verse 7 of Isaiah 63, a new section begins. This section may be labeled as Israel’s (or Image Bearers’) Cry. This section extends to the end of chapter 64. In it, we read the plea of God’s people for relief and rescue. It has a particularly Jewish outlook based on Israel’s history, but it remains, in its broader connection, the plea of all those image bearers who trust in God.
Verse 7 begins in language you might expect of David in one of his Psalms. It seems simply to be a vow of extolling the goodness of God. But as we continue reading, we quickly find that the words are coming from a desperate heart. I’m sure that most of us can relate to the state of mind of the speaker. Most of us have been in situations in which we are sorely tried or are desperately begging God to alter the course of affairs, whether they be some illness or financial crisis or other tragic circumstances. In our plea to God, we may state over and over, affirming and reminding ourselves, that God is good and powerful and able to help and that he is sovereign over all and will always act in goodness for the best. We will cling to those statements as we, in anguish, continue to beg him for relief. That is the feeling of this passage. The speaker is trying to hold tightly to his faith, recounting the goodness of God, even as he wonders why God is not helping at the moment.
This is, in fact, the only way we can understand some contradictory portions of this text. The speaker states in verse 8 that God is convinced his people will not be disloyal. But in verse 10 we learn that they are disloyal. Could God really have been duped? No. In his anguish, the speaker is saying something like, “God expected us to be loyal, and we failed him!” It is not an attack against the omniscience of God. It is merely the regret crying out for God who has seemingly turned away.