In view of the great provision of vicarious atonement through the Suffering Servant (Isa. 53), the prophet announces the consequent blessings: the expansion of Israel, the blessings of safety and peace, and the portion of righteousness. This chapter anticipates the salvation and restoration of Israel, begun in part at the restoration of the exiles from Babylon in 536 B.C. but for the most part yet in the future, for as this chapter unfolds it will become clearer and clearer that that return did not exhaust the promises. There yet remains the final culmination of all of God’s covenant promises at the end of the age. In fact, as these chapters progress to the end of the book, the vision gets more glorious, and so more eschatological in its scope.
We have here Isaiah’s glimpse at the promises of the “new” covenant. He does not provide the details of Jeremiah 31 or Ezekiel 36, but he complements what is there. The passages on the new covenant promised: a restoration to the land for Israel and to the pure worship ad spiritual service as priests, conversion of Israel to faith in the Messiah, the pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh so that the Law was in their hearts, the end of war and oppression in the land and in the world, and the reign of the Messiah in righteousness. Beginning with the restoration from exile, some of this was fulfilled, but not all; with the coming of Christ, some more was fulfilled, but not all; with the sending of the Spirit, some of that promise was fulfilled, but not all. Only with the second coming will all these things be completely fulfilled. Isaiah 54 lays out some of the promised blessings, but does not say when they will be fulfilled in part or completely.
But this chapter is also immediately practical—for ancient Israel as well as for us today. We shall see that the prophet lays out the plans that God has for His holy people in this world; but the clues in the chapter, and the related contexts of the time, let us know that attaining these promises to the full called for spiritual service—which is why the chapter ends with the reminder that this is the heritage of the righteous servants of the LORD.
Jerusalem, addressed as a woman separated from her husband (the Lord) is assured that her children (the people) will be restored and will multiply and that she will be reunited with her husband.
Verse 1 makes the point that the present and future population of Jerusalem will exceed what she had before. The nation of people, addressed as “Jerusalem” by metonymy (subject or adjunct), is compared to a “barren woman” (by implied comparison, called hypocatastasis) who is bereaved of her children and separated from her husband. The image of marriage and the family has been used in these oracles before, and provides a good comparison for the covenant relationship between the LORD and His people. The “married wife” would have been Israel before the exile, in rebellion against God and bringing the judgment of God for sin; her children would have been those Hebrews living when Babylon attacked. The Israelites some seventy years later (children of the desolate) will outnumber them greatly.
The call is for these people to “sing” and to “sing aloud”, because of the restoration from exile. The commands to sing are metonymies of effect, showing the result or effect of the cause—God will restore them (cause), and they will sing (effect). Calling people to sing before the answer to prayer or before divine intervention is a significant call for faith.
Verse 2 anticipates the restoration of the nation by calling for an enlarging of the tents. I think all the images in this verse are related, so one classification and explanation will be adequate. I would think we have metonymy of adjunct or effect; the returning exiles probably actually had tents or similar structures for a while. The call to make the tents larger assumes that there will be an expanding population: the cause will be the restoration and multiplication, and the effect (stated in the text) is their expanding their tents.
Verse 3 explains this call to sing. The returning exiles will spread out to the right and to the left. In the Semitic world, one looks to the east, and so the right hand is south and the left hand north. But there will be more than a population increase—they will possess the nations and rebuild the desolate cities. Here the “nations” means the regional tribes occupying the land in the absence of the nation of Israel.
The prophet first invites confidence from the people of God, for they would no longer be subjected to Gentile oppression (verse 4). “Fear not” and “be not confounded” are the two imperatives; the promise is “you shall not be put to shame.” In fact, they would forget the shame of their youth and their widowhood. The “youth” (still using the imagery of the family relationships) would refer to the Egyptian bondage; and the reproach of “widowhood” in this chapter (and in 50:1) would represent the Babylonian exiles. So the figures are both hypocatastases, stating “youth” and “widowhood,” but implying by comparison bondage in Egypt and exile in Babylon respectively. These two catastrophes will be remembered no more, meaning that they will have no power over the people to cause fear.
In verses 5 and 6 we have the explanation that the promise of the prophet is based on the relationship that the nation has to God. The lines are beautifully balanced:
For your Maker is your husband,
the LORD of armies is His name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
the God of the whole earth shall He be called.
The theme of creation is brought forward here again in “your Maker,” that is, the one who brought Israel into existence, but now He is compared to a “husband” (carrying the implied comparison across from previous lines to form a metaphor here). The image of husband would be worthless if it were not for the fact that this husband is being described as the sovereign Creator, the LORD of armies, the Holy One of Israel, the Redeemer, and the God of the whole earth. Any people related by covenant (=image of husband) to such a One as all that need not fear anyone—except God Himself.
The condition of Israel is addressed as a wife that is bereaved, grieved in spirit, forsaken, and cast off (carrying the implied comparison further in the description). But will she be cast off forever? The following verses affirm that the exile was a temporary manifestation of God’s wrath to purge the rebels and faithless from the nation.
Verses 7-10 record the speech of the LORD to assure Israel of future peace. The poetry is exquisite:
For a small moment I have forsaken you,
but with great mercies will I gather you;
In overflowing wrath I hid my face from you for a moment,
but with everlasting love I will have mercy on you.
The whole Babylonian captivity is referred to as a “small moment” when God forsook Israel. It is another implied comparison, a hypocatastasis, to compare 70 years with a moment—but in the plan of the eternal God that is what it is (see also Psalm 30). The regathering is with tender mercies (rakham should be studied fully for this passage). The time is then described as God’s wrath (metonymy of cause for the effect was the judgment of the exile) when He hid His face (anthropomorphism, a very human description to convey withholding mercy), but the restoration (“I will have mercy” is metonymy of cause, its effect being the return) is a display of His everlasting loyal love (a word study on khesed would be helpful). God is speaking to the nation as a whole; His anger was against sin, so that the exile would purge the rebels and draw contrition and faith from the remnant. Now the restoration would show that the judgment time had passed, that there would be a new beginning.
The announcement is similar to the Noachian Covenant; it is as if once again the LORD was hanging up His battle bow in the sky.143 So the simile is made with the “waters of Noah” (metonymy of effect since water was what God used to judge the world). So here too the LORD seals His promise with an oath, just as He did in the days of Noah.
Verse 10 gives the nature of the promise. God’s loyal love and God’s covenant of peace will remain with His people “though the mountains depart and the hills be removed.” It is an eternal covenant that will outlast the hills; it is based on the LORD God, whose character it is to show mercy. This “covenant of peace” is a reference to what Jeremiah will call the new covenant.
The prophet now predicts the future splendor of the nation as it is to be restored to its original purpose. Verses 11 and 12 introduce to us the images of the precious stones.
There are several views offered here. (l) The gems refer to the people themselves. In support of this one would emphasize that the address is to the people of Israel, the context is the restoration to Jerusalem, and the interpretation of verse 14 suggests that the passage refers to the restoration of Israel to the righteous service of the LORD. Other post-exilic passages use precious stones to represent people, or the leader of the nation (see Psalm 118 for the stone as the nation, Zechariah 3 for Messiah). And since there was no building of the city with these precious gems it seems more likely that the redeemed, the people themselves, are meant. Besides, 1 Peter 2 indicates that the righteous are stones (although not gems). If this is the correct interpretation, then we have hypocatastasis throughout, a comparison of the holy city made of gems with the people. One reading of Revelation 21 and the vision of the heavenly Jerusalem “as a bride” with all the gems also seems to support this interpretation.
(2) A second interpretation is that the gems represent spiritual qualities in the restoration. There will be righteousness and truth, and upon these will God rebuild His nation (see Psalm 97:2 and Isaiah 11:4,5). People who take this view can get carried away with symbolic meanings of all the different gems, since there are not many controls in the context.
(3) A third view takes the building and the gems literally—but with a spiritual meaning. This would be metonymy. That is, when the great restoration comes, the people will be gathered to the LORD, to the Messianic sanctuary. In the new creation the setting and the circumstances of that place will be with spectacular elements that actually exist—there is a reality to the surroundings. A glorious new city made with all the precious gems would be in the age to come. But the gems would still signify the purity and the righteousness and the perfection of the LORD and His eternal holy place.
In support of this view is the fact that in both Isaiah 54 and in Revelation 21 so much detail is put into the description of the city, as well as the fact that both passages seem to distinguish the people from the city, for the people will enter the city. This view would harmonize well with the interpretation in Revelation of a physical-spiritual reign of Christ with the new holy city in a new heaven and a new earth.
One could argue that the gems in some way represent the wealth of the nation as it is returned to its land to be a state again; but the language is rather elaborate. It seems to have a future view like so many of the Messianic passages. How it will all work out exactly is hard to say with confidence, until we see it all fulfilled. Even in Revelation 21 there is no small disagreement over whether there is a physical reality to the vision or only a spiritual reality. We know at least that the redeemed will be glorified in His presence, in the place He is preparing—wherever and whatever that might be. I prefer the third view about, an actual new heaven and new earth and new Jerusalem, but unlike anything limited to this physical world.
So the LORD says to Jerusalem, “O you afflicted, tossed with tempest and not comforted, I will set your stones in antinomy, and lay your foundations with sapphires.”
The context must be considered in the full interpretation here. Verse 13 stresses the spiritual significance of this valuable restoration to be the kingdom of priests. “Your children will be taught by the LORD.” In other words, the divine influence on future generations of Israelites will be responsible not only for their being in the land and growing under God’s blessings, but also for the peace that they shall enjoy. So immediately after a description of how God will rebuild the city, there is the announcement of the spiritual influence on the people.
Then, in verse 14 we read how the LORD will establish the city of Jerusalem—it will be with righteousness. The use of this term is metonymical; the context of the verse makes it clear that the victory over the captors and the nations is meant (this use of “righteousness” has been used before in the book and is used in Psalms as well), for they shall fear no more. But why call it “righteousness?” The reason is that righteousness is the cause of the victory—the righteousness of God who will judge the wicked oppressing nations, and the righteousness of the people who believe in the LORD and walk in His ways. Israel will be far from oppression and terror (again metonmyical ideas since they refer to the actions of the nations and the effects of those oppressing nations).
Verse 14 could be taken with this section because it does speak of safety from the nations. But in these verses the prophet contrasts the way that God used the nations in the past to discipline Israel with the way He will now protect Israel from them. If nations gather against Israel, it will not be by the LORD, and so they cannot succeed in their mission (verse 15). God declares to Israel in verse 16 that both the one who makes the weapon and the one who uses it are under His sovereign control (“create” here in the sense of causing something to happen). No weapon brought against them will succeed, and no voice speaking against them will stand (verse 17a). The promise is for perfect peace.
Obviously, these promises were not completely realized by the returning exiles. The promises of God for the covenant people stand; but participation in them fully by individuals is based on faith and obedience. Moreover, God’s prophetic messages do not specify the time of the fulfillment. That generation, with the opportunity for the new beginning and the great fulfillment, did not merit the complete promise. Hebrews says that all of them died, not receiving the promise; consequently, the grand fulfillment is yet to come.
The summation of the passage in verse 17b provides us with a key to the exposition: “this is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and their righteousness which is of me.” God promised peace, security, righteousness, and spiritual service for the believing remnant; but they had to take His promises by faith and return rejoicing to the land to do it.
To tie this together with the events of the post-exilic community would be most helpful as you prepare the theology of the passage. The promises were there for the taking; but the returning community in those days received only part of what God was fully intending to do. The rest remains yet unfulfilled.
In direct correlation to the message of this chapter I would include Peter’s epistle in which he reminds us that we are an elect nation, a holy priesthood, living stones built on the foundation stone, a people that has obtained mercy and will not be put to shame; and that we are to show forth our praise of Him as we live in righteousness before all people who will see our good works and glorify the Father (1 Peter 2:5-10). So the message for us today is the same as the message for the returning exiles in Isaiah 54. God has begun a new work in Christ and called us as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation displaying the mercy and righteousness of God. Great promises of the blessings of peace, safety, prosperity and victory are held out to those who obediently walk in God’s perfect will for their lives.
But this does not nullify the fulfillment of these verses at the end of this age and the dawn of the messianic age. God will regather His people, and He will build His holy city, and He will make his servants into spiritual servants. What the people of God do in the meantime will find its glorious culmination at the time of the coming of the Messiah.
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