It was a portion of this passage that Jesus read in the Synagogue (in Luke 4) and reported fulfilled in their hearing. Thus, no matter what the actual historical application might have been for the speaker (the prophet, or the remnant, or the compiler), the ultimate and fullest meaning is that the Holy Spirit anointed Jesus to declare the Good News.
But the theology of both the Old and New Testament settings corresponds. The Good News in the historical setting was release from the bondage of the exile to full and free service of the LORD once again, a jubilee-like experience; but in the New Testament that bondage is sin and death, and the deliverance is spiritual and eternal as well as physical. Once again the New Testament captures the spirit as well as the letter of the Old Testament passage; but it takes it to its divinely intended—and lofty—fulfillment.
Verse 1 bases the oracle on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For the Spirit to be upon the speaker clearly meant in the Old Testament that the speaker was controlled (= filled) by the Spirit—his message was the message of God breathed out by the Holy Spirit through the person. Here it is the “Spirit of the Lord Yahweh” who is upon him. In the historical context the meaning is that the prophet, for the discharge of his function, is empowered and enabled by the presence of the Holy Spirit.
The two verbs that express the significance of this are “He has anointed me” and “He has sent me.” The image of anointing (hypocatastasis or, implied metaphor) signifies that he was set apart for this mission and endorsed by God.139
The several purposes for declaring the Good News now are enumerated. First it will be Good News to the poor. This is a theme that has been introduced before in the book, the Good News being the message of deliverance from bondage. In the New Testament it is the Gospel. The “poor” are those who are destitute, in a distressed condition, poor in every way. One can think of other, current examples of refugees driven from their homes, hungry, destitute, and confused.
The theme of “bind up the broken hearted” picks up the theme of the earlier chapter on bringing revival to the contrite and the lowly. Those “crushed in spirit” (hypocatastasis) by the exile will be strengthened and encouraged.
“To proclaim liberty for the captives” is an idea drawn from the Year of Jubilee (Lev. 25), as well as from the concern of the captivity. Of course that would also bring in the teaching on the High Priest, so in the New Testament there would be more correlations. “Freedom” or “liberty” is the word right out of Leviticus 25:10,40.
The last expression in the verse is “release for the prisoners.” The difficulty here is that the expression translated “release” is used most often for opening eyes and ears, hence the Greek has it “open eyes to the blind.” The idea of “recovery of sight” could have been used metonymically for people as if in a dark dungeon, and when released would see the light of day. Jesus made the blind to see—but that by His own explanation was also a symptom of release from the bondage of sin, for there were many who saw but were blind spiritually and still imprisoned by sin (John 9).
Verse 2 begins with “to proclaim the acceptable year (“year of favor”) of the LORD.” It was up through this line that Jesus quoted, and said was fulfilled. The rest of the passage looks to the Second Coming. Here the “Year of Favor” would be in general referring to divine intervention; but it is also a Jubilee. The idea of “favor” or “grace” captures all the themes in the previous oracles that affirmed that God by grace was delivering people from bondage.
The “day of vengeance” is certainly divine judgment. To Israel it would have come with the deliverance, for Babylon was to be destroyed in the process; but in the New Testament it is eschatological, referring to when Jesus comes with the baptism of fire to judge the world and fulfill His promises to the believing remnant and believing Gentiles.
The theme of comfort (Isa. 40:1) is reintroduced here with “those who mourn.” The language foreshadows the beatitudes of our Lord Jesus Christ. Those who mourn and grieve do so under the bondage of exile; today it is both spiritual and physical, but there is a coming day when all manner of things will be well.
Verse 3 uses a good deal of imagery. “Ashes” is metonymy of adjunct, people having put ashes on their foreheads while mourning. The “turban of beauty” could be drawing upon some festive clothing that replaced the ashes (see Zech. 3) and so another metonymy; or it could be a implied comparison with such action, signifying the change of estates. The “oil of gladness” would refer to oil used to welcome guests to festive occasions, and “festal clothing” would be the natural clothing worn to such affairs—not funeral clothing. Drawing on the image of such a banquet, God is saying that they will rejoice, praise, be comforted, and be glorious, in the place of mourning and despairing (giving up hope).
The verse closes with a metaphor of the branch joined with righteousness to be a symbol of endurance: “trees of righteousness” means that the people will be solidly and enduringly righteous. The image of the “trees” is paralleled with that of “planting.”
Jesus did not read the entire section. The aspect of vengeance or judgment was not part of the first advent, as we now know; neither was the complete renovation of all things, as this passage predicts. The part that Jesus read tells of making proclamation; the part that He did not read speaks to actually doing it, changing the estate of the afflicted. Jesus came and proclaimed the Good News; He did enough miracles to show He was the Messiah, and that when He returned He could indeed change all things.
The background of this section is the original call of Israel as a kingdom of priests (Exod. 19:6; and add 1 Peter 2:9 for us who have been grafted in ). Verse 4 predicts that they will rebuild the ruined and devastated places; verse 5 tells how foreigners will serve them in the ordinary work; but verse 6 focuses on their spiritual service.
They will be called “priests of God” and named “ministers of God.” Zechariah 3 portrays the restoration of the nation to its priestly function. God does not deliver and forgive for no purpose; God saves in order that the redeemed might serve. What Israel had, she lost by sin; but it would be restored after the exile to a generation that was bearing fruit. God will have a kingdom of priests on this earth; today it is the Church; at the end of the age it looks like the prophets anticipate and Paul confirms that God will yet save Israel (those who are alive prior to the second coming, of course) and use them again for this purpose.
Verse 7 declares that everlasting joy will replace the shame; and this theme is elaborated upon in the following verses. On God’s part, He who loves justice and hates evil, promises to make an everlasting covenant, and to make the people of God famous in the world as the people the LORD has blessed.
Verse 10 interrupts the flow of the argument with an outbreak of praise. The prophet, speaking for Israel or Jerusalem, expresses gratitude for the promised felicity. The central point here captures the message of the whole chapter. He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, and arrayed me with the robe of righteousness. God has given believers righteousness and salvation. That is the reason for the restoration to service, the joy, and all the festivities. The image of the clothing is used here again by comparison: clothing signifies the nature of the person.
Verse 11 then continues the message of verses 8 and 9, not 10. God will make righteousness and praise spring up from the land. “Spring up” is literally flourish; it draws on the image of planting oak trees, but looks to the product that righteousness will cover the land, because righteous people will be there serving the LORD. This is more than the dream of a prophet; it is a vision of the future—yet to be fully realized, needless to say.
The passage can be treated on two levels, one for historical Israel and the restoration from the exile for part of it, and the eschatological sense for the other part. Jesus in His first advent announces the fulfillment of it, but as with so many of the prophecies there is a partial fulfillment at the first advent, the rest awaiting the second advent.
But the passage can easily be used for today, for the NT applies it this way. The Messiah has done it—and is doing these things—for us: our response should be to live righteously, joyfully and hopefully as those who have been given sight, set free from bondage, received the LORD’s favor. But just as the Spirit anointed the messenger (the prophet first, and then Jesus) to announce this to those in sin, so the Spirit has anointed us as John tells us, making us a kingdom of priests as Peter reminds us, so that we too can proclaim good news to the world. This we do while waiting for the culmination of God’s program for the ages, which will see that great day of vengeance when He comes to set everything right and make all things new.
One expository arrangement that could be used in preaching from this passage is as follows (as in a message for people called to service):
I. God’s servants are appointed by God’s Spirit to proclaim God’s message (Isa. 61:1a)
A. They are anointed by God.
B. They are anointed by God to proclaim good news.
II. The proclamation of the Word of God transforms the lives of those who believe (Isa. 61 1b-3)
A. The good news is that there is hope for the hopeless.
B. The good news is that there is liberty from bondage.
C. The good news is that there is grace for the debtor.
D. The good news is that there is joy in place of sorrow.
III. God’s program of redemption fits us for service (Isa. 61:4-11).
A. We have been blessed with reconciliation.
B. We have been made a kingdom of priests.
C. We have every reason to praise.
Cannon, W. W. “Isaiah 61:1-3, an Ebed-Jahweh Poem.” ZAW 47 (1929):284-288.
Everson, A. Joseph. “Isaiah 61:1-6 (To Give Them a Garland Instead of Ashes).” Interp 32 (1978):69-73.
Gowen, D. E. “Isaiah 61:1-3; 10-11.” Interp 35 (1981):404-409.
Miller, Merrill P. “The Function of Isaiah 61:1-2 in 11Q Melchizedek.” JBL 88 (1969):467-469.
Morgenstern, J. “Isaiah 61.” HUCA 40-41 (1969/70):109-121.
Nutz, Earl. “The Commission of Messiah.” BibView 12 (1978):131-135.
Peterson, Eugene H. “A Garland of Ashes.” Christian Ministry 8 (1977):28-30.
139 The idea of anointing with oil is hereby explained theologically: theocratic leaders so anointed would be receiving the enablement by God to rule--the Holy Spirit. Zechariah 4 explains that the olive oil to the lamps represented the Spirit. And John in his first epistle explains we have the Spirit, the anointing from God. A prayer for anointing by the Spirit today can only be used in the sense that we desire the manifestation of the anointing that we already have.