Yahweh saves. That’s what Isaiah’s name means, and that’s what Isaiah’s prophecy is about. Yah saves Judah when Aram and Israel pressure her. He saves Jerusalem from the Assyrian siege. He brings Judah back from the grave of Babylonian exile.
But this triumphant message of Isaiah fizzles. The last few chapters seem to take us back to where we came from. The final chapter of Isaiah repeats many of the same charges that Isaiah leveled at the people in the first chapter. At the beginning, Yahweh called on heaven and earth as witnesses against His people, and the final chapter opens with Isaiah talking about Yahweh enthroned in heaven with earth as His footstool. Isaiah begins with a prophecy against the rebellious sons, the sinful nation that acts corruptly and despises Yahweh. At the end, Yahweh is still dealing with rebels and transgressors.
In particular, the Lord condemns Judah’s worship. At the beginning, He tells Judah to cease and desist their worship, it’s so hateful to Him (Isaiah 1:10-14). And He does it again at the end, describing the fourfold abomination of Judah’s worship: Those who offer an ox are murderers; those who slay lambs for sacrifice are those who offer a dog; your grain offerings might as well be pig blood; your incense is like a blessing of an idol (66:3)..
At the beginning and end, Yahweh condemns Judah’s worship for the same reasons. Judah’s worship has become abominable because the hands they lift in prayer are covered with innocent blood. They spend their week abusing orphans and widows, and think they can cover themselves by offering sacrifices every Sabbath and new moon. In the final chapter, Isaiah condemns the people for being deaf to the Lord’s voice: He calls, they don’t answer. He speaks, and they don’t hear (66:4). They’d rather do their own thing; they don’t want anyone, especially the Lord, telling them how to live their lives.
It seems that we’ve made no progress at all. Yahweh has saved Judah from Israel and Aram, delivered them from the Assyrian, brought them back from Babylonian exile. After all this, they revert to their old ways. Nothing changes.
Is that the message of Isaiah? That human sin is intractable? But we knew that already, didn’t we? Some revelation! Or, perhaps, that Yahweh’s power to save is inadequate? Perhaps He’s good at delivering from enemies like Aram, Israel, Assyrian and Babylon. Maybe He’s strong enough to fight back military threats, but He can’t really deliver Israel from their greatest problems – their own deafness and dullness. Perhaps Yahweh can deliver Israel from all their enemies, but cannot deliver them from themselves.
That would be a pretty depressing message, and of course I’m going to say that’s not what Isaiah is about. But we need to look at Isaiah 66 carefully to figure out precisely what has changed and what it all means.
For starters, we need to remind ourselves of Isaiah’s commission and the mission Yahweh gave him. At the beginning of the book (Isaiah 6), Isaiah sees the Lord exalted in His temple, surrounded by seraphim, and Isaiah knows that he is unworthy to be in the presence of the glory. “Woe is me, for I am ruined!” he cries. “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lip. And my eyes have seen the king.”
Yahweh agrees: Judah is indeed unclean. They have worshiped dead idols and they have become like them. The whole body is sick because of their idolatry, and their organs no longer function. Like their gods, they have eyes but cannot see, ears but cannot hear, hearts that cannot understand.
We might Yahweh will send Isaiah to open blind eyes, touch ears so they can hear, bring light into hearts. But that’s not his commission. It’s the opposite: “Keep on listening, but do not perceive. Keep on looking, but do not understand. Render the hearts of this people fat, and their ears dull and their eyes dim. Lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and be healed.” This is going to last “until cities are devastated and without inhabitant, houses are without people, and the land is utterly removed.”
Yahweh doesn’t want to heal His people, not yet. He doesn’t want to deliver them from their idols. They have gone so far down that road that He has decided to give them what they want, to give them over to their idols and to the living death that idolatry always brings.
This is a pretty easy commission in one sense: If things get worse as Isaiah prophesies, that means he’s fulfilling his commission. If Judah gets more and more desolated, then it’s Mission Accomplished. If he fails, he succeeds.
But that’s not the whole of Isaiah’s commission. From the land burned and desolated, the Lord will pick up a few seeds, a tithe. Even the seeds will be scorched, the tree reduced to a stump, but there will be a branch from the stump, new growth, a remainder, some leftovers, a remnant from which the Lord will bring a new people. He will preserve a lump of dough to leaven a new loaf.
That’s the mission that is accomplished at the end of Isaiah, and Isaiah 66 tells us that this accomplishment has three components. First, Zion has given birth. The remnant has come into being. She has a son, and that son is a land and a nation. Zion’s suffering has been the suffering of labor. Her travail is the travail of giving birth. She not only gives birth to a son who is also sons, but she nurses them, comforts them when they are upset. Jerusalem is again a mother, and that means that all who mourn over her find comfort. Yahweh won’t bring Zion through all this pain without bringing her to birth. If she travailed, it’s so that she can give birth.
The remnant to which Zion gives birth will be a new temple. When Solomon built the temple, Yahweh promised that His eyes and heart would be there where His name dwelt. He would look to the temple, and hear the prayers directed toward it. Now, Yahweh promises to look to “him who is humble and contrite of spirit and who trembles at My word” (66:2). Those who share Zion’s travails, who mourn over her, they will be the house where Yahweh’s heart and eyes are.
Second, Yahweh says that He will pay back His enemies. There’s a noise in the city, a voice from the temple, that is Yahweh’s own voice dealing out recompense to His enemies. He is indignant with His enemies. He comes in fire and wind. He comes to blow His enemies away in His anger and to scorch them with the fire that comes from His chariot. It’s like a great sacrificial slaughter. Yahweh comes in a chariot of fire, with a whirlwind, and with His sword unsheathed. He will slay and burn and turn all His enemies into a great sacrificial slaughter.
What’s important here is to see who these enemies are. They have caused Zion’s suffering, but they aren’t Gentiles. They are “brothers” of Zion who exclude, persecute, and taunt the faithful (66:5). They are not generic sinners, but “those who sanctify and purify themselves to go to the gardens.” They are the ones who find the center of the garden where they have a feast of pig flesh, detestable meat, and mice. While Zion is giving birth to a remnant, the rest of the people, those who refuse to listen to Yahweh and who offer prayer with blood hands and who oppress the weak – these will be destroyed. They won’t be able to go back to Eden for their abominable feats. Yahweh the cherub will strike them with fire and sword.
This is progress. At the beginning of Isaiah, Yahweh was against all of Judah. They were rebellious sons. Now, through the travail of Zion, He has separated a righteous remnant from the wicked, and now He targets His fire and wind at the wicked. And it’s progress that results from Isaiah’s ministry. The distinction between the destroyed and the rescued has to do with their response to Yahweh’s word. Those who tremble at His word will be rescued; those who refuse to listen will be destroyed. Their fate is determined by their response to Isaiah’s teaching. His word is a sword of sacrifice that cuts into the middle of Israel and distinguishes between soul and spirit, joints and marrow. His (s)word separates Israel into the portion that will be destroyed in fire and the portion that will commune with Yahweh.
Finally, through this He also transforms the relationship between Zion, her remnant children, and the nations. At the beginning of the prophecy, Zion is threatened by Israel and Aram, and then by Assyria, and then by Babylon. But in the end, these nations will no longer be threatening Zion. They will become her patrons. Yahweh will send a river flowing through Jerusalem, like the river of Eden, and this river is the flow of Gentile glory. Once, the Assyrians threatened to overflow the banks of the Euphrates and flood the land of Judah, drowning everyone. Now Gentiles will overflow with gifts. Once, the Gentiles invaded and took away Zion’s treasures; now they come to Zion bringing treasures, bearing gifts. Jerusalem will become the chief of the mountains and the Gentiles will flow to it, coming to learn of the Lord’s ways and coming to bring their tribute, a tribute of people as well as of treasure.
The flow goes the other direction too. Yahweh will sent out the survivors of Zion out among the nations. Canaan was inhabited by seven nations when Joshua invaded and conquered; Isaiah lists seven different regions of the world. It’s another conquest of Canaan, but this conquest is a conquest of witness. Nations that do not know of Yahweh’s reputation, who have never seen Yahweh’s glory, will hear of His mighty acts and see His glory when Zion’s survivors are sent out to them.
This is the very process by which the Lord ultimately redeems His people. This is the ministry of Jesus and the apostles. Jesus comes as a new Isaiah, His name also meaning “Yah saves.” He too carries out a ministry of hardening, telling parables so that those who hear will not hear, to blind eyes and to harden hearts. But as He is confirming some in their idolatry, He is also gathering a remnant, a new Israel within Israel, led by twelve apostles. These will have their eyes opened, and their ears will hear, and their hearts will understand, and their tongues will be loosed. Jesus, like Isaiah, comes He comes with a (s)word to divide Israel so that He can remake her, so that He can cast away the dross and purify the remnant.
In His resurrection, He becomes the Son born of Zion, born from the very land of Zion, the birth of a nation and a people in a single day, in one single glorious labor. Judgment comes on the wicked in Israel, as the Lord targets those who persist in worshiping idols. And Jesus brings the nations and their treasures to this renewed Zion, the remnant Zion, the Zion made of survivors. And Jesus sends out His disciples to the nations in a new conquest, to show the glory of Yahweh among the nations.
This happened once-for-all, but it sets a pattern of renewal that occurs again and again in the history of the church. It may seem that we have made no progress, as if all our efforts to witness faithfully have been fruitless. We have been witnessing against abortion for a generation and a half, but still abortion continues. Christians have protested sexual liberation for decades, but it just gets worse and as a nation we are now in the process of re-defining marriage to encompass homosexual relations, and in re-defining marriage we are attempting to re-define human nature – no longer male and female but LGTBQ.
We shouldn’t draw that conclusion. Before the Lord brings His fire, He cuts with His sword, to divide a nation into those who hear and tremble when He speaks and those who stop their ears. The differences between Christian and non-Christian in America are starker now than they were a half century ago. The differences among Christians are starker than they were even a couple of decades ago. Once the Bible was the American book; now we live in a nation where many, many, including many Christians, don’t care much about what the Bible says about marriage, sexuality, what it implies about abortion. They think the Bible is irrelevant to our cultural concerns.
That’s progress. It may not sound like progress, but it is. It’s a sign that the sword of God is doing its work. And if we suffer ostracism and persecution for standing up for the Word of God, if other Christians exclude us, that too is progress. The Lord will not bring on travail without bringing us to birth. He won’t bring on the labor pains without giving children who will form a new and living temple.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House.
To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.