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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Isaiah 54

 

 

Verses 1-17

, Isaiah 55:1-13, Isaiah 56:1-8

CHAPTER XXII

ON THE EVE OF RETURN

Isaiah 54:1-17, Isaiah 55:1-13, Isaiah 56:1-8

ONE of the difficult problems of our prophecy is the relation and grouping of chapters 54-59. It is among them that the unity of "Second Isaiah," which up to this point we have seen no reason to doubt, gives way. Isaiah 56:9-12 is evidently pre-exilic, and so is Isaiah 59:1-21. But in chapters 54, 55, and Isaiah 56:1-8 we have three addresses, evidently dating from the Eve of the Return. We shall, therefore, treat them together.

I. THE BRIDE THE CITY

(Isaiah 54:1-17)

We have already seen why there is no reason for the theory that chapter 54 may have followed immediately on Isaiah 52:12. And from Calvin to Ewald and Dillmann, critics have all felt a close connection between Isaiah 52:13-15;, Isaiah 53:1-12 and chapter 54. "After having spoken of the death of Christ," says Calvin, "the prophet passes on with good reason to the Church: that we may feel more deeply in ourselves what is the value and efficacy of His death." Similar in substance, if not in language, is the opinion of the latest critics, who understand that in chapter 54 the prophet intends to picture that full redemption which the Servant’s work, culminating in chapter 53, could alone effect. Two key-words of chapter 53 had been "a seed" and "many." It is "the seed" and the "many" whom chapter 54 reveals. Again, there may be, in Isaiah 54:17, a reference to the earlier picture of the Servant in chapter 50, especially Isaiah 50:8. But this last is uncertain; and, as a point on the other side there are the two different meanings as well as the two different agents, of "righteousness" in Isaiah 53:11, "My Servant shall make many righteous," and in Isaiah 54:17, "their righteousness which is of Me, saith Jehovah." In the former, righteousness is the inward justification; in the letter, it is the external historical vindication.

In chapter 54 the people of God are represented under the double figure, with which the Book of Revelation has made us familiar, of Bride and City. To imagine a Nation or a Land as the spouse of her God is a habit natural to the religious instinct at all times; the land deriving her fruitfulness, the nation her standing and prestige, from her connection with the Deity. But in ancient times this figure of wedlock was more natural than it is among us, in so far as the human man and wife did not then occupy that relation of equality, to which it has been the progress of civilisation to approximate; but the husband was the lord of his wife, -as much her Baal as the god was the Baal of the people, -her law-giver, in part her owner, and with full authority over the origin and subsistence of the bond between them. Marriage thus conceived was a figure for religion almost universal among the Semites. But as in the case of so many other religious ideas common to the Hebrews and their heathen kin, this one, when adopted by the prophets of Jehovah, underwent a thorough moral reformation. Indeed, if one were asked to point out a supreme instance of the operation of that unique conscience of the religion of Jehovah, which was spoken of before, one would have little difficulty in selecting its treatment of the idea of religious marriage. By the neighbours of Israel, the marriage of a god to his people was conceived with a grossness of feeling and illustrated by a foulness of ritual, which thoroughly demoralised the people, affording, as they did, to licentiousness the example and sanction of religion. So debased had the idea become, and so full of temptation to the Hebrews were the forms in which it was illustrated among their neighbours, that the religion of Israel might justly have been praised for achieving a great moral victory in excluding the figure altogether from its system. But the prophets of Jehovah dared the heavier task of retaining the idea of religious marriage, and won the diviner triumph of purifying and elevating it. It was, indeed, a new creation. Every physical suggestion was banished, and the relation was conceived as purely moral. Yet it was never refined to a mere form or abstraction. The prophets fearlessly expressed it in the warmest and most familiar terms of the love of man and woman. With a stern and absolute interpretation before them in the Divine law, of the relations of a husband to his wife, they borrowed from that only so far as to do justice to the Almighty’s initiative and authority in His relation with mortals; and they laid far more emphasis on the instinctive and spontaneous affections, by which Jehovah and Israel had been drawn together. Thus, among a people naturally averse to think or to speak of God as loving men, this close relation to Him of marriage was expressed with a warmth, a tenderness, and a delicacy, that exceeded even the two other fond forms in which the Divine grace was conveyed, -of a father’s and of a mother’s love.

In this new creation of the marriage bond between God and His church, three prophets had a large share, -Hosea, Ezekiel, and the author of "Second Isaiah." To Hosea and Ezekiel it fell to speak chiefly of unpleasant aspects of the question, -the unfaithfulness of the wife and her divorce; but even then, the moral strength and purity of the Hebrew religion, its Divine vehemence and glow, were only the more evident for the unpromising character of the materials with which it dealt. To our prophet, on the contrary, it fell to speak of the winning back of the wife, and he has done so with wonderful delicacy and tenderness. Our prophet, it is true, has not one, but two, deep feelings about the love of God: it passes through him as the love of a mother, as well as the love of a husband. But while he lets us see the former only twice or thrice, the latter may be felt as the almost continual under-current of his prophecy, and often breaks to hearing, now in a sudden, single ripple of a phrase, and now in a long tide of marriage music. His lips open for Jehovah on the language of wooing, - "speak ye to the heart of Jerusalem"; and though his masculine figure for Israel as the Servant keeps his affection hidden for a time, this emerges again when the subject of Service is exhausted, till Israel, where she is not Jehovah’s Servant, is Jehovah’s Bride. In the series of passages on Zion, from chapter 49 to chapter 53, the City is the Mother of His children, the Wife who though put away has never been divorced. In chapter 62 she is called Hephzi-Bah, My-delight-is-in-her, and Beulah, or Married, -"for Jehovah delighteth in thee, and thy land shall be married. For as a youth marrieth a maiden, thy sons shall marry thee; and with the joy of a bridegroom over a bride, thy God shall joy over thee." But it is in the chapter now before us that the relation is expressed with greatest tenderness and wealth of affection. "Be not afraid, for thou shalt not be shamed; and be not confounded, for thou shalt not be put to the blush: for the shame of thy youth thou shalt forget, and the reproach of thy widowhood thou shalt not remember again. For thy Maker is thy Husband, Jehovah of Hosts is His name; and thy Redeemer the Holy of Israel, God of the whole earth is He called. For as a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit thou art called of Jehovah, even a wife of youth, when she is cast off, saith thy God. For a small moment have I forsaken thee, but with great mercies will I gather thee. In an egre of anger I hid My face a moment from thee, but with grace everlasting will I have mercy upon thee, saith thy Redeemer Jehovah."

In this eighth verse we pass from the figure of clear through flood and storm in Isaiah 54:11. "Afflicted, Storm-beaten, Uncomforted, Lo, I am setting in dark metal" (antimony, used by women for painting round the eyes, so as to set forth their brilliance more) "thy stones," (that they may shine from this setting like women’s eyes,)" and I will found thee in sapphires": as heaven’s own foundation vault is blue, so shall the ground stones be of the new Jerusalem. "And I will set rubies for thy pinnacles, and thy gates shall be sparkling stones, and all thy borders stones of delight, -stones of joy, jewels." The rest of the chapter paints the righteousness of Zion as her external security and splendour.

II. A LAST CALL TO THE BUSY

(Isaiah 55:1-13).

The second address upon the Eve of Return is chapter 55. Its pure gospel and clear music render detailed exposition, except on a single point, superfluous. One can but stand and listen to those great calls to repentance and obedience, which issue from it. What can be added to them or said about them? Let one take heed rather to let them speak to one’s own heart! A little exploration, however, will be of advantage among the circumstances from which they shoot.

The commercial character of the opening figures of chapter 55 arrests the attention. We saw that Babylon was the centre of the world’s trade, and that it was in Babylon that the Jews first formed those mercantile habits, which have become, next to religion, or in place of religion, their national character. Born to be priests, the Jews drew down their splendid powers of attention, pertinacity, and imagination from God upon the world, till they equally appear to have been born traders. They laboured and prospered exceedingly, gathering property and settling in comfort. They drank of the streams of Babylon, no longer made bitter by their tears, and ceased to think upon Zion.

But, of all men, exiles can least forget that there is that which money can never buy. Money and his work can do much for the banished man, -feed him, clothe him, even make for him a kind of second home, and in time, by the payment of taxes, a kind of second citizenship; but they can never bring him to the true climate of his heart, nor win for him his real life. And of all exiles the Jew, however free and prosperous in his banishment he might be, was least able to find his life among the good things-the water, the wine, and the milk-of a strange country. For home to Israel meant not only home, but duty, righteousness, and God. (Isaiah 1:1-31; Isaiah 2:1-22; Isaiah 3:1-26; Isaiah 4:1-6; Isaiah 5:1-30; Isaiah 6:1-13; Isaiah 7:1-25; Isaiah 8:1-22; Isaiah 9:1-21; Isaiah 10:1-34; Isaiah 11:1-16; Isaiah 12:1-6; Isaiah 13:1-22; Isaiah 14:1-32; Isaiah 15:1-9; Isaiah 16:1-14; Isaiah 17:1-14; Isaiah 18:1-7; Isaiah 19:1-25; Isaiah 20:1-6; Isaiah 21:1-17; Isaiah 22:1-25; Isaiah 23:1-18; Isaiah 24:1-23; Isaiah 25:1-12; Isaiah 26:1-21; Isaiah 27:1-13; Isaiah 28:1-29; Isaiah 29:1-24; Isaiah 30:1-33; Isaiah 31:1-9; Isaiah 32:1-20; Isaiah 33:1-24; Isaiah 34:1-17; Isaiah 35:1-10; Isaiah 36:1-22; Isaiah 37:1-38; Isaiah 38:1-22; Isaiah 39:1-8) God had created the heart of this people to hunger for His word, and in His word they could alone find the "fatness of their soul." Success and comfort shall never satisfy the soul which God has created for obedience. The simplicity of the obedience that is here asked from Israel, the emphasis that is laid upon mere obedience as ringing in full satisfaction, is impressive: "hearken diligently, and eat that which is good; incline your ear and come unto Me, hear and your soul shall live." It suggests the number of plausible reasons, which may be offered for every worldly and material life, and to which there is no answer save the call of God’s own voice to obedience and surrender. To obedience God then promises influence. In place of being a mere trafficker with the nations, or, at best, their purveyor and moneylender, the Jew, if he obeys God, shall be the priest and prophet of the peoples. This is illustrated in Isaiah 55:4-6, the only hard passage in the chapter. God will make His people like David; whether the historical David or the ideal David described by Jeremiah and Ezekiel is uncertain. God will conclude an everlasting "covenant" with them, equivalent to the sure favours showered on him. As God set him for a witness (that is, a prophet) to "the peoples, a prince and a leader to the peoples," so (in phrases that recall some used by David of himself in the eighteenth Psalm) shall they as prophets and kings influence strange nations-"calling a nation thou knowest not, and nations that have not known thee shall run unto thee." The effect of the unconscious influence, which obedience to God, and surrender to Him as His instrument, are sure to work, could not be more grandly stated. But we ought not to let another point escape our attention, for it has its contribution to make to the main question of the Servant. As explained in the note to a sentence above, it is uncertain whether David is the historical king of’ that name, or the Messiah still to come. In either case, be is an individual, whose functions and qualities are transferred to the people, and that is the point demanding attention. If our prophecy can thus so easily speak of God’s purpose of service to the Gentiles passing from the individual to the nation, why should it not also be able to speak of the opposite process, the transference of the service from the nation to the single Servant? When the nation were unworthy and unredeemed, could not the prophet as easily think of the relegation of their office to aft individual, as he now promises to their obedience that that office shall be restored to them?

The next verses urgently repeat calls to repentance. And then comes a passage which is grandly meant to make us feel the contrast of its scenery with the toil, the money-getting and the money-spending from which the chapter started. From all that sordid, barren, human strife in the markets of Babylon, we are led out to look at the boundless heavens, and are told that "as they are higher than the earth, so are God’s ways higher than our ways, and God’s reckonings than our reckonings" we are led out to see the gentle fall of rain and snow that so easily "maketh the earth to bring forth and bud, and give seed to the sower and bread to the eater," and are told that it is a symbol of God’s word, which we were called from our vain labours to obey; we are led out "to the mountains and to the hills breaking before you into singing," and to the free, wild natural trees, tossing their unlopped branches; we are led to see even the desert change, for "instead of the thorn shall come up the fir-tree, and instead of the nettle shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to Jehovah for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off." Thus does the prophet, in his own fashion, lead the starved worldly heart, that has sought in vain its fulness from its toil, through scenes of Nature, to that free omnipotent Grace, of which Nature’s processes are the splendid sacraments.

III. PROSELYTES AND EUNUCHS

[Isaiah 56:1-8]

The opening verse of this small prophecy, "My salvation is near to come, and My righteousness to be revealed," attaches it very closely to the preceding prophecy. If chapter 55 expounds the grace and faithfulness of God in the Return of His people, and asks from them only faith as the price of such benefits, Isaiah 56:1-8 adds the demand that those who are to return shall keep the law, and extends their blessings to foreigners and others, who though technically disqualified from the privileges of the born and legitimate Israelite, had attached themselves to Jehovah and His Law.

Such a prophecy was very necessary. The dispersion of Israel had already begun to accomplish its missionary purpose; pious souls in many lands had felt the spiritual power of this disfigured people, and had chosen for Jehovah’s sake to follow its uncertain fortunes. It was indispensable that these Gentile converts should be comforted against the withdrawal of Israel from Babylon, for they said, "Jehovah will surely separate me from His people," as well as against the time when it might become necessary to purge the restored community from heathen constituents. [Nehemiah 13:1-31] Again, all the male Jews could hardly have escaped the disqualification, which the cruel custom of the East inflicted on some, at least, of every body of captives. It is almost certain that Daniel and his companions were eunuchs, and if they, then perhaps many more. But the Book of Deuteronomy had declared mutilation of this kind to be a bar against entrance to the assembly of the Lord. It is not one of the least interesting of the spiritual results of the Exile, that its necessities compelled the abrogation of the letter of such a law. With a freedom that foreshadows Christ’s own expansion of the ancient strictness, and in words that would not be out of place in the Sermon on the Mount, this prophecy ensures to pious men, whom cruelty had deprived of the two things dearest to the heart of an Israelite, -a present place, and a perpetuation through his posterity, in the community of God, -that in the new temple a monument and a name should be given, "better" and more enduring "than sons or daughters." This prophecy is further noteworthy as the first instance of the strong emphasis which "Second Isaiah" lays upon the keeping of the Sabbath, and as, first calling the temple the "House of Prayer." Both of these characteristics are due, of course, to the Exile, the necessities of which prevented almost every religious act save that of keeping fasts and Sabbaths and serving God in prayer. On our prophet’s teaching about the Sabbath there will be more to say in the next chapter.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Isaiah 54:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/isaiah-54.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, October 17th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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