Isaiah Week 13
By Bo Lim
Seattle Pacific University Associate Professor of Old Testament
Read this week’s Scripture: Isaiah 63:1–66:24
“It ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings.” I’ve been to only one opera, and although I did enjoy it, I would have liked something to signal its end, since it was quite long (it had two intermissions!). Isaiah has been a long read, 62 chapters so far. Congrats if you have journeyed with us for the past 12 weeks. At various points throughout Isaiah it seemed that the book would end, but it didn’t. This week marks the book’s close, and the question I’d like us to consider is, “What makes Isaiah 63–66 an ending?”
Justice Requires Divine Intervention
Isaiah 62:10–12, it seems, would have made for a good ending to the book of Isaiah. The prophecy would have ended with an invitation for God’s people to return to a redeemed and glorified Zion. The curtain would have fallen, and we would have headed for the exits from the theater. Instead, the prophecy continues and we encounter a shocking image of Yahweh as a warrior in Isaiah 63:1–6. We hear an anonymous watchman call out,
“Who is this that comes from Edom, from Bozrah in garments stained crimson?”
“It is I, announcing vindication, mighty to save.”
The watchmen then replies,
“Why are your robes red, and your garments like theirs who tread the wine press?”
In 63:3–6, God replies,
“I have trodden the wine press alone,
and from the peoples no one was with me;
I trod them in my anger
and trampled them in my wrath;
their juice spattered on my garments,
and stained all my robes.
For the day of vengeance was in my heart,
and the year for my redeeming work had come.
I looked, but there was no helper;
I stared, but there was no one to sustain me;
so my own arm brought me victory,
and my wrath sustained me.
I trampled down peoples in my anger,
I crushed them in my wrath,
and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.”
I admit these images are disturbing. It even influenced one biblical scholar, Friedrich Delitzsch [Author’s Note 1], to question the inspiration of the Old Testament. Violence and wrath appear to be glorified, and in this case it is Yahweh who commits such acts and holds wrathful attitudes. This seems to be a far cry from 1 John’s claim that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16) and God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all (1:5).
I cannot deny the violent depictions of Yahweh in these texts. Yahweh himself is no pacifist. God is a warrior (compare Exodus 15:3), and throughout the Bible we find God fighting on behalf of his people. What is important to recognize is that God does not engage in selfish violence. His warfare is intended to root out evil and establish justice and righteousness in the cosmos. God fights because there is no other recourse, and he will never allow evil to prevail.
Back in Isaiah 59, we saw God preparing himself for battle. Why was Yahweh going off to fight? Because he looked out and saw that there was no justice (59:15) and there was no one who could intervene (59:16), he took it upon himself to deal with injustice. God dons his battle gear and enacts retribution in accordance with the deeds of the wicked. God’s sense of justice is eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth — not head for an eye or heart for a tooth.
Chapter 59 describes the pre-fight scene; Isaiah 63:1–6 is the post-fight scene. Yahweh is victorious, and the enemy has been thoroughly defeated. Between Chapters 59 and 63 is the vision of Zion’s salvation in Isaiah 60–62. The placement of these divine warrior passages is key to their interpretation. As mentioned previously, the warfare is not senseless; it is conducted for the purpose of redeeming Zion. Evil is persistent and will ultimately be rooted out by an act of divine intervention. At the end of the day, human effort alone cannot bring an end to evil.
One needs to be cautious when interpreting and applying passages that speak of violence in the Old Testament. Isaiah 63:1–6 has been interpreted in quite varied ways. The early church understood this passage as a description of Christ’s journey to Golgotha, where his own blood soiled his garments. Some of the imagery from this passage informed the lyrics of the Civil War anthem, “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Christians ought not to glorify violence in the Bible, but neither should they ignore it altogether.
What we learn from these violent images of Yahweh as divine warrior in Isaiah is that a cosmic battle is raging (compare Lectio Week 2). Language of warfare acknowledges the reality and intensity of evil that surrounds us. Yet our role in this battle against evil is not to fight with the sword (compare Isaiah 2:4; Ephesians 6:10–17), but rather to fight with our preaching (Isaiah 49:2) and acts of justice and righteousness (Isaiah 56:1). The word “vengeance” appears seven times in Isaiah, and in each instance it speaks of vengeance belonging solely to Yahweh. It is God’s job, not ours, to enact vengeance, and Isaiah reassures us that God will do that.
Isaiah resonates with the teaching of the Apostle Paul:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)
God’s people need to remember Moses’ words to the Israelites at the Red Sea with Pharaoh and his army closing in on them:
“Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today. … The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” (Exodus 14:13–14)
Why Aren’t We There Yet?
Isaiah 63:7–64:12 is generally classified as a communal lament, and contains many of the same elements of such texts as Lamentations, Psalm 79, and Nehemiah 9. The community complains to Yahweh because of the lack of compassion shown to his people (63:15), the absence of his presence (63:17), and the people’s defeat before their enemies (63:18). Their response is to confess their sin (64:5–6), call upon Yahweh to reveal himself in a theophany (64:1–2), and address the distress of his people (64:9, 12).
What is odd is that, while the passage appears to be written in response to the destruction of Jerusalem and the profanation of the temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., it is found in Isaiah 56–66, a text that was composed in the restoration period following the exile. Even though the Israelites had returned to their homeland and had begun construction on the Second Temple, the difficulties and opposition they faced prompted them to remember and relive the laments of the generation before them. Contrary to the call, “Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise from the end of the earth!” (Isaiah 42:10), Israel continues to sing an old lament.
Isaiah 40–55 announced a new exodus of cosmic proportion featuring elements such as the transformation of the wilderness (41:17–20), an ingathering of the global diaspora (43:1–7), and Yahweh’s return to a renewed Zion filled with joyous celebration (52:7–10). In Chapters 60–62, Zion is described in its glorified state, vindicated and exalted over the nations.
Yet the readers of Isaiah experienced no such city. They resettled Jerusalem, but they continued to be oppressed by the Persians, harassed by the local people of Yehud, and engaged in intra-community conflict. The great salvation that Yahweh announced in Isaiah would not be fulfilled in one event, but over a series of events. God’s people had to learn to be faithful in times of disappointment. Isaiah reassures them that God’s salvation may have its fits and starts, but the presence of the Holy Spirit will never depart from his people.
Why is salvation taking so long? It is to allow for repentance.
The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
Eschatological delay ought not to be equated with the absence of God. Similarly, lament is not a lack of faith, but rather the demonstration of it. Part of the life of faith includes waiting, even doing so in the face of great injustice. Yet this waiting is not in vain, and the people of God ought not to despair because, as we have already seen above, God will come to enact his vengeance and vindicate the righteous. It is because God will vindicate Zion that his people can wait in patience.
New Creation and New Jerusalem
Isaiah 65–66 concludes both Chapters 40–66 and Chapters 1–66. In the Lectio for Week 9, I stated that Isaiah 40:1–11 summarized the message of Chapters 40–55. It is no coincidence that Chapters 65–66 make several allusions to this text [Author’s Note 2]:
|Chapters 65–66||Chapter 40|
|65:1 God’s presence manifested: “Here I am”||40:9 “Here is your God”|
|65:15 God comes in fire for judgment||40:10 God comes with might, and his recompense is before him|
|65:16 Israel’s former troubles are forgotten, hidden from God’s eyes||40:2 Israel’s term is served and her penalty is paid|
|66:13 God comforts his people||40:1 “Comfort, O comfort my people”|
|65:18 Gladness and joy for Jerusalem||40:9 Jerusalem, herald of good tidings|
|66:18–19 God’s glory among the nations||40:5 The glory of the LORD revealed to all flesh|
What is the significance of these connections? If Isaiah 40–55 is a description of salvation — and these intertextual allusions demonstrate that Chapters 56–66 serve as a continuation of the message of Chapters 40–55 — then Chapters 65–66 describe the goal of salvation. Salvation doesn’t end with deliverance from bondage (Chapters 40–55), nor even a new community (Chapters 56–62). God saves in order to restore humanity to a new creation (Chapters 65–66). For the redeemed, God is not done with us; there is more yet to come.
In Isaiah 65:17, Yahweh declares that he is creating new heavens and a new earth. The heavens and earth here ought not to be understood as two separate locations or spheres, but rather one. No longer will there be weeping or sorrow (65:19), premature death (65:20), or famine, poverty, or tragedy (65:21–23). Isaiah 65:25 clearly alludes to the vision of a messianic peaceful kingdom in 11:6–9:
|Isaiah 11:6–9||Isaiah 65:25|
|11:6 The wolf shall live with the lamb||65:25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together|
|11:7 The lion shall eat straw like the ox||65:25 The lion shall eat straw like the ox|
|11:8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den||65:25 The serpent — its food shall be dust!|
|11:9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain||65:25 They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain|
Followers of Jesus are not immune to disease, depression, poverty, persecution, or disaster. We, along with creation, groan for the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:22–23). As Christians, we need not despair when these trials overcome us because we know that a glorious finish line awaits us. Thankfully in Jesus a new creation has already erupted (2 Corinthians 5:17), and, therefore, we can even now begin to reclaim the dignity of our bodies as well as the dignity of the rest of the created order. Christianity is an embodied faith; it always has been, and according to Isaiah, it always will be.
One more table of intertexual comparisons: Below are the correspondences between the opening chapters of the book of Isaiah and its concluding ones:
|Theme||Isaiah 1:2–2:4||Isaiah 63:7–66:24|
|Heaven and earth||1:2||66:1|
|“Sons” metaphor; Judah devastated||1:2–9||63:7–64:11|
|Personification of Zion||1:21–26||66:7–13|
|Redemption/judgment of Zion||1:27–31||66:14–17|
|Gathering of the nations to Zion||2:2–4||66:18–24|
|Wicked consumed by unquenchable fire||1:31||66:24|
In the Lectio for Week 2, I argued that Jerusalem, or Zion, is the main character in the book of Isaiah. Isaiah opens with a focus on Jerusalem, and in Chapters 65–66 it ends with a vision of a New Jerusalem. By now some of you may be thinking to yourselves, “Isaiah and the Old Testament are awfully ethnocentric. The emphasis seems to be always on the Jews and their homeland. I don’t see how Isaiah is gospel for all people.”
Certainly some people have read Isaiah in such a manner. Zionists have appealed to Isaiah to support the establishment of a Jewish nation state in Palestine. But such a reading of Isaiah is misguided. “Jerusalem” and “Zion” in Isaiah are literary tropes that ought to be understood theologically.
In Isaiah 65:17–18, the new heavens and earth are equated with the New Jerusalem, so Jerusalem, properly understood, is representative of all creation. By redeeming Jerusalem, God saves all humanity. In 66:18–23, all nations, even those from the furthest coastlands, worship Yahweh in Jerusalem, and God even recruits priests as Levites from among them.
Judgment and Vindication
Now it is difficult to ignore the fact that Isaiah ends with a sobering warning of judgment (66:24). Earlier, in 65:1–16, Yahweh confronts those who oppose him as well as his servants. In Isaiah 53–54, we read about how the suffering of the servant produced offspring and made many righteous. The servants are the result of the servant’s ministry and they function as the main theme of Chapters 56–66. Unfortunately, the servants of the LORD, like the servant of Isaiah 53, suffer persecution as a result of their obedience. In 65:13–16, Yahweh vindicates his faithful servants, and judges those who oppose them.
It appears Jesus considers his disciples servants of the LORD when, speaking about them, he borrows the language of Isaiah 65:13:
Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” (Luke 6:20–21)
Jesus appears to adopt Isaianic speech when warning the rich:
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. (Luke 6:24–25)
Isaiah preaches salvation for the humble and judgment for the proud. Recall the summary verse for the book:
Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness. But rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together, and those who forsake the LORD shall be consumed. (Isaiah 1:27–28)
The Bible begins with the creation of the heavens and earth (Genesis), midway through prophesies of a new heavens and new earth (Isaiah), and ends with a vision of the new heavens and earth replacing the first heaven and earth (Revelation 21:1). As we come to the end of the book of Isaiah, we are taken back to the beginning of Scripture and fast-forward to its end.
Perhaps this is where you and I find ourselves: somewhere in the middle of witnessing the end of one age and the dawning of the age to come. Or, in the lingo of Isaiah, witnessing that the former things have passed and the new has come. Perhaps even though you have experienced salvation you continue to be distressed by sorrow, disease, sin, poverty, calamity, oppression, and death. For those of us who are longing for the redemption of all things, Isaiah’s exhortation to you and me is:
Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD! (Isaiah 2:4)
Questions for Further Reflection
- What is your reaction to the images of divine warfare in the Bible? What are we to learn from such texts? In what ways can they be misinterpreted?
- Why does salvation take so long to be consummated? Why doesn’t God fix everything right now?
- What is heaven going to be like according to Isaiah? What are the implications of new creation for how we live in the present?
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