Reflections on Isaiah 58

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?  Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” – James 2:14-17

There is a form of faith that sounds very pious and holy, it can spend all kinds of time and energy and money on things that look religious, and yet misses that faith is – at its core – about relationship.  Relationship with God, and with the people around us.  If we do all the right religious things and believe all the right theological truths, yet miss how our lives are actually being lived out in relationship with God and others, we’ve actually missed the point entirely.

Paul puts it this way

“If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.” – 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

We read in the beginning of the book of Isaiah that God is not impressed with religious observances or beliefs that are disconnected from the way we treat one another, particularly those who are vulnerable or in need.  And so too, once more as the people are becoming re-established in the land after the exile, there is a need to be reminded of what it means to live in relationship with God.

As we read Isaiah 58, we see that the people are actively religious:

  • They seek God day after day
  • They delight to know God’s ways
  • They ask God for righteous judgments
  • They delight to draw near to God
  • They (believe they) are humble before God
  • They fast [go without food, practice symbols of mourning, like wearing sackcloth and ashes]

If we just looked at that, it sure seems impressive.  But Isaiah 58 lets us know from the start that something has gone badly awry.  “Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.” (v.1)

They do all these great-sounding things, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God. (v.2 emphasis mine).

Something’s missing.  But what?  God says:

  • You serve your own interest on your fast day
  • You oppress all your workers
  • You fast only to quarrel and fight and strike with a wicked fist

Here we start to get a hint of what has gone wrong – more is to come.  The practice of faith has become self-serving, going through the motions in the hope of personal advancement.  Those in power and with wealth use it to get ahead at the cost of those around them.

(any of this sounding familiar?)

As we read through the rest of Isaiah 58, we come to a thundering message about what God truly cares about in terms of how we go about offering real worship:  Here’s a link, because it really just needs to be read.

What did you notice?

What does God call on the people of Israel, on us, to do because of our faith?

In the NRSV, one of the striking patterns is the ‘when’ and ‘then’

When

  • we loose the bonds of injustice and undo the thongs of the yoke, letting the oppressed go free  (notice that Isaiah repeats this message about being ‘yoked’ three times – yoke being a farm implement by which animals are hitched to a plow or cart for work.)
  • we share our bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into our house
  • we see the naked and cover them (i.e. those with no clothes / shelter), and not hide from our own family

Then

  • our light shall break forth like the dawn
  • our healing will spring up quickly
  • our vindicator will go before us
  • the Lord will be our rear guard
  • the Lord will hear and answer our prayers

And just in case we missed that; God speaks again in Isaiah:

If

  • we remove the yoke from among us
  • [if we stop] the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil
  • if we offer our food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted

Then

  • our light will rise in the darkness, and the gloom will be like midday
  • The LORD will guide us continually
  • The LORD will satisfy our needs in our own times of struggle
  • We will be like a watered garden and like a spring
  • our ruins will be rebuilt and raise up the foundations of many generations

Let’s stop there for a moment and come back to the word ‘yoke’.  There’s a connotation of being captured, enslaved, stuck in a situation of harsh work with little reward.  In Nehemiah (contemporary with this section of Isaiah), we read in Nehemiah chapter 5 that the people were taking advantage of each other economically; offering loans at interest that people couldn’t repay, and taking their homes and vineyards and fields as payment.)  It’s highly likely, with the other economic references in view, that the yoke being talked about here are economic practices that are not only taking advantage of the poor, but keeping them poor; becoming rich off of their suffering.

Is this meddling, yet?

The heart of the message is simple: it doesn’t matter how religious we look, sound or act; unless that faith reflects a concern for the whole being of our neighbor – spiritually and physically, it isn’t genuine faith, and God flat out says God’s not obligated to answer, or respond to those who seek God to bless a faith that is harming others.

Yet for those who grasp that to love God and the ways of God is intrinsically related to loving others and understanding our need to care for each other, God promises that our light shines, our prayers are heard, that God will be our strength and that like the broken ruins of Jerusalem which were being rebuilt, our broken places will be renewed.

Check out Jesus’ message in the Sermon on the Mount How does it connect to Isaiah here?  

And lastly, God turns to the religious observance of fasting – notice that God isn’t against fasting, God’s not against expressions of worship, but to pay attention to the underlying motive and method: not doing our own thing or looking to it to get an advantage, but to remember what it’s about and delight in it; then we will get out of it the blessing for which it was designed, delighting in the LORD, being connected (fed) to our heritage, remembering that we are part of a bigger story of God unfolding in this world.

 

It doesn’t matter if we share pious memes on Facebook, or listen to Christian radio, or think we’re taking back America for God by voting this way or that – it comes back to what Paul had to say about love: without love of God, of others, and of ourselves, all the great stuff we say or think or do won’t matter.  Because we won’t understand why it’s all there.

In our presently hyper-politicized and hyper-polarized culture, the danger is that we read passages like Isaiah 58 and start brushing it off as ‘liberal social justice’ stuff.  Or, perhaps pat ourselves on the back because we believe all these things are important – without actually doing anything about it.  In my experience, I’ve seen some of the most conservative folks theologically up to their elbows in helping people out and walking alongside the hurting.  And I’ve seen some who are “enlightened” progressive, believing all of this stuff is important and yet not getting their hands dirty.   There’s a great need to start asking some systemic questions as faith and life connect in ways that break preconceptions and stereotypes.  And there’s also the need to recognize our deep need for God’s loving presence, grace and power in the midst of our service, or else we’ll just be doing toxic charity.

How do you see God challenging our time and context today in light of Isaiah 58? 

What do you find specifically challenging?

Reflections on Isaiah 56:9-57:21

What a change in these passages from the message of invitation, hope and blessing we read in the previous sections!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words on ‘Cheap Grace’ seem particularly relevant for understanding the message of this part of Isaiah:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

The exiles have returned, have begun rebuilding, it’s been generations since the events we read of at the beginning of Isaiah.  And yet…old habits die hard.

Those who are in position to care for the people of Israel; the sentinels, the shepherds, they are not suited for the task: they are blind, without knowledge or understanding, they are preoccupied with their own gain and satisfaction, and because of it, the people are left vulnerable.  Tellingly, they ‘have all turned to their own way’ — the destructive side of freedom and independence, when it is exercised apart from our dependence on God and apart from our responsibilities and relationships with one another.   When we look at our lives; whether leadership in ministry, in our communities, in marriages, friendships or even just day to day living; when we approach it from the angle of what we are going to get out of it, apart from understanding of what is required of us in the relationship, trouble is coming…

The picture painted in this section of Isaiah is of a people who have returned from exile, and who have likewise returned to the kinds of habits which led to their problems in the first place.  Evil is overlooked; the vulnerable, the righteous are taken advantage of, killed.  Jerusalem (the ‘you’ being referred to beginning in 57:4) has returned to the spiritual practices and habits which had crept in from the beginning.  Some of the sexual references are linked to fertility cults; practices seeking abundant rain, harvests, children, to be received as a blessing from the ‘gods’.  Even more disturbing is the reference to child sacrifice, of the kind practiced by Phoenecian worshippers of Molech.

To put it simply – the heart of the relationship between God and Israel is a commitment to knowing and worshiping the one (only) true God; the God who created all things, and from whom all things continue to have their life, and in whom our future rests.  It’s not a matter of religious diversity or intolerance, it’s an essential question of what’s actually real; where life comes from, and how we are to relate to our Creator.

As we’ve read before here in Isaiah, to relate to something that isn’t god as if it were, is not only to be placing our hope and trust in something that isn’t true, isn’t real, but it has consequences for our understanding and relationship with God who is real.

The wild side of this is that the people of Israel had a veneer of faith in the God of the covenant – they’d rebuilt the temple, they have ‘set up the symbol’ on the doorposts (the mezuzah, containing a scrap of scripture).

It reminds me of all the pious and beautiful wall art we can have in our homes, or post on facebook, citing nice Bible verses… and at the same time, have our hearts and attention preoccupied with false idols: possessions, political power, the pursuit of security at all costs, compromising our values for convenience’s sake – and doing it in the name of God.

God’s not fooled – these things reflect a religiosity of image without the genuine fear (recognition) of who God is, and as Bonhoeffer puts it, the costly grace that calls us to follow.

But those who will truly live ‘in the high and holy place’ are those who are contrite and humble.  It is God who will be their life and strength, reviving them – us – as we seek him.

There will be peace and comfort, grace to all of us who have rebelled, but who will turn / return to God.

Yet for those who are wicked, who keep stirring up violence and evil, who will neither be humbled or recognize that what they are doing is wrong, there can be no peace – not because God does not offer it to them, but because without this humility and repentance, they cannot receive it, and thus find themselves excluded from the peace and wholeness God desires to give.

What images in this passage did you find most challenging?  Encouraging?

What does it mean to you, to come to God with awe, with fear, with humility and contrition?

Reflections on Isaiah 56:1-8

One of the most attractive things about Jesus is the way he welcomed both ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’.  Though his mission began with ‘the lost sheep of Israel’ (Matthew 15:24), he also proclaimed “I have other sheep who do not belong to this fold (i.e. of Israel).  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16)

This isn’t just a New Testament thing – this is a thread that runs through God’s purposes and God’s heart; as we see here in Isaiah 55-56:8.  It’s no accident that Jesus – who reveals the Father to the world, draws on these passages heavily.

The invitation to be in the community of God’s people is open to all.

Isaiah 56 begins with a call that should sound a familiar thread not only through the beginning of Isaiah, but through the prophets.  What does God want of us?

To maintain justice.  – literally to oversee, to take care of – justice

To do what is right.  – (Hebrew: tsedaqa(h) – what is good, what’s right

In other words; in the actions and focus of our lives, to seek out what God defines as good and just; the right thing to do, the right response in our interactions with each other.

Micah 6:8 frames it this way: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Jesus defines this justice and righteousness in terms of love – love of God and of one another (Mark 12:29-31)

To maintain justice, to do what is right, is the calling of all humanity.

This call to embrace God’s way of being is given in light of what God is doing (second half of the verse): “for soon my salvation (Hebrew: jesuot – and yes, that’s connected to the name by which God’s son is to be called: “Jeshua”), and my deliverance be revealed.  (literally God’s righteousness – tsid-qat)

In other words – we are *all* called to respond appropriately in light of what God is doing, and there is blessing for everyone who does.  Isaiah 55:2 deliberately uses wide open words like ‘mortal’ (human being), and ‘the one’ (lit. son of Adam) instead of talking about a ‘chosen’ people.

And to emphasize this, Isaiah refers to the foreigner and the eunuch (that is, a man who has been castrated as part of serving in the courts of high officials).  As Israel had most often understood itself, these people were excluded from real participation in the community of God’s people and from the temple which represented the presence of God among the people.  There was an ‘us’ and ‘them’ which kept them from really belonging.

No more.

Notice the blessings God promises to these whom many would see as ‘outsiders’:

To the foreigner joined to the LORD – God says: “You belong.  You are part of my people. I will give you joy as you worship.”

To the eunuch who would be looked on as less than whole, traditionally unwelcome in the temple, unable to have children in a culture where this was one of the defining marks of blessing and a legacy – God promises to give a name and a legacy within the home of God.

At the same time: in what context are all people accepted?

Those who keep God’s sabbath.  (part of the covenant that grew in importance after the Exile)

Those who choose what pleases God and hold on to God’s covenant

Those who join themselves to the LORD in service and love

I know…. isn’t God’s love and acceptance the free gift that is given to all of us?  Absolutely.  God’s love meets us right now, right where we are, wherever we are.  At the same time, there’s a difference between being loved by God and experiencing the blessing of living within the community of God.  It’s not that God dangles the reward like a treat for those who jump through the right hoops, but that the kind of life where we are pursuing justice and what is good, loving God and loving our neighbor, is what the community of God is all about.

There’s an ‘already but not-yet-ness’ to this: I don’t perfectly do any of these things… yet.  Nor will I on my own steam.  Go to any church, and it will only imperfectly embody this kind of community of God, because every church is a community of people (leaders included) who don’t yet fully love God and neighbor the way God intends us to.  It is here where we talk about Jesus being both standing in our place to fulfill this, *and* the one who through the Spirit, is transforming us into the people God created us to become.

Another way to describe this is that this welcome is for everyone who desires not just what God offers (in terms of blessings), but that the blessings come for those who desire God, who are longing for the kind of world God is bringing into being, and who are leaning into that, as God forgives, heals, and transforms us.

We see this message of hope in Isaiah taken up by the ministry of Jesus; who found faith in Gentiles and Samaritans, in lepers and even Pharisees like Joseph and Nicodemus.

The Jesus who promises eternal life to whoever believes in him.  Who calls us to abide (to hold on) to him, and his command: to love one another as [he] has loved us.

The Jesus who got angry at the moneychangers in the temple, not just because they were doing business in the temple, but because of where they were doing business:  (Mark 11:15-17)

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

Although it is not explicitly said in the Gospels, it’s most probable that this activity was taking place in the outer court of the temple, where women and Gentiles were permitted to be.  So instead of a place of prayer, of welcome, of inclusion, it was set up and being used for a very different purpose entirely.

One piece we can hear in this is personal: the reminder of a God who speaks to all of us, whether we feel like we’re on the inside or not — inviting us to a relationship, a life with a future, a life as part of God’s community, for everyone who makes the things of God their desire and focus.

At the same time, those of us who are used to being part of the church, who see ourselves as part of God’s community, this passage also serves as a reminder — do we embrace the heart of God who tears down the dividing walls we so easily build up?  Do we get caught up in the kinds of practices, words, and thoughts that keep others on the outside; like the Pharisees who remembered that the Sabbath was important, but not *why* it was important, or the merchants who crowded out the Gentiles and women for more market space?

How can we share the welcome, the inclusion, the hope God extends to us?  

What gets in the way?

How is this good news for us?

Reflections on Isaiah 55

I have to admit, this is one of those chapters in Isaiah I particularly love.  So too, did John in the book of Revelation — as we read this chapter, look and listen for threads and connections to God’s promised future not only for an Israel returned from exile but the deepest homecoming for all who will trust in God’s invitation to return to the LORD.

Consider all the invitations God extends in Isaiah 55:

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price!

Come, eat, drink – a feast we cannot buy or earn, a feast given by the loving grace and provision of God.

Notice the invitation in Genesis 2:16 to humanity in the garden: “And the LORD God commanded the man “you may freely eat of every tree of the garden” (we tend to focus on the one thing God said was off-limits)

And the invitation in Revelation 22:2b “On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.“, and Revelation 22:17

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”  And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come.  Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

Isaiah 55 is a promise of God’s effective provision for the people – for a gift, a mercy we cannot afford, but given to us.

Isaiah 55 is also an invitation that recognizes a deeper need.

We spend our lives and our energy working for things that are not “food” — they do not bring life, to us or to others.  It doesn’t satisfy what we are created for.

Instead, we hear the invitation not just for physical food – but to listen to God, and live.   To seek the LORD while he may be found, to call on him while he is near.

We find a call for the wicked to forsake their way and the unrighteous their thoughts – in other words, to recognize that the path apart from God isn’t going to lead to life, and to change our direction, our thinking.  Which, literally, is what it means to repent.

This invitation to changed thought, focus, action, is at the heart of Jesus’ kingdom message – it’s time;

“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” – Matthew 4:17

It’s time to return to the LORD, so that he may have mercy, to God, for he will abundantly pardon.

It’s here in Isaiah 55, and in this context that we find the verse where God declares “my thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways.”  I’ve heard this used to justify all kinds of theologies that are frankly, monstrous, waving away any objections as just being examples of God’s ways being mysterious.

And yes, God’s ways are mysterious – but that mystery is revealed in Christ; which is why I believe any theology that doesn’t hold up in light of the self-sacrificial love and theology of the cross, doesn’t reflect who God really is.  But the point here in Isaiah is to insist that our thinking and focus and ways of operating and treating each other isn’t God’s way.  Part of our repentance is to allow God to redirect our thinking so that we begin to see one another, see ourselves, through God’s eyes and purposes.

For all the challenges the exiles faced, for all the seeming power of those who seek to destroy, for all the depressing things we hear about in the news; things that have a real impact on people and on this world — they will not have the last word.

God’s word will not go out without accomplishing its purpose.  There is hope, that rests upon the ways of God, and an invitation to life.

Will we seek it?

Reflections on Isaiah 54

To everything:  turn, turn, turn,
there is a season: turn, turn, turn 
and a time for every purpose under heaven


In Isaiah 52, we heard a call for the exiles to awake and put on their strength, and again we find in Isaiah 54 an invitation for the people to live in light of a new season and relationship with God.

At the beginning of Isaiah we find a people filled with pride and violence and selfishness, using God-language and rituals to assure themselves of their favored status and protection while rejecting the kind of life which God had shown them is integral to their identity as God’s people: faith, compassion, trust.

And so God’s protection was withdrawn, and their pride and arrogance were shattered.  Those who survived to be taken into exile in Babylon did so while struggling with questions of identity and purpose.  They wondered what their relationship with the God of Abraham would or could be going forward.

Have you ever messed up in such a way that you wonder how you could ever move forward from it?

Chapter 54 is the message God speaks to the returning exiles of Israel and to those of us who have been there.

Notice the pattern of commands and promises that speak of who God is and how God will respond to the people in their brokenness.  ( items in brackets are my summarization of the text)

  • Sing…break into song… for [the one who was childless will be mother to many]
  • Enlarge your house…for soon you will be bursting at the seams!  [Like God’s promise to Abraham!]
  • Fear not…don’t be afraid …  you will no longer live in shame, or remember the shame of your youth.

All of this in light of who God is: Creator, the LORD of heaven’s armies, the Holy One, Redeemer, God of the whole earth, who declares a new season:

From shame and disgrace, from feeling forsaken and cast off, abandoned and the subject of wrath — to being redeemed, regathered, with the everlasting ‘hesed (the compassionate, faithful and strong love of God).  This is the identity God calls on the remnant to take on and remember and live in light of.  The words repeat again and again: compassion, ‘hesed (steadfast love), covenant of peace.

Side note: Notice how God describes the fulfillment of the promise of restoration among the Exiles as they rebuild Jerusalem from rubble in Isaiah 54:11-12.  Compare that language of precious stones being the walls and gates of the restored city with Revelation 21:1-2, and especially 21:15-21.    What threads and connections of God’s work and promises do you notice here?

In light of God’s work, there will be abundant blessings for the people:

  • All your children shall be taught by the LORD
  • great shall be the prosperity/peace (Shalom) of your children
  • In righteousness you shall be established
  • you shall not fear oppression or terror or strife

For God provides a heritage and vindication for the servants of the LORD

In all of this, God is speaking words of hope and a future to a people who were close to being convinced that the mistakes of their past (and of their ancestors’ pasts) had closed off and crushed their future.  This is not so.  The experiences of God’s anger and wrath are not because God *is* anger or wrath, or because they have no future – but represent the ‘no’ to that which stands against the good God purposes for us and for all humanity.

The question being: will we trust this?  Will we lean into the present presence of God and the unfolding hope we have in God?  Will we dare to ‘enlarge our tents’ in anticipation of what God will do?

 

Reflections on Isaiah 52-53

Get ready, God is at work!


What strikes me about the oracle in chapter 51 of Isaiah is the pairing of the prophet’s call for the people to prepare for and respond to God’s action to redeem.

Notice God’s commitment to action

  • “The uncircumcised and unclean shall enter [the holy city] no more”
  • “You shall be redeemed without money” – i.e. – God will act to free the people of Israel
  • “My people shall know my name…it is I who speak…here am I.”
  • The LORD has comforted his people…[God] has redeemed Jerusalem
  • The LORD has bared his holy arm [has acted in a way evident to all the nations]

What kind of response is called for?

  • ‘Awake, Awake!’ ‘put on your strength’
  • shake yourselves from the dust and rise up!
  • Joy, singing, celebration at the good news announced of God’s salvation
  • ‘Depart, Depart!’ ‘touch no unclean thing..go out from the midst of it’
  • purify yourselves, you who carry the vessels of the LORD

In context, what we hear is a promise that God has acted and is acting, to restore Jerusalem as its holy place and acting in such a way that the people and the nations will know that the LORD (i.e. the God revealed to Moses) reigns, is able to act and redeem the people of Israel from exile.

The primary action belongs to God – the people cannot free themselves from exile or alter the situation in Jerusalem.  Yet God’s action calls for human response: of gratitude and recognition of God’s action, as well as concrete action to live into what God has done – wake up, put on your strength, get up off the ground and start heading home, because now is the time God is moving.  And in the leaving from exile, it’s the time to refocus on embracing what is pure, what is good, letting go of everything that is not.  In this journey home, there is no need to rush, as if afraid of enemies, for God promises to go ahead and behind of them; guarding them along the way.

Looking backward in scripture, we find connections to the Passover story; of God’s action to save and the call to prepare.  We can also compare this message to the way in which Jesus conducted his ministry – the message that God’s kingdom (reign) is at hand, and the appropriate response is to celebrate and to repent (to change our direction).  God’s action – our response.

What speaks to you in this passage today?  How does this message resonate to those who are weary, feeling ‘in the dust’, bound and stuck in things that are less than the best God has created us for?  How is God calling us to respond today?

The next section – 52:13 through the rest of chapter 53 speak of God’s servant.

In this section of Isaiah, we find repeated many of the promises made earlier in the book; of the servant of the LORD prospering, of the nations taking notice, of messengers proclaiming good news.  But there is also, as Isaiah commentator John Watts notes, an ominous sense of foreboding – this good news comes in connection with a messenger who surprises the nations, who is crushed, despised, rejected, killed without cause and without returning violence.  Yet through this one who was so afflicted, God’s purpose is accomplished for healing and bearing away their sin.

For those brought up in the Christian tradition, it’s hard *not* to see Jesus in these passages.  Hold on to that thought – we’ll come back to it.

But for now, in the immediate context, we recognize that all along, the message is one of God’s action to return the exiles from Babylon, which happened historically in waves of exiles returning over an extended period of time.  Likewise, many years passed before the walls or the temple were rebuilt (see the books of Ezra and Nehemiah).  Sometimes God works in miraculous ways that are sudden and dramatic.  More often, the miracle is of God’s working through the slow process of working in and through us, who sometimes get it, are sometimes obedient, and other times discouraged and disobedient.  In the midst of this, we find the echo of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who asserted that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  – not that human endeavors will inevitably turn out good, but that under the lordship of God, God’s purposes will eventually be achieved.  It is in this that we are called to place our trust and hope.

The identity of the servant in this section is difficult to locate precisely.  Is it Cyrus or Darius; Persian kings who served God’s purposes in returning the exiles and protecting them?  Is it Zerubbabel, executed for work that could be considered a threat to the surrounding nations?  Is it the people of Israel as a whole; suffering, yet with a future?  (John Watts, Word Bible Commentary – gives a potential structure and outline that postulates that Zerubbabel was murdered at the hands of local political leaders after restarting the building process in Jerusalem, and that when Darius (who supported the rebuilding) arrives to adjudicate the matter, the people acknowledge their guilt, and are pardoned.

But to speak of broader themes for a moment, we can see yet again the pattern of God choosing those who everyone else disregards, those who are seen as weak or lacking, whether a person or a people, to be ones who carry out God’s purposes, so that it is God who is seen to be at work through them.  It is not in our self-sufficiency that the world comes to know God, but in God’s provision in our need.

Despite being rejected and afflicted, this servant exposes sin and in taking it on without returning it, carries it away from us.  This points us to the deeper work of God.  Historically, the temple was rebuilt – the people remained in the land and the story continued forward. But the temple, and the land itself were not the ultimate purpose.  For those of us who follow Christ, we hear a the deepest work of God fulfilled in these verses.  If we now look at this passage through a Christ-centered lens, what do we find?

How have we (individually and collectively) looked at Jesus?

How does Isaiah describe what Jesus has done for us?  How do the writers of the Gospels and other letters of the New Testament make this connection?  – here are some threads to ponder:


“See, my servant shall prosper: he shall be exalted and lifted up.” (Isa 52:13)

“[Jesus] humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father..” (Philippians 2:8-11)


Although [Jesus] had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “Lord, who has believed our message, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” (John 12:37-38, quoting Isaiah 53:1)


“He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity and as one from whom others hide their faces, he was despised and we held him of no account” (Isaiah 53:3)

Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.”  (Luke 18:31-33)


That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”  (Matthew 8:16-17, quoting Isaiah 53:4)


For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, (1 Cor 15:3-5)

“…Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Hebrews 9:28)

“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls. (1 Peter 2:22-25, compare with Isa 53:5-9)


“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7)

Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?”  But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed. (Matthew 27:11-14)


“They made his grave with the wicked, and his tomb with the rich” (Isaiah 53:9b)

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away.” (Matthew 27:57-60)


“Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain.  When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the LORD shall prosper.” (Isaiah 53:10)

“The next day [John the baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” – John 1:29


“Out of his anguish, he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.  The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.  Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” (Isaiah 53:11-12)

“Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 5:18-21)

Reflections on Isaiah 51

I am waiting for you, Vizzini. You told me to go back to the beginning. So I have. This is where I am, and this is where I’ll stay. I will not be moved.
…when a job went wrong, you went back to the beginning. And this is where we got the job. So it’s the beginning, and I’m staying till Vizzini comes.

– Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride


‘Remember where you came from’ is the call from this chapter of Isaiah.  The uncertainties of their present time and situation have the remnant of Israel locked in a spiral of fear.  As so often happens, when we live *in* fear; we develop a kind of tunnel vision, our ability to see possibilities decreases, and we tend to forget God’s presence and provision, instead asking only for flashy miracles that meet our immediate needs (v.9-10).

Fear is a pretty natural and healthy response to potentially dangerous or destructive situations.  It alerts us that we need to be ready to respond, that we are not in charge of everything.  But living in fear does the opposite, it dulls our ability to react and think and respond in faith.

Look to the rock from which you were hewn, the quarry from which you were dug.  Look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah, who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.” (v2)

In a time when hope and fear comingled; when a Persian king was the instrument of God to return exiles to Jerusalem, God calls the people to remember their origins.

God called Abraham and Sarah to leave everything and everyone (everyone who wasn’t going with them, that is), and to set off for a place where they would be the foreigner and stranger.

This call was based on a promise – to a childless couple past the age of bearing children – that God would create a nation of people through him, that they would be blessed, and that all the nations of the world would eventually be blessed through them.

To a people living in fear, God is saying: remember where you came from!  Remember how unlikely your very existence!  Remember all the dangers and hardships and struggles that God saw your ancestors through.

These present sorrows and fears are not the end, not the purpose of God.  Instead, God purposes to comfort Zion, to renew the wilderness with new creation, to bring joy and gladness and thanksgiving and song to deserted places.

Verses 4-8 may in context be referring to Cyrus; an instrument of the Lord establishing a peace through which the exiles can return and be re-planted in Jerusalem, even in the midst of opposition.  Yet again we can also hear echoes of a deeper promise – a teaching (Torah) that goes out from God, bringing deliverance and salvation that outlasts both the heavens and the earth.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” – John 1:1-4  

In verse 9, perhaps all the way to verse 11, the voice changes – it is the people who are calling on “the arm of the Lord” to do mighty and miraculous works as in the past, to bring the ransomed back to Zion (Jerusalem) with singing and joy.

This is indeed God’s promise – though it may come about in a way that is different in nature and timing than the people are expecting.

Which – looking back to Abraham and Sarah, seems pretty apt.  Though God protected them through many dangers along their journey, it was twenty five years from the giving of the promise to the birth of Isaac.  And along the way, whenever Abraham or Sarah tried to force things to work out the way they imagined, it made things worse.

For Cyrus certainly did not have in mind the re-establishment of the kind of Davidic kingdom that the exiles might have hoped for.  And the rebuilding and restoration of Jerusalem would take longer and be more of a struggle than they anticipated.

Yet the waiting doesn’t mean that God is absent.  As we continue in v. 12, we hear God reminding them of God’s presence and power to save and restore.

Their time of punishment is at an end, and just as Israel and Judah faced the consequences of their injustice and cruelty masked in religiosity, so too will their tormentors encounter God’s resolute opposition to all that destroys and tears down God’s creation.


Where do our expectations of how and when God will work get in the way?  

What parts of your life story serve as anchors, reminding you of God’s presence and goodness in difficult times?

Where do we find ourselves being controlled, limited by fear?

Where may God be speaking to us through the stories of scripture and God’s work through history, to comfort, encourage or warn us about where we’re at right now?

Reflections on Isaiah 50

One of the things that can be helpful to remember, when we’re reading certain passages of scripture is that the separation of the various books into chapters and verses and (most) headings was something that was not part of the original text.

Meaning, sometimes the way chapters and sections are divided out adds to confusion when the speaker or subject changes (as is frequently the case in Isaiah).  Of course, actually remembering not to focus too much on the chapter and verse divisions can be difficult to do.

[Side note: if you’re interested in reading the Bible without the chapter and verse divisions, they’re available in a number of translations.  One  of the most famous is Eugene Peterson’s scholarly paraphrase ‘the Message’, but there are many others out there.  Just be aware of whether they are also attempting to rearrange the material in a chronological way, or presenting it in the more traditional canonical order.  Either can be helpful, just be aware of what’s going on, and what is included (or not).]

All of which to say; it’s good to keep in mind that Isaiah 50:1-3 and 4-11 are different speakers.

The first section is a message from the LORD to the people, and it’s probably helpful to read with the context of the previous chapter in mind.  In chapter 49, the LORD is speaking a message of promise and restoration to a people who say (49:14) ‘The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.”  Likewise at the beginning of chapter 50, we hear the implied accusation that God has abandoned his people, given them a ‘bill of divorce’ or having ‘sold them off to creditors’.

It boils down to the challenge: “where were you, God?” when all of this was going on.  Why has all of this happened?  Without trying to collapse every bad thing that happens to us as a sign that we’ve done something wrong, keep in mind that the whole sweep of Isaiah’s message is that this particular journey Israel and Jerusalem have been on have been precisely because they have abandoned and rejected God and God’s call for justice and mercy toward one another.

Which is precisely what we find here.  God’s response is: I didn’t divorce you or sell you off; I didn’t abandon you, but this is a consequence of your rebellion.  To the people asking God, “where were you”, the answer comes back (v.2): I was herewhere were you – when I came and called out to you?

God rhetorically asks: do you think I’m not able to rescue you?  To do anything about your situation?  God is able to act in this world and over the powers (v.3).

To pause here just a moment; it’s a question worth engaging as we read of the exile’s experience.  Again, not that we should believe God is necessarily actively punishing us whenever something goes wrong, or something bad happens.  But when we ask God – where are you? – are we also reflecting on where we’re at?  Are we open, willing to hear from God when God speaks into our pain, even if the message isn’t something we might want to hear.  Are we willing to engage, to look around for the presence of God in the midst of whatever situation we find ourselves in, willing to explore what it looks like to respond with faith and trust in the midst of it?  I don’t mean this as another form of victim blaming – but in the sense of the question of how we trust and follow God when things really get real; when it’s not easy, when our own expectations and dreams are shattered.  Sometimes, as in the context of what’s going on with the people of Israel, it means being confronted with some ugly stuff that needs to change.  Wounds that need to be drained before they can heal.  Sometimes it’s not as much our fault as it is the reality of life in this world involves suffering; and our choice is what we will do with it, whether we will respond in faith and trust, or bitterness and anger.

The second section of this chapter is another of the ‘servant songs’ in Isaiah; describing one who serves the LORD and God’s purposes to redeem and restore the people of Israel to their place and purpose.

The word ‘servant’ is not used, nor is the servant explicitly named, but we find the description of one who, in contrast to the people, leans into their calling and gifting from God, looking to lift up those around them (sustaining the weary with a word).  This servant listens and obeys the direction of the LORD, enduring scorn and rejection, confident in God’s ability to vindicate them.

The last section of chapter 50 invites the listeners to consider how they are responding to the servant of the LORD, with the warning that those who kindle fire (think torches and pitchforks raised in rebellion against the servant of God), will reap the consequences of setting themselves against God.

In its historical context, it may well be as John Watts (Word Bible Commentary) suggests, that the servant here is an unnamed leader among the exiles, encouraging them in their rebuilding efforts under the blessing of the Persian king Darius.

Yet in light of the story of Jesus, we’re also invited to look back at these verses and consider the qualities of one who truly embodied what it is to be God’s servant – who understands their calling and purpose, who uses God’s gifts to lift others up, who listens and obeys the direction of God and who – critically – trusts in God, even in the face of violent resistance.   In all of those ways, we can see Jesus fulfilling this image of servanthood.

But we’ll miss part of the point if we just stop there.  Jesus didn’t just come to stand in our place, nor do we find these contrasting images of the mass of the people and this servant leader just for the sake of comparison — but we find the invitation to follow in the footsteps of the servant leader.

How do we understand our purpose in life?  Have we defined it for ourselves, or are we listening for God’s direction?

How are we using our gifts to bless and encourage others?  Do we see ourselves connected to the people around us?

Are we listening and obeying God’s direction in life, even in those times when we seem to ‘walk in darkness’ (v.10) – yet trusting in the name of the LORD and relying upon our God?

Where does this chapter speak most clearly to your circumstances or heart today?

Reflections on Isaiah 49

There are times in life when our experiences raise questions that cut to the core:

Has my life made any kind of real difference in the world?

Where is God in the midst of this mess?  

Here in Isaiah 49, we find the people of Israel wrestling with these core questions of identity – who are we, in light of our experiences?  Where is God?  What is our hope?  What is our purpose now?

I believe that in the story of the people of Israel, we are invited to see ourselves, to listen for where our questions, our challenges, our experiences connect.  And likewise, the scripture invites us to listen to God’s response to them and to us.

It would be nice if Isaiah had been written down like a screenplay, indicating who was doing the talking at each point throughout the passages.  For we notice right away that while it’s clear that the servant in v 1-4 are the people of Israel collectively, 5-12 seem to be talking about someone else.  In earlier chapters, we’ve seen that the Lord does indeed move in mysterious ways; naming the Persian king Cyrus as one of God’s servants (explicitly in 45:1,13, implicitly elsewhere).  John Watts (Word Biblical Commentary), locates this chapter shortly after the time of Cyrus, when the first exiles have returned to Jerusalem, but found it a pile of rubble and were struggling to rebuild.  The work of restoration is hard, and done in the face of opposition and setbacks.  Yet God is not without servants, called and empowered to move forward God’s purposes in the world.  Watts believes the evidence points to Cyrus’ successor, the Persian ruler Darius who came to power around 521 BCE.  This portion of Isaiah, then, would be referring to around the same time as the events related in the Biblical book of Ezra (Ezra 5:6, when the people petition Darius for permission to complete the rebuilding of the Temple in 520 BCE).

Yet with that in the background, it’s powerful simply to read through these passages and listen:

The tension between calling and when it seems like it’s been for nothing.

In the first four verses, we hear Israel remembering her calling; God has chosen them: “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”  From before they existed, they understand that this has been God’s plan [and worth remembering that God’s choosing of people is a choosing for service, for purpose].  But what does it mean when they feel “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.

Can I get an ‘Amen’?  Being ‘chosen’ doesn’t mean that it’s all going to go our way.  Whether it’s because of our own stubbornness, or the choices and resistance of others, there are going to be tough times, times that make us wonder if it’s all been for nothing; “dust in the wind” as Kansas (or Ecclesiastes) might say.

And yet, like we so often find in the Psalms, Israel holds on to this hope: If God has called them, then God will uphold the promise of blessing.  “surely my cause is with the LORD and my reward with my God.”

To which we hear the response of the LORD in the words of another servant.

This servant too has been called from birth and given a purpose:

  • To bring back Jacob and Israel (that is, to restore those who were lost and scattered)
  • To be given as a light to the nations, so that [God’s] salvation may reach to the end of the earth

God honors this servant and gives them strength.  The kings and nations and princes will notice God’s work and respond.  The LORD is faithful, the Holy One of Israel has chosen, has answered, has helped his people.

God commissions this servant to the people

  • to establish the land, to apportion (resettle) the desolate heritages
  • To call out those who are imprisoned and in darkness, (to freedom and to light)
  • to provide for those who are hungry and thirsty
  • to lead them along a road that leads home, bringing the lost home from every direction and from far away.

Indeed, God’s purposes call forth a chorus of joy from all creation – For the LORD has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones.

Historically, we’re talking about the promise of the return and the establishment of the exiles.  But to those with New Testament ears, we see how these notes of promise and hope are taken up by Jesus as *the* servant of God, called to fulfill the deepest sense of these longings and these promises.

As N.T. Wright has argued; while geographically the remnant from the exiles did return home and rebuild, they didn’t shake their sense of exile, the questions of identity and calling and purpose.  From the Qumran community to the multiple threads of Judaism asking questions of identity and calling – merely being “home” was not enough.  Something was missing, and they had different answers and expectations as to the answer.  The writers of the Gospels were clear – Jesus has come to declare the end of the exile, the fulfillment of God’s promises.  To borrow briefly from the opening of Paul’s letter in 2 Corinthians 1:20 “For in him [Jesus] every one of God’s promises is a “Yes.”

It’s worth noting that in this section, Israel’s own efforts aren’t what ultimately bring about God’s purposes. It is this other servant that God is working through at this time.  But Israel isn’t left out.  Contrary to how Israel feels forsaken and forgotten (v. 14), the work of this second servant is precisely to regather and restore and heal God’s called people.

In other words, just because we’re not always at the center of getting things done, doesn’t mean we are forgotten or unimportant in God’s eyes, or that our work doesn’t matter, our identity is lost.

In dramatic, emotional terms, God says that even if it were possible for a mother to forget the child she bore, God would not forget them.  They are written on the palm of his hands.  God knows that the people are feeling insecure and vulnerable because the walls of Jerusalem are as yet unrepaired.

But in the midst of their labor, while it can feel uphill, challenged, wondering if it’s worth it, God reminds them: “your builders outdo your destroyers.

Or perhaps as Martin Luther King Jr. would put it: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

There is hope.  God is at work – for all the kings and tyrants that seem so strong, their power will be shown to be temporary, fragile, compared to the purposes of God.

One day, the workers, working in desolate places, feeling alone, will look around at the children born in exile and wonder where all these people came from – they will find that they are not alone, that they do not work alone, that there is a future and a hope.

At these things, we catch a glimpse of God’s bigger purpose.

then you will know that I am the LORD; those who wait for me will not be put to shame” – 49:23c

But God’s desire is not just that the people of Israel remember who God is…

Then all flesh shall know that I am the LORD your Savior, and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.” – 49:26b

In God’s actions to redeem Israel, we glimpse God’s wider purpose that Israel serves as a light to the nations; that the world can see how God is faithful.  Again, in the deepest sense, we see how this becomes a foundation for God’s purpose that all creation be drawn back to God.

Do you see yourself as among the servants of God?

Who do you identify with more in this chapter?  The people of Israel?  Darius?  Someone else?

What speaks to you most about how God responds in this chapter?

Reflections on Isaiah 48

Surrender don’t come natural to me
I’d rather fight you for something
I don’t really want
Than to take what you give that I need
And I’ve beat my head against so many walls
Now I’m falling down, I’m falling on my knees…

– Rich Mullins (Hold Me, Jesus)


Isaiah 48 turns the focus from Babylon back to the house of Jacob; that is the whole people of Israel, and their stubborn resistance to God’s work and leading, from long ago to today.  This isn’t unique to them: remember that the book of Isaiah emerged from this context, as God invites the people to reflect on their condition, on God’s actions and to consider what response is called for today.  As such, we are invited to see ourselves in this position as well.

At the same time, we also find in this chapter hints of the peculiar dilemma God is in.  When choosing to work with fallible instruments (such as the people of Israel, or of us), God risks being misunderstood.  In responding to rebellion by withdrawing protection, God risks the charge that God has abandoned his people or broken God’s promises of blessings.  By showing grace and mercy, God risks the people attributing their blessings to their own work, the work of idols, or of minimizing the impact of their rejection of God’s intention and purpose for them.

Real grace, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted, is anything but cheap, and God’s way in the world is not to stand off at a distance, but to descend into the messiness of our experience for our sake, and for the sake of God’s purposes to redeem and bless and heal this word in love.

In the immediate context, this chapter points to the people in exile rejecting what God is doing through Cyrus.  In 45:4, God calls Cyrus for the sake of the people of Israel.  In 48:9-11, we read that God is also defending his name; that is, God acts not because the people have acted in ways that deserve it, nor can they claim God is obligated to act, but for the sake of staying true to God’s character and purposes.

What stands out to me today in this chapter is that the people of Israel can trace their ancestry back to Jacob, grandchild of the promise to Abraham (referenced in 48:19).  They swear by the name of the LORD and invoke the God of Israel.  They base their identity around the people who live in the place of God’s favor (i.e. Jerusalem), calling on the Lord of hosts….  In other words, they’ve got the religious thing down.  They see their identity as connected with God.

But their actions and attitudes don’t reflect it.  It’s not just that they do the wrong stuff, breaking rules – the description we find here goes a bit deeper.  They do not act in truth (’emet) or right/justice (tsedeq).  Worse, when God speaks to correct and teach, they are described as obstinate, deaf, treacherous, rebellious, wicked.

In other words, it’s not just what we do – it’s the orientation of our will, our minds, our hearts.  It’s not a question of whether or not we are perfect, it is what we seek after, what we desire, whether we are teachable.    When we orient our lives and desires in ways other than what God desires and purposes for us, we are inevitably going to run into trouble; not because God is just waiting to smack us around, but because we set ourselves against God’s loving purposes not just for ourselves but for the world.

In 48:17-19, we hear God lament what the rebellion has cost God’s people.  “O that you had paid attention to my commandments!  Then your prosperity would have been like a river, and your success like the waves of the sea; your offspring would have been like the sand, and your descendants like its grains; their name would never be cut off or destroyed from before me.”    God’s desire is for abundant life for creation, not what makes for destruction.

Remember God’s command in the Shema (What Jesus calls the greatest commandment):

“Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God, the LORD is one.  You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your strength.”  [Deuteronomy 6:4-5]  To which Jesus adds “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [Leviticus 19:18b]

How does this command relate to the predicament of the people of Israel in Isaiah?  How does this understanding of rebellion and desire connect with our personal situation today?

God’s action is to redeem, to bring the exiles home.  To offer peace.  Yet to those who will continue to resist, the peace God desires to give will elude them.

Is there anything in our lives today that God is doing which we are resisting?