Isaiah Study: Are We Ever Abandoned By God?

The answer to this title’s question might seem obvious. Some people will read, “Are we ever abandoned by God?” and immediately say, “Of course not!” And yet for others, the opposite answer might seem equally obvious. Many people feel like God abandons them, at least part of the time, and others feel like He’s never really been there at all. We know intellectually that God sees all and says He never leaves us, but sometimes it might still feel like we’ve been abandoned.

The good Christians answer to this conundrum is summed up in the famous footprints poem. We might feel like God has left us alone during the worst times of our lives. However, if we imagine the record of our lives as footprints in sand and see only one set during trying times, then we shouldn’t think God left us to walk alone. As the poem’s final line says, “When you saw only one set of footprints, / It was then that I carried you.”

I love this poem and I think there’s a lot of truth in it. However, it’s not the only answer to why some people feel like God is far away. There are times when He is right alongside us but we have trouble seeing Him because our trials are so bad. Others times, though, He seems distant because we’ve pushed Him away. He hasn’t abandoned us in that sort of situation, but we might not be walking near Him anymore. It’s this second scenario that we’re going to focus on today as we continue our study of Isaiah.

Over the last couple months, we’ve been studying themes in Isaiah 40-66. These are the last 27 chapters of the book, and they’re a record of an extended dialog where God speaks candidly about His feelings, desires, and plans. If you go back and read the very first post, you’ll see I made a list of key themes for further study. That list included “Covenant faithfulness; God never abandons His people” and “Sins push God away from us and we need to own-up to that.” These two points might seem contradictory, but studying Isaiah helps us see how both are accurate.

Image of a woman studying her Bible overlaid with text from Isaiah 60:10, 15, NET version: “Even though I struck you down in my anger, I will restore my favor and have compassion on you. ...
You were once abandoned and despised, with no one passing through, but I will make you a permanent source of pride and joy to coming generations.”
Image by MarrCreative from Lightstock

Sins that Lead To Separation

In Isaiah’s time, Israel was in the midst of a “stormy period marking the expansion of the Assyrian empire and the decline of Israel” that eventually led to “captivity at the hands of Babylon” (“Intro to Isaiah” from the NIV Study Bible). The people of Israel probably thought they had good reason to accuse God of abandoning them. How could He let this happen? Where did He go? God answers this question here in Isaiah 40-66.

Look, the Lord’s hand is not too weak to deliver you;
his ear is not too deaf to hear you.
But your sinful acts have alienated you from your God;
your sins have caused him to reject you and not listen to your prayers.
For your hands are stained with blood
and your fingers with sin;
your lips speak lies,
your tongue utters malicious words.
No one is concerned about justice;
no one sets forth his case truthfully.
They depend on false words and tell lies;
they conceive of oppression
and give birth to sin.

Isaiah 59:1-4, NET

The problem isn’t God. It’s with the people who stopped aligning themselves with His just character. They feel rejected and abandoned by God because they first rejected and abandoned Him. They alienated Him by embracing sins, injustice, lies, and oppression. They left Him like an unfaithful wife running off and having sex with other men. Finally, God had enough. He wanted a divorce–an end to this particular covenant He had with Israel.

This is what the Lord says:
“Where is your mother’s divorce certificate
by which I divorced her?
Or to which of my creditors did I sell you?
Look, you were sold because of your sins;
because of your rebellious acts I divorced your mother.
Why does no one challenge me when I come?
Why does no one respond when I call?
Is my hand too weak to deliver you?
Do I lack the power to rescue you?
Look, with a mere shout I can dry up the sea;
I can turn streams into a desert,
so the fish rot away and die
from lack of water.
I can clothe the sky in darkness;
I can cover it with sackcloth.”

Isaiah 50: 1-3, NET

From God’s perspective, Israel was the one who wasn’t responding. They’re the ones who left Him. In another part of Isaiah 40-66, God says, “you burdened me with your sins; you made me weary with your evil deeds” (Is 43:24, NET). Their evils were so terrible that God says He could not relent from His judgement on them (Is. 57). That did not, however, mean there was no hope. As we learn here in Isaiah as well as other prophecies, God already had plans to set up a new covenant. The author of Hebrews says that God found fault with the people He’d made the first covenant with and so He decided to set up a better covenant based on better promises (Heb. 8:7-13). We’ve seen the fulfilment of this prophecy already, when Jesus Christ came to earth.

Image of a man reading a Bible overlaid with text from Isaiah 59:1-2, 20 WEB: "Behold, Yahweh’s hand is not shortened, that it can’t save; nor his ear dull, that it can’t hear. But your iniquities have separated you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear. ... 
A Redeemer will come to Zion, and to those who turn from disobedience in Jacob.”
Image by Anggie from Lightstock

Reconciliation and Remarriage

In Isaiah, God’s promise of a new covenant is closely connected to the Servant Song prophecies pointing ahead to the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Two of these describe Him as “a covenant for the people” (Is. 42:6; 49:8). The Messiah ushers in a New Covenant, and the promise of His coming reinforces the promise that God will not abandon His people permanently. The punishment and separation were only temporary. There’s a way to fix it, and God promised to do just that.

“Don’t be afraid, for you will not be put to shame.
Don’t be intimidated, for you will not be humiliated.
You will forget about the shame you experienced in your youth;
you will no longer remember the disgrace of your abandonment.
For your husband is the one who made you—
the Lord of Heaven’s Armies is his name.
He is your Protector, the Holy One of Israel.
He is called ‘God of the entire earth.’
Indeed, the Lord will call you back
like a wife who has been abandoned and suffers from depression,
like a young wife when she has been rejected,” says your God.
“For a short time I abandoned you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.”

Isaiah 54:4-7, NET

Notice the marriage imagery here that’s undoing the divorce we saw earlier. The one who created us, our Husband, is the one redeeming us from the death penalty of sin and welcoming us into a new marriage covenant. Along with that, He gives us a new name that we talked about in more detail a few weeks ago in the article on the “new thing” God is doing.

You will be called by a new name
that the Lord himself will give you.
You will be a majestic crown in the hand of the Lord,
a royal turban in the hand of your God.
You will no longer be called, “Abandoned,”
and your land will no longer be called “Desolate.”
Indeed, you will be called “My Delight is in Her,”
and your land “Married.”
For the Lord will take delight in you,
and your land will be married to him. …

They will be called, “The Holy People,
the Ones Protected by the Lord.”
You will be called, “Sought After,
City Not Abandoned.”

Isaiah 62:2-4, 12

As we read through this story of divorce and marriage; of separation and reconciliation, we see that for a short time God did “abandon” His people. That abandonment wasn’t a real/permanent situation, though, and it was prompted by them abandoning Him first. He was so committed to fixing this breach between Himself and His people that Jesus came and died for us. That’s how even in the midst of discussing the truth that sin separates us from Him, God can also say, “I will not forsake them,” ” my covenant of peace will not be removed,” and “I will make an everlasting covenant with you” (Is. 41:17; 42:16; 54:10; 55:1-3). In the same section of scripture where He describes where the separation came from (our sins), God also shows where the reconciliation comes from.

Image of a smiling woman with her hand raised in worship overlaid with text from Isaiah 54:10, WEB: “’For the mountains may depart, and the hills be removed;
but my loving kindness will not depart from you, and my covenant of peace will not be removed,’ says Yahweh who has mercy on you.”
Image by Pearl from Lightstock

Never Abandoned

You might be wondering what this dramatic story laid out in Isaiah has to do with us today. We’re living about 2,000 years past the start of the New Covenant. We were never literally part of this first covenant marriage, divorce, and new covenant reconciliation that ancient Israel went through; we started out as part of the New Covenant. This is still the history of our faith, though. We’re part of the whole grand love story that God is writing, even though we come in near the end.

We can see the grand metanarratives outlined through the Bible play out on a smaller scale in our individual lives as well. If we push God away and reject His covenant, we can read the words written to ancient Israel in Isaiah’s time and realize that we’re the ones who cause our disconnect from God. Then we can also read the encouraging reconciliation passages, and realize that God wants us to come back to Him. He has not abandoned us and He will not leave us alone–He wants us in a relationship with Him even if we’ve messed up and need to ask His forgiveness when we come back.

Image of a man sitting on a beach with the blog's title text and the words "When God talks about abandoning His people, it’s always temporary and He’s not the one who walks away first. He wants us in a relationship with Him even if we've messed up and need to ask His forgiveness when we come back."
Image by Aaron Kitzo from Lightstock

“Turn your ear, and come to me.
    Hear, and your soul will live.
    I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David.” …

Seek Yahweh while he may be found.
    Call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake his way,
    and the unrighteous man his thoughts.
Let him return to Yahweh, and he will have mercy on him,
    to our God, for he will freely pardon.

Isaiah 55:3, 6-7, WEB

God values law, righteousness, and judgement, yet connected with all of that comes His love of justice, mercy, and reconciliation. He’s grieved when we sin, which causes separation, and He’s overjoyed when we repent and come back. Like the compassionate father in Jesus’s parable who ran to meet his prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), God is eager to welcome us back into a relationship with Him. He intends for the covenant we’ve entered with Him to be an everlasting one.

Near the beginning of this post, I quoted the start of Isaiah 59: “Behold, Yahweh’s hand is not shortened, that it can’t save; nor his ear dull, that it can’t hear. But your iniquities have separated you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” (Is. 59:1-2, WEB). If you keep reading through to the end of that chapter, you come to this statement about a redeemer:

“A Redeemer will come to Zion,
    and to those who turn from disobedience in Jacob,” says Yahweh.

“As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says Yahweh. “My Spirit who is on you, and my words which I have put in your mouth shall not depart out of your mouth, nor out of the mouth of your offspring, nor out of the mouth of your offspring’s offspring,” says Yahweh, “from now on and forever.”

Isaiah 59:20-21, WEB

God wants us to be in such a close relationship with Him that we’ll never feel abandoned. As Jesus said when He told His disciples that He would send them the Holy Spirit, “I will not leave you orphans. I will come to you” (John 14:18, WEB). When we’re keeping covenant with God, there’s such a close relationship that His spirit dwells inside us. And if we have drifted away, we can repent and come back to the close relationship that God offers His beloved people.

I also want to mention that there are times we may feel abandoned by God even when we haven’t done anything wrong. Jesus lived a perfect, sinless life and when He hung on the cross He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). God the Father did not abandon Jesus, but Jesus was in so much agony that it felt as if He were alone and He raised His voice in an anguished lament. Sometimes that’s how we feel, too. In those times, we can take comfort in the fact that Jesus empathizes with this feeling and that God has not truly abandoned us (Heb. 4:14-16; 13:5-6). His promises of help and redemption still apply, and He will make good things happen for us in the end.

Featured image by Inbetween from Lightstock

Song Recommendation: “I Am Not Alone” by Kari Jobe

Isaiah Study: The Lord’s Desire for Justice

Since starting a university master’s program two years ago, I’ve participated in several diversity trainings and class assignments that prompted us to evaluate our core values. One thing I realized is that while a buzz-word like “equity” just makes me feel tired since I’ve heard it so much, the idea of “justice” stirs a deep desire for things in the world to be right. I think many of us (perhaps even most of us) want fairness and justice. We feel there’s a way things should be, and we’re irritated when that isn’t the case. We hate injustice, especially if it’s directed at us but often if we see it happening to others as well.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis proposes that our sense of right and wrong is a clue pointing to God’s existence and revealing His nature. Even in our modern age of moral relativism, people still have some idea of how the world “should” be (though different groups often dramatically disagree about what that looks like). Many of us still have in mind “some kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behaviour or morality or whatever you like to call it” (Lewis) that hints at a larger ideal to strive toward. Lewis expands on this recognition of a need for justice when he talks about his time as an atheist.

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? …

Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too— for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Chapter 1

Lewis maintains that knowledge of justice points to the existence of a God who embodies justice, and the Bible supports that. Scripture reveals that God is deeply concerned with justice and that it’s one of His driving motivations. This shows up clearly in Isaiah 40-66, the passage of scripture we’ve been studying over the past couple months. These last 27 chapters of Isaiah record a message from God where He speaks candidly about His desires, motivations, and plans. If you go back and read the very first post, you’ll see I made a list of key themes from this section of scripture to study more extensively. One of those themes was that “God is motivated by justice.”

Image of an oasis in a desert overlaid with text from Isaiah 40:27-29, WEB: "“Why do you say, Jacob, and speak, Israel, ‘My way is hidden from Yahweh, and the justice due me is disregarded by my God?’ Haven’t you known? Haven’t you heard? The everlasting God, Yahweh, the Creator of the ends of the earth, doesn’t faint. He isn’t weary. His understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the weak. He increases the strength of him who has no might.”
Image by HarveyMade from Lightstock

Justice, Righteousness, and Judgement

“Justice” is a complex word when we’re working with Hebrew to English translations. In the King James Version, “justice” appears 5 times in this section of Isaiah and it’s translated from tsedeq (H6664 and H6664); a word that WEB translates “righteousness.” In the WEB translation, “justice” is used 14 times and it’s translated from mishpat (H4941), which the KJV translates as “judgment.” So we have two Hebrew words here, and three different English translations. That’s not really surprising if you’ve compared Old Testament translations or studied Hebrew even a little bit. Hebrew has a smaller pool of available words than English, and relies on context and word pictures to paint pictures that we might use half a dozen English words to express.

When I’m trying to understand the nuances of a Hebrew word, I like to look it up in the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT). This resource says the root word for tsedeq “basically connotes conformity to an ethical or moral standard” (entry 1879). It has to do with justice and “rightness,” and it’s connected to righteously living in accordance with God’s law. It’s also closely connected with God. He is righteous and just, and so His commands are as well. The TWOT says there’s a “forensic” and legal aspect to tsedeq. When people break His commands, God is righteous to punish them for it. He is also righteous when He provides “salvation as vindication,” acting to clear our names in a legal sense.

Mishpat and its root shapat (TWOT entry 2443) are concerned with “the process of government.” While shapat is often translated “judge,” it really includes all the functions of a proper government–not just what we think of as the “judicial branch.” It’s also closely connected with a ruler; the law and the one giving the law aren’t separated the way we do today. God’s role as ruler, judge, and lawgiver are all connected. When we see mishpat translated “justice,” that’s the best word available in English to represent a concept with “at least thirteen related, but distinct, aspects of the central idea” related to judicial government, authority, and legislation (TWOT entry 2443c). In connection with God, justice involves “the just claims of God. God, who is Lord, can demand and He does demand” (Koehler, qtd. in TWOT). God wants things to be right in the world, and He’s the one who tells us what right, just, and correct looks like.

Image of a woman with her arms raised in worship overlaid with text from Psalm 987:1-2, WEB translation: "Yahweh reigns! Let the earth rejoice! Let the multitude of islands be glad! Clouds and darkness are around him. Righteousness (tsedeq) and justice (mishpat) are the foundation of his throne."
Image by Ruby-Rose from Lightstock

The Justice-Bringing Messiah

That was a long introduction, but it gives us a lot to think about in regards to justice. While justice does involve our ideas of fairness and what’s right, it’s also more than that. In the Bible, real justice is connected to God’s character, authority, and laws. It’s also a central concept in this section if Isaiah, and it underlies all the other topics we’ve discussed so far. “God is Incomparable and Irreplaceable,” and His justice is a key part of His character. There is “Joy in the Sabbath Covenant With God” in part because His sense of rightness involves rewards for acting justly and walking with Him. When we are “Looking Toward the Messiah,” we see that a big part of Jesus’s role in both His comings involves satisfying God’s justice. God’s activity in “Doing A New Thing” involves bringing justice to all the nations in the future. Finally, “The Contrast Between Righteousness and Wickedness” that God describes involves how each group does or does not align with His justice.

We can see how integral this idea of justice is from the very beginning of the message in Isaiah 40-66. This section of scripture opens with God saying that He has punished sins and now He will pardon them. It says God is a ruler brining reward and recompense to His kingdom. No one can compare to Him; other so-called rulers are nothing (Is. 40:1, 10-26). Even in the verses where mishpat and tsedeq aren’t used directly, we can clearly see themes of authority, law, righteousness, and justice. With those aspects of God’s character in mind, how can people possibly say, “My way is hidden from Yahweh, and the justice due me is disregarded by my God?” (Is. 40:27, WEB).

In reality, the “justice due” to us isn’t something we should want because “all have sinned” and “the compensation due sin is death.” However, “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 3:23; 6:23, LEB). When we looked at the Servant Song prophecies a few weeks ago, we only briefly touched on the role of the Messiah in bringing justice but it’s an important part of Jesus’s mission. Just look at how many times justice is mentioned in this first Servant Song.

 “Behold, my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen, in whom my soul delights:
    I have put my Spirit on him.
    He will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout,
    nor raise his voice,
    nor cause it to be heard in the street.
He won’t break a bruised reed.
    He won’t quench a dimly burning wick.
    He will faithfully bring justice.
He will not fail nor be discouraged,
    until he has set justice in the earth,
    and the islands wait for his law.”

Isaiah 42:1-4 WEB

This is one of the Servant Songs quoted in the New Testament; Matthew references it when showing his readers how Jesus’s actions on earth link back to prophecies from the Old Testament (Matt. 12:15-21). Jesus’s actions in healing and helping people demonstrated His commitment to justice. He also highlights justice as one of ” the weightier matters of the law” when talking with the Pharisees (Matt. 23:23).

Image of a woman studying her Bible overlaid with text from Matt. 12:17-18, 20, NET translation: This fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I take great delight. I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. ...
He will not break a bruised reed or 
extinguish a smoldering wick,
until he brings justice to victory.”
Image by Pearl from Lightstock

God’s Love for Justice

We see further evidence of God’s love for justice in another prophecy that’s sandwiched between the Servant Songs in Isaiah 50:4-11 and Isaiah 52:13– 53:12

“Listen to me, you who follow after righteousness,
    you who seek Yahweh. …

“Listen to me, my people;
    and hear me, my nation,
for a law will go out from me,
    and I will establish my justice for a light to the peoples.
My righteousness is near.
    My salvation has gone out,
    and my arms will judge the peoples. …
my salvation will be forever,
    and my righteousness will not be abolished.”

Isaiah 51:1, 4-6, WEB
Image of a woman's hand turning pages in a Bible with the blog's title text and the words "God’s desire for justice drives Him on to  accomplish 
salvation and share His righteousness with the world. "
Image by Delanie from Lightstock

Notice how close the connection is between justice, righteousness, salvation, and God’s law. God loves justice, as He says very clearly near the end of Isaiah: “For I, Yahweh, love justice” (Is. 61:8, WEB). When we love the God of Justice, we’ll also want to practice justice. Without justice, we don’t have a relationship with God.

Behold, Yahweh’s hand is not shortened, that it can’t save;
    nor his ear dull, that it can’t hear.
But your iniquities have separated you and your God,
    and your sins have hidden his face from you,
    so that he will not hear. …

They don’t know the way of peace;
    and there is no justice in their ways.
They have made crooked paths for themselves;
    whoever goes in them doesn’t know peace.
Therefore justice is far from us,
    and righteousness doesn’t overtake us.
We look for light, but see darkness;
    for brightness, but we walk in obscurity. …

Yahweh saw it,
    and it displeased him that there was no justice.
He saw that there was no man,
    and wondered that there was no intercessor.
Therefore his own arm brought salvation to him;
    and his righteousness sustained him.
He put on righteousness as a breastplate,
    and a helmet of salvation on his head.

Isaiah 59: 1-2, 8-9, 15-17, WEB

You might want to take some time and read all of Isiah 53 here; it’s got a lot to say about how upset God is when there’s no justice and how motivated He is to fix that problem. He wants the people He’s in a relationship with to “Maintain justice and do what is right” (Is. 56:1-2). He also wants His people to receive justice–to have Him as their good and righteous ruler acting with authority to make justice happen. His desire for justice drives Him on to accomplish salvation and share His righteousness with the world. We benefit every day from God’s desire for justice and His love of righteousness.

Featured image by Inbetween from Lightstock

Isaiah Study: The Contrast Between Righteousness and Wickedness

If you’ve been following this blog for the past month and a half, you know we’ve been studying Isaiah 40-66. After six weeks, you might think we’re starting to run out of material, but that’s not the case. I feel like we’re only about halfway through mining the rich treasure trove of the last 27 chapters of Isaiah. This section of the book is an extended dialog where God speaks about redemption and reconciliation, but that isn’t the only thing He talks about.

In the first post for this study, I made a list of key themes that I want to study more extensively in this section of scripture. The list included (among other things) a sharp contrast between prosperity for the righteous and no prosperity for the wicked. This is also connected to another theme that runs through this section of scripture: the importance of obedience. Since God’s nature and character are unchanging (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8), we can conclude that He cares just as much about this topic today as He did thousands of years ago when He talked with Isaiah. Therefore, reading these words and figuring out what message He had for His people then can also help us learn what He wants to say to us today.

Outcomes for the Righteous and Wicked

In Isaiah 40-66, there are several passages showing a sharp contrast between two groups of people. On the one hand, you have the righteous people who listen to God, treat Him with respect, and follow His commandments. On the other hand you have the people who disregard God’s words, spurn Him and profane His ways, and disobey His commands. God discusses the outcomes of these two groups in clear-cut language.

This is what the Lord, your Protector, says,
the Holy One of Israel:
“I am the Lord your God,
who teaches you how to succeed,
who leads you in the way you should go.
If only you had obeyed my commandments,
prosperity would have flowed to you like a river,
deliverance would have come to you like the waves of the sea.” …

“There will be no prosperity for the wicked,” says the Lord.

Isaiah 48:17-18, 22, NET

I’m sure this message put Isaiah’s readers in mind of the blessings and cursing section of Deuteronomy. Near the end of that book, Moses reminded the people of Israel about the blessings God promised for faithfulness to His covenant and the curses that would come upon them if they disobeyed (Deut. 28-30). Isaiah’s original readers were in the position Moses talked about when he said, “When you have experienced all these things, both the blessings and the curses I have set before you, you will reflect upon them in all the nations where the Lord your God has banished you” (Deut. 30:1, NET). Now, the people of Isaiah’s day had an opportunity to turn back to God, receive deliverance, and inherit the prosperity that comes with obeying God’s commands.

The curses that God lays out in Deuteronomy and the statement in Isaiah that “There will be no prosperity for the wicked” are straightforward facts. It’s not a threat so much as it is a revelation about how the world designed by God works. If you do things that align with God’s righteous character, your life will turn out better than if you live wickedly. Sometimes, this rule is difficult for us to see evidence of. It often looks like people who disobey God have all the good things while righteous people are beset by trails.

We’re not the first people to wonder why there seems to be so much evidence contradicting this rule of “prosperity for the righteous/no prosperity for the wicked.” David, Asaph, and Jeremiah all said they saw evildoers prospering, and they wrested with how those observations might relate to God’s promises. All three concluded that the answer is found by looking at the end result of people’s lives (Pss. 37; 73; Jer. 12). No mater how prosperous the wicked seem, they often lead bitter and violent lives and–unless they repent and change (Ezek. 18)–they will be cut off from God in the end.

Similarly, David, Asaph, Jeremiah, and many other people throughout history wondered why righteous people struggle when God said they will prosper. Here again, we need to consider the end result. Even when following God, there will still be ups and downs in your life. Things might even seem downright terrible (just look what happened to some of the people in the faith chapter), but ultimately God works all things out for good in the lives of those He calls into His family (Rom. 8:28). Even during the midst of trials, the righteous can have peace that transcends outward circumstances. Interestingly, the word translated “prosperity” in Isaiah 48 is shalom, which is more typically translated “peace” and also means “wholeness.” The righteous get a sense of “wholeness” that comes from being in relationship with God. The wicked, having rejected God, do not.

Image of a woman studying her Bible overlaid with text from Psalm 37:1-4, NET version: "“Do not fret when wicked men seem to succeed. Do not envy evildoers. For they will quickly dry up like grass,
and wither away like plants. Trust in the Lord and do what is right. Settle in the land and maintain your integrity. Then you will take delight in the Lord, and he will answer your prayers.”
Image by MarrCreative from Lightstock

The Importance of Obedience

God wants us to follow Him with genuine hearts–hearts on which the New Covenant is written. This covenant is not engraved on stone tablets like the kind Moses carried down from Mount Sinai, but on “tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor. 3:1-3; Heb. 8:7-10). Our hearts. And when our hearts are following God, that results in obedience from the inside-out. We’ll walk in His ways because we’re being transformed by His spirit. Just as in Isaiah’s day, God is looking for obedience that shows our hearts are in the right place.

This is what the Lord says,
“Promote justice! Do what is right!
For I am ready to deliver you;
I am ready to vindicate you openly.
The people who do this will be blessed,
the people who commit themselves to obedience,
who observe the Sabbath and do not defile it,
who refrain from doing anything that is wrong.”

Isaiah 56:1-2, NET

As we discussed in the post about Sabbath-keeping in Isaiah 40-66, we find an abundance of joy and blessings when we walk in covenant with God and do the things He commands. There’s a special relationship between God and the people who sincerely follow Him. Even though He loves everyone with a selfless, beneficent desire for their good, His familial/friendship love is reserved for those who commit to living in relationship with Him.

For the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity,
whose name is Holy, says:
“I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also who is of a contrite and humble spirit,
to revive the spirit of the humble,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.” …
“I create the fruit of the lips:
Peace, peace, to him who is far off and to him who is near,”
says Yahweh; “and I will heal them.”
But the wicked are like the troubled sea;
for it can’t rest and its waters cast up mire and mud.
“There is no peace,” says my God,
“for the wicked.”

Isaiah 57:15, 19-21, WEB

As in the verses we looked at earlier, God reveals a sharp contrast between the wicked and righteous. One prospers, one does not. One is full of peace, the other has none. Having peace/wholeness and experiencing blessings is a natural state for those who walk in relationship with God. Even if their circumstances aren’t great right now, they know things will work out for good in the end and their relationship with God can give them a supernatural peace.

In contrast, the wicked don’t enjoy the peace and prosperity that comes with being in relationship with God. They’re not necessarily stuck in that state, though. God is always eager for people to reconcile with Him and if they do, God promises, “None of his transgressions that he has committed will be remembered against him” (Ezek. 18:22, WEB). There’s always the opportunity for us to move from one category to the other (Ezek. 18; 33).

Image of a man studying his Bible overlaid with text from Ezekiel 33:12-16, NET version: “The righteousness of the righteous will not deliver him if he rebels. As for the wicked, his wickedness will not make him stumble if he turns from it. ... Suppose I say to the wicked, ‘You must certainly die,’ but he turns from his sin and does what is just and right. ... None of the sins he has committed will be counted against him. He has done what is just and right; he will certainly live.”
Image by Anggie from Lightstock

Hoping and Praying for Good Outcomes

The sharp contrast between long-term outcomes for the righteous and wicked might seem harsh. But as I mentioned before, what God lays out here and in other passages throughout the Bible is simply a revelation about how His world works. He designed and created the universe, and He has the “inside scoop” on how to live in a way that results in a good outcome. We can either listen to Him or reject His counsel. Either way, we’ll reap the consequences (good or bad) that He tells us about beforehand.

“But you who forsake Yahweh,
    who forget my holy mountain,
    who prepare a table for Fortune,
    and who fill up mixed wine to Destiny;
I will destine you to the sword,
    and you will all bow down to the slaughter;
because when I called, you didn’t answer.
    When I spoke, you didn’t listen;
but you did that which was evil in my eyes,
    and chose that in which I didn’t delight.”

Therefore the Lord Yahweh says,
    “Behold, my servants will eat,
    but you will be hungry;
behold, my servants will drink,
    but you will be thirsty.
Behold, my servants will rejoice,
    but you will be disappointed;
Behold, my servants will sing for joy of heart,
    but you will cry for sorrow of heart,
    and will wail for anguish of spirit.”

Isaiah 65:11-14, WEB
Image of a man praying with the blog's title text and the words " In Isaiah 40-66, God draws a sharp contrast between the outcomes for those who live righteous and wicked lives. One enjoys peace and prosperity, the other does not unless they repent and change."
Image by Shaun Menary from Lightstock

These aren’t the sort of feel-good, reassuring verses that we like to spend our time reading. If it just said, “My servants will eat, drink, rejoice, and sing for joy of heart,” then we might spend a lot more time reading Isaiah 65. But it also contains information about what will happen to those who forsake God, ignore His voice, and do things He calls evil. And those verses give us pause, as they should.

When we read these hard verses, it’s an opportunity to take a look at ourselves. If we see ourselves in any of those descriptions, then we can repent and recommit to following God with our whole hearts. He is always eager to hear sincere repentance and grant forgiveness. He also offers us help through His own indwelling Spirit, His words written in our hearts, and His energetic working inside us to accomplish salvation (John 14:16-7, 26; Phil. 2:12-13). We’re not left alone on this journey. Jesus and the Father work in us, and apply their righteousness to us (Jer. 23:6; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:24).

These verses might also make us think about others and grieve because we don’t want these terrible things to happen to anyone. That is also a godly response. God “desires all people to be saved and come to full knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4, WEB). He is “not wishing that anyone should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9, WEB). When we wish that people wouldn’t need to go through such terrible things, it’s a desire God shares. And even though we can’t make people come to God–He’s the one who opens eyes and draws hearts to Him (John 6:44; 14:6)–we can share our hope with people around us and pray for others to come to know God (1 Peter 3:15-16; 1 Tim 2:1-4).

We can also take comfort from scriptures like these in Isaiah. When we’re walking with God, we are among those blessed by His favor. These good, comforting, and encouraging words are for us. He teaches us how to succeed. He sends deliverance over us like ocean waves. He vindicates us, revives us, heals us, and gives us peace. He fills us with joy. There is a “day of vengeance of our God” proclaimed in this section of Isaiah, but it is also “the year of Yahweh’s favor,” filled with comfort, provision, and joy for the Lord’s people who faithfully follow Him (Is. 61).

Featured image by Inbetween from Lightstock

Song Recommendation: This Is The Year (Isaiah 61) by Deborah Kline-Iantorno & Vince Iantorno

Isaiah Study: Doing A New Thing

Today’s article is the fifth blog post since I started studying Isaiah 40-66. In the first post, I made a list of key themes that I want to study more extensively in this section of scripture. The list included (among other things) the message that God is doing and making something new. This theme is very closely connected to the one we discussed in last week’s post about looking toward the Messiah. It’s also connected with another point we touched on a few weeks ago; that one way God proves He is God is by revealing His new plans to the prophets before they happen.

I can only imagine how awed Isaiah must have been to receive this revelation. How encouraging it must have been to learn that God has such an amazing plan to set things right; to realize that a Messiah would soon come to usher in the salvation of the world! I wonder how much of the timing he understood. Did Isaiah know we’d still be reading these words thousands of years later, joining him in marveling at all that God has done in the past and will do in the future? Peter seems to think he did.

Concerning this salvation, the prophets sought and searched diligently. They prophesied of the grace that would come to you, searching for who or what kind of time the Spirit of Christ, which was in them, pointed to, when he predicted the sufferings of Christ, and the glories that would follow them. To them it was revealed, that they served not themselves, but you, in these things, which now have been announced to you through those who preached the Good News to you by the Holy Spirit sent out from heaven; which things angels desire to look into.

1 Peter 1:10-12, WEB

Here, Peter tells us that people like Isaiah did know they were speaking to us–we who know the Messiah and have received His salvation. Peter was also among those to whom Jesus said “many prophets and kings desired to see the things which you see, and didn’t see them, and to hear the things which you hear, and didn’t hear them” (Luke 10:24, WEB; see also Matthew 13:14-17). The prophets didn’t see everything as clearly as we do know. God has revealed to us things so glorious that the angels desire to look into them. We see His future plan for “glories that would follow” more clearly, particularly as we look back on the prophets’ words about the new things God still has in store for us.

Declaring a New Way to Save

At the end of the first Servant Song prophecy, God says, “Behold, the former things have happened and I declare new things. I tell you about them before they come up” (Is. 42:9, WEB). That’s one of the main things that God is doing in this section of Isaiah. There’s so much emphasis on the Messiah and on the new things God will do through Him. Jesus’s coming changed things dramatically for God’s people. Once we were sinners condemned to death, now we’re redeemed from that penalty. Once we were under the Law as a “guardian” of our conduct; now we keep the Law from the heart on a spiritual level (Gal. 3:23-25; Rom. 8:1-14). Once we saw God’s plan only dimly, now He’s revealed it to His people more clearly (Matt. 13:10-11; 1 Cor. 2:9-10; Eph. 3:4-6; 1 Pet 1:10-12).

When Isaiah’s original readers heard God “declare new things” about the Messiah, Jesus’s first coming was still in the future. At this time, God told Israel “from this point on I am announcing to you new events” (Isa. 48:6, NET). Knowing there’s a Messiah bringing a new way to save isn’t news for us anymore–from our perspective, He arrived here on earth nearly 2,000 years ago. However, we can still get excited for what His coming meant for us and for other new things that God is planning.

Look, I am about to do something new.
Now it begins to happen! Do you not recognize it?
Yes, I will make a road in the wilderness
and paths in the wastelands.
The wild animals honor me,
the jackals and ostriches,
because I put water in the wilderness
and streams in the wastelands,
to quench the thirst of my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself,
so they might praise me.

Isaiah 43:19-21, NET

The context for this passage is redemption. God is revealing that He will rescue Israel from the Babylonians, but then the language shifts to declaring a future redemption as well. The “road in the wilderness” and God’s work with the wild animals foreshadows Millennial imagery in Isaiah 65 (which we’ll get to later in this post). God began His new work of bringing peace to earth with Jesus’s first coming, and He’s still working on that exciting project today as we–and all of creation–await Jesus’s second coming.

For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the coming glory that will be revealed to us. For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly but because of God who subjected it—in hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children.

Romans 8:19-21, NET

Something New For Us

In addition to God’s new revelations about how He plans to save and transform the world, He also revealed something new that’s happening in each of us. He promises He’ll give His people new names as He does the part of His new work that takes place inside each of them.

For the sake of Zion I will not be silent;
for the sake of Jerusalem I will not be quiet,
until her vindication shines brightly
and her deliverance burns like a torch.
Nations will see your vindication,
and all kings your splendor.
You will be called by a new name
that the Lord himself will give you.
You will be a majestic crown in the hand of the Lord,
a royal turban in the hand of your God.
You will no longer be called, “Abandoned,”
and your land will no longer be called “Desolate.”
Indeed, you will be called “My Delight is in Her,”
and your land “Married.”
For the Lord will take delight in you,
and your land will be married to him.

Isaiah 62:1-4, NET

Here, we’re told two of the new names God gives to the people He’s working with. We’re also told “you will be called by a new name that the Lord himself will give you.” If we were just looking at this verse on its own, we might think that refers to the new names Hephzibah (“My Delight is in Her”) and Beulah (“Married”). However, we also learn more about other new names in the book of Revelation. Jesus mentions two of His letters to the seven churches.

To the angel of the church in Pergamum write the following: … The one who has an ear had better hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, I will give him some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and on that stone will be written a new name that no one can understand except the one who receives it.’

Revelation 2:12, 17, NET

To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write the following: … The one who conquers I will make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he will never depart from it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God (the new Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven from my God), and my new name as well.

Revelation 3:7, 12, NET

The first new name mentioned is highly individual; only the person who receives the name even knows what it is. The second new name is one that we’ll share with Jesus Christ. I don’t want to get too off-track from today’s topic, so we’ll keep this discussion about names brief. For now, let’s remember that names in Hebrew thought are closely tied to a person’s reputation and character. When God puts His name on us, He’s trusting us with His family’s reputation and claiming us as people who are like Him.

God also has a long history of giving new names to people He works closely with, including Abraham, Sarah, Israel, Peter, James, John, and Paul (Genesis 17:4-5, 15-16; 32:28; Mark 3:16-17; Acts 13:9). There’s something very special about getting a new name from God, and it seems that it has to do with receiving a new position in life. New names come with a new way of living or a new attainment of something that God is working on in us. It’s fitting, then, that we’re told we’ll get new names when God is handing out rewards to faithful people after Jesus returns to this earth. That’s also when we’ll be revealed as the glorious children of God (Rom. 8:18-24).

New Heavens and New Earth

Isaiah has a lot to say about the Millennial reign of Jesus Christ and the new earth which will follow. In Revelation 20, we’re told that after Jesus’s second coming Satan will be locked away for a thousand years, the faithful will rise from the dead, and they’ll “be priests of God and of Christ, and will reign with him one thousand years” (Rev. 20:6, WEB). Then in Revelation 21-22, we learn of “a new heaven and a new earth” that will come after that. We don’t get many details about what the Millennium or the world after that will look like here in Revelation, but we learn more through God’s descriptions through Isaiah of His future holy mountain (Isaiah 2:1-4; 11:1-10).

“For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth;
    and the former things will not be remembered,
    nor come into mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create;
    for, behold, I create Jerusalem to be a delight,
    and her people a joy.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
    and delight in my people;
and the voice of weeping and the voice of crying
    will be heard in her no more.
    “No more will there be an infant who only lives a few days,
    nor an old man who has not filled his days;
for the child will die one hundred years old,
    and the sinner being one hundred years old will be accursed.
They will build houses and inhabit them.
    They will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They will not build and another inhabit.
    They will not plant and another eat:
for the days of my people will be like the days of a tree,
    and my chosen will long enjoy the work of their hands.
They will not labor in vain
    nor give birth for calamity;
for they are the offspring of Yahweh’s blessed
    and their descendants with them.
It will happen that before they call, I will answer;
    and while they are yet speaking, I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb will feed together.
    The lion will eat straw like the ox.
    Dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain,”
    says Yahweh.

Isaiah 65:17-25, WEB

Isn’t this an incredible picture of the future? This is what we have to look forward to after Jesus returns to earth. It’s this future that we’ll be picturing when we observe Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles) in just a few months. Given the connection between Sukkot and the Millennial reign of Jesus Christ, it’s fitting that the last thing the Lord says in Isaiah about His new heavens and new earth relates to God’s holy calendar and His Sabbath days. This verse also connects to our post about Sabbath-keeping in Isaiah 40-66.

“For just as the new heavens and the new earth I am about to make will remain standing before me,” says the Lord, “so your descendants and your name will remain. From one month to the next and from one Sabbath to the next, all people will come to worship me,” says the Lord.

Isaiah 66:22-23, NET

These verses promise that in the midst of all this newness, there will also be a reliable stability. God is still on His throne. His character and the way He wants to do things are not going to change. We’ll still have patterns of worship to follow. We’ll still have relationships with Him, though they will then be closer than ever before.

We know Jesus is coming back, but it’s easy to let that slip our minds as we go through our day-to-day lives. But if we hold onto the vision in Isaiah and other future-pointing passages of scripture, we can also hold onto the excitement of being part of the “new thing” God is doing. And that can help us stay encouraged and joyful as we move forward into the future.

Featured image by Inbetween from Lightstock

Song Recommendation: “The Holy City” by Stanford Olsen and The Tabernacle Choir

Bonus song I found while searching for a different “New Heaven, New Earth” song: “Новое небо” by Simon Khorolskiy

Isaiah Study: Looking Toward the Messiah

In Jewish communities, and many Messianic Jewish groups as well, there’s a tradition of reading through the Torah once a year. The first five books of the Bible (the Law or Torah) are divided into sections called parashot. Those are paired with selections from the Prophets, called haftarot, that link the Torah to events in Israel’s history. All around the world, synagogues read the same sections each week. They’ve been doing this on the same schedule every year since around 400-500 AD.

I already knew about the Torah portions from my time attending with a Messianic congregation, so that didn’t surprise me when I read about it in Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus: How a Jewish Perspective Can Transform Your Understanding by Lois Tverberg. But I was surprised to learn this tradition is based on one that’s much older. In 1806, thousands of early Jewish texts were discovered that included “multiple synagogue lectionary lists” splitting the Torah into “150-170 readings, likely taking about three and a half years to complete” (Tverberg p. 195-96). This older tradition read through the Torah just like people do today, but the selected readings from the prophets were different. In the older tradition, the readings are more focused on “a glorious future kingdom and a coming Messianic age” (p. 197).

So what does all this have to do with our ongoing study of Isaiah 40-66? While we can’t know exactly which passages from the Prophets Jesus and His followers heard alongside the Torah in their synagogues (the liturgy readings weren’t standardized until later) we can make a reasonable guess based on the early scripture lists we do have. In those lists, “over half of the prophetic readings came from Isaiah, especially chapters 40-66, which focus on promises of redemption and renewal” (Tverberg p. 199). Those are the same passages we’ve been studying. They’re also passages that Jesus quoted and Paul references in many of his letters (click here for a list of Isaiah quotes in the New Testament).

If you’re familiar with the Servant Song prophecies in Isaiah, the choice of these scriptures to point toward the Messiah shouldn’t come as a surprise. All four of these famous Messianic prophecies come from the last part of Isaiah. Those aren’t the only Messianic messages in the final 27 chapters, though. If you read the first post in this series, you’ll see I made a list of key themes that I want to study more extensively. The list included (among other things) a focus on redemption, deliverance, salvation, and restoration that are connected to the promise that God will call a Servant to redeem His servants. This is also related to God’s covenant faithfulness; the Messiah is coming because God is faithful to His promises.

Image shows an open scroll with Hebrew writing with a quote from Luke 4:16-19, NET version:  “Now Jesus came to Nazareth ... and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor ... to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’”
Image by Marissa Baker

The Servant Songs

We’ve been talking about the Servant Songs for weeks now, but haven’t taken a close look at them yet. In my first post,  I mentioned you can find these prophecies in Isaiah 42:1–9; 49:1–13; 50:4-11; 52:13– 53:12. I also said these aren’t the only the only prophecies in Isaiah 40-66 and that God’s words in this section aren’t just for people who were anticipating the Messiah’s first coming. They’re also for us today, who are awaiting Jesus’s second coming. We can see that as we look through the four servant songs all together.

First Song

The first Servant Song speaks of the Messiah as a servant chosen by God (Is. 42:1–9). The Servant “will bring justice to the nations” without shouting or raising his voice. This prophecy also speaks of Yahweh (the name God applies to Himself in Ex. 3:15) holding the Servant’s hand and making Him “a covenant for the people, as a light for the nations.” Yahweh affirms this will happen; it’s one of the “new things” He’s declaring in this section of Isaiah. You’ll find this first Servant Song quoted in Matthew 12:15-21, Luke 2:26-32, and Romans 15:12.

Second Song

The second Song is written in first-person; the Servant is speaking (Is. 49:1-13). He says, “Yahweh has called me from the womb” to accomplish reconciliation by bringing God’s covenant people back to Him. Again, Yahweh calls the Servant “a light to the nations, that you may be my salvation to the end of the earth.” This passage speaks of the Servant accomplishing powerful deliverance, backed-up with Yahweh’s power and might. It’s quoted in Luke 2:28-32, Acts 13:47, and 2 Corinthians 6:2. In Acts 13:47, Paul and Barnabas apply part of this prophecy to their work as they follow in the Messiah’s footsteps. This indicates that while the Servant Songs are Messianic (they point to Jesus), at least part of this one can also apply to those following in Jesus’s footsteps.

Third Song

The third song presents the Servant more as suffering than triumphant (Is. 50:4-11). It speaks of Yahweh teaching the servant and giving Him wisdom for working with people. It also speaks of the Servant voluntarily submitting to suffering inflicted by other people, and affirms that “the Lord Yahweh will help me.” Like the second Song, this one is written from the Servant’s perspective and affirms His trust in Yahweh. According to SimplyBible.com’s list of Isaiah quotes, this song is not quoted directly in the New Testament. I suspect, though, that the gospel writers might have had this Song in mind when they wrote about people being astonished at the wisdom and authority of Jesus’s teachings (Matt. 13:54; Mark 1:22; Luke 4:32).

Fourth Song

The final servant song might be the most famous (Is. 52:13– 53:12). It’s certainly the one I’m most familiar with; in my church we read it every Passover. It’s also the Servant song that’s most often quoted in the New Testament (Matt. 8:16-17; Mark 15:27-28; Luke 22:37; John 12:37-38; Acts 8:32; Rom. 10:16; 15:21; 1 Pet. 2:22-25). And that list only includes direct quotes; there are other scriptures, like Christ’s discussion of servants ruling kingdoms, that likely allude to this passage (Luke 22:25-30).

In this Passage, God says that His Servant “will cleanse many nations,” but in the process He will suffer so much His face will become unrecognizable. This is one of the Messianic prophecies that speaks most clearly and graphically of the terrible things Jesus suffered to pay the price for our transgressions. Again, there are themes of justice and light, as well as inheriting a kingdom, but the focus is on the suffering of Messiah and what He means to accomplish with with His suffering.

Image shows two people's hands clasped together with a quote from Matthew 8:16-17, WEB version: “When evening came, they brought to him many possessed with demons. He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’”
Image by Jantanee from Lightstock

A Mission of Redemption, Salvation, and Release

In the WEB translation for Isaiah 40-66, the word “redeem” shows up 24 times. “Salvation” is here 19 times and “save” 12 times. “Deliver” is used 12 times. “Help” 10 times. “Restore” is here 4 times, “release” 3 times, and “preserve” 2 times. (These numbers also include related words like “deliverer” and “redeemed”). These words related to God’s work in saving His people show up all through Isaiah 40-66; not just in the Servant Songs. Throughout these chapters, God is focused on the redemption, salvation, deliverance, and restoration of His people. He’s sharing His plans to help, release, and preserve us.

But now Yahweh who created you, Jacob,
and he who formed you, Israel, says:
“Don’t be afraid, for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by your name.
You are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,
and through the rivers, they will not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned,
and flame will not scorch you.
For I am Yahweh your God,
the Holy One of Israel,
your Savior.”

Isaiah 43:1-3, WEB

Break out into joy!
Sing together, you waste places of Jerusalem;
for Yahweh has comforted his people.
He has redeemed Jerusalem.
Yahweh has made his holy arm bare in the eyes of all the nations.
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.

Isaiah 52:9-10, WEB

The Lord Yahweh’s Spirit is on me,
because Yahweh has anointed me to preach good news to the humble.
He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to those who are bound,

Isaiah 61:1, WEB

Passages like these are found all around the Servant Songs, sprinkled throughout Isaiah 40-66. They reveal God’s redeeming purpose and join the Servant Songs in pointing toward the Messiah. Jesus even quoted the passage from Isaiah 61 (with one line added from Isaiah 58:6) when He went into the synagogue to His hometown on the Sabbath day. It appears that He was reading the Torah portion and associated passage from the Prophets that day, and used Isaiah 61 to teach about His role as God’s servant (Luke 4:15-21). The way He read this passage might not seem too startling to us, but by saying that He’s fulfilling this prophecy Jesus boldly proclaimed Himself as the Messiah. It was such a startling claim that His hearers were “filled with rage” and threw him out of town (Luke 4:22-30).

If you read through Isaiah 40-66, you’ll see God is talking about deliverance on multiple levels. He’s speaking to Ancient Israel at the time, promising deliverance from captivity. He’s also pointing to a time when the Messiah would come with spiritual deliverance from sin–that’s what happened when Jesus came to this earth and died for us. On top of that, God’s revelations at the end of Isaiah look farther forward to a time when the entire world will be renewed and restored.

A New Thing

Image of a woman looking down a railway track holding a Bible. It is overlaid with the blog's title text and the words "Just as the Jewish people of Jesus's day looked for a Messiah and focused on prophecies of His first coming, we today can eagerly look forward to 
His second coming.
Image by Kristen McDow from Lightstock

It’s fascinating to see links between the New and Old Testament. Studying these patterns gives us a deeper appreciation for the Bible and a deeper understanding of Jesus. Sometimes, though, it might not seem all that relevant today since the prophecies are already fulfilled. But we can still learn from them, and not all of them are entirely done yet. Just as the Jewish people of Jesus’s day looked for a Messiah and focused on prophecies of His first coming, we today can look forward eagerly to His second coming. Let’s take another look at the end of the first Servant Song prophecy.

“I am Yahweh.
    That is my name.
    I will not give my glory to another,
    nor my praise to engraved images.
Behold, the former things have happened
    and I declare new things.
    I tell you about them before they come up.”

Sing to Yahweh a new song,
    and his praise from the end of the earth,
    you who go down to the sea,
    and all that is therein,
    the islands and their inhabitants.

Isaiah 42:9, 10, WEB

While the Servant Song seems to wrap up in verse 9 (though Yahweh also discusses “my servant” in verses 18-19 while rebuking those who trust in false gods), a new song continues in verse 10. It’s the first time in this part of Isaiah that God directly states He’s doing something new and exciting. As we’ll see more thoroughly in next week’s post, this “new thing” that He’s doing with the Messiah is the beginning of a larger project to make all things new.

We’re still waiting for the complete fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies in Isaiah. Reading God’s promises to send the Messiah back to redeem us mightily, establish His kingdom, and complete His “new” work can still encourage us as we await Jesus’s return.

Featured image by Inbetween from Lightstock

Isaiah Study: Joy in the Sabbath Covenant With God

We’re now in week three of an ongoing study of Isaiah 40-66. In these final 27 chapters of the book, Isaiah records God’s words about His feelings and plans. God shares His perspective on His relationship with His people and reveals His plans for the future. Part of those plans have already been fulfilled with Jesus’s first coming as Messiah, but others are still in the future for us as we read Isaiah today. In addition to studying those prophecies, God’s perspective on His relationship with His people is also relevant today.

Throughout the Old Testament, God worked with a specific family of called-out people. The descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel) were the only chosen people of God. Though others could join the covenant God made with Israel, it didn’t happen all that often. By the time Jesus came to this earth, many Jews of the day thought you couldn’t really have a relationship with God without being a physical descendant of Abraham. Jesus proved that assumption wrong, but it wasn’t by saying your family identity doesn’t matter anymore. Rather, He and His followers made it clear we’re being adopted into God’s covenant. God didn’t get rid of “Israel”–He elevated that covenant people to a spiritual level and made everyone whom He calls into relationship with Him part of the family. This is what Paul’s talking about in passages like Romans 11 and Galatians 4.

Sabbath-keeping is one sign of God’s original covenant with ancient Israel. Jesus and His followers also kept the Sabbath, and scripture reinforces that the Sabbath rest is still important for believers who followed their examples. The importance of the Sabbath in the New Testament is also deeply rooted in earlier scripture writings, which still help us understand the importance of the Sabbath today. If you go back and read my first Isaiah Study post, you’ll see I made a list of key themes that I want to study more extensively in this section of scripture. Among other things, that list included the role of covenant faithfulness and the importance of Sabbath keeping. God spends quite a bit of time in this section of scripture talking about the Sabbath, and that’s what we’re going to look at more closely today.

Image shows a Bible lying open. It is overlaid with a quote from Mark 2:27-28, WEB version: He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
Image by Anggie from Lightstock

Sabbath-Covenant Connection

For many Christian today, the Sabbath seems like a distant concept. We might just think of it as the name Jewish people give Saturday or an old name used way back when people in Western nations closed their businesses on Sundays. We might even think of it as a verb describing something we can do whenever we need a “sabbathing” break. None of those really reflect how the Bible talks about the Sabbath. God calls it a holy day of rest. It’s a day that belongs to Him and which He shares with His people. It’s really, really important to Him.

“Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to Yahweh. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall surely be put to death. Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.”

Exodus 31:15-17, WEB

This command is found in Exodus, but the Sabbath dates all the way back to the first pages of Genesis. God made the Sabbath holy time from the very foundation of the world. Jesus upheld the Sabbath’s importance, teaching on the Sabbath day and describing it as something “made for man” which He is Lord of. The times when you see people like the Pharisees complaining about Jesus breaking the Sabbath, what He’s actually doing is getting rid of the additional restrictions Jewish leaders had piled up on top of God’s original intent (Mark 2:23-28; John 5:14-18). In John 5:18, for example, the Greek word for “broke” is lou (G3089), which means to set loose something that has been bound or tied up.

This is a long digression from Isaiah, but it’s necessary background before we look at the three passages in Isaiah 40-66 where God talks about Sabbath keeping. The Sabbath is a sign of God’s covenant with His people. It didn’t go away after He established a new and better covenant. It became even more special because the closer our relationships with God grows and the more like Him we become, the more we should value the things that He values. That’s why I (and an ever-growing number of other Christians and Messianic Jews) still keep the Sabbath from Friday night at sunset to Saturday night at sunset, just like Jesus and His followers did.

Image shows a Bible lying open. It is overlaid with a quote from Isaiah 56:1-2, NET version: He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
Image by Lamppost Collective from Lightstock

All People Welcomed

One of the reasons that we know God has always been interested in expanding His family beyond one physical nation is because of what He says in Isiah 56. In this passage, God promises that His house will be a place for all people and nations. Those without families of their own and who’ve come in from nations outside Israel are just as important to Him as anyone who grew up in the faith. It’s a longer section than I usually block quote, but I encourage you to read the whole thing slowly (if you’re like me, you’re always tempted to skimp when you see large quotes).

Yahweh says,

“Maintain justice
    and do what is right,
for my salvation is near
    and my righteousness will soon be revealed.
Blessed is the man who does this,
    and the son of man who holds it fast;
who keeps the Sabbath without profaning it
    and keeps his hand from doing any evil.”

Let no foreigner who has joined himself to Yahweh speak, saying,
    “Yahweh will surely separate me from his people.”
    Do not let the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.”

For Yahweh says, “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
    choose the things that please me,
    and hold fast to my covenant,
I will give them in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name better than of sons and of daughters.
    I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.

Also the foreigners who join themselves to Yahweh
    to serve him,
and to love Yahweh’s name,
    to be his servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath from profaning it,
    and holds fast my covenant,
I will bring these to my holy mountain,
    and make them joyful in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar;
    for my house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
The Lord Yahweh, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, says,
    “I will yet gather others to him,
    in addition to his own who are gathered.”

Isaiah 56:1-8, WEB

Isn’t this a beautiful passage? Think of what it meant to be a eunuch, unable to have children, in a society where family and community was so vitally important. Think of how alone you might feel as a foreigner who likely had to cut ties with your own people to join one that followed a different God. Then, into all those feelings of isolation and worry, here comes the almighty, powerful God saying that if you keep His Sabbath and respect His covenant He’ll make you fully part of the best family ever.

With that in mind, it’s no wonder that God speaks of the people who are keeping the Sabbath and holding onto His covenant as “joyful in my house of prayer.” How could you feel anything other than joy hearing this?

Also notice that this passage speaks of our present and future; it’s not just for people of the distant past. There are a lot of future-tense words in there, and it wasn’t until Jesus’ first coming that we started to see God’s temple–which is currently made up of all believers–become “a house of prayer for all people” (Mark 11:15-17; Eph. 2:11-13). These promises to those who join God’s covenant are still for us today.

Image shows a Bible lying open. It is overlaid with a quote from Isaiah 58:13-14, NET version: "“You must observe the Sabbath
rather than doing anything you please on my holy day.
You must look forward to the Sabbath
and treat the Lord’s holy day with respect. ...
Then you will find joy in your relationship to the Lord,
and I will give you great prosperity.”
Image by Lamppost Collective from Lightstock

Finding Joy in Your Relationship With God

I’m always surprised by people who think that Sabbath keeping is some kind of burden when I tell them why I don’t work on Saturdays. Even just from a human perspective, who wouldn’t want a whole day of rest each week? From a spiritual perspective, spending holy time with God for a day ought to sound like one of the best ideas ever, and God thinks so too. In fact, He says Sabbath keeping directly leads to a joyful relationship with Him.

“You must observe the Sabbath
rather than doing anything you please on my holy day.
You must look forward to the Sabbath
and treat the Lord’s holy day with respect.
You must treat it with respect by refraining from your normal activities,
and by refraining from your selfish pursuits and from making business deals.
Then you will find joy in your relationship to the Lord,
and I will give you great prosperity,
and cause crops to grow on the land I gave to your ancestor Jacob.”
Know for certain that the Lord has spoken.

Isaiah 58:13-14, NET

I like the way the NET Bible translates these verses. There are Hebrew idioms in this passage that can seem a bit confusing if you try to read them too literally, but this translation leaves no doubt about the intended meaning. “You must observe the Sabbath … You must look forward to the Sabbath and treat the Lord’s holy day with respect.” No ifs, ands, or buts.

God’s character and priorities don’t change (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8). Jesus didn’t come to destroy the law (including the Sabbath command), but to fill it to the fullest spiritual extent and reveal that God always wanted obedience from the heart rather than just going through the motions (Ex. 20:8-11; Matt. 5:17-20). When we read God’s word here in Isaiah, we can know He means them for us today as well as for the original audience. The commands here are for us, and so is the promise: “Then you will find joy in your relationship to the Lord, and I will give you great prosperity.”

A Future of Sabbaths With God

Image with the blog post's title and a picture of people sitting in church services. It is overlaid with the words, "In Isaiah, God promises blessings of joy and belonging to those who faithfully keep His covenant and His Sabbath. Those promises are still available for us today."
Image by Brown Bag Photography from Lightstock

Many parts of the last 27 chapters of Isaiah refer to things which are still in our futures. One of those prophetic passages reveals that people will still be keeping God’s holy Sabbath day in the future after Jesus’s second coming when God makes a new heaven and a new earth (Is. 65:17; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1).

“For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me,” says Yahweh, “so your offspring and your name shall remain. It shall happen that from one new moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh will come to worship before me,” says Yahweh.

Isaiah 66:22-23, WEB

This passage at the end of Isaiah begins with God saying He wants a relationship with a person “who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at my word” (Is. 66:2, WEB). When we’re humble in our spirits and honor God’s word, one of the ways we can show our respect is by following His commandments. It’s not that hard; Jesus’s “yoke is easy to bear” “and his commandments do not weigh us down” (Matt. 11:29-30; 1 John 5:2-4). Keeping God’s commandments–including the ones about the Sabbath–is a privilege and a joy. And if we’re going to spend eternity with God, it’s something we’ll be doing forever.

If you’ve been keeping God’s Sabbath for years, I invite you to let this study of Isaiah reinvigorate your Sabbath-keeping and remind you of the joy this day brings. If Sabbath-keeping is a new concept to you or it’s something you haven’t thought is important for New Testament Christians, I hope this study gives you something to think about. The world can make it challenging to take one day off each week and spend it with God, but the rewards are well worth any inconvenience. As God promises in Isaiah, “You must observe the Sabbath … then you will find joy in your relationship to the Lord” (Is. 58:13-14, NET).

Featured image by Inbetween from Lightstock