john 11… jesus and lazarus

In the introduction to John we read of Jesus, ‘in him was life and that life was the light of men’. At various points in the gospel Jesus has claimed to be the source of life in earlier. In Ch 11 his claim is developed is revealed to be demonstrably true in his raising of Lazarus from the dead. It is a climactic miracle, his final public sign for faith before the cross.

This story is one of the most intimate and moving in Scripture. It involves a little family of two sisters and a brother. The family are in distress because their brother is seriously ill. They decide they must send for Jesus. They clearly have much more than a passing acquaintance with Jesus. They are his followers and close friends (11:11) who have previously demonstrated remarkable devotion (11:2). They are sure of his care for them. Their request for help underlines this.

So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

John confirms Jesus, love by commenting ‘Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus’. He does so because Jesus’ response to the sisters desperate plea for help is unexpected. Instead of immediately setting off to heal Lazarus he remains where he is a further two days. There was nothing hindering him from going to Bethany. He was not unavoidably detained. He certainly was not concerned about the dangers of going to Judaea as his disciples were (11:7) for Jerusalem was where he was heading. No, John makes it clear the reason he lingers is precisely because Lazarus is ill.

5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

He remains two days until Lazarus is dead (11:11). John’s frequent underlining of the love Jesus has for Lazarus and his sisters wards off any accusation that Jesus is callous which his waiting and words may construe.

“This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

Remaining where he was seemed cold. However, it is not lethargy, or indifference that accounts for his delay. He delays because there is a greater need for all involved, the family, the disciples, the onlookers, and Jesus himself, than Jesus immediately healing his sick friend. A profound truth about Jesus requires to be grasped. They need to discover that he not only heals the sick but raises the dead. They need to be confronted with the reality that Jesus is indeed ‘the resurrection and the life’ as he has taught (5:25-29). Resurrection and life are not abstract concepts but realities in Jesus. His delay is not callous but kind. His delays with his people are always kind even if we can’t see it at the time. Shortly he will die and they will be dismayed. His raising of Lazarus a short time previously will be part of what sustains them then. It will help them in days of collapsing faith.

Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.

It is the reality that life, all life, resides in him that he impresses on Martha. He assures her brother will rise again. This elicits from her, her confidence in the resurrection that belongs to the last day. However, Jesus wants her to see that resurrection isn’t just a future fact but is a present reality in him. He wants her hope to be focussed not on a doctrine of the future but in him now. In him the future has become present. Does she believe this?

24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

Martha confesses her belief. Jesus is the Christ. How much she understood the implications of this confession of faith we are not told. It certainly included believing that in the Christ was ‘resurrection and life’.

Both Martha’s and Mary’s opening words to Jesus are ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died‘. They are not words of reproach. Both call him ‘Lord’ and Mary falls at his feet. They are words of regret. The crowd also think Jesus could have healed him had he arrived earlier. Perhaps in them there is a hint of disapproval.

The distress of the sisters and the mourners triggers in Jesus deep emotion. He is profoundly moved and troubled. One writer says the emotion was akin to outrage. Outrage at sin. He sees the pain and trauma and havoc sin has caused and is stirred at the very core of his being. We read ‘Jesus wept’. The mourners put his tears down to grief at Lazarus’ death (see how he loved him). It is grief, but not because Lazarus has died and he feels the loss, he is after all about to raise Lazarus back to life; it is grief at the destruction sin has wreaked. He, in whom is life, is confronted with its opposite – sorrow and suffering and death.

Again, deeply moved, they approach the cave where Lazarus was buried. He instructs them to move the stone. They protest Lazarus has been dead four days and the stench of corruption will have set in. Jesus’ delay in coming had ensured Lazarus was well and truly dead. If he was raised his death was beyond dispute. Despite misgivings they did what he asked. It is a dramatic moment. The glory of God is about to be displayed. Will they believe that Jesus is the Sent One?

Jesus cries with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus come out’. It is the voice of authority. He will cry again with a loud voice, twice, in a matter of days. He will cry with a loud voice of dismay, ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me‘ followed by a loud voice of triumph, ‘It is finished‘. However, here it is not his death that is in focus. It is the death of Lazarus. The voice of authority has spoken. Someone has said that had Jesus not specifically named Lazarus then all the graves would have emptied. Well that is probably not precise theology but it grasps the point. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He has authority over death. ‘Lazarus come out.’

And Lazarus came out. He was restored to his family.

One day, however, he would die again. Perhaps sooner rather than later (12:9-11). Jesus, however rose to a life that would never end with a body that would never die. He in death, vanquished death. Life and immortality is now a concrete historical reality. Jesus came to set prisoners free. Prisoners of sin who live in daily death and prisoners of the grave. He said earlier in John ch 5

25 “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.

And concerning physical death,

28 Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.

Jesus delayed going to Bethany that he may by raising Lazarus from the dead stir faith in those who witnessed this astonishing work of God? Did they believe? A number did.

45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him,

Others didn’t.

46 but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.

In fact, the raising of Lazarus became a catalyst in the vendetta of hate. From that point the authorities decide to kill Jesus (vv47-53). The miracle of raising a man four days dead was indisputable and momentous. It called for a response. The time for decision had arrived. The trial of the world was upon it. The judgement of the last day (v48) is being decided.

V31 Now is the judgement of this world

Then and now Jesus is both a savour of life unto life and death unto death. He divides humanity. He reveals hearts. He provokes reaction. The question put to Martha continues to be asked of us:

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?


isaiah, the preface… judah and jerusalem, (ch1-5)

Isaiah’s vision concerns ‘Judah and Jerusalem‘ (1:1). For while the glory of God himself in both judgement and salvation lies at the heart of the book, integrally associated with this glory in both aspects is the destiny of Israel and Jerusalem. Judah and Jerusalem matter to God. People and place are central to his creatorial rule.

When God first created the heavens and the earth he effectively created a kingdom, a realm over which he, God, the Creator-King, would reign. In it he placed humanity, a people over whom, and through whom he would rule. The scene was set for God’s beneficent reign. However, the human son made in his image to reflect and represent him in creation rebelled. The good creation in which God rested was ravaged by sin and so God began to work again. He began the task of birthing from the old a new creation – a new race and a new realm under the rule of God.

The Bible ends with a glimpse of this new creation. Central to the new creation is a vast garden-city populated by the redeemed – the two in the initial garden have become many of the garden-city. John calls it, ‘the holy city, the new Jerusalem’. The story of that city and its citizens is central both to the Bible and to the book of Isaiah.

In Genesis the narrative is sweeping in ch 1-11. In ch 12 it narrows down in a sustained way to one family, Abraham and his offspring. God made to Abraham promises with cosmic significance. He would make Abraham great, he would father a great nation and through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:1-3). He was promised the land of Canaan. In his life he had brushes with the city that would one day be its capital city from which his offspring the Davidic kings would live and where the God who made him the promises would live among his people reigning through his Davidic son.

Jerusalem was in David’s time a Canaanite stronghold (possibly the last significant and strategic one in the land). He captured it and it became his royal residence and Israel’s capital city. Even more importantly, the ark of the covenant, God’s throne on earth, was brought to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was where God chose to dwell. Jerusalem was both a royal city and a holy city as from Jerusalem both God and his human representative, his appointed son, the Davidic King, reigned. God had taken another decisive step in re-establishing his kingdom.

In Genesis the narrative is sweeping in ch 1-11. In ch 12 it narrows down in a sustained way to Abraham and his offspring. God made to Abraham promises that had cosmic significance. He would make Abraham great, he would father a great nation and through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:1-3). was therefore a highly favoured city. God had blessed it with his presence. From God’s rule in Zion Israel could become a new Eden heralding the glory of God to the nations. However, although Jerusalem began full of promise (1:21) in time it had degenerated. The rebellion of the garden was found in Israel (1:2). Now, as Isaiah writes, Judah in the south and Israel in the north (a division itself signalling failure) are in a sorry moral and spiritual condition. Jerusalem has become a virtual Sodom (1v10), a whore (1v21). God has spoken to his people (often through judgement) but they have been defiantly deaf. Through Isaiah he calls for repentance and re-commitment. If his people repent they will yet be blessed; though their sins had been as scarlet they shall become as white as snow (1:18-20).

God’s heart is gracious. However, as the Lord well knows, they will not repent and so judgement will come. His hand will turn against his people who become his enemies (1:24,25). Israel in the north will be overthrown by the Assyrians and in exile be swallowed up. Judah in the south will survive a little longer, however, she too would finally face exile at the hands of the Babylonians. The unthinkable will happen. Jerusalem will be ravaged and the temple destroyed. The holiness of God, something of which Isaiah is acutely aware, he is ‘the Holy One of Israel’ that Isaiah sees in a life changing vision (1:4, 6:1-8). And so, in the preface (1-5), judgement, both more immediate and ultimate, dominates.

Is this the end of Israel? Has Jerusalem no future? Have God’s plans and promises failed? The opening five chapters certainly stress judgement. However, through darkness and gloom of impending judgement a few shafts of light shine to which people of faith will cling. Firstly, divine judgement for God’s people is not simply punitive but has a purifying function and ultimately Jerusalem will called the city of righteousness, the faithful city (1:26. Cf 4:3,4). Zion shall be redeemed by justice and those in her who repent, by righteousness (1:27). The story of how this redemption will be achieved, how God will change unrighteous people to righteous people will be revealed throughout the book. It is, of course, the story of the gospel.

Two cameos of future hope for Zion are given. Isaiah will later prophecy of judgements on Israel followed by a deliverance by Cyrus the Persian raised by God. However, in the two cameos the horizon is much more distant and describes realities that lie at the end of history. Isaiah calls this time ‘the last or latter days’ (2:2 Cf Acts 2:17). Whatever the more immediate experiences of Israel and Zion there will be future and forever salvation. The word of the Lord has spoken and so it is certain; it will come to pass (55:11). Here faith rests.

And so we read these glimpses of light in a foreboding horizon.

2: 2 It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the LORD
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
3 and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
4 He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore. (Cf. Mic 4:1-5)

And again,

4: 2 In that day the branch of the LORD shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honour of the survivors of Israel. 3 And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, 4 when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. 5 Then the LORD will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy. 6 There will be a booth for shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.

In these initial glimpses into Zion’s future glory in Isaiah some important themes emerge that are elaborated throughout the book.

Firstly, the future blessing and glory of Zion is sourced in the glory of God himself. Isaiah’s first concern is the glory of God. What above all marks the climax of history is that the Lord’s exalted above all rivals (2:2, 3, 24:23). The exaltation of the Lord (2:1-5) sharply contrasts with the humbling of man (6:22). Mount Zion, where God dwells, becomes the highest of mountains (2:2). Mountains, it seems, were often considered the homes of the gods (Deut 12:2; 65:7). Zephon was the home of the Baal God’s (Cf. Ps 95:3,4). Certainly elevation implies eminence and importance. Here Mount Zion (a relatively small hill) becomes the highest of all mountains. Indeed, it appears to cover the whole earth (11:9, 65: 24,25). It is often difficult to decide in descriptions of End-time geography what is intended literally and what is symbolic (Ezek 40:2; Zech 14:10; Ps 68:15-18). However, the principal point is clear – the God of Israel will not only be God but seen to be God by all the earth. God alone will be pre-emininent. He will rule the nations from Zion wisely and righteously and the result will be universal peace (v 4).

Later Isaiah develops the integral and critical role of the messianic son and servant, in the divine reign (11:10, Ps 72). Perhaps (maybe probably) the reference to ‘the branch’ (4:2) hints at the messianic King (11:1; Jer 23:5; Zech 3:8, 6:10) though it may have a broader reference to the remnant, the survivors, those who have been purified by judgement; indeed since messiah and his people are one both may be embraced. In one sense it is not important because the glory of Israel is tightly tied to the glory of her God and so Messiah. Zion and her children have a glorious future because in grace they share in the glory of God (4:3-5).

In the second cameo, God’s glory over his people is imagery drawn from the presence of the Lord in protecting glory in their desert wandering. If in coming days of judgement the daughters of Zion feel the shame and reproach of having no husband (4:1) here the Lord puts his canopy (apparently often associated with weddings) over a now ‘holy’ Zion whose citizens are recorded in the book of life (Rev 21:27). He will be a protective husband for Zion (62:5) and his glory will be her beauty (Rev 21). Zion’s glory is her God. The glory of God is no longer simply covering the tabernacle (Ex 40:34) but the whole of Zion… the whole city is God’s holy place (Rev 21:22-24)

Secondly, all nations will be attracted to Israel’s God and learn from him. So often the nations have come to Israel to wage war, here they come to worship. As Grogan points out, they come not to ‘plunder’ but in ‘peace’. While the judgement of the nations is very evident in the book a key theme of Isaiah is the conversion of the nations. Isaiah introduces it from the outset. Just as God’s judgement will embrace the whole earth (unbelieving Jews and Gentiles) so his salvation will embrace all nations. In fact, Isaiah begins and ends his book by stressing the universal worship that God will receive (66:23). The Abrahamic promise is fulfilled (Gen 22:2,3; 22:16-18); the blessing of the nations is in connection with Zion. It is from Zion the law of the Lord goes out. It is to Zion the nations come (60:1-3). For it is in Zion God dwells. Such is the glory of the God of Israel (revealed ultimately in the suffering messianic servant) that all peoples are drawn (Jn 12:32).

In the NT, there is a sense in which the ‘last days’ of which Isaiah speaks have already arrived* and a sense in which they have yet to come. There is a sense in which the nations are already coming to the eschatological Zion, the Jerusalem above is the mother city of all God’s people (Gals 4:26, Phil 3:20,21) while from the earthly Jerusalem (initially through believing Jews) the gospel has radiated into the world (Matt 28). Not only will Israel learn obedience but the ‘obedience of faith’ is reaching all nations (Roms 1:5).

However, Isaiah’s vision looks beyond present aspects of the kingdom to the full consummation as it anticipates a world at peace under the wise rule of God from Zion. The scene also suggests economic prosperity – no longer is there the economic drain of war and weapons of war instead resources are channelled into what produces prosperity and enhances life (swords into plowshares v4). God’s kingdom will come. In what is ultimately a renewed creation his glory and reign will emanate from the midst of his people. Zion will be filled with his glory and all nations will worship the God of Israel. The kingdom is already begun and we await its glorious completion. For much of what that denouement involves we wait to see.

In the light of the glory to come, God’s people are urged,

5 O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the LORD.

* See the following texts which suggest the last days have begun. Another way of saying it is to say the kingdom has already come albeit in an unexpected form (Acts 2:17; 1 Pet 1:20, 3:3; Jas 5:3, Jude 1:18; Hebs 1:2; 2 Tim 3:1; 1 Cor 10:11).


christ …impeccable yet tempted

Dr D Blair Smith of Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary Charlotte has a good article on Christ’s impeccability which can be found here on the Gospel Coalition website.

It is encouraging that impeccability (unable to sin) is defended in a climate where peccability (able to sin) thrives and (through continued Barthian influence) the belief that he had a fallen human nature (though he never sinned) has gained ground.

I find the latter particularly troublesome. The argument is at least twofold. Firstly, it is philosophical: it is argued that what is not assumed is not healed. The argument is flawed. What requires to be assumed is (flawless) humanity not an identical state or condition of humanity; not fallen humanity (Hebs 2). The other main argument is exegetical; Romans tells us he came ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh’ (Roms 8:3). However, the noun ‘likeness’ in this context more naturally guards against any notion that his flesh was actually ‘sinful’. A sinful nature is a tainted nature; it is not that of a lamb without spot or blemish (Hebs 9:14). From Mary Jesus received real humanity but not ruined humanity.

Dr Smith’s article defends in an accessible way the traditional belief that Christ could not sin. Although he supports this claim in a few ways, his principal argument is Christ’s identity as a divine person excludes all possibility of sinning (Tit 1:2). In his own words,

Whenever we look at Jesus in the Gospels, we need to remember that this is the eternal Son of God who assumed a human nature. Yes, he has two natures, but those natures are united without division or confusion within one person. The human nature of the incarnate Son has never existed separate from his person.

The second person of the Trinity assumed our human nature. That nature doesn’t act, because natures don’t act; persons do. The second person of the Trinity is the one who acts. If he were to sin in the capacity of his human nature, it would mean a member of the Trinity would sin, which is impossible for the holy One of God.

Dr Smith’s argument is Christ’s deity is the basis of his impeccability. . This is the usual argument advanced to defend impeccability and probably the the most important; Christ is a divine person and divine persons cannot sin. However, Dr Smith seems to assume that impeccability belongs only to Christ’s divinity; his human nature he seems to assume was peccable. This certainly appears to be a widespread belief in conservative evangelical circles.

Now, while this is not an area where dogmatism is possible and those who hold it are emphatic Christ did not sin, could not sin and did not have an inherently sinful nature, yet it seems to me an assumption with little to support it biblically while the evidence leans in a different direction.

We should be clear about what we mean by ‘nature’. When we speak of Christ’s human nature we are referring to his humanity as a whole. We are meaning that which defines and constitutes his humanity. Thus to say Christ’s human nature is peccable means his humanity is vulnerable to sin.

Dr Smith later points out that to be human need not imply vulnerability to sin since in the world to come, God’s people will be truly human yet unable to sin. This is an important observation. It establishes that impeccability can be ascribed to human nature. Impeccability is not the sole preserve of deity. God can gift impeccability to humanity and does so in the age to come.

However, this observation has corollaries. For the Bible teaches that the holy nature that is ours in the future is already ours in the present. The life (nature is the essence of the life) that belongs to the future has invaded the present in Christ. He is the life of the age to come and he shares this life presently with all who believe in him (1 John 1:1-4). He is the eternal life that those born of the Spirit receive; the life in him is the life of the Spirit (Jn 3:6, 36 Cf 2 Cor 3:17). Intrinsic to new life is a new heart. It is from the heart that life flows (Prov 4:23). God’s people are presently a new creation in Christ Jesus (2 Cor 5:17). Through the gospel we are ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Pet 1:4). We are ‘born of God’ whose ‘seed’ is implanted within us (1 Jn 3:9). I take this ‘seed’ to be divine life, the life of the Spirit, which is spirit (Jn 3:6) and takes its character or nature from God. It is life in the Spirit… the life of Christ… the life of God in the soul of man. We already possess all that is necessary for life and godliness (2 Pet 1:3). The life of the age to come resides in us – we have regenerate and renewed hearts (Tit 3:5).

And of course this life from the future that is ‘of God’ is incapable of sin. When I sin it is not my new ‘in Christ’ life/self/humanity/nature that prompts me but indwelling sin or the flesh (Gals 5:16). It is true, as Dr Smith affirms, that natures don’t act, persons do. However persons act according to their nature. Hard and fast distinctions cannot normally be drawn between natures and persons unless perhaps in the believer who temporarily has two natures in conflict – one fallen (the flesh) and the other the new life empowered by the Spirit (Gals 5:17).

The source of this new life and nature further confirms its impeccability. It is ‘of God’ and ‘of the Spirit’ and ‘of Christ’ (Roms 8:10-17; 2 Cor 4:10). It is trinitarian life. It is not merely life from God it is the life of God. As such it is like God; it is holy’. Holiness is invincibly opposed to sin. It hates sin and loves righteousness (Hebs 1:9). Adam was innocent but he wasn’t holy. Holiness implies a knowledge of good and evil that delights in good and detests evil. Adam had life from God but he did not have eternal life, the life of God. This is a gift of new creation. The work of regeneration does not recreate Adamic innocence it generates life of a different kind and quality… divine life… spiritual life… the life of Christ, the Second Man… the life of heaven (1 Cor 15:45-49). Thus new creation believers are created in the image of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:24). This was not true of Adam. It was, however, true of Christ. Luke writes,

Of his birth Mary was told,

‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.’ (Lk 1:35).

The virgin birth signals the arrival of something new. It indicates both continuity and discontinuity in the humanity of Christ. Christ was the seed of the woman but he was conceived of the Spirit (Matt 1:18). Real humanity but reconfigured humanity is flagged in the virgin birth. Christ is the Second Man* (1 Cor 15:47). He is a new beginning… the first of a new kind of humanity. In Christ, we observe for the first time ‘holy’ humanity.

Christ was holy. Morally this is what defines him. He was holy in all his parts. Holiness belonged not only to his divine nature but also to his human nature. His humanity was not innocent and susceptible to sin; it was holy and opposed to sin. Indeed, I think we may see parallels between the virgin birth and the new birth. In both God performs a miracle and creates that which is holy out of that which is unholy. In my view, the new nature of regeneration parallels the human nature of Christ in incarnation. John tells us that God has given us eternal life and that life is in his Son (1 Jn 5:11). Life is his as a divine person but it would be a strange thing if divine life, intrinsic to his divine nature, did not animate his human nature. Perhaps this can be framed more tellingly. John goes on to say that the life Christ has he gives to us; it would be an even stranger thing if the new nature or humanity that Christ imparts to us was superior to his own humanity. Is it really plausible that the divine nature is imparted to our humanity but denied to Christ’s humanity? I feel the burden of proof lies firmly with those who say Christ’s humanity was peccable (Adamic) to prove their case. The prima facie evidence is to the contrary.

Dr Smith (rightly) seeks to protect the reality of Christ’s temptation and perhaps for this reason he and others assume a peccable human nature. This appears to be a way of making ‘real’ temptation possible. The reasoning, I assume, is something like this… Christ was susceptible to temptation in his human nature but his divine person and nature made yielding impossible. This appears to be the (unspoken) logic.

However, if this is the logic, I think it is mistaken. In Scripture, there is no suggestion that Christ’s divine nature supports his human nature far less restrains it, rather Christ’s support normally comes from his Father and the Spirit (Isa 11:2; 42:1,6; Jn 1:32, 8:29; 16:32; Hebs 9:14). Even in John’s gospel where his divinity is stressed he is the dependent one (Jn 5:30).

I certainly affirm with Dr Smith that impeccability does not mean immunity from temptation. Indeed even God can be tempted (Acts 15:10; Hebs 3:9). God is tempted by the waywardness of his people (Deut 6:16). We are commanded not to tempt God. However, this obviously does not mean God was tempted to sin. We are expressly told that God cannot be tempted with evil (Js 1:13). There are two issues here that require comment. The first is the observation that deity can be tempted. The second is the question of what we mean by temptation.

In some sense divine persons can be tempted. God cannot be tempted with evil but he can be tempted. One obvious area of temptation is his patience. God is invincibly righteous, yet he loves his people deeply and so their sins distress him. God’s patience is tried by our disobedience. In this sense God’s committed love has made him vulnerable – not to sin but to personal distress. Of course there are imponderables here for God is infinitely powerful and in full control of his emotions. He is not besets with weakness in any form. Yet Scripture teaches us he reacts to human behaviour. In the sense that God is tested we may say that Christ as a divine person can be tested. We cannot simply ascribe all tempting to Christ’s humanity.

Which brings us to the second question. What do we mean by temptation? In the previous paragraph I used ‘tempted’ and ‘tried’ interchangeably. We tend to define temptation as an illicit inward sinful desire aroused by some enticement. This is a legitimate definition (Jas 1:3) but it is only one form of temptation. Not all tempting arouses illicit desire. Clearly when God is tempted there is no sense of illicit desire being aroused. God is impeccable. He has and can have no illicit desire. He is holy by nature and hates sin. He is not attracted to it.

We may say the same is true of Christ. Both in his divine and human nature Christ is holy. He loved righteousness and hated lawlessness with his whole being (Hebs 1:9). There is no moral conflict between the natures. There was nothing in Christ that sin aroused. He had no illicit desires aroused by external stimuli. Sin as such was never attractive to him. Although he was tempted to sin (by Satan) he was never tempted by sin. The Prince of this world came but found nothing in him that was morally susceptible… no foothold to trip him up… no inclination to deviate from the will of his God (Jn 14:30).

Yet Satan’s attacks were traumatic (Rev 12:4).

There are two recorded temptations of Christ in the gospels (though many unrecorded Lk 4:13). One is at the beginning of his public ministry (Lk 4:1-12) and the other at the end (Lk 22:39- 46). Both were clearly deeply draining. After the first angels minister to him (Matt 4:11). In the second although, he gives himself to prayer, he still wrestles in agony. It is clear that there is ferocity in Satan’s attack as well as guile. Both temptations relate to his mission. It is there Satan probes for vulnerability. Yet there is no suggestion in either that Satan is heeded. In the wilderness there is no equivocation. No hesitation. He did not say to Satan… show me again the kingdoms of the world. Instead he replied…. it is written. Neither the gospel narratives nor any other part of Scripture suggest moral vulnerability in the Redeemer.

However, while he was not morally vulnerable he was physically vulnerable. He had the natural frailties of humanity and like us had no desire to suffer. He had no illicit desires but he had the natural desires that belong to our humanity, not sinful in themselves, which he often had to forego because of kingdom priorities. Indeed kingdom priorities put increasing pressure on his frame. The physical and psychological cost of being the Christ weighed ever more heavily.

As he travelled to Jerusalem that last fateful week he knew only too well what would befall him there (Lk 9:22). He had a baptism to be baptised with and was straightened (distressed) until it was accomplished (Lk 12:50). Yet while everything human and natural in him shrank from what lay ahead, he set His face resolutely towards Jerusalem (Lk 9:51). The cup his Father had given him to drink he would drink the alternative was unthinkable (Jn 18:11). He had come to do the will of the one who sent him – that will was his meat and drink (Jn 4:34). His confession was, ‘a body you have prepared for me’. Whatever the volume of the divine book decreed for him he would fulfil… he had come to do God’s will (Hebs 10:7).

And that will pressed in on his heart in the garden. Soon the lions would roar, the bulls surround and the dogs attack (Ps 22). Soon his unbroken fellowship with his Father would give way to God forsakenness. Soon his holy soul would become a sin offering. He was harrowed as anticipation flooded his soul. The cup was bitter. It was filled with divine judgements.

He calls his disciples to watch and pray. They didn’t and their faith temporarily crashed under the trial. Christ’s watched and prayed and stood firm sustained and heard in his prayers (Hebs 5:7).

The mental anguish of the garden gave way to the all-encompassing and all-consuming agony of the cross. It was in the last 24 hours – the hour of the powers of darkness – that Satan’s orchestrated fury reached its destructive climax (Lk 22:53). The Psalms reveal just how crushed physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually Jesus was (Ps 22). He felt himself to be without a foothold, sinking in deep mire where he could not stand (Ps 69:2). His all too human flesh cried out for relief. Yet in his sea of suffering there is no murmuring or bitterness only, uncomprehending, tenacious faith. He suffered being tempted. In this way, through suffering, Christ was perfected (Hebs i:10). Hebrews goes on to say,

17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

Perhaps at this point we should note what may be obvious. Christ’s sympathies as our High Priest are not with our attraction to sin. Eyes that stray don’t require sympathy they require surgery (Matt 5:29). They need the sharp two-edged sword of the word (Hebs 4:12, 13). He aids us in our fight against sin but does not indulge our attraction to sin.

He helps us in our weakness not our wickedness. He is sympathetic to the great drops of blood-like sweat that the stress of determined obedience may elicit. He understands when we ask if there is any less painful way than that which apparently lies ahead. He responds to our dislocated ‘why’ of faith. He knows the darkness and how hard faith is when God has hid his face. (Ps 22). He identifies with the loud crying and tears for deliverance (Hebs 5:7) and the dismay of eyes growing dim waiting upon his God (Ps 69:2,3). In him faith was tested at pioneering levels (Hebs 12: 2) that he might be fully equipped to sustain the faith of his people. He does not indulge our susceptibility to sin but he strengthens our resolve to be holy. For our sins he has made propitiation for our suffering he pours in the oil and wine of his grace.

I’m aware that many complex and often unanswerable questions arise in a topic such us this. This post attempts to suggest some perspectives on such a holy subject but doubtless falls far short.

Christ is God’s divine warrior. He is our warrior King – the trailblazer of faith. He and his army (the church) are engaged in a holy war (Rev 14:1-5). His people are the strong (Isa 53:12), his troops who offer themselves freely in the day of his power (Ps 110:3) and his mighty men who follow and fight with him in his rejection because they love him (2 Sam 23: 8:39). They find in him the truly heroic courage that inspires and the grace that enables them to endure (Hebs 12:1-4). It is this heroic commitment in Christ that caused God to exclaim… behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights… he shall not fail or be discouraged until he has established justice upon the earth.

*He is also the last Adam but this is in contrast to the first.


interpreting ot prophecy…. literal and figurative

Interpreting OT prophecy….

In our schooldays we learned that there are different kinds of literature that employ different conventions. Only by recognising the form of literature, knowing its conventions and applying them as we read can we grasp the author’s intended meaning. If we are unfamiliar with the genre (kind of literature) and its conventions we will misunderstand what we read. Through education and personal reading we become adept at identifying the kind of literature we are reading and apply its conventions without thinking. We read newspapers, magazines, comics, poems, adverts, personal letters, formal letters, email, novels, biographies and so on and do so with understanding because we identify the genre and are familiar with the conventions of each.

The Bible is of course a book. In fact, it is a library of books that employ a range of genre. If we are to read it intelligently we need to be able to recognise the different genre and and familiarise ourselves with their differing conventions. This is not as difficult as it may sound because often biblical forms of literature are similar to those we already know and use. However, if we are not sensitive to genre we will make fundamental mistakes in interpretation.

This needs to be stressed because often a literal reading of Scripture is championed that is not appropriate to all biblical literature. I understand why reading Scripture literally is stressed and much of Scripture should be read assuming a literal meaning… but not all. Some biblical literature is fundamentally figurative while some is a complex mix of literal and figurative. Those who advocate a literal reading do of course acknowledge the presence of figurative language but because of their prior commitment to literal interpretation the figurative language is not always recognised as readily as it ought to be.

Rather than commence from a literal hermeneutic it would be better to ask what the author’s intended meaning is in a text and that means determining the genre of literature he uses. This is a blog post and can’t hope to do justice to a topic like this. I simply want to make a plea that we recognise that many writers make extensive use of imagery and that we give this due weight as we read.

The OT prophets, I’m thinking of those books we refer to as the major and minor prophets, use imagery extensively. While they write in a variety of literary forms and often use language with literal intent there is nevertheless often a strong poetic element to their writing and this must be taken into account. Poetry involves imagery and analogy. Figurative language, metaphor and analogy, are integral to it. When we read the prophets we must be alert to this.

When reading the OT prophets their use of imagery quickly becomes apparent. When we read that the eschatological Jerusalem has foundations of sapphires, walls of precious stones and gates of carbuncles our instinct is to think metaphor (Isa 54:11,12). And when we read that the redeemed travelling from exile through a wasteland home to Zion rejoicing are accompanied by mountains and hills bursting into song and the trees clapping their hands we know we are reading imagery (Isa 55:12). Only a prior commitment to a literal hermeneutic would incline us otherwise.

Yet perhaps we are unprepared for just how extensive the use of imagery by the prophets is. An important way of coming to terms with the extent of OT imagery is to examine how Jesus and the NT writers interpret OT prophecy. Their understanding is the cue for our understanding. Jesus trained his followers how to interpret the OT and they in turn train us. While they interpret many prophecies literally often prophecies we may be inclined to take literally they interpret metaphorically. The NT writers teach us the genre of OT literature involves imagery.

Perhaps it’s time to look at some examples.

nt fulfilments of ot texts

In Hosea 12:10 God says,

it was I who multiplied visions,

and through the prophets gave parables.

Hosea is one of the earliest prophets to be included in the canon of Scripture. For our purposes we note that even before the inscripturated prophets God often spoke through visions and parables (Cf. 2 Sam 12:1-15). Parables are an example of figurative teaching. They use an aspect of everyday life to illustrate a spiritual truth. Jesus uses them often. They have the virtue of revealing truth to the honest inquirer and hiding truth from those who don’t want to see. They teach by analogy and not directly. Clearly God employs metaphor and analogy as appropriate prophetic tools.

Example One

In the gospels John the Baptist is introduced as the forerunner to Jesus. He is found in the desert of Judea preaching that the Lord is about to appear and the nation must repent and be baptised to wash away their sins in preparation for his coming. He consciously identifies himself with the ‘voice, in Isaiah 40 that calls ‘Prepare the way for the Lord’ (Matt 3:1-3, Lk 4:3-9; Jn 1:23). However, if we read Isaiah literally we will have trouble seeing its fulfilment in John. Isaiah writes in Ch 40

3 A voice cries:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;

make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

4 Every valley shall be lifted up,

and every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall become level,

and the rough places a plain.

5 And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,

and all flesh shall see it together,

for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

We can see some literal connections with John. He is in the wilderness and he is crying (preaching) ‘Prepare the way for the Lord’. However, in other respects the correspondence is far from literal. Isaiah envisages the Lord as a great visiting dignitary travelling to Jerusalem who sends his emissary (herald) beforehand to announce his imminent arrival and to ensure the road to the city is smoothed and levelled to facilitate his travel in a way befitting befitting a royal dignitary arriving at a city. However, Isaiah is writing poetically and does not intend his words to be read literally. He is using a metaphor. Recognising this John and the gospel writers, have no difficulty understanding Isaiah’s description of valleys lifted up, hills lowered and roads levelled to mean a call for repentance in the people. John is not preparing roads he is preparing hearts for it is hard hearts will be an affront and obstacle to his coming. The Lord God who comes is Jesus and ‘all flesh’ see, at least in the first instance, through the worldwide preaching of the gospel. The NT recognises Isaiah’s language is poetic and not literal. Its meaning lies in metaphor.

Example Two

Another example of a highway metaphor is found in Isa 35. Isaiah writes,

1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad;

the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus;

2 it shall blossom abundantly

and rejoice with joy and singing.

The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,

the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.

They shall see the glory of the LORD,

the majesty of our God.

3 Strengthen the weak hands,

and make firm the feeble knees.

4 Say to those who have an anxious heart,

“Be strong; fear not!

Behold, your God

will come with vengeance,

with the recompense of God.

He will come and save you.”

5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,

and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

6 then shall the lame man leap like a deer,

and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.

For waters break forth in the wilderness,

and streams in the desert;

7 the burning sand shall become a pool,

and the thirsty ground springs of water;

in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down,

the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

8 And a highway shall be there,

and it shall be called the Way of Holiness;

the unclean shall not pass over it.

It shall belong to those who walk on the way;

even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.

9 No lion shall be there,

nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;

they shall not be found there,

but the redeemed shall walk there.

10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return

and come to Zion with singing;

everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;

they shall obtain gladness and joy,

and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

The passage is a description of the anticipated return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem and beyond that (for prophecy often has near and more ultimate reference) to the anticipated End-Time salvation. It envisages God coming to redeem his people and bring them home. It is a time of great celebration in which nature will join (vv1,2). The arduous long desert journey will be facilitated as the Lord causes the desert to blossom and springs of water to appear (Cf. Isa 49:10-13). There will be no danger from wild animals. They will journey safely, securely and joyfully to Zion

No doubt God was with his people providing for and protecting them as they made the long difficult journey from Babylon back to Jerusalem. And no doubt despite the difficulties there would be celebration, however, if taken literally then fulfilment clearly did not lie in that initial return from exile. In fact, the prophecy does have literal fulfilment in part. For it looked to a deliverance that would come much later. It pointed to the salvation that Jesus would bring. He literally opens deaf ears, blind eyes, mute mouths and makes the lame to walk (Matt 15:29-31) Yet even these miracles were not capturing the full meaning of Isaiah. Indeed, as the gospels make clear, these physical miracles pointed to deeper miracles of healing. Israel, as Isaiah has already shown, was spiritually blind and spiritually deaf (Isa 42:18-20 Cf. 6:9,10). The need was for spiritual healing (Isa 29:18. Cf. 32:3). The spiritually blind needed to see and the spiritually deaf needed to hear.

It is this spiritual activity of God through the gospel that both Isaiah and Jesus’ miracles point to. The highway of holiness, a road only for the redeemed (v8) is a metaphor for the pilgrimage of faith as God’s redeemed people travel presently to the heavenly Jerusalem (Cf. 62:10). It is a journey where there is the promise of spiritual refreshment – notice again the springs of water (Jn 4, 7:37) – and spiritual protection. And when faith flags, when the journey of faith is arduous at points and anxiety arises, we are urged to ‘strengthen weak hands and make firm feeble knees’ (v3) which is of course a call to believers to deepen their spiritual resolve on their journey to the heavenly city (Hebs 12:12,13, 22-24, 1:14). Isaiah expresses through a poetic image the journey of God’s redeemed people home to glory. If we read this literally we miss its intention.

Example Three

In Isa 35 we read of God providing springs of water on the journey home to Jerusalem (Cf. 43:19,20). Fresh water was precious. It was in scarce supply in the arid conditions of Palestine. In cities as well as the desert fresh flowing (living) water was always a challenge. As a result Isaiah’s depiction of the eschatological redeemed Jerusalem frequently depicts it with an abundance of water (Isa 33:20,21. Cf. 30:25, 41:17,18). Water vendors tramped the cities selling water to those thirsty in the arid heat. It is probably this image that lies behind the words of the Lord in Isaiah 55,

1. Come, everyone who thirsts,

come to the waters;

and he who has no money,

come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk

without money and without price.

Similar language is echoed in Revelation (21:6, 2:17). Indeed John’s mnew Jerusalem has a river of the water of life clear as crystal flowing from the throne of God down the middle of the street of the city. Are we to understand these images literally? Is God really selling water? Are the various pictures of eschatological Jerusalem with its flowing waters to be read literally? Are springs of water in the desert highway a description of future environmental renewal? Again the NT provides the answer. In John 7 Jesus uses similar language to that of Isaiah.

37 On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

Is his language intended literally? John’s commentary makes clear it was metaphorical. Isaiah and John’s description of the eschatological city’s water is figurative (Cf. Isa 66:12, 2:2). It is a metaphor of the renewing, refreshing, life-giving Spirit among his people (Isa 44:3). In the city God and the Lamb are the source of all refreshment eternally satisfies its inhabitants (Ps 87:7, 46:4,5, Cf Jn 1:16). I am not saying creation will not one day be renewed. It will (Roms 8, Isa 65). I am saying that images we may be inclined to understand literally were intended to be metaphors teaching spiritual truths not indications of topographical changes and the NT writers knew this and interpreted accordingly.

Example Four

Even when we consider the eschatological city we must remember to avoid an over literal hermeneutic. This is a slightly different subject and we are entering the arena of typology which we must leave for a future post. We have already noticed the use of imagery for the city. Let’s look briefly at one other example. The writer of Hebrews says God’s people (both OT and NT) are looking for a city. It is a ‘heavenly’ city whose ‘builder and maker is God’ (Hebs 11:10,16, 12:22, 13:14). When we read in the OT prophets of the eschatological Jerusalem we are reading of a city that clearly comes from another world. It is a city built by God (Isa 14:32, 51:18, 54:5, Ps 87:1,5, 102:16. 147:2). A fact regularly asserted of the city (Isa 44:26, 49, 51:3. Cf. 61:3). I want to draw attention to only one passage. It is well know but our familiarity means we may miss the obvious. In Isa 28 we read,

16 therefore thus says the Lord GOD,

Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion,

a stone, a tested stone,

a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation:

‘Whoever believes will not be in haste.’

17 And I will make justice the line,

and righteousness the plumb line;

Notice God is saying he will build Zion. He lays the foundation stone. He measures its walls and ensures all is straight. What is this foundation stone? We know it is not a literal stone but a person. It is Christ. The stone is a ‘living’ stone (1 Pet 2:6). Once again we discover we are in the world of metaphor. We are expressly told the plumb line is not about a building but about people. It is not about vertical walls but upright people. In Revelation we discover that the foundations of the city also include the twelve apostles. Peter actually calls the city a temple which need not worry us because John’s Jerusalem is a massive temple; God fills the whole city (Rev 21 Cf. Jer 3:16-18). The point here is that once again we see that language is not intended to be understood literally. Isaiah, under the inspiration of the Spirit of God, is using imagery.

My contention is that although many prophecies have literal fulfilment and sometimes aspects of literal and figurative mingled, others have a fundamentally figurative fulfilment. Reluctance to acknowledge this has led to misinterpretation and in particular the failure to see that many OT prophecies have at least a partial fulfilment in the NT where the long expected salvation arrived in Jesus. The vast number of NT citations of and allusions to the OT are not merely to illustrate a principle but signal the NT belief that in the NT, OT expectations are being fulfilled and fulfilled in ways that reveal the OT often reveals truth by metaphor (E.g. Acts 15:14-18, Roms 15:12).

a parallel

The presence of extended imagery can be illustrated too from OT parallel passages. Peter Gentry points out an example of the same event being described in two ways; one description is fairly literal and the other more heightened poetic rhetoric. His example is from Jeremiah, a book he says that can be summed up in four words, ‘the Babylonians are coming’. Well, that may a little too terse a summary but it certainly describes these parallel descriptions in Jer 4

5 Declare in Judah, and proclaim in Jerusalem, and say,

“Blow the trumpet through the land;

cry aloud and say,

‘Assemble, and let us go

into the fortified cities!’

6 Raise a standard toward Zion,

flee for safety, stay not,

for I bring disaster from the north,

and great destruction.

7 A lion has gone up from his thicket,

a destroyer of nations has set out;

he has gone out from his place

to make your land a waste;

your cities will be ruins

without inhabitant.

8 For this put on sackcloth,

lament and wail,

for the fierce anger of the LORD

has not turned back from us.”

9 “In that day, declares the LORD, courage shall fail both king and officials. The priests shall be appalled and the prophets astounded.” 10 Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD, surely you have utterly deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying, ‘It shall be well with you,’ whereas the sword has reached their very life.” 11 At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem, “A hot wind from the bare heights in the desert toward the daughter of my people, not to winnow or cleanse, 12 a wind too full for this comes for me. Now it is I who speak in judgment upon them.”

13 Behold, he comes up like clouds;

his chariots like the whirlwind;

his horses are swifter than eagles—

woe to us, for we are ruined!

14 O Jerusalem, wash your heart from evil,

that you may be saved.

How long shall your wicked thoughts

lodge within you?

15 For a voice declares from Dan

and proclaims trouble from Mount Ephraim.

16 Warn the nations that he is coming;

announce to Jerusalem,

“Besiegers come from a distant land;

they shout against the cities of Judah.

17 Like keepers of a field are they against her all around,

because she has rebelled against me,

declares the LORD.

18 Your ways and your deeds

have brought this upon you.

This is your doom, and it is bitter;

it has reached your very heart.”

The language, although in part poetic and containing metaphor (Babylon is a lion… a hot wind…) is a fairly straightforward, if unnerving, description of the coming Babylonian invasion.

However, the descriptive angst is then heightened. Jeremiah’s anguish as he anticipates the coming Babylonian and its devastation finds expression in extremely dramatic imagery. We read:

19 My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain!

Oh the walls of my heart!

My heart is beating wildly;

I cannot keep silent,

for I hear the sound of the trumpet,

the alarm of war.

20 Crash follows hard on crash;

the whole land is laid waste.

Suddenly my tents are laid waste,

my curtains in a moment.

21 How long must I see the standard

and hear the sound of the trumpet?

22 “For my people are foolish;

they know me not;

they are stupid children;

they have no understanding.

They are ‘wise’—in doing evil!

But how to do good they know not.”

23 I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void;

and to the heavens, and they had no light.

24 I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking,

and all the hills moved to and fro.

25 I looked, and behold, there was no man,

and all the birds of the air had fled.

26 I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a desert,

and all its cities were laid in ruins

before the LORD, before his fierce anger.

27 For thus says the LORD, “The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.

28 “For this the earth shall mourn,

and the heavens above be dark;

for I have spoken; I have purposed;

I have not relented, nor will I turn back.”

Notice particularly vv23-28. Jeremiah describes this coming invasion as an act of un-creation. Such will be the destruction that it will be as if what was there never existed. Creation itself is reversed. We are not intended to understand this language literally, it is metaphor for horrendous destruction inflicted by the Babylonians (Cf. Isa 5:25, 30, 8:32; Hab 3:6; Ps 18, 97:1-5). God’s judgements in the prophets are often described in terms of cosmic disturbance.

This raises the question whether descriptions of the final eschatological day of the Lord, often described in similar apocalyptic language, is also metaphor. Indeed often the immediate judgement contains the ultimate. Some believe all language of cosmic disturbance is metaphor and describe end-time upheaval that falls short of actual earthly dissolution. However, some passages seem to clearly envisage literal cosmic destruction and renewal, including some NT didactic passages (Matt 24:29; 2 Pet 3:5-13; Hebs 1:10, 12:25-29. Cf. Isa 24). If any dubiety exists these NT texts should tip the balance. My point here is simply that we should remember we are reading poetry and metaphor that need not be literally fulfilled. What was approaching Israel was the end of their world but not the end of the world.

A similar example can be found in Isa 13

9 Behold, the day of the LORD comes,

cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,

to make the land a desolation

and to destroy its sinners from it.

10 For the stars of the heavens and their constellations

will not give their light;

the sun will be dark at its rising,

and the moon will not shed its light.

11 I will punish the world for its evil,

and the wicked for their iniquity;

I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant,

and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless.

12 I will make people more rare than fine gold,

and mankind than the gold of Ophir.

13 Therefore I will make the heavens tremble,

and the earth will be shaken out of its place,

at the wrath of the LORD of hosts

in the day of his fierce anger.

… 19 And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms,

the splendour and pomp of the Chaldeans,

will be like Sodom and Gomorrah

when God overthrew them.

20 It will never be inhabited

or lived in for all generations;

Here again impending invasion and its effects are described in heightened poetic excess. This time Babylon and not Israel is on the receiving end of divine judgement. God has raised up the Medo-Persian army under Cyrus the Great (13:17) to rain upon Babylon his judgement and deliver his people. The immediate context is unmistakable. Yet any fulfilment of the disturbance of heavenly bodies is patently metaphorical. Babylon’s world is collapsing – the sky is falling upon them – and for those involved it will seem as if the whole earth is covered in darkness. How literally such descriptions will be fulfilled in the ultimate day of the Lord remains to be seen. Certainly as Babylon in the past was judged so to the world-city that carries its name will be judged. God’s judgement will destroy a godless world culture and deliver his people; as with ancient Babylon, the city of man will crumble never to rise again. It seems very probable that there will be literal cosmic disturbances. The On the ‘day of the Lord’ at Golgotha when the nations raged against Jesus the sun darkened signalling it was a day of apocalyptic judgement. However, my point again is simply that we must be alert to the use of metaphor.


OT texts become mutually contradictory if treated literally. For example, both Isaiah and Zechariah anticipate massive numerical growth for eschatologically redeemed Jerusalem. Jerusalem under judgement and during exile was a shadow of its former self but the prophets anticipate a time when it will teem with life. The massive growth is because it is peopled not only by Jews but also by Gentiles. Her children are the children of the gospel (Isa 54; Gals 4:26; Ps 87). The prophets describe the socio-geographical implications of growth in different ways. Isaiah describes it under the metaphor of Jerusalem as a tent. She must extend her stakes, enlarge her space and increase the canvas (Isa 54:1-2). Yet she is viewed by Isaiah as having walls (Isa 60:10,18 Cf. 49:16,17, 62:6). Zechariah, however, views the eschatological Jerusalem as a city without walls (Zech 2:4). Instead the Lord is a wall of fire that surrounds and protects (Zech 2:5). Clearly both cannot be true. Nor should we posit two different Jerusalems. Scripture envisages only two cities, Babylon, the city of man and Jerusalem, the city of God. Once again we need to grasp we are reading metaphor. In Zechariah the metaphor appears in a prose passage yet it is metaphor. The image is a theological metaphor and not a blueprint of city planning. Jerusalem is so swollen with people it will be a network of satellite towns yet it will not be unprotected because the Lord will surround it with a wall of fire. Actually, Isaiah uses a similar image (4:5). Both are drawing from God’s protection of his people in the wilderness (Ex 13:21). Once again it should be clear that language is not intended literally. We are dealing with metaphor rather than different cities.

John’s new Jerusalem and its topographical change (no temple) raises two further questions both perhaps for future posts at some time. How do we interpret apocalyptic literature such as is found in Revelation? How are ‘types’ fulfilled? What degree of correspondence is there between the initial model and its ultimate counterpart?


God is good

Ps 34: 8 Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!

There are times when for health reasons I struggle emotionally. In these times I can find it difficult to read the Bible and pray. In fact, thinking itself can be tiring. Sometimes the most I can muster to say is ‘God is good’. It is a simple affirmation of faith. It can be helpful just to let the thought rest in my mind sometimes.

This morning troubling thoughts and feelings were intruding. It is the nature of the illness. I decided to try to think of some of the ways God is good and some of the ways he has been good to me particularly. It’s something I do occasionally. It is rather like the old hymn says, ‘Count your blessings name them one by one.’ I did this quietly and gently for a little time.

I tried to lightly touch on simple things. I can’t remember what exactly but things like the trees, the bushes in the garden and other things in the natural world that bring pleasure. I thought of a warm house and a comfortable bed. I really only touched on a tiny fraction of the good things I have been given. I thought a little too of the blessings of salvation. It is good to know our sins are forgiven. It is a great source of comfort and strength to know that the Lord is our helper. And what a blessing to know he deeply loves us.

Sometimes if life is tough it is a blessing to think of the joy and glory that is our future. It is a prospect that keeps us pressing on. And at the heart of that future is a relationship with God and the Lord Jesus that will satisfy our hearts as nothing else can. We have begun to know a little of this in our hearts now. We have begun to taste that the Lord is good and to find that he is the spring of true joy. He, who rose from the dead, has given us living water that springs up in our heart.

May the Lord help us increasingly know his goodness and find in him a refuge.


isaiah 65… a new heavens and new earth

17 For behold, I create new heavens
and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered
or come into mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create
for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy,
and her people to be a gladness.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem
and be glad in my people;
no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping
and the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not fill out his days,
for the young man shall die a hundred years old,
and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain
or bear children for calamity,
for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the LORD,
and their descendants with them.
24 Before they call I will answer;
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall graze together;
the lion shall eat straw like the ox,
and dust shall be the serpent’s food.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain,”
says the LORD.

Isaiah’s announcement of a new heavens and new earth is by any standards breathtaking. In Ch 65, God announces to his plan for total cosmic renewal; he intends to recreate. To be sure earlier descriptions of future blessing by Isaiah press inexorably in this direction but when actually declared it is nevertheless staggering. Unfortunately the impact of Isaiah’s words tends to get buried under the perplexing questions they throw up. Perhaps before venturing a word or two on these we should allow Isaiah’s picture to settle in our minds.

Firstly we should note the ‘newness’ of the new heavens and new earth. Isaiah stresses this by using the word ‘create‘. It is a word borrowed from the original creation. As God created the first heavens and earth (Gen 1:1) so he creates a new heavens and new earth and he creates Jerusalem to be a joy. John echoes Isaiah’s new creation in Revelation 21, 22. He stresses the ‘newness’ too but does so by repeating the adjective ‘new‘; there is a new heavens and new earth, a new Jerusalem, indeed all things are new (Rev 21:1-8 Cf. 2 Cor 5:17).

We should not lose sight of the enormous creational reconfiguration implied. Eden was ‘good‘ even ‘very good‘ but it was not glorious. Glory belongs to the new creation (60:19,20; Rev 21:11; Phil 3:20,21). Yet we should also remember that God does not discard his original ‘good‘ creation, he remakes it. New creation while a work of reconfiguration is also a work of restoration (Acts 3:19-21).

Isaiah therefore takes life as it then was and by the Spirit reimagines it freed from sin and its effects. For this reason, like John in Revelation, his description has as many negatives (things that are absent) as it has positives, though both are telling.

Of Isa 65 Kidner writes, ‘ The new is portrayed wholly in terms of the old, only without the old sorrows; there is no attempt to describe any other kind of newness’

Isaiah is describing a new creation in which the effects of the fall are removed. Strictly speaking, Isaiah describes Jerusalem, however, we assume that what is true of Jerusalem is true of the whole creation. Indeed sometimes it seems that Jerusalem and God’s holy mountain embrace the whole of creation (11:9 Cf. Dan 2:35). In the geography of prophecy they are certainly the centre of the world to come. Mount Zion towers over every other mountain and so over all gods and peoples (2:1-5 65:7,11). So great is the contrast with the old world that the past (with its ills and enmities) is forgotten… it and its divine judgements (13:13) have passed away (Rev 21:1,4).

Through his servant God promised to do something new and far-reaching (42:1-9). Here we see just how far reaching. God has forgotten the past (65:16) and so too will his people (v17). So transformed is the new that the old is unimaginable – a life no longer remembered. God has created the new to be full of undiluted joy (v18 Cf 30: 19, 35:10) and not fleetingly but forever (v18 Cf 66:22). The past with its tears and distress is gone never to return (v19). Perhaps when our past rises to haunt and harrow us we should remember God has erased it eternally. (43:25; Hebs 8:12; Ps 103:12).

God’s people in the past had provoked him to judgement (13:13). Israel’s troubles could be traced to a fractured relationship with the Lord. Her many ills were judgements of the Lord (ch 1). The accomplishment of the servant has changed this forever (52:13-53:12). Sin has gone, his people are righteous and so the Lord rejoices and is glad in Jerusalem (v19, 62:4) Its citizens are owned as ‘my people’ (v19 Cf. Vv8,9, 62:4); God and his people are as one. Their desires are in tune. He will meet every need before it is even recognised (v24 Cf. 30:19-22). God is now dwelling in unfettered joy among his holy people and that can only mean blessing. Isaiah, a prophet of the covenant (for the prophets preached and applied the Deuteronomic covenant (Isa 5:24; Jer 22:9), a renewal and expansion of the Sinai covenant) envisages covenant blessings conferred by grace upon those the Lord has made righteous and covenant curses reversed* (Deut 7:12,13, 8:7-10, 28, 29, 28:30).

Isaiah sketches a few ways life has immeasurably changed for the better. Life is no longer short but long (Prov 3:2). The repetition of ‘hundred‘ stresses how commonplace living to this age is… a hundred is young; life is significantly longer… the age of a tree (v22). Long life and security will make all labour rewarding (v21,22). No calamity will tear hopes into tatters. Children will be a source of blessing and not grief… there will be no infant mortality nor shall some other disaster overtake them that would bring sorrow. The old will live out their days (v20). No vagaries will snatch away life and land tenure. To build and not inhabit was a covenant curse upon disobedience but this Jerusalem is a righteous city (1:26, 27) without disobedience or futility curse (Deut 28:30). The world is not on fire but is at rest. All is felicitous. All is harmony. God is in harmony with his people (v24) and nature’s former predator and prey live harmoniously (v25). Life is fulfilling rather than frustrating. Eden is restored** (51:3). Nothing that harms or destroys will exist on the Lord’s holy mountain… the rule of God and the Lamb will ensure this (11:6-9)

Yet, there are those jarring notes, jarring at least to us. In considering these we should reflect on how Isaiah describes the eschatological Jerusalem elsewhere, John’s use of Isaiah 65 and other Isaian texts in Rev 21,22 and Isaiah’s evident intention in the text to paint an idyllic picture of God’s favoured and forever life for his people. On the last point Isaiah paints an 8th century B.C. Judaean pastoral paradise. He is intending to convey the Jerusalem of his day without the effects of sin. The weight of a new creation free of weeping (intense and emotionally draining tears) with nothing that can harm or destroy present should be felt as we consider difficult texts. Isaiah’s aim should drive our exegesis. So what are the discordant notes? What are the problem texts that apparently belie this idyll?

Firstly, the apparent presence of death. In Isaiah’s picture life is long but not eternal. Age is still evident. People still grow old. We are told a young man (boy or youth) dies a hundred years old which at first sight dismays. However, we should recognise that Isaiah employs the image positively. The suggestion that to die aged a hundred is to die young is not intended to flag up death but underline longevity. The Good News Bible dynamically translates like this: ‘Those who live to be a hundred will be considered young’. This seems to catch the pulse. Again, the absence of weeping should be weighed. In fact, Isaiah elsewhere explicitly tells us death itself is banished from the mountain of the Lord (25:7,8 Cf Rev 21:4). John, in Revelation, drawing heavily from Isaiah, is told he new creation will be without tears and death will be no more (Rev 21:4). Perhaps we are not reading the thumbnail on Isaiah’s own terms.

There are two images associated with the curse. The first is of a hundred year old sinner being accursed. This also occurs in the context of long life. It sits in tandem with the young dying at a hundred. Is Isaiah’s thrust that just as death is alien in redeemed Jerusalem so too is sin? Sin will not tolerated (11:4). Should it take a hundred years to erupt it will still be ruthlessly rooted out and purged (Cf. Ecc 8:10-13). Sin and its curse has no place in this new creation (Rev 22:3. 62:12). It is outlawed. Here in the redeemed city the unrighteous cannot enter and its citizens are not merely innocent, as in Eden, but holy (4:3,4, 6:13, 60:17, 65:12 Cf. 28:16; Eph 4:24). The emphatic absence of sin in the eschatological city elsewhere in Isaiah and in John’s Revelation certainly supports any reading that views sin and death as theoretical rather than actual.

The second curse related image is of the serpent eating dust. Through the serpent our first parents were tempted and as a result the serpent was cursed and diminished (Gen 3:14). While in the new world animal life is transformed the serpent remains cursed and diminished. It is unable to spoil things… nothing shall harm or destroy on God’s ‘holy’ mountain (v25). Eden was not secure from spiritual danger but the new creation is. Sinner and Satan alike are anathema in the new creation; they are neutralised. Kidner comments, ‘The wicked will no longer flourish, nor the strong prey on the weak, nor the tempter escape his sentence’. Here is a world where good prevails and evil is crushed (Gen 3:15).

Given the parallels with John’s sketch of the new creation (which I think most see as the eternal state Rev 21:1-8) perhaps these descriptions of sin and Satan are Isaiah’s way of saying, ‘ Rev 21: 8: But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.” Certainly, as with the city in Revelation 21, we may take it that ‘nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.’ Isaiah has already said as much ( 65:8-16, 4:2-6, 26:1-3) . Nor shall there be anything associated with the curse (Rev 22:3).

Isaiah’s description in ch 65 is of the Jerusalem of his day envisaged with the curse removed. It does not move beyond restored creation and deuteronomic covenantal blessings. Family life still exists. Aging is envisaged. In time, God will reveals how the life of the kingdom is eternal and that eternal implies such intimacy with God that human marriage first provided both for intimacy and procreation will be rendered redundant. But that will await the arrival of the bridegroom, the one from above (John 3:29). In him and by him the eternal life of the kingdom will be revealed. His relationship with his people will be such that it will become the marriage that fulfils all marriages and renders them obsolete as the shadow gives way to the reality (Jn 1:4; 11:25; Matt 22:30; Eph 5:32, 2 Tim 1:10). The newness of new creation will be revealed to be reconfigured in ways that the OT pointed to but did not clearly see.

This latter observation of course raises the question of what is literal and what is symbolic in OT descriptions of the ‘last days***’. And this is a question by no means easy to answer. How far is what is described, prescribed? At this point I want to make only two points. Firstly, much of the OT language that describes ultimate events belongs to the genre of poetry. This should immediately alert us to the presence of metaphor and imagery. Even the most committed literalist presumably concedes the use of figurative language in descriptions of the eschatological city (25:6,7, 54:11,12, 62:3). Images represent reality but are not themselves necessarily reality.

Secondly we must ask how NT writers employed OT texts describing the ‘last days’.

I think this second question is very important. It is clear that NT writers interpret OT texts often in ways that retain the meaning but not the metaphor. They believe the original image is fluid enough to be reshaped as long as the initial truth contained in the image is retained. Thus John bases his description of the new creation and the new Jerusalem heavily on OT descriptions of these but feels free where appropriate to reshape the OT image in ways that add clarity. And so he deliberately draws attention to the absence of a temple in the city. Given the importance of the temple in OT prophecy and the important place it had in Jerusalem (without its temple Jerusalem was nothing, an abandoned wife) its absence is significant. John, however, quickly solves the dilemma; the presence of God and the Lamb fills the whole city – the whole city is a temple a cubic Holy of Holies. John has enhanced our understanding of the immediate dwelling of God in and among his people in line with NT teaching of the indwelling Spirit. To do so he has reshaped the OT image but retained its theological substance, the dwelling of God among his people. He has done this because he recognises the OT image (in this case the temple) is a metaphor and not a mirror of of the future. We need only read John’s description of the new Jerusalem to see it too is highly symbolic; it evocatively and theologically represents reality but is not a literal depiction of the final home-city of the people of God.

The parallels between Isa 65 and Revelation 21 strongly point to reading Isaiah as a description of the full consummation of God’s purposes in a new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells (Cf. 2 Pet 3:13). Few would consider John’s new heavens and new earth as anything other than what we call ‘the eternal state’ yet his language is firmly founded on Isa 65. Both refer to new creation’s eschatological city as ‘Jerusalem’ (Cf. Rev 21:10). Both, as we noted above, see creation and city as new. The prima facie case is that they both refer to the same city. Indeed, in his description of the new Jerusalem, John draws so heavily from OT descriptions of both the eschatological city and the eschatological temple (in Ezekiel) that I find it all but inconceivable that John’s heavenly city and the OT’s eschatological city are not identical. It seems to me mistaken to believe there are two eschatological Jerusalems. Biblical history contrasts two cities but not two Jerusalems; it envisages Babylon, the city of man, and Jerusalem, the city of God. It is, in my view, a mistake to view the OT eschatological Jerusalem as earthly and the NT Jerusalem as heavenly; both are earthly and both are heavenly. We need only read the exalted OT descriptions of the eschatological city in Isaiah to see that it belongs to another world. They describe a city made glorious by salvation whose builder and maker is acknowledged to be God (Hebs 11:10 Cf. Isa 28:16, 14:32, 62:7; Ps 102:16). While John’s heavenly city (‘heavenly’ alerting us to its divine builder and maker) does not remain in heaven but descends from heaven to earth. Both OT and NT envisage a heavenly city on earth. In fact, Paul specifically identifies Isaiah’s eschatological Jerusalem as the Jerusalem above, the mother of all God’s people (Cf. Isa 54; Gals 4:26). The book of Hebrews envisages both OT and NT saints seeking the same city (Hebs 11, 13:14). In Scripture, creation is both restored and reimagined by God in terms of Jerusalem the holy city of God.

If OT cameos of the final home of the people of God express eternal realities through images framed in 8th century settings (which they do) and if Isaiah elsewhere is emphatic the eternal city has neither sinner nor the sting of death (and he is…Isa 4:2-6, 25:6-10, 26:1-3 Cf. Zech 8:3) and if John’s new heavens and new earth are borrowed from Isaiah 65 (which they are) then it seems likely Isaiah is describing in Isaiah 65 the final consummation of the people of God. Perhaps we read into the jarring notes more than they deserve. Perhaps we need to read in line with Isaiah’s aim… here is the final city-home of God’s people, a place of everlasting joy where nothing that can harm or destroy will enter.

On the other hand perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps he is describing millennial conditions (Rev 20). The more literally we read his cameo and the more weight we put on the apparent negatives the more likely it is we will be convinced Isaiah’s new creation and new city belong to the less perfect conditions of John’s millennium.

A case can be made for millennial conditions. And I will not dismiss it. I have not a settled mind on issues surrounding the millennium. Revelation 20 is cogent and other texts and arguments can seem to point in that direction. I feel my limitations and remain open to further light from the Lord. Since believers more godly and able than I have come to different conclusions it is wise not to be too dogmatic. The truly important point is that Scripture with one voice looks forward to future glory for God’s people and from that we draw strength and rejoice. As Kidner says, ‘…all this is expressed freely, locally and pictorially, to kindle hope rather than feed curiosity.’ Let us kindle hope.

*While the Sinai covenant was central to preaching and application by the prophets they also drew from creation and the other covenants. Their prophecies also went beyond Sinai covenant expectations… even anticipating a new covenant.

**Eden is restored in new creation but not re-enacted or rehearsed. New creation is not merely the old without sin. It is reconstituted and reshaped. Eden was never intended to be static. It always envisaged development as the mandate to our first parents demonstrates. It had a trajectory which in God’s purposes could only be realised through redemption. The new creation is entirely the creation of grace and is filled with the glory of grace. New creation takes into account the progress of history, particularly salvation-history. Thus Isaiah’s vision of a new heavens and new earth is the transformation of Eden and its garden into a mountain-city created by God and filled with the glory of God. Jerusalem is above all a city saved by God. She is God’s salvation’s city (Isa 26: 1, 60:16, 18, 62:1, 11).

In the NT, the arrival of Jesus reveals that new creation is unambiguously heavenly and its life is eternal life (1 Cor 15). However, we should not assume that heavenly and spiritual mean ethereal, non-material, and non-social. Whatever the element of symbol and however historically conditioned biblical cameos of the new creation are the basic pulse of a vibrant complex society shines through albeit one without sin and fundamentally reconfigured (no human marriage as the intention of marriage, intimacy and procreation, is fulfilled in the dynamics of the relationship between God and his people in Christ). The distinctive of new creation is that the immediate glory of God and the knowledge of God fills everything . Central to new creational life is the worship of God expressed both in voice and vocation. And so between old and new creation there is continuity and discontinuity. About this divinely reimagined, reconfigured restored re-creation where heaven and earth meet on God’s holy mountain we are given but cameos and clues, for its glory filled reality we must patiently if eagerly

*** If descriptions of the eschatological city are read literally they become contradictory. For instance both Isaiah and Zechariah predict eschatological Jerusalem’s numerical growth. It will be bursting with life. Although Isaiah sees the need for an enlarged city boundary his city still has walls and gates (Isa 54). Zechariah, however, sees it as a city without walls (Zech 2:4) with God himself being a wall of fire to protect. Theological meanings drive the description not urban geography. This is important to grasp even if the spectre of unbridled subjectivism then hovers on the horizon.

Isaiah envisages a future for Zion where the light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun and the light of the sun will be sevenfold (Isa 30:26) yet he also envisages a future for her where the sun will no longer be the light by day nor the moon the light by night but the Lord will be their everlasting light (60:19,20). Is he describing the same time-frame? If so then they are contradictory if understood literally. However, once again it is theology, not astronomy, that is controlling the image. We are reading biblical metaphor not celestial cosmology. Jerusalem is first and foremost a theology of God, the Redeemer, dwelling in and among his redeemed community in mutual conjugal delight.

How do you convey a significant future event in a world alien to the person you are describing it to, an event quite different to anything within his cultural experience? You do so by analogy. You use elements of the world with which he is familiar to help him ‘see’ the world that is beyond his ken. To be sure, the picture will be limited, he will see only through a glass darkly, but nevertheless he will gain a valuable insight of what he could not otherwise grasp.

If you are God you may well even have created events and artefacts in the world of those you wish to teach about the future that provide a way of envisaging it. The exodus, for example, becomes a model used by the prophets to describe future divine deliverances. The model (type) functions through analogy. The prophets do not expect future deliverances to happen just like the exodus even although they use the language of the exodus to describe them. They intend the description to be understood analogically not literally. The initial exodus is a theological model that describes the exodus victory of the cross and the salvation of God’s people, however, the historical realities of both events are quite different.


isaiah 55… attention all who thirst’

Which of us has not heard a gospel appeal based on Isaiah 55. Those of us of a certain vintage and background have certainly. And the preacher was not misguided for this chapter is just that – a gospel invitation from the Lord. It is the Lord who appeals.

While the whole of the OT is anticipatory gospel, Isaiah is often noted as the OT evangelist. He is an important part of the OT background for the NT word ‘gospel’. The herald arriving to announce victory in battle was bearing ‘good news’. In Isaiah the ‘good news’ is ultimately the battle victory of God’s servant (52:7-10, 61:1,2)

The theological flow is clear. The servant has suffered for sins (Ch 53) resulting in the promise that abandoned Jerusalem will once again teem with children (Ch 54). Now, in Ch 55, the invitation comes from the Lord himself to be one of these children.

Come, everyone who thirsts,

come to the waters;

and he who has no money,

come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk

without money and without price

In one sense the invitation is a command but it comes as an invite, an appeal, which is remarkable grace in itself. We should observe, however, that even in appeal God’s word carries massive weight.

my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

At the beginning of this section of Isaiah we are told the word of the Lord will stand forever (40:8. Cf. Ps 89:34; Matt 24:35; 1 Pet 1:23-25). Now at the end once again the authority and power of God’s word is underlined. Nothing will thwart it. It is however, at heart, and because of the work of the servant, a gracious and life giving word… like snow and rain it produces new life. As the servant said, ‘my words are spirit and life‘ (Jn 6:63,68, 3:17. Cf. Hebs 4:12). God’s promised salvation and righteousness is more certain than the earth itself (51:6). To people exiled from their homeland this certain promise of deliverance is the bedrock for faith in a shifting world. It is a word of invincible hope.

Kidner sees the chapter divided by two appeals that each build into a climax (Vv 1-5 and 6-13).

Vv 1-5

The invitation although addressed to Israel in the first instance has a universal flavour to it (v5) for the work of the servant brings universal blessing (42:4, 49:6). It is the Lord who speaks. Grogan says the image of a water vendor in the dusty streets may lie behind the language. At any rate it is a call to attention, to listen, and a call to ‘come‘. Three times the invitation to ‘come‘ is proclaimed. It is a call to ‘everyone‘… or more accurately everyone who thirsts (Matt 5:6; Jn 7:37; Rev 22:17). There is warmth in the call but also a sense of command. The folly of refusing is urged; why live for what is not ultimately satisfying (v2). For the exiles it was a warning not to settle for what Babylon offered (Cf Isa 52:11) and remains the same for us today.

Although it is an invitation extended to all it is also personal. It is to everyone who feels his need (v1). In the paradox of one who has no money buying what is freely given Kidner sees the twin truths of ownership (buy) and free grace (that which is without price). We see too the ‘helpless need’ for it is he who has no money that ‘buys’. To needy people God freely gives and what he gives is truly theirs. He gives what has no price and is beyond price.

The salvation he extends is cast in language of what is both vital and nourishing – bread and water. Yet it is food and drink beyond the bare essentials. There is the promise of wine and milk and rich food (vv1,2). It is an invitation to God’s banquet (Cf. Lk 14:14-24; Isa 25:6, 44:20). God gives life (v3) and it is life in abundance. Jesus echoes God’s invitation in Isaiah. In John we read,

7:37 On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive..’

The life that God gives is life in his Spirit. It is life of a different and superior kind to natural life… it is eternal life, life in unending fellowship with God. Note the implicit divine self-identity in Jesus’ words. He does not call for the thirsty to come to God but to come to him and he will satisfy their thirst (Cf. Jn 4:10). Preachers call others to the Lord, he calls others to himself (Cf. Jn 6:35, 10:10, Matt 11:28-30). It is he that is the heavenly banquet. He is the bread which if a man eats he will live forever (Jn 6:51). God in Christ offers life that has all that satisfies; life that is truly life (1 Tim 6:19).

It is also life which is eternal and secure. It is life within an everlasting covenant (55:3). The covenant of law was always temporary and frail because of human sin; it led to the exile. Yet God had made solemn promises to the patriarchs of enduring blessing. These are developed in a specific way to David and his dynasty ( 2 Sam 7:12-16, 2 Sam 22:51, Ps 89). It seems that those needy who ‘come‘ will share in these Davidic promises; they will have royal status. In the NT we discover that Jesus is the promised Davidic King (prefigured in and promised to David v4) whose reign is eternal (Ps 89). His people, the thirsty who have responded to his call are ‘in him’ and so share in his Davidic inheritance; they all belong to the royal household. No doubt the everlasting covenant is expressed too in the new covenant. All is founded on the work of the servant. His is the blood of the everlasting covenant securing by his blood’s virtue and power his vindication in resurrection and his eternal reign as Davidic King; the one who glorified God is in turn glorified. The sure mercies (steadfast love promises) of David are realised in him and by virtue of their union with him they are realised in his people too (Acts 13:34-39; Hebs 13:19,20).

The Davidic household ultimately established in Jesus, David’s son and Lord (Ps 110:1) and his redeemed people will witness* to the nations the saving grace of God who, as they respond in faith, (53:1) will also become part of the royal family and share in its blessings (Acts 1:8, Ps 89). Such is the magnetic attraction of the servant lifted up (glorified) upon the cross that all nations are drawn to him… ‘run to you’ is singular (Jn 3; Isa 52:13-15). His witness, however, continues through the first Jewish believers, the apostles and others who initially followed Christ and were baptised in the Spirit (Acts 2) and it wasn’t long until the Gentiles were eager to share in the messianic beauty and bounty – a nation they did not know ran to the Davidic King (v5. Acts 10. Cf. Ps 18:43 56:6-8) drawn by him and his likeness revealed in his people. May God produce in us a life that attracts others.

Vv 6-13

Kidner writes, ‘If man is hungry and needs satisfying (1–5), he is also wicked and needs salvation (6-9). In these verses urgency is increased and sin is exposed. Again there a call to turn to the Lord. It is a call to seek the Lord (requiring earnest intent) while he may be found… while he is near. His salvation will not always be available… today is the day of salvation (2 Cor 6:2). Nor is it without demand. Sin must be recognised and forsaken (v 7). Salvation is a turning to God and a turning from sin. But for the heart willing to do both there is a God of compassion ready to abundantly pardon… a father awaiting the prodigal and when he sees him coming runs to him to welcome him home (Lk 15:11:32).

Yet we come to him in humility remembering he is God. He is majestic and in an important sense ‘other’ than us. Indeed his salvation is proof that he is God and that his thoughts and ways are higher than ours. Who among us would have such persistent grace and mercy to rebellious ungrateful children. Which of us would care so passionately about righteousness and holiness? Who would have conceived that the salvation of the world would be through someone with little obvious to commend him and whose sufferings were such that we would shrink from him thinking he must have done some great sin to be so afflicted? Who would have imagined that in weakness lay strength and in submission lay victory? Who would give his son for sinners, for his enemies (Cf. Roms 5:6-10). God’s ways so often run contrary to how we expect things to be done (Roms 11:33-35).

Yet his thoughts and ways are definite and certain. His word does what it says. He invincibly works out his purposes through his all-powerful ‘word’. In the day of creation he spoke and it came to be… he commanded and it stood firm (Ps 33:9. In history his word is absolute:

10 The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing;

he frustrates the plans of the peoples.

11 The counsel of the LORD stands forever,

the plans of his heart to all generations. (Ps 33:10,11)

His life-giving word carries the same authority. It comes full of divine power and authority accomplishing his plan to bless (vv 10,11 Cf. Jn 6:63; Mk 4:1-20; Hebs 4:12). He is God and his word is his bond for it contains within it the power to accomplish what it says… he saves completely and eternally (51:4-8; Hebs 7:25; Jn 10:28)

God promised the exiles they would leave Babylon and those who thirsted for Jerusalem did. The exiles left Babylon and travelled back to Jerusalem and despite it being an arduous journey, doubtless had a song in their hearts (12,13). God’s promise had been kept. However, the return under Cyrus was but a precursor and promise for the greater and journey of faith to a Jerusalem far more glorious than post-exilic Jerusalem. Isaiah’s journey for the thirsty is to eschatological Jerusalem. It is not to the city under the authority of the Persian empire but the city founded on the accomplishment of the servant Jesus (49:5,6). It is the city whose builder and maker is God with Jesus Christ as his laid foundation stone (Isa 28:16; Hebs 11:10). It is the city to which all believers, the thirsty who come to drink of all ages and all nations journey (55:1, Jn 7:37, Rev 21:6, 22:17; Hebs 11:10, 16, 13:14)… the city where the river of living water flow continuously through the city from the throne of God and the Lamb (Rev 22:1).

Today God’s people know this Isaian joy in their heart as they travel to Isaiah’s city, the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem… for we too are marching to Zion… beautiful, beautiful Zion. And God has provided much to encourage along the way (41:17-20). Such is God’s salvation that nature is caught up in these celebrations… metaphorically the trees of the field clap their hands (Cf. Lk 15:7). Indeed creation itself seems to be renewed. The signs of the fall (thorn and nettle) have been removed. Creation itself finally will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the sons of God (Roms 8;20). Nature will no longer be against us it will be for us. It will rejoice in the rule of redeemed humanity and eternally supply its bounty to enrich.

The deliverance of God’s people whether from the immediate exile, or, as here, in ultimate salvation brings renown to the Lord (v13). For it is no fleeting deliverance and renewal. It is everlasting salvation, bringing everlasting glory to the Lord who has accomplished it all (v13). Salvation and all it entails is an eternal memorial song to the praise of the glory of his grace (Eph 1)

Meantime almost the last words of Revelation drawn from the first words of Isaiah 55 supply the last words of this post… notice the thrice echoed ‘come’.

22:17 The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.

*Witness (4): David is not elsewhere spoken of as the Lord’s witness, but the idea of worldwide Davidic testimony is rooted in the Davidic psalms (9:11; 18:49; 57:9–11; 108:3–4; 145:21). Psalm 18 affirms that ‘a people I do not know will serve me’. But if David is nowhere spoken of plainly as the Lord’s witness, the Servant is (42:1–4; 49:2–3; 50:4), and the function of the present passage is to bring together the presentations of the Royal Messiah (chs. 1–37) and the Servant Messiah (chs. 38–55). All the soul-renewing blessings of 55:1–3 are to be found within the rule of David because David and the Servant are the same Person. Motyer Isaiah OTTC


isaiah 54… jerusalem and her children

Anyone commenting (even on a blog) on the OT comes up against a number of difficulties. Firstly for many of us, and certainly for me, a generally poor grasp of the OT makes it difficult to comment with certainty. Secondly, distinguishing between fused immediate and distant horizons in fulfilment can be challenging. Thirdly, although the distant horizon of God’s salvation in the OT is one complex event, in the NT it becomes two clear phases united but distinct. This adds its own interpretive headaches. Is the OT, describing present salvation or future salvation or both? Add to this the differing prophetic schemes which of course influence commentaries and interpreting is not easy.

All the above mean that my comments are tentative and require weighing. I have been writing these posts because I wanted to take a closer look at Isaiah and try to gain a better understanding. I rely on a few commentaries to aid my understanding and avoid making too many gaffs. I hope too I rely on the Lord for his guidance and help to keep me from going too far off beam.

Perhaps it is fair to say that the big points are normally fairly clear it is fitting them into a ‘scheme’ that brings problems. Maybe fitting them into a scheme is over-valued. Inevitably, however, some schematic interpretation is necessary perhaps what is important is avoiding dogmatism that allows no room for adjustment.

Jerusalem rejoice

The opening verses call for rejoicing, for exuberant celebration. Jerusalem is urged, ‘Sing… break forth into singing and cry aloud’ The reason for rejoicing is explained. Jerusalem is about to undergo an unimaginable transformation.

One commentator writes: “The change of mood between Isa 53 and 54 is abrupt. Yet … it is appropriate. The Servant’s task is seen to be fulfilled. Nothing can be added to that. But … the incredible triumph of Isa 53:10–12 issues into the hymn of praise in 54:1–10, welcoming the dawn of the New Age.”

Before Ch 53 hope for Jerusalem was announced (49:26, 52:1-6), but now it is revealed just how glorious a future the redeeming activity of the servant in Ch 53 has purchased. It is clear to us in retrospect that the Jerusalem described is not the Jerusalem immediately beyond the exile. It experienced the blessings of the victory of Cyrus: this Jerusalem is basking in the victory of the servant. Isaiah takes us forward to salvation events that belong to the climax of history (Gals 4:3,4). How clear this distinction would have been to the exiles reading this prophecy is another matter.

Jerusalem people or place?

Perhaps a question to ask is whether Jerusalem is a place or a people? The short answer is it seems to be both. In the NT counterpart to Isaiah’s city, the new Jerusalem it is both a place and a people (Rev 21:2, 9-10. Cf. Isa 40:1). We should remember that in the NT the temple of God is the people of God; it is where God resides on earth (Eph 2). And so we should be wary of absolute distinctions. Undoubtedly the city is primarily the people. When God says the faithful city has become a whore (1:21) he is referring to the people. When he speaks of purifying Zion he is intending to purify the people (1:25). A city takes its character from its people (65:18,19). Yet, Scripture, both OT and NT, also speaks of the city distinct from the people (E.g. Hebs 13:14). Here, in Isaiah 54, Jerusalem and her children are distinguished. A city has realities intrinsic to its people but in one sense distinct from them. A city is a culture. At its best it has connotations of security, society, joy, festivity, beauty, justice, industry, and life. Redeemed Jerusalem has all of these but they exist because of the grace and glory of God’s reigning presence among his people. In its best form a city provides the conditions for human flourishing. And the best possible form is Isaiah’s vision of the future redeemed Jerusalem.

Jerusalem abandoned

Chapter 54 is one of a number of pictures Isaiah draws of God’s salvation city (Isa 26:1, 1:26,27, 2:2-4, 4:2-6, 12:1-6, 52:1, 66:10-13 ). The vision is cast initially in the time of exile (around 500 BC) though it quickly shifts to the future. The unthinkable has happened. Jerusalem (people and place) is abandoned. The city is a ghost town compared to what it was. The Lord, in disgust at her sins, left his temple, and so his people (Ezek 10. Cf. Matt 23:37-24:2). Exile followed impressing upon the nation their plight. They believe they are abandoned by God (49:14:23). Jerusalem is in trouble. She is both barren and apparently abandoned or divorced by her ‘husband’ (41:9, 54:6). (Jerusalem is feminine and Israel is male). To be childless was culturally a source of shame and to be abandoned or a widow made a woman vulnerable. Jerusalem has no children to run in her streets. It looks as if God has severed all links with his people and his holy city where he placed his name.

But God has not divorced or cast off his people despite their sin (50:1). And Jerusalem will not be barren for the God of Israel makes the barren conceive. This has been underlined since the beginning of Israel’s history. The wives (Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel) of the first three patriarchs struggled with conceiving until God in grace gave them children. The lesson was that God’s children are supernaturally born; he is a God who can bring life out of death. By God’s power and grace Jerusalem will not be left with the shame of barrenness nor the vulnerability of widowhood she will have children…. more children than before when God dwelt in his temple and she had a ‘husband’. However shameful and troubled her past (v4) Jerusalem has a glorious future; she will be filled with children born by grace, born of God (Jn 1:12,13).

The reason for hope is not that the exile has changed Israel. She is still as sinful as ever. The reason lies in the achievements of the servant. It is the offspring of the servant who populate the city and so great will be their number that the city will be unable to contain them. She will need to enlarge. The metaphor of an expanding tent reminds us of the patriarchs and the promise of the numerical and geographical expansion of Abraham’s seed (Gen 22:17, 28:13,14 Cf. Isa16:5). The land given to Israel initially of course is Canaan. Israel were to dispossess the nations and possess their inheritance (Deut 9:1,11:23,12:2 etc. Cf. Ps 2:8). Now they discover the boundaries they are to possess have considerably increased (54:3). The cities of the nations are inherited. They lie empty because God’s judgement has fallen upon them (30:23-43; 41:15,16). Situations are reversed; it is no longer Israel being judged but the nations, and the nations who once possessed her she will now possess. Now, once deserted Jerusalem is populated and the cities of the nations are desolate. The divine Davidic King has triumphed and overthrown all his enemies (Ps 2:8). In him, Abraham and his seed inherit not simply Canaan but the world (Roms 4:13, 5:5 Cf. 1 Cor 3:21). End-time events of judgement and salvation are clearly in view.

Jerusalem’s husband

Jerusalem’s future is bright and secure because of her God. The Lord is the key to all her joys. The Lord is no local tribal deity but God of the whole earth. He is the Holy One of Israel… high and exalted (Isa 6). He is the Lord of Hosts… Lord of the armies of heaven.. the Mighty God. His power is unquestionable. By what of his heart? Does he care about his erstwhile people? The good news of the gospel is that he does (v8, 52:6-12). This powerful God is the Maker and husband of his people (v5,6). He is the Lord who has committed himself in love to Israel. It is he who in love created her and he who in love will nourish and keep her. He is determined to lavish his grace upon her. He is her redeemer (54:5). Whatever anger he had, however justified, was fleeting (v8) and ultimately is overcome by his enduring steadfast love (v8-10, 60:10). It was this everlasting unquenchable compassionate love for his people that led to the death of the servant (53:8). The Holy One was willing to ‘bruise’ his obedient servant that he may bless his rebellious people. He redeemed them by costly sacrificial justice (Cf. 1:27, Lk 1:67-79). The majestic might of the Lord coupled to his committed love made Jerusalem and her people’s future sure (vv5-10).

Jerusalem redeemed

The pivotal point in her change of fortunes lay in the God-given work of the servant. The servant’s work created a new people and a new era. Just as after the flood the promise is given the earth will not be flooded so God’s people are promised they will never again come into judgement. The servant’s work has removed God’s anger forever. Sin, which aroused holy wrath, has been dealt with in the body of the servant (53:4-10; Roms 8:1-4). So strong is this commitment to bless that it is underwritten by a divine oath (v9 Cf. Gen 22:16; Hebs 6:13) and established in an (eternal) covenant of peace (v10 Cf. 55:3; Acts 13:34).

The language of covenant here is interesting. While various salvation covenants (solemn promises) may be distinguished they are essentially a unity pointing towards God’s intention to restore Edenic conditions and more. The covenant promise is that God and his people will dwell together in a new and better Eden. The term ‘covenant of peace’ seems to encapsulate all this restoration involves (Numbs 25:12; Ezek 34:25, 37:26, Mal 2:5 Cf. Isa 11). The Sinai covenant held out this promise of an Eden-like land – peace- upon obedience (Lev 26:1-10). However, in a sinful people obedience is impossible and so covenant curse (the exile) rather than covenant (Eden) ensued but with the promise of ultimate renewal (Lev 26:11-46). It is this promise in the darkness of covenant curse that is now fulfilled. The massive work of the servant has changed everything. He has achieved the seemingly impossible and reconciled a holy God and his sinful people. He has made righteous God’s sinful people and so freed the Lord to do what he longed to do – bless his people with full covenant ‘shalom’.

The sacrifices of Noah after the flood disposed God to act graciously to the new world and renew his creational promises. His war bow was laid to rest in the cloud pledging his commitment to peace. But continuing sin in the race soon soured relations between Creator and creature. The sacrifice of the servant, however, was infinitely more effective. It recreated a sinful people in the image of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:24) freeing the Holy One of Israel to bestow all the blessings of a new creation, a better Eden; the blessings of the covenant of peace. In Isaiah 54, these cosmic salvation blessings are lavished upon redeemed Jerusalem: pervasive beauty and glory; knowledge of the Lord; peace: righteousness; and absolute security are some of its qualities. Jerusalem is finally true to its name and is the city of peace.

Isaiah’s language has great beauty

O afflicted one, storm-tossed and not comforted,
behold, I will set your stones in antimony,
and lay your foundations with sapphires.
12 I will make your pinnacles of agate,
your gates of carbuncles,
and all your wall of precious stones.
13 All your children shall be taught by the LORD,
and great shall be the peace of your children.
14 In righteousness you shall be established;
you shall be far from oppression, for you shall not fear;
and from terror, for it shall not come near you.
15 If anyone stirs up strife,
it is not from me,
whoever stirs up strife with you
shall fall because of you.
16 Behold, I have created the smith
who blows the fire of coals
and produces a weapon for its purpose.
I have also created the ravager to destroy;
17 no weapon that is fashioned against you shall succeed,
and you shall refute every tongue that rises against you in judgment
This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD
and their vindication from me, declares the LORD.”

Jerusalem above ‘already’

At this point we grapple with issues raised in the opening paragraph. It is clear that Isaiah’s vision looks well beyond the return from exile under Cyrus. Jerusalem’s regeneration is not due to Cyrus but to the servant. We are looking at Jerusalem (people and place) as we noted at the climax of history. In Jesus, the servant, the age of fulfilment, of salvation , dawned… the Eschaton arrived. However, in the OT, as we observed, the age of fulfilment and salvation is viewed as a unified whole. On the face of it the OT seems to describe the ‘last days’ as a short period pregnant with judgement and salvation. It is part of the ‘mystery’ revealed in the NT that OT events are compressed and in fact the age of salvation is much longer and more complicated than we might expect: it arrives in two phases or two ages, now often termed, ‘the already but not yet’.

OT anticipated salvation arrived at the first coming of Christ but it’s completion awaits his second coming. The ambiguities of this ‘already not yet‘ are evident in Isaiah’s Jerusalem. At first blush we may be tempted to locate Isaiah’s Jerusalem at the consummation of the kingdom. The connotations of glory implied in the precious stones and other indications of peace certainly include the consummation or the ‘not yet‘. However, there are also dimensions that also fit in with the ‘already‘ or present initial stage of salvation. We should not be surprised by this for the salvation age is a continuum… we have salvation and we await salvation… it is commenced but not completed. Thus Jerusalem’s children already are righteous (53:8; Roms 3-8; 2 Cor 5:21) and already enjoy peace (Roms 5:1; Jn 14:27). They, like the servant whose children they are, are already by taught of the Lord (50:4; Jer 31:34, Jn 6:45,46; Acts 2:16-18). Furthermore they have also the reassurance that any who presently attack are not sent from the Lord in angry judgement (unlike Assyria and Babylon who were raised by he Lord to execute his wrath on Israel) and also the assurance that they, the people of God, will overcome (Roms 8:31-39; Matt 10:19; Lk 21:18 Cf. Rev 20:7-10).

Clearly I understand the NT church to be presently the children of Isaiah’s eschatological city. It is they who are the present offspring of the servant and witnesses to his victory (53:1). This conclusion is borne out by Paul in the NT. Writing to the Galatians he says,

25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written,
“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear;
break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labour! The
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than those of the one who has a husband.”
28 Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.

Notice Paul makes a sharp distinction between earthly Jerusalem and the heavenly Jerusalem. Earthly Jerusalem is in slavery as it was in Isaiah’s time. It is not the city of OT promise*. Isaiah’s city is ‘Jerusalem above’ the mother city of all believers. It is from another world; it is heavenly. And it is bursting at the seams because the redeemed from every nation are its children along with the redeemed of Israel (Ps 87; Isa 2:2-4, 4:3,4, 19:24,25, 6:13, 25:6-8, 55:5, 56:6-8, 66:18-24). Indeed all God’s people throughout history have their home there (Hebs 11:8-16, 12:22, 13:14). They lived as exiles, pilgrims, heading for the celestial city. God’s servants of all ages are its citizens (54:17, Phil 3:20) the offspring of the servant. The reverberations of the servant’s triumph through his witnesses (53:1; Matt 28:16-20; Acts 1:8; Jn 12:38; Roms 10:16) reach into every nation (49:6,7, 52:14). Israel’s rejection (her exile) has brought salvation to the world. Gentiles have been grafted into the olive tree. Ultimately Israel too will be regrafted (for God does not renege on his promises… they are without repentance) and the consummation of the kingdom will arrive (Roms 11). The servant will have birthed servants from every people (56:6,7, 63:17, 65:8,9,13-15, 66:14).and Jerusalem, a city founded on him, the cornerstone (Isa 28:16,17), is their heritage from the Lord (v16 Cf. Deut 4:21). Like the servant, they will be vindicated by God; he, for who he is in himself, and they, for who they have become in him (50:8, 54:17, 8: 33). The righteousness of God’s people won by the servant is a gift directly from God (v 16; Roms 1:16, 3:21-26).

Jerusalem above ‘not yet’

It is obvious that Isaiah’s city is no normal city. She is not earthly Jerusalem enhanced, she is Jerusalem utterly transformed; Israel as she has never been. Abraham believed that the promises he was given pointed to realities beyond the present world. He and the other patriarchs journeyed in the promised land as if it was a foreign land to them. They lived in tents. They’re permanent home was not here. They were looking, we are told, for a heavenly country and for a heavenly city whose builder and Maker was God (Hebs 11:8-16). With the patriarchs, OT hope always strains towards that which is so transformed it is otherworldly… it is ‘heavenly’.

And so too is ours. Together with OT believers we await the city that is to come (Hebs. 13:14, 11:39,40). We wait for Isaiah’s new Jerusalem. John, in Revelation, gives us our final revelatory glimpse of this city before we share in its glories. And it is glorious. As in Isaiah, it is both a city and a wife, a bride (Cf. 54: 5, 61:10,11, 62:1-5; Rev 21: 2, 9,10). It is emphatically heavenly, coming down out of heaven from God (Rev 21:11). Heaven has come to earth and come to stay. John draws from the imagery of Isaiah 54 to convey its exotic glory. Precious stones and jewels in both cities connote beauty and splendour. Here is a city alight with beauty and shining with the glory of God… out of Zion the perfection of beauty God shines forth (Ps 50:2).

In our more foolish moments we tend to reflect on the things we will do in the new creation. Will we develop is resources? Will we climb mountains? Will there really be no sea to swim in? No doubt some of our imaginings will be realised. However, in our immaturity we do not give sufficient weight to the one thing that will make heaven, heaven. What makes Jerusalem glorious is the transcendent glory of God who dwells there among his people. There is no temple in John’s city for the whole city is a temple (a cubic holy of Holies) and every corner is suffused with his immediate life-enhancing light (Rev 21:23; Isa 60:19,20). His presence glorifies everything. Holy people, and then we shall be truly holy, want above all to see God (Matt 5:8). To gaze upon the beauty of God is the constant delight of his people (Ps 27:4). As we grow in grace the he Lord becomes ever more precious. Without him the best of life soon becomes hollow and pallid. In the city to come we will God’s face… we will see him as he truly is and there will no other joy that will begin to compare… it will be hard to look away (Rev 22:3,4 Cf. Isa 60:5, 65:17:18). We have strayed a little from Isaiah’s text, though perhaps not in spirit. Perhaps T. Desmond Alexander should have the final summarising word.

The book of Isaiah radiates a confidence that, in spite of the abject failure of eighth-century Jerusalem to be the city of God, the Lord will accomplish his plan to construct a temple-city on a holy mountain. (The City of God and the Goal of Creation).

And an epilogue from John Newton

GLORIOUS things of thee are spoken,
Zion, city of our God;
He, whose word cannot be broken,
Formed thee for His own abode.
On the Rock of Ages founded
What can shake thy sure repose?
With salvation’s walls surrounded,
Thou may’st smile at all thy foes.

See, the streams of living waters,

Springing from eternal love,

Well supply thy sons and daughters
And all fear of want remove:
Who can faint, while such a river
Ever flows their thirst to assuage?
Grace which, like the Lord, the giver,
Never fails from age to age.

Saviour, if of Zion’s city
I, through grace, a member am,
Let the world deride or pity
I will glory in Thy name:
Fading is the sinner’s pleasure,
All his boasted pomp and show;
Solid joys and lasting treasure
None but Zion’s children know.

* I am aware of some OT texts that seem to be describing an earthly triumphant Jerusalem at the end of history (e.g. Zech 12:1-6). I leave this area as one I don’t feel qualified to comment on.


isaiah’s suffering servant… the fourth song 52:13-53:13 (2)

(A fairly long post. Thank you to all who persevere in reading it.)

Ch 40 begins a new section in Isaiah’s prophecy. The first 39 chapters address pre-exilic Israel and although they contain some bright spots the tone is largely critical with many announcements of impending judgement. In the second half of the book Isaiah addresses the exiles in Babylon (many years in the future) and a dramatically changed tone is signalled in the opening words. The Lord now calls for his people to be comforted. They are to be told that their sin has been atoned and deliverance is imminent. In the immediate sense the deliverance was from exile in Babylon. It would be a ‘new‘ thing, a new exodus (43:19). However, superimposed on the immediate and eclipsing it in scale is the salvation that God will achieve through one he calls ‘my servant’. Isaiah foresees a ‘new thing‘, a deliverance that will bring God’s people not merely out of Egypt or Babylon but out of the old world dominated by sin and death and ultimately into a new heavens and new earth where righteousness reigns ( Ch 65,66. Cf. 2 Cor 5:17). How the servant will achieve this has been gradually unfolding through the first three servant songs, that his task was demanding and arduous was clear, but it is in the fourth song that the full picture emerges.

Kidner and others perceive five stanzas or sections in the song. He notes,

The poem, unusually symmetrical, is in five paragraphs of three verses each. It begins and ends with the Servant’s exaltation (first and fifth stanzas); set within this is the story of his rejection in sections two and four, which in turn form the centrepiece (vv.4–6) where the atoning significance of the suffering is expounded. God and man, reconciled, share the telling (see the ‘my’ and ‘I’ of the outer sections, and the ‘we’ and ‘our’ of 52:1–6).

As Kidner observes the song begins and ends with the servant’s exaltation. In both cases it is the Lord himself who announces his servant’s conferred honours. Firstly he extols the wisdom of his servant (Cf. 53:13) which will lead to the highest renown (52:113, 53:11). Perhaps both wisdom and honour are established from the outset because in the body of song the servant is not readily associated with either. To some it seems the servant’s terrible sufferings result from folly for which he is being judged (53:4b)? To grasp that the servant is not where he is because of folly but because of faith and sure-footed obedience will require the insight of revelation (53:1). Equally, the servant’s humiliation is hard to reconcile with high honours. In fact, the dissonance felt by those who see him both humbled and honoured is observed. The servant has experienced appalling, disfiguring suffering, shocking to all who witness it. How can such suffering be reconciled with subsequent esteem? The shock of the servant’s abject suffering is equalled only by wonder at his consequent glory (52:14,15, 53:12). … he will be high and lifted up… exalted (52:13)… his portion will be with the great (53:12, 49:7-9, 50:4-9). Indeed the language used to describe his elevation is used elsewhere in the book only of God (Cf. 6:1, 33:10, 2:11,17, 57:15). It is a mistake to judge the servant by superficial criteria (53:3) for the very things we may despise destine him for future glory; God’s thoughts are not our thoughts nor his ways our ways (55:8,9). Indeed, the servant whose mission seems to end in ignoble failure will be the cause of wonder and worship among the nations and the great of the earth, as many as ‘see’ and ‘understand'(52:14). And so we are warned from the outset that superficial evaluations of the servant will require to be realigned. God is doing a new thing and in a new way (43:19) that will take the world by surprise and turn it upside down.

Ch 53 begins with the words,

Who has believed our report?

And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

The narrator’s voice has changed. It is no longer the voice of the Lord but the voice of the servant’s followers. Later in the song they are called his offspring, those he has made righteous (53:10,11) and the strong with whom he shares the spoil (53:12). They have been entrusted with heralding the message of God’s victory over his enemies though his servant (52:6-10).

They proclaim a message, however, that is met by incredulity… who has believed our report? One reason for disbelief is just how improbable on the face of it the message is. They announce that in the servant, ‘the arm of the Lord has been revealed‘; God’s battle arm of invincible might (53:1, 51:9, 52:10). Yet, at first blush, the servant and his career seem anything but a story of conquering hero victorious in battle. We do not see in the servant the prowess and strength of a great warrior. Rather the opposite.

From unpromising beginnings (a root from dry ground… a spindly plant), and an unremarkable persona (no majesty… no beauty to attract) his story deteriorates into opposition, humiliation, suffering, submission and finally death. The dry ground from which he grew despised and rejected him (53:3,4). Harrowed by inflicted suffering, he appears scarcely human (52:14). The instinct of those who see him is to turn away; the sight is too horrific, too traumatic. Such is his plight that it seems he must be under judgement from God (53:4). He is someone to avoid, even view with contempt (53:3,4). Facing oppression and judgement he does not defend himself. He is submissive and silent before his accusers. Is this pitiful sight the mighty ‘arm of the Lord’?

It is remarkable how accurately Isaiah’s sketch of the servant aligns with the experience of Jesus for he is, of course, the enigmatic servant in view (Acts 8:32-36; Matt 12:18-21). Grogan well writes,

In 44:28 the name “Cyrus” is solemnly and dramatically revealed long before his coming. Our present passage speaks so eloquently of the work of Christ that even the inclusion of his name could add but little more to the extent of its disclosure of him.’

Jesus grew out of the dry ground of C1 Judaism. He was raised in obscurity with no trappings of greatness or majesty. As an adult he was essentially a mild-mannered Galilean preacher with a message that God’s kingdom had arrived. To be sure he did astonishing miracles but these could be explained away as works of the devil. Despite his gentleness he faced increasingly faced opposition. Finally he was arrested and faced a parody of justice with quiet submissiveness. When reviled he did not return in kind (1 Pet 2:23). He had done no wrong. He was not guilty of violence or deceit, sinless in word and deed (53:9). Only false accusations could be made to stick. For a variety of unworthy reasons he was condemned to death by crucifixion… he was not yet in his mid-thirties.

He was scourged and crucified… oppressed and afflicted (53:7). He was pierced; his head with thorns, his side with a spear (v5). He was crucified with criminals… numbered with the transgressors (Lk 22:37). He was executed, ‘cut off‘ out of the land of the living in the midst of his years (early thirties) without descendants to carry on his name (53:8). Any who looked on at his crucifixion saw a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Only after death is he vindicated (50:8) . His enemies would have put him in a common grave with the criminals (plural) but his mission now accomplished God ensured a dignified burial; he was with ‘a’ rich man in his death (notice the prophetic accuracy of the singular Matt 27:57,60; Jn 19:31,38)… a signal perhaps of vindicating honours soon to be conferred (49:7-9).

(According to some Christian Jewish online sites the parallels between Jesus and Isaiah’s suffering servant cause discomfiture to some Jewish religious teachers. We can easily see why).

It is the heart of the song, however, that reaches the heart of the matter; Kidner’s third stanza, the centrepiece. Here enigmas are resolved. Here misjudgements are corrected. Here the truth emerges and what an astonishing truth it is. Such were the sufferings of the servant that it was assumed he was being punished by God for some great folly or sin. In this they assumed rightly but the message proclaimed by his servants (54:7 Cf. Roms15:21) is that he was suffering not for personal sins, he had none (53:9, 50:7-9. Cf. Acts 3:14); he was suffering for the sins of others, for their sins.

Here revelation flabbergasts. It proclaims the unthinkable. The servant was a sacrifice… a guilt offering for sin (v10). His death was a substitutionary atonement… a blood sacrifice for sin. Let’s hear the message of his servants.

5 He was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

Is it possible that one man could atone for the nation? Israel knew all about blood sacrifices. They were well versed in their significance. Their God-given sacrificial system taught them sin is serious and demands death. It taught them that without the shedding of blood there is no remission for sins. In mercy, God provided a system of sacrifice where a substitute was slain for the sin of the offerer. The penalty, the liability, for the offerer’s guilt fell upon the sacrifice. The sacrifices, however, were animal, not human. Only on one occasion (as far as I recall) had God asked for a human blood sacrifice. Abraham was told to take his son Isaac and offer him as a sacrifice on a mountain that God would show him. However, at the last moment, when Abraham’s willingness to obey was evident, God stayed Abraham’s hand and provided an animal for sacrifice in the place of Isaac (Gen 22).

But here there is no animal for sacrifice. The servant is the sacrifice. The sacrifice is human. And God does not stay his hand. Instead he uses it to smite. This is the astonishing truth about the servant that makes sense of all that happens to him. The servant was never a helpless victim of uncontrolled circumstances and evil men. He was a volunteer blood sacrifice submitting to God… a sacrificial lamb (Hebs 10:9). He made his soul an offering for sin (v10 Cf. Lev 5:1-6:7). He poured out his life to death (v12). He was, what no dumb animal ever could be, a willing sacrifice that could really atone for sin (Hebs 10:4).

The perennial problem with the world is its sin. It is sin that frustrates every utopian endeavour. It was the sin of Israel, God’s chosen people, that brought about the calamity of exile. If there was ever to be any hope for Israel, for humanity, and for the world then sin must be dealt with. It must be judged and removed. The sacrificial system showed the only hope for a sinner is for a suitable substitute to be found – in the servant that substitute is found. Animal sacrifices were inadequate. They were a stop-gap until the true sacrifice to which they pointed arrived. Human sin required a human life, a human sacrifice and not just any human sacrifice; no ordinary life can ransom his life or the life of another from sin’s death penalty (Ps 49:7). It required a willing, obedient, flawless life… one over whom death had no rights willing to die for those over whom it had every right. It required a body God himself had uniquely prepared for the express purpose of sacrificial death (Hebs 10:5-10; Jn 12:27); a life the Lord himself had fashioned (49:1-6, 50:4-9). The servant is God’s personally provided sacrificial ransom (Ps 49: 15; Mk 10:45).

Although the deep culpability of the human heart is revealed in the judicial murder of the servant yet again a deeper truth must be stressed. God himself is involved in the servant’s death. He has shaped the servant for this very moment. It is the Lord who wields the knife of sacrifice. Again misjudgements are realigned. It may seem that the servant’s sufferings are simply the result of powerful enemies but the truth runs much deeper… it was the will of the Lord (emphatic) to crush him, to put him to grief (v10 Cf. Acts 4:28). The servant’s submission was not ultimately to his tormentors but to his God. His wisdom had taught him that he was the sacrifice for sin to which all animal sacrifices pointed.

And so the obedient servant must die for the rebellious servant and all other rebels who trust in him. Israel must die for Israel. The servant does not suffer alongside his people. He does not suffer with them but for them. In this work of atonement we can only look on. He is the solitary lamb to be slaughtered the one on whom God lays the iniquity of us all.

When John the Baptist sees Jesus he exclaims, ‘Behold the lamb of God that bears away the sin of the world’ (Jn 1:29). John’s emphasis is perhaps on sin as a pollutant, or even power, however, Isaiah in Ch 53 focuses squarely on sin as rebellion. Sin is not only a pollutant to be cleansed but lawlessness to be judged. It is a ‘transgression‘ a perversion (iniquity… we are wayward sheep turning with feckless deliberation to our own way) to be punished. Sin requires not only purification it requires ‘chastisement’ or punishment. Sin carries a penalty. The servant in his sacrifice is not only a substitute he is a penal substitute.

The servant is the healer who would not only carry our sicknesses (Matt 8:17) but would carry our sins; his wounds would heal. The liability of our sins was taken by him. He was ‘stricken’ says the Lord, ‘for the transgressions of my people’. He was numbered with the transgressors and interposed himself for the transgressors (53:12). He bore the sin of many (v12). And so the just dies for the unjust that he may bring us to God (1 Pet 3:18 Cf. Isa 49:6). The servant becomes the guilt offering (53:10). A righteous basis was laid whereby God could be righteous and declare righteous all who trust in Jesus (Roms 3:25,26 Cf. 53:11) who bore our sins on his own body on the tree (1 Pet 2:24).

For again, of course, it is Jesus of whom Isaiah writes. It is Christ, the messianic (divine) son who is the servant (Cf. 55:3-5). The cross was an altar of sacrifice. There the servant, the well- beloved son, became an immolation. Abraham’s son was spared, God’s son is not spared… he was delivered up (by God) for us all (Roms 8). Here is God’s deliverance for rebellious Israel and a godless world. It is the astonishing response of love to sinners he will not give up. God commends his love towards us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Roms 5:8). Herein is love not that we loved God but that he loved us and gave his son as a propitiatory** sacrifice for our sins (1 Jn 4:10 Cf. Roms 3:25,26).

It is an astonishing message in every sense. No wonder its preachers, the heralds who announce victory in battle (52:6-10), ask, ‘who has believed our report?‘ Many don’t. By many, as we noted, it is met with derision and incredulity (53:1; Jn 1:10-12, 12:37,38). To the sophisticated and wise it seems folly. To those who admire power it seems weakness. To the self righteous it is a stumbling block. But to many it is the power, wisdom and righteousness of God (1 Cor 1). They ‘see‘ and ‘understand‘. Why? Because to them ‘the arm of the Lord is revealed’. Blind eyes must be opened by the servant himself (Jn 1:12,13; 6:37, 12:32).

The servant’s story does not end in death. We saw this earlier. From the outset we know he is destined for greatness. And so, resurrection while implicit in the song is very evidently there: he is not childless but has offspring (Cf. Hebs 2:13); his days do not end in midlife but will be prolonged (Ps 21:4); he will see with satisfaction the fruit of his anguish; and God’s will shall yet prosper in his hand (v10). The servant has further work to do. The decisive victory of the cross will now be employed by him to bring God’s redemptive purposes to their consummation in Isaiah’s new heavens and new earth, living, as he now does, in the power of an indestructible life (Hebs 7:16). He lives to bring many sons to glory (Hebs 2:10)… those made strong in him with whom he shares the spoils of victory in battle (Eph 4:8, 6:10-17). Motyer says it well, ‘we strayed as sheep, we return as sons’.

He who took the form of a servant and was numbered with the transgressors in full-bodied resurrection life is now highly exalted and has been given a name which is above every name that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2: 5-11). Nothing less would be fitting… nothing less would be just. The one who so entirely glorified God, God must himself glorify.

And so the servant, the messianic son, is seated at the right hand of God, crowned with glory and honour, reigning until all his enemies are the footstool for his feet (Ps 110:1; 1 Cor 15:24; Hebs 2:5-9; Acts 13:26-37). The servant reign when married to Isaiah’s gospel proclamation, ‘Your God reigns’ (52:7) and the earlier observation that words such as ‘lifted up‘ and ‘exalted‘ are used elsewhere in Isaiah only of God means we begin to see glinting through OT revelation not only identity of purpose but identity of being between the servant and his God. However, the fullness of this revelation lay in Isaiah’s future. It awaited a time when the word become flesh (Jn 1).

Half a century before this astonishing divine arrival, Isaiah’s vision across its 66 chapters is truly vast and majestic but it is surely in Ch 53, in the revelation of the self-humbling sin-bearing of God’s obedient servant, that it scales the highest heights.

Motyer understands Chs 54 and 55 as the ‘tailpiece’ of the fourth song. He writes of the ‘tailpiece’,

Isaiah 52:13–55:13: The latter extends to two chapters (54:1–55:13) in which, first, Zion is called into a covenant of peace (54:10) and, secondly, the invitation to the free banquet goes out to all (55:1–13).’

Whether these are a formal tailpiece or not it they certainly reveal what the servant has accomplished. When we read the chapter 54 we discover ‘the many’ whose sins he bore (53:12 Cf. Jn 6:37) become the teeming city, Jerusalem, once desolate (in judgement) is now by the work of the servant vibrant with life.

Grogan cites Herbert’s comments,

The change of mood between Isa 53 and 54 is abrupt. Yet … it is appropriate. The Servant’s task is seen to be fulfilled. Nothing can be added to that. But … the incredible triumph of Isa 53:10–12 issues into the hymn of praise in 54:1–10, welcoming the dawn of the New Age.”

The Lord instructs abandoned Jerusalem to rejoice for she will have many children. So many that the city will need to expand its borders (vv2,3). Paul, in Galatians, cites Isaiah 54 as fulfilled in the Jerusalem above… the heavenly city. It is bursting at the seams because its citizens, its children, are drawn not only from Israel but all the nations of the earth; ‘Jerusalem above’s’ children are all who believe the herald’s gospel report of the servant’s victory in battle (52:6-10; Gals 4:26,27; Phil 3:20,21). They are all who thirst and come to the waters to drink (55:1. Cf Jn 7:37,38). They confess along with those who first brought the ‘report‘ that Christ died for their sins, was buried and raised the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor 15). The servant is not alone he has created many servants (54:17, 56:6, 63:17, 65:8,9,13-15, 66:14) a multitude beyond number drawn by God’s everlasting love (54:8) powerfully and savingly revealed in the sufferings of his holy servant Jesus, his anointed (Acts 4:27,28). Praise God for his Servant King!

From heaven you came, helpless babe,
Entered our world, your glory veiled; 
Not to be served but to serve,
And give your life that we might live.

This is our God, the Servant King,
He calls us now to follow him,
To bring our lives as a daily offering,
Of worship to the Servant King
There in the garden of tears,
My heavy load he chose to bear;
His heart with sorrow was torn,
‘Yet not my will but yours,’ he said.
This is our God, the Servant King,
He calls us now to follow him.
To bring our lives as a daily offering
Of worship to the Servant King.
Come, see his hands and his feet,
The scars that speak of sacrifice,
Hands that flung stars into space
To cruel nails surrendered.

This is our God, the Servant King,

He calls us now to follow him,
To bring our lives as a daily offering
Of worship to the Servant King.

So let us learn how to serve,

And in our lives enthrone him;
Each other’s needs to prefer,
For it is Christ we’re serving.
This is our God, the Servant King,
He calls us now to follow him,
To bring our lives as a daily offering
Of worship to the Servant King.

*Often effort is made to expunge substitutionary , penal and wrath-bearing elements from the atonement. This is folly and futile. Below are a few avenues for exploration..

Sin, penalty and sacrifice are inextricably linked. The wage (penalty) of sin is death. In blood sacrifice, where death is required, a penal element seems unavoidable. It is sin that necessitates blood sacrifice. All the major biblical words we associate with salvation (justification, redemption, purification…) including the word salvation itself have at their core the problem of sin and its solution through blood sacrifice. Without the concept of sin and its penalty of death the death of Jesus is reduced to no more than an example of pacific self-sacrifice. However, in God’s moral universe guilt is not expunged by a good example nor mere divine goodwill. Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.

The parallel between Israel’s exile and Messiah’s exile argues for judicial wrath-bearing. Most agree, Christ, as the true Israel, recapitulates Israel’s national experience. The cross recapitulates the exile. Israel’s exile was a holocaust of divine judicial wrath where God employed gentile nations to execute his judgement. The result was devastating suffering and exile. The exile was experienced as a divine abandonment (Cf. Isa 4:3,4) with the cross as a patent parallel experience. We cannot evacuate the the cross (with its parallel suffering at the hands of gentile nations and its forsakenness) of judicial wrath and hold to recapitulation in any meaningful way. We should remember too that God’s attitude to sin is not emotionless. Sin incurs wrath… not uncontrolled anger, but righteous anger. What kind of God would he be if he was detached and unmoved in his judgements? He is absolutely just but that very justice arouses his moral outrage. A cursory reading of the prophets show divine anger is involved in the exile.

Tied closely to the exile motif is the metaphor of the ‘cup’. Jesus speaks of the cup the Father gave him to drink. It is clearly a bitter cup (Matt 26:36-46). The background seems to be the OT ‘cup of divine wrath’ (Isa 51:17-23). Isaiah is referring to the exile which forms the backdrop explaining the ‘cup’ Jesus must drink. The parallel with the exile and wrath is again to the fore. Cf. Rev 14:6-13

The first explicit mention of burnt offering sacrifice follows the flood (an expression of divine penal wrath). Noah offers sacrifices. These sacrifices are burnt offerings, an expression of homage for preservation. However, in burnt offerings (where blood is shed) there is a penal element … a life is taken for the life is in the blood (Lev 1:4). Consequent upon the sacrifices God promises to never again flood the world in judgement.

Gen 9:20 Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. 22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” 1. And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.

Not only do the sacrifices avert wrath they prompt blessing. The sweet aroma of the sacrifice in some sense satisfied God’s heart leading to the promise of blessing and the withholding of penal wrath.

Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac is another early and significant sacrifice. It too is a burnt offering, a sacrifice of devotion. Here the substitution of an animal for Isaac lays a foundation for substitution. Furthermore, it seems certain that this story is by divine intent foreshadowing the Father Son relationship in the atonement where God spared not his own son but delivered him up for us all (Roms 8). Human sacrifice has a significant OT precedent.

The Passover lamb, a seminal sacrifice for Israel, also exhibits a substitutionary element. The blood of the slain lamb appears to substitute for the firstborn preventing his death. Certainly we have a context of wrath, judgement, blood and death. The NT clearly understands Jesus to be the paschal lamb (1 Cor 5:7).

In Israel’s covenant the theme of sacrifice, as one writer puts it, explodes. Israel was given a varied and nuanced sacrifice system. Many of these were blood sacrifices. These taught in various ways that the only way an unholy people could approach a holy God is by sacrifice and only way a holy God could live among a sinful people was by sacrifice. In God’s ‘palace’ (tent or temple) on earth his throne or its footstool (the mercy-seat) was able to be a throne of mercy because it was sprinkled with sacrificial blood. God’s heart is merciful and he desires his rule to be merciful and so provides blood sacrifice to allow him to justly be merciful. Sacrifice enabled the holy and the unholy to co-exist, indeed enjoy fellowship, because it covered sin. Hands laid on the blood offering signified identification with it and the recognition the animal was dying vicariously. Sins confessed over it suggested their consequences are borne by the animal. Sin had at two very significant aspects; it was an impurity to be cleansed it was a transgression to be judged. Both aspects were addressed by sacrifice. If blood sacrifices were not offered for sin then the sinner must bear the guilt.. that is, the liability or penalty. The ‘ransom’ element in blood sacrifice (paying of debt) relates to guilt. In the NT God’s throne is for the believer a throne of grace because of the atoning blood of Christ otherwise it would be one of judgement as in Rev 20.

Isaiah”s servant to onlookers seemed to be bearing judgement from God… he is smitten and afflicted…. a man under wrath. They were right, he was bearing judgement, but it was our judgement. He is being punished/chastised but it is for our sins. In the wider context of Isaiah which develops God’s penal (wrathful) judgments on a rebellious Israel and the other nations the atoning sacrifice of the servant is clearly vicarious (53:4-6). He absorbs the wrathful judgement that belongs to others. It is really difficult to avoid the logic of blood sacrifice here. Indeed, sacrifice of the servant draws from explicitly from Israel’s sacrificial system. It is described as a guilt offering. Note, the servant is never a passive victim he is an active partner in the atonement.

The cross is curse-bearing. By hanging on the tree Jesus came under judicial covenant curse (Deut 22:22,23; Gals 3:13). It is hard to dissociate judicial cursing from penal and wrath-bearing elements. The curse is the penalty of a broken covenant. Both penal and propitiatory elements are to be found in various Scriptures (Roms 3:24,25 ;Hebs 2:17; 1 Jn 4:10). Romans 1 states the dilemma – the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against the unrighteousness and ungodliness of man. In ch 3: 24-26 the answer to divine wrath found and it is in God’s provision of a propitiatory sacrifice… Christ, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood – a blood splattered mercy seat – to be received by faith (3:25). God we are told ‘passed over’ former sins. That is, he did not punish them as they deserved. He was righteous in doing this because he knew there would be a time when the deserved punishment would be placed upon Christ. It is not simply that at the cross ‘the love of God is magnified’ as those who would alter Townend’s hymn suggest. Townend’s words remain biblical and correct, at the cross, ‘the wrath of God is satisfied’.

Other texts that teach one or more of these aspects of atonement include (2 Cor 5:21; 1 Pet 2:24, 3:18; Mk 110:45. Jn 10:15; Col 2:14). These NT texts often allude to OT texts where models were given intended to explain the once and for all atonement of the cross.

False and blasphemous caricatures of a vengeful Father abusing his son are beneath contempt. Those who propagate them are culpable because they know how specious they are. The atonement is not a loving Christ appeasing a vengeful God. It is not some random innocent forced to be a scapegoat for the guilty. It is not even simply a sinless human volunteering to be a vicarious sacrifice. It is God the Father and God the Son through God the Spirit accomplishing redemption. The atonement is God’s initiative and God’s activity. It is God providing for himself a sacrifice and providing himself for a sacrifice. It is the love story of the trinitarian God for a rebellious world.


isaiah’s suffering servant… the fourth song 52:13-53:13 (1)

An introduction

We have reached the fourth and final servant song. (at least those where he is designated servant). We have previously noticed the ambiguity of the servant in Isaiah. It is clear that Israel, the nation, is God’s servant, his chosen one (41:8-10). Yet Israel is a disobedient servant, a rebellious servant, blind and deaf to the voice of God (48:8, 42:19 Cf. 30:9,65:2). However, another servant sits alongside Israel. He too is Israel, the chosen one (42:1, 49:3), but in contradistinction to Israel he is neither rebellious nor deaf (50:5). If Israel, the rebellious servant, brought shame on the name of the Lord then in Israel, the obedient servant, he will be glorified (49:3). At great personal cost the obedient servant will establish God’s righteousness in an unrighteous world (42:4). He will be a covenant to Israel and a light to the nations (42:6). Israel is blind and in captivity but the servant opens the eyes of the blind and frees the captives (42:7). He will transform rebels into obedient servants modelled on him. The obedient servant is a truly great figure. His accomplishments on God’s behalf are of such magnitude that all the nations of the world will be blessed through them (49:6).

The news of his victory over the enemies of God and his people calls for celebration (49-52, 52:7). Through the servant God’s reign is established and his people’s distress is turned to rejoicing (52:7). Good news indeed! In the servant the mighty arm of the Lord (his immense strength) is laid bare in salvation for the whole earth to see and be astonished (52:10).

Given the accomplishments of the servant we are not surprised to read at the beginning of the fourth servant song that many are ‘astonished‘ by him (52:14). To overthrow evil and establish righteousness in such a world as this is truly astonishing. Yet, a moment’s careful reading shows that the astonishment of v14 is not elicited by the servant’s triumphs but by his trials. The astonishment is a reaction to who the servant is and the profound depths of his suffering. So contrary to natural expectation is the servant that it is difficult to believe he is the one who will put the world to right. Those who announce his victory have a difficult task on their hands (53:1).

The servant is the polar opposite of what we may expect the person to be who would change the course of history and fulfil God’s purposes in the world. He has no position in life… a root out of dry ground (53:2). He has no obvious charisma that would command a following… no beauty that he would be desired (53:2). Instead of being an all-conquering warrior in the way we might expect he suffers deeply and terribly. Indeed so great is his suffering that he is scarcely recognisable as a man (52:14). Surely he has done something terribly wrong to deserve such suffering; the servant to all appearances is someone to avoid not someone to admire (53:2).

Astonishing indeed! Yet something even more astonishing is revealed; the servant’s suffering is indeed because of sin but not because of personal sin; he suffers because of his people’s sin. He is not suffering alongside his people he is suffering in the place of his people. Israel the individual is suffering for Israel the nation. This is the astonishing truth beggaring belief that is the centrepiece of the song,

4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Isa 53:4-6).

Israel’s sin, human sin, our sin, is so abhorrent, so grave, so entrenched that only a human sacrifice could atone and deliver. Those of us who live this side of the cross and have been familiar with its message from the earliest don’t fully appreciate how astonishing, even repulsive, such a message is to those who hear it for the first time. It is a startling revelation. Little wonder its heralds exclaim, ‘who has believed our report?‘ (53:1).

Yet, however startling, alien, even unpalatable this message about the servant is, it is the ‘good news’ that saves all who believe. It is the foundation of all God’s promised blessing. If Israel is to be saved and if the nations are to be blessed, then the Son of Man must suffer and die. The corn of wheat must give itself in death to produce fruit. The message of the suffering servant, of the cross, to those who are perishing is both foolishness and weakness but to those who believe it is the power of God unto salvation. If God’s righteousness is to be established on earth then it will only be through the servant’s sin-bearing death.

And so Isaiah reveals by the Spirit the astonishing truth of a crucified Christ. A truth that has spread now throughout the world bringing life and hope and a future to millions. It is the song of redemption that will ring eternally through the courts of heaven.

9 And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”

I hope to look at the song more fully in a further post.


do not cast me off in my old age…psalm 71

Psalm 71

9 Do not cast me off in the time of old age;
forsake me not when my strength is spent.
…18 So even to old age and gray hairs,
O God, do not forsake me,

I have now reached my 65th year. I know many in their mid-sixties do not feel old. In my own case, due to some ongoing health issues, I do often feel old… I often feel my strength is spent. Certainly most of us are only too aware the vigour of youth is gone.

Struggling a bit recently, the Lord directed me to this Psalm and only as I read it did I see why; it was guidance for an older man when ‘enemies‘ attack, even when (as for me) the ‘enemy‘ is the thought in my own mind.

Although the Psalm is not said to be a psalm of David the language is very reminiscent of Psalms he has written and draws freely from them. The history of conflict also fits with many Davidic Psalms. Furthermore, the writer has clearly been the focus of many (v7) and has known greatness (v21). However, in any long life of following the Lord conflict of one kind or another is inevitable… even if it is only with one’s self. The writer may be David but he may be any saint who has known the opposition of the world, the flesh and the devil.

The Psalm arises out of conflict. There has been conflict in the past (v20) and in old age there is still conflict (v4). The Psalmist has enemies who wish him harm (v10) and he feels their threat (v12). They are unjust and cruel (v4). They conspire against him and ‘seek his hurt’ (vv10,11,13). Old age may be as much a time of trouble as youth and greater personal weakness and vulnerability make trouble especially difficult (vv 9,18).

How does the writer combat this threat?

He affirms that the Lord is his refuge (v1)

  • In you O Lord do I take refuge’ (Cf. v7)
  • The first and supreme resource for the believer is the Lord. That the Lord is the refuge of his people, especially the needy, runs throughout the Psalms. Here he is a ‘rock of habitation‘. Refuge in the Lord is ‘home’ for this elderly believer. The Lord is his place of safety… a rock and fortress (v3). The narrator appeals to the Lord to save him and is confident he will.
  • He draws strength from the past. Old age has its benefits for it has behind it for many a lifetime of trust and knowing the Lord’s deliverances (v15,16). The Psalmist has had the Lord as his trust and hope since his youth (v5). Indeed he grasps that since birth he has really been dependent on the Lord (v6). Wilcock quotes similar sentiments of divine protection even when he was unaware of them in a hymn by Joseph Addison
  • Unnumbered comforts to my soul

    Thy tender care bestowed,

    Before my infant heart conceived

    From whom those comforts flowed.

    When in the slippery paths of youth

    With heedless steps I ran,

    Thine arm unseen conveyed me safe

    And brought me up to man.

  • The memories of past support both fortify his soul in the present crisis and assure him of deliverance (v20).
  • He believes he will be helped and vindicated because the Lord is righteous (vv2,15,16,19,24). The character of the Lord is why he can find in him a refuge. The Lord is strong (a rock) but he is also righteous. He acts righteously and he hears the righteous when they call on him (v2,19). The Lord is on the side of the righteous and the writer recalls the great things the Lord has done (v15,16,17). Indeed, God’s righteousness involves him acting to set things right; his righteous acts raise the humble and crush the wicked. Focussing on the great righteous saving acts of God for his people in the past both in Scripture and our own experience is a source of strength. The Psalmist believes the Lord will deliver him (v3) because God’s own righteous character requires of him. The Lord hears us because he is gracious but as his people trusting in him we can rejoice that the Lord hears us also because he is just; he would be unrighteous not to hear those whose trust is centred in him (Cf. 1 Jn 1:9). The Psalmist expects his deliverance in this life (v24) though he describes it by the metaphor of resurrection (v 20). However, not all deliverance is in this life. We recognise with a light much clearer through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus that ultimate deliverance and vindication may lie beyond death and await the day of resurrection but it is no less assured (Roms 8:18; 2 Cor 4:17; 1 Thess 4:13-18). God will vindicate his people.

  • He anticipates the overthrow of his enemies. The imprecatory element is more muted than some Psalms but it is still present. He is a ‘portent‘ to his enemies; possibly implying that his troubles in life have made him seem an object lesson on God’s judgements when we sin, though, as with Job, this would be a false conclusion (v7). Perhaps more likely, however, he is saying that he has stood for truth which has made him unwelcome to many. These are now in his old age his accusers that he prays may be ‘put to shame and consumed‘ (v13). As NT believers, we have been taught to love our enemies and to have a forgiving heart and calls for vengeance don’t sit easily. Yet, although in some ways muted, the concept of vengeance is not absent from the NT (Roms 12:9). The imprecatory Psalms reveal a willingness to forego a vendetta of personal justice by leaving justice in the hands of the Lord. As Christians we recognise a need for both mercy and justice. We can forego justice in this life precisely because we believe that God is the judge of all the earth. Even our Lord, so willing to forgive, informed his accusers of a day when he would judge them (Mk 14:62). Justice, not revenge, is at the heart of imprecation.. or as Kidner writes, vindication not vindictiveness.
  • He is is eager to tell a future generation of the Lord’s saving acts on his behalf. He wants to declare to others what the Lord has done for him. A generation yet to come will be blessed as he praises the Lord and has opportunity to tell of his greatness (v18). The desire to tell others of the good things God has done for us is spiritually and even psychologically healthy. Our lives are not over until they are over. Aspirations to continue to serve are good. However, circumstances may dictate that only God and perhaps angelic beings will hear our praise, perhaps faint in its weakness, but faint praise also has its worth. Our praise is worship. It is a celebration of all God is and as such is our greatest devotion and his greatest delight.
  • He determines to turn from his troubles and rejoice in the Lord. The Psalm is full of praise affirmations (v3, 6,8,17). It has been his way of life (v6, 8) and he resolves to continue to praise (vv14-16, 22-24). Indeed, like the sufferer of Psalm 22, he wants to declare God’s greatness to and among his people. Praise, and where possible, praise among God’s people, is an antidote for every kind of dark thought. It lifts our spirit and focuses our mind on the God and his many triumphs for his people and for us. One way or another the writer’s focus is on the Lord. His confidence is in a God who is a constant refuge and does not cast us off in our old age.
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    isaiah 50:4-11… the servant who gives his back to those who strike him

    Isaiah 50:4-11 The third servant song

    Kidner, commenting on the song writes: After the display of patient gentleness in the first ‘Song’ (42:1–9) and the acceptance of frustrating toil in the second (49:4, 7), here the Servant faces the active spite and fury of evil. It is only a step, the reader feels, to the cross.

    Unlike deaf and disobedient Israel (42:19, 48:18), each morning the servant awakens with the ear of a disciple willing to be taught (v4). There is a consistency implied in the ‘each morning’,a lifelong attentiveness to God’s unfolding will’ (Kidner). It is because he is taught of the Lord in the way of obedience and is submissive to his instruction at great cost (vv5,6) that he is able to sustain the weary and fainting, no doubt descriptive of the dispirited faithful exiles (v4, 42:3, 49:14, 51:7). He does so primarily by ‘a word’ developing a theme of the first and second songs (v4, 42:2, 49:2). His word may be a weapon of judgement (49:2) or a source of life (Jn 6:63) but it is always authoritative (v10). Yet, only as a last resort are his words condemnatory; he came not to judge and condemn but to save (Jn 3:17) As servants modelled on Christ at the various levels of individual calling we will seek to hear God’s voice each day, particularly in his word, and to minister this to others as able.

    Although it seems clear that the servant is the speaker in the song it is only in the epilogue or what Motyer calls the ‘tailpiece’ to the song that this is confirmed (v10). The servant, as we have seen, is God’s obedient servant in contrast to disobedient Israel. When God came to Israel he had found ‘no man to answer’ (v2). There was a spiritual deafness and dullness in the nation. Yet God announces his ability to redeem, to accomplish a second exodus (v2). How would he do so? The answer is becoming increasingly obvious as the servant songs progress; his redemption will be accomplished by the servant who the NT identifies as Jesus Messiah, the true Israel, who hears and obeys.

    Progressively through the songs opposition to the servant unfolds. In the first song, we saw his task would involve the personal grit of faith enabling him to neither falter nor grow faint (42v4). In the second we see he is a polished arrow suggesting involvement in warfare and he is despised and abhorred by the people (49:2,7). In the third song, opposition is revealed as more than an attitude as becomes an act; he is physically assaulted. He gives his back to those who strike, and his cheeks to those who pull out his beard. He yields to disgrace and spitting (vv5,6). These prophecies find very clear NT fulfilment in Jesus (Matt 26:67; 27:26, 30; Mk 14: 53-65, 15:19; Luke 22:63; Jn:18:22, 19:1-3).

    It is not simply that these abuses happen but that he submits to them happening… he gives his back to the smitters. Kidner again says so much in a few words; ‘Godward he makes it his offering of obedience. Manward his costly voluntary gift’. All this was embraced from the moment he thought equality with God not something to tenaciously grasp. We do not know how awareness of his divine mission developed in Jesus’ human consciousness but we know the implications of his mission were clear before he embarked on the course his public ministry involved. The events surrounding his death he plainly reveals to his disciples beforehand (Cf. Mk 8:31,32) . Little wonder he needs to set his face as a flint…resolutely… when the destination is his final journey to Jerusalem (v7; Lk 9:51)*.

    Central to the rejection of the servant is the charge of being an imposter. In one way or another throughout his public ministry there are attacks on his identity and integrity (Mk 14:5-65). The constant drip of hostile accusation is undoubtedly wearing. Then there are the climactic events and accusations of the final week. The servant faces enormous pressure, physical and mental. Against this he finds resource in his conviction that the ‘sovereign Lord’ has and will help him. The Lord will vindicate him. Sure of the Lord’s vindication he challenges his accusers to find guilt (vv7-9: Cf. Jn 8:46. Cf. Matt. 27:3–4, 19, 24; Mark 15:3; Luke 23:4, 10, 14–15, 41; John 8:46; 19:6). He is confident that however strong and forceful his abusive accusers may seem to be they are ultimately as transient as their accusations (v9, 51:7,8). Indeed all who oppose him will ultimately lie down in torment (v11). However, we must not minimise the enormous resources of faith such a stand demanded. He would not be vindicated in life. For Jesus, vindication lay beyond death in resurrection and exaltation (as it is ultimately for all his people who die before his return). In faith, he submitted to death believing on the third day he would rise (Lk 18:33). A trust and confidence that was fully answered (Acts 2:23–24; 3:15; 13:29–30). Ultimate vindication of course will come when God ensures that every knee bows and every tongue confesses he is Lord (Phil 2 Cf, Mk 14:62).

    The obedient servant, Jesus, is confident of God’s righteous verdict for who is in himself. We are confident of a similar verdict because of who we are in him. United to him we share in all the implications of his death and resurrection. We stand in the fullness of all he is and all he has done. As we face opposition and accusation external and internal we respond in words that echo those of the servant,

    Roms 8:31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.

    And so we come to the ‘tailpiece’ (vv 10,11). Motyer sees this tailpiece and the one in the final song as calls to respond to the servant.

    The song began conveying the submissiveness of the servant and his sensitivity to others. As it progresses we see opposition has hardened into violence to which he submits. Yet the servant is no pushover. In his submissiveness there is steel and he knows who he is and the authority that is his. He may not cry out in the street (ch 42) but as we already observed his voice is to be obeyed (v10). In the opposition to him lines of loyalty are being clearly drawn and sides must be taken. In the darkness of the human condition will we obey the voice of the servant (fear God and rely on the Lord) and come to him to find the light of life (v10). Or will we reject him and walk by our own light only for it to all to end in lying down in torment (v11). Israel rejected the voice of the servant in the day she was visited and as a nation tragically has known what it is to ‘lie down in torment’. For individuals the stakes are much higher… torment has an eternal resonance.

    The song ends with the challenge of the servant ringing in our ears.

    *It is interesting that Luke speaks not of the Lord’s approaching cross but approaching ascension (Lk 9:51). He was enabled to endure the cross in part by focussing on the joy set before him.

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    The Cave promotes the Christian Gospel by interacting with Christian faith and practice from a conservative evangelical perspective.


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