Isaiah 66: Restoration and Retribution
Where we are:
|Part 1: Judgment||Part 2: Historical Interlude||Part 3: Salvation|
|Chapters 1-35||Chapters 36-39||Chapters 40-66|
When this takes place:
Chapter 66 is part of the second major section of Isaiah and deals less with Judah’s immediate plight than with its future deliverance from Babylonian exile and ultimate glory.
Isa. 66:14-16 – You will see, you will rejoice, and you will flourish like grass; then the Lord’s power will be revealed to His servants, but He will show His wrath against His enemies. Look, the Lord will come with fire – His chariots are like the whirlwind – to execute His anger with fury, and His rebuke with flames of fire. For the Lord will execute judgment on all flesh with His fiery sword, and many will be slain by the Lord.
“[M]en can look forward to the future with fear and with hope. God, the Creator, extends the offer of fellowship to the humble who are responsive to His Word (66:1–6). Zion is told to rejoice, confident that all her troubles are but birth pangs, and soon she will give birth to a glorious future (vv. 7–11). God will bless His land with peace and comfort His children in the day He executes judgment on sin (vv. 12–16). This book of powerful poetry ends in prose. God pledges that all mankind as well as the Jewish people will find Him at history’s end. The new heavens and the new earth He makes will endure. But the bodies of those who rebelled against the Lord will be scattered over old earth’s deadened lands (vv. 17–24)” (Lawrence O. Richards, The Bible Readers Companion, electronic ed., S. 445).
Jesus quotes the concluding verse of Isaiah (66:24) in Mark 9:43-48 to contrast the final state of the redeemed with that of the lost. The prophet ends his book with these words: “As they [worshipers of God in the age to come] leave, they will see the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against Me; for their maggots will never die, their fire will never go out, and they will be a horror to all mankind.” Seven hundred years later, Jesus quotes this passage to warn His listeners that there are everlasting consequences for rejecting Him. He urges them not to let anything keep them from “life” or “the kingdom of God.” Yet, just as many people reject Isaiah’s call to repentance, many in Jesus’ day – and even today – reject His invitation to life and thus will find themselves in “hell – the unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43).
God’s Throne and Footstool (Isa. 66:1-2)
The Lord is depicted figuratively as sitting on a throne, with the earth as His footstool. Jesus borrows this imagery in the Sermon on the Mount, instructing His disciples to speak truthfully – with a simple yes or no – and resist the contemporary trend to swear by heaven and earth (Matt. 5:33-37). Stephen quotes this passage in Acts 7:49-50 in his defense before the Sanhedrin to remind the Jewish leaders that the magnificent temple in Jerusalem is inferior to the God who is worshipped there – a sovereign Lord who cannot be confined to man-made dwellings. Isaiah’s point is that God, who created all things and is greater than any house of worship, seeks a personal relationship with the one who is “humble, submissive in spirit, and who trembles at My word” (v. 2). For Israel, that word is primarily the Mosaic Covenant. Pointing the people back to the Word of God, Isaiah is telling them they need to obey it if they want to receive the Lord’s blessings.
Divine Payback (Isa. 66:3-6)
The stark contrasts in verse 3 expose the people’s religious practices for what they really are: external rituals void of heartfelt worship. While bringing sacrifices and offerings to the temple, the people are murderers, idolaters and breakers of the dietary laws. They have “chosen their ways and delighted in their abominations.” Therefore, harsh judgment is coming. The people who profess to know the Lord, yet hate His people and discriminate against them, will feel the hand of divine discipline when the temple is destroyed.
Jesus has similar words for the religious leaders in His day. Matthew 23 features a series of woes pronounced on religious hypocrites. Here is a sampling:
- Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You pay a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy, and faith. These things should have been done without neglecting the others. Blind guides! You strain out a gnat, yet gulp down a camel! (vv. 23-24)
- Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every impurity. In the same way, on the outside you seem righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (vv. 27-28)
- Snakes! Brood of vipers! How can you escape being condemned to hell? This is why I am sending you prophets, sages, and scribes. Some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will flog in your synagogues and hound from town to town. So all the righteous blood shed on the earth will be charged to you, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. I assure you: All these things will come on this generation! (vv. 33-37)
Just as God tells the people in Isaiah’s day that He will use the Babylonians to judge them, Jesus tells the Jewish leaders that terrible days are coming upon them as well – divine retribution for rejecting God’s Son, the Messiah. This is fulfilled in 70 A.D. when the Romans sack Jerusalem, destroy the temple and scatter the Jews.
Birth of a Nation (Isa. 66:7-21)
Israel’s return to the land after the Babylonian exile will be so swift that it is likened to a woman giving birth as soon as she experiences her first labor pains. The Lord will finish what He started, resulting in great joy for His people. They will exult in a rebuilt Jerusalem just as an infant delights in her mother’s breast. Peace will come to Jerusalem and the nations’ wealth will flow to her. Just as Jerusalem is compared to a mother in verses 11-12, the Lord is compared to a mother who comforts her children in verse 13: “As a mother comforts her son, so I will comfort you, and you will be comforted in Jerusalem.” While these promises offer great hope to the Israelites facing Babylonian captivity, they look ever further into the future to that glorious time when Christ will sit on the throne of David. This should be a message of comfort to Jews today, and to all Christians who look forward to Christ’s glorious return.
While millennial blessings will flow abundantly in Israel, the Lord promises retribution against those who oppose Him and His people. Verses 15-16 are graphic depictions of God’s wrath: “Look, the Lord will come with fire – His chariots are like the whirlwind – to execute His anger and fury, and His rebuke with flames of fire. For the Lord will execute judgment on all flesh with His fiery sword, and many will be slain by the Lord.” D.A. Carson comments: “The fire and sword are the harsh aspect of every divine intervention (cf. Mt. 10:34), but this is the final one (cf. v 24; 2 Thes. 1:7–10). While it has reference to all men, the special objects of wrath are the apostates of v 17 (cf. 65:3–7; Lv. 11:7, 29), who have known the light and despised it” (New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, S. Is 66:6).
When Christ returns, He will judge all nations (Zech. 14:3; Rev. 19:17-18) and because of that the world will see His glory. People from around the globe will turn to the Lord and worship Him. Believing Israelites will travel to distant lands to testify of God’s magnificent glory and grace. Those hearing the message represent the distant outposts of Israel’s world: Tarshish (probably southwestern Spain), Put (northern Africa), Lud (western Asia Minor), Tubal (northeastern Asia Minor), Javan (Greece), and other distant lands. They will be won to the Lord and will travel to Jerusalem to worship. Some will even be selected priests and Levites, positions historically reserved for Jews alone.
New Heavens and Earth (Isa. 66:22-24)
The closing verses of this breathtaking book contrast the joy of the redeemed and the fate of the damned, magnifying God’s grace and justice. As the Gentiles once descended on Israel in search of plunder, they will in the age to come travel expectantly to worship the Lord. As they depart Jerusalem, they will see the bloated corpses of those who have rebelled against their King. Just outside the city lies the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna in Greek), a place where children once were sacrificed to pagan gods and, in Jesus’ day, a trash dump where fires burned continuously. The valley is a picture of judgment (Isa. 30:33). Jesus used it to illustrate the horrors of hell (Mark 9:43-48). According to Derek Kidner, in the synagogue verse 23 is read again after verse 24 to soften the ending of the prophecy, but the reality of hell is a true ending for unbelievers (New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, S. Is 66:18).
For believers, however, the new heavens and earth are purged of sin and its consequences. While the terrible fate of those who reject Christ may remain with the saints as a reminder of God’s mercy toward them, the pristine beauty of God’s restored creation overshadows the putrid scenes of Gehenna. There is no doubt that God will shake the earth to its very foundation in the days to come, judging all people and removing the curse of sin. Note how the writer of Hebrews looks to this day: “[B]ut now He has promised, Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also heaven. Now this expression, ‘Yet once more,’ indicates the removal of what can be shaken – that is, created things – so that what is not shaken might remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us hold on to grace. By it, we may serve God acceptably, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:26-29).
The apostle Peter also gives us a foretaste of what is to come, and how we should live in the light of God’s future earthly renovation: “But the Day of the Lord will come like a thief; on that [day] the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, the elements will burn and be dissolved, and the earth and the works on it will be disclosed. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, [it is clear] what sort of people you should be in holy conduct and godliness as you wait for and earnestly desire the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be on fire and be dissolved, and the elements will melt with the heat. But based on His promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness will dwell” (2 Peter 3:10-13).
Warren Wiersbe summarizes: “Throughout his book, Isaiah has presented us with alternatives: Trust the Lord and live, or rebel against the Lord and die. He has explained the grace and mercy of God and offered His forgiveness. He has also explained the holiness and wrath of God and warned of His judgment. He has promised glory for those who will believe and judgment for those who scoff. He has explained the foolishness of trusting man’s wisdom and the world’s resources. The prophet calls the professing people of God back to spiritual reality. He warns against hypocrisy and empty worship. He pleads for faith, obedience, a heart that delights in God, and a life that glorifies God” (Be Comforted, S. Is 66:1).
Commenting on Isaiah’s closing verse – a graphic vision of the saved observing the damned – Matthew Henry writes: “Those that worship God shall go forth and look upon them, to affect their own hearts with the love of their Redeemer, when they see what misery they are redeemed from. As it will aggravate the miseries of the damned to see others in the kingdom of heaven and themselves thrust out (Lu. 13:28), so it will illustrate the joys and glories of the blessed to see what becomes of those that died in their transgression, and it will elevate their praises to think that they were themselves as brands plucked out of that burning. To the honour of that free grace which thus distinguished them let the redeemed of the Lord with all humility, and not without a holy trembling, sing their triumphant songs” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, S. Is 66:15).