LISTEN: Isaiah 54 – I Will Take You Back (mp3)
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 54 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. 54:7-8 – “I deserted you for a brief moment, but I will take you back with great compassion. In a surge of anger I hid Myself from you for a moment, but I will have compassion on you with everlasting love,” says the Lord your Redeemer.
Israel is encouraged to burst into song because her punishment is over and the Lord, like a loving husband, is taking back His wayward bride and showering her with blessings. Her exile in Babylon was necessary because of her grievous sin, but it was only a temporary banishment because the Lord is faithful to His promises. Just as God honored His covenant with Noah, He will honor His “covenant of peace” with Israel. These verses await their complete fulfillment in the messianic kingdom.
The imagery throughout this chapter is that of Yahweh, the faithful husband, forgiving Israel, the unfaithful wife, restoring her to her home and bestowing her with undeserved blessings. Warren Wiersbe comments: “Isaiah has used the marriage image before (50:1–3) and will use it again (62:4). Jeremiah also used it (Jer. 3:8), and it is an important theme in both Hosea (chap. 2) and Ezekiel (chaps. 16 and 23). The nation was ‘married’ to Jehovah at Mt. Sinai, but she committed adultery by turning to other gods; and the Lord had to abandon her temporarily. However, the prophets promise that Israel will be restored when Messiah comes and establishes His kingdom” (Be Comforted, S. Is 54:1).
Israel’s Numerical Growth (Isa. 54:1-3)
Israel is likened to a barren woman who experiences the shame of childlessness and knows full well the void it brings to her life. But the Lord promises that days of gladness lie ahead and that her tents will be expanded to accommodate the children who will be born to her. The image of expanding the tent reminds the people of God’s covenant with Abraham, who dwelled in tents and was called outside to count the stars as a sign of the Lord’s promise of offspring. In similar fashion, this ragtag band of post-exilic Jews will re-inhabit the Promised Land and fill it. God will do for them what He did for Abraham and Sarah (Isa. 49:18-21; 51:1-3).
“Jerusalem, once desolate and mourning (Lam. 1:1-5), will be revitalized and teeming with people. Also like a nomad who has so many children he has to enlarge his tent to accommodate them all, Israel’s descendants will increase and even settle in the cities of foreign nations because there will not be enough room for them in their homeland” (John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, S. 1:1109). The complete fulfillment of this prophecy awaits the messianic kingdom.
Paul quotes Isa. 54:1 in Gal. 4:27 and applies the spiritual principle to the church. As God blesses Sarah and the Jewish remnant with children, He will bless His church, even though at present it is only a small company of faithful followers in a wayward world.
Israel’s Regathering (Isa. 54:4-8)
The Lord promises Israel He will take her back the way a gracious husband takes back an unfaithful wife. The people are urged not to fear for they will not be put to shame, and not to be humiliated for they will not suffer disgrace. While deserving of such consequences for their spiritual adultery, the Israelites will be welcomed into the arms of a faithful and forgiving Husband. And who is this Husband? Their “Maker – His name is Yahweh of Hosts … the Holy One of Israel … Redeemer … the God of all the earth” (v. 5).
Yahweh will not destroy the people He has created for His own glory. “He is their Redeemer and cannot sell them into the hands of the enemy. He is their Husband and will not break His covenant promises. As an unfaithful wife, Israel had forsaken her Husband; but He had not permanently abandoned her. He only gave her opportunity to see what it was like to live in a land where people worshiped false gods. God would call her back and woo her to Himself (Hosea 2:14–23), and she would no longer be ‘a wife deserted’ (Isa. 54:6, NIV). She felt forsaken (49:14), but God did not give her up” (Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Comforted, S. Is 54:1).
The husband / wife analogy is used frequently in Scripture to describe God’s relationship with Israel. Israel is the unfaithful wife who runs after pagan deities. In anger, God abandons Israel, but only for a time (see Jer. 31:31-34). He is faithful and compassionate. He will remain true to His promises. He will restore His people. In much the same way the New Testament writers refer to Christ as the bridegroom and the church as His bride. Unlike Israel, the church is not yet married to Christ. Rather, she is espoused, or engaged, and is expected to remain chaste and pure until the Bridegroom comes for Her. The apostle Paul, as a friend of the groom, urges his fellow believers to resist false teachings so they will not be enticed to embrace “another Jesus” and thus commit spiritual adultery (2 Cor. 11:4). Ultimately, a great day is in store for Christ and His church when they sit down together at the marriage feast of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7-9).
Israel’s Security (Isa. 54:9-10)
The Lord reminds Israel that His love, mercy and covenant promises remain even though the stinging memory of exile is fresh in the people’s minds. Yahweh has kept His word not to destroy the earth by flood again (Gen. 9:11-17), so His people may count on Him to faithfully carry out His promises of future national blessing. “Though the mountains move and the hills shake, My love will not be removed from you and My covenant of peace will not be shaken,” He assures them (v. 10). This does not mean the Lord will withhold future discipline from Israel, for we see the temple destroyed again in 70 A.D. and the Jews dispersed among the nations as a result of their rejection of Jesus as Messiah. But even then, the Lord has preserved a believing remnant, restored the Jews to their homeland (in 1948) and will bring about a spiritual revival in the land when the people He has chosen finally trust in Jesus as His Son and their Savior.
Israel’s Peaceful Future (Isa. 54:11-17)
Throughout the centuries, Jerusalem has experienced many sorrows, prompting the Lord to call her “storm-tossed, and not comforted” (v. 11). However, in coming days the Lord will build up the city with stones made of precious gems as a symbol of her great value. This also may be seen as foreshadowing the New Jerusalem, which comes down from heaven and is beautifully adorned with precious jewels (Rev. 21:9-27). The children will be taught by the Lord, experience great prosperity and stand securely on a foundation of righteousness. The people no longer will fear oppression from without or corruption from within, for the Lord will protect them.
No doubt this is a preview of the Millennium, during which time no nation will be allowed to defeat Israel. “If anyone attacks you, it is not from Me,” says Yahweh in verse 15, contrasting God’s use of Assyria to punish the northern kingdom (722 B.C.) and Babylon to discipline the southern kingdom (587 B.C.). Further, the Lord assures His people that “whoever attacks you will fall before you.” He continues in verse 17: “No weapon formed against you will succeed, and you will refute any accusation raised against you in court. This is the heritage of the Lord’s servants, and their righteousness is from Me.” It is always the righteousness of God that saves, not man’s own “filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). We see this stated plainly and illustrated beautifully in the New Testament. In Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet (Matt. 22:1-14), an invited guest is bound hand and foot and cast into outer darkness because he has refused to wear the wedding garment providing by the king. This shows that no one’s own righteousness merits entrance into the kingdom, only the righteousness of Christ. And in Rev. 7:9-17, an innumerable host of people, robed in white, stands before the throne and the Lamb. Their robes are white because “they washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
D.A. Carson writes that “the righteousness of v 14 and the impregnability of vs 15–17 are deep rooted in personal discipleship, which is one of the marks of the new covenant. This is the true strength of God’s city, which is promised not immunity from attack but the unanswerable weapon of truth” (New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, S. Is 54:11).
Lawrence O. Richards comments about the covenant of peace in verse 10: “[T]he focus of this covenant is on security. God throws a protective covering over His people so that they will be safe. While this is an eschatological covenant, it has present application to you and me. God’s protective covering has been thrown over us as well. God the Holy Spirit is Himself ‘a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession’ (Eph. 1:14). Because we are God’s own we are safe and secure” (The Bible Readers Companion, electronic ed., Logos Research Systems, S. 440).
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:
Hezekiah falls terminally ill, apparently in the days before or during Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C.
Isa. 38:17 – Indeed, it was for [my own] welfare that I had such great bitterness; but Your love [has delivered] me from the Pit of destruction, for You have thrown all my sins behind Your back.
Hezekiah is afflicted by a fatal illness and in desperation cries out to the Lord, who extends the king’s life by 15 years. The shadow of the king’s sundial moves back 10 degrees as a sign of God’s promise. After being healed, Hezekiah recounts his depression and deliverance in a poem that praises the Lord for His forgiveness and faithfulness.
The sign of God’s promise to Hezekiah – the backwards movement of the sundial – is similar to an even more dramatic event in Joshua 10:12-14, when the Lord causes the sun to delay its setting for almost a full day so the Israelites may take their vengeance on the Amorites. Both miracles illustrate the Lord’s power over creation and His sovereign right to suspend the orderly principles upon which the universe operates.
The King’s Sickness and Supplication (Isa. 38:1-3)
Hezekiah’s illness precedes Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem, recorded in chapters 36-37. Chapters 38-39 come before chapters 36-37 chronologically but are placed here perhaps because they prepare the way for the rest of Isaiah. The news of Hezekiah’s illness affects the entire nation. Whenever a leader – especially a godly one like Hezekiah – falls ill, it impacts the economy, the military, the national mood and much more. Imagine, as well, how the news creates national panic when Jerusalem is on the cusp of an Assyrian siege. But there’s more. Since Hezekiah does not have a son, he would have to appoint a near relative to the throne. Would God’s promise to David hold true (2 Sam. 7:16)?
Upon learning of his terminal illness (2 Kings 20:1-6, 9-11; 2 Chron. 32:24) the king turns his face to the wall, not in a sulking manner as Ahab has done (1 Kings 21:4), but likely to afford himself privacy as he seeks the Lord’s favor. While some commentators criticize Hezekiah for his “selfish” prayer, the king is praying only as most others would pray. Besides, as a godly king, he likely has his nation’s future in mind at least as much as his own health. Interestingly, Hezekiah does not specifically pray that his life be spared, although it is implied. Rather, his concern seems to be for a godly leader at a time of national calamity.
Even though Hezekiah’s illness is a crushing blow to the king and his subjects, God will use the circumstances of the king’s life to teach us to rely totally on Him to be faithful to His promises.
The Lord’s Salvation and Sign (Isa. 38:4-8)
The Lord replies to Hezekiah’s prayer through Isaiah, who assures the king that Yahweh has heard his prayer and seen his tears. It should be comforting to the believer to know that the sovereign Lord of the universe is able to distinguish the singular cry of a righteous man among the “noise” of mankind’s religious pleadings; that He observes, listens and responds graciously. More than 700 years later James will capture the same truth when he writes, “The intense prayer of the righteous is very powerful” (James 5:16b). Isaiah tells Hezekiah that the Lord will extend his life by 15 years. Since Hezekiah dies in 686 B.C., this prayer and its answer are set in 701 B.C., the year of Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem. Yahweh’s additional promise is that the Assyrians will not take the capital city, which must bring great comfort to the king’s heart.
The Lord confirms His promise to Hezekiah by a sign. Evidently a unique sundial has been built, a stairway that tells time by casting shadows. Some commentators believe the sundial is a large pillar that casts shadows on a double set of stairs. Herodotus states that the sundial and the division of days into 12-hour segments is an invention of the Babylonians, from whom Ahaz no doubt models his sundial. It’s interesting to note that years earlier, Ahaz rejects a sign from the Lord (Isa. 7:10-12). Now, on a stairway named for the late king, his son receives God’s miraculous assurance. 2 Kings 20:9-11 tells us that Hezekiah is given the choice as to which direction the shadow should move – forward or back. “It’s easy for the shadow to lengthen 10 steps,” Hezekiah says. “No, let the shadow go back 10 steps.” Isaiah calls out to the Lord, who responds by reversing the sundial’s shadow. “How this miracle of the reversal of the sun’s shadow occurred is not known. Perhaps the earth’s rotation was reversed or perhaps the sun’s rays were somehow refracted” (John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, S. 1:1089).
Hezekiah’s Poem (Isa. 38:9-20)
Hezekiah is a writer of psalms (see v. 20) and apparently supervises a team of scholars who copy some of the Old Testament scriptures (Prov. 25:1). Here, in a beautiful poem, the king recounts his feelings throughout a season of illness and recovery. Like others who stand for a time at death’s door, Hezekiah develops a greater appreciation for life. He pictures death as the end of a journey (vv. 11-12), a tent taken down (v. 12a; see also 2 Cor. 5:1-8) and a weaving cut from the loom (v. 12b). The king also discovers a higher plane in his prayer life (vv. 13-14). He cries out to the Lord in the night, feeling like a feeble animal in the clutches of a lion, and in the day, feeling like a helpless bird. He acknowledges his sin and pleads forgiveness, which God grants, throwing the king’s sins behind His back (v. 17). Finally, the king is grateful for new opportunities for service (vv. 15-20). “There was a new humility in his walk, a deeper love for the Lord in his heart, and a new song of praise on his lips. He had a new determination to praise God all the days of his life, for now those days were very important to him. ‘So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom’ (Ps. 90:12)” (Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Comforted, S. Is 38:1).
Is Hezekiah wrong to ask God to spare his life? Some commentators argue yes, citing the fact that had Hezekiah’s life not been extended his son Manasseh would not have been born. Manasseh rules for 55 years and is one of the most wicked kings in Judah’s history. However, this evil king repents after God chastens him and he ends his life serving the Lord (2 Chron. 33:11-20). Further, his grandson is the godly king Josiah, who does much to turn the nation back to the Lord.
Some additional notes about Hezekiah’s poem may prove helpful:
- The king’s illness is not a result of age but of God’s chastening. Hezekiah notes that he is destined for the gates of Sheol “in the prime of my life” (v. 10).
- His lament, “I will never see the Lord” (v. 11) does not mean the king fears damnation. Rather, in the context of his poem, the king despairs that he will no longer enjoy the blessings of his earthly life.
- In the end, Hezekiah sees the benefit in his illness. He acknowledges the Lord’s right and power to give life – and to take it. He sees that he is treated, not as he deserves because of his sin, but according to God’s grace. Like Job, whose suffering is for entirely different purposes, he now sees the Lord in a new and wonderful light (Job 42:5-6).
- When Hezekiah says, “Death cannot praise You” (v. 18), he is not denying life after death; rather, he is noting that one’s earthly service to the Lord ends when his or her last breath is drawn, and he is grateful for 15 more years to serve the living God.
The Cure (Isa. 38:21-22)
In the parallel account in 2 Kings 20:7-9, these two verses recorded by Isaiah precede the giving of the sign of the shadow on Ahaz’s stairway. This is not a contradiction but a different perspective from which the story is told. A poultice of dried figs is applied to Hezekiah’s infected skin. This is a common remedy for boils and ulcers in these days and it demonstrates that prayer, medicine and the direct intervention of the Lord are all active in the king’s healing.
Scripture teaches that God may heal with or without human supplication and with or without the use of medicine. The Creator of all things needs nothing from His creatures. But it pleases the Lord to answer prayer and He has provided healing elements in nature to help people counter the physical effects of the fall. When we are injured or fall ill, it is no contradiction for us to pray for healing and to avail ourselves of medical attention. The Lord does not always heal supernaturally and our best medical capabilities often fall short, resulting in continued illness and even death. These are reminders that the Lord’s ways are higher than our ways (Isa. 55:8-9) and that even Christians live in a sinful and fallen world. However, we look forward to our future glorification in which our mortal bodies will be transformed into immortal bodies that the ravages of sin cannot touch (see 1 Cor. 15:51-58; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; Rev. 21:4).
Matthew Henry comments: “God’s promises are intended not to supersede, but to quicken and encourage, the use of means. Hezekiah is sure to recover, and yet he must take a lump of figs and lay it on the boil, v. 21. We do not trust God, but tempt him, if, when we pray to him for help, we do not second our prayers with our endeavours. We must not put physicians … in the place of God, but make use of them in subordination to God and to his providence … the chief end we should aim at, in desiring life and health, is that we may glorify God, and do good, and improve ourselves in knowledge, and grace, and meetness for heaven” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, S. Is 38:9).
Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips