God knew God’s people had suffered terribly.
God knew they had drunk to the dregs God’s purifying wrath over their sin, and it had been intensely painful. The consequences of the people’s sin were a terrible thing. And the cup God had given them was to last seventy long years.
But, Isaiah prophesied, the time of their suffering would come to an end. God would now pass that cup of wrath to the Babylonians, for they had sorely abused the holy and beloved people of God, even as they were being an instrument of God’s judgment.
I will put it into the hand of your tormentors,Isaiah 52:23 (NRSV)
who have said to you,
“Bow down, that we may walk on you,”
and you have made your back like the ground
and like the street for them to walk on.
This final verse in the previous chapter refers to an ancient practice of making newly captured people lie face down on the ground for the triumphant army to use them as a living victory carpet. The exultant troops would walk on their living victims, symbolic of their having been conquered. God said to God’s people, get up off the street, you are no longer a captive people!
In the near term, this happened when Cyrus defeated the Babylonians and released the captive Judahites. But ultimately this promise points to Jesus who would drink to the dregs the bowl of God’s wrath over all the sins of the world, then rise victorious from the grave, for death could not hold Him captive.
Arise, God said to the people, No longer will you be violated, no longer will you be left in the dust.
put on your strength, O Zion!
Put on your beautiful garments,
O Jerusalem, the holy city,
for the uncircumcised and the unclean
shall enter you no more.
Shake yourself from the dust; rise up,
O captive Jerusalem;
loose the bonds from your neck,
O captive daughter Zion!
For thus says the Lord: You were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without moneyIsaiah 52:1-3 (NRSV)
Babylon had taken God’s people for nothing, now God was going to take them back, and give Babylon nothing.
Through Isaiah, God now recounted a brief history of oppression and rescue, first in Egypt, then Assyria, and now Babylon. Even as the Lord led Israel out of Egypt, so God’s people were about to be set free again, they just had to believe it and act on it. God would redeem them because they were God’s people, God was being true to God’s covenantal promises, being true to God’s own character. God wanted them to know their Lord God.
Therefore my people shall know my name; on that day they shall know that it is I who speak—it is I!Isaiah 52:6 (NRSV)
An Oracle of Deliverance
Isaiah now delivered his oracle as though it were happening before him.
Israel’s awakening begins to take place, a messenger comes with good news, this whole scene is something very familiar to the people. The anxious city is waiting to get a message from the front lines. In the distance they see the courier, running with the message in his hand.
What will be the news?
How beautiful upon the mountainsIsaiah 52:7 (NRSV, emphasis mine)
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
The good, good news is that God is reigning in Zion, it is time to leave this place and go to meet the Lord there.
Of course, now the scene is of the entire city breaking out in spontaneous shouting and singing, with confetti and tears, music and dancing.
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices;Isaiah 52:8-9 (NRSV, italics mine)
together they shout for joy,
for in plain sight they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth; shout together for joy,
you ruins of Jerusalem,
for the Lord has comforted his people
God’s intention was that God’s people would burst out and bring the exciting good news of God’s unconditional covenant, ratified in the blood of God’s servant, to the rest of the world
The Lord has bared his holy armIsaiah 52:10 (NRSV)
before the eyes of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
You would think this would be the end of the story, this riotously happy scene, that joyful music would play as “The End” in beautiful script is written across the last panel. What a happy story.
Daily Reality of Salvation
But there is so much more than this vivid, memorable spiritual experience.
What would that have been like if the people had received God’s incredible good news, but
- Never left Babylon?
- Never rebuilt Jerusalem?
- Never repopulated Judah?
Would that really have been release from captivity?
Immediately after delivering the rousingly good news of salvation, God exhorted the people to live to the full what God was giving them that day.
Depart, depart, go out from there!Isaiah 52:11 (NRSV)
Touch no unclean thing;
go out from the midst of it; purify yourselves,
you who carry the vessels of the Lord.
God was commanding the people to leave Babylon behind them and to take nothing of Babylon (that is to say, nothing “unclean”) with them. It might seem a strange mandate, especially considering how God had previously endorsed the people settling into the land of their captors. They had built houses, established businesses, raised their families, garnered belongings, bequeathed inheritances, and even been buried in that foreign land.
But in order to return, rebuild, and restore, the people would have to start anew.
Sadly, though all of God’s people were released, only a small percentage of them actually packed their bags and moved back to God’s holy city. It is a metaphor of what it means to come to faith. Faith is more than hearing and receiving the good news of salvation. Faith involves real movement, real change. Faith brings us forward to move into a life of obedience and yielding to God.
The apostle Paul called this process of giving up the old life and taking on the new sanctification, the process of being transformed more and more into the Lord’s own nature. It takes a while, as God said here:
For you shall not go out in haste,Isaiah 52:12 (NRSV)
and you shall not go in flight,
for the Lord will go before you,
and the God of Israel will be your rear guard.
In passing through suffering, there is glory for God’s people
There is no sense the people were to be “happy” with the circumstances of their trauma. Big picture, this was God’s discipline. But individual pictures showed gross abuse at the hands of the Babylonians, extreme ordeal, terrible harm, grievous suffering. Instead, the people’s joy came with their deliverance by the hand of God Who remembered them and held them dear.
God knows every story, and God’s timing is perfect for every person. You and I are too finite to fully grasp the magnitude of this truth. But we are able to at least trust God with it.
There are certain physical laws at work that God set into motion. Our earth could not sustain life without a hot, molten core. But that core causes the plates of earth’s crust to shift. If there were no earthquakes, no volcanoes, it would be because earth was a dead planet.
Today, in this world, earthquakes will be a part of our lives, as will tornadoes and hurricanes. But without wind, and rain, and the seasons, which are caused by the earth’s tilt and rotation, earth would not be able to sustain life. It is a dangerous world to live in, right now. But without these things there could be no life at all.
This does not mean God is absent, or unable to order the events of God’s earth, or that God has grown weary of people, or any other such thing.
Instead, God works through even disaster to call people to eternal awareness and to God, to raise people’s eyes to a much more important issue than even life itself.