A redeemer in Zion (August 2, 2015)

Scripture passage and lesson focus: Isaiah 59:15b-21

Most biblical scholars agree that the book of Isaiah was written over a long period of time. The first stage (primarily chapters 1-39) was composed in the 8th century B.C. before Judah was taken into exile in Babylon. The second major component of this beloved prophetic book (chapters 40-55) was written after 722 B.C., when the chosen people experienced a transformative exile that in some ways became a rebirth pointing toward their new identity. The third and final section of Isaiah (chapters 56-66) addressed the covenant people in the difficult circumstances they faced after many of the people had returned to Judea after 539 B.C.

Encouraged by the prophetic vision that the temple rebuilt in Jerusalem would be “a house of prayer for all peoples” including foreigners and eunuchs “who love the name of the Lord” and “hold fast my covenant” (Isaiah 56:6-7), the returned exiles hoped for a rebirth of the covenant people. What emerged, however, was corrupt leadership marked by deeply entrenched practices of idol worship and a systemic pattern of oppression and social injustice. “Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us; we wait for a light, and lo! there is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom” (Isaiah 59:9).

Isaiah 59:15b-17 — God’s armor 
Using the ancient poetic image of God as a heavenly warrior, the prophet anthropomorphically (using human categories) describes God as an angry battler for truth and justice. Disgusted that there was nobody willing to intervene in such an evil situation, God has stepped up to fight injustice, the prophet announces. “God’s own arm brought him victory, and his righteousness upheld him.” God’s armor consists of righteousness, salvation and a burning zeal for justice. Several centuries later, the author of Ephesians expands this imagery and urges Christians to withstand evil by taking up the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6:13-17).

Isaiah 59:18-19 — God punishes evil 
God is an angry deity in this passage — angry at evil and those who perpetrate it. The prophet universalizes God’s judgment against evil by saying that all who oppose God in the east as well as the west (i.e., throughout the whole world) will tremble at the name and the glorious presence of God. Like a powerful tsunami, God’s anger at injustice will engulf evildoers.

Isaiah 59:20-21 — God redeems the covenant people
Isaiah knows that the God of justice is also the redeemer of Israel. God will come to Zion, the city of David, Jerusalem and will dwell with all those who turn away from sin and truly worship God. God will restore the gracious covenant relationship God promised the heirs of Abraham.

Switching to the first person with God as the speaker, the prophet quotes God, who proclaims that the covenant with the people will be renewed. This prophetic theme is also found in Jeremiah (31:31-34) and Ezekiel (36:26-27). That covenant assures the people of the presence of God’s spirit, God’s life-giving breath.

That divine spirit is described two chapters later: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1). Resuming the language of God’s servant found in earlier chapters of Isaiah, the prophet and, by extension, the people of Israel are identified as spirit-filled emissaries commissioned to speak God’s words of deliverance and redemption. Centuries later Jesus will quote these prophetic words to describe his redemptive mission (Luke 4:16-21).

Moreover, God promises that the revelatory words of deliverance given by God and spoken by the covenant people will continue to be their confession of faith. From generation to generation, God’s covenant people will proclaim their faith in God their redeemer.

The third major section of the prophecy of Isaiah continues the major theme of the whole book of Isaiah: God will never abandon the covenant people despite their grievous failure to be faithful. Instead, God promises to be the redeemer of Israel, even if it is only a remnant of the covenant people who remain faithful.

For discussion
This passage clearly says that God is displeased when nobody steps up to condemn injustice. What injustice do you see in our world today? Who is speaking up against it? Do you consider the picture of God as a divine warrior helpful and reassuring or do you find it problematic, especially in the light of the terrible results of war during much of the preceding century?

James Brashler

JAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.