Judgement and redemption. Wrath and mercy. Deliverance and indignation. These are some of many juxtapositions described of God and the kind of God He is throughout all Scripture, most notably in the Book of Isaiah. This is troublesome for many readers. How can God be a God of judgement and redemption, wrath and mercy, joy and anger? In each paired juxtaposition, we desire to assign one trait to God. For some, God is Judge, wrathful, angry, mean, even unjust. To others, God is Redeemer, merciful, just, kind, and so on. Yet each paired juxtaposition must be maintained. God is both Judge and Redeemer, wrathful and merciful, Deliverer and Avenger, kind and just, and so on.
The issue is not that God can somehow be two seemingly contradicting things; the issue is which characteristic of God you experience on the basis of God’s wrath and mercy. As Isaiah shows throughout his prophecy—particularly at the end—the basis of God’s wrath is a person’s disposition before God (rebellion, disobedience, unbelief); on the other hand, the basis of God’s mercy for sinners is based solely on His own kindness and compassion. Whilst Isaiah prophesied to a specific people in a specific time at a specific place in history, Isaiah today serves as both a warning to the unfaithful and comfort to the faithful people of God.
The Beginning of Isaiah: Whiplashes of Law and Gospel
To whom is Isaiah prophesying? Specifically, he is speaking to all Israel, but in a wider sense, Isaiah is testifying before all creation: “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for Yahweh has spoken” (1:2a). This follows Moses’ exhortation when, after he finished writing the Law, he said to the Levites who were responsible for carrying the ark of the covenant, “Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, that I may speak these words in their ears and call heaven and earth to witness against them” (Deuteronomy 31:28, emphasis mine). Following this is the Song of Moses, being sung not just to all Israel but also all creation. Thus, all creation is included in God’s redemptive work, which Isaiah shall reveal.
Isaiah 1-2 is full of judgement, but within it is Gospel placed rather sporadically. Reading all of Isaiah, especially in the beginning, is a whiplash of Law and Gospel (thanks to Professor Thomas Egger at Concordia Seminary for this phrase). Isaiah begins immediately with Law—the guilt of Israel.
Israel is described as a “sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers,” a people who are corrupt, who have forsaken Yahweh, have despised Him, and are thus “utterly estranged” from Yahweh (1:4). It is as if Isaiah is standing in the courtroom of God, Israel vs. God, Isaiah as the prosecuting attorney laying out the crimes of Israel before all creation and the angelic hosts. Israel has committed grandiose iniquity, forsaking and despising God. In a Word, Isaiah is laying out before all creation Israel’s guilt of apostasy.
It is not simply their mere acts of apostasy, however. “The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint” (1:5b). Israel’s apostasy has infected her whole being. Their minds can only conceive iniquity and their hearts are full of iniquitous desires. As a result, foreigners desolate their lands and burn their cities (1:7), i.e. their coming Babylonian exile.
Israel is so evil that Isaiah likens them to Sodom and Gomorrah (1:10), yet he ironically shows God’s mercy in this description (1:9). Pay close attention to verse 9, “If Yahweh of hosts had not left us a few survivors, we should have been like Sodom, and become like Gomorrah.” In other words, Israel would have—indeed, should have—become exactly like Sodom and Gomorrah in utter annihilation if God had not allowed a few to survive! God could have easily wiped out all Israel entirely, but He did not. That God chose to let Israel survive His wrath is an act of His mercy.
Because of Israel’s apostasy, their sacrifices are vain to God (1:11-12). So long as Israel continues to live in apostasy, their sacrifices and worship are not pleasing to God. God has “had enough” of them, He does not delight in them, their worship is “vain offerings,” they are “an abomination.”
In order for their worship to be pleasing in God’s sight again, a washing is required. “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes; cease to do evil” (1:16). God commands Israel to wash themselves, but He does not expect them to do so, let alone be capable of doing so. God Himself will do the cleansing, and He will do so by fire: “I will turn My hand against you and will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy” (1:25).
The words “dross” and “lye” are key here. Earlier, in verse 22, God says, “Your silver has become dross, your best wine mixed with water.” Placing this alongside verse 25, it becomes clear the silver, dross, and best wine are metaphors. God is using poetic imagery to describe the condition of Israel.
“Dross” is the Hebrew word סִיג (sīg); dross is worthless, foreign matter from metals; the best wine being mixed with water is tepid and gross (cf. Revelation 3:16). Israel itself has become futile for any use, and they are disgusting like good wine mixed with water. Have you ever had wine mixed with water? It’s disgusting! Nobody wants to drink it, not even God.
Even though Israel is worthless like dross, God is doing something with it. It is useful for nothing, but He will “smelt away” its dross with “lye.” The word for “lye” is כַּבֹּר (kabor), which is a solution used for cleansing as in a furnace. In other words, then, God is going to cleanse Israel by removing their futilities and even their usefulness (“remove all your alloy”). Then, “Afterward, you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city” (Isaiah 1:26). After this cleansing by fire, Israel shall become righteous again. God is going to cleanse Israel, but it is not going to be painless.
The imagery God uses of cleansing with fire sounds a lot like Law, but considerings its purpose and outcome, it is also Gospel. God can burn Israel so that she becomes nothing; instead, God will burn her so that she becomes pure. St. Peter uses similar imagery on the testing of our faith (1 Peter 1:3-7). This cleansing imagery needs to be placed alongside 1:18. Although Israel’s sins are scarlet, God shall make them white as snow; although her sins are like crimson, God shall make them like wool. Through fire, God will make Israel white, pure, unblemished. This is a now/not-yet reality for God’s people.
In the now, Christ has ransomed us from our sins: “…knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19). Like Israel once was, we are futile in our sins, useful for nothing—we are like dross; but God has redeemed us from the futility of our sins not with the dross of silver or gold, but with the blood of Christ, which is pure and unblemished, making us pure and unblemished. Right now, God considers us unblemished—justified—in Christ.
In the not-yet, we have yet to become fully pure from our sins. That is, though we are considered pure in God’s eyes for the sake of Christ right now, we have yet to experience that as reality on our side of the eschaton: “Then [the saints] were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been” (Revelation 6:11).
Believe it or not, there is more Gospel! Chapter 2 begins with Isaiah describing the mountain of Yahweh, which is describing the redemption to come. “The mountain of the house of Yahweh 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” (2:2, emphasis mine). In order for something to be “lifted up,” it must be in a low estate. This is a motif throughout all Scripture. God has a habit of exalting things that are low.
Mary sings as much in her famous Magnificat, “‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for He has looked on the humble estate of His servant… He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate'” (Luke 1:46-48a, 52, emphasis mine). Also, Zechariah when his son, John the Baptiser, was born, “‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David'” (Luke 1:68-69, emphasis mine).
Isaiah says much of the same thing, all of which serves the purpose of exalting—or glorifying—Yahweh Himself, “The haughty looks of man shall be brought low, and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled, and Yahweh alone will be exalted in that day” (2:11, emphasis mine). This verse, along with 2:22, is thematic throughout Isaiah’s entire vision.
The End of Isaiah: God’s Promise for His Remnant in Christ
The end of Isaiah is much different than its beginning. Although there is a fair amount of Law, it is rich with Gospel. In Isaiah 2:5, he writes, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of Yahweh.” Up to this point, Isaiah does not mention any darkness. Although one can deduct from the language of judgement and fire against Israel that they are in metaphorical darkness, Isaiah never explicitly says they are. Yet the invitation for Israel to come walk in the light of Yahweh assumes they are currently not walking in the light, meaning they are walking in darkness.
Darkness is mentioned at the end of Isaiah, however, including the invitation to walk in the light of Yahweh with more imagery of rising/being lifted up. “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of Yahweh has risen upon you. Behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples” (60:1-2). Law and Gospel is starkly juxtaposed in this passage.
The Law is that darkness will come upon them, and the Gospel is that their light has come, which is Yahweh Himself! “…but Yahweh will arise upon you, and His glory will be seen upon you… A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of Yahweh” (60:2, 6, emphasis mine).
The light comes in none other than Christ: “And going into the house, [the wise men] saw the child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11, emphasis mine). Also, Luke 2:10, “And the angel said to [the shepherds], ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people'” (emphasis mine).
Yahweh arose and shined upon Israel and the nations the moment Jesus’ infant face came from Mary’s womb. When the people of Israel looked upon Jesus’ face, they saw the face of God the Father—they saw the face of Yahweh (John 14:9). When Jesus died, darkness covered the earth; when Jesus rose from the dead, God again once shined upon all Israel (Matthew 27:45; cf. Isaiah 60:2).
Furthermore, Israel is to shine the light of God in Christ: “And the nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isaiah 60:3). Christ says as much, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16). In Christ, God exalts us as upon a hill, shining the light of Christ who came upon us and, furthermore, has risen from the dead for us. The light we receive from Christ shines that God Himself may be exalted and glorified.
In His light, God says, “Your people shall all be righteous; they shall possess the land forever, the branch of My planting, the work of My hands, that I might be glorified” (Isaiah 60:21; cf. Ephesians 2:8-10). Jesus fulfilled Isaiah 61:1-2 by bringing the Good News of God’s coming in Him to us poor sinners, captives to our sins (Luke 4:16-30). God promised to clothe Israel in His righteousness (Isaiah 61:9-10), which He fulfills in Baptism where we are clothed with His righteousness in Christ (Galatians 3:26-29), and this is for all people regardless of gender, ethnicity, and social status.
God will not stop speaking and doing these things until He fulfills His promise: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet, until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch” (Isaiah 62:1). As God will not rest until He fulfills His promise, so we should not rest until then but remain watchful for darkness (62:2-7).
There is an abrupt turn in the narrative into sudden Law, which is described with gore:
Who is this who comes from Edom, in crimsoned garments from Bozrah, he who is splendid in his apparel, marching in the greatness of his strength? “It is I, speaking in righteousness, mighty to save.” Why is your apparel red, and your garments like his who treads in the winepress? “I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their lifeblood spattered on my garments, and stained all my apparel. For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and my year of redemption had come.”Isaiah 63:1-4
Here, Law and Gospel are again starkly juxtaposed. The one who is trodding the winepress with God’s wrath and drenched in blood is, believe it or not, Jesus:
Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like a son of man, with a golden crown on His head, and a sharp sickle in His hand… So, the angel [Jesus] swung His sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia.Revelation 14:14, 19-20
A horse’s bridle, on average, is about 6 feet high and 1,600 stadia is about 186.4 miles long. This is obviously Law, but the Gospel for us is this, “For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and my year of redemption had come” (Isaiah 63:4, emphasis mine). The Day of the Lord is a day of vengeance and redemption. It is vengeance for God’s enemies and redemption for God’s people. If you are in Christ, the Day of the Lord is good news!
A helpful hint of this Gospel message is Isaiah’s unexpected response, “I will recount the steadfast love of Yahweh, the praises of Yahweh, according to all that Yahweh has granted us, and the great goodness according to His compassion, according to the abundance of His steadfast love” (63:7). It is rather unexpected, and abnormal, that Isaiah would turn to praise after receiving such a gory message of God’s vengeance upon the unrighteous. Yet it is the only proper response for God’s people because that day is a day of redemption.
Therefore, like Isaiah, we turn to praise God with hope—the hope of this deliverance to come. “For He said, ‘Surely, they are My people, children who will not deal falsely.’ And He became their Saviour” (63:8). In spite of God’s coming wrath, He becomes our Saviour in Christ Jesus the Suffering Servant: “In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the angel of His presence saved them; in His love and in His pity, He redeemed them; He lifted them up and carried them all the days of old” (63:9). As St. Peter says, “By His wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24; cf. Isaiah 53:4-7, 12). On the cross, Christ lifted and carried us.
Isaiah 64:1-3 is a prayer of “Thy kingdom come!” “No eye has seen a God besides You, who acts for those who wait for Him” (64:4). No other god is like Yahweh; none can compare to His mercy. Under this premise, Isaiah pleads to the creative and artistic nature of God: “But now, O Yahweh, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You are the potter; we are all the work of Your hand” (64:8).
Isaiah pleads to God not to utterly destroy what He has made. As a potter creates a vessel with care and loves what he has made, so God creates us with care and loves what He has made. It is to this creative character of God that Isaiah pleads, and thus laments, “Will You restrain Yourself at these things, O Yahweh? Will You keep silent, and afflict us so terribly” (64:12)? This is similar to David’s lament, “How long, O Yahweh? Will You forget me forever?How long will You hide Your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me” (Psalm 13:1-2 ff.)?
Isaiah 65-66 is most interesting. At the end of Isaiah’s lament in 64:12, God begins to speak. The rest of Isaiah is God’s answer to Isaiah’s lament: “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for Me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek Me. I said, ‘Here I am, here I am,’ to a nation that was not called by My name” (65:1). In essence, God is saying, “I made Myself readily available to you people! I said, ‘Here I am’ countless times to a people unworthy of Me, but no one would listen!”
God describes a people of sacred autonomy, those who say to God, “‘Keep to Yourself, do not come near me, for I am too holy for You'” (65:5), much like those today who wish to live their lives apart from God and do as they wish with their bodies, even to the point of murdering infants in the womb.
God responds with saying He will avenge Himself (65:6-7), yet mercifully, He will not totally annihilate Israel, and us. “Thus, says Yahweh: ‘As the new wine is found in the cluster, and they say, “Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,” so I will do for My servant’s sake, and not destroy them all'” (65:8). In other words, in response to us saying, “Because there is a faithful remnant, although small, spare us,” God listened and had mercy for the sake of His servant, Jesus Christ. God will have mercy, but we must not forget the cost of apostasy (65:11-12).
Isaiah ends with hope for God’s people. “‘For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind'” (65:17; cf. Revelation 21). This single verse is extremely interesting. According to God here, in the new heavens and the new earth, we will not remember this life and all its suffering!
This brings a whole new meaning to, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). Not only will these things utterly cease to be, but in Isaiah, God tells us we will not even remember our former grief and pain!
I came to tears as I read this verse and those that follow in this Bible study. Young and old shall not die (Isaiah 65:20), there will be restored fecundity (65:21), there will be no injustice (65:22), and the curse of the Fall totally reversed (65:23; cf. Genesis 3:16-19)!
“Before they call, I will answer; while they are yet speaking, I will hear” (Isaiah 65:24). God hears us before we speak and knows before we are finished speaking! It is to this new creation that all God’s people can set their hope from day to day and year to year (66:22-23).