Abundant Salvation, Abundant Joy
Though our condition in this world is often shameful and afflicted, we can break forth into exuberant song even now because God’s salvation is so exuberant.
The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction Commentary, Alec Motyer
The Book of Isaiah, chapters 40-66 (NICOT), John N. Oswalt
Isaiah: God Saves Sinners, Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr.
Who sings aloud today? Of course, professional performers do, and maybe their fans join in at a concert, but what groups of average people like you and me get together and sing? One of the few spaces in our world in which this occurs outside of a church gathering like this is at sporting events. In game 5 of the NLCS here at Citizen’s Bank Park, for example, it rained for about 7 innings, and in the top of the 7th inning, the Padres took a 3-2 lead over the Phillies. Everyone was wet, the team was losing, and it looked somewhat hopeless. Then, in the bottom of the 8th inning, Bryce Harper hit the go-ahead home run, putting the Phillies up 4-3 and sending them to the World Series. After the 9th inning, when the game ended, the lights went down, fireworks went off, and do you know what else happened? The whole stadium broke forth into song. It was a strange song that bore no obvious connection to baseball: “I’m in the corner, watchin you kiss her, ohohoh,” but the fans, despite being soaking wet, could not contain themselves, and I’d guess nobody in that moment was thinking about how wet they were, or remembered what it felt like in the 7th inning when the Phillies were down. There’s something quite natural about breaking forth into song in such a moment. In the passage on which we’re focusing today, God’s people are in a far worse condition than being wet and losing a baseball game: They are described as barren, ashamed, and afflicted, to use just a few of the negative terms used to describe their condition. And yet, they are told to break out into song, when it might seem most unnatural to do so, because a moment far more glorious than a home run was coming. So however barren, ashamed, or afflicted you are today, break forth into song over God’s salvation, because he enriches the barren woman, he redeems the shamed wife, and he glorifies the afflicted city.
He enriches the barren woman
Our passage begins with the command to sing, and the command is addressed to a “barren one”. Throughout scripture and human history, barrenness is not a condition in which a woman would normally sing. It’s a condition one would rather grieve and lament. That was especially the case in the ancient world, and it is still frequently the case today that being unable to have children, whether through biological infertility or simply because one is not yet married, can cause incredible grief to a woman. Yet here, the barren one is commanded to sing. In the parallel phrase in verse 1, the command to sing is even expanded to “break forth into singing and cry aloud.” Golf carts are often built with a governor on them, to keep them from going beyond a certain speed. You could think of this as the LORD himself saying, “Take the governor off your praise.” There’s a connotation of exuberance and excess in the singing of the barren woman. Why?
Because God’s salvation is exuberant and excessive. He says in verse 1 that the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married. Here the contrast seems to be between a woman who is not married, and one who is. We would expect the one who is to have more children than the one who is not, but God says he will give more children to the one who is not. Here the women are functioning as symbols of nations: The desolate one is Israel, whose exile in Babylon has left her so desolate as to seem to be on the brink of extinction. Babylon, Israel’s oppressor, on the other hand, looks like a married woman, with a bright future ahead of her. Yet God says it’s the children of Israel who will outnumber the children of Babylon. This hasn’t happened yet in the context of the passage; the woman is still barren and desolate in verse 1. And yet she is told to sing for joy now because this promise is so sure.
Not only that, but she is to enlarge the place of her tent even now. Israel commonly dwelled in tents throughout their history, and here the image is that she must expand the size of her tent to accommodate all the children the LORD will give her. So verse 3: You will spread abroad to the right and to the left. But what about other nations? If God’s people are going to spread abroad to the right and left, what happens when they run into other nations on their right or left? Here God says their offspring will possess such nations when that occurs, and will then populate desolate cities. So not only will God give the barren woman children, but her children will be so many that she will need to expand the borders of her tent to contain them. When they meet other nations, they will conquer them, and when they come to desolate cities, there will be so many of them that they will repopulate them. Imagine some of the cities of Ukraine of which we’ve seen footage, that are reduced to rubble and evacuated. The idea is that this woman’s children will become so many that they will repopulate such cities.
That is, indeed, an image of exuberance and excess for the woman who at the time of this promise has nothing at all, because the God who promises it is a God of exuberance of excess. In his very essence, he is not a static, barren god, lacking life, like the idols Israel was tempted to worship. He is a fountain of life; a Father begetting a Son, a Spirit eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son. He created the sea, sky, and land, and then filled them each with innumerable living creatures. He formed the first man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life (Gen 2:7). He made a helper suitable for him, and blessed them, enabling them to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28, 2:18). When Abraham’s wife, Sarah, was barren, God gave her a son at age 90, and promised that through this son, God will give Abraham and Sarah many nations. Exuberant, excessive, life-giving blessing from the Lord and giver of life. That’s what God’s people are promised.
And the promise has begun to be fulfilled. We are gathered today as mostly non-Jewish people, people from other nations, to sing with joy because we have received every spiritual blessing in Christ Jesus. As we assemble to do so, we join the assembly of those who have gone before us, and who are gathered now, breaking out into song in heaven, and we are joined by countless more throughout the world, among various nations, in lands far from here, breaking out into song to the same God. And yet we still await the day when people from every tribe and language and people and nation will gather to worship before the throne of God, when those heavenly blessings that are ours now come down to earth. So God sends us out to proclaim the gospel and lay down our lives to see the children of God brought together from among the nations. Is that what you expect to see happen as we go out into our neighborhoods, workplaces, and families with the gospel? If you really believed that God was going to multiply his children to the point that no one could number them, how might it affect your willingness to even go from here to the nations who have not yet heard the gospel?
The ancient world told barren women that their lives were purposeless; maybe you still feel that way today if you desire children, but for whatever reason, the Lord has not seen fit to give you them. Maybe you feel today that your life lacks purpose because it doesn’t look like the life our world glorifies. But do you see the incredible hopefulness of God’s salvation? He enriches the barren woman. Your life can serve a glorious purpose. God can use you, and your feeble witness, to give a new birth to others who are dead in their trespasses and sins. God can use you to help those who are alive in Christ grow to maturity in Christ. One plants, another waters, and God gives the growth, and in this way, even the barren among you, even those who look insignificant to the world, can have children, more than those who are married. Charles Spurgeon was probably the greatest English-speaking preacher of the 1800s; thousands were converted under his ministry and hundreds of churches planted out of his church. But God used a nameless preacher, who was substituting for the guy who was supposed to preach, to lead Spurgeon to faith in Christ. That guy who substituted, whose name we don’t know, now has many children, because he was willing to speak the word of Christ, not knowing who would hear it, or what God would do with it. Do you believe God can do that with your life? Do you believe God can do that through our church?
The promise isn’t so specific as to mean that the next Charles Spurgeon will be converted through you or through our church, but since the power is God’s, since he is the giver of life, and since he has promised to give exuberant and excessive, abundant life, and to so expand his people that they populate the desolate cities, the promise is that he will do such things through his Church as a whole. They will happen in other words; will you believe that? Will you break out into song today because of the ways we now get to enjoy that, the ways we look forward to its ongoing expansion, and the day when people from every tribe and people and language will be gathered together under Christ? Why not give yourself to that? You may feel and look barren in the eyes of the world living that way, while those who are of the world look so blessed with their visible treasure and perhaps even their picturesque family, but break out into song…the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married.
That’s what God does, and next we’ll see that he redeems the shamed wife.
He redeems the shamed wife
In verses 4-10, the image of us as God’s people shifts a bit. Instead of being a barren woman, who is contrasted with her who is married, in this section we are depicted as a wife who has been cast off, either as a widow forsaken in her old age, or as a wife cast off in the prime of youth. Yet verse 4 begins with the corollary of breaking forth into exuberant and excessive praise: Fear not. You can be happy sometimes, but if you’re anxious it’s going to end poorly, it keeps a governor on your praise. Here we have another reason o take off the governor. Why? Because though you may be ashamed and widowed in this life, that is not your future. You will not be ashamed, verse 4 says, nor will you be disgraced. Instead, you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.
In verse 4 we come across four different words that are roughly synonymous: Shame, confounded, disgraced, and reproach. Shame is probably the one with which we’re most familiar in our modern vocabulary, although it meant something slightly different in the Bible than it means to most of us today. Most of us today, when we hear the word shame, think of a negative feeling. In the Bible, shame is more accurately a negative condition, which typically does also produce negative feelings. So when verse 4 says you will not be ashamed, and will forget the shame of your youth, it means your condition will change, from the shameful condition of your youth, to a glorious condition. In verse 6 that shameful condition of her youth is described as a wife deserted and grieved in spirit, a wife of youth when she is cast off. That is a shameful condition, meaning there is a way things are supposed to be in God’s design, and that is not it. A wife is not meant to be left alone in her youth. That may be her fault, as we’ll see in Israel’s case that it was, it may be her husband’s fault, or it may simply be that her husband died, as in the allusion to widowhood here. So shame doesn’t necessarily imply culpability on the part of the ashamed, but the result is a shameful condition. We still preserve that sense of the word when we say things like, “What happened to her was a real shame.”
But since today we tend to identify shame with a negative feeling, the prescribed medicine for those who are ashamed is to try to change the feeling, not the condition. So to a woman whose husband has left her or died and who is therefore feeling ashamed, a modern person might try to help her by suggesting to her that marriage is something of a social construct anyway, and rather than let this man’s love have such influence over her, she needs to love herself. What such an approach really ends up implying is that the woman who feels shame is wrong for doing so, and it is now, on some level, her moral responsibility to change her feeling. The Bible is, as usual, more realistic and wiser in its care for real people. Here God acknowledges that for a young wife to be left by her husband or widowed does leave her in a shameful condition. If she feels shame, that’s reasonable on some level; this is not the way it’s supposed to be! So God doesn’t say to the shamed wife: Don’t feel ashamed! Shame isn’t from God; it’s from the devil!
Instead, he says to the shamed wife: One day you will forget this shame you now feel, and the reproach of your widowhood will be something you can’t even recall. You know why? Verse 5: Your Maker is your husband, and the Holy One of Israel is your redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called, and he has called you, verse 6.
Here again, as with the barren woman, the shamed wife is a symbol for God’s people, Israel, who were united to him by covenant, as in marriage, but who were in a truly shameful condition in exile in Babylon. So God says in verse 7 that for a brief moment he deserted her. She was an unfaithful wife, who the prophets repeatedly reiterate “whored after” other gods. Israel was a serial adulterer, and so for a time God did what was his right: He cast her off. So in verse 8 he uses a parallel phrase: In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you. But look at the second half of verse 7: But with great compassion I will gather you. Look at the second half of verse 8: With everlasting love I will have compassion on you. Though God’s people broke his covenant, he will not break it. He has committed himself to us with an everlasting love, and therefore, even when he cast off Israel for a time, his compassion swelled up within him, and led him to call her back to himself. He didn’t say to Israel in exile, “Don’t be so ashamed. Exile isn’t all that bad.” Quite to the contrary, he saw just how bad it was, he had compassion on his wife, and so he called her back to himself. In the language of this passage, he redeems the shamed wife.
The Bible narrates a story of such redemption for us in the story of Ruth. Ruth was a non-Israelite woman who married an Israelite man, but in her youth, he died, leaving her a widow. Her widowhood was in no way her fault, but it did leave her in a shameful condition. At the time the condition of widows was especially shameful in part because they had no way of providing for themselves. Yet one of the ways God graciously provided for widows was as men were harvesting their crops, God required them in his law to leave some of the harvest behind for the poor, the sojourner, and the widow. Ruth was all those things. Her condition was a shameful one, but one of the men, Boaz, noticed her, and married her. He didn’t say to her, “You know; your condition isn’t so bad. Cheer up.” He changed her condition, and do you know what he was called in the book of Ruth? Her redeemer. He redeemed her from that shameful condition and brought her into an honorable one by marrying her.
Ruth has Boaz for a husband and a redeemer, but here’s the glorious truth of this passage: God’s people have God himself for their husband and redeemer! Your maker is your husband. The one who created you has married you. He’s committed himself to you in an everlasting covenant that he will not break. He loves you with an everlasting love. Your redeemer is the God of all the earth, not only your maker, but the maker of everything else. Though he was angry with his people for a time, he promises compassion. And in verses 9-10, he goes even further to promise that he will not do this exile thing again. He harkens back to the days of Noah, another Bible story. In that day he brought a flood to cover the earth in judgment on the sins of people, but then he promised after the flood ended that never again will those waters cover the earth. So here, though he was angry with his people when he sent them into exile, he promises that he will not do so again. In verse 10 he goes so far as to say that the mountains and hills themselves may be removed, but his steadfast love for his people will not depart from them, nor will his covenant of peace be removed. So not only does he bring his wife back to himself; he promises never to leave her again.
We all were born into a shameful condition. Though we were created in the honorable condition of images of God, we have fallen from that state in which we were created, and were born dead in our trespasses and sins, separated from God, hating him and others, without him and without hope in the world. We were cast off because of our sin. That shame is our fault. Yet that is not the end for you who are in Christ. Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced. You will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more. For your Maker is your husband; the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. The mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but his steadfast love shall not depart from you, and his covenant of peace shall not be removed.
In addition to being unfaithful to the LORD and having existed in the shameful condition of one who is separated from him, we do also experience what biblical counselor Ed Welch calls “victimization-shame”. That’s shame that isn’t our fault. When you have been a victim of abuse, that kind of shame can be especially acute and controlling. Something shameful did happen to you; there’s no use pretending it hasn’t. But there is hope for you here as well, because God redeems the shamed wife. You may feel all kinds of unworthy because of what was done to you, but as Welch puts it, you must believe these words more than anything else. You must believe that in Christ you are married to the God of all the earth, who loves you with an everlasting love. When the feelings of shame are strong, remember the honor of your condition. And in this world to varying degrees, God’s people are subjected to shame for righteousness’ sake. When Latimer and Ridley were burned at the stake in England in 1555 for their proclamation of the gospel, they were in a shameful condition, and yet as the flames began to reach them, Latimer cried out to Ridley, “Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man, for we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as I trust shall never be put out.” In other words, though we are now ashamed, break forth into singing, because God will do something through this that no flame can put out. Indeed, no flame of persecution can extinguish the steadfast love of the LORD for his people.
And as Latimer anticipated, that steadfast love would fan out to others, which we’ll see as we see that God glorifies the afflicted city.
He glorifies the afflicted city
So in verse 11 God addresses the “afflicted one, storm tossed and not comforted” and he says to her that he will set her stones in antimony, and lay her foundations with sapphires. He will make her pinnacles of agate, her gates of carbuncles, and all her wall of precious stones. Jerusalem was a glorious city at one time, but after the Babylonian conquest and exile, it was left in a shameful condition. So here, God says the day is coming when not only will he restore it to its former glory, but he will bring it to a place of excessive, extravagant glory, beyond anything it knew before.
Not only will this be reflected in the city’s architecture, but it will be reflected in the city’s citizens. In verse 13 God says all their children will be taught by the LORD, and great shall be the peace of your children. Something glorious is also happening here that wasn’t true of the pre-exilic Jerusalem. In Isaiah 42 for example, though they are called God’s servant, God says there that they are blind, that their ears are open, but they do not hear. They were plundered and looted, ashamed even, because they sinned against God, would not walk in his ways, and refused to obey his law, and even still they did not hear. In other words, they were not taught by the LORD. But then there was another servant of the LORD we met in chapter 50, who said he had the ear of those who were taught. He truly did learn, and now here we find that a day is coming when the children of Israel would also be taught by the LORD, and great will be their peace. In that day God’s people will actually be righteous, verse 14, and will therefore be established. They went into exile and oppression originally because they sinned against God, so if God just delivers them from their present exile and oppression without dealing with their sin, they’re just going to go into exile again! What good is a city rebuilt with fine jewels if it will just be plundered again?
God ensures that won’t happen. Remember he promised he would never cast off his bride again. Instead, he establishes them in righteousness. Granted, others will still fight against them, as verse 15 acknowledges. But when Babylon fought against them, it was because the LORD sent them in judgment on Israel for their sins. Here in verse 15 he says if anyone fights against them then, it will not be because God has sent them in judgment, and in fact, they will rather be ultimately defeated. How can God say that? Because he is not only the maker of Israel, but the maker of all the earth. The smith may make the weapons for war, but God made the smith, and he has not given up his sovereignty over the smith, the weapon, or the one who wields it. So he can say, verse 17, that no weapon fashioned against his people will ultimately succeed, and his people shall refute every tongue that rises against them in judgment. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, he says.
Did you catch that? Thus far in Isaiah the servant of the LORD has only been singular. Israel as a nation was a disobedient servant, then there was a representative Israelite who was an obedient servant. Now we read of plural servants, individuals who are taught by the LORD and who have great peace because the LORD has established them in righteousness. Where do they come from? They come from the one obedient servant. Isaiah 54 follows Isaiah 53, where we saw last week that the obedient servant was obedient to the point of death, and by his death he makes many to be counted righteous. Jesus Christ is the one obedient Servant, and in him we receive this heritage as servants of the LORD.
His mother was betrothed, but not married. She was a young virgin, but the Lord and giver of life created new life in her womb, and it is her offspring, Jesus Christ, who will possess the nations. Though we were in a truly shameful condition in our sins, he entered into our shame and bore it on our behalf. He not only died, but on his way to his death, he was beaten, spat upon, and ridiculed. He didn’t die just any death either, but died the most shameful death the ancient world had on offer: Death on a cross, crucified as a criminal. And for a brief moment he was cast off as he bore our sins, and so cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” And yet the LORD had compassion on him when he raised him from the dead, not simply to the earthly life he had before, but to the glorious, exalted status of sitting at his right hand, with the name above every name. Out of a barren grave God brought forth everlasting life. That’s an extravagant, exuberant salvation.
And now because Christ has done this, his bride is no longer ashamed. If you are in Christ today by faith, you have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, you have been made alive together with Christ, even now you are seated with him in the heavenly places, and you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. If you are here today and still in the shameful condition of your sins, you don’t have to stay there. Repent and believe in Christ, and you will be restored to his honorable condition.
And yet, we don’t see that honorable condition yet, do we? In the world we are often still shamed, while the wicked prosper. But the good news of the gospel is that your true condition is one of honor! You really are seated in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, you really have been made alive with him, your sins really are forgiven, Christ really did love you and give himself up for you as his bride, you really have been declared righteous in him, he really is working in you to make you inwardly righteous, you really have come to the heavenly city, and are truly its citizen. You don’t have to be stuck in feelings of shame because you truly are not in a shameful condition. And the day is coming when the faith shall be sight. No weapon formed against you shall remain, your righteousness will be complete and will shine, the LORD will vindicate you from all accusations, and you will have peace forever, in a new heaven and new earth, in which righteousness dwells. In that day you will truly forget the shame of your youth. In that day you will come forth as a bride adorned for her husband. Jesus will finish the good work he’s begun in you, having cleansed us by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
That’s where Jesus is taking you. So sing now, rejoice now, take the governor off. Though you may appear barren, ashamed, and afflicted in the world, in Christ you are blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, you are seated with him there even now, and one day you will be truly glorious, as a bride adorned for her husband, who has forgotten the shame of her youth.