Listened to Tony Robbins this morning on goals. I paraphrase below: He mentioned how having a compelling vision (the why) of our goals PULLS us toward them. If we simply rely on PUSHING ourselves toward a goal that requires will power (which takes more and is not usually sustainable at intense levels). We need push (will power) and pulls (compelling vision) but pulls will help us more for the endurance toward the goals.
What new visions of the future do I need to evaluate and create?
What old visions of the future do I need to find compelling again?
The passage for study this week highlights the irony regarding God’s ways of working in the world that seem contrary to expectation. The servant that is mentioned is further under scrutiny for the actions that this person makes. Sinful humanity gets a surprise healing from the pain inflicted upon the servant. This poem continues to challenge the assumptions regarding Israel’s saving God. God supposedly is going to send remedy through an unlikely source.
It was typical in the ancient understanding to think that when something bad was happening to an individual it was a result of their wickedness (386, 389). It would seem surely that this absurd character that was appearing weak and sick was getting what they deserved providentially. What the reader discovers, however, is that the sickness, shame, and punishment upon the servant is due to humanity’s sin. This is not the servant’s fault, but the servant bears the entire barrage of insults and are in place of the sinner’s sickness (397).
A large portion of the poem is painting the picture that there is a contrast between humanity and the servant. This is true even despite the reality that the servant is just like humanity and comes from among humanity. This is interesting since this servant is described as innocent, perfect, and undeserving of any harm. The theology of substitution is highlighted by Oswalt on numerous points and as he highlights is connected to the sacrificial system known by Israel (385). Sinful humans, as Israel would have known and argued, needed a mediator between them and God’s righteousness. The sacrificing of unblemished animals to atone for their sins was at the heart of their holiness understanding. It is further striking how Isaiah’s picture combines this language of humanity and a perfect sacrifice to mediate between God and humanity.
The use of the image of a sheep in the poem suggests humanity’s dilemma and the servant’s destiny. It symbolizes humanity’s flaws with sin and missing the point of creation when they have no awareness regarding consequences for actions (389). Humanity needs a God as much as sheep need the guidance and love of a good shepherd. A good shepherd will rescue their sheep at great cost. Oswalt points out the contrast between the people who have gone astray being like a flock of sheep and the servant being a submissive lamb on the way to death. This comparison is a powerful picture of how the servant is like the lamb in a different way than the lost unaware sheep (389-391).
The absurdity of the poem is further complicated when one thinks that God is the one who supposedly does this to the servant (Isaiah 53:6b). This tension should stand when we think about God’s radical dealing with the life destroying force of sin. God is really dealing with God in a profound way. Oswalt notes the many connections here between Jesus and this servant (385, 391, 392). Jesus is described in the New Testament by John the Baptist as the lamb that takes away the sin of the world (Jn. 1:9). Jesus also is the one making the decision to follow through with the mission of embracing death to satisfy God’s mission of salvation (Luke 9:51).
This servant/messiah being described by Isaiah is one that is truly unique. The one who never committed sins or violence is embracing sin and violence within themselves. Oswalt sees that Isaiah is writing about an individual the world had never seen. He rightly notes that there has never been such a person known to have been fully innocent and always have spoken truth (396-397). The entire pericope tells of a contrast between humanity and the servant. It ultimately speaks about God’s character and how God works with the problem of sin. For Israel, it should have prompted them to see things in a different light and be on the lookout for one who would be innocently led like a lamb to the slaughter and in whose mouth, there was found no deceit. Isaiah pointed to the kind of servant that would save people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).
Isaiah 35 is like a breath of fresh air. The preceding chapters developed a picture of God’s people constantly “riding the fence” in regards to their trust and faithfulness to God. Isaiah 35 sets a distinct contrast to chapter 34 (620). The picture in Isaiah 34 (like elsewhere Isaiah) speaks of judgement regarding the nations and contains many descriptions void of hope. Images of God’s anger and death seems to reign throughout Isaiah 34. Chapter 35 changes the picture toward life, beauty, and God’s redemption plan.
It is interesting that in both chapters the creation plays a vital role in how the proposed future will be experienced by humanity. We see that God’s engagement against sin can and will bring destruction. God’s full engagement intention, however, will bring about holistic healing for the creation.
Oswalt notes how poetic language is difficult to try and always pin down into literal meanings (621). Even though poetic language is being used, the text is talking about two very important and distinct possible realities. There is a reality that relies on sinful humanity judged by God, and there is a reality where humanity surrenders to God and is redeemed. I believe that the second picture is God’s favorite one and intrinsic to God’s nature (Isaiah 35). The original intention of creation gets put back into place because God acts in creation.
Isaiah 35 immediately violates the mind by putting forth a paradox. The picture of a desert is basically synonymous with death in most minds. This baron wasteland however, gets a resurrection. This was not the case in the language of Isaiah 34. This seems to be a major turning point in the book itself. Chapter 35 in many ways serves as a hinge from the theme of judgment to the hope of God’s redemption (626).
The striking turning point for the reader of Isaiah is that what has been broken will not remain. God comes for the broken and hopeless (vs. 4b). God’s control over the nations and all reality is a very good thing for those who cry out to God. Oswalt writes, “God has been coming to us across the millennia: through the process of revelation, in the acts of his providence, in the first coming of Christ” (623). This hinge chapter is hanging on the message of hope in a good God. The result is life which is represented by the pictures of healed bodies, thirsts quenched, and places of violence made safe.
I think it is worth noting how Chapter 33 contains a prayer to God for the people’s salvation and strength (33:2). This has been what God has wanted from the start (592). It is when the other perceived powers and gods have failed that God can be seen as the only true remedy for hope. No longer will God’s people depend on human powers to feel safe from fear. This God will come to the rescue when the people remember, repent, and return to God.
The last part of Isaiah 35 deals with those who participate in the abundant new life that God wants to provide. When the image bearers respond to God’s saving activity then the world will change into the type of place where deserts become lush gardens. This happens because God is different than the other idols and humanity finds its true identity and restoration from sin and death. The most vivid observation is that humanity starts to live in a new way as a result to trusting a Holy God. The ultimate end is joy found in relationship to this God.
Oswalt, John N. The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-39. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.