The Herald of Salvation

(Isaiah 51:1-52:12; John 12:12-16)

“Listen to me,” says the Lord. “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek me; listen and look.” If you’ve been here through this series, you’ll note that this appeal is new. In chapters 40 through 48 we read, several times, “Listen to me, O Jacob, O Israel”; with chapter 49, that changes, as the Servant of the Lord begins his speech by saying, “Listen to me, you nations.” With the shift that comes in chapter 49, the audience has changed. Now it’s changed again, to the faithful remnant within Israel—the people who are still seeking God and pursuing his righteousness, who have neither turned their backs on him nor rejected his servant. These are the ones who are willing to trust God—but even for them, it’s hard.

Indeed, maybe for them it’s especially hard, despite their faith, because they see their people’s dire situation much more clearly than their more secular friends and relatives. They can see beyond Israel’s physical exile to their much deeper and more serious spiritual exile, the distance of the people’s hearts from God, and their consequent spiritual barrenness and deadness; they can see past the obvious difficulty of Israel’s deliverance to the real difficulty that underlies it, and so they worry—not that God is unable to deliver his people, or that he doesn’t care enough to do so, as other Israelites do, but that the faithlessness of their people will somehow sabotage everything in the end anyway. They trust God, but they know better than to trust his people.

To them, God says, “Listen to me: look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn.” A quarry is not a place of life; nothing comes out of it but dead stone. This is an apt metaphor to describe Abraham and Sarah, the father and mother of their people, for Sarah was barren, and both were far past childbearing age; even now, with our advanced technology, we don’t see 90-year-olds having children. When God says, “When I called Abraham, he was but one,” he’s not kidding; and yet, as God points out, “I blessed him and made him many.” The very foundation story of the family that became the nation of Israel is a story of God bringing life out of barrenness and deadness; that sort of miraculous birth is at the core of their national identity. “Trust me even in this,” God is saying, “because I’ve done even this for my people before.” What is now a wasteland, he will make “like Eden”—and this doesn’t just mean physical life, but also spiritual life, for Eden isn’t merely a physical paradise, it’s the place before sin, and before the curse of God that fell on us because of our sin.

“Listen to me,” says the Lord. “Listen, my people; hear me, my nation.” Is God once again addressing all the Israelites? Perhaps, but probably not; this isn’t a return to the “Listen, O Jacob, hear, O Israel” formula of earlier in the book. Given the context, what we’re probably seeing here is yet another step in God’s redefinition of his people. His nation isn’t defined by ethnicity or by borders, but rather consists of all those who pursue righteousness and seek his face, wherever they may come from; and so he promises, “The law will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations. My righteousness draws near swiftly; my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations.” To emphasize the enduring nature of his salvation, he declares that even when the earth has worn out from old age and the heavens have faded away like smoke, yet his salvation will still endure, and his righteousness will never fail. The Lord is offering a gift to outlast the very stars, to anyone who will accept it.

“Hear me,” says the Lord; “hear me, you who know righteousness, you people who have my law in your hearts”—and note well, this isn’t the same as saying, “you Jews.” As Paul says in Romans 2, there are many who have the law in their heads because they were taught it, but don’t have it in their hearts because they’ve never lived it; on the other hand, there are also those who’ve never heard the law of God but nevertheless show by the way they live that they have his law in their hearts. To those who know and live out the righteous life of God, he says, “Don’t be afraid of the mockery and scorn of others; don’t be terrified by their hostility and attacks.” As with the heavens and the earth, so with the power of the wicked: it looks too big to conquer, too vast to overcome, and too endless to endure, but in truth it’s merely temporary, and far more fragile than it appears. They will not last, but God’s righteousness will. “The moth will eat them up like a garment, the worm will devour them like wool; but my righteousness will last forever, my salvation through all generations.”

God’s promises to his people, rooted in his miraculous promise to Abraham, are promises for the whole world, for all who will believe, for all who seek the Lord and pursue his righteousness, for all who want to be a part of his people; and they are promises you can bank on—more than you can bank on many banks, these days—because there is no power that can prevent the Lord from fulfilling his righteous and saving purposes. Those who would set themselves against him put their trust in the things of this world—but this world is passing, it will in time wear out and fade away, and God will still be there, and still faithfully keeping his promises. Not even our faithlessness can overcome his faithfulness to us; and so the prophet cries out to the people of Israel, “Awake, awake! Rise up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath . . . this is what your Sovereign Lord says: ‘See, I have taken out of your hand the cup that made you stagger; from that cup, the goblet of my wrath, you will never drink again. Instead, I will put it into the hands of your tormenters.’”

Awake, for you have slept through what God has been doing; awake, for he has removed your punishment. Awake, rise up, and put on new strength; shake off the dust of your humiliation, shake off the chains of your slavery, for all that is past, and put on the garments of the glory of the priestly people of the King of kings. This is what God says to his people—and note this: “the uncircumcised and defiled will not enter you again.” The Lord is not only redeeming his people, he is purifying them; they will be pruned of their unholiness and unfaithfulness, and he will make them worthy of the promises he has given them. This is an echo of the promises he gave through Jeremiah and Ezekiel to put a new heart and a new spirit within his people and write his law on their hearts; it’s all a part of his plan to make them in reality who he called them to be.

But how? Look at 52:3: “For this is what the Lord says: ‘You were sold for nothing, and without money you will be redeemed.’” Money had not yet changed hands, so the sale had not been finalized, and the Lord could reclaim his people; reclaim them he would, and just as the seller made no profit in the transaction, so the redeemer would pay no money to reverse it. But he must pay something; what could it be? How would he redeem his people?

The answer to that isn’t spelled out in this passage, of course, but it builds toward that answer. What we do get is that the Lord will redeem his people by the power of his mighty arm. Look back up to 51:9, where we have one other call to awake—but this one directed not to the people of God, but to the arm of the Lord. The prophet evokes the mighty things that the arm of the Lord has done in the past as a reason for confidence that the Lord will deliver his people as he has done so many times before, and God speaks words of comfort to Zion, to the captives in Babylon, and to the Servant. He will reveal his power, and his arm will bring justice to the nations, and hope to the peoples of the earth, as he declares in 51:5; he will show his power and his glory in a new way, rolling up his sleeves and laying bare his holy arm before all the nations, so that people to the farthest reaches of the world shall experience his salvation.

With that last statement, something new enters the picture, because it’s the close of a paragraph that’s one of the loveliest passages in all of Scripture, I think. Look at 52:7: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news.” The NIV’s trying to be inclusive here, and I understand the impulse, but I think in this verse it’s a mistake; I think it needs to be “him,” because I think there’s a very particular him in view here. Remember, the Servant will not merely bring God’s salvation to the nations, he will be God’s salvation to the nations, and I think that’s what Isaiah’s talking about. “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who proclaims peace, who brings good tidings, who proclaims salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’ Your watchmen lift up your voices, and together they shout for joy—when the LORD returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes. Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD has bared his holy arm”—I think “has bared” is better there than the NIV’s future tense—“the LORD has bared his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”

Now, as I read that, that paragraph is tight. It’s tightly woven and closely connected, and I think we’re talking about one thing there, one event. We have here the herald of God’s salvation, but it seems to me that the one who is announcing good news is in fact the LORD returning to Zion; the one who comes to proclaim peace and good tidings is the one who has brought them about, who has redeemed Jerusalem. He is, in fact, the arm of the LORD revealed, in whom all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of God. With his arrival in Jerusalem would come the revelation of God’s plan to redeem his people without money and extend his salvation to all the world.

And so it was, on that day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, that day which we remember today as Palm Sunday. The Lord returned, and the whole city saw it with their own eyes, and crowds burst out into song; they cried out “Hosanna!” which means “Save us now!” and their faith that he would do so, though ephemeral, was well placed, for he would indeed do just that; in him, the Lord had bared his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth would see God’s salvation. In him, through him, God would redeem his people without money. Through him, God would purify his people, giving them a new heart and a new spirit, writing his law within them. Through him, in him, God would extend his salvation beyond Israel to all the nations, even to the farthest parts of the earth.

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