We end the year looking at the last of the Servant Songs. "The year of the Lord's favour" referred to in verse 2 was something that Israel was familiar with. From the verse, we see that this Servant will come to proclaim what happens in a year of the Lord's favour. As our year ends and a new one begins, this text shows us also what this means for us in the year ahead.
What is Jesus doing in the new year? He is working to proclaim good news (v.1-3).
There are three characters referred to in 61:1. The 3 persons are "the Spirit", "the Lord God" and "me". One tip for reading Isaiah is to figure out who the speaker is and the subject of the text is. Here, the focus is on the Servant ("me") whom we know is the Promised One (the Messiah/Christ). Remember that Christ is not a family name, but is a title, and it speaks of the Promise.
This person is here to do a lot of things, but before that, he has been anointed by the Lord. The OT uses anointed to mean one who has been chosen, and it is marked by the action of pouring oil on the person. The speaker here means that God has chosen Him by pouring oil on Him to do something. Jesus was chosen, prepared and sent for a specific purpose. Everything about Him hangs on whether He does the job or not. Sometimes we think of Jesus as a random guy like us who perhaps could fail at His job. But this was never true at any point! Jesus will surely get it done because of who He is, how He was chosen and prepared, and why He was sent. Do you know who He is and whether He got the job done? This passage only makes sense if we know who Jesus is, and whether He has obeyed and completed His mission.
Verses 1 to 3 help us see what the servant of the Lord will do when the Spirit of God is upon Him. The Servant of the Lord is anointed to:
- Bring good news to the poor (v.1b)
- Bind up the brokenhearted (v.1c)
- Proclaim liberty to the captives (v.1d)
- Open the prison to those who are bound (v.1e)
- Proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and day of vengeance (v.2a)
- To comfort all who mourn (v.2b)
- Grant…. those who mourn in Zion (v.3a)
In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus quotes from this passage. He declares that He is the one who fulfills this text. No wonder C.S. Lewis declares that Jesus is either a liar, lunatic or Lord. Let us not gloss over this text quickly. What is Jesus claiming? Jesus is claiming that He is that one that God has chosen, prepared and sent to accomplish all that is mentioned in Isaiah 61:1-3. The Jews would be familiar with the idea of the Year of Jubilee. Ray Ortlund helps us understand that this Year of Jubilee is:
“Back in the Old Testament, God was already hinting at this. He established an institution called theYear of Jubilee (Lev 25:8-55). Every fiftieth year Israel was to take the whole year off, cancel all debts, return to its original owners all family property that had been sold and generally be kind and generous to everyone. “Proclaim liberty throughout the land” (Lev 25:10) – that was everyone’s job for a whole year. It foreshadowed the liberation of Christ (Gal 5:1)... The cross cancels all our debts. God says we’re free to leave the past behind and move on with joyous relief.”
This is incredible because every 50 years, everything would be reset and start from zero. All savings and accumulation were meant to be shared and God's people would not be unequal. This was a way of achieving social equity. Everyone would start over again on the basis of God's provision. This is what the coming of Christ meant, more than in a mere financial and material sense. Jesus came to achieve equality. Jesus came to proclaim freedom to those that feel bound.
Many of us think that Jesus came to teleport us out from the badness of this world into the goodness of heaven, as if it's an escape. Jesus came to do that, but more. He came to proclaim good news also for now. He proclaims freedom for those who feel they are trapped. He came to proclaim comfort too those who are mourning. How is your walk? Have you forgotten who Jesus is, who He came for, and what He came to do?
These are good things to think about the end of one year, and the beginning of another.
In verse 3, we also read that the Servant of the Lord grants "those who mourn in Zion" three things. The servant grants "a beautiful headdress instead of ashes", "the oil of gladness instead of mourning" and "the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit". Ashes was used for cataclysmic mourning, e.g. during a war, in exile or at a funeral of a loved one. It was a sign of sorrow and sadness. Thus to receive a beautiful headdress is a symbol of trading mourning for glory. This is repeated in the next phrase. Lastly, instead of a broken heart, the Servant gives a garment of praise to cover the brokenhearted. The Servant thus brings gladness and joy to a people that would otherwise be wallowing in sadness and depression.
As a result, this makes the people "oaks of righteousness". Oaks are consistently used as symbols of certainty and confidence in the Bible. Oaks have deep roots. Thus, the poor, broken-hearted and bound are turned into oaks of righteousness -- people that are sure and confident. This arises only because of the "planting of the Lord" because only He can make this so. Do you feel like an "oak of righteousness"? This passage reminds us that if we want deep roots and want to grow strong and firm, we need to go to Jesus. It is possible for us to do good things like read the Bible and go to church, but not have our hearts warmed. Have you traded your mourning for praise? How? He needs to give it to us.
But when will the servant of the Lord do all these things? The Servant will do all these things when He comes to bring good news, as we read in verse 1. His appearance ushers all these in. But honestly, when? Is it SG50? We are living it in in some sense now and it started when Jesus came to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour. This means that in 2016, we have far more resources for hope and faith than we know. Jesus is doing what He has always been doing. He is still bringing us good news today. He hasn't stopped and He will not. Consider the words of a hymn that we sing so often: Behold Him there the risen Lamb, my perfect spotless righteousness, the great unchangeable I am, the King of glory and of grace.
Jesus, our perfect spotless righteousness is working now to proclaim good news and to do all that is written in verses 1 to 3. What can we do then in response to His work? Doesn't this make sense now that we spend time with Him and also let Him tell you how good His news is? Let that soak in, so that you can receive the beautiful headdress, oil of gladness and a garment of praise. Why not make time to spend time with the one we love and who loves us so in 2016?
What will God’s people do in the new year? They are to work as priests and ministers of redemption (v.4-7)
Isaiah says that the people of Zion will be called “oaks of righteousness”, but what specifically will they do? In verse 4, we read that these people will "build up the ancient ruins", "raise up the former devastations", "repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations". At one level, we know that this was fulfilled in the subsequent return of the exiles. But this is more than just ancient history. This speaks about the restoration of God's people.
At the end of the year and start of the next, it is easy to make resolutions, resolutions to right the wrong of the previous year. If you have been a Christian long enough, you will know that your resolutions to read the Bible won't last. And then there are the parts of our lives that we are ashamed of. We feel like ancient ruins, ruined cities and hopeless. We feel like we need to fake it till we make it. But Isaiah speaks to those of us who feel devastated and hopeless, because this Servant is a Builder, and Restorer. Today, this text calls us to Him, to admit our own frailty and inability to build ourselves up. Let us cling to the promises in this text.
He then describes a series of changes that the people of Zion will experience in verses 5 to 7. The people of God will stop being shepherds (agriculture) and plowmen and vinedressers (horticulture) because foreigners now come and take these jobs, but now become priests and ministers (i.e. servants) of God. This is not merely a job change. He has moved on from a literal job but to a spiritual one. What does this mean for us today?
They people of God also once had shame and dishonor, but now they have a double portion, which is not a unit of counting but speaks of the inheritance that they now possess. They've traded their shame and dishonor, their old inheritance, for double portion. It wasn't an equal swop, for they received something more ("everlasting joy"). Isaiah 61 teaches us that God wants to change who His people are, and because of who they are, what they have. Some of us may feel like we only have shame and ruin. But this does not deter Him. He promises to come and take theirs and our ruins, and it into something better. This promise is not the promise of a physical land. It extends to spiritual Israel and speaks of the land that is yet to come. It is too small to give us just a tiny strip of land in the Gaza area. He wants to give us everlasting joy. He wants to give us more than we think we want, have and imagine. Who are you today? You are not just a student or employee. If you are in Christ, you are a rebuilt city, a priest and minister of the Lord. He wants you to be a priest and minister of the Lord in 2016, where you are. Remember that his people moved on from a literal vocation to a spiritual one! Do you believe that? Come and meet with Him, and seek His will on how you can obey Him to be His priests and ministers where you are. Don't hold Him at a distance in this new year.
What is God doing in the new year? He is working out His covenant plans through His servant (v.8-11)
In verses 8-11, there are two sections with 2 speakers each. There is a change in perspective in verse 8. It shifts from the servant to the personal voice of the Lord. Here, God is telling us what He loves and does not love. The servant of the Lord acts because of the Lord's
character as it is revealed here. God promises to give what is due the people, and He will make an everlasting covenant. This is a God who is holy and cannot tolerate evil, but also loves His people (v.8). As a result, his people will be blessed (v.9). They will be so blessed, that everyone will know! What is our God like? Our God is good, righteous, and just, but is also kind, faithful to His people and is a God of blessing. We sing this every week in the Doxology, don't we? "Praise God from whom all blessings flow". God is a God of blessing (c.f. Jas 1). Every good gift is from above and He does not change like shifting shadows. His blessings might not take the form we want, but He blesses. Let us not forget that!
We go back to the Servant's voice in verse 10. He will rejoice in the Lord and He will be so happy in the Lord. This is the voice of Jesus. Why is He rejoicing? Because He is clothed with the garments of salvation and is covered in the robe of righteousness. Jesus is not a reluctant Savior! And He readily and joyfully goes to those who need it. Why was it such a joy for Him? He saw us when we felt like there's nothing for Him to save, and when we don't deserve it, and He declared that this, this needy and broken one is His and loved deeply by Him.
The saving work of the Servant is the Lord God's work in the Garden (v.11). As the servant works, God is actually working. Just as how things grow, the Lord God also causes righteousness and praise to grow.
We have heard so much in this study and there are really only 2 ways to respond. We could look at it, know it but don't believe and live accordingly. Or, we may not believe everything, but we can trust in His promises and cling by faith to what He has declared. It's only faith or disobedience that lies before us. God wants to do something in our lives through His Son, because He chose, prepared and sent His Son to do something. Will you trust God in 2016? Will you continue to hope in Him in the new year, and choose to spend time with Him? May the prayer of John Wesley also be yours in this new year:
“I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.