We have now completed the so-called historical pivot of chapters 36 to 39, transitioning us from the historical context of threat of the Assyrians in chapters 1 to 35 to that of looking ahead to the future return from the Babylonian exile in chapters 40 to 66. Isaiah outlines the promise of restoration from exile in Babylon as if the events of the Babylonian deportation of 150 years later have already happened.
One of the key ideas in this second massive section of the book about the return from Babylon is the presentation of the return from exile as a second exodus orchestrated by God; however, what becomes clear is that restoration of God’s people to their homeland is still not going to solve the problem of their spiritual condition: this will only be achieved by the grace of God demonstrated in the work of a Servant, evidently a figure we realise can only find its fulfilment in Jesus alone.
After the thematic focus of judgement in chapters 1-35, here, against the backdrop of exile in Babylon, God’s word to his people is one of consolation and encouragement. Despite their rebellion and deportation God still regards the nation of Judah as his “people” (verse 1). Those in exile have received the punishment due to them according to the covenant curses and can anticipate the prospect of restoration (see Leviticus 26 & Deuteronomy 28). Where it says that God’s people in exile have received “double for all her sins” it is not that God has administered a level of judgment twice over what the nation deserve but rather “double” in the sense of a true reflection of the sins.
The description in verses 3 to 5 of preparing a processional highway is related to the ancient Near-Eastern custom of sending representatives ahead to prepare the way for the visit of a monarch and is used to depict the coming of God to Jerusalem as he accompanies his people on their return from exile. This image is applied to John the Baptist in the gospels as he prepares the way for Jesus (see Mark 1:3).
In verses 6 to 8 the durability of God’s word is contrasted with transitory nature of mankind’s fragile existence, highlighting the reliability of the divine promise to restore the people from exile. Then in verses 9 to 11 we see that the good news of God’s promise to bring restoration is to be proclaimed to his people. In this context of divine deliverance, God is portrayed as a mighty warrior and a loving shepherd.
As those who are by nature like “grass that withers and flowers that fall” (verse 7), let’s recognize again our natural impotency to save ourselves and celebrate all that we have been given in the gospel of God’s grace that represents the ultimate “good news” (verse 9). If we have received Jesus as the one who saves us by “paying for our sin” (verse 2) then we can now know that we are spared judgment and instead granted the privilege of knowing the loving care of God as our shepherd – “He tends his flock like a shepherd: / He gathers the lambs in his arms / and carries them close to his heart…” (verse 11)!
Prayer: Read through Psalm 23 in the picture. Pause and reflect on the privilege of knowing the Lord as our shepherd. Spend some time thanking him for it. If you can, try memorising it.