Studies in Isaiah 54: 5. The Big Picture
Isa 54:6 “The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit— a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God.
Two Approaches: As we look at this verse it appears that there can be two approaches to it. There is the approach that sees it in the context of the history of Israel and then the approach that sees it in the context of the history of the world. Put most simply we have a picture that portrays a wife who has been rejected, deserted and distressed, which can be either Israel or the world (and we will look at both) whom the Lord calls back to Himself. What follows in the ongoing verses is simply an expansion of that.
Israel, the wife: This has to be the primary meaning within a prophecy that comes from a Hebrew prophet to Israel in their time-space history. We must note the words in verse 6, “as if you were”. It is a picture, an analogy, to describe what they are like. The implication is that the Lord is like their husband. He had called them – through Abram and then later through Moses – to become a uniquely identifiable people with a uniquely distinct relationship with Him, a relationship likened to that of a husband and wife.
When? Now there is always a problem with prophecy: it may be spoken out of time, about a future time, a future time that is not yet identifiable, and it may be fulfilled more than once! So the Lord speaks of a time when He had apparently given them up: “For a brief moment I abandoned you,” (v.7a) and, “In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment.” (v.8a) Now in Isa 36 we have an historical insert: “In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah’s reign, Sennacherib king of Assyria attacked all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them. Then the king of Assyria sent his field commander with a large army from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem.” (Isa 36:1,2)
It was one of those numerous times when the Lord would discipline Israel – to bring them back to Himself – by using an enemy invader. The reality is that it happened so many times – the book of Judges is full of it – that it is difficult to suggest from our perspective when the Lord was referring to. The fact that Isaiah refers to Cyrus, who later becomes an instrument in the Lord’s hand for getting Israel back to the Land after the Exile, suggests it could be that this prophecy is yet to be also used for encouraging Israel in that later time as well as in the present when Isaiah is actually speaking out these words.
A Changed People: The point of this word – in the present at least – is to reassure Israel that they were not utterly cast away. Now the truth is that the Lord does not just shrug his shoulders and pretend that sin has not happened; He always deals with it. The Exile, possibly many years later, was a time of purging Israel of their idolatry and of creating a new faithful heart in them. Thus when the remnant eventually started returning after some forty years, they came back with changed hearts. We need to realize this, that when the Lord speaks of restoring Israel after a time of disciplining, it is a purged people He will be restoring, a changed people.
He’s not going to just turn the clock back so that the old sinful attitudes are still there and He is doing nothing about it, He is going to change them. Previously, if He appeared to be doing nothing, it was simply that He was staying His hand of judgment to give them time to repent, and if they did not, then the judgment came to discipline them: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9)
So when we try to understand the ways of the Lord, we should always understand that even though discipline comes, it comes with the purpose of changing us and the end result is to be a restored and changed people, a people who have been cleansed by the judgment (discipline) and had their hearts changed and transformed. Perhaps we should also note the tense at the beginning of verse 6: “The Lord will call you back…” There is a future sense to this. It is the Lord declaring His intention of what is yet to come, but that is how it is so often with prophecy; it is not merely stating God’s will for the moment, it also so often declares it for the future.
The World: But the second approach we said above is about the world. The big picture of salvation after the Fall is perhaps portrayed here. This is the big picture of God’s plans and purposes for the whole world. At the Fall we were cast away. His relationship with mankind – Adam and Eve – was fractured by sin. When I first studied this judgment of being cast out of the Garden, I marveled that this was not the end of the ‘God + Mankind’ equation. God did not totally abandon us, He gave us what we wanted, what Adam and Eve had revealed, autonomy, the freedom to live our lives as we will – with all the repercussions! We would learn, we had a need, of someone to save us from the mess that we all make of life. And thus it was that it was like He hovered in the background. It was clear that He spoke with Cain and Abel, had dealings with various others in the ensuing years, and eventually called Abram into relationship with Him.
The Anger of the Lord: The words of these verses that we are considering could equally be applied to the Fall and what followed it: “The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit— a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God.” (v.6) They had a relationship with the Lord to start with, but their sin meant that, “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment.“ (v.7,8) The folly of sin evokes righteous anger; it is a right response to wrong.
In our defensiveness we so often fail to see this, perhaps only made clear when one of our children do wrong and provoke anger within us. Anger is a rising of indignation, a rising of displeasure at what has happened. The thing should not have happened, it was pure folly for it to happen – and of course that is true of all sin, we should know better, but there seems to be this blindness that is part of sin, so that we don’t see the folly and so proceed with the sin. It is stupid and so any onlooker with an unbiased mind would feel a sense of anger that it ever happened. If we could see clearly we would feel it; God does see clearly and so feels it.
The Compassion of the Lord: “I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord your Redeemer.” We may settle in anger and fume; God never does. It may be right to respond with anger at our folly but God never leaves it there. He looks upon us and anger is tempered by compassion. He is love (1 Jn 4:8,16, Ex 34:6,7) and love always looks for the best in everyone else. Anger is appropriate but it is overwhelmed by compassion and out of that God acts to redeem us.
There is a mystery here that C.S.Lewis sought to address, that God appears to stand outside of history, like He looks down on history, as seen as a road below that He can see from beginning to end, but also He steps into history and acts as if everything is new. So although the Scriptures are clear that the Godhead planned salvation, seeing the effect of free-will, even before they made anything, when the Fall took place God’s response to the moment was anger followed by compassion, and it was that compassion that moves Him to continue to interact with mankind. Never say God doesn’t care for us, He does. He may discipline us, “for a little while” (Heb 12:10) but it is that “Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace.” (Heb 12:11).
Thus in these verses we also have the wonder of our salvation. Whenever we fail the Lord and come under His discipline, always remember it is but for a moment and the compassion of God will be there to restore us to Him: “I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 Jn 2:1) God’s constant intent is to redeem us and that is what the whole of the Bible is all about. See it and rejoice in it. Hallelujah!