Biblical prophecy may read like a confusing stream of thoughts jumping from one subject to another. If it helps, remember that a prophet like Isaiah would not have sat down and written out all 66 chapters of his prophecy, with the aim of covering all his topics. The book we call Isaiah contains oracles (inspired statements) given throughout his career, recorded just as likely by his audience or his disciples as by himself. They are not necessarily given in the order of their speaking, nor is it always easy to tell where one oracle ends and another begins. Most of the time the subject matter and the tone help us determine the end of one oracle and the beginning of another, but editors and scholars will disagree on some.
We typically concentrate on the foretelling element of Biblical prophecy, i.e., its predictions for the future, in this case, such as the Exile, the return, and the coming Messiah. But prophets like Isaiah also did much by way of forthtelling, i.e. telling forth God’s feelings and dealings with things like idolatry, injustice and immorality, as well as God’s pleasure in and support for faith and the faithful.
The foretelling element, while speaking to events in the future, still had to make sense to the original audience. Thus, a passage which is being fulfilled in the mission of the church even today (Is. 60:1-18) will speak of camels and sailing ships from afar bringing in the nations to Zion. Yet the fulfillment before our eyes today involves the Word and workers going forth by airplane, internet and superhighways. So we must concentrate on the meaning while appreciating the poetic elements for what they are.
The lines between prophecy, worship and prayer are not always clear, as we see in sections in which the prophet also, through divine inspiration, speaks the people’s words to God, as well as God’s word to the people (see Is. 63: 15-19). Rabbi Heschel, in his book, The Prophets, said that the prophet not only speaks for God to the people, but like a priest, stands between God and the people and represents each to the other.
This section of Isaiah is rich in words and images that fill the New Testament, most notably chapter 53 (it actually begins in the last few verses of chapter 52), the fourth song of The Suffering Servant. Such words as, “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities, and the chastisement of our sins was laid upon him….” lay the foundation for understanding the sacrificial death and atoning work of Jesus. The fifth Servant Song in Is. 61:1-4 was instrumental in Jesus’ understanding and expression of his mission (Lk. 4:1-7). In Chapter 62: 4-5 is the image of engagement and marriage for the covenant, which will flower into New Testament metaphors for the church and the New Jerusalem as the Bride of Christ.
These chapters also continue expressing the divine disgust, noted in chapter 1, with piety (fasting, in Chapter 58) practiced without justice and mercy.
The main points of this section are that: 1) God will restore Zion and; 2) make of her the light and the home of many Gentiles (“a house of prayer for all nations,” Is. 56: 7; Mt. 21:13) but that; 2) God’s people must purify themselves from idolatry, oppression and immorality, for a new covenant is coming in which; 3) no longer will God use the military might of the nations to punish Israel (54:8-17); and 4) all who draw near to God, even those once considered unclean, will be accepted in God’s house (56:4-8).
AN HISTORICAL NOTE: Isaiah 54: 2-4 was the text for a world-changing sermon, delivered in the early 1790’s by William Carey, English Baptist shoemaker, linguist and scholar, on the words,Enlarge the place of your tent; Stretch out the curtains of your dwellings, spare not; Lengthen your cords, And strengthen your pegs.” Why? Because the nations will come flooding in to the God and the House of Israel. Though we no longer have the text of that sermon, people remembered and shared with each other the two main points of the message,“Expect great things from God; Attempt great things for God.” Consistent with his own message, Carey formed the first of the modern missionary societies, The Baptist Mission Society, under which auspices he and his wife then went to India as missionaries. For that message and that society, Carey is known as “the father of modern missions.” In effect, a prophecy inspired its own fulfillment.
…is a Penitential Psalm. Usually associated with King David, after his adultery with Baathsheba, it also seems to be placed in response to God’s call to repentance in the previous psalm. Perhaps the two psalms served together in a litany of call from God and human response. Modeling all the elements of a complete and thorough self-examination and repentance, the only things lacking are the common human practices of making excuses, seeking some shred of self-justification, or, conversely, despair and punitive self-condemnation. Psalm 51 exhibits both honesty and hope. In keeping with Isaiah’s call for worship and justice, sacrifice and sanctity, Psalm 51 tells us what are the necessary sacrifices that render any other sacrifice to God acceptable: a lowly spirit and a humble, contrite heart, as well as a unity of vision that sees our relationships with each other and our relationship with God as two sides of the same coin (v. 4). Verse 11 gives a very good description of what it is to “fear God.” St. Augustine differentiated between “a servile fear of God,” which is limited to a childish fear of punishment, and “a holy fear of God,” a more realistic and mature fear of what we might do to our relationship with God, even to the point that we would grieve the Holy Spirit and remove ourselves from the (experiential) presence of God.
Many powerful settings of this Psalm to music have been composed, such as a more recent one by Sons of Korah, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49KVhC3RTMc as well as one from the Italian Rennaissance composer, Gregorio Allegri, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_HANu1pTA4&feature=fvwrel