This post should be the climax of this project of laying a foundation for Christian ethics. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the centrality of Genesis 1:28 to a proper understanding of human purpose. Today I’ll look at a chunk of Isaiah that describes the fulfillment of God’s purposes for Adam, for Abraham, for Israel, and for David. It is a poetic celebration of how God’s chosen servant would do what man was always meant to do. This post will team up with a future post for The Prophets Fulfilled series on how Isaiah 49-55 is fulfilled by Jesus. I’ll start by looking at how this passage describes the obstacles for man fulfilling his mission, then I’ll describe the passage’s solution to this problem, and finally I’ll look at the accomplishment of the mission.
The Problem: Sin
You are in constant dread all day long because of the fury of the oppressor, who has set himself to destroy.Isaiah 51:13, HCSB
Even in the context of this verse, it is clear that oppressors are not Israel’s ultimate problem; but I want to start by acknowledging that they are a real problem. Assyria (who will be followed by Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome) brings “devastation and destruction, famine and sword” (Isa 51:19). How can Israel fill the earth and subdue it if they are being killed, enslaved, and oppressed? This is an illustration of how human sin works against man’s mission. Assyria breaks up families, steals, kills, and destroys, leaving devastation instead of fruitfulness.
Stand up, Jerusalem, you who have drunk the cup of His fury from the hand of the Lord.Isaiah 51:17
The sin Israel really needed to worry about was their own, and the fury they needed to fear was the Lord’s. There was no man in Zion to answer the Lord’s call (Isa 50:2), so the Lord divorced Zion (Isa 50:1). When the Lord led the Israelites into the land, he told them how to be blessed and fulfill their misison. If they obeyed Him, they would be blessed with children, animals, crops, and security, to eventually become the greatest nation of the earth (Deut 28:1-14). If they did not obey him, the opposite would happen: futility, death, disease, oppression, famine, slavery, and exile (Deut 28:15-68). Instead of subduing the earth, they would be subdued. Instead of ruling the animals, they would be ruled over by the beasts of Daniel 7.
The Solution: Obedience, Teaching, and Atonement
The Lord God has opened My ear, and I was not rebellious; I did not turn back. I gave My back to those who beat Me, and my cheeks to those who tore out my beard. I did not hide My face from scorn and spitting. Isaiah 50:5-6
There was no man to answer the Lord’s call, until the Lord set apart his chosen servant from the womb (Isa 49:1). This servant would obey God in everything, even when it meant being beaten, mocked, and killed. His life may have looked futile, but because he obeyed God he would be vindicated in the end (Isa 49:4). Because he is the representative of all Israel (Isa 49:3), his obedience will bring blessings to all Israel.
Coastlands, listen to me; distant peoples, pay attention. The Lord called me before I was born. He named me while I was in my mother’s womb. He made my words like a sharp sword; He hid me in the shadow of His hand. He made me like a sharpened arrow; He hid me in His quiver.Isaiah 49:1-2
The servant’s mission to bring Israel back from oppressive exile (Isa 49:5) isn’t accomplished with traditional weapons, but with words. He is instructed, so his words sustain the weary (Isa 50:4). He preaches good news, “saying to the prisoners: Come out, and to those who are in darkness: Show yourselves” (Isa 49:9). This gospel undoes the power of the oppressor to kill and enslave (Isa 51:13-14). The Lord’s words in the servant’s mouth plant a new heavens and earth, and establish a covenant (Isa 51:16).
But He was pierced because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on Him, and we are healed by His wounds. We all went astray like sheep; we all have turned to our own way; and the Lord has punished Him for the iniquity of us all.Isaiah 53:5-6
The Lord’s servant, as Israel’s representative, took Israel’s punishment. Just as Israel was oppressed because of God’s judgment, “He was taken away because of oppression and judgment” (Isa 53:8). It looks like futility, but it is wisdom (Isa 52:13) because it leads to the justification of many (Isa 53:11). The servant, after his death, is rewarded with children, long life (Isa 53:10), and power over rulers (53:12). In other words, he will fill the earth and subdue it, as man was always meant to do. This is the good news of the kingdom of God (Isa 52:7). Because of the servant’s atonement, God’s anger turns from Israel to her enemies:
“Look, I have removed the cup of staggering from your hand; that goblet, the cup of my fury. You will never drink it again. I will put it in the hands of your tormenters, who said to you: Lie down, so we can walk over you.”Isaiah 51:22-23
Mission Accomplished: Fruitfulness and Dominion
“Rejoice, childless one, who did not give birth; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the forsaken one will be more than the children of the married woman,” says the Lord. “Enlarge the site of your tent, and let your tent curtains be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your ropes, and drive your tent pegs deep. For you will spread out to the right and to the left, and your descendents will dispossess nations and inhabit the desolate cities.Isaiah 54:1-3
The result of the servant’s obedience, teaching, and atonement is that Zion is taken back to be the Lord’s wife again (Isa 54:5-8). This union produces so many children that they cannot fit in the old borders of Israel (Isa 49:18-21). The kings of the earth give up Zion’s children and bow to her (Isa 49:22-23). Her children are righteous, prosperous, and safe forever (Isa 54:11-17). They multiply like Abraham’s children (Isa 51:2), and the land is as fruitful as Eden, which leads to worship and gratitude to the Lord (Isa 51:3). The Lord’s word produces fruit according to His good plan (Isa 55:10-11). Blessings depicted as water, bread, wine, milk, and rich food are available for free in David’s kingdom (Isa 55:1-3).
The servant’s work causes the kingdom of God to spread throughout the world. The nations find the Lord’s instruction, justice, and salvation (Isa 49:6-7, 51:4-5). The servant receives the promises of David, and gathers the nations into his kingdom and instruction (Isa 55:3-5). “Your God reigns!… all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God” (Isa 52:7, 10). The curse is undone, and creation glorifies God as it was always meant to (Isa 55:12-13).
Significance for Ethics
I think the next post will be a better time to discuss the direct relevance of the Kingdom of God to modern ethics. For now, I just want to note what is involved in the blessed life that man was always intended to live. When the command of Genesis 1:28 was given, there was only one family in the world. Multiplication was in the context of this one family, and subduing the earth meant working the ground and ruling the animals. These responsibilities of man remain, but the world is more complicated now.
As seen in this Isaiah passage, the purpose of a kingdom is to provide security and justice to its people. This is necessary because there are sinners inside and outside of the kingdom. Sin works against man’s mission, and good government gives some protection against this. Another thing to consider in light of sin is that obedience to God may look fruitless in this life because of oppression and injustice, but it ultimately leads to the only lasting fruit. A brief message to expansionist empires trying to fill the earth and subdue it: you will be accountable to God if you do this by unlawfully killing, stealing, and destroying. Finally, in a world where morality is disputed, men need to be instructed by God.
Stay tuned to see how Isaiah’s prophecies are fulfilled in the New Testament, and what it all means for you.