Isaiah 40 begins with words of consolation, declaring that the Exile has come to an end because their suffering has led to their iniquity having been removed (Isaiah 40:1-2). It is clarified in Isaiah 27:7-9 that the suffering in itself did not bring atonement of sin, but only brought them to repentance resulting in forgiveness, which then bears “full fruit” in their destroying the pagan altars and idols (Smith 2007: 463). Taking Isaiah 40-66 as whole, it is “abundantly clear that God is the one who blots out the guilt … when people repent of their sins. God sweeps away their sins because he is the one who redeems them (44:22) through the servant of Isaiah 52-53” (Smith 2009a: 94-95). In fact, the very next verse (Isaiah 40:3) begins to unveil this redemptive work of God.
The immediate implication of these words of consolation is that the time has come for them to be restored to the Promised Land (cf. Jeremiah 29:10-14). What follows is an elaboration of all that these words entail, which goes way beyond their return to their homeland.
Isaiah 40:3 onwards announces (in advance) what will happen, as well as explains why they can believe that it will happen and exhorts them as to how they should respond. We will now focus on the “what,” leaving the “why” and “how” till later.
It all begins with the prophecy that (one day) “a voice is calling” to prepare the way for the coming of “the LORD … our God” (40:3-4). This voice thus announces the coming of God Himself, and it is to reveal His “glory” so that “all flesh will see it together” (40:5). And Jerusalem, called to be a “bearer of good news,” is to declare, “Here is your God!” (40:9). One gets the distinct impression that this coming of God will be an unprecedented manifestation of God in human history.
And it is “good news” because not only will God “come with might, with His arm ruling for Him,” but also “His reward is with Him” in that “His arm will gather the lambs” and “like a shepherd He will tend His flock” (40:10-11). If we recall Psalm 23 and what it means to be able to say, “The LORD is my shepherd,” we will catch a glimpse of how great this reward is. The announcement thus creates a sense of exuberant expectation.
The Gospels identify the “voice” as John the Baptist, who, by calling the people to repentance, prepared the way for the coming of Jesus to publicly begin His mission (Matthew 3:1-3; Mark 1:3-4; Luke 3:2-6; John 1:23). Therefore Jesus is identified as “the LORD … our God” who was expected to come. This manifestation of God is certainly unprecedented. Having considered Isaiah 9, which announces the birth of a divine Messiah, we are not surprised by this identification. We will now confirm this identification based on Isaiah 40-66 itself. To savor the richness of Isaiah’s prophecies concerning the Messiah we need to make the effort to read what follows thoughtfully.
What or who then is God’s “arm” that will be ruling for Him and how is God’s “glory” to be revealed to “all flesh”? The answer is spelled out in Isaiah 49-53.
The term “servant” in Isaiah 40-55 generally refers either to the nation of Israel as a servant of God (41:8-9; 42:19; 43:10; 48:20), or to the Servant of God, the person who will restore Israel to God (42:1; 49:3-6; 52:13; 53:11). It is significant that in the very text (49:3-6) that clarifies that the Servant will restore Israel to God (verse 6), and hence cannot be referring the nation of Israel, the Servant is also called “Israel” (verse 3). This clarification allows for Him to be called “Israel” without being confused with the nation.
Why then call Him “Israel” at all? We have seen that the nation of Israel was called to be a model nation, a light to the nations (Deuteronomy 4:5-8; 1 Kings 8:41-43, 59-61). But Israel failed, which was why they ended up in exile, and needed God’s forgiveness of sin. The Servant of God is called to replace the servant of God (Israel) and take over her mission (light), as well as her liability (sin). So in this sense He has become “Israel.”
And Isaiah 49:6 spells out that the mission of the Servant is not only to restore Israel to God but also to be “a light of the nations, so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” In Isaiah 42:1, where God said “I will put My Spirit upon Him,” the Servant’s mission is described as, “He will bring forth justice to the nations” (similar idea repeated twice in 42:3-4). Since this mission is also described as “a light to the nations” (42:6), it is the same as that in Isaiah 49:6—God’s “salvation” reaching the end of the earth. Hence “salvation” reaching to the end of the earth also means bringing forth “justice” to the nations. In other words the salvation He brings is social, economic as well as political.
How then can “salvation,” which is often understood as salvation from sin, be the same as bringing forth justice? As John Oswalt (2003) says, the Hebrew word translated “justice,” which often parallels the Hebrew word translated “righteousness,” is in many ways the antonym of “chaos,” and “it is much more than mere legality, as ‘justice’ has come to connote in English. Rather, it has the idea of ‘right order.’” (472). The fact that “salvation” in Isaiah 49:6 corresponds to “justice” in Isaiah 42:1-6 “helps to amplify the meaning of ‘justice’ to divine order…. For God to ‘save’ the world means to bring it into the order he intended, and for God to bring about that order it is necessary for him to save it from the bondage sin holds over it” (547-8).
This points to the Messiah in Isaiah 11-12, whose mission is also about “justice” and “salvation” (which is also spiritual in nature), and where it is also said that God’s Spirit will come upon Him to anoint Him (11:2; cf. 61:1). And the idea of spiritual salvation points to Isaiah 53, which is about the Servant bringing salvation from the bondage of sin, so that “justice” is possible. To confirm that the Servant in Isaiah 49-53 is indeed Immanuel, the Messiah in Isaiah 7-12, we will now see how His mission is also expressed in terms of a second Exodus, the New Exodus.
Isaiah 50 begins with God explaining that they went into exile because of their sins and ends with calling those who fear God to “trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God” (50:10). Isaiah 51 continues in the same vein, addressing those “who pursue righteousness, who seek the LORD,” that is, those in exile who are repentant, to “look to Abraham … and to Sarah” (51:1-2). This means, remember the Abrahamic Covenant, which is the basis for their restoration to the Promised Land and the words of consolation (51:3) that begins to flow in Isaiah 40:1.
The text then highlights the mission of the Servant: “I will set My justice for a light of the peoples,” which is here elaborated as, “My righteousness is near, My salvation has gone forth, and My arms will judge the peoples; … And for My arm they will wait expectantly” (51:4-5). In other words the focus here is on the ultimate fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant—all nations being blessed by God (Genesis 12:3). This is also the mission of the Messiah (Genesis 49:10; Isaiah 11:10).
And the repeated reference to God’s “arm” in relation to the Servant’s mission to bring justice-salvation to the nations needs elaboration. We have noted in relation to Isaiah 11:11-16 that God’s “hand” is a primary Exodus motif. So is God’s “arm” (see Isaiah 63:12; cf. Deuteronomy 4:34; 2 Kings 17:36; Psalm 136:12), especially when used in the context of Isaiah 49-53. This is unmistakable when the “arm of the LORD” is addressed as the Person who “in generations long ago … cut Rahab in pieces …, who dried up the sea, … who made the depth of the sea a pathway for the redeemed to cross over” (51:9-10; cf. 30:7, where “Rahab” explicitly refers to Egypt). So likewise, because of who the “Arm” is, the “ransomed of the LORD will return, and come with joyful shouting to Zion [Jerusalem]” (51:11). However unlike the Exodus from Egypt, “you will not go out in haste, nor will you go out as fugitives” (52:12; cf. Deuteronomy 16:3).
There is no clearer way to say that the mission of the Servant is also the New Exodus, thus confirming that the Servant is indeed the Messiah.
And we have just introduced the idea that God’s “arm,” a symbol of His power to save, here refers to the Person “who dried up the sea” (and in Isaiah 40:10 to the One who will be “ruling for Him”), that is God Himself. In view of this identification of God’s arm with God Himself, the revelation of God’s “arm” in Isaiah 53:1 (cf. 52:10) “is indeed a revelation of Yhwh [“the LORD”], but it is a revelation of a part of Yhwh in some sense representing Yhwh and distinguishable from Yhwh” (Goldingay and Payne 2006: 298). The rest of Isaiah 53 further identifies the Arm of God as the Servant of God (see especially verses 2 and 11; cf. Motyer 1993: 427-28).
Recall that like the Messiah in Isaiah 7-12, the Spirit of God will come upon the Servant to anoint Him to fulfill His mission (42:1; 61:1). And like in Isaiah 11, this reference to God, God’s Arm the Servant, and God’s Spirit, as though they are distinguishable divine Persons, again implies a nascent doctrine of the Trinity (note also in Isaiah 63:7-14 that though it was “the LORD,” who “became their Savior,” it was actually “the Angel of His Presence” who “saved them”; and that later “He turned and became their enemy” because “they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit,” who had earlier “caused His glorious Arm to go at the right hand of Moses, who divided the waters” and saved them).
When we consider how the New Exodus reclaims the pre-Fall Creation Mandate we will see the far-reaching implications of expressing the mission of the Messiah as another Exodus. So it is appropriate to elaborate here that the concept of the New Exodus is not limited to Isaiah (see Watts 2012). For instance, the prophet Hosea, another contemporary of Isaiah, prophesied the same idea but in reference to the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
Before Israel was exiled to Assyria God explained to them through Hosea that it was because of their unrepentant idolatry and injustice. Hosea’s use of symbolic language and actions in his prophecies is most graphic. We will focus on how the restoration of Israel is expressed in terms of the New Exodus.
God instructed Hosea to name his third child, “Lo-ammi,” which means “Not-my-people,” because “you are not my people and I am not your God” (Hosea 1:9). This reversal of the Covenant Formula (see Exodus 6:7) implies that, in sending them into exile, God has nullified the Mosaic Covenant (at this point with respect to the Northern Kingdom only). And though the people would actually be exiled to Assyria, God said they would “return to Egypt” (8:13; see also 9:3 and 11:5). This means their exile to Assyria amounts to a “return to Egypt,” that is, as though the Exodus never happened.
So when they are restored, it will be the Exodus all over again. This inference is confirmed by how their restoration is described: “I will allure her, bring her into the wilderness …. Then I will give her … a door of hope. And she will respond … as in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt” (2:14-15). How then do we know that this exodus refers to the New Exodus of the Messiah? As a consequence of the restoration, “the sons of Israel will return to and seek the LORD their God and David their king” (3:5; cf. Amos 9:11-15). This can only mean they will turn to the Messiah, the ultimate fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant.
Recognizing the concept of the New Exodus, evident even in Hosea, enables us to appreciate what Matthew means when he quotes Hosea 11:1, “out of Egypt I called my son,” originally referring to Israel, and applies it to Jesus (Matthew 2:13-15). This quote is used by Bible scholars as the model case to show that the New Testament quotes the Old Testament out of context. But this is due to a failure to understand properly the context and content of Hosea 11:1-5.
God is saying that He called His “son” (Israel) “out of Egypt” (the Exodus) to fulfill a plan—to be a light to the nations. But Israel failed to fulfill God’s plan because she kept forsaking God. So she herself had to be exiled (“return to Egypt”). But God’s plan was only temporarily derailed, not defeated. Therefore when the Exile has fulfilled its purpose, God reenacts the Exodus in order to fulfill His plan, this time through the Messiah. So in view of the Messiah replacing Israel, “out of Egypt I called my son” is to be reinterpreted to refer to the New Exodus. Hence Matthew is following a principle we have already established as valid in our exposition of the Psalms on Kingdom Worship: reinterpreting a plan of God in the Old Testament and reapplying it to Jesus in view of Him having fulfilled its original intention, which the original recipient failed to fulfill.
We now move on to consider further the New Exodus. To avoid confusion we need to be aware that though the New Exodus includes and builds on Israel’s physical restoration to Jerusalem made possible by Cyrus, which we will see is the focus of Isaiah 41-48, the focus in Isaiah 49-66 is the ultimate fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant. In other words, the physical restoration is only a prelude to, and is used as a symbol of, a spiritual restoration (with social, economic and political implications) that affects not only Israel but also all nations.
We begin with directly answering the questions posed above. God’s “arm” that will be ruling for Him is the Messiah. And God’s “glory,” expressed through the “light” that the Messiah brings (9:2; 42:6; 49:6), is revealed to “all flesh” when “the LORD has bared His holy Arm in the sight of all nations, that all the ends of the earth may see the salvation of our God” (52:10). We have given attention to the “justice” aspect of this salvation. We now pay attention to the “freedom from sin” aspect of the salvation. So we turn to Isaiah 53, which we have seen identifies the Arm of God as the Servant in Isaiah 49-53.
A plain reading of Isaiah 53 clearly shows that the Servant will die as a substitute on behalf of sinners to atone for their sins (cf. Allen 2012; Jeffery, Ovey and Sach 2007). He will be offered up as a Guilt Offering (verse 10), and “the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him” (verse 6) so that “He was pierced for our transgressions … [and] the punishment that brought our wellbeing (shalom) fell upon Him” (verse 5). This teaching is so clear that Otfried Hofius (2004), even though he objects to it, confesses that “the idea of substitution or place taking [is] evident in Isaiah 53” (170; emphasis added). He not only considers the teaching “outrageous,” but also argues (based on Exodus 32:30-34 and Ezekiel 18:20) that it is impossible “that God transfers the guilt of one person to another person or persons” (168-69).
As noted by Hofius himself, Isaiah 52:13-15 warns us that Isaiah 53 will reveal “things previously ‘never told’ and ‘never heard’ (v. 15b)” (168) and will thus astonish us. So it is normal to find the teaching of Isaiah 53 outrageous, but is it also impossible? Actually what is really outrageous is not the idea of substitutionary atonement in itself, but the idea that the substitute is God Himself, which many scholars, having rejected a plain reading of Isaiah 7-12 and 49-53, do not recognize. But when we do recognize that the Servant is God, we will see that the idea of substitutionary atonement is not only possible but in fact necessary.
It is indeed impossible that the guilt of one person is transferred to an innocent third party. But the Servant, being God Himself, is not a third party at all. He is the party humanity sins against. And only the party we have sinned against can forgive our sin, by himself bearing the consequence of our sin and thus letting us go scot-free. As theologian James Buswell (1963: 76) put it, “the guilt of one individual's sin against another can morally be borne either by the sinner (as in the case of justice without forgiveness . . .) or by the one sinned against (as in the case of forgiveness . . .).” This is why only God can forgive sins (Luke 5:21), by Himself bearing the consequence of sin (Isaiah 53:12).
So the question is not whether substitutionary atonement can happen, but whether it has happened. We have seen how the portrayal of the birth and life of Jesus in the Gospels matches the portrayal of that of the Messiah in Isaiah 7-12. And it is not difficult to see how the portrayal of the death and resurrection of Jesus in the Gospels matches that of the Servant in Isaiah 53. For even the resurrection of Christ is anticipated in Isaiah 53. For we read that after He offered Himself up as a Guilt Offering, “He will see His offspring, and He will prolong His days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in His hand” (verse 10). This can only mean that, after “He poured out His life to death” (verse 12) as an atoning sacrifice, He would come back to life (cf. Barry 2010).
Hence, on the basis of Isaiah 53 alone, the early Church could confidently confess that, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
However Jews today take for granted that the “servant” in Isaiah 53 refers to national Israel. But according to Michael Brown (2003: 60), a Jewish scholar who believes in Jesus as the Messiah, the traditional Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 53 is that the “servant” refers to an individual, usually the Messiah. It was only in the eleventh century that Rashi introduced the idea that the “servant” refers to (the righteous remnant of) Israel. A century later, Ibn Ezra, who read Isaiah 53 with the assumption the “servant” is Israel, commented, “This is an extremely difficult passage.” In response Brown writes, “But when we read it with reference to Yeshua [Jesus], it is not difficult at all. Rather, it is wonderfully clear, giving the reader the distinct feeling that the chapter was written [as though] after the Messiah’s crucifixion and resurrection.”
The most serious objection to identifying Jesus as the Messiah is that He did not fulfill everything that the Old Testament says about the Messiah and the New Exodus.
We have seen in our exposition on 1-2 Chronicles and the Book of Psalms that the Messiah, being the fulfillment of Genesis 49:10, will reign over all nations and thus bring in the Kingdom of God. And this teaching is echoed in the book of Isaiah (“His Arm ruling for Him”), which also introduces the idea that the Kingdom of God (“Your God reigns”) that comes with the New Exodus is the “Good News” (or Gospel) that announces “peace” (shalom) and “salvation” (52:7). The Gospel of the Kingdom is thus also the Gospel of salvation. However up till now the “kingdom” and “salvation” that Jesus brings do not seem to involve Jesus ruling over the nations, let alone bring about global peace that results from the justice and righteousness that comes with this salvation.
Also, as we will see, Isaiah clarifies that in the New Exodus the Jerusalem that God’s people will be restored to (Isaiah 62), which is the Jerusalem that the nations will be drawn to (Isaiah 2:1-4), is actually not the Jerusalem the exiles returned to. This further explains why the restoration through Cyrus is only the prelude to and a symbol of the New Exodus, which is really about salvation in the New Jerusalem and the New Heavens and the New Earth that God will create (65:17-25; 66:10-24). This involves a recreated universe that will replace this present universe. So the Kingdom of God, which comes with the New Exodus, is not of this present world. How then can Jesus be the Messiah?
Jesus Himself announced, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:15), and later said, “Look! the Kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21). This means the Kingdom of God has come with Jesus. Yet Jesus also taught His disciples to pray, “Your Kingdom come,” and then to “seek first the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:10,33). Also Jesus explicitly promised His disciples that He will come again, specifically to consummate history and bring in the New Jerusalem and the New Heavens and the New Earth (Revelation 21-22).
Therefore the Kingdom of God has come, is coming, and will come. So the New Testament teaches that the Kingdom of God is both “already and not yet” (cf. Ladd 1993: 68-78). In other words, though the Kingdom of God is not of this world, it is already in this world (adapting John 17:14-16). We will see how this is true when we consider how the New Exodus reapplies the Creation Mandate.
The New Testament itself recognizes that Jesus has not yet fulfilled everything prophesied about the Messiah and the New Exodus. However, by fulfilling Isaiah 9 and 53 through His birth, life, death and resurrection, Jesus has given us enough evidence that He is indeed the Messiah. This means that the prophecies concerning the New Exodus tend to collapse the two comings of the Messiah and their respective outcomes into one event. Accordingly, the New Testament considers the entire period covering both comings of Jesus as the “last days” prophesied in the Old Testament (Acts 2:17; Hebrews 1:2; cf. Isaiah 2:2).
So the world is again anticipating, wittingly or unwittingly, the coming of the Messiah, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.