One of the things about looking at a prophecy like Isaiah is that it’s a bit like looking at a mountain range. From close in it can look like there’s just one row of mountains in the range, but then if you get up higher, or fly over it in a plane you see that in fact there are rows of mountains one after the other.
When we read Isaiah we can see that it’s addressed immediately to the people of Israel in exile. God is encouraging them not to give up hope. They’re still his people. He still has a plan for their salvation. But when we look at it some more, from the perspective of the New Testament we realise that sometimes the prophecy goes beyond the physical nation of Israel to one who stands in their place as their representative; as the one who represents the whole nation of Israel, to Jesus.
And perhaps we might see that it points even beyond him to our own time. But more of that in a moment.
Israel are in exile in Babylon and no doubt are feeling fairly depressed. It seems that God has forsaken them. Jerusalem is destroyed. The Temple is gone, a sure sign that God has left them, and they have no hope of salvation.
How do you encourage someone who sees no hope in the future, who has no confidence that God cares about them?
I made you what you are.
Listen to what God says to his people Israel: “Thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel.” The first thing he does is remind them where they’ve come from. Is the nation of Israel just an accident of history? Is it just made up of people who all grew up in the same place like any other nation? No. God has created them. God has formed them. Remember how God called Abram to leave his home and begin a new family, a new nation?
But then, that’s what we heard about ourselves last week from Ephesians 1 wasn’t it? (Eph 1:4-5 NRSV) “he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world ... 5He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will.” We are God’s chosen people just as Israel was.
He made them, and even now as they find themselves in exile he has plans for them. He says
I have redeemed you
As we look down the passage, at v3, we see how he’s redeemed them. “3For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.” This is a reference, of course, to the Exodus where God totally defeated the Egyptians in order to save his people from slavery. Ethiopia and Seba are the extremities of Egypt. It was as though he was buying their freedom at the expense of the entire Egyptian nation. In fact he literally ransomed them with the lives of the first born sons of Egypt, didn’t he?
Then he says:
I have called you by name, you are mine
This is a particularly Jewish form of expression. Calling someone by name indicates a personal relationship with that person. Adam in Genesis names the animals as a sign that they are to be his companions. It’s a bit like when we were kids playing cricket and the captain called out the names of those he’d picked. Here God names the nation of Israel and then declares “You are mine”. Notice that he calls them by name yet at the same time they’re called by his name. They’re Yahweh’s people.
I will be with you
Next, he promises that he’ll be with them. At the worst moments of their lives; at the moments when they’re under the greatest pressure, he’ll be there.
First there’s the general expression: through the waters or through the flames, but then that’s broadened to make it all encompassing. He’ll be there in the specifics: when they pass through rivers; when they pass through flames. No matter how bad it gets he’ll be there protecting them. Notice though that he doesn’t say they won’t get wet, or singed. But he does say that the flames won’t consume them.
Sometimes we expect God to protect us from any harm at all. It’s like God has this magic spell that puts a shield around us to keep all the evil of the world away. But he doesn’t promise that, does he? He doesn’t say they’ll never have to walk through rivers or pass through flames. In fact it’s the opposite. He says they will experience that sort of trial. But he’ll be there beside them when it happens. And he’ll make sure that the experience doesn’t destroy them.
Some of you will remember me commenting before that the well-known poster with the footsteps in the sand might have got it wrong. You know how it shows the two sets of footsteps changing to a single set every now and then and the single set of footprints is supposed to be the times when God carried us on his shoulders. Well that may be true at times. But it also may be that they’re the times when God is standing by the side of the cauldron watching as we’re refined by fire, perhaps reaching out with his ladle now and again to remove some of the impurities that are being burned off, making sure the temperature doesn’t get so hot that we’re damaged by it. That’s what he says will happen with the nation of Israel. They’ll pass through flames but they won’t be consumed by them.
And he tells us why he watches over them. He says
You are precious in my sight
In fact he says “You are precious in my sight and honored.”
This is a description of a people who have been banished to Babylon in disgrace. God is angry with them for their repeated disobedience, their idolatry, their corruption. Yet at the same time they’re loved and honoured. How can that be? How can God honour them when he’s punishing them?
Again this takes us back to what we saw last week. God loves us and chooses us not because of what we do, not because of the holiness or blamelessness of our lives, but because of his own character, his own love. The honour he gives them comes from his own choosing of them. He chose them and formed them and redeemed them so they’ll always be honoured in his eyes.
I love you
And he loves them. He loves them so much that he will give nations in exchange for their life. Even if they’re scattered to the ends of the earth, God will rescue them and bring them back even at the expense of those nations that are holding them captive.
Jesus the true Israel and the redeemer of Israel
At this point we need to begin to think about the medium term future. Isaiah talks about their offspring coming from the four points of the compass. He talks about them being ransomed through people being given up for them. But how does God ransom his people? How does he redeem us?
Well, he actually sends his only begotten Son to die to set us free, to die as a ransom to set us free from the punishment due for our sins. And notice how Jesus fits this prophecy. At his baptism, what happens? As he passes through the waters of baptism a voice comes from heaven and says “You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” Then John points out that he will baptise with fire. You can see why the writers of our lectionary put these passages together can’t you?
Us - the new Israel
But then this isn’t just about Jesus either. The prophecy stretches on into the future, to encompass not just the people of Israel, not just Jesus as the true Israel, but us as well, as the new Israel. We’re the ones who will be brought back to God from the four corners of the earth.
These words are written for us who are incorporated into the people of God by our faith in Jesus Christ. As I said earlier God promises to be with us as we face various trials. We too are precious in God’s sight. We too are loved and honoured.
When you find yourself in a situation where you wonder whether God is with you, or whether God cares about what’s happening to you, read these words and remember that though God wrote them for Israel in the 7th century BC they’re still true for all who call themselves by his name. In fact they’re truer for us because God has revealed himself to us in his Son. Let me remind you again of what we read last week in Ephesians 1: “He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world... 5He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8that he lavished on us... 9he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
You are precious in his sight. He knows you and has named you as his. No matter what happens. No matter how hard your life is, God will watch over you and will take you in the end to be with him in his kingdom forever.