Isaiah 61 gives us another opportunity to hear from the Messiah/Servant/Redeemer. Repeatedly through this section of Isaiah’s prophecy we have heard the prophesied Messiah speak of his work that he will accomplish upon his arrival. Let us read another beautiful picture concerning the work of Christ and what he will do for those who belong to him.
The Anointed’s Task (61:1-3)
The very first words of this chapter point out that the Servant is the Anointed One. The Lord has anointed him to a particular work. The Servant is pictured as a messenger of good news. He goes on to describe who is receiving the good news. The poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners, and the mourners are those who will benefit from the coming of the Servant. The good news of healing, liberty, and comfort will be proclaimed. As we have seen in these last few chapters, Isaiah’s prophecy is using physical concepts to describe spiritual realities. Isaiah 55 describes the mountains singing and the trees clapping. Isaiah 58 pictured God’s people being made into a watered garden. Isaiah 59 described our sins like snakes’ eggs and spiders’ webs. Isaiah 60 described the wealth of the nations coming into Zion. The point is that Isaiah continues to use physical imagery to describe the spiritual realities of the people. The same is happening in Isaiah 61. The message of good news is not to those who are really in jail or who are physically poor. This is a picture of our sin problem. The Servant is coming to address our sin problem. The Servant is not coming to deal with depression or poverty. He comes bringing good news because we are poor because of our sins. We are brokenhearted because of our hopeless condition from our sinfulness. We are captives and imprisoned because we are enslaved to sin. We are mourning because of our sins. This is the picture God is giving us through Isaiah. These chapters have contained messages from God wanting us to see our spiritual condition. When we see this spiritual condition, then we look for the Servant to free us from our condition.
This imagery has its roots in the year of jubilee that we read about in Leviticus 25. The freedom that is described here is the same Hebrew word used in Leviticus 25:10. It is not a commonly used word in the scriptures, found only in Jeremiah 34 and Ezekiel 46:17. Listen to the declaration concerning the year of jubilee: “And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.” Leviticus 25 goes on to talk about how this was the year of redemption. The people could redeem their property and land that they had lost because of their debts they incurred. It was a year of harvest. It was the year of redemption. It was the year of restoration. Isaiah calls this time “the year of the Lord’s favor” (61:2). In Isaiah 49:8 we read similar imagery which was also called “the time of favor” and “a day of salvation.” The prisoners will be released and those in darkness will be brought out (49:9).
At the same time, the Servant also declares that he will be proclaiming a day of vengeance. Vengeance has a more positive connotation in the Old Testament than how we use it today. When we read about vengeance we should think about God’s justice. Of course, there is a picture of wrath when God brings his justice on the unjust. But it is important that we read this as good news. Justice is coming against God’s enemies and the enemies of God’s people. The coming of the Lord will be the proclaiming of comfort. The Servant will grant to those who mourn in Zion a beautiful crown (headdress), the oil of gladness, and a garment of praise. This is why the scriptures record people like Simeon and Anna who were “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25) and “waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). Luke is using the language of Isaiah 61. The Servant will come and console his people, redeeming them from their sinfulness. The apostle Paul also used this imagery, declaring that we have been rescued from the dominion of darkness (Colossians 1:13). Those who mourn in Zion, who are in spiritual distress, will be comforted. Jesus said these very words in Matthew 5:4 in the Sermon on the Mount. The people hope for restoration and redemption and their hope will be confirmed with Christ arrives. How powerful this day was when Jesus came to the synagogue in Nazareth:
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16–21 ESV)
The Result of the Year of the Lord’s Favor (61:3-7)
Why is God doing all of this for us? Notice the result of the Servant’s work in the middle of verse 3. These who are brokenhearted, captives, in darkness, and mourning are now going to be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, so that God is glorified. We are a planting of the Lord to display God’s honor and splendor. We exist to show the glory of God. Even better, our transformation from blind, mourning, captives to oaks of righteousness is to show the splendor of our God.
God’s radical transformation of our lives empowers us participate in the work of the kingdom. This is not merely a call to get to work in God’s kingdom. Isaiah is picturing something glorious. The work of the Servant of redemption and liberty will cause such a dramatic change in our lives that we will be workers in God’s restored kingdom. We are given the privilege of working for the cause of Jesus. This is not about us. This is about what God has done for us. We are thrilled to be allowed to find our part of the work in God’s kingdom. The apostle Paul had a sense of this as he wrote to the Corinthians.
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3:5–9 ESV)
We are joyful to do our part, all of us doing what we can as different members of God’s body, to bring glory to our God. We reach the lost, encourage the broken, strengthen the weak, teach one another, worship with each other, serve one another, and do all we can in this work because we are so overjoyed that God has taken us from captivity and made us oaks of righteousness. How amazing it is that God has enabled us to be his workers! Our work is not a duty but represents the favor of the Lord to make us workers of righteousness.
But there is even more. Outsiders are joining in the life of the people in working for the Lord. We saw this image in Isaiah 60:10 where outsiders/foreigners were building the walls of Zion. God gives us another amazing picture of who we are. First, he said that he will make us oaks of righteousness. Now God says that we will “be called the priests of the Lord.” “They shall speak of you as the ministers of our God” (60:6). This is staggering! God’s people were always intended to be priests of God. When God brought Israel out of Egyptian slavery, listen to how he commissioned them.
Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” (Exodus 19:5–6 ESV)
Now we are the true Israel, Zion, the people of God in Christ Jesus who have been redeemed from sins. We are the kingdom of priests. We are called priests of the Lord and ministers of our God. The apostle Peter uses the same imagery.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9 ESV)
As priests we are serving the Lord by proclaiming the excellencies of the Lord to the world. We are set apart from the world, not living like the world, because we are priests to the Lord. We are bringing people closer to the Lord and bringing the Lord to the people of the world.
The Lord’s Response (61:8-9)
Now the Lord speaks. Because of his love for justice, he will faithfully act. The Lord is completely committed to bringing justice and making an everlasting covenant. We saw this promise of the covenant earlier in Isaiah 54:10, 55:3, and 59:21. God is faithful and his expects his people to be faithful.
Our Response (61:10-11)
Now the ball is back in our court. What will we do now that the Servant will come bringing the year of the Lord’s favor? “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord! My soul shall exult in my God!” (61:10). God will be our joy. God will be our rejoicing. Why? Why should we find our joy in the Lord now? “For he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” This is why we rejoice. God has made us beautiful. God has covered our sins with his salvation and with his righteousness (cf. Isaiah 60:17,20).
I continue to be amazed at how often Isaiah declares that God’s people will find their joy in the Lord and rejoice in God. God’s people will love God, hope in God, desire God, and live for God. The proclamation of the good news of Jesus is to move us to this response. He has taken us, who were captured by our sins, and set us free to be oaks of righteousness and priests of the Lord. With joy let us give our lives to the Lord.