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Renewed Mission
Verse Commentary on Isaiah 61:1-11

Dennis Bratcher

Introduction

Chapters 60-62 comprise the core of Isaiah 56-66, the third section of the book of Isaiah (see The Unity and Authorship of Isaiah). The essential message of these chapters is that God is at work in the historical events of the day to bring a glorious restoration and vindication of the people of God. As God's people are renewed and restored they would again assume their role as witness to God in the world (55:3-5).

This chapter has four main sections, marked by shifts of speaker and subject:

1-3, an unnamed prophet announces his mission.
4-7, God promises restoration (present conditions)
8-9, God promises a new covenant (future mission)
10-11, the prophet rejoices at God's actions

The Text

1. An Unnamed Prophet Announces his Mission (1-3)

1 The spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion-- to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.

1. spirit The Hebrew language lacks capital letters. It is the personal decision of translators to use a capital letter in certain places and not in others (NEB: "spirit"; see Where Is God? comments on Isa 59:21). We must remember that the people of the Old Testament did not think of God in terms of Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). They lived in a culture that believed in many gods. For them, there was only one, singular God, Yahweh, the God of their fathers (Deut 6:4).

The Hebrew word here (ruach) has a wide range of meaning, including wind, air, breath (recall 40:7), life, spirit (in the sense of vivacity or vigor, as "a spirited horse"), spirit (in the sense of something not seen), etc. It also can have a variety of figurative meanings, including impatience, temper, disposition, mood, emptiness, impulse, etc. The word as used here refers to the active, dynamic presence of God.

The entire phrase carries a specific meaning. The common form of the phrase is: "The spirit (ruach) of Yahweh came upon ______." (Num 24:2; Judg 3:10; 1 Sam 10:6). Some historians see in this the remnants of a primitive belief in "spirit-possession." Whatever the origin of the idea, the meaning in biblical narratives carries no connotation of superstitious magic. It refers to the presence of God urging and enabling a person to a certain course of action, usually to accomplish God's purpose in the world.

on me The passage never states who is speaking. Debates over the identity of the speaker miss the point. The emphasis of the passage is not on the speaker, who he is, or how he became a messenger of God. Instead, the emphasis falls clearly on the content of the message he is to deliver and its origin from God.

By careful choice of words and ideas (good tidings, comfort, rebuild, etc.) the writer has deliberately connected this passage with earlier ones. The implication is that the message of restoration promised as future in previous chapters (from previous years, probably from previous prophets) is now becoming a reality in the life of the people.

anointed This is the word (mashach) from which we get the term "messiah" (Heb: meshiach). It arises from an ancient ritual in which olive oil was poured over the head of a king to signify his consecration to the office (1 Sam 10:1). Priests were also set apart (sanctified, made holy) for special service by the ritual (Ex 28:41). In one instance, a prophet was commissioned to his prophetic role by anointing (Elisha, 1 Kings 19:16).  Later writers applied the idea figuratively to someone serving an important function (of Cyrus the Persian, Isa 45:1) or appointed to a special task (Dan 9:25). This is the sense here.

An important feature of the Hebrew text is not clear in most English translations. The anointing is not just for one action (to preach good news). It is the basis for the presence of God that enables all the actions. God has commissioned the speaker for a special task (anointed), and therefore has provided His enabling presence (spirit) to do it. In the Hebrew, he has sent me is the main verb controlling all the speaker's actions. This emphasizes that God has commissioned the entire message. The NEB correctly arranges the words:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news . . . to bind up . . . .

preach good news is a single word in Hebrew. It is a verbal form of the word translated "good tidings" in 40:9. "Proclaim" or "bring" (RSV, NEB) would be better than preach. The background is the messenger who brings the king a report of victory in battle (2 Sam 18:19). However, the word itself refers simply to the report; whether it is good or bad depends on the content.

poor This word has a variety of meanings in different contexts: afflicted, poor, humble, weak, needy, oppressed, etc. Various translations choose different words. The basic idea is not just that a person is economically poor. This emphasizes that they are powerless in their circumstances to do anything about their condition. Poor and brokenhearted describe the community of returned exiles who are waiting for God to act again in their midst (51:21-22).

freedom for the captives This may refer literally to exiles still not returned to the land. More likely, this is figurative language referring to the bad conditions existing in the country after the return from exile (see Historical Context in Where Is God?). This phrase usually refers to the release of slaves every fifty years in the Year of Jubilee (Lev 25:10). This imagery of the Year of Jubilee appears again in verse two (the year of the LORD's favor).

release from darkness for the prisoners This is a difficult phrase in Hebrew because of a scribal error in the text. Scholars have reconstructed it to read "an opening for those bound." From darkness is not in the Hebrew. The NIV added it because the word translated release means "open the eyes" (Prov 20:13). The Greek translation of the Hebrew (Septuagint), which circulated widely in the New Testament period, read "those blind" instead of "those bound." Luke evidently quotes this passage from the Septuagint (Luke 4:18).

2.  day of vengeance A major theme throughout the second and third sections of Isaiah is that God will again act to bring deliverance and justice to His people. What is deliverance for the righteous will be judgment and condemnation for the wicked (see Where Is God?, comments on Isa 59:15b-21; see also The Day of the Lord). Vengeance carries none of the negative overtones of "getting even" or of vindictive human emotion. This is a positive affirmation of God's justice and equity in the world. In fact, the Old Testament perspective, carried into the New Testament, is that human beings have no claim to vengeance. It is the exclusive right of God (Lev 19:18; Deut 32:35-36; Rom 12:19).

comfort This was the message originally proclaimed in 40:1. But the returned exiles had a hard time dealing with the conditions in Palestine after the exile. The chapters following, especially 56-59, described the awful condition of the land, the lack of obedience, and outright rebellion of the people. So, many years later, the same message is again proclaimed. The people still mourn and grieve (v.3) because there had been no glorious kingdom of God established after the exile as they anticipated. They still needed comfort.

3. This verse contains three pictures of sadness with corresponding images of joy. Ashes placed on the head were a traditional symbol of mourning, either for a death or a tragic circumstance. Crown of beauty is a single word in Hebrew. It referred to the headdress (probably a type of turban) worn by a bridegroom (v.10) or a person of position (priest, Exe 44:18). Oil was used, especially by women, as a body ointment (Song 1:3; Prov 27:9); lack of oil was also a sign of mourning (1 Sam 14:2).

spirit of despair There is absolutely no hint here of being "possessed" or "oppressed" by a demon of despair. Such ideas are totally alien to the Old Testament (and the New Testament as well!). Spirit can refer figuratively to a person's temper, mood or disposition. Both ashes and spirit of despair are figurative and poetic ways of expressing the mood associated with mourning.

oaks of righteousness The imagery of planting again occurs here (see A New Day Dawns, comments on Isa 60:21), emphasizing that God is at work in the events of history to work out his purpose. Oaks (actually "terebinth") were a symbol of stability and strength. This describes the new condition of God's people. The picture is even more powerful when we realize that most of Palestine is semi-desert and large trees are rare.

for the display of His splendor The point is again made that the restored and elevated status of the people is not just for themselves. They are to be the "light to the nations," the means by which God may reveal himself to the world. The restoration of the people of God is so that they may fulfill their mission. It is not directly stated here (as in 58:6-12), but the implication is clear. The message of forgiveness, hope and renewal had been promised to them. Now, in the midst of their despair and hopelessness, they are experiencing God's renewal. As a result, they are to bear witness to the world of the graciousness of Yahweh their God (see Zech 8:13, 22-23).

It is at this point that the use of verse one of this chapter by Jesus to describe His own mission in the world, and by that the mission of the church, has tremendous impact (Luke 4:18). The role of a delivered people is to be a channel from God to the hurting, oppressed, hopeless people of the world. Through God's people the "nations" may come to understand and experience God as deliverer! (see Lectionary Commentary on Luke 4:14-21).

2. God Promises Restoration (4-7)

4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations. 5 Aliens will shepherd your flocks; foreigners will work your fields and vineyards. 6 And you will be called priests of the LORD, you will be named ministers of our God. You will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast. 7 Instead of their shame my people will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace they will rejoice in their inheritance; and so they will inherit a double portion in their land, and everlasting joy will be theirs.

4. This verse repeats the familiar theme of rebuilding the cities of Judah following the exile (45:13; 58:12; 60:10). Long devastated and for generations emphasizes the long time, probably almost one hundred years, since the first exiles had returned home. The length of time it took for the returned exiles to get the rebuilding of the nation underway disturbed Nehemiah, as well as some post-exilic prophets (Neh 1:1-4; Hag 1:4).

5. aliens, foreigners A mark of prosperity of the land would be that the people could afford to "hire out" menial labor to others.

6. priests of the Lord The Levitical priests were responsible for spiritual leadership (Mal 2:4-7). They could own no land so the rest of the people supported them. The language here is figurative, picturing the entire people as priests supported by the wealth of nations. There is no "missionary" intention here. However, the idea of Israel as a "light to the nations" is still in the background. That mission of the restored community clearly underlies this affirmation.

7. This verse is difficult to translate. This explains why different translations have chosen a variety of readings. In any case, the meaning is clear. There is a sharp contrast between the shame of the past and the joy at the restoration underway.

inherit a double portion This may be a contrast drawn with 40:2, where the people received "double" punishment for their sins (The Turn Toward Hope, comments on 40:2; note Job 42:10). More likely, given the context, the writer has the ancient inheritance laws in mind. A first born son was entitled to a double portion of the family inheritance (Deut 21:17). In the culture of ancient Israel, one of the most meaningful portrayals of the special relationship between God and Israel was to depict God as Father and Israel as His first-born son (Jer 31:9; Exod 4:22-23; note Heb 1:5-6).

This verse uses figurative language to describe the new conditions of prosperity. The historical background may be the wealth of nations (v.6) that would be coming into Jerusalem after the decree of the Persian king (Ezra 7).

3. God Promises a New Covenant (8-9)

8 "For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and iniquity. In my faithfulness I will reward them and make an everlasting covenant with them. 9 Their descendants will be known among the nations and their offspring among the peoples. All who see them will acknowledge that they are a people the LORD has blessed."

Both verses pick up themes that have figured prominently throughout the book of Isaiah. The same ideas are also central to the messages of other prophets after the exile.

8. love justice As noted above (v.2), God bringing justice to the world is central to the book of Isaiah (1:21-28; 42:1-4; etc.). This statement is a fundamental Old Testament affirmation about the nature of God (Mal 2:17-3:5). Because justice is important to God, it is also the responsibility of God's people (Deut 16:19-20; Matt 23:23).

Jeremiah introduces the idea of a new covenant with the restored community (31:31-34). It is expanded by Ezekiel (11:19; Isa 55:3).

9. The status of the people of God in the world was a primary concern of most post-exilic prophets (see The Servant of the Lord, comments on Isa 53:3; Isa 55:4-5). The phrase "light to the nations" (42:6) expresses this idea in the book of Isaiah.

4. The Prophet Rejoices at God's Actions (10-11)

10 I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11 For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign LORD will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.

The unnamed prophet who opens this chapter closes it with a short psalm of thanksgiving (note Ps 9:1-4). He rejoices for God's message, His active presence, and the renewal of the people's mission before all nations.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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