Verse Commentary on Isaiah 61:1-11
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
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
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
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
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
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
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;
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
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.