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Isaiah’s Bookends of Judgment

Isaiah is the longest prophetic book of the Bible and has as many chapters as there are books in the Bible. John’s words concerning Jesus’ works in John 21:25 are applicable to this book of the Bible: “the world itself could not contain the books that could be written” about the book of Isaiah. So since there’s no way I could write everything I’ve seen in Isaiah after reading it this time, I’ll focus on how judgment bookends the beginning and end of Isaiah and thus highlights God’s grace that also pervades the book. (God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment helped me better piece together how judgment and grace interrelate not only in Isaiah but in the whole Bible also.)

The First Bookend of Judgment

Consider how Isaiah begins. God indicts Israel:

“The ox knows its owner,
_____and the donkey its master’s crib,
but Israel does not know,
_____my people do not understand.” (1:3)

Through Isaiah God describes his people as “a whore,” although they once were “full of justice”; his once righteous people have become “murderers” (1:21).

Everyone loves a bribe
_____and runs after gifts.
They do not bring justice to the fatherless,
_____and the widow’s cause does not come to them.

Therefore the Lord declares,
_____the LORD of hosts,
_____the Mighty One of Israel:
“Ah, I will get relief from my enemies
_____and avenge myself on my foes.
I will turn my and against you
_____and will smelt away your dross as with lye
_____and remove all your alloy.” (1:23-25)

God begins this oracle to his people by announcing judgment. Of course, with judgment, there is also the promise of salvation:

“And I will restore your judges as at the first,
_____and your counselors as at the beginning.
Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness,
_____the faithful city.” (1:26).

As God had said earlier:

“Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
_____they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
_____they shall become like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
_____you shall eat the good of the land,
but if you refuse and rebel,
_____you shall be eaten by the sword,
_____for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (1:18-20)

Though God judges his people, his is gracious to them and offers them salvation. Judgment is the consequence of disobedience and rebellion, of refusing God’s salvation and lordship. This is where the people of Israel were in their history. They had rebelled consistently against God, and God allows them to be conquered by foreigners (1:7-8). But just as rebellion brings promised judgment (1:20, 24-25), repentance brings promised salvation (1:18-19, 26). The judgment announced at Isaiah’s beginning is the first bookend to this book.

Pervasive Grace

Grace pervades the book of Isaiah. Isaiah 4:2-6 features God’s promise that in his Day of judgment, his righteous Branch shall reign, which means that God will dwell among his people. In Isaiah 6, God commissions Isaiah to be his prophet to Judah, although Isaiah is “a man of unclean lips” who “dwell[s] in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (v. 5). Isaiah 7:14 is a promise of redemption not only for Isaiah’s contemporary Judah (Isaiah 8) but to the whole world, as well (9:1-7), in the person of Jesus Christ.

In Isaiah 40, God comforts future exiles. In Isaiah 52:13-53:12, God announces the coming of a Servant, Jesus Christ, who will bear the griefs of God’s people, be crushed for their iniquities, and bring us peace by being chastised on the cross by God Most High. In Isaiah 54-56, God calls the barren to sing, (54:1-3), promises to protect the afflicted (54:11-17), calls all people to come to him for salvation (55:1-3), and promises to bless eunuchs with “a name better than sons and daughters” (56:4-5). God’s grace thus pervades Isaiah even as do promises of judgment, which bookend the prophecy and set the context for his grace.

The Second Bookend of Judgment

Like the first chapter of Isaiah, the last chapter of Isaiah is itself begun and ended with promises of judgment, and thus Isaiah as a whole begins and ends with proclamations of judgment. Isaiah 66:1-6 pronounces judgment on God’s proud enemies, specifically the legalistic (v. 3) and those who think they are serving him by persecuting his people (v. 5). But there is grace for the humble (v. 2). Those who love God’s people will find refuge in the New Jerusalem (vv. 10-14).

And this grace is followed by a renewed pronouncement of judgment. Indeed, God saves the humble lovers of his people because he judges their oppressors (vv. 15-17). God again renews his promise to save people from all the world over (vv. 18-23), but Isaiah ends with a grim depiction of eternal judgment:

And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh. (v. 24)

The Gospel and Isaiah: Grace or Judgment

To many Christians, this last verse of Isaiah brings to mind the Lord’s quotation of this verse (Mark 9:48). And the clear picture not only of Isaiah but fully clear by the gospel is that there are two eternal options for any person: either grace or judgment. Jesus makes clear that the way to enter into God’s grace is by faith and repentance (Mark 1:15). Apart from faith in Jesus Christ, the only end result is eternal punishment (Romans 6:23). Paul puts it well in 2 Corinthians 6:1-2 when he writes,

Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says, “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.

Paul is quoting Isaiah 49:8, which in its larger context reveals that God is bringing salvation to his imprisoned and oppressed people (Isa. 49:9-12). This eternal salvation will result in the singing and exultation of the new heavens and new earth (v. 13). God does not forget his people; he will save them, but this means judgment for their enemies (who are ultimately God’s enemies):

Can the prey be taken from the mighty,
_____or the captives of a tyrant be rescued?
For thus says the LORD:
“Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken,
_____and the prey of the tyrant be rescued,
for I will contend with those who contend with you,
_____and I will save your children.
I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh,
_____and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with wine.
Then all flesh shall know
_____that I am the LORD your Savior,
_____and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.” (vv. 24-26)

It would be well for us to remember that throughout Isaiah, from beginning to end, judgment bookends grace. Grace is given in the context of judgment. Jesus bore our judgment, and those who trust in him receive grace. Those who don’t trust in him remain under judgment and will experience it for eternity. Oh, trust Christ for salvation! Trust that he has endured the judgment you deserve, and experience the eternal life found in trusting him for salvation!

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  1. August 8, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    In verses 1-7 God calls the nations before Him to pronounce judgment against them. God exercises judgment by handing over nations to one from the east [Medes and Persians]. Even though those nations have bonded together to call on their gods and to help one another, they can not stand against the nation God has called into service for His purpose.

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