This chapter takes on the challenging task of summarizing the book of Isaiah. This grand book of prophecy has led us through explanations, analogies, stories and descriptions, all having to do with God’s will for His people and God’s will for mankind. The two themes of Isaiah, punishment for the transgressors and the saving of all mankind through the righteous remnant, are referenced here. God reiterates His requirements and His plan as we as readers are treated to matured analogies and rich prophecy.
Verses 1-4: God requires reverence
The temple has been destroyed, trodden down, laid waste. We know this from two references in Isaiah. In 63:18, “Your holy people have possessed itbut a little while; our adversaries have trodden down Your sanctuary.” And in 64:11: “Our holy and beautiful temple, where our fathers praised You, is burned up with fire; and all our pleasant things are laid waste.” God knows the state of His temple, but is not at this moment troubled by it. It is true that Israel would build a new temple in Jerusalem after the remnant returns, but that is beside the point that God is making here. In this conclusive chapter, the prophet Isaiah is summarizing God’s long-term new covenant plan of a “new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17). God’s throne is in heaven and all of earth will be His “footstool,” or temple, as all of the world will have the opportunity to open their hearts to the gospel plan of Jesus Christ.
It is important to put the idea of rebuilding the physical temple in the proper context. In this passage God is stressing the importance and His preference of the new temple. Looking ahead to the new covenant under Jesus, God seems to have moved on from the physical temple as His footstool. After all, He created all of the things that compose the physical temple and is not as interested in this habitation under the new covenant. Rather, God places significant value on the spiritual state of those that seek Him rather than on the physical creation/composition of His earthly habitation: “For all those things My hand has made, and all those things exist,” says the Lord. “But on this one will I look: on him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word.” Isaiah 66:2
A footnote that we must hold to, however, is that the temple would be built after the exiles return to Jerusalem, and that it would happen under the guidance and direction of God. In the book of Haggai, there is much zeal for rebuilding the temple after they return from captivity, and the phrases “says the Lord” and “the Word of the Lord” occur numerous times in the brief book. Also, in Zechariah 1:16, “‘Therefore thus says the Lord: “I am returning to Jerusalem with mercy; my house shall be built in it,” says the Lord of hosts, “And a surveyor’sline shall be stretched out over Jerusalem.”’ These references confirm that God desired that the temple be rebuilt, so we cannot discount how important it was for the righteous to maintain the old law until Christ came. But with the phrasing of verses 1 and 2 of chapter 66, God is speaking to the time to come, when all is made new.
Verse 3 contains a series of comparisons of old law activities that show us God’s disdain for the improperly prepared heart. The “He who” that is the primary subject of these comparisons is the one that worships God insincerely. They may worship God according to the specifics of the law, but their heart and their spirit is not in it. Jesus Christ Himself saw this phenomenon years later in the Jews when He said, “Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with theirlips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching asdoctrines the commandments of men.’ ” Matthew 15:7-9
There are many warnings against this type of behavior. The fact that Jesus quotes from Isaiah 29:13 makes it a point very much worth our consideration. But we also have the same sentiment communicated in Ezekiel 33:31: “So they come to you as people do, they sit before you asMy people, and they hear your words, but they do not do them; for with their mouth they show much love, buttheir hearts pursue their owngain.”
Micah, a contemporary prophet of Isaiah, sheds additional light on the idea that sacrifice and worship before God is worthless without the proper spirit. It is not enough to simply follow the rote commandments; we must have God’s laws within our hearts, we must livethem: “With what shall I come before the Lord, andbow myself before the High God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn formy transgression, the fruit of my body forthe sin of my soul? He has shown you, O man, what isgood; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:6-8
And also, in the New Testament, we have the same warning in James 1:22-25. In context of these Old Testament references, we can see this often-quoted passage in James in a new light. It is a progression of the idea. The layers of self-deception and forgetfulness described give us tools to watch out for the falsity of heart that God condemns in both the old and new testaments: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it,and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.
Because of their waywardness, God will give them up to their own delusions, He will leave them to their sin, as it were. There is another pertinent New Testament reference to be had here in Romans 1:24: “Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves.” When God sees that people have been corrupted and they have no plans to repent, no aching conscience, He will give them up to their sin and their eventual punishment. From the previous chapter: “Therefore I will number you for the sword, and you shall all bow down to the slaughter; because, when I called, you did not answer; when I spoke, you did not hear, but did evil before My eyes, and chose thatin which I do not delight.” Isaiah 65:12
There is a phrase in the middle of verse 4 that hearkens back to Isaiah 65:12 and also contains a phrase that is parallel to a theme from chapter 65, the theme of hearing and listening. We recall how in chapter 64 Israel made overtures to God on to how He was not listening to them. Well, here in chapter 66 God sets the record straight again (as He had already done in chapter 65): “…when I called, no one answered, when I spoke they did not hear…” Again, the point stressed here is that we must listen to and obey God. It is true that He reaches out to us, through His grace, His providence and His Word, but it is wholly our responsibility to hear, listen, believe and obey.
Verses 5-13: Childbirth
This passage starts out in verse 5 with God making sure that the righteous of Israel are protected. After so much judgment on those in Israel that were not righteous in spirit, God now speaks to those that are wholly righteous. He will increase the righteous’ joy as the those who are righteous in name only will be ashamed.
Many believe that the sound of retribution described in verse 6 is a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. This is recompense for the Jews that professed godliness but were actually evil within and receive the consequence deserving of their sin. We know that this sin was an issue that persisted from the judgment that Jesus handed down to the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:27-28: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
Verses 7-11 complete part of a larger story that was begun in the second servant song from Isaiah 49:1-13. In that passage, Zion is portrayed as a mother giving birth to the Servant. But after the song in verses 1-13, Zion is portrayed as a mother that is delighted in the return of her children in verses 14-26. The unexpected return of so many of Zion’s children results in the enlarging of the tent analogy in chapter 54, verses 1-3.
The comparison of Zion as a mother that labors for Christ, who will ultimately save mankind is a good general analogy that helps even new Bible readers to understand God’s plan. For labor Zion did, and it took much time and sacrifice to get to the point where Christ was born.
If we look at verses 7-11 in the context of Zion as a mother, it helps us to understand that the nation would not be expecting and would in fact be surprised that the Savior of the world would be born through her. Because, in the grand perspective of this story, as soon as Christ was born, (here representing His death, burial and resurrection), the entire nation was to follow (here representing disciples of Christ) and be cared for by Zion. The relative speed at which this happened is related through the opening in verse 7: “Before she was in labor, she gave birth; before her pain came, she delivered a male child.” The same idea is echoed in the second half of verse 8. God goes on to affirm His promise. He has planned and He has prophesied and He is able. God will finish what He started.
The birthing mother analogy continues in verses 10-13 as God asks all to rejoice in Jerusalem for the advent of forgiveness and salvation. Peace like a river flows from God to Jerusalem in the form of nations, wealth and blessings. Jerusalem will be the place of comfort for God’s people, and they will be comforted as a mother comforts her children: tenderly and with deep abiding love. Adding to this loving scene are more picturesque analogies that help embody this comfort from God to His people:
- Feed and be satisfied with the consolation of her bosom
- Drink deeply and be delighted
- Carried on her sides
- Bounced upon her knees
Are these not beautiful images of mother/child? When we think about our childhood and our close relationships, we can all, to some degree, relate.
In addition to this sweet and caring scene that describes the protection of Israel, we are reminded once again that there are New Testament counterparts to this idea. An important, albeit localized example is Jesus telling His disciples that He is to go away for a while, but then He will come back. He is telling them that it will be difficult for them to wait, but they will need to wait before experiencing the joy of His return. Jesus was speaking about His resurrection and the time that He would spend with the disciples before His ascension: “Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you.” John 16:20-22
Another example that stands out is Paul’s explanation to the Romans about how the pain of waiting can transform into the ecstasy of deliverance. Reading these verses, we think about two “birthing” situations.
- The first is the one we have been discussing: the labor of the nation of Israel to finally result in the birth of the Savior of the world Jesus. The difficult, rebellious, bloody and unpredictable path through which Jesus came was worth the wait.
- The second situation is our current situation. We have Jesus and we have His promise to come back. But sometimes, waiting is difficult and the modern Christian’s path the world over can also be difficult, rebellious, bloody and unpredictable.
But in the end, as Paul informs us through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the things we suffer now are far exceeded by the things to come: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.” Romans 8:18-22
If we are to take anything from this idea in Isaiah 66:7-13 and its analogous counterparts in the New Testament, it is that God will make all things right in His time. The comparison of childbirth is masterful because the proximity of extreme pain to extreme joy is relatable. One leads to the other and one is needed for the other to succeed. God requires faithful patience.
Verses 14-17: Gladness & suffering
When the revelation finally comes to pass, the people will rejoice. They will see the work of the Lord. Instead of the usual reference of God’s arm that we have seen so often in Isaiah, here in the last chapter, it is expressed as His hand, perhaps indicating a closer and more intimate knowledge of God and His plan.
His judgment will not be far off and it will be fierce. The Lord will judge everyone and those that suffer will be of great number. Especially called out are those that deign to be the authors of their own righteousness and that engage in unholy practices: ““Those who sanctify themselves and purify themselves, to go to the gardens after an idol in the midst, eating swine’s flesh and the abomination and the mouse, shall be consumed together,” says the Lord.” Isaiah 66:17
Verses 18-21: A sign
God’s declarations in this section are predicated on the judgmental statements made in verses 14-17. God will gather all nations to Zion, to witness His glory. The “sign” mentioned in verse 19 is of ambiguous nature. This sign is brought up in connection with the sending of God’s faithful to spread word of God’s fame and glory. The collective nations listed geographically represent the entirety of the known world at that time. So, the fundamental message of verses 19-20 is that a sign will come and those who escape will spread God’s Word among the nations.
Here are some possible interpretations of what the “sign” is in verse 19:
- The righteous remnant coming back to Jerusalem
- Jewish survivors that teach others about God
- The gentiles who come to Jerusalem and convert to worship the true God
- They go back to their homeland to teach others about God
- The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Romans in 70 AD
- After this, the nation of Israel is dispersed and will teach others about God
- The resurrection of Christ and the eyewitness accounts of His life, miracles and ascension
- Through Him all come to know of God’s plan
- The coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost In Jerusalem in Acts 2
- The apostles receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, allowing them to work miracles and speak in languages not their own
The suggestions in the text, especially one later in this passage, indicate #5, the coming of the Holy Spirit as the meaning of the sign. While the other reasons are at least plausible, I believe that none have as much support as #5 does. The remnant returning to and the gentiles arriving in Jerusalem are signs, but their impact may not be so great as to affect the entire world. It is true that many believers would have dispersed from Jerusalem after the Romans destroyed it, but we do not have historical connotations that suggest that this dissemination led to teaching about God. The resurrection of Christ is also plausible, but it, as an isolated event, is part of a larger story that leads to the spreading of God’s Word.
To end the book of Isaiah with the mention of a sign that signifies the spreading of the gospel after Christ’s death puts a large exclamation point on the entire book. The event that occurs in Acts 2 has an expanse that reaches the ends of the earth, just as the list of nations in verse 19 represents the known world at that time. The world was in total ignorance of Christ and needed that saving knowledge. This is especially true today, because Satan has deceived so many the world over to believe in lies rather than in God’s holy truth: “whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them.” II Corinthians 4:4
It is also interesting to consider that the animals listed in verse 20 are from different regions, representing the diverse regions from which God’s new nation would be collected. In the prophetic context, the animals can represent the gifts of praise and sacrifice that will be brought before God from the different nations.
The hint later in the passage that suggests that the coming of the Holy Spirit is the sign can be found in verse 21: “And I will also take some of them for priests and Levites,” says the Lord.” This statement suggests a totally new worship design and structure for God. Instead of just the house of Levi furnishing priests, now “priests” will be able to come from all nations. There will no longer need to be a priesthood, an intermediary between man and God. Instead, all people can have that special relationship with God as “priests.” Take this statement from I Peter 2:9, where Peter is explaining blessings to those that believe and obey Jesus Christ: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”
Also in Revelation 5:9-10, where the saved believers praise Christ: “And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and have made us kings and priests to our God; and we shall reign on the earth.””
Verses 22-24: Worship and suffering
This chapter and book end not on a happy note, but on a realistic one. The positive and hope-inspiring new heavens and new earth are confirmed along with the descendants of the great nation of Israel: ““For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain before Me,” says the Lord, “So shall your descendants and your name remain.” (vs. 22)
Even more importantly, God’s utter dominance over His creation is confirmed. This verse allows that we all, as free will agents, will worship whom and what we please, but eventually we will all come to worship Him. The only barrier is the passage of time: “And it shall come to pass that from one New Moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh shall come to worship before Me,” says the Lord.” (vs. 23)
The final verse brings harsh realism into the light of day. Yes, God has shown Zion grace through Cyrus and brought them and foreigners back to Jerusalem with blessings. Yes, God has devised and completed a plan to reconcile all mankind to Him through the forgiveness of sins. Yes, God has made us all priests.
Despite this love and grace, if one still transgresses against God, God will not tolerate it. God has tolerated enough through the old law and He has given up His Son for mankind. Through this sacrifice, He will glean the best of mankind for eternity. But those that transgress against God will experience everlasting punishment, and the faithful will be able to witness: “And they shall go forth and look upon the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm does not die, and their fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”
Isaiah is an intensely complicated book, with many prophecies, intertwining concepts and powerful meanings. His plan is an unimaginable and masterful stroke that alleviates His wrath, makes us whole, and bridges the gap between us. To say it is genius is an understatement because to label it such would be to put it in human terms, which are woefully inadequate. Our best course of action at the close of such a book is to humbly accept it as divinely inspired precious information by which to live our lives.
The overall message is simple and elegant: Follow God’s prescribed plan for your life by listening to Him and obeying His Word. For if you do not, God will shut the door on you forever.