Isaiah 59 – Part 5

We conclude our series in Isaiah 58-59, with guest writer Rev. Christine Redwood.

God the Warrior

Yesterday we focused on the people finally confessing their sins. Now the attention returns to God’s response. God is presented as the divine warrior:

The LORD looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one,    he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm achieved salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him. He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head; he put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak. Isaiah 59:15b-17

The Divine Warrior figure stems from mythology.[1] The Ancient Near East culture had many myths of war gods; in contrast Israel’s scriptures declare that there is only one true God.[2] The Old Testament dismissed the pagan myths by both rejecting and transforming them.[3] So God is depicted as the enemy of ‘chaos and evil and the champion of the alien and oppressed’.[4] Drawing from mythological tradition these verses appeals to the emotions and Israel’s historical context. Today we might draw on the superhero tradition to talk about God. We love superheroes and they can hint to us- this is what God is like. If nobody else is going to act then he will- and it’s going to be terrifying because his powers are greater than any superhero and when he acts he will exact payment on all who are guilty. The warrior tradition also developed to describe how the king of Israel was to act. This passage reminds us that not only is God the only living God who rules, he also is the King of the earth.[5] When both the kings and the people of Israel fail he will act. God will establish justice.[6]

God as a divine warrior is a figure that is sung about in many war songs in the Old Testament.[7] It is confrontational imagery.[9] It speaks in a way that describes God’s response to sin in a vivid and fearsome expression.[10] Unique to Isaiah 59 is the details of the warrior clothing himself in preparation for battle.[11] The prophet takes what is a familiar mythological image of God and works it afresh in this context. The result is both a surprise and a challenge to his hearers.[12] God’s kingship is expressed through the clothing; he rules with righteousness and zeal. The outcome of this war will be the establishment of justice and salvation.[13]

Who are God’s enemies?

According to what they have done, so will he repay wrath to his enemies and retribution to his foes; he will repay the islands their due. Isaiah 59:18

There is debate about whether God is judging Israel for its lack of justice or judging all the nations. Lynch proposes that when Israel failed its responsibilities in displaying justice it impacted the nations’ ability to practice justice.[14] Or it could be sin itself that God is coming to destroy.[15]It is perhaps all of these; any person who practices injustice and does not repent is an enemy of God whether they are an Israelite or the nations.  It is because of the injustice just detailed that God appears with anger.[16]

God Victorious

Concluding this poem is a theophanic description of God in verse 19.[17]

From the west, people will fear the name of the LORD, and from the rising of the sun, they will revere his glory. For he will come like a pent-up flood that the breath of the LORD drives along. Isaiah 59:19

Theophanies are moments throughout scripture when God appears with ‘accompanying phenomena’. [18]  In this case a roaring stream and mighty wind signals that God is coming. Theophanic expressions are often linked to the Word of the LORD stressing the point that this is the personal, embodied word of God.[19]

Isaiah 59 concludes on a (mostly) positive note. It is both conditional on people repenting from their sin but at the same time God re-commits to his covenant with the house of Jacob.[20] God once more confirms that these words are a divine oracle coming from his Spirit.[21] Therefore these words need to be taken seriously.

“The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,” declares The LORD. Isaiah 59:20

I think most of us think of Jesus at this point! We see the ultimate Redeemer fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He came to bring sight to the blind. He came to set the world right. In Jesus the war against injustice and sin is won through the cross. He bore our sin and injustice so it could be dealt with once and for all. Then God raised him to new life and offers anyone who turns to Jesus the same deal. Their sin can be put to death and left behind as they are raised to new life and filled with the Spirit of God. Transformed to live God’s way, to be people who care about others. Christians are to see people suffering and come alongside them and love them, and stand up for them. We are invited to join in the work of Jesus; restoring sight and healing to this whole world.

To think about

How do you respond to the image of God as a divine warrior?

Why do we need a Redeemer?

After reading the whole of Isaiah 59, what’s the central idea that emerges for you?

[1] Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld, Put on the Armour of God : The Divine Warrior from Isaiah to Ephesians (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1997), 25.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Amos N. Wilder, Early Christian Rhetoric. The Language of the Gospel. (the Haskell Lectures for 1961-1962.) (London: SCM Press, 1964), 129.

[4] Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995), 212.

[5] John C. L. Gibson, Language and Imagery in the Old Testament (London: SPCK, 1998), 123.

[6] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, 1st ed., 2 vols., Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 200.

[7] Exodus 15, Deuteronomy 32, Judges 5, 2 Samuel 22, Psalm 18

[8] Yoder Neufeld, Put on the Armour of God : The Divine Warrior from Isaiah to Ephesians, 23.

[9] Ibid., 33.

[10] Ibid., 35.

[11] Ibid., 27.

[12] Ibid., 36.

[13] Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, 201.

[14]Matthew J. Lynch, “Zion’s Warrior and the Nations: Isaiah 59:15b-63:6 in Isaiah’s Zion Traditions,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 70, no. 2 (2008): 250.

[15] John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids, Mich. ; Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1998), 527.

[16] Julia M. O’Brien, Challenging Prophetic Metaphor : Theology and Ideology in the Prophets, 1st ed. ed. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox ; Edinburgh : Alban [distributor], 2008), 106.

[17] James Muilenberg, “Chapters 40-66,” in The Interpreter’s Bible (Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah), ed. George Arthur Butrrick (Nashville: Abingdon, 1956), 695.

[18] Jeffrey J. Niehaus, God at Sinai : Covenant and Theophany in the Bible and Ancient near East (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1995), 29.

[19] Richard A. Lammert, “The Word of Yhwh as Theophany,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 73, no. 3 (2009): 204.

[20] Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, 202.

[21] Isaiah 59:21

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