Isaiah: Light to the Nations

The book of the prophet Isaiah explodes with powerful messages of both judgment and Messianic hope. Wrath and grace fill nearly every page. In Isaiah, there is both a terrifying expectation of punishment and a magnificent vision of hope. God will bring justice upon Judah and on the wicked nations surrounding them because of their evil, but he will also restore his covenant people and provide refuge and peace for the nations. This dual message is set up well by the first two chapters of Isaiah.

In Isaiah 1, the prophet sets the problem before the people in vivid fashion:

“Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the Lord, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged. Why will you still be struck down? Why will you continue to rebel?

The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and raw wounds; they are not pressed out or bound up or softened with oil. Your country lies desolate; your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence foreigners devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners. And the daughter of Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard like a lodge in a cucumber field, like a besieged city.”

God’s own people are desperately corrupt and sick, and injustice runs rampant. The source of their wickedness is that they have abandoned the glorious God of Israel for the sake of idolatry and evil. Therefore, they will be broken down and destroyed.

Of course, God does not abandon his people. He has a plan to make things right once again. Isaiah 2:1-5 provides us a beautiful picture of God’s future plans: “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”

Not only will Jerusalem and the people of God be restored once more after exile, they will be a source of blessing for all nations. Out of Zion, the holy city of God, will come truth and light that leads all people to the guidance and wisdom of the Holy God of Israel. This will establish a reign of peace, where Israel will no longer be at war with its neighbors; people of every tribe and nation will seek to walk in the Lord’s light.

How can all of this be accomplished? How does this happen when God’s own covenant people are so unfaithful, unjust, and unloving? As we read through the book of Isaiah, we find mountains of treasures if we seek to discover God’s truth in this prophetic book. Although it was God’s design for Israel to be his servant that would bring light to the nations, their sin has rendered them unfit for the task. Israel was supposed to bring the world to the Lord, but they themselves are in desperate need of redemption and restoration. That’s why they need a new kind of servant and king, who can redeem them from their sins and who can faithfully display God’s glory and love to the whole world. A servant who is distinct from Israel but who also takes on Israel’s mission is needed. We see this in Isaiah 49:5-6:

“And now the Lord says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him—for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength—he says “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

This servant will be God’s instrument to bring Israel back to God but also to extend light and salvation to the ends of the earth. Throughout Isaiah, we read of this coming king and servant from the line of David who will usher in this new peace and righteousness (9:6-7). He will be born of a virgin (7:14) and he will be a righteous branch coming forth from the cut down stump of Jesse in order to bear the fruit of righteousness and justice and knowledge of the Lord in the world (11:1-9). But not only will this Messianic, Davidic king be a ruler of triumph and judgment and righteousness, he will be the one to deal with the sins of the people so that they can rejoin him on his mission to bring light to all. In order to do that, the servant must suffer:

“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”(Isaiah 53:4-6)

The suffering servant takes on the wrath, iniquity, and punishment deserved by all people unto himself. He opens the way for many to be accounted righteous through his atoning sacrifice and death (53:11-12). He will give himself over to death but not be conquered by it; he will live again and see his offspring (53:10).

It is hard to find a more powerful description of what Jesus has done for all of us. He was the lamb led to the slaughter to take away the iniquities of the world. That is how he establishes his kingdom and becomes the conquering Messianic king. That is how he restores Israel and shines light for the nations. It is through his death that God’s mission to save the world is revived and renewed. And he does all of this for his own glory, that he might be known and praised among all (Isaiah 48:11).

As Isaiah 59:2 puts it, our sin has separated us from God and broken our relationship with him. As that chapter shows us, the startling effects of sin create horrid injustice and darkness that cause us to stumble like the blind (Isaiah 59:9-10). But God didn’t leave us in that state of darkness:

“The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.” (59:15b-17).

The Lord knew we needed on intercessor, someone to take our sins and bring our plight to God. He knew we needed a righteous and suffering servant to take our sins and fight our battles. So the Lord entered into the darkness to bring light. He won the war we could not win. He put on the armor of righteousness and went to fight on our behalf. His own arm brought salvation down to us in Jesus. He delivered the way of justice to us. And just a few verses later we read that he did all that to bring us out of darkness so that we could be a people of light, so that we can take on the mission of the suffering servant to bless all the nations:

“And a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,” declares the Lord. “And as for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,” says the Lord, “from this time forth and forevermore.” Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples, but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”

There is still great darkness on the earth, but the suffering servant Jesus is the Redeemer from Zion who has saved a special covenant people and given them his Spirit and his words to empower them for righteousness. That people is called to arise and shine the Lord’s light to the nations. We as the Church are that people today. The suffering servant has brought us out of darkness for his glorious mission of light. All glory be to the God through Jesus Christ, the light of the world.