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The Isaiah Project: Chapter 35, or, The Man of Sorrows

Hello again,

Here is another chapter, along with some notes below on where we stand in the overarching structure of the prophecy. Please enjoy.

The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 35

1. The desert wilderness and barren lands will rejoice; the wastelands will celebrate. They’ll burst forth into blossoms like saffron.

2. It will blossom forth, bursting into blossom and celebration, oh, yes, celebration and cheers of triumph. The majesty of Lebanon will be handed over to it; the magnificence of Carmel and Sharon. They will see God’s majesty, the magnificence of our god.

3. Hold fast those weak hands and steady those buckling knees.

4. Say to anyone whose heart is racing, hold fast. Don’t be scared. Look: your god is coming with vengeance; the god who brings payback is coming; he will save you.

5. Then blind eyes will be opened and deaf ears will be unblocked.

6. Then cripples leap up like stags, and mute tongues shout in triumph, because waterways come crashing forth in the desert wasteland, and streams in the wilderness.

7. And the scorching sand becomes an oasis, and the parched steppe becomes wellsprings of waterways. In the jackals’ lairs the flocks will lay their heads. It will become grassland with rushes and reeds.

8. And there comes to be a thoroughfare, a pathway there: the holy pathway, it will be called, and no one defiled will go over it. Rather it will be for him who walks the path — foolish but never stumbling.

9. No lion will be there, and no ravening creature, no — none will arise or be found there, where the redeemed walk.

10. God’s ransomed people will come back. They’ll go to Zion with cheers of joy and triumph hymns unceasing to adorn their heads; they’ll attain delight and joy, while sorrow and sighs are sent running.

-- -- --

The Prophecy of Isaiah -- The Vision Isaiah Saw -- is a story of judgment and hope. Broadly speaking, it is divided into those two parts: Chapters 1-39 foretell disaster, and Chapters 40-66 promise redemption.*

This first section (1-39) tells the story of Jerusalem's fall. We have almost come to the end of that story: we have heard about the moral slippage of the Jewish nation, how their kings and noblemen abandoned their poor to die in the streets. We have heard how that decline reached its nadir with King Ahaz, who ignored God's invitations to faith and made an unholy alliance with King Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria. Soon, in Chapters 36-39, we will hear in full the story of King Hezekiah, Ahaz's son, who though he honored God was powerless to undo what his father had done.

But always, throughout that story, Isaiah has punctuated his laments and accusations with foretastes of what will come afterwards. There is no purposeless suffering in Isaiah, no pain without meaning and forward motion. Jerusalem falls so she can recognize her need for a savior; God shows her that need so she can be persuaded to ask, and receive. This chapter, Chapter 35, is a moment of pause before the final story of failure. It is one more picture of salvation before tragedy strikes.

'The desert wilderness and barren lands will rejoice; the wastelands will celebrate. They'll burst forth into blossoms like saffron' (verse 1). 'God's ransomed people will come back. They'll go to Zion with cheers of joy and triumph hymns unceasing to adorn their heads' (verse 10). No one does gladness quite like Isaiah; no one proclaims words of hope like this poet-prophet of a battered race. People still come back to him for comfort when they find themselves broken, because they know that this man, when he saw everything he ever loved destroyed -- when he foresaw the city of God itself in ruins -- sang with defiant joy.

Only the very Spirit of a God who would die for love could inspire words of comfort in an era like Isaiah's. It's why people read his words on their death beds; why they come to him in heartache and disappointment and in unimaginable pain: Isaiah's joy is not cheap. His celebration is not flippant; he has seen the worst kinds of agony imaginabile and still he insists, God is good.

Charles Spurgeon, a 19th-century British Baptist whose eloquence earned him the title "Prince of Preachers," gave a sermon once about the sufferings of Christ -- about the agony of that redeemer whose coming is foretold in these chapters. "Even the glories of Christ afford no such consolation to afflicted spirits as the sufferings of Christ," Spurgeon said. "Christ is in all attitudes the consolation of Israel, but he is most so as a man of sorrows." That phrase -- "Man of Sorrows" -- comes from Isaiah too, from Chapter 53. It is among the most famous phrases from God's consolation of Israel.

We will move into that consolation soon, when we reach Chapter 40. When we do so, we will know that it has not been lightly gained or frivolously come by. Isaiah saw the distant approach of a suffering redeemer because he knew that his own suffering had given weight and consequence to his joy. The realism of the chapters we have read so far -- their raw, searing acknowledgement of the foul state in which the human race finds itself -- is what enables the heights of rapture to which they will soon ascend. God's descent into our pain is what assures us that he knows whereof he speaks when he promises us bliss.

Whatever you suffer -- whatever your own personal anguish, doubt, disease, loneliness, despair -- he knows what that feels like, too. He is not surprised by it or unprepared for it; it does not cancel his promises to you. He made those promises in full knowledge of all you would undergo, all your smallness and your failure and the way you hurt. It is with all that in mind -- well aware of it, having accounted for it -- that God through Isaiah his prophet still says: 'hold fast. Don't be scared. Look: your God is coming' (verse 4). He is coming indeed. You, and I, and Israel, shall sorrow no more.

Rejoice evermore,

*If you believe that the Prophecy of Isaiah was written by multiple authors (I do not), then these two sections are sometimes called "First Isaiah" or "Proto-Isaiah" (1-39) and "Second Isaiah" or "Deutero-Isaiah" (40-66). This indicates their authorship by an earlier and later writer, respectively. Some people also believe that 56-66 constitute "Third Isaiah" or "Trito-Isaiah." For my comments on this issue, see my third note at the end of Chapter 1.

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