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Our Redeemer Comes
Sunday school lesson for the week of August 2, 2015
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson scripture: Isaiah 59:15-21
Both background scriptures for today’s lesson (Isaiah 59 and Psalm 89:11-18) are liturgical in nature and focus on the issues of justice and righteousness. Scholars inform us that Isaiah 59 seems to be part of a service of worship in which the people complain that God has forsaken them. It is believed that the passage probably dates to the Babylonian exile, that time when the people of Judah were defeated and carried away to live in a foreign land. The prophet states, however, that their situation has resulted because they have acted unjustly by deceiving and abusing their fellow Israelites (Isaiah 59:2-8). Following that denunciation, the people confess their sinfulness and look to God as their redeemer (Isaiah 59:9-20). In concluding, the passage gives God’s assurance that a better day is coming and that day would be identified by God’s salvation and Israel’s faithfulness (Isaiah 59:21).
Psalm 89:11-18 includes a grand declaration that God reigns over the whole of creation because God created it all. The key, however, is to understand that divine power is always directed by God’s fairness and goodness. The point is clear when the Psalmist states that “righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne” (Psalm 89:14). Therefore, God is righteous and just by nature and calls God’s people to be the same.
Verse 1 of Isaiah 59 seems like an answer to a complaint that God is unable or unwilling to save God’s people. Isaiah responds to this charge by declaring that God is not withholding salvation. The problem is the sinfulness of Israel. Those sins of the Israelites have become a barrier to their receiving the mercy God intends for them. Verse 2 very pointedly states, “…and your sins have hidden his face from you.” Sin is powerful. It can even blind people to the goodness and power of God that is right before them.
According to scholars, the specific sins Isaiah mentions in verse 3-4 are similar to those noted by Amos and Micah. The people’s dishonesty in dealing with others has brought unjust lawsuits. But the sins Isaiah mentions are not just confined to things people do but to the characteristics of the people themselves. The people hatch evil, travel paths of violence, go against justice and do not understand peace (59:5, 7, 9). Their sins are so bad that they cannot be “covered up” (59:6).
The prophet declares in verse 9, “Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us…” The word “therefore” is the acknowledgement that it is not God’s inability or unwillingness that causes Israel’s trouble, but it is Israel’s own wicked mind and practices. It was the lack of deliverance from the social chaos that made people think that God was apathetic. But the prophet sees that it was Israel’s own sins that caused her to grope in darkness. The picture here is of Israel as a blind person who feels her way along a wall and continues to stumble. At any rate, the people know of God’s salvation and hope for it. It is currently missing, however, because of their sinfulness.
Isaiah’s declaration of Israel’s sins seems to lead to the people’s confession of those sins. Scholars remind us that the expression, “Our transgressions before you are many” (v.12) is similar to David’s confession when Nathan confronted him about Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:13). However, the confession turns to confidence that God will save since no human can act rightly.
The assumption here is that Israel has suffered defeat and humiliation at the hands of enemies. A common theme of the prophets is that God sends enemy armies to punish Israel, but these armies go too far (see Zachariah 1:15). These enemy armies act arrogantly and strike too severe. So God himself must come and correct the enemy. Scholars assert that this or a similar idea may be behind Isaiah 59.
So God will come to Jerusalem as “Redeemer” (59:20). We are now moving to the heart of the lesson.
A Redeemer Will Come
Undoubtedly, one of the most powerful images of God in the Old Testament is that of redeemer. According to scholars, the background for this concept of redemption in the Old Testament was in the realm of inheritance, commerce and financial debt (see Ruth 4:1-12). If a person became indebted, for example, he might have to sell his land that was inherited and passed on through his family in order to pay off what he owed. If things got worse, he might have to sell his children into slavery or sell himself into slavery in order to satisfy the indebtedness. And the only person who might help someone in situations like these would have been a near relative who had financial means to buy back, or “redeem” those sold or lost. If you have been wondering why I have been using only male pronouns here, it’s because in ancient Israel males would have been responsible for such economic matters.
Now, it is difficult to imagine the shame a person would feel if he lost his ancestral land, and worse, members of his family, because he was in such debt. People who have experienced the agony of bankruptcy or foreclosure may have some such understanding of what it feels like.
At any rate, it is this type or circumstance that is the backdrop to the idea of God as redeemer. Perhaps if we truly think of our own lives and the moral and spiritual debt we have due to our unfaithfulness to God, we will certainly better appreciate this image.
We are told that Isaiah 59:20, which is today’s key verse, speaks of God as redeemer specifically in relation to the city of Jerusalem and the central place in the city where the Temple once stood. It declares that, “he will come to Zion as Redeemer.” Scholars explain that the Israelites interpreted the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem as God’s punishment for their sin. Isaiah 40:2 speaks of the city’s circumstance as one of indentured serventhood as though Zion had been sold for its debt of sinfulness. But the prophet now declares that Zion’s service is over because God acts as redeemer (59:20).
It is pointed out that this image of God as redeemer is powerful for at least two reasons. First, it speaks of the depth of God’s love and the closeness of God’s relationship with us. As our redeemer, God serves as the “next of kin.” Second, this hopeful redeemer image also suggests that we who are redeemed are totally dependent on God’s goodness and His willingness to “buy us back” from the sinfulness that imprisons us.
The Warrior Dressed in Righteousness
We need to be careful here that we don’t misunderstand this image of God as warrior, which is found in Isaiah 59. The idea of God as warrior is one of the most disturbing presentations of God in all scripture. What does it mean to suggest that God “fights” and makes war? What does it point out about God’s relationship with humankind and that God considers some people enemies as to fight with them?
As scholars attest, it is important to recognize first that God comes as a warrior to fight for justice and to fight for those who have no ability to fight for themselves. Note that Isaiah 59 does not say that this divine warrior supports or goes out with a human army. He does not! Rather, Isaiah 59 states that God comes as a warrior because no humans have acted justly. Thus, God must take the matter of justice on himself.
Scholars reiterate that this passage is not a justification for humans to act violently. And in our modern culture today, when there is so much violence, this needs to be underlined. This Isaiah passage is not a justification for violence. As a matter of fact, it suggest just the opposite. Because Zion is helpless to act on its own, God acts.
Another significant scholarly point has to do with the description of God’s dress for battle. It also indicates much about what it means for God to do battle as a warrior. As has been pointed out, the language used in 59:17 sounds like war language as the verse speaks of God as coming “wrapped in fury” and wearing “garments of vengeance.” But God’s armor – the warrior’s uniform – consists of “a helmet of salvation” and “righteousness” as a breastplate” (Isaiah 59:17).
As Christians, we recognize these expressions as part of the “whole armor of God,” which is found in Ephesians 6:10-17. Here the writer instructs members of the church to put on these protection coverings to fight against “the wiles of the devil.” Stating it another way, the writer is urging Christians to depend on God.
Therefore, Isaiah 59 points out that God comes to people in need of help with salvation and righteousness. Then we are told that these two terms help explain what it means for God to be a warrior. God comes to save, not to destroy. God’s fury may cause harm to those who are unjust, but that is God’s attempt to correct and set the world aright. God comes to uphold righteousness, and righteousness is that force that holds creation together in correct order. So, as scholars assert, God’s work as warrior is intended to restore the harmony and well being that God intended but has been disrupted by injustice. God acts to reestablish “shalom” which means wholeness and completeness.
God Comes For Zion
We have already noted that God comes to fight for those who cannot defend themselves. Isaiah 59:20 identifies those God defends as “Zion,” the city of God who represents its people. We are informed that there are two features of Zion that will help us understand why this city is important. First, the people of Zion are those “who turn from their transgression” (59:20). In other words, these people repent of their sin. Such people live in humility, do not put their trust in themselves, and work for God’s cause of peace in the world. Thus, it makes good sense for God to defend them, for the world’s future well being hangs in the balance without them.
Second, the people in Zion are those who participate in God’s attempt to establish righteousness and justice on earth. And those making this attempt are people with “clean hands and pure hearts” (Psalm 24:4). Therefore, Zion is presented as the place where human beings fully acknowledge God’s reign over the earth and over the human community.
As scholars affirm, Zion represents the ideal community in which God’s vision for the world – mercy, compassion, justice and truth – actually controls the community.
On her best days, the church is such a gathering. And on those days we declare that “God reigns” and seek to make that a reality in our everyday lives.
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries.
- What does the text reveal about God as Redeemer? (See Isaiah 59:12-20)
- How does the image of God as a warrior fit with your understanding of the nature of God?