“Barren” Woman–Isaiah and Galatians: Devotional 2.68

This post summarizes what we have learned about the “barren” woman in Septuagint Isaiah 54:1. It connects Isaiah and Galatians.

Two Texts

Septuagint Isaiah speaks of a barren [woman] in 54:1. Paul quotes Isaiah’s verse in Galatians 4:27. How does the thought of the two texts connect? Note: Although the English translations of the two texts below vary somewhat, the Greek text of Galatians is identical to the Greek text of the Septuagint (Archer and Chirichigno).

Septuagint Isaiah 54:1 Rejoice, you barren that bear not; break forth and cry, you that do not travail: for more are the children of the desolate than of her that has a husband:

Galatians 4:27 For it is written, “Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband.” (ESV)

Isaiah and Paul 

When readers study the context of Paul’s Galatians 4:27, they may discover that Paul appears vastly more complex than Isaiah.

  • Paul wrote theology in his letter.
  • Isaiah prophesied.
  • Paul in Galatians draws upon several biblical strands and weaves them together.
  • Isaiah reports God’s word to him.
  • Paul looks back to a detailed history of Israel (Mt Sinai, Arabia, Hagar, Abraham’s firstborn son by Hagar, whom Paul does not mention by name, and Isaac) (Galatians 4:21-31).
  • Isaiah limits his history to brief mentions of  Abraham and Sarah (Isaiah 51:1-2).
  • Paul makes a specific argument concerning circumcision among Galatian believers.
  • Isaiah reports God’s words of comfort to the one he calls you barren that bear not.”

How Does Paul Use the Text from Isaiah?

Paul’s theology is bold and direct. According to Paul, the congregation of faithful Israel includes all believers in Christ without regard for ethnicity. Obedience to the law of Moses is not a requirement of either salvation or fellowship in the congregation of Christ-worshipers (1). These are basic premises Paul seeks to expound to primarily Gentile believers in the book of Galatians. Another way of stating this is that Paul recognizes but one pathway of salvation–belief in Christ the Son of God.

But Paul uses surprising metaphors in Galatians 4:21-31. He turns common assumptions upside down. Also, Paul’s writing is extremely compact. He mixes various metaphors without spelling them out in detail. Here, however, are the basics.

1. Paul distinguishes two Jerusalems. One is Jerusalem “now.” Paul means the concrete-physical Jerusalem one can locate on a map. The second Jerusalem is the “Jerusalem above.” This corresponds to a spiritual congregation born of God’s promise to Abraham. Followers of the Mosaic law live in the first. Those who place their faith in God’s promise to Abraham through Christ inhabit the second.

2. The two Jerusalems correspond to two women. The first is Hagar, a slave woman. She represents the physical-concrete city of Jerusalem. The second is Sarah, a free woman. She represents the spiritual Jerusalem.

3. Paul also names two covenants. The first corresponds to Hagar. It is the Law which God gave Moses on Mt Sinai. Paul does not follow through in specifically defining the second covenant. The reader must infer that the second covenant is what gives birth to the “Jerusalem above.”

4. The first covenant, which corresponds to Hagar, the Law, and Mt Sinai, gives “birth to bondage.” But the second, corresponding to the “freewoman through promise” (Galatians 4:23), gives birth to everyone whom Paul calls “us all” (Galatians 4:26) and “we, brethren” (Galatians 4:28).

5. Paul identifies the second covenant (belonging to the Jerusalem above) with Isaac (verse 28). He states, “we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise” (Galatians 4:28).

Paul and Isaiah

So, where does Paul get his theology? And, how does Paul use Isaiah?

Paul quotes two Old Testament passages to support his reasoning to the Galatian believers. He first quotes Septuagint Isaiah 54:1 exactly as it appears in the Greek text of the Septuagint (see above). Now, if readers were to consider this verse completely free of its extensive context in Isaiah, they might conclude that Paul pulls a rabbit from a hat (performs magic).

Paul makes several assertions in his use of the “barren” woman quotation from Isaiah.

1. Use of the term “barren” one indicates Sarah to Isaiah, just as it does to Paul.
2. Isaiah’s prophecy in 54:1 is the promise Paul refers to.
3. Believers in Christ are the children of the barren one.
4. These children are the children of the Jerusalem above, which is free.
5. Therefore, the “barren” woman of Isaiah is the Jerusalem above. In other words, Isaiah indicates a spiritual Jerusalem in his metaphor, just as Paul does (2).


Paul’s “Jerusalem above” (Galatians 4:26) is real to Paul. In Paul’s letters, the Spirit and what is spiritual is every bit as real as what is concrete-physical. Concrete-physical denotes that which can be seen and touched. God’s transition of humanity from the realm of physical only, i.e., the concrete-physical, to the realm of the spiritual is one of the most difficult transitions for people of all ages to understand and accept.

Paul in Galatians seems to link the Mosaic Covenant and bondage together with the concrete-physical Jerusalem (the “Jerusalem which is now” {Galatians 4:25}). On the other hand, he links the Spirit (Galatians 5:5), God’s promise, and belief in Christ with freedom.

The question is, did Isaiah do the same?


Isaiah straddles God’s transition of humanity from concrete-physical to concrete-spiritual. Isaiah plants one foot in the physicality of the Old Testament. The other foot he plants firmly in the spirituality of the New Testament. Now Isaiah’s main purpose and theme in Volume 2 is to present God’s Servant. Jesus Christ fulfills Isaiah’s Servant prophecies. Jesus Christ of Nazareth is the Servant of God whom Isaiah presents so clearly.

What then, about Christ? Is he concrete-physical or concrete-spiritual? The answer is both. God is Spirit. Both biblical testaments teach this. Jesus Christ, Son of God, is therefore Spirit. As incarnated human being, he is also physical. Both his physical nature and his spiritual nature are every bit as real as the other. The New Testament teaches that when people believe in Christ, they, too, become indwelled with the Holy Spirit. They become spiritual beings, as well as physical. After the resurrection, when believers receive their new bodies, the union of body and spirit will be perfected. Now, because the body remains in slavery to sin, the union is not currently as it will be in eternity. (See Romans 6 through 8 for the struggle that exists between the flesh, which is the body, and the spirit.)

So, What About Isaiah?

The context of Septuagint Isaiah 54:1 reaches back for several chapters. Previous posts of this blog explore each one of these chapter contexts in detail. (Exploration of the “barren” woman context begins with Devotional 2.54).

As concerns the assertions that Paul makes, a brief summary of Isaiah follows.

1. First, Septuagint Isaiah 54:1-3 is indeed a prophetic promise of God (Paul’s assertion numbered two above.) Because God’s prophecies always are true, every prophecy serves as a promise.

2. Second, Isaiah’s own reference to the “barren,” “desolate” one does contain two connotations.

  • The first is to Sarah. In Isaiah 51:1, the Lord specifies that he addresses those who “follow after righteousness” and “seek the Lord”. Then in 51:2, he tells this group of listeners to “look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah that bore you.” Sarah, according to Isaiah, is the mother of those who follow after righteousness and seek the Lord. I believe it is fair to call these people “believers.” (See Septuagint Isaiah 51:1-2.) Both Isaiah and Paul indicate that believers are children of Abraham and Sarah.
  • The second connotation Isaiah includes in his terms “barren” one and “desolate” one is Jerusalem. Isaiah uses the term in much the same way that Paul does. Isaiah envisions Jerusalem as both the people and the place where those who follow after righteousness and seek the Lord live. Chapter 51 develops the context of this connotation.
    • Readers have already seen 51:1-2. In these verses, God speaks to those whose father is Abraham and mother is Sarah. He further describes those whom he addresses as those who “follow after righteousness” and “seek the Lord.” More descriptors occur in 51:7. There, God speaks to the same group as previously. He describes them as those who “know judgement” and in whose “heart is my law.” This group of people bear the brunt of reproach and contempt from men.
    • In Septuagint Isaiah 51:9 God addresses this small group of followers as “Jerusalem.” He characterizes them in verse 10 as those who by faith performed the miracles that permitted Israel to flee Egypt through the waters in the “depths of the sea.”
    • Verse 11 of the same chapter prophesies that this group which exercises faith shall return to Sion “with joy and everlasting exultation.” These are the Lord’s people (verse 16.)
    • Chapter 52 further defines this group of people whom God through Isaiah addresses. Sion and Jerusalem appear to be interchangeable terms (Septuagint Isaiah 52:1).
    • The prophet calls Jerusalem “the holy city” (52:1). He prophesies that “there shall no more pass through you, the uncircumcised and unclean” (same verse). This could hardly be true if Isaiah speaks of a concrete-physical city. Such cities tend to be bustling places with a cross-section of many types of people. And, many “sinners” did populate Jerusalem at the time of the Servant’s incarnation.
    • God characterizes Jerusalem in Isaiah’s day as a slave woman in bondage (52:2). But, God will ransom her. In the remainder of chapter 52, he describes how he will deliver Jerusalem .
    • God will bring salvation and deliverance to Jerusalem by means of the Servant’s sacrificial death (Septuagint Isaiah 52:9-53:12).
    • Clearly, the salvation and deliverance Septuagint Isaiah 53 describes is concrete-spiritual, not concrete-physical. That is, this deliverance involves no military. No one fires a shot. No change of civil or Jewish religious government follows.

The Holy Spirit indeed inspired Paul in his theological understanding and his writing. The Holy Spirit guided Paul to understand the history of Israel and the written words of the Old Testament in the manner in which God intends.

  • Christians believe that all Scripture is inspired.
  • Paul’s letter to the Galatians is part of Scripture.
  • Scripture does not contradict Scripture.
  • Therefore, Paul’s interpretation of Isaiah 54:1 is just as God intends.
  • God does not change, nor does his intent. Scripture itself is not so much “progressive”. Rather, his people’s understanding of Scripture progresses with the revelation of Jesus Christ and the interpretation of the inspired writers of the New Testament, of which Paul is one.
  • What Paul finds in Septuagint Isaiah 54:1, as he expresses it in Galatians 4:21-31, is what God intends us all to see. The content of Paul’s understanding of Isaiah 54:1, as he presents it in Galatians, lies within the text from the beginning, even in Isaiah’s day. Readers can verify this by following the context throughout the chapters of Isaiah which occur previous to 54:1.

3. Third, the group of faithful followers of God and his Servant whom God will bless definitely includes Gentiles. Isaiah provides many references to Gentile inclusion among those in Israel who follow after righteousness and seek God. Just two of these are Isaiah 52:15 Septuagint and Isaiah 54:3 Septuagint.

… This post marks the final post of the “Barren” Woman series. Future posts will move forward from this point.

1 Of extreme importance to understand is that Paul is not a proponent of “lawlessness,” in the sense of immorality of any kind. Rather, Paul preached a law motivated by the love of Christ for others. The Holy Spirit who indwells believers governs the law of love (Galatians 2:20; Romans 5:5; 6:1-6, 15-18; 8:2-13; 12:9-10; 13:8-10; 1 Corinthians 13; 16:14 and many others).

2 The term “spiritual” does not mean “not real.” I prefer writing “spiritual-concrete.” This term corresponds with its opposite, “physical-concrete.” In God’s system, both concrete and spiritual are every bit real. Jesus indicates that the spiritual carries greater “truth” than the concrete (John 4:20-24).

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