The “Barren” Woman of Isaiah 54:1 Is Faithful Israel
Readers who have followed along this blog have discovered reasons why the “barren” woman of Isaiah 54:1 cannot be either Gentiles (Link to Devotional 2.56) or the unfaithful of Israel (Link to Devotional 2.55). God in the preceding chapters addresses two distinct audiences: 1) Israel’s hardened of heart, and 2) those whom God also chastises, but later calls and blesses. This post will further develop Isaiah’s recognition of different outcomes for those Israelites who rebel against God versus those whom God chooses to bless. The roadmap of this post is to demonstrate how Isaiah 54:1 lies on the path of those faithful Israelites whom God blesses.
Does Isaiah Distinguish Between the “Faithful” and “Unfaithful”?
Many would agree that the prophet Isaiah was not a “theologian” per se. Isaiah was not a theologian in the sense that the Apostle Paul was. And yet, when Paul received his knowledge of Christ by “revelation” (Galatians 1:11-12), part of that revelation surely included an enlightened understanding of the Old Testament (Luke 24:18-27). Paul relied heavily on the Old Testament (2 Timothy 4:13). He specifically quotes Isaiah six times, once in Acts (Acts 28:25-28) and five times in Romans. Four of those quotations occur in his discussion of what he calls the anguish in his heart concerning his kinsmen of Israel (Romans 9:27-33, 27, 29; Romans 10:16-21, 16, 20). Therefore, when considering the “Gospel of Isaiah” (Devotional 51), Paul remains highly relevant.
The gist of Romans 9-11 is that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Romans 9:6). Paul bases the argument of these chapters about Israel on the idea of the “remnant” of Israel (Romans 9:27-29). Paul’s thought, which he apparently garnered at least in part from Isaiah, is that the people of national Israel of the Old Testament will not all be saved. Only a remnant of ethnic Israelites, those who try in the long run to follow God, rather than rebel against him, receive God’s promise of salvation. The idea is that a necessary aspect of salvation includes belief in God (which means a faithful following of his way). God excludes the persistently disobedient from his promises of blessing, comfort, and salvation.
So, the question becomes, does Isaiah indeed distinguish among Israelites in this manner? And, what does this have to do with the barren woman of Isaiah 54:1? This post proposes that yes, Isaiah does distinguish between the faithful and unfaithful followers of God within Israel. Further, the barren woman represents the faithful only, not everyone.
Volume 1: The Remnant
Of the ten uses of the word “remnant” in Septuagint Isaiah with reference to Israel (not to other nations), nine of these occur in what we call Volume 1 (chapters 1 through 39). These are the ten occurrences, all from the Septuagint text: Isaiah 4:2; 4:3 twice; Isaiah 10:20, 21, 22; 11:11; 28:5; 37:32; and 46:3.
Here is the text of a few of the above examples, as they appear in the Septuagint.
4:2 And in that day God shall shine gloriously in counsel on the earth, to exalt and glorify the remnant of Israel. 3 And it shall be, that the remnant left in Sion, and the remnant left in Jerusalem, even all that are appointed to life [Greek, written for life, γραφέντες εἰς ζωὴν] in Jerusalem, shall be called holy. (1)
10:21 And the remnant of Jacob shall trust on the mighty God. 22 And though the people of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant of them shall be saved. (Romans 9:27, 28)
28:5 In that day the Lord of hosts shall be the crown of hope, the woven crown of glory, to the remnant of the people.
Someone may object that in context the use of “remnant” simply indicates quantity, not character. I would reply that when Paul quotes Isaiah 10:21-22 Septuagint, he does so in the context of Israel’s having failed to reach the righteousness that is by faith (Romans 9:27-33). Even so, Isaiah does do more to develop the concept of faithfulness versus hardness of heart as the book progresses.
Volume 2: Israelites Hard of Heart
EXAMPLE ONE: ISAIAH 46
In Isaiah 46, two contrasting attitudes of God are displayed. Rather than perceive God as one who cannot make up his mind, as one who constantly flips back and forth in his resolve, it makes better sense to perceive by careful reading that God addresses two sets of people. One set he intends to save until the end. The other set receives stern words of warning. These words indicate that it is still not too late for them to change their ways and turn back to God. A second reason to choose these verses is that the Greek word “remnant” occurs for the last time in Septuagint Isaiah 46:3. Listen for the tone of forbearance and commitment to save which God expresses in these verses to his remnant.
3 Hear me, O house of Jacob, and all the remnant of Israel, who are borne by me from the womb, and taught by me from infancy, even to old age: 4 I am he; and until you shall have grown old, I am he: I bear you, I have made, and I will relieve, I will take up and save you.
A footnote in Brenton’s translation indicates that the English word “relieve” represents a Greek word that can mean “put up with.” We still use this phrase in exclamations of exasperation, “How do I put up with you?” Other translations emphasize the word’s connotation of child-training. Make note of God’s commitment to these people. He comforts them with promises of enduring help and salvation. The two verses say little or nothing about the character of these whom God bears.
Immediately afterward, however, God’s tone changes dramatically to displeasure and stern warning. His words also describe the character and actions of the addressees. In the Septuagint, God labels them, “You that go astray.”
5 To whom have you compared me? see, consider, you that go astray. 6 They… make idols, and bow down, and worship them… repent, you that have gone astray, return in your heart… 12 Listen to me, you senseless ones, that are far from righteousness: 13 I have brought near my righteousness, and I will not be slow with the salvation that is from me: I have given salvation in Sion to Israel for glory. (Isaiah 46:5-13 Septuagint)
In this example, God does not go so far as to say that he will withdraw his blessing from these people. However, his displeasure and warning to them is clear. There are two paths, God says in effect. Your path is far from me. You choose to make idols and then worship them. You rely upon these lifeless creations of your own hands to help you. But I am the source of righteousness. I will give my “salvation in Sion to Israel for glory.”
The question is, Does God address the same group of people as in the previous two verses? Does he tell the same people that he is committed to save them unconditionally, as it appears in the first two verses, and then in the very next breath warn the same people that they are far from his righteousness? At this point in Volume 2 it may be difficult to answer this question. As the book progresses, the indications that God addresses two entirely distinct audiences becomes stronger.
There is one thing, however, that we can notice here. The text does not say, “All Israel will be saved no matter what.” God does not moddy-coddle these disobedient people of ethnic Israel and say, “It’s okay, I will change your heart in the end. Don’t worry. My salvation for you is inevitable. The world will move over for you, and they will be happy to do so.” No. Rather, God warns these ones who turn their backs to him that they are far from the path of his righteous blessing and salvation. He places a burden upon his listeners to repent. The next post will provide, Lord willing, more examples from Isaiah for us to consider.
… to be continued
1 Compare Isaiah 4:3 Septuagint with Revelation 13:8; 17:8; 20:12; and 21:27.