Having detailed the promises of the LORD through His Messiah concerning His great redemption and renewal of the covenant, the prophet now calls all sinners to repentance and if need be to faith (depending on whether they are already believers or not). For those who turn to the LORD’s marvelous and incomparable thoughts and ways, there will be happy success based on the Word of truth; for those who do not, there will be only continuation in exile, away for the land and away from God’s blessing.
This passage seems to fall into two parallel structures:
Verses 1,2 CALL The LORD invites people to take advantage of all His blessings (spiritual and physical).
Verses 3,4 EXPLANATION The LORD will confirm the eternal covenant made with David; David was evidence of God’s ability to fulfill promises.
Verse 5 RESULT Israel will see the nations drawn to them.
Verses 6,7 CALL The LORD calls for Israel to respond while they can; those who mistreat and misjudge God must change their ways and receive His pardon.
Verses 8-11 EXPLANATION God’s ways are higher than our ways; and God’s word is effectual, so that His plan will be fulfilled.
Verses 12,13 RESULT Life will be abundant in blessing; the LORD will do this for His own name’s sake.
In the first half the LORD enjoins the people to enjoy the blessings of returning to the land in fulfillment of the covenant promises; in the second half the LORD warns them not to delay or misjudge, for His ways are high, His word is effectual, and His blessings are sure.
Clifford divides the passage a little differently. He sees it as a unified poem in three strophes, vv. 1-5, 6-11, 12-13, summoning the exiles to end their separation from Yahweh’s presence by leaving Babylon and coming to Zion. The exiles are to come to the waters (cf. Isa. 12:3), to enjoy without payment a rich feast, to seek Yahweh where he may be encountered, in a word, to live—by being in holy Zion associated with Yahweh. Like David, whom Yahweh chose at the time of the exodus-conquest (2 Sam. 7:8-16; Pss. 78:43-72; 89:1-38, esp. 20), those exiles who heed the invitation to make the new exodus-conquest, to come to the feast, will find themselves “found,” “chosen,” “loved,” “covenanted with.” In short, they will find themselves brought near, consecrated, so that the glory of the heavenly luster of Yahweh will shine forth to the nations.
The passage, then, is on the continuation and fulfillment of the promises because of the everlasting covenant, God’s ways, and God’s words. It is a call for the people—those who believe in the LORD, and those who will believe in the LORD when they hear this call—to take advantage of His offer to share in the blessings of the covenant.
The application of this passage today would have to begin by focusing in on what blessings based on the Davidic covenant have been channeled through the New Covenant. The theology that informs this answer will have to look at the nature of the Messiah as a Davidic king, the role the resurrection played in continuing and guaranteeing the full blessings, and the relationship of faith to full participation in the promises. We do not stop with the doctrine of salvation in this discussion, although that is surely the starting point, for unless one is in the covenant there can be no participation at all. But there are other blessings promised, spiritual and physical, here and now and yet in the world to come as well. So the exposition may need to think on how to call the saints to a deeper faith and commitment so that they might have a greater share in the promises of the Davidic Covenant as they come together in the New Covenant. The call should bring them to greater participation in God’s program, rather than leave them simply living out their days in bondage to the world system.
I. THE LORD EXHORTS THE PEOPLE TO RECEIVE HIS BLESSINGS WHICH ARE FREELY PROVIDED AND PERMANENTLY SATISFYING (55:1-5).
A. CALL: THE LORD CALLS EVERYONE TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF HIS BLESSINGS (1, 2).
The first two verses use figures of speech to describe the blessings1 of God: thirsty, water, money, buy, wine, milk, without cost. There are two ways that these can be taken, as metonymies or as hypocatastases. If the first interpretation is taken, then there would be reality to the water, milk, wine, buying, and all, but it would represent more than physical prosperity—it would represent abundant life and prosperity now freely given to the people. The fact that these would be granted by God and obtained by faith adds the spiritual dimension. This view would be saying that God was actually offering fine food and water, which may have been symbolic of spiritual blessings too.
If the terms are classified as implied comparisons (or hypocatastases), then the meaning would be exclusively spiritual blessings. Buying would simply be acquiring, but it would be free, for the provision of blessing would be through free grace. No money would be changing hands—it would be a gift from God. That which is good, the richest fare representing spiritual values, would satisfy them. In exile they had to labor for material provisions; in freedom God would give them the greatest of spiritual treasures, life, peace, and joy.
There may be some allusion here to Paradise. They are invited to eat what is good and find satisfaction for their souls. What the passage is saying is that God will provide for all their needs, physical to be sure, but more importantly spiritual since it is redemption and restoration to service life in Zion, the holy city. And that provision will be freely given to those who respond by faith.
The main thrust is the call—the imperative. “Come, listen to me.” This is a call for them to respond by faith, a faith that will leave bondage and return to the land once again to be the people of God. There they will find spiritual blessings. Clifford argues that the life that is being offered here is proximity to the LORD in the shrine of the LORD. It is an invitation to a “feast”; as in Proverbs 9, the invitation moves from food and drink to higher life (see also Psalm 36 where the believer will drink from the rivers of pleasure [‘eden] and be satisfied with the fatness of the LORD’s house. To do this they must come to trust in the loyal love of the LORD, believing that God will not only deliver them from Babylon (where they were separated from their God’s shrine) but would truly supply all their needs.
This passage was cited in Acts 13:34 to show that the Davidic covenant was confirmed by the resurrection. Thus, we see the basis in that link for the Christian application of this passage. God made an everlasting covenant with David, assuring that a son of David would rule forever, and bring peace and prosperity to the land. In the New Covenant today believers can trust the LORD to provide for them and to bless them, for the resurrection shows that He can do this. But they also look forward to the grand fulfillment of the promises.
Verse 3 stresses the call for a response by faith: give ear, come to me, and hear me—”that your soul may live.” The explanation that follows is that the covenant promise is based on God’s “unfailing covenant kindness” with David. Here we have both the words for “loyal love” (hesed [kheh-sed]) and the participle for dependable (from ‘aman). No matter what the appearance of circumstances—exile, death of kings, oppression, delay—the covenant promises made to David would be fulfilled, especially in the direction God’s plan was now taking in the New Covenant.2 Also, the death of Jesus posed no problem to this everlasting covenant with David; He simply said, destroy this temple (=body) and in three days I will raise it up. No one could have imagined these ways of God in fulfilling the promises that He made to the patriarchs and the kings (not even satan.) He is not bound by time and events.
The expression “I will make an everlasting covenant” probably should be interpreted to mean “I will confirm my covenant as everlasting.” The primary reference is the promises to David, and there was no other covenant for him. Those promises were: an eternal kingdom, an eternal king, universal peace and righteousness, abundant prosperity, justice and equity throughout the world. Of course, the prophets are beginning to make it clear that the whole nation needs a New Covenant (meaning inner spiritual life rather than an outward law code) in order to realize the promises made to Abraham and David.3
Verse 4 draws upon David as an example: as David was, so Israel will be evidence of the covenant being fulfilled. David was a witness to the covenant in that God began to fulfill His plan through him; Israel will also be a testimony to God’s promises as they return to Palestine and become a people again—the stone that the nations rejected has become the chief cornerstone (see Psalm 118 where the “king” [political leader of the returning exiles] leads the nation to Zion to begin the new program).
C. RESPONSE: NATIONS WILL WANT TO SHARE IN ISRAEL’S PORTION AS GOD’S PEOPLE (5).
Still addressing the nation, the prophet announces that they would summon people to them because of the work of the LORD. Here is another prophetic glimpse of the future incorporation of the nations into the covenant. “Nations” refers to people in the nations, not nations en masse entering the covenant (although there have been such forced conversions). So this would be synecdoche (a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa.)
Because the LORD will endow with splendor, people will see God’s gracious dealings and run to Him. But note the emphasis of the passage: Israel will summon them. Israel always was to be a kingdom of priests, a light to the nations, a channel of blessings. But if people do not believe themselves, they will never do this. Or if they do believe but are caught up in affluence, or are worldly, or believe it is more important to remain separate, they will not do this either. Here, however, he is saying that this group will have a fresh appreciation for the grace of God and so will extend it to other nations.
There are obvious parallels to the New Testament teaching on the mission of the Church. Those who have responded by faith to God’s call have found rest in Christ, who is the Davidic King, and will be witnesses to the nations of the unfailing love of God.
II. PEOPLE MUST QUICKLY TURN TO THE LORD IN FAITH BECAUSE HIS WORD IS ABOUT TO BE FULFILLED (55:6-13).
The people were in captivity; many of them had concluded that all was lost, that there was no future to the promise (as in “where is the promise of His coming? nowadays”), that perhaps the gods of Babylon were powerful enemies after all. They made the mistake (as we often do) of judging God’s plan and God’s word by the standard of their immediate circumstances. This section rebukes that tunnel vision and calls for them to believe the word, seize the moment, and thereby discover that the promises are true.
A. CALL: THE LORD CALLS THE PEOPLE TO REPENT AND TURN TO FOLLOW HIS WAY WHILE THEY CAN (6, 7).
The imperatives of verse 6 stress the urgency of the moment, a window of opportunity—they must not delay in responding to God’s call to return to the land and be the people of God. The commands here are for prayer: seek and call on Him. The time was right for the deliverance, it might not come again or again be as clear; they should therefore pray for deliverance.4 If they believed the Word of the LORD delivered through the prophet they would change their thinking and pray expectantly for the deliverance. The expression “while He is near” is meant to convey that God was about to act on their behalf.
Verse 7 could be taken in one of two ways. If the “wicked” refers to all unbelievers, then this is a general call for repentance and salvation. But that does not fit the context very well. Rather, the “wicked/evil” are those in Israel who judge the LORD by the standards of their experience and mistrust Him. It would then be a rebuke of very weak faith among those who professed to be part of the covenant people. Of course, the verse is general enough in its wording that it could embrace both—obviously if people were doing wicked things as well, they should abandon those. This is a clear teaching in the Bible.
The context favors this latter view, that is, it is a call for the people to change their weak faith to confidence, for the theme of God’s ways and thoughts are here introduced. People should abandon their thoughts (pessimism, skepticism, weak faith—which are evil) and their ways (resigned to exile, disobedience to covenant—which are wicked). Not only abandon, but repent! Such thoughts and ways are sinful—but God will forgive their foolish unbelief. But their repentance must issue into faith; they must act in faith on God’s thoughts and ways—put faith into action.
B. EXPLANATION: GOD’S PLANS ARE INCOMPREHENSIBLE AND HIS WORD IS EFFECTUAL (8-11).
The “thoughts” and the “ways” of the LORD in verse 8 refer primarily to the LORD’s plans for the restoration of Israel in fulfillment of the covenant. Of course, the words fit any of the LORD’s plans, because they are beyond what we could ever think to ask. Here the contrast is made clear by the simile: the heavens are higher than the earth; and since God is in heaven and we are on earth, His ways are higher. But by higher it means incomprehensible to us. There is an entire existence of which we have no knowledge; there is an eternal plan that we can hardly grasp, and there is a divine nature that our infinite minds cannot comprehend. We are always trying to limit God with our categories and our understanding. Just when we think we have figured God out or have determine how God should act, He does something far more marvelous. We are so slow to learn that the only thing we can do is trust what He says and praise what He does. The rest of this passage will anticipate such trust and praise.
The second part of the explanation draws on God’s thoughts and ways as they have been revealed, to say that the Word of the LORD is effectual (verses 10,11). At the center of this section is the affirmation that God’s Word does not return to Him empty or void. This means that what He says will be accomplished because His Word is the expression of His powerful will. No Word from God is vain, untrustworthy, or given to deceive; nothing God plans to do can be interrupted or set aside by humans. His Word will prosper (salah, “achieve its purpose”). Verse 10 provides an earthy simile using the rain that comes down, waters the earth to produce the fruit, and returns to heaven having fulfilled its purpose. So is the Word of God. Not a Word from God will be wasted or ineffective.
If Christians actually believed this, how different they would be living! Naturally, as with Israel, we would pray more earnestly for that which He has promised, and we would act more confidently, trusting in Him to do His work through us. Skepticism, pessimism, resignation, unbelief—these would be “taken captive” (in the words of Paul) and banished from our minds, as God’s ways and thoughts become our ways and thoughts. The bottom line is: Get into God’s Word and live it out by faith, Stop living as though you already know it all, and Keep learning about our LORD.
The themes of great rejoicing and peaceful fulfillment are found in this last section. This is what God has in store for His people. The imagery also speaks of paradisiacal splendor: things growing to such fullness that trees are hitting each other in the wind (personifications here, “burst into song” meaning grow luxuriantly, and “clap hands” be full in growth so that they hit each other). The hope also includes the prospects of the reversal of the curse, something that the book has mentioned before with the snake and the viper being rendered harmless. Here thorns and briers will be replaced. The figure would be synecdoche, the bushes and trees representing types of growth.
The point is that all this will be done for “the name of the LORD” (verse 13b). In other words, because God has spoken, His reputation is at stake. He will fulfill His Word to show that He is trustworthy and able to do what He has said. The evidence of that will be everlasting.
So these are the motifs of the chapter: a call for people to receive freely God’s gracious provision of (spiritual and physical) blessing, the promise of the fulfillment of the covenant program, the attracting of nations to the faith, the explanation of the incomprehensible nature of God, and the affirmation of the efficacious nature of His Word of promise. I would word the expositional idea in this fashion: Because God’s Word is sure, people can receive abundant blessings by trusting His marvelous plan to fulfill the covenant promises.
For Israel it meant a call to faith to those professing believers who were unsure and hesitant—much like the call that Jesus made to the disciples who followed Him but were weak in faith, often unsure, somewhat skeptical. It took the resurrection to show that no matter what happens, God can do what He said He will do. The remnant of Israel must turn from such evil and respond to God’s call to return to the land and be part of the covenant program. The inspiration for this renewal of faith would be the awareness of the ways of God and the Word of God.
So the primary application would be to nominal believers today who have capitulated to their circumstances and have not stepped out by faith to become part of God’s work of fulfilling the promises of the New Covenant through the knowledge of Christ, the fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant. In the words of the New Testament, they must demonstrate their faith by their works. Repeated emphasis on God’s ways and God’s word will rekindle their faith, if there is any faith there at all. Even those who are mature in the LORD need to keep reminding themselves of the promises of God, so that they might trust His Word and discover His plan. I would correlate New Testament passages on the nature of God’s Word and the guarantee of the fulfillment of the promises.
Of course, the language of the passage is basic enough to apply to unbelievers who need to respond to the call for faith and become a part of the kingdom. They must turn from their wicked ways and trust in His Word to receive His marvelous blessings.
1 I use the term “blessings” because in Hebrew it signifies an enrichment, a gift from God. This could be a spiritual, physical, or material enrichment, as well as the empowerment to obtain such a gift.
2 In the prophets the Davidic Covenant and the New Covenant merge together with the Messianic vision. The New Covenant gives the full expression to the Abrahamic Covenant and essentially captures the spirit of the Sinaitic Covenant although it replaces it. But there can be no New Covenant without a righteous theocratic administrator. So the vision of the Messianic Age blends the eternal covenant with Israel and the eternal covenant with David.
3 To understand this better, you need to correlate the passages (especially Psalms and Isaiah and Jeremiah), and read the literature on these texts–the covenants, royal liturgies, and the eschatology of Messianism.
4 Note that God had determined the program for the deliverance; but his plan determined the means to the end as well–prayer. Prayer is the handmaiden of the eternal plan.