Isaiah 52, 61 and Nahum 1 | Conclusion to the Prophets
Defining the Gospel, Pt 3
The Prophets are one of the most important yet least understood parts of the Bible. They bridge the gap between the exile of Israel, which seemed to be the end of their story, and the plans of God for his people in the Messiah.
In the previous article, I introduced the message of the Prophets and started looking at the term ‘gospel’ in the Prophets by considering Isaiah 40. In this article, I want to continue that study by looking at Isaiah 52, Isaiah 61, and Nahum 1, before concluding our discussion of the Prophets.
Context: Isaiah 51
In Isaiah 51–3, we encounter the same complex of ideas as in Isaiah 40, centered around exile and return. As in Isaiah 40, we read about the ceasing of God’s wrath and the forgiveness of Israel’s sins (51:17–23), which is the ‘comfort’ of Israel (51:3, 12). God is faithful to his covenant promises to Abraham (51:1–2), and therefore he saves; this constitutes his ‘justice’ or ‘righteousness’ (51:4–6). When the exiles return with joy, the land will be rebuild and renewed (51:3)
As in Isaiah 40, it is the Creator God who is the covenant God who is the Savior God (51:9–16). Salvation can thus be described as an act of new creation in covenant faithfulness. God created Israel when he rescued her from Egypt (51:10; 52:4) and initiated a covenant with her on Mt Sinai. All along, God had promised he would take care of both sides of the covenant.  Now, in the face of exile, God new-creates Israel by rescuing her from exile, and makes a new covenant (54:10; 55:3).
At the start of chapter 52, Jerusalem is called to release herself from her chains and put on her beautiful clothes (52:1–2). She will be redeemed as in the exodus from Egypt (52:3–4). Right now they are being mocked, indeed, YHWH himself is mocked (52:5–6). For if Israel is his people, created by him for his mission and his glory (cf. 43:7), then he must be a failure of a god! But God will not let his name be blasphemed (cf. Rom 2:24). In his faithfulness he will make sure that his people will be faithful to their calling for his glory.
In his faithfulness God will make sure that his people will be faithful to their calling for his glory.
Then, in verse 7, the gospel is announced: ‘Your God reigns!’ In other words, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand!’ Salvation is near because the God of creation and covenant is near. When the people went into exile, the Temple was destroyed and God’s presence seemed to have left them. But now God is returning in person to establish his shalom, the wholeness and harmony of humanity and the world at large. Indeed, ‘all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God’ (52:10; cf. 40:5). This implies blessing for the nations as well. God is not just the Creator of Israel, but of all humanity, and he will fulfill his purposes for all of creation.
As God’s presence has returned, the people take up their priestly role again (Exo 19:6), which was already implicit in the ‘garments’ (52:1; cf. Exo 28:2), and made explicit in verse 11–12. Again, Israel is reassured of God’s protecting presence; he will be their rearguard (cf. Exo 14:19).
Context: Isaiah 52:12–53:12
In Isaiah 51 and 52, we read about the ‘arm of YHWH’ that accomplishes salvation (51:5, 9; 52:10). In chapter 53, this arm is identified with the ‘servant of YHWH’ (cf. 52:13; 53:1), who is a royal figure representing Israel. He will take up the fate and condition of exiled Israel by being appalling and disfigured and marred (52:13–14), despised and rejected (53:3). The Messiah will take up Israel’s pain, Israel’s suffering, the punishment for their transgressions, so that, in his exaltation (53:10–12) he might heal them (53:5) and, with them, all the nations (52:15; cf. Rom 15:21).
In Isaiah 61, it becomes clear that the root of Jesse (Isa 11) and the servant of YHWH (Isa 53) are the same person as the ‘anointed’ of God — in other words, the Messiah (lit.: ‘anointed one’). This agent of God is anointed for a mission, namely to proclaim good news (v. 1). This good news is broader than one might expect; it heralds the transition between the ages, from the present evil age to the blessed age to come (see table 1). 1
What is the connecting thread? It is God’s favor (v. 2), his grace working restoration for his broken people. The ‘poor’ are identified with those who ‘mourn in Zion’. Over time, groups of exiled Jews returned to Jerusalem, starting with the edict of the Persian king Cyrus (Isa 45). However, the rebuilt Jerusalem was nothing like the old one (cf. Ezr 3:12). This restoration was not the ultimate restoration that God intended for his people. Their real prison and captivity and darkness is the one of Sin and Death, to use the terms of the apostle Paul (e.g., Romans 6). Therefore, the kingdom of God would deal with those enemies, not just with the pagan enemies of the Middle East.
The good news is broader than one might expect; it heralds the transition between the ages, from the present evil age to the blessed age to come.
The real restoration of the land and of the Temple would, therefore, concern the whole cosmos. As in Isaiah 52, this restoration is connected with the priesthood of God’s people (61:6) and the involvement of the nations (61:5–6, 11). As throughout Isaiah, all this shows God’s majesty and glory (61:3). In particular, it is God’s covenantal justice that is on display (61:8). This justice is not just a distanced, uninvolved retributive justice. In other words, God does not simply reward all people for what they have done. It is more nuanced than that: this justice is God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises and purposes, expressed in salvation. It involves vengeance on his enemies and favor for his people (61:2). Who is enemy and who belongs to his people is not totally clear yet in Isaiah 61, but it seems to have to do with one’s relationship to the anointed one of God.
Lastly, in this chapter we see the beautiful balance between continuity and discontinuity, or, in the terms of Pauline scholarship, between ‘apocalyptic’ and ‘salvation history’. There is a drastic contrast between two eras or ages with the revelation of eschatological salvation. On the other hand, this new reality is organically related to God’s covenantal dealings with his people and indeed is centered around the new covenant (61:8).
Nahum is situated in the context of the coming judgment of God on Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria (1:1, 11). Nahum starts off with a theophany, very similar to the one we saw in Psalm 68. God, as Creator and King of the whole world, is angry, and the whole earth trembles before his judgment. The people of Nineveh are guilty of plotting trouble against YHWH (1:9), evil and wicked plans (1:11), and, most importantly, worshipping the images of idols (1:14). They reject their own Creator (cf. Rom 1:18–25). Therefore, God’s fierce wrath will rain down upon them.
All this language hearkens back to the exodus, when the waters of the Red Sea and the Jordan were ‘rebuked’ (Psa 106:9) and ‘dried up’ (Jos 2:10; 4:23; 5:1), when God revealed his identity as ‘slow to anger’ (Exo 34:6) and not leaving the guilty unpunished (Exo 34:7). The reference to God being ‘jealous’ often occurred in the context of God warning against idol worship, and this fits the polemic against Assyria (e.g., Exo 20:5; 34:14; Deu 4:24; 5:9; 6:15).
However, this chapter is not only full of judgment but also of salvation. In the exodus, God did not only defeat the Egyptians but, more importantly, rescued his own people. Nahum uses the covenantal language of God being a ‘refuge’ for his people who trust in him (1:7; cf., e.g., Psa 27:1). God afflicted Judah for their idol worship using Assyriah (cf. Isa 10:5), but this affliction is over: his people will be set free from the Assyrians (1:13–4). This is the ‘good news’ of ‘peace’ (1:15). Now Judah is exhorted to ‘celebrate your festivals’ and ‘fulfill your vows’ — in other words, to devote themselves to the worship of their covenant God, YHWH.
Although Nahum is not situated in the context of Israelite exile, its depiction of God’s judgment and salvation in exodus-style is very similar to the one we saw in the Psalms and is compatible with the specific salvation God was going to accomplish in bringing his people out of exile.
Conclusion to the Prophets
As opposed to our previous discussions, the euaggelia we discussed in this article relate more directly to the euaggelion of Jesus the Messiah. There are multiple recurring facets of the ‘good news’ for Israel in exile, with the ones in bold being particularly prominent:
- Even though Israel was unfaithful, God remains faithful; exile is not the end of their story.
- God will establish a new covenant with his people and forgive them of their sins.
- God will save Israel from their oppressors after a period of suffering and bring them back to the land in resurrection fashion, putting his creative power on display before the eyes of the world on the day of YHWH.
- God will return to dwell among his people and establish his rule through his anointed king from the line of David.
- Then, nature will be renewed and the land will flourish like never before, with the re-united people being faithful to their covenant vocation.
- Lastly, the nations will share, in some way or other, in the blessing of Israel.
All these notions can be summed up in three closely interrelated concepts: new covenant, new creation, new kingdom. God will reign over his restored people in the renewed land. One idea which did not come up in this article was that the new covenant involves an obedient people because of the outpouring of the Spirit. We see this theme especially in Ezekiel (e.g., Eze 11:19; 36:26–7; 37:14; though cf. Isa 44:3). When Israel is restored, they will be faithful from the heart to God’s law, thus fulfilling their covenant vocation and blessing the world.
God will reign over his restored people in the renewed land.
A last note on Messiahship in the Prophets. Israel’s hopes were focused both on God himself and on his Messianic agent who would play an important role in his purposes for Israel. Their tasks seem to overlap, as they both reign over Israel. Only in the New Testament do we see how this apparent tension finds resolution in the incarnation of the Son of God in the line of David. This dual Christological reality — both his human Messiahship and his divine kingship — would remain central in Paul’s gospel (Rom 1:2–4). Jesus is the human, Davidic king in whom the God of Israel and King of the world acts personally to save his people and restore the world.
 For example, when entering into the covenant with Abraham, only God stepped between the sacrificed animals, taking responsibility upon himself for both sides of the covenant. No clear distinction can be made between ‘conditional’ and ‘unconditional’ covenants, as if some covenants depended on human obedience and others on God’s grace. All covenants rest on God’s grace and require obedience. When God commits himself, his purposes come to pass. Exile cannot be the end.