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Isaiah 61: The Emancipation Proclamation



The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God. (Isaiah 61:1)


Does this sound familiar? Yep. That’s it. When Jesus came out of the desert after 40 days dealing with the devil on an empty stomach, he went to his hometown, walked into the synagogue, stood up and read from the scroll of Isaiah (Luke 4:16-22).


It was probably the assigned reading for the day and most likely it was Jesus’ turn to read, so to those present, it probably seemed like just another day at the synagogue. Until Jesus said this: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” and then sat down. Wow. Brave man. But we knew that already.


Under the Old Covenant, the Sovereign God was known as Yahweh, and the Spirit was the unbelievable, unpredictable power of God that occasionally touched the earth. But this “me”? Who was he? To those who knew the scroll, “he” was the Messiah who was coming (and hopefully soon) to rescue His people, restore Israel’s glory, and wreak havoc on the rest of their world.


We know that “me” as Jesus, who “went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him” (Acts 10:38).


Two different covenants, two different perspectives.


There was something in the passage in Isaiah that Jesus didn’t read that day: “the day of the vengeance of our God.” He stopped just short.


Some may not have noticed. They may have been reciting the passage in their minds as Jesus read, so when he put a period at the end of his sentence, their recitation continued. (e.g., what do you think when I say, “Row, row, row your boat”?) They were dreaming of the day when the Messiah would bring the vengeance of God on their enemies. And when Jesus said, “Today this scripture fulfilled in your hearing,” the daydreamers may have thought, “Boy, the Romans be sorry now!” As they continued listening to his teaching, they were surprised, impressed, amazed. And here they’d thought he was just the carpenter’s son!


But what he said after that changed everything. (You can read all about it in Luke—let’s just say it wasn’t the message they were expecting to hear.) By the time he was finished that day, they were furious and ran him out of town. Now they were thinking, “This heretic is just a neighborhood troublemaker who doesn’t know his Torah.”


So what about that part about vengeance? Did Jesus sit down too soon?


Isaiah may not have understood how his prophecy would finally be fulfilled (see 1 Corinthians 13:9), but Jesus knew exactly what he was saying. Not a word of Isaiah’s prophecy would fail to come to pass. But that day in the synagogue, Jesus was announcing the Servant had arrived (John 3:17). It wasn’t yet time to see the King.


That day he came to issue Israel’s emancipation proclamation.


To proclaim is not to predict or prophesy. To proclaim is to put people on notice that things have changed; it announces what is and what has already been done. When U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it declared that “all persons held as slaves …shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” This proclamation didn’t say, “will be”; it said, “thenceforth,”—from the point it was spoken and onward. Done. Finito. Amen. But the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t end slavery. Laws had to change and mindsets had to change—even the mindsets of the slaves.


So on that day in the synagogue, Jesus proclaimed:


There is good news for the poor.


According to Strong’s Concordance, this kind of “poor” meant meek and lowly. Meek is not weak. It’s knowing you have nothing of your own to give. Jesus was proclaiming that even when you don’t have much to show on earth, “yours is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).


He was sent to bind up the brokenhearted.


During his 3½ year ministry, Jesus spoke words of healing, deliverance and redemption to all who came to him, and he snuck up on people who were too broken to ask. For example, when the Pharisees brought the woman caught in adultery, Jesus told her he didn’t condemn her, but he gave her a chance to try again (John 8:1-11). He told a parable of a good father who welcomed his foolish son home (Luke 15:11-22). He invited the weary to come to him and find rest (Matthew 11:28).


He proclaimed freedom for captives and release from darkness for prisoners.


In ancient Hebrew, “release from darkness” meant the opening of eyes and ears. So, according to Jesus, although circumstances might not change, prisoners and captives could live as free, no longer in bondage to fear. If that sounds trite rather than true, read about Paul while he sat in prison. Because he had been freed from sin and death, he lived according to liberty (2 Corinthians 11:23; 2 Corinthians 1:8-10; 2 Corinthians 12:10; Philippians 4:13). Salvation didn’t begin when Jesus died on the cross; it began when he came and spoke the truth (Luke 5:23-26; John 8:31).


He proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor.


The favor of the LORD is His kindness, delight in, and acceptance of man. We often call this favor “grace.” When Jesus said it was the year of the LORD’s favor, he wasn’t telling them they had 365 days of favor. No, when prophets used the word year, they were referring to a time appointed by God but undefined by man; not a specific period of time but a continuing era of change. But a prophetic day, also appointed by God and undefined, referred to something that was quickly accomplished. A day of God’s vengeance is on the way, Isaiah prophesied, yet His anger would last just a moment, but His favor would last a lifetime (Isaiah 54:7; Psalm 30:5).



Though Jesus sat down, the prophecy of Isaiah continued as he promises God’s vengeance on all that is less than good. Although Jesus came with comfort, healing, and a new perspective, life on earth is still hard. We celebrate the redemption work of the Servant now, but we’re all waiting for the triumph of the coming King. When he comes, God‘s vengeance will be completed. All the forces of evil and deception, anything that tries to keep us from His truth, will be overcome.


He will comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion.


Though the death and resurrection of Jesus defeated the power of sin, we still suffer personal loss, so God sent His Spirit and His people to comfort those who mourn (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). But the world is broken, and our spirits grieve, and all of creation groans for him to appear (Romans 8:19-25).


When He does, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away(Revelation 21:4).


He will bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning. He will wrap them in a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.


When the King comes there will be no more cause for mourning, so the sign of mourning—ashes on the forehead—will be replaced with a beautiful crown:


They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away. (Isaiah 51:11)


When the King comes, the poor and broken, captives to sin and prisoners of darkness, will be like oak trees (verse 3): strong and confident in their righteousness, planted in the right place and for the right reason:

They will be a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.


When God promised the restoration of Israel during the time Isaiah, it had to be evident to those listening that it wouldn’t happen in their lifetime. But Israel’s sense of identity was and still is tied to succeeding generations. Their eyes are fixed on a future hope; a victory for their descendants is considered a victory for them. So despite their horrid past, the people of Israel still hold fast to the promise of a nation restored. The forces of evil will continue to fight against them, but when the King comes, they will be free to rebuild, restore and renew “the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations” (verse 4).


At that time “strangers” and “foreigners”—the people of the nations—will be gathered in the kingdom because of their allegiance to the King. They will come with resources and be given oversight of Zion’s wealth (verses 5-6). Why? Because Zion will be busy doing what they were initially called to do:


And you will be called priests of the Lord, you will be named ministers of our God. You will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast. (verse 6)


Way back when Moses was on the mountain with God, God told him His plans for His children: “Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6)


When the King reigns, it will be time.


All the shame and disgrace of their past will be replaced with abundant joy. All the land that was stolen, relinquished or ruined will be returned, along with even more (verse 7).


The LORD is devoted to justice and His holiness will not tolerate anything less. He brings justice because He is just, and the promise of an everlasting covenant with His chosen will be counted as their reward (verse 8). They will know they have “arrived” when the nations acknowledge that they are a people that God has blessed (verse 9).


We can certainly adopt verse 10 as our own; in fact it’s the secret to our joy, but in the context of Isaiah 61, this “I” is the Servant and he steps forward to speak:


I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God.


Why?


The rest of verse 10 is confusing to me. The symbolism’s not unfamiliar, but the way it’s put together makes it hard to understand. Though we know him as the bridegroom, we usually think of ourselves as his bride, yet the context here indicates this “me” is Jesus. So here’s my best shot at an interpretation:


The way God “clothes” Jesus reveals just who he is. God prepared him as the Savior of the world and made him the picture of righteousness. Jesus chose to become our High Priest and considers us his possessions of beauty. I could be wrong about the symbolism in the verse, but all of my conjecture is true:


He is our Savior.

He is our example of righteousness.

He became our High Priest.

He considers us a reflection of his beauty.


As a gardener, God plants us in his presence where we receive His Son’s righteousness, and His care causes us as the fruit of His garden to praise him before the nations (verse 11).


Isaiah 61 is the proclamation and prophecy of the good news of God’s Kingdom— a declaration of what He’s given and the promise of what’s to come.


Because of the Servant.

Because of the King.

Because of the Messiah—the one we know as Jesus.