A. Outline and Structural Analysis
54:1-10—The Fecundity of the Barren Wife.
1-3: Call for Jerusalem to rejoice and promise of renewed fertility.
4-8: Reunion of Yahweh with His bride.
9-10: Comparison to the covenant with Noah.
54: 11-17—The Security of the Afflicted City.
11-14: The rebuilding of Jerusalem.
15-17: Yahweh’s protection of the city.
The structure of Isaiah 54 would seem to suggest two major sections, vv. 1-10 and vv.11-17. Blenkinsopp divides the chapter into three main sections: vv. 1-8, vv. 9-10, and vv. 11-17a, with v. 17b as a concluding statement summarizing the whole (360-361). His basis for doing so, is that “the only clear markers in the text itself…are the references to who is speaking” in verses 6, 8, 10, and 17. There are, however, a few problems with the ratio for this division. First, if the basis of the division is based on who is speaking, why not add another division after verse 6, which Blenkinsopp skips over? Second, in his translation, he skips over the יהוה אמר at the end of verse 1, which would further complicate his division based on references to the speaker. Finally, the references to the speaker do not seem to be the only basis for dividing the text. One could make a plausible argument for dividing the text based on the addressee marked out in verses 1 and 11. Blenkinsopp points out that BHS and 1QIsaa also divide the text in the way I have suggested and it seems to be the preferred one based on the context of the chapter (360). Whybray, Westermann, North, and Sawyer also make the same division (though not necessarily for the same reason as myself). Thus, the assessment of Watts that “form-critical analysis has agreed on dividing the chapter into four sections: vv 1-3, 4-6, 7-10, and 11-17” is a striking one (236).
B. Historical-Critical Exegesis
The personification of Jerusalem/Zion in Isaiah 54 as a woman barren, forsaken, and afflicted, who is restored to her husband, receiving renewed fertility and comfort finds its contrast with the city of Babylon personified in chapter 47 as a woman exalted and then brought low. While Isaiah 54 does not mention ‘Jerusalem/Zion’ by name, the usage of the second person singular feminine and the earlier references to Jerusalem/Zion (40:2; 49:14; 51:3; 51:17; 52:1-2, 7-10) make it clear that Jerusalem/Zion is being addressed (cf. Sawyer 151; Childs 426; Blenkinsopp 359).
The image of the barren woman has a long tradition in the Old Testament extending back to Sarah in Gen 11:30, who is also called עֲקָרָה. While other women have been described thus, contra Childs (428), this verse seems to refer back to Sarah in particular (cf. Keil-Delitzsch 342; Sawyer 152; Motyer 445). The calling to mind of the promise to Abraham in Gen 22:17 found in verse 3, “and your descendants will possess the nations” (RSV/CE2), combined with the explicit mention of both Abraham and Sarah in Isa 51:2 in connection with the comforting of Zion, would seem to provide support for this conclusion. If this is correct, it continues the theme of Yahweh’s overarching plan for His people found throughout Deutero-Isaiah. The covenant that Yahweh made with Abraham is still in effect. Yahweh has not forgotten His people (cf. Isa 49:15) and even though a time of barrenness and desolation has fallen upon the holy city of Zion, now it has been promised that she will again be fruitful and multiply descendants (cf. Isa 49:12, 20-21) who will “possess the nations” (v. 3). The fecundity will be such that she will need to enlarge her tent, stretch out her curtains, lengthen her cords, and strengthen her stakes (v. 2). This is cause to sing forth, as now she will have more children than before the Exile (Keil-Delitzsch 342-343). Childs (423) and Watts (236) translate the לא in verse 1 as “never”. This does not seem to be warranted exegetically, because Jerusalem did have children before the Exile. Also, Isa 49:20 suggests that she even bore children in the Exile! It is because she is left in ruins and her children are born in a foreign land that she is said to be barren (Keil-Delitzsch 342).
There is some question as to what is meant by “the place of your tent” in this verse. Sawyer, noticing the allusion to Sarah in verse 1, becomes stuck in Genesis for his interpretation and suggests that it is the tent where Sarah lived when Isaac was born (152). This, however, does not help to explain what the reference is to in the context of Deutero-Isaiah’s prophecy. Keil-Delitzsch points out that Jerusalem is described as a tent in Jer 31:38-40 (343). This would align with the earlier reference in Isa 33:20 of Jerusalem as an “immovable tent.” Westermann suggests that the imagery recalls Israel’s days as nomads living in tents “when the promise of increase mattered so much. This now makes it perfectly clear that in ch. 54 the prophet’s promise goes beyond what he had to proclaim hitherto. The promise of deliverance is supplemented by the promise of blessing in the particular form of promise of increase” (273).
In verse 4, with the promise of a multitude of children, Jerusalem is encouraged not to fear. The shame she now has from being barren will soon end with the return of her children and reunion with Yahweh, her husband (Westermann 273). In this verse, the phrase, “the reproach of your widowhood” is generally understood to refer to the Exile, but there is not such agreement for the phrase, “the shame of your youth”. Keil-Delitzsch (344) and Motyer (446) (although tentatively) hold that it refers to the Egyptian bondage. Whybray rejects the Egyptian bondage theory and posits Assyria’s oppression of Israel during the monarchy (185). The Egyptian bondage view seems untenable because it predates the establishment of Jerusalem as the capital city of David’s kingdom by over two hundred years and it is precisely Jerusalem who is being addressed. The Assyrian oppression view also doesn’t appear to be the case, because the “shame” seems to be the result of something that Jerusalem did rather than had done to her. Rather, a better case can be made that “the shame of your youth” refers to Jerusalem’s “experiments in extramarital relations” (Knight 247), i.e. worship of false gods. Jerusalem had a long history of forsaking her husband, Yahweh, and committing adultery, evidenced by the constant refrain found in 1 and 2 Kings of doing “what was evil in the sight of the Lord” and the high places not being removed (cf. 1 Kgs 14:22-24, 15:3, 15:14; 2 Kgs 8:18, 8:27, 12:3, 14:4, 15:4, 15:35, 16:2-4, 21:2-9). This explanation fits with Deutero-Isaiah’s polemic against idol worship and makes sense of the emphasis in verse 5 of Yahweh the husband as עשׂה of Jerusalem. Jerusalem’s true husband is not to be found in something she made, but rather in the one that made her.
In verses 6-8, we see that even though Yahweh has hidden his face from Jerusalem, she is still His wife. No divorce has taken place (Isa 50:1). The Exile is “a moment” of separation for her to recognize who her true husband is, a moment which is necessitated by the covenant relationship between Jerusalem and Yahweh (Knight 248). Although Yahweh sent her away in קצף ףשׁצ, His עולם חסד remains.
Verse 9 compares Yahweh’s reunion with Jerusalem to the promise that Yahweh makes with Noah after the Flood. No more shall Yahweh send away his bride. Now, that Jerusalem is a taken out of her shame and widowhood, Yahweh’s חסד shall not depart and His שׁלום ברית shall not be removed (v. 10). The comparison of the Exile with the Flood is certainly apt. In Genesis, God creates the world and man, Adam sins and men increasingly grow in sinfulness and wickedness, which results in the Flood. Afterwards, Yahweh promises never again to destroy the world by a flood and starts a new creation with Noah and his family. Likewise, Israel is formed as a nation and is betrothed to Yahweh. Then, Israel’s “first father sinned” and their “mediators transgressed against” Yahweh (Isa 43:27), wickedness and sin increases (in the form of idolatry) thereby resulting in the Exile. Afterwards, Yahweh promises never to withhold His חסד and שׁלום ברית and promises a new Jerusalem.
Motyer makes an interesting connection between the covenant here in verse 10 with the death of the servant in chapter 53:
Throughout its history, the divine covenant has always been linked with sacrifice (Gn. 8:20ff.; 9:8ff.; 15:9-18; Ex. 24:4-8; Ps. 50:5). The link here between covenant and peace implies a peace resting on sacrifice—the death of the Servant (449).
A שׁלום ברית is made elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible with similar characteristics as found in Isa 54. In Num 25:12 (Sir 45:24), Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, receives a שׁלום ברית because he “made atonement for the sons of Israel.” In Ezek 34:25, Yahweh makes a שׁלום ברית with the people and promises to make them “secure in their land” and “deliver them from the hand of those who enslaved them.” Later in Ezek 37:21ff, Yahweh promises to “take the sons of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all sides, and bring them to their own land” and “they shall not defile themselves any more with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions.” Also, “they shall dwell in the land where” their “fathers dwelt” and Yahweh will make a שׁלום ברית with them and “bless them and multiply them.” In Isa 54, It is due to the atonement made by the Servant in chapter 53 that allows for the renewal of the spousal relationship between Jerusalem and Yahweh, which is sealed with the שׁלום ברית, resulting in the end of the Exile and the promise from Yahweh to make Jerusalem secure and overflowing with children.
Verse 11 begins Yahweh’s promise to make the afflicted and storm-tossed one secure. The description of the Jerusalem as “storm-tossed” connects it to the previous section through the imagery of the “waters of Noah” in verse 9 (Sawyer 153, North 252). In verses 11 and 12, Yahweh promises to rebuild Jerusalem with precious jewels and stones, which Westermann suggests is to highlight the splendor of the city (277). Keil-Delitzsch (349) and Whybray (188) suggest that this description of Jerusalem is the basis for the one found in Tob 13:16-17. Antinomy (פוך) is a type of black powder used by oriental women on their eyebrows and eyelids (cf. 2 Kgs 9:30) (Keil-Delitzsch 348, North 252, Childs 429). Whybray points out that it is also a type of mortar used in 1 Chron 29:2 for building the Temple (188). The foundation of sapphires (ספיר), pinnacles of rubies (כדכד), and walls of precious stones would make a dazzling array of colors. This imagery of Jerusalem dressed up in splendor appears to be in contrast to Babylon being stripped and shamed (Isa 47:2-3) (cf. Knight 251). Noticeably absent from the description of the rebuilding is reference to the Temple. As scholars have suggested, it seems that Deutero-Isaiah is not at all concerned with the Temple here. To this, Westermann asks, “What then is the splendour of the new Jerusalem intended to signify?” He responds, “The only real possibility is that the new Jerusalem is God’s city in a completely new way, and its glittering splendour points directly to the divine majesty” (278).
North (253) and Whybray (188) take the teaching that the sons receive by the Lord in verse 13 not to be a theological or moral teaching, but rather their craft or skill required to rebuild Jerusalem. Childs, however, connects this with the teaching of Isa 48:17: “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you to profit, who leads you in the way you should go” (430). Childs’ explanation seems more convincing, especially when one considers Isa 48:18-19: “O that you had listened to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea; your offspring would have been like the sand, and your descendants like its grains; their name would never be cut off or destroyed from before me.” If the sons of Jerusalem had listened to Yahweh they would have had peace, they would have been righteous, have a multitude of descendants, and would be kept free from oppression. In Isa 54:13-14 and what came before, Yahweh has granted them the covenant of peace and is going to teach Jerusalem’s sons in order that they shall be established in righteousness and not fear oppression. Verses 15-17 go on to describe Yahweh’s omnipotence and His protection of Jerusalem from all danger and foe.
The second half of verse 17 gives some difficulty as to its proper place. The problem is that it refers to the “servants of the LORD” in the plural, which is characteristic of Trito-Isaiah, rather than in the singular, which is characteristic of Deutero-Isaiah. Because of this, Whybray makes the suggestion that the author might not be Deutero-Isaiah (190). Blenkinsopp seems to suggest that the “servants” (from Trito-Isaiah?) have inserted this passage here and thus are “appropriating for themselves the salvation promised in the address to Jerusalem” (366). Watts argues that it belongs as a title, beginning chapter 55 (244). His reasons for doing so are that in all of chapter 54, the addressee has been in the feminine singular, whereas “servants of the LORD” is in the masculine plural, which is the same as the addressees in chapter 55. Also, Isa 54:17 speaks of the “heritage” of the servants, which chapter 55 seems to describe. Childs, on the other hand, finds great fault with Watts’ interpretation: “Even more disastrous exegetically is the move of Watts (241) who designates v. 17b as the introduction to chapter 55, thus cutting the crucial link of the ‘servants’ with chapter 54” (430). Childs holds that this passage is “a crucial link” between the “suffering servant” of chapter 53 and chapter 54. Yet, Childs needn’t be so quick to reject Watts’ suggestion. While there is much to reject in Watts’ exegesis of Isaiah 54, his theory does have plausibility on grammatical grounds. If Childs is going to reject it, he has the burden of explaining the shift from the feminine singular to the masculine plural, yet he does not do so in his commentary. Also, on exegetical grounds, it is not so certain that the latter half of verse 17 has to be with chapter 54. One could plausibly read the benefits resulting from the actions of the servant in Isaiah 53 as being explicated for the city of Jerusalem in Isaiah 54 and then for its people in Isaiah 55. If one were to do this, then the latter half of verse 17 would seem more natural with chapter 55. Yet, there is still another way to approach this problem, which is also appealing. Motyer gives an outline of verses 11-17 in which the last half of verse 17 fits quite nicely (450):
A1 The beautified city (11-12)
B1 Its foundation of righteousness (13-14)
A2 The secure city (15-17b)
B2 Its status of righteousness (17cd)
It seems that there are merits to all three approaches by Watts, Childs, and Motyer.
C. Witness to Divinely Revealed Realities and New Testament Fulfillment
In Isaiah 54, we see the extent of Yahweh’s love for His people through an address to the holy city of Jerusalem. God dwelt among them in Jerusalem, but they persistently rejected Him and sought after false gods. Yet, Yahweh continued in His love, for even if His people forget the covenant, He will not. As a loving husband, He takes back the wife who has wandered astray and restores her to her dignity and security. The love that Yahweh has for His Old Covenant people is the same love He has for His people of the New Covenant. Yahweh’s love for His Church protects her and sustains her in existence so that even if the gates of Hell should come against her, they shall not prevail (Matt 16:18). This love of Yahweh shown forth in Isaiah 54 and carried over into the Church also gives hope to each individual member of the New Covenant people. No matter how much we sin and turn our backs against God, because of the atonement made by the definitive Suffering Servant, Jesus Christ, if we turn to Him in true contrition, His love and mercy shall be extended to us (cf. Isa 1:18).
In the New Testament, St. Paul quotes the LXX version of Isa 54:1 when comparing the present Jerusalem, allegorically signified by Hagar, who bears children for slavery, i.e. the Jews bound to the Mosaic Law, and the Jerusalem above, allegorically personified by Sarah, bearing children that are free, i.e. those in the Church who are free in Jesus Christ (Gal 4:27). Paul sees the Jerusalem found in Isaiah 54 as ultimately referring to the Church. Thus, he is arguing that only those who have this “Jerusalem above” as their mother will truly be free. Those who insist on going back to the present Jerusalem, which is Judaism, will have a mother that enslaves them to the Law.
In the book of Revelation, we see that the same precious stones and jewels which are used to rebuild the new Jerusalem after the Exile (Isa 54:11-12), are the same precious stones and jewels which are found in the eschatological heavenly Jerusalem of Rev 21:19. The heavenly Jerusalem here in Revelation 21, “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (v. 2), is the ultimate fulfillment of the new Jerusalem and spouse of Yahweh in Isa 54.
In John’s Gospel, we also find Isa 54:13 quoted by Jesus in the Bread of Life Discourse (John 6:45). Christ tells the Jews who are gathered around Him that no one can come to him unless God the Father draws them. It is in this way that the words of Isaiah are fulfilled, “And they shall all be taught by God.” God the Father will teach us to recognize that Jesus Christ is His Son, and therefore we will be raised up on the last day. In the Old Testament, God taught His people through the Law. In the New Testament, He teaches us by inscribing His law on our hearts through the sacrament of Baptism.