Once again, we as the reader experience a sort of whiplash as Isaiah moves abruptly from judgment into hope.
“But, in that day”
Going back to chapter 3, we are told of a day of judgment coming for Judah. The Day of Yahweh. It is a day filled with judgment on Judah, an undoing of their society and the imminent downfall of the wicked. We then get into chapter 4, and that “day” seems to also offer comfort and hope for the very same people in the crosshairs of judgment. At this point, we might question if Isaiah even knows how long one day can be!
Jammed pack into one day comes destruction and immediate restoration. It could be helpful to explain the prophetic understanding of the future. We might call this “the Prophetic Mountain Range” view. When the prophet looked ahead, its as though they show a massive mountain range of events from afar. Think about looking at a mountain range from a distance. For me, I can see (on days when the smog settles) the San Gabriel mountain range and while the mountains appear to be close and perfectly lined up on the same latitude, I know that if I were to drive up the 57, my perspective of their distance and placement will change. Some will appear closer and some farther from me. There might be hills and valleys between each mountain along the range that I did not originally see from my apartment. In the same way, a prophet’s vision of the future contains cosmic, world-shaking events seemingly all happening at once. Yet, like that distant mountain range, there may be a greater distance between such events than what was first perceived from a certain point of view. So what Isaiah sees happening “on that day” may actually be events spread out and happening (and sometimes re-happening) later on.
This is helpful to keep in mind as we read the prophets as well as reading the Gospels. In Jesus’ ministry, many of the prophetic visions come alive, but not all of them. While the prophets may have perceived these grand, “Age to Come” moments culminating at once, Jesus seems to break them apart. In some sense, the Age to Come, the Kingdom of God has arrived but it is also not fully here and we wait for all the hopeful visions of the prophets to come to full fruition.
Reading the Old Testament prophets as New Testament people, we have to continually ask:
“Did this happen in the prophet’s time? Did this happen in Jesus’ time? Is this meant to happen in the last days? Is this a recurring event/theme throughout history?”
That last question is vital and often disregarded when reading the prophets. Often, they will pick up a theme from the past, reframe it around their own time, and later a New Testament writer will use this same theme. Keep this in mind when we get to the end of this chapter. But first, let us look at the first few words in this small chapter:
But in that day, the branch of the Lord
will be beautiful and glorious;
the fruit of the land will be the pride and glory
of all who survive in Israel.
All who remain in Zion
will be a holy people—
Isaiah sees “a branch” that will be glorious and beautiful in that day. We are not told here explicitly what Isaiah means by “the branch” but the context may give us clues. First, we should note that “the branch” and other “stump, seed, tree, and branch” language appears throughout Isaiah, as well as other prophets, as a symbol of hope. Check out these passages below for example:
Jeremiah 23:5-6; Jeremiah 33:15-17
Zechariah 3:8-9, Zechariah 6:12-13
There will be times when Isaiah, like Jeremiah and Zechariah, will use “branch” language as a designation for a specific (and we might say “messianic”) person. Yet, there are other times when this type of language is used to refer to a group: a remnant of people. This seems to be the case here in Isaiah 4. The prophet, despite all the wickedness and corruption, believes a group of righteous living people will shine forth and make it out from the destruction. Like a branch broken from the tree, a small beginning will grow into something beautiful.
Although Isaiah can only see evil and coming exile from the land for his people when he looks around, his “prophetic glasses” allow him to see a brighter future. I image it was difficult for Isaiah to fully believe his own words of comfort in the face of such injustice and wickedness. Yet, his hopeful vision continues:
Then the Lord will provide shade for Mount Zion
and all who assemble there.
He will provide a canopy of cloud during the day
and smoke and flaming fire at night,
covering the glorious land.
It will be a shelter from daytime heat
and a hiding place from storms and rain.
This next portion of Isaiah’s vision is loaded with Exodus imagery . He envisions a provision of a cloud canopy in the day and fire at night. Take a look at this passage from Exodus regarding the Israelites journey to Sinai:
By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. Exodus 13:21-22
That is some similar language to what Isaiah just said! In this recapitulation of Exodus, Isaiah sees a plan of rescue from sin-created consequences. By using Exodus imagery, Isaiah believes God will act in a similar way once again. He will rescue them from slavery and bring them to a promised land. Although the judgments will come true and nations will exile the Judaeans to a foreign land, God will enact salvation again for his people. Exile is coming but so is new exodus. New exodus will become a common theme in Isaiah (and I will mention it each time it comes up) when he envisions salvation.
Lastly, we should note the clear connection to Jesus. In John chapter 7, Jesus teaches at the Temple during the Festival of Tabernacles (or Booths). This celebration was meant to remind the people of the wilderness wanderings and how God was with them through the pillar of cloud and fire. Taking the intentional imagery of this festival, Jesus says this about himself in John 8:
Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.”
Jesus is the new guiding light of the Exodus. Clearly his statement is an intentional connection to the festival happening around him. As the people looked to a past moment of God leading them to freedom, Jesus offers the new exodus to true and full freedom. Jesus is the leading cloud and light of Isaiah 4, bringing comfort to God’s people. He is leading the remnant of people who will follow him to a new “land” of salvation.
1.) Why might it be difficult to pinpoint the exact moments that prophecy comes true? Is biblical prophecy more complicated than you originally thought?
2.) How does the concept of a “new exodus” add a deeper layer to your understanding of salvation?
3.) How does Jesus bring the words of Isaiah to life?