Biblical Commentary

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8 – 62.3



These three chapters promise great things to the people of Jerusalem and record the rejoicing that they will experience upon the fulfillment of those promises. These chapters constitute an optimistic, joyful unit. A number of themes, such as light, righteousness, salvation, and joy are repeated throughout the chapters.

The former exiles have returned to Jerusalem after a lengthy exile that challenged their faith in Yahweh. Cyrus of Persia has defeated the Babylonians and instituted a new policy. Instead of subjugating Jewish exiles, Cyrus allows them to return to Jerusalem and even provides funds to finance the rebuilding of the temple.

However, upon their return, the former exiles find that Yahweh, who made possible their return, has not seen fit to make their task easy. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of the restoration of Jerusalem and the temple. The returned exiles experienced opposition from local people and the project ground to a halt (Ezra 4; Nehemiah 4-5).

These new obstacles created a crisis of faith, in much the same way as the exile did. Yes, Yahweh made it possible for them to escape their bondage in Babylonia, just as Yahweh earlier made it possible for their ancestors to escape slavery in Egypt. However, just as the earlier Israelites experienced obstacles in their wilderness journey that caused them to grumble and to doubt Yahweh, so also these former exiles who returned to Jerusalem are experiencing obstacles that create a similar crisis of faith for them. Yahweh has allowed them to return to Jerusalem, but has permitted opponents to dog them at every turn. Is Yahweh powerless to achieve what he promised? Is Yahweh faithful—will he keep his promises? Has Yahweh given up and abandoned them?

Second Isaiah dealt with these same questions while the people were still in exile (see 50:2). Yahweh is a passionate God who is in travail as he labors to achieve his goals (42:14). He is not like the Babylonian gods, who are made of wood and are powerless.

Now Third Isaiah, addressing people who are no longer exiles, addresses those same issues—answers the same questions. He says, “Behold, Yahweh’s hand is not shortened, that it can’t save; neither his ear heavy, that it can’t hear” (59:1).


1The Spirit of the Lord Yahweh is on me;
because Yahweh has anointed me to preach good news (Hebrew: bas·ser) to the humble.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim (Hebrew: liq·ro) liberty to the captives,
and release to those who are bound;

2to proclaim (Hebrew: liq·ro) the year of Yahweh’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3to appoint to those who mourn in Zion,
to give to them a garland
(Hebrew:pe’er) for ashes (Hebrew: e·per),
the oil of joy for mourning,
the garment
(Hebrew: ma’ateh—garment) of praise for the spirit of heaviness;
that they may be called trees of righteousness
(Hebrew: se·deq),
the planting of Yahweh, that he may be glorified.

4They shall build the old wastes,
they shall raise up the former desolations,
and they shall repair the waste cities,
the desolations of many generations.

“The spirit of the Lord Yahweh is on me” (v. 1a). The first question about this section is the identity of the speaker. Upon whom has the spirit of God fallen? Who has the Lord anointed? The following suggest that it is the servant, the messianic figure who figured prominently in chapters 42, 49-50, and 52-53.

• God said of the servant, “I have put my spirit on him” (42:1). Now the servant says, “The spirit of the Lord Yahweh is on me.” God said that the servant was “to open the blind eyes, to bring the prisoners out of the dungeon, and those who sit in darkness out of the prison” (42:7; see also 49:9). Now the servant says that he is “to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”

• Jesus quoted this verse, saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me” (Luke 4:18). He then declared,“Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).

When the spirit of the Lord comes upon a person, it usually confers power (Judges 3:10; 6-34; 14:6, 19, etc., etc., etc.). In the book of Isaiah, the phrase occurs four times, and is associated with conferring wisdom and understanding (11:2; 40:13ff.) and bringing relief to those in need (61:1; 63:14).

“because Yahweh has anointed me” (v. 1b). Anointing with oil is used for various purposes (healing, burial, or expressing grief or joy). Most especially, it is used to designate a person for a significant role. In the Old Testament, prophets were anointed (1 Kings 19:16). Priests were anointed (Exodus 40:13-15). Kings were anointed (1 Samuel 10:1; 16:3, 12-13; 2 Samuel 23:1; 1 Kings 1:39).

The New Testament speaks of Jesus as anointed (John 20:31; Acts 5:42; Hebrews 1:9, etc.). Both titles that we recognize as messianic (Hebrew messias and Greek Christos) mean anointed. In the New Testament, Christos (Christ) is used almost exclusively. Messias (Messiah) is found twice (John 1:41; 4:25), and both of those verses also use Christos—”We have found the messias, which means Christos” (John 1:41).

“to preach good news (bas·ser) to the humble” (v. 1c). In the Old Testament, bas·ser often refers to the good news of a military victory. The fact that this is good news for “the humble” suggests that it might involve victory over an oppressor. The Old Testament uses bas·ser to refer to the salvation that Yahweh brings to his people (Baker and Carpenter, 170). We should understand these verses as speaking of God’s salvation on two levels. On the first level, they speak of God freeing the exiles from their servitude—giving them a chance to return to Jerusalem. On the second level, they speak of God freeing them (and us) from sin.

“He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted” (v. 1d). Note the verb. We would usually say, “to comfort the brokenhearted,” but this says “to bind up the brokenhearted.” Binding-up goes beyond the usual comforting techniques, such as listening. Binding-up therapy is heart surgery. It pulls together the broken pieces—repairs the breaks.

This is the spiritual heart, of course. When we speak of people who are brokenhearted, we are talking about the spirit—the emotions. A brokenhearted person is a person who is grieving—who has lost hope. But God has sent the servant/messiah to repair the damage—to remove the cause of grief—to give the brokenhearted person reason to hope once again.

“to proclaim (liq·ro) liberty to the captives” (v. 1e). This is true on two levels. God’s people have worked in prison ministries and elsewhere to help prisoners to feel an inner freedom, even though they must spend their days under lock and key. But it is also true that God’s people have worked to set prisoners free where that was appropriate—and have done what they could to help them to make a successful transition into society.

These words are reminiscent of the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:10, 13; 27:24; Jeremiah 34:8-10). Every seventh year (a sabbatical year), the Israelites were to allow land to lie fallow and to free male Hebrew slaves. It was a year of rest for land, draft animals, and humans alike (Exodus 21:1-11; Leviticus 25:20-21; Deuteronomy 15:12-18).

Every fiftieth year (the year that ends seven sabbatical years—the Year of Jubilee), the Israelites were given the opportunity to redeem any land that had been sold—the idea being that the land belonged to God and was intended for use by those to whom God had originally given it. Any Israelites who had been forced into indentured service were to be released.

So both the sabbatical year and the Year of Jubilee were devoted to liberty.

“and release to those who are bound” (v. 1f). This would speak loudly to these Jewish people who have so recently been freed from their long exile and allowed to return to Jerusalem.

“to proclaim (liq·ro) the year of Yahweh’s favor” (v. 2a). “The year of Yahweh’s favor” once again brings to mind the Year of Jubilee—a year devoted to liberty.

The servant/messiah is to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor—the year when those being favored can expect to receive blessings from God.

“and the day of vengeance of our God” (v. 2b). The word “vengeance” is jarring in this context, because each of the other phrases is positive. These verses speak of bringing good news to the oppressed and binding up the brokenhearted and proclaiming liberty to the captives.

But the Babylonians had to suffer decline if the Israelites were to be freed. The forces of evil have to suffer defeat if the forces of good are to win. It is in this sense that God brings vengeance upon those who oppose him.

“to comfort all who mourn” (v. 2c). As noted above, the servant/messiah will remove the cause of mourning—will give the grieving person reason to hope once again.

“to appoint to those who mourn in Zion, to give them a garland (pe’er—headdress, turban, laurel wreath) for ashes” (e·per) (v. 3a). Note the wordplay here—pe’er instead of e·per—a bit of poetic loveliness impossible to capture in English translations.

Mourners would “spread sackcloth and ashes” (Isaiah 58:5) or “clothe (themselves) with sackcloth; and wallow in ashes” (Jeremiah 6:26) as a sign of mourning. But the servant/messiah will give them a garland—a turban—a laurel wreath—to adorn their heads. In the presence of the servant/messiah, ashes will no longer be appropriate, because in the presence of the servant mourning itself will be consigned to the ash-heap.

“the oil of joy for mourning” (v. 3b). Oil is used for ordinary purposes such as cooking or salve for the skin or fuel for lamps, but it is also used for special purposes such as an ingredient of perfume or for anointing. For temple use, oil is often mixed with myrrh or other precious aromatics. In the presence of the servant/messiah, mourning will be replaced by the festive use of these anointing oils.

“the garment (ma’ateh—garment) of praise for the spirit of heaviness” (v. 3c). In the presence of the servant/messiah, people will no longer feel timid or afraid—will no longer feel weak and impotent—will no longer want to recede into the background so as not to be noticed—will no longer feel a need to wear plain garments in dull colors. Instead, they will be clothed in festive garments—colorful garments—garments that proclaim the gladness of their hearts and their praise for the one who made them glad.

“that they may be called trees of righteousness” (se·deq) (v. 3d). Earlier, when warning the people that their sins would lead to their destruction, God said, “For you shall be as an oak whose leaf fades, and as a garden that has no water” (1:30). Now that chapter of Israel’s history is past, and the situation is reversed.

This phrase, “trees of righteousness,” is similar to our phrase, “pillars of the church.” The word oak, like the word pillar, connotes both strength and stability. Neither an tree nor a pillar appears to be doing much—they just stand there. But the tree stands year after year in the face of storms. Pillars stand day after day holding up the roof. Whenever we pass an tree or a pillar, we see it standing where we saw it the day before and the year before that. That kind of stability gives us comfort. We feel safe in the presence of strength and stability.

Trees are also beautiful. As Joyce Kilmer, the poet, once wrote:

“I think that I shall never see
a poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
and lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
a nest of robins in her hair.

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
but only God can make a tree.”

But these are not just trees—they are trees of righteousness. These people of God (in this verse, trees are a metaphor for the people of God) are not only strong and beautiful, but they are also righteous (se·deq)—pillars of ethical behavior—people who live in accord with God’s law and God’s will.

“the planting of Yahweh, that he may be glorified” (v. 3e). In the last chapter, God said, “Your people also shall be all righteous; they shall inherit the land forever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified” (60:21). This verse picks up that theme.

A beautiful garden reflects glory on the gardener. So, also, a people of God made beautiful by God reflect glory on the God who made them beautiful.

“They shall build the old wastes, they shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall repair the waste cities, the desolations of many generations” (v. 4). Some scholars would group this verse with verses 5-7 rather than 1-3.

Earlier, when there seemed to be no hope for Israel, the prophet said, “Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldeans’ pride, will be like when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. It will never be inhabited, neither will it be lived in from generation to generation” (13:19-20)—and “Its streams will be turned into pitch, its dust into sulfur. And its land will become burning pitch…. From generation to generation, it will lie waste” (34:9-10).

While at the height of their powers, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem—burned it—razed it. Their object was to preclude the possibility of anyone rebuilding that city. But now the servant/messiah promises that Israel will rebuild Jerusalem—repair it—bring it back to life. This dead city will live again. That’s God’s promise!


5Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, and foreigners shall be your plowmen and your vinedressers. 6But you shall be named the priests of Yahweh; men will call you the ministers of our God: you will eat the wealth of the nations, and you will boast in their glory.

7 Instead of your shame you shall have double; and instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their portion: therefore in their land they shall possess double; everlasting joy shall be to them.

These verses are not part of the lectionary reading, but the preacher should be aware of them. They contrast the status of foreigners with that of Zion-Israel. The foreigners will become servants of Israel, and Israel shall be priests of the Lord. The people of God, who have suffered greatly, will rejoice even more greatly.


8For I, Yahweh, love justice (Hebrew: mis·pat), I hate robbery with iniquity (Hebrew: o·lah—injustice); and I will give them their recompense in truth, and I will make an everlasting covenant (Hebrew: berit) with them. 9Their seed shall be known among the nations (Hebrew: go·yim), and their offspring among the peoples (Hebrew: am·mim); all who see them shall acknowledge them, that they are the seed which Yahweh (yhwh) has blessed.

10 I will greatly rejoice in Yahweh, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland (Hebrew: pe’er), and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11For as the earth brings forth its bud, and as the garden causes the things that are sown in it to spring forth; so the Lord

Yahweh (Hebrew: yhwh ado·nai) will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.

“For I, Yahweh, love justice (mis·pat), I hate robbery and iniquity” (o·lah—injustice) (v. 8a). The word o·lah can mean burnt sacrifices, but the context favors translating it injustice here.

The speaker is no longer the servant-messiah but Yahweh.

Israel will enjoy the blessings mentioned in verses 5-7 (foreigners as servants, the wealth of nations) because they have experienced double shame. Now they will enjoy a double portion of joy. This is God’s way of setting things right.

It is worth noting that Israel suffered its double portion of shame as a result of their sin—their failure to trust in Yahweh. But having meted out a long and painful exile to Israel, Yahweh is now determined to redeem them. That was the purpose of the exile from the beginning. Yahweh never intended to destroy Israel. He wanted only to break them of their willfulness—their obstinate determination to go their own way instead of trusting in Yahweh.

“and I will give them their recompense in truth” (v. 8b). Yahweh will give Israel its recompense—its reward—its due. More than its due! What he is offering here is pure grace.

“and I will make an everlasting covenant (berit) with them” (v. 8c). A covenant is an agreement between two parties. Essentially legal contracts, covenants typically describe what is required of each of the parties and the benefits that each can expect to enjoy. Examples of human covenants would include everything from an agreement between two men to a treaty between two or more nations. In the ancient world, covenants were binding agreements, and people entering into covenants would usually ratify a covenant by swearing oaths and making ritual sacrifices.

In a relationship between two parties of unequal power, the more powerful person is in a position to set (or to heavily influence) the terms of the covenant. In keeping with this reality, God always initiated covenants with people and established their terms. However, unlike most human covenants, where the terms would favor the more powerful party, covenants between God and humans typically were very generous to the humans.

The first covenant was established by God with NOAH, and promised that “all flesh will not be cut off any more by the waters of the flood, neither will there ever again be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 6:18; 9:9-15).

The next covenant was established between God and ABRAM. God required of Abram that he leave his father’s house and go to the land that God would show him. In return, God promised to make of Abram a great nation and to bless him and to make him a blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3). While the word covenant was not used in that transaction, it bears the marks of a covenant, because God outlined what Abram would have to do and what God would do for Abram. Later, God covenanted to give the land from the river of Egypt to the river Euphrates to Abram (Genesis 15:18). Still later, God covenanted with Abram to make him the father of many nations, even though Abram was old and had no children other than Ishmael, his son by a slave woman. As part of the covenant, God promised to give Abram the land of Canaan. God required Abram to observe circumcision for himself and for all his male progeny and members of his household, including slaves (Genesis 17:1-14).

God renewed this covenant with MOSES (Exodus 24) and JOSHUA (Joshua 24) and JEHOIADA (2 Kings 11) and HEZEKIAH (2 Chronicles 29:10 and JOSIAH (2 Kings 23:3) and DAVID (2 Samuel 7:12-17).

So when God determines to make an everlasting covenant with Israel, he is really renewing a covenant relationship that has existed for centuries.

“Their seed shall be known among the nations (go·yim), and their offspring among the peoples”(am·mim) (v. 9a). This implies that Israel will remain a distinct nation—and that the go·yim and am·mim—the other nations of the world—will be aware of their uniqueness.

“all who see them shall acknowledge them, that they are the seed which Yahweh (yhwh) has blessed” (v. 9b). The transformation is complete. They were humble, brokenhearted captives (v. 1). Now they are those whom God has blessed. This is true, not only because God willed it, but also because the prophet was faithful to his task.

Israel will serve as a witness to these go·yim and am·mim ­—a witness that Yahweh has blessed them. Thus the nations of the world will become aware of Yahweh’s faithfulness through the existence and prosperity of Israel.

As will become clear with the coming of the messiah, Yahweh loves not only Israel but all the nations and peoples of the world. The promises and blessings of the covenant will be broadened to embrace these peoples as well. But if the go·yim and am·mim ­are to enjoy Yahweh’s blessings, they must first come to know of his faithfulness so that they might embrace him.

“I will greatly rejoice in Yahweh (yhwh), my soul shall be joyful in my God” (v. 10a). The voice in verses 8-9 has been that of Yahweh, but now the voice of this verse speaks of Yahweh in the third person, indicating that this is a new voice—but whose voice. Is it the voice of the servant messiah, who was the voice in verses 1-7, or is it the voice of Zion (v. 3)—the one whom the Lord will bless? While we can’t answer this with certainty, it seems most likely that the speaker is Zion—Israel—the people of God—those whom God will bless. They will rejoice in their relationship with Yahweh, who will prove both faithful and generous.

“for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland (pe’er headdress, turban, laurel wreath), and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (v. 10b). The picture here is of a wedding party, dressed in beautiful wedding garments and adorned with jewels. If you have ever attended a wedding, you know that garments and adornments such as these have the power to transform the appearance of otherwise ordinary looking men and women. The groom and his attendants, who yesterday would not have turned any heads, now look handsome. The bride and her attendants, who yesterday looked equally ordinary, take on a new beauty.

In this instance, the garments that promise to bestow such beauty on Zion are the garments of salvation and the robes of righteousness. These are the gifts of God—unavailable for purchase by even the wealthiest person. They convey a beauty that can be had only through a relationship with God.

“For as the earth brings forth its bud, and as a garden causes the things that are sown in it to spring forth” (v. 11a). Even those of us who have many times witnessed the miracle of springtime stop to marvel at the loveliness of leaves as they begin to bring color back to the trees—and flowers as they begin to emerge from the ground. Our hearts are gladdened as tomatoes and beans and wheat and corn first appear—giving only a hint of the full measure of the mature plant and the fruit that it will bear—fruit that will sustain us through the coming year. It is a joyous season.

“so the Lord Yahweh (yhwh ado·nai) will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations” (v. 11b). In just such spring-like manner, God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up in Zion in the presence of the nations. Zion’s loveliness and the miracle of her emerging righteousness and praise will bear witness to the nations of Yahweh’s faithfulness.


1 For Zion’s sake will I not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her righteousness (Hebrew: sid·qah—from se·deq—righteousness) go forth as brightness, and her salvation as a lamp that burns. 2The nations shall see your righteousness (Hebrew: sid·qek—from se·deq—righteousness), and all kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name, which the mouth of Yahweh shall name. 3You shall also be a crown of beauty in the hand of Yahweh, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

“For Zion’s sake I will not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her righteousness (sid·qah—from se·deq—righteousness) go forth as brightness, and her salvation as a lamp that burns” (v. 1). Zion refers to Mount Zion on which Jerusalem was built. In this case, Zion is a synonym for Jerusalem. “For Zion’s sake I will not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest” is an example of parallelism in Biblical poetry—repetition of a thought in slightly different words.

The people, in their exile, have accused God of hiding (45:15) and keeping silent (64:12; see also 42:14; 57:11; 65:6). They felt abandoned by God as they suffered through an exile that seemed to go on forever. That exile did, in fact, span nearly fifty years, so it is easy to see how they would feel that God has kept silence when he might have spoken a word of redemption to free them. However, their exile had a purpose, and Yahweh had to wait for that purpose to be accomplished. Now that has been done and Yahweh promises to vindicate his people—to clear them of blame—to justify them—to reestablish their good reputation among the peoples of the world. This vindication will be highly visible, like the sun at dawn or a burning torch. Note these two allusions to light, a theme that runs throughout these chapters.

“The nations shall see your righteousness (sid·qek—from se·deq—righteousness), and all kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name, which the mouth of Yahweh shall name” (v. 2). The vindication of Yahweh’s people will be a highly public affair. Yahweh will act and the nations (Gentiles) will see the righteousness of Yahweh’s people. Kings will observe the glory of God’s people, and Yahweh will give his people a new name.

Isaiah 60:2b says, “Yahweh will arise on you, and his glory shall be seen on you.” Watts notes that 62:2 is parallel to that verse “but with a reverse twist. There these characteristics were promised to the emperor. Here they are claimed for Jerusalem alone. There, Jerusalem was to receive YHWH’s benefactions through the empire and from her neighbors. Here, she sets out to get them for herself” (Watts, 881).

Names in the Bible are seen as expressing a person’s essential character, and a renaming reflects a significant change of character. Thus Abram becomes Abraham (Genesis 17:5) and Jacob becomes Israel (Genesis 32:28) and Simon becomes Peter (Matthew 16:18) and Saul becomes Paul (Acts 13:9).

Yahweh promises to give these people a new name, but doesn’t specify the name. But new God-given names in the Bible signal a kind of rebirththe coming into being of a new Godly person.

“You shall also be a crown of beauty in the hand of Yahweh, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God” (v. 3). The prophet describes the restored people of God as “a crown of beauty” and a “royal diadem” in God’s hand. A diadem is some sort of headgear worn by royalsperhaps a jeweled headbandlike a crown. This is a poetic way of saying that Israel will be a symbol of God’s glory and one of Yahweh’s proudest possessions.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan