Isaiah 55 has for over forty years been one of my favorite passages of the Bible. Its literary beauty is one reason. The promise at its conclusion that through the Messiah’s redeeming work the effects of the curse will be reversed and ultimately removed is another:
For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the LORD, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. [verses 12–13, ESV]
The “thorns and thistles” imposed as part of God’s curse on the ground because of Adam’s sin (Genesis 3:17–18) are replaced by the cypress (highly valued for its size and strength, used in shipbuilding and in the construction of the temple in Jerusalem) and the myrtle (noted for its beautiful foliage and berries, which could be macerated to make a refreshing liqueur).
This is of special interest to me as someone committed to creation stewardship, or what I call godly dominion (Genesis 1:28): men and women made in God’s image working lovingly together to multiply, fill, and subdue the earth in order to enhance fruitfulness, beauty, and safety, to the glory of God and the benefit of our neighbors. That mandate, given before mankind’s fall into sin, was repeated after the flood of Noah’s day (Genesis 9:1), when God recreated the earth and covenanted never again to destroy it by a flood, and Jesus’ death and resurrection are part and parcel of how, ultimately, it will be fulfilled, so that the creation that now groans because of its futility will be fully restored, with all things reconciled to God (Romans 8:18–22; Colossians 1:20).
Isaiah had mentioned the cypress and the myrtle before in another passage that pictured, even more fully, the results of God’s restoring acts for His people.
When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the LORD will answer them; I the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys. I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water. I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive. I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together, that they may see and know, may consider and understand together, that the hand of the LORD has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it. [Isaiah 41:17–20]
The language of both these passages has some interesting implications for Biblically defined stewardship of the earth. Neither biological nor ecosystem egalitarianism—both common among environmentalists—is true. There is a hierarchy of value, not only according to their usefulness to man but even in God’s own judgment, among ecosystems and species. A land of rivers and fountains, where water is abundant, is not merely different from but better than a “dry land” where “there is none.” The cypress and the myrtle (and the cedar, the acacia, and the olive) are not merely different from but better than the thorn, the brier, and the thistle.
But Isaiah 55’s clear presentation of the good news that peace with God is possible even for sinners like me, which like Isaiah 41:17–20 also features water, is the biggest reason I’ve always loved this chapter:
Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. [verses 1–2]
The water, wine, milk, and bread, of course, are metaphors for spiritual life, what in its fullest sense is shalom, peace with God; and the money, the buying, and the labor are metaphors for whatever works we might do in the vain hope that somehow or other they would reconcile us to God despite our sin. The marvelous promise here is that sinners who come to God trusting solely in His mercy are received, forgiven, reconciled with God by His grace, as the text goes on to make more clear:
Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know, and a nation that did not know you shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, and of the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you. “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. [verses 3–7]
To “incline your ear,” to “come to” God, to “hear”—all of these denote not mere physical hearing or physical nearness but believing, and God’s statement that He will “make with you an everlasting covenant” indicates God’s initiative in our salvation. That covenant is typified in God’s love for and promises to David, and the Apostle Paul explained to the people in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch that this was fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (Acts 13:34). God promised not only the Jews but also the Gentile nations to the Messiah, and, as Isaiah 53 had already taught, the Messiah through His death and resurrection would see them become his “seed”—His heirs through the gospel. But even in the midst of the reassuring promises of Isaiah 55, God embeds a warning: “Seek the LORD while he may be found.” God is sovereign, and He will be found only when and as He wills. The same warning comes in Hebrews 3:7–13:
… as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.'” Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
We must not ignore the preaching of the precious news of salvation in Christ but “seek the LORD while he may be found.” Those who do seek Him come to know Him as full of compassion and ready to pardon abundantly.
How do we know that? Because His thoughts and ways are so different from what we would expect on our own. We would expect that the only way to be reconciled with Him would be for us to pay Him back for our sins. Not so:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the LORD, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. [Isaiah 55:8–13]
Rather than requiring us to pay the price for our sins, He pays it Himself. That’s why He could say at the start of the chapter, “he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Without price to the one who comes and buys and eats—precisely because the Messiah, the Suffering Servant, has paid the price Himself, as Isaiah 53:4–6 already revealed:
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
What about you? Are you trying to “buy” peace with God with your own “money”—good works, contrition, maybe religious ceremonies? If so, consider afresh the offer God makes in Isaiah 55, but now from a more widely recognized passage:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. [John 3:16–18]
Come to Him, and you’ll find him, as He said through Isaiah, a God full of compassion and ready to abundantly pardon.