Isaiah has sometimes been called ‘the fifth gospel,’ and for good reason. It is filled with good news about the salvation God will bring in Christ. And the more time we spend in the book, the more we discover themes of salvation, justice, righteousness, and peace.
On this note, we can learn much about the message of Isaiah by tracing various themes through the book (e.g., Zion/Jerusalem, kingdom, servant, etc.). Today I want to trace the theme of shalōm (peace, well-being). By keeping an eye on this theme, we can see how the whole book hangs together and how God, the maker of light and darkness, shalom and calamity (Isa. 45:7), has brought peace to a people who have rejected peace in their pursuit of wickedness.
In fact, as we will see, the way that God makes peace with rebellious sinners in Isaiah follows the contours of the gospel. Or perhaps, stated better, the gospel we come to know from the apostles finds it origins in the promise of peace in Isaiah. Let’s take a look.
The Promise of Peace
In Isaiah, the first 37 chapters deal with Jerusalem’s sin and the judgment of God brought through the nation of Assyria (see Isaiah 10). The last 29 chapters will then explain how God brings salvation to Israel—first from national exile and then from sin. Importantly, this progress of redemptive history sets the stage for the progress of peace with God’s people too.
First, in these opening chapters we find many dark moments (see e.g., ch. 5, 13–23), as Israel’s sin invites God’s wrath. At the same time, there also many promises of salvation. And these promises center on the peace that a righteous king will bring. As Isaiah 9:6–7 reads,
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
Strikingly, the first mention of shalom in Isaiah is assigned to this “Prince of Peace,” the righteous king upon whom the government will thrive. As we will come to see, peace is lost in Israel because the royal son of David fails in his righteousness. However, when a new royal servant offers himself to God, peace will be procured.
In the beginning of Isaiah, then, the means by which peace will come to a sinful people is not fully realized. However, the promise of peace repeats in association with the kingdom that God will bring. Here are the four places peace is promised.
You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you,
because he trusts in you.
O Lord, you will ordain peace for us,
for you have indeed done for us all our works.
Or let them lay hold of my protection,
let them make peace with me,
let them make peace with me.”
And the effect of righteousness will be peace,
and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.
From these promises, we begin to see some of the content of the biblical gospel. Yet, before we can see this realized in Isaiah, we must also consider how Israel’s wickedness as a nation resulted in a loss of blessing and well-being.
The Loss of Peace
Peace is subject to futility in Isaiah. This begins to emerge in the days of Hezekiah (33:7; 39:8) and will be pronounced emphatically in Isaiah 48:18, 22; 57:21. First, we find that despite God’s promise to redeem Israel and bring a true king (33:1–24), Israel’s “envoys of peace weep bitterly” (v. 7). Why? Because the sins of Israel continue to invite God’s judgment.
In history, the armies of Assyria come to the neck of Jerusalem and threatened them with death. In a great moment of faith, Hezekiah cries for mercy. Yahweh hears his prayer and destroys 185,000 soldiers (ch. 36–37), thus sparing Jerusalem. This evidences the kind of power God has over the nations. As Isaiah 45:7 will say, “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being [shalōm] and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things.”
Unfortunately, Isaiah 38–39 tells a different side of the story. Instead of maintaining allegiance to God, Hezekiah relies on himself, his wealth, and his strength. Boasting of his material strength before the Babylonians, Isaiah 39 ends with these words,
“Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, ‘The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.’ For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my days.”
Hezekiah perceived Isaiah’s words of judgment, that his children would be taken into captivity, but he would die in “peace,” as good news. In truth, this was not good news at all. Hezekiah’s self-reliance displayed the heart of Israel and explained why God would bring the Babylonians to exile the sons of David and the whole city of Jerusalem.
In short, Hezekiah misplaced his sense of peace and security by trusting in his own strength. Yet, his unbelief reveals his wickedness, which would never permit peace. As Isaiah goes on to say,
Oh that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea; . . . “There is no peace,” says the Lord, “for the wicked.” (Isaiah 48:18, 22).
In these verses we discover that the anointed servant of God, Cyrus (Isa 45:1), could not effect a change of heart in Israel. He could remove Israel from exile, but he could not remove their sin. For this reason, a greater servant was needed.
The Fulfillment of Peace
Beginning in Isaiah 49:1, the verse that follows, “There is no peace . . . for the wicked,” we find three “servant songs” (49:1–7; 50:4–9; 52:13–53:12). Together, these three songs explain how the royal servant will bring peace and what that peace means. In order, we find a renewed promise of peace (52:7), we learn how the servant will bring peace through his own self-sacrifice (53:5), and we see how peace is secured in a new covenant that will spread to the end of the earth (54:10, 13; 55:12).
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. 6 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.
For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.
All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children.
“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.
From these verses, we get anchors for the whole movement of Isaiah 49–55. While I haven’t focused on the literary structure of Isaiah in this post, the storyline of peace in Isaiah follows the historical-grammatical shape of this book. This is most evident in these chapters, as the servant of the Lord suffers God’s judgment for his people’s wickedness. Then, with that punishment extinguished, the righteousness of the servant is communicated to his people (53:4–12).
This communication of peace is ratified in the his (new) covenant, which Isaiah 54:10 calls a “covenant of peace.” Importantly, peace comes through the righteousness of the servant and the outpouring of the Spirit which is what makes his people righteous—thus securing peace for them. Isaiah 49–55 explains how this happens; Isaiah 56–66 chronicles the effects of this new covenant, something hinted at by Isaiah 55:12.
The Proclamation of Peace
In Isaiah 56–66 we see the effects of the Servant’s sacrifice and the cosmic effects of the new creation brought through the Spirit. While it would take the rest of the Bible to confirm this point, Isaiah 56–66 shows how the Spirit of Christ completes what the Servant accomplished on the cross. In other words, by Jesus’s death and resurrection, the Servant creates a new Israel (servants of God) who come from Israel and the nations.
Importantly, we find the theme of peace continuing. First, in Isaiah 57:2 we find the non-sensical statement that those who die do so in peace (“he enters into peace; they rest in their beds who walk in their uprightness”). Before the Servant died and rose again, death was never peaceful. Physically, emotionally, and relationally, it is still not peaceful. But now, because the payment of death has been made, all those who trust in God and the Servant’s work, can die at peace with God. This truth we may take for granted is unprecedented and astounding!
Still, there are greater promises of peace. And these are found in the proclamation of the gospel (57:19, something Paul applies to Jews and Gentiles in Ephesians 2:17) and the new creation of the cosmos (60:17; 66:12).
“Peace, peace, to the far and to the near,” says the Lord, “and I will heal him.”
Instead of bronze I will bring gold, and instead of iron I will bring silver; instead of wood, bronze, instead of stones, iron. I will make your overseers peace and your taskmasters righteousness.
For thus says the Lord: “Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees.
These promises of cosmic peace reflect the fact that God is remaking the world with a people who were once hostile to him and to one another. Now, however, in Christ the Prince of Peace has reconciled the world through his death (Col. 1:20). Truly, this is the peace Israel squandered and Cyrus could not achieve. It is only possible through the Son’s perfect obedience, now applied to God’s people by the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, even though sin and strife continue in this age, as Isaiah 57:21 and 59:8 acknowledge, we find in Isaiah a message of peace promised, fulfilled, and now proclaimed to the ends of the earth. What Israel did to reject God’s peace, God has overcome to secure the gift of righteousness, peace, and life found in his gospel1
Indeed, Isaiah’s “prophecy” is a gospel, for the gospel is the good news that God has made a way for sinners to be at peace with him. As we have seen here, by following this word (shalom) through the book, we learn the message of Isaiah and the wonderful news that our sins can be forgiven in Christ, who is the Prince of Peace.
With this in mind, let us read through the Gospel of Isaiah again and remember how the promises of this prophet continue to find fulfillment in the world today!
Soli Deo Gloria, ds