Isaiah looks at the sin-bearing servant of the Lord and has one thing to say to us: “Break forth into singing and cry aloud” (54:1). In other words, “Let joyful song explode out of you!” We resist that. Isaiah 54:1 may be one of the most disobeyed commands in the Bible. Our exaggerated sense of decorum is the last bastion of pride holding out against the gospel. Some churches make it a virtue. But God doesn’t. In his exuberance he’s creating a new world of boisterous happiness through Christ. We must rejoice with him, or we risk making our hearts impervious to salvation, because that holy but raucous joy is salvation.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem to the loud praises of his followers, the Pharisees didn’t like it one bit. But Jesus said, “If these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40). Enthusiasm offends religious people, because breaking forth into singing and crying aloud entails loss of control. It brings us down to the level of children, even the vulgar who never learned their manners. So be it. “If there when Grace dances, I should dance.”
As we savor the good news of the sin-bearing servant of the Lord (Isa. 52:13—53:12), the mountains of frost and ice within begin to thaw, and we learn to enthuse. The gospel of a surprising salvation can only make us laugh, sing, and cheer. John Calvin understood this. His theology teaches us:
The Church is the place where the Gospel is preached; Gospel is good news; good news makes people happy; happy people sing. But then, too, unhappy people may sing to cheer themselves up.
Every church should put a notice on its front door: “All face-saving moralists, take warning! Within these doors your chilly pride is in danger of melting into exuberant joy. Enter at your own risk. But all sinners depressed with guilt are welcome.” Christianity throbs with holy joy for bad people. God made it that way.
The test of a church’s faith is not only the wording in its creed but also the gladness in its worship. The gospel demands a carefree spirit. If we aren’t going to Hell anymore, if we stand to inherit every blessing Almighty God can think of, if nothing can stand in the way of our restored humanness because it’s all ours through the merit of Christ, the friend of sinners—if that can’t make us smile, what can?
In chapters 54—55 it’s time to pause so that the good news can make its full impact.
“Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than the children of her who is married,” says the Lord. (Isaiah 54:1)
“Few words could be more important for an understanding of the gospel than surprise.” God brings barrenness and joy together—to our surprise. In Isaiah’s culture, infertility marked a woman with shame. He sees the people of God as a barren woman with nothing to be happy about. Did ancient Israel bring God’s salvation to the world? No. And it was their own fault. Now to invite this desolate woman to sing for joy seems absurd and cruel. But Isaiah isn’t rubbing it in. He’s relocating her happiness from herself to the servant of the Lord, the ultimate Patriarch who “shall see his offspring” (Isaiah 53:10). He wants all of us to grasp that our failure is real, but it’s not the death of our joy, because Another has succeeded for us, and now we live in him.
The Apostle Paul quotes Isaiah to tease out what this means (Galatians 4:21–31). There are two ways to serve God. One way is to draw on the energy of our own good intentions. The other way is to rely on God’s power acting in our weakness. Our virtue can look good, feel good, act good, talk good. But it’s sterile. The power of the Holy Spirit may seem impractical, but he makes us fruitful. And the gospel announces that Christ took our failure to his cross, where its shame died, and he has sent us his Spirit, so that we’ll thrive forever. Isaiah foresees this grace spreading to the very ends of the earth. He’s saying to us, “You are barren. But it doesn’t matter anymore. You can live in expectancy. God’s plan for his people is more and more blessing by sheer miracle” (Isa. 54:2, 3).
Real joy flows from our surprise and relief that Someone Else is what we have failed to be. In ourselves we are this barren woman. We have nothing to be proud of. But we don’t have to hang our heads in shame. We should throw our heads back and laugh with delight over our spiritual family multiplying by a power not our own (Colossians 1:3–6). The gospel changes the subject. We look with honesty at our weary ideals that never amount to much, then we look away to God’s cheerful power working for his greater glory, our richer joy, and the salvation of the nations, and we like it that way. We’re a part of something beautifully improbable from beyond ourselves.
“Up! 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.” (Isaiah 55:1)
The grace won for us by the servant of the Lord is not a theory. It’s an experience. And God wants us to enjoy it freely. His invitation is too good to refuse, too urgent even to delay. Isaiah 55:1 lies so close to the heart of God, it reappears at the very end of the Bible as God’s final word to us all until Christ returns (Revelation 22:17). This is the message God wants every member of the human race to hear. What is he saying? “Don’t just sit there thinking about this, theorizing, hesitating, making excuses. Get up. Come over here. I have rich spiritual privilege prepared for you. Buy in—though Someone Else has already paid your bill.”
Christianity throbs with holy joy for bad people. God made it that way.
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). He said, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” (John 7:37). Christ overflows with satisfaction. All authentic Christian experience comes from what he provides, not what we provide. But knowing that isn’t enough. We must dive into that endless ocean. All that stands between us and God right now is our own sulky unbelief. We don’t have to deserve his blessing. We can’t earn it. How can we buy what isn’t for sale? But God has told us what to do: “Come . . . come . . . come.”
“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:2a)
Isaiah presses us: “Endless vitality can be yours for nothing. Why don’t you run there? Why? Where’s the payoff you keep sacrificing for here in this worldly system?” We have no reason to refuse God, and we have no reason to cling to our idolatries. That which is not bread cannot satisfy, no matter how expensive it is or how hard we try to make it work. Our world is a vast marketplace of unsatisfying but costly remedies for our God-shaped longings. But we’re not very smart shoppers.
When we suffer and our self-pity rages at God and we snuggle up to our most comforting lies, how do we find our way back? Seeing through our lies isn’t enough. The only way back is to look again at the servant of the Lord. We despised him and rejected him as he suffered. But he was bearing our griefs and carrying our sorrows. The Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all. But he didn’t open his mouth against us or against God. In fact, he makes blasphemers to be accounted righteous. Looking again at him can calm our shrieking hatred and restore us to sanity.
God is calling us back to himself.