The city of God awaits the people of God. This was a comfort to the faithful inhabitants of Judah in Isaiah’s day, even as they heard about God’s impending judgment on the earthly Jerusalem. It is also a comfort to Christians today as we come more and more to realize that this world can be hard, and that it is certainly not our home. We are looking for a city with foundations, whose builder and maker is God (Heb 11:10). There is a tension here—we are citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, but we are also sojourning on this fallen planet. That is where we pick up the story in Isaiah 26.
The Salvation of the Righteous (vv. 7–15)
7 The path of the righteous is level; you make level the way of the righteous. 8 In the path of your judgments, O Lord, we wait for you; your name and remembrance are the desire of our soul. 9 My soul yearns for you in the night; my spirit within me earnestly seeks you. For when your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness. 10 If favor is shown to the wicked, he does not learn righteousness; in the land of uprightness he deals corruptly and does not see the majesty of the Lord. 11 O Lord, your hand is lifted up, but they do not see it. Let them see your zeal for your people, and be ashamed. Let the fire for your adversaries consume them. 12 O Lord, you will ordain peace for us, for you have indeed done for us all our works. 13 O Lord our God, other lords besides you have ruled over us, but your name alone we bring to remembrance. 14 They are dead, they will not live; they are shades, they will not arise; to that end you have visited them with destruction and wiped out all remembrance of them. 15 But you have increased the nation, O Lord, you have increased the nation; you are glorified; you have enlarged all the borders of the land.
Here we see the transition from a song to a prayer (and a prayer answered, I might add). There are two identifiable groups in these verses: the righteous, and the inhabitants of the earth (similar to the righteous and wicked in psalms of wisdom, for example). We go from the feet of the poor and needy in verse 6 to the path of the righteous in verse 7. This path is the one on which the poor and needy walk. In Israel, and especially ancient Israel, the roads were quite rough. They had no pavement like we would know today. Beyond that, the promised land was hilly. “Going up to Jerusalem” was not just a metaphor—the ancient Israelites gained elevation as they walked the road to the capital city. Imagine you are an ancient resident of Judah. You are walking on a dirt path, going up and down hills, sweating in the heat and struggling to see in the blinding sun. Suddenly the road becomes level and straight; what a beautiful sight that would be! That is the picture we have here—verse 7 tells us that the path of the righteous is level.
Of course, we can ask, what does it mean that their path is level? Does it mean they obey God’s law perfectly? No, it cannot mean that because we will see that the judgment of God is coming because of their sin (v. 16). Does it mean that life was easy for them? No, they were poor, needy, and oppressed. There is another sense for path in Isaiah:
A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Is 40:3–5)
Why a straight road in the desert? Because the Second Exodus will not be through the Red Sea; it will be through the scorching desert. Yahweh would redeem his people once again.
This is all of God—today we can say that it is Christ alone for sinners. That is the path of salvation for God’s people. We see a hint of this earlier in the chapter: open in verse 2 (פִּתְח֖וּ) and trust in verse 4 (בִּטְח֥וּ) sound much the same in Hebrew. The gates open by faith in God. The inhabitants of heaven, the citizens of this city, are righteous by faith. Those who are justified by faith have peace with God (v .3), and God is the one who does all of this (v. 12). How could justified sinners not trust in the One who so graciously gave them a strong city of salvation and keeps them in perfect peace?
Still, there is tension in the midst of these blessings. These citizens are righteous, but they are also poor and needy. They are still waiting for God to act; they desire, long, and seek for him even though they are citizens of this city (vv. 8–9). Have you ever felt that tension? Heavenly Zion is theirs, but they are not yet in Zion. For us too, Zion is ours, but we are not yet in Zion either. Christ earned heaven for us, but we cannot yet enjoy it fully. We are still sojourners on this earth.
In verse 13 we read that other lords have ruled the ancient people of God, an allusion to the exile. Why have other lords ruled over them? Well, that is the judgment of their covenant LORD. Yet this almighty God is and will remain gracious to them, and this grace can be seen in his rescue of those who believe in him. The wicked do not see, but they will (vv. 10–11). Things will continue as they are until the last judgement, but the delay (as we see it) does not mean the judgment will not come (2 Pet 3:4–10). At this point we can ask a hard question: if the righteous are given this strong city and saved by God, then how should we think about the death of the righteous? Verses 16–21 help us answer this question.
The Surprising Blessing (vv.16–21)
16 O Lord, in distress they sought you; they poured out a whispered prayer when your discipline was upon them. 17 Like a pregnant woman who writhes and cries out in her pangs when she is near to giving birth, so were we because of you, O Lord; 18 we were pregnant, we writhed, but we have given birth to wind. We have accomplished no deliverance in the earth, and the inhabitants of the world have not fallen. 19 Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead. (vv. 16–19)
There is a sharp contrast here between what the Lord achieved (vv. 12–15) and what his people achieved (vv. 16–18). Isaiah compares Israel’s wait on the Lord to a woman in labor—they were suffering, and they gave birth to wind. There was no new baby to make the labor worth it when all was said and done. Thankfully, however, there is good news! The Lord has done all that is needed (v. 12), and the Lord will do all that is needed (v. 19). God delivers his people by the resurrection of the dead. In fact, verse 19 is one of the clearest examples of resurrection in the entire Old Testament. The people’s effort led to the birth of wind. God’s efforts, however, will lead to the earth giving birth to the dead. That is where we are heading as Christians: the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
What about in the meantime? Well, these are the words of Almighty God: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Ps 116:15). We see a similar example of God’s care and concern for his dying people in verses 20–21:
20 Come, my people, enter your chambers, and shut your doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until the fury has passed by. 21 For behold, the Lord is coming out from his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity, and the earth will disclose the blood shed on it, and will no more cover its slain.
This is the picture of the death and burial of God’s people. It reminds us of two important events towards the beginning of the Old Testament which would have immediately come to the minds of the people of Judah. If you are in Christ, your death and burial is like Noah being locked in the ark, or like the Israelites in Egypt sheltering behind the bloody doorposts.1 The work of Christ alone has changed your tomb to a bedchamber. Death is no longer a curse for sin, but a protection from the wrath coming upon sin. The doors are locked for a brief waiting period while wrath is executed over the whole earth.
This chapter began with the command in verse 2 to “open the gates” to the city of salvation. Here, the command is for us to shut the door of our tomb behind us. Verses 1–4 presented the people of God as the citizens of the strong city, dwelling in security because of the peace of God, the victory he has won for them. Here we have security from wrath as God actively goes out and wins the victory. In other words, God’s final judgment will be for his people as much as it is against sin and death. We are the people of the God who can keep us safe even through death. Therefore, what is death for the Christian? Death, which came as a curse in Genesis 3, is now a refuge from God’s wrath. The last enemy leads us to the great bedchamber, the rest Christ earned for us. This is the surprising blessing. Therefore, flee to Christ, and know that those who are found in him have a refuge from the wrath that God will bring to the earth on the last day! When we die, our pilgrimage is over, and we will await our resurrection bodies and the strong city, the New Jerusalem, which we will see “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev 21:3). Because Christ has redeemed us, death ushers us into blessing, not condemnation. Out of all the unexpected reversals the LORD has worked in redemptive history, this has to be one of the most surprising; and what assurance it brings us weak, frail sinners marching on our way to death. One day, if Christ does not return first, you may be in a hospital room, hooked up to machines and preparing for your death, or you may be taken in an accident at a young age. Either way, these verses will fly as a banner over your grave. Why? Because the work is all of God. It is all of Christ. That is the comfort of Isaiah 26.
The people of God are still pilgrims on this earth, poor, needy, and often oppressed, but they are also citizens of the secure city. This is our hope. We have been delivered from our captivity to sin, and the Lord has promised to make a secure place for us. That place is in Jesus Christ, and we can never be separated from him. As the Apostle Paul said in Romans 8:38–39, “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
- J. Alec Motyer, Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1999), 200.
©Christopher Smith. All Rights Reserved.
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