Isaiah 54 – Miracle Children

August 11, 2006

by Steve Owen

Isaiah 54 tends to be a somewhat forgotten chapter today. Lying as it does between the wonderful prophecies of the suffering Messiah in Chapter 53, and the glorious Gospel invitation of Chapter 55, it tends perhaps to be ignored by preachers looking for an evangelistic text. But this was not always the case. As a matter of fact, Isaiah 54 was the text for one of the most famous, important and influential sermons in history- the so-called “Deathless Sermon,” preached by William Carey, the father of the modern missionary movement.

Carey was born into a poor family and received little education. He initially worked as a cobbler. Eventually he became minister of a Baptist Church in Leicester. This was in the late 18th Century, when British power was expanding in India. Carey had a great burden for the pagans in India, perishing without Christ. There were no missionaries in those days. He took the opportunity of raising the matter at a Baptist Association meeting, but was told by an older colleague, “Sit down, young man! When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your help or mine!”

Carey could do nothing but wait until he was asked to bring a sermon to a meeting of the Northamptonshire Baptist Association in May, 1792. He seized his opportunity and preached on Isaiah 54, applying it to the Church in his day- a barren widow, bereft of husband, with no offspring to give her hope or cheer. Yet Isaiah calls for rejoicing, not sorrow; for celebration, not lamentation. God is about to do a great work and commands His people to expand their tents and lengthen their guide-ropes. There is to be an enlargement of God’s people, a bringing-in of others on the right and left, a winning of the Gentiles who are yet to be included in the Covenant of Grace. Carey ended his sermon with a rousing exhortation to his colleagues: “Expect great things; attempt great things!” For some reason, many books corrupt his words into, “Attempt great things for God; expect great things from God.” But this is to put the cart before the horse. It is our knowledge of God’s will through His word that should lead us to expect His blessing. This should be our impetus for action. We should not attempt some great work in our own wisdom and strength and then expect God to support us.

In January 1793, having gained the active support of his colleagues, William Carey sailed for India along with his wife, Dorothy and their four children. Over the next forty years, he translated the Bible into forty different dialects, successfully campaigned for the abolition of suttee, the Hindu custom of burning widows, and saw many converts for Christ. Today there are 60 million Indian Christians, a wonderful testimony to the work of this great man.

But what do these verses have to say to us today? In order to find a true understanding of this wonderful chapter, we shall need to find the answers to three questions:-

1. Who is the barren or desolate woman addressed by the Lord through the prophet?

2. What is the nature of the promises made to her?

3. To what time is the Holy Spirit pointing in these verses?

Fortunately, the answers to these questions are not hard to find, since the Lord has graciously supplied them in the New Testament.

So who is the desolate woman of verse one whom the Lord exhorts to rejoice? Well, the most famous barren woman in Scripture is Sarah, the wife of Abraham. She had a miraculous child, according to God’s promise, when it seemed utterly impossible that she should bear. Abraham of course, had another son, Ishmael, who was born ‘according to the flesh,’ that is, by normal procreation, his mother being Hagar, Sarah’s servant or ‘bond-woman.’ We read that earthly promises were made to Ishmael, but God’s true covenant containing heavenly promises was made with Isaac, the child of promise (Gen 17:18-21 ).

Turn now to Gal 4:21ff. Cities and nations are often spoken of in Scripture as the mothers of their citizens, and not unreasonably so, for the city or nation in which a man is born may in many respects be fitly called his mother. Paul tells us that there are two Jerusalems. The first city is that which ‘now is,’ and is aptly described as being in bondage with her children. This city, says Paul is intimately connected to the old, Mosaic covenant, given on Mt. Sinai. It is the mother of all those who seek to get right with God by what they do. But the second city is the Jerusalem that is above, God’s holy city (Rev 21:2 ), and it is this city that corresponds to the New Covenant given by the Lord Jesus Christ and promised to Abraham (Gen 12:3; John 8:56; Heb 11:9-10 ). Then Paul quotes Isaiah 54:1 and continues (v28 ); ‘Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise………So then brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free.’ Therefore we may conclude that the desolate wife is Sarah in the sense that Christians are her spiritual children; those of a miraculous birth (John 3:3; 1Peter 1:3 etc), born of the Spirit of God, to whom ‘Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation’ (Gal 6:15 ). It is they who are the heirs to the new Jerusalem. The desolate woman is promised, ‘Behold, I will lay your stones with colourful gems and lay your foundations with sapphires. I will make your pinnacles of rubies, your gates of crystal, and all your walls of precious stones’ (Isaiah 54:11-12 ). What will be the fulfilment of this promise? Where else but in the new Jerusalem? ‘The foundations of the wall of the city were all adorned with precious stones’ (Rev 21:19 ).

So what is the nature of the promises made to the barren woman? The nature of the promises is the same as the nature of the city; they are heavenly promises; promises that in Isaiah’s day were ‘Good things to come’ (Heb 10:1 ). It is promised that, ‘All your children will be taught by the Lord’ (v13 ). The Lord Jesus Christ referred to this prophecy when He said, “It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught of God.’ Therefore, everyone who has heard and learned of the Father comes to Me” (John 6:45 ). Those therefore who are the children of promise and citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem (Heb 11:16 ) are they who have learned of the Father and therefore fly to the Son for salvation. They and they alone are the members of the New Covenant, as it is written; ‘For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts’ (Jer 31:33; Heb 8:10 ). The promises made are therefore the promises of the Gospel (Gal 2:28-29 ).

So to what time is the Spirit of God pointing? To the time of the New Covenant. As Peter said (Acts 3:24 ), “Yes, and all the prophets, from Samuel and those who follow, as many who have spoken, have also foretold these days,” and again, ‘For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy’ (Rev 19:10 ). It is in the time of the New Covenant that the word of God shall go forth and ‘Expand to the right and to the left .’ It is Abraham’s spiritual children (Gal 3:7 ) who shall ‘Inherit the nations’ (Isaiah 54:3 ), and in the cities that are ‘desolate’ without the Good News of the Gospel, churches shall spring up and the children of the New Covenant shall dwell there. The desolate woman is assured that the children of her widowhood (v54. cf. Lam 1:1 ) shall be more numerous than those of her married life; that is, the citizens of the Church of Christ shall exceed in number those of the children of Israel even in their greatest days under Solomon (cf. 1Kings 4:20 ). Therefore the woman is to ‘enlarge the place of your tent’ for the number of the children of promise are so many that no man may number them (Rev 7:9 ).

It is impossible to understand this chapter unless one realises that the children of promise are not born of physical procreation. In the Old Testament one often comes upon promises to ‘You and your children’ (eg. Jer 32:39 ), but if these promises have a literal, physical fulfilment, then it has to be said that it has not yet come to pass. But in fact, the ‘You and your seed’ formula of the Old Testament is realized in Christ and His seed in the New Testament. This was understood by the writers of the Westminster Confession of Faith:-

The Larger Catechism of the WCF

Q31: With whom was the covenant of grace made?
A31: The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed.

It is proved by the following Scriptures:-

Isaiah 53:10. ‘Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, And the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in His hand.

John 1:11-13. ‘He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.’

Heb 2:13. ‘And again: “I will put My trust in Him.” And again: “Here am I and the children whom God has given Me.”

If we take these verses and compare them with Isaiah 54:13, John 6:45 and Gal 4:28-29 given above, it becomes clear that the children of promise are those who are born of the Spirit and saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:9-10 ). ‘Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham’ (Gal 3:7 ).

To the barren woman, labouring, at the time, under the legal demands of the Old Covenant (cf. Acts 15:10 ), God speaks of another, much older covenant (Isaiah 54:9 ), a covenant of promise that speaks of the everlasting Covenant of Peace (v10 ); a covenant which ‘Was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light in the Gospel’ (2Tim 1:9-10 ).

The chapter ends with a great promise: ‘No weapon formed against you shall prosper, and every tongue which rises against you in judgment you shall condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is from Me,” says the Lord’ (Isaiah 54:17 ). Is this not adequately fulfilled in the Gospel which entitles all the children of promise to say with Paul, ‘Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us’ (Rom 8:33-34 )?

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