Commentary: Isaiah 62:1-5
Historical and Literary Settings
The welcome edict of Cyrus in 538 B.C. (see Ezra 1:2-4; 6:3-5) allowed the Jews to return from exile and to begin the restoration of the cultus and the Temple. However, the return of the Jews to their homeland was hardly the glorious and transforming event heralded by the prophets and awaited by the people. Indeed, initially there seems to have been only a trickle of Jews back to Jerusalem and, though begun with great enthusiasm, the Temple restoration soon ran into great obstacles. In the midst of the challenges of returning to Jerusalem and in the face of frustrating delays in restoring the Temple, Trito-Isaiah (chs. 56-66) brought a message of salvation and restoration to his people.
Claus Westermann (Isaiah 40-66, 1969) considers chapters 60-62 to be the nucleus of Trito-Isaiah, a series of salvation oracles which answer the community laments of chapters 59 (national sin) and 63 (Israel's waywardness, prayer of intercession). Haggai's descriptions (520 B.C.) of the challenges facing the returning Jews and the importance of restoring the cult and Temple agree with the picture drawn by Trito-Isaiah of the situation facing his people. The temple has not yet been completed (cf. 60:13; the Temple was completed in 515 B.C.). Thus, we can locate Trito-Isaiah's proclamations in the period 537-520 B.C. He speaks to a post-exilic, pre-restoration community (note the use of the second person plural in vv. 2-5) which faces daunting challenges in rebuilding their nation and their Temple.
Opinion is divided about the identity of the speaker in verse 1. While some scholars believe the speaker to be Yahweh himself, others identify the "I" as the prophet, who clearly understands his mission to be the proclamation of Zion's restoration and salvation, despite the frustrating delays and evidence to the contrary. The promised vindication and salvation will be a glorious transformation and restoration, likened to the brightness of a burning torch (cf. 60:1-3, 19-20; also the contrast with the darkness of the community's sin, 59:9-10). In light of the grim reality of the returning exiles' situation and the formidable task of rebuilding their community and the Temple, these words are all the more inspiring. The prophet's exclamation that he cannot and will not keep silent answers the community's charge that God has been silent.
The fact that Zion's restoration will be the result, not of the community's hard work and faithfulness, but only God's gracious and mighty power is indicated in verse 2b with the promise that God himself will give Zion a new name. With that new name comes a new, restored status (cf. Is 1:26; Jer 33:16; and Ezek 48:35). The change of one's name by God indicates a new relationship and allegiance to the powerful one who changes the name (note especially Gen 17:5, where Abraham's name is changed to Abraham; Gen 17:15, Sarai to Sarah; Gen 32:28, Jacob to Israel; and Mk 3:16, where Jesus gives the name Peter to Simon). What the new name is is not disclosed here, only the promise of the new name.
After the description of the restored Zion as "a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God," the promise of the new name in verse 2b is given specific content in verse 4. The name change is not mere word game on God's part, but a vivid indication of the gracious reality of God's return to his people and a decisive answer to the laments of 63:10, 15-17. Obviously, at no time in Jerusalem's history has the city been called Hephzibah or Beulah. That is not the point. What is important to note is the vivid contrast between the reality of desolation and forsakenness facing the people upon their return from exile to Jerusalem and the promise of God for the restoration of that very desolation. In Isaiah's commission (6:1-13), he asks how long he is to preach to the people and the Lord responds (6:11-12), "until cities lie waste...and the land is utterly desolate..and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land." Furthermore, Isaiah is told that Israel will be desolate when they turn from God to the idols (17:9). However, the forsakenness and desolation are not to be understood solely in terms of the physical surroundings. Because their relationship with God has been broken in the past, the people themselves feel forsaken and desolate. But the forsakenness of Israel is not the final word, as Trito-Isaiah proclaims in 60:15 ("whereas you have been forsaken and hated...I will make you majestic forever, a joy from age to age") and as we read in Deutero-Isaiah, 54:6-7 ("For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken...for a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you.")
The joy of reconciliation between God and Israel, symbolized by the new names Hephzibah and Beulah, is likened to the joy found in a committed marriage (vv. 4-5). God has been identified already in Deutero-Isaiah as the faithful husband who calls back his forsaken wife (54:5-8). This marriage language calls to mind the famous text in Jeremiah4:31-34. There the Lord speaks of the new covenant he will make with the house of Israel, "not like...my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband." Likewise, we remember the fidelity of Hosea to Gomer, symbolic of God's faithfulness to and love for Israel. Again, the new and restored relationship proclaimed in Isaiah 62:1-5 is no mere meaningless name change, but the indication of an intimate, joyful, and glorious relationship between Israel and God, which results from God's powerful acting on Israel's behalf in the restoration of Zion. [Note: a slight emendation in v. 5 changes "your sons" to "your Builder", thus referring to God who restores Zion.]
Application of the Text
Isaiah spoke to a community of people who were faced with a situation most of us will never experience. Still, his message concerning the power and faithfulness of God in bringing about the restoration of Zion and the community of Israel was proclaimed in spite of contemporary circumstances which surely must have tempted the returning exiles to despair. Preachers today who proclaim these words of this ancient prophet will find themselves preaching to individuals and communities of faith which are daily bombarded with challenges to their faith in God. While we hesitate to draw any precise parallels, who can deny that our contemporary world is in need of a word of hope concerning restoration and reconciliation, not only between people, or people and the environment, but especially between people and their God? We preach to people who feel forsaken and desolate. In these words from Isaiah 62, we have the opportunity to pronounce the promise that our God brings about new relationships and restoration, so that we are no longer called forsaken and desolate.
As Christians we have come to now the truth of Isaiah's vision and God's promise in Jesus Christ, who has brought about our reconciliation with God. Isaiah's proclamation is of the God who remains faithful to his people and who is powerful enough to bring about his purposes as he chooses. The name change in Isaiah 62 reminds us that in Christ we have become new creations (2 Cor 5:17). Even as we await the final fulfillment and perfection of creation (Rom 8:19-21) and read John's vision of the new Jerusalem (Rev 21:1-4), we remember that we have passed from darkness to light in Jesus Christ. Whereas once we were no people, now we are God's people. That is our new name.