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Here I reflect on two things: first, the place of Isaiah 61 in the developing argument; and second, its contribution to biblical theology.
(1) Isaiah 60 made it clear that the present order of things cannot go on forever: a time is coming that will be characterized by both unqualified blessing (Isa. 60:19–21) and irremediable judgment (Isa. 60:12). This bifurcation is picked up in Isaiah 61: here is proclamation both of “the year of the LORD’s favor” and of “the day of vengeance of our God” (Isa. 61:2). The vengeance theme is not developed until chapter 63. Immediately at hand is “the year of the LORD’s favor” (chaps. 61–62). Isaiah 61 opens with someone proclaiming that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him to accomplish the Lord’s redemptive purposes (Isa. 61:1–6). Then the Lord himself speaks (Isa. 61:7–9), proclaiming an everlasting covenant characterized by both joy and justice. The chapter ends with a solitary voice, presumably Isaiah’s, exulting in the anticipated fulfillment of these promises (Isa. 61:10–11).
(2) But who is the one who speaks in Isaiah 61:1–6? The most important clue is in the first line: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,” he says—and thoughtful readers recall two previous passages. Isaiah has already said that the Spirit of the Lord will rest in peculiar measure on the Messiah (Isa. 11:1–2; cf. John 3:34), and has pictured God saying to the Servant, “I will put my Spirit on him” (Isa. 42:1). The most obvious conclusion is that the one who speaks in Isaiah 61:1–6 is this Servant-Messiah, the superlative suffering Servant of Isaiah 40–55 and the expected Messiah of Isaiah 1–35. Small wonder, then, that in the synagogue in Nazareth, the Lord Jesus reads these lines from the Isaiah scroll and deliberately applies them to himself (Luke 4:17–19).
This Spirit-anointed Servant-Messiah brings in “the year of the LORD’s favor” (Isa. 61:2), almost certainly an allusion to the Year of Jubilee when, according to the Mosaic covenant, slaves were freed and those forced to sell their property were to receive it back again (Lev. 25:8–55). The Servant-Messiah comes “to preach good news to the poor” and “to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,” “to comfort all who mourn”—to bestow the “insteads”: a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair (Isa. 61:1–3). If the initial installment of such blessing was in the return from exile and the first restoration of the ruins (Isa. 61:4), the ultimate fulfillment bursts these categories (chap. 62).
The fifteen short Psalms (Pss. 120–134) immediately succeeding Psalm 119 are grouped together as songs of ascent: that is, each carries this heading. The most likely explanation is that these psalms were sung by pilgrims on their way up to Jerusalem and its temple for the great feasts: people “ascended” to Jerusalem from every point of the compass, just as in England one “goes up” to London from every point of the compass. This is not to say that each of the fifteen psalms was necessarily composed for this purpose. Some may have been written in some other context, and then judged appropriate for inclusion in this collection. Thus Psalm 120 seems to reflect personal experience, but could easily be sung with great empathy by pilgrims who felt their alienation as they lived in a land surrounded by pagan neighbors — an important theme as the pilgrims approached Jerusalem and felt they were coming “home.” Indeed, the series of fifteen psalms more or less moves from a distant land to Jerusalem itself (Ps. 122) and finally, in the last of these psalms, to the ark of the covenant, the priests, and the temple “servants of the LORD who minister by night in the house of the LORD” (Ps. 134:1).
It is into this matrix that Psalm 121 falls. The first line, “I lift up my eyes to the hills,” is often stripped out of its context to justify some form of nature mysticism, or at very least an interpretation that suggests hills and mountains serve to remind us of God’s grandeur and therefore draw us to him and set our hearts at rest. In fact, the hills are enigmatic. Do they function symbolically like the mountain in Psalm 11:1, a place of refuge for those who are threatened and afraid? Are they havens for marauding thugs, so that the first line of verse 1 raises the problem that the rest of the psalm addresses? Or — perhaps more likely, since this is a song of ascents — does the pilgrim lift his eyes upward to the hills of Jerusalem, the hills evoking not nature mysticism but the place of the Davidic king, the place of the temple? If this is the right interpretation, then it is as if the psalmist finds these particular hills a call to meditate on the God who made them (“the Maker of heaven and earth,” Ps. 121:2), the God who “watches over Israel” (Ps. 121:4) as the covenant Redeemer.
The last verses of the psalm exult in the sheer comprehensiveness of God’s care over “you” (in the singular, as if the individual pilgrim is addressed by other pilgrims). “The LORD watches over you” (Ps. 121:5) — day and night (Ps. 121:6), your whole life (Ps. 121:7), in all you do (“your coming and going,” Ps. 121:8), “both now and forevermore” (Ps. 121:8).
1:1 After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD said to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses' assistant, 2 “Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel. 3 Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses. 4 From the wilderness and this Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites to the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun shall be your territory. 5 No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. 6 Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. 7 Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success1 wherever you go. 8 This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. 9 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”
10 And Joshua commanded the officers of the people, 11 “Pass through the midst of the camp and command the people, ‘Prepare your provisions, for within three days you are to pass over this Jordan to go in to take possession of the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess.’”
12 And to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh Joshua said, 13 “Remember the word that Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you, saying, ‘The LORD your God is providing you a place of rest and will give you this land.’ 14 Your wives, your little ones, and your livestock shall remain in the land that Moses gave you beyond the Jordan, but all the men of valor among you shall pass over armed before your brothers and shall help them, 15 until the LORD gives rest to your brothers as he has to you, and they also take possession of the land that the LORD your God is giving them. Then you shall return to the land of your possession and shall possess it, the land that Moses the servant of the LORD gave you beyond the Jordan toward the sunrise.”
16 And they answered Joshua, “All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go. 17 Just as we obeyed Moses in all things, so we will obey you. Only may the LORD your God be with you, as he was with Moses! 18 Whoever rebels against your commandment and disobeys your words, whatever you command him, shall be put to death. Only be strong and courageous.”
120:1 In my distress I called to the LORD,
and he answered me.
2 Deliver me, O LORD,
from lying lips,
from a deceitful tongue.
3 What shall be given to you,
and what more shall be done to you,
you deceitful tongue?
4 A warrior's sharp arrows,
with glowing coals of the broom tree!
5 Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech,
that I dwell among the tents of Kedar!
6 Too long have I had my dwelling
among those who hate peace.
7 I am for peace,
but when I speak, they are for war!
121:1 I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
2 My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
4 Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The LORD is your keeper;
the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The LORD will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
8 The LORD will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore.
122:1 I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the LORD!”
2 Our feet have been standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem!
3 Jerusalem—built as a city
that is bound firmly together,
4 to which the tribes go up,
the tribes of the LORD,
as was decreed for1 Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the LORD.
5 There thrones for judgment were set,
the thrones of the house of David.
6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
“May they be secure who love you!
7 Peace be within your walls
and security within your towers!”
8 For my brothers and companions' sake
I will say, “Peace be within you!”
9 For the sake of the house of the LORD our God,
I will seek your good.
61:1 The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;1
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;2
2 to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.3
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins;
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
5 Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks;
foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers;
6 but you shall be called the priests of the LORD;
they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God;
you shall eat the wealth of the nations,
and in their glory you shall boast.
7 Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion;
instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot;
therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion;
they shall have everlasting joy.
8 For I the LORD love justice;
I hate robbery and wrong;4
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9 Their offspring shall be known among the nations,
and their descendants in the midst of the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge them,
that they are an offspring the LORD has blessed.
10 I will greatly rejoice in the LORD;
my soul shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its sprouts,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up,
so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise
to sprout up before all the nations.
9:1 And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. 2 And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” 3 And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” 4 But Jesus, knowing1 their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? 5 For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 6 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” 7 And he rose and went home. 8 When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.
9 As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.
10 And as Jesus2 reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast,3 but your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. 16 No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. 17 Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”
18 While he was saying these things to them, behold, a ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” 19 And Jesus rose and followed him, with his disciples. 20 And behold, a woman who had suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, 21 for she said to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I will be made well.” 22 Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly4 the woman was made well. 23 And when Jesus came to the ruler's house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, 24 he said, “Go away, for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. 25 But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose. 26 And the report of this went through all that district.
27 And as Jesus passed on from there, two blind men followed him, crying aloud, “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” 28 When he entered the house, the blind men came to him, and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes, Lord.” 29 Then he touched their eyes, saying, “According to your faith be it done to you.” 30 And their eyes were opened. And Jesus sternly warned them, “See that no one knows about it.” 31 But they went away and spread his fame through all that district.
32 As they were going away, behold, a demon-oppressed man who was mute was brought to him. 33 And when the demon had been cast out, the mute man spoke. And the crowds marveled, saying, “Never was anything like this seen in Israel.” 34 But the Pharisees said, “He casts out demons by the prince of demons.”
35 And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”