Work’s Ultimate Meaning (Isaiah 60ff.)
Throughout the book, Isaiah encourages Israel with the hope that God will eventually put to right the wrongs the people are suffering in the present. Work, and the fruits of work, are included in this hope. By chapter 40, as the book moves from telling the truth about the present to telling the truth about the future, the sense of hope increases. The material about the suffering servant in chapters 40-59 can hardly be understood except as God’s gift of hope in the future fulfillment of God’s kingdom.
In chapters 60-66, this hope is finally expressed in full. God will gather his people together again (Is. 60:4), vanquish the oppressors (Is. 60:12-17), redeem the rebellious who repent (Is. 64:5-65:10), and establish his just kingdom (Is. 60:3-12). In place of Israel’s faithless leaders, God himself will rule: “You shall know that I, the Lord, am your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob” (Is. 60:16). The change is so radical that it amounts to a new creation, of parallel power and majesty to God’s first creation of the world. “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind” (Is. 65:17).
Chapters 60-66 are rich with vivid portraits of the perfect kingdom of God. In fact, a large fraction of New Testament imagery and theology are drawn from these chapters in Isaiah. The final chapters of the New Testament (Revelation 21 and 22) are, in essence, a recapitulation of Isaiah 65-66 in Christian terms.
It may be surprising to some how much of Isaiah 60-66 is related to work and the outcomes of work. The things people work for in life come to complete fruition at last, including:
- Markets and trading, including the movement of gold and silver (Is. 60:6,9), the bringing of firs, and the opening of gates for trade. “Your gates shall always be open; day and night they shall not be shut, so that nations shall bring you their wealth, with their kings led in procession.” (Is. 60:11)
- Agricultural and forest products: including frankincense, flocks, rams (Is. 60:6-7), cypress and pine (Is. 6:13)
- Transportation by land and sea (Is. 60:6, 60:9), and even perhaps by air (Is. 60:8)
- Justice and peace (Is. 60:17-18, 61:8, 66:16)
- Social services (Is. 61:1-4)
- Food and drink (Is. 65:13)
- Health and long life (Is. 65:20)
- Construction and housing (Is. 65:21)
- Prosperity and wealth (Is. 66:12)
All these things have eluded Israel in their faithlessness to God. Indeed, the harder they tried to achieve them, the less the cared to worship God or follow his ways. The result was to lack them even more. But when the book of Isaiah presents Israel’s future hope as the New Creation, all the preceding promises in the book come to the fore. The picture portrayed is that of a future eschatological or final day when the “righteous offspring of the servant” will enjoy all the blessings of the messianic age depicted earlier. Then people will actually receive the things they work for because “they shall not labor in vain” (Is. 65:23). Israel’s sorrow will be turned into joy, and one of the dominant motifs of this coming joy is the enjoyment of the work of their own hands.