By Christina M Wilson.
The Lord Addresses the “Barren [Woman]”
Who is the “barren woman?” The Lord begins addressing this person in Isaiah 54:1 and continues without a break through the end of the chapter in verse 17. There are few choices.
God himself speaks the bulk of the text of Isaiah from chapter 40 to the present chapter. Fortunately, throughout the entirety of this text, Isaiah announces with labels the person or group whom the Lord addresses. Consider, for example, the first verse. Clearly, there God directly addresses his own people.
Isaiah 40:1 Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith God. (Brenton, Septuagint)
But Isaiah 54:1 bears a metaphorical label for which there is no explanation apart from the context.
Rejoice, you barren that bear not; break forth and cry, you that do not travail: for more are the children of the desolate than of her that has a husband: for the Lord has said, (Isaiah 54:1 LXE)
The reader is on her own to determine who is the “barren that bear[s] not.” Isaiah also refers to this person as “the desolate.” We do know that the addressee is a woman. The noun inflections signify female. Also, women bear children, not men. But is the metaphorical woman a nation, a people group, an individual? These are questions the reader must ask.
How one answers these questions is important, because the answer may determine a reader’s eschatological viewpoint. Chapter 53 concerns the “passion” of God’s Servant in Isaiah’s gospel. It is a turning point, a crux, a very large occurrence in human and theological history. Many writers appear to have assumed that the text immediately following chapter 53 speaks of a far future millennial kingdom. Yet, this is nowhere in the text itself. Therefore, I have decided not to move on quickly, but to spend time on this verse until I am confident that I understand the identity of the barren woman.
Whom can the reader be fairly certain that God does not address as “thou barren” (Brenton, Septuagint)?
1. APOSTATE ISRAEL
God is not addressing unfaithful Israel. He last spoke to “apostate” Israel, that is, to those who are unfaithful, in chapter 48.
48:1 Hear these words, you house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel, and have come forth out of Juda, who swear by the name of the Lord God of Israel, making mention of it, but not with truth, nor with righteousness; 2 maintaining also the name of the holy city, and staying themselves on the God of Israel… 4 I know that you are stubborn, and your neck is an iron sinew, and your forehead brazen. 5 And I told you of old what should be before it came upon you; I made it known to you, lest you should say, My idols have done it for me; and should say, My graven and molten images have commanded me… 8 You have neither known, nor understood, neither from the beginning have I opened your ears: for I knew that you would surely deal treacherously, and would be called a transgressor even from the womb. 9 For my own sake will I show you my wrath, and will bring before you my glorious acts, that I may not utterly destroy you… 11 For my own sake I will do this for you, because my name is profaned… (Septuagint)
Notice, immediately after this passage ends in verse 11, God speaks to a different group of people, whom he also labels. God addresses “Jacob and Israel whom I call” (Isaiah 48:12 Septuagint). God speaks differently to this group.
48:14… Out of love to you I have fulfilled your desire on Babylon, to abolish the seed of the Chaldeans. 15 I have spoken, I have called, I have brought him, and made his way prosperous. 16 Draw near to me, and hear you these words… 17 Thus says the Lord that delivered you, the Holy One of Israel; I am your God, I have shown you how you should find the way wherein you should walk. 18 And if you had listened to my commandments, then would your peace have been like a river, and your righteousness as a wave of the sea. 19 Your seed also would have been as the sand, and the offspring of your belly as the dust of the ground: neither now shall you by any means be utterly destroyed, neither shall your name perish before me. 20 Go forth of Babylon, you that flee from the Chaldeans: utter aloud a voice of joy, and let this be made known, proclaim it to the end of the earth; say you, The Lord has delivered his servant Jacob. 21 And if they shall thirst, he shall lead them through the desert; he shall bring forth water to them out of the rock: the rock shall be cloven, and the water shall flow forth, and my people shall drink. (Isaiah 48:12-21 Septuagint)
God uses a different tone with the second group, those whom he “calls.” He chastises them for disobedience (verse 18), yes, but he labels them His “servant” (verse 20). He declares himself to be their God (verse 17). He promises them water from the rock (verse 21). And finally, he names them “my people” (verse 21).
God’s words to the former group (48:1-11) are all chastisement. Importantly, God states that he will nonetheless save them, but not for their sake, but for the sake of his own name which is profaned on their account (verses 9 and 11). On the contrary, God rescues the second group from the Chaldeans “out of love to you” (verse 13).
Chapter 48 closes with contrasting pronouncements–one for each group. One group are the unfaithful and treacherous. The other group are those whom God chastises and heals.
GROUP 1: “There is no joy, says the Lord, to the ungodly” (Isaiah 48:22 Septuagint).
GROUP 2: “20… utter aloud a voice of joy, and let this be made known, proclaim it to the end of the earth; say you, The Lord has delivered his servant Jacob. 21 And if they shall thirst, he shall lead them through the desert; he shall bring forth water to them out of the rock: the rock shall be cloven, and the water shall flow forth, and my people shall drink” (Isaiah 48:20-21 Septuagint).
BACK TO CHAPTER 54
Within the text of Isaiah, God does not address apostate Israel again from 48:22 through the close of chapter 53. In chapter 53, the prophet/narrator confesses on behalf of the sins of the people. The people for whom he speaks would be the second group of chapter 48. The first group in that chapter (verses 1-11 and 22) display hard hearts that turn away from God.
Now, the tone of God’s voice in 54:1-6 and continuing for quite a way beyond is the same tone he uses with the second group, whom we have called the faithful group (Isaiah 48:12-21 Septuagint). They are the group that disobey God yet later receive his love and pardon. The tone God uses with that faithful group in chapter 48 matches the tone he uses with the people to whom he speaks in chapter 54, beginning with verse one.
Therefore, it seems safe to conclude that the “barren,” or “barren one,” or “barren woman” whom God addresses in Isaiah 54:1 is not apostate (unfaithful) Israel.
This is the first negative. The next post, Lord willing, will consider another negative, that is, who the identity of the “barren” is most likely not.
… to be continued