“Good News” in Isaiah

Good News and Salvation in Isaiah 52:7

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

(Isaiah 52:7, NRSV)

The terms salvation and good news are foundational to the Christian faith, and yet Isaiah used these words hundreds of years before Christ.  Christians often view salvation and good news as purely spiritual in nature, but the good news that Isaiah spoke about in Isaiah 52:7 was not about a future coming Messiah who would one day bring salvation from sin and make it possible for people to spend eternity in Heaven; Isaiah’s good news was an earthly salvation from oppression and exile.  Exploring the original context of Isaiah’s prophecy and how it has been interpreted historically can help Christians gain a fuller understanding of how salvation and good news relate to both physical and spiritual realities in our own world.

Historical context

In 597 BCE the Babylonians besieged the city of Jerusalem and carried the king, royal family, and thousands of other Judeans into captivity in Babylon.  The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzer made Zedekiah the new king of Judah. Ten years later Zedekiah revolted against Nebuchadnezzer, and the Babylonians responded by destroying the city of Jerusalem.[1]

Isaiah chapter 52 was most likely written around 540 BCE, fifty years into the period of Babylonian captivity.  At that time, “the city of Jerusalem was in ruins, the walls were down, the Temple was razed with no prospect of rebuilding; the upper and influential classes had been deported…but the peasant population seems to have remained.”[2]  In this context, Isaiah 52:7 is part of “an extended prophecy announcing God’s redemption of Israel from captivity in Babylon.”[3]

Imagery

The imagery of Isaiah 52:7 suggests a messenger who has run a long distance to inform a city that their king has been victorious in battle.  It is written from the perspective of those who are inside the city waiting for news from the battlefront.  The messenger arrives with the news, and is followed by an entourage including the king himself in the following verse. The sight of the king’s return causes the watchmen who are stationed on the walls of the city to break forth into jubilant singing.[4]

The message that the herald brings is described as that of peace, goodness, and salvation or deliverance.  Isaiah sums up this message with the words “Your God reigns” (Isaiah 52:7).[5]  The beginning of Isaiah 52 reveals that the city depicted is Jerusalem, and that it is being held captive.  Therefore, the return of the king (God) brings not only good news of victory in battle, but also release to those who are exiled in the city.[6]  The people depart from the city to return to their homeland with the Lord going in front of them and the God of Israel as their “rear guard” (Isaiah 52:11).  The redemption of the city and the victorious display of the Lord’s power causes “all of the ends of the earth…[to] see the salvation of our God” (Isaiah 52:10).

Original purpose and audience

Isaiah’s prophecy was intended to bring hope to a people whose leaders had been taken away into exile and whose homeland lay in ruins.  “The long-awaited deliverance from exile, promised to God’s people at various points throughout Isaiah, at last finds its realization as heralds come bounding over the mountains to Jerusalem with the triumphant cry, ‘Your God shall reign!’”[7]  In that context, Isaiah’s prophecy would truly have been good news.

In addition to being in physical captivity, some may have felt that God was far away from them or that He had forgotten them. Many believed that they were in exile because they had turned away from God, and they probably wondered if God would ever forgive them.  Isaiah’s message brought hope that not only would God rescue them from their Babylonian captivity, but that He would also forgive them and return to them.  Therefore the good news that Isaiah brought would have had the added dimension of a spiritual restoration.

It is important to note, however, that the good news of Isaiah’s prophecy was not just salvation, peace, and goodness for the Jewish people.  Isaiah 52:10 says, “The ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”  As other nations saw God deliver his people from captivity they would be drawn to worship God as well, and this would have a global impact.  According to Paul Hansen, “In the gospel of Second Isaiah, salvation is construed in the broadest social, even universal, indeed cosmic terms.”[8]

Historical interpretations

The Jewish people were allowed to go back to their homeland approximately twenty years after Isaiah 52 was written.  Although they were no longer in exile, the Jewish people continued to be ruled by other nations, and so there was a sense that Isaiah’s prophecy had not been completely fulfilled at that time.  “Isaiah’s vivid oracle, like similar prophecies of restoration, was widely understood in the Second Temple period as a depiction of a future, eschatological deliverance.”[9]

The early Christians believed that Isaiah’s prophecy was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ and the apostles.  One of the earliest Christian interpretations of this passage is found in Romans 10:15, where Paul uses this verse to emphasize that Jesus has risen from the dead and that he is now the Lord.[10]  Eusebius of Caesarea said, “Here [Isaiah] says very particularly that it is the feet of those who publish the good news of Christ that are beautiful.  For how could they not be beautiful, which in so small, so short a time have run over the whole earth and filled every place with the holy teaching about the Savior of the world?”[11]  Early church father Origen extended the metaphor even further by saying, “Since Isaiah perceived the beautiful and opportune preaching of the apostles follow the One who said, ‘I am the way,’ he praises the feet that proceed over the intelligible way, which is Christ Jesus, and go in to God through the door. Those whose feet are beautiful announce Jesus as ‘good tidings.’”[12]

Modern Interpretations

Today many Christians ignore the historical context of Isaiah 52:7 and view it solely as a prophecy of the coming of Jesus.  Often Isaiah 52:7 is read in churches alongside Paul’s reinterpretation of the prophecy from Romans 10.  In addition, many Protestant Evangelical Christians tend to see salvation as simply a personal experience with Jesus, and therefore there is a “tendency to trivialize the passage through a narrow personalistic interpretation” while in reality the salvation spoken of in this passage “embraces no less than the entire cosmos.”[13]

Conclusion

Christians, and particularly Evangelical Protestant Christians who tend to view salvation as merely a way for God to take us to heaven someday, would benefit from understanding the original historical context of Isaiah 52:7.  The terms salvation and good news in Isaiah did have spiritual connotations, but they predominantly spoke to physical realities.  In the same way, the salvation and good news that Jesus offers can and should have both physical and spiritual implications.  When the good news of Jesus is proclaimed it should confront physical oppression. The salvation that Jesus offers addresses both physical and spiritual needs. Salvation is not just the promise of eternity in Heaven with God.  As people turn their lives to Jesus and accept the salvation that he offers, their lives should be transformed here and now.

One of the ways that Christians can counteract the personalistic, over spiritualized interpretation of this passage is by remembering that the point of the salvation in Isaiah 52:7 was to bring peace, goodness, and deliverance to all of creation.[14]  Christians can and should consider how God might want to use us as His people to bring deliverance to those who are oppressed in our world today.  That sort of salvation and deliverance would truly be good news, and would point people to the ultimate good news that is Jesus Christ.

 

[1] S.J. Scullion, Isaiah 40-66 (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1982), 11-13.

[2] Ibid., 13.

[3] J. Ross Wagner, Heralds of the Good News: Isaiah and Paul “In Concert” in the Letter to the Romans (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2002), 174.

[4] Roy Frank Melugin, “Isaiah 52:7-10,” Interpretation 36, no. 2 (1982): 177, accessed November 7, 2013, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials.

[5] Paul D. Hanson, “Isaiah 52:7-10” Interpretation 33, no. 4 (1979): 389, accessed November 7, 2013, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials.

[6] Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995), 150.

[7] Wagner, Heralds of the Good News, 174-175.

[8] Hanson, “Isaiah 52:7-10”, 391.

[9] Wagner, Heralds of the Good News, 175.

[10] Ibid., 176.

[11] Mark W. Elliott, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, vol. 11, Isaiah 40-66 (Downers’ Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 151.

[12] Ibid., 151.

[13] Hanson, “Isaiah 52:7-10”, 391.

[14] Hanson, “Isaiah 52:7-10”, 392.

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