The final chapters of Isaiah are a letdown. From chapter 40 on, Isaiah has given a brilliant portrait of the coming redemption, a return from exile. Yahweh will return to His people. His Servant will bring justice to the nations. Gentile kings - Cyrus especially - will build Yahweh’s house. Exiles will return, so many that they won’t be able to fit in Jerusalem. Zion’s lost children will be found, her heartbreak mended, her disrupted marriage repaired.
With chapter 63, the tone changes from celebration to lament. Israel has strayed from Yahweh and hardened her heart. Enemies trample the rebuilt sanctuary, and Israel is like a nation that has barely known Yahweh’s favor. It’s as if their greatest privilege, that of being the house-keepers for the Creator, has been theirs only briefly. They might as well never have had a sanctuary at all, they have had it so briefly.
The return from exile turns out just as the first exodus did. Yahweh came as kinsman-redeemed, as Father to redeem His son Israel. He made them ascend from the waters of the sea, like the land emerging from the waters of creation. He lifted and carried them to a place of rest, and put His Holy Spirit in their midst. Then they rebelled and everything unraveled. The Spirit was grieved and left. Yahweh turned enemy and fought against His own people, His own son whom he had so recently delivered from Pharaoh.
After the exile it all happens again: Another deliverance, another gift of the Spirit, another house, but then another rebellion and another withdrawal of the Spirit and again Yahweh turns enemies. After the exile comes another exile. A second exile follows the second exodus. And so Isaiah ends plaintively: “Come, Lord Yahweh.”
Even here, Isaiah’s prophecy gives hope. Chapter 63 begins with a vision of Yahweh’s coming. As in Isaiah 34, He comes as a sacrificing priest, trampling and slaughtering Edom and the land of Bozrah, Israel’s sibling rivals descended from Esau, who so often joined with Israel’s enemies (cf. Psalm 137). Yahweh comes dressed in priestly garments that are sprinkled with blood (as were Aaron’s).
This is a vision of Yahweh’s vengeance against Zion’s enemies, but the odd language brings out another dimension. Yahweh’s garments are not “stained” but “leavened”; they are not “glorious” but “swollen”; there is no reference to blood in Isaiah 63, only “juice.” Like Gideon, Yahweh comes as a loaf of bread, rolling through Edom and crushing their tents. As He rolls along, He tramples Edom like grapes, as if treading in a wine press. When Yahweh comes, He comes as bread to produce wine. As the sacrificing priest, His mission is to turn lament to joy, as He transforms enemies into a sacramental feast.
Only a few passages of the Old Testament address Yahweh as “Father,” much less “our Father.” But the phrase appears twice at the end of Isaiah 63. And that’s where Israel’s hope is set, in the fact that despite everything Yahweh remains Father to His people, the kinsman-redeemer who will bring return after the exile after exile, who will bring yet another exodus after the second exile.