- Isaiah receives prophetic messages from the Lord in the middle of the 7th century BC, a time when both Israel and Judah were in very troubled times. Israel was conquered by the Assyrians in the 7th century and Judah by the Babylonians in the 5th century. The prophetic writings of Isaiah were of great comfort to the Jews who survived the war and were taken captive by the Babylonians to Babylon. Isaiah’s writings provide comfort and hope for a return to their Jewish homeland.
- The “woman” described in this prophecy symbolizes the Jewish people after the Babylonian exile. The Jewish people are described both as a barren woman (verse 1), as a widow (verse 4), as an “abandoned woman in heartbreak” (verse 6) and as a “disfigured wife of youth” (verse 6). God is described as the woman’s “husband” (verse 5).
- After the Babylonian exile, the Jewish people were like a barren widow without children, sitting alone and abandoned in her tent. The prophetic message given to the Jews in this very vulnerable situation is: “enlarge the place of your dwelling” and “stretch out the tent cloths”; i.e.: make the tent bigger so that it can accommodate more children.
- In the Old Testament culture, having many children was considered a sign of God’s blessing, and on the contrary, being childless was very shameful. One was considered to be under some god’s punishment and unable to fulfil one’s most important task. A barren woman thus did not serve her purpose and could be abandoned by her husband, who had to take a new wife to carry on his name and inheritance. One consequence of childlessness for the woman was that she had no children to care for her in old age. In addition, being a widow made the situation completely hopeless, as one did not have a husband to support one either.
- There are many examples in the Bible of women who cannot have children, but one of them is Hannah. In 1 Samuel, we read about how Hannah’s barrenness leaves her devastated, mocked and saddened. But when she is blessed by God with a child, she bursts into joy and song.
- When God likens the Jewish people to a childless woman and urges her to “burst out in joy and shout for joy”, it is because God will bless the Jews with many “children”. Moreover, the Jews will have more children than the one who has a husband.
- Paul quotes Isaiah 54:1 in Galatians 4:27 when he explains that the new covenant with Jesus will have more “children” than the old covenant.
- For the small Jewish community that survived the Babylonian captivity, thoughts may have turned to Abraham’s nomadic life when they heard Isaiah’s prophecy about expanding the tent. God’s promise to Abraham was that he, who was also childless, would become a great nation that would be a blessing to the whole earth (Genesis 12:1-3).
- When the Jewish people, broken down, ashamed and in Babylonian captivity, are told that they will expand their settlement, they understand that they will return to their homeland and that God’s people will once again be a numerous people. These prophetic words encouraged the Jews and gave them hope for a better future.
- It is no coincidence that the prophetic text of the barren woman who will have children is preceded by the prophecy of the Messiah, the suffering servant, in Isaiah chapter 53. After Jesus comes to earth and dies for our sins, the kingdom of God is opened wide for the “Gentiles” to be grafted into Israel and become children of God. The tent in which the Jewish people live is too small and the kingdom of God will be expanded to be a spiritual kingdom without borders.
- The Jewish people are compared to a barren widow who was shamed, humiliated and despised. But despite this state, God tells the Jewish people that He is their “man”. God, in His mercy, will take back His “abandoned woman” and have mercy on her with “everlasting grace”. The Jewish people will be fully restored and live in joy and blessing again.
- The 70-year captivity in Babylon probably felt like an eternity to the broken-down Jewish population that had survived the horrors of war. But to God, this human “eternity” was like “a small moment”.
- When we go through difficult trials, we often experience it as an eternal hell. But with God’s infinite perspective, our hardships are but a brief moment in comparison to the mercy and blessing to come.
- It’s easy to become introverted, feel sorry for yourself and despair when you’re going through difficulties. But prophetic messages like Isaiah 54 comfort and encourage us to lift our eyes and look at our lives from God’s eternal perspective.
- Today we live in the midst of this “enlargement”. In place after place, the Gospel is being preached and people are being saved. God’s children are multiplying.
- But enlargement does not happen by itself. God calls his grieving “woman” to begin to work in faith for the eventual birth of new children. In the same way, God urged Noah to build a boat in faith on dry land. In the same way, we need to start building our church’s ministry to accommodate more new people.
- Since we are compared to a “barren woman”, we understand that we cannot produce the children ourselves, there must be a miracle of God. But if we do our part and “enlarge our dwelling place”, God will do His part by leading people to salvation so that they are born again and become children of God.