Crucifixion: God Exalts Himself to Show Mercy
Isaiah 30:18, “Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore He exalts Himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of Justice; blessed are all those who wait for Him.”
The “therefores” in this verse are the first tip off that something interesting is going on.
The preceding verses have been highlighting the rebelliousness of God’s people, how – even though their salvation and rest are in Him – they have been running 100 miles per hour in the opposite direction. With this in mind, it seems strange that the logical conclusion (noted by the “therefores”) that God draws from this should be the display of His grace and mercy. And not only are grace and mercy His response to their rebellion, but then He says that His justice is the ground for this response.
How does justice result in mercy and grace for a rebellious people? I think we find a hint of an answer in the word “exalts.”
Exalted in Death and Glory
There are two other significant places in Isaiah where this word shows up: 6:1 (I saw the Lord high (exalted) and lifted up), and 52:13, “My servant shall act wisely, He shall be high (exalted) and lifted up). Unlike the uses in 6:1 and 52:13, the word’s use in 30:18 is not paired with “lifted up,” however, I think we can still faithfully make a connection between all three passages since the Hebrew word רוֹמ in and of itself can also mean to lift up or to raise up.
So, our passage in 30:18 where God “exalts” Himself to show mercy may have some connection to the exaltation of YHWH in 6:1 and of the Suffering Servant in 52:13….how does this help us understand how God’s Justice would lead to mercy for rebels? The answer starts to come when we realize that John picks up the “exaltation” language of 6:1 and 52:13 and weaves them in his vocabulary of the cross.
In John’s gospel, (as I’ve tried to explain here) the “exaltation” and “lifting up” of Christ take on a beautiful double meaning….implying both the physical reality of His crucifixion (it was a “lifting up” of His body from the ground, a literal suspension of His form above the ground), and the spiritual reality of His glorification that took place in His crucifixion (because it is in His crucifixion that Jesus most fully communicates God to creation). Praise God for the Beloved Apostle and this most beautiful of all truths that He teaches us through him: that when Christ was lifted up on the cross, He was “lifted up” in glory….the lifting up (crucifixion) of the Servant (Is.52:13) mirrors, and indeed, is the exaltation of the Lord of glory from Is.6:1.
John’s allusion to 6:1 and 52:13 is well established by biblical scholars. However, because of the linked concepts of exaltation and mercy in the 30:18, I believe it is faithful reading of our text to see an echo of the cross here as well. Not only has the Spirit taught us – post cross – to think “crucifixion” when we see the words “lifted up” or “exaltation,” but the Greek translation of the Old Testament translates “exalted” in 30:18 as υψοω, which is the same Greek word used by Christ to describe His being “lifted up” via crucifixion in John 3:15, 8:28, and 12:32. Therefore, I think we have good reason to read “exalt” in 30:18 as a Spirit-planted Johannine allusion to the cross.
With that in mind, the “therefores” begin to make glorious sense……
Mercy Comes through the Cross
Because Israel has turned from YHWH, because they refuse Him, because they are running from Him into their own destruction….because of this, He is waiting to pour out His grace on them in a final and climactic way…..the time to do so is not yet, but it is already planned and He is awaiting the day…..And because of their sins….because of the sins of His people, He will be lifted up to show mercy to them…..lifted up in a self-outpouring death for their sakes, and lifted up in glory as the God who loves His enemies by enabling them to love Him.
Because of their sins – because of our sins – YHWH Himself will be lifted up to show mercy. That is, because of the sins of His people, God awaits the day when He Himself will take on the form of the Suffering Servant and be “high and lifted up” in beauty and glory on the bloody cross……..O, Israel! YHWH will be crucified “to show mercy to you!” O, Nations! O, Peoples! O Tribes of the Earth! Our God, Our Creator, Our Judge was lifted up on the cross to show mercy to us! This is our only hope…..May many come to know and love Him for it.
Justice Serves Mercy at the Cross
And suddenly, wonderfully, 18b makes sense:
“FOR, the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are those who wait for Him.”
At first it seems strange that the ground for God’s showing mercy to His rebellious people would be that He is a God of justice. One would think that His justice would lead Him to destroy a consistently stubborn enemy….However, when we realize that the exaltation of YHWH in 18a is ultimately a reference to the cross – to the place where God proves Himself to be both Just and the Justifier of the sinner who has faith in Christ (Romans 3:26) ….When we hear the echoes of iron on iron, the cries of agony, the jeering of the crowds, the splitting of the skies and the breaking of Calvary’s rocks all bound up in that word “exalt”….then it begins to make sense…..
Yes….the Lord will be exalted in this way, He – as the Man Christ Jesus – will be exalted on the sinners cross and slain in our place, satisfying the demands of His own justice BECAUSE He is a God of justice. In mercy, He has seen to it that Justice’s most grievous blow should justly fall on His own back…..
It reminds me of Aslan’s words in the Magician’s Nephew. Diggory has woken up the White Witch, and here is Aslan’s reply:
“… do not be cast down,’ said Aslan …’Evil will come of that evil, but it is still a long way off, and I will see to it that the worst falls upon myself.”
Lewis’ words here are beautiful because He captures the heart of our God, who is Beauty…..this is just what the Lord is saying in Is.30:18…..evil has come, His people have rebelled and are rebelling….and His Justice will be satisfied. And yet, He will see to it that “the worst of it” falls upon Himself. He will be “exalted,” He will be lifted up in the beauty of His love on the cross in order to show mercy to His own, and He will bear the punishment for His people because He is a God of Justice…..
“…blessed are those who wait for Him.”
Oh how deeply happy……..Oh how deeply happy are those who wait for this great God!! Oh how deeply happy are those who hope in and lean on and set all their hopes in this God! This God of Justice who, in mercy, bears the wounds that Justice demands and clothes us in His own righteousness so that Justice becomes our Savior and Hope…..Oh how deeply happy are those who wait for this God!
Glory to your name, Oh Just and Merciful Savior!