THE LEADER OF
ISAIAH’S NEW EXODUS
During the 1930s the Plains states became a dust bowl as a result of irresponsible farming and prolonged
drought. Blizzards of dust choked farmers as they fought their way from barn to house. Year after year the drought continued.
Share-croppers were forced off the land as banks foreclosed and bulldozed their houses. Many families loaded up their few
belongings on old jalopies and headed west. The land became a desert, a desolation.
Finally the rains came. A farmer who had toughed out the bad years surveyed the land with satisfaction as
grass greened up, flowers bloomed, and crops grew. The cows began calving and the sheep were lambing. Even his wife was
popping out all over with their unborn baby. Adventurous souls moved back onto the land. New life had come at
There was a time when the land of Israel became a dustbowl of desolation. In the eighth century BCE the
prophet Isaiah predicted that Judea would suffer a fate worse than the dust bowl. Because of her unfaithfulness to God
invaders would destroy her land, making it a wilderness. Cities would be ruined, farmlands devastated. Once fertile lands and
vineyards would be overgrown with briers and thorns (Isaiah 7:23-25). Enemies would plunder the palace and take the royal
family captive (39:6-7). These prophecies met their grim fulfillment when Assyria wasted the northern kingdom in 722 BCE
and Babylon invaded Judea in 586, wreaking havoc and destruction wherever they went. The temple and palace built by
Solomon were razed to the ground, the city walls “bulldozed,” the countryside wasted. The people of the
land were herded into a death march -- a thousand-mile trek around the Fertile Crescent to Babylon. The whole populace
became slaves to Babylon.
But Isaiah looked beyond the desolation to the time of redemption and restoration. Much of his book is
about deliverance from captivity, rebuilding waste places, and resettling the desolate land. The exodus from Babylon would
repeat the exodus from Egypt on a grander scale. God would bring His people out of Babylon with a flourish of divine power
even greater than the deliverance from Egypt hundreds of years before. Never mind the former things, God said, I am going
to call you out of Babylon and do a new thing -- much more wonderful than making a path through the sea: “I will
make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (see Isa. 43:18-21).
God promised to send a mighty conqueror named Cyrus who would bring deliverance to Israel and the
other nations taken captive by Babylon. God even named him before he was born and told him his mission -- to rebuild
Jerusalem and set the exiles free (44:28; 45:1-4, 13). The people of God who had languished in captivity would be released
from bondage (42:6-7). God would give “liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are
bound” (61:1). God would rescue the captives of the tyrant and save their children (49:24-25).
Isaiah painted the return from exile in glorious colors. Kings and queens would not only sponsor the exiles
but would bow down to them (49:22-23)! Foreigners would build up Zion, and the wealth of the nations would pour into it
(60:10-11). As a result Zion would know that the Lord was their Savior and Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob (v. 16).
Isaiah’s vision of the return from exile went even further. The walls and gates of Jerusalem would
be built of precious stones (54:11-12). “You shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise” (60:18).
The age of peace would dawn at last. “Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction
within your borders” (ibid.). God would even create new heavens and a new earth where His people would dwell
secure. In Jerusalem there would no more be heard the sound of weeping. People would build houses and inhabit them, plant
vineyards and eat the fruit of them. No longer would they build and another inhabit, or plant and another eat. “My
chosen shall long enjoy the works of their hands” (65:19-22).
Whatever happened to Isaiah’s New Exodus? Compared with what actually occurred, it was a
great non-event! Yes, the Persian emperor Cyrus gave permission to the exiles to return to
their own land, but only a minority chose to leave their adopted country and endure the rigors of rebuilding a nation (Ezra 1 &
2). Yes, Cyrus restored to them the treasures of the temple, but it was twenty years before the temple was rebuilt (Ezra 6:15)
and almost a century before Jerusalem was resettled (Nehemiah 11:1-2). The struggling new nation faced many obstacles --
discouragement and laxity in rebuilding, opposition from neighboring tribes, and laws pronounced against them by the Persian
kings (Ezra 4 & 5). And even when the land of Israel was resettled and Jerusalem and the temple were rebuilt, Judea was
never again an independent nation. It was subjugated in turn by Persia, Greece, Syria, Egypt, and Rome. The little country
of Judea was a battleground for the warring nations around it. While the elephants fought, the ants got crushed. Centuries
later it seemed to the Jews that the exile was not over, that the prophecies of Isaiah were not fulfilled.
Five centuries after the return from Babylon Jesus came. Did He in any way fulfill Isaiah’s
prophecies? Isaiah 35 is a lyrical description of the exodus from Babylon. God promised that the wilderness and solitary
places of the ruined land would blossom and rejoice (vv. 1-2). There would be a highway across the desert to Zion for the
ransomed of the Lord (v. 8). God Himself would come to save His people, opening the eyes of the blind, unstopping the
ears of the deaf, and healing the lame (vv. 4-6). Streams would flow in the desert (v. 6). Joy and gladness would return to
God’s captive people (v. 10).
Isaiah’s highway is an intriguing metaphor of salvation. It has layers of meaning. First of all,
it’s the road from Babylon to Mount Zion, the way of escape from bondage, the route of the exiles to freedom.
Secondly, it’s the route God Himself would travel on His way to Zion (40:3, 10; 52:8) to bring salvation to His
people. Thirdly, it’s the believer’s personal road to knowing God.
Isaiah introduces the highway in 35:8-10: “And a highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be
called The Way of Holiness....And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy
upon their heads.” During the reign of Cyrus, king of Persia, fifty-thousand Jews made the initial journey from
Babylon to Jerusalem (Ezra 1:2-4; 2:64-65). A second migration followed (chapters 7 & 8). But the return of the exiles from
Babylon did not exhaust the meaning of the prophecy.
The highway was not just for the people: God Himself would travel that highway to deliver His people.
“Behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompence. He will come and save
you” (Isa. 35:4). “A voice cries: In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight
in the desert a highway for our God” (40:3). “O Zion, herald of good tidings,...say to the cities
of Judah, Behold your God!” (v. 9). Coming down the highway, He would “feed His flock like a
shepherd,” “gather the lambs in his arms,” “carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those
that are with young” (v. 11).
Jesus saw Himself as the leader of Isaiah’s New Exodus. When He came to lead His people out
of captivity, a herald preceded Him to prepare the highway -- to make the crooked
straight and the rough places plain (Isa. 40:3; Matthew 3:1-3). Jesus reenacted the exodus by journeying to the wilderness,
passing through the waters of baptism as Israel had passed through the Red Sea, and entering the desert to be tempted 40
days as Israel was tempted 40 years in the wilderness (Matt. 3:13; 4:1ff). Then He began His journey to Mt. Zion.
Interestingly, the New Testament writer Luke describes Jesus’ ministry as a journey to Jerusalem. “He set
his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51), traveling the highway predicted by Isaiah, bringing healing and joy along
the way (Isa. 35:5-6, 10). On His journey Jesus healed a dumb man (Luke 11:14) -- the tongue of the dumb sang!
He straightened a bent-over woman (Luke 13:10-13) -- the lame could leap like a deer! Jesus called the little
children to come to Him (Luke 18:15-16) -- He gathered the lambs with His arms. A blind man sat by the roadside
begging and Jesus restored his sight (Luke 18:41-43) -- the eyes of the blind were opened. With these and countless
other miracles, Jesus brought joy and gladness to the cities and villages he passed through as the multitudes followed Him on
His way to Jerusalem.
Jesus not only traveled the road to Jerusalem -- He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the
life; no one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). He is the way to God.
Pools in the Desert
But there was more. Isaiah predicted “in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the
desert” (35:6). As God worked miracles for his people in the exodus from Egypt, He would do greater things in the
exodus from Babylon. He would provide “rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people...that they might
declare my praise” (Isa. 43:19-21).
Water in Isaiah is more than H2O -- it is a symbol of spiritual life. “With
joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (12:3). “Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters”
(Isa. 55:1). “I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground: I will pour my Spirit upon your
descendants, and my blessing on your offspring. They shall spring up like grass amid waters, like willows by flowing
streams” (44:3-4). It is a symbol of the Spirit of God that gives new life to the perishing.
In the New Testament the book of John shows Jesus as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s water
prophecies. Water flows like a river through John’s gospel! Jesus tells old Nicodemus the Pharisee how to be born
again of water and the Spirit (John 3:5). He says to a woman of easy virtue: “whoever drinks of the water that I shall
give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life”
(4:14). At the Feast of Tabernacles He stands up and proclaims, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and
drink” (7:37). When a soldier thrusts a sword into Jesus’ heart as He hung on the cross, blood and water
flowed out (19:34) -- blood for cleansing from sin, water for the life-giving Spirit (the first letter of John, 1:7; John 7:38-39).
Wherever Jesus goes the living waters flow and parched lives burst into bloom.
Release for the Captives
When Jesus came, Judah was in her own land but was still chafing under foreign domination. Rome ruled
the Jews with an iron hand. But lurking behind Rome was a greater oppressor -- the devil himself. The mission of the Servant
of the Lord was “to free captives from prison, and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness”
(42:7); “to say to the captives, ‘Come out,’ and to those in darkness, ‘Be
free!’” (49:9). Jesus announced His mission: “to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of
the prison to them that are bound” (Isa. 61:1; Luke 4:18).
Isaiah describes liberation in terms of redemption and salvation. The word redeem is a shade different
from save. To redeem is to buy a person’s release from servitude. The whole captive nation of Judah had to be
redeemed. God said: “You were sold for nothing and without money you will be redeemed” (Isa. 52:3).
How God redeemed His people “without money” is explained a few verses later by the death of the
Suffering Servant who died for the sins of His people (chapter 53).
As Isaiah contemplated the powerful oppressors of his people, he asked, “Shall the prey be taken
from the mighty, or the captives of a tyrant be rescued?” The answer is unequivocal: “Even the captives of
the mighty shall be taken, and the prey of the tyrant be rescued, for I will contend with those who contend with you, and I
will save your children” (49:24-25). After Jesus drove out a demon, He explained that He was delivering the
captives from “the mighty.” “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions
are safe. But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he...divides up the spoils” (Luke 11:21-22).
Satan is the strong man who has taken many prisoners and held them captive. Jesus is the Stronger Man who overpowers
Satan and divides up “the spoils” -- the people he has held captive. All along the highway to Jerusalem Jesus
delivered captives from the enemy.
Arrival in Jerusalem
And now Jesus’ destination is in sight. He is about to enter Jerusalem, take the throne, and reign
as King. His triumphal entry was described by the prophet Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O
daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt,
the foal of an ass....He shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the River to
the ends of the earth” (Zech. 9:9-10).
O glorious day, long hoped for by captive Israel! At last Messiah had come! The disciples found the colt
that Zechariah had described. Jesus sat on its back. As He rode into the city, the people spread their cloaks on the road. The
roar of the crowds was deafening: “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is the king who comes
in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest!” (Luke 19:28-38; Matt. 21:9). The people were
ready to seat Him on David’s throne and crown Him king.
Next the Lord came suddenly to His temple (Malachi 3:1), taking command of it and cleansing it as
Hezekiah, Josiah, and Judas Maccabeus had done before Him. By ruling over the temple He asserted His claim to kingship.
Large numbers of blind, lame, and infirm came to Him to be healed while the children cried out, “Hosanna to the
Son of David!” (Matt. 21:14-15).
The evening before the coronation was to take place Jesus led His disciples in the celebration of Passover,
a memorial to God’s mighty deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage (Luke 22:14-18). Jesus was about to
effect an even greater deliverance.
As the night deepened Jesus sought out a quiet retreat to prepare His heart for the great events of the next
day. Hour after hour He prayed. Then, in the wee hours of the morning priests and officers of the temple guard came to His
retreat to escort their King to the unique coronation they had prepared for Him (Luke 22:52). First was a state visit to the
high priest (v. 54), then a meeting before the Jewish council of the elders (v. 66) to verify His title to be Messiah, the King.
They confirmed that He deserved the special coronation they planned for Him. Eagerly they brought Him to Pontius Pilate,
governor of Judea, to gain his support (23:1). After questioning Jesus about the nature of His kingship, Pilate requested
confirmation from Herod, ruler of Galilee, who was in Jerusalem for the week-end. Herod initiated the coronation festivities
by clothing Jesus with a gorgeous robe (v. 11).
The guard led Jesus back to the governor’s palace where a special initiation ceremony took place
to test His powers of endurance. They stripped Him of His garments and flogged Him. Isaiah had described the scene:
“I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from
mocking and spitting” (Isa. 50:6).
Jesus did not flinch -- He passed the test.
Then came a military coronation -- the soldiers draped a kingly robe over His bleeding back, wove a
crown of thorns and pressed it into His head, and placed a scepter in His hands. Sparkling drops of blood were the rubies
of His crown. A stick was His scepter. Bowing deeply, they saluted Him: “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they
fell on their knees and worshiped Him (Mark 15:18-19).
The celebrations climaxed with the procession to the place of enthronement. Surrounded by four
body-guards, Jesus led the way of the immense cavalcade as it passed through the streets of Jerusalem. In its train were
military, clergy, disciples, and a vast crowd of spectators. The heavy instrument of His exaltation was placed on His back.
This time Jesus failed the endurance test and slumped to the ground. A delegate from Africa was given the honor of bearing
The enthronement site was a natural amphitheatre -- a hill overlooking a valley with a highway running
through, where the multitudes could watch. Here Jesus was disrobed, then lifted up before the vast host. The Roman
governor himself prepared the plaque over Jesus’ head: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”
(John 19:19-20). The guard offered a toast to Him -- a special drink of wine vinegar. The chief priests and scribes loudly
dubbed Him “King of Israel” and “Son of God” (Matt. 27:40, 42).
In the midst of these royal honors, the King dropped His head to His breast and died!
This was humanity’s coronation of her King! But it was more than a coronation. The death of the
King was a victory of incalculable magnitude.
Jesus came to Jerusalem not only to be crowned king but to bring salvation to the world. The LORD had
told Zion to celebrate because He had come to set her free from bondage: “Put on your garments of splendor,
...shake off your dust;...free yourself from the chains on your neck, O captive daughter of Zion....You were sold for
nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money” (Isa. 52:1-3).
Jesus’ coronation was a magnificent event, bringing salvation to Zion and all the ends of the earth.
It was the best news the world had ever heard. It needed to be proclaimed from the mountaintops: “How beautiful
on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace,...who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion,
“Your God reigns!’” (He had just been crowned king.) “When the LORD
returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes. Burst into songs of joy together,...for the LORD has comforted His
people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and
all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God” (Isa. 52:7-10).
The great event -- the coronation of Jesus as Savior-King -- did not look like an occasion of rejoicing. It
appeared more like a terrible fiasco, a travesty of justice, a gross insult to the Lord of heaven. It took a little time before the
“beautiful feet” of the gospel heralds traversed the mountains to proclaim the good news (Acts 2ff).
Amazingly, Isaiah foresaw the paradox between the glory and the shame: “See, my servant will
act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.” Then, in an astonishing reversal, he continues,
“Many... were appalled at him -- his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred
beyond human likeness” (Isa. 52: 13-14). Jesus’ coronation was to be so shocking that kings would shut
their mouths because of Him (52:15), and few would believe the announcement (53:1).
Who is the one who redeems His people? Isaiah calls him “the arm of the Lord”:
“to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” (53:1; compare 52:10). Then he continues:
“He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground” (v. 2). So, the
arm of the LORD is a person -- a divine person! He is God’s “right arm,” His
“right-hand Man”! He is also human: He grows up out of the earth like a root out of dry ground.
What did the prophet mean by the words “without money you will be redeemed” (52:3)?
Now he explains: “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: upon him was the
chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned
every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:5-6). At His crucifixion/coronation
Jesus took upon Himself the punishment, the iniquity, the transgression of His people. Our peace, our healing, came at a
tremendous price to Him. He paid the ransom price to redeem us with His life -- the life of God!
But what tremendous results came from His sacrifice! By bearing our iniquities He makes us righteous (v.
11). By the travail of His soul He brings forth many offspring (vv. 10-11). As a mighty Warrior He rescues the spoil from the
enemy (v. 12). This is why Zion can rejoice. “Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem; for
the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem...and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our
Hour of Glory
The lifting up of Jesus in the midst of rejection, abuse, and torture at the hands of the people He came to
save was a magnificent event. As Isaiah had said, He was raised and lifted up and highly exalted at the same time that He was
disfigured beyond human likenesss (52:13-14). Jesus spoke about the wonderful results of His being lifted up: “As
Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him should
not perish, but have eternal life.” “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me”
(John 3:14-15; 12:32).
Jesus looked upon His crucifixion as His hour to be glorified. Several days beforehand He declared:
“The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified” (John 12:23). Several hours before, He prayed:
“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you” (17:1). That prayer was
answered. Jesus, lifted up on the cross, stripped of all human dignity, battered and bruised, dripping with blood, was
altogether glorious. Against the black night of human hatred His divine love shone like a brilliant star. Jesus dying on the
cross for the sins of humanity has broken and transformed hearts, and provided inspiration for an eternity of wonder and
What was the glory of the cross? It was Jesus’ forgiveness of a world of rebels who crucified
Him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). It was Jesus’ delight in
saving the vilest criminal: “You will be with me in Paradise” (v. 43). It was the heart of God torn open, with
blood and water gushing out -- blood to wash away sin, water to give life to a dying world. It was Jesus’ invincible
love, love that breaks the heart of His enemies and draws all men unto Himself. “I, if I be lifted up from the earth,
will draw all men unto me.”
The glory streaming from the cross forever illuminates the One who was so marred that He is beautiful
Meaning for Us Today
When Isaiah wrote in the language of exile, captivity, exodus, and redemption, he was
thinking of more than a historical event. He was thinking of the coming Redeemer and of the basic human need for salvation.
Are you a captive in a far country -- far from your Father’s home? Isaiah says: “Depart,
depart, go out from there!...The Lord will go before you, the God of Israel will be your rear guard” (52:11-12).
Is your life a desert of disappointment and bitterness? Isaiah writes: “The Lord has anointed
me...to [give] unto them that mourn in Zion...beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit
of heaviness” (61:3).
Are you passing through deep trials and afflictions? Isaiah writes: “When you pass through the
waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire, you shall not
be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (43:2).
Has the “strong man” taken you captive to a powerful habit you cannot overcome --
tobacco, drugs, alcohol, sexual addiction, abusive behavior, the occult? Do you dwell in a wasteland of addiction, disease,
and despair? The Lord proclaims “liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are
bound” (61:1). No matter how strong the habit that binds you, no matter how dark the dungeon that holds you,
Jesus can open your prison and set you free.
Do you have children held captive by the enemy? Isaiah says: “Even the captives of the mighty
shall be taken, and the prey of the tyrant be rescued: for I will contend with those who contend with you, and I will save
your children....and all flesh shall know that I am the Lord your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of
Jacob” (49:25-26). The “strong man” plundered us, but Jesus is stronger. He will reclaim the spoils
and release the captives.
Are you weighed down with a load of guilt? Jesus was bruised for your iniquities. With His stripes you are
healed. Your Redeemer says to you, “For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you”
(54:7-8). “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (43:1).
Is life worth living? There is a safe highway through this world -- Jesus Himself, the way to the Father, the
way to eternal life (John 14:6). His highway goes through beautiful, well-watered country, with lush grass and lovely flowers.
Let your Shepherd gather you in His arms and take you to His own country, Mount Zion. “And the ransomed of the
Lord shall return and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and
sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isa. 35:10).
1 Ira Wolfert, “Victory in the Dust Bowl,”
Reader’s Digest, August, 1959, pp. 86-92; 227-242. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (New
York: Bantam Books, 1970).
2 For the story of returns from exile under Zerubbabel and Ezra and
subsequent difficulties, read Ezra chapters 1, 2, 4, 7, 8 and Nehemiah 1, 4, and 6. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah
encouraged the returnees in the work of reconstruction.
3 Hadn’t the Jews come out of Babylonian captivity centuries before?
There was a sense among the Jews that even though they were in their own land they were still in captivity, currently to Rome.
The exodus was not complete. N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), pp.
126f., 203f., 428-30.