God’s Grace in Christ Makes Zion Glorious


God’s Grace in Christ Makes Zion Glorious

Isaiah 54

“Rejoice, childless one, who did not give birth; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of the married woman,” says the Lord. (Isa 54:1)

Main Idea: Zion is pictured as both a woman (formerly barren, now fruitful) and a city (formerly destroyed, now rebuilt). These are ultimately pictures of the new Jerusalem, the bride of Christ, in eternal glory.

  1. Zion, a Formerly Barren Woman, Is Now Supernaturally Fruitful (54:1-5).
    1. Rejoice! You will no longer be barren.
    2. Get ready for many children.
    3. Your time of disgrace is over forever.
  2. Zion, a Formerly Rejected Wife, Is Now Restored in Covenant Love (54:5-10).
    1. The many names of God
    2. Israel a rejected wife: because of idolatry
    3. God tenderly restores the sinful wife.
  3. Zion, a Formerly Destroyed City, Will Be Beautiful and Secure (54:11-17).
    1. Zion’s past afflictions
    2. Zion’s future glory
    3. Zion’s future security

Introduction: “Expect Great Things from God; Attempt Great Things for God!”

On Wednesday, May 30, 1792, at Friar Lane Baptist Chapel, Nottingham, England, a leatherworker named William Carey preached one of the most influential sermons in history. The text was Isaiah 54:2-3: “Enlarge the site of your tent. . . . For you will spread out to the right and to the left, and your descendants will dispossess nations and inhabit desolate cities.” Carey argued that this text refers to spreading the gospel of Christ to the ends of the earth. His so-called deathless sermon had two exhortations: (1) expect great things from God; (2) attempt great things for God (Walker, William Carey, 78–80). This slogan helped launch the modern missionary movement.

Now, we might well wonder how in the world Carey came to the conclusion that Isaiah 54:2-3 was talking about the growth of the church through missions. It is an Old Testament prophecy in language that any Jew would have recognized as referring to Zion, i.e., Jerusalem, the city of God on earth, the Jewish nation’s capital city. What right did William Carey have to think Isaiah 54 was talking about missions?

To answer that, we go to Galatians 4, where the apostle Paul gives us the interpretive key to Isaiah 54. Paul was writing to Gentile converts to Christ who were being led astray into a false gospel mixing Jewish legalism with faith in Christ. Paul pleaded with them to return to the true gospel of justification by faith in Christ apart from works of the law. He proved that Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, was justified by hearing a promise and believing it, just as they had been. He also made plain that Gentile Christians were truly sons and daughters of Abraham by faith. In Galatians 4:22-28 Paul turns to a spiritual allegory to teach them that the true sons of Abraham are born again by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by biology or by circumcision. He speaks of two women, the slave woman and the free woman. The slave woman (Hagar) bears children in the ordinary way, and they are slaves. They represent Jews who do not trust in Christ and who try to earn their salvation by works of the law. He says that Hagar represents the present (physical) city of Jerusalem because she is in bondage along with her children. “But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother” (Gal 4:26). There, Paul uses a strange, mixed metaphor: a city that is a mother. He then quotes Isaiah 54:1: “For it is written: ‘Rejoice, childless woman . . . for the children of the desolate woman will be many, more numerous than those of the woman who has a husband’” (Gal 4:27). In other words, Gentiles who believe in Christ have been supernaturally born again and are children of the mother city “Jerusalem above,” the heavenly Zion (Heb 12:22).

So although there is an immediate fulfillment of Isaiah 54 in the restoration of the physical city of Jerusalem by the exiles streaming back from Babylon (and to ignore that theme makes certain aspects of Isaiah 54 unintelligible), yet to stop there is to miss the power of what Paul sees in Isaiah 54 as recorded in Galatians 4. Paul, in reaching for Isaiah 54:1 to support this point, is giving us permission to see the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth in Isaiah’s joyful command to Zion to enlarge her tent and get ready for lots of children. William Carey was spot-on in his sermon! Every person born anew by the Spirit enlarges the heavenly Zion. The final population will be a multitude no one can number from every nation on earth (Rev 7:9).

Zion, a Formerly Barren Woman, Is Now Supernaturally Fruitful

Isaiah 54:1-5

Actually, the word Zion does not appear in this chapter, but it is reasonable to see overwhelming thematic similarity between these verses and Isaiah 52, in which Zion is mentioned four times. In Isaiah 54:1-5 the Lord gives Zion a series of vigorous commands, staccato in rhythm, and all have to do with the overwhelming joy Zion should have at the sovereign God blessing her: Rejoice! Burst into song! Shout! Enlarge your tent! Do not be afraid! Don’t be humiliated!

Here Zion is pictured as a formerly barren woman who is about to give birth to more children than she can count. God is saying Israel had been spiritually barren, not spreading the knowledge of the true God to all nations. His judgment fell on Israel for her idolatry, and she was exiled. But now God is going to work an overwhelming reversal in Zion’s fortunes, and she who was once barren will be bearing a vast number of children. For Zion to be told to “enlarge the site of your tent . . . do not hold back,” is to say, “You are about to have a family so huge it will stagger your imagination!”

Of course, the return of the exiles from Babylon to rebuild the rubble-filled city of Jerusalem was an immediate fulfillment. But it is insufficient. Only forty-two thousand Jews returned with Ezra. And though the resumption of Israel’s history in the promised land was significant, it was merely the setting of the stage for the real drama to come: the atoning death and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ as predicted in Isaiah 53. So the outpouring of the Spirit on the church in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost unleashed the forces that would result in the fulfillment of Isaiah 54:2-3. Missionaries have been taking that gospel to the most distant reaches of the earth, and the church of Jesus Christ numbers now in the hundreds of millions.

Zion, a Formerly Rejected Wife, Is Now Restored in Covenant Love

Isaiah 54:5-10

The second image of this chapter is of a formerly rejected wife, now restored to her husband in covenant love. God’s complex relationship to Israel is reflected in the many names God gives himself: (1) Husband, (2) Maker, (3) Lord of Armies, (4) the Holy One of Israel, (5) Redeemer, (6) the God of the whole earth. Each of these names reveals a certain aspect of God’s love relationship with Israel in the old covenant and with the church in the new covenant. No one image captures all aspects. But the predominant theme in verses 5-10 is of a formerly enraged husband who now tenderly calls his sinful wife back into his arms.

The prophet Hosea was tasked with marrying a prostitute and living out in his own marriage what God felt like when Israel strayed into idolatry. God’s jealousy was kindled, and “in a surge of anger” he “deserted” and hid his face from his bride (vv. 7-8). But now, that “brief moment” (seventy years—a blink of an eye in God’s time) has passed. God the husband was tenderly bringing her back, forgiving her, restoring her in covenant love, like the day the rainbow proved to Noah that God’s wrath had been spent (vv. 9-10).

So Israel’s restoration after the exile lines up with these words. But how can these words relate to Gentile converts to Christ? Well, in a way Israel in the promised land represented all nations, similar to the way Adam represented all individuals in the garden of Eden. So all nations should feel ashamed of Israel’s idolatries and betrayal of her Maker/Husband, for we were no different. We were all lusting after idols (Rom 1:25), and so Israel’s spiritual adulteries are ours, her shame is ours, and so is her redemption.

Zion, a Formerly Destroyed City, Will Be Beautiful and Secure

Isaiah 54:11-17

The final image in this chapter is of a formerly devastated city now spectacularly rebuilt, with a beauty that far exceeds its former glory. Jerusalem was storm-tossed (v. 11) by her Gentile invaders and destroyers, left as a smoldering pile of rubble. But in the sovereign plan of God, this troubled city will be rebuilt, with foundations set in lapis lazuli, battlements of rubies, gates of sparkling stones, and all her walls of precious stones (v. 12). These are the very images seen in Revelation 21 of the new Jerusalem that will descend gloriously from heaven, ready for her wedding day—a beautiful bride, a glorious city, the same vision in Isaiah 54.

This radiant city will be filled with the children verses 2-3 mentioned (v. 13), and they will all be taught by the Lord and will know him intimately (Jer 31:34). They will be stunningly prosperous, perfectly secure, established in the righteousness of Christ (Isa 54:14). The city will never again be terrified by invasion or siege, for all her enemies will be destroyed (v. 15). The new Jerusalem’s perfect security is the church’s final destination, when the gates of the walls will always stand open, for there is no threat at all. But the implication of triumph over an enemy who might assault, an enemy who might forge a weapon against Zion, speaks also to the present church age, when the “church militant” advances to win the lost, overcoming the attacks of the world, the flesh, and the devil. God is well aware of the skill of Zion’s enemies, for there is no skill, no power, no weapon that God did not first conceive (v. 16). So God knows their limitations as well. No accusation will succeed, for all will be answered by the imputed righteousness of Christ. As Paul writes, “Who can bring an accusation against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies. Who is the one who condemns?” (Rom 8:33-34).


The best two applications we can take from this chapter come from William Carey: (1) expect great things from God; (2) attempt great things for God. This chapter is indeed about the spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth, beginning from Jerusalem (Luke 24:47). For us to live our lives indifferent about missions, ignorant of what God is doing among the unreached peoples of the earth, excited instead about sports or hobbies or food or careers, is to open ourselves up to great shame on judgment day. We should live daily expectant of God doing great things to redeem his elect from every tribe, language, people, and nation. Second, we should attempt bold things for the spread of the gospel. For immature Christians who have been living the secular dream in the pampered West, it begins with great repentance at former indifference and sinful indulgence. It moves on from there to whatever God may call you to attempt for his glory in missions. It might be to reach out in your own city to some marginalized urban poor or to find an unreached people group that has settled in your city and begin to befriend them. Attempt great things for God in terms of intelligent prayer and sacrificial giving to missions. And if you are feeling pulled to go overseas, whether short or long term, do not quench the Spirit! Attempt something you never thought you would do—get on a plane and go to some uncomfortable place and see how God might choose to use you.

Reflect and Discuss

  1. William Carey based his “deathless sermon” on this text, in which he urged hearers to dive into missions: “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” How do you see missions in verses 1-3? How does Carey’s slogan challenge you to be more involved in missions?
  2. The apostle Paul used this chapter in Galatians 4:22-28. Read that section again. What is the “Jerusalem that is above” in that passage? What is the Jerusalem that is below? How does this give us an insight into Isaiah 54?
  3. How does Isaiah 54 address the actual historical setting of the city of Jerusalem at the time of the exile to Babylon? What does the fact that God ordained the rebuilding of Jerusalem despite the amazing obstacles teach you about God?
  4. Verses 2-3 imply a huge number of “children” being born to “mother Zion” (Rev 7:9). How should this encourage us to risk great things for the spread of the gospel?
  5. God speaks of a brief “surge of anger” toward Israel in Isaiah 54:7-8. What does this teach you about God’s anger toward his children? How does it relate to God’s discipline of us when we sin (Heb 12)?
  6. Verses 9-10 liken this period of the restoration of Israel after the exile to the time after the flood. What is the similarity?
  7. Verses 11-12 are quite similar to Revelation 21:10-14. Talk about that similarity. Talk about the future glory and beauty of the new Jerusalem.
  8. How does Isaiah 54:13-14 speak of our “education” in the new covenant and our future knowledge of God in heaven? How do these verses relate to Hebrews 8:11?
  9. How do verses 15-17 speak of the future peace and security we will experience in heaven? How could these verses comfort the persecuted church in the Muslim world?
  10. How does Isaiah 54 build up your faith in God’s awesome and sovereign plan? How could it help you go through trials well? How could it motivate you to serve him better?