4 “Fear not, for you will not be ashamed;
be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced;
for you will forget the shame of your youth,
and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.
5 For your Maker is your husband,
the LORD of hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
the God of the whole earth he is called.
6 For the LORD has called you
like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit,
like a wife of youth when she is cast off,
says your God.
7 For a brief moment I deserted you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.
8 In overflowing anger for a moment
I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,”
says the LORD, your Redeemer.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Is 54:4–8). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
4–8 The figure of the restored wife continues to dominate the passage. People often fear disgrace as much as or even more than physical danger (v. 4). “The shame of your youth” is either Egyptian bondage (cf. Hos 11:1) or, less likely, affliction under the Assyrians; and “your widowhood” is of course the exile.
In v. 5 the prophet encourages his readers to think of the One who is the husband of his people. No fewer than six titles and descriptions are brought together here, all building up a picture of a God of immense power and overflowing grace. He is both able and willing to restore them to himself and to their land. The husband analogy occurs also in Jeremiah 31:31–34, in the context of the new covenant promised there.
In v. 6, the NASB (“For the Lord has called you, like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit”) is much to be preferred, for, as Motyer (1993, 1999, in loc.) notes, the NIV makes the husband seem the blameworthy one. The Hebrew by no means requires this, and the wider theological context both in Isaiah and in the Bible as a whole cries out against it. If Israel was “forsaken” for a while in the exile, it was her own fault, though of course even the forsaking was by no means absolute, as otherwise there would have been no Ezekiel and no Daniel.
“For a brief moment” (v. 7) contemplates the exile—which must have seemed long to the people themselves—as a mere episode in contrast to God’s everlasting kindness that will embrace them (v. 8). The phrase “a surge of anger” translates two Hebrew words dominated by the short “e” sound, and “kindness,” too, is so dominated (there are other elements of aural similarity as well), thus perhaps further suggesting for the hearer the incredible substitution of the latter for the former.
54:4–8 / Next, the abandoned wife loses her shame. Do not be afraid is a familiar exhortation in these chapters, but characteristically the Poet now takes familiar words in a new direction. In a modern Western culture the image here would no longer work. The solution for a Western woman today who has had her husband walk out on her is to learn to be her own person, perhaps with the help of her sisters, and a man who has walked out in a fit of temper can by no means assume that he can walk back in. In a traditional culture, reproach continues to attach to a woman who could not hold onto her man. Yahweh speaks as if it were a case of walking out in a fit of temper, though other passages have made clear that there were deeper problems than that. Husband Yahweh could point to many reasons that his wife’s behavior made walking out seem the only possibility. The assertion of power (Maker, Almighty, Holy One, God of all the earth) in verse 5 is all very well, but Ms Jerusalem knows what it is like to be on the receiving end of that power. It is not enough for those titles to be attached to the word husband (ba’al, literally “master” or “owner”: again, the picture presupposes a patriarchal understanding of marriage). They need to be attached to the word redeemer, that relative who has no power over you but does have a moral obligation to care about your welfare especially when you are in trouble. The word recurs in the last phrase of verses 4–8. Only here does it come twice in proximity.
But Yahweh wisely goes beyond that. In 47:6 Ms Babylon was criticized for lacking the womanly virtue of compassion. Here Yahweh claims this virtue in spades: deep compassion, with everlasting kindness I will have compassion (vv. 7–8). The implication is that Ms Jerusalem has grounds for asking some hard questions before having her man back, and Yahweh is anticipating those questions. So in the section as a whole, Yahweh has both given the impression of having behaved in the manner of a patriarchal husband and also made clear that this self-description does not do justice to all that Yahweh claims to be. In the light of her experience, Ms Zion perhaps looked at Yahweh as a “typical” patriarchal husband. Yahweh does not then behave like the average husband or wife in the aftermath of a marriage breakup, putting all the blame back onto the other party. Yahweh does not deny appearing to be like a patriarchal husband but also invites her to realize that there is a great deal more to all that Yahweh is.