4 The third command is directly related to the other two, although that connection will not be obvious to the modern reader. One of the results of childlessness in the ancient world was terrible shame (cf. 1 Sam. 2:3–5; Luke 1:25). A childless woman was a failure, someone who had apparently committed some sin, or had been at least been judged unworthy of bearing a child. Thus all her life was an agony of humiliation (Gen. 16:4; 1 Sam. 1:6). In a historical context, Israel had been humiliated by the apparent failure of her God to deliver her, so she went off to exile in shame. Now in two beautifully balanced bicola, God says to the barren woman, the defeated nation, that the days of shame are past. The woman shall be so fruitful that she will forget all the earlier shame.32 Commentators have suggested that youth is meant to refer to the Egyptian sojourn and widowhood to the Babylonian exile. This is possible, especially with the apparent references to Israel’s history commented on above. At the same time, it does not appear to be necessary. The terms may be simply parallels to each other designed to encompass the woman’s entire life. From the earliest days of her marriage to her later years, this woman, like Sarah or Elizabeth, has lived with unremitting reproach and contempt. But now God says that she may drop the thought habits of a lifetime and hold her head high with the abundant evidence of God’s blessing.
4. Shame … disgrace … humiliated represent three synonymous Hebrew verbs sharing the fundamental idea of disappointed hopes, the embarrassment of expecting—even publicly announcing—one thing and then reaping another. In context here shame and reproach convey the same thought. Widowhood is such a disappointment, such a blighting of bright hopes—especially when it comes in youth. But fear can go for ever (4) because there is a husband who cannot die (5), who wants his wife back (6) and who pledges everlasting love (7–8).
4 The verse commences with ‘Fear not’, one of Isaiah’s repeated refrains (see 41:10; 41:13; 41:14; 43:1; 43:5; 44:2; 44:8). The exile had indeed been a humiliation, but the return to Palestine will be a reversal of that. Joyful Israel will be able to put that experience behind her and no longer dwell on the reproach she suffered. There is a seeming contradiction here with the statement in Jeremiah 51:5 that says that Israel and Judah were never widowed. To many the exile did suggest that the bond between God and Israel had been permanently severed as if by divorce or death. However, both Jeremiah and Isaiah (see comments on 50:1 and verses 5–8 of this chapter) show that there was only temporary separation, no divorce or widowhood.
Ver. 4. Fear not; for thou shalt not be ashamed.—Shame:—
Here, as in many other cases, shame includes the disappointment of the hopes, but with specific reference to previous misconduct (Job 6:20). The first clause declares that the Church has no cause for despondency, the second disposes of the causes which might seem to be suggested by her history. The essential meaning is, thy former experience of My displeasure. (J. A. Alexander.)
Thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth.—Shall I remember my sins in heaven?—
In looking forward to heaven, two questions have stirred the minds and hearts of most Christians: “Shall I remember my sins in heaven?” and “If I remember my sins in heaven, will not the recollection mar my joy, and interfere with my blessedness?” These questions are not idle. They originate with that consciousness of depravity which is the first step towards our personal salvation, and they recur in connection with the dispensation of Divine mercy. Our condition prompts the inquiry, and the reply will reveal to us the unsearchable riches of Divine grace. The questions resolve themselves into this: Will the dispensation of Divine mercy, when it has done its work, blot out all the mischievous consequences of sin? The text guides our reply. There was a people taken up by God when in circumstances of great degradation. They are brought into the closest connection with Him—into such a connection as that the conjugal union is the best possible representation of it. God is faithful to this people, but they are faithless to Him. He institutes means to bring them back to Himself, and He does bring them back. Then, speaking of their restoration, He says, “Fear not, for thou shalt not be ashamed,” etc. In the realization of their restoration, they shall (in a certain sense) forget their apostacy. We declare our belief that, in heaven, you will not so remember your sins as to have your happiness interfered with by the recollection, and that whatever remembrance you have of the apostacy and depravity, will rather be the occasion of increasing your blessedness and joy, than of interfering with the one, or of marring the other. The remembrance of sin did exist under the Levitical dispensation; but in the dispensation of Christ there is nothing at all analogous to the annually recurring day of atonement Heb. 10:17). So far as our intercourse with God and the cherishing of bright prospects are concerned there is to be a complete forgetfulness of sin. With respect to heaven, we put before you two remarks.
- I. There is a recollection inevitable. The identity of passions will involve an identity of consciousness. What are the recollections which are inevitable?
- 1. “I was a sinner.”
- 2. “I was restored to God by such means and under such influences.”
- II. There is a remembrance of sins impossible. There is one suggestion that seems of importance here. It is that by and by memory will not be the faculty chiefly exercised and put forth. When is it that we live most in the past? It is when we are sad. In heaven there will be no sadness, no solitude, no fear, no carefulness. Memory, therefore, will not be goaded as now. Memory will then have an inferior place. Observation and penetration will be the chief mental exercises of heaven. A man will be surrounded by objects of intense interest, all connected with God. The commanding recollection of sin will therefore be impossible. The remembrance of sin in heaven will always be connected with the consciousness that sin has been blotted out. This will awaken thankfulness; and joy, with gratitude, will flow through the soul as a large and mighty river. Nothing in God’s conduct in heaven will put sin forward. Then, within yourselves there will be complete and conscious holiness. Look at another fact. You may have had companions here in iniquity, but you will have no unsaved companions in sin with you there. You may recognize persons with whom you trod the broad road, but you will there recognize them as redeemed beings; and, just as in your own case, the commanding thought is not sin but forgiveness, so with them the commanding association will be the wonderfulness of their redemption; not the depth of their apostacy and the length of their wanderings; so that their presence, instead of forcing upon you a remembrance of guilt, will only magnify before your eye and your heart the unsearchable riches of God’s grace and mercy. You will be employed by and by. Your employment will be all-absorbing, and it will be constant. Why should we talk to you about this? If you have a secret idea, or rather an impression, that there must be some limitation to God’s mercy, that it will not secure all this blotting out, what is the consequence? The effect is to limit your application to this provision—you do not take full advantage of the riches of God’s mercy. ( Martin.)
God’s gift of forgetfulness:—
To many religious people the burden of the past is the heaviest of their lives. No difficulties and trials of the present can match it for bitterness. They look forward calmly and hopefully to whatever the years may bring. Even the valley of the shadow has little terror for them, believing as they do that they will be shepherded through that to the eternal fold. And yet they are often weighted by a sore burden of the past; they are hag-ridden by shadows of dead days. Sometimes it is the very greatness and success and joy of the past which induce this constant recollection. But the burden of the past, which is more in keeping with the thought of our text, is not the recollection of some joy or success, but of some failure, some sorrow, some loss, some sin, some shame. And to some who live ever under the shadow of this memory it would mean new life to them if the promise came to them with the meaning it had in the prophet’s lips, “Thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of thy widowhood any more.” Of course, there is a certain sense in which we cannot forget, and are not meant to forget. Experience has its lessons to teach. All religion begins with repentance, and the appeal to repentance is an appeal to memory. But the promise of our text is a tacit condemnation of the sentimental brooding on the past, whatever that past may be, which weakens the present life, which keeps a man from gathering up the fragments of his life that remain, keeps him from doing his duty calmly, and giving himself to whatsoever things are true and pure and lovely and of good report. If we believe in the eternal love of God we must not let any pale ghost of the past, spectral figures of the night, chill our blood and keep us from our pilgrimage. Do not fear that this Christian doctrine of the forgiveness of sin will make sin easy; it is the only thing that can make sin impossible—the light that drives out the darkness, the love of God that fills the heart and leaves no room for evil, not even for evil memory. (Hugh Black, M.A.)
A blessed forgetfulness:—
“The reproach of thy widowhood” clearly refers to the period of the exile when Zion regarded herself as cast off by Jehovah. The sense of “the shame of thy youth” is less obvious. Since the conception has some affinities with the striking allegory in Ezek. 16., it is probable that the reference goes back to the origin of the nation (Ezek. 16:4–8), the reference being rather to the Egyptian oppression. (Prof. J. Skinner, D.D.)
Forgetting the shame of youth:—
A man who had lived for many years the Christian life, told me how there was a place in a street in Edinburgh which was associated with a sin. Every time in his early life he passed it, it brought back again the keen remorse and shame. It seemed to stain his life afresh whenever he saw the very place. But when he came to God and gave his heart and life to Christ, the first time he passed that place afterwards his soul was filled by a great transport of joy that all that was done, that it was no longer part of his life, that God had forgiven and forgotten and cast it behind His back. And he entered, for a moment at least in foretaste, into the perfect joy of soul, and he forgot the shame of his youth and remembered the reproach no more. (Hugh Black, M.A.)
 Harman, A. (2005). Isaiah: A Covenant to Be Kept for the Sake of the Church (p. 370). Scotland: Christian Focus Publications.