Israel's Labor, God's Delivery

In Spring 2017 I had the pleasure of spending a lot of quality time with Isaiah 26:16-19, a unique passage of lament and miraculous reversal. What drew me initially to the passage was the preponderance of birth imagery, which Isaiah navigates brilliantly, building suspense and then transforming the metaphor to reveal the spiritual reality.

It’s helpful to note that the background of this passage is political distress and failure. Israel was unfortunately susceptible to relying on alliances and strategy for their national survival, as opposed to looking to the LORD, and as often as not, their schemes failed. When Isaiah enters in to 26:16 (where the Hebrew is difficult and disputed), he is beginning a corporate lament for just such a political situation. We enter in to imagery of discipline, distress, and desperation, but the details of the situation are unspecified.

In 26:17 the Isaiah introduces a metaphor that will carry us to the end of the movement. We are confronted with a woman in labor, and her anguish and pain are fronted. This is not the cute, round belly stage of pregnancy, but the imminently dangerous stage, the moment where no one is sure who, if any, will come out alive. Labor and delivery is cursed in Genesis 3, and it relates not just to the pain of intense cramping, but the blood and specter of death involved.

Isaiah wants his hearers to inhabit this space mentally, and then he owns the image in 26:18. The first person plural becomes the laboring woman; all Israel is implicated together. They are shown in all stages: they were pregnant, they writhed, they gave birth. That is, the nation was responsible for the conception of their misery, they took into themselves the consequence, and they were faced with what it brought into the world. And what was it? Nothing but wind.

To labor, in danger, for nothing but air! The futility is palpable, miserable. Part of the covenantal blessings of Sinai was the promise of healthy children; the Scriptures of Israel celebrate the birthing of children as a beautiful, flowering vitality of their people in God’s eyes. By employing the potent imagery of pregnancy and birth in service of lament, Isaiah communicates the disgrace of their impotent maneuvering. It was not just political, it was covenant failure.

The end of verse 18 carries a tone of dejection as the metaphor breaks apart. For all their labor, they have not worked deliverance. And starkly, Isaiah spells it out: the inhabitants of the world, their foes in this case, have not fallen. While the NIV continues the birth imagery up to the end because of the role that the Hebrew verb behind the word “fall” plays in the broader passage, it is much better to take it as the ESV does, which is to communicate that the Israelites failed to fell their enemies, and they are still in danger. The tone is sorrow, helplessness.

And suddenly, there is rejoicing. How? Why? Verse 19 brings an utter reversal, and more. Three different words for dead people are used, and three different images for coming back to life, all reinforcing an idea that is scarcely whispered in the Old Testament: bodily resurrection. And indeed, each triad of images becomes livelier as it progresses. From the simple dead, to the specific corpses, to the living-while-dying dust dwellers. Similarly, they are described as living, then rise, and then even commanded to sing for joy, surely one of the most vibrant actions a human can take. The word resurrection is not used, but it is not needed.

The passage concludes with God producing birth without labor, in strong contrast to his people. The metaphor of dew is used to communicate morning, newness, and life, as it was an important water source in Palestine. By connecting it with light, Isaiah clarifies that this isn’t merely water, but an image of spiritual nourishment and production. The result is that the earth gives birth, a mother paired to God as father, and brings back those long dead, and the original metaphor is returned and transformed. 

They had dreamed of the death the enemy; their covenant LORD promised them in response life unknown, life refreshed, life beyond death. Israel struggled and did not accomplish a normal human goal; the God of Israel without working produced an unthinkable, unhuman accomplishment.

In the New Covenant established by Jesus, resurrection has become so prominent as to be thematic. This might dim our ability to see the shock of Isaiah 26:19. But let it not dim our hope in the God of Isaiah 26:16-19. We worship that same God today, who is overflowing with life, who stoops to untangle sinners in the midst of destroying themselves, who plots for us joyful singing in a world undreamed of. There is a sure reality, a true inheritance waiting for us. Let’s run for it.