The Barren Woman Rejoices
1. Why did Sarah long to bear children, and what was her experience in this regard?
SARAH longed to bear children. Sadly, she was barren, and that pained her greatly. In her day, barrenness was viewed as a reproach, but there was more to Sarah’s pain than that. She yearned to see God’s promise to her husband fulfilled. Abraham was to father a seed that would be a blessing to all families of the earth. (Genesis 12:1-3) However, decades after God had made that promise, there was still no child. Sarah grew old and remained childless. At times, she may have wondered if her hopes had been in vain. One day, though, her despair turned to joy!
2. Why should the prophecy recorded in Isaiah chapter 54 interest us?
2 Sarah’s plight helps us to understand the prophecy recorded in Isaiah chapter 54. There Jerusalem is addressed as if she were a barren woman who comes to know the great joy of having many children. By picturing his ancient people collectively as his wife, Jehovah shows his tender feelings toward them. Moreover, this chapter of Isaiah helps us to unravel a crucial aspect of what the Bible calls a “sacred secret.” (Romans 16:25, 26) The identity of the “woman” and her experiences foretold in this prophecy shed important light on pure worship today.
The “Woman” Identified
3. Why will the barren “woman” have reason to rejoice?
3 Chapter 54 opens on a happy note: “‘Cry out joyfully, you barren woman that did not give birth! Become cheerful with a joyful outcry and cry shrilly, you that had no childbirth pains, for the sons of the desolated one are more numerous than the sons of the woman with a husbandly owner,’ Jehovah has said.” (Isaiah 54:1) How thrilled Isaiah must be to speak these words! And what comfort their fulfillment will bring to the Jews exiled in Babylon! At that time Jerusalem will still be lying desolate. From a human standpoint, there will seem to be no hope that she will ever again be populated, just as a barren woman could not normally hope to bear children in her old age. But this “woman” has a great blessing in her future—she will become fertile. Jerusalem will be beside herself with joy. She will again teem with “sons,” or inhabitants.
4. (a) How does the apostle Paul help us see that Isaiah chapter 54 must have a fulfillment greater than that in 537 B.C.E.? (b) What is “Jerusalem above”?
4 Isaiah may not know it, but his prophecy will have more than one fulfillment. The apostle Paul quotes from Isaiah chapter 54 and explains that the “woman” signifies something far more important than the earthly city of Jerusalem. He writes: “The Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.” (Galatians 4:26) What is this “Jerusalem above”? Clearly not the city of Jerusalem in the Promised Land. That city is earthly, not “above” in the heavenly realm. “Jerusalem above” is God’s heavenly “woman,” his organization of mighty spirit creatures.
5. In the symbolic drama outlined at Galatians 4:22-31, who is pictured by (a) Abraham? (b) Sarah? (c) Isaac? (d) Hagar? (e) Ishmael?
5 How, though, can Jehovah have two symbolic women—one heavenly and the other earthly? Is there some inconsistency here? Not at all. The apostle Paul shows that the answer lies in the prophetic picture provided by Abraham’s family. (Galatians 4:22-31; see “The Family of Abraham—A Prophetic Picture,” on page 218.) Sarah, “the free woman” and Abraham’s wife, pictures Jehovah’s wifelike organization of spirit creatures. Hagar, a slave girl and Abraham’s secondary wife, or concubine, pictures earthly Jerusalem.
6. In what sense did God’s heavenly organization undergo a long period of barrenness?
6 With that background, we begin to see the profound significance of Isaiah 54:1. After decades of barrenness, Sarah bore Isaac when she was 90 years old. Similarly, Jehovah’s heavenly organization went through a long period of barrenness. Way back in Eden, Jehovah promised that his “woman” would produce the “seed.” (Genesis 3:15) Over 2,000 years later, Jehovah made his covenant with Abraham regarding the Seed of promise. But God’s heavenly “woman” had to wait many, many more centuries before producing that Seed. Still, the time came when the children of this once “barren woman” were more numerous than those of fleshly Israel. The illustration of the barren woman helps us to see why the angels were so eager to witness the arrival of the foretold Seed. (1 Peter 1:12) When did that finally happen?
7. When did “Jerusalem above” have occasion to rejoice, as foretold at Isaiah 54:1, and why do you so answer?
7 Jesus’ birth as a human child was certainly an occasion for rejoicing among the angels. (Luke 2:9-14) But that was not the event foretold at Isaiah 54:1. Only when Jesus was begotten with holy spirit in 29 C.E. did he become a spiritual son of “Jerusalem above,” publicly acknowledged by God himself as his “Son, the beloved.” (Mark 1:10, 11; Hebrews 1:5; 5:4, 5) It was then that God’s heavenly “woman” had cause for rejoicing, in fulfillment of Isaiah 54:1. At last she had produced the promised Seed, the Messiah! Her centuries of barrenness were over. That, however, was not the end of her rejoicing.
Numerous Sons for the Barren Woman
8. Why did God’s heavenly “woman” have reason to rejoice after producing the promised Seed?
8 After Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection, God’s heavenly “woman” rejoiced to receive this favored Son back as “the firstborn from the dead.” (Colossians 1:18) Then she began to produce more spiritual sons. At Pentecost 33 C.E., about 120 of Jesus’ followers were anointed with holy spirit, thereby being adopted as Christ’s joint heirs. Later that day a further 3,000 were added. (John 1:12; Acts 1:13-15; 2:1-4, 41; Romans 8:14-16) This body of sons continued to grow. During the early centuries of Christendom’s apostasy, the growth slowed to a trickle. However, that was to change in the 20th century.
9, 10. What would the instruction to ‘make the place of the tent more spacious’ mean to a tent-dwelling woman in ancient times, and why is this a time of joy for such a woman?
9 Isaiah goes on to prophesy about a period of remarkable growth: “Make the place of your tent more spacious. And let them stretch out the tent cloths of your grand tabernacle. Do not hold back. Lengthen out your tent cords, and make those tent pins of yours strong. For to the right and to the left you will break forth, and your own offspring will take possession even of nations, and they will inhabit even the desolated cities. Do not be afraid, for you will not be put to shame; and do not feel humiliated, for you will not be disappointed. For you will forget even the shame of your time of youth, and the reproach of your continuous widowhood you will remember no more.”—Isaiah 54:2-4.
10 Here Jerusalem is addressed as if she were a wife and mother dwelling in tents, just like Sarah. When blessed with a growing family, it is time for such a mother to see to the expansion of her home. She needs to put up longer tent cloths and cords and secure the tent pins in their new positions. This is happy work for her, and at such a busy time, she may easily forget the years she spent wondering anxiously whether she would ever bear children to carry on the family line.
11. (a) How was God’s heavenly “woman” blessed in 1914? (See footnote.) (b) From 1919 onward, what blessing have the anointed on earth experienced?
11 Earthly Jerusalem was blessed with such a time of renewal after the Babylonian exile. “Jerusalem above” has been even more blessed.* Particularly since 1919, her anointed “offspring” have flourished in their newly restored spiritual condition. (Isaiah 61:4; 66:8) They ‘took possession of nations’ in that they spread abroad into many lands to seek out all those who would join their spiritual family. As a result, explosive growth occurred in the gathering of the anointed sons. Their final number of 144,000 appeared to be filled sometime in the mid-1930’s. (Revelation 14:3) At that time the focus of the preaching work ceased to be the gathering of the anointed. Still, expansion did not stop with the anointed.
12. In addition to the anointed, who have been gathered into the Christian congregation since the 1930’s?
12 Jesus himself foretold that besides his “little flock” of anointed brothers, he would have “other sheep” that must be brought into the sheepfold of true Christians. (Luke 12:32; John 10:16) Though not among the anointed sons of “Jerusalem above,” these faithful companions of the anointed fill an important and long-prophesied role. (Zechariah 8:23) From the 1930’s until today, a “great crowd” of them have been gathered, resulting in unprecedented expansion of the Christian congregation. (Revelation 7:9, 10) Today that great crowd numbers well into the millions. All this expansion has created an urgent need for more Kingdom Halls, Assembly Halls, and branch complexes. Isaiah’s words seem ever more apt. What a privilege to be part of that foretold expansion!
A Mother Who Cares for Her Offspring
13, 14. (a) What apparent difficulty is seen in connection with some of the expressions directed to God’s heavenly “woman”? (b) What insights can we gain from God’s illustrative use of family relationships?
13 We have seen that in the greater fulfillment, the “woman” of the prophecy represents Jehovah’s heavenly organization. But after reading Isaiah 54:4, we may wonder how that organization of spirit creatures has ever suffered shame or reproach. The ensuing verses say that God’s “woman” will be rejected, afflicted, and subjected to attack. She will even provoke God’s indignation. How can such things apply to an organization of perfect spirit creatures who have never sinned? The answer lies in the nature of family.
14 Jehovah uses family relationships—husband and wife, mother and children—to convey profound spiritual truths because such symbols are meaningful to humans. Regardless of the extent or quality of our own family experiences, we likely have an idea of what a good marriage or a good parent-child relationship ought to be. How vividly, then, Jehovah teaches us that he has a warm, intimate, and trusting relationship with his vast throngs of spirit servants! And how impressively he teaches us that his heavenly organization cares for its spirit-anointed offspring on earth! When the human servants suffer, the faithful heavenly servants, “Jerusalem above,” suffer. Similarly, Jesus said: “To the extent that you did it to one of the least of these my [spirit-anointed] brothers, you did it to me.”—Matthew 25:40.
15, 16. What is the initial fulfillment of Isaiah 54:5, 6, and what is the greater fulfillment?
15 Not surprisingly, then, much of what is said to Jehovah’s heavenly “woman” reflects the experiences of her children on earth. Consider these words: “‘Your Grand Maker is your husbandly owner, Jehovah of armies being his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Repurchaser. The God of the whole earth he will be called. For Jehovah called you as if you were a wife left entirely and hurt in spirit, and as a wife of the time of youth who was then rejected,’ your God has said.”—Isaiah 54:5, 6.
16 Who is the wife here addressed? In the initial fulfillment, it is Jerusalem, representing God’s people. During their 70-year exile in Babylon, they will feel as if Jehovah has rejected them and left them entirely. In the greater fulfillment, the words refer to “Jerusalem above” and her experience of finally producing the “seed” in fulfillment of Genesis 3:15.
Momentary Discipline, Eternal Blessings
17. (a) How will earthly Jerusalem experience “a flood” of divine indignation? (b) What “flood” did the sons of “Jerusalem above” experience?
17 The prophecy continues: “‘For a little moment I left you entirely, but with great mercies I shall collect you together. With a flood of indignation I concealed my face from you for but a moment, but with loving-kindness to time indefinite I will have mercy upon you,’ your Repurchaser, Jehovah, has said.” (Isaiah 54:7, 8) Earthly Jerusalem is inundated by “a flood” of God’s indignation when the Babylonian forces attack in 607 B.C.E. Her 70 years in exile might seem a long time. Still, such trials last “for but a moment” when compared with the eternal blessings in store for those who respond well to the discipline. Similarly, the anointed sons of “Jerusalem above” felt as if they had been overwhelmed by “a flood” of divine wrath when Jehovah allowed them to come under attack by political elements at the instigation of Babylon the Great. But how brief that disciplinary measure later seemed, in contrast with the era of spiritual blessings that have followed since 1919!
18. What important principle can be discerned regarding Jehovah’s wrath against his people, and how might this affect us personally?
18 These verses express another great truth—God’s wrath is fleeting, but his mercy lasts forever. His anger blazes against wrongdoing, but it is always controlled, always purposeful. And if we accept Jehovah’s discipline, his anger lasts “for but a moment,” then subsides. It is replaced by his “great mercies”—his forgiveness and his loving-kindness. These last “to time indefinite.” When we commit a sin, then, we should never hesitate to repent and seek to make amends with God. If the sin is of a serious nature, we should approach the congregation elders immediately. (James 5:14) True, discipline may be needed, and that can be hard to take. (Hebrews 12:11) But it will be brief when compared with the eternal blessings that flow from receiving the forgiveness of Jehovah God!
19, 20. (a) What is the rainbow covenant, and how is it relevant to the exiles in Babylon? (b) The “covenant of peace” affords what assurance to anointed Christians today?
19 Jehovah now offers his people comforting reassurance: “‘This is just as the days of Noah to me. Just as I have sworn that the waters of Noah shall no more pass over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not become indignant toward you nor rebuke you. For the mountains themselves may be removed, and the very hills may stagger, but my loving-kindness itself will not be removed from you, nor will my covenant of peace itself stagger,’ Jehovah, the One having mercy upon you, has said.” (Isaiah 54:9, 10) After the Deluge, God made a covenant—sometimes known as the rainbow covenant—with Noah and every other living soul. Jehovah promised that no more would he bring destruction upon the earth by means of a global flood. (Genesis 9:8-17) What does that mean to Isaiah and his people?
20 It is comforting to know that the punishment they must suffer—the 70-year exile in Babylon—will occur only once. When it is over, it will happen no more. Thereafter, God’s “covenant of peace” will be in effect. The Hebrew word for “peace” conveys not just the absence of war but also well-being of every kind. On God’s part this covenant is permanent. Sooner will the hills and mountains vanish than his loving-kindness toward his faithful people end. Sadly, his earthly nation will ultimately fail to live up to their side of the covenant and will shatter their own peace by rejecting the Messiah. The sons of “Jerusalem above,” however, fared much better. Once their difficult period of discipline was over, they were assured of divine protection.
The Spiritual Security of God’s People
21, 22. (a) Why is “Jerusalem above” said to be afflicted and tempest-tossed? (b) What would the blessed condition of God’s heavenly “woman” signify regarding her “offspring” on earth?
21 Jehovah goes on to foretell security for his faithful people: “O woman afflicted, tempest-tossed, uncomforted, here I am laying with hard mortar your stones, and I will lay your foundation with sapphires. And I will make your battlements of rubies, and your gates of fiery glowing stones, and all your boundaries of delightsome stones. And all your sons will be persons taught by Jehovah, and the peace of your sons will be abundant. You will prove to be firmly established in righteousness itself. You will be far away from oppression—for you will fear none—and from anything terrifying, for it will not come near you. If anyone should at all make an attack, it will not be at my orders. Whoever is making an attack upon you will fall even on account of you.”—Isaiah 54:11-15.
22 Of course, Jehovah’s “woman” in the spirit realm has never been directly afflicted or tempest-tossed. But she suffered when her anointed “offspring” on earth suffered, especially when they were in spiritual captivity during the 1918-19 period. Conversely, when the heavenly “woman” is exalted, this reflects a similar state prevailing among her offspring. Consider, then, the glowing description of “Jerusalem above.” The precious stones on the gates, the costly “hard mortar,” the foundations, and even the boundaries suggest, as one reference work notes, “beauty, magnificence, purity, strength, and solidity.” What would lead anointed Christians to such a secure and blessed condition?
23. (a) Being “taught by Jehovah” has had what effect upon anointed Christians in the last days? (b) In what sense have God’s people been blessed with “boundaries of delightsome stones”?
23 Verse 13 of Isaiah chapter 54 provides the key—all will be “taught by Jehovah.” Jesus himself applied the words of this verse to his anointed followers. (John 6:45) The prophet Daniel foretold that during this “time of the end,” the anointed would be blessed with an abundance of true knowledge and spiritual insight. (Daniel 12:3, 4) Such insight has enabled them to spearhead the greatest educational campaign in history, spreading divine teaching in all the earth. (Matthew 24:14) At the same time, such insight has helped them to see the difference between true religion and false. Isaiah 54:12 mentions “boundaries of delightsome stones.” Since 1919, Jehovah has given the anointed an ever clearer understanding of the boundaries—the lines of spiritual demarcation—setting them apart from false religion and ungodly elements of the world. (Ezekiel 44:23; John 17:14; James 1:27) They are thus set apart as God’s own people.—1 Peter 2:9.
24. How may we ensure that we are taught by Jehovah?
24 Thus, each of us does well to ask himself, ‘Am I being taught by Jehovah?’ We do not receive such teaching automatically. We must put forth effort. If we read God’s Word regularly and meditate upon it and if we take in instruction by reading the Bible-based literature published by “the faithful and discreet slave” and by preparing for and attending Christian meetings, we will indeed be taught by Jehovah. (Matthew 24:45-47) If we endeavor to apply what we learn and remain spiritually awake and watchful, divine teaching will set us apart as different from those in this godless world. (1 Peter 5:8, 9) Better still, it will help us “draw close to God.”—James 1:22-25; 4:8.
25. What does God’s promise of peace mean for his people in modern times?
25 Isaiah’s prophecy also shows that the anointed are blessed with abundant peace. Does this mean that they are never under attack? No, but God gives the assurance that he will neither order such attacks nor allow them to succeed. We read: “‘Look! I myself have created the craftsman, the one blowing upon the fire of charcoal and bringing forth a weapon as his workmanship. I myself, too, have created the ruinous man for wrecking work. Any weapon whatever that will be formed against you will have no success, and any tongue at all that will rise up against you in the judgment you will condemn. This is the hereditary possession of the servants of Jehovah, and their righteousness is from me,’ is the utterance of Jehovah.”—Isaiah 54:16, 17.
26. Why is it reassuring to know that Jehovah is the Creator of all mankind?
26 For the second time in this chapter of Isaiah, Jehovah reminds his servants that he is the Creator. Earlier, he tells his symbolic wife that he is her “Grand Maker.” Now he says that he is the Creator of all mankind. Verse 16 describes a metalworker blowing on the coals of his forge as he creates his weapons of destruction and a warrior, a “ruinous man for wrecking work.” Such men might present a frightening picture to fellow humans, but how can they possibly hope to prevail against their own Creator? So today, even when the most powerful forces of this world attack Jehovah’s people, they will have no chance of ultimate success. How can that be?
27, 28. Of what can we be sure during these troubled times, and why do we know that Satan’s attacks against us will prove ineffective?
27 The time for ruinous attack against God’s people and their worship with spirit and truth has passed. (John 4:23, 24) Jehovah allowed Babylon the Great to make one attack that proved temporarily successful. For a brief moment, “Jerusalem above” saw her offspring brought to near silence as the preaching work on earth ground to a virtual halt. Never again! Now she exults over her sons, for they are, in a spiritual sense, unconquerable. (John 16:33; 1 John 5:4) Oh, there have been weapons of attack formed against them, and there will be more. (Revelation 12:17) But these have not and will not succeed. Satan possesses no weapon that can quell the faith and burning zeal of the anointed and their companions. This spiritual peace is “the hereditary possession of the servants of Jehovah,” so no one can forcibly take it away from them.—Psalm 118:6; Romans 8:38, 39.
28 No, nothing that Satan’s world can do will ever put a stop to the work and enduring clean worship of God by his dedicated servants. The anointed offspring of “Jerusalem above” have taken great comfort in that assurance. Members of the great crowd do the same. The more we come to know about Jehovah’s heavenly organization and its dealings with his worshipers on earth, the stronger our faith will be. As long as our faith is strong, Satan’s weapons will prove to be futile in the fight against us!
According to Revelation 12:1-17, God’s “woman” was greatly blessed by giving birth to a most important “offspring”—not an individual spirit son, but the Messianic Kingdom in heaven. This birth occurred in 1914. (See Revelation—Its Grand Climax At Hand!, pages 177-86.) Isaiah’s prophecy focuses on the joy she feels as a result of God’s blessing on her anointed sons on earth.
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The Family of Abraham—A Prophetic Picture
The apostle Paul explained that the family of Abraham serves as a symbolic drama, a prophetic picture of Jehovah’s relationship with his heavenly organization and with the earthly nation of Israel under the Mosaic Law covenant.—Galatians 4:22-31.
Abraham, as family head, represents Jehovah God. Abraham’s willingness to offer up his dear son Isaac as a sacrifice foreshadows Jehovah’s willingness to offer up his own beloved Son as a sacrifice for mankind’s sins.—Genesis 22:1-13; John 3:16.
Sarah pictures God’s heavenly “wife,” his organization of spirit beings. That heavenly organization is aptly described as Jehovah’s wife, for she is intimately associated with Jehovah, is subservient to his headship, and is fully cooperative in fulfilling his purposes. She is also called “Jerusalem above.” (Galatians 4:26) The same “woman” is mentioned at Genesis 3:15, and she is depicted in vision at Revelation 12:1-6, 13-17.
Isaac typifies the spiritual Seed of God’s woman. Primarily, this is Jesus Christ. However, the seed also came to include Christ’s anointed brothers, who are adopted as spiritual sons and become joint heirs with Christ.—Romans 8:15-17; Galatians 3:16, 29.
Hagar, Abraham’s secondary wife, or concubine, was a slave. She aptly pictures earthly Jerusalem, where the Mosaic Law code held sway, exposing all of its adherents as slaves to sin and death. Paul said that “Hagar means Sinai, a mountain in Arabia,” because the Law covenant was established there.—Galatians 3:10, 13; 4:25.
Ishmael, Hagar’s son, pictures the first-century Jews, the sons of Jerusalem still enslaved to the Mosaic Law. As Ishmael persecuted Isaac, so those Jews persecuted the Christians, who were anointed sons of the figurative Sarah, the “Jerusalem above.” And just as Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away, Jehovah ultimately cast off Jerusalem and her rebellious sons.—Matthew 23:37, 38.
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After his baptism, Jesus was anointed with holy spirit, and Isaiah 54:1 began to have its most important fulfillment
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Jehovah concealed his face from Jerusalem “for but a moment”
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Can the warrior and the metalworker prevail against their Creator?