A Message of Hope for Downhearted Captives
1. Describe the situation of the Jewish exiles in Babylon.
IT WAS a dark period in Judah’s history. God’s covenant people had been forcibly taken from their homeland and now were languishing in captivity in Babylon. Granted, they were allowed a measure of freedom to carry on their daily affairs. (Jeremiah 29:4-7) Some acquired professional skills or engaged in commercial enterprises.a (Nehemiah 3:8, 31, 32) Nevertheless, life for the Jewish captives was not easy. They were in bondage, both physically and spiritually. Let us see how.
2, 3. How did the exile affect the Jews’ worship of Jehovah?
2 When the Babylonian armies destroyed Jerusalem in 607 B.C.E., they did more than devastate a nation; they also dealt a blow to true worship. They stripped Jehovah’s temple and destroyed it, crippling the priesthood arrangement by taking some of the tribe of Levi captive and putting others to death. With no house of worship, no altar, and no organized priesthood, it was impossible for the Jews to offer sacrifices to the true God as prescribed by the Law.
3 Faithful Jews could still preserve their religious identity by practicing circumcision and following the Law to the extent possible. For example, they could abstain from forbidden foods and observe the Sabbath. But in doing so, they risked the ridicule of their captors, for the Babylonians viewed the religious rituals of the Jews as foolish. The downhearted condition of the exiles can be seen in the psalmist’s words: “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down. We also wept when we remembered Zion. Upon the poplar trees in the midst of her we hung our harps. For there those holding us captive asked us for the words of a song, and those mocking us—for rejoicing: ‘Sing for us one of the songs of Zion.’”—Psalm 137:1-3.
4. Why would it be futile for the Jews to look to other nations for deliverance, but to whom could they turn for help?
4 To whom, then, could the Jewish captives turn for comfort? From where would come their salvation? Certainly not from any of the surrounding nations! All of those were powerless against Babylon’s armies, and many were hostile to the Jews. But the situation was not hopeless. Jehovah, against whom they had rebelled when they were a free people, graciously extended a heartening invitation to them, even though they were in exile.
“Come to the Water”
5. What is the significance of the words “come to the water”?
5 Through Isaiah, Jehovah speaks prophetically to the Jewish captives in Babylon: “Hey there, all you thirsty ones! Come to the water. And the ones that have no money! Come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk even without money and without price.” (Isaiah 55:1) These words are rich in symbolism. For example, consider the invitation: “Come to the water.” Without water, life is impossible. Without that precious liquid, we humans can survive only for about a week. Hence, it is fitting that Jehovah uses water as a metaphor for the effect that his words will have upon the Jewish captives. His message will refresh them, like a cold drink on a hot day. It will lift them out of their despondent state of mind, quenching their thirst for truth and righteousness. And it will infuse them with hope of freedom from captivity. Still, to benefit, the Jewish exiles will have to drink in God’s message, pay attention to it, and act upon it.
6. How will the Jews benefit if they buy “wine and milk”?
6 Jehovah also offers “wine and milk.” Milk strengthens young bodies and helps children to grow. Similarly, Jehovah’s words will strengthen his people spiritually and enable them to fortify their relationship with him. What, though, of wine? Wine is often used on festive occasions. In the Bible, it is associated with prosperity and rejoicing. (Psalm 104:15) By telling his people to “buy wine,” Jehovah is assuring them that a wholehearted return to true worship will make them “nothing but joyful.”—Deuteronomy 16:15; Psalm 19:8; Proverbs 10:22.
7. Why is Jehovah’s compassion toward the exiles remarkable, and what does it teach us about him?
7 How merciful of Jehovah to offer such spiritual refreshment to the exiled Jews! His compassion is all the more remarkable when we remember the Jews’ history of waywardness and rebellion. It is not that they are deserving of Jehovah’s approval. However, the psalmist David wrote centuries earlier: “Jehovah is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness. He will not for all time keep finding fault, neither will he to time indefinite keep resentful.” (Psalm 103:8, 9) Far from cutting off his people, Jehovah is taking the first step toward reconciliation. Truly, he is a God “delighting in loving-kindness.”—Micah 7:18.
8. Where have many of the Jews put their trust, despite what warning?
8 Up until now many Jews have not put their full trust in Jehovah for salvation. Before Jerusalem’s fall, for example, her rulers looked to powerful nations for support, prostituting themselves, as it were, both to Egypt and to Babylon. (Ezekiel 16:26-29; 23:14) With good reason, Jeremiah warned them: “Cursed is the able-bodied man who puts his trust in earthling man and actually makes flesh his arm, and whose heart turns away from Jehovah himself.” (Jeremiah 17:5) Yet, that is precisely what God’s people did!
9. How may many Jews be “paying out money for what is not bread”?
9 Now they are enslaved to one of the nations in which they had put their trust. Have they learned their lesson? It may be that many have not, for Jehovah asks: “Why do you people keep paying out money for what is not bread, and why is your toil for what results in no satisfaction?” (Isaiah 55:2a) If the captive Jews are trusting in anyone other than Jehovah, they are “paying out money for what is not bread.” They will certainly get no release from Babylon with its policy of never allowing captives to return home. In truth, Babylon, with her imperialism, commercialism, and false worship, has nothing to offer the exiled Jews.
10. (a) How will Jehovah reward the exiled Jews if they listen to him? (b) What covenant had Jehovah made with David?
10 Jehovah implores his people: “Listen intently to me, and eat what is good, and let your soul find its exquisite delight in fatness itself. Incline your ear and come to me. Listen, and your soul will keep alive, and I shall readily conclude with you people an indefinitely lasting covenant respecting the loving-kindnesses to David that are faithful.” (Isaiah 55:2b, 3) The only hope for these spiritually malnourished people rests with Jehovah, who is now prophetically speaking to them through Isaiah. Their very lives depend upon listening to God’s message, for he states that by their doing so, their “soul will keep alive.” What, though, is the “indefinitely lasting covenant” that Jehovah will conclude with those who respond to him? That covenant is “respecting the loving-kindnesses to David.” Centuries earlier, Jehovah promised David that his throne would become “firmly established to time indefinite.” (2 Samuel 7:16) Hence, the “indefinitely lasting covenant” mentioned here pertains to rulership.
A Permanent Heir to an Everlasting Kingdom
11. Why might the fulfillment of God’s promise to David seem farfetched to the exiles in Babylon?
11 Admittedly, the idea of rulership in the line of David might seem farfetched to those Jewish exiles. They have lost their land and even their nationhood! But that is just temporary. Jehovah has not forgotten his covenant with David. No matter how unlikely it seems from a human standpoint, God’s purpose concerning an everlasting Kingdom in David’s line will succeed. But how and when? In 537 B.C.E., Jehovah releases his people from Babylonian captivity and restores them to their homeland. Does this result in the establishment of an indefinitely lasting kingdom? No, they continue subject to another pagan empire, Medo-Persia. “The appointed times” for the nations to have their rule have not yet expired. (Luke 21:24) With no king in Israel, the promise that Jehovah gave to David will remain unfulfilled for centuries to come.
12. What step did Jehovah take toward fulfilling his Kingdom covenant made with David?
12 More than 500 years after Israel’s release from Babylonian captivity, Jehovah took a major step toward fulfilling the Kingdom covenant when he transferred the life of his firstborn Son, the beginning of his creative work, from heavenly glory into the womb of the Jewish virgin Mary. (Colossians 1:15-17) When announcing that event, Jehovah’s angel told Mary: “This one will be great and will be called Son of the Most High; and Jehovah God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule as king over the house of Jacob forever, and there will be no end of his kingdom.” (Luke 1:32, 33) So Jesus was born into the royal line of David and inherited the right of kingship. Once enthroned, Jesus would rule “to time indefinite.” (Isaiah 9:7; Daniel 7:14) Thus the way was now open for the fulfillment of Jehovah’s centuries-old promise to give King David a permanent heir.
“Commander to the National Groups”
13. How was Jesus “a witness to the national groups” both during his ministry and after his ascension?
13 What will this future king do? Jehovah says: “Look! As a witness to the national groups I have given him, as a leader and commander to the national groups.” (Isaiah 55:4) When Jesus grew up, he was Jehovah’s representative on earth, God’s witness to the nations. During his human lifetime, his ministry was directed to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” However, shortly before his ascension to heaven, Jesus said to his followers: “Go therefore and make disciples of people of all the nations . . . Look! I am with you all the days until the conclusion of the system of things.” (Matthew 10:5, 6; 15:24; 28:19, 20) Thus, in time, the Kingdom message was carried to non-Jews, and some of them shared in the fulfillment of the covenant made with David. (Acts 13:46) In this way, even after his death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven, Jesus continued to be Jehovah’s “witness to the national groups.”
14, 15. (a) How did Jesus prove himself to be “a leader and commander”? (b) What prospect was entertained by Jesus’ first-century followers?
14 Jesus was also to be “a leader and commander.” True to this prophetic description, when on earth Jesus fully accepted the responsibilities of his headship and took the lead in every respect, attracting huge crowds, teaching them words of truth, and indicating the benefits that come to those who follow his leadership. (Matthew 4:24; 7:28, 29; 11:5) He effectively trained his disciples, preparing them to undertake the preaching campaign that lay ahead. (Luke 10:1-12; Acts 1:8; Colossians 1:23) In just three and a half years, Jesus laid the foundation for a unified, international congregation with thousands of members drawn from many races! Only a true “leader and commander” could have accomplished such a monumental task.b
15 Those who were gathered to the first-century Christian congregation were anointed with God’s holy spirit, and they had the prospect of becoming joint rulers with Jesus in his heavenly Kingdom. (Revelation 14:1) However, Isaiah’s prophecy looks beyond the days of early Christianity. Evidence shows that Jesus Christ did not begin ruling as King of God’s Kingdom until 1914. Shortly thereafter, a situation developed among anointed Christians on earth that had many parallels with that of the exiled Jews in the sixth century B.C.E. In fact, what happened to those Christians constitutes a greater fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.
Modern-Day Captivity and Release
16. What distress followed Jesus’ enthronement in 1914?
16 Jesus’ enthronement as King in 1914 was marked by unprecedented world distress. Why? Because upon becoming King, Jesus ousted Satan and the other wicked spirit creatures from heaven. Once confined to the earth, Satan began waging war against the remaining holy ones, the remnant of anointed Christians. (Revelation 12:7-12, 17) The climax came in 1918 when the public preaching work virtually stopped and responsible officers of the Watch Tower Society were imprisoned on false charges of sedition. In this way, Jehovah’s modern-day servants went into a spiritual captivity, reminiscent of the physical captivity of the ancient Jews. Great reproach hung over them.
17. How was the condition of the anointed reversed in 1919, and how were they then fortified?
17 However, the captive condition of God’s anointed servants did not last long. On March 26, 1919, the imprisoned officers were released, and later all charges against them were dropped. Jehovah poured out holy spirit upon his liberated people, invigorating them for the work that lay ahead. Joyfully, they responded to the invitation to “take life’s water free.” (Revelation 22:17) They bought “wine and milk even without money and without price” and were spiritually fortified for a marvelous expansion that was on the horizon, one that the anointed remnant had not foreseen.
A Great Crowd Runs to God’s Anointed
18. What two groups are found among the disciples of Jesus Christ, and what do they form today?
18 Jesus’ disciples entertain one of two hopes. First, a “little flock” numbering 144,000 has been gathered—anointed Christians of both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds who are “the Israel of God” and have the hope of ruling with Jesus in his heavenly Kingdom. (Luke 12:32; Galatians 6:16; Revelation 14:1) Second, in the last days, “a great crowd” of “other sheep” have manifested themselves. These have the hope of living forever on a paradise earth. Before the outbreak of the great tribulation, this multitude—whose number is not foreordained—serve alongside the little flock, and both groups form “one flock” under “one shepherd.”—Revelation 7:9, 10; John 10:16.
19. How has “a nation” previously unknown to the Israel of God responded to the call of that spiritual nation?
19 The gathering in of this great crowd can be discerned in the following words of Isaiah’s prophecy: “Look! A nation that you do not know you will call, and those of a nation who have not known you will run even to you, for the sake of Jehovah your God, and for the Holy One of Israel, because he will have beautified you.” (Isaiah 55:5) In the years following their release from spiritual captivity, the anointed remnant did not at first understand that before Armageddon they would be instrumental in calling to Jehovah’s worship a large “nation.” However, as time went on, many honesthearted ones who did not have a heavenly hope began associating with the anointed and serving Jehovah with the same zeal as that of the anointed. These newcomers took note of the beautified condition of God’s people, recognizing that Jehovah was among them. (Zechariah 8:23) In the 1930’s, the anointed came to understand the real identity of this group, whose numbers were growing in their midst. They came to discern that a great ingathering work still lay ahead. The great crowd was hastening to associate with God’s covenant people, and with good reason.
20. (a) In our day, why is it urgent to “search for Jehovah,” and how is this done? (b) How will Jehovah respond to those who search for him?
20 In Isaiah’s day, the call went out: “Search for Jehovah, you people, while he may be found. Call to him while he proves to be near.” (Isaiah 55:6) In our day, these words are appropriate, both for those who form the Israel of God and for the growing great crowd. Jehovah’s blessing is not unconditional, nor is his invitation extended indefinitely. Now is the time to seek God’s favor. When the appointed time for Jehovah’s judgment arrives, it will be too late. Hence, Isaiah says: “Let the wicked man leave his way, and the harmful man his thoughts; and let him return to Jehovah, who will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for he will forgive in a large way.”—Isaiah 55:7.
21. How has the nation of Israel proved unfaithful to the declaration made by their forefathers?
21 The phrase “let him return to Jehovah” implies that those needing to repent had a relationship with God formerly. The expression reminds us that many aspects of this part of Isaiah’s prophecy have their first application with the Jewish captives in Babylon. Centuries before, the forefathers of these captives declared their determination to be obedient to Jehovah when they stated: “It is unthinkable, on our part, to leave Jehovah so as to serve other gods.” (Joshua 24:16) History shows that the “unthinkable” did happen—repeatedly! The lack of faith on the part of God’s people is the reason why they are exiles in Babylon.
22. Why does Jehovah say that his thoughts and ways are higher than those of humans?
22 What will happen if they repent? Through Isaiah, Jehovah promises that he will “forgive in a large way.” And he adds: “‘For the thoughts of you people are not my thoughts, nor are my ways your ways,’ is the utterance of Jehovah. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.’” (Isaiah 55:8, 9) Jehovah is perfect, and his thoughts and ways are unreachably high. Even his mercy is on a level that we humans can never hope to attain. Consider: When we forgive a fellow human, it is a case of a sinner forgiving a sinner. We realize that sooner or later we will need to have some fellow human forgive us. (Matthew 6:12) But Jehovah, even though he never needs to be forgiven, forgives “in a large way”! Truly, he is a God of great loving-kindness. And in his mercy, Jehovah opens the floodgates of the heavens, showering down blessings on those who return to him with all their hearts.—Malachi 3:10.
Blessings for Those Returning to Jehovah
23. How does Jehovah illustrate the certainty of the fulfillment of his word?
23 Jehovah promises his people: “Just as the pouring rain descends, and the snow, from the heavens and does not return to that place, unless it actually saturates the earth and makes it produce and sprout, and seed is actually given to the sower and bread to the eater, so my word that goes forth from my mouth will prove to be. It will not return to me without results, but it will certainly do that in which I have delighted, and it will have certain success in that for which I have sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10, 11) Everything Jehovah says is certain to be fulfilled. Just as the rain and the snow falling from the skies accomplish their purpose of saturating the earth and bringing forth fruit, so Jehovah’s word that goes forth from his mouth is completely reliable. What he promises, he will fulfill—with absolute certainty.—Numbers 23:19.
24, 25. What blessings are in store for Jewish exiles who act on Jehovah’s message through Isaiah?
24 Hence, if the Jews heed the words prophetically uttered for them through Isaiah, they will without fail receive the salvation Jehovah has promised. As a result, they will experience great joy. Jehovah states: “With rejoicing you people will go forth, and with peace you will be brought in. The mountains and the hills themselves will become cheerful before you with a joyful outcry, and the very trees of the field will all clap their hands. Instead of the thicket of thorns the juniper tree will come up. Instead of the stinging nettle the myrtle tree will come up. And it must become for Jehovah something famous, a sign to time indefinite that will not be cut off.”—Isaiah 55:12, 13.
25 In 537 B.C.E., the Jewish exiles do indeed go forth out of Babylon with rejoicing. (Psalm 126:1, 2) When they arrive in Jerusalem, they find a land choked with thickets of thorns and stinging nettles—remember, the land has lain desolate for decades. But God’s repatriated people can now help to bring about a lovely transformation! Towering trees, such as the juniper and the myrtle, replace thorns and nettles. Jehovah’s blessing becomes readily evident as his people serve him “with a joyful outcry.” It is as if the land itself were rejoicing.
26. What blessed condition do God’s people enjoy today?
26 In 1919 the remnant of anointed Christians were liberated from their spiritual captivity. (Isaiah 66:8) Together with the great crowd of other sheep, they are now serving God with rejoicing in a spiritual paradise. Free of any taint of Babylonish influence, they enjoy a favored condition, which has become for Jehovah “something famous.” Their spiritual prosperity glorifies his name and exalts him as the God of true prophecy. What Jehovah has accomplished for them demonstrates his Godship and is evidence of his faithfulness to his word and his mercy toward repentant ones. May all who continue to “buy wine and milk even without money and without price” rejoice in serving him forever!
a Many Jewish names have been found in ancient Babylonian business records.
b Jesus continues to oversee the disciple-making work. (Revelation 14:14-16) Today, Christian men and women view Jesus as the Head of the congregation. (1 Corinthians 11:3) And in God’s due time, Jesus will act as “a leader and commander” in another way, when he directs the decisive battle against God’s enemies at the war of Armageddon.—Revelation 19:19-21.
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Jews with a spiritual thirst are invited to “come to the water” and to “buy wine and milk”
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Jesus proved himself “a leader and commander” to the national groups
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“Let the wicked man leave his way”