Come to the waters of repentance.

This article was originally written for 1517.

One of the inherent dilemmas associated with delivering a sermon is that one’s familiarity with Scripture sometimes puts one in autopilot. There are some parts of Scripture that stand out more than others and that get chosen, more often than not, for preaching. Consequently, the over-abundance of sermons from those particularly prominent passages prompt one to make immediate assumptions about what the preacher is about to say based on his selected text. One can almost guess where the preacher is going, at times, even before his sermon ever starts.

The fundamental problem with this type of thinking, however, is that it removes the “surprise” elemental to one’s faith. Among the most vital ingredients for a lively devotional life is the anticipation of being surprised when one approaches the Word. The more one supposes to know what the Bible is going to say, the less he will be surprised by what it actually says. Indeed, the less one lets the Bible surprise him, the less he will be in awe of God’s great surprise for the world, i.e., his grace, which is revealed throughout Scripture.

Such a preface is necessary when considering such texts as Isaiah 55, which is often only understood in “spiritual autopilot.” The Lord declares through his prophet:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways. For as heaven is higher than earth, so my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa. 55:8–9)

These verses are frequently recited when an event in life occurs that seems to subvert all rational logic. Whenever a crisis of confusion or suffering strikes, there is a tendency for one to quickly remind oneself (and others) that God’s “ways and thoughts” are “higher than our ways and thoughts.” As if that fact alone is comforting (which it isn’t). As if “taking heart” in God’s apparent dissimilarity is enough to console and relieve hearts that are troubled (which it isn’t).

One’s “autopilot interpretation” of these verses leads to a propensity to only apply them to life’s most baffling moments. It is certainly true that when life does not make sense there is likely something deeper is happening, because God’s “ways and thoughts” are not like man’s. But that assertion is not only true when life goes awry, it is true all the time. God’s “ways and thoughts” are always higher, and his plans are always deeper, than our own. In what ways, though, are God’s thoughts “higher”? And what makes them “higher”? What does that even mean? And why would that be comforting? Procedamus.

Isaiah’s prophecy is undoubtedly the most robust of all the prophetic books. Throughout three broad swaths of Israel’s divided history, Isaiah delivers words of judgment and deliverance, sin and reconciliation. These words were given as a testimony to both pre- and post-exilic Israelites, in order demonstrate the supreme providence of God in and over all things. The prophet fervently brings to bear both the reason for judgment and the hope of redemption — all of which is bound to the coming of the Messiah.

Chapter 55 constitutes the last chapter of the middle segment of Isaiah’s prophetic messages, which are, it should be noted, addressed to exiled Israelites. His errand is to lay before God’s people their God-given hope to which they could cling even as they experienced imminent eviction from the land of promise. Even as the Israelites underwent the just judgment due their atrocious unbelief, they could find recourse in the words of God. There is an allusion to future salvation apparent in chapter 52, wherein Isaiah also introduces the “servant” through whom this salvation would come (Isa. 52:13). This Servant takes centerstage in the titular 53rd chapter, wherein the prophet affirms what this Servant will do in order to bring about his people’s redemption (Isa. 53:3–5). The attending benefits of this Servant’s work are further prophesied in chapter 54, segueing into chapter 55, in which the prophet nearly shouts with elation the news of this One who would come to redeem, reconcile, and restore.

Isaiah opens this particular address with a rather striking exclamation. “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters” (Isa. 55:1 KJV). This is akin to saying, “Hey you!” The prophet bellows for Israel’s attention, like a town crier in the streets. But what, specifically, does he desire them to hear? None other than one of the most head-scratching invitations ever uttered.

Come, everyone who is thirsty, come to the water; and you without silver, come, buy, and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without silver and without cost! (Isa. 55:1)

On its own, there isn’t much reason, here. The declaration is an invitation to a feast, but one which has, perhaps, the strangest guest list ever assembled. Those addressed are those who are thirsty and have no money. The invited are those who don’t have any reason for being there other than the mere fact that they have been invited. They possess no money, no status, nothing which would qualify them to come. Indeed, the only qualification for a seat at this feast is need. Only those who are poor and penniless, weak and weary, have a place set for them. This is fortuitous since this feast comes “without cost.” Even if the guests had silver, it would be of no use. This feast is offered for free.

The message is not lost on Isaiah’s audience. Rather than pilfer away one’s life on what does not and cannot satisfy, an invitation has been extended for a feast at every need imaginable is met (Isa. 55:2). “Come unto me” is the invitation. “There is satisfaction only in me.” And who is this One who is extending this offer? None other than God himself.

Pay attention and come to me; listen, so that you will live. I will make a permanent covenant with you on the basis of the faithful kindnesses of David. Since I have made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples, so you will summon a nation you do not know, and nations who do not know you will run to you. For the Lord your God, even the Holy One of Israel, has glorified you. (Isa. 55:3–5)

Such is God’s word of promise to exiled Israel. “I will covenant with you again,” he declares. This is an astoundingly gracious word. The very ones who would experience the awful aftermath of a broken covenant are made glad by the promise of a new, “permanent covenant” made on “the basis of the faithful kindnesses of David.”

One could spend an inordinate amount of time parsing the Old Testament and numbering all the ways in which Israel botched her responsibility to live up to the standards of the Davidic covenant. But despite however many those sins are, God assures his people that all those blessings will be fulfilled. And why is that so? Because the One who is the “faithful kindnesses of David” will come as a witness, a leader, and a commander for God’s elect (Isa. 55:4). David’s “faithful kindnesses” is, therefore, nothing but prophetic shorthand for Jesus the Christ. The One who would be the true Prophet, Priest, and King Israel so desperately needed. The One who would be the better Son of David for whom Israel longed. The One who would be the embodiment of Jehovah’s covenant mercies in the form of flesh.

What’s more, Isaiah’s words announce that this feast is not just for Israel proper. It’s for all nations (Isa. 55:5). The scope and scale of this invitation is multiplied a million times over. God’s covenant mercies are not restricted but freely extended to all who would believe (John 7:37–38). Such is what constitutes the most urgent aspect of Isaiah’s address, i.e., Israel’s belief.

Seek the Lord while he may be found; call to him while he is near. Let the wicked one abandon his way and the sinful one his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, so he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will freely forgive. (Isa. 55:6–7)

The prophet urges Israel to turn to the Lord “while he is near,” pinpointing Israel’s dire need to repent, to “seek the Lord,” to “call” on him, to abandon their wicked ways, and “return to the Lord” — because with the Holy One of Israel there is free forgiveness. The water to which the wicked and unrighteous are beckoned to come is a profuse, extravagant stream of free-flowing absolution. 

This is an invitation which ought to startle and surprise, precisely because it is so unlike the nature of man. It sounds almost too good to be true that the very God whom Israel offended would make this kind of offer to Israel herself. Pardon for the wicked? Forgiveness for the unrighteous? “That cannot be! What’s the catch?” But perhaps the most astounding aspect of this invitation is that there is no catch. There is no fine print. Indeed, rather, this has been God’s plan from the beginning.

From before “the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8; cf. 1 Pet. 1:10–12), from “before the day” (Isa. 43:10–13), the Lord has been working to reveal his forgiveness for those who have fallen and failed. His covenanted plan is to snatch the “cup of fury” right out of Israel’s hand (Isa. 51:22). Why? Because that cup has been reserved for the Lord’s Servant (Isa. 53:10–12; Luke 22:41–44). Who drinks God’s “cup of fury”? Christ does. The Holy One of Israel drinks the Father’s cup of wrath “to the dregs” and hands you the mug of his righteousness in its stead. God’s abundant pardon is extended precisely because the Servant is punished. The Christ stands, says Tobias Crisp, “as the abhorred of the Father for the time, even the forsaken of the Father, as he represented our persons, bare our blame, sustained our wrath, and drank the dregs of our cup.”1 Heaven’s merciful offer of forgiveness is everlastingly extended to sinners in the wisdom and person of the suffering Christ.

And so it is that mankind’s “thoughts and ways” on the matter of pardon and forgiveness do not even come close to exhausting, let alone fathoming, God’s “thoughts and ways.” His proclivity to forgive is infinitely higher than one could ever imagine — higher than the heavens are above the earth (Ps. 103:1–12). “God’s ways and thoughts are not our ways and thoughts,” writes Dane Ortlund, “in that his are thoughts of love and ways of compassion that stretch to a degree beyond our mental horizon.”2 “The measure of His forgiveness is boundless,” Rev. Alexander Maclaren declares, “and there is no searching of the depths of His pardoning mercy.”3

He doesn’t find it a hard thing to grant mercy to those who sin against him. Neither is he reluctant in tendering compassion on the wicked. God does not wait to see if one is “sorry enough” to warrant pardon, nor does he hold a grudge against those who do him wrong. In fact, he not only says that he will “forgive our wrongdoing” but that he will “never again remember our sins” (Heb. 8:12; Isa. 43:25). Whereas man is slow to repeat forgiveness rendered to the same perpetrator, this isn’t the case with God. He delights in showing mercy, in extending faithful love even to those who are unfaithful (Micah 7:18–19). F. B. Meyer wonderfully affirms:

When God forgives he ceases to remember. He blots out iniquities as a cloud, and sins as a thick cloud; he does not treat us simply as pardoned criminals, but takes us to his heart as beloved sons; he imputes to us a perfect righteousness; he treats us as though we were credited with the perfect loveliness of the Best-beloved; he transforms the sad consequences of our sins into blessings, so that as we return from the far country the mountains break forth into song, the trees of the wood clap their hands; instead of the thorn comes up the fir-tree, and instead of the brier the myrtle-tree; and these transformations become everlasting memorials of what God’s love can do for the repentant sinner.4

Accordingly, this chapter is an invitation to repent, and by repenting be made whole. When one repents, one isn’t coaxing or convincing God to forgive them because they are “sorry enough.” Rather, it is the acceptance of forgiveness already offered in the Holy One of Israel, in the “faithful kindnesses of David,” in the blood of Jesus the Christ shed at Golgotha’s cross. Israel’s confidence in repentance is found in a God who “freely forgives.” His pardoning word is as sure as the rain which comes down from heaven. And just as the rain transforms the fallow ground into rich soil ready to be planted, so, too, does God’s word of forgiveness transform the sinner into a saint (Isa. 55:10–13). Come, then, to the waters all you weak and weary in sin. For at this river is found life everlasting. At this table is remission from sin, an unending feast of grace.

1

Tobias Crisp, Christ Alone Exalted: In the Perfection and Encouragements of the Saints, Notwithstanding Sins and Trials, edited by John Gill (London: R. Noble, 1791), 301–2.

2

Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 158.

3

Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944), 5:2.159.

4

F. B. Meyer, Christ in Isaiah: Expositions of Isaiah XL–LV (New York: Revell, 1895), 232.