“In that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honor of the survivors of Israel. 3 And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, 4 when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. 5 Then the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy. 6 There will be a booth for shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.” -Isaiah 4:2-6 (ESV)
No one likes a bad ending…
When watching a movie, engrossed in a gripping plot line with drama, suspense, fear, excitement, thrill, and surprise, our hearts and minds go through an emotional roller coaster. We can hang in there so long as we know there’s something worth watching in the end. The good guy wins. The hurting and oppressed rise up and are victorious. The protagonist finds true love. The evil is defeated and thrown out. Good triumphs in the end. There are a variety of positive ways in which a story can end, but what they all have in common is that they lead to some form or version of peace, contentment, and happiness – the happy ending. That’s what we all want to see. And there’s nothing more shocking, galling, and frustrating than riding the emotional roller coaster only to arrive at some kind of a tragic and terrible defeat: a disappointing, disorienting, disenchanting conclusion in which the antithesis of all that we hoped for is on display. We’ve all sat through those terrible finales. The bad guy wins. The hurting and the oppressed are defeated and condemned to additional suffering or even death. The protagonist does not find true love. Evil is victorious and reigns triumphant. Bad wins in the end. When sitting through such a heart-wrenching climax, I always find myself thinking I could have found a much better way to spend both my time and money. Defenders of such disappointing conclusions argue that life doesn’t always have happy endings where good triumphs and evil is defeated and punished. Life can be hard, they say. Life can be disappointing, they say. Life can be cruel, they say. All of which is true…but all of which also doesn’t change the fact that I just spent $10 and/or two hours of my life I’ll never get back in exchange for a mind-numbing, heart-wrenching, blood pressure-spiking conclusion I could have experienced in real life for free. No, thank you….
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-movie. I’m anti-bad ending. Because of this, I’ve developed a tendency over the years that tends to drive my family and friends crazy when I’m watching a movie with them: I look up the movie online and read the plot line ahead of time. I like to know how the story ends in advance. True, I don’t like surprises – especially bad ones. But its more than that. I don’t like sad, unhappy, or depressing endings. I’m not naïve in failing to understand that bad things happen in the course of real life. As a matter of fact, my reason for being anti-bad ending is rooted in my recognition of that very fact. As both a pastor and a human being in general, I have watched many people experience the “bad endings” of life over the years in various forms of suffering, trial, and difficulty. As a Christian, I recognize the purpose of suffering and difficulty in the plan of God, but I don’t find value in watching it for the purpose of entertainment – particularly when the plot line leaves us without a victorious resolution in the end.
Fortunately, the Lord does not like sad, unhappy endings either, and proves this time and time again in the Bible. You might think, “Wait a minute! If God doesn’t like sad and unhappy endings, why is there so much suffering in the Bible – and in the world?!” It’s a fair question. And the answer is found in, as Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story…”
Suffering, hardship, heartache, and pain are never the end or culmination of what God desires for His people. To be sure, suffering, hardship, heartache, and pain are experienced by God’s people – and always for a purpose beyond what we can see and understand in the moment. But they are never the ultimate end God desires for His people. Rather, they are rightly understood as a means to that ultimate end.
Isaiah 4:2-6 conveys this truth magnificently. This passage occurs on the heels of an extended and detailed declaration of judgment against Judah in the preceding chapters. After describing the judgment that would befall His people because of their steadfast rebellion and sin, God reminds His people through the prophet Isaiah that their coming judgment would NOT be the end of their story. In the coming “Branch of the Lord,” (v. 2) a Savior and Deliverer would come who would bring hope and salvation for not only the immediate recipients of the prophecy who would soon experience judgment but for all coming people for all coming time who would trust in Him. The promised “Branch of the Lord” would be the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the preceding chapter, Isaiah had pronounced judgment upon Judah in part for their arrogant flaunting of their sinful lifestyles and ways. Isaiah condemned the egotistical men of the nation, telling them that God would take away “the mighty man and the soldier, the judge and the prophet, the diviner and the elder, the captain of fifty and the man of rank,” among others, from among the people (3:2-3). In contrast to their conceited trust in their own wisdom and abilities, a competent, capable leader would not be able to be found among them in the days of judgment ahead. Likewise, Isaiah condemned the equally haughty hearts of Judah’s women, warning them that their flaunted beauty would be replaced with ugliness: “instead of perfume, there will be rottenness; and instead of a belt, a rope; and instead of well-set hair, baldness; and instead of a rich robe, a skirt of sackcloth; and branding instead of beauty.” (3:24). Most people recognize that life as we know it can change in an instant. And, yet, how easy it is for human beings to secure themselves in their own ways of life, knowledge, possessions, practices, and beauty – even to the point of hubris. Isaiah reminds the people that their sinful hearts, cocooned in the deceptive security of their own practices and possessions, would be purged of the very things that arrayed them in seemingly secured arrogance. As God concluded His message of sentencing in 4:1, the judgment pronounced is in full view: stark, severe, and jarring.
God knew the shocking nature of this judgment. God intended this. This message of judgment was not intended to elicit joy, happiness, and celebration among the people. That is never the purpose of true judgment. Authorities do not punish wrongdoers to generate happiness. Parents don’t punish children to make them joyful in the moment of reckoning. Judges don’t sentence criminals in order that they might celebrate in the midst of their trial. Supervisors don’t discipline subordinates to make them content and fulfilled at work. But judgment, in any context, always has a purpose. And fair, equitable, and right judgment always has a constructive purpose. Thus, the judgment of almighty God, who is the ultimate source and perfect standard of fairness, justice, and righteousness, always has an intended purpose – and here it is the repentance and reform of God’s people. God’s judgment had a purpose. But God’s message of coming judgment wasn’t all He had to say.
Beginning in 4:2, notice that God begins a new prophecy. He did not leave His people on this note of terrible judgment. Their judgment was not the end of the story.
The phrase, “the branch of the Lord,” is a metaphor for the Messiah. It is used in parallel with the phrase, “the fruit of the land” (4:2). The phrase is loaded with symbolic meaning, as God is contrasting the humility of the coming Messiah, the Lord Jesus, with the arrogant and absurd magnificence of Jerusalem’s sinful leading men and adorned women. The Messiah is described as a “branch” – that is, a sprout or twig growing out of the Davidic line. This description is remarkably humble when compared with the previous descriptions of Judah’s men and women. Elsewhere, Isaiah would describe the humility of the coming Messiah to an even greater degree. In Isaiah 53:2, the prophet would write, “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (ESV). In worldly terms, Jesus would not have been recognized for His physical beauty or appearance. No one would have picked Him to be the King of Kings and Lord of Lords based on His worldly appearance. To echo 1 Samuel 8, He is not a king like all the other nations have (and praise God for this!). However, like King David before Him (and from whom He descended), Jesus is rightfully the Lord of all the earth by the selection and hand of the Father and not by that of mere men. As Raymond Ortlund and Kent Hughes observed, “Jesus replaces false beauty with true desirability: ‘The branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious.’ (Isaiah 4:2)”
Though judgment was coming to exhort repentance and refine God’s people, the Messiah was coming beyond that judgment. And when the Branch of the Lord arrived, he would do three magnificent things. First, He would provide a fruitful earth. While “the fruit of the land” is a phrase identifying the Messiah, it also reminds us of the Messiah’s role in providing for His people. God is the source of all provisions for His people. In the rule and reign of the Messiah – in His everlasting, eternal Kingdom – all of their needs will always be met. We may struggle for food, water, and shelter in this life, but not in the eternal life that is to come by faith in Jesus.
Second, the Branch of the Lord would make His people holy (v. 3). The Lord Jesus would perfect the holiness of all believers, purifying them by His power and making them acceptable before God so that they would be able to live and reign with Him eternally. In contrast to the arrogant, pre-judgment hearts of those in Judah – and the arrogant, rebellious hearts of so many today – Christians know and understand that human beings cannot make themselves holy. While we strive for perfection in seeking to be like our Lord – to be Christ-like – we recognize that we can never achieve holiness by our power. We only achieve it by His. The Branch of the Lord would make His people truly holy.
Third, and closely related to the second, the Branch of the Lord would cleanse His people from their moral filth and sin (v. 4). The lawlessness, violence, rebellion, and filth of the people would be cleansed, and the people of God would be washed clean by the power and completed work of the coming Savior. This image of being washed clean is among the most powerful, heart-warming, and soul-stirring images in all of Scripture. In Psalm 51:2, after his adultery with Bathsheba, David pled with the Lord, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” In 1 John 1:9, the Lord reminds us, “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” In Hebrews 9:14, the Lord exhorted, “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” [emphasis mine].
Perhaps the most moving display of God cleaning and washing away the sins of His people is seen in an event yet future described in the seventh chapter of the Revelation of John. As John is seeing events yet to come, he is shown a great multitude from every tribe and nation. Revelation 7:9-14 describes the scene:
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” 13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (ESV).
While I believe the great multitude of Revelation 7 refers to those who will be saved during the future period known as the Great Tribulation, the image of being washed clean by the blood of the Lamb is an image and, by faith in Jesus, a reality for all Christians. We are not left to wallow and struggle in our sins and failures. No – quite to the contrary, Jesus came for us. Jesus lived for us. Jesus died for us. And Jesus rose again for us! By faith, our sins are not only forgiven – they are cleansed and washed away by His completed work at Calvary! That is the glorious climax of the Christian’s story!
However, as the Revelation also describes, there is an alternative appointed for those who have not placed their faith in Jesus. That alternative is the unspeakable terror of hell, referenced in Revelation 20:14-15. Much is said of hell in the Bible – and much should be said of hell by those who preach and teach it. The lake of fire (Rev. 20:14-15). “Weeping and gnashing of teeth” and “outer darkness” (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; 13:28). The place where “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). Hell is a real place and rightly described as a place of both physical and spiritual suffering. However, we must also understand that hell is not what God desires for His people. As 2 Peter 3:9 declares, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (ESV). Hell is the destination for those who have repeatedly, finally, and irrevocably rejected God’s offer of salvation, grace, and forgiveness in Christ. It is terrible. It is tragic. And, unlike earthly judgment, it is eternal. But it also does not have to be the end of our story. For those who trust in Christ, God has prepared a truly wondrous and magnificent conclusion to our earthly stories: salvation, grace, forgiveness, and an eternity filled with unimaginable joy in the presence of and in service to our beloved Savior, the promised Branch of the Lord!
Praise God that judgment wasn’t the end of the story for Judah. Praise God that judgment doesn’t have to be the end of the story for each of us! There is a reason that the Bible – the inerrant, infallible, inspired Word of God and God’s very revelation of Himself to all humanity – ends in exactly the way it does in Revelation 22:21. Not on a note of judgment, but on a note of mercy.
“The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.”
That is the ultimate “happy ending” – for all time.
 Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 1–39, ed. E. Ray Clendenen, The New American Commentary (Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2007), 154.
 Raymond C. Ortlund Jr. and R. Kent Hughes, Isaiah: God Saves Sinners, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), 62.