Isaiah is a prophet of the Exodus. His rich and beautiful prophecy contains a dramatic exodus triple-whammy, as he promises first rescue from Assyria, then redemption from Babylon, and finally redemption from sin itself, in a fashion that echoes the exodus but turns it completely on its head. Those who know the story of Moses and Pharaoh, plagues and Passover, will recognize the shape of what Isaiah prophesies—but they will also be astonished by the way he presents the denouement.

In the first half of Isaiah, the shape of Israel’s deliverance is familiar. There is a Pharaoh figure, the king of Assyria, who thinks he is stronger than Yahweh and is keen to oppress God’s people, but who (it turns out) is being used by God to achieve his purposes. There is the assurance that God will come down in fire, that the Assyrians will be first struck with plagues and then wiped out in one day, and that Israel will be rescued, return to their land by crossing a river on dry land, and sing the song of Exodus 15 on the far side (Isaiah 10–12). There is the promise of tragedy upon the unbelieving city and judgment upon the dragon that is in the sea, while God’s people are brought back from Egypt and ascend his mountain to eat and drink with him (24–27). When we finally meet Sennacherib, king of Assyria, we already know what will happen. We find a threat to God’s people, trash talk from the enemy, false promises, and desperate prayer to the God of heaven’s armies. And then it happens. The angel of Yahweh goes out, at night, and strikes down the Assyrians by the thousands. The world’s most powerful empire is defeated in twelve hours, along with their gods, and Israel wakes in the morning to find their salvation accomplished without their having lifted a finger (36–37). The God of the exodus lives. His people are free.

But not for long. Just over a century later, Babylon will play the role of Egypt, and Judah will once again be in captivity to a foreign power, banished to a foreign land, and surrounded by foreign gods. So another exodus is needed, one in which God redeems his people from slavery, exposes the impotence of idols, releases prisoners from bondage, dries up the rivers and makes a way through the sea, provides water to the thirsty from a rock in the wilderness, and enables Israel to flee in joy, saying “Yahweh has redeemed his servant Jacob!” (Isa. 48:20; see Isaiah 40–48). Babylon and her gods will come to nothing. Israel will be free.

But not for long. And this is where Isaiah starts to turn everything on its head, like a pianist playing a familiar piece of music but crossing her hands over. Judah’s problem, we discover, is deeper than physical captivity and harder to crack than mere armies. They are captive to sin itself: their iniquity, their faithlessness, their tendency to revert to idolatry even after they have been rescued again and again. In their captivity, they are inclined to think that God has forgotten them. Yet as with Israel’s oppression in Egypt, Yahweh remembers: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she can have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Isa. 49:15–16). With exodus imagery pouring forth—“O arm of Yahweh; awake. . . . Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon? Was it not you who dried up the sea, 

the waters of the great deep, who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over?” (Isa. 51:9–10)—we anticipate a new act of deliverance, not just temporarily from the latest invader, but once and for all (49–51).

The arm of Yahweh, as we know, is about strength, power, even violence: the mighty hand and the outstretched arm that rain hailstones like fists and split the ocean. So as Isaiah begins to celebrate Judah’s redemption, we are not surprised to hear that it comes about because “Yahweh has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all nations,” and that his servant will be “high and lifted up” (Isa. 52:10, 13).

 Here it comes: the violent showdown we have all been waiting for. We can hear Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries beginning in the background.

But the orchestra goes silent. Suddenly, the concert hall is deathly quiet. No trumpets or horns sound; the strings are muffled, and the oboes have been gently put back on the floor. The only sound we can hear is a plaintive cry, and as we peer at the stage in astonishment, we notice that it is coming from a manger, or the graveside of a friend, or a hillside garden, or even a cross. It is the cry of one like a root out of dry ground, with no beauty that we should desire him, despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:2–3). Here, we learn, is what the arm of Yahweh actually looks like in person: one who bears our griefs, carries our sorrows, is pierced for our transgressions, and is crushed for our iniquities (53:5). That is how Israel will be accounted righteous. That is what causes barren women to burst into song and thirsty travelers from every nation to descend on Jerusalem for a free banquet (53–55).

We didn’t think the new exodus would look like that at all. We were so busy looking for God in the plagues or chariots hurled into the sea that we missed him in the fragile baby drifting downstream in a basket, and in the lamb’s blood smeared across the doorpost, and in the two goats who face death and exile to take away the sins of the people. The God of the exodus is still high and lifted up, and he still redeems with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. But now he is high and lifted up on a cross, and his arms are outstretched sideways, and his mighty hands have nails in them. Isaiah is as surprised as anyone: “Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of Yahweh been revealed?” (53:1). Who indeed?