When you discipline yourself to read through the entire Bible, you will inevitably come across a sentence or a phrase that makes you kind of scratch your head with a bit of confusion. Actually, this will probably happen quite regularly, as there are many verses which require a bit of digging to unearth the author’s meaning and the principle application of his words. Last week, as we read Isaiah 60, we came across just such a phrase in verses 15 & 16.
“Whereas you have been forsaken and hated,
So that no one went through you,
I will make you an eternal excellence,
A joy of many generations.
You shall drink the milk of the Gentiles,
And milk the breast of kings;
You shall know that I, the LORD, am your Savior
And your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.”
What kind of picture is the prophet using here and what is its significance? The image that is conveyed by the language of this verse is pretty striking and causes us to wonder just how exactly a king is supposed to supply milk from his breast. Maybe you read this and just thought it was some obscure teaching that no one could understand, or maybe you didn’t even catch it as you went through the passage. Unfortunately, some of us have nearly stifled our natural sense of curiosity so that we can read a passage like this without even asking any questions about the text. On the other hand, you may have been struggling to understand the overall point of the chapter and missed this little detail. Let me just tell you that the Biblical writers as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit did not waste words, so there is a real significance in the way that Isaiah speaks in this verse. In fact, the image of a king offering his breast to a nursing child is intended to cause a reaction in the heart and mind of the reader. We’re supposed to notice it and wonder what it means!
The final nine chapters of the book of Isaiah deal with God’s promises for the future in contrast to the present realities. Because the people of Israel were so ungodly, it is clear that if they are to be made righteous that God must do it. That is the subject of chapters 58 & 59. When God brings about salvation for his people, specifically the salvation of national Israel at the beginning of the Millennium, he will glorify Israel and turn them into a beacon to the nations. This will cause all of the nations of the world to flock to Israel in order to receive the light which has shined forth from God’s people. The Gentile nations will bring with them their wealth and serve Israel as the representative of God, building up Jerusalem and bowing before Israel in submission. In this way, God will exalt Israel above all the nations, fulfilling his promise to Abraham to make him a great nation, make his name great, and bless those who bless him while cursing those who curse him. This is exactly the situation that Isaiah describes as happening in the day of Israel’s salvation.
So that is the context of v.15-16 where the prophet says that although Jerusalem has been hated and abandoned by the nations, she will become a source of joy and glory for all the world. It is Israel’s relationship to the nations, then, that is in view in these verses, and that is why the prophet says that she will “drink the milk of the Gentiles.” As Alec Motyer describes it, “Milk is fat, rich cream, the best, as in ‘a land flowing with milk…’.” So it will be in that day that Israel will enjoy the very best of the riches that the world has to offer, and will nurse at the breast of the Gentile kings. This picture is striking because it is unnatural. Kings do not nurse babies. Queens might, but kings do not. And in the same way, it is unnatural for the Gentile nations to give their best and richest goods to Israel, but that is exactly what they will do. As F. C. Jennings explains, “All the nations of the regenerate earth shall bring their riches to that city, and the very kings shall act as its foster-parents.”
The last part of v.16 offers the explanation for this. How is possible that something so unnatural could take place, like a king nursing a child at his breast? It is none other than the gracious work of God. Who else but Yahweh could be your Savior? Who else but the Mighty One of Jacob could be your Redeemer? The work of salvation is an act of divine grace for which God receives all the credit and glory. His people do not save themselves. We do not reform ourselves, and we cannot hope to bring peace on earth, yet God himself will accomplish both the saving of his people from their sins and the healing of the divisions between men. And just as we know it is impossible for a king to give milk from his breast, so we must recognize that the salvation of sinners and the peace of mankind are also, from a human perspective, impossible, yet God in his grace will accomplish that which men cannot. Praise the Lord!