For Zion's sake I will not be still, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until her righteousness goes forth like brightness, and her salvation is like a burning torch [Isaiah 62:1, John Oswalt's translation (p.576)]
John Oswalt, in his commentary on Isaiah, says of this verse:
However it might appear, God insists that he will be at work unceasingly for Zion's sake. The emphatic position of this phrase Underlines a significant point. As important as God's name is, he is not delivering Jerusalem for himself, for the sake of his reputation, but for the love of his people. (Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 400-66, p.578)
Then he adds this footnote:
The other side of the position is given in Ezek. 36:19-27, where God makes plain that he is not delivering Israel because of anything it has done to deserve such deliverance. The deliverance is strictly an expression of his own holiness.
Here is that passage:
I dispersed them among the nations, and they were scattered through the countries; I judged them according to their conduct and their actions. And wherever they went among the nations they profaned my holy name, for it was said of them, 'These are the LORD's people, and yet they had to leave his land.' I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel profaned among the nations where they had gone.
"Therefore say to the house of Israel, 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: It is not for your sake, house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Sovereign LORD, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes.
" 'For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. [Ezekiel 36:19-27, TNIV]
Here are three views that someone might hold to try to fit these texts together:
A. God does things for the sake of his glory, and God does things for the sake of his people (or those he will bring into his people). But these motivations are distinct (but at times simultaneous), and neither is wholly reducible to the other.
B. God does things for the sake of his glory, but all this means is that he acts based on his character and promotes what's good. The reason God promotes what's good is for the sake of others. So God's doing things for the sake of his glory is explainable in terms of God's doing things for the sake of others, which is the more primary and ultimate motivation for God.
C. God does things for the sake of others, but the reason God's love is important is because it demonstrates the perfection of God, the most perfect being. It's always good to promote good, and promoting the most perfect is better than anything else you might do. So God does things for the good of others because God does everything for the sake of his glory, and doing things for others does that.
John Piper defends view C in print (e.g. in Desiring God, The Pleasures of God, and Let the Nations Be Glad!), as have Thomas Schreiner (for example, in his commentary on Romans in the BECNT series and his NT Theology) and Iain Duguid (in his Ezekiel NIV Application Commentary).
I believe view B captures my sometime co-blogger Wink's position, one that Joyce Baldwin and Miroslav Volf also seem to endorse, although I think perhaps each might want to tweak bits of it in different ways.
Position A is my own position. I think what Oswalt says supports my position, although he himself doesn't quite get there explicitly. Piper might read the Isaiah quotation as saying God does things for the sake of Zion and then explain that as the secondary level, where God does things for others so that it will bring him glory in doing so. But Oswalt points out that "for the sake of Zion" is emphatic. It's as if God is saying that it's really simply for Zion that he's doing this. It's hard for me to see that as reducible to God acting for his own glory as the primary motivation behind the other-centeredness. It just doesn't seem natural for this verse to mean that.
But the Ezekiel quote qualifies this in the other direction, as Oswalt points out in his footnote. In some instances God acts not for Israel's sake but for his own name. This is consistent with an others-centered motivation, if Oswalt is right that this is about deliverance but not because of Israel deserving that deliverance. But it doesn't read that way to me. It doesn't seem to be saying just that God does it without their deserving it. It says that God did it not for them. It's as if there's no sense in which God did it for them.
Peter Craigie's Ezekiel commentary (Daily Study Bible series) offers a different way to get view A. He says it means only that God didn't do it only for them but also did it for his name. But that seems to do injustice to the text even more strongly than Oswalt's suggested interpretation. The whole point here is that it's not for them. If they were the only factor God would be considering, they would be judged.
It seems to me that Ezekiel's language is strong enough that it can't be taken in any way other than the stronger claim that seems like what Piper and Duguid would support. In no sense is this act for Israel. It's solely for God's name. The problem, though, is that the Isaiah passage is talking about the exact same restoration as the Ezekiel passage, and that says quite clearly that God is doing it for Zion.
So are we stuck with a contradiction? It's certainly a formal contradiction, and it's one that Piper/Duguid also can't handle very well. Ezekiel doesn't give a reductionist account, as in Piper's view, which would say that God does it for them but then saying that "for them" is in turn really just for his glory, because he gets glory by doing things for them. Ezekiel says something stronger, and it amounts to an eliminativist account of all motivation having to do with them.
I want to offer another solution. The Ezekiel passage is talking about them as they are at the time. The Isaiah passage is talking about them as they will be. God isn't doing it for them as they are now. Oswalt is right to say that they don't deserve it, but that's only part of it. At the time Isaiah was writing this, and at the later time when Ezekiel wrote, Israel wasn't in a position to deserve what God was doing. God wasn't doing it for them in the state they were in. But God intended to do something for them that would secrure the reputation of God in a way that doing nothing to restore Israel would harm it. In Ezekiel it's not for them at all in the sense of being for them now, but it's for them in a different sense in Isaiah. It's for them as God intends them to be. God has a plan for a restored Israel, an Israel who will be the sort of nation that God delights in doing things for. Israel in its current state wasn't like that, and thus God wouldn't do what he announced he'll do for their sake as they are at the time. He does it for his own glory and for the sake of what Israel will be. Both motivations are present, and neither is reducible to the other, but you also can truly say that God doesn't do it for them in one very important sense while also saying that God does do it for them in a different but also very important sense.
The Isaiah passage contains evidence for this within it. (1) Isaiah goes on to describe Zion (as God will restore her) as a crown in his hand, something marvelous for God to delight in. (2) A little further, God will rejoice over Zion (again, restored Zion). So it seems as if it's not just for zion's sake that God does it but God takes delight in Zion rather than just appreciating that what he's done furthers his glory, with Zion as the means. Zion is treated as an end, but it's only the restored Zion that God is delighting in and treasuring. This is consistent with God loving while we're still sinners, but it's love for us as God envisions us restored.