Isaiah 51: Jerusalem’s Wakeup Call

Listen to Podcast: Isaiah 51 – Jerusalem’s Wakeup Call

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Where we are:

Part 1: Judgment Part 2: Historical Interlude Part 3: Salvation
Chapters 1-35 Chapters 36-39 Chapters 40-66

When this takes place:

Chapter 51 is part of the second major section of Isaiah and deals less with Judah’s immediate plight than with its future deliverance from Babylonian exile and ultimate glory.

Key verse:

Isa. 51:6 – Look up to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and its inhabitants will die in like manner. But My salvation will last forever, and My righteousness will never be shattered.

Quick summary:

Having introduced the Servant, Isaiah now reassures the Jewish captives that one day they will be free. His message also foreshadows the coming of Messiah and the final liberation of the faithful in God’s everlasting kingdom. H.L. Willmington summarizes: “Isaiah urged his hearers to give their full attention to his important message: They were to ‘listen’ (51:1, 4, 7), ‘wake up’ (51:17; 52:1), and then respond by immediately leaving sinful Babylon (52:11–12). Just as God had blessed Abraham, he would ‘comfort Israel’ (51:1–3), making its wilderness ‘as beautiful as Eden’ (51:3; see 29:17–24). He would bring everlasting salvation and justice to all people (51:4–8). Isaiah called on the Lord to bring about a second Exodus, as the nation he had led out of Egypt would now be led out of Babylon (51:9–11; see 63:11–14). He also looked further into the future, to the ‘everlasting joy’ of the Millennium (see 35:10). The Lord agreed that he, who had created all things, could certainly free his people from exile (51:12–16). He would soon transfer his wrath from Israel to their oppressors (51:17–23)” (Willmington’s Bible Handbook, Tyndale House Publishers, 1997, S. 371).

Take note:

Calling on His people to observe the heavens and the earth, the Lord contrasts the fleeting nature of this sinful and fallen world with His everlasting salvation. Yahweh declares:

  • “… the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and its inhabitants will die in like manner.” The psalmist notes this in Ps. 102:25-26: “They (the heavens and the earth) will perish … all of them will wear out like clothing. You will change them like a garment, and they will pass away.” So does Jesus in Matt. 24:35 (“Heaven and earth will pass away …”) and Peter in 2 Peter 3:10 (“… the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, the elements will burn and be dissolved, and the earth and the works on it will be disclosed”).
  • “But My salvation will last forever, and My righteousness will never be shattered.” This is a theme repeated often in both the Old and New Testaments. The psalmist, for example, writes, “All that He does is splendid and majestic; His righteousness endures forever” (Ps. 111:3). The apostle Paul notes, “salvation … is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10), and the writer of Hebrews adds, “He (Jesus) became the source of eternal salvation” (Heb. 5:9).

Patriarch and Promise (Isa. 51:1-8)

The believing remnant in Israel is to remember Abraham and receive encouragement. Though present circumstances are bleak, the future is bright for those who trust in God. The people are to look back to Abraham and Sarah, the “rock from which you were cut” and “the quarry from which you were dug” (v. 1). Abraham is but a single person when God calls him, yet he becomes the father of the Jewish race and the one through whom the promised Messiah comes. Abraham and Sarah waited many years for the child God promised them. Still, the Lord was faithful and gave them Isaac. The long wait glorified God because Sarah conceived long after her supposed child-bearing years. In like manner, the faithful remnant of Judah must believe than when the Lord has finished using the Babylonians to chasten His chosen people, He will deal with wicked Babylon and restore the Israelites to their homeland. Just as Yahweh made Sarah’s barren womb fruitful, He will turn Judah’s wasted homeland into a blossoming treasure once again. “For the Lord will comfort Zion,” the people are told in verse 3. “He will comfort all her waste places, and he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord.”

Next, the believers in Judah are urged to look forward. The Lord’s justice will extend beyond Judah’s borders and reach the whole world. His people will be vindicated – not because of their goodness but because of God’s greatness. Notice the Lord’s use of the personal pronoun in verses 4-6: “My people,” “My nation,” “My justice,” “My righteousness,” “My salvation,” “My arms,” “My strength.” “This is the grace of God, doing for His people what they did not deserve and what they could not do for themselves” (Warren Wiersbe, Be Comforted [An Old Testament Study], S. Is 51:1).

Finally in this section, the Lord admonishes the people to look within, where they will find either fear or faith. Throughout the book, Isaiah calls on the people to trust God, who overcomes their fears. “You are to regard only the Lord of Hosts as holy. Only He should be feared; only He should be held in awe,” the people are warned in Isa. 8:13. Later, they are told the day is coming when they will declare, “God is my salvation. I will trust [Him] and not be afraid. Because Yah, the Lord, is my strength and my song, He has become my salvation” (Isa. 12:2). Isaiah tells his fellow countrymen that the moth will devour the enemy like a garment and the worm will eat them like wool. Moths and worms do their work slowly and secretly, but effectively nonetheless. While the Jews couldn’t see it, the seeds of destruction already were being sown in Babylon, and the pagan nation that God would use to chasten His people one day would be punished for their rebellion against Yahweh and His chosen ones. Meanwhile, the Lord’s salvation and righteousness will endure forever.

Prayer and Protection (Isa. 51:9-16)

Verses 9-11 may be read as a prayer of the righteous remnant, calling on God to rise up and deliver His people as He did in the Exodus. The questions beginning, “Wasn’t it you …?” are rhetorical affirmations of God’s great acts in history and express the people’s confidence in the His continuing sovereignty:

  • “Wasn’t it You who hacked Rahab to pieces, who pierced the sea monster?” (v. 9). This is a reference to Egypt. “In Ugaritic literature Rahab was the name of a female sea monster associated with Leviathan. Perhaps the hippopotamus, an animal that often sits in the water of the Nile doing nothing, represents that mythical water beast. Understandably Rahab came to be a poetic synonym for Egypt (and also for a demon behind Egypt) when God overpowered the Egyptian soldiers in the sea at the Exodus” (John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, 1:1080).
  • “Wasn’t it You who dried up the sea … who made the sea-bed into a road for the redeemed to pass over?” (v. 10). Just as the Lord enabled the Jews to cross the Red Sea on dry ground and then drowned the pursuing Egyptian armies (Ex. 14:21-31), He would allow His people to return to their homeland in a new exodus. Their response would be singing, joy and gladness (v. 11).

In verses 12-16 the Lord personally assures the Israelites He will protect them. He provides comfort now, even though His people are on the cusp of divine discipline, and urges them to remember that the God who laid the foundations of the earth is able to carry them through exile in Babylon and restore them to their homeland. Why should God’s people fear human enemies, who are as frail as grass, when the Lord of the universe is on their side? Though they deserve the chastening they are about to receive, Yahweh has not abandoned His purpose for them. He has established the Jews as His unique people. He invested His word in them. He promised to bless all mankind through them with the coming Messiah. He will not forget His promises or forsake His people.

Matthew Henry reminds us that there is a message here for the church: “The people whom Christ has redeemed with his blood, as well as by his power, will obtain joyful deliverance from every enemy. He that designs such joy for us at last, will he not work such deliverance in the mean time, as our cases require? In this world of changes, it is a short step from joy to sorrow, but in that world, sorrow shall never come in view. They prayed for the display of God’s power; he answers them with consolations of his grace…. Happy is the man that fears God always. And Christ’s church shall enjoy security by the power and providence of the Almighty” (Matthew Henry Concise, Bible Navigator, v. 12).

Proclamation and Punishment (Isa. 51:17-23)

Earlier in this chapter, the remnant – or the prophet – asks the Lord to wake up and do something about the plight of the Jews. But beginning in verse 17, it is the people of Jerusalem who are roused from their sleep because the Lord is about to do something: He is bringing their calamity to a close. In exile in Babylon, the people “have drunk the cup of His fury” all the way to the dregs (v. 17). That is, they have experienced the full weight of His wrath. In the leveling of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians, the people endured “devastation and destruction [to the land], famine and sword [to the people]” (v. 19). Even the children “lie at the head of every street like an antelope in the net” (v. 20). When God’s judgment falls upon an entity – a family, city, or nation, for example – no one in that entity is exempted from His divine rod. While some argue that this is unfair, or even that it reveals an unloving God, there are several biblical truths to keep in mind: 1) God knows everything, including what would happen if He didn’t put a stop to an entity’s evil; 2) God’s wrath falls only after His mercy has been soundly and repeatedly rejected; and 3) God will judge every individual one day, and the youngster whose life is cut short because of her parents’ sins will be compensated in eternity for what was lost in time.

For the remnant living in Babylon, however, there is good news: “Look, I have removed the cup of staggering from your hand; that goblet, the cup of my fury. You will never drink it again” (v. 22). And for the Jews who could not imagine how the Holy One of Israel used the pagan and brutal Babylonians as His instrument of judgment, the Lord now tells them that the Babylonians’ day of reckoning has come. “I will put it [the cup of His fury] into the hands of your tormentors,” the Lord says in verse 23. The Babylonians, who had walked over the Jews’ dead bodies in Jerusalem, would now experience similar horrors at the hands of the Persians.

Closing Thought

When we hear of persecuted and martyred Christians around the world, we should take comfort in God’s promise that those who oppress His people will experience His wrath. Matthew Henry comments: “How justly God will reckon with those who have carried it so imperiously towards his people: The cup of trembling shall be put into their hand. Babylon’s case shall be as bad as ever Jerusalem’s was. Daniel’s persecutors shall be thrown into Daniel’s den; let them see how they like it. And the Lord is known by these judgments which he executes” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, S. Is 51:17).