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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
Jesus of Nazareth is among the most famous, admired and influential persons in history. Amazon.com offers more than 175,000 titles about Him. Google lists more than 165 million references to Him. For the most part, every major world religion holds Jesus in high esteem, but they can’t agree on who He is or what He accomplished.
- Islam teaches that Jesus was a great prophet who lived a sinless life, but denies that He is the Son of God or Savior of the world.
- Hinduism, for some, says Jesus was an Avatar or incarnation of God, a great spiritual teacher, a guru, but not particularly unique among Hinduism’s 330 million gods.
- Buddhism generally regards Jesus as a teacher who may have possessed Buddha hood or enlightenment, but was not mankind’s Savior.
- Judaism considers Him a humble and insignificant prophet, a reformer who performed good deeds, but not the Messiah and not divine.
- Christianity declares that Jesus is the Son of God, Messiah, and Savior, whose death and resurrection paid mankind’s sin debt and provided forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
The debate over Jesus is not new, however. Jesus Himself addressed the issue with His disciples in Matthew 16:13-17, confirming Peter’s answer, given by God the Father, that He is the Messiah (or Christ), the Son of the living God. Further, Jesus provided evidence for His claims through the fulfillment of prophecy, His teaching, miracles, sinless life, sacrificial death, and physical resurrection. The New Testament writers recorded Jesus’ words and bore eyewitness testimony of His life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension – and many of them died for their faith.
But what about you? Will you honestly examine the best available evidence and decide for yourself? Everyone can find the real Jesus by examining the best available evidence – the Scriptures – and asking three important questions: 1) Who does Jesus say He is? 2) Who do the eyewitnesses say He is? And 3) Who do you say He is?
Download this free study guide and examine the Scriptures for yourself.
Where we are:
Part 1: Judgment
Part 2: Historical Interlude
Part 3: Salvation
When this takes place:
Isaiah speaks these oracles against Babylon, Dumah (Edom) and Arabia during the reign of Hezekiah, who hopes that a Babylonian uprising will break the grip of the Assyrians. Unfortunately for Judah, the rebellion fails.
Isa. 21:4 – My heart staggers; horror terrifies me. He has turned my last glimmer of hope into sheer terror.
Lawrence O. Richards writes, “Isaiah continues his predictions of judgments destined to soon strike contemporary nations. The prophet foresees the fall of pagan Babylon, not due to emerge as a dominant world power for yet another 100 years (21:1-10). He also prophesies briefly against Edom and Arabia, who will try futilely to resist Assyria’s power (vv. 11-17)” (The Bible Readers Companion, electronic ed., S. 422).
Many commentators assume that this oracle predicts the fall of Babylon to the Medo-Persian Empire in 539 B.C. That future event will produce joy among the Jews because it will result in the end of their captivity. So why does Isaiah liken the fall of Babylon to a time of terror for the Jews? Because Isaiah’s focus is on the more immediate future. In 722 B.C., a Chaldean prince named Marduk-apal-iddina revolts against Assyria, captures Babylon and becomes its king. Hezekiah and his people are hopeful that this rebellion will break the stranglehold of the Assyrians in that part of the world. But by 705 B.C. Marduk-apal-iddina and his ally Elam will be defeated, and by 698 B.C. the area around the Persian Gulf will be destroyed. The Jews’ hopes will be dashed.
A Judgment on Babylon (Isa. 21:1-10)
Rather than introduce a well-known country like Egypt or Moab, this oracle is against the “desert by the sea” (v. 1), a reference to southern Babylon, known for its swampy marshes between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and the home of Marduk-apal-iddina (also known as Marodach-baladan). The invading army is depicted as a destructive desert storm, likely a reference to the Assyrian attack on Babylon around 689 B.C. Babylon’s neighbors, Media and Elam, are urged to attack the Assyrian forces to divert their attention from Babylon. The phrase, “I will put an end to all her groaning” (v. 2) possibly refers to the common people of Babylon who will finally experience rest from the attacks and counterattacks taking place in their country.
The strong emotional response in verses 3-4 likely is Isaiah’s gut-wrenching realization that Judah’s ally would meet a violent end, leaving Judah to defend herself against the Assyrians. Gary V. Smith writes, “He seems to be describing physical signs of cramps that brought him to his knees and a psychological astonishment that knocked the wind out of him. His heart stopped briefly and a horrendous thought brought great fear over him. He was hoping to enjoy a good night’s rest, but now God has turned this vision into a nightmare” (The New American Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, p. 372).
In verses 6-10 we are given the prophetic report of a watchman, sent by Isaiah at God’s command, to be on the lookout for any signs of battle between Babylon and Assyria. Day and night the watchman peers faithfully at the horizon and questions passers by. Finally the news arrives: “Babylon has fallen, has fallen. All the idols of her gods have been shattered on the ground” (v. 9). If the people of Judah trust in an alliance between King Hezekiah and Babylon’s Marduk-apal-iddina, hoping a Babylonian revolt will break Assyria’s domination over the region, they will be sorely disappointed. The words of the watchman bring Isaiah and the people to their knees. Isaiah reiterates that his message is from God (v. 10). He is only telling them what the Lord Almighty has revealed. The man from the “desert by the sea,” Marduk-apal-iddina, will fail. Judah must trust God, not the Babylonians, to save them.
An Oracle Against Dumah (Isa. 21:11-12)
This is a mysterious oracle. The name Dumah was given to one of Ishmael’s sons (Gen. 25:13-15), as were the names Kedar and Tema (mentioned in Isa. 21:13-16), so the name most likely as associated with an oasis in the northern part of the Arabian desert, northeast of Edom. This site is on the trade route from Mesopotamia to Edom, and traders passing through would bring news about what is happening in Babylon. Since little information is provided, it’s hard to determine when this oracle is given. Likely it is prior to 700 B.C. during the reign of Sargon or Sennacherib (which fits vv. 1-10), or a much later date when the Babylonian king Nabonidus conquers various tribes in the Arabian Desert (500-540 B.C.).
In any case, the message is clear. The people along the trade route closer to Assyria and Babylon want to know, “Watchman, what is left of the night?” When will all the bloodshed and oppression be over? The watchman, perhaps Isaiah himself, replies that morning is coming, but so is another evening. In other words, there will be a brief respite from warfare, and then more troubling times. Finally, the watchman tells the inquirer to ask again later, implying that more information has yet to be revealed.
It’s difficult to grasp the meaning of this oracle to Judah, especially since neither Judah nor God is mentioned. Gary V. Smith offers good insight: “If this prophecy came during the time when the Assyrian kings were oppressing Judah and Babylon (21:9-10), this news would give the people of Judah a general assurance that better days are ahead, but also warn them that these good times would be followed by more dark days. It is possible that Isaiah’s audience might conclude from these words that they must not expect that their alliance with Babylon will quickly solve all their problems with Assyria. The previous oracle tells why: Babylon will fall” (The New American Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, p. 377).
An Oracle Against Arabia (Isa. 21:13-17)
This oracle foretells the difficult times the people of Arabia would soon experience at the hands of the Assyrians. The Dedanites (v. 13) are from a tribe in southern Arabia. Tema (v. 14) is a well-known oasis in northwestern Arabia, and Kedar (v. 16) is in northern Arabia. Kedar is known for its distinctive black tents (Ps. 120:5; Song of Sol. 1:5; Jer. 49:28-29), but within one year the warriors of Kedar will experience a crushing defeat. The Arabians will become fugitives, running for their lives. In 715 B.C. Sargon writes that he has defeated a number of Arabian tribes and deported them to Samaria.
“The special significance of this oracle lies in its warning to the freest and most inaccessible of tribes that Assyria’s long arm will reach even them, at God’s command,” writes D.A. Carson. “Those of the far south, Tema and Dedan, will have to succour their more exposed brother-tribe of Kedar” (New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, S. Is 21:13).
This chapter informs the people of Judah that the entire Middle East, even the remote desert lands, will be in turmoil under the expansive political and military ambitions of the Assyrians. It’s a reminder to all God’s people that the Lord is sovereign over every nation and tribe, even those refusing to acknowledge Him, and that He directs human history toward its inevitable climax when Messiah comes in power and glory and rules the earth from David’s throne.
Rather than trusting in chariots and horses (Ps. 20:7), or in national alliances, we would do well to trust in God.
Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips
This is the final installment in an eight-part series addressing common objections to the Bible as the Word of God.
Objection 8: There are so many Christian denominations today, it’s clear that Christians can’t agree on what the Bible teaches.
The Handbook of Denominations in the United States (12th Edition) lists more than 200 Christian denominations in 17 broad categories, from “Baptist Churches” to “Community and New Paradigm Churches.” If Jesus prayed that His followers would be one (John 17:11), and if there is to be “one body and one Spirit … one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:4-5), why can’t Christians get along? Even within denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention there have been major splits over issues such as the inerrancy of Scripture and the role of women in the church. Doesn’t all this contentiousness prove a fatal flaw in the Bible, since even people who study it and say they believe it can’t agree on what it teaches?
First, it should be noted that many of the disagreements among Christians are over matters of conscience, such as which day of the week to worship, dietary restrictions, or which translation of the Bible to use (see Rom.14:1-23; 1 Cor.10:23-33), or they focus on lesser points of doctrine, such as church polity or the manner in which missions activities are organized and funded. “The point of these divisions is never Christ as Lord and Savior, but rather honest differences of opinion by godly, albeit flawed, people seeking to honor God and retain doctrinal purity according to their consciences and their understanding of His Word” (“Why are there so many Christian denominations?” found in www.gotquestions.org).
Second, it should be acknowledged that Christians often have engaged in petty squabbling, internal power struggles and political wrangling, resulting in unnecessary divisions in the body of Christ, not to mention damage to the church’s reputation. The New Testament implores believers to be gracious toward and forgiving of one another (Eph. 4:32); clearly, this has not always been the case.
Christian denominations generally developed out of a desire for fellowship and joint ministry between individual churches – a biblical concept (Acts. 11:27-30), according to Charles Draper (“Why So Many Denominations?” The Apologetics Study Bible, p. 1709). In addition, denominations many times began as renewal movements. The Reformed movements of the 1500s sought to restore the doctrines of the sovereignty of God and justification by faith to the church, which had all but abandoned these biblical teachings. In time, some Presbyterians drifted toward liberalism and new conservative Presbyterian groups emerged to preserve the Reformed teachings. Baptists came along within the Reformed tradition. Pentecostals and Charismatics formed new unions based on their view of the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts.
There is a rich diversity among Christian denominations, and the differences between them often are not as wide as they appear. This is not to say that all differences are minor, or that all should be set aside for the sake of unity, for in Scripture Christian unity is the product of God’s Spirit working in the hearts of regenerate people and anchored in the truth of God’s Word.
Some separations are, in fact, necessary. In the New Testament, many false teachers are disciplined or leave the churches (see 1 Tim. 1:18-20; 1 John 2:19). In addition, the apostle Paul warns the church that false teachers will rise to prominence in the church in the days before Christ’s return (2 Tim. 3:1-9). The church today should be on guard against those who preach “another Jesus … a different spirit … a different gospel” (2 Cor. 11:4). For example, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to be Christian in their theology and practice, yet both organizations deny the central teachings of Scripture, particularly those having to do with the person and work of Christ, the person and work of the Holy Spirit, and the gospel.
In fact, it is important to differentiate between: (1) denominations within the body of Christ; (2) cults (or counterfeit forms of Christianity); and (3) non-Christian false religions. Southern Baptists, Presbyterians and Lutherans, for example, are Christian denominations. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania (Jehovah’s Witnesses) are cults (religious organizations whose members claim to be Christians and who use the Bible and Christian terms, yet who deny the central beliefs of historical Christianity). Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism are non-Christian false religions.
Within Christian denominations, diversity is a good thing, but disunity is not, according to Gotquestions.org: “If two churches disagree doctrinally, debate and dialogue over the Word may be called for. This type of ‘iron sharpening iron’ (Proverbs 27:17) is beneficial to all. If they disagree on style and form, however, it is fine for them to remain separate. This separation, though, does not lift the responsibility Christians have to love one another (1 John 4:11-12) and ultimately be united as one in Christ (John 17:21-22).”
So what is a believer to do when looking for a church home? “The most important thing to do is to examine a church’s teaching and practice to see if it is consistent with Scripture,” writes Charles Draper in The Apologetics Study Bible. Gotquestions.org adds the following recommendations: “Pick a church on the basis of its relationship to Christ, how well it is serving the community. Pick a church where the pastor is preaching the Gospel without fear and is encouraged to do so. Christ and His church [are] all about your relationship to Him and to each other. As believers, there are certain basic doctrines that we must believe, but beyond that there is latitude on how we can serve and worship; it is this latitude that is the only good reason for denominations. This is diversity and not disunity. The first allows us to be individuals in Christ, the latter divides and destroys.”
Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips
I’m looking forward to the opportunity to speak on the topic, “In search of the real Jesus,” March 23 at 7:00 p.m. at the Williamson County Public Library in Franklin, Tenn. The event is free of charge and open to the public.