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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Isaiah 51

Verse 1

Douglas divided this chapter and Isaiah 52 into seven divisions, as follows: the 1call (Isaiah 51:1-3), 2call (Isaiah 51:4-6), 3call (Isaiah 51:7-8), 4th call (Isaiah 51:9-16), 5th call (Isaiah 51:17-23), 6th call (Isaiah 52:1-6), and 7th call (Isaiah 52:7-10).[1] This is an interesting arrangement, in spite of the fact that it is not always clear as to just who is doing the calling. Kelley's arrangement of this chapter classified the first three of these "calls" as "The consolation of Zion,"[2] with three strophes, corresponding to Douglas' three calls.

Isaiah 51:1-3

"Hearken unto me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek Jehovah: look unto the rock whence ye were hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye were digged. Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you; for when he was but one I called him, and I blessed him, and made him many. For Jehovah hath comforted Zion; he hath comforted all her waste places, and hath made her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of Jehovah; and joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody."

"Look unto the rock ..." (Isaiah 51:1). Actually, the meaning here is not merely a rock, as indicated by its being called "hole" in the next line. The passage "should be read, `Look unto the quarry whence ye were digged.'"[3] The comparison, of course, is a metaphor instructing faithful believers to look back to their ancestry, Abraham and Sarah.

The persons addressed in this paragraph are called Israelites; but it is obvious that only the "righteous remnant" are meant; and therefore the ultimate application of the passage extends to the Ideal Servant and his holy Church. This does not diminish either the need of the discouraged captives in Babylon for such marvelous encouragement as that given here, or its ultimate application to all the discouraged followers of the Messiah in future generations.

The purpose of the encouragement given here is, "To convince them of the certainty and permanence of the coming deliverance."[4]

"He was but one when I called him ..." (Isaiah 51:2). The point here, given for the encouragement of the captive remnant is simple enough. If God called Abraham when he was only one person, and a hundred years old at that, and his wife barren at the age of 90 years, yet, despite all that, did indeed make him a mighty nation as he had promised, why should the thousands of the "righteous remnant" have any doubt whatever that God indeed had the power to bless and multiply them, overthrow their enemies and pour out the blessings of heaven upon them that trusted him? Kelley also pointed out that, "The fact that the prophet addressed these words to them in the very land in which Abraham and Sarah had indeed received their first call gave added meaning to what is said here."[5]

Note that these sacred promises should be restricted to the "righteous remnant," despite the fact of their being identified as "posterity of Abraham" (which, of course, they were). That portion of rebellious Israel, however, that included sons of the devil such as Manasseh and the nation of blind and deaf hypocrites, most of whom remained in Babylon even after being commanded to leave, certainly never participated in the consolation and blessing detailed in this passage. Of course, this remark is not intended as a judgment upon Manasseh following his repentance.

The promise in Isaiah 51:3 that God would comfort Zion means that he would intervene to rescue the "righteous remnant" and return them to Jerusalem.

"Ye that pursue righteousness ..." (Isaiah 51:1). This mark of identification eliminates all of the captives except the righteous remnant, the ones who would return. As to what the "pursuit of righteousness" actually meant, Lowth cautioned us that, "The word has a great latitude in meaning, signifying: justice, truth, faithfulness, goodness, mercy, deliverance, salvation, etc."[6] In this particular verse, Cheyne was sure that the meaning of the word was "fair dealing."[7] This may be correct, because a great many Jews by their unfair dealings became wealthy citizens of Babylon and refused to leave when the time came.

Verse 4

"Attend unto me, O my people; and give ear unto me, O my nation: for a law shall go forth from me, and I will establish my justice for a light of the peoples. My righteousness is near, my salvation is gone forth, and mine arms shall judge the peoples; the isles shall wait for me, and on my arm shall they trust. Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look upon the earth beneath; for the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment; and they that dwell therein shall die in like manner: but my salvation shall be forever, and my righteousness shall not be abolished. Hearken unto me, ye that know righteousness, the people in whose heart is my law; fear ye not the reproach of men, neither be ye dismayed at their revilings. For the moth shall eat them up like a garment, and the worm shall eat them like wool; but my righteousness shall be forever, and my salvation unto all generations."

"This second strophe describes God's salvation as comprehending all mankind and as outlasting the heavens and the earth."[8] This analysis is certainly true, and therefore, we must question the use of the word "nation" here instead of "nations," the latter word meaning "Gentiles," and the former leaving the impression that the old fleshly nation of the Jews were God's chosen people. That was never the case. The chosen were then, and always, the persons of like faith and character of Abraham. Both Lowth and Adam Clarke who quoted him correctly rendered the word here "O my peoples." adding that, "The address here is not to Jews but to Gentiles."[9]

Two additional meanings of "righteousness" appear in Isaiah 51:4,5; it means "justice" in Isaiah 51:4, and "salvation" in Isaiah 51:5. "It means here the faithful completion of God's promise to deliver his people."[10] See also Footnote No. 6.

"Isaiah 51:6 here affirms that the heavens and the earth are less stable than God's Word; and Isaiah 51:7 goes on to urge the exiles to trust God's promises, putting aside any fear of men who, after all, are far more transient than the material universe."[11] There are reflections of this passage (and of all of Isaiah) throughout the New Testament, especially in Hebrews 1:11.

"It is a justifiable conclusion from this paragraph that: Since all Christ-rejecting unbelievers are doomed to utter destruction, no believer should ever quail before the menace of the world or the hostility of ungodly men, whose plight is desperate, and their doom sure."[12]

Verse 9

"Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of Jehovah; awake, as in the days of old, the generations of anclent times. Is it not thou that didst cut Rahab in pieces, that didst pierce the monster? Is it not thou that driest up the sea, the waters of the great deep; that madest the depth of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over? And the ransomed of Jehovah shall return, and come with singing unto Zion; and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads: they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and sighing shall flee away."

Kelley believed that here the prophet Isaiah himself is the speaker, and that he was pleading for God to intervene upon behalf of Israel as in the days of previous generations; but other speakers have been suggested, such as "Zion, angels, the prophet Isaiah, and the Son (the Ideal Servant) pleading with the Father, and that it is Jehovah addressing himself!"[13] One may take his choice; we fail to see that it makes a lot of difference.

"That didst cut Rahab in pieces ..." (Isaiah 51:9). The name Rahab is here a poetic name of Egypt, just as Gotham is the poetic name of New York City. The name's connection with some ancient Babylonian myth is of no significance whatever and certainly does not signify any Biblical endorsement of ancient mythology. Rahab is used for Egypt in Psalms 87:4, and also in Psalms 89:10. Some versions render the Hebrew word as Dragon; but this also means Egypt (Psalms 74:13).

God in this passage is referred to as the one who dried up the waters of the sea and made a way for the redeemed to cross over. This, of course, is a reference to the Exodus on dry land through the Red Sea (More properly, the End Sea); see my article on this in Vol. 2 (Exodus) of the Pentateuchal Series of the Commentaries, pp. 177-179. This indicates that in some way, the coming out of Babylon by the righteous remnant would be considered as "a new exodus."[14] There are overtones here also that reach far beyond the return of captives from Babylon. The quotation here in Isaiah 51:11 from Isaiah 35:10 is proof enough that a tremendous deliverance is promised.

As Jamieson noted:

"As surely as God redeemed Israel out of Egypt, He will redeem them from Babylon, both from the literal Babylon in the age following Isaiah, and from the mystical Babylon revealed in Revelation 18:20,21, which is the last enemy of Israel and the Church, from which they have long suffered, but from which they are to be gloriously delivered."[15]

Verse 12

"I, even I, am he that comforteth you: who art thou, that thou art afraid of man that shall die, and of the son of man that shall be made as grass; and hast forgotten Jehovah thy Maker, that stretched forth the heavens, and laid the foundations of the earth; and learest continually all the day because of the fury of the oppressor, when he maketh ready to destroy? The captive exile shall be speedily loosed; and he shall not die and go down into the pit, neither shall his bread fail. For I am Jehovah thy God, who stirreth up the sea, so that the waves thereof roar: Jehovah of hosts is his name. And I have put my words in thy mouth, and have covered thee in the shadow of my hand, that I may plant the heavens, and lay the foundations of the earth, and say unto Zion, Thou art my people."

Here we have the Lord's reply to previous petitions in the passage; and it is presented with the utmost tenderness. The double use of the first person pronoun "has the effect of drawing Israel's attention away from the momentary threat posed by her oppressors and focusing it upon him and the salvation which he is so generously providing for his people."[16]

The unbelievers among Israel especially needed this warning to the effect that men are like grass, doomed to perish after a brief life on earth; however, God promised them that they would be protected against death, failure, and hunger, and that they would surely be freed from their captivity. This should not be understood as promising that none of them would die in captivity, for many did die in Babylon. What was meant is that death, failure, hunger, nor anything else, would be able to thwart God's purpose of delivering them from bondage.

"Thou hast forgotten Jehovah thy Maker ..." (Isaiah 51:13). "It is not so much apostasy as want of a practical faith with which captive Israel is here reproached,"[17] according to Rawlinson; but this was true only of the "righteous remnant," not of the thousands who would never leave Babylon.

The Hebrew in Isaiah 51:14 allows the rendition: "He marches on with speed, who cometh to set free the captive."[18] Therefore the promise that "thou shalt not die" means that the delivery shall occur in the lifetime of the nation. This, of course, has a double application: (1) to Cyrus as the deliverer from Babylon, and (2) to Messiah in the spiritual sense.

"I have put my words in his mouth ..." (Isaiah 51:16). This is the same message as that given above in Isaiah 49:2, the strict application of it being to the Ideal Servant only. Of all the prophets who ever came to mankind, only Jesus Christ delivered God's Word exclusively to men. The Old Israel was the type of the True Israel; and it was the case with them that, "It was as a bearer of God's Words (in the Old Testament) that Israel chiefly fulfilled her mission."[19]

"I have covered thee in the shadow of my hand ..." (Isaiah 51:16b). This also corresponds to Isaiah 49:2, "He hath hid me, etc." This prophecy was fulfilled when Jehovah hid the infant Messiah from the wrath of Herod, and brought him up in the isolated and despised village of Nazareth, in a carpenter's shop.

Verse 17

"Awake, awake, stand up, O Jerusalem, that hast drunk at the hand of Jehovah the cup of his wrath; thou hast drunken the bowl of the cup of staggering, and drained it. There is none to guide her among all the sons who she hath brought forth; neither is there any that taketh her by the hand among all the sons that she hath brought forth. These two things are befallen thee: who shall bemoan thee? desolation and destruction, and famine and the sword; how shall I comfort thee? Thy sons have fainted, they lie at the head of all the streets, as an antelope in a net; they are full of the wrath of Jehovah, the rebuke of thy God."

What a sad picture of God's people is presented here. The old Jerusalem is depicted as a drunken woman staggering about with an empty cup; the reason it is empty is that she has drunk it all; none of her sons can help her; all of them are also drunk, lying around on every street, and that is the reason they are unable to help their stricken mother in her pitiful humiliation.

This picture of the drunken sons of the chosen people, drunken not on wine, but upon their rebellion and apostasy from God, is presented in the metaphor of an antelope (some translate `wild bull' or `oryx'). Many have been impressed with the elegance and poetic excellence of these lines. The antelope, or gazelle, is among the swiftest and most graceful of animals; and the spectacle of one entangled in a net is tragic and pitiful indeed. Such was the status of the Old Israel as described here.

It would appear that some have misunderstood the meaning of the "two things are befallen thee" in Isaiah 51:19. Douglas, for example, has this! "These two things are befallen her, which branch out into four, namely, desolation, destruction, famine, and sword."[20] The text indeed may seem to say this; but we believe Lowth's explanation is better. He declared the meaning to be: "Desolation by famine, and destruction by the sword, taking the terms alternately, of which there are other examples in the Bible."[21]

Verse 21

"Therefore, hear now this, thou afflicted and drunken, but not with wine: Thus saith thy Lord Jehovah, and thy God that pleadeth the cause of his people, Behold, I have taken out of thy hand the cup of staggering, even the bowl of the cup of my wrath; thou shalt no more drink it again: and I will put it in the hand of them that afflict thee, that have said to thy soul, Bow down that we may go over; and thou hast laid thy back on the ground, and as the street, to them that go over."

Note the word "Therefore" in Isaiah 51:21. "Here, as in Isaiah 10:24; 27:9; and 30:18, the transition from threatening to promise is marked by the word `therefore'.[22]

The pitiful description of the Israelites' condition in the previous three verses is followed here by a dramatic change. "Now it would be the turn of Judah's brutal oppressors, who had arrogantly trampled upon the prostrate form of God's people, to drink the dreadful cup of God's vengeance."[23]

It should not be supposed that the glimpse of the arrogant and conceited oppressors of Israel in Babylon is in any manner incorrect. The most terrible behavior of that whole ancient period by those triumphant rulers and kings who gained control of unfortunate opponents was everywhere prevalent. Adam Clarke gave the example of the Emperor Valerianus, who was conquered, through treachery, and was taken prisoner by Sapor, King of Persia, who treated him as the basest and most abject slave. The Persian monarch commanded the unhappy Roman to bow him self low down and present his back as a step when Sapor mounted either his chariot or his horse![24]

Before leaving this chapter, attention should be called to the indelible earmarks which stamp this portion of Isaiah as genuine writings of the great eighth century prophet. The frequent return to subject matter found also in Isaiah 1-49, but with additional teaching, corresponds exactly with the pattern Isaiah outlined in Isaiah 28:10,13. This is classic Isaiah.

Also, notice that verse 11 here is practically a verbatim quotation of Isaiah 35:10. As Rawlinson pointed out, "Isaiah is not averse to repetitions (See Isaiah 5:25; 9:12,17,21; 10:4; 11:1; 55:25; 48:22; 57:21, etc."[25] Thus, this characteristic habit of Isaiah, appearing in both sections throughout the whole Book of Isaiah is as convincing as a signature, indicating one writer as the author of all of Isaiah.

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Isaiah 51". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.