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Bible Commentaries

Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible

Isaiah 51


This chapter, together with Isaiah 52:1-12, is one connected portion, and injury has been done by separating it. It is a part of Isaiah of exquisite beauty, and is a most suitable introduction to the important portion which follows Isaiah 52:13-15; Isaiah 53:1-12 respecting the Messiah. This is designed chiefly to comfort the Jews in their exile. They are regarded as in Babylon near the close of their captivity, and as earnestly desiring to be rescued. It is somewhat dramatic in its character, and is made up of alternate addresses of God and his people - the one urging the strong language of consolation, and the other fervent petitions for deliverance. The following analysis will give a correct view of the chapter:

I. God addresses them in the language of consolation, and directs them to remember the founder of their nation, and assures them that he is able also to deliver them Isaiah 51:1-3.

1. He speaks of them as pious, and as seeking the Lord Isaiah 51:1.

2. They were to remember Abraham and Sarah - the quarry, so to speak, from which the nation had been hewed; they were to remember how feeble they were, and yet how God had made a great nation of them, and to feel assured that God was equally able to conduct them forth and to multiply them into a great nation Isaiah 51:1-2.

3. A direct promise that God would comfort Zion, and make it like Eden Isaiah 51:3.

II. God calls upon his people to hearken to him, with the assurance that he would extend the true religion even to the Gentile world, and that his salvation should be more permanent than were the heavens Isaiah 51:4-6.

1. He would make his religion a light to the Jewish people Isaiah 51:4. Though now in darkness, yet they should be brought forth into light.

2. He would extend it to the isles - to the pagan world Isaiah 51:5.

3. It should be everlasting. The heavens should grow old and vanish, but his salvation should not be abolished Isaiah 51:6.

III. God assures them that they have no reason to despond on account of the number and power of their enemies. However mighty they were, yet they should be consumed as the moth eats up a garment, and as the worm consumes wool Isaiah 51:7-8.

IV. The people are introduced as calling upon God, and as beseeching him to interpose as he had done in former times in their behalf Isaiah 51:9-10. In this appeal they refer to what God had done in former periods when he cut Rahab, that is, Egypt, in pieces, and delivered his people, and they cry to him to interpose in like manner again, and to deliver them.

V. To this petition Yahweh replies Isaiah 51:11-16 He assures them -

1. That his redeemed shall return with joy and triumph Isaiah 51:11.

2. He that had made the heavens was their comforter, and they had nothing to fear from man, or the fury of any oppressor Isaiah 51:12-13.

3. The captive exile was soon to be unloosed, and they hastened that they might be restored; that is, it would soon occur Isaiah 51:14.

4. Yahweh, who had divided the sea, was their protector. He had given them a solemn promise, and he had covered his people with the shadow of his hand, and he would defend them Isaiah 51:15-16.

VI. The chapter closes with a direct address to Jerusalem, and with assurances that it shall be rebuilt, and that it would he no more visited with such calamities Isaiah 51:17-23.

1. The calamities of Jerusalem are enumerated. She had drunk the cup of the fury of Yahweh; she had been forsaken of those who were qualified to guide her; desolation and destruction had therefore come upon her; her sons had fainted in the streets, and had drunk of the fury of God Isaiah 51:17-20.

2. God promises deliverance. She was drunken, but not with wine. God had taken out of her hand the cup of trembling, and she should no more drink it again; he would put that cup into the hand of those who had afflicted her, and they should drink it Isaiah 51:21-23.

Verse 1

Hearken unto me - That is, to the God of their fathers, who now addresses them. They are regarded as in exile and bondage, and as desponding in regard to their prospects. In this situation, God, or perhaps more properly the Messiah (compare the notes at Isaiah 1:0), is introduced as addressing them with the assurances of deliverance.

Ye that follow after righteousness - This is addressed evidently to those who sought to be righteous, and who truly feared the Lord. There was a portion of the nation that continued faithful to Yahweh. They still loved and worshipped him in exile, and they were anxiously looking for deliverance and for a return to their own land.

Look unto the rock whence ye are hewn - To Abraham the founder of the nation. The figure is taken from the act of quarrying stone for the purposes of building; and the essential idea here is, that God had formed the nation from the beginning, as a mason constructs a building; that he had, so to speak, taken the materials rough and unhewn from the very quarry; that he had shaped, and fitted them, and moulded them into an edifice. The idea is not that their origin was dishonorable or obscure. It is not that Abraham was not an honored ancestor, or that they should be ashamed of the founder of their nation. But the idea is, that God had had the entire moulding of the nation; that he had taken Abraham and Sarah from a distant land, and bad formed them into a great people and nation for his own purpose. The argument is, that he who had done this was able to raise them up from captivity, and make them again a great people. Probably allusion is made to this passage by the Saviour in Matthew 3:9, where he says, ‘For I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.’

The hole of the pit - The word rendered ‘hole’ means such an excavation as men make who are taking stones from a quarry. It expresses substantially the same idea as the previous member of the verse. This language is sometimes addressed to Christians, with a view to produce humility by reminding them that they have been taken by God from a state of sin, and raised up, as it were, from a deep and dark pit of pollution. But this is not the sense of the passage, nor will it bear such an application. It may be used to denote that God has taken them, as stone is taken from the quarry; that he found them in their natural state as unhewn blocks of marble are; that he has moulded and formed them by his own agency, and fitted them into his spiritual temple; and that they owe all the beauty and grace of their Christian deportment to him; that this is an argument to prove that he who had done so much for them as to transform them, so to speak, from rough and unsightly blocks to polished stones, fitted for his spiritual temple on earth, is able to keep them still, and to fit them for his temple above. Such is the argument in the passage before us; and such a use of it is, of course, perfectly legitimate and fair.

Verse 2

Look unto Abraham - What was figuratively expressed in the former verse is here expressed literally. They were directed to remember that God had taken Abraham and Sarah from a distant land, and that from so humble a beginning he had increased them to a great nation. The argument is, that he was able to bless and increase the exile Jews, though comparatively feeble and few.

For I called him alone - Hebrew, ‘For one I called him;’ that is, he was alone; there was but one, and he increased to a mighty nation. So Jerome, Quia unum vocavi eum. So the Septuagint, Ὅτι εἷς ἦν hoti heis ēn - ‘For he was one.’ The point of the declaration here is, that God had called one individual - Abraham - and that he had caused him to increase until a mighty nation had sprung from him, and that he had the same power to increase the little remnant that remained in Babylon until they should again become a mighty people.

Verse 3

For the Lord shall comfort Zion - On the word ‘Zion,’ see the notes at Isaiah 1:8. The meaning here is, that he would again restore it from its ruins. The argument is drawn from the statement in the previous verses. If God had raised up so great a nation from so humble all origin, he had power to restore the waste places of Judea to more than their former beauty and prosperity (see the notes at Isaiah 40:1).

And he will make her wilderness - Judea is here represented as lying waste. It is to be remembered that the time to which the prophet here refers is that of the captivity, and near its close. Of course, as that would have continued seventy years, in so long a period Judea would have become almost an extended wilderness, a wide waste. Any country, that was naturally as fertile as Judea, would in that time be overrun with briers, thorns, and underbrush, and even with a wild and luxuriant growth of the trees of the forest.

Like Eden - Genesis 2:0 Like a cultivated and fertile garden - distinguished not only for its fertility, but for its beauty and order.

Her desert like the garden of the Lord - Like the garden which the Lord planted Genesis 2:8. Septuagint, Ὡς παράδεισον κυρίου Hōs paradeison kuriou - ‘As the paradise of the Lord.’ The idea is. that it should be again distinguished for its beauty and fertility.

Joy and gladness - The sound of rejoicing and praise shall be again heard there, where are now heard the cries of wild beasts.

The voice of melody - Hebrew, ‘A psalm The praises of God shall again be celebrated.

Verse 4

Hearken unto me, my people - Lowth reads this;

Attend unto me, O ye people,

And give ear unto me, O ye nations.

The reason why he proposes this change is, that he supposes the address here is made to the Gentiles and not to the Jews, and in favor of the change he observes, that two manuscripts read it in this manner. Gesenius (Commentary) says that three codices read עמים ammiym (“peoples”), instead of עמי amiy (“my people”); and that thirteen MSS. read לאוּמים le'ûmiym (“nations”), instead of לאוּמי leûmiy (“my nation”). Noyes also has adopted this reading. But the authority is too slight to justify a change in the text. The Vulgate reads it in accordance with the present Hebrew text, and so substantially do the Septuagint. They render it, ‘Hear me, hear me, my people, and ye kings, give ear unto me.’ It is not necessary to suppose any change in the text. The address is to the Jews; and the design is, to comfort them in view of the fact that the pagan would be brought to partake of the privileges and blessings of the true religion. They would not only be restored to their own land, but the true religion would be extended also to the distant nations of the earth. In view of this great and glorious truth, Yahweh calls on his people to hearken to him, and receive the glad announcement. It was a truth in which they were deeply interested, and to which they should therefore attend.

For a law shall proceed from me - The idea here is, that Yahweh would give law to the distant nations by the diffusion of the true religion.

And I will make my judgment to rest for a light - The word ‘judgment’ here is equivalent to law, or statute, or to the institutions of the true religion. The word rendered here ‘to rest’ (ערגיע aregiya‛ from רגע râga‛), Lowth renders, ‘I will cause to break forth.’ Noyes renders it, ‘I will establish.’ The Vulgate, Requiescet - ‘Shall rest.’ The Septuagint renders it simply, ‘My judgment for a light of the nation.’ The word properly means ‘to make afraid,’ to terrify, to restrain by threats; rendered ‘divideth’ in Job 26:12; Isaiah 51:15; then, to be afraid, to shrink from fear, and hence, to be still, or quiet, as if cowering down from fear. Here it means that he would set firmly his law; he would place it so that it would be established and immovable.

Verse 5

My righteousness is near - The word ‘righteousness’ is used in a great variety of significations. Here it means, probably, the faithful completion of his promises to his people (Lowth).

My salvation is gone forth - The promise of salvation is gone forth, and already the execution of that purpose is commenced. He would soon deliver his people; he would at no distant period extend salvation to all nations.

And mine arm shall judge the people - That is, shall dispense judgment to them. The ‘arm’ here is put for himself, as the arm is the instrument by which we execute our purposes (see the notes at Isaiah 51:9).

The isles shall wait upon me - The distant nations; the pagan lands (see the note at Isaiah 41:1). The idea is, that distant lands would become interested in the true religion, and acknowledge and worship the true God.

Verse 6

Lift up your eyes to the heavens - The design of directing their attention to the heavens and the earth is, probably, to impress them more deeply with a conviction of the certainty of his salvation in this manner, namely, the heavens and the earth appear firm and fixed; there is in them no apparent tendency to dissolution and decay. Yet though apparently thus fixed and determined, they will all vanish away, but the promise of God will be unfailing.

For the heavens shall vanish away - The word which is rendered here ‘shall vanish away’ (מלח mâlach), occurs nowhere else in the Bible. The primary idea, according to Gesenius, is that of smoothness and softness. Then it means to glide away, to disappear. The idea here is, that the heavens would disappear, as smoke is dissipated and disappears in the air. The idea of the vanishing, or the disappearing of the heavens and the earth, is one that often occurs in the Scriptures (see the notes at Isaiah 34:4; compare Psalms 102:26; Hebrews 1:11-12; 2 Peter 3:10-12).

The earth shall wax old ... - Shall decay, and be destroyed (see Psalms 102:26).

And they that dwell therein shall die in like manner - Lowth renders this, ‘Like the vilest insect.’ Noyes, ‘Like flies.’ The Vulgate, and the Septuagint, however, render it as it is in our version. Rosenmuller renders it, ‘As flies.’ Gesenius renders it, ‘Like a gnat.’ This variety of interpretation arises from the different explanation of the word כן kên, which usually means, ‘as, so, thus, in like manner, etc.’ The plural form, however, (כנים kiniym), occurs in Psalms 105:31, and is rendered by the Septuagint, σκνῖφες skniphes, and by the Vulgate, sciniphes, a species of small gnats, very troublesome from their sting, which abounds in the marshy regions of Egypt; and according to this the idea is, that the most mighty inhabitants of the earth would die like gnats, or the smallest and vilest insects. This interpretation gives a more impressive sense than our version, but it is doubtful whether it can be justified. The word occurs nowhere else in this sense, and the authority of the ancient versions is against it. The idea as given in the common translation is not feeble, as Gesenius supposes, but is a deeply impressive one, that the heavens, the earth, and all the inhabitants should vanish away together, and alike disappear.

But my salvation shall be for ever - It is a glorious truth that the redemption which God shall give his people shall survive the revolutions of kingdoms, and the consummation of all earthly things. It is not improbable that the Saviour had this passage in his eye when he said, ‘heaven and earth shall pass away, but my word shall not pass away’ Matthew 24:35.

Verse 7

Hearken unto me, ye that know righteousness - My people who are acquainted with my law, and who are to be saved. This is addressed to the pious parlor the Jewish nation.

Fear ye not the reproach of men - If we have the promise of God, and the assurance of his favor, we shall have no occasion to dread the reproaches and the scoffs of people (compare Matthew 10:28).

Verse 8

For the moth - (see Isaiah 50:9). The idea is, that they shall be consumed as the moth eats up a garment; or rather, that the moth itself shall consume them as it does a garment: that is, that they were so weak when compared with Yahweh that even the moth, one of the smallest, and most contemptible of insects, would consume them. An expression remarkably similar to this occurs in Job 4:18-20 :

Behold in his servants he putteth no confidence,

And his angels he chargeth with frailty;

How much more true is this of those who dwell in houses of clay,

Whose foundation is in the dust!

They are crashed before the moth-worm!

Between morning and evening they are destroyed;

Without anyone regarding it, they perish forever.

Perhaps the following extract from Niebuhr may throw some light on the passage, as showing that man may be crushed by so feeble a thing as a worm ‘A disease very common an Yemen is the attack of the Guiney-worm, or the ‘Verea-Medinensis,’ as it is called by the physicians of Europe. This disease is supposed to be occasioned by the use of the putrid waters, which people are obliged to drink in various parts of Yemen; and for this reason the Arabians always pass water, with the nature of which they are unacquainted, through a linen cloth before using it. When one unfortunately swallows the eggs of this insect, no immediate consequence follows; but after a considerable time the worm begins to show itself through the skin. Our physician, Mr. Cramer, was within a few days of his death attacked by five of these worms at once, although this was more than five months after we left Arabia. In the isle of Karek I saw a French officer named Le Page, who, after a long and difficult journey, performed on foot, and in an Indian dress, between Pondicherry and Surat, through the heat of India, was busy extracting a worm out of his body. He supposed he had got it by drinking bad water in the country of the Mahrattas. This disorder is not dangerous if the person who is affected can extract the worm without breaking it. With this view it is rolled on a small bit of wood as it comes out of the skin. It is slender as a thread, and two or three feet long. If unluckily it be broken, it then returns into the body, and the most disagreeable consequences ensue - palsy, a gangrene, and sometimes death.’ A thought similar to that of Isaiah respecting man, has been beautifully expressed by Gray:

To contemplation’s sober eye,

Such is the race of man;

And they that creep, and they that fly,

Shall end where they began.

Alike the busy and the gay,

But flutter through life’s little day,

In fortune’s varying colors drest;

Brush’d by the hand of rough mischance,

Or chill’d by age, their airy dance

They leave, in dust to rest.

And the worm shall eat them like wool - The word rendered ‘worm’ (סס sās), probably means the same as the moth. The Arabic renders it by moth, weevil. The Septuagint, σής sēs. It is of unfrequent occurrence in the Scriptures.

Verse 9

Awake, awake - This verse commences a new subject (see the analysis of the chapter). It is the solemn and impassioned entreaty of those who were in exile that God would interpose in their behalf, as he did in behalf of his people when they were suffering in cruel bondage in Egypt. The word ‘awake’ here, which is addressed to the arm of Jehovah, is a petition that it might be roused from its apparent stupor and inactivity, and its power exerted in their behalf.

O arm of the Lord - The arm is the instrument by which we execute any purpose. It is that by which the warrior engages in battle, and by which he wields the weapon to prostrate his foes. The arm of Yahweh had seemed to slumber; For seventy years the prophet sees the oppressed and suffering people in bondage, and God had not come forth to rescue them. He hears them now lifting the voice of earnest and tender entreaty, that he would interpose as he had in former times, and save them from the calamities which they were enduring.

Awake, as in the ancient days - That is, in the time when the Jews were delivered from their bondage in the land of Egypt.

Art thou not it - Art thou not the same arm? Was it not by this arm that the children of Israel were delivered from bondage, and may we not look to it for protection still?

That hath cut Rahab - That is, cut it in pieces, or destroyed it. It was that arm which wielded the sword of justice and of vengeance by which Rahab was cut in pieces. The word ‘Rahab’ here means Egypt. On the meaning of the word, see the notes at Isaiah 30:7; compare Psalms 88:8; Psalms 89:10.

And wounded the dragon - The word rendered here “dragon” (תנין tannı̂yn) means properly any great fish or sea monster; a serpent, a dragon (see the notes at Isaiah 27:1), or a crocodile. Here it means, probably, the crocodile, as emblematic of Egypt, because the Nile abounded in crocodiles, and because a monster so unwieldy and formidable and unsightly, was no unapt representation of the proud and cruel king of Egypt. The king of Egypt is not unfrequently compared with the crocodile (see Psalms 34:13-14; Ezekiel 29:3; Ezekiel 32:2). Here the sense is, that he had sorely wounded, that is, had greatly weakened the power of that cruel nation, which for strength was not unfitly represented by the crocodile, one of the most mighty of monsters, but which, like a pierced and wounded monster. was greatly enfeebled when God visited it with plagues, and destroyed its hosts in the sea.

Verse 10

Art thou not it - Art thou not still the same? The ground of the appeal is, that the same arm that dried up the sea, and made a path for the Jewish people, was still able to interpose and rescue them.

Which hath dried the sea - The Red Sea when the children of Israel passed over Exodus 14:21. This is the common illustration to which the Hebrew prophets and poets appeal, when they wish to refer to the interposition of God in favor of their nation (compare Psalms 105:0; see the notes at Isaiah 43:16).

For the ransomed to pass over - Those who had been ransomed from Egypt. The word rendered ‘ransomed’ is that which is commonly rendered ‘redeemed.’ The argument in this verse is, that he who had overcome all the obstacles in the way of their deliverance from Egypt, was able also to overcome all the obstacles in the way of their deliverance from Babylon; and that he who had thus interposed might be expected again to manifest his mercy, and save them again from oppression. The principle involved in the argument is as applicable now as it was then. All God’s past interpositious - and especially the great and wonderful interposition when be gave his Son for his church - constitute an argument that be will still continue to regard the interests of his people, and will interpose in their behalf and save them.

Verse 11

Therefore the redeemed of the Lord - This is probably the language of Yahweh assuring them, in answer to their prayer, that his ransomed people should again return to Zion.

And everlasting joy shall be upon their head - This entire verse occurs also in Isaiah 35:10. See it explained in the note on that verse. The custom of singing alluded to here on a journey is now very common in the East. It is practiced to relieve the tediousness of a journey over extended plains, as well as to induce the camels in a caravan to move with greater rapidity. The idea here is, that the caravan that should return from Babylon to Jerusalem, across the extended plains, should make the journey amidst general exultation and joy - cheered on their way by songs, and relieving the tedium of their journey by notes of gladness and of praise.

Verse 12

I even I am he that comforteth you - The word ‘I’ is repeated here to give emphasis to the passage, and to impress deeply upon them the fact that their consolation came alone from God. The argument is, that since God was their protector and friend, they had no occasion to fear anything that man could do.

Of a man that shall die - God your comforter will endure forever. But all men - even the most mighty - must soon die. And if God is our protector, what occasion can we have to fear what a mere mortal can do to us?

And of the son of man - This phrase is common in the Hebrew Scriptures, and means the same as man.

Shall be made as grass - They shall perish as grass does that is cut down at mid-day (see the notes at Isaiah 40:6-7).

Verse 13

And forgettest the Lord thy Maker - These verses are designed to rebuke that state of the mind - alas! too common, even among the people of God - where they are intimidated by the number and strength of their foes, and forget their dependence on God, and his promises of aid. In such circumstances God reproves them for their want of confidence in him, and calls on them to remember that he has made the heavens, and has all power to save them.

That hath stretched forth the heavens - (See the notes at Isaiah 40:12, Isaiah 40:26).

And hast feared continually every day - They had continually feared and trembled before their oppressors.

Because of the fury of the oppressor - Those who had oppressed them in Babylon.

As if he were ready to destroy - Margin, ‘Made himself ready,’ The idea is, that he was preparing to destroy the people - perhaps as a marksman is making ready his bow and arrows. The oppressor had been preparing to crush them in the dust, and they trembled, and did not remember that God was abundantly able to protect them.

And where is the fury of the oppressor? - What is there to dread? The idea is, that the enemies of the Jews would be cut off, and that they should therefore put their confidence in God, and rely on his promised aid.

Verse 14

The captive exile - Lowth renders this, evidently very improperly, ‘He marcheth on with speed who cometh to set the captive free;’ and supposes that it refers to Cyrus, if understood of the temporal redemption from the captivity at Babylon; in the spiritual sense, to the Messiah. But the meaning evidently is, that the exile who had been so long as it were enchained in Babylon, was about to be set free, and that the time was very near when the captivity was to end. The prisoner should not die there, but should be conducted again to his own land. The word used here, and rendered ‘captive exile’ (צעה tso‛eh from צעה tsâ‛âh), means properly ‘that which is turned on one side,’ or inclined, as, e. g., a vessel for pouring Jeremiah 48:12. Then it means that which is inclined, bent, or bowed down as a captive in bonds. The Chaldee renders this, ‘Vengeance shall be quickly revealed, and the just shall not die in corruption, and their food shall not fail.’ Aben Ezra renders it, ‘Bound.’ The idea is, that they who were bowed down under bondage and oppression in Babylon, should very soon be released. This is one of the numerous passages which show that the scene of the prophetic vision is Babylon, and the time near the close of the captivity, and that the design of the prophet is to comfort them there, and to afford them the assurance that they would soon be released.

And that he should not die in the pit - That is, in Babylon, represented as a prison, or a pit. The nation would be restored to their own land. Prisoners were often confined in a deep pit or cavern, and hence, the word is synonymous with prison. The following extract from Pax. ton will illustrate this. ‘The Athenians, and particularly the tribe of Hippothoontis, frequently condemned offenders to the pit. It was a dark, noisome hole, and had sharp spikes at the top, that no criminal might escape; and others at the bottom, to pierce and torment those unhappy persons who were thrown in. Similar to this place was the Lacedemonian Καιαδας Kaiadas, into which Aristomenes the Messenian being cast, made his escape in a very surprising manner.’ Compare also Genesis 37:20; Numbers 16:30; Psalms 9:15; Psalms 28:1; Psalms 30:3, Psalms 30:9; Psalms 40:2; Psalms 55:23; Psalms 119:85; Psalms 140:10; Jeremiah 37:21; Zechariah 9:11.

Nor that his bread should fail - His needs shall be supplied until he is released.

Verse 15

But I am the Lord thy God - In order to show them that he was able to save them, God again refers to the fact that he had divided the sea, and delivered their fathers from bondage and oppression.

That divided the sea - The Red Sea. The Chaldee renders this, ‘That rebuked the sea.’ The Septuagint, Ὁ ταράσσων ho tarassōn - ‘Who disturbs the sea.’ or, who excites a tempest. Lowth renders it, ‘Who stilleth at once the sea.’ The Hebrew word is the same which occurs in Isaiah 51:4, where it is rendered, ‘I will make my judgment to rest’ (רגע râga‛). Probably the idea here is, that he restrains the raging of the sea as if by fear; that is, makes it tranquil or still by rebuking it. He had this power over all raging seas, and he had shown it in a special manner by his rebuking the Red Sea and making it rest, and causing a way to be made through it, when the children of Israel came out of Egypt.

The Lord of hosts is his name - (See the notes at Isaiah 1:9; compare the notes at Isaiah 42:8).

Verse 16

And I have put my words in thy mouth - That is, he had committed his truth to the Jewish people; to Zion. He had entrusted them with his statutes and his laws; he had given them the promise of the Messiah, and through him the assurance that the true religion would be spread to other nations. He would, therefore, preserve them, and restore them again to their own land.

And have covered thee in the shadow of mine hand - That is, I have protected thee (see the notes at Isaiah 49:2).

That I may plant the heavens - Lowth renders this, ‘To stretch out the heavens.’ Noyes, ‘To establish the heavens.’ Jerome, Ut plantes coelos - ‘That thou mayest plant the heavens.’ The Septuagint, Ἐν ῇ ἔστησα τὸν οὐρανὸν En estēsa ton ouranon ‘By which I have established heaven.’ The Chaldee renders it, ‘In the shadow of my power have I protected thee, that I might raise up the people of whom it was said, that they should be multiplied as the stars of heaven.’ But the language here is evidently entirely figurative. It refers to the restoration of the Jews to their own land; to the re-establishment of religion there; to the introduction of the new economy under the Messiah, and to all the great changes which would be consequent on that. This is compared with the work of forming the heavens, and laying the foundation of the earth. It would require almighty power; and it would produce so great changes, that it might be compared to the work of creating the universe out of nothing. Probably also the idea is included here that stability would be given to the true religion by what God was about to do permanency that might be compared with the firmness and duration of the heavens and the earth.

And say unto Zion ... - That is, God would restore them to their own land, and acknowledge them as his own.

Verse 17

Awake, awake - (See the notes at Isaiah 51:9). This verse commences an address to Jerusalem under a new figure or image. The figure employed is that of a man who has been overcome by the cup of the wrath of Yahweh, that had produced the same effect as inebriation. Jerusalem had reeled and fallen prostrate. There had been none to sustain her, and she had sunk to the dust. Calamities of the most appalling kind had come upon her, and she is now called on to arouse from this condition, and to recover her former splendor and power.

Which hast drunk at the hand of the Lord - The wrath of Yahweh is not unfrequently compared to a cup producing intoxication. The reason is, that it produces a similar effect. It prostrates the strength, and makes the subject of it reel, stagger, and fall. In like manner, all calamities are represented under the image of a cup that is drunk, producing a prostrating effect on the frame. Thus the Saviour says, ‘The cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?’ (John 18:11; compare Matthew 20:22-23; Matthew 26:39, Matthew 26:42). The effects of drinking the cup of God’s displeasure are often beautifully set forth. Thus, in Psalms 75:8 :

In the hand of Jehovah there is a cup, and the wine is red;

It is full of a mixed liquor, and he poureth out of the same,

Verily the dregs thereof all the ungodly of the earth shall wring them out and drink them.

Plato, as referred to by Lowth, has an idea resembling this. ‘Suppose,’ says he, ‘God had given to men a medicating potion inducing fear; so that the more anyone should drink of it, so much the more miserable he should find himself at every draught, and become fearful of everything present and future; and at last, though the most courageous of people, should become totally possessed by fear; and afterward, having slept off the effects of it, should become himself again.’ A similar image is used by Homer (Iliad, xvi. 527ff), where he places two vessels at the threshold of Jupiter, one of good, the other of evil. He gives to some a mixed potion of each; to others from the evil vessel only, and these are completely miserable:

Two urns by Jove’s high throne have ever stood

The source of evil one, and one of good;

From thence the cup of mortal man he fills,

Blessings to these; to those distributes ills.

To most he mingles both: The wretch decreed

To taste the bad unmix’d, is curs’d indeed;

Pursued by wrongs, by meagre famine driven,

He wanders, outcast by both earth and heaven:

The happiest taste not happiness sincere,

But find the cordial draught is dash’d with care.

But nowhere is this image handled with greater force and sublimity than in this passage of Isaiah. Jerusalem is here represented as staggering under the effects of it; she reels and falls; none assist her from where she might expect aid; not one of them is able to support her. All her sons had fainted and become powerless Isaiah 51:20; they were lying prostrate at the head of every street, like a bull taken in a net, struggling in vain to rend it, and to extricate himself. Jehovah’s wrath had produced complete and total prostration throughout the whole city.

Thou hast drunken the dregs - Gesenius renders this, ‘The goblet cup.’ But the common view taken of the passage is, that it means that the cup had been drunk to the dregs. All the intoxicating liquor had been poured off. They had entirely exhausted the cup of the wrath of God. Similar language occurs in Revelation 14:10 : ‘The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture, into the cup of his indignation.’ The idea of the dregs is taken from the fact that, among the ancients, various substances, as honey, dates, etc., were put into wine, in order to produce the intoxicating quality in the highest degree. The sediment of course would remain at the bottom of the cask or cup when the wine was poured off. Homer, who lived about a thousand years before Christ, and whose descriptions are always regarded as exact accounts of the customs in his time, frequently mentions potent drugs as being mixed with wines. In the ‘Odyssey’ (iv. 220), he tells us that Helen prepared for Telemachus and his companions a beverage which was highly stupefactive, and soothing to his mind. To produce these qualities, he says that she threw into the wine drugs which were:

Νηπενθες τ ̓ ἀλοχον τε κακων ἐπιληθον ἁπαντων -

Nēpenthes t' alochon te kakōn epilēthon apantōn -

Grief-assuaging, rage-allaying, and the oblivious antidote for every species of misfortune. Such mixtures were common among the Hebrews. It is possible that John Revelation 14:10 refers to such a mixture of the simple juice of the grape with intoxicating drugs when he uses the expression implying a seeming contradiction, κεκερασμένου ἀκράτου kekerasmenou akratou - (mixed, unmixed wine) - rendered in our version, ‘poured out without mixture.’ The reference is rather to the pure juice of the grape mixed, or mingled with intoxicating drugs.

The cup of trembling - The cup producing trembling, or intoxication (compare Jeremiah 25:15; Jeremiah 49:12; Jeremiah 51:7; Lamentations 4:21; Habakkuk 2:16; Ezekiel 23:31-33). The same figure occurs often in the Arabic poets (see Gesenius Commentary zu. Isa. in loc.)

And wrung them out - (מצית mâtsiym). This properly means, to suck out; that is, they had as it were sucked off all the liquid from the dregs.

Verse 18

There is none to guide her - The image here is taken from the condition of one who is under the influence of an intoxicating draught, and who needs some one to sustain and guide him. The idea is, than among all the inhabitants of Jerusalem in the time of the calamity, there was none who could restore to order the agitated and distracted affairs of the nation. All its wisdom was destroyed; its counsels perplexed; its power overcome.

All the sons whom she hath brought forth - All the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

Verse 19

These two things are come unto thee - Margin, ‘Happened.’ That is, two sources of calamity have come upon thee; to wit, famine and the sword, producing desolation and destruction; or desolation by famine, and destruction by the sword (see Lowth on Hebrew Poetry, Lect. xix.) The idea here is, that far-spread destruction had occurred, caused by the two things, famine and the sword.

Who shall be sorry for thee? - That is, who shall be able so to pity thee as to furnish relief?

Desolation - By famine.

And destruction - Margin, as Hebrew, ‘Breaking.’ refers to the calamities which would be inflicted by the sword. The land would be desolated, and famine would spread over it. This refers, doubtless, to the series of calamities that would come upon it in connection with the invasion of the Chaldeans.

By whom shall I comfort thee? - This intimates a desire on the part of Yahweh to give them consolation. But the idea is, that the land would be laid waste, and that they who would have been the natural comforters should be destroyed. There would be none left to whom a resort could be had for consolation.

Verse 20

Thy sons - Jerusalem is here represented as a mother. Her sons, that is, her inhabitants, had become weak and prostrate everywhere, and were unable to afford consolation.

They lie at the head of all the streets - The ‘head’ of the streets is the same which in Lamentations 2:19; Lamentations 4:1, is denominated ‘the top of the streets.’ The head or top of the streets denotes, doubtless, the beginning of a way or street; the corner from which other streets diverge. These would be public places, where many would be naturally assembled, and where, in time of a siege, they would be driven together. This is a description of the state produced by famine. Weak, pale, and emaciated, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, in the places of public concourse, would lie prostrate and inefficient, and unable to meet and repel their foes. They would be overpowered with famine, as a wild bull is insnared in a net, and rendered incapable of any effort. This reters undoubtedly to the famine that would be produced during the siege of the Babylonians. The state of things under the siege has been also described by Jeremiah:

Arise, cry out in the night;

In the beginning of the watches pour out thine heart before the Lord;

Lift up thy hands toward him for the life of thy young children,

That faint for hunger at the top of every street.

The young and old lie on the ground in the streets,

My virgins and my young men are fallen by the sword;

Thou hast slain them in the day of thy anger;

Thou hast killed, and not pitied.

- Lamentations 2:19-21

The tongue of the sucking child cleaveth to the roof of

His mouth for thirst;

The young children ask bread, and no man breaketh it unto them;

They that did feed delicately are desolate in the streets;

They that were brought up in scarlet embrace dunghills.

- Lamentations 4:4-5

As a wild bull in a net - The word rendered here ‘wild bull’ is תוא tô'. Gesenius supposes it is the same as תאו t'ô, a species of gazelle, so called from its swiftness. Aquila, Symm. and Theod. render it here, Ὀρυξ Oruch - ‘Oryx;’ Jerome also renders it, Oryx - ‘A wild goat’ or stag. The Septuagint renders it, Σευτλίον ἡμίεφθον Seutlion hēmiephthon - ‘A parboiled beet!’ The Chaldee, ‘As broken bottles.’ Bochart (Hieroz. i. 3. 28), supposes it means a species of mountain-goat, and demonstratos that it is common in the East to take such animals in a net. Lowth renders it, ‘Oryx.’ The streets of Hebrew towns, like those of ancient Babylon, and of most modern Oriental cities, had gates which were closed at night, and on some occasions of broil and danger. A person then wishing to escape would be arrested by the closed gate and if he was pursued, would be taken somewhat like a wild bull in a net. It was formerly the custom, as it is now in Oriental countries, to take wild animals in this manner. A space of ground of considerable extent - usually in the vicinity of springs and brooks, where the animals were in the habit of repairing morning and evening - was enclosed by nets into which the animals were driven by horsemen and hounds, and when there enclosed, they were easily taken. Such scenes are still represented in Egyptian paintings (see Wilkinson’s Ancient Egyptians, vol. iii. pp. 2-36), and such a custom prevailed among the Romans. Virgil represents AEneas and Dido as repairing to a wood for the purpose of hunting at break of day, and the attendants as surrounding the grove with nets or toils.

Venatum AEneas, unaque miscrrima Dido,

In nemus ire parant, ubi primos crastinus ortus

Extulerit Titan, radusque retexerit orbem.

His ego nigrantem conmixta grandine nimbum,

Dum trepidant alae, saltusque indagine cingunt,

Desuper infundam, et tonitru coelum omne ciebo.

AEn. iv. 117ff.

The idea here is plain. It is, that as a wild animal is secured by the toils of the hunter, and rendered unable to escape, so it was with the inhabitants of Jerusalem suffering under the wrath of God. They were humbled, and prostrate, and powerless, and were, like the stag that was caught, entirely at the disposal of him who had thus insnared them.

Verse 21

And drunken, but not with wine - Overcome and prostrate, but not under the influence of intoxicating drink. They were prostrate by the wrath of God.

Verse 22

I have taken out of thy hand the cup of trembling - (See the notes at Isaiah 51:17). This verse contains a promise that they would be delivered from the effect of the wrath of God, under which they had been suffering so long.

Thou shalt no more drink it again - Thou shalt no more be subject to similar trials and calamities (see Isaiah 54:7-9). Probably the idea here is, not that Jerusalem would never be again destroyed, which would not be true, for it was afterward subjected to severer trials under the Romans; but that the people who should then return - the pious exiles - should be preserved forever after from similar sufferings. The object of the prophet is to console them, and this he does by the assurance that they should be subjected to such trials no more.

Verse 23

But I will put it into the hand of them that afflict thee - The nations that have made war upon thee, and that have reduced thee to bondage, particularly the Babylonians. The calamities which the Jews had suffered, God would transfer to their foes.

Which have said to thy soul, Bow down, that we may go over - This is a striking description of the pride of eastern conquerors. It was not uncommon for conquerors actually to put their feet on the necks of conquered kings, and tread them in the dust. Thus in Joshua 10:24, ‘Joshua called for all the men of Israel, and said unto the captains of the men of war that went with them, Come near, put your feet upon the necks of these kings.’ So David says, ‘Thou has given me the necks of mine enemies’ Psalms 18:40. ‘The emperor Valerianus being through treachery taken prisoner by Sapor king of Persia, was treated by him as the basest and most abject slave, for the Persian monarch commanded the unhappy Roman to bow himself down and offer him his back, on which he set his foot in order to mount his chariot, or his horse, whenever he had occasion.’ (Lactantius, as quoted by Lowth) Mr. Lane (Modern Egyptians, vol. i. p. 199) describes an annual ceremony which may serve to illustrate this passage: ‘A considerable number of Durweeshes, says he (I am sure there were not less than sixty, but I could not count their number), laid themselves down upon the ground, side by side, as close as possible to each other, having their backs upward, having their legs extended, and their arms placed together beneath their foreheads.

When the Sheikh approached, his horse hesitated several minutes to step upon the back of the first prostrate man; but being pulled and urged on behind, he at length stepped upon them: and then without apparent fear, ambled with a high pace over them all, led by two persons, who ran over the prostrate men, one sometimes treading on the feet, and the other on the heads. Not one of the men thus trampled on by the horse seemed to be hurt; but each the moment that the animal had passed over him, jumped up and followed the Sheikh. Each of them received two treads from the horse, one from one of his fore-legs, and a second from a hind-leg.’ It seems probable that this is a relic of an ancient usage alluded to in the Bible, in which captives were made to lie down on the ground, and the conqueror rode insultingly over them.

Thou hast laid thy body as the ground - That is, you were utterly humbled and prostrated (compare Psalms 66:11-12). From all this, however, the promise is, that they should be rescued and delivered. The account of their deliverance is contained in the following chapter Isaiah 52:1-12; and the assurance of rescue is there made more cheering and glorious by directing the eye forward to the coming of the Messiah Isaiah 52:13-15; Isaiah 53:1-12, and to the glorious results which would follow from his advent (Isaiah 54:1). These chapters are all connected, and they should be read continuously. Material injury is done to the sense by the manner in which the division is made, if indeed any division should have been made at all.

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Bibliographical Information
Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Isaiah 51". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". 1870.