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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Isaiah 51

Obedience to the Servant 50:10-51:8

The following section is a call to listen to the Servant, to follow His example, and so experience God’s salvation. Failure to do so will result in sharing the fate of His opponents (cf. Isaiah 50:9; Isaiah 51:8).

Verse 1

The Lord appealed to the righteous in Israel to listen to Him (cf. Isaiah 50:10). Watts believed the speaker, through Isaiah 51:4, was Darius. [Note: Watts, Isaiah 34-66, p. 204.] These were the Israelites who sincerely wanted to trust and obey God, but found it difficult to do so because impending captivity seemed to contradict God’s promises. The Lord directed them to consider their history, their origin.

"Abraham was the rock from which his descendants were hewn-having a rocklike quality imparted to him by God’s faithfulness and grace." [Note: Archer, p. 645.]

Verses 1-8

Listening to the Servant 51:1-8

This section of Isaiah, like the preceding one, reflects on the third Servant Song (Isaiah 50:4-9). Here the emphasis is on the expectations of those who will listen to the Servant, as well as encouragement for those who are followers of righteousness. From this point through Isaiah 52:12, the Servant theme builds to its climax in Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12.

God directed His people three times, in Isaiah 51:1-8, to listen. They should listen and look back, to remember what He had done (Isaiah 51:1-3). They should listen and look up, to remember who God is (Isaiah 51:4-6). And they should listen and not fear, to remember what God had promised (Isaiah 51:7-8). [Note: Adapted from Dyer, in The Old . . ., p. 573.]

Verse 2

Consider Abraham and Sarah, God counseled. From old Abraham and his barren wife, God had made a whole nation of people.

Verse 3

Even though the Babylonians would reduce the population of Jerusalem almost to zero, the God who gave Abraham numerous descendants could and would repopulate Zion (cf. Isaiah 49:20). He would comfort His people, personified as Zion, by doing this. He would reverse Zion’s fortunes, transforming her desert wilderness areas into another Eden.

"Like Eden is not simply a figure of beauty and plenty but also one of the absence of the divine curse consequent upon sin." [Note: Motyer, p. 404.]

God would turn her sorrow and wailing into joyful singing and thanksgiving. The implication is that as Abraham was strong in faith and believed God’s promises, so should the Israelites of Isaiah’s day (cf. Genesis 15:6).

"As Sarah gave birth to Isaac after a long period of barrenness, so Zion, a second Sarah, will be surrounded by a joyous multitude of children after a long period of desolation." [Note: Delitzsch, 2:283.]

Verse 4

Again the Lord urged His nation to listen attentively to Him (cf. Isaiah 51:1). What God would do for His people, in preserving them and returning them to the land, would be a lesson (Heb. torah, instruction, "law") to the whole world. His justice in fulfilling His promises to the Israelites would lead many of the Gentiles out of their darkness and into His light. This is what Isaiah revealed earlier that Messiah the Servant would do (Isaiah 9:7; Isaiah 11:4; Isaiah 16:4-5; Isaiah 42:1-4; Isaiah 49:6).

Verse 5

The righteousness, salvation, and strong judgment that the Lord promised to bring would be greater than just Israel’s emancipation from Babylon, however, because the nations would anticipate it. Cyrus brought deliverance to the Israelites from Babylon, but the Servant would bring salvation to the nations of the world. The furthest reaches of humanity wait expectantly for God’s delivering power, in the sense that everyone wants someone to correct the mess we are in, not that they know how salvation will come. This salvation was imminent, the Lord promised, as imminent as Messiah’s appearing.

Verse 6

The sky and the earth may appear to be permanent, but the really permanent realities are God’s promises of coming everlasting salvation and righteousness (cf. Luke 21:33).

Verse 7

For a third time the Lord urged His people, who already knew something of righteousness, to listen to Him (cf. Isaiah 51:1; Isaiah 51:4). They were the people who had received God’s instruction by special revelation and who treasured it in their hearts. They were the godly remnant in Israel. They could count on unbelievers reproaching and reviling them. Nevertheless, they should not fear them or lose heart, but follow the example of the perfect Servant by trusting God to fulfill His Word (Isaiah 50:4-9; cf. 2 Peter 3:3-13).

Verse 8

Their unbelieving critics would pass away in time, the product of natural decay (cf. Isaiah 50:11). But God’s righteousness and salvation will last forever, and so will those who trust in Him who will bring them to pass (cf. Isaiah 50:10).

Verse 9

Israel’s call for God to awake assumes that He had not been active in helping His people recently. Isaiah, speaking for the Israelites, described the Lord’s delivering power in action for His people as His "arm" (cf. Isaiah 51:5; Isaiah 53:1). His arm had defeated the Egyptians and Pharaoh in the Exodus in the past, here described respectively as Rahab (lit. proud one, cf. Isaiah 30:7; Psalms 87:4) and the dragon (cf. Ezekiel 29:3). Rahab and the dragon were also part of the mythological lore of the ancient Near East. By using these names, Isaiah was undoubtedly stressing Yahweh’s ability to overcome all the pagan gods and every other power opposing Israel’s salvation.

Verses 9-12

Awakening to deliverance 51:9-52:12

The presence and repetition of the call to awake (Isaiah 51:9; Isaiah 51:17; Isaiah 52:1) identifies this unit of prophetic material as one. The Israelites were to wake up to the power of God that had not changed (Isaiah 51:9-16), and to the purpose of God, namely: His plan for their life (Isaiah 51:17-23). They should also wake up to the peace of God, since He would not abandon them (Isaiah 52:1-12). [Note: Dyer, in The Old . . ., p. 573.] The section begins with the question of whether God can and will save His people from their enemies (Isaiah 51:9-16). The answer is that He will cause Israel’s enemies to suffer (Isaiah 51:17-23), and that He will deliver Israel from her enemies (Isaiah 52:1-12).

Verses 9-16

The Lord’s arm 51:9-16

The Israelites cried out for God to act for them. He had done so in their past history, but they needed His help now. Probably the believing remnant was requesting help.

Verse 10

The pagans credited their gods with drying up a sea of material chaos and creating the world in prehistory. Isaiah pointed to God drying up the Red Sea in the historical Exodus as evidence that He could redeem His people again.

". . . the Old Testament insists on setting the rock of history (actual event, actual testimony) under its theology." [Note: Motyer, p. 408.]

Isaiah frequently used the image of God making a way, pathway, or highway for His people so they could enter into the blessings that He had planned for them (cf. Isaiah 9:1; Isaiah 11:16; Isaiah 19:23; Isaiah 30:11; Isaiah 30:21; Isaiah 35:8; Isaiah 40:3; Isaiah 42:16; Isaiah 43:16; Isaiah 43:19; Isaiah 48:17; Isaiah 49:11; Isaiah 57:14; Isaiah 62:10). I wonder if this is the origin of the early Christian use of "the way" as a title for Christianity.

Verse 11

The consequence of the Lord’s arm again providing redemption for His people was that the exiles would return to Zion from Babylon with great joy (cf. Isaiah 35:10). The joy at this return was only a foretaste of the joy His people would experience as a result of His redemption through the Servant and their return to the Promised Land in the Millennium (cf. Isaiah 55:12).

Isaiah 51:12-16 record the Lord’s response to the cry just recorded.

Verse 12

The Lord described Himself again as the only true, self-existent God. Such a one as He would indeed comfort His people (cf. Isaiah 40:1). Who were the Israelites that they should fear the Babylonians, or any other human enemy? They were only mortals. The immortal God would defend them.

Verse 13

The Israelites had forgotten the type of person Yahweh-their Maker, the Creator-was, or they would not have been afraid.

". . . to live in fear of humans is to have effectively forgotten God. . . . It is easy to say certain theologically correct things, such as that he is both the world’s and our maker, that he is the one who stretched out the heavens and founded the earth, while giving the lie to those fine words by our continually living as though he can do nothing to prevent humans from doing ultimate harm to us [cf. Romans 8:39]. . . . Yes, oppressors may hurt us, even kill us, but they do not have the power to make us fear them or hate them." [Note: Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, p. 346.]

Verse 14

God promised to free the exiles soon and to supply their needs. Westerners tend to read verses like this one through individualistic glasses. We ask if there were not individuals who died in exile. There probably were. The prophet’s perspective was much more collective; he viewed the Israelites as a unit. By saying they would not die in exile he meant that the nation would not cease to exist while in captivity. While this was true of the Babylonian exiles, the promises of salvation in this section of the book anticipate a larger spiritual redemption as well, as I have noted. In fact, life in Babylonian exile was far from harsh for most of the Israelites (cf. Jeremiah 29:4-7), so much so that most of them chose not to return to the Promised Land when they could.

Verse 15

The Israelites would not perish because of who their God was. He is Yahweh Almighty, who causes movements among nations just as surely as He causes the waves of the sea to move.

Verse 16

Though God spoke this verse to Israel, it is clear that only the ideal Israel, the Servant, could be the ultimate fulfillment of what He said. Watts again identified this servant as Darius. [Note: Watts, Isaiah 34-66, p. 213.] He had put His words in the mouth of the Israelites but would also do so uniquely for His Servant (cf. Isaiah 49:2). He had provided compassionate care for the nation but would do so in a special way for His Servant (cf. Isaiah 49:2). He would use the Israelites to create new heavens and a new earth, in the spiritual sense of their being His instruments of transformation in the Millennium. However, He would use His Servant Messiah to create new heavens and a new earth literally at the end of the Millennium (cf. Isaiah 51:6: Revelation 21:1 to Revelation 22:5). And He would use the Servant Messiah to reaffirm His commitment to Israel in the future. How God would use the Servant to do all this becomes clearer in Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12, the final Servant Song. This was a fitting culminating assurance to the Israelites.

Verse 17

Jerusalem had drunk a powerful liquid at the hand of her God. He had given her punishment to drink for her sins (cf. Mark 10:38). Drinking a cup of wine is a figure of judgment (cf. Isaiah 29:9; Isaiah 63:6; Psalms 75:8; Jeremiah 25:15-16; Revelation 14:10). Jerusalem now lay in a state of stupor but needed to arise because the Lord had a future for her.

Verses 17-23

Drunken Jerusalem 51:17-23

God now turned the tables on His people and called on them to awake (cf. Isaiah 51:1). They needed to wake up to the fact that He would comfort them and punish their oppressors (cf. Isaiah 40:2; Lamentations 1-2). The fact that the Babylonian Captivity continues to lie unmentioned specifically in the text, strengthens the impression that God had more than that historic deliverance in view in what He promised. A greater future redemption is also in view, namely, the one that the Servant would effect.

Verse 18

She was unable to stand up and walk on her own, so devastating had been the effects of the Lord’s judgment against her. Moreover, she had no children (inhabitants) to help her go home.

Verse 19

Widowhood and childlessness had befallen Israel (cf. Isaiah 47:9), and there were none to mourn for her. Furthermore, devastation, destruction, famine, and the sword had overtaken her. Since she deserved her punishment, the Lord could not comfort her as He could have if she had been an innocent victim.

Verse 20

The children were just as helpless as the mother. In one sense Israel had no children to help her. This is one way of saying she could not help herself. But in another sense the children she did have, her descendants, could not help her either. The mother and her children are both figures of Israel. The children lay at major intersections of the city as exhausted as an antelope (oryx) caught in a net by its hunters. They too had suffered the wrath and rebuke of their God (cf. Isaiah 51:2; Isaiah 51:17).

Verse 21

"Therefore" marks the transition from peril to promise. Isaiah appealed to afflicted Israel to listen to God’s message. The Israelites had suffered the effects of intoxication, not from drinking real wine but the wrath of God (Isaiah 51:20).

"Unlike Babylon, who sees herself as voluptuous (Isaiah 47:8), Zion knows herself as afflicted. But the same God speaks to both, telling Babylon to go down into the dust, and telling Zion to arise from the dust (Isaiah 52:2). Babylon thought herself independent and self-existent (Isaiah 47:10), but Zion believes the very opposite about herself: she is a helpless victim who can do nothing about her situation (Isaiah 40:27; Isaiah 49:14). All this could be changed; if she would only listen to the voice of God (through the Servant, Isaiah 50:10), she could stand in quiet confidence." [Note: Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, p. 355.]

Verse 22

The God offering Israel a comforting promise was her master, Yahweh, the God of the covenant, the God who had taken her to Himself, who consistently defends His people. He promised that the Israelites would never again experience the outpouring of His wrath as they had. Obviously the Jews have experienced worse persecution in recent history than they did during the Babylonian exile: the German holocaust, the Russian pogroms, etc. And they will undergo the worst trials of their history in the Tribulation (cf. Jeremiah 30:4-7). I take it that God meant that He would not punish them as He had because He would provide the Servant to drink the cup of His wrath for His people. They would not have to suffer in the future as they had in the past because God would provide a Savior who would suffer in their place. That so many of the Jews have suffered terribly and will yet do so is because they have rejected the Savior that God provided.

Verse 23

Instead, God would give Israel’s enemies His cup of wrath to drink. They had walked all over Israel, but that would end. The figure of walking on the backs of enemies stresses the victor’s desire to humiliate the captives, not to slay them (cf. Joshua 10:24).

To summarize God’s plans for Israel as revealed in Isaiah, unless she repented she would experience His judgment. God would use surrounding nations to punish His people. After this punishment, God would restore Israel and punish her oppressors (cf. Habakkuk 1-2).

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Isaiah 51". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.