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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Isaiah 51


From the habit of the Speaker, through the prophet, to alternate between warning the lukewarm and careless of Israel (as Isaiah 50:10-11) and comforting and encouraging the truly devoted ones of that people, it is right to suppose (as modern expositors now do) that this chapter is a continuation of the last. The Servant of Jehovah, or Messiah, is, as before, the speaker. He now turns himself from the branches of the people to be cut off, (Isaiah 50:10-11; Romans 11:17,) who say they are Jews and are not, (Revelation 2:9; Revelation 3:9,) who live in the light of sparks themselves have kindled, (Isaiah 50:11,) to the true Israel now enlarged by converts from the Gentiles.

Verse 1

1. Hearken to me This formula is used when there is a turn from one class of hearers to another.

Ye that follow… ye that seek the Lord The address is to those who fully observe the law, lead just lives, and desire entire approval from Jehovah. Look unto the rock whence…

hewn… hole… whence… digged Abraham, who was a selected block, so to speak, out of the original quarry of mankind. The pit therein was formed in extracting the chosen mass on which to build up the house of Israel. That Sarah is named is theologically of account only to connect with the “rock” figure, Jehovah’s task in raising up a race from this father of much people, whose marriage life with Sarah was long fruitless, and called at length for God’s miracle to bring the desired progeny. The mention of Israel is, too, a poetic help to the parallelism.

Verses 2-3

2, 3. I called him alone Or, one alone. I called him when he was but a single person antithetical to what now appears in his descendants “a great multitude.” I…

blessed… increased him The futures, here, are past tenses, made so by laws of Hebrew grammar, from following a past, or, in the words, “I called him:” rather, they are neither past nor future, but in process of passing from the past continually into the future, containing thus a promise continually under fulfilment.

Shall comfort Zion Kay says, “Zion is correlative with Sarah,” meaning, probably, as Sarah was comforted, so shall Zion be. This seems an ill-weighted correlation, yet there is this truth in it: as Sarah in her degree or measure was comforted, in corresponding degree shall Zion so be; and this proportion gives great wealth of blessings to her.

Make her wilderness In exile times Judea was such a waste.

Like Eden The strongest possible expression of a joyful change from total barrenness to the highest pitch of fertility and beauty. (Alexander.) Genesis 2:8; Genesis 13:10; and copied in Ezekiel 31:9, where the ideal garden of Jehovah is the illustrative term employed. Wherein are also joy and gladness… thanksgiving, and the voice of melody Rhetoric is quite exhausted of words descriptive of the cumulative glory of the Messianic work.

Verses 4-6

4-6. Hearken unto me Another change; or rather, another stage of growth as to the importance of this glorious message. The great work of the future is the offer of salvation to all, not to Israel of holy inclination only, but to all the good and the bad alike. All Israel is summoned to learn the extension of the promise. It is here asserted that out of Israel springs the Saviour, and doubtless, (though critics differ see Lowth, Gesenius, Ewald, Alexander,) the apostleship to the whole Gentile world.

Law… judgment See Isaiah 42:1-3. As there, so here, “law” and “judgment” are used in the sense of the true religion, yet to be everywhere firmly established, and the world to be filled with blessings flowing from it.

My righteousness is near Not in point of time near at hand; but in God’s time there is actually approaching a realm of peace and purity, equity and truth, to all the good and obedient, but a sore retribution to all who resist the truth to the last.

The isles… wait upon me See Isaiah 42:4. The command to look on the unchanging order of the heavens the sun and the stars has respect to the impression they make of God’s constancy as to his promises. The heavenly bodies are the greatest of objects; yet these, being created and limited, are sometime to end. Not so the divine promises; the true religion shall never fail. The things material and earthly shall grow old, die, and vanish from sight: but salvation and true religion shall not be abolished.

Verses 7-8

7, 8. Hearken unto me Another occasion for a call to God’s people to “hearken” that of need of fearlessness against reproach and persecutors. These, too, are temporary.

Revilings Remember Sennacherib.

Like a garment… like wool The play of the Hebrew here cannot be reached in English. The word “garment” (an old figure) is, in a short space, thus used the third time, and the word “wool” the second time. For explanation see Isaiah 50:9, last clause.

Verses 9-11

9-11. Awake, awake The fervour of the message in the preceding verses passes here to fervour of prayer (abrupt and strophical) to Jehovah, as if a slight sense of danger from delay seizes the people in exile. They pray intensely for Jehovah to put on strength; that is, to exercise strength immediately in their behalf; to transfer them at once from exile to the promised restoration.

Arm The symbol of strength, or, as Grotius has it, divinity, of Jehovah.

In the generations of old God’s almighty arm in energetic exercise at the Red Sea is referred to, and the deliverance from Egypt.

Cut Rahab Meaning Egypt, or the fierce one. See Psalms 87:4; Psalms 89:10.

The dragon That is, crocodile, or Pharaoh. Psalms 74:10; Psalms 74:14; Ezekiel 29:3; Ezekiel 32:2. Isaiah 51:10; Isaiah 51:10 here directly relates to the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, and it furnishes argument for deliverance from exile in this prayer; and, were not these verses expressed in poetic and strophical language, such a prayer would seem an indecent haste. Not so, however; for the answer to the prayer is opened in Isaiah 51:11 by the word therefore; that is, in case of this prayer there shall be no uncertainty. The remaining part of the verse is a copy of Isaiah 35:10.

Verses 12-13

12, 13. Jehovah speaks as if grieved at such fear lest he may not fulfil his promise of restoration to Zion. It is I… I… that comforteth you. Not unreliable, mortal man, who is going first to the dust, like decaying grass, and every such fragile thing. Note the comparison, if there can be a comparison, between the strong, eternal Jehovah, in the repeated “I,” and man, a weak creature of a day.

Who art thou So easy to forget the mighty eternal Creator, who spread out the heavens and laid earth’s foundations, yet so timid before a weak, temporary oppressor, (the king of Babylon, whom Cyrus overthrew, or others of his like,) perchance, not calling to mind the fate of Pharaoh and all his kind, (of whom not a trace now remains,) in the past emergencies of God’s Israel? The argument is, that such distrust of Jehovah’s unchangeable fidelity to his covenant of promise and protection should shock Israel’s good sense and crimson his cheek. Even dejection through long exile scarcely excuses the lack of trust, especially when Israel is just at the point of the deliverance which has been so positively promised.

Where is the fury of the oppressor That is, what does it amount to in view of the power at hand ready to crush it at the seasonable moment?

Verses 14-16

14-16. The captive exile One bowed down under the burden of captivity, which may be general, but more likely is here local, the captivity in Babylon.

Hasteneth… loosed Set free. He is weary of the situation, Babylon is to him the pit, a prison. Possibly some were in a literal “pit,” the dungeon, its floor filled with spikes to pierce the “captive” when let into it. (See Barnes, in loco, quoting Paxton.) The exile longs not to die in the pit or of starvation. The promise affirms that of neither shall he die. The command is, Believe this believe it on the ground of God’s almightiness.

That divided the sea The Red Sea. He led Israel through on dry ground.

The Lord of hosts Leader of the armies of heaven the angels of heaven.

I have put my words in thy mouth Jehovah committed to Israel his servant, (or to his servant springing out of Israel,) his “law and judgment,” or the eternal principles of the true religion. See Isaiah 49:2, where it is said, He hath made his mouth a sharp sword, recalling Hebrews 4:12. For thoroughly preaching the cutting truths of God’s religion the wrath of man is aroused. But against this he says, I have covered thee in the shadow of mine hand. He protects his truth by shielding Zion from harm, in order to plant the heavens, and lay the foundations of the earth. That is, forming the moral heavens, etc., and giving to Zion the greatest spiritual scope and rule over the hearts of men.

Verse 17

17. Awake, awake Earnest address to Jerusalem under a new image, that of a man reeling as an inebriate. The city now is deeply stupified from drinking of the wrath of God, a retribution due to all nations who defy and abandon Jehovah.

Stand up Her punishment is just, but on repentance she may be restored. The vision of Zion just given is in strange contrast. She is now arrayed in robes of peace, and desires reinstatement in her old home. The cup of wrath is a common figure. Psalms 75:9; Jeremiah 25:15; Jeremiah 25:17; Jeremiah 25:28; Ezekiel 23:31. The word dregs is now generally held to mean cup or bowl.

Trembling Rather, reeling, as through intoxication.

Wrung… out Better, sucked out to the last drop.

Verses 18-20

18-20. There is none to guide her There is none like Messiah to guide and lead. The sons of Jerusalem namely, the priests and prophets have lost character, hence ability spiritually to guide. Two things, or two classes of evils, have happened to her: destruction ( waste) and desolation famine and the sword. The state suffers the first, the people the second. Where are the pitying ones to give thee aid? Or, by whom shall I, Messiah, render thee aid? See Lamentations 2:13. The twentieth verse is a little difficult of interpretation. This whole passage is in the tone of sore lamentation. The twentieth verse, especially, dramatically exhibits people after nightfall flung out of the city (Babylon, we will suppose) for safety. But the gates become shut, and they are caught just as the hunter captures wild antelopes (such is the meaning) in a net which he fixes in the field, and into which he drives his prey. All this is the judgment of God upon Jerusalem.

Verses 21-23

21-23. Hear now this It is the same speaker still, but the address turns from the picture of suffering to that of hope and promise.

Drunken, but not with wine Because she has drunken of the full cup of wrath she is now to hear what Jehovah in mercy purposes to do. God takes from her hand the goblet of reeling, the cup of suffering with which she has been drunken, and of this she is to drink no more. The oppressors of Jerusalem are now to have their turn at the cup. Jerusalem has had her deserts. Her subjects have long been captives under tyranny, both at home as vassals, and abroad in bitter exile. The time now is come for a change; she is to be delivered, and her tormentors to be punished.

Verse 23

23. Bow down, that we may go over This refers to ancient captives, and in some cases subjects, lying closely packed face downward, and the conquering foe or tyrant monarch riding with a cavalcade of horses, treading on legs, backs, shoulders, and heads, as over a bridge, to denote absolute humiliation. See Alexander and Barnes on this verse. Here a figure of that practice is doubtless employed, but the actual thing ofttimes occurred anciently, and sometimes occurs in oriental life at the present day.

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Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Isaiah 51". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". 1874-1909.