Isaiah 51 COMMENTARY (Pulpit)

Isaiah 51
Pulpit Commentary
Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the LORD: look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged.
Verses 1-8. - AN ADDRESS TO FAITHFUL ISRAEL, SUGGESTING TOPICS OF COMFORT. The address consists of three nearly equal strophes or stanzas, each commencing with a call, Shim'u elai, "Hearken unto me," or Haqshibu elai, "Attend to me." The prophet appears to be the speaker, and to address himself to the more faithful portion of the people. Verse 1. - Ye that follow after righteousness; i.e. "ye that endeavour to lead righteous lives" (comp. ver. 7). Ye that seek the Lord. And do not "seek after idols," as too many of the exiles did (Isaiah 40:19; Isaiah 41:7; Isaiah 44:9-20; Isaiah 46:5-8, etc.). Look unto the rock... the hole; i.e. look back at your past history, especially at the early beginnings of it. Consider from what a slight and poor commencement - an aged man and a barren woman (ver. 2) - ye were raised up to be God's people, a numerous nation, a multitude like the sand of the sea. How came this result about? Was it not simply by the blessing of God?
Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you: for I called him alone, and blessed him, and increased him.
Verse 2. - I called him alone; or, I called him when he was but ode; i.e. before he had any children (comp. Ezekiel 33:24, "Abraham was one, and he inherited the land"). And blessed him (see Genesis 24:1, 35). And increased him; i.e. "made him a father of many nations" (Genesis 17:5). If God could multiply the progeny of ode man, much more could he make a flourishing nation out of the exiles, who, though but a "remnant" of the pro-Captivity Israel, were yet many thousands in number (see Ezra 2:64).
For the LORD shall comfort Zion: he will comfort all her waste places; and he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the LORD; joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody.
Verse 3. - The Lord shall comfort Zion (comp. Isaiah 40:1; Isaiah 49:3; Isaiah 51:12; Isaiah 52:9, etc.). Literally, the word used is has comforted; i.e. has so determined the matter in his counsels that it may be considered as already accomplished. Her waste places... her wilderness... her desert. Though Nebuchadnezzar "left of the poor of the land to be vinedressers and husbandmen" (2 Kings 25:12; Jeremiah 52:16), yet the population was not sufficient to maintain cultivation generally. Thus, much of Judaea, during the absence of the exiles, became a "wilderness" and a "desert" (see Ezekiel 36:34). Like Eden... like the garden of the Lord. The Prophet Joel compares Judaea before its desolation to "the garden of Eden" (Joel 2:3): and Ezekiel, like Isaiah, prophesies that it shall once more become "like the garden of Eden," when the exiles have returned to it (Ezekiel 37:35). With the last-named writer, Eden represents all that is glorious, not in nature only, but in art (Ezekiel 28:13; Ezekiel 31:8, 9, 16, 18). The voice of melody (comp. Isaiah 35:10, and infra, ver. 11). As music ceases out of the land in time of affliction (Isaiah 24:8), so when a "time of refreshing from the Lord" arrives, there is at once singing and "melody" (comp. Revelation 5:8; Revelation 14:2; Revelation 15:2).
Hearken unto me, my people; and give ear unto me, O my nation: for a law shall proceed from me, and I will make my judgment to rest for a light of the people.
Verse 4. - Hearken unto me; rather, attend to me - a stronger term than "hearken" - attend, and hear of a greater blessing than the restoration of the land of Judah to cultivation and fruitfulness. God, enthroned anew in Zion, will from thence send forth his light and his truth to the nations, will make his Law known to them, and allow them to partake of his salvation. O my nation. Some manuscripts have "O ye nations." But the reading is undoubtedly a wrong one. A law shall proceed from me. The Christian "law" - the new covenant - is probably intended. This became, by the preaching of the apostles, a light of the people, or rather, of the peoples.
My righteousness is near; my salvation is gone forth, and mine arms shall judge the people; the isles shall wait upon me, and on mine arm shall they trust.
Verse 5. - My righteousness is near; my salvation is gone forth. "One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and. a thousand years as one day" (2 Peter 3:8). Isaiah always speaks as if the Messianic kingdom was to supervene almost immediately on the return of the exiles to Palestine. It was not revealed to him that there would be an interval of from five hundred to six hundred years between the two events. By God's "righteousness" here we must understand his righteous plans for the redemption of his people through Christ, and for the punishment of those who resist his will and remain impenitent. The salvation and the judgment are the two parts of the "righteousness." The isles shall wait upon me (comp. Isaiah 41:1, 5; Isaiah 42:4, 10, 12; Isaiah 49:1; Isaiah 60:9, etc.; and the comment on Isaiah 42:4). On mine arm shall they trust. God's "arm" is his executive power - that might by which he effects his purposes. The "isles" or "countries" that have been expecting the coming of a Deliverer will have faith in his power to redeem and save them. Christianity was received with more readiness by the Gentiles than by the "peculiar people" (Acts 11:21; Acts 13:42, 46; Acts 14:1, 2; Acts 17:4, 5; Acts 18:6, etc.).
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 for ever, and my righteousness shall not be abolished.
Verse 6. - Lift up your eyes to the heavens. Look to that which seems to you most stable and most certain to endure - the vast firmament of the heavens, and the solid earth beneath it, of which God "bears up the pillars" (Psalm l25:3). Both these, and man too, are in their nature perishable, and will (or may) vanish away and cease to be. But God, and his power to save, and his eternal law of right, can never pass away, but must endure for evermore. Let Israel be sure that the righteous purposes of God with respect to their own deliverance from Babylon, and to the conversion of the Gentiles, stand firm, and that they will most certainly be accomplished. The heavens shall vanish away like smoke (comp. Psalm 102:26; Matthew 24:35; 2 Peter 3:10-12). And the earth shall wax old like a garment. So also in Psalm 102:26 and Hebrews 1:11. The new heaven and new earth promised by Isaiah (Isaiah 65:17; 66:22), St. Peter (2 Peter 3:13), and St. John (Revelation 21:1) are created in the last times, because "the first heaven and the first earth have passed away." They that dwell therein shall die in like manner. Dr. Kay observes that the Hebrew text does not say, "in like manner," but "as in like manner." Man is not subject to the same law of perishableness as the external world, but to a different law. External things simply "pass away" and are no more. Man disappears from the earth, but continues to exist somewhere. He has, by God's gift, a life that is to be unceasing.
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 afraid of their revilings.
Verse 7. - Hearken unto me, ye that know righteousness. The highest grade of faithfulness is here addressed - not those who "seek" (ver. 1), but those who have found - who "know righteousness," and have the "law" of God in their "hearts." Such persons may still be liable to one weakness - they may "fear the reproach of men." The prophet exhorts them to put aside this fear, remembering

(1) the nothingness of humanity, and

(2) the eternity and imperishableness of God's judgments.
For the moth shall eat them up like a garment, and the worm shall eat them like wool: but my righteousness shall be for ever, and my salvation from generation to generation.
Verse 8. - The moth shall eat them (comp. Isaiah 50:9). If men themselves never wholly pass away (see the comment on ver. 6), yet it is otherwise with their judgments. These perish absolutely, disappear, and are utterly forgotten.
Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD; awake, as in the ancient days, in the generations of old. Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon?
Verses 9-11. - AN APPEAL OF THE PROPHET TO GOD TO AROUSE HIMSELF, WITH A PROMISE OF ISRAEL'S RESTORATION. There has been much doubt as to the utterer of this "splendid apostrophe." Zion, the prophet, the angels, Jehovah, and God the Son pleading with God the Father, have been suggested. To us it seems simplest and best to assign the passage to the prophet. Verse 9. - Awake, awake (comp. Psalm 7:6; Psalm 35:23; Psalm 44:23; Psalm 78:65). When God neglects the prayers and supplications of his people, he is spoken of as "asleep," and needing to be awoke by a loud cry. The anthropomorphism is obvious, and of course not to be taken literally (see 1 Kings 18:27, ad fin.). Put on strength. Gird the strength to thee (Psalm 93:1) which thou hadst laid aside while thou wept asleep. Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab? rather, was it not thou that didst cleave Rahab in pieces? Here, as in Psalm 87:4 and Psalm 89:10, "Rahab" would seem to be a symbolical expression for Egypt. "Rahab" is literally "pride," or "the proud one." The event alluded to, both here and in Psalm 89:10, is the destruction of Pharaoh's host in the Red Sea (see ver. 10). And wounded the dragon. "The dragon" is another symbol of the Egyptian power (comp. Ezekiel 29:3, "Pharaoh, King of Egypt, the great dragon that lieth in the midst of his rivers"). Originally designating God's great enemy, Satan (Genesis 3:14; Revelation 12:7-9; Revelation 20:2), it is a term which comes to be applied to the adversaries of the Almighty generally.
Art thou not it which hath dried the sea, the waters of the great deep; that hath made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over?
Verse 10. - Art thou not it which hath dried the sea? rather, was it not thou that didst dry up the sea? (comp. Exodus 14:21, 22). The waters of the Red Sea are called those of "the great deep," because they are a portion of the circumambient ocean, not a tideless land-locked basin, like the Mediterranean. That hath made; rather, that madest. The allusion is to the single occasion of the passage of the Red Sea by the Israelites. Ver. 11. - The redeemed of the Lord (see the comment on Isaiah 35:10. where the same passage occurs with scarcely any variation). Isaiah is not averse to repetitions (see Isaiah 5:25; Isaiah 9:12, 17, 21; Isaiah 10:4; Isaiah 11:1; Isaiah 65:25; Isaiah 48:22; 57:21, etc.).
Therefore the redeemed of the LORD shall return, and come with singing unto Zion; and everlasting joy shall be upon their head: they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and mourning shall flee away.
I, even I, am he that comforteth you: who art thou, that thou shouldest be afraid of a man that shall die, and of the son of man which shall be made as grass;
Verses 12-16. - AN ADDRESS OF GOD TO HIS CAPTIVE PEOPLE. There is no very clear connection between this passage and the preceding, to which it is certainly not an answer. God comforts the captives under the oppression which they are suffering

(1) by reminding them of their oppressors' weakness and short-livedness;

(2) by assuring them of speedy deliverance (ver. 14); and

(3) by impressing upon them his own power as shown in the past, which is a guarantee that he will protect them in the future (vers. 15, 16). Ver. 12. - I am he that comforteth you (comp. ver. 3, and the comment ad loc). Who art thou? Art thou a poor, weak, powerless, unprotected people, which might well tremble at the powerful Babylonians: or art thou not rather a people under the special protection of Jehovah, bound, therefore, to fear no one? As grass (comp. Isaiah 37:27; Isaiah 11:6-8).
And forgettest the LORD thy maker, that hath stretched forth the heavens, and laid the foundations of the earth; and hast feared continually every day because of the fury of the oppressor, as if he were ready to destroy? and where is the fury of the oppressor?
Verse 13. - And forgettest the Lord thy Maker. It is not so much apostasy as want of a lively and practical faith with which captive Israel is here reproached. They did not deny God - they only left him out of sight, neglected him, forgot him. That hath stretched forth the heavens (comp. Isaiah 40:22; Isaiah 42:5; Isaiah 44:24; Isaiah 45:12, etc.). And laid the foundations of the earth (see Isaiah 48:13; Psalm 102:25; Hebrews 1:10). And hast feared continually... because of the fury of the oppressor. (On the sufferings of the Israelites under their Babylonian oppressors, see the comment on Isaiah 42:22, and again on Isaiah 47:6.) By the present passage it would appear that life itself was not safe from their cruel fury, when their victims had exasperated them. Where is the fury of the oppressor? All their violence and rage will come to nought, when they in their turn become subject to the conquering Persians.
The captive exile hasteneth that he may be loosed, and that he should not die in the pit, nor that his bread should fail.
Verse 14. - The captive exile hasteneth that he may be loosed; rather, he that is bent down hasteneth to be released; i.e. such of the exiles as were cramped and bent by fetters, or by the stocks, would speedily, on the fall of Babylon, obtain their release. They would not "die unto the pit," i.e. so as to belong to the pit and to be east into it, but would live and have a sufficiency of sustenance.
But I am the LORD thy God, that divided the sea, whose waves roared: The LORD of hosts is his name.
Verse 15. - But I am the Lord thy God, that divided the sea; rather, for I, the Lord thy God, am he that divided the sea (comp. ver. 10). The reference is once more to the great miracle wrought at the Exodus, when the Red Sea was "divided" before the host of Israelites (Exodus 14:21; comp. Psalm 74:13). Whose waves roared (see Exodus 14:27; Exodus 15:10).
And I have put my words in thy mouth, and I have covered thee in the shadow of mine hand, that I may plant the heavens, and lay the foundations of the earth, and say unto Zion, Thou art my people.
Verse 16. - And I have put my words in thy mouth. Some commentators detach this verse altogether from the preceding passage, and regard it as a fragment intruded here out of its proper place by some unaccountable accident. From the close resemblance of the expressions used to those in Isaiah 49:2, they consider that the person addressed must be "the Servant of Jehovah," and hence conclude that the verse "originally stood in some other context" (Cheyne). It is, however, quite possible to regard Israel as still addressed; since Israel too was the recipient of God's words (see Isaiah 59:21), and was protected by God's hand from destruction, and kept in existence until the happy time should come when God would create a new heaven and a new earth (Isaiah 65:17) for Israel's dwelling-place, and say unto Zion - i.e. to the "new Jerusalem" Revelation 21:2) - Thou art my people. This crowning promise well terminates the comforting address wherewith Jehovah at this time saw fit to cheer and encourage his captive people.
Awake, awake, stand up, O Jerusalem, which hast drunk at the hand of the LORD the cup of his fury; thou hast drunken the dregs of the cup of trembling, and wrung them out.
Verses 17-23. - AN ADDRESS OF THE PROPHET TO JERUSALEM. The comfort afforded to Israel generally is now concentrated on Jerusalem. Her condition during the long period of the Captivity is deplored, and her want of a champion to assert her cause and raise her out of the dust is lamented (vers. 17-20). After this, an assurance is given her that the miseries which she has suffered shall pass from her to her great enemy, by whom the dregs of the "cup of trembling" shall be drained, and the last drop wrung out (vers. 21-23). Verse 17. - Awake, awake (comp. ver. 9 and Isaiah 52:1). Isaiah marks the breaks in his prophecy, sometimes by a repetition of terminal clauses, which have the effect of a refrain (Isaiah 5:25; Isaiah 9:12, 17, 21; Isaiah 10:4; and Isaiah 48:22; 57:21); sometimes by a repetition of initial clauses of a striking character (Isaiah 5:8, 11, 20; Isaiah 13:1; Isaiah 15:1; Isaiah 17:1; Isaiah 19:1; Isaiah 21:1, 11; Isaiah 22:1; Isaiah 23:1; Isaiah 28:1; Isaiah 29:1; Isaiah 30:1; Isaiah 31:1; Isaiah 33:1; Isaiah 48:1, 12, 16; Isaiah 50:4, 7, 9, etc.). Here we have thrice over "Awake, awake" - not, however, an exact repetition in the Hebrew, but a near approach to it each summons forming the commencement of a new paragraph or subsection. Which hast drunk at the hand of the Lord the cup of his fury. The cup of God's fury was poured out on Jerusalem when the city was taken by Nebuchadnezzar, the temple, the royal palace, and the houses of the nobles burnt (2 Kings 25:9), the walls broken down (2 Kings 25:10), and the bulk of the inhabitants carried away captive to Babylon (2 Kings 25:11; comp. 2 Chronicles 34:25; Jeremiah 42:18; Jeremiah 44:6; Ezekiel 22:31, etc.). "The cup of God's fury" is an expression used by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 25:15). The dregs of the cup; rather, perhaps, the goblet-cup (Cheyne), or the out-swollen cup. It is the fulness of the measure of Jerusalem's punishment, not its character, which is pointed at.
There is none to guide her among all the sons whom she hath brought forth; neither is there any that taketh her by the hand of all the sons that she hath brought up.
Verse 18. - None to guide her. From the time that Johanan, the son of Kareah, and the other "captains of the forces," quitted Judaea and fled into Egypt, taking with them Jeremiah and Baruch (Jeremiah 43:5-7), there was no one left in the country with any authority or any ability to direct affairs. The city, no doubt, suffered by this state of things, becoming more ruined and more desolate than it would have been otherwise. Had Johanan and the Jews under him remained in the land, God had promised to "build them, and not pull them down;" to "plant them, and not pluck them up" (Jeremiah 42:10). Thus Jerusalem's extreme desolation was not wholly the result of the Babylonian conquest, but was partly due to the after-misconduct of the Jews left in the country.
These two things are come unto thee; who shall be sorry for thee? desolation, and destruction, and the famine, and the sword: by whom shall I comfort thee?
Verse 19. - These two things. What are the "two things," it is asked, since four are mentioned - desolation, and destruction, and the famine, and the sword? The right answer seems to be that of Aben Ezra and Kimchi, that the two things are "desolation," or rather "wasting" within, produced by "famine;" and "destruction" without, produced by "the sword." Who shall be sorry for thee? rather, who will mourn with thee? Jerusalem is without friends; no man condoles with her over her misfortunes. God alone feels compassion; but even he scarce knows how to comfort. By whom? rather, how? (comp. Amos 7:2, 5).
Thy sons have fainted, they lie at the head of all the streets, as a wild bull in a net: they are full of the fury of the LORD, the rebuke of thy God.
Verse 20. - Thy sons have fainted, they lie; rather, thy sons fainted; they lay. The prophet describes the siege and capture of Jerusalem as past, because his standpoint is the time of the Captivity. He depicts the inhabitants of Jerusalem as "faint" through famine, and so weak that they lie prostrate about the streets. As a wild bull in a net; rather, like a gazelle in a net - panting, exhausted, incapable of the hast resistance. They are full of the fury of the Lord; i.e. the fury of the Lord has been fully poured out upon them.
Therefore hear now this, thou afflicted, and drunken, but not with wine:
Verse 21. - Drunken, but not with wine (comp. Isaiah 29:9; and see above, ver. 17, which shows that the appearance of drunkenness had been produced by Jerusalem drinking the cup of God's wrath).
Thus saith thy Lord the LORD, and thy God that pleadeth the cause of his people, Behold, I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, even the dregs of the cup of my fury; thou shalt no more drink it again:
Verse 22. - The Lord... that pleadeth the cause of his people (comp. Jeremiah 50:34, which contains an allusion to this passage). As his people have a relentless adversary, who accuses them continually, and pleads against them (Revelation 12:10), so it is needful that they should have an untiring advocate. God himself is this Advocate. The dregs of the cup (see the comment on ver. 17, ad fin.).
But I will put it into the hand of them that afflict thee; which have said to thy soul, Bow down, that we may go over: and thou hast laid thy body as the ground, and as the street, to them that went over.
Verse 23. - I will put it into the hand of them that afflict thee. Babylon, the oppressor of Judah, shall in her turn be made to drink of the cup of which Judah had so long drunk, and shall suffer nearly the same woes which she had inflicted. Meanwhile, Judah should cease to drink of the cup, and have "a time of refreshing." Bow down, that we may go over; i.e. "submit yourselves to the uttermost, that we may put upon you the most extreme indignity." The metaphor is drawn from the actual practise of conquerors, who made captive kings prostrate themselves, and placed their feet upon their necks, or otherwise trampled upon them (see Joshua 10:24; and comp. 'Ancient hierarchies,' vol. 3:p. 7).

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