Isaiah Chapter 51

CHAPTER FIFTY-ONE

A threefold call to listen directed to Israel; first, as a nation
following after righteousness; second, as in relation to the
Gentiles; third, as in relation to Jehovah. The cry from the
Remnant to the Arm of the Lord to awake, answered by
Jehovah's cry to Jerusalem to awake.


Again the three divisions that experience has led us to expect are clearly marked in the first section, verses 1-8. As in the preceding chapter there were three speakers, here we have a threefold call to listen. This repetition is, I doubt not, intended to impress us with the importance of what is said.

Whilst there is but one Speaker, three different companies of one people are addressed.

1: Verses 1-3: A personal word to Israel as following after righteousness.
2: Verses 4-6: To Israel in her relation to the Gentiles.
3: Verses 7, 8: To Israel in her relation to Jehovah.

This is again, "selfward," "manward," and "Godward"; nor are these divine fingerprints to be ignored without loss.

1: Ye that pursue after righteousness, hearken!
Ye who are seeking Jehovah,
Attentively look at the rock whence ye came,
At the pit's hollow whence ye were digged.
2: Carefully look at your father, Abraham;
And to Sarah, the mother who bare you;
For he was but one when I called him, and blessed him,
And multiplied him into many.
3: For Jehovah hath comforted Zion,
Comforted all her waste places,
Made her desert (to blossom) as Eden,
Her steppe as the garden of Jah!
Joy and great gladness are now dwelling in her,
Thanksgiving and melody's voice!
It is not altogether easy to distinguish with precision who the speaker here really is. Is it Jehovah, as some claim? Or is it the Servant, as others? One word from the clear light of the New Testament spoken by that Servant solves the difficulty: "I and My Father are one." It is then Immanuel, God in Christ, and thus we can approve the very ambiguity, discerning beauty in what we otherwise might esteem blemish.

The first section evidently addresses the whole nation of the literal Israel. A nation which was distinguished, as Romans 10 tells us, by "a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge, for they, being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God," that is, they follow after a righteousness of their own. Very evidently both the prophet and the apostle speak of the same people, Israel, and what has characterized them in contrast with the Gentile. These latter have not "followed after righteousness" (Rom. 10:30) as has the Jew, who is here addressed.

It is then, not the Church, as some insist (how could it be since it was quite hidden from Isaiah? Rom. 16:25), but the literal people of Israel who are here exhorted to consider how small their beginning. Abraham was their father and Sarah their mother; what hope could there be of their very existence if it depended on parents who had long given up hope of progeny? Abraham was alone, in hopeless solitude as far as a legitimate heir went. Sarah was dead as far as child-bearing went—what hope from such? Yet Jehovah called, blessed, and multiplied that solitary man and barren woman till the vain boastful name of Abram, "highly exalted father," became by the addition of one humbling letter,1 Abraham, "the father of many nations," as the word is divinely interpreted for us. It is thus He humbles that He may bless without adding sorrow in the blessing.

So from their beginning, let the downtrodden nation learn, first, that it is as dependent for its recovery on the intervention of Jehovah as was its father for its existence; but secondly, that He will interpose, and as He comforted Abraham by promise and fulfilment, so will He comfort Zion; and her present barrenness shall also be turned into the fruitfulness of that garden of which Jehovah Himself was the Husbandman; and where He placed the first solitary man—the father of the whole race. No silent city then shall Zion be, for silence does not honor Him, far less do groans or sighs speak His praise, although they well suit the present reign of the usurper. King Theebaw of Burmah erected a torture-house near to his palace that he might hear the groans of the sufferers; thus he was an excellent representative of his master who is indifferent to the sufferings of the race beloved of God. But our God loves a very different tune, and Zion must be filled with unforced spontaneous melody from joy-filled hearts. How that speaks of our God who so loved us as not to spare Himself the sacrifice of His Son! Who would willingly be away from Him?

Now the address turns to Israel in their relation to the nations:

4: Hearken attentively,2 O ye My people;
My nation, give ear unto Me;
For from Me there shall go forth a law,
My judgment will I establish,
To be a light to the Gentiles.
5: Near is My righteousness,
Gone forth My salvation,
My arm, it shall judge all the Gentiles.
The isles shall wait upon Me,
Expectantly wait on My arm!
6: Lift up your eyes to the heavens,
Then cast them on earth at your feet;
For the heavens shall roll off as smoke,
The earth as a vestment be frayed.
E'en thus shall its dwellers all die,
But forever shall be My salvation,
My righteousness ne'er be abolished.
Note in what close amity are the two words "righteousness" and "salvation." In view of a world of sinners one would assume that they must be opposed to each other, but here they go hand in hand in closest accord. But this accord forbids our seeing the "law" that went from Sinai in what is here said to proceed from Zion: that never went further than to Israel; this goes far afield to the Gentiles; there was no salvation proclaimed then, as there is here. Thus the law here must be that instruction as to the ways and will of Jehovah with which the second chapter of our book has made us familiar. Zion is the literal mountain that shall speak to Israel of the grace that recovered her in the earth, as it speaks to us of the grace that gives us a heavenly place and blessing still nearer to the heart of God in Christ. The scene here is millennial, and the righteousness of God, that shall then be in accord with salvation of sinful men, settles in the metropolis of that renewed earth, Zion, whence it radiates on all sides, a light for the farthest nations and bringing holy joy everywhere.

Let God's earthly people regard the heavens above them (verse 6). How majestic the unwavering march of these mighty worlds—so sure, so unchanging, that men can compute with absolute certainty when their paths shall cross each other! The earth, too, with its "everlasting mountains," which, as far as human experience goes, voiced by its wisest, "abideth forever" (Eccl. 1:4). But both heaven and earth are transient. The time shall come when human eyes shall look up and see those heavens rolling away as smoke, and the earth shriveling like a moth-eaten garment, when earth-dwellers, in that evil sense that we have it in the book of Revelation, shall perish with the earth, their dwelling. But amid that wreck of worlds, the "righteous salvation" shall remain unaffected, and those who have embraced it, and by whom it is embraced, shall also remain forever, for they have a life not of earth.

We have one more call to hearken:

7: Hearken to Me, ye who know right,
The people whose heart hides My law,
Fear not the reproach of frail mortals,
Nor be afraid of their scoffings;
8: For as a garment the moth shall devour them,
Yea, as if woolen, the worm shall devour them.3
My righteousness ever shall be,
My salvation shall ever remain,
To the age embracing all ages.
Here the true Israel of God is addressed, and by that term we do not understand the Church (of which mystery these prophets knew nothing, Rom. 16:25, 26), nor the Servant, nor the nation as a whole, but the beloved Remnant of faith, with whom our present position and condition have so much in common, that although not identified, we are very closely related by a common dependence on the same grace, based on the same mighty sacrifice. That remnant has learned the secret of God's righteousness, and grace has written His law in their hearts. They are indeed as sheep in the midst of wolves, but let them not shrink from the reviling that faith has ever met in this devil-ruled world; for after all these wolves are but frail mortals, over whom there hangs penalty—not merely of a death that is common to all, but into that first death they depart, in the gloom of divine displeasure, to a second death also that is unending! But they, the sheep begotten to a new life by that Word in which salvation accords with absolute righteousness, shall abide, with that life, forever.

So lovely a prospect has been brought before the eye of those addressed in the section we have just considered, that it awakens a passion of longing that breaks out in a cry, whose intensity is beautifully expressed by the repeated word:

9: Awake, awake, and clothe thee with strength,
O thou arm of Jehovah!
Awake again, as in days of long past,
The ages that now lie afar back.
Art thou not it that Rahab hath hewed,
And wounded the (terrible) dragon?
10: Art thou not it that hath dried up the sea,
Even the flood of the great deep?
Art thou not it that hath turned the sea-depths
To a path for thy ransomed to cross by? [A pause.]

11: Aye, the redeemed of the Lord shall return,
Come unto Zion with singing:
Crowned with a joy that never shall end,
Gladness and joy overtaken, sorrow and mourning take flight.4

The Remnant last addressed now respond; and yet the spokesman must be found in Him who, as the one Mediator, at one time represents feeble man; at another, the mighty God. We have heard Him called "Wonderful," and as we trace His glories through these pages, we own the truth of that title—He is indeed Wonderful! For here He is both Servant and Lord, both the One who calls, and the One who, in another relation, responds. Thus He gives expression to the longing cry of His people: Dost Thou hold out such entrancing anticipations before us, and yet Thyself put forward no activity for their attainment? O awake, awake, thou mighty Arm: clothe Thee once more with Thine ancient strength! Thy silence is interpreted as Thine impotency. Repeat the deeds of old, and silence Thy traducers. Was it not Thy might that forced proud Rahab (Egypt) to surrender us? Then, when the seas shut us in, was it not Thou that didst turn the sea itself into a dry pathway? Worthy of Thyself are the ways of escape Thou makest for Thy people.

As we thus meditate on the past, we are filled with confidence as to the future. As this vision passes before the eyes of our faith, we see Thee moving once again, and lo, there are the redeemed of the Lord, returning to their long-lost inheritance! Aye, our ears can even hear the songs they sing. Their heads are garlanded with joy and gladness which they have vainly pursued hitherto, but have overtaken at last, whilst the storm through which they have passed rolls off like a thick cloud, taking with it all their sighs and tears!

Nothing but unpardonable violence to Romans 11, as well as to a great part of the Old Testament can account for the denial of the restoration of the Jews to their land, and eventually to the favor of their Jehovah. But whilst this must be maintained, in a very true sense we too can utter the same questions as to hewing Rahab and wounding the dragon. "Is it not Thou?" we can cry to Him who is Himself the mighty Arm of our God, our Lord Jesus—"Is it not Thou who, in the day of our captivity to sin and death, proved Thyself stronger than that strong armed man who held us, overcame him, the dragon that he is; gave us deliverance through the Red Sea of judgment, and thus through death destroyed him who had the power of death? In the clear atmosphere of Thy resurrection, we too have found joy and gladness, pursued in other ways but never overtaken; and although it may here be not unmixed with tears at times, 'through manifold temptations,' is yet unending, for it shall be carried on in the holy merriment of the Father's House forever."

Now gently, like the soft dawning of a clear day after a night of storm, the answer to that cry of "Awake, awake!" comes, and these next verses are, as it were, the twilight of dawn before the sun itself rises:

13: Thou hast forgotten thy Maker, the Lord,
Stretcher of heavens, earth's Founder,
And hast feared constantly, day after day,
Before the oppressor's hot fury,
As he makes ready thee to destroy.5
And where's the oppressor's hot fury?
14: He that's bowed down 'neath the weight of his chains
Speedily shall be delivered,
Nor shall he die, nor go to the pit,
Nor shall his sustenance fail him.
15: For I am thy God who stilleth the sea,6
E'en when its surges are roaring:
Jehovah Tzebaoth His name!
16: Mine are the words I've put in thy mouth:
In sheltering hand have I hid thee,
The heavens to plant, the earth to found,
And say unto Zion, My people!
Jehovah places a strong emphasis on its being Himself who will intervene. The law may be given by the disposition of angels, but He will depute no one to redeem—it is Himself from beginning to end. Thus He cries here, "I, even I, and no other; no archangel, principality, or power of heaven will I permit to comfort Zion." His eye has watched those trembling saints—trembling, yet maintaining a true witness against the pretensions of "Beast" and "False Prophet," for both combine in hot fury against all who will not worship that image. "Fury!" says Jehovah, "I look forward a little, and where has that fury gone? One little breath, and lo, it cannot be found" (2 Thess. 2:8). Captivity ceases, chains are cast off, and the tomb no longer awaits the poor chain-bowed prisoner. God now comforts those thus cast down, God, whose command the truculent waves obey: Jehovah Tzebaoth His Name.

Up to verse 16 the address has been to Zion, but now it is diverted to the Servant, for into no other mouth have Jehovah's words been put, so that what He speaks, Jehovah speaks. Taking a backward look, it was His word by which the heavens have been planted; as one plants a garden with its beauties, so has He garnished the heavens with the glittering host. It was His word too that called the earth into being. But here we have not a backward, but a forward look, and therefore it is not the old creation that is in view, for as to that, both heaven and earth shall pass away, but what follows? Then again that same Voice shall be heard, as it cries: "Behold, I make all things new!" The new heavens shall be garnished with new plantings, a new earth be strongly founded. Afar off that may still be. A millennium may interpose before that final accomplishment, yet may we in very truth hear that grand solemn word "DONE" that, like the single stroke of a bell, announces to the whole universe that all God's counsels have at length been carried out, and both heaven and earth are now and forever, in full accord in their glad submission to His Throne, and so, immovable.

Now let us hear a still more direct call from Jehovah, echoing back to Zion her own cry:

17: Awaken, awaken, and stand up, O Salem!
Thou who hast drunk from the hand of the Lord
The cup of His hot, burning fury,
Drunken the dregs of that cup that brings reeling,
Yea, drunk to the very last drop.
18: Not one, 'mid the sons she had borne, who could guide her!
Not one, 'mid the sons she had brought up, could lead her!7
19: These twain have befallen thee:
(And who sorrows for thee?)
Desolation—destruction!
The famine—the sword!
By whom shall I comfort thee?
20: Thy children have fainted!
Prostrate at all the street-corners they're lying,
Like to an antelope caught in a net.8
Filled with the wrath of Jehovah!
Filled with rebuke of thy God!
21: So listen to this, O thou sorrowing one,
Thou drunken, but not from wine-bibbing.
22: Thus saith Jehovah, who is thy Lord,
Thy God who defendeth His people:
Behold, I am taking out of thy hand
The cup (of My wrath) causing reeling,
My fury wherein is the dregs,
Thou shalt drink it again nevermore!
23: But into the hand of them that tormented thee,
Who have said to thy soul, Bow thee down
That we may walk over thee,
Into that hand will I put it.
Thy back hast thou made like the ground,
For a passenger's pathway.
In that return to Israel of her cry, "Awake, awake," there is deep significance. Jehovah says, "It is thou who must awaken. Thou art benumbed by the sorrows that have befallen thee. Thou art stupefied by the cup of which thou hast drunken so deeply. Thou art altogether as one asleep to the reserve of love that thy Lord has for thee. Thou thinkest that He has naught but chastening blows. O awake, awake to the Love that is behind every blow! It is indeed a cup that causeth reeling that I have pressed into thy hands, but this is not the end of My ways with thee, but only the means to that end."

Note the meditative tone in verse 18, as if Jehovah Himself were weighing fully the sorrows of His afflicted people. Zion has borne many sons, but she has none that can guide her in her perplexity now, not one to lead her by the hand. These two things have befallen her: to the land, desolation; to its dwellers, famine; and those dwellers lie at every street corner, dull and motionless, as when a wild antelope taken in a net, exhausted with vain struggles, at last lies still! "Listen, O thou stupefied sufferer, I will take that cup of reeling out of thine hand, and thy oppressors shall drain it: the pitiless who have made their pathway over thy prostrate body, they shall now drink of this cup!"

Have we no sympathy for Israel in the sorrows that she must still pass through? Have we never been stupefied by the chastening strokes of our God? Has never a blow, or a series of blows, befallen us, and the heavens were brass, the while the very moan of petition died upon our lips, and, in silent misery, we lay like that netted deer? Then, as the storm passed, we became awake to a Love that had directed all these sufferings for our truest good; and as a chastened child with the tears still on his cheeks, climbs his father's knee and lays down his head on the shoulder, so we have awakened to a Love that we thought we knew well, but now feel how shallow that knowledge has been.

If there should be one who reads these lines, who has recently wept under affliction, Awake, awake, my beloved brother or sister. Be not so stupefied as to forget that chastening is not the end, but only the way to peace and most tender comforting. That is the mark of a true-born child. The whole race suffers from the consequences of sin. Bereavement, loss and pain are not the sole heritage of faith. An infidel or atheist can weep quite as much as a Christian, but the one proves his illegitimacy by resenting the providences that have afflicted him; the other evidences his legitimacy by self-judgment, and drawing nearer to the Heart whose love he knows and from which he may have wandered.


Footnotes:


1 The added "h" is the Hebrew numeral 5, the number that speaks of "man the creature in connection with God, his Ruler yet his Helper" (F. W. Grant).

2 The word is stronger than that used in verse 1. Here it is "Hearken attentively."

3 In these two lines we have another evident play on words as anyone can detect: Kabeged yoklem ash (as a moth devours a garment), katzemer yoklem sas (as a worm devours wool). "The sas is brother to the ash" (The worm is brother to the moth)— Jewish proverb.

4 This is strictly literal. They have pursued joy and gladness long, and at last have overtaken them.

5 See Ps. 11:2: "They made ready their arrow." Israel is terrified as he sees the oppressor getting ready to assault him.

6 The word "roga" is primarily "to frighten," and then "to restrain by fright," and so "to make still." But it is still a question whether here it should be rendered, "stir up," or "make the sea quiet," or, "divide it," as Job 26:12.

7 "What elegaic music we have here in the deep cadences,

mikkol-banim yaladah,
mikkol-banim giddelah" (Delitzsch).
8 This beautiful figure is changed (although not improved) in the Septuagint to "like a half-baked turnip."