A number of scholars believe that the book of Isaiah was written by three people or groups of people. According to this theory, chapters 1-39 were written by the first Isaiah, the son of Amoz (1:1). A second prophet or group of prophets (known as Second Isaiah or Deutero-Isaiah) wrote chapters 40-55—and another prophet or group of prophets (known as Third Isaiah—or Trito-Isaiah) wrote chapters 56-66. In this scheme, First Isaiah covers the period leading up to the Babylonian captivity—Second Isaiah was written near the end of the captivity, about 540 B.C.—and Third Isaiah was written as the exiles began their return to Jerusalem, about 520 B.C. (Brueggemann, 167).
If this is true, our text was written near the end of the Babylonian captivity—in a time when most of the Israelite exiles would have been born in captivity, never having seen Jerusalem. They would have spent their lives in servitude, and would be tempted to believe that Yahweh has either abandoned them or is not sufficiently powerful to help them. It is a time of minimum hope and maximum temptation to follow after other gods.
Chapters 42-53 of the book of Isaiah contain four Servant Songs. The Servant is God’s agent to do God’s work in the world. Chapter 51 is sandwiched between the third song (50:4-9) and the fourth song—the Suffering Servant Song (52:13—53:12). In these songs, the Servant calls Israel to maintain faithfulness to God, and offers comfort and encouragement.
Chapter 51 is not one of the Servant Songs, but nevertheless includes the same emphases as the Servant Songs—a call to faithful service and comfort/encouragement. The stronger emphasis in chapter 51 is comfort/encouragement. It promises that Yahweh will transform Israel’s wilderness into an Eden-like garden (v. 3). It promises that the people will find joy and gladness (v. 3). It promises justice (v. 4) and salvation (v. 5). And it assures the people—these discouraged exiles—that the salvation that Yahweh offers, unlike the transient world with its ups and downs, is “forever” (v. 6).
ISAIAH 51:1-3. LOOK TO THE ROCK YOU WERE CUT FROM
1“Listen to me, you who follow after righteousness, you who seek Yahweh: look to the rock you were cut from, and to the hold of the pit you were dug from. 2Look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah who bore you; for when he was but one I called him, and I blessed him, and made him many. 3For Yahweh has comforted (Hebrew: na·ham) Zion; he has comforted all her waste places, and has made her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of Yahweh; joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody.”
“Listen to me” (v. 1a). This chapter begins with three imperatives: Listen…. Look…. Look…. (vv. 1-2). The command, “Listen,” is repeated in verses 4 and 7. The words found in this chapter have salvation power, but they can save only those who listen and heed.
“you who follow after righteousness, you that seek Yahweh” (v. 1b). These words are addressed, not to the total community, but to those who “follow after righteousness” and “seek Yahweh”—in other words, those who have kept the faith during their captivity.
As we will see in later chapters (56:9 ff.), many Israelites have fallen away. Israel’s rulers have been corrupt (56:9-12). Many Israelite exiles have worshiped idols (57:1-13). Many have been guilty of false worship (chapter 58) and injustice (chapter 59). But there are those who have kept the faith, and it is to those people that these words are addressed. The purpose of these words is to encourage these righteous people to continue in the faith and not to falter in these last days before their deliverance.
“look to the rock you were cut from, and to the hold of the pit you were dug from” (v. 1c). This portion of verse 1 parallels verse 2a, which calls the faithful to look to Abraham and Sarah. This makes it appear that Abraham is the rock and Sarah is the quarry—and that makes sense to anyone who knows Israel’s history. However, many scholars treat this mention of Abraham and Sarah metaphorically. It is Yahweh—the power behind Abraham and Sarah—who is the rock.
“look to the rock you were cut from” This is the kind of language that fathers and coaches use to motivate young people. These words say, in effect, consider who you are. Consider where you came from—your history. Consider your family name—your reputation and ours. Consider the strengths that you have gained from your family associations. Only if you remember these things can you live up to your potential.
“Look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah who bore you” (v. 2a). The story of Abraham and Sarah would be familiar to every Israelite, faithful or not. God called Abram to leave his father’s house and to go to a land that God would show him, and promised, “I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2). Abram did so, and God established a covenant with him, saying, “Look now toward the sky, and count the stars, if you are able to count them…. So shall your seed be” (Genesis 15:5). Abram “believed in Yahweh; and he reckoned it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).
God reiterated this covenant when Abram was ninety-nine years old and childless (Genesis 17)—changing Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah (Genesis 17:5, 15). God then sent three men/angels to promise a son to Abraham and Sarah—an unbelievable promise given their ages (Genesis 18:10)—but a promise that was finally realized when Abraham was a hundred years old (Genesis 21:1-7).
“for when he was but one I called him, and I blessed him and made him many” (v. 2b). Abram was one man when God called him. However, he was married, so he “took Sarai his wife, Lot his brother’s son, all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls whom they had gotten in Haran, and they went to go into the land of Canaan” (Genesis 12:5).
As noted above, God promised Abram that he would make of him a great nation, but Abram/Abraham was childless until Hagar, Sarai’s servant-woman, bore Ishmael (Genesis 16). Sarah remained childless for many additional years. It was only when Abraham was one hundred years old that Sarah bore Isaac (Genesis 21:1-7). Then God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his beloved son and his future. Abraham was ready to comply when an angel stopped him and provided a ram for a sacrifice (Genesis 22). Sarah died not long afterwards (Genesis 23), and the hope that Abraham would become a great nation seemed quite improbable.
But Isaac grew up and married Rebekah (Genesis 24), and she bore twin sons, Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:19-28)—both of whom would sire great nations. It would not be until Jacob’s family came out of Egypt many centuries in the future that Israel (Jacob’s new name and the name of the nation) would become a nation. God’s promise seemed improbable, but it turned out to be true.
All the Israelites in captivity in Babylon knew this story like the back of their hands. They would remember how slowly but faithfully God worked to fulfill his promise to Abraham. They would recall that the nation Israel had gone through many ups and downs before the Babylonian captivity. The call of this verse is for them to remember their history. If God could bless Abraham in such an improbable way, anything can happen. God has the power even to rescue them from their servitude in Babylon.
“For Yahweh (yhwh) has comforted (na·ham) Zion; he has comforted all her waste places” (v. 3a). Now the promises begin. Yahweh will comfort Zion—will ease Israel’s suffering—will provide her relief—will give her consolation. Just as Yahweh transformed Sarah’s barrenness, so also he will transform the barren condition of these exiles.
This word, na·ham, is often used in the context of grief. “As with mourning customs, giving comfort or consolation is among Eastern peoples often much less inhibited and more demonstrative and vociferous than in the West. The consoler becomes involved empathically in the sorrow or discomfort of the one needing comfort, and together they find release for the emotions” (Bromiley, 736). Yahweh is promising to comfort these exiles in this very active, involved manner.
Yahweh will comfort “all (Zion’s) waste places.” This could mean that God intends to transform Zion’s deserts, and we will see that made explicit in the next line of this verse. But “her waste places” can also serve as a metaphor for the unfulfilled lives that the exiles have been living in their half-century exile. We can be certain that Yahweh intends to transform more than dirt. He intends to transform this people as well.
and has made her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden Yahweh” (v. 3b). The Garden of Eden was a paradise where “Yahweh God made every tree to grow that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food…. A river went out of Eden to water the garden.” God told the man “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat of it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:9-10, 16-17). But it became a paradise lost when Adam and Eve sinned (Genesis 3). We might go so far as to say that sin transformed paradise into wilderness. Now Yahweh promises to reverse that process—to transform Israel’s wilderness into another Eden—to make a lovely garden out of a bleak wilderness.
This is an extravagant promise—so extravagant that it might seem empty—except that the God who makes the promise is the same God who created Eden in the first place—the same God who created a nation out of a single man and woman. If these faithful Israelites will just remember their history—remember the rock from which they were hewn—remember how God blessed Abraham and Sarah with a son in their old age—then they will be able to look into the future with hope, knowing that the God who fulfilled his promise to Abraham will also fulfill his promise to them.
“joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody” (v. 3c). When all this happens—when God fulfills his promise to make the desert of Israel’s life into a new Eden—then the people of Israel will be filled with joy. They will sing God’s praises and offer thanksgiving for their salvation.
ISAIAH 51:4-6. I WILL ESTABLISH MY JUSTICE FOR A LIGHT OF THE PEOPLES
4“Attend to me, my people; and give ear to me, my nation: for a law (Hebrew: tor·ah) shall go forth from me, and I will establish my justice (Hebrew: mis·pat) for a light of the peoples (Hebrew: am·mim). 5My righteousness is near, my salvation is gone forth, and my arms shall judge the peoples; the islands(Hebrew: iy·yim) shall wait for me, and on my arm shall they trust. 6Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look on the earth beneath; for the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment; and those who dwell therein shall die in the same way: but my salvation shall be forever, and my righteousness shall not be abolished.”
“Attend to me, my people, and give ear to me, my nation” (v. 4a). As noted above, “Listen” is repeated in verses 1, 4, and 7. The people cannot receive the comfort that Yahweh is promising to provide unless they listen to the call to remember—unless they hear the words of comfort that Yahweh is offering.
Yahweh shows his tenderness toward this captive people when he addresses them as “my people” and “my nation.” These people are his sons and daughters—his family. That is why he has chastened them for their sins. It is why he now offers to redeem them from their suffering.
“for a law (tor·ah) will go forth from me” (v. 4b). Note the “for” at the beginning of this phrase. The people need to listen to God “for” or “because” God is planning to issue a tor·ah that they desperately need to hear.
This word, tor·ah, can mean teaching or law. Here it means the kind of instruction that a loving father provides to his son—instruction designed to make life easier and better for the son—instruction that, if heeded, will help the son to avoid some of life’s pitfalls.
“and I will establish my justice (mis·pat) for a light of the peoples” (am·mim) (v. 4c). Justice(mis·pat) and righteousness (seda·qa) are related. Justice involves bringing people into a right relationship with Yahweh and each other, and these right relationships produce righteous lives. Once this is achieved, the chaos of an unjust culture and an unrighteous people is resolved and made orderly—trustworthy—secure.
God’s law provides very specific guidance with regard to just behavior. It requires witnesses to be honest and impartial (Exodus 23:1-3, 6-8). It requires special consideration for widows, orphans, and other vulnerable people (Deuteronomy 24:17). While Israel is always tempted to define its service to God by the performance of cultic duties (ritual sacrifice, Sabbath observance, etc.), the prophets keep reminding them that justice is a basic duty of the faith community (Micah 6:8).
In this case, Yahweh is asking the people to listen (v. 4a) because he is establishing mis·pat that will serve as “a light to the peoples” (am·mim). This word, am·mim, is ambiguous. It could mean Israel, or it could be broader—perhaps meaning that the justice established by God for Israel will serve as a beacon to other peoples—showing them how life can and should be lived—drawing them to God.
“My righteousness is near” (v. 5a). This, in fact, will prove to be true. God is raising up King Cyrus of Persia, who will reverse the oppressive rule of Babylon and encourage the Israelites to return to Jerusalem. That day is nearly upon them.
“my salvation is gone forth, and my arm shall judge the peoples” (v. 5b). Arms are used for working and fighting, and are therefore a symbol of strength or power. But here it is a benevolent source of power. God rules in love. This is the kind of power for which people yearn—power that creates good things and hold evil things in abeyance—power both sufficient for the need at hand and sensitive to the needs of the people.
“the islands (sometimes translated “isles” or “islands”) shall wait for me, and on my arm they shall trust” (v. 5c). The islands “refers to distant, heathen nations” (Bromiley, 727)—faraway Gentile nations (Myers, 225). They refer to “the coasts of the eastern Mediterranean and its islands…. In 40:15 the prophet had already made clear how insignificant the isles were; when these isles must hear God and His judgment, it will again be manifest that before Him they are as nothing” (Young, 71).
This means, then, that even heathen nations long for the benevolent rule of God. They might or might not be able to articulate this longing, but deep inside them lies a yearning for the kind of society that is present where God rules.
We might imagine that these Gentiles would fear the arm of the Lord—fear the power represented by that strong arm—worry that God will use his power to destroy them. But the opposite is true. It is for the arm of the Lord—God’s manifest power—that they hope. They understand at some deep level that the only thing that can save them is the strong arm of the Lord.
“Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look on the earth beneath” (v. 6a). The heavens and the earth constitute the visible world—what our eyes can see—what appears to be real to us. We say, “I’ll believe it when I see it,” as if seeing were the ultimate test of reality. We also turn that saying on its head, saying, “If I can’t see it, I won’t believe it.” People use that kind of thinking to discount belief in God. If they can’t see it— put it in a test tube—prove it by some scientific process—they won’t believe it.
But God challenges these exiles (and us as well) to look about us at the heavens above and the earth beneath. Then he has a surprise for us (see v. 6b).
“for the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment; and those who dwell therein shall die in the same way” (v. 6b). Yahweh speaks of our three great realities—the heavens above, the earth beneath, and all that lives upon the earth. He tells us that all these great realities are but for the moment. They will exist for a period of time, and then they will die. The heavens will vanish like smoke. The earth will wear out like an old pair of work clothes. The living things will die like gnats, tiny insects of short lifespan and no apparent consequence.
It is difficult for us to imagine that everything that we consider real will one day vanish. It is even difficult for us to contemplate our own death, even though we say “Nothing’s certain but death and taxes.” But we see it happen all around us every day in small ways. Funeral homes have a steady clientele. Automobile manufacturers make millions of cars every year, all of which are ultimately destined for the junkyard. In places that are desirable to live, people tear down decades-old houses to build larger houses. Wars create Dresdens. Hurricanes and tornadoes sweep away whole towns. Yahweh says that this process will be replicated on a universal scale at the end of time. The heavens and earth will be swept away, taking all life with them. BUT (see v. 6c)….
“but my salvation shall be forever, and my righteousness shall not be abolished” (v. 6c). BUT Yahweh’s salvation will not vanish like smoke—will not wear out like a garment—will not die like a gnat. We think that we can depend on the things that we can see and touch, but only one thing is eternally dependable—and that is Yahweh’s salvation.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume One: A-D –Revised (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979)
Brueggemann, Walter, Westminster Bible Companion: Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Goldingay, John, New International Biblical Commentary: Isaiah (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001)
Hanson, Paul D., Interpretation Commentary: Isaiah 40-66, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995)
Motyer, J. Alec, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Isaiah, Vol. 18 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1999)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
Oswalt, John N., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998)
Muilenburg, James; and Coffin, Henry Sloane, The Interpreter’s Bible: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956)
Seitz, Christopher R., The New Interpreters Bible: Isaiah, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Watts, John D. W., Word Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 34-66 (Dallas: Word Books, 1987)
Young, Edward J., The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972)
Copyright 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan