In this essay we are studying Isaiah 51:9-52:12 in which the fundamental message is for the people of God to awaken and be delivered. But the segment begins with a cry of complaint from Zion for the Lord to awake and do something. In verses 9-11 Isaiah speaks the feelings of the people, and he calls on God to act as he did in “days of old.” Rahab symbolizes Egypt (see Is. 30:7). “The dragon” symbolizes Pharaoh (see Ezekiel 29:2-3). The “sea” in verse 10 refers to the Red Sea. Thus all of these images refer to the Exodus. The people are frustrated because God is not doing something like that for them in the immediate present. As Oswalt reminds us, one can sincerely believe that God can do something about one’s captivity (whether it is to the Babylonians or to sin) and that God will do something, and still be deeply troubled that he or she does not see God doing anything right now. Verse 11 declares that deliverance will come. The redeemed will come to Zion with great joy and singing.
Then in verses 12-16 the Lord responds to the cry of the people. The Lord begins by declaring that he is the great “I am,” who comforts them. And he wants to know why they are afraid of human beings. Then in verse 13 the Lord announces that it is they, the people, who have forgotten him, rather than the other way round. They needed to broaden their horizons, and the same is true for us. If we focus our attention on the oppressor; and that is all we see, we will be ruled by fear and hatred. But if we focus on God, we will realize that he is the larger reality; and that he holds our ultimate destiny in his hands.
In verse 14 the Lord promises that his people will not perish. He will deliver them, and the implication is that he is talking about eternal deliverance. Verse 15 declares that they will be delivered because of who God is. And in verse 16 we have a sudden shift in addressee from the nation to an individual. Oswalt believes it is the divine Servant, though it seems to me it could just as easily be the prophet. In either case the message is that God is the creator and Zion is his people.
In verses 17-23 God calls on Israel to rouse herself from her drunken stupor. In this segment Israel is described as staggering drunk. You will remember that we were told in verse nine the people wanted God to wake up and do something. But the Lord is saying that they are the ones who must wake up and do something. Notice the reminder that they are in their drunken condition because of God’s judgment, not because of their enemies. But verse 18 informs us that Zion is unable to get up and move on her own. And none of her children are left to take her by the hand and lead her home. Oswalt describes the situation in these words: “Thus we have the picture of an inebriated old woman whose children are either dead or helpless so that there is none let to help her home.” Yet God still calls for her to get up. That is because he can help her, if she will repent and believe.
It is uncertain what the phrase “two things” in verse 19 refer to. The same phrase is used in 47:9, and there it refers to childlessness and widowhood. Since childlessness is mentioned in verse 18, Oswalt suggests that childlessness and widowhood are the two things intended here. Others suggest that “devastation and destruction” are one and “famine and sword” are the second. Either way her children are as helpless as she is. They lie where they have fallen in the streets from starvation or capture. Once again the point is pressed home that they are in that condition because of the wrath of God.
In verses 21-22 the Lord announces that he will end their time of judgment. Notice the “therefore.” God declares himself to be their “Sovereign,” that is, their King. He is the Lord. He is their God, and he is the one who defends them. It certainly is true that he punished them, but that was not his final intention by any means. He will remove his cup of wrath and keep his covenant promises. Indeed verse 23 tells us that he intends to give the cup to their tormentors.
At the beginning of chapter 52, Zion once again is called upon to wake up and lay hold on her salvation. Verse 1 is almost the same as 51:9, but this time it is Zion who is to wake up rather than God. In 51:12-23 God in his response to Israel’s complaint clearly showed that the problem was not on his side. It is Zion that needs to wake up and believe that the Lord will save them.
The “uncircumcised” who no longer will enter Jerusalem are those who are spiritually unclean, whether they are Jews or Gentiles. And notice in verse two that the people of Zion must do their part. God will break the chains that bind them, but they have to get up, shake off the dust, and throw off the chains themselves. The same is true for us. We cannot break the chains of sin and death that bind us. God must do that. But once he breaks the chains, we have to remove them ourselves.
We saw the meaning of verse three coming out in an earlier passage. Since the Lord did not sell Israel to pay his debts, but instead decided to chastise her, he can just as easily redeem her simply by deciding to do it. Verses 4-6 explain further. The Lord mentions the fact that Israel went into Egypt voluntarily and that Assyria oppressed them involuntarily. And of course the Babylonians likewise took them captive without cause. Thus Israel’s leaders howl with shame and despise God’s name because he seems to be doing nothing about their problem. And of course the nations that were observing the situation also would be despising God’s name because it appeared he could not defend his people. Thus God’s reputation was at stake.
Verse six answers the question of verse five, “what am I doing here?” Notice the two therefores. They provide a two-fold answer to the question. Therefore one, his people will know his name, which means that they will see him act on their behalf revealing his character and nature. And two, his people will know it is he who speaks, which means that they will see him do what he said he would do.
As we have seen several times before in Isaiah, this section ends with a hymn of praise. Oswalt suggests that Isaiah is picturing here a city awaiting news of the outcome of a decisive battle. Then when the runner comes with news of victory, the city rejoices and celebrates.
The song begins with Isaiah extolling the bringer of good news. Notice that there are four aspects to the message. First, it is a message of peace (shalom). It is a message of health and well being. Second it is a message of good news. It is a message of victory rather than defeat. Third, it is a message of salvation. This is the braking of the chains we spoke of earlier. And fourth, it is a message that “Your God reigns.” God rules. Therefore he can and will deliver.
Classic Christianity firmly believes that the gospel of Christ is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words. Indeed the apostle Paul quotes the beginning of this passage to support his presentation of the process of salvation in Rom. 10:14-15. He writes, “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have not heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”
In verse eight we see the watchmen on the walls taking up the song. And notice that the messenger is now identified as the Lord. In verse nine the “ruins” in Jerusalem symbolize the spiritual condition of the people. But they can break out of their spiritual brokenness because of the Lord’s comfort and redemption. Verse 10 tells us that God’s salvation will take place in full view of the nations, which will restore his reputation in their eyes.
In verses 11-12 the people are called to depart as they did during the Exodus. But this time things will be different. They will not go out in haste. And they will be able to take with them some of the gold vessels of the sanctuary. One thing will be the same, however. God will guide them on the way and act as their rear guard. The same is true for those of us who are in relationship with Christ. We are saved from sin and God leads us to the heavenly Promised Land, while watching our backs all the way.