Switchback and Bookends
Isaiah 51:1-8 LXX features another switchback. Bookends identify the addressees of this segment in verses 1 and 7. Remember that in most of Chapter 50, God has been rebuking the unbelieving and rebellious among his people (See Devotional 2.34). Here in this section, God defines a new people and supplies comfort and promise to them.
Isaiah 51:1 LXX Listen to me, you that follow after righteousness, and seek the Lord…
Isaiah 51:7 LXX Hear me, you that know judgment, the people in whose heart is my law: fear not the reproach of men, and be not overcome by their contempt.
Clearly, in this set of verses, the Lord addresses his faithful followers. The verses between these bookends provide exhortation, comfort, and promise to the non-rebellious.
Listen to me, says the Lord in verse one. This exhortation echoes Isaiah’s own exhortation in Isaiah 50:10, Who among you fears the Lord? Let him listen to the voice of His Servant (SAAS) (1). Indeed, it could be the Servant who speaks the words from 51:1 through at least verse 8. God and his Servant have one and the same message.
Isaiah 51:4 repeats the exhortation of verse 1, Listen to Me, listen, O My people and kings, give ear to Me… Obedience begins with listening. The biblical Greek often uses the same word (ἀκούω ah-ku-oh) for hearing, listening, and obeying. Isaiah 51:7 again repeats the command to “Listen.”
God tells those who pursue righteousness to “Look to the solid rock which you hewed, and the hole of the pit which you dug” (SAAS). Verse 2, which follows, clarifies that those who seek the Lord should look to Abraham their father and to Sarah their mother (2).
God’s intends to comfort his people when he exhorts them to look to Abraham and Sarah as their first parents and founders of their faith. God reminds them that Abraham “was alone when I called him, and blessed him, and loved him, and multiplied him.” (3) In other words, God says in effect, “Look what I did with Abraham and Sarah, who were just two individual people. Look how I blessed and multiplied them. I can do the same with you.”
Readers may be reminded that very few people returned from exile in Babylon. They would have been very intimidated by the task before them. But, the larger context includes the Servant and his ministry. The Lord continues to bear this ministry in mind, as he has for the last several chapters. As history demonstrates, the original faithful after the Servant’s death and resurrection, before the sending of the Holy Spirit, were very few in number (Acts 1:15 ESV).
In Isaiah 51:3 the Lord states positively that he will comfort Zion. In fact, he repeats the promise using prophetic past tense, as though the restoration of the desert places to conditions in the “Garden of the Lord” had already occurred.
And now I will comfort you, O Sion: and I have comforted all her desert places… (LXE).
God’s comfort takes the form of promise.
3 … and I will make her desert places as a garden, and her western places as the garden of the Lord [like Eden]; they shall find in her gladness and exultation, thanksgiving and the voice of praise. (LXE)
Topography and geography testify that a concrete-literal fulfillment of this prophecy has yet to occur. On the other hand, the spiritual-literal fulfillment of these words occurred immediately on the day of Pentecost and continues among God’s people to this day (Acts 2:46-47).
God Defines a New People
Throughout the Book of Isaiah, God periodically includes Gentiles in his promises of blessing. Most recently, God indicates his blessing upon Gentiles in Isaiah 42:1, 4, and 6 and 49:1 and 6. We have seen how verses 1 and 7 of Chapter 51 serve as bookends that unify what lies between. In this section, God specifically addresses those who “pursue righteousness and seek the Lord” (verse 1). He also addresses “My people” in verse 7.
GOD’S PEOPLE ONE
Verses 1-3 speak of Israel, as birthed by Abraham and Sarah. God includes Sion (or Zion) as a people and as a location that includes desert places (verse 3).
GOD’S PEOPLE TWO
Verse 4 transitions. In verse 4, God addresses “O My people” and “kings.” This is curious, since Israel has but one king at a time (with one or two brief exceptions). The word “kings” indicates more nations than Israel. But verse 4 also names “Gentiles” as those who should listen and who will receive the light of the Lord.
4 Hear me, hear me, my people; and you kings, listen to me: for a law shall proceed from me, and my judgment shall be for a light of the nations. (LXE)
VERSE 5 SEALS THE DEAL
Readers may perk up their ears in verse 4. But verse 5 spells out what perhaps they only suspect in verse 4. That is, God includes Gentiles in his promises to his people.
5 My righteousness speedily draws near, and my salvation shall go forth as light (4), and on my arm shall the Gentiles trust: the isles shall wait for me, and on my arm shall they trust.
Verse 5 contains no qualifications. Everything connects in verses 4 through 5 with a series of the strong conjunction “and.”
VERSES 6 THROUGH 8
From verse 6 through verse 8, the two are one. The text no longer distinguishes two groups–Israelite and Gentile. The two are included together in the phrase, “you that know judgment, the people in whose heart is my law” (verse 7).
Isaiah 51:6 Lift up your eyes to the sky, and look on the earth beneath: for the sky was darkened like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment, and the inhabitants shall die in like manner: but my righteousness shall not fail. 7 Hear me, you that know judgment, the people in whose heart is my law: fear not the reproach of men, and be not overcome by their contempt. 8 For as a garment will be devoured by time, and as wool will be devoured by a moth, so shall they be consumed; but my righteousness shall be for ever, and my salvation for all generations. (LXE)
“YOU THAT KNOW JUDGMENT” and “IN WHOSE HEART IS MY LAW”
Verse 4 identifies that God’s “judgment shall be for a light of the nations [Gentiles].” Verse 4 also states that “a law shall proceed from me.” What is this law? See Isaiah 2:3, which includes Gentiles. Verse 7 specifies the location of God’s “law” as the hearts of those he calls his people.
7 Hear me, you that know judgment, the people in whose heart is my law:
The Apostle Paul speaks in Romans 2:15 concerning Gentiles in whose heart the law is written. But here in this section of Isaiah, God specifically includes Gentiles among his chosen people, as those for whom his salvation is also intended.
Isaiah 51:5 My righteousness speedily draws near, and my salvation shall go forth as light (4), and on my arm shall the Gentiles trust: the isles shall wait for me, and on my arm shall they trust. (LXE)
Gentiles will also have God’s law written on their hearts.
Obedience Not Ethnicity
The passage in Isaiah 51:1-8 narrows down to two people groups: those who follow God and those who do not. In these verses the emphasis falls on obedience, not ethnicity. God clearly elects to include the blessing of salvation to both the faithful of ethnic Israel and to the faithful among the Gentile nations. The two become one. This occurs within the context of God’s Servant.
What is of most importance to God? Faithfulness to his law of righteousness and honoring his justice. For those faithful people who honor God’s justice God promises, “My salvation shall be forever, and My righteousness will not fail” (SAAS). God wants an obedient, loyal people who reflect his likeness. These are the ones he chooses to bless. Ethnicity is of no importance.
Verse 7 indicates opposition to the group who guards God’s law in their heart.
… fear not the reproach of men, and be not overcome by their contempt. (LXE)
The Lord’s followers will be subject to the same contempt the Servant experiences in the previous chapter.
Isaiah 50:6 I gave my back to scourges, and my cheeks to blows; and I turned not away my face from the shame of spitting: (LXE)
And for both the Servant and the Lord’s faithful, the answer to those who oppose them is the same.
As concerns the Servant…
Isaiah 50:9 Behold, the Lord, the Lord, will help me; who will hurt me? behold, all you shall wax old as a garment, and a moth shall devour you. (LXE)
As concerns the Lord’s faithful followers…
Isaiah 51:7… fear not the reproach of men, and be not overcome by their contempt. 8 For as a garment will be devoured by time, and as wool will be devoured by a moth, so shall they be consumed; but my righteousness shall be for ever, and my salvation for all generations. (LXE)
As a Gentile believer in both God and his Servant, I can only humbly bow in grateful and thankful submission to the Savior of my soul.
Romans 11:32 For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all. 33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (ESV)
1 St. Athanasius Academy Septuagint, 2008.
2 Of note, the Septuagint uses the active voice in verse 1, while the Masoretic uses the passive. That is, the Septuagint states that they should look to the rock which they hewed and to the pit (to hold water) which they dug. The Masoretic, on the other hand, asks them to look to the rock from which they were hewn (passive) and to the pit (quarry) from which they were dug. See Isaiah 51:1 ESV. Use of the active voice acknowledges the active role that faith plays in following God’s commands. That is, the people of Israel actively participated in acknowledging Abraham and Sarah as their first parents.
4 The phrase “as light” is not present in all Greek texts.