Isaiah (Part 59): Zion Realized (Ch 51-52)
In the first 8 verses of chapter 51, God first calls for covenant faithfulness (1-3), next he promises covenant faithfulness on his end (4-6), and finally based on this covenant faithfulness, he tells those with whom he’s joined in covenant to rest in that covenant.
Starting with verse 9 and continuing all the way to verse 12 of chapter 52, Isaiah presents what I consider to be the climax of the entire book. In this section, God’s work of rescue is done. The first mini-section (51:9-11), however, seems an odd way to start. There is a call to wake up and put on the strength of the Lord’s power. Reading just that far, you would probably assume God is urging his people to this task. But speaker and listener are actually reversed. Here God’s people, having just been told that God would be faithful to his covenant obligation of rescue, cry out to God to awaken and act. We learn (from down in verses 12-15) that this call to God is prompted by a fear from enemies.
The call is not as presumptuous as it may at first sound. In Psalm 44:23 the sons of Korah call out in much the same way: “Wake up, Lord! Why are You sleeping? Get up! Don’t reject us forever!” We do the same thing in our prayers when an emerging trial hits our lives. The call is not a demanding order but is rather pleading in desperation. It is a frantic cry for help. God had reminded the people of his saving hand in the exodus from Egypt. Now the people repeat this back to God and ask for the same kind of relief. They also remind God of the resulting promised fulfillment of Zion by God’s rescue (51:11).
God responds almost as a parent would to a frantic child, as if grabbing the child’s face to force eye contact. God, in effect, says in this next mini-section (51:12-15), “Look at me! Don’t worry about the danger. I will comfort you. I will see it done. Relax.” God tells them in verse 13 that they have forgotten him, their Maker. This does not mean that they have turned aside to rebellious disregard. They have simply let their eyes focus on the danger and needed to be reminded that God is in control. The One who made the world would control the world. The One who had made them would see his purpose through.
At this point, we need to take a step back. So far in chapter 51 through these 15 verses, we have been discussing covenant faithfulness between God and his people. But we can’t forget where we are in the overall scheme of the book. We are exactly in the center of the major section of the Work of the Servant (chapters 49-55). Yet, in the chapter so far, we have not even seen the Servant around…or have we? Actually, I think we have. Let’s go back to the beginning of the chapter.
Again, in verses 1 through 8, we heard God call to those who pursue righteousness to be faithful, to those who were his people—his nation—telling them that he would be faithful, and to those who knew righteousness that they should rest in the covenant. How many of his people were actually pursuing righteousness or could be characterized as knowing righteousness? One reason God needed to rescue was that his people were not pursuing or experiencing covenant faithfulness. In fact, we have discussed already that the Servant is the sole covenant keeper. Therefore, it would seem more fitting that God would be speaking to not just his people generally, but specifically to his Servant in his call for covenant faithfulness. And, indeed, it is true that by the Servant’s covenant faithfulness that the covenant may then be realized by the servants of the Servant.
In other words, what we have in this mini-section is the fulfillment of the description we saw in chapter 50 verse 4. There the Servant said that the Lord God gave him “the tongue of those who are instructed.” We remarked that the “tongue of the instructed” described a rabbi’s disciple who would take in the instruction of the rabbi to then deliver it to others. This, then, is how we should understand chapter 51. God instructs the Servant about covenant faithfulness, and by his covenant faithfulness, the Servant is able to instruct others in covenant faithfulness. A dual reception is intended in these verses—by the Servant and by those whom the Servant would then rescue.
And this dual reception is not intended to end with verse 8. We should actually understand the whole section (51:9 – 52:12) to relate on one level to the Servant and on a second level to those whom the Servant rescues. Let’s look again at verses 9 through 11. Here we talked about the people calling to God to act. This can be first understood as the Servant speaking to God.
Sometimes, I think, we have difficulty remembering that Jesus was fully human. We see wisdom, miracles, and sinlessness and very easily attribute this all to his deity. Yet, he was fully human. He did not hold all knowledge in his human awareness as he walked through his earthly life. God revealed to him, and then he knew and spoke and acted. It is quite possible that even as he began his ministry, he did not yet realize it would lead to his death. Perhaps with a keen understanding of the faulty self-serving Sanhedrin and the dangers of Rome, that Jesus himself was wishing for God’s rescue sooner rather than later. We already realized his frustration as Isaiah 49:4 had revealed. Worried about the crushing world system, Jesus, the Servant, calls out to God to act.
But God responds to the Servant in 51:12-15 that he should not fear. Remember Christ in Gethsemane becoming troubled? Remember the great drops of sweat falling to the ground as blood? Jesus was troubled in spirit—fearful of the violence that awaited him. And God, his comfort, told him not to forget his Lord God. The fury of the oppressor was no match for God (51:13). And, in fact, the prisoner (the Servant himself) would not be destroyed to undergo decay. He would be rescued just as the covenant people who had faith would be rescued through the Servant.
Verse 16 probably gives us the clearest view that God does have the Servant in mind first in this passage. God says that he has put his words in the Servant’s mouth. Of course, we recognize Christ as the Word made flesh. And this Servant, we are told, was held and wielded by God to plant the heavens and found the earth. And he would also be wielded to secure Zion—God’s purpose in securing a relationship with his image bearers to dwell with them forever.
In the next mini-section (51:17-23), we see the cup of God’s fury poured out. Certainly we have recognized this from the earlier chapters in Isaiah. Exile was God’s judgment on Israel. But just as that picture of national exile shows God’s judgment, so does Christ going to the cross to suffer and to die and to be buried show God’s cup of fury. Death is the wrath of God. God’s wrath is no violent, out-of-control raging that God needs to get out of his system because somebody crossed him. God does not wildly throw darts at Christ because Jesus has somehow incorporated sin into his flesh, which then infuriates God. God’s wrath, rather, is the broken covenant curse of death. And it was this death—this cup of God’s fury—that staggered the Servant as the passage describes. But God promises that the Servant—and thus all the Servant’s people—would never drink this cup of staggering again.
Finally, Isaiah 52:1-12 has the trumpets sounding! With a crescendo description of God’s approach in verses 3 through 6, God reveals his strong arm of salvation. The heralds proclaim, and their triumphant news echoes across heaven and earth: “Your God reigns!” This is salvation! This is resurrection! The Servant is resurrected, defeating sin and death. And by his resurrection, he makes possible the resurrection of all those in covenant faith, accomplishing God’s purpose—realizing Zion.
Verses 11 and 12 mark a distinction between faith in the world and faith in God. In salvation we leave behind every mark on our souls and every tether reaching out to hold us back. We belong to God!
This passage has shown us the full expanse of redemption’s story. This is why it is the climax to the book. The elements of this section are arranged in chiastic form to highlight the realization of God’s purpose, Zion.
-- Call to God to Act (51:9-11)
----- Don’t Fear Man (51:12-15)
-------- Restatement of Purpose (51:16)
----- Death Defeated (51:17-23)
-- Zion Realized (52:1-12)