Isaiah 51 emphatically seeks to break open an unimaginable future. Expectations are reversed; life is to be changed.
We are conditioned to expect condemnation when prophetic texts begin with the imperative to hear or listen. For example, the first address of the book summons Israel to hear the charge of rebellion (1:2; other instances include 1:10; 7:13; 28:14, 23). How very different Isaiah 51 is! By the third verse, the waste places and desert are like Eden rather than a threatened future standing against Israel's disobedience.
"Comfort" is the word for the today of the initial hearers and for all subsequent readers who are without hope, suffering in the waste places and deserts that emerge in alienation from God. Isaiah 40ff is echoed here, actually more than echoed, because the message of comfort which was commissioned in the heavenly court is delivered directly to the exilic hearers. Isaiah 40:2 states that God's people have completed their term of punishment; they have "received from the Lord's hand double for all [their] sins."
The discomfort bearing experience was not generic suffering; it was specifically the judgment of God. Israel had been severed from God. Even God admits: "For a brief moment I abandoned you" (Isaiah 54:7). The book of Lamentations captures the condition of the addressees. The haunting questions, demanding petitions, and nearly unthinkable thoughts that end Lamentations are embedded in the hearts of the audience in Isaiah 51:
Why have you forgotten us completely?
Why have you forsaken us these many days?
Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;
renew our days as of old --
unless you have utterly rejected us,
and are angry with us beyond measure. [Lamentations 5:20-22]
As the years of exile (that is, the punishment of God) lingered on, the "unless" of the last verse of Lamentations may have disappeared. The quotations of the audience in Isaiah 40:27 and 49:14 suggest just that:
My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God...
The LORD has forsaken me,
my Lord has forgotten me.
The opening imperative of Isaiah 51 leads to an unexpected speech -- unexpected in terms of the typical pattern of prophetic speech but, more importantly, unexpected by the audience which is living under the judging hand of God.
The imperatives pile up in these six verses: listen, look, look, listen (different Hebrew root), give heed, lift up, look. In each case, attention is drawn toward good news. We are on the cusp of change. Whatever the past, it is a new day. The disjunctive "but now" of 43:1 and 44:1, which counters the drift toward judgment at the end of the prior chapters, is stated again in different words in Isaiah 51. This is a "new thing" (42:9; 43:19; 48:6).
The prophet grasps for ways to open the hearers' perception to the new and emerging reality in their relationship with God. Can one imagine it? Well, look at your origin, the rock from which you were hewn. Perhaps the "rock" anticipates the reference to Abraham and Sarah in the next verse. But God has been referred to as a rock several times in Isaiah (e.g., 17:10; 26:4; 44:8). Previously the text has asserted that God created, made and formed Jacob/Israel (43:1; 44:2). The one who stretched out the heavens (40:12ff) can create a new future beyond the present judgment.
Then, the prophet tries again. Look to Abraham and Sarah. Their situation looked desperate as well. One family, lacking fertility, became a nation! Reference to this founding story has its risks. Ezekiel 33:23ff narrates a similar sermon arguing for hope based on the one-to-many precedent of Abraham and Sarah. That sermon was roundly condemned by Ezekiel. What is the difference between Isaiah 51 and Ezekiel 33? Timing is the chief difference. Ezekiel condemns a facile use of the Genesis narrative to create an illusionary hope. The destruction will not be quickly over; it is not a mere chiding discipline. (Compare Hananiah's preaching in Jeremiah 28.) In contrast, the audience of Isaiah 51 is so embedded in exile and punishment that it cannot imagine an alternative. Contemporary preachers must be careful not to turn Isaiah 51 into the sermon of Ezekiel 33.
The emphasis in Isaiah 51 falls heavily upon the action of God. The audience is without hope, so fully despairing that it has no levers to pull to bring about a better future. Such an audience is not just having a bad time or in need of a little boost to get them over a hump. This audience has drunk from the cup of God's wrath (51:21-22). That is over. God now comforts. It becomes a way to name God ("I am he who comforts you" [51:12]). Now the word to Zion is: "You are my people," (51:16) AND this is not a cyclical matter. It is "forever," "never to be ended," and "to all generations" (51: 6, 8). It is more permanent than heaven and earth!
Paralleling the permanence is an extensive abundance.
"Joy," "gladness," "thanksgiving," and "the voice of song" shall all break out where only sorrow has been. The theme is repeated in 51:11. When that kind of deliverance and salvation occurs, even nature is swept up into the abundance. It's like Eden all over (51:3) and even distant places like the coastlands (51:5) join the anticipation.