Commentary on Isaiah 51:1-6
When you listen to a choir you hear a collection of voices coming together.
Isaiah 51:1-6 is a blending voice. The resonates with several other elements in the Book of Isaiah. Preaching from Isaiah 51 requires a sense of the voice of the passage as distinctive and part of the blended chorus. Isaiah 51:1-6 describes the relationship ancestry (Sarah and Abraham) and aspiration (righteousness and the LORD) for the people Zion.
God, through the prophet, speaks in the first-person for almost the whole passage. Furthermore, imperatives provide the dominant form of address. in Isaiah 51:1 opens a new subject with the first imperative is “listen”. Every parent or teacher has heard the plea “Hear me”. It connotes the desire of one to connect with another.
Isaiah 51 calls to attention, echoes parallels in the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 46: 3, 12 48:12; 49:1). The addressee of the call to hear are those who “pursue righteousness.” The passage puts this pursuit in parallel to “seeking” the LORD. “Pursue” can also refer to running. This accents the intensity of the verb. Therefore, pursuing and seeking indicate a passionate activity. The audience of the imperative by what they do and what they aspire. Those who pursue righteousness. The writer puts the aspiration of righteousness to the pursuit of the LORD. The activity is intense.
“Righteousness” serves as a catchword occurring three times. (verses 1, 5, 6) A parallel text Deuteronomy NRSV renders the term as “justice.” (Deuteronomy 16:20 ) “Justice only justice you shall pursue” indicates that overlap between righteousness and justice. The parallel verbs “pursue” and “seek” and objects “righteousness” and “LORD” proposes that righteousness lives in relationship with God. There is no righteousness absent a strong healthy relationship with God.
Verse 1b presents a second imperative “look.” The prophet invites the audience to look to the rock. The metaphor of rock often refers to God. Neighboring peoples to Israel and Judah in mythological stories describe men as rock and women as quarry.1
Verse two has a third imperative, “look” to Abraham and Sarah. Isaiah 51:2 is the only place in the Hebrew Bible that point to both Abraham and Sarah as progenitors of promise. They begin as a single family that multiplied into a people group. Abraham and Sarah function not only as biological ancestors. They also carry the role a vehicle for a narrative of aspirations and values. The writer invites the audience to follow the ancestral readers who joined their aspirations to God who made the aspirations possible. Despite the challenges to the promise of multitudes of children Abraham and Sarah continued to believe. Paul pointed to Abraham as a pioneer of belief.(Romans 4:9; Galatians 3:6) Isaiah 51:2 extends this ancestral equity of belief as a virtue to both Sarah and Abraham.
The consequence of this imperative to look by those pursuing righteousness and seeking God leads the writer to the redemption of Zion. God comforts Zion. Verse three moves to third person references to God. The comfort of Zion harks back to Isaiah 40 that describes the comfort of the people. Now God comforts Zion. The language echoes earlier Isaiah speeches of redemption. (Isaiah 40:1-2) The verb comfort carries a sense of compassion as well as an act of compassion. It gestures the intersection of emotion and activism. The ancestral promise now blends with divine compassion for Zion, the location of God’s people.
The people of God flourished in a concrete place, Zion. Christianity often translates Zion into a reified metaphor without a concrete place. Zion is an ongoing theme in the Book of Isaiah. However, the Zion of Isaiah may be eschatological, but it is nevertheless, also concrete. When Isaiah mentions a “new heaven and a new earth” (Isaiah 66:22) it does not mean that heaven has subsumed earth. Zion remains a specific place with international implications.
The comfort goes to ravaged Zion and places of disaster. The juxtaposition of Zion and her ruins or “waste places”. Without seeing the disaster, one misses the redemption. Her “wilderness” and desert will become as a garden like Eden. The passage describes the transformation from barren to bucolic. Earlier in the Book of Isaiah one reads about “the rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19) The desert becomes a garden.
Verse 4 begins with an imperative, the call to attention came back in the phrase “listen attentively to me.” The language of people and nation both noted with the first-person suffix. The people and nations stand in parallel with those who pursue “righteousness” and the LORD. In other words, people groups are organized by aspirations and relationship to God.
The language of the “teachings” occurs in decisive but limited places in the Book of Isaiah. The first chapter begins “listen to the teaching of God” (Isaiah 1:10) which echoes Isaiah 51. Isaiah 8 (verses 16 and 20) describes teaching and testimony as artifacts of faith, even in times when God remains hidden. The language of teaching also appears in the servant passages as the prophets teaching. (Isaiah 42:4) However, God’s teaching sometimes languishes. (Isaiah 42:21)
International transformation by the children of Abraham and Sarah echo the metaphor a light to the people (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6; 52:10; 60:3; John 8:12) echoes elsewhere in the Book of Isaiah and the Gospel of John. The juxtaposition of near and coastlands. The writers of Isaiah often use the word coastlands to point to the ends of the known world.
The final verse moves out even beyond the coastlands, something beyond heaven and earth. The final imperative is to “lift up your eyes … and look.” The writer closes with a call to look high (heavens) and low (earth). Even if the word pair heaven and earth do not survive, divine salvation and deliverance will endure.
- Shalom M. Paul Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary, The Eerdmans Critical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm Eerdmans, 2012).