Commentary on Isaiah 51:1-6
Sometimes we look at our situation and know we’re in trouble.
It happens with individuals, with churches, with communities, and with nations. What do you do when you’re in trouble? Where do you look when you need hope and encouragement?
The prophet of the exile whose words are found in Isaiah 40-55 helps us address people in trouble. He tells the exiles where to look to find the strength to endure and to keep moving forward.
Look here first
There are two preliminary matters we need to consider.
First, the prophet addresses those who are trying. They are the ones “that pursue righteousness” and that “seek the Lord” (verse 1a). To pursue is to chase; to seek is to search for. Both words imply acts that are being undertaken and goals that have not yet been reached. But that’s what faithful people do. They know they’ve not arrived and that they must keep pursuing and seeking. Their faithful trying is their success.
Yet we should not restrict the sermon to those who are trying. After all, there may be some in the congregation who have given up. They’re not trying. We might consider directing the sermon at those who need to have the embers of hope fanned so at least a small flame might flicker.
Second, we should consider expanding our focus beyond the six verses suggested by the lectionary. Isaiah 51:1-8 falls naturally into three parts; each begins with “Listen to me” (verses 1, 4, 7; the Hebrew word in verses 1 and 7 is shama, while it is qashav in verse 4). So it might be wise to include verses 7-8 in our study.
The prophet’s purpose is to encourage those who are faithfully trying to be faithful to look ahead to God’s promised deliverance. They are in exile, but God is going to take them home. Paradoxically, he tells them to look forward by looking back.
Specifically, he tells them to look back to Israel’s original parental pair, Abraham and Sarah (verse 2). They are “the rock from which [the exiles] were hewn” and “the quarry from which [they] were dug” (verse 1b).
Irony abounds here. First, “rock” is an image of strength and stability. The exiles, torn from their land, their institutions, and, some no doubt said, from their God, hardly seem strong and stable. Yet the prophet calls them to remember that they come from ancestors of unquestioned resolve and perseverance. They carry the same granite in their spirits, even if they feel as if it has been ground into dust.
Matthew 16:13-20 (this Sunday’s Gospel text) reminds us of another rock to which we can look back. When Peter says that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus says, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (verse 18). As we consider how un-rocklike the church and its members can be, it might be helpful to recall that just a few verses later, Jesus calls Peter “Satan.” We may preach to a church whose rock has been chipped away at pretty severely.
Second, Abraham and Sarah are known for being the parents of a great nation, but Israel has gone from being a great nation to being few in number. Abraham “was but one when [God] called him, but I blessed him and made him many” (verse 2b). We might put this is cosmological terms. Sarah and Abraham started a Big Bang that resulted in an expansion that led to descendants “as numerous as the stars of heaven” (Gen 22:17). But the exiles (and those left in Judah, whom the prophet does not directly address) are all that is left after a Big Crunch, a rapid contraction brought on by invasion and deportation.
Third, as my doctoral program supervisor, the late Page H. Kelley, pointed out, the exiles are in the same geographical area from which Abraham and Sarah began their faith journey. He said that fact gives the words more meaning, but some of that meaning is communicated through irony. The exiles are being called out of Mesopotamia as Abraham was. On the one hand, they are starting over. On the other hand, that they must start over reveals how far backwards they’ve gone.
When the exiles look back to Sarah and Abraham, they see ancestors who were strong, who grew from few to many, and who left their home in Mesopotamia to follow God. When they look at themselves, they see people who are weak, who have shrunk from many to few, and who are back in Mesopotamia. But in looking back, they gain encouragement to look forward.
Look up, look down, look all around
The prophet tells the exiles to look up “to the heavens,” to look down “at the earth beneath” (verse 6a), and to look around at their oppressors (verse 7). The astral bodies look permanent — and they have in fact been there for billions of years — but they aren’t. Human beings have never known life without the earth, but it will pass away (verse 6). The taunts of the oppressors seem like they will last forever — but they won’t.
In contrast, the Lord says, “My salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended” (verses 6b, 8b). Or as the Gospel text says of the church, “the gates of Hades will not prevail.” Sometimes it might seem like Hades is doing just fine against us, but it won’t last. God’s salvation and deliverance do come, and they never end.
The prophet calls on the exiles — and we call on our churches — to look back, to look up, to look down, and to look around in order to find reasons to look ahead to God’s deliverance that is surely coming.
1 Page H. Kelley, “Isaiah,” The Broadman Bible Commentary, Vol. 5; Proverbs-Isaiah (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman, 1971), 336.