These few chapters (51:12-55:13) reveal the riches of God’s grace more brilliantly than any other part of the book. They bring us to the very heart of Isaiah’s gospel. This part of the book sets out from the same point as the previous one, and again the message of comfort moves against the backdrop of the terrible events predicted in 39:5-7. Isaiah’s cry, “Awake, awake!…O arm of the Lord” (51:9) is answered here by the challenge, “Awake, awake!…O Jerusalem…Awake, awake, O Zion” (51:17; 52:1). In other words, the ball is thrown very firmly back into the human end of the court. It’s not the Lord who needs to awake, but His people! It is not the inactivity on His part which is blocking the fulfillment of what He has promised to them, but their own spiritual lethargy. Although it was Isaiah’s cry in 51:9 which called forth this challenge, the challenge itself is not directed to him. In fact, it is Isaiah himself who delivers it. His own eagerness for God to act is admirable, it is the lack of such eagerness in others that is the problem.
God and His people (51:12-16): This opening part of the passage is basically an affirmation that the covenant between the Lord and Israel is still intact (vv. 15-16). This is the language God had used when He had first claimed Israel as His own at the exodus (Ex. 20:2). It’s the language of relationship and commitment – not their commitment to Him, but His commitment to them. And that had always been the solid ground of their security and comfort. Therefore, they had nothing to fear (vv. 12-14), and nor do we. As Paul put it, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31)
Not condemned (51:17-23): Security, however, does not justify passivity. Quite the reverse; it calls for decisive action. The first call to action is to awake and rise up (v. 17). Fear paralyses us; being secure in God and His love for us sets us free. Fear is not the only thing that paralyses. So does a sense of being condemned, of being under judgment. Jerusalem certainly experienced this in the eighth to sixth centuries BC, and for her it was not just a feeling but an actuality. God gave her the cup of His wrath to drink, and she staggered and fell under its potent impact. It was a bitter draught, and it unmade her (vv. 17b-20). She was down because God had struck her down. But here she is told that that wrath has been removed. God has taken the cup from her and given it to her enemies (vv. 21-23). The objective facts are that she is not condemned anymore; she is forgiven. The problem is that she is still laboring under a sense of condemnation, and it is like a drug which stupefies her. “Awake,” Isaiah says, “Rise up, you are not condemned, and you must not go on behaving as though you are.”
Loved and valued (52:1-10): The second call to awake, in verses 1-6, is intended to counter a third deadly cause of spiritual paralyses – a sense of utter worthlessness. Zion had been defiled, enslaved, sold, oppressed, and mocked; no wonder she felt worthless. The word [nothing] in verses 3 and 5 captures it exactly; she has been sold for nothing and taken away for nothing. Sadly, as we all know, those who are treated as nothing eventually come to feel that they are nothing, which is exactly how Zion feels here, and it’s hard to awaken people to love, life and confidence again when they are sunk so low. No one whom the Lord values so highly (that’s you!) can be worthless, no matter what indignities they have suffered. And the exciting news that breaks out here again and demands to be shouted from the rooftops is that the Lord is about to give fresh expression to His love for Zion by totally reversing her circumstances – and all the world will see Him do it (vv. 7-10).
Ready to leave (52:11-12): The climax is reached in verse 11 which echoes the Awake, awake of the two previous units and brings us to their logical outcome. The people of God are to keep alert because their salvation is near. They are to live as those who are expecting the Lord at any moment, as travelers who are packed and ready for the last leg of their journey home. That is how it had been in the original exodus. They were not delivered yet, but they were sure they would be soon. The same air of keen expectancy permeates the present passage. A new exodus is about to take place. All they will carry this time will be the vessels of the Lord (v. 11), the holy vessels that Nebuchadnezzar removed from the temple when exile began. Nor will they leave in haste, as their ancestors did when they fled Egypt. They will go out with dignity and decorum, like priests in procession (v. 12a). But the real glory of this exodus, as of the first, will be the presence of God with them. He will go before them and behind them, guiding and protecting them every step of the way (v. 12b).
Isaiah 51:12-52:12 Reflection Questions:
Are you stuck in spiritual lethargy? What are you going to do about it?
What encourages you most about this study? Why?
What has God called you to do? What is stopping you?