Bible Commentary: Isaiah 50-51

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Isaiah 50-51

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"Where Is the Certificate of Your Mother's Divorce…?"

God—that is, the preincarnate Jesus Christ (see 1 Corinthians 10:4 and our free booklet Who Is God?)—was married to the nation of Israel by covenant. Isaiah 50:1, as commentaries generally agree, implies that He maintained this relationship and did not issue a certificate of divorce to His people. "Though the Lord had put away Israel, as a husband might put away a wife, it was for only a short period of exile (see Isaiah 54:5-7; Isaiah 62:4) and not permanently. Permanent exile would have required a certificate of divorce (see Deuteronomy 24:1-4)" (Nelson Study Bible, note on Isaiah 50:1). Yet this would seem to contradict Jeremiah 3, where God stated that He did indeed issue a certificate of divorce. How do we resolve this?

In Jeremiah 3, it is clear that God divorced the northern tribes of Israel (verse 8), but not the southern nation of Judah—the Jews. "No prophet suggested that God had completely broken His covenant; rather, they predicted God's faithfulness to a remnant who would return (Micah 4:9, 10). Your mother [in Isaiah 50:1] refers to Jerusalem, more specifically, the inhabitants of the preceding generation that had gone into exile" (Nelson Study Bible, same note). This is important to recognize. While God had divorced the northern Kingdom of Israel, he maintained His covenant with the "mother" of all Israel—Zion or Jerusalem, the center of His true worship and the faithful remnant it represented.

Indeed, even in Jeremiah 3, God tells those of the northern tribes who would return to him that they would be considered joined to Zion and still married to Him (verse 14). God has never divorced all of Israel completely. He retained the Jews as the faithful remnant of Israel. Yet they ultimately proved unfaithful as well and He sent them into captivity in Babylon. But He still looked to a small minority of the Jews as the faithful remnant of Israel to whom He was still married. Thus, He brought a small group of Jews back to the Promised Land from Babylon. But these ultimately proved unfaithful as well, even murdering Him when He came in the flesh as the Messiah, Jesus Christ. So God finally raised up a spiritual people—His Church—still considered the faithful remnant of Israel (compare Romans 11:5; Galatians 6:16), spiritual Jews (see Romans 2:25-29)—"Jew" being, as it was following the northern tribes' divorcement, a designation of the faithful remnant (compare Hosea 11:12).

Of course, it should be noted that the Old Covenant marriage between the preincarnate Christ and Israel did come to an end with Christ's death. This allows Him to remarry—but, amazingly, to remarry the same "woman" Israel, yet one in which she would be spiritually transformed as part of the terms of a new covenant (see Romans 7:1-4; Isaiah 54; Jeremiah 31:31-34).

Returning to Isaiah 50, notice the reference to creditors in verse 1—clearly an imaginary scenario since God cannot be indebted to anyone. "If the Lord had sold Israel to creditors (see Exodus 21:7; 2 Kings 4:1; Nehemiah 5:5), He would not have any authority over their destiny. But the Israelites had sold themselves because of their own iniquities (see Isaiah 42:23-25). Therefore God as their Redeemer could buy them back (see Isaiah 41:14; Isaiah 52:3)" (Nelson Study Bible, same note, emphasis added).

Continuing on, while Isaiah 50:4-9 may be describing some of Isaiah's own anguish in delivering his prophecies, it is more clearly part of the speech begun in verse 1. This means that it is still the Lord who is speaking. And it shows that He, the Creator of the universe, was going to come and be stricken across the back, have patches of His beard painfully yanked out, and be spat upon. These are things Jesus would suffer at the hands of human beings (verse 6; Matthew 26:67; 27:30)—which He went through to redeem these very same people, indeed to redeem us all.

Isaiah 50:10-11 exhorts Israel to trust in God and obey His Servant—again, referring to Christ. Verse 11 criticizes those who walk by the light of their own fire (relying on themselves) rather than by the true light—the Word of God, both living (Jesus Christ) and written (Scripture). Their lives will end in punishment. From other passages we know that God will later bring them back to life to give them their only opportunity for salvation. (Request or download our free booklet You Can Understand Bible Prophecy for the scriptures that explain how God will invite even former rebels to salvation.) However, if they persist in rejecting Him even then, their lives will be ended permanently.

Awake to Righteousness

Chapter 51 begins with three requests for those who are God's people and know righteousness to "listen to Me" (verses 1, 4, 7). It ends with three commands for Jerusalem to "awake, awake" (verses 9, 17; 52:1). This ties in with Paul's admonition to the Church in 1 Corinthians 15:34: "Awake to righteousness, and do not sin; for some do not have the knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame." Those who know God must live in accordance with His commands. Indeed, those who don't obey Him don't really know Him (see 1 John 2:4).

In verse 1, Zion being dug from the hole of a pit is not a negative connotation. It simply denotes the same thing as the previous clause, being hewn from rock. The image is one of being quarried from a pit or mine as precious gems or metal. And the fact that the people of Israel are meant is clear from verse 2—those brought forth of Abraham and Sarah. At this time, the Church (spiritual Israel or Zion) is in mind here. Spiritually deriving from Abraham and Sarah (Romans 4:11; Galatians 3:29; Galations 4:21-31), true Christians are the only ones who really know God's righteousness and have God's law in their hearts (Isaiah 51:7). But eventually, starting with the time of Christ's return, the rest of Israel (physical Israel) will become part of spiritual Israel—as will then the entire world.

In stark contrast to this instruction for us to look to Abraham and Sarah, most of modern Christianity goes to great lengths to separate its theology from the Old Testament. In doing so, it breaks the continuity that exists throughout Scripture and loses much spiritual understanding. Here, we see that Christians ought to look for and learn from that unbroken continuity, which runs seamlessly from the Old Testament through the New. The roots of true Christianity spring from the Old Testament.

In verse 3, Zion is to be comforted with the fact that it will be a paradise like the Garden of Eden (see also Ezekiel 36:35)—as indeed the whole world will become under the rule of Jesus Christ, with God's holy "mountain," or kingdom, of Zion growing to fill the whole earth (compare Isaiah 11:6-9; Daniel 2:35). In verses 4-6, "the heavens and earth of the material universe are contrasted with God's salvation and righteousness. The material is impermanent and will 'vanish like smoke.' God's salvation will remain forever. How vital to anchor our hopes in salvation than anything in this passing world" (Bible Reader's Companion, note on Isaiah 51:4-6)—see also 2 Peter 3:10-13 and Hebrews 12:25-29.

Directly tied to salvation here is God's righteousness. But what is righteousness? King David defined it as obedience to all of God's commandments (Psalm 119:172). And that is certainly the implication here in Isaiah: "…you who know righteousness, you people in whose heart is My law…" (Isaiah 51:7). Many today, even many who profess Christianity, want to do away with God's law—to abolish it. Yet God says, "My righteousness [i.e., His law] will not be abolished" (verse 6). Indeed, God's law defines His way of life—the way of love. And while many things will pass away, love never will (1 Corinthians 13). Only those who ultimately choose to live by God's perfect law of love will experience salvation from eternal death to enjoy eternal life with Him forever.

Of course, obedience to God's law of love should never be construed as some stern duty. True, godly love is an expression of outflowing concern that comes from the heart. It includes devotion and loyalty to God and deep care for others as the focus of our deepest emotions. The New Testament instruction about the New Covenant reveals that God wants our hearts to be in the covenant and the covenant to be in our hearts. He wants to be a Father to us and for us to be His children in a loving family relationship.

Verses 9-11 of Isaiah 51 show that God will deliver His people as He delivered Israel from Egypt in ancient times. Rahab here is a reference to Egypt (see 30:7). The name signifies "fierceness, insolence, pride" ("Rahab," Smith's Bible Dictionary). Egypt is called a "serpent" in the King James Version and a "dragon" in the Revised Standard Version. It is the same Hebrew word tanniyn (Strong's No. 8577) used for the pharaoh of Egypt in Ezekiel 29:3, there translated "monster" in the NKJV). "The imagery [of Ezekiel 29] pictures a crocodile" (Nelson Study Bible,note on verses 4-5). Indeed, the protector god of Egypt was the crocodile god Sobek—whose name in Egyptian meant "rager" (Michael Jordan, Encyclopedia of Gods, 1993, p. 240, "Sobek."), of which rahab seems a reasonable Hebrew equivalent.

God delivered Israel from Egyptian captivity in ancient times. He later, as promised through Isaiah, delivered the Jews from Babylonian captivity. And in the end, God will deliver Israel and Judah from an end-time Assyro-Babylonian captivity. The punishment on His people will come to an end (51:22). Humbled, they will at last be ready to repent and "awake to righteousness." Then it will be time for Israel's enemies to suffer affliction for their evil in turn (verse 23)—until they too are ultimately brought to repentance.

It should be recognized that the deliverance from Babylon spoken of here and in the next chapter, while literal as mentioned, is also figurative of the deliverance from sin that Christians now have in Christ. In one sense, God has rescued believers from spiritual Egypt and Babylon—sin and this world. But in another sense, this is an ongoing process, as we overcome throughout life with His help. Finally, in an ultimate sense, deliverance and salvation will come when Christ's followers are glorified at His return. In fact, even the terrible trial and suffering mentioned in this section will befall a number of people in God's Church (compare Revelation 12:17; Revelation 3:14-19). God's message to all of us: "Be zealous and repent" (verse 19). Indeed, "Awake to righteousness, and do not sin."