Prophet Isaiah at a writing desk

Studying Isaiah 51 1-8

Our last of four texts from Isaiah – Isaiah 51:1-8, our study for Sunday, June 26 – brings us to more ringing announcements of restoration for Israel and Zion. These announcements remind us that God’s salvation is certain and enduring. That certainty and endurance is grounded in the character of God, and attested by the precedent of God’s historical relations with humanity and Israel. It will prevail over and outlast current circumstances; we know this from the transient character of these circumstances: the mortal oppressors, and even the impermanent heavens and earth themselves. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on the text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are coming closer to the end of second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-54) with this last reading in Isaiah. [More on that here.] The point of that being: we think this is a text addressed to people who are themselves suffering, and for whom this message of God’s real, continuing care would be particularly meaningful – and maybe, an invitation to faith despite what they see around them.

In the text, our verses follow one of the servant songs (Isaiah 50:4-9), and a couple of cryptic verses that may be setting up a contrast between people who follow “the servant,” in faith, and those who make efforts to [prematurely, maybe even dangerously] hack “the darkness.” [This may help explain the reference to “you who pursue righteousness” in Isaiah 51:1 – that is, you-all who aren’t doing what was called out in Isaiah 50:10-11.] So, the audience for this text may not be “everyone,” but rather those who are persisting in faith and faithfulness through the difficulties of the exile.

Our text leads in to a dialogue between God and Zion that goes on through Isaiah 52:12, with each of the partners to the dialogue calling the other to “awake” and take action. That is followed by the last (and longest) of the servant songs (Isaiah 52:13-53:12). That, in turn, is followed by the long, passionate declaration to the restored people of God, once again personified as feminine (Isaiah 54). Which really speaks to that theme of “new creation.”

Most of our text – Isaiah 51:1-6 – is one of the lectionary’s choices for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A. That would make it an Old Testament complement to Matthew’s version of Peter’s affirmation of Jesus as “the Messiah, the son of the living God” at Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16:13-20). It would also give it a decidedly messianic flavor. It might be worth asking ourselves what difference it makes to drop verses 7 and 8 out of that reading (?) – making them a little bit of prophetic poetry we wouldn’t know was in the Bible if all we knew were the lectionary. [Bible Content Examinees be warned.] How would including those verses affect our understanding of this text?

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CLOSER READING: This seems to be a structured poem, built around pairs of imperative verbs: listen – look (v1), look (v2); pay attention and give ear (v4), lift up your eyes and look (v6) – a doubled pairing of “listen” and “look”; listen (v7) – you will not fear (v7). In v7, “you will not fear” is not an imperative, and is not about looking, doubly breaking the pattern, and emphasizing the non-necessity of fear for the listeners and lookers being addressed here.

The text explicitly addresses you-all who pursue righteousness, and you-all seekers of the HOLY ONE. That audience may be a contrast with the group in the last verses of the preceding chapter, the ones who light firebrands, instead of fearing the HOLY ONE and walking in the [temporary] darkness of faith, like the HOLY ONE’s servant.

That darkness of faith may help explain the instruction to look back in history to Abraham and Sarah. That is: God’s faithfulness to Abraham and Sarah is something that’s already happened, that you-all can see. The imagery of the rock and the quarry seems to be paired with Abraham and Sarah, in an obviously gendered way. The rock & quarry images are also obviously solid, if not particularly bright, supports for faith.

Verse 3 contrasts the current desert with the garden of Eden – further looking back in time, this time to original creation, prior to any problems caused by humanity.

The idea of making a waterless desert into a garden may be especially poignant, since the earliest creation story starts out with the deep emptiness of water. This verse starts out, instead, with the deep emptiness of dryness.

The sound in v3 is the sound of joy and gladness, praise and the voice of music. Loud, beautiful, happy sound. As we might expect to hear, or make, in a lush, fragrant paradise.

In v4, instruction or teaching and justice are the reasons for paying attention to God. The poetry sets them equivalent to deliverance and salvation here, almost as synonyms. That’s what deliverance and salvation are: God’s instruction and justice.

In v7, this equivalence holds true even when some people reproach those who know God’s righteousness and instruction. God’s justice itself acts as light (v4). And it endures. So, those who know it, and who have it in their hearts, outlast their insubstantial opponents.

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Ultimately, then, this text has something of the feel of a half-time pep talk, given by the coach to a beleaguered team. “Stay in the game, you-all; keep going back to those fundamentals; we have a winning playbook, and that is about to show; the opposition is about to fall apart; you are about to score, big. Listen to me: look; you are about to win this game; it’s about to happen before your very eyes.”

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Images: Valentin Bousch, The Prophet Isaiah, 16th century stained glass window [detail], public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.; “The Garden of Eden,” Izaak van Oosten, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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2 responses to “Studying Isaiah 51 1-8”

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