Look to the Past to Learn How Bright Is the Future
Look to the Past to Learn How Bright Is the Future
I am the Lord your God who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—his name is the Lord of Armies. (Isa 51:15)
Main Idea: God’s saving actions in the past are the key to our hope for the future.
- Listen to Me! The God of Abraham Will Again Create Righteousness from Nothing (51:1-6).
- Seeking righteousness? Look to Abraham and Sarah (51:1-2).
- Zion will be transformed from desert to paradise (51:3).
- God’s salvation will outlast this universe (51:4-6).
- Listen to Me! The God of the Exodus Will Again Make a Way for His People (51:7-11).
- God’s salvation will outlast human taunts (51:7-8).
- Awake, O Lord! Do again what you did before (51:9-10)!
- The ransomed will sing eternally (51:11).
- How Dare You Fear Man More Than Me? Through You I Will Establish Eternity (51:12-16)!
- How dare you fear man more than the Lord the Creator (51:12-13)!
- The oppressor will die; the prisoners will be freed (51:13-14).
- The Lord who rules the sea will use you to establish eternity (51:15-16).
- Wake Up! The Time Has Come for Your Tormenters to Fall (51:17-23).
- The cup of God’s wrath made you fall (51:17-20).
- Those days are over (51:21-22)!
- It is time for your tormenters to drink it (51:23).
Listen to Me! The God of Abraham Will Again Create Righteousness from Nothing
In this chapter God speaks energetically to his chosen people throughout redemptive history—first to the Jews in exile then to all his people thereafter. In the original context God prophetically leaps ahead a century and a half, addressing his remnant as if he were looking backward at the events of the Babylonian exile. God wants them to listen to him! He desires to feed their faith by his words. He calls to those who “pursue righteousness, . . . who seek the Lord.” The godly remnant in every generation groans under adverse circumstances: then as exiles in Babylon before the restoration, now as Christians suffering under the whip of the world, the flesh, and the devil. God calls on his discouraged remnant to look to what he has done in the past. It was the Lord who worked a miracle baby for Abraham and Sarah (vv. 1-2) then multiplied the Hebrews in Egypt into a mighty nation. The God who did this in the past can do it again in the future. So, exiled Israel, look to the rock from which you were cut—Abraham—and know that God can do it again. You may be few in number and weak, but God will multiply you again and settle you again in Jerusalem. So also Christians will be greatly outnumbered in whatever country they live—perhaps in Iran or in China, or even in the supposedly “Christian” West—but God is going to gather a multitude of true believers greater than anyone can count from every nation on earth (Rev 7:9).
When the exiles read these words in Babylon, Jerusalem was a pile of rubble and it seemed their national hopes were dashed. But the same God who originally created the garden of Eden would again make Zion and the promised land like a plush paradise, and he would fill it with people who would rejoice and worship the Lord their Savior (v. 3). In the meantime, God calls on his people to look to him and trust in his word. The sovereign Lord will establish his justice for the nations, even to the distant coastlands (vv. 4-5). These words go beyond merely the restoration of the Jews to the promised land under Cyrus the Great but find fulfillment in the gathering of the elect from the distant islands of the earth into the kingdom of Christ by the spread of the gospel. The ultimate end of these words is staggering: the present heavens and earth will be destroyed completely, just as Jerusalem would be. The destruction of Jerusalem was a mere dress rehearsal for the fiery cataclysm that will come on the entire universe at the end of the age (v. 6; 2 Pet 3:10,12). Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matt 24:35). The suffering remnant in every generation should realize that the Word of God is more permanent than the ground beneath their feet! God will establish a righteous salvation for his elect through his Son, Jesus Christ, and they will live forever in a perfect world that will replace this present one.
Listen to Me! The God of the Exodus Will Again Make a Way for His People
God calls again, “Listen to me!” The same God who achieved the awesome Red Sea crossing by hacking Rahab (the mythological monster of the deep sea; Motyer, Prophecy of Isaiah, 408–10) to pieces, who dried up the waters of the great deep and made the seabed into a road for his redeemed (vv. 9-10), will be able to gather the ransomed of the Lord from the ends of the earth to return to Zion filled with joy, overflowing with worship to God their Savior. Again, the key to hope for the future is faith in the God of the past. Only by hope in God’s promises can they withstand their Babylonian tormenters who mock the exiles: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion” (Ps 137:3). God predicts the day that those mockers will be devoured as a worm devours wool (Isa 51:8). They will pass away, but God’s righteousness will endure forever, the foundation of the joy of his saved people. The slaughter of “Rahab” at the Red Sea is a prophetic picture of Christ’s destruction of the Dragon, Satan, by means of Jesus’s death and resurrection (Heb 2:14).
How Dare You Fear Man More Than Me? Through You I Will Establish Eternity!
In this section the Lord speaks quite passionately about the grievous sin of fearing man more than fearing him: “I—I am the one who comforts you” (v. 12). How dare we fear man more than we fear him? Man is mortal—he dies, withering like the grass of the field (v. 12). How dare we live in constant dread every day of the fury of the oppressor, forgetting that it is the Lord who created the universe (v. 13)! God reminds his people also that he rules every single day over the events on earth. Not only did he create heaven and earth, but he also stirs up the sea so that its waves roar (v. 15). This is the God who will set the prisoner free, delivering him from the Pit (v. 14).
The eternal God designed these words to give comfort not only to the Jews in exile but also to every generation of his chosen people. How do we know this? Again, because the words of verse 16 soar far above the mere restoration of a straggling remnant of Jews to the rubble-filled streets of Jerusalem. verse 16 has some interpretive challenges. Because the servant of the Lord speaks in similar language in Isaiah 49:2, some believe God is speaking to Christ here as well. But the audience is referred to in the second person masculine singular in verse 12 (“Who are you . . .”) and all the way through verse 13; and Zion is addressed directly at the end of verse 16 in second person masculine singular as well. So it is probably best to think of this as God addressing each one of his elect people in verse 16: “I have put my words in your mouth, and covered you in the shadow of my hand, in order to plant the heavens, to found the earth, and to say to Zion, ‘You are my people.’” In other words, by the sovereign word of God he will establish a new heaven and new earth as an eternal home for Zion, his redeemed people. So stop fearing mortal man—God will accomplish his eternal purposes!
Wake Up! The Time Has Come for Your Tormenters to Fall
God reminds his people that Jerusalem was destroyed and the people sent into exile specifically as an act of judgment by their holy God. He gave them a cup of fury, and they drank that cup to its bitterest dregs: destruction, famine, and sword inflicted on his people. Their children fell like antelopes caught in a hunter’s net. This great tragedy was no accident but rather God’s righteous judgment. But now that time is over. God has removed the cup of staggering from the hand of his people and will now give it to their tormenters instead. And when they drink from it, they will fall. These were the vicious people who made God’s people lie down in the mud so they could walk on their backs. The tormentors’ time of torment will come back on them.
The lessons of this chapter are profound, and they minister to every generation of God’s people. The basic concept is powerful: We must listen to the Word of the Lord and feed our hearts on his past achievements as recorded in Scripture so that we may be filled with a powerful hope, no matter how bleak the circumstances. We must look back with faith at what God has already done, so we can look ahead with hope at what he has said he will do. For Christians in the twenty-first century, this chapter can enable us to face mockers and persecutors who scoff at our faith and say, “Where is this ‘coming’ Christ said would happen?” (see 2 Pet 3:4). The same God who created the universe out of nothing and the Jewish nation out of nothing will fulfill his eternal plan.
Second, we should learn to fear God and obey him more than we fear human beings, no matter how threatening or powerful they may appear. It is a great sin to fear man more than God, who strongly challenges that sin in this chapter. We must repent of all the ways we show fear of man. This is especially true in the matter of evangelism and missions. God says in this chapter that he will set prisoners free and that he has put his words in our mouth and covered us in the shadow of his hand. These words find a beautiful application in stirring us up to courage in evangelism. Satan’s prisoners must be set free by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Finally, we should fully embrace the future this chapter clearly unfolds: for the present universe, total destruction; for the believers, a new heaven and new earth in which they will worship God eternally in joy; for the wicked tormenters, a cup of wrath. These themes should strongly color the way we live every day—pursuing righteousness in the fear of the Lord and seeking to deliver the prisoners held by chains of sin. The future should empower the present as much as the past does.
Reflect and Discuss
- How does this chapter call on us to look back to God’s actions in the past to gain hope for the future? How is this foundational to the relevance of the Bible to our lives today?
- How are God’s actions in the past with Abraham and at the Red Sea crossing able to give us hope now, despite the fact that they will never be repeated again? How does the immutability of God help us answer this question?
- How would the fact that God raised up descendants from old Abraham and barren Sarah give specific encouragement to the Jews in exile (v. 2)?
- God uses sharp commands in this chapter, like “Listen” (vv. 1,7) and “Look” (v. 6). Why does he speak so decisively to his people? Why do we need this kind of strong speech?
- How does verse 6 predict the end of the present heaven and earth? How does this point forward to the new heavens and new earth in 2 Peter 3:10,12?
- How does this chapter give encouragement to Christians who are persecuted daily by tormenters who reject their message?
- How does fear of man act as a powerful hindrance to the spread of the gospel (vv. 12-16)? How is fear of man vigorously rebuked in this chapter by the God who makes and calms powerful storms?
- How can we learn to fear God more than we fear man?
- How does God speak of the future of Israel’s tormenters? How does that word give encouragement to Christian missionaries and evangelists today? How can we learn to see them in light of eternity and in light of God’s power to convert vicious oppressors like Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9)?
- As you read Isaiah 51, what timeless principle unites God’s suffering people in both the old-covenant and the new-covenant eras?