Isaiah 51:1-23 - "Sunnyhill" Herne Bay Evangelical Free Church

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Isaiah 51:1-23


Hope for the Hopeless


There are times when even those who are believers have a hard time in living their lives as faithful disciples. In the OT the nation of Israel enjoyed a special relationship with the LORD God even though by no means all of its members possessed a living personal faith in their God. In our day the church as a human institution is similarly a very mixed body made up of both genuine believers and others who remain in various states of unbelief.

Isaiah lived at a time when the nation was marked more by unbelief than by faith but still into such an environment the LORD had words of encouragement for his people.

vv.1-8 The LORD speaks to encourage his people:

See how he addresses them:

v.1 "you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the LORD"
v.4 "my people, my nation" cf. v.16 "you are my people"
v.7 "you who know righteousness, the people in whose heart is my law"

It is always important to pay attention to details and this is particularly so as we read the Bible. Who is speaking? To whom? About what? Are there conditions? Etc.etc.

Looking at the way in which the LORD speaks about the people to whom he is speaking would you be included? Are the descriptions true of you?

It can so easy to assume that we all belong to the LORD and are part of his people but we should ask ourselves some of the more probing questions:

Do I know righteousness and do I pursue it?
Do I seek the LORD?
Do I love God's ways, (his law)?

See what he tells them to do and why

  • Listen   v.1 so simple they are to listen to what the LORD has to say!

Easy to say, not always so easy to do.

  • Look    vv.1-3 they are to look to the LORD and remember their history with him.

He is still working powerfully to secure real blessings for them – joy, gladness, thanksgiving and song.

  • Give attention vv.4-5 for the LORD is at work!

He acts with justice and in righteousness to bring about his salvation – this merits patient expectation. But above all the call is to give attention to the LORD himself.

  • Consider v.6 how temporary everything in creation is but the salvation the LORD brings is permanent

  • Fear not vv.7-8 Listening to the LORD the people have no reason to be afraid of mere men – they will all wear out but LORD's salvation won't.

vv.9-11 An initial response from the people

They call for his active intervention

v.9 "O arm of the LORD awake"

This is a good example of "pleading the promises of God" – the promises of God predict the answers to our prayers! So we should begin with the promise that best fits the need of our circumstance and so we pray. We glorify God when we plead his promises. Our heavenly Banker delights to cash his own notes.

They remember who they are:

v.10 "the redeemed"
v.11 "the ransomed of the LORD"

They remember what the LORD had done for them

v.9 destruction of mighty, fearful enemies
v.10 exerted sovereign control over the natural world

They face the future with confident expectation

v.11 note the emphasis on what will take place – use of future tense

vv.12-16 Words to a forgetful people

  • they have forgotten the LORD

  • they have forgotten who he is – the LORD of hosts

  • they have forgotten his power

  • they have forgotten his provision

  • they have forgotten his care

  • they have forgotten that they are his people

Of course if the people had been asked a set of questions they would probably have been able to give the right answers.

Put in terms of forgetfulness it doesn't really sound so bad does it? After all we all forget things don't we?

But to have forgotten here means something more than just having a poor memory it means rather "to have failed to have taken something into account" or "to have failed to rely upon someone or something".

Again we should ask ourselves how we match up. It's not whether or not we can remember where a particular verse is found in the Bible but am I mindful of the God of the Bible?

And all this failure of practice necessarily brings consequences:

  • the people have become afraid of mere mortal men

  • their fear has become a constant debilitating feature of their lives

  • they've become bowed down, feeling as though they'll never have what they need

If these things are beginning to occupy a dominant position in our own lives then maybe it is a sign of the presence of similar problem – we too may be practically functioning as though there was no God!

vv.17-20 A wake-up call
Having a poor memory is a nuisance but it is not sinful. The type of forgetfulness that the people of God  in Isaiah's day were exhibiting was however culpable.

By not relying on the LORD the people had to put their trust elsewhere. It is the same for us – if we don't trust the LORD we will be forced to rely on someone else (be that ourselves or another) but the problem is then that no-one is up to the task! And so the people had exposed themselves to the LORD's anger; they had experienced his rebuke and that had come in the form of devastation and destruction, of famine and sword.

Prov.14:12 "There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death."

That was indeed the way that God's people had chosen and they had found the painful truth of it.

Is wrath all that is left for such a people?

vv.21-23 God acts for his people!
Once more the LORD calls upon his people to listen to him, to pay attention to what he has got to say to them. He is fully aware of the predicament in which his people are languishing and he draws attention to it as he refers to them as being afflicted.

Surely the people of God would want to listen to such words as we now find Isaiah recording for us!

v.22 "Thus says your Lord, the LORD, your God who pleads the cause of his people: "Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering; the bowl of my wrath you shall drink no more; and I will put it into the hand of your tormentors, who have said to you, ‘Bow down, that we may pass over’; and you have made your back like the ground and like the street for them to pass over."

It sounds as though Isaiah has got it all the wrong way round. Isn't it for men to go to God to plead their cause before him? It is we who pray to God not God who goes to prayer and yet that is what we find.

How this meets us at the point of our need! Our waywardness gets us into a mess, a great big spiritual mess. In that mess we suffer for the error of our ways, we too know what it is like to be afflicted. And we know that we don't have a leg to stand on. We deserve what we're getting and if truth be told be deserve far worse! How can we get out of it all? Our captor, Satan, is Babylon writ large – how can we escape his clutches and enjoy freedom?

Well God himself gives us his answer, his solution to our problem. He doesn't wait for us to do the impossible for us but goes in, as it were, to bat on our behalf!

In Isaiah's day the message was developed in an easily understandable way. That cup of staggering and that bowl of wrath (v.17) which had been the experience of his people in their rebellion is now taken from them and transferred to their enemies, to those who had been tormenting them, to those who had been meting out hard treatment to them (v. 22).

It is easy to understand because we readily appreciate the justness of the bad guys getting their comeuppance in the end! What an encouragement for the depressed, downtrodden and afflicted of Isaiah's day! The tables would be turned – the LORD their God himself would intervene on their behalf to deliver them!

Surely they would never want to forget to heed their God ever again after such grace had been shown towards them!

That is Isaiah's take on the situation.

A NT Perspective
The NT however pushes the wonder of the deliverance of God's people even further and in so doing gives the LORD's people even more reason to heed him, to worship him, to delight in him and to live out their lives in trusting discipleship.

You have probably jumped on ahead of me but let me explain it simply just in case you haven't.

Do you remember how Jesus wrestled and struggled in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane s the hour of his death came inexorably closer? He had come into the world to save his people – as his very name indicated – and yet his human nature recoiled at the horror of being made to be sin and so to be cut off from his Father's intimate fellowship.

As he prayed he spoke of the cup that was being offered to him to drink. This cup of staggering and the bowl of God's wrath were not now being given to an enemy who richly deserved payback, no, it was being offered to God's own beloved Son! God was taking the initiative to deal with the sin of his own people by laying it all on Jesus who was asked to drain the cup in our place as our substitute!

Matthew, Mark and Luke all record the intensity of Jesus' praying and his resolve to do exactly what his Father wanted even though that path was incredibly hard for him to tread:

Mt.26:39 "And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.""
Mk.14:36 "And he said, "Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.""
Lk.22:42 "saying, "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.""

The apostle John doesn't write of this struggle that our Lord went through but he did record an interchange that he had with Peter not longer afterwards. The crowds had come to arrest Jesus and Peter took up arms to try to defend him:

Jn.18:11 "So Jesus said to Peter, "Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?""

We are saved because the punishment that was rightfully ours was transferred not to an enemy but to the very best of friends, to the very best of men, Jesus Christ the Son of God!

Isaiah had called upon his contemporaries to hear what God had done for them, pleading their cause, and we've already suggested that the news was so good that surely no-one would want to forget.

Can we who have understood what Jesus did for us ever wish to forget it? Jesus certainly doesn't want us to do that and gave us the Supper to remind us again and again of his death until he comes.

The Cup has been drained and so has passed from us – or has it?
Yes, the cup has been drained by Jesus for all those who will trust him. If you are a Christian this evening then you know that Jesus has secured a full salvation for all who are united to him by faith – if that is you then rejoice with thankfulness in your heart.

But for those who refuse to put their trust in the Saviour, the only Saviour there is, they will find that a cup remains for them to drink and which will prove utterly unbearable throughout eternity

Rev.14:9-10 "If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb."

Will you not put your trust in the God who pleads for you?


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