Isaiah 51: So who is Zion?
Updated: Dec 5, 2021
“Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the Lord:
That’s us, right? Pursuing righteousness. Seeking the LORD. We probably wouldn’t be spending all this time trying to understand Isaiah if we weren’t.
Isaiah 51 has instructions for seekers like us:
Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; Look to Abraham your father, and Sarah who bore you; When I called him he was only one man, and I blessed him and made him many. Well, that seems a little obscure! I think Isaiah is saying, “Consider where you came from.” The descendants of Abraham and Sarah were built for blessing; in God’s eyes, regardless of their weakness, they were “a chip off the old block.” But as Gentiles, where does that leave us?
According to the New Covenant apostle Paul, Abraham’s family is quite a bit bigger than just those with Israeli blood:
Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Galatians 3:7-9)
So that includes us, right? It would seem so.
Since much of chapter 51 is addressed to Zion rather than to Israel, Jacob, or Jerusalem, let’s refresh: who or what is “Zion”?
Here’s what Peter said about Zion to the first-century church:
“As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says:
“See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” (1 Peter 2:4-6, quoting Isaiah 28:16)
According to Peter and Isaiah, anyone who trusts in the “precious cornerstone”—Jesus—is a part of the spiritual house called “Zion.”
So there it is. Promises addressed to Zion are meant for all who have faith—people like you and me.
That settled, here we go:
The Lord will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the Lord. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing.
Waste places, anyone? Dry places, maybe? Ever feel like you’re out in the wilderness, all alone? The LORD has promises that can bring us to life! Joy and gladness and thanksgiving and praise will be the things that define us. Such are His promises to Zion.
“Listen to me, my people; hear me, my nation: Instruction will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations. My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations. The islands will look to me and wait in hope for my arm. Lift up your eyes to the heavens, look at the earth beneath; the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies. But my salvation will last forever, my righteousness will never fail.”
God says there are all kinds of good things—things like instruction, justice, righteousness, salvation, and hope—on their way to all kinds of places—to the nation of Israel, to the nations around them, and to a faraway place he calls an island (that’s a code word for “everywhere”), and all of these things come by way of the LORD’s “arm.” In earlier chapters, we’ve seen His arm as the instrument to defeat enemy nations, but His arm also brings justice and hope.
And though verse 6 might not sound very positive—earth’s inhabitants dying like flies and all that—He’s saying, “Look around. Everything you see is going to wear out and pass away—including your earthly body—but there are some things that will never change. My salvation and righteousness, to name just two.”
He also promises that some not-so-positive things are coming our way: insults, disappointment, disapproval. So let’s be honest. Much of the fear we battle is the fear of what others think. And as a result, we live bored rather than alive.
J. Alec Motyer says verses 7 and 8 are our “call to fearlessness.”
Hear me, you who know what is right, you people who have taken my instruction to heart: Do not fear the reproach of mere mortals or be terrified by their insults. For the moth will eat them up like a garment; the worm will devour them like wool. But my righteousness will last forever, my salvation through all generations.”
Don’t get all wound up! The things people say pass away. It may take some time—moths and worms don’t destroy things very fast—but His righteousness and salvation are forever.
So, fearless, we begin to call on God: Awake! Do what you did before! You can do it! You took down Egypt (Rahab is a code name for Egypt)! You made a road through the Red Sea! (verses 9-10)
By reminding Him of who He is, we are really reminding ourselves of who He’s always been, and what He’s always said He would do: rescue us.
And then the ball is back in our court.
Those the Lord has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
So now that He’s reminded us who He is and of what our future holds, He has to address our current condition.
Who are you that you fear mere mortals, human beings who are but grass, that you forget the Lord your Maker, who stretches out the heavens and who lays the foundations of the earth, that you live in constant terror every day because of the wrath of the oppressor, who is bent on destruction? For where is the wrath of the oppressor? In other words, “Who do you think you are? Are you so special that your struggles are greater than God? Why do you live looking over your shoulder, fearing your enemies, and forgetting the LORD your Maker?”
“To forget him (to live without an immediate sense of who he is, what he has done, his close presence, care and sovereign power) is to live in defeat and disobedience.” – J. Alec Motyer
Outward enemies are not our biggest threat; it’s our distraught and defeated mindsets that make our God seem small.
So turn your attention, he says, from what mere men can do. Look to the one who can set you free, fill your stomachs, and fascinate you with His power. The LORD Almighty is His name. (verses 14-15)
The LORD Himself interjects:
”I have put my words in your mouth and covered you with the shadow of my hand— I who set the heavens in place, who laid the foundations of the earth, and who say to Zion, ‘You are my people.’” (verse 16)
Wow. We are His people. He said so Himself. We can face our enemies, both outward and inward, with God’s words in our mouths, and protected by His hand. Wow. We really are His people.
Then, all of a sudden, Isaiah turns a corner! All of a sudden, he is speaking to Jerusalem, not to Zion. He’s no longer addressing who they will be in the future, but he’s talking to them as they presently are: dull as drunkards, drinking “the cup of His fury,” tasting the bitter fruit of their disobedience. They are lost and without a leader, facing desolation and destruction. In famine and war, they are worn down and worn out, stripped of strength by the rebuke of the LORD. (verses 17-20)
But then he says: Listen! The one who could hold charges against you is pleading your case instead! Your judge has become your advocate! He is rescinding your punishment! Wake up! (verses 21-23)
So you may be wondering, is it scriptural for me to receive His promises to Zion but ignore His rebuke of Jerusalem? Because the blood of Jesus has made me a stone in Zion, I could make a case for that. But I don’t think it’s wise to hang around Jerusalem. I think it’s wise to ask myself these questions: Am I seeking the Lord (verse 1)? Do I live my life with my eyes on the Rock (verse 2; 1 Peter 2:4-6)? Do I take His instruction to heart (verse 7)? When facing my enemies do I remember my Maker (verse 13)?
If I can answer yes to those questions, I can enjoy the promises of Zion: His comfort and compassion, His refreshing and renewal, and the joy and gladness that’s found in the midst of thanksgiving and singing.
That's where I want to live.