Isaiah 51 Commentary

God of the impossible (51:1-23)

To the captive Jews it must have seemed almost impossible to escape from the powerful grip of the tyrant Babylon, make the long journey over harsh territory and then rebuild their ruined country. God encourages them with reminders of the apparently impossible things he has done for them in the past. The very origin of Israel was something of a miracle. God built a nation out of one couple, even though the man and his wife were past the age when they might normally expect to have children. The same God is still active; he can perform a miracle again and restore Jerusalem (51:1-3).

From this rebuilt Jerusalem, God’s salvation will spread throughout the world. This salvation will not be temporary and political, but eternal and spiritual. People of all nations will receive new life and hope when they come to know God (4-6). The Israelites should be encouraged as they see what God is about to do through them. They should have no fear of their present oppressors (7-8).

A cry from the captive Israelites urges God to act on their behalf. As he overthrew Egypt (here symbolized by Rahab, the mythical dragon of the Nile) and led his people through the Red Sea and into Canaan, so may he overthrow Babylon and lead his people back to Jerusalem. They look expectantly to a new age when sorrow is banished and they live in Zion in unbroken contentment (9-11).

God reassures Israel with the reply that he is the Creator, the eternal one. Israel’s enemies, by contrast, are merely creatures, who one day must die. Israel has no need, therefore, to fear Babylon’s might and fury (12-13). Yahweh, Israel’s covenant God, is the Almighty. He is in control of all affairs and he will release his captive people. More than that, he will give them his teaching so that they can know him and serve him (14-16).

Jerusalem fell, but it is now about to rise again. The Babylonian attack on Jerusalem was a punishment sent by God to bring about the collapse of the city and the destruction of Judah. The judgment is likened to a strong drink given to a person to make him drunk, so that he staggers and falls (17-20).

This strong drink is now to be taken from Judah and given to Babylon, so that it will stagger and fall. God is going to destroy Babylon as he destroyed Judah (21-23).

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