These verses are about the pilgrimage to Zion – the pilgrims themselves, the doubts that trouble them, the faith that sustains them, and the joy that awaits them at their journey’s end. Pilgrimage to Zion was something that every Israelite of Old Testament times knew about. Three times every year, at the three great festivals – Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles – the pilgrims came, streaming to Zion from every corner of the land. When possible, whole families went together, meeting friends along the way. They laughed, they talked, they sang, and finally they rejoiced together before the Lord in Zion as they recalled God’s goodness to them and renewed their commitment to Him and to one another. Some of the happiest memories of childhood and family belonged to these occasions.

The exile to Babylon, however, was to produce an experience of deprivation more terrible. Many were to grow up with no personal memories of Zion at all, never having seen it, let alone gone there. For them pilgrimage to Zion could only be hoped for, not remembered, and the hope itself must often have seemed like a distant mirage – enticing, but cruelly unreal. Many would simply give up believing that it could happen. A minority, however, would cling to it, not as a kind of mental trick to help them feel better, but as the evidence of an unquenchable confidence in the faithfulness of God and the reliability of His promises. These are the ones the Lord addresses with obvious pleasure in verses 1-7; they are plainly dear to Him.

They are described in verse 1 as those who pursue righteousness and who seek the Lord. They have grasped the heart of true religion: holiness of life flowing from personal relationship with God. Jesus said that the only future that matters (the kingdom of God) belongs to such people (Matt. 5:6). Their expectation of what God will do in the future profoundly shapes how they live in the present. They do not rely on their unaided consciences to tell them how they should live; they know what is right, because they have God’s law in their hearts (v. 7).

These pilgrims, then, are faithful Israelites. They may not have literally set out yet, but they are pilgrims none the less. For they know where their home is and long for the day when they will be there, and it is the promises of God, which they believe, that draw them towards it. Zion will be rebuilt; the wastelands around her will blossom again like the garden of the Lord (v. 3). It will again become a place of joy and gladness and thanksgiving (v. 3), and it will stand forever as undeniable evidence of God’s righteous, saving character (v. 8b).

Another group of pilgrims is alluded to in verses 4-6. They are a much larger group, coming from the nations and the distant islands, drawn towards Zion by the promise that light is about to dawn, and the justice they long for is soon to become a reality. These are the “other sheep” Jesus spoke about who would one day hear the shepherd’s voice and be gathered into the fold (John 10:16). They have joined the pilgrimage because they are convinced that only the Lord, the God of Israel, can mend the world’s ills; and they are right (v. 6)!

In the end there are only one people of God, the ransomed of the Lord, and when all God’s purposes for them have reached their goal they will all be together in one place – Zion, the city of God. They will enter it with singing, and joy will be their crown forever (v. 11).

As so often, Isaiah’s vision reaches far beyond the particulars of history to its end; beyond the return from Babylon to the consummation it foreshadowed. And he can hardly wait for the dawning of that final day. There were many obstacles in its way, but he was sure that the strong arm of the Lord had not lost any of its ancient power (v. 9). Isaiah did not doubt either God’s ability or His will. But there was what we might call a “holy impatience” about this great man of faith. “Do it now,” he cries in effect, “Do it now” (vv. 9-10). The Bible itself ends with a very similar cry (Rev. 22:20-21). It should be our cry also.

Isaiah 51:1-11 Reflection Questions:

How often during the year do you recall God’s goodness to you and your family? Will you do it more often?

When going through tough times, do you have an unquenchable confidence in the faithfulness of God and the reliability of His promises?

Do you have God’s Word in your heart?

Where are you with your personal relationship with God?


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