Most of the subsequent historical judgments of God described in the Bible were against nations who attacked Israel and made God's people suffer. But on three occasions God brought judgment upon Israel herself: the destruction of Samaria by the Assyrians in 722 BC, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BC, and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. In modern times we witnessed God's anger and judgment on the Nazi regime of Adolph Hitler who savagely murdered three million harmless Jews in extermination camps in the 1940s. There are many ways in which throughout history God has handed the "cup of his wrath" to offending nations.
In these seven verses Isaiah resumes in a general way his picture of the condition of the Jewish community in Babylonia for the entire period of the exile prior to the fall of Babylonia to Cyrus the Great of Persia (586-538 BC). In a sense, this seems redundant at this point in the prophecy, since he has said this before in other words and has moved on to other subjects built upon his earlier statement of this condition.
17 The Jewish exiles (called "Jerusalem" here) are depicted as sleeping off a hangover from too much wine that they have drunk. That wine represents the punishment that God meted out to them in the form of the exile. This imagery is also found in Jeremiah (25:15) and is revived in the New Testament Book of Revelation (Rev 14:8, 10, 19; 18:3; 19:15). The cup from which they drank is called the "cup of his wrath" because God had been very angry at their pre-exilic idolatrous conduct (Isa. 2:8; 10:11; Jer. 16:18), which constituted a flagrant breach of the terms of his relationship with them, expressed in the laws of Moses. It is called the "bowl of staggering", because it confused their thinking and made it impossible for them to defend against the armies of Nebuchadnezzar that attacked Jerusalem and destroyed it (586 BC; 2 Chron. 36:15-19).
18 "There is no one to guide her …" This verse may be a retrojection, describing the confused thinking of the military and political leaders at the time of the Babylonian invasion of Judah, or it may describe the spiritual condition of the people in exile.
19 The verse says that "these two things have befallen you," yet appears to list four! But we must remember that in Hebrew poetry the same two items may be repeated with two synonyms. Thus, "ruin and destruction" are regarded as approximately the same things as "famine and sword". The point is that the destruction wrought on Judah by the Babylonian army ("sword", "destruction") produced extreme human hardships ("ruin", "famine"). And since these words are addressed to the Jewish exiles already in Babylonia, the inference is that they still suffer the after-effects of what happened in Judah that sent them to Babylonia. In Babylonia they may have recovered outwardly from those former conditions, in that they may be eating well and have homes, but the emotional and spiritual trauma of being landless and God-less still tortured them.
The twofold rhetorical questions: "Who can comfort you?" and "Who can console you?" ring in their ears, and remind the attentive reader that at the outside of this second part of Isaiah (40:1-2) God commands the "voice of one crying" to "Comfort, comfort my people!" — using the verb "comfort!" twice.
20 The "sons" of Judah are her citizen defenders, who were struck down in the attack of Nebuchadnezzar's troops and left lying in the streets. They were the visible evidence that Judah had drunk of the wine of God's anger, for they were "filled with the anger of Yahweh" and his "rebuke".
21-23 Now in the typical language of reversal of fortunes, God promises the exiles that having made them suffer in captivity for the sins that angered him, he will now turn his attention to Babylonia and punish her for her many sins, among which would also be their treatment of the Judeans! This was what God already did to the Assyrians, whom he used to punish the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC. He called them the "rod of my anger" (Isaiah 10:5). God used this "rod" to administer a spanking to his chosen people. But because Assyria thought that it was her own might and the might of her gods that had defeated Israel and inflicted suffering upon them, God would punish her as well:
When the Lord has finished all his work against Mount Zion and Jerusalem, he will say, “I will punish the king of Assyria for the willful pride of his heart and the haughty look in his eyes. 13 For he says: “ ‘By the strength of my hand I have done this, and by my wisdom, because I have understanding. I removed the boundaries of nations, I plundered their treasures; like a mighty one I subdued their kings. 14 As one reaches into a nest, so my hand reached for the wealth of the nations; as men gather abandoned eggs, so I gathered all the countries; not one flapped a wing, or opened its mouth to chirp.’” 15 Does the ax raise itself above him who swings it, or the saw boast against him who uses it? As if a rod were to wield him who lifts it up, or a club brandish him who is not wood! 16 Therefore, the Lord, the LORD Almighty, will send a wasting disease upon his sturdy warriors; under his pomp a fire will be kindled like a blazing f (Isaiah 10:12–17 NIV)God fulfilled this promise when he sent a plague on the army of Sennacherib, king of Assyria, when it was investing and besieging the city of Jerusalem (Isaiah 36-37). The plague is depicted figuratively as an angel of God (37:36-37).
The comfort of God's believing people today is the knowledge that in his astounding love and grace, the Son of God himself drank the cup of God's righteous judgment on us as he hung on a Roman cross in AD 33. This was done so that you and I, if we commit ourselves to his saving mercy and care, trusting that he died for us, may rest assured that we will never have to drink that cup ourselves.
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. (1 Peter 3:18 NIV)