Isaiah (Part 53): Transition of the Messiahs -1 (Chs 46-48a)
The major Cyrus prophecy in Isaiah 44b through 45 is actually the central them to a chiasm that has been building since the servant rescuer had been introduced in chapter 42. The chiasm is developed as follows:
Is 42:18-43:13 – God rescues rebellious Israel
Is 43:14-44:6 – Babylon will fall; Jews rescued
Is 44:6-23 – No other God
Is 44:24-45:25 – God rescues through Cyrus
Is 46 – There is no one like God
Is 47 – The fall of Babylon
Is 48 – God rescues rebellious Israel
Isaiah 46, then, repeats the theme we studied earlier in chapter 44—that God alone is God—albeit now with additional strength of description. The chapter begins presenting the gods of Babylon in humiliation. We read in chapter 45 that Cyrus defeated Babylon; therefore, that is the starting point to chapter 46—Babylon has just been defeated and her gods are pictured as cowering. Bel is the head of the Babylonian pantheon. Nebo is his son. We recognize these names incorporated in many of the rulers of Babylon: Bel in Belshazzar and Meradoch-Baladan; Nebo in Nebuchadnezzar and Nabonidus. The action is in mini-chiasm as Bel, in the Hebrew, “has collapsed” and Nebo “is crumbling” in verse 1 and then the Hebrew verbs are reversed in verse 2 where we read that the gods “are crumbling” and “have collapsed.” The picture is a painting of the foolishness of the Babylonians. They are being readied for removal into captivity. They are loading the pack animals with their possessions. With their positions, they are loading up these god idols that they have made. That they are taking along their gods, whose job it was to protect them, along with them into captivity is ludicrous. Where were the gods when they needed protection? If they can’t protect, why are they burdening themselves with them as they march into captivity?
Isaiah emphasizes here that it is the people who are lifting and carrying these idols, burdening themselves and their pack animals with the load. This contrasts sharply with the next couple of verses. In 3 and 4 God tells Jacob that he, as the true God, is not carried along by them, but rather he bears them. Verse 4 shows this emphatic message, especially in the Hebrew which reads, “I myself will be the same … and I myself will bear you up …. I myself have made you, and I myself will carry you.” The last line of verse 4 contains correlating verbs as God emphasizes that his rescue is part of his sustaining and bearing his people.
The rest of the chapter also gives a contrasting view of Babylon’s false gods and the true God. Verse 5 through 7 show these lumps of gold and silver being placed on their stands and then...nothing. They just sit there. They don’t move, and they don’t answer the calls of their worshippers. Verses 8 through 13 present God’s activity as he plans, declares his plan, and then accomplishes what he planned and declared.
Now that Babylon has fallen, we read in chapter 47 a description of the fall. This is not a description of the battle, but it is a telling of Babylon’s high arrogance that has come crashing down. The first four verses are a graphic description of the turn from the pleasured heights to the depths of misery. Babylon is pictured as a virgin daughter—a princess on the throne worshipped by the world and privileged beyond equal. She is called a virgin but not to imply that she has yet involved herself in sex. The Hebrew here is bethulah, not the almah maid of Isaiah 7:14. Many of the uses of bethulah are intended to speak of purity and chastity, for example in the Levitical code. However, often when the word is employed, a clarifying note is added that this bethulah had not lain with a man (e.g., Gen 24:16; Jud 21:12). The point is that the word means a young woman ready or ripe for sex. Because of this connotation we see the word used in cases of speaking of temple prostitutes, not virgins in our understanding of undefiled by sex at all. Another example is Anath, the sister of Baal, who was called a virgin (bethulah) although she was the goddess of reproduction. What we find here in Isaiah 47 is Babylon pictured by a princess who is privileged beyond imagination, who takes sexual pleasure from whomever she wishes. This woman on top of the world is thrown down from her throne into the dust. Verse 2 begins by showing that she has lost her privileged status and now must work at menial labor, grinding grain. But the rest of verse 2 and verse 3 push her degradation further. She is stripped and shamed. Although some have thought this merely the stripping naked of prisoners as they are marched away into captivity, the context seems to speak of something more. Many scholars agree that the picture is of stripping naked for abuse—for rape, even repeated rape. Thus, the princess as Babylon falls from the heights of privilege and sexual pleasure to the misery of loss and sexual abuse. The next two sections tell us the reason for the fall.
In verses 5 through 7 we read that God placed his people into Babylon’s control, but Babylon went beyond overseer to abuse of these covenant people of God. They showed no mercy to them. From the first half of Isaiah we had learned that God expects caretakers to show care for the more vulnerable, and he judges those who don’t.
Verses 8 through 11 explain that Babylon was grossly in love with itself. Twice in this passage Babylon shouts “I … there is no one else,” showing its conceit. This is the reason that Babylon is used throughout the Bible as the symbol for the arrogance of humanity rebelling against God. John uses the symbol in Revelation and speaks of this “spirit of antichrist” in his letters.
The last verses of the chapter end the discussion as chapter 46 had begun it—the religion and gods of Babylon could not deliver them from God’s judgment.
In chapter 48, attention turns to Jacob. We will read in this chapter that God does not think more highly of Jacob’s actions than he did of Babylon’s. But the outcome is significantly different. Babylon falls in judgment. Jacob is rescued. We’ll discuss this difference more after we’ve studied the chapter.
Verses 1 and 2 call out to Jacob. God says to them, “Listen … I am Yahweh of Hosts!” Jacob had the same mindset as Babylon in playing at their religious ritual while caring only for themselves. But this shout from God is to remind them that he is no deaf and dumb idol. He is the Existent One, Lord over all. In his statement, God calls his people “Jacob”—deceivers. He says that they are “those who are called by the name Israel,” implying that they are not truly Israel—those who strive or work together with God. They have descended from Judah physically (the meaning of “have come from the waters of Judah;” compare to John 3:5). They swear by Yahweh, declare the God of Israel, name themselves after the Holy City, and lean on the God of Israel, yet “not in truth or righteousness.” So their association with God is a sham. It is playing at relationship with God when there concern is self-centered.
In verse 3 through 6a, God tells them that he foretold events before he did them so that they could not attribute their good fortune to any idols that they also involved in their worship. But he reminds them of this forcefully, shaking them by the shoulders, telling them, “Wake up, look at what has happened. I, Yahweh of hosts, told you I’d do this, and now it is done! Recognize that it is I who has done it all!”
God follows this discussion of the past with announcement of new things to come. In verses 6b through 8 he speaks of new prophecy of which he had not spoken before. What does he have in mind here? In order to understand what this new prophecy is, we must first understand the old. The old had to include the conquering of Babylon by Cyrus and the release of the Jews. These things had been spoken of earlier by Ezekiel and Jeremiah. Therefore, these are things that the people had heard (verse 6a). What then is left to be the “new” prophecy? We have already discussed that the decree of Cyrus to send the Jews back to their land began a timetable specified in Daniel 9:25 that leads to the ultimate release of God’s people in Christ, Messiah the Prince. Therefore, God is here saying that he is now beginning his foretelling of that Messiah the Prince. And this is exactly what we see in the rest of the book—prophecy of the Spirit-endowed, Servant Messiah—the Rescuer of the world!
But note still that God ends this discussion in verse 8 repeating the fact that Jacob is treacherous and rebellious. There is nothing in Jacob that merits rescue. Yet God will rescue. In verse 9, God intimates that Jacob deserves fiery judgment as much as Babylon did, but God is delaying his anger, restraining himself. God presents a picture of refining silver that stops in the middle of the process because if he continues to pour out all the dross there would be nothing left and Jacob would be destroyed. But verse 11 tells us that God will not destroy Jacob for his own—God’s—sake. He says that he will not be defiled or give his glory to another. What does all this mean? What is God’s sake and how would he be defiled, giving glory away?
God created for relationship—pure, caring, love relationship. Sin interfered with that, and so God plans a rescue for that same reason—relationship. He covenanted with Abraham and his descendants (Israel) to bless the world (rescue for relationship) through them. Thus, God’s sake is God’s purpose—his rescue through Israel. He won’t destroy Israel in judgment, therefore, because that would destroy his purpose, his glory. For relationship to be realized, atonement must be made. For atonement to be made, the suffering Servant must come. For the suffering Servant to come, God’s covenant people must not be destroyed. God will not give up this glory.