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Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Humiliation of Babylon - Isaiah 47

An ancient cuneiform inscription gives these titles to Cyrus the Great of Persia:
 "King of Persia, King of Anshan, King of Media, King of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, King of the four corners of the World".
Isaiah has already informed his readers that God will use a future ruler of Persia by the name of Cyrus to conquer Babylonia and let the Israelites return to their land (Isaiah 44:28; 45:1, 13). But he has yet—in this part of his prophecy—to address Babylonia directly and decree her fate. He will do that in the present chapter.
1.     Come down and sit in the dust, virgin daughter city Babylon! Sit on the ground without a throne, daughter city of Chaldea! For you shall no more be called tender and delicate. 2 Take the millstones and grind meal, remove your veil, strip off your robe, uncover your legs, pass through the rivers. 3 Your nakedness shall be uncovered, and your shame shall be seen. I will take vengeance, and I will spare no one. 4 Our Redeemer—Yahweh of hosts is his name— is the Holy One of Israel.   (Isaiah 47:1-4)

This chapter is about the humiliation of the Babylonians, addressed by the name of their glorious and proud capital city, Babylon. The name "Babylon" derives from a phrase in their language bāb ilī which means "Gate of the gods". And indeed the city in Isaiah's time was famous for its grand city gate and processional street, down which the conquering armies paraded together with the statues of their gods.  This is Hebrew poetry. And like Babylonian poetry as well, Hebrew poetry is characterized by balancing couplets in which the second half mirrors the first, using synonyms. So "daughter city (named) Babylon" is mirrored in the second half by "daughter city of Chaldea," Chaldea being a name for the entire region surrounding the capital city.

The city is depicted as a woman, a convention that persists as late as the New Testament Book of Revelation, where the final rebellion against God and Christ is centered in a "city" Babylon the Great, which is depicted as a whore (see Revelation 18). Babylon in the days leading up to its conquest by Cyrus is called a "virgin". This alludes to the fact that she fancied herself as unconquered, a virgin intact.

As Isaiah continues, it is clear that Babylon's conception of herself is also of a glorious queen, "tender and delicate" (v 1), who sits on a throne. But God warns her through his prophet that her proud record of unsullied victories has come to an end. Cyrus is the LORD's chosen instrument to conquer her and drag her down from her throne to sit in the dust. Down where the poor and down-trodden live, she will scratch out a living like a woman of the poorer classes, grinding her own meal for her family.  Furthermore, with her legs uncovered, instead of being a virgin—in any sense—she will look like a whore, shamefully used and cast off (v 3).

Although it will be Cyrus of Persia who will actually breach the city's defenses and march into the city to sack it, Isaiah informs the Babylonians that the real conqueror is Yahweh of hosts, our Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel. The "hosts" of Yahweh are whatever armed forces he chooses to command. In some passages of the Old Testament the reference is to angelic forces. In others to Israel's own soldiers under His command. In this case it probably refers to Cyrus' own soldiers, whom Yahweh is actually controlling.  By using the word "our", he indicates his solidarity with the Israelite exiles in Babylonia. 

2.    Sit in silence, and go into darkness, daughter city of Chaldea! For you shall no more be called the queen of kingdoms. 6 I was angry with my people, I desecrated my heritage; I gave them into your hand, you showed them no mercy; on the aged you made your yoke exceedingly heavy. 7 You said, “I shall be queen forever,” so that you gave no thought to your actions, nor did you consider their outcome (Isaiah 47:5-7)

It is still the custom in traditional Jewish funerals to sit in silence. Silence and darkness are associated here with disaster and death. Babylon has lost irrevocably her position of political and military dominance over the nations of the Middle East. She gave no thought to the fact that her victory over Judah was due to Yahweh's anger at his people's sins. She miscalculated, thinking it was due to the power and cleverness of her people and their gods. And when she exploited the prisoners she carried away to Babylonia, including the aged, she didn't think about how Yahweh would get around to calling them also to the bar of his judgment.

Now that Jesus, our Savior, has suffered in our place the judgment for our sins, there is for us who believe no condemnation, as Paul reminds us in Romans 8:1. But for all who do not receive God's gracious forgiveness in the Savior, what remains is the "outcome" of their actions (John 3:36; Revelation 20:11-15). God is not only "our Redeemer", but he is a righteous Judge of all peoples, Babylonians as well as Judeans and Americans, who do not seek refuge in his provided Savior.

3.   Now therefore hear this, you lover of pleasures, who sit securely, who say to yourself, “I am, and there is no one besides me; I shall not sit as a widow or know the loss of children”— 9 both these things shall come upon you in a moment, in one day: the loss of children and widowhood shall come upon you in full measure, in spite of your many sorceries and the great power of your enchantments.   10 You felt secure in your wickedness; you said, “No one sees me.” Your wisdom and your knowledge led you astray, and you said in your heart, “I am, and there is no one besides me.” 11 But evil shall come upon you, which you cannot charm away; disaster shall fall upon you, which you will not be able to ward off; and ruin shall come on you suddenly, of which you know nothing.   12  Stand fast in your enchantments and your many sorceries, with which you have labored from your youth; perhaps you may be able to succeed, perhaps you may inspire terror. 13 You are wearied with your many consultations; let those who study the heavens stand up and save you, those who gaze at the stars, and at each new moon predict what shall befall you. 14  See, they are like stubble, the fire consumes them; they cannot deliver themselves  from the power of the flame. No coal for warming oneself is this, no fire to sit before! 15 Such to you are those with whom you have labored,  who have trafficked with you from your youth; they all wander about in their own paths; there is no one to save you. (Isaiah 47:8-15)

In vv 8-9 the Babylonian leaders are described as feeling secure. They foresee no rival to their dominance ("I am, and there is no one else"). There is no possibility, they think, that they will be deprived of the revenues coming to them from conquered kingdoms, states and provinces in the Middle East. Babylon's condition as bereft of these revenues is described by the metaphor of a childless widow. A woman's financial support usually came from her husband and her children. A widow without children to support her was the typical image of a truly needy person (Mark 12:41-43; Luke 7:12). The Old Testament law of levirate marriage was intended to provide husbands and children for such destitute women (Deut 25:5-6). In the New Testament such women became wards of the congregations of believers (Acts 6:1; 9:39-41; 1 Timothy 5).

It was not just the sense of false security that characterized the Babylonians: it was security in their wickedness (v 10). The text does not specify the sins of the Babylonians. But they are easy to imagine. As the world rulers of the day, they doubtless oppressed the peoples whom they now dominated. But in addition the "ordinary" sins that beset us all were theirs. And without a knowledge of the Creator and Redeemer, who was the Holy One of Israel, they had no light to guide them to his forgiveness and grace. They were like Nineveh in the days of the prophet Jonah.

The wickedness for which they did not fear judgment was hidden from God, or so they thought: "No one sees me" (v 10). Is this not always what we think when we do something wrong? But God sees everything. This is why David, after he had taken what he thought was every conceivable measure to hide his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband, when finally confronted by Nathan the prophet, prayed to God: "Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment" (Psalm 51:4). Nothing that we do or think is hidden from God. Therefore it is imperative that we live lives that are always open to his examination. Knowing that he not only sees all, but understands our weaknesses, makes it possible for us to appeal to him for help in times of temptation. "Lord, you know my weakness and my susceptibility to this deed. Protect me, Savior, by your mercy!"

In vv 11-14 the Babylonians are warned that nothing they or their gods can devise can save them from Yahweh's judgment. They cannot "charm it away" (v 11) with magic spells. Isaiah taunts them in vv 12-13, challenging them to just try to avoid God's judgment by these feeble means. Astrology will not save them either (v 13). All of Babylonia's allies, who helped her in the past—those who "did business with" her politically and economically—will have their own problems to contend with: nor will they care what happens to the former "queen of the kingdoms" (v 15)!

Three times in v 11 Isaiah predicts disaster will befall Babylonia, each time using a more intense term for that event: the NIV uses the translations "disaster", "calamity" and "catastrophe". It adds a certain color to the term translated "catastrophe", when one knows that it is Hebrew shô'ah, the word which in Modern Hebrew describes the Holocaust created by Hitler and the Nazis during World War II. Six million innocent Jews were slaughtered during Hitler's "final solution" to the "Jewish problem"! What awaits Babylon at the hands of Cyrus, Isaiah writes, is such a catastrophe.

Babylonia's former friends and allies will forget her, when that time of humiliation occurs. It is striking how quickly a popular or powerful person is forgotten. People are fickle. They are your friends only as long as you are  popular and powerful. You may think everyone admires you. But what do they say about you in private? If your popularity is due to the power you wield, what will happen to it when you fall out of favor?  The only enduring favor that counts is the favor we enjoy with a God who loves us enough to give his only Son as the sacrifice for our very actions of rebellion against him. This God is not fickle. His love, once given, is not retracted in hard times. He is the faithful Lover of our souls. But his love can be refused or ignored. Let that not be the case with us, dear friends! As the season of Advent and Christmas approaches, let us receive the greatest gift ever given: the Savior who was born at Bethlehem, died for us on Calvary, and rose to live for us on Easter morn.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Babylonian Gods Have to be Carried — Isaiah 46

[The following study was presented by Wini Hoffner to the Bible study hour of the College Church Chancel Choir on Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009. It is posted here with her permission.]


    In each of the six chapters we have studied thus far (Isaiah 40-46) God challenged the idols and false gods to prove their power. One of the themes of these chapters was: “the captivity [of Israel in Babylonia] proves God is God because he predicted it.” His ability to predict the future is one telling difference between the God of Israel and the pagan gods.

    In ch. 46 we see the ultimate proof that Israel’s God is God alone and there is none like him. This proof lies in the prediction of Cyrus, “the bird of prey coming from the east” who will come in direct fulfillment of the prediction and purpose of God.

    It is Israel’s God alone who has the ability to deliver from the tragedies of life. Not only can he deliver, he will deliver. This is what Isaiah 46 teaches us.

READ Isaiah 46:1-7

Bel bows down, Nebo stoops low; their idols are borne by beasts of burden. The images that are carried about are burdensome, a burden for the weary.  They stoop and bow down together; unable to rescue the burden, they themselves go off into captivity.   “Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all you who remain of the house of Israel, you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth.  Even to your old age I am He, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and I will save.   “To whom will you compare me or count me equal? To whom will you liken me that we may be compared?  Those who lavish gold from the purse, and weigh out silver in the scales, hire a goldsmith, and he makes it into a god; then they fall down and worship!   They lift it to their shoulders and carry it; they set it up in its place, and there it stands. From that spot it cannot move. Though one cries out to it, it does not answer; it cannot save him from his troubles.

    Verses 1-2 of ch. 46  present another caricature of the false gods. The false gods are a burden to their worshipers... “a burden to the weary” says v.1. Instead delivering the weary, they are a burden to them.

    Bel is another name for Marduk who was the city god of Babylon and the hero of the Babylonian creation epic.

    Nebo (or Nabu) was the son of Marduk and was the titular god for the Babylonian empire. Several Neo-Babylonian rulers have this god’s name as part of their own names, e.g., Nabopolassar, Nebuchadnezzar, and Nabonidus.

    The images of these gods were paraded through the streets of the city during important festivals, such as Akitu, the Babylonian New Year festival. During this festival the entire creation epic which featured the activity of Marduk was recited or acted out. Then the statues of the gods were paraded through the streets, the king formally taking the god’s hand to signify his submission and loyalty to the god and his belief that the god would sustain and prosper him.

    In verses 1-2 of our passage Isaiah lampoons these most prominent Babylonian divinities, pointing out their utter uselessness. How the mighty have fallen! Instead of being paraded through the streets with pomp and circumstance they now are loaded onto oxcarts and carried away by lowly beasts of burden into captivity. Instead of being borne high over the heads of the celebrating worshipers, they now stoop low and bow down and become weary burdens unable to do anything for their worshipers.

    The pagan gods are worthless, but not so the God of Israel. Through Isaiah God says: “I have upheld [you] since you were conceived, and have carried [you] since your birth.

    We have an example of Hebrew parallelism in v. 3: “the house of Jacob” and “all you who remain of the house of Israel”. The purpose of these two phrases is to remind them of their long history. Isaiah is saying, “Listen, you who go all the way back to Jacob, you who were named after your ancient ancestor Israel.”

    They were “conceived” in the covenant between God and Abraham. They were born as a nation when God led them out of Egypt.  Never in all that time had they ever carried their God! The pagan idols are carried on beasts of burden, but the house of Jacob has been carried by their God for its entire history. Since they were conceived he has sustained them, since their birth he has upheld and carried them.

    In v. 4 God promises that he will continue to carry, uphold, and sustain them through their old age. Here is where God’s transcendence of creator over creature becomes clear.

    As human beings, even though we carry and uphold our children from infancy, and a mother does everything she can to nourish and sustain her unborn child, there comes a time when we expect them to mature and be no longer dependent upon us. But we never outgrow our dependence upon God, and he never quits sustaining and carrying us.

    Notice the repetition of the pronoun “I” in v. 4
  • I am he... that is, the one who never changes.
  • I have made you
  • I will carry  you
  • I will bear you
  • I will save
    The one who never changes, the one who created them, who has carried and sustained them throughout their history, is the one who alone can now deliver them. Not only is he able to do this, he will do it. The gods of Babylonia were a burden. God lifts our burdens.

    The contrast we see here was relevant not only to Israel in exile, but also to us.   
    As G. Campbell Morgan has stated:

“An idol is thing which a person makes, and has to carry. The true God makes the person, and carries him. When a person turns from the living God, he always makes a god for himself and that god becomes a burden; he has to carry it, and the burden is too heavy—he is heavy laden. When a person worships the true God, he worships his Maker and he is carried and so he finds rest.”
    What New Testament passage speaks directly to this?
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

    More than any other prophet Isaiah shows the foolishness of worshiping idols. We have seen it several times already in other chapters, especially and at length in ch. 44.
    In verses 5-7 of today’s chapter Isaiah goes to great lengths to show why it is foolish to worship idols.
  • The worshiper makes it himself.
  • He has to hold it up.
  • It can’t move.
  • It can’t answer. It is deaf and dumb.
  • It cannot save.
Verse 6 describes the making of the idols.
  • The worshiper provides the metal for the god.
  • Then he hires a goldsmith at his own expense to fashion it into a god.
  • The goldsmith overlays a wooden image with dead gold that has come out of the underground.
  • Then the worshiper engages in the supreme folly of bowing down and worshiping this thing that he has just had made at his own expense.

Here's a question for your further thought:

    The implication of verses 3-4 is that, though the pagans must carry their gods, never in all their history has Israel had to carry her God. But what about the ark of the covenant? It was made of wood, overlaid with gold the people provided from their own treasures. The priests had to carry it for forty years during Israel's wilderness wanderings. Is there a difference? I think so.

    The tabernacle and all its furnishings had definite functions, but at the same time they were highly symbolic and were meant as constant reminders of God’s presence with his people. The ark was the focus of this presence. It signified the presence of God, or more precisely the presence of God’s glory, with his people. (Ex. 25:10-22; Num. 7:89)

    In 1 Kings when the ark was brought into Solomon’s new temple and the priests who had carried the ark and put it in place withdrew, the glory of the LORD, visibly manifested as a cloud, filled the building so that the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud (1Kings 8:6-10).

    Stored in the ark were the tablets of the law, Aaron’s rod that had budded, and a gold jar of manna. Therefore, in all the years to come, the ark was a reminder of God’s past dealings with Israel and of his continuing presence with them. (Heb. 9:4)

    God gave Israel specific instructions that the ark was to be carried only by the priests and it was never to be touched by anyone else. See in 2 Sam. 6:1-7 the account of what happened when men tried to transport the ark on an ox cart (just like the pagans carried their gods in Isaiah 46).

    The ark was never meant to be an idol, and when Israel treated it as an idol as they went to war against the Phillistines they were soundly defeated and the ark was taken from them (1Sam. 4:1-11).

   And once the ark was brought into Jerusalem and placed in the inner sanctum of the temple, it was never afterward brought out to be adored or even seen by the people. It could never serve as a detraction from the reality of the unseen God. 

    The ark was not an idol but rather a symbol of God’s presence, of his glory, and of his atoning grace.

   Having shown that unlike the pagan gods he is able to save, God now moves on to declare his righteous purpose.

READ Isaiah 46:8-13    

“Remember this, fix it in mind, take it to heart, you rebels. Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other;  I am God, and there is none like me.  I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will accomplish all of my purpose, calling a bird of prey from the east, the man to fulfill my purpose from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.   Listen to me, you stubborn-hearted, you who are far from righteousness.   I am bringing my righteousness near, it is not far away;and my salvation will not be delayed. I will grant   to Zion, for Israel my glory.

What is God asking them to remember? They are to remember the impotence of the idols and that he, their God, has always rescued them and has always announced in advance what he would do.
  •     “Remember,” he says.
  •     “Fix it in mind”
  •     “Take heart, you rebels”
  They are afraid and feel hopeless. Why? because they are rebels.
  A rebel is someone who persists in unbelief.

Application: When we doubt that God can carry us through a tragedy, can sustain us through a difficult time, we are rebels.

    What is the antidote to unbelief? Memory. Go all the way back as far as you can go and remember all that God has done in history, as well as all he has done in your own life. Can you not entrust your present moment to such a God?

 Isaiah asks Israel to remember that their God is the one who:
“Made known from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will accomplish all of my purpose, calling a bird of prey from the east, the man to fulfill my purpose from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it."

    Surely this passage makes it perfectly clear that both the exile and the deliverance from it by Cyrus were predicted long before the events.

    God is able to make known “the end from the beginning” because they are both part of his plan and his wishes. He can predict the future because the future is what he has already determined.

Verse 11 speaks of a specific event yet to happen long after Isaiah wrote of it, that is the conquering of Babylon by Cyrus, king of Persia.

The fact that Cyrus “from the east, a bird of prey” will conquer Babylon is so because it is part of God’s plan. And because he has planned it, it will happen. God summoned Cyrus. He comes onto the stage of history only because God calls him.

 Note the parallelisms of v. 11.
  • a bird of prey = a man to fulfill my purpose.
  • I have spoken = I have purposed.
  • I will bring it to pass = I will do it.
This parallelism puts a striking emphasis on the word spoken. All that is about to happen is God’s purpose, and because it is God’s purpose, it will happen.

 Isaiah ends this section with the same words with which he began it:

“Listen to me” (v. 3, 12). In v. 12 the hearers are called “you stubborn-hearted, you who are far from righteousness.”

“Listen.” What are they to hear?  That the righteousness of God is NEAR. It is not far away. Furthermore, they don’t have to come and find it. It is God’s gift. “I will grant salvation,” he says. God will bring it near and will not delay.

    Righteousness here refers to God’s actions on behalf of his covenant people. He will act “rightly” toward them and will be faithful to his covenant promises to deliver them from their enemies. His righteous acts on their behalf are undeserved for they are “far from righteousness,” that is, they have not acted “rightly” toward God. They have been unfaithful and stubborn-hearted, not having the “right” action of faith. They have failed to remember and believe God’s promises.

    Even so their faithful God will act rightly toward them and grant them salvation.    

I will grant salvation to Zion, for Israel my glory. (v.13)

    As E. J. Young has put it:
 “This action is for the sake of Israel, for if God does not act, Israel cannot be saved...  Of itself Israel is stubborn of heart and far from righteousness. The nation will be the glory of the Lord when his righteousness is brought near to them and they have received of his salvation. Then will it appear to all the world that the God of Israel is a God of grace who saves the stubborn of heart and those far from righteousness.  Through saved Israel—the glory of the Lord—will be seen the Lord of glory, the savior of his people."


What idols do you and I have?  What burdens are we carrying that are killing us because they have replaced God in our lives?
  • A career?
  • Another person?
  • Need for recognition?
  • Health?
  • Financial success?
    Many Christians are suffering spiritual exile because they are carrying theses burdens and they have become too heavy.

    Isaiah’s message is that we must stop carrying these burdens and let the One who is carrying us anyway carry them for us.

    Are you and I willing to entrust all these issues that seem so important ot us into God’s hands? If we don’t relinquish them to him we make idols of them. They become a burden, and we become afraid.

    The exiles were afraid and hopeless because they had stopped trusting God.

    Only when we recognize that identity, purpose, and fulfillment are things that in the truest sense only God can provide—only then will we experience God’s care and deliverance.

    Are you afraid that God will do a worse job of directing your life than you can do?
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”    Matt. 11:28-30

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Isaiah 44:24-28 and Isaiah 45

“This is what Yahweh says— your Redeemer, who formed you in the womb: I am Yahweh, who has made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself, 25 who foils the signs of false prophets and makes fools of diviners, who overthrows the learning of the wise and turns it into nonsense, 26 who carries out the words of his servants and fulfills the predictions of his messengers, who says of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be inhabited,’ of the towns of Judah, ‘They shall be built,’ and of their ruins, ‘I will restore them,’ 27 who says to the watery deep, ‘Be dry, and I will dry up your streams,’ 28 who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.” ’ (Isaiah 44:24-28)
Before he declares to the exiles what he intends to do, the LORD presents himself as able to do whatever he desires. He stresses here that he can do these things, no matter what obstacles the pagans might think they can present. The pagan Babylonians did not have a single creator-god. Instead they attributed the creation of the cosmos to the activities of a number of gods or goddesses working at different times. If a particular god or goddess wished to accomplish something on a grand scale, it was necessary to get the consent of the others in the divine assembly (the puḫur ilānī rabûti). The LORD, in contrast, is the only God, the Creator of everything, and needs no consent or cooperation. Thus his plan to restore Israel doesn't first have to get the Babylonian deities' consent.
The Babylonians, like other pagan people, believed that there were favorable and unfavorable days on which to do things. If you tried to build a new barn or sew a new dress on a day unfavorable to that activity, it would surely fail. Days were determined to be favorable or unfavorable by consulting signs. Routine and mundane activities by ordinary citizens—marriages, purchase of property—were determined favorable by earthly signs ("terrestrial omens": observation of the flight of birds or the configuration of the entrails of a slaughtered sheep), while important undertakings by kings—military campaigns, building new temples—were begun only after consulting the movement of stars and planets in the heavens (celestial omens). But the LORD "spread out the earth by himself" (v. 24) and "stretched out the heavens"; he doesn't need to consult what he himself has made before being able to do something. By disregarding the omens used by the Babylonian "scholars", he will make fools of them (v. 25). If through his prophets he says he will do something, it will be done (v. 26).  
So what are some of the things the LORD has said through his prophets he will do?
              Jerusalem will be inhabited and rebuilt
              The surrounding Judaean cities will be rebuilt
              The Jerusalem temple will be rebuilt
              Cyrus is the LORD's shepherd and will carry out his purpose

Thus said Yahweh to Cyrus, His anointed one — Whose right hand He has grasped, treading down nations before him, ungirding the loins of kings (who oppose him), opening doors before him and letting no gate stay shut: 2 I will march before you and level the hills that loom up; I will shatter doors of bronze and cut down iron bars. 3 I will give you treasures concealed in the dark and secret hoards — so that you may know that it is I Yahweh, The God of Israel, who call you by name. 4 For the sake of my servant Jacob, Israel my chosen one, I call you by name, I hail you by title, though you have not known Me. 5 I am Yahweh and there is none else; beside me, there is no god. I engird you, though you have not known me, 6 so that they may know, from east to west, That there is none but me. I am Yahweh and there is none else, 7 I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe — I Yahweh do all these these things (Isaiah 45:1-8 JPS)  
"Thus says X" is the standard introduction to an ancient letter. The sequence of names in such an introduction always has significance. If there is a difference in rank, the name of the superior always comes first. In spite of the fact that Cyrus will become the ruler of the entire Middle East—what he would have considered "the world"—the real World-Ruler is Yahweh, the God of Israel. To most of the peoples living in Isaiah's time, Israel would have been the name of one of the smallest peoples, a people who had lost their kingdom and become a mere possession—a small one at that—of the real powers. Think of something like Ghana today. How would we react if today a message came to the United Nations from a prophet from Ghana, announcing that Mumbasa, the god of Ghana, had created the world and brought every world leader at the U.N. to power.
Let's unpack these verses and see what it is that God had to say to Cyrus. Just now, we won't talk about what God says he will do for Cyrus. But what does he say about him?
              he is God's 'anointed one', his 'messiah' (v. 1)
              he has not known Yahweh (v. 4)
Now what does God promise Cyrus he will do for him?
              grasp his right hand
              subdue nations before him
              ungird the loins of kings
              open doors
              march before him
              level all obstacles (hills)
              give him the secret treasures of palaces and temples
              address him by name and title (anointed)
              gird (or equip) him (v. 5)
What does God say is his purpose or goal in all of this?
              so that you may know that it is I, Yahweh, the God of Israel, who call you by your name (v. 3)
              for the sake of my servant Jacob (v. 4)
              so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me;   I am Yahweh, and there is no other.
What significant thing does God say about himself in v7? That he has his hand in everything that happens, whether we experience it as pleasant ("weal") or unpleasant ("woe").  How does this fit in the present context? He is about to bring Cyrus upon Babylonia and allow him to conquer and kill many peoples. This to them would be very unpleasant. But in the process God's purpose to free his own people Israel and restore them to their land will be accomplished. That will be very pleasant for them!

Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation may spring up, and let it cause righteousness to sprout up also; I Yahweh have created it.   9 Woe to you who strive with your Maker, earthen vessels with the potter! Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, “What are you making”? or “Your work has no handles”? 10 Woe to anyone who says to a father, “What are you begetting?” or to a woman, “With what are you in labor?” 11 Thus says Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel, and its Maker: Will you question me about my children, or command me concerning the work of my hands? 12 I made the earth, and created mankind upon it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host. 13 I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness, and I will make all his paths straight; he shall build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward, says Yahweh of hosts. 14 Thus says Yahweh: The wealth of Egypt and the merchandise of Ethiopia, and the Sabeans, tall of stature, shall come over to you and be yours, they shall follow you; they shall come over in chains and bow down to you. They will make supplication to you, saying, “God is with you alone, and there is no other; there is no god besides him.”  (Isaiah 45:8-15 NRSV adapted)
First, we must decide who it is that God addresses here. Verse 8 is addressed to the creation; verses 9-12 to all his human creatures but perhaps especially to the Babylonians and Persians, and v. 13-14 to Israel.
What does God command the creation to do in v. 8? The language here is figurative. Just as rain from the skies waters the plants in the earth so that they sprout and grow up, so sky and earth (representing the entirety of God's creation (inanimate and animate) must obey him and bring about two things: (1) righteousness (meaning God's righteous purpose), and (2) salvation (meaning the deliverance of his people from Babylonian captivity).
Actually, the rhetorical addressing of the non-human parts of creation is merely a lead-in to verses 9-12. For if the all-powerful Creator Yahweh can command all parts of what exists in order to accomplish his will, how can any part of that creation—including the Babylonians and Persians—possibly oppose him?
vv. 9-10 contain an analogy that was very popular both inside and outside of ancient Israel. It was often used to reinforce parental authority, since parents were the begetters/creators of their children. In Israel it was also used to reinforce Israel's obligations to Yahweh who had called Abraham, liberated the nation from Egyptian slavery and constituted them in their land as a kingdom. He was their Creator and Father. As creative artists enjoyed absolute control over what they created, so did parents over their children, and God over his creation, which means more than Israel, but includes the entire globe.
vv. 11-13 draws the conclusion. How therefore can anyone call into question Yahweh's right to control all of his "children", which include all humans, animals and the "work of his hands" which includes all inanimate objects? When in v. 12  God says that he commanded the "host" of heaven, meaning all the planets and stars, what might this imply to ancient Babylonians like the Magi? What did the Babylonians believe about the planets and stars?
V. 14 might be addressed to Cyrus, predicting his future conquest of Egypt and receiving thereby the products of adjacent Ethiopia and South Arabia (Sabeans). God was "with" him in the senses we discovered above in verses 1-3. It would be difficult to attribute it to Israel, unless the coming of the Egyptians and Ethiopians to Israel "in chains" is metaphorical for the chains of ignorance of God and bondage to sin. In that case this verse would present Israel as Yahweh's servant to bring the knowledge of him to the nations.

Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior. 16 All of them are put to shame and confounded, the makers of idols go in confusion together. 17 But Israel is saved by Yahweh with everlasting salvation; you shall not be put to shame or confounded to all eternity.  18 For thus says Yahweh, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!): I am Yahweh, and there is no other. 19 I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, “Seek me in chaos.” I Yahweh speak the truth, I declare what is right.   20 Assemble yourselves and come together, draw near, you survivors of the nations! They have no knowledge— those who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save. 21 Declare and present your case; let them take counsel together! Who told this long ago? Who declared it of old? Was it not I, Yahweh? There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is no one besides me.  22 Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. 23 By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.”   24 Only in Yahweh, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength; all who were incensed against him shall come to him and be ashamed. 25 In Yahweh all the offspring of Israel shall triumph and glory. (Isaiah 45:15-25 NRSV)
Verses 15-17 are a brief testimony, describing God and affirming his belief in God's promises. Who speaks here? Some think the nations who come to God in v. 14; others think Isaiah himself.
15  What do you think is meant by describing Yahweh as a God "who hides himself"? In what sense was God "hidden" to the nations, or even to Israel herself? How does Isaiah use the term "darkness" that envelopes the nations (Isaiah 60:1-3)?  Probably this means that God is the unseen controller of all events, that though they do not know him, yet he controls their destinies. Saint Paul referred to him on Mars Hill as "the Unknown God" whom you ignorantly worship now with your idols, but need to learn of and believe in for salvation (Acts 17).
16-17 The fates of true believers (Israel) and unbelievers (the idol-worshipers) are contrasted here, and Israel is directly addressed ("you"). Israel will owe her freedom not to Cyrus, but to the God who moved Cyrus to issue the decree permitting them to return to their land. But the deliverance here mentioned is called "everlasting salvation" (šûʿaṯ ʿôlāmı̂m) and "to all eternity" (ʿaḏ-ʿômê ʿaḏ). At the very least this would mean that Israel would never again be driven into exile, which clearly did happen in AD 70, when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. So unless we want to say that God is not speaking here, and that Isaiah was giving his own mistaken opinion, we are forced to see a reference to Israel's spiritual deliverance from her sins.
18-19 These two verses must be interpreted in the light of each other. For that reason I prefer the NRSV to both NIV and ESV in teranslating the Hebrew word tōhû the same in both verses, namely "chaos", referring to the disordered state in which the first heaven and earth was before God created light and order in the six days of creation. The orderly and purposeful state of God's creation, which is affirmed in Genesis 1-2, is the opposite of the pagan Baylonian and Persian universe in which the multiplicity of gods and goddesses obscures the truth of one Creator God and his sole control over history. The pagans "seek" God in their chaotic belief system. But God did not command Israel to seek him that way (v. 19). Instead, he spoke "truth" (ṣeḏeq) and "what is right" (mêšārı̂m) through Moses and the prophets.
20-25 In these final 6 verses of the chapter (and continuing into chapter 46!), God pleads with the "survivors of the nations" (pᵉlı̂ṭê haggôyim) to come to him and find truth and life. Why are they called "survivors"? What have they "survived"? They have survived paganism and its seductive lies, and have found deliverance through the testimony of Israel in exile. In verse 20, as in the opening verses of ch. 46, God contrasts himself with their gods Nabû and Bēl (Marduk). These so-caled gods cannot save: in fact they themselves (i.e., their images) have to be carried around.
The invitation itself is given in v. 22 "turn to me, and be saved" (nû-ʾēlay wĕhiwwāšĕʿû). The verb for "turn" is not the common one used with Israel: "return to me", but implies turning from idols to God for the first time. This is like what Paul says the Thessalonian pagans did: "… you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming" (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). And Israel's message to the pagan "survivors" was the same as Paul's to Thessalonica: "Who told this long ago?   Who declared it of old?  Was it not I, the LORD? There is no other god besides me,  a righteous God and a Savior;   there is no one besides me.  Turn to me and be saved,   all the ends of the earth!   For I am God, and there is no other."
23 Echoes of v. 23 are heard in Phil. 2:9-11
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11)
In Isa 45 the name of God was Yahweh, but at the last judgment the name that will be above all other names will not by Yahweh, it will be Jesus.  The ESV translation is correct that what is sworn is allegiance to God, but in the end it will be allegiance to Jesus as Savior and Lord.
24-25 But the confession of the nations will be more than simply bowing and swearing allegiance. They will confess that "only in Yahweh/Jesus are righteousness and strength, triumph and glory." The words "only in Yahweh" imply that no other so-called god or religion can confer these things.  Babylonian paganism could not, nor can Islam or Western philosophies today. This is the Old Testament equivalent of New Testament exclusiveness: salvation is "only in Jesus". 
There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”  (Acts 4:12) 

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  (John 14:6)

Truth is always exclusive of error. The claim of Christianity's opponents today is that the so-called "truth" of religion is not absolute, but relative. What is your "truth" is what satisfies you personally, and it will not be what satisfies me. But both Old Testament Israelite and New Testament Christian truth is not relative.
From a New Testament perspective "righteousness" means a right standing with God through faith in Jesus. From a Hebrew Old Testament perspective it can also mean a right standing, but the root ṣādaq also means to be right in the sense of holding a true or correct belief and behavior. Hence, the final judgment will show that Israelite and Christian faith was correct. Truth will be vindicated against falsehood. The fate of those who resolutely oppose him inherit "shame", while those who accept him will be shown to be right and shall glory in him (v. 25).
Is it important for us to think about final judgment? Obviously, none of us wants to meditate on the torments of the damned: that is not the point. But Paul and others like him kept the vindication of the gospel at the last judgment always before them as an encouragement and a motive for sharing the good news of Christ with others. 

This entire passage emphasizes the fact that God is only hidden to those who wish him to remain so. To those whose minds and hearts seek truth, he speaks simply and directly and plainly. His words do not come through human philosophizing, but through his messengers, the prophets who wrote the scriptures that make up our Bible. That word is true.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Isaiah 43

The lesson this week—on Isaiah 43—is by Wini Hoffner.


    At the end of ch. 42 Isaiah reminded Israel that she was in captivity in Babylon, not because Babylon’s gods were stronger than Israel’s God, but because the Lord had put her there as his judgment on her sin and disobedience.

    Is. 42:24 Who handed Jacob over to become loot,
        and Israel to the plunderers?  Was it not the LORD,
        against whom we have sinned? For they would not follow his ways; they did not obey his law.

    Now in ch. 43 the prophet quickly moves on to words of comfort and assurance.

 But now, this is what the LORD says— he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:  “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.  2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. 3 For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior;  I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead.  4 Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life. 5 Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west.  6 I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’ and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’ Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth— 7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”  (Isaiah 43:1–7 NIV)

V2   “When you pass through the waters I will be with you...”  “When you walk through the fire you  will not be burned.”   
In Noah’s day the flood waters overwhelmed and destroyed. During the Exodus the Red Sea swallowed up the mighty Pharaoh’s army. In the last days the fire of God’s judgment will destroy. But the Lord says to Israel, “Fear not.” The waters will not sweep you away. The fire will not burn you.

They are in affliction right now as a result of his just punishment for their rebellion and sin. But, get this, even in their God-ordained affliction he is at their side.

    “Fear not”... Why? What is the basis for them to have no fear? Who  is this who is at their side?
  • He is their creator (v.1). God formed them out of nothing into a nation. And he did it for his glory (v.7)
  • He has summoned them to be his. He will therefore not abandon them.

    As further basis for their assurance he guarantees their deliverance by using four names for himself.

He is Yahweh, their Redeemer (v. 3)  This is the name by which he revealed himself to Moses, the name he told Moses to use when he declared to the Hebrews that God was going to bring them up out of Egypt. Just as he saved his people from the tyranny of slavery in Egypt, now he will deliver them from Babylon.

He is “your” God (v.3). He belongs to them just as much as they belong to him.

He is the Holy One of Israel (v. 3). They saw dramatic evidence of his holiness at Sinai when he made his covenant with them. They trembled with fear and said to Moses: “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” They know that this Holy One is their covenant God.

He is “your Savior" (v. 3). He will deliver them from Babylon. But this redemption will go far deeper. They cannot by themselves free themselves from Babylon. Neither can they free themselves from the spiritual blindness and deafness that has them in bondage. That greater redemption will be accomplished at a later time when God will send his own Son to pay the price for their sins -- and ours. He is their Savior.

    Why will he save them? (v.4)

 Because they are precious, that is, valuable. They are honored. They are loved.
    Dispersed Israel is going to be regathered and brought back to their homeland. It will happen because God has declared it will happen. The language of vv. 5-6 “...from the ends of the earth” conveys the idea that God would be able to bring them back no matter how far-flung they might have become.

    On a deeper level Isaiah’s words refer to the final ingathering of everyone who is called by his name because they have put their faith in him.

    Nations are going to fall (v. 4) to make way for Israel. But this is all part of God’s great plan of redemption through which the nations, in the end will gain far more than they lose. Israel must be kept in tact as a nation because she was to be the womb for the Savior of the world.
 Lead out those who have eyes but are blind, who have ears but are deaf.   9 All the nations gather together and the peoples assemble. Which of them foretold this and proclaimed to us the former things? Let them bring in their witnesses to prove they were right, so that others may hear and say, “It is true.” 10 “You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he.  Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me. 11 I, even I, am the LORD, and apart from me there is no savior.  12 I have revealed and saved and proclaimed— I, and not some foreign god among you. You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “that I am God. 13 Yes, and from ancient days I am he. No one can deliver out of my hand. When I act, who can reverse it?”  (Isaiah 43:8–13 NIV)

    In this section we have another court scene. All the nations (and their gods) are gathered together, and not one of them can claim to have declared in advance what the Holy One of Israel is about to do. Not one of them can claim to have orchestrated anything that has happened in former times. They can produce no witnesses who can justify their claims to deity.

    But Israel, who at times is very blind and very deaf, will be witnesses for the Lord.

    Israel will not remain blind and deaf as she sees Isaiah’s prophecies about Cyrus begin to be fulfilled. No, for Israel will not only be delivered from the Babylonians but also from her blindness. ..  “that you may know and believe me and understand that I am He.” (v.10). This is part of her deliverance.
    “You are my witnesses,” says the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen.” (v.10)

    Again Israel is identified as God’s servant. To be a witness as to the saving, redemptive character of God is the true calling of a servant of God. It was Israel’s calling, and so it is our calling as servants of the living Christ .. to be witness as to his saving power and his grace and mercy.. through changed lives.

    Through their deliverance Israel will be a witness to the whole world that there is no other God, no other Savior.

    Who is this God? What does he say about himself?

Look at vv. 11-13.
 I, even I, am the LORD, and apart from me there is no savior.  12 I have revealed and saved and proclaimed— I, and not some foreign god among you. You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “that I am God. 13 Yes, and from ancient days I am he. No one can deliver out of my hand. When I act, who can reverse it?”  (Isaiah 43:11–14 NIV) 

He has been this God from before time began and will continue to be the same God. Therefore, when he does something no one can undo it.   

    “Fear not.” How can Israel doubt that he can deliver them? Who he is is the guarantee that no one can reverse what he has done or decreed.

In the same way Jesus says to those who believe in him, “Fear not.” "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.” (John 10:26–30 NIV)
 This is what the LORD says— your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:  “For your sake I will send to Babylon and bring down as fugitives all the Babylonians, in the ships in which they took pride. 15 I am the LORD, your Holy One, Israel’s Creator, your King.” 16 This is what the LORD says— he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, 17 who drew out the chariots and horses, the army and reinforcements together, and they lay there, never to rise again, extinguished, snuffed out like a wick: 18 “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.  19 See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland. 20 The wild animals honor me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the desert and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen, 21 the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my pr (Isaiah 43:14–22 NIV)

    Twice in vv. 14-15 God reminds them of who he is, reiterating themes of earlier verses.

    We already know from ch. 41 that the Lord will use Cyrus, king of Persia, to defeat the Babylonians, but v. 15 makes it clear that it is the activity of the Lord, Israel’s covenant God, that will accomplish this. The Babylonians will flee for their lives in the ships that are their pride and joy.

    In vv. 16-17 Isaiah reminds Israel of their great deliverance at the time of the Exodus, but great as that deliverance was it was only a foretaste of a far greater deliverance yet to come. So they are not to focus so much on their past deliverance that they cannot even see when the Lord is acting again and in a new way.

    This focus on the past and failure to see that God is acting in a new way is just the trouble that John speaks of in John 1:11  "He came unto his own, and they that were his own received him not."

    And so the Lord says through Isaiah, “Behold, I am doing a new thing" [v. 19] and you don’t even recognize it.

    What is this “new thing” the prophet envisions?

    First, the deliverance from Babylon, the return of the exiles to their home.

    This all by itself is not that much greater a deliverance than was their deliverance  from Egypt.

    But the return of Israel to their home planted the seed for the far greater “new thing” .. the ultimate redemption God had in mind for his people which was fulfilled when God sent his Son to be born of a Jewish woman in a small town in Palestine. That Son was their promised Messiah who died on a cross bearing their sins, and who rose again from the dead to bring them life eternal.

    The enormity of the change this “new thing” will produce is depicted in v. 19 where we see the inhospitable desert turned into an oasis providing life instead of death and a path (or way) provided to keep one from being lost.

    In various ways in these 3 chapters God has, by the names he uses for himself, reminded them that he created, (or formed them into a nation) chose them, and redeemed them.

    V. 21 he states the purpose for which he chose them, created them and redeemed them. It is that they might declare his praise.  In just the same way Peter tells us:  "But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light."  (1 Peter 2:9 NIV)
   “Yet you have not called upon me, O Jacob, you have not wearied yourselves for me, O Israel.  23 You have not brought me sheep for burnt offerings, nor honored me with your sacrifices. I have not burdened you with grain offerings nor wearied you with demands for incense. 24 You have not bought any fragrant calamus for me, or lavished on me the fat of your sacrifices. But you have burdened me with your sins and wearied me with your offenses. 25 “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more. 26 Review the past for me, let us argue the matter together; state the case for your innocence. 27 Your first father sinned; your spokesmen rebelled against me. 28 So I will disgrace the dignitaries of your temple, and I will consign Jacob to destruction and Israel to scorn.  (Isaiah 43:22–28 NIV)

    In this last section God reminds them again of the reasons they are in their current predicament. The sacrifices they brought did not honor him because their hearts were not right with God.

    They may have felt like they were wearing themselves out with their endless rituals, but actually they were wearing God out because their rituals were pointless. Furthermore, they had burdened him with their sins and offenses. They can make no claim to innocence or sinlessness. Therefore his deliverance of them is not anything they deserve. He does it out of his sheer grace and as an expression of his own character.

    Israel’s problem is not merely that they are physically captive in a foreign land. Their greater problem is that they are in bondage to sin, and have been since the days of their earliest ancestor.

    The result of this sin was that Israel, who was called into existence to bring glory to God, has instead become the laughing stock for the nations.

    Even so, amazingly, the Lord promises by his grace to “blot out your transgressions, and to remember your sins no more.” This is the far greater deliverance that Isaiah foretells.


    This chapter is another “servant” passage where Israel is clearly the servant. And as God’s servant Israel is to be his witness. That is the function of a servant. “You are my witnesses,” says the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen,”

    This is not a command, such as we have in the Great Commission. It is a statement of fact. Jesus said much the same thing to his disciples just before his ascension.

    Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

    The disciples had had experiences with Jesus that changed their lives forever.

    If we have had a genuine, saving encounter with Christ we are changed.

    We are witnesses of God’s saving grace when people see the unmistakable change that has taken place in our lives. Without speaking a word, without handing out tracts, without any sort of overt action and whether we like it or not, we are still witnesses.

    What kind of witness is your life and mine? We are empowered by the Holy Spirit who lives in us. Do our lives exhibit the fruits of the Spirit so that the witness of our lives proclaims the praise of Christ?