In the last essay we studied Isaiah 42, in which we saw the people of Israel bring severe judgment on themselves by their willful blindness and disobedience. Today we study chapter 43, in which we shall see the Lord declare that he will redeem his wayward people out of pure grace. In verse one the Lord reminds Israel that he created them as a nation and that they belong to him. Therefore, they need not fear.
Notice in verse two that the Lord does not say that there will be no floods or fires. It is a common misconception among God’s people that faith should deliver us from all painful experiences. That has never been true. “Floods and fires” always come our way at one time or another, in one form or another. What the Lord does promise is that he will be with us through the floods and fires; and we will survive because of his presence.
The first clause of verse three tells us why we will survive. We will survive because the Lord is our God. He is “the Holy One of Israel.” And he is “our Savior.” As John Oswalt reminds us, all three of these ideas were emphasized during the Exodus. That means that God has been consistent throughout salvation history. As Isaiah has been saying throughout his book, the Lord is the only God that exists. He is a holy God who demands justice and righteousness. And he is the Savior of his people.
The second half of verse three and verse four tell us that for God no price is too high to pay to redeem his people. Notice that the Lord speaks of using Egypt, Ethiopia (or Cush) and Seba to redeem Israel. That sounds a little strange to us, but the idea of using the wicked to ransom the righteous is seen elsewhere in the Old Testament. Proverbs 21:18 reads, “The wicked is a ransom for the righteous, and the faithless for the upright.”
Some scholars have interpreted the use of this idea by Isaiah to mean that the Lord in a literal sense used those nations to redeem Israel. Cyrus, or at least his empire, was given those nations in return for his allowing Israel to return to Palestine and reestablish the nation. Cambyses, the son of Cyrus, did eventually conquer the areas indicated. Oswalt, because Cyrus himself did not conquer those territories, suggests that Isaiah did not intend a literal substitution. Rather he was setting forth a principle of substitution that was fulfilled by Christ when he gave “his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). My problem with Oswalt’s view of this is that Jesus was a righteous person substituting for the unrighteous, not an unrighteous person substituting for the righteous as Isaiah and Proverbs indicate. Therefore I take the view that Isaiah intended a more literal substitution, though the passage certainly brings to mind Jesus’ substitutionary death.
In verses 5-7 the Lord repeats his exhortation not to fear and his promise to be with them. Then he further promises to gather his people from all over the world. The promise to gather his people can be understood in any of three ways. First, it can be interpreted as an intentionally exaggerated way of simply saying that God can save his people from anywhere. It certainly is true that God can save his people from anywhere. Second, the promise can be interpreted as God’s gathering of his people, both Jew and Gentile, into the New Israel under the New Covenant. Again it is true that God has been doing that under the New Covenant. And third, the promise can be interpreted as a literal gathering of ethnic Israel from all parts of the globe at the end-time. Oswalt suspects that something of all three were in Isaiah’s mind. And that is entirely possible.
At verse eight Isaiah begins a new segment that Oswalt entitles, “Witnesses for God’s Uniqueness” (43:8-44:5). Isaiah begins the section by declaring that his people, Israel, are his witnesses.
God calls the “people,” that is Israel, and all of the nations into assembly, once again to set up a kind of trial scene. Again the Lord challenges the gods of the nations. Did any of them predict the conquest of Cyrus? Can they bring forth witnesses to say that they did? Of course the answer is, “No.”
The “you” addressed in verse 10 is Israel, God’s witnesses. Israel also is God’s servant. And the reason for their calling is given. It is so that they can know the Lord, so that they can believe in him, and so that they can understand that the Lord is God, meaning the only God. There were none before him, and none shall come after him. It is true that others will come to know the Lord; but first his witnesses, his people Israel, must come to know and understand him.
Not only is the Lord the only God, he is the only Savior, verse 11. And in verse 12 the Lord reminds that in the past he declared the future regarding his salvation; and brought it to pass. His people, Israel, are his witnesses. And in verse 13, the Lord declares his absolute sovereignty. There is no one who can deliver from his hand. He works, and no one can hinder him.
In the next segment, 43:14-44:5, the Lord continues to speak. In it he indicates that he will deliver his witnesses. And in the immediate sub-section, verses 14-21, the Lord declares his power, past and present. Notice in verse 14 that the Lord announces that he will send Cyrus to overthrow the Babylonians for Israel’s sake (Is. 44:28 names Cyrus). Then verse 15 suggests that the Lord will save Israel, not because of who they are, but because of whose they are.
Oswalt points out that verse 15 contains an Old Testament theology in miniature. First, God is the Lord who revealed himself at Sinai and who there entered into a covenant with Israel. Second, he is the Holy One who showed them how to live in his presence without being destroyed and how to share in his holiness by living a holy life. Third, he is the creator of Israel, the one who called them into existence. And fourth, he is their king, the one who called them into a life of absolute obedience.
Verses 16-17 are interesting in that they introduce the speaker of the words in verses 18-21. Of course the speaker still is the Lord. But this little introduction reminds the reader of the wonders the Lord performed during the Exodus. Notice that the Lord declares that he was the one who led Pharaoh’s forces to their destruction at the time of the Exodus.
In verse 18 God commands Israel not to remember those “former things.” But he didn’t mean they were to blot the events from their memories, which was impossible anyway. Indeed he himself had just reminded them of those “former things.” No, God’s point was that he was going to do a “new thing,” verse 19; and they must not expect him to do the “new thing’ in the same way he did the “former things.” Indeed the “new thing” already was happening before them. He was making a way in the desert and producing rivers of water there, so that the animals and his people might praise him.
In verses 22-28 the Lord declares once again that his salvation is by his grace, not by Israel’s performance. Verse 21 just indicated that Israel was formed to worship and praise God; but in verses 22-24, the Lord says that they failed to do it. The Old Testament sacrifices were intended to symbolize a real giving of the worshippers to the Lord in surrender and obedience. Instead the people considered the doing of the rituals to be itself a saving action. The result was, “God had not enslaved and wearied his people with arduous ritual. But they have enslaved and wearied God with their sins and iniquities” (Oswalt, p. 160). Indeed the rituals themselves became sinful, because there was no genuine submission or change of heart.
Notice in verse 25 that the Lord, in spite of Israel’s sinfulness, declares that because of his own nature, and for his own sake, he will forgive and deliver Israel as an act of grace. Then in verse 26 he challenges Israel to prove him wrong; and he goes on in verse 26-27 to say that Israel has been sinful. It began with the father of the nation, either Abraham or Jacob, probably Jacob. That is why he profaned, that is defiled, the priests and delivered Israel to destruction, literally the ban. The “ban” you may remember was the irrevocable giving of things or persons to the Lord, which meant either that they were destroyed, or that they could not be used for any other purpose. Thus the only way for Israel to be saved was the way that God announced, by God’s pure grace.