In this essay we are studying chapter 44. In chapter 43 we learned that Israel was under a curse of judgment because of her sins. However 44:1 begins, “But now.” But now God’s grace is kicking in. Notice verse two. Israel is the Lord’s chosen people. He created them. The nation is his servant. And they are not to fear. The “bottom line” is that the Lord has not given up on them.
The name “Jeshurum,” which only appears elsewhere in the Old Testament in the book of Deuteronomy (32:15; 33:5, 26), is a bit unusual. According to John Oswalt, it appears to be an intimate, personal name for the people, a name of informal affection. So we see clearly here God’s continued love for his people.
In verse three we see an image we have seen several times before in this book, the image of abundant water in a dry land (cf. 43:19). And it is associated with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Lord declares that when he will pour out the Spirit, he will bring blessings that will resemble the new life brought to a dry land by spring rains.
Back in chapter 32:14-15 we saw this same imagery associated with a promise of an outpouring of the Spirit on Israel. In 32:14, there was a warning about how the palace would be forsaken and the city deserted. Then in verse 15 it continued, “until a spirit from on high is poured out on us, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field.”
Coming back to 44:3-4, we once again see the promise of an outpouring of the Spirit with the same imagery. Oswalt believes that the context indicates that Isaiah was predicting the event, if not the details, of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the first Christian Pentecost. I believe this was true. The Lord certainly revealed to Isaiah that he would fulfill the promises he made to Abraham. And he revealed that he would pour out his Spirit on his people. However the Lord did not reveal to Isaiah how that would work out in history.
Verse five goes on to say that the day is coming when Israel will be honored and all sorts of people will desire to belong to her God. Scholars debate whether the reference to those who will want to be a part of Israel is to Jews, Gentiles, or both. I agree with Oswalt that it is both. Indeed I would go further than he does and suggest that the verse predicts the New Testament gathering of Jews and Gentiles into the New Israel.
Now then, at verse six the Lord turns to the folly of idolatry. But he begins with a summary of his own absolute claims that will contrast with the folly of idolatry. You will notice in the summary the repetition of some earlier themes.
You will remember that the language “I am the first and I am the last” in verse six is applied to Jesus four times in the Revelation (1:13; 2:8; 21:6; 22:13). That is solid evidence of the early Church’s conviction that Jesus was Yahweh incarnate, God in the flesh. In verse seven we see the repetition of the idea that the Lord can predict and then bring to pass things that seem impossible. Then in verse eight we see repeated both the exhortation not to fear and the idea that Israel is the Lord’s witnesses to his ability to predict the future and make it happen.
At verse nine Isaiah turns to the deadly results of idolatry. In verses 9-11 God once again calls on the witnesses of the idol-gods to come forth. But they will be put to shame, because they, like their gods are nothing.
Then in verses 12-17 Isaiah sets forth a detailed description of how idols are made. Interestingly he does it in reverse order. That is, he begins with the final step of applying the metal (gold or silver) to the wooden form and works backwards to the planting of the tree from which the idol was made. The final step (seen in verse 12) is the work of the ironsmith or blacksmith. Isaiah mentions the fact that the blacksmith has to eat and drink to keep up his strength. The point is that human efforts to create gods in their own image are an exhausting task.
In verse 13 Isaiah takes the process back a step to the woodworker who shapes the basic form of the idol. And the description is quite detailed. The next step back is seen in verse 14, namely, the selection of the tree from which to make the idol. Not any old wood would do. There is some scholarly uncertainty about exactly what trees are mentioned here, but the step is clear. The woodworker had to choose an appropriate wood for the idol. At the end of verse 14 still one more step back is taken. A tree is planted with the intention of one day using it for multiple purposes.
Verses 15-17 tell us that the tree used had at least a dual purpose. Half of it was used for the mundane purposes of keeping them warm and cooking. Then the other half was used to make the idol. Isaiah points out in verse 18 that the idols can neither see nor understand anything. And in verse 19 he goes on to point out the obvious. The idolaters fail to see the absurdity of their position. The idol is the equivalent of the ashes left from burning the other half of the tree. It is an abomination. And worshipping it is even more of an abomination. Thus Isaiah concludes in verse 20 that the idol worshippers are deluded.
In verses 21-22 Isaiah adds a brief sub-section in which he exhorts Israel to remember these things. Some scholars believe that the “things” the people of Israel are to remember refer to what follows. But others, including Oswalt, believe they refer to what preceded. I don’t see why it can’t be both. Certainly they are to remember that no idol-god can keep the Lord from delivering them. But they also are to remember that God created them to be his servants, that he has not forgotten them, and that God can sweep away their sins as easily as the wind sweeps away a cloud from the sky.
The command to return to the Lo underlines the fact that even though God redeems by his grace, we humans still have to respond to the offered redemption. Unless we are willing to accept God’s offered grace, it will do us no good.
The last paragraph of the chapter is the first segment in the next section of the book. In the new section we see that the Lord redeems his servant, meaning Israel. And in 44:23-28 we see an announcement of that coming salvation.
Verse 23 is a transitional verse. Some scholars place it at the end of the previous sub-section, while others place it, as we have done, at the beginning of the next section. It could go either way, and I don’t see that it makes a whole lot of difference. In either case the entire universe is called to sing and shout over Israel’s salvation.
In verse 24 the Lord declares that he created Israel and everything else. And he did it without assistance or advice from anyone else. The Lord also “frustrates,” or “foils” (NIV) the work of “false prophets” (NIV), astrologers, “diviners,” “the wise,” etc. Such people try to predict the future on the basis of what has happened in the past; but the Lord predicts and does things that never happened before.
The “servant” in verse 26 probably is Isaiah, but other prophets are included, which explains the plural “messengers.” Specifically, the Lord will confirm the predictions of Isaiah seen in verses 26 and 28 that Babylon will be conquered, Jerusalem and the cities of Judah rebuilt, and the foundation of the temple re-laid. Verse 27 is difficult; but according to Oswalt, the “deep” that the Lord dried up mentioned there probably is a reference to the Exodus. Finally in verse 28, Isaiah for the first time mentions Cyrus by name as the one whom the Lord would use to deliver Israel from the Exile.