In our last essay we studied chapter 45, which dealt with God’s choice of a deliverer. In this essay we are studying chapter 46, in which we see Isaiah continuing his attack on the idol-gods of the nations. In verses 1-7 he points out that the idols do not carry, but are carried. There are several things to be seen here. First, in the Babylon pantheon of gods, Bel was the original name of the father of the gods. The god of the city of Babylon was Marduk, the hero of the Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish. And Nebo was Marduk’s son. Thus Bel and Nebo were two of the major gods, or we could say they were the chief gods in the Babylonian pantheon.
Isaiah probably mentioned these two gods, because images (that is idols) of them were carried in the annual New Year’s Festival procession in Babylon. We would call it a parade. But there is an added dimension here. Not only did beasts carry idols of these gods in the New Year’s Festival parade, Isaiah is saying that Bel and Nebo and their idols would be helpless when Cyrus of Persia came to conquer Babylon. Furthermore, Cyrus and his armies would carry away those same images on beasts into captivity. The point is that when Babylon would be conquered, those idols that had been carried in honor would be carried in dishonor.
Now an interesting thing about the history of the fulfillment of this prophecy is that Cyrus did not publicly disgrace the gods of Babylon. For some foreign policy reason, perhaps to curry favor with the people of Babylon. Cyrus chose to worship the Babylonian gods publicly. After all, he had to govern the Babylonians, and he may have wanted to maintain as good a relation with them as possible. At any rate, the carrying away of the idols on beasts apparently was a means of protecting them rather than humiliating them.
In verses 3-4 the Lord addresses Israel directly and reminds them quite firmly that Israel’s relationship with him has been quite different from Babylon’s relationship to her gods. In contrast to Babylon’s carrying her gods the Lord has been carrying Israel. And this has been true throughout her entire history, from their birth to the present. And it will never be any different: “even when you turn gray I will carry you,” says the lord.
This is an important message. We humans constantly drift into thinking that we are at the center of things and that we don’t need God. This is especially true when things are going well. We begin to think that we are capable of carrying ourselves with the aid of our gods of wealth and power. But that is a delusion. The truth is God is carrying us every step of the way, whether or not we are Christians. Without his sustaining power the universe itself would fall apart.
The last two lines of verse four are powerful. I like the NIV translation: “I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” Do you see both the staccato repetition and the profound truths. The Lord declares that he is their creator, their carrier, their sustainer, and their rescuer, or deliverer. Wow!
Verses 5-7 express the logical conclusion of the Lord’s argument, a conclusion we have seen several times before in the book. The Lord cannot be compared to anyone else. And it is especially foolish to try to compare him with the idol-gods (cf. 40:19-20; 41:6-7; 44:9-20). Notice once again in verse seven the idea that the idols are carried, and that they cannot, without aid, move from the place where they are set. And to top it off, they cannot help anyone who cries out to them. The reason is simple. Something that cannot help itself cannot help anyone who calls upon it.
Verses 8-13 are a kind of summary. Notice in verses 8-9 that the Lord calls on Israel to remember. And notice also that he addresses them as “rebels” (NIV) or “transgressors” (NRSV). God obviously is not completely happy with Israel. The lack of faith and sinfulness that Isaiah has been railing against throughout the book is still present. The question, of course, is what the “rebels” are to remember. Well, the key thing, it seems is “the former things of old.” That would be their history. And a stellar history it is. It would include the patriarchs, the Exodus, the Sinai covenant, the conquest of the Promised Land, the judges, King David, and on and on. It would remind them of the great acts of God over those centuries; and thus it would remind them that the Lord is God and there is no other. In other words there is every reason to believe that the Lord is faithful and that he will fulfill his word about deliverance.
In verses 10-11 we find a series of three participles that remind Israel that the Lord predicts and fulfills his predictions, that he has an intentional will that he brings to pass, and that he is doing it again with Cyrus. In the NRSV the three participles are easy to spot, because they are translated that way. The NRSV translates, “declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done.” “Saying, ‘My purpose shall stand, and I will fulfill my intention.’” And “calling a bird of prey from the East” (my emphasis).
In the NIV the participles are not evident as such, because they are not translated that way. In the NIV the first one is translated, “I make known the end from the beginning, etc.” Then the second is translated,” “I say: ‘My purpose will stand, etc.’” And the third is translated, “I summon a bird of prey.”
Regardless of the translations, the point is clear. The Lord reminds Israel that he predicts the future and then brings it to pass, that he has an intentional will for his people that he brings to pass, and that he is doing it again with Cyrus. He is calling “a bird of prey” out of the East for the purpose of the rescue. That is, he is predicting that he will use Cyrus to deliver his people, and it is going to happen.
The image of the “bird of prey” is a powerful one. He was suggesting that the conquest of Babylon would be swift. A hawk, for example, swoops down on a rabbit, and the kill is over quite quickly.
The last two lines of verse eleven emphasize the certainty of connection between God’s speaking and his acting: “I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have planned, and I will do it.” God speaks, and then he acts. e is true to his word.
Notice in verse 12 that the Lord is addressing the “stubborn of heart.” That expression is parallel to the “rebels” of verse eight. So the Lord still is addressing Israel as stubbornly refusing to believe that the Lord will deliver them. Even those who believe are convinced that it is far off.
The NRSV translates the word “righteousness” as “deliverance,” and that is a valid translation. That is how the word “righteousness” is being used here. So those of you have the NIV can interpret the word “righteousness” as “deliverance.”
But the Lord insists that his “righteousness” or “deliverance” is not far off. On the contrary it is quite near. And notice that the focal point of the salvation is Zion, the great symbolic mountain of Jerusalem. That indicates the return to Palestine by the Jews whom Cyrus sets free.