In the last essay we studied chapter 47, which dealt with the coming downfall and humiliation of Babylon. In this essay we are studying chapter 48. As we begin this chapter, we see Israel called to hear, meaning to pay close attention to what follows. Oswalt suggests that Isaiah was appealing to Israel in three ways here. First, he was appealing to their past, that is, to their history. The names Israel, Jacob and Judah undoubtedly brought the past glories of the nation to their minds. God had done great things for Israel over the centuries, and the people were well of that. What about us? What is our history?
Second, Isaiah was appealing to their religion. That is the significance of swearing by the name of the Lord. They were the people of the Lord. Again, what about us? Is our situation really any different?
Third, Isaiah was appealing to what Oswalt calls their “present identification.” Their present identification was their identification with the holy city, Jerusalem. They may be living in Babylon, but they belong in Jerusalem. Once again, I ask, what about us? Where do we belong?
Isaiah set all of this before Israel for a reason. He believed that these things would predispose the people to hear and to obey. And the same should be true for us.
Verse three reminds Israel of the Lord’s past pattern of predictions. He foretold “the former things” and then he brought them to pass. We have seen this pattern in Isaiah before. The Lord’s ability to do this sets him apart from the idol-gods. The fact that he fulfilled the predictions “suddenly” suggests that fulfillment of prophecies did not always occur in the times or places expected.
In verses 4-5 we see for the first time a reason given for predictive prophecy. God knew that the people of Israel were “obstinate,” or “stubborn.” Indeed they were like animals that dig in their heels and refuse to go where they do not want to go. They stiffens their necks so much that the necks seem like they are made of iron. The image of the brass forehead is less clear. It may refer to the practice of male animals butting heads. In any case, the point is that God had to overcome the stubbornness, because he knew the people might give credit to idol-gods for what God had done. So the Lord predicted events long ahead of time through prophets like Isaiah, and then he made them happen. That counteracted the tendency towards idolatry.
In the next paragraph the Lord, still speaking through Isaiah, shifts from “former things” to “new things,” because he has the ability to do things he never has done before. Notice that the passage begins with a summary of what had just been said. They have heard the prophecies of old; and they have seen, or are seeing, their fulfillment. Therefore they must declare what they know to be true, namely, that the Lord is the only God; and he is trustworthy. Then the Lord announces that from this time forward he will reveal “new things,” things they never heard of.
Verses 6-8 illustrate what is called “progressive revelation.” Certain things are “hidden,” that is unrevealed, until the time when God decides they should be revealed. The new things to be revealed were not revealed “long ago,” because the purpose of predictive prophecy is not to enable God’s people to know the future. Rather its purpose is to demonstrate to us that there is no other God and that we can trust him. Oswalt points out that only some things are predicted, because if we knew everything that was going to happen in the future, we would turn that knowledge into another form of idolatry. We would lose our need to live in dependence on God. After all, we have been rebels from birth, just as Israel had been.
In the case at hand, the Jews might have wondered why God had not revealed earlier that Israel would go into exile in Babylon and then be restored by an emperor from the East named Cyrus. And the answer is that God knows when to reveal such things to accomplish his purposes.
As we have just seen from the previous verses, God is quite aware of Israel’s tendency towards idolatry and their stubborn, rebellious spirit. In verses 9-11 we see that God would have been within his rights to destroy the people of Israel; but he decided to refine them instead. And it seems he even moderated that process, because the refining was not like the refining of silver, which removes all dross. He is not saving them from exile because they deserve it. He is saving them, because he entered into a covenant with them (Ex. 34); and he wants to protect his own name, which is a way of saying his reputation. This theme of God’s concern for his name goes all the way back to the Exodus (Ex. 32:11-14). God’s extension of mercy and grace shows his true nature. He keeps his promises and is trustworthy.
In verses 12-22 the Lord again calls on Israel to listen, to hear (cf. v. 1). And then he talks once again about Cyrus. The “I am he” in verse 12 is Isaiah’s equivalent of “I am who I am” in Ex. 3:14. We see again here language about the first and last. In this case it points to the fact that God began everything, and he will end everything.
The first part of verse 13 expands on “I am the first,” by declaring that God created everything. The problem in this verse is how to identify the “them” in “I summon them.” Oswalt, based on 40:22-26, believes it refers to the stars. The pagans believed that the stars represented the gods. And the Lord is saying that the stars, and therefore the gods, are at his command.
At the beginning of verse 14 the Lord once again calls for hearing. Most identify the “you” in “Assemble all of you” to be Israel. However, the context suggests that it easily could have been intended as a more general call that included the nations, and even the stars. Oswalt believes that the “them” again is the stars, the same as in verse 13. The “him” in the sentence, “The Lord loves him,” clearly is Cyrus.
Verse 15 indicates that Cyrus’ conquest of Babylon is due to God’s call and empowerment. Then in verse 16 the Lord issues his fourth call to his people to hear (vv. 1, 12, 14, 16). Notice that the Lord has been very “up front” about all of this. None of it has been done in secret.
The last sentence of verse 16 is a problem, because it suddenly shifts from God as he speaker to Isaiah. Oswalt says that it simply shows the close relationship between the Lord and the prophet. Isaiah speaks for God, and that makes the sudden shift possible.
Verses 17-22 supply a conclusion to the chapter. First we see why we should listen to the Lord. He is our teacher and guide. God’s guidance during the Exodus became a biblical metaphor for his guiding his people of all the ages to himself. And he teaches and guides us just as surely as he did Israel.
Unfortunately, historically Israel did not hear and obey very well. So the Lord expresses what might have been. They might have had peace like a river and righteousness like the waves of the sea. The NRSV translates “peace” as “prosperity” and “righteousness” as “success.” But I don’t think that was a helpful translation. The word “peace” in the Hebrew is shalom, which, as you may know means “well being.” And “peace” is a much better English word to translate it. The word “righteousness” is used in the sense of “right behavior,” so I don’t think “success” is even close to the Hebrew meaning.
The worst did not happen to Israel, namely, have their name cut off, because a remnant in Israel did hear and were obedient. Those who were obedient, and those of us today who, as part of the New Israel hear and obey, reap the benefits of verse 18. A further benefit, in addition to peace like a river and righteousness like the waves of the sea is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham (Gen. 22:17) that his offspring would be as numerous as grains of sand. I believe that promise has been fulfilled in the New Israel, the Church.
After the warning of verses 18-19, we see in verse 20 a ringing command to leave Babylon with a shout of joy. Verse 21 promises that when the time comes, the Lord will provide for them just as he provided for the people during the Exodus. Then the chapter ends with the warning that those who refuse to listen and obey, “the wicked,” will have no peace.