15. Exhortations to Heed God’s Call (Isaiah 48:1-22)
There are all too many folks who claim to be the people of God but do not act in faith on the promises to fulfill His plan for their lives. They are comfortable just being numbered with the saints; but they do not want to leave their comfort zone. They hear the word of God, what it promises, what it calls for them to do, but they stubbornly resist, concluding it is for someone else. And sadly, they will live out their lives not fulfilling God’s plan for their lives; they will never realize what it is like to be actively involved in the work of God.
Isaiah 48 deals with just such a problem with stubborn Israel. The prophet foresees that the people of Israel in captivity in Babylon will be resigned to living out their lives there. They will put out of their mind the promises of a new covenant with a restoration to the land and a renewal of their service of God. And so he writes this oracle to rebuke them in that weak faith and to exhort them to heed God’s call.
Based on the messages of the previous chapters, the LORD here exhorts His unclean nation to take note of the prophecies carefully because they have been living in unbelief too long and need to renew their faith in and commitment to God’s word. Furthermore, He reminds them how He continues to be patient with them for their benefit, but calls them to contemplate His sovereign acts. Finally, the LORD encourages them to flee from Babylon through His great redemption when the opportunity arises. The future of God’s people is not in captivity.
I. The Rebuke:
The LORD rebukes His people for their disbelief and idolatry which He has sought to overcome by His sovereign word (48:1-11).
A. The LORD calls the unfaithful to respond (1, 2).
The first two verses record God’s call for Israel to listen to His word. But the thrust of this section is that this divine command is couched with many epithets describing the nation. They are those (1) “who are called by the name of Israel,” which is an allusion to the naming motif in earlier prophecies, as well as to the renaming of Jacob “Israel”; (2) they are those “who have come forth from the waters of Judah,” a poetic reference to the ancestry (implied comparison of “fountain” with the source of the family)—although some folks change the text to read “loins” instead of “waters” (mimme’e for mimme); (3) and they are those “who swear by the name of Yahweh and make mention of the God of Israel,” which refers to their covenant oaths, creeds, and praises as devotees of the LORD (this is clarified in verse 2 in that they associate themselves with the holy city and stand firm in the LORD).
But verse 1 explains that what all that these descriptions claim is just that, claims, for the people are hypocritical—they do not do it “in truth” or “righteousness.” Their participation in ritual acts, praise, taking oaths, confessing belief, is not done with sincerity (“truth” as we have seen before is reliability, dependability, as well as holding to true beliefs), nor with righteousness (their lives have not corresponded with the standard of the covenant). So the prophet observes that they are skeptical of the Word and hesitant to respond.
Verse 2 then explains further that they claim to be professing Israelites. They call themselves “citizens of the holy city” and claim to rely on the God of Israel. This is what they would protest in response to the charge of the prophet. But affiliation to the faith does not always translate into living by faith.
B. The LORD appeals for them to listen to His word by reminding them of His predictive power (3-8).
Verse 3 introduces the theme of this section: God had predicted the former things and they happened as He said they would. The “former things” refers to that which the LORD had already predicted correctly, including for the audience who ended up in Babylon, the captivity. He predicted many things in antiquity, and then He brought them to pass just as He said He would. The use of “mouth” is, of course, anthropomorphic, a more vivid way of expressing the decree of the LORD—He actually spoke.
Verses 4 and 5 explain that it was necessary to use prophecy because the people were stubborn. The previous chapter branded them as obstinate; but now their neck is iron and their brow brass. The implied comparisons are intended to show how hardened they were, how slow to believe. They would not bend or yield; they refused to be controlled by the LORD.
Verse 5 completes the explanation by explaining that their hesitancy to believe in the LORD had the danger of opening the way for them to idolatry, crediting an idol that they made with the acts of God. God had to convince them through such supernatural ways as predictive prophecy because they were wayward. When the prophet here records the Word of the LORD that claims the use of predictions, he probably has in mind the importance of prophecy throughout all the history of Israel rather than only one specific event. Israel’s history was foretold, from beginning to end, by the living God. But certainly the captivity in Babylon was uppermost in his mind, for God had foretold it, and no one believed it—until it happened.
Three things set Israel’s historiography apart from any other in the ancient Near East, and these are significant. (1) Israel had a linear history: it was moving from its beginning to its culmination in the eschaton—there was an eschatalogy. But the nations in the ancient world, even though they had historical events, had no concept of progression. To them, it was all the annual seasonal cycle, year after year. The deities all served to restore vegetation, crops, life, year after year. But there was no goal at the end of the age. (2) Israel had a God who judged His own people, often by using other nations to do it. The deities of the other nations were national deities, loyal to their people—servants of their people. But only in Israel do we find prophets telling how the LORD would destroy His own people. Here is a clear evidence of truth, and not propaganda; Yahweh is not simply the God of Israel, but rather the God of heaven. (3) Israel had a God who predicted the future. All nations could claim that their deities caused whatever happened to happen; but when what happened was foretold by the LORD, and what was foretold could not be changed by armies or deities, the truth rests with the LORD God of Israel.
Verse 6 forms the rebuke proper by appealing for the people to look at the facts and admit the truth. They had heard all this, all the prophecy that the LORD had given and all the claims to His sovereignty. Why would they not declare it? (Some wish to emend the line to read, “Will you not witness it?” changing tagidu to ta’id). No, they did nothing with it.
So now there was to be a “new thing.” It is recent, new, so at they cannot say they heard of it elsewhere, or did it themselves (verse 7). This new thing that they never imagined would probably refer to the bringing in of Cyrus as the deliverer to set them free. Who could have imagined that?. This was a new prophecy because if it had been made otherwise they might have claimed they knew it. God is always one step ahead of people. And these people took some convincing. It reminds us of the contrary audience of Malachi, who challenged everything the prophet said, demanding proof or explanation.
This idea of the “new thing” is developed further in verse 8; it will then be picked up in verse 14. Israel did not know this, nor had they heard it. These events are new and unprecedented. But God did not fully reveal them lest they should treat the prediction lightly and say that it corresponded to their own calculations. Familiarity with the expectation sometimes lessons the appreciation or the understanding of it. The first part of verse 8 probably means that Israel had not received notice of Cyrus in years past, even though punishment and downfall had been predicted for Babylon itself. The reason the agent was not predicted before now is that Israel would not have appreciated or accepted it, being in the state of disbelief and disobedience that they were in. They were “transgressors from the womb”—a clear description of the sin nature. Seldom do we realize how our sin nature necessitates how God must deal with us. It surely demands patience and compassion; but here it calls for convincing proof, because of slowness to believe. Rebellious people do not accept signs and predictions easily.
C. The LORD remains patient so that His word and His works will accomplish their intended goals (9-11).
Nevertheless, the LORD continues to be patient with these people, so that they might benefit from His intervention (if God was not patient, who would benefit?). It appears that verse 9 would make no sense to someone who had lived through the exile; but the point is that God cut that period short or they would have been cut off. And if they had been cut off completely, there would be no praise offered to God for the deliverance from bondage.
Note the parallel praise of the psalmist who returned from the captivity: “You severely disciplined me, but You did not give me over to death” (Ps. 118—the speaker represents the nation).
Underscore in this verse that it is because of God’s reputation that Israel was not destroyed. Ezekiel 36 will say the same thing, that God would deliver them from exile because of His Word—He would keep His promises—and by doing that He would sanctify His name which they had profaned. And Malachi would reiterate, “Because I the LORD change not, therefore you are not consumed.”
The idea of “deferring anger” is rather anthropomorphic. It is similar to the LORD’s “repenting” over the evil that He said He was going to do. These expressions show His compassion. But His plan was formed, not only for the exile, but the number of years in the exile, the time and circumstances of the return—all of it.
Verse 10 uses the language of refining to describe the captivity in exile. “I have refined” is an implied comparison; and “in the furnace” is also an implied comparison of exile with a furnace (see Deut. 4:20; 1 Kings 8:51; and Jer. 11:4). Note that the genitive helps interpret the figure: “furnace of affliction”; this could be classified as a genitive of apposition, the furnace, which is affliction.
Our hymn writer caught this image nicely: “In the furnace, God may prove me, hence to bring me forth more bright” (Zion Stands).
The expression “but not as silver” could be taken in two ways. It either means that the refining was not as severe as would be needed to refine silver, or it was not with silver as the product, that is, the desired result had not accrued from Israel’s affliction. Israel’s sin was not completely purged, for the LORD here was rebuking unbelief and disobedience.
Thus, the purpose of delivering Israel from bondage was for the LORD’s sake. He would prevent His reputation as the powerful Lord God from being disparaged among the nations. God will not let His name be profaned among the nations (see Ezek. 36:22-36). And out of this we have the prayer, “Hallowed be thy name.” We too pray that God will fulfill His promises and thereby rescue His name, His reputation from the world.
II. The Renewed Claim:
The LORD renews His claim of absolute sovereignty and His purpose to destroy Babylon through Cyrus (48:12-16).
A. The LORD claims absolute sovereignty (12, 13).
The claims that Yahweh makes now are familiar Isaianic expressions: “I am He. I am the first, I also am the last.” But this verse now includes a graphic description of the LORD as the Creator (“hand” // “right hand” are anthropomorphic). The terms “earth” and “heaven” are both literal and figurative (merism—the whole universe). The whole of creation and everything in it is here because God commanded it to come into existence, and now, as servants, they are at His command (Ps. 33:9). The New Testament will affirm that the whole world is being borne along by His (Jesus’) powerful word (rhema [Heb. 1:3]). Here is true sovereignty, that all creation obeys the LORD’s call.
B. The LORD will destroy Babylon through Cyrus (14).
The presentation of the hosts of creation assembling before the LORD is made to call Israel to listen—God is also summoning them. The challenge is simple: who ever foretold these things? The question is rhetorical; no one other than God foretold this. In this announcement the one that the LORD loves is Cyrus, for he will do God’s will by destroying the Chaldeans. The idea of “love” includes “choosing”; some versions simply translate it “choose.” Cyrus was chosen; but it is also true that if Cyrus will do this work of God he will be pleasing to God. The power is from God, though; the “arm” is probably the LORD’s (so anthropomorphic), indicating the power to chasten and punish (but some would change the word “arm” to “seed” to avoid the violent zeugma).
C. The LORD is able to fulfill His eternal plan (15, 16).
The force of predictive prophecy is again used to make the point. The LORD affirms that He Himself has called Cyrus and will make sure that his mission succeeds. Such promises were not made in secret, but (as we have seen) from antiquity. By the way, if this oracle was made by Isaiah of Jerusalem, then the words are very precise. If another prophet made it in the days of Cyrus, then the claims of prophecy from antiquity make little sense. It would be taking a well-known fact and trying to pass it off as prophecy that demands faith.
Verse 16 critical for the interpretation of theology. The LORD is the speaker throughout this section—”I have not spoken in secret from the beginning; from the time it was, there am I.” Then the text says, “and now the Lord God has sent me, and His Spirit.” Most commentators suggest that 16b changes the scene to the earthly drama. Watts says, “Someone, ostensibly a leader, claims that Yahweh has sent him and his spirit.”144 This forces him to say that in verse 17 and following this leader quotes his commission from the LORD. That seems to me somewhat forced. Others say that the line is a parenthesis or insertion, perhaps coming from the interpolator who claims to have a divine commission to address the contemporaries. This is most unnatural and contrived. But they are trying to avoid having Yahweh be both God the One who is sending and the Servant who is sent. So one view, followed by a number of scholars, is to see an additional comment here by the writer or editor.
I would ask whether or not we have here intimations of the tri-unity (popularly but incorrectly called the trinity) of the Godhead, much as we do in other passages (see Malachi 3 which has Yahweh sending His Messenger of the Covenant, even the Lord whom they seek, and then saying “I will draw near to you”).145 There would have been passages in the Old Testament that were confusing for Israel to understand. It is not impossible that the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel, about whom we have been reading throughout these many passages, is the pre-incarnate Christ; and here the affirmation that the LORD God sent Him, with the Spirit, would provide a glimpse into the eternal plan of God. Some would argue, of course, that this would be equally unnatural and reading too much into the text.
Well, you can take your pick of which view makes the most sense, both in this context, and in the synthesis with the rest of revelation. It is not a major point, but in this context it will determine who is speaking in verse 17—the LORD or an interpolator/prophet/leader.
III. Lament over Failure:
The LORD laments the past indifference of His people and their resultant loss oif blessing (48:17-19).
In this section the prophet quotes the Word of the LORD directly. It begins with His self-disclosure and His claims for Israel’s allegiance—He shows what He does for them. “I am the LORD your God, who teaches you to profit, who leads you by the way that you should go.” The idea of Yahweh as “teacher” (melammedka from lamad) also appears in Jeremiah 32:33 and Isaiah 30:20. The idea of this verse, namely, to teach to profit, would be that God was instructing Israel in an entirely new way so that He could help her. The parallel line uses the hiphil of derek, “road, way,” meaning “causing you to go in the way you should go” (here an obligatory imperfect). This hiphil probably means “make solid by treading,” so the refined meaning would yield “make a way” for “causing one to go in a way.” Isaiah 40:3f. had stated that such a way was to be prepared—here it is said to follow divine instruction.
The wish or lament is expressed in verse 18: “O that you had hearkened to My commandments.” The similes (“river” and “waves of the sea”) in the apodasis mean that if she had, then her welfare (shalom) would have been as full and constant as the waters of a wide and unfailing river, and her righteousness (parallel, so success or blessing—metonymy—for being right with God) as the sea.
The apodasis continues in verse 19 with more similes—”sand” and “gravel.” If they had obeyed, there would have been innumerable descendants, because there would have been no captivity, only divine blessing. The text indicates that the captivity almost annihilated the population, and with that the name of Israel came precariously close to extinction.
IV. Exhortation to Depart:
The oracle exhorts the people to depart from their captivity with singing (48:20-22).
The prophet implores the people to go forth in the name of the LORD. The imperatives used in the beginning of this final section are meant to be rhetorical—they cannot go until Cyrus sets them free, but they can know that there is a divine imperative they will obey, and so God will make the way clear (as He has just said). So the imperative is saying two things: affirmation—you will be set free (so metonymies of effect), and call—when it happens you must go.146
The language of their singing is thanksgiving to God for the deliverance from bondage. It includes allusions to the Israelites’ deliverance out of Egypt—they thirsted not when He led them through the desert, He caused water to flow from the rock for them—he split the rocks and water came out. Unless we were ready to say that the miracles of the wilderness wanderings were to be repeated here, we would have to say that an implied comparison is being made, that is, just as God miraculously provided water for the earlier Israelites, so were these Israelites to be miraculously refreshed in their journey.
Verse 22 is a problem because it does not seem to fit nicely here. Some scholars consider the verse to be a structural marker from the editing of the collection, especially since Isaiah 49-55 forms the second collection of the latter part of the book. But the verse does make sense in this context, though, for God was giving peace (welfare) to His people who would return in faith to their land. But to the Babylonians, the wicked, there would be no peace.
It is again a remarkable point of theology that is taught in this passage, namely, that even though His people should prove unfaithful, God will remain faithful, for He cannot deny Himself—a truth that is clearly reiterated in the New Testament. The fulfillment of the covenant promises is based on the character of God, who by His mighty arm will do what His Word proclaimed He would do.
If you take the view that Isaiah prophesied this over a century before it happened, the application would be that his audience is being forewarned. It is a fuller development of his words to Ahaz—a war is coming, a remnant will return; if you believe you will not have to go through that. And even in the days of Hezekiah, after the fiasco with Evil-Merodach, the prophet said, there is a captivity coming, but because of obedience it will not be in your lifetime. And, these oracles were comparable to the event in chapter 8 where the prophet would write ahead of time so it would be witnessed when it happened. The point is that all the prophets prophesied things that were far off in the future—judgment, exile, restoration, the coming of the Messiah.147 It was all meant to call people to faith and obedience, so that they would escape the catastrophe, or if it should come that they might be on God’s side, and that when it came they would know that it was the LORD. So the application for the earlier audience would have been a general call to obedience because of the prophetic word.
The application for the exiled community comes from the precise words in the text: they must turn from their rebellion and unbelief so that they may be a part of the returned exiles, going forward to fulfill God’s covenant program. God reminds them of prophecy so that He can convince them of His sovereignty. They will be in captivity, so they will actually be called upon to believe and leave; whereas the earliest audience will see all this tragedy and try to avoid it in the first place.
Both messages fit the New Testament instructions for the Church. We are in need of the constant exhortations to stir up our faith and live obediently to avoid divine discipline, for if God did not preserve the natural branches, Paul says, He could also lop of the ones that were grafted in (Rom. 11). Or as John says, He could remove the Lampstand (=ministry) from our midst (Rev. 2,3).
But also, we are looking forward to the Day of the LORD when He delivers us from the bondage of this world, and fulfills the promises He has made to us. Those are guaranteed, because His Word is dependable. But we are enjoined to believe His promises, to watch and pray and be ready, in a word, to prepare for it. We are not to get too enamored with this world (“love not the world”) because it is passing away. A great day of Judgment and Redemption is coming.148
144 John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 34-66, Word Commentary (Waco: Word Publishers), p. 178.
145 We also had in Isaiah 6 the significance "Who will go for us?" Of course, in isolation all these verses can be explained. But when the totality of Scripture is taken together, it is likely than something more natural is flowing from the Godhead.
146 It is hard to imagine why the people would not go, but that is the case. Psalm 126 has the prayer that God would bring more and more exiles back to the land--there was a trickle of them in the wadi--but the psalmist wanted the banks to overflow, "as streams in the desert."
147 The article by Kenneth Kitchen, "Ancient Orient, `Deuteronism,' and the Old Testament," is worth reading just for the discussion of exile. See New Perspectives on the Old Testament, ed. by J. Barton Payne (Word, 1970).
148 The psalmist expressed it, "This is the day the LORD has made"--deliverance from Babylon! Our singing of that should be as witness to the expected fulfillment of the promises.