14. The LORD’s Superiority to the Gods of Babylon (Isaiah 46:1-13)
In this section the prophet mocks the deities of Babylon who will not only fail to save their people, but have to be rescued themselves. By way of contrast, the LORD saves His people to the uttermost. The reason for this great disparity between those gods and the LORD is clearly the truth that Yahweh is the one true God, sovereign over all creation.
It is hard for modern believers to imagine how great the struggle with idolatry must have been. All nations made claims that their god or gods were the most powerful; and that was usually backed up by military conquests and enslavement of other people, thus showing superiority over their gods. Idolatrous people do not hesitate to add other deities to their collection, and so in a conquest might assimilate the gods of the defeated tribes, as if those deities were actually supporting the conquering armies. At the exile it was hard for the Israelites to protest that their God Yahweh was sovereign over the nations, when the temple was destroyed, the cities wiped out, and the people carried away.
But the true believers could look to the messages of the prophets to point out that God had predicted His people would be taken into captivity. That was unusual. No people had a deity who punished His own people. They were always nationalistic gods. But the words of the prophets came true; so the remnant knew God was in control, even though His people could claim no victory. And now, with the oracles about a return, they could also see God’s sovereignty. The nations of Assyria and Babylon may have held the power, but their gods did not accomplish that—Yahweh did. He did this only for His purposes; now that a new purpose was in line, Yahweh would overthrow Babylon. So when we consider the question of which God can save, we shall have to keep in mind how Israel’s God withheld His salvation until the right time, and then how He saved His people. Here, too, we can see His sovereignty, for He has His plan and His schedule.
In this section we have about four separate sections that make up the whole argument. The first two verses ridicule the impotence of idols. This is then contrasted with the affirmation of how the LORD saves to the end (3,4). Then, to make the point that the LORD is incomparable, there is a challenge put forth to the competition which shows that only the LORD can deliver (5-11). Finally, the LORD declares His power to save (12,13).
There are other ways to analyze this section. There seems to be a pattern in the part of the chapter that is instructional. The prophet speaks to Israel first with the command “Hearken”; then when he again exhorts them it is with “Remember”; and then the third time he returns to “Hear.” There is a bit of an inclusio to this arrangement. The first section calling them to hearken tells how He will bear them up and rescue them; and the last section telling them to hearken as well repeats the theme that He will deliver them. But the “remember” section in the middle focuses on the nature of Yahweh as the one true God. Here then is the basis for the deliverance; and here then would be the central emphasis of the theology of the passage—the nature of God. This arrangement is helpful to note, but it does not work as easily into an outline because the sections on idolatry cannot be worked in as well.
I. Idols cannot even save themselves (1, 2).
In the first two verses we have a mockery of the pagan gods. These deities are carried around on animals and slaves as part of their normal ritual processions. They could become very heavy. And when the trouble comes, those who carry them will flee, not saving their gods! The announcement that Bel and Nebo will not be able to save themselves indicates that this oracle preceded the invasion by Cyrus.121 God was about to bring in Cyrus; and when He did, the Babylonian gods would be of no help. So, this little section is indirectly a prediction of the fall of Babylon.
“Bel” is belu, which is the equivalent of ba’al in Western Semitic. Bel is the Semitic title for the ancient Sumerian god Enlil, Lord of the Air. When the people of Babylon took over the Sumerian culture, they made Enlil part of their triad and named him Bel. Marduk was the eldest son of Ea, another ancient deity, god of Water. In the mythology Marduk fought Tiamat and was rewarded with fifty titles and supreme authority. Bel conferred upon him his own title of “Lord of the Land” and Ea declared, “Let him like me be called Ea.” Thus Marduk eventually absorbed the other gods and took over their functions—creator, healer, deliverer, and determiner of fate; he is in many ways the equivalent of Jupiter. So we find the title Bel Merodach; he became the king of the gods and the official deity of the city of Babylon in the Neo-Babylonian period (the name of the city was bab-ili in Babylonian, “the gate of god”122 ; it was a major center of worship). The theophoric element “bel” is in the name “Belshazzar.”
“Nebo” is nabu, the son and prophet of Bel (compare Hebrew nabi’ [nah-vee], “prophet”). He was equal to Mercury (or better, Apollo). His city is Borsippa. When fate was being determined in the realm of heaven, Bel confided to his son what was decided, and Nabu wrote it on the Tablets of Fate. According to this, from Bel and Nabu the fate of the country was determined for another year. Isaiah has another view! The theophoric element “nabu” appears in names like Nabonaid, Nabopolasser, and Nabuchadnezzer.123
The text alludes to beasts, elephants, and camels probably, that would carry the images of these deities in processions, or festival enthronements; they now must carry them to safety in flight. But as the people fled they would not be able to rescue them. Later, Cyrus restored some of these gods.
These verses have irony and sarcasm in them, which makes for a wonderful polemic. How absurd to trust in deities that cannot save themselves; how absurd for the Israelites to fear deities that have to be rescued when Yahweh judges the city.
II. The LORD saves His people to the end (3, 4).
Here now is the contrast—the LORD does not need to be saved, He saves His people. Note how the section begins with a call for the house of Jacob and the “remnant” of Israel to listen to the Word of the LORD. When a passage talks about the LORD’s protection of “His people” it will be referring to the faithful (as a whole), because those whom He declared “not my people” He did not sustain.
The contrast between the LORD and pagan gods is drawn out further: the deities that those animals bore or carried became a burden to the weary beasts; but the LORD bears up and carries His people. The idiom of “carry” is based on the implied comparison that supporting and sustaining people is like carrying them wherever they go.
The LORD supports and sustains His people throughout their lives, even to their old age, when they have the hoary head. The contrast is striking—you will grow old, but I AM. And, unlike pagan gods, the LORD is not only capable of movement, He is the prime Mover, the One who delivers. The benefits to God’s people can be summarized in the verbs used: “I have made … I will bear … I will carry … I will deliver.”
III. Idols are not comparable to the LORD’s power (46:5-11).
A. The LORD challenges the competitions (5-7).
These verses repeat the challenge that has appeared previously in the text, beginning in chapter 40. The LORD demands to know who is like Him. With whom can anyone compare the LORD? The words form a challenge, but they are also eroteses (rhetorical questions) for the implication is that there is no one comparable.
He picks up the theme again of pagans making gods (compare Isa. 44), carrying them around in processions, and placing them in temples—where they did not move until carried somewhere. Not only are they immobile in their niches, when people cry to them for help, they cannot answer and cannot save (yosi`ennu from yasa`) anyone from trouble. The point is that if these gods are all that can be stood up to compete against the LORD, there is no competition.
B. The LORD calls for commitment (8-11).
Now the LORD turns to His people to call for them to act upon the spiritual heritage they have. The key introductory theme here is “remember this … bring it to mind … remember.” As mentioned earlier, the idea of remembering in Hebrew has to do with recalling the promises of God and putting them into practice by faith. Here the remnant—addressed as “transgressors” because of their refusal to step out in faith on the Word of the LORD and because of their sins that brought them to Babylon124—is to remember the nature of their God. He is sovereign and powerful, calling things to happen before they do, declaring His will, and fulfilling His plan. The plan here is the restoration of Israel to her land and mission. So this is a call for the people to respond by faith to the Word.
The second verb in verse 8 is difficult. The form in question is hit’osesu (hith-oh-sheh-shoo). It is a Hithpael imperative; but the etymology is unclear. It has been translated “show yourselves men,” “be firm,” “be flush with shame”; the main conjectures apart from the standard translations include: “be ashamed,” and “own yourselves guilty” (these two conjectures would alter the text to connect with bosh and ‘asham respectively. I suspect that the idea of “stand fast” or “be firm” fits the context the best. The prophet does address the audience as “transgressors” however, and that is one reason for an idea of “be ashamed.” One ought not be too dogmatic here.
After reiterating that He is God and that there is no one else, the LORD focuses the themes of His sovereignty and prophecy in the expression “My counsel shall stand” (‘asati taqum [a-tsa-tee tah-koom])—God will do His will. His pleasure. In that light, Cyrus is introduced here as “a ravenous bird” from the east. This hypocatastasis is then clarified for us with the parallel “the man of my counsel”—linking the image with the above emphasis on God’s counsel. Cyrus, then, was the focus of the predetermined plan of deliverance; and no one can tell God what He should or should not do. The sum of the matter is “I have spoken, I will bring it to pass; I have purposed (yasarti [ya-tsar-tee]), the word used earlier for “formed” with a plan or purpose or design), I will also do it.”
IV. Only the LORD can save (46:12-13).
Now the LORD declares His power to save. He addresses the “obstinate” (the stout or mighty of heart), those whose wills would be hard to break. First he addressed the remnant, the house of Jacob (perhaps suggesting the need of blessing and need of some further correction), then transgressors, and now stubborn. Like their ancestors in Egypt they were always resisting the new prophet. They had grown accustomed to their lives in exile, and were not ready for a whole new program.125 They are also described as “far from righteousness,” which in this context means that they were not yet delivered from exile (see the discussion of “righteousness” below). They were indeed slow to believe the words of the prophet, especially the words that this prophet had written.126 But until they responded they would be in spiritual and national difficulty. So they were to “hearken”—listen to the message and respond favorably.127
The two key words in this section are “righteousness” (tsidqati, from tsedaqah [s.v. tsadaq]) and “salvation” (teshu’ati, from teshu’ah [s.v. yasha’]). The two are parallel and so must work together in the meaning of the line. The promise is clearly for “salvation”—the deliverance from exile and the restoration to Zion of the glorious work through God’s people. The idea of “righteousness” must then be a metonymy of either cause or of adjunct—that the deliverance or salvation is a fulfillment of the LORD’s righteousness or faithful justice. Compare Psalm 98:2, which says, “The LORD has made known His salvation // His righteousness has He openly shown in the sight of the nations.”
The whole passage is a practical application of the sovereignty of God. Because the LORD is the sovereign LORD God, He is fully able to do what He has planned to do—save His people. He will defeat and humiliate all false worshipers and their gods who can in no way save. Likewise, the New Testament makes it clear that the LORD is able to save to the uttermost.
The target audience of this oracle is the Jewish community in exile. They had all but given up on getting free; they may have concluded that the other side won, and that they now need only bide their time and live as well as they could under Gentile dominion. They were not keen on going back; Zerubbabel (in 536 B.C.), Ezra (in 455 B.C.), and Nehemiah (in 444 B.C.) had great difficulty getting people to return. This message would then serve to rekindle confidence among the people of God, who may have been wavering with words like “Where is the promise of His coming?” The prophet has compared this deliverance to the exodus of Egypt; well, the people here seem to be very much like the people back there—stiff-necked.
It is critical that such people remember (= recall and confirm by acting in faith on the promises) that the LORD has a plan that cannot be stopped or changed by anyone, and that the LORD has the power to fulfill His plan, and that the LORD will deliver His people to the shame and humiliation of all the pagans and their false worship. Isaiah’s audience could also build up their faith in the sovereignty of God over all pagans and their gods, so that they would not be overwhelmed by circumstances in which it might appear that the other side was winning. God would deliver His people from oppression in the world.
The primary application in preaching from this passage today would run along similar lines. We as the people of God live in a world dominated by paganism with its false gods and oppressive beliefs. It is easy to relinquish our confidence and courage, and just live quietly in our faith, not engaging in spiritual warfare. But the Word of the LORD mocks false beliefs, and calls for us to live in active faith in the promises of God, looking for the LORD’s great deliverance of His people, both now in spiritual victories and in the eschaton in redemption from the bondage of this world. This passage challenges us to hold fast the faith that we have received, our conviction of the sovereignty of God, and live out our assurance that there is no salvation apart from faith in Him. We might be in the world, but we are not of the world, for this world and its evil system is about to pass away.
If we make applications to problems of idolatry in Christians, we have to be careful how we do it. We must first explain the meaning of the text as it was intended, and then draw from it principles of idolatry—showing what idolatry is like. Then we may show that certain things we do line up with the spirit of idolatry and so must be avoided. We may not actually worship false gods; but we may dilute our faith with rival affections and devotions that must not remain. If the LORD is the absolute sovereign God who meets all our needs, then we owe Him our absolute allegiance.
Leene, H. “Isaiah 46:8—Summons to Be Human?” JSOT 30 (1984):111-121.
Rabinowitz, J. J. “A Note on Isaiah 46:4 (sabal).” JBL 73 (1954):327.
Whitley, C. F. “Textual Notes on Deutero Isaiah.” VT 11 (1961):457-461.
________. “Further Notes on the Text of Deutero-Isaiah” (46:8). VT 25 (1975):683-687.
121 In fact, there is no oracle in Isaiah that clearly shows the invasion of Cyrus to be a completed event. It is always future, whether imminent or not.
122 Recall the passage in Genesis 11:1-9 which plays on the name of Babylon—”the gate of god” in their language, but “confusion” in Hebrew. Actually, “confusion” is not the actual meaning, only a popular etymology (word play) because balal sounds like babel. But the text is mocking the idea it was the gate of god.
123 There are many resources on ancient Near Eastern religions. Check works on the subject, such as Helmer Ringgren’s little book on Semitic Civilizations. Or consult the books on each civilization, such as Roux, Ancient Iraq. If you want a simple approach—with pictures, then use Larousse’s Encyclopedia of Mythology.
124 I think there is more to this than that. They knew that they were sinners; that is why they question whether or not God will take them back. But from the beginning God has said their sins are paid for. Here He may be addressing them as transgressors to underscore that in spite of what they have done His promises are sure. And they can be a part of it.
125 Probably a good many of them were able to comply with their pagan captors and thus live at peace. The stories in Daniel suggest there were captives who fell down before Nebuchadnezzar’s statute—just not Daniel and his friends. Jews could have done so, all the while knowing in their hearts it was mere compliance. It was a way to survive. Daniel showed them another way. And Isaiah’s word was shaking up their system.
126 Recall how Jesus rebuked his disciples in Luke 24 as “foolish and slow to believe” what the prophets had said about the Messiah. It was all there in the text, but they were too focused on their understanding of the Messianic Age.
127 The verb shama’, translated “hear, listen, hearken,” always has the idea of responding to the word—”hear my prayer,” “and he heard,” “listen to the Word of the LORD”—not just listen, but respond.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)