7. Jerusalem's Warfare Is Over (Isaiah 40-48)

Audio (49:40)

We've come to the great watershed of Isaiah's prophecy. Chapters 1-39 speak in relation to contemporary events, primarily the disruption caused by Assyria's expansion into Palestine, and how Judah's leaders should respond to it. Chapter 39 is a transitional chapter, where, in pride, Hezekiah shows off his still-large treasury to envoys from Babylon. Isaiah responds to this foolishness with the word:

"The time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your fathers have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the LORD. And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon." (39:5-7)

The Assyrian Empire at its largest extent.
The Assyrian Empire at its largest extent. Primary source: Michael Roaf, Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East (FactsOnFile/Equinox, 1990), p. 179. Larger map.

Part 7A (Isaiah 40-42)

After Isaiah's time, the Assyrian Empire grew even greater under Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal. But in 609 BC at the Battle of Carchemish, Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon defeated the combined armies of Assyria and Egypt, signaling the end of Assyrian might and Egyptian intervention.

Until now the world power Judah had to deal with was Assyria, but in the future, the prophet is saying, Babylon will be the enemy that will conquer Jerusalem and exile Judah's leaders to a far-off land. Yahweh has miraculously delivered Jerusalem from Assyrian might, but her sins still remain. And a century hence, these sins will be punished by the hand of the king of Babylon.

Neo-Babylonian Empire at its largest extent. Larger map.

But that is not the last word. Babylon, too, will pass from the scene by a man already named and appointed 150 years before his rise to power -- a Persian, Cyrus the Great (died 530 BC), founder of the Achaemenid Empire.

Here's a timeline to help you chart some of the major events in the rise and fall of these empires:

721 BC Sargon II conquers Samaria and deports its citizens into exile. The northern Kingdom of Israel ceases to exist.
711 BC Sargon II campaigns again in Palestine, but spares Judah.
701 BC Sennacherib conquers Judean cities except Jerusalem.
686/5 BC King Hezekiah dies, succeeded by his evil son Manasseh.
609 BC Reforming King Josiah of Judah killed by Egyptian forces at the Battle of Megiddo.
605 BC At the Battle of Carchemish, Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon, defeats the combined armies of Assyria and Egypt, signaling the end Assyrian might and Egyptian intervention.
604 BC First wave of exiles deported from Judah to Babylon including Daniel.
597 BC Jerusalem is defeated. Second group of exiles is deported to Babylon.
587 BC Jerusalem is destroyed. Third and final group of exiles is deported to Babylon. Kingdom of Judah ceases to exist.
539 BC Babylon falls to Cyrus II, king of Persia.
538 BC Cyrus allows first wave of Jews to return to Jerusalem.
537-520 BC Temple rebuilt in Jerusalem.

The Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great (559-530 BC). Primary source: Michael Roaf, Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East (FactsOnFile/Equinox, 1990), p. 203. Larger map.

A Message of Comfort for God's People (40:1-2)

God had delivered Jerusalem from the onslaught of Assyria in 701 BC, but she will face destruction by the Babylonians 150 years or so in the future, followed by exile. But God has a word through his prophet Isaiah to this exiled people -- a message of hope and of promise. Incidentally, the prophecies in this section are the highest form of Hebrew poetry -- enjoy.

"1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her that her hard service[151] has been completed,
that her sin[152] has been paid for,
that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins." (40:1-2)

"Comfort" is nāḥam, "be sorrowful, repent, regret, be comforted, comfort." It is a command to the prophet. Instead of the harsh message of violence and war that was necessary for God's people to listen, now the prophet is to "speak tenderly," literally, "speak to the heart" of Jerusalem.  

Good Tidings to Jerusalem of Yahweh's Coming (40:3-11)

Now we come to the familiar passage quoted by John the Baptist to explain his mission of preparing for the Messiah (Matthew 3:1-3; Mark 1:2-5; Luke 3:2-6; John 1:23).

"3 A voice of one calling:
'In the desert prepare the way for the LORD;
make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
5 And the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
and all mankind together will see it.
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.'" (40:3-5)

Then and now, to prepare a relatively level highway, rivers must be spanned, valleys must be filled in by leveling nearby high points in the road. When it has been prepared, a highway is now fit to welcome the visit of Yahweh the King.

The obvious spiritual implications for our lives is one of repentance and change, to prepare ourselves to welcome the Messiah -- to clean up our act! Sometimes it takes months for heavy equipment to do the necessary grading before the roadway can be surfaced. It's not the smooth pavement that is the main point, but the relative levelness of the highway. God wants us to do some heavy-duty changing of our ways. That was John's message, and Jesus'message too: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matthew 3:2; Mark 1:15).

As the King approaches a voice cries out:

"6b All men are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.
7 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the LORD blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God stands forever." (6b-8)

Compared to God's might, which the prophet spells out in the latter part of chapter 40, we are weak and ephemeral -- and need to humble ourselves as a result. We can be so proud and arrogant -- and stupid -- before the Lord!

The herald now announces good news of the Lord's coming from the mountain top with a loud voice.

"You who bring good tidings to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem,
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah, 'Here is your God!'" (40:9)

The Almighty God (40:10-31)

God's people have been severely punished for their rebellion against the Lord. They are weak and need comfort. The comfort comes in realizing how mighty their God actually is. The passage which follows is one of the greatest literary passages of all time, with figurative language and imagery that speak across the ages. Enjoy it as it instructs you about your God. I encourage you to read it aloud. Here is an outline of its contents:

  1. Yahweh's Might (40:10)[153]
  2. Yahweh's Tenderness (40:11)
  3. Yahweh's Immensity (40:12)
  4. Yahweh's Wisdom (40:13-14)
  5. Yahweh's Greatness vs. the Nations'Tininess (40:15-17). It is quite possible for us to be so impressed with the glory and sophistication of our cities and technology and famous people, that we forget about God. That is why the Apostle John warns us:

"Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world--the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does--comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever." (1 John 2:15-17)

  1. Yahweh's Superiority to Idols (40:18-20)
  2. Yahweh the Incomparable Creator (40:21-26)
  3. Yahweh, the All-Knowing Strength (40:27-28). God's people are in despair, thinking that God has forgotten them, that their cause is hopeless -- but it is not!

Yahweh Renews His People's Strength (40:29-31)

"29 He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint." (40:29-31)

I especially love verses 29-31 because they encourage me when I feel tired and weak.[154] They who "wait upon the Lord" will find their strength renewed. "Hope" (NIV) or "wait" (NRSV, KJV) is qāwâ , "wait, look for, hope." The root means "to wait or to look for with eager expectation." Waiting with perseverance expresses our faith that God will save his people.[155] As we turn our faith towards him, he strengthens us. "Renew" is ḥālap, which in the Hiphil stem has the idea of "change, exchange, replace."[156] There is a sense in which we exchange our weakness for his strength as we wait expectantly for him to act.

The promise is that in the Lord we will renew our strength, just as David "strengthened himself in the Lord his God" (1 Samuel 18:6b, NRSV). The prophet gives us wonderful images of soaring, running, and walking effortlessly. Praise the Lord! Jesus invited the crowds to receive his strength.

"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30).

Q1. (Isaiah 40) What does Isaiah 40 teach us about the necessity of preparing ourselves for the Lord (verses 3-5)? About God's tenderness and compassion (verse 11)? About God's glory vs. the glory of nations (verses 15-17)? Why do we get so enamored by the glitter and glory of the world? What pieces are we missing (verses 15-17, 21-26)? According to verse 31, how can we draw strength from the Lord?

The Servant of Yahweh -- The Servant Songs

Now we begin to see the mention of the Servant of Yahweh. The primary mentions are in four "Servant Songs" that we'll consider later in this lesson (42:1-9; 49:1-13; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12). One of the primary questions is: Who is the Servant? There are four possibilities: (1) the Messiah, (2) Some other individual -- Moses, Zerubbabel, Cyrus, (3) the prophet himself, or (4) God's people Israel (41:8-9 but 42:18-25).[157] The problem is that the servant doesn't always seem to be the same. We'll consider the identity of the servant referred to when we get to these references.

Strengthening Israel, the Servant of Yahweh (41)

Isaiah speaks to comfort and encourage God's beaten down people in chapter 40. Now the Lord indicates that he has "stirred up one from the east,
calling him in righteousness to his service" (41:2), whom he eventually identifies as Cyrus, the Persian king who conquers Babylon, Israel's oppressor (see 41:25; 44:28; 45:1).

Look at the tender and comforting words the Lord speaks to his people in chapter 41, words of personal love and election.

"8 But you, O Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen,
you descendants of Abraham my friend,
9 I took you from the ends of the earth,
from its farthest corners I called you.
I said, 'You are my servant';
I have chosen you
and have not rejected you.
10 So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand." (41:8-10)

This is the first of the "Servant Passages." Israel has been severely humbled, but God has not forgotten his people. Here, believing Israel seems to be the Servant. Israel feels weak, but God will redeem them.

"'13 For I am the LORD, your God,
who takes hold of your right hand and says to you,
Do not fear; I will help you.
14 Do not be afraid, O worm Jacob,
O little Israel, for I myself will help you,'
declares the LORD, your Redeemer,
the Holy One of Israel." (41:13-14)

To the "poor and needy," parched with thirst, God promises a wonderful oasis.

"18 I will make rivers flow on barren heights,
and springs within the valleys.
I will turn the desert into pools of water,
and the parched ground into springs.
19 I will put in the desert the cedar and the acacia,
the myrtle and the olive." (41:18-19)

Pagan idols may claim to predict the future, but they are worthless (41:21-24). Now the prophet refers to Cyrus, whom he has prepared to destroy Babylon:

"I have stirred up one from the north, and he comes --
one from the rising sun who calls on my name.
He treads on rulers as if they were mortar,
as if he were a potter treading the clay." (41:25)

No one could have foreseen this -- especially about 160 years in advance -- but God has! Isaiah is prophesying this word in about 700 BC, but speaking of an event that would take place in 539 BC. Isaiah declares these things from God in advance to encourage God's people with Yahweh's greatness (41:26-29).[158]

Servants of Yahweh -- the Messiah and His People (42)

In chapter 42 we come to another mention of the Servant of Yahweh. In 41:8-9, the nation of Israel is spoken of as the Servant, but here the Servant seems to be an individual, the Messiah prophesied in 9:7; 11:4; and 32:1. This isn't Cyrus who was known for his military might, but the One characterized by justice and gentleness.

"1 Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him
and he will bring justice to the nations.
2 He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
3 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
4 he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.
In his law the islands will put their hope." (42:1-4)

Notice the gentleness of the Messiah. He doesn't come like "a bull in a china shop," but tenderly. He acts tenderly towards the weak, the injured, the poor. But also observe the theme of righteousness and justice that runs throughout this book. If we act unjustly towards the poor, then we put ourselves on the wrong side of God and of his Messiah!

Q2. (Isaiah 42:1-4) What do these verses teach us about the Messiah? What will characterize him and his actions? What does it tell us about his quest for justice? About his tenderness? If this describes our Messiah, what difference should it make in our lives, values, and demeanor?

Israel's Mission -- a Light to the Nations (42:5-7)

Now we see another theme that runs through this part of Isaiah's prophecy -- Israel's two-fold role as a covenant (49:8) and as a light to the nations (NRSV) or Gentiles (NIV, KJV).

"6b I will keep you and will make you to be
a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles
7 to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness." (42:6b-7)

Of course, the Messiah himself is the great Light and Deliverer (see Luke 4:17-21), but his people are to follow in his footsteps and carry out his mission.

Israel is to be a "covenant for the people" (the Gentiles)[159] in the sense that the Servant represents God's covenant. The covenant originally given to the Jews on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19), has now, through the Messiah, been expanded to the world. It is a New Covenant of forgiveness made in his blood on the cross (Matthew 26:28). The Servant (here Israel, and later the Church) is a covenant to the nations by proclaiming that covenant and by living righteously and lovingly as the covenant people. As Paul explained Jesus'words at the Lord's Supper.

"'This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me. For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." (1 Corinthians 11:25-26)

Parallel to "a covenant for the people" is "a light to the Gentiles," a phrase repeated elsewhere (49:6; 51:4; 60:1-3; Luke 2:32; Acts 13:47; 26:23). Jesus told his disciples something very similar:

"You are the light of the world.... Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:14-16)

Q3. (Isaiah 42:6-7) What does it mean for God's people to be "a light to the nations"? In what ways are you "letting your light shine"? How well do you represent God's covenant in your everyday life?

Yahweh Is His Name (42:8-13)

Now the Lord declares his name through the prophet. The Lord does not prefer some generic name for God. His name is Yahweh (sometimes pronounced Jehovah). When you see LORD capitalized in your English Bible, that means that the underlying Hebrew word is Yahweh, God's specific name given to Moses (Exodus 3:13-15). Yahweh is jealous of praise given to false gods, praise that ought to be directed towards him. They are usurpers. False gods have committed identity theft against the Almighty!

"I am the LORD; that is my name!
I will not give my glory to another
or my praise to idols." (42:8)

Proving Yahweh's uniqueness is the ability to declare the future ahead of time, predictive prophecy.

"See, the former things have taken place,
and new things I declare;
before they spring into being I announce them to you." (42:9)

Now the prophecy shifts from the first person (Yahweh speaking) to a command from the prophet to praise Him with a new song (42:10-13). The prophet pictures Yahweh as a mighty warrior who will triumph over his enemies (42:13).

Yahweh's Care for His Blind and Deaf Servant Israel (42:14-25)

Yahweh's people are blind, yet he still cares for them. Notice that here the servant is clearly the people of Israel.

"18 Hear, you deaf;
look, you blind, and see!
19 Who is blind but my servant,
and deaf like the messenger I send?
Who is blind like the one committed to me,
blind like the servant of the LORD?
20 You have seen many things, but have paid no attention;
your ears are open, but you hear nothing." (42:18-20)

We are responsible to pay attention to the Lord. We are responsible for what we refuse to see and what we refuse to hear. He tries to teach us. Trials he sends are intended to wake us up and get our attention, if we will only heed them.

"24 They would not follow his ways;
they did not obey his law.
25 So he poured out on them his burning anger,
the violence of war.
It enveloped them in flames, yet they did not understand;
it consumed them, but they did not take it to heart." (42:24-25)

Q4. (Isaiah 42:18-25) According to this passage, in what ways is God's "servant" blind? Why? Who is the "servant" in this passage? How would you assess your own degree of spiritual blindness in the last 5 or 10 years? How effective is a blind servant in accomplishing his master's purposes? How effective have you been?

Part 7B (Isaiah 43-48)

Yahweh, the Redeemer of His People (43)

Though his "servant" (43:10) is still blind and deaf (43:8), Israel is his special people!

"But now, this is what the LORD says --
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
'Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name;
you are mine.'" (43:1)

Yahweh is Creator and Redeemer. He has summoned Israel, and they will return to him. In the meantime, he looks out for them. I love the imagery and promises of verse 2:

"When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze." (43:2)

Life's difficulties are symbolized by fording rivers and enduring fires. Such challenges appear, but with God's help, they will not overwhelm us!

Now Yahweh talks about his role as Redeemer, buying his people back with the ransom of nations (43:3-4) As we discussed under 35:9 in Lesson 5 above, "redeemer" here is gāʾal, describing those who have been re-purchased by the gōʾēl, the kinsman-redeemer, who is responsible to pay to have his family members released who have been sold into slavery to pay their debts.

Yahweh has summoned his people (43:1b) and will gather them from all the places they have been exiled and scattered -- north, south, east, and west (43:5-6). Notice how Yahweh describes his people

"... everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made." (43:7)

We have been created not for a mundane, empty life, but created for God's glory. We have been created with a purpose -- to glorify God with our lives! As it says in 43:21, they are:

"... the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise." (43:21)

Though they are not yet where they should be, God has a purpose for them. They are witnesses that God does what he says he will do.

"You are my witnesses," declares the LORD,
"and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me and understand
that I am he." (43:10)

This reminds me of Jesus'command to his disciples before his ascension:

"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." (Acts 1:8)

Yahweh is the one and only God. He has delivered Israel again and again.

"'You are my witnesses,'declares the LORD, 'that I am God.
 Yes, and from ancient days I am he.
No one can deliver out of my hand.
When I act, who can reverse it?'" (43:12-13)

This prophecy is intended to encourage the future exiles in Babylon. He promises to bring them out of Babylon as once he delivered the people from Egypt through the Red Sea (43:14-17).

In spite of Israel's former sins, God is doing a new thing, which he describes with the figure of "streams in the wasteland" (43:18-20), an oxymoron, an impossibility, but a sign of God's great power.

God mourns that his people haven't sought him with sacrifices and offerings (43:22-24), yet God will do what it takes to forgive their sins -- ultimately, the sacrifice of the Messiah on the cross!

"I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake,
and remembers your sins no more." (43:25)

This is despite the fact that "your first father sinned" (43:27), a hint of the Doctrine of Inherited Sin[160], the sin that started with Adam and has touched all of us with a bent toward sinning (Romans 5:12, 19).

Q5. (Isaiah 43) This chapter tells us specific purposes that God's people have been created for. How can you fulfill your purpose to show God's glory (verse 7)? To be his witness (verses 10, 12)? To proclaim his praise (verse 21)? What are the obstacles you are facing in fulfilling these purposes? How do you benefit from fulfilling God's purpose for you?

Israel Will Be Restored (44:1-5)

Notice the intimate way that the Lord speaks to his people to encourage them. He clearly designates the Jewish people as his servant (44:1, 2, 21).

"1 But now listen, O Jacob, my servant,
Israel, whom I have chosen.
2 This is what the LORD says --
he who made you,
who formed you in the womb,
and who will help you:
Do not be afraid, O Jacob, my servant,
Jeshurun,[161] whom I have chosen.
3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring,
and my blessing on your descendants.
" (44:1-3)

Though Israel will go through great difficulties, God will bless their descendants. The promise of the outpouring of the Spirit was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2).

The One True God in Contrast to the Foolishness of Idolatry (44:6-20)

Yahweh declares his uniqueness.

"This is what the LORD says -- Israel's King and Redeemer,
the LORD Almighty:
I am the first and I am the last;
apart from me there is no God." (44:6)

Here is a strong declaration of monotheism, of one God. The theme of "the first and ... the last" (44:6; 41:4; 48:12) is a statement of uniqueness, picked up in Revelation (Revelation 1:17; 2:8) where it is also as an indication of the eternal nature of God.

"I am the Alpha and the Omega,
the First and the Last,
the Beginning and the End." (Revelation 22:13; cf. 1:8)

His people are to declare this truth (44:7). Finally, in contrast to the uniqueness of the Everlasting God, the prophet provides a classic parody of idols that are shaped by human beings and then worshipped as gods (44:9-20).

Yahweh Will Redeem Israel through a Future King Cyrus (44:21-45:4)

"Remember these things, O Jacob,
for you are my servant, O Israel.
I have made you, you are my servant;
O Israel, I will not forget you." (44:21)

Yahweh declares that he has forgiven them.

"I have swept away your offenses like a cloud,
your sins like the morning mist.
Return to me, for I have redeemed you." (44:22)

Cyrus II ("the Great," 559-530 BC), founder of the Achaemenid or First Persian Empire (550-330 BC). Detail of bas-relief at Pasargadae on top of which was once inscribed in three languages the sentence "I am Cyrus the king, an Achaemenian."

Finally, the Lord declares the restoration of Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the cities of Judah in an amazing passage.

"26... Who says of Jerusalem, 'It shall be inhabited,'
of the towns of Judah, 'They shall be built,'
and of their ruins, 'I will restore them,'
27 who says to the watery deep, 'Be dry,
and I will dry up your streams,'
28 who says of Cyrus, 'He is my shepherd
and will accomplish all that I please';
he will say of Jerusalem, 'Let it be rebuilt,'
and of the temple, 'Let its foundations be laid.'" (44:26-28)

To appreciate this passage you need to realize that Isaiah probably wrote this around 700 BC. In Isaiah's day, Assyria was the world power, and Babylon was just a regional player.

This prophecy was written about 160 years before Cyrus, King of Persia, conquered Babylon in 539 BC, and decreed that the Jews should return to Jerusalem in 538 BC. He even returned to them some of the temple furnishings and gave orders for the financing of the temple construction out of the empire's treasury (2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-11). Amazing!

Now Isaiah records Yahweh's words to this future king:

1 "This is what the LORD says to his anointed,
to Cyrus ....
2 I will go before you and will level the mountains....
so that you may know that I am the LORD,
the God of Israel, who summons you by name....
4 For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen,
I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor,
though you do not acknowledge me." (45:1-2, 4)

Q6. (Isaiah 45:1-4) How can Cyrus be called by name more than a century before he was born? In what sense is Cyrus "anointed" by God? How can an unbeliever accomplish God's purposes? What does this tell us about God? About being humble in our judgments of others?

Yahweh's Uniqueness (45:5-7)

Though Cyrus is a chosen instrument in God's hands, Cyrus is not a believer. When he conquers Babylon he frees all the conquered peoples, and allows them to return home. Of course, he wants the Israelites -- and other peoples -- to remember him in their prayers.

But Yahweh is not just another national God. He is the only true God!

"6bI am the LORD, and there is no other.
7 I form the light and create darkness,
I bring prosperity and create disaster;
I, the LORD, do all these things." (45:6b-7)

These verses teach that Yahweh is the one and only God. He determines everything! But verse 7b is difficult for us to understand. It has been translated variously.

"I bring prosperity and create disaster" (NIV)
"I make well-being, and I create disaster" (NJB)
"I make weal and create woe." (NRSV)
"I make peace, and create evil." (KJV)

One of the key words is shālôm, often translated "peace." The root verb shālēm has the idea of completion and fulfillment, of entering into a state of wholeness and unity, a restored relationship. So shālôm is not just absence of strife, but a broad word carrying the ideas of "prosperity, wellness, health, completeness, safety."[162] It was used as a greeting between Jews. The New Jerusalem Bible translates it helpfully as "well-being."

The second key word is raʿ, "evil, distress," from the verb rā'aʿ, "be bad, be evil." This confuses us. The context determines the connotation. raʿ means "evil, wickedness" in moral contexts, but describing circumstances, such as in verse 7b it means "misfortune, calamity."[163]

This doesn't mean that God is evil or the source of evil and sin. James teaches us:

"God cannot be tempted by evil, and he does not put anybody to the test." (James 1:13)

Rather, the prophet is affirming that the false gods of the nations have no power. Yahweh is the Initiator and the Determiner of man's future for good or for ill. Therefore, to worship him is very much in one's best interest.

Q7. (Isaiah 44:7b) In what sense does God "bring prosperity and create disaster"? Is God the source of evil? Of trouble? Of prosperity? Of poverty? In what sense is he responsible for these? In what sense are we responsible for these things? Since we know that God is the source of both prosperity and disaster, what should we be doing?

The Clay Quarreling with the Potter (45:8-12)

Unfortunately, God's people often don't understand their self-interest very well. Instead of submitting to God, they rebel against him. Isaiah shows the foolishness of such questioning and rebellion in the Parable of the Potter and the Clay.

"9 Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker,
to him who is but a potsherd among the potsherds on the ground.
Does the clay say to the potter, 'What are you making?'
Does your work say, 'He has no hands'?
10 Woe to him who says to his father, 'What have you begotten?'
or to his mother, 'What have you brought to birth?'" (45:8-10)

God can choose to do whatever he wants, even if it means using pagan King Cyrus as his instrument of deliverance.

Commanding God (45:11)

I've heard some pretty stupid doctrine based on verse 11, translated in the KJV as:

"Thus saith the LORD,
the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker,
Ask me of things to come concerning my sons,
and concerning the work of my hands command ye me." (45:11)

Taken out of context, the verse has been construed by some Pentecostal preachers[164] to mean that we should command God concerning what he should do. How ignorant and arrogant! The NIV gives the sense of the context here of God's people rebelling against him and presuming to place themselves over God himself.

"Concerning things to come, do you question me about my children,
or give me orders about the work of my hands?"

It is true that we believers have been given authority over all the power of the enemy (Luke 10:19), and if we follow the example of Jesus and the apostles, we may on occasion command evil spirits to come out and to cease their activity. But we have no business commanding God to do anything!

There is also a popular doctrine floating around of declaring and decreeing. Let's be discerning! We must humbly seek to understand his written word and listen to hear his voice accurately. Only then can we command, declare, and decree on the basis of his authority. I've heard a lot of things decreed that never came to pass because they were not declared or decreed by God's Spirit. Be wise, my friends, but bold in your faith.

A Prophecy Concerning Cyrus (45:13)

While this prophecy must not have made much sense in Isaiah's time, to the Jews in exile a century later it was a comforting and hopeful word about return to Jerusalem and rebuilding the city.

"13 I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness:[165]
I will make all his ways straight.
He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free,
but not for a price or reward, says the LORD Almighty."

No one will pay Cyrus to restore the Israelites to their land ("not for price or reward"). In fact, part of the cost of rebuilding the temple will be paid from the very treasury that had received tribute from conquered nations west of the Euphrates River (Ezra 6:8). Indeed, in the future, Isaiah prophesies that the people of Egypt, Ethiopia, and North Africa will acknowledge Yahweh as the true God (45:14).

A God Who Hides Himself (45:15-19)

Now we come across a difficult verse:

"Truly you are a God who hides himself,
O God and Savior of Israel." (45:15)

What does this verse mean? It could be a statement from the new converts from other countries (verse 14) who previously had no idea of who Yahweh was. Perhaps it follows from the Parable of the Potter and the Clay (45:9-10), that what the Potter does isn't understood by the clay. In contrast to idols (verse 16), Yahweh is invisible, unseen (1 Timothy 1:17; 6:16; Colossians 1:15). We know from Romans 1:19-20 and Psalm 19:1-6 that God has revealed enough about himself in creation that we have no excuse not to worship him. Nevertheless, his thoughts are not our thoughts (54:8). And we know that in the face of human unbelief, God sometimes withdraws himself (Isaiah 8:17; 57:17; Psalm 44:24). Even God's powerful deliverance is sometimes inscrutable (Psalm 77:19-20). In the final analysis, God can only be known fully by those to whom he chooses to reveal himself (Matthew 11:27; John 1:18; 6:46).

Praise God! This God who seems to "hide himself" has been revealed to us in Jesus:

"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14)

In contrast to worthless idols, Yahweh is the Creator himself. He calls his people to seek him and find him (45:19), and promises that, "You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart" (Jeremiah 29:13).

An Open Invitation (45:20-25)

The prophet speaks once more to a people more than a century later. God, who foretold this return long ago, who indeed decreed it through Isaiah himself (45:21), commands them to return to Jerusalem.

"Gather together and come;
assemble, you fugitives from the nations." (45:20)

This call is not just for the Jews, however. It extends beyond them to the nations, the Gentiles (also in 11:10-12; 27:13; 60:4-5; 62:10). Ultimately, this gathering is fulfilled in the rapture that takes place when Christ returns and gathers his people from the ends of the earth (Matthew 24:31).

"22 Turn to me and be saved,
all you ends of the earth....
for I am God, and there is no other....
23b Before me every knee will bow;
by me every tongue will swear.
24 They will say of me,
'In the LORD alone are righteousness and strength.'" (45:22-24)

Verse 24 is referred to by Paul, when he looks forward to Christ's triumphant return.

"... At the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2:10-11)

On that Day those who have rebelled against him will be judged, but the righteous will be vindicated (45:24b-25).

Yahweh, Israel's Sustainer (46)

To this future audience, Isaiah continues his encouragement. The Babylonian gods Bel[166] and Nebo, rather than being victorious, are themselves a burden and go into captivity (46:1-2).

In verse 3 and 4 we see a wonderful expression of God's continual, cradle-to-grave care for his people.

"3 Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
all you who remain of the house of Israel,
you whom I have upheld since you were conceived,
and have carried since your birth.
4 Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he,
I am he who will sustain you.
I have made you and I will carry you;
I will sustain you and I will rescue you." (46:3-4)

There has never been a time that you have been unknown to God. He is your Sustainer! And when you can no longer walk yourself, he will carry you!

Perhaps the Israelites had been tempted to honor Bel and Nebo over Yahweh, so the prophet contrasts again the foolishness of idol worship to serving the Living God.

"9 Remember the former things, those of long ago;
I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me.
10 I make known the end from the beginning,
from ancient times, what is still to come.
I say: My purpose will stand,
and I will do all that I please." (46:9-10)

The glory of Yahweh is that his prophet Isaiah pronounces God's victory a hundred years before it takes place -- in this case Cyrus from the east, "a bird of prey" (46:11). Don't lose faith!

" I am bringing my righteousness near,
it is not far away;
and my salvation will not be delayed.
I will grant salvation to Zion,
my splendor to Israel." (46:13)

The Humiliation of Babylon (47)

Now the prophet describes Babylon's fall. Instead of a Queen upon her throne, she will sit in the dust -- humiliated and defeated. She sees herself as "the eternal queen" (46:7a), but judgment will "overtake you in a moment, on a single day" (47:9a). Indeed, Babylon's fall was swift (Daniel 5). God derides the uselessness of Babylon's occult practices -- sorceries, spells, and astrologers (47:9-13). None of them can save her. Some of this imagery is carried over into Revelation 17-18 to describe the fall of the whore of Babylon.

Leaving Babylon (48)

Now God speaks to Judah's faithless leaders in this future time of exile in Babylon, reminding them that Babylon's fall had been prophesied long before, so they would attribute it to Yahweh rather than their idols (48:1-6). God does not compliment them -- they are still rebels (48:8). Nevertheless, God is delaying his wrath upon them (48:9). Indeed, their time in captivity has served its purpose, refining -- to keep them from reflecting badly on their God.

"10 See, I have refined you, though not as silver;
I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.
11 For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this.
How can I let myself be defamed?
I will not yield my glory to another." (48:10-11)

Yet, many of them seem to still be tempted by idolatry. They can't see Yahweh as the "first and the last," the Creator of "the foundations of the earth" and "heavens." (48:12-13). But their idols could not foretell the fall of Babylon by the hand of Cyrus of Persia, which Isaiah declared so publicly.

"The LORD's chosen ally will carry out his purpose against Babylon;
his arm will be against the Babylonians.
 I, even I, have spoken; yes, I have called him.
I will bring him, and he will succeed in his mission." (48:14-15)

But how the Israelites have wasted God's time! This refining in captivity would not have been necessary. How blessed they could have been!

"If only you had paid attention to my commands,
your peace would have been like a river,
your righteousness like the waves of the sea." (48:18)

Isaiah leaves this series of prophecies with a command to leave Babylon! Perhaps it is a century premature, but in 538 BC, captive Israel finally heard it.

"Leave Babylon,
flee from the Babylonians!
Announce this with shouts of joy and proclaim it.
Send it out to the ends of the earth;
say, 'The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob.'" (48:20)

This is echoed again in Revelation:

"Come out of her, my people,
so that you do not take part in her sins,
and so that you do not share in her plagues." (Revelation 18:4)

Yahweh has always cared for his people, through the dryness of the Sinai desert, even to the present. But Israel must repent.

"'There is no peace,'says the LORD, 'for the wicked.'" (48:22)


Lord, your purposes for us are so much higher than our own understanding and achievements. Help us to see what you have for us. Forgive us for our stubborn and rebellious hearts. Make us pliable in the hands of you, our Potter. In Jesus'name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

There are many notable passages in this lesson. Here are just a few.

"In the desert prepare the way for the LORD;
make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:3)

"The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God stands forever." (Isaiah 40:8)

"He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young." (Isaiah 40:11)

"Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket." (Isaiah 40:15a)
"He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers." (Isaiah 40:22a)
"Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint." (Isaiah 40:31)

"I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles." (Isaiah 42:6)
"I am the LORD; that is my name!
I will not give my glory to another
or my praise to idols." (Isaiah 42:8)

"When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze." (Isaiah 43:2)

"... Everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory."( Isaiah 43:7)

"'You are my witnesses,'declares the LORD,
'and my servant whom I have chosen.'" (Isaiah 43:10)

"... The people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise." (Isaiah 43:21)

"I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring,
and my blessing on your descendants." (Isaiah 44:3b)

"I form the light and create darkness,
I bring prosperity and create disaster;
I, the LORD, do all these things." (Isaiah 45:7)

"Truly you are a God who hides himself,
O God and Savior of Israel." (Isaiah 45:15)

"Before me every knee will bow;
by me every tongue will swear.
 They will say of me, 'In the LORD alone are righteousness and strength.'"
(Isaiah 45:23-24)

"Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he,
I am he who will sustain you.
I have made you and I will carry you;
I will sustain you and I will rescue you." (Isaiah 46:4)

"'There is no peace,'says the LORD, 'for the wicked.'" (Isaiah 48:22)

End Notes

[151] "Hard service" (NIV), "term" (NRSV), "warfare" (KJV) is ṣābāʾ, "fight, serve." The basic word has to do with fighting, with a broader sense of rendering service. The word is also used for priests "serving" at the tabernacle (Numbers 4:23; 8:24). John E. Hartley, ṣābāʾ, TWOT #1865a.

[152] "Sin" (NIV), "penalty" (NRSV), "penalty" (KJV) is ḥaṭṭāʾt, "sin, sin offering." (TWOT #638e).

[153] "Recompense" (NIV, NRSV), "work" (KJV) is peʿullâ , "wages (as earned by work), reward" (BDB 823).

[154] This passage provides the lyrics for a wonderful chorus by Stuart Hamblen, © 1953, renewed 1981, Hamblen Music Co.

[155] John E. Hartley, qāwâ , TWOT #1994.

[156] R. Laird Harris, ḥālap, TWOT #666.

[157] John Goldingay, "Servant of Yahweh," DOTP, 700-707; R.K. Harrison, "Servant of the Lord," ISBE 423ff.

[158] It's interesting that one of the proofs of God's greatness is the fact that he can foretell events before they happen. Most of the scholars who deny that Isaiah of Jerusalem wrote chapters 39-66 do so on the basis of a disbelief that a prophet can foretell events in advance!

[159] "People" is probably used in a wider sense, referring to the "nations" or "Gentiles" since they are used in parallel in 6b and "people" is previously used in that wider sense in 42:5 (though some see "people" here as the Jews).

[160] Inherited sin is also called "original sin" and "ancestral sin." It refers to the sin that is ours as a result of Adam's fall (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1994), p. 494).

[161] Jeshurun seems to be a poetic name by which Israel is known. It may mean "upright one" expressing its ideal character (BDB 449). It also occurs in poetic passages in Deuteronomy 31:15; 33:5, 26. The Septuagint translates it as "the beloved one" (D. F. Roberts, "Jeshurun," ISBE 2:103).

[162] G. Lloyd Carr, shālēm, TWOT #2401a.

[163] G. Herbert Livingston, rā'aʿ, TWOT #2191a.

[164] Healing evangelist A.A. Allen (1911-1970), for example, taught that we are to command God, based on this verse.

[165] "Righteousness" here refers not to morality, but to correctness of action (Oswalt, Isaiah 40-66, p. 211, citing C.F. Whitley, "Deutero-Isaiah's Interpretation of Sedeq," VT 22 (1972) 469-475).

[166] Counterpart of the Canaanite Baal.

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