Isaiah 46-48: Two Centuries to Freedom
Updated: Dec 5, 2021
"Bel bows down, Nebo stoops,
their idols are appointed to the beasts and the cattle." (Isaiah 46:1)
Isaiah is in Jerusalem, seeing events 200 years ahead of time, yet prophesying as if he’s standing in the middle of Babylon. The Israelites, fresh from holding off the Assyrian army, may not even know who Bel and Nebo are (Isaiah 46:1). Is this just one more instance of crazy old Isaiah spouting a bunch of nonsense?
In 703 BC, when Assyria attacked Babylon, Merodach-Baladan, king of Babylonia, organized an evacuation of their gods, of which Bel and Nebo were chief. We don’t know if they were evacuated sometime before Cyrus got there or were never evacuated at all, but wherever they were when Babylon fell to the Persians, King Cyrus took them as spoil.
It sounds like the Babylonians were happy to be rid of them (Isaiah 46:1-2, 6-7). They had been sitting idle somewhere for 100 years, accomplishing nothing. They hadn’t kept the enemy away or given Babylonia the strength to hold them off. They had become just so much dead weight—a nuisance. Even the pack animals were tired of carrying them.
This seems characteristic of idols—be they gold or stone, money or fame. What starts out as a harbinger of happiness becomes a burden and a snare. But Cyrus was happy to have them.
It seems Cyrus had a thing about gods. He was a prime example of a polytheist—keep as many gods as you can handy because you never know when you’re going to need one.
So after his successful invasion of Babylon, he avowed allegiance to their god, Bel Marduk.
I don’t know why he chose Bel as his chief god, but in the Cyrus Cylinder, a baked clay “press release” Cyrus issued when he took over Babylon, he said, “Marduk, angered by the Babylonian kings, scoured all the lands for a friend…he called Cyrus…who went at his side like a friend and comrade.” So I guess he didn’t choose Marduk; Marduk chose him.
In spite of this cozy relationship with Marduk, Cyrus gave the God of Israel the credit for giving him all the kingdoms of the earth (Ezra 1:2) and sent the Israelites back to their homeland to rebuild their temple. He even sent offerings along for the altar when it was complete. He didn’t think it strange that a god he didn’t serve—the God of Israel—would appoint him to deliver His people. He called Him LORD, the God of heaven, and may have even had a healthy fear of Him, but first and foremost, Cyrus was the conqueror of nations, and most of what he said wasn’t because of piety, but politics.
So here was Isaiah on a street corner in Jerusalem, denouncing the gods of another land, preparing God’s people for a world where good and bad and give and take create a lot of uncertainty and confusion. Everything had to be judged by this one standard: “What did God say?”
Both chapters 46 and 47 make much of the foolishness of Babylon’s idols, astrologers, and sorcerers. Exposing the impotence of the gods of Babylon gave Isaiah an opportunity to proclaim the power of the ever-faithful God to His ever unfaithful people. Unlike the gods of Babylon, this God wouldn’t be carried off into hiding; He would carry His people out of their bondage (verse 3).
“With whom will you compare me or count me equal? To whom will you liken me that we may be compared?” (verse 5)
“I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. 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.’” (verses 9-10)
His purpose and pleasure at that point in time would be sending an intimidating army from a far-off land to set His people free (verse 11).
The salvation He promised would not be a short-term salvation—delivery from the hands of Babylon and into the hands of Cyrus. This salvation was what the Jews called te’su’a: adoption, rescue, restoration, and reign. He was reminding His children that He had a purpose in adopting them way back when, and in the centuries past and the centuries to come, He would rescue them often, restore them in the end, and, ultimately, seat them on thrones to rule over nations. (Matthew 19:28)
‘…and my salvation will not be delayed (verse 13).’
Two hundred years later, sitting in the middle of Babylon and hearing the news that Cyrus was sending them home, the descendants of Isaiah’s original audience—you know, the ones who had counted him a false prophet—may have been thinking, “Well, I’ll be. Isaiah was right, after all. And it’s finally here.” It’s just that God’s idea of a delay and theirs (and ours) was a little bit different.
Chapter 47 switches the attention to Babylon. Isaiah had said quite a bit about Babylon before (chapters 13 and 21); none of it was good. Most other nations, after being given a promise of God’s judgment, were also invited to a place in His everlasting kingdom. But not Babylon. Babylon was and would be, pure evil from beginning to end.
This chapter 47 prophecy of Babylon’s destruction is one of those rubber band prophecies, stretching back and forth from a near-term fulfillment in the time of Cyrus to the far-in-the-future fulfillment in the Day of the LORD. Most of the proclamations made in this chapter probably refer to their final fate, and you’ll see some interesting contrasts and comparisons between Israel and Babylon.
Babylon is referred to as “she.” The only other nation referred to as “she” in Isaiah’s prophecies is Israel. Israel is presented as married to God, and Babylon is a harlot. Babylon is called “the queen city” of the Babylonians, while Jerusalem is the city of the great King. Rather than ruling over nations, she will be a shamed servant, a princess turned slave, a backward Cinderella (verses 1-5). She thought her kingdom would last forever (verse 8), but there is only one forever God:
Our Redeemer—the Lord Almighty is his name— is the Holy One of Israel (verse 4).
And Israel is His forever nation.
When Cyrus swept in, Babylon was upended effortlessly, and almost overnight every citizen of her empire was no longer a Babylonian but a Persian (verse 9). Despite her confidence in the dark arts, she never saw that coming (verse 11), and all of her worldly wisdom, her cocky self-confidence, and her incomparable pride could do nothing to stop it (verses 9-10, 12-13). In fact, listening to so many false prophecies had only worn her out. She had no energy left to deal with the reality, and her astrologers and sorcerers couldn’t even save themselves (verses 14-15).
Disaster will come upon you, and you will not know how to conjure it away (verse 11).
Then, in Chapter 48, the prophet turns his attention back to the descendants of Jacob to address their empty religion. The LORD Almighty’s people had become careless with His name (verses 1-2). It had become their “brand.” They were like fans in St. Louis Saints jerseys and Levi’s jeans. They talked a lot about Him but never talked to Him. Like a favorite movie star or a friend on Facebook.
Though they hadn’t conversed with Him in a long time, He was still speaking, reminding them:
I foretold the former things long ago, my mouth announced them and I made them known; then suddenly I acted, and they came to pass. (verse 3)
That word “suddenly” is used 47 times in the Bible. When used in historical accounts, “suddenly” usually means suddenly, but in the writings of the prophets, God’s idea of “suddenly” is quite different. Here’s the thing about the “suddenlies” of God: they may be prophesied way ahead of time, but when its time has come, He wastes no time fulfilling what was promised long ago. Take, for example, the “former things” – the coming of the Assyrians and the Babylonians: announced decades before; yet an unwelcome surprise when they showed up at the door.
You have heard these things; look at them all. Will you not admit them (v. 6)?
It seems God is raising His eyebrows and asking, “So, are you finally going to admit that I know what I’m doing?” He’s not trying to shame them, not much anyway; just trying to prepare them—again—because the days of Cyrus would be the time for another “suddenly.”
I’m assuming you’ve noticed by now that God tends to repeat Himself. And for some very good reasons. He doesn’t change His mind, He’s faithful to what He’s said, and, the biggest and best reason of all: we don’t get it the first time.
But He’s going to start doing things a little differently here:
“From now on I will tell you of new things, of hidden things unknown to you. They are created now, and not long ago; you have not heard of them before today.
Again, for a very good reason:
So you cannot say, ‘Yes, I knew of them.” (verses 6-7)
But His motive hasn’t changed:
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.” (verse 11)
Oh, had they listened when He first called them His own! How different the history books would be (verses17-19)! But written between God’s words of sorrow are always words of hope and restoration. Not just for the days at hand, but for days to come and forever.
What He said in the days of Cyrus, He will say in the days of the end:
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.” (verse 26)
But, He says: “There is no peace for the wicked.” (verse 28)
A little challenge for you: sprinkled around God’s announcement of the successful mission of Cyrus are promises of a future deliverer. Can you find them? Do you know who he is?