Isaiah 45:14 - 49:4
The power of God, that, by the raising up of Cyrus, would accomplish His purpose to release those whom He calls, "My captives," would only be perceived by faith. Therefore the prophet exclaims "Verily Thou art a God that hidest Thyself." A servant of God has very truly and aptly remarked, "God's ways are behind the scenes, but He moves all the scenes which He is behind."
Men may act to achieve their own purposes without any thought of God and yet God may be behind their doings, overruling them to serve His own ends. Israel is to know God as Saviour and be delivered from their idols. This was in part accomplished when by the decree of Cyrus a remnant returned to their own land; for after that deliverance the demon of idolatry was cast put of them, and outwardly they served the God of their fathers. But the everlasting salvation mentioned in verse 17 is not yet theirs. Each "salvation" as yet granted to them has only lasted for a time. When it does come by the advent of Christ, it will abide "world without end," or, "to the ages of ages."
This promised salvation is guaranteed most solemnly in verses 18 and 19 by Jehovah Himself who is the Creator. As Creator He had formed the earth for mankind to inhabit it. He did not create it "in vain," or "as waste;" an allusion doubtless to Genesis 1: 2 where the earth was found in a condition described as, "without form," or "as waste;" the same expression being used there as here. When the earth, subsequent to its original creation, had become waste, He reduced it to form and order for the use of man. He who had done this now guaranteed salvation for Israel. He promised openly and in righteousness. This made it certain that the salvation when it arrived would be accomplished in a righteous way; just as the righteousness in which every believer now stands before God is brought to pass on a righteous basis.
So the call of God to the seed of Jacob had not been in vain. But not only Israel is in view but Gentiles also, as verse 20 shows. The call is to those that are, "escaped of the nations," which shows that judgment will fall on the nations, and only those that escape it will enter into the blessing that is promised, just as it is only the remnant of Israel that will be saved. The nations had been full of idolatry, praying to "a god that cannot save," so they are called, that they may know a God who can save.
Verses 21-25 furnish a remarkable forecast of the Gospel, as it is unfolded in Romans 3. Against the dark background of idolatry the Lord presents Himself as "a just God and a Saviour." The law had revealed Him to Israel as a just God who judges all their ways. Only in the Gospel is He declared to be God, who saves in righteousness. Christ has been "set forth . . . a propitiation through faith in His blood . . . to declare . . . at this time His righteousness; that He might be just, and the Justifier of him which believeth in Jesus" (Rom. 3: 25, 26).
In our chapter, not only are justice and salvation brought together but faith is also indicated, though not mentioned, for the way in which the salvation is to become effective is stated as, "Look unto Me." No works of law are demanded but the look of faith, for beyond all contradiction in an emergency we look to someone in whom we believe, and hence in whom we trust. And again, the call goes out far beyond the bounds of Israel, for any to "the ends of the earth" may look and be saved. In Romans 3: 21, this righteousness of God apart from the law is said to be "witnessed by the law and the prophets," and the verses we are considering are certainly one item of witness furnished by the prophets.
Verse 22 then conveys an invitation to faith, but verse 23 shows that God in His majesty must be acknowledged by all, though many may not have answered the invitation in faith. And how is this bowing of the knee and the swearing of the tongue to come to pass? Philippians 2: 10, 11, answers the question conclusively. The Person of the Godhead, to whom the obeisance and confession will be universally made, is no other than the Lord Jesus, who accomplished the righteousness by His obedience unto death. Righteousness and strength are found only in Him, and as the last verse says, it is "the seed of Israel" who will glory in Him as a justified people. Many who are "seed of Jacob" according to the flesh, are not "seed of Israel" according to God.
Before leaving this chapter notice how in the latter part of it the exclusive claim of Jehovah is emphasised again and again. Beside Him there is "none else." The faith of Christ, and the Gospel which proclaims it, have today just this exclusive claim, as witnessed in such scriptures as John 6: 68; John 14: 6; Acts 4: 12; Galatians 1: 8, 9. There are today men who would go to the Buddhist or Confucian acknowledging their religions as ways to God and only claiming that "Christianity" offers them a rather superior way. In so doing they bung themselves near to, if not actually under, the apostolic curse of Galatians 1: 8, while they avoid the reproach that the Gospel brings. It is this exclusive claim, inherent in the Gospel, which provokes the opposition.
The opening verses of Isaiah 46 pick up the theme that runs through these chapters- that of the persistent idolatry of the people. Bel and Nebo were two of the idols of Babylon, and the prophet sees the images representing them placed upon beasts ready for flight, just as at the beginning of the last chapter he had seen Cyrus taking the city. The word translated, "carriages," means "things lifted up to be carried," not the vehicle on which they are placed.
So verses 1 and 2 are really ironical. The heavy images were placed on the backs of oxen, that staggered and finally collapsed, unable to deliver the gods into safety. Bel and Nebo could not even deliver themselves; much less anyone who trusted in them!
Hence the appeal of verses 3 and 4. It is made, notice, to "the house of Jacob," in contrast to "the seed of Israel," mentioned previously, even if amongst them were to be found a remnant of the house of Israel. In contrast to the Babylonian gods that had to be borne on the backs of weary beasts so ineffectually, here is One who would support and carry, from their birth to the grey hairs of old age, those who trusted Him; One who would never let them down but deliver them. How great the contrast!
The contrast exists around us today. It is still a pertinent question - Do you go your way, carrying the things that you idolize, or does your God carry you? The idols of the modern English-speaking world are not images but more subtle things, such as money, pleasures, lusts; yet as life draws to its end they let you down. The God, whom we know, revealed in our Lord Jesus Christ, carries us through to the finish, for we are in the embrace of the love that will never let us go.
Hence, as verse 5 declares, God stands out alone, beyond all comparison with any other. This fact is supported by a further reference to the follies that are inherent in idolatry. Here are men falling down and worshipping a god, fashioned by their own hands, which is a stationary object, unable to move or speak or save. And here is the true God, who acts and speaks, and foretells things that presently come to pass. The "ravenous bird [bird of prey] from the east," is doubtless another allusion to Cyrus, whom He would raise up to execute His purpose in the near future. Then from that which was comparatively near the prophecy passes to the ultimate purpose of God, which was remote. At last God will place salvation "in Zion," which speaks of His intervention in mercy, and the redeemed Israel who will enjoy it, will show forth the glory of the God who has accomplished it.
Isaiah 46 commenced with a forecast of the Babylonian gods falling into ruin and captivity. Isaiah 47 from start to finish pronounces judgment on Babylon itself. Just as the mystical Babylon of Revelation 17 and 18 is viewed as a woman, so here, only the picture is not so dark. Babylon here, for instance, is addressed as "virgin daughter," and not as "the great whore," and as "the mother of harlots." It is a solemn thought that the mystical Babylon, to which an apostate Christendom is working up, is more filthy in the eyes of God than the literal Babylon of Old Testament times.
The ancient Babylon was indeed for a short period "the lady [mistress] of kingdoms," but her downfall is foretold. Verse 6 strikes us as very remarkable, inasmuch as the things alleged against her had not actually taken place and did not come to pass till the days of Nebuchadnezzar. Then the wrath of God against the evils of His people condemned them to be carried away, and His inheritance polluted by the temple being destroyed. God permitted it; the Babylonian monarch did it with a heavy hand, and upon Babylon will come the heavy hand of God's judgment, in a day when there should be executed "the vengeance of the Lord our God, the vengeance of His temple" (Jer. 50: 28).
So Isaiah was led to prophesy what Babylon would do to Jerusalem a century before it happened, and to foretell also how Babylon later should be overthrown, since Jehovah is "our Redeemer . . . the Holy One of Israel" (verse 4). He spoke too of the unexpected way in which the destruction would come upon them, as we see in verse 11, the fulfilment of which we find in Daniel 5.
Verse 13 speaks of the men who practised the dark arts of spiritism, in which Babylon trusted, for that city was apparently the original home of idolatry, which means the worship of demon powers. All such evil powers collapse when God acts in judgment. But it is this feature, we believe, that accounts for Babylon, rather than any other ancient city, being carried into Revelation with a spiritual application; for of that Babylon we read it had "become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit," and again that by its "sorceries were all nations deceived."
Having pronounced judgment against Babylon, the prophecy turns again in Isaiah 48, to the "house of Jacob, which are called by the name of Israel." The fact that they were thus addressed constituted a rebuke. Israel was the new name given to Jacob when God blessed him, as we learn in Genesis 32: 28. The people claimed the new name, but were displaying all the ugly features of the old crafty, scheming Jacob. Outwardly they paid lip service to Jehovah and stayed themselves upon the holy city and the God of Israel, but without reality. They deceived themselves but not God, for He saw it was "not in truth, nor in righteousness."
This kind of thing has always been a great snare to the professed people of God. It came to a head, particularly in the Pharisees, when our Lord was on earth, and His most searching words of denunciation were directed against such. It is very prevalent today, for 2 Timothy 3: 5 shows that "a form of godliness" may cover up hideous depravity. Let every reader of these lines, as well as the writer, beware of it. Spiritual pretension is a peculiar snare to those who are well instructed in the things of God, for they know the right and appropriate and even beautiful thing to say, and they may claim much without any heart and reality in it.
So the first eight verses of this chapter are filled with solemn words of exposure and warning. Here they were, trafficking with their idols, as verse 5 indicates, and giving them credit for anything favourable that came to pass, while still professedly serving God. And all the time it was God who was able to speak in advance and show the former things, and then suddenly bring them to pass, as verse 3 states. The fact was that their ears were closed to God's word so that they did not hear. They were marked by treachery and transgression as verse 8 declares.
Once more the obstinate sins of the people are thus exposed - so what then? Just when we might have expected further announcements of coming judgment, God states what He proposes to do for the sake of His own Name and praise. He will defer His anger and not cut them off entirely, though He is going to pass them through the furnace of affliction. He will consider not only their ultimate good as a nation but also His own glory and the honour of His own Name.
In verse 12 God Himself is still the Speaker. He presents Himself, saying, "I am He," or, "I am THE SAME," for it is really a name of God. He is not only "the FIRST" but also "the LAST." When we reach the book of Revelation, (Rev. 1: 17 and Rev. 22: 13), we find the Lord Jesus claiming these august designations for Himself; and indeed we may discern Him as the Speaker in the Old Testament passage before us, for it was His hand that, "laid the foundation of the earth," and "spanned the heavens," as Hebrews 1: 2 assures us. He who had so wrought in creation would not fail to work out His purpose and pleasure on Babylon and the Chaldeans, and in favour of His people.
We may discern the same Speaker in verse 16. There may have been a more immediate application of verses 14 and 15 to Cyrus, who was destined to overthrow Babylon and grant a respite to the Jews, but the full and lasting fulfilment is only found in Christ, who is the Sent One of the Lord Jehovah; and that, whether we read the end of the verse as in our Authorised Version, or that the Lord God "hath sent Me and His Spirit," as in other Versions. In John's Gospel particularly is the Lord Jesus presented as "the Sent One." In the Acts we have the sending of the Spirit. We may call the closing words of verse 16 a preliminary intimation of the Trinity, though the real revelation of it awaited New Testament days.
The coming of Christ having thus been forecast, the "HolyOne of Israel" is presented as Redeemer and the One who will ultimately teach and lead the people in the way that will be for their profit and blessing, though for the moment they were not hearkening to His Word. The blessing they were missing by' their inattention and disobedience is strikingly pictured in verses 18 and 19. There would have been peace based on righteousness. What they missed then, in a more material way, is now being proclaimed in a spiritual way in the Gospel.
Yet, as verses 20 and 21 show, God will work in days to come for the redemption of Israel from their foes, and do for them again what once He did when under Moses He brought them through the wilderness and into the land.
But this does not mean that God is going to condone evil. Far from it. To reach the blessing Israel must be delivered from their sin, since there is no peace for the wicked, as verse 22 asserts. This verse marks the end of a distinct section-the first 9 chapters of the closing 27 chapters-in which the main offence alleged against the people is their persistent idolatry. Against that dark background the only bright light shining is the predicted advent of Christ.
So as we commence Isaiah 49, and so pass into the central section, we immediately hear His voice in the spirit of prophecy, calling upon us to listen to Him. In the Gospel of John He is introduced to us as "the Word," the One in whom the whole mind of God is expressed; and at the transfiguration the voice out of the cloud said, "Hear ye Him." So we are not surprised that prophetically He should say, "Listen . . . unto Me." What might surprise us, and might well surprise an attentive Jewish reader is that He should address His call to the "isles," and to "peoples from afar," for the word, we understand, is in the plural, indicating the distant nations, and not the people of Israel. But so it was; and thus at the start of this new section it is intimated that what He has to say, and what He will accomplish, will be for the benefit of all men and not only for the people of Israel.
His words will cut like a sword and pierce like an arrow when He comes forth from the Divine quiver, for He shall appear as the true Servant of God and the true Israel; i.e., "Prince of God." As the earlier chapters have shown the national Israel had been called to serve God but had failed completely. This true Israel is declared to be called from the womb, made a "polished shaft" to fly unerringly as directed, and in Him, Jehovah says, "I will be glorified." We can now say, In whom He has been glorified, and in whom He will yet be glorified in a supreme and public way.
And then, in our chapter, comes verse 4. How often it has been the case in this fallen world that the servants of God have had to taste the bitterness of defeat and apparent failure. Indeed it seems to have been the rule rather than the exception. The supreme example of this is found in our Lord Himself. He came, as the Apostle Paul states, "A Minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm The promises made unto the fathers" (Rom. 15: 8); but, rejected by "the circumcision," His mission from that standpoint was marked by failure. He did indeed labour, but it was "in vain." His strength was put forth, but "for naught." Thus it was to all appearance, and according to the judgment of man.
"Yet" says the Messiah, "surely My judgment is with the Lord and My work with My God." His labour, His work, the exertion of His strength was not in vain, for God had entrusted to His Servant a task far deeper and wider and more wonderful than being just "a Minister of the circumcision," as we shall find intimated in our chapter, though we must travel into the New Testament to get a full view of its greatness.
Into that full light we today have been brought, so that with full hearts we can take up the little hymn that begins,
His be "the Victor's name,"
and go on to sing,
By weakness and defeat,
He won the meed and crown;
Trod all our foes beneath His feet,
By being trodden down.
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