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Monday, May 27th, 2024
the Week of Proper 3 / Ordinary 8
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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 46

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


The prophecy here foretells the fall of the idols of Babylon, emphasizing their incompetence to provide any help whatever to Babylon, or to give any kind of protection. Such gods even had to be carded about in the processions when they were honored on festive occasions, affording a dramatic contrast with Jehovah, the God of Israel, who instead of requiting that men, or beasts, carry him from one place to another, had himself “carded” the Jews from their very beginning as a nation until that present time (Isaiah 46:1-4). Then God, through his prophet Isaiah, exposed in his usual forcible and elegant style, the absurdity of idolatry (Isaiah 46:5-7). Next he vigorously asserted the claims of the One True God as the one and only Unique Deity, citing as proof of his claims the miracles, and the prophecies with which Israel had been familiar for generations (Isaiah 46:8-10). God also reiterated his intention of delivering the Jews from captivity by the hand of Cyrus (Isaiah 46:11), and at the same time he delivered a pointed warning to the Jewish captives (not to all of them, but probably to the majority of them) already hardened in sin and rebellion (Isaiah 46:12-13).

Verses 1-2

“Bel boweth down, Nebo stoopeth; their idols are upon the beasts, and upon the cattle: the things that ye carried about are made a load, a burden to the weary beast. They stoop, they bow down together; they could not deliver the burden, but themselves are gone into captivity.”

The reference here is to the practice of ancient conquerors who carried off the gold and silver idols of the gods of the nations conquered. Note that the passage does not declare that Cyrus would thus dispose of the idols of Babylon. As a matter of fact, that particular monarch did not busy himself in such activity; and yet, as Hailey pointed out, that in spite of the truth that Cyrus accepted Babylon’s gods and even worshipped them, “They were eventually cast down and carried into oblivion.”(F1) Persian successors to Cyrus, notably Xerxes, actually carted off to their homeland that great gold statue of Bel and other rich treasures, including all of the pagan deities of Babylon. Therefore the exact words of the prophet here are fully justified.

Bel was the principal one of Babylon’s pagan gods. He was the equivalent of Jupiter and Zeus of the Greeks and Romans; and Nebo corresponded to their Mercury. The broad base of their ancient paganism was actually the worship of the host of heaven, notably the sun, moon, and stars. Another one of the ancient gods was Astarte, though not particularly identified with Babylon; and she was identified with Venus; Jupiter was the planet identified with Bel, and Mercury was the symbol of Mercury.(F2) These planets are at times seen as “the morning star,” or “the evening star.”

Bel was also identified with the Baal gods of ancient Canaan; and his name was often connected with kings and rulers as in Belshazzar and Belteshazzar. The same was true of Nebo, as in Nabopolasser, or Nebuchadnezzar. The strong tendency of Israel to accept such pagan practices is seen in the fact that Israel’s King Saul named his fourth son, Esh-Baal (1 Chronicles 8:33; 1 Chronicles 9:39).

The bowing of Bel and the stooping of Nebo here refer to their surrender and submission to conquerors.(F3) In such an hour of danger and disaster, the idol gods are not only powerless to help, but are themselves an intolerable burden. They cannot carry the people out of danger, but must themselves be carried. The next two verses point out the contrast with Jehovah.

Verses 3-4

“Hearken unto me, O house of Jacob, and all the remnant of the house of Israel, that have been borne by me from their birth, that have been carried from the womb; and even to old age I am he, and even to hoar hairs will I carry you: I have made, and I will bear you; yea, I will carry, and will deliver.”

What a marvelous contrast! Whereas the idols had to be carried, even on the festal days, Jehovah is the one who has carried Israel already for centuries. He carried them during their captivity in Egypt while they were becoming a great people; he carried them in the wilderness; he carried them into Canaan, through the period of their judges, and during the turbulent times of their monarchy, and through the disasters that befell them in the division of their kingdom; and now he would carry them in their captivity and through it, and even back to Jerusalem!

The mention of the remnant of Israel is not a reference to any residue of the ten tribes carried away into Assyria; but a reference to the Southern Israel alone which is the remnant of Israel.

George Adam Smith entitled this chapter “Bearing or Borne,” stating that, “It makes all the difference to a man how he conceives his religion, whether as something he has to carry, or as something that will carry him.”(F4) The prophecy here makes it quite clear that idolatry is the kind of religion that men have to carry, not the kind that can carry them.

No doubt many of the Jews desperately needed the kind of encouragement provided by this chapter. According to the ideas of that day, when a people were defeated it meant that their god could not prevent it; and there was always the temptation to join up with the victors, idolatry and all.

Kelley was correct in seeing the last clause of Isaiah 46:4 as a promise that, “doubtless refers to their delivery from exile.”(F5) It should be noted here that the Jews would never have received with any confidence a promise like this from some “Unknown Isaiah.” Such a person could have had no influence whatever. On the other hand, Isaiah, known to all of them, being a relative of their godless king Manasseh, and in all probability soon to be put to death by him. Moreover, Isaiah had named one of his sons Shear-Jashub, which means, “A Remnant Shall Return” (Isaiah 7:3); and there could not possibly have been any reason for doubting the truth of it.

Archer followed a line adopted by a number of scholars on this chapter, writing that, “The helpless images of these gods had to be packed like baggage on the backs of the draft animals of the Chaldean refugees, as they fled before the Persian invaders.”(F6) As a matter of fact there was no pursuit by the Persians and no flight on the part of the people. The war was over before they even knew it. The king was already dead and the Persians had taken the kingdom while everyone slept!

Verses 5-7

“To whom will ye liken me, and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be like? Such as lavish gold out of the bag, and weigh silver in the balance, they hire a goldsmith, and he maketh it a god; they fall down, yea, they worship. They bear it upon the shoulder, they carry it, and set it in its place, and it standeth; from its place it shall not remove: yea, one may cry unto it, yet can it not answer, nor save him out of his trouble.”

Here we have exactly the same line of argument made in a number of previous chapters. This is a continuation of the brilliant words against idolatry found in Isa. 40:18-20; 44:9-20; 41:5-7; and 46:1,2. This repetition of such warnings indicates that God was very concerned lest the attractions of idolatry would seduce many of the chosen people. “Isaiah 46:5 is almost identical to Isaiah 40:18 and stresses the impossibility of representing Jehovah by means of an image.”(F7)

Verses 8-11

“Remember this, and show yourselves men; bring it again to mind, O ye transgressors. Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and thee is none like me; declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done; saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure; and calling a ravenous bird from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country; yea, I have spoken, I will also bring it to pass; I have purposed, I will also do it.”

The city of Jerusalem in the reign of Manasseh is very much the background of all these passages against idolatry. O ye transgressors (Isaiah 40:8) “Suggests the times of Manasseh when the Israelites were very much given to idolatry; and probably this is to be regarded as addressed to them and designed to recall them to the worship of the true God.”(F8)

The frequency of God’s appeal to the fact that he had repeatedly prophesied events far before they occurred would have been impossible in any situation where it was not known and accepted as the truth. The most unreasonable postulation ever indulged by critics is that of denying predictive prophecy. Did not God prophecy some eight hundred years before it happened that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem? We shall have a number of occasions later in Isaiah to study other instances just as convincing.

Isaiah 40:8 has the meaning, “Remember this, and stand firm; and it is addressed to certain Jews who were wavering between idolatry and the worship of God.”(F9)

There are three reasons visible in these verses which are designed to inspire trust in the chosen people: (1) they should recall the many wonders God has already performed on their behalf; (2) they should especially remember his power and ability to prophecy events before they occur; and (3) they should dwell upon the fact that God has promised to deliver them from captivity. That “ravenous bird from the east” is of course a reference to Cyrus; and as Lowth noted, “`Calling from the east that eagle’ was a very proper emblem for Cyrus, particularly because the ensign of Cyrus was a golden eagle.”(F10)

“From the east” Cyrus’ kingdom was indeed east of Jerusalem, as were also Nineveh and Babylon. However, in the scriptures, enemies of Jerusalem were generally depicted as coming upon Jerusalem from “the north,” this being due to the fact that it was impossible to attack through the desert from the east. That was not the case here, because the Persians could attack Babylon on the Euphrates directly from the east.

Verses 12-13

“Hearken unto me ye stouthearted, that are far from righteousness: I bring near my righteousness, it shall not be far off, and my salvation shall not tarry; and I will place salvation in Zion for Israel my glory.”

Paul in Romans 10:6-9 uses expressions very similar to some of those in this passage, the idea being that the way to please God is not a difficult thing to know. “The word is nigh thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith which we preach.” Henderson was correct in the observation that, “There seems to be here a transition, momentarily, to a greater deliverance than that from Babylon; Jehovah here hints that he will effect a far greater deliverance and that it would originate in Zion for the glory of Israel.”(F11) By far the vast majority of the generation of Jews that received this prophecy simply did not believe it; but regardless of that, God would, in his own good time, Deliver the Messiah into the arms of Mary; and the reign of the Son of God would indeed “Draw all men unto Him.”

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Isaiah 46". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/isaiah-46.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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