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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 48

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


“Here we have a recapitulation of the preceding eight chapters, closing with a summons to flee Babylon, and a solemn declaration excluding the ungodly from a share in the promises.”(F1) The chapter falls into three divisions: “Each commencing with a call on Israel to pay attention: (1) `Hear ye this…’ (Isaiah 48:1-11); (2) `Hearken unto me…’ (Isaiah 48:12-15), and (3) `Come ye near unto me, hear ye this…’ (Isaiah 48:16-22).”(F2)

The chapter is definitely addressed to two classes of people, namely the true believers, referred to here as “Israel,” and the wicked and rebellious majority, called Jacob. The student will at once see this as a departure from what many of the commentators say, namely that Jacob and Israel are two words for the same people in a rhetorical device known as a hendiadys. As we view it, this is simply not the case at all. In Babylon, there were the fleshly descendants of Jacob (the fleshly Israel), and also there was the true Israel of God, those who believed the promises and faithfully waited for the Lord’s deliverance. “Jacob was their secular and natural designation, and Israel was their spiritual or covenant name.”(F3) See my note under Isaiah 40:27.

That both of these groups are addressed in this chapter is certain, because there are wonderful promises for the covenant people and terrible denunciations for the hypocritical majority.

The first division (Isaiah 40:1-11) is clearly directed at the wicked and rebellious majority:

Verses 1-2

“Hear ye this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel, and are come forth out of the waters of Judah; who swear by the name of Jehovah, and make mention of the God of Israel, but not in truth nor in righteousness (for they call themselves of the holy city, and stay themselves upon the God of Israel, Jehovah of hosts is his name).”

The captive Jews addressed in these words were consummate hypocrites, supposing that they were the darlings of heaven merely because they were literally descended through Abraham and Jacob. They were the Old Testament examples of those same vicious murderers of the Son of God who bragged about being “Abraham’s seed” in John 8:33 ff. O yes, they felt very secure because they frequently used the name of Jehovah and claimed as their very own the God of Israel, the prophecy here reminded them that the God of Israel was none other than Jehovah of hosts, a term “especially connected with the holiness of God.”(F4)

Verses 1-6

“Listen, O isles, unto me; and hearken ye peoples, from far: Jehovah hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name: and he hath made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand hath he hid me: and he hath made me a polished shaft; in his quiver hath he kept me close: and he said unto me, Thou art my servant; Israel, in whom I will be glorified. But I said, I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for naught and vanity; yet surely the justice due to me is with Jehovah, and my recompense with my God. And now saith Jehovah that formed me from the womb, to be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him, and that Israel be gathered unto him (for I am honorable in the eyes of Jehovah, and my God is become my strength); yea, it is too light a thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth.”

“Made mention of my name” This was not true of the nation of Israel, that name, having been given through Jacob in the third generation of Abraham’s “seed.” Gabriel, however, gave the name Jesus to the Messiah before he was born (Luke 1:31).

“My mouth like a sharp sword” This indicated that the words which would come out of the mouth of Messiah would be the instrument of his power, the words which would judge men and angels on the last day (John 12:48). This is “the word” that hurled the suns in space, that lifted up the Cross, that stilled the sea; and it is the word that shall summons all the dead who ever lived to receive the sentence of their eternal destiny on the occasion of the final judgment.

“In the shadow of his hand hath he hid me” God did indeed hide Jesus. He hid him from the wrath of Herod by taking him into Egypt and hid him from all of those who would have killed him until, in his own time, he would allow his crucifixion on Calvary.

“And he said unto me, Thou art my servant Israel, in whom I will be glorified” This is punctuated differently from the text of the American Standard Version in the text above; because the semicolon that divides Israel from the previous part of this sentence is an error. In this passage, God Almighty himself named the future Messiah “ISRAEL.” We have already noted that Jesus Christ is indeed the great Anti-type of Israel; and Christ himself accepted this title in John 15:1 ff, where it is recorded that he said, “I AM THE TRUE VINE,” the old fleshy Israel, the secular nation, of course, being the corrupt vine or degenerate vine as revealed in both Isaiah and Jeremiah (Isaiah 5:1-7; Jeremiah 2:21).


The proper interpretation of the Word of God must always take into account the Biblical pattern of using the same word for multiple meanings. See my discussion of this Biblical phenomenon in Vol. 1 of my Pentateuchal Series (Genesis), p. 15, where I have pin-pointed no less than five meanings of the word “seed.” Similarly, there are no less than eight legitimate meanings of the word Israel in the holy Bible.

(1) This was the name (Israel) given by the angel to Jacob on the occasion when he wrestled with him till daylight (Genesis 32:28).

(2) This was the name that came to be applied to the posterity of Jacob through the twelve patriarchs.

(3) This was the name that Ephraim and the ten tribes who seceded from the House of David usurped and claimed for themselves only (Hosea 8:14).

(4) This was the name that applied to the kingdom of Judah, after the captivity and loss of the Ten Tribes with Ephraim in the fall of Samaria (722 B.C.).

(5) This was the “covenant name” of the righteous remnant as distinguished from the hypocritical, rebellious majority, who made up the principal mass of those deported into captivity in Babylon.

(6) In the times of the personal ministry of Messiah, the name “Israel” was reserved for a tiny handful of the fleshly nation of the Jews who were called “Israelites Indeed” by Jesus Christ (John 1:47), categorically distinguishing between them and the “sons of the devil” who at the same time they plotted the death of Christ were calling themselves “Israelites,” and “sons of Abraham.” (See John 8:31-50). Nathaniel, Zacchaeus, Anna, Simeon, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Joseph, Mary, the holy apostles, and that little handful of 120 people who attended that meeting in Acts 1:15 made up the total number of Israelites indeed.

(7) The name “Israel” in our own times, and reaching back to the ministry of Jesus Christ, rightfully belongs to the true followers of Jesus Christ, i.e., his church. Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches refers to them in Galatians 6:16 as “The Israel of God.” The apostles are reigning over the “twelve tribes of Israel,” a name applied to the church of Jesus Christ (Matthew 19:28); and the 144,000 of Revelation 7 are none other than the kingdom or church of the Messiah.

(8) The name “Israel” in this very Isaiah 49:3 refers exclusively to Jesus Christ the Messiah. This corresponds with the fact that Christ is the “head of the church which is his spiritual body,” the whole body (all the church) itself being also “The Israel of God.”

The significance of this meaning of Israel in this passage is very great. Without this information, commentators are simply puzzled and checkmated as regards the discovery of what the passage means. An example of this is seen in the words of Kelley:

“The elusiveness of the servant’s identity is nowhere more apparent than here (Isaiah 49:3)… He is unequivocally identified as Israel...One way out of the impasse would be to delete the word Israel, but the ancient versions will not support such a deletion… There is no easy solution to the problem of the servant’s identity.”(F5)

All such confusion and lack of understanding disappears instantly when it is understood that “Israel” in this passage is a God-given title of Messiah himself. After all that Isaiah had already revealed about the blindness and deafness of the fleshly nation (Israel), and of their judicial hardening, and of their being no longer the noble vine God had planted, but a “degenerate vine,” it is a foolish mistake indeed to try to identify that blind, deaf, hardened, hypocrite of the fleshly nation with the “Servant” who would heal that very nation.

The preposterous proposition inherent in such an identification was duly noted also by Kelley:

“If the servant, therefore, is interpreted collectively (that is, of the fleshly nation of Israel), then one is confronted with the strange anomaly of the nation effecting its own spiritual renewal. Even Muilenburg, who believes the reference here (Isaiah 49:3) applies to the nation collectively, admits that Isaiah 49:5-6 constitute the most serious obstacle to the collective view.”(F6)

Of course, such an identification of the servant as Israel in the collective sense as the whole nation is not merely “a serious obstacle” to that viewpoint, it is overwhelming proof of the error of that viewpoint.

“I have labored in vain” These words from the Messiah himself indicate that Jesus’ work with the nation of Israel would be, in one sense, frustrating, unsuccessful, and in the large measure useless. The discouragement which our Lord surely encountered was first mentioned in Isaiah 42:4, but here it surfaces again. Thus Isaiah follows the pattern he announced in Isaiah 28:10; Isaiah 28:13, the same being proof that our human author here is not some “2nd Isaiah,” but Isaiah himself. Regarding the apparent failure of Jesus’ mission to “the physical Israel,” only 120 were gathered together as his disciples after the resurrection.

These marvelous prophecies of that “Ideal Servant” reveal that Christ alone offers salvation to men. The ancient idolaters who bowed down to images made by men fed their soul upon ashes and wasted themselves in degrading and worthless activities; but, “Even so, in philosophical circles today, Bible-rejecting agnostics demonstrate a similar blindness to the great truth that the mechanism of the Universe demands a Mechanic to fashion it, and the equally great truth that neither the ancient idolaters nor our modern unbelievers can answer the all-important question: “How can I be saved”?(F7)

Isaiah 49:5 speaks of the mission of the Servant to bring Jacob back to the Lord and to restore Israel; but in Isaiah 49:6, it is revealed that God considered such an achievement on the part of Messiah “too light a thing,” that is a work not sufficiently great to be the full task of Messiah, and that his complete work would involve also his bringing light to the heathen nations of the Gentiles. “It would have been an insufficient reward for the `Ideal Servant’ to have received only the conversion of Jews as a result of his labors; therefore, God gave him for his recompense the gathering in of the Gentles also, and made him the means of salvation even to the uttermost parts of the earth.”(F8)

Isaiah 49:6 reveals that Messiah’s mission to the Jewish nation did not include the restoration of all of the rebellious nation, but “the restoring of the preserved of Israel, thus being a reference to the “righteous remnant” only.

The recognition on the part of the Apostles themselves appeared, not at first, but eventually, that there was “no distinction” between Jews and Gentiles, nor even between Jews and barbarians. The Great Commission was “to all creation,” and “to every creature,” and “all nations.”

Verses 3-5

“I have declared the former things from of old; yea they went forth out of my mouth, and I showed them: suddenly I did them, and they came to pass. Because I knew that thou art obstinate, and thy neck is an iron sinew, and thou brow brass; therefore I have declared it to thee from of old; before it came to pass I showed it thee; lest thou shouldest say, Mine idol hath done them, and my graven image, and my molten image, hath commanded them.”

“Things from of old” What were these? They number in the hundreds, or even more. God prophesied the multiplication of Abraham’s children through Isaac, at a time long before Isaac was even born; he prophesied the four hundred year period of Israel’s “sojourn” in Egypt; he prophesied their delivery out of Egypt; he prophesied that they would leave Egypt with “great riches.” He prophesied that they would indeed inherit the land of Canaan. Could such prophecies have been “after the event”? Preposterous! Why should Abraham have bought a tomb in Canaan many centuries before his people were scheduled to inherit Canaan? Furthermore, God prophesied that if Israel rebelled against his law, he would pluck them off the land, carry them far away, and scatter them all over the world. Did God “miss it” on any of these prophecies? They are mentioned here in order to convince Israel of the truth of God’s Word. It is a measure of their obstinate “brazen faced” hypocrisy that they still needed convincing!

The tendency of Israel to idolatry was one of the principal characteristics of the chosen people. Their unbelief is indeed a marvel. It is a measure of their perversity that, “The argument from the fulfillment of prophecy, hitherto directed against the heathen (Isaiah 41:21 ff), must now be directed against God’s own people, now become determined skeptics.”(F9)

Verses 6-8

“Thou hast heard it; behold all this; and ye will not declare it? I have showed thee new things from this time, even hidden things, which thou hast not known. They are created now, and not from of old, and before this day thou heardest them not; lest thou shouldest say, Behold, I knew them. Yea, thou heardest not; yea, thou knewest not; yea, from of old thine ear was not opened: for I knew that thou didst deal very treacherously, and was called a transgressor from the womb”.

The scriptures here confront the fundamental truth of the excessive wickedness of the chosen people. Moreover, “This is not a new trait with them; they’ve been that way from the beginning. When Jacob, their father, was given a name which means `cheater’ and `guile,’ the name well described him and his descendants as well. Ezekiel in Ezekiel 16 and Ezekiel 25 bluntly tell the story of a wicked nation whose history is one shameless narrative.”(F10) Even in the times of Jesus, the nation showed no improvement; because, one day when a true Israelite, an honorable and truthful man by the name of Nathaniel, came to Jesus, Christ pointed him out as something of a phenomenon, saying, “Behold! an Israelite in whom is no guile!” (John 1:47).

The words thus far in this chapter give the reason for subsequent developments in the ranks of the captive nation. We should always remember that, “The great mass, even of Judah, no less than of Israel `remained behind’ in Babylon, where they came more and more to be assimilated by and identified with paganism.”(F11) Josephus tells us that, when Cyrus gave his decree authorizing the return of the Jews to Jerusalem, that, “Many of them stayed in Babylon, as not willing to leave their possessions.”(F12) He gave the number of returnees as 42,462; and a combination of the statements by Biblical writers sets the number at about 52,000; but neither of these totals, nor even the adding of them together, gives us a numerically significant number when compared with the millions that once constituted Israel. The captive nation under Cyrus, having achieved a local acceptance which they wanted, simply joined up with their pagan captors and became, themselves, a part of Babylon.

“New things” What are these? The new revelation could not possibly have been the deliverance from captivity. That a remnant would return had been prophesied ever since Isaiah named his first son; and, therefore, we hold that the “new things” mentioned here refer primarily to the marvelous revelation of the Saviour under the figure of the Ideal Servant, which revelation would occupy the foremost place in the second section of these last 27 chapters. “I have showed thee new things” is therefore prophetic and shows that the “new things” will reach into the far future. The statement that they are created now, and not from of old is a reference to their revelation to Israel; because all of the things of the new covenant were planned in the heart of God, “before the world was.”

Verses 9-11

“For my name’s sake will I defer mine anger, and for my praise will I refrain for thee, that I cut thee not off. Behold, I have refined thee, but not as silver; I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction. For mine own sake, for mine own sake, will I do it; for how should my name be profaned? and my glory will I not give to another.”

Right here is God’s answer as to “Why?” he had refrained from destroying a reprobate and sinful nation who fully deserved such a destruction, no less than it had been deserved by Sodom and Gomorrah. Dummelow pointed out that God’s refinement of Israel was unlike the refinement of silver, that is, the removal of all the dross, “would have meant the destruction of Israel.”(F13) There is no question whatever as to whether or not Israel deserved total destruction, because their wickedness even exceeded that of Sodom and Gomorrah, as Ezekiel reported in Ezekiel 16. Why, then did God not do it? The abbreviated answer is that to have done so would have endangered, or perhaps destroyed, God’s plan of human redemption. God had promised that through the patriarchs Messiah would be born, through whom all the families of the earth were to be blessed; very well, the destruction of Israel would have checkmated the achievement of the birth of Messiah through the posterity of Abraham, or at least rendered it impossible to be proved or documented. Therefore, “for the sake of God’s promises,” he was stuck with Israel until the Eternal purpose had been realized.

Note the question here, “How should my name be profaned?” the argument here is exactly the same as that of Moses is Numbers 14:13 ff, to the effect that if God should execute upon Israel the destruction they deserved, the pagans would declare that it was because God was unable to save them from destruction; and the pagans would have heralded Israel’s destruction as a victory of their idols over Jehovah! Moses’ argument prevailed with God at that time; and this passage shows that the argument was still valid in the times of Isaiah. Lowth gave the meaning of Isaiah 48:11 thus: “God would not destroy Israel, that he may not be blasphemed.”(F14)

Verses 12-15

“Hearken unto me, O Jacob, and Israel my called: I am he; I am the first. I am also the last. Yea, my hand hath laid the foundation of the earth, and my right hand hath spread out the heavens: when I call unto them, they stand up together. Assemble yourselves, all ye, and hear; who among them hath declared these things? He whom Jehovah loveth shall perform his pleasure on Babylon, and his arm shall be on the Chaldeans. I, even I, have spoken; yea, I have called him, and he shall make his way prosperous.”

Again it is evident that the Lord is addressing both the righteous and wicked elements of Israel, Jacob the fleshly Israel, and Israel the covenant people; and this is another appeal for the people to behold how powerless and worthless their idol gods really are. Which of them ever prophesied a thing like the fall of Babylon to Cyrus? As Dummelow pointed out, despite the name of Cyrus not appearing here, it is evident enough that Cyrus “is the one spoken of.”(F15)

God’s designation of Cyrus in these chapters is amazing: He is referred to as God’s `called,’ as God’s `anointed,’ as God’s `arm’ upon Babylon, and as God’s `beloved’ (Isaiah 48:14). Note the promise that Cyrus’ way shall be `prosperous’ (Isaiah 48:15). Herodotus reported that, “Throughout Cyrus’ life he received no check of any kind until his last expedition in which he lost his life. His `prosperity’ was beyond that of almost any other commander in human history.”(F16)

As Barnes declared:

“None of the astrologers, soothsayers, or diviners of Babylon had been able to foretell the expedition of Cyrus and his capture of Babylon; for, if they had been able to foresee the danger, they might have guarded against it, and the city might have been saved. But God had predicted it a hundred fifty years before it happened, thus demonstrating that he alone is God.”(F17)

Verse 16

“Come ye near unto me, hear ye this; from the beginning I have not spoken in secret; from the time that it was, there am I: and now the Lord Jehovah hath sent me, and his Spirit.”

This verse is often made the first verse in the second address, and by some, the last paragraph in the first address. We agree with the American Standard Version paragraphing which treats it as the last verse of the first section; but due to its importance we shall discuss it separately. The fact of the obvious prophecy of the Son of God as having been sent to our world by the Father certainly identifies it as among the “new things” mentioned in Isaiah 48:6. And, like almost every other prophecy of Christ in the Old Testament, it is subject to all kinds of interpretations. Calvin and many other scholars have seen it as a prophecy of the sending of Isaiah. Barnes agreed with this, stating that, “The scope of the passage demands, it seems to me, that it should be referred to the prophet Isaiah.”(F18) However, we believe that Hailey is correct in his declaration that, “The coming of Jesus is the theme of this prophecy; the entire Old Testament looks forward to Christ’s coming to carry forward the purpose of Jehovah; and the Holy Spirit would accompany Christ on that mission, and then complete the work after the Son’s return to the Father; let it be remembered that the prophecy is here declaring new things to come in the future.”(F19) Lowth explained the passage thus: “Who is it that saith in Isaiah, `And now hath the Lord sent me and his Spirit’? in which, as the passage is ambiguous, is it the Father and the Holy Spirit who hath sent Jesus; or the Father who hath sent both Christ and the Holy Spirit? The latter is the true interpretation.”(F20) The Father sent Jesus when he was born in Bethlehem; and the Father sent the Holy Spirit upon the occasion of the baptism of Christ (Matthew 3:16). Thus, as Kidner put it, “This is a glimpse from afar of the Trinity.”(F21) As Cheyne expressed it, “I cannot but think that we have both here and in Genesis 1:2 an early trace of what is known as the Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit.”(F22)

The speaker here is therefore, the pre-incarnate Christ who identifies himself as the one sent… to convey God’s message of salvation to mankind. Here is almost the equivalent of another Old Testament quotation, Psalms 40; Psalms 6-8, where again the pre-incarnate Christ is the speaker, and his subject the projected visitation of our poor earth by the Dayspring from on High. The author of Hebrews discussed this at length (Hebrews 10:5-7). See my comment on this in Vol. 10 of the New Testament Series (Hebrews), pp. 213ff.

Jamieson, noting that Isaiah, not Christ, is the author of the passage, stated that, “Isaiah here speaks not in his own person so much as in that of the Messiah, to whom alone, in the fullest sense, the words apply.”(F23)

Verses 17-19

“Thus saith Jehovah, thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: I am Jehovah thy God, who teacheth thee to profit, who leadeth thee by the way that thou shouldest go. Oh that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments! Then had thy peace been as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea: thy seed also had been as the sand, and the offspring of thy bowels like the grains thereof (of the sand): his name would not be cut off nor destroyed from before me.”

This is a remarkable expostulation which reminds us of the words of Christ himself in his lament over Jerusalem. “Oh, if thou hadst known the things that belong unto thy peace in this thy day, but now are they hidden from thine eyes!” It appears from what is said here that God’s promise to Abraham that his posterity should be as the stars of heaven the sands of the seashore, etc., that the greater fulfillment was lost forever in the multiple rebellions of obstinate and stubborn Israel. How evident this must have been in that pitiful little handful of a once mighty nation that returned from the captivity in Babylon. As Kelley stated it, however, “Even the best teacher fails, when his pupils are unwilling to learn.”(F24) The tragedy of Israel could easily have been avoided; but the prophet reminds her that all of her past history was one unending tragedy of squandered opportunities. “This, of course, places the responsibility of Israel’s tragic state squarely upon the people themselves.”(F25)

The final clauses of Isaiah 48:19 are very important. They state clearly and emphatically that “Israel’s name has been cut off and from God as a people; their name has been cut off, the Jews are no longer God’s people, although they shall always exist as a race,”(F26) or at least until “the fullness of the Gentiles be come in” (Romans 11:25).

Verses 20-22

“Go ye forth from Babylon, flee ye from the Chaldeans; with a voice of singing declare ye, tell this, utter it even to the ends of the earth: say ye, Jehovah hath redeemed his servant Jacob. And they thirsted not when he led them through the deserts; he caused the waters to flow out of the rock for them; he clave the rock also, and the waters gushed out. There is no peace, saith Jehovah, to the wicked.”

These final words of the chapter again reveal the dual nature of the people addressed: singing and joy for the obedient, returning home to Jerusalem, and the forfeiture of peace forever on the part of the wicked who will remain in Babylon rather than obey the Lord’s commandment to “flee from the Chaldeans.”

Many commentators stress the fact that there is no record of God’s performing miracles such as those stressed in Isaiah 48:21 for the Jews on their way to Jerusalem; this, of course, does not mean that nothing of that nature happened; but we believe that it would not have required such literal fulfillment as that which most certainly occurred in the wilderness of Israel’s wanderings on the way from Egypt to the land of Canaan in order to satisfy what was prophesied here. The fact that the greatest king of that age would send them with full authority back to their homeland, even paying a very substantial part of the expenses - that was just as wonderful, and just as much the work of God as was the miracle when Moses struck the rock and the water gushed out!

Archer’s summary of this paragraph is:

“This prophecy was written 150 years beforehand to Jews who would be captives in the year 539 B.C. not to tarry on the pagan soil of Babylon, but to take advantage of Cyrus’ permissive edict to return to Jerusalem. They were to bear triumphant testimony before the Gentiles as they celebrated deliverance and recalled Jehovah’s mercies to their fathers.”

Those who would not flee the defilements of Babylon would never know the peace of God .(F27)

This concludes the first of the three sections of Division VI of this great prophecy; and this final little paragraph is absolutely, “The climax of Isaiah 40-48.”(F28)

Those who obey the Lord and return to Jerusalem will be blessed; but those who reject God’s command to leave Babylon will forfeit the peace of God forever.

Christians must not forget that they also are commanded to come out of the current Babylon. “Come forth, my people, out of her, that ye have no fellowship with her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues” (Revelation 18:4).

(The end of Section A of Division VI)

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Isaiah 48". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/isaiah-48.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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