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3. The Lord’s redemption of His servant 44:23-47:15
Isaiah began this section of the book dealing with God’s grace to Israel (chs. 40-48) by glorifying God as the incomparable Lord of His servant Israel (ch. 40). Then he explained God’s promises to (Isaiah 41:1 to Isaiah 42:9) and His purposes for (Isaiah 42:10 to Isaiah 44:22) His servants. This leads into a more particular revelation of the redemption that God had in store for Israel (Isaiah 44:23 to Isaiah 47:15).
The nation to be judged ch. 47
This section of Isaiah on "The Lord’s redemption of His servant [Israel]" (Isaiah 44:23 to Isaiah 47:15) has so far included: an announcement of redemption (Isaiah 44:23-28), the identification of the instrument of redemption-Cyrus (Isaiah 45:1-13), and a reminder of the uniqueness of the God of redemption (Isaiah 45:14 to Isaiah 46:13). It now concludes, by depicting Babylon-the nation from which the Lord would redeem His people from captivity-as a proud woman full of self-confidence. In her case, as in so many others, pride goes before a fall. This section is another oracle against a foreign nation (cf. chs. 13-23; Jeremiah 46-51; Ezekiel 25-31) and an oracle of salvation for Zion (cf. Isaiah 45:14 to Isaiah 46:13). The main point of this chapter is not primarily to predict Babylon’s fall, however, but to glorify the power and grace of Yahweh, using the destruction of Babylon as a backdrop.
God depicted Babylon here as a rather prissy virgin. The city, representing the kingdom of Babylon, had, like a virgin, thus far not experienced the breaching of her walls by invaders. The Lord summoned her to sit on the ground, rather than on the throne that she intended to occupy. Sitting in the dust was an act that depicted great mourning (cf. Jonah 3:6). She thought that she would be a queen, but in reality she would become a common, even a humiliated, beggar. Other peoples had regarded her as superior, but she would no longer be that. The Chaldeans were the residents of southern Mesopotamia, who had been the leaders in throwing off Assyrian dominance, and had provided the leadership for Neo-Babylonia.
A call to Babylon 47:1-4
The first four verses constitute the introduction to the oracle.
Babylon would need to do servile work, grinding meal by rotating a millstone (cf. Exodus 11:5; Job 31:10; Matthew 24:41). She should remove her veil, which she, as an upper-class lady, had worn previously to hide her beauty from commoners. Removing her veil would disgrace her. She should also take off her long skirt and uncover her legs, so she could work in the fields, and wade through the irrigation ditches of the rivers. She would become not only a beggar (Isaiah 47:1), but a servant.
In the ancient world, people regarded nakedness as a shame because it left them open to the gaze of others, and so rendered them defenseless. People seen naked were often taken advantage of. Thus to be uncovered was to be shamefully exposed. Babylon had regarded herself as someone special and superior, but now it would become clear that she was just like every other nation. God promised to take vengeance on Babylon for exalting herself to a place that He alone deserves. He would not spare anyone deserving humiliation.
The foregoing description of God humbling Babylon, for essentially the same reason He humbled Egypt in the Exodus, drew an exclamation of praise from Isaiah. Almighty Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel, would again redeem His people from a nation that had lifted up itself in pride and had oppressed God’s chosen people.
"These verses assert two principles which lie at the heart of divine providential government of the world: retribution (3cd) and the centrality of the people of God (4)." [Note: Ibid., p. 372.]
Babylon would no longer be the queen of the nations, having many other kingdoms under her authority. Rather than enjoying the public activity and prominence that go with being a leader, Babylon would find herself sitting in silence and darkness.
"From the blare of world publicity and the glare of the palace lights to the silence of obscurity (Isaiah 47:5)!" [Note: Grogan, p. 277.]
The sins of Babylon 47:5-11
The Lord became more specific about Babylon’s sins and the reasons He intended to punish her in the following pericope (Isaiah 47:5-11).
Babylon had not been kind to the Israelites whom Yahweh had handed over to her. She had not really conquered Judah; God had given the Judahites over to the Babylonians. The Babylonians had been unmerciful toward the Israelites and had made life hard even for their elderly, those who deserved mercy simply because of their age. The Babylonians were not as hard on the Israelites as the Egyptians and the Assyrians had been. It was their arrogance more than their physical cruelty that made them unmerciful.
The mark of Babylon’s arrogance was that she assumed that she would continue to rule the world forever. She had defeated Assyria, which had been the most powerful world ruler for 300 years, and there was no power on the horizon that Babylon could see that would threaten her sovereignty. She had not considered that all nations are subject to Yahweh’s sovereignty, that no nation is self-sufficient or self-existent. She had failed to consider that someone more powerful than herself could call her to account for her treatment of the people she had conquered.
Babylon was sensual (a lover of luxury) in that she assumed that what she enjoyed were her rights by virtue of her superiority. Her present condition had led her to think that she would always enjoy provision, protection, status, and security. But she could not avert the doom that would come on her because she had exalted herself to God’s place. The pleasure-loving lady of leisure would become a childless widow.
She would lose her empire and her population with unexpected suddenness. In spite of the sorcery and magic that Babylon relied on for protection, God would bring judgment on her.
"Babylon was proverbial in the ancient world for its development of the magical arts. So firm was this association that in Daniel, ’Chaldean’ is a term for magician (Isaiah 1:20; Isa 2:2, 27, etc. . . .). The great Babylonian interest in astronomy was prompted by an even greater interest in astrology. The names given to the astrological constellations today are translations of the ones originated by the Babylonians. More than anything else, magic is engaged in to ensure good fortune and prevent misfortune." [Note: Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, p. 249.]
Babylon felt secure in mistreating people because her great learning and wisdom in the magical arts had led her to conclude that she was superior and invulnerable. Knowledge puffs up, and one of the delusions it spawns is that people who know more are as morally and ethically responsible as everyone else, since they are not. A corollary is that if I can get away with something, it’s all right. Such thinking forgets that there is a sovereign and righteous God in heaven to whom we are responsible.
"Chaldean Babylon . . . combined the practical atheism of the freethinker with astrology, necromancy, and crass superstition." [Note: Archer, p. 642.]
In spite of how the Babylonians thought, God would bring judgment on them suddenly that incantations would not affect, sacrifices could not deflect, and magic could not anticipate. Daniel 5 describes Belshazzar’s feast, which took place on the night Babylon fell. Cyrus took the Babylonian king and his city completely by surprise, and the empire fell suddenly.
"Cyrus took Babylon effortlessly, and by morning every citizen of the empire was not a Babylonian but a Persian." [Note: Motyer, p. 372.]
God sarcastically challenged the Babylonians to continue to trust in their mediums and horoscopes, as though they might be able to deliver them from the fate He announced. They were not about to humble themselves, as the Ninevites did in Jonah’s day. If there was any time the Babylonians needed help from their wise men, it was before the Lord visited them with judgment.
The doom of Babylon 47:12-15
Yahweh’s denunciation of Babylon comes to a climax in the final four verses. In spite of her pride, Babylon would need a savior, but there would be none for her.
However, their powers would be no match for the consuming judgment of God that was coming on them like a fire. It would sweep everything in its path away, the astrologers as well as their predictions. They would become the fuel for this fire that would be like a wild forest fire, not a comfortable campfire.
"They [the astrologers] do not even have the enduring power of wood in the fire, for they are consumed instantly [as stubble], and are not able to save themselves from the flame that devours them. If they cannot save themselves it is foolish to look to them to save Babylon." [Note: Young, 3:243.]
False religion offers the comfort of a fire, but it turns into a furnace of destruction. The philosophical leaders of Babylon would not be saviors in that day of judgment. In fact, there would be none to save then.
"These few words at the end of Isaiah 47:15 capture the whole argument of chs. 40-47: everybody needs a savior; the gods and the magical worldview on which they rest cannot save; the Lord who stands outside the cosmos and directs it according to his good purposes can save; which shall we choose?" [Note: Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, p. 256.]
The fulfillment of this prophecy came when Cyrus invaded Babylon in 539 B.C. But the similarities between this chapter and Revelation 17, 18 remind us that a future eschatological destruction of Babylon is also coming.
"Those who have turned from the living God to the daily horoscope in our own society would do well to heed this passage." [Note: Grogan, p. 278.]
"The point of chapters 41-47 is that the entire structure and system of the Babylonian Empire (represented by her idols) was developed by humans [cf. the Tower of Babel, Genesis 11]; Babylon had no lasting divine sanction. Just as an idol is of human fabrication, with no autonomous power or usefulness of its own, so the entire Babylonian system of society, economics, and politics was a human fabrication which in time would collapse. Israel, then, must reserve her worship, her ultimate commitment, for YHWH. This commitment must stand above all other systems and values. YHWH may grant these systems (including Assyria, Persia) temporary sanction to do his will, but he also reserves the right to repudiate and destroy them. Only YHWH deserves worship." [Note: John D. W. Watts, "Babylonian Idolatry in the Prophets As a False Socio-Economic System," in Israel’s Apostasy and Restoration: Essays in Honor of Roland K. Harrison, p. 121.]
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Isaiah 47". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Sunday after Epiphany