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4. The servant’s attention to her Lord ch. 48
This chapter climaxes Isaiah’s arguments for Yahweh’s superiority over pagan idols. The prophet was led to use the Israelites’ exile in Babylon to prove his point. Isaiah had demonstrated God’s trustworthiness (chs. 7-39) and had promised that He would graciously redeem His people (chs. 40-47). Now it was up to the Israelites to trust Him. Chapter 48 consists of exhortations to the impenitent and unbelieving in Israel, during the captivity, to truly listen to their God.
"The most striking feature of this chapter is the severity of its diagnosis of Israel . . ." [Note: Motyer, p. 375.]
The Lord called on His people to pay attention to what He had to say to them and to respond appropriately (cf. Isaiah 42:18; Isaiah 46:12). The many descriptions of the Israelites in these verses reminded them of their origins and their identity, their commitments to and their appreciation for Yahweh, and their present relationship with Him. In view of all this, they needed to heed what He said. They had not done that as they should have in the past.
Israel’s inveterate unbelief 48:1-5
The former failure 48:1-11
This section recapitulates the revelation that Yahweh predicts the future, so that when the event He predicts happens, people will recognize that He is the only true God. He can cause new things to happen because He alone is the Creator. This prophecy has been the source of much critical attack on Isaiah. [Note: See Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, pp. 270-72, for discussion.] Again, the critics’ disbelief in God’s ability to predict the future and then bring it into being is the problem.
God had frequently in Israel’s past predicted what He would do, and then He did it. Sometimes the fulfillments were not what His people had expected, illustrating His sovereign creativity. Nevertheless, He had remained true to His Word.
God had done this because His people were stubborn when it came to trusting Him. If He had not done this, they would have concluded that some idol had been responsible for the turn of events. They, like all people, resisted trust in a sovereign God, preferring rather to make their gods in their own image and so control them. People are by nature like animals, in that they often refuse to go a certain way, simply because their Master wants them to go that way. The "neck of iron" pictures unwillingness to bow in submission. The "brazen forehead" represents an opinionated person with a closed mind, or a shameless person who persists in sin.
God directed His people to consider carefully what He had just revealed, and they would have to admit that it was true. It was important that they come to a clear understanding of His ways because He was making other predictions about the future (i.e., Cyrus, return from exile, the coming Servant). They needed to know that He is in charge and that He is dependable. What He revealed was hidden, in that its time and method of fulfillment were not specific, but the content itself was clear enough, having been revealed generally before (cf. Genesis 15:18-21; Deuteronomy 30:1-5).
Israel’s need for faith 48:6-11
Having reminded His people of His ways, God now gave them a new prediction.
What God was predicting was brand new; it was not something He had revealed previously. His people had not heard this specific prediction before. Moses or another prophet had not revealed it. God chose when to reveal it as well as what to reveal.
"It [predictive prophecy] is given not so we can know the future, but as confirmatory evidence that we can and should trust God. To use it for the purpose of knowing the future and thus making ourselves secure is only another form of idolatry." [Note: Ibid., p. 268.]
The Israelites had not listened to the message that predictive prophecy was to teach them. They did not welcome the idea that God could surprise them and so keep them trusting Him. Instead they wanted to know the future so they would not have to trust Him. Rebellion against God is part of human nature. They did not know what He was going to do, but He knew their hearts.
Even though Israel had been prone to idolatry (Isaiah 48:5) and had been congenitally rebellious (Isaiah 48:8), God had not cast her off. Why? He had made commitments to be gracious to Israel, and to honor Himself in His dealings with her, so that the rest of the world would trust Him. The fact that God did not abandon Israel when He could have done so justly manifested His grace.
By allowing the Babylonian exile, God was not casting off His people, but disciplining them so they would come to their senses, and follow Him more faithfully thereafter. The difficult times Israel had been through were fires of refining, not fires of destruction. Fire was one of Isaiah’s favorite figures for judgment, and often it was God’s people whom he described as in the fire. Unfortunately many readers think only of hell when they read of judgment fire in Scripture. In refining silver, the craftsman burns away all the dross. If God had refined Israel that way, there would have been nothing left of the nation. Affliction is a sign that God has chosen and loves His people; it is not a sign that He has not chosen and does not love them (cf. Hebrews 12:3-13).
Ultimately, however, it is for His own sake that God does what He does. He is the only true God, so people must see this. They come to see it in His just but merciful dealings with Israel. Then they give Him glory, where alone it belongs.
This segment opens like the first one (cf. Isaiah 48:1). However here, the emphasis is on who God is, rather than on who the Israelites are. He is the eternal, self-existent God who called Israel to Himself for a special purpose. This is the basis for His claim to predict the future and to use whomever He will to carry out His will.
"As first God was not pressed by any external agency into what he initiated; as last he stands unchallenged by any force that may have tried to oppose; and he brings to triumphant conclusion what he started. At the start, there was his uninhibited freedom to do as he chose; at the end, the untarnished gold of his completed work." [Note: Motyer, p. 380.]
God’s trustworthiness 48:12-16
The present possibility 48:12-22
In a sense, Isaiah 48:12-22 are the "second verse" of the song, and Isaiah 48:1-11 are the "first verse." God was making much the same point, though with a slightly different emphasis.
God is also the Creator who maintains control over His creation. As such He can create history as well as the cosmos. Isaiah referred to creation in Isaiah 40:12-14; Isaiah 40:22; Isaiah 40:26; Isaiah 40:28; Isaiah 42:5; Isaiah 44:24; and Isaiah 45:12; Isaiah 45:18.
The Israelites needed to listen because only the Lord could reveal what He would do. Specifically, Yahweh revealed His love (choice, cf. Deuteronomy 4:37; Malachi 1:2-3) of Cyrus, who would fulfill God’s will on Babylon by defeating the Chaldeans (cf. Isaiah 44:28). The Israelites, in view of who their God is, should not resist His choice of Cyrus or reject the revelation about him. The idols, "them," could not reveal this.
What God had decided and declared would stand. Cyrus would prosper in his assignment because God had called him to do it. As surely as God had called the host of heaven (Isaiah 48:13), Israel (Isaiah 48:12), and Assyria (cf. Isaiah 10:6), He had called Cyrus.
God again urged His people to listen carefully (cf. Isaiah 48:1; Isaiah 48:12; Isaiah 48:14). From the beginning, God’s promises concerning the future had not been vague and ambiguous. They could be verified easily, and they evidenced Yahweh’s nearness in human life. God was there when He made those predictions.
"When Jesus Christ incarnated God on earth, this was not some shocking new modality of revelation; it was the logical endpoint of all that God had been doing in and through Israel up to that point." [Note: Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, p. 278.]
The speaker of the last part of this verse is unclear. God appears to have been speaking in the first part of the verse, but now we read that God sent "Me." This may be Isaiah speaking. [Note: Ibid.] If so, the point is that God and His Spirit had sent Isaiah to communicate and to confirm the truthfulness of what God had just said. Another view is that Messiah, the Servant, speaks (cf. Isaiah 48:12). [Note: Motyer, p. 381; Grogan, p. 281; Young, 3:259; J. Martin, pp. 1102-3; Delitzsch, 2:253; Jennings, p. 564; Archer, p. 643; and Ortlund, p. 320.] The point then would be that the Messiah would testify to the truth of what God had just said-empowered by the Spirit. A third view is that the speaker is an unknown leader. [Note: Watts, Isaiah 34-66, p. 178.] I prefer the second view. The Servant speaks again in Isaiah 49:1-6. Since the speaker in the context is the Lord, it seems more natural that a member of the Godhead would say these words than the prophet. If true, this is one of the clearest Old Testament intimations of the Trinity.
The titles of God give the reasons the Israelites should listen to Him. They should listen because of who He is and what He had done for them. Additionally, God is essentially one who teaches His people how to make a net gain of their lives (not necessarily a profit in business). He is also the one who guides His people through dangers to safety and fulfillment.
God’s will for the exiles 48:17-22
The remaining verses in this chapter conclude this section (Isaiah 48:12-22) and this chapter of Isaiah, as well as the whole segment of chapters 40-48 .
Failure to listen and hear the Lord’s instruction (cf. Isaiah 48:1; Isaiah 48:4; Isaiah 48:8) in the past had limited Israel’s peace (Heb. shalom) and her right conduct (Heb. sedaqa). Things could have been far better if she had only listened and obeyed. She could have experienced a ceaseless, powerful flow of His blessings.
"Every sensitive teacher knows the pain of heart that comes when he pours himself out for students who prove to be unteachable. Israel proved to be like that (cf. Isaiah 48:8); and God expresses his deep concern for them, because they are themselves the losers." [Note: Grogan, p. 281.]
Israel could also have enjoyed the blessings promised to Abraham more fully, and sooner, than she has. Israel’s identity as a nation among other nations ceased because of her sin, but her identity as the chosen people of God did not. This verse does not teach that the future fulfillment of the promises to Abraham was contingent on Israel’s obedience. God gave those promises unconditionally (cf. Genesis 12:1-3; Genesis 12:7; Genesis 15:5; Genesis 22:17). It does reflect that the present enjoyment of those benefits depended on her obedience (cf. Deuteronomy 28-29).
In view of the new promises concerning Cyrus and return from exile, Isaiah called on the Israelites in captivity to depart from Babylon when they could (cf. Revelation 18:4-5), and to publicize the promise of the second Exodus. It was as good as accomplished. In view of this prophecy, it was wrong for the Israelites to remain in Babylonia after Cyrus permitted them to return to the Promised Land. Yet many did remain.
This verse is, "A summons beforehand to Jews who would be captives in 539 B.C. not to tarry in the pagan soil of Babylon, but to take advantage of Cyrus’ permissive edict and return to Judah." [Note: Archer, p. 643.]
This "missionary challenge" to take good news to the nations fittingly climaxes the message of chapters 40-48.
In terms reminiscent of the first Exodus, Isaiah anticipated God’s miraculous and abundant providential provision of refreshment for His people when they returned to the Promised Land from Babylonia (cf. Isaiah 43:18-28).
God’s final word that His people needed to hear was a word of warning (cf. Isaiah 57:21). For the wicked there is no peace (Heb. shalom, the fullness of divine blessing, cf. Isaiah 48:18). The wonderful promise just summarized (Isaiah 48:20-21) was no guarantee that Israel would enjoy God’s richest blessing if she continued to practice wickedness. The wicked Babylonians would not enjoy His shalom, and neither would they.
By way of application, God has similarly promised to build His church (Matthew 16:18). But that is no excuse for Christians to conclude that because our election is secure, we can sin with impunity and disregard God’s commands.
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Isaiah 48". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29