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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 46

Old & New Testament Restoration CommentaryRestoration Commentary

Verses 1-7

Isa 46:1-7

Isaiah 46:1-2

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).

Isaiah 46:1-2

"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.” 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. 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. 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.

Isaiah 46:3-4

"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." 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." 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." 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!

Isaiah 46:5-7

"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 Isaiah 40:18-20; Isaiah 44:9-20; Isaiah 41:5-7; and Isaiah 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.”

Isaiah 46:1-7 DEMISE OF IDOLS: Bel (otherwise known as Merodach or Marduk) was the principal god of the Babylonians. Nebo (or Nabu) was the son of Bel and in later times was identified with the Greek god Mercury because Nabu means “speaker.” The Babylonian gods were (as the name Bel indicates) “descendants” of Baal, the Canaanite god.. Bel’s major temple was in Borsippa, twelve miles to the south of Babylon. According to the historian Herodotus, the image of Bel was gold and 18 feet tall. These great, impressive, expensive images with the authority of centuries of pagan heritage added, which seem invincible, will be dismantled and carried away from their place to a foreign pantheon. When will this happen? When Cyrus conquers Babylon, October 29, 539 B.C.! (see, Daniel, ch. 5, 7, 8). The thrust of Isaiah’s message here is: these pagan images, impressive as they may be, powerful as their people claim they are, will suffer humiliation and defeat. They will be carried away on the backs of khayyah (wild animals, probably asses) and behemah (large animals, probably oxen). Those objects of metal (precious gold they may be) of which the Hebrew people were so enamored will ignominiously disappear, loaded unceremoniously onto the backs of dumb brutes and transported at the whim of a conquering emperor. Where are the gods these images represent? If they are images of a real god surely this god would not allow his image to be thus humiliated and obliterated! The answer is: there are no gods. Otherwise they would deliver their images. The gods are figments of human imagination—mere fantasies—less than the wood and metal of which their images are composed. This was fulfilled in a way which would not be admitted by Cyrus. He had claimed that it was under the auspices of the gods that he had marched into Babylon. But the idols were powerless (Isaiah 46:7); it was the Lord, Jehovah, who was bringing his conquest of Babylon and its gods to fulfillment.

After exposing the nothingness of Babylon’s gods, Jehovah calls the remnant of the Jews to attention. Why should they put their trust in the gods of foreign nations when it was Jehovah who gave birth to them as a people and a nation (cf. Isaiah 44:2; Isaiah 44:24; Isaiah 49:5). He “bore” them (sustained) them through centuries of deliverance from enemies all around them many times more powerful than they (cf. Deuteronomy 1:31) Deuteronomy 33:27; Isaiah 40:11). Jehovah nurtured them, chastened them, enriched them and kept them free (cf. Ezekiel 16:1 f), but they turned to other gods. He wants to care for them when they become aged and silver-haired, even for all their lives. But He cannot care for them if they refuse His covenant of care. They should know by now the difference between pagan gods and Jehovah. There are no pagan gods in all the history of mankind which can compare at all to Jehovah. He delivers! He keeps His word! He is invincible! He cannot be moved by men. The gods of the Gentiles are made by craftsmen (cf. Isaiah 44)—works of human hands—and then human beings fall down and worship the works of their own hands. Utterly absurd! Furthermore, these man-made gods are carried about from place to place. They can be manipulated, misplaced, displaced, burned up, melted down, and carried off to foreign temples. They cannot move once they are set in one place by human hands. It takes human hands for them to move again. Men cry to them, offer sacrifices to them, disfigure themselves in fear of them and all to no avail—the images of wood and metal say not a word. They cannot answer; they cannot deliver anyone from trouble nor can they bless anyone. They are dead! They were never alive!

Verses 8-13

Isa 46:8-13

Isaiah 46:8-11

"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."

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."

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."

"From the east ..." (Isaiah 40:11). 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.

Isaiah 46:12-13

"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." 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."

Isaiah 46:8-13 DIRECTION FOR ISRAEL: The stance Israel is to take in light of the soon demise of Babylon’s gods is to remember. They are reminded of two things: (a) it is sinful to worship gods other than Jehovah; (b) there is no One but Jehovah whose word is sovereign. The Hebrew word hitheaoshashu (“show yourselves men” Isaiah 46:8) means literally, “firmly founded.” God’s direction for Israel is that she remember who He is and fix it firmly in her heart. This is the only solution for Israel’s idolatrous rebellion. She is a nation of phosheiym (from pasha’) “rebels.” The word means “refuse subjection to rightful authority.” The only solution to rebellion and sin is to remember who God is! Remember how He has dealt with man and sin in the past; punishment for the incorrigible rebel and forgiveness for the penitent believer. God is omnipotent and omniscient. He not only knows and predicts the future, He controls it and uses it for His redemptive purposes. What He has said about Cyrus will surely come to pass. God will certainly call an ‘Ayit (“ravenous bird”) from the east. The Hebrew word means, “to be angry with; to rush or fall upon with fury.” Cyrus will come from a “far country” to carry out the counsels of God. This is the “servant” of Jehovah—this bird of prey. He hasn’t even been born yet, but his birth, crowning and service to God is as certain as if it had already been done because it is the will of the sovereign Jehovah! Cyrus is not merely another conqueror—he is the divinely commissioned executioner of Babylon and her gods. More sovereign control of the events of history and the destinies of men could not be visualized than is described in these chapters by the prophet Isaiah! When God speaks His word never fails of completion! When God purposes, it is as good as done!

The word abbiyrey (“stout-hearted”) literally means, “strong” but is probably synonymous with “strong-minded” or “stubborn-hearted.” The context would indicate this usage. They are stubborn-hearted and “far from righteousness.” “Righteousness” in this instance must mean the righteous purposes of Jehovah in what He has been announcing concerning Israel’s captivity, release by Cyrus and Cyrus’ destruction of the Babylonian gods Israel had grown so enamored of. Israel was stubbornly staying away from those conclusions. She refused to accept these decrees of the sovereign Jehovah. But Jehovah is about to bring “near” His righteous goal. Its beginning is not far off. In a little over a century it will all begin just as the prophet is predicting it. Jehovah’s salvation for all mankind (including the goiyim) will come without fail. “Zion” will be the location of God’s salvation (see Obadiah 1:17; Joel 2:28 to Joel 3:21). “Zion” is the N.T. church (cf. Hebrews 12:22). Of course, the climax of this salvation will not come for some 600 years after Cyrus—but what is 600 years viewed from Jehovah’s perspective? Less than a day! For the believer who by faith sees all things from God’s perspective “redemption draweth nigh.” Not only salvation, but glory!

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Isaiah 46". "Old & New Testament Restoration Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/onr/isaiah-46.html.
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