Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Isaiah 46


Chapter 46 The Gods Of Babylon Are In Disarray And They Are Borne By Men While Yahweh In Contrast Bears Men And Delivers Them.

Having led up to God’s final triumph in chapter 45 we are suddenly faced with the opposite side of the picture. Yahweh is on the road to His triumph, but in contrast the greatest of the gods, the gods of Babylon, are in total disarray, being borne away on carts, or on the backs of asses, to disgrace. They are on the road to humiliation. Their makers are confounded (Isaiah 45:16). This must be so when Yahweh triumphs. It is a necessary part of the picture. Babel’s growth right from the beginning meant that the world had turned away from God and set itself up in opposition to Him (Genesis 10:9-12; Genesis 11:1-9 : Isaiah 13-14). So God’s triumph (Isaiah 45:22-25) must result in Babylon’s disintegration, and the humiliation of their gods. This is the reversal of Genesis 11.

Isaiah here brings out the strong contrast between Babel’s gods and Israel’s God, and is preparing the way for the rise of God’s Servant and its consequences. Babel’s gods are probably to be seen as representative of all the idols that he has been deriding, the ones about whom the greatest boasts have been made. All men revered the gods of Babylon. And it is these very gods which will be humiliated and shamed.

Verse 1-2

The Gods Of Babylon Are Borne By Asses And Are Wearying Even The Animal Creation Which Carries Them. Their End Is Approaching (Isaiah 46:1-2).

Isaiah 46:1-2

‘Bel bows down, Nebo stoops.

Their idols are on the beasts and on the cattle.

The things that you carried about are made a load,

A burden to the weary.

They stoop, they bow down together.

They could not deliver from the burden,

But are gone into captivity.’

This vivid description is of the gods of Babylon being carried away from Babylon into captivity. Babylon is creaking at the seams. And these great idols did not leave in triumph, they were being borne by beasts, by mules and oxen, possibly in carts or on the backs of beasts of burden. They had previously been borne in triumph at festivals, but now they had become simply a heavy burden over the long miles, an uncomfortable burden that made the beasts very weary. The beasts stumbled, but these gods were such that they were unable to render any assistance.

‘They stoop, they bow down together.’ They themselves just bobbed up and down helplessly, ignominiously fastened on with ropes. They are at the mercy of the movement caused by the stumbling beasts, bowing down to all around.

‘They could not deliver from the burden.’ There is probably a double emphasis here. They could not deliver Babylon from the burden coming on it, and they could not even deliver these poor dumb beasts from their burden.

‘But are gone into captivity.’ It was Sennacherib who carried away the gods of Babylon from Babylon to Assyria in his fury at their rebellion in around 689 BC and Isaiah saw in this the beginning of the fulfilment of his prophecies against Babylon. Although in fact Esarhaddon would later restore the situation and rebuild the temple of Marduk. So the end was not yet. But what had happened to the idols was to Isaiah a vivid picture of their continued helplessness. It is probable that Isaiah had had descriptions of this event brought to him, a visual confirmation of all that he had prophesied. He was unlikely to forget them.

They were also the almost contemporary and ideal illustrations for what he wanted to say next. The great gods of Babylon had been borne ignominiously on the backs of asses into exile, and had been unable to do anything about it! It was a symbol of what was to happen to all gods.

Bel was by this time the same as Marduk, the city god of Babylon, Nebo was his son, and was the city god of Borsippa and the god of writing and wisdom. Both would be carried in the New year procession in Babylon when the Tables of Destiny had written on them the fates decreed by the gods for the coming year.

It should be noted that Cyrus, in direct contrast to Sennacherib, actually restored the worship of Marduk after it had been casually set aside by Nabonidus, and only transferred gods in order to restore them to previous ownership. Thus this would not have been speaking of him. He gained the support of the priests of Marduk He did not rob them of their gods. This brings this writing directly into the days of Isaiah. The Babylon in mind is the Babylon in the days of Assyrian control.

However, while the prime purpose of this description is to indicate that Babylon’s end is approaching because of the helplessness and uselessness of her gods, Isaiah also uses it to contrast the gods of the nations with Yahweh.

Verses 3-7

While The Gods Of The Nations Have To Be Borne By Man And Beast, Yahweh Himself In Contrast Bears His People (Isaiah 46:3-7).

Isaiah 46:3-4

“Listen to me, O house of Jacob,

And all the remnant of the house of Israel,

Who have been borne by me from the belly,

Who have been carried from the womb.

And even to old age, I am He,

And even to grey hairs will I carry you,

I have made and I will bear,

Yes, I will carry and will deliver.”

In contrast with the ignominious situation of the gods of Babylon who have to be borne away on the backs of beasts or on carts, for His own people, God is the One Who Himself does the bearing. Those who have survived of Jacob/Israel after the Assyrian transportation of Israel and the subsequent massacres in Judah, and who are true to Him, have been ‘borne’ by Him from belly to birth, and through life until old age. He has made them and He will bear them, and what is more, in carrying them He will deliver them (as the Babylonian gods were even unable to do for the beasts who bore them). So Yahweh is the great Bearer of His people, and Himself never has to be carried. And He both carries and delivers His people.

Isaiah 46:5-7

“To whom will you liken me, and make me equal,

And compare me that we may be similar?

Such as lavish gold out of the bag,

And weigh silver in the balance,

They hire a goldsmith, and he makes it a god,

They fall down, yes, they worship.

They bear him on the shoulder, they carry him,

And set him in his place and he stands there,

He will not remove from his place,

Yes, one will cry to him, yet he cannot answer,

Nor save him out of his trouble.”

God wants all idols to be put firmly in their place. He asks contemptuously to whom they will liken Him and whom they will count as His equal, and put on a par with Him. Surely not the silver and gold image, made into a god by the goldsmith, who has to be carried everywhere and when set down stays exactly where he is put. And when someone cries to him he can neither answer nor deliver them out of trouble. For whatever they may claim, that is the fact of the matter. Will they really compare Him to Babylon and its idols, when all they are is a burden to their worshippers?

Verse 8

“Remember this and show yourselves men,

Bring it again to mind, O you transgressors.

Remember the former things of old,

For I am God and there is none else.

I am God and there 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.”

So they must reveal their manhood and their human intelligence by appreciating Who and what He is.

‘Remember this and show yourselves men’ probably means ‘remember what I am and what I have done, and the former things of old, and show that you are rational like men should be by understanding it and responding’. Or it may mean ‘show yourselves to be real men by responding in action’. The result is the same. This is the only use in the Old Testament of ’ish (man) as a verb. The next phrase then reveals His opinion of those He is speaking to. It stresses that they are transgressors. Thus for them a change of mind is needed.

This is an appeal to the unfaithful in Israel. He wants them to remember the former things of old which will prove that He, and He alone is God, and respond. Let them consider the gods of Babylon bobbing along on the backs of asses. Then let them consider the fact that He is the only God, and that this is revealed by the fact that He declares the end from the beginning, revealing the whole of things from beginning to end, and reveals things that have not happened long before they do. It is also revealed by the fact of His sovereign statements when He declares that what He has counselled will stand, and He will bring about what He determines. Thus He is supreme. How foolish of them then to transgress against Him.

‘Saying, “My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure.” There is a contrast here between Cyrus having done all His pleasure (Isaiah 44:28), and God’s own doing of His own pleasure. For His purposes and pleasure are longer lasting than the brief activity of Cyrus, separating the end from the beginning. Indeed they began when He called Abraham from the East in order that through his seed he might raise up His Servant to bless all nations and bring the world to Himself (Isaiah 41:2-10).

Verse 11

“Calling a bird of prey from the east,

The man of my counsel from a far country,

Yes I have spoken, I also bring it about,

I have purposed, I also will do it.”

Let them remember the former things, His ancient activity, and what He has declared which is still not yet done. Isaiah is now dealing with God’s prime purposes in history and their fulfilment, and he therefore again briefly recapitulates the advent of Abraham (Isaiah 41:2-4), for the prime example of Yahweh’s ancient activity is Abraham and the raising up of the Servant. He was called from the East and descended as a bird of prey on Canaan, establishing himself in the land, ridding it of the king of Babylon (Shinar) and then through his descendants driving out the inhabitants. He was also a man after God’s own heart, who did all His will and followed His counsel. He was truly and literally ‘a man of my counsel’. He above all men vividly received the counsel of Yahweh, and responded to it. His whole life resulted from following that counsel. Which was why (from Israel’s viewpoint) Egypt, Babylon and the Philistines all submitted to him.

Cyrus was not a man of God’s counsel. The men of God’s counsel were His messengers the prophets (Isaiah 44:26). And in the context the description requires one involved in God’s counsels from the beginning.

Abraham has already been described as ‘a man from the east’ in Isaiah 41:2, which see. And has previously been used to demonstrate Yahweh’s power to influence history (Isaiah 41:4). Now he is briefly brought back into the picture so that we are reminded of the prime message of this part of Isaiah, the coming forth of the Servant, preparatory to the destruction of that hindrance to all God’s working, Babylon, which is all part of the ancient plan. For Abraham is the original Servant.

‘The man of My counsel.’ We have been told in Isaiah 46:11 that His counsel is from ancient times, and goes on in terms of what is ‘not yet done. For He declares the end from the beginning. Thus the one in mind here must be someone involved continually in God’s plans, His Servant, who commenced with Abraham and will continue to the end. This was just not true of Cyrus who was a momentary bright star. But Abraham was the first prophet (Isaiah 44:26 with Genesis 20:7).

‘Bird of prey’ must not be seen as a derogatory title, any more than is ‘lion’ which can be used of God’s favourites (Numbers 23:24; Numbers 24:8-9). It is rather the description of someone strong and powerful descending swiftly on the unsuspecting, and seizing the prey, which is exactly what Abraham and his descendants did to their enemies.

Nor must the tenses of the verbs deceive us. As we have regularly seen they do not indicate chronology but completeness and incompleteness. We could paraphrase as ‘when I have spoken I bring it about, when I have purposed I do it’. And we must remember that when Abraham was called his seed was called in him. This would result in still future ‘callings’ for ‘Abraham’ in the call of the Servant at different times; in Moses, David and the like, and also the call of the true Israel to be His Servant, and finally the call of the greater David Who would finalise God’s purposes (see on Isaiah 41:1 to Isaiah 42:9). What He has spoken in Abraham He will bring about through his seed who entered Canaan in him (Isaiah 41:8).

In Isaiah 41:2 Abraham has been spoken of as ‘called in righteousness’, here he is described as ‘a man of my counsel’, both titles of full approval and demonstrating that he is fully pleasing to God. Furthermore we should note that this chapter has from Isaiah 46:3 been full of God’s care and concern for His people. It has described His bearing and carrying of them, His delivering of them, and His purposes for them from of old, in the controlling of history and carrying out of His will. Thus a brief reintroduction of the Servant here fits aptly

After the surprising prophecy about Cyrus, which was in order to demonstrate how Yahweh would bring in a new era in him, replacing the Temple and subduing the nations, we required some statement like this which would bring us back to the idea of God’s prime Servant through whom He will introduce His righteousness and place salvation in Zion for Israel His glory. For the truth is that there is really no reason for again introducing Cyrus here. He has been dispensed with in chapter 45. So here we are brought back to the idea of the original Servant. Isaiah’s primary concern is with the final triumph of God.

Note on The Bird of Prey From The East.

The most popular attribution by commentaries of this bird of prey from the East is to Cyrus. But that is largely due to reading subsequent history back into Isaiah, and often with a fixation which the text does not support. Because of subsequent history, with its concentration on the Exile in Babylon, they are seized with the idea that ‘Isaiah’ must be seen as in Babylon encouraging his people with the hope of a return from that land back to Jerusalem, and that this is therefore a picture of Cyrus swooping on Babylon. But that idea, while superficially attractive, is nowhere apparent from the text. It is certainly nowhere clearly stated there. The text deals in great principles, not in a limited situation of exiles coming home from Babylon. It is therefore something that we have rejected simply for that reason, because it is not what the text says. While superficially plausible it is not the situation that is actually being portrayed.

As we have seen the impression given by the text from the start is in fact far different. It is that Isaiah is in Jerusalem and seeking to evangelise the people of Israel, to bring to them the vision of God, to call exiles to return from all over the world, and supremely to bring out the activity of Yahweh’s Servant. Babylon, while having to be dealt with as the enemy of God supreme lurking in the background, is incidental to his main purpose (if Babylon can ever be called incidental), simply acting as the representative of all that is anti-God. It is the city that has to be destroyed because it is the deceiver of the nations and because of its great claims, and because it represents what is bad in all cities. It personifies the world city of Isaiah 24:10; Isaiah 25:2; Isaiah 26:6. It represents idolatry in opposition to God. That is why as the supreme enemy of God it has to be destroyed before the Servant can fulfil his work. But that is because it is a dark and threatening shadow in the background, not because it is actually seen as interfering in the main plot, apart from by its insidiousness.

This is something which had already been stressed in chapters 13-14, where Babylon, while treated as one of the nations rising against Assyria, was also depicted as something far greater than that. Whereas in Genesis 3 emphasis was put on the snake behind which lay a dark and shadowy influence, so throughout Isaiah emphasis is laid on Babylon, behind which is a similar dark and shadowy influence. Like the snake Babylon is picked out as the supreme rebel. Both centralise in themselves the world’s opposition to God. And this is so because from the very beginning Babylon had represented enmity against God. In Genesis 4 Cain in his rebellion ‘built a city’ (established occupation as a group in an encampment or network of caves) and this idea in turn later became centred on Babel (Genesis 10:10; Genesis 11:1-9; Genesis 14:1). Now that rebellion continues in Babylon.

In fact if we look from the point of view of history the destruction of Babylon actually described in Isaiah goes far beyond anything that Cyrus did. Babylon is to be totally destroyed, and it is Yahweh Who will bring it about as Israel’s Kinsman Redeemer (Isaiah 47:4). Cyrus in fact actually left Babylon largely unaffected except for its change of ruler.

And it will be noted how often it is necessary in Isaiah for commentators to apologise for the text because it does not quite say what they want it to say. They would rather suggest that Isaiah was wrong (about for example the Medes in chapter 13) than discard their interesting but mistaken hypothesis. But the hypothesis to accept is, if at all possible, the one that fits the facts stated.

For the problem is that the text is continually uncompliant with their hypothesis. It just does not say what they want it to say. The truth is that if describing and calling for the return of exile from Babylon was what the writer was mainly trying to do he has gone a strange way about it. He has constantly refused to make any reference to captivity in Babylon, he has spoken regularly as if he were in Jerusalem, he has not brought mention of Babylon in at crucial points, and when he has referred to the return of exiles it has been of worldwide exiles, not of Babylonian exiles.

What he has actually concentrated on has mainly been the raising of God’s Servant preparatory to God’s worldwide triumph, while, apart from its fate at His hands, Babylon has been almost ignored. And it will continue to be so except as an example of God’s great enemy who has to be dealt with, as already demanded in 13-14. Its mention was necessary to Isaiah because it symbolised ‘the city’ as against God. It thus symbolised all cities. That is why it is the one city for which no future hope is ever prophesied. Babylon is to him the example of all that is at enmity with God, and seeking to drag men down, and must therefore be destroyed utterly. But that his silence in so many places about Babylon was not because he was afraid of offending Babylon comes out in his quite open prophecy of its humiliation and destruction in both Isaiah 43:14 and 47. When he does speak of it, it is as what is most insidious, a strange approach to someone supposed to be avoiding offence.

This non-mention of Babylon was true even when writing of the activity of Cyrus. Nothing is said there about Babylon, and even when the destruction of Babylon is described in chapter 47, it is neither connected by the writer with Cyrus, nor with the deliverance of exiles. It stands on its own as an indication of God’s final purpose for Babylon (a destruction never actually brought about by Cyrus). And yet, as we have pointed out above, the declaration that Babylon is to be destroyed is evidence enough that he did not veil his writing in fear of what the Babylonians might do.

It is true that there is one reference (Isaiah 48:20) which could just possibly be interpreted as referring to exiles returning from Babylon, but even that is doubtful. The plea there is for those associated with Babylon to disassociate themselves with it in haste. It does not read like an orderly return from Babylon with the agreement of the overlord (Ezra 1), such as later took place. It reads as a desperate flight from all that is evil. A return of exiles from there might indeed be seen as expected and necessary in view of Isaiah 11:11 and Isaiah 39:6-7, but surely not in these terms. This is not a call to people who have settled in Babylonia to return home, it is a call to all those actually involved with Babylon, to desert her before it is to late. It does not necessarily totally exclude the thought that exiles might be in mind, they too should flee, but it is certainly not a strong case for it.

We can safely say that if someone who knew little of history picked up the book of Isaiah and read it he would not come away with the idea that chapters 40-55 were dealing with a return of God’s people from Babylon. If he noticed the occasional mention of Babylon he would merely see it as greatly emphasising the need for its destruction. He may see such a destruction as partly due to what Babylon would do to Judah as described in Isaiah 39:6-7, but he would not see it as part of the main plot. He would certainly note that the need for Babylon to be destroyed is repeated in both sections of the book (especially chapters 13-14 and 47), but he would note that that was because of what Babylon signified rather than because of exiles. Thus if he also knew of the references in Genesis he would surely feel that he had gained the clue he was looking for.

Indeed the fact that the impression gained by scholars is of its application to the Babylon situation is rather an indication of the genius of prophecy. Regularly some prophecy which appears only to have one application, does in the future become fulfilled in a totally unexpected way. It is as though God has prepared the way for what is to happen. It demonstrates that such prophecy fits many situations. Consequently in giving His message through Isaiah here we may see God as providing a primer for Israel in whatever situation they found themselves. And that included large scale exile in Babylon. But it does not specifically have that in mind.

And once we rid our minds of the idea that the bird of prey is to descend on Babylon at this point, its application to Cyrus (well away, be it noted, from the context in which Cyrus is dealt with, which is limited to Isaiah 44:27 to Isaiah 45:13) becomes extremely unlikely. This bird of prey has rather come in order to establish righteousness among those who are far from righteousness (Isaiah 46:12-13), and is playing a part in God’s eternal purposes.

End of note.

Verse 12-13

“Listen to me you stubborn-hearted,

You who are far from righteousness,

I am bringing near my righteousness,

It will not be far off,

And my salvation will not linger,

And I will place salvation in Zion,

For Israel my glory.”

This is an apt ending to a chapter which has concentrated on God’s uniqueness and the fulfilment of His purposes, which is Isaiah’s constant prime concern. It explains why Yahweh has brought His bird of prey, who executes His counsel, from the east. It is a call to the stubborn people of his day, in accordance with his instructions at his inaugural call (Isaiah 6:9-13), to recognise all that God is going to do. For through His Servant Yahweh will certainly bring about His salvation in Zion for the sake of the true Israel, who are His prized possession, the one who is to bring glory to His name.

‘You stubborn-hearted who are far from righteousness.’ There could be no more apt description than this of Isaiah’s hearers as Isaiah 6:9-13 makes clear. Their hearts are stubborn, they are far from righteousness. But God is going to bring His righteousness near. He is going to establish a righteous people. And from the point of view of God’s timing it is not far off. His deliverance in righteousness will not linger.

This last is a constant theme of Scripture. Man may see the end as delayed, but God sees it as fast approaching (e.g. Habakkuk 2:3; Hebrews 10:37). Note the paralleling of righteousness and deliverance. When God delivers it is always in righteousness, and God’s deliverance is always a righteous act and contains, and results in, righteousness.

And then finally salvation will be in Zion, the end to which all has been leading up, the culmination of the call of Abraham, the bird of prey from the East. And God’s true and faithful Israel will be His glory, His prized possession, that which brings glory to Him and in which He delights. The picture is of God’s final triumph, the establishing of the everlasting kingdom, the full deliverance of the true people of God.

(For the use of glory to mean prized possessions, wealth and power see for example Isaiah 8:7; Isaiah 10:3; Isaiah 10:16; Isaiah 16:14; Isaiah 17:3-4 (where the glory is sparse); Isaiah 21:16; Ezekiel 24:25; Ezekiel 25:9; Ezekiel 26:20; Zechariah 11:3).

To the prophets, apart from Ezekiel who sidelines Jerusalem and places the heavenly Temple well away from it, allowing Jerusalem only peripheral significance as far as the worship of God is concerned, a restored and glorified ‘Zion’ is seen as the final goal of history. They had little conception of an afterlife, although Isaiah does occasionally have moments of inspiration concerning such (Isaiah 26:19; Isaiah 51:6). Instead they use a renewed Zion as a picture of God’s final triumph. The whole world will respond to Mount Zion where God dwells. They will all come to His feet. But as Isaiah constantly makes clear he has in mind the everlasting kingdom. He is depicting pictorially God’s final triumph. Any literal interpretation of Zion’s future as depicted in the prophets can only end up in contradiction and chaos. (We note that few ever try to bring them all together).

If we cavil at this we must remember that the truth is that even we cannot speak of Heaven literally. It is beyond our conceptions as well, so that even John in Revelation had to use earthly figures which if taken literally become absurd. All have to speak of God’s future kingdom in idealistic terms, based on pictures from this world which must not be overpressed, and constant reference to its everlastingness is to warn us against taking it too literally. They had no other method that they could use.

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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Isaiah 46". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". 2013.