This chapter presents the Lord as the One who both acts and speaks: his actions are accompanied by an interpretative word, which summons the hears to respond. The idols can neither act nor speak; but the Lord predicts future events and brings them to pass in due course, v5, and invites belief, vv17-19, and action, v20f.
There is a clear contrast here between the faithfulness of God and the unfaithfulness of his people.
This chapter links with the previous chapters in several ways, with several repeated or contrasting phrases and ideas. ‘The key elements in the prophet’s scandalous vision of Yahweh’s purpose are all now on the table. The prophet has named Cyrus and Babylon and portrayed the fall of Babylon’s gods and of the city itself. All that is to be said about these matters will have been said by the end of chapter 48. There will be no more reference to Babylon and Cyrus, no more asserting that Yahweh alone is God, no more overt arguing with the Judean community – indeed little more reference to Jacob-Israel. The sermon now looks for a response.’ (Goldingay)
Chapter 47 deals with the failures of Babylon; the present chapter with those of Israel. ‘With the idols eliminated (Isa 44:24-46:13) and the political power of Babylon shattered (ch 47), there remains the principal obstacle to the new exodus, Israel itself’ (R. Lack, cited by Goldingay).
‘The audience has already heard of God’s unhappiness with Babylon (chaps. 46–47), but now Israel is condemned; so in reality it is not that different from Babylon. It, too, will suffer if the people do not listen and respond to what God has said. In the light of all these many failures, if Israel has any real hope for the future, it is primarily due to the nature of her God, who ultimately does what he plans for his own glory and for his own name’s sake (48:11).’ (Smith, NAC)
Stubborn Israel, 1-21Isa 48:1 “Listen to this, O house of Jacob, you who are called by the name of Israel and come from the line of Judah, you who take oaths in the name of the LORD and invoke the God of Israel– but not in truth or righteousness–
“Listen” – Words of hearing and listening occur ten times in this chapter.
They have the right name and the right breeding. They talk readily of the Lord and the holy city. But, in reality, they are hypocrites (vv1,4,8) and idolaters, v5. ‘Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel’, Rom 9:6.
Matthew Henry comments on ‘how high their profession of religion soared, what a fair show they made in the flesh and how far they went towards heaven, what a good livery they wore and what a good face they put upon a very bad heart.’
These people ‘had the right birthright, were part of the right social or ethnic group, and were associated with the right God, but unfortunately none of these right connections mattered because they did not have a profound impact on their lives (cf. 1:10–17). God has never been greatly impressed with good actors who can play their part, repeat all the right lines, or pretend that they know and deeply love him. His truth will unmask the fraud in every person’s life.’ (Smith, NAC)
From the line of Judah – lit, ‘from the waters of Judah’. The underlying text is problematic. It is clear enough, however, that the reference is to the children of Judah.
Barnes: ‘The idea is, that Judah was the fountain, or origin of the people who were then exiled in Babylon. The ten tribes had revolted, and had been carried away, and the name of Benjamin had been absorbed in that of Judah, and this had become the common name of the nation. Perhaps Judah is mentioned here with honor as the fountain of the nation, because it was from him that the Messiah was to descend Genesis 49:10 : and this mention of his name would serve to bring that promise to view, and would be an assurance that the nation would not be destroyed, nor the power finally depart until He should come.’
But not in truth or righteousness – ‘All our religious professions avail nothing further than they are made in truth and righteousness. If we be not sincere in them, we do but take the name of the Lord our God in vain.’ (MHC)
Isa 48:2 you who call yourselves citizens of the holy city and rely on the God of Israel– the LORD Almighty is his name:
Cf. Mt 3:9.
The Lord Almighty is his name – ‘The object of the prophet in here mentioning his holy name is, probably, to show them the guilt of their conduct. He was Yahweh, the source of all existence. He was the God of all the hosts of heaven, and all the armies on earth. How wicked, therefore, it was to come before him in a false and hypocritical manner, and while they were professedly worshipping him, to be really offering their hearts to idols, and to be characteristically inclined to relapse into idolatry!’ (Barnes)
Isa 48:3 I foretold the former things long ago, my mouth announced them and I made them known; then suddenly I acted, and they came to pass.
Here is a familiar theme in this section of Isaiah: the Lord predicted certain events in the past, which have unfailingly come to pass; how then can his people continue in neglect and disbelief of his word?
“I foretold…I acted” – Here, as always in Isaiah, God’s fore-knowledge goes hand-in-hand with his fore-ordination. On other occasions, the argument from prophecy has been directed at the heathen and their impotent idols; now it is directed against the Lord’s own people.
With regard to God’s previous promises and fulfilments, we think, with Calvin, of the promise of progeny to Abraham, Gen 15:13f, and of the land to Moses.
‘The very calamities they were now groaning under in Babylon God did from the beginning declare to them by Moses, as the certain consequences of their apostasy from God, Lev. 26:31, etc.; Deu. 28:36, etc.; 29:28. He also declared to them their return to God, and to their own land again, Deu. 30:4, etc.; Lev. 26:44, 45.’ (MHC)
Isa 48:4 For I knew how stubborn you were; the sinews of your neck were iron, your forehead was bronze.
To the accusation of hypocrisy, v1, is added that of stubbornness. Israel would have refused to believe that God had fulfilled his will unless he had broadcast his intentions beforehand.
The sinews of your neck were iron, your forehead was bronze – In your obstinacy, you could not turn your head to look in and turn to a new direction, and any appeals that were made to you simply bounced off your hard and insensible skulls.
Isa 48:5 Therefore I told you these things long ago; before they happened I announced them to you so that you could not say, ‘My idols did them; my wooden image and metal god ordained them.’
‘My idols did them’ – They attributed the works of the living God to their lifeless idols. In what ways do we do the same, with our modern idolatries?
Calvin asks why idols are mentioned, since the Jews professed worship of one God: ‘The answer is that they had been corrupted by associating with the Gentiles and had degenerated into superstitions to such an extent that they had entirely forgotten God.’
Isa 48:6 You have heard these things; look at them all. Will you not admit them? “From now on I will tell you of new things, of hidden things unknown to you.
“Will you not admit them?” – ‘Will you not own that the Lord is the true God, the only true God, that he has the knowledge and power which no creature has and which none of the gods of the nations can pretend to? Will you not own that your God has been a good God to you? Declare this to his honour, and your own shame, who have dealt so deceitfully with him and preferred others before him.’ (MHC)
“I will tell you of new things” – Just as the Lord has predicted and brought to fulfilment past events, so he has now predicted, and will bring into effect, release from the Babylonian captivity.
Some have detected an apparent contradiction between this statement and that in v16 (“I have not spoken in secret”). But the problem is more apparent than real. The Lord has predicted future events in sufficient detail to demonstrate his power, over against the powerlessness of the idols. But for mortals to be given full disclosure of future events would be disastrous.
Isa 48:7 They are created now, and not long ago; you have not heard of them before today. So you cannot say, ‘Yes, I knew of them.’
Isa 48:8 You have neither heard nor understood; from of old your ear has not been open. Well do I know how treacherous you are; you were called a rebel from birth.
To the accusations of hypocrisy and stubbornness is added that of treachery. The did not only neglect God’s word; they also perverted it, ascribing his words and deeds to speechless, lifeless, idols. So had their forefathers done after the Exodus, Ex 32:4.
The accusation of treachery had previously been made against Assyria, Isa 33;1. ‘Israel, with a vocation to make the world like itself, rather allowed the world to squeeze it into its own mould (Rom 12:1–2).’ (Motyer)
“A rebel from birth” – ‘It is as natural for fallen man to sin, as it is to breathe.’ (Flavel)
Isa 48:9 For my own name’s sake I delay my wrath; for the sake of my praise I hold it back from you, so as not to cut you off.
The preceding complaints of Israel’s hypocrisy, stubbornness and treachery might well lead the Lord to say, “Why do I bother? Why deliver my people when what they deserve is judgment?” As modern Christians, we might expect any positive answer to these question to be explained in terms of God’s love. That would not, of course, be incorrect. But against the dark background of human unfaithfulness, it is the Lord’s faithfulness that stands out: his commitment to his people arises out of his own glorious character (‘for my own name’s sake’, v9), it leads him to test and refine his people, v10, and is utterly resolute, v11.
Barnes puts it well: ‘‘If the character of the nation is such, it might be said, ‘why should God desire to restore them again to their own land? If their sins have been so great as to make these heavy judgments proper, why not suffer them to remain under the infliction of the deserved judgment? Why should God interpose? why raise up Cyrus? why overthrow Babylon? why conduct them across a pathless wilderness, and provide for them in a sandy desert?’ To this the answer is, that it was not on their account. It was not because they were deserving of his favor, nor was it primarily and mainly in order that they might be happy. It was on his own account – in order to show his covenant faithfulness; his fidelity to the promises made to their fathers, his mercy, his compassion, his readiness to pardon, and his unchanging love. And this is the reason why he ‘defers his anger,’ in relation to any of the children of people. His own glory, and not their happiness, is the main object in view.’
For my own name’s sake I delay my wrath – just as he did in response to Moses’ pleading, Ex 32:11-14 and Num 14:11-19. Cf. 1 Sam 12:22; Psa 79:9; 106:8; Jer 14:7, 21; Eze 20:9ff; The word used for ‘delay’ was used of muzzling an animal in order to restrain it. ‘Restrain’, then, might be a better word.
We have here a strong statement concerning the Lord’s covenant faithfulness. This aspect receives strong emphasis in the teaching of Tom Wright: ‘The exile served as a symbol of Israel’s recapitulation of the sin of Adam and Eve, corresponding to their expulsion from Eden after their disobedience. At this point of exile, with the covenant tested to the limit, the Psalms go back to creation in their appeal to God to fulfil his ‘righteousness’ (Psalm 74, for example). Similarly, Isaiah 40–55, with the additional message that the path to covenant renewal will somehow come through the suffering of God’s ‘servant’. The book of Daniel also reflects this theme, indicating Israel’s eventual vindication after suffering at the hands of pagans.’ (Summarised by Kurt, Tom Wright for Everyone, ch. 3).
Isa 48:10 See, I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.
I have refined you, though not as silver – Silver is refined in the crucible until no dross remains. If the Lord had refined Israel like that, nothing would have remained.
The furnace of affliction harks back to Egypt, Deut 4:20; 1 King 8:51, although in the present context it could refer to Babylon.
Isa 48:11 For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this. How can I let myself be defamed? I will not yield my glory to another.
“I will not yield my glory to another” – Cf. Isa 42:8. ‘God will give temporal blessings to his children, such as wisdom, riches, honour; he will give them spiritual blessings, he will give them grace, he will give them his love, he will give them heaven; but his essential glory he will not give to another. King Pharaoh parted with a ring off his finger to Joseph, and a gold chain, but he would not part with his throne. Gen 41:40. “Only in the throne will I be greater than thou.” So God will do much for his people; he will give them the inheritance; he will put some of Christ’s glory, as mediator, upon them; but his essential glory he will not part with; “in the throne he will be greater.”‘ (Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity)
The argument here is that although the Lord had good reason to lose patience with his people, he would not allow his reputation (his ‘name’) to suffer the indignity that would arise from the nations being allowed to think that he was not capable of saving his people.
God will not share his glory with idols, nor with anything else that has been formed by human hands or by the human imagination.
Israel freed, 12-22A major section (chapters 40-48) is drawing to a close.
There are some now-familiar themes in this passage: Israel as God’s chosen people (v12), the Lord as beginning and end (v13) and as Creator (v13). The Lord’s ability to foretell the future, as over against the impotence of the idols (v14), the calling of Cyrus (v15), the Servant of the Lord (v16), the Lord as Redeemer of his people (v17), a reminder of why his people are in such dire straights (v18f), an announcement of the end of their exile (v20), and a recollection of his earlier deliverance at the time of the exodus (v21).
Isa 48:12 “Listen to me, O Jacob, Israel, whom I have called: I am he; I am the first and I am the last.
“Listen to me” – Repeated at v14 and v16, marking the divisions in this section of the poem. And then, in v18, the Lord says, in effect, ‘If only you had listened…’
“Israel, whom I have called” – God’s people may have been unfaithful to their calling, v1, but the God who has called them is still faithful.
“I am he” – This statement contrasts with the proud boast of Babylon in Isa 47:8,10.
I am the first and I am the last – cf. Isa 41:4; 44:6. The Lord is sovereign over all of history, from its beginning to its end.
‘As first the Lord was not under any external compulsion to do what he did (either in the creation of the world or in the calling of Israel); as last he stands at the end unchallenged by any force that might have tried to oppose him, bringing to triumphant conclusion (for the world and for Israel) what he started (Phil. 1:6).’ (Motyer)
‘After all his outspokenness he can still affirm both his call (v12) and his love, and give the liberating command, Leave Babylon (v20).’ (NBC)
Isa 48:13 My own hand laid the foundations of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens; when I summon them, they all stand up together.
From the laying down of the deepest foundations of the earth, to the spreading out of the vast heavens, the Lord is sovereign over all of his creation; and not just in its origin, but in its continuation.
When I summon them – the Lord only has to speak the word, and the earth and heavens must obey. Such God can summon Cyrus, and he will carry out God’s will.
‘All these factors are intended to exalt God in the eyes of the Israelites. If the words of God’s mouth are this powerful and his hands are this skilled, surely the Hebrew audience can listen to what he has to say.’ (Smith, NAC)
Isa 48:14 “Come together, all of you, and listen: Which of the idols has foretold these things? The Lord’s chosen ally will carry out his purpose against Babylon; his arm will be against the Babylonians.
The Lord of the cosmos, v13, is also Lord of history.
Come together, all of you, and listen – This challenge to the nations and their dumb and lifeless idols echoes that in Isa 41.
Which of the idols has foretold these things – the things that have been foretold concerning Cyrus, Isa 41:2, 25; 44:28–45:5; 45:13; 46:11.
‘This is an appeal similar to that which God has often made, that he alone can predict future events. None of the astrologers, soothsayers, or diviners of Babylon had been able to foretell the expedition and the conquests of Cyrus, and the capture of the city. If they had been able to foresee the danger, they might have guarded against it, and the city might have been saved.’ (Barnes)
The Lord’s chosen ally will carry out his purpose against Babylon – this makes it clear, for the first time, that Cyrus will be God’s agent in bringing down Babylon.
Ally – the underlying word is translated ‘friend’ in Isa 41:8.
Motyer points out an interesting anticipation of a reference to Marduk on the Cyrus Cylinder, where he is described as one who ‘called Cyrus…went at his side like a friend’. But, remarks Motyer, Marduk was wise only after the event, whereas Isaiah predicted how a greater ‘ally’ would superintend the whole plant.
His arm will be against the Babylonians – ‘This phrase indicates that it is God’s arm that will accomplish his pleasure, even though an earthly ruler will accomplish God’s will on earth.’ (Smith, NAC)
Once again (cf. Isa 41:21-24 etc.) the argument from prediction and fulfilment is prominent.
Isa 48:15 I, even I, have spoken; yes, I have called him. I will bring him, and he will succeed in his mission.
Isa 48:16 “Come near me and listen to this: “From the first announcement I have not spoken in secret; at the time it happens, I am there.” And now the Sovereign LORD has sent me, with his Spirit.
The Lord himself has been addressing his people; now there is an abrupt change of speaker. Some commentators think that the prophet is imagining the response by Cyrus. Others (including Goldingay) think it is the prophet himself, claiming divine inspiration for his message. But still others think it is the Servant of the Lord (cf. Isa 42:1; 49:1-6; 50:4; 61:1).
The Sovereign Lord has sent me, with his Spirit – Whereas some commentators, including Young and Motyer, identify the ‘me’ as the Servant, others, such as Calvin and Oswalt, think that the prophet is referring to himself.
Since Jesus will see himself as the Servant, we may have here ‘a remarkable glimpse, from afar, of the Trinity’ (NBC). ‘Perhaps he is introduced here because Cyrus’s work is simply a harbinger of the much greater deliverance he would bring to God’s people.’ (EBC)
Why does the Servant ‘step from the shadows’ (Motyer) at this point? The Lord is the ruler of creation, v13, and of history (as seen in the rise of Cyrus), v14f; and the coming of the Servant is that to which creation points and in which history reaches its climax.
Does this verse witness to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity? Charles Simeon introduced his sermon on this verse with the following wise comment: ‘So mysterious and important a doctrine as that of a Trinity of Persons in the Godhead ought not to be founded on any grounds which are not clear, strong, adequate, convincing. But it may be illustrated from passages on which we could not altogether venture to establish it. Such is the passage which I have now brought before you.’ (Horae Homileticae).
Isa 48:17 This is what the LORD says– your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: “I am the LORD your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go.
Motyer remarks that the thought of peace brackets vv17-22 – the peace that might have been (v18), and the peace that cannot be (v22).
Redeemer – the Lord is so called ten times in chapters 40-55, six of these being linked with his title as ‘the Holy One of Israel’. Wonder that ‘the Holy One’ should embrace his wayward people as their Next of Kin.
‘Whatever help he brings to his people (Isa 41:8), whatever rescue he effects (Isa 43:14), whatever victory he wins (Isa 47:4)—whatever burden he takes from them and loads on to himself—he remains the Holy One’ (Motyer). And this disparity between the Lord’s holiness and his people’s disobedience must be taken into account, and will be highlighted in v22.
Isa 48:18 If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your righteousness like the waves of the sea. Isa 48:19 Your descendants would have been like the sand, your children like its numberless grains; their name would never be cut off nor destroyed from before me.”
If only… – ‘They are extraordinary words for a God to utter. The book called Isaiah often portrays Yahweh as a God of huge power. Indeed, this very section has done so. when Yahweh speaks, the very heavens stand at attention (v13). When Yahweh decides to do something, it happens. Yet Yahweh’s relationship with Jacob-Israel is the exception to this rule. Other peoples may occasionally resist Yahweh’s purpose, through they then soon pay the penalty (as the previous chapter declared). The people of God (Israel or the church) is able to continue resisting God over the centuries with some degree of impunity. It does lose in the short term, failing to find the promises to Abraham fulfilled in its life (v19a). Indeed Yahweh looks over the precipice of its ultimate destruction, and invites Jacob-Israel to do so (v19b). But we have again and again heard how impossible it would be for Yahweh to go back on the commitment to achieving a purpose in the world through this people. We heard this most recently in verses 9-11, in all their toughness. this commitment to Jacob-Israel reduces Yahweh to an “if only” before its recalcitrance, like that of parents angry and grieved at their (adult) children’s waywardness and theit consequent unhappiness, but unable to force them to live the way the parents would wish, and unable to cease being parents.’ (Goldingay)
These verses wistfully ponder what might have been: peace, flowing like a river; righteousness, mighty as the crashing waves; covenant blessings, described in terms of numberless descendants; security in a life lived in God’s favour. Cf. Psa 81:13-16.
It is late, but, in the faithfulness of God, not too late.
‘Obedience promises, first, peace, all-round well-being—Godward, manward, selfward (Isa 9:6; 26:3, 12; 32:17)—and that peace is as a constant, full reality, a river (Isa 66:12), not a seasonal stream; and, secondly, righteousness, here a life conformed to what is right before God.’ (Motyer)
Your peace would have been… – ‘O what peace we often forfeit!’ In bidding farewell to peace, they were bidding farewell ‘to all health of soul and society’ (NBC).
River – flowing continuously (not fitfully, like a seasonal stream).
Waves – boundless, constantly rolling.
Your descendants would have been like the sand – If only they had listened, the promises made to Abraham (Gen 22:17; 32:13) would already have been realised.
‘Every sensitive teacher knows the pain of heart that comes when one pours oneself out for one’s students who prove to be unteachable. Israel proved to be like that (cf. v.8); and God expresses his deep concern for them, because they are themselves the losers.’ (EBC)
‘This should engage us (I might say, enrage us) against sin, that it has not only deprived us of the good things we have enjoyed, but prevented the good things God had in store for us. It will make the misery of the disobedient the more intolerable to think how happy they might have been.’ (MHC)
Isa 48:20 Leave Babylon, flee from the Babylonians! Announce this with shouts of joy and proclaim it. Send it out to the ends of the earth; say, “The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob.”
The people have failed their Lord, v18f; but he remains faithful.
Leave…flee! – This involves a turning away from Babylon’s worldview as well as a turning to the redemption that is now offered. The call to flee implies that the people (many of whom had never seen their homeland) might reckon that their lot was better where they were.
This is the last time that Babylon is mentioned in Isaiah.
Leave (lit. ‘go out’) and flee are, says Motyer, exodus words (cf. Ex 12:41; 13:3; 14:5).
It was not inevitable that the people would relish the prospect of returning home from Babylon. ‘They had followed the counsel of Jeremiah (Jer 29:4–7) and had houses, gardens, and families; and it would not be easy for them to pack up and go to the holy land. But that was where they belonged and where God had a work for them to do.’ (Wiersbe)
Isa 48:21 They did not thirst when he led them through the deserts; he made water flow for them from the rock; he split the rock and water gushed out.
The One who redeems his people (v20) also sustains them; the One who leads them into the wilderness also sustains them in the wilderness.
This sudden move from the future to the past picks up a familiar Isaiahan theme: what God has promised to do in the future is patterned on and guaranteed by what he has accomplished in the past. ‘The people’s confidence in God as their Redeemer from Babylonia was to be based on his redeeming love demonstrated at the Exodus and his care of his people during their journey through the desert.’ (EBC)
He made water flow for them from the rock – cf. Ex 17:6; Num 20:11.
Isa 48:22 “There is no peace,” says the LORD, “for the wicked.”
This verse, although seeming like an abrupt intrusion, is, in fact, the counterpart of v1. In that verse, God’s people are represented as having all the outward appearances of true religion, but lacking true faith and obedience. In the present verse, they are looking forward to returning to their God-given homeland, but if their hearts remain wicked they will experience no real and lasting peace. ‘A change of address,’ says Motyer, ‘is not a change of heart.’
Peace has previously been offered, but spurned, v18; cf. Isa 57:21. Let not the returned exiles say, ‘We are home; we are now at peace’, if their hearts are still unchanged.
Prior (BST) is convinced that ‘the wicked’ must be the unbelieving exiles themselves. ‘And because this problem [of failing to listen to the Lord, v17f] is still unresolved, their return to the land will not bring the fullness of blessing they hope for. They will spoil the next chapter in their history m, just as they have spoilt all the previous ones.’
‘No one among the exiles should think that they will be safe simply because they bear the name ‘Israel’. That does not make them immune from God’s judgment. The promised blessings only apply to those within Israel who seek the LORD in truth and righteousness (cf. Isa 48:1).’ (Harman)
“If a wicked man seems to have peace at death, it is not from the knowledge of his happiness, but from the ignorance of his danger.” (Thomas Watson)