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Isaiah 46

Chapter Forty-six:

v. 1:  The fact that Bel and Nebo[1] were Babylonian gods is a clue that Isaiah is still speaking about Babylon.

Vs. 2-4:  God shows the impotence of these so-called gods by comparing their ability to save with his own ability.  The references for “they” in v. 2 are a little confusing, so the exact interpretation is somewhat elusive, but the general sense is fairly clear: the pagan gods are completely useless as saviors.  I believe that the “they” of “They stoop, they bow down together” refers to Bel and Nebo since Bel and Nebo are said to bow and stoop in verse one.  It is not unreasonable to continue interpreting “they” as a reference to these gods throughout the rest of the verse.  If one does this, the passage could be paraphrased to say that the gods cannot save the burden (their followers) nor even themselves.  But I do not believe this is the correct interpretation.  Since the stooping and bowing of these gods is described as part of their being “loaded as burdens on weary animals” in verse one, I believe the “they” of “They cannot save the burden” refers to the idolaters who worship the gods; the burden they bear is the collection of their idols, which they are trying to save, but in the end they fail and cannot even save themselves.

The irony of this latter interpretation is much stronger, especially when the impotence of the gods is compared to the power of the LORD:  Whereas the follower of false gods is forced to try in vain to save those gods by carrying them out of danger, the true God saves his followers by carrying them out of danger.  God says of his people: “[you] have been borne by me from your birth” and “even to your old age…I will carry you.”  The last stroke against the idols is at the end of v. 4.  Idolaters make their gods and then are forced to bear them.  But God says, “I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.”

Since there are some parallels between the Ark of the covenant and these idols which Isaiah is mocking, I think some time should be devoted to these parallels and to why the Ark is fundamentally different from idols in spite of such parallels.  First, I will list only the undisputable parallels that come to mind:

1)  Both the Ark and these idols were material products of skilled craftsmen.

2)  Both the Ark and these idols were kept in the holiest areas of the temple(s).

3)  Both the Ark and these idols were carried away as plunder by conquerors.

A skeptic might point to these parallels and conclude that Isaiah is being hypocritical in mocking idolaters.

1)  A skeptic might say that if one mocks an idol simply because it is made of physical material (44:14-17) one ought to mock the Ark since it is made of the same material.

2)  He might also say that both the Ark and an idol functioned in the same way as the central objects of religious devotion.

3)  He might also point out that if one mocks an idolater for being so stupid as to worship an idol that can be plundered and carried away by conquerors, one ought to mock the Israelites for worshiping a God who was unable to save the Ark from being plundered and carried away by conquerors.

In response to such conclusions I would answer:

1)  Isaiah is not mocking the idolaters simply because their idols are made of physical material.  In fact, he praises their quality as works of skilled artisans.  What he mocks is the fact that these works of art are actually worshiped as gods, that a creature’s creation is worshiped rather than the creature’s creator.

2)  It depends upon what one means by “central objects of religious devotion.”  If, by this phrase, one means “the thing which the people worship,” then it certainly does not apply to the Ark.  The Ark functioned as a point of focus for religious ritual, but it was explicitly not the thing that the Hebrews worshiped.  They worshiped God.  Isaiah’s mockery of the idolaters suggests that they worshiped the material object itself as their god.  It may be that the more thoughtful and reflective idolaters only considered the material objects to be representations of an actual, immaterial god,[2] but it seems very reasonable to believe that the great mass of idolaters drew no practical distinction between material idols immaterial gods.  The fact that (at best) they recognized idols as representations of the gods themselves suggests that idolaters would have made stronger associations between the material symbol and the immaterial god it represents.  By contrast, the Ark is not a representation of God himself, but of the throne (Mercy Seat) of God.

3)  The Bible does not say whether or not the Babylonians stole or destroyed the Ark; the ultimate fate of the Ark is a mystery.[3]  Nevertheless, scriptures do give an account of another occasion on which the Ark was stolen: 1st Samuel 4-6.  On that occasion, however, God demonstrated that he is quite capable of defending the Ark when he chooses to.  God let it fall into the hands of the Philistines to teach the Hebrews a lesson: the Ark itself is nothing without the favor of God.  He let the Philistines capture the Ark to teach the idolaters a lesson as well: the only true God (or at least the most powerful god) is the god of the Hebrews.  In the account of the Ark’s sojourn among the Philistines, the scriptures note that a statue of Dagon, one of the gods of the Philistines, fell down in the presence of the Ark, breaking its hands and head off.  I wonder if all the references to the bowing and stooping of idols in this chapter are subtle allusions to that event?

v. 10:  When a prophet says what is to come, he speaks merely as an observer.  According to this verse, when God says what is to come, he speaks as both an observer and a director of the future.

v. 11:  The bird of prey must be Cyrus.

v. 12:  I suppose God’s audience here is Israel.  The Jews are stubborn and reluctant to believe that their deliverance from the Babylonian Captivity is at hand:  “You who [in your unbelieving minds] are far from deliverance [should know that] I bring near my deliverance, it is not far off.”

[1] The name “Nebuchadnezzar” refers to Nebo.

[2] In such cases, I believe God was drawing the idolaters toward a higher understanding of divinity, leading them by this and other things (such as an awareness of universal virtues and of the Original Intelligence implicit in Creation) to a knowledge of the true God.  Some pagans (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, The Magi of the east who came to honor Christ) benefited from such knowledge even without the direct instruction of the Hebrew prophets and scriptures.


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