Isaiah chapters 46 and 47 deal with the fall of Babylon and the utterly useless idols in which the nation had trusted (Dan 5:23). There is a contrast between them and Yahweh Who has preserved His people from their inception.

Chapter 47 focuses on the arrogance of Babylon and her swift demise. Citations from this chapter in the Apocalypse (v7–9, Rev 18:7–8) inform us that these events are but a cameo of greater events, when “Babylon the Great” will be utterly destroyed by the antitypical Cyrus, and the people of God again delivered and restored to Zion.

46:1–2 Bel and Nebo: the Burdensome Gods

Verses 1–2 “Bel boweth down, Nebo stoopeth, their idols were upon the beasts, and upon the cattle: your carriages were heavy loaden; they are a burden to the weary beast. They stoop they bow down together; they could not deliver the burden, but themselves are gone into captivity.”

Bel, or Marduk, was the chief city-god of Babylon and Nebo was Bel’s son and the city-god of Borsippa near Babylon. He was the god of writing and wisdom and each year his image was brought to Babylon to accompany Bel in the new year procession. He “wrote” on the table of Destiny the fates as decreed by the gods for the ensuing year! Nebo was incorporated in names, such as Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuzaradan and Nabonidus; and Bel appears in Belteshazzar (Dan 7:1) and Belshazzar (Dan 5:1), showing the honour in which they were held.

Isaiah foretells the fall of Babylon by informing his readers that the idols will be removed from their pedestals, be laden onto beasts of burden and be borne away into captivity (cp Jer 48:7).

“your carriages were heavy loaden” (ROTH ‘the things ye carried about are become a load’; NIV ‘their images that are carried’)

That is, they were paraded in Babylon’s religious processions, but alas, now their mystique has gone, there is no more pomp as they are borne away to be paraded instead in the victory procession of their vanquisher, Cyrus!

“they stoop, they bow down together”

The idol is very heavy, a dead weight, a burden for the pack animals to carry. As the beast of burden becomes weary and bows down under the sheer weight, so the idol is humbled and bows down too!

46:3–4 A Contrast: A God Who Bears and Delivers

Verses 3–4 “Hearken unto me, O house of Jacob, and all the remnant of the house of Israel, which are borne by me from the belly, which are carried from the womb. And even till your old age I am he; and even to hoar hairs will I carry you; I have made, and I will bear; even I will carry , and will deliver you.”

These verses contain a call to the house of Jacob and remnant of Israel to look to their Maker and Sustainer. They are words of tenderness and endearment. They are clearly a contrast with the idols of verse 1 and 2, which were loaded on beasts which groaned under their weight. On the other hand Yahweh accepts responsibility for His people in all circumstances and ages and will ultimately save them. The relevance of these words in Isaiah’s day is appreciated when we consider that the “remnant” about to be taken into Babylon would be preserved and restored.

“which are borne by me”

Like an indulgent father or tender nurse Yahweh had carried them from infancy (cp 1 Thess 2:7–8). Compare use of the same imagery, “And in the wilderness, where thou hast seen how that Yahweh thy God bare thee as a man doth bare his son, in all the way that ye went, until ye came into this place” (Deut 1:31; 32:11,12; Exod 19:4).

“And even to your old age I am he”

Yahweh stresses the difference between Himself and other deities. His relationship with His people is enduring and He is there ‘for the long haul’.

His purpose will not fail, because He honours His promises and changes not (Mal 3:6). Notice that Yahweh uses the personal pronoun five times and in each case except one it is emphatic, stressing what He will yet do. History has revealed the truth of these words and guarantees the nation’s future survival.

Note the following:

1 “I am he”; MLB ‘I am the same’ (see 41:4).

2 “I will carry you”

3 “I have made” (RSV ‘made’), refers to the origin of the nation in the hand of God (43:7; 44:2), which conveys comfort and purpose. Their existence depends on Him and He changes not (Josh 1:9).

4 “I will bear”;

5 “even I will carry, and will deliver you (RSV, MLB, ‘save’).

46:5–7 The Gods Made with Hands Cannot Move, Answer or Save!

Verse 5 “To whom will ye liken me, and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be like?” (cp 40:18, 25).

The verb “liken” would be used of the facial resemblance of a parent to a child, and therefore points to general resemblance.

The verb “make equal”, means “to be level, on level terms with” and hence indicates exact equality of status, capacity, etc.

And “compare” is a word used of drawing out the similarities between things having a common element (JA Motyer).

The point is that when Yahweh is compared with the idol-gods there is no comparison (cp verses 1 and 2 with verses 3 and 4); there is no broad similarity; in fact He has nothing in common with the so called gods! What was written here 2,700 years ago has equal force today!

Verse 6 “They lavish gold out of the bag, and weigh silver in the balance, and hire a goldsmith; and he maketh it a god [el]: they fall down, yea, they worship” (cp 40:19; 41:7; 44:10–13). “They lavish gold”

The word “lavish” indicates to pour out abundantly with the idea of squandering; that is, no expense was spared and it shows the depth of the superstition and blindness.

“and he maketh a god”

The word for “god” is el, emphasising the quality of power and might, and such is “made” by mere human hands and artifice!

“they fall down, yea, they worship”

“Worship” is preceded by ap showing the irony: “they bow and, believe it or not, bring themselves down in worship!” Little has changed today, for men are still worshipping the works of their own hands, and intricate as they may be, they are equally impotent and unable to save!

Verse 7 “They bear him upon the shoulder, they carry him and set him in his place and he standeth; from his place shall he not remove: yea, one shall cry unto him, yet he cannot answer [cp Psa 115:5], nor save him out of his trouble.”

The futility of the idol is seen in its total dependence on human help. It is fabricated by human hands, borne by men, set in place, and cannot venture forth! Though having ears it cannot hear or respond to those who prostrate themselves before it, let alone save them in the hour of need! How absurd to even think of praying to such a thing!

46:8–11 An Appeal to Remember the Past and Trust the Future

Verses 8–9 “Remember this, and shew yourselves men [RSV ‘consider’]: bring it again to mind, O ye transgressors. Remember the former things of old: for I am God [el], and there is none else; I am God [elohim], and there is none like me.”

God asks His people to exercise their minds on His record of bearing and caring for them. His constancy, His performance of all His promises, and the total absence of failure, are grounds for trust in the future, even when that may not be clear to them. Reflection on their unique history from the call of Abraham to the deliverance from Egypt, the conquest of Canaan to the establishment of the monarchy, have all been punctuated by God’s acts of care and deliverance. No other nation can see the hand of God behind their history. Indeed there is no God beside the God of Israel, let alone like Him

Verse 10 “Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure” (cp 41:26).

Again, Yahweh invites enquiry into what He declared in ages past, and then to match this with subsequent history. No test of veracity and truth could be easier, no conclusion be easier to draw. Has His Word been fulfilled or not? Can any demonstrate His failure? God Himself issues the challenge. The conclusion is that Biblical prophecy (eg Deut 28–30) is the mould into which history has been poured.

“My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure”

God is not capricious and changeable. His dealings with Israel are constant and His plan with the nation unwavering, even though their ways have often been fickle and perverse. Clearly there can be discerned among the many events a wondrous plan. It will soon culminate in the return of His Son and the establishment of His Kingdom with Israel as the “first dominion” (Micah 4:8).

Verse 11 “Calling a ravenous bird [‘bird of prey’ RSV, ROTH] from the east [41:2], the man that executeth my counsel from a far country: yea, I have spoken it, I will also bring it to pass; I have purposed it, I will also do it.”

Again reference is made to the rise of Cyrus the Persian who will execute His counsel. It may have been hard for the men of Judah in the prophet’s day to appreciate the significance of the rise of Cyrus. To speak of him as a “ravenous bird” might have filled them with fear. But if the earlier words of Isaiah 45:1–13 are carefully considered, the wise would learn that not only would Judah be taken captive to Babylon, but that Babylon would itself fall before Cyrus! He would release the captives of Judah and send them home with the instruction to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.

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 [cp Hab 2:3]: and I will place salvation in Zion, for Israel my glory.” “ye stout hearted”

The word means “rigid in mind, intractable in emotions and unbiddable in will”. Though called upon to remember (v8,9), alas, many would not heed but go their own way and perish. God could but appeal through Isaiah. With such an attitude they were “far from righteousness”, from conformity to His will.

“I bring near my righteousness [RSV ‘deliverance’] my salvation shall not tarry”

Their failure to conform to His righteousness would not, however, negate God’s plan to bring His righteousness to pass. In the immediate context the “deliverance” or “righteousness” refers to Cyrus’ mission of deliverance and restoration. But this was typical of a greater deliverance that Messiah would bring, not only for Jews but Gentiles as well. Jesus fulfilled all righteousness by submitting to crucifixion. Sin was destroyed and God’s righteousness declared. Salvation, deliverance from sin and death, is available to all men who will set aside their righteousness and believe in God’s righteousness set forth in His Son (Phil 3:9, Rom 3:25–26). This deliverance, this “great salvation”, was first set forth by the apostle Peter in Jerusalem (cp Acts 2:21, Joel 2:32 ‘In mount Zion… shall be deliverance…’) “and I will place salvation in Zion”

These words will find their complete fulfilment in the Kingdom—then all the world will acknowledge Zion’s king and seek knowledge of him by annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem (Zech 14:16; Isa 2:2–8).

“for Israel my glory”

Again, while these words have a primary fulfilment in the return from Babylon, their ultimate meaning will be seen in Messiah’s reign. “Israel” embraces the redeemed of all nations and they are described by God as “His glory”. It is His purpose to be glorified by men and women who love and obey Him, who reflect His character in their lives. As He was glorified in His servant, so He is glorified by all those who believe and obey Him (cp Isa 49:3; Gal 1:24). What a glorious picture is conveyed in such an economy of words!