Explore the Bible: God Acts

The Explore the Bible Lesson for Nov. 1 focuses on Isaiah 46:3-13.

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  • The Explore the Bible Lesson for Nov. 1 focuses on Isaiah 46:3-13.

As noted in earlier lessons, Isaiah 40-55 is addressed to the Judeans living in exile in Babylon as God prepares to bring them home to Jerusalem. In 539 B.C., the Persian king Cyrus would conquer Babylon, and in 538 Cyrus would issue an edict allowing Jews to return home and rebuild the Temple. These chapters of Isaiah speak of Cyrus’s actions.

One of the key themes of Isaiah 40-55 is monotheism; there is only one God, the Lord of Israel. He is creator and sovereign Lord over all the universe, and there is none like him. The other “gods” are not simply inferior; they really are not gods at all.

This monotheistic emphasis was meant to encourage the Jews living in Babylon so they could stand strong and remain faithful to God even in the midst of Babylon’s rank polytheism and idolatry. The first couple verses of the chapter we will cover in this lesson, Isaiah 46, deliberately name and condemn the Babylonian gods “Bel” and “Nebo” (46:1-2).

The Remnant of Israel

In the beginning of this passage, God promises to sustain and rescue the exiled Judeans. Specifically, he refers to the people as “you descendants of Jacob, all the remnant of the people of Israel, you whom I have upheld since your birth, and have carried since you were born” (46:3).

God promises, “Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you” (46:4). The language here of birth, carrying and old age evokes familial intimacy, nurturing love and the longevity of God’s faithfulness to his people. But I want us to focus on the language of “the remnant.”

This concept of a “faithful remnant” shows up in numerous biblical passages. In 1 Kings 19, Elijah despairs that all of Israel has abandoned God for idolatry; only Elijah remains, and they are trying to kill him (19:14). But God responds, “Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him” (19:18)

Even though the Israelites rebel against God and fail to uphold their covenants with him, God remains faithful. A key way God expresses his faithfulness is by preserving a remnant for himself even in times of great apostasy. The Apostle Paul uses this idea to explain how God still can be faithful to Israel even if many ethnic Israelites have rejected Jesus (Romans 11:1-12).

Even after mass apostasy among Israel, leading to catastrophe and God’s seeming abandonment in the exile, God remains faithful and has preserved a remnant (Isaih 46:3-4).

The Idiocy of Idolatry

Speaking through the prophet, God asks: “With whom will you compare me or count me equal? To whom will you liken me that we may be compared?” (46:5). The answer is, as always, “No one.”

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Isaiah proceeds to again satirize the idolatrous practices of the Babylonians. He describes idolaters pouring out gold and silver so a metalsmith can craft an image. Even though these people bow down before their idol, it is powerless. The people must carry it around; it cannot move on its own. And unlike God, this idol does not hear prayers and cannot save (46:6-7).

The irony is thick. The idolaters’ behavior is like a bad joke. It would be funny, were it not so tragic and sinful. Humanity’s idols cannot even hope to compare with the God of Israel. And today, we humans still make idols, even if they are not specially crafted metal images.

The Absolute Sovereignty of God

But God’s not done yet. No, God heightens the contrast between himself and idols by highlighting his absolute sovereignty over creation in verses 8-11. God calls his rebellious people to remember his mighty acts from the past, acts by which God gave evidence of his power over the world (46:8-9).

Then, in verse 10, God flatly states his absolute knowledge and sovereignty in unequivocal terms: “I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’”

God knows the future in exhaustive detail with infallible certainty, and he can do whatever he wishes to do. It is impossible to surprise or outsmart God. There is no one who can overpower God. If God decides to do something, nothing can stop him. The only constraint upon God is God’s own nature and character. God cannot be constrained “from the outside.”

God next gives a few brief examples of his sovereignty before he restates it, saying, “What I have said, that I will bring about; what I have planned, that I will do” (46:11). The idols of Babylon are powerless and utterly ignorant. God is utterly sovereign and knows all things without fail.

Salvation Promised

Our text today concludes with a promise of salvation (46:12-13). God says, “I will grant salvation to Zion, my splendor to Israel” (46:13). While God in history did indeed bring the Israelites out of exile and back to Jerusalem, much of the splendor, glory, and prosperity promised by Isaiah and other prophets did not seem to come to pass.

It is only in Jesus Christ that all prophecies of Scripture find their true and final fulfillment (2 Corinthians 1:20). And in Jesus Christ, the boundaries of “Israel” have expanded far beyond any one ethnicity or culture. All who place their faith in Jesus Christ are part of “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16) and inherit God’s promises of salvation.

Joshua Sharp is a writer and Bible teacher living in Waco. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary. 

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