Major Themes of Isaiah 40-48
Jason A. Clark
Introduction · Redemption from Babylon · Israel, Servant of the LORD · The True God or False Gods? · Conclusion
Isaiah penned his message to the people of Judah in approximately 700 B.C. This was a time of great political upheaval, for the Northern Kingdom of Israel had declined and fallen to the Assyrians in 722 B.C. Amidst this backdrop of grave uncertainty, the prophet encouraged his countrymen to place their complete trust in the LORD God of Israel to preserve His people.1
The first section of the book, i.e. chapters one to thirty-nine, delineates the judgment that Judah could expect from God for her refusal to adhere to the Law of Moses.2 The remainder of the book, according to Martin, "emphasizes restoration and deliverance."3 He continues:
This section divides into three parts of nine chapters each (chaps. 40—48; 49—57; 58—66). The first two parts each conclude with the statement, "There is no peace . . . for the wicked" (48:22; 57:21). These prophecies of deliverance center around three events: [The first is] deliverance from captivity in Babylon (already prophesied by Isaiah, 39:7). This is the main subject of chapters 40-48 and the chief deliverer is Cyrus, mentioned near the middle of the section (44:28—45:1).4
The dominant themes of chapters forty through forty-eight, then, are: (1) the redemption of Israel from Babylon; (2) Yahweh’s role as suzerain to His servant, Israel; and (3) the contrast between Yahweh and idols.
Redemption from Babylon
The theme of redemption runs strongly throughout chapters forty to forty-eight. The LORD is first referred to as Jacob’s, or Israel’s, Redeemer in 41:14. In the verses to follow, Isaiah describes in largely poetic language the great deliverance that God will provide to His destitute people (15-20). At the beginning of the next chapter, the author introduces the servant of the Lord, through whom He shall effect this deliverance (42:1-4). The next chapter also begins with a description of the Lord as Redeemer, who will one day gather His covenant people back to their homeland after having been in exile (43:1, 5-8). Israel’s Redeemer also promises to bring judgment upon the great empire of Babylon (14). Isaiah continues to refer to Yahweh as Redeemer in 44:6, 22, 24, 26, 28, declaring that the future contains an inhabited Jerusalem, rebuilt Judean cities, and a decree from Cyrus to lay the foundation of the temple at Jerusalem (26, 28). This scenario is repeated in 45:13, with the added prophecy that the Egyptians, Cushites, and Sabeans will be in subjection to the nation of Israel (14). Again, that deliverance shall come from a foreigner is repeated in 46:11, preceding a lengthy metaphor of the "virgin daughter of the Chaldeans" (47:1, NASB) and her coming plight at the hands of the Lord (47:1-15). The section concludes with the Lord executing vengeance upon Babylon and once more redeeming his people from a foreign land as he did during the Exodus (48:14, 17, 20-21).
A related (albeit less significant) theme found in Isaiah chapters forty to forty-eight is Yahweh’s judgment upon and/or manifestation of Himself to the Gentile nations (40:5; 41:2, 5, 11, 25; 42:1, 4, 6, 10, 43:4, 9; 45:1, 6, 14, 22-24; 48:20).
Israel, Servant of the LORD
The concept of Yahweh as suzerain, or feudal overlord, to the ancient nation of Israel is evident throughout the prophecy of Isaiah. At the very start of the section under scrutiny, the Lord uses the possessive "My people" of the descendents of Jacob (40:1, NASB). Then Isaiah writes, "Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, in His arm He will gather the lambs, and carry [them] in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing [ewes]" (40:11, NASB). In chapter forty-one, the Lord declares that He has chosen His servant Israel in fulfillment of His promise to Abraham and will help and not forsake the same (8-17). Similar attestations to the covenant between the sovereign God and His people, Israel, are found throughout the section (41:16, 17, 20; 42:6, 13, 24—43:7, 10, 14, 15, 21—44:7, 21, 23, 24, 26; 45:3, 4, 11, 15, 19, 25; 46:3, 4, 13; 47:4, 6; 48:1-2, 9, 12, 17-21).
Included within the general theme of Yahweh as Sovereign Ruler is the notion that He is the Creator of Israel—the One who formed His servant and brought him into existence from nothingness (43:1, 15, 20; 44:2, 7, 21, 24; 45:9-11; 46:3; 48:1). The Lord is also described as Jacob’s savior and deliverer (43:3, 11-13; 45:15, 17, 21-22; 46:4, 13; cf. 46:7; 47:13-15). However, Isaiah repeatedly characterizes the idolatrous Israelites as "blind, even though they have eyes, and … deaf, even though they have ears" (43:8, NASB, cf. 42:18-20; 48:8 [the same imagery is also used of "the idolater" in 44:18]).
The True God or False Gods?
The prophet Isaiah devotes much of chapters forty to forty-eight to challenging Israel’s worship of false gods, or idols. With painstaking detail the author mocks both the idolater and idol-maker, as well as the idol itself! (40:19-20; 41:23-24, 29; 42:8, 17; 43:12; 44:6-20, 25; 45:5, 14, 18, 20-22; 46:1-2, 6-7; 48:5).
The book of Isaiah vehemently asserts the attributes of the one, true God. In contrast to the futile character of idols, the prophet describes Yahweh as incomparable (40:12-14, 18, 25-26, 28; 41:2, 4; 42:8; 43:10-13; 44:6-8, 24; 45:5-8, 12, 14, 18, 21, 22; 46:5, 9; 48:11-13; cf. 47:8, 10). In contrast to the ignorance of idols, Isaiah presents the God of Israel as magnificently clairvoyant, i.e. He declares events that shall come to pass (41:21-23, 26-27; 42:9; 43:19; 44:7-8; 45:11, 21; 46:10; 47:9, 11; 48:3, 5, 6, 15). Finally, in contrast to the powerlessness of idols, the Lord is shown to be autonomous—that is, He simply does what He pleases, needing neither authorization nor approval from any (40:24; 43:13; 44:26-28; 45:7, 12; 46:10; 48:11, 14).
The prophet Isaiah delivered a wonderful message to the people of God in the seventh or eighth century B.C. However, one may inquire, "In what way does an ancient prophecy regarding forgotten nations relate to the modern believer?" The story of Israel’s redemption and Babylon’s fall inspires hope in the righteous judgment of God. Further, while the American Christian will scarcely bow down to a graven or molten image, he may certainly benefit from Isaiah’s depiction of the inimitable, omniscient, and self-sufficient God in whom he believes. Lastly, suzerain-vassal relationships undoubtedly are most unfamiliar to believers in the information age. Isaiah vividly demonstrated, though, that the Lord was ever faithful to His old-covenant people—despite their unfaithfulness. The fact that the "called-out ones" of the new covenant can receive great comfort from Isaiah’s reminder of the faithfulness of God is timeless.
1. John A. Martin, "Isaiah," in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, Ill.: Scripture Press Publications, Victor Books, 1985), 1029-1030. <back>
2. Martin, 1033. <back>
3. Martin, 1091. <back>
4. Martin, 1091. <back>
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