Chapters 40 – 48 in the book of Isaiah are among the most profound writings about God in the Bible. ‘Stunning’ and ‘awesome’ are descriptive words not out of place in these chapters.
What the prophet has done for us is to help us see God more clearly, in terms of what He is really like – in the wonder of His attributes.
In this article I want to explore two of those wonderful attributes of God as seen in these chapters. These attributes help us greatly to understand and worship our powerful God in ‘spirit and in truth’.
SOVEREIGNTY OVER THE NATIONS
The first attribute seen so clearly in these chapters is what I have termed ‘World Sovereignty’. The late J. Barton Payne uses the title ‘Cosmic Sovereignty’(i) (possibly referring to His transcendence). Because God’s ‘sovereignty’ is very broad, I have decided to narrow it to World Sovereignty in relation to God’s dealing with the nations.
While researching the Biblical references in Isaiah 40-48, I was amazed at the abundant references Isaiah makes to the nations – not just national Israel. Therefore, I will be highly selective and refer to some major passages only.
Isaiah teaches that, in relation to all the world’s nations (40:15-17), God is incomparable. God is not dependent on them at all. The visual illustrations of the nations he uses in comparison to God such as: a ‘drop in the bucket’ and ‘dust on scales’, of Lebanon’s mighty trees in relation to ‘altar fires’ and of Lebanon’s vast wildlife portray vividly, that they are ‘as nothing’ when compared to Him. God’s omnipotence is so great, so grand – it’s cosmically incomparable. This doctrine is as relevant today as it was in Isaiah’s day. The might of the U.S.A., the U.K. and the E.U. plus all the other 192 nations are ‘as nothing’!
Isaiah highlights this even more in the same chapter (verses 22-24) when speaking of His omnipotence over the nations’ rulers. Nations were very often concentrated in the person of one leader, giving the ruler enormous power in the eyes of the people and surrounding nations but even they are ‘as nothing’ when compared to God. However, God even though transcendent (verse 22) is personally concerned about the nations and its people (His immanence) but they have no control over Him at all - none. Isaiah teaches that God deposes world leaders and I suspect, unequivocally, He does the same today. No earthly might or power can influence Him. The earth is His creation (verse 28) and He is sovereign over it – totally.
In Isaiah 21:1-4, the prophet again refers to God’s sovereignty over the nations, but new things are added. God is revealing Himself to them, in such an authoritative way that they had better listen. God is challenging them to renew their strength – to present their case because judgement is at hand. God is raising up Cyrus (see further) to execute this judgement – but ultimately it is the sovereign God Who has His will applied in the affairs of men.
This is a very important principle in Isaiah.
Men may move in any way they choose to move in their leadership decisions – but God is sovereign over every movement (c.f. verse 4). World sovereignty, therefore, comes down to the particulars.
In 42:1-10 we see that God’s Messiah (Jesus of Nazareth) will be a blessing to the nations, whose mission includes bringing justice to the nations, in love. Therefore, the nations will place their hope in Him (verse 4c).The Messiah has a mission to bring salvation to the gentile nations (verses 6b-7). The majority of the chapter deals with this theme. Because of this Divine Mission, there will be rejoicing in the nations (verse 10).
However, God deals in judgement of an ‘awful kind’ with the nations. There is a specific reference in 43:3, where God acts on Israel’s behalf, but I will deal with this in my discussion of God’s second attribute - love. The point I’m making here is that Isaiah is being specific in naming a particular nation that is dealt with by God because of His ‘World Sovereignty’
45:1ff illustrates that God is not limited to the prophets, kings and priests of Israel to execute His divine, perfect will. Cyrus is expressly termed as ‘His anointed’ as well as ‘My shepherd’ (44:28). A powerful world leader becomes ‘a mere instrument in the Lord’s hands’ (E.J. Young) (ii)
Cyrus is a Persian and God has chosen him to deal with Israel – God’s chosen people. Isaiah teaches that the Holy Spirit can be sent forth by God to enable non-believers to do God’s purpose. A bold statement to some, I know, but who can limit God? “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord; He directs it like a watercourse wherever He pleases" says the writer of Proverbs (21:1); a teaching Isaiah would agree with.
God has raised up a gentile king to deal with other nations, as well as Israel, to do what God has already purposed.
In 45:20-23, God offers salvation to all the earth and He has done so in Christ. Even though Isaiah has recorded the Lord’s abhorrence of idols (rampant in the gentile world) –‘gods that cannot save’ (verse 20b) - and elsewhere, particularly 40:18-20 and 33:9ff, salvation is still being offered to gentiles.
Isaiah 40-48 undoubtedly teaches God’s complete sovereignty over all the nations as well as the nations’ ‘futile practices without Him’ (cf. 46:10-11). However, He leaves them not to their own ways but offers them salvation in His Son – the Servant of the Lord (42:1ff). There is judgment for the nations, but there is also great hope.
Love is the second attribute evident in these chapters. Because ‘love’ is so very broad a concept, I will deal with the topic of love in relation to the nation of Israel and be selective in terms of references.
The mere fact that we have Isaiah’s account of the prophecy is an expression of love. God sent Isaiah, in love, to communicate the powerful realities of salvation and blessing to Israel (as well as the gentiles). I have chosen 5 specific things, in relation to God’s love for Israel, that re-occur in chapters 40-48.
Firstly, God’s election (divine choice) of the nation of Israel (c.f. 41:8-9, 43:1, 43:7, 43:20b-21). This is indeed ‘love before time’ (Kenneth D. Johns). It is the sovereign God Who chooses Israel to be His servant; not Israel who chooses God.
This is due only in terms of grace. The term ‘servant’ is an important one in that Israel is not free to decide her own future according to her own laws. She is free only to obey and serve God. These are covenant obligations. Among the nations, nothing within herself, God had formed this particular nation – in love (c.f. Rom. 9:4-5) – all of grace. He has created them – for His glory, ‘that they may proclaim my praise’ (43:21). Paul speaks of this in Romans 9.23.
Secondly, in love He is the source of strength – He is all-powerful. Isaiah brings this out especially in relation to the fact that God has formed or created them; 40:29ff and 41:10 confirm this. God will strengthen those who ‘wait on Him’. I agree with E.J. Young’s commemts that these are those who exercise faith in Him. Those who wait in eager anticipation will be strengthened. The basis of this is God’s eternity, self-existence and omnipotence (i.e. His transcendence) taught in 40:28. Human beings, no matter how strong they might be, are prone to weaknesses, but this can never be the case with God. However, those who ‘live by the faith’ find a ready source of strength in a loving God; 46:3-4 is seen in relation to salvation (see my fifth point).
Thirdly, and I shall mention but one section (41:11ff), Israel’s enemies are put in their place. Nations, such as Babylon (Ch 47), are dealt with because God’s righteousness requires it – (His justice). So it is in 41:11ff. Because of His great love, the injustices done against Israel will be met with divine retribution. Ridderbos writes, ‘Yahweh, the Creator of the universe, directs world events....He rebukes the nations....because of their hostility to Israel." (iii) This demonstrates, in Isaiah 40-48, God’s paternal love.
Fourthly, the many references to Israel ‘not to be afraid’ or ‘do not tremble’ (41:10, 43:1bff, 44:2b, 44:8) indicate Yahweh’s love in a paternal, loving way. Young says that in 41:10 ‘fear not’ means ‘do not gaze about in anxiety’ (iv). God’s might is so great that He is great enough to counter any threat that might possibly come on those whom He loves. He gives strength and encouragement. His faithfulness is made manifest again and again. 43:16ff is a familiar passage in which God is seen to be present in affliction. In 44:2bff, the call is not to fear because of the blessings of love which are yet future. Obviously, these 5 points are often interrelated but I would like to mention in this reference that it is in the context of God’s election (verses 1-2) that love is manifested. In 44.8 we see God’s love expressed in His faithfulness in regards to time, and the 'ancient people' are His witnesses.
Fifthly, the great theme of salvation to Israel is that of redemption. Foremost is the reference to the Servant of the Lord (42:1ff) who is to be the saviour of all men – including Israel. The Servant is Jesus Christ who preached to the ‘lost sheep of Israel’. God calls Himself a ‘Redeemer’ (41:14, 43:14, 44:6, 24, 48:17) throughout this section. It means ‘one who delivers from bondage by the payment of a ransom’ (Young) (v). God will, indeed, visit Israel with salvation – the greatest manifestation of divine love. References such as 43:4ff, 44:1-5, 44:21-22, 45:17, 46:3-4 all allude to salvation.
There are many more verses we could discuss but 45:17 is a salvation verse ‘par excellence’ and should be understood in reference to Romans 11:26a. The language in Isaiah 45:17 demands a salvation into eternity. Such love! Young correctly writes ‘the salvation is not a temporary deliverance, but one that will endure for all time’.(vi)
World sovereignty (which includes ‘foreknowledge’ and ‘predestination’) and divine love (which involves ‘election’ and ‘grace’) towards Israel and are accompanied by the great acts of Yahweh (Who will do whatever He wants to do). These attributes of God have never departed from the ‘new Israel’ of God or to 'the nations'.
The Servant of the Lord is seated at the right hand of the Monarch of the cosmos.
Christians would do well to understand and draw great strength from the knowledge of God’s 'World Sovereignty' and His electing love – so profoundly written in Isaiah 40-48.
i. J Barton Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament, p. 151
ii. E.J. Young, The Book of Isaiah. Vol 3, p. 192
iii. N.H. Ridderbos, The Book of Isaiah (N.B.D.), p. 576
iv. op.cit., p. 84
v. ibid p. 88
vi. ibid p. 210
Boice, James Montgomery. The Sovereign God, (Downers Grove, Inter-Varsity Press, 1978)
Ellison, H.L., The Message of the Old Testament. (Exeter, The Paternoster Press Ltd., 1976)
Payne, J. Barton. The Theology of the Older Testament, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1981)
Ridderbos, N.H. The Book of Isaiah (the New Bible Dictionary), (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 1978)
Young, Edward J. An Introduction to the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, W.B. Eerdmans, 1981)
Young, Edward J. The Book of Isaiah. Vol 3, (Grand Rapids, W.B. Eerdmans, 1981)