Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 46. The Downfall of the gods of Babylon
In this and the two following chapters the person of Cyrus is only incidentally referred to; the leading idea is now the overthrow of Babylon, and the emancipation of Israel from its tyranny. Ch. 46 begins with the fall of the deities of the city; and from their proved impotence, as contrasted with the omnipotence of Jehovah, proceeds to draw lessons for various classes among the exiles. The unity of the oracle is disputed by Duhm and Cheyne in so far as Isaiah 46:6-8 are concerned, and the removal of these verses would somewhat modify the reasoning of the chapter. As it stands, however, the natural divisions are the following:—
(1) Isaiah 46:1-4. A contrast between the Babylonian gods and the God of Israel; while these share the fate of their worshippers and are borne away in shameful flight, Jehovah is the bearer of His people, making its history and leading it to final victory.
(2) Isaiah 46:5-7. The scene described in Isaiah 46:1 f. suggests another sarcastic passage (after the manner of Isaiah 40:18-20, Isaiah 44:9-20) on the folly of idolatry in general.
(3) Isaiah 46:8-11. A renewed appeal (see Isaiah 41:21-29, &c.) to the argument from prophecy, in which, with unwonted severity, the hearers are addressed as “rebels” (Isaiah 46:8).
(4) Isaiah 46:12-13. Addressing the opponents of Jehovah’s purpose, the prophet announces the speedy deliverance of Israel as the goal to which events are hastening.
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.1, 2. The ignominious flight of the gods of Babylon.—Bel and Nebo are the Jupiter and Mercury of the Babylonian pantheon (they are represented by these planets), and were the supreme deities in Babylon at this time. Bel (Bîlu) is the Babylonian form of the Hebrew Ba‘al (= lord), and like that word is a generic name applicable to any deity. When used as a proper name it usually denotes Merodach (Marduk), the tutelary divinity of the city of Babylon (so Jeremiah 50:2; Jeremiah 51:44); although there was an older Bel, who is spoken of as his father. The elevation of Bel-Merodach to the chief place among the older gods, as recorded in the mythical Chaldæan account of the Creation (Tablet IV., 1 ff.), is the legendary counterpart of the ascendency acquired by Babylon over the more ancient cities of the Euphrates Valley. Nebo (Nabu) was the son of Merodach; the chief seat of his worship being Borsippa, in the vicinity of Babylon. His name, which is supposed to be from the same root as the Hebrew nâbî’, “prophet,” seems to mark him out as the “speaker” of the gods (another point of contact with Mercury, “the chief speaker,” Acts 14:12). He was also regarded as the inventor of writing. The frequency with which the Chaldæan kings are named after him (Nabo-polassar, Nebu-chadnezzar, Nabo-nidus) has been thought to shew that he was the patron deity of the dynasty.
boweth down … stoopeth (better croucheth)] The second verb to be pointed, like the first, as perfect (prophetic pf.).
their idols (ch. Isaiah 10:11) are (R.V.) upon the beasts, and upon the cattle] The allusion is hardly to the custom of carrying away the idols of a conquered nation (Jeremiah 48:7; Jeremiah 49:3; Hosea 10:5 f.), but rather to an attempt of the Babylonians to carry off their images on the approach of the Persians (see Isaiah 46:2). Similarly, Merodach-Baladan packed his idols on ships and carried them off, at the approach of Sennacherib (Schrader, Cuneiform Inscr., Vol. ii. p. 36.) Beasts and cattle usually mean respectively “wild beasts” and “domestic animals”; here, however, they both denote beasts of burden simply.
your carriages were heavy loaden] Rather as R.V. the things that ye carried about, i.e. in religious processions (ch. Isaiah 45:20), are made a load. “At the New Year’s festival the images of Merodach and his son Nebo were carried through Babylon in solemn procession on sacred barques of great magnificence, and along a promenade prepared for this purpose since Nabopolassar” (Fried. Delitzsch, quoted by Delitzsch, Comm. p. 403). Such scenes must have been familiar to the prophet and his readers, and gave additional point to the contrasted picture here imagined.
They stoop, they bow down together; they could not deliver the burden, but themselves are gone into captivity.2. they could not deliver] i.e. cause to escape.
themselves are gone into captivity] The distinction allowed between the gods and their images is an ironical concession to heathen modes of thought. The fact that the gods are unable to save their own images means that they have vanished. The recently discovered inscriptions have shewn, however, that the idols of Babylon had nothing to fear from Cyrus.
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:3. all the remnant of the house of Israel] It is doubtful whether there is a reference here to the scattered survivors of the Ten Tribes. More probably, the clause is a rhetorical variation of the previous “house of Jacob.” The participles borne and carried are repeated from Isaiah 46:1, although in inverse order (“carried things” and “made a load”). The words “by me” are better omitted.
3, 4. In the scene which he has just described the prophet sees an emblem of the inherent weakness of heathenism. There man carries his gods, and the result is that gods and worshippers are involved in common ruin. Israel has had a far different experience of its relation to its God, having known Jehovah as One who has carried it from the beginning of its history (Exodus 19:4; Deuteronomy 1:31; Deuteronomy 32:11; Hosea 11:3; cf. ch. Isaiah 40:11, Isaiah 63:9), and is able to bear it on to final salvation. The profound insight into the nature of religion which is characteristic of the writer is nowhere more clearly exhibited than in this striking and original contrast.
And even to 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.4. And even to your old age &c.] Cf. Psalm 71:18. What Jehovah has been to His people in the past, He will be for all the future. It is not implied that Israel is now “old and gray-headed,” as an erroneous combination with ch. Isaiah 47:6 led Hitzig to suppose.
I am he] see on ch. Isaiah 41:4.
I have made] Better perhaps I have done it.
and will deliver] in express contrast to the false gods who “could not deliver” the dead burden of their images (Isaiah 46:2).
To whom will ye liken me, and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be like?5. Comp. the similar question of Isaiah 40:18, which as here introduces a sarcastic description of the manufacture of idols.
They lavish gold out of the bag, and weigh silver in the balance, and hire a goldsmith; and he maketh it a god: they fall down, yea, they worship.6. They lavish gold &c.] Better as an exclamation of contempt: They that pour gold etc. The gold and silver are the material out of which the images (or at least their plating) are to be made by the goldsmith (Isaiah 40:19) who is hired for the work. The word for balance is qâneh (reed), never elsewhere used in this sense. It probably denotes the beam of the balance.
they fall down] The same word (ṣâgad) in Isaiah 44:15; Isaiah 44:17; Isaiah 44:19.
6, 7. Contemptuous description of idolatry in general. Comp. especially with ch. Isaiah 44:9-20.
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 can he not answer, nor save him out of his trouble.7. They bear him &c.] the newly made idol, to his appointed place, from which he is powerless to move. How vain, therefore, is it to cry to him for help! He is a “god that cannot save” (Isaiah 45:20).
Remember this, and shew yourselves men: bring it again to mind, O ye transgressors.8–11. An appeal to history and prophecy in proof of Jehovah’s divinity.
shew yourselves men] R.V. marg. renders “stand fast,” but neither sense is suitable in an address to “rebels.” The verb used (hith’ôshâshû) is unknown in Hebrew. The rendering of A.V. is based on a common view that it is a denominative from the word for “man” (’îsh), which is grammatically untenable; that of R.V. marg. connects it with a root found in Aramaic, Assyrian and Arabic, meaning to “be firm.” Of proposed emendations the easiest is Lagarde’s, “be ye ashamed” (hithbôshâshû, after Genesis 2:25). Others, hithbônânû, “consider” (ch. Isaiah 43:18).
bring it again to mind] as ch. Isaiah 44:19.
O ye transgressors] Rather rebels (Isaiah 48:8, Isaiah 53:12, Isaiah 66:24). From ch. Isaiah 45:9 onwards there seems to be a growing sense of antagonism between the prophet and at least a section of his audience (see Isaiah 46:12 and on Isaiah 48:1-11).
Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me,9. former things of old] See on Isaiah 41:22. The emphasis here lies less on the predictions than on the events themselves, which are of such a nature as to demonstrate that Jehovah alone is truly God.
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:10. the end from the beginning] i.e. the issue (of a particular series of events or period of history) from its origin.
the things that are not yet done] with closer reference to the events mentioned in Isaiah 46:11. Cf. ch Isaiah 48:5 (“before it has come to pass”).
My counsel shall stand] Cf. ch. Isaiah 14:24.
my pleasure] my purpose (see on ch. Isaiah 44:28).
Calling a ravenous bird from the east, 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.11. The supreme illustration of the foreknowledge and power of Jehovah is the raising up of Cyrus. Cyrus is compared to a ravenous bird on account of the celerity of his movements (ch. Isaiah 41:3), just as Nebuchadnezzar had been likened to an eagle (Jeremiah 49:22; Ezekiel 17:3). There can hardly be an allusion to the fact (if it be a fact) that the royal ensign of Persia was a golden eagle (Xenophon, Cyrop. vii. 1, 4).
from the east] Isaiah 41:2; Isaiah 41:25.
the man that executeth my counsel] Lit. as R.V. the man of my counsel (the consonantal text has “his counsel”). Not of course “my counsellor” (as in Isaiah 40:13), but in the sense expressed by the A.V.
I have purposed] Lit. I have formed, i.e. “foreordained,” as in ch. Isaiah 22:11, Isaiah 37:26.
Hearken unto me, ye stouthearted, that are far from righteousness:12, 13. A call to repentance based on the nearness of deliverance.
ye stouthearted] The phrase means in Psalm 76:5 “courageous”; here it is rather akin to “stiff-hearted” in Ezekiel 2:4. The LXX. reads “ye that have lost heart” (אבדי לב for אבירי לב), and this is accepted as the true text by certain commentators. The sense is too weak in this connexion; if there are men who on the eve of deliverance are “far from righteousness” they are surely those who are in more or less conscious opposition to the divine purpose (cf. Isaiah 45:9). “Righteousness” in Isaiah 46:13 is parallel to “salvation,” and denotes the manifestation of Jehovah’s righteousness in the deliverance of Israel. In this verse it is more natural to understand it in its forensic sense, of the right relation to God, which is the condition of sharing in the outward salvation. see Appendix, Note II.
I bring near my righteousness; it shall not be far off, and my salvation shall not tarry: and I will place salvation in Zion for Israel my glory.13. for Israel my glory] Cf. Isaiah 49:3. But another possible translation is “I will give … my glory unto Israel” (R.V. marg.).
The two verses express a paradox which enters deeply into the thought of the prophet. While salvation is near in point of time, yet Israel is spiritually far from it. Hence the work of salvation or righteousness has two aspects; along with the providential deliverance of which the agent is Cyrus, there is an inward and spiritual salvation which consists in bringing the nation to right thoughts about itself and God. And in this spiritual transformation the instrument is the Servant of Jehovah.