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Chapters 40-55, the portion of the book of Isaiah that deals with the end of the Babylonian exile, is often referred to as Second Isaiah. It begins with the words, “Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak comfortably to Jerusalem; and call out to her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received of Yahweh’s hand double for all her sins” (40:1-2).
The penalty mentioned in these verses was the exile. Now five decades have passed, and the exile is coming to an end. During these decades, the exiles have experienced a crisis of faith. Is Yahweh not powerful? Has Yahweh abandoned them? Chapters 1-39 dealt with these issues. Isaiah said, “The faithful city has become a prostitute!” (1:21). He warned, “The loftiness of man shall be bowed down” (2:17). He counseled Ahaz to look for security, not to Assyria, but to Yahweh—counsel that Ahaz and the people of Jerusalem ignored. In short, Isaiah prophesied trouble ahead for Jerusalem because of the failure of its people to be faithful to Yahweh.
The mood shifts in chapters 40-55, written by Second Isaiah (probably a disciple of the original Isaiah). Written near the end of the exile, these chapters begin with words of comfort (40:1-2) and hold out the promise of return to Jerusalem.
The fulfillment of this promise came through Cyrus II of Persia, “the one from the east” (41:2), who defeated Babylonia in 539 B.C. Not only will Cyrus allow the exiles to return to their homeland, but he will also provide financial assistance to allow them to rebuild (Ezra 1:2-4).
ISAIAH 43:16-17. THUS SAYS YAHWEH
16Thus says Yahweh, who makes a way in the sea,
and a path in the mighty waters;
17who brings forth the chariot and horse,
the army and the mighty man
(they lie down together, they shall not rise;
they are extinct, they are quenched like a wick):
“Thus says Yahweh, who makes a way in the sea, and a path in the mighty waters” (v. 16). This verse looks back to the Exodus, where the Israelites, after leaving Egypt, with the Egyptian army in hot pursuit, found their escape route blocked by the Red Sea. The Israelites (with the exception of Moses) were afraid, but God told Moses to stretch out his staff over the sea to divide it so that the people would have a way of escape. When Moses did as Yahweh instructed, “Yahweh caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. The children of Israel went into the midst of the sea on the dry ground, and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand, and on their left” (Exodus 14:21-22).
“who brings forth the chariot and horse, the army and the mighty man (they lie down together, they shall not rise; they are extinct, they are quenched like a wick)” (v. 17). The Egyptian army pursued the Israelites through the Red Sea, but God instructed Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the waters may come again on the Egyptians, on their chariots, and on their horsemen.” (Exodus 14:26). When Moses did as instructed, the waters returned to their normal state and drowned the Egyptian soldiers. “Thus Yahweh saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work which Yahweh did to the Egyptians, and the people feared Yahweh; and they believed in Yahweh, and in his servant Moses” (Exodus 14:30-31).
“they are extinct, they are quenched like a wick” (v. 17). Few things happen more quickly than the quenching of a wick dipped into water. Where there was fire (a metaphor for life in this instance), suddenly there is a wisp of smoke—and then nothing—nothing at all.
This is a poetic way of describing the demise of Pharaoh’s army, which was the most fearsome force on the face of the earth in one moment—and then, when the walls of water collapsed on them, there was a moment when they tried desperately to shuck their armor so that they could make it to the surface—and then nothing—nothing but “Egyptians dead on the seashore” (Exodus 14:30).
ISAIAH 43:18-19. DON’T REMEMBER THE FORMER THINGS
18“Don’t remember the former things,
and don’t consider the things of old.
19Behold, I will do a new thing.
It springs forth now.
Don’t you know it?
I will even make a way in the wilderness,
and rivers in the desert.”
“Don’t remember the former things, and don’t consider the things of old” (v. 18). Having just alluded so vividly to the Exodus (vv. 16-17), it seems odd that the Lord would now say, “Don’t remember the former things.” It seems contradictory to recount former things in one breath and then, in the next breath, to ask people not to remember them. However, it would appear that the prophet is calling the people to put their past behind them and to focus their attention on the present and the future. Paul will later make much the same emphasis when he says, “Forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).
The Lord seems to have several concerns here:
• First, that these exiles might make the mistake of remembering the marvelous Exodus and forget that the Lord still does marvelous things. It is all too easy to get lost in the past—to make too much of the past and too little of the present—to have one’s faith centered in the long-ago instead of the right now—so the Lord calls these exiles to shift their attention from the past to see the amazing things that he has planned for them now.
• Second, that they might assume that the Lord’s solution for today’s problem will look like the Lord’s solution for yesterday’s problem—that the Lord will (or must) always follow the same model to save his people. As we will see in verses 19-20, that is hardly the case.
• Third, that the exiles might revert to their old sinful ways of life—that they might once again take up the patterns of rebellion that caused the Lord to use the Babylonians as an instrument of discipline—that they might fail to learn from their exile.
“Behold, I will do a new thing” (v. 19a). These exiles will experience a second Exodus, but one that is different from the first Exodus. They will not be opposed by a tyrannical Pharaoh resorting to violence to stop them from leaving. The Lord has raised up Cyrus, a benevolent king, who will not only permit their return to Jerusalem but will even provide funds to finance the rebuilding of the city.
“It springs forth now. Don’t you know it?” (v. 19b). This is the Lord’s way of saying, “Wake up, folks! Look around! Open your eyes! Something great is happening! Can’t you see it?”
“I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert” (v. 19c). These exiles will not require a dry route through the waters of the Red Sea, but will instead require rivers of water to sustain them in their journey through a dry desert.
ISAIAH 43:20-21. ANIMALS HONOR ME & PEOPLE SET FORTH MY PRAISE
20“The animals of the field shall honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
because I give water in the wilderness and rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
21the people which I formed for myself,
that they might set forth my praise.”
“The animals of the field shall honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; because I give water in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, to give drink to my people, my chosen” (v. 20). Note the parallel structure. In this verse, wild animals honor God. In verse 21, the people of God declare his praise.
Jackals and ostriches are desert animals. Jackals resemble foxes, travel in large packs, and feed on carrion. Ostriches are the world’s largest birds. They can run fast, but cannot fly. While I have tended to associate ostriches with Australia, perhaps because of the exotic nature of Australia’s fauna, the ostrich is more commonly associated with Africa. There are several mentions of ostriches in the Old Testament (Leviticus 11:16; Deuteronomy 14:15; Job 30:29; Isaiah 13:21; 34:13; 43:20; Jeremiah 50:39; Lamentations 4:3; Micah 1:8)—in five instances linked with jackals. In every instance where ostriches are mentioned, it is either as an allusion to wilderness or desolation (as in this case) or to prohibit their use as food.
The wilderness animals will honor God for providing water. God will provide the water for the exiles on their journey home, but there will be plenty—rivers of water—”water in the wilderness”—so that every creature will enjoy the plentitude.
“the people which I formed for myself, that they might set forth my praise” (v. 21). Yahweh has called Israel to be a witness to the Lord (43:12) and “a light for the nations”—meaning Gentiles (42:6). They can make their witness most effective by living joyful lives—by expressing praise for the God who has blessed them.
ISAIAH 43:22-24. YOU HAVE BURDENED ME WITH YOUR SINS
22“Yet you have not called on me, Jacob;
but you have been weary of me, Israel.
23You have not brought me of your sheep for burnt offerings;
neither have you honored me with your sacrifices.
I have not burdened you with offerings,
nor wearied you with frankincense.
24You have bought me no sweet cane with money,
nor have you filled me with the fat of your sacrifices;
but you have burdened me with your sins.
You have wearied me with your iniquities.”
“Yet you have not called upon me, Jacob; but you have been weary of me, Israel!” (v. 22). Yahweh formed these people to declare his praise (v. 21), but they have not done so. They have not called on Yahweh in their extremity. They have not offered proper worship. They have even wearied of Yahweh, which has been reflected in every aspect of their relationship.
Consider what it means when a husband or wife says, “you have been weary of me.” It means that the spouse has not been attentive—has not been willing to spend time with his/her spouse—has just been going through the motions or, perhaps, has failed to do even that—and has very possibly been involved in an adulterous relationship. That is the sort of feeling that stands behind Yahweh’s accusation, “You have been weary of me, O Israel!”
“You have not brought me your sheep for burnt offerings, neither have you honored me with your sacrifices” (v. 23a). God earlier commanded the Israelites to give burnt offerings and other offerings. However, with the temple destroyed and the people in exile, they would not have been able to maintain the temple rituals that they observed in Jerusalem.
However, as people in a loving relationship usually understand, when it isn’t possible to make the grand gesture in gift-giving it is still worth doing what one can. A husband who can’t afford to buy his wife diamonds might be able to afford flowers. We don’t have the sense that Yahweh is calling these people to task for failing to do what they could not do, but rather for failing to do anything at all.
“I have not burdened you with offerings, nor wearied you with frankincense” (v. 23b). Frankincense is a form of incense that God called Israel to use in worship (Exodus 30:34; Leviticus 2:1-16; 24:7). The purpose of the elaborate system of offerings and rituals as prescribed in the Torah was not to burden the people but to give them guidance for appropriate worship. Without such guidance, they might have done as some of their neighbors did, offering human sacrifices or engaging in other destructive practices in an attempt to appease Yahweh. Yahweh does not desire appeasement, but praise (v. 21).
“You have bought me no sweet cane with money, nor have you filled me with the fat of your sacrifices” (v. 24a). Sweet or aromatic cane is mentioned in Exodus 30:23 and Jeremiah 6:20 as an element of worship. “These plants were used in perfumes… and in the incense made for the tabernacle and temple worship” (Myers, 974).
“Considered the seat of energy and thus one of the most desirable parts of the animal, the fat (or suet) and blood were not eaten but were removed and burned on the altar as the Lord’s portion of the sacrifice” (Myers, 377).
“But you have burdened me with your sins. You have wearied me with your iniquities” (v. 24b). Note the contrast here. Yahweh has not burdened them with offerings or wearied them with frankincense (v. 23b), but they have burdened Yahweh with their sins and wearied Yahweh with their iniquities.
Their root problem is not their failure to observe rituals, but rather their failure to respond in love to a God who loves them. To the extent that they have gone through the motions with regard to religious rituals, their indifferent observance has availed them nothing.
ISAIAH 43:25. I AM HE WHO BLOTS OUT YOUR TRANSGRESSIONS
25 “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake;
and I will not remember your sins.”
This is a hinge verse. The Lord has been accusing Israel of sins—of failure to observe religious rituals—of inattentiveness to their relationship with Yahweh (vv. 22-24), and verses 26-28 will resume that emphasis. But here, in the middle of those accusatory passages, Yahweh defines himself as “He who blots out your transgressions” and promises not to remember their sins.
The promise is not, “If you will do thus and so, I will forgive your sins.” There is no quid pro quo(exchange). Yahweh doesn’t require something from them, but simply promises not to remember their sins. It is a moment of pure grace.
“blots out your transgressions” is a revealing phrase. It means “forgive and forget” —a clean slate. It is like a presidential pardon, which not only frees the prisoner but deletes the criminal record. Once the transgressions are blotted out, there is no longer any way to hold them against the transgressor.
Earlier, Yahweh said that he would free them from Babylon “for your sake” (43:14), but now he promises to blot out their transgressions “for my own sake.” Just as a father would suffer by cutting off his son, so Yahweh has suffered by cutting off Israel. Freeing them from Babylon helps them, but it also eases Yahweh’s pain.
It is Yahweh’s nature to forgive. Besides that, Yahweh has already told the prophet, “Speak comfortably to Jerusalem; and call out to her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received of Yahweh’s hand double for all her sins.” (40:2). This doesn’t suggest that her repentance is adequate, but rather that she has been punished enough and will not be punished any more.
ISAIAH 43:26-28. SET FORTH YOUR CASE
26“Put me in remembrance.
Let us plead together.
Set forth your case,
that you may be justified.
27Your first father sinned,
and your teachers have transgressed against me.
28Therefore I will profane the princes of the sanctuary;
and I will make Jacob a curse,
and Israel an insult.”
These verses are not found in the lectionary readings, but I have included them because they are an integral part of this passage. There is an ebb and flow from verses 22-28 that we lose if we cut off the passage at verse 25. In verses 22-24, the tone is accusatory. Yahweh accuses Israel of sins and failure to worship properly. However, in verse 25, the tone shifts, and Yahweh says, “I will not remember your sins.” Then verses 26-28 turn accusatory once again. The picture is of a wounded Yahweh who is angry at the recalcitrance of his people, but is nevertheless disposed to favor them.
“Put me in remembrance (Hebrew: Cause me to remember), let us plead together. Set forth your case, that you may be justified” (v. 26). These words drip with irony.
In verse 25, Yahweh says, “I will not remember your sins.” Now he says, “Put me in remembrance” (Brueggemann, 62). Yahweh invites them to argue their case in court—to state their case—to defend themselves—to show Yahweh where he has made a mistake—to bring to mind any good qualities that he might have forgotten.
“Your first father sinned” (v. 27a). This doesn’t give us the name of their “first father.” Some scholars think that he was Abraham, but most think he was Jacob (also called Israel, the name of the nation).
“and your teachers have transgressed against me” (v. 27b). Who were their interpreters? The KJV says “teachers,” and the NIV says, “spokesmen.” Presumably, these were religious leaders, to include the patriarchs (Moses, David, etc.), the priests, and others responsible for religious leadership.
“Therefore I will profane the princes of the sanctuary” (v. 28a). The “princes of the sanctuary” are most likely the priests and Levites. They who are responsible for discerning whether others are profane (in the sense of being religiously tainted or unworthy) have been determined by Yahweh to be profane themselves.
“and I will make Jacob a curse, and Israel an insult” (v. 28b). Jacob and Israel were two names for the same man, so these two phrases state the same truth in two different ways. God has called Israel to be a holy nation, but their sin and profanity have invalidated their call. They are unworthy, so Yahweh delivered them to utter destruction.
However, as noted, in verse 25, that is not the end of the story. They have paid the price for their sins, and Yahweh has now blotted out their transgressions and will no longer remember their sins.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Achtemeier, Elizabeth, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), “Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C,” The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Brueggemann, Walter, Westminster Bible Companion: Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Hanson, Paul D., Interpretation Commentary: Isaiah 40-66, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995)
Holladay, William, Unbound by Time: Isaiah Still Speaks (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 2002)
Hoppe, Leslie J., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), “Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B,” The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Kaiser, Otto, The Old Testament Library: Isaiah, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983)
Muilenburg, James (Introduction and Exegesis of Isaiah 40-66); and Coffin, Henry Sloane (Exposition of Isaiah 40-66), The Interpreter’s Bible: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Oswalt, John N., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998)
Seitz, Christopher R., The New Interpreters Bible: Isaiah, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M.,Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Watts, John D. W., Word Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 34-66 (Dallas: Word Books, 1987)
Copyright 2007, 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan