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 is the exile. Because the people of Jerusalem sinned, God allowed Babylonia to destroy their city and to take them into exile as slaves. The Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 587 B.C., and took its inhabitants into exile soon thereafter. It is now five decades later, near the end of the exile. Most of the exiled people have been born in captivity in Babylonia. During this period, they have done a good deal of soul-searching. They have asked themselves if Yahweh is truly God and, if so, why he allowed the Babylonians to destroy Yahweh’s temple and to exile Yahweh’s people. They have asked themselves whether they made a mistake by worshiping Yahweh. Perhaps Marduk, the god of the Babylonians, is stronger than Yahweh. Perhaps they would be well-advised to worship Marduk instead of Yahweh.
Chapters 1-39 dealt with these issues. When Assyria achieved world dominance, King Ahaz of Judah ignored the prophet Isaiah’s counsel and asked Tiglath-pileser of Assyria to help Judah repel attacks by Israel and Damascus. Assyria sent soldiers to do that, but Judah as a result became a vassal of Assyria and the people of Judah and Jerusalem were required to recognize Assyrian gods (2 Kings 16:3-4).
It was during this period that Isaiah the son of Amoz began his ministry. He said, “The faithful city has become a prostitute!” and “Your princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves” (1:21, 23). He warned, “The haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the haughtiness of men shall be brought low; and Yahweh alone shall be exalted on that day” (2:17). He gave counsel to Ahaz that Judah should 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. It is clear in chapters 1-39 that the blame for the exile lays squarely at the feet of the people of Jerusalem. They have played the whore. The exile is the punishment for their sins.
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. Chapters 40 through 42:20 continue in that hopeful vein. Then 42:21-25 (the verses leading up to the text that we are considering) speaks of Yahweh’s anger because of the sins of the people. But the tone shifts back to hope and reassurance with 43:1, which begins with the word “But” and then reaffirms Yahweh’s love for his people and his plans for their future.
The fulfillment of this prophecy came through Cyrus II of Persia, “the one from the east” (41:2), who defeated Babylonia in 539 B.C., establishing Persia as the dominant power. While the Babylonians treated the exiles as slaves, Cyrus will institute a very different policy. Not only will he allow the exiles to return to their homeland, but he will also provide financial assistance to allow them to rebuild (Ezra 1:2-4). But the prophet makes it clear that when that happens, Cyrus will be only the tool of Yahweh. It will not be Cyrus who will save the people, but Yahweh.
ISAIAH 43:1-4.I HAVE REDEEMED YOU AND CALLED YOU BY NAME
1But now thus says Yahweh who created you, Jacob,
and he who formed you, Israel:
“Don’t be afraid, for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by your name.
You are mine.
2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they will not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned,
and flame will not scorch you.
3For I am Yahweh your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I have given Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in your place.
4Since you have been precious and honored in my sight,
and I have loved you;
therefore I will give people in your place,
and nations instead of your life.
“But now thus says Yahweh” (v. 1a). As noted above, “But” in this verse is linked to 42:21-25—verses that speak of Judah’s disobedience and Yahweh’s anger. The use of “But” in this verse assures us that Yahweh’s anger is history. The new reality of chapter 43 is that of Yahweh’s love and the redemption of God’s people. The words, “Thus says Yahweh,” heighten the emphasis—lend the Lord’s imprimatur to what is said here.
“he who created you, Jacob, and he who formed you, Israel” (v. 1b). In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1). In like manner, he created the nation Israel. That creation began with the call of Abram (Genesis 12:1) and continued through the lineage of Isaac, Jacob/Israel, and Israel’s twelve sons. But it was in Egypt that Israel’s family grew to nation-size, and it was in the Exodus that they first became an independent nation. This mention of Israel’s creation, then, is the first allusion in our text to the Exodus story.
“Don’t be afraid, for I have redeemed you” (v. 1c). The words, “Don’t be afraid,” appear frequently in the Old and New Testaments (42 times), but especially in the book of Isaiah (15 times) and most especially in Second Isaiah (10 times).
Fear is a common human condition. These exiles, who have endured a half century of servitude with no end in sight, have reason to be afraid. Can they look forward to anything other than more of the same? Will they forever be servants of the Babylonians? Is there any hope that they will one day be free?
The prophet, speaking for Yahweh, assures them that, in spite of their suffering and the apparent hopelessness of their situation, they need not fear the future. The reason is that Yahweh has redeemed them. For Jewish people, this word, “redeemed,” would bring to mind their understanding that the firstborn, human or animal, belongs to the Lord and must be redeemed by the payment of a price. This practice has its roots in the Passover, where the Lord killed the firstborn of Egypt but allowed the Israelites to redeem their firstborn with the blood of a lamp smeared on their doorpost (Exodus 11:1-13:16). This use of the word, “redeemed,” is the second allusion in our text to the Exodus.
“I have called you by your name. You are mine” (v. 1d). For these people, names are important. A person’s name reveals the person’s character and identity. In key moments in Israel’s history, God named particular people. He changed Abram’s name to Abraham, “for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:5). He changed Jacob’s name to Israel, “for you have fought with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28)—and Israel’s name became the name of the nation. The bestowing of a new name, then, is tantamount to conferring a new identity—acknowledging a new character.
“To bestow a name is an act of authority, denoting possession, responsibility, and protection” (Myers, 747). Yahweh’s calling by Israel by name, therefore, constitutes a kind of adoption ceremony that signifies that “you are mine” (v. 1d)—that Yahweh is the parent and Israel is the child.
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through fire, you will not be burned, and flame will not scorch you”(v. 2). Yahweh has named Israel and Israel belongs to Yahweh, so Israel can count on Yahweh’s protection. The promise is not that Israel’s way will be easy or without danger, but rather that when exposed to danger Israel will be neither overwhelmed nor consumed. Calvin says, “The Lord has not redeemed you so that you might enjoy pleasures and luxuries…but so that you should be prepared for enduring all kinds of evil” (quoted in Oswalt, 138). That brings to mind the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray, “Deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13 KJV).
“Pass through the waters” is another allusion to the Exodus, where Israel passed unharmed through the waters of the Red Sea to escape the pursuing Egyptian army, but the pursuing army was overwhelmed by the waters, eliminating the threat to Israel (Exodus 14-15).
Some scholars think of “pass…through the rivers” as an allusion to the end of the Exodus, when Israel finally crossed the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land (Joshua 3). That crossing might seem to have posed little danger compared with the crossing of the Red Sea, but that is hardly how Israel perceived it. When Moses sent spies to view the land of Canaan, the spies returned with this report: “We came to the land where you sent us; and surely it flows with milk and honey; and this is its fruit. However the people who dwell in the land are strong and the cities are fortified and very large…. There we saw the Nephilim: …and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight” (Numbers 13:27, 33).
It would not be until later, when Joshua sent two spies to Jericho, that Israel would hear the voice of faith proclaiming, “Truly the Lord has given all the land into our hands; moreover all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before us” (Joshua 2:24). Clearly, these later spies understood that it would not be their strength that would make the land theirs, but the Lord’s strength.
The fire and flame of v. 2b are metaphors for any danger, but would also evoke vivid memories for the exiles who had watched Jerusalem burn.
“For I am Yahweh (YHWH) your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (v. 3a). God has spoken of naming his people. Now he reveals his own name in four dimensions: (1) Yahweh (2) your God (3) the Holy One of Israel and (4) your Savior. As with other names, these names reveal the identity and character of God.
“Yahweh” (Hebrew: YHWY) is the holy name of God, the name by which God revealed himself to Moses (translated “I Am” in Exodus 3:14 NRSV). Most Jewish people decline to pronounce this name lest they accidentally profane it. However, it is the name used for God in the Psalms, the prophets, and several of the historical books of the Old Testament.
The other three names, “your God,” “the Holy One of Israel,” and “your Savior” all emphasize the relationship of Yahweh to the nation of Israel and its people. Israel belongs to Yahweh, and Yahweh belongs to Israel.
While the name, “the Holy One of Israel,” is found elsewhere in the Bible (2 Kings 19:22; Psalm 71:22; 78:41; 89:19; Jeremiah 50:29; 51:5), fully 24 of the 30 occurrences of this name are found in the book of Isaiah. Moreover, it occurs in all three parts of the book, twelve times in chapters 1-39, ten times in chapters 40-55, and twice in chapters 56-66. In addition, the name, “The Holy One of Jacob” is used once (29:23) and “the Holy One, the Creator of Israel” used once (43:15). Scholars point to the distinctive use of this name as one of the key indicators of the unity of the book (by which they do not necessarily mean a single author).
“Your Savior” has been true in the past. Yahweh saved Israel in the Exodus, in David’s encounter with Goliath, in Gideon’s encounter with the Midianites, and on countless other occasions. This verse assures the exiles that Yahweh is still their savior and will save them from their exile.
The phrase, “your Savior,” appears three times in the book of Isaiah (43:3; 49:26; 60:16) and nowhere else in the Bible. The word, “savior,” appears eight times in Isaiah and only six times elsewhere in the Old Testament.
“I haven given Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in your place” (v. 3b). The principle is that God is willing to pay a high price for the ransom of the exiles, but we aren’t sure how that worked historically. It would appear that Yahweh is offering Egypt, Ethiopia, and Seba to Cyrus as a reward for freeing the Jewish exiles, but there is no historical record of Cyrus conquering these countries.
Ethiopia is located south of Egypt, and is separated from Egypt by Cush or Nubia (modern-day Sudan). We are less certain of the location of Seba, but it was probably located in Northern Africa, perhaps between Egypt and Ethiopia.
The idea of ransom is found in both Old and New Testaments and is a price paid to redeem something. One example is the half-shekel temple tax required from every person twenty years old and older as “atonement for your souls” (Exodus 30:11-16). The word “ransom” also includes the idea of salvation, as in “Redeem me from the hand of the oppressors” (Job 6:23).
The Jewish sacrificial system is basically a ransom system in which the lives of animals are sacrificed to ransom people from the penalty for their sin (Leviticus 17:11). However, the Psalmist acknowledges, “None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give God a ransom for him. For the redemption of their life is costly, no payment is ever enough ” (Psalm 49:7-8). Nevertheless, “But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me (Psalm 49:15).
In the New Testament, Jesus says, “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Paul says, “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:5-6).
So Yahweh is saying that he will purchase the freedom of the exiles. In some manner, his payment will be Egypt, Ethiopia, and Seba.
“Since you have been precious and honored in my sight, and I have loved you” (v. 4a). Yahweh is the lover and his people are the beloved. It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and Yahweh clearly sees the Jewish people as beautiful. That is not because they are wiser or stronger or more comely than other people, but because Yahweh has chosen them and established a covenant with them and made them his own.
Parents understand the principle. Our children might not be more wonderful than other children, but we love them because they are ours—whether naturally or by adoption. Because of our love, we make sacrifices for them that we would not make for other children. That is the way that Yahweh loves these exiles.
We might wonder how Yahweh, who loves these people, could have allowed them to suffer exile. This is another place where there are parallels to parenting. Good parents understand that tolerance of bad behavior is a prescription for future trouble. Even though it might be painful to the parents as well as the child, good parents set limits and impose punishments—not to exact revenge but to encourage appropriate behavior. The exiles had sinned, and their exile is the price that they are paying for that sin. But their punishment is coming to a close, because Yahweh loves them and has redeemed them.
“therefore I will give people in your place, and nations instead of your life” (v. 4b). This reiterates the idea of ransom found in v. 3b above.
ISAIAH 43:5-7. DON’T BE AFRAID; FOR I AM WITH YOU
5Don’t be afraid; for I am with you.
I will bring your seed from the east,
and gather you from the west.
6 I will tell the north, ‘Give them up!’
and tell the south, ‘Don’t hold them back!
Bring my sons from far,
and my daughters from the ends of the earth—
7everyone who is called by my name,
and whom I have created for my glory,
whom I have formed,
yes, whom I have made.’
“Don’t be afraid, for I am with you” (v. 5a). At the beginning of the first section of this text we read, “Don’t be afraid, for I have redeemed you” (43:1). Now, at the beginning of the second section, we read the same “Don’t be afraid,” but a different reason is given—”for I am with you.” While the two reasons for not fearing are different on the surface, they are identical at the core. These exiles need not fear because they can trust Yahweh to meet their deepest needs. Paul puts the same idea this way: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). That does not mean that our way will be easy or our enemies few. On the contrary, Christ calls us to bear a cross, and we can expect Satan to do everything possible to deceive us—to tempt us—to destroy us. Given such dangers, we would have no hope except for one thing: God is with us. Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we need fear no evil; for God is with us; his rod and staff, they comfort us (Psalm 23:4).
“I will bring your seed from the east, and gather you from the west. I will tell the north, ‘Give them up!’ and tell the south, ‘Don’t hold them back! Bring my sons from far, and my daughters from the ends of the earth'” (vv. 5b-6). These verses promise that Yahweh has the power to scour the whole earth in search of those who belong to him. He has the will to bring his scattered people together, regardless of where he might find them. This could have a number of meanings, and it seems possible that all of them are true (Oswalt, 141):
• This might be a promise for the present. The exiles are gathered together in Babylonia, and their concern is how to attain their freedom and to return to their homeland. Yahweh, who has power to bring back scattered children from wherever they might be in the world, can easily bring back these exiles who are already gathered together. These verses might suggest that there are Jewish people elsewhere and that Yahweh will find them and bring them back as well.
• This might be a promise for the future. In the future, the Jewish people will experience a considerable dispersion, and this could be a promise that Yahweh will return them to Jerusalem. This, in fact, has happened, at least in part, beginning with the founding of the nation Israel in 1948.
• This could be a promise for all of God’s people—not just the Jews.
“everyone who is called by my name, and whom I have created for my glory, whom I have formed, yes, whom I have made” (v. 7). Earlier, Yahweh said, “I have called you by your name. You are mine” (v. 1). Now he speaks of “everyone who is called by my name,” suggesting that the name that he has given them is his own name. If we are God’s people—and we are—then we were created in God’s image and bear God’s name.
Here we learn our purpose in life. God has created us for his glory. In the Old Testament, God’s glory is manifested in his mighty deeds (Exodus 14:4, 17; 16:7). It fills the tabernacle, and manifests itself in a cloud (Exodus 40:34-35). It proclaims his greatness (Deuteronomy 5:24). It has power—Moses asked to see God’s glory, but God replied, “no one shall see me and live (Exodus 33:18-20).
“The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1), but God’s people are expected to make it known as well. Joshua said to Achan, “My son, please give glory to Yahweh, the God of Israel” (Joshua 7:19). David ordered, “Declare his glory among the nations, and his marvelous works among all the peoples” (1 Chronicles 16:24).
We give glory to God when we sing his praises, and we also give glory to God when we live according to his will and obey his commandments.
A MODEL FOR MINISTRY:
Isaiah provides a great model for ministry. He delivers the authentic word of God with its note of judgment and its hope for the future. He proclaims the sovereign God as the one and only hope of the people—and assures the people of God’s love. We who are active in ministry today would do well to go and do likewise.
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.
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)
Holbert, John C., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), 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., Interpretation Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993)
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