The Folly of Idolatry – Isaiah 46
Read the Passage: Isaiah 46
Weakness Described (46:1–2)
In this section of his book, Isaiah comforts a future generation of exiled Jews who are in captivity in Babylon. In this larger division of the book (cf. Isa. 40–48) Isaiah encourages this future remnant by giving prophecies of peace. Before writing specifically about the fall of Babylon in Isa. 47–48, in the present chapter Isaiah observers the inability of the main Babylonian gods to protect their city from an inevitable coming attack. Isaiah also writes in this chapter about the power and majesty of God, as well as His worthiness of worship. Recall that earlier in his book Isaiah had written that God cannot even be compared to an idol, for idols are worthless creations of mankind that are ironically crafted out of the very earth that God Himself made (cf. Isa. 31:6–7; 40:18–31; 44:9–20). To the exiled Jews, God may have seemed powerless; yet it was the foreign gods who were truly impotent.
Isaiah begins this chapter writing, “Bel bows down, Nebo stoops” (Isa. 46:1). Bel is another name for Marduk, the supreme deity of Babylon. Nebo is the son of Marduk and the chief spokesman for the Babylonian pantheon of gods. In the ancient near east, when one nation defeated another, they would carry off their idols as trophies (cf. 1 Sam. 4–6). Here Isaiah presents a picture of Bel and Nebo being carried off by a future conquering army. Perhaps writing with sarcasm, Isaiah notes that the Babylonian gods were even a burden to the beasts of burden who pulled the carts on which Bel and Nebo were placed. A second time Isaiah writes, “They stoop, they bow down together; they could not deliver the burden” (Isa. 46:2). This prophecy would have been encouraging to the captive Jews, as they learned that the gods of their captors would themselves become captives.
Comparison Invited (46:3–7)
In Isa. 46:3–4 God reveals that, unlike the Babylonian gods who were carried away by the enemies of those who worshiped them, it is God Himself who carries those who worship Him. In fact, God writes four times in Isa. 46:3–4 that He carries His people—doing so from their birth to their old age. Next, in Isa. 46:5–7 God reminds His people that He is incomparable. The gods of mankind are fashioned by man, made in the image of man, and dependent upon man; yet, the God of the Bible is the One who created man, puts His very image upon man, and is sovereign over the affairs of man. Indeed, God cannot be compared to other gods, for they are merely figments of man’s imagination. Observe God’s summary description of the idols of mankind as He declares, “Though one cries out to it, yet it cannot answer nor save him out of his trouble” (Isa. 46:7).
Majesty Displayed (46:8–13)
In a similar manner to the way in which he had called Job to account for himself (cf. Job 38:1–3), in Isa. 46:8–10 God summons the subjects of Isaiah’s prophecy to give a full account for themselves, writing, “Remember this, and show yourselves men; recall to mind, O you transgressors” (Isa. 46:8). Interestingly, at Isa. 46:9 God encourages his readers, “Remember the former things of old.” The idea here is that God’s people should have been able to review the track record of His dealings with mankind and conclude that He is God, despite their present captivity. In this passage God declares: (1) that He alone is God; (2) that He determines the end from the beginning; (3) that He establishes all that takes place; (4) that His divine counsel is sufficient and sure; and (5) that His good will is always accomplished. The revelation of God in His Word and His world is indisputable.
In Isa. 46:11–13 God speaks of His future work, which would entail the overthrow of Babylon, which He has been prophesying about in this section of Scripture (cf. Isa. 46–48). In Isa. 46:11 God declared that He would soon be “calling a bird of prey from the east, the man who executes My counsel, from a far country. Indeed, I have spoken it; I will also bring it to pass. I have purposed it; I will also do it.” This bird of prey was Cyrus, the leader of the Medo-Persian empire (cf. Isa. 45:1), who would capture Babylon in 539 BC (cf. Dan. 5), which was more than 150 years after the writing of this prophecy. In Isa. 46:12–13 God describes His readers as “stubborn-hearted” and “far from righteousness.” Next, God affirms that His righteousness and salvation is “near, it shall not be far off; my salvation shall not delay” (Isa. 46:13). Ultimately, this refers to justification by faith alone in the promised Messiah.
- What is proper worship of God? When you worship God, do you praise Him for His character and Being or only for what He has done for you?
- In the face of trials and troubles in the midst of the fallen world, what types of things can we do to stay encouraged?
- How could the Jews balance contentment in captivity (cf. Jer. 29) with joy at or anticipation of the overthrow of their captors (cf. Prov. 24:17)?
- What are some things that function as idols or gods in the modern context? When you are in distress, to what or to whom do you look for deliverance?
- Given the sufficient evidence for God in the world, as well as the truth of His Word, why does mankind still doubt Him?