< July 19, 2020 >

Commentary on Isaiah 44:6-8

 

Once again this week, the lectionary invites us to reflect on God’s words of comfort to Judean exiles in sixth-century BCE Babylon, as preserved in the middle chapters of the book of Isaiah.

As noted in last week’s commentary on Isaiah 55:10-13, countless people worldwide are currently experiencing physical displacement and emotional disruption from stressors like the COVID-19 pandemic, racism, political polarization, violence, and climate change. As we consider how Isaiah 44:6-8 might offer good news to these contemporary exiles, it’s worth considering how the text brought hope to ancient exiles.

Divine identities

Isaiah 44:6 begins with the prophetic formula “thus says the LORD,” identifying the following words as divine speech. As typically occurs in Isaiah 40-55, other titles are added to the formula. The verse identifies God in four different ways:

  • “LORD” (often set in small caps, or in this case, all caps) is the conventional translation of “YHWH” in most English Bibles. It is God’s personal name, evoking the centuries-long covenantal relationship between God and God’s people.
  • “King of Israel” encourages the exilic audience not to despair that they no longer have a human ruler, after Babylon had deposed the last Davidic king. God remains their true ruler and source of hope.
  • “Redeemer” is a favorite metaphor for God in Isaiah 40-55 (see also Isaiah 41:14; 43:14; 54:5). In ancient Israelite society, a redeemer assisted threatened family members by ransoming them from kidnapping or slavery, or acquiring their land if they died without heirs (see the book of Ruth). The term casts God as the exiles’ rescuer.
  • “LORD of hosts” is a military title. “Hosts” are the stars and constellations (Genesis 2:1; Isaiah 34:4), who were imagined as a heavenly army commanded by the deity (Joshua 5:14; Judges 5:20).

Additional divine titles in this text include “first and last” in Isaiah 44:6, which emphasizes God’s eternal existence, and “rock” in 44:8, which depicts God as a reliable source of protection.

It appears that the audience needed to be reminded of the identity of their God. Decades into the exile, all external evidence suggested that Israel’s God was a minor deity who’d been defeated by Babylon and its mighty divinities. Against this claim, the text dares the audience to reclaim faith in their God, to trust that God loves them enough and is powerful enough to bring them home. Instead of assuming that “thus says the LORD” is enough for the audience, the prophet-poet evocatively reminds them who this God is.

Emerging monotheism

For Christian readers, God’s claim that “besides me there is no god” (Isaiah 44:6) seems unremarkable. Like Judaism and Islam, Christianity is staunchly monotheistic. But such language is surprisingly rare in the Hebrew Bible. Although Israel is commanded to worship YHWH alone, many texts leave open the possibility that other gods exist (e.g., Deuteronomy 32:8-9; Psalm 95:3; Micah 4:5). Many scholars call this system of belief “monolatry.”

Claims that no other gods exist first appear in texts from the exile, especially Isaiah 40-55 (Isaiah 43:10; 45:5-6; 49:9, etc.). These claims emphasize God’s uniqueness more than God’s sole existence, but they represent an important step in the gradual emergence of monotheism.1 In their original context, they demonstrated YHWH’s power to restore the exiles’ fortunes. The prophet-poet declares that, compared with our God, these other “gods” might as well not even exist. It’s a polemical claim, developed further in the satire about divine images (or “idols”) that follows in Isaiah 44:9-20. Although rhetorically effective, this passage unfairly distorts the beliefs and practices of Babylonian worshipers.2

More important than the text’s polemical claim, however, is its pastoral claim. These words encourage a marginalized religious minority to embrace and reclaim the dignity of their own traditions. They seek to rekindle dreams of deliverance among an oppressed people who have given up hope. In today’s religiously diverse world, the challenge for Christian preachers is to embrace these pastoral implications of the text, without reinforcing its polemical implications. American Christians using these words from Isaiah to belittle other religious traditions put themselves in the position of Babylon, not the exiles.

God and the future

In Isaiah 44:7-8, God’s uniqueness is linked to God’s knowledge of the future. Again, for Christian audiences that take belief in divine omniscience for granted, this hardly seems exceptional. But the original exilic audience had good reasons to question divine foreknowledge. By all accounts, the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem must have taken God by surprise. Otherwise, why wouldn’t God had tried to stop it?

To counter these doubts, the prophet-poet reminds them that God already “has announced from of old the things to come.” This likely refers to pre-exilic prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, whose warnings of judgment seemed to be fulfilled by the exile. If the exiles can believe that God saw the exile coming, then they can trust God’s promises that it will soon be over and they will return home. By declaring that God knows the future, the text also suggests that God controls it.

But that claim is not without problems. If God controls the future, does that mean pain and suffering are God’s will, and that God intended for them to happen? In response to this disturbing possibility, recent developments in Christian thought, like open theism or process theology, have qualified traditional statements about divine omniscience. On the other hand, the text’s claim of foreknowledge offers profound encouragement to suffering people. It’s the basis for the reassurance in verse 8, “Do not fear, or be afraid.” Keen pastoral sensitivity is necessary for navigating these tensions in this text. This week’s epistle reading in the lectionary, Romans 8:12-25, also wrestles with how God can transform present suffering into future vindication. Putting Isaiah’s and Paul’s words into conversation together could lead to helpful insights into these thorny questions.


Notes

  1. See Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

  2. See Michael B. Dick, “Worshipping Idols: What Isaiah Didn’t Know,” Bible Review 18 (2002): 30-37.