Bel Bows Down, Nebo Stoops Low

and They Go Off Together to Captivity

46: 1-13

   DIG: Bel and Nebo were the names of two principle gods in Babylon. What are they carrying? What happens to them? How does this compare with the LORD in 46:3-4? What do they do for the people that worship them? What things does God say He has done and will do for Israel? Who are the rebels in 46:8 and the stubborn-hearted in 46:12 (see 42:18-25)? How does this relate to the promises in 46:3-4? The man in 46:11 is Cyrus. Although Israel is currently far from righteousness, how will God use Cyrus to bring righteousness near to them? Why is the LORD doing this?

   REFLECT: Have you seen people today worn out and let down by the very idols to which they have devoted themselves? How so? Has this happened to you? In contrast to the idols in 46:1-2, how have you experienced God as a Father carrying you when you were weak? Or as a Strong Man, sustaining you when you were tired? Or as a Warrior rescuing you when you were trapped? Isaiah concludes there is none like God. How do you go about remembering the works of the LORD in your life? Is there anything you could do differently to help yourself remember them? How has ADONAI brought His righteousness near to you (Romans 3:21-24; Ephesians 2:13)?

    Throughout his prophecies, Isaiah has periodically prophesied about the city of Babylon. Sometimes he dwells on the Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar and sometimes the rebuilt city of Babylon of the antichrist. In this case he is talking about the near historical Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar and her idols. Babylon is the original source of all idolatry. It started with the Tower of Babel (see my commentary on Genesis Dl – The Tower of Babel), and the rebellion of Nimrod (see my commentary on Genesis Di – The Line of Ham). Idolatry will end at the conclusion of the Great Tribulation where Jerusalem will become the religious capital of the antichrist and he will set himself up to be worshiped as god in the Most Holy Place (see my commentary on Revelation Dn - All the Inhabitants of the Earth will Worship the Beast), and Babylon will become his political and commercial capital (see my commentary on Revelation Em – With a Mighty Voice He Shouted: Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great).

    In 44:24-28, Isaiah called Cyrus His Shepherd, and 45:1-8 saw him launch into his dazzling career. Now the heart of the matter, as far as Israel was concerned, was at hand – the fall of Babylon. What makes this prophecy remarkable is the fact that at the time of Isaiah’s writing, Babylon was a very small and insignificant kingdom. It would be almost a century before it would become a world power. At any rate, we are given a bird’s-eye view as the phony gods of Babylon are unceremoniously carted off from the doomed city. Of course, it did not happen that way. Isaiah used figurative language while dealing with pictures and principles. His purpose is not to describe but to expose. There is no recorded evacuation of Babylon either before or after Cyrus’ assault, but in a strikingly visual way Isaiah presents the truth that Babylon’s false gods could not save her.

    Because they could not save, Babylon’s idols are pictured as being taken into captivity. Bel bows down, Nebo stoops low; their idols are borne by animals, beasts of burden. The loads you yourselves were carrying are now burdening tired animals (46:1 CJB). Isaiah exposes the two key Babylonian gods as being worthless and unable to help the Jews in any way. Behind the idols of that day was satanic worship, which is becoming more and more popular in our own day. The Word of God repeatedly warns us that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the power of this dark world and against the forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore, we need to defend ourselves by putting on the armor of God (Ephesians 6:13-18).

    Bel bows down (46:1a). Bel, the same title as Baal, or lord, is the shortened form of Bel Marduk, the Babylonian god of light. Bel is also found in the first part of Beelzebub – one of Satan’s names (see my commentary on The Life of Christ Ek – It is only by Beelzebub, the Prince of Demons, that This Fellow Drives Out Demons). There is an apocryphal book named Bel and the Dragon. The Church fathers did not include it with the canon of inspired Scripture, but it is interesting reading in a historical sense. Later, Bel Marduk became known as Jupiter in the Roman Empire. Bel was the title originally given to Enlil, the so-called father of the gods whose center was at Nippur. But Marduk, the city god of Babylon and hero of Enuma Elish (the Babylonian creation story), eventually became the chief god of southern Mesopotamia, and the title became his. But now these two most important gods of the Babylonian pantheon were seen to be stooped low as if they were in carts to be carried away. The judgment of God fell upon these gods through Cyrus.

    Nebo stoops low (46:1b). Nebo, Bel’s son, was worshiped by the Babylonians, the Assyrians, and the Sabians in Arabia. He was their god of wisdom, and was carried annually to Babylon to accompany his father in the New Year processions. There he supposedly wrote on “tablets of destiny” what the coming year would hold for Babylon (but apparently he wasn’t so prophetic when it came to Cyrus). He corresponds to the Latin Mercury, the Greek Hermes, and the Egyptian Thoth. The name Nebo, or Nabu, was supposedly derived from nabah, meaning to prophesy, and the office of this deity was that of interpreter for the gods. His symbol was a simple wedge or arrowhead and the name of the planet nearest the sun, Mercury. The popularity of this god is seen in the combination of his name with the names of ancient kings: for example Nebu-chadnezzar, Nebu-zaradan, Nebu-hashban, Nabo-nedus, Nabo-nassar, Nabu-rianus, Nabo-abus, Nabo-polassar. In light of the prominence of Nabu in these names it seems likely that Nebo, or Nabu, was the title that the kings of the Babylonian Empire chose to identify themselves with. He was the patron of the art of writing and patron-god of the Babylonian city of Borsippa, some ten miles south of Babylon.

    The expressions, bows down and stoops low, evidently refer to the downfall of these idols, and of the system of idolatry of which they were the symbols. According to the prophecy this was to be accomplished by the Persian power. It is, therefore, proper to remark here, that though the Persians worshiped the sun, the moon, the earth, etc., images of gods were entirely unknown among them. Herodotus says of them, “they have no images of the gods, no temples nor altars and consider the use of them a sign of folly” (Book 1, chapter 131). Thus it was in perfect accordance with their own customs that the Persians should destroy the graven images of other nations. To Cyrus the Persian monarch is this work of destruction (46:1).

    When all was said and done, Babylon’s mighty gods were reduced to being dependent on pack animals. Their idols are borne by animals, beasts of burden. The loads you yourselves were carrying are now burdening tired animals (46:1 CJB). These were not only the most prominent of the Babylonian gods, but also especially appropriate for Isaiah’s denunciation because they were carried in the annual New Year’s Festival procession in Babylon. This picture of worshipers carrying their gods would be especially appropriate here and in 46:7. It is as if God were saying, “How can a god that you have to carry around ever save you?” The impotence of the gods of Babylon is contrasted with the supreme power of the God of Israel. The former are carried away from their country into exile, while ADONAI carries His people from captivity into freedom.

    They stoop and bow down together; they cannot save the burden, but they themselves go off into captivity (46:2 CJB). So utterly helpless are Nebo and Bel, that they cannot deliver themselves from captivity, and so worthless that they are counted only as burdensome images that are carried about by beasts of burden.177 Isaiah says that they are burdensome, a burden for the weary. Furthermore, he tells us that they were unable to rescue the burden. These gods could not deliver Babylon from the invasion of Cyrus and the Persians. Now, they themselves go off into captivity, the property of Cyrus the Great. It is important to see here that the gods of Babylon were gods that needed to be carried. That is his main point. But in the rest of the chapter, God makes three warnings.

    Now God turns the tables. The focus of His ire is not on the false gods of Babylon, but on the fragile faith of the Israelites. The first warning was to listen to God (46:3-7). ADONAI said: Listen to Me, O house of Jacob, all who remain of the house of Isra'el, you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth (46:3). God’s admonition for the Israelites to listen to Him is frequently seen in the prophecies of Isaiah (44:1, 46:3 and 12, 47:8, 48:1, 12, 14 and 16, 51:4, 52:8, 55:2). In contrast to the false gods that had to be carried in ritual procession, ADONAI is seen as carrying Isra'el from the beginning and will continue to do so until the end. Carrying brings three images to mind: a father carrying his child (Deuteronomy 1:31), a shepherd carrying his lamb (Psalm 28:9), and an eagle carrying its young (Exodus 19:4; Deuteronomy 32:11).

    Even to your old age and gray hairs I Am He, I am He who will [carry] you (46:4a). In 46:3 God carried His children since birth, in 46:4 the LORD says even when you are old I will carry you. The contrast is even more precise and vivid in the Hebrew text. The carts and the carriages were loaded with the weight of the idols (46:1); but we are loaded upon ADONAI. Idols are a burden, a thing to be carried; but the LORD has gladly carried us since our birth. Israel has changed, from the child in the womb, to the infant growing through adolescence to adulthood, to the onset of gray hairs in old age. But one thing had not changed – the burden-bearing God, who carried His people.

    There will never come a time when we outgrow our dependence on the LORD. We are as dependent on Him in our old age as we were when we were infants (Psalm 71:9 and 18). Nor will there ever be a time when a wobbly old grandfather God will somehow need to lean on us, or we will need to find a young, virile God in the future. He is not subject to history; in every age He is the unchanging I Am He. The I Am is self-existent, self-dependent. He is above the changes, the limitations, the unforeseen of time and space. ADONAI can surely carry us through whatever may come our way in this life.

    I have made you and I will carry you: I will sustain you and I will rescue you (46:4b). Nothing could be more comforting, for our Father loves and cares for His children. He carries every care and worry that comes our way throughout our lifetime. The Word of God encourages you to cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you (First Peter 5:7). The reason they needed to listen was to understand that God is One who carries, and does not need to be carried. In contrast to the Babylonian idols that needed to be carried, the God of Israel is a God who carries the Jews from the cradle to the grave.

    To whom will you compare Me or count Me equal? To whom will you liken Me that we may be compared (46:5)? And the reason it is so difficult to explain is because He is infinite and we are finite and live in a finite universe. There is nothing to compare Him to. He cannot be reduced to our vocabulary without losing all meaning. He cannot be translated into human language. This is why Jesus became a man. The only way we can know ADONAI is through Yeshua. He revealed God to us. As He Himself said: Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father (John 14:9b).

    To reinforce the foolishness of any attempt at comparison, Isaiah launches into the fourth and last exposure of the contradictions of idol worship (40:19-20, 41:6-7, 44:9-20 and here). Some pour out gold from their bags and weigh out silver on the scales; they hire a goldsmith to make it into a god, and they bow down and worship it (46:6). Here God challenges all to compare Him with the Babylonian idols, all of which were manmade.

    They lift it to their shoulders and carry it; they set it up in its place, and there it stands. From that spot it cannot move (46:7a). Isaiah includes a bit of sarcasm here. This is one of several times that Isaiah belittled idols (40:18-20, 41:7, 44:9-20, 45:16 and 20, 46:1-2). All the false gods had to be carried and set in their place because they could not move. Some god! They lugged it around on their shoulders and when they got home, they put it in the corner. In other words, they are unable to save anything. Though one cries out to it, it does not answer; it cannot save him from his troubles (46:7b). This shows the absolute absurdity of idolatry. Though they might give it all their love and attention, nevertheless, a thing that could not help itself, could not help others.

    The second warning was to remember God's works (46:8-11). He challenges the Israelites to remember their past and reminds them that the Jewish prophets had predicted everything that has happened to them so far. Thus, ADONAI had shaped the past and revealed the future, not the idols of Babylon, but the God of Isra'el. The real question was this: Given the astonishing nature of His claims and promises, would Isra'el believe the LORD or remain stubborn-hearted (see 46:12 below)?

    Isaiah had been fighting against the sheer stupidity of idolatry. He cautioned: Remember this, fix it in your mind (found only here in the Bible), literally make yourselves firm and take it to heart, you rebels (46:8). Isra'el did and could know better – if only she would take a thoughtful account of things, as she should have already done. She needed to give it some serious thought. This is the same theme found in Deuteronomy. What was the antidote to her unbelief? Memory. Moses and all the prophets should have reminded her that when she remembered the former things, those of long ago she would see God as He really is and believe in Him. Is this not true for us also? He says, even to us today: I am EL and there is no other; I am ELOHIM and there is none like Me (46:9). He alone is God.

    I made known, or declared, the end from the beginning, from ancient times, and what is still to come (46:10a). He is not only the revealer of the things in the past, He is the revealer of things in the future. He reveals the whole sweep of human history. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please (46:10b). As in creation (Psalm 33:9), so in history, ADONAI will cannot be hindered. Even when some particular experience sidetracks God’s people, His desire will still be accomplished. It is unalterable. The difference between Him and the supposed gods should have been obvious.

    Once again He refers to Cyrus. From the east I summon a bird of prey; from a far-off land, a man to fulfill my purpose (46:11a). He pictures Cyrus (whose standard was an eagle) as a bird of prey because he will devour the nations that he comes up against. What I have said, that I will bring about; what I have planned, that will I do (46:11b). His promises will be brought about because God Himself will be at work in human history to accomplish them.

    The third warning was to respond to God's righteousness (46:12-13). These two verses turn out to be Isaiah’s final appeal to Isra'el to accept ADONAI’s will in the matter of Cyrus. Isra'el needed to trust the LORD that He could and would deliver them. They were to listen and respond to His righteousness. Listen to Me, you stubborn-hearted, you who are far from righteousness (46:12). God first brings them to the spiritual reality that they are stubborn-hearted, or headstrong, and far from Him and His righteousness.

    To continue to question God is no longer an absence of faith but a stubborn-hearted refusal to believe. We often consider stubborn-heartedness the result of arrogance, the attitude of those who do not think they need deliverance. But it may be just as much, as we see here, the response of those who recognize their need but cannot believe that the LORD can meet it. Here the unbelief seems to be focused on three questions: Is God really strong enough to wrestle His people away from the gods of Babylon? Would He want to save them at all, since their sin has been so grievous? And is the conquest of Babylon by another pagan, Cyrus, really an acceptable mode of deliverance?

    It is important to notice Isaiah’s increasingly harsh tone that he uses to convince the Jewish people to take his words to heart. In 40:27 he simply asks why the people would even question God. By 42:18 He is calling them deaf and blind to the truth. In 45:9 He pronounces doom on those who presume to define what ADONAI can and cannot do. Isaiah calls them rebels in 46:8, and then stubborn-hearted here. Finally, Chapter 48 is a denunciation of those who have heard with their ears, but not their hearts. They have never heard the truth about themselves or about God (6:9-10). The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and He relents from sending calamity (Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2), but there is an end even to that, as the generation in the wilderness and the destruction of Jerusalem (see my commentary on Jeremiah Gb - The Destruction of Solomon's Temple on Tisha B'Av in 586 BC) should tell us.178

    I am bringing My righteousness near, it is not far away; and My salvation will not be delayed. I will grant salvation to Zion, My splendor to Israel (46:13). The idolater makes a god in his own image; God intends to make His people in His image. As a result, ADONAI calls them to righteousness. This is an evangelistic plea to believe and be saved. That has always been His will for all mankind. But Israel has always been the focal point of salvation. Whatever horrible things they have done, however His name has been defiled, it is through Israel that He has chosen to make His salvation known to the world. He has been faithful and a Covenant Keeper. Therefore, should we not believe the LORD?

 

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