The Melbourne Cup, a popular Australian horse race, was held today. Just before the race, the news media showed predictions of the first five horses, which were based on betting information. But these horses came 13th, 20th, 4th, 22nd and 11th respectively, and the race was won by an outsider! So the predictions were wrong! This shows how difficult it is to predict the future. In this post we see that Jeremiah was a prophet to whom God revealed the future.
Jeremiah was an Israelite prophet who was born about 650 BC and preached for about 40 years (626 BC to 586 BC). God used prophets to send messages to the Israelites and many of these messages are included in the Old Testament of the Bible. In this article we are looking at the final chapter of the book of Jeremiah, chapter 52.
The previous 51 chapters have described Jeremiah’s call to be a prophet (Ch 1), his messages to Judah (Ch 2-35), his sufferings and persecution (Ch. 36-38), the fall of Jerusalem and its aftermath (Ch. 39-45) and his messages to other nations (Ch 46-51).
His messages are mainly about four topics (see diagram): people’s sinfulness; God’s punishment for this sinfulness; and two responses. Firstly, if people repent, the punishment is delayed and deliverance/restoration is possible. And secondly, if people don’t repent, then punishment is inevitable. In particular, he reminds Judah of their disobedience and rebellion demonstrated by their ongoing idolatry.
Chapter 52 follows a message to Babylon in chapters 50-51, which was read out aloud to the inhabitants of Babylon. It predicted the invasion of Babylon by an army, which was fulfilled in 539 BC by the Medes and Persians.
What more can Jeremiah say? Nothing! At the end of Chapter 51 it says “The words of Jeremiah end here” (NIV). This looks like a scribal note saying that chapter 52 was written or compiled by someone else. No one knows exactly who. Was it Baruch? Was it Ezra? Or another compiler of the book of Jeremiah?
Jeremiah isn’t mentioned in chapter 52. Instead the focus in on the fate of Jerusalem and its inhabitants. Also, it includes an event in Babylon that Jeremiah wouldn’t have been aware of because he would have either been elderly (almost 90 years of age) or dead, and well away in Egypt.
There are two main sections in chapter 52: the fall of Jerusalem (v.1-30), and Jehoiachin released (v.31-34).
There are 5 paragraphs about the fall of Jerusalem and its aftermath: Zedekiah captured (v.1-11), Jerusalem destroyed (v.12-16), temple articles taken (v.17-23), execution of leading citizens (v.24-27a), and Jewish prisoners taken into exile (v. 27b-30).
The fall of Jerusalem isn’t in chronological order. The most likely sequence of events is: city walls breached (v.7), prisoners taken (v.8-11, 15-16, 24-27a), plunder removed (v.17-23), and city destroyed (v.12-14).
Most of the content in chapter 52 isn’t unique; it’s repeated elsewhere in the Bible. Verses 4-27 are summarised in 39:1-10. Why is it repeated with more detail? The extra information is: the Babylonians took all the gold, silver and bronze from the temple; and the execution of 74 senior officials. It seems to show the fulfilment of the many predictions made by Jeremiah.
Verses 1-27, 31-34 are virtually the same as 2 Kings 24:18 – 25:21, 27-30. So Jeremiah has the same ending as 2 Kings! Again, this material is probably included here because it is a record of the fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophesies. There are many references in Jeremiah 52 to earlier passages of the book that confirm the prophet’s predictions. It enables one to read his prophecies and their fulfilment in the same scroll or book.
The writers of 2 Kings and Jeremiah 52 probably had access to the same written sources. According to the NIV Study Bible, it’s unlikely they copied from each other since each has peculiarities characteristic of the book they conclude. In a few passages, Jeremiah is fuller than Kings. The minor differences in the two accounts may be due to either copy errors (v.12, 22, 25) or to different ways of reckoning (counting or measuring). As this chapter is much closer to the 2 Kings account than to Jeremiah 39, this is consistent with it being added by an editor or compiler and not written by Jeremiah.
Zedekiah captured (v.1-11)
This is the same account as in 2 Kings 24:18 – 25:7. King Zedekiah was another wicked king. After he rebelled against the king of Babylon, the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem for 18 months from 588 BC. When the food ran out the city wall was breached, and the Judean army escaped. But Zedekiah was captured and taken to king Nebuchadnezzar. They killed his sons and then put out his eyes and took him to Babylon where he was a prisoner until he died. So Zedekiah was punished when Jerusalem was destroyed. Note that Zedekiah could have prevented the destruction of Jerusalem if he had listened to Jeremiah (Jer. 38:14-28).
Jerusalem destroyed (v.12-16)
This is the same account as in 2 Kings 25:8-12. The Babylonians burned all the houses in Jerusalem including the temple, which was about 424 years old. They pulled down the city walls and took more prisoners, leaving only the poorest to work the vineyards and fields. The upper class had been taken into exile with king Jehoiachin in 597 BC. They destroyed the city to make it beyond repair.
Temple articles taken (v.17-23)
This is a similar account to 2 Kings 25:13-17, but with more detail of the pillars. The Babylonians took to Babylon all the gold, silver and bronze from the temple as plunder. The items taken are listed and described. It was robbery of valuable items. But in the mind of the Babylonians, it also signified a victory of the Babylonian gods over the God of Israel.
Execution of leading citizens (v.24-27a)
This is the same account as in 2 Kings 25:18-21a. 74 senior officials and “people of the land” (probably the landed gentry) are taken to king Nebuchadnezzar and executed. The Babylonians ruthlessly destroy the influential people and potential leaders.
Jewish prisoners taken into exile (v. 27b-30)
This account isn’t matched in 2 Kings, but some numbers are given there of the people deported. There were four main phases of deportation of prisoners of war to Babylon (605 BC, 598 BC, 587 BC, and 582 BC). The Hebrew word heglah (Strongs #1540), translated “exile”, is mentioned twice (v.28, 30). It says that 4,600 people went into exile as prisoners. This is different to the 10,000 mentioned in 2 Kings 24:14. Maybe the lower number is male adults.
So because they continually disobeyed God, the kingdom of Judah was destroyed. The land was conquered and the people killed or deported to Babylon. Perhaps 20,000 Jews were taken into captivity. This is the fulfilment of Jeremiah’s predictions.
Jehoiachin released (v.31-34)
This is the same account as in 2 Kings 25:27-30. King Jehoiachin was exiled in 597 BC and released in 561 BC when Awel-Marduk replaced Nebuchadnezzar as king of Babylon. So, after 37 years in prison, Jehoiachin was released to live in Babylon. He was given a position of honor above the other vassal kings in Babylon. Apparently it was a common practice for a victorious king to keep captive kings at his court as a reminder of his victories and as a warning to the subjects of that king not to rebel.
As it includes this incident in 561 AD, the book of Jeremiah must have been finalised after this date. But Jeremiah would have finished his part when he was taken to Egypt 20-25 years before this date (Ch 44).
The endings of 2 Kings (25:27-30) and Jeremiah 52:31-34) are the same! They have a happy ending! Jehoiachin was released to eat at the king’s table. The Jews aren’t destroyed or the line of David. And Jehoiachin is included in Joseph’s genealogy (Mt. 1:11-12).
Why was it written?
Why is this chapter in the book of Jeremiah? It serves the following three purposes.
First to show that Jeremiah’s predictions were fulfilled. Nearly every verse in this chapter is a fulfilled prophecy. Jeremiah was vindicated. He was right and the false prophets were wrong. It proves that he was a true prophet of God (Dt. 18:21-22).
Second it contrasts the fate of king Zedekiah and his nephew king Jehoiachin. Zedekiah died in prison (v.11), while Jehoaichin was released and ate regularly with the king of Babylon. So all wasn’t lost.
Third it provides a glimmer of hope at the end. Some were saved in captivity, including the line of David. Is this a hint of better days ahead?
Three themes can be identified in chapter 52.
The predictions made by a true prophet are fulfilled. It happened like Jeremiah predicted.
God punishes sinfulness. Continual sin by the people of Judah led to the destruction of their civilization and their deportation to a foreign land. “It was because of the Lord’s anger that all this happened to Jerusalem and Judah, and in the end He thrust them from His presence” (v.3). The sin led to God’s anger, which was expressed in the punishment. That’s what Jeremiah was warning them about.
God always offers hope. Although it looked like the end, they weren’t obliterated. Because they weren’t all destroyed, and the line of David was preserved, there was a glimmer of hope for the future. It would have helped the exiles believe Jeremiah’s prediction that they would be able to return after 70 years of captivity (25:11; 29:10-14).
Questions that arise
Jehoiachin seems to be criticized in Chapter 22, which is headed “Judgment against wicked kings”, but he is rewarded in Chapter 52. This doesn’t seem to be consistent. As Jeremiah predicted, Jehoiachin died in Babylon without going back to Judah (22:24-27). But who does 22:30 apply to? It says, “none of his offspring will prosper; none will sit on the throne of David, or rule anymore in Judah”. It follows a paragraph on Jehoiachin (22:24-28), but seems to be part of an address to Zedekiah (Ch 21-22 and maybe further). One commentator thinks that along with 22:1-9 it applies to Zedekiah. But maybe it can apply to either.
Is there a glimmer of hope in chapter 52 or not? The future seems uncertain. Will the glimmer of hope come to anything? Immigrants are usually assimilated into their new nation within a few generations by intermarriage. In Ezra and Nehemiah we see how some returned to their homeland 70 years later.
What does it mean to us today? Let’s look at each of the themes.
The predictions made by a true prophet are fulfilled. Because Jeremiah’s predictions about the Babylonian conquest were fulfilled, those that haven’t yet been fulfilled will be fulfilled in future. So the predictions of national unity and restoration for Israel will be fulfilled in a coming day (Rom. 11).
Because God’s prophets in the Old Testament were true prophets, the writers of the New Testament were also true prophets and all they wrote is true. So the promises made to Christians in the New Testament will be fulfilled. They are reliable. They can be trusted.
God punishes sinfulness. The conquest of Jerusalem and the Jewish exile were God’s punishment for their sinfulness. This truth still applies today. God still punishes sinfulness: “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23NLT). Sin has consequences in this life and afterwards if we haven’t accepted God’s gift of salvation. We reap what we sow (Gal. 6:7). We harvest what we plant. But the outcome isn’t always bad because a major loss can shock people into returning to the Lord.
God always offers hope. Even though it seems that ungodliness is prevalent, some are still faithful to God. After facing opposition in Corinth, Paul was told “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9-10). There are always some people who are faithful to God.
Looking ahead. Although life was difficult after the fall of Jerusalem, the Jews who knew Scripture could look forward to the coming of their Messiah. Likewise, although life is difficult for Christians today, we who know Scripture can look forward to the Lord’s second coming.
Written, November 2015
Sin is serious and dangerous
A warning was given last month in Washington USA when arsonists lit several fires during a period of high fire danger. Some of the fires were started by fireworks. Authorities stressed that fires have a cost and sometimes they costs lives.
Today we look at how Jeremiah gave the Jews a wake-up call by reminding them of the dangerous situation that threatened their lives and their nation. We will see from Jeremiah 2-6 that God will punish them because of their continual sinfulness and the only way out is to repent and turn around and follow Him.
The Israelites were God’s special people whom He rescued from Egypt so they could live in Canaan. The laws He gave them to follow through Moses are given in the books of Exodus to Deuteronomy of the Bible. After peaking in the days of King Solomon, their land was divided into two with Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Then in 722 BC, the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, so only Judah was left.
Jeremiah preached for 40 years (626 BC to 586 BC) to those living in Judah during the reign of their last five kings about 600BC. At this time Judah was a weak nation; surrounded by many enemies including the superpowers of Egypt to the south, and Assyria and Babylonia to the north.
Jeremiah was part of a line of Old Testament prophets. He lived about 100 years after Isaiah and Micah and at the beginning he was a contemporary of Zephaniah and Nahum and later of Obadiah and Habakkuk.
The main theme of these prophets was predictions of God’s punishment and God’s restoration of His people. We will see that this is what Jeremiah prophesied as well.
At this time, the Judeans were threatened by foreign enemies and idolatry and sinfulness were prevalent. They were no longer following the laws given to Moses. So Jeremiah warns them of the consequences of their behavior.
Will Judah past the test?
Prophets like Jeremiah spoke God’s words to His people. They were like watchmen up on a city wall who see a threat and sound a trumpet to warn of danger (Jer. 6:17; 2 Ki. 17:13). Jeremiah often says: “The word of the Lord came to me”; “The Lord said to me”; and “This is what the Lord says”. That’s the sign of a prophet. These messages would have been given many times, to many people. They are important pleas, commands and predictions from God, and not just a report of historical events. They demanded a response by the people of Judah.
There are three main themes in this passage: Judah’s sin, their need for repentance, and God’s punishment. The relationship between these themes is shown in the schematic diagram which shows that because of their sin, God gives them a wake-up call (a warning) through Jeremiah. There are two possible responses. One is to take notice and repent, which leads to restoration. The other is to ignore and not repent, which leads to punishment.
What is sin? The two main Hebrew words that are translated “sin” occur at least 30 times in the book of Jeremiah (Strongs #2398 and #2403). In these verses they mean not obeying God and rebelling against God (by breaking the covenant, by worshipping idols and by rejecting Jeremiah’s messages). They are associated with wickedness, wrongdoings, crimes, and guilt. And they lead to punishment. So sin is rebellion against God (Dt. 9:7; Josh. 1:18). It’s when we prefer anything or anyone above God (Rom. 1:18-32). It’s not being God-centred. And the Bible says when we ignore God, we have a depraved mind.
What is repentance? The main Hebrew word translated “repent” (#5162) means a change of mind, particularly turning from sinfulness to follow God. It’s a change of mind that results in a change of behavior. It’s a change of attitude towards God. Another Hebrew word that means “turn back or return” (#7725) is also translated “repent” (5:3; 15:19; 34:15). So repentance is a U-turn; a change of direction.
In this passage God is testing the people of Judah like a metallurgist tests ore that has been mined (Jer. 6:27-30). How will they respond to Jeremiah’s warning? Will they pass like good ore or will they fail like worthless ore?
We will look at each of these themes in turn starting with Judah’s ongoing sinfulness.
Judah’s sin (2:1-3:10)
In a criminal court a person is charged with a crime. If they are proven guilty of the offense, a judgement is issued as punishment. In this passage Jeremiah gives God’s case against His people Judah (Jer. 2:9). Because God knows and sees everything, they are guilty of these charges.
He lists their sins (2:1-13; 20-36; 3:1-10; 5:1-5, 12-13, 20-31; 6:10-21). He says that everyone rebelled against God; the leaders, the priests and the prophets (2:8, 26). All ages were involved, including grandchildren (2:9). It happened everywhere across the land (2:20; 3:2). Instead of following the God who brought them to Canaan, they followed worthless idols (2:5, 8, 11). The term “worthless idols” is mentioned 8 times in Jeremiah. They are shonky – they can’t deliver what they promise.
It was shocking. They abandoned and ignored God and ran after worthless idols (2:12, 13, 25). So Jeremiah says, “My people have exchanged their glorious God for worthless idols” (2:11NIV). They broke off their covenant with God (2:20). The covenant was like a marriage covenant – God was like the husband and they were like the bride (2:2). It was also like a Suzerain-Vassal covenant or treaty – God was like the great king and they were like one of his subject kings. But they loved idols instead of loving God (2:25). So they forgot God (2:32).
But they ask God to rescue them from trouble (2:27)! And they blame Him for their troubles (2:29)!
They didn’t learn anything from what happened to the northern kingdom of Israel (3:6-10). About 100 years earlier Israel was conquered and captured by the Assyrians as punishment for their idolatry, but now Judah was practicing the same idolatry. They should have known that God doesn’t tolerate continual sin.
People claimed to follow God, but kept on being unfaithful and wicked (3:4-5, 6, 8, 11, 12, 14, 22). And they had no sense of guilt or shame (3:3; 6:15; Prov. 3:20). It was like leaving their spouse and committing adultery and prostitution (3:1-3). It was spiritual adultery.
They were all greedy (6:13). They oppressed the poor and needy, but say they’ve done nothing wrong (2:34-35; 5:28). No one was honest (5:1-2). They were deceitful and didn’t respect God (5:22-24, 27). Also, instead of trusting in God’s protection, they formed alliances with Egypt and Assyria (2:18, 36).
Jeremiah said, “The prophets prophesy lies (false prophets), the priests rule by their own authority (not God’s), and my people love it this way” (5:31). The false prophets predicted peace while God predicted their defeat and captivity (5:12-13; 6:14).
They ignored Jeremiah’s warning. “The word of the Lord is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it” (6:10). It was a sad state of affairs.
In 2009, Britain’s most violent prisoner Charles Bronson said he was not ashamed about his past. He has spent 35 years in prison due to violent attacks on prison staff and other prisoners. Like the people of Judah he continued to offend and had no desire to change his ways.
What about us? Do we realise that “everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Rom. 3:23NLT)? Are we aware of our sins and shortcomings? Have we trusted in Jesus as the Savior who took the punishment for these? Sin is serious because it leads to God’s punishment.
The Bible says that Christians are the bride of Christ (1 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:24-27). Are we faithful to the Lord, or are we guilty of spiritual adultery? How much time do we spend on worthless activities or on worthless idols? Is our conscience working? Or do we keep giving in to sinful desires and let sin control the way we live (Rom. 6:12-14)? Have we stored God’s word in our mind so we mightn’t sin against Him (Ps. 119:11)?
Jeremiah spoke to wake up the people of Judah to their sin and its consequences in order to move them to repent and change their behavior. The second theme is Judah’s ongoing need for repentance.
Judah’s need for repentance (3:11-4:4)
First God pleads for the people of Israel who had gone into Assyrian captivity to acknowledge and confess their guilt and change direction to follow the Lord (3:12-14, 22:4:1). He says “return faithless people, for I am your husband” (3:14). God is willing to forgive His people, but they are unrepentant (3:19-20). They need to repent by turning away from idol worship to worshipping the God who created the universe and gave them wonderful promises (4:1-4). Up to now God thought they would return to Him, but they didn’t (3:7, 10, 19).
If they repent while in exile, God says that He will not be angry forever and will bring them back to Jerusalem (3:12, 15). So repentance leads to restoration. This is consistent with the covenant which says that after they have paid for their sins, confessed their sins and their hearts are humbled, God will remember the covenant and restore them back to their homeland (Lev. 26:40-45).
Although the people of Judah heard this message, they didn’t repent by responding to God’s messages and punishments (5:3). Instead they hardened their hearts “and refused to repent”. But if they didn’t repent, then they too faced certain punishment (18:7-11).
Then there is a vision of the coming time when the Jews will repent (3:21-25). There will be weeping as they confess their sins and disobedience. They will feel shame and disgrace and turn to follow God once again. There is also a vision of the coming time called the Millennium when they will have a change of heart and Israel and Judah will be reunited and restored (3:15-18).
Recently Special Operations Commander Craig Smith was in the middle of teaching a swift-water rescue class on Texas’ Comal River, when he spotted a child who had been swept out of his inner tube by a fierce current and dragged under the water. So he jumped in with a line and pulled the boy to safety. He said the near-drowning served to show how dangerous the water can be. Likewise sin is dangerous unless we are rescued by confessing our sins.
Paul told people to repent and turn to God by trusting that Jesus paid the punishment for our sins (Acts 20:21; 26:20). They needed to change their minds about Jesus. When we confess our sins in this way we are forgiven by God because Christ’s death paid the penalty for our sins – past, present and future. Our destiny changes from hell to heaven and we can enjoy daily fellowship with God. Have we told God we are sorry for our sins in this way? Many of those who believed in Ephesus showed their repentance by publicly burning their sorcery scrolls (Acts 19:17-19). Is our new allegiance obvious to others?
Sin spoils a Christian’s fellowship with God. When we confess our sins they are forgiven by God and our daily fellowship with God our Father is restored. “If we confess our sins to Him, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness” (1 Jn. 1:9NLT). Do we tell God we are sorry for our sins in this way (1 Jn. 1:5-2:2)?
The third theme is Judah’s punishment if they are unrepentant.
Judah’s coming punishment (4:5-6:30)
One of God’s tests is to send a drought to see if they will turn away from their unfaithfulness (3:3; 5:24-25). Drought was one of the punishments for disobeying the covenant (Lev. 26:19-20; Dt. 28:22-24). They should’ve known this, but they continued in their wicked ways. As they continually refused to repent, the time came when punishment was inevitable.
So Jeremiah predicts that the Babylonians will come from the north and conquer Jerusalem after a siege and take them into exile as slaves (2:14-19, 37; 4:5-31; 5:6-11; 14-19; 6:1-9, 12, 22-26). It will be a terrible time and they are told to “mourn with bitter wailing”. Towns will be destroyed and the land ruined in this disaster. They would lose their houses, fields, wives and children. But a remnant would survive (5:10, 18). The Babylonians are God’s instrument of punishment. It’s punishment for their disobedience as promised in the Pentateuch (Lev. 26:31-35; Dt. 28:32-37, 49-68). This happened near the end of Jeremiah’s ministry.
As mentioned earlier, how will they respond to Jeremiah’s warning (6:27-30)? Will they pass the test like good ore or will they fail like worthless ore? They fail because they “rejected the word of the Lord”, which came through Jeremiah (Jer. 8:9).
In July 2015 the annual pilgrimage to the mountain of Croagh Patrick in Ireland was cancelled due to treacherous weather conditions. Powerful winds, heavy rain and thick fog reduced visibility to less than 3 meters. However, several hundred people, including families with young children, ignored the warnings and attempted to set out from the base at Murrisk. Some people were treated by medical volunteers, including a 14-year-old girl suffering from hypothermia. So, people ignore warnings today, just like the people of Judah ignored Jeremiah’s warnings.
What about us? The Bible says, “We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For since the message spoken through angels was binding (the Mosaic covenant was given by angels; Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19), and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard Him” (Heb. 2:1-3). If the Jews disobedience was punished, as it was, then disregard for the good news about Jesus will bring greater punishment. Do we pay careful attention or ignore this great salvation?
We have seen that Jeremiah warned the Jews by reminding them of the dangerous situation that threatened their lives and their nation. Continual sin is serious and dangerous. Jeremiah’s message was that God will punish them because of their continual sinfulness and the only way out is to repent and turn around and follow Him. And the punishment is that the nation was conquered and the people were taken as salves to Babylon. But those who repented were able to return to restore the nation 70 years later.
Today God also says that we are in a dangerous situation. Sin is serious and dangerous. Unless we follow Jesus, we face God’s punishment. Because we’re all sinners, we’ll all die unless Christ returns beforehand. What happens after death depends on whether we have decided to follow Jesus or not. Those who don’t repent face eternal torment, while those who do repent face eternity with our creator and redeemer.
Let’s spread the message about the seriousness of sin and ignoring what God has done for us. We need to recognise our sinfulness and repent by turning around and accepting that Jesus took our` punishment.
Written, October 2015
God’s message for Jews in captivity
In World War 2, 22,000 Australian servicemen were taken captive as prisoners of war (POW) by the Japanese. They went through brutal and horrific experiences, including beatings, starvation, transportation on cramped ships, and long jungle marches in south-east Asia. Many worked on the Burma-Thailand railway. 8,000 (36%) of them died in captivity.
In this post on Isaiah 40 we see that Isaiah told the Jews that their descendants would be POWs. These captives would be discouraged and weary. But if they trusted in God and longed for the fulfilment of His promises, He would give them confidence, comfort and strength.
Isaiah prophesied for 60 years from 740BC to 680BC. During this period Judah was threatened by the Assyrians. In 722BC Assyria conquered the northern kingdom (Israel) and they were taken into captivity. So the southern kingdom of Judah feared the Assyrians.
The book of Isaiah was written to the people of Judah in about 700BC. The oldest copy of Isaiah is one of the Dead Sea Scrolls dated about 200BC. Isaiah has two main sections. Chapters 1-39 describe the Assyrian threat, which was God’s judgement for their idolatry. Chapters 40-55 describe how in 100 years time they will be defeated by the Babylonians and taken captive as prisoners for 70 years and then delivered and restored as a nation.
In chapters 36-37, we read that God saves Jerusalem from the Assyrian army. In chapter 39, King Hezekiah recovers from a serious illness and representatives of the king of Babylon come with a gift. Hezekiah shows them all the wealth of his kingdom. Then Isaiah predicts that this wealth and some of the people will be captured and taken to Babylon. This happened about 100 years later.
In Isaiah 41, Isaiah ridicules the Babylonian idols that the captives were tempted to follow and he predicts that God will raise up Cyrus, king of Persia who will allow the captives to return to Judea. This happened 170 years after the prediction was made. So chapter 40 is framed before and after by accounts of the Jewish captivity in Babylon. It is addressed to those in exile. As a promise of deliverance from captivity, it aims to encourage and strengthen them when they are discouraged, tired and weak.
Note that Isaiah 40 has a poetic structure and that prophecies like this can have multiple fulfilments. We will look at what it meant to those in captivity and how it can apply to us today.
God’s promise (v.1-11)
In this section God promises to deliver His people from captivity. Verse 2 mentions the Jews “hard service has been completed” and their “sin has been paid for”. This refers to their slavery in Babylon. They would have been discouraged and weary because the exile lasted for 70 years. But now they had been fully punished for their sins (received double). They needed comfort and encouragement and that is the theme of this chapter (v.1). “Comfort, comfort” means great comfort. The message of deliverance would give them encouragement, comfort and hope.
In verses 3-5 they are told to “prepare the way for the Lord” by building a highway in the desert so “the glory of the Lord will be revealed” in their deliverance from exile in Babylon. This highway is a figure of speech for repentance and dealing with the sinful things in life that needed to be straightened out. The promise is that the Lord is returning to Jerusalem when the Jews return to Judea. Nations will be amazed when this happens and realize that the Jews have a great God. It’s unusual for a conquered nation to be resurrected like that.
Then there is a contrast between the temporary and the permanent (v.6-8). It says people are like grass and flowers. They wither and fall, but God’s word endures forever. When it was written they were afraid of the Assyrians. But the Assyrian threat will pass. When they were in exile they were ruled by the Babylonians. But the Babylonian rule will pass. This is repeated in v.23-24, where he says that rulers of this world are temporary and will soon vanish. For them it meant that the power of Assyria and Babylonia would soon vanish. On the other hand, God’s word is permanent (Mt. 24:35). Also, because humans fail, their only hope comes from the eternal word of God.
Next they hear the good news of deliverance from Babylon (v.9-11). It’s like another exodus. This is a prediction of what was to happen about 170 years later. God “comes with power” in the form of the Persians who conquer the Babylonians (v.10). The reward of those who were faithful to the Lord is that they could return to their homeland. God is a ruler that cares for them like a shepherd cares for his sheep.
“He gathers the lambs in His arms
and carries them close to His heart;
He gently leads those that have young” (v.11)
So even though God’s people are in a bad place in captivity in a foreign land, God promises to care for them and bring them safely back to their homeland. That’s the comfort and encouragement mentioned in v.1. This Hebrew word (Strongs #5162) is used elsewhere in Isaiah to describe their deliverance from exile (Is. 49:13; 51:12; 52:9).
In June 2014 the Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood and spreading false news that defamed Egypt. Two other journalists were also imprisoned. They were framed as terrorists and spies. But all denied the charges against them and said their trial was a sham and that they were simply reporting the news. When they were about to begin a hunger strike, there was great joy in February 2015 when Peter was released after spending 400 days in an Egyptian jail. Deliverance is good news!
The Bible says that the glory of the Lord (v.5) is also revealed at Christ’s first and second advent (Lk. 2:9; Rev. 1:7). John the Baptist applied v.3 (“prepare the way for the Lord”) to himself when he told the people to prepare for the Messiah by repenting of their sins (Mt. 3:1-8; Mk. 1:2-8; Lk. 3:2-17; Jn. 1:23). Are we prepared for Christ’s return? Have we confessed and repented of our sins?
Do we have a sense of the temporary and the permanent? The troubles of this life are temporary, while the promises of heaven are permanent. Do we live as though God’s word endures forever? Peter uses this passage to say that the new spiritual life is eternal (1 Pt. 1:23-25).
Are we in a bad place? If we trust in God, He will care for us and bring us safely to be with Him in heaven.
But how do the captives know that God can do what He promised?
God’s greatness (v.12-26)
Next they are given three examples of God’s greatness. This section has many rhetorical questions to persuade the people to trust in the Lord.
First, He is a great creator (v. 12). He made and controls the oceans, the stars and planets, the earth’s surface including the dust, the mountains and hills. Isaiah uses personification saying that God measures the oceans in the hollow of His hand and measures the universe with the breadth of His hand. And God weighs the mountains and hills.
God made the earth and the stars (v.21-26). This should be obvious to the Jews because they have the account of creation in Genesis. So God rebukes them,
“Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth was founded?” (v.21).
He’s saying, are you dull? Don’t you understand? He reminded them of something they already knew.
Who created all the stars (v.26)? It must be someone who existed before the stars. It must be God Himself. Who controls them? He guides the stars in their paths across the sky. He knows each by name and “because of His great power and mighty strength” none of them go missing!
God creates and sustains without outside help (v. 13-14). He is the ultimate cause; no one instructed or taught Him, and no one else can understand what He does (Rom. 11:33-34; 1 Cor. 2:16). He has incredible wisdom.
The second example of God’s greatness is that the other nations are insignificant compared to God (v.15-17). And all the forests of Lebanon aren’t sufficient fuel and all its animals inadequate for a worthy burnt offering to Him.
The third example is that God is greater than any man-made idol (v.18-20). He says they are useless. The rich make them out of gold and silver, while the poor use wood. He uses satire and sarcasm. Saying they are made by craftsmen, who need to make sure they don’t topple over. An idol can’t even stand up by itself! Instead, God is incomparable. There is no one like Him.
In those days people believed that when one nation was conquered by another, the gods of the conqueror were stronger than the gods of the vanquished. Some of the Jews in exile may have thought the gods of Babylon were stronger than their God. So God asks them, “to whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” (v.25). The answer is no-one.
At that time the pagan nations worshipped the sun, moon and stars (Is. 47:13). The Jews also began to worship these as gods (2 Ki. 17:16; 21: 3, 5; Jer. 19:13). But here they are being told that their God is greater than these gods, because He made them!
The Sun is a star, and life on Earth depends on this powerful source of energy. It’s the greatest power in our solar system. Every second, the sun radiates a million times more energy than the entire United States consumes in a year. Quasars are among the brightest and most powerful objects in the universe. They can emit enormous amounts of energy, up to a thousand times the total output of the hundreds of billions of stars in our entire galaxy. But God is even more powerful!
Do we marvel at the wonders of the physical world? Do we believe that God is the ultimate cause? The greatest creator and sustainer?
Do we know what our idols are? What’s our perception of them? What influence do they have? Do they rule our lives?
But the captives think that God has forgotten them while they are in exile in Babylon (v.27). They are discouraged and wonder if God still cares for them. So they complain.
God strengthens the weary (v.27-31)
So God rebukes them once again,
“Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and His understanding no one can fathom.” (v.28).
Once again He’s saying, are you dull? Don’t you understand? This is said to those who don’t trust God. It’s Hebrew poetry where two lines are often grouped together to express one thought.
They needed to know that …
“The LORD is the everlasting God”.
He’s different to the man-made idols you see in Babylon. They are temporary; but He is permanent. He existed before everything else existed. He is a unique God.
“(He’s) the Creator of the ends of the earth”. He created all the earth. He won’t forsake what He has made.
“He will not grow tired or weary”. He’s not like us. He doesn’t get tired and weary. He hadn’t forgotten them. No problems are hidden from God, or too much for Him to handle.
“His understanding no one can fathom”. No one can understand like God (Rom. 11:33). He’s in a totally different realm to us. His ways are right, even though we don’t know or understand them.
Next he promises new strength for those who trusted God. Because of God’s attributes, “He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak” (v.29). Those who trust in Him are strengthened when they are weary and empowered when they are weak as was the case for the captives. Because He cares for the stars, He also cares for His people.
“Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.” (v.30-31).
“Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall”. As human beings we all get tired and weary. We run out of energy. We all can stumble and fall. There are times when we can’t go on. Our human resources are used up. We need rest. We need sleep.
“but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength”. The Hebrew word translated “hope”, is translated “wait” or “trust” in other translations. That’s the key word for God’s promises in Isaiah 40. It means an eager and confident expectation. These Jews in Babylon were ready to start the journey when the time came. They were waiting to be released, but they didn’t know exactly when it would be. God gives spiritual strength to those who trust in Him. They are empowered by the Holy Spirit. They are given the strength and power required for the day and the task.
“They will soar on wings like eagles”. It takes lots of energy to fly. In fact we can’t do it without using the power of the wind or an engine. God can help us get through a challenging day or task.
“They will run and not grow weary”.
Running takes less energy than flying, but more energy than walking. God can help us get through a busy day or task.
“They will walk and not be faint”. Walking takes less energy than running. God can help us get through a normal day or task.
What did this mean to the Jewish exiles in Babylon? They would have been tired of living in a foreign country under foreign rulers. But it was a long journey back to their homeland. Ezra took four months to travel the 1,400 km (880 miles) (Ezra 7:8-9). That’s about 12km per day. It’s walking pace. They would have thought, how can the weary and weak travel this far? The weary and weak would have included the elderly, the sick, and the disabled. Was it worth travelling so far from a civilised country where they had learnt a new language and a new way of life to a city in ruins? This would encourage them to look forward to returning to their homeland. And whether they travelled fast or slow, God would empower them on the journey.
We have seen how the Jews were encouraged spiritually when they were tired and weak. What about us? Do we live as though we have an “everlasting God” who always cares for us and doesn’t get tired or weary? And who doesn’t forget.
If we trust in God, He will care for us and help when we are in need. Do we seek His supernatural power and strength when we are weary and weak? Jesus told His followers to “always pray and not give up” (Lk. 18:1).
Paul said that because of the hope of our resurrection to be with the Lord, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). Although we may be tired and weak and our health may fail, the Holy Spirit renews us inwardly each day.
The writer of Hebrews urges us to fix our eyes on Jesus “so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:1-3).
Did you know that God encourages us so we can encourage others? “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (2 Cor. 1:3-4)
More good news
I mentioned that prophecies like this can have multiple applications and fulfilments.
What was the impact on the Jews when they first heard it in 700BC? The Biblical principle is the same – if they trusted in God and longed for the fulfilment of His promises, He would give them confidence, comfort and strength. But the application is different. They were still in Jerusalem before the captivity. Their response could be to repent of their idolatrous ways in order to try to prevent the exile. But they could be confident that as God’s people, even if they went into captivity God would bring them back to their homeland.
The idea of deliverance from captivity is used in the New Testament where the Greek word for “good news” or “gospel” is used to describe deliverance from being slaves to sin (Acts 13:32; 1 Cor. 15:1-4). Here good news (v.9) is applied to the salvation that Christ brings to those who trust him.
So although we live in a different era to Isaiah, we are also promised deliverance from suffering. In our case it’s the suffering due to sin and heaven is the promise. As the Jews looked forward to returning to Jerusalem (or Zion) where God was present in the temple, we can look forward to being with the Lord Jesus in heaven. Do we look forward to our deliverance?
Although there is a similarity, there is also a difference. They took the full punishment for their sins in Babylon (v.2), but Jesus took the full punishment for our sins at His crucifixion.
So the principle for us is that if we trust in God and long for the fulfilment of His promises, He will give us confidence, comfort and strength.
Isaiah 40 finishes with,
“those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint”
We have seen from Isaiah’s prophecy that when the Jews were in captivity, God promises deliverance. It’s good news from an everlasting all-powerful God that encourages and strengthens those that are tired, weak and weary. And they look forward eagerly to their deliverance.
Today God also promises His people deliverance from the sufferings of this sinful world when they get to heaven. In the meantime, with God’s spiritual strength, we can face whatever lies ahead of us.
Let’s remember that if we trust in God and long for the fulfilment of His promises, He will give us confidence, comfort and strength.
Written, August 2015
I received a comment on my blog claiming that the Hebrew language didn’t exist until the Jewish exile in Babylon. So, what does the evidence say?
According to the Bible, all people spoke the same language until around 2200 BC when God caused different languages to develop at Babel and people scattered to form different nations across the earth (Gen. 11:1-9). This was the source of the diversity of human languages.
The Hebrew nation settled in Canaan in the 14th century BC. They occupied Canaan until the first Jewish captives were deported to Babylon in 605 BC and the second wave were exiled in 586 BC when the city of Jerusalem was destroyed (Dan. 1; 2 Ki. 25).
According to Wikipedia, the Siloam inscription records the construction of Hezekiah’s tunnel. The NIV Study Bible states that Hezekiah was king of Judah between 715 BC and 686 BC (2 Ki. 18:1-2). The tunnel, leading from the Gihon Spring to the Pool of Siloam, was designed as an aqueduct to provide Jerusalem with water during an impending siege by the Assyrians, led by Sennacherib (2 Ki. 20:20; 2 Chr. 32:30). The inscription, which was discovered in the tunnel in 1880 and has been dated at 701 BC, is written in the “Biblical Hebrew” language, which uses the ancient Hebrew alphabet. So here we have a written example of the Hebrew language that dates at least 100 years before the Jewish exile.
Hebrew belongs to the Semantic family of languages which were used in the middle east. Geographically it was a Canaanite language like Phoenician, Ugaritic and Moabite. The Bible notes that Jacob’s language was different to Aramaic (Gen. 31:47). Scholars believe that Hebrew was spoken in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah during the 10th to 7th centuries BC.
Therefore, the reader’s comment seems to be inconsistent with the evidence available. It can be shown that the Hebrew language originated well before the Babylonian exile. In fact, Wikipedia claims that there is evidence of “Biblical Hebrew” as far back as the 10th century BC, which extends to the days of king David (2 Sam. 5:4). The Gezer calendar is dated in this time period. Likewise, the earliest known example of the Hebrew alphabet discovered at Tel Zayit is dated in the 10th century B.C.
Written, March 2013