The cliché is well known in contemporary American literature and film; in a moment of intense drama, the judge’s stern and ordered demeanor fades and his or her true character breaks through. The raw human emotion surrounding the question and parties involved erupts from the seat of judgment and the entire situation comes to be seen in a new light. After days of evidence, twists, turns, uncertainties, and questions, the situation as it really stands is laid bare and the final judgment required to bring justice becomes clear to all. Isaiah 45:20-25 presents the reader with just such a court scene. For five chapters the prophet has presented evidence: against the worship of idols, for the salvation of Judah from Babylonian captivity, and for the singularity of Yahweh as the only living god. Finally, the judge, the Holy One of Israel, speaks through the prophet in a five-verse climatic mock court scene recorded in Isa 45:20-25 and displays his true character and his purposes for creation.
I. The Setting Defined
Deutero-Isaiah uses various literary genres within his collection of prophetic oracles to build his case for the singularity of Yahweh amongst the idols of the nations and to bring to light God’s unexpected plan for salvation and restoration. To this end, an important and reoccurring genre is the mock court scene. The climatic pericope begins in v.20 with three verbs of juridical nature: קָבַץ (“assemble”), בּוֹא (“come”), and נָגַשׁ (“draw near).” Additional canonical Biblical authors use the same verbs in explicitly juridical ways, so it is clear that setting the scene of the pericope as a mock trail with God as the judge was the intent of Deutero-Isaiah. In 2 Sam 15:2 “come before the king for judgment” & 2 Sam 15:6 “came to the king for judgment” the Biblical author uses the verb בוא to mean, “come to a trial” in the same way Deutero-Isaiah intends. For the verb בגשׁ, Exod 24:14 “whoever has a dispute, let him go to them” and Deut 25:1 “they come into court and the judges decide between them” both use the verb בגשׁ as Deutero-Isaiah to mean, “approach for judgment.” From the first three words of v.20, it is clear that Deutero-Isaiah is linking this pericope with the same God and judge who is revealed throughout the OT. This passage is not just a court scene, but a continuation of the trial that started in Eden.
v.21 continues the court theme with three additional verbs of that milieu: נָגַד (“declare ” or to “speak a verdict ”), נָגַשׁ (“present”), and יָעַץ (“take council”). As with the first three words of v.20, the juridical language of v.21 does not stand alone in Isaiah as the sole scene before the judgment seat of God. In the chapters preceding the pericope of focus , juridical terminology and imagery is used setting up precursor “days in court” where the initial evidence prior to the climatic scene is given. Isaiah 41:1 sets up the leitmotif of the mock court scene in Deutero-Isaiah by calling those of the אִי (“coastlands” or “islands” ) – a.k.a. “idolatrous gentiles” – to silently “approach” God in his court, to “draw near for judgment”, and to hear the case he has against the nations. Further along in Isa 41:21 those already in God’s court are asked to “set forth [their] case” for idolatry and to “bring [their] proofs” for the veracity of their claims. Again, in Isa 43:9 and elsewhere in chs.43 & 44 the idolatrous nations of the world are called to “assemble” and “bring their witnesses” to the truthfulness of what their idols have predicted. God continues his presentation of evidence to the court in Isa 43:10&12 bringing Israel and his unknowing servant Cyrus the Great as evidence.
Woven throughout the prophetic oracles of Deutero-Isaiah the imagery of a court scene presents a leitmotif that leads the reader to a climatic pericope that reveals the true character of God. Using language sourced from earlier OT writings, Deutero-Isaiah is clearly showing that God’s court has always been in session and that his unexpected judgment of restoration was in play from before the first exodus and will remain in play for the second exodus out of Babylon.
II. Isa 40-45: Evidence Presented
With the leitmotif of the mock court scene firmly establish, an appraisal of the trial proceedings prior to Isa 45:20-25 must be undertaken. In these scenes, God is set in the role of judge and witness to the defense, Deutero-Isaiah takes the role of defense in the trails, and those who worship the gods of Babylon and reject the counsel of Yahweh take the role of the prosecution. A close reading of Isa 40-45 reveals the presentation of evidence to three main points that fuel the emotion of the climatic outburst from the Judge to come: first, that Yahweh, the god of Israel, is the only true god; second, that idol worship is contrary to God’s will for Israel as well as the nations; and, third, that God has an unexpected plan for salvation and reconciliation.
The Only God
The gods of the ancient world were ineradicably connected to the nations that worshiped them. For Jerusalem to fall and Yahweh’s people to be forced into exile in a land of a foreign god was a sign to the people Deutero-Isaiah prophesized to that maybe the gods of the Babylonians were more powerful than the god of Israel. In the court scenes set forth in Isa 40-45, not only does the prosecution bring charges against the defense, but also the very question of whether the Judge of the court has any authority is brought to bear.
From the pain of exile, the first question posed by the prosecution is whether God has “lost track” of Israel and if he even “care[s] what happens” to them. Deutero-Isaiah in a pair a rhetorical questions in Isa 40:28 answers “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.” Not only is Israel’s god the creator of all things, but also he gives his glory “to no other” and, unlike the gods of Babylon, does not praise “carved idols” presented before him. Israel has misunderstood God’s pervious verdict. Having “no other gods before” him did not mean there were other gods to choose from; a simple command that Israel should always chose Yahweh over the other options. Indeed, when God speaks in Isa 43:10 he says, “before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me.” When asked again in Isa 44:8 if there are any other gods, Yahweh answers, “I know not any.” Yahweh is the only God, not just for Israel, but also in fact. Outside of Yahweh “there is no God” ; “there is no other, no god besides him.” The questions around the singularity of God will eventually spawn the Judge’s outburst in Isa 45:20-25, vv.21-22 specifically.
Judgment Against Idols
While the defense and Judge field questions about the very nature of Israel’s god and his authority to judge in all things, a point of contention with the prosecution is continually raised; the testimony of idols is not to be accepted as reliable in the court. Throughout the court scenes in Isaiah those who Deutero-Isaiah prophesizes against continually point to the gods of Babylon for support. These gods brought victory to Babylon over Israel so they are seemingly to be trusted. However, no matter what the priests and other followers of these gods say, the gods of Babylon are never able to present themselves before the judge to give evidence.
Early on in the series of mock trails, Deutero-Isaiah pushes the prosecution to “set forth [their] case” by having their idols נָגַשׁ (“approach”) the court to foretell “what is to happen” or even to simply explain “former things” that the court might “consider them.” The worshipers of the gods of Babylon are exhorted to prompt their gods to do “anything”, “good or bad” that their reality might be known. After much prodding, no “counselor” arrives, no one “gives an answer” to the challenge to approach the court. The decision of the court is that the idols are a mere “delusion” and that the Babylonian gods’ “works are nothing”; they are simply “metal images” full of “empty wind.” It is for this reason that the judge, God, is shocked when people attempt to compare him with idols. It is for this reason why the court decides it cannot accept such evidence and why the continuance of mentions of idol before the Judge fuels his eventual outburst.
Israel’s Salvation and Restoration
Outside of the discussions in the mock court scenes around the authority of the Judge and the veracity of the idols of Babylon, a third recurring point is discussed; that of the verdict of justice. The reasons for Israel’s exile are well documented in Isaiah and elsewhere in the OT. That the people Deutero-Isaiah prophesizes to would understand the accusations that stand against their nation goes without saying. Within the scenes preceding the climatic pericope in question the Judge, continually gives his verdict of “guilty, but forgiven.” The verdict, though often repeated, is not well understood by Deutero-Isaiah’s audience and is thus a recurring theme around mentions of the Judge.
So important is the message of salvation to God that, in his introductory message to Deutero-Isaiah, God asks the prophet to inform the world that he declares Israel’s “iniquity is pardoned.” Further on God declares that he will not remember Israel’s sins and that he has blotted out her transgressions. But, God is not just pictured as a lenient judge. Deutero-Isaiah refers to God as the “Redeemer” & “Savior” of Israel. God is both the one giving the verdict and leading the way towards Israel’s reconciliation to himself.
The idea of God being the judge who justly issued justice – exile – on Israel also being her redeemer and savior from Babylonian captivity is a difficult concept for the recipients of Deutero-Isaiah’s message to comprehend. In the scenes preceding the climatic pericope God, through Deutero-Isaiah, explains in numerous ways his salvific plans for Israel, and yet, Israel continues to not understand the full glory of what is in store. This lack of understanding, will lead to God’s plea for universal salvation in Isa 45:22.
III. The Judge’s True Character Revealed
It is now established that Deutero-Isaiah co-opts juridical language to express his oracles in the atmosphere of a mock court. It is also established that three main themes permeate chs.40-45: Yahweh as the only god, judgment against idols, and God’s plan for salvation and restoration. For five chapters, intermixed between oracles of judgment and salvation, the triad of topics comes up with relative frequency. However, as Isa 45:20-25 is approached the frequency of references to the triad increases from one or two appearances in the first chapters to three or four in later chapters. Deutero-Isaiah uses the frequency of the triad to increase suspense and build to the climax, the scene where the Judge breaks character and speaks what is truly on his mind. In this outburst, God finally shines through and reveals his true character. In Isa 45:20-25 Deutero-Isaiah unifies the triad of topics into one complete picture of the eternal God; a God who is relational, offers salvation to all, leads people to holiness, and is sovereign over all of creation.
In vv.20 and 21 God, acting as the judge, calls the people of the world to his court. With the triad of introductory juridical verbs discussed earlier the two verses share an additional commonality, the adverb יַחְדָּו (“together”) modifying the triad of verbs. God uses relational language, in this way, from the beginning of his monologue. The people do not come to him individually for judgment, but the “survivors of the nations” are to come and “take counsel” at the throne of judgment together with their gods. In his subpoena for the guilty to come to trial, God reveals his deeply relational nature.
After each call has been given it is followed by one of the major themes of Deutero-Isaiah: the theme of idolatry in v.20 and the singularity of God in v.21. On the surface both verses are just a redeclaration of what has been said before, but within the context of a God who calls the nations to his presence there is much more that is being said. The “wooden idols” that are carried about in v.20 cannot give an answer when asked ; they cannot have a conversation. Though they can be grouped together, they cannot take counsel because they are “all a delusion.” One cannot have a relationship with an object of metal and wood.
Idols’ inability for relationships with humans – or each other for that matter – is why being compared to an idol is so offensive to Yahweh. God does not “speak in secret” he openly converses with his creation. Whereas the idols are not able to take counsel, Yahweh provides the “Wonderful Counselor” spoken of by Isaiah. Yahweh alone is God, Yahweh alone is Savior, and Yahweh alone brings unified relationship between Creator and creation. Indeed, being God, by its very definition, means being in relation with the persons of the Trinity and the creation made through that love. In calling the people to his court, God has revealed a major quality of his nature; Yahweh offers his creation a relationship.
With the people gathered together with their idols of nothingness, God gets to the center of his message in v.22, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!” This is the fullness of the glory of God’s plan for salvation Israel seemed not able to grasp in the preceding scenes. Yahweh is not just Israel’s savior from Babylonian captivity, but his salvation is eschatological as well and for the entire world.
How can Israel’s God be a savior to the nations? God answers this in v.22 by saying he saves the nations because he is God and there is no other. To be God is to be a savior; it is inseparable from the nature of God. The “wooden idols” spoken of in v.20 are not divine in that they “cannot save.”
That to be God is to save is proven in the text itself. The beginning of the Hebrew verb וְהִוָּשְׁעוּ (“be saved”) used in v.22 indicates purpose or reason. The Christ Hymn in Phil 2:5-11 – which quotes Isa 45:23 in vv.10-11 and is thus linked to this pericope – reiterates this point by saying that it was because Jesus was “in very nature God” that he took on the “nature of a servant” and savior. God would not be God if he was also not a savior and redeemer to the world. Being the conduit for salvation and reconciliation for the world is the nature of God and, in this impassioned monologue, the divine quality is openly shown to all who stand in the court.
Throughout the various court scenes in Deutero-Isaiah the authority of God to act as judge has continually been questioned. In v.23 God addresses this affront to his authority head on. Yahweh boldly proclaims his sovereignty. In giving testimony he swears by no god or any by other source. God swears by himself. His sovereignty extends so far, that it is only because he wills agency to his creation that idol worship is even possible. God declares in v.23 that a day will be come when the freedom to ignore the Sovereign Lord will cease and every knee will bow before him and every voice swear allegiance to him.
Bowing before gods was a common trope in Mesopotamian literature used to show the supremacy of a god over someone. Its use here bolsters God’s sovereignty. It is not just that all people will eventually bow before Yahweh and swear allegiance to him, but “every knee” and “every tongue.” The gods of Babylon and all the idols of the world are included. Yahweh is truly sovereign and the only god in existence. In v.23 God not only shows his authority to act as judge in this court scene, but also shows his authority over all things “in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”
The relational, sovereign, Savior closes his monologue with a message of transformation. In v.24 it is taught that “only in the Lord” people find “righteousness and strength.” Outside of a relationship with Yahweh true righteousness and the strength to withstand the evils of the world cannot be found. “In the Lord,” v.25 says, all those who become part of the family of Israel will be צָדַק (“justified” or “reconsecrated”). In the closing lines of this climatic pericope God not only reveals his intentions to divine salvific acts, but shows that a single act of salvation is not his final work. God intends to perfect Israel, to make them clean and justified before him, to shape them after his righteousness and provide them with his strength.
IV. The Trial As Interpreted in History
An important theologian in the protestant Reformed tradition, John Calvin produced an extremely detailed commentary on the Book of Isaiah in the 1550’s. Comparing the Latin Vulgate to the Masoretic Hebrew text, Calvin made his own translation of the text and provided detailed exegesis on each hemistich. Though his commentary is over 450 years old, it still provides useful insights into the text. Not only that, as a standard work for several hundred years for many in the protestant traditions, Calvin’s commentaries have made a great contribution to the understanding of Isaiah within the church catholic.
Though Calvin gives a detailed exegesis of the entirety of Isaiah, the focus here will be on one verse in particular for brevity, Isa 45:23. Calvin’s interpretation of v.23 starting with “by myself I have sworn” brings a unique perspective not seen in other sources within the bibliography of this essay. To Calvin, v.23 is seen as the condescension of God. God must swear by his own glorious name because the promises made in v.22 for universal salvation are hard for the Jewish people Deutero-Isaiah prophesizes to to believe. In Calvin’s view the Jews might have objected to the proclamation that “all the ends of the earth” can turn to Yahweh and be saved, had it not been made on oath to God’s very own name. God, out of his loving character, condescends to his creation’s distrust and makes a pledge against his own name to resolve the Jews crisis of faith.
Further along in v.23 Calvin makes another enlightening observation. God’s demand that “every knee shall bow” points to God’s desire for external worship, not just worship of the heart. Thought some element of terror is involved amongst those who will bow before God, Calvin notes that it is not possible to fulfill the entire concept of “bending the knee” before God until God has been made known to the person. All will see God’s deliverance of his people and all will know that he and he alone is God. Those who bow before God do so out of more than “inward feelings” for, in Calvin’s estimation, the author(s) of Isaiah saw no separation between an “external profession of religion” and internal feelings.
John Calvin’s interpretation brings heightened understanding to the text, especially his unique insights into v.23. If God swearing by himself can be seen as condescension, then Isa 45:20-25 gains an even greater link to the oft-associated Phil 2:6-11. The Christ-like pattern of condescension leading to genuflection and spoken oaths would bind the two passages together in an even deeper way. His thoughts on an external religion of the heart, point the reader towards moving beyond “salvation by faith alone” to the completeness of Christian perfection brought about in faithful works of love and worship.
No Methodist could justly look to the historical interpretation of a text without referencing John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes upon the Old Testament. Since the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the Americas this work has been an accepted doctrinal standard of the denomination and its successors and thus has influenced generations of Methodists for over 225 years.
Wesley’s most interesting comments come in his thoughts on vv.24-25. First, he immediately associates יהוה (“Yahweh”) in the opening line of v.24 with Messiah Jesus. From a Christological perspective, this is absolutely true, but from a modern context it is odd to see Jesus so quickly associated with Yahweh in an OT text. An additional point of interest is how Wesley associates righteousness with justification. Within the context of the Wesleyan understanding of sanctification this makes sense, but this is not completely obvious in the text. Finally, Wesley ties Deutero-Isaiah’s message of universal salvation together by noting that “all the offspring of Israel” in v.25 means “all Israelites indeed, whether Jews or Gentiles.” Unsurprisingly, Wesley’s notes on Isa 45:20-25 focus on God’s universal call to salvation for all the world. His notes are brief, but hit the core message about the character of God described in this pericope.
V. Precedence Set: Contemporary Applications
The contemporary applications of Isa 45:20-25 are clear. God is a loving savior because of his divinity. He alone is God and he alone can freely justify. God out of his divine, saving character of love calls the entire world to turn to him in faith and be saved. There is no righteousness outside of him; there is no true strength outside of him. Through faith in Yahweh, the one true God, all become “offspring of Israel” and will be reconciled to God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
To the modern church no message is more important. We serve a God of unity rather than disunity. Though the idols of our day are not carried above us and directly worshiped, they are carried in our pockets and hung from our walls and we lovingly gaze into their eyes still the same. Yahweh desires to be our only God. He calls all to turn away from the idols of the world made of plastic and metal and to turn towards him for salvation. While taste in music, film, literature, politics, etc. divides us, turning to the one God who can save, frees. He and only he can offer a relationship. He opens his arms to the world. The church must be his arms and must call sinners to relationship with the One who provides the “Wonderful Counselor.”
Alexander, Pat & David. Zondervan Handbook to the Bible. Oxford, England: Lion Publishing, 1999.
Calvin, John. Trans. Pringle, William. Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah Grand Rapids, CO: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2013.
Crossway Bibles. ESV Study Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles, 2008.
Coogan, Michael D., editor. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Third Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Jamieson, Robert, A. R. Fausset and David Brown. Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009.
Merriam-Webster, Inc. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Eleventh ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989.
New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update. LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995.
Paul, Shalom M. Isaiah 40–66: Translation and Commentary. Eerdmans Critical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012.
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress Publishing Group, 2005.
The Revised Standard Version. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1971.
Swanson, James. Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament). electronic ed. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.
Wesley, John. Explanatory Notes Upon the Old Testament, Volume 3. Bristol: William Pine, 1765.
Wood, D. R. W. and I. Howard Marshall. New Bible Dictionary. 3rd ed. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
- a 40-45
- The author agrees with contemporary scholarship that Isa 40-55 was written not by the Isaiah of chapters 1-39 in the eight century B.C.E., but rather a disciple, Deutero-Isaiah, in the six century B.C.E.
- Per most contemporary sources Isa 40-55. However, some scholars put authorship of Isa 40-66 to Deutero-Isaiah. The authorship of Isa 56-66 does not affect the arguments made here, so it will remain unaddressed.
- Salvation in Deutero-Isaiah is seen as both eschatological and from the current Babylonian exile.
- Shalom M. Paul. Isaiah 40–66: Translation and Commentary. Eerdmans Critical Commentary. (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), 31.
- Paul, Isaiah 40–66: Translation and Commentary, 270.
- All Biblical citations are from the ESV translation unless otherwise noted.
- Per ESV, NASB, NRSV
- James Swanson. Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament). electronic ed. (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
- Chs.40-45, specifically.
- Per ESV, NKJV, NASB, NRSV
- Per KJV
- John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the Old Testament, Volume 3 (Bristol: William Pine, 1765), 2055.
- הגישו (“set forth”) has the same root as the word translated as “present” in Isa 45:21.
- See also, Isa 43:26 “set forth your case” and Isa 44:7 “let him declare and set it before me.”
- David & Pat Alexander. Zondervan Handbook to the Bible. (Oxford, UK: Lion Publishing, 1999), 417-438.
- Eugene H. Peterson. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress Publishing Group, 2005), 975.
- Isa 42:8 “my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols”
- Exodus 20:3 “You shall have no other gods before me.”
- Isa 44:6 “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.”
- Isa 45:14 “’Surely God is in you, and there is no other, no god besides him.’”
- The same verb is used in Isa 45:21 and translated as “present your case” in the ESV. This is a further example of a link between the climatic court scene in Isa 45:20-25 with the scenes that come before it.
- Isa 41:21-22
- The Message, 978. Isa 41:21-24
- Isa 41:28
- Isa 41:29
- Isa 40:18-19 “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him? An idol!”
- Isa 1-39
- Isa 40:2
- Isa 43:25
- Isa 44:22
- Isa 41:14 “Redeemer”, Isa 43:3 “Savior”, Isa 43:11 “savior”, Isa 43:14 “Redeemer”, Isa 44:6 “Redeemer”
- Crossway Bibles. ESV Study Bible: English Standard Version. (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles, 2008.), 1238.
- On the topic of the singularity of God: ch.40, 1; ch.41, 1; ch.42, 1; ch.43, 2; ch.44, 2; ch.45, 4. On the topic of idolatry: ch.40, 1; ch.41, 2; ch.42, 2; ch.44, entirety of vv.9-20. On the topic of salvation and pardon: ch.40, 1; ch.41, 1; ch.42, 1; ch.43, 5; ch.44, 3; ch.45, 4
- See section I: The Setting Defined
- Isa 45:20
- Isa 45:21
- Isa 41:28
- Isa 41:29
- Isa 45:19
- Isa 9:6
- Isa 45:22 “For I am God, and there is no other.”
- Paul, Isaiah 40–66: Translation and Commentary, 272.
- NIV 2011 Phil 2:6-7
- Isa 45:23 “By myself I have sworn”
- Paul, Isaiah 40–66: Translation and Commentary, 272.
- NIV 2011 Phil 2:10
- Here the “voluntary descent from one’s rank or dignity in relations with an inferior” per Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.
- John Calvin. Trans. Pringle, William. Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (Grand Rapids, CO: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2013), 333.
- Isa 45:22
- Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, 332.
- Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, 333.
- Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, 333.
- Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, 333.
- Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the Old Testament, 2071-2072.
- Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the Old Testament, 2072.
- Isa 45:25
- Isa 9:6