Deuteronomy 21; Psalms 108-109; Isaiah 48; Revelation 18
IT IS ONE THING FOR GOD TO RAISE UP a Cyrus who will permit the Jews to return to Jerusalem. But will the Jews be willing to go? And if they are willing to return physically and rebuild Jerusalem, are they spiritually prepared to abandon the sin that sent them into exile in the first place? (Isa. 48).
It does not look good. Formally, they take their oaths in the name of the Lord, “and invoke the God of Israel—but not in truth or righteousness” (Isa. 48:1). True, the captives still call themselves “citizens of the holy city” (Isa. 48:2), Jerusalem, which by the sixth century was a pile of rubble. But one of the reasons why God predicted these things, including the return of the people, is that he well knew that many of the Jews would become so enmeshed in Babylonian idolatry that they might be tempted to credit their idols with their return (Isa. 48:3-6). Like their forefathers they can be stubborn (Isa. 48:4), treacherous, and rebellious (Isa. 48:8). The “furnace of affliction” (Isa. 48:10) has taught them so little that the only reason God does not wipe them out entirely is because he wishes to preserve the honor of his own name (Isa. 48:9-11). The world must know that Babylon does not rule; God does. So he will press on, though the terrible problem of sin among his people has not been resolved, even by the exile.
The tragedy is that even in exile God’s people have been unwilling to listen (Isa. 48:1, 12, 16, 17-18). Their entire history would have been dramatically different, filled with untold blessings, if only they had paid attention to God’s commands (Isa. 48:18-19). Their “peace would have been like a river,” their “righteousness like the waves of the sea” (Isa. 48:18). Even now what they most need is to leave Babylon (Isa. 48:20-21)—not yet physically, of course, for Cyrus has not yet arisen and sanctioned it; but morally, spiritually. But if the people remain in their sin even after release from Babylon, they will poison their new freedom: “ ’There is no peace,’ says the LORD, ‘for the wicked’ ” (Isa. 48:22)—a perennial warning no less applicable in our own day.
So God’s servant Cyrus will not provide the final answer. He may free the Jews from exile, but he cannot free them from their sin. That sets the stage for the reintroduction of the ideal Servant of the Lord, who returns in chapter 49. Indeed, he probably appears rather enigmatically in 48:16, for the one who speaks there has the Spirit upon him (as in Isa. 42:1) and is called by God (as in Isa. 49:1). But there is no doubt of his presence in Isaiah 49. In this Servant of the Lord is the only lasting succor for God’s people.