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Lowell Brueckner

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Bel and Nebo Fall


43. An expository study of Isaiah, chapter 46-47

Chapter 46

A good portion of the earlier chapters of Isaiah had to do with Assyrian history and prophecy. Several of the last chapters project into the future and concern Babylon and its downfall at the hand of Cyrus of Persia. Babylon’s idolatrous religion had an effect upon the world of its day and some of its aspects live on to our day. The Romans associated Bel to Jupiter and Nebo to Mercury.  

Bel and Nebo are Babylonian gods. Bel is an alternate spelling of Baal and we know the part that Baal played among the Israelites. Baal-worship reached into Phoenicia and we studied about its influence upon Queen Jezebel, wife of Ahab, the king of northern Israel. Nebo is found in the root of some of the names of Babylon’s kings, including Nebuchadnezzar. Bel is also: Bel-shazzar, the king, but also Nebuchadnezzar named Daniel after the name of his god… Bel-teshazzar (Dn.4:8).

A point that is made in the first verse is that the images of these gods are a burden to the people and to the beasts that have to carry them. They cannot defend the city and they do not escape the invasion of Persia, but the idols are carried away, along with the people, who worshipped them (v.1-2). The defeat of Babylon was a defeat of its gods. They did not bear the people, but are carried on the backs of beasts of burden. I noticed this comment in Wikipedia, concerning a superstitious action by the father of Bel-shazzar: Nabonidus had ordered cult statues from outlying Babylonian cities to be brought into the capital.”

Jehovah is He who raised up Cyrus and therefore He is the mighty conqueror; Bel and Nebo bow before Him. In contrast to pagan gods, Jehovah is not carried, but carries His people, even before they are born. “O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb” (v.3) He bore them as a pregnant woman and then gave them birth. This concept of spiritual pregnancy is portrayed throughout the Bible. Moses complained that he could not bear this burden: “Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth…? (Num.11:12).

Yet the apostle Paul says to the Galatians, “My little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (Gal.4:19). His servants must bear the pain with Him in bringing spiritual children to birth, “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn.1:13). The composer seems to feel this burden when he writes:

Lord, lay some soul upon my heart,
And love that soul through me;
And may I humbly do my part,
To win that soul for Thee.

The Lord conceives His people and His Spirit begins a work in them before they are born. He bears them in His womb until they are born again. He carries them, “as a man carries his son” (Dt.1:31), He teaches them to walk (Hos.11:3), then leads them “with cords of kindness, with bands of love” (Hos.11:4).

Study it in these last few chapters; immerse yourself in it: “You are precious in my eyes, and honored and I love you” (43:4). “The Lord who made you, who formed you from the womb and will help you… Jeshurun whom I have chosen” (44:2). “Even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save” (v.4). This is the love and care of the true and living God, who nurtures His own from conception to old age.

Bel and Nebo are religious burdens; our God of grace bears our burdens and carries us. We fail to find any grounds for comparison to the One, who tends “His flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in His arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young” (40:11). He is unique and there is no one or anything, by which He can be compared. No image can possibly be formed in the mind or made with hands. We are forbidden to try, because any attempt will end in idolatry and blasphemy (v.5). Lavish gold, pour out silver and hire the best smith; the highest price and the most expert work will end in failure in portraying the God of Israel (v.6). 

“They lift it… they carry it… they set it in its place… it stands there: it cannot move… If one cries to it, it does not answer or save him from his trouble” (v.7). What idol will we turn to? Where will we find comfort and help? “Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind.” In the light of His glory and grace, His mercy and care… how great is the transgression of turning to the gods of this world! (v.8). Who is like His person? (v.9). His word reveals His attributes. What can compare to it? Where can you learn of the unrecorded past or see the uncharted future? What textbook, what professor, what institution can instruct you in the things that matter most?

Greek historian, Herodotus
Who can plan and then accomplish perfectly, as He does? Who can promise and then fulfill every word? (v.10) The Lord again refers to Cyrus and the dramatic invasion and fall of Babylon. No one saw it coming and no one thought it possible, yet while Belshazzar dined and drank, the Persians turned the course of the Euphrates River and lowered its waters, so that they could march through the river bed and enter the great city (v.11). The Greek historian, Herodotus’ account totally matches the one in Daniel 5: “The Persians came upon them by surprise and so took the city. Owing to the vast size of the place, the inhabitants of  the central parts (as the residents at Babylon declare) long after the outer portions of the town were taken, knew nothing of what had chanced, but as they were engaged in a festival, continued dancing and reveling until they learnt about the capture.”

As the Lord overthrew Babylon in one night, so in three hours, He worked righteousness and brought salvation. Between three and six one afternoon on Calvary’s hill, “steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Ps.85:10). Righteousness shown in its brightest light, condemning every breakage of holy law, carrying out the fierce sentence against it. Love declared the sinner not guilty and granted complete pardon . It was unforeseeable and unimaginable to the human mind. On another day, the stubborn and faithless heart of man, who, because of His unbelief, is far from righteous, will hear a declaration of righteousness upon Mount Zion. It will declare the entire nation of Israel saved to the glory of God (v.12-13).     

Chapter 47

Babylon exists in Isaiah’s time, but has not yet become an empire. The prophecy extends beyond the days of its glory to its downfall in 539 B.C. The first verse of this chapter gives us the exact definition of a term used quite often in the Old Testament… “virgin daughter”. In this case, it indicates a considerable percentage of the population of Babylon, who are described with the adjectives tender and delicate. We could accurately add some others, such as protected, sheltered, and maybe even pampered.

Isaiah’s prophecy intends to awake this class of people to a rude change of lifestyle. They will be dragged off their throne, or if you will, off their sofas and soft armchairs, and sit on the ground. They will be subjected to mean, common labor and public exposure: “Take the millstones and grind flour, put off your veil, strip off your robe, uncover your legs, pass through the rivers” (v.2). The highest level of Chaldean society will taste the vengeance of the Holy One of Israel for their mistreatment of His people and He will disgrace them. The God of vengeance is the Redeemer of His people, who restores their dignity and buys back their possessions by a mighty display of strength, as the Lord of Hosts (v.3,4). The host in this day will be the Persian army.

This prophecy begins to sound something like John’s apocalyptic vision of a last-day Babylon. “Pay her back as she herself has paid back others” (Rev.18:7).We need not fear error in going there, because Isaiah has already shown us that a good number of his revelations will find final fulfillment at the end of time. John showed that Babylon will no longer sit as a queen and in verse 5, Isaiah reveals that “you shall no more be called the mistress of kingdoms.”

It is to Babylon that God explains their part in His treatment of Israel and that they had gone far beyond His intentions: “I was angry with my people; I profaned my heritage; I gave them into your hand; you showed them no mercy; on the aged you made your yoke exceedingly heavy” (v.6). Babylon punished without mercy. The Lord shows mercy in His judgment. David knew this so well and therefore elected a direct punishment from Him, rather than through human enemies (2 Sam.24:14).  

The pride of Babylon that exists in Isaiah’s day is that of a mistress. As we have already seen, in Revelation it has developed into that of a queen: “She says, ‘I sit as a queen, I am no widow, and mourning I shall never see. For this reason her plagues will come…” (Rev.18:7,8). It has reached the apex of self-exaltation, and God will give it doom and total annihilation. Nebuchadnezzar saw his own kingdom as a head of gold on a great image and the prophecy in this chapter uncovers the spirit of Babylon. Their pride allows no correction and makes no amends (v.7).

One of the great keys to the time of the end is Paul’s prophecy of the people of that day. Among the descriptions is the phrase that they would be “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Ti.3:4). Already in this text, Babylon carries that characteristic, “you lover of pleasures” (v.8). The citizens of the spiritual, end-time empire will be the epitome of pleasure lovers.

Let’s continue to observe the similarities between Isaiah’s prophecy and John’s (all from Rev. 18). Isaiah: “These two things shall come to you in a moment, in one day.” John: “Her plagues will come in a single day” (v.8). Isaiah: “I shall not sit as a widow.” John: “I am no widow, and mourning I shall never see” (v.7). Isaiah: “Your many sorceries and the great power of your enchantments.” John: “All nations were deceived by your sorcery” (v.23). Isaiah: “You felt secure in your wickedness, you said, ‘No one sees me.’” John: “In her was found the blood of prophets and of saints” (v.24). Isaiah: “I am and there is no one besides me” (v.9-10). John: “What city was like the great city?” (v.18)

“Evil shall come upon you, which you will not know how to charm away” (v.11). I am reminded of the ‘prophet’ Balaam in his attempts to please King Balak and bring a curse upon Israel: “When Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he did not go, as at other times, to look for omens” (Num.24:1). He knew enough about God to discern that there is no charm or potion to ward off the power of His word. All the powers of spiritism fail, before the movings of God.

Spiritual activity in Babylon was extremely developed. Nebuchadnezzar was said to be very religious and he had a department in his government given over to spiritual enchantment. It received some positive influence, when Daniel became president over the entire branch. However, Babylonian religion was a powerful force that continues in some forms into modern times. Their spiritists were experts, (“with which you have labored from your youth”), and included among them were astrologists. God would work against them in a unique way and they would find themselves powerless before Him. 
He is not afraid to challenge them to make an attempt (v.12,13). Much earlier in Israel’s history, the prophet Elijah was so empowered by His Spirit that he, one single man, goaded and mocked the 450 prophets of Baal, “Cry aloud; for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself (going to the bathroom!), “or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” He put himself at every possible physical disadvantage, soaking the wood, the sacrifice, the altar, and filled a trench around the altar three times, but when the fire of God fell, it “consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench” (1 Kgs.18:27, 33-35, 38).

God proclaims His word concerning the practiced soothsayers and enchanters of the world-dominating empire, “Behold, they are like stubble; the fire consumes them, they cannot deliver themselves from the power of the flame… Such to you are those with whom you have labored, who have done business with you from your youth.” You’ve paid these people; they have held office in your government. They are the best that you have. “They wander about, each in his own direction; there is no one to save you” (v.14,15). Do we believe that the God, whom we serve, is all-powerful and sovereign or do we not? Then, let’s live and act like He is in total control, boldly trusting Him in all the affairs of our life!


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