In this chapter the fall of Babylon is predicted. The chapter begins with a depiction of idols representing Babylon’s chief gods being carried into captivity, symbolizing Babylon’s overthrow. Babylon is a type for modern-day worldliness and materialism; this chapter thus foretells the fall of modern materialistic society and describes its corruption. The Lord, in contrast to the conquered Babylonian gods, has carried and sustained His righteous followers through the ages.
Anciently idolatry consisted of worship of false gods, frequently depicted by a statue or similar image and commonly made of costly materials. Practices associated with idolatry ranged from ceremonial illicit sex1 to human sacrifice, including children put to death by fire.2 Modern idolatry consists of pervasive materialism, to the exclusion of spiritual or humanitarian matters.3
Verse 1 describes a caravan: “Bel boweth down, Nebo stoopeth, their idols were upon the beasts, and upon the cattle: your carriages were heavy loaden; they are a burden to the weary beast.” Bel is a Babylonian god, the same identity as Baal,4 and Nebo is a Babylonian god of wisdom.5 Babylonian names often began with the names of these gods—for example, Belshazzar and Nebuchadnezzar.6 Images or idols representing these gods were laden upon carriages (wagons) and beasts of burden. Because of their weight they are a heavy load for the beasts. The beasts and wagons are metaphors for the people who worship these gods—such worship is a grievous burden.
Verse 2 continues: “They stoop, they bow down together, they could not deliver the burden, but themselves are gone into captivity.” The Great Isaiah Scroll reads “…and they could not deliver the burden….”7 Just as these false gods are powerless to do anything to keep themselves from being carried away, they are unable to keep those who worship them from being conquered. Worship of these false gods is a heavy burden and an enslavement, borne in ignorance of the truth. Jesus contrasted the gospel He preached to the heavy burden of false religion during His mortal ministry: “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”8
Verses 1 and 2 contain a chiasm:
A: (1) Bel boweth down,
B: Nebo stoopeth,
C: their idols were upon the beasts, and upon the cattle:
D: your carriages were heavy loaden;
C: they are a burden to the weary beast.
B: (2) They stoop,
A: they bow down together, they could not deliver the burden, but themselves are gone into captivity.
This chiasm declares that although idolatry is a heavy burden, false gods are powerless to help those who worship them. “Bel boweth down” compares with “they bow down together;” “Nebo stoopeth” matches “they stoop;” “their idols were upon the beasts” matches “they are a burden to the weary beast.”
In verse 3 the Lord calls out to apostate Israel: “Hearken unto me, O house of Jacob, and all the remnant of the house of Israel, which are borne by me from the belly, which are carried from the womb.” The Lord, who in great contrast to the conquered Babylonian gods, has carried and sustained His righteous followers through the ages, pleads with the remnant of the house of Israel to hearken.
In verse 4 the Lord continues His plea to Israel: “And even to your old age I am he; and even to hoar hairs will I carry you: I have made, and I will bear; even I will carry, and will deliver you.” Unlike false gods which are inert and must be borne by the people, the Lord will bear up His people in their tribulations, even down to their old age. “Hoar hairs” means gray hair, signifying advanced age.
Verse 4 contains a chiasm:
A: (4) And even to your old age I am he;
B: and even to hoar hairs will I carry you:
C: I have made,
C: and I will bear;
B: even I will carry,
A: and will deliver you.
“Even to your old age I am he” is complemented by “[I] will deliver you;” and “even to hoar hairs will I carry you” matches “even I will carry [you].” The Lord will sustain the righteous throughout their lives, in contrast to the powerless idols characterized in the chiasm of verses 1 and 2.
In verse 5 the Lord poses a rhetorical question: “To whom will ye liken me, and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be like?” The Lord is unlike these false gods.
Verse 6 summarizes the process of creating an idol: “They lavish gold out of the bag, and weigh silver in the balance, and hire a goldsmith; and he maketh it a god: they fall down, yea, they worship.” The Great Isaiah Scroll reads “…then they fall down, yea, they worship.”9 A craftsman is hired; no expense is spared. An idol, made by human hands, becomes an object of worship.
Verse 7 describes the folly of idol worship: “They bear him upon the shoulder, they carry him, and set him in his place, and he standeth; from his place shall he not remove: yea, one shall cry unto him, yet can he not answer, nor save him out of his trouble.” Idols can neither move by themselves, nor answer prayers, nor save man from life’s tribulations.
In verse 8, the Lord chastises those who worship idols: “Remember this, and shew yourselves men: bring it again to mind, O ye transgressors.” Not only is idolatry serious sin; it is a lie borne of gross ignorance.
In verse 9, the Lord challenges the idolaters: “Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me.” God’s dealings with man since the earliest times bear record that He alone is God. We can trust, worship, and even adore Him without reservation. As the only perfect person to ever live on the earth, there is none like Him.10 Isaiah’s use of parallel phrases provides strong emphasis.
Verses 5 through 9 contain a chiasm:
A: (5) To whom will ye liken me,
B: and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be like?
C: (6) They lavish gold out of the bag, and weigh silver in the balance, and hire a goldsmith; and he maketh it a god:
D: they fall down, yea, they worship. (7) They bear him upon the shoulder,
E: they carry him,
F: and set him in his place,
F: and he standeth;
E: from his place shall he not remove:
D: yea, one shall cry unto him, yet can he not answer, nor save him out of his trouble.
C: (8) Remember this, and shew yourselves men: bring it again to mind, O ye transgressors.
B: (9) Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else;
A: I am God, and there is none like me.
Idols are immobile and have no power to answer prayer. The question “to whom will ye liken me…?” is answered: “I am God, and there is none like me.” The second part of the question, “[To whom will ye] make me equal, and compare me…?” is answered “I am God. and there is none else;” “they fall down, yea, they worship, they bear him upon the shoulder” contrasts with “yet he can not answer, nor save him out of his trouble,” describing the ineffectiveness of idols to save men despite their worship.
Verse 10 continues the Lord’s accounting of His dealings with man: “Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure.”11 Prophets from ancient times foretell things yet in the future; these things testify that the Lord is God. The Lord through prophets declares the end from the beginning. “The end” is defined in this verse as “things that are not yet done;” and “beginning” is defined as “from ancient times.”
Regarding the phrase “declaring the end from the beginning,” LeGrand Richards stated:
We have a more sure word of prophecy that makes the Bible to me like a blueprint where the Lord has outlined everything from the war in heaven up till the final winding‑up scenes when we will have a new heaven and a new earth. I think that is what Isaiah meant when he said that the Lord has declared the end from the beginning.12
Verse 11 continues the Lord’s assertion that He is God: “Calling a ravenous bird from the east, the man that executeth my counsel from a far country: yea, I have spoken it, I will also bring it to pass; I have purposed it, I will also do it.” The “ravenous bird,” meaning “bird of prey,” symbolizes Cyrus whom the Lord would raise up to free captive Israel.13 “Executeth my counsel” means that Cyrus would do the Lord’s will.
In verse 12 the Lord again calls upon idolatrous Israel to listen: “Hearken unto me, ye stouthearted, that are far from righteousness.” The Hebrew word translated as “stouthearted” means “mighty, valiant or obstinate.”14
In verse 13 the Lord attests His willingness and power to save: “I bring near my righteousness; it shall not be far off, and my salvation shall not tarry: and I will place salvation in Zion for Israel my glory.” The Lord is near at hand, anxious to provide salvation for repentant Israel. The meaning of “Zion” as used here is the place of latter-day spiritual gathering; other meanings may also be discerned.15
Verses 11 through 13 contain a chiasm:
A: (11) Calling a ravenous bird from the east, the man that executeth my counsel
B: from a far country: yea, I have spoken it, I will also bring it to pass; I have purposed it, I will also do it.
C: (12) Hearken unto me, ye stouthearted, that are far from righteousness:
C: (13) I bring near my righteousness;
B: it shall not be far off,
A: and my salvation shall not tarry: and I will place salvation in Zion for Israel my glory.
“My counsel” matches “my salvation;” “From a far country” contrasts with “it shall not be far off;” and “far from righteousness” contrasts with “I bring near my righteousness.”
1. See Isaiah 1:29 and pertinent commentary.
2. See Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 18:10-12; 2 Kings 16:2-3; 17:16-18; 2 Chronicles 33:6—7.
3. See Isaiah 2:7-8; 32:5-8 and pertinent commentary.
4. Bible dictionary—Bel.
5. Bible Dictionary—Nebo.
6. Victor L. Ludlow, Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet: Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1982, p. 391.
7. Donald W. Parry, Harmonizing Isaiah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 2001, p. 187.
8. Matthew 11:30.
9. Parry, 2001, p. 187.
10. Neal A. Maxwell, “O, Divine Redeemer,” Ensign, Nov. 1981, p. 8.
11. Verse 10 contains a chiasm: Declaring/end/beginning/ancient times/things that are not yet done/saying.
12. LeGrand Richards, “Prophecy,” Ensign, May 1974, p. 115.
13. F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 01961-3473, 1996, Strong’s No. 5861, p. 743.
14. Brown et al., 1996, Strong’s No. 47, p. 7.
15. See Isaiah 1:8 and pertinent commentary. See also Psalms 102:13, 16; 129:5; 132:13; Isaiah 1:27; 2:3; 4:5; 14:32; 24:23; 28:16; 31:9; 35:10; 51:16; 52:7, 8; 59:20.