Jerusalem lies in rubbles. Many inhabitants have been carted off to Babylon, especially those of the aristocratic (e.g., Daniel) and priestly (e.g., Ezekiel) lineages. The exiles weep about their homeland in a foreign land (Ps. 137). Those remaining in Jerusalem receive a word from the Lord (Is. 40:2) given 150 years earlier, looking to this very moment. Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of King Josiah and was contemporary with Jeremiah, who prophesied in the decades leading up to the siege of Jerusalem by Babylon. If you were to read Scripture chronologically, you could insert Zephaniah, Habakkuk, and Jeremiah between chapters 39–40 of Isaiah. Yet, in Isaiah, a 150-year leap is made to those who’ve witnessed the city’s destruction.
They’re wondering, “Now what?” The worst has happened. What they’ve dreaded has occurred. No Davidic king occupies the throne. Those who remain will suffer heavy taxation, foreign occupation, and rule. They will also live with the trauma of seeing Jerusalem fall and the changes that follow. They feel abandoned by God (40:6–8, 27), but he assures them that they are redeemed (43:1, 25; 44:22–23). God was abandoned by them first (cf. 42:24–25). What’s odd is how God’s people often feel neglected, seldom examining whether or not they had ignored him previously. Israel had continued worshipping God, which cannot be a metric (1:11–15).
Nevertheless, the cry anticipates God’s return (40:3–5) as a tender king (40:9–11). God reassures Israel that though their present circumstances might seem contrary to the idea, they are still his people, his servant (41:8–10; 42:1–4). As God’s servant Israel needed to worship God (43:22–24) and not idols (44:9–11). Though they have suffered by other nations, whom God allowed doing so to punish their sins, those nations won’t get off easy for their wickedness (41:11–13; 43:14).
Since God used Assyria to chastise Israel and Babylon Judah, God will use Persia to restore Judah (44:24–45:7). He had previously referred to Assyria as his ax to cull the forest of the nations and Israel. Still, the ax would break—denoting the end of Assyria, which happened at the hands of the Babylonians. Jeremiah had described Nebuchadnezzar as God’s servant (Jer. 25–26). Isaiah refers to Cyrus as God’s shepherd (Is. 44:28) and messiah (45:1). Judahites in Babylon don’t respond positively to a foreign king being their messiah and not a son of David (45:9–13; 46:8–13). On the one hand, they want deliverance from Babylon, but they don’t like how God will bring it.
Babylon sees herself as God (47:7–8). Israel isn’t much better because God’s faithfulness and grace do not alter Israel’s mood (48:1–15). God finally declares that they should have kept his command, and they would have enjoyed peace (48:18). Unfortunately, Israel has consistently been deaf and blind. It has led them to captivity and ruin, and persisting in it will not bring them the peace God promises.