(Isa. 40-55) How does Isaiah use the Exodus motif in this section?

By James Rochford

Throughout chapters 40 through 55, Isaiah repeatedly harkens back to the Hebrew Exodus, lifting language and themes explained there. To understand Isaiah’s use of this motif, we will consider two questions: (1) where Isaiah uses this Exodus motif, and (2) why he uses this motif.

1. Where does he use the Exodus Motif?

A cursory survey of the book of Isaiah reveals a number of allusions back to the Hebrew Exodus. In both cases, God rescues the Jews from their oppressors (Egypt/Babylon), delivers them through the desert, and brings them to their land. Rikk Watts explains, “The exodus pattern is already a well-recognized motif in Isaiah.”[1] While other prophets use this imagery of the Exodus in a future dimension, “[i]t was Second Isaiah who, more than any of his prophetic predecessors, perceived the meaning of the Exodus in an eschatological dimension.”[2] Consider a few allusions:

First, Isaiah alludes to the tyranny of Pharaoh. Both Egypt and Babylon place a brutal yoke on the Hebrews (Isa. 47:6; Ex. 5:7-9), who are childless (Isa. 49:21; 54:1; Ex. 1:16, 22). Both Pharaoh and Babylon trust in magicians and sorcerers (Isa. 47:9-10, 12-13; Ex. 1:10; 7:11). God promises to rescue the people from the “mighty man” and the “tyrant” (Isa. 49:24), which is reminiscent of Pharaoh.

Second, Isaiah alludes to the judgment of Egypt. For instance, God ruins the Nile in Isaiah (Isa. 19:8-10; Ex. 7:14ff). God makes himself known to the Pagan nations—specifically the Egyptians (Isa. 19:21). However, instead of being judged, this time they will come to worship God. Grogan writes, “The Lord will reveal himself to Egypt again, but this time in an entirely different way, much more after the pattern of his self-disclosure to Israel; for he will deal with them also on the basis of grace.”[3] The people tell God that they “harden” their “heart” (Isa. 63:17; Ex. 8:32). Grogan writes, “The prayer perhaps alludes also to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in the Exodus story, which has provided so much background to the thought here.”[4] God promises to “ransom” Egypt and the southern territories (Isa. 43:3). Motyer argues that this will be accomplished through the conquest of King Cyrus.[5]

Third, Isaiah alludes to the escape from Egypt. While those in the Exodus left “in haste” (Ex. 12:11, Deut. 16:3), those who are rescued from Babylon will “not go out in haste” (Isa. 52:12; emphasis mine). Motyer notes, “Haste (ḥippāzôn) is found only in Exodus 12:11… and Deuteronomy 16:3, in connection with the urgency to leave Egypt while the going was good.”[6]

Fourth, Isaiah alludes to the separating of the waters in the Exodus. God used a great wind to separate the waters (Isa. 11:15; Ex. 14:21). God dries up the sea to bring the Jews into their land (Isa. 44:27; 50:2), and he uses a highway (Isa. 11:16; 40:3; Ex. 14:26-29).

Fifth, Isaiah alludes to the “choseness” of Israel. Israel is chosen “again” by God in Isaiah (Isa. 14:1; 44:1; Ex. 19:5-6). The Israelites learned that there is “no other god” besides Yahweh in the Exodus (Ex. 20:3), which stands in contrast to Babylon’s self-deifying boast (Isa. 47:8, 10), as well as the lesson that Pharaoh learns about the one true God (Exod. 8:10; 9:14). Likewise, the Pagan nations exclaim, “Surely, God is with you, and there is none else, no other God” (Isa. 45:14). Motyer elaborates, “Isaiah sees the future through an exodus spectrum. The nations then subordinated to Israel are typical of those who will one day seek voluntarily the blessings Israel has in the Lord.”[7]

Sixth, Isaiah alludes to God protecting and providing for his people. For instance, God comes “with his Arm ruling for him” (Isa. 40:10; Deut. 4:34). This is ultimately fulfilled in the coming of the Servant (Isa. 53:1). God tells the people, “I am the LORD your God” (Isa. 41:13), which harkens back to the giving of the Decalogue (Ex. 20:2). Grogan adds, “This is reinforced in v.14 by the use of goʾēl (“Redeemer”; cf. Exod 6:6, 15:13).”[8] God calls himself a “warrior,” who fights for his people (Isa. 42:13; Ex. 15:3), and he promises to protect them from behind (Isa. 52:12; Ex. 13:21-22; 14:19-20). Motyer writes, “The exodus imagery of the fiery-cloudy pillar (Ex. 13:21) is a contributory motif, for in their need (Ex. 14:19) they found that the pillar, which had led them, moved to protect their rear. Even so the Lordthe God of Israel surrounds them.”[9] God promises to supply “rivers in the desert, to give drink to My chosen people” (Isa 43:20; c.f. 48:20–21; 49:8–12; Ex. 17). Later, Isaiah writes, “They did not thirst when He led them through the deserts. He made the water flow out of the rock for them; He split the rock and the water gushed forth” (Isa. 48:21; c.f. 41:17–19). Regarding this verse, Oswalt writes, “The allusion to the Exodus is clear here. What he has done in the past shows that he can be equally creative to redeem his people again.”[10] While those in the Exodus crossed a dry and arid wasteland (Deut. 8:15), those in the New Exodus cross beautiful land (Isa. 40:4).

2. Why does he use this Exodus Motif?

This brings us to our second question: why does Isaiah use this exodus motif to describe the liberation and rescue from Babylon? Consider a number of reasons:

First, the historicity of the Exodus helps anchor God’s future promise of rescue. By repeating themes and imagery of God’s rescue in the past, Isaiah is providing consolation and confirmation about God’s plan of rescue in the future. In other words, Isaiah is saying: “God has done it before… and he’ll do it again!”

Second, Yahweh is demonstrating his superiority over false gods in both epochs of history. One of the reasons that the Exodus took place was to demonstrate Yahweh’s superiority over the false gods. For instance, God said that he brought judgment “against all the gods of Egypt” (Ex. 12:12). The book of Numbers tells us, “The Lord had also executed judgments on their gods” (Num. 33:4). Elsewhere, we read that God redeemed the nation of Israel “from Egypt… and their gods” (2 Sam. 7:23). In the same way, Isaiah 40-55 is really a polemic against the false and impotent gods of Paganism. Therefore, God is again demonstrating his authority over false deities (Isa. 41:23; 42:17; 46:1-13).

Third, Isaiah’s use of the Exodus motif helps us understand the New Testament (NT) use of the Exodus. The NT authors apply themes from the Exodus to the life of Christ and the rescue of the church (1 Cor. 10:1ff; Jn. 6:32; Heb. 12:18-25; Lk. 9:31-32). Thus, Ellis notes, “Exodus ‘typology’ was not original with Paul or even the early Church. The concept arises in the OT prophets who came to shape their anticipation of the great eschatological salvation through the Messiah according to the pattern of the historical Exodus under Moses.”[11] In other words, God rescued his people from the evil Pharaoh and Egypt, he rescued them from the evils of Babylon, and he finally rescued them from Satan (2 Cor. 4:4) and his kingdom here on Earth (1 Jn. 5:19).

Then, in a final eschatological sense, we see that the apostle John refers to the future kingdom of the anti-Christ, using the imagery of “Egypt” (Rev. 11:8) and “Babylon” (Rev. 18:2); thus, he utilizes this long ingrained typological pattern established here in Isaiah.


[1] Watts, Rikk. “Echoes from the Past: Israel’s Ancient Traditions and the Destiny of the Nations in Isaiah 40–55.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. 28, No. 4 (2004). 486.

[2] While I disagree with this author’s usage of “Second Isaiah,” I still agree with his observation regarding the prophets using the Exodus motif in other prophetic books. In his footnote, he notes the use of the Exodus motif in Hosea 2:14-15; 11:1; 12:9, 13; 13:4-5; Amos 2:9-10; 3:1-2; 9:7; Micah 6:4; Jeremiah 2:6-7; 7:22, 25; 11:4, 7; 23:7-8; Ezekiel 20:5-10. Anderson, Bernhard W., and Walter J. Harrelson. Israel’s Prophetic Heritage; Essays in Honor of James Muilenburg. New York: Harper, 1962, 181.

[3] Grogan, G. W. “Isaiah.” In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 6: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986, 129.

[4] Ibid, 343.

[5] Motyer, J. A. The prophecy of Isaiah: An introduction & commentary (Is 52:12). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996, Isa. 43:3.

[6] Ibid, Isa. 52:12.

[7] Ibid, Isa. 45:14.

[8] Grogan, G. W. “Isaiah.” In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 6: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986, 251.

[9] Motyer, J. A. The prophecy of Isaiah: An introduction & commentary (Is 52:12). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996, Isa. 52:12.

[10] Oswalt, John N. Isaiah: The New Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003, 538.

[11] Ellis, E. Earle. Paul’s Use of the Old Testament. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1957, 131.