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What does it mean that Bel bows down and Nebo stoops (Isaiah 46:1)?

Bel bows down and Nebo stoops

Isaiah 46 records the greatness of God in contrast to the inefficacy of the Babylonian false gods, including Bel and Nebo. At the time of Isaiah’s prophecies, Babylon was the premier nation on earth and steeped in the worship of false gods and nationalistic pride. God had elevated Babylon for a time in history, and at the same time He would hold the nation accountable for its evils. God is the Sovereign Creator, the only true God—there is none else (Isaiah 45:18). There is no other God besides Him (Isaiah 45:21). He is the One in whom people can trust, and He calls to the peoples of the earth to turn to Him to be saved, because He is the only true God (Isaiah 45:22). With that context established, God asserts that Bel bows down and Nebo stoops (Isaiah 46:1).

Bel, also called Marduk (or Marodech in Jeremiah 50:2), was the chief of the Babylonian gods and represented the nation’s might and world leadership. Bel is mentioned several times in the Hebrew Scriptures and always in the context of being defeated or being judged. Jeremiah records that Bel would be put to shame (Jeremiah 50:2) and would be punished (Jeremiah 51:44) as part of Babylon’s judgment for its offenses against God and His chosen people, the Israelites.

Nebo was a prominent city and mountain in Moab, but it seems that the reference here is to Nabu—a false god rather than the city and mountain in Moab. Nabu was also a prominent Babylonian god, second only to Bel (or Marduk). Nabu/Nebo has been associated with various other gods, including Nisaba (Sumeria), Thoth (Egypt), Apollo (Greek), and Mercury (Rome).

Bel and Nebo were representative of Babylon’s pride, yet they would both be humbled. Bel bows down and Nebo stoops (Isaiah 46:1). These Babylonian gods take a defeated and humbled posture as their images are carried by cattle away from Babylon (Isaiah 46:1). Those who relied on these gods to deliver them found that those images went right into captivity with them (Isaiah 46:2). Those gods could not save anyone, but the true God could. God had created the nation of Babylon, and He could deliver them (Isaiah 46:3–4). So people should look to Him and trust in Him rather than the false gods of Babylon. Those false gods would bow down and stoop. They would become “burdens on weary beasts” (Isaiah 46:1) and have no ability to deliver even themselves.

As the Sovereign Creator of all, Yahweh, the God of the Bible, reminds the people of Israel that they could trust in Him. Even today, there are many false gods and idols that would attract our attention, but today, just like in Isaiah’s day, God is trustworthy and reliable. He is the One who can save. Isaiah warned Israel about trusting in Bel and Nebo—because Bel bows down and Nebo stoops—and we are likewise warned not to put our trust in what is unreliable. Jesus explained, for example, that we should not store up for ourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal (Matthew 6:19), but that we should serve God (Matthew 6:24).

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Questions about Isaiah

What does it mean that Bel bows down and Nebo stoops (Isaiah 46:1)?
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This page last updated: September 26, 2022