Can We Command God (Isa. 45:11)? (Q&A)

Q:  A classmate sent me an online poster titled “You Will Command Me” (Tetzavuni) and said we can command Jesus to do healing, not ask!  The poster has different translations of Isa. 45:11, including the original Hebrew.  Is this true?  How to explain the Hebrew here? –Ruth C.

NOTE:  The poster includes an English translation from the Darby Bible:  “Thus saith Jehovah, the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker: Ask me of the things to come; concerning my sons, and concerning the work of my hands, command ye me” (Isa. 45:11)

A:  It’s certainly true that many translations render the end of this verse as “you command me concerning the works of my hands.” But meaning is derived from context, and so we need to look at the context to figure out what this means.   

The chapter begins with an amazing prophecy about Cyrus, the Persian ruler who defeated the Babylonians:  God will “subdue nations” before him (Isa. 45:1).  And why will God do these great things?  “For the sake of my servant Jacob” (Isa. 45:4).  Not only does the prophecy mention Cyrus by name, it also mentions that he will rebuild Jerusalem and let the Jewish exiles go free, all of which actually happened (Isa. 45:13).  And what is the purpose of all these things?  To let the world know, God says, that “I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no God” (Isa. 45:5).

In the midst of this prophecy, God rebukes those who quarrel with their maker (“Woe to the one who contends with his maker—an earthen vessel among the vessels of earth,” Isa. 45:9-10).  The same idea continues in the verse following, where God asserts his authority (“I made the earth and created man on it,” Isa. 45:12).  God is the one in authority, not us.  And he can exercise that authority any way he wants.

Right in the middle of this rebuke, in verse 11, God identifies himself as the mighty one of Israel:  “This is what the LORD says, the holy one of Israel and the one who has formed him.”  Then the verse continues:  “Inquire of me about the things to come concerning my sons.”  This statement is in the form of a command (a Hebrew imperative).  It’s a challenge to turn to God if we want to find out about the future of his people.  No one else, no other god, has that information.  Again, the message is that he is the one in charge.

The verse then ends with the surprising statement, “And you will command me concerning the work of my hands.”  The implication is that if you turn to (“inquire of”) the God of Israel, you can command him concerning his creation.  This is an amazing claim that at first seems entirely impossible.  As a result, many translations try to soften the meaning.  One solution is to turn it into a question:  “Will you instruct me about the work of my hands?” (Isa. 45:11 in the JPS Tanakh 1985).  But it’s difficult to justify this in Hebrew, since the phrase is a poetic parallel to the preceding phrase.  So how can we resolve this dilemma? 

There is an important parallel in the New Testament.  Jesus taught, “whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give to you” (John 15:16, also John 14:13-14, 16:23-26).  Here, too, we have an incredible promise in which asking God is followed by his granting the request.  The main difference is that in John this is called asking God, while in Isaiah it’s called commanding God.  But there is another passage in the New Testament that involves a command:

Jesus taught, “Have faith from God.*  Amen I say to you that he who says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and be thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but rather trusts that what he says comes to be, it will be for him” (Mark 11:22-23).  It’s true that the command here is given to the mountain and not to God.  But God is still the one who makes it happen:  “Because of this I say to you, all things that you pray and ask, trust that you have received them, and they will be for you” (Mark 11:24).  Even the command to the mountain is a form of prayer to God.

* Though this is often translated, “have faith in God,” the Greek uses a subjective genitive to indicate that the source of the faith is God:  it’s a faith that comes from God rather than being a faith that we have mustered up on our own. 

All of these verses, however, face the obstacle that many have experienced personally:  I asked something from God (or perhaps even commanded something), and it didn’t happen.  How then are we to understand these promises?  Obviously they don’t mean that everything we ask under any circumstance will automatically be done by God.  Even a command, as we saw in Mark, is still a type of request, and it can only take place by the will of God. 

Many point to a lack of faith when prayers are not answered.  And we can certainly all join with the apostles in asking Jesus to “increase our faith” (Luke 17:5).  We need to replace our faith with the faith of God in order to see our requests answered.

But there’s also the question of timing:  that our request has not yet been answered doesn’t mean it never will be.  Some things take time. 

But one thing all of the verses listed above have in common:  they challenge us to have more of the faith of God and to believe that that faith will produce miracles.  God is not calling us to be slaves, but to be his sons and daughters (Gal. 3:26, 4:5-7), and eventually to rule and reign with him (2 Tim. 2:12, Rev. 20:4).  There's obviously a learning curve to this that we're still in the midst of.  But the end result that God has planned for us is glorious.

(For more on this and related topics, see our Great Discoveries of the Bible Seminar.)

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