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 translate 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 passage appears in the middle of a prophecy about Cyrus, the Persian ruler who defeated the Babylonians (in 539 BC).  God says that he will “subdue nations” before Cyrus, even though Cyrus doesn’t know the God of Israel:  “though you have not known me (Isa. 45:1,4).  And why will God support Cyrus in this way?  In order to prove that “besides me there is no God” (Isa. 45:5-6).  Not only does the prophecy mention Cyrus by name, it also mentions that he will rebuild Jerusalem and let the Jewish exiles go free (Isa. 45:13).  These are tremendous miracles that actually happened more than a hundred years after Isaiah’s prophecy was given.

But right in the middle 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).  He then goes on to assert his supreme authority: “I made the earth and created man on it” (Isa. 45:12).  Since God is the one in authority, he can exercise that authority any way he wants.

This is where 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, Inquire of me about the things to come concerning my sons (Isa. 45:11). This is a challenge to his people Israel to turn to God if they want to find out about the future – the very future he’s proclaiming in his prophecy about Cyrus.  This contrasts with his rebuke of idols and those who worship them in verses 16 and 20. No one else, no other god, has this kind of information about the future.

The verse then ends with the statement in question, “And you will command me concerning the work of my hands.”  The implication is that if Israel will turn to (“inquire of”) the God of Israel rather than the false gods, they’ll be able to command him concerning his creation.  In other words, God will favor them even more than Cyrus, since unlike Cyrus, they will know God and be his children.  

The claim that people will be able to command God 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).  Another is to change the meaning of the verb altogether:  “And you will commit to me the work of my hands” (NASB).  But it’s difficult to justify either of these in Hebrew.  So how can we understand this promise, which seems too good to be true? 

There’s 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’s 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 doesn’t 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).  This tells us that 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 commanded something), and it didn’t happen.  How then should we 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 a type of request, and that means it can only take place by the will of God. 

Many point to a lack of faith when prayers aren’t 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.  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 draw closer to God and to believe that faith will produce miracles.  God isn’t 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).  He wants to do even greater things for us than he did for Cyrus.  We may have had prayer failures along the way, but this only shows that there’s a learning curve to all of this.  As we draw closer to God, our will will align more closely with his, and that means that more of what we ask will be granted.

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

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