43:2 These promises were metaphors of God’s protection and help as his people passed through times of difficulty. In the same way, God had helped their ancestors pass through the waters of the Red Sea when they were suffering oppression in Egypt.
43:2 The waters can be naturally dangerous just like the fire mentioned in the second half of the verse. However, the waters in particular can stand for the forces of chaos and evil (Dn 7:1–9) or some kind of personal duress (Ps 69:1–3). The background for this symbolic use of water comes from ancient Near Eastern creation stories where there was a conflict between the creator god and the god or goddess of water. The promise that God will be with his people is a covenant formula that indicates the close relationship between God and his people.
43:2 waters … flame. These words describe the affliction through which God will bring His people to safety (Ps. 66:6, 12).
43:2 you pass through the waters Continuing the poet’s emphasis on the return as a second exodus, this is likely an allusion to Israel’s passing through the Red Sea. See Exod 14.
43:2 You designates the whole people (v. 1). Even when they are subject to the hardships of captivity and exile, God is still with his people (cf. 41:10).
43:2 waters … rivers … fire … flame. Many perils symbolized by these words have confronted the Israelites through the centuries and will continue to do so until the nation’s final redemption, but the Lord promises the nation survival through them all. The passage of Moses’ and Joshua’s generations through the Red Sea (Ex 14:21, 22) and the Jordan River (Jos 3:14–17) and the preservation of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego in the fiery furnace illustrate His care for Israel.
43:2 Pass through the waters is an allusion to the crossing of the Red Sea (Ex. 14:21, 22) and the Jordan River (Josh. 3:14–17). Walk through the fire is a metaphor for protection in danger (Ps. 66:12); consider the Lord’s protection of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace (Dan. 3:25–27).
43:2 go through rivers of difficulty. More lit., this is “go through rivers,” here parallel to “deep waters.” Passing through the waters was lit. fulfilled at the Red Sea (Exod 14:21–22) and the Jordan River (Josh 3:14–17), but of course it could include metaphorical use; in Isa 8:7, the king of Assyria with all his pomp is referred to as “a mighty flood from the Euphrates River.”
2 A new exodus experience lies ahead for the exiles. Just as Israel was saved when passing through the waters of the Red Sea and of the Jordan River, so will the returnees be saved as they journey back home. The picture of the waters of judgment has already been used in 8:6–8, and one of the same verbs, ‘sweep over’ (Heb. shâtaf), is used here as well. ‘Walking through the fire’ may be a metaphor for acute affliction, though the experience of Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego could well indicate the reality of such punishment (Dan. 3:25–27). God’s wrath will not be poured out upon them, but rather he will save them when they pass through the fire. Emphasis is placed on the presence of God with his people in that the Hebrew word order stresses the fact that Israel is assured of God’s presence.
Ver. 2. When thou passest through the waters.—Through water and fire:—
I. Notice the frank and matter-of-course way in which your afflictions and trials are mentioned. “The waters,” “the rivers,” “the fire,” “the flame”; it takes it for granted that you will meet with some or all of them before you have finished your course, and they are mentioned in a way, too, that will not suffer you to think lightly of them. “Waters,” many of them, and may be deep; “rivers,” rushing calamities that threaten to carry you away; “fire and flame!” hard words these, and I gather that your tribulations, Jacob, are great, various, and sure.
II. But the words, “When thou passest,”—“And when thou walkest,” clearly intimate that “Jacob” is travelling, moving from one point to another. We may be quite sure that the “waters,” “rivers,” “fire,” “flame” we read of here have reference only to such of them as are met with on Jacob’s proper track. If these perilous possibilities do not confront him on the way of duty; and if he makes a voluntary circumbendibus, to serve only his own pleasure, so that he confronts them; then, such waters and such fires are very likely to destroy him. Lot goes and settles down in Sodom; he had no more business there than has flour in a soot-bag; and the fire burnt him. The waters overflowed Jonah to some purpose; but that was because he went where he liked, and not where he ought.
III. Not only shall Jacob be safe in the flood, and brought through the fire; not only shall both flood and fire become vanquished perils living only in the victor’s memory, but the passing through them shall do good to Jacob! He shall be a nobler soul for being tossed by waves; he shall be a purer being for being tried by fire, and like the finely tempered steel which was first in the red-hot furnace, and was then plunged into the ice-cold cistern, and so became the keen, invincible blade: so the trial, afflictions, testings of the Christian do mould and temper and shape and brighten Jacob’s character, and ennoble after the Christly pattern his moral manhood, which is the glory of his immortal soul! Note two things to be remembered in the day of the flood and fire.
1. Thy God has promised to be ever at thy side.
2. This gracious God, who controls the waters and restrains the fires and conducts His people through them both, reveals Himself here as “the Lord that created thee, O Jacob; and He that formed thee, O Israel.” He made thee, O Jacob; then He knows thee, knows thy frame; remembereth that thou art dust,—will not put upon thee more than thou canst bear, neither will He forsake the work of His hands. He raised us from the ruins of the fall, made us temples for Himself to dwell in. Then He will never suffer the structures He has erected at so much care and cost to be thrown down by violence, swept away by turbulent waters, or devoured by the ruthless flame. “Thou art mine!” He says. It is the language of complacency and delight. Thou art mine! My property! My charge! My joy! My jewel! And I will guard My own! Surely with such a text as this to fall back upon, O thou redeemed one, thou wilt not doubt or fear. (J. J. Wray.)
I. The pathway that the people of God tread. Through waters, rivers, fires, and flames. “It is through much tribulation we must enter into the kingdom.”
1. If I look at the temporalities first, the wilderness through which we pass is full of troubles. Thorns and thistles has it brought forth ever since the curse was pronounced upon it; and you can scarcely look into a circle of your acquaintance without finding sicknesses, sorrows, losses, cares, broils, contentions, all the fruits of sin, constantly presented to your view. Is not this, then, a tribulated path?
2. Mark, among the tribulations, the rigour of a fiery law.
3. In this unceasing warfare “the flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh.”
4. Look at the grand adversary of souls, and his fiery temptations. That is another fire to pass through—Satan’s suggestions.
II. The upholding power. “I will be with thee.” Good company at all events. Was He not with all the worthies recorded in the Old Testament Scriptures, in their sharp conflicts, giving them all the victory? There are two views that may be taken of this precious promise. There is such a thing as God being with His people, and they not knowing it; and there is such a thing as their sensible enjoyment of it. There are two things to be considered. The immutable faithfulness of God has bound Him never to desert the objects of His love. But there have been many instances in which people have been groping in the dark; it has been a long while before they could find Him; and in many instances they have been ready to say, “My prayer is shut out”; and led to exclaim, “Hath God in anger shut up His tender mercies? Will His compassion fail?”
III. The terminus. Heavenly rest—not a wave of trouble shall roll across this peaceful breast. (J. Irons.)
God’s presence in crisis moments:—
It is surprising to note how the facts of this people’s history have impressed themselves upon the language and thought of Christendom.
I. That spiritual experience is the same in all ages. These words were written by the prophet of the Exile, who could speak of himself and his comrades as passing through the waters. He shows in this way that he realises that the exiles are one in experience with their ancestors who passed through the waters of the Red Sea and the Jordan. Though their circumstances were different, the variation in outward detail was insignificant. The same parts of their nature were tested, and the same virtues were disciplined. Thus this prophet becomes the link between us, who are the disciples of Christ, and the Israelites who crossed the Jordan.
II. That in every life there are a few brief but intense trials. There was the long and weary strain of desert life to be constantly borne. The passage of the sea and the river came but twice, and then lasted but a few hours, though the agony for the time was intense. They entered the sea in a night of awful storm, because the terror of their enemies was upon them. They entered the river in broad daylight in utter trust of God, knowing that only thus could the enjoyment of Canaan’s goodly land be theirs. One was a struggle of fear, the other the yielding of all to God in simple faith. In the Christian life peace only comes after this second struggle.
III. That life before and after such a crisis is wholly different. The Red Sea was the boundary line between bondage and freedom; the Jordan between wandering and rest, between hope and possession. It seems as though such struggles were the birth-throes of a new life. To pass on to a higher plane such struggle must be encountered. It was such a trial as God called upon Job to pass through.
IV. That one such crisis is death. In the life of Christ it would appear that the temptation connected with His baptism was His Red Sea, just as St. Paul tells us that the sea was Israel’s baptism: “They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” We know that this temptation was one of the crises of our Saviour’s life. Then the devil leaveth Him for a season, not to return with like power until he meets Him again at Gethsemane. This was Christ’s Jordan. Not until this was passed was His sorrow vanquished or His labour “finished.” When Christian reached this river he was dazed and despondent, and began to look this way and that to see if he could not escape the river. Truly, death is the last and not the least enemy.
V. That human friendship can avail but little here. Friends may say, “I am with you” in sympathy; but they can render no help. Viewing the struggle, they may long to share it, but here they must leave their friends in the hands of God.
VI. That God is with us in all such crisis moments. Hopeful’s comforting words did Christian little good. But he heard a voice say, “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee.” Indeed, that is His name, Immanuel, God with us. And Christ has said, “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end.” If God has brought us through the sea, if He has commenced the good work within us, He will bring us through the Jordan, and thus complete what He has begun. In virtue of such a precious promise we need have no fear. (R. C. Ford, M.A.)
The floods and the flames:—
I. Contemplate the scenes through which the people of God are called to pass. No metaphor is more frequent in the Bible than that by which sudden calamities are represented by a deluge of waters (Psa. 42:7; 69:1, 2).
1. All must pass through—
(1) The waters of temptation (James 1:12).
(2) The waters of affliction, in circumstances, person, mind, family.
(3) The river of death. “How wilt thou do in the swellings of Jordan?”
2. We are all familiar with affliction under the image of fire (Psa. 66:12; 1 Cor. 3:13; Isa. 48:10; 1 Pet. 4:12). It is the tendency of fire to—
(1) Consume (Mal. 4:1). Affliction, like a fire, will tend to consume our corruptions, whilst we ourselves remain uninjured.
(2) Melt. All metals can be melted, and receive whatever stamp the artificer may impress.
(3) Try. Place any substance in the fire, and its nature and properties are made manifest. Thus Abraham was tried; Job (23:10); Israel (Deut. 8:2); Hezekiah.
(4) Purify and refine (Isa. 1:25; Mal. 3:2, 3).
II. Consider the promises made to the people of God when passing through these scenes.
1. The Divine presence. We naturally look for sympathy in the day of trouble (Job 6:14). Sometimes friends who are with us in sunshine forsake us in storm (Job 19:21; Acts 28:15, with 2 Tim. 4:16). But God will never forsake us.
2. Divine protection. “The rivers shall not overflow,” &c. (Jos. 1:9; Acts 23:11; Deut. 33:25).
3. Divine deliverance. We are not always to be fording rivers, struggling with floods, or walking through fires. We are to leave them all behind. The rest of Canaan compensated for all the toils of the wilderness (Rom. 8:18). (Clergyman’s Magazine.)
The godly in trouble:—
1. The godly have the best company in the worst places in which their lot is cast. “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee.”
2. The godly have special help in their times of deepest trouble. “And through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee.”
3. The godly are the subjects of miracles of mercy in seasons of greatest distress. “When thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned.” (C. H. Spurgeon.)
God’s people not exempt from trouble:—
If God has a favoured people whom He has chosen, upon whom His distinguishing grace has lighted to make them great and honourable, you would suppose that the verse would run thus: “Thou shalt not go through the waters, for I will be with thee to keep thee out of them; neither shalt thou pass through the rivers, for I have bridged them on thy behalf. Thou shalt never go through the fire, and therefore thou shalt not be burned; neither shall there be any fear that the flame shall kindle upon thee, for it shall not come near thee.” There is no such word of promise; it would be contrary to the whole tenor of the covenant, which ever speaks of a rod, and of the chosen passing under it. (Ibid.)
Light on the billow’s crest:—
There is a story of a shipwreck which tells how the crew and passengers had to leave the broken vessel and take to the boats. The sea was rough, and great care in rowing and steering was necessary, in order to guard the heavily laden boats, not from the ordinary waves, which they rode over easily, but from the great cross seas. Night was approaching, and the hearts of all sank as they asked what they should do in the darkness when they would no longer be able to see these terrible waves. To their great joy, however, when it grew dark, they discovered that they were in phosphorescent waters, and that each dangerous wave rolled up crested with light which made it as clearly visible as if it were midday. So it is that life’s dreaded experiences when we meet them carry in themselves the light which takes away the peril and the terror. (J. R. Miller, D.D.)
Comfort found in God:—
During the sixteen weeks in which Sir Bartle Frere was dying, though he was nearly always in great pain, not one murmur escaped him. Just at the end he said, “I have looked down into the great abyss, but God has never left me through it all.” “Name that Name when I am in pain,” he once said to his wife; “it calls me back.” (Quiver.)
A heartening presence:—
An exceedingly nervous man was once sentenced to twenty-four hours’ imprisonment in the dungeon of an old prison. Full of fear he sank to the floor. His brain throbbed as with fever, and mocking voices seemed to sound. He felt terror would drive him mad. Suddenly, overhead, he heard the prison chaplain’s voice calling his name. “Are you there?” he gasped. “Yes, and I am going to stay till you come out.” “God bless you,” he said; “I do not mind it at all now, with you there.” “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee.” (J. R. Miller, D.D.)
In her last days Mrs. Booth, of the Salvation Army, sent this message to her friends,—it is a triumphant death-song: “The waters are rising, but so am I. I am not going under, but over. Do not be concerned about your dying. Only go on living well, and the dying will be all right.”
When thou walkest through the fire.—Fire!—
Walking through the fire here is put for the severest form of trouble. You have, in the commencement of the verse, trouble described as passing through the water. This represents the overwhelming influence of trial, in which the soul is sometimes so covered that it becomes like a man sinking in the waves. “When thou goest through the rivers,”—those mountain torrents which with terrific force are often sufficient to carry a man away. This expresses the force of trouble, the power with which it sometimes lifts a man from the foothold of his stability, and carries him before it. “When thou passest through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee.” But going through the fire expresses not so much the overwhelming character and the upsetting power of trouble as the actual consuming and destructive power of trouble and temptation. The metaphor is more vivid, not to say more terrific, than that which is employed in the first sentence, and yet, vivid and awful though it be, it is certainly not too strong a figure to be used as the emblem of the temptations and afflictions through which the Church and people of God have been called to pass.
I. This terrible pathway. The sacramental host of God’s elect has never had an easy road along which to journey. I see the fields on fire, the prairie is in a blaze, the very heavens are like a furnace, and the clouds seem rather to be made of fire than water. Across that prairie lies the pathway to heaven, beneath that blazing sky the whole Church of God must make its perpetual journey. It started at the first in fire, and its very glory at the last shall take place in the midst of the fiery passing away of all things. When first there was a Church of God on earth, in the person of Abel, it was persecuted. Since that day, what tongue can tell the sufferings of the people of God! It hath fared well with the Church when she hath been persecuted, and her pathway hath been through fire. Her feet are shod with iron and brass. She ought not to tread on paths strewn with flowers; it is her proper place to suffer.
II. There is an awful danger. The promise of the text is based on a prophecy that follows it. The chapter tells us how God taught His people by terrible things in the past, and how He hath terrible lessons to teach them in the future. The Church has had very painful experience that persecution is a fire which does burn. How many ministers of Christ, when the day of tribulation came, forsook their flocks and fled. Again: I see iniquity raging on every side. Its flames are fanned by every wind of fashion. And fresh victims are being constantly drawn in. It spreads to every class. Not the palace nor the hovel is safe. We may give the alarm to you, young man, who are in the midst of ribald companions. I may cry “fire!” to you who are compelled to live in a house where you are perpetually tempted to evil. I may cry “fire!” to you who are marked each day, and have to bear the sneer of the ungodly,—“fire!” to you who are losing your property and suffering in the flesh, for many have perished thereby. We ought not to look upon our dangers with contempt; they are dangers, they are trials. We ought to look upon our temptations as fires.
III. Here is a double insurance. It strikes me that in the second clause we have the higher gradation of a climax. “Thou shalt not be burned,” to the destruction of thy life, nor even scorched to give thee the most superficial injury, for “the flames shall not kindle upon thee.” Just as when the three holy children came out of the fiery furnace it is said, “Upon their bodies the fire had no power, nor was a hair of their head singed; neither were their coats changed, nor had the smell of fire passed on them”; so the text seems to me to teach that the Christian Church under all its trials has not been consumed; but more than that—it has not lost anything by its trials. Upon the entire Church, at the last, there shall not be even the smell of fire. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Fire harmful and harmless:—
When Jehovah was angry the fire burned Israel (chap. 42:25), but now with Jehovah on its side it is invulnerable in the severest trials. (Prof. J. Skinner, D.D.)
2. The Lord will not now desert his people. They may have given up on him (42:18–25), but not he on them! Many see the hardships mentioned here as those of the exiles returning from captivity, but such extreme hardships rather suggest those of captives being dragged off by their captors (cf. 47:2). When Isaiah speaks of homecoming, he does so in terms of a new exodus journey, with miraculous provisions and supplies (48:20–21).
2. When thou shalt pass through the waters. This is an anticipation by which he declares that they who rely on God’s immediate assistance have no reason for sinking under adversity. That is stated more fully than in the preceding verse, because while he shews that the Church will not be exempt from calamities and afflictions, but must maintain a constant warfare, he encourages to patience and courage; as if he had said, “The Lord hath not redeemed thee that thou mightest enjoy pleasures and luxuries, or that thou mightest abandon thyself to ease and indolence, but rather that thou shouldest be prepared for enduring every kind of evils.”
By fire and water he means every kind of miseries to which we are liable in this life; for we must contend not with calamities of one kind only, but with infinitely diversified calamities. At one time we must “pass through water,” and at another “through fire.” (Psalm 66:12.) In like manner the Apostle James exhorts believers not to faint when they “fall into various temptations.” (James 1:2.) And, indeed, faith needs to be put to the trial in many ways; for it often happens that he who has been victorious in one combat has been baffled by another kind of temptation. We are therefore tried by afflictions, but are at length delivered; we are baffled by the billows, but are not swallowed up; we are even scorched by the flames, but are not consumed. We have, indeed, the same feeling of pain as other men, but we are supported by the grace of God, and fortified by the spirit of patience, that we may not faint; and at length he will stretch out his hand and lift us up on high.
Ver. 2.—Through the waters … through the rivers; i.e. through troubles of any kind (comp. Ps. 66:12, “We went through fire and through water: but thou broughtest us out into a wealthy place”). There were, perhaps special troubles to be endured connected with the final Babylonian struggle. There were certainly others connected with the tedious and dangerous journey from Babylonia to Palestine (Ezra 8:22, 31). There were others, again, after the Holy Land was reached, arising out of the jealousy and ill will of neighbouring nations (Ezra 4 and 5; Neh. 4–6). Neither shall the flame kindle upon thee. The literal fulfilment in the persons of the “three children” (Dan. 3:27) will be obvious to every reader. But the prophecy has, no doubt, a far wider scope.
2 This verse expresses the consequence of belonging to God: preservation in the midst of trials because of God’s presence. Calvin’s observation is particularly apt for the present age: “The Lord has not redeemed you so that you might enjoy pleasures and luxuries … but so that you should be prepared for enduring all kinds of evils.” God does not say that there are no floods or forest fires, but he does promise that one can survive them because of his presence (cf. also Ps. 66:12; 1 Pet. 1:6–7). Both the main clauses of this verse begin with temporal kî, When, while the first clause of v. 3 begins with a causal kî, Because, which reinforces the point just made. It is not some quality given to the one who endures or some dramatic change of circumstances that makes victory possible; rather, it is the unfailing presence of God. (Note the repetition of the phrase “God was with him” in the Joseph story.)
The nature of the difficulties described makes evident that no single historical circumstance is in view. While the Babylonian captivity would certainly qualify as a flood and a fire, other experiences in Israel’s history, both before and after that horrific event, would also qualify. But the author is speaking generally and establishing a principle that would apply to all such circumstances, not just to one. From that point of view, as Young observes, there is a legitimate eschatological scope to the interpretation. Whenever believers pass through hardship, loss, and tragedy, God accompanies them (cf. Rom. 8:31–39).
2 North (Isaiah 40–55, in loc.) says, “The assurance that flames will not now scorch is intended as a contrast with the flames that did scorch (xlii.25)” (emphasis his).
 Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2005). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (p. 1012). Orlando, FL; Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Is 43:2). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
 Walker, L. L., Elmer A. Martens. (2005). Cornerstone biblical commentary: Isaiah, Jeremiah, & Lamentations (Vol. 8, p. 189). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.
 Harman, A. (2005). Isaiah: A Covenant to Be Kept for the Sake of the Church (p. 295). Scotland: Christian Focus Publications.