Are we really supposed to “command” God as it says in Isaiah?

Q. In Isaiah 45:11, God says, “Ask me of things to come concerning my sons, and concerning the work of my hands command me.” Does God really want us to command him and tell him what to do?

God is using the imperative form here (“ask,” “command”) in an ironic sense. God is actually telling those who would challenge him that they do not have the wisdom or the power to question what he is doing or to try to keep him from doing it. This is clear from the immediate context, in which God says,

Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker …
Does the clay say to the potter,
    ‘What are you making?’
Does your work say,
    ‘The potter has no hands’?
Woe to the one who says to a father,
    ‘What have you begotten?’
or to a mother,
    ‘What have you brought to birth?’

So it is clear that God actually does not want the people he is addressing to question him or tell him to do something else.

Many versions translate the imperative form in such a way as to show that it is ironic. For example: “How dare you question me about my children or command me regarding the work of my hands!” Other versions translate the imperatives as rhetorical questions. For example: “Do you question what I do for my children? Do you give me orders about the work of my hands?” Both of these approaches show what is really going on in this passage.

We sometimes use ironic imperatives in English. For example, if someone threatens us, we might say, “See if I care.” In other words, “Go ahead and carry out your threat, and see if I care what you have done.” We do not really want the other person to carry out the threat. We are simply telling the person that what they are threatening to do would make no difference to us, and so they should not even bother doing it. We are actually telling them not to do it by telling them to do it—an ironic imperative.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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