What does Isaiah mean when he says that God will “give people for thy life”(43:4)?


I cannot understand Isa. 43:4: ‘Since thou wast precious in my sight, thou hast been honourable, and I have loved thee: therefore will I give men for thee, and people for thy life.‘ Can you help me?


Many passages of Scripture describe God’s love for His people. They are His special treasure, His prized possession (Ex. 19:5-6). In describing His love for them He uses the most endearing of terms. “Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me”; “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee” (Isa. 49:15-16). They are His jewels (Mal. 3:16-17), even His own sons and daughters (2 Cor. 6:17-18).

The verse in question is another example of where the Prophet exhausts every symbol at his disposal to express the depth and power of God’s love, and here it appears in a most spacious and universal context, drawn partly from the Prophet’s knowledge of contemporary history and partly from his knowledge of the future. The Prophet is saying that there is nothing God will not give in exchange for His chosen ones.

But what about the idea of giving “men” and “people for thy life”? Is God just to require the life of one so that another can live?

Some Bible scholars read the Hebrew words translated “men” and “people” as “lands” and “coastlands.” This alternate translation seems logical, because it is parallel with the previous statement (v. 3): “For I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour: I gave Egypt for thy ransom, Ethiopia and Seba for thee.” Verse 4 may be taken as a second statement of the same fact, if the translation may be “lands” and “coastlands.”

In a sense, God’s giving lands or people for the sake of His own is according to what He has done in the past and also what He will do in the future. It was His will that the Canaanites be removed from their land, so that the land could be given to His people. God is the ultimate judge of who is worthy to live and who is not, but we can trust that His judgment is always fair, and on a basis firmly established by His laws. Those not subject to Him count as very little in His scale of values. Whole nations before Him are as “the small dust of the balance:…behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing …. All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity” (Isa. 40:15,17).

In spite of our instinct to regard all human life as sacred, this is not God’s view of it. God is the Lord of all peoples, and may dispose of them as befits His long-range purpose. In the words of Hannah’s prayer, “The Lord killeth, and maketh alive: he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up …. He will keep the feet of his saints, and the wicked shall be silent in darkness” (I Sam. 2:6,9). In this way it is not beyond the scope of His Divine justice to save one nation and destroy another….”Others died that you might live; I traded their lives for yours because you are precious to me and honored, and I love you” (Isa. 43:4, TLB).