My friend said there’s a contradiction in Isaiah 45:7 because it says God created evil. How do I answer them?
“I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” Isaiah 45:7 KJV
This question really centers on the problem of evil and suffering. If everything God created was exceedingly good as it says in Genesis 1, why is there so much evil in the world? Is God the author or creator of all the evil we see in our world today? If not, where did evil come from? In response to these questions, we often affirm the biblical truth that God is not the author of evil. We argue, rightfully so, that evil is a perversion of the perfection that is free will. However, if that is the case, how do we deal with Isaiah 45:7 which seems to imply that God did create evil? In this article, we will seek to understand what God wants to reveal to us through these words of the prophet Isaiah. In doing so, we will discover that the passage fits perfectly into what we know about God and in no way makes him the creator of moral evil.
Whenever we are faced with a difficult passage in the Bible that we wish to understand, there is an effective hermeneutical approach at our disposal. This approach requires that we consider three aspects or dimensions of the text in order to seek clarity in its meaning. First, the historical context of the passage must be brought to light. We must ask ourselves how the historical setting of the passage impacts its meaning. Second, we must look at the grammatical context. Here we seek to clarify the meaning of the specific words, literary devices and syntax chosen by God to reveal the idea he wishes to communicate to us. Third, we consider the theological context of the passage. How does the passage fit what we know from the whole counsel of God? We must consider the theological implications of the passage and seek an understanding of how it fits with the rest of the theological content of the Bible. This three prong approach is very effective in helping us understand difficult portions of Scripture. Let us approach Isaiah 45:7 in this manner.
Isaiah 45 is part of a larger section in Isaiah (40-66) that addresses the nation of Israel during their captivity in Babylon. In this section God promises to deliver his people from exile in Babylon and presents a series of arguments to overcome the doubt and unbelief of his people concerning this future promise. Among the promises God makes, he promises to provide the means of this salvation: the Lord will use the conquests of the pagan king Cyrus, who will conquer Babylon and issue the decree for the people to return home (41:2–3, 25; 44:28–45:5, 13; 46:11).
How does this affect Isaiah 45:7? When you consider God’s promises to Israel, they include both peace for Israel and calamity for Babylon both at the hands of king Cyrus. God uses Cyrus to bring about his judgment on Babylon and the deliverance of his people. This is the key to understanding the verse. The NET Bible explains in its notes on Isaiah 45:7,
This verses affirms that God is ultimately sovereign over his world, including mankind and nations. In accordance with his sovereign will, he can cause wars to cease and peace to predominate (as he was about to do for his exiled people through Cyrus), or he can bring disaster and judgment on nations (as he was about to do to Babylon through Cyrus).[i]
The passage is completely devoid of any promises of moral righteousness or moral evil. On the contrary, God also confronts Israel throughout this section of Isaiah because it was their unrighteousness that resulted in their captivity to begin with.
The grammar of the passage lines up perfectly with the content of the entire aforementioned section of Isaiah. The biggest difficulty in understanding the passage is the word “evil.” However, when we consider the grammar and syntax of the passage, the meaning of the term (רַע, ra˓) translated as ‘evil’ by the KJV comes to light. The key to understanding the verse from a grammatical perspective is the use of contrasts. Isaiah is using comparison/ contrast as a literary device to highlight God’s general sovereignty over his entire creation and particularly over the events in Israel’s history. The contrast of “light” and “darkness” is fairly clear, but the contrast of “peace” with “evil” doesn’t seem to work well. As one commentator explains regarding the translation of ra as “evil,”
This is sufficiently explained by the contrast, the parts of which must agree with each other; for he contrasts “peace” with “evil,” that is, with afflictions, wars, and other adverse occurrences. If he contrasted “righteousness” with “evil,” there would be some plausibility in their reasoning, but this is a manifest contrast of things that are opposite to each other.[ii]
This is the consensus among commentators. The passage illustrates God’s sovereignty by providing two absolute contrasts. As Briley points out, in both contrasts God is said to “create” (ברא, bara˒). He is thus “ultimately responsible for everything” in his creation. The second contrast features on one end of the spectrum prosperity, and on the other is disaster. The first word (שָׁלוֹם, šālôm), frequently translated “peace,” refers to the wholeness or completeness that exists in the creation when God’s will prevails. The opposite term (רַע, ra˓) is a broad word which at the most basic level means “bad” or “evil.” But a careful consideration of the usage of the term in the Old Testament is very revealing. Motyer points out that of the 640 occurrences of this word in the Old Testament, “there are 275 instances where ‘trouble’ or ‘calamity’ is the meaning.”[iii] That is the reason why many translations including the NASB, ESV, and NET Bible translate ra˓ as “calamity.”
The primary theological issue of Isaiah 45:7 involves the character of God—His Goodness. What type of ra˓ can be attributed to God. Here again, the overwhelming teaching of both the Old and New Testaments points to God being the creator of all morally good and perfect things. Furthermore, it is abundantly clear in Scriptures that God is the author of judgment in the form of trouble, calamity or disaster. Scofield explains in his notes on this verse, “God created evil only in the sense that He made sorrow, wretchedness, etc., to be the sure fruits of sin.”[iv] In this case, man’s unrighteousness demands God’s justice and punishment. As Jones explains in his commentary on Isaiah,
By “peace” is meant all the spiritual blessings that God gives those who trust in Him; and by evil is meant, not moral evil, which comes from the heart of sinful man, but physical evil, which God sends as punishment for sin (cf. Amos 3:6). The Old Testament never hesitates to call God the Creator of all things in nature, whether they seem to be good or bad.[v]
There is a second theological issue that is also quite relevant—God’s sovereignty. Throughout the entire Old Testament and particularly in Isaiah, the God of Israel is contrasted with the “gods” and the religion of the rest of the world. We find a sharp contrast between the monotheism of Israel and all forms of dualism and polytheism in the religions of Israel’s neighbors and oppressors. A case can be made that Isaiah is contrasting God with the dualism of Persian Zoroastrianism which taught that there were two competing gods or forces—one good and one bad. This dualism is disavowed strongly by this text. In contrast, God declares that He alone is the ultimate First Cause of every action. Leupold explains,
This verse attempts to further clarify the big issues that are at stake. Monotheism involves that Yahweh must be regarded as sole ruler and controller of the universe. Of course, he is never the source of evil. But both good and evil, no matter with whom they originate, are never out of God’s control.[vi]
It was important for Israel to maintain the purity of their monotheism and avoid the temptation to embrace the dualistic religion of her captors.
Isaiah 45:7, like any other passage in the Bible, occurs within a specific historical context. That context gives us the first clue in understanding the meaning of the text. God’s promises to his people, who were captives in Babylon, included both peace for Israel and calamity for Babylon. That twofold promise highlights what the grammar of the text reveals explicitly that God is responsible for both peace and calamity. When we understand how Isaiah uses contrast, we understand that he contrasts “peace” with the type of “evil” that can be juxtaposed with peace, that is, with afflictions, wars, and other adverse occurrences. This interpretation is further confirmed by its harmony with what the Bible teaches about God’s nature—He is a benevolent creator. It also fits smoothly with the emphasis of the prophets on God’s sovereignty and Judaism’s strict monotheism. God does not create moral evil. The passage clearly teaches that God is responsible for the calamity that accompanies judgment of man’s unrighteousness.
[i] Biblical Studies Press. (2006). The NET Bible First Edition Notes (Is 45:7). Biblical Studies Press.
[ii] Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (Vol. 3, pp. 402–403). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
[iii] Briley, T. R. (2000–). Isaiah (pp. 161–162). Joplin, MO: College Press Pub.
[iv] Scofield, C. I. (Ed.). (1917). The Scofield Reference Bible: The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments (p. 754). New York; London; Toronto; Melbourne; Bombay: Oxford University Press.
[v] Jones, K. E. (1969). The Book of Isaiah. In Isaiah-Malachi (Vol. 3, p. 124). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
[vi] Leupold, H. C. (1971). Exposition of Isaiah (Vol. 2, p. 122). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.