What does it mean when God says He creates evil in Isaiah 45:7? By Jack Kettler
“I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7 KJV)
Isaiah 45:7 Cross-reference Scriptures:
Exodus 9:16; Psalm 135:6; Daniel 4:35; Proverbs 16:4; Romans 9:19-21; Romans 11:22
A passage like Isaiah 45:7 causes some to stumble. How is it to be understood when God says He creates evil? Is evil the same as a calamity? Does this mean he is the author of sin? Commentary entries, lexical entries, and theological expositions will be surveyed in order to answer the starting question.
Consulting the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary, we learn:
“7. form … create—yatzar, to give “form” to previously existing matter. Bara, to “create” from nothing the chaotic dark material.
light … darkness—literally (Ge 1:1-3), emblematical also, prosperity to Cyrus, calamity to Babylon and the nations to be vanquished [Grotius] … Isaiah refers also to the Oriental belief in two coexistent, eternal principles, ever struggling with each other, light or good, and darkness or evil, Oromasden and Ahrimanen. God, here, in opposition, asserts His sovereignty over both [Vitringa].
create evil—not moral evil (Jas 1:13), but in contrast to “peace” in the parallel clause, war, disaster (compare Ps 65:7; Am 3:6).” (1)
The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown commentators attempt to differentiate evil with moral evil using the following passage, “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man.” (James 1:13) There is some merit to their argument; however, a non-believer will unlikely be impressed.
From Strong’s Concordance:
Original word: בָּרָא
Part of Speech: Verb
Phonetic Spelling: (baw-raw’)
Definition: to shape, create
From Strong’s Lexicon:
Original Word: בָּרָא (bara‘)
Conjunctive waw | Verb – Qal – Participle – masculine singular
Strong’s Hebrew 1254: 1) to create, shape, form 1a) (Qal) to shape, fashion, create (always with God as subject) 1a1) of heaven and earth 1a2) of individual man 1a3) of new conditions and circumstances 1a4) of transformations 1b) (Niphal) to be created 1b1) of heaven and earth 1b2) of birth 1b3) of something new 1b4) of miracles 1c) (Piel) 1c1) to cut down 1c2) to cut out 2) to be fat 2a) (Hiphil) to make yourselves fat
Adjective – masculine singular
Strong’s Hebrew 7451: adj 1) bad, evil 1a) bad, disagreeable, malignant 1b) bad, unpleasant, evil (giving pain, unhappiness, misery) 1c) evil, displeasing 1d) bad (of its kind-land, water, etc) 1e) bad (of value) 1f) worse than, worst (comparison) 1g) sad, unhappy 1h) evil (hurtful) 1i) bad, unkind (vicious in disposition) 1j) bad, evil, wicked (ethically) 1j1) in general, of persons, of thoughts 1j2) deeds, actions n m 2) evil, distress, misery, injury, calamity 2a) evil, distress, adversity 2b) evil, injury, wrong 2c) evil (ethical) n f 3) evil, misery, distress, injury 3a) evil, misery, distress 3b) evil, injury, wrong 3c) evil (ethical)
Two examples of how (rā‘) is used from the Englishman’s Concordance:
HEB: לִבּ֔וֹ רַ֥ק רַ֖ע כָּל־ הַיּֽוֹם׃
KJV: [was] only evil continually.
INT: of his heart only evil every continually
HEB: לֵ֧ב הָאָדָ֛ם רַ֖ע מִנְּעֻרָ֑יו וְלֹֽא־
NAS: heart is evil from his youth;
KJV: heart [is] evil from his youth;
INT: heart of man’s is evil his youth not
As the lexical entries have noted, evil, rather than a calamity, is the best translation into English. Some translators may have used the word calamity to tone down its effect on some readers of Scripture. If this is so, it is sad not to use the best word. Being sensitive to people’s emotions should have no place in the translation of Scripture.
Continuing with the dilemma some people may have with God creating evil:
What about the tragedies of earthquakes, tidal waves, and the Black Death in medieval Europe? Does the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown distinction between evil and moral evil work solve this apparent dilemma? In addition, the idea known as free will is brought in to soften the quandary. The free will argument says God limits Himself by giving humanity free will. Evil is the result of humanity’s choices. Many Christians believe these two possibilities are a solution to God’s seeming problem creating evil in Isaiah 45:7.
However, do these two possibilities work? Men making bad choices do not cause earthquakes and tidal waves. A non-believer could still believe that the senseless loss of life is evil because God allowed it. The free will argument does not work in light of God’s creative decrees and foreknowledge. God had foreknowledge that man would sin and could have chosen not to create. As will be seen, there is a much better solution to the seeming dilemma of Isaiah 45:7.
Philosopher and theologian Gordon H. Clark has some extended comments on Isaiah 45:7 are helpful, and the reader should read the three entries carefully:
“Surely, Isa. 45:7 is the most frequently misunderstood verse in all the Old Testament, paralleled only by Rom. 9:11-13 in the New. The KJ reads, “I make peace and create evil.” The RSV says, “I make weal and create woe,” Incidentally it is strange that those who dislike the
KJ because of some archaic wording here use the word weal, unfamiliar as it is in contemporary speech. In the NAS the verse is, “Causing well-being and creating calamity,” This could mean that God causes inflation and depressions in the business cycle. Well, he does; but this is not what the verse means. Instead of well-being, peace is the better term because the context concerns peace with God. There is no reference to economics: the skies do not pour down gold and silver, but righteousness. The earth does not produce crops, but salvation. Though Cyrus was to be a political ruler, the theme is not national independence. Verses 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, ff., show clearly that the peace envisioned is peace with God.
Now, if the peace of the passage is righteousness and favor with God, the “evil” cannot be mere calamity, such as drought and hurricanes, but it must be the enmity between God and man. The locus of the chapter is sin and salvation, not pestilence and poverty.
Such also is the meaning of the word pretty much throughout the Old Testament. The Hebrew word is Ra. It occurs more than a hundred times in the Old Testament. In addition to the translation evil, various verses use adversity, affliction, harm, sorrow, and trouble. What kind of harm or trouble there is must be determined by the context. Since it would be difficult to separate all these kinds into sharply distinct varieties, it is better to canvass the material from Genesis to Malachi, rather than to attempt a logical division. One advantage of this basically chronological procedure is that the account cannot be charged with any premature bias in the exposition. Of course, someone might charge bias because not all the numerous instances are listed; but few people want to be so deluged with information.
The first occurrences of the term ra in the Old Testament are Gen. 2:9, 17. Both verses speak of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” This does not mean that the tree was not good to eat, as if it were chemically poisonous. Eve clearly saw that the fruit was “good for food” (3:6). The remainder of the account shows that the evil consisted in an act of rebellion against God. The evil was sin. Genesis 3:25 as well as 3:6 supports this point.
Genesis 6:5 says that “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” In this verse the word wickedness, and the word evil, are both ra. How could anyone dare to reduce this to an ambiguous “calamity”? The same remark applies equally to Gen. 8:21. The word means sin.
Not all the cases of ra mean sin. Genesis 19:19 seems to refer to an attack by a wild beast, a fatal fall from a precipice, or possibly death by thirst. One must determine the meaning of doubtful cases by the context and as a background by the more common usage.
In Gen. 37:2, Joseph brought to his father “their evil report.” Just what this evil was is not clear. There is no mention of any calamity that had befallen the brothers. What follows speaks of jealousy, not physical injuries. It is just possible that Joseph brought to his father news of some matters of which his father’s wives had complained about.
Genesis 37:20 mentions an evil beast; and this is repeated in 37:33.
By the time of Gen. 44:4 Joseph had become secretary of agriculture, if not prime minister, of Egypt. According to his plan he accuses his brethren of having “rewarded evil for good.” This is an accusation of theft. The evil was a sin. The evil in Gen. 44:34 is death or at least great depression. In 47:9 Jacob addresses Pharaoh: “few and evil have the days of the years of my life been.” Jacob was of course no young man. Instead of his days having been few, he was 130 years old. I take it therefore that the term evil, like the rest, is part of the etiquette required of a subject who has to address a high ruler.
Shortly after, in Gen. 48:l6, Jacob is on his death bed, giving his blessings to Joseph’s two sons. He says, “The Angel which redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads.” In his lifetime Jacob had faced some physical dangers, but here he speaks of redemption. Now, one does not usually speak of being redeemed from having been defrauded in one’s first marriage; and although he was ‘saved’ from starvation, we do not say he was redeemed from starvation. Jacob, rather, is talking about the “God before whom my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, did walk.” The subject matter is God’s covenant with Abraham (15, 16) and God’s plan to bring that family into the promised land four hundred years later.
“And when Joseph’s brethren saw that their father was dead, they said, Joseph will peradventure hate us and certainly requite us all the evil which we did to him.” In a loose sense Joseph’s being imprisoned by Potiphar was a calamity; but the anticipated hatred had to do with the sins of the brothers. Evil here means sin. Indeed, verse 17 speaks of trespass and sin, then of evil, and finally trespass again. So also verse 20.
Since the misrepresentation of Isa. 45:7 derives chiefly from a non-scriptural presupposition relative to what God can and cannot do, rather than from textual exegesis, a discussion in order to be thorough would have to examine all the verses. The reader is invited and urged to do so. But so long as this discussion lists some of the verses which non-reformed theologians use in their avoidance of the full Biblical position, it may conveniently omit all of Exodus, include some of Numbers and Deuteronomy, and skip over many others. A careful student can easily find the omitted instances of ra.
The term occurs in Num. 11:15; in 14:27, 35, 37; in 20:5 and 32:13. In the first of these references the KJ translates it wretchedness. Moses contrasts his wretchedness with “favor in thy sight.” This wretchedness may include the physical and mental burdens of welding a horde of slaves into an organized society. But the favor he asks is to be cleansed from his sins and that God may kill him forthwith and receive him into heaven.
Numbers 14:27 refers to the Israelites as an evil congregation. It is God who calls them evil, and the evil is their murmurings against God. That is, the evil was sin. The same idea recurs explicitly in 14:35, implicitly in 14:37, for the evil report was a denial of God’s omnipotence.
The evil in Num. 20:5 includes thirst and starvation, which would indeed be a calamity; but it is also the background of sin and rebellion from verses 2, 3, and 4. As clearly as anywhere evil means sin in Num. 32:13. It says that “the Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel … that had done evil in the sight of the Lord.” Now, if only calamity were meant, the Lord might be expected to show compassion rather than anger. No, the ra was sin against God. Sin and anger are in the next verse also. So much for Numbers.
Unless I have missed one or two, Deuteronomy has sixteen instances of the word ra. Chapter one, verses 35 and 39, very obviously speak of sin, for God was “wroth” and “angry,” though the little children were too young to distinguish good from evil. In 4:25 ra refers to idolatry, which God will punish in his anger. Punishment is no doubt a calamity, but the evil was sin. The evil diseases of Egypt in 7:15 are also calamities; whether these diseases were the result of sin or only of natural causes, the text does not say. The evil of 13:5 is bad theology. Capital punishment is the penalty. Similarly, the evil of 17:7 and 12 is a transgression of the covenant, particularly idolatry, and “that man shall die and thou shalt put away the evil from Israel.” The evil of 19:19, 20 is perjury. Rebellion against parents, gluttony and drunkenness are the evils of 21:21. In the next chapter, 22:14, the sin is the defamation of a wife’s character, continued in verse 19. Verse 22 concerns adultery; and verse 24 distinguishes between rape when people are near enough to hear a cry for help, and rape where no cry could be heard. Chapter 24:7 is a case of theft.
At this point it may be well to return to Genesis and quote a few verses where ra is translated otherwise than by the English evil. Genesis 31:52 has harm. It is part of a treaty between Laban and Jacob. The harms seem to be mostly a theft of sheep and an insult to Laban’s daughters as Jacob’s wives. At least theft is a sin. The evil in Gen. 44:29, called sorrow, would be Jacob’s death, if Benjamin were harmed as Joseph was supposed to have been. The harm of Num. 35:23 is an unintentional homicide, that is, a fatal accident. In such a case the agent did not seek the victim’s harm. The harm in II Kings 4:41 is accidental poisoning. No sin seems to be involved. This is one of the few verses where ra seems totally separated from sin. In Prov. 3:29
ra is translated evil and in 3:30 it is harm. The evil is clearly some sin in 3:29, and harm is only a bit less clear in 3:30.
Naturally the Psalms often mention ra. Psalm 10:6 tells us that “The wicked … hath said in his heart … I shall never be in adversity.” This sound like calamity, and maybe the wicked man thought so; but the context includes covetousness, irreligion, cursing, deceit, and fraud.
Psalm 27:5 reads, “In the time of trouble he shall hide me in his pavilion.” Now, the trouble seems to be injuries inflicted by enemies, and verse 12 mentions cruelty; but the safety besought from God is at least mainly spiritual. Palm 94:13 is less clear: “Blessed is the man whom thou chasteneth … that thou mayest give him rest from the days of adversity until the pit be digged for the wicked.” One could suppose that the adversity is purely physical, or with mental apprehension, but the other side of the coin is wickedness and iniquity. Psalm 107:26, 39 have the business entrepreneur lifted up on the sea to heaven and then dropped down to the depths: “their soul is melted because of trouble.” This is a good verse to use, if one wishes to eradicate sin from ra. But perhaps the entrepreneur had forgotten God because it is in their trouble that they cry out to him for help. In 107:39, the word is affliction. Just what this is the verse does not say.
Doubtless those who would rid ra of sin would quote Eccl. 7:14. Adversity is contrasted with prosperity. Even so, God sends the adversity. We now skip to Jer. 2:27, 48:16, and 51:2. In the first of these references, ra is translated trouble; but the subject matter is idolatry. The second reference says, “The calamity [not ra] of Moab is near to come, and his affliction hasteth fast.” The affliction, I take it, is punishment for sin. Of course those who disagree with my main contention will point out that punishment is not sin. The background, however, is. Jeremiah 51:1, 2 say, “Thus saith the Lord, Behold I will raise up against Babylon … and shall empty her land, for in the day of trouble they shall be against her round about.” This could be a reference to Belshazzar’s feast, where he praised the gods of gold and silver, as he used the sacred vessels from the temple in Jerusalem, while the army of Darius the Mede was surrounding the city.
Lamentations 1:21, in English, uses the word trouble. But note that in the previous verse “my bowels are troubled, mine heart is turned within me, for I have grievously rebelled.” Ordinarily we do not think of Jeremiah as having grievously rebelled against God. Presumably Jeremiah is identifying himself with and speaking for Jerusalem.
It is true that some of the verses quoted, and others not quoted, can by a sharp separation be confined to the penalty for sin so as to purge the term ra from any sinful connotation. This, I believe, is an excessive separation. But let such verses be so. That ra frequently means sin is indisputable. In Zeph. 3:15 the evil which they shall not see any more is identified with speaking lies and a deceitful tongue; its opposite is, not doing iniquity, rejoicing with all their heart, and absence of fear because the Lord is in the midst of thee.
For a final verse, not particularly climactic, Zech. 1:15 says that God is “sore displeased with the heathen,” and the rest of the verse, though puzzling, seems to say that God’s slight displeasure at first was increased as the heathen “helped forward the affliction.” The NEB translates it, “For I was a little angry, and they helped, but with evil intent.” The RSV, which I never trust, has “they furthered the disaster.” So does the NAS. Though the verse may be puzzling, it seems clear enough to me that the heathen increased their sinning. One could hardly say that God’s displeasure increased simply because their calamities increased. Indeed, God would be pleased by such an increase.
This list of quotations is far from exhaustive, however exhausting. One must note, however, that the list does not exclude verses, which are seemingly inconsistent with the conclusion to be drawn. In any case, concordances are at the disposal of nearly every reader, where he can search the Scriptures and see whether these things are so. One good source is the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament by Harris, Archer, and Waltke, Vol. II, p. 854, #2191, a, b, c. Now we can return to the misunderstood verse with which we started, and draw our conclusion.
The verse says, “I make peace and create evil.” Since there are a few verses where ra seems not to include sin, one cannot assert right off that here it means sin. If statistics alone could settle the problem, one would have to decide for sin. But many theologians are deeply predetermined to deny sin and favor physical calamities, such as earthquakes and war. But in war, if not in earthquakes, one side and sometimes both sides have committed sins.
The Scofield Bible makes a desperate attempt to rule out sin by a device, which I would call deceptive. Scofield’s note on Isa. 45:7 is, “Heb. ra, translated ‘sorrow,’ ‘wretchedness,’ ‘adversity,’ ‘afflictions,’ ‘calamities,’ but never translated sin. God created evil only in the sense that He made sorrows, wretchedness, etc., to be the sure fruits of sin.”
The first point, but not the most important, is the submerged logical fallacy that if ra is never translated sin it cannot mean sin. But beyond this, the phrase “never translated sin” is interesting, very interesting, precisely because it is true. To make such a statement responsibly, one must have examined every one of its instances in the Old Testament. There are over one hundred instances before one finishes I Kings. There is easily another hundred before the end of Proverbs – and these figures do not include those cases where ra is translated sorrow, adversity, or calamity. Yet note that Scofield’s statement is all-inclusive: “God created evil only in the sense that He made sorrow … to be the sure fruits of sin.”
No man of even ordinary intelligence can fail to see that in most cases ra means sin. True enough, ra is never translated sin. This true, but utterly irrelevant, observation gives the impression that ra never means sin. But of course Scofield did not dare say so, for he knew it was not true.” (2)
God and Evil in Religion, Reason, and Revelation by Gordon H. Clark:
Is God the cause of sin? Gordon Clark replies:
“Let it be unequivocally said that this view certainly makes God the cause of sin. God is the sole ultimate cause of everything. There is nothing independent of him. He alone is the eternal being. He alone is omnipotent. He alone is sovereign. Not only is Satan his creature, but every detail of history was eternally in his plan before the world began; and he willed that it should all come to pass….” (3) (p. 237- 238)
Clark referencing the Westminster Confession of Faith and saying that God is the cause of sin. Does this mean he is “the author of sin?”
Clark speaks of “first and secondary causation” and “God is the ultimate cause of everything, including sin, but he is not the “author” (immediate cause) of sin. (4)
“God is neither responsible nor sinful, even though he is the ultimate cause of everything.” (5)
“As God cannot sin, so … God is not responsible for sin, even though he decrees it.” (6)
“The sinner therefore, and not God, is responsible; the sinner alone is the author of sin. Man has no free will, for salvation is purely of grace; and God is sovereign.” (7) (p. 241)
The Evil Argument by Gordon H. Clark:
“The Problem of Evil” by Hupert P. Black attacks a subject that should receive much more attention than it does … Dr. Black is to be commended for writing on a subject many short-sighted Christians prefer to avoid. Nevertheless … [his argument] is unacceptable because it contradicts Scripture.
The author tries to defend divine omnipotence. God can do anything but he limits himself by giving man freedom. Whatever small value this may have relative to omnipotence, it has no bearing on God’s goodness. Can God be good if he grants man freedom, knowing ahead of time what terrible evils man will commit? If God were good, he would not have made such a man …
Further, the appeal to freedom completely ignores the tragedies of earthquakes in California and Peru, tidal waves in East Pakistan, and the Black Death in medieval Europe. God can control nature, can’t he? … [But] the author contradicts the doctrine of creation ex nihilo in his statement, “God’s power is not limited by natural events that thwart his will but is relative to actual occasions in the sense that they provide the conditions for the exercise of his creative power.” This sentence not only makes God’s acts of creation dependent on a prior existing nature, but also asserts that nature thwarts God’s will. Apparently, God cannot prevent tidal waves and earthquakes. The sentence quoted begins by saying that God’s power is not limited, but it ends by nature thwarting God’s power. Gordon Clark, Professor of Philosophy” (8)
In the above essays, Professor Clark explains how believers do not need to be troubled by the Isaiah 45:7 passage. Clark solves this ostensible dilemma by utilizing the argument of first and secondary causes or, said another way, the immediate and ultimate causes. The distinction between evil and moral evil and the free will argument provide no solution. The moral versus evil argument is arbitrary, and the free will argument does not answer the question prior to the actual creation.
When God in the councils of His will, determined to create humanity and the world, knew that sin would enter in, and determined to create nonetheless. It is inescapable that God allowed sin into the creation; consequently, He is a remote cause but not the author of sin. Therefore, God has not sinned.
Everything God does is right because He does it:
“And in very deed for this cause have I †raised thee up, for to shew in thee my power; and that my name may be declared throughout all the earth.” (Exodus 9:16)
“The Lord is righteous in all his ways and holy in all his works. The Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon him, to all that call upon him in truth. He will fulfil the desire of them that fear him: he also will hear their cry, and will save them. The Lord preserveth all them that love him: but all the wicked will he destroy. My mouth shall speak the praise of the Lord: and let all flesh bless his holy name for ever and ever.” (Psalm 145:17-21)
“Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.” (Ephesians 1:5–6)
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)
1. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, Commentary on the Whole Bible, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan, 1977) p. 568.
2. Gordon H. Clark, Desultory New Testament Curiosities, his essay, along with two others, was submitted by Gordon Clark to Allen Guelzo of the Reformed Episcopal Seminary for inclusion in the latter’s book, Ambitious to Be Well Pleasing.
3. Gordon H. Clark, Religion, Reason, and Revelation, (Jefferson, Maryland, Trinity Foundation, 1986), pp. 237-238.
4. Gordon H. Clark, Religion, Reason, and Revelation, (Jefferson, Maryland, Trinity Foundation, 1986), p. 239.
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. and other titles by Mr. Kettler are available at Amazon.com