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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 41

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verse 1

The "coastlands" were the farthest reaches of the Gentile world: the ends of the earth then known. By summoning them to be silent, the Lord was appealing to all the Gentiles to listen to Him (cf. Isaiah 1:2). In chapter 40 Isaiah spoke of God in the third person, but in this chapter, God Himself speaks. Note this oscillation in the chapters that follow. By heeding Him they would gain new strength, the same strength that was Israel’s privilege (cf. Isaiah 40:31). The Gentiles were to be fellow heirs with Israel (cf. Isaiah 19:24-25; Isaiah 27:13). But before that could happen, they had to meet with the Lord and arrive at a decision (cf. Job 38:3).

"The words are addressed to the whole of the heathen world, and first of all to the inhabitants of the western islands and coasts. This was the expression commonly employed in the Old Testament to designate the continent of Europe, the solid ground of which is so deeply cut, and so broken up, by seas and lakes, that it looks as if it were about to resolve itself into nothing but islands and peninsulas." [Note: Delitzsch, 2:157.]

Verses 1-9

God’s promises to His servants 41:1-42:9

The intent of this unit of material was to assure Israel that God had both the power and the desire to deliver her and to bring salvation to the whole world. It contains three basic themes: the pagans’ inability to refute Yahweh’s sovereignty, the promise to deliver fearful Israel, and the divine plan to use an ideal servant as redeemer.

Verses 1-20

The fearful servant, Israel 41:1-20

The Lord, through His prophet, assured fearful Israel in this segment. Israel need not fear the nations (Isaiah 41:1-7) because Yahweh remained committed to His people and would use them to accomplish His purposes in the world (Isaiah 41:8-20). This expression of God’s grace would have encouraged and motivated the Israelites to serve their Lord.

The courtroom setting pictured in Isaiah 41:1-7 enabled Isaiah to make God’s transcendent monotheism clear and compelling (cf. Isaiah 1:18; Isaiah 43:26; Isaiah 50:8). Isaiah 41:1 is a call to judgment, Isaiah 41:2-4 set forth God’s case, namely, his acts in history, and Isaiah 41:5-7 relate the frightened response of the Gentile nations.

Verses 1-22

2. The servant of the Lord 41:1-44:22

There is an emphasis on the uniqueness of the Lord compared to other gods in this section, a theme that Isaiah introduced earlier (ch. 40 especially). The prophet particularly stressed Yahweh’s ability to control history in this connection. He did this to assure Israel that God loved her and had a future for her beyond the Exile, specifically to serve Him by demonstrating to the world that He is sovereign over history. These emphases become increasingly apparent as the section unfolds. Calls to praise form bridges from one section to the next (Isaiah 42:10-13; cf. Isaiah 44:23; Isaiah 45:8).

Verses 2-3

The Lord asked the nations a question: Who had righteously summoned a conqueror from the East who would defeat nations and overcome kings as easily and swiftly as one blows away dust and chaff? Later, Isaiah would identify this conqueror as Cyrus the Persian (Isaiah 44:28; Isaiah 45:1), but here the emphasis is on the One who sovereignly called him into action, namely: Yahweh. The four Mesopotamian kings who invaded Canaan in Abraham’s day and took Lot captive were the prototype of this invader, as were Sargon, Sennacherib, and Nebuchadnezzar. Jesus Christ will be the ultimate fulfillment when He returns to the earth east of Jerusalem (on the Mount of Olives), and overcomes His enemies, who will have assembled in Palestine. Cyrus came from Persia (modern Iran), which was east of Mesopotamia. This invader would proceed safely over previously unused routes.

Verse 4

The Lord has always been the one who has called forth such conquerors to carry out His will in the world. The military history of the world is simply the outworking of God’s sovereign plan. As A. T. Pierson used to say, "History is His story." God is the ultimate strategist who controls history. It has always been so, and it will always be so, because no other god preceded Yahweh, neither will any other succeed Him. He has no genealogy (cf. John 8:58; John 18:5; Revelation 1:8; Revelation 1:17; Revelation 22:13).

Verses 5-6

Upon hearing this message of Yahweh’s sovereignty, the nations fear and try to encourage each other. They do not bow before the Lord but gather together and quake (cf. Psalms 2:1-2).

Verse 7

Furthermore, they proceed to build idols. Rather than turning to the Lord, they make gods to whom they turn. In Isaiah 40:18-20, Isaiah contrasted the idols with the God of creation, but here he contrasted them with the God of history. It is not these idols who strengthen their worshippers, but the worshippers who strengthen their idols.

"What a god he must be that needs a common laborer to pass inspection and declare that he is in good condition!" [Note: Young, 3:80.]

"The purpose of all this detail is not clear, but the prophet may want to heighten the ironic effect by showing what a complex and arduous task idol making is. Thus he is implicitly asking his hearers if simply trusting the sovereign Lord is not a great deal easier. Another purpose may be to point out how dependent the gods are. They cannot be created by just one person; it takes a whole host of people to keep them going." [Note: Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, pp. 85-86.]

Regardless of the nations’ refusal to acknowledge Yahweh, He would intervene in history for the welfare of His people. Israel would not need to fear like the nations because the Lord would be with them and protect them.

Verse 8

The Lord turned from addressing the nations to speaking to Israel. God had chosen the Israelites for special blessing because He chose to love them more than other peoples. Election rests on love (cf. Deuteronomy 7:7-8). The reference to Jacob recalls the unworthiness of the Israelites, and the mention of Abraham the fact that Abraham loved God (Genesis 18:17-19), the proper response to electing love (cf. 1 John 4:19). Both references also connect to God’s covenant with the patriarchs. God had called Israel to be His servant. This is the first of 31 references to a servant of the Lord in Isaiah. [Note: See Allan A. MacRae, "The Servant of the Lord in Isaiah," Bibliotheca Sacra 121:483 (July 1964):218-27, for a study of the progressive revelation of the servant of the Lord in Isaiah. For a good overview of the title "Servant" in Isaiah, see Willis J. Beecher, "The Servant," in Classical Evangelical Essays in Old Testament Interpretation, pp. 187-204.]

"Old Testament slavery/servanthood must never be thought of on the model of the West Indian slavery of the Christian era. Mosaic legislation extended protection to the slave and-such was the institution-had to make provision for the slave who loved his master and would not leave slavery (Exodus 21:2 ff.). Such a ’slave’, as a matter of social status, may have been at the bottom of life’s heap, but in another sense he was as powerful as his master, for should he ever have been molested, it was the master the molester had to reckon with." [Note: Motyer, p. 312.]

Verse 9

God reminded His people that He had called them from the remotest part of the earth to be His servant. He did this in Abraham’s case when He called him out of Ur into the Promised Land, and He did it in Jacob’s case when He brought him back into the land from his sojourn near Haran. God had determined not to reject His people. Israel had nothing to fear (cf. John 15:14-15).

Verse 10

Moreover, the Israelites did not need to fear because God was with them, and He had committed Himself to them (cf. Matthew 28:20). They need not look one way and then another trying to find safety (cf. Isaiah 41:5-6). Furthermore their God promised to help them in every way with His powerful right hand, a symbol of strength, and to do what was right (cf. Isaiah 40:10-11).

"Even though no exiled nation had ever before in history been brought back to start life anew in their ancestral homeland, and even though the Gentile government would have no practical means of inducing the Jews to return home, nevertheless God would bring this seeming impossibility to pass." [Note: Archer, pp. 637-38.]

Verses 11-12

"Behold" urges continued attention to more promises. The anger of Israel’s enemies against her would prove to shame them. Their claims against Israel would come to nothing, their opponents would vanish, and their enemies would cease to exist. Increasing opposition would become increasingly ineffective. Those nations that would meddle with this servant would have to contend with an all-powerful Master.

Verse 13

Yahweh restated His promise and His exhortation from Isaiah 41:10. Israel’s God would strengthen, encourage, and help His people. He would stand with them while He defended them because He was Yahweh their God (cf. Exodus 20:2).

Verse 14

The Lord employed a second picture to comfort the Israelites. He would enable what was essentially weak to become strong (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:10). Israel was like a worm in that she was insignificant, despised, weak, and vulnerable. However, she had a next of kin (Heb. go’el, redeemer)-the Holy One of Israel-who would take on her care and provide all that she, His family, needed-and more. This is the third time in this passage that Yahweh explicitly said He would help His people (cf. Isaiah 41:10; Isaiah 41:13).

Verse 15

The Lord would transform the helpless worm, a tiny thresher of the soil, into a powerful threshing sledge-by giving her His power. Threshing sledges were heavy wooden platforms fitted with sharp stones and pieces of metal underneath. Farmers dragged them over straw to cut it up in preparation for winnowing. The sledge that Yahweh would make of Israel, however, would be so good that it could chop down mountains and hills, not just straw. The modern equivalent would be giant earth-moving equipment.

Verse 16

Yet this sledge would do more. It would winnow the nations as well as threshing them. The strong wind that God would provide would drive Israel’s enemies away, as the wind separated the wheat from the chaff and blew the chaff away.

". . . every hindrance to God’s ultimate purposes in the international scene is overcome through a judgment executed through Israel [cf. Micah 4:10-13]." [Note: Grogan, p. 251.]

Israel would then rejoice and make her boast in her great God, who had both empowered her and removed her enemies.

Verse 17

A third picture unfolds. It is of Israel thirsting in the wilderness. The Lord promised to answer the prayers of His crushed and helpless people for their need Himself. He promised to come to their aid and not forsake them because He is their God.

Verse 18

He would provide by innovation (water where it did not usually appear, on hilltops), multiplication (more water where there was some, in valleys), and transformation (water where it never existed, in deserts; cf. Isaiah 35:6-7).

Verse 19

He would also provide the other necessity in the wilderness of life’s experiences beside water, namely: shade. All the trees mentioned (seven in all) were shade trees, but they did not normally grow together. This enhances the picture of God working wonders to provide for His people. Seven may symbolize the complete perfection of God’s work in this connection. [Note: Archer, p. 638.] The emphasis on water and trees also marks Genesis 3, suggesting a return to Edenic conditions.

Verse 20

The Lord would do this so the afflicted and the needy (Isaiah 41:17), His people, would reflect and learn that their God had done a powerful creative work for them.

"The righteous God of Isaiah 8:13 and the Redeemer of Isaiah 8:14-17 is now the Creator (Isaiah 8:20), transforming his creation (Isaiah 8:18-19) for the benefit of his needy ones (Isaiah 8:17)." [Note: Motyer, p. 314.]

The ministering servant, Messiah 41:21-42:9

How is it clear that Yahweh, and not the idols, directs world history? Yahweh alone can predict the future and then bring it to pass (Isaiah 41:21-29). Since Yahweh is the God of Israel, does He have any regard for the Gentile nations? Yes, a servant of the Lord will bring forth justice to the nations (Isaiah 42:1-9). The court case with the nations-begun in Isaiah 41:1, but interrupted with comfort for the Lord’s servant Israel in Isaiah 41:8-20 -now resumes. Before it ends, however, the Lord will explain the ministry of His Servant, Messiah (Isaiah 42:1-9).

Verse 21

The Lord, through Isaiah, challenged the idolaters to prove that their gods were truly deity. The Lord presented Himself as the King of Jacob, from the nations’ perspective no more than one national god among many, but He is really the King of Kings.

Verses 22-23

He ordered the idolaters to bring their gods in and have them explain the flow of past history. Can they explain history? Are they able to explain how past events will unfold in the future? Can they predict the future and bring it to pass? In a word, are they transcendent? This would prove that they were really gods. Indeed, the Lord challenged: Have them do anything, good or bad, so that they might have some real effect on people.

Verse 24

Since these challenges go unanswered, the Lord judges the idols as nothing, and their supposed work amounts to nothing (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:4). Furthermore, people who worship them are an abomination because they follow such nonentities and because in doing so they become like their gods.

"It is not the idea of polytheistic idolatry that is abominable [in itself], but rather the act of replacing the truth with that system [cf. Romans 1:18-23]." [Note: Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, p. 102.]

Verse 25

The Lord, in contrast to the idols, claimed that He would do something in the future and predicted what it would be. He would arouse a conqueror from the north, one who was presently dormant, as if sleeping. This individual proved to be Cyrus the Persian (Isaiah 44:28; Isaiah 45:1), who originated in the East and the North in reference to Palestine. [Note: C. R. North, The Second Isaiah, p. 105.] He would call on the Lord’s name in that he would proclaim the reputation of the Lord by fulfilling His prophecy (cf. Ezra 1:2-4), not by worshipping Yahweh exclusively. He would thoroughly defeat his enemies.

Verse 26

Yahweh is the only predictor of Cyrus, and His prediction proves Him unique among the "gods." In Isaiah’s day the pagans claimed that their gods sent them messages, but these messages were vague and not specific. The fulfillment of this prediction would prove that Yahweh was the true God. Many scholars believe that the writer of this part of Isaiah, if not the whole book, lived after Cyrus began his conquests about 545 B.C. If that were so, the whole point of this passage loses its force.

Verse 27

Yahweh had announced to His people that Cyrus’ invaders would come. Cyrus would be a messenger of good news in two senses: his coming would validate the truthfulness of Isaiah’s prediction of his coming, and his coming would mean return from captivity for the Jewish exiles (cf. Ezra 1:2-4).

Verses 28-29

When the Lord looked for a messenger from another god who predicted the coming of Cyrus, He could find none. Not one of them could give any information about his coming (cf. Isaiah 40:13). So He concluded as He began (Isaiah 41:24), but this time passing judgment on the idolaters rather than on the idols. "Behold" ends each subsection (Isaiah 41:24; Isaiah 41:29). The idolaters are false in the sense of being untrue and delusive. Their works-the idols-are worthless, and their idol images amount to nothing.

Yahweh had challenged the nations to behold the folly of idols (Isaiah 41:24) and idol worshippers (Isaiah 41:29), but now He urged them to behold His Servant (Isaiah 42:1). This Servant would reveal God to the world, something the idols could not do. The Lord first spoke of His Servant (Isaiah 42:1-4) and then to His Servant (Isaiah 42:5-9). Who this Servant is does not become clear until later (cf. Isaiah’s identification of Cyrus). Earlier (Isaiah 41:8-16) the servant was Israel, so the readers would naturally assume that Israel is the servant here too. Other references to Israel as the servant of the Lord are Isaiah 41:19; Isaiah 43:10; Isaiah 44:1-2; Isaiah 44:21; Isaiah 45:4; and Isaiah 48:20. Only later does it become clear that this Servant must be an individual, namely: Messiah. The context and the characteristics ascribed to the servant in each reference to him dictate his identity. That the Servant is not Cyrus is clear from the contrasts between them. [Note: See F. Duane Lindsey, "The Call of the Servant in Isaiah 42:1-9," Bibliotheca Sacra 139:553 (January-March 1982):12-31.] He will be the ideal representative of Israel who will accomplish for the Lord what Israel did not regarding the world (cf. Genesis 12:3). Matthew quoted Isaiah 42:1-4 as finding fulfillment in Jesus Christ (Matthew 12:18-21).

"Isaiah’s unique contribution to Old Testament theology is his anonymous suffering servant songs." [Note: Waltke, An Old . . ., p. 845.]

"The idea of ’the servant of Jehovah’ assumed, to speak figuratively, the form of a pyramid. The base was Israel as a whole; the central section was that Israel, which was not merely Israel according to the flesh, but according to the spirit also [i.e., saved Israel] ; the apex is the person of the Mediator of salvation springing out of Israel [i.e., Messiah]. And the last of the three is regarded (1) as the centre of the circle of the promised kingdom-the second David; (2) the centre of the circle of the people of salvation-the second Israel; (3) the centre of the circle of the human race-the second Adam." [Note: Delitzsch, 2:174.]

The "Servant Songs"
NumberPassagePost Script
1Isaiah 42:1-4Isaiah 42:5-9
2Isaiah 49:1-6Isaiah 49:7-13
3Isaiah 50:4-9Isaiah 50:10-11
4Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12Isaiah 54-55

Berhard Duhm coined the term "servant songs" in his German commentary on Isaiah published in 1892. [Note: Berhard Duhm, Das Buch Jesaja.] The commentators vary somewhat in how much of the context they regard as part of these songs. John Martin, for example, took the first song as running through Isaiah 42:17. [Note: J. Martin, p. 1095.] The first two postscripts, or trailing passages, are divine confirmations of the Servant’s work. The last two are exhortations to respond to the Servant.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Isaiah 41". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/isaiah-41.html. 2012.
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