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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 41

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-29


Isaiah 41:1 — 48:22

The Assembly of the Nations (41:1-29)

Chapter 41 constitutes the first major prophetic poem in Second Isaiah. Some interpreters would include 42:1-4 within the bounds of the poem, but it is better to include the first of the so-called “servant poems” in the next poem, all of which has to do with God’s servant.

God is represented in chapter 41 as speaking in the first person, calling for an assembly of all the nations to decide on the meaning of the current history. This scene draws in a very original way upon the picture of God and the divine council of which in pre-exilic times the prophet was thought to be the herald. Yet in this case the judgment scene is pictured as taking place on earth among all the peoples of the earth, and the issue to be decided is whether or not God—and he alone—is the Lord of history. It forms a most powerful bit of comparative religion, the gods of the peoples of the world being shown to have no power or directing control over human history.

The Summons and the Subject to Be Discussed ( 41 : 1 - 4 )

The prophecy begins in verse 1, in a summons to all the nations of the world to come together “for judgment”; that is, to decide on an issue. The use of the term “coastlands” and similar words in Second Isaiah is to be taken as designating all peoples of the world. Phoenician advance through the Mediterranean and even into the Atlantic Ocean has furnished for this prophet a large horizon. He is conscious of the larger world beyond the immediate axis of the Nile and the Euphrates.

The issue to be discussed is described in verses 2-4. The figure of the Persian conqueror Cyrus is now dominating the horizon. Nation after nation falls before him. Why is this possible? What does it mean? The answer is given in verse 4. It is the Lord who has made himself known to Israel who alone is responsible for these world-wide and earth-shaking events. Thus, though the answer to the question is stated at the outset, God wishes this fact to be acknowledged by all men. Moreover, the impotence and foolishness of human idolatry is to be shown for what it is. Note the way the question is phrased. It is the characteristic Israelite question: What is the meaning of history? Human events have running through them a purpose, one that needs to be searched out before it can be discerned.

The Nations Prepare Their Idols ( 41:5-7)

After the introduction in verse 1 and the first strophe in verses 2-4, the second strophe in verses 5-7 represents the peoples of the earth as in fear and turmoil over the current events. They are working frantically to prepare their gods who are expected to give answer in the great assembly concerning just what is going on in the world and what it means. Instead of providing a tolerant, penetrating discussion of the theology of polytheism, the prophet with scorn and biting sarcasm considers the whole thing a man-made effort. He sees human religiosity on this earth as meaningless and stupid. These handmade gods are all that the people have for the interpretation of human history and destiny!

God Prepares Israel as His Witness ( 41 : 8 - 20 )

With the third strophe (vss. 8-10) attention shifts to Israel, who is to be God’s witness in the great assembly of the nations. Israel is the one who will testify as to the true meaning of events, because to her alone has the secret been revealed. First, however, this witness must be prepared for her task. As a broken people, she must be strengthened and have her faith restored. In verses 8 and 9 the story of Israel’s life is interpreted as having been the work of God. Those who were no-people (see Hosea 1:9) were collected from the ends of the earth; they were chosen by God to be his servant. This reiteration of the old promises is meant to affirm to the exiled people that they are still God’s servant, that he has indeed chosen them and has not cast them off.

Israel is addressed directly by God, and her identity is given as the family of the patriarch Jacob, “the offspring of Abraham.” The nation is spoken of further as though she were a single person: “Israel, my servant.” Here is the first appearance of a term that is central to Second Isaiah and is original with him. This term is “servant.” It refers not primarily to a particularly lowly status before God in the world, but instead to the service which Israel has been called to perform. The servant of the Lord is God’s appointed officer; the term, in fact, carries with it considerable dignity. Israel has an extremely important status in the world. She has been called to special service by the great King of the universe.

In verse 10, God’s address to Israel through the prophet strikes now at the very center of the people’s current problem. They are neither to fear nor be dismayed, for the Lord declares: “I am with you ... I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you.” God never calls a servant to a task without empowering him to do it. He is constantly present with his servant. Faith and not fear must be the servant’s response, for otherwise the service will not be performed as God wills it to be. The words in their original context addressed a broken and dispirited Israel. At a later time they will be seen as applicable also to the Church as God’s servant people in the world.

The thought of verse 10 is now continued in the fourth strophe (vss. 11-13). Israel no longer needs to worry about her enemies. They shall disappear, because “I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, ‘Fear not, I will help you.’ ” Israel, God’s Covenant people, hears God’s strong reiteration of the tie between them. Their greatest enemy is fear. God has called them to their task and he will stand beside them in their performance of it. The faith called for now is the faith which can move mountains.

In the fifth strophe (vss. 14-16), the exhortation not to fear is repeated in still another context. God will make Israel strong, strong enough to be an instrument of divine judgment in the world, a threshing sledge with sharp teeth. Instead of fear, Israel is to have joy in the Lord, to rejoice and to glorify “the Holy One of Israel.” Here, then, there appears one of First Isaiah’s favorite titles for God, one that characterizes the whole Isaiah literature. In verse 14 the phrase “worm Jacob” strikes our modem ear as somewhat peculiar. The term means something that is small or few in number, and it is clearly meant as a term of endearment.

In the sixth strophe (vss. 17-20), God’s direct address to Israel having ended, there appears a short hymn which describes the way God works in the world and his providence which surrounds those with eyes to see it. The poor and needy in a desperate plight in a parched desert, as Israel had been long ago in the days of Moses, are the object of God’s saving action. He will transform the desert into a marvelous, well-watered

garden, so that all men everywhere may know and identify God as the One who has done it. This hymn draws on old themes to reassert the fact that the whole work of God with Israel in the past and in the future is for the sake of the whole world, that all may know that he and he alone is God.

The Challenge to the Gods of the Nations ( 41 : 21 - 29 )

It is presumed that the assembly of the nations has convened (vss. 21-24). Now God challenges the gods of mankind to set forth their case, to interpret the past and what is to happen. The verbs in verse 22 probably refer to the various rites of divination by which ancient people sought to find out about the future. God challenges them to use all of their ancient arts that man may know the meaning of the historical events. In verse 23 the statement is ironic. The gods are asked to do something, either good or bad, so that people may know they are gods and that man may be brought to awe and reverence and respect before them. We may assume that in the presentation of the prophecy there was a pause for purposes of suspense. The gods give no answer: they are dumb and silent. Then in scorn God says: “Behold, you are nothing, and your work is nought; an abomination is he who chooses you” (vs. 24).

Here the gods of mankind are attacked at their weakest point. None of them were ever devised as lords of history. The Bible, uniquely among the religious literatures of the world, proclaims a God who is not only the Lord and Creator of the universe but also the Sovereign of human history, continuously at work within it to save man from self-destruction.

The last strophe (vss. 25-29) contains God’s affirmations concerning his own work in history. There is no one in the whole world who has been able to state the meaning of the advent of Cyrus on the scene of human history. God is the first and the only one who has revealed the meaning of current events. He declared it in Jerusalem by his herald, the prophet. The gods of the nations are a delusion; they are simply nothing, “empty wind.”

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Isaiah 41". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/isaiah-41.html.
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