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God expostulateth with his people about his mercies to the church, about his promises, and about the vanity of idols.
Before Christ 712.
THE disputation against idolatry is continued from the preceding section, and here consists of a two-fold instance: in the former of which, we have, first, the address of the true God calling upon idolaters to dispute with him, Isaiah 41:1. Secondly, an argument which he produces to convince them of error, Isa 41:2-7 which argument is taken from a certain illustrious person to be raised up by God, whose appearance and attributes are enumerated Isa 41:2-4 and the consequence of it; namely, the wonder of idolaters, Isaiah 41:5-7. Thirdly, a consolatory apostrophe is added, directed to the afflicted people of God, and confirming of three articles; the first, directed to the church near the times of the Maccabees; Isaiah 41:8-13. The second, to the church of the apostolic times; small and contemptible at the beginning, but about to overcome the world, Isaiah 41:14-16. The third, to the Christian church afflicted in the first days of the Gospel; Isaiah 41:17-20. The second instance, directed against idolaters, contains also, 1. An address, summoning them to dispute, Isaiah 41:21. Isaiah 41:2. The argument itself,—the prediction of certain future events of great moment; which is proposed in general, Isa 41:22-24 and is urged from the singular example of Cyrus to be raised up by God, and foretold by the prophet Isaiah, Isaiah 41:25-28; Isaiah 41:3. The conclusion, Isaiah 41:29.
Isaiah 41:1. Keep silence, &c.— This whole section, connected with that preceding, makes the fourth part of the discourse. The prophet, having in view the subversion of idolatry under the Messiah, had in the former section, from Isa 41:18 argued against idolatry, from the essence and nature of God, the Supreme Creator and Ruler of the world, being such as not to be represented by any corporeal matter or figure. To this disputation he subjoined a consolation, directed to the people of God, from the 27th verse to the end of the preceding chapter. Therefore, after this consolatory parenthesis, he continues or renews his disputation against idolaters by an argument taken from God's certain foreknowledge and foretelling of future events: from which he selects that remarkable one respecting Cyrus, as the deliverer of the people of God, and the destroyer of Babylon: an event utterly unknown to idols and idolaters, and, therefore, an astonishment to the nations; and yet an event which God so long time before exactly foretold in every circumstance by our prophet. He who can thus predict future events, the prophet urges, must be allowed to possess true divinity. He who cannot, has no claim to that honour; for the prediction of future events depends upon the certain foreknowledge of those events; but that foreknowledge can be conceived only in the understanding of that Sovereign Ruler, whose providence is over all things. This whole section, except the consolatory part, is employed in proving this; and the prophet the rather made use of this argument, because Paganism so much gloried in its false prophesies and oracles. Here then God is exhibited as if appearing in public, and preparing himself to dispute with idolaters for his truth and glory; and, therefore, the islands and people, all the nations of the world, are summoned to plead their cause; and an awful silence is enjoined, according to the forms observed in courts of justice: for both in this and the 21st verse, the expressions and ideas are taken from those courts. The phrase, Let the people renew their strength, signifies, "Let them prepare themselves and come forth to the cause, furnished with all the strength of argument and reason that they are able to acquire."
Isaiah 41:2-4. Who raised up the righteous man, &c.— Who hath raised up the righteous man from the east; hath called him to attend his steps? Hath subdued nations at his presence; and given him dominion over kings? Hath made them like the dust before his sword; and like the driven stubble before his bow? He pursueth them; he passeth in safety; by a way never trodden before with his feet. Who hath performed, and made these things, calling the several generations from the beginning? I JEHOVAH, the first; and with the last, I am the same. Lowth. Every one sees that these words are so connected with the preceding as to contain the argument urged by God in proof of his divinity. The argument is taken from a certain great work and effect of the divine Providence, well known to those with whom the dispute is held: which effect appearing to be a divine work, and not possible to be ascribed to any other cause than the God of Israel, abundantly evinces that the honour of true divinity belongs to him and him only. This great work of the divine Providence is the raising up of a certain illustrious person from the east, celebrated for his justice, equity, and prosperity; who waged remarkable wars, conquered his enemies, and did other extraordinary things here understood. All these attributes exactly belonged to Cyrus; and there can be no doubt that he is here meant, from a comparison of the following passages in our prophet; Isaiah 41:25; chap. Isaiah 45:1; Isa 45:13 and Isa 46:11 which supply the place of a comment. See Vitringa. We may just remark, that the prophet here, as is very usual, speaks of the future in the past tense.
Isaiah 41:5-7. The isles saw it, &c.— Bishop Lowth renders the 7th verse, The carver encouraged the smith; he that smootheth with the hammer, him that smiteth on the anvil; saying of the solder, it is good: and he fixeth the idol with nails, that it shall not move. We have here the consequence of raising up this illustrious prince, namely, the vain and fruitless attempt of idolaters to hinder the effects of his appearance,—the demolition of Babylon and its idols, which the prophet describes in a lively manner, setting forth the vanity of superstitious men encouraging one another to make those idols wherein they so wretchedly placed their confidence. We learn from history, that nothing could be greater than the consternation of the nations upon the expedition of Cyrus, and particularly after his victory ever Croesus.
Isaiah 41:8-13. But thou, Israel, &c.— The prophet here subjoins to his reproof of the nations, a consolation to the people of God, drawn from the same argument, as also he had done in the preceding section. See the analysis of this chapter. In order fully to understand this consolation, it is necessary to observe, that the scene of this exhortation is to be fixed in the midst of the period between the return of the people of God from Babylon, and the manifestation of the Son of God. To this church, afflicted, weak, and struggling with adversity, which, after the return from banishment, amid straits and difficulties, expected the redemption of Israel, and a completion of the excellent promises given to the fathers, this consolation belongs: and, indeed, it is peculiarly suited to the distresses of those times, when Antiochus particularly so much oppressed Judaea; and it is well joined to the preceding prophesy respecting Cyrus; a wonderful event, well calculated to sustain their hopes, and convince them of the truth and power of their God. There is nothing in this passage of difficult interpretation. In the 9th verse, instead of called thee from the chief men thereof, Vitringa reads, called thee out from the sides thereof: an expression, which well denotes Mesopotamia or Chaldaea, and is used for it in Jeremiah 6:22; Jer 31:8 Isaiah 41:14-16.
Isaiah 41:14-16. Fear not, thou worm Jacob— We have here a new consolatory exhortation; which I refer, says Vitringa, to the people of Christ, mean, afflicted, despised, such as they were at the very commencement of the kingdom of Christ among the Jews. The disposition of the prophet's discourse leads us to this; for he begins with a new title, and promises a new blessing to the afflicted people. The prophet passes from the afflicted church of the Maccabees to the apostolic; between which there is often so close a connection, that what is said of the Maccabees in the letter, is to be understood of the apostles and evangelists in the spirit. Our Lord, in his discourse to his disciples, Luk 12:32 seems to refer to this passage: which contains an address to the afflicted church, agreeable to its state, with an exhortation to confidence, Isaiah 41:14. The reason of that exhortation, drawn first from the present help of God, as the redeemer of his church,—middle of Isaiah 41:14. Secondly, from a certain remarkable effect of the divine aid, which should exceed all human expectation, Isaiah 41:15-16.—where the ideas are taken from the threshing instruments, and the mode of threshing made use of in the east, whereof we have already spoken; and the meaning is, that this afflicted and despised people should not only stand against their adversaries supported by the strength of the world; should not only sustain their violence, but, assisted by the divine grace, should obtain the inheritance of the world; should subject great and mighty nations to their King and Lord; and in that very way and respect wherein they were enemies to the kingdom of God, should beat them down, and reduce them to nothing. See 2 Corinthians 10:4-5. This prophesy, we think, has not yet obtained its FULL completion.
Isaiah 41:17-20. When the poor and needy seek water— Here, according to my hypothesis, says Vitringa, is described the state of the afflicted Christian church, after its happy beginning; particularly under Nero, who was the first public persecutor of the Christians. After the Israelites had departed from Egypt, and passed the Red Sea, wandering three days in the desert, they were in great want of water, wherewith God miraculously supplied them. Such was the case of the first Christian church: separated from the communion of the Roman empire, and of corrupt Judaism, that spiritual Egypt, they soon became exposed to a variety of evils and inconveniences, like the Jews after they had left Egypt. Alienated from the communion of Pagans and Jews, they seemed, as it were, about to perish in the wilderness; as the Israelites feared after they had departed from Egypt. And as the Red Sea was first presented to the Israelites, and seemed with its waves about to swallow them up, so also was it with the first Christians at the period alluded to; I mean the bloody persecution of Nero, which threatened total destruction to Christianity. At this time, it is no wonder that the minds of many were dispirited: in great anxiety and distress, wandering in this desert of the Gentiles, they found no water; that is to say, no comfort from the Roman state, or from the communion of the Jews. They were beset on all sides by enemies; exposed to their hatred, envy, and injuries, after the gate of persecution was once opened upon them. We have a parallel passage, Psalms 107:4; Psalms 107:43. This, therefore, is the meaning of the phrase, The poor and needy seek water, and there is none; which is not to be taken absolutely, but in a restrained sense; thus, "That they were reduced to such a state, that they could not enjoy the communion of Christ in their assemblies, with that freedom and comfort which they hoped for and wished." See Psalms 63:2. The phrase, their tongue faileth, or is dried up for thirst, denotes the great heat of afflictions which they endured at the period referred to, when God called his church to walk through the fire; ch. Isaiah 43:2. God promises to these, first, in general, that he would hear their prayers, and would not forsake them; Isa 41:17 and, secondly, that the church should not be destroyed by this and other persecutions, but should be supported by his providence and grace; so that, at length, the whole desert of the Roman empire, in which the church then wandered, thirsty, and persecuted, should be turned into a garden; that is to say, should embrace the Christian religion; and an abundance of believers should bring forth spiritual fruits. The prophet subjoins the effect of this work of grace, Isaiah 41:20.; which should be, an universal acknowledgment, that this work of changing the Roman empire into the church and garden of God, was the work of the Almighty. And who indeed can look at the completion of this prophesy in the conversion of Pagan Rome, without acknowledging that the hand of the Lord hath done this? See Vitringa.
Isaiah 41:21. Produce your cause— The prophet here returns to that part whence he had digressed, and makes a similar address to that in the first verse, to which we refer.
Isaiah 41:22-24. Let them bring them forth— God, teaching his people the right method of disputing against idolaters, draws an argument, and urges it strongly, from the certain prediction of future contingencies of great moment, in their connection and order, and in their coherence with former and latter things. He who can do this, by the judgment of the true God himself, cannot be denied the honour of divinity. He who cannot, is absurdly worshipped and esteemed as a god. Vitringa renders the 22nd verse, Let them bring them forth, and shew us what shall happen: shew us what things shall come first, that we may consider them, and know their last issue; or else, shew us things to come a long while hence. Instead of that, we may be dismayed, Isa 41:23 we may read, that we may look into it; and Isa 41:24 behold, ye are less than nothing, &c.
Isaiah 41:25-28. I have raised up one from the north— The prophet changes his general argument into a particular one; repeating and urging more strongly the example of Cyrus, which he produced at the beginning of this discourse. Cyrus is said to be raised up from the north, as he came with his army from Media, which was to the north of Babylon and Judaea; and from the east, Isa 41:2 or the rising of the sun, as he came from Persia, which was to the east of Judaea and Babylon. It was from that country he came into Media. We may just observe too, that his father was a Persian, and his mother a Mede. It is plain from his edict in behalf of the Jews, that he called upon the name, or acknowledged the truth, of the God of Israel: and there can be no doubt that from Daniel and others, who were celebrated in his times, he learned more respecting the God of Israel. See Daniel 6:28. The 26th verse is a plain address to the pretended diviners and prophets among the heathen; none of whom had been able to foretel this event, which God by his prophet had foretold one hundred and seventy years at least before it happened. See Joseph. Antiq. lib. 2: cap. 1. Bishop Lowth renders this verse, Who hath declared this from the beginning, that we should know it? and beforehand, that we might say the prediction is true? There is a remarkable gradation in the end of the verse, wherein the prophet says, "There is none who clearly foretelleth, or setteth it before our eyes; nay, there is none who maketh it to be heard of; who spreads any fame or report of it: Yea, there is none that heareth your words; none that heareth the least sound or whisper from you concerning it." The meaning of the 27th verse is, that, when this event came to its completion, God would raise up prophets and teachers, who should put his people in mind of what Isaiah and the other prophets had foretold; saying, Behold, behold, the things are come to pass; the good tidings, which Isaiah and others long since predicted. See chap. Isaiah 21:6. The verse should be rendered, To Zion first; Behold, behold them: and to Jerusalem will I give a messenger of good tidings. The meaning of the 28th verse is, that God, by his prophets and teachers, had looked diligently round, and inquired whether there was any one of the diviners and prophets of the nations who foreknew or could fortel any thing of this wonderful event; but no one could be found; there was among them a profound silence and perfect ignorance. Even amongst them, more particularly refers to the Chaldean astrologers: see chap. Isaiah 44:25.
Isaiah 41:29. Behold, they are all vanity—confusion— Behold, as to all them they are vanity—vanity. This verse contains the conclusion of the whole disputation; collecting from what has gone before, that the idols from whom the Chaldees and others sought the knowledge of future events, were false and vain; neither to be worshipped nor feared; that there was neither in them nor in their worshippers any thing whereupon to depend; deceivers and deceived, helpless, weak, and despicable. See 1Co 8:4 and Vitringa.
REFLECTIONS.—1st, We have here,
1. A challenge given to idolaters, to try their cause before God; or, as some suggest, the matter of the controversy here intended is the divine power and godhead of the Redeemer, spoken of in the former chapter, which heretics, ancient and modern, have denied, who are cited to produce their evidence; though the first sense seems most natural. The court is set, the citation sent forth, silence proclaimed, the defendants of idolatry called to plead, and assured of a fair hearing if they dared bring the matter to an tribe. Note; (1.) We may rarely challenge the enemies of the religion of Jesus to do their worst, since their opposition will issue in their greater confusion. (2.) The truths of the Gospel will bear the strictest scrutiny; they who most attentively read their Bibles, and weigh the arguments there advanced, will be unmoved by the wretched cavils of infidelity.
2. He mentions an instance of his glorious power, to which the idols cannot pretend. The righteous man here described is Cyrus; and what should be done hereafter is, in the prophetic language, spoken of as already accomplished. (1.) When God calls us to his foot, we may safely commit ourselves to his guidance, though the way in which he is pleased to lead us be dark, and the issue unknown. (2.) All our enemies must bow before us, when the Lord is our strength and our Redeemer.
3. He represents the vain opposition of the idolaters. He also shews, [1.] The jealousy of the world and the devil against the incroachments of religion. [2.] That the sinner's heart is often exasperated by the means which were designed for his conversion. Note; How ready the wicked are to unite for purposes of evil! and should the servants of the blessed God be less active in his service?
4. He encourages his Israel to trust him. Thou, Israel, art my servant, and, being owned by him, will be assuredly protected; Jacob, whom I have chosen, separated for God's service from the world of idolaters, the seed of Abraham my friend, that high and honoured character, and, therefore, beloved for their father's sake; whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called thee from the chief men thereof, whither they were dispersed, and said unto thee, thou art my servant, I have chosen thee, and not cast thee away, notwithstanding all their provocations. And this is most true also of the spiritual seed, those who yield to be saved by grace, and are faithful to the cause of God.
2nd, To silence the fears, and encourage the faith and hope of God's people in their distresses, they are called upon to look to the rock which is higher than they.
1. God, their covenant-God, is with them to strengthen, help, and uphold them with the right hand of his righteousness; and then of whom need they be afraid? If he strengthen, what foe can prevail? If he help, what greater support can they need? If he uphold with his right hand, who shall pluck them from it? Note; (1.) If God, by his presence and grace, be continually with us, then in every trial, under every temptation, in the hour of death and the day of judgment, we must be safe. (2.) Faith in the promises is the sovereign antidote against all fear.
2. They shall be victorious over all their foes, to their great joy. Incensed as the enemies of God's people were against them, seeking with implacable enmity their ruin, confusion shall cover them, and, mighty as they were in power and policy, their strength shall fail, their devices be disappointed, whilst Israel victorious, like a sharp threshing instrument, shall beat them small as the dust, humble the loftiest, and abase the proud, and, scattering them as chaff before the wind, shall rejoice in the great salvation of God herein so gloriously displayed, which may refer literally to the victories of the Maccabees; but spiritually regards the conquests of God's people over the great enemies of their souls. For, however weak they may be, as worms of Jacob, their Redeemer is mighty; and, though earth and hell without, and corruption within, fright and trouble them, yet their mightiest inbred lusts, as well as their strongest persecutors, God can subdue before them; and a day of joy indeed will it be to see them fall. Note; (1.) Every Christian has a hard warfare to maintain, and there are many adversaries. (2.) Fear is often apt to beset us, when we see ourselves compassed about on every side, and feel how impotent we are to withstand our spiritual enemies. (3.) If God were not in such seasons to speak a word of comfort to our souls, we must utterly faint. (4.) Though the contest be hard, the victory is sure to the faithful soul. (5.) The greater our enemies, the more will the power of God be magnified in our deliverance. (6.) Whatever victories we, through grace, are enabled to obtain, our glorying must be in the Lord, not in ourselves; the work is his, and to him must be ascribed the praise.
3. In their deepest distresses the people shall find him a very present help in trouble. When oppressed with thirst they cry, instantly shall their prayers be heard and answered. From the high places the gushing streams shall burst, in the vallies the fountains shall flow; the very desert shall abound with pools and springs, and every beautiful and spreading tree spring up to shelter them.—A work so wonderful, that they would with wonder and surprise own, This hath God done. And this was eminently the case when, by the preaching of the Gospel, the Gentile world heard and turned to the Lord; and such a wondrous change was wrought on the hearts of men, as if the desert had been clothed with trees and pasture: and such also every truly converted person experiences to be his condition, when the Spirit of God renews his heart. [1.] He is described as poor and needy, sensible of his deep spiritual wants and wretchedness. [2.] He cries, and is heard; for prayer is the breath of an awakened soul. [3.] He thirsts for the pardon of his sins, a sense of the divine favour, and the supports of divine grace: and lo! the Lord quenches his thirst with views of the redeeming Blood; sheds abroad in his heart a sense of his love, and implants in his soul a living principle of grace. [4.] When this is the case, the whole heart is changed, the miserable sinful soul becomes pure, peaceable, heavenly-minded, holy, happy. [5.] This miracle of grace makes the finger of God evident; and to him the praise of this glorious work alone must be ascribed.
3rdly, The Lord, having comforted his people, resumes his controversy with the idolaters his enemies.
1. He challenges them to produce their arguments, let their Gods be brought forth and speak for themselves; if they have knowledge, or prescience, let them shew it; if power, let them exert it; can they either describe the past, or foretel the future? do good or hurt to their foolish votaries? not the least: they are nothing; a work of vanity; and justly are they counted an abomination, who forsake the living God for such senseless deities.
2. God declares his own work and design. I have raised up one from the north, and he shall come; from the rising of the sun shall he call upon my name: this is to be interpreted of Cyrus; by his father, a Mede; by his mother, a Persian; which countries lay, the one to the north, the other to the east of Babylon, whose princes he trod down as mortar, and proclaimed deliverance, in God's name, to the captives.
3. God, in foretelling this, convinces them of the vanity of the idols, who could never inform them of any such transactions. The first shall say to Zion, Behold, behold them, and I will give to Jerusalem one that bringeth good tidings: Cyrus, who issued the edict for their restoration; or the Lord Christ, with his fore-runner John Baptist preaching the Gospel of the kingdom: events, whichever of them be referred to, concerning which the worshippers of idols foresaw nothing, nor had a word to plead in vindication of their abominable practices. Their idols evidently proved mere vanities, and their curiously molten images utterly useless and unprofitable.
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Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Isaiah 41". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13