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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 41

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary


§ 2. CONTROVERSY WITH HEATHEN, chapters Isaiah 41:1 to Isaiah 42:16.

God will protect the true Israel till the ends of redemption are accomplished. In the preceding chapter (Isaiah 41:25-29) he has shown to Israel the absolute impotence of idols, and his own sole greatness and sovereignty. He now calls nations devoted to idolatry to test the virtues of their religion in a fair contest with his claims.

Verse 1

1. Islands Poetical variation for lands all maritime lands and countries round about: here, the whole heathen world. It had just transpired, (Isaiah 40:31,) that those trusting in Jehovah “shall renew their strength,” etc. The summons now is, to the heathen world also to gather as best they can, and come into controversy with God.

Verses 2-3

2, 3. Ideally, the parties in controversy are now together, and Jehovah opens.

Who raised up the righteous The verb is in the prophetic past tense not as actually past, but actually certain to take place.

Righteous man Literally, righteousness; but denoting quality, and hence a righteous man, the hero man; undoubtedly referring to Cyrus the Mede; not here and now, but in Isaiah 44:28; Isaiah 45:1, actually so naming him. The argument starts with proof of the divinity of Jehovah in predicting, many years beforehand, that this hero is certain to appear, and on in the argument he twice names his hero Cyrus, who for Israel wrought, though a quasi-heathen, yet wrought under providence in this righteous cause. Observe how the description rushes! Succession of events there is, but so rapid that the time element is scarcely noticeable. Cyrus looms on the horizon for a moment, then disappears. Those who ignore the supernatural in prophecy, may with as little difficulty recognise Isaiah author here, as some other prophet nearer to, but not at, the event. The laws of Hebrew grammar permit, in lively description, scenes yet actually to occur to be transported in thought to a simultaneous past, (or, as some have it, an ideal present,) as here and often in these chapters. It is now rare to find expositors agreeing with Grotius, Lowth, and others, and with former Jewish commentators, in supposing Abraham, and not Cyrus, to be here meant. The great majority adhere to Cyrus as the intended hero, or the coming one. “The coming one first approaches gradually within the horizon of the prophet’s ideal present, and it is only little by little that the prophet becomes more intimately acquainted with a phenomenon which belongs to so distant a future, and has been brought so close to his own eyes. Jehovah has raised the new great hero ‘from the east,’ ( mimmizrach,) and, according to Isaiah 41:25, ‘from the north’ also. Both of these predictions were fulfilled; for Cyrus was a Persian belonging to the clan of Achaemenes, which stood at the head of the tribe of the Pasargardae. He was the son of Cambyses, and, according to all ancient accounts, he was connected with the royal house of Media; at any rate, after Astyages was dethroned, he became head and chief of the Medes as well as of the Persians.” “Now Media was to the north of Babylonia, and Persia to the east.” Delitzsch.

Verse 4

4. Who hath wrought and done it That is, hath raised up such a conqueror, and from the beginning, from the far past, has had the fact predicted? With august authority the Lord claims himself as the sole author.

I the Lord, the first, and with the last “The first,” before any other being existed: “with the last,” or to the last, in all the movements of history.

Verses 5-7

5-7. Some suppose the idolatrous party of the heathen world respond at this point. But it seems more suitable to consider Jehovah’s argument not yet ended.

Isles saw it, and feared Still speaking, Jehovah says the preceding facts affect heathendom with consternation. Yet the idolaters run to each other with the rallying cry: Be of good courage. The prophet puts the case with keenest sarcasm. The craft of idol-makers confusedly appeal to each other to rush up the work; caster, melter, anvil-smiter, solderer, all bustling to finish the idol till it shall be able to stand complete and firm. Such is the picture.

Verses 8-10

8-10. The sarcasm is now that of silence; the idol does not speak. There is therefore no farce of waiting for a reply, but Jehovah turns his address at once to Israel, who recognises the sole invisible deity in his own Lord Jehovah of Israel.

Thou, Israel, art my servant The Lord’s address is in terms of affection. The collective body of Israel is God’s servant, chosen servant, in the person of their ancestor Abraham, Jehovah’s friend, or the one (literally) loving Jehovah. Special protection and care over Israel along his whole history is here asserted. Selected first from Mesopotamia, then rescued from base slavery in Egypt, now to be delivered from exile in Babylon, the people may well be said to be taken from the ends of the earth, the sides or corners thereof not from chief men, as in our version. From all the places where the lot of Israel has been cast, God has hitherto rescued them, and there can now be no reason for fear, for the right hand the power, in other words, of omnipotence is underneath to uphold.

Verse 11

11. The tables shall turn. Israel’s persecutors hitherto shall come to mortification, and, like their idols, to nothingness. The usual conversive Hebrew past tenses here contemplate things yet future as already past.

Verse 13

13. The stated reasons continue for hope, and not doubt; they lie in God’s continually encouraging, Fear not. In all these verses God is the speaker. Time past and time future is always to him time present.

Verse 14

14. Thou worm Jacob The term “worm” expresses feebleness, and is applied to give the hint that Israel’s predicted deliverance is not to be a thing of their own achievement.

Thy Redeemer See Leviticus 25:25-27. Jehovah is to stand in the relation of near kinsman to Israel, especially to the remnant in Babylon, to pay ransom, as it were, for their deliverance; a typical conception, somehow, of Him who is to be the coming incarnate Redeemer, the Messiah. Nearly universal is the argument with evangelical interpreters that Jehovah of the Old Testament becomes, “in the fulness of times,” the Lord Jesus of the New.

Verses 15-16

15, 16. I will make thee a new… threshing instrument The remnant of Israel, when set free, shall be God’s threshing drag-net (see Isaiah 28:25-29) over opposers and idolaters; a frame of plank shod with rollers, or with stones or iron, here with iron, having teeth, sharpened teeth. All this means spiritual might.

Mountains… hills Opposers of fearful purpose and aspect. These are to be ground to powder, reduced to beggarly weakness through the mighty moral power with which the beggarly, weak remnant of Israel is to become endowed.

Thou shalt fan them The winnowing and the strong wind are put in contrast with God and his renewed people, as regards the once proud and boastful opposers and oppressors.

Verses 17-18

17, 18. Poor and needy They of the now exiled ones, under the figure of crossing the desert toward Jerusalem and Zion, emblemizing all the dark desert journeyings which the good of this evil world are often called to take; but in which water, free, abundant, and flowing the figure of grace and salvation, and all needed alleviations, to wayfaring ones who humbly trust in God is provided.

Verses 19-20

19, 20. I will plant in the wilderness Quite as ample shall be the protection from heat and sunstroke by means of overspreading shade from the trees which God shall plant in the waterless desert: the cedar, such as Lebanon grows; the shittah tree, or, acacia, which abounds in Arabia’s favourite valleys; the oil tree, that is, the wild olive; fir tree, or the cypress; the pine, or, as Gesenius renders it, the durable holm oak; the box, a species of cedar, (Gesenius,) these are to cover the wilderness for the safety and refreshment of God’s people. Here is employed Isaiah’s accustomed imagery. See chapter 35. Here, too, is incidental evidence from the nature of the trees mentioned of Isaiah’s authorship, though the chapters in the earlier prophecies having resemblance to those in these later prophecies, are, by the negative critics, all alike thrown out. The description, however, is of trees familiar to all in Palestine; scarcely so to any Babylonian resident claimed to be necessarily the author. All these rich provisions are to show the difference there is between trusting in the Holy One of Israel (the other keyword of these chapters) and trusting to lifeless idols.

Verse 21

21. Produce your cause Jehovah’s address is here again to the idolaters. He demands that they do their best in bringing proofs of the power of their so-called gods.

Verses 22-23

22, 23. Let them… show us what shall happen The main challenge is, as to the power of idols to foretell events. But either as if disgusted with such a proposition, or as if the false prophets, in their usual way, did attempt to answer by isolated, unintelligible statements, though this is not intimated the whole thing was at once quashed by the virtual question. “Do ye know any thing at all past, present, or future?” The conclusion is shown in the next verse.

Verse 24

24. Behold, ye are of nothing Hebrew, worse than nothing.

And your work of naught Hebrew, worse than a viper. If this be the true reading, they are not only worse than nothing but their work is venomous. Let us leave it so, rather than tinker with the text to make it mean (as Gesenius and others) something else. Idol adherents are venomous in their arts, and so they are an abomination.

Verse 25

25. I have raised up one Jehovah keeps the field as the moulder of history and foreteller of the future. In purpose he has “raised up one” from the north. In Isaiah 41:2 it is “from the east.” Both are true. The joint powers of Media and Persia lay in both directions from Babylon. See notes to Isaiah 41:2. This makes true God’s prediction of Cyrus, who is to come one hundred and fifty years after.

From the rising of the sun That is, from Persia, or even farther east, and may refer, not only to Cyrus, but concretely to the improved heathenism, but still heathen religion, which was to come to Babylon through Cyrus, namely, Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion, though crudely mixed, yet designed perhaps to play a part in palpably moulding the Hebrew religion in some additional items. (See RAWLINSON’S Five Great Monarchies, vol. iv, chap. 6.)

Verse 26

26. Who hath declared from the beginning The questioned resumed as respects idols. Which of them ever gave a prediction at all? Which of them could even affirm as I, Jehovah, have affirmed of Cyrus?

He is righteous A better translation, at least of the thought, is that of Cowles: “Who has declared [any thing] from the beginning, that we may know [it,] and from before the event, and we will say, Right. [It is true.] Verily there has been no such revealer, no such publisher; not one who has heard your words that is, real predictions.”

Verse 27

27. The first shall say to Zion This verse is severely difficult. Who, or what is meant by ראשׁון , first? One explanation refers back to Isaiah 41:4, where “I the Lord, the first” is found, and reads in this verse, “I, the Lord, will say to Zion,” I, the first and only great Being, am alone competent to make this prediction.

Behold them Behold it, that is, there it is, namely, the fulfilled prediction. Others, making “the first” the first fruits (as in Septuagint, and Syriac Version) of Zion, consider Cyrus as meant and personified in the word “first,” and as such he becomes the fulfilled prediction; he is the evangelist to Jerusalem. Nagelsbach, apparently, adopts this view, and finds some support for it in Isaiah 45:1, where Cyrus is called “the anointed” of Jehovah, that is, the Messiah: not the true Messiah, indeed, yet in an important sense the beginning of the redemption of the restoration of God’s people from exile, and so a pre-eminent type of the true Messiah, and civilly the first fruits of the prediction.

I will give to Jerusalem one A publisher of good tidings; in other words, an evangelist. See Isaiah 40:9.

Verses 28-29

28, 29. I beheld All opportunities were given the prophets of idolatry, pagan priests, soothsayers, necromancers, etc., to furnish the first indication of predictive power; but not one ever appeared.

There was no man No one among all the pretenders, no idol divinity, could answer a word.

They are all vanity Nothingness. Idol and his worshippers are utter nothingness! All among them, when they attempt to speak, are wind and confusion.

The address is thus rounded off in this last return to the idol priests and prophets with whom it first started. The first part, as some divide it, (Isaiah 41:1-24,) contains the judicial pleadings; the second part, (Isaiah 41:25-29,) recapitulates the evidence and the verdict.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Isaiah 41". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/isaiah-41.html. 1874-1909.
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