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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Isaiah 41

 

 

Introduction

THE HISTORY OF SALVATION AND THE SERVANT OF YAHWEH (41-55).

Having brought out the greatness of God these chapters will now describe Isaiah’s concept of the Servant of Yahweh through whom He seeks to bring about His purposes. They are split into two main sections each of which is opened by words addressed to ‘you coastlands/isles’ (Isaiah 41:1; Isaiah 49:1). His message is seen as directed towards the world. The first main section is then split into two parts, Isaiah 41:1 to Isaiah 44:23 and Isaiah 44:24 to Isaiah 48:22.

So we can analyse it has follows:

SECTION I.

1) The Rise of the Servant of Yahweh (Isaiah 40:1 to Isaiah 44:23).

2) The Building of A New Temple and the Destruction of Babylon the Enemy of God In Readiness For the Servant’s Activity (Isaiah 44:24 to Isaiah 48:22).

SECTION II.

3) The Future Work of the Servant on Behalf Of Israel and the World (Isaiah 49:1 to Isaiah 55:13).

It begins with the call of Abraham, God’s beloved and true servant, and the rise from him of the great Servant of the Lord. The rise of the Servant then continues, and included within his rise is God’s erection of a new Temple and His judgment on Babylon, and ends with the future activity of the Servant Whose great sacrifice of Himself will bring bout the redemption of His people (Mark 10:45), with, in chapter 55, a description of the establishing of the greater David yet to come, followed by an appeal for response and a declaration of the certainty that what Yahweh purposes will come about. The whole section could be headed by us ‘from Abraham to the Messiah’. It is a history of salvation.

1). The Rise of The Servant Of Yahweh (Isaiah 41:1 to Isaiah 44:23).

The first section mainly sees the Servant as Israel. This is because they are ‘the seed of Abraham’ (Isaiah 41:8), although undoubtedly incorporating the idea of the new Davidic king in Isaiah 42:1-7, for the Davidic king was central to Israel. Following the arrival of Abraham, God’s beloved, in the land (Isaiah 41:2-4; Isaiah 41:25) (containing within him, in Hebrew thought, the seed of all his descendants), Israel/Jacob are announced as God’s Servant because they are his seed (Isaiah 41:8). Though they are weak Yahweh is going to raise them up, and make them strong (Isaiah 41:14 onwards). Thus He calls on all now to behold His Servant who will do His will (Isaiah 42:1-7). Here the Servant is, in context, Israel as descended from Abraham, but as headed by their glorious, future, victorious king, promised in chapters 7-11, Who will establish justice in the earth (Isaiah 42:4; Isaiah 42:6; Isaiah 9:7; Isaiah 11:1-4).

However, at present all is not well. The Servant is revealed as blind and deaf (Isaiah 42:18). But God will redeem them (Isaiah 43:1) and they will then become His witnesses (Isaiah 43:10), for He is going to do a new thing (Isaiah 43:19). He will be with them continually (Isaiah 43:2), He will draw them together from the four corners of the earth (Isaiah 43:6), and as such they are to be His witnesses (Isaiah 43:10). He will rid them of the ever encroaching rulers of Babylon, the opponent of all that is of God (Isaiah 43:14), and will establish them prosperously in His ways (Isaiah 43:19-21). Then He is going to pour out on His Servant His Holy Spirit, totally transforming those whom He has chosen (Isaiah 44:1-5). And because they are His Servant they must remember that He has formed them from the womb that they might be so, and will not forget them (Isaiah 44:21). This part then ends with creation praising God because He has blotted out the sins of His true Servant whom He has redeemed, and rejoicing because He has glorified Himself in Israel (Isaiah 44:22-23).

So the vision is of a people who are the seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:29), who are drawn together by Him (Acts 2:5) and freed from their blindness (2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 4:18), and who together under their King’s activity are to establish righteousness in the world and bring glory to God. It is God’s overall plan in history. It will fulfil His purposes as revealed in Exodus 19:5-6. It will begin with the restoration of His people to Palestine (something much more complicated than just a mere return of exiles from Babylon), will continue with their witness both there and in the Dispersion (the Jews scattered around the world), and find its ultimate fulfilment when the King comes and sends out His messengers to every part of the world (Acts 1:8) where they will proclaim the Kingly Rule of God (Acts 28:31).

2). The Building of A New Temple and the Destruction of Babylon the Enemy of God In Readiness For the Servant’s Activity (Isaiah 44:24 to Isaiah 48:22).

However, because Jerusalem and the Temple need to be re-sanctified, a necessity because of Yahweh’s anger (assumed in Isaiah 39:6-7) and the previous defilement of the Temple (clearly indicated in Isaiah 43:28), He will first raise up the house of Cyrus to restore both city and temple, which will be followed (at a time not described) by Israel’s everlasting deliverance and God’s appeal to the world to look to Him and be saved (Isaiah 45:14; Isaiah 45:17; Isaiah 45:22). Indeed this latter will come about because of the former things, which are revealed as having resulted in the coming of the bird of prey from the east, Abraham, the friend and servant of God, through whose seed all this will be accomplished (Isaiah 46:9-13).

As a result Babylon will be destroyed, with all its occult and religious practises (Isa 41:47). But tragically Israel will still be unrighteous, obstinate and stubborn (Isaiah 48:1-4). Yet in spite of that He will not utterly destroy them but will instead refine them through affliction (Isaiah 48:9-10). They are therefore to turn their backs on dependence on great cities, and on magic and the occult, and on all that Babylon has stood for, and all that it offers and represents, and are to flee from her and her magic and idolatry (Isaiah 48:20-21) because Yahweh has redeemed them, and they must no longer have dealings with such as Babylon, a doomed city. Chapter 48 then ends the section despondently because of the current state of Israel. In spite of all God’s Servant is in no state to act. We could head this whole section as, ‘from call to crisis’.

Meanwhile interspersed with all this are constant references to idols and their futility, which are finally to be dealt with by the destruction of Babylon.

That a new Temple would be required was a huge insight. The old was seen as defiled and no longer acceptable. But what Isaiah was not to know was that the new Temple would also prove to be fallible, so that in the end God would have to raise a further new Temple consisting first of His Son (John 2:21) and then of His people (1 Corinthians 3:16; 1 Corinthians 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16) through which His message would go to the world. But he was correct in his instinct that the old must be replaced by something better, and that it was only through such a new Temple that God’s cause could go forward.

At the same time Babylon, the bastion of idolatry, had to be destroyed with its malicious influence. It was not until men turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God that there could be hope for the future (1 Thessalonians 1:9).

3). The Future Work of the Servant on Behalf Of Israel and the World (Isaiah 49:1 to Isaiah 55:13).

The next section from Isaiah 49:1-26 begins with a further reference to the Servant. But the Servant is now no longer seen to be all Israel. Rather He has been formed in order to bring Jacob again to Him, and to gather Israel to Him (Isaiah 49:4). He is to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the preserved of Israel (Isaiah 49:6), as well as being a light to the Gentiles and God’s deliverance to the end of the earth. He is to be raised up as a covenant of the people, to establish the land (or earth) and enable them to inherit the desolate heritages. And kings will see and arise and princes will worship. Yet He is still addressed in Isaiah 49:3 as ‘Israel’.

Two possible reasons for this exist, not necessarily mutually exclusive. One is that this is speaking to the faithful in Israel, those responsive to God’s word through the prophets, whom God would indeed use as His servant in days to come. The other that it is the coming One, the future Davidic king Himself, the one person who could alone of all men be called ‘Israel’ for He is their representative and speaks in their name, the one to whom they look, the one who is their very life (Lamentations 4:20). And who else could establish the land? Besides there is no need to exclude either, for both are His Servant, both are the true seed of Abraham. We may thus see the Servant in chapter 49 as faithful Israel acting under and through their righteous king. Their work was then later carried on by the ‘congregation’ of Christ (Matthew 16:18) who became the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16) and the new Servant (Acts 13:47) and took His message out to the world (Acts 13:47).

But now we come across an interesting phenomenon. Concentration on an individual. In Isaiah 50:2 we are asked, why was there not a man (’ish)? Why was there none to answer? And immediately comes the reply and description of One taught by Yahweh Who has gone through much personal, individual suffering at the hands of men but will be vindicated by Yahweh (Isaiah 50:4-9). He is Yahweh’s Servant (Isaiah 50:10). This is followed by the injunction to those who follow righteousness and seek Yahweh to look back to Abraham who was called when he was but one, who then became many (Isaiah 51:2). There is a strong implication here that now at least the Servant is again, like Abraham, one man who will become many, otherwise why the emphasis on the oneness of Abraham?

This is then followed byonewho declares the good news to Zion that ‘Your God reigns’ (compare Isaiah 40:9, but while in Isaiah 40:9 it was Zion who spoke, here Zion is spoken to). And finally we have the description of one who is Yahweh’s Servant who will be exalted, and lifted up and be very high, who will sprinkle many nations and king’s will close their mouths at him (Isaiah 52:13; Isaiah 52:15) who will himself come from suffering (Isaiah 52:14), followed by a picture of that individual as enduring suffering and exaltation ‘for us’, and being offered as a guilt offering, so that ‘we’ may be delivered (chapter 53). As the ‘us’ and the ‘we’ are presumably the faithful in Israel, including Isaiah, this Servant cannot be them. The Servant has thus become one individual suffering on behalf of all God’s true people. Here finally we are brought to the fact that if salvation was to be offered it could only be through One who would Himself take on Himself the sins of the world (John 1:29). None other could be sufficient. Only through the offering of this One could eternal redemption be made available (Hebrews 9:12).

Immediately following the description of this crucial work of the Servant is the description of Israel once again being accepted as Yahweh’s wife (Isaiah 54:4) with a righteousness that comes from Yahweh (Isaiah 54:17), and the call to all to drink what is good so that they might enjoy the sure mercies of David and enter into the everlasting covenant (Isaiah 55:3) and everlasting blessing (Isaiah 55:10-13).

With this Davidic connection can we finally see in this Servant any other than the coming Davidic king who will establish righteousness and establish His everlasting kingdom (Isaiah 9:6-7; Isaiah 11:1-10)? No wonder that when the Ethiopian Eunuch asked of whom Isaiah spoke, Philip preached unto him Jesus Christ (Acts 8:35).

THE RISE TO SUCCESS OF THE SERVANT AND SUBSEQUENT FAILURE (Isaiah 41:1 to Isaiah 48:22).

Having declared the glory and power of God as the One Who is supreme over all things (chapter 40) , Isaiah now turns his attention to the way in which He is about to bring about what He has purposed from the very beginning. He has in mind God’s promise to Abraham when he called on him to flee from the land of the Chaldeans (Genesis 12:31) and go from there to the land of Canaan (Isaiah 48:20 is thus a repetition of this). ‘Get out from your country (in the east - Genesis 11:31) -- to the land that I will show you, and I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great -- and I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse, and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed’ (Genesis 12:1-3).

So as God’s servant (Genesis 26:24; Psalms 105:6; Psalms 105:42; see also Exodus 32:13; Deuteronomy 9:27) Abraham comes from the east (Isaiah 41:2) and possesses the land (Isaiah 41:2-3). After which ‘the seed of Abraham my servant’ (Psalms 105:6), the children of Jacob ‘His chosen ones’ (Psalms 105:6) themselves become His servant and are expected to fulfil the promises made to Abraham (Isaiah 41:8). And Yahweh declares that He will be with them in order that they might fulfil this purpose (Isaiah 41:10-20). Thus if the so-called gods want to prove what they are let them do it by themselves confirming what He is saying (Isaiah 41:21-24).

God’s servant has been raised up from the north (Isaiah 41:25), as Yahweh has declared from the very beginning, (although no one else has (Isaiah 41:26)), and he will fulfil all His will. But only Jerusalem will learn the good tidings through His messenger (Isaiah 41:27), for the gods are silent and are ‘vanity’ and in confusion (Isaiah 41:28-29).

And it is at this point that Yahweh’s true Servant will be revealed (Isaiah 42:1-9), consisting of Israel under her King, on whom will come His Spirit, Who will take His message to the Gentiles and will establish justice in the earth and rule over the furthest coastlands.

In the first analysis this Servant is Israel (Isaiah 41:8). But a second glance soon reveals that He is also Immanuel, in view of what He will achieve (Isaiah 42:1-4). For the Spirit will be on Him and He will establish justice in the earth and will rule the nations (Isaiah 42:2; compare Isaiah 11:1-9; Isaiah 9:6-7 with Isaiah 7:14), and He will accomplish all God’s purpose (Isaiah 42:6-7). The Servant is thus both coming King and coming people. Here we have reach the climax of the description begun in Isaiah 41:1, and of Yahweh’s achievement, and we now go back to see how it will be brought about.

As a result all the nations are to shout out because Yahweh is going forth as a man of war to deliver His people, who will turn back and be ashamed of their dreadful failure (Isaiah 42:10-17). For the fact is that Yahweh had wanted through His people to exalt His Instruction (Torah - Isaiah 42:21), but Israel had been proved to be a blind servant (Isaiah 42:19) and had been humiliated into captivity by the spoilers and robbers (of Assyria) (42. 22-25). Now therefore Yahweh would begin His restoration of His servant (Isaiah 43:1-7) who were to be His witnesses (Isaiah 43:10). He will ransom them (deliver them from Assyria) by giving Egypt as their ransom and Cush and Seba will be given for them (Isaiah 43:3). And He will further redeem them by removing the influence of Babylon (Isaiah 43:14). And He will re-establish His people in an abundant land (Isaiah 43:19-21), although first He will have to deal with them because they have not called on Him. He will do this by profaning the princes of the Sanctuary and making Israel a curse and a reviling (Isaiah 43:22-28). Then, however, He will pour on them His Spirit and they will call themselves Yahweh’s (Isaiah 44:1-5), for He Who is the first and the last is Israel’s Redeemer (Isaiah 44:6). They therefore need not fear for He is the Rock and He will bring it about (Isaiah 44:7-8). And they need not fear other gods for they are but vanity and are blind (Isaiah 44:9-20).

So Israel is to remember all these things because Yahweh has chosen them to be His Servant, and has blotted out their transgressions and redeemed them, and waits now for them to turn to Him as His servant (Isaiah 44:21-23) which will bring great rejoicing to creation (Isaiah 44:23).

The Raising Up Of God’s Servant (Isaiah 41:1 to Isaiah 44:23)

Chapter 41 Isaiah Urges Israel To Be Faithful as God’s Servant.

The first seven verses of this chapter continue the theme of appeal in chapter 40 but as applied to the nations. They are an appeal to the wider world to consider what God has done through Abraham and his descendants and respond to Him. Great emphasis is laid on Abraham. And in Isaiah’s vision they do respond and worldwide love is established.

This is then followed by an assurance to the faithful in Israel, the true Israel, that they are His servant because they are of Abraham, and that He will be with them where they are, enabling them in the fulfilling of their responsibility, and making full provision for them under all circumstances, if only they will respond. This is accompanied by a challenge to the gods of the nations to demonstrate their capabilities, which they cannot do because they are non-existent nothings, and the chapter finishes with one whom God has raised up, preparatory to the introduction to ‘My Servant’.


Verses 1-7

God’s Appeal To the People of the World (Isaiah 41:1-7).

Isaiah 41:1-3

“Keep silence before me, O coastlands,

And let the peoples renew their strength.

Let them come near, then let them speak.

Let us come near together to judgment.

Who has raised up one from the east,

Whom he calls in righteousness to his foot?

He gives nations before him,

And makes him rule over kings.

He gives them as the dust to his sword,

As the driven stubble to his bow.

He pursues them and passes on safely,

Even by a way that he has not gone with his feet.”

Note God’s call to ‘the coastlands’. This call to the coastlands (the nations across the seas) is stressed in both sections (see Isaiah 49:1) where He then describes the activity of the Servant. Clearly the activity of the Servant and the far off nations are closely involved.

God calls to the coastlands (the far off nations across the Great Sea and in the isles) and the peoples (those around Palestine near and far) to be silent before Him, in awe and readiness to hear. And then like His own true people, they are to renew their strength by waiting on Him (as in Isaiah 40:31). They too are welcome to approach Him. He calls them to advance to His seat as world Judge and Ruler, and once they have come near to Him then they can speak to Him. Then they can consider things together and think over His past purposes and their significance. For He wants them to consider what He has done through Abraham His ‘loved one’ (friend) (Isaiah 41:8). Let them look at Abraham, ‘the one who loved Him’, the one through whom the whole world will be blessed (Genesis 12:3).

‘Who has raised up one from the east, whom he calls in righteousness to his foot.’ He calls on them to consider Abraham, who was raised up by Him from Ur of the Chaldees in the east (Genesis 11:31; Nehemiah 9:7), the one who believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness (Genesis 15:6), so that He called Him ‘in righteousness’ to His immediate service (to His foot). Abraham was the one who kept his charge, and walked in accordance with all His commandments and laws (Genesis 26:5), walking in righteousness (Genesis 15:6).

In the light of no further information being given and the reference to Abraham in Isaiah 41:8 the one called ‘from the east’ and ‘in righteousness to His foot,’ would to Israel naturally mean Abraham, (especially as he is mentioned in the context in Isaiah 41:8). He loomed large in their history and they would regularly hear at their festivals of his arrival from the east (Genesis 11:31; Genesis 12:1; Genesis 12:5), coming as God’s Champion, to reveal his power in Canaan against the kings from the north and despoil them (Genesis 14) and to finally conquer Canaan through his descendants, with nations coming from him (Genesis 17:20) and kings coming from his loins (Genesis 17:6; Genesis 17:16; Genesis 35:11)

While the word ‘righteousness’ can signify ‘deliverance’ and is often used in parallel with it, it is righteous deliverance that is in mind. Its basic meaning of true goodness and justice, conformity to the norm of God’s Law is so prevalent in Isaiah, along with its meaning of salvation deliverance, that it can hardly be excluded here. Abraham was seen by God as righteous (Genesis 15:6; Genesis 26:5). The true Servant was also called in righteousness (Isaiah 42:6). The purpose of both was to bless the nations (Genesis 12:3).

‘He gives nations before him and makes him rule over kings. He gives them as the dust to his sword, as the driven stubble to his bow.’ Nations and kings were not able to stand before Abraham. This applies first to Genesis 14 when the warrior Abraham defeated the four kings from the north led by Amraphel King of Shinar (Babylon), and including the King of the Nations, and also the kings of Elam and Eliasar, (and his readers would not make the distinctions that we would make) and then to the fact that his descendants, and especially David, conquered Canaan and beyond, defeating nations and ruling over kings, with the prospect of worldwide rule (Psalms 2). For his descendants, including David, were seen as having entered Canaan in the loins of Abraham and what they did would be seen as done by Abraham. And Yahweh made Abraham and them glorious so that their sword and bow were very powerful, with the result that the nations melted before them, becoming like dust and stubble.

‘As the dust to his sword, as the driven stubble to his bow.’ Both sword and bow are connected with Abraham’s seed in Genesis 27:3; Genesis 27:40, as common weapons of his day in use by the family tribe.

‘He pursues them and passes on safely, even by a way that he has not gone with his feet.’ Abraham pursues them and goes on safely in a way that he has not gone with his feet. The way that he had not gone with his feet may indicate that the way he took was not one he had previously travelled when he entered Canaan, for this time he went up the King’s Highway; or it may indicate the speed with which he went, without as it were his feet touching the ground, which would fit his speedy chase of the four kings from the four powerful nations admirably. And he came away safely, because God was with him. Or it may refer to ‘going’ in his descendants, thus himself not passing that way with his feet. In that case it was Abraham in the mind of God who did it, although the feet of those who did it were not his own but his seed. Abraham was victorious through his descendants.

Isaiah 41:4

“Who has wrought and done it,

Calling the generations from the beginning?

I am Yahweh, the first, and with the last.

I am he.”

This confirms that God has both Abraham and his descendants in mind. He is speaking of a number of generations, all of them called from the very first beginning of the history of salvation (compare Genesis 21:12 and see Isaiah 41:8 here). Although He may be looking back even further to the first call of man (Genesis 3:9; Genesis 4:26). And Who has done all this? Why, Yahweh, the One Who exists over time from beginning to end. Indeed He is the first before all, and He acted through Abraham in the beginning on his first entry into Canaan, and He is ‘with the last’ as is revealed in the victory of Israel/Judah over Sennacherib. Compare His claim in Isaiah 44:7, where as the First and the Last He is the One Who appointed both the ancient people and the things that are coming.

So Yahweh calls on the nations to recognise the wonderful work He has done through Abraham right up to His people of this day (Isaiah 41:8). Beginning with one man and his family tribe and increasing them until under David ‘he’ became a large empire. And He is with the descendants of Abraham even to this day, driving away Sennacherib by His power. The corollary is that they should respond in awe and follow Him, and recognise that He is Yahweh, the One Who is and the One Who is there.

‘I am Yahweh, the first, and with the last.’ So let the nations recognise Who He is, The One Who is, the One Who is first before all things. The One Who is always there at the end.

‘I am he.’ Not ‘I am’ but literally ‘I he’ (although LXX has ego eimi). Thus not the name revealed to Moses, although hinting at it. It is declaring that He is the One Who has wrought it and done it, the One Who is Yahweh. It is a regular Isaianic phrase.

Isaiah 41:5-7

‘The coastlands saw and were afraid,

The ends of the earth trembled.

They drew near and came.

They helped every one his neighbour,

And every one said to his brother, “Be of good courage.”

So the carpenter encouraged the goldsmith,

And he who smoothes with the hammer him who smites the anvil,

Saying of the soldering, “It is good.”

And he fastened it with nails that it should not be moved.’

There are two possible ways of looking at these verses. The first is to see them as the nations finally responding to the work of God begun through Abraham, possibly at first in the empire of David, where they used their skills to good account instead of making gods with them (see Isaiah 40:19-20) and then by entering into God’s kingdom of worldwide peace, a vision of the future The second is to see them as the nations cowering before the coming of Abraham and fleeing to their man-made gods.

Taking the first interpretation we find the picture as follows. In vision the nations responded. They saw, were afraid and trembled. And then they drew near to Yahweh and came (compare Isaiah 41:1). This resulted in a new harmony among men. All rivalry vanished and they encouraged each other, all jealousies ceased, all worked together for the good of the whole, all commended each other, all became good neighbours (Leviticus 19:15-18) and brothers. In this case there is a deliberate contrast to the making of idols. Instead of making idols they make what is good (see Exodus 31:3-5; Exodus 35:31-35). Idolatry is replaced by skilful workmanship, and it is quality work, fastened securely. It Isaiah 11:5-10 in another form, but this time the concentration is on the human, not the animal kingdom.

Many, however, follow the second interpretation and see this as referring to a flight to idolatry, a combined effort of the nations against God. They ‘drew near and came’, but then their response was a decisive ‘no’. Then they combined and sustained and strengthened each other by making idols which ‘could not be moved’, a pathetic attempt to parallel the permanence of the First and the Last. But they were lifeless. Those who interpret in this way see ‘it is good’ as demonstrating that the gods are seen as needing man’s approval (so much for their pre-eminence), and the combined working as proof of the effort that went into idol making, and of the united front of the world against God. Note that they had to strengthen each other in doing it for they received no help from the gods.

This case would be supported by the words ‘that it should not be moved’ in comparison with Isaiah 40:20, (see also Jeremiah 10:3-4), but it could equally be argued that that is a deliberate contrast, that now what they ‘fasten with nails that it should not be moved’ is that which is good. For the whole atmosphere is one of neighbourliness, of brotherliness, of encouragement, and of skilful workmanship, giving the impression of the transformation of mankind.

The main argument that supports the second interpretation would be that here we have the pattern of what follows, a contrast between, on the one hand, the activity of the Servant, of Abraham and his seed, and on the other the futility of the gods.


Verses 8-16

God’s Assurance of Success To His People, Weak Though They Are (Isaiah 41:8-16).

Isaiah 41:8

“But you Israel, my servant,

Jacob whom I have chosen,

The seed of Abraham, the one who loved me.”

He now declares Israel’s unique position. They are His chosen, but not because of what they themselves are, but because they are the seed of Abraham, the one who loved Him, the one who came from the east. They are His chosen ones in Abraham. They are begotten through Jacob. Thus do they enjoy the unique position of being the servant of Yahweh because they are ‘in Abraham’. They are the seed of Abraham His servant (Psalms 105:6). We have already had ‘David my servant’ (Isaiah 37:35). Now we have ‘Israel my servant’. But both come below Abraham, who was ‘the one who loved Him’ (compare 2 Chronicles 20:7 also see John 15:15) and had had directly revealed to him what God was going to do. Abraham is also constantly described as His servant in the tradition (Genesis 26:24; Psalms 105:6; Psalms 105:42; see also Exodus 32:13; Deuteronomy 9:27).

This confirms that the previous verses referred to Abraham. Why else bring Abraham’s name in here? It would not be like Isaiah to suddenly bring his name in and then include nothing further. These words make the most sense if we see them as following a detailed reference to Abraham in Isaiah 41:2-4.

The use of ‘Jacob’ here (in contrast with Israel) may be intended to indicate their unworthiness. In Isaiah 41:14 he is called ‘you worm Jacob’, and Jacob was the double-dealer who became Israel, the prince with God. This may especially be being brought out here in the reversion of the names. Always elsewhere in this whole section (Isaiah 40:1 to Isaiah 49:26) when the two are in parallel Jacob comes first. But here Israel comes first (contrast this with Isaiah 44:1 where an almost identical phrase has the usual order). Jacob was chosen because he was the seed of Abraham, but it was in order to manifest himself as Israel, God’s servant. (But see Isaiah 10:20 where there appears no reason for the order).

Of course the people of Israel were not all literally descended from Jacob. Far from it. Many had originally been adopted into his ‘household’, his family tribe, which itself was composed largely of people, his household servants, not descended from him. They further came from a conglomerate people, from many nations (Exodus 12:38; Exodus 12:48), and were united in Jacob by the covenant at Sinai. So God’s people were made up of people of many nations, as ‘adopted’ by Abraham. But as so adopted they were seen as his seed, and the implication is that they too should love God. Love was at the heart of the covenant (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).

This brings out Israel’s unique privilege. They were called to be a holy nation, a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:5-6). It was they who should have taken His word to the nations (Isaiah 2:3), and one day would through the Dispersion (Israel scattered among he nations), and then through the Apostles and the foundation Jewish church, but it was dependent on their obedience.

We are already getting the seeds of the idea of ‘the Servant’. David is His servant, chosen by Him to rule over His people who are also called upon to be His servant (Isaiah 37:35). Israel is His servant, chosen to be a witness to the nations. Thus the Servant is one yet many, king and people, fulfilling the purposes of God revealed to Abraham, who was His servant par excellence. Indeed the nation of Israel would have agreed with this way of seeing things. They certainly saw themselves as ‘in David’. He was their very breath (Lamentations 4:20), and this was why the status of the king, whether good or bad, was so important in the books of Kings. And they saw themselves as ‘in Jacob/Israel’ the patriarch, as looking back to Abraham.

Isaiah 41:9

“You whom I have taken hold of from the ends of the earth,

And called you from its furthest reaches,

And said to you, “You are my servant.

I have chosen you and not cast you away.”

Israel has been taken hold of from the ends of the earth and called from its furthest reaches. The primary thought is first of the call of Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees far away, then of the return of Jacob from Haran, and then of their deliverance from Egypt to be called to be His holy nation, His kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6), so that Yahweh’s purpose through them might be fulfilled. And then of the fact that He will reach out to scattered Israel worldwide and call them to His service (Isaiah 11:11-12). What He has done before He will do again. They are His chosen servant to the nations, and in spite of what they have done He has not cast them away. They are seen in their totality as His servant if only they are willing.

This idea of the oneness of the nation must not, however, be overpressed. They are seen as one because within the covenant, but they are only so because they are in the covenant. Thus in the end the true servant is the body of those who reveal themselves as within the covenant by obedient response to it. They are the true Israel within Israel (Romans 9:6). As with the remnant, it is only the righteous who will survive, the unrighteous will in the end have been pared away (Isaiah 6:13). The fruitbearing branches will be pruned, the unfruiful will be removed (John 15:1-6).

This will become clearer later. In Isaiah 49:3 ‘my servant Israel’ will minister to Jacob/Israel seeking to restore them to Yahweh (Isaiah 49:6), the remnant thus clearly being distinguished from unbelieving Israel, and in 53 there is only One Who is qualified to represent Israel, a unique personality representing them all in His own person.

There may be implicit within this also the thought that those who have since been dispersed to every corner of the earth may also be confident that they too can be His servant and a witness both where they are and by returning. For they can be sure that He has not forgotten them (contrast Isaiah 40:27). And certainly those who were faithful among the dispersed did cause many Gentiles to seek God. But Isaiah also expected many of them to finally return to the land of God’s inheritance (Isaiah 11:11; Isaiah 27:12-13), which must literally have occurred with the faithful once the opportunity arose durint the inter-testamental period, because of the strength of their beliefs.

But the main idea behind the promise is that they will be gathered to Himself. First in the coming of the righteous son of David calling them under the Kingly Rule of God, and finally in the new heaven and the new earth (Isaiah 65:17).

Isaiah 41:10

“Do not be afraid for I am with you,

Do not be dismayed for I am your God.

I will strengthen you, yes, I will help you,

Yes, I will uphold you with the right hand of my righteousness.”

Yahweh encourages His people in their service. If they are faithful they can be sure of His strength and help wherever they are. For He is with them in their situation and those who look to Him will be upheld. Notice, however, that the hand that will uphold them is the right hand of His righteousness. These promises are only made to those who seek to be righteous in His sight. The righteous right hand will only uphold those desirous of righteousness (Isaiah 1:27; Isaiah 3:10; Isaiah 10:22; Isaiah 24:16; Isaiah 32:17; Isaiah 33:5; Isaiah 33:15), just as He called Abraham in righteousness (Isaiah 41:2). These promises remain true today. The righteous may look for help to the Righteous One. (The right hand is the hand of power).

Isaiah 41:11-13

“Behold, all who are incensed against you,

Will be ashamed and confounded,

Those who strive with you,

Will be as nothing and will perish.

You will seek them and will not find them,

Even those who contend with you.

Those who war against you,

Will be as nothing and a thing of nought.

For I Yahweh your God will hold your right hand,

Saying to you, Do not be afraid, I will help you.”

The opponents of God’s people will be thwarted. Those who are enraged against them will become ashamed of their rage and will find themselves confounded, those who strive with them will achieve nothing and will perish, so that if they are sought for no one will be able to find them. Those who war against them will be nonentities. And this will be because Yahweh is holding His people’s right hand, assuring them of His constant help so that they need not be afraid. The picture is one of complete protection. But the holding of the right hand is not just for comfort. It is in order to impart strength. His people may go through tribulation but they can be sure that He is always with them.

‘Fear not you worm Jacob, And you few men of Israel.

I myself will help you, says Yahweh,

And your redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.’

Even though Jacob is but a worm, he need not fear, for the One Who will help him is Yahweh, and the One Who will redeem him is the Holy One of Israel. Though he is worth nothing, God, as the Holy One of Israel, is willing to pay a price for his deliverance, even as ‘Jacob’. So Jacob is but a worm and the men of Israel are few, that is, they are inconsequential. His people are both the worm Jacob and the few men of Israel. They are as nothing, but they need not fear for if only they will trust Him they will bring the world to nought (Isaiah 41:13) because God will help them.

The idea of a worm is of one who is totally unworthy (Job 25:6), one who is a reproach (Psalms 22:6). The word used for men regularly means ‘few’, and thus inconsequential, unable to deal with the problem in hand.

Isaiah 41:15-16

‘See, I will make you a threshing instrument,

New, sharp and that has teeth.

You will thresh the mountains, and beat them small,

And will make the hills as chaff.

You will waft them with a winnowing fan,

And the wind will carry them away,

And the whirlwind will scatter them.

And you will rejoice in Yahweh,

You will glory in the Holy One of Israel.’

But the worm will turn. Yahweh will make him like a threshing instrument, sharp, new and with teeth. The mountains and the hills will be turned into dust and chaff by them. The mountains are their opponents, and they will not only be turned into chaff, they will also be blown away. Then His people will rejoice and glory in the One Who has done it, for He is Yahweh, He is the Holy One of Israel.

Threshing instruments were heavy sledges of timber with stones and sharp metals underneath. They were dragged over the grain to divide it up and separate grain from chaff, ready for fanning with the winnowing fans which would blow away the chaff leaving the good grain.

The final idea is that God’s true people will become triumphant overcoming all obstacles.


Verses 17-20

God’s Future Provision For His People In The Land (Isaiah 41:17-20).

Isaiah 41:17

‘The poor and needy seek water, and there is none,

And their tongue fails for thirst.

I, Yahweh, will answer them,

I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.’

We have already seen the stress on God’s people as a worm and as inconsequential, now they are seen as poor, crushed under the weight of things (see Isaiah 10:2), and needy, unable to face life’s challenges (see Isaiah 14:30). They are like those who seek water and cannot find it so that their thirst takes over, and their tongue is parched and useless. The background may be the journey through the wilderness from Egypt when Israel constantly faced shortages of water, but in hot countries shortage of water is always a problem, especially when it was dependent on rain which was not always abundant, and when invasion may well have destroyed their wells. Thus it refers to their present experience and may well be only a general statement from their own experience. But at this time Yahweh will answer them, and the God of Israel will not forsake them (Isaiah 32:15).

Note that while the stress has been on His people as like Jacob, He Himself is constantly seen to be the God or the Holy One of ‘Israel’. He is not to be looked on by them as the God of the devious Jacob but as the God of the noble Israel (although He is called the Holy One of Jacob in Isaiah 29:23 in a context where Jacob himself is pictured as watching them).

Isaiah 41:18-20

‘I will open rivers on the bare heights,

And copious springs in the midst of the valleys.

I will make the wilderness a pool of water,

And the dry land springs of water.

I will plant in the wilderness the cedar,

The acacia tree, and the myrtle, and the oil tree.

I will set in the desert the fir tree,

The pine, and the box tree together.

That they may see, and know, and consider,

And understand together,

That the hand of Yahweh has done this,

And the Holy One of Israel has created it.’

When His people are in want He will make copious provision for them wherever they may be. The bare heights will become full of water, the valleys full of copious springs, even in the desert and wilderness areas there will be oases and springs. And in those areas abundant trees will grow, provision for God’s people to rest under and find shade. (None of these trees would be well known in Babylon, for Babylon was short of trees. They are trees of Palestine, even if identification is uncertain. They were not uncertain to the early reader because he knew the trees. Thus the writer is in Palestine). And the wonder of it is that they will all be found together. This is fruitfulness indeed, a most unusual situation demonstrating the creative power of the One Who has done it.

And the purpose of it all is that His people might thoroughly know Who and What God is. That they might see in it all, the hand of Yahweh. That they might be aware of His creative power. This reminds us that if we are His all our experiences have this purpose, that we might learn of Him and know Him more deeply.

This picture is the exact opposite of those which depict God’s judgment on the nations. Then the trees are hewn down (Isaiah 10:33-34), the streams dry up and the land becomes desert (Isaiah 34:9-10; Psalms 107:33-34). This thus has in mind the final blessing, as well as God’s provision and protection along the way.


Verses 21-24

Yahweh’s Challenge To The Gods of the Nations (Isaiah 41:21-24).

Isaiah 41:21-23

“Produce your cause,” says Yahweh.

“Bring forth your strong reasons,” says the King of Jacob.

“Let them bring them forth and declare to us what will happen.

Declare the former things, what they are,

That we may consider them and know the latter end of them,

Or show us things that are to come.

Declare the things that are to come hereafter,

That we may know that you are gods.”

Yahweh now lays down His challenge to the nations and to their gods. Let them come as it were before the court and prove their case. Let them bring out their idols. (Note that the idols have to be brought out. They cannot come of themselves). Let them prove themselves, and produce their strong arguments. Let them declare the future, and show what is to happen. Let them explain the past and its significance, and show what will be its results. Let them declare the significance and impact of the coming of Abraham. Let them show the things that are to come from it. Then all will know that they really are gods. This is what God has been doing. Let them do it as well.

This confirms that in this passage God has been speaking of what has happened in the past as well was what is to happen in the future, and the title ‘the King of Jacob’ ties it in closely with the time of the patriarchs, thus confirming that the coming one from the east was Abraham.

‘The King of Jacob’ is a significant title. God is not ashamed to be the king of the patriarch Jacob, to be the king of the worm (Isaiah 41:14). Indeed He boasts about it. So the nations see His people as nothing, as unimportant, as having something of a past history but as now no longer counting? Well, this is proof that they cannot see the future. Why, He declares, He is their King. Their past is significant. And from that worm will He produce glorious things. And only a ‘God Who is’ could use a worm to establish the everlasting kingdom. But had the gods really been gods, they would have known of it.

Isaiah 41:23

“Yes, do good or do evil,

That we may be dismayed (bewildered) and behold it together.’

The challenge is expanded. These gods not only know nothing, they do nothing. He is going to do something, so let these also at least do something, anything, whether good or evil. Then at least all would be able to be bewildered and dismayed, and behold it. ‘Do good or do evil’ is often seen as the equivalent of ‘do anything at all’.

Isaiah 41:24

“See, you are of nothing, and your work of nought.

An abomination is he who chooses you.”

The assumption is made that nothing will happen, and the argument is now applied. These gods are of nothing, and their work is nothing. Thus anyone who chooses them is an abomination, because they choose an abomination. We are what we choose. Note the strength of language. They are hateful to God.


Verse 25

The Coming One (Isaiah 41:25 to Isaiah 42:9).

The theme of the failure of the idols to tell the past and the future continues. They do not know of ‘the one from the north’. Identity of the ‘one from the north’ has produced widely differing ideas. In context there are good grounds for arguing that he must be the servant of Isaiah 42:1, for the theme of the servant immediately follows.

Some see it as referring to Cyrus in the light of Isaiah 44:28 to Isaiah 45:1. But there Cyrus is God’s shepherd, not His servant, and it would be meaningless to the reader until he came to that chapter. For the idea here is that He is describing someone who is known, someone who is therefore evidence of what He has done. Far better is it to see it as Abraham in the light of Isaiah 41:2. Certainly Abraham came from both the north (Haran) and from the east (Ur of the Chaldees). And he is specifically described as one who called on the name of Yahweh (Genesis 12:8; Genesis 13:4 compare Genesis 26:25). And he was certainly disastrous for rulers (Genesis 12:10-20; Genesis 14 all; 20 all), including the king of Elam and the king of Shinar (Babylon) (Genesis 14:1; Genesis 14:9). He seems well represented in this description.

(Actually anyone who came from the east in Mesopotamia would come from the north through Syria. It was only Arabs like the Midianites coming across the Jordan who came only from the east).

Opting therefore for Abraham as being clearly described, we must, however, recognise that it is not just as simple as that. Strictly it is talking about Yahweh’s Servant, thus about Abrahamand his seedwho came into the land in him. It is summing up salvation history in Abraham. Abraham came, and all who came from Abraham were in Abraham when he came. Thus as he entered the land in him came Isaac and Jacob, His servants (Exodus 32:13; Deuteronomy 9:27), and Moses and Joshua (both officially called ‘the servant of Yahweh’), and David his servant (Isaiah 37:35; Psalms 89:3; Psalms 89:20), and in him came the greater David yet to come. As he entered the land they all entered it in his loins. (This was Israel’s way of thinking).

We should note especially that the term ‘my servant’ is used regularly in Isaiah as depicting various descendants of Abraham, and is used of no others. Thus Isaiah is ‘my servant’ (Isaiah 20:3), Eliakim the viceroy is ‘my servant’ (Isaiah 22:20), David is ‘my servant’ (Isaiah 37:35), Israel is ‘my servant’ (Isaiah 41:8-9), all are His servants in Abraham. And included under the name of David is David’s greater son, Immanuel. For He is the fulfilment of the Davidic hope. (Nebuchadnezzar is called it by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 27:6), but not by Isaiah, and then only as a temporary function, not as a permanent status. Thus application of the title to an outsider would be contrary to Isaiah’s whole usage).


Verses 25-29

Isaiah 41:25-29

“I have raised up one from the north, and he is come,

From the rising of the sun one who calls on my name.

And he will come on rulers as on mortar,

And as the potter treads the clay.”

Who has declared it from the beginning, that we may know,

And beforetime that we may say, ‘He is in the right’.

Yes, there is no one who declares, there is no one who shows,

Yes, there is no one who hears your words.

First to Zion, behold them, behold them,

And I will give to Jerusalem one who brings good tidings,

And when I look there is no man,

Even among them there is no counsellor,

Who when I ask of them can answer a word.

Behold all of them are vanity

Their works are nothing,

Their molten images are wind and confusion.”

One has come from the north who has been raised by God. Abraham entered the land from the north and ‘went on southwards’ (strictly ‘towards the Negeb’), emphasising that he came from the north (Genesis 12:5-9). So it was Abraham who came, and yet also those who came in Abraham. It was in essence a whole army of descendants. As Abraham advanced on the land he was Yahweh’s Servant, and Yahweh’s future Servant was in him, comprising all who would be servants of Yahweh in the fulfilling of His purposes. In him came Isaac and Jacob. In him came Moses and Joshua. In him came David. In him came Isaiah and Eliakim and Israel. But always having in mind the Servant of Yahweh par excellence Whom Yahweh had promised. He has been spoken of beforetime, even from ‘the beginning’ by Yahweh. But no one else has spoken of him, or has taken heed of Isaiah’s words about him. No one else has recognised Him. He is one who brings good tidings (Isaiah 61:1-2).

Thus he is a figure in the future, and yet he is in the past. When Abraham came into the land of God’s inheritance the future Servant came in him, One who was as it were in his loins (Genesis 35:11). He came as God’s Servant. And no one recognised Him except Yahweh and Isaiah. But Isaiah has proclaimed Him. He will be Immanuel, God with us (Isaiah 7:14), coming in the name of Israel and representing Israel. Thus the Servant is Israel, and especially Immanuel as representing and summing up Israel, the final focal point of the call of Abraham. That is why sometimes we have the idea of a group and sometimes of an individual (50. 4-9; Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12). He will fulfil Israel’s destiny.

‘I have raised up one from the north, and he is come, from the rising of the sun one who calls on my name.’ The sun rises in the east, so that this one came from the east and the north. As we have seen this was Scripturally true of Abraham. He was called by God from Ur of the Chaldees in the east, proceeded to Haran in the north, on which he entered the land from the north, and called on the name of Yahweh, and went on going towards the south (Genesis 12:1-9).

‘And he will come on rulers as on mortar, and as the potter treads the clay.’ This is a remarkably picturesque description of the Bible’s account of Abraham’s victory over the four kings (Genesis 14), which included the kings of Babylon (Shinar) and Elam. They were trodden down by him as men tread down mortar, and as a potter treads the clay. To use a more modern idiom, they were as putty in his hands and as the dust beneath his feet. And in him has come his descendants.

So we may also see it as indicating also Abraham’s victories through his descendants, God’s servant Joshua (‘the servant of Yahweh’ - Joshua 24:29; Judges 2:8) when he conquered the land and God’s servant David (Isaiah 37:35) when he trod down the Philistines and all the nations round about. The one whom God had raised up was strong.

‘Who has declared it from the beginning, that we may know, and beforetime that we may say, ‘He is in the right’. Yes, there is no one who declares, there is no one who shows, yes, there is no one who hears your words.’ So Yahweh now issues a challenge as to who else has been able to speak of the significance of Abraham, and of his seed, and of the One Who is coming Who is the seed of Abraham. But there is no one. The so-called gods are unaware of either. They do not know what is happening. No one declares it, no one reveals it and there is even no one who has absorbed the words of Isaiah about Him. They manifest total ignorance.

‘First to Zion, behold them, behold them, and I will give to Jerusalem one who brings good tidings.’ So now the attention is turned on Zion. Yahweh’s first words are concerning Zion. Let all ‘behold ‘them’. These are the ones whom God has raised up to fulfil His purposes. And it was to Jerusalem that He would give one who would bring good tidings (compare Isaiah 61:1-2). Jerusalem was to be the bearer of good news (Isaiah 2:2-4), and especially through the one whom He sent. But now, Isaiah asks, where is that one? (Isaiah 41:28). There is no one. Among them there is no Counsellor (compare Isaiah 9:6). The king has failed. The leaders have failed. There is no one who can reply to Isaiah’s searching words, and speak up. They are all show and pretence, and their idols are as bad as they are (Isaiah 41:29).

‘And when I look there is no man, even among them there is no counsellor, who when I ask of them can answer a word. Behold all of them are vanity, their works are nothing, their molten images are wind and confusion.’ So, sadly, among the people of Jerusalem there is as yet no one who can counsel on these matters, and who can speak to God about them. This comment may be in the words of Isaiah as he has sought to find those who will receive his prophecies and teach them. Or it may be God’s condemnation of the people. Either way the matter is summed up simply. They are vain and empty, what they do is worth nothing and accomplishes nothing, and their idols simply produce messages which are empty wind or total confusion. What is therefore required is a new Servant of God Who will be able to give counsel and fully reveal the truth of what Isaiah has been speaking about, acting on behalf of Israel (see Isaiah 50:2-9).

Note the parallel to this in Isaiah 50:2-9. Then too there is ‘no man’ and there too the idea introduces the Servant of Yahweh.

It is interesting to consider the significance of the word ‘behold’ in this passage.

1) Behold their enemies will fail and perish (Isaiah 41:11).

2) Behold Jacob will become a sharp threshing instrument with teeth (Isaiah 41:15).

3) Behold the gods are nothing (Isaiah 41:24).

4-5). Behold, behold them. Zion are to be doubly beheld as the ones who are the hope for the future, and who are to bring forth those who proclaim good tidings. But Zion has failed, as is evidence by the fact that there is no one (Isaiah 41:27).

6) Behold all of them, their words speak and are empty, as are their idols, which are merely wind and confusion (Isaiah 41:29)

7) Behold My Servant! (Isaiah 42:1). Here is God’s answer.

Note that at each point the enemies of Israel (Isaiah 41:11), their false gods (Isaiah 41:24) and the ‘gods of the nations’ (Isaiah 41:29) are contrasted with Jacob made mighty by God (Isaiah 41:15), the powerful words of those who were to arise from Zion (Isaiah 41:27), and finally with God’s Servant who will fulfil all His will (Isaiah 42:1). The seventh behold indicates the divine perfection of this Servant.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Isaiah 41:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/isaiah-41.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, July 16th, 2019
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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