In Isaiah 41:21–29 a court scene is presented and the idol-gods are challenged to bring forth reasons to establish their credibility: their ability to foretell future events is put to the test and contrasted with Yahweh Articles 1of Israel’s capacity to prophesy the future and to bring to pass His prognostications. In the final summary, the utter worthlessness of the idol-gods, in contrast with the truth, reliability and trustworthiness of the King of Jacob, becomes plain.

The following analysis helps us appreciate the structure of the verses.

41:21–24 Yahweh Challenges the Idol-gods to Set Forth Future Events in Order to Prove Their Veracity

Verse 21 “Produce your cause, saith Yahweh; bring forth your strong reasons [‘Advance your defences’ roth], saith the King of Jacob.”

Here idolators are addressed and invited to make a case for their gods. In the second challenge—“bring forth your strong reasons”—the best argument is called for; the case for the idols at its strongest is sought by the King of Jacob. This designation of Yahweh is meaningful in this context, as there were idolators among His people; yet He asserts that  He is God alone among the gods (Psa 95:3); He is the King of Jacob. So for the duration of the trial of credibility, He is prepared to be numbered with the idols in order that the true may be distinguished from the spurious.

Verse 22 “Let them bring them [the idols] forth, and show us what shall happen: let them shew the former things, what they be, that we may consider them, and know the latter end of them; or shew us things to come.”

“Let them bring them [the idols] forth”

The idolators are called upon to carry in their gods in order to tell what the future holds. There is irony in this command, for what power or insight has a god that requires men to carry it forth! (cp Isa 46:7 and note the context, verses 1–6).

“and shew us what shall happen”

Idolators believed their idol-gods could tell the future and their credibility depended on this ‘ability’. Of the idol-gods Xenophon wrote, “The immortal gods know all things, both the past, the present and those things which shall proceed from each thing” (Cyro lib 1).

The reputation of the oracle at Delphi and other shrines depended on their sagacity, evident from predicting future events. In reality there was no supernatural sagacity at all. Their predictions lacked specific detail, and were so deliberately vague and ambiguous that they were able to preserve their reputation whatever the result might have been!

“let them shew the former things, what they be, that we may consider them, and know the latter end of them”

In this challenge, the idol-gods are called upon to show both the former things and their outcome, “the latter end of them”. It is easy to make vague ill-defined forecasts of single events and claim divinity, but here the challenge is to explain the flow of history and the tendency of past events.

Have the idol-gods control of the events of history, and are they able to say where a past event will lead? Can they predict outcomes, because they influence and guide the present?

“or declare us things for to come”

If the idol-gods did not comprehend or control the interaction of historical events, what about their detailed knowledge of impending events? Had Baal known what Elijah was about to do to his prophets on Carmel, he would certainly have warned them! Or what about Jehu’s decimation of the Baal worshippers in Samaria? Why were they not forewarned and protected? What did Bel or Nebo know about Babylon’s impending fate?

Verse 23 Shew us things that are to come hereafter, that we may know that ye are gods: yea, do good, or do evil, that we may be dismayed [‘astonished’ mlb], and behold it together.

that we may know that ye are gods”

To predict the future in detail and accuracy is proof of omniscience and divinity. This the idol-gods could not do, and so the claims made on their behalf were invalid.

“yea, do good, or do evil”

The sense here is, do anything whatever! The silence and inactivity of the idol-gods of gold and silver testifies to their utter impotence and ignorance. One can understand the desperation and frustration of the Baal worshippers on Carmel when their cries and self-mutilation produced zero response! And so has it ever been.

The same idea is found in Jeremiah 10:5: “They [the idols] are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good” (cp Psa 115:4–8).

“that we may be dismayed [mlb ‘astonished’] and behold it together [rsv ‘be terrified’]

The “we” here includes Yahweh and His worshippers. If it could be demonstrated by the idol-gods that they could actually do something, then there would be reason for respect, and fear.

Verse 24 “Behold, ye are of nothing [mrg ‘worse than nothing’], and your work of nought: an abomination is he that chooseth you.

This verse follows the challenges of the previous two verses. Presumably there was no response from the idol-gods. The challenge went unheeded due to total ineptitude and impotence. So we have here the judge intervening and summing up the case.

“Behold ye are of nothing”

The “behold” links this verse with the matching verse 29, “Behold, they are all vanity…”; it lays the foundation for Yahweh’s introduction to the explicit, detailed revelation of His Servant in 42:1, “Behold, my servant”. The statement, “we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one”, seems to be based on this verse (1 Cor 8:4).

and your work of nought [mlb worthless]

There was no response to the challenge issued, no work to provide evidence of divinity! So those who forsook Yahweh for such worthless objects were an “abomination” and detestable to Him (cp Deut 7:25–26; Jer 2:5, 11–13).

41:25–29 What Yahweh Has Done: Provided a Destroyer of Babylon, a Builder of Jerusalem. The Silence of the Idol-gods Proves Their Vanity

Verse 25 “I have raised up one from the north, and he shall come: from the rising of the sun shall he call [rsv ‘sun, and he shall call’] upon my name: and he shall come upon [rsv ‘trample’] princes as upon morter, and as the potter treadeth clay.

I have raised up [niv ‘stirred up’] one from the north

In contradistinction to the idol-gods which were incapable of predicting the future, Yahweh provides specific details of international events about to happen. He forecasts the rise of Cyrus from the north and his conquest of the world (see notes on verse 2).

from the rising of the sun

Reference is made to Cyrus coming from the north, as well as from the east (“rising of the sun”, and verse 2). Both are true, for he was born in Persia, known as “the east” in Scripture; but when he overthrew Babylon, he came from Media on the north and northeast.

“shall he call upon my name”

Cyrus recognised Yahweh as the true God and attributed to Him all his success. It would appear that through Daniel in Babylon he become acquainted with Isaiah’s prophecies concerning him, where he is named, his victory over Babylon foretold and his mission to restore the Jews to their land is recorded (see Isaiah 45). Thus, in his proclamation relating to the restoration he says, “Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, Yahweh, God of heaven, hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth” (Ezra 1:2). To what extent he was personally moved to worship Yahweh and forsake idols is not known; but it is clear that he recognized Him as the God of heaven, on the grounds of the prophecies written many years prior to his birth and fulfilled by him.

and he shall come upon [rsv, mlb ‘trample’] princes as upon morter, and as the potter treadeth clay

Reference is here made to the sweeping victories that Cyrus would enjoy. See also verses 2 and 3.

Mortar, the potter and clay are symbols frequently used to describe triumphant power over weak and unresisting foes (cp 10:6; 29:16; 45:9).

Verse 26 “Who hath declared from the beginning [rsv ‘in advance’], that we may know? and beforetime that we may say, He is righteous [rsv ‘He is right’]?

yea, there is none that sheweth,

yea, there is none that declareth,

yea, there is none that heareth your words.”

This verse consists of a question and an answer. Who among the idol-gods of the nations, the soothsayers and necromancers, predicted the birth, character and conquests of Cyrus? There was no record among the heathen, but there was among the Jews!

“that we may say, he is righteous”

The words “he is” are not in the original. The original is simply “righteous” (Heb tzaddiq, just); that is, the prediction has come to pass; it is just and true. Yahweh is awarded this verdict, His case being confirmed by His power to predict.

In the answer (‘yea, there is none’) each of the three lines commences with the emphatic and cumulative particle ap. The pathetic plight of idolators is emphasised for: (1) there is no informant (av “none that sheweth”); (2) no reporter bringing word from the god (av “none that declareth”); and there is nothing to report because there was no voice to hear (av “none that heareth your words”)!! Yet the world was full of messages from idols!? The idols have been reduced to silence by Yahweh’s unequalled power to prophesy.

Verse 27 “The first shall say to Zion, [Heb Rishon- le-Zion, name of the first kibbutz in Israel; rsv ‘I first have declared it to Zion’; roth ‘He who is First (can say) to Zion’] Behold, behold them, and I will give to Jerusalem one that bringeth good tidings.”

From a number of translations the sense is that Yahweh was “the First” (cp v4), because He is eternal, and is able to predict and declare in advance things not yet apparent. Here He calls upon Zion to look and behold, for He will give Jerusalem one who would bring good tidings. So here there is not only the prediction of the rise of Cyrus, but a detailed statement of what this would mean for the Jewish captives! Compare chapter 45:1,13: “Thus saith Yahweh to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden… I have raised him up in righteousness… he shall build my city, and he shall let go my captives.”

Verse 28 “For I beheld, and there was no man; even among them, and there was no counsellor [rsv ‘But when I look there is no one, among those there is no counsellor’], that when I asked of them could answer a word.”

Looking out upon the heathen world among all the pretend prophets and priests of the idols, there was none who could predict events to come; there was “no counsellor”, none qualified by his sagacity to anticipate what would take place; they could not even answer a word when questioned! Compare Psalm 115:6 5, “They have ears but they hear not … they have mouths, but they speak not”.

 “Behold, they are all vanity; their works are nothing: their molten images are wind and confusion.”

The conclusion is similar to verse 24, but instead of dealing with the idol-gods, it deals with idolaters.  “they are all vanity

The Hebrew word is aven and signifies something untrue, a delusion (rsv).

their works are nothing

The idols they have made are nothingness (Heb epes)!  “their molten images are wind and confusion” [rsv “empty wind”]

Wind speaks of something without substance and solidarity. The word for “confusion” (also 24:10; Heb tohu) signifies a waste (45:19 “in vain”), a chaos, meaninglessness.

So Yahweh is the only true God, Who directed history, Who has declared from ancient times things not yet done, in Whom His saints can place the utmost trust. He alone is reliable and faithful and will fulfil all His promises. The revelations of the following chapter serve only to confirm His total control of events: truly, “He changeth the times and the seasons: he removeth kings, and setteth up kings: he giveth wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to them that who know understanding” (Dan 2:21)