Isaiah 41

As in the previous chapter, Yahweh continues to challenge any detractors, forecasting future events in detail and showing without any shadow of doubt that “He removeth kings, and setteth up kings”: indeed, that He is the One who “rules in the kingdom of men” (Dan 2:21, 4:17). Idols, the supposed repository of wisdom and power in the minds of men, are again called upon to contest Yahweh’s claims to omnipotence and control of the world. In particular, the rise of Cyrus the Persian is made known, along with his rapid conquests. He will make the nations tremble, but there is no need for Israel to fear, for he has been raised up by God and will bring good tidings to Jerusalem (v27).

Verses 1–4 The Divine Challenge: Cyrus’ Rise and  Mission Foretold by Me. Who Then Controls and  Directs World History?

Verse 1 “Keep silence before me, O islands [roth,  rsv ‘coastlands’], and let the people renew their  strength [cp 40:31]: let them come near; then let them speak: let us come near together to judgment.”

“Keep silence before me” The nations are called  upon to be silent and listen, as is appropriate before  Yahweh (Zech 2:13; Ecc 5:2).

“O islands” Gentiles are later to be incorporated  in Yahweh’s salvation (42:4,10; 49:1), but before  this can happen they must acknowledge His total  supremacy and forsake their idols and oracles.

“and let the people renew their strength” This  statement uses the same wording as 40:31, where it  is used exclusively of the reward God has promised  to those who “wait upon” Him. Clearly, such a  “renewal” was impossible for them, and is probably  then a call for them to prepare their arguments and  strong reasons to answer the challenge they will  soon be confronted with.

“Let us come near together to judgment” Yahweh  intends to settle the issue of the validity or otherwise  of idols, and hence there is the language of the  courtroom, of approaching, speaking and meeting together to arrive at the judgment (Heb mishpat), the authoritative decision.

Verse 2 “Who raised up the righteous man from the east, called him to his foot, gave the nations before him, and made him rule over kings? he gave them as dust to his sword, and as driven stubble to his bow.”

Verse 3 “He pursued them: he passed unhindered in the way which his feet had never trod.” (mlb and rsv)

Verse 4 “Who hath wrought and done it, calling the generations from the beginning? I Yahweh,  the first, and with the last; I am he.”

Verse 2 “Who hath raised up the righteous man  from the east …?” roth “Who roused up one from the East, in righteousness [Heb zedek] called him to his feet …?”

Verses 2 and 3 set forth the issue, the questions requiring an answer. This answer is given in verse  4, “I Yahweh, the first, and with the last [‘last ones’,  plural], I am he.” Yahweh forecasts the rise of a  great conqueror. He directs his course and gives  him rule over kings and nations. His victories  would be rapid and without difficulty; they would  involve kingdoms he had never visited. He would  emerge from the east and “righteousness” would  characterise his rule. The challenge goes forth to  the islands and coastlands, to all the nations, indeed  to answer the question, who could pronounce such  a remarkable and illustrious career and actually  bring it to pass? Yahweh alone, the eternal God  and Creator could make such prognostications and  bring about their enactment. He has absolute power  and controls and directs the course of world history.  It conforms to His will alone.

The identity of the conquering king is not given  yet in the prophecy, but further details are given (v26; Isa 44–46). He is actually named—Cyrus, the  Persian—140 years before he was born! Some have  applied the prophecy to Abraham and his conquests  (Gen 14); others to Joshua and his remarkable  victories, but the focus and sense is missing. This  passage is dealing with future not past events, and  God’s control over them and ability to foretell them  is being proven.

“the righteous man from the east”

The “righteousness” of Cyrus does not relate to his  piety so much as his justice. He was not a tyrant. He  would be the one Yahweh would use to overthrow  Babylon, release His captive people and shepherd  them back to the Holy Land. He would enable them  to rebuild their city and temple. Cyrus was a prince  eminently distinguished for justice and a mild and  kind administration over his subjects. All the ancient  writers celebrate his humanity and benevolence.

“… the east” Persia, the land over which Cyrus  ruled and from which he came to conquer, was in  the eastern extremity of the then known world.

“gave nations before him, and made him rule over  kings” This well describes the victorious career of Cyrus.  Among nations whom he subdued were the Armenians,  the Cappadocians, the Lydians, the Phrygians, the  Assyrians, the Babylonians. All the nations between the  Euxine and Caspian Seas on the north, to the Red Sea on  the south, and even Egypt. Thus his own proclamation  was true, “Yahweh God of heaven hath given me all the  kingdoms of the earth” (Ezra 1:2).

Verse 3 “and passed safely” (mg Heb ‘in peace’).  Cyrus’ conquests were unhindered and his enemies  had no power to resist or rally. He was safe as far  as he chose to pursue them.

“even by the way that he had not gone with his  feet” Cyrus spent his early years east of Euphrates.  In his conquests he crossed that river and extended  his march beyond the river Halys to the western  extremity of Asia, and even to Egypt. The idea is  that he had not travelled to these regions before he  conquered them.

Verse 4 “Who hath wrought and done it, calling the generations from the beginning?”

The answer is Yahweh. He directs, supervises  and determines the course of kings, nations and  history. He is beyond comparison and should  be worshipped and adored by all. He calls the  generations of mankind from creation: they owe  their origin to Him (Acts 17:26). Men should  raise their eyes above the conquests of Cyrus and  contemplate God’s universal dominion over all  from eternity!

“I Yahweh, the first, and with the last: I am he”

This is an unusual designation. Notice that Yahweh  addresses Himself as “the First” in verse 27, and in  44:6 and 48:12 He says, “I am the first, I also am  the last”. In these chapters He is laying claim to  His uniqueness, eternity, control, and omnipotence  which enable Him to prophesy future events and  bring them to pass. No other could make such a  claim, and so His authority and status is unrivalled  and absolute. The word translated “last” is plural.  Rotherham translates as follows, “I, Yahweh, [who  am] First, and with them who are last, I am the  Same.” The implication is that His great purpose of  redemption expressed in His Name will be realised,  and at the culmination of His plan many saints will  belong to His family—they will “survive” and  exist with Him in His eternity. In this sense we can  understand the statement “… And with them who  are last”; like Him, in time.

“I am he” expresses His indisputable existence,  changelessness and consistency.

40:5–7 The Response: Being Informed of the Uprise of the Man from the East, the World Turns Desperately to its Idols

Verse 5 “The isles saw it, and feared [mlb ‘and  became alarmed’]; the ends of the earth were afraid [mlb ‘trembled’], drew near and came.

Verse 6 They helped everyone his neighbour; and everyone said to his brother, Be of good courage.

Verse 7 So the carpenter [rsv ‘craftsman’, roth  ‘carver’] encouraged the goldsmith [mg ‘founder’],  and he that smootheth with the hammer him that smiteth the anvil, saying, It is ready for the sodering [rsv, mlb ‘soldering’]: and he fastened it with nails, that it should not be moved.”

These verses describe prophetically the reaction of distant nations to the rumours and reports of the might and conquests of Cyrus. They chose to band together and to hastily make idols that might in some way preserve them from this all-conquering king from the east. The idols so constructed were merely the product of human ingenuity driven by human fear (cp 40:19). But just as the idols could provide no answer to the Lord of Creation (chapter 40), here they are equally pathetic against the Lord of prophecy and history! The idols “are even more caught by the turn of events than the idolators who made them, who at least saw the advent of the conqueror” (JA Motyer).

There is a particular event in the history of the times which so aptly illustrates the frenzied fear of the nations when threatened by Cyrus. King Croesus of Lydia, the richest man in the world, was thrown into alarm by the approach of Cyrus. In order to find out from the multitude of the gods and shrines in the ancient world, what the future held for him he sought the ‘best advice’ from the oracles available. He sent to every oracle of repute: to the oracles of the Greeks at Miletus, Delphi, Abai; to that of Trophimus; to the sanctuary of Amphiaraus at Thebes; to Dodona; and even to the far off temple of Ammon in Libya! They told him that if he went against Cyrus he would destroy a great empire! But Croesus forgot to ask them whether it was his or his rival’s! The oracles gave ambiguous prophecies in order to preserve their reputation—‘to hedge their bets’! In the battle between Croesus and Cyrus the latter was victorious and the Persian empire was thereby extended to its western extremity—the Aegean Sea.

So we can see that history has provided a dramatic illustration of the dread created by Cyrus’ rapid conquests (according to Herodotus), as well as the frantic recourse to idols to find out their fate!

41:8–10 Israel’s Unique Relationship to Yahweh  Guarantees His Help and Ultimate Deliverance.

Verse 8 “But thou, Israel, art my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my  friend” (cp 2 Chron 20:7, and cited Jas 2:23).

Verse 9 “Thou whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called thee from the chief men  thereof [mlb ‘from its utmost corners’; rsv ‘farthest  corners’], and said unto thee, Thou art my servant;  I have chosen thee, and not cast thee away.”

Verse 10 “Fear thou not; for I am with thee:  be not dismayed; for I am thy God:  I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee;  yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.”

These verses repeatedly appeal to Yahweh’s special purpose with the seed of Abraham. He hearkens back to the origins of Israel and makes it clear the covenant and promises to their fathers are inviolate and will be performed. Both Abraham and Jacob are recalled and mention is made of Abraham as His friend, to whom He made known His will (cp Gen 18:18,19; John 15:14,15), and to Jacob, His servant. This phrase also emphasises the privilege of the nation. When delivering Jacob from Egypt, Yahweh addressed Pharaoh accordingly, “Israel is my son, even my firstborn… Let my son go, that he may serve me…” (Ex 4:22,23).

Verse 8 “But thou, Israel, art my servant” The  Hebrew word for “servant” is ebed, meaning “a  servant, tiller, doer, slave”; that is, one who does the  will of another. In the lxx the word (two times in the  verse) is pais, meaning “a child, an attendant”. This is  the first occurrence of the word servant in the “Servant  Prophecy”, and has reference to the nation.

“whom I have chosen” Mention is made here (and  in verse 9) of Israel’s primacy—  no other nation  enjoyed such distinction (Psa 147:19,20; 148:14;  Ex 19:5,6; Isa 43:1 etc).

Verse 9 “I have taken thee from the ends of the  earth, and called from its farthest bounds” (rsv)  This is a poetic expression describing the taking  of Abraham from distant Ur of the Chaldees, and  probably also a reference to the emancipation of Israel from Egypt. These are both deliberate and critical turning points which demonstrate favour  and election. The repetition of Israel’s honourable call to be God’s servant, and His chosen, ratifies  the singular honour of the nation.

Verse 10 “Fear thou not: for I am with thee” Such  an honour (as in verse 9) must mean that the nation  has no cause for fear, although there is an added  reason, the Divine presence, “I am with thee”.

“be not dismayed; for I am thy God” This is a  parallel expression bringing consolation. The word  for “dismayed” has the idea of glancing this way  and that as if not knowing where to look for safety.  As Yahweh is their God, there is no reason to be  alarmed. And there are historic precedents where  the nation was told to “fear not”, and deliverance  followed (Exod 14:13; 2 Chron 20:17).

“I will strengthen [cp 40:31] … help … uphold thee  with the right hand of my righteousness” Here are  further reasons not to fear. One thought is added to  another and these assurances stress Yahweh’s power  to save. Reference to His “righteousness” shows that  their preservation was also His moral responsibility.  How strong then are the promises that Israel will be  delivered, exalted and made the head and not the tail  of nations. The initial promise, “Comfort ye, comfort  ye my people”, is thus given certainty by the One  who created the world, and who controls the destiny  of Israel and indeed of all nations.