Chapter intro

God can be trusted - sermon notes

Text: Isaiah 41

1. Who is asking the questions?

Not the nations! – It’s God who is quizzing them, v1f.

God does allow his friends to question him (Abraham, v8, cf Gen 18; ‘Why?’, ‘How long’).

But he will not co-operate with questioning that is motivated by scepticism or idle curiosity. ‘Be silent’, v1. Cf Rom 3:19.

Apply this to apologetics (1 Pet 2:15), much of which is evidential:-

The gospel is not just a proposition to be debated

it is a summons to be believed

a command to be obeyed

The questions God asks of us are more important than the questions we might ask of God.

2. Who is in control?

Looking at today’s news headlines we might ask, ‘Who is in control…is anyone in control?’

Look at vv2, 25. In 44 and 45 this mighty conqueror will even be named – ‘Cyrus’. This Persian ruler became the most powerful man in the known world. He would overcome Babylon, and permit the Jews to return from exile.

But it’s not Cyrus who is in control!

‘Who?’ (v2) – ‘I, the Lord…’ (v4). Little Israel’s (v14) God is in control!

Every world leader – even Satan himself – is on the Lord’s leash.

Rev 6 – the white horse of imperial conquest; the red horse of violence and war; the black horse of famine and hardship; the pale horse of disease and death. They are under the sovereign control of the Lamb. They do not move an inch until they are commanded to ‘come’. They are powerless until they have been given power. It is not that Christ causes these evils, but rather that he bends them to his own purposes. As the Stricken Lamb, he knows well how that works. On the cross God took the very worst evil that men could conceive and turned it into a triumph of grace.

3. Who can be trusted?

A crisis of trust today. In a recent MORI poll

  • 4 out of 5 people trust doctors, teachers, scientists, judges to tell the truth
  • 2 or 3 out of 5 trust television news readers, clergy, police and civil servants
  • only 1 in 5 trusts journalists and politicians

Idols cannot be trusted! vv5ff; 21ff. Modern idolatries include scientism, selfism.

What idols are powerless to do, v22, the Lord can do: his fulfilment of his past promises is the guarantee of what he will yet do.

‘With the first of them and with the last, v4. He has not forgotten his promise to Abraham, v8. ‘I will…I will…I will…I will’. His down-trodden people will be triumphant, 15f, their fortunes utterly transformed, v17ff.

What God has done in the past is the guarantee of what he will do in the future, Rom 8:32.

See vv8ff

Prophecy and prediction (Isa 41:27)

Biblical prophecy is more than “fore-telling”: two-thirds of its inscripturated form involves “forth-telling,” that is, setting the truth, justice, mercy, and righteousness of God against the backdrop of every form of denial of the same. Thus, to speak prophetically was to speak boldly against every form of moral, ethical, political, economic, and religious disenfranchisement observed in a culture that was intent on building its own pyramid of values vis-à-vis God’s established system of truth and ethics.

However, prediction was by no means absent from the prophetic message. The prophets were conscious of contributing to the ongoing plan of God’s ancient, but constantly renewed promise. They announced God’s coming kingdom and the awful day of the Lord when God’s wrath would be poured out on all ungodliness. In the meantime, before that eschatological moment, there would be a number of divine in-breakings on the historical scene in which the fall of cities such as Samaria, Damascus, Nineveh, Jerusalem, and Babylon would serve as harbingers or foreshadowings of God’s final intrusion into the historical scene at the end of history. Thus each minijudgment on the nations or empires of past and present history were earnests and downpayments on God’s final day of coming onto the historic scene to end it in one severe judgment and blast of victory. So said all the prophets. And in so saying they exhibited the fact that all their messages were organically related to each other; they were progressively building on one another. And, being focused distinctly on God, they were preeminently theocentric in their organization.

Therefore, the predictive sections of biblical prophecy exhibit certain key characteristics:

  1. they are not isolated sayings, but are organically related to the whole of prophecy;
  2. they plainly foretell things to come rather than being clothed in such abstruse terminology that they could be proven true even if the opposite of what they appear to say happens;
  3. they are designed to be predictions and are not accidental or unwitting predictions;
  4. they are written and published before the event, so that it could not be said that it was a matter of human sagacity that determined this would take place;
  5. they are fulfilled in accordance with the original utterance, unless expressly attached to a condition; and
  6. they do not work out their own fulfillment, but stand as a verbal witness until the event takes place.

Walter C. Kaiser, Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology.

‘Prediction seems to belong to the very idea of the prophetic office. We may see this in Deut 18:9ff.: Israel, entering the land of Canaan, is not only warned about the abominations of the Canaanite cults, such as infant sacrifice, but also about Canaanite religious practitioners, such as diviners. Certainly these men were concerned with what we call ‘fortune-telling’; they offered to probe the future by one means or another. For Israel, instead of all these, there will be a prophet whom the Lord will raise up from among their brethren. This prophet, speaking in the name of the Lord, is to be judged by the accuracy of his forecasts (v. 22)—a clear proof that Israel expected prophetic prediction, and that it belonged to the notion of prophecy.’ (J.P. Baker, NBD)

Fulfillment of prophecy is mentioned in Deuteronomy 18:22, and Micaiah uses this to test his message against his opponents, 1 Kings 22:28.  Isa 30:8, Jer 28:9 and Eze 33:33 also stress this criterion.

Barnes says that, like chapter 40, this chapter ‘is to be considered as addressed to the exile Jews in Babylon, near the close of their captivity. Their country, city, and temple had been laid waste. The prophet represents himself as bringing consolation to them in this situation; particularly by the assurance that their long captivity was about to end; that they were about to be restored to their own land, and that their trials were to be succeeded by brighter and happier times.’

Barnes outlines the chapter as follows:-

‘I. God calls the distant nations to a public investigation of his ability to aid his people; to an argument whether he was able to deliver them; and to the statement of the reasons why they should confide in him Isa 41:1.
II. He specifies that he will raise up a man from the east – who should be able to overcome the enemies of the Jews, and to effect their deliverance Isa 41:2-4.
III. The consternation of the nations at the approach of Cyrus, and their excited and agitated fleeing to their idols is described Isa 41:5-7.
IV. God gives to his people the assurance of his protection, and friendship Isa 41:8-14. This is shown:
1. Because they were the children of Abraham, his friend, and be was bound in covenant faithfulness to protect them Isa 41:8-9.
2. By direct assurance that he would aid and protect them; that though they were feeble, yet he was strong enough to deliver them Isa 41:10-14.
V. He says that he will enable them to overcome and scatter their foes, as the chaff is driven away on the mountains by the whirlwind Isa 41:15-16.
VI. He gives to his people the special promise of assistance and comfort, …Isa 41:17-20.
VII. He appeals directly to the enemies of the Jews, to the worshippers of idols. He challenges them to give any evidence of the power or the divinity of their idols; and appeals to the fact that he had foretold future events; that he had raised up a deliverer for his people in proof of his divinity, and his power to save Isa 41:21-29. The argument of the whole is, that the idol-gods were unable to defend the nations which trusted in them; that God would raise up a mighty prince who should be able to deliver the Jews from their long and painful calamity, and that they, therefore, should put their trust in Yahweh.’

The Helper of Israel, 1-29

Isa 41:1 “Be silent before me, you islands! Let the nations renew their strength! Let them come forward and speak; let us meet together at the place of judgment.

“Be silent…!” – In consideration of the Lord’s dignity and power.  When God speaks, all must listen.

“Islands” – standing for the most far-flung nations.  This is ‘practically a technical term for the Gentile world’ (Harman). These regions may be remote, but they do not lie outside God’s jurisdiction.

Although it is the nations who are addressed, the message is intended for God’s people.

Let the nations renew their strength – Motyer thinks that this implies that a way of renewal is open to the nations.  However, in the light of vv5ff, it may well be ironic: ‘as the exiles renew their strength in the true God, so the nations are ironically exhorted to do the same—but in their man-made deities!’ (EBC)

Let us meet together at the place of judgment – Here, as in Isa 1:2, the scene is a courtroom, with God presiding as judge.  However, as Motyer points out, ‘judgement’ here, as so often is the case in the OT denotes ‘decision’ rather than ‘condemnation’ or ‘sentence’.

‘Basic to the use of the courtroom imagery is the truth that the Lord can and will proceed only on the basis of absolute justice.’ (Motyer)

‘In his dealings with us, God sustains a multiplicity of legal roles; he is plaintiff, injured party, judge, lawgiver, and creator, each role finding its place within his many-sided relationship with sinners.’ (EBC)

‘By this means God will demonstrate to his fearful people that their captivity in Babylon in no way calls his power or lordship into question.’ (Oswalt)

God sits over history.  He both knows it (past, present and future) and controls it.  All created things, including the gods and idols of the pagans, sit within history.  They cannot know either how things began, or where things are heading.  Still less can they control these processes.  God is not discernable by the ordinary processes of historical research, just as he is not provable by the ordinary processes of scientific enquiry.  To suppose otherwise would be to imagine that we can stand outside the created order of which we ourselves are a part.  History and science can point to God, and tell us certain things about him, but they cannot fully comprehend him, or bring us into relationship with him.

‘The cause of God and his kingdom is not afraid of a fair trial; if the case be but fairly stated, it will be surely carried in favour of religion.’ (MHC)

Isa 41:2 “Who has stirred up one from the east, calling him in righteousness to his service ? He hands nations over to him and subdues kings before him. He turns them to dust with his sword, to windblown chaff with his bow.

“Who…?” = also v4.  Motyer says that this repeated question forms the heart of the passage.

‘God is appealing to his unique activity in history as evidence that he alone is God.’ (Oswalt)

The rise of Cyrus has caused consternation among the nations.  But he is merely God’s instrument.  God’s sovereignty is proved, vv21-29, by his ability to predict (and therefore to control) future events – something that no man, nor any man-made idol, can do.

One from the east – Older commentators (including Calvin and Matthew Henry) understood this conqueror to be Abraham (cf Gen 14, and also cf Isa 41:8f).  Some recent scholars (e.g. Smith, NAC), think that the reference is to Sennacharib’s war against Judah.  But most modern interpreters take it to be a reference to Cyrus, as in Isa 44:28.  Oswalt thinks that this identification is ‘almost certain’.

V25 describes one who comes ‘from the north’. ‘Cyrus, king of Persia, crossed the Tigris from the east and so entered the Babylonian Empire. He marched swiftly and victoriously against Croesus, king of Lydia, and took his capital, Sardis, in western Asia Minor, having already subdued the Medes in the north (cf. v.25). He could therefore be described as being both from the east and from the north.’ (EBC)

But it is clear enough that the present verses do not offer a specific identification.  ‘It is best to let [Isaiah] spring that on us in his own time and to treat the present verses as mainly exploring a problem in principle: where do would-be conquerors come from (2a)? Whose purposes are they serving (2b)? How are their victories to be explained (2c–3)? In a word, who really rules the world? Is history a meaningless jumble of events or is it a plan in the hands of a master?’ (Motyer)

To his service – lit. ‘to follow at his heel’.  The true commander is the Lord.

He hands nations over to him – God is sovereign over Cyrus, the conqueror, and the nations, the conquered.  Cyrus was, in fact conqueror of many nations.

Isa 41:3 He pursues them and moves on unscathed, by a path his feet have not traveled before.

Isa 41:4 Who has done this and carried it through, calling forth the generations from the beginning? I, the LORD–with the first of them and with the last–I am he.”

With the first of them and with the last – lit. ‘the first and with the last’, and so affirming the Lord as prior to, and enduring presence with, all generations.

Here we are introduced to a theme that will feature prominently in the coming chapters: God knows the end from the beginning.  He is not part of the created order, as the pagan gods are.  Rather, he stands over his creation, directing and ruling all things.  (Oswalt)

‘Verse 4 declares the absolute sovereignty of God over history—from its beginning, through all its generations, and to its end. No wonder he can predict and raise up Cyrus!’ (EBC)

‘Sometimes we forget that God can use even unconverted world leaders for the good of His people and the progress of His work. He raised up Pharaoh in Egypt that He might demonstrate His power (Rom. 9:17), and He even used wicked Herod and cowardly Pontius Pilate to accomplish His plan in the crucifixion of Christ (Acts 4:24–28). “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes” (Prov. 21:1, NKJV)’ (Wiersbe)

“I am he” – recalls Ex 6:3, and asserts God’s self-existence.  ‘Every other life form on the planet is derivative.  But he is the One who has neither beginning nor end.  He simply “is”.’ (Oswalt)  See also Jesus’ statement in Jn 8:58.

‘The argument here is, that to this unchanging and eternal God, who had thus raised up and directed Cyrus, and who had control over all nations, they might commit themselves with unwavering confidence, and be assured that he was able to protect and deliver them.’ (Barnes)

Isa 41:5 The islands have seen it and fear; the ends of the earth tremble. They approach and come forward;

Motyer outlines the sequence of thought: ‘universal nervousness (5ab) drives humankind into collective security (5c, 6ab) and a brotherhood of fear (6b). Out of this emerges the need to have a ‘spiritual’ power on their side (7) but the product cannot exceed its source: human skill (7abc), human approval (7d), human stability (7e). Humankind’s ‘gods’ are only projections of humankind’s weaknesses.’

Isa 41:6 each helps the other and says to his brother, “Be strong!”

Statesmen try to build morale in the face of Cyrus’ threatening approach.  We see here, and in the following verse, the peril of toxic encouragement.  Panic (v5) that resolves into misplaced trust (v6) is vain (v29).

Isa 41:7 The craftsman encourages the goldsmith, and he who smooths with the hammer spurs on him who strikes the anvil. He says of the welding, “It is good.” He nails down the idol so it will not topple.

There is mutual encouragement, teamwork, industriousness and skill here – all in the interests of idolatry!

The nation’s response to the threat is to build bigger and better idols (cf. Isa 40:25f; 41:22-24; 44:9-20; 46:6f).

‘With keen satire, Isaiah describes various workmen helping each other manufacture a god who cannot help them! After all, when the God of heaven is in charge of the conquest, how can men or gods oppose Him?’ (Wiersbe)

‘If you rely on idols, you have only yourself, because you are the creator of your “gods”, rather than having a God who created you.  The battle is as old as the history of the fallen human race and needs to be exposed in our preaching in all its contemporary disguises.’ (Jackman)

The making and worshiping of idols may seem remote from our own western culture.  But in fact anything (be it an object, an idea, or a person) that is constructed in opposition to the one true and loving God is an idol.  Our endeavours in science, government, an psychological therapy may be characterised by great knowledge, skill, and co-operation.  They they still amount to idolatry, when carried on without reference to, or in opposition to, God.

‘Nothing is more common, than for people, when they are in danger, to give great attention to religion, though they may greatly neglect or despise it when they are in safety. Men fly to temples and churches and altars in the times of plague and the pestilence; and as regularly flee from them when the calamity is overpast.’ (Barnes)

“It is good” – A chilling echo of God’s words in Gen 1.  Truly, when we fail to worship the God who made us in his image, then we construct and worship gods of our own making, made in our own image.

He nails down the idol so it will not topple – What a contrast to the strength, independence and stability of the one true God!  How could such a god help them?

‘This is a beautiful description of the anxiety, and pains, and consternation of sinners when calamity is coming upon them, and of the nature of their reliances. What could these dumb idols – these masses of brass, or silver, or stone, do to protect them? And in like manner what can all the refuges of sinners do when God comes to judge them, and when the calamities connected with death and the judgment shall overtake them? They are just as full of consternation as were the pagan who are here described; and all their refuges will be just as little to be relied on as were the senseless images which the pagan had made for their defense.’ (Barnes)

Isa 41:8 “But you, O Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend,

Israel, though seemingly the weakest and most vulnerable of the nations, need not fear.  For her God is not only able, but willing, to act an her behalf.  God’s people may have sinned grievously, but God has not forgotten his promise to Abraham.

The theme in vv8-20, according to Motyer, is ‘transformed helplessness’.  In 8-13, the picture is of an empowered and privileged servant; in 14-16, Jacob is a ‘worm’ who triumphs by the Lord’s help; and in 17-20, there is the transformation of the desert into a new and vibrant creation.  ‘In context, therefore, the three pictures affirm that the divine life promised in 40:31 is not wishful thinking but a practical reality, even in a world of superior powers (8–13), colossal difficulties (14–16) and adverse circumstances (17–20).’

Although Israel is described as ‘my servant’, a ‘worm’ and ‘little Israel’ (v14) and ‘poor and needy’ (v17), ‘God’s presence and covenant grace transform each situation of human helplessness (see verses 10, 14-15 and 17b-20).  This is what marks Israel out as distinct from all the nations.  The people of the world create their own idols and are sunk in futility.  By contrast, Israel has been created, as a unique people, by her God, who is himself the source of all that she needs to survive and prosper.’ (Jackman)

My servant – The first mention of this theme, so predominant in chapters 40-55.  A servant is one who has no independent rights or status, but belonging to a sovereign Master.  A slave is a non-entity, says Motyer; but before you kick him, ask who his Master is!  Cf. vv14-16, where, with the Lord’s help, Jacob the ‘worm’ triumphs over enormous obstacles.

‘The word ‘servant’ here is used in a mild and gentle sense, not to denote bondage or slavery, but to denote that they had been engaged in his service, and that he regarded them as subject to his laws, and as under his protection.’ (Barnes)

My friend – See James 2:23.  ‘The idea in this verse is, that as they were the descendants of his friend, God deemed himself bound to protect and deliver them according to his gracious promises; and this is one of the many instances where the divine favor is manifested to descendants in consequence of the piety and prayers of their ancestors.’ (Barnes)

The dignity of God’s people.  So, God’s people, though non-entities in and of themselves, have a fivefold dignity: (a) they are God’s servants, and he will protect them, especially when they are about his service; (b) they are a chosen, special, people; (c) they are the seed of Abraham, his friend; (d) they have been brought out from among the heathen and would not now be abandoned; (e) they continue to be the objects of God’s special regard, though they have failed him often.  (See MHC)

This verse is packed with issues for a Muslim context. The category, ‘servant of God’ is the highest qur’anic accolade, Abraham is seen as the builder of the Ka’abah and the father of ‘the Abrahamic faiths’, and ‘friend of God’ is both the qur’anic and the popular title for Abraham. Following as it does from a passage about ‘the coastlands’, the verse also raises the question of how the choice of Israel relates to God’s intent for the other nations. Many Muslims find the Bible’s focus on Israel scandalous, and compare what they see as the Bible’s ethnic exclusivism with the universal message of the Qur’an. One of the most important questions in reading the Bible in the context of Islam is, “What was and is the purpose of Israel?”‘ (Ida Glaser, Reading the Bible With Islam in Mind, Anvil, 31:1, March 2015.  Emphasis added.  To answer the question at the end, Glaser turns to Hos 11:1-11)

Isa 41:9 I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, ‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you.

I took you from the ends of the earth – From distant Ur, in fact, to Canaan.

‘You are my servant’ – Although in the ensuing chapters this designation will develop in its meaning, the emphasis here is on the Lord’s protection, which includes, ‘imparted strength (10), scattered enemies (11–13), triumph over obstacles (14–16; cf. Mt. 21:21) and inexhaustible provision (17–20).’ (NBC)

‘The title “My servant” is an honorable one; it was given to great leaders like Moses (Num. 12:7), David (2 Sam. 3:18), the prophets (Jer. 7:25), and Messiah (Isa. 42:1). But is there any honor in being called a “worm”? (Isa 41:14–16) “Servant” defined what they were by God’s grace and calling, but “worm” described what they were in themselves. Imagine a worm getting teeth and threshing mountains into dust like chaff! As the nation marched ahead by faith, every mountain and hill would be made low (40:4); and the Lord would turn mountains into molehills!’ (Wiersbe)

‘These people are loved for the sake of beloved Abraham (cf. Dt 7:7–8), to whom God gave great promises (Ge 12:1–3; 17:1–8; et al.).’ (EBC)  The Lord’s passionate commitment to his historic people, despite their many failings, recalls the message of Hosea, and of Paul in Romans 9-11.

Isa 41:10 So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

“Do not fear” – The Lord says this seven times in the current passage ( Isa 41:10, 13, 14; 43:1, 5; 44:2, 8).  This is in contrast to the panic experienced by the distant nations, v5.

The reason that they need not fear is that God has not abandoned them: he is ‘with them’ to ‘strengthen’, ‘help’ and ‘uphold’ them.

“I am with you” – God’s presence with us is not merely a projection of ourselves, as in paganism.  No: the transcendent God has stepped into history to be with us.  The promise of ‘God with us’ (see Isa 7:14) has been brought to fulfilment in Jesus Christ, Mt 1:23.  Moreover, he has promised never to leave us nor forsake us, Heb 13:5.  And he remains present with us through the Holy Spirit, Jn 14:17-20.  (See Oswalt, p465).

I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand – The basis for trusting God is recollecting what he has done before (vv17-20 are replete with allusions to the Exodus) as confirmation that he will fulfil his promises for the future.

The hand (‘my righteous right hand’) ‘is the organ of personal action’ (Motyer).

‘This verse is plain in its meaning, and is full of consolation. It is to be regarded as addressed primarily to the exiled Jews during their long and painful captivity in Babylon; and the idea is, that they who had been selected by God to be his special people had nothing to fear. But the promise is one that may be regarded as addressed to all his people in similar circumstances, and it is as true now as it was then, that those whom God has chosen have nothing to fear.’ (Barnes)

‘If God sends us on stony paths, he provides strong shoes.’ (Corrie Ten Boom)

Cf. Psa 37:23-24.

Isa 41:11 “All who rage against you will surely be ashamed and disgraced; those who oppose you will be as nothing and perish.

Isa 41:12 Though you search for your enemies, you will not find them. Those who wage war against you will be as nothing at all.

Isa 41:13 For I am the LORD, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.

Note the names of God – ‘the Lord, your God’, ‘your Redeemer’, ‘the Holy One of Israel’ – which not only express his character, but also his special relationship with his people.

Isa 41:14 Do not be afraid, O worm Jacob, O little Israel, for I myself will help you,” declares the LORD, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.

O worm Jacob – Cf. Psa 22:6.  ‘Here is a remarkable picture: a worm faced with mountains and hills! An impossible barrier! But the worm is transformed into a threshing-sledge of such mammoth proportions that the mountains are chopped into chaff and carried away on the wind.’ (Motyer)

Though Israel may be as weak and seemingly insignificant as a ‘worm’, and facing apparently insuperable obstacles, the Lord himself (‘I myself’) has spoken (‘declares’), and has revealed himself as ‘the Lord’, taking the role of next-of-kin, making their needs his own (‘Redeemer’), and is their transcendent and immanent God (‘the Holy One of Israel’).

“I myself will help you” – Not only does God promise to be with his people, v10, he also pledges to come to their aid.  Pagan magic seeks to bring the forces of nature under our control; but biblical faith lays hold of the Creator of those forces, and he ‘freely comes to stand at our sides and do through us what we cannot’ (Oswalt).

Redeemer – This is the first of 14 references to God as ‘Redeemer’ in Isaiah.  ‘Just as God was the redeemer from bondage in Egypt, so will he be the redeemer from bondage in Babylon. Weak and puny Israel need not fear, for her deliverance will be secured by her redeemer.’ (Harman)

The Holy One of Israel – A characteristic designation in both parts of Isaiah.

‘We may remark in view of these verses:

  1. That the people of God are in themselves feeble and defenseless. They have no strength on which they can rely. They are often so encompassed with difficulties which they feel they have no strength to overcome, that they are disposed to apply to themselves the appellation of ‘worm,’ and by others they are looked on as objects of contempt, and are despised.
  2. They have nothing to fear. Though they are feeble, their God and Redeemer is strong. He is their Redeemer, and their friend, and they may put their trust in him. Their enemies cannot ultimately triumph over them, but they will be scattered and become as nothing.
  3. In times of trial, want, and persecution, the friends of God should put their trust alone in him. It is often the plan of God so to afflict and humble his people, that they shall feel their utter helplessness and dependence, and be led to him as the only source of strength.’

(Barnes)

Isa 41:15 “See, I will make you into a threshing sledge, new and sharp, with many teeth. You will thresh the mountains and crush them, and reduce the hills to chaff.

A threshing sledge was constructed from heavy boards, and studded with flints.  It was dragged over the harvested corn in order to break open the ears of grain, which were then winnowed (v16).  But its effectiveness depended on the skill of the one controlling it: ‘this is much more a statement about what God will make them and what he will do with them than about what they themselves will achieve.’ (Prior)

Prior adds that ‘threshing’ is a metaphor for judgement, because it involves a separation of the wheat from the chaff, what would be gathered into the granary from what would destroyed in the fire.  ‘Isaiah wants those who have been carried off to Babylon to know that God still holds the nations accountable for how they treat his people.  They, the surviving remnant of Israel, are sill the touchstone by which the nations will be judged.’

Oswalt points out that, whereas the previous verses have emphasised the Lord’s protection of his people, we have now moved from a defensive to an offensive image.  ‘God will use Israel in his plan of world history.  They will not be passive by-standers, a helpless “worm” (Isa 41:14), but will be active participants with God in his work.’  In the same way, the almighty and all-gracious God does not want us to step aside and be mere observers in his work of kingdom-extension.  Rather, he gives us the status of co-workers with him, as he calls us to make disciples of all nations, Mt 28:18-20.

Isa 41:16 You will winnow them, the wind will pick them up, and a gale will blow them away. But you will rejoice in the LORD and glory in the Holy One of Israel.

“I will make…you will winnow” – ‘The Lord’s transforming power is not meant to immobilize but to enable his people.’ (Motyer)

Isa 41:17 “The poor and needy search for water, but there is none; their tongues are parched with thirst. But I the LORD will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.

‘The righteous God who upholds (8–13), the Redeemer who transforms (14–16), is now the Creator who provides.’ (Motyer)

“I the Lord will answer them” – ‘In Exodus 17, faced with lack of water, the people grumbled; Moses prayed, and prayer, not grumbling, was the solution to the crisis.’ (Motyer)

Isa 41:18 I will make rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within the valleys. I will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs.

‘The preaching of the gospel to the world turned that wilderness into a pool of water, yielding fruit to the owner of it and relief to the travellers through it.’ (MHC)

Isa 41:19 I will put in the desert the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive. I will set pines in the wasteland, the fir and the cypress together,

None of the trees mentioned provide fruit: but they do provide shelter.

‘When God sets up his church in the Gentile wilderness there shall be as great a change made by it in men’s characters as if thorns and briers were turned into cedars, and fir-trees, and myrtles.’ (MHC)

Isa 41:20 so that people may see and know, may consider and understand, that the hand of the LORD has done this, that the Holy One of Israel has created it.

People – lit. ‘they’.

See…know…consider…understand – note the richness of the vocabulary describing the recognition that the nations will have of God’s power.

Isa 41:21 “Present your case,” says the LORD. “Set forth your arguments,” says Jacob’s King.

Up until this point, the focus has been on the Lord and his covenant people.  But now attention turns to the plight of the Gentiles, who have no transcendent source of help and whose gods are man-made objects.  It is these so-called gods who are now addressed and challenged.

‘God challenged the idols of the nations to prove that they were really gods. Did any of their predictions come true? What have they predicted about the future? Did they announce that Cyrus would appear on the scene or that Jerusalem would be restored? “No one told of this, no one foretold it, no one heard any words from you,” taunted the Lord (v. 26, NIV). Not only were the idols unable to make any valid predictions, but they were not even able to speak! The judgment of the court was correct: “See, they are all false! Their deeds amount to nothing; their images are but wind and confusion” (v. 29, NIV).’ (Wiersbe)

‘There needs no more to show the absurdity of sin than to produce the reasons that are given in defence of it, for they carry with them their own confutation.’ (MHC)

Isa 41:22 “Bring in your idols to tell us what is going to happen. Tell us what the former things were, so that we may consider them and know their final outcome. Or declare to us the things to come,

“Bring in your idols” – ‘Idols’ is supplied, but is a reasonable inference (Oswalt).

“The former things” – either previously-uttered prophecies, or earlier events (that the idols are challenged to explain).  Oswalt thinks that the latter is most likely.

The gods are incompetent: they cannot understand past events, let alone predict future ones.

Isa 41:23 tell us what the future holds, so we may know that you are gods. Do something, whether good or bad, so that we will be dismayed and filled with fear.

“Do something” – indeed, do anything, and show us, if you can, that you are more than a lifeless lump of metal.

Isa 41:24 But you are less than nothing and your works are utterly worthless; he who chooses you is detestable.

We can assume a silent pause between v23 and v24, as we wait to see if the gods will respond.  But there is no reply: the gods cannot say or do anything.

Detestable – The utter folly and evil of choosing false gods is developed in Rom 1:18-32.

Isa 41:25 “I have stirred up one from the north, and he comes– one from the rising sun who calls on my name. He treads on rulers as if they were mortar, as if he were a potter treading the clay.

Having challenged the gods to speak and act, and found that they incapable of doing either, the Lord now announces beforehand what he will do.  Verses 25-29 recapitulate verses 2-4, but will more detail about Cyrus’ conquests.

One from the north – We take this to be Cyrus.  He was described in v2 as coming from the east.  In the present verse, both directions are indicated (‘north’ and ‘from the rising sun’ [east]).  The Persians conquered territory in the north before taking Babylon in the east.

‘Sometimes we forget that God can use even unconverted world leaders for the good of His people and the progress of His work. He raised up Pharaoh in Egypt that He might demonstrate His power (Rom. 9:17), and He even used wicked Herod and cowardly Pontius Pilate to accomplish His plan in the crucifixion of Christ (Acts 4:24–28). “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes” (Prov. 21:1, NKJV).’ (Wiersbe)

Who calls on my name – Isa 45:4 explains that Cyrus invokes the name of Yahweh without true acknowledgement.

Isa 41:26 Who told of this from the beginning, so we could know, or beforehand, so we could say, ‘He was right’? No one told of this, no one foretold it, no one heard any words from you.

‘The prophet presses home his point with quite exceptional emphasis, for vv.26–29 are given over entirely to different ways of underlining the great contrast between the true God who predicts and the false gods who cannot.’ (EBC)

The heathen placed great store by divination.  But their gods were not able to compete with Yahweh in the matter of prediction.

‘Much of the force of the theological argument of these and other passages is lost if they are not genuinely long-range predictions, as advocates of the Second Isaiah hypothesis often conveniently overlook.’ (Prior)

Critical scholars are perplexed by the argument here, which is that the pagan gods cannot accurately predict future events, whereas the Lord can.  After all, pagan religions do practice divination, but this has neither the specificity, accuracy, or ethical intent of biblical prophecy.  Conversely, Old Testament prophecy does contain a strong predictive element, but this is other than, and more than, ‘clairvoyance’ (to use Brevard Childs’ dismissive label).  It does not seek to control nature through the use of magical incantations and so on, but rather it appeals to nature’s Maker, and arises out of a prayerful relationship with him.  The fact is that Isaiah’s argument turns on the Lord’s ability to understand past events and predict, accurately and in details, future events.

Oswalt says that prediction ‘had three main functions in the Bible:-

  1. It was a means of calling people to obedience, because such obedience would have positive future consequences.
  2. It was a means of encouraging faith; the God whom we serve cannot be surprised by events beyond his control.
  3. It served to confirm God’s trustworthiness when the predicted events occurred.’

Oswalt warns against the opposite dangers of over-fascination and scepticism with regard to predictive prophecy.  The former problem besets any number of self-styled ‘students of end-time prophecy’, who construct detailed timetables of future events, often without regard to the ethical implications of prophecy for our lives today.  The latter mistake is committed by those critics who, for example, see in the appeal of the the NT writers to OT prediction simply an exercise in their having gone through the OT with a fine tooth-comb ‘and using whatever they could find to bolster their belief that Jesus had been predicted in advance.’  But if these critics ask why God would be interested in predicting the coming of his son in advance, Isa 41 provides them with the very rationale they require.  Of course, the NT writers do not always see the OT prophecies as directly predictions: they sometimes use these passages allusively or illustratively.  But this text in Isaiah confirms that prediction was one important element.

Clifford (Harper Bible Commentary) agrees that Isaiah 41:21ff affirms that Yahweh is the one who had predicted (and therefore brought about) Cyrus’s conquests, whereas the pagan gods have done nothing.  Clifford thinks that the actual mention of Cyrus’s name in chapters 44 and 45 clinches the matter with regard to the late dating of this material.  However, he still recognises that there had been an earlier prediction of the rise of Cyrus, and thinks it likely that this is found in passages such as Isaiah 10:5-19 (which speaks of Yahweh’s control of the king of Assyria).

Isa 41:27 I was the first to tell Zion, ‘Look, here they are!’ I gave to Jerusalem a messenger of good tidings.

I was the first to tell Zion – The predictive element in Isaiah is one major reason why critics doubt that these chapters come from the time of the original prophet.  However, ‘the power to predict is precisely the proof paraded here that Yahweh alone is God (cf. Isa 41:21–23, 26–29; 44:7–8, 25–28; 46:10–11; 48:3–8.’ (NBC)

 

Isa 41:28 I look but there is no one– no one among them to give counsel, no one to give answer when I ask them.

Isa 41:29 See, they are all false! Their deeds amount to nothing; their images are but wind and confusion.

‘Recourse has been made [to man-made idols and occult forces, Isa 41:4-7, 21-24] in every age down to our own. Men and women’s desperation to know the future that they might preserve themselves from its dangers or capitalise on its prospects for good has led them to seek predictions about the future in everything from stars to tea-leaves, from entrails to clairvoyants. The great offence of such practices is that they bypass God, turning aside from his speech and honour to substitutes. In Isaiah, God says they are all “but wind and confusion” and insists, “I am the Lord [Yahweh]; I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.’ (Lewis, The Message of the Living God, 233f)

‘How should one conceive of God? Look at what he has said in the past, to observe what he has done in years gone by and to notice what he has promised for the future. Does he have power over history? Did he create the heaven and the earth? Has he foretold what will happen in the future and then accomplished that very thing? The answers to these questions do not tell one everything about God, but they do indicate that he is God, that he speaks and accomplishes the things he says he will do, that he is holy, should be feared, and is trustworthy. He is not an illusion, an imaginary idea, an abomination, a magic Santa, or simply nothing. He has planned the future for this world, so it makes sense to fear him, follow him, and trust in him. He is God.’ (Smith, NAC)

‘The doctrine of the whole chapter is, that confidence should be reposed in God, and in him alone. He is the friend of his people, and he is able to protect them. He will deliver them from the hand of all their enemies; and he will be always their God, protector, and guide. The idols of the pagan have no power; and it is folly, as well as sin, to trust in them, or to suppose that they can aid their friend.

It may be added, also, that it is equally vain to trust in any being for salvation but God. He only is able to protect and defend us; and it is a source of unspeakable consolation now, as it was in times past, that he is the friend of his people; and that, in times of deepest darkness and distress, he can raise up deliverers, as he did Cyrus, and will in his own way and time rescue his people from all their calamities.’ (Barnes)