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Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament

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Chapter 42
 
 
 
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ISAIAH 41

GOD SUMMONS THE NATIONS AND THEIR IDOLS TO COURT

Isa. 41:1-7


 
Verses 1-7
Keep silence before me, O islands; and let the peoples renew their strength: let them come near; then let them speak; let us come near together to judgment. Who hath raised up one from the east, whom he calleth in righteousness to his foot? he giveth nations before him, and maketh him rule over kings; he giveth them as the dust to his sword, as the driven stubble to his bow. He pursueth them, and passeth on safely, even by a way that he had not gone with his feet. Who hath wrought and done it, calling the generations from the beginning? I, Jehovah, the first, and with the last, I am he. The isles have seen, and fear; the ends of the earth tremble; they draw near, and come. They help every one his neighbor; and [every one] saith to his brother, Be of good courage. So the carpenter encourageth the goldsmith, [and] he that smootheth with the hammer him that smiteth the anvil, saying of the soldering, It is good; and he fasteneth it with nails, that is should not be moved.

"Here the call for silence opens the imaginary proceedings of a court, where God will face the heathen world with a test question (The call to renew their strength may be a warning that the encounter will be formidable)."F4

This type of an imaginary court session was a device frequently used by a number of God's prophets, in Hosea, especially.

Isa. 41:2, is interpreted by practically all of the present-day commentators as a reference to God's raising up Cyrus the King of Persia as the deliverer of God's people from their Babylonian bondage; but we do not accept that interpretation of this passage. Of course, there is no doubt whatever of Isaiah's prophesying the rise of Cyrus and of his reporting his very name over a century before he appeared upon the historical scene; but that certainty, in our opinion, falls far short of injecting Cyrus into this particular passage. We have noted one commentator who mentioned Cyrus fifteen times in his writings on these seven verses, but the text does not even mention him at all!

Here are our reasons for applying Isa. 41:2 to Abraham, rather than to Cyrus.

1. Cyrus is not mentioned here; and when Isaiah introduced him in Isa. 45:1ff, there is no notice whatever of his having already been introduced.

2. As noted above, there were three Great Servants of God who would figure prominently in the lifting of Israel's captivity, these being Israel herself, Cyrus, and the Messiah; and there is no way that Cyrus qualifies for being mentioned first. He simply does not belong first in that triad.

3. As Douglas observed, "The Jewish writers and earlier Christian expositors applied this to Abraham."F5 What is it that "moderns" have learned that generations of earlier scholars did not know?

4. Righteousness is not a term that suggests Cyrus; and the KJV translates the opening clause here thus: "Who raised up the righteous man from the east, etc.?" Yes, they have been fiddling with this passage, and have rendered it differently; but we remain convinced that the KJV is correct, and that the attempts to change the meaning here are anchored in what may be described as translators trying to support a false interpretation.

5. Furthermore, the injection of Cyrus into this paragraph destroys the unity of the chapter. Note that the very next verse (Isaiah 41:8) speaks of Abraham and Israel. Douglas affirmed flatly that interpreting Isa. 41:2 as a reference to Cyrus "breaks the unity of the chapter."F6

6. Isaiah's design of comforting the chosen people in their captivity is far better served by understanding this paragraph as a reference to Abraham, the great ancestor of Israel, than by a reference to one who would not even appear until the captivity was practically terminated already. To us, that makes no sense at all. On the other hand, think of Abraham. God called him, prophesied that his posterity would be a great nation, that they would endure captivity for four hundred years in Egypt, that God would deliver them with great wealth out of the land of Egypt, and that they would inherit the land of Palestine! All of those marvelous prophecies through Abraham, known to every Israelite on earth, were a thousand times more comforting than this passage could possibly have been if it were nothing more than an ambiguous prophecy of a ruler who would appear on earth near the very end of their captivity.

7. The last three verses of this paragraph introduce the idolatrous peoples as greatly alarmed about the great man God raised up (Isaiah 41:2); and they are represented as going to work and making or repairing idols as rapidly as possible. This can be a reference only to Abraham's utter rejection of idols; because, "There was nothing in the character of Cyrus to cause any such alarm among idolaters."F7 Abraham was called for the very purpose of casting the idolaters out of Canaan; and the success of the Hebrew people through the long generations had indeed put the fear of God upon all the idolatrous nations on earth (Joshua 2:8-11). There is nothing like this that may be said of Cyrus. He simply is not in this passage.

8. Isa. 41:3,4 could have been said of Abraham, but not of Cyrus, there being no record whatever that he ever pursued anyone! On the other hand, Abraham defeated the coalition of the kings in Gen. 14 and pursued them beyond Damascus. Some pursuit! We fully agree that, "This passage does not very well suit Cyrus."F8

9. The multitude of ancient interpreters who favored the view that this passage refers to Abraham is impressive. Although Barnes disagreed, he pointed out that:

"The Chaldee Paraphrast translates Isa. 41:2, "Who has publicly led from the east Abraham, the chosen of the just"; and this translation has been adopted by Jewish writers generally. They say that it means that God had called Abraham from the east, that he conducted him to the land of Canaan, and enabled him to vanquish the people who resided there, and particularly that he vanquished the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah and rescued Lot from their hands; and that the fact of God's bringing Abraham from the east was a sure and comforting sign that God would also deliver Israel from their captivity in the east."F9

10. Notice here, that this great man of God spoken of in Isa. 41:2 would be from "the east." Cyrus, on the other hand was from "the north." Rawlinson quoted Herodotus as saying that, "When Cyrus attacked Babylon, he fell upon the city mainly from the north."F10 Of course, by misapplying Isa. 41:25, some would attempt to make it appear that Cyrus came upon Babylon from the east, which is inaccurate. Thus, in order to support the Cyrus interpretation of this paragraph, men have not only changed the meaning of "righteous man" but also have perverted the truth on the direction from which Cyrus came. It appears to us that the Cyrus interpretation requires entirely too much fiddling with the Scriptures.

THE FIRST SERVANT INTRODUCED


 
Verses 8-16
But thou, Israel, my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend, thou whom I have taken hold of from the ends of the earth, and called from the corners thereof, and said unto thee, Thou art my servant, I have chosen thee and not cast thee away; 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. Behold, all they that are incensed against thee shall be put to shame and confounded: they that strive with thee shall be as nothing, and shall perish. Thou shalt seek them, and shalt not find them, even them that contend with thee: they that war against thee shall be as nothing, and as a thing of nought. For I, Jehovah thy God, will hold thy right hand, saying unto thee, Fear not; I will help thee. Fear not, thou worm Jacob, and ye men of Israel; I will help thee, saith Jehovah, and thy Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel. Behold, I have made thee [to be] a new sharp threshing instrument having teeth; thou shalt thresh the mountains, and beat them small, and shalt make the hills as chaff. Thou shalt winnow them, and the wind shall carry them away, and the whirlwind shall scatter them; and thou shalt rejoice in Jehovah, thou shalt glory in the Holy One of Israel.

In these verses (including also the text through Isa. 41:20) Israel is assured (1) of the faithfulness of God, Isa. 41:8,9; (2) that they will receive strength from God, Isa. 41:10, (3) that weakness will afflict their enemies, Isa. 41:11,12; (4) that God will raise up aid for them, Isa. 41:13,14; (5) that their enemies shall be scattered, Isa. 41:15,16; (6) and that they shall receive spiritual refreshment during their worst experiences, Isa. 41:17-19.F11

As Kidner observed, "This long chain of promises (future verbs) is characteristically anchored in the facts (present and past), a pledged relationship, and an irrevocable choice and call."F12 Note that this usage of past blessings as a pledge of future support for Israel supports the view that Isa. 41:2 is not a reference to a future "righteous man," but to a former one, i.e., Abraham.

"Jacob is called `a worm' in Isa. 41:14; and `men' should perhaps be rendered `lice' in the same passage."F13 It is believed that such derogatory words represent, not God's opinion of Israel, but their discouraged and pitiful opinion of themselves during the times that lay ahead of them.

The metaphor here of Israel's threshing the mountains and hills, i.e., all nations great and small, large as it is, does not exaggerate the influence of Judaic-born Christianity over all the nations of mankind.

There is another term in Isa. 41:14, namely, Redeemer, that has been seized upon by some as indicating a new author for this part of Isaiah. Yes, it is true that this word, from Lev. 25:47-54 is a technical word found a number of times in the Old Testament. A man's [~go'el] was his next of kin; and in case a man sold himself into captivity, his `redeemer' or [~go'el] was under obligation to purchase his freedom. Critics quickly point out that, "This word never appears in Isa. 1--39; but it is found 13 times in the final 27 chapters of Isaiah. No other Biblical writer ever used the word, except Jeremiah, and he did so only once."F14 So what? In the first 39 chapters of Isaiah, there was never another occasion when Israel was in a status of captivity, as envisioned here; and thus the word would never have been appropriate until these later chapters. Furthermore, it is a fact beyond all dispute that Isaiah knew the word, as indicated by his utmost familiarity with the Pentateuch. The desperate status of the `Deutero Isaiah' theory is indicated by its advocates' pressing into service such a meaningless point as this one.

Archer pointed out that Isa. 41:8 in this paragraph is the "first mention of the momentous figure of `Servant of the Lord,' the `Servant' here being the believing nation of Israel as opposed to the Gentiles ... Even though no exiled nation had ever before in history been brought back to start life anew in their former homeland, God here promises to bring about such a seeming impossibility."F15 There is also in this the type of that Far Greater Servant, Jesus Christ, the True Israel, the True Vine (as distinguished from the corrupt vine (the old Israel) (John 15:1ff), the Old Israel being most certainly a type of the True Israel, as extensively indicated in the Book of Jonah. We agree with Archer that the primary reference here is not the antitype but the type. The Greater Israel, under the figure of the Suffering Servant, will be more prominent in later chapters.


 
Verses 17-20
The poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst; I, Jehovah, will answer them, I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them. I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water. I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, 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 Jehovah hath done this, and the Holy One of Israel hath created it.

Isaiah had just prophesied that the captivity would be in Babylon; and every Israelite knew where Babylon was located and that the passage from Babylon back to Canaan was possible only by transversing what was, to all practical purposes, a nearly impassable desert. The promise that Judah should indeed return to Palestine seemed like an utter impossibility. "These verses, Isa. 41:17-20, seek to remedy the exiles' fears about the difficulties of the journey home. The God who had long ago supplied all the needs of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai would work even greater miracles now,"F16 that is, when the time arrived when God would bring them home.


 
Verses 21-24
Produce your cause, saith Jehovah; bring forth your strong reasons, saith the King of Jacob. Let them bring forth, and declare unto us what shall happen: declare ye the former things, what they are, that we may consider them, and know the latter end of them; or show us things to come. Declare the 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, and behold it together. Behold, ye are of nothing, and your work is of nought; an abomination is he that chooseth you.

The chapter in these verses takes up the imaginary court scene again; and God challenges the pagan gods to show that they are really gods. Let them predict future events, or explain the significance of past events; let them actually do anything at all, either good or evil. Their utter inability to meet such a challenge entitles them to the vehement denunciation that God here made of pagan gods. They are nothing, of no account, helpless, and incapable of doing anything whatsoever, either of good or of evil!

There is a powerful assertion here that God, of course, is able to do what no pagan god could possibly do, the principal thing God here claims being that of the ability to "declare the things that are to come to pass hereafter," in short, the power to give men the revelation of predictive prophecies! The critical denial of this is the complete and irrevocable condemnation of their whole system of Biblical studies. For any person whomsoever to be deceived by so-called Bible scholars who have accepted the dictum of men who follow such satanic rules, that person must first become an unbeliever himself; and afterward from that he will inevitably receive the hardening, blinding, and deluding of his central nervous system, i.e., the brain itself. One would be just as wise to ask the devil himself what a given scripture may mean as to accept the comment of such "scholars."

"The word `abomination' transferred to the worshipper of idols in this passage shows how corrupting is the choice of a lie for one's ultimate allegiance."F17 See Rom. 1:18-32, where Paul spelled this out in detail.

God's challenge here for the idol gods to predict future events really touched the heathen world on a very sensitive spot, since divination was a major preoccupation of idol gods. Croesus of Lydia was to pay dearly for trusting such gods.

"Croesus of Lydia consulted the famous oracle at Delphi over his prospects of success against Cyrus; and the pagan oracle told him that he would destroy a great empire. He attacked Cyrus all right and destroyed a great empire, but it was his own."F18


 
Verses 25-29
I have raised up one from the north, and he is come; from the rising of the sun one that calleth upon my name: and he shall come upon rulers as upon mortar, and as the potter treadeth clay. Who hath declared it from the beginning, that we may know? and beforetime, that we may say, [He is] right? yea, there is none that declareth, yea, there is none that showeth, yea, there is none that heareth your words. [I am the] first [that saith] unto Zion, Behold, behold them; and I will give to Jerusalem one that bringeth good tidings. And when I look, there is no man: even among them there is no counsellor, that, when I ask of them, can answer a word. Behold, all of them, their works are vanity [and] nought; their molten images are wind and confusion.

This passage applies to Cyrus, a fact inherent in the strong intimation just given that God is able to predict future events. Cyrus is the second of the three Great Servants of God to be introduced in this section. There is a common error here in the allegation that Cyrus is from the "rising of the sun," usually understood as the "direction" from which Cyrus would come to destroy Babylon. However, that is incorrect. To construe that reference to sunrising as a reference to the direction (east) would contradict the statement just made that Cyrus would come from the "north." On the other hand, it is a time-reference, meaning that the mighty ruler who would come and free Israel would call upon God's name "from the sunrising," that is, continually, all day, from "the sun rising." See our Introduction to this entire Prophecy of Isaiah, where this prophecy of Cyrus is discussed more fully.

In the last two verses here, God again returns to his arraignment and his taunting of the idol goods. As the New Testament declares, "an idol is nothing at all." An idol is a nonentity, less than nothing, vanity, and an abomination.


Footnotes for Isaiah 41
1: Homer Hailey., p. 341.
2: Ibid.
3: This note on "Holy one of Israel" is taken from The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 10b, p. 98. The other citations concerning the names of God are taken from Homer Hailey, p. 342.
4: The New Bible Commentary, Revised, p. 612.
5: George C. M. Douglas, p. 324.
6: Ibid.
7: Robert Lowth's Commentary, p. 320.
8: George C. M. Douglas, p. 324.
9: Albert Barnes' Commentary, p. 90.
10: The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 10b, p. 99.
11: Ibid, p. 97 (adapted from)
12: The New Bible Commentary, Revised, p. 612.
13: Ibid.
14: Broadman Bible Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1971), p. 404.
15: Wycliffe Old Testament Commentary, pp. 637, 638.
16: The New Layman's Bible Commentary, p. 798.
17: The New Bible Commentary, Revised, p. 612.
18: Ibid.

Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Isaiah 41". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". <http://classic.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=isa&chapter=041>. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.  

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