In our last essay we began our study of the second major part of Isaiah. We studied chapter 40, which is the beginning of a larger section, chapters 40-55, that predicts the Babylonian Exile. Chapters 1-39 dealt with the historical period of Isaiah’s own lifetime at the end of the eighth century BC, but chapters 40-55 are a predictive prophecy that deals with the mid sixth century BC.
In this essay we take up 41:1-29. In 41:1-7, Isaiah sets up a trial scene in which God is both judge and jury. God calls the coastlands, meaning the nations, into council to present evidence as to who he (God) is. Then the nations are to gather their strength to respond to the evidence.
Verses 2-3 have some translation problems. For example, if you look at the NRSV and NIV translations of the first clause of verse two, they are different. We are not going into the reasons why they are different. But with either translation, the one called by God is Cyrus of Persia. God called Cyrus to do God’s will. And the result was that Cyrus, after conquering Babylon, permitted the Jews who wished to return to Palestine to reestablish their country, to do so.
It is difficult to tell if God or Cyrus is the subject of the series of clauses that begin in the middle of verse two. I believe John t is correct when he says it is Cyrus. Cyrus delivers up nations to God; he makes them like dust with his sword, etc.; and he pursues them, etc.
In verse four God asks who has done all of this. Then he answers his own question. As the NIV puts it, “I the Lord—with the first of them and last—I am he.” The point is, and this will become more clear as we work our way through the chapter, only God can cause a free pagan emperor work God’s will in the world.
The response of the coastlands (the nations), in verses 5-7, to God’s evidence is fear. They draw together to encourage one another; but unfortunately, the encouragement takes the form of making idols. In other words, they turn to their pagan gods instead of to God. The “artisan” or “craftsman” of verse seven is the molder who casts the form of the idol. The “goldsmith” is the smelter who prepares the precious metals that will go onto the idol. The “one who smooths with the hammer” puts the gold leaf or silver plating onto the piece. And the “one who strikes the anvil” is the blacksmith, who produces the nails that hold the idol in place, that keep it from toppling over.
In verse 8-20 Isaiah shifts his focus from the fearful nations who are terrified of Cyrus to God’s people who have nothing to fear from Cyrus, because God is with them. You can see the shift at the beginning of verse eight. “But you, Israel,” he says. The situation of Israel is much different from that of the nations. She is God’s chosen servant, like Abraham, Moses, and David. She is the “seed” or “offspring” of Abraham, God’s friend. And that is why she has nothing to fear. Indeed in the past God saved Israel from the ends of the earth, referring to when he took them into the Promised Land. And God, who miraculously had saved them before, can do it again.
This was not a new message for Israel, but in the midst of the Babylonian Exile, it was one they desperately needed to hear. “I have chosen you.” “I am with you.” “I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you.” Your enemies will be ashamed and disgraced; indeed they will perish. You won’t even be able to find them. Thus there was no need to fear.
In verses 14-16 the focus changes from defense to offense. The Lord will somehow use Israel to tear down the obstacles that stand in the way of God’s will. Even though Israel is insignificant (Isaiah calls her a “worm”), she is of infinite value to God. Indeed he is her Redeemer. With the images of the threshing sledge and the winnowing fork in verses 15-16, Isaiah declares that all of the obstacles that stand in Israel’s way will be removed. They will be crushed and blown away by the wind, like chaff. Then they will rejoice and glory in the Holy One of Israel. Of course the glory must go to God. In actuality it was the Lord who accomplished their deliverance through Cyrus. They didn’t do it themselves.
In verses 17-20 Isaiah uses the imagery of desert and water to express what the deliverance will mean to the people. Here Isaiah likens Israel to a poverty stricken people who are desperate for water. And through him, the Lord declares that he personally will provide for them. And he will not provide in a skimpy way; he will provide abundantly with rivers and fountains and pools of water. And all kinds of trees will rise in the desert. And the result will be that all will see the Lord did it, which will bring glory to the Lord.
In 41:21-29 Isaiah returns to the trial scene that he had set out in verses 1-7. In verses 1-7 Isaiah predicted the conquest of Cyrus and the terror of the nations who turned to their idols for help. Verses 8-20 were a digression that indicated that Israel by contrast has nothing to fear from Cyrus. Now in verses 21-29, Isaiah returns to the trial scene; and we see the Lord challenging the idols to testify. He challenges them to do what he (God) does; namely, predict the future. The pagan gods had their oracles like the famous one at Delphi where a priestess would predict the future; but the predictions always were ambiguous so that they would be true no matter what happened. The Lord demands that they tell “the former things” and the “latter things.” The “latter things” is translated “things to come.” The idea is that they are to make sense of how the past impacts the present on the one hand, and predict the future on the other. In the second half of verse 23, the Lord challenges the gods to do something, anything, good or evil, to prove their existence. Verse 24 gives the verdict. The gods cannot respond. Therefore they are northing. And anyone who worships them is an abomination, because it is a perversion to give honor to something created that only the creator deserves.
In verses 25-29 the Lord declares that he has done what the idols could not do. At God’s bidding Cyrus comes to conquer Babylon. Although Persia was East of Babylon, he attacked from the North. None of the gods predicted this. But the Lord did. He predicted it in such a way that when it happened, the observers could say, “He is right.” As for the gods, none of them revealed it, none of them made anyone hear it, and thus no one heard it from them. Verses 28-29 are a conclusion. None of the gods is capable of counsel. Indeed they cannot even answer a question. Thus “they are a delusion; their works are nothing; their images are empty wind.”