Isaiah 41
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 41. The appearance of the Conqueror Cyrus, a proof that Jehovah presides over the destinies of all nations

The prophet here touches the soil of contemporary history. Although he is more of a theologian than earlier prophets, he is nevertheless like them an interpreter to Israel of the signs of the times, and the great historical fact which was the occasion of his message is the rise of the new Persian Power. The victories of Cyrus have already challenged the attention of the world. He conquered Media in 549; he overthrew Croesus, king of Lydia, in 540, and captured Babylon in 538. The stand-point of the prophecy is obviously somewhere in this career of conquest, certainly subsequent to 549, when the Medo-Persian empire was consolidated, and most probably subsequent to the defeat of Croesus in 540, the most signal success of Cyrus prior to the occupation of Babylon, which of course is still in the future. See Introd. pp. xvii ff.

In form the chapter is dramatic. Two great debates are imagined: the first (Isaiah 41:1-7) between Jehovah and the nations; the second (Isaiah 41:21-29) between Jehovah and the idols, the subject of both being the appearance of Cyrus. In the intervening passage (Isaiah 41:8-20) Jehovah encourages His servant Israel in view of this great crisis of history.

The chapter accordingly may be analysed as follows:—

i. Isaiah 41:1-7. The proof of Jehovah’s sovereignty in the form of a discussion between Him and the nations.

(1) Isaiah 41:1-4. The nations are summoned into the presence of Jehovah, that it may be seen whether they can produce an explanation of the rise of Cyrus (1). The problem is propounded: who has raised him up? who is leading him from victory to victory? (2 f.); to which the answer follows in the end of Isaiah 41:4.

(2) Isaiah 41:5-7. In their consternation the nations are represented as betaking themselves to the fabrication of new idols to reassure themselves against the advance of the conqueror. (But see the notes below.)

ii. Isaiah 41:8-20. Turning from the nations, Jehovah addresses Israel with words of encouragement and consolation.

(1) Isaiah 41:8-10. Israel is Jehovah’s servant or client, chosen in the person of Abraham to be the organ of the true religion and never since cast off; hence it is upheld through all its history by the strength of its Almighty Protector.

(2) Isaiah 41:11-16. Israel need not fear (in the coming convulsions) for by the help of Jehovah it shall put to shame all its enemies, and annihilate mountains of opposition.

(3) Isaiah 41:17-20. But Israel, in the distress and misery of the Exile, needs first of all refreshment; and this shall be abundantly and miraculously provided. The figures are suggested by the thirsty march through the desert: but, as in ch. Isaiah 40:3 f., the material becomes a symbol of the spiritual,—of Jehovah’s all-sufficient grace for the needs of His people.

iii. Isaiah 41:21-29. The argument for Jehovah’s Divinity is resumed; but this time the parties to the debate are the true God and the idols.

(1) Isaiah 41:21-24. The question is first stated in general terms: what proof can the false gods produce of their own divinity? Has any articulate prediction of theirs anticipated the great events that are happening? Or will they now undertake to foretell the issue of those events? They cannot; and their pretensions are dismissed as unworthy of serious consideration.

(2) Isaiah 41:25-29. Then the appearance of Cyrus is adduced as an instance in which they might have been expected to exercise the divine function of foreknowledge. But while Jehovah has called and strengthened Cyrus and announced it beforehand, they have not even fore seen that He would do so.

Keep silence before me, O islands; and let the people renew their strength: let them come near; then let them speak: let us come near together to judgment.
1. Jehovah calls the heathen nations to a disputation concerning the appearance of Cyrus.

Keep silence before me] A pregnant constr. in the Heb. = Listen in silence unto me. On islands, see on ch. Isaiah 40:15.

renew their strength] The words are somewhat suspicious, as they are repeated from ch. Isaiah 40:31, and the thought is hardly suitable at the beginning of an argument. Job 38:3 is not an exact parallel. Possibly the eye of a scribe may have wandered to the previous verse.

judgment] (mishpâṭ) is used in the same sense as in Malachi 3:5 (= “judicial process.”) Cf. Jdg 4:5.

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 the dust to his sword, and as driven stubble to his bow.
2. Who hath stirred up … foot] A much-disputed clause. Two points may be regarded as settled; (1) that the abstract noun çédeq cannot be rendered “righteous man” (A.V. following Vulg.); and (2) that it is not to be treated as obj. to “stirred up” (A.V., LXX., Vulg.), but belongs to the second member of the sentence (Heb. accentuation). On the whole the most satisfactory translation is: Who hath stirred up from the sun-rising (him whom) victory meets at every step? (lit. “at his foot” cf. Genesis 30:30). Comp. R.V. marg. The Heb. verbs for “meet” and “call” are distinct in origin, but closely resemble each other; and the forms are constantly interchanged. The bare sense of “victory” is perhaps an extreme use of çédeq (= righteousness) but it is in the line of the prophet’s characteristic use of the expression. It means the outward manifestation that one is in the right, and when, as here, the tribunal is the battle-field, right is equivalent to victory (see Appendix, Note II). If the ordinary sense of “righteousness” is to be retained, the word must be taken as adv. acc., as in R.V.: Who hath raised up one from the east, whom he calleth in righteousness to his foot?

gave] giveth. made him rule over] It is perhaps necessary (with Ewald or Hitzig) to change the vowels, rendering, subdueth (as in ch. Isaiah 45:1).

he gave them as the dust to his sword] The words would naturally read, “he maketh his sword as dust.” But this is an unnatural figure for the swiftness of Cyrus’s conquests; we must either take “his” as equivalent to “their” (which is obviously objectionable), or with the LXX. change the suffix to plur., he maketh their sword as dust. So the next clause: their bow as driven stubble.

2, 3. The marvellous career of Cyrus is vividly described in highly poetical language. That the reference is to Cyrus (who is first named in ch. Isaiah 44:28) is unquestionable; although the Jewish exegetes (with the exception of Aben Ezra), and even Calvin, follow the Targ. in applying the verses to Abraham, and his victory over the four kings (Genesis 14).

He pursued them, and passed safely; even by the way that he had not gone with his feet.
3. by the way … feet] The easiest and most acceptable rendering is: the path with his feet he does not tread,—a picture of the celerity of his movements. Other interpretations, such as: “by a path which he had not gone (before) with his feet,” or, “disdaining made roads,” or “not returning on his tracks,” are forced, if not impossible.

Who hath wrought and done it, calling the generations from the beginning? I the LORD, the first, and with the last; I am he.
4. The answer.

calling the generations from the beginning] i.e. guiding the destinies of the nations from the origins of human history. The clause should be connected with what follows: it belongs to the answer, not to the question (“He that calleth”).

I am he] Cf. ch. Isaiah 43:10; Isaiah 43:13, Isaiah 46:4, Isaiah 48:12, also Psalm 102:27. The sense which best suits the various passages is, “I am the same.” There is probably an allusion to the explanation of the name Jehovah in Exodus 3:14 ff. Jehovah is “the First,” existing before history began to run its course, and He is “with the last,” an ever-present, unchanging God.

The isles saw it, and feared; the ends of the earth were afraid, drew near, and came.
5. At the end of the verse LXX. seems to have read “and came together to judgment” (in accordance with Isaiah 41:1).

5–7. The alarm of the nations leads to the production of fresh images. The view that Isaiah 41:6-7 form part of ch. Isaiah 40:18-20 has already been mentioned. With regard to the suitability of the verses in their present connexion, opinions differ. While some consider the scene an appropriate sequel to Isaiah 41:1-4, and its irony exquisite and well-timed, others find the irony overstrained, and doubt if even the most benighted idolaters could be represented as seeking to arrest the advance of Cyrus by making “a particularly good and strong set of gods.” And it must be admitted that the transition from an assembly of peoples to the inside of an idol factory is extremely abrupt. The view in question gives a somewhat different turn to Isaiah 41:6 and probably necessitates the excision of Isaiah 41:5.

They helped every one his neighbour; and every one said to his brother, Be of good courage.
6. they helped] i.e. the nations. But if the verse stood originally after Isaiah 40:19, “they” refers to the two classes of workmen there mentioned. Each helps the other, and says to his fellow, Cheer up!

So the carpenter encouraged the goldsmith, and he that smootheth with the hammer him that smote the anvil, saying, It is ready for the sodering: and he fastened it with nails, that it should not be moved.
7. the carpenter] stands here for the same word as workman in Isaiah 40:19 : it denotes an “artificer” either in metal or wood or stone.

he that smootheth with the hammer] probably the man who fits on the golden covering (Isaiah 40:19). The translation anvil is doubtful, the Targ. has “him that striketh with the mallet.”

saying … sodering] Render as R.V.: saying of the soldering, It is good. that it should not be moved] See ch. Isaiah 40:20.

8–20, coming between Isaiah 41:1-4; Isaiah 41:21 ff., reads like a digression or an “aside.” But beneath the apparent disconnectedness there is a real continuity of thought running through the chapter. It opens with a discussion between Jehovah and the nations, and closes with another between Jehovah and the heathen gods. But these ideal representations have no reality except in so far as they take concrete form in history; and the historical process of which they are the expression is suggested by Isaiah 41:8-20. Jehovah’s controversy with heathenism is carried on in His Providence, and especially in His vindication of the “right” of Israel against the world. The opposition which Israel encounters from the heathen (Isaiah 41:11 f.) is a reflection of the antagonism between the true religion and idolatry; and the essential identity of interest between Jehovah and Israel in this conflict of principles is the basis of the message of consolation which these verses convey. Thus we have the true God and His people over against the false gods and their peoples, and there is a fitness in the introduction at this point of Israel in its ideal functions as the organ of Jehovah’s historical purpose. His victory must issue in the redemption of His people, and therefore Israel has no reason to fear the advance of Cyrus, who is God’s chosen instrument for the overthrow of idolatry.

But thou, Israel, art my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend.
8–10. Israel is bidden “Fear not,” because of its peculiar relation to Jehovah.

But thou, Israel] In opposition to the other peoples (Isaiah 41:1). Omit “art” with R.V.

my servant] Cf. Jeremiah 30:10 f., Jeremiah 46:27 f.; Ezekiel 28:25; Ezekiel 37:25,—the only older passages (if those in Jeremiah be really older) where the name is applied to Israel. The title is used in its simplest and widest sense, being applied to the nation as a whole, although of course in its ideal aspect, as it exists in the mind of Jehovah. The idea, however, is already a complex one, although the writer does not as yet analyse it into its different elements. (See Introduction, p. xxxi.) The one fact emphasized in this passage is the irrevocable choice or election of God, by which Israel was from its origin in Abraham constituted His servant. Cf. ch. Isaiah 43:10, Isaiah 44:1 f., Isaiah 49:7.

seed of Abraham my friend] (cf. 2 Chronicles 20:7) lit. “my lover”: but as Duhm remarks Heb. has no single word to express the reciprocal relation of friendship as distinct from companionship. Cf. James 2:23, φίλος θεοῦ ἐκλήθη. So among the Mohammedans, Abraham is designated chalîl ullah, “Friend of God.” Note that Abraham is called “my servant” in Genesis 26:24.

Thou whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called thee from the chief men thereof, and said unto thee, Thou art my servant; I have chosen thee, and not cast thee away.
9. taken (better, as R.V., taken hold of) from the ends of the earth] It is disputed whether the reference is to the call of Abraham, or to the Exodus. It is a little difficult to suppose that Egypt could be described as the “ends of the earth” by a Jew; for although the writer may have lived in Babylonia, he could hardly divest himself of the historic consciousness of his nation, that Egypt was the neighbour of Israel. It is more probable, therefore, that he is thinking of Mesopotamia, and of the choice of Israel as effected in the call of Abraham. For chief men render corners (R.V.).

cast thee away] rejected thee—because of thy smallness.

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.
10. be not dismayed] lit. “look not round” in terror.

I will strengthen] The perf. tense used in the original expresses the unalterable determination of the speaker’s will; Driver, Tenses, § 13.

the right hand of my righteousness] Either “my righteous right hand,” or, “my right hand of righteousness.” See Appendix, Note II.

Behold, all they that were incensed against thee shall be ashamed and confounded: they shall be as nothing; and they that strive with thee shall perish.
11–13. Humanly speaking Israel has cause for fear, being surrounded by opponents; but they shall be put to utter confusion.

11f. incensed] lit. “inflamed,” as in ch. Isaiah 45:24; Song of Solomon 1:6. The precise form occurs only in these passages.

they that strive … them that contendthey that war] Lit. men of thy contention … strife … warfare; a climax which Delitzsch renders by adversarii, inimici, hostes. These expressions are emphatic and stand at the end of their respective clauses, and to each are attached two (logical) predicates; hence in Isaiah 41:11 we should read (as R.V. nearly): they shall be as nothing, and shall perish—the men etc.

thou shalt seek and not find them that &c.] Cf. ch. Isaiah 33:18.

Thou shalt seek them, and shalt not find them, even them that contended with thee: they that war against thee shall be as nothing, and as a thing of nought.
For I the LORD thy God will hold thy right hand, saying unto thee, Fear not; I will help thee.
13. will hold … will help] do hold … do help. For saying render: I who say.

Fear not, thou worm Jacob, and ye men of Israel; I will help thee, saith the LORD, and thy redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.
14–16. Israel itself, in the might of Jehovah, shall be the means of crushing and scattering its foes. The idea, however, is not that of warlike conquest on the part of the Israelites, it is simply that in the contest Israel is as the threshing instrument to the corn, it is armed with an irresistible strength. Cheyne pointed out that in Isaiah 41:14-15 a, Israel is addressed in the fem., but that is in all probability a mere freak of the punctuators, suggested by the fem. “worm.”

thou worm Jacob] Cf. Psalm 22:6; Job 25:6. ye men of Israel] supplies a very weak parallel. It is generally taken as an ellipsis for “ye few men of I.” (as if it were מתי מספר, Genesis 34:30 &c.), but that would have to be expressed. We should probably read with Ewald “thou small worm Israel” (רמת for מתי); the two words for “worm” occur together in Job 25:6 and also in ch. Isaiah 14:11.

I will help] Render, as before, I help.

and thy redeemer, the Holy One] Read with R.V. and thy Redeemer is the Holy One. The word for “Redeemer” is Gô’çl, the technical term for the person charged with the duty of buying back the alienated property of a kinsman, of avenging his death, and certain other obligations (see Leviticus 25:48 f.; Numbers 35:19 ff.; Ruth 3:12 &c.). It is a standing title of Jehovah in the latter part of Isaiah, occurring in 12 passages (the corresponding verb in 6 others). The verb means originally to assert a right by purchase: hence fig. to reclaim, rescue &c.; Driver, Introduction6, p. 418.

Behold, I will make thee a new sharp threshing instrument having teeth: thou shalt thresh the mountains, and beat them small, and shalt make the hills as chaff.
15. The threshing instrument (môrâg) is a heavy sledge studded on its under surface with sharp stones or knives, drawn by oxen over the floor. See the Note in Driver’s Joel and Amos, pp. 227 f. It is not a different implement from the ḥârûç of ch. Isaiah 28:27. Indeed this word ḥârûç is the one here translated “sharp”; and it may be doubted whether it has not intruded into the text as a variant to môrâg (Duhm). The instrument to which Israel is likened is “new” and “many-toothed” (lit. “possessor of mouths” i.e. edges), therefore in the highest state of efficiency.

the mountains … the hills] A figure for formidable enemies; perhaps also for obstacles in general. Comp. ch. Isaiah 21:10; Micah 4:13.

Thou shalt fan them, and the wind shall carry them away, and the whirlwind shall scatter them: and thou shalt rejoice in the LORD, and shalt glory in the Holy One of Israel.
When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the LORD will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them.
17–20. With great pathos the prophet recalls to mind the miserable condition of Israel in the present, and adapts his glorious promise to their sense of need. He is thus led to a glowing description of the marvels of the desert journey, in which, however, a spiritual meaning is not lost sight of.

When the poor …] Better: The afflicted and needy are seeking water where there is none, their tongue is parched with thirst. It may be a question whether such a description applies to all the exiles, or only to those, the true Israel, who were conscious of the religious privations of the Captivity.

I will open rivers in high places, and fountains in the midst of the valleys: I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.
18. Cf. ch. Isaiah 30:25. in high places] R.V. on the bare heights. The word occurs only in ch. Isaiah 49:9 and in Jeremiah (Isaiah 3:2 &c.). In Numbers 23:3 the text is doubtful.

I will plant in the wilderness the cedar, the shittah tree, and the myrtle, and the oil tree; I will set in the desert the fir tree, and the pine, and the box tree together:
19. The desert itself shall be transformed into a grove of stately and beautiful trees. I will plant] Better: I will place. The shittah tree is the acacia. The myrtle is only mentioned in exilic and post-exilic writings; ch. Isaiah 55:13; Zechariah 1:8; Zechariah 1:10 f.; Nehemiah 8:15.

the oil tree] Not the olive, but the oleaster or wild olive.

the fir tree] Rather: the cypress (R.V. marg.). With regard to the two last of the seven trees there is no sure tradition. The first (tidhar) is identified by different authorities with the fir, the elm and the plane. The other (tě’asshûr) is according to some the box-tree, according to others a species of cedar, probably the sherbîn-tree of the Arabs (cypressus oxycedrus). The names occur again only in ch. Isaiah 60:13; the last, however, is also disguised in a corrupt reading in Ezekiel 27:6.

That they may see, and know, and consider, and understand together, that the hand of the LORD hath done this, and the Holy One of Israel hath created it.
20. The ultimate object of this miracle is the demonstration of the creative power of the true God; see ch. Isaiah 40:5, Isaiah 55:13. The verse seems to shew that the previous description is not merely figurative, but that an actual physical transformation of the desert is contemplated.

That they (men in general) may … consider] Lit. “lay (to heart),” a common ellipsis. together binds the four verbs of the sentence.

Produce your cause, saith the LORD; bring forth your strong reasons, saith the King of Jacob.
21. your strong reasons] Lit. “your strengths,” a military metaphor transferred to controversy; cf. Job 13:12. The related word ‘iṣma is used in the same way in Arabic.

the King of Jacob] (Cf. ch. Isaiah 43:15, Isaiah 44:6), referring back, perhaps, to Isaiah 41:8 f.,—the King whose “servant” Jacob is.

21–24. The argument of Isaiah 41:1-4 is resumed, but now the idols (Isaiah 41:23), not their worshippers, are addressed. Foreknowledge is the test of divinity. Can the idols produce any instance whatever of their power to predict, or indeed any proof of life and activity at all?

Let them bring them forth, and shew 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 declare us things for to come.
22. bring them forth and shew] It is assumed that the “strong arguments” must be predictions.

the former things] i.e. “things past” (from the standpoint of the speaker) as opposed to things still future (things to come). The expression (hâ-rî’shônôth) occurs with great frequency in the first part of this prophecy. Sometimes the stress lies on the event, sometimes on the prediction; but in reality the phrase includes both ideas—“past events as predicted.” So here the challenge is to produce past predictions which have been already verified by the event. There is no ground whatever for the view of Delitzsch and others that in this verse hâ-rî’shônôth refers to events still future, but in the immediate future, as opposed to the more remote future (“things to come”). See G. A. Smith, Exposition, p. 121, note.

the latter end of them] their issue. Sense and parallelism are undoubtedly improved if (with Duhm) we transpose the last two clauses, reading the closing lines thus:

the former things, what they are do ye announce, that we may lay it to heart; or the coming things let us hear, that we may know their issue.

Shew 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.
23. do good, or do evil] i.e. “do anything whatever, good or bad” (Jeremiah 10:5; Zephaniah 1:12), give any sign of vitality or intelligence.

that we may be dismayed] Rather: that we may stare (in astonishment). (The same word in Isaiah 41:10.)

Behold, ye are of nothing, and your work of nought: an abomination is he that chooseth you.
24. The silence of the idols settles the controversy.

of nothing … of nought] See on ch. Isaiah 40:17. The word ’épha‘ here is probably a copyist’s error for ’épheṣ.

he that chooseth you]—your worshipper.

I have raised up one from the north, and he shall come: from the rising of the sun shall he call upon my name: and he shall come upon princes as upon morter, and as the potter treadeth clay.
25. raised up] Strictly: stirred up (as in Isaiah 41:2) i.e. “impelled into activity” (Driver).

from the north … from the rising of the sun (cf. Isaiah 41:2)] Scarcely: “from Media (in the north)” and “from Elam (in the east).” The terms are poetic; the north is the region of mystery, and the east the region of light (ch. Isaiah 24:15). In point of fact Cyrus came from the north-east.

shall he call upon my name] Render with R.V. one that calleth (or, shall call) on my name. The clause is a relative one, and forms the obj. to “stirred up.” The expression can hardly mean less than that Cyrus shall acknowledge Jehovah as God; the meaning “make known everywhere, by his deeds” (Dillmann) is not to be defended. It is true that in ch. Isaiah 45:4 f. it is said that Cyrus had not known Jehovah; but it is also said (Isaiah 41:3) that the effect of his remarkable successes will be “that thou mayest know that I am Jehovah that calleth thee by thy name, the God of Israel.” There is therefore no difficulty in the idea that Cyrus, who was at first the unconscious instrument of Jehovah’s purpose, shall at length recognise that Jehovah was the true author of his success. But the further explanation that Cyrus shall “become conscious of his original religious affinity to the Jews, and act upon that consciousness” (Cheyne) goes beyond the language of the prophet.

come upon princes] is a possible construction; but it is better, with many comm. since Clericus, to read “tread” (yâbûṣ for yâbô’). The word for “princes” (ṣâgân) is Assyrian (shaknu) and occurs first in Ezekiel.

25–29. The general argument is now brought to bear on the particular case of the raising up of Cyrus.

Who hath declared from the beginning, that we may know? and beforetime, that we may say, He is righteous? yea, there is none that sheweth, yea, there is none that declareth, yea, there is none that heareth your words.
26. He is righteous] He is in the right (cf. Exodus 9:27); or, simply, Right! (cf. ch. Isaiah 43:9), although the adj. is always used of persons, except in Deuteronomy 4:8 (of the divine ordinances).

The first shall say to Zion, Behold, behold them: and I will give to Jerusalem one that bringeth good tidings.
27. The first … behold them] A very perplexing sentence: lit. “A first one to Zion, Behold, behold them!” We may render (nearly as R.V.) (I) first (have said) to Zion, Behold, etc. Or we may supply the verb from the following line, thus: “I first will give to Zion (one saying) Behold,” etc.; or “I will give a first one (i.e. a forerunner) to Zion (saying), Behold, etc.” It is difficult to choose. In any case there appears (from the phrase “behold them”) to be a reference back to ch. Isaiah 40:9 ff.; and the general sense must be that that prediction was the first authoritative declaration of the meaning of the appearance of Cyrus. That Cyrus himself is the “forerunner” (Nägelsbach) is not a probable interpretation.

one that bringeth good tidings] an evangelist (see ch. Isaiah 40:9).

For I beheld, and there was no man; even among them, and there was no counseller, that, when I asked of them, could answer a word.
28. For I beheld, and there was] Rather as R.V. And when I look, there is. Cf. Isaiah 50:2 even amongst them] Better: and among these, viz., the idols; the previous clause referring to their worshippers.

no counseller] None who can advise in the present crisis.

Behold, they are all vanity; their works are nothing: their molten images are wind and confusion.
29. The last word of the argument.

all of them (R.V.)] idols and worshippers together.

their works] are the images of the gods, “the work of men’s hands” (parallel to “molten images” below).

confusion] “nothingness”—chaos (see ch. Isaiah 40:17).

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