Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
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.XLI.
(1) O islands.—See Note on Isaiah 40:15.
Let the people renew their strength . . .—The same phrase as in Isaiah 40:31, but here, perhaps, with a touch of irony. The heathen are challenged to the great controversy, and will need all their “strength” and “strong reasons” if they accept the challenge. In what follows we have to think of the prophet as having, like Balaam, a vision of what shall come to pass in the “latter days” (Numbers 24:20), and seeing not only the forms of the old empires on their way to Hades, as in Isaiah 14:9-12, but the appearance on the scene of the new conqueror.
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 raised up . . .—More accurately, Who hath raised up from the East the man whom Righteousness calls (or, whom He calls in righteousness) to tread in His steps. (Comp. Isaiah 45:2.) The man so raised up to rule over the “islands” and the “peoples” is none other than Koresh (Cyrus), the future restorer of Israel. The thought of Cyrus as working out the righteousness of God is dominant in these chapters (Isaiah 42:6; Isaiah 45:13). In the rapidity of his conquest, the prophet bids men see the proof that he is doing God’s work. So Jeremiah speaks of Nebuchadnezzar as the servant of Jehovah (Jeremiah 27:6). One may notice, if only to reject, the exposition of the Targum, followed by some commentators, which refers the verse to the call of Abraham and the victory of Genesis 14.
He gave them.—Better, He giveth them, the future seen as present. The LXX. and some modern critics follow a reading which gives, he maketh them as dust, their sword as stubble.
He pursued them, and passed safely; even by the way that he had not gone with his feet.(3) He pursued . . .—Tenses in the present, as before.
By the way that he had not gone—i.e., by a new untrodden path. So Tiglath-Pileser and other Assyrian kings continually boast that they had led their armies by paths that none had traversed before them. (Records of the Past, i. 15, v. 16.)
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) I the Lord . . .—The words are the utterance of the great thought of eternity which is the essence of the creed of Israel (comp. Exodus 3:14; Psalm 90:2; Psalm 102:26), and appear in the Alpha and Omega of Revelation 1:11; Revelation 4:8. The identical formula, “I am He” meets us in Isaiah 43:10; Isaiah 43:13; Isaiah 46:4; Isaiah 48:12. It is probably used as an assertion of an eternal being in the “I AM” of John 8:58.
The isles saw it, and feared; the ends of the earth were afraid, drew near, and came.(5) The isles saw it, and feared . . .—The words paint the terror caused by the rapid conquests of Cyrus, but the terror led, as the following verses show, to something very different from the acknowledgment of the Eternal. As the sailors in the ship of Tarshish called each man on his God (Jonah 1:5), so each nation turned to its oracles and its shrines. The gods had to be propitiated by new statues, and a fresh impetus was given to the manufacture of idols, probably for the purpose of being carried forth to battle as a protection. (Comp. 1Samuel 4:5-7; Herod. i. 26.)
They helped every one his neighbour; and every one said to his brother, Be of good courage.(6) Be of good courage.—Literally, Be strong: i.e., work vigorously.
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) So the carpenter.—The process is described even more vividly than in Isaiah 40:19. For “the carpenter,” read the caster, the idol being a metal one. The image of lead or copper is then covered with gold plates, which are laid on the anvil, and are smoothed with the hammer; the soldering is approved by the artist, and then (supreme touch of irony) the guardian deity is fixed with nails, that it may not totter and fall.
But thou, Israel, art my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend.(8) But thou, Israel, art my servant . . .—The verse is important as the first introduction of the servant of the Lord who is so conspicuous throughout the rest of the book. The idea embodied in the term is that of a calling and election, manifested now in Israel according to the flesh, now in the true Israel of God, realising its ideal, now, as in the innermost of the three concentric circles, in a person who gathers up that ideal in all its intensity into himself. The three phrases find their parallel in St. Paul’s language as to (1) the seed of Abraham according to the flesh; (2) the true seed who are heirs of the faith of Abraham; (3) the seed, which is none other than the Christ Himself (Romans 9:7; Galatians 3:7; Galatians 3:16). Here we have the national aspect, Israel as he is in the idea of God. So in the later language of Christian thought we have (1) the visible Church falling short of the ideal; (2) the spiritual Church approximating to the ideal; (3) Christ Himself, as identified with His people.
The seed of Abraham my friend.—The word for “friend” implies loving as well as being loved. Of all the names of Abraham, it has had the widest currency (comp. 2Chronicles 20:7; James 2:23). For the Arabs of the present time Abraham is still Khalil Allah—the friend of God, or simply, el Khalil, the friend.
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) From the ends of the earth.—Ur of the Chaldees, as belonging to the Euphrates region, is on the extreme verge of the prophet’s horizon.
From the chief men thereof.—Better, from the far-off regions thereof.
I have chosen . . .—Isaiah becomes the preacher of the Divine election, and finds in it, as St. Paul found, the ground of an inextinguishable hope for the nation of which he was a member. As in St. Peter’s teaching, it remained for them to “make their calling and election sure” (2Peter 1:10), though God, in the unchangeableness of His nature, had chosen them before the foundation of the world.
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) Fear thou not . . .—The thought of the election of God gives a sense of security to His chosen.
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, 12) Behold . . .—The choice of the Servant has, as its complement, the indignation of Jehovah against those who attack him, and this thought is emphasised by a four-fold iteration. “They that strive with thee, &c,” represents the Hebrew idiom, the men of thy conflict, which stands emphatically at the end of each clause.
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) Fear not, thou worm Jacob.—The servant of Jehovah is reminded that he has no strength of his own, but is “as a worm, and no man” (Psalm 22:6). He had not been chosen because he was a great and mighty nation, for Israel was “the fewest of all people” (Deuteronomy 7:7). As if to emphasise this, the prophet in addressing Israel passes from the masculine to the feminine, resuming the former in the second clause of Isaiah 41:15, where he speaks of its God-given strength.
Thy redeemer . . .—i.e., the Goel of Leviticus 25:48-49, the next of kin, who was the protector, the deliverer, of his brethren (Leviticus 25:43-49). Looking to the numerous traces of the influence of the Book of Job in 2 Isaiah, it seems not improbable that we have in these words an echo of the hope, “I know that my Redeemer liveth” (Job 19:25).
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) A new sharp threshing instrument.—The instrument described is a kind of revolving sledge armed with two-edged blades, still used in Syria, and, as elsewhere (Micah 4:13), is the symbol of a crushing victory. The next verse continues the image, as in Jeremiah 15:7; Jeremiah 51:2.
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) When the poor and needy . . .—The promise may perhaps take as its starting-point the succour given to the return of the exiles, but it rises rapidly into the region of a higher poetry, in which earthly things are the parables of heavenly, and does not call for a literal fulfilment any more than “wines of the lees,” of Isaiah 25:6.
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) I will open rivers.—The words have all the emphasis of varied iteration. Every shape of the physical contour of the country, bare hills, arid steppes, and the like, is to be transformed into a new beauty by water in the form adapted to each: streamlets, rivers, lakes, and springs. (Comp. Isaiah 35:7.)
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) I will plant in the wilderness.—A picture as of the Paradise of God (Isaiah 51:3), with its groves of stately trees, completes the vision of the future. The two groups of four and three, making up the symbolic seven, may probably have a mystic meaning. The “shittah” is the acacia, the “oil tree” the wild olive, as distinguished from the cultivated (Romans 11:17), the “fir tree” is probably the cypress, the “pine” stands for the plane, always—as in the opening of Plato’s Phœdrus, and the story of Xerxes in Herod. vii. 31,—the glory of Eastern scenery and the “box-tree” is perhaps the larch, or a variety of cedar. The “myrtle” does not appear elsewhere in the Old Testament till after the exile (Nehemiah 8:15; Zechariah 1:8; Zechariah 1:10-11), but then it appears as if indigenous. It supplies the proper name Hadassah (Esther) in Esther 2:7.
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) That they may see.—The outward blessings, yet more the realities of which they are the symbols, are given to lead men to acknowledge Him who alone would be the giver.
Produce your cause, saith the LORD; bring forth your strong reasons, saith the King of Jacob.(21) Produce your cause.—The scene of Isaiah 41:1 is reproduced. The worshippers of idols, as the prophet sees them in his vision hurrying hither and thither to consult their oracles, are challenged, on the ground not only of the great things God hath done, but of His knowledge of those things. The history of Herodotus supplies some striking illustrations. Crœus and the Cumœans, and the Phocæans, and the Athenians are all sending to Delphi, or consulting their seers, as to this startling apparition of a new conqueror.
Your strong reasons.—Literally, bulwarks, or strongholds. So we speak of impregnable proofs.
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) The former things.—Not, as the Authorised Version suggests, the things of the remote past, but those that lie at the head, or beginning of things to come—the near future. Can the false gods predict them as the pledge and earnest of predictions that go farther? Can they see a single year before them? We note that the challenge exactly corresponds to Isaiah’s own method of giving “signs” that his words are not idly spoken (Isaiah 7:10-14; Isaiah 38:7-8). The other meaning is maintained, however, by some critics as more in harmony with Isaiah 43:18. The things “for to come” lie, as it were, in the middle future, the “hereafter” of Isaiah 41:23, in the more remote. All are alike hidden from the gods of the heathen oracles.
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.—The challenge reminds us of Elijah’s on Mount Carmel (1Kings 18:27). Can the heathen point to any good or evil fortune which, as having been predicted by this or that deity, might reasonably be thought of as his work? It lies in the nature of the case that every heathen looked to his gods as having sent blessings, or the reverse, but it was only Jehovah who could give the proof supplied by prediction.
Behold, ye are of nothing, and your work of nought: an abomination is he that chooseth you.(24) Behold, ye are of nothing.—This is the summing up of the prophet, speaking as in the Judge’s name. The idol was “nothing in the world” (1Corinthians 8:4). The demonic view of the gods of the heathen does not appear, as in St. Paul’s argument (1Corinthians 10:20), side by side with that of their nothingness.
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) I have raised up one from the north.—The north points to Media, the east to Persia, both of them under the rule of the great Deliverer.
Shall he call upon my name.—The word admits equally of the idea of “invoking” or “proclaiming.” It may almost be said, indeed, that the one implies the other. The words find a fulfilment in the proclamations of Cyrus cited in 2Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra 1:2-4
He shall come upon princes.—The Hebrew noun Sagan is a transitional form of a Persian (Delitzch) or Assyrian (Cheyne) title for a viceroy or satrap.
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) Who hath declared . . .—The words paint once more the startling suddenness of the conquests of the Persian king. He was to come as a comet or a meteor. None of all the oracles in Assyria or Babylon, or in the far coasts to which the Phœnicians sent their ships of Tarshish, had anticipated this.
The first shall say to Zion, Behold, behold them: and I will give to Jerusalem one that bringeth good tidings.(27) The first shall say to Zion.—The italics show the difficulty and abruptness of the originals. A preferable rendering is, (1) I was the first that said to Zion, &c. No oracle or soothsayer anticipated that message of deliverance (Ewald, Del.); or (2) a forerunner shall say . . . The words “Behold them” point to the returning exiles. The second clause fits in better with (2), and explains it. Jehovah sends a herald of good news (not Cyrus himself, but a messenger reporting his victories, or possibly Isaiah himself, as a more distant herald) to Jerusalem, to say that the exiles are returning.
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 no man—i.e., no one who had foretold the future. Jehovah, speaking through the prophet, looks round in vain for that.
Behold, they are all vanity; their works are nothing: their molten images are wind and confusion.(29) They are all . . . their works . . .—The first pronoun refers to the idols themselves, the second to the idolaters who make them. In “confusion” we have the familiar tohu.