Isaiah 45:9
Woe to him that strives with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashions it, What make you? or your work, He has no hands?
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(9) Woe unto him that striveth . . .—The sequence of thought is not at first apparent. Were those who strove, the heathen nations who resisted Cyrus, or Israelites who desired some other deliverer, say a prince of the house of David? The latter seems more probable. In either case men were guilty of the folly of criticising the Almighty.

Let the potsherd strive . . .—The sentence, as the italics show, is abrupt, but is better taken without inserting the verbs, and in apposition with the pronoun—Woe unto him . . . a potsherd among the potsherds; a frail mortal like all his fellows.

Shall the clay say . . .—The potsherd suggests the potter, not without an allusive reference to the history of man’s creation in Genesis 2:7. As in Jeremiah 18:1-10; Romans 9:20-21, the thought pressed is that of absolute sovereignty, the belief in the wisdom and equity of that sovereignty being kept in the background, as a reserve force. The two clauses represent different aspects of presumption—the first questions, the other arrogantly condemns. The potter’s vessel says that the potter “has no hands,” is without creative power or skill.

Isaiah 45:9-10. Wo unto him that striveth, &c. — Bishop Lowth renders this verse, “Wo unto him that contendeth with the power that formed him, the potsherd with the moulder of the clay! Shall the clay say to the potter, What makest thou? And to the workman, Thou hast no hands.” “The prophet,” he thinks, “answers or prevents the objections and cavils of the unbelieving Jews disposed to murmur against God, and to arraign the wisdom and justice of his dispensations in regard to them; in permitting them to be oppressed by their enemies, and in promising them deliverance, instead of preventing their captivity. St. Paul has borrowed the image, and has applied it to the like purpose with equal force and elegance, Romans 9:20-21.”45:5-10 There is no God beside Jehovah. There is nothing done without him. He makes peace, put here for all good; and creates evil, not the evil of sin, but the evil of punishment. He is the Author of all that is true, holy, good, or happy; and evil, error, and misery, came into the world by his permission, through the wilful apostacy of his creatures, but are restrained and overruled to his righteous purpose. This doctrine is applied, for the comfort of those that earnestly longed, yet quietly waited, for the redemption of Israel. The redemption of sinners by the Son of God, and the pouring out the Spirit, to give success to the gospel, are chiefly here intended. We must not expect salvation without righteousness; together the Lord hath created them. Let not oppressors oppose God's designs for his people. Let not the poor oppressed murmur, as if God dealt unkindly with them. Men are but earthen pots; they are broken potsherds, and are very much made so by mutual contentions. To contend with Him is as senseless as for clay to find fault with the potter. Let us turn God's promises into prayers, beseeching him that salvation may abound among us, and let us rest assured that the Judge of all the earth will do right.Wo unto him that striveth with his Maker! - This verse commences a new subject. Its connection with the preceeding is not very obvious. It may be designed to prevent the objections and cavils of the unbelieving Jews who were disposed to complain against God, and to arraign the wisdom of his dispensations in regard to them, in permitting them to be oppressed by their enemies, and in promising them deliver ance instead of preventing their captivity. So Lowth understands it. Rosenmuller regards it as designed to meet a cavil, because God chose to deliver them by Cyrus, a foreign prince, and a stranger to the true religion, rather than by one of their own nation. Kimchi, and some others, suppose that it is designed to repress the pride of the Babylonians, who designed to keep the Jews in bondage, and who would thus contend with God. But perhaps the idea is of a more general nature.

It may be designed to refer to the fact that any interposition of God, any mode of manifesting himself to people, meets with enemies, and with those who are disposed to contend with him, and especially any display of his mercy and grace in a great revival of religion. In the previous verse the prophet had spoken of the revival of religion. Perhaps he here adverts to the fact that such a manifestation of his mercy would meet with opposition. So it was when the Saviour came, and when Christianity spread around the world; so it is in every revival now; and so it will be, perhaps, in the spreading of the gospel throughout the world in the time that shall usher in the millennium. Men thus contend with their Maker; resist the influences of his Spirit; strive against the appeals made to them; oppose his sovereignty; are enraged at the preaching of the gospel, and often combine to oppose him. That this is the meaning of this passage, seems to be the sentiment of the apostle Paul, who has borrowed this image, and has applied it in a similar manner: 'Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?

Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel auto honor, and another unto dishonor?' Romans 9:20-21 It is implied that people are opposed to the ways which God takes to govern the world; it is affirmed that calamity shall follow all the resistance which people shall make. This we shall follow, because, first, God has all power, and all who contend with him must be defeated and overthrown; and, secondly, because God is right, and the sinner who opposes him is wrong, and must and will be punished for his resistance.

Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds ... of the earth - Lowth renders this,

Woe unto him that contendeth with the power that formed him;

The potsherd with the moulder of the clay.

The word rendered 'potsherd' (חרשׁ cheresh) means properly "a shard," or "sherd," that is, a fragment of an earthen vessel Leviticus 6:28; Leviticus 11:33; Job 2:8; Job 41:22; Psalm 22:16. It is then put proverbially for anything frail and mean. Here it is undoubtedly put for man, regarded as weak and contemptible in his efforts against God. Our translation would seem to denote that it was appropriate for man to contend with equals, but not with one so much his superior as God; or that he might have some hope of success in contending with his fellowmen, but none in contending with his Maker. But this sense does not well suit the connection. The idea in the mind of the prophet is not that such contentions are either proper or appropriate among people, but it is the supreme folly and sin of contending with God; and the thought in illustration of this is not that people may appropriately contend with each other, but it is the superlative weakness and fragility of man. The translation proposed, therefore, by Jerome, 'Wo to him who contends with his Maker - testa de samiis terrae - a potsherd among the earthen pots (made of the earth of Samos) of the earth' - and which is found in the Syriac, and adopted by Rosenmuller, Gesenius, and Noyes, is doubtless the true rendering. According to Gesenius, the particle את 'êth here means "by" or "among"; and the idea is, that man is a potsherd among the potsherds of the earth; a weak fragile creature among others equally so - and yet presuming impiously to contend with the God that made him. The Septuagint renders this, 'Is anything endowed with excellence? I fashioned it like the clay of a potter. Will the plowman plow the ground all the day long? Will the clay say to the potter,' etc.

Shall the clay ... - It would be absurd for the clay to complain to him that moulds it, of the form which he chooses to give it. Not less absurd is it for man, made of clay, and moulded by the hand of God, to complain of the fashion in which he has made him; of the rank which he has assigned him in the scale of being; and of the purposes which he designs to accomplish by him.

He hath no hands - He has no skill, no wisdom, no power. It is by the hand chiefly that pottery is moulded; and the hands here stand for the skill or wisdom which is evinced in making it. The Syriac renders it, 'Neither am I the work of thy hands.'

9. Anticipating the objections which the Jews might raise as to why God permitted their captivity, and when He did restore them, why He did so by a foreign prince, Cyrus, not a Jew (Isa 40:27, &c.), but mainly and ultimately, the objections about to be raised by the Jews against God's sovereign act in adopting the whole Gentile world as His spiritual Israel (Isa 45:8, referring to this catholic diffusion of the Gospel), as if it were an infringement of their nation's privileges; so Paul expressly quotes it (Ro 9:4-8, 11-21).

Let … strive—Not in the Hebrew; rather, in apposition with "him," "A potsherd among the potsherds of the earth!" A creature fragile and worthless as the fragment of an earthen vessel, among others equally so, and yet presuming to strive with his Maker! English Version implies, it is appropriate for man to strive with man, in opposition to 2Ti 2:24 [Gesenius].

thy … He—shall thy work say of thee, He … ?

Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! This woe is denounced, either,

1. Against those Jews who, hearing this and many other prophecies and promises of their deliverance out of captivity, and vet continuing in captivity, were ever prone to distrust God, and to murmur at him for punishing them so grievously, and for not making more speed to deliver them. Or,

2. Against the Babylonians, the great opposers of Cyrus, and of the deliverance of God’s people, whom they were resolved to keep in bondage, in spite of God and men. And therefore as God here makes many glorious promises to Cyrus, in order to this work; so he pronounceth a curse upon them who should endeavour to hinder it, and admonisheth the Babylonians, that they did not only fight against Cyrus, a man like themselves, but against God, the Maker and Governor of the world. For what Nebuchadnezzar spoke with respect to those three Jews, Daniel 3:15, the Babylonians spoke in their hearts, in reference to the people of the Jews, Who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands? Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth; contend, if you please, with your fellow creatures, but not with your Creator.

Thy work: he turneth his speech to the potter, of whom he spake in the third person in the foregoing clause; such sudden changes of persons being usual in prophetical writings.

He hath no hands; the potter that made me had no hands, i.e. no ability or skill to make good work. Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker,.... That contends with him, enters into a controversy, and disputes with him, or litigates a point with him; quarrels with his purposes and decrees; murmurs and repines at his providences, and finds fault with his dispensations: this seems to have respect to the murmurs, quarrels, and contests of the Jews about Christ, the author of righteousness and salvation, when he should appear:

let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth; let men strive with men, who are as earthen vessels made of the same mass and lump, and so are upon an equal foot, and a match for each other; but let them not have the insolence and vanity to strive with their Maker, who, as he has made them, can dash them in pieces as a potter's vessel:

shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, what makest thou? yet this might be said with as much propriety and justice as that the Jews should quarrel with God for not sending the Messiah as a temporal prince to rescue them from the Roman yoke; but in a mean and humble manner, in the form of a servant, as a man of sorrows, and acquainted with griefs; and, at last, became obedient to the death of the cross, the way in which he was to be the Saviour of men: or

thy work, he hath no hands? or thus, or "thy work say unto thee, he, the potter, hath no hands"; no power nor skill to make me; I can make myself: as weakly, as wickedly, and as foolishly did the Jews, seeing no need of the Saviour sent them, nor of his righteousness and salvation, argue for justification by their own works, and in favour of their self-sufficiency to work out their own salvation. The Targum takes the words to be spoken to idolaters, and paraphrases the former part thus;

"woe to him who thinks to contend in judgment against the words of his Creator, and trusts that earthen images shall profit him, which are made out of the dust of the earth, &c.''

and there are many interpreters who think they are spoken against the idolatrous Babylonians, particularly against Belshazzar, as Kimchi; and others, against Astyages, a king of Persia, who was angry with the father and mother of Cyrus, and sought to have slain him as soon as born (q).

(q) Vid. Abendana in Miclol Yophi in loc.

{l} Woe to him that contendeth with his Maker! Let the potsherd contend with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, {m} He hath no hands?

(l) By this he bridles their impatience, who in adversity and trouble murmur against God, and will not tarry his pleasure: willing that man would match with his like, and not contend against God.

(m) That is, it is not perfectly made.

9–13. These verses are addressed to a section of the exiles who resented the idea of deliverance through a foreign conqueror. The strong word “strive” and the emphatic reassertion of the mission of Cyrus (Isaiah 45:13), as well as the connexion with Isaiah 45:1-8, shew that deliberate opposition to the Divine purpose, and not mere faint-hearted unbelief (as in chs. Isaiah 40:27, Isaiah 51:13), is here referred to. We know too little of the circumstances to understand the precise state of mind from which the objection proceeded. It may have arisen from reluctance to entertain the idea of deliverance through a foreign conqueror, instead of through an Israelite king, as ancient prophecies seemed to promise (e.g., Jeremiah 30:21). The same tendency of thought is probably alluded to in ch. Isaiah 46:12 (the “stout-hearted, that are far from righteousness”).

his maker] the same word as “him that fashioned it” in the second half of the verse. It is the ordinary word for “potter.”

Let the potsherd strive &c.] Render as in R.V. a potsherd among the potsherds of the earth! or, “a potsherd like (no better than) an earthen potsherd.” “With” may mean “among” (as a synonymous word does in Psalm 69:28), or “like” (Job 9:26), but the use of the same preposition in two different senses in one sentence is no doubt harsh.

or thy work, He hath no hands] i.e. no power. Delitzsch instances an identical Arabic phrase (lâ yadai lahu = “it is not in his power”). The LXX. reads “Thou” instead of “He,” and several commentators have suggested a transposition of the suffixes in the original: “or his work, Thou hast no hands.” The emendation is plausible, though perhaps hardly necessary.Verses 9-13. - ISRAEL WARNED NOT TO CALL IN QUESTION GOD'S MODES OF ACTION. Apparently, Isaiah anticipates that the Israelites will be discontented and murmur at their deliverer being a heathen king, and not one of their own body. He therefore warns them against presuming to criticize the arrangements of the All-Wise, reminding them of his unapproachable greatness (ver. 12), and once more assuring them that the appointment of Cyrus is from him (ver. 13). Verse 9. - Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive, etc.; rather, woe unto him that striveth with his Maker, a potsherd among potsherds of the ground: All men are equally made of "the dust of the ground" (Genesis 2:7). Israel has no prerogative in this respect. He, too, is "a potsherd among potsherds" - day moulded by the potter; no more entitled to lift up his voice against his Maker than the vessel to rebel against the man who shapes it (comp. Isaiah 29:16; and see the comment furnished by St. Paul in the Epistle to the Romans 9:20-24). What would a man think if the clay that he was fashioning objected to being moulded in a particular form, or if a work that he had made exclaimed, "He is a poor bungler - he hath no hands"? Yet this is what a man does who finds fault with the arrangements of the Almighty. The first strophe of the first half of this sixth prophecy (Isaiah 44:24.), the subject of which is Cyrus, the predicted restorer of Jerusalem, of the cities of Judah, and of the temple, is now followed by a second strophe (Isaiah 45:1-8), having for its subject Cyrus, the man through whose irresistible career of conquest the heathen would be brought to recognise the power of Jehovah, so that heavenly blessings would come down upon the earth. The naming of the great shepherd of the nations, and the address of him, are continued in Isaiah 45:1-3 : "Thus saith Jehovah to His anointed, to Koresh, whom I have taken by his right hand to subdue nations before him; and the loins of kings I ungird, to open before him doors and gates, that they may not continue shut. I shall go before thee, and level what is heaped up: gates of brass shall I break in pieces, and bolts of iron shall I smite to the ground. And I shall give thee treasures of darkness, and jewels of hidden places, that thou mayest know that I Jehovah am He who called out thy name, (even) the God of Israel." The words addressed to Cyrus by Jehovah commence in Isaiah 45:2, but promises applying to him force themselves into the introduction, being evoked by the mention of his name. He is the only king of the Gentiles whom Jehovah ever meshı̄chı̄ (my anointed; lxx τῷ χριστῷ μου). The fundamental principle of the politics of the empire of the world was all-absorbing selfishness. But the politics of Cyrus were pervaded by purer motives, and this brought him eternal honour. The very same thing which the spirit of Darius, the father of Xerxes, is represented as saying of him in the Persae of Aeschylus (v. 735), Θεὸς γὰρ οὐκ ἤχθησεν ὡς εὔφρων ἔφυ (for he was not hateful to God, because he was well-disposed), is here said by the Spirit of revelation, which by no means regards the virtues of the heathen as splendida vitia. Jehovah has taken him by his right hand, to accomplish great things through him while supporting him thus. (On the inf. rad for rōd, from râdad, to tread down, see Ges. 67, Anm. 3.) The dual delâthaim has also a plural force: "double doors" (fores) in great number, viz., those of palaces. After the two infinitives, the verb passes into the finite tense: "loins of kings I ungird" (discingo; pittēăch, which refers primarily to the loosening of a fastened garment, is equivalent to depriving of strength). The gates - namely, those of the cities which he storms - will not be shut, sc. in perpetuity, that is to say, they will have to open to him. Jerome refers here to the account given of the elder Cyrus in Xenophon's Cyropaedia. A general picture may no doubt be obtained from this of his success in war; but particular statements need support from other quarters, since it is only a historical romance. Instead of אושׁר (אושׁר)? in Isaiah 45:2, the keri has אישּׁר; just as in Psalm 5:9 it has הישׁר instead of הושׁר. A hiphil הושׁיר cannot really be shown to have existed, and the abbreviated future form עושׁר would be altogether without ground or object here. הדּורים (tumida; like נעיימם, amaena, and others) is meant to refer to the difficulties piled up in the conqueror's way. The "gates of brass' (nedhūshâh, brazen, poetical for nechōsheth, brass, as in the derivative passage, Psalm 107:16) and "bolts of iron" remind one more especially of Babylon with its hundred "brazen gates," the very posts and lintels of which were also of brass (Herod. i. 179); and the treasures laid up in deep darkness and jewels preserved in hiding-places, of the riches of Babylon (Jeremiah 50:37; Jeremiah 51:13), and especially of those of the Lydian Sardes, "the richest city of Asia after Babylon" (Cyrop. vii. 2, 11), which Cyrus conquered first. On the treasures which Cyrus acquired through his conquests, and to which allusion is made in the Persae of Aeschylus, v. 327 ("O Persian, land and harbour of many riches thou"), see Plin. h. n. xxxiii. 2. Brerewood estimates the quantity of gold and silver mentioned there as captured by him at no less than 126,224,000 sterling. And all this success is given to him by Jehovah, that he may know that it is Jehovah the God of Israel who has called out with his name, i.e., called out his name, or called him to be what he is, and as what he shows himself to be.
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